Thursday, September 11, 2014
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
I have to say that leaving a country has never been so difficult as far as paperwork goes. My HR person has given me a list of things I have to do before departing and it's crazy. I have to get signatures from power and water, from my internet provider, from my bank and from every department in the college. I also have to get my apartment inspected twice which doesn't really make any sense to me but a lot of things here don't make sense to me. I have to get my visa canceled, which is odd as it naturally expires but this is another one of those things I don't understand. All this in addition to packing and selling all my worldly possessions...anyone need a microwave or an end table or a jeep?
It's been a great three years here and I've learned so much about the Middle East. I really have enjoyed the time with my students and learning about their lives. I got to travel around and see a lot of the UAE and other countries in the gulf. There are a few places I didn't get to visit. I wanted to go to Salalah in Oman, Syria, Libya and Beruit while in the region but it just wasn't possible due to the possible death of me if I went there. Beruit has calmed down (read bombs only going off once and while) and I might try to get there this fall.
I guess the thing that I'll miss most about living in Al Ain is the great group of friends that I've made. There are some fantastic and interesting people here and I'll miss seeing them all the time. This is the most brutal thing about living the expat life...saying goodbye to people you've spent countless wonderful hours with.
If I end up in France for the fall, I'll start a new blog and put the link here for those who want to follow me.
Ma'ah Salamah Al Ain
Saturday, April 26, 2014
The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world and it’s here in Dubai. It’s conveniently located next to the biggest shopping mall in the middle east. I haven’t taken the elevator up yet but I will before I go. If you want a great look at it, check this video out;
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
In most places of the world, the drivers have been tamed, locked behind traffic signals and penned between white lines but not here in the UAE. Here they run wild and free. Here is a simple guide that should allow you to identify the five most common varieties of wild driver for better enjoyment of this last open frontier.
The Dozing Roadrunner
This wild driver can be best identified by it’s slow, meandering pace interspersed with tremendous burst of speed and agility. It can almost always be found three lanes from its intended turn. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of it as it dramatically swerves, without signaling, across the three lanes to make the turn. The best way to spot this charmer is to watch out for other drivers suddenly braking or sharply veering into other lanes. High traffic periods are the optimum time to view the Dozing Roadrunner.
The Social Butterfly
There are actually two breeds of this driver. The first breed, the Common Social Butterfly, always travels in packs and can be seen with its head turned fully around to the back of the vehicle in order to better communicate with members of the pack. The best way to spot this driver is to keep your eyes peeled for its waving arms and wildly turning head. Other ways to identify this driver are by a low riding bumper (due to all the passengers) or by the slow-fast-slow-fast pace it moves at. It’s best to be cautious with this driver as they routinely stop, without warning, on the side of the road to forage for new pack members.
The second breed, the Modern Social Butterfly, has been influenced by technology and will often decorate itself with small electronic devices. While common, this driver is almost impossible to identify until it suddenly slows to half its original speed and begins wandering across several lanes. It is suspected that this type of driver may suffer from hearing deficiencies as honking and shouting seem to have no effect on its behavior. It’s is not recommended that you attempt to remain in close proximately to this driver.
The Rampaging Bull
Of all the wild drivers of the UAE, this is perhaps the most dangerous and the most remarkable. Commonly found in large, white SUVs with blacked out windows, this driver travels at tremendous speeds and considers other drivers and intersections to be merely tests of its superior agility. You shouldn’t have any trouble locating a Rampaging Bull driver as the flashing high beams in your rearview mirror will help them stand out against the other other drivers. Friday evenings seem to be a prime time to spot these wonders but there have been reports of these drivers careening through round-a-bouts, decimating everything in their paths so close contact is not recommended, especially for pedestrians.
The Slippery Eel
This fun loving driver has no identifying marks but is easily recognized by its inability to be behind others. It will go to amazing lengths to get-to-the-front. They have been observed driving over curbs, rapidly switching back and forth between several lanes, cutting through parking lots and driving along shoulders. I personality watched one of these shocking creatures wedge itself into the side of dump truck while trying to squeeze ahead. They are well armored against shame or abuse from other drivers and, with the exception of the Rampaging Bull, almost nothing can stop them.
The Drifting Jellyfish
One of the most common drivers here in the UAE, the Drifting Jellyfish goes where the wind takes it. It is not concerned with silly painted lines, speed limits or obstacles on the road such as you. It is truly and magnificently free! This driver can often be found drifting along slowly in the fast lane but may also be seen straddling more than one lane at a time. The ridged head piece that prevents it from looking to the side or in mirrors may cause it to be startled easily by another driver getting too close. The best way to see a Drifting Jellyfish is to be in a hurry to get somewhere.
The behavior of this driver may behave like any of the other other wild drivers in the UAE but it is uniquely characterized by the multiple heads and arms of its unseat-belted children sticking out the windows and sunroof. This driver believes that if one of the children’s heads is lost, another will grow in its place. If it is extremely hot and the windows are closed, another great way to spot this driver is to look for a baby on the dashboard. A truer example of natural selection can not be found anywhere else in the country.
Due to growth of speed bumps and increased traffic cameras, the wild driver’s habitat has been reduced and some efforts have been made to domesticate them but, so far, they have been resilient and have kept their freedom.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Just got back from a week long vacation in Malta. If you like relaxation, history and charm, I’d say Malta should go on your list. I really enjoyed myself. European style mixed with island life makes a great combination. If you don’t know where Malta is, it’s about 90Klms from Sicily and 200klms from Tunisia.
My absolute favorite thing about Malta was this;
For 6.50 I could take any bus on the two main islands anywhere for one whole week. The buses were convenient, all the drivers were nice and I got to see everything I wanted to see.
My second favorite thing about Malta was that there was a gorgeous view around every corner.
I’m a history buff and this place has the oldest known man-made structures ever found as well as an insanely varied amount of different ‘owners’ who all left their mark.
Let’s start at about 6000 years ago when Neolithic people were building temples and hypogeums (catacombs) on the islands.
Think about it….we hadn’t invented written language yet and these people were building huge structures and moving giant blocks of stone around. These are older than Stonehenge by a 1000 years and older than the pyramids by 2000 years.
They were also into the arts.
And made some very sweet pieces like ‘The Sleeping Lady’ shown in the Museum of Anthropology which I heartily recommend. This was found in a hypogeum, along with about the remains of 7000 people, and is thought to represent an ancestor, a goddess or a representation of someone dying…let’s face it, they have no idea what it is but it’s very detailed and very lovely.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of written language thing, we know nothing about these people or what happened to them. They disappeared about 4000 years ago.
There is a period of time where settlers came over from what would become Sicily and then came the Phoenicians who sailed over from the east of the Mediterranean. The Romans were the next occupants and you can see their remains scattered around the islands like they are all over Europe. The islands were inhabited by Christians from Europe and Muslims from North Africa for about a thousand years but after that, things got rough as the Christians and the Muslims of the Ottoman empire used Malta as a battle zone. In one particular battle, the Ottomans carried off 5000 Maltese captives as slaves.
Finally the Knights of St. John , who had been kicked out of Italy, made a deal with the Spanish that, for the price of one Maltese falcon per year, they could ‘rent’ Malta. Sadly, the falcons are extinct now but the knights left a lasting mark.
They immediately began fortifying the islands against attacks and building the capital city, Valletta.
I spent a great day walking around the fortifications and through underground tunnels all over Valletta. There are great museums, sidewalk cafes and churches and it’s a fantastic place.
One of my favorite stops was a tour of a Knight’s house built in the 1500s. A knight had to be of the nobility and the house is still owned by a Baron who happens to be a knight.
The Baron and his wife were invited and attended Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Ono of their ancestors commissioned a painting of angels hiding their eyes from the bright lights created by electricity when electricity was first brought into the house.
And of course, there were Maltese crosses everywhere as the symbol of the Knights. This symbol is recreated on every tourist item you might want to buy and is a modern day symbol of Malta but it’s origin is a bit clouded. It’s related to the bible but no one can agree exactly what in the bible.
I also took a ferry over to Gozo which is the second largest island of the three. This was a very picturesque place dotted with tiny hilltop villages dominated by huge churches. About 30,000 people live on the island and it seemed pretty sleepy.
The ferry ride was great too as we passed by Comino, the third and smallest island.
I also took a harbor cruise in Valletta so I got a close up look at the fortifications and modern day workings.
They’re still building boats and their harbor is the holding place for the UN’s emergency stock of grain for Africa.
Obviously lots of rich folks around. The tour guide said that a lot of Europeans move their boats to Malta for the winter.
Wouldn’t mind living in one of those apartments.
My last day, I hopped on a bus and went to the medieval, walled city of Mdina which was the historical capital.
As you can see, the weather was brilliant and I got off the bus for a meander around the fields.
In the bible, there is a story of St. Peter getting shipwrecked in 60AD. He is supposed to have stayed just outside of Mdina in grotto (cave) so there’s a shrine now that you can visit and many pilgrims come to pray.
Near the shrine are the remains of catacombs that were used 2000 years ago.
As well as WWll shelters. Each family would pay to have a small room dug out of the rock and they would hide there as the planes flew overhead. It was common to have paintings or carvings of saints for protection.
The War Museum in Valletta was pretty informative and really showed how the Maltese suffered during WWll. They were a British colony situated just a 100Klms from Italy so they got bombed almost daily for years. When war broke out, they had exactly four planes on the island and not much else to defend themselves. The British eventually supplied more anti-aircraft guns and planes and the Italians learned to mess with the Maltese at their own risk but it wasn’t easy for the thousands without homes for years.
Of Faith, Hope, Charity, and one reserve plane, Faith is the only surviving plane and she lost her wings in an explosion.
There were more things to do in Malta that I didn’t have a chance to do so I can see myself returning one day. I also met quite a few ex-pats that had retired there and were very pleased. Something to think about.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Had great company with the backdrop of belly dancing and arabic singing. Wonderful evening!
Thursday, January 2, 2014
Apparently there are rumours that I’ve suffered some catastrophic end as it’s been so long since I updated my blog. I’m still kicking but I’ve not had that many interesting things to write about this fall other than a lovely long weekend in Muscat to see dolphins and the opera. That was great and I can’t say enough good things about the Royal Opera House. All the chairs have little screens for the subtitles so I could effortlessly follow the Italian Marriage of Figaro,
Winter has brought a few new developments. To start with, I put in my letter of resignation in December so this is my last year with HCT and possibly my last in the region if the job search doesn’t pan out. I’m not too worried at the moment but we’ll see if that holds when the time starts running out. It’s been a great experience but I’d like to see some of that, hopefully, greener grass on other pastures.
Christmas started out with a bang with lost of parties and an dinner events. I even had a dress made (it’s cheap to do that here).
Then I headed off to Iran for a two week trek with my friend Lynn. Lynn and I met in 2010 while traveling in Mexico, kept in contact on Facebook and eventually ended up living here in the UAE at the same time which worked out perfectly.
Iran was a bit of a wild idea as I had never met anyone that had been there but there wasn’t really a reason not to go if you ignore the fact that the US says it’s part of the axis of evil…total hogwash!!!
We started our trip in Shiraz where we were met at the airport by our guide/driver, Kuroosh. We spent two days there with a quick trip to Persepolis and then went to Yazd via Pasargad. After that we drove to Isfahan for Christmas. Kashan was our next stop and we finished in Tehran. It was about 1400klms through scrub, desert, mountains and even some snow.
I found Shiraz to be a bit run down but you could see how there was potential. Here is the Qur’an Gate which some of the cities had. It was a gate at the entrance to the city that held a Holy Qur’an to protect travelers and keep out evil. They’ve modernized this one and it seemed to be a place for couples to go walking.
We also visited a palace and garden from three dynasties ago (the Qajor Dynasty 1700’s)
The palace-with-garden-combo has ancient roots in Iran. The Persians invented the garden as we know it about 2500 years ago. They considered good gardening an important skill and even had their gardening prowess mentioned on their tombs. The original word ‘paradiza’ was Persian for Garden which is the origin of the word ‘paradise’.
We also visited the bazaar. This bazaar had some carpets and a lot of textiles and we saw lots of nomadic people (herders) shopping. The women wore sparkly velvet dresses which reminded me of gypsies….unfortunately, I couldn’t get a photo of the women.
We had our first introduction to Iranian food in a traditional restaurant in the bazaar. Kuroosh, our guide, is mashing up my ‘dizzie’ which is chickpeas, tomato, meat and broth. Once it was mashed, I ate it with flatbread. It’s considered ‘comfort food’ and it was pretty good.
This was probably my favourite restaurant and the most interesting food. I have to say that the food in Iran is fairly limited with Kebobs and rice being the mainstay.
It was possible to get fresh and dried fruit which we did to supplement our diet. I also bought pomegranates at a roadside stand.
We paid a quick visit to the tomb of Hafez, the poet (1315-1390) and it turned out to be incredibly important to understanding Iran.
Everywhere we went, the walls were decorated with stories from their great poets and phrases from the poems are still used in common speech today which reminds me of Shakespeare in English.
According to our guide, everyone has a copy of these books in their home and they read them. Apparently, the poets were all ‘Islamic mystics’ so the stories should be interpreted as lessons in conjunction with the Qur’an but I question that a bit.
Here’s a couple of lines of Hafez’s poetry.
Now, for the highlight of the trip for me. Persepolis (Parsa in old Persian). Here’s a bit of quick history. About 2500 years ago, Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire by defeating all the surrounding lands from Egypt to the west, Greece to the north and Pakistan/India to the east and south. He was the first great Empire builder but his name has gotten lost in history, in part due to great press by Alexander’s Greek writers.
Here is his simple tomb in Pasagard
Persepolis is one of the best preserved historical sites from those times. It was built by Darius the First and his son Xerxes the Great (from the movie ‘300’). It had a lot of the construction elements that we credit the Greeks and Romans for such as underground aqueducts. It was also the first time that any empire incorporated artistic elements from each of it’s nation states so that they would all feel included in the empire.
Here’s a face that you’ll want to remember next time you’re mailing a letter or going through an international border.
Darius the First invented the passport, the pony express mail service, the idea of administration and using an official government language.
From the ancient past to a more modern Iran, we got on the road to Yazd, a desert city high in the mountains. We drove right up into the clouds
and into the snow.
It was at this point we realized we might have a problem with our guide, Kuroosh. He couldn’t understand the concept of bathroom-break and even if they were all stinky pit toilets, we needed to visit one occasionally. It took us eight days to train him but we never saw him take a toilet break himself…freaky!
It was also then that we figured out his driving was going to be a problem. He had to phone for directions to every hotel and most historical attractions and wasted hours driving around pretending that he wasn’t lost. On our second day in Yazd, he hit two parked cars and didn’t even consider stopping. The second car he hit while driving backwards, getting directions on the phone and shifting. This seemed to be normal behaviour and he laughed off our concerns, To be fair, the driving in Iran was horrendous but after being in a competent driver’s car in Tehran, both of us agreed that Kuroosh was exceptionally bad.
I would suggest that anyone planning their trip, interview the guide and driver before heading off with them.
Anyways…Yazd city was and still is the home of the Zoroastrian religion. They worshipped the sun and fire and we saw their symbol all over ancient and modern Iran. Even on the backs of buses.
It turned out to be a holiday which our guide seemed surprised about so we couldn’t see their fire temple where the flame has been burning for over 1000 years.
About the holidays, here’s a quick primer on Islam. Most of the Middle East follows Sunni Islam which states that Mohammad was the one and only Prophet of Allah but the Iranians are Shia Muslims who believe that there were twelve holy Prophets after Mohammad. In Iran, each of the twelve Prophets get two days holiday for their birthdays and two for their death days. That’s twenty-four holidays just for the Prophets. I’m considering converting.
On one of these holidays, all the people gather at the mosques for prayer, eating and visiting.
After pushing our way through the throngs of people, we went walking through the ‘old town’ dating back over a thousand years.
We also got a great look at doors. I’m a bit crazed over doors to start with but these ones have an interesting history. There were two knockers on Iranian doors; a phallic shaped one for men and a round shaped one for women. They made different sounds so that the people inside the house would know if a woman or a man should answer the door as women weren’t supposed to answer the door to unrelated men.
We were booked into traditional hotels and this was our best example. The rooms are all around a courtyard which commonly has a restaurant.
Just a note for anyone planning their own trip to Iran. Ask for ‘one’ traditional hotel to get the feel and then go modern the rest of the way. We eventually had a little rebellion and got the agency to change this for us as the definition of traditional can sometimes interpreted as ‘decrepit’.
Back on the road, this time to Isfahan…demanding our god given rights to bathroom breaks along the way.
Isfahan city is the tourist capital of the country and the people were amazingly friendly, wishing us Merry Christmas and asking where we were from.
We had the chance to visit the Armenian quarter of the city on Boxing Day and see their gorgeous church.
The Armenians are and were the merchants of Iran so they are wealthy but they didn’t come there of their own free will. They were forcibly moved to the city about five hundred years ago to increase trade in the region. Their museum had a lot of documents showing how the government protected them and prevented them from being harassed by the Muslims which, of course, leads one to believe that they were being harassed by the Muslims.
Here I am under the 33 Arch Bridge…our guide parked and then lost his car on that stop. Luckly, Lynn and I remembered where it was. We also met the most interesting older man on the bridge who, in the way that some older people do, tried to tell us his life story. He had traveled for business before the sanctions but ended up working in an auto parts factory for his life’s work. A victim of the US’s interference in Iran’s affairs even though he never said a word about it or complained at all.
Off to Kashan with a quick stop at a mountain village where I bought the most delicious dried apple chips I’ve ever eaten. The people in Abenah village speak a different language and they worship the Sun Goddess, although, there were mosques in the village so that Sun Goddess thing might just be a bit of extra insurance.
It was also quite cold.
There was one other exciting aspect to this drive. We noticed anti-aircraft guns on all the hills next to the roads and learned that the controversial Nuclear Enrichment Plant was nearby. Kuroosh said, “No photos and no stopping.”
Kashan city had probably the best examples of all the gardens, palaces and traditional homes.
The dome on top of this traditional house is actually a wind catcher. The holes in the masonry let the cool air in and then it’s drawn down and circulated throughout the house.
Tehran was our final stop on the trip and after ninety minutes driving around in circles, Kuroosh found the hotel and left us. We weren’t terribly saddened by his departure but I do wonder if he ever found his way home.
We stayed in their version of a four star hotel. I would say that the services were definitely four star but the rooms were more three star quality.
Here is their version of a bible in the hotel, a prayer rug and a stone for resting your forehead.
Tehran was crowded and hectic with crazy traffic and bad air but it was also incredibly interesting and fun.
We saw money changers on the street (and used them when another holiday closed the banks)
We spent our two days visiting museums and shopping in the bazaar. We both bought jewellery which was fun and I feel like we got great deals. We also learned about the recent history of Iran so I feel like I have a better grasp of what actually happened there in the 70’s and what’s happening now. Our city guide, Hamad was exactly what I expected an Iranian to be; thoughtful, intellectual and savvy.
My lasting impressions of Iran are of a country robbed of it’s potential. The rich history and unique culture are worth visiting alone but I think visiting and then spreading the word that Iranians aren’t crazed Jihadists is just as valuable.