Monday, April 19, 2010

Not the Way You'd Like Your Christmas Dinner

After returning from China, we enjoyed a riotous celebration of UAE National Day (December 3, 2009). The event brings everybody to the Abu Dhabi Corniche to parade their green, white, and red decorated vehicles or themselves. The celebration was supposed to culminate with the largest synchronized chain of fireworks in the world. But something went wrong with the fireworks being launched from the barges along the Corniche waterway, and the event didn't make the Guinness Book of World Records after all. The next evening, as we were driving home from dinner, we noticed a massive fireworks display coming from the Corniche. Evidently, the powers in charge decided to blast the fireworks off a day later since their original plan went awry. It didn't set a record, but it was impressive looking at it through the car windows. Too bad they didn't bother to tell us!

Just two and a half weeks after our Eid Al Adha break, our Winter Break began (rough life, huh?). We were just off a trip to China so had barely thought about what we wanted to do. We found some cheap airfare into Kuala Lumpur and decided we'd trek by train up the Malay peninsula into Thailand with the eventual goal of getting to Phuket. Traveling by "sleeper" train in Southeast Asia was quite the experience - probably one where you say: Fun to do it once, but I'd never do it again!

Nevertheless, we made it north from KL to Penang, Malaysia, which was a beautiful little island stopover along the way. We travelled by minibus up to Hat Yai, Thailand, essentially ignoring US State Dept. warnings that US citizens avoid travelling through southern Thailand due to terrorist activity. We didn't see anything suspicious, but had the embassy phone number ready just in case! We then bused west across the peninsula into Phuket. It was a long trip, but full of beautiful scenery. We found Phuket to be very touristy, way busier than we had hoped. Beautiful yes, but very crowded. We did arrange accomodations on the eastern side of the island which is a lot less, shall we say, active, than the west side locations of Patong, Karon, and Kata Beach.

Now for the rest of the story. Since we booked a hotel away from many of the most popular beaches on the island, we needed transport to those spots. We decided to do what we saw practically everybody else do: rent a motorscooter. We arranged one through our hotel, and the morning of our second day there, took off to find a secluded little beach called "Sandy".

We gathered the quickest way to get there was up and over a windy little mountain road and down into the southern part of the island, near Promthep Cape. Getting to the mountain pass road was no problem. Once there, however, began a series of events we'd rather just assume forget. Mainly due to stupid driving on my part (motorscooters really aren't designed to handle narrow switchbacks at around 50 kph), we skidded through one turn and into a meter deep concrete drainage ditch running alongside the road. I managed to keep the bike upright, but not before we scraped along the sides of the concrete walls. At some point in the skid, a metal piece of rebar grabbed my right elbow, ripping me off the bike to enjoy some further road rash. Chandra stayed on the bike but got very scraped up herself and ended up with a jagged gash on her right knee.

So there we were, dazed and bleeding in the ditch, trying to figure out how to get help. Amazingly, an expat couple from Doha, Qatar was travelling up the same road behind us. I frantically waived them down and we began to assess the seriousness of our wounds. My right elbow was missing a quarter dollar size chunk of flesh just above the joint, along with bad cuts to my wrist and hand. Chandra had cuts on her right wrist and hand as well, along with the bad cut on her right knee. The couple helping us called an ambulance and kept us calm while we waited. They really were a God-send. After a bumpy ambulance ride and about three to four hours of cleanup work (including about 15 stitches for each of us) we settled into hospital beds at Phuket International Hospital in Thailand. Ah, I forgot something...Did I mention it was Christmas Eve? Ever had hospitalized fried rice and chicken noodle soup for your Christmas Eve dinner? I hope you never do!

Long story short, we got out of the hospital Christmas Day and gimped around our hotel and some easy to get to parts of Phuket for the next 3 days. Sadly, all the experiences we were supposed to have (of Phi Phi island, snorkeling, and elephant safaris) were replaced by simply struggling to get dressed and use the bathroom. In all seriousness, we are really fortunate we weren't hurt worse. The Lord had his angels concerning us that day, and we live to tell a memorable story, with the only lasting effects being a few pink scars (and my battered man-ego, of course!) What are we asking for Christmas 2010? A Christmas without a hospital visit would be a good start!

Next post: Dubai holiday, February 25-28.

It's a Wide, Wide World Out There

The year 2009 happened to provide a nice connection in dates between our Thanksgiving holiday and the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha. After working hard through October and November, we were ready for a 10 day break!

We planned a trip to Beijing with a couple we met from church. We got a great deal on airfare thanks to a fortunate meeting with a pilot from Abu Dhabi's national airline, Etihad. We loved being in China! Although the weather was much colder than what we had become accustomed to, we filled our days with lots of sight-seeing. We pretty much did it all: Tiananmen Square, Mao's Tomb, the Forbidden City, eating Peking duck, Temple of Heaven, Beijing Zoo, Chinese acrobats in theater, Summer Palace, bargaining at the local markets, and the highlight: a day trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. See some pictures attached to the post.

Next post: A Christmas Never to Forget - December 20-29th, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Let's try to catch up here!

Maybe you've been wondering if Chandra and I had wandered off into the desert never to be found again. Not true. We are actually alive and very well and still living in Abu Dhabi; we've just had some miscommunication for the last 6 months about whose turn it is to write the blog updates!

Without anymore excuses, here's an attempt to get you up to date on our adventures since September 2009!

September 18 - 26th: Eid Al Fitr holiday.
I must say it is nice to work in a job that after a mere three weeks of school and work you are already taking vacation time. We decided to stay in the UAE and enjoyed a weekend trip to Dubai and a nice stay at the Beach Rotana resort in Abu Dhabi. Pictures are below.

Next post: November 26 - December 5: Eid Al Adha holiday.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Month and Finally Residents (finally!)

One of the most delightful experiences expats get to enjoy in their early days living in a new country is the residency process. For our experience in the UAE, that process has been more than memorable, sometimes scary, but finally it is finished (at least we hope!). On Sept. 10 we became official residents of Abu Dhabi. We have a nice shiny pink piece of paper pasted into our passports to show for it. Now for a few stories behind that piece of paper.

The normal routine for all tourists and most would-be workers arriving in the UAE is to get a 30 day visitors' visa stamped in your passport upon arrival. If you intend to set up residency to work, you then have 30 days to gain an official employment letter from your company or sponsor. Once you get the letter, you can either pay a fee to have a residency stamp placed in your passport, or you get to participate in an exciting visa run!

Since our employer didn't have the employment letter waiting for us at the airport, we first stamped in using the visitors' visa. About a week later, we received the employment letter from AISA and were told that we would be travelling by bus to Oman the next day for the visa run. Around 8 the next morning, we loaded up with 5 other colleagues and began the long drive towards Al Ain, UAE which is very near the Oman border. The process is pretty simple. You get an exit stamp from the UAE, an entry stamp into Oman with their own visitors' stamp, an exit stamp from Oman, and then fill out some paperwork, get an eye exam, and get a new residency stamp into the UAE. All the bus driver had to do was make a u-turn about 20 meters inside Oman and let us out. Oh, and the school gave him all the money to pay for the process, which was nice. Maybe the school should have paid him a little better because he then got us lost on the way back to Abu Dhabi. We were driving hopelessly around Al Ain, while starving. We did finally get back to Abu Dhabi after losing a whole day in the process. But I guess sacrificing one day is worth it, if you can be residents for the next 3 years.

The next hurdle to clear is to pass a blood test. Anyone seeking employment in the UAE has to to be checked for HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. I would guess they probably do some kind of drug test as well since drug possession and use is very heavily penalized here. We went with about 15 other colleagues to get our blood test about a week after doing the visa run. We both were amazed that the nurses here performed the needle work with less pain than the US nurses who had stuck us a month earlier during our physicals. Everything went fine at the clinic and we didn't think anything of it until Chandra was greeted by our school's Director just after finishing her first day of class (August 31). The Director walked into her room and closed the door behind him. Just doing that is enough to make any teacher nervous! He then informed her that she had failed her blood test and was required to go back to the hospital the next morning for a follow-up exam. Needless to say, we were panicked when she got the news. We had heard stories of people who failed the test (even a false positive for HIV) who were arrested, shackled, and deported within a day. There was nothing to have us to believe she was sick or hooked on drugs. We could only pray it was a mistake. The next 18 hours were pretty agonizing. We frantically called our life insurance agent to have them rush a scanned copy of our previous blood work to us via email. We got the info just before her appointment and printed a copy for her to take. Everything was fine on the old exam, of course, so we were breathing easier. Chandra was accompanied to the hospital by our director and another school administrator named Perihan who is fluent in Arabic. According to Chandra, Perihan arranged to meet with the head doctor to see what the problem was about. Armed with Chandra's previous blood work, Perihan demanded a second test to be run on her original sample. This time the test results were clear. What a relief! We're not sure what would have happened had Perihan not been able to advocate for her. We're grateful to our Lord for Perihan's help and for taking care of a very scary situation! An event like this definitely sharpens our faith, and it reaffirms that God is in control and He has been faithful in guiding our steps here.

About a week after the blood work scare, our school requested our passports. We knew from talking with the returning teachers that this was a good sign. It meant our residence papers were almost official. On September 10 we received our passports back with the official residency seal inside. After all this headache, you would think all the little details would be taken care of, right? Well not quite. According to my residency visa, my official name in this country is Wesley "Gorge" Pike. If the mistake is accidental, I don't think it's a big deal. But if the mistake is intentional, the governmental surveillance in this country is top notch. They've evidently been watching my behavior at the all-you-can-eat Ramadan buffets...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

One Month and Finally Residents (sort of)

Wow, has it already been one month in Abu Dhabi? It seems like just yesterday we were awoken at 4:30 AM by the first call to prayer to ever reach our ears. And now, almost exactly one month later, that same call to prayer still wakes us up early in the morning. We are certain it is louder in Ramadan. For the week we were here before Ramadan began, there were nights we enjoyed a solid night of sleep. But no chance now, at least not for another 8 days or so until the Eid holiday. It's not all bad, though. The prayer has become an automatic wake-up call for early Sunday morning viewing of college football on the Slingbox. Yes, we have been watching American TV, thanks to my sister and brother-in-law. If the Slingbox isn't coming in clearly, I'll switch over to Powercat Passport and enjoy internet streaming of my beloved Wildcat Football. Until you've been away, you really don't realize just how much you miss some very simple pleasures. Like real football and...sausage...

Okay, now for some highlights (and lowlights) of the last four weeks:

After we arrived, we had most of four days to ourselves to arrange our apartment and explore the city a little bit. We felt very fortunate for this time. Most of our colleagues didn't arrive in the city until the night before (Monday, Aug. 17) our first meetings began. Because of the condition of our apartment, I know we both would have been terribly unsettled if we hadn't had four days to get things situated. During that time, the first thing we tried (and failed) to do was get internet set up. We had heard that getting the "Etisalat man" to come by your flat and hook up your connection was a minor miracle for most people (Etisalat is the government-owned telecom monopoly in the UAE). One couple told us it took them 6 weeks! The first time we went to their offices, we were rejected because we did not have residence visas or an official letter from our school verifying our employment. Now it would have been nice if our school had told us that before time, huh? About a week after we arrived, we took the official letter back to their offices and were officially approved. That was August 19. We hoped to have internet by October...

We spent so much of those early days cleaning our flat. I really don't want to describe how bad it was. Let's just say I'm really happy I married a woman who doesn't mind getting her hands dirty! We had numerous things that we couldn't get to work. Like our kitchen faucet. And washer. And oven/stove. And most of our lights. So for a few days we just sat around starving in the dark. No, not really. We found an awesome shawarma stand just down our street . You need to come over here and try it. I found out last night it was voted Abu Dhabi's best, and it's no more than 50 meters from our front door! We're really bummed they don't serve shawarma during Ramadan because their shawarma chefs go back to Syria for the month. We also made numerous trips to Khalidiya Mall just a 5 minute walk away. They have a great food court and I think we've eaten at their Burger King 4 times. Just kidding. But seriously, things here are very Americanized. If you truly hated the food, you could pig out on Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, KFC, McDonalds and many more fast food places. But what's there to hate about shawarma, hummus and pita bread?

One of those days we also took a very long walk along the Corniche, which is a winding sidewalk along the ocean front of the city. The beaches there are all under construction to remove sharp rocks from the sand they imported from Africa. Seriously. All this sand here and they had to import African sand? Next we'll find out they're importing oil...Along that walk we took our first tour of one of the major beach-front hotels, the Hilton Corniche. The hotels here really are amazing. The Hilton has their own private health and fitness club right on the beach. We were interested in joining until we saw it cost 15000 dirhams. Upfront. For $4000 those pedicures better be darn good. We're still trying to figure out what we're going to do exercise/health club wise. For now I've been playing basketball every Saturday at the gyms of our school's hated rival, the American Community School (more about ACS later). Chandra has taken a few evening runs around our neighborhood, but she says she can't really get a good sweat going in 105 degree weather...

We started our teacher orientation meetings on August 18. They did take pretty good care of us that week, giving us lots of free food and taking us to one of the biggest malls, Marina Mall, so we could spend all our moving allowance at IKEA. I cannot let Chandra go back to that store...We also got to see the apartment of our school's director. Compared to ours, his place is pretty sweet. But compared to teachers at ACS, his place isn't too impressive. After seeing an 11th story, 5-bedroom, granite floor and counter-topped palace, we know the real reason why our school hates ACS. All the teachers are jealous. But we really have to put things in perspective here. We are so well-off here, but there is a whole other side of life in Abu Dhabi that expats don't pay much attention to. This city has been built on the backs of immigrant labor from Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, the Philippines, and many other countries. The workers live in overcrowded labor camps just outside the city island and arrive at their construction sites in jampacked buses. There are thousands of them, and there are countless others who make meager wages driving taxis, washing clothes, or selling groceries. We took a taxi ride the other day with an awesome Filipo man who was working here to support his family back home. I tipped him 5 dirham, and the expression of joy on his face was priceless. I gave him an extra $1.33, but to him it was gold. We need those experiences here every so often to remind us of just how much we have to be thankful for and to be a blessing to those we encounter.

Speaking of blessings, we could not be more grateful for the vibrant evangelical church in the city. Yes, there is only one, but it is such an amazing place! After each service, they have all first time attenders stand and tell their home country, and it's incredible to see the diversity. We've joined a small group at the church led by a young couple from...Topeka, KS! Incredible, huh? Other than them and us, we're the only Americans in our group. We're getting better at interpreting the English of people from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and Canada.

And speaking of more blessings, the Etisalat man came by our flat one week after we initially were approved for service! This is much more than a minor miracle, especially since it happened in the middle of Ramadan when most workers take leave during the days. It's wonderful to be to able to email, Skype, and use the Slingbox from the "comforts" of home.

We have many more stories to tell about the past month, but that is long enough for now. We'll try to get another post out soon within the week.

Friday, September 4, 2009

We're not in Kansas anymore...

After 24 hours travelling (including layovers), four different airports, and three countries later, we finally touched down in Abu Dhabi around 7 PM local time on August 13. Walking through the airport made us feel like we were looking at the Arab world for the first time through a massive glass vase. The airport walls are curved and covered with different shades of blue mosaic tiles. It's a little hard to describe in words, but it really is a cool looking airport. We would have snapped a few pictures, but we knew that taking photos of government structures is against the law.

We passed through immigrations with no hitches, except that our letters of employment were not waiting for us when we entered. So, we entered on 30 day visitors' visas. This isn't uncommon for newcomers to the UAE, but it is a slight inconvenience as we will explain in a later post. All our bags appeared at the baggage claim except for the most important one of all, my golf clubs. After watching the same bags turn round the conveyor for about 20 minutes, Chandra spotted an opened and semi-broken golf bag off to the side of the claim area. It was my golf carrier, but it was not in the same condition as when we sent it through baggage in Denver. All the straps were broken and none of the latches were secured. Obviously, someone had taken an interest in the contents. Thankfully all the clubs were in place, but we did find some extra materials from my Bible, which I had crammed into it, were taken. I hope someone enjoyed the reading!

After loading 5 bags and the clubs onto two carts, we wheeled them down the terminal hoping that someone would be at the end waiting for us. Mr. Morley, my assistant principal, immediately recognized us (evidently he had been given our passport photos in advance) and welcomed us to Abu Dhabi. I was most disappointed to notice that he was wearing shorts and sandals; I had been under the impression that I should always wear pants and shoes! This is just one example of the many misconceptions we had about the UAE prior to moving. Don't always trust what is written in the travel books. It's always best to get first-hand knowledge!

As we walked towards the exit doors with Mr. Morley, our Indian bus driver, and another new teacher from the US, Marianne, I clearly remember Mr. Morley asking, "Are you ready for this?" The doors opened and immediately we left the comforts of 15 degree C air conditioning and entered the outside world of extremely uncomfortable heat and humidity. Even though the sun had been down for over 2 hours, there was little cooling off from the 40 C (104 F) heat and almost 50% humidity. Experiencing a heat index of over 120 F at 8:30 at night is a depressing feeling when you've just entered a new country.

Riding in the van towards our apartments verified what we had previously read about driving in Abu Dhabi. There were no seatbelts in the van, and our driver seemed willing to tailgate practically every vehicle we approached. After a few minutes on the freeway, we quickly agreed that we would not be purchasing a car here anytime soon. Even if we wanted to, our choice of purchase would definitely not fit with the typical vehicle in Abu Dhabi. Because of the massive wealth, most drivers here ride in style in their BMW, Mercedes, or Toyota SUVs. We've also seen a number of Porsche's, Ferraris, and Lambourghinis, even in our dumpy little neighborhood!

Because of the crowded location of our apartments, Mr. Morley had the van driver drop us off in the "backside" of our buildings. This was necessary because parking in front of our apartment is next to impossible to find. We've been amused many times watching from our apartment windows as drivers race each other for the one open spot in the entire block. We helped Marianne to her apartment first, a building about a block away from ours called "Pioneer". This name is not the actual name of the building, but is so named because almost all of our school's original teachers, the "Pioneers", lived there. Our building is called "Dominos" because of the Dominos pizza shop located right across the street. This pattern is the norm all across Abu Dhabi. There are no addresses here. You tell someone how to get to your place by using other buildings or landmarks as reference points. Even telling someone street names is risky because most streets have 2 or 3 different names.

To get to Dominos, we had to drag our bags through some interesting alleyways and along narrow sidewalks passing by Indians, Pakistanis, and the occasional Emirati. Because of the oppressive afternoon heat, most shops close during the afternoon hours and reopen around 8 or so in the evening. Our neighborhood really bustles at night because of the dozens of shops situated at the bases of the apartments above. When we got to our apartment on the 4th floor of Dominos, Mr. Morley handed each of us an envelope containing a key, some dirhams, and some general information, and said in his thick Kiwi accent, "Well, have a nice weekend. The mall is just right over that way (I'm pretty sure he pointed in the wrong direction), and this guy over there (an Indian man named Obaid) is your building watchman. He'll help if anything is wrong with your place. See you in four days!"

After trying to communicate with Obaid through our van driver, we gathered that he was most interested in having us pay him to clean our apartment. Evidently he knew just how dirty it was! Our apartment wasn't what we had hoped we would be living in, but it also was not as bad as we expected a free apartment to be. For the next hour or so, we looked through our place finding just how "furnished" it really was. All of the major furniture was in place and in good condition, but we realized we would need to be purchasing quite a few items (sheets, towels, broom, glasses, etc.) to make it liveable. So we set out to find the mall that Mr. Morley had told us about earlier. Of course we got completely lost. After walking around in circles for awhile, we finally found a security guard who spoke enough English to point us in the right direction. Once we got our bearings, we realized the mall is really just a 5 minute walk away. How convenient!

The Khalidiyah Mall is one of the newest in Abu Dhabi and really is a fantastic thing to have right in your backyard, so to speak. We went to the big hypermarket, Lulu, to purchase some basic household items and had our first experience with "shawerma" at a Lebanonese restaurant in the food court. Shawerma is sliced beef or chicken mixed with a yogurt sauce and wrapped with flat bread called khubus. We paid 18 dirhams ($4.90) for 5 pieces of schwarma, fries, and some dill pickles and carrots. The neighborhood cafe down the street offers one schwarma for 4 dirhams ($1.09). What great competition for the dollar menu at Mickey D's! We returned to our apartment around 11 or 12 that night, ready to enjoy a good night's sleep since we barely slept at all on the flights. I think both of us did sleep well until about 4:30 in the morning. That's when it really sunk in that we were foreigners in a strange country. If we had been a little more observant earlier, we would have noticed the mosque minaret right by our bedroom window. But we didn't notice it until the loudspeaker in the tower began to sing the early morning call to prayer. So much for sleeping in!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

One day left in the states!

Well the week is finally here for us to leave. We have been so blessed to be able to spend so much time with family and friends this summer. We some how managed to fill a 16 foot moving truck completely full. It is amazing how many things you accumulate only after a year of marriage and living in a small apartment! We were able to sell, give away or just toss many things. Our most recent good news was finally selling Wes'car to a wonderful owner.......his mom! Leanne will have a great time driving it. We are so grateful to have such generous and wonderful families.
We are spending the rest of the day today trying to pack everything we love dear into a total of 3 large suitcases, one golf bag(of course Wes had to take them), and four smaller carry on items. Seems like a lot but with the lovely weight and size restrictions, as well as extra fees, it has been frustrating to try to fit everything. I think international travelers should get a larger weight allowance as well as more than just the first bag free. So far all the bags are right at 50 pounds exactly hehe! We did however make an awesome investment buying space bags that you can vacuum to make them air tight. They are fabulous! Would definitely recommend them to anyone traveling. They save so much space.! I would also recommend a luggage scale to double check all the bags. I am very proud of myself for being a girl that loves accessories and only packing 8 pairs of shoes including flip flops and 3 purses! Definitely had to sadly leave many clothes and teaching items here in Colorado. We actually have an entire suitcase filled with paper which is hilarious. Our school items would be so expensive to ship, it was the cheapest to pay the extra bag fee.
Enough rambling, our flight leaves at 11:00 a.m. for Detroit, then 10 hours to Amsterdam, and finally 8 more hours to Abu Dhabi. We will arrive at 6:30 p.m. on the 13th. We are going to set up Internet as soon as we can so please e-mail, face book, or skype us. We LOVE skype! The time change is 10 hours ahead from mountain time, 9 hours from central.
We will try to update as much as we can while we are there!