Monday, February 28, 2011

Ten Things I Love about Abu Dhabi

We've been in Abu Dhabi 45 days now, long enough to compile a ten best things list, I think. Here goes:

1. Safe & friendly city
I've been all over the place walking, taking the city bus, taxis ... and haven't had a single problem. Bus drivers, store clerks and even random passers by have been extremely helpful and kind. The toughest challenge is understanding someone's accent, but almost everyone speaks a little English. For such a large city with so many people from so many different cultures, it's pretty amazing how well everyone just gets along. About the only time I see frustration is on the roads where the idea of a blinker and organized merging don't really exist.

2. A true melting pot
You haven't seen diversity until you've lived in UAE. Multiple cultures, religions, languages, dress ... One HR Director I interviewed with told me in their company of a couple of thousand employees, there were 89 religions represented! (I didn't even know there were that many religions!) For a culture enthusiast like me, this is a dream and one of the fun parts of riding the bus. In a single trip, I'll see Asian business women traveling to and from work, Iranian & Pakistani kids coming home from school, Emirati women heading to the mall, Indian men going to work and a whole host of others from who knows where. The mix of languages is just amazing (and I still can't distinguish any of them except English and French!)

3. Arab culture and dress

Sometimes it's like being in the middle of an Arabian nights film with the colors and smells and sounds. I’ve come to really enjoy the call to prayer 5 times per day (of course, I don’t have a Mosque too close so I’m not woken up before dawn either). It’s surreal at times and sounds so exotic. There is also something very regal about the women’s Abaya and Shayla and the men’s Kundura – they always look so polished and professional. And, this is going to sound weird, but the Emirati women smell wonderful! Always! It can be 85 degrees outside and they’ve been standing outside waiting for the bus and one will step on, sit next to me and smell … fantastic! How do they do that? And it’s not some sweet overpowering Britney Spears perfume either, it’s a rich, exotic, musky incense like smell that’s really nice and again seems so regal.

4. Lebanese food
I've talked about this in other posts, but I LOVE the Lebanese food here. Humous, garlicky lamb, crispy bread, mmmmmm. The desserts haven't been as great, but the main course food is excellent!

5. The birds in our apartment complex
As I'm sitting here typing this entry, I'm listening to all the birds outside our patio doors (and I don't even have the doors open this morning). They sound so fabulous and help me deal with living in a huge city. Our little villa feels a bit like a vacation timeshare place and is much nicer than a high rise apartment building would have been, and the bird song throughout the day helps.

6. Fruits & juices
I'm guessing it's because Abu Dhabi is a major port city that we have an abundance of fruits, almost all of which they make into really yummy juices. I found pomegranate seeds yesterday for a little over $2 - the same container in the states would have been at least $5. Everything is really fresh and once I get a bit more adventurous there are a number of new fruits to try. Juice is a big thing here and it's all freshly squeezed or blended. And there is everything, orange, lemon-mint, watermelon, pineapple, avocado (haven't been brave enough to try that one yet), guava, strawberry ...

7. Architecture
As you've seen from some of the photos, Abu Dhabi (and Dubai) have a wide variety of interesting architecture. Some of the buildings defy the laws of physics! They lean, tilt, twist, whatever it takes to make an interesting landmark, I guess.

8. Public transportation
The cheap, reliable and clean buses and taxis have been a god send to me. Had I been trapped at home the last 6 weeks, I would be writing completely different blog posts. It has sometimes been challenging to find the exact location I'm looking for, but the bus routes have been fairly straightforward and relatively easy to figure out. Word had it they are considering a high speed rail to connect the Emirates, which would be awesome (and will probably finish just as we're getting ready to head back to the states).

9. Big city variety
Like most big cities, there is plenty to do in Abu Dhabi. Whether it's shopping, cinema, dining, beach, arts, music, sports, AD has got it. And they do a pretty good job of getting the word out. There's a weekly publication called Abu Dhabi Weekly that provides information on the events of that week, which has been helpful and there are a couple other publication and websites as well. With a small time investment, you can easily find out what's happening.

10. Malls
I'm not sure how much I've talked about the malls in Abu Dhabi (and Dubai) but they are everywhere and they are nice! Most of you know I'm a huge shopper, so what better place for me to live than the city of Malls! :) And they are insane with Ice rinks, ski slopes, aquariums where you can scuba dive, giant fountains, trains ... and they just keep coming. Abu Dhabi is currently working on 2 new malls that will be bigger, brighter and crazier than those already in the city. What I can't figure out is how the city can support that many stores??

Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Afternoon at the Beach

Since the weather was forecasted to hit 90 degrees on Sunday, I decided it was high time I spent the afternoon at the beach. My first step was to figure out how to get there by bus. Now that I know most of the routes, I can't bring myself to pay the taxi fare when each bus ride is only 27 cents! The downside is that it takes soooo much longer and I have to figure out the route. This one was fairly easy, however, walk the 10 minutes to the bus stop near our apartment, take #56 almost to the Al Wahda Mall (next to the hotel where we used to live), then transfer to the #34 going to the Marina and I got dropped off just outside the beach area I was looking for. Sweet! And it only took me an hour and a half! :) (by car it probably would have been 30 minutes tops). But then again, what else did I have to do on a Sunday afternoon? Actually, the bus is kind of nice in that it allows me to see the city - I think I probably know the streets and locations of things better than Brian at this point. I can also check out all the little stores along the way to scope out potential future shopping trips. (We're currently looking for some very large area rugs, so I was on the lookout for carpet stores on this trip.)

So, I made it to the Corniche, which is the boardwalk along part of the coastline of Abu Dhabi. There are a number of different beach areas along here. The one I chose is the nicest because you can rent chairs and umbrellas for the day. For about $10, I paid my entrance fee and got a chair and umbrella for the afternoon. This section also has a lifeguard, a volleyball court an area to rent water sports equipment and a snack bar, so I was all set. I think most of the other sections are free and open to the public. One area is a children's beach where they have a kid's playground set up on the sand, and I've heard there is a ladies' only section of the beach, but I haven't seen it (might be that it's designated for ladies' only on certain days of the week). 

Sunday being a work day, the beach wasn't too crowded - seemed like mostly tourists. I had French families on either side of me. Coincidence or some French holiday I don't know about? The rest was a usual day at the beach - I snoozed, read, wrote a letter to my aunt, got some lunch, took a few dips in the water. The sun was hot (it actually only got up to about 87, not the 90 predicted), but there was a decent breeze for most of the day so it wasn't unbearable. And the water was very cold! Very refreshing when the sun became too much, but you couldn't stay in for too long. It was also really salty so took no effort at all to just float and enjoy the day.

Brian then came and picked me up after work so I didn't have the 90 minute bus ride back home. I think that may have been when he suggested I step up my job hunting efforts. For some reason, the crew back at Epic who worked the day while I sat at the beach now hates me. :) (as I'm guessing now some of you do too!)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Setting up House in Abu Dhabi

As we're getting settled in our new place, there are some things that are exactly the same as back home (toilet paper, tissue, hangers, setting up phone, internet and TV service) and a ton of things that are different; some just slightly different and some that will take some getting used to. While they are still relatively fresh in my mind, I thought I might document some of the differences (in no particular order).

Garbage & Recycling: The process for garbage pickup is to leave our garbage outside our apartment villa any day, any time and they'll come by and pick it up and do something with it. One of my first days here I tried to find a dumpster or something and was informed that this is the process. And they seem to come by daily as I've not seen garbage sitting out for more than a few hours. Recycling is almost non-existent, which is really bothersome to me, actually. I've been doing a little research and I think there might be some recycling centers in the city somewhere, in which case, I can at least save up things like newspapers and boxes to drop off somewhere. I've been a good recycler since Peace Corps and it's a hard habit to break - I find myself sorting out my plastic only to have to put it all in the same place when I'm finished anyway! :)

Bottled Water: Related a bit to the recycling is the bottled water issue. As I've mentioned, the water is safe to drink, but doesn't taste very good as it comes from a desalination plant, so everyone drinks bottled water here. Many of you know, I drink a lot of water, so the idea of hauling all those bottles from the hypermarket and then not being able to recycle them was annoying. Luckily, after a little web research, I found a water delivery service. We bought a water dispenser and have 5 gallon bottles now delivered to our home - MUCH cheaper, a lot less hassle and less waste.

No Dryer: I mentioned this before, but it's common to only have a washing machine in most apartments here and that's what we have. We actually considered (and may again, who knows?) purchasing a dryer, but we're not even sure where we'd put or how to set up the ventilation it would require. Instead, I bought a huge drying rack that can sit out on the patio. So far, it seems to work fine - I'm reminded of our clothesline when we were growing up. I think we'll be able to adapt to this one.

No Microwave: Another things that's not very common here are microwaves. You can certainly buy them anywhere and they don't seem to be any more expensive than in the states, but they didn't come included. We haven't purchased one yet, a) because we're trying to decide if we can live without one, because b) we don't have much counter space. Today might be the first test as I have some leftovers from last night that I want to heat up for lunch. :)

No Outlets in the Bathrooms: I found this one really surprising. I went to plug in my hairdryer and there isn't a single outlet in either bathroom. There weren't any in the hotel either (just that electric shaver plug in you see in some hotels) but I expected to find them here. So instead, I blow dry my hair in my closet hall.

Closets: Closets are different here in that they are either non existent or built in cabinets. I actually like them as I've always wanted the fancy closet organizers and now I have them. We were lucky to find a place with built ins. The alternative is buying a wardrobe that stands alone. I haven't seen to many dressers in the furniture stores - more of the large wall sized bureaus that serve as closet and dresser together.

No Street Address: I've known about this since before we moved over and I'm sure I've mentioned it in some other blog posts, but residences don't have a street address. We actually do have a building number, but it's the same for all three apartments, so we have to remember to tell folks it's E07 - ground floor. Yesterday, a carpenter stopped by that was most likely intended for either the 2nd or 3rd floor apartments. The bigger challenge is describing our location to delivery people (water, paper, cat, shipping, furniture ...) I have a name of this compound and I can give them a couple of landmarks, but the reality is that at present the place is tucked back around a few corners next to a huge construction project and the sign with the name of the complex is only the size of a realtor's Open House sign they put at the corners on the weekends. Let's just say it's been a challenge. I had to finally meet the water delivery folks at the cross street and direct them and the paper delivery folks never showed at all. This, I think will be an ongoing challenge, but hopefully as the area becomes more populated and I become more familiar with surrounding landmarks, it will get easier. The good news is that this is so typical here that no one gets upset at bad directions or having to turn around 3 times to find the place.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Getting a Bank Account - Part 2

This happened a few weeks ago, but I realized I never completed the story of setting up our personal bank account. At the end of part one, we had our accounts, but not yet the checkbook or actual credit card - that all comes later. Since we had provided our PO Box (and since this was one of the primary reasons we got a PO box) we expected to get the checkbook and credit card in the mail. Instead, they courier everything and request a signature. In fact, this has happened with so many things, we're starting to wonder why we have a PO box at all!

The challenge was that Brian needed to be at the hotel to sign for these deliveries (they wouldn't let me do it) and they were always later than the time Brian had agreed to so they kept missing him. Finally, we decided to go down to the post office and just pick up the credit card package and make things easier (we did manage to get the checkbook in the meantime).

We got to the Post Office about 7:45pm (the PO closes at 8pm so in typical Stoll fashion, we were cutting it close on time!!) We went to the main PO and waited for our number to be called and then found out we were in the wrong building. There is the Post Office, called Emirates Post and then their is the delivery division of the PO, called EmPost. Luckily, the buildings are right next to each other, but it was only a few minutes before 8pm so we had to hustle.

We got to EmPost and a man was just closing the door and wouldn't let us in. Our gestures to the clock that said we still had 2 minutes were ignored. So, and I'm not proud of this, I tried the "distraught woman approach". I explained, in a very quiet and sad voice, that we had been at the Post Office waiting and then found out we had to come here to pick up our important package ... didn't work. Then I tried, in the same voice, to explain that the package was supposed to be delivered to our hotel, but that the delivery person was 3 hours late (true) and that we really needed to get the package today (not quite true). He perked up and said that if we were trying to find a missed delivery package, we should go around to the back garage and find the delivery people, and that we should find our package there. Success!!

We sprinted (okay, maybe not sprinted, but we did walk fast) around the building and into the garage (after a wrong turn) and eventually found the delivery folks' hive of activity. We explained our situation to one gentleman and once he realized it was from our bank told us we had to go to the EmPost office ... yes, the office we had just come from! I pulled out the distraught woman voice again and explained we had just been there and the whole story. He said he was sorry, but the package was in the other building. Then, Brian had the brilliant idea to ask him to call over to the other building and ask them to let us in (since we knew we weren't getting past that door guy up there!) We looked forlorn and sad and the man took pity on us and walked us over to the building himself. We still couldn't get in, so he went up the back stairs, got our package for us and had Brian sign for it. Success!!

Lessons learned this adventure:
  • Persistence pays off - keep asking for what you want, ask if someone else can help you, ask again
  • Wait until they acknowledge you - not sure if it's cultural or just politeness, but if you just stand there and wait for a different answer, sometimes you get it
  • Many people here want to help you - sometimes you just have to give them the idea how
  • Distraught woman voice should be used sparingly, but works! :)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Apartment Hunting - the last part

We’re now moved in to our new apartment and like any place, it has it’s pros and cons. The good news is the pros outweigh the cons, which means we made the right decision. And, as nice as the hotel was, it feels really good to be in our own place (even if it means I have to start doing my own dishes again! ;)

I’ll start with the cons because they’re more entertaining and I can leave you on a good note. The first thing I noticed was how poorly some of the apartment features are constructed. The kitchen is a mess – plastic cupboards, a very cheap stainless steel sink and a stove too tiny for the area it sits in. Then, you’ve got these beautiful granite countertops … with a huge seam running through one side of it. It’s as if they had some nice stuff to work with, but just didn’t know exactly what to do with it. Even so, the floor plan of the kitchen is open, which we love and there is plenty of counter space for the straightforward cooking I tend to do. The fridge is another funny thing. It’s outside the kitchen and inside a cabinet, which means every time you want to go to the fridge, you need to open the cabinet first and then open the fridge. It beeps at you if you leave the fridge door open, and it also has a lock on it (almost everything does here) so we’ve joked that our new diet plan will be to lock the fridge after 7pm!

The bathrooms are another con of the place. We have two and they are both really small with only one sink (so we’ve decided we each get our own bathroom, which isn’t too bad). Again, the construction is shoddy with glue smeared all over the edges of the mirror and uneven tiles … The grout is the biggest example of crappy labor – I was scrubbing at what I thought was some dust and it was simply the concrete under the tile showing through because the grout is so thin and uneven.

The final con I’ll mention is the lack of a clothes dryer. The great news is that appliances were included in our rent, which saved us a lot of time and hassle, but what we didn’t realize until I went to do our first load of laundry is that the washing machine is just that … no dryer combo unit like we had in the hotel. Come to find out, that’s very common here as most people dry their clothes on clothes line or drying racks on their patios. This will take a little getting used to, but now I understand why there are as many if not more fabric softener choices in the grocery store as detergent. It also explains the fact that every hypermarket carries drying racks, clothesline and clothespins. Doesn’t seem so strange now that I understand the cause. I just keep telling myself how much we’re going to help the environment over the next 3 years. :)

Okay, enough whining, here’s what’s awesome about the place. First, overall it’s very good sized for this city – we have a decent sized dining/sitting area that is open to the kitchen, which makes the place seem even larger. The ceilings are at least 12 feet high, so it feels very open and airy and there are lots windows and as a result, lots of light. Also the bedrooms are both pretty big and about the same size, which means we’ll be able to make the 2nd bedroom into a really nice office. Lots of tile floors so the place will stay relatively cool in the summer and even better all the electricity and water charges are included in our rent so if we want to hike up the air, we can!

The compound itself is quite nice and pretty quiet (except for the construction noise at present). They are in the process of finishing the gym, a small water park area near the pool and a BBQ area with some kids play equipment. Once everything is finished, it will be a very nice looking complex. Our building is full and we have another married couple living in the top 1 bedroom apartment – we’ve only met him briefly, but think they might be from Australia given the accent. And we think a single guy living in the 3 bedroom above us – he mentioned something about another guy joining him later, but we’re not sure we heard him correctly and haven’t seen anyone else yet. We think he must be from the UK – man, they talk fast! You’d think we’d be able to understand their English most easily, but the pace of speech and the slight vocabulary differences can make it challenging. Everyone seems quiet and pretty easy going, so we’re grateful that neighbors don’t seem like they will be a problem for us.

My favorite pro of the place, as I’ve mentioned before, is the patio that runs the length of the apartment. You can access it from the sitting room or the 2nd bedroom through huge patio doors and since it gets morning sun, it’s really comfortable out there most of the day (at least until the hot summer hits). I’ve had the doors open, but then had to temper my excitement as I realized how much dust I was letting in. I’m hoping that once most of the construction around the area is complete, I’ll be able to leave them open in the winter months. High on my list of purchases is some patio furniture, so I can take full advantage of the space.

The trick to greenery and flowers in the desert? A drip irrigation system!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Job Hunting - Part 3

Job hunting activity has picked up the last 2 weeks and I am in the process of 2nd interviews with 2 different companies. My 1st interviews would really be better referred to as meetings as there was little of the formal Q & A that you'd typically see in a first interview. The interviewer spent a lot of time telling me about the position and the company and then basically turned it over to me to ask for a brief overview of myself. That was about it and then we talked of the next steps in the process. As one interviewer described it to me, "I just wanted to meet you and see if the person matched what I had read on paper."

One job is a trainer position with Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which is the project Epic is here working on. While the job description is trainer, because this is a greenfield start-up, there will be lots of potential to get involved in other HR things. There would be no leadership responsibilities and I'm not yet sure how I feel about that as I've always really enjoyed managing a team. The potential variety of work, the estimated pace and amount of work and the chance to help build a 7 star health care facility from the ground up are pretty enticing, however. The other benefit of this position is that I'd work in the same building as Brian making the fact that we only plan to have one car a non-issue. (Brian's hoping as a CCAD employee, I get an underground parking spot so he doesn't have to find a space in the atrocious parking lot outside the building!) At this point, I've met with the Senior Director of Training & Development and had a second interview with the Director of HR and the OD Manager. The next steps are for them to pow wow and decide who will come in for 3rd (final?) interviews. There is a chance I may have to interview with the financial arm of the project as well.

The other job is a position with the Al Ghazal Transportation company. They are part of the Abu Dhabi National Hotel group and oversee limos, buses, taxis and a rental car division. This is a Training Manager role and closer to what I did at TDS, but with a smaller scope. What's intriguing about this position is that they have a new director from the UK who wants to 'reinvent' the culture. He wants to set up a more structured environment and specifically to provide more training opportunities for the drivers. This position also has the potential to work in other areas of HR and I'd have a lot of autonomy. The challenge might be the amount of work. It sounds like the culture is very laid back and work hours are only 8-4 5 days per week. While I'd have the ability and authority to create programs and structure, I'm not sure how important this is to the workers on the ground or the leadership below the Director. I'm nervous that this could be a frustrating and potentially boring job. Today is my second interview with the company and I hope to learn more about the goals and plans for the position.

So, two very different opportunities should I actually be offered either one. Lots to think about, which is a good thing. And, of course, I'm still sending out copies of my CV each week, so who knows, maybe I'll get another call soon.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Buying a Car

For those of you who know Brian well, you can imagine how excited he is to have the opportunity to shop for a new car. That, coupled with the fact that Abu Dhabi really is easier to navigate by car has made buying a car our next priority.

Heres how things work here in UAE. You need to register the car in the city where you have your resident visa (so for us, that means Dubai), but you can buy the car anywhere youd like. There are new car dealerships as well as used car lots and there is a thriving car market on dubizzle, which is the UAE equivalent of Craigslist. All cars MUST have insurance you actually can’t apply for your car license without it. The license is renewed annually, and at that time, all cars over 2 years old have to have a safety check completed where they examine the entire car. Weve been told that your tires will need to be replaced every three years at minimum, even if you never even drove the car in that time period very stringent guidelines about the condition of your car. And, now that I think about it, most of the cars here do look like they are in really good shape. There are certainly some clunkers, but they are pretty rare in my experience (and Ive spent A LOT of time riding the city buses and looking at the cars here!) In order to buy a car, Brian needs his passport, resident visa and UAE drivers license. He also needs his Emirates ID card or proof that hes at least completed the application for it and is waiting for his appointment (more on that in another post).

Tickets and fines are handled a bit differently here as well. There are cameras everywhere in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and along the Sheik Zayed road that connects the two cities that monitor your speed. If you are speeding past the camera, it takes your picture and keeps track of your violations. When you show up to renew your license each year, you settle up your bill. Not sure if theres some kind of limit that causes your license to be revoked early Im guessing there probably is. Lets just say Brian and I plan to drive the speed limit! J

We started our search on dubizzle to get a sense of the types of cars out there and the general going rate. Like Craigslist, there was some variety, but overall it gave us a really good feel for whats popular and what cars are going for. We had originally thought we would buy another Audi, but after discovering that they aren’t as common as some of the other brands and that repair shops are a bit more difficult to fine, we decided to look at Lexus, BMW and Mercedes.

Our next stop was some of the used car lots along one of the main roads in downtown Abu Dhabi. This was an adventure. Picture a strip mall of used car dealers along the side of the road. Not the large used car lots like on Odana in Madison. Picture instead, shops the size of a small hair salon or Subway with a parking lot big enough for two rows of cars. In between these rows, parked as closely as possible, are the used cars for sale. Each has a tag in the window clearly displaying the make, model, year, mileage and price. Now, in between these cars are men sitting on lawn chairs. At first, we couldn’t figure out if they lived nearby and were just enjoying the evening or whether they had something to do with the cars. Well, we never did completely figure this one out, but as soon as you showed more than mild interest in a car, one of them would get up from their chair, saunter over, greet you and then start to tell you about the car. Our best guess is they either work for the auto dealer shop in the strip mall, or park their own cars near the dealers for better visibility.

At one point we stopped near this car, started to look interested and sure enough, here comes one of the men. He explained that he was speaking for his friend who owned the car because his English was better. Okay, fine with us. Then, once I realized it had black interior (imagine that in 120 degree summer heat!) we started to move on. This guy then said, wait, I have just decided to sell my car here tonight and its parked in back, come look. No, Im not kidding and not exaggerating! So, we went, had a look, but his car also had black interior so no deal. He then proceeded to tell us that the guys in the front of the stores were all crooks and that his car was a really good deal. We said thanks and made our way back to the front. He was very nice and I think sincerely trying to help us out, but his wasn’t the car we were looking for. While we didn’t find a car that night, we did start to narrow down our choices and really took a liking to the Lexus IS 300 (and also realized that Mercedes was definitely out of our price range).

After that experience, we decided to find some bigger used car showrooms and see what that experience would be like. We ended up first at a new car Lexus dealer (mostly because we couldn’t find Abu Dhabi Motors) and were directed to Al Futtaim motors across town that handled their used inventory. As soon as we stepped in, it was like we were back in the states desks around the perimeter of the showroom, bright shiny cars lined up in the middle, and right in front of us as we walked in was a Lexus IS 300. They were also offering free insurance for the first year, a one year service warranty and because they are a dealer, they would handle all the licensing and safety inspection logistics for us. And then came the bad news they don’t negotiate their prices. Now, I know for most of you that would be a huge plus in their favor, but remember that Brian used to sell cars and his favorite thing about buying a new car is the fun he gets to have negotiating the final price. He was pretty disappointed. We looked at a 2008 model that was at the very top of our budget and then our salesperson said there was a pearl blue 2007 in Dubai more comfortably in our budget range and with fewer miles. He offered to have it driven to Abu Dhabi for us to take a look at. This worked out well as it gave us a few days to do a bit more research on the car and dubizzle to see how prices would compare.

And we did look at a similar car offered by someone through dubizzle, which was slightly cheaper, but ultimately, we decided the ease of free insurance and having the dealer handle the logistics of licensing the vehicle was worth the extra dhirams. So, we are now the proud owners of a 2007 Pearl Blue Lexus IS 300 and Brian is soooo happy he no longer has to ride the bus to work!!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Desert Safari

Yippee! Our internet is now installed and I'm back online. I'll do my best to catch you up on what's been happening.

This year, February 14th was Mohammed’s Birthday and a national holiday in UAE (the actual day is based on the Muslim lunar calendar so it changes each year). Because the 14th was a Monday, the government decided to make the official holiday on Thursday so workers could have a 3-day weekend. We took advantage and the Epic group organized a desert safari trip including dune bashing, camel rides, sand boarding, an Arabic buffet, belly dancing and shisha smoking.

First on the agenda was the dune bashing. We drove out to the desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser and stopped with about 15 other cars. All the drivers then let some of the air out of their tires – I’m told this helps with traction in the sand – and then we formed a line and were off. Dune bashing is basically driving around like a crazy person in the sand dunes. There is actually a track that they follow so all the cars go in a line, but really fast – it’s a bit like a rollercoaster with no tracks. We hit some pretty steep sand dunes too! It’s pretty amazing the beating these land cruisers can take! At one point we got stuck going up a sand dune so slid all the way back down and had to try again. By this point, I was getting carsick and ready for the whole ordeal to be over, but most of the folks in the car loved it. We stopped twice to get out, look around and climb the sand dunes (actually, I think the breaks are strategically timed to let the car engines cool down!) Here are a few photos.

Next up was the camels and sand boarding. They had only two camels, so the camel ride was only about 10 feet and felt like those little pony rides at the fair when we were kids. Still, I can now say I’ve ridden a camel, which is about as comfortable as you might imagine (in other words, not at all!) The scariest part is when the camel lays back down to let you off - that's a long way down and they aren't very graceful about it! I love this picture here - it's as if the camel is saying, "not another load of heavy tourists!" And the covering on the other camel's mouth? We told ourselves it was because he was cold (not because he might be prone to spitting or biting. ;)

The “kids” as I’ve taken to calling the rest of the Epic crew in private (the oldest is only 28!) tried to do some sand boarding, which is just like snow boarding only down a sand dune rather than a snow hill. Even those who succeeded were finding sand in places they wouldn’t have thought possible. ;) Brian and I stayed at the bottom and took some pictures of the group.

Then we were off to dinner – a nice Arabian buffet with humous, babba ganouch, tabouli, rice, lamb, chicken, fish, lentil soup … let’s just say we didn’t go home hungry. The food was quite good and there was lots of it! After dinner, a few of us girls got our hands decorated with henna. This is a combination of plants that makes a dye that stays on your skin for up to 2 weeks. It’s much more common in India, but you see it here as well – it’s very popular for brides to be decorated with henna for their wedding. We got some simple designs on one hand as you can see in the photo below.

There was some belly dancing at this point and we went over to smoke some shisha. Yeah, I know how that sounds, but it’s not illegal, just flavored tobacco that is smoked through a water pipe called a hookah. It’s very popular to see people of all races, genders and ages smoking shisha after the evening meal in restaurants. Our flavor that night was anise, but it also comes in apple, watermelon, strawberry … I can’t say that I’m a big fan, but it was fun to try. We ended the night dancing deptka, which is a traditional Arabic line dance of sorts that’s most common at weddings (think of the chicken dance back home!) Luckily, one of the Epic team members is Lebanese so she was able to teach us enough of the dance to keep us from making total fools of ourselves. After a bit of dancing, they turned off all the lights so we could look at the stars, but the moon was so full that we couldn’t really see much. 

And then we were piling back into the Land Cruisers to head back to Abu Dhabi – luckily this time using the paved roads!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Might be offline for a bit

Today is moving day to our new apartment and we don't yet have internet service, so I might be offline for a bit. We've been told that establishing internet service can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Brian is on his way now to Etisalat to complete the application and get the process started. So, if you can't reach me, don't worry ... we're just having another adventure!! :)

Job Hunting - Part 2

I had my first interview yesterday with the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi for a Director of Training & Development position. Actually, it turned out to be more of a meet and greet meeting as I was informed that I'm really not qualified for the Director position because I don't have any health care or UAE experience, and they are absolutely right. After hearing more about the position, they really need someone with some existing connections in the UAE and a solid understanding of health care. So, the bad news is I didn't get a job yet, but the good news is that I had a great conversation with the hiring manager who is the Senior Director of Training & Development and she seemed to like me and said she'd love to see me on the team (her concern is that I'm overqualified for the positions she currently has open).

She has a couple of trainer positions open and is going to talk to the head of Patient Experience as she thinks there might be some positions there that might be a good fit. After hearing about the Patient Experience group, I would agree. They work on the non-technical side of things and focus on customer service, communication skills, working with the families, etc. Sounds like that could be very interesting. I remain hopeful that something might work out with them.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gourmet Abu Dhabi

Each year, the tourism bureau hosts Gourmet Abu Dhabi, which is a 2 week event of culinary excess and decadence. There are demonstrations by master chefs from all over the world, a number of different cooking workshops and, of course, elaborate dinners you can attend. The Master class demonstrations are free to the public, but filled up too fast for me to get a seat (although I found out later from a UK expat that even when they say the venue is full, there are often seats available if you go the day of and just try to get in). The workshops vary in price from about $60-$150 dollars a person and the dinners are outrageous ($300-900/person) So, I opted for the perfect compromise ... an all day Chocolate & Pastry workshop for around $60. (I know, Abu Dhabi is truly my kind of town!!)

There were 6 master patissiers from all over the world (I'm including the names for my friend, Susan, who might recognize a couple):

  • Angela Pinkerton - Eleven Madison - USA
  • Marke van Beurden - Caprice - Hong Kong
  • Janice Wong - 2am dessertbar - Singapore
  • Loretta Fanella - Italy
  • Carolyn Nugent - Bottega Louie - USA
  • Ruth Hinks - Cocoa Black - UK
The event started at 9:30 and finished around 3:45. We saw two patissiers at a time and then had a break to taste what they had just made. We also got a copy of all the recipes so we can try them at home (yeah, right - once you see some of the photos, you'll see that I probably won't be making most of them! - Or at least not like they were intended to be made! :)

Here are a few photos of their amazing creations:

Most of these women are part patissier and part artist, so some of the recipes were incredibly elaborate and complicated. A few really thought about the audience and brought recipes that were much less complicated and could be made at home by the average cook. There is a really nice chili mousse and a truffle recipe that I think I could handle. Even so, it was amazing to watch these chefs in action and hear them talk so passionately about their craft (and of course, having chocolate as a part of each dish didn't hurt either!)

The event was held at the Armed Forced Officer Club and Hotel, which is a huge complex with banquet facilities. Here are a few pictures of this amazing hotel.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Apartment Hunting - Part 4

We got it - we have an apartment, and yes, it's the one I wrote about in part 3. After some negotiating and no word on the Al Reem apartments, we decided to take an apartment in the Al Seef compound about 15 minutes from the downtown. I've still got to confirm, but I think there might be one bus route out that way as well (just not sure how far I'll need to walk to find it). We went back to take a second look yesterday and decided it was a good place for us. Our realtor is going to start the paperwork today, Sunday, and we may be able to take ownership as early as Monday or Tuesday. Our actual move in date will depend on a couple of other factors such as how well they clean the place first, Brian's schedule at work and how quickly we can get internet installed. We've been told internet set up can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, and neither of us likes the idea of being without internet for too long. (I'm sure getting that set up will be another adventure for the blog! ;) Once we've got confirmation of a move in date, I'll alert the cat shippers on both ends and get that process started. If all goes according to plan, Rogue should be an international kitty in early March.

Here are some photos!
A view of one of the roads in the compound. We think this will eventually be a gated community of apartments. Feels a bit like some of the time share properties we've stayed at.

This will be a BBQ area and the building behind it is the gym (still in progress). Behind that is a 25M lap pool that is ready to go, but still missing the sun chairs (I didn't get a photo of the pool yet.)

This is the front door to the building - the first parking spot on the right will be ours and the window to the left of the door will be our bedroom. These were originally intended to be 5-6 bedroom luxury villas, but the developer changed his mind partway through construction, so the 1st floor is a 2-bedroom unit, the 2nd floor is a 3-bedroom unit (with no outside space to speak of) and the 3rd floor is a 1-bedroom apartment with a HUGE patio that makes the place as big as our 2 bedroom. All three apartments will share this entry door, which is also locked. 

A view of the kitchen - yep, pretty tiny - not at all what we had on Soaring Sky, but we think we'll manage. I get a kick out of the baby stove. You can't see it well in the photo, but there's a good 4-5 inches between the left side of the stove and the wall, which makes it look even more tiny than it actually is. Just under the counter is the washer/dryer unit (similar to what we have in the hotel) - this is usually found in the kitchen, which is a bit odd for us. No dishwasher or microwave - not even a hook up for a dishwasher, so that's out. We can buy a microwave if we want - not sure if we can find one that would fit over the stove, we'll have to look into that. And where's the fridge, you ask? I totally forgot to get a picture of it, but it's actually in a built in cabinet on the other side of the wall next to the stove. I think we'll probably try to move it out of that cabinet and use that as a broom closet. I think it will get very annoying to have to open the cabinet before getting to the fridge!

The outdoor patio!! This photo is a little misleading as this was taken from one of the corner units, which we didn't like as much. Picture instead the wall ending where Brian and Felicia are standing - that's what ours will look like. Still hoping Rogue will be able to hang out here, but the walls on this side of the compound are a little lower so I'm not so sure it's going to be a good option for her. Incidentally, we chose this side because the patio will get morning sun - we're afraid afternoon sun in the middle of summer (or hell as we've heard it called) would be a mistake.

This gives a sense of the living area and entry. We really like the open floor plan of this place - haven't seen many kitchens set up like this around here. Often the kitchen is a separate closed off room in the apartment.

This is the master bedroom with an en suite bathroom, but I think we'll make it the office because of the patio doors and view. The bedrooms are essentially the same size and en suite bath is no big deal as both bathrooms are next to each other (and they're so tiny, we'll need to use both of them!)

Speaking of the tiny bathrooms. This is the guest bathroom with the tiniest shower I've ever seen outside of a campsite. :) The Master bath isn't much bigger, but does have a tub with a shower head. Single sinks in each and no storage at all - makes me glad I shipped a bunch of baskets.

This is technically the guest bedroom, but as I mentioned, I think we'll make it our bedroom. Nice size!

Same bedroom. Both have these built in closet wardrobes, which are really nice. There's a full length mirror on one of the doors and the next cabinet has a few drawers. Between the two bedrooms, I think we'll have enough storage for both of us.