Noise.

Big city life is noisy, right? So is country life, but in its own way, you might say. And you’d be right. I never knew how many weird noises cows make before moving to rural Georgia, after all. Big city noises are different, though. The unceasing clatter and din of human beasts. Traffic. Construction. Demolition. Reconstruction. Jackhammers.

In Shenzhen, there’s hardly a day goes by without the obnoxious racket of a jackhammer. There is a construction site adjacent to our residence–everyday for months they’ve been excavating there, cutting and drilling and slamming out rock so they can erect another skyscraper. Are you familiar with that process? Huge hydraulic breakers are employed to do the job, mounted on large crawler tractors. They repeatedly send a heavy chisel point into the rock. Eventually an excavator comes along and digs out the debris, whereupon a dump truck hauls it off. As you can imagine, it’s a loud and drawn out process.

Last week, a crew started demolishing the vacant Longzhu Hospital which is just across the road on the other side of our domicile. Now the clamor of jackhammers and breakers echoes off Tanglang Mountain from that direction, too.

There’s no relaxing outside in the beautiful fall weather because it’s so loud all the time. Even relaxing on the balcony is unrealistic. Luckily, after 6:30pm all is quiet.

Unless, that is, the road is being torn up so a sewage line can be replaced. Or they’re paving the other road.

Bearing all this in mind, when Jenia and I spent the night at the fantastic new Hard Rock Hotel in Longhua, some 45-60 minutes away, I was delighted that it was located in Mission Hills, where a posh golf course exists, and where things must surely be quieter.

Imagine my dismay when I was awakened on the 15th floor by the noise of what appears to be a metro line under construction. The entire median separating the highway was a big work zone. Curses.

But that’s all part of the deal with Shenzhen. It is a really big city, after all. Much of the construction really does make life better, ultimately, but it’s a drawback to living here as well.

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Airfare Update IV

Okay, I must give it to ADEC.  They’ve come through.  Although it was an entire 3 months late, they’ve credited my wife and child’s airfare allowance into this month’s pay.  Granted, we can make the case that they’re contractually obliged to give us this money and it is supposed to be prior to traveling, not afterward.  But regardless, we’re glad to have it (and also glad that we had enough money to cover our own tickets during the summer holidays, or we’d have been stuck in Al Ain).

This means that despite being late, as regards pay (except that raises have been frozen during the last two years) ADEC has always come through.

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.

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 Checklist of Sorts? AKA, Something ADEC Could Do.

There’s quite a number of ADEC teachers who, like me, have noticed that ADEC does a splendid job with some of the arrangements for new arrivals to the UAE, and not so great with others.

Something that would newcomers help would be a simple checklist provided to teachers. The checklist could look like this:

1.  Residence Visa and Emirates ID applications are part of the process that we, ADEC, take care of for you, right along with the medical checkup.  Check!

However, If you don’t hear from the Emirates ID people after a while, go visit them and make sure everything is going well.  You’ll need a copy of your ID application receipt for number 2 anyway.

2.  UAE driver’s license is something you need to take care of.  Here are the steps:

  • Have your driver’s license translated.  We recommend Infinity Services, but if you go to them, don’t tell them you’re an ADEC employee, or they’ll charge you nearly double what they charge anyone else.
  • Have a copy of the Emirates ID application receipt (which we don’t bother to furnish to you, but you can obtain easily, as noted in step 1).
  • Take your American license and some cash and go to the driver’s licensing center. You’ll need an eye exam there and your license will be issued in 20 minutes after all is said and done.
  • Also, you should try to get this done as soon as you get your residence visa stuck into your passport.

3. Road Rules for Roundabouts.

  • If you enter a roundabout from the right hand lane, plan to exit immediately if there are other cars in the roundabout already.
  • If you enter from the middle, plan on going straight.
  • If you need to turn left, enter from the left lane.
  • Cars in the inside lanes of roundabouts have the right of way.  Don’t mess with them. They will run right the crap into you.

4.  How Utilities Work

  • When we give you your apartment, we give you a utilities letter that says, in Arabic, that you’re responsible for electricity and water expenses.
  • Find out your water and electricity meter numbers and take those, along with this letter, to the Al Ain Distribution Company (or other, if you’re working in Abu Dhabi or Al Gharbia).
  • You will have to pay a 1,000 AED deposit and whatever balance you might have already when you transfer the utilities into your name.
  • Regarding your bills, you can pay online, or at most ATMs, or you can go to AADC.
  • This is also true for gas.  You’re responsible for getting it up and running, and there will be a 1,000 AED deposit.

5.  Spouse Visa Process

  • Your wife (or husband, as the case maybe) will need pretty much the same documents as you.  You’ve probably already brought copies of your important documents: the authenticated marriage certificate is the most important one for the visa process.  We don’t make this very clear, but after you arrive, you need to get your authenticated marriage certificate translated into Arabic.
  • After you get your own residence visa in your passport (about a month), you’ll be able to apply for your wife’s visa.  You’ll need to bring all your wife’s important documents, passport photos, and that translated marriage certificate we just mentioned, to your local ADEC office to have us type the application.  We might tell you that this application form can be downloaded from our website, but don’t believe it.  We will type the application up, and then we’ll print it and give it to you.
  • After you have the application, you have to take it to the immigration authority and submit it.

A simple little list like this would be very helpful.  As is, lots of new arrivals have to figure out what to do by asking around, which usually works, but sometimes it causes an extra measure of frustration.

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.