An Ending Continues

Our tenure in Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has come to an end. I’m not writing from the UAE. No, I’m in a comfortable home that belongs to my relative, with green grass and leafy trees outside the airy, expansive living room. There are clouds in the beautiful blue sky, and it looks like rain is coming. This is definitely not the UAE.

As the ending continues, I’ve received my end of service payment and transferred the money home. It’s a nice nest egg that makes some of the struggles of the last few years a more pleasant memory. I had no unapproved days off, and my term of employment started almost exactly 3 years ago, so the sum was more or less what I was expecting, with the added bonus of the airfare amount being a little higher than we’d hoped for. My extremely helpful friend in Al Ain has yet to hear from ADCP about the housing deposit refund (4,000 AED, no small amount of money), but she will pick up the check and put it in the bank for me ASAP.  After that is done, our last remaining financial ties to the UAE will be cut.

#boylovesairports #dxb Turtle said "good-bye" to Dubai today.

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

The last couple of days in Al Ain went like one would expect–trying to reduce possessions to the bare minimum, weeding out things we wanted to keep and things we could do without, packing the suitcases full, soaking up Al Ain life, as well as enjoying hotel’s amenities and saying goodbyes to many good people we may never see again. We flew out in the morning on Saturday, hauling more luggage than we ever have before, and hopefully more than we will again.

“I hope there’s no small child in front of me,” Jenia said, pushing her baggage cart through the airport. She could see in front of her, so I’m not sure what she was worried about. Granted, she did have to crane her neck and peer over a barely balancing toddler car seat perched atop the hulking stack of luggage, but surely she wouldn’t have actually run over any small life forms in her way.

No more #PalmTrees in a week. #AlAin #AbuDhabi #UAE

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

At home in the USA for a week now, we’ve been struck by things like polite drivers, the lushness of the southeast, the ease with which we can communicate, the variety of colors and textures of buildings. As Jenia says, the houses and yards offer a sense of personal identity, which contrasts with the UAE’s impersonal but often imposing homes.

Thus, we’re nearly through with our UAE journey. It’s been trying, but rewarding, and I would judge it thoroughly worth doing. The ending continues until the last bit of money comes in…

An Ending Begins

We have 8 days left in the UAE.

The last week has gone by in a blur as I zipped from place to place after invigilation (which ought instead to be called supervised cheating) at school. But it’s Friday, the weekend is upon us, and I’m ensconced in the Hili Rayhaan hotel, comfortably in a king-sized bed, having spent the morning at a leisurely breakfast and then in the pool. There was even a nap this afternoon. Things are looking up.

Here is what happens at the end of working for ADEC. Unsurprisingly, the resignation procedure is much the same as the arrival procedure, only reversed.

The steps are: wait wait wait wait wait for your resignation (which you submitted in the online system well within the official window of time) to be approved, then wait wait wait wait wait wait some more.

Then with about a month of work left, it’s approved and things start moving quickly.

If you’re me, you print a form that you obtained from someone not your principal (who is supposed to have received said form in his email, but may not be aware of it, or perhaps he was just not at work on the day it was sent). You fill this form out, and then you have to collect about seven signatures from various departments at ADEC headquarters (called “The Zone” around here).

You make a trip to The Zone to get the next couple of signatures, because they’re mostly a formality.

Then you wait a bit, because you’re hung up getting clearance forms (haven’t you heard of those? They’re forms which officially show that you’ve paid your bills and haven’t got any outstanding balance) from the combined power and water company (Al Ain Distribution Company). This requires a visit to one of the AADC places in town. I’d suggest the Al Ain Mall one, or perhaps the Hili Mall one (which is never busy). If you go to the big headquarters near The Zone, you’ll probably wait forever and a half day. Anyway, the process takes a couple of days. You request a final meter reading and clearance certificate, AADC sends you a text message as acknowledgement, and then, if things go correctly, you get a second message to say you’re all set. From prior experience, I can tell you if that message doesn’t come after two days, go visit an AADC office and ask for an update. This all means getting the AADC clearance takes a couple days. Then you’ll need an Etisalat (phone and internet) clearance form, too, and that company forces you to visit the large, crowded, slow office in Sanaiya to get a clearance letter, although it bears noting that you can get service cancelled at several other locations (such as Bawadi Mall). Again, the clearance from takes a couple of days or more. If you’re me, you make no less than eight trips to Etisalat to get this done, and you still have to go collect the form another time.

After you have your AADC clearance form, you can get your apartment inspected. We pay 180 AED to the apartment manager because one of our screens has a dime-sized hole in it (and it might indeed be our fault, so no problem), then he prints a letter declaring that you’re all set, but in iffier English than that. You take this letter down to The Zone and collect another signature.

By now, you’ve dropped off and then collected, a couple days later, your dependents’ passports at the Infinity Services window in ADEC so they can type up visa cancellation forms for you (saving a few bucks), and you take these passports a few buildings over to immigration and have them cancel the visas. You need to show your own original passport, Emirates ID, and work visa there. The guy in a kandora behind the counter glances at your stuff, then stamps the dependents’ pink visas with red ink which seems to read “cancelled” in Arabic. He also collects their Emirates IDs. A couple moments later a text message arrives from the Ministry of the Interior notifying you of the cancelations. This means your cleared for the next step: having your own visa cancelled. This means I turn in my Emirates ID (bye, little card!) and passport for a day.

The next day, I collect my passport, and the guys older guy sitting in his chair takes a box of passports with paperwork attached to them from a locked cabinet. He looks at my picture carefully, at me, back at the picture, and is smiling and the other guy is laughing.  Then they tell me how somebody else who looked kind of like me picked it up earlier in the day. “Same name,” they said, but I’d be floored if there’s a second Shon Rand running around Al Ain. Regardless, my passport is in my hand, and I can collect another signature on my all-important form. So I do.

And I proceed to housing, where I need another signature. That’s fairly easy. He directs me to hand over another copy of my AADC clearance, and then take copies to the Abu Dhabi Commercial Properties building downtown to get my housing deposit back. I notice it’s almost 3 o’clock, and it’s Thursday, and figure I won’t find anyone there if I go now, so I decide to wait until Sunday for that.

As it turns out, I need to make another trip to ADEC anyway, because I need that Etisalat clearance form which I haven’t got yet in order to submit my super-duper important form to the last people–payroll, who will calculate up my End of Service (EOS) payment.

Thus, over the period of about 9 days, an ending has begun. There is very little left to be done, and hopefully it will all be knocked out on Sunday. There has been a bit of stress, like there was in the beginning, but it’s been tempered by knowledge that things move slowly here, especially when you hope they’ll go fast. We have only 8 days left in the UAE. Wow.

Racism, the Rebel Flag, and the USA

Racism is front and center in the American consciousness right now, judging by the amount of media coverage that the subject has received in the last few months, as well as the current kerfuffle involving the rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol.

My perspective on the rebel flag is one colored by spending the first part of my life in the American North (Maine), and more than half in the South (Georgia). Simply put, I never witnessed racism in Maine (mind you, it’s probably there), but I sure saw a lot of it in Georgia. I saw racism from, God help us, church people more than once. As time went on, I saw it reciprocated from people white and black, crossing any type of racial divide.

We all know about the history of the southern freedman after the Civil War–a burst of great freedom and triumph followed by startling, ugly repression and the emergence of Jim Crow, and of course the struggle for meaningful freedom that followed for years afterward. As for the flag–most people in rural Georgia explain that they fly the rebel flag not out of hatred toward black people, not out of a spirit of rebellion toward the Union, but as a means of remembering the conflict that spilled so much blood on the red clay. Some might say it’s simply a symbol of the South, as well, which certainly does have a different culture from other regions. I accept those sentiments to an extent, but if we’re going to acknowledge that the confederate battle flag isn’t always flown in a spirit of malice, we must also acknowledge that the flag exists because it was spawned by a treasonous segment of the USA, a segment in open rebellion, a segment which sought to preserve its power and wealth based on the exploitation of an entire race. Given this, it isn’t even remotely appropriate to fly the confederate flag over a state capitol. Fly it over graves of Confederate soldiers. Fly it at museums and memorials to the Civil War (and incidentally, isn’t the flag in South Carolina actually at a memorial, not over the State House?); these are places where it’s appropriate. Fly it on your own private property, for whatever reason you want–you might have honest-to-goodness noble reasons, and it’s your right, anyway. The Georgia state flag that flew from the 1950s until it was replaced in 2001.

Confederate flag controversy sure isn’t new in the South. When governor Roy Barnes got rid of the Georgia state flag that prominently featured the confederate banner in 2001, that was a change for the better. Why South Carolina still flies the flag on State House grounds, God only knows. Or, actually, history tells us quite clearly. I’ve been googling. It is because people hate change.

After all, we cling to the familiar, often unreasoningly, just like an immature little child. But we must develop. We must grow, getting wiser along the way, adapting, broadening, always getting better. And change we have. Look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. Say it’s about time, or say it’s the end of the civilized world as we know it, say what you want about that, but change is upon us. It’s the only thing truly inevitable in life.

The world is evolving. Trade, travel, and communication are easier now than ever before, both on a local and worldwide scale. You can buy goods made in Malaysia, whip our your handy dandy iPhone that was assembled in China, and Skype family members or friends all over the globe, literally seeing what they’re up to, as long as you have an internet connection.

Speaking of the internet, the wealth of information at your fingertips also allows you to find out more about a place or culture than ever before, quick as a wink. I can chat with an Indian and find out religious views (“We compartmentalize our gods, but you have just one,” said a guy named Sharma). I can find out about the history of any nation or obscure military conflict I wish. As I read more and interact more, I discover a simple truth. There isn’t any reason for racism to continue. By now we should recognize how very much alike we all are. No matter where we’re from or what skin tone we’re endowed with, we have the same basic desires and the same basic needs; by the same means, we should understand that people and cultures are naturally different. Those differences are what make the world an interesting place. Everyone doesn’t need to be like us, and we don’t need to be like everyone else.

Earlier I said travel is easier now than ever before, and I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of that. Having touched the ground in 30 countries or so, I’ve discovered another truth. Racism isn’t an exclusively American problem. It’s worldwide, y’all.  I’ve observed Russian people look down on Indians. I’ve seen Chinese people turn up their noses at Malaysians. I’ve watched Arabs treat Pakistanis like they’re dirt. Obviously, it’s very human to view yourself as better than someone else. You might say that the fires of hatred are easily stoked. You’d be right.

Even so, racism isn’t pervasive. For every hateful, bigoted, racist person I’ve ever met, I’ve met six, eight, or twenty times as many who aren’t. I’ve encountered more kind, honest, good-natured, helpful people than I can count.

The USA doesn’t need to make first steps in solving the racial problem, since those were made long ago. It needs to acknowledge that there is a lingering problem, one which needs to be dealt with in a meaningful way. If removing a flag is all it takes to make a move in the right direction, then why shouldn’t that be done? If we can stop adding fuel to the fire, and instead be part of a solution to the larger issue, we’re remiss not to.

Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

How you get to the train station from #Corniglia, #CinqueTerre.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

#Escalators in #SiamCenter #mall, #Bangkok, #Thailand

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

Me hanging with some of my students in Sweihan. #UAE #desertlife

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

#horseback #riding in #Franschhoek #southafrica #mountains

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

#Rain caused minor #floods on roadways in #AlAin #AbuDhabi, #UAE today.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

#russia #ryazan #kremlin

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

The little one enjoying the #WadiRum #desert a couple days ago. #Jordan #middleeast

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

#wadirum #jordan #travel

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Looking down over #Liechtenstein. Just one amazing #view. #latergram #Eurotrip #scenery #Europe

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

#boylovesairports #Prague edition. #airport #Praha #blackandwhite

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

My view this morning #wadirum #jordan #travel #middleeast

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

#romance #love #old #couple at #jardinluxembourg #paris #france #europe #travel

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Leaving plastic on the seats and steering wheel of your #porsche is life #emiratistyle #uae #wtf

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

Taking laziness to a whole new level… #uae #alain #shisha

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Somebody passed out at a most unexpected time today. #lifewithatoddler #Kathmandu #nepal #travel #Thamel

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

What we didn't eat today #food #crazyfood #thailand #asia #udonthani #travel #instatravel

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

The Immigrant Worker

The name of our blog is “Vantage Points,” and much of what we choose to write about is accordingly about our view of life. We write about our experiences with the ADEC odyssey, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of expat life, and the new perspectives a person gains from seeing life from a new location, station, and position in life. We write about things we learn from listening carefully to others. Remember that post about Syria a year or so ago, or the one about a conversation with Saudi parents? We find our conceptions challenged sometimes, but more often our preconceptions, the ones we never gave much thought to, are the ones that end up being altered as we encounter life on a fuller scale than we did before.

One such conception, preconception, misconception, has been running through my mind a lot lately (Shon writing, by the way). See, when I resided in Georgia (the southeastern USA, not the country in Europe), I identified a disconcerting trend that was going on particularly before the recession of 2008. There was a massive influx of migrant workers from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations south of the American border. More often than not, it seemed that those folks were illegal aliens, and it was changing the face of the country I was accustomed to. The axe to grind was that these immigrants were stealing jobs a good ol’ red-blooded ‘Merican could be doing.

Yes, I was familiar with the argument that my fellow Georgians weren’t interested in working the sort of jobs farmed out to immigrants—the kind requiring real labor—but that argument never held much water for me, as I personally didn’t shy away from doing whatever kind of work I could find if I was really in need of it. I’ve worked on people’s yards, in chicken houses, hayfields, mopped floors, and done other menial tasks. I’ve also had easy but mindless jobs in retail stores, and discouragingly low-wage work in schools. It’s all part of the struggle to make ends meet and rise from one pay scale to another. But my personal history doesn’t matter much other than that—I’m willing, and always have been, to do what I need to in order to pay bills and provide for myself and others. Most of us humans are willing to do the same, aren’t we?

Now how many of those seemingly illegal immigrants I encountered fleetingly on the streets did I know for sure were not supposed to be in the country? Hm. Not many. One or two.

I heard tell of the chicken plant in Habersham County being visited by the authorities and the many Mexican workers holing up in a trailer, waiting quietly until the coast was clear and then emerging and getting back to work. That’s unverified hearsay. I sold plenty of merchandise to Spanish-speakers. Mostly they paid in cash, which I gradually realized was good for business.

What jobs were the Mexicans doing? Backbreaking work in the summer heat, temporary day-to-day jobs in construction, seasonal jobs that couldn’t be relied on for the long term, dirty jobs in Chicken processing plants, stuff like that. The kind of jobs that a person tries to avoid, to be sure. Nonetheless, jobs a fellow Georgian could do.

I remember standing in my easy but low-paying job in an outlet store in Commerce, telling my coworker, “I have just one thing to say to people who come here to work—learn English.” In my mind it was important that we all be able to communicate. At least that’s one part of what was in my mind.

And then I became an immigrant myself. I am not at the top of the pecking order in employment or citizenship anymore, a privilege I never even considered or realized I possessed when I lived back home.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the UAE, importing our customs to this foreign country.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the UAE, importing our customs to this foreign country.

Yes, I became the very person who moved to another country, took a job that a local could probably do (okay, not very well, all things considered, but still, it’s within the realm of possibility), and didn’t learn the language.

“Learn English,” I once said. Well, I also once thought I’d learn Arabic when I was getting ready to move. Yet I haven’t, because I simply don’t need it very often. Perhaps if I were interacting with locals more often, I’d get to know more. I’d have a reason to, after all.

But it’s hard to relate to locals. Their culture is drastically different than mine. I know that we’re all human beings with the same basic needs and desires, but the way we live on a daily basis is pronouncedly different. Our commonalities are there, but they’re concealed beneath the layers of dissimilar day-to-day routines. My family is in bed and asleep by 9 or 10 every night. The locals are outside with their children until then, and often later. We don’t nap in the middle of the afternoon, but they do. We eat at normal Western hours. They eat at different times that make some kind of sense if you nap part of the day and stay up really late at night. We spend time together, male and female, and want to socialize that way. They don’t.

I send much of my earnings home every month, instead of spending my cash freely like the citizens here. What’s more, I’m not here for the long term and have no intention whatsoever of spending more than a few years total in the UAE. So how much energy does it even make sense for me to expend on learning Arabic, adapting to local customs, or what have you?

What I was really saying back home, when I was bitching about Mexicans speaking Spanish instead of English was, “Be acculturated.” That’s entirely reasonable if you marry into a different culture. You take it upon yourself that you’ll adapt to a new way of doing things that will span a lifetime. My wife did it. Living abroad as a worker isn’t that at all. For most, it’s a temporary station in life.

When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Fit in.” But why bother? The biggest reason I’m still in the UAE is to make some extra dough to improve life in my native country.

I said “Learn English,’ but I meant, “Why do you pile seven people into a small car?” Now I carpool as much as possible, so I can send more money home.

When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Don’t be so different.” But my deeply ingrained culture as an American is a major factor keeping me from fitting in with the locals.

I said “Learn English” while thinking “Why are you hanging out in groups of your own people instead of making friends with us Americans?” And then I discovered that I hang out with people who are like me when I have the chance. These people might be from different countries, but they speak English, and they identify with me—we undergo the same challenges in our working environments, and we have the same goals in life.

Besides celebrating our own traditions, we enjoy the local ones as well, such as National Day. Here, a Mercedes sedan flaunts a window appliqué with questionable grammar.

Besides celebrating our own traditions, we enjoy the local ones as well, such as National Day. Here, a Mercedes sedan flaunts a window appliqué with questionable grammar.

I said “Learn English” and thought smugly that was all it would take to make a Mexican more like me.

I was completely wrong.

What would have helped a Mexican be more like me? Inviting him to come have dinner or a drink. Meeting him to play a game of soccer (he’d kick my ass at it), or toss a baseball around. I could have made an effort to use my rapidly deteriorating Spanish I learned as a student. You know, I could have invited him to church. Anyway, what it amounts to is not really that he would have then been more like me, either. Maybe, though, I could have helped him feel comfortable and welcome in a foreign land.

So when I said “Learn English,” what I was really saying was, “I don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to be an immigrant worker living in a foreign country where lots of things are different.” I was saying, “I’m totally clueless. I’m a naïve and inconsiderate young man.” I stereotyped people freely, and I didn’t know how to relate.

Here’s what I’m getting at. I may not be exactly like a Mexican working in the USA, and a Mexican may not be exactly like me, working in the UAE. But as an immigrant worker, I now understand that what we are doing, Mexican or otherwise, is trying to build a better future for ourselves and our families, doing what we must to get by, and adapting as we see necessary. My vantage point has changed. Thank God.

Bungee Jumping, Skydiving, and Race car Driving

Jumping from a cage hoisted 50 meters (that’s 165 feet) in the air, plunging from an airplane at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), and piloting an Aston Martin GT3 car around the Yas Island F1 circuit–all things I’ve done this year. So far 2015 has been pretty memorable. Jenia tells me I should write about these things because there aren’t many reviews online about them. So here you are; I hope you’re interested because I’m offering my .02 cents worth.

A thrilling moment (or rather split-second)!

A thrilling moment (or rather split-second)!

First, let’s talk about bungee jumping. There’s a place called the Gravity Zone in Dubai that’ll take your money and let you scare yourself. This past Friday was the last day of the season before they knock off because of the extreme heat, and I went with a friend to celebrate his birthday in style. He jumped first, doing a fine impression of Superman, and seemed totally unfazed by the whole thing, but I found myself suddenly suffering from fear of heights when I stepped to the edge of that metal cage and stuck my toes over. 165 feet doesn’t sound low, but man, it looks high when you’re up there with nothing surrounding you. I confess that I had to resist every natural instinct to grab ahold of the cage and stay in there. The instructor counted to three, and off I went. It only took a couple of seconds to bounce a couple times and then I was rapidly lowered onto an air mattress and unharnessed as the next thrill-seeker bunny-hopped to the cage (the bunny hopping is necessary as the ol’ feet are shackled together with the cuffs that will keep you alive).

About to bounce!

About to bounce!

As for the way Gravity Zone worked, I found it professional enough, with repeated checks of the safety harnesses and your weight. It’s not an amusement-park like facility, though, so don’t expect anything particularly glamorous. The facility is a little tricky to locate, off from 311 in the Motor City area of Dubai. But if you follow the signs to Motor City, which is on Hessa Street (61) it’s not too bad. Then head for the Kart Drome, which is where it gets a bit more complicated. Only a bit–look for the “Outdoor Kart Drome” and go there–you’ll see a yellow crane (unless this changes, of course) parked in the parking lot, with an airbag set up underneath to reassure jumpers.

Shon and his instructor, Leigh, ready to board the plane at the Palm Drop Zone.

Shon and his instructor, Leigh, ready to board the plane at the Palm Drop Zone.

Man, is that drop fast! Suddenly everything is fierce wind and racket.

Man, is that drop fast! Suddenly everything is fierce wind and racket.

What about Skydiving? Lots of folks know about Skydive Dubai, which makes splashy videos part of the package for first-time jumpers and also includes excellent photographs of people over the Palm. The long and short of it is the whole package, which has recently gone up to 1,999 AED, following the general trend of inflation around here, is well worth doing if you’ve ever wanted to try parachuting. Jenia bought me a gift certificate for a skydive package as a killer Christmas present, and I booked my jump for the end of April. The folks at Skydive Dubai were all very friendly and they did a good job setting me at ease with a bit of instruction about how to go out of the plane. That more or less erased whatever worries might have flitted through my mind when I signed six pages of waivers saying I’d never dream of holding Skydive Dubai accountable should anything go wrong and I perish or be horrifically handicapped. My instructor was a woman named Leigh who hails from New Zealand, though she’s been making six or seven jumps a day in Dubai for more than two years. My “paparazzi,” as he introduced himself, was a guy called Vova who came from Belarus. He asked me some stupid questions on camera (“What’s your Facebook password?”), and I didn’t know whether I should look at him or the lens (in retrospect, with the clarity of a video to watch, I should have gone with one or the other), so I definitely ended up looking nervous, which I guess was the case. Regardless, those two were fun to be around, and they did a great job helping this newbie have a good time.

Hurtling through the air at 125 miles per hour!

Hurtling through the air at 125 miles per hour!

I’ve seen skydiving described for the first-timer as sensory overload, and that does sum it up pretty well. It’s fast, loud, and overwhelming. Every bit of skin or flesh that can blow in the wind (at approximately 120 miles per hour) does. When the parachute deploys, there are crazy g-forces, and the same when making a hard turn. But once the ‘chute is out, it’s also an amazingly relaxing experience. It’s serene. That’s when I could drink in the scenery and marvel at what man has made of Dubai. From the time we left the ground to the time we landed on the grass, only about 15 minutes elapsed. It was all over very fast. Then it was back to life as usual–grabbing a bite to eat with the fam, going to the beach for a swim, etcetera. The transition from WOW! to normal was odd.

The guy at the rear hatch was putting a new memory stick in the on-board video recorder.

The guy at the rear hatch was putting a new memory stick in the on-board video recorder.

So what about driving a race car? Once again, thanks to the wife’s gift-giving (this one was for my birthday), I got behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin GT3 car on the Yas Island track. I can’t say it was the F1 circuit, because since there’s a stretch of very slow, technical corners on one part of the circuit, it was closed off and we were using only a portion of the track. Upon arrival, the folks behind the counter tried to up-sell me to full coverage insurance for my 20-minute drive. I declined, deciding not to wreck the car and settle instead for the basic coverage provided at the regular price. Then there was a briefing about how to drive–“Keep your hands gripping the wheel at 10 and 2 all the time,” stuff like that, as well as, “Entry points at each corner are marked with an orange cone and exit points with green ones.” The laps aren’t officially timed because that would bump the driving experience into a differently regulated category. My friends timed my laps unofficially as I drove past. I didn’t perform that well, honestly, and having not been on a track before (other than a brief stint behind the wheel of a sweet, Rotax-powered go-kart at Al Ain Raceway, and that’s not quite the same), I had to learn a thing or two about “using your whole line,” as my co-pilot told me. Yes, I’ve played video games like Forza Racing, and I should have been able to carry that knowledge–entering from the outside, exiting wide, etc.–over into real life, but it’s hard to break 20 years worth of on-road driving habits and move all over the track, rather than staying on one side of the road. It sounds silly, but that’s the way it was for me.

The little one had a blast just sitting beside the track and watching all the cars go past.

The little one had a blast just sitting beside the track and watching all the cars go past.

What was the drive like? The car was hard to squeeze in and out of, due to its full roll cage, a little slow to start, sounded great (ah, great, yes, a ripping, roaring, rumbling V8), and had lots of power, as you’d expect. But it didn’t flatten my eyeballs when I nailed it; it wasn’t a magical beast that put me in a whole different dimension of performance. Maybe I was expecting it to be like hopping on a Yamaha YZF-R1 and blasting to 150 miles per hour in about the time it takes to write this sentence. But I digress. To return to describing the drive: there was also no air conditioning (it’s a race car, come on, what’d you expect?!), it was very loud which made communication with my copilot/nanny a challenge (hand signals and shouting), and the rearview mirror was angled for the copilot to see out of, not me, so I had no idea when any of the other 7 cars on the track were on my 6, which irked me a bit. The highest speed I managed to reach on the straight was around 135mph, then I had to scrub speed like crazy and go through a couple of tight curves. The brakes were effective but felt sort of agricultural–not what I’d anticipated. Get on the gas too vigorously and the rear end squirmed around and started to go sideways. Nothing surprising there. To be honest, I was expecting more out of the car. To drive it like a pro, I’d need a lot more than 20 minutes to learn what I was doing, of course. The time in the car was really just adequate for me to get comfortable with it and feel like I could start to use it decently. Would I rate the Yas Island Aston-Martin Racing Experience worthwhile? Yes, sure, because when else would I get behind the wheel of a legitimate race car, never mind an Aston? But it wasn’t that great. Maybe it was the nanny beside me; maybe it was simply the nature of the experience as a beginner on a racetrack. Honestly, standing beside the track and listening to the cars, watching them go, that was almost as much fun as actually being behind the wheel.

For something really memorable, of the three experiences I’ve written about, I’d pick skydiving if I had to do only one of them, or do one again. That’s something that’s truly singular, and it’s something that challenged and rearranged my perceptions of what it’s possible to do.

Nepal.

16 days ago my feet were on the ground in Kathmandu, Nepal. My little family and our close friends were on vacation there. We found it wonderful in its difference from home. Thamel, the neighborhood where we were staying, is one of the central tourist districts. Buildings of all shapes and sizes crowded the narrow streets. The streets themselves were crammed full of people, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs. Small temples were scattered everywhere, and big ones arched upward here and there. The roads, although paved, were covered in heavy gray dust and many locals wore masks to filter the air they breathed. Shopkeepers stood in the open doorways of their stores, occasionally scattering water to help keep the dust down.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

In all, Kathmandu was a bustling, vivacious, surprisingly vibrant place. There’s a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture and the mashup is fascinating.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

We mostly hung around the city, but did take a daytrip that included the 1,500 year old city of Bhaktapur, past its many brickyards and kilns with towering chimneys stretching up from the fields, and into the nearby hills to Nagarkot.

What a drive, what a place. The hillsides were terraced so that they could be farmed. We saw many crops being grown: grains, vegetables, etc. Houses were half built, people living in one level while building another.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The poverty of the place would have been surprising if we hadn’t expected it, and if we hadn’t been to places like Sri Lanka before.

But poverty doesn’t necessarily equate with unhappiness. The people we met were generally friendly, happy to see us, and even eager to pose for pictures with the fair-skinned strangers in their land. I chatted with a couple of traveling salesmen who were visiting the same temple as we were, and they educated me a bit on their religious traditions. We took pictures together, they snapping on their smart phones, and me with mine.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings near Durbar Square.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings at a temple near Durbar Square.

There were a few unpleasantries–the threat of food poisoning was always very real, for example. Monkeys are a mixed blessing, for they’re great fun to see, but not usually so great to interact with. Beggars were also often present at touristy areas–and why wouldn’t they be, considering that most Westerners are downright rich by comparison to the avearge Nepali? It was also necessary to be mindful of your surroundings, especially in Thamel, lest you get nudged by an automobile (this happened) or trip and fall on the treacherous shoulder. But we didn’t mind those things.

When we flew out of the airport, a place that seems to be stuck in the 1960s, mostly red brick and filthier than I care to remember, we had views of the Himalayas that left us marveling. Imagine cruising at 33,000 feet and the snow-capped peaks of the mountain range protruding from the clouds almost at the same level as the plane.

And yesterday, I came across a story on the New York Times website–an earthquake struck Nepal! The magnitude was 7.5-7.8, it said. So far at least 100 dead.

Now the story is running first and foremost on CNN.com and on the front page on most other news sites I’ve opened this morning. The death toll has crossed 1,900 as of this writing. The pictures that are now starting to flood into the news outlets are eerily familiar. Some of them are the very places we visited, albeit nearly unrecognizable. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has crumbled temples where the glorious ones we climbed and gazed from two weeks ago stood. There’s a heart-rending video of a collapse in Bhaktapur.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25 in this photo from http://www.cnn.com

That the temblor caused such destruction is no surprise. The place is shoddily built, to be sure. Many of the structures we saw under construction were being assembled in a way which made me wonder if the builders were aware of squares and levels. Nonetheless, the news reports say that most newer buildings survived–the concrete construction is stronger than the old brick. It is the brick structures that suffered the most, and that amounts to some of the most historic ones.

It’s sad that such a beautiful place was struck so hard. All I can do at this point is offer prayers and consider contributing to the aid efforts that are already taking shape to help the beautiful people of Nepal to recover from this tragedy.

Should you want to donate, the Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as Unicef, are good places to begin.

Sandstorm

In the there years we’ve spent in the UAE, we’ve seen plenty of sandstorms–all of them amounting to windy days with dust blowing through the air, lowering visibility dramatically at times. They’ve always been a far cry from the sort of thing that Tom Cruise battled in Mission: Impossible 4.

“That’s not real,” said Saif, one of the more fluent English-speaking students at school when I brought up the movie a while back. “It’s nothing like that.”

“What?” I said. “Movies are always exactly like real life!”

I’m not sure he understood my irony, because he launched into a long description of how sandstorms are different, not at all so dramatic, basically, and how, besides, there is no neighborhood of the sort shown in the chase scene nearby the Burj Khalifa either.

I completely agreed with him.

Until now. We had a doozy of a sandstorm the other day. The whole world outside became sepia. And Jenia and I went for a drive during it, too. The visibility was never quite as bad as that in the movie, at least not while we went all the way to Abu Dhabi, but it was definitely bad. The car looks as if we went dune-bashing in it, and we smelled dust for our whole drive. What’s more, judging by some of the pictures and videos I’ve seen from others, it may well have been as bad or worse than M:I depicted it in some places at certain times.

Here are some iPhone photos from the sandstorm that struck April 2, blowing across from Saudi and blasting the UAE ferociously.

The view from our Hili Complex window--the border with Oman is completely invisible some 130 yards away.

The view from our Hili Complex window–the border with Oman is completely invisible some 130 yards away.

Sandstorm II

Turtle, on his way to the car, was a bit baffled by what he accurately proclaimed to be “Sand!”

 

Driving in the storm.

Driving in the storm. It was certainly necessary to keep the ol’ eyes peeled and be very careful. Although there were reports of accidents (no surprise, since many folks drive during inclement weather just as manically as normal), we didn’t see any and had no close calls.

The 24,000 seat Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, almost invisible.

The 25,000 seat Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, almost invisible in the fierce storm.

HBZ II

What isn’t pictured is the surprising number of workers who were outside continuing their chores during this weather. We saw plenty of Pakistani (judging by their clothing) laborers on construction sites, as well as men trimming hedges, working in the median, and so forth. There was nary a surgical mask in sight, and most didn’t even bother to wrap a scarf over their noses. I bet there’s a bunch of people hacking up a lung about now.

If this isn’t big news on your side of the world, I understand. But it got plenty of headlines around here, including on outlets like Yahoo! News, The National, Khaleej Times, and Reuters, which reported air traffic delays in the region.

In all, this has been a blustery, nasty spring season. Jenia has had to postpone a few photo shoots because of the wind, which typically turns the skies a nasty shade of haze and therefore makes photos look bland and uninteresting. Last year there was no wind to speak of, and the spring was quite nice, although the heat rolled in quickly.

After three years I thought I knew what to expect around here. I was wrong! I didn’t expect this.

PS: the aftermath of the storm was interesting. It cleared up in Abu Dhabi as we were arriving. The wind remained, but I’m guessing it changed direction and blew across the water, so the dust was negligible. By the next morning, we could see for miles, with just a bit of haze still remaining. When we drove past the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, it’s domes and walls, instead of their usual sparkling white, were colored tan.

Looking Through Expatriate Lenses

Take a look at a Salvador Dali painting. Step up close, and scrutinize the details. Words like “weird” come to mind. In some cases, though, if you take a step back, or maybe two, or ten, thereby altering your perspective, “weird” is no longer the best adjective. Distance offers clarity. You find yourself looking at the same thing in a much different way.

It’s no secret that as you get older your perspectives on things change. Now that word, “things,” is the kind of word that us English teachers despise. It’s nebulous, and could refer to just about anything. But it’s precisely the kind of word I need here. Because what is it that has changed? Which thing is it that I look at differently? Well, lots of things, you see. But I’ll focus on two for the sake of time and at least a modicum of precision.

Politics and religion. You know, the heavy and polarizing stuff. Stuff that makes enemies of friends and friends of enemies. Stuff which we often look at through extremely biased and partial lenses.

Points of view on these matters change naturally. This is the ebb and flow of life, of course, but it’s also more. It’s also the shifting of perspective that comes from not just age and experience, but the impact of life abroad in different cultures and different types of governance.

So what has changed about my political views, anyway? As an American, dear friend, I was a Republican with pronounced leanings toward Libertarian ideology. Now, I’m not. I don’t identify with any party these days. Paint me an independent. Why the shift? Because neither party has it right. The Republicans stand in the way of sensible legislation such as Net Neutrality, and they seem to be preventing the best aspects of Obama’s Affordable Care Act from helping the state of American taxpayers as it ought to. By the same means, it seems like Democrats object to everything that Republicans do. As a result of these political shenanigans, there are preposterous events like government shutdowns.

I’m not saying that another system in the world is better, and I’m not saying that the American one is doomed. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any system in particular. But I can see more clearly now that the American one needs improvement. Let me dwell on Obamacare for a minute. In the UAE, I’ve got great health insurance, thanks to my employer and the country’s laws. The best and most notable effect of it: living stress-free when it comes to health care. And let me tell you, it’s vastly superior to putting off trips to the doctor because you can’t figure out how the hell you’re going to pay for them. I’ve been there, and it’s not good. I’m on the opposite side now, able to go easily for medical care when the need arises and not think twice about it. There’s no reason why the excellent American healthcare system can’t be this accessible, too.

In essence, having some distance from ingrained ideas about political parties and about what the government should or shouldn’t do (such as stipulate insurance for individuals) has made a big difference in my viewpoint on the matter. Another area that my point of view has changed, thanks to travel, thanks to the expatriate experience, is religion. Now don’t misinterpret my remarks as anti-religious, or anti-anything. That’s the wrong way to take them. As a rule of thumb, I’ve always approached my religion from a fairly critical standpoint. If it defies reason, I have to question it. I could ramble on with a story or two, or perhaps offer a way that I’ve personally done this or that, but suffice it to say I think logic should be applied to everything in equal measure, and since religion shapes our perception of each other and the world, it’s especially important to consider in this way.

Salvador Dali’s “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean” becomes a picture of Abraham Lincoln when viewed from a distance. Try it–step back a few feet from your screen and have a look.

Besides mere logic, I can now see travel informing my beliefs. As I stood in front of the Buddhist shrine next to our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where the morning’s drink offerings stood, unconsumed by any sort of god except perhaps a touch of evaporation, I thought to myself, “This is absolutely ridiculous.” And then I wondered how ridiculous my church’s proceedings might look to uninformed Thai visitors. I’d say it’s pretty likely they’d shake their heads in bewilderment, just like I was doing, as I was pondering their religious customs. As I drove past throngs of Muslims descending upon the local mosque, all summoned by the loudspeaker-broadcast call, I thought that the crowds were like mindless worker bees swarming the hive. And, in all fairness, I wondered if my Christian brethren looked any different from this to the average non-Christian passerby as they gathered for services on a Sunday back home. On another occasion, I watched Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer and I contemplated the act. Muslim prayers are more about submission than anything else, as the word Islam suggests, whereas Christian ones can take on any number of forms–petitions, supplications, arguments, requests for forgiveness. In my life, some prayers seem to have been answered, but others vanished unheeded into the great abyss. What is the role of God in our day-to-day lives, I wondered, and what really draws us closer to Him?

This leads me to the conclusion, rather obvious, I know, that the larger things matter more than the small ones. What I do matters more than what I say, and what I say only matters if what I do supports it. Why do we quibble over so many little things, when the broader strokes make the most difference? I can apply this question to politics, and I can apply it to religion. Little things matter, it’s true, because they’re part of big things. But the big things should be the focus. Instead of dwelling on differences, we should seek similarities. We have much more in common than we have to fight over most of the time.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

One of my buddies here in the UAE, Randy, talks about traveling to the greener pastures of life when one leaves the complacency of home behind, taking on the expat life. He hits on something important there, I think, because it takes distance to help us see some things clearly. Not unlike staring at one of Dali’s bizarre paintings up close, then stepping back to a distance and taking in the larger picture, experiencing other places and systems alters our perspective on things. It helps us see that there’s more to a thing than we first thought, and recognizing the greatness–the size and complexity–of things, as well as considering alternative ways of dealing with them, well, that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

Drop Everything and Go.

Maybe you don’t know the names Ted Simon or Charley Boorman. That’s okay. I’ll tell you who the two men are. Simon rode his Triumph around the world on an incredible 4-year journey, and Boorman rode a BMW around the globe in 2004 in less than 4 months. They’re dyed in the wool motorcyclists and dedicated adventurers. They love to explore the world and both authors have made livings based on their travels.

I must admit my only exposure to Ted Simon was through the TV mini-series “The Long Way Round,” which chronicled Boorman’s trip from London to New York City with his friend Ewan McGregor. The show is, by the way, worth your time–it’s fun, funny, and will appeal to the adventurer in you, even if you don’t ride a motorcycle or understand why some of us do. Take a minute and look it up, then set some time aside to enjoy a fascinating look at the world from the point of view of a couple of motorcyclists. That said, Simon is, as it turns out, the very model of adventurousness.

But I get ahead of myself. See, I attended the Emirates Literature Festival today in Dubai, and went to a session called “Around the Globe with Charley and Ted,” during which the authors discussed some of their commonalities: how wanderlust struck, how they started their travels, managed to fund them, and so forth. Held in a ballroom at the Intercontinental hotel in Festival City, the event was pretty full. I found an open seat at the front, and enjoyed an hour of the men’s musings.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

Simon’s big journey included run-ins with the law (arrested as a suspected spy, for example), romance, and the momentous discovery that people all over the world are generally nice, welcoming, and helpful. Boorman didn’t get arrested, but found much the same thing–people everywhere, and I mean everywhere, are kind and helpful.

Speaking of countries that are deemed dangerous, Boorman said, “When anything bad happens, the news makes a big deal out of it.” He mentioned 24 hour news networks and the need for them to fill up space and time. “You never see a news reporter saying, ‘I’m here, and there’s nothing happening.'” To illustrate the point, Boorman mentioned looking over rice paddies in northern Iran, in a scene that might have been Thailand, with people working and wonderful agriculture everywhere. This seems a far cry from the image that Fox and the other news networks paint of Iran, doesn’t it?

Many of us don’t realize how much what we see and hear on the news shapes our perceptions. Simon elaborated on the idea, to much the same effect. Don’t forget there are millions of people living absolutely normal lives in most of the countries that are deemed “dangerous” by those selling newspapers. In essence, the world is a safer place than it is made out to be.

Indeed, there were plenty of people who advised me against moving to the UAE–it could be unsafe, it would be hard on Jenia as a woman, and so forth–but most of these people, though meaning well, hadn’t lived here, or even been here. They were all wrong; it’s been a great place for us to live.

Simon said that many people approach him and tell him they’d love to go on a similar adventure, but they can’t, because they have a mortgage, a job, etc. His response was profound: “Drop it all and leave it because you’ll be a much more valuable person when you come back.”

In 2003, I was talking to a friend named Gwen, a woman who was practically a surrogate mom for a while there. “I’d love to go to England,” I told her. “Well, why don’t you go?” She said. I blinked my eyes a few times, processing that. It really was that simple. I could save up some money, quit my meager little job, and go see more of the world. A moment before I hadn’t considered it that clearly. It had seemed like I had shackles holding me back–commitments and stuff–but they didn’t make an ounce of difference. That was more or less the beginning of my serious international explorations.

You’ve seen my posts on here about how living and teaching abroad have changed Jenia and me for the better. At this point, I couldn’t agree more with Simon’s advice. I may not travel the world in as extreme a manner as Simon did, and I may not host a TV show or manage to ride my bike as much as Boorman does his, but in the same manner as these two men, I’ve found a way to fund my globe trotting, to indulge the travel bug and discover that the basic desires of every person on the planet are the same.

If you want to explore, you should. Don’t worry about your place in the pecking order, don’t fret over what you’ll leave behind, just go, because it will change you fundamentally. Fear of leaving the familiar behind and exchanging it for the unfamiliar, fear of dangerous countries, or fear of talking to new people may prevent us leaving our comfort zones. Don’t be afraid. Go.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today's book signing.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today’s book signing.