Saturday, March 31, 2007

Arabian (Karaoke) Nights

More "Only in Dubai" moments this last week, including the moment I walked into a bank and saw a man stood at the service desk with a brilliant-white specimen of a parakeet on his shoulder. I did a cartoon-style double-take, and rubbed my eyes, but my eyes were not deceiving me. I didn't bother to ask the man what was going on. I feared the bird might answer for him.

So, the Dubai World Cup is tonight, this being the Richest Horse Race In The World (TM). It runs in about 10 minutes. If I was a betting man, I would have to break the law in this country, because under shariah law, it is forbidden. The Maktoum family are mad on horses, especially Sheik Mohammad. He went to university in Cambridge and fell in love with horse-racing there, so the story goes, and now he owns the world-renowned Godolphin stables.

Of course, everyone knows that gambling does take place. It happens over phones and the internet. I've even heard hushly-spoken tales of bookies being flown in for the meeting. Well, they weren't hushly-spoken as such, but they were still told with a knowing smile and a cynical tone. Things happen that shouldn't. It's the way of our crazy world. Man.

As it is, this kind of event doesn't interest me. It's more of a fashion show for shallow people who want to be seen in the right place doing and saying the right things, and getting completely smashed at the same time. I would say that, as I didn't get invited on a corporate, otherwise I would have been there in a flash. I quite like to watch the gee-gees, even if I'm just an embarrassed, quid-each-way kind of gambler. I used to go to the races in Thirsk on occassion. It always made for a good family day out, if the weather was good. It's a shame that the race meetings invariably turned Thirsk into a no-go area for anyone sober after 7pm.

Which, bewilderingly, reminds me of the other thing that links Dubai and Thirsk, which is Paul Scholes, of Manchester United, and formerly Enger-lund. He was at Thirsk races the other year, and I saw him the other week in Dubai. It is, as they say, a small world. Especially when you meet short, ginger footballers twice in two completely different locales within two years. This probably has some cosmic meaning, and links into wormholes and super-string theory and all that, or I could just be talking bollocks again.

Bollocks. I said that a lot last night. (With these linking skills I should be a radio DJ). Our neighbours out the back way decided to have a karaoke party last night. Which is fine by me. I like a bit of karaoke now and again, especially as I can hold a tune quite well (even if I say so myself) and it always surprises people that I can actually sing. The problem with last night was when they insisted on leaving the doors and windows wide open so that everyone within 100 metres could hear their increasingly-croaky warbling and clapping and whooping as another twiddly oud kicked off another bloody song.

I might not have been so bothered if I'd known the tunes, but they were all completely unheard of in Fat and Furious Land, and all of them sounded exactly the same to me. It was really quite annoying, because it was a cooler night and we wanted to have our window open, but that was impossible. The mechanical, brain-burrowing hum of the air-conditioning was what we resorted to in the end, as we shut the door in disgust. We could still hear the karaoke, though. The inevitable excitable crescendo of every song managed to over-power the glazing and the AC, and I lay there wishing for a Bon Jovi track in the first time in living memory. I was literally Living On a Prayer.

Eventually, they shut the doors. This was at about 1.30am. I thanked my lucky stars and opened the window to let the cool night air in. 20 minutes passed, and, just as sleep threatened to swallow me into its blissful inky depths, the doors opened again, and the warbling and clapping and croaky whooping crashed into my mind like a gang of Doc Marten-wearing orang-utans carrying buckets of custard trampling over a five-star gourmet buffet that I was about to help myself from.


It went on for another 30 minutes, and by the time they finally shut the doors again, I had thought of every possible solution, most of which would have probably ended in me being arrested or at least beaten to a bloody pulp with karaoke microphones. I could have pleaded or just shouted off my bedroom balcony at them, but would that have helped? I don't know. I know what kind of response I'd get in the UK, but have no idea here, and being a guest of sorts here, I am loathe to offend people, even if they're annoying me. Either that, or I'm a coward, which explains why I'm venting on here. I'm glad I wasn't pushed to the point where I would have found out their reaction for sure.

Anyway, as punishment, we had a barbecue today. The GEORDIE and his BOY came round and the kids made a load of noise in the garden while the WIFE subjected our neighbours to the delights of ABBA's greatest hits. That'll learn 'em.

The race will be over by now. I wonder who won?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Bridge Over Troubled Wadis

Being the sad bastard with techy/geeky, almost anorak-wearing tendencies that I am, I thought it would be nice for us to have a drive over the new bridge across the creek that opened a couple of weeks ago. It seems to have been given the honour of having two names, which can lead to some confusion on the approach to it. In most of the blurb that was faithfully trotted out in the local press, along with promises of improved traffic flow, ease of access and free camel cheese, it was named "The Ras Al Khor" bridge, by virtue of it's proximity to that oasis of verdant nature inhabited by long-legged pink birds. Fair enough.

And then, the bridge opened. One morning the Oud Metha Road had magically sprouted 2 extra lanes and a set of traffic lights. A yellow sign, with the smallest words I have ever seen printed on a road sign, informed the confused drivers hurtling merrily along that they could fork left to go to Dubai or right to go over the new bridge. It was a bit messy those first few days while people got used to which lane they were meant to be in, then they reverted to their usual tactic of switching lanes at the last possible second.

As the days progressed, more signs appeared around Dubai, but most of them were directing the drivers to the "Business Bay Crossing". It sort of points towards the huge Business Bay development, but isn't really that close to it at all, but there we go. Who am I to argue?
I can imagine a few people get confused by this situation. They pootle along in their Sunny at 40kph, faithfully following the signs for Business Bay Crossing. All of a sudden, the signs disappear, and they are faced with a sign pointing to Ras Al Khor Bridge. I bet they go crazy.

I went crazy, but not because of the signs. I went crazy because I assumed (wrongly) that the new bridge would bring me to the entrance of Festival City, thereby rendering Garhoud Bridge a redundant piece of civil engineering. As we drove over the bridge, everything was fine. It isn't actually complete yet; it's a double bridge with six lanes each side, and only one side is open so far, but still, it goes over the creek, and is free of queues of impatient drivers with twitchy horns. The problem became apparent as we came down onto the far shore. As we started leaving the bridge, we could see Festival City, and as the bridge road filtered towards and joined the main road, we watched helplessly as the exit to Festival City, positioned agonisingly close to where we joined the road, but just behind our entry point, passed by in a blur.

This is life in Dubai: You can see what you want, but you can't have it. You'd have thought they'd have built the bridge so you could get straight into Festival City. Oh, no. That would be far too simple. So, as is the custom here, we ended up driving in a huge, 10km loop to get back to the Festival City exit. Stunning. By the time we reached the car park under Marks and Spencers I was frothing like a badly-pulled pint.

I calmed down after some retail therapy, and despite the WIFE insisting on a visit to the Plastic Swedish Hell we all know as IKEA, I left Festival City in a reasonable mood. I had thought about trying to get back over the creek on the new bridge, but thought better of it. I'm sure when it's finished, they will sort it out and make access and egress much easier. Silly me, making assumptions again, thought it might already be that way.

The coup de grace was yet to come. I decided that we should visit Mirdiff, because I'm that kind of guy, and we headed out of FC and along the Rashidiya road. About 2km along it, we spotted a brand new entrance to Festival City. How we laughed. If we'd stayed on this road to begin with, we'd have got there without having to drive an extra 10km. Ah well, we know for next time.

So, Mirdiff. A weird place, right under the flight path towards DXB. I went to look at a few villas there when I first came out and was looking for a place to live, but the sound of low-flying passenger jets every 2 or 3 minutes put paid to that idea. I hadn't been back, and the family hadn't seen it, and I wanted to try a burger at the new Gourmet Burger Kitchen branch, so that's where we went. The GBK is in the Uptown development, which is a very European-styled residential and retail development with large circular plazas and steep-rooved low-rise buildings containing shops and apartments. Last time I came to the development, only Spinneys the supermarket was open. This time, the whole place was open, with lots of clothes shops and cafés to browse or sit down for a drink in.

We found the GBK and ordered some burgers, chips and lovely-sounding chocolate-bar-themed malt shakes. We were first there, but soon other people started filtering in. One woman came in and asked if they did anything other than burgers, which the WIFE found highly amusing. The burgers arrived, rising like SZR towers from the plate, with thick patties, masses of salad and relish, all contained in a large sesame bun and held together with a large cocktail stick. They weren't edible in the traditional burger fashion, and had to be dismantled. I removed the lettuce and tomato and anything else slightly organic-looking and tucked in.

They were OK. Nice, but not the best burger I've ever had, I must say. The shakes were good, and massive. The bill was more than I thought it would be for a trumped-up burger joint. 6 out of 10, if you were to ask me to rate it.

So, tomorrow I could end up in Doha again. They need me there, and I could be there a while this time. I don't mind, as long as I'm back for the arrival of my parents and brother.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Cat

is dead. I opened the "box" this morning and found out that Boro had lost to another dodgy penalty awarded to Man U. The dream is over for another season.

So I stuck a picture of Cristiano Ronaldo's face on the cat and sent it to the nearest labour camp.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Southgate's Cat

The weather has been bizarre this last week. We had sandstorms for a couple of days, which meant driving round wasn't as pleasurable as it can be. All the familiar sights were obscured by the sand in the air as we drove past them, with the ghostly shadow of one or two large landmarks just visible through a creamy murk. Walking from the car to any building involved adopting a troubled, twisted expression, with mouth firmly shut to prevent sand getting in.

After the sandstorms and the increasing humidity that was building up, we had a short burst of thunder storms on Saturday night. The thunder storms can be quite impressive here. We saw several awe-inspiring examples of fork lightning as we returned from a meal at Ibn Batutta mall. The storm passed overhead very quickly at about midnight, and sprinkled some rain on us. This was most annoying, as I had taken the time to hose my car down to rid it of the thick layer of sand left by the sandstorms, and when it rains here, our slatted-roofed carport spills more sand onto the cars.

At least the storms took the humidity away. It was much fresher on Sunday as I headed back to work after another all-too-brief weekend. The airborne sand was also gone, and the familiar sights of towers and cranes and more cranes were visible once more. A stiff breeze was still blowing, though, and on some places on the roads, ribbons of fine sand rippled across the tarmac like other-wordly snakes coming back to claim the desert from all this maddening development.

Oh, and I've been feeling shite again. The dust and sand are playing havoc with my sinuses, and I've been feeling just generally bad, even dizzy at times. I rebuffed a friend's invitation to visit the Hatta mountains over the weekend, and decided to visit the doctor on Friday. So I laid there on the surgery bed, submitting myself to his probing and prodding, waiting for the verdict. After a moment he stepped away from me, straightened up and sighed.

"How old are you?" he asked brusquely
"Er...Thirty six," said I, almost as a question.
"And you have SO many diseases!" he said, shaking his head.
I had no answer to that.

Turns out I had a sinus infection. Yes, I am a wreck. What can I tell you? I've been through it all before; the dodgy ticker, the shagged hip, the sinuses, the things I won't mention... I'm a walking medical text book, and a hypochondriac to boot. They call it CYBERchondriac these days, because people like me spend hours looking up symptoms and diseases on the internet at the slightest twinge. I think I've worked my way up to "T" in the medical dictionary. There's definitely some ringing in my ears.

It would be great to wake up and have a day when I didn't feel rotten. I can't remember how that feels. I can only hope.

Enough, enough! I'll be setting of down that path of self-pity again, and that's half the problem, I reckon.

Onwards and sidewards. If you're wondering about the post title, I am about to reveal all. If you're not, look away now. I may have mentioned before that I am a a supporter of, or at least a fan of Middlesbrough Football Club. Being an exiled fan is something of a unique experience. I remember being in the USA in the 90s and having to listen to BBC World Service on my short-wave radio for snippets of news about the team. The only games I saw on TV were the FA Cup final and some World Cup games, and with the time difference, I watched most of them at 9am.

Nowadays, English football benefits from blanket TV coverage all over the world, and every Saturday (and Sunday), expat bars around the globe fill with supporters of various English Premier League teams hoping to see their team win. There are a few bars in Dubai that show every single game that is on, thanks to having wall-to-wall TV screens. I've been in a few of them, and it can be difficult to concentrate on one game with all the others going on around you, especially when people in various replica shirts jump up and shout at a goal in the game they're watching.

Of course, weekend games are the best, because they usually kick off at 6pm or 7pm here depending on the BST/GMT situation in the UK. Sunday games are sometimes a little later, but it's quite nice being able to go out for a drink on an evening and catch a game. But then there's the midweek games which invariably kick off at 7.45 or 8.00pm in the UK. If you're a die-hard (read NUTTER, but each to their own. You NUTTER), that's OK, you just stay up till 2am to watch the game. That isn't for me. I have enough problems with lack of quality sleep as it is, (Oh God, not again...) so I'm not really keen on staying up to watch late matches, especially on a school night.

The problem with this is that I've missed all the replays this season. Boro have got to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup this season, and have contrived to need replays in the last 3 rounds. That's all of them, I think. Hull, Bristol City and West Brom. We've also had to win 2 penalty shoot-outs to get here. And as fate has it, we drew with Manchester United just over a week ago, and need to go to a replay at Old Trafford (We might as well not turn up, if I'm honest, but who knows). Every time this happens, I go to bed at the normal time, and the game is played as I sleep, or try to sleep at least. In the morning, I wake up completely oblivious to the result of the game until I get downstairs and switch on Sky News just in time for the sports bulletin. So in the period between waking up and watching the report, as far as I'm concerned, anything could have happened. Boro could have won gloriously, lost heavily, won on penalties, or just decided to forgo the game and go shopping for manbags. I really don't know, and until I see the result on the news, all the possibilities still exist. For me at least. Tonight, I will be going through this again, even though in my heart I know Boro have about as much chance of surviving as a sausage roll at a Meatloaf after-gig party.

Now this is what those boffin types refer to as the many-worlds interpretation or MWI (also known as relative state formulation, theory of the universal wavefunction, many-universes interpretation, Oxford interpretation or many worlds). It's all to do with quantum mechanics, apparently. A clever Austrian physicist chap called Erwin Schrödinger came up with a theoretical experiment involving a cat locked in a box (see Schrödinger's Cat) with a vial of poisonous gas that had a 50% chance of being released by a switch connected to a geiger counter which is placed near some decaying radioactive substance of indeterminate type. Until the box is opened, no-one knows whether the cat is alive or dead. It is in a state of flux, and both states (dead and alive) exist at the same time. There is also some guff about the interference of the observer and whether it has any influence on the result, and how there could be an infinite number of universes (multiverses) based on all possible outcomes of all situations that have happened, EVER. All terribly complicated and brain-troubling. I imagine any Geordie readers are dribbling on the keyboard mumbling about cats in boxes right now. I'm not far behind, to be fair. It's really deep shit, man, and would become much clearer after a nice big spliff, I imagine.

So, there you are: Southgate's Cat. If Boro win tonight, the cat will live. If they lose, the cat will be sent to the nearest labour camp.

Don't worry, there isn't really a cat. I'm off to give my brain a rest now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hazy Daze in Doha

Doha. Very Homer Simpson-esque, isn't it? I still don't know how to say it. I say "Dough-wuh" sometimes, but then hear someone else say "Doh-Hah", giving much more emphasis to the second syllable.

Anyway, I got there eventually. I had already checked in on the morning after being bumped onto the afternoon flight, so I just stopped by check-in to get the gate number before proceeding through passort control. I had the pleasure of using the e-gate system for the first time, and even though I managed to cock it up (as usual) by forgetting which finger I was meant to scan, I got through. It is a fantastic system. You scan your card on a reader at the first electronic gate, which is a bit like the barriers in the London Underground, then when it opens with a Star-Trek style swish, you move into the next section where you are instructed to scan your finger on the infra-red reader. Then (if you use the right finger) it bleeps and opens the next gate and you are through, laughing at the sad sacks queueing to get their passports stamped. It's even better on the way back in. You can be out of the airport in 15 minutes if you don't have any baggage checked.

The plane ride was a bit of a bumpy one. The crew gave us our snacks of roasted veg sandwiches and Arabic sweets before snatching them back as we took the first bite. It is a short flight, admittedly. They must have known we were likely to hit turbulence, and we did, especially as we approached to land in Doha. As ever in these situations, I planted my feet firmly on the floor and gripped the chair arms tightly. As if that would have helped.

But we landed safely and I was lucky enough to find a shuttle bus to my hotel waiting outside, so took the opportunity to check in before heading over to my company's offices. Within an hour we were having a long meeting about the Big Hole in the Ground with the people assigned the lovely task of building something nice in the Big Hole. It went quite well - well enough for us all to remain on talking terms, and then it was home time. It was decided that a few of us would head out to watch the England v France rugby game in a bar called Aussie Legends in the Rydges Plaza Hotel. I went back to the hotel first to freshen up before joining the others in the bar.

It was one of those typical expat bars, full of large televisions and chain-smoking antipodeans. A couple of nice pints of Guinness were consumed while we watched the English rugby team pull out all the stops to beat the French. It was a good atmosphere, without the slightest hint of bother even bubbling under. The only annoyance was a large, hairy man of unkown nationality (but definitely not English) who shouted "WAHEY" every time France had the ball near the try line or when England made a mistake. His braying soon quietened towards the end of the match as England romped home.

After the rugby we headed down to the Italian restaurant on the Ground Floor (been there before - the scene of an interesting political discussion previously) and ate a pleasant, if unspectacular meal, and waffled for a good couple of hours. My early start again caught up with me. I was almost falling asleep at the table and I was glad to get back to my hotel for some kip.

Monday morning, and after a bit of room service breakfast I made my way over to the office, from where we drove over to the site on the Corniche. As we drove along the corniche, with the sun shining down on the city, I again noticed what a pleasing-on-the-eye place Doha can be. There aren't many cranes, but there are loads of palm trees lining the roads and expanses of grass everywhere, and the buildings are nicely spread out. The Corniche is a large sweeping U-shape, with a small, deserted island in the middle of the bay, which used to be home to a restaurant at one time. At one end of the big U is the airport and the sea port, and at the other is the beginnings of a Sheik Zayed Road-style skyscraper zone, with shiny new buildings rising on the shore. Past that is the new Pearl Island, which sounds like an impressive development, in the shape of a string of pearls. They are definitely copying Dubai in some respects, but like I said before, I hope they don't try too hard. The place has a real Middle-Eastern identity and feel that should be retained. I think they are trying to strike a balance.

So we entered the site complex, walking along the precariously-balanced scaffolding walkway along the front of the cabins that are perched on the side of the Big Hole in the Ground. The Hole was a hive of activity, with cranes and piling rigs and all other manner of machines banging and digging and grinding away. The noise of construction was reaching ear-splitting levels, and the ground beneath us shuddered and vibrated unnervingly.

We met with the client Project Manager in his office overlooking the site, and even with the door shut the noise outside was obtrusive. The PM glumly admitted that he would often leave the site and find somewhere else to work just to get some peace and quiet. Even so, he soon perked up when he remembered the news from Dubai. He cheerily told us that there had been an accident at Dubai Airport this morning, where a Bangladesh Airlines plane had failed to take off and had slid off the runway. The airport was therefore closed and all flights to and from Dubai were cancelled. Once again, it looked like I would be staying in Doha for longer than I expected.

So we get going with the site progress meeting, half of which I missed due to the noise of banging and digging outisde. The other half passed right over my head with engineers talking technical jargon. I should record these meetings for when I have insomnia. The worst bit is, whenever I am right on the verge of slumber, or daydreaming about dancing hippos being hunted by cougars in smoking jackets, someone will turn to me and ask my opinion. Er... let me get back to you on that one.

Actually, I do wake up when I'm needed, pretty much always at the end of the meetings, when they deem it appropriate to talk about commercial matters, or how much money it's costing to make a lot of noise with over-sized Tonka toys in a Big Bloody Hole in the Ground.

I managed to blag it once again and after the meeting adjourned we returned to our offices. The secretary told me that there was a flight now. My original 2.25pm was now scheduled to take off at 3.30pm, so I got a lift to the airport, checked in, passed through passport control and had a quick browse in Duty Free. As I was looking at something to buy the kids, there was a BING BONG from the Tannoy. First came the Arabic version, but my ears pricked up when I heard my airline's name (out of kindness, I will call them BLOODY EMIRATES) in amongst the husky tones and throat-clearing noises of the announcement. Then came the English version, and the words: "We regret to inform you that..." told me all I needed to know and my flight was cancelled. Bugger.

So, I was stuck in limbo, with my passport still freshly adorned with an exit stamp and a boarding pass. I asked an official-looking lady milling around near passport control what was going on and what we should do, and they said they would ask before hurrying off. The departure information screen showed the words CANCELLED in large white letters next to my flight. Bugger.

The official-looking woman returned and said that a representative of BLOODY EMIRATES would be through soon to update us. A couple of other people had joined me by now, looking at their watches impatiently, shaking their heads and looking back up at the information board in case it changed. We were told to wait by the gate, but then the BING BONG sounded again, telling us that the flight was just delayed. The board still said CANCELLED. Confusion reigned, but most of us decided to wait by the gate for someone to come and tell us what was going on.

It was a long wait. No-one from BLOODY EMIRATES appeared. It transpired that 70 people had been allowed to check in before the flight had been cancelled. Mobile phones were hammered by people ringing home, the office, the airline or even their dog, who would probably have been of infinitely more use than BLOODY EMIRATES. Their Doha operation actually closes for 3 hours in the afternoon. How very professional of them. I rang the Dubai branch and was told that our flight was definitely off. The next one was at 11.15pm. Bugger. Then someone piped up with the quite startling information that Doha International Airport actaully closes between 3pm and 7pm every single day for maintenance or something like that. Bugger, Bollocks and For F*ck's Sake.

I rang our Doha office to tell them about the situation, but without any real knowledge of what to do in this situation (could we just go out through passport control again?) there wasn't really much to be said. After a little bit more waiting, a sheepish man shuffled towards us (not from BLOODY EMIRATES, surprisingly) and said we could go upstairs to the café and have a sandwich and a drink. Information would have been nice, but that wasn't on the menu, apparently. We just had to wait.

As it was, no-one from BLOODY EMIRATES showed up to tell anyone anything. I only found out what to do by spotting the lady who had checked me in (non-airline affiliated, natch) sitting in the café and asking her what to do. She told me to go to the Transfer desk. Why couldn't someone have told us that before? It seems that the message had been spreading, and a gaggle of tired, confused passengers was gathered at the Transfer desk by the time I got to it. We were all offered passes to the Business Lounge and a seat on the 11.15pm. Marvellous, thought I. An 8-hour wait for a plane that might not even leave. I could have taken them up on this offer and drunk their bar dry, but thought better of it and asked if I could come back the next day instead. I was told I could, and instructed to leave through the arrivals section by passing through the Transfer security section backwards and getting my exit stamp cancelled.

That I did, walking through an eerily deserted passport control manned by one official and past static, empty luggage carousels and out into the open air again. I rang our Doha office to tell them to book me a hotel room for the night then caught a cab (there were loads of them, probably as no flights were arriving or departing) to the office where I worked for what was left of the working day. The Doha Manager was receptive to the idea of having a beer and a bite that night, so we took off at 6pm and had a very pleasant evening eating a seafood buffet at my hotel. We got on very well, and the seeds of something were planted that night. That sounds slightly pervy, if you've got a sick mind, but I mean that future plans were considered. I have been working in Dubai on a project taking place in Doha since I arrived in August last year, and aside from the odd blip, have done a good job, or so I'm told. Personally, I feel like I've half-blagged it. But then the job is as much about being able to hold your own in negotiations and confrontations. It's about saying the right things at the right times to the right people.

Whatever. I know what I mean. The possibility of me moving to Doha, either alone on a weekly basis, or with the family in tow, has now entered my mind as an option. The people in Doha seem to be keen to get me there on a permanent basis, even if the people in Dubai would probably not want to lose me (they've said as much). I know the job and I know the people on the job, I wouldn't actually be changing companies, and honestly I would like to see the job through to its end. I would like to see this 90-storey tower sparkling in the sunlight of the Arabian Gulf. I've seen the drawings; now I want to see the reality, even if I'll have to take some tranquilisers before even thinking about going to the top of the finished building.

And of course, I know that I have previously expressed doubts about Doha as a place to live, but it's grown on me. Dubai is great in its own way. It has the bright lights, the malls, the hotels and all that. It also has traffic and hassle and maddeningly conspicuous consumption that jars with my personal outlook. It's also a very cliquey kind of place. Someone said it's like Hong Kong, where it's difficult to make friends amongst the numerous established expats who have lived there for years and like to stick to their closed circles of friends. I will say that it's definitely more suited to the single person than the family, and I've heard it said by plenty of others. Bahrain and Qatar are more family-friendly, some have said. Doha may be a small place, with less in the way of tourist attractions, but it is quiter, calmer, less materialistic, it has far less traffic and isn't far from Dubai if you fancy a mad weekend in the Vegas of the Middle East. It's a real quandary. The WIFE and KIDS are settling in. They've made a few friends. I think they like it here. Well most of it. Nowhere's perfect. Even though it's still just a possibility, I've got a lot of thinking to do. For one thing, the title of this blog would have to change.

Knowing me, I'll feel completely different tomorrow, and after another weekend of eating out in great locations and having a good time with my family, I might never want to leave. Who knows?

Anyway, I did finally get back to Dubai on Tuesday. The flight was only half an hour late.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Off to Doha again...

It's been a tiring weekend. I'll tell you more about it when I get back from Doha on Monday night.

Update: Got to the airport this morning and was bumped off my early morning Emirates flight to the early afternoon one. Ho-hum. The nice Emirates man said it was really busy today and they had loads of people being bumped. I suppose that's the risk when they over-book the flights.

So, while I'm waiting to go back to the airport, I can expand on the weekend.

Yesterday we decided to try the Dreamland Aqua Park over in Umm Al Qwain (sorry if that's not the right spelling). We've already done Wild Wadi, and a friend of mine (who we shall call the GEORDIE) told me it was nicer at Dreamland. Nicer, much cheaper, and best of all... they sell alcohol.

So on Saturday morning we set off, with the GEORDIE and his GEORDIE BOY coming along for the ride, and drove along the Emirates Road, passing through the delights of Sharjah and Ajman on the way, and after an hour or so we arrived at Dreamland, which sits next to a lagoon. You know you're nearly there when you see a giant, ancient Russian cargo plane casually abandoned on the side of the road. I looked for POLICE ARE AWARE stickers, but I don't think they could reach the windscreen. The BOY and the GEORDIE BOY spent the whole journey annoying each other and the other passengers with dog impressions, pillow fights and truck-spotting contests, so it was relief to arrive and emerge from the car into the warm sunshine.

In the park itself, it soon became apparent why it is cheaper than Wild Wadi. It is much, much older, and it shows. The metal grates in some of the pools are spotted with rust, the grout in between the tiles is somewhat grubby, and the slides and other playthings are faded and worn. That said, it is a more pleasant area than Wild Wadi, with large green areas and plenty of loungers to soak up the sunshine on. It was also much quieter, with hardly any queues for even the major rides.

After a short play in the kiddies pool we had a lunch of cheap and nasty fast food. After that, the GEORDIE and I couldn't persaude our BOYs to join us in riding on anything higher than 6 feet off the ground. We tried bribery, blackmail, threats and just general cajoling, but to no avail. My BOY even climbed to the top of a ride ominously called the Black Hole. I knew he wasn't keen, but he was hoping for a large ice cream when he did it. He finally cracked at the sight of the pitch-dark tunnel. His soft whimpering turned into full-scale screaming and crying, and without any masking tape to hand, we had to come back down the stairs past people wearing smug, knowing smiles. In the end, the men had a few goes on the big slides, but soon tired of walking half a mile up a slope and some stairs to reach a ride that lasted all of ten seconds, and which invariably resulted in swimming shorts having to be surgically extracted from bumholes.

With the day drawing on, we decided to leave. The BOYs had a short session in the tatty, half-closed video arcade, playing a best-of-three round of air hockey, which my BOY won. GET IN! I'm not competitive really.

So we left Dreamland behind, and drove round the corner to the more adult-orientated attraction which everyone in Dubai talks of in fond terms, often with misty eyes: Barracuda. Barracuda is basically an off-licence, but the attraction is that it sells tax-free alcohol. It's a useful place to go when you need to stock up, so that's what I did. With visitors coming in less than 4 weeks, I used it as an excuse to go on a trolley dash round the spirits and wine section and equip myself with a half-decent drinks selection, including gin, whisky, vodka, bacardi, baileys and a few bottles of wine. The trolley-full of booze I left with cost me 700 dirhams, about 100 quid. It would probably have cost nearly twice as much in Dubai.

Then we drove through Sharjah, the dry Emirate, at quite a pace. I don't think there's a problem, but it's technically illegal to have booze there. Then again, Sharjah airport has a Duty Free section. Work that one out.

On the way home we stopped at the Irish Village, a Dubai expat institution, where a couple of pints of the black stuff and a bit of stodgy food rounded off the day. It's quite a pleasant location, with a lake and playpark and a massive terrace to sit and watch the world go by. It's situated right in the heart of Garhoud, and is a bit of an oasis. The standard pub food comes quickly, the bar staff are either surly or deaf, but it's popular and pleasant enough.

Well, that's the time used up. I'd better make my way back to the airport.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A week is a long time...

in politics. And while the time flies by here, so much can happen from day to day and week to week.

Last week, I was buzzing. I was on a real high, heading back to work after a week's break with a pay rise under my belt and the praise of my clients and the BOSS ringing loudly in my ears. I was enjoying my job for the first time in years and the future was brighter than the desert sun.

Soon enough, things turned sour. Things had been going too well. One little stupid thing (I won't bore you with the detail) that had been missed between me and a chap who works in our office in Doha (who was on holiday the same week as me) gave some people the excuse to knock me off my pedestal with a nonchalant swipe and then jump up and down like a gleefully peeved elephant on the broken pieces on the floor. Like they say: one day you're the pigeon, the next day you're the statue covered in cack.

So work got a bit uncomfortable for a few days towards the end of last week. I took the opportunity to go for a drink with a mate and drowned my sorrows in various curious places around Dubai.

Which brings me nicely on to the next subject for today's incoherent rant. We went to a bar called Scarlett's at the Emirates Towers. It's a pleasant enough joint as joints go. We met some of my mate's friends, and one of them was an Emirati, who wore a natty black dish-dash. He sat with us sipping Bacardi breezers quite happily. It happens. Muslims aren't meant to drink alcohol. They do. I'm not meant to think about sex all day. I do. Shit, as everyone knows, happens.

But anyway, we were there integrating and getting along famously until a man approached our table. He was dressed like all these hospitality industry managers are, with a cheap navy suit and greased-back hair, exuding self-importance and bristling with truculence. Or something. He talked to our local friend in Arabic for a moment, then disappeared from the scene, back to pushing his pens and worthing his jobs. Our friend smiled knowingly and told us that he had been asked to leave the bar at 10pm. I was quite astonished. Here he was, in his own country, and he was being asked to leave an establishment because of who he was and what he was wearing.

Immediately I imagined the uproar if such a thing was to happen in the UK. The right-wing tabloids would have a meadow, pasture and field day. But it didn't bother our Arab friend. He just shrugged it off, finished his drink and left.

So Thursday I was a little jaded, but not really too hung over. The weekend couldn't have come quick enough. The BOSS still had time to shout at me a bit before letting me go on Thursday night, and I managed to get lost going to a meeting in Deira that afternoon. I finally got to my meeting 50 minutes late, after another session of steering-wheel head-butting and angry assertions to the empty car about how much I hated this place. To be fair, at least 10 of those minutes were wasted trying to get a lift in the most stupid lift lobby known to man. Instead of buttons to choose the floor in each lift, I had to press a number on a console in the middle of the lift lobby. It then told me which lift to use, but I waited a long, long time for my lift to arrive, while other lifts came and went from the ground floor. I only wanted to get the first floor.

Thursday night was relaxing. The WIFE went out with some friends and left me alone to watch a DVD or two. I only ended up watching one (Casino Royale - very good) before getting tired and going to bed.

So at the weekend we ended up going to the newest shopping mall in town - Festival City. I think Vegetable City sounds better, personally. It's shaped like a cucumber, which is nice. Half the shops aren't open yet, you can't walk along the much-vaunted canal yet, and to be frank, the standard of finish in the open sections is shockingly bad. They didn't even bother to clean the veneered wood panelling properly. It should be nice when it's finished. Which goes for the whole of Dubai, if we're honest.