Sunday, November 27, 2011

A King's Castle?

"If I was king for just one day
I would give it all away..." - Thompson Twins

Last weekend we went with some good friends to explore a little more of the UAE.  This time we headed toward the East Coast and the Indian Ocean.  We left the sandy dessert and entered the rocky mountainous areas on our way to Fujairah.

Our first stop, just outside of Fujairah, was up a scenic wadi that ended at the Al-Hayl Castle.  I'm not so sure that the word Castle is the best description... maybe the word Fort would have been more applicable.  I guess at one point the castle/fort was home to the local ruling leader/king... hence it was a "castle"

When we arrived, we were dismayed to read a sign indicating that we had just missed the hours that the fort was open to the public.  Fortunately, one of the catetakers/guides/locals offered to let us in the back door.... I'm sure anticipating a tip that we did indeed give him.  It was great.  We had the whole place to ourselves, a personal guide, and the kids could have free reign.  And boy did the kids take advantage.  They were loving all the cool places to hide and explore.  Talon was the king and none of us could slow him down.  The girls kept excitedly asking if we would see princesses in the castle.  We finally helped them realize that the princesses were long gone, so they spent the rest of their time pretending to be a princess, or that they were Rapunzel locked in the tower and asked to "let down your hair"

After we visited the castle/fort, we drove to the coast to take a swim in the Indian Ocean.... I guess more specifically the Gulf of Oman.  The sand was dark.  There were tons of seashells. The kids dug a lot of holes.  The water was refreshing.  We had a good day.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tear Stained Eye

Tear Stained Eye by Son Volt on Grooveshark

"Walking down Main Street Getting to know the concrete Looking for a purpose..." - Son Volt

We went for a drive the other day and happened to run into a group of camels just walking down the side of the road.  Cool creatures.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rub' al Khali

"The heat was hot, and the ground was dry,
But the air was full of sound." - America

For the Eid holiday, we went camping with some friends to the Rub'al Khali or the Empty Quarter.  We packed up the kids and some gear and drove south for about 4 hours until we were close to the border of Saudi Arabia.  The Empty Quarter is one of the largest sand deserts in the world with rolling red sand dunes up to 1000 ft. tall.  It covers most of Saudi Arabia, but also extends into Oman, Yemen, and the UAE.  It is impressive and we only saw some of the edge of it.  I mean, it is literally hundreds of miles of HUGE sand dunes in every direction.  I'm tempted to tell you all of the cool facts about the largest sea of sand in the world.... Instead, if you want to be educated, you can use wikipedia, and I'll just focus on our experience.

The drive wasn't too bad.  The scenery is beautifully brown and tan.  We were pleased that the kids had all fallen asleep for an afternoon nap when the first of several snags happened.  We were following our small caravan of friends (Palmers and Ziegelbauers) when all of the sudden a large black object flew off of the car we were following and slammed into the pavement breaking into a hundred pieces.  Our friends (whose car it came from) put on their hazard lights and pulled over.  We followed suit to make sure they were ok.  After a short inspection, we found that a large piece of the trim around the windshield had come loose and broken off.  Inconvenient, and unfortunate, but nothing dangerous or trip-stopping.  I walked back to the car to continue our journey.  We felt bad for our friends and the repair that they would have to make on their car, but were actually more selfishly concerned with the state in our own vehicle.  The kids had awakened after 10 minutes from what we had hoped would be a 2-3 hour nap.  We now had to make the rest of the drive with kids that were awake.

The next snag came came as we left the comfort of the paved road to find a good secluded camping spot.  We travel a couple hundred yards across the empty fields of sand.  The driving was a little tricky, but I was feeling pretty good about our progress.  No sooner did I start to feel some confidence with our vehicle's abilities, when we realized we were sinking lower in the sand and feeling a lot of bumps and thumps on undercarriage of our car.  We were third in the procession of vehicles and I was quickly realizing that the ruts the other vehicles were making in the sand was NOT a good place to be.  As the sand and ruts got deeper, we were getting trapped.  We couldn't get out of the ruts and they quickly became so deep that we did not have any clearance and were "pushing" sand with our front bumper.  As I panicked a little mentally, I made the fatal error of slowing down.... dumb move.  We  were now high centered and stuck.  Fortunately, one of our friends was driving a Land Rover and had a tow rope.  It took a little digging and some pushing, but without too much worry (Yvonne might disagree), we were back on our way to a new (closer) campsite.

Our campsite was a cool little place that was literally surrounded by sand dunes. The kids were out of the vehicle for a matter of seconds before they were climbing dunes and exploring the new surroundings... and covered head to toe in sand with big smiles on their faces.

We tried body-boarding down the dunes.  We chased some shiny silvery lizards.  We built a campfire and ate the traditional camping food of hot dogs and marshmallows. The kids had a blast and were only a little worried when they had to go to the bathroom without a toilet out in the desert.  They were worried that something was going to crawl over and sting them while they had their pants down.  I guess maybe we had overly warned them about the dangers of scorpions in the desert and it took some convincing (and some show and tell examples) before they would actually "go potty."  Overall we had an enjoyable experience even if we didn't get a lot of sleep.

The biggest snag of our trip happened the next morning.  We broke camp in the morning and decided to take a little different route back to the paved road to avoid getting stuck.  Additionally, we switched our position in the caravan from third place to second so that if we were following in any ruts they wouldn't be quite as deep for our lower ground clearance vehicle.  We took off a minute or so after the first car and rounded the corner to the straight-away only to see the Palmers stuck pretty deep out in the middle of the flats where it appeared to be wet.  Determined not to meet the same fate, I floored it and chose a different route.  In my determination not to get stuck, I stayed close to the dryer sand near the dunes instead of the flats.  I realized at the last minute that I was actually on one of the dunes and it was suddenly dropping off in front of us.  I knew I couldn't stop, or else we'd get stuck, so I just plowed ahead as Yvonne let out a little yelp of surprised fear and we slammed into the flat sand at the bottom of the dune.  We hit pretty hard and despite the worry of permanent damage to our car, I sped on across the sand to safety near the paved road.

Unfortunately, the Palmers were not so lucky.  I walked back from the road to find them stuck up to their doorjambs in swampy, sludgy sand.  Who would've thought in the flats of this huge sea of sand dunes would be nasty swamps of sludge.  It appeared hopeless.  We were afraid that even Joe's Land Rover would get stuck in the swamp if he got close enough to attach the tow rope.  Luckily some friendly blokes with longer ropes saw the mess we were in and stopped to share their tow ropes.  We connected a few of the ropes together and Joe was able to stay on the high ground to pull the Palmer's car out.

There could be a lot of morals to the snags in this camping trip.  I'll save them for later (or a lesson/talk in church ;).  In the end, we all made it out fine.  We had fun and were glad we have good friends to help out in times of need. We even got to visit some fish farms on the way home.  And, as an added bonus, the kids did sleep for some of the ride back.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Talon the Singer

"But if you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing,
For the love you bring won't mean a thing,
Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing" - Travis

One thing about Talon is that he loves to sing.  That kid will take a nap and sing to himself for an hour before falling asleep.  In the mornings, I'm usually up between 5:30 and 6:00AM and when I get out of the shower, I usually hear him in his room, happily singing to start the day.  During the day, as he plays, he usually has some song coming out of his mouth. Sometimes he makes up his own songs, but we are constantly surprised by the lyrics he remembers.  It often sounds like a bunch of gibberish because he still has a ways to go with pronunciation, but when we listen closely usually we are amazed at the words he is actually singing.

Here are a couple videos of his talent.... not his best work, but usually his best work is not caught on camera.  In fact, he is generally a camera-phobe and will stop performing the minute we bring it out.  Notice, I said we are often surprised by the lyrics.  The melody... not so much ;)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Holiday Hang-ups

"It's time to come together
it's up to you,what's your pleasure,
everyone around the world, come on!" - Cool and the Gang

I recently wrote about celebrating American holidays (Halloween) in the UAE.  Even though American holidays are not officially recognized, there usually isn't any problem with celebrating them.  There is a pretty large western expat community here, especially in Dubai.  Combine that with all the exposure to American movies and other media and it ends up that a lot of people here have heard of some of the bigger American holidays and are fairly tolerant of them.  Some locals even "kind of" join in the celebration in different ways.  It is a fascinating mix of culture, religion, consumerism, and fun.  Maybe I'll address some of that a little more as we approach the American holiday season and its influence over here.

In the meantime, there are some interesting local holidays that we have been introduced too.  Most of them are Muslim holidays.  When we first arrived last year it was in the middle of Ramadan or the month of fasting.  It took a little getting used to the fact that it is AGAINST the LAW to eat during the day for an entire month.  About 2 months later, our neighbors knocked on our door and offered us a bag full of goat meat.  They informed us that it was to celebrate the holiday of Eid al Adha or the Festival of Sacrifice.  Apparently, it is a celebration to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice is son Ishmael (yes, they believe it was Ishmael) and God's intervention.  Because of this they split a sacrificial goat/lamb/ram in three parts to share in the celebration.  We were the fortunate recipients of one of the parts..... it was tasty.

Anyway, that was last year.  This year, we were a little more prepared for Ramadan so we starved a little less. And this week is the holiday of Eid.  What has been interesting this year is to learn a little more about how the holidays work.  These two holidays (and many other Muslim holidays) are not based on the regular Gregorian calendar, but instead on the Muslim calendar that is ... well, a lot less certain and shorter.  The Muslim calendar is tied a lot more closely to the phases of the moon.  Because of this, it is (at least in some countries) a little more open to interpretation.  What I mean is that since a month doesn't start/end until the moon changes phases, the exact start date of a month, or in this case a holiday, may need to be announced and made official by a religious leader (Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia) or the head Sheikh of the country/region/etc.

In reality, this means that you don't really know the exact days (or amount of days) you may get off work for a holiday until as close as a week before the holiday.  This can be a little frustrating.  In the case of Eid this year, most employees where I work were expecting a week off for the holiday.  We were finally informed only a week ago that we would NOT get the entire week, but only 3 days off.  Needless to say, there were some upset people who had to cancel flights or other travel plans.  Then, after all adjustments had been made and employees had resigned themselves to the fact that they would not get the expected time... at 3:30pm of the final work day before the holiday, we were informed that things had changed and yes, we would now get the entire week off.  Bittersweet.

This whole scenario might help give the blog readers a little glimpse at some of the way things work here.  Some say that the only reason for the uncertainty of holiday schedules and other similar events is so that those in charge (government, sheikhs, employers, etc) can have a way to always remind the populace that they are in control/power.  Others say that it is more a symptom of disorganization and ineffective communication.  And, there are others they claim it is a systematic way to keep expats in the country as much as possible to keep their money here instead of being spent traveling to other destinations.... you know, to help the economy.  Any way you look at it, it can be a little annoying.  Not the holiday itself.  I think those are fascinating and enjoyable.  It would just be nice to mark the calendar ahead of time and not wait on some unknown "they" for an official announcement.

Anyway... it is nice to have a week off ;)  Tis the season!

EID Mubarak SMS  Advance EID SMS  Creative Collection

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Going in a Row-Row Boat

"Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience and with faith
She'll make her way" - Natalie Merchant

Two attempts by two different girls to tell the same story.  They both had to deal with some interruptions, but it is fun to see the results.

Saylor's Version

Abigail's Version

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Drive Home

"There's a little black spot on the sun today
It's the same old thing as yesterday" - The Police

I took this photo on the way home from work the other day.

Note: All those other buildings are regular sized skyscrapers.  Yeah, it is tall.

Nice Wicked Witches

"They're creepy and they're kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They're all together ooky" - Theme Song

One of the things that has taken some getting used to while living over here in the United Arab Emirates is the different holidays.  It is nice to get some time off of work for holidays that you have never heard of or do not understand. But, on the flip side, it can disappointing to have to go to work on American holidays that we are used to having free.  Last year I worked on Thanksgiving.  We lucked out because Christmas was on a Saturday, but I had to work on the 26th (my birthday).  I will be working this year on Thanksgiving day also.

It means some adjustments.  Some of those can be fun and interesting as we learn about and celebrate different holidays.  At the same time, we try and do what we can to celebrate the American holidays too.

Halloween is not a holiday here, but fortunately, there is a large expat community.  Right up the road from where I work is the American University of Sharjah.  They have a large campus that includes housing for their faculty.  We have several friends that work there and were kind enough to invite us to join them for trick-or-treating on their campus.  Not all the faculty are Americans, but many are.  So, they have devised a system where those who welcome trick-or-treaters place decorations on their door so that all the little ghouls know where to go.

We had a lot of fun.  Our kids have been excited about Halloween for weeks and decided long ago that they wanted to be a family of witches.  I had to chuckle a little bit that the girls biggest desire was to dress up basically like most of the local women here do everyday (see here).  I guess, when in Rome.... errr.... celebrate your own holiday dressed like the Romans :).

I should mention that our girls would want to clarify that they are not "mean" or "bad" wicked witches, but that they are "nice wicked witches"... again, I have to chuckle that they do not say "good witches".  Funny kids