Thursday, 17 December 2009

What?! oh yeah, Merry Mixmas and all

Two months or more have escaped without a blog post from here to shatter the peace. As well as laziness I could blame being quite busy with the two part time jobs (data entry and helping with apartment admin) plus houseboy duties, and/or the unreliable and slow datacards that are still our only internet access at Green Stripe. Neither of these alone would totally preclude patching together a quick weekly bulletin, and that is what I shall try to do from now on, new year resolution and all that (along with having another go at developing a moderate-to-minmal twitterhabit, or possibly even faceachebook though I couldn't really guarantee the latter).

But really, it was probably inevitable to step back for a while sooner or later, as life here threatened to become routine and unremarkable. But really, it isn't, and we don't intend to let that happen, but as I may have already remarked, this is the first time since arriving in Doha in February that we have approached feeling a bit settled here, so it was nice to have a breather. Not that we haven't been busy, to be sure.

And things will feel even more settled if we can finally get the long-promised (inshallah) reliable internet connection. We are told there is in fact cabling down our street, and only the building connection is missing, so the offer of a satellite link (which won't necessarily be any more reliable) may not be the way to go. It would be bad enough if it was just the apartments that were suffering, but most of the teacher/advisors living here have faulty or no internet access at their schools for various reasons, and need something that works or they can't do their job - with a scattered and constantly conferring workforce and much of the learning program net-based, it's essential.

Typically, I gave up trying to upload photos to this blog after many failed attempts, but decided to have one more go in time for a Christmas post. Surprisingly, I managed to upload a swag over about 2 days (but missed the Xmas deadline); then just as I was going to crank out this text to accompany them, I couldn't access the Blogger site at all for two days, along with Gmail chat and Skype, although Gmail itself and Google news etc still loaded perfectly. Other times, things open OK but are then uselessly slow; and so on. I suspect Etisalat is blocking some popular sites on a rotating schedule because they haven't got enough capacity.

Yesterday, having lost patience with fruitless customer service inquiries, some residents made a formal complaint, and today a surveyor visited to check out what is required to sort out the connection. Watching and waiting...

Meanwhile, in response to the deafeningly silent chorus of concerned and impatient readers, here for anyone with a laptop and/or smartphone/datacard with them on holiday (it's not a holiday here of course) is a catch-up jumble of things seen and done, without too many more words from me. It doesn't include our November Eid weekend trip to Ras al Khaimah (which produced enough pix for its own post); the Great Green Stripe
Xmas Banquet in the courtyard on Friday night, which was enjoyed by all (except poor Ange who had a tummy bug which appears to be coming right just in time for flying to NZ on new year's eve); or lots more as yet unphotographed pearls of Al Ain and its attractions.

You asked for pictures of dunes. Didn't you? This is typical just a few kms from our place:

Here's a rare one without pylons. We have more if you want, and should add to the collection when we make the recommended trip to the more remote quarters.

Here's a typical farmhouse,

and adjacent worker's accommodation.

The Marital Restaurant is nearby - not sure if it's serving couples only, or anybody at all.

Just up the road, this palatial structure is arising - farmhouse? restaurant? or maybe a new entrance gate to the
Sheikh's camel raceway which is somewhere hereabouts.

Jebel Hafeet keeps an eye on it all.

All the way up the mountain road are these signs; on our fourth or fifth trek up there I took my eyes off the road long enough to realise it's writing, not waiting, that they are threatening people about.

At the summit there were these ladies hard at work with marker pens (the rockface is covered with graffiti, which is not all that common around town)...

But not to be outdone, this is just across the wadi from us - must get a translation some time.

We haven't done too many touristy things, but we did make it to Al Ain's world-class zoo on a busy Saturday. Well, it's definitely more impressive than Doha's both in scope and quality, though many animals still pace up and down in their moderately spacious enclosures. You can marvel at local fauna

or exotic

or be marvelled at.

It's mutual.

You don't have to go to Dubai to ride a camel, but when we were there for the day a few weeks ago, brave Ange did.

This was at the Sheikh's Centre for Cultural Understanding, which was otherwise closed on a Friday, but a degree of understanding was definitely reached.

We also visited Jumeirah Beach (on which sex and photos are prohibited, but this is taken from the promenade, eh). For those who need to orient themselves, the famous Burj Al Arab can just be seen on the horizon where the sun is shining on the water. Unmistakable on the skyline and of greater interest surely is the Burj Dubai, world's tallest building, 160 stories, nearly 1km tall, opening in February. How will they top this?

Not necessarily by building more Palms. There are now three of these island paradises, plus The World. Having been reassured by the announcement from Nakheel Construction (a branch of debt-ridden Dubai World) during the recent repayments crisis that the idea that it's sinking into the sea is just gossip (but you can't help having a few biblical thoughts), we casually drove around the original, Palm Jumeirah (which is in fact near Jumeirah Beach Residence where I got heroically and nocturnally lost in September, all of 20km down the coast from Jumeirah Beach, i.e another horizon further beyond Burj Al Arab). There are posh marina villas on the fronds, but they are gated and out of bounds. This is the main trunk, with bulk apartments and a Trump Tower somewhere invisible in the background, and a monorail track on the left which leads to

Atlantis. This super-hotel on the outer ring of the reclamation, reached via a tunnel, has been open one year. All you really need to know is that valet parking is AED160. We passed.

We then got lost in remarkably similar fashion to my September adventure, but managed to happen upon Ibn Battuta mall, which has plenty of free parking, and a magnificent mosaic dome crowned as it were by the inevitable Starbucks.

We were still hellbent on riding the new Metro, so before plunging in to shop, we took a bus to the end of the line a few kms away and queued for some time to buy a ticket. Unfortunately by the time we got on a (driverless) train it was nearly dark, and it soon filled up with Friday night party goers, so it became a somewhat boring commute to the far end (35minutes one way) with little to see but glimpses of the city lights among the reflections of standing passengers, and endless car showrooms (at least it's elevated most of the way, only a tunnel under the Creek). So no photos of that.

Eventually back to the mall. Ibn Battuta was a fabled Arabian explorer in the mould of Marco Polo, and the mall redeems itself by featuring an extensive and fascinating display about his travels and discoveries scientific and geographic. The mall is divided into themed courts each for the various countries he visited - a worthy variation on the samesame shopping trek. The shops were ok too, but best for me was the guy near the foodhall with the best scam: for 10 dirhams a generous pottle of fresh off the cob (not tinned) corn kernels with your chosen combo of flavours. I was a goner.

Then it was time to stagger back to the car and get reliably lost again trying to find the way out of town, but this time I had Angela the direction-finder with me so no panic. We'll have a proper go at Dubai again soon, perhaps over a whole weekend.

Back in Al Ain, things are more modest and funky. Here's a port-a-mosque which is among the site sheds at a mosque a few blocks from here which is being renovated.

Grandeur can be found in the endless variations on the suburban villa and notably its street frontages. You gotta have a standout fence and gateway. A selection of the more notable needs its own blog post some time, but for now a spoiler or two:

Variations on wall and gateway lighting are part of the fun; this guy, 2 or 3 kms from here, wins with not one but two gateways featuring these big brass lanterns.

And just around the corner is a modest sized plot of land compared to some (probably about an acre), but there are some hefty houses going up on it inside what is surely The Best Fence in Al Ain (or the entire UAE?). (Note real palm tree for comparison purposes.)

Many of our crew groan and sigh with apparent nausea every time they pass by this kitsch monument (which is often, as it's on our direct route to town), but I say: applaud and enjoy the monumental chutzpah it took to go through with such a bold statement; ponder upon its siginificance. If I find a better one you will be first to know.

Biggest news is: about 3 weeks ago, it happened! Rain in Al Ain. (No kneejerk lines about mainly plains or drains please.) Clouds gathered, adding some welcome drama to dawns and sunsets

and it poured on and off for two days, filling the wadis briefly, but somehow I missed getting a shot of that, sorry.

Suddenly it was just like home, though in some ways not. Streets and roundabouts were feet deep in places - the vestigial stormwater system gets clogged with sand and can't cope). Drivers tend to freak out at the sight of a puddle and skirt round it on the other side, or if forced, traverse it at a slow crawl, but a few like to hoon through and splash the pedestrians.

All too soon it was over and the only reminders were a brief Al Ainbow (gotcha!)

and high tide marks of water bottles (!) in the wadis.

There's nearly always a bit of water in the ford near our place - from a big stormwater pipe that empties into the wadi a bit further up, probably runoff from irrigation at the nearby orchards and sports fields. Nice for the occasional grazing camel herd and flocks of water birds.

Generally the prospect for Green Stripe wadi-walkers is a bit arid; there are miles of paved pathways (paving stone makers have been among the main beneficiaries of the Gulf economic miracle) in the approx square km of supposed parkland between us and the watercourse, but some serious planting of lawns and trees is needed to make it all worthwhile. What trees there are at the edges are of course irrigated like every bit of public greenery here.

This is looking back towards our apartments which can be seen to the right of the litter bin.

And here's another view from the far side of the wadi; Green Stripe is behind the bush towards the centre.
This is our home uo close, in all its verdant splendour. The stripes are indeed the same green as the fence details, as well as the bannisters and other features. With luck, the newly planted palm trees will soon show some rain-induced growth (Salaam the gardener waters them daily too) and we will have another shade of green to bask in, inshallah.

And in lieu of Xmas cheer, here's a pic of the revellers at our first rooftop barbecue, which went off some time in November. We do have a good community here, and are really starting to feel sort of at home.

Let's get this posted before the internet falls over again - anyway I have a bit more data entry I should be getting on with before last minute shopping and packing etc ready for 1015am Thurs ETD from Dubai for Ak. We will be in NZ from New Years Day until Friday 8 Jan, mostly in Nelson for Catrin's wedding so it's a matter of luck if we get to see many people, but we'll try. Otherwise look forward to renewed attempts at regular communication in the new year.

Meanwhile Happy New Years (islamic, 14 Dec I think, year 1453 I think, and gregorian) from all of us to all of you.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Neath the Swansea sun

Welcome to Green Stripe (or officially Shuaibah District 31, Community 1, Street 21, Building 17) - our (and 13 other Cog staff's) new home since a week ago, and most of the reason for no blog posts for so long.

This is because I have been occupied full time helping David Ryan, the indefatigable and amazingly unflappable Cognition go-to guy in Al Ain, to get the apartments ready. This was urgent as the building was behind schedule and there was a queue of people waiting to move in, either from less-salubrious accommodation like the Pool (e.g. us), or various hotels where they had been put up at great expense, since arriving up to six weeks ago. I've been doing stuff like drilling holes to put up curtain rails (with no working aircond for the first week, when it was still really hot), and buying and distributing numerous chattels - it's amazing how much expense and labour goes into setting up a place like this. Not least among the benefits is that I have lost most of the half stone or more I put on in four days on our trip to Wales (see below).

More photos soon - since this one of Block A (ours) the carports have arrived and holes have been dug around most of the perimeter for palm trees, whose arrival should transform the place. We are the front top left of eight apartments, and there are six more apartments in Block B across the courtyard. There is tons more room than at the old Pool apartments, no swimming pool though (no great loss - I did have one brief swim, and would just like it known that it wasn't me who peed in it), nor a bidet (as one of the teachers said, we'll cope), but the shower doesn't make puddles in the bathroom doorway, and the bath is a proper size. The built-in aircond is a bit noisy though (ours has stopped working in the loungeroom, hopingly the only teething trouble we have, and not a panic situtation now that the temperature is down to about 35 in the day and 25 at night); I do almost miss the cosy galley-size kitchen and the funky cracks in the walls at the old place.

We are about 3km from the Pool, on the other side of Twam St (still just as far - 15km - from the town centre but handy for one of Ange's two schools) in a new economy-size (6km x 2km) suburb of mainly economy-size villas in various stages of construction. From our kitchen window we look across the street and a fenced-in pipeline to the beginnings of a landscaped park on the banks of the wadi. Though there is as usual no visible water in the wadi, there is green grass growing along our bit of it (I have spotted a dragonfly, and neighbours out for a walk heard frogs even!), probably due to irrigation outflow from the Palm Sports resort (= the Rugby Club) and the adjoining extensive grounds of the Sheikh's palace on the opposite bank. To complete the picture there are also power pylons growing along the wadi. Apartments on the other side of the building have a view of Jebel Hafeet (until the other two blocks get built at the back of the compound, but no sign of that yet), but we only have to go up to the nicely uncluttered roof (a communal barbecue may be bought soon) to gaze at it if we wish. There appear to be no camels in the immediate neighbourhood, just a rooster who crows all day.

Anyway, we appear to be quite settled at last - first time really since arriving in Doha in February - among a friendly community of Cognition colleagues, and have been going mad buying nice things to tart up the nest; Ange had a ball in Ikea on a recent visit to Abu Dhabi. We have even finally got a subscription to Showtime TV (can see NZ Rugby etc) and an account to deliver drinking water bottles, including a cool cooler/hot water dispenser. Always wanted one of those.

It was still Ramadan last time I blogged - here's a pic Ange got of needy workers being dispensed alms food outside a central Al Ain mosque. The season of fasting and charity is just a memory now, and we are back to such normality as exists here, with the shops closing at 10pm instead of 1.30 in the morning.

The end of Ramadan brings the Eid long weekend, and although it didn't turn out as hoped that the Sheikh would announce a change of date so that it would take in two weekends, we grabbed the chance of a four day raid on Swansea to catch up with Angela's relatives, especially her dad Bob who we hadn't seen for three years since he returned to Wales from NZ, as well as her brother Marc and family who I had never met.

Pausing only for the race-to-the-death-and-back-with-only-one-teabreak mission to rescue passports (as described in previous post)
, we hopped on Emirates once again at 3.45pm and by 7.30 (GMT) found ourselves trapped in ye good olde Gatwick foreign passport queue (having both neglected to renew our UK documents). It wouldn't have been so bad having to stand in the sweltering heat (really, we picked a late September heatwave) for 45 minutes, swapping "Welcome to Britain" pleasantries with more or less patient Indian and South African fellow arrivals, if we hadn't had to watch a twice-as-big UK/EU passports queue go through first, while no stamp-wielders could be found for us, apparently.

Never mind, Marc and son Gareth were still faithfully waiting for us, having driven four hours from Swansea, and by 2 a.m. we gladly fell into bed at the boutique Glyn Clydach hotel, idyllically set among woods not a mile from Marc's house in Skewen on the outskirts of Neath.

No rest for the prodigals though - despite intended sleep-ins, we were up at sparrowproverbial to make the most of our limited time, to be greeted by this enchanting view from our room, and by a proper Welsh (can't say English now can we boyo, but it was the same) brekkie, with proper bacon.

Then a brisk walk (not enough to work off much of the breakfast) along picture-postcard lanes to Marc and Yvonne's.

As I said before, Bob's looking good

and Marc (sorry no photo of Yvonne) and extended family were cheery hosts.

I met a vast number of jolly charming cousins and friends and was made to feel one of the family from the start, with only a gentle but constant smattering of perplexity over whether I counted as a kiwi or an Englishman, and what was I actually saying in my indefinable accent. The only one missing was sadly Bryn the dog, who passed away aged 14 the day before we arrived.

As already reported, I made it to two rugby games - Ospreys v Leinster, featuring Jerry Collins getting sent off (among other unpopular reffing decisions) and a general shaking of heads at the state of things, but a jolly rousing occasion anyway; and more pleasingly, Skewen (in black and yellow, with Ange's other nephew David usefully coming off the bench for most of the second half) walking all over I forget who (but they were big old boyos to be sure).

A highlight was getting to meet Ange's beloved ex-mother-in-law Brenda, just turned 90 and bright as a button after recovering from some nasty health problems in the last year or so, and overjoyed to have a surprise visit.

We met up with Ange's ex, David Penharwood, who took the three of us on a very pleasant all day tour of Swansea and some of its more picturesque environs. This is the view from the point at Mumbles back along the bay to the city;

here's the newly-developed marina;

David's old school;

and a reminder that Britain and the Gulf are not so far apart any more.

Other highlights were visits to Neath and Swansea markets (I got some spare keys cut - in Wales you don't need a police letter of authority for that...) and a proper-size Marks & Sparks; a full-on Saturday night barbecue at Marc and Yvonne's, a family dinner at our hotel; the hot dry weather; and much catching up far into the night. Sleep was in short supply, but the eating never stopped it seemed.

But the best highlight was the walk from hotel to house - as well as the road, we had the choice of a woodland path that could have been a hundred miles from suburbia

complete with friendly stick-chasing dog.

The nearby scarp of The Drum beckoned, but there may need to be a lot more fitness walking before we tackle it.

The best of the blackberry season was past, but a few good ones were left.

I was hooked, will be back for a longer look soon for sure.

But all too soon, etc...; driving back to Gatwick for 10 a.m. takeoff meant a 3 a.m. start for Marc, Gareth and us on Tuesday, pausing only for one more bacon and eggs feed at a motorway caff, and a jar of Harrods marmalade from duty free (all gone now). Advisory: front row seats, chosen for the spacious kneeroom, have (at least on Emirates 777s) fixed armrests, and are narrow and unsuitable for XXL bums. We survived.

With the 3 hour time lag, and the pre-arranged pickup of Ange's colleague Alison who had been to Paris (at Dubai terminal one, which is having a metro station built above it and therefore, due to restricted parking and access, necessitates an endless insane traffic merry-go-round and a crowded wait outside the doors in the heat) we finally saw the friendly lights of Jebel Hafeet at about 1.30 a.m.

With luck in the next week or so I'll get a few more pix sorted for an overdue Al Ain travelogue of sorts; meanwhile here's a somewhat short vid (I didn't realise the camera was on video setting, then the battery died) of the junior twister that was right there about to cross the road and blow some Indian workers' hats off as I drove up Twam St the other day.

We have seen several of these - not sure if it's a seasonal thing, but they are fun to watch. Other alternatives to shopping-mall entertainment coming up are the much-hyped Abu Dhabi F1 GP, which we will have to watch live on Arabic TV as it's all booked out, and NZ v Pakistan 20-20, which might be a fun day out - if there's time in between our own nesting activities and sorting out other residents' missing microwaves and wineglasses etc, and the odd rooftop party.