Wednesday, March 28, 2012

School is Cool

American Community School courtyard.

Here in Abu Dhabi, there are American, British, Arabic, Australian, Canadian, Philippine, French, German, Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian schools. And more.

I hadn’t taught in a classroom since June 2003, when I left my dream job teaching 5th grade in Walnut Creek, and Mark and I moved to Nevada. So I surprised myself recently by becoming interested in the school communities here in Abu Dhabi. What’s up with that? Don’t I have enough to do? I’m so busy having adventures and writing about them, I haven’t even had time to paint.

Maybe it has something to do with my granddaughter Kailyn, who is in kindergarten. On my recent trip back to California, I went with mom Kerri to pick Kailyn up from school. The school environment seemed familiar as I watched teachers herding kids looking like pack animals (camels?) with their giant backpacks.

Kailyn just loves school, and her mommy.

Kailyn’s class finally came out. I braced myself and when Kailyn saw me she said “Graaaammmmaaaaa!” and ran into my arms. Next I met her friends. Kailyn loves school; I don’t remember my own kids loving school the way she does. When we Skype, she tells me what she is learning. At the beginning of the year, it was letters of the alphabet and numbers. Now, she can read lots of words.

Suddenly school seems cool to me again. I started telling people that I was thinking of subbing.

So I registered online with the American Community School in Abu Dhabi and got a call: could I substitute for the music teacher for three days? Well . . . ah, sure. I mentioned that I am not a musician, knowing that it doesn’t matter. I’m a qualified teacher.

Over the next three days, I taught music to every student in the ACS elementary school; six groups per day, one of each grade level, K through 5. That’s some 380 kids, give or take a few absences. Each day I repeated the same lessons. It was like the movie “Groundhog Day,” with different kids.

I tried to learn their names, using a photo chart. They laughed at my mispronunciations. “Ah-med.” “Haha! It’s Acchh-med!” Oops. I knew that.

How many readers have
loved this book?
I watched a DVD on the families of the orchestra nine times. I watched the one on strings three times. I figured out how to boot up a music game on the classroom Apple computers. I made friends with the Indian IT guy, who hooked my PC up to the school internet and called my new Sony computer a “Mercedes” compared to what he is used to working with.

I learned to “Rumble in the Jungle.”

I had a great first day; I was fresh, and left feeling energized. Hey, I can do this. Mark was really jazzed as well. He likes the idea of me working part time.

The second day I felt stale. What am I doing here? It’s so nice outside.

These kids are noisy and not focused. If I let them sit on the floor during the video, they would lie down and roll all over each other. When I told the first graders their music teacher wasn’t sick but had hurt her back, they began to suffer from sore joints, hurt knees and hangnails. Then the kindergarteners came in at the end of the day, and an epidemic broke out: every last one had to go to the bathroom. Maybe this subbing isn’t the thing for me. That night I was exhausted.

Kids are basically the same everywhere. The third day, I remembered my old tricks for getting their attention and cooperation. First, don’t expect too much. I’m a sub. Second, tell them a little about yourself but not so much that you bore them. Third, be nice but firm. “I know you think I’m nice right now. But that can change, and . . . you don’t want to see that.” Then glower.

When I said I was from Michigan, California, and Nevada, some lit up. Their parents were born there, they had a relative there, they had been there, or Texas, or Virginia. But when I asked them where they themselves are from, they had trouble answering. Some knew where they were born, but where am I from? Shoulders shrugged. They don’t identify with one place. They have lived in too many.

When I told the first graders that I have a granddaughter in kindergarten one boy raised his hand and said “I have a question.” Yes? “How can you be a grandma when . . . you look so . . . young?

You have just earned a bonus behavior point for your entire class, my friend.

Now, I’m not gonna lie. By the end of Thursday I was happy, and even happier when I learned that the music teacher had the all-clear to return to work the next week. I’m not a music teacher. I told Waheeda, the sub caller, that I would work three days a week: Sunday Monday, and Tuesday. I can teach any elementary or middle school grade, and high school subjects like English and Social Studies. No math, chemistry, physics . . . I hate looking dumb.

These kids just might be my first graders.

Then I got another call: first grade. When I got to the classroom, there wasn’t enough time to read over the lesson plans, so I had to punt, reading them as I went. The best part of the day was Writer’s Workshop. I loved seeing them working on their stories and spelling lists, just like the kids did when I was teaching.

There were some very strong personalities in this group; lots of talking out and attention-getting. “He’s cutting!” “It’s not fair!” “They hurt my feelings!” Plus, if you exhibit even the slightest hesitation in knowing the procedure, they will tell you – all ten versions. And then argue among themselves about which one is correct.

Aaayyyy. Finally near the end of the day, I was retrieving them from Arabic class. We were lining up next to another first grade, which happened to have a tall, young, good-looking male teacher.

“J---,” I called to the biggest, noisiest and most precocious kid in the class, waving him forward with my hand. “I want you up here.”

“Dude,” the other teacher said. “The sub knows your name already. That’s not a good sign.”

“Well,” I admitted, “I was subbing for the music teacher last week.”

You were the music teacher?” J--- said.

“Yeah!” said the kids in line behind him.

You didn’t know that?” I was incredulous
“You look different,” J--- said.

Wait. He wasn’t the one who said I looked young . . . was he?

This week I got another call. Would I teach sixth grade Language Arts and Social Studies?
The kids were great. We had Writer’s Workshop, biographies, and Ancient Civilizations-- Egypt. They knew what to do, and went about their work independently. I facilitated. It reminded me so much of my old teaching days, and how I ran my classroom. Yes, they chatted to each other but it was mostly about the work. A classroom with some noise is a classroom where kids are engaged, as long as it’s at a tolerable level. I remembered and used my strategies to help them monitor their own noise level, and it worked!

I noticed when the kids came into the classroom that a few were very dressed up. One girl wore a floor-length bright blue sequined gown and another had on a gauzy and stylish flapper dress. Finally at the end of the day I asked a boy who was dressed in a suit and tie: “So, do you always dress so -- formally -- for school?” “No," he smiled. "Today is Oscars Day. Tomorrow is Pajama Day. Then it’s Crazy Hair Day.” They have theme days here, just like in the U.S.

ACS kids have lived all over the world.

I was beginning to think this was exactly like a school in the U.S. Then I remembered about next week. “So, you guys have spring break next week, right?” I asked a table of three. “I’m going to China,” a boy said. “I’m going to France,” a girl said. “I’m going to Italy,” said the third.

“Wow,” I said.

After school I asked the teacher next door about the middle school program where they study in another country for a week. “Yes,” she lit up. “It’s our ‘Week without Walls.’ We go to the Greek ruins in Turkey, and they are the tour guides. I’ve been to Turkey so many times I could be a tour guide there.” She’s been teaching at ACS for twelve years.

The 7th graders go to Turkey as well, and the 8th graders go to Thailand, where they work on conservation projects.

I didn’t think I wanted to go back to teaching full time. I once thought I would never teach middle school. Too crazy? Hormones gone wild?

ACS teachers travel with their students
during the Week without Walls.
 Under the right circumstances, I just might change my mind.

 If you’re interested in knowing more about the American Community School, watch their 16-minute recruiting video.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sailing in Waterworld with Italians

Mark is now a happy guy.
Did we join the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club? No, and now it looks like we won’t, at least not any time soon. Why? Well, a few reasons. 
One, we volunteered several times on race committee. It was fun, but it didn’t really get us closer to getting to crew on a race boat. And we are in no hurry to buy one here. They want too much money.

Two, Dubai is a long drive away. This seriously cuts into our post-race socializing, and drinking after the race is out of the question if we are driving home.

Three, we have fallen in love with an Italian and his boat right here in Abu Dhabi. Here is how it happened.
Mark evaluates Unwind. Interesting. Has possibilities. Italian flag.

“It needs new lines. Other than that, it’s in good shape. This boat is actively racing,” Mark observed. We were snooping around the marina across from Heritage Park near the Volvo Ocean Race stopover venue, and looking at the Pacer 27 Unwind. “Maybe they need help. I’ll find out who owns it and contact him.”
It took a while, but one day Mark came home from work and said “I found out the name of the owner of that Pacer 27. He’s Italian.” Molto bene! Mark is half Italian; his mother’s family is from Torino.
After a few emails, we learned that the boat has been racing regularly, and some of the crew comes from Dubai. The owner, Emiliano, admitted that it would be good to have more local crew, as it’s hard to race as often as he wants to. Mark emailed pictures of Wildcard, gave a brief rundown of our sailing experience, and volunteered to help maintain and upgrade the boat. The emails between them became more enthusiastic, and soon we had an invitation to race on an informal Thursday night race on the Abu Dhabi waterfront, with a barbecue at the Palace Hotel marina afterward.
Unwind is narrow, like Wildcard.

The crew was Emiliano, his nine-year-old daughter Emma, Mark, and me. We met at the boat at 4:00 p.m. I was coming straight from a day of substitute teaching elementary school music, so I was looking forward to interacting with Emma, and seeing how she did on the boat. Emiliano had told us she likes to drive.

Emma likes to drive, but when she slows down, "it's the wind's fault."

Emma chattered and steered as we motored out of the marina into the breeze, raised the main, and unrolled the jib. Soon we had enough wind and a good angle to raise the spinnaker and sail over to the Palace hotel to our rendezvous with the other boats.
As we approached the area, we were waved away by the Coast Guard, who were stationed at the entrance to the Palace Hotel marina. “We are having a race! We want to go to the marina!” Emiliano called. “No. Marina!” the Coast Guard said, pointing to the other marina, the one we just came from. “This happens every time,” Emiliano sighed. “They don’t get it, and they don’t know English.” Meanwhile, he was on his mobile phone. “The barbecue is cancelled. No problem. We will have our own barbecue. They are coming out. The race will start at 5:30.”
As we sailed around waiting for other boats to appear, I noticed the jet skis. They were roaming in little packs. It reminded me of the Kevin Costner movie, “Waterworld.” I imagined what it would be like here in Abu Dhabi if the sea level rises several meters and all the roads and lower floors of the buildings are underwater. People would live and work on the upper floors, and everyone would use jet skis instead of cars . . .
A noise interrupted my musing; it was two jet skis approaching. They split apart, one on each side of the boat. Emma waved at the young Emirati passing to windward of us and he gave her a friendly wave back. This distracted me so I didn’t notice as other one came roaring up to leeward, where I was trimming the jib. Just as Emma called a warning, he spun out beside the rail, right where I was sitting, sending a huge surge of water onto the boat.
I jumped up too late. “What an a$$hole!” I exclaimed as he roared off, grinning. I was dripping, drenched through from the waist down. Emma was laughing heartily. “Do they do that all the time?” I asked. “It happens. Not too often,” Emiliano said “but sometimes. Especially if there is a woman . . .”
Oh great. Now whenever I’m sailing, I’ll be watching out for young Emirati men on jet skis, who want to attack me. Smokers! This place is Waterworld!
Two more boats eventually emerged from the marina, a 75-foot custom cruising catamaran and a Beneteau Oceanis 40. We had ourselves a race, all right. A horn sounded, and we all turned upwind. “We sail around Lulu Island,” Emiliano said. Really? That seemed a little ambitious, but it didn’t matter. We were sailing.
And that, in a nutshell, is what it was all about. We were just going sailing. As the other two boats fell behind, Mark and I agreed that the Pacer 27 behaves a lot like Wildcard and looks similar, just smaller. It has a narrow bow and open cockpit with a relatively wide stern. The main differences are that Unwind has a hard-chine hull and a tiller.
003We sailed out into the Arabian Gulf for a while, and tacked toward Lulu Island. We talked with Emiliano about boats, sailing, the economy, Italy, and life in Abu Dhabi. He and his family, which in addition to Emma includes wife Sylvia and daughter Greta, 7, have been living here since 2005. The dolphins played, Emma flitted about on the boat, chattering in English and Italian and playing with her mobile phone, the sun got low, and we headed back in. We had won the race.
After we put the boat away, we drove to Al Bateen Marina on the other side of town where we drank a post-race beer at a lovely poolside bar. Sylvia and Greta met us there. As we sat down to dinner at the Riviera restaurant, Sylvia ordered two margarita pizzas for the girls, to be served ASAP. The adults looked over the menu. Mark and I have eaten pizza at the Riviera, but Emiliano and Sylvia obviously had more experience, so I said “Would you mind ordering some dishes that we can all share?” As they discussed and decided what to order, Mark quietly said to me, “This is the way to eat out. Have Italians order the food!”
The whole thing was a slice of heaven. Dinner was fried calamari appetizer, focaccia with olives, tossed salad with mixed seafood, whole grilled fish, and white wine. Sylvia avoided ordering the hammour, which is overfished, and ordered sea bream instead. Greta talked about the difference between the natural and built environments, which she is learning in school, and how important it is to conserve water.
Mark is now a very happy man. Emiliano is obviously very knowledgeable and passionate about sailing, and he and his boat are here in Abu Dhabi. His boat is fast. He is fun and incredibly gracious. He has an absolutely charming family. He said we can use the boat ourselves if we want to. “Why not? It should be sailing.”
Plus, if I may say so, he’s easy to look at.
What’s not to love?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Around the World in 17 Days

  In which Anne spots a possible dead body and encounters snakes on a plane.

Kailyn is getting so grown up, and she is such a sweetie.People in this part of the world travel a lot, especially expat women my age who aren’t working. They long to spent time with family back home. My friend Terry went home to Florida in December and she’s planning another trip in April. Sam, a new friend from England, spends a week or two in Abu Dhabi with her husband Trevor, and then goes back to England where she has a daughter in school. Helen, who is a neighbor here in Al Seef compound, was gone from the beginning of November until the first week of January. Deb and I crossed in the air over Russia as she returned from her trip back to St. Louis.

And virtually everyone leaves during Ramadan, or “Holy Month.”

Ramadan is a month of fasting from sunrise till after sunset. Eating and drinking are not allowed in public, even water. That goes for everyone, including non-Muslims. I’ve heard that you will be arrested if you are caught breaking the fast in public but, as with many things here, the official policy is sometimes far more strict than the enforcement seems to be. Still, I haven’t gotten into trouble yet so I don’t really know. And I don’t want to be a test case during Ramadan.

Ramadan is now in the heart of summer, but each year it moves forward a few days. Since the Muslim calendar is lunar, the months are shorter, so each year is only 354 or 355 days long. Over a period of time, around 33 years, Ramadan moves through the entire calendar. During the winter, going all day without eating or drinking water wouldn’t be such an issue. The days are short and cool. But during the summer, with days that are long and unbearably hot, it seems downright dangerous. No wonder all the expats get out of the country. However, I have talked with people who like to stay, because the work day is very short. Since all eating and drinking must be done after dark, people stay up into the wee hours, and they get up before dawn to eat a meal before the sun comes up. This means they need to sleep during the day, so the workday ends around noon.

Angie got a new hairstyle.I took my first trip home in February, although I didn’t really want to leave while the weather was still so nice and cool. My mission was to check in with Mark’s mom Angie, her boyfriend Marvin, and Angie’s doctor. Angie is doing well for her age, which is 91, but the only way to really asses how she’s doing is to see her in person. I was given the assignment because she had a doctor appointment and Mark was still within the 6-month probationary period and didn’t have any vacation days yet.
Of course, I needed to see my daughter Nicole, son Brian, his significant other Kerri and daughter Kailyn, my sister Mary, and my brother and sister-in-law John and Robin. And I couldn’t miss seeing my dear friend Lori. Also on the to-do list were a visit to Richmond Yacht Club and a trip to Nevada to check on our house.

In order to make the most of the visit, I also booked a side trip back to Michigan to see my dad and celebrate his birthday. Of course, we would have to go to Bayview Yacht Club, take a drive to the Clinton River to check on the Cal 25, and have dinner with my other brother Paul and sister-in-law Penny. And while I was there I wanted to see my old friends Karen and Janet.

My other goal was to eat Mexican food, which is hard to find in Abu Dhabi. Case in point, just a day or two before my trip I went with Lucy, Terry and Linda to a restaurant called Taverna in the Officer’s Club, where the menu is Mexican, and got a good review. We immediately noticed that the salsa tasted like sweet pepper relish. Then the quesadilla came, and it contained no cheese, only ground up chicken. And no sour cream or guacamole, either. Nachos? You call these nachos? A couple cubes of American cheese thrown on top of a mass of chips and ground beef? Oops, they call it “mince” here. The only things half-decent were the margaritas, but only because they actually contained tequila, and weren’t “mocktails.” They were made with lemon instead of lime juice. ¡Ay, por dios!

The two week trip went by like a sped-up movie. I was lucky to get an economy seat on an Emirates Air flight that was not fully booked. I watched four movies during the 15 hour, 15 minute flight. I chatted with the man in the aisle seat, who is Iranian but lives and works in Sunnyvale. We both drank wine (I just realized that I didn’t ask if he was Muslim.) When I spilled my wine on the empty seat between us, he was very gracious and helped me clean it up.

When I wasn’t watching a movie, I watched the flight progress as we flew east over Russia and the North Pole, turning south over the Bering Sea, then down over Canada, and along the West Coast. The weather was spectacularly clear. We flew over Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin Counties. Marin was my stomping grounds for many years, especially Novato. Point Reyes and Tomales Bay are amazing to see from the air.

Did I sleep? Not much; I forgot my pills. No worries. My flight left Dubai 22 Feb at 9:00 a.m. and arrived in San Francisco 22 Feb at 12:15 p.m. There’s plenty of time to sleep later.

I haul my luggage onto BART. I am toting a large rolling suitcase, which is filled with a smaller rolling suitcase, which is filled mostly with gifts: pashminas for my women friends and relatives. I’m going to bring more clothes back with me, now that I understand the Arabian climate.

Nicole and her young'uns.I relax during the BART trip to the Walnut Creek, and get a taxi to Enterprise Rent a Car. An hour later, I have rented a Chrysler 200 sedan. I drive to Nicole’s house in Concord and suddenly here I am, back where I started four months earlier, almost to the day. The only thing that’s different is the large yellow lab puppy, and the red leaf and butter lettuce that I planted back in October which has grown into perfectly beautiful heads that are just right for picking.

Wait. I was worried about wearing sandals and capri pants when I got off the plane but it’s an incredibly beautiful, warm, clear, sunny day. Is it still February here, or not?

Nicole has just started a new job. She arrives home from the town of Sonoma. Where to eat? Mexican, I say. ¡Hola, La Piñata!
No time for jet lag. Next day I take Angie to the lab for her blood test and just in time, as she needs to fast and is on her way to breakfast, forgetting our conversation of the night before. I shop for dinner at Costco (no, they don’t have Costco in the UAE. Not yet.) Then I squeeze in a nap and have dinner with the family: Nicole and Jake, Brian, Kerri, and Kailyn, Mary, and the doggies Tank, Kira, and Reed.

The next day is Friday and I sleep in. My assignment for the day is to check in with RYC about our boat slip. C-dock doesn’t seem the same with another boat in Wildcard’s slip. We will be back.

Lori and I have been close friends for 28 years. We both have a passion for sailing.

Lori and I drink wine at her place, and she fills me in on what’s been happening. Then we head back to RYC for Friday dinner. The crowd is thin tonight because the club’s big crab feed is tomorrow. This is OK with me, because I need to keep things low key. We have dinner with Lori’s husband Paul and some other friends, and drink more wine.

Next morning I wake up with a splitting headache. I mean, crushing. I manage to drag myself together to meet my old teaching friend Heather, who I haven’t seen in about five years, for lunch. She phones me to say she is in Concord, and let’s meet at a restaurant called La Piñata. Hey, I wished for Mexican food, didn’t I? Sure, I know where that is. Still, ironically, I get lost. Heather fills me in on what’s been happening in her life the past five years. Her kids are grown up, and she is an elementary school principal.

DSCF3300That night Mary treats the family to her crab feed, an annual fundraiser for Unity church. They are auctioning desserts, including an elaborate layer cake on a pedestal, decorated with piles of fruit. Each dessert is shown around the room to tempt you to bid on it, and the fancy cake on the pedestal is last, parading proudly on its cart. Watching it wobble, I say “That thing is going to go . . . over,” to nobody in particular. A few minutes later, there is an announcement: “The cake on the cart is no longer available.”

Our table wins four baskets in the raffle.

The next day I head east, over the Sierra Nevada to Gardnerville. On the way, I stop to have lunch with my Aunt Louise and Uncle Bob in Roseville, CA. Bob is my mom’s brother. Mom passed away last summer, and Uncle Bob reminds me so much of her in his face, his mannerisms, and his family expressions, that I am touched somewhere way deep inside my heart.

Since I am on I80 instead of Hwy50, I stop in Tahoe City and see our friend Jamie Casey. We sail with her and her husband Jim on Lake Tahoe, and last year we did the Banderas Bay Regatta with them in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jim is in Punta Mita, where he spends the winter, but Jamie likes to ski so she spends some of the winter at Tahoe. There is no snow this year, though. Not yet. Jamie fills me in on what’s happening with them.

I drive down Kingsbury Grade, and am home. It’s twilight – the time of day, not the book or movie. I have to turn on the heat and the water. Everything is unplugged except for a few lights and one clock. The house is incredibly quiet. My large house plants are in the “permanent wilt” stage. I decide not to water them.

I am home for less than two days and I have to see some friends, get clothes and other stuff together, start the cars, visit Wildcard at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch storage park, and try to get lucky. Gambling, that is. So I call my neighbor and friend Kerstin, and she invites me over for a glass of wine. I tell her I will stop by on my way to Carson Valley Inn, where I am going to have a quesadilla for dinner at the video poker bar. Amazingly, her husband Charles suggests that she go with me. Kerstin and I are gambling buddies while Mark and Charles are out of town, but Charles frowns on this activity. Well. This must be a very special occasion. Kerstin fills me in on what’s happening with the Carson Valley Trails Association, of which she is the heart and soul. I lose a butt load of money.

The next day I wake up early, ready to see the sun rise over Carson Valley. Then I realize it’s not really getting light, and I look out and see an overcast sky. Soon, little flakes. Then more, until the ground is white. It snows all day. What happened to that warm sunshine in California? It’s gone, and for the rest of the trip I am wearing fleece and warm socks.

I go to the boat storage, but for some reason the door of our unit won’t open. So, I head over to Debbie’s house, where I am having dinner with her and Neila. Debbie has a wonderful Mexican spread: enchiladas, tamales, everything. ¡Muy delicioso! Margaritas, too. Debbie and Neila fill me in on news.

I drive home in the dark; it’s still snowing. I stop at Casino Fandango and lose another butt load of money.

I never get tired of this view of Jobs Peak.Early the next morning, I am packed and ready to drive over the hill to go to Angie’s doctor appointment at 4 p.m., except for one problem. Chains or snow tires are required on the roads and I have a rental car that didn’t come with chains. I rummage in the garage and find a pair of chains that supposedly fit radial tires; they are a leftover from my Camaro, years ago. I throw them in the car, and head to River Fork Ranch near Genoa, where I was project manager for The Nature Conservancy. There I meet Duane, the project director, and we go for a walk on the trail along the Carson River, where the willows have come back in after we removed huge piles of dirt that were dredged out and dumped alongside the river during agricultural activities over many decades. The sky is clear, and I can see across the valley to Jobs Peak and my neighborhood on the alluvial fan. It feels great to be back here on the ranch. Duane fills me in on the project.

We meet Duane’s wife Pam for lunch at El Aguila Real; The Royal Eagle. What Mexican food have I not eaten yet? Soup. I order the Pozole, a rich soup made with pork or chicken and hominy. Pam fills me in on what’s happening with their family and the school district, where she is librarian.

Angie and Marvin are a red-hot couple.The snow plows have had time to do their job, and the sun has dried up the road. I drive over the hill without needing the chains, and arrive just in time to take Angie and Marvin to the doctor. Because it’s the end of the day, we have to wait over 30 minutes. During that time, Angie and Marvin are talking about some of the people at the assisted living facility where Angie lives. Marvin is 90 and lives at Rossmoor, but he visits every night for dinner and a few hours of television. Angie said that one of her neighbors asked if Marvin stays overnight. “What did you tell her?” Marvin asked. “I told her no,” Angie said. “You should have told her,” Marvin suggested, “only when we have sex.” Oy. No wonder their favorite television show is Two and a Half Men.

Many hands make the job go fast. The girls poke holes in the bread before we pour on syrup glaze.Finally it’s Wednesday, and I am having a baking day with my granddaughter Kailyn and her kindergarten friends, using Meyer lemons from their tree. We bake mini loaves of lemon poppy seed bread and lemon bars. The girls run back and forth from their play in the bedroom to their helper jobs. It’s a productive day, and each little girl goes home with a loaf of bread and some lemon bars. I do love doing stuff with kids.

IMG_0115Early Thursday morning Brian drives me to the Oakland Airport, and I board a Southwest flight to Detroit. New snow emphasizes the stark relief of the American landscape below, and I can’t help but reflect on how amazing this planet Earth is, where we get to live.
Dad meets me at the door of the condo when the car drops me off. He’s hanging in there, and we are really glad to see one another. First things first: dinner at Bayview Yacht Club. The next day we go to an appointment, and then have dinner with brother Paul, who is the mayor of Ypsilanti, Michigan; it’s his second term. Will you go for a third? Probably not; he’s looking for a good candidate to run in the next election, which is still three years off.

The Fox Theater in Detroit. When I was in high school we saw Van Morrison play here. The theater was painted black then.That night I am invited by my childhood friend Janet to see South Pacific at the beautifully restored Fox Theater in downtown Detroit. Detroit has changed! What was once a decayed inner city is now home to the Tigers at Comerica Park, the Lions at Ford Field, and the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. The downtown is buzzing with activity, because in addition to the play, there is a hockey game. Detroiters love their “Wings.”


This guy needs to rethink his level of dedication to his sport.On Sunday Dad and I decide to make the drive to the Clinton River, in the northwestern quadrant of Lake St. Clair, which is between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. It is a bitterly cold, overcast, very windy day. I suggest we take a drive through Metropolitan Beach Park, where my friends and I used to hitchhike during the summer, and later drive when after we got our licenses. We drove to the daysailing boat ramp, and looked out at the angry lake. Presently I noticed something strangely colorful out on the water. A sail? A kiteboard sail. Someone lost their kiteboard sail. No . . . wait. What’s that? A person?

Oh-oh. I have a bad feeling about this. Dad and I have found a dead body in the water on two occasions in the past while sailing. Once it was in a race, and we were in the lead approaching the weather mark! But that’s another story. As we watched the kite sail flutter, flop, and drift toward shore, dragging its cargo, the Metro Beach Police arrive. I can’t believe that someone would deliberately go kite boarding in weather like this, not to mention that the water temperature must be just a few degrees above freezing. But as we watch we realize that this person is alive, and wearing a helmet.  I jump out of the car and shoot video, but am driven back in by the bitter cold and biting wind. Eventually he lands on the shore, and the last we see of him he is walking toward the parking lot with his sail. What is he wearing, a survival suit? I would like to get his story, but it’s too cold and windy to get out of the car again.

This just doesn’t look like much fun to me. How about you?

That night, I go out with my old high school friend Karen to the Blue Goose Inn on Jefferson to hear some good old Midwestern rock’n’roll. Karen’s mom is 83 and she has a new pacemaker and a new boyfriend.

DSC01970We celebrate Dad’s 88th birthday with dinner in Detroit at Bayview with Paul and Penny, and again at the Edison Inn in Port Huron on my last night with him, just the two of us. Next morning we say goodbye as the Town Car waits. This moment always tears both of us up, but I will be back this summer. I promise. Inshallah or no inshallah.
It’s time to go back to my life with Mark in the UAE. I fly back to Oakland, and take BART to Daly City where Mary and John both meet me. Mary has my big pieces of luggage, and John takes me to his house in Redwood City near the San Francisco airport. After a wonderful evening catching up with John and Robin, I board my plane for Dubai at 4:00 p.m. My luggage is overweight, but I play dumb and am allowed to check an extra bag for free as a courtesy, saving me $150 US.


What a great trip. Because I have been writing this blog, I didn’t have to spend time giving people details about what my life in the UAE is like – they already know! I could focus on catching up with them instead of telling them my stories. Everything went so smoothly, no delays or discomforts.

Until I was confronted with . . . snakes on the plane.

That’s the way I think of them. I had an aisle seat in the middle row, with two seats between myself and the guy in the other aisle seat. Suddenly two women, one very young and one older, were in my face. “This seat is not taken? This seat is not taken!” Just like snakes they moved in, replacing the one guy on the end, and had the nerve to start moving my things, my water, my newspaper, and my purse, out of their way so that the two of them could take up the three empty seat in my row, including the one I was using, and planning on lying down to sleep on later.

Apparently, in their culture, if you are able to seize something, then you are entitled to it. The young lady sat next to me and actually flipped her hair so that it hit me in the face. If it happened again, I was ready to yank it. All through the flight, they took turns lying down across the three seats, with their head or feet in each other’s laps. Meanwhile, I sat scrunched in my own seat, getting madder and madder.
Finally near the end of the flight, the older woman got up and the young one began to spread herself out across three seats. “No,” I said. “It’s my turn. You move. I want to lie down.” She indicated that I could put my head next to her bare feet. “No,” I said. “You sit in that seat,” pointing at the aisle seat. “That is my Auntie’s seat.” “No, it isn’t.” I said. “This is not your seat,” she challenged me, pointing to the seat next to me. “And it isn’t yours either,” I said. “Where were you when we got on the plane?” She wouldn’t move. Auntie returned, and by the time the plane landed her feet were on the tray table of the seat next to me. Disgusting.

What would you do? Why didn’t I complain to the flight attendant? Why didn’t I tell them off?

I let it go on for three reasons. One, I couldn’t believe it was happening and I procrastinated, hoping that they would just disappear. Finally it seemed like it was too late to do anything.

Two, I was afraid that the flight attendant would say that since those two seats were empty and the guy had agreed to move there was nothing that could be done. Then I would lose face.

Three, I tend to avoid pointless confrontations. This young woman had shown, from the beginning of the flight, that she was a difficult, demanding little person who expected to get everything first for herself and her Auntie (who was probably younger than me but looked much older.)

I am better than that, and I didn’t want to waste my energy on her and her Auntie. Unfortunately, they ruined what was otherwise a fantastic flight. The food was great, the wine was free, and we flew across the US, over Nova Scotia, Greenland, and Europe, then over Iran and the Arabian Gulf into Dubai. I could see everything as we approached that amazing city, because the plane has a camera that provides the passengers with views of the flight path ahead and on the ground.

When I met Mark, I realized how mad I really was. So now I swear I will never, ever let that happen to me again. I will defend my territory, to the death of my dignity. And you should too, if it ever happens to you. Beware of the snakes on the plane.

Trip Data:IMG_0121
Duration of trip: 16 days, 10 hours
Total time in flight: 41 hours, 30 minutes
Airplanes: 6
Air Miles: 22,076
BART miles: 62
Auto miles: 402 plus around town
Beds slept in: 6
Cities slept in: 5
Friends and family visited: 27+
Mexican meals: 5
Margaritas: Data unavailable
Lemon bread: 6 loaves
Lemon Bars: 3 pans
Money lost gambling: Data unavailable
Snakes on plane: 2

Monday, March 12, 2012

Weathering the Sand Storms

The beach at Mirfa. A little sun, a little sand, a lot of breeze.
“I wonder if we’ll see any rain this year,” Mark mused the other day. The UAE has seen a little rain this season, but none where we live. This, and the dust storms, makes for a gritty lifestyle. When I was back in the states recently, a few people asked me about the sandstorms.

One recent weekend we planned to take a weekend day trip along the coast in Al Gharbia, Abu Dhabi’s western region. Al Gharbia is noted for its dunes, wildlife, and water. The Al Dhafra Camel Festival, which I wrote about in an earlier story, is in Al Gharbia as well as the Liwa Oasis, which is also on our list for a weekend trip. Both of these are to the south, in the interior desert.

For this trip, since we were still looking for boating and other watersports opportunities, we decided to drive along the coastline. Each spring, in April or May, the two-week-long Al Gharbia Watersports festival is held in Mirfa, a beach town about an hour or so from the city of Abu Dhabi. So we decided to check out Mirfa and Jebel Dhanna, the next coastal town, another hour away.

It's a trucker's road, from the UAE thorugh Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean and back.The visitors’ guide promises hidden white sand beaches, sleepy fishing villages, and desert islands teeming with wildlife. This area is The Pearl Coast because in the past, fishing crews of all ages would sail here all the way from Dubai Creek. The pearling and trading expeditions would last up to six months. Now the scene is dominated by truck caravans traveling the highway between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, crossing an undefined border between the two countries.
Are we sure we want to do this?When the day arrived, high winds and sand storms were in the weather report. After a short debate, we decided to head out anyway. How bad could it be? We wanted a road trip, and we were prepared to spend the majority of the day in the car, anyway. We were just going, we agreed, on a scouting expedition.

We had barely made it through the roundabout at the end of our street when we began asking each other, “Is this wise?” The wind was buffeting the car, and sand was blowing across the road and already beginning to gather in drifts along the curbs.
The exit to the Interior brought back fond memories of the Camel Festival. Somehow, the road didn't feel much safer than the sand today.As we headed west on E11, I was reminded of Interstate 395 through Washoe Valley, on the way from Carson City to Reno, Nevada. There, the wind-driven snow can cause a white-out, even at times when there is no precipitation. We felt a little vulnerable in our little Honda City sedan. As we drove on, passing the exit to Madinat Zayed and Al Dhafra, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my Camel Festival adventure with the Mercers. Well. I knew one thing for sure: today, we would stick to the road.
That's a big tank. And a lot of wheels.Although the guide describes the view from the road as “unpromising,” the road itself, it turned out, was interesting enough. The wind-blown sand made patterns, and Mark enjoyed seeing the huge transport vehicles. The big highlight for Mark was seeing the twelve-axle trailer taking up a lane and a half, hauling a monster tank. We figured that the industrial looking structures we could see through the dust must be oil fields.
A three-star hotel, in the middle of nowhere.
May we offer you some Arabian coffee and dates?
Arriving in Mirfa, we saw that we would not be spending the day on the beach, so we headed for the Mirfa Hotel. The manager offered us coffee and dates (I love it!) and assured us that the weather had been clear at 10:00 a.m. and this storm would be finished in an hour or two. Inshallah. Then, if we wanted to pay a daily rate, we could use the pool facilities.
Nice bar, nice pool. We could come back and stay here.

After a buffet lunch at the Mirfa Hotel we considered heading home, but decided instead to continue with Plan A, which included Jebel Dhanna and the 5-star hotel there. What the heck, we figured, we’re out here now. Let’s complete the cruise.

Workers waiting for their bus. This can't be fun, but they must be used to it.Along the way, we passed industrial areas, where we could see wind-battered workers waiting for buses as they made their way to and from the roadside mini marts. What a bleak life that must be, living in company housing, without family. How much better can this life be than what they came from. In many cases, it’s probably a lot better. I am so often reminded of how lucky we are.

A five-star hotel, in the middle of nowhere.Things weren’t much different in Jebel Dhanna. The hotel was a little newer, a little nicer, and there were a few more guests. We had a drink, watched European men and women in skimpy swimsuits lounging and ordering drinks around the pool. The wind was moderating.
"We'll park next to the Bentley."

This can get very slippery.We headed back the way we came. While visibility was much better, the slippery sand on the road was a hazard. Some of the cars whizzing past us were coated with a kind of paste, which Mark said was to keep the sand from stripping the paint off.

I'm now understanding the scarf custom.Yes, it wasn’t the most exciting, adventurous day yet, but we did see a slice life in the UAE that we don’t see every day.