Add to Technorati Favorites expat Abu Dhabi Dispatches: November 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Postman Never Rings Twice

Another Abu Dhabi characteristic that Western expats have to get used to is the lack of a door-to-door postal service. That's right, no checking the mailbox after work, personal mailboxes don't exist. There is a national postal service called Empost but all mail is distributed to post office boxes in the several post offices scattered around the area. What this means is that to retrieve your mail you have to drive through the aformentioned crappy traffic to the post office and find the aforementioned non-existent parking place and go to your post office box that you pay an expensive yearly fee for if you are lucky enough to find a vacant one to rent near where you live. Not user-friendly!

This is not convenient for a stress-adverse person like myself to do everyday, If I had to, I would do this maybe twice a month at best. Fortunately, my employer is well known and prominent in the area and has their own giant post office box. My official address is my employer's P.O. Box # plus my name and the division of the company I work in which is miles from the home office. Apparently, the mail is sorted at the home office and a runner is dispatched to my work location with the mail destined for me and my co-workers where it is place in a drawer. This is the only way I can get my mail. The only problem is that after three months I have not received a utility bill or bank statement although I did get a birthday card from my mom and a framed photo from an ex-coworker in Las Vegas so the system works. The glass was broken but the photo was unharmed. The lack of financial paperwork troubles me some as that there might be some bills I need to pay. Everyone tells me not to worry, the bills will come eventually and no one here has asked me for my Social Security number yet so my U.S. credit score should remain intact. I have found that financial stuff here is very laid back, not like in the States.

Now some may cheer about the lack of junk mail and not having to deal with bills in the mailbox everyday, but there is a dark side. The reason there is no mail service to your door is that there are literally no physical addresses in this country. Abu Dhabi has a thick YellowPages phonebook and at first glance it looks the same as one would find in Cleveland or Atlanta, but on further inspection you would notice there are no street addresses in the listings, only P.O. boxes and phone numbers. You have to call the phone number and get directions which consists exclusively of landmarks. It might go something like this: Take Airport Road and go to the third roundabout past Elektra Street, then take the second exit and go two blocks and look for Ahmed's Gulf Clothing outlet, then take a right into an alley and look for Al Raza Ladies Saloon and then look left and you're there, you can't miss it! Good luck finding parking! (All this said in a heavy Indian accent). One's cell phone number seems to be more important in establishing your legitimacy than where you live. My Abu Dhabi drivers license has no address on it at all.

After 10 years of living in Utah where the towns are laid out on a rigid numbered grid, I was shocked to find out that in this city of millions of people, no buildings have numbers on them. I had to buy a GPS with a U.A.E. database and satellite maps to navigate around town and it was the best money I have ever spent. I would find the place I wanted to go on the map and transfer the lat-long coordinates to the GPS. The GPS would then calculate a route and guide me turn by turn via voice prompts --in a sexy female British accent yet, (I call her "Bitching Betty")---to my destination. I couldn't have done without it. 

A Pilot's Dream Flightdeck

The Abu Dhabi 500

One of the biggest culture shocks I've had since moving here is the apalling driving techniques. The U.A.E. is inhabited by drivers from all over the world who no doubt imported their homeland's worst driving habits along with the household goods. Filipinos, Pakistanis and Indians make up the majority of drivers on the road. These are not regions known for highway civility and when mixed together adds up to sum much more terrible than it's parts. I am trying to be culturally sensitive here but I can't help noticing a lack of spatial awareness of these drivers. Impossible lane changes, tailgating, left turns from the right lane and generally an attitude that they are the only ones using the road at the time. This unpredictability instills a very high "Pucker Factor" in "yours truly".

Then there are the local citizens. They only make up 20% of the population, but they cause their own set of challenges. Thirty-five years ago when the U.A.E. became a country, cars were rare and roads were rarer. Camels were the preferred form of transportation and the locals were accustomed to the slow 5-6 MPH of the animal's gait. Well, with the massive oil income in the intervening years, most of the locals became insanely rich and discovered automobiles could become entertaining playthings. Not just any automobiles but expensive, powerful machines capable of very high speeds. Believe me when I say that one learns very quickly to stay out of the fast lanes as one of these Mario Andretti wannabes will appear in your rear-view mirror VERY quickly and they are NOT slowing down! The worst are the Range Rovers and the Toyota Prado SUV's (always white in color). The only times I see these types of vehicles going slower than 200KPH is when they are wrapped around a date palm or a crumpled mass of smoldering metal at the base of a bridge abuttment. Just like teenage boys with the keys to Daddy's Porsche and a fifth of whiskey.

Where is law enforcement in all of this? Well they do show up at the accident scenes but are otherwise mostly absent. "Speed enforcement" is done with hidden radar/cameras along the highway that randomly snap photos of any cars going over the speed limit. You won't know if this has happened to you unless you go to the police website and enter your license number to access your record. Most motorists find out when they have been nailed when they are refused their annual registration, the offenses have to be paid up first or you walk. This system is obviously more effective as a revenue enhancement tool than speed enforcement. A squad of Florida Highway Patrol units could make a killing here, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Being a Muslim country, driving with ANY alcohol in your system is strictly forbidden and could be grounds for deportation. So I have had to --ahem-- change my habits and make use of alternate means of transport when adult beverages are in store for the evening.

Recently in the interest of public safety, the U.A.E. instituted a violation points system much like the U.S. has where you accrue points against your license for each violation. I have a copy of the policy and it seems...well...inconsistent in places. For example, if you get caught driving your car without tags, you are subject to 24 points and your is vehicle impounded for 60 days. Further down the list is the offense of "causing the death of others" for which you will be assessed 12 points and your car will be confiscated for 30 days. Does anyone else see a problem here?

The multilane intercity highways are excellent. Smooth spacious and crack/pothole free, they would shame many of the U.S. interstates. There seems too many of them considering the small size of the country. Once you get away from the metro areas, you often find yourself all alone on an 8 lane superhighway to nowhere. There is a lot to be said for having almost unlimited money for infrastructure. The U.A.E is big on infrastructure and they do it well.

In Abu Dhabi City however, it is a different story. As I said earlier, it is on an island with finite space. The traffic density rivals Manhattan and it is a real chore to drive there with all the maniacs concentrated in a small space. It seems like just about every weekend I have to go there to get something sorted out or do a beer run and I dread it. I have defined the length of a nano-second as from the time a traffic light turns green to when the idiot behind you starts honking his horn. Road rage is rare though, I guess everyone learns to deal with the frustration . Also, deportation is a definate possibility if one causes a public scene. You can get into legal trouble if you flip another driver the "bird" especially a local. 

Pedestrians downtown are another nuisance and there are alot of them as most "Guest Workers" cannot afford their own wheels. Designated crosswalks are a foreign concept and most just cross the road when and where the mood strikes them, often in groups, seemingly pursuing their own personal high-stakes game of Frogger. What the hell, so if I hit one it's only 12 points and 30 days car impound, but you won't catch me driving without a tag, that's much more serious according to the law.

So I've made it downtown with sweaty palms and elevated heartbeat. Now the fun really begins. finding a place to park.  Almost every 80 square feet of empty real estate downtown is occupied by a car. Off the main streets are two lane streets (like alleys) where everyone parks. These streets usually have space for parallel or nose-in parking on the side and when they get full people park in the middle of the street. That's right--they park in-line,  bumper-to-bumper right over the centerline. This not only makes it difficult for thru traffic it causes problems for the cars parked on the side as there is little room to back out. Finding a parking spot can make your whole day.

Unfortunately, I find my own driving habits evolving to fit my new environment and not in a good way. I now ignore stop signs, lane divider lines, speed limit signs and safe following distances. I can use my horn as an expressive communication medium. I will have to be careful when driving back in the States to remember that traffic rules were NOT made to be broken. Most importantly, I have discovered the One Rule that is essential to driving in Abu Dhabi: You can do the most incredibly stupid crap out on the road but all is forgiven by your fellow motorists if you have your emergency flashers on when you do it!   

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Liquor License

Everyone that personally knows me is aware of my penchant for beer. To me it is the perfect companion for many of life's activities. Sporting events, barbeques, working on the car, parties or just hanging around the house watching TV, a frosty can of sparkling golden "poor man's prozac" is never far from my parched throat. Beer is a mellow way to knock the edges off of the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Ben Franklin once said that beer was God's proof that he loves us and wants to see us happy.  Beer probably predates wine in our ancestors' quest for intoxication and today it is brewed and cherished in almost every country in the world....except the one I moved to.

"So Ace", you may ask, "why would you consider moving to a country where adult beverages are illegal?" Well, in a bit of wisdom, the U.A.E. decided to make a concession to the huge amount of foreigners that were needed to work and live here to build their country up to the standards the rulers desired. They knew it would be hard to recruit and retain these expats if booze was not made available to them. They also knew that tourism would suffer if holiday-makers couldn't get their tequila shots. 

In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and the rest of the Emirates (except for Sharjah which is totally dry) alcohol is freely available for tourists staying in resort hotels and expatriates who reside here are allowed to purchase a cetain amount of firewater per month for their personal use at home IF you register with the police and pay an annual fee to get a Liquor Licence which looks like a small passport (complete with photo) and has a page for each month in the booklet. 

For 200 Dirhams (~$54) per annum you are allowed to purchase 1000 Dirhams (~$368) per month in your favorite libations. That sounds like a lot but when you consider that a case of Heineken Tall Boys costs almost $40 it adds up quick. That's pricey but it is good quality 5% European beer, not the crappy 3.2% Utah peewater.  For those of you wondering-no, I have not reached my monthly limit yet.

The few liquor stores in Abu Dhabi are umarked and unadvertised, word of mouth is how you find the locations, I almost expect to have to utter a secret word to get in like the old speakeasies during prohibition. Once inside, there is a good stock of all the favorites, anything you could want. At checkout, you have to produce your Liquor License to the cashier and she writes in the amount of the purchase in the current month's page. I don't know what they would do if you go over the limit, I may have to try that sometime. Your purchases are then put into opaque black plastic bags and you are free to go. Out in the parking lot on the way to the car I feel so dirty!

One bit of irony when I applied for my Liquor License at the local police station is that the girl at the counter (she was cute, about 22 y.o. braces on her teeth and sporting a police uniform) motioned for me to come back up to the counter again and she apologetically explained that she could not issue me the document because I was listed as Muslim in the central computer and Muslims were not to be issued the license. A quick visit to my employer's HR  dept.-their mistake- and it was all straightened out in a couple of days. Good thing, I was down to my last two beers!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Job Ain't Over 'Till the Paperwork's Done

With my first steps inside the Abu Dhabi airport, I had to pickup my Employment Visa, this was the start of the paper trail. Then after a few days I had to surrender my passport to my employer's Human Resource department for at least ten days so they could apply for my Residence Visa. In exchange for my passport, I was handed a pile of papers with instructions on how to get other required paperwork done on my own.

The first rule on each of these papers is that you neeed to have multiple passport sized photos to present with each application to ever hope of getting done what you needed to get done. That explains the small, Pakistani-operated "Studios" on each block. Now this isn't like going into Walgreens and getting the salesgirl from the cosmetics counter to come over and snap a Polaroid of you against the wall, these guys are professionals. You are ushered into a room in the back and are seated on a red velvet bench and the photographer comes in and poses you "just right" before he snaps the photo. They use real 35MM cameras and flash strobes. They do a very good job and it costs less than Walgreens. I have been in four different studios and thay all look the same inside.

The second rule is that you need a document called a "No Objection Certificate" or NOC from your employer to get just about anything officially accomplished. You see, the employer is your sponsor for residency in this country and you cannot get a drivers's license, buy a car, get a bank account, rent an apartment, get a liquor license (more on that later) or install utilities without the expressed, written permission of your boss on file. Also there are no universal NOC's, there has to be a specific one for each activity you want to engage in. They are written in Arabic so as far as I know they are describing me to the bureaucrat across the counter as a degenerate Western ass-clown and it is OK to charge me 10X the fees normally levied on a local citizen.

So, armed with a pocket full of passport photos and a briefcase stuffed with NOC's, I set off to trek the jungle of Emirates' bureaucracy in the search of a comfortable existence here.

Stay tuned, more to come soon......

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Initial Impressions

It's hard to explain. but I was comfortable with Abu Dhabi right away. It is truly a bilingual city as all the signs are in Arabic and English. I think this had something to do with the history of the British being involved a long time ago in the development of this country which they then called the Trucial States. When they left in the early 70's, that is when the independent U.A.E. was formed. Again, a subject for another post.

The City of Abu Dhabi is located on an island and is connected by several bridges to the mainland (which is the Emirate of Abu Dhabi). It's like Manhattan Island in New York. You have New York City in the State of New York as you have Abu Dhabi City in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, see the parallel? Abu Dhabi City is also the federal capitol (like Washington, D.C) of the U.A.E that consists of seven Emirates of which Dubai is one. Well, enough of the history and geography lessons before you nod off and start drooling on your keyboard.

Being on an island with finite boundaries, the City of Abu Dhabi is extremely compact and crowded. Driving (a future post!!!) is hairy to say the least and parking is a survival game meant only for the fittest. I used to sip a couple of Wild Turkeys on the rocks and watch the drama unfold from my 3rd floor hotel window at nights and be entertained for hours.

The city is very vibrant until late in the night and I would enjoy just walking around exploring after work hours. There were several cool nightclubs (Novotel and Crowne Plaza) within walk-to, stagger-back distance from my hotel. Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC and Mc Donalds were right around the corner. Not that I frequented these. You can avail yourself of the resort hotel's spas and pool areas for a small fee even though you are not a guest.

Crime is almost non-existent here and I never felt any danger in my late night journeys. I never saw any bums, grafitti, unruly gangstas and nobody ever even asked me for so much as a cigarette or spare change. I think the reason for this is that everyone here has to have a job to stay in the country. To reside here you must have sponsorship from your employer and a residence visa, no matter how menial the job. The U. A. E. is VERY strict on this.

Also, crime is just not tolerated. Commit a crime and you spend an undetermined amount of time in an unairconditioned cinder block box with 86 other inmates and when you do get a court date and you are a foreigner on a residence visa, you are usually unceremononiously kicked out of the country so hard and fast that the boot marks will be on your ass for years. 80% of the foreigners living here are from India and Pakistan which means that they have it good here and will do anything not to get deported back to a crappy existence back home. So people are usually on there best behavior.

The city is clean. There are literally armies of guys in gray overalls constantly sweeping and picking up trash in the streets. Even the pigeons are skinny because they cannot find enough scraps to eat.

Parts of the city that were built in the 70's are starting to look crappy. Some of the older buidings are being torn down but some areas look like Mexico.

The city is full of mid-rises that have dozens of small shops at street level. These are where you can get everything. Food, haircuts, groceries, dry cleaners, rental cars, photos, curtains, etc., all within a few blocks area. This is what i thought was the coolest while I lived downtown. These small time entrepreneurs are friendly and fun to talk to and they really appreciate your business. One time I had to get an official translation of my U. S. drivers licence and I went to a small legal office near my hotel, I ended up talking politics and drinking tea with the owner and his son for over an hour. That was fun and I felt like I had made some new friends. They were from Palastine.

Another time I had to rent a car and found another small shop near my hotel. The owners were 2 women from Ethiopia. They made me comfortable with a newspaper and a cup of tea while the car was being made ready. We had a discussion about cars and they said American cars were shit and didn't hold up in the heat here, they tried Fords but the Japanese cars were best. Who was I to argue against experience? I didn't tell them that in a few weeks I was going to purchase a new Jeep imported from Detroit!

I had fun when I lived in the city. My new apartment is about 15 miles away and although nice with good parking, there is nothing out here yet but sand dunes. I miss the city!

First Few Days

I flew all night from JFK and arrived in Abu Dhabi early in the morning. My employer told me I had to go to the Immigrations office at the airport to pick up my work permit. Much to my relief, the officer found the permit right away-I expected problems- and I was directed to a machine that did a retinal scan and then was allowed through Immigrations but got stuck in Customs as they wanted to search my checked bag. No problem, I left the porn back in the States. They released me and I went to Duty Free to buy "supplies"-Cohiba Cuban cigars, a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, a bottle of Absolut vodka and a case of Heineken tall boys. I didn't know how long it would be before I got to purchase these goodies again so I stocked up.

I enjoyed the early morning cab ride to my hotel and was excited to finally be on the ground for the start of a new chapter in my life. The hotel was a little old and worn but was comfortable and right in the city so I was within walking distance of most of my needs.

After settling in, I called some friends I had met on my interview trip. They are actually the son and daughter-in-law of a good friend and co-worker from my former employer. They have been working in Abu Dhabi for the last two years and were a wealth of good advise for my first few months here. I told them I was finally in town and we went out for a good dinner at the Corniche Sheraton Resort. It was a short night as the jet-lag was kicking in and I had to check-in at work the next day.

At 8AM, the company arranged car picked me up at my hotel right on schedule and took me at a very spirited speed to H.Q. where I was to do my new-hire paperwork. It went very efficiently and they even took me to see my new company provided living quarters a mile away. I was blown away by the apartment. It was brand new and very modern but would not be ready for occupancy for a few weeks. I then got a ride to the airport terminal to meet my boss and see where I would be working. Then back to the hotel.

I will spare you the details of the next few weeks in this post. They mostly consisted of riding to and from the airport area to get some required company training done, dealing with obtaining all the legal visas and other paperwork from the U.A.E. government, purchasing a new car and buying appliances, dishes, sheets, towels, etc., for the imminent move to the apartment. These all deserve posts of their own to do them justice.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Move

Before the overseas job offer, I had just separated from my wife and moved into a co-worker's condo and felt like I was a college student moving out from my parent's house for the first time. You see, I had lived the so-called American Dream for the last ten years with a wife, house, long term job and pets. Now I had thrust myself back into the situation of living in a single room with two male roomates downstairs, just like an 18 year-old. It was kind of liberating in a way to be back on my own with nobody to answer to but it felt odd too. I ended up buying the condo as it's owner, a good friend and co-worker of mine was going through a major change in his life too, he was starting a new business with his wife in another city.

After I was offered the position, I was very excited, I knew I was going to take it. After all it was a great opportunity to live, work and get a tax-free income overseas and represented what I consider the peak of my profession. I had a lot of vacation time accrued and I told my future employer that I needed 8 weeks to get things squared away in the U.S. and I was surprised they agreed. I thought this would be plenty of time. I told my current employer that I had accepted another job and don't expect me in to work very much in the next two months as I was taking my vacation days.

I soon found out that I had tragically underestimated the time and effort required for me to settle my affairs in the U. S. in preparation for my move overseas. First of all, I had to get 10 years of accumulated crap out of what was now my ex-wife's house. Then I had to find a place to store all the crap, and I had to figure out where to put my new crap I bought for the condo and what to do with the condo I had just bought. At the time I also owned 2 motorcycles, a Chevy pickup truck and a Mustang GT convertable. Those vehicles would have to be disposed of too.

Did I deal with this well? NO! I would wake up in the morning with the best of intentions for getting a lot of stuff done but I would always revert to staring into the abyss I had created for myself and go into "brain lock"and end up sitting passively around the condo. I swear that I could invent a new psychological malady called Pre Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was a zombie and near catatonic in the weeks prior to my departure. Many thanks to my friends who took up the slack. I vaguely remember driving myself to the airport the morning of my departure but I do remember the good friends that saw me off. It felt very strange leaving the U.S. for what I knew would be a very long time.

When I now look back, it's amazing the rationalization one does when facing a stressful situation. I imagine it is like skydiving for the first time and just saying "Oh, screw it" just before you leap into space. Iam not proud in the way I handled myself in the weeks leading up to my move. I could have done better!


So, I decided to push the “reset button” on my life in the beginning of 2008. Don’t ask me why, I couldn’t tell you one specific reason. It just seemed that a combination of a stale marriage, a great but predictable job, the days blending into sameness and the realization of my own mortality mixed into that sometimes toxic concoction known as Middle Age Crazy.
I have always been a restless adrenaline junkie. I get bored very easily and start to look for the next bit of excitement, destructive or not. I have flown in military fighter jets, ingested dangerous illegal substances, wrecked motorcycles, picked fights , hung out with the wrong kind of women, drank way too much, gambled in many Nevada locations and generally tried to grab life by the balls.
I got separated from my wife because things hadn’t been working out for awhile. It was a mutual, cordial agreement. Believe me she will better off for it in the long run. She is a good woman and deserves better than what I had to offer.
Soon after that a co-worker suggested I apply for a position that was posted on the internet by a prominent Middle East airline that I might be qualified for. I took a look and thought “Why the hell not?” so I applied. Well, I got called for an interview (14 hr flight each way) and was eventually offered the job. I felt like the dog that always chased cars and finally caught one and wondered what to do with it now. The adrenaline devil on my left shoulder overrode the responsibilty angel on my right and I accepted the position, like I needed more stress in my life.
A lot of my friends thought I was crazy and that I would end up on a CNN video of my head being chopped-off by some black hooded, American hating Bin Ladin followers, hasn’t happened yet, knock wood.
So here I am in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates trying to live Life 2.0. My following observations may or may not be of interest to a lot of you but please read anyway as you may find something that applies in your own reality.
I want to chronicle the average American citizen’s experiences in shutting down his previous life in the States and moving to a totally new culture in the Middle East. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!