Festive Season Party

In yet another example of why I’m enjoying working here in Abu Dhabi, our office “Festive Season” party was at the go kart track of Yas Marina Circuit (disclaimer: Yas is a client). Long story short — go karting with your coworkers is an outstanding way to spend an evening, and for only 100 dhs (~$25 US), I’ll be back soon for sure. You feel like you’re going pretty fast since you’re so close to the ground, and after 15 minutes behind the wheel going up to 70km / hour, I was starting to get the hang of the track. I finished a respectable 5th place in the competition, and I’ll be looking forward to improving my time in future races.

Walk like an Egyptian

Back from a 10 day vacation to Egypt and seeing lots of “old stuff.” Overall, a fascinating trip with historic sights and experiences, but fairly chaotic so I don’t think we’re in a hurry to book our return trip. But like I said, a great vacation overall with lots of highlights.

  • Started off in Cairo with (of course) the Pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx and Tutankhamun’s loot at the Egyptian Museum. It was amazing to see the pyramids and to be standing in the shadow of one of the seven wonders of the world. The crowds were pretty crazy though, but I guess that’s to be expected at any major tourist destination. We also went to see the Step Pyramid of Zoser and saw more of Cairo including a tour of a church, mosque and synagogue and a “souq” where we were accosted with various Egyptian trinkets.

  • A highlight of the trip was the Cairo “Sound and Light Show” at the pyramids. Seeing the pyramids lit up at night with dramatic lighting, lasers and narration was definitely worth the ~$50 US we paid, including the “VIP” upgrade for an extra $3 US that guaranteed us a front row seat. Well worth it.

  • Next, we took an overnight train down south to Aswan. The overnight train was interesting and relatively comfortable, and was the way to go from a travel efficiency perspective. We saw the Aswan Dam (which created Lake Nasser), and took a small boat to Philae Temple. From there we boarded the Nile Saray, a small cruise ship that would be our home for the next three days as we cruised up north to Luxor. The cruise was fairly comfortable, though we were getting a little sick of the lack of food options (we had buffet meals included in our trip package) and entertainment options were relatively limited on board. Still, it was a relaxing and enjoyable way to see the Nile.
  • Along the way, we stopped at some smaller temples at Kom Ombo and Edfu with some interesting stories and carvings. And although we did not enjoy the 3am wake up call to get the tour there, we did enjoy a visit to Abu Simbel. Carved into the face of a mountain 2,000 years ago, it was moved up 300km to prevent it from being under water. But they did an impressive job moving the temple, and you could hardly tell it was moved. The temple (and the side temple for his favorite wife) were very impressive and worth the visit to see them in the early morning light.

  • Our cruise concluded in Luxor, where we met our next tour guide for a tour of Karnak Temple, which was once the center of Egyptian life. It was a very impressive structure and we wandered around for a few hours to admire the amazing construction and engravings, some of which still have their original colors. After our experience in Cairo, we could not pass up another Sound and Light Show, and we enjoyed seeing Karnak Temple at night with more dramatic narration as we walked through the temple at night.

  • Day two in Luxor was the Valley of the Queens, Deir el-Bahari and the Valley of the Kings. The ancient Egyptians starting building their tombs out here to keep them away from grave robbers, and as a result some of them are still in relatively good condition. Many still have their original paint, which makes for an amazing opportunity to step back thousands of years in the tombs. Of course, there’s no picture taking in the tombs so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was an amazing experience.

  • After Luxor we road the rails again on an overnight train up to Cairo, where we met a driver to take us over to Alexandria for our last day in Egypt. Alexandria was a nice contrast to the rest of our trip, most notably having less hassle as we walked around. We had a great tour of the city, including Pompey’s Pillar, Fort Qait Bey (roughly on the site where the famous Lighthouse used to stand) and the new Library, on the site of the old library, which they rebuilt in 2002. We had a very comfortable hotel in Alexandria, and were just a short walk from some amazing mango juice and watched a fantastically hilarious Christmas concert complete with a visit from Santa. Overall, we thought Alexandria was a great way to cap off our trip and felt “less touristy” which was a good change of pace.

  • Overall, the driving in Egypt is insane. There’s no simpler way to put it, and no wonder it’s ranked as the #3 most dangerous place in the world to drive. To be fair, the UAE is ranked at #9, but after getting home to the UAE it seems much calmer on the roads here.
  • My main complaint about Egypt was the hassle of being asked for tips everywhere you go. Granted, yes we were in tourist areas, but always having to fish out a pound to go to the bathroom or be accosted by people trying to sell you a 5 pound pyramid or trinket got old fast.
  • I would highly recommend Egypt if you’re interested in history and in seeing some amazing and inspiring sights. But while parts of it were relaxing (the cruise in particular was very chill), I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a laid-back holiday.

Click here for more pictures from our Egypt trip

Happy National Day UAE!

From UAE National Day 2010

The UAE celebrated its 39th anniversary on December 2nd. We left for Egypt on the 2nd to take advantage of two days off (National Day on the 2nd and Islamic New Year on the 7th) but some quick observations about National Day…

  • Fourth of July has nothing on this holiday. The percentage of people wearing UAE garb is actually higher here than in the US I’d estimate. Even just going through the airport we noticed a lot of people wearing hats, scarves or pins. Definitely a lot of national pride at a personal level.

  • The gear they sell for National Day is also awesome. For 14 dhs (around $3 US), I’m now the proud owner of an amazing UAE cowboy hat. You can get almost any regalia you can think of, as these pictures show.
  • From UAE National Day 2010

    The buildings and streets have some great decorations. There are lights on the streets with giant “39” and “1971” signs (the year the UAE was formed) and some of the buildings have very creative lighting. This creates a very festive mood as you drive around town.

I’m sorry we weren’t here for National Day itself, but I’m glad I got a taste of it, and it was interesting to see the national pride shine through. Looking forward to the big 4-0 next year!

Desert Safaris

From Desert Safaris – Nov. 2010

Thanks to a 50% off deal on Cobone.com and a work event, I had the opportunity to go on two desert safaris recently. I’ll highly recommend them for any of you that come to visit us here in the UAE to give you a bit of a taste of the desert bedouin culture, but in case you don’t go on one, here’s the overview of what goes on.

  • The drive out to these safaris is about an hour outside Abu Dhabi. As you can imagine, there’s not much out there — just a lot of sand dunes, though it does make for a picturesque setting for the safari.

  • From Desert Safaris – Nov. 2010

    One of the main features, and my personal fav, is the “dune bashing” where they drive you around in 4x4s off road through the dunes. It’s a little like riding a roller coaster as you bounce around the sand and a ton of fun.

  • I had my first ride on a camel — a short walk around the camp. Not exactly the most comfortable ride of my life, and getting on and off was an interesting experience (my camel wasn’t particularly cooperative).
  • One of the safaris put in a “falcon show” and “dog show” which I’m guessing are not PETA approved in the USA. The “dog show” consisted of releasing 3 hunting dogs after a rabbit, and once they caught the rabbit shooing the dogs off, despite repeated assurances that the dogs have been well trained and wouldn’t kill the rabbit. The falcon show was more humane — basically released the falcon and had him try to catch a fake animal. But he missed the target by a wide margin at which point the safari manager started clapping and the rest of the guests looked on with a “that’s it?” look on our faces.
  • From Desert Safaris – Nov. 2010

    Other activities included a ride on an ATV through the dunes, sand surfing (basically riding down a dune on a snowboard) and watching a belly dancer (no, not really “traditional” but they’ve added it on to make it more entertaining I guess).

Overall, a fun experience and a fun, relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Especially living here in Abu Dhabi it’s easy to spend your time in malls, comfortable offices and hotels, so it’s a good reminder to get out and experience a small taste of desert living (though I don’t think the bedouin cultures a few generations ago had all you could eat buffets and drinks provided for them).

Picts from my two November desert safaris here

Happy Thanksgiving, UAE style

Fortunately, there are several American expats in my office, and one of the first things we said when I joined in August was that we needed to get together for Thanksgiving. So two days after Thanksgiving in America, we held our own Thanksgiving in Dubai. My talented coworker Katie made a huge turkey, and we combined that with salad, homemade pumpkin muffins, stuffing, yams, peas, homemade cranberry sauce and topped off with a tasty pumpkin pie (complete with Cool Whip) plus several other desserts. Even better, there was enough for some leftovers the next day — another one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving.

Of course it’s hard to be away from home for the holidays, but being able to celebrate with good food and friends makes missing home a little bit easier. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

From American Expat Thanksgiving 2010

Nelly Furtado and Taio Cruz

I’m on pace to see more concerts in my first year here in Abu Dhabi than I did my entire time in DC. Friday night we saw Taio Cruz and Nelly Furtado at Yas Island.

Overall, a fun concert, though I actually liked Taio Cruz better than Nelly Furtado. Next up at Yas Island…Guns and Roses in December.

Check out picts and a short video from the concert here

Qasr Al Sarab

From Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort

To celebrate Eid al-Adha, we took a short trip to Qasr Al Sarab desert resort, which is about a 2 hour drive outside Abu Dhabi in the Liwa Desert. It was a fantastic way to spend an overnight trip, with two amazing sunsets in the desert, a picturesque sunrise hike on the dunes, and two days relaxing by the pool. We especially enjoyed spending a few hours in the morning hiking around the dunes and the fine sand. I think I brought back several pounds of sand in my shoes, socks and shorts, but it was a perfect way to relax for a night close by.

Check out some picts here

Eid Mubarak (again)

It’s Eid al-Adha here in the UAE, which marks the end of the Hajj and the start of a three day national holiday. Regular readers will note this is the second Eid Mubarak post, and they’re right — Eid ul-Fitr occurs at the end of Ramadan and the traditional greeting is also “Eid Mubarak.”

In both cases, the dates are not set and depend on the sighting of the moon. Here in the UAE, it occurs at the end of a very busy week with the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ending the Formula 1 season last night. So we’re looking forward to a much-needed break this week – more on our holiday adventures in a later post so stay tuned…

Grand Prix Fever

This weekend is the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit, and it seems like all of Abu Dhabi is swept up in F1 fever. For our part, we’ve gotten into the spirit by checking out the Mubadala Experience at the F1 Fan Zone on the Abu Dhabi Corniche and going to Beats on the Beach, part of the “Yasalam” celebration (which means “wow” or “amazing” in Arabic).

From Grand Prix 2010

The Mubadala Experience is a big exhibit in the Fan Zone that talks about all of its business units and programs they sponsor (disclaimer: my wife is an employee and it is a client of my firm). The highlight for me was the simulator, where I got to take a few laps around the virtual track at Yas Marina Circuit. Unfortunately, driving a race car is much harder than it looks, and I promptly crashed into a wall and spent part of the race going backwards.

From Grand Prix 2010

As part of the “Yasalam” event they have a series of free concerts on the beach, so we went by to briefly check out Kelly Rowland’s concert the other night. Overall a fun experience, especially given that it was November and beach weather.

For my birthday tonight, we’re off to see the post race concert, Kanye West, out at Yas. Should be exciting!

From Grand Prix 2010

More picts here

Another Kelly Rowland video:

Disclaimer: Yas Marina Circuit and Mubadala are clients.

100 Days in Abu Dhabi

From Ramadan 2010

Yesterday we celebrated our first 100 days here in the UAE, so I thought this would be a good chance to recap. When I was back in the US for Liz and Chris’s wedding, the top question I got was, “What’s it like?” which is a tough question to answer since there’s so many facets, but here’s a run down of how our first 100 days have been…

  • Weather – This is the most obvious, but the most common question I get. Yes, when we first got here in the middle of the summer it was really hot – kind of like sticking your head in an oven every time you walk outside. But now in mid-October it’s actually really nice – in the 90s and sunny every day. Much like living in southern California I suspect.
  • People – I remind people that the country is 85% expats, so the majority of people I interact with are not Emiratis, but expats like us. We both get to work with a great group of people, and I’m enjoying working in such a diverse workplace. The few “locals” I’ve interacted with personally are extremely nice, helpful and interesting. There’s a definite social “pecking order” with Emiratis on top, but individually, the people I’ve met and worked with have been great people.
  • Living – It’s actually shockingly easy to live here. Most people speak English. The exchange rate is fixed to the US dollar. There’s grocery stores, tons of malls, movie theaters, Ikea, and everything you’d need to get set up. In our first 100 days, we were lucky to find a great apartment – right next to Annie’s office and pretty easy to get to most places in Abu Dhabi (about 15-20 minutes anywhere on the island). It’s brand new with a parking garage, a gym and a little bit of a view (and not a view of construction like our temporary apartment).
  • Speaking of which, our transition from US to temporary apartment to permanent home in Abu Dhabi was relatively smooth, though it did take close to 8 weeks for our furniture and boxes to reach us. However, it was a nice “touch of home” to see all of our “stuff” finally arrive.
  • The only downside of the living situation is regarding “customer service” broadly speaking. The Etisalat (cable + cell phone) situation is always a challenge, much like cable companies back home. The people who assist you at shops or banks or whatever are much more hit or miss than the US. Granted, customer service often stinks in the US so I’m probably looking at it through rose-colored glasses, but it seems more challenging here.
  • Language – Through work I’m taking “spoken Arabic” lessons, which I’m finding really interesting. However, it’s definitely not “necessary” as everyone pretty much speaks English. All signs are in both Arabic and English, so while I’d love to improve my minimal grasp of Arabic, it’s not a deal breaker.
  • Driving – I’ve already covered this in an earlier post, but suffice to say when I got in a NYC cab at JFK my first reaction was, “Why is this taxi driver so slow?” When NYC taxi drivers aren’t aggressive enough for you, then you’re clearly an Abu Dhabi resident.
  • We did recently buy a car, a used Honda Civic, which is cool since it’s newer than both of our cars back in the US. We bought the car from a nice couple in Al Ain (about an hour from Abu Dhabi) that we found online through Dubizzle, so we’ve been appreciating driving our own car, not the rental car we had for our first two months here. I’ll do a separate post on our new car later…
  • Food – There’s not a ton that’s “authentic Abu Dhabi” food, so on the whole we eat the same kinds of things we’d eat at home. We’ve been to some nice dinners, most notably a great dinner at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi for Annie’s birthday (disclaimer: Hakkasan Abu Dhabi is a client). We also got to enjoy a few Iftar buffets during Ramadan and a great Friday afternoon brunch (all you can eat, all you can drink), so the bottom line is we’re getting plenty of good food to eat.
  • Places – I wish I had a lot of exotic pictures to share, but really the main things I’ve seen are the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and some places in Dubai. However, we’re hoping to do lots of travel here to take advantage of our vacation days (we both get significantly more time off than is common in the US) so we’re currently eyeing trips to Egypt and China in the near future. I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel to London for work, so that was an interesting contrast with Abu Dhabi. I’d say the defining characteristic of Abu Dhabi is “construction.” There’s construction everywhere you look – buildings, roads, etc. But it is interesting to drive around – lots of palm trees, some beaches, and Mosques all around town.

Overall, it’s been a fantastic first 100 days and we’re enjoying being “settled in” here in Abu Dhabi. The work is good, our home is comfortable, and we’re finding everything has been as advertised. Now that we’re able to drive around without maps (for the most part) and are feeling more like “locals” every day, we hope to see some of you over here to visit!

Party in the USA

Once again, I’ve failed my quest to keep this blog regularly updated…sorry. But in honor of 10/10/10, here’s a quick update…

Back from a one week trip the USA for Liz and Chris’s wedding. It was a beautiful Vermont weekend with the fall foliage in all its splendor, so you couldn’t ask for a better weekend. It was great to catch up with friends and family, though I noticed a few “reverse culture shock” moments.

1) Driving. Yes, I’ve gotten to be a much more aggressive driver here in the UAE (you pretty much have to). This was driven home when I got into a NYC taxi from JFK and was thinking, “Why is this guy driving so slowly?” When NYC taxis are not aggressive enough for you, that’s a sign your driving has changed.

2) Advertisements. There are ads here in Abu Dhabi, but nothing like the all-out assault of America. Granted, I was in advertising-happy NYC most of the time, but I was amazed at how ubiquitous ads are throughout my time in the US. Maybe it’s because I was used to seeing them with Arabic on them.

3) Money. I was also amazed that I started doing some conversions in my head to dirhams. I’m so used to dividing by 3 or 4 to convert AED to USD, that I was surprised my brain was working in reverse for some reason. I don’t really know why.

4) HDTV. I really, really miss high def TV. Football and baseball just look so much better (plus being able to watch TV without Slingbox helps)

5) Politics. It’s hard to escape the “less than 30 days to Election Day” fever in the US…made me miss my “former life” a bit. Good luck to all of my friends in the homestretch of the campaign season!

Overall, it was a great break from the UAE to visit the US, though I thought it was interesting to see how much Abu Dhabi now feels like home in less than 3 months. Thanks to everyone who made my trip back so great, and I hope I’ve convinced you that the UAE rocks enough to come visit.

Cherrio, London

Note: I wrote this on the plane ride home but have neglected to post until now as we’ve been enjoying Eid. Sorry!

Back from London later than expected (more on that later) but overall had a very interesting trip.

  • After only a month, already a minor culture shock upon landing in London. Temperature wise it was 1/2 the temperature (67 degrees vs. the 107 when I left Abu Dhabi). More importantly, since it’s not Ramadan in London, I saw many people wantonly drinking water or coffee on the street.

  • From London – August 2010

    First step was a bus tour to get my bearings. Actually, this was a pretty good first introduction as I got to see the key sights right off the bat. Unfortunately, it started raining in the middle, but the double decker tour bus was covered and I enjoyed seeing the sights.

    From London – August 2010
  • Next on the list was a production of Henry IV, Part 2 at Shakespeare’s Globe. They built a reproduction of the original near the site of the original Globe, and it’s actually really cool. It’s open air, so it gets a little chilly at the end of the production. I chose to get a real seat, but you can stand as the “groundlings” used to. Generally it was a good production, though it was a little hard to hear at points since my seat was on the side and there was some ambient noise from being open air. But a great experience that I highly recommend next time you’re in London.
  • From Notting Hill Carnival

    Monday was a Bank Holiday, so I headed over to the Notting Hill Carnival for a bit. It was one of the largest events I’ve ever been to, with an estimated 2 million people attending over the two days. The closest I can think to describe it is the largest fraternity party you’ve ever seen with packed crowds everywhere. There basically three main components – an ongoing parade with floats and elaborate costumes, large blocks of people dancing in the street, and people waiting in line for food and drinks. Took me 45 minutes to get some jerk chicken, and judging by what I saw, this seemed like a normal experience.

    The picts and some video are the best way to get a feel for the event.

    So if you’re in the market for a fun afternoon in London, I highly recommend it (assuming you like large, packed crowds)

  • On Saturday, I got up early for a full tourist day. I had a lot of recommendations from people on what to see and do with one day in London, but I decided to “wing it” rather than being strategic.
    From London 09.04.10

    Started off with Buckingham Palace on the logic that it’s only open two months out of the year so I should take advantage and see it while I could. I little expensive (17 pounds = $26) but interesting to see all the State rooms of the Palace. There was also an exhibit on “The Queen’s Year” showing all the things the Queen does throughout the year. Throughout my tour I found myself comparing it to the White House, but obviously much more lavish. Overall it was an interesting tour and I enjoyed the free audio guide.

    I got in at the 10am tour group, so I finished a little after 11 in time to head back to the front of Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard. After my experience on Monday, this was only the second largest crowd I’ve ever seen. Wall to wall people raising their cameras up to take a picture of other outstretched hands. So of course I joined in the fun and took some picts. Worth seeing, though again I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t like crowds.

    From London 09.04.10

    Next up was a quick walk by 10 Downing Street (not much to see there) since you can’t really see more than the gate on the street. After grabbing quick lunch I headed to Westminster Abbey. Again, fairly expensive – 15 pounds = $23. I was initially questioning paying this much to go in the church or going over to see the Crown Jewels, but I went in to Westminster and it was a fantastic decision. Absolutely amazing inside – so much history and a beautiful building. Moreover, I didn’t realize how big it was, and I spent about 2 hours going through the audio tour.

    From London 09.04.10

    After that I went on a tour of Parliament, which as a political nerd was terribly exciting (“just like late night CSPAN!”) Received a very nice 75 minute tour, where we got to see the House of Commons and the House of Lords and hear more about UK Government. I didn’t realize the buildings were so new, but like visiting the US Capitol, it was an interesting mix of a building in use today alongside history and tradition.

    My final stop was attending church at Westminster Abbey for the 5pm choral service. Absolutely beautiful. The music, setting and service was a powerful way to end my trip to London.

    Little did I know, but at this point I was already late for my flight home. When I checked and rechecked my ticket home, for some reason I read “21:30″ as “11:30″ and thus planned my day accordingly. Only once I got to a deserted airport (ironically at 21:30), did I realize my mistake. Fortunately, all’s well that ends well and I was able to rebook on the morning flight, and after a few hours at the Yotel at the Heathrow Airport, I was on my way home.

Overall, it was a very interesting week and I felt like I got a good sense of London in a short period of time. During all of this I was pretty busy at work, but I was able to balance several late nights with a few busy tourist days. On the whole, a successful trip and I’m looking forward to seeing London again in the future.

Big thanks to the Edelman Digital team in London for a busy but productive week.


Eid Mubarak!

As Ramadan draws to a close, everyone here in Abu Dhabi is celebrating Eid al Fitr today. For us, that means a break from work, as we’re not back in the office until Monday. We don’t have any major Eid plans, so we’re planning on a small “staycation” with unpacking and settling in to our new apartment.

Read more about Eid al Fitr if you’re interested and “Eid Mubarak” to all.

IOU: A few posts

I know, I know. I’m not going to be one of those people who doesn’t update their blog. I owe you all posts on:

  • Iftar at Emirates Palace
  • A second visit to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque
  • Moving in to our new place

But for now I’m in London for work and that’s keeping me pretty busy. However, I promise to post some updates soon, and until then you have my notes on London and all these other things to look forward to. You can also check out my picture of Elmo from the Marina Mall Sesame Street exhibit to the right.

Iftar fun

We just got back from our first Iftar dinner here in Abu Dhabi. Iftar is the meal held at sunset when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. Since we weren’t fasting all day (no food or water during Ramadan), it really was just a giant buffet for us. But it was very cool to be a part of the tradition and get into the spirit of Ramadan here in the UAE.

Check out picts from the Iftar and other picts during Ramadan

Overall, Ramadan has a “Christmas-like” feeling here – there are lights on the trees and decorations outside. Stores at the mall have Ramadan sales and TV stations wish you a “Ramadan Kareem.” It’s an interesting time to be in the UAE – no eating or drinking in public, but a generally festive atmosphere at night (though I’m told you should be careful driving around late in the afternoon since people haven’t been eating all day).

Iftar at the Fairmont Hotel here is held in a giant air-conditioned tent. The food was fantastic and a great variety – traditional Arabian food plus European, Asian and Indian food.

Inside the Iftar tent

There was also a great dessert buffet:

I’m also a fan of the Arabian coffee. It’s a big part of the tradition here in the UAE and done with a lot of ritual – as an example of its place in society, there’s even a giant coffee pot monument in the middle of one of the streets of Abu Dhabi. The coffee itself is served in a small cup with interesting spices (cardamom, for example).

After tonight’s very tasty Iftar, I’m even more excited for our Iftar dinner Sunday night at Emirates Palace, the world’s second most expensive hotel now (after a more expensive one in Singapore opened up this summer). Still, with a $3 billion price tag on the hotel, I’m thinking they know how to throw a good buffet. I’ll let you know…

Vampires of the UAE

Just a quick post about the UAE visa process. It involves a medical test, so I drove out to the testing place to get this taken care of as quickly as possible. Generally, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but it was an interesting process because of the pricing and setup.

There are three levels — normal, fast track and VIP. The normal level ($70) requires you to make an appointment and wait in a big waiting room. The fast track process ($95) is similar but you skip to the front of the line and don’t have to make an appointment. You can get in and out in about 20 minutes.

However, for $140 you can be a “VIP” and shown upstairs to a completely separate area. After checking in and waiting on a nice couch, you do your “screening” which involves a doctor asking you two very complicated questions (“Do you have any diseases? Do you have any allergies”) and stamping your form. From there you do have to do a blood test even if you’re a VIP (hence the title of the post) and a quick x-ray (with your clothes on) and you’re out. The entire process took around 20 minutes as promised, and the VIP setup was pretty nice. It got me thinking to what this would look like back in the US. I could definitely see myself paying more to jump in a VIP line at DMV for example. Maybe this is how we can reduce those government deficits…

UPDATE: The latest news from GulfNews.com:

“Resident expatriates will no longer have to undergo tests for hepatitis B, a blood-borne disease and tuberculosis, for renewal of their residency visas, the Ministry of Health has announced.”

Read more

Ramadan around the corner

From Ramadan Preparations

Ramadan will be starting later this week, probably around the 11th or 12th (it’s not officially set until the night before). I’m told it’s an interesting time to be here, though you have to be careful about not eating or drinking anything in public for a month. I’ve also heard there’s no music and not much else going on for the month.

In terms of good news, I am looking forward to the Iftar tents. Every night after sunset they have a big feast which I’m looking forward to seeing. Decorations and preparations are already well underway here, as you can see from the picture gallery below. Kind of like seeing Christmas decorations going up back in the USA, so it’ll be interesting to see how the city changes for a month (though I’m going to have to be careful about the no eating or drinking in public rule).

Ramadan Preparation Picts

Weekend trip to Dubai

Annie found a great last-minute deal online, so we decided to take a quick weekend trip to Dubai. In theory, it’s a pretty easy drive (around 1.5 hours), though that doesn’t account for getting turned around by the maddening Dubai street signs (which are confusing to say the least).

Picts are online here

  • We spent the first day at the Mall of the Emirates, famous for the world’s only indoor black diamond ski slope. It’s amazing that it feels so much smaller than the Dubai Mall, and yet it’s still the world’s third largest mall.

  • Ski Dubai is as amazing as promised. The contrast of -3 degrees inside and 40 degrees outside alone is pretty funny, but add to that a rustic ski chalet-type restaurant complete with video fireplace and you have the makings of a great place. I can’t wait to actually ski on the slope there – as I said, it’s the only indoor black diamond in the world, for what that’s worth.
  • A good feature of the mall, and actually most malls I’ve seen in the UAE, is the opportunity to get your car washed. Our car pretty desperately needed a wash, and for $6 it looks as good as new while we shopped.
  • We had an amazing Chinese dinner in a part of town known as “Old Dubai.” For only about $40, we had a feast at China Sea, which led me to develop the “tissue box corollary” — namely the presence of a box of tissues on the table (which are often used in place of napkins) equates to a cheap and tasty meal. Lebanese Flower and China Sea are so far the only restaurants I’ve been to with this feature, but so far it’s two for two.

  • We spent the evening catching up with friends in Dubai, and it’s impossible not to mention seeing the Burj Khalifa at night. It’s a glittery icon that dominates the skyline in the same way as the Eiffel Tower, though I think it needs to do even more to light up every so often like the Eiffel (we noticed a brief light show)
  • Annie got a great deal online at the Rose Rotana hotel, which is the world’s tallest hotel. Actually, according to Wikipedia, this changed recently and it’s now the third tallest (link to Wikipedia). Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the top six are all located in Dubai.
  • Overall it was a nice hotel, with a good breakfast buffet included. The ceiling in our hotel room had a small arrow to point people in the direction of Mecca, which I thought must be handy.
  • We spent Saturday in the Dubai Mall, including a tasty lunch at the Social House. I’d been in the mall before, but it is impressive and large enough that you’re definitely ready for lunch after walking around for a few hours.
  • We finished our day with a drive around the Palm Jumeirah. It’s a man-made island that opened in 2006, and it’s humbly referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” (according to Wikipedia). Obviously, it’s hard to tell that it’s a man made island shaped like a palm tree from the ground, but pretty impressive from the air.
  • My impressions of Dubai haven’t changed a lot since my first two trips. Glitzy, exciting, but the roads are maddeningly confusing. It’s a fun place to visit and I’m looking forward to our next trip there, but I’m pretty happy with our decision to live in Abu Dhabi, if for no other reason than I think I would constantly be lost if I had to drive to Dubai on a regular basis.

Rain in Abu Dhabi

It rained today when I was in the car. Granted, it rained for about 15 seconds, but I think that still counts and was very exciting at the time.

Not enough to wash off our rental car, which is sadly caked with a thin layer of sand and dust. The downside of living in the middle of a desert / construction zone.

Movies in Abu Dhabi

We went to see Salt last night, which was the second movie we’ve seen in Abu Dhabi along with Inception. Both were great summer movies – good action, interesting plots and overall a good way to spend two hours. Some quick notes about movie going in Abu Dhabi:

  • By far my favorite feature is reserved seating. When you buy your tickets, you also choose your seats (just like going to a play). This is very helpful and I wish they would institute this in the US. Great that you don’t have to worry about getting there early to sit through commercials and trailers in order to save seats.

  • The only thing different is the addition of subtitles in Arabic, which you don’t really even notice after awhile. I’ve been told some movies are edited, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that in either movie so far.

On the whole, thumbs up both to the movies and to the theater experience in Abu Dhabi.

Our temporary apartment

Several people have asked about our temporary digs, so here’s some quick notes and a photo gallery.

  • It’s a very spacious 2 bedroom, right in the middle of Abu Dhabi. Overall it’s a pretty nice place and feels pretty comfortable. We’ve had some issues with the clothes washer / dryer (specifically the dryer not working so well and the lack of instructions in English), but on the whole it’s been a good place to spend a month.

  • We do, however, live in the middle of a ton of construction. This is not really unique to Abu Dhabi, as much of the city is under construction. This wasn’t a lot of fun as I was taking a few days to shake off my jet lag, as I would be awoken at 7am by the sounds of construction equipment rumbling along. We face out on about 8-10 construction projects, so even just driving around our little neighborhood, there’s a ton of construction traffic everywhere.

  • The location in the middle of Abu Dhabi is great, as we’re easily able to get to both ends of the island. In fact, our experience here has been so positive it’s prompted us to live in this same area permanently (more on our new apartment in the days ahead).

First visit to Emirates Palace

Abu Dhabi famously spent $3 billion on the Emirates Palace hotel, which fortunately for us makes for a fun place to visit on a Sunday night.

  • I’ve been asked the most about the gold ATM, which recently made news as the world’s first gold ATM. For all those times when you have to have gold right now. Pretty interesting to see in person, but no, I did not get any from the machine. They do have a website you can check out here if you’re interested.
  • On the whole, it’s a very impressive hotel (as you would expect), but we only hung out for a little bit so I’ll give more details the next time I’m there. We also toured a very interesting permanent exhibit about the future of Abu Dhabi, and it’s interesting to see what they have planned for the years ahead. We also picked up some helpful maps and literature from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

Dinner at Lebanese Flower

We had a great dinner tonight at Lebanese Flower, a cool restaurant right near our place. For around $40, we got a very tasty meal including 1kg of “mixed grill” which was delicious. Needless to say, we’ll definitely be back.

A visit to the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi

This morning I had the chance to take a very interesting and informative tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque here in Abu Dhabi. The tour started at 10am and lasted about an hour, though I spent another hour wandering around and taking some pictures. It’s a free tour, so I highly recommend it when you come to visit us in Abu Dhabi.

A picture’s worth a thousand words, so there are 48,000 words for you in my Picasa gallery here. For even more, read on…

  • It’s definitely an impressive Mosque, though to be fair I haven’t been to many to compare. It’s currently listed as the 8th largest in the world, according to Wikipedia, and our tour guide said it can hold 40,000 to 50,000 worshipers (some of whom arrive 2+ hours early to worship on Fridays.

  • Somehow, the configuration of the stones in the middle courtyard makes them cool despite being directly in the sun on a 108 F degree day. Apparently it’s because they’re fairly small and white, but it’s hard to believe when you take off your shoes and step on it (though our tour guide neglected to mention that the color tiles are pretty hot — ouch).

  • Each dome is topped with real gold, which is part of the reason the cost is so far estimated at $545 million. Our tour guide joked that it’s up on top “so people don’t steal the gold.” (She wasn’t really the “joking” type so it took everyone on our tour a minute to realize she was telling a joke.)

  • There are a series of clocks which list the five calls to prayer throughout the day. The sixth time is sunrise which is on there just “FYI,” which our guide explained is because many people sleep in and miss the pre-sunrise one, so they just get up one minute before sunrise.

  • The Mosque is home to the world’s largest carpet (handmade by over 1,000 people in Iran) and the world’s largest chandelier (made in Germany, which was unfortunately being refurbished for Ramadan during my visit). There are subtle lines in the carpet (they look like seams at first) which our tour guide explained helps

    keep all the prayer lines straight. They don’t start a new row of worshipers until the entire line is filled up shoulder to shoulder, which explains a recent article I read about a Fatwa being issued about eating garlic before prayers (“The Awqaf also reminded worshippers not to head to the mosque after eating garlic, as the smells “offends” those trying to pray.” The National Read the article here)

  • The Qibla wall is the wall that faces Mecca and contains the 90+ terms Muslims have for “God.” Random fact: the calligraphy was done by the same person who did the UAE currency. The wall also has an interesting glow that subtly moves from vine to vine, creating a cool effect if you’re paying attention.
  • The Mosque is lit with different colors at night depending on the phase of the moon (the Islamic calendar is based on the moon), so I’m going to have to keep an eye on that.
  • Apparently every mosque has an area like this which used to allow the prayers to echo more. Today, they just use microphones, which is good because the calls to prayer done at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque are transmitted to all mosques in Abu Dhabi (over 1,000 mosques).

  • I really liked this side room to the main prayer room (I can’t remember if this was the men’s or the women’s room). The carpet and ceiling are mirror images of each other to represent “on Earth as it is in Heaven” (roughly translated).

Our tour guide was very informative and took a lot of time to answer our questions about the Mosque and Islam in general. For example, someone on our tour asked why men and women are separated, and she explained that since you’re touching the person next to you, it’s important to keep your focus on praying, not on the person next to you. Overall, I thought this was the perfect way to cap off my first week in Abu Dhabi and a great way to spend the morning.

More links

Dubai Road Trips

Road trip! Thanks to interviews and meetings with some great folks in Dubai, I recently had the chance to take the drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai twice. My thoughts and impressions of the drive as well as the obligatory photo gallery:

  • The drive takes a little over an hour city edge to city edge, which makes sense because it’s about 120km between the two (roughly 75 miles). It took me more like 1.5 hours each time door to door since I was going to places more in the middle of the city.

  • Speaking of the distance, it “only” takes that long because of the speed limit (120 km / hour = 75 miles / hour). Moreover, most people don’t actually drive this posted speed limit. Most people were driving a healthy 160 km / hour = 100 miles / hour by my estimation. To be fair, it’s pretty easy to crank on the speed when you’re on a 6 lane highway in the middle of the desert with no one around. Especially if you’re driving one of the extremely nice sports cars I saw zooming past me as I set the cruise control at a clunky 86 mph.
  • Once you get over 120 km / hour, the car starts beeping at you — a consistent “bing bing bing” in the background. I had been warned about this annoyance, but it really does start to get to you after an hour. However, a fun pastime is matching up the beat from music on a CD to the pinging.
  • The Abu Dhabi portion of the drive features nice trees and other features. However, there’s a clear difference once you hit Dubai, as the trees are no longer and it looks much more like a desert.


    Abu Dhabi
  • I loved this giant roadside picture of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the person credited with forming the UAE.

  • On my way home from the first trip, I stopped for a tasty roadside lunch. Sadly, I lost the battle with the Diet Pepsi can here (they don’t pop off the same way as they do in the USA), but you can’t complain for a $3 lunch.
  • On my second trip, I stopped at the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall. Complete with another indoor skating rink (larger than the Marina Mall rink in Abu Dhabi) and tons of shops, it’s very impressive. Plus free wifi, so a great place to spend the morning.

  • And of course my trip blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. I can’t wait to go to the top, but it’s interesting to see as you drive around Dubai. Looks cool and adds to the futuristic quality of Dubai (an apt description from someone I met was Dubai is “like Sim City.”)

That’s about it from my two brief forays into Dubai. I got horribly lost the second time thanks to incoherent directions and some crazy road layouts. For a city this new, it’s amazing the roads are that confusing. Regardless, it’s been an interesting contrast between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and I can’t wait to go back and explore some more.

Picasa Gallery – Dubai Road Trips

Abu Dhabi: First Impressions

After sleeping off our jet lag a bit, we enjoyed a tasty brunch at Le Meridien Hotel on our way to pick up our rental car. From there we took the opportunity to adventure drive a bit since it was fairly quiet on a Friday morning (like driving around on a Sunday morning in the US). Our adventure took us to Marina Mall, which is where I got my first impressions of Abu Dhabi. Based on what I’ve been told, checking out a mall seems like a logical first day in Abu Dhabi, so we spent our day at Ikea, Carrefour (kind of like a Super Wal Mart) and checking out the mall.

A few observations:

  • It’s 110 degrees outside, yet you can still go ice skating. There’s also indoor skiing in Dubai so despite the fact that I now live in a desert, I can easily enjoy two winter sports. Awesome.

  • I can’t wait to try out the “McArabia.” No matter if you’re halfway around the world, McDonalds always feels like home.

    There’s apparently also something called the “Big Tasty.” I asked what this was and then looked up to find a sign that said, “It’s big…and tasty.” So I guess that answers that.

  • We also stopped by the Abu Dhabi Mall (a harrowing experience driving there), and we went to Zaatar W Zeit for a tasty snack. Sitting there, we could see tons of construction on As Suwwah Island. Generally, it feels like the entire city is under construction as you see tons of cranes everywhere. In fact, our temporary apartment faces a giant construction pit, as well as the shells of 8-10 building in various stages of completion. This is of course a ton of fun when you’re woken up at 7am by construction noise.

  • So far, so good in Abu Dhabi. We got some groceries so we can now do breakfasts and whatnot in our apartment. I’ll save updates on my cooking adventures for another day…

14 Hour Flight Complete

Fortunately, we had a direct flight from JFK – AUH and thanks to Etihad Pearl Business Class we had a car and driver on each end of the trip. Flying business class definitely has its perks, including access to the lounge at JFK Airport, good food and drinks on demand on the flight, and the ability to sleep completely lying down. Sadly, I couldn’t figure out how to get the USB hub working to connect to my iPad, but maybe on my next Etihad flight.

Arriving in Abu Dhabi after the long flight was a bit of a blur, but one thing you definitely notice is the heat as soon as you step outside the terminal for the first time. Actually, at night it’s really not that bad, and since we left DC and its ~100 degree days behind, it just feels like stepping into a sauna. Thanks to our door-to-door service, the walk outside was about 15 steps, so I’ll have to report later on what it’s like to be acclimated to constant 100+ degree days.

After a small bit of confusion with the driver (again, since there are no addresses here you basically have to go to the nearest landmark and figure it out) we found our temporary apartment where we’ll be for the next month. A pretty nice place for temporary digs — two bedrooms, two bathrooms and kitchen and a living room. Now if only we could get the internet working…

Off to Abu Dhabi

We’re on our way to Abu Dhabi tonight, but it might take a few weeks to get settled in and start blogging on a regular basis. In the meantime, feel free to email questions@withoutanaddress.com to ask any questions you have about the UAE and I’ll do my best to find answers.

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Pictures from Abu Dhabi

Picts from Abu Dhabi

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