“Lose Your Shoe?” or “What’s Really Good to Know?”

“Don’t cross your leg and aim your shoe at a guy you’re sitting in a waiting room with,” said the ADEC guy from the stage. “You might as well take it off and hit him across the face with it.”

Thus went the orientation. Oh, that and avoid talking about the politically debated UAE or maybe Iran-owned islands which the Persian Gulf gets its name from–that’s right, because those islands should belong to the UAE, it’s known as the Arabian Gulf in these parts. And don’t use books featuring pigs.

There was more, but the gist of that orientation was that culture is important, and newcomers should be sensitive and respectful. Great advice. If you’re considering a move to the UAE, I can offer a bit of additional insight, though.

What they didn’t cover at that orientation, and what might have been nice to know, is the way the less formal interpersonal, inter-office relationships and politics tend to work.

The best advice I got about that was from a fellow teacher who’d been here longer than I. “Always take the tea,” she said. It’s wise to sit down and have a drink of tea, or coffee, or whatever, to build relationships. “You may think you’ve got too much to do, but people won’t understand that.” She was right. Not least because they, that is the Arabic Medium Teachers, teach a maximum of 20 contact hours per week, when English Medium Teachers do 30. That rather pronounced difference in hours would have been nice to know about ahead of time, because then I could understand why the AMTs were always upbeat and relaxing in the office with the ubiquitous tea or coffee, but I had to wait until I started working to gather that tidbit.

Another bit of knowledge that I have gleaned from experience is that every time you see someone for the first time that day, you’re expected to shake hands. And maybe when you see them the second time, and possibly the third. Besides that, you should also stand whenever you shake hands with your colleagues. My take on shaking hands has always been the first time you meet someone, you rise, shake hands, be kind of formal about things, and then afterward, well, if you’re in the middle of something and someone comes by and reaches for your hand, no problem, shake it, but standing up–not necessary. If my time here, working with guys from Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and so on is any indicator, in the Arab world the expectation is that you show respect for each other by standing whenever you shake hands–first time, etc., ad infinitum. It’s not a hard custom to adjust to, but it’s something I’d love to have known about ahead of time, before I probably made some guys wonder why I was being disrespectful toward them.

Maybe taking the tea was enough to counterbalance that. There is hope.

Let’s return to shoes. Since I’ve dwelled in the UAE, I’ve never inadvertently aimed the sole of my shoe at anyone here. I’ve been really conscious to cross my legs in a discreet fashion. I feel somewhat proud of that.

Now, as I write, there’s a shoe on the ledge just outside my living room window. It came flying upward an hour ago, struck the window gently, and came to a rest behind the wrought iron bars that protect the lower pane of glass from…from, well, maybe soaring shoes? There’s no reason for the bars, as far as I can tell. But bars aside, the flying flip flop strikes me as funny. No matter how much the sole of the shoe is considered horrible and dirty, and hitting someone with a shoe is deemed an astonishing insult (remember the time George W. ducked a shoe tossed at him in Iraq?), the kids in these parts sure take joy in stealing each other’s footwear. I assume one of the many noisy children playing outdoors in the yard stole this one from another child and tossed it in the air as a joke. So far nobody’s shown up to ring the doorbell, so we’ll see what happens with that. Looks like a cheapie, so it might be there until I get tired of looking at it and shove it off the ledge.

In class, my 10th graders run off with each other’s leather sandals. Someone inevitably takes his feet out of his shoes, only to have one of his classmates swipe one and stick it out of sight, under a bag, or, once in a while, in the trash can (there’s also, in my experience, a near-pathological aversion to getting things out of the waste basket). This brings me to another point about teaching ’round here: it would have been nice to know that the maturity of the young people may not be quite to the level I’d been accustomed to in the States.

What’s really good to keep in mind when you’re exploring your international options is that the culture wherever you go will not be the same as home. Compare it and contrast it for a while when you move, because that’s normal, but try to adapt so that you’re comfortable being with people and they’re comfortable with you around. Let the idea that your culture is better, even when you’re right and it is actually better, fall by the wayside–what you’re doing abroad is finding out how others live, and garnering amazing experiences. Temper your expectations about a great teaching and/or living environment with the reality that all places have issues, and you’ll encounter plenty of them. If you have equipped yourself by doing some research, poring over blogs, etc., you’ll have an easier time adjusting. Hopefully my reflections will help you have an easier transition (or, alternatively, provide you a little amusement).

Jordan.

If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  What a great movie!  Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).

Finally, it happened.  Most of it, anyway.  I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way.  So that’s sort of similar.

What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise.  It’s poor.  There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along.  Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose.  Cars are old and beat up.  A layer of dust covers most everything.  But the people are nice.  They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries.  The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.

I work with several guys from Jordan.  Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.

Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around.  Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road.  Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place.  Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.

So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey.  We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way.  Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it.  The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher.  We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself.  But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).

Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome.  It’s big, y’all.  There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there.  Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.

Treasury

The Treasury, shown when being approached through the Siq (which means “shaft”). The man in front of it gives some idea of scale.

In Petra

A musician playing in Petra.

What tarnishes Petra?  Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.

Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day.  Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why.  We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there.  We found the scenery amazing.  And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night.  The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence's House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence’s House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

Karak

Jenia and el nino at Karak Castle. He wanted to walk around a lot, but the area was a bit unsafe for him with precipices galore.

The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face.  Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.

So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there.  Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.

What’s New? It’s All Routine, I Tell You.

What is there to write about? We’re long overdue for an update on here, but there just hasn’t been much of particular note going on. At least I don’t think there is, anyway.

On one front, relief is in sight–the winter holidays are almost upon us. This means the weather is getting comfortable, and it also means my time trying to corral students into their seats and get something accomplished is limited. Whew.

On another hand, we haven’t had to deal with all the junk that we did last fall, since we don’t need to deal with immigration hassles and such. That means we’re able to enjoy simply living a great deal more, rather than dealing with distractions all the time.

We don’t notice the crazy stuff so much anymore. But every now and again something especially interesting pops up, like the convoy of cars last month that were driving with their flashers on. We joined in, just for grins, and after getting bored, passed the group and snapped this picture of the guy acting as videographer for the whole goofy parade.

Every day #ridiculousness in #uae #alain #crazy #fromthecarwindow

A post shared by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

The baby is crawling–and hoisting himself up to standing positions (and then tumbling down again).

We’ve been trying to stay busy, but have been tired out because of aforementioned offspring. Still, we’ve managed to fit in time to hit the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the F1 races in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Good day for a race #F1 #yas

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

#etihad pavilion at #formula1 #abudhabi

A post shared by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

We’re continually thankful for having good friends here, and for meeting new people and making new friends, too.

Jenia’s been getting more photography work, including for my coworker Adam’s musical duo known as Sarah and Adam. I snapped this picture with my phone when Jenia was shooting.

In the desert for a photo shoot with @sarahandadammusic and @jeniarand #uae #alain #desert #dunes

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Oh, and there could be a raise in my future at work–that would be nice. There’s been much talk in the press lately about how pay rises were approved, and the rumor is that would be an across-the-board 2000 AED raise per month. That would be just lovely. It would sure make putting up with the difficult environment more rewarding.

While still on the topic of work, I should probably mention that this year has been easier thus far. With the administration taking a firmer stance on a few things (most notably and sensibly discipline), as well as assigning classrooms to teachers and having students switch rooms (instead of confining them in one space the whole day), the incidences of vandalism and hooliganism are much reduced.

But what else is there to write about? I mean, this is pretty ordinary stuff, right? You don’t want to waste your time reading about how we’re struggling to beat back the roach invasion (the little suckers moved in while we were gone this summer, and whatever we do seems to have very little affect on getting rid of them), or how I opened the fridge, grabbed the milk jug, and poured yogurt onto my cereal this morning, right? (that would be a result of the fridge failing to cool for some reason, and the milk curdling during the night) There’s not much point in writing about upcoming events, but I’ll mention them anyway. We’re looking forward to having Jenia’s parents come to visit in a couple weeks. After that, when they return to Russia, we’ll hop on a plane for a far-away country, too (but not Russia). Am I leaving you in suspense? Hopefully. 🙂

Missing Spring

June is here, but it feels like we’ve never had a spring. My facebook and livejournal feeds have been flooded with photos of spring flowers for several months, and it made me so jealous. I miss camellias and azaleas, irises and hyacinths, tulips and jonquils, cherries, and Bradford pears, and dogwood, and tulip magnolias…

When I told Shon I missed spring, he said we sort of had one – in November, when it was cool enough for several things here to bloom. It’s not the same, however, not even remotely close.

In a country where there is summer and cooler summer (in the fall, I kept saying it was like a backwards Narnia – always summer and never Christmas), there is no death – or slumber – of winter months, but it means there is also no rebirth or awakening of spring. No sensation of a new life, a new beginning, a new hope. There is never the feeling of waking up one morning and seeing a tree in your yard with a full crown of fresh green leaves, while it was black and naked just yesterday.

It’s one of those things you never expect you’d miss, and then find out that you really do.

 

Normalcy

Dear reader,

Today I’m offering my newspaper column’s entry for the week.  It is something that any expat can probably relate to.  If you’re an expat and you agree or disagree, let me know.  I enjoy hearing your thoughts more than you probably know.

-Shon

How long until seeing this becomes normal?

How long until seeing this becomes normal?  Eh, give or take six months.

Vantage Points: Teaching Abroad

Normalcy

Normalcy is defined by freedictionary.com as “being within certain limits that define normal functioning.”  So, in terms of living our lives, normalcy is what we’re used to.  Our routines, our home, our friends, and so forth, all contribute to our sense of having a nice, normal life.  And all that is quite definitely abandoned when you move overseas.  How long does it take to achieve normalcy when you move to a new country?  Well, you go through a few marked stages before any kind of new normal can be established.  Experts say you go through a state of euphoria when you first arrive in the new place.  That’s when most everything is lovely and you’re all excited about being in a new country, a new culture, and having new experiences.  Then you swing to the other extreme, and basically hate everything about the new place.   Everything that isn’t like it is at home drives you mad.  Then, finally, you end up back in the middle, more or less, and living in this foreign country becomes normal.  Based on my own time here in the UAE, I’d say that’s entirely correct.  I went through each of those stages.  And now I’m more or less back to feeling normal.  I recognize that this country is vastly different from home, but generally I feel comfortable.  The other night I was hanging out with a friend who has traveled extensively. He and his wife taught English in Japan and Korea before coming here. Anyway, he commented that it takes about 3 or 4 months to get financially comfortable in a new country.  He’s completely right.  The first month is consumed by running about doing paperwork and errands concerned with residency.  The next month is more or less burned up with adjusting to everything else, making sure your apartment is furnished, and all that sort of thing; the third month, finally, is when you might just be able to put some money back into savings.  That’s when things start to balance out.  That’s when you start to have some expendable income for a change, and when you can think about things that make life more normal—getting a used car, purchasing a guitar, whatever.  I’ll tell you what: I never really appreciated how nice it is to just have things good and normal until I left my own country to come here.  And now that I’ve adjusted to life here, I’m glad to have normalcy return.

Camels and Water

There’s this nifty group called Al Ain Weekends which organizes trips in the area.  The wife and I and our friends Frank and Melissa joined one of these trips yesterday.  The trip found us joining a convoy of fairly fast-moving 4x4s driving over a miserable, washboarded dirt road into the desert just outside of Al Ain.  I’ve not been a particular fan of Kia quality, at least not Kia ca. 2005, but the Sorento managed to make it without losing any parts, despite the creaking and rattling that filled the interior of the vehicle with a constant din as we pounded along.  Young Bennet, our friends’ 6-month old baby, seemed quite oblivious to the whole thing, strapped in what must be a very cushy car seat.  The Kia, to its credit, did manage a bit of pretty soft sand without any issues when I put it into 4-wheel drive, and I’m more inclined to forgive its fairly significant quality shortcomings as a result.

20121214-IMG_0002

After what seemed like a long ways of vehicular punishment, we arrived at the farm, nestled around a number of dunes.  This was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance to see two baby camels, a week and two weeks old, in the company of their mothers.  Besides the babies, with their thick, sheep-like fur, there were also dark-brown camels and nearly white ones of varying ages and sizes.  Some were bred for racing.

20121214-IMG_0007

There was a large male being kept in a separate pen from the others, in preparation to meet and mate with a female in the near future.  I guess isolation guarantees he’s plenty ready for the opportunity when it arises.  He seemed quite irritable, at any rate.  Go figure.

Many of the beasts wore rope shackles around their front feet.  I don’t know the reason for this, although I can guess.

20121214-IMG_0055

These dromedaries appeared well-fed and well-watered.  There were at least three men around who worked on the farm, which also had a sizable enclosure for goats.

20121214-IMG_006020121214-IMG_0040The calves were, much like their bovine counterparts, pretty dang big, considering they’ve only been shuffling this mortal coil for a week, and very mobile.

20121214-IMG_0093

20121214-IMG_0050A camel farm such as this contains all the treats for the senses that a farm elsewhere does.  Put yourself there for a second.  Your feet sometimes sink a smidgeon, but usually the sand is firm enough.  Occasionally the wind whips some grit into your eyes.  The air is redolent with the scent of fur and dung.  There are grunts, whiffles, and growls as the large herbivores respond to an onslaught of touristy types.  The mothers weren’t too pleased to have such a number people crowd around them, and eventually headed for safer territory, a good distance from us.  For such large animals, they’re easily spooked and quite skittish.  Our travel guide, the guy who organized the trip, had to ask repeatedly for folks to quiet down for the sake of the animals, who were often uneasy.  Of course, I’d probably be uneasy if, out of the blue, two-dozen SUVs unloaded a ton of westerners and their screaming children and they mobbed me, too.

We took the chance to climb some of the orange-red dunes that surrounded us as our time at the farm drew to a close.  The drive home was much more relaxing, albeit considerably more boring, as we left before the convoy did, and accordingly moved at a much more relaxed pace.  It did have its moments of interest, however, as the sky, which had been threatening rain, finally delivered, and my meagre windshield wipers, victims of the summertime and, well, most all the time, UV light, soon were mostly tattered.

20121214-IMG_0102

20121214-IMG_0111

Dubai is Cool.

The line above says it all.  Dubai is infinitely cooler than its stodgy cousin Abu Dhabi and ever so much more exciting than pastoral Al Ain.

What is it that makes the city so cool?  Is it the towering skyline that looms like Manhattan on the Gulf?  Is it the proportion of cool people to uncool ones?  Is it because you can purchase a 24K gold plated iPad there?  Well, based on our experience celebrating our fifth anniversary (and the last one alone, without a curtain-climbing munchkin crawling about), Dubai is cool because it is considerably more relaxed and foreigner-friendly than the other places I mentioned.  Dubai is cool because there is always something going on, which you just might happen to luck into being part of.  Dubai is cool because if you’re looking for it, it’s probably there, somewhere.

The view from our hotel in the Bur Dubai area.

We spent the night at the reasonably-priced (at least via booking.com) 4-star Dhow Palace hotel, which we found just opulent enough to satisfy our need for feeling special, and for dinner we ventured over to the rather more opulent Rotana near the airport, and had a splendid meal at the none-too-reasonably-priced Blue Elephant Thai restaurant housed within.  We were charmed by the decor of the place, as well as the waterfall and koi fish.  The service was excellent, as was our food–a vegetarian delight, I tell you!  Of course, we did splurge on the 5-course meal, but considering the occasion and our burning desire for tasty Thai, it was well worth it.  When we were leaving, the hostess stopped us and we were given a fresh orchid to take home.  Sweet.

Now, say what you like about the Dubai Mall being the embodiment of modern consumerism (and use that tone of superiority if you must, go ahead), criticize it if you like for being just a bit phony (I mean, what about that psuedo-souk?) or over the top (’cause, yeah, it is), we like it.  So we went there.  As we strode about the densely-packed Mall, which is basically shopper heaven, bustling with people of all shapes and sizes, tastefully dressed and not, abayas and short (for here, yeah, yeah, I know) skirts side-by-side, we noticed flyers for an afternoon event: Freestyle Moto X.  Motocross in Burj Park?  Heck, yeah.  So we strolled a bit more, through the throngs and outdoors, below the Burj Khalifa, to find ourselves a place to watch the motorcycle action.  My wife was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching some motorcycle riders, but the first time one of the riders went soaring off the large jump they had set up, she got mighty interested.  In fact, she was aghast at the stunts that the Australian team of riders pulled off.  I myself was in awe of the feats of bravado and daring that I witnessed.  We both snapped photos like crazy.

Trials rider Jack demonstrates some of his capabilities.

I think this is called a “double grab” or something. Jenia calls it scary.

Triple threat! Would you do this?

If you believe Emaar’s (that’d be the company that owns and evidently operates the whole development area) hype, then Downtown Dubai is smack-dab “in the center of now,” and I have to admit, it does feel pretty hip.  Is it a bit artificial?  Yeah, maybe.  But it’s also cool.  And that seems to describe the city as a whole.  There’s always something interesting happening, and it’s pretty fun to blunder into nifty stuff.  The city in general is just oozing coolness.  There’s coolness dripping from the futuristic Metro stations, from the spire of the Burj Khalifa and into the over-hyped fountains below, from the overpasses of the unnecessarily confusing highways, and from the neon lights which are spread about accenting the, uh, coolness of the place.  You get the idea.  Dubai is cool, especially this time of year, when you can go outside and enjoy walking around, instead of dissolving into a big nasty pile of sweat.

Just when you thought I was joking. Look, 24kt gold-plated iPads. Yup.

One last chestnut: here’s a video I shot with my trusty iPhone whilst we were taking in the motocross action.  Enjoy:)

Rookie Dune Bashing

Man, I”ll tell you what–I want to buy a 4×4 (I mean, a real 4×4, something brawny, not the puny Kia Sorento we happen to own) and head to the desert as often as possible.

Friday afternoon I had a great time in the dunes with a bunch of off-roading newbies and a crew of very patient and helpful experienced pros.

I’ve never once done this kind of thing before.  It was great.  There is nothing quite like the experience of cresting a dune (and getting stuck while driving your buddy’s Jeep) in the middle of the Arabian desert.  Ditto that descending a steep slope.  The ascent is a curious mixture of gentle approach (depending on the angle of the wall) and then nail-it-to-the-floorboards-and-watch-the-sand-fly power.  Learning the balance is a bit of a challenge.  The descent is generally pretty easy: approach slowly, keep it in low gear, and let the engine to the braking as you float down the slope.  However, go too fast off a steep hill, and you can find yourself in trouble, as you might damage your vehicle, or at the very least, bottom out the suspension.  Yeah, the suspension bottoming thing happened to us a couple times.  Vroom–swish–crash!  But not when I was behind the wheel.  I promise.

In all, I had a ball.  I probably should have taken the Canon Rebel along for some better quality photos, but I was a bit afraid it might end up covered in sand and totally ruined.  So rather than risk it, I just had ye olde iPhone in its trusty Otterbox case.  I just may purloin some pictures from fellow photographers for this post, however, and in that case, I’ll give those picture-takers credit.

My buddy Jon and his son as we are preparing to head out.  Here, the 4WD has just been engaged on his old Jeep for the first time since he’s owned it.

On the rough road, getting ready to head into the serious sand.

Jon’s son ended up in the nice, cool, air conditioned cabin of this Jeep Liberty (sold here as a Cherokee) which is shown here about to come down a dune.

 

The day’s only casualty that I’m aware of was this Cherokee and its exploded radiator.

Check this view out. I’d been longing to be out in the dunes ever since I arrived. It was as cool as I hoped.  Don’t turn down the opportunity to get out there with some experienced folks.

And this would be a photo I'm borrowing from Heidi Cothron.  Maybe she'll let me borrow a high-res version later.

And this would be a photo I’m borrowing from Heidi Cothron. Maybe she’ll let me borrow a high-res version later.

So, I’m discovering the joys of living in the Arabian desert.  This off-roading stuff is seriously fun.  It ranks up there, in an altogether different way, of course, with riding a motorcycle.  LIke hopping on a bike and heading into the hills, being in the desert amidst a sea of dunes and away from the city is relaxing, and again, like riding a bike, there is definitely an element of risk involved in heading into the sand.  Your machinery must be in good shape, and it must be tough.  You’ve got to exercise good technique, or you’ll have serious problems on your hands.  Again, this is much like motorcycling.  In other words, it’s great fun and I highly recommend it.

A Trip into Authenticity, Part I.

It’s Sunday.  This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son.  If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.  Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon.  We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table.  Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.

These sheep are headed for…well, probably nothing good, at least from their perspectives.

This bull probably also is not much longer for this world.

As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation.  For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east.  East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.

The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large.  It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.

First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast.  Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing.  We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us).  After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way.  There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.

The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way.  There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.

This stretch of desert was unusual for its dunes.

The Kia contemplates the stretch of 120kph highway ahead, wishing it could go faster.

We traveled along the flank of a range of mountains which look more or less like this.

The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps.  Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way.  Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy!  Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us.  We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents.  The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.

Enjoying the souk with friends.  Textiles, silver, gold, kitsch, and more, it’s all available there.

On to preconceptions.  Here’s how at least one of those got smashed.  A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point.  Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at.  “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.”  She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest.  The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away.  “4 is a good price.”  Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.

Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.

I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns.  “Is it for Eid?”  She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.”  She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna.  “There’s black henna and red.  This is red,” she said, indicating hers.  “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said.  “Better the red.”  I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.

So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states.  Evidently not.  Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way.  But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.

The daylight revealed the rugged, rocky landscape that Muscat is built upon.  This shot is in the Mutrah area.  You’ll notice the fortress tower atop one rocky peak.

This post features the word authenticity.  Here’s why.  The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai.  You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India).  But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial.  Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that.  It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself.  It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.

Jenia took this photo of the Mutrah area by night.

It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public.  Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open.  Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.

Nuts.

That’s how life is here. Completely, totally nuts.

A few brief examples: today, the day before Eid al Adha, there were probably 25 kids who showed up at school. The holiday starts tomorrow. Because there were so few of them, no classes were held. The two-day holiday is implicitly at least a three day one.

That said, the principal made no announcement to the faculty. In fact, I’m not sure he was even at work.

As a result, this was the most productive work day I’ve had in some time. I got some grading done, and planning, and I had time to get organized and get to know my fellow English teachers, too.

In other words, it was the best day at school of the year so far, other than the first couple of honeymoon weeks, before all the bad kids started coming to school.

In the course of talking with my fellow teachers, I found out that I’m not alone in having some difficulty explaining to others back home what life and work here is like. We agreed that this place is just bizarre. It almost has to be experienced in order to be understood. It’s simultaneously wonderful and horrible, beautiful and ugly, amazing and exasperating. I sometimes think of it as a third-world country in first-world clothes.

The example of how the school schedule works is just one of many that indicate how ridiculous some things are here. It is taken for granted that schools will ignore the actual schedule and allow everyone an extra day off (except us teachers, who they tried to get to stay until 2:50pm. When my coworkers and I left, it was not 2:00 yet, and there was not a single administrator or Arabic teacher on the grounds). It seems that the schools themselves are reflections of how society here works and doesn’t work.

Yesterday it was decided, without ever informing the faculty, that students would be allowed to leave early. Here are some stragglers heading for the exits.

We can look around at the unchanging weather and the desert, and we can say, “Oh, yeah, I see how it’s possible for a people to care very little about time schedules, because the land itself never changes. What’s it matter if you’re a day late, or a couple days late, or if you never get around to doing whatever it is anyway? Nothing really changes.” But that mindset doesn’t exactly foster a work ethic, a competitive spirit, or a forward-thinking culture.

On Thursday afternoons (remember, the weekend here is Friday and Saturday), ADEC’s local offices close early. That is, they unofficially do, because everyone clears out as soon as they can possibly manage. It’s pretty aggravating when you’ve driven across town and then discover the people you need to see aren’t around.

ADEC has a wonderful curriculum in place for the public schools in Abu Dhabi. I mean it. It’s really very solid. But implementing a challenging curriculum in a place which is much more about looking good than working hard is well nigh impossible.

What makes it that way? Let me tell a story to present you with what I’ve observed. An exceptionally gifted student hung around the English office today, chatting with us. He asked me what I think of the UAE. I hesitated. “It’s okay,” he said. “Really.” So, I told him what I told you, my dear reader, in my opening paragraph. He smiled and nodded.

“What do you think of the schools here?” He asked. “Are the ones in the USA better?”

I didn’t try to hide my chuckle. “They are much better,” I told him. And I worked at a school that was one of the worst in the state of Georgia.

This student wasn’t surprised by my response.  “What do you think is the problem?” he said. “Is it the school system?” He seemed to think that’s what I would blame for the educational situation.

“No,” I said, “I think the educational system is excellent. Now, you’ve been here a lot longer than I have,” I said, “So tell me if you agree. This is what I think the problem is: lack of discipline. There’s no discipline in the schools, and there’s no discipline anywhere else. Furthermore, nobody takes responsibility for anything. So that’s what I think: lack of discipline and responsibility. What do you think?”

He agreed wholeheartedly without a moment’s pause, and even offered examples of what he thought would happen if students from the UAE were to go to other countries.

Now, you’re saying to yourself, Shon, that’s all that’s nuts? You say the whole place is nuts because students don’t go to school sometimes, and because there’s a lack of discipline and responsibility?

Well. Mumpkin (that means “maybe” in Arabic). The thing is, the lack of discipline and responsibility is pervasive here.

Not at the top–obviously there has been quite a vision and stunning execution of that vision from those who are in power. In 1964 (I think that’s the right year, the early ’60s anyway), there were only 1,800 people in Al Ain. Now there are 300,000. And the place is well-laid out with great roads and such. There are wonderful homes and lovely parks. There are many shopping malls and other entirely first-class accommodations in various spheres.

But, at the same time as there are these great roads, there are crazy drivers who make driving anywhere a stressful experience. The worst ones seem to be Emirati. They’re aggressive, rude, and downright belligerent behind the wheel. Which, you must understand, is a contradiction in itself, because Emiratis are typically rather ordinary and nice people, courteous and helpful. I’m not saying that just because I live here–it’s because it’s true. The youth are, although irresponsible and immature (think 5th graders in 12th grader bodies), actually likable and amusing. They’re happy to share about their culture and such, and entirely tolerant of divergent beliefs and so forth.

Anyway, it seems like the vision and the motivation that comes from above breaks down along the line. Somewhere somebody shirks responsibility, and things don’t function precisely. What we’d probably designate “common sense” often gets thrown out the window. So you have a place where the technological infrastructure is so good that I can purchase automobile insurance and 30 seconds after I’ve paid for it, I receive a text message on my phone from the bank notifying me of the use of my debit card. In the space of a minute, I received another text, this one from the insurance company itself, thanking me for choosing them. And yet, this same place is where there is a crew of Pakistani men out sweeping the streets–with brooms–in the morning as I go to work. Perhaps the Pakistanis work cheaper than an actual street-sweeper vehicle. I don’t know.

I’m told it’s illegal for people to grow crops on non-commercial property, such as the yard of this villa, where you see a crop of alfalfa in the foreground. But it’s done anyway, and evidently there is no fear whatsoever of repercussions, as there are actually hired hands harvesting away while I was there.

To return to my school as an example, this is a place where I punch a code and have my fingerprint scanned every day when I arrive to work and leave. Yet classes are overloaded with 30+ students of all ability levels, and there are computers so old they’re barely able to run the Toshiba smart projectors that are in the classrooms.

It’s a place where the legal driving age is 18, but my 10th graders who are 15 years old are driving, unaccompanied, in Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols and nobody bats an eye. It’s a place where yesterday I saw a bright blue Lamborghini Murcielago–that’s one of the world’s most expensive and desirable supercars, in case you didn’t know–piloted by a man in a kandora, with a woman wearing her abaya in the passenger seat. And a child standing over the shifter in the middle of the console.  And yeah, there are seat belt laws.

Where is the common sense, discipline, or responsibility in any of this? Why create laws and not enforce them?

Because of the reflection in the windows, it’s hard to discern who is where in the 2-seat sports car next to mine. But there’s a little kid in there in the middle.

The Lambo and the kid riding so unsafely in it brings to mind another thing that I find irreconcilable. Family. Here it is incredibly important. Families are large. It helps that men can marry up to four women simultaneously, so he can really spread his seed around in a hurry. The family structure is important–the men do their macho things in the desert with camels (see my earlier post), the women do their things in the towns with the kids. And the maids. But that’s another story. Children are valued, and by looking at a person’s name, it’s easy to track a good part of their family history. I gather that family history is much more important to these people than it is to my countrymen back home. Here it’s taken for granted that you know a lot of genealogy. Anyway, to make my point: how does it make sense that you value your family so much, yet you simultaneously value your children so little that you’re zooming through town without even making your kid sit down (never mind putting him in a child seat or even a seat belt)?  And, if you’re saying, well, Shon, that’s an isolated incident, I can tell you more about the times that I’ve seen 7 and 8 year-olds riding around gleefully in their parents Mercedes, torsos protruding from the open sunroofs. It happens so frequently that I don’t even give it more than passing notice anymore.

I still can’t wrap my head around the way things are here. I’m starting to adjust to it being the way it is, though, and that’s making it easier to reside where I am.  Anyway, it’s nuts.

_____________________________________

Addendum: don’t take me to be biting the hand that feeds me.  I don’t have anything against ADEC.  In fact, I admire what they’re trying to do, and I’m cerebrally quite pleased to be part of it.  I’m simply still struggling to understand how things work here.