Friday, 28 December 2007

christmas, birthdays and all that

I'm another year older. A year ago I hadn't imagined myself celebrating my birthday 10,000 kms from home, I hadn't imagined having 5 waiters come to my table carrying a tiny cake with candle and singing 'happy birthday' and I hadn't imagined dining with new friends. The other things I hadn't imagined were manifold, amongst them the increasing saggy-baggyness of my skin, my increasingly drooping eyelids and the increasing number of wrinkles. To be fair though, I am sitting at my computer with strong morning uplight reflecting my face onto the screen in front of me. Frankly I'd rather not have to be looking at it!

Christmas has come and gone. We had a lovely Christmas dinner with half a dozen of our neighbours. The hosts went all out. The table and dining room were beautifully decorated in red and green with sparklies all around, the food and drink were top notch and the company was wonderfully engaging. Christmas day itself was topped and tailed by other 'does' around and about the place. It's been a lovely few days.

I ventured off to the zoo with my students on Christmas day. We had a ball.

The bird show is always a highlight. It was quite up close and personal as there were only 14 of us. Later some of the girls were even brave enough, after a few minutes, to have snakes dangling from their arms. Unfortunately it's not appropriate to take pics of the girls, so I didn't get many shots. This is the largest falcon in the UAE.

Now the New Year is almost upon us. My plan for this year is simply to survive another year reasonably intact. That's not so ambitious and should be achievable.

On a completely different note, we had pizza for lunch the other day and later ventured out into the laneway at back. I spotted a room full of sheesha pipes with these three out the front in the process of being cleaned.

Saturday, 22 December 2007


We ventured right into the thick of Oman for the first time. The border crossing was messy. You have to drive through an immigration post, then get out of the car, fill in a form, hand it in to a guy who takes the form, checks the passport and stamps it. Then you have to pay to leave the country, get back in the car and show some papers at the exit booth. That's to leave UAE.

After that you drive through a kind of no-man's land for 5 - 10 mins before finally driving past an Omani immigration booth, handing in your passports, getting out of the car, going into a fairly swish building, queueing up to get your passports back, queueing up to pay for a visa, filling out some forms, queueing up again to have the forms and passports checked and finally being able to leave. But, hey, not so easy ... there was the issue of the Omani insurance that, though it had been paid for when buying the car, was not evident on the card we had. So we couldn't get past the immigration exit booth and had to go back to immigration to repay insurance that had already been paid! During our initial stint inside the building the other woman in our group was questioned about where her husband was (he was standing next to her) and K was looked upon with suspicion and questioned about why HE wasn't working in UAE. The implication here was that as a man he should be working. Never mind that he is actually working, just not in UAE and not for a UAE organisation. Also it seems that a woman on her own shouldn't be travelling. She should be accompanied by her husband. We were left wondering if these moral judgements made us unworthy travellers in Oman and why on earth the bureacracy couldn't get the insurance right. None of this was consistent with the stories we'd heard about how lovely and friendly the Omani people were.

An hour later, after passing a lone mosque set in the mountains, we found ourselves in Sohar. We'd heard about the beaches there and decided to check them out. Our drive took us through some narrow back streets that were really interesting for us. The housing was very basic brick huts, some with ornate doorways. Groups of men and youths were sitting in doorways (it was a holiday). We didn't see many women, but a few colourfully dressed girls were about. We got the impression that we were reasonably interesting for the locals too as they were all waving and saying hello as we drove by. Had no westerner gone this way before?

The sea seemed to be undervalued. A few old houses backed onto it, but none made use of the views. The sand was littered with debris; soft drink cans and papers. We found a relatively clean area and had a picnic lunch (making sure not to add to the debris!!). After lunch I ventured down to the water and was shocked to find that the 'lumps' I'd seen from the distance, and assumed to be jellyfish, were actually goat pelts. They were mainly skin and fur with the odd hoof. One goat consisted of just a pelt and a head. I quickly remembered that it was Eid. At this time of year the locals sacrifice an animal in memory of Ibrahim's sacrificial offering of his son to God. Along the highway out of Sohar towards Muscat there were goat carcasses strewn here and there. Although I knew about the practice, it was difficult being confronted with it in this way.

Things picked up once we hit Muscat. It is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful city with many forts, magnificent mosques and an array of interesting buildings, old and new. There was no confronting evidence of sacrifical practices. We indulged ourselves well beyond any kind of sensible budget and stayed at the Grand Hyatt. Wow! It was sensational; a feast for the eyes. Every interior, every exterior view was magnificently opulent. From our room we had a view over the beautiful gardens and pools out to the Indian ocean.

Muscat is set in a valley with the white houses and buildings nestled against a magnificent rugged mountain backdrop. The roadsides are green and planted with colourful flowers again contrasting with the red / brown of the mountains and the white of the buildings. There were no signs of rubbish. Everything was kempt and picture perfect. Later we drove through some of the less salubrious parts of town. They were interesting in their own right. The older areas had narrow streets with fairly shabby housing. All of the housing seemed to have air-con and satellite dishes though. Some of the areas in, around and just out of the city have magnificent views of housing, mountains, bay and / or ocean. It is picture post-card perfect in all directions.

We visited a wonderful village. Goats and chickens were wandering freely in the sand, scrub and laneways. A few locals were sitting about or getting on with their day to day lives. Wooden boats rested on the sand attesting to the importance of fishing in this village.

Everywhere we went was either sensational to look at or remarkably interesting. I'd happily go back to do some exploring. I'd even give Sohar another look in, but not at Eid! The return across the border went reasonably quickly and without frustration.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

don't get sick on saturday

The hospitals here in Al Ain are plain weird. It is difficult to locate the appropriate outpatients desk and then once you get there, you don't know what to do. Should you queue up? Should you go straight to a desk where people seem intent on ignoring you? What are the procedures? Should you let your spouse keel over and die while staff happily ignore you both? I decided against the latter and insisted on getting some attention. My spouse was quickly seated while I was sent to the other end of the hospital to register. Once I'd registered, I had to make a point of asking what we had to do next, because I wasn't told. Armed with the appropriate information, K and I went to the nurses' desk and again I had to let it be known that we needed to see a doctor quickly.

Saturday, I have to tell you, is not a good day to get sick as the hospital has a lot in common with the Japanese subway where they have staff employed to stuff half a dozen more people into the already overcrowded carriages!

We soon jumped the queues and got to see a nurse who wired K up to a machine and then attempted to administer some oxygen. Unfortunately the oxygen cylinder was empty, so an orderly was quickly called to bring in a new one. The new one was wired up and the mask was put over K's face. With his entire body pinioned under a series of leads going off in all directions, he started trying to get to his hand to his face and was told to leave the mask alone as he needed oxygen for his heart muscles. He kept struggling. The nurse took the mask off his face and K informed him with his last gasp that he couldn't breathe. It turned out that the replacement gas cylinder was empty too! A third one was soon delivered. After the ECG K was given some meds and choofed off to another room for blood tests. Two and a half hours later some of the results came back! I was despatched to an office in Area B. I wasn't told what for, but I dutifully went. It turned out that I had to pay my 50Dhs insurance excess. An hour later the rest of the results came back. Half an hour after that he saw the doctor, who was very good!

When queue jumping takes over 4 hours you have to feel sorry for those who patiently wait their turn!

The whole time in the hospital you are not sure where you are supposed to go or what you are waiting for. You get told to go to various locations, but you are not sure why. It seems that the staff know their routines and what everything is, and it is assumed that patients know it all too!

The standard of medical care is good (apart from the odd incident of almost suffocating patients with non-existent oxygen), but the standard of communciation about where to go and why is very poor. And ... I'm not sure that there is actually a triage. It seems that to get urgent attention you need to jump up and down a bit.

Well that was my Saturday! How was yours? Oh, K's much better now.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

the honeymoon is over

I've read about the phases we go through with new events in our lives like working or studying overseas. The graph starts about 70 percent up the vertical axis (denoting satisfaction level) and increases albeit with a few dips over the first couple of weeks as our emotions range from anticipation and excitement through to frustration and disappointment. This is quickly followed by a honeymoon period, often lasting about three months, where the graph peaks. During this time everything is wonderful. The odd setback is hardly noticed.

After this there is a sharp dip where we wonder what we are doing in this strange place with these strange people. Why are we doing what we are doing? Should we have come here? How long can we manage to stay? What is going to go wrong next? Were we crazy to embark on the venture? The graph bottoms out.

This period can last weeks to months and is then followed by a recovery period during which we tend to go up to between 60 and 80 percent on the satisfaction level scale and pretty much stay there, though it can be interupted by a period of homesickness.

For me the honeymoon is over. I'm tumbling and hoping I've bottomed out! Can't wait for the recovery phase to hit. It will hit, won't it?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007


Darkness. The narrow cobblestone road glistens, reflecting shoplights as a light rain falls. A man walks by hands in coat pockets. A girl wrapped in a woolly hat and scarf passes by chatting on a mobile phone. Couples hand in hand stroll by as the rain drizzles. A man in uniform comes running around the corner and disappears down the stairs into the Turkish Delight shop opposite. We watch it all from our vantage point by a large window in a warm and cosy restaurant.

We just got back from Istanbul. What a fabulous city!

It’s late afternoon and we drop into a sweet shop for something to have after dinner. The girl behind the counter urges us to try a piece of Turkish delight with pistachio in it. Yum. Next she wants us to try some pistachio with orange, then some chocolate delight, then some … and it goes on until we tell her we couldn’t possible try anything else. It’s all delicious. We purchase some of the things we tried and some we didn’t. There are some absolute gems amongst them. The 5-star winner is the pistachio nut surrounded by chocolate flavoured Turkish delight and then choc dipped with pistachio powder on top. Who thought of that one? Sensational! Some of the sweets are cut from 45 centimetre wide, 60 centimetre high cylinders much like the cylinders that kebab meat is cut from.

Some of the shop names make us laugh; ‘Dagi’ has to be a bad name for a fashion shop! The person who named the 'Hotel Ufuk' probably wasn't an English speaker!

We found that the restaurants advertising 'authentic Turkish food' were very ordinary while the little cafes (borek shops) were fantastic; cheap and delicious. Interestingly we didn't come across what we understood to be Turkish food. We were familiar with Turkish food from Sydney Road in Melbourne, Australia. This kind of food didn't seem to exist in Istanbul, or we couldn't find it, and we are wondering if perhaps it is peasant food. The Turkish bread in Melbourne is senstational, and is quite different to the bread in the restaurants in Istanbul where it was largely Greek style white bread.

I adored the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia was really interesting. It has a history of hundreds of years as a church before being converted hundreds of years ago to a mosque. Although I enjoyed visiting the Topkapi palace and the Dolmabache, I found that I got a bit of a case of 'opulence fatigue.' Gold plated walls and ceilings are amazing, but you can only maintain interest for a limited number of rooms. The remains of a Roman hippodrome are pretty amazing.

I'd never realised previously that the river Bosphoros splits the city in two with one side being on the European continent and the other being in Asia. But then, I'm sure that there's an awful lot I haven't realised!