ADVENTURES IN DUBAI: YOUR FAVOURITE NUMBER ONE BLOG BRITISH DESIGNER LIVING IN DUBAI TELLS (NEARLY) ALL
Thursday, June 30, 2005
Summer is definitely upon us, and with it the annual exodus of a large chunk of the population. Most foreign schools finished a week ago, and there was an immediate reduction in the amount of traffic on my morning drive in. Betterarf (a teacher) and her colleagues were obliged to work another week after the kids had left. Just tidying up, doing admin, planning next year. Stuff like that. But yesterday was their last official day, and tonight she flies off to England.
This means that I will have twelve days of glorious Summer Bachelordom, during which time I shall work myself stupid. No, really, I will!
I've had the tutorial on the deep and mysterious workings of the washing machine, the care and maintenance of the plants and the decor fish (Gardens management does not permit pets, but these fish are purely decorative). So all should be well.
And I actually bought my own ticket for Blighty today, so I'll definitely be leaving on schedule. Can't wait!
I apologise for the paltry blog output recently. This is due to extreme overwork, and is likely to continue until I go on holiday in two weeks' time, or have a nervous breakdown. I have a mountain of work to get through before I go away, so there won't be much time for blogging I'm afraid. But hopefully my travels in Ireland England and España will provide a bunch of fresh and interesting things to blog about.
The IMAX cinema at Ibn Battuta Mall finally opened yesterday, and the debut movie is Batman Begins.
We went to see both this evening. I've never been to an IMAX venue before. It was quite an astonishing experience. The screen is 70 feet wide and 44 feet high, and the image quality is awesome. Fortunately we had seats near the back, so we weren't completely overwhelmed by it. I loved the fact that there were no adverts. I really don't need to see the trailer for Mr and Mrs Smith again, and no amount of advertising will induce me to buy a bottle of Pepsi or the latest Cadillac. And there were no sub-titles. Movies here normally have subtitles in French and Arabic, and they can be quite distracting.
But the star of the show was the show. Batman Begins is an awesomely well-crafted movie. Dark, broody, moody. It looks great and has believable characters. Gotham City is superbly presented as a massive stinking sewer of a place.
Today's Gulf News reports that Sharjah Police held a press conference yesterday (unheard of!) to explain their position in the recent detention of a Gulf News reporter.
They denied that there was a travel ban against the person concerned. And yet she was prevented from boarding a flight from Dubai Airport.
The police say they only wanted to ask the lady some questions. Hmm....they could have done that at any time - she wasn't hiding and they knew very well where she worked. Possibly the fuel allowance problem within Sharjah Police prevented them from driving to Dubai.
Apparently the story hangs on Gulf News' reporting of the stabbing of a lady in Sharjah. Said lady has recovered, and has filed a defamation case against GN (how you defame someone by reporting that they were attacked is beyond me). In a statement made at the press conference she said the Gulf News had damaged the national interest by revealing details of the story before the perp had been caught.
As far as I know, until a suspect has been brought to trial, there can be no 'sub-judice' limitations. The press will obviously co-operate with Police when there is concern that reporting certain facts could compromise an investigation. But in this particular case I don't see that GN has done anything wrong, and I do see that Sharjah Police seem to have messed up bigtime.
Perhaps the silliest aspect of this story was that Gulf News were not invited, although their Arabic Editor got wind of it and turned up with his lawyer.
Our local hypermarché, Géant, sells a few items of clothing. And so it needs changing rooms where people can try the gear on. Regrettably, the open-minded French culture has not transplanted itself very well to this region. They have one changing area, containing about 6 cubicles, intended for male and female use. It's all very private, and shouldn't really be a problem. But of course in an Islamic country it is a problem. If there is a bloke in one of the cubicles, the security guy will not allow any ladies in. But he will allow other blokes in. The situation is reversed if the first occupant is a lady. What this means is that if you are of the wrong gender when you want to try something on, you could be made to wait any amount of time to be allowed to do it.
Toilet humour is probably one of Britain's great contributions to global culture. Reading this post from The Emirates Economist (I guess he's off on his jollies) , has reminded me of a couple of things.
Last summer I was in May Contain Nuts Land, and had gone to visit my aging yuppie friends at their flat next to the Albert Dock in Liverpool. We went to a very trendy eaterie for lunch, and after we had eaten I needed to do something involving plumbing inspections. My buddies pointed the way, explained that it was unisex, and advised me to watch out for the wash basins. And it's a very good job they did - the 'wash-basins' turned out to be a long stainless steel trough. The taps and soap etc were concealed behind a wooden fascia. If I hadn't been warned about this, I would have pissed in it.
The good news is that the UAE Minister of Interior, Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, personally intervened in the case and ordered the immediate release of the journalist concerned. He has directed all police departments in the UAE come up with common procedures for dealing with the Press, and to respect the rights of journalists.
It really feels like a corner has been turned - a new Publications Law is promised in the near future, and we should be seeing some fireworks quite soon!
The downside of our hedonistic expat lifestyle (hah!) is that when I go back to May Contain Nuts England, I have to remember that I ain't gonna get no service from no bugger. You want your shopping in a bag? Do it yerself. You want a beer? Stand in the pile at the bar. Petrol? You must be joking right.
On a summer trip back to Blighty two years ago, after an intensive week of business stuff, I rented a car and headed Oop North to see my fambly. After the 5-hour, 40-mile crawl around the M25, I finally got onto the M1 and was almost out of petrol. I stopped at the first 'service' station I came to. I remember that you have to pump your own petrol. So I jump out of the car, and am faced by at least three different unleaded petrol pumps. I grab one, and try to stick it in the hole in the car. It doesn't fit. I squeeze the trigger. Nothing happens. I try the next one. Nearly fits, but not quite. But I give it a hopeful squeeze, and spill a few litres onto the forecourt. Desperate now, I approach the nut guy at the next pump, explaining that I am a space alien and can he please tell me what the deal is with these pumps. He grabs the one that I haven't tried yet, and of course it's a perfect fit, no problem. Sheesh.
I go into the shop to stand in a long queue and pay the money. Forty five pounds only! And then the cashier spots the other unpaid bill, the dribble that missed the car entirely. Another three pounds fifty. Ouch.
I have been on the other side of this 'no-service' thing. When I was a student, hundreds of years ago, I had a part-time job as a barman. It was a busy evening, but I was the ever-attentive bar-steward. I'd noticed that two lads had come in bearing rucksacks, and occupied a table in the corner. They just sat there, looking kind of hopeful, but not jumping up and down or anything. When I had a minute, I left the safe confines afforded by the woodwork of the bar (the regulars all remarking on what great legs I had and how come they'd never seen them before), and spoke to the lads. Turned out they were German, and they wanted a drink. So I, untutored in the ways of the world but knowing very well how things worked in no-service-land, explained that if they wanted a drink, they had to go and stand at the wooden counter and ask the guy behind it for what they wanted. And then they had to pay him cash-money of the Sterling variety. They looked over at the bar and declared that there was no-one there they could ask. 'There will be in a minute' I told them, and resumed my post. They got the hang of it eventually.
One of the great things about living in a Middle Eastern country is that they are all very keen on service. You go into a bar, any bar, and a waitperson will come and take your order. You go to a supermarket, and someone will put all your purchases into a bag (actually six bags, which ticks me off somewhat, and ticks them off when I won't let them do it). And you go to a petrol station: not only will an attendant put the stuff in for you, he will also wash your windows.
Now, you may have guessed that I am not a big fan of driving, and I do try to keep it to a minimum. With the essential driving that I have to do, I will use a tankful of petrol each week. But whenever I go to a gas station, I will only ever buy Dhs 20 worth - that's about half a tank - unless I'm planning to do a big trip, like Abu Dhabi or Umm Al Quwain. The reason I do this is that I am a cheapskate and a Yorkshireman (same thing, many would say!). No, that's not the reason. It's because the sand in the atmosphere here will cling to your car, and after about five days of normal weather you cannot see out of the windows. So, every three and a half days I go to a petrol station, spend my Dhs 20, and get my windows washed for free!
Last week's 'almost running out of gas' episode has caused a bit of a problem. I was so overwhelmed at the time that I bought a full tank, and gave the guy a hefty tip (yikes! Banned from Yorkshire forever!). So now the car is still almost full of petrol, and this morning I was having a hard time seeing through the windscreen. I had to resort to using the wipers. 'Big deal' you're thinking, but the problem is that because of the heat here, the rubber of the wiper blades lasts approximately three weeks, so when you use them in dry weather, you run the risk that, a) the blades are so perished that they just spread muddy grooves across the glass, or, b) the washer liquid has all evaporated and bits of surviving wiper blade pick up grit that cuts semi-circular grooves into the glass. Or, in my case, c) a combination of the first two; there is liquid and bits of the blades have survived. So I end up with semi-circular streaks on the windscreen that I can barely take my eyes off. I pull into the nearest Enoc, and ask them to 'fill it up'. The attendant is astonished that it only takes six Dirhams to fill this car! But now I have clean windows.
I've always been interested in theatre: watching it, or doing it, or backstaging it. Seven or eight years ago, Dubai Drama Group was pretty much the beginning and end of our social life. Betterarf, who is a stunningly brilliant actress, would be in every other show. Myself, who are a pretty damn good set designer and (if necessary) a good painter, would design sets for three out of four shows a year.
Thrice, I think, the director of whatever show was desperate for a part to be filled, enticed me to tread the boards. Now here's the thing. I lurve treading them thar boards. Could do it all day long. But if you expect me to act or remember any lines, you've got the wrong guy. Just can't do it.
I was once cast as the murderer in the Ag Christie play 'Black Coffee'. My character did the murder by slinging some poison pills into the coffee of his employer. There was a lot riding on this - the DDG were raffling a TV for anyone who could spot whodunnit at the interval of the show. One night, I completely forgot to dump the pills in the coffee. Oops. Don't think anyone won the telly that night.
I don't know if anyone noticed that cock-up, but plenty of folk spotted the next one. I was cast in the role of Bobby in the play 'The Visit'. Bobby is the lawyer/slave of a rich heiress who decides to visit the town of her birth. I'm not on stage much, and spend a lot of time out back. There is one very short scene where the heiress calls for Bobby. Bobby does not come, he is deeply engrossed in conversation with someone (Stephen Owen) out back about the possibilities of multimedia and the Interweb. "Where's BOBBY???". The heiress is improvising. Bobby hears this, but by the time he has clambered over the assorted bodies out back to get to the stage it is too late.
A few weeks later, I am stopped at traffic lights on Bank Street. A car pulls up beside me 'Where's Bobby?' asks the driver of the car. He is one of the cast of the show. Later, I'm in a mall, someone recognises me "Where's Bobby". In a crowded bar, across the room someone shouts "BobbbEEEE!". And so on, for quite a while. Right until last month when Deepak Morris who was in the show and subsequently moved back to India posted some comments. Oh I lurve being famous!
An article in today's Gulf News exposes a cunning plan by the management of the Emirates Towers complex to starve most of the people who work there to death by taxation. They have imposed a parking fee of Dhs 10 an hour. To put this in perspective, there is no other paid parking in Dubai that costs more than Dhs 2 per hour. This parking fee is totally outrageous for anyone working in the Office Tower - Dhs 90 a day for say 25 days a month comes to Dhs 2,250! Whether you earn Dhs 4,000 a month or Dhs 20,000, this is a significant chunk out of your income.
The logic of this move, according to the ET management, is that shoppers visiting the Boulevard cannot find parking space. My personal opinion is that at Dhs 10 per hour, I wouldn't even think about going there. The Boulevard has never been my kind of place, though - it's stuffed with boutiques and jewellers and not much else.
The result of this ill-thought-out move is that people who work in the Office Tower are now parking on some green areas around the buildings - thereby destroying some pretty landscaping. No doubt the authorities will quickly put a stop this practice by installing concrete barriers across the entrances.
And I am sure that shoppers will also stay away in droves during the day - preferring to visit after 7 p.m. when there is no charge. So the end result will be a whole bunch of covered parking spaces that no one will use because they do not want to be ripped off. The lawns around the Towers will be wrecked. ET management loses goodwill, Boulevard shops lose customers and revenue, companies in the office tower will eventually lose staff when they find jobs at other locations where they can park without being robbed of a major chunk of their income. It's a lose-lose-lose situation, the worst possible outcome for all concerned parties.
I'll let you know when ET management comes to its senses (I'll give them a fortnight).
We were at a party last night, thrown by a colleague of BetterArf's and her husband (the colleague's husband, not BetterArf's, you know what I mean). After only two years in Dubai, they are returning to Aberdeen. The principal reason for this is that they have a mortgage to pay before they both stop working. The husband is paid in US dollars, and the minute they arrived here, the value if the dollar started to plummet. All GCC currencies are pegged to the dollar, and what this means for them that their UK mortgage payments have become massively more expensive as the dollar declines (in fact this would also be the case if he were paid in local currency).
They had expected to be able to save a load of money in Dubai, but the reality has been otherwise. So with about ten years to go until they retire, they are panicking a little, and have realised that they have to return to the UK, and get paid in Sterling to stand any chance of finishing this mortgage.
Also at the party was a 62-year-old lady who is leaving to return to New Zealand. She owns a property there, but will still need a job to provide income so that she can eat, pay property tax, etc. She is very worried about how she will adapt to her new life - she's been in Dubai for 13 years.
Much has been written in the press in the western world about the impending failure of pension funds and endowment mortgages. These will leave many older people with huge debts and no income in their 'twilight' years.
So, for many people, it looks like the new shape of retirement is that there is no such thing. These folks will literally have to work till they die. In the UAE this is not an option for expats. Residence visas are not renewed for people after their 60th birthday, unless they own a business or a residence.
I was talking with a financial advisor a couple of weeks ago, who asked me when I planned to retire. I said I didn't plan to retire. I'm one of those sad gits who lives to work, and the idea of waking up every morning and doing absolutely nothing is one that I really cannot understand. But yes, in less than 20 years' time, I may well feel differently, so we are saving frantically to build up a big enough cash mountain so that we won't have to starve in our twiglet years. It's so boring being sensible.
Dubai rarely suffers from power outages, having a well-developed and (presumably) efficient generation and distribution network. The only major blackout that I can remember was about six years ago.
Oh, and earlier today.
We were unaffected in Jebel Ali (good title for a movie?), and the first inkling I had of the problem was an email from Media City management, explaining that they were running on standby power and it would run out in one hour, so please save your work and think about going home. I was working at home anyway, and had no plans to visit the office today.
I did have a plan to drive into Dubai for Roger's memorial service at 2pm, stopping off somewhere en route for a spot of lunch. This plan went out of the window as we neared Safa Park. Traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road slowed almost to a standstill. We crawled into town, and reached the church at 1.45. A trip that would normally take half an hour had taken three times that. And we were seriously almost out of petrol.
In the church, there was an abundance of candles, but obviously no air conditioning. Amazingly, power was restored a few minutes before the service began.
After the service everybody was invited to Jebel Ali Cemetery for the actual burial, but we had to get gas first. This proved to be more challenging than expected. Despite power having been restored to the area that the church is in, the three petrol stations closest to it were still in the dark. To conserve gas, we had the windows open and the A/C off. Dressed in completely unsuitable heavy black funeral gear, we quickly began to melt.
We found ourselves in Karama, and parked up for a bit. BetterArf called Eppco HQ who reported that the closest working station they had was on Sheikh Zayed Road near Safa Park. No way we could do it, mainly because of the long queues waiting to get onto the highway. We decided to find a nearby hotel that had power and have some lunch and just wait.
BetterArf phoned a few places and discovered that the Movenpick Hotel had just got their power back on. We headed off in that direction and as we neared Maktoum Bridge noticed a set of working traffic lights. And the next gas station after that was open! Yeehaaar.
And the moral of the story. Things like this make me realise just how close we are to meltdown. It's a very scary experience, especially in this climate, and especially in summer. You can only really function at night without A/C. The last time we had a major power outage in Dubai, there was much talk of building a UAE national grid. But it doesn't seem to have happened, so there's still no way to buy in power from neighbouring emirates and economic paralysis sets in very quickly.
If you've been paying attention, you'll remember that I mentioned a proposed week-long trip to India last month. And then completely failed to report back to you, dear reader. The reason for this, ah, you've guessed it. I didn't go. Pressure of work, staff problems, that kind of rubbish.
And I completely missed the opportunity to extract the Michael from Air India Express, whom I had been planning to fly with. They launched with much hullabaloo, but almost no passengers. The reason for the lack of passengers being that they had not appointed a GSA (General Sales Agent) for Dubai. Travel agencies claimed that they had not been informed of the launch, and then when they were informed, were completely unwilling to sell AIE tickets for the paltry sum that was offered (the figure Dhs 17 per booking sticks in my mind).
So AIE's target market, the ones who really want the cheapest possible flight, were unable to use the service. Why? Because the only way you could get a ticket was by booking online using your credit card. Amazingly, most labourers on Dhs 800 a month do not have Internet access and have never seen a credit card.
In the last couple of weeks AIE have appointed a company with no previous experience of the travel market, and no retail network, to be their agents. Things that make you go 'hmmmm'.
So my next travelling plan is for next month, and if I duck out of this one I will be divorced faster than you can say talaaq three times.
Here's the plan. I will join BetterArf in Dublin around mid-July. She is doing a summer school for her Masters Degree for the two weeks preceding that. After a weekend of craic and real Guinness, we will fly back to Londinium and spend a few days there. Then we will travel Oop North to visit our assorted families in Doncaster and Scunthorpe, possibly go to visit distant outposts in Durham and Scotland, and maybe even a detour to Liverpool on the way back down south. Then we will fly to Barcelona for about five days, return to London for a day or two, and then return to Dubai.
It's tough being an expat. You absolutely cannot return to your home country and not visit your rellies. Who, by the way, can not generally be arsed to jump on a plane and come to see us in our (adopted) native habitat.
The year before last my 'holiday' itinerary went like this. Fly to Heathrow via Cyprus, with Offspring. BetterArf is already in England. Stopover in Cyprus for a few days. Unwind. Fly to Heathrow. Visit our office in Surrey, do a bit of work. Rent a car. Drive Oop North. Two days in Doncaster. Two days in Scunthorpe, and a day trip to Cleethorpes (more rellies). Drive to Edinburgh, avoiding motorways, oh, bliss! Stay with BetterArf's Aunt in Pennycuik. Try to climb a mountain. Realise I am almost fatally unfit. Next day, deliver Offspring to Edinburgh. He has been invited to stay with a departed (from Dubai) schoolfriend in Aberdeen, and will be collected by schoolfriend's elder sister from her workplace in Edinburgh. Return to Aunt's, decide to stay another night. Next day, drive to Liverpool. Stay with bestest oldest buddies at their newly-acquired yuppie apartment near the Albert Dock. Next day, stay at their other house in Walton. Next day, head south, detouring to explore a lavender farm in Cheshire, trying to find Valerie who used to live in Dubai and now (we think) is somewhere near Stoke-on-Trent, but we are old, stupid and tired and don't have her phone number. So we try to meet up with an uncle who lives in Shropshire, but he is not answering the phone and doesn't have an answering service. So we dawdle on down to Surrey, not using motorways until we get to the lovely M25. A few days in Camberley, and then up to Luton Airport to pick up Offspring from (allegedly) the only Easyjet flight that ever landed on time. Then back to Camberley, return the hire car, and then meet up with another ex-Dubai-ite. Chauffeured by him up to Warwick. Next day, trip to Stratford-on-Avon. Next day, Virgin Atlantic train back to Camberley. Then a few days in E17, and I realise that I want to go home. Cyprus Airways cannot get me back to Dubai inside four days, so Offspring and I go to Cyprus for a few more days, and then complete the journey back to Dubai. I can't actually remember how or when BetterArf got back!
Well, I've never been one for just sitting around doing nowt, and a change is as good as a rest, they do say. I tell ya, I could really do with a change or a rest right now. It's been a very tough year (for reasons that cannot be mentioned on this blog). I only have ten jobs to finish before my holiday!
Hmm. I came across Essays In Idleness maybe a month ago. It was an infuriating blog by a Canadian who for some reason was working in Dubai. And clearly having a real hard time adjusting to it. I say it was infuriating because he never allowed comments on his posts, and most of what he wrote was crying out for clarification.
Not wanting to be morbid or anything, but it seems that for as long as we have lived in Dubai, one or two friends a year have died. We also lose a lot through people just leaving the place. I don't know, folks we knew in England hardly ever died (except elderly rellies). So maybe it's a combination of factors - firstly, we are older than we used to be, and so are the people we hang out with, and secondly, we just know a lot more people in Dubai than we used to in England. And I've just realised something. With the exception of my childhood years (and BetterArf's also), our stay in Dubai has been about four times longer than any time we spent in any English city.
But this year is getting heavy, I learned today of the demise of another buddy, Roger Lee. That makes three this year so far (the other two being Jon Adams, the victim in the Qatar Theatre bombing, and Bill Groom, a long-time denizen of The Alamo).
BetterArf headed off into DubaiTownCityLandPlanet after work this afternoon. She called me to tell me this, and said she would be going to one of the second-hand bookshops - was there anything I wanted? 'Well, if by any chance you come across Dark Tower 7...' (not thinking it remotely likely - it's not even out in paperback yet).
Anyhoo, she's just got in, bearing a brand-spanking-new shrink-wrapped hardback. Oh my gawd! Really I could have waited for the paper jobbie (especially after the horrible volume 6).
I'm not someone who can delay gratification much, so now my challenge is to finish Dan Brown's 'Angels and Demons' as quickly as possible. I'm about three-quarters of the way through it. I should be able to finish it tonight if I use my patented Reading Standing Up technique. I also bought some ant powder to keep the little buggers at bay. Angels and Demons is pretty pacy, but not essential reading. If you've read the Da Vinci Code, you just need to substitute Rome for Paris and the Vatican for the Louvre and you've got the picture.
I have waxy earholes. Don't know why, but generally a good long soak in a hot bath with my lugholes underwater will cause the stuff to dribble out. For about the last week, though, this remedy has not been working. I visited my friendly local pharmacist yesterday for some eardrops. He's always happy to see me because he reckons I'm a mug who'll buy the most expensive stuff he has. And he might be right. Rather than buying eardrops at about Dhs 10, he made me buy a special spray at almost Dhs 40. 'It's magic!' he promised. Hmmm.
I get home with the stuff, and on inspection it seems that the principal ingredient is seawater. Damn, I can get that for free any time I want. I give it a go. I squirt it in, and it immediately runs out, staining my best white shirt with purest seawater. I realise that cotton wool is needed in this process, and give it another go, ramming cotton wool into the orifices this time. Some time later, BetterArf calls me. I can barely hear a word she's saying, until I realise that I have a sodden lump of cotton wool in my ear. I rip it out and then I can hear her.
Another ear story. When I got my wonderful PalmOne Treo 650 a few months ago, I also had to get a Bluetooth handsfree whatnot. It's really cool and makes me look like a cyborg. I only use it in the car, because your conversations are not exactly private when you are talking into this thing. A few days ago I had to whizz into the office to collect something, so I didn't bother removing it. When I got to my desk, I noticed that I had 35 missed calls. So I pick up the handset and place it to my ear, where it hits the Bluetooth gadget. Tony The Journo on a nearby desk sniggers. Hah. I meant to do that, really.
And on the subject of being a stupid git, last week I actually did something that I used to have nightmares about. I squirted shaving foam into my armpit instead of deodorant. Dang!
A new name in the world of smelly cheese! I discovered this at Geant about a week ago. They have a fairly splendid cheese counter there, but I was looking for Bleu D'Auvergne and they didn't have any. But I spotted this thing called 'local cheese wheel' - it contains good old penicillin roqueforti and is made in Sharjah. So it's a whole lot cheaper than imported cheese, and I have to say it's pretty tasty.
One thing you can never really accuse most local cheese of is having an adundance of taste. We're talking about things like halloumi and roumi here - if they taste of anything at all, it's salt.
Every now and again I enjoy watching a movie with paper-thin characters, feeble dialogue, a hugely improbable plot, and lots of chases, explosions and brilliant special effects. Sahara is just such a film and I loved it!
Just come back from the theatre dahling. Well actually the auditorium at the Crowne Plaza. It's quite a bit like a theatre. The show was 'One Big Blow', brought to these shores by Phil Duquenoy's Streetwise Fringe Theatre Co.
It was a really enjoyable gig. It revolves around five blokes pretending to be coal miners in Yorkshire in 1980, and of course they play in a brass band. There's lots of a capella singing, lots of physicality, and lots of fun. The original cast of this show went on to become the group The Flying Pickets, and the plot of it was developed as the screenplay for the film 'Brassed Off'.