Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Great Pyramids of Giza

Of course one of the reasons anyone goes to Cairo is to visit the pyramids, and so – aboard our camels ( and a pony for Kate), with our trusty 15 year old guide and 10 year old camel puller, we made our way to the 3 Great Pyramids and the 6 lesser ones. No routine tourist tour this one, we are on our own with our junior guide.

Now riding a camel gives you a totally different perspective. It’s up high and there is lots to see. Let me also agree with our friend Barb Notte, who told us before we left for Cairo that camels raise halitosis to a totally new level of disgusting! – And let’s not even mention the other end!

The pyramids are right on the edge of the city. In fact, I’m sure that were the reserve not fenced, the housing would go right up to (& probably over) them. The trek is a long one, but well worth it. Sights a plenty in the local streets and along the way inside the reserve. After the first 15 minutes or so we have adjusted to the pace and the motion and are happily taking snaps of all and sundry.

Inside the reserve, we approach the pyramids. They’re quite awesome really. So big, so old, so well preserved, and you wonder how they did it.

By the time we reach them, it is dusk and the reserve is supposed to be closed. We can only catch a distant glimpse of the Sphinx on our way back. All along the way, the Tourist and Antiquities Police use the opportunity to give our guide a hard time and enhance their income. But it’s all part of the game and we return tired, dusty and so very glad of the experience.

The same evening we go to dinner on the a cruise boat on the Nile, complete with a generously proportioned belly dancer and floor show. Of course, never backward in coming forward, two of the sheik’s hareem end up as part of the show, leading the dance around the boat.

We sleep well.







Friday, 7 December 2007

Memphis

The alabaster sphinx at Memphis is one of the last monuments of the area. There is also part of the great statue of Ramses II kept here under cover. Memphis was the capital of Egypt before Cairo. Here is a link to more information on Memphis
Of course our guide once again was a font of knowledge about Memphis and told us all the information you will read on the link. I couldn't resist putting this picture of Ron on the blog! Not many days you get to kiss a sphinx!
One of the things that was most concerning about Egypt was the corruption of the Police. I found myself a couple of them and it only cost me 20 Egyptian pounds to have a photo taken with them!

Sakkara



We visited the stepped pyramid at Saqqara. This was the 'original' pyramid built before the great pyramids at Giza. It was a sort of prototype really. Information on this pyramid and the other sights to see at Sakkara (click link)
Our guide told us the history of the area in quite some detail and it was really interesting and I am so glad I don't have to take e
xams in Egyptology! Just remembering who did what and in which century BC is a major accomplishment but Tarak (our guide) had an encyclopaedic knowledge of it all.
Ron had his first experience of sitting on a camel and we think he
really looks the part of a regular Sheikh!

Egypt - First stop the hostel



Our recent trip to Egypt was fun and our first experience of the country was the King Tut Hostel where we slept for four nights! Well I am not sure we slept but we went to bed and listened to the cars and people in the streets 8 stories below! I didn't think noise could carry that well! However most days we were exhausted from flat out sightseeing and expired for a few hours at a time. Here is a pic of us in the lounge/dining area. The hostel was in fact quite comfortable and well serviced and the guy that runs it was extremely helpful arranging tours and a guide and bus. We really did see an 'authentic' side to Egypt that I doubt we would have seen if we had been on a big bus trip. Of course our highlight was that we were sharing the holiday with Erin who had arrived from Aus a few days before and was very excited at the prospect of visiting yet another country on her trip.
Some of the people from the SIP team also came along and it was nice to have company and be able to chat about the whole experience. In the next post I will put up some of the highlights!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Some pots

One of the girls is having a birthday - hope she likes these pots!

My art teacher, Rebecca, is teaching me about perspective so this was a practice. I can tell they are round so I hope you can!
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Flamingos again

Well here are some more flamingos - I just like them really! This is my first piece in acrylics and I am not too sure of this medium at all - stumbling through it really. So expect that things will improve as I practice more. Ron says it is a great start. I'll take it to my art class and ask how I can improve my technique....I guess it is just practice, practice, practice...like most things!
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Saturday, 17 November 2007

An Arabian Fairytale Part Three: The Princess attends a wedding.

After the eventful weekend at the camel races the princess returned to the desert camp to face the reality of the week ahead. The day after the camel races she started the real work of supporting the Sheikh and providing the household with travel funds. Already there are plans for a trip to Cairo and then off to Italy – the Sheikh has suggested the princess may need to independently fund the travel program while he takes care of the bigger issues in the financial sector!

The desert camp has many places where the members of the local tribes can be educated. The pinnacle of learning, the ivory tower, the hallowed halls of wisdom are located at the Islamic Institute, the Men’s College of the United Arab Emirates University. The Princess was attracted to this calm and enriching environment and offered to provide her services to the Human Resources Department to assist in the professional development of the staff. Her offer was accepted and she commenced work the day after the races.

On the first day she met an honored and esteemed wise man who was teaching his craft. He weaved stories strange and wondrous for three days. The Princess attended the teachings and met up with many people from across the world that had come to hear him preach on the art of “Recruitment and Selection”. It was a very different perspective from one the Princess had heard before, with a distinctly local flavor. Discussions of ‘wasta’ (nepotism) and strange ethics and different approaches….the Princess was aghast and bemused!

Throughout the week the Princess met with people from Somalia, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon; from Canada, America, Britain and France; from all the Gulf countries and Northern Africa. And she met some local people, Emiratis, who made her feel very welcome indeed. In fact one young woman, Shamma, veiled and swathed in black from head to toe, asked if the Princess would attend the wedding of her brother on the Thursday of that week. “Bring your friends”, she said, “Not just one but two. All are welcome, come, come, come!”

What to wear? What to buy as a gift? The hareem had discussions late into the night and shopped at the Al Ain Mall till they could stand no more. Nerissa of Victoria and Moraig of Kiwiland accompanied the Princess. They arrived at the wedding in their finery and were greeted by Shamma. She was in a long evening dress of white organza with layers of purple frills and flounces. No abbaya or shayla and just a delicate purple wrap around her shoulders. What a transformation! The Princess would never have recognized her – no longer the shy veiled girl from the office, but a worldly woman with confidence and poise.

The evening passed with yet another large platter of goat (cooked whole) and continuous servings of pastries and biscuits, coffees and teas, perfumes and bakhoor. Dancers had been hired to perform and a singer entertained the all woman audience. Bedouin Emerati women filled the tables in their burqah with hennaed hands and painted palms or dressed in sensational western styled gowns discreetly covered by gauzy overgowns. The walls of the celebration hall were lined with silk and gold; lights sparkled off every surface and a stage was set that emulated the court of Cleopatra with a catwalk and raised dancing area. The feasting went on into the night. The bride arrived escorted by her brother and was paid a visit by her father and cousins. It was strange having the men in the women’s tent and some of the more traditional women immediately covered their head, shoulders and arms and some left, upset that the men had come into the women’s environment. The bride sat terrified and shaking on the podium for all to see. It was a strange ritual and after some time the Princess and the ladies of the hareem left.

After a few days Shamma visited the Princess in her office and bestowed upon her some gifts – to thank her for coming to the wedding! A handbag, a dress and a candle – the Princess remains speechless and is sure there will be follow up to this installment of the Arabian fairytale.

PS. There will be no photos of the wedding – they were not allowed! Although there was an official photographer and the Princess has ways and means……….we will see!

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Some pictures of the camel races

Here are just a few of the sights at the camel races recently. At the Hospitality tent - VIPs only of course, the Sheik and one of the hareem get some hands on experience with the local tucker (baked goat meat) - No carving knives - so do your best with what you have! That's Nerissa on the right, and Ismail with his son Yunis.Back behind the race track, there is a small culltural village with lots of things happening. Below you see Cheryl (the Princess) with one of the camels; a local weaver, busy on a rug; and some boys tending their falcons.










Trackside, there is more entertainment, with some tradtitional dancing.
But the most amazing feats of the day were still to come.

Picture, if you will, a dozen camels racing towards you - appearing in the distance out of the dust cloud. Then picture appearing out of the haze and racing beside them, oblivious of all around, two dozen landcruisers, a camera truck and two tourist buses - all racing alongside the camels, lest they miss one bit of the race.




And then, after the finish line, the boy riders leap from their backs to mix with all and sundry on the track, with the camels (now riderless) still thundering through to their handlers. And surveying all, a local Bedouin, rifle in hand, in the guests of honour seating (keeping an eye on his camel I suppose?)





Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Arabian Fairytale Part Two. The Princess and the Sheikh go to the races

The Sheikh and the Princess returned from the land of Ataturk refreshed and replenished and happy. Instead of the Dubai Factory Outlets the Sheikh had delivered the Grand Bizarre in Istanbul. The Princess was humbled by this abundance and generosity and quite frankly couldn’t believe her luck with the shopping in the halls and alleyways, the souks and bazaars of the ancient land. Blessed with a leather coat, pashmina, antique kilim bag, beautiful ceramics, and a reunion with her friend from the land afar, the Princess was content to return to the desert and wait for her next adventure

Not two weeks on the Sheikh is again restless and wanting to show his Princess more of his magnanimous beneficence. He has arranged for a new Magic Flying Carpet (MFC) – after all, the last model had left much to be desired. So he called in a genie from the land of Al Futaim (Honda Dealer in Al Ain) and this genie, Hashem by name, produced a beautiful new MFC with sunroof, cruise control, climate conditioning, 6 stacker CD player and all the mod cons. A golden MFC – a reflection of the true love the Sheikh has for the Princess and an acknowledgement that the Princess must have nothing but the very best in MFC’s.

“Let’s go to the Camel races in Sweihan” said the Sheikh. “It is the 19th anniversary of the races and there is bound to be a celebration befitting a beautiful Princess. Gather together the hareem, bring along suitable chaperones and we will take the golden MFC into the desert”. So the princess called on Nerissa of Victoria and Moraig of Kiwiland and her companion Annette the young and thin, and the caravan left the oasis to venture into the desert.

In the town of Sweihan the camel owners, jockeys and their precious camels have assembled at the local racetrack. There are also colourful characters from “The History of Sweihan – Heritage and Culture”. There are carpet makers, metal workers, weavers, cooks and even a dhow captain with his dhow floating in its own lake (fed by water tankers to assuage the evaporation of the 35+C heat!). A group of young falconers, all arrogance and class, pose with their magnificent avian hunters. Dancers sway to the rhythmic drumbeats and tympanic of the tambourine. Youngsters play their games amidst the cacophony of sound and the dust of the desert. Men dance an age old chant and challenge their counterparts. A young man with a rifle in hand negotiates the territory between the two groups. The princess is overawed and the ladies of the hareem are aghast.

On entry to the race course the camel herders observed the caravan and immediately directed the Sheik, his attendants and the hareem to the VIP dining enclosure. All the important racing identities had gathered to share a meal; Emerati men in their sparkling dish dash, bedu dressed to kill (literally – they carried rifles and knives!), the armed forces, the police, camel owners and camel jockeys. A few expat guests were afforded good seats in the tent and we were shown to our table. Mountainous platters of food were spread around a large desert tent. Beautiful salads were laid out and on lifting the gleaming silver dome on our table a whole baby goat had been prepared and settled in a large bowl of rice and cashew nuts. The princess had some difficulty looking at the head of the goat and also consuming the meat of it’s thighs! In fact the princess couldn’t eat the thighs while the goats eyes were looking at her. The Sheikh however attacked the goat with aplomb and made short work of his appetite. All washed down with a glass of lemonade. On looking around the assembled crowd the hareem noted that the next table had been served a camel haunch, complete with hump of solid fat and the young men were going at it with their bare hands as if it may be their last meal. This meal was an Arabian Feast – a meal to remember.

The entourage moved on to the cultural activities. The Princess patted a camel while the ladies of the hareem stood agog. Annette, the young and thin, made the acquaintance of some bearded water well attendants, while Moraig of Kiwiland sized up the home made carpets for her suite at the Intercontinental. Nerissa of Victoria and the Sheikh recorded all the days activities on their magic digital image makers.

And then the finale – the camel races. Now what a spectacle and the camels and jockeys are really not the most spectacular part at all. The Princess did note it was very strange this sport of racing camels and she remarked on the young boys jumping down from the camels before they had come to a halt, the trainers racing after the camels to stop them and the obvious dangers of being trampled. However what was most entertaining was the traffic moving along next to the race. Twenty or more large 4WD’s and two coaches raced along the side of the track to ensure the camel racing enthusiasts they carried had a camel’s eye view of the race. Jostling for position and racing at top speed meant the camels were nearly obscured by the dust. At races end, to ensure they then had poll position for the next race, they would turn around and speed back to the starting line.

The ladies of the hareem decided enough was enough. Moraig of Kiwiland was ‘shattered’, Annette the young and thin had ‘had enough’ and Nerissa of Victoria had begun wilting in the heat. The princess also decided she had dutifully celebrated the camel racing anniversary well enough and urged the Sheikh to return to the desert camp where she could clean herself of the desert dust and quench her burning throat with the fermented juice of the grape. The Sheikh led the hareem out into the desert and the caravan returned to the home oasis. Another wonderful day in Arabia.

Monday, 22 October 2007

A painting for Ivett




Since arriving in Al Ain I have been lucky to meet Ivett. She is Czech and I must say she has been a lot of laughs and a wealth of knowledge. I painted these flamingos for her because she reminds me of a flamingo. No I won't tell you why - but I will tell her when I give her the painting.

The Galata Tower, Waltzing Matilda and Belly Dancing










We had a fun night out at the Galata Tower, which used to be a fire tower overlooking the city. It is now a restaurant where the boys oggled the bellydancers, the girls were serenaded by a 'Frank Sinatra' lookalike and we all got to sing Waltzing Matilda - what a hoot! Food, beer and wine, bellydancing, cultural dances, a knife throwing show, songs from many countries of the world and a great view across the Golden Horn to the sights of Istanbul as the lights came on and the sun went down. And all this after spending a couple of really relaxing hours in a Turkish Bath - cleansing, exfoliating, massage and steam clean! We will be going back to Turkey one day....anyone interested in joining us?

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia














One of the most amazing buildings in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque. It was built between 1609 and 1616.

This mosque was the traditional starting point for the pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims in Turkey.

The tiles and mosiacs within the mosque are the reason it is called 'blue' - the main tile themes having a blue emphasis. The stained glass windows are magnificent and also have a blue emphasis. The mosque stands on the hill in Sultanahmet, overlooking the Bosphorous, the body of water that forms Istanbul's harbour.

We visited the mosque with Robby and Paul and then went on to the Hagia Sophia which is only about 100 metres away. These two buildings make an imposing presence on the top of the hill and can be seen from all around. The Hagia Sophia is now a Museum but it started out life as a Byzantine Christian Cathedral. From 300AD through to 1453 it was built and rebuilt as a Christian Church and is reported to have been quite magnificent. In 1453 it was converted to a mosque on the Turkish conquest of Istanbul. Beautiful mosaics that had been plastered over in the 16th century have now been uncovered. I can not, in this blog, possibly recreate the history. Suffice to say it is an awe inspiring building.


Sunday, 21 October 2007

Cheryl and Robby have a sticky experience



Just outside the Blue Mosque some lovely Turkish guys were making toffee sticks. Cheryl and Robby were intrigued by the method and also wanted to taste their wares. So for one and a half Turkish lire they were able to stretch sticky stuff and giggle like girly three year olds!

The Angels Home Hotel




We stayed at the Angel's Home Hotel in the area of Sultanahmet. This is where many of the historic buildings of Istanbul are located including the Blue Mosque, Haigha Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bizarre, lots of little souks and carpet and ceramic shops. The hotel is a small boutique hotel and we had a lovely room with a balcony on the first night but had to trade it for a smaller one on the second (no balcony of course)! Being the end of Ramadan was cause for celebration so we had to break open a bottle or two while we were there. I think we are looking happy and relaxed!

Istanbul for the weekend


At the end of Ramadan is the Eid Holiday. Ron had a long weekend and we decided to spend it in Istanbul catching up with Robby and Paul. They have been travelling since April and have visited South America, Greece, Crete and many other exotic places. So we looked forward to hearing about their adventures and sharing a discovery of Istanbul.
The weekend started with a bottle of wine on the rooftop of the hotel we were staying in. Robby and Paul looked well and we spent a while just catching up with where they had been and what they had been doing. Then off to dinner at a local restaurant where the waiter forgot our order, gave us more than we ordered, confused the order and then charged us more than we had bargained for! We laughed it off and continued on to do some carpet shopping. We didn't buy a carpet but were given a detailed display of all the different types of Turkish carpets. The carpet seller may have been disappointed but we had a lovely time.
This photo of Robby and Paul was taken on the roof of the hotel. It was a lovely evening.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Cheryl’s been throwing some paint around!



Now this is a really exposing blog entry. Since arriving in Al Ain Cheryl has found some paints and some paper and she has combined them with some photography and the assistance of a great framer and she is now exhibiting her art in the second bedroom.

The photos that inspired these paintings are from the mosque around the corner which has taken our fancy and proven to be nice inspiration. The artwork is an interpretation of some of the photos. It is colourful and picks up on the patterns of Arabia – the mosaics, the hanging lanterns, the keyhole windows, the domes, the star emblem and wrought iron work.

All offers for purchase will be considered, however I really doubt Cheryl will part with them – they will hang in Australia as original souvenirs of our time here, memories of Al Ain.


Shopping for an abaya


This was the tag on an abaya I purchased recently. I bought the abaya because I have been offered the opportunity to go inside a mosque and I need to be dressed appropriately.

I guess the tag is to show me what I must cover and for male shoppers it shows what is under the abaya!

Monday, 8 October 2007

An Arabian Fairytale

Yesterday we had an adventure that was quite amazing. It was akin to an Arabian fairytale with our car being our magic flying carpet, the bureaucrats playing the parts of the camels, some genies who helped us perform magic, women in veils shyly and slowly going about their business and the occasional temperamental outburst that left us in stitches!

Our day started out with a purpose – “Now I have my residency” says the Sheik of my dreams, “I will sponsor you to be part of the hareem”. (Actually I am the only member of the hareem, but I allow him to dream also). “We are off to Dubai my dear, where I will whisk you to the Department of Immigration, supply them with my labour contract, our passports and some local treasure and you will magically become a resident of this wonderful land in a couple of days. My beneficence will be magnified with a visit to the Dubai Factory Outlet where I will adorn you with wonderful new clothing befitting your status as newly admitted Princess of Arabia”

So onto the flying carpet (gutless Mazda 3 with beeping alarm when in excess of 120 kmh) and off we fly to Dubai, some 122 kilometres away, our trusty water bottles and a couple of apples for sustenance on the way. We whiz by the said factory outlets at about 135 kmh and the Sheik makes promises of spending hours there once the business is completed.

Entering Dubai is like entering a strange futuristic city. The roads lead nowhere, the signposts are placed to mislead and deceive. Strange machinery fills the skyline resembling something from a sci-fi novel. Gantries, cranes, mixers, belchers, shovelers and an army of poor enslaved menials from the subcontinent abound. The dust forms a haze that makes it barely possible to see the buildings that herald the determined and unquestionable drive to develop the magnificence of the city. Zipping along the freeway we observe the effort to bring snow to the desert and know that this is the point where we leave the freeway and enter the mysterious back alleys and side lanes of the souks of industry!

The Sheik takes command of the carpet and we seek out our first genie, Matthew, who is to oil the wheels of bureaucracy and start the process for us. “Do you have your Marriage certificate?” asks the Genie. “Allah be praised!” says the Sheik, “I have left it at the desert camp. What can we do genie for the fair princess and I are going to Turkey on the weekend and without her residence she can not re-enter the country?” The genie admits this magic is beyond his capacity and though he phones the head genie in Abu Dhabi and discusses all the options for powerful genie magic he is unable to provide the right spell to undo the dunderheaded Sheik’s forgetful memory and consequences. His advice is to go see the head genie, Samir of Abu Dhabi, and see if he can solve the problem with his extra strong magic and extremely powerful influence.

So we swig a mouthful or two of water (in private as it is Ramadan and we do not want to offend our local hosts), hop back on the magic carpet, renegotiate the industrial souk and find our selves flying along the coast to Abu Dhabi to seek out the advice of the head genie. Between bites of apples (taken only at moments when other magic flying carpets are not in sight) we listen to the less than Arabian Michael Buble at top volume to drown out the alarming speed warning which seems to be stuck on the magic carpet. Another 124 kilometres added to the odometer of the MFC (magic flying carpet) and we find ourselves at the Head Office of the Supreme Genie named Samir.

Hurried consultations take place as the sun is passing it’s zenith and the camels at the Department of Immigration retire for the afternoon and refuse to do any more work today. A decision is made to renew the visit visa of the princess as the quickest and most efficient and less risky (to the Turkey trip) strategy. Although an expensive option it is considered the quickest way to solve the dilemma. The other option was to return to Al Ain, cross the border into Oman, have a new visit visa endorsed and return home. However this option was apparently fraught with lots of unknown repercussions related to health insurance and timeliness of approvals and the fact that it is Ramadan and the wheels move very slowly right now! The gracious head genie decides he will accompany us to the Department as he is confident our grasp of the local language will have us at the Department for days if left to our own devices.

On approaching the hallowed halls of the Ministry of the Interior the genie asks directions. One of the camel keepers proves to be helpful, but the camels are unpredictable characters and despite the best efforts of the camel keeper to describe the process, the camels have different ideas about how the job should be done. So we wander from the Health Insurance camels to the lovely ladies in veils who type the applications for the camels to approve and stamp. The princess is left with the ladies while the Sheik and the genie go off to negotiate the true price and the true process and have the documents photocopied and attested and stamped and approved, before entering the next camel enclosure for further negotiations.

Now this wandering between enclosures takes about 2 hours and each camel has a different version of the best way to undertake a visa renewal. However we finally make it to the enclosure of the chief camel (who actually resembles Jabba the Hut of another fairytale!) This camel is besieged by many other petitioners for visa renewal and he has handed out numbers to assist in keeping the petitioners in line. However the petitioners do not wish to use the numbers and Jabba spends long moments with his fingers in his ears and shaking his head as petitioners jump the queues and asks questions while he is trying to put order into the process. Poor Jabba looked like he was near explosion, he got up, went out the back, beseeched Allah for patience and enlisted the assistance of a camel keeper to herd the petitioners. At this stage the genie threw his hands in the air and said no magic could ever make this better and he returned to the genie office to await our advice on completion of the task.

My Sheik patiently waited and asserted his influence from time to time on the unruly petitioners, pouring oil (because Sheiks have lots of oil) on troubled waters and greasing squeaky cogs to calm the atmosphere and ensure fair play.

By about 3.30 pm (and long after the camel enclosure should have been closed) my dashing Sheik emerged triumphant with a newly stamped visa in his hand and 700 dirham in the camel enclosure to keep the camels happy. The only thing to do now was to celebrate with a nice cool ale – well so we thought!

Ales are not served in Ramadan except in secret desert caves. However we found a curtained enclosure operated by heathen monks on the Corniche. Still no ales but at least some water, coffee and a salad with chips. We then strolled the Al Wahda Mall in deference to the princess missing out on the Dubai Factory Outlets and hopped back on the MFC to return to Al Ain – some 143 klms away. The sheik and the princess were very tired, but very happy that they had successfully negotiated with the camels, assisted by the wonderful chief genie and the princess is now able to go to Turkey!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

My work in Al Ain

Well, probably about time I (Ron) put pen to paper (finger to the keyboard) and said a little about the work I’m doing.

About 3 years ago, The Sheik of Abu Dhabi decided it would be a good idea to upgrade the education system in this state (Emirate). – I suspect other Emirates are doing similar things. In Abu Dhabi it’s called the Public-Private Partnership for Public School Management' . The idea is to enable local and regional private education providers to manage selected public schools in the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) was established in 2005 to oversee the program. Here’s a bit from their website:

Shaikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister for Presidential Affairs and Adec Vice-President, said: "Our goal is to provide world-class public education. "The partnership is intended to increase the professional standard of national staff and ensure their professional development," Shaikh Mansour said, adding: "The partnership provides a measure of independence to each school administration, besides promising better quality of educational outcomes and ensuring better and more frequent participation of parents in the education process."

Participating schools and their students will enjoy better school facilities, efficient and less bureaucratic school administration systems, modern teaching and assessment methods, up-to-date curricula, more intensive use of information technology and applications and rich extra-curricular activities. Principals and teachers, including national staff, will get improved job incentives and professional development opportunities.

The company I work for is called School Improvement Partnership (S.I.P.), which is a subsidiary of GEMS (Global Education Management Systems). My school is the Sultan Bin Zayed school for Basic Education. It is a year 6-9 school. Age range 12 – 16. But there are a few older students as well. They failed at some stage and the system doesn’t allow you to progress to the next year unless you pass. It’s housed in a newly built school and so there’s a very pleasant environment to work in with spacious rooms, good Air Con (when it works and doesn’t leak), lots of classrooms, an auditorium etc. ADEC is in the process of upgrading all the ICT. Plan is for every classroom and staffroom to have a computer, projector and smart-board; 2 ICT labs, 10Mb internet line, and all fully networked.

I really like the team I’m working with. There’s my ESL expert Michael - from NZ via South Africa – my English expert Amir, from Iran via Oman – my maths expert Ismail from Somalia via England, my translator Mohamed from Sudan via US & India, and soon to arrive my science/ICT expert Fasil, from England -----------------------. These guys are just fabulous. They’re really cluey about their subject area and have great interpersonal skills. So we’ve already established excellent working relationships amongst the staff of the school. Our role is to upgrade the teaching and management in the school and to help them implement a new curriculum (in all subjects, but focussing on english, maths, science and ICT).

With the team working with the classroom teachers, my job is to manage them and then to work with the school administration (Principal, Vice Principal, ..) to improve school planning and budgeting processes, get some parent involvement, and generally support them in putting the systems and processes in place to ensure good management and smooth running.

The staff in the school have really welcomed us and are very positive about working with us. Most are not Emirati (apart from the boss, VP and about 6 others), but come from neighbouring states like Oman, Syria, Jordan & Egypt. Most don’t have an educational qualification, but they do have undergraduate degrees in their specialty subject. Up to now most have been working directly from a textbook provided by the Ministry of Education. Day 1 is page 1 and they work through to the last page! So our work is cut out for us all – but being willingly taken on by the staff. So much so that we’re already seeing good signs of progress.

I like the boss (Mohamed) and VP (Rashed). They are both very capable, have good ideas and are willing to listen to suggestions.

All in all, I recon I’ve pretty well won the lottery and am looking forward to the rest of my time here.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Some quirky things we have noticed.............

Business hours in Ramadan are amazing. As an indication the Post Office (Emirates Post) is open from 9 am to 1 pm and 9 pm to 1 am! Is there really someone who is going to go and buy a stamp to post a letter at one o’clock in the morning? Apparently so as the shops also stay open until 1 am. It is assumed no one will go shopping between 1 pm and 9 pm – that is a time to sleep and pray and, when the sun goes down, to eat.

The water from the cold water tap is actually really HOT. It is stored in large tanks on the roof – so after about 9 am it is approaching a rolling boil. To get cold water you use the hot water tap because that water is stored in an insulated tank – so don’t turn the hot water heater on and you have cool water stored in the insulated tank. Not sure when this will change over again but I am keeping an eye on the weather……..

The greater majority of cars here are four wheel drives. Believe me they are SERIOUS four wheel drives. They are the size of tanks but move like cruise missiles. I think most of them are actually mobile homes for families of six, used for overnight stays in the desert. They probably have a full size refrigerator and separate bedrooms and bathrooms in them.

Parking in the carparks is totally random. There are lines marked but no one takes note of them. Cars do not park in any orderly fashion and the locals will park as close as possible to the shops without regard to space, traffic flow or pedestrian safety.

Speaking of pedestrian safety. Where I come from a pedestrian crossing is a place where people can rest assured they can cross safely. The traffic is compelled to stop for people using the crossings. In the UAE pedestrians must be constantly on the alert. Crossings mean nothing to drivers and nobody enforces their safe use. You take your life in your hands at every crossing of the road whether there is a pedestrian crossing or not. I think their meaning here is “this is probably the safest place to cross because you can see the cruise missiles approaching from here”.

Emerati men, particularly the younger ones, have a mobile phone earpiece in their ear on a permanent basis. It appears they are never off the phone and will be constantly talking while walking, driving, sitting having coffee, in the movie theatre and even in school. Mobile phones are not banned in the classroom and the students take calls at random.

Occupation Health and Safety (OHS as we know it) is virtually non-existent. Construction sites are the most amazing examples with men precariously perched on multi storey buildings, undertaking concrete work and engineering. However even in a shop such as a picture framing shop, there are bits and pieces everywhere and trip hazards and sharps such as glass on the floor.

And now just a funny story to wind this all up!

I took some laundry to the cleaners last week - 5 shirts (3 white, 1 blue and 1 cream) and a pair of brown trousers. Went to collect them yesterday and there were five shirts (3 white, 1 pink and 1 cream!). I said to the Indian/Pakistani guy "My husband doesn't own a pink shirt and so that shirt does not belong to us" He was keen that I just take it and accept it as Ron's shirt. I said that someone else would then be missing a shirt and that would mean they would be upset. I also said that Ron does not wear pink and I would appreciate it if he could please find the blue one I left with him. I even rang Ron to make sure I hadn't been delusional at the time. He said "the last time you bought me a pink shirt I gave it to Daniel (my son) - so there is no way I own one now!" When I got home I started hanging up the laundry and I noticed a splodge of greasy stain on the trousers, which I am sure was not there when I dropped them off. Waited till Ron was home and he said he didn't remember doing the splodge and that even if he did it should have been cleaned out anyway. We both traced back to the laundry where we were offered apologies and told that the splodge would be treated and come back tomorrow. I asked if they had been able to find the blue shirt. The answer was "Inshallah, in 2-3 days I hope, Inshallah, Inshallah". Well I decided that was probably the last I would see of that shirt! I hoped the trousers would make it through, so I wrote Ron's name and phone number on them in permanent pen. Anyway we stopped in to the laundry tonight on our way home from dinner - and there was the blue shirt, nicely pressed and clean and I am told the trousers will be back tomorrow. It appears Allah was shining down on us after all......I think I will take a little packet of date sweets in to them tomorrow to say thanks - but they only get them if I get Ron's trousers back clean!

Monday, 24 September 2007

Ramadan Kareem

These photos are of the mosque that is about 100 metres from our front door.

We are now about a week into Ramadan and it has changed our days considerably.

Ron is having a shorter school day, though not a shorter work day – the kids just go home earlier. He is also not eating anything in public at school so he has had to take some muesli bars in and wait for a moment when no-one is around to have a snack. Two of the people on his team are observing Ramadan so he is being sensitive and not eating or drinking when they are around. They have said it doesn’t concern them but he is conscious of it and making appropriate moves.

The shopping malls have all their food outlets closed during the day – so no more meeting for coffee at Gloria Jeans or Starbucks and using the internet during the day. The food outlets don’t open until after dark. Cafes and restaurants in the street are all closed and the streets are significantly quieter. Businesses have a shorter business day – banks are only open for about 4-6 hours. The supermarkets are still in full swing because you just buy the food there – not consume it. So there are periods when the supermarkets are really quiet (during prayer times) and then they get busy so that people can purchase their supplies for the breaking of the fast at “Iftar”. Mountains of food are consumed during the Iftar meal and it is not unusual for people to be up till 2-3 am feasting and talking and celebrating.

The hotels and other places have Iftar feasts advertised, however the one we went to really wasn’t that wonderful so we are looking out for a better one! Many of the restaurants, even in the hotels, do not serve alcohol during Ramadan so we have had to content ourselves with watermelon and mint or lemon and mint juice or a coke.

Our street is very close to one of the large mosques so we find that our parking is being used by people who have come to pray at the mosque. There are literally hundreds of cars in the mosque carpark and parked through the streets in the late afternoon and early evening.

We are now waiting for Eid which will be on Friday the 12th or Saturday the 13th of October (or a day either side) when Ramadan finishes and things return to normal. So in the meantime ‘Ramadan Kareem’ and ‘Eid Mubarak’ for when that time comes……………it seems mubarak and kareem are synonymous with happy and merry, though not direct translations.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

So what’s it like in Al Ain


Before we arrived here I searched the internet and did as much reading as possible on this new city we would be living in. I suppose that is only natural and it did help prepare me for the move but nothing is like the reality of being here.

I have found Al Ain to be a mix of things and I will, of course, start with the weather which is the most talked about thing here! On arrival the temperature was well over 40 degrees, sometimes into the 50’s, and the air scorching and very dry during both the day and the evening. I am told this is to be expected in the mid summer which is the later half of July, August and the beginning of September. In the last week or so the temperatures have become more mild during the day with daytime temps hanging around 40 degrees and a little under and the evenings, though still very warm, are becoming quite balmy. We both prefer the heat to the cold and so we are finding now that the temperatures are becoming more to our liking. In a month or so I think we will be very comfortable. We tried to sleep without the aircon last night because it is playing havoc with my sinuses, but found it still too hot to sleep through and gave up at about 4.30 and put the aircon on again. We did however venture out for an evening stroll about the town last night, dinner at the Al Diwan restaurant and a look around the souk that is quite near where we live at Al Jimi.

Of course the flow on of the heat is you have to keep hydrating constantly. We don’t go anywhere without water and have installed a water cooler in the apartment to ensure we have fresh, cold drinking water on tap at all times. It is surprising how little time it takes to be parched and for the headaches to set in. It is like the air is sucking all moisture from your body constantly and the aircon doesn’t help as it also dries the air out. Poor sinuses don’t have a chance!

After the tropical rainy days in Vanuatu it is quite strange to be going from day to day without seeing a drop fall. We had a sprinkle of rain one day but I couldn’t even call it a shower. Apparently the rain is very localised. My friend who is staying at the Intercontinental Hotel reported that it poured down for 20 minutes there one day last week, but we didn’t see a drop. The skies are perpetually blue and mainly cloudless, though there have been quite a few thunderheads hanging around lately in the afternoon, but not coming to much. Consequently the dust is pervasive. We live near a construction site and the trucks and cars coming and going and the movement of machinery makes the dust stir and blow about so that the surfaces of the furniture are constantly gritty and a fine dust is ever present. I have made a personal rule to only dust every few days as I could become quite obsessed with keeping it all clean if I allowed myself! (God, I have too much time on my hands!)

The town itself is rather spread out as there is a height restriction on buildings. I am not sure about the rules but it seems the city buildings are limited to three or four stories and the residential areas are absolutely capped to about 3 stories. It gives a lovely feeling of spaciousness and also allows the minarets and domes from the mosques to stand out against the skyline, making a particularly middle eastern feel to the place. The burbs are invading the desert and you should see the monoliths being built on the outskirts of town – subject for another blog!

The streets are well laid out and mostly fairly rectangular, joined by roundabouts of all sizes. Now whilst roundabouts may be very good at traffic management they are also very good at confusing me in terms of which direction I am traveling in. I only have to go through about three roundabouts and I have absolutely no idea in which direction I am now traveling! This is not helped by the fact that there are no hills, depressions, or other variations in altitude of terrain to help guide the senses! Each day I seem to find a new roundabout that I have not seen before. They are most elaborate with gazelles, horses, deer, flamingos, coffee pots and jewellery boxes – I will do an art piece on them – photographs of roundabouts. I think every expat in Al Ain has undertaken a similar project! They are quite spectacular and most are decorated with lovely gardens and fountains. Each time you approach one of these lovely pieces of road architecture though you have to gather your wits and put up your road antennae. The traffic is chaotic and unpredictable. People will dart from the side of the roundabout across to the exits (3 or 4 lanes) and in any day it is not unusual to see several accidents that have occurred on the roadside. Taxis and trucks seem to be the most effected! And there are some really scary HUGE four wheel drives that seem to think they are kings of the road – and I am not challenging them!

The main (and only obvious) natural landmark is Jebel Hafeet which is a mountain on the outskirts of town and in the daytime it is usually not able to be seen for a haze (or for dust). We have been up there during both day and night and there are some photos included here so you can see what the terrain is like around here – flat for miles – except for Jebel Hafeet!

So that is an introduction to Al Ain – if you want to know more about the place just hop a plane and come on over – we have plenty of room and there is always a spare bed for friends!


Thursday, 13 September 2007

Traditional Dress

The UAE is one of the most liberal of the Gulf countries. The people follow the teaching of the Koran (or Quran). One of the practices required of women by the Koran is to cover their heads. The accepted practice, and an interpretation of the meaning in the Koran, is that many women not only cover their heads but choose to cover themselves completely when in public, leaving barely a slit in their face wear to be able to see through. This is not required by the religion but has become common practice for many Muslim women. Their societies have built this practice in the name of modesty and also to protect women from the sexual proclivities of men! There are some practicalities as well including protection from the fierce sun.

Muslims practice the religion of Islam and countries that are predominantly Muslim are known as Islamic countries. Making the decision to move to an Islamic country is one that is complicated mostly by perceptions of what that means and how it is interpreted in the west. Many people we know were very concerned that we would have difficulty settling in and being here on a day to day basis...... I will tell you some stories related to that further in another blog entry.

For now I thought I would talk about the different types of Middle Eastern Islamic costume. I have done a bit of research and I hope I have this right! If not please place a comment on the blog to educate me more…..

In the Emirates the local people are called Emirati. Whilst some Emirati may choose to wear western attire most men will choose to wear the dishdash (dishdasha). Women adopt various forms of dress including western style, with many choosing a varying degree of covering up that ranges from having some headwear to full burqa, which covers from head to toe including the face.

The abbaya is a long dress that covers from the neck to the ground with the arms covered below the wrist to the back of the hand. It is worn with a hijab or a sheila (shay-la). A hijab is a sort of fitted scarf that is pulled over the head and the sheila is a shawl like scarf that is arranged to cover the head and the neck. Wearing either is ‘wearing hijab’. When women’s faces are completely covered the way of dress is the burqa – ie. a woman wears burqa or is dressed in burqa (she is fully covered).

The dishdasha, which is also known in some countries as a ‘jalabah’, is generally a long white or cream garment, though other colours seem to also be fashionable. They also wear a ‘ghutra’ on their head – these are red and white in colour or they can also be plain white or the colour of the dishdash. The ghutra is secured by an igal which is a double black cord and is worn over a tagiyah, a small skull cap that stops the ghutra from falling off.

Here are some photos we have taken that show the normal everyday wear of the people here……………….

Sunday, 9 September 2007

This is our apartment in Al Ain

Well we have finally settled into our apartment in Al Ain and it is actually remarkably comfortable. There are some photos on the page of our lounge/dining room, the bedrooms, one of the bathrooms (the other one is too small to get the camera in) and the kitchen. The bathrooms are pretty standard but still lacking a shower curtain so water slops all over the place! Shower curtains are on the way I am told as are wardrobes! We have improvised with some hanging space from Ikea – not too flash but it does the job. There is also a ‘maid’s room’ that we use for storage – it fits our suitcases and an iron and ironing board – can’t imagine how small a maid would need to be to fit in there – she would have to curl up in a ball on the floor to sleep! There will be some pictures on the walls soon and it will then be totally cosy.

Anyway for prospective visitors there is plenty of room in the spare room right now, though I am intending to also put a table in for doing some art projects. Still there’s a queen size bed and I’ll make sure I don’t crowd it out too much.

See you all in the land of the flying carpet as soon as you let us know you are coming. PS Our ‘flying carpet’ must be the one on the floor in the lounge – just haven’t sorted out the gears or transmission yet…………………..

Friday, 24 August 2007

The food, water and other consumables!

One thing that is great about going to live somewhere new is the change in cuisine you can expect to come across. I must admit that laplap in Vanuatu never really did it for me, though I was constantly reassured that there were certain types of laplap that were really nice….Ron did get to be quite fond of simboro and nems, and tuluk was an occasional treat. So it is time now to start to explore the food of this new country…….and maybe my ‘fussy’ food taste will be better served here in the Middle East!

Emerati cuisine is traditionally very plain because in times gone by there was very little capacity, even on the coast, for growing fresh fruits and vegetables. The population was largely nomadic and relied on fish, goat, camel, lizard and rice dishes enhanced with spices that are grown locally and also imported from around the region. Unleavened bread cooked over a fire, dates and wheat were the traditional foods of the original emeratis. Most people existed at a subsistence level prior to the affluence introduced by the exploitation of oil reserves. So I guess it won’t be any different for me here – camel and lizard are not appealing to me and I’ve never really liked rice unless it is drowned in a sauce.

Things have changed quite a lot since those times and Abu Dhabi has all the modern takeaway restaurants such as KFC, Maccas, Pizza Hut and etc. However the real food treats are found in the cafes that specialise in Middle Eastern cuisine that has moved on from traditional Emerati dishes. Most of these meals have come courtesy of the surrounding countries where it is easier to grow fresh fruit and veges and where there are farming communities and access to water. Lebanese and Egyptian gourmet influence is very strong in the UAE and this means gorgeous spicy salads, stews and meat dishes flavoured with lemon and other exotic herbs and spices.

We have sampled a few dishes that have been great and we are working through the menu at the ‘Automatic’ Café, our local middle eastern hang out! We have tried shawarma. falafel, tabbouleh, fatoush, labneh (laced with lashings of garlic) and a whole lot of others whose names I will never remember without the menu in front of me. We can’t help but notice the freshness and the quality of the food and the lovely spicy, lemony zing to almost everything. The prices are very reasonable and we have been able to do a café meal for $25 for both of us. Of course no alcohol is served but the meal is eaten with the most delicious fruit drinks blended from fresh fruit. Our favorite is lemon and mint and we did try some pomegranate juice, which was just lovely.

We are told the tap water is OK to drink and it certainly tastes alright. The hotel has supplied us with fresh bottled water each day so we have been using that. Not sure yet of the situation in Al Ain and we will look into that when we get there. We may end up with a water dispenser and the big 20 litre bottles. Purified water appears to be a big industry here with lots of brands and plenty available.

Alcohol is served in all the up market hotels and bars and is about the same price as at a resort bar in Aus. We have found an outlet and purchased a bottle of Aussie red and Aussie white at close to the same price (maybe a bit more) than at a bottlo at home. We were pleased to find this out – as you all know we love our wine!!

We have spent some time exploring the supermarkets and have been really happy to find that fresh fruit and veges are abundantly available, just as at home in Aus. Whilst the market in Port Vila was very cheap the offerings were in fact quite limited due to seasonal availability. I think the population here and the economic development is perhaps best illustrated in this arena. The population is large and wealthy and they demand that they have good quality fresh food with a range of choice and low prices. It will be nice to have all our old favourites available and affordable – yes even cheese!
Oh well that’s it on food – better go and get dinner! As we are still in the hotel that means another trip to a café or restaurant and no cleaning up after – I’m loving it!

Monday, 20 August 2007

Abu Dhabi and the heat!!!

Our arrival in Abu Dhabi was in the middle of the night and it seems that this is when the city comes to life. We left the airport at close to midnight and there were families having picnic dinners along the Corniche at that time. Children were playing on play equipment and people were strolling or exercising. It looked a bit weird really but then it all made sense the next morning when at 8 am the temperatures were climbing into the 40s!! How sensible that people should be out and about in the cool of the night and that they locked themselves away in the air con in the middle of the day, resting till the sun goes down. It is also still school holidays here so the children didn’t have to be bright eyed and bushy tailed during the day.

The middle of the day in the city and there are lots of (airconned) cars about but not too many people roaming the streets. “Only mad dogs and Englishmen (and Aussies) go out in the noon day sun!”. On sunset the city comes to life and the shops are open each day till 10 or 11 pm. There is a siesta period from about 2 pm through till about 5 pm. The heat at this time is particularly oppressive. There are no dogs or animals about – I am sure it has to do with the fact that they could not possibly put their feet to the ground without being grilled to perfection, barbecued from the feet up!

The heat is a baking heat. The humidity is burned off by the sun even this close to the sea, and we are right on the Persian Gulf. It is like walking into a furnace and if you walk around in the sun for more than a few minutes you can feel your skin being scorched and dried. We choose the side of the streets that are in shadow if we are out and about and because there are so many high rise buildings it is easy to locate some shadow most of the time.

When the sun goes down the humidity sets in and one of the funniest things happen – on leaving any building your glasses completely fog over and you can’t see a thing! As Ron and I both wear glasses it is a case of the ‘blind leading the blind’ as we dash from one airconned environment to another. All the taxis are airconned so it is really not too much exposure most of the time.

Taxis cruise the streets everywhere and will beep you to let you know they are free to take you. The flag fall is 2 dirham (that’s about 63 cents) and the rides are cheap. However the drivers all think they are in the Grand Prix and drive far too fast. We have taken to saying we are not in a hurry and asking for them to slow down – which they do with good grace on request. Most are clean and well maintained though there are some that have a few grinding and knocking noises I would be wary of in my own vehicle. They are a small step up from the greater majority of taxis in Port Vila! There are no buses here, except the inter-city buses so it is a taxi or Shank’s pony and you wouldn’t walk more than a block or two for fear of expiring in the heat! Petrol is only about 50 cents per litre – we haven’t seen those prices in Aus or Vanuatu for many years…….

High rise buildings form long rows adjacent to 6 lane streets on the main roads. The combination of granite buildings, concrete and bitumen intensifies the heat during the day and increases the temperature by several degrees – so don’t believe what the weather people are telling you – add five degrees (minimum) and that will be more like the temperature in the city. It is mid summer and apparently we are in the hottest place right now. Dubai is a little cooler and Al Ain is apparently cooler again. We are hoping to move there next weekend as the apartment is not yet ready for us.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Arriving in Abu Dhabi

THE SECOND ADVENTURE BEGINS!

After much packing, repacking, shed building, stacking, and re-stacking, we finally departed Aussie shores once more, bound this time for the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi in particular. A bit of duty free shopping (camera and booze) and off we went.

Coming from Vanuatu’s 26 degree days to Sydney’s winter was a test for our constitutions. Landing in Abu Dhabi, we realised that the reverse transition to 40+ degree days and 30 degree nights was going to be an even greater challenge. And what a pleasant arrival! As we walked off the tunnel from the plane, we were greeted by a welcome escort who guided us through immigrations procedures, where Ron received his temporary employment visa, complete with eye-scan: “Open wider please….WIDER PLEASE…..”

Having collected our baggage and been ushered through the customs gate (no inspection required!) we were met outside by the cabbie who took us direct to the hotel. We were safely in bed within one and a half hours of touchdown! No complaints about the organisation here, or the efficiency!

Next day was a day of rest. We slept late, went to the Abu Dhabi Mall for a spot of coffee and shopping. Arriving at 9:30, we found that shops didn’t open until 11.

First impression? They do things BIG over here. Some of the malls and hotels are just HUGE. (see pictures). There is SO much construction going on everywhere. High rises in the cities, and whole towns being built outside the cities – hundreds of homes in each. The drivers are quite mad – suicidal in fact. Driving the freeway between here and Dubai or Al Ain you are likely to be overtaken in your sedate 120Kph by all manner of vehicles doing 150+, changing lanes, whipping across in front to catch the next exit and worse. Even driving in town – or being in a cab driving in town – sets the pulse racing.

Sunday was my first day of work, and so I was collected (along with the others of the 4 teams in the project) from the hotel and after a 30 min drive by mini-bus – (Vanuatu bus drives would be aghast at the speeds) arrived at the nearest GEMS school (Global Education Management Systems) for the first day of the induction program. Ditto Monday. On Tuesday we had a half day team leaders’ meeting and on Wednesday were taken into Dubai to GEMS HQ where we met the HR people and Chairman and visited the very ritzy GEMS premier school in the area. Boy does this school have ALL the bells and whistles – and then some, including its own observatory, pool, indoor basketball courts, auditorium, ……….

Thursday was our day to visit our schools. My team is really happy with what we saw. The school is new, with good clean buildings, very spacious, lots of furniture, and a very helpful Vice Principal. I think we have a good foundation for our work over the next 2-3 years.

Cheryl of course has been soaking up the relaxation and trying (successfully so far) not to be bored. Word is that we’ll get to move in to our apartment next Friday. Can’t wait. If it is anything like the apartment of one of my team (supplied by his wife’s company) we’ll be very happy.

Al Ain seems a lovely town. No high-rise, very green, and much more relaxed than the hustle of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Monday, 6 August 2007

First Posting: preparing for the UAE

Well, welcome to our new Blog. We are currently preparing, packing, getting documentation in order (what a huge job that is - almost worse than the packing) for our take-off on Friday 10th August.

Looking forward to our new adventure!

Stay tuned!!!