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Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar


First of all, without giving away any of the plot, if you haven't already seen it, you should see the movie Avatar and you should see it in a theater with the new 3D technology. Otherwise you might as well wait for it on DVD. Don't worry, this entry isn't going to be a movie review. I just felt it was really cool to be in a theater full of people and to feel the energy of excitement with this new added sensation to the movie going experience was unveiled. I haven't been this impressed since I heard the digital audio of Jurassic Park for the first time or witnessing the special effects of The Matrix. Now that these things have been done to death in every other movie, it's not as cool, but it's fun to see something when it first comes out.

Enough about the actual movie. I had plans to see it on Saturday, but it was sold out. We had to buy tickets for today's (Monday's) showing. The theater was packed. I realize that this is a big movie, but I can't remember a movie that I've seen in the past five years in Japan in which more than a third of the theater was filled. Even for big movies on opening weekend. Avatar has been out for over a week and you still have to buy tickets in advance. I'm not sure if it's a reflection on the movie-going audience here or if it's a reflection on Avatar.

I'm guessing that the movie sensors here had a bit of a dilemma. I've only seen three other films here (Japanese animated film "Ponyo," Japanese dolphin killing movie "The Cove," and Michael Moore documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story") none of which had a many love scenes. (Don't be fooled by the title of the Michael Moore film!) Therefore, I've had to take people's word for it when I hear that movies here get butchered. Any scene with kissing, affection or more sensitive scenes get taken out along with any kind of nudity. According to IMDB, Avatar was given a PG-13 rating for "for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking." The warfare and smoking would pose no problem and probably the language wouldn't be an issue. I'm surprised that the sensuality and the blue, 3-meter-tall alien boobies made it through. They aren't prominent, but I'm willing to bet that if the actors were wearing the exact same costumes without the blue make-up it wouldn't have gotten through. Then again, I haven't seen the movie outside the U.A.E. so maybe some of it did get cut.

While I did enjoy the film as a whole, I had one major annoyance. There were no English subtitles for when the aliens were speaking. I understand that I live in a country in which the predominant language is not English. I could kind of accept it in Japan where less than 0.2% of the population was a native speaker of English but here 80% of the population is foreign. Of that 80%, most don't speak Arabic and most speak English as a second language at least. I'm guessing not many speak the blue alien language, either.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas

Normally, I would have to work on Christmas. This is a fact that I've gotten used to with living in non-Christian countries over the past 13 years. This year, Christmas fell on a Friday which is the weekend here. For the first time since my kids were old enough to have a concept of Christmas, I could spend Christmas morning with them. So naturally, I planned a bike ride with one of my friends. That didn't go over very well with my wife so that got canceled.

For the most part, we had a relaxing day with the kids. We let them ride their new bikes along the walkway near the beach. It was the first time that I've experienced warm weather on Christmas apart from one year when I was a kid and it was 60 degrees and my mom wouldn't let me wear shorts. I wished I'd have worn shorts this year because I was a little warm walking in the sun.

We eventually ended up at another really big park near our apartment. I've seen it a little, but it's on the other side of a hill on a busy street so I never really had the chance to go there. It was a pretty sizable park with a whole bunch of different playground equipment and now that we know where it is, we have a new place to take the kids.

For those of you who are wondering, Christmas is widely celebrated here. While shopping malls don't seem to decorate as much as in Japan, it is easier to actually buy decorations and other Christmas stuff. Also, the city left up the white, red and green (the U.A.E. national colors) lights from National Day earlier this month so it actually looks a bit a bit Christmas-like. There is some speculation as to whether that's done on purpose, but I like to think that it is. Even though most of the locals don't celebrate Christmas, they respect and understand those who do. I also like that unlike in Japan, they don't try and make co-opt it into the culture without really understanding it. Instead, they make the decorations available, step back and let people do what they will.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Security

On Wednesday, McDonald's took me down again. This time I tried the Chicken Big Mac set but I didn't eat all of my fries. I blame my students coming into the classroom with the McDonald's smell for putting the idea in my head. Also, back when I was on a strictly Subway diet, I never went to the back part of the cafeteria where McDonald's is. That new restaurant that I like is just too close.

Over the past few days, we've had the access to our desks restricted. Whereas usually there is one main door and two side doors, the side doors have been locked. There is now a security guard guarding the main door and he has to press a button to open the sliding doors for anyone who enters. As a staff member, I just have to smile and wave and he opens it right up. Students either have to have an appointment written down on a list or have to know their teacher's extension so the security guard can call them and verify that they are going to see them. The reason? Exam time! Yes, that's right. The school distrusts our students to the point where they will restrict access to the teachers' desks to keep exams from being stolen or compromised somehow.

I would have to say that this is justified, too. Say what you want about Japanese students versus Emirati students. The students here are way better at cheating than Japanese students. When I was teaching in Japan, I would leave the weekly quizzes in my bag at the front of the room and go out to talk to other teachers. I would have a copy of the final exam sitting under my teacher's book and taunt the students with it during class. I'd be one of the first to admit that I was pretty horrible with exam security in Japan but I really don't think it was necessary. I don't mean to suggest that it was because Japanese students are entirely honest. It more had to do with the fact that I didn't think they had the guts to go rifling around in a teacher's bag looking for a quiz. Alternately, any student who would do that, wouldn't care enough about the quiz to do it.

Here, however, it's a different story. The students do have the guts to steal a test and do care enough to try to do it. Unfortunately, they don't care enough to actually put in the effort studying. I tend to take the attitude towards cheating that a teacher doesn't have to make cheating impossible. They just have to make it more difficult to cheat than to actually do the work to succeed. If a student wants to cheat that badly that they'll put in more effort than studying, that's fine with me. That attitude doesn't work here. A lot of students will put more effort into cheating than it would take to study and do well on the exam honestly. That's where the guy in front of the entrance to the teachers' area comes in.

On Wednesday, I had to proctor an exam. The students weren't too bad because it was a higher level course. Still, there was a level of trying to share answers that I didn't see in Japan. As someone who is pretty attune to how people could cheat, even I was impressed by some of the ingenuity. It had to be a two-way street and there was an element of plausible denyability, but it was pretty good.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Promotion

As you may have determined from my previous entries, the place I work has money and they like people to think highly of them. The school pumps a serious amount of money into classroom technology and wants people to know it. I will admit that in many cases it isn't necessary and sometimes can even get in the way. One such example is the SMART board in each classroom. They're kind of cool to play around with and let you add text to a computer screen, but in the way they're used, you could achieve the same thing with a computer projector and a whiteboard. They can be used for so much more but with the students I teach, you can't really do a lot more with them. I get the feeling that even with what I use it for, a lot of other teachers use it for less. I've heard complaints that it's in the way of the actual whiteboards and as a result, the whiteboards are pushed to the side where they're harder for students to see.

My feeling is the technology is there so I might as well learn how to use it and possibly think of ways in which it can really help my teaching. At the very least, I might as well learn how to use it so I can put it on a resume and impress some future employer. Sure, getting into my classroom a minimum of five minutes early to get everything set up is annoying, but once you get into a routine, it's no big deal.

Many people may then ask, why does the school bother? Part of the answer is, "Because they can." As most people are aware of by now, Dubai is in a financial crisis after a few ostentatious construction projects including palm tree shaped islands, an indoor 400 meter ski slope, and one on the drawing boards that's been put on hold: a rotating building in which each floor rotates independently. The same could be said for these projects: "Because they can." The U.A.E. can afford the best technology in the world and they're going to provide it, whether or not it's necessary. Then they'll tell everyone about it.

Believe me, I have no problem with a school promoting itself and respect a school that recognizes the need to get their name out there. I'm not trying to make fun of how much this school promotes itself. I am just amazed by all the resources that they put into promoting themselves. Here is the advertisement that they put on BBC World last year and the announcement talking about the ad to the staff and students. Keep in mind that this is a school that is for nationals of the U.A.E. only, that is free for said nationals, and was advertised on a worldwide news network.

video

I got into a discussion with a co-worker of mine over who could they could have possibly been advertising to. My reaction was that they were obviously promoting it to teachers. The idea being, get the name out there so the next time a teacher considers looking for a job, the name may possibly remain in their mind and they'll think, "I saw an ad for that on BBC World. That must be a top tier school."

As if that wasn't enough, they have events like the Festival of Thinkers with all the Nobel laureates and whatnot. Also, I'm friends with one of the staff who has the duty of showing visitors around the place. This person listed a number of names of people that she has had to show around and told me that if I want to know who is walking around, look at one of the video notice boards around school which will say, "Abu Dhabi Men's College would like to welcome (name of person) to the school." A few weeks ago was former U.S. ambassador John Bolton. I've seen world leaders like the president of Ireland, as well as various celebrities and academics. Supposedly George W. Bush paid a visit. Pele and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have been through there. I've seen photos of various dignitaries from the past 20 years such as Margaret Thatcher wandering the halls of my illustrious institution along with a dozen others that I have no idea about but I'm sure are pretty important.

The natural question is, "Why would all those people go to Abu Dhabi Men's College for a tour?" It seems that when a foreign dignitary, businessperson, or celebrity comes to the capital of the U.A.E., Abu Dhabi, they are shown the Emirates palace, and perhaps the Grand Mosque. After that, there really isn't anywhere else to take them so they get a grand tour of our facilities such as the library which, if the truth be told, are quite impressive. All I can say is that they don't see the students I teach or the rooms I teach in.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

McDonald's

The inevitable happened and for the first time since coming to Abu Dhabi, I ate at McDonald's. In my cafeteria, there's a Subway, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Dunkin' Donuts along with a restaurant that sells three different healthy set menus each day. I don't know what the name of this restaurant is, but I've started eating there after getting sick of Subway every day. The meals at the new place are rotated on a daily basis so that they have three different selections for each day of the month. I usually enjoy their lunches, but none of them appealed to me today so I went to the Golden Arches next door.

Without really thinking I ordered a Big Mac set with fries and a coke, but after I ordered, I noticed a few other choices that seem specific to the region. There was a chicken Big Mac that I wished I'd ordered, and a few other chicken meals that were "seasoned to the Arab taste" that looked good. If I'd have ordered one of those I could at least justified eating there by saying I wanted to try something new.

There was no Quarter pounder (or "royale with cheese" for you "Pulp Fiction" fans) but there was a pizza pocket type dish that looked pretty unappetizing. Also, I heard that they still fry the apple pies here whereas they started baking them in North America for health reasons. This was presented as a plus for ordering apple pie here. They have no breakfasts, though I've seen them at the McDonalds where get gasoline. They also had the ice cream and sundaes, but no milkshakes.

I checked online and while the official site for the Middle East looks like it's under construction, there's a site that lists all the locations in Abu Dhabi. There's only eight, including the one in my cafeteria (HCT Saada St). According to the site, the one at my local gas station seems to be the only one with breakfasts in Abu Dhabi.

Based on how I felt running with a belly full of McDonald's, I don't think I'll be making this a regular thing. It's nice to know that they have the ice-cream for an occasional treat. At least until the school opens up a Baskin Robbins.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rain (Day 2)

It would seem that my initial assessment of rain in Abu Dhabi as "no big deal" was incorrect. While the rainfall itself wasn't anything to rival Japan, the city's inability to deal with with it made it something to behold. I suppose it's like someone from Wisconsin hearing that the highways in Florida have been shut down because of two inches of snow. "Hah, that's all?" one might say. I felt a similar way to the rain here. Still, after noticing the locals' inability to adjust driving to the conditions and the infrequency with which they have to drive on wet roads made me nervous about driving to work. In fact, I saw an SUV on it's side on the median of the road as I drove to work which didn't help things.

For the most part, it rained only moderately with occasional showers. It wasn't a big deal but after looking at the huge puddles of water gathering everywhere was the first time that I noticed that there aren't any sewer grates or anywhere for the water to go. That was enough reason for any amount of rain to accumulate.

It wasn't that deep, but it was enough to get my feet wet and I did have to walk through it everywhere I went. It didn't rain that hard but it was enough for my kids to complain that they didn't have umbrellas for the two days a year that it rains. One of our neighbors overheard them complaining and brought over some umbrellas for the kids tonight.

My students also seemed to get a kick out of the rain today, too. A lot of them were flying through the parking lot to splash the puddles. I was waiting for someone to hydroplane and take out a row of parked cars. Most of my students made it to class, but were even more antsy than usual. One guy explained to me, "In the summer we go out into the desert and it's so hot but when it rains it feels so cool and refreshing." It's strange to think that most of these guys have seen rain like this 20 or 30 times in their lives and how novel rain must be.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rain

I've been here for over four months and for the first time, it's raining. It's not really coming down hard, but it's enough of a curiosity where people are taking small children outside to look at the rain. The natural thing for me to do this morning was go get my car washed. That may not make sense in light of the facts that I already pay someone to wash my car and that it's stupid to wash your car only to have it rained on right away. While the guy who usually washes it does a fair job, I wanted to give it a really good washing to get the sand and salt water washed out from under it. Also, I really wanted to have it vacuumed out and they won't do that unless you have the car washed. I could probably vacuum it out myself but they really go to town with the vacuum with four guys cleaning out your car.

I was planning on getting it washed last weekend. I got into line and after about 20 minutes, moved only about three car lengths into the 15-car line. That was enough for me to say "screw this" and move on. I heard that you have to go there right when they open at 7:00 am. Even though it was a little later than that, I figured that most people wouldn't be dumb enough to get their car washed in the rain and was right about that.

I was actually a little disappointed about not having anything more notable to say about the rain. I'd heard that just a little rain is enough to shut down the city and that the drainage system isn't equipped to to handle the water. I was planning on getting some photos of flooding. Apart from a few puddles outside my apartment, there wasn't anything worth taking a picture of.

We drove to the shopping mall a few miles away and the traffic was a little heavy, but I think that's usual for a Saturday in the early afternoon. It rained a bit off and on and I even had to turn on my windshield wipers on intermittent a few times. I grumbled something about "probably getting stranded there because of the rain" but nothing even close to that happened.

People were walking around outside with no umbrellas and even though it wasn't raining that hard, were this Japan everyone would've had an umbrella. Families were even out in the parks playing. I guess that when rain is a novelty, people don't seem to mind it as much. Even with the rain it was about the same as every day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Killers

I went to see the band "The Killers" last night at the Emirates Palace hotel about a few miles away from my apartment. It was a good show overall. It was a great outdoor venue. Check out the pictures of the stage. As you can see from the second photo, there was a really cute girl dancing next to us.
The only real problem was that the organizers didn't seem to have a full grasp of the amount of alcohol that the average person person going to a rock concert would generally consume. They were not very prepared for the number of people who would be willing to pay $12 for a Heiniken and how many of these beers each person would want. I will say that the people working behind the bar were working hard, there just weren't enough people or taps to serve concert goers adequately.

As if paying ridiculous prices wasn't annoying enough, we had to wait in one long line to buy beer tickets then once the money was spent, there was the even longer, slower-moving line to wait in to get the drinks. Of course, by that time you were committed and couldn't just say "screw this" and get out of line.

Apart from that, the show was really great and even though there weren't any taxis around after the show, my apartment was close enough where we could walk home.

Thing to remember next time: drink more before the show and bring some plastic hip-flasks with some adult beverage. Lesson learned.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Oman (part two)

So we went camping in Oman, right? Well, the day after I was playing Uno with an Omani family while eating chicken in their tent that was lit by a generator (see part one), we packed up and went searching for a beach that was more hospitable. After searching out a few places, we ended up at a nice sandy beach with some great waves for the kids to play in. Everyone went splashing in the waves while my wife started the grill and cooked some hot dogs for lunch.

We had just finished eating when some Omani guys drove up and gave us a box full of fish that they had caught on ice. There was no turning it down so we decided to have fish for lunch as well. I got a kick out of their generosity with the fish while at the same time watching them throw all their garbage out the window of their truck as they pulled away. My wife grabbed a knife and started prepping two of the fresh fish for grilling. We brought the rest over to another family that was picnicing and they gladly accepted them. As we were finishing eating for the second time, another guy walked over and tried giving us more fish. This time we were able to point to the evidence of the fish remains and turn them down on the basis that we had just eaten.

The leader of our expedition started looking for this great place that she had stayed before and started pulling over to ask for directions. In the process of asking a taxi driver how to get there, a guy pulled up and said he'd take us there. After following at breakneck speeds for about a half an hour, the guy pulled over and insisted on inviting us to his place for tea, coffee, and fruit. He was so insistent that we couldn't refuse. When we got there, we were really glad to be able to see his house. The tea and dates were really good.

While there, I took the opportunity to use a proper toilet for the first time in two-and-a-half days. When I got out, my son was running around the house. I went to a room to go get him and an older woman who spoke no English was gesturing to me. She was using the gesture that in Japan and Greece means "come here" but in the U.S. means "go away." I now know that it means "go away" in Oman, too, because I walked to a room where two teen-aged girls were smiling and waving to me. The older woman shouted something in Arabic and the girls immediately covered their faces with their scarves. I later told my wife that she should be prepared for company because I might have to get married again.

After relaxing for a while, we got directions to the next campsite and said our goodbyes. We arrived there just before sunset. It was a campsite with huts, showers and proper toilets. After a few days of roughing it, we all enjoyed being able to get cleaned up and sleep in actual beds. It was on the top of a sand dune which meant that we had to stick our trucks in first gear and gun it up the dune. It took me five tries but I refused to let the guy who worked there do it out of principal. I'm sure that they're used to that sort of thing because they seemed content to let me try it as many times as I wanted.

Once there, we got showered and had a buffet style meal with delicious lamb, chicken, and hummus. I was even able to get a Heiniken to drink with it. After dinner we we listened to the six person band playing and smoked sheesha. The next morning they even provided breakfast. While we were relaxing, we noticed that my daughter had wandered down the dune where some locals were giving camel rides. It was a little touristy, but the two of us took a camel ride.

On our way out we had to let some air out of our tires and have the workers at the campsite drive our trucks out. I'm guessing that's pretty standard because they said it pretty matter of factly the night before that they would be doing that for us.

We finished the trip by visiting some caves, then driving part the way up a mountain only to realize that we'd better turn back before we got stuck up there in the dark. We headed for a town called Nizwa and had some great shwarma at a small restaurant. After that we sped back to Abu Dhabi loaded up on caffeine.

Overall, the trip was great. Now that I've been on a multi-day camping trip we know some things to bring with us for next time like an air compressor to pump up the tires and GPS navigation to be less lost. Most of all, we were glad to have Saturday to relax at home.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Oman (part one)

So last week I was off work, right? I figured that it would be a good time to go camping. There's a bit too much to write in one sitting so I'll be writing about it in parts.

We had a few different people offer to take us camping in various areas of the region. While on the hiking trip with a friend of mine, I met someone who was going camping in Oman for a few days. She has been to Oman a bunch of times and had a 4-year old traveling with her so I figured that after knowing her for only a couple of days and having bought a three-piece sofa set from her, she was just the person to follow on a three-night out of country camping trip. It wasn't until about halfway through the trip that I realized how badly things could have turned out and how lucky we were that her family and her sister's family were pretty cool people and we all got along really well.

The first day, Tuesday, we set out for Muscat. The previous times going to Oman, we only hopped across the border so didn't have to worry about immigration. Because this time we were going pretty far in we had to get visas. By the time we got out of Abu Dhabi, through Oman immigration and into Muscat it was dark. I would've liked to have seen the city in the daylight, but short of leaving a lot earlier or driving a lot faster, we couldn't really avoid it. The woman that was leading the trip knew about a great place that she'd camped at before. We got to a pristine beach that was in a cove next to some ruins and set up our camp. Unlike the last time our friend had been to that site, it was a holiday so there were a bunch of other people camped there. It seemed strange to have so many other people camped close, but everyone was pretty courteous. It was a full moon so we could move around pretty easily.

The next morning when we got up, we noticed that the beach wasn't quite as pristine as we thought. It turned out that we just couldn't see all the garbage in the dark. I even got a nice photo of some of the ruins with our tent blocking the garbage.

We played around at the beach a bit before heading off to the next place. The group I was with knows a lot of cool places to visit in Oman because they've been there a lot. Also, they like to do a lot of exploring to have a look for the next time. In the process of doing this, we took a few scenic roads and drove through a few small towns. We also stopped at a beach and let the kids play around. Unfortunately, we ended up looking for a place to camp after sunset. With knowing the coast well, our friends were able to find a place near the water, but it was a bit rocky with a bit of a drop off into the water. Also, we had to be careful of bits of broken glass. Overall, it wasn't bad.

The really interesting thing about the second night was the huge tent that was about 500 meters away from us. Almost immediately after arriving, two older guys said that they had a huge tent and welcomed us to come over if we had any problems, needed any kind of assistance or just wanted to hang out. It seems that they were camped there and were expecting people the next night. We offered a non-committal thanks and went about our business. A little before midnight after everyone in our camp had gone to bed, I wandered over there to see what was up. I turned out that most of the male members of the guy's family were there. with the party going strong. they had a huge tent set up like a living room with a carpet and pillows on it with about three or four smaller tents for sleeping. There was a generator for electricity, and a huge tank of water on a truck trailer. The older fellow had a game of Uno going. Just after I got there I started playing some game that seemed to be a combination of pool and shuffleboard with a 10-year-old, 12-year-old and a guy in his twenties. The guy in his twenties told me that he'd studied in England for six years and had his Master's degree. The older guy that had invited me over was the patriarch and took two extended camping trips to that spot each year. The trips ranged in time from three weeks to two months. His family would join him for a night or two at a time. That particular night, most of the people were going home after eating. Then the food came.

I was offered chicken, lamb and fish that had been cooked on a fire. I had been ready to go to bed just before that so wasn't all that hungry, but ate a bit to be a good guest. It was delicious. Afterwards, we had the best dates I'd ever eaten. Then it was my turn to play Uno. I didn't really want to get caught up in a game, so was a little relieved when the generator went out for about 30 seconds and broke up the game. It gave me an excuse to take my leave. I was only gone for about 45 minutes but had to drive the next day and didn't want to be up all night.

The Omanis were all really hospitable. Only a few spoke English, but it was really interesting interacting with people in their own culture. I was really glad I took the guy's invitation.