Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Boy in the Bubble

The UAE national football team has won the Gulf Cup, beating Oman 1-0 in last night's final in Abu Dhabi. Good stuff. I wonder if they'll move onto qualifying for the World Cup next. With Bruno Metsu in charge, they seem to going from strength to strength. Well, in this region they are.

Now I understand why that Beemer I saw the other day was covered in red, white, green and black heart stickers. No window flags for this lot - they go the whole hog. Today I saw even more bizarre decorations on cars, with spray paint in the national colours applied hap-hazardly to wheels, body and even windows. Streamers hung on every available appendage - door handles, aerials, window wipers. I think they're quite happy about it all. There are reports of cars careering up and down various roads last night with people perched on top waving flags and blowing horns. I can't imagine there were many drunken brawls.

Speaking of cars, today I've been observing more of the Bubble behaviour that I was talking about recently, where the people here just seem to seal themselves away from all external influence and show no consideration for anyone or anything, etc. Like I say, I don't think there's an ounce of malice in it at all. It's just the way it is. And to be honest, it isn't just the locals. Expats start to assimilate this culture quite quickly.

Imagine the average day of a person living here, whether he be Arab or Indian or whatever. He or she drives to work at 180km/h (or 60km/h in the fast lane in a Nissan Sunny), merrily sending SMS messages and pulling the headlight stick on the steering column as they go. When they get to their turn off, they cut across 3 or 4 lanes at the last possible minute, as if they weren't expecting it, causing a cacophony of angry horns and desperately squealing brakes.

He or she arrives at work, and proceeds to park their car diagonally across 2 or even 3 spaces. Then they get out of the car and enter the office bulding. They press the lift call button and wait impatiently, possibly talking to someone on their hands-free kit as they tap their foot on the floor. Then the lift arrives with a merry ping, the doors open, and the person barges straight into the lift without waiting for anyone who might want to exit. As the lift rises, they have a good, long, loving look at themselves in the mirror.

The lift gets to their floor, and he or she rushes headlong out into the corridor before deciding to visit the facilities / rest-rooms / bogs. If you're behind them, watch out. Don't assume that they will hold the door for the person directly behind. Some will, but most will just let it close into your face. Then (if you're a bloke) you watch them approach the row of 3 urinals on the wall. This bit really gets me. I just find it sums everything up. In the UK, we have this little game with urinals, where the first person to approach always takes one at either end - never in the middle. No-one, but no-one wants to be stood directly next to another man having a slash.

But not here.

Here, the first man to the urinal invariably takes the middle station, and stand there with legs wide apart, doing his business without a care in the world. If I come in behind him, I don't know what to do. I just can't bring myself to stand right next to them, so I end up going into the cubicles and feeling faintly ridiculous for doing so.

Then, when you come out, the person is at the sink, and they are either snorting water up their nose, hacking up massive lumps of phlegm with that charming "hkhkhkhkhkhkoooocccckkkk" noise, or they are washing their feet in the sink. From there, they spend the rest of the day smoking in the no-smoking areas of the building.

Of course, it's all an education, and demonstrates something. Possibly that us Brits are really anal and uptight. Cultures are all different and this place is the biggest melting pot of all, and somehow we muddle through. We shake our heads and swap anecdotes about what the locals and subcons and Philipinos do and laugh about it with our mates, but ultimately we just get on with it. I suppose because we have to.

I hope this doesn't come across as critical of the people I'm watching. It isn't. It's just the observations of a man who has been brought up in that stiff, British way, and I find these little behavioural quirks alien and fascinating. I think deep down we are all the same. We all breathe and eat and sleep and love and hate. We are all born and we all die. When you cut us, we bleed. But differences are there for a reason. We all live in different places with different infuences, and they affect us all in different ways. And anyway, if we were all exactly the same, life would be boring, and I wouldn't have anything to write about on here.

Nighty night.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Only in Dubai

It's becoming a regular saying in this part of the world.

Today I saw and heard of 3 things, that made me shake my head and say, "Only in Dubai".

1. I saw a lovely, shiny silver BMW 7 series in a car park covered in red, white, green and black heart-shaped stickers.

2. I heard on the radio that an ambulance attending an emergency took 18 minutes to travel 500 metres on the Arabian Ranches roundabout. No-one would move to let it past.

3. I saw a man dressed up as Charlie Chaplin walking around with an Arab man in Ibn Battuta Mall.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Al Ain has no cranes. It's on a plain. And it doesn't rain.

It must rain a bit, actually, because it's very green. Trees and grass everywhere. But then it could be down to the irrigation. I don't really know how these oasis locations work, if I'm honest.

After leaving the nocturnal driller to his curtain poles, we headed out of town. It was time to get out of the place again, and we had juggled the idea of Fujairah on the East coast, or Al Ain, which is down on the Oman border in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Both were a fair drive away, but the maps seemed to show an easier route to Al Ain, so we headed there. There was an Air Show on at Al Ain as well. I wish we'd gone to Fujairah now.

The drive was pleasant enough. The long, straight roads are easy enough to drive on, even if they provide little in the way of stimulus. A game of Eye Spy only lasts 5 rounds if you're lucky. Sun. Sky. Road. Trees. Sand. Er, that's your lot. We noticed that the signs and petrol station names changed as we entered the next Emirate. All of them were the same name, in fact, and every single one was an exact replica of the one before. I started to wonder if we were going round in circles.

Before long, the harsh, red sand of the desert became more and more punctuated by lush, green vegetation. We aren't talking palm trees and turfed grass, either. Verdant pastures passed by in a green blur, and trees of all kinds cropped up in clumps here and there. It's quite a thing to see after being in the dusty, landscaped confines of Dubai for so long.

We arrived at Al Ain's outskirts and were greeted by the sight of a giant Arabic coffee pot in the middle of a roundabout.

We started following the signs for the Airport, which is the kind of place they usually host Air shows, I figured. After several miles of outer suburbs and no sign of an airport or even an aeroplane, we decided to head into the town centre and get something to eat. We passed more trees and greenery as we drove through pleasent suburbs, and noticed that there wasn't one skyscraper on the horizon, with no building higher than 3 or 4 storeys, and not one tower crane to be seen. After finding that the town's eponymous Mall was basically shut (and getting lost in the car park thanks to misleading signs), we found another Mall in an area called Al Jimi, and had lunch in the food court. With our light lunch in our stomachs, we had a wander and a window shop. Marvellous. We came all the way to Al Ain for a change of scenery, and ended up in a bloody Mall.

I decided to end this abject silliness and we headed out again to see if we could find the airport. We did, and were greeted by the sight of thousands of cars parked in every conceivable location on the approach to and around the airport, and about 3 aeroplanes parked on the airport apron. A short drive around the airport roads lead us into a long queue for the main parking area, which was full. As we waited, we watched a yellow bi-plane performing a startling array of aerial stunts, swooping, rolling and diving towards earth. I wondered if the pilot was sending SMS messages whilst flying, then remembered why I didn't have much time for Air shows. I had lived in Germany near a US base where there had been an awful disaster after a mid-air collision at an Air show in the late 1980s. If we hadn't been away on holiday at the time, we may well have been there when it happened, and ever since then, I just haven't felt comfortable watching planes doing tricks. It's bad enough when they fly in a straight line, thank you very much. The Red Arrows fill me with dread.

As it was, the whole spectacle looked decidedly underwhelming, and with it getting on in the day, and with parking options looking limited, we decided to head back to Dubai. On the way back, as we left Al Ain's green plains behind, I spotted a sign for the East Coast, and realised it would have been the better option. Yes, Al Ain is different to Dubai, but ultimately it was a bit bland, and didn't seem to offer much to the family. You live and learn, I suppose.

The kids were good. They spent a long time in the car without causing too much of a scene, so we went to a Wild West-themed family-friendly (i.e. full of screaming brats) restaurant for tea when we got back as a treat (and I fancied some pork ribs as well). They enjoyed it, even if the ribs weren't very good.

Now we are focused on next weekend, and the imminent arrival of the MOTHER and SISTER-IN-LAW. The WIFE and kids are really excited, and so am I. Seeing some familiar faces after so long will be good.


Someone's nicked all my comments!

I had about 50 comments yesterday, then noticed that the last one (quite a good one about my last post) had disappeared. It seems any comments by non-subscribers have been deleted, and non-subscribers weren't allowed to comment when I checked my settings. So, sorry to all those whose comments have vanished. It wasn't me! I've re-enabled them now.


But there we go. It's been a while - again. Time seems to be squeezing together like some mad accordian played by Buster Bloodvessel, and all the daily occurences are just falling on the floor and flowing down the drain. We are nearly in February 2007. Yesterday it was June 1996, I'm sure it was. I've already been in Dubai for 6 months, and it's been a veritable BLEEEUURRRGH. It's good to be occupied, rather than bored. Boredom depresses me and makes me want to eat bad, bad things that will make me fat again. With all the time in the gym and with the WIFE becoming a cyber-addict (she's been playing a particularly annoying and addictive game called Zookeeper pretty much every waking hour...she didn't notice what I did to her the other week while she was sat playing...maybe she'll notice when the bump gets between her and the table...) I've had less time to go on the computer. But that's probably a good thing. I spend all day on the bloody things at work.

But yeah, that good old gymnasium. I've been going for a 2 full weeks now after joining up at the local place, and the weight is dropping off. I'm trying a programme I found on a Men's lifestyle website which only takes 35 minutes, 3 times a week, but which leaves you feeling really quite tired, as if you've done an hour and a half of hard work. There is little cardio work, just 5 minutes warm-up and cool-down, and the rest of it is resistance training, on the basis that muscle burns more calories and is denser and more compact than fat. The trick is the slow cadence, and doing a low number of reps till failure (listen to me, I sound like a gym rat). 4 seconds to lift, then 4 seconds to put down. Try it and see - you get a proper burn. So far I've managed to double pretty much every weight that I'm lifting. The only area I'm struggling with is my shoulders, but I'll keep working on it.

The best bit is going to a gym that is quiet. I rarely, if ever, have to wait to go on a machine. And that's 15kg (33lbs) down, 23 (51lbs) to go to reach my target. I like the metric system. It sounds much less. At 1 kilo a week, I should be down to target by July or August. I went to see the heart doctor again last week and he seems to be happy with what I'm doing. Getting drug-free 6 months down the line would be brilliant.

In other news, we finally got the two cars we've been waiting for so long to get our hands on. The actual buying process was smooth and trouble-free. Once the car dealer had the money, they arranged the insurance and registration, and I picked them up the next day. At the same time, the WIFE and kids' residence visas came through, so we got the WIFE her driving licence and got rid of the 2 hire cars. Now, in a weird kind of juxtaposition, I (the large man) drive a little sporty coupe car and she (the little lady) drives a 7-seater MPV.

Worryingly, I'm now driving something like a local. I flash my lights and beep my horn and occassionally weave between lanes when I get frustrated at the chap in the ageing white Nissan Sunny bumbling along at 80kph in the middle lane without a care in the world. But I'm getting to thinking that it's the only way to be, because hesitancy here can get you into bother. Of course, I draw the line at some things. I always strap the children into their seats nice and safely. I never drive on the hard shoulder. I don't send SMS messages whilst driving at 180kph (140 is the limit), and I'll never, ever plaster pictures of my country's leaders on my car's back window. Can you imagine seeing that in the UK? I reckon anyone who put Tony BLEEEUURRGH's insincere grin on the back window would probably get a brick through it. And rightly so.

As I drive around this place and get used to the anarchy on the highways, I'm starting to realise that a lot of the people in this part of the world live in little sealed-off bubbles. It's not malicious, they just don't think about consequences, particularly when other people are involved. The oft-used phrase "Insha'allah" is starting to make a little bit of sense. It's the culture, the upbringing to just carry on regardless, and leave the worrying about it all to God. It was similar in Taiwan. The people were lovely and friendly and hospitable, as they are here, but when they get in a car (or sometimes just in public), they just throw a switch and the bubble surrounds them. They must wonder what these flashing orange light things and shiny appendages attached to the doors are, because they don't bloody use them. Queues? They have a Barbie in front, don't they?

And then, there was the incident with the drill, which completely threw me out of kilter the other night. I think it was Thursday. I was sat at my laptop at home, minding my own business. It was late. The WIFE had gone to bed. From nowhere, the incredibly loud and wall-juddering sound of an electric drill burst into life. I looked at my watch. It was 11.25pm. Someone next door (in the adjoining villa that's been empty for 3 months) was obviously moving in, and had decided that this was the right time to start auditioning for DIY SOS. I can't remember the exact thoughts that were going through my mind, but I think the words "what", "the" and "fuck" were in there somewhere, amongst others.

I let it go. I ignored it. It couldn't go on all night. Could it? The WIFE, the BOY and the GIRL didn't seem to be overly upset by it upstairs. The kids could sleep on the runway at DXB International Airport (or the suburb of Mirdiff, as it is known round here). It kept going for another half an hour, on and off, and finally ceased just before midnight. It's a good job they stopped, because I was getting more and more annoyed, and was even thinking about going to bed in a bad mood. Again, I put this behaviour down those cultural quirks I was talking about before, you know - that unwitting, unintended selfishness. It was like my first few weeks in Dubai which I spent in that flea-pit hotel that the fleas had moved out of, and the banging doors and shouting and general hoo-hah that occured every night after midnight. It's not malicious. These people have just been brought up that way, and don't know any different.

The next day, as we pulled out of our car port and set off for Al Ain, we saw the culprit getting out of his own car with some curtain poles.

It was a Westerner.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Money, money, money

FINALLY. I got my car loan. I've been trying for about a month to get one, and yesterday the money was credited to my account. Now I can get the two cars I need. The relief! Nearly as good as coming out of Atrail Fibrillation. I have made myself ill over it all - and in hindsight I shouldn't have, but when you come up against the incompetence, intransigence and sheer bloody-minded beauracracy that I've encountered over the last month, I defy anyone to remain calm. Today, as something of a celebration, we went for brunch at Mina A'Salam, a hotel at the Madinat Jumeirah. It has had a lot of good write-ups, and it was fantastic, and I'm still stuffed 5 hours after eating. The kids were well catered for as well, and even though it was quite pricey, the free-flowing booze and really high-quality food made it all worthwhile. The ambience there is really special, and the Madinat is probably one of my favourite places in Dubai. I can't wait to take some of our guests there when they come to visit. My doctors probably won't be happy that I've had a few glasses of wine, but I've not had any for at least 3 weeks, and probably won't have any more for a good while now. A little of what you fancy, and all that.

Anyway, the bank episode is in the past now. Let's move on. Another week has zipped by in the blink of an eye. We are busy again, and it shows. The morale in the office is dipping badly again, so much so that the newest of the staff have noticed it. It doesn't help that the BOSS has been on the rampage this week. Before Christmas he delivered a fatwa on people not wearing ties, and this week he has been cracking down on early lunch leavers and anyone with the notion of having a life outside of work. A couple of his comments this week have left me bamboozled. He suggested (half-jokingly, I think) that my family were dispensable when there were important clients to be placated, and then when someone had to cancel some leave, he said he didn't have ANY sympathy, because holidays were more of a privelege than a right, especially as he has worked years with only 2 days of leave.

That's all fair and well, but for some of us, work is a means to an end. I work to live, not vice-versa. I will give my all and put my best in at the office, and have no qualms about doing a bit of work outside my allloted hours and travelling to places like Doha for a few days, but when the implication is that work comes first, second and third, with family life a poor fourth, I start to get worried. There are people in this world who like to come to work at 7am and leave at 8pm, and they make it out to be some kind of macho honour thing, but to me that's bullshit. You can only be effective for so long during a day, and 9 hours is about right. I will take a lunch break, and I will leave work at 6pm, unless there is a really urgent job that NEEDS to be done. If we feel obliged to stay long hours or are made to feel guilty for not doing so, I honestly think it makes for bad morale. But there we are, and there we go. It pays the bills, and the work is quite interesting. I've learned loads since I came here, and the CV will not suffer with the scale and type of project I'm working on now.

One thing I've started to notice at work and in general is the behaviour of some people here, in particular Western Expats. I've noticed the way some of these people talk to and behave towards people of other nationalities here, especially South-Asians or Eastern-Asians. So not to beat about the Dubya, they treat them like dirt. They shout at and berate them for the slightest lapse in standards of service, they show no gratitude or even basic manners towards them, and seem to think they are perfectly entitled to lord it over these people. They wouldn't get away with it at home, because they'd get told where to go forth and procreate, I have not a shred of doubt. The thing is, it's a double-edged sword, because the people on the receiving end just take it, say, "Yes, sir/madam," in their whiny American accent and scurry away sheepishly when they've been reprimanded by another highly-strung, self-important expat. Some of them look petrified when you talk to them, and then they look genuinely astonished when you say Please and Thank You to them, before breaking into a broad smile.

I often wonder how much these people resent us moneyed westerners, especially when we act like complete and utter twats towards them. I want to be there when one of them finally cracks, and tells some jumped-up, betroot-faced, flip-flop-wearing fool that they added their own special ingredient to their drink. I just hope it isn't me. Yes, I have witnessed poor service in the past here (the bank!), and yes, I've admitted that I get annoyed and wound up, but when I talk to people I'm doing business with I always try to remain calm and composed and respectful without raising my voice. I usually rant and rave about it to myself afterwards, because rude, arrogant behaviour and trying to humiliate some poor sod when it's probably not even his fault just breeds resentment and contempt and is unlikely to achieve any improvement in service.

It seems to be a pattern here. People change when they come here, and do stuff they wouldn't dream of doing back home. Of course, it's a different country, and a different lifestyle, and as the old saying goes - When in Rome - but people here don't do what Romans do, they act like frigging Cybermen. On acid. I've witnessed expats who don't secure their young children in car seats before driving on the third deadliest roads in the world. I've seen people who seem to think it's perfectly fine to drink drive on a regular basis, and when I say drink - I mean drink. This is despite the fact that the punishments here are more severe than back home. It's as if coming to this place makes them take leave of their senses. Is the almost-permanent sunshine melting their brain cells? Hard to say, really, but as with most things, it's probably a combination of things. As long as they can get away with it, they'll do it. And no amount of tutting and writing letters to 7 Days will change that.

But the funniest thing about it all is when I hear some expat say to me that they came here to get away from all the immigrants who don't respect the British Way Of Life, and the so-called PC brigade pandering to their every whim. So they came to a county which is 80% immigrant and bends over backwards to accomodate Westerners and their love of excess. On the other hand, they can come here and lord it over the non-white immigrants who don't earn as much money, because it makes them feel big and clever. I'd really love to see them talk to an Emirati like that.

And still - I'm happier than I've been for a long, long time. Life here is pretty good in the main. Nothing will ever be perfect, but you have to make the best of it, and I think that's what we are doing. I've spent too much time in my life sweating the small stuff.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

You know how it was quiet?

Well, since then I've had a bit of a week, I can tell you.

My health problems continue to annoy and frustrate me (along with the frustration of dealing with banks in this country - maybe the two are related) and I have been in hospital again for various tests and something-oscopies galore.

I think they are all probably all linked, actually. I'm not the most easy-going of folk, as I might sometimes allude to with my rambling rants, and I tend to let things wind me up a tad. The last month has seen some really frustrating times trying to get car loans and finalising visas and various other things. So, it's probably no coincidence that my gastric reflux has been playing hell with me and that in turn plays hell with my arrhytmia, triggering ectopic beats and short runs of AF. The cycle of worry spirals downwards in ever-decreasing circles.

I finally managed to badger my cardiologist into referring me to see another doctor about the reflux, and the new doctor was only too keen to stick cameras into every orifice available. Fortunately the insurance company only authorised the gastroscopy, which is the one down the top end.

I've had the colonoscopy before, and believe me when I say that it ain't pleasant. Not only did I have to starve myself for a day, I also had to take industrial-strength laxatives that rapidly compelled me to sit on the porcelain throne for hours with a roll of chilled toilet roll within easy reach. Then at the hospital, I had to have an enema using cold water, before losing what was left of my dignity as I laid on my side in an ill-fitting hospital gown and had a long black tube forced up my arse. The only blessing was the sedative, which wasn't that strong last time, because I felt a considerable amount of discomfort. I was half-expecting Lloyd Grossman to appear on the screen and say, "Hooow liyuvs in an Arse like thus..?"

As it was, I only had to do the endoscopy this time, and they must have used some good shit on me, because I was out like a light only a minute or so after they injected the sedative. I have a fuzzy, vague memory of the nurse putting some kind of guard in my mouth and strapping it round my head, then there was a little bit of gagging as they put the endoscope in, but then nothing. When the doctor said, "Bring out the Gimp", I may well have been dreaming.

I woke up after an hour of dreamless, blissful sleep to see the WIFE, the BOY and the GIRL sat next to me, and I wondered what they had been saying about me. I had a chicken sandwich and a few more minutes sleep, then after a quick chat with the doctor they gave me a DVD showing what they had done and let me go. I had an ever-so-slightly sore throat, but nothing untoward, and before long we were on our way home.

At home I watched the DVD, and was treated to the sight of my insides being explored. It was quiet interesting, and not too scary until this little metal pincer device appeared from under the camera to take biopsies of my acid-scarred digestive tract. I say little, but on a large TV it looked massive, and reminded my of Ridley Scott's Alien taking chunks out of people's heads and chests with its extendable mandibles. When the pincers withdrew there was blood where it had taken the sample from, and the sight of this made me shudder somewhat. I'm glad that I was asleep when it actually happened.

It turns out that I have something called Barrett's esophagus, which has absolutely nothing to do with cheap shoes or poorly-built houses. The doctor casually told me that it is a pre-cancerous condition where the lining of the esophagus has been eroded and is changing in cellular structure. It has to be managed and monitored very carefully, which involved more drugs, more gastroscopies at regular intervals, and aviodance of certain types of food, and naturally the nice ones like chocolate, caffeine and red wine. So if I want to live a long, healthy life I have to live it like a monk. A monk that doesn't attend mass or communion, that is. Losing more weight will help matters too. Oh well, I did want to lose weight, and I still am, despite having a slight break from the diet over Christmas.

*Crap Joke Interval*

Two Trappist monks were walking along the street. One turned to the other and said absolutely nothing.

*End of Crap Joke Interval*

Drugs, drugs, drugs. The esophagus doc gave me two more types to take, and I happily added them to the list. I have had to create a plethora of reminders on my mobile phone's calendar, which now bloops at me at certain points in the day to remind me to take the tablets for my blood pressure, my arrhythmia, my cholesterol, my nightly happy pill and now for my bad belly.

All was well until Sunday. I felt rotten, and really tired. More so than is usual for me. I thought it was probably the after-effects of the sedative, so took the day off. But on Monday I felt even worse, and was starting to wonder what was going on. I was actually physically shaking by this point, and aching all over. I wanted to sleep all the time, but when I laid down, I just couldn't get comfortable.

So I went back to the hospital to see my doctors. They did the usual tests - blood pressure, bloods, ECG and so on. They found nothing. Then I happened to bump into the doctor who had done the endoscopy and when I showed him the bag of drugs I had with me, he took a disconcertingly sharp intake of breath and told me to stop taking a particular drug straight away. Then I saw the heart doctor and he halved the dosage of a couple of the other meds.

Well it worked. I'm now back to just feeling crappy, rather than utterly rotten. The whole episode has been a little disturbing if I'm honest. I have said before that the medical facilities here have been impressive so far, and you can't fault the level of attention that you get. You can see a doctor any time of night or day, and at weekends, and you don't have to wait weeks and months for an appointment with a specialist. But then you would expect that with private health care which is paid for with insurance, I suppose.

The down-side is that you are seen maybe too quickly, and with profit margins being involved in the private sector, however much you try and dress it up, the bottom line is what ultimately matters, so there is always the potential for these kind of medication mistakes (not to mention others) to be made. The liaison between the different doctors seemed to be limited to an initial referral, then it was up to me to keep each doctor informed of what the other was up to. That isn't my job. A good mate of mine has said that this is par for the course in these parts, and advised me to get second opinions on any major diagnoses that I get. I'm starting to wonder if he might be right. I'm just thankful that my level of awareness (some might call it paranoia) on these matters brought about a swift end to the problem.

By Tuesday I was feeling right again. And then the unthinkable started to happen. The fates have started shifting, and I might just get my finances sorted and get the car loan I've been trying to get for a month now. Thanks to certain people at my company I should now be able to sort out the payment cycle problems and remedy the knock-on effects of the late salary payment in November and December. I can start to enjoy living here instead of banging my head against the wall.

It's a bloody good job as well, because in little more than three weeks we have our first visitors coming from the UK. The WIFE's mother and sister are coming to stay with us for three weeks in February. I want everything to be in place for their arrival, and Insha'allah, it's starting to fall into place.

Of course, there will be more glitches and hitches and hiccups. When I got home last night after a good day, the GIRL was in the process of vomiting copiously. It seems she has a touch of gastroenteritis, bless her. The WIFE slept in her room with her last night after taking her to the doctors and getting a pile of medication for her, and I checked it thoroughly for anything dodgy-looking. She's never been sick like this in her short life, never had anything worse than a cough and cold, so I imagine it's as confusing and scary for her as it is worrying for us. In the UK it was the BOY who was always getting sickness bugs - almost every month he would start throwing up, usually in the car on the way to Middlesbrough (easy now, M). What with her cut finger and now this, she's had a hard time since arriving in Dubai. Fingers crossed it'll get better for her.

Is it me, or are these posts getting longer? I'm posting less frequently, I think, so have to get more info into each one. I hope whoever's reading is still with us.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

All is quiet.

On New Year's Day, or so the song goes.

New Year in Dubai was different. We treated the kids to a trip to Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates on New Year's Eve. Well, it was as much a treat for us, actually. The chance to see real snow and feel cold was too enticing for us after being in a permanent summer - at best autumn - since August.

So we paid our money, bought gloves and hats, then went to the clothing counters to be issued with snow boots, socks, trousers and jackets to wear in the snow park. We went quite early and it wasn't too busy, and before long we were all kitted out like Eskimos. We ventured through the entry gate to the snow park, then through the first set of sliding doors, which act like an airlock, then through the next set of sliding doors and a blast of arctic air hit us full in the face, making us shiver. "It's bloody freezing!" was the only thing I could say at this point, stating the bleeding obvious, as always.

And the fun began. We charged around the snow park with its ice mazes, igloos, sledging hills and toboggan runs. We spotted crowds of people watching us from behind the glass in the main mall, like people watching animals in the zoo. I fought the urge to pee my name in the snow We climed up to a small wooden tower and looked up at the incredible sight of people skiing down an enormous 400m long, 60m high slope that dog-legged and disappeared into the distance.

I went down the tobaggan run without gloves on and managed to scrape my left hand on the hard ice on the wall of the run. I think I left at least half an inch of skin there. Then I had a shot on the rubber ring run and ended up with two blocks of ice for hands after having to shove them in snow at the bottom of the run to prevent myself sliding through a queue of waiting people. It was at that point when I remembered that snow is nice in small doses. It was nice to be able to leave the cold behind whenever we wanted.

The kids enjoyed it all though, which was the main aim. After we left and got changed back into "normal" clothes, we headed to the Alpine-themed St. Moritz café, situated just next to the exit and had lunch. As we sat there next to a roaring fire (on a TV screen embedded into a fireplace), eating hearty food and drinking hot drinks, we looked through the windows back into the snow park, and it all felt slightly surreal. The mind boggles when you think about how much energy they must use to keep the place cooled to freezing point and even lower when the whole thing closes at night and the snow blowers come on. It sums up what Dubai is about: Surreal excess.

New Year's Eve night was a quiet affair in the main. We let the BOY stay up till midnight, and we played Junior Monopoly about half a dozen times. At 11pm a party started in a house to the back of ours, and loud Middle-Eastern-influenced dance music filled the night air with its enchanting, hypnotic rhythm. The time came - midnight passed - and it was eerily quiet for just a moment, and I suddenly pined for the sound of Big Ben's chimes to tell us it was here. But there was nothing except a bit of cheering from the party at the back and the sound of distant fireworks at the Burj Al Arab. I bet they looked good.

So we had a mini Auld Lang Syne session, hugged and kissed, put the tired BOY to bed and started sending text messages and e-mails and message-board messages to friends and family back in the UK. And then we went to bed, and the music from the back didn't really keep us awake. I think it stopped at about 2am or something.

On New Year's Day we decided to have a big roast chicken dinner with stuffing and Yorkshire puddings and gravy and all that other stuff that we would have at home. But before that we went to Safa park for a little stroll and some fresh air. I wasn't sure what to expect, and was surprised by the size and scale of the place. There are little gardens, statues, water features and play-parks scattered all over. There is a central area with a boating lake and a fairground and barbeque areas. At first I was impressed. The green spaces were large and pleasant and mostly clean. Then we came across the artificial river that runs from the boating lake to a small pond and waterfall and I noticed that the water there was chock-full of plastic carrier bags and other trash. A couple of pissed-off looking ducks sat forlonly in the murky, stagnant water nearby. I wondered how it could have got so bad, and why it hadn't been cleaned up, but I soon got my answer.

We eventually came to a sand-covered play-park and settled down on a wooden bench while the kids had a play. As I sat there, my attention was caught by a child who came up to the edge of the park, holding a packet of mini-Pringles. I watched in disbelief as the child took the crisps in one hand and dropped the packet with the other, without the slightest compunction, before wandering off. The child's mother, who was sat on the grasss behind her, didn't bat an eyelid. Not surprisingly, she was surrounded by half-empty carrier bags. I turned and shook my head and watched another child in the play-park drop an empty drink carton on the sand as he climbed a ladder. I looked round some more and saw pieces of litter everywhere. In the middle of the play-ground there was a bin, so I stood up, picked up the discarded Pringles packet and made a point of placing it in the bin. People around me watched me impassively, unimpressed by my actions.

Cultural differences aside, I find myself wondering about the mentality of some people. They just don't seem to care a jot about litter. Doesn't the sight of rubbish all over the place sadden them? Do they think that someone else will just come along and sweep it up? The rubbish in the pond was a real shocker for me. I'd always thought that we had a bad attitude to litter in the UK, and that other places were invariably cleaner. It might be true of some parts of continental Europe, but it seems that it's actually even worse here. I've been in plenty of parks back home, but I've never seen a sight like I saw in that pond. A bit of litter, yes, but this was really, really bad, and the whole blasé attitude to the dropping of rubbish on the floor amazed me as well.

Different places have different value and different attitudes, and I understand that this is the case, but sometimes I find myself being surprised by how utterly alien some people's values are to me. How do you reconcile this? Do you just let them get on with it, or do you say something? Is it our right to impose our value system on others, or is it their right to live as they see fit, and how they have lived all their lives, without our interference? When does the line get crossed? When others get hurt or offended? We all know that some people are more easily offended than others, and that different things offend different people, and that right and wrong are not black and white. Oh, it's a moral minefield. And I'm rabbling. And preaching. Again. I should have written a letter to 7 Days.

Anyway, after the park we went on a boat ride on the lake, and hired a little replica ferry for the four of us, which I took charge of, naturally. I didn't think it was going to take my bulk as it pitched and wobbled precariously as I boarded it, but we managed to stay afloat and spent a dizzying 20 minutes going round in circles, chasing seagulls and avoiding the locals who sped round in circular hovercraft-style vessels. They drive boats like they drive cars, is all I will say.

On the way out of the park, I remembered hearing Chris Evans talking about the pleasures of walking barefoot on grass on Radio 2 some time ago, so I took my shoes and socks off, before strolling across the cool, lush grass. It was marvellous. I was just glad that they don't allow dogs in the park. The BOY challenged me to a race, and I found myself sprinting across the grass after him, and actually catching him. This was a new experience for me, because I haven't ran that fast for a long, long time. I haven't been able to keep up with the BOY for a while, but on New Year's Day, I was running, maybe not like the wind, more like a stiff breeze, and it felt good. The weight loss and exercise HAS made a difference. It's a shame my leg won't tolerate much real running, because I could get myself fit in no time at all. Ah well, maybe when I get my bionic leg, eh?

Oh, yeah. The roast chicken dinner was fabulous.

Monday, January 01, 2007


From a place without Big Ben and without first footers and all that kind of thing.

Anyway, cheers all!