Saturday, January 29, 2005
(Note: we went in November 2004, just about a month before the Tsunami hit the Phuket area in December)
We have always done car trips on holidays with the kids, and now that they are teenagers they are rebelling. They didn’t like our suggestion of going to Thailand this year and were even less thrilled with our idea of driving around the country in a rental car. In the end, a compromise of sorts was reached – we went to Thailand but didn’t rent a car - in fact, it seems we used every other type of transportation imaginable other than a car.
We flew overnight from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok, and then a few hours later were on another flight south to the island of Phuket. At the airport we were met by a minivan and driven an hour to the south end of the island. From there we took a 20 minute speedboat ride to Coral Island, a lovely island surrounded by a coral reef which was terrific for snorkeling.
We stayed in a bungalow on the beach, and spent four relaxing days swimming, snorkeling, eating and napping. Bob and Eric took a diving course and got their certification while Emily and I were more content to sunbathe and shop at the little souvenir shops up and down the beach.
The lifestyle is relaxed and the people are so friendly. Big decisions included whether to swim in the ocean or the pool. The setting was lush, on the edge of a forest-covered hillside. There were beautiful tropical flowers growing all over the resort. There was a big water-filled urn outside each bungalow, with a hibiscus flower floating in it and a ladle to rinse the sand off your feet when you came in from the beach.
There’s a lot to see and never enough time, but we did try to have a variety of experiences including shopping in the street markets and visiting the Grand Palace/temples. We took a river boat ride and saw the lifestyles of people who live along the rivers throughout the city. They use the rivers like roadways and we saw boats going dock-to-dock selling food. We got caught in a typical torrential downpour on the way back, the river got quite rough and the little canopy over the boat didn't do much to protect us from the gusts of rain coming at us from the side...made me wonder if perhaps the teenagers were thinking a rental car wouldn't be such a bad idea after all !
Monday, October 18, 2004
“Our house is a very very very fine house, with two cats in the yard….”
No, wait a minute, that’s two cats in the house and at least a half dozen alley cats in the front and back yards at any given time. A mom and two kittens live around the back door and make a fuss until we feed them each evening. They were smart enough to recognize a ‘soft hearted, sucker-for-animals type of guy’ and made their presence known soon after Bob moved in, before the rest of us got back in August. I guess they all adopted each other and now we regularly feed them at the back door.
Plus, we have inherited two indoor/outdoor cats from a friend who left to go work in Iraq. These cats are called Hoppy and Banshee. Hoppy, a male, is a rescued alley cat who had a broken leg and, as a result sits with his leg sticking out at a rather awkward angle. However, that hasn’t stopped him from playing ‘tough guy’ with cats who venture near our front gate. Banshee, a female, is appropriately named because of her vocal abilities. She was apparently rescued as a kitten after being stuck in a sewer and teased by kids for about a week. She sure has an annoying wail…lucky thing she has such a pitiful history and we feel sorry for her. Her yowl is the main reason that she and Hoppy, who were acquired as indoor cats, have now become indoor/outdoor cats.
There are alley cats everywhere in Abu Dhabi although they are more prevalent in residential areas. They hang out around the garbage containers. There isn’t a household garbage pick-up system here. Instead, there are garbage containers placed every block or so and you take your garbage there and then city workers empty those containers regularly. One day, soon after moving in, Bob was dropping off the garbage on his way to work. He drove up close beside the garbage container, rolled down his window and tossed the garbage bag into the container. Instantly three cats sprung straight up and shot out of the container. Bob said he nearly had a heart attack. Thank goodness they didn’t shoot out diagonally and in through the car window or that would have done him in for sure. We are much more cautious now when dropping off the garbage in that manner.
There are other critters in and around the house. We see geckos in the house now and again. They usually appear in the evening and hang out (literally) on the walls. They don’t appear to do any harm and I presume they eat insects so that’s probably a good thing. They’re kinda weird/creepy in a cute sort of way. They remind me of ‘gummy worms’ because they seem sort of transparent. Mostly I just try to ignore them…the kids see them too and aren’t bothered by them...‘ho hum, just another gecko on the wall’.
We think we might have occasional visits from mice. Bob saw a mouse early on when he was living here before the rest of us got back from Canada. Hopefully Hoppy and Banshee are earning their keep by scaring away the mice. It’s a wonder though that we don’t have even more visiting critters because the gap under the front door is big enough that they can march right in. The gap in some places is more than an inch high … the sort of opening you’d have to fix for a blustery Canadian winter….but as long as Hoppy and Banshee play bouncer and the winter temperatures don’t drop below 25 degree Celsius I think we’ll just leave it as.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
That has quite a ring to it, doesn’t it? ‘Our new villa’. However, it sounds more exotic than it actually is. A villa here in Abu Dhabi is sort of like a townhouse in Canada and they come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of maintenance nightmares.
We moved into a villa this year for a bit more space. Our apartment was lovely, with beautiful views of the Persian Gulf but felt a bit small ---Bob was going through bbq withdrawal and I was into plant/garden withdrawal. The kids needed some space to have friends over without feeling they were tripping over their parents. So we found a villa on the other side of town, a five minute walk to school for Eric and Emily.
The move was the easiest I’ve ever experienced, probably because I wasn’t here to experience it ! It happened during the summer when Bob was here by himself and I was in Canada with the kids. I highly recommend this as a moving strategy! Bob organized the packers and reinstalling of the telephone and computers, as well as overseeing the cleaning and painting when the villa tenants moved out. It was great…by the time we arrived, after our 30 hour flight from Canada, our stuff was moved in and the computers all set up.
It’s a three story villa, the middle villa in a cluster of three. The ground floor has the living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, storeroom and an open “I don’t know what to do with it” area under the stairs. Second floor has 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and laundry room/storeroom. The third floor has the ‘maid’s room’ and another bathroom, so we use that room for kids to hang out with a tv/playstation. There are also two large decks off the top floor – we haven’t done anything with them yet because it’s way too hot but as it starts to cool off I think we’ll put outdoor furniture and maybe some games etc up there so people can hang out there as well.
There’s a little yard out front, with room for a bbq and a couple of chairs and plants. There’s a huge tree out front which provides some much appreciated shade although it makes the living room a bit dark.
On one side of us is an American family with a couple of teenage boys, and on the other side is a local family with a couple of little kids. It’s generally a quiet area. The main sources of noise come from people who pull up in front of the house across the street and honk impatiently and constantly for whoever they’re picking up.
The other noise is a ringing, clanging sound that can be heard up and down the street usually around meal times. We weren’t sure at first what it was….turns out it’s the ‘gas man’ who rings and clangs to let people know his truck is in the area and then he comes back again in a few minutes and by that time people are supposed to have their gas tanks out there to be refilled. Most people here have gas stoves. We bought an electric one though because we didn’t know about this gas refill system and thought we’d have to constantly be taking our tank to be refilled at a gas station like we had to at home for the bbq. Also, I confess I picture these stoves with attached gas tanks as lethal weapons in my kitchen, and with my lack of domestic skills they could easily blow up and shoot up through the three stories and out into the Persian Gulf.
Oh, and any description of our neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the telephone-less booth that is at the edge of our neighbor’s driveway. Abu Dhabi seems to have a mixture of telephone and telephone-less booths. Ours doesn’t seem to have ever had a telephone in it ….perhaps it was intended as a ‘telephone-less booth’…another ‘hmmm, that’s odd’ moment.
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
You never actually think you’ll become one of those people who does something really dumb like head off on an outdoors adventure totally unprepared…it just sort of happens…..
Futaisi Island. We read the pamphlet and it sounded wonderful, a tropical island, 50 sq km, just off Abu Dhabi, owned by one of the Sheiks who lets the public visit. It has a resort, pool, beach, bicycles and horseback riding, mangrove swamps, and unique wildlife. Rather than sign up for the lunch at the resort (definitely for the unadventurous) Bob and I thought it sounded much better to bring a picnic, rent some bikes and head off to find a beautiful part of the island to do some snorkeling and relaxing.
We were a bit suspicious upon hearing varying estimates for how long it takes to get there, but no problem, had a lovely boat ride and 15 minutes later were on the island. Then off for a bike ride. Well, not so fast…
Beware the Bikes
We quickly agreed to call them ‘so called bicycles’. I think I got the best of the dozen or so leaning up against the rental place. It had 1 ½ pedals, but other than that and a bit of rust, seemed like fine transportation. Off we went on a sandy road along the shore to find beaches and circumnavigate this island. Two hours later, hot, dusty, & dehydrated, with no signs of people or vehicles…just lots and lots of desert on one side and water on the other….we started the useless discussion of ‘do we turn back or continue on…are we half way around this island…why do we do stupid things like this…and who’s job was it to bring water anyway? ’
The backpacks felt like they were made out of cement. The flippers were a pain to carry and useless … the water was so shallow and clear so who needed to snorkel anyway. It really was pretty and scenic and I wanted to enjoy it and take it all in except…..my rear end was sooooo sore. I actually got off at one point to see if the bike seat indicated where it was made. I was sure it would read HELL, with a flame logo beside it. The heat of the desert makes you think strange things. The only way I could continue was to fold up my beach towel and ride on it on top of the bike seat.
Things did look up though…we found a lovely beach to stop for lunch. There was a huge osprey nest (complete with osprey until we arrived) on a rock at ‘people’ level, I guess because other people aren’t dumb enough to venture to that part of the island.
It wasn’t to last however…getting back onto my hellish transportation I discovered my front tire was almost flat….oh, and of course a strong headwind had developed while we were basking on the beach. We wobbled our way back towards where we thought the resort was but we weren’t totally sure. You really do see illusions in the desert (or was that the beer with lunch).
To pass the time I started drafting an Ally McBeal episode in which someone sues the manufacturer of a bike seat …. the heat of the desert makes you think strange things.
We finally arrived back at the resort and staggered to the poolside where all the unadventurous types appeared to have spent a relaxing day in a lovely setting….poor suckers.
Before we caught the return boat to Abu Dhabi we felt compelled to follow a sign that pointed to “lovely birds”. We limped down the path way and discovered the “lovely birds” were ducks, geese, chickens, and some rabbits that are neighborhood sights at home…ahh, but they were lovely….stagger back to get the boat…and the boat ride that was 15 minutes in the morning became a one hour return trip…(that’s another story…just think 2 boats, overcrowded, confusion, boy scout troop returning from camping on the island, lots of supplies, confusion, moving passengers from one boat to another, confusion…) It is really a neat island, and next time I think I’ll stay by the pool at the resort….or maybe horseback riding (but only with a map this time)
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
We had a week off at the start of February and decided to head to Oman to camp for a few days. It only takes a couple of hours to reach the border. Quite an interesting country, here are random experiences…
Wadi Bashing – We crossed the border into Oman in the afternoon and headed to Sohar on the coast then south towards Muscat. As the sun started going down we got a bit anxious about finding a campsite. We found out later you can camp anywhere that isn’t private property. One travel book mentioned good camping spots in Wadi Bani Auf, near Rustaq so we headed there. A Wadi, by the way, is a dry riverbed, often with trees and hills or mountains on either side. Wadi Bashing is the term for getting in your 4-wheel drive and exploring in the wadis….the ‘roads’ can be narrow and rather rough.
We just managed to get our tents and Eric’s hammock up before dark…the days don’t seem very long, and it suddenly goes from day to ‘pitch black night’. Incredibly quiet, there was no one else in sight, although we’d passed a couple of rustic villages. With no cities or lights of any kind nearby the stars that night were amazing. We woke to the sounds of kids and looked out of the tent to see a group of about 8 kids a short distance away playing and calling out “hello, hi” to us, and setting little fires. Yes, I know the “fires” bit sounds odd, but they were apparently just playing house, making mud pies, and staring at us. As we packed up kids would occasionally wander closer but mostly they were just curious to watch us from a distance as they ran up and down the dirt road playing tag and whatever.
Turtles – Ras al Junayz….The drive along the coast south of Muscat includes sections of narrow, unpaved roads through scenic little villages such as Tiwi and Shab, where people are friendly and wave and call out ‘hello, hi’as we’d drive through the narrow main street of the village. At one point when I remarked how friendly everyone was Eric and Emily asked whether I’d also noticed the kids were throwing firecrackers at us and pretending to shoot us with guns. Hmmm….now that you mention it….
We camped at the beach at Ras al Junayz where large green sea turtles come in at night to lay their eggs. The beach is covered with large holes, the result of turtles digging to lay their eggs. The beach is off limits after 5 p.m. except if you go with a guide. The guide had a flashlight and led us to one of the turtles to watch her lay her eggs. We also saw some babies hatching and heading to the water. In the morning we went back to the beach on our own and although the adult turtles were gone we still saw some of the little ones scurrying off to the water. An interesting place…also, I glanced up at the campsite to see a couple of camels wandering through, rummaging through the garbage cans…ho, hum, just another camel sighting….there are signs on the highways by the way with an image of a camel and warning you to slow down…just like our deer signs at home.
Bahla – heading north we arrived at Bahla where there is a huge fort listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. A friendly local latched onto us and we thought he was going to give us a tour of the fort but no, he led us off in the opposite direction and toured us through his village. He spoke little English but was quite a character and it was one of those moments to just ‘go with the flow’ and follow him up and down the streets of his village. He shouted at me once because apparently I didn’t move fast enough to leap over a puddle of animal blood and guts…it was no big deal though, we’d seen lots of blood and guts that day along the roadside…after all it was a holiday and time to do a bit of sacrificing and put the guts by the roadside… We never did see the fort except from a distance.
Tanuf – After we escaped from Bahla we camped in another scenic wadi behind the ruins of a village called Tanuf. Beautiful mountains, goats on the hillsides, no people in sight, although we saw where the road ended and apparently you can get to the village on foot from there…we didn’t attempt it, perhaps it was too soon after our forced Bahla village tour… anyway, interesting country to visit if you’re ever in this part of the world.
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Yes indeed there is a Christmas in the UAE…but it’s this rather bizarre combination of things that are familiar and other things that are different…for example:
Lights: There are (literally) tons and tons and tons of lights all over the place here. They are strung from the palm trees down the medians of the roads. They are strung from the high-rise buildings. They are strung from overpasses. There must be an unwritten rule that the more ‘active’ the lights are, the better. There is every imaginable combination of flashing, blinking, strobe etc. There are huge strands of lights that hang down from our building and go across our bedroom window and even with the blinds closed the lights still shine through the slats in the blinds.
So while all the lights do remind us of Christmas the interesting thing is that the lights have nothing to do with Christmas at all. The lights are up because of National Day, which was a few weeks ago, and they apparently keep them up until just after the new year. And what’s even more confusing about the non-Christmas lights is that many of them are in red and green because those two colours are the prominent colours in the national flag.
I’m really getting into the lights though. We bought a strand for our Christmas tree, and they’re so neat…..it’s a double strand, all different colours and there’s a little switch you can press that makes them flash and blink in all sorts of patterns…but (and somehow this doesn’t surprise me) they never really stick to the same pattern and without even pressing the button again they’ll suddenly start changing colours and doing different rhythmic pattern on their own….it’s so cool ! However, around the house now you can often hear Bob and the kids saying “ would you stop with the lights!” because I keep saying, “Oh, look…look what they’re doing now!”
Christmas trees: Yes, we bought one…an artificial one. You might think “Well of course it’s artificial, after all the whole country is a desert”. But no, (and somehow this doesn’t surprise me either) you can buy live Christmas trees here…I don’t know where they come from, or what century they were cut down in, but they don’t have the “Christmas tree” smell, so I figure what’s the point.
Santa Claus: There is a Santa in each of the big malls and you can take kids to have their picture taken…just like at home…well, maybe with a bit of a twist. Santa is in a grotto…yes, a grotto…even the ads say “Come visit Santa in his grotto”. What the heck’s a grotto and what does it have to do with Santa? I guess a grotto is a cave, and indeed Santa does sit in a cave-like structure in the malls here…but why? It’s what we call a “UAE moment” and we’ve found the correct response is to say “hmmm, that’s rather odd” and then move on…
Speaking of UAE moments, I went out to do some last minute Christmas shopping last night and there on a busy corner was a guy dressed as a Santa with a boom box pumping out the Christmas tunes. That’s normal enough, and if he’d had an elf with him that would have been o.k. too, but instead of an elf he had a guy who looked like he just came in out of the desert, and he had this huge, lovely camel and was giving rides to kids. Oddly enough it did look and feel Christmassy in a biblical sort of way….sort of a “Santa meets the 3 Wise Men” theme. Up and down the sidewalk they’d go…and it was so busy around there with shoppers and cars zipping by….and here he was calmly walking this camel up and down and all the kids were having a wonderful time… and the rides were free too!
The fixin’s: We have bought a turkey and it is thawing as I write this. It is a butterball, supposedly --- I say ‘supposedly’ because there are so many ‘knock offs’ of merchandise and food that it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t ---then again, I don’t even want to think of what they’d put into a ‘knock off butterball’.
Several times recently when people here have asked me about Christmas dinner plans I replied that we were have the traditional dinner, turkey and the usual fixin’s. Then they’d ask “ from where”? That set me back a bit. How do you answer a question like that? To say “the supermarket” sounds a bit obvious. Then I found out that people here commonly order their turkey dinners as ‘take away’ from the hotels. (you know you’re becoming a local when you stop saying ‘take out’) The hotels make the whole thing for you…they’ll roast your turkey, and deliver your turkey and all the fixin’s. Now there’s an idea, maybe next year Christmas dinner will come from the Meridien, or maybe the Crown Plaza…after all, I’ll be too busy playing with lights, visiting Santa in his grotto and going for a camel ride.
Saturday, November 15, 2003
Previously on this site I shared Pearce Family “Travel Games”….we have since developed a new and unique set of games to accompany buying a new vehicle.
The Playing Field
After months of rocketing around the city in taxis we felt we had tempted fate enough and decided to buy our own vehicle. We decided to buy a new Mitsubishi Pajero.
Yes, yes I can hear you now, those of you on the green West Coast, scoffing about an environmentally unfriendly SUV. I’m sure the TC is still running letters to the editor condemning them and their evil drivers. But before you scoff too much, consider this. These big vehicles fit 7 ; we want to travel and camp on the weekends; we have teenagers who don’t want to be seen in public with their parents but perhaps might be persuaded if they could bring a friend. Besides, gas is cheap here (under 40 cents a litre). Case closed
The playing field also requires an understanding of ‘valet parking’ which is part of our housing deal here. If you imagine valet parking as being underground parking with a smart looking valet who efficiently drives your vehicle up to the front door …you must quickly get rid of that image. Here valet parking means that beside our building is a narrow strip of pavement about 2 typical driveways in length and width. In this space are parked all the vehicles belonging to everyone in the building. The ‘valets’ supposedly have a key for each vehicle and jockey them around in this rat run all day long.
Let the Games Begin
These games are best played on the first day owning the new vehicle. The plan is for Bob to drive the kids to school and me to work so we don’t have to take taxis.
“Can you hear me now?” This game is played by Bob trying to use the intercom to call down to have the ‘valets’ get the car ready for us. We had been told by Abdul the doorman to follow this procedure, and in fact we were shown how it worked on the day we moved in. The intercom is a box on the wall with a small viewing screen, a phone receiver and a series of buttons, one with the image of a key on it. Despite all manner of button punching and ‘hello’ , “ hello??”, “Heellloooo!!!” there was no response. Perhaps the person on the other end was scared off by hearing ‘evil morning mom’ in the background saying “look, we have to leave, get moving’, “if you went to bed earlier mornings wouldn’t be such a problem” “there’s noooo waaay you’re getting an allowance if we keep having mornings like this”
“Monster Truck Envy” this game follows “Can you hear me now?” as Bob goes downstairs to find the unresponsive ‘valet’. Eric, Emily and I arrive soon after to find our Pajero blocked in and a worried ‘valet’ unable to find the keys to move the offending vehicles. He eventually wakes up Abdul the doorman who arrives in his nightshirt, surveys the scene and goes off to wake up the owner of the offending vehicle. Time is ticking, Eric and Emily are sitting in the back seat of our running vehicle…they have already been late too many times, 1 detention already….time runs out and they hail a cab and rocket off to school. Bob appears calm on the outside, but I see his eyes darting here and there examining curbs beside the neighboring road, and the space between vehicles…After almost 25 year of marriage I can read his mind … “hmmm, if I move forward just a bit, then turn sharply to the right, then cut hard and back up a bit, and then if I can just bump up over that curb, cut her hard to the right, bump up over that other curb…oh, if only I had a monster truck I could just blast right out of here…”
Meantime, no one can wake the offending vehicle owner. Amidst the scurrying here and there woman I work with comes out, sees the commotion and offers me a ride to the college in her car which is free of offending vehicles. So off I go to work, leaving Bob standing there telling Abdul it no longer matters as there is no one left to drive anywhere anyway.
“Meet the local constabulary”
This game is played solo by Bob after a second cup of coffee and, feeling fortified, he heads back downstairs to try again to drive the new vehicle. It’s looking good, the offending vehicle has been moved, our vehicle is free. Yipee, head for the hills! Freedom from taxis! The power to go anywhere, anytime! He heads out into traffic, all’s well… round the first corner….all’s well…..right turn at the next corner….oops, all’s not well. The police officer who was beside him at the last light follows him around the corner and pulls him over. So, who would have thought, in this place of crazy traffic, apparently no speed limits, U turns allowed and encouraged, parallel parking on the street in any direction regardless of which direction traffic is going in, no seatbelt laws, no laws re smoking while fueling up or even turning your car off while fueling up…..there actually is a law here against turning right on a red light. The police officer, who didn’t speak English, apparently took pity on Bob and didn’t give him a ticket…he must have know it was just a ‘game’
Of course, it’s easy for me to talk about all these ‘games’ since I haven’t got the courage yet to do much driving….I bet I can invent a few new games myself….to be shared in a future update !