Thursday, 3 November 2011

War and Priest

In the time I've taken off this blog (nearly two years, bar a snow-dazzled Xmas special from Germany), my cousin Peter Fiennes has researched and written a whole book, his first. It's called To War With God, and it's rather good. Here he is at the launch on 27 September in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which I was privileged to attend (Angela had to stay in the UAE for work, but had visited family in Wales a month before).

The backstory is fascinating: in the way of most war veterans, our grandad Monty Guilford (Brad to Peter and my other cousin Toby) didn't say much about his time as an army chaplain at the Western Front. We sort of knew that he had sat up all night with a condemned deserter, and that he may have lost his faith, but the details were missing. (He did go on to a career as a loved and respected country parson.) But nearly a hundred years on, Peter's son Alex needed info for a school project on the First World War, which led to an attic search and the discovery of a forgotten trove: this old suitcase full of WWI memorabilia, including Monty's diaries.

The book demanded to be written, and Peter (long-term editor and director of the Time Out Guides) did Grandad proud. Read it to see how, and to learn a bit more about the Great War than we did from the estimable Blackadder IV.

And the launch (held at St Martin's because Monty ran a youth club in the crypt straight after the war, at the invitation of the charismatic Rev. Dick Sheppard) was a special occasion because for the first time in decades, us three cousins (Toby all the way from NZ) and our aunt Biddy (third daughter after my mother Ruth and Toby and Peter's mother Jacq) all got together. I'm kicking myself that in the intense atmosphere of the gathering (crowded with long-lost relatives and friends to catch up with) I forgot to get the group photo.

So these must make do:

(L to R above) Biddy, Peter, Toby, Peter's wife Anna; and (below) me, Peter, his daughter Natalie (sorry, Alex got missed out altogether, but younger daughter Esme stars further down the page).

I am fated to visit the UK at Indian-Summer-time - it was even hotter than when we were in Wales in Sept 2009, a record 29.7deg! in London, ideal for frequent walks on the nearby Commons (Wandsworth and Clapham) with Bonnie the dog.

Then to Hove for a few precious days with Biddy, my flu only partly to blame for hardly managing to keep up with this indefatigable octogenarian favourite aunt at such things as cryptic crosswords and going for more walks on the beautiful South Downs, only minutes away and panoramically viewable from my window.

Here we are on an old Roman road (Hove and the Channel in the background)

leading to popular (very on a day like this) National Trust beauty spot The Devil's Dyke, from where you can gaze across most of Sussex.

Those magical English summers are what memory conjures up from my time in Cambridge in the 80s, so reliving that feeling, however briefly, was hard to top. But I did manage to squeeze in some more treats in my three remaining days back in London. Failing to spot any handy gig by a suitable music legend, Peter and I instead made a beeline for the South Bank, taking in a tour of the Globe Theatre - just missed the end of the play season by a week, Hamlet or Dr Faustus would have been nice (perhaps next year, with Angela accompanying?), but it was superb just to be there (looking a bit Falstaffian) even if it was full of scaffolding and we didn't see backstage.

Then on to the Tate Modern - again, it was between major exhibitions and we only had time to see a few rooms (some fine photography) but I can report that it is indeed Very Big and Full of Art. I can't wait to be slightly less overwhelmed by the (comparatively boutique) revamped Auckland City Gallery.

And, by good fortune I did spot that the Barbican was hosting, on my last night, a performance by the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company on their farewell tour before disbanding (MC having died last year). Those who know what a fan of John Cage and the flavour of the New York avant garde I am will appreciate that this was a serendipitous lightning strike - and it turned out to be affordable, so off Peter and I trotted. Not disappointed - such purity of movement seldom seen, scores by Cage and Eno too. So cool to have caught it.

And there was one more amazing and faith-in-humanity-boosting tale, a real antidote to seeing the odd boarded-up shop in the local high street from the previous month's mass mayhem: while I was at Biddy's, Misty the much-adored kitten absconded from Peter and Anna's house. The family put Missing Kitten posters all over the neighbourhood and doorknocked comprehensively, but several days later, any news was still gloomily lacking. Then - result? - someone phoned to say he had seen a circular delivery man picking a kitten up and taking it away in his van. Instantly the house became an operations room, with calls to the Borough council, leaflet delivery companies, and more visits to homes in the street in question.

And - result! - all these good people took the quest on board, pulled strings, and did indeed call back; the cat-rescuer was identified and ordered to interrupt his rounds and scoot back home and return the prodigal - who did indeed turn out to be Misty. Who was of course quite unruffled, but appeared happy to be home.

So let's hear it for The Neighbourhood, true English (of numerous nationalities) pet-lovers all. The Tories' Big Society fantasy may not be how to run a country, yet the pull-together spirit of the Somme and the Blitz can still be found in the leafy streets of south London.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snow, really

I might not have blogged it, but life in the desert seems to have been getting a bit samey. Not that we haven't had some interesting times since early this year - some overdue posts are in the pipe. Oh; you hadn't noticed the lack of. Tell me you had...

But first, time to escape the balmy Gulf winter (17deg at night, just right for comfortable barbies up on the roof; 25 daytime, ideal for even me to put in some time on the mountain bike I have finally bought) and head for the honest refreshing chill of a UK Christmas. No kidding, it all looked like this,

so here we are (2 days so far), waiting out the near-total closure of Britain. Where better than the Crowne Plaza in historic Wiesbaden (Frankfurt 32km), courtesy of Gulf Air, a snowball's throw from the Christmas Festival in the Marktplatz.

Ornate carousels, many more exquisite seasonal nicknack stalls than you've ever shaken a stick at,

which we may have to go back and raid,

and state-of-art gluhwein.

So, before this laptop runs out of power, and in case we don't make it to Wales in time, here's a Jolly Merry Xmas from her

and from me.

Much more to come, in the new year or, inshallah, even sooner.

Hope you all have good one wherever you are.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A person's fortune in the first is always the most profound, and sometimes even people's heart forever into the insulation.

Hullo from Kerala, we finally made it here - "Hero Honda, Dhak Dhak, Go!"

I was going to title this post with this instantly obsessive slogan, but the above (a comment in chinese characters left on the previous post by an unknown whose profile links to Slag: identity theft on top of home invasion is a bit off - please desist) captures the variegated je ne sais quoi of the last month even better, somehow.

Some have suggested making these posts smaller - hard for me, with the usual backlog of pix to commentarise, but the constraints of a full hard disk and using the WiFi at Cafe Del Mar on the cliff at Varkala will help, this time at least. Soon we will be back home with nothing but Al Ain routine for 5 months and I will address editing down the photo file and making good on new year resolutions to develop new communication habits, even social sites perhaps.

Meanwhile here are some quickly-selected fotos from the shortlist I have had room to download from the cameras, covering some highlights of a whirlwind month. Some of these episodes are sure to be expanded on later.

The flight to NZ on the A380 wasn't really that much less cramped than on the older airliners we were used to, but totally worth it for a week of catching up, especially with Rua and Jill at Ed and Rachel's house and finally getting the long-wished-for shot of all four grandkids at once

and their parents.

And of course Catrin and Nathan's wedding in Nelson

where we just about took over the splendid Monaco hotel

with appropriate celebrations.

Then all too soon we were back in the UAE, with side trips to the vast Dubai Mall (featuring wall-to-wall aquarium,

an equally stunning and vast - 200 shops - Gold Souq,

a 3-storey promise of more shopping Meccas

and sneaky views of the newest-and-tallest wonder, the Burj Khalifa. Even though the "At the Top" observation deck is only on the 125th of 180 floors, we will no doubt soon scrape up the $50 to book a trip up and, report further.

Surely no less impressive is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, where we went the very next day.

Ange and Joss donned the obligatory abayas,

we took off our shoes with 1000 others

and boggled

at the grandeur

and the detail.

A salutary contrast with our first look at India - a day in the hurlyburly of downtown Chennai

- not least, a crash course in the essential use of the motor horn

and the real meaning of poverty.

Chennai Central station was an education too (not to mention the train - 3-tier overnight sleeper, but at least it was aircond).
Not that the heat has abated any since arriving in Varkala, but hey, we're at the beach!

Surf swims every day,

tons of clifftop tourist shopping (and tourists of the more laid-back variety)

and basic facilities, but superbe hospitality francaise (and local cuisine) at La Maison de Varkala, one minute's walk back from the cliff.

And cruisy evenings under the thatch

with a well-known blogger (and his lovely lady, who escaped this lot of photos but will yet be seen).

Barns and Emily have looked after us really well, including making us honoured guests at a sumptuous wedding feast and ceremony with their landlord's family - a quite special experience.

q Later that day our tuk-tuk driver took us on an hour's ride

to Kollam to witness a colourful (and deafening) elephant festival - again, not to be missed.

Then a few quiet days enjoying the atmosphere and not getting used to the heat, then on sunday we are off on the also not-to-be-missed backwaters houseboat trip. Then the train back to Chennai and home to Al Ain. So bye for now from us and the elephant dancers.

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.