Add to Technorati Favorites expat Abu Dhabi Dispatches: February 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Toy

I bought a new camera yesterday. I came to the realization that even the new mobile phones have more capabilities than my three year old 3.2 Megapixel, 4X zoom camera. As I am in such a target-rich environment for interesting photos and I am planning to travel more extensively in Europe and Asia this year, it made sense to upgrade.

I did a lot of research on mid-range cameras (that's half the fun!). I wanted one with a powerful zoom, relatively small size and Automatic features with the option for manual controls, all for under $500. I did not want a pure point and shoot nor did I want to return to my SLR days of lugging around a bunch of specialty lenses. A jack of all trades is what I needed. I am partial to Canons as my previous three cameras were that brand and ownership has been trouble-free so I concentrated on the Canon line.  

I had kind of settled on the Canon SX110 IS but a fellow blogger, Dave suggested that I look at the SX10 IS. That was a good tip as the latter has twice the auto-zoom (20X) of the former and a few more features that would be valuable to me. It was not too much extra money, either. The more I looked into it, the more I liked it. A solid camera with room for me to grow into. Decision made! By the way, Dave has a very good blog with excellent photos of the Abu Dhabi area. Click on the "From My Eyes to Yours" link in my blog list or:
So I brought the SX10 IS home, popped a cold one and started to get acquainted with my new toy. The IS stands for Image Stabilization which is important with such a long zoom. It has a lot of other bells and whistles too as is characteristic of almost any high-tech gadget these days. In fact, the shear number of features is initially mind numbing for me. Look at (or click to enlarge) the above scan of page 49 in the User's Manual and you will see a complex amount of symbols, lines, charts, arrows, notes and descriptions. This page only describes the viewfinder functions! There are 287 other pages in the manual that look similar and they make a Boeing 777 flight manual look like a child's schoolbook. 

So as you might have guessed, you will see more interesting photos on the blog. They will be added gradually as I progress past the "Turning the Camera ON/OFF" chapter in the manual. That in itself may take a few days!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Haircut-Epilogue

Now where was I?....oh yes, I was walking up the stairs of this Men's Saloon uncertain what I would find up there. The ground floor was certainly unfinished and barren. All that was missing was a "Pardon Our Dust" sign. You never see these types of  signs over here even though EVERYTHING is under construction and there is plenty of dust to go around even if there was no construction happening. Back in America, those signs seem to be polite but I don't think the sentiment is really sincere. It's too much like one of those sappy Hallmark cards.

Anyway, when I got to the top of the stairs, I was pleasantly surprised. There were 3 or 4 Indian barbers standing around, and the the place looked like a normal barbershop. The most important thing is there was no no one waiting. I hate waiting! As much as I miss my barber in Utah, I sometimes had to wait up to an hour and a half to get a haircut depending on the time of day. That was really irritating but I put up with it because he did a good job and I didn't want to "break-in" a new one.

So, I did the scissors hand signal and the closest guy motioned for me toward his cubicle. And what a cubicle it was! There was a giant, classic barber chair that I like, the space had a sink and  large displays of hair products on the counter. It was very clean and even had curtains for privacy. An ashtray was thoughtfully provided (try THAT in the U.S.!) but I didn't partake. The icing on the cake was that there was a 32" LCD flat screen TV mounted over the mirror connected to a satellite receiver!

My fears gone, I sat in the chair and the barber commenced to tape my neck and drape me in the usual cloth thing as I leaned back and started enjoying some Clint Eastwood movie on the TV. The barber then asked me in broken English how I wanted my hair cut. This was the part I dreaded due to the language barrier. He asked "half?' and I just nodded. 

He took his time and seemed very detail oriented. Clippers, scissors and a dry shave around the hairline with a straight razor that concerned me a little. I had these before but with lather. The guy was definitely good as no blood was shed. When he was finished I had the mirror inspection and all was well. Then things turned to the unfamiliar.

He asked me if I wanted a head massage. I thought "why not? and agreed thinking that it would be just the rubbing of my temples and my scalp. Besides, I am always up for something new. So he started banging my cranium with the palms of his hands and would rub the sides of my head and make a loud clapping sound in between moves. This was cool, as it was relaxing and despite some of the more aggressive moves giving me momentary double vision, my sinuses were starting to loosen.

As I sat in the chair earlier during the actual haircut, I noticed big jars of goop on the counter near the sink. I recognised one of these products as cocoa butter but the other jars contained a multicolored substance with an Indian language label on it. I didn't think much of it until my barber grabbed on of these jars from the counter and opened it. Whoa Nellie, I thought the massage was over. Apparently not as this guy proceeded to dip handsful of the multicolored stuff and apply it to what was left of my hair. When that was done, same thing with the cocoa butter. Both had the consistency of SAE 90 axle grease but thankfully smelled better.

Ok, I was sitting there with all this crap on my head and the guy leaves the room. I sat there wondering what's next? To my horror, he returns with one of those big hair drying machines on wheels that has a clear plastic dome on top that you usually see the old, blue-haired ladies using to set their permanents. He lowers it over my head, sets it on HIGH and leaves the room again. Meanwhile, the goop starts to melt and after 10 minutes he comes back and turns it off just before the melted stuff on my head drips it's way down my neck and ruins my shirt.

It turns out well though, after the heat treatment he gave me a shampoo and almost all traces of the mystery muck was gone. He did a good job with the haircut and I gave him a generous tip but I don't think I will go the option of the head massage again. All in all, I spent almost 2 hours there and the final cost was 50 Dirhams or $13. Not bad in my book! 

Now I just have to figure out who to call or where to go if I get a sudden toothache or happen to break a bone. Nothing here is intuitional for the expat.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Haircut, Part 1

One of the more uncomfortable things about moving to another country and culture is how and where to get personal services done. Ok, get your minds out of the gutter, I know where to get "THAT" done. I am talking about doctors, dentists, tax accountants, barbers and such.

About 3 months into my residency in Abu Dhabi, my sharp "First-Day-At-Work" haircut I got a few days before I left the States started to look a little shaggy.  If I was still in my small Utah town, I would have just gone to the local barber that I had been going to for the last 8 years. He was and Old School guy with an Old School shop. You know, the kind with a couple of those big hydraulic swivel chairs that the barber could pump up and down with a foot pedal. My barber had a classic chair with lots of shiny chrome details and was upholstered in glossy two-tone metalflake gold and ivory vinyl. It always reminded me of a 1950's hot-rod. The chair also had one of those large cast iron, doormat sized footrests. It was a masterpiece, Elvis himself would be proud to sit there!

While waiting for my haircut with the other guys, our conversations would always feature the newest bawdy jokes as well as debates about government, taxes, women and cars, not necessarily in that order. It was just like being at Floyd's Barber Shop in the Andy Griffith Show. Real Americana, and fun. Not to mention that my barber was a real professional who gave a perfect haircut for $8. He enjoyed his job.

 You can't find many of these places anymore. In my book they beat the hell out of the mini-mall "unisex" franchises that have the 20-something young girls who are recent beauty school graduates cutting hair. They are nice eye candy, but the random chance of a perky breast brushing against your arm as they do their work is not really worth the crappy haircut you inevitably walk out the door with.

Now that I was here in the Middle East and my previously tame follicles were winding their way over my ears and down the nape of my neck,  I desperately needed to find a professional to remedy the situation. Here they call anything to do with hair a "saloon". There are mens' saloons and ladies' saloons. Ladies' saloons outnumber the mens' saloons by at least 10 to 1 which is surprising as the Local women end up covering up the coif anyway with the traditional scarves when they go outside. Go figure?

I finally found a mens' saloon in a sort of Arabic strip mall 2 miles from my apartment and decided to take the plunge into cultural differences and risk my appearance for a few weeks with what could turn out to be a very visible disaster. I really had no choice. Imagine the difficulty in communicating just a simple "a little off the top and sides" or "make me look like Brad Pitt" to a person armed with sharp scissors and a straight razor who may not be so well versed in English!

I parked the Jeep outside the shop and walked through the door and saw that the ground floor looked like it still was under construction but a large red arrow on the wall pointed up the stairs. Not very confidence inspiring. It was quiet and empty in the place as I walked upstairs, I didn't know what I would find up there. Maybe it was a place only reserved for Locals who would be offended if a Westerner showed up. Maybe there were strange customs that had to be followed in getting a haircut in this part of the world. Incense and goat sacrifices crossed my mind. I had no clue, but I kept walking up those stairs. 

Note: I intended to keep this long story short (I know.....too late) but I will have to continue this report tomorrow. I am writing this after my 12 hour night shift and the sandman is rudely throwing grit in my eyes ...stay tuned!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Internetus Interruptus

My internet service went out the other day. Despite my resucitative attempts to reset the modem and the "mystery box" just inside my foyer where all wires lead, the patient remained unresponsive and comatose. My coworker/upstairs neighbor called and said his was out, too. Due to my getting used to the patchy level of services here, I assumed it was a systemic problem (maybe a laborer fixing something else cut a wire by mistake) I figured I would wait until the morning and check it again.

The next A.M., not enough of the little lights were lit on the modem so I knew the internet was still down. I planned to call Etisalat-the government phone monopoly-and get ready for a time consuming, frustrating and lengthy effort to get back online. Nothing happens easily here when it comes to utility problems.

My coworker beat me in making the trouble call and when I showed up at work, he pulled me aside and said that we had both been cut-off because of non-payment. That was a shock as I have never gotten a bill from them. I have written about this before and when I express my concern about long overdue invoices, everyone just tells me not to worry about it, I will get the bills in due time. It's just the way things are done here. Nothing bad will happen.

Well something bad did happen, they disconnected me! Etisalat had my mailing address, phone number, and email and did not use any of these avenues to inform me in advance that they now considered me a bad customer and will cut me off. If they would have contacted me, I would have gladly paid the amount and saved us all a lot of grief. As it was my fellow, now also deadbeat, co-worker generously volunteered to go downtown and pay the arrears for both of us. Service was resored that night.

What business sense does it make for a company to provide a service, never bill the customers and then cut the service abruptly and without warning when they don't get a check in the mail? What the hell did they expect? Every other place where I transact, I am presented with some sort of invoice for goods or services rendered whether it be a restaurant or hardware store. I assumed that the bills would eventually come after they wound their way through the bureaucracy.

What concerns me is that I haven't received an electric bill  either. So I have to find out who I owe money to for that and figure out how much I owe and then research how to pay them before I wake up in a dark apartment early one morning with no hot water and food rotting in the refrigerator. 

On another note, it was 33 degrees C. here this afternoon. That is almost 92F. for those metrically challenged folks. On February, 11th!!! I hope this doesn't portend a more than usual Hellish Summer.


Monday, February 9, 2009

St. George=Abu Dhabi

Before moving to Abu Dhabi, I spent the last 10 years in a medium sized, Southwestern Utah town, St. George. St. George is in one of the most visually beautiful places on Earth. It is located between the Colorado plateau and the Mojave desert and is but a few miles from the North rim of the Grand Canyon and is close to Zion National Park, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The physical diversity of the land there is unlike I have ever seen. It will literally take your breath away. The beige desert flats in interior Abu Dhabi fail to impress me as I have been spoiled by the Southern Utah geography. Abu Dhabi does have great beaches. though!

I have noticed some similarities between St. George and my new digs in Abu Dhabi that are too coincedental not to comment on. Please take my comments as "tongue in cheek" as I don't intend to offend anyone on either side of the globe.

St. George: Populated and ruled by the majority religion, Mormons.
Abu Dhabi: Populated and ruled by the majority religion, Muslims.

St. George: Any form of gambling is illegal.
Abu Dhabi: Ditto.

St. George: Liquor sales are tightly regulated and can only be purchased in sparsely located state controlled outlets.
Abu Dhabi: Likewise. (although a license is required)

St. George: Polygamy, although technically illegal, is widespread and tolerated.
Abu Dhabi: I understand that Muslim men can have up to 4 wives.

St. George: Annual horse races, drinking and gambling not allowed (what's the point?)
Abu Dhabi: Daily camel races, drinking and gambling not allowed. (huh?)

St. George: Desert location. (added points, Las Vegas is only 100 miles away)
Abu Dhabi: Desert location. (added points, nice, local beaches on the Arabian Gulf)

St. George: Local, single girls are unobtainable if you are not of the regional religion.
Abu Dhabi: Don't EVEN think about it.

St. George: Crazy, clueless drivers in huge pickup trucks..
Abu Dhabi: Crazy, clueless drivers in Ferraris.

St. George: Triple digit Summer temperatures.
Abu Dhabi: Triple digit Summer temperatures (plus triple digit humidity).

St. George: Clean, relatively crime-free city.
Abu Dhabi: Same.

St. George: Mexican low-wage workers.
Abu Dhabi: Indian low-wage workers. Note: Fly Swatter is not an item you buy at the hardware store here, it is a job description.

St, George: Relatively huge police force, obtrusive.
Abu Dhabi: Relatively huge police force, unobtrusive.

St. George: Locals snub transplants.
Abu Dhabi: Locals snub expats.

St. George: Locals pray toward Salt Lake City.
Abu Dhabi: Locals pray toward Mecca.

So there you have it. Two cities on opposite ends of the globe with a lot in common from where I see it. Both are good places to live. 


As of February 3rd, I have had feet on the ground in Abu Dhabi for 6 months. Looking back, It seems a lot longer than that although not in a bad way. It's more like there has been a whole lot of water under my bridge in the last 6 months than there has ever been previously in my life. New life, new country, new job and leaving the people that I care about and helped frame my life behind a half a world away.

 I enjoy recalling the departure of my flight from JFK  to Abu Dhabi on August 2nd of last year. I was mentally numb from all the pre-relocation activities and stress that occupied my life the months prior to my leaving as well as the trepidation and excitement of building a new life in a far away land which would start happening immediately upon my landing some 12 hours later. It was really too much for my pickled brain to process. My mind reached a Blue Screen of Death mode that is so familiar to Microsoft Windows users. So I decided to sit back and enjoy it. It was like the calm that displaces the abject fear that a bungee jumper experiences when looking out into the abyss and knows the push on the back is seconds away. No going back, in for a penny, in for a pound. Let's do it!

However, I remember the moment the speeding plane found enough air under it's wings and lumbered off the bumpy JFK runway. It got all smooth and when I heard the "thump-thump" of the landing gear tucking away in their beds for the night I thought "well this is it!". I didn't know when or even if I would ever set foot on my native soil again. I knew even less of what my immedeate future held for me. It was a stunning, life-defining moment that passed all too quickly but will be remembered forever.

Each week that passes finds me more comfortable here. I think it has a lot to do with finding a rhythm and routine that complements the culture, surroundings and way of life. I am discovering that this can't be forced but has to evolve with time. Resistance is futile. I have read other sources that say the first 6 months is difficult and full of turmoil but from then on, one finds a center much as a pendulum eventually does. I am hoping that this might be true in my case.

I am travelling back to the States at the end of this month to see family and friends for the first time since I have been in the U.A.E. Yes, I am ready for a little R&R. I am excited and look forward to the trip, but I am also a little concerned how my semi-acclimatised to the Middle East culture self will react and regard American culture. I will be seeing it through the different eyes of an "outsider".  I will let you know how it goes 


Sunday, February 8, 2009

This is Really Scary

Is it as bad back in the States as all the news reports I have seen and read say? If so, it is really frightening. I have been around the block a few times and, if what is being reported is true, this has to be the most rapid and steep decline of economic health in the U.S.A. that has happened in my lifetime.

Should I worry or is it overblown media hype? I have a healthy distrust of the popular U.S. media. One of the reasons for this is the many times I have seen the Weather Channel "reporters" broadcasting live from a  potential hurricane landfall site when said hurricane is still days offshore. They look ridiculous in their expensive, hooded Columbia all weather gear when you can see families in swimsuits cooking weenies on the beach in the background. It hurts their credibility 

What concerns me though is that since I live halfway around the world I have access to news networks that resident Americans cannot get. BBC World, France 24, Deutsche Welle, and the infamous Al Jazeera, all in english. They report the same bad financial things but with a worldwide perspective so I am inclined to believe there is some really bad stuff going on globally. Hell, Iceland seems to be on it's last legs! Please pardon me here, but I don't think that many people would notice if Iceland sunk beneath the waves tomorrow even if they knew where it was. Not that I would wish that, of course.

There is is a saying that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. That certainly seems to be the case here. I don't know what happened or why it happened so suddenly but it seems to have started with a relaxation of standards by banks for people to get credit. I remember when I bought my first house years ago and getting the mortgage to facilitate this was like a financial rectal exam.
In the past decade though it seems that credit became readily available to anyone.  In a few short years, it seemed everyone had a new car, a big house and was taking exotic vacations because of the easy money. Real estate appreciated like a rocket and folks got equity loans against the house. Sounds like good times, and it was. What I can't understand is how things deteriorated so fast. There should have been a soft letdown. What was the pin that popped the bubble last November? 

Why couldn't the supposedly smart and highly paid bankers see this? After all, they had the most to lose by being left holding a bag of worthless assets and foreclosures. Of course they ended up being compensated by taxpayer's money to cover their losses but where did they all get the green light to radically loosen credit in the first place? I am not a conspiracy theorist but someting smells here.

The U.S. started the bailouts first and then the rest of the world quickly followed suit. This exposed how closely your local Hometown First National Bank is connected with the Sushi Yen Depository in Tokyo. All the value went somewhere and now almost every government on Earth is pumping trillions of public dollars into private banking concerns. 

Geez, I wish I could get that kind of support to replenish my meager bank account after a four-day marathon of booze and bad judgement at my favorite Las Vegas casino! Hell, I have difficulty making $500 last a few hours at a Blackjack table and I seem to posess a better grasp of financial risks than some of these Captains of Finance. The difference is that I walk out of the casino broke and they get reimbursed for THEIR losses by a very generous casino management through other losers' money. I just don't get it.

The United Arab Emirates is not immune to the global financial slump. The news is that Dubai is practically bankrupt and has hat in hand toward it's wealthy, oil-rich brother Abu Dhabi. Real estate prices are dropping fast and a lot of the flippers are out of the market. Employment is flat and giant construction projects are on hold.  Oil back down to ~$40/bbl have the Gulf countries in a panic. However, the local U.A.E. banks are rather autonomous and disconnected from the world banking giants, so they are doing OK. That's where my money is.

If the news reports are true, then I think in my case it is better to be here in the Emirates for awhile than back in the States. I don't see my going back by choice in the next year as I would see myself umemployed for the foreseeable future, and as much as I hate to work, I still need food and beer money.

To anyone who saw Tom Hanks in "The Terminal", I feel the same way as his character in the movie. I left my country and since I have been gone, that country has gone through some horrible turmoil which doesn't make good sense for me return to right now. I kind of feel trapped in a way.