Friday, April 29, 2011

Lebanon - Easter Sunday Dinner

Our Lebanese adventure culminated with Easter Dinner with Eli & Libby's family and friends. Libby cooked for approximately 40 of us and it was a delicious dinner. She had a huge ham, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, salads, a pineapple dish that was devoured quickly because it was so good, roasted vegetables and some fantastic desserts! In addition, Eli is a wine connoisseur so there was lots of great Lebanese wine as well. It actually felt a lot like an Easter at Mom Stoll's with lots of good food, good conversation, and fun. After lunch, one of the women sat down at the piano and the singing began. Actually, Libby told me later that it was a fairly calm event as often the singing progresses into dancing. We felt pretty honored to be part of the group and had a fabulous time.

The only real upset of the day was that Libby's oven exploded. Yep, not even exaggerating, it exploded! We had actually just walked in the door with Eli, who picked us up at our hotel, and saw glass all over the kitchen floor. Someone then explained that the outside glass of the over door simply exploded all over the kitchen! Luckily, no one was hurt and nothing was in the oven at the time. In fact, that what we all found so funny - the oven was off and had been off for a while as they were finished cooking. Weird. On the bright side, Libby is thrilled that she'll now get to shop for a new oven! :)

Easter celebrations seem pretty similar to what we'd have back home. Church service in the morning (we didn't attend, but others had) and family gatherings in the afternoon. Lebanon also celebrates Easter Monday, which is another day off work. The joke is that between the Muslim holidays, the Orthodox Christian holidays and the Catholic Christian holidays, there aren't many days left to actually work! (sounds good to me ;)

It was great to be able to celebrate the holiday with such generous friends! Thank you Eli & Libby for the fantastic weekend!! 

Lebanon - Byblos

As we headed down the mountain to lunch, the temperature rose and the sun came out and we finished the afternoon with bright sunny skies and a temp of around 80. We had a fabulous lunch of steak, potatoes, salad and red wine (hey, we were on vacation after all!) at a cute little cafe. Here's a photo of us toasting our fabulous weekend.

Our last stop for the day was Byblos, which is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is believed to have been founded in about 5000 B.C. The main attraction here is the church and castle built by the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. In addition, you can see layers and layers of city ruins showing just how many civilizations have called Byblos home over the centuries. You could spend a whole day poking around the ruins of the castle and grounds - lots to see and such a beautiful location overlooking the Mediterranean. Here are a few photos to give you a sense of the place.

Surrounding the castle and church are a number of shops and restaurants. One in particular sells fish fossils found on the site. I couldn't get any pictures as they were for sale and in a shop, but some were really amazing. Didn't get a lot of time to look around though as it was starting to get late, the boys weren't much into shopping, and we had dinner plans. So, it was off to our hotel to rest up a bit before dinner. A long day, but so much fun and such diversity!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lebanon - The Cedars

After our visit to the Gibran museum, we continued North to an area in the mountains known as the Cedars and even a bit further in to the ski resort area. These cedars are some of the oldest trees in the world, many of them hundreds of years old. The grove of trees is surrounded by a number of little tourist shacks selling all kinds of wood carvings, local crafts and honey (yum!). We stopped to pick up some honey for Libby and the shop owner made Brian and I a present - a cedar keychain with our names and the date - cute. It was probably low 40s on this day and the shop keepers were all wearing snowpants and heavy coats. Brian and I were just happy not to be sweating! :) Here are a couple of nice shots of the center of 'town' and the huge cedar tree in its middle.

A bit further north is the ski resort area. The slopes had shut down a few weeks earlier, but there was still actually a little bit of snow on the ground - just enough for two homesick Wisconsinites. Here are a few pics of the ski slopes. Note Eli in a coat and Brian and I with just a long sleeve shirt and light sweater.

After visiting the snow, we headed back down the mountains for some lunch. Here are a few pics on our way back.

It was a gorgeous drive and was interesting to see the variety of the countryside. Next it was time for some lunch and a tour of Byblos.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lebanon - Khalil Gibran

Saturday morning of our visit dawned a bit overcast and rainy, but still quite pleasant. Our plan was to travel north to the mountains and ski resort area and on the way visit the museum and home of Khalil Gibran. Gibran is best known as the author of The Prophet, a collection of spiritual poems. I had never heard of Gibran or The Prophet, but I'll bet many of you have as it's been translated into more than 20 languages and the American versions have sold more than 9 million copies. And I've been told, I'll recognize some of the passages as they are very popular readings at weddings.

We travelled North and up the mountain and watched the temp gauge in the car go from 68 when we started to 41 near the top! Gibran's museum was a bit more than halfway to the ski area and a gorgeous drive. Here are just a few of the photos I took on the way up.

The museum is located in Gibran's home and has it's own set of amazing views. The museum is filled with information about his life and then many of his paintings, so it was a bit like an art gallery. I couldn't take any photos in the museum itself, but here are a few of the grounds and the views. I think the overcast skies and dreary weather actually added to the feel of the place - very mysterious and spiritual.

Easter in Lebanon

CORRECTION (April 27): The war damage depicted in some of these photos is actually from the Civil War that ran from 1975-1982. Any damage caused by the Hezbollah conflict has been repaired since then by Hezbollah. Sorry for any confusion and thank you Libby for helping me get my facts straight!

Living in a Muslim country, I was surprised to find chocolate eggs and Easter baskets in Abu Dhabi (no peeps, thank goodness), but even so, Easter Sunday isn't considered a public holiday and since the work week is Sunday - Thursday, Easter was just another work day here. Luckily, we were invited to spend the weekend in Lebanon with our friends Eli (Lebanese) and his wife, Libby (American) so Brian took a couple of days of vacation and we headed to Beirut. Lebanon has an almost equal split between Christian and Muslim so at least half of the population was celebrating Easter! :)

It was interesting to travel to Beirut after all we've heard from the American media. I took a peek at Trip Advisor, which is a travel review website I use frequently to see reviews on restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions and saw a travel advisory warning from the US State Department. We went anyway as we've started to observe that the US State Department is incredibly cautious and we would be with local residents who've lived in Lebanon for over 15 years and managed through their war in 2006. As expected, we didn't have any problems whatsoever, but did see a number of military personnel on the streets and at a few road check points as we travelled. I'm not sure I'd go camping in the remote mountains of Lebanon, but I felt perfectly safe in Beirut and at the major tourist attractions.

Lebanon is a relatively small country in Western Asia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south. And it is beautiful! Lots of mountains and right on the Mediterranean. This shot is the view from our hotel and it's not like we were staying in some posh 5 start resort either - it's just the kind of view you can easily find in Lebanon.

The people of Lebanon are very business savvy, generous, friendly, loud, full of life and fun, and some of the best dressed folks in this part of the world. Fashion, hair and makeup are a high priority (so as you can imagine, I felt frumpy and under dressed the entire trip! ;) Guests are treated like royalty here and as our friend Eli put it, "when we have a guest, we don't want them to touch their wallet while they are here." Let's just say we felt very welcomed and very pampered our whole trip.

We arrived on Friday afternoon and Eli and Libby met us at the airport and took us on a tour of Beirut. As I mentioned, the population is almost equally divided between Christian and Muslim so you see the clear influences of both. Mosques and churches sit side by side in some areas of Beirut and in fact, at the evening call to prayer, we heard the Muezzin from the Mosque and the bells from the Catholic church next door at the same time.  LOL! Trying to outdo each other for sure. Beirut, and in fact, all of Lebanon is also very open, so we saw liquor stores and billboards, lingerie shops and all matters of dress (at least in the Christian areas of the city). It was quite a change from what we've gotten used to in Abu Dhabi. This is one of my favorite billboards - who knew Playboy also sold an energy drink? :) And yes, that's snow! This was taken in the ski resort area near the Cedars, which I'll post more about over the next few days.
The other thing to notice about Beirut is war damage. Growing up in Wisconsin we couldn't begin to appreciate the destruction of the 2006 Lebanon War between Hezbollah and Israel. Much of Beirut was destroyed and has been repaired and built back up since then. Here are a few pics of some of the buildings that haven't yet been repaired.

Much of Beirut has been repaired, however, so many areas are really nice with high end shopping, lots of cafes and restaurants, hotels, ... Lebanon's biggest industry is tourism, and it's easy to see why when you consider the moderate climate, the mountains and the Mediterranean. As one gentleman told me, "you can be skiing in the morning and an hour later be swimming in the sea." Here are some photos from one of the nicest areas in Beirut and a popular tourist area. (Notice the military officer in the 3rd pic.)
Another beautiful part of the city are the huge old Victorian houses you see tucked between old war torn buildings or glittering new high rises. Here's one of the beauties we stopped to admire. It reminds me a bit of the old Victorians in the US, but these tend to be narrower and higher. Really lovely houses.
After our tour, we checked into our hotel and then had a late dinner of cheeses, cold cuts and wonderful Lebanese wine at Eli & Libby's. We sat out on their balcony with that gorgeous view of the city and the Mediterranean and actually got a little cool. Lebanon has a moderate climate with four seasons so it's spring now and starting to get warmer during the day, but still cool at night (I had to borrow a coat!) I didn't even bring a coat to UAE because I knew I'd never need it - guess I should have planned ahead for when we travel. :) Before heading off to bed, we made plans to meet up the next morning at 9am to start our tour of Northern Lebanon.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Case of the Missing Water Bottle

Pop Quiz: Can you drink the water out of the taps here in UAE?
Answer: Yes, however, it tastes awful.

So, most people either buy bottled water at the hypermarket or, like us, own a water cooler and have 5-gallon bottles of water delivered each week by the water company. We get our water from Oasis and the system is pretty simple. You can pay cash each week (10 dirhams for each bottle) or you can purchase a coupon book and use those to pay for each bottle each week. You also pay a deposit on the bottle (25 dirhams) and have to purchase a minimum of 2 bottles to get the whole process started. The company comes each Saturday and replaces our empty bottle with a full one ... at least that's how it had worked up until last weekend.

Friday night: Wanting to sleep in the next morning and afraid I'd miss the water truck, I set my bottle outside our building with the coupon under it the night before.

Saturday morning: Wondering if our water had arrived yet, I stepped outside to check and not only had the water guys not yet arrived, but my empty bottle and coupon were nowhere in sight! At first, I thought maybe I remembered wrong and hadn't set the bottle and coupon out the night before, so I went back in the apartment and checked. Nope, no empty water bottle there either. So back outside and I started looking around the building to see if maybe it had blown into the courtyard or something. No luck. Truly, I was a little dumbfounded and must have looked it because one of the workers at the compound asked me if there was a problem. I explained that our water bottle was missing and after some pantomiming and gesticulating, he understood me and went off in search of my missing bottle. Where he was planning to look was beyond our ability to communicate in English. :)

I waited around a bit, but didn't hear anything so went in search of the building manager. Actually, we don't yet have a building manager, but there was an open house going on so I went over and talked to the women running the showings. I was beginning to form a theory about what had happened. Every morning, a guy with a shopping cart comes around to empty our garbage cans. My theory is that he saw the water bottle, assumed it was trash, and took it to the dumpster.

I found the woman in charge and explained to her what had happened. She called over a different workman from the compound and asked him to look around for my bottle. She assured me we'd work something out, so I headed back to our apartment.

A while later, the water guys showed up (and I still didn't have my water bottle). I explained to them what I thought may have happened, but of course, there wasn't anything they could do to help so I ended up paying another 25 dirham deposit for another water bottle. (sigh)

And, of course, less than 30 minutes later, the second workman came back with my water bottle and the mystery was solved. Two other workman had swept out the carport and the entry way of our building that morning and assumed the water bottle was trash and took it to the dumpster. So, I now have 2 empty water bottles and I think I'll keep the spare in a safe place in case the building entry gets cleaned again. :)

Monday, April 18, 2011

More Driving Observations

I realized as I was driving Brian into work today that I forgot a couple of driving observations, so here goes.

Speed limits are posted pretty much like they are in the states except the signs are round and printed in both English and Arabic. Many of the larger roads also have a limit for cars that is higher than the limit for trucks. What's different is the "limit" versus the "maximum speed". I told you about the cameras in my last post, and each camera is set to go off at a certain speed ... a limit that is publicized and common knowledge. For instance, on one of the roads Brian takes to work, the posted limit for cars is 100kph, but everyone knows (because it's been in the papers, the radio and probably in the driving handbook you're issued with your license) that the cameras go off when you are over 120kph. And 120 is the hard and fast rule - at 121, you get a ticket. The highway limit on the main road between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is posted at 120kph for cars, but the camera limit was known as 160. However, due to a huge 27 car pileup a few weeks ago on that road, the gov't decided to modify the camera limits to 140kph. This has been all over the radio and papers for the last week and a half, so everyone knows not only what the change is, but exactly when it will go into effect. In fact, on that road they now have billboards announcing the new maximum speed (140kph). The challenge for visitors, though, is that the posted signs say 120 and the billboards say 140! :)

Turn lanes are another big thing to get used to here. First, try to picture what most of the roads look like. In each direction, there are 4-5 lanes of traffic and each side is separated by a very wide median with lovely plants, trees, landscaping and sometimes a fence. If you're heading West and your destination is on the East-bound side of the street, you need to do a U-Turn because there are very few cutovers to get to the other side. So, at the stoplight, the far most left lane is for left turns and U-Turns (this is the ONLY lane you can use for U-Turns). The next 2 left lanes are for left turns. The first of these is clearly marked as a left turn only lane, but the 3rd lane from the left is marked as straight, but everyone knows you can use this lane to turn left as well. In fact, often the majority of drivers in that 3rd lane are turning left. Because that 3rd lane wasn't technically designed to be a left turn lane, these cars often have to merge over into the 2nd lane as they make the turn. Life lesson? Try to be in the first or third lane to avoid being merged into on either side!

Round abouts are another common road element and we've gotten used to them quickly. They are a bit scary at first, but once you've navigated a few, they start to make sense and really work quite well. As a pedestrian, however, I stay well clear of round abouts as I can't at all figure out how or when to cross them.

Finally, there are the street signs. Abu Dhabi has an intricate grid pattern to it that was designed by some engineers way back when and intended to make it simple to locate buildings. The problem is that it's complicated and no one uses it. The system is set up a little like this. First there are the odd numbered main streets that run parallel to the Corniche and run the length of the island. The road along the Corniche is 1st street (also known as Corniche Road East or West), then each next road running parallel is the next odd number, so the next road is 3rd (aka Khalifa St) - oh, but this one doesn't run all the way across, just through a small section, so the next street from 1st could be 5th depending on where you're coming from. ;) 5th Street also doesn't run all the way across, so it's possible to go from 1st street to 7th street actually. 5th is also know as Al Nasr (by the map, I've never heard it called this) or Hamdan street, which seems to be the preferred name. Next is 7th street (aka Sheikh Zayed the First street - yeah, that's not confusing at all! or I've also heard it referred to as Elecktra Street, I think because of all the electronics stores on it). So you get the picture on the odd numbered streets.

Then comes the even numbered streets, which all build out from 2nd street (Airport Road or Old Airport Road) which is the main artery in and out of the city. If you go East from 2nd, the numbers run even starting with 4th (Muroor), 6th (Bani Yas or Najda) and 8th (Al Salam or Eastern Ring Road). If you go the other direction, they run even starting with 24th (Al Karamah) and no, I have no idea why they jumped from 2 to 24. Then 26th (Al Nahyan or King Khalid bin Abdel Aziz), then 28th (Khalifa bin Shakhbout), 30th (Al Khaleej Al Arabi) - again, you get the idea. Sometimes the taxi drivers know the numbers and sometimes the names ... so I carry a map EVERYWHERE!

But that's not all, those are just the main streets that make up the main grid of the street system. In between each of these blocks are a whole host of smaller streets with tons of shops and restaurants. That wouldn't be so bad except that these streets also use a numbering system that has some logic within that specific block, but is truly confusing if you're trying to give any directions. To make a long post a little shorter, let's just say that there are a number of 6th streets in Abu Dhabi, so you'd have to put a lot more context around it if you want to give that as a direction! :)

Oh, and I think I've mentioned that the area where we live is still too new to have any street signs at all, so there are none whatsoever. We use a series of different landmarks to get people to our house.

Okay, enough about the roads and driving, but let me leave you with one last thing, which is a road sign we see as we drive into Dubai on the main highway. It's an official road sign put up by the gov't and says ...

Be aware of road surprises

:) It's my favorite sign so far.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Observations - Day 92

It's been a little over 3 months since we arrived in Abu Dhabi and while not as frequent, there are still things that give me pause. Now that I have my driver's license and have taken the car a few times, I've noticed a few things.

  • Just like 55mph is the 'general' speed limit in the US, 120kph is the equivalent here. And to remind you of this, the cars start to beep when you go over 120kph to let you know you are now speeding. The beeping stops after a few more kph over 120, which is good because the highway limits can be as high as 140. We think there's actually a way to turn off the beeping, but for now, it's kind of a nice reminder.
  • Traffic cams are everywhere and are used in lieu of patrolmen to issue tickets. Supposedly, when you're caught, the camera will flash and that's how you know you've gotten a ticket. The more reliable way, however, is to check the traffic dept website periodically to see if you have any tickets or fines. Brian has gotten 2 speeding tickets so far! You can then pay the lower rate immediately online or wait until you need to renew your car license (yearly) and pay a heftier fine at that time. We opted for the cheaper option and are both watching our speed carefully from here on out. :)
  • With all the blowing dust and sand, it is almost impossible to keep your car clean for very long, so there are car washers all over the place. One option is to go through the automatic car wash at the gas station, but more convenient are all the laborers in the car parks that will wash your car while you shop or run errands. They often have a cart with water, rags and soap and wash your car by hand. I've even heard of workers who will wash your car once or twice per week at your place of business for a monthly fee. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find one of those guys near Brian's office, but if we find one, we're hiring him!
  • Parking is a complete nightmare. Not only is there not enough parking, but people park so crazy and just about anywhere, that it's often a challenge to even drive through a lot looking for a spot. The gov't is working on creating more paid parking, which will help as it establishes clear parking spots and keeps the rental car agencies from taking all the spots. The downside, of course, is that you then have to pay to park, but honestly, I think it will be worth it to have some organization.
  • There is a toll system in Dubai called Salik. In many ways it's like the iPass system where you buy the device (here it's a simple small card with a chip in it) and it's all open road tolling - no stopping. In fact, unlike in the states, you can't pay as you go, you have to buy the salik card even if you're only in Dubai for one visit. Pretty convenient though, you buy the card, stick it on your windshield and then can top it off online. You have to remember to check your balance though as the fine for not having a card can be pretty steep.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A visit to the Plant Souk

As I mentioned in other posts, there are a few souks (or markets) in town that specialize in a certain type of item. So far, we've been to the carpet souk, the fruit and vegetable souk and last weekend, we ventured out to the plant souk. The plant souk is a large area near the ports with a number of different small shops/stalls that sell both indoor and outdoor plants.

The plant souk is much more mellow than the carpet souk and no one paid any attention as we drove up. There were quite a few folks milling around and a number of trucks. We didn't need it, but I had heard that people with trucks are on hand to deliver your plants for a small fee. We were looking for indoor plants for the apartment this time around, but couldn't help but get sidetracked by all the amazing outdoor plants. The place is very crowded with plants so you have to look carefully to see everything. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos because I didn't even think to take the camera - next time, I promise.

The indoor plants are in the back in the actual shops so we made our way through the maze of plants to the back. The shops are little greenhouses with lots of indoor plants. What we found most surprising was that many of them are the same plants you can get back home. I guess we were expecting something totally different and exotic, but when you think of it, indoor plants are probably pretty similar all over the world. We did end up finding two plants that we hadn't had back in the states and we thought would look nice in our place. With the first shop, I tried to bargain a little, but the shop owner wasn't playing. He didn't even flinch as we started to walk away! I figured either 1) that really was the best price he could give me, or 2) he had just made a big sale and didn't really care about this one.

We found another shop with the same plants and sure enough, he gave me the same prices as the last guy. I tried to bargain and he explained that he was only making 5 dhiram on the sale already and couldn't reduce the price. He was a really nice guy and since we'd just had a similar experience, I believed him. And so instead tried to negotiate on the price of repotting the plants and getting a nicer planter. That worked a little, but it wasn't quite the bargaining fun we had with the carpet guys. :)

Here are some photos of our new plants. Now let's see if I can keep them alive and healthy!!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

New Zealand Wine Dinner

In a country where the vast majority of the population (and the rulers) are Muslim and don't drink alcohol, we figured one of our favorite pastimes (Wine dinners) would be on hiatus while living here. So, I was thrilled to find an invitation to a wine dinner in my inbox. There is an Abu Dhabi Wine Society in town that organizes events like this and I ended up on their mailing list.

The wine dinner had three main goals. 1) to raise money for the Christchurch earthquake victims, 2) to introduce a new winery's wines to Abu Dhabi, and 3) to welcome and introduce the newly arrived New Zealand Ambassador. It was sponsored by GMP, which is one of about 3 liquor stores in Abu Dhabi and hosted at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. The winery featured was Spyglass Winery, which is located in the Marlborough area of New Zealand (we had visited that region before, but not this particular winery).

Since the legal limit for alcohol while driving is 0, we decided to take a taxi to the event. We arrived and were early (typical American trait I'm told, but unique for a Stoll ;) so were seated at the bar and offered some really nice white wines - also from NZ, but not from the featured winery. We had a fun time just people watching as others arrived. As you can imagine, it was all expats - American, British, lots of NZ, Australian, probably South African. Such a difference to see so many Westerners in one place at once since outside an event like this, we make up maybe 10% of the population. What's nice at these kinds of events is that it's easy to start a conversation with anyone because you can always fall back on "Where are you from?" or "How long have you been in Abu Dhabi?" This always generates at least 10 minutes of conversation while you each swap stories of how you ended up here.

Once most arrived, we were seated at our own table by the window - a prime table and we were told it was because we were some of the first to arrive! :) There was a short introduction about the event and the Ambassador said hello and then we started in with dinner. Dinner was good and the wines were good also. We had a nice pumpkin soup, a cheese tart, duck for the entree and a nice dessert. The wines went well with the food and we really liked two of the red wines. You could purchase the wines at the event for a discount, so of course we had to take advantage of that offer! We also signed up for the wine society so we're sure to get their newsletter and invites to all future events. It was a great evening and so nice to know events like this happen in AD.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Residing & Driving

Today was a very productive day! I am now a legal resident of the UAE (not that I was ever illegal, just that I was only a visitor) AND I am the proud owner of a UAE driver's license ... all in the same day. Here's how the rest of the story turned out.

Last I wrote, we were missing just one more stamp on my visa application. Well, our PRO (Public Relations Officer - remember? the guys with the wasta) got the ever elusive stamp and Brian headed back to Dubai to again visit the immigration office and sign my visa application. I didn't go this time - I didn't need to be there anyway and I'm sure I had something important going on ... like a pedicure! ;)

Once the application had been submitted, it was time for my health exam. To get a visa here in UAE, you have to complete a medical test, which includes a blood sample and a chest x-ray. In short, they are looking for HIV, Hepatitis and TB. I can't even imagine how awful it would be to find out that kind of a diagnosis while completing a medical exam for your visa! The exam wasn't too difficult. Brian had to work that day so I headed to Dubai on the Emirates Express bus, which is a lot like the Van Galder or Badger bus back home, but only costs 35 dhiram round trip (less than $10!!) The trip was about 2 hours, so a little longer than driving yourself, but the coach is comfy and I had my audio book to keep me occupied. I got off at the World Trade Center and tried to find the metro, but failed so hailed a taxi to take me to "Knowledge Village" which is where you get the medical exam.

We had to find gate 12 in Knowledge Village and I realized quickly that my taxi driver either couldn't read at all or couldn't read English because the road signs were pretty clear, but he didn't know where to go. I tried to help, but the language barrier was too great so he stopped in front of one of the security guards. Soon we were again on our way and I was dropped safely at Gate 12. There I met our PRO who took me through the paperwork process (that's the huge benefit of the PRO - he knows exactly where he's going and can field any questions or problems).

The "exam" was first a blood draw (expertly done I might add) and then a chest x-ray. Pretty straight forward and we were out of there in maybe 20 minutes. The PRO dropped me at the Metro station and after a short side trip to the Dubai mall, I headed back home. Piece of cake!!

Today, then, we again met up with the PRO (Brian driving this time) and headed to the immigration office once again. Brian went in and signed for my visa and all was well (and the counter guy wasn't surly this time ... maybe because we had all our stamps?:) Oh, and have you noticed that the only time I had to be there for MY visa was during the medical exam? Otherwise, only my sponsor, Brian had to appear in person. So, I now have my husband-sponsored residency visa, which is good until 2014 and lists my occupation as housewife ... don't even start!

Next up was the driver's license, which I've actually already written about when Brian got his. It was exactly the same process except I got to be in the "ladies only" line so was done in about 20 minutes compared to Brian's 40. I think I'm gonna miss the "ladies only" lines when we return home. :)

We headed back to Abu Dhabi and Brian is finishing out the rest of the work day. And me? I had to take the car for a spin of course! :)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Path of Roses

The last three weeks have been the Abu Dhabi Festival, which is a cultural event sponsored by one of the Sheikhs and designed to celebrate arts, music, dance ... in Abu Dhabi. There have been many events including a robust educational program, community program and some high end dinners and award ceremonies. There is everything from free exhibits, lectures and concerts to expensive gala dinners and big name performers. We've taken advantage of a few free things and one of those was the Path of Roses art exhibit. 

The artist is Rachid Koraichi from Algeria and the piece is a retrospective created from a combination of types of calligraphy and other symbols he finds interesting. I'm not a big art enthusiast so can't at all interpret his work, but I did find the exhibit stunning to look at. Here are a few pictures of the combination of sculptures, pottery, lighting and metalwork that made up his piece.

 This photo gives you the best overall idea of the exhibit. The whole piece was housed in a relatively small rectangular box that you stepped up into and walked through. The artist said it was to enclose the piece so you weren't distracted by anything around it. This was significant because the exhibit was housed in the Emirates Palace hotel, which can be pretty distracting! :)

Down the center of the exhibit were the calligraphy sculptures. They are a combination of symbols from a number of different cultures so don't have a single clear meaning. Then below them on each side are these beautifully decorated shallow bowls. Each is filled with a small amount of water and 3 rose petals float in each one.

Along the far wall is a collection of more symbols hung from the wall. The lighting is then set up so that they create overlapping shadows on the wall - really stunning to see. And because he built this separate space, it's really quiet in there - Brian and I were the only two there when we visited so that added to the atmosphere.

This is the view from the other side, standing with my back to the wall in the photo above. If you look closely, you can also see that along each wall, there are curtains of varying lengths. Above the curtains is a silhouette of more symbols and behind the sheer part of the curtain sits another of the sculptures you see in the middle aisle as well as some embroidered cloth. Lots of mixed materials in the exhibit which made it really interesting to look at.

You can also see the bowls a bit better in this photo and the 3 rose petals floating in each.

At the other end of the exhibit was this filial metal work. It was attached to the wall horizontally and then lighted from above to create this interesting shadow. The artist says this is the focal point of the piece. We just thought it was gorgeous.

And here's a close up view of the pottery bowls. This type of decoration on everyday objects is a hallmark of Arabic art. The elaborate calligraphy and detail in the design is amazing to look at. 

As I mentioned, this exhibit was part of the Abu Dhabi Festival and free to the public. It was housed in the Emirates Palace hotel in the lobby area of the auditorium there. After we took in the exhibit, we poked around the hotel a bit more just cuz it's so fabulous. We were even able to find our way to the spa entrance and then out the back onto the beach area. We weren't really supposed to be there, but had been lead to this area by a helpful hotel employee when looking for a restroom. Lucky us! Here are a few more photos of the Emirates Palace hotel.

The first photo is of a HUGE Tahitian pearl and diamond ring. I can't even imagine how it would fit comfortably on your finger! But it is gorgeous - we weren't brave enough to even find out how much it costs.  The second photo is the hallway leading to the hotel spa. As we were trying to get this photo, a young couple with a baby strolled by, we assume headed for their room. How can a couple so young afford this place?! Honestly, some people just have TOO much money (and it's too bad Brian and I aren't some of those people! ;)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Splendours of Mesopotamia

Last weekend we visited Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island, which is in the process of becoming a cultural center in Abu Dhabi. The plans for this area are huge and include a Louvre museum, a Guggenheim museum, the Zayed National museum and I'm sure many more.

The Zayed National Museum held an architectural contest for the design of the building. The winning design is from Foster & Partners and looks just amazing. It's modeled off of the wings of a falcon. I couldn't copy any photos of the design as they are all copyrighted, but here's a link to the website where you can read about the museum and see some of the amazing design renderings. Looks like it will be quite a place.

Zayed National Museum

Most of these places won't be ready until 2013 or later, but Manarat Al Saadiyat was built to provide occasional previews of what's to come from the Zayed National Museum. I'm not sure if this building is to be temporary and then taken down once the museum is built or if it's part of the museum that's simply been built first to 'whet the appetite'. In any case, it's a really brilliant idea to bring in a few exhibits before things are finished to get people used to going out there and excited about what is to come. Oh, and yes, it's all free!! The exhibit we went to see is called the Splendours of Mesopotamia and is on loan from the British Musuem and the Al Ain National Museum.

Mesopotamia is considered the birthplace of the first international cities as it was located ideally for trade. The exhibit focused on 3 of the major areas: Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon and tracks the growth of these cites through the centuries as well as the political ups and downs of their rulers. It was a really interesting exhibit, especially since we are here in UAE and this all happened, not across the world like when visiting things like this in the States, but across the Gulf. They even had a small area describing what was going on in the area now known as UAE around the same time. Not big cities developing, but interesting all the same. The exhibit included pottery, jewelry and mostly pieces of architecture and murals. There were also a number of interesting artifacts related to the first written word, which was fun to see. They used a stylus and made little hatch marks with different sides of the instrument to make the words. This all on clay tablets, so a list of goods looks like a little clay tablet with chicken feet markings on it. We got the complimentary audio tour as well, which provided more details than the placards in place.

It was a great outing and very interesting and it still blows our mind that all these things are free. They are all sponsored by a Sheikh in the area and designed to promote the arts and make Abu Dhabi a favorite tourist destination. I can't wait to watch this area grow and develop over the next few years.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stormy Weather

Today I got my first up close and personal view of an Arabian sand storm, and it really wasn't that fun. I had plans to meet some new friends downtown for lunch so headed out around 10:30 to catch the bus. My first clue was how overcast the sky was when I stepped outside. It was gray like it was going to rain, but just couldn't. It also looked really dusty - almost like smoke or fog. And it was windy, but not outrageously so. I walked out of the compound onto the road and started heading to the bus stop and that's when the wind picked up. It was windy that's for sure, and pretty annoying, but the worst part was all the dust, sand and grit in the wind. Within a few minutes, I felt like I was covered in grit and the fine sheen of sweat due to the temperature didn't help the situation any. And darn it, I was wearing lip gloss again! I waited a little more than 20 minutes for the bus to arrive and the wind and sand storm continued that whole time. By the time I reached my destination, it had calmed down and while still windy, not nearly so much as earlier and it wasn't picking up the dust and sand. So, the fun news is that I now know what a sand storm is like, and the not-so-fun news is that I need another shower. ;)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Working through my Resident Visa

Yes, I've been here now almost 3 months and still don't have my resident visa! To get a visa in UAE, you need to be sponsored by either 1) your employer, 2) your parents, or 3) your spouse. Obviously, I fall into the 3rd category. Brian has been coordinating all the visas for the Epic team, which had some bumps, but now is a relatively painless process and takes less than one month, so the newest members here haven't even had to get a visitor visa extension, which is great. Unfortunately, a spouse-sponsored visa is a totally different process and since it's our first time through it, it's taking a while.

The first step was to get an attested marriage certificate and my college transcripts over here. I don't technically need the transcripts for the spouse visa, but since I plan to work, I'll need that in the future so we got it at the same time. This requires sending the docs to the US Embassy in DC, then to the UAE Embassy in DC and then onto UAE. I mailed these docs at the end of December and we FINALLY received what we needed just two weeks ago. Until we had those docs, we couldn't even begin the process over here.

The next step is working with our Public Relations Officer (PRO). A PRO isn't required, I don't think, but they know the legal ropes and regulations and can get paperwork through MUCH faster than if you tried to do it yourself. Some things in UAE work on what they call 'wasta', which you can kind of think of as clout or negotiation power. PROs have that wasta and as such can help you get things done. So, the PRO helped Brian complete the paperwork for my visa and then they had to go to the Immigration office in Dubai to submit it.

Strike One - Apparently, we're missing a necessary stamp. (sigh) So, the PRO has to work through that and when it's again ready, Brian will need to make another trip to Dubai to try again. Unlike the business visas that the PRO can work through the process, Brian has to be there in person for mine since he himself is the sponsor - what a pain. The worst part is that my visitor visa expires on the 15th and I don't want to have to do a border run to extend it. I've got all fingers and toes crossed that things will work out by the end of the week!