Monday, June 25, 2007

Fun and games in the sand pit.

Yes, I'm still here. I've had a bizarre couple of weeks, and am just itching to get back to the UK for a good break from this place. I had a little visit there the other weekend, to attend to some personal business (which I can't talk about yet), and also took the chance to visit my parents and brother in the North. This involved leaving Dubai on Thursday night, landing in London on Friday morning, attending to my business, taking the train to York, landing at about 4pm, wishing I had brought a jacket (it was wet and very cold), going for dinner with the family, going to sleep for a long time, waking up, having a full English breakfast, going for lunch in a nice café, then catching the train back to London, and catching the plane back to the sand pit, managing to catch less than an hour of shut-eye on the cramped, noisy Emirates flight that took off 90 minutes late.

This would have been bad enough, but as it was, my journey was not finished. I collected my suitcase, then checked in for the flight to Doha, for a working-week-long visit. Oh joy. I managed to get through Sunday on adrenaline alone, and after nodding off at my desk a few times, decided to go to the hotel (a flea-pit called the Regency) and sleep. I slept like a baby, but without the crying and soiling. At least I think so.

The week went OK, and quite quickly, but by the end of it, my tiredness levels weren't much improved and I felt that I was on the verge of my first proper AF attack since last November. It doesn't help that I have put most of the weight that I lost back on, or that I have been drinking and eating far too much for my own good. The old food tube and stomach have been complaining for a while, and greet most types of alcoholic intake with sharp, painful protest. Do I listen? What do you think.

So there I am, Wednesday night, finding myself lying on my bed watching a classic '80s film called Ferris Bueller's Day Orf (the upper class version). The mini-bar sits there taunting me with its chocolate and Tuc biscuits and fizzy drinks. Having eaten a very presentable curry at one of the places in Doha I actually like (a restaurant near the Tennis stadium), I should have been sated. But no, I had to have the Toblerone. And lo and behold, as Ferris' day came to an end, my food tube lurched and my heart did a little flip, and I was in AF. For fuck's sake. Not here! Not now! I was annoyed and scared. I didn't know where I could go or who I could call, so decided to try and sleep it off. It has worked before. I really did not want to go to hospital, especially as I was booked on the 3pm flight back to Dubai the next day.

It didn't work, so I rang the Dubai office and they told me I would have to pay for treatment myself and claim it back. Fair enough. I then rang my colleagues in Doha and arranged for a lift to the hospital. It was more of a clinic, actually, and the chap taking me there had enormous trouble finding it. Good job I wasn't actually dying. After an hour of sitting and sighing in the waiting area, I finally saw the doctor and he immediately told me to go to another, proper hospital. I was taken in an ambulance, which was good fun. They had the full blues and twos thing going on, and the journey was quite quick. The Landcruiser drivers must have been feeling generous.

So the usual routine started, and they jabbed me with canulars and stuck ECG leads all over me. The first nurse was impatiently brusque and quite rough with me. It was a government hospital, and was very busy, especially in the emergency room. Various men in various states were wheeled in looking forlorn or moaning and crying from their injuries. A few women in full viels came in as well, and probably looked forlorn as well, if their faces had been visible. Even when in pain and suffering, these women have to maintain their modesty to the outside world.

Eventually I was admitted to the coronary care unit, and placed in a room with 3 other men. No private rooms in this place. One was Phillipino, one was Indian and the other was Arab. The Arab was surrounded by visitors almost constantly, the Phillipino spent all his time on his mobile phone, and the Indian seemed to have a compulsive disorder that involved ringing the speaking clock on a hands-free phone. He even did this in the middle of the night when he wasn't snoring loudly and explosively. This was interspersed with the Arab shouting for Allah or arguing with nurses carrying needles. When I did manage to sleep, the nurses woke me up to stick more needles in me, either to draw blood or inject drugs. Unfortunately they have to do this on a regular basis to check for heart enzymes or something.

I was fully expecting to be zapped with the defibrillator again, like I was in November. I was hoping they would just get on with it, but they persevered with the IV drugs route and, by Jove, it worked. At about 4pm on the same day I was admitted, my heart sneakily reverted to Normal Sinus Rhythm. I called the male nurse to tell him, and he doubted it, but I reminded him that I was an expert, having had the condition for 7 years. I knew when I was in AF, and I knew when it was in NSR. So he did another ECG and confirmed it. Super.

I thought I might get home that day, but the doctors insisted that I wait to see the consultant the following morning. I thought it over and decided that it would probably be the best course of action. I had a flight and all the attendant rushing about and walking round airports ahead of me, so the rest would do me good, I thought. I didn't reckon with the noise in the room.

I shouldn't forget to mention the Doha Mr. Fixit. He came to see me at the hospital and made sure I had everything I needed. He brought me biscuits and phone batteries and was generally a really good help, especially in the absence of a family to visit me. After the consultant had seen me and discharged me on Friday morning, he picked me up and conveyed me to the airport to catch the 1pm flight back to Doha. His weekend attire was a complete change from his working week clothing, with him wearing a brilliant white dish-dash and skull-cap. I didn't recognise him at first when he entered the ward. For his help and care - well beyond the call of duty - I am eternally grateful.

So on to the plane I got, and the pilot told us it was going to be bumpy. It wasn't at all, until we were on final approach to Dubai, and then it was just a bit turbulent with a strong cross-wind giving our pilots a good work-out. I think these pilots mess with our emotions. When they say conditions are good, it is invariably a bumpy ride.

And now, I'm waiting for the nebulous future to form. I need a holiday. I need to give my body a break from the heat and the poor nutrition. I've decided to stop drinking alcohol full-stop, which can only be a good thing, even if I get funny looks at social gatherings. I need to get back on track and back into the right frame of mind to sort my health problems out. I am sick of being sick, as I mentioned before, but I need to sort out a few other issues first - like my future. All I know is that it lies somewhere other than Dubai.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Weird and the Wonderful

Enough about me. For now. I'll be back to wallowing in narcissistic nonsense at a later date, but today, I'm going to post a few pictures of the weird and wonderful things I've seen in my time in the Middle East, mostly captured on my mobile phone's camera.

So, without further ado. let's start.

This first one was spotted in the More Café, which does great food, but this picture features an interesting item in the first menu choice. These would usually be found after standing with your back to a roaring log fire.

The next was taken a few months ago at the multi-storey car park near my office. The country was gripped by football fever as the UAE national team stormed to the final of the Gulf Cup (they eventually won). Nothing was safe from the colours of the national flag, and nothing was sacred, as expensive cars were spray-painted, or covered almost completely with stickers, like this one. I suppose it beats getting drunk and throwing plastic chairs.

At around the time of St. Valentine's Day, I came across this drink being marketed in a hypermarket. It is not subtle in the slightest, and you are left in no doubt as to what the intended effects are.

And talking of subtlety, this medication is for one of those embarrassing little conditions that people don't like to talk about. Can you guess what it is? Yes, that's right: Passing large red jewels. Quite painful, I imagine.

Of course, this clumsy literalistic approach can be quite endearing in its own way. Then they go and mangle the language as follows:

As I may have previously alluded to, the roads in this little corner of the world can be quite interesting, and sometimes throw up those Road Surprises that the signs on the way to Abu Dhabi warn us about. This marvellous example of a Routemaster was spotted on its way towards Garhoud Bridge. It was a surreal, jarring moment.

This was nearly as strange as the sight of a man - yes a MAN - riding this motorcycle around Doha. Not only is the colour of the bike a bit of a strange choice (for a MAN), but his attire leaves something to be desired as well.

And talking of the gloriously OTT, those cars which the tree-huggers love to demonise (Hummers) are big enough as it is, but then in Dubai, you can never get too big.

From the sublimely ridiculous to the plain old ridiculous. I spotted this completely pointless object in Doha. I could understand such nonsense at a mid-90s U2 concert, but I was just left asking: WHY?

Finally, this one is from only yesterday. It's a simple one-word statement - often used by the British - to describe groups of people we don't particularly like. What we have against these freeze-dried curries is anyones guess.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Feeling flabby in Abu Dhabi

The GIRL had her third birthday on Friday, and her favourite presents seem to be the toy dishwasher and the toy medical kit she acquired. In between loads of teeny-weeny cups and plates going through the dish-washer, we were subjected to injections, stethoscope investigations and spoonfuls of invisible - but always nice-tasting - medicine.

After a brunch involving balloons, fudge brownies and a nasal rendition of Happy Birthday Dear GIRL by a chorus of South East Asian waiting staff at Planet Hollywood, we rolled home, and before long I had to depart for Abu Dhabi. The GIRL wasn't very happy, but I assured her my return would be swift. I had to go and see a man about an oryx, or something, and that involved an overnight stay in the UAE's capital city. So after a kiss and cuddle and another listen to my heart, I set off along Sheik Zayed road, past Jebel Ali, and out into the desert.

It isn't long before I am almost completely alone on the highway to Abu Dhabi. The motorway looks new, with pristine white stripes and dark, even tarmac. The infinite lines of metal crash barriers separate the road from the desert, which is bleak and flat here. There isn't much to look at, apart from the odd power line and scaffold-supported hoarding heralding some up-coming mega-development to swallow up the empty sand. Now and then, a lonely-looking man in traditional Pakistani dress appears by the road, watching the traffic zip by.

Then the desert changes, and more vegetation springs up on each side of the motorway, and a line of trees takes up residence along the central reservation. A few settlements begin to emerge, and it soon becomes apparent that you are in a different Emirate. The road signs change slightly, and the service stations become the blue and white liveried Adnoc station, each with a mosque in the vicinity. One large, yellow road sign raises a chuckle, imploring the driver to BEWARE OF ROAD SURPRISES. I wonder what kind of surprises they mean; giant birthday cakes in the fast lane? Or perhaps Orang-utans on Harley Davidsons.

Soon enough, Abu Dhabi was upon me, with the airport whizzing by on the left. I kept right as much as I dared, based on the little map I had bought at a book shop earlier. I only went slightly wrong, approaching the main part of the city on the wrong road, but parallel to the one I wanted to be on, so it was just a question of cutting across to the road I needed. Abu Dhabi has a nice easy grid system of numbered roads with odd numbers running one way and even numbers the other, so there was never much danger of getting too lost.

My inadvertant diversion was a blessing in disguise, because I managed to get a good view of the incredibly massive, and I mean ginormous, Zayed Grand Mosque which is under construction, and almost complete. It has more shiny white domes than a convention for the follically challenged, and four huge minarets that reach skywards like giant, ornate pencils. I've since heard that it has been under construction for years now, and has been beset with problems galore.

The diversion was, as I said, a problem of miniscule proportions, and I found my destination. The words "hotel apartments" tend to fill me with dread these days, after my experience with the hotel apartments I was subjected to on my arrival in Dubai last August, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. The hotel apartment I was given for the night was a newly-refurbished and very pleasant flat, with separate kitchen, bedroom and lounge, and even two - count them - two toilets. The kitchen was the most impressive part, with a proper cooker, a fridge freezer, a microwave, a kettle and full sets of crockery, cutlery and pots and pans. Call me easily pleased, but I was impressed.

That night, I was entertained by a chap who works for the company I had come to meet in the morning, and we partook in a perfectly adequate Mexican meal and a few tonsil-loosening beverages. After the meal, we went to a bar called Hemingway's at the Hilton hotel. It had three distinct zone within it, including a deserted night club and a lively, smoky jazz bar, which is where we ended up, watching the obviously talented musicians strutting their stuff on a stage the size of an A4 envelope. My company for the evening told me that they used to have a grand piano on said stage, which meant the rest of the band had to huddle together in one corner. I hope they got on well.

After the jazz, which really ain't my bag, since I don't wear polo-neck sweaters and say "Nice" all the time, I was conveyed back to my hotel apartment, taking in the sights of Abu Dhabi Corniche as we went, passing the Emirates Palace and various other landmarks on the way. There aren't as many huge skyscrapers as in Dubai, with no building over 40 storeys by my estimation. It seems this will change, as seems to be the pattern round these parts. The amount of high buildings is obviously a good barometer of a nation's and city's status.

By daylight, AD appears to be a much greener and tranquil place than Dubai, and yet seems livelier and more developed than Doha. I also noticed that the air is much clearer, which is nice when you are used to the ubiquitous dust of Dubai, from the construction sites that take up a pretty large slice of the land, and if there isn't a construction site, there is invariably a sandy wasteland waiting to be developed. AD has some construction, of course, but you get the sense that the place is far more established, with more grass and trees - almost approaching Al Ain levels in some areas. Of course, if you lived here, got a bit bored with the place, and had the urge to subject yourself to the in-your-face glitz and craziness of Dubai, you know it's only an hour and a bit to drive there. I don't see why you would want to do it that much, as there seems to be plenty there. It maybe doesn't attract the same headlines and events that Dubai does, but on the other hand, AD has just won the rights to host the 2009 Formula One Grand Prix, so there must be something going for the place.

So, dawn broke, and I slept off the previous night's alcohol. I had made the mistake of leaving my car in an unsheltered spot overnight, without the sun shades in the front window, and by the time I finished my late-morning meeting and got in it to go home, it was past noon, and the temperature inside could easily have baked a few scones. The steering wheel was white hot, so I had to treat it like a hot potato as I navigated my way back out of AD, at least until the AC had cooled the car down. I stopped for a hot dog for dinner, then continued back towards Dubai, sticking the mp3 player on shuffle and listening to a few good driving tunes as the greenery of AD disappeared into the haze behind me.

You know you're in Dubai when you start seeing the cranes. There are new buildings springing up at least 20 kilometres before the Ibn Battuta mall. The metro line extends right into Jebel Ali, much further than I realised, with the thick, evenly-spaced columns sprouting up all along the side of SZR up to the Trade Centre roundabout, before veering left towards Burjuman and Bur Dubai. Some have nothing on top, just a section of bare reinforcing steel, others have concrete plinths sat atop them which will support the u-shaped pre-cast sections of the track bed, and quite a few already have the track bed extending between them. This track bed increases in length every day. They are going at some pace, and they have to, because the metro is supposed to be working in 2 year's time. There weren't even any columns when I arrived 10 months ago, so I mean it when I say they are cracking on with it.

A curious thing I've noticed about the metro is the way the raised track is designed. It doesn't go along at one level as you would expect, but rather resembles some kind of drawn-out rollercoaster ride with rises and dips taking the track over and under the many bridges and fly-overs at the junctions of SZR. I'm not an Engineer, but this seems a bit strange to me. I thought trains didn't like slopes. It will certainly be interesting to see what a train going along at 100kph will look like as it rises and falls on this track. I hope they will provide sick bags.

And then, another weekend has ended, and that means work. Sunday was the day from Hell, or at least Hull, which isn't far off. I had been trying to meet several deadlines at the end of last week, and with three major ones on my shoulders jockeying for position, I had to try and manage my time in an effective manner. I sometimes struggle to do this, especially with the impossible demands that Middle Eastern companies seem to have, and managed to meet the sum total of none of my major deadlines. I was too phased and dazed to work the weekend, and I had prior commitments anyway, so the mess I had to clear up on Sunday was not good. I had snotty e-mails from clients and lectures from Managers and phone calls from crazed Engineers, all telling me I was crap and making me feel crapper. By the end of the day, I had put out most of the fires that had sprung up, but it was bloody hard work. What I need now is a long holiday - two weeks of doing nothing. I'm scheduled to go back to the UK for 2 weeks mid-July, and I can't wait.