Sunday, August 28, 2011

Eid Mubarak!

The first day of Eid Al Fitr (the 3 day Festival of Fast Breaking) will be either tomorrow or Wednesday depending on the sighting of the moon. It's the biggest Muslim holiday of the year and marks the end of Ramadan and the start of the next month in the Muslim calendar, which is called Shawwal. Eid Al Fitr is celebrated with prayers, breaking the fast, visiting relatives, gift giving and eating (during the day now!). There is also a huge charity component to the holiday as charity is one of the five pillars of Islam so there are a lot of charity drives being advertised and conducted during this time.

For the working set, it means 2-5 days off of work depending on your situation. All government workers got the entire week off (Sun-Thurs), some of the other public sector workers get Tues - Thur off and some get either Tues & Wed or Wed & Thur. And yet others still don't know which days they'll have off because the holiday is dependent on the moon sighting. One woman I talked to said she and her husband need to watch the late news on Monday night to determine if he needs to go into work on Tuesday! It seems a bit crazy that in these days of technology we can't forecast the moon sighting, but I've read that the Muslim leaders are actually trying hard to keep the old traditions of human eye moon sighting rather than rely on technology. Not sure what the true story is, but it makes for interesting vacation planning.

I found this article in the Abu Dhabi Weekly magazine and thought it was a nice example of how Emiratis celebrate Eid. Enjoy!
An Emirati Eid (article)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Getting Lost in Lanzarote

This is my final post from our vacation in July to Lanzarote, Spain (one of the Canary Islands). I've mentioned in other posts that we tended to get lost every time we got into the car - partly due to our map, partly due to the large number of one-way streets in Lanzarote and of course, partly due to my terrible navigation skills. The benefit, however, turned out to be some really lovely photos of places I can't really name because I couldn't find them on the map! :) Enjoy!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tenerife Sunday Market

We're about to head out on another vacation next week, so I figured I'd better finish up my posts about Lanzarote! :) (yes, ANOTHER vacation - it's a burden we must bear. :)

There isn't a lot to do in Lanzarote as the goal is sun, sand and swimming, so even though Brian would prefer a root canal to shopping, I convinced him to check out the Sunday market in Tenerife. I pictured quaint little stalls with Spanish handicrafts and fun food ... yeah, that's right, it was nothing like that at all. :) The drive was pretty, however, and we did get a small taste of life on Lanzarote, which is primarily aimed at getting tourists to buy junk at high prices.

We found Tenerife without too much trouble, which is saying something as we got slightly lost almost every time we got in the car. We had a map, but sometimes the roads we were driving on weren't listed on the map and sometimes the map showed a road that we couldn't find in the real world, so navigation was a bit challenging. Luckily, it's a fairly small island so getting really lost is hardly possible.

We parked and headed off to the market, which felt a bit like the Madison Farmer's market if it were held in the Wisconsin Dells, didn't sell any local food or produce and wasn't as logically laid out. ;) Here are a few photos.
Start of the market - there were some nice little cafes here.
Mobs of people! 
This guy was from Senegal, West Africa! Brian said hello in wolof, which surprised and amused him.
Much to my disappointment, we didn't find a single souvenir worth buying here and ended up with only a bag of State Fair doughnuts. We had some lunch at one of the little cafes like in the first photo and then headed back to the resort ... the long way so we could see some more of the island. Here are a few photos from our scenic drive back to Puerto del Carmen.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ramadan Ramblings: Iftar at the Fairmont

With less than a week left of Ramadan, we finally made it to our first Iftar. The Iftar is the meal taken at sunset to break the fast of the day. Yesterday, in Abu Dhabi, Iftar started at 6:54pm. We decided to try the Iftar at the Cedar Lounge in the Fairmont hotel. In a nutshell, Iftar is simply a buffet with different foods that you may only see during Ramadan. There is also typically local music - either live or piped in.

We sat down to a small plate of dried dates, apricots and figs and were immediately served water. Traditionally, Muslims break their fast with sips of water and dates in honor of Mohammed, who is said to have broken his fasts in that manner. Then, we were offered "Ramadan juices" of which there were 3: apricot juice, tamarind juice and a third I didn't catch the name of. The apricot was very thick and fresh although a little warm for our tastes. The tamarind juice was my favorite - it was slightly sweet with a hint of Rose essence - very interesting. The third one I don't know the name of was good too - another slightly sweet juice with another flower essence taste to it. Very different from anything I've had before.

The first course was soup and we had a choice of vegetable, yellow lentil or black lentil. We both tried the black lentil and it was delicious. Soup or a light salad is the traditional next course for Muslims breaking their fast. The idea is to start light so you don't freak out your stomach after fasting all day long. I've read that families at home typically have their dates, water or milk and juice, then some soup or light salad and then take a little break before digging into the main course.

Next up was the buffet line, which consisted of cold mezza (Humous, tabouleh, marinated veggies, smoked salmon, babaganoush and more), hot mezza (lamb, beef, chicken, fish, curries, rice, pasta and more) and desserts (chocolate cake, brownies and some Arabic desserts I don't know the names of). It was all Arabic/Lebanese food and there was quite a variety. Much of it we hadn't seen before so tried a bit of everything to take advantage of the situation. And, with any buffet, some of it we liked a lot and some of it not so much.

There were a number of Emiratis in attendance as well and one thing we've noticed is that Emiratis (maybe all Arabs??) tend to either eat with their families or eat in gender groups - meaning a group of men will eat separately from a group of ladies. You don't see many mixed gender groups of younger Emiratis (in fact I can't ever remember seeing this). I think the custom is to separate the genders until marriage as many schools are segregated as well. That's just a rough observation, though, as I have very little opportunity to interact or talk with Emiratis.

So we stuffed ourselves and then headed home. We had the opportunity to continue our evening in the shisha lounge, but neither of us is a huge fan so we headed out. It's very popular to attend an iftar and then hang out smoking shisha and talking until late. The buffet shuts down by 8:30pm, but you can smoke shisha probably up until Suhoor (the meal before sunrise) and then eat again if you wish.

Lots of restaurants also serve Suhoor, but since that starts around 4:30am, we won't be experiencing one of those! :)

Workin' 9 to 5

Almost exactly 8 months to the day I sent my first CV out in UAE, I'm starting a new work adventure. I think the last time I posted an update, I was hoping to get a job offer from both Etihad Airways and Du Telecom. Well, Du never did come through for me - I think they wanted more local experience and that always kicks me out of the game. so, I am thrilled to report that I'll be the Manager of Leadership Development for Etihad Airways!! Yep, I got security clearance, have signed my employment contract and start work on Sunday, September 4th.

I'm super excited to be heading back to work full time and in the leadership development area. While I have done some fun things and met some incredible women during my 8 month break, the break has also taught me that the housewife gig is just not for me. I guess I'm just the kind of lazy lout that needs structure and external forces to prevent me from becoming a bored blob! :) I will very much miss my Mahjong Tuesdays, however, and all the other women I've met over the months that have helped me stay sane.

I've only met with Etihad twice so still don't know much about the position I'll be taking, but a few things have come to light so far.
  • I report to the VP of Training & Development and will not have any direct reports, which will be interesting since I've managed a team for the last 11 years. I wonder if I'll like that I'm completely on my own or will miss managing others?
  • Etihad has a leadership development infrastructure and curriculum now and they'd like me to review it and make some recommendations based on what they'd like it to accomplish. It's been described to me as a little ahead of where they are as a company currently.
  • Work hours are roughly 42 hours per week per my contract, but of course, it's like any other salaried management position where you put in the hours you need to get the job done.
  • And of course the benefits are pretty amazing. After 3 months my flight benefits kick in. Again I don't know all the details yet, but at a high level I get 50% -90% off flights depending on the circumstances. I see even more travel in our future! :)
More to come as I get started!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ramadan Ramblings: City Lights

Much like Christmas back home, the city dresses up for Ramadan. I haven't seen many lights in houses or apartments, but the Corniche area and some of the bridges are all dolled up. It's very possible that Emiratis put up lights too, I just don't have access to see what they've done.

The lights in Abu Dhabi along the Corniche road and along many of the main bridges are sponsored and designed through an initiative by Abu Dhabi city's marketing and corporate communication office. According to a recent news article, the lights cost 500,000 dirham (about $136,000), took 2 weeks to put together, consist of energy efficient LED lights, and (my favorite fact) are waterproof. Why we need waterproof lights in a city that sees rain about 3 times per year is beyond me, but funny that they made sure to mention this fact.

In any case, they are very pretty and we tried to capture a few good shots of them on our drive along the Corniche one evening.

No, there aren't any Ramadan lights in this picture, but I just thought it turned out really nice and was taken on the same trip, so here you are. :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wine Tasting in Lanzarote

No, I STILL haven't shared all our adventures while we were on vacation in Lanzarote, Spain - one of the Canary Islands. :) One afternoon we went in search of vineyards. I had read about a wine museum attached to the El Griffo winery so off we went to find it.

We got there in late afternoon and decided upon closer inspection to forego the wine museum. I mean really, what's there to see except some rotting old wood that used to be wine barrels? We were much more interested in tasting wines, so that's what we did. Got a nice little wine and cheese plate and sat out in their little courtyard to relax. A very rough day indeed!

 This is the exterior of the winery/museum. A really cute little place and well run and organized. They had a nice bar where you could taste the wines and offered a wine tasting and cheese plate with some local cheeses. Very well done.

 We got to try 5 wines and choose between 3 reds, 3 whites and a dessert wine. We selected the 3 reds and 2 of the whites. The reds were very interesting, but not really our taste, but the whites were excellent. We ended up taking a bottle of their Semillon blanc back to the resort with us.

 This is a shot of the vineyards. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see the plants here are protected from the wind by a stone wall. In some of the other vineyards, they made the windscreen walls in a semi circle and planted the vines in the middle. Interesting what they need to do to combat the winds here.

Yes, we were facing the wrong way, but that's all I could get without driving back around to get a photo from the front. :)

We did visit some other vineyards on a different day, but El Griffo was by far the nicest (and the only one with wine we would drink again). Here are some photos from Bodegas Rubicon - another nice location and wine tasting room, but we didn't care for the wines at all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

S ... as in Sam

I've written about the unique language barriers of UAE before, but had another funny experience and had to share it. With 80% of the population being expats and everyone required to speak English, you get a complex mix of accents. So, although everyone is speaking English, it's incredible how often things are misunderstood, misheard or misspoken. I'm reminded of this every time I pick up the phone as the phone makes things that much harder to understand - it's too bad more people don't just use email. :) Anyway, on to my story.

We decided to have pizza delivered. So far, we haven't had any food delivered to our house for the following reasons:
a) there aren't many places that deliver out this way
b) it's been hard to explain how to get to our compound, and
c) it requires picking up the phone, which most of you know, I hate to do

But, the monotony of my cooking, combined with the day's laziness, combined with a new website that lets you order take out online convinced me to try and order pizza from Domino's. Back home, we would never order Domino's as it reminds both of us of the cheap and awful pizza we used to get in college. I'll bet it's been 20 years since I've had a Domino's pizza ... they must have improved by now, right? After all, they are still in business. So I ordered our pizza online thinking, "how wonderful that I won't have to give directions to our apartment over the phone".

... you already know what happened, don't you? The delivery guy - who either couldn't understand my written directions which I included with our web order OR didn't both to read the directions I included with our web order - called me for directions.

"hello, is this Renee Stoll?"
"yes, Renee Stoll?"

SIDENOTE: Most phone conversations start like this and I still can't figure out why. I think the average for me is three hellos, but the winner was one very frustrating beginning of about 6 hellos before I finally had to ask who the caller was and what they wanted. I know there must be some cultural etiquette thing going on here, but I've yet to figure it out. When I do, you'll be some of the first to know.

"Where is your location, Madam?"
(sigh) "We're in the Al Seef Compound by the Ministries Complex"
"Al Reef?"
"No Al Seef. S, as in Sam, E E F. Al Seef."

SIDENOTE: This is about when it dawns on me that this non-Western English as a second language speaker is hardly going to understand "as in Sam". Oh well, too late now, but I've got to come up with something more universal than S as in Sam and F as in Frank.

"Al Seef - it's near the Ministries complex. Take Al Salam street, then the Ministries complex exit and we're on the right before the roundabout."
"Yes, turn right before the roundabout."
"The Ministries complex, madam?"
"Yes. Al Salam street to the Ministries complex exit."
"Ok Ok - I come and I call you when close."

Well, the good news is that we did get our pizza (and without any additional phone calls), but the bad news is that Domino's is as bad as I remember from college. Next time I'm calling the Lebanese place and telling them I live in Al Seef, S E E F, as in Fatoush.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The camels of Lanzarote

I live in the Arabian desert so camels have become less of a big deal so I didn't immediately notice how every tourist shop in Lazarote was selling camels - stuffed, paper mache, ceramic, plastered with Lazarote ... Very curious as I wouldn't have expected to see camels on one of the Canary Islands off Spain. But, I had more important things to do than worry about why the tourist shops stocked camels, so let it go. Then, on our way to Timanfaya National Park, the mystery was solved.

 We first saw a huge parking lot of cars along the highway to the national park and thought we had reached our destination, but then saw what looked to be trail horses moving up the side of the hill.

Upon closer inspection, we realized they were the camels of Lanzarote! While Brian groaned, I begged him to pull into the lot so I could get some pictures (secretly, I was hoping I could convince him to take a camel ride with me).

The lot was packed with cars, with people and with camels. We didn't stay long enough to find out how much or how long the ride was (Brian's such a party pooper sometimes!) but we did get a couple of fun photos.
 Group of camels resting? Waiting for their shift? I couldn't believe how many there were!

I don't know much about camels, but have heard that they are cranky and bite and spit. I guess maybe that's the reason for the chicken wire around their muzzles? I suppose the tourist board frowns on camels biting annoying tourists! :)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Jameos del Agua - Lanzarote

One of the tourist spots we visited in Lazarote was Jameos del Aqua, which is a natural cave with a beautiful pool. The most notable thing about the attraction, however, are these tiny crustaceans, which are said to only exist in this small pool. How we can know that they ONLY exist here, especially when they are so tiny, is beyond me, but that's what the brochure said.

When we arrived, there was a long line waiting to get in, so I jumped out to get in line and Brian parked the car. The photo below is the name of the attraction in another of the iron sculptures we'd been seeing all over the island. This made it seem like the little critters we were about to see were huge, but they weren't. More like an inch or so - but I guess that wouldn't have been a very impressive sculpture. :)

We made it to the ticket counter and paid our fee (obnoxiously expensive for what you get for it, but that was true of all the tourist attractions in Spain) and then headed down the steps into the cave. Here are a few photos of the descent. As you can see, the place was quite crowded.

Once we got to the pool, we could see the little creatures. They're bright white and seem to almost glow in the dark and are really tiny. Here are a few of our best attempts to capture them on film.

And that's about it. We walked around the pool and then back out to a very cheesy man made pool that I suppose was supposed to make the entrance fee seem more worth the cost. We thought it looked completely out of place after walking through a really beautiful natural area. You'll see what I mean as you look at the photos.

There's also another cave just past the palm trees in the photo above that they use as a concert hall. I guess the acoustics are supposed to be pretty amazing, but the cement benches didn't look too comfortable .... and they probably charge a fortune. ;)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ramadan Ramblings: Eating out

As I've mentioned, it's actually illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan. While I'm not sure how strictly it's enforced, I don't plan to test the law any time soon. I did see a man the other day at one of the malls in Dubai eating an apple in public, but didn't stick around to see if any of the security guards talked to him about it. I hope so - I'm guessing he's a tourist and just doesn't know.

Grocery stores are open from 8 or 9am until 1am so there's no worry that you won't be able to find food, but eating out is a bit tricky. Some places still conduct take out or delivery service for those not fasting, so Brian and his colleagues are able to order out for lunch each day. The hotels have 1 or 2 restaurants open for breakfast and lunch to cater to the tourists, so if you look carefully, you can still find a place to have a coffee or lunch. It's been funny to realize how much I 'eat out' during the day, though. A few times per week I either meet someone for lunch or coffee or am browsing in a mall and stop for a drink somewhere - it's one of the ways I pass the time in my unemployed state and Ramadan has illustrated just how much I've relied on that 'cup of coffee'.  The funniest thing is that I think I get irrationally thirsty when I'm out and about simply because I know I can't drink anything. I've gotten into the habit of carrying a bottle of water in my handbag and have taken it out this month for fear that I'll completely forget and take a swig in the middle of the street. :)

Going out to eat is a matter of planning ahead and eating a bit later than usual. As I've mentioned, the meal after sunset is called iftar and the restaurants in town are busy at that time each night with people breaking their fast, so to avoid the crowds, we either go somewhere we know most fasting Muslims won't (like the English pub down the road) or wait until about 8pm after the iftar crowd clears out. So far, we've only been out twice and in both instances, the restaurants were empty because of our timing. And getting there early doesn't help as most places don't open until after sunset and then stay open quite late to compensate.

A bit like Friday brunch, many restaurants are advertising iftar buffets, which we haven't tried yet, but really should before Ramadan is over at the end of August. My understanding is it's a buffet of Arabic dishes, all you can eat, and starts just after sunset. I've also been told that once the 'bell' is rung, it's a bit of a mad dash to the buffet line. :) Some restaurants are also advertising suhoor meals, which is the meal before sunrise (around 4am). I can't even imagine adjusting my sleep schedule to accommodate fasting during the day - I'd be a wreck! (Although I am still planning to try to fast one day this month to see what it's really like - Brian's convinced I won't make it past 10am.)

Alcohol is the same as usual - meaning it's still only served in the hotels anyway. Liquor store timings are a bit shorter, but it's really not that hard to get alcohol here - you just need to plan ahead a bit. There will be a country-wide dry day or two at the end of Ramadan when they celebrate Eid (more on that later this month). I think I've heard that the first day or maybe the first two days of the 3 day holiday are dry - meaning no alcohol is served anywhere. Period.

To make things even more challenging, the humidity has increased significantly in the last week. Last night, the humidity got to 96%!!! Combine that with temperatures consistently hitting 110 or higher each day and you have some really miserable weather!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dive Log: Lanzarote, Spain

The majority of our vacations involve some scuba diving and Lanzarote was no exception. We didn't make any advance reservations, preferring instead to get the lay of the land once we got there. So on our second day we walked around the downtown of Puerto del Carmen looking for dive shops. And, after only finding one on the main drag and knowing there were many others, we resorted to looking them up online. :)

We ended up spending 3 days with Canary Island Divers, a Padi school and dive shop. They not only were really close to our hotel, but had a reasonably priced dive package, a place to store our gear each night and we'd be diving in a very small group (just us, the dive master and one other person for the first two days and just the two of us and the dive master on the third day).

All 6 of our dives were shore dives as most of the action is right off the beaches. There are some dive outfits that take out small boats or zodiacs, but since there was plenty to see from the shore, there was no need to incur the extra cost or hassle. Here is my pros/cons list of shore diving:

  • no getting seasick on the boat ride out to the dive site
  • no jarring giant stride off the boat - just a smooth ease into the water
  • no getting my shins banged on the ladder when getting back in the boat
  • did I mention no chance of sea sickness? ;)
  • lugging all your gear and tank down to the beach
  • getting sand in your dive boots
  • having to dodge sunbathers on the beach while wearing a wet suit and tank
  • did I mention lugging all the heavy gear to the beach? ;)

The dive sites themselves were great. The highlight in Lanzarote is the number of fish. Not a huge variety of different fish, but the quantity is really something in some areas. At times you could just look up and see clouds of little fish swimming above you - really cool! We also saw a cuttlefish, which is kind of a quid like looking creature - very strange and very interesting. Octopus, arrow crabs, nudi brancs and one eagle ray also made appearances. They were very fun and pretty easy dives with little current.

Between dives, we had a coffee (or hot chocolate in my case) at a cafe on the beach. They had a plastic table outside on the terrace just for the wet, sandy divers that stop there between dives. The waiters were pretty grumpy (can't really blame them, we come in all wet and sandy and only buy drinks) but the drinks were good and helped warm us up a bit between dives. Then it was back in the water for dive 2 of the day.

After, we hauled everything back up to the van and then back to the dive shop where we had to rinse and hang all the gear. By then, we were usually tired and ready for some food and a nap.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I am not a crook

If all goes well, my life of leisure will soon come to an end. I've been offered the position of Manager - Leadership Development at Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi. It's a great role that will allow me to use my experience and training and I think challenge me in new ways. And I can't wait!

Job hunting and all that goes with it has been quite an education, and after almost 8 very long months of pounding the pavement, I finally have a job offer and now move on to the next adventure ... completing the security clearance. Like most companies, there are forms to fill out and paperwork to complete, but there are a few unique things either specific to UAE or because I'm a foreigner trying to work outside her home country.

One such step is document attestation, most of which we had to do to get our resident visas. This included our marriage certificate, birth certificates and college transcripts. Basically, the process is to attest that these documents are authentic and we are who we say we are. In the case of the transcripts, it's attested proof of your education credentials. The process is time consuming and requires you get certified copies of the docs, then you have to get it attested by the Wisconsin State Department, then to the US Department of State, and then to the UAE Embassy in Washington, D.C. That process alone took almost 4 months for me (Brian's took less time as he had legal help through Epic to facilitate the process). THEN, we had to get them attested here in UAE! The good news is that Etihad was expecting me to have to START this process now, so were thrilled to hear that I was one step ahead of things.

Another step was to get a Good Conduct Certificate from the Dubai Police department. I'm not exactly sure what this is all about, but my guess is that it might be because my resident visa was issued in Dubai and I'll be working in Abu Dhabi. I tried to simply tell the Etihad recruiter that I'm not a crook (I even offered to pinky swear), but unfortunately, that wasn't acceptable procedure. So, after Etihad provided me with a letter requesting the certificate, I was off to the Dubai Police headquarters and the Criminal Investigation Department.

And the trip there was yet more evidence that I get lost EVERY TIME I try to go somewhere new. I had a map of sorts and kind of knew the area a bit since it was near where we went to get our driver's licenses, but I didn't have turn by turn directions. After an hour and 15 minutes of driving around, stopping at other police facilities, asking for directions, and finally stumbling on it by taking the only route I hadn't yet tried, I found the building. Once there, it was a relatively painless 20 minutes later and I had my application for my good conduct certification filed (including finger prints!). I was then asked to return in 5 days to pick up my certificate. (Thank goodness I now know where the place is!)

I'll head back to Dubai on Tuesday to pick up the certificate and then hand it in to Etihad. Hopefully, once I'm able to prove I haven't done anything 'crook-like' in Dubai, I'll be able to start work. And I've got my fingers crossed that they don't require a "Good Sense of Direction Certificate". 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Timanfaya National Park - Lanzarote, Spain

My idea of the Canary Islands and the reality of them didn't really match up. Not sure why, but I was picturing lush, tropical green islands and that's not the case at all. Lanzarote is a volcanic island and a relatively young one so the terrain is rocky and dark. Still beautiful and interesting to look at, just not what I had pictured. It reminded me of the first time we went to the big island in Hawaii - much of that same lava rock terrain is seen in Lanzarote.

To get a good understanding of this, we visited Timanfaya National Park, which includes a bus tour and a stop at the restaurant that cooks it's food over an open steam vent from the volcano (which is no longer active, but still really hot).  We arrived to a very long line of cars and almost decided to leave, but instead pulled out our books and enjoyed the fact that we could sit in the car with the windows open and catch a nice cool breeze. Here are a few photos from the wait.

We finally got to the front of the line and headed up the hills to the restaurant where we then boarded a bus that drives you through the park. Imagine riding the steep, winding narrow roads (complete with sheer drop off on one side) in a big huge tour bus! Let's just say we made sure to tip the driver when we got off. :) Here are a few photos from the trip - unfortunately through the bus windows.

After our bus tour, we returned to the restaurant for a 'demonstration' of the power and heat of the steam vents under ground. In the first photo, you'll see one of the guides pouring a bucket of cold water into one of the vents causing a geyser (which they pronounced geezer, which we thought pretty funny). The next photo is the cooking grill for the restaurant, which is simply set over one of the open steam vents of the volcano. How's that for energy saving? :)