28 December 2004

Bastakia Quarter

One of the good things, apart from the obvious benefits of having friends visiting, is that we get to see parts of Dubai we don't go to in our normal routine. I think it's called touristing.

Today Naime and Thomas had finally finished sleeping off their busy German lives and we went in search of old Dubai. After a short walk along the Creek we turned into an unassuming-looking car park to find a whole neighbourhood of 19th century houses. They were initially build by Iranian traders who settled here because business was good, the name of the area stemming from the Southern Iranian district of Bastak.


Houses in the Bastakia Quarter near the Creek

The houses are designed in the local style with wind towers and an inner courtyard, all aiming to keep the interiors and their inhabitants cool. Wind towers are an ingenious form of early air conditioning. It uses convection to draw in cold air and breezes from the outside and funnels them into the room below, thus creating a pleasant atmosphere even on very hot days. The rooms are arranged around a central courtyard, usually planted with a tree for extra shade or featuring a fountain. The courtyard would be surrounded by covered walkways and there was often a covered corridor on the first floor as well. The outside walls were thick to keep out the heat and the sand, also so that the house could be extended upwards easily, should the family grow.


Courtyard and Walkways inside a Traditional House

27 December 2004

Solar Power Arrives

Solar power may be used to run a new generation of abras on the creek.

Abras are the small boats that ply across the creek which cuts Dubai in half. They are used by thousands of people every day to get about their business, as they are cheap at 25 fils (2 pence or 3 Eurocent) and easy. There are only two bridges and one road tunnel crossing the creek, these are mainly geared for car traffic and are always complete bottlenecks anyway. Much easier to catch one of these little boats, as long as one is nimble enough to get on one.


Now the government is going to build two more abra stations to add to the four existing ones. At the same time they have contracted an unspecified private firm to look into adding solar power while keeping the traditional look of the boats with their simple seating and fabric-covered shelters. The project is to have a trial run next year sometime.

25 December 2004

Christmas, Visitors and Rain

Naime and Thomas are here from Germany, our very first true tourist trippers, as opposed to the previous visitors who were here on business. And all we can offer them is rain!

After all the boasting of fine blue skies every day and no need for cardigans we find ourselves in a low-pressure system coming from Bahrain which has brought sand storms, low visibility and even rain for three days now. It's not so much cold, although 17ÂșC is freezing in our book nowadays, but miserable like a shivery March in England, grey skies and blustery showers. Very embarrassing. The newspapers are of course full of pictures of rainy streets and advice for safe driving in a sand storm, as the weather is always big news here.

22 December 2004

Back From Egypt - Update

We are back from what could loosely be termed a holiday, if it weren't for the 5am wake up calls and the complete disorganisation of the trip which meant that we only saw half the promised locations. It's nice to be back home where people are nice and life is a bit more predictable.

Egypt is an incredible, infuriating, beautiful, strange, messy country. I am definitely hooked, Stuart less so, but always in small doses. More on this later.


There are a few entries, in date order so as not to confuse later readers, from 12th to 19th December 2004. If you want to know how we fared, read it there.

Oh, and there are some more pictures here

20 December 2004

Seeing the Sights

Our two week sleep-in-the-desert, live-the-archeologist-life trip turned out to bear little resemblance to the original offer.

On the first half of the tour nothing went as planned, we didn't get to camp, we saw few of the promised sights and we had to put up with annoying military convoys. The hard part was trying to work out which bit was lack of organisation on the part of our tour organisers, Ancient World Tours, and how much was just general Egyptian chaos. "Inshallah" is a most used word here, and the most appropriate. There is a mixture of arrogance and deal making (on the part of officials), welcome and total lack of responsibility, combined with inefficiency and a general state of disrepair that borders on dereliction. This makes for an often unpleasant experience, always teetering on uncertainty, often frustrating where it not for the occasional astoundingly wonderful sight.


Abandoned Pillar at the Roman Quarry of Mons Claudianus


Greek Inscription at an Ancient Rest Stop in The Eastern Desert


Statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten at Luxor Museum


Sunset at Nabta Playa, near Sudan


Dawn over the Nile in Cairo


Giza Pyramid Complex

18 December 2004

Roughing it - sort of

I never thought I'd look forward to camping quite so much. But after a week of delays, empty promises and broken plans, we were desperate to get away from civilisation.

It's all relative, of course. We arrived in three Toyota Landcruisers, the basic model, not like the flash monsters populating the freeways of Dubai. But we had a support vehicle carrying tents and mattresses, our drivers doubled up as cooks and had even managed to get supplies of fire wood. So not that basic. We put up our tent next to one of those marching sand dunes, a vast and perfect crescent with a sharp edge over which the sand flows slowly but inexorably at the thinnest whisper of wind. From the top we could see columns of similarly shaped dunes, all lining up in the direction of the prevailing wind, all pointing their crescents into the lee of the breeze, curves like the quarter moon.


A Marching Dune

There were car tracks on the desert floor when we arrived, no doubt from previous travellers. They disappeared into the body of the dune as if swallowed up, as if the drivers and their cars vanished into the twilight world of the sand. Of course what really happened was that the dune moved and the tracks, made a few years ago, have been preserved by lack of weather until the dune moved over them.


Disappearing Car Tracks

The further we drove into the emptiness the more ground down the environment became. It was like looking at the fast-forwarded development of the end of the Earth. This is what land will look like when weather is finished with it. Erosion has done it's damnedest here to reduce mountains, valleys, rocks and any kind of landmark to an even yellowish brown mush of small pebbles and coarse sand. It would be difficult to find a more homogenous, more arid and dead landscape. Sure, there is life here: We have seen tracks of dogs, snakes and mice, also ants and crows appear occasionally together with the ubiquitous flies, but the overall impression is dead emptiness at the end of time, all variety turned into inertia.


17 December 2004

The Nile Valley

After the day-trips to the desert - to view rock art from pre-historic times to Pharaonic, Roman and Greek inscriptions - in our first week's stay in the Eastern Desert (or rather in the dive resorts of the Red Sea) we crossed back to the Nile.

After 5 hours of driving as part of the military convoy from the Red Sea through the Eastern Desert towards Luxor we suddenly arrived in the Nile valley. It really was a shock, coming out of the arid, grey-brown wasteland of the Eastern mountains and, like a line drawn with a ruler, the edge of a field. After that every piece of land was used, either as a field, road, irrigation canal or building plot. No waste. The felaheen, subsistence farmers, work the land in small strips of cabbage, banana, papyrus and tomatoes, gourds, oranges and alfalfa. They keep cows, donkeys, geese and dogs, all straggly looking and filthy.


Farmstead near Luxor

The lush green is incredibly restful after the sharp grit of the desert, bleached ocres and dust. That one river (and it's canals) can nourish all this land which would turn into utter barrenness without water, is incredible. From a viewpoint above the river near Luxor we could see how narrow this strip of arable land rally is in the Nile valley. How does this very peculiar geography influence an inhabitant's thinking and outlook on life? The same way that America's endless spaces have made them believe that resources are equally endless, the way that Britain's island empire has created this particular inward/outward metropolitan culture. what does it mean to live in a country that is basically a big desert (the Sahara sands reach all the way over here) bisected by a river?


Western Desert Dunes

After a night's stay in Luxor we took off again, this time towards the Sudanese border, into the Western Desert, to visit an ancient stone circle. The fertile farmland disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared the day before, cut off by lack of irrigation. The desert doesn't so much encroach on the fertile areas as there is a very clear and sharp edge one side of which is an almost unnaturally bright green, fluorescent in its vitality, and on the other side there is nothing but endless plains of grey gravel bordered by sharp and unforgiving mountains. Donkey carts, mangy dogs, tethered cows and crazily waving children all disappear from the wayside, no more palm trees shading mud brick houses, no more papyrus tied into bunches ready for harvest, no strips of subsistence field in patterns of brown and green.

13 December 2004

Cairo - an Anagram of Chaos?

Dubai's tagline is "Welcome to 21st Century Arabia!", Cairo's could only be "Welcome back to 11th Century Anywhere!"

Cairo is loud and in a general state of disrepair, such that it looks like a recent survivor of natural disaster. Outside our hotel is a busy road populated by banged-up cabs, donkey carts and overcrowded mini buses. Over the roar of cars and the honking of horns we occasionally hear the bleating of goats grazing in the debris-strewn lot next door. A group of abandoned houses, bricks and concrete blocks littering what once were back gardens, it's a mystery why they are uninhabited when the rest of the city is overcrowded with apartment blocks, some of which have hand-constructed hovels attached alongside and on the roof. Some of these huts are literally on the footpath, washing hung out to dry creating a thin protective shield from the outside world.


These living conditions didn't change, but only became more primitive, as we left Cairo. The geography of Egypt is such that there is a very clear line between the fertile areas on either side of the Nile which suddenly give way to the complete barrenness of the Eastern and Western deserts. While Cairo retains many aspects of a rural lifestyle: goat and sheep herds in the road, farming communities butting up to main roads and industrial areas, anywhere else farming is the only occupation for those not working in the tourist industry.


09 December 2004

Film Festival

This week saw the first Dubai Film festival with the theme of "Bridging Cultures. Meeting Minds".
This is a huge event, a first attempt by Dubai to put itself on the international cultural map. Unfortunately there is a lot to learn about pre-publicity. Tickets couldn't be bought or reserved until three days before the first film was shown, and the website  was woefully devoid of actual film listings (prior to the festival). Once the festival started, though, it was a huge success. People had been waiting for such an opportunity to see all the obscure and unusual - i.e. not Hollywood or Bollywood mainstream - movies that never show up in the local cinema chains. The festival had a few spotlights on themes and actors, among them Omar Sharif. It was a stroke of genius that one of the opening movies shown in an open-air amphitheatre in Dubai Media City was 'Lawrence of Arabia'.
The actual showings of most movies were completely sold out within the first days of tickets going on sale. The events were very well organised (although photographers complained they were not given enough access to the gala screening - I guess it's essential to get yet another picture of Orlando, or Sarah Michelle), with masses of volunteers directing the viewers to their seats in one of three cinema venues. I only had the opportunity to cram in 6 movies in the two days before we went to Egypt, but I was impressed with the strangely appropriate space of the Mercato shopping centre, which houses the Century Cinema complex. It's so roomy with lots of coffee shops to sit between movies, space to hang out and recover.

04 December 2004

Before and After

Life is varied here in Dubai, desert boots one minute, tux the next.

On Friday night we went out to the desert camping. The place we stopped at is 60 km from Dubai but only 30k was on the highway and the rest was driving through the sand dunes (which is such fun) using GPS and compass to find the way. It is a place called Fossil Rock where there is a large rock in which you can find marine fossils! As it was our first night in a new tent and sleeping bags we did not sleep well, but sitting out the night before around the camp fire looking at the stars and waking up in the complete silence of the desert made it all worth while. There is a surprising amount of life in the desert and we were visited by gerbils during the night and a couple of inquisitive birds in the morning.

During the journey we passed many camels, which made Fiver very happy as she is always excited to see them.

The picture was taken at 8:30am


In the evening we went to a gala charity dinner as the guests of Olof Stenhammer, founder and chairman of OM, a company Stuart has worked for in the past and who is now a potential supplier of exchange systems to him in Dubai. It was a glittering affair attended by the Queen of Sweden and a Saudi prince who is the 4th richest man in the world. We had to sit though some very boring speeches, but it was fun people watching. Some of the dresses were incredible and we soon realised that we were probably the poorest two people in the room!

This picture was taken at 8:30pm


03 December 2004

God and Mammon

Today's trip took us from spirituality to consumerism, from Jumeirah Mosque to Bob's Antique Museum.

Unlike many places of the Muslim world, where mosques are open to the non-muslim public, there is only one mosque in Dubai which can be visited. The Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding has arranged a tour through the mosque's interior with a question and answer session on the subject of Islam. To our surprise a whole crowd had gathered in front of the mosque at 10 am this morning, rather than the few interested souls we had expected. We took off our shoes and the women donned their head scarves, then we were led into the mosque.

The space is simple and square, with few of the complex symbolic spaces of a church. There is a central carpeted area for prayer, a niche at the front, facing Mecca, for the imam, and a separate ladies' prayer room off to one side. Otherwise notable are some reading areas and the signs that show the next day's prayer times.

A volunteer from the centre explained the significance of the architecture to us and then went on to enlighten us on the basic ideas of the Muslim faith, the five pillars of Islam. We talked about the role of women, cultural differences between different Muslim cultures of the World, and the practicalities of prayer. V. interesting.


Inside Jumeirah Mosque

After a refreshment break we moved on to a haven of commerce by the name of Bob's, or the Antique Museum. Both of these names do no justice to this vast warehouse of tack, souvenirs and just general stuff. First of all it is impossible to find on a first visit, as it's in the back of an industrial estate in deepest Al Quoz, near the cement factory, the last place one would imagine shopping for curios. The entrance is in an alleyway, next to a mini-mosque, down a dusty road. But through it's humble portal one enters a huge space of rows and rows of shelves groaning with Indian, Arab, African items, from sculptures to vases, t-shirts to jewellery, pashminas to clocks, Christmas decorations and lamps and fluffy toys, picture frames, sheesha, wooden boxes, curtains, bellydancing costumes...

We shopped till we dropped.


Bob's Antique Museum

14 November 2004

Wadi Amyiah Trip

This Friday we went out to one of the more challenging wadis. The description in the guide book kept saying 'here it looks like you can't go any further...'

Indeed, as soon as we found our way into the riverbed it looked like a dead end. A little stream trickled through huge boulders, there were palm trees narrowing the path and the route was blocked by a dam further along! But it was supposed to be doable, so we did.


Navigating the Wadi

First there was a lot of scouting, frowning at rock face angles and testing of water depths by dipping toes. Then one car went ahead, three people on foot in front to direct the wheel placement, look for possible slippage and try to remember optimum tracks for the following vehicles. This helped enormously and the second car had little problems. After that the drive was great, a few very uneven spots, but the track was clear - mainly because the canyon walls of 30 meters on either side didn't allow for derivation.


We stopped for lunch with a bunch of goats looking on, but didn't stay because the flies were too much. On the way home we stopped to eat grilled corn at a market on the wayside.



06 November 2004

Wadi Driving in Hatta

For the first time this autumn we have made it out of town for a drive.

Until the last few weeks it's still been too hot in the day time to be fun, specially since we never seem to be able to get going till 11 am for some reason. But today we got out and took some friends to Hatta Pools. We went in three cars, Kelly, Mike and the kids in a Ford Explorer, our Range Rover and Peter in his trusty Jeep Cherokee. We hoped that some of the rain we have been getting lately |(not in Dubai, but nearer the mountains) had replenished the pools enough to swim in. As it turned out the rest of Dubai had the same idea. There were barbies and picnics everywhere - despite Ramadan! But even the crowds and the excessive rubbish they had left behind couldn't disturb the peace of the pools. We swan, we paddled, we floated, then went for a drive.


The wadi extends for miles in a deep canyon, criss-crossed by shallow pools and littered with boulders. There wer a few points where we thought we had to turn round, but squeezed through or scrambled across anyway.


As it turned out Kelly is a natural wadi-driver, fearless on her first trip into the wild. We stopped a lot to look at the scenery, once saw a frog, and while photographing it, a thin black dangerous-looking snake slithered between my legs in the water and disappeared up the hillside. After that we decided it wasn't safe to go back into the water...

29 October 2004

An Iftar Invitation - more Ramadan stories.

A friend invited us to break fast with her and her family a few days ago.

Dina and her family are Lebanese-Palestinians who have lived in Jordan, Egypt and Abu Dhabi before arriving in Dubai. They were kind enough to invite us for Iftar and put up with our barrage of questions about Ramadan, traditional foods and the finer points of fasting.

We arrived at 5.30pm. Louisa had fasted for the day, too, to get a feeling for the sacrifice fasting entails. This meant that she had not eaten or drunk anything since 5am that morning. Those of us who weren't fasting were offered drinks such as home-made raisin juice with rose water and apricot juice, which are traditional at this time.

Louisa was put out of her misery by an offer of laban and dates, a standard way to break fast. We then went to table, which was laden with a real feast. There was a clear order to the dishes: first lentil soup with lemon, then a salad made with lots of different chopped herbs, tomatoes and crunchy crisps of dried flatbread. After that we all dug into a variety of dishes, roast chicken with spiced rice; an aubergine and sour cream bake, savoury pastries and lots of hummous. The olive oil used in the dishes came from the family grove in Lebanon and was imported specially.

26 October 2004

Subsidised Petrol - Is That Really Necessary?

With the increase in international oil prices fuelled by the crisis in Iraq there is pressure even here to increase petrol prices. Strangely, local companies don't buy petrol direct, but have to pay international prices. To our surprise local petrol prices are capped by the government, which means that at the moment fuel is sold at below cost price.

25 October 2004

George Clooney?

Rumour has it that George is going to be filming part of his new movie Syriana in Dubai.

The film website doesn't mention the location, but there have been casting calls in the papers, so it must be true. Excuse me while I go and look for him ;-)

Update: There are now articles about this rumour in the local version of Hello! magazine, and Gulf News thought that it is an important enough item to send a reporter to cover the casting call - for three days! - to find out if the rumours are true (despite a two page article with pictures the research was not conclusive). So we are still none the wiser. If anyone has more news on this, please let me know, I could break the story here ;-)

23 October 2004

Interesting Signage of the day #3

Oman has its own interpretation. Would that there were more local variants of internationally recognised signage, the world could be a more interesting place...



Wedding Anniversary in Oman

The sea is slowly turning from turquoise to grey, the sun is setting behind the mountains somewhere, a lazy breeze is fanning the palm trees. Yes, we got away for the weekend.

Stuart had a voucher for a night at a Hyatt hotel, so we took the opportunity to drive over to Oman. Muscat is the capital of a geographically large but otherwise pretty empty sultanate on the Indian Ocean. It is about 4 hours drive east of Dubai on very unused and well-maintained roads. It's a long drive, but only occasionally boring. The terrain is more varied than we expected, ranging from rusty desert sand to craggy mountains, with fertile stretches of banana and date farms lining the road between dusty villages. After Hatta, which we had visited earlier this year with Anna, we quickly arrived at the Omani border post. Or rather the first of many. We had already picked up our exit stamp in Hatta. Although it's another 60km to the border from there,t the customs people had obviously preferred the pleasant surroundings of the Hatta Fort Hotel to the huts at the actual border. At he first Omani post we were waved through, only to be stopped at the second one, where we spend a futile half-hour filling in badly-designed visa forms and purchasing extra car insurance to cover us for driving in Oman. The place was so non-busy that the insurance salesman had gone to sleep on his sofa and Stuart had to wake him up!

After that rigmarole we had to stop at the third border post down the road to open our boot and show our luggage. It is illegal to carry alcohol into Oman from the UAE, so we were glad we hadn't stashed a bottle of champagne for the celebrations. After this we thought we were home free, but as it turned out there was one more stop, where a slouchy looking guy took back the slip of paper the luggage searcher had stamped for us that the visa guy had handed us what seemed hours ago at the first stop.


Oman's Roundabouts are Many and Imaginatively Decorated

Oman looks very like the UAE, except it has real clouds! In the 1970's Oman had only 10km of tarmac road (probably just enough to circumfence the palace), but that had changed a lot. What little oil money they have goes into creating a well-educated population, public services and hospitals. This means that unlike Dubai a lot of the workers here are actually locals, since the sultanate can't afford expensive expat labour.

Oman has a long history as a trading nation whose influence used to stretch as far as India, Pakistan, Zanzibar and Estern Africa. The Portugese arrived here in the 17th century worried about their own trade routes to India, and kept Oman subdued for about 200 years. Apart from a few forts their impact here seems to have been negligible. Local architecture, culture and arts are fiercely Arabian, and adherence to local style is required when seeking planning permission for local buildings.

Anyway, I am rattling on. The sun has set, there is a lone swimmer in the pool and we are getting ready for dinner. A good first wedding anniversary.


The Views Were Pretty Good

22 October 2004

Ramadan - A Primer

Ramadan has been with us for a week now. Three weeks to go and we are just starting to get the hang of it. Here is some background, in case you don't know what it's all about.

Ramadan starts on the night that the first new moon is visible (or on the night before, if you are a Shiite - thanks, Muffadel). Because the Muslim calendar is lunar, the beginning of Ramadan comes earlier by a few days every year. It lasts for a moon cycle and remembers the time when the Prophet Mohammed received the first verses of the Koran from Allah. For Muslins this is a time of prayer and fasting, charity and family gatherings. It ends with the two-day celebration of Eid al Fitr.

I have been trying to find an equivalent in the Western (Christian) year for this and there really isn't one. Lent comes closest, where Christians are supposed to live simply and donate money to charity for 40 days. Not that many people still do this... Fasting during Ramadan really means eating, drinking, smoking nothing, not even water, during daylight hours. The newspaper publishes sunrise and sunset as well as prayer times daily on the front page so that everyone can get home in time to break fast.

This has major implications to the daily routine here. Shop and office opening hours are changed to give people shorter hours, but also to allow customers to attend to business late in the evening after they have broken their fast. The vehicle inspection office, for example, is open until 1am in the morning. Rush hour is at totally different times now, and the town is even emptier during daylight hours that it was already during the hot summer months. During Ramadan workers are entitled to a 6 hour workday, although this doesn't always work out in practice.

The first meal of the evening is called Iftar and all the hotels and restaurants provide Iftar buffets, often setting up tents on the beach with barbecues and shisha (water pipes). It is a big event at the mosques, of course, where charitable organisations serve food after prayer. Ramadan is also a time for charitable work, donations and neighbourliness. In that way it is a little like the Christmas spirit, families coming together in the evenings, helping each other cook for Iftar and such-like. At the same time businesses are taking the opportunity to make as much money out oft the event as they possibly can. Because of the restricted opening hours shops try to lure customers by offering raffles and competitions. One chain of petrol stations is even hoping to increase business by offering dates and water free to customers during the first hour after Iftar.

21 October 2004

We Are Back (by popular demand)

We thought the blog had come to a natural end at the beginning of the summer, but it seems someone out there was actually reading it.

After the summer holidays with trips to France and Germany (and a small detour to Stockholm) we had barely returned to Dubai when both of us were off again. Stuart took his umpteenth trip to Paris, but then moved on to the more exotic Hongkong and Mumbai for business meetings, while I celebrated my birthday in London and photographed Stephen and Caroline's wedding in Nottingham. I was surprised to find various people who expressed interest in further installments of our new life story here in Dubai. So of course I can't say "no" to a bit of self-promotion.

Expect more wondrous tales from the mysterious Middle East!

05 July 2004

We are having a break

It's summer, and we are off to see the World. This means that the blog is having a break. See you again at the end of August.

Stuart is already back in Europe for a work trip to various countries, and Fiver is about to go to Germany for a few weeks to help Matthias move to Weener in the North of Germany. In August we are meeting up for a bit of sailing in France, so there won't be any Dubai-related news for a while.

Hopefully by the time we get back the German version of the blog will be ready; in the meantime you can always check out the archive (see link on the right) to see if there are any stories you missed first time round.

Have a good summer!

04 July 2004

Wired Article on Dubai

A good read.

An interesting article about Dubai and technology developments here.

03 July 2004

Underwater Photos Update

Due to popular demand (thanks, Martin) here are the pictures of Stuart taken with the camera in its new underwater case.





02 July 2004

Cycling to Work?

Al Ain, one of the smaller emirates inland from Dubai, has now truly joined the Western lifestyle: the municipality is going to set up bike paths for the increasing number of cyclists.

A story in Gulf News lists some shocking facts: only 0.5% of cyclists wear helmets, only 1.1% carry lights at night, 46.3% cycle on the wrong side of the road, and incredibly, the authorities keep no figures on bike-related accidents.

The problem of cycling on the wrong side of a main road stems from the fact that a lot of people who cycle here are from the sub-continent, where this is accepted behaviour, as it is considered safer when the cyclist can see the oncoming traffic, a bit like walking in the county in the UK.

That no-one wears a helmet or carries lights should be no surprise, as the only people who cycle here do it because they can't afford to run a car or take the bus (which is pretty cheap already). It's really to hot to ride a bike, but we sometimes see people with the tools of their trade (garden shears, toolbox or even a lawnmower) on the pannier rack cycling from villa to villa for work.

30 June 2004


Finally the day has arrived, Wagamama opened in Dubai.

Fiver's dream has come true: a Wagamama in walking distance. The latest addition to the chain just opened in Crowne Plaza, Sheik Zayed Rd, literally 10 minutes walk from our flat.


29 June 2004

A Falcon

Nasuh, a colleague of Stuart's, took this shot of a falcon perching on the edge of the window sill at the Emirates Towers Hotel.

While falcons are bred for sport locally, we have never seen one in the wild. Maybe this one escaped from its cage?


26 June 2004


After all the fun we had with the underwater camera we remembered that we had an unfinished diving course to complete. Where better than in the lukewarm waters of the Gulf?

When we left the UK we were all but done with a diving course run by SSI in Ipswich. We had done all the pool sessions, the theoretical exam and were just short of being officially allowed to dive by the fact that we couldn't face our outdoor dive, which would have meant going to a big cold lake in Peterborough. It was so completely alien to our visions of diving in the warm waters of the Med that we kept putting it off. Then we left.

When we arrived here we realised that diving was the ideal thing to do on hot summer weekends round here. A way to be outside without too much heat. Water temperatures are high enough not to need heavy diving suits (even when the water is quite warm, it cools down the body by extracting heat, so some sort of dive skin is a must). There is purportedly very good diving here, in Oman and on the East coast of the peninsula near Fujairah .

Unfortunately we haven't been able to transfer our obscure SSI semi-qualification to the local PADI training centre, so we will have to start again. We signed up for a course starting in September at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, so no diving in the Med again this summer.

25 June 2004

Underwater Photography

Just in time for the summer holidays Fiver has acquired an underwater housing for her new camera.

She has been testing it in her friend's pool, but unfortunately the cool shots of Stuart blowing bubbles and making silly faces have been censored, so there is just the shot of the pool without Stuart in it to show:


The pool without Stuart in it

(if there was a public request, Stuart may change his mind and allowed them to be shown...)

23 June 2004

Summer Surprises

Every year there is an exodus from the Gulf. Everyone who can leaves town as temperatures get stinky-hot and humidity rises. In Saudi-Arabia the whole government moves to Jeddah by the Red Sae to get away from the heat. The Dubai the municipality decided to do something not only to keep people here, but to get more tourists to visit despite the crazy weather.

Summer Surprises have taken place in Dubai for a few years now and this year they are bigger than ever. The papers carry a lot of advertising and schedules of events, most of which take place in shopping malls, and the figure of Modhesh, the worm who is the mascot of the festival, appear at every street corner.


Modhesh, the Summer Surprises mascot, at Clocktower Roundabout

The festival is divided into themed weeks; there are Art Surprises, Water Surprises, Science Surprises and even Ice Surprises. It is billed as an event to entertain the kids during their summer holidays, to keep them out of mischief.


The biggest venue is located at Airport Expo with three large halls dedicated to Surprises in the halls normally housing staid trade fairs. After all the publicity and excitement we decided to go and have a look. This week the theme was Ice Surprises, a rather incongruous theme for Dubai in mid-dummer. There were lots of kids' rides and huge fibreglass models of local landmarks covered in snow, and a toboggan ride featuring real cold snow. And an area had been set up so that kids could throw snow balls at each other. Unfortunately the rule was for kids only, adults weren't even allowed if they were children at heart.



So we decided that if you had a gaggle of small children driving you crazy, Summer Surprises would be just the thing for you, whereas if you were just the average immature adult, you had better leave the country for cooler climes.

13 June 2004

Luxury of the Day #4

Individual little towels rolled up for your convenience.

At the Emirates Towers Hotel Ladies' Room:


12 June 2004

Brunch and the beach

We have both been very busy, Stuart with his business plan and Fiver with her latest movie project, so we thought we could do with some relaxation. In Dubai relaxation is a favourite occupation.

We decided to sign up for a beach club on a monthly basis for the summer, since Dubai Marine Club had an offer. Beach clubs are pretty underused here in the summer months, since a lot of people go back home when it gets really hot. Other times of the year there is a waiting list to join a club, but right now it's cheaper and we don't have to commit ourselves for a year. These places are heavenly, it's like being on holiday for a few hours: There is a beach with sand and waves, loungers and umbrellas for shade and swimming pools to cool down. All this amongst palm trees and lawns.

10 June 2004

24 Hours on Sheik Zayed Rd

This link will take you to a time-lapse movie of the view from our bedroom window along Sheik Zayed Rd, taken over 24 hours (7MB, requires Quicktime).

06 June 2004

Housing Options

We had basically two kinds of options to choose from when we were looking for somewhere to live in Dubai.
There are flats and there are villas. Of course there are lots of different kinds of both. From the small flat sub-divided by the landlord to accommodate as many Indian bachelors as possible to the luxury split-level penthouse suites with maid's room.
We opted for a flat since it was central, with decent services and very secure (villas have the greatest chance of being burgled, this being one of the few crimes one has to worry about here). Now that we have met a few people we have been to some villas. They are either detached houses with own garden and sometimes a small pool, or blocks of 6-12 semi-detached houses, usually quite large, with a shared pool and sometimes gym in the central courtyard. Gardens aren't too popular here, since it is too hot most of the year for anything meaningful to grow. So the gardens are paved with barbecue areas and seating, loungers round the pool and jacuzzi.
There is so much construction going on in Dubai that it is normal to rent after seeing a show home or example flat and then live in a hotel or temporary accommodation until the building is finished. Whole areas of Dubai are being developed like this, with communities of 15 sq. miles of villas in the middle of the desert.
The Meadows development
We have so far only had experience of the way Western ex-pats live, apart from driving through the older parts of town, where much smaller blocks of flats are located with external air-conditioning units and washing hanging on the balcony.

04 June 2004

Postal Services

Nothing as simple as getting the mail, right? Just tell people where you live and the postman will deliver. Not so in Dubai, one of the few civilised countries in the World that does not have a postal delivery service. You are given a post box with your

You are given a post box with your accommodation, or get your own. Then the fun starts. The post boxes are located in huge rooms in the area post offices or built into pillars just outside. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. All painted blue, with a slot for 'Unwanted Letters' occasionally. You have to go and pick it up regularly if you want to get your mail, or send the maid/driver/gardener to get it. The exception is a few apartment blocks (like ours) that have arranged a central mail pickup service. This means that someone from the management company gets the mail. In the case of our block unfortunately they are very slack and so we only get mail every few days. It also means if there is a lot of mail it may not all get put into the post box, so it is delayed even more. Or the pickup guy has too much to carry and leaves some behind. Sounds like a rubbish system? Well, it is.

IMG_1918-2004-06-4-10-46.jpg IMG_1913-2004-06-4-10-46.jpg

Karama Post Office - outside and inside post boxes

The result of this haphazard system is that most people have their mail sent to their office address, since someone is guaranteed to pick up from the post box at least once a day there, and it is pretty much guaranteed that the mail gets to you since presumably your employer knows who you are.

The Dubai post office is actually thinking about starting deliveries, having realised that this is an impossible state of affairs. But when this will happen we don't know. In the meantime, if you want to send snail mail, you will need to send it to Stuart's work address and if it comes from Europe, expect it to take anything from 2 to 6 weeks.

28 May 2004

Number Plate Madness - updated

Dubai police auctions number plates, or how to maintain a strange hobby. And more information on Dubai number plates than you really need.

The latest money-spinning discovery for the municipality is the sale of personalised number plates. There are limited options for personalisation, since Dubai plates are just a letter for the year of registration followed by a row of one to five digits. We heard that you can recognise important locals by low numbers (single or double digits) and have seen Sheik Mohammed's car, which sports the number '1'. Some of Dubai's most creative drivers drive cars with low numbers...

But the whole arrangement of car registration is in flux right now with an explosion of new cars being registered. Vehicle registration is expected to rise from 400000 now to one million by 2020. Dubai has been through four different schemes in the last four years, including one of differently coloured backgrounds and numbers, which was abandoned because colours faded too quickly in the hot weather. A scheme that included a picture of the Burj Al Arab was given up because the remaining space left was too small to allow deciphering of the actual numbers. The new scheme should be able to provide plates for registration for the next 30 years.

Two weeks ago new plates starting with the letter 'E' were auctioned. Unbelievably a single number (E33) went for Dh 1.14m (£130k)! The man who bought the plate also bought another 4 plates for an additional Dh 1.07m. Apparently the collection of number plates is his hobby. He told Gulf News that he was looking for a plate for either his BMW X5 or his Porsche. When asked what cars the other plate were to grace, he said that he did not have that many cars: "I will have to buy some more".

A total of 36 plates brought a profit of Dh 10m for Dubai police.


A few days later the police department of Ras al Khaimah (a tiny Emirate on the Indian Ocean coast in the North-East of Dubai) ran a similar auction. The plates on sale, though from RAK, were more desirable, as they included single digits from 1 to 9 as well as double digits 11, 22, 33, etc, to 99. Plate number '1' went for the incredible amount of Dh 8m, the highest price ever paid for a number plate in the world. More interestingly, the second most expensive plate, number '2', was sold to the Chief of RAK Police, Brigadier General Sheikh Talib bin Saqr Al Qasimi. The Director General of the RAK Economic Department later warned that people shouldn't take out loans to purchase plate numbers just as status symbols or as a hobby. Some hobby...

25 May 2004

Final Touches

As a last favour from the impeccable service we received from Crowne Removals they sent a handyman to hang our pictures, clocks - and the hammock!

Stuart was initially not keen on the hammock, but, like everyone who tries a hammock for the first time, is now a total convert. Impossible to to get him out of there.


24 May 2004

Troy at the movies - UAE-style

We had been putting off going to the movies after our first trip due to the unreasonable and brutal censorship of American Beauty, but when Troy came out we thought there probably wasn't much that could be chopped.

As it turned out, Troy was a very average movie (it's probably more enjoyable to just read this 15 minute synopsis instead), but the trip was memorable for something that didn't happen and some things that did, but were a bit unexpected:

We had been warned that due to the total dependence of Dubai inhabitants on their mobile phones they would be using them in the cinema, too. We heard horror stories of insistently ringing phones and conversations carried on at full volume. So we were prepared. But apart from a guy who was still chatting while getting seated before the movie started there was total silence.

The unexpected thing was cigarette advertisement. This has been banned in the UK for so long now that watching it felt slightly illicit, even if it still didn't make us want to go out and pick up the habit. It was just such a blast from the past, we almost felt like we were back sitting in the local flea pit as kids, having snuck in with fake ID to watch Star Wars.

After American Beauty we had learned a bit about local censorship. Swearing is fine, so is any kind of violence, and strangely the male kissing scene at the end of American Beauty was spared, but the slightest whiff of female nudity was mercilessly - and very crudely - removed from the movie. In the case of American Beauty it meant that the dream sequence in the sports hall with the rose petals was excised which made some of the later events totally incomprehensible. Troy only has a few scenes with female nudity (strangely Brad Pitt's naked arse was left intact, thank Goodness), but all of them were hacked in the crudest manner. The big surprise, though, was the audience reaction. The cuts were very obvious, like a fault in the film roll rather than a proper edit, and every time a scene was censored, the audience laughed, as if it was a good piece of unintentional comedy. People were amused by the patronising attitude reflected by the cuts rather than annoyed. It was a strange reaction.

23 May 2004

The gym and pool

As of this week we are seriously working on reducing that extraneous layer of fat collected during our endless trips to restaurants since we got here.

It is difficult to overestimate the privilege of having an in-house gym and pool. When we first looked at flats we always asked whether there would be a gym in the building, but soon realised that this is standard for apartment blocks of a certain quality here. A pool seems equally compulsory, even most villas are grouped around a communal pool in the back garden, and gyms are provided by the developer in the form of centrally located clubs.

Our gym and pool are located on the top floor of the building with a spectacular (if slightly truncated, due to a high wall) view of Bur Dubai and Port Rashid and the sea. At night the aircraft warning lights on the neighbouring buildings sparkle, a sight which makes us feel very cosmopolitan. The pool is just long enough to swim lengths (if you are a moderate swimmer), but it has a large jacuzzi for hours of lounging. Despite Fiver's moaning that it is an indoor pool and there is no opportunity to catch some rays it is the most opulent, shiny and exquisite luxury to have. The best thing is that you can go up in the lift in your swim suit and dressing gown and come straight back to the flat after the swim, provided you don't leave too many puddles on the floor.


The gym, for some reason, is always empty. Which is good, this way no-one can see us sweat ;-) It has tread mills, a rower, cycles, weight machines and any number of very heavy weights for the testosterone-fuelled.

22 May 2004

The Furniture Walk

Sharjah (the emirate next door to Dubai, see A Visit to Al Sharjah) yields up another of its secret treasures.

Geoff, who has recently arrived in Dubai and is looking to furnish his newly-rented villa, took us along on one of his furniture-hunting trips to Sharjah. We first went to Lucky's, a warehouse full of Indian furniture hidden in an industrial estate, a veritable treasure trove of carved and painted items. Wardrobes, tables and bookcases are stacked three high, leaving only a narrow alleyway between each precariously piled row. Everything was either covered in beaten brass work, exquisitely carved figures or painted with naive decoration such as fish, camels or elephants. We ordered a coffee table with inlaid blue tiles and a small cupboard with painted doors. In between the furniture we discovered a lovely camel to add to Fiver's growing collection:


The camel is the one on the right ;-)

Next up was the famed Furniture Walk, a long stretch of road through Sharjah lined with one furniture showroom after another. Most of these seemed to be aimed at the Russian visitor, judging by the advertising in the windows, but we didn't let that deter us. Geoff was hunting for a cream-coloured sofa for his new home, and we tagged along. The showrooms turned out to be a set designer's dream. If you need a bedroom for the Marriage of Figaro done the traditional way, or the interior of a Tsarist throne room, or the shiniest, glossiest Miami Vice-style drinks cabinet and bar, you would be in the right place. There were polished wood wardrobes you could see your face in, decoratively framed mirrors with elaborate detailing and antiqued MDF as far as the eye can see. But the most stunningly tacky item we discovered was this dolphin coffee table, which came in a range, so it would be possible to have a matching set of these beauties scattered around an undoubtedly large and over-furnished lounge:


At 650 Dirham (£95) it's a steal!

18 May 2004

Seeing Friends

Moving on to the UK, where Stuart had yet more meetings, we also made the rounds of friends and family.

So this is a note to say thank you to everyone we saw for having us over, it was great to see you again so soon after we left. We hope we weren't too boring with our 'Dubai is Great!' ravings. Fiver has been specially inspired by all the interest people showed in the mores and manners of Dubai. She will try to answer all questions in forthcoming editions of the blog.

Thank you Alex, Angela, Caroline, Caroline, Dave, Emma, Gary, Harry, Howard, Ian, Jane, Jane, Jason, Kayzi, Martin, Matt, Phil and Stephen for your hospitality! See you in Dubai soon to return the favour.

10 May 2004

An Interlude

Fiver finished work, and Stuart was off to France again for work, so we went together. This entry is not about Dubai, so feel free to skip it if you are only interested in the exotic news.

Paris was lovely, the sun came out and the air was balmy. Unfortunately Stuart had to work all day, so he only had time for a Seine cruise one evening. Fiver spent most of her time vaguely strolling towards museums, but only really made it to the Louvre for a few hours, where she strolled past the Mona Lisa and the Nike of Samothrace.


03 May 2004

Three Surprising Occurrences

Fiver gets wolf-whistled for the first time, meets her first beggar and discovers a mysterious dead goat...

What makes the wolf-whistle so surprising is that it is the first time it has happened even though we have been in Dubai for three months now. People here are rather respectful (unless they are driving and you are in their way), and personal space is very important to everyone here, to the point where some people are reluctant to shake hands. It is quite a paradox for us Westerners, that some women would be very private, staying at home or in cars with tinted windows or covered by black cloaks and headscarves, and at the same time there is such a respect for women that it makes an insult noteworthy.

Yesterday Fiver left a shopping centre when she was called over to a car. A man, accompanied by a woman and a few small children told her that he had come from Abu Dhabi, but had run out of petrol for the return journey and had no money to feed his family. While there are poorer areas in Dubai, sometimes right next to large villas, and labourers are often housed in very cramped conditions (there is an article in today's Gulf News describing complaints that factory workers are housed in containers with no air conditioning - an unimaginable environment in temperatures of 40C and over) there are no true slums and no beggars roaming the streets. This is mostly due to the fact that there is little unemployment. Most inhabitants are ex-pat workers who by definition can only be resident here as long as they have work. The locals are well supported by the government with free health cover, cheap housing and generous subsidies on marriage and child birth.

The dead goat was lying on the central reservation of a dual carriageway, obviously run over. But where had it appeared from, a goat in the middle of town? Today's newspaper explained. It was a stray, run over by a car, who, in swerving, forced another 4-four wheel drive off the road and caused it to flip over. There was a very impressive picture of the goat that had caused the mayhem in front of the upside-down car. Nobody but the goat seemed to have been seriously hurt.

02 May 2004

Getting round the desert without getting stuck

As the UAE is almost completely desert, and a large percentage of that sand desert, we thought it a good idea to learn how to drive in sand.

As the UAE is almost completely desert, and a large percentage of that sand desert, we thought it a good idea to learn how to drive in sand. We certainly have the right vehicle for it. The Range Rover, even though the vast majority of them never leave the tarmac, is a superb off-road vehicle and we wanted to put it through its paces.

We signed up with one of the several companies that offered such courses (the aptly named ‘Turner Travel’) and met up with the teacher at a shopping centre car park not far from our flat. Luckily, we were the only people on the course – normally they take up to 8 vehicles. We were given a walkie-talkie for communication and followed his Land Cruiser out of town to a spot in the desert. There, we reduced the tyre pressures to about 15psi (to give a greater surface area on the sand) and then had a briefing using toy cars to illustrate the techniques needed to avoid getting stuck or turning the car over.


This is us not getting the car stuck for once.

There were not many teaching points. Driving in a sand desert means constantly crossing over wind blown sand dunes, which means driving up the face of one, over the top and down the often steep slope on the other side. The secret is to keep moving up the slopes and to have enough momentum to carry you over the top, while not going too fast so you get airborne! The main safety point is to make sure you go over the dunes at a right angle, as you can roll the vehicle if you try to cross obliquely.

Before driving off, we raised the suspension to its ‘off-road’ level as ground clearance is highly useful. The vehicle manual also recommends removing the plastic spoiler at the front but the car looked high enough so we left it on.

We started with gentle dunes but they soon gave way to more scary ones. When going down steep dunes you initially think that the car will bury its nose in the sand when you hit the bottom. It does not, but you occasionally take a lot of sand with you. After our first stop to change drivers, we noticed that half the plastic spoiler had been ripped off somewhere so we removed the rest!

It took us both a little while to get the feel for sand driving, mainly keeping the right acceleration to get up the dune without going too fast. If you do not make it, then you reverse down and up the other side as far as possible and run at it again. We both got stuck a couple of times but this technique worked well each time. Our only serious bogging incident came after we came over a dune but had to turn sharp right at the bottom in soft sand. We got well and truly stuck and called for assistance. It was a simple job for Jochen, the tour leader, to winch us out (must get one of those!) and we continued on.

We were both delighted with the course and the car. Fiver had never driven off road before and Stuart had not driven on sand since living in Australia 20 years ago. We now have no fear of driving in the desert – just a healthy respect!