First Impressions of Kazan

It’s Saturday, and we’ve now been in Kazan almost an entire week. We’ve had time to stroll around the neighborhood, venture downtown a bit, and generally get our bearings. While it’s no surprise that things are different here than, say, Abu Dhabi or the southeastern USA, it’s also different from what we expected in more ways than one. This is, of course, because one of us used to live in Russia, and because the other has been to the country three times before. Here’s a quick list of first impressions.

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View from the apartment in #Kazan, #Russia

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  1. Kazan isn’t like Ryazan, Moscow, or St. Petersburg. While those cities have their charm, this one is notably cleaner and the mood different.
  2. People are friendly. Yeah, okay, this is really an extension of #1. But, considering earlier experiences in Russia, it bears mention.
  3. The city center is pretty; the outskirts are like most other Russian cities, if possibly a bit less drab.
  4. Sunny days are beautiful. That said, it seems like there are lots of cloudy ones, and they’re cold and dreary.
  5. What’s up with letting grass get overgrown? That’s par for the course in Russia, but still. I must say it was remarkable to see someone with a weedeater the other day cutting back the tall stuff nearby.
  6. All the usual mod-cons are here–wifi, etc. I might add it seems A/C is a bit less common than we’re accustomed to. One super-duper handy smartphone app we’ve been turned on to is called Tap Taxi. It allows us to call a taxi using the app, and it’s even possible to request child seats. Since the interface is in English, it makes the task much easier than calling on the phone.
  7. Cabs are cheap and public transportation cheaper still. The public transportation is clean and modern, and most of the announcements are made in both Russian and English.
  8. Russian food is still tasty! Kvas, anyone?
  9. This seems like it will be a completely decent place to live.
  10. And last, but not least, considering the international climate of the last year or so, there seems to be no anti-American/Western sentiment from the average Joe (Josef?).

Although we have been impressed by most of the same things, Jenia has a somewhat different perspective. Stay tuned for a post from her. Until then, dosvedanya.

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An Ending Comes to an End

Our wonderful friend collected the housing deposit refund check from ADCP one week ago. What was the big delay about?

“They told me I should have known your middle name in order for them to find your check,” she said. “Then I asked why they didn’t phone me when the check was ready [bearing in mind they had promised to do so], and the person told me that if I needed the money then I should track the check down and not the other way around.”

Nice, right? Anyway, I got a text message (still one of the coolest things about living in the UAE–the abundance of text messages quickly and simply confirming transactions) showing that the check was deposited in my bank account the same day. The final step remaining is to transfer that money home, which is on today’s agenda, now that the check has had time to clear, and the Abu Dhabi days are done.

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.

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.

Richer Than Me, They All Will Be.

So, why work hard if that’s what’s in store anyway?

One of my new buddies who is also a teacher here in the Emirates wrote a great blog post 2 days ago. I say it’s great because he’s got a distinctive style which is fun to read, and also because he’s right on point with each observation.  I suggest you click over and read it if you’re interested in why students are so darned difficult to corral in these parts.

Generation Money.

It explains a lot. Also, I challenge you to tell me truthfully that you’d have acted differently if you were a teenager in the same situation. Okay, catch you on the flip side.

-Shon

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 bringing 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: unnecessarily 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?

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.

Summer Heat

Sorry, but my subject for the day isn’t anything deep.  It’s simple–summertime heat.  If you know the Middle East exists, you know that it has a reputation for being hot, so the notion probably doesn’t surprise you.  This year Abu Dhabi isn’t disappointing in the heat department, either.  Last year in 2013 we had a rather mild spring, with a good amount of rain throughout April.  That kept the temperatures comparatively low.  There wasn’t much rain last month, however, and as May draws nigh to a close, the mercury is leaping higher and higher.  Let me share a story or two to illustrate what it’s like.

My cousin is visiting from the USA right now, and Jenia and I have been showing her around.  We spent a day in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi over the weekend.  During our Dubai time, we were mostly indoors, seeing the tremendous Dubai Mall and such.  I got sick of being cooped up inside, and ventured out to walk near the base of the world’s tallest building, with Jenia and the baby accompanying me.  “Man, that feels good,” I quipped as we stepped out of the air conditioning.  Jenia didn’t seem to agree, but she kept her peace.  It was mighty warm out and very muggy.  After about ten minutes, the little one was bright red, and Jenia retreated with him to shade and then the air conditioning.  We then went to the beach with the aim of swimming at Jumeriah Beach.  To our disappointment, we found the nice beach with paid admission, snazzy park, and, most importantly, showers, had no parking available at all, since most everyone evidently fancied a dip to get some relief from the blazing sun.  Consequently, we drove to the next public access beach, which, on the plus side, offers a great view of the Burj al Arab, but has no showers.  “I’ve never seen it so crowded,” Jenia said, surprised by the mob on the sand and in the water.  We paddled our feet instead of going for a proper swim.  In truth, the water was so warm that it wouldn’t have seemed very refreshing in the first place–a surprise when you’ve been accustomed to the Atlantic’s constant coolness, as my cousin was.  When we returned to the car, the humidity was so high that the car’s body had fogged over while parked, as if it had been driven through a thick haze.

While in Abu Dhabi, we visited the Emirates Palace, a palatial hotel owned by the UAE government and operated by the Kempinski hotel group.  We kicked around the hotel, exploring the opulent (though questionably tasteful) interior.  Eventually, we went outside to have a gander at the grounds.  Jenia’s sunglasses fogged over when she stepped through the doors.  In the space of only a few minutes (perhaps up to 15), we were all dripping sweat.  My shirt was almost entirely soaked, and my linen pants were wet all down the backs of my legs.  At one point, when I put the baby in his carseat, the sweat was dripping from my nose and splashing onto the upholstery.  I’m a lightweight guy–not the kind who sweats easily, so it means something when I’m dripping like a faucet.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, being coastal cities, are much more humid than Al Ain.  Al Ain’s heat is easier to bear, owing to the dryness of the air.  The sweat doesn’t start pouring off you as quickly.  Still, triple-digit heat is intense.  We’re in Al Ain now, and today’s high was, according to my iPhone’s weather app, 113F, the same as yesterday.  Other thermometers are reading hotter, and it’s hard to know what to rely on.  Regardless, the heat here is akin to that of an oven.  My cousin wears a stunned expression every time she sets foot outdoors.  I tell her, “At least you get a real experience.  The heat is something to write home about.”  That doesn’t seem to help her enjoy it, unfortunately.

So there you have it.  The hottest part of the year is still well on the horizon, and it’s already super hot.  But I expect the heat now, and I smile, because it’s all part of the experience of living in the UAE.

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