Saturday, 27 December 2008

What is it really like here . . . . Christmas?

I had no idea what to expect - Christmas in an Islamic Country.  It’s one thing coming on holiday here and having your Christmas on a beach in a five star hotel, but can Christmas be just like home here?

For the last 10 years or so, with the odd exception, we have had the traditional Christmas in the UK.  Running around like crazy doing the final food shopping, church on Christmas morning, followed by hours in the kitchen preparing the Christmas meal and then taking about a half hour to eat it. We would then inevitably watch the Queen and settle down in front of a movie and fall asleep!  Would this year be any different?

The UAE is a very tolerant country and enables us to celebrate Christmas freely.  There are wafi_mall at christmasChristmas trees and decorations up in the malls (see picture), occasional festive songs on the radio, Christmas trees in the shops, and mince pies imported (albeit the ones without alcohol and working out at 60p each) from the UK!  All of the hotels, without exception, offer a Christmas lunch/brunch menu, and you can even order a Christmas dinner (feeds 10 people for about £120) from the hotel which will be delivered directly to your door on the day itself.  How’s that for service?!

So, what did we do?

I decided to do things a little differently this year.  You may know that last year, Tim and I cooked for about 15 people for the final farewells before we left the UK.  We spent hours in the kitchen preparing all manner of food and had a great, but very busy, day.  We were kindly invited to party with friends, but we declined as we wanted the spend the day solely with the children.  DSC01246

So, after Tim got home from work on Christmas Eve, we tucked in to our roast dinner, with most of the trimmings, including home made pork, sage and onion stuffing, which you just can’t buy ready-made over here!  We had a lovely meal and then got into the mood by putting all of our presents under the Christmas Tree.  

We watched Santa DSC01247working his way around the world on the NASA website  (fabulous website where by satellite imagery, you can see exactly what part of the world Father Christmas and his reindeer are delivering presents at that precise moment – see picture).  After putting out the mince pie and reindeer food for the greedy man, we all went to bed, in preparation for the big day!

After a false start at 2am, when Oliver decided it was time to get up, but the children didn’t do too badly and made it until 6.30am before piling in on top of us!  We did a bit of present opening before breakfast and valiantly tried to save some presents for the afternoon. 

I had made the brave/stupid decision that I wasn’t going to cook on Christmas Day, so we had strawberries and croissants for breakfast and then for lunch, we got in the car and drove to the Marina for lunch, where there are piles of restaurants.  The weather was in the mid-20s under blue skies, so it was beautiful to sit outside.  We had our pick of eateries – most were 80% empty, so we had a relaxed lunch sitting out in the sunshine next to the boats and we all ate a slap up lunch for about £37.  Admittedly not turkey, but we’d had that the night before.  Perfect!  The children had a run around and it was then back for more presents!DSC01272

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The afternoon continued as it does all over the world – the Queen is available to view on You Tube from 3pm on Christmas Day (for us foreigners), so tradition can continue.  Then, the over indulged parents had a traditional snooze on the sofa, while the children watch a Disney movie.  We phoned the family back in Blighty and had fun talking to people.  Supper was a few baked sausage rolls (oh no, I COOKED!) and some Boursin on crusty bread.  Perfect!

Whilst we clearly missed our family and friends, we had a lovely time.  It was incredibly liberating not having to spend hours in the kitchen – for once, it was MY Christmas day too and I could join in with everyone!  I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone!

It felt just like being on holiday!!! 

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Nad-Al-Sheba Horse Racing

At the beginning of November the horse racing calendar starts in Dubai, with racing every Thursday evening and on other special occasions (such as Boxing Day and New Year's Day).  The season culminates with the Dubai World Cup in March (which is the world's richest horse race with an estimated $6m purse).

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Many of you will probably know this, but gambling is illegal here in the UAE, which does make the atmosphere at the horse racing a little flat . . . but interestingly enough, you can still make "guesses"!

 

 

On arrival at the racing club, you pass next to a desk, where you are handed a booklet with information on the night's racing - horses, owners, jockeys, previous form etc, and you are also handed a free "guessing" form, where you place your guesses for which horse will come first, second and third in each race that night.  You fill in the form and then hand it in, prior to the first race starting.

Of course, this is a little bit of fun in a non-gambling country, but for some it is BIG business.  The racing is free to enter and therefore hundreds of the poorer people come along, both for a social gathering, something to watch, and the chance to "guess" correctly.  For the lucky people who guess best, there is a pot of 15,000 Dirhams (£2,800) to be won.  For them, where the average monthly income is around 1500 Dirhams, if they win, they do get a chance to win a year's salary, which is amazing!DSC01024

With the exception of watching the horses, there is little else to do at ground level, but the grandstand is full of paying hospitality bars and restaurants for those who wish to partake in some drinking (yes, alcohol) and fine dining. DSC01209

We paid about £15 entry fee to get us into the Gainsborough lounge, which is set in the grandstand.  There, you can freely buy booze and snack food, in addition to getting into another "guessing game" for prizes. 

It was a great night - and I did very well with my "guessing" - which in my case it truly was!  I came in 7th place, with our friend John coming 5th.  Those who came first, second and third received a prize of about £1000, which would have been very nice indeed!  Sadly, it was not to be, but we had good fun!

This last Thursday night, we decided to return with the children as they had been badgering us to take them.  We had had a shamal that week and the temperatures had dropped.  It was freezing and we were all wearing fleeces and wearing scarves.  But the children had good fun, cheering on the horses and guessing which ones were going to win! 

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Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Dubai Rugby 7s

We tried something new last weekend - taking the children to a "family day" at the Dubai Rugby 7s . . . . . we have both been to rugby matches in the past but had no idea how the children would fare - given that their attention spans regularly leave a lot to be desired!

We went with another family who have three children and settled ourselves in the family stand.  The "family stand" was part of the grandstand, which fortunately was in the shade for most of the day (a nice touch), where only families with children were allowed.  No alcohol was allowed in this section - there was a nice fun atmosphere too.  (Strangely enough, there was alcohol being sold everywhere and most of the hardened rugby followers were drinking heavily. Normally you can only buy alcohol where it is attached to an international hotel with a liquor license, but this event took place in a stadium a half hour into the desert, so I have no idea how alcohol was allowed . . . odd.)

I had gone prepared - colouring books for the children and Nintendo DS's on standby.  What I hadn't realised was that there was lots of fabulous music and dancingDSC00948 in between the matches.  Everyone was having a great time, including our little girl, who turned into a bit of a rocker, dancing the day away.

We were supporting Wales - or England, depending on who was playing.  Our friends were a mixture of Australian and Irish.  I don't think the children really knew who they were supporting after a while!  It was great fun though.

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We got there before lunch and left after a cracking match between New Zealand and Australia at 7pm.  Totally exhausted!

From an adult perspective, every time I have watched rugby in the UK, I have been wrapped up to the nines in coats, hats and scarves.  How great it was to be sitting on the sidelines in a t-shirt!

 

The kids are now asking whether they can now go to the World Rugby 7s, which Dubai is hosting in March.

Fantastic!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

I should be so lucky . .

The Dubai Winter Season is upon us and that brings with it plenty of outdoor entertainment as the weather is truly lovely (sorry everyone out there where it's raining or snowing). 

The Atlantis resort on The Palm had its formal opening last Friday which hit the worldwide press.  I’m sure you will have seen the amazing firework show which lit up Dubai . . . . if not, you can view it here:

http://www.atlantisthepalm.com/grandopening.aspx

Did we see it.  No.  Dubai and it's beaches were pretty much on lockdown from 4pm that afternoon.  Some lucky folks viewed it from the high floors of neighbouring hotels!  Residents of The Palm were told that they were not allowed to use their private beaches and that they were not allowed out between 4pm and 2am.  All down to security we believe – and the huge amount of pyrotechnics that would have been everywhere!  Needless to say, I had an early night and was asleep by 10pm.  But what a shame.  It was incredible to see, albeit on a video clip!

However, Friday night we went to see Kylie Minogue onstage here . . . . it was great!  It was a clip_image001very civilised affair with only about 20,000 in attendance.  Well behaved, despite there being free flowing alcohol.  Despite it being an Islamic country, the “venue” was next door to one of the big hotels, so it managed to get a liquor license through the hotel . . . . . strange! 

There were those of us who were quite old – and by that, I mean those of us who remember her from her Neighbours days, and there were also those young ones present who know her current music.  It was very funny when she played an “old” song and all us oldies were jumping and clapping whilst the “young” ones looked on in amazement!  I felt my age many-a-time!!!

We got quite close to the stage and had a laugh. 

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Next up I think is George Michael who plays in a couple of weeks in Abu Dhabi and Sting a week after that.  But before that, we have the Dubai Rugby 7s which is this weekend.  We are taking the children for “family day” – not entirely sure what that is, but we are assured they will enjoy it.  Let’s hope so – I can’t imagine my two wanting to sit still enough to watch a whole day of rugby!!!  We will keep you posted!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

It's Party Time . . .

 

We’ve been threatening it for ages . . .

We moved into our house in February and said “we must have a party” – time marched on and we didn’t.  Then we thought about it again and the weather was just too hot.  We have finally – just 10 months after moving into our house – thrown a housewarming party (combined with our birthday party).  About time!

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We had an amazing time, although it is really hard hosting a party for a lot of people!  We invited a fair few people – our friends from schools, friends from work, friends from all over really – everyone is very social here . . . .   How lovely that we had a headcount of about 60-70 (including children) turn up last Friday.

We had decided to do something a little bit special. We hired a “Shawarma Man” to do the catering.   Shawarma is a Middle Eastern style sandwich typically filled with chicken. 

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The classic shawarma combination is arabic bread (a thinner type of pitta bread), filled with tomato, pickles, cucumber, chicken.

 

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Shawarma is simple fare, but when prepared well, is gloriously mouth-watering – this was no exception, although I was too busy talking to people that I only had one!  I have to thank my fellow blogger, The Englishman in Dubai for the introduction to his shawarma man.

 

 

We hired a magician and a bouncy castle for the children – to keep them amused while the grown-ups knocked back a few, and knocked back a few we did.  DSC00687The stragglers left at about midnight and that's when we resumed our roles as parents and put the children to bed!

Next year is a "big number birthday" - that's all I'm saying . . . . . what will we do then . . . ??

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Sunday, 9 November 2008

Appropriate or Inappropriate?

Anyone who is living in Dubai - or perhaps a Daily Mail reader - will have seen this photograph before.

My reason for posting the picture on my blog is simple . . . . I LOVE IT!!!  This photo has been used whenever a disparaging article is written about foreigners (probably the British) not respecting the local traditions and culture.

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This picture was apparently taken at the Dubai World Cup last year and clearly shows a "westerner" in rather skimpy clothing next to a more suitably dressed (for the region) Arabic lady.

My question is . . . . do you really think that the lady in black is thinking "what a terrible outfit - how dare she wear something like this in my country" . . . . . or is she thinking "what lovely hair and a very pretty dress"??? 

Meanwhile, her husband is most probably thinking, "look at the legs on that!"

Quad Biking

We have recently had another family from the UK out to join us for a week's holiday and what a blast we had . . . .

Apart from being absolutely exhausted from all of the activities we did with them, the boys decided to go quad biking.  We went  to one of the quad biking places at Big Red, only to find that there was a bit of ruckus going on between some customers and the owners.  Something about the bike being damaged and the owners demanding payment . . .  we are not sure, but there was another place across the road, which was not drawing a crowd, so we went there instead!

 

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Apparently, the helmets were not really up to much and the lads felt that one bang on the helmet would make it fall apart, but the boys weren't up for going really mad, so they went with it!

(I sadly was stuck in the car with the exhausted children, so I didn't get to go on the bikes.)

Apparently there were some ladies on the quad bikes with their abaya's on.  That I would love to have seen.  Brilliant!

It was approaching sunset and they had a fantastic time - they came back though looking rather windswept and sandy.  Perhaps not a great activities for some of the "oldies" to do when they are out here, but for those adventurous enough to try, a great end to a great day!

It's my turn next time . . . !

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Telephone Culture

 

blackberry There are many of you out there who will laugh at me when you read this admission . . . .

When I lived in the UK, I pretty much refused to use my mobile phone – I did carry one for emergencies, but for the most part, my attitude was “if people want to get hold of me, they can leave a message on my machine at home”.

I didn’t know what my number was and I turned the thing on, maybe once a week – if I remembered! It wasn’t that I was a techno-phobe, I just couldn’t be bothered with it all . . . some people did get a bit cross with me.

However, the culture here is very different. No-one really phones anyone at home – I’m not even sure that everyone has a land line! Dubai’s social scene seems to exist on phoning/texting people’s mobiles.  Heaven help me if I lost my contacts list – every number I need for my life is stored in it!! I now send hundreds of texts every month and my phone is rarely far from sight.  Similarly, my family and friends from the UK do send me loads of e-mails and I spend a huge amount of time on the computer.  I rarely surf the net these days as I don’t have time – I simply send and receive a good amount of mail from those far away – which I love sending and receiving (keep them coming)!  I was completely gutted when my mail server went down, somewhere on the other side of the world, for the best part of a week, which meant couldn’t get any of my mails. . . . my world nearly stopped turning.  How very sad.

For my birthday – Tim bought me a BlackBerry.  An all-singing, all dancing machine (a smart-phone I think it is called) which is not only my phone but offers me permanent access to my e-mail. It is wonderful!  It now pings when I get an e-mail, bleeps when I get a text message and rings when I get a phone call.  I can even have MSN Messenger conversations on it – that is, if I learn to type fast enough on the little QWERTY keyboard!  All my contacts are now synchronized with my e-mail!  Even better, it is programmed to turn off at 10pm and to switch on again at 6am Dubai time (a girl always needs her 8 hours).

How things have changed – in a good way?  Or I am I just a sad, desperate person who can’t bear to be on her own and out of contact with people?

The answer – my family and friends rock my world and given that I am so far from so many of them, it makes the world feel that little bit smaller!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Cash on Wheels

I couldn't believe my eyes the other day.  What did I see?

A lorry, with it's back rolled up and inside - two fully operational ATM's in the back.  There's even a chair to sit on if you're feeling a bit tired and need a rest. No major security - just a couple of regular guys in the front!

 

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It turns out that they move these ATM's in their lorry to various large events around Dubai - so that everyone as full access to their cash.  Brilliant!

I wonder how long they would last in the UK . . . . or would someone just drive it away!!!

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside . . .

 

It's October and it's cooling down . . . . still hot though - just about hot enough to still use hot water from the outside pipes, but the mercury is no longer in the 40's.    It's still a liDSC00432ttle uncomfortable to be in direct sunlight for too long in the daytime, but we decided to brave it with some friends of ours and hit the beach!

 

I do like the beach, but sometimes traipsing down to the shore with all my paraphernalia can be a bit irritating . . . and as you can see from the photo's  - there's a lot of stuff! 

However, we have found a piece of land in between the summer palaces in Jumeirah that has not yet been built on, and we can drive straight onto the sand - put the car in 4x4 mode to drive across the 100 metres or so of beach - and open the car right next to the shore!  We did forget that the tide was coming in though, so we had to keep moving the car!!!

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The best bit about it?  It's OCTOBER!!!!!

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And this is one of the reasons we moved to Dubai!

Monday, 6 October 2008

What a job!

We have just had a batch (3) of public holidays here in Dubai to celebrate Eid al Fitr, which is the official end of Ramadan (hooray)!  And it's all to do with when the new moon is spotted.

According to the Dubai Astronomy Group, “The Islamic month is tied to the moon.  This way, God made it easy for humanity. No calendar, no counting days, just follow the moon."

There are a group of people called the UAE Moon Sighting Committee and the committee meets if there is the slightest chance of a sighting because, by tradition, when the new moon can be seen by the naked eye, a new month has begun.

This time, they were looking for the Shawwal moon - which is the 10th month of the Islamic calendar.  Once the moon is spotted, the committee members extend congratulations to the country's rulers, the people of the UAE and Muslims around the world.

The down-side this year (and I honestly don't know if it's the same every year) but Eid al Fitr was announced really late in the evening, and we were quite lucky to know about it - we just stumbled upon it on the internet.  I have many friends who still got up, got dressed and drove to work - only to find that the office was shut for a few days.

I appreciate that moon sighting is steeped in tradition, but I do think that being part of the Moon Sighting Committee is a cracking job to have!

Iftar Supper

I mentioned in my "Ramadan" posting, that we were going to attend an Iftar.  An Iftar is the evening meal for breaking the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.  Each day it is at a different time, depending on the time of the sun setting (Maghrib).  The Maghrib time is announced on the radio each day.

It turns out that an Iftar can be anywhere - there are traditional tents which pop up at the city's large hotels, but one of Tim's Arabic colleagues celebrated Iftar at TGI Fridays.  Even KFC have a special Iftar supper for under GBP3.

We went to two - one was arranged by Tim's work - for all of their employees, Arabic or otherwise.  We all sat on low sofas and celebrated with traditional juices and then moved on to a spectacular arabic buffet.  DSC00387

For those of you not too familiar with Arabic food, traditional foods on the buffet are mixed grills, kebabs, sharwarma (chicken in  wrap), along with houmous, arabic (flat) bread, halloumi (sort of like goat's cheese) etc.  Very nice indeed.

It is common out here for a great deal of Shisha smoking (a glass water pipe with flavoured tobacco) in the evening and at Iftar, everyone appears to be smoking the shisDSC00400ha pipe. 

Despite the fact that the regular smoking of cigarettes is banned in restaurants and malls, the shisha is still allowed!  You can see the smoke in the air!

 

Overall, we had a great time in the Iftar tents, but I'm quite looking forward to regular tables and chairs again. 

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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Earthquake!

As many of you will know, I am freaked out by the thought of either an earthquake, a volcano, a tsunami . . . .

Whilst I am pleased to say that this does not affect me on a day to day basis, what I can guarantee you is this is the reason why I would never move to the western USA for example.  When Tim went to Seattle with work, I admit that I am enough of a muppet to check whether Seattle is in danger from the San Andreas fault and resulting tsunamis . . . !

(I can't quite believe that I am airing my neuroses in public, but don't hold it against me!)

According to Wikipedia - Dubai is in a very stable zone  — the nearest seismic fault line, the Zargos Fault, is 120 km from the UAE and is unlikely to have any seismic impact on Dubai.  Experts also predict that the possibility of a tsunami in the region is also minimal because the Persian Gulf waters are not deep enough to trigger a tsunami. 

If this is the case, then why was there an earthquake here earlier this month?  Not huge perhaps, but enough for the tall buildings to be evacuated!!!!  The epicentre was in Iran and reached 6.1 on the Richter scale.earthquake  

I didn't feel a thing . . !!!  I was in a children's play centre at the time - but Tim felt it at his desk.  His building is only 3 stories tall, so I don't believe they bothered to get out!

However, given that the world's tallest building is currently being built in Dubai, it begs the question - will it be safe? 

Guess what? . . . . . . I did some research!!

Here are some facts about Burj Dubai - soon to be the tallest tower in the world:

burj dubai

1 - it is built from heavy duty concrete, which (apparently) should not cause it to collapse (like the twin towers which were steel framed)

2 - Safety features include reinforced 'refuge rooms' on every 25 floors, complete with independent air supplies, plus extra staircases and luminous paint on all escape routes.

3 - The supporting pillars have been designed with a 'long-wave' effect to absorb any earthquake activity along the Iran/Iraq fault-line (see above).

4 - The foundations drop 150ft (46m) below ground and the three-pronged 'footprint' of the building replicates the design of a desert flower.

The exact height has not yet been revealed but it has been confirmed that there will be an observation deck on 124th floor . . . . . . . . will I get up there?  Not a chance!

Monday, 15 September 2008

Ramadan

We have returned from the UK to Dubai and now find ourselves in the middle of Ramadan.  So, here's the educational bit (after which you will find out what it's really like for us western expatriates):

The Educational Bit: "Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar calendar and the holiest of the four holy months. It begins with the sighting of the new moon after which all physically mature and healthy Muslims are obliged to abstain from all food, drink, gum chewing, any kind of tobacco use, and any kind of sexual contact between dawn and sunset. However, that is merely the physical component of the fast; the spiritual aspects of the fast include refraining from gossiping, lying, slandering and all traits of bad character. All obscene and irreligious sights and sounds are to be avoided. Purity of thought and action is paramount. Ordained in the Quran, the fast is an exacting act of deeply personal worship in which Muslims seek a raised level of God-consciousness. The act of fasting redirects the hearts away from worldly activities, towards The Divine.

The month of Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family and friends. The fasting is intended to help teach Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity. It also reminds them of the suffering of the poor, who may rarely get to eat well. It is common to have one meal (known as the Suhoor), just before sunrise and another (known as the Iftar), directly after sunset. This meal will commonly consist of dates, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him. Because Ramadan is a time to spend with friends and family, the fast will often be broken by different Muslim families coming together to share in an evening meal."

So, what's it really like . . . . rather weird actually.  Normally, I leave the house in the morning, drop the children off, potter around a little bit, doing jobs, meeting people and the like, before picking up the children, having play-dates and then going home for dinner time.  Within that schedule, I will always have at least one bottle of water in my handbag and probably some fruit or a sandwich - not only is it scorching outside still (40 degrees+) but the air conditioning is very drying so I feel as though I am always drinking . . . .  but no, not now.  Out of respect for the country that I am delighted to be in, I have to go through my day WITHOUT the bottle of water in my handbag - all coffee shops are closed, McDonalds and other fast food chains are shut until sunset.  If I want to drink or eat ANYTHING, I need to bring any food and drink with me from home and then I need to find somewhere to eat or drink in complete and utter secrecy.  I know people who have had something to eat in the bathroom - the other day I had to have a drink practically lying on the floor in the car so that I wouldn't be seen.  I have a friend who was opening a juice box in the car for her child and had a sneaky sip from the straw - unfortunately she was spied and received some rather nasty hand gestures.

Tim isn't having too much of a bad time at work.  He is allowed to eat and drink in the pantry in his office, but that's it.  He is also supposed to have a shorter day.  Government and UAE offices have different working hours in Ramadan - usually 9-3pm or something similar.  Despite this though, I haven't really seen Tim that much earlier home than usual.  Shame really.  The children get a shorter day at school - 2 hours less than usual, but they are largely unaffected by Ramadan - they can eat and drink as usual.

At about 6pm, it is then mad-panic for people to go to their final prayers before Iftar.  Then, most people go to restaurants or other people's houses, eat and party the night away, before it all starts again the next day.

We are going to an Iftar on Thursday night - I will make sure that I take some pictures and post them so that you can see what it is like!

The traffic on the roads though is something to be seen.  I don't know whether there are more people on the roads at the time that I am, but the traffic congestion is unbelievable in Ramadan.  A journey that was supposed to take me 25 minutes yesterday took me 80 . . . . during that time, I was nearly taken out a few times, but primarily by Arabic women . . . . . . Today, admittedly via the supermarket for milk and the petrol station, my journey home took me 2 hours and 30 minutes!    Fortunately, I have a DVD player and screens in my car - thank goodness I do or my journey would be even worse with the children screeching in the back!

It's the traffic congestion, if it continues like this, that will bring me home . . .

Monday, 1 September 2008

Overnight Flights - I'm getting too old . . !

We are now back in Dubai after an horrendous night flight home.  I was travelling on my own with the children as hubby had come back the previous week.  The children, for a change, were fantastic - thanks courtesy to their Nintendo DS and the in-flight entertainment system.

However, I do have to publicly criticise Virgin Atlantic and their approach to an overnight flight.  Imagine if you will:

  • a 6.5 hour flight departing at 9pm and arriving local time at 6.30am;
  • we take off on time and the pre-dinner drinks service starts at 10pm (1am local time);
  • evening meal follows at around 10.30pm (1.30am)
  • trays are cleared away at approximately midnight (3am) and we have "clearance" to recline our seats;
  • lights go down for sleep;
  • 2 hours later (5am local time), the lights come back on again for breakfast; and
  • 1.5 hours later, we land.

I have to ask - what is the point?  Who wants a full meal that late at night, followed by breakfast 2 hours later . . .??  I have respect for the cabin crew and honestly, it could be the easiest shift in history if they just give passengers what is sensible - in my eyes, it is the following:

  • a good quality packet of sandwiches and mug of hot chocolate (or nightcap) once in the air;
  • lights down for sleep pretty much straight-away (after all, there are individual lights if someone wants to read)
  • a banana and box of orange juice as we prepare to land.

Wouldn't that be better for everyone - both passengers and crew?  In fairness to Virgin, Emirates are no different - oh, except that they tried to feed the children curry!)

My children didn't sleep much - perhaps that was because their dinner consisted of (good quality) chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and vegetables (good) a bottle of sugary "Fruit Shoot" and a massive gingerbread man (Virgin - have a brain - children - sugar - night flight . . !).  E finally went to sleep as the wheels went down for landing, leaving me to carry a child, handbag, hand luggage and duty free off the plane, whilst also guiding a very sleepy 5 year old.

I have come to the conclusion that, like nightclubbing, I am far too old for overnight flights. 

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Great British Traditions

Yes, we have had rubbish weather in England, but I'm going to gloss over that and talk about great British traditions - most of which I think we experienced this holiday.

Fish and Chips, eaten out of the paper, at the seaside.

Pick your own fruit
We all had such a good time picking strawberries at the farm.  We tried not to eat too many! DSC00127

 

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Tramping around a muddy Farm
We held rats, bunnies and fed goats and sheep.  It just has to be done - the kids enjoy it!DSC00062

 

Pub Lunch
We had a few of these!  You can't beat ploughmans and a pint!

A Picnic (rain optional)
Ours was in the rain - but it was great nevertheless - probably had something to do with the great company we had!
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The Beach
This time it was Eastbourne beach, on a fairly good day.

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A day at a Castle
Ours was Windsor Castle - with the folks!DSC00383

We also had a great time meeting up with all of our old friends and family - am not sure if there was anyone we didn't catch up with at least once.  Thanks for everyone's hospitality!!!

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Back to Blighty

After 7 months of what sometimes feels like a bit of a holiday, we have returned to the UK for a month to visit friends and family, and also to escape the Dubai heat for a little while during the school holidays.

I have had mixed feelings on coming "home" -  where indeed is home?  

Having now been back for a few days, I am now referring to Dubai as home!  Yet the familiarity of the UK is very warming and relaxing - Dubai seems another world away.

Heathrow airport, as always, is miserable.  We hired a car, so once we had completed the formalities at the car-desk, we then had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to drive us for another 25 minutes to their compound.  What a palaver - especially with two tired children and heavy suitcases.  Once on-the-road though, it was pleasant to be amongst far more civilised driving, rather than the unreliable hair-raising drivers in Dubai.

The day we landed, it was glorious sunshine and England looked beautiful - even driving along the M4.  It was green and lush and the sunshine was streaming through the windscreen.  Quite lovely.  However, since that first day, it has mostly rained.

One thing that is making me cross - given how unreliable the British weather is, why oh why are there so few things for little children to do indoors?  When staying with friends last weekend, we were getting desperate - the children needed to run and let off some steam.  We could have gone to one of the indoor playgrounds, but none of us could face the grubbiness of the place and also the fact that it would be heaving.  We thought about bowling, but it was fully booked and the cinema just wasn't the right place for the kids.  In the end, we took our chances and went to a local farm.  It was throwing it down, but we stuck it out and eventually had a relatively dry day . . .  lucky!  Why can't there be more things indoors to do . . . ??? 

Come on England, let's try and make more things for families to do when it's rubbish outside!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Swimming

The children are doing very well with their swimming.  It's fair to say that they were both non-swimmers when we came out here, but after 6 months of swimming a few times a week in our pool, they are now quite proficient.

They have very little technique, apart from what comes naturally, but they have the confidence to now dive in and out of the pool - and with a snorkel, they can both swim under water for a length. 

Here's them saying hello!

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Monday, 21 July 2008

Fun City, Dubai

Last week, Tim had a well-earned day off, so we decided to take the children to Fun City.  We had heard that it was worth going to, yet we couldn't really find any details on what it actually was!  Internet sites here in Dubai are not that great - even for common attractions.  So, off we set on a very hot dusty day for Airport Expo (the exhibition centre where it was being held in the summer season).

IMG_2195We paid about £2.50 to get in, which was a good start - and we walked through the doors.  All I can say is . . . . . . "what do you go for a fairground in Dubai when it's too hot to be outside" . . . . simple answer . . . . you build one indoors!  And that, in a nutshell is Fun City.  It is themed around an Arabic character called Modhesh - who is the Dubai Summer mascot.  Our children think he's great!

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We spent time on the fairground attractions, along with indoor playgrounds, Playstations, bumper-cars - then having lunch at the international food-court.  IMG_2199

All in all it was a most enjoyable day - the children loved it and for those parents out there, you will know that if the kids are happy, generally the adults are happy!

 

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A great day out.

Big People

It has emerged in the last week, that my daughter has a pathological fear of big people. No, I don’t mean overweight or those who are particularly tall – I mean the people who dress up in outfits – life-size cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse or Spongebob Squarepants!

Last week when we were at the exhibition centre, three such characters appeared – Dora the Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants and some jellyfish that I’m not familiar with. Oliver was terribly excited and shook their hands and tentacles, but when I looked around for Ella, she had vanished. We looked everywhere that we could think of and I was starting to panic. Dubai is pretty safe when it comes to child safety and there are relatively few weird people here, but nonetheless, it only takes one person . . . . .

About five minutes later, when the panic was clearly in my throat, I heard this distraught screaming and crying – my daughter was being carried towards me by a lady – the closer Ella got to me, the more she screamed and tried to get away. It must have looked pretty strange to the lady trying to return her to her mother. I grabbed Ella who was practically hysterical by this point – “get me out of here”, “get me out of here” she kept screaming, tears streaming down her face with a look of blind panic on her face. She tried to run to the outside door.

It was then that we realized what the problem was – behind me was a full-size grown up version of Spongebob who was getting closer and closer to Ella. She was utterly terrified.

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We moved as far away as we could and sat her down on the floor trying to calm her down – she eventually stopped trembling, but her eyes were constantly scanning the exhibition centre searching for these characters. The strange thing is that she really wants to see these people and talks about them non-stop . . . that is, until the moment they appear and then she runs away, as fast as her little legs will carry her.

I know where this all started and I really thought that now she is 4, the problem would have gone away. When Ella was 2, we visited Disneyland – we were sitting in a restaurant and Ella had her back to the inner part of the room. Without warning, a lifesize Baloo (of Jungle Book fame) came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She literally jumped out of the chair and you could physically see the panic in her eyes. For the remainder of the Disneyland experience, she stayed as far away as she could possibly be from any of the large characters, although after about 3 days she started to tentatively wave to them – albeit from a safe distance of about 10 metres.  Even in this photo of us with Goofy, she wouldn't open her eyes and remained rigid in Tim's arms

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She is adamant that she still wants to go to Disneyland next year – despite us telling her that there will be lots of big characters there . . . now that she is bigger, she can run faster and further away. We have tried to explain that she mustn’t run away or she will be lost, but when the faced with her fears, any rational ability she may have, will understandably desert her and she will just run.

Whoever thought that a trip to Disneyland would scar a child for life!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Friday Brunch

Friday in Dubai is the rest of the western world's Sunday.  So Sunday lunch is transferred in Dubai to Friday brunch and it is big business out here. 

In the international press, you will probably have read about a foolish young lady drinking far too much champagne at one of these affairs and getting into some serious trouble with the Dubai Police.  But for the rest of us, we do manage to get up and stagger home without incident.

Dubai brunches range in price and nearly all of them take place at one of the large international hotels in the city and along the coast.  I don't know exactly how much the most expensive one is, but we were invited to one at Al Qasr (a hotel on Jumeirah Beach) and it was a staggering 385 Dirhams per person (US$104) - albeit including alcohol.  Children are charged at half price - even my four year old - but in my view, chicken nuggets, a few chips and a scoop of ice-cream isn't worth $52 (£26) and there's only so much booze you can drink when you have to look after young children without being interviewed by social services.  Our family would have paid £158 for the privilege of eating there.  We declined the invitation.

However, we have stumbled on a real beauty and that is the brunch at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi - right on Jumeirah Beach.  For £20, you can sit in their delightful restaurant overlooking the beach, palm trees and the sea.  You then move from food station to food station - everything from breads, sushi, salad, smoked and poached salmon, roast meats, curry, pasta and even more before finally committing to the chocolate fountain, miniature desserts, ice cream, fresh fruit and finally a cheese-board.  What makes it even better is that food for the under 6's is free.  The cherry on top is that once the children have finished their lunch, they can be booked into the children's club and be looked after and play while the adults are still munching (and drinking). 

Perfect!

So perfect in fact, that we have a booking for 16 people next month - our brunch will probably take 4-5 hours out of Friday's crazy schedule of eating and swimming.  It's such a social thing to do - even with the children!

Having said all that, when we return to the UK for our holidays in August, we have requested meals out in the great British institution - the pub!  Ploughman's and a pint please!

Monday, 14 July 2008

It's getting hot out here . . .

Today, temperatures his 46 degrees C and my sunglasses steamed up the moment I stepped outside the house or out of the car.  It's the first day this summer 2008 in Dubai where the temps have hit this number. 

They will probably start to climb even higher as we approach August, but in Dubai, the temperature never hits 50 degrees.  The reason - because that's when all the hotel and construction workers have to down tools and stop working. 

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To give you an idea of what 46 degrees is, the following ideas simulate the current climate:

1 - turn on your hairdryer and stand in the blast; or

2 - turn on the hand-dryer in your local public conveniences;

3 - open the oven door.

Fortunately, we have working air-conditioning in the house and car, but spare a thought for my friend today who had her hair cut and blow dried in a salon . . . where the air con wasn't working.

That's just not funny.

I'm off to jump in the pool . . .  the only way to survive!

Friday, 11 July 2008

We've bought a house . . . !

It has taken us months.  Months of worry and months sitting in the front of the computer looking at numbers, but we have finally done it.  We are back on the property ladder . . . !

When we arrived, we became acutely aware of rising prices in Dubai.  Not only on the rental market, but also in the buying of properties too.  Houses that we looked at six months before had shot up nearly £100,000, leaving us well and truly behind.  Doing a search on real estate agencies web-sites were relatively useless, as by the time we called them about a property, it had already been sold.

We hit the phone - maybe this would be easier.  Not really.  We were met with "what's your budget?"  we replied.  "Mmm", they said, "I don't think we can help you".  Crazy stuff, when an agent tells you that you are unable to buy anything with your budget - and we thought our budget was quite good . . . . but not by Dubai standards.

We soldiered on, and we happened to stumble upon a new development just around the corner from us in Dubai Sports City.  There we found a town-house for within our budget (just).  Out here, there is an incredible shortage of villas, driving the price up even more.  Dubai is expanding both in terms of residents and building.  You will all know that it is probably the building capital of the world. 

Therefore, the majority of houses are sold off-plan.  Basically, the developer has found the plot of land, put together a master plan and then sells the houses.  They are usually sold out within days of release.  This particular house has been bought and sold twice - we are the third owners  (the previous two owners have each sold at an amazing profit), and I don't believe many bricks have even been laid.  The original price of our house 2 years ago when the plans were released was under £100,000. 

The buying system out here is terrible.  In order to secure a house (built or un-built) you have to immediately part with 10% deposit.  You are then given a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which enables you to approach a bank for a mortgage.  Each house is mortgaged by a particular bank . . . .  in the UK you find your house and then can apply to any bank for a mortgage on that property.  Here, you are told which bank to go to.  We were told where to go (bank-wise) and duly put in the application forms.  It was approved and we signed all of the mortgage paperwork.  We just had to take a photograph of all of the paperwork as I don't think I've ever seen so much paperwork for one transaction.  IMG_1805In the land of no direct-debts, Tim has had to write out cheques for three years worth of mortgage payments, as well as a six-month payment cheque, a twelve month payment cheque and also a cheque for the full amount.  Another 3 cheques for 3 years insurance payments and a forward payment cheque - which is the amount we are paying to the bank until the house is built. 

Ouch.

In the UK you are not allowed to complete on a property which is not built and ready. Something unusual over here is that you have to pay for the house to be built.  We have paid about 90% for the house right now and will pay the final 10% when it is built and handed over to us, which should be sometime within the next six months . . .  or not.

We were then given a date by the real-estate agent for completion (2 months away).

The two months came, with us getting more and more twitchy by the day.  We were getting worried because we could see prices spiralling upwards around us and a deal is not done until all of the paperwork is signed.  We were eventually given a time to all pitch up at the developer's office.  Off we went, and a rather old-fashioned transaction took place.  Sat around the table was the seller, the buyers (us), the realtor, the representative from the bank and the representative from the builder.  We all signed our documents in turn and that constituted "completion".

The real-estate agent then turned around to us and said that - if we wanted to - she could sell the house for us again at a higher price.  In three months (from start to finish) our house has increased by nearly £45,000 in value . . . . .  we declined!  The house should theoretically increase in value a lot when it is ready for occupation.  We will decide what to do then.

victory heights

Here is a builder's picture of our house when it is built.  It isn't big, in fact it is quite small by Dubai standards (2,250 sq ft), but the most important thing is that it's ours!

 

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Hot tap, cold tap . . . . which tap?

I can tell that the weather is hotting up here without even going out of the house . . . .  and that is by having a shower!

In the house, we have water tanks above each bathroom which are heated by a kind of immersion heater.  Tim gets a bit freaked out at the cost of running 5 full tanks (one for each bathroom and one for the kitchen) but it's just the way things are here. 

Anyway, the water in the shower has been getting increasingly warm in recent days.  So, as logic tells me, I've been turning the shower on, using only the cold tap, which is nice and tepid.  Today though it was too hot for comfort.  Not scalding or anything, but just a little bit warm for me.  But considering that only the cold tap was on, there wasn't a huge amount I could do.  The same applied to cold tap when I was brushing my teeth.  It's kind of strange brushing teeth with warm water.

I didn't think any more of it until I spoke to a friend today (a friend who has been here for about 5 years so knows all about these things).  "Oh, she said . . .  what you need to do is to turn off your water heater and then turn the tap to hot when you have a shower." 

"O-k-a-y", I thought, thinking she had just got things muddled, but no.  It appears that the water that is kept in the hot water tank, which when not switched on, is cold.  It is kept cold by the air-conditioning in the house.  If that water is too cold to shower in, then you turn on the cold tap and mix it together.  The cold tap brings in water stored in the pipes under the ground . . . .  which are hot because it's 40+ degrees outside.

Confused?  Makes sense when you think about it, but not when I'm all bleary at 6am.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

What is it really like here . . . Socially?

Moving to a new place where you know only 2 other adults is hard work.  You have to immediately put on your happy and interested face and, in simple terms, put yourself out there! 

The first six weeks were quite stressful - in all honesty, we were too busy with sorting out the basics to really be in the right frame of mind to meet anyone.  But I guess that when we moved into our house and the kids were in school, that's when things started to change.  When the children started at school, they were both in classes that were slowly being filled up with children as they moved to the city.  O for example, started out as the fourth member of his class - now they are full at 15.  Ella's class was similar and for some reason, Ella's class seem to have the more chatty and sociable mums and that's where it all started!  It wasn't long before I set up a monthly mum's dinner!

One thing that has struck me with living overseas is that most people have a very interesting past.  I have met so many interesting people:

1 -  a British lady who left for Australia on her own about 15 years ago to continue her career.  Is now an Australian passport holder.  She met and married an Irishman, had three children and now has moved to Dubai to live near her brother.
2 - an Iranian family, somehow related to the Iranian royal family (not sure of the connection), who left Persia pre the revolution and moved to London and now Dubai.
3 - a Korean lady, married to a British chap, who lived in London, before moving to Singapore for a few years to have her children and now Dubai.
4 - a British lady, married to a British man, who lived in Paris and then Jamaica for years before stopping off in Dubai for a couple of years while their Australian residency visas are processed and approved.
5 - a Lebanese family who would prefer to be living back in Lebanon, but chose to have their family living here - just in case.  (They are going back to Lebanon for the summer but have back up plans in place, in case the airport shuts and there are bombs - at that point, they drive to Syria and fly back here from there.)  It's another world from the one I'm used to.

Everyone has a story to tell.

Making new friends from scratch is a bit like dating.  You will inevitably meet loads of people: some of whom you just don't like the look of (sounds brutal, but it's true); some you don't agree with on many levels; and then there will be a gem that is worth plucking out of the crowd and getting to know better.  Tim I think has found this aspect quite hard, but as I can have quite a good time talking to a brick wall, it's been easier for me.

I have met other people through various introductions (like at the Polo we went to in February) and the friendship circle is now widening very well.  We have friends from all over the globe - Australia, South Africa, Germany, France, Malaysia . . .  Birmingham!!  Socially, we have a cracking time.  Most weekends we are out at somebody's house for dinner and a swim.  We now have to put the kids back to bed at lunchtime for a couple of hours as most of the socialising (because of the heat) takes place in the early evening.  Every now and then, we go out for Friday brunch with some other people which is a big deal here in Dubai and most of the big hotels vie for your money to get you to eat in their place.  For a set price, you eat for hours with all kinds of food available - there are usually children's playrooms attached so that the adults can have a leisurely time while the kids are entertained.  You then stagger home and don't eat for a week!  There are also the inevitable round of children's parties, which is as much of an excuse for the adults to get together and chat, as it is for the celebration of the child's birthday!

Now that we have a housemaid and a built-in babysitter, we are also able to go out in the evenings. Sometimes it's the cinema which is big business here as it's a very popular past-time.  Tickets are 30 Dhs each, which is about 4.50, but if you pay with an HSBC credit card, it is a welcome BOGOF (buy one, get one free) so it's a cheap thing to do in the evenings.  We also go out for dinner with friends - if we want alcohol then we have no option but to go to one of the big (and expensive) hotels, but if we are willing to forego the booze, there are many, many delightful places. 

Before I started work, I would also meet people for coffee or lunch during the week.  Whoever said that housewives out here have a tough time out here are lying . . . . . last week alone was very busy - along with root canal treatment (ouch) I also had many lovely coffees, lunches and breakfasts with my friends.  It's all very civilised, but can get expensive if you're not careful!  I needed more money to be social so have a job.  Now I have the job but less time - a vicious circle!!!  However, I still have that one day a week to cram it all in!

It is fair to say that we are working - and playing - hard.

In the summer though, everything changes.  The expat community start to move out in early July, to return in late August.  Ourselves included - we are back to Blighty to meet up with family and our other set of, equally valuable, friends there.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Rain? Surely Not

  Last month, the strangest thing happened. 

Tim had taken the children to school as usual and phoned me to tell me that it was absolutely chucking it down with rain.  "Strange", we both thought - most notably because it was May and we live in the desert with no rain at this time of year.  I looked out of the window and indeed, the weather was very cloudy, but I was about 15km away from Tim at this point, but having nothing better to do that morning, I decided to keep a look out.

About 15 minutes later, I could see that the sky was getting very stormy and the wind was whipping up a storm.  I went outside - got an eyeful of sand and to my surprise, I also felt huge spots of rain . . . . . but because of the wind and where we live in the desert, I was feeling great splodges of wet sand land on me.  Delightful.  It didn't last particularly long though - maybe about ten minutes in total.

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I took these photos to show you how the visibility changed - you could be forgiven for thinking this is mist, but it's pure sandy rain!

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The following day on the radio, I heard the guy talking about "artificial rain".  Now, this guy is normally a bit of a joker, so I did a double take on the date to make sure it wasn't April Fool's Day.  It wasn't, so I decided to get on-line!

Imagine my surprise when I read - officially in the Gulf papers - that the UAE was experimenting for the first time in the history of the region - with artificial rain!  It was true!

Using the latest technology, the rainmaking effort brought moderate rain.  According to experts, artificial rainfall will help plants grow, increase the level in reservoirs, and add water to the barren soil in the country. Although it has rained much more frequently this year, the precipitation remains below average.

In the rainmaking operation last week, experts allegedly used a hydrogen bomb.  According to scientists, the plastic hydrogen bomb uses electricity to break apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, it uses a spark of electricity to explosively recombine the gases into a high pressure steam, which propels a stream of water high into the air.

In the UAE and several countries of the region, there are often clouds, but no rain. This is because of a phenomenon called supercooling. The temperature of the cloud might be close to zero and there might even be crystals of ice in it. The water vapour in the cloud does not condense into liquid water. The super cooling gets disturbed by spraying the cloud with special substances, using a small plane for the purpose.

I understand, since doing my research, that "cloud seeding" is relatively common, with Australia, the US and China being advocates of the process.  Personally, I had never heard of it before, but given that the water table in this region is reducing at an alarming rate, maybe it's the thing to do . . . . .  not quite sure how environmental it is though . . . !