Friday, November 20, 2009

Another Moving Day in Abu Dhabi - A Cautionary Tale

Dateline Abu Dhabi - November 2009

Along about the 3rd of November we (Marco, my flat-mate and I) got a call from Shamail Shardan - he's the tenant we have been sub-renting from in Abu Dhabi.

The flat is a very nicely designed, well-laid out two-bedroom 5th floor flat on Al Falah St. (also know as Passport Rd. or 9th street, depending on who you talk to), corner Airport Rd. We were quite happy, looking forward to at least another year there. The rent was reasonable for the area (AED 150K/yr, about US$40K).

Noisy neighborhood, with three mosques in easy shouting (and they do!) distance, and constant traffic noise, almost like the Ocean Beach white-noise in San Francisco - but with more horns. I tuned it out after a while. Marco used ear plugs.

Parking is a pain in the ass, if you have any sense of entitlement about parking space - but you get used to it; used to just cruising slowly around the neighborhood's tightly packed interior mazes until you see something no one else has spotted (a 4X4 comes in handy in this respect on occasion) or until someone leaves. Thing about there being a vast number of cars around is that there is also a vast number of people, and the more people there are the greater the likelihood that someone, at any given moment, is heading off somewhere.

Anyhow, back to the phone call from Shamail: He'd been texting and calling repeatedly throughout the day, but my private mobile was switched off due to this being the week we rolled out the new document control procedures and systems I've been working on since January, and besides meetings and the usual work load there were a zillion details that needed attention. I finally picked up a rather distressed message from him, asking me to call him back ASAP. I could only imagine one possible cause for the sound in his voice.

Apparently the landlord, or the "owner representative", property manager - whatever - pieced together the fact that A.) Shamail had not been living in the building, and B.) we had (as had others before us). This was not provided for in the contract, and Shamail was given two options: Either move back in immediately, or vacate the premises. We were given until the 15th of the month to move.

Ugh! Timing couldn't have been worse, given relatively tight finances, heavy work load, along with the fact that we had just moved in in July. What can one do, though, but try to roll with it? Next day I mentioned the situation to a colleague at work, who reminded me about an email we all got a few weeks earlier about some flats the company was trying to get for employees in the Tourist Club area. After a couple emails and a phone call or two, it became clear this was a good option - similar price, brand new building, underground parking, relatively quite neighborhood. Good windows blocking nearly all external noise.

Papers were signed, monies moved, authorities, utilities contacted, moving company engaged - looked like everything was falling easily into place. Since the movers do all packing, disassembly and reassembly of furniture, removal and renstallation of shelves - we remained pretty relaxed to the last.
Moving day dawned beautiful, warm and sunny, with cool delicious breezes - and went straight downhill from there.

The downhill bit was about Shamail, mainly. He texted me on Friday, the day before the move, that he had sent a message to the property manager/owner representative informing him that we would be moving the stuff out the next day, Saturday the 14th, ahead of schedule, our instructions having been to be out by Sunday the 15th. On Thursday, the moving company manager called to confirm that the move was going ahead as planned, which I duly confirmed. Then on Friday, the building owner's rep replied to Shamail's message saying that we were NOT to move anything out until Shamail came by their office, in person. They didn't say why, and Shamail had been unable to reach them. So Friday afternoon Shamail let me know that we shouldn't move anything. BUT -the movers were coming in the morning and I couldn't call them off at that point. Shamail said he would be at the rep's office the next morning at 8:00 and would call me the minute he had things cleared up.

It seems Shamail had been under their scrutiny for a while since it had become apparent that he wasn't living there (even before we moved in). So they wanted him to come and sign an agreement that he would either move out entirely (which would let them put the place on the market at the current value (over $200K/yr) or move back in himself.

Saturday, 9AM: The movers arrived - no word from Shamail. My executive decision: "Start packing!" Then began a frenetic, seemingly chaotic storm of boxes and tape and plastic and more tape, and more tape after that. These guys are a pack of mad tapers. They taped the caps on all the bottles in the fridge. Like a bunch of insane spiders in a room full of bugs. By 10AM there were mostly only a whole bunch of packages ready to go - and still no word from Shamail. Maybe an hour 'til there would be nothing left to pack. I had called him maybe twenty-five times by now and sent a dozen text messages. I had no other way of reaching him. I started to panic. Now, we not only couldn't move anything out, all our stuff was unavailable, wrapped in neat cocoons.

Another exective decision: I went to talk to the owner's rep myself. This was when I learned that Shamail (in the opinion of the rep) had been regarded as a bit shady in his dealings with them. I explained that the furniture was not Shamail's, but mine, since I had bought it all from him - didn't matter. The condition remained: No clearance granted, nothing moves, until Shamail settled things with them.

I contemplated just telling the movers to go ahead anyway, but they had been told by building security they were not allowed to take anything out until the clearance letter was in hand. Any attempt to move anything would certainly have resulted in police intervention.

What to do?! At this point I was imagining the worst: Shamail had decided to abandon the place and everything in it, maybe he was afraid of legal consequences for his subletting activities, maybe he had left the country... I had flashbacks of friends Alpa and Guarav's nightmare, and other horror stories of expats (not in Kansas anymore!) stuck in foreign jails, sent to Siberia - you get the picture. I was baffled that I could have so completely misjudged this guy, who I had always had a REALLY good feeling about. I was thinking - another life lesson is in the making - I wonder how it'll come out - what is the moral of this story, I wondered?

The moving crew supervisor had a suggestion: Call Shamail from a different phone. Took me a minute to realize why he was suggesting this - but eventually I got it, as you may already have. If he was dodging me, he might answer a call from a phone he didn't recognize. I tried, and he did. I was immediately relieved and pissed, and shattered by the nearly inescapable conclusion that he HAD been trying to duck me, which eroded the little confidence I had left that he had honorable intentions.

As it turned out, however, he had (probably owing to the stress of the situation) been out very late the night before partying, and was just waking up. I was furious - but the funny thing is that I couldn't really stay that way for long. People here don't respond to anger the way they do in the US (dangerous generalization of course). They don't play the defensive confrontation game so much. Shamail was good natured and understanding and said he was on his way from Al Ain, but it'd take some time, maybe an hour and a half. He'd call the office and try to get them to give clearance. I felt a little better, but by now the movers were getting antsy - they were supposed to be finished by 3PM and they hadn't starting loading things out yet. I went back to chewing my fingernails. I went down to talk to the security gaurd eventually, and asked him to please call the office to see if they had talked to Shamail. He did, and after quite a lengthy conversation, none of which I could understand, he said "ok, ok you moving now".

So we did.

The movers were (and probably still are) a little barbaric, but they got the job done. I let them try to put away the kitchen goods (in a much smaller kitchen with much less cupboard space), using their own judgement, while I was doing other things, and found that they didn't have any. Judgement, that is. It's really interesting how people's minds work. But I guess one can't really expect anyone to think like one does.

At the point when I started writing this, things were settling down over the days following the move, we were starting to get confortable - things getting organized and put away properly. Still don't have the gas connected in the kitchen, and the cable isn't connected yet. We went to Ikea and Marco bought a bed, desk and dresser, I got a desk for my room - they'll be delivered in three weeks. The kitchen needs shelves and a spice rack. The refrigerator is too big to fit in the space available for it in the kitchen (oops!) so it's next to the dining table in the little dining area (pix soon to come). I'll probably sell it (it's pretty new, a nice size and in good shape) and get one that fits the kitchen. Oh, and we had curtains made - very quick and relatively cheap. At the end of the moving day, around 8:30, we called a curtain company, they came, measured the rooms, and went away again. They were ready the next night - floor-to-ceiling pull-cord drapes with "belts", good fabric, for three rooms, installed, for about $700.

OK, so our trajectory, Marco's and mine, was set to perfecting our "nest" and enjoying it as much as possible over the next year - at which point some adjustments would have had to have been made, probably. BUT (did you notice the subtle shift to the past tense in there) - yesterday Marco dropped the bomb that was dropped on him: He has been "made redundant" - the etymology is traceable to British corporate-speak (as prevalent or more so here in the Middle East than its American cousin), and is a euphemism for "sacked", "fired", "let go", "terminated". Twelve architects and engineers who were "under-utilized" in their respective departments have gotten pink slips. He is understandably upset, and feels unjustly treated, since, in his view, the chopping block should had first seen the heads of the higher level leads who have failed to provide work for the teams by not winning bids.

The situation is likely a bit more complex, but I tend to agree - the people in charge of proposals and bids, who earn much higher salaries, should be accountable for their performance. Firing a couple of poor performers (who happen to be politically astute enough to hold on to their jobs while their staff are sacrificed) at the middle-management level would probably save the company more money, and leave it better prepared to deal with the work that a better performing replacement manager would be able to drum up. This appears to be one of the deeply entrenched cultural flaws of the top-down hierarchy of corporate structure.

Anyway, the situation is what it is - Marco is going, and I'm very, very sad about it.

Side note: Marco is the Oscar Madison to my Felix Unger - although Marco is not really sloppy at all, I am more on top of houselhold organization than he is, and much more detail oriented - "anal" if you like, at least in our situation. We've gotten along SO well for the past year that I'm really not looking forward to trying to find a new flat mate - but there's not really a choice. Marco kicked in what amounts to nine months rent up front, which is money I can't give him back until I find one, since the move meant I had to take pretty much everything out of savings to cover the full year in advance.

I'm hopeful, based on past experience, that we'll both look back on this at some point and chuckle, and wonder at the working of events that necessitated this change of course and at the internal mechanisms that allow humans to adapt to changing circumstances, and thrive on the new ones that arise. For now my good cheer at having coped with yet another dislocation is definitely tempered by the fact that someone who has grown to be a good friend will very likely be out of direct reach and oriented in a direction that will likely take us on vastly separate paths. But then I must remind myself (for the how-many-th time): What do I know? I haven't got a freaking clue what's coming - so let's just wait and see.

Cautionary Note: Subletting in Abu Dhabi? Bad idea. MUCH better to do things here by the book - as much as possible, anyhow, while still striving to maintain integrity with one's internal compass.

Also, yet again - leaping to conclusions about other people behavior, in my estimation and esperience, is just not a good idea. The brain will attempt to make sense out of the apparent chaos out there, and will persistently assemble patterns to explain things (like Shamail's failure to call or show up at the appointed hour); patterns that almost always fail to represent reality. Especially in extreme situations - the mind is a dangerous neighborhood - almost as dangerous as the heart. Take a breath. Relax. Wait and see.

Coby Smolens

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Life as a Bureaucrat in the Sands of Thesiger

"Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s name is inseparably linked to the Rub 'al Khali or Empty Quarter in Arabia. He made two crossings of the great desert space between 1946 and 1948, which he saw as not only one of the few remaining places undisturbed by Western influence, but also an environment where he could truly test himself."

So OK, so far Thesiger and I ain't exactly in alignment, at least not superficially. My exploration of the desert sands of Arabia is a sight more comfy - at least so far. But I must say, I have started to see something of the weird attraction of the sun- and wind-carved wastes of the Empty Quarter here, and something of the seductive qualities that pulled and tugged so relentlessly at Sir Wilfred and T.E. Lawrence.

During our spontaneous gallivant off to Muscat in Oman over the weekend (planning began at five-thirty on Thursday - remember that our Thursday is your Friday - and we checked into our quarters at midnight the same night after snagging standby tickets on an Oman Air flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat), my flat-mate Marco and I got a look at the sunblasted outback and I noticed within me a weird inclination to hop out of the cab and just start walking...

However, I settled for snorkeling with the big green sea turtles, loafing around the pool and reading. Just started the book my BFF Skag gave me for Christmas: "Seaworthy" - about another nutjob who sought out discomfort the way some folks look for the next bar.

Anyhow, I will now get to the Bureaucrat bit, not having accumulated enough personal experience as a Bedouin to topple a tissue off a toothpick...

The following, by the way, is pirated straight from a message I sent to my brother, Rai, a few minutes ago. I realized while sending that it contains the detail some folks have requested regarding: "WTF do you DO over there, anyhow?" Hopefully this will satisfy them. With apologies to Rai, then, here it is:

Haven't done a blog post in a while - work is murderous busy right now, and for the next couple months, promises to remain so. We (my flat-mate Marco and I) did manage to nip off on a spontaneous weekend jaunt to Oman, and Margit and Nora are arriving a day apart this next weekend, after which we will off be off to Germany for various amounts of time: Nora til the 25th, me til the 29th, Margit til who knows.

My work is to analyze the situation, assess need, develop systems and implement them for AECOM Middle East (until recently Cansult Maunsell AECOM - check out the website ( for company info) - the systems in question being "Document Controls" - a highly critical part of the QAQC function of any architecture, engineering, project management, construction supervision organization - all of which applies to us.

There were no such systems in place when I got here, and my task is to have one in full operation by the end of June, after which I will continue to iron out the bumpy bits, train people and then manage the critter til I get tired of it. "Document Control" is the set of systems, procedures and protocols needed to ensure that business and technical documents are properly numbered, registered, delivered, stored, archived, and most importantly retrievable on demand.

In the architecture, engineering and construction business, it is critically important, as you might imagine, that people are also working with the correct versions of documents. "Documents" in this case would be proposals, contracts, reports, surveys, drawings, specifications, calculations, etc., any one of which, if not timely and properly released can mean the very quick loss of millions. As of now our office is handling roughly a hundred projects ranging from small ($20M
range) to large ($10B range), with a staff of around 2000 in the ME.

My title is "Manager, Document Control" for the Abu Dhabi branch, but the way things are going, my office will probably be working throughout UAE, since there has been no consistent, uniform application of procedures or system through out the area. I seem to be the one driving
the push for such systematizing right now, and I have a great deal of support from corporate management in the area.

It's quite challenging, fun and exciting, in fact - contrary to what one might think (document control? How droll...). The people I deal with are pretty high-level professionals and generally a lot of fun to work with. I had a staff of three when I got here, and my resource plan for the coming months will raise that number to between nine and twelve, depending on how efficiently we can put things into play. Those are immediate, direct-reporting folks - there are also a few dozen more in satellite offices and project site offices as well, who are under my "remit" as they say here. I drive around the UAE a lot in the course of my duties, too, so I'm not stuck in one place, and my time (although very much spoken for) is under my own control - so if I want to work at home once in a while, I can - or work some extra hours and take a day off if I need to.

So that's probably more detail than you wanted, but I figger, what the hell - take what you need and leave the rest behind. How did I wind up here, you may wonder? Well, for one thing, I don't consider myself "wound up" just yet. And for another - WTF knows! I messed around with computers and my own businesses enough to pass an interview a couple years ago in SF at the invitation of a friend who thought I could probably pull off setting up and running a project site office, and one thing has led to another. I put it down either to the rather remarkable inability of corporations to sniff out BS, or to their rather remarkable ability to sniff out potential, in spite of obvious lack of credentials and education. Either way, I'm not complaining.

I'm having fun, and am delivering good value for the bank I'm making - which is not outrageous, considering the cost of living here, but certainly sufficient. And way more than that if one glances ever so briefly outside the "safe" little bubble of western civilization...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Living Royal

Went to the Emirates Palace tonight to catch the last evening of an exhibition of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson with a chum, Linda (sorry, no picture of her - you'll have to settle for one of Henri's), who I met there a couple weeks ago during a lecture conducted via transcontinental video conference with James Turrell, on his astoounding Roden Crater project. Check out:

Turns out, the Emirates have a high regard for the fine arts, even though at times it feels a little like their place here is a bit forced, as though the Royals know they should be infusing the nation with some culcha. 

Whatever - there have been some really nice goings on at the Palace and the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, both massive and gorgeous venues and they're all FREE to the public. (Even the underground parking is free!) And the Cartier-Bresson photos are amazing. The guy started out in photography with a little old Leica in the early fities, and the exhibit tonight was all European studies. The guy had an incredible sense of timing and humor. As witness the picture to your left.

Donnerwetter! and New Suits

Desert storms (the old-fashioned way) have been charging across the region this week. Hail has obliterated temporary construction trailers and peened car roofs to resemble golf balls. The heat is still on during the day, so the humidity is awesome. People react to rain here the way they do in Marin County when it snows; standing around, revelling in the rare. Lightning  and thunder, and enough rain to wash the paving stones past the point where they're slippery from dust and feel like solid rock again. Car windshield wipers spread streaks across the glass, hardly functional after sun-hardening - maybe never used since installation. 

The man on the right over there is Freddy (I'm actually not sure if it's Freddy, but it is my conceit to believe this for the time being). He is my tailor - his shop is right next to my favorite schwarma shop. I now own two suits made by him and his crew. The shop is tiny. You go, pick out material (or bring it with you), show him what you want done and pay a deposit (AED500, US$140 for 2 suits). You come back in a week for a fitting. you go away and come back in a few days, pay the balance (AED1300, US$360) et Voila! There you are, all outfitted for your part in the "Shoring up the Global Economy" show. I have not one but two new suits, handmade of best Italian wool. one a forest green, the other a quite respectable dark grey.

If you're good, I may eventually post some pictures of the finished products. 

NOTE: I have no digital camera right now, believe it or not. And I can't even get pictures off the camcorder, because Windows Vista 64 doesn't recognize it. I am reduced to emailing myself pictures one at a time from the iPhone.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Afoul of the Law! and other less exciting incidents.

For those who are not on Facebook, and haven't yet seen this,  you might be interested in what the commute used to look like before I got the Toyota (I think I'm gonna call her Yoyo).

Note the efficient seating arrangement: No emergency exit route goes to waste.

Well, Marta, our Hungarian-Australian chanteuse friend is gone, having been dropped by me at the airport this morning, and it's back to temporary bachelor life again.  

As it happened, owing to my personal introduction to the fact that there actually are traffic laws in Abu Dhabi that actually are enforced occasionally, we nearly missed her flight. I got the car from the parking garage and was sort of scooting along to get back to the apartment to pick her up. My progress out of the courtyard area onto Khalidya Street was impeded by traffic, so instead of following the herd onto the regular little merge lane, I sort of swooped around them. Mind you there are no signs saying this is not OK. In fact there is no driver's handbook to advise one of the rules provided here - if you want to know what the rules are, you have to go to the Traffic Authority and ask. But, OK, I sort of knew it was a bit of a maverick move, didn't I. And there was a guy standing there who wagged his finger at me in a warning sort of manner - a manner that got more imperative as it became clear that I was going to ignore him. It wasn't until I actually made it around the sluggards ahead of me and pulled onto the street that I saw the cause of the unusually thickened traffic: There were several police cars there, and a long line of hapless vehicles and their more hapless owners standing around waitng for the police, who were conducting a kind of bulk "sting" operation. 

All of a sudden it became clear that the waggly-fingered guy had been trying to help - not scolding at all. Thinking back on the expression on his face, it now struck me that his increasingly anxious look was not driven by some sort of Pollyanna control issue - he was genuinely upset that I, one of his own kind, was about to be eaten by the sharks (this is the metaphor that usually occurs to me as regards the prowling, predatory nature of law officers trolling for prey). 

And of course, this being the birthplace of haggling, it took a while to get my citation written. The idiot in front of me was doing his damnedest to persuade the officer that he should be exempted from the process, and the officer was (as they mostly do) firmly and calmly rejecting his appeals. When at last it came my turn, I stifled any impulse I might have had to engage in debate, and smiled and handed over my Abu Dhabi Drivers license and registration card. It is going to cost me 200 AEDirhams, which I have to take in cash to the Traffic Authority within the next thirty days. But, OK - part of the education process. I will not be using that maneuver again. (Unless I'm 100 percent certain that no authorities are within seeing range.) 

Then on the way to the airport, I noticed after a time, during which Marta and I were engaged in some deeper level of discussion, that the airplane icons had stopped showing up on the roadway signs, and we seemed to have gone farther from town than I remembered the airport being... In spite of the help from some locals (who, unusually, spoke NO english at all, but gestured very fluently), and with the somewhat more useful help of my iPhone 3G with GoogleMapping Autolocate on (gadgets ROCK!), we managed to find our back to Abu Dhabi International, with minutes to spare.

It was really nice having her here - the presence of a woman in the house (particularly a pretty and friendly one) increases the depth of existence by at least one dimension. Makes things seem somehow more real. Socks and underwear drying on the back of a chair. Mysterious creams and unguents dotting horizontal surfaces in the bath. You know - depth. Humanity. 

She's off to her next gig in another mid-eastern seashore nation, where she has a four-month contract as a DJ; something she's never done (shh! don't tell them), but will learn on the job. I love that about Marta! If she owned an airline it would have to be named "Seat-o'-the-Pants Air".

It was sweet having her here, and I'll miss her - even though her departure means I can move off the couch and back into my bed again.
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Here's the generic, travelogue section of a note I wrote today to our long-time friend Grace (Manon), in Hawaii:

"Hi honey!

"Life here is pretty darn good! It's sooo different in many ways, yet familiar enough to be comfortable. AD is an incredible melting pot - SO many cultures and nationalities represented; in a place which is nominally Arab Muslim, there is more tolerance for differences here than anywhere I've been, except maybe Amsterdam, and San Francisco.

"My work is a blast! It's a huge challenge, but I have good support and the freedom to manage things the way I see fit. Actually there's no real choice about that, since my job didn't really exist here until I arrived and people have only the vaguest notion about what a "Regional Document Control Manager" is supposed to do."

"I'm doing a lot of traveling around too, so I'm not stuck in an office all the time, and I bought a car this week (the newest vehicle I've ever owned: a 2006 Toyota Fortuner V6 4WD). I'm finding friends and music and great places to eat and hang out... Right now the weather's still good - it's getting up around a hundred on a daily basis - although this week it's been cloudy/stormy/windy - I counted a total of at least 7 or 8 raindrops, and the beach hotel clubs have closed their outdoor venues due to wind several nights. In Dubai, which for some reason seems to get the weather extremes, there was a major hailstorm on Thursday that thoroughly thrashed lots of unprepared structures. Things are not built very water proof here, it seems - whenever there's rain or hail, which melts, of course, people are scurrying about like ants trying to save things in buildings from the wet.

"I'm slowly getting more and more settled into living life here. There's a lot of nightlife - like many European cities, things don't get started til after 9PM, and there's LOTS of people on the streets until 1AM every night. Thursday is the new Friday for expats here, because of the Muslim Friday Sabbath...."

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Saturday, March 28: 

Tonight I will go pick up my two new suits!

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This morning I booked tickets to Kathmandu, where I will vist my dear and darling and deeply missed Princess Margit von Pirsch, and our new niece, Gita and her fiance, Larry, from April 5-8. This is one of the extremely cool things about Abu Dhabi: In a few hours you can be in any of dozens of vastly  different nations, cultures, landscapes. 

You can find my beloved spouse's blog here: 

Margit is hopefully recovering from the gut bug she adopted in India, and will still be visible when I arrive. I wish this for her as well as for me - but I would really like to be able to SEE her. She has warned me that she lost some weight, and the way she said it gave the the idea she was playing it down a bit. I have strongly admonished her to get herself to a doctor if she doesn't start to improve soon - she did crack open the bottle of AZITHROMYCIN she was given by Kaiser for such eventualities, so hopefully it will turn the tide, so to speak.

I am excited about Kathmandu, I find! The name kind of says it, no? It smacks of old and interesting stuff. 

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Smolens of Arabia Reporting In - March '09

Dateline Abu Dhabi

It’s not too hot yet. I’m buying a car with good AC (2006 Toyota Fortuner, 4.0 4wd (newest vehicle I’ll ever have owned ), looking ahead to the heat, which starts next month. Today it was only 100F. That said,  Abu Dhabi is a pretty pleasant place to live, I’m finding.

 Especially if you’re white, western and working – maybe not so great if you’re a cab driver or construction worker or a housecleaner. The discrepancy between rich and poor is even more pronounced here than in the states, or at least more visible. Cab drivers, for example, earn about $275/month, work 16 hours a day, often 7 days a week with no vacation or health benefits, living in eight-in-a-room compounds where beds are shared in shifts and one has no choice in roommates. Their ranks are filled by an eager crush of workers from much poorer countries (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sudan, Somalia, etc), so there is no real possibility for an idea like “solidarity” to take hold. If you don’t like conditions here you are more than welcome to go home – and no one even considers that an option. The drivers I’ve talked to (dozens by now, since cabs are the main form of public transit), are mostly not happy with their situation (the job title “Taxi Driver in the UAE” is much glorified in its presentation overseas – I think most of them have been just short of Shanghaied, by ruthless recruiters), but seem mostly fatalistic about it. I’ve been encouraging them start a Union. Don’t think I’m making much headway.

 FLASH: This just in – I heard from a colleague today that the royals are working on meeting UN human rights standards, and in fact are working out the details of how to create a Taxi Driver’s Union! This place is full of surprises.  

But that’s the “downside”. On the other side, and for me (thankfully NOT a cab driver at the moment) the biggest side is the other side, the place is great. I’m falling in love with this city! You can go out any time of day or night in any neighborhood and never feel worried (as long as you watch the traffic when crossing streets). People seem to be pretty relaxed. It’s easy to get a smile. Folks take off their shoes and plop down just anywhere, and sit on their heels, or stretch out, and chat in little clusters. In front of the gas station, on any little chunk of comfortable looking landscaping… Construction workers stop at the sound of the muezzin, take off their shoes, face Mecca, prostrate themselves and pray.  

There’s no graffiti in the pedestrian tunnels. Or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s very clean, for a big city. It’s also a little crazy, which adds to the charm. You can’t drive your car nose-first to the curb; all the curbs are like a foot and a half high. I’m told this was because anything lower would be an encouragement to drive on the sidewalk – which people certainly would do if they could. Traffic rules, signs, limits – all are regarded as loose guidelines left to the interpretation of each driver, it seems.

Food is marvelous, and as various as anywhere I’ve been. The population is enormously international, and the cuisine keeps up. My favorite food now is Lebanese. I LOVE Lebanese food. I am going to Lebanon, soon – count on it. I sit down at my favorite Lebanese restaurant and before I can blink they’ve brought a big plate of fresh sliced up raw veggies, a variety of fresh dips – tabouleh, hummous, babaganoush (my favorite), Labneh, a pile of flat bread and a big bottle of water. This stuff is not even on the bill – it’s the equivalent of the little breadbasket they bring in the US. Then one orders. Eventually. Meals eaten out are meant to take a while. So you hang out and enjoy the scene, sip and munch. If you’re me – check your email. Not saying the service is slow, mind you – it’s not. When it’s time to order the Lebanese seem to make it a point of honor to get it done – NOW. My favorite is a ground lamb dish on a bed of the most amazing tomatoey sauce, with some spiced rice. God.
 Of course for a quick bite, my favorite shop is the shwarma place right across the street. Shwarma is the Arabian version of gyros – rotisserie roasted meat, sliced off the spit while you watch and bundled up in a pita bread with tomatoes, lettuce and some garlicy yoghurt cream sauce. About $1.25 each. Two is plenty for dinner. LOVE IT.

The shwarma shop is next to my tailor. Yep – you heard right. I’m going on Friday to have the two Italian wool suits I ordered a week ago fitted. They will cost around $575 all in. For both.

No ads for alcohol. Anywhere (except maybe in hotel bars). You need a license to buy it, and only special state controlled stores sell it. There’s a limit to how much you can buy in a month. The limit is tied to your salary – if you make more money, you can buy more booze. I can only dimly imagine the logic that put that one on the books.

 If you are caught while driving drunk you lose your license forever – no recourse, and if you’re not a citizen, you’re deported. On the other hand , if you kill a pedestrian while driving, you get 12 points on your license and must pay (I kid you not) “the blood money” – which amounts to about $65K, paid by your insurance to the surviving family members. Oh, and according to anecdotal reports (maybe urban legend, but I wouldn’t assume so), if you merely INJURE a pedestrian, you should probably make sure you go back and finish the job, since you will then have your license besmirched, have to pay a fine, and you will go to jail until the patient recovers or dies. They don’t want you slipping out of town while you wait to find out what the final disposition of your case will be. So the legend is told of an Emirati who hit a pedestrian  with his Hummer, and went back and drove over the person a couple times just to make sure. Hearsay – but it makes one cautious on the streets, which have, incidentally NOT been designed with pedestrians in mind, except as an afterthought. (That’s a whole other subject which I will save for another time)
 There are no drunken people in the streets, except perhaps the odd westerner, crawling home from aforementioned hotel bar – which is the only place one gets alcohol without a license. Restaurants don’t serve alcohol. It’s just not part of the culture. How odd. Also odd is that tobacco IS such a part of the culture. At almost any restaurant (many have non-smoking sections now), one can order shisha. When one does so, a waiter appears momentarily, carrying a shisha pipe – essentially a hookah (the original bong) and puffing on the smoking tube to get the thing going (second-hand smoke hasn’t been invented here yet). On delivery to one’s table, one is given a plastic mouthpiece wrapped securely in cellophane, and left to one’s own devices. The smoking mixture is tobacco with your choice of flavoring – usually apple or mint. One puffs (generally not inhaling, from what I can see), one is relaxed. This goes on all during the meal. A waiter, serving as a sort of priest, occasionally wanders about with a sensor full of hot coals which are used to re-light any failing shisha pipes. This is enjoyed equally by men and by women, of all ages.

Except that there are very few older people here. At least not out on the streets. Maybe for their own protection against mad (as opposed to angry – no one seems very angry, even while leaning for long moments on horns) drivers they are kept indoors. At any rate, the population is, understandably, mainly a working-age population. Which brings me to my one serious complaint about Abu Dhabi: There is a scarcity of women. There are definitely many more men here than women. Lots more. Unless the women are all kept at home too, but I don’t believe this is the case. I get the very strong feeling that here in the UAE women are NOT told what they should or shouldn’t do. I’ve NEVER seen a place where women are so universally respected. The Emirati woman does pretty much what she pleases, it seems to me. She dresses as she pleases, she goes and does as she pleases, and brooks no nonsense. The ones who come out in the black abaya and burkha are especially revered, it seems. They move as though the place belongs to them. They are mysterious and beautiful (the more so, perhaps for being partially or mostly unseen).  Side note: I hear from several independent sources that the population in Lebanon (my next vacation destination, remember) is about 70% women. Now I know why – the guys are all over here. I’m DEFINITELY going to Lebanon. SOON.
 Meanwhile, Margit is in India, taking part in a ten day silent meditation retreat. My stock line is that I am waiting to hear a loud noise from the east attended by a mushroom cloud of letters, words, sentences and paragraphs.