The Useful Facebook

I am yet to get used to people we meet at random places around town suddenly saying, “Waaait… Are you those folks with a blog? We read it!” And it completely blows my mind when they said they found it useful, too. I get all mushy and warm inside (Shon just feels encouraged to keep on writing.)

All this to say that during one of my most recent encounters, I mentioned the local Facebook groups I found useful, and it occurred to me I should post a list here, as well.

Now, some of these are closed/private, and you will have to ask to be added.

Buying, selling, swapping, free cycling:

Freecycle Al Ain – my personal favorite. Only free stuff.

Al Ain Swap and Shop – buy and sell everything from furniture to clothespins.

UAE Swap and Shop – same as above but on a bigger scale.

Al Ain Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – everything for the kids, buy & sell.

Abu Dhabi Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – same as above but on the Emirate level.

Lifestyle, survival, general info:

UAE Natural Family Living Network – if you have crunchy tendencies or simply want to find some organic food.

Grow Your Own (Al Ain) – if life in the desert leaves you yearning for something green.

Al Ain Book Club – duh.

Al Ain Expats Parents Group – don’t be fooled by the name. This is a good location for general questions.

Parenting, pregnancy, nursing:

Al Ain Nursing Mamas – if you need help, encouragement, or just an ear.

Breastfeeding Q&A Dubai & UAE – self-explanatory.

Al Ain Bumps and Babes – all things pregnancy and babies.

Abu Dhabi/Al Ain EMT Parents/Spouses – everything parenting-related.

Afternoon Baby & Children Music Classes – the most popular music classes in town. From 4 months and up.

Al Ain Under 6’s Crafting Group – weekly get-together to encourage the kids’ artsy side. 12 months and up.

These are only the groups I am actually a member of. There are more out there, but I can’t personally recommend them.

Besides this, many housing communities have their own groups as well (Muwaiji Village has one, Hili has one, the Village has one), but they are only open to residents.

Most of the people in these groups are happy to help, so do not hesitate to join. It is likely to make your life easier and more interesting from the very first days in this country.

Advertisements

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.

ADEC Housing

Lots of folks have dropped by this blog looking for information about ADEC housing.  If you’re one of those folks who wonder what sort of digs a person gets when they come to work here, I can help you out.

In short, the answer is: it varies.  In Abu Dhabi, the apartments are usually pretty nice. They’re fairly small, but from the photos I’ve seen others share, they’re fairly well-appointed to begin with, with built-in wardrobes and such.  Many of them are in a new section of the city that may require you to drive a good ways to work.

Those teachers placed in Madinat Zayed or other places in the Western Region of Al Gharbia, often have totally different housing.  Many of them share a big place.  Others are put up in hotels.

Those of us who are put in Al Ain have been given very different housing from one another.  We were told during orientation back in August that “There are no small places in Al Ain.”  That is hardly accurate.  What ADEC looks for, we’re told, are places that adhere to local codes and regulations.  They evidently don’t give much regard to size, however, for that statement about small places was simply inaccurate.  Jenia and I were first placed in a tiny 2-BR apartment with a miniature kitchen and bathrooms.  The apartment was in the Sultan Bin Tahnoon complex, and was brand new, but was much too small for the two of us (nevermind when number three shows up).  Another teacher found herself placed in a run-down complex with a sign warning about danger on the door.  She had to fight and fight with ADEC to get herself put in a better complex.  They did eventually see reason, but it was a struggle.

The first complex we were placed in, Sultan Bin Tahnoon.

The first complex we were placed in, Sultan Bin Tahnoon.

Tiny little bathroom in Tahnoon.

Tiny little bathroom in Tahnoon.  The shower is nearly on top of the toilet.

This is almost the entire apartment, aside from bathrooms and eensy-weensy kitchen.  The photo makes it look bigger than it actually is.

This is almost the entire apartment, aside from bathrooms and eensy-weensy kitchen. The photo makes it look considerably bigger than it actually is.

Fortunately for us, a colleague of mine was interested in swapping apartments, so we exchanged keys and went to the ADEC headquarters in Al Ain and had it made official.  There was no problem with that at all.  The place we’re in now is much bigger, albeit still not even close to large by American standards.  Like the first tiny place, we’ve got two bedrooms.  But there are three bathrooms (all quite small, but reasonable), a small kitchen (this time with room for a full-size stove and a dishwasher), and a living/dining room.  Other teachers are placed in the Hili complex, which seems more generously sized, although its location isn’t quite as convenient.  Yet others are placed in The Village (typically those with two or more kids), which offers very spacious quarters.

The complex where we now live is

The complex where we now live is much better than the first one.  It’s got a swimming pool (albeit a small one) and a (not-too-well-appointed) gym, and even underground parking, which helps keep the car a lot cooler during the hot months.

Our new apartment actually has a reasonable amount of space.

Our new apartment actually has a reasonable amount of space.

The bathroom, by comparison, is roomy, although there is still no storage or shelves.

The master bathroom, by comparison, is roomy, although there is still no storage or shelves.

So what can you expect if you sign up for a job with ADEC?  To have no idea whatsoever what to expect.

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.