Wrapping up Summer: A Money Monday Post

ADEC gives us money for flights home once a year, and if we are careful and spend lots of time combing Expedia, Sky Scanner, and similar sites, we can find airfare that is cheap enough that we can afford to make a pit stop along the way. This is possible because the allowance is (supposedly) based on economy airfare for direct flights to teachers’ home ports. Those flights are more convenient in a number of ways, and as a result a little more expensive than those with multiple legs. Anyhow, if you recall, last year we spent two weeks exploring from Amsterdam, because we booked a trip with layovers rather than going home directly. This year we did something similar. We booked a flight with a stop in Milan. From there, we made a big circle, driving almost everyday for a couple hours or more, seeing six countries during 14 days. Then we hopped an airliner for Abu Dhabi and got ourselves back to Al Ain via rental car.

As I’ve said, we couldn’t afford to do this if we weren’t careful about finding affordable airfare. Or rather, we couldn’t justify spending the coin. After all, one of the overarching reasons for returning to Abu Dhabi for a third year is to beef up our savings account and IRAs. A third year’s bonus will be very useful in that, but we aren’t relying on the bonuses alone to set us up financially. That would be stupid, because wherever we go next, be it back to the grand USA or another country, we will need startup funds. So money must go into the bank all along the way or we will be no better off than before.

Now, bearing in mind my Money Monday introduction, I want to share about our trip through northern Italy and the surrounding regions. We saw beautiful scenery, met wonderful people, and learned new lessons about exploring as married parents of a toddler.  How can we do it and not waste everything we have squirreled away into savings and/or plan to put to responsible use to make our futures brighter?  I’ll try to answer that as I write.

Our first stop was Milan. Milan is remarkable in its humdrumness, if that’s a word. It’s amazingly ordinary. I maybe ignorant of other more interesting sights in the area, but in a couple days, we saw everything most people say is worthwhile: the Duomo and nearby Sforza Castle, as well as the canal area. We found the place pleasantly affordable, excluding the shops near the cathedral. It was possible for us to eat dinner for under 20 euros. We spent only one night, and that with a blog buddy of Jenia’s, so we didn’t have to pay anything for lodging. Hooray!

One way we try to save a few bucks is by using ATMs (Bancomats in eurospeak) to make cash withdrawals. If you’ve ever converted cash, you know that the conversion process isn’t simply an even, exact swap of $100 for the equivalent currency. Every exchange place and even banks charge a fee for changing money, and it’s annoying to search for a place which offers the best rates. In fact, some advise you not to worry about looking for the best rates if you are trying to convert money–just do it at the airport where it’s convenient and you’ll save some time and effort, they say, making it worth whatever small difference you pay. But less expensive, if you make large withdrawals at once, is using an ATM, because there’s no conversion fee. This is only less expensive if you withdraw a fairly good amount of money at once, though, since you’ll still pay an ATM fee, potentially from both the ATM and your home bank. Normally we don’t worry much about cash, and try to use our credit card. However, many places in Italy (as well as other places we visited) don’t accept credit.

This brings me to my next point: be sure you authorize your ATM card for overseas usage.  I did that, but I did it two years ago, for a duration of two years (my expected ADEC time). So I couldn’t use my ATM card at all, and I couldn’t make Skype work in order to call the bank. Luckily, the wife’s bank card does still work, and we could use it. But in the meantime, before we’d sorted that situation out, we were limited to places that would accept credit.  We stopped in a gelateria, delighted that the sign on the door said “Mastercard/Visa,” looking forward to our first taste of authentic Italian gelato in many years. Two very friendly brothers ran the shop, and as one of them rang up the total for our two cones, the other had just scooped the first cone for Jenia and was working on mine. Seeing the Visa in my hand, the guy said their machine wasn’t working.

“Oh, crap,” said Jenia, “Stop,” she told the guy who was just about to plop a scoop of frozen deliciousness onto my cone. “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any cash.  We saw the sign on the door about Visa, and that’s why we came in.”

The brothers exchanged a glance. The one finished my cone, and the other said, “For free!”

Our turn to exchange looks. How nice is that?

“Have a good night,” they said as we turned for the door.

“It’s a good one now,” I told them. We made sure to return the next day and pay for a couple more scoops.

So those guys were pretty cool, and in general, we found the people of Milan to be warm and friendly.  In retrospect, there wasn’t the air of tourist fatigue that some of Italy’s touristy hotspots have (understandably enough).

Right, so update your bank about your travel plans so you avoid any potentially embarrassing run-ins like that, even though it worked out well and put a very good taste in our mouths (that’s a pun, get it?) about the people and place.

The next thing that we dealt with was obtaining transport at a reasonable cost. Everyone knows about Europe’s many trains and convenient network of railways. What is less common knowledge is that the price of train tickets is climbing yearly, making riding the rails less and less appealing for those traveling on a budget. For example, getting a Eurail pass for the two of us and the baby would have cost between 300 and 500 euros a piece, depending on the type of pass and number of days we wanted to spend on trains. That’s a pretty substantial number–if we wanted to travel a little each day, for example, for two weeks, then there wasn’t even a rail pass available that we could use. Another consideration was the toddler. Would Turtle stay put on a train, in his seat, minding his own business? Most likely he’d want to run around the whole time, a tiresome proposition. Last year we used Sixt, and opted to go another round with them. Our rental Fiat Panda 4×4 (!) ended up setting us back about 550 euros, including a carseat for the little one. The seat meant Turtle could nap when we drove, and it didn’t limit us in terms of where we could go or when we could go.

There is a funny story about finding the Sixt location in Milan that I’ll skip, but suffice it to say that my little trip to get the car ended up taking about 3 hours instead of the 1 we’d figured it would, and I had to go to a different location to pick up the car than the one I’d reserved it from. Advice: be careful to map out your destination location carefully ahead of time, and be sure to note what time that place closes.

A nasty fact about traveling Italian highways–they are toll roads, and the tolls are steep.  We logged approximately 160 euros in tolls alone. Fuel is expensive, too, but the Panda diesel was economical (5.4 l/100 km, as opposed to the 13.1 l/100 km I’m used to driving the Chevy here in Al Ain) and we paid roughly another 175 euros for fuel during our stay.  Diesel prices ran about 1.75-1.90 per liter while we were vacationing, just to give you an idea of what to expect if you’re plotting a similar trip.  But still, even if costs surrounding it were high, the car afforded us more freedom and was cheaper than train travel, so we enjoyed it.

And we put it to good use.  Here’s what our travel map looked like, more or less:

From Milan, we made a big circle, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d'Azur a bit.

From Milan, we made a big circle, more or less like what’s pictured here, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d’Azur a bit. Thanks, Google Maps, for making it easy to plot such courses.

Another way we kept costs under control was to use our cell phones only as wi-fi devices.  There are some affordable options for SIM cards, but we didn’t bother. We took great advantage of wi-fi and used Google Maps for navigation almost exclusively.

Last year we couchsurfed fully half the nights of our trip, which cut hotel costs in half. This year beyond our first night in Milan, we had to pay, as there were no hosts available for us. Ah, well.  So we used Booking.com to look up lodging as we went, only having reserved a couple days in advance.

We stayed in Perledo at a cool Bed and Breakfast with views of Lake Como, along scary narrow roads.  A ferry took the Fiat and family across Lake Como to Menaggio, and we drove to Lugano, Switzerland, to meet another blog buddy of Jenia’s. The next day we were in Vaduz and more remote parts of mountainous Liechtenstein. Afterward we went to soggy Innsbruck, but the views were obscured by rain clouds, so we hit the road early and stayed along the highway in charmingly non-touristy Steinach, where pizza was affordable for a change. Next stop was Venice–an ever so romantic city, especially when you just wander the streets, rather than utilize the slow, crowded water taxis. A cool agriturismo called La Toretta in Siena was next, followed by a B&B in Casarza Ligure, not far from the beautiful (and wickedly crowded) Cinque Terre. Monaco and Nice rounded out the trip, and we returned to a hotel near the airport the night before our flight to Abu Dhabi, being sure to find one that offered a free shuttle to the airport so we could return the car the night before, thereby saving rental fees for an extra day just to go to the airport in the morning.

We had pleasant stays in all of the lodgings we selected, but the one place that most stands out was in Casarza Ligure, called Ca De Pria. If you want a nice base of operations from which to explore segments of the Italian riviera, that’s it. The owners treated us like old friends, and could not have been any more welcoming.

Of the many things we did, places we went, and little observations and lessons we gleaned, one was probably more important than the others: traveling with a toddler is different from being on the go with a baby. Our toddler has developed a certain schedule, and when that was too terribly altered, we all paid a price for it. So our evenings were generally kept fairly early, and we discovered that nap times were yet more important–if Turtle napped too long, sleeping too late into the afternoon, he’d be up too late that night. One night I was up with him until 1:30am, which was much too long. It ended up that he would be awake for 6 hours after his last nap, so we tried to make sure we adjusted things accordingly.

One more Money Monday note and I’ll dispense with the formalities and share some pictures. If you live in the UAE and you’re in Al Ain, finding a ride to and from the airport can be a factor when budgeting. Other than phoning friends to do us favors, we’ve found the cheapest, most handy way to get to either DXB or AUD is by renting a car from Hertz. Their least expensive Toyota Yaris or Mazda 2 offers enough room for us and our stuff (but not much to spare) and costs only 89 AED (or 110, including a child seat) for one day. Taxis set you back almost 300 AED, and most people who offer paid transport do it for around 200. Hertz is the best bet by a mile.

Now, for some more photos, one of the rewards we enjoy a great deal for spending money in the way we did. As usual, Jenia made excellent use of her Canon and has some amazing pictures to share, and I’ll get her to upload some soon. I have some that I like, too, and these are among them. Click on the images for full screen viewing.

Il Duomo

Little One in L

Near Sucka

Artists Still in Venice

Statue

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Citroen

I Love Your Life

What a thing to hear, huh? About a week ago we were sitting under a rented umbrella on a rocky Nice beach, and a woman sitting nearby with her family asked where we were from. She has, by the sound of it, a good life herself, where she works from her midwestern home. Mrs. Kramer and her family were taking a shore day while on a Disney Mediterranean cruise, which seems kind of nifty to me. But when she found out that I teach in the UAE while Jenia does photography on the side, her eyes grew wide and she got a big smile on her face. A few more questions asked and answered, she exclaimed, “I love your life!”

That’s the kind of compliment that will make you grin every time. It’s also a little hard to respond well to. “Thanks,” I managed, while feeling a tad silly. I wanted to say, “Actually, my life is pretty mundane,” because it doesn’t seem too special. Yet, given more thought, I’ll admit my lifestyle is somewhat unusual. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I have set foot in 12 countries to date this year, including the one I live in, and yet life seems nothing if not, well, ordinary.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

That is not to say I didn’t get a kick out of going for a speedboat trip in Thailand, or driving the confusing roads of Siena, Italy. I thrilled at touching Liechtenstein rocks as I hiked to the castle over Vaduz, and I laughed at being one of the many tourists cramming into a pizzeria’s doorway in Vernazza, one of the picturesque Cinque Terre towns, in the midst of a sudden downpour, trying to stay dry. I rejoiced in surprise when the kind brothers who operate a gelateria in Milan gave us free ice cream. Walking the avenues of Venice with my lovely wife was ever so romantic, even with toddler in tow. I’ll admit, this seems a life less ordinary as I consider it further.

But would anyone still smilingly say, “I love your life” if they knew what the normal, routine part of my life is like? The getting up at 6, going to scan my fingerprint to sign in at school, standing through my 13,340th morning assembly (hmm, I wonder how many I’ve really shifted my weight from one foot to the other through?) conducted entirely in Arabic, deal with difficult youth in a constantly changing and inconsistent environment, handle the workload in a responsible manner, try not to balk at conflicting expectations and realities, and then go home and do normal family guy stuff. This is boring at best, isn’t it?

Indeed, day trips to Abu Dhabi or Dubai are even blasé. “Which mall should we go to today, honey? Do you want to swim in the gulf again?” We find ourselves bored as we walk among folks clad in kandoras and abayas, as we notice at some point and then forget again that we are the only white people in the room. We yawn at the idea of going to the same old amazingly green park nearby again. Life in the desert has become normal. The special part is mainly what happens during holidays.

The saying goes along the lines of wherever you go, there you are, and that’s a tried and true if cliched sentiment for a reason. I’m no more happy now than I was when I had what you might call a regular job in a typical school in the States. There was a phase where I was really stressed out by moving, on the contrary, but I’ve adjusted long ago. I’m still me, and I’m the same in the USA, France, or the UAE.

That said, over time, assuming I am not resistive to it, traveling and working abroad does change me. I notice that I don’t bear the same political or social prejudices, and my cultural biases have altered. I think these changes are good ones, but who’s to say I wouldn’t change similarly if I worked at home in the USA? I’d grow and mature regardless of where I lived, wouldn’t I? But I certainly wouldn’t be able to explore the world as easily if I hadn’t packed a few bags and relocated overseas.

So here’s what I’m getting at. I live a life that is a bit unusual, yep, but much of it isn’t anything worth talking about. It’s a struggle, same as any life, anywhere. But Mrs. Kramer, thanks for making me ponder it a bit. Thanks for reminding me that I’m blessed. And I know you were thinking about the glamor of travel and life abroad in glitzy Abu Dhabi, but when it comes down to it, what really makes my life special is the people in it. Teaching a classroom full of kids is more rewarding when I learn some Arabic phrases from them, when I build some relationships there and remember that this is a job that’s different and memorable when compared to the one I had back home. So yeah, there are those people, students, but they’re not really the ones I’m talking about. Venice would have been ho-hum without my wife. Sitting on the sea-washed stones of Nice would have been less fun if I wasn’t able to watch my little son enjoy the waves in his mother’s arms. Going to exotic places is more fun when I can share the experience with my loved ones. Exploring is about expanding, and the most important thing to expand is the love in my heart. It’s easy to forget that in the clamor of day to day living, no matter where in the world I find myself.

Why Travel?

Exactly a week ago, we were sitting at a financial advisor’s office admitting, somewhat embarrassingly, that most of our assets are in our passport stamps.
This morning, I woke up to this view:
 

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What embarrassment?

Hello, my name is Jenia, and I am a travelholic.

Traveling makes me happy, preparing for a trip makes me giddy. Heck, I even like packing! If you wake me up in the middle of the night, hand me a ticket to virtually any destination, and allow 30 minutes to get ready, I won’t even consider turning down the offer. Shon is the same, minus the packing part. Little Turtle doesn’t really care yet, truth be told.

Between the 3 of us, here’s what our travel map looks like:


visited 28 states (12.4%)
Create your own visited map of The World or Amsterdam travel guide for Android

The old saying about birds of a feather holds true to us as well. We tend to surround ourselves with other travel junkies. This summer, we asked some of them to share why they travel. Here’s what they said:

Andrew, 54;45 countries:

“Why? Because I do love travel and I want to serve others, serve Christ.”

Bennet, 2; 7 countries:

“Airplanes!”

Emile, 10; 8 countries visited (and at least 2 more planned before October):

“I like to travel because I like to explore and learn new things.”

Frank & Melissa, 35 & 34; 32 countries by the end of this month:

“We travel to see the world, experience new cultures, try new foods, and get out of our comfort zone.”

Jenna, 27; 17 countries:

“I travel because you can learn so much – about language, people, religion/spirituality, communication, lifestyles, art, food, architecture, view on life (others and your own), and much more.”

Jody, 38; 12 or 13 countries:

“I travel because I love adventure and experiencing new places and peoples and cultures. I have returned to several of these countries as well. I love meeting people and learning new and different perspectives from people. I love to see how people totally blow stereotypes to bits and I enjoy seeing how people from such different places and cultures are really just like me. God’s creation is beautiful and I love communing with Him in his creation.”

Maria, 31; 31 countries:

“I actually never thought about “Why”. It seems a most obvious thing to do with your time. I would rather ask why someone would NOT travel if they have opportunity?”

Megan, 30; 12 countries:

“Travel because it brings adventure, expands your knowledge, and grows your compassion for all man kind.”

Ryanne, 29; 11 countries (+2 more by the end of summer):

“Because there is only one world and we all live in it. To love all and everyone. 1 John 4:12
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Scott, 28; 17 countries:

“Travel because it “broadens the mind.” Travel opens your mind to new cultures, customs, and ways of life. Experiencing the unfamiliar challenges what you’ve always expected to be universally true. The newness breeds a sense of adventure as you incorporate the unfamiliar into your own expanding worldview.”

Susanne, 47; 11 countries (2 more by October):

“God blessed this world with so many extrordinary places, people, cultures, and things to learn. Then, He gave me an abundance of curiosity and an adventurous spirit, so travel I must.”

I, Jenia, am 31, and have been to 23 or 24 countries. I believe that the more I travel, the more I learn about myself, the country I came from, and its people. The more I discover the world, the more I discover myself. That’s the biggest draw of traveling to me.

Summer Break, Pt. 3: Rumbles and Rides

Hello all, Shon here.  This week I’m writing about things we don’t do in the UAE, and which we are enjoying while in Northeastern Georgia.  I want to warn you right off the bat, that part of this post is about motorcycling, so if you find that boring (which you shouldn’t, because it’s amazing), you may want to skip this and spend your time reading something else.

Motorcycling exists in the UAE, of course, but I left my Triumph in the States and don’t ride in the UAE.  Why not?  Because the UAE is known (rightly) for its lunatic drivers, and I figured a motorcyclist is easy prey for a zooming SUV in the wrong hands.  After a couple years’ residence in the area, I now feel I’d be okay, but still, why push my luck?  Besides, it’s just plain too hot to ride in full gear there much of the year.

Georgia is both safer and more comfortable for riding.  Nonetheless, the high humidity does a lot to offset the drastic 20-30 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature from Al Ain to the southeast US, and normally I don’t go on a ride of any length without full safety gear–armored pants, jacket, etc., which makes the ride much warmer.  Spending any time outdoors is miserable in leathers if you’re not moving and the thermometer reads in the 90s.

Somewhere in Suches, Georgia.

Somewhere in Suches, Georgia.

I’ve put about 450 miles under my bike’s tires in the last couple of weeks, which doesn’t sound like that much, I know.  Still, the Thruxton has been to some of Georgia’s best riding roads–US129, Highway 17, Route 60, and Route 197.  These routes are absolutely beautiful, offering mountain scenery to rival many of the prettiest parts of the world, and smooth, swooping roads that may be the best in the Union.  These trips have been with my brother and another close friend, so the rides are great experiences in more than one way (unless, of course, we end up stuck beside the road doing repairs, when it becomes uncomfortably hot and sticky).

This particular side road ended by turning into National Park Forest Service road.

This particular side road ended by turning into National Park Forest Service road.

Regrettably, the Wife has to stay home and watch the littlest Rand, so she doesn’t share the pleasures of the mountain roads I’ve named above.  Not that she particularly enjoys riding on the back anyway.  Sadder still, she finds herself jealous of the Thruxton because I want to spend time on it, which is itself entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Luckily, in a way she does share my taste for horsepower.  She just prefers the sort that has four legs and shoes, rather than tires.

The other day we had the opportunity to go for a lengthy trail ride near Watson Mill State Park in Comer, Georgia, thanks to a friend’s friend who made arrangements.

The ride took us over varied terrain near a fork of the Broad River, through trees and pastures, and was altogether a good time.  Despite the sweltering heat and humidity, the horses were in high spirits.  The owners, who were also our guides, were surprised by the animals’ friskiness.  They’d expected the heat to make them sluggish, but instead, they were frequently trotting and jostling for the pole position.

Jenia takes a moment to enjoy the view atop her white stallion.

Jenia takes a moment to enjoy the view atop her white stallion.

One of our guides and a friend on horseback.

One of our guides, who participates in mounted shooting competitions, and our friend who doesn’t, on horseback.

We’ve both been on horseback a couple of times before, but this was the first time that we got to gallop–and that was lots of fun!  There was a stretch of unbroken, smooth pasture that we were able to let our steeds run on, and run they did.  By the time our ride was done, the equines had worked up a fair lather, and both horses and riders were ready for either a shower or an ice cold glass of water.

The owners have 28 horses which they own mainly for pleasure, but which also are used in various competitions, such as Cowboy Mounted Shooting, something you can check out in this video.

So to recap, we’ve been having a very nice summer.  There’s been good riding that kept us both happy, and like I said in a previous entry, we’re still reveling in the pervasive greenery and gorgeous blue skies.

Thursday List: Things to Bring and Not to Bring

I have to begin by saying 2 things: firstly, I was planning to write this sooner, hoping it would be a bit of help to the people moving to the UAE for the new school year. Sorry if I’m a bit too late, guys! Secondly, this is my very personal opinion, and I’m sorry if this list takes too-girly a turn.

Don’t Bring:

1. Electronics and small appliances that don’t have dual voltage (speaking to Americans here, mostly). First of all, they may not work here even with the converter (Shon’s razor worked, his clippers didn’t), and even if they do work, there’s a good chance they’ll just blow out one day (RIP, my lovely hair-straightener!)

If dual voltage is not a problem, consider weight/price. Will it be cheaper to buy said appliance here or pay for an extra/overweight bag?

If you are curious, we brought our laptops & camera. We bought everything else here (most of it used).

The only exception to this list is a router. Do consider bring a VPN-compatible router.

2. Books. They are so freaking heavy. Consider investing into e-books or purchasing books online from bookdepository.com They ship worldwide for free.

3. Crafting tools unless you are bringing the supplies as well. For whatever reason, “making things” is not a favorite pastime here. You may have some luck with yarn and embroidery floss for a reasonable price, but expect to pay a pretty penny for the scrapbooking/card-making supplies, and not be able to find any jewelry-making stuff at all.

Consider Bringing:

1. Your favorite outfit even if doesn’t fit the “clothes acceptable in the UAE” category. There will be all sorts of expat get-togethers plus you can always wear it to a hotel restaurant or just on a trip to Dubai.

2. Non-drugstore cosmetics. Clinique and MAC stuff is available, but costs 2-3 times more, ladies. I have a sneaking suspicion this is true for other brands, as well.

3. A bottle of your favorite hair product, if you have difficult hair. Chances are, it will take you a bit of time to find a replacement here (Americans, try Boots pharmacies). Personally, I still bring my favorite hairspray.

4. Clinical strength deodorant. No, you cannot get it here.

5. US ladies, if you are into Victoria’s Secret underwear, bring some along. Two words: freaking expensive.

6. A small/lightweight/flat piece of your current house decor. It’s really nice to have something from home. We brought 2 plywood people with the maps of our hometowns on them, and we haven’t regretted it.

7. A VPN-compatible router.

8. A traveler’s credit card. We are quite fond of Capital One’s Venture. Most likely, you will not get paid until the end of September, so keep this in mind.

9. If you know you are planning to travel internationally during your time in the UAE, think about bringing some winter clothes. We knew we were going to Russia for Christmas, so we brought our jackets, boots, and a couple of sweaters thus saving a fortune.

A lot of people bring food. I have heard of suitcases packed full of grits (no kidding). While I do notoriously miss my Cheez-Its now and then, I have surely found new favorites (plus, most of the stuff you can’t get is not the best thing for you, anyway, and the healthy stuff can be easily purchased at iherb.com – they ship to the door).

This said, you can find nearly everything here. You will see brands you recognize, and brands you don’t (some of them are just a different name for something familiar). Don’t be afraid of trying new stuff! It’s part of the fun.

Also, if you are curious about baby-related stuff I bring from the States, let me know.

Expat friends, what would you add?

Summer Vacation, Pt. II

The trip has been going well. It’s nice to catch up with friends and family, and the non-desert climate is ever so pleasant. Returning home requires a little adjustment, though, as one grows accustomed to the UAE after a while. We laughingly have listed things that we forgot about life in the USA.

Jenia’s list looks like this:

•Drinking unfiltered tap water
•Driving with your windows down
•Paying attention to gas prices
•Beer being sold next to soda, water, and juice
•How blue the sky is
•Credit/debit card readers (I keep handing mine to the cashier)
•Bugs
•People stopping at stop signs
•Flowers
•Having to keep an eye on your bags and child

Mine includes all those things, and adds:

•Good ol’ southern rednecks
•Walmart
•Drivers using turn signals
•People having the same accent
•New $100 bills (when did that happen?)
•The great selection of familiar foods in the supermarket

What a difference living abroad makes to how we view things. We are that much more appreciative of Breyer’s ice cream, for example, than ever before:)

Here are a few pictures from the last week, and I’m not sure you will revel in the non-desertness of the scenery in quite the same way as us, but still, revel in the greenery:

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Summertime

It’s summer. We said masalama to the UAE and are now on US soil, in the great state of Maine. It feels awfully good to be home, visiting family and friends that we haven’t seen for many moons.

The foremost thing we are enjoying, outside of time with people we love, is the freedom to show affection in public. It’s nice to be able to hug or kiss and such without worrying about the local cops slapping me with a fine or something.

It’s also great to roll down the car windows and have cool air flood in. Maine is absolutely fantastic this time of year–cool at night (55 last night) and warm (79 was today’s high) during the day.

Anyway, brevity being the soul of wit or something, I’d better leave off now. Here’s a pic I snapped while outside yesterday.

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The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.