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.