Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Stairway to Heaven

We've just been for a lightning 4-day raid on the UK, taking advantage of the post-Ramadan long weekend Eid holiday. What with the planned trip back to NZ in January for Catrin and Nathan's wedding, we really wanted to squeeze in a visit to Swansea (Neath to be precise, or Castell-Nedd as the bilingual signs say) to catch up with Angela's family, particularly her dad Bob who we hadn't seen for three years since he made the move from NZ back to Wales. He's looking good.

More about the trip later, but we can report the weather was hot, the setting idyllic (here's the view from our hotel room)

and we seemed to spend more time eating than sleeping - I passed the faggots-and-peas Stage One Honorary Welshman test, I think; I may even have just scraped through Stage Two by going to two rugby matches - even got caught on TV with Ange's brother Marc, shaking our heads at the dismal fortunes of the Ospreys (they can only improve, boyo).

The lack of sleep got off to a splendid start for me on Wednesday night with a last-minute dash to the uncharted wilderness of Dubai to rescue Ange's passport (and our neighbour Alison's), which had to have their newly-gained work permits processed into them before we could fly, and which process had of course taken longer than expected. As our ETD was 3pm Thursday, and the passports were at the Cognition office in Abu Dhabi, we couldn't risk any delay in getting Ange's delivered to Al Ain on Thurs morning, so off I rushed at 7.30pm, mapless but armed with directions, to a rendezvous with Sheryl the office manager who had kindly arranged to take them home to Dubai.

You may have gathered from past posts that Doha is a crazy place, and even Al Ain is quite good for getting lost in. Be assured, they are both hick towns. Dubai is, well, cosmic. They say don't bother with your GPS there because the roads keep changing. The new Metro may help a bit. It's debatable whether a map would have been much help to this stray waif in the dark, but whatever, after a five-hour saga of missed turnings, scores of extra kilometres and blind faith in my direction-finding duck (see Michael Leunig's The Adventures of Vasco Pyjama), i.e keeping the Burj al Arab in view at all possible times, not to mention a slowly dying cellphone, I did make it to the Starbucks at Jumeira Beach Residence (which is not a compound with villas as I imagined, but a whole suburb of closely-packed 50-storey apartment towers), met up with the ever-patient Sheryl and retrieved the passports.

Then after a further hour or more of aimless nose-following (despite Sheryl's best map-drawing-on-envelope efforts), I serendipitously got lost in the opposite direction onto the same bypass that I had got lost onto on the way in, so I finally knew vaguely where I was and could retrace my circuitous route to the Al Ain road
(the actual trip from Al Ain to the outskirts of Dubai is a bit over an hour). So you may have the merest inkling of my joy at 2am, on coming over the last row of dunes, to see in the distance (must have been an unusually un-hazy night) the sparkling and unmistakable Lights Of Home, i.e the Jebel Hafeet road.

The days are indeed getting less hazy now, and yet another pilgrimage up the 15km 3-lane summit road is likely to be rewarded with clearer views, maybe even as far as the further reaches of Al Ain. Likewise, it should be worth going up on our roof at different times of day to capture the various moods of the mountain. We will get to that sooner or later, but meanwhile here is a bunch of pictures taken on our several trips up there in earlier weeks (I wondered whether it would spoil the experience for you when you get around to visiting us, but nothing can really capture that mountain air, so here goes), but starting with one from the roof at noon today, quite the clearest I have seen it.

You are looking at the second highest mountain in the UAE (approx 4000ft), and the most visible of Al Ain's many tourist attractions.

Here it is from the other side, taken from the Truck Road that comes out of Oman and cuts through the north of the mountain as it skirts the town heading for Abu Dhabi. The massif is elongated approx north-south, so we are looking at the east side, alongside which we drove on our way to the Omani border for the recently-reported border run.

(Don't forget: you can click for bigger on any of these pictures. NB: DoubleTake is a nifty panorama-stitching program which I can only afford as shareware until our finances recover from the Wales trip, so meanwhile you get their logo on the stitched pix, but no worries, it's well worth the plug.)

Here's a detail shot showing the spectacular bare strata that characterise the landforms (note also bucolic camels and Toyota); building the summit road wouldn't have given rise to much soul-searching about destroying any vegetation.

The Truck road is quite a convenient traffic-avoiding long-cut from our place to Bawadi Mall, which itself is several km out of town on the way to the Mezyad border post. Behind the mall are the extensive new souqs and livestock markets I may previously have mentioned. A week or two ago we headed out to the mall with a newly-arrived friend, and were checking out the camels; they were friendly and curious as ever, but you could see they knew something was up.

Minutes later the dusk seemed to have come early, and next thing, this is all the view we had of the mountain.

Dust squalls whipped through the markets and lightning flashed every few seconds (sorry, no pix of that, it''s not that easy to catch)

but we made it out of there and into the mall with just a bit of sand in our teeth.

It was in fact a real proper thunderstorm by the time it got to central Al Ain, as we discovered when we drove back there later: fences, tree branches and billboards blown down, and big puddles on the roundabouts (they don't bother with stormwater drains here as it all evaporates within hours) - it even made the papers. But trust us eh: it rained here, and we got stuck in a shopping mall and missed it.

Enough about the weather, back to the mountain. Here's a glimpse or two of the celebrated road. This marvel of engineering (climbs approx 4000ft in about 10km, you work out the gradient for me; and something like 70 corners) holds no fears for the trusty Tiida, which even fully loaded happily hums its way up with overdrive cancelled, secure in the knowledge that a Nissan (latest GT-R of course) holds the hillclimb record at around 3 minutes and a bit for 9km. Not to mention Top Gear doing a magazine feature on it with 3 (three) Bugatti Veyrons (never by halves in the Gulf eh). But you don't really want to rush it with a car full of passengers, and in fact with a constant grade, 3 lanes all the way and hardly any really tight hairpins, it's not really the ultimate driver's treat you might dream of (could be well worth the climb to bike down again though, for those so motivated).

Better focus on the scenery then: when you get to the top, the view is breathtaking. Yes, its a never-by-halves-in-the-Gulf car park, 400m by 150m (a maths teacher and I worked out there must be about a million pavers).

You can see they bulldozed quite a lot of the summit to make it.

You also get a good view of the Sheikh's summer palace

from which he in turn can survey his demesne.

You can share the lordly vista by visiting the nearby Hotel Grand Mercure

though to be honest, in summer the air isn't all that much cooler than down below, and the prospect is mainly heat haze. This is the Truck Road again, looking down towards where the foto of the mountain was taken from.

Straight down, you can see evidence of water under the desert (the dots are trees).

There's plenty of water at Green Mubazzarah, a hot (!) springs resort nestling at the foot of the mountain. Grassy slopes are irrigated to an almost fluorescent intensity of, indeed, green (shown here only at a distance to protect your eyes); you can hire a chalet and take the waters, or a mini-train ride.

The best views are from the numerous handy car parks dotted all the way up and down the road.

In summer, Al Ain is at best only a smudge on the horizon, although it's only about 5km away as the crow flies. Note how rocky ridges (also jebel) extend right into the outskirts (will get some fotos soon). This is looking pretty much at the centre of town, but it's not that obvious, is it.

This panorama covers most of the city (really, it's there on the horizon), looking north.

I even managed to enhance this one enough to point out our place. That's Twam St curving away, so we're on the right of it, beyond the line of red dunes. OK?

Of course the spectacularity is doubled at night - Green Mubazzarah again, centre of pic.

See: there is a town out there.

Back up at the summit cafeteria (ice creams, coffees, burgers and heaps of fun kiddie rides), a resident cat takes time out from rubbish bin duty to hunt a lizard. Not bad camouflage, actually.

But day or night, he's not going to cause much worry to the crows that cruise the thermals over Jebel Hafeet.

Who needs the World's Tallest Building when we have this on our doorstep, and not a chance of getting lost finding it?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Border Rundown

Here's a longish that-and-this post to catch up with all our doings over the last two or three months, for those who are keen to have the gaps filled in. It's hard to believe we have been here six weeks already, but there we were on the last day of August, in the Cognition minibus headed for the Omani border.

A UAE visitor's visa lasts a month, and must then be renewed by a quick flit across the border to get a new entry stamp. This process can be repeated month after month until you gain resident status - some people are for unknown reasons still doing border runs after a year, while others have got their residency within a month.

Although it still takes up half a day, the process is made more convenient in Al Ain by having the border nice and handy - it bisects Jebel Hafeet mountain then curls round through the middle of town before heading north. There are two border posts near the city centre, but to avoid the queues we travel 15km along the flank of the mountain to Mezyad, where the UAE exit booths turn out to be manned only by some maintenance men and we have to go in search of an official. After half an hour in a cool waiting room watching Ramadan TV, we are all exit-stamped and head across no man's land to the very welcoming architecture of the Omani post, where we pick up numerous tourist brochures; then having collected entry visa stamps, we head back to the UAE and are directed to a building marked "Eye Scan".

There, after official dismay and expat confusion, it becomes clear we have mistaken the Omani intructions and missed going to their exit counter to get the required stamp, so David our hard-working driver/chaperone goes back with all our passports while we wait, watch more Arabic TV, read about the tourist attractions of Oman (really not to be missed - beaches and green mountains, looks a bit like the NZ of the Arabian peninsula) and cross our fingers. Nearly an hour later it's all fixed, and after one more backtrack (the vehicle insurance hadn't been stamped by the guy whose job it was to wield the stamp), we're back in the, back in the UAEE (remastered Beatles tribute there folks).

Since then Angela has received her pink slip conferring residency and has done another border run to get it properly stamped, and can now sponsor me for the same. Then it's just a matter of going for our UAE driving licences and we will be pretty much installed here.

Doha seems a distant dusty mirage now. I said I would do a Leaving Doha post with lots of pix of the bits we had so far missed out showing you: in the end of course, there just wasn't time to run around getting all the last minute photos I wanted, what with the performances of Last Tango in Little Doha being delayed until a week before we were due to leave, and having to pack up all our stuff to be stored pending shipment to here (or to NZ if the Al Ain contract should fall through).

Then there was the last-minute social round, including formal Cognition end-of-contract dinners (the whole Doha crew at the Hilton, very nice buffet thanks, and a specially nice evening at the Ramada with the E-Schoolbag a.k.a. Digital Oasis team), and evenings with Angela's school colleagues, and my fellow Last Tango cast member Jack Rigg, his wife Mary and friends - these people will be among our treasured memories of Doha.

With the sands of time drawing all to rapidly to a close (the Peter Sellers line fits Doha well), we never made it back to Souq Waqif for one last harees (chicken porridge) and kerosine juice. But we did treat ourselves on the second to last day to the fabled buffet lunch at the Sharq Resort. If you can find your way in through the maze of roadworks for the new airport motorway, you find yourself in another world, somewhat different to the high-rise swank of the other posh Doha hotels. The Sharq is only three stories at most, covering a vast acreage of splendid poolside pavilions

more Arabian in decor than the other palaces,
and with its own beach looking across the corniche to West Bay.

The buffet was possibly a soupcon finer than the Hilton's, thanks.

So will our lasting impression of Doha be the view of construction sites from an elegant atrium

the faux forts of Education City

or the real ones like this at Al Rayyan (on the back road home from the Family Food Centre supermarket, where you could get Vegemite)?

Or the ubiquitous majlis marquees like this one next to Gharrafa sports stadium (they won the local football championship, you know)

with their rows of dust-cover protected armchairs?

Or the multicoloured chickens for sale in the souqs (never did find out why),

or the even cuter thowb-clad small boys out at night with their families?

Perhaps the road to Messaieed, with full 50-metre-interval streetlighting marking its 25km four-lane route back to Al Wakra (with very likely an Indian or two, with shopping bags, trudging along miles from nowhere even late at night), will have to do as a farewell image.

Packing up and dispatching the amassed stuff was a mission and a half, from sourcing with difficulty suitable large cartons, through realising what a lot we had amassed in five months, to fitting it all into neat packages. We had arrived in Doha in February with, apart from our checked suitcases (not to mention seven, yes 7, carry-on bags) just one large suitcase sent by air cargo. In June we stored in Doha for forwarding three 50x50x60cm cartons plus two smaller ones, as well as the original suitcase, a total of 183kg. On our last day I ended up heaving all this downstairs by myself in the 45deg June heat and shoehorning it into the trusty Tiida (a fine little car) for transport to the Villa for storage. If you are congenitally incapable of travelling light, accept the fact and go for it, I guess.

The hoard did include large items in the general category of wedding gifts which we promised we would buy ourselves with the generous Doha Koha fund, which guests contributed to rather than giving presents which we would have to have put into storage in NZ immediately after the wedding. Seemed a good idea at the time, but of course it was merely postponing the logistical challenge. But we did get some nice things including a lovely handwoven Kashmiri carpet, a Mikasa glass bowl and a set of very decorative china storage jars (both bargains from Villeroy and Boch in Doha City Centre Mall), a sewing machine and a coffee maker (half price with the sewing machine), and three choice approx 1:14 scale rough-but-accurate (you know, the patinated look) tin models (H-Van ute, Ami 6, and 2CV with ski rack), plus numerous small items and of course, too many clothes (not mine).

Anyway, a big thank you to all friends and relatives who contributed - you have helped us establish a more homely home here in the desert. Last week the consignment arrived at Abu Dhabi airport and we went down to collect it - a much quicker and tidier experience than picking up the one case in Doha back in February. There we had to run the gauntlet of a seething corridor full of shouting porters and agents touting for our business, pay over several hundred riyals to various more or less official hands, and wait for hours. In Abu Dhabi it was fast, by the book, courteous and cheaper. We got it home at 10.30pm and then just had to get the 183kg UP the stairs in the heat - totally shagged out after that, but now we are recovered and have all our things again to nest with.

So with all that safely stored at the Villa, and after the inevitable struggle to cram the remainder into our flight luggage, it was off to the airport for a 3.45am takeoff, then a 5-hour wait in the impossibly huge Emirates terminal at Dubai (entertainment was provided by Paul's Cafe who refused to serve the special that was advertised on cards at every table, because it wasn't 9am yet; and having been awake for 24 hours already with the prospect of a 20-hour trip, we took the opportunity of complaining to the manager with alacrity).

But Mason's (and Hollie's) radar wasn't wrong, suddenly there we were, back in the sweaty 12 deg humidity of NZ,

rushing around catching up with friends,


and grand-offspring,

as well as familiar landmarks and all that stuff.
Not to mention timing it just right for the Ak Film Fest (I managed to get to about 12 including several pearlers and no real disappointments - will add them to the bucket list when I remember). A time for driving the XM (borrowed back from Ed in champion condition) as much as possible, and spending up large on a new supply of books to see us through the next few months (and strain the generous 30kg Emirates baggage allowance), unaware that Abu Dhabi and Al Ain have much better bookshops than Doha; but money well spent anyway.

Sadly we couldn't fulfil plans to zoom around the country and see more people (didn't even get to Hamilton or a whole lot of Auckland people, let alone Rua and Jill and Millie and Alex in Dunedin - we miss you guys and will just have to make sure to make it down there next time). Some time had to be spent in Auckland tying up nagging loose ends, but the blame belongs largely to the strange parallel world of Gulf teaching contracts. We left Doha knowing that Ange would not be returning to the ill-fated Digital Oasis project (which was eventually canned anyway) but that she had a new job offer in Abu Dhabi, which couldn't however be confirmed until some time in July. This dragged on, while we waited for news, until late in the month (through no fault of Cognition's) at which point, under the rules for non-residents, we needed to leave NZ in order to have a week in hand to fly back for Catrin's wedding in Nelson in January. After some anxious emails the call finally came (with half a week's notice) that we would be flying out on 30 August.

Sometimes it's best when goodbyes aren't too drawn out - suddenly, after a few hugs and tears, we were back in the weird parallel universe of airports and long flights. Once again the good old cramped A340 with the iffy entertainment screens (good programmes though, and there's always the iPod and the noise-cancelling phones to fall back on). We may get to try the A380 for the wedding trip, even perhaps 19 hours nonstop Dubai-Ak. This time we didn't have the last-straw endless transfer trek through Dubai Emirates terminal but instead were able to go straight to Arrivals and the baggage claim. This is just a corner of that vast hall, pleasantly empty at 6am.

The terminal (this is Emirates only, other airlines share two other terminals) is a cigar-shaped building about a mile long (really) with maybe fifty planes parked along both sides. Apparently it isn't big enough - if you arrive from Auckland or Doha you are likely to taxi endlessly past the whole edifice and on for another ten minutes to park at a cargo shed on the far side of the airport, then ride a straphanger bus back to the terminal. Further reports on the enormities of Dubai will appear when we eventually get up the courage for a proper visit. After all, they do have the tallest building, the biggest shopping mall, and a brand-new Metro train (come on Auckland, you can do it). Then we will at last be able to give some sort of meaningful answer to all you Kiwis who ask "What was it like in Dubai?" (which Doha is not the same place as; but then be honest, I didn't have a clue where Qatar really was until we were about to hit the place a few months ago).

The tennis elbow I gave myself helping the nice lady taxi driver get the luggage into the Previa has just about faded away now. Our instructions were to get a taxi to Al Jimi Mall and meet David there. We didn't even realise that Al Jimi was in Al Ain rather than Abu Dhabi until we made inquiries. So! we were indeed headed to the oasis city, which everyone assured us was a really nice place to live. The two hour taxi trip was made more entertaining by the meter reminding the driver in a reproachful voice "You are speeding; please slow down" every time she edged past 120; which she responded to, along with the speed cameras at about 10km intervals along the motorway, by settling into a rhythm of speeding up and slowing down every half km or so - not particularly restful. The scenery most of the way looked much like this to our tired eyes.

But soon enough here we were. Al Jimi! Surely a good sign! If Hendrix were to stand up next to Jebel Hafeet, would he chop it down with the edge of his hand? (ref: Voodoo Chile if you are puzzled as to what I'm on about.)

Not the biggest mall in Al Ain, as the guidebook says, but it's the nearest thing we have to a local, and don't you love the twin towers

and the art camel?

We were a bit early, but then David arrived and rescued us and our heap of luggage, and ferried us to our new home in The Pool Apartments, a 20 minute drive that mostly looked like this. In fact, to the new resident, Al Ain continues to look confusingly like this in a thousand variations for about the first month. Now we have a car we have just about got our bearings and only get lost about once a week.

I was going to round this off with the saga of our first few weeks here. The first week is easily dealt with: it was hot as, the bedroom aircond didn't work, Ange had a proper dose of flu from the second day, the internet wouldn't go, we had no TV (we were able to access TV and internet in a neighbouring apartment which some Cognition people had vacated because the aircond didn't work at all, so that was only bearable for a sauna-like half hour at a time), we had no car and were short of money for supplies or a taxi to town (and would have got lost anyway), there were hardly any Cog people around (most arrived a week or two later than us), there were no Doha personal effects to nest with, and we were trying not to notice the cracks in the walls. We couldn't help feeling lost and abandoned.

The rest had better be another post - I'll do my best to get it done before we fly off to UK
next Thurs 17th for a week (it's the Eid post-Ramadan holiday) to see Ange's father and brother and family.

I could try to get away with a bunch of date puns about that, but I won't.