Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Worst Delivery EVER

If you're a regular reader, you've no doubt heard many a tale of the challenges we have getting things delivered to the house - the fedex guy, the furniture delivery folks, taxis, etc. Well, here's another one and without embellishing, it really is the worst so far (really hoping the worst ever).  On to the story ...

Twas the night before Christmas ... no seriously, it was Christmas eve and we were packing up to spend the holiday in South Africa. We had dutifully eaten ourselves out of house and home in preparation so decided to order in for dinner. Now, we don't often order in - in fact, I can only remember one other time and that was another such story with Dominos that I've blogged about in the past. But, always hopeful for a positive outcome (and starving), I set out to order some food.

SIDE NOTE (but relevant to the story). We had taken our car to the mechanic earlier that day to repair a hose or bearing or something that was making a noise in the car. So, we're without a car and starving - with me so far?

I logged on to a website called Food On Click, which is perfect for me as I hate to talk on the phone and this service allows you to order your food online. I carefully choose my area and up popped the 3 restaurants that deliver to our neighborhood. Placed my order, all set, website tells me 30 minutes, great.

(30 minutes passes) Phone rings.
"Madam, you place order?"
"where you located?"
"Al Seef compound, villa E07."
"Al Seef compound?"
"yes, take Salam St to the Ministries complex exit and turn right before you get to the roundabout"
"Salam St?"
"okay, no problem"

(15 minutes pass) Phone rings.
"Where in Ministries complex?"
"Not in the Ministries complex. Take the exit and turn right before the roundabout."
"Ministries complex?"
"Not in the Ministries complex. Al Salam St, Ministries complex exit, right before the roundabout"
"You know Al Hilal Bank?"
"No, where is that?"
"Ministries complex, maam."
"Okay, that's too far. Come back towards Abu Dhabi, near the Brighton college."
"Abu Dhabi? Are you from Dubai?"
"is the villa new?"
"are you new?"
"no, I've lived here almost a year."
"maam, can you meet me at Al Hilal bank?"
"no, I don't have a car"

This went on for an hour (okay 5 minutes) and ended with "okay Madam, I coming"

(15 more minutes pass) Phone rings.
"Hello?" (different voice this time)
"Yes, I talked to the driver and the customer doesn't know where she lives."
(!!??)  "umm, I'm the customer and I do know where I live."
"Oh, sorry madam. The driver says he cannot find you."

I explain again where we're located and he says, "okay Maam, no problem"
Over the next 15 minutes, I receive probably 3 more calls from the driver, each more frustrating than the last. I'm starving and really starting to lose my patience.

(15 more minutes pass - are you counting? It's been nearly an hour now). Phone rings and I beg Brian to answer it this time as I'm no longer capable of maintaining my composure. I hear Brian repeat the same directions again and again and at one point say, "yes, I do know where I live, you must not know this area"

This continues for about another 20 minutes and the last call comes directly from the restaurant and we cancel the order. Even if the guy can find us, by this point our hot food has been riding around on the back of a scooter for almost 90 minutes. Meanwhile, I'm starving (and those of you who know me know that it's in everyone's best interest not to let me get to the starving stage) and we've got to start thinking about heading to the airport. We ultimately decide to go early and have dinner in the airport.

And then we make a pact that in the future we'll only order food from the places that have dropped flyers off at our door as we know they've at least found us once!

I really should mention that there are many very positive and successful interactions in UAE as well. It's just that, well, those stories aren't as entertaining. ;)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Meeting Tiger Woods

Okay, I admit we didn't actually meet Tiger Woods, but we did get to watch him play some golf from about 20 feet away ... and I decided that was close enough to warrant the title. ;)

Thanks to a friend from work, Brian and I got free passes to the HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship this weekend. We're not big fans of golf really. In fact, we know next to nothing about the sport, but it was a beautiful day and Tiger Woods was playing and the tickets were free ... why not?

We decided to taxi to avoid the lines and parking hassle and ended up with a real jerk of a driver who drove past a half mile of lined up cars and butted in about 5 cars from the front. He then started laughing. I told him he was being pretty rude, but was secretly happy we didn't have to wait in line.

We showed our badges and entered the grounds. AD golf club is beautiful and the day was sunny and bright, and really warm. We walked around a bit trying to get our bearings and then realised Tiger and Rory McIlroy were playing right behind us! We snapped a few photos, followed them for a few holes and then headed to the falcon club for some lunch. We had planned to go back out after lunch, but by then we were full, hot and already had our photos of Tiger so decided to head home. I mentioned we're not really golf fans, right? :)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Haggis & tattis & neeps, oh my!

Last night, our Scottish friends, J & A invited us to Burns Night at their house, where we celebrated a traditional Scottish holiday with 14 of our good friends. Burns night is a celebration of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose birthday is 25 January. It is considered a National holiday in Scotland and in some parts of Ireland. The celebration centers around a dinner, as most holidays do, and includes grace, a number of toasts, traditional food dishes and at the center of it all ... haggis.

To my American readers, I'm guessing you probably have heard the same rumors that I have about haggis ... that it's weird, made up of nasty sheep parts, and not something you want to taste in your lifetime. Ranks right up there with tripe and rocky mountain oysters really.

Haggis - I was faced with a dilemma and thought before making any rash judgements, I should try to learn a bit more about what haggis actually is. Thinking A a reputable source of information, I asked him about a month ago as we were discussing the upcoming dinner. He told me that what I'd heard was false rumor and that haggis is actually an animal found only in the highlands of Scotland. Now, maybe it was the glass of beer I was working on or maybe he's just a really good liar, but I believed him instantly and asked questions about what it looked like, where it lived, what it ate.

Hook. Line. and Sinker.

Almost 3 weeks later, it was confirmed that he was pulling my leg and haggis is actually:

"a traditional pudding made of the heart, liver, etc., of a sheep or calf, minced with suet and oatmeal, seasoned, and boiled in the stomach of the animal" (thank you Wikipedia)

See, and here's yet another example of how we all speak English, but don't speak the same English. To call this a "pudding" just doesn't seem right, and what exactly is "etc."? (I'm guessing it's best not to know.)

So off we went to Burn's night to taste the haggis.

The Burns night supper actually follows a traditional agenda (see link below for more detail if interested) and is really fun, interesting, and well, Scottish. The evening started with a welcome from our hosts, J & A, and then a traditional Scottish grace, which I found on wikipedia and include below because it'll give you an idea of the Scottish language.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
Next up was the Entrance of the Haggis. It's a bit like the entrance of the Figgy Pudding at traditional Wassail dinners. The haggis is displayed on a plate and walked around the table so everyone can admire it (or maybe prepare themselves to have to eat it).  We then all filled our glasses with a shot of traditional Scottish whisky in preparation for the toast to the haggis. (And just so you don't think I've lost my ability to spell, Scottish whisky is spelled without an e - it's the "fake" American whiskey with an e that we were told to stay away from by our Scottish whisky connoisseur. :)

The highlight of the evening then was the Address to the Haggis, which is a poem by Robert Burns, singing the praises of the haggis and presented with appropriate drama and flair by our host, A. You can find the poem in the link below if interested. I'm glad I found it because hearing it only once, I caught about 25% of the poem as it's also in Scottish brogue. At the end of the Address, we tossed back our shots of whisky, and as my friend K said on Facebook, that's probably so you can later eat the haggis. :)

The address to the haggis was followed by a Toast to the Lassies by one of the guests, which was full of funny jokes and references to the audience. Then a response Toast to the Laddies, which was written as a poem and presented by another of the guests and included references to each of the husbands present. And then it was time to dig in. ... oh boy

The main meal was haggis, tattis (mashed potatoes) and neeps (mashed turnips) - traditional Scottish fare and I have to admit, quite good. The haggis tastes a bit like meatloaf if you mashed it up into mince and added some sausage and oats. It didn't taste at all strong like I was expecting and it's not served in any casing. It's cooked in the casing, which is removed before serving. It was good really. I'm not sure I'm going to rush out to the grocery to find some, but I definitely won't hesitate to attend Burn's Night next year.

A huge thank you to J & A - it was a lovely evening!

Burns Supper Info - Wikipedia

Monday, January 23, 2012

The World of Work: 4 months and 19 days

I've now been employed with Etihad for 4 months and 19 days. No, I'm not counting, it's just my fascination with scorecards that got me to download a countdown app and that's how the app tracks time. And at this time, I thought it a good idea to take stock and share a little of what I've learned these past 4 months and 19 days.

Some things are the same: blackberry texting in the middle of a training class; major projects started with no consideration of the resources needed to pull them off; assumptions made with the best of intentions; and dedicated staff willing to help out wherever they can.

I work with a great group of people - passionate about what they do and willing to laugh at themselves whenever needed. There are 7 of us in the office - South African, Scottish, Egyptian, 2 Indian, Emirati and me. We work hard and laugh hard and that's just the way I like it.

And then there are the differences, which really make coming to work each day an adventure.

Class Attendance: Back at TDS, we had trouble with cancellations and no shows for our classes, but those issues don't hold a candle to what I've experienced here.  Cancellation often happens last minute, if at all, and more often than not, participants just decide not to show up or let us know about it. My worst experience was a class scheduled to have 11 and 5 showed up. Frustrating for me, the students and certainly not the best use of our resources. The good news is that the employees who do show up are incredibly appreciative and really want to learn. Almost every set of evaluations includes a suggestion that we make the class LONGER and that we build in more role plays!! Unheard of back home.

Voicemail: As I've mentioned in other posts, VM doesn't really exist here for cellular (I mean, mobiles) and land lines are few and far between and rarely, if ever, have voicemail. At work, we all have Cisco IP phones configured with voicemail, but no one uses it. The common practice is to ring someone and hang up before it goes to VM, then when the recipient gets back to his desk, he checks his missed call log and rings you back. It took me a few bewildered conversations to realise that even if I leave a VM, no one will listen to it - they'll just ring me back instead. So, I've adapted.

New Buzzwords: Working with so many different nationalities exposes me to a whole new set of corporate buzzwords. So much fun is this comparison that we've started capturing the phrases on a whiteboard in our office. Here's a sample of what we've collected so far:
  • Do the needful - my personal favourite - usually accompanies a request of some sort and asks the recipient to do what's needed to fulfill the request
  • Kind Regards - standard closing to most emails. The US practice of closing with "thanks" or something similar is rare here (except for me who can't break the habit).
  • Agree objectives - the word agree isn't followed by with "on" here. So you agree timescales; agree work streams or agree decisions. Took a little getting used to and I still slip back from time to time, but for the most part, I've adapted to this one too.
  • Pitch up - My colleague came back from training frustrated because she had 6 registered for a class and only 2 "pitched up". I figured out with some questioning that this is the equivalent of 'showed up' ... and then it went on the whiteboard.
  • For Africa - apparently this is commonly used in the UK and South Africa when referring to an excess of something. For example, we've got enough printouts here for Africa; she's got enough problems for Africa. My theory is we don't use this in the US cuz it's as big as Africa, so we'd have to say "we've got enough printouts for the US" ... and that just doesn't have the same ring to it.
It's fun and luckily I'm surrounded by co-workers willing to explain the things that don't make sense and happy to make fun of me when I do something "really American". Just the other day, a co-worker said she met someone "way more American than you, Renee". This other woman was apparently from Boston and "full on" to use her words. A bit loud, obnoxious and annoying by the sounds of it. So, I gave the her a short briefing on East Coast vs West Coast vs MidWest and that seemed to clear things up a bit. :)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Credit Card Fraud!

Yes, it's well documented that I have a tendency to embellish my stories, and I will admit that the title of this post could be considered an exaggeration. A better title would probably be, "Credit Charge default not in my favor", but let's face it, if that were the title, you probably wouldn't be reading the post right now.

We have a US Credit Card that accumulates points like most others. We use it a lot and then pay off the balance each month so we can earn points to use for things like ... travel (you knew that was coming, right?) The challenge we sometime have here in the UAE is that the credit card machines want to charge us in USD, rather than the local currency, which is AED (dirham). And when this happens, because of the exchange rate, we end up paying more for our stuff ... which we just don't like to do. Now, this practice a) isn't a default on all credit card machines, and b) can be easily overridden ... if the cashier is paying attention. And believe me when I tell you that's a big IF.

After finally understanding how this all works and realising that it's in our favour to watch out for this 'fraud', I've become vigilant. And good thing too because it happens often.

My first attempt to fix the problem was at a shoe store. You can see on the receipt that you've been charged in USD rather than AED and I pointed this out to the cashier, asked them to void the transaction and run it again to charge me in AED. BLANK STARE. I calmly explained again, pointing out the reference on the credit card slip thinking, "maybe he's a visual learner".
The response? "yes, madam, it is charged in USD."
"I know, but I need it to be charged in AED. Will you please void the transaction and run it again?"
"You want AED, madam?"
"yes, please."
"But it charged in USD. This is the conversion."
"Yes, I know, but I want it charged in AED."
"it is AED."
"uh, no, see, it says right here that it's charged in USD."
"that's how it charged, madam."
"yes, I understand, that's why you need to void it and run it again at AED."

(you get the picture)

After about 20 minutes, a call to the manager (who was on his lunch break) and a comment or two that the difference wasn't that much, they finally voided the transaction and ran it again ... and we got our 10 cents back. :)

I've re-played this scene at least 5 times in the last 2 months and have to go through it every time I grocery shop at Lulu in Mushrif Mall. Last weekend, I tried a more proactive approach (AGAIN) at Lulu and told the cashier to make sure it was AED when I handed him my credit card. "yes, of course, madam." Once again, it was charged in USD, and once again, it took almost 20 minutes to get the situation rectified. At the end, the manager told me to tell the cashier to ring it as AED when I hand over the card ... took me 3 tries to get her to understand that I had and it didn't make any difference.

I suggested (in a nice way, I promise) she give her staff some additional training.

And I know what you're probably thinking "all that hassle for 10 cents?" but it's the principle. We live in UAE and get paid in AED - we should be able to purchase in AED as well. And why should the hypermarket get my extra 10 cents every time I shop when I could be putting those pennies to good use ... like paying for our upgrades into business class on our next vacation? :)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Christmas in Cape Town: Table Mountain National Park

Last post about our Christmas holiday in Cape Town. On our final day in the country, we went on a short road trip to Cape Point and walked around the lighthouse area in Table Mountain National Park.  The steep road up the hill and the load of steps were daunting, but as you'll see by the photos, the view was worth the trip.

someone wrote a proposal in the sand!
some emu (ostrich?) we saw on the way back down

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Day 365: What we've learned

Today, Brian and I celebrate our one year anniversary in Abu Dhabi. In general, the time has flown and it's hard to believe a year has passed so quickly. Of course that might be because the weather is perfect right now - ask me in the middle of summer and I'll tell you it feels like we've spent a lifetime in a sweaty sand box. :) I thought it might be interesting to reflect on our year and make a few observations on what we've learned. Enjoy!

Roundabouts make sense: I know my WI friends still disagree as you run across more and more roundabouts in your areas, but over here, they really do make sense. The time we would spend waiting for traffic lights or trying to do a U-turn would be horrendous without the many roundabouts in the city. And, we're feeling pretty confident in our ability to navigate through them after a year on the roads ... if only all the other drivers were as clear on the rules.

Even though we all speak English, we don't all speak the same language: Having English as the common language in UAE is a blessing and makes life sooooo much easier, however, it's not that simple. Word choice, level of understanding, accents ... all make it challenging to communicate clearly. The good news is that I'm getting better at understanding the variety of accents and can even start to differentiate a few (although the other day I almost said someone from Scotland had the same accent as someone from Ireland, which would have gotten me in BIG TROUBLE). I've learned NEVER to guess an accent out loud, cuz I'm still wrong more than I'm right.

I'm not ready to retire: It took almost 9 months for me to land a job and it was a difficult and challenging 9 months for me. If I had known going in that I'd have a job (a great job) at the end of 9 months, that would have been different, but it was stressful not knowing if I would find something, anything, and that, plus too much free time, blistering heat and will-sucking humidity was not a great combination. The good part is that I learned a lot about the city, made some fantastic friends, had the best tan of my life (now gone, unfortunately) and really got a chance to 'settle' into Abu Dhabi before starting work, which I am very grateful for.

Patience, Patience and more Patience: Similar to our experience in Guinea, West Africa as part of the Peace Corps, we've learned again to be patient and not jump to conclusions or assumptions. Things just don't work here the way they do back in the US. It's not bad, just different ... okay, sometimes it is really walking that fine line towards bad, but usually, it's just different. We've had to adjust our attitudes around punctuality, customer service, acceptable dress, driving, and many many others. And that's exactly the reason we came - too see more of the world and realize (again) that the US isn't the center of the universe. My new motto is: There are hundreds of ways to do something 'right', which way will I choose today?

Don't believe everything you hear: Okay, yeah, we certainly knew this before we came, but it is even more clear as you realize how inaccurate some of the information published about this region back home is either inaccurate or incomplete. Women are not oppressed in this country - far from it, they are respected and have the same opportunities as men for the most part (separate blog coming with some statistics for you on this). Islam is not the 'evil cult' it is sometimes portrayed as in the media - at least not in UAE. It is a critical part of the culture and life in UAE, but there is also a tolerance of other beliefs that you wouldn't expect reading the news reports on this part of the world. And yes, there are other parts of the Arab world where this is not the case, but UAE is pretty amazing.

There are many more insights and understandings from the past year, but I'll leave it at that so as not to bore you. Suffice to say, we love it here and are really happy that we made the move - as difficult as it is to be away from family and friends (have I mentioned you are ALL welcome to come and visit?). As always, if you have specific questions, please let me know through a comment on the blog or a separate email.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christmas in Cape Town: Table Mountain Cable Car

Another blog post, another vacation adventure - not to worry, I'll get back to life in UAE in a few more posts as we now have a 'vacation break' for a few months (unless a random holiday pops up and then, well, we're outta here). :)

Right in the city of Cape Town, you can take a cablecar to the top of Table Mountain. We put this adventure on our list as a maybe and decided to fit it in if time, but not worry if we didn't make it. Well, we did find time and I'm so glad as the views were spectacular as you'll soon see from the photos. Getting there was another story.

The good news is that we bought tickets in advance online, which saved us a good hour wait once we arrived at the Cable Car station. In fact, without the advance purchase, I doubt we would have gotten on at all as we got there quite late in the day and ended up in one of the last cable cars running that night. So, it was an adventure in waiting: waiting for the hotel to get our rental car (yes, if you're counting, this is the 2nd long wait for the rental car from this hotel), waiting in traffic to get to the station and then to park, and waiting in line to get on the cable car (while watching the poor saps in an even longer line waiting to buy tickets - ahhh, the power of the internet).

The cable car ride itself is about 4 minutes and the platform within the car rotates a full 360 degrees during the trip, so there is no jostling for a 'good view' as everyone gets to see everything on the trip up and then down - pretty cool! Once at the top, there are hiking trails, a gift shop and a small cafe. We arrived just before sunset so walked around, took some amazing photos and then got back in line for the trip down. Yes, we spent more time in line than we did walking around the top, but I think you'll agree from the photos that it was worth the wait.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Christmas in Cape Town: Road Trip to Cape Point

It was our last full day in South Africa and we planned a road trip to Cape Point and all the scenery in between. The adventure started when we called down to the front desk to have our car pulled around. The hotel here doesn't have any parking space so they take your car and park it on some street or car park somewhere - we were advised to call at least 15 minutes ahead to make sure they had enough time to get the car. So, we did and then waited, and waited ... 35 minutes later, our car finally arrived and we were on our way.

The good news is that the rest of the trip went very well (we didn't get lost even once!!) and we saw some really lovely countryside and coastline. We capped off the day with a stop at the Chapman's Peak Hotel for their specialty (fried calamari) and some of the best seafood we've had in a while. The weather was perfect, the food was perfect and the wine was perfect!

Here are a few of the perfect photos from the drive.

We couldn't figure out why the traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl.
Thank goodness we didn't open the windows! :)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christmas in Cape Town: Robben Island

Our vacation in South Africa continued and we left Franshhoek (reluctantly) to head to Cape Town for the remainder of our stay. The drive back was uneventful as we took the highway since we were running a tiny bit late (yes, because we were tasting wine before noon!). We had tickets for the 3pm ferry to Robben Island and the tour, which is why we were on a schedule.

Arrived in Cape Town and tried to find our hotel, which was the Inn on the Square (a dump I'll blog about in a later post) in the Greenmarket area. I looked up the Greenmarket on Google and Brian's phone has GPS so we thought we were all set, but when we reached our 'destination', it looked like an iffy part of town and we couldn't find any of the landmarks we were told to watch out for. For those of you who don't know, Cape Town (S. Africa in general) doesn't have the greatest reputation for safety so we were pretty leery of just rolling down the window to ask directions. We pulled over, pulled out the map and figured out we were in the wrong area. Our second try was more successful and we found the hotel, checked in and booked a taxi to take us to the waterfront (easier since we didn't know where we were going, didn't know if we'd find parking and as I said, were running late.)

And lucky too because there didn't seem to be much parking, and unbeknownst to us, we needed to be there 30 minutes in advance to line up for the ferry ... no lunch for us.

It was well worth the hassle and the stomach growling, however, as it turned out to be an interesting tour. Robben Island was the location of a political prison and one of the locations Nelson Mandela was kept. We took the ferry to the island, then the narrated bus tour (about an hour) and then a narrated walking tour of the prison itself, which was all part of the ticket price. Quite interesting to hear the stories (both tour guides were former prisoners and one met Mandela on two occasions).  Here are a few pics from the tour.

A view of Cape Town from Robben Island
The limestone quarry the prisoners were forced to work every day. Most have permanent eye damage from the sun glare as they weren't allowed sun glasses. The little cave you see is where the educated prisoners would teach the others to read and write before the prison allowed inmates to take university courses.
hallway inside the prison
courtyard for exercise - there's another on the other side of the far wall and prisoners would send messages back and forth inside a tennis ball they would throw back and forth over the wall.
Nelson Mandela's cell. Early on, they didn't even have the blanket, table or stool you see in here now. His efforts improved the conditions of the prison greatly through amenities and the access to education. Many prisoners left with 2 or 3 university degrees!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Christmas in Cape Town: Franschhoek Wine Tasting

We spent 3 days in beautiful Franschhoek, South Africa, which is part of the Winelands region so one of our prime activities was wine tasting at the vineyards. The wine making methods are about the same as everywhere and since we’ve visited quite a few wine regions in our travels, we decided to forego most of the winery tours and go straight to the tasting. Our goal was to find 6 bottles to take back to UAE with us (and that wasn’t hard at all).

We headed out on the day after Christmas and finding an open winery was a bit hit or miss. We also got a pretty late start as Brian had some work he had to finish up and I had a massage … yes, I know that sounds unfair to poor Brian but hey, if the cat’s gonna work, the mouse is going to take advantage of the hotel spa. ;) But off we went and made it to 3 wineries before calling it a day. The next day, we got organized a little sooner and visited 3 more wineries and we caught 2 more on Wednesday morning before heading to Cape Town for the remainder of our visit.

The wineries here are similar to Napa Valley or Sonoma in California – very much built to impress and lure in the tourists. We saw tasting rooms with glass walls overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in the area, we saw lovely fireplaces, gorgeous wood floors and paneling, comfy chairs and of course, delicious wine. Some of these places want you to come in and stay awhile, not just taste a few at the bar and leave. So we did. We took our time, enjoyed the afternoons and savored the views and the wines.

Here are some of our favorite pics from the wineries we visited: Rickety Bridge, Graham Beck, Solms-Delta, Lynx, Stony Brook, Boschendal ...