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Friday, January 29, 2010

Camel Races


We finally made it to the camel races. While my mom was here, I made elaborate plans to go and we couldn't find the track or any information on when they were held and how to get there. After doing a bit more research, I found where they were. In the end, it was about 45 kilometers from where I live and there were signs all over giving directions of how to get there.

When we got there, the races were already going on. Just as we were arriving a flock of trucks was driving towards us causing a small amount of panic in my wife. We realized that they were following the camels who were just finishing their race. I'd already heard about the camel races in the U.A.E. from the Amazing Race Season 5 so I was already up on how they use remote controlled robots to whip the camels rather than strap terrified young children to the camels like they used to. I later realized that because the race course is so long that the guys racing the camels have to follow them in trucks so they can control the robot jockeys on the camels' backs.

I saw some American-looking women getting out of a truck so gravitated to them for guidance. As it turned out, it was their first time there but they'd already seem a few races so were able to give me a few pointers about what was going on such as where the start and finish were. The starting line is just a screen at head-height for a camel and when the race starts, it's lifted and they all take off. The track is about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from what I could tell. At the finish, the camels are led into a chute. The track doesn't make a complete circle so the following race is ready to go and starts within a minute of the previous one finishing.

The American women also told me that if I asked, one of the guys in the trucks would let me ride in the back while they followed along. It was really cool getting a prime seat of what was going on. One guy drove and the other had the remote for the robot that would occasionally whip the camel. The robot must've also had a speaker in it because the guy kept shouting at the camel to get it going faster.

Overall, it was a pretty cool morning. The whole thing was over by a little after 10:00. It's hard to really describe the atmosphere, so I've included a few photos and some video that I took while riding in the truck. The racing season is coming to a close soon, but I want to make sure that I go again a few times next year.



video

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bomb Scare

At work today, I was talking with some coworkers about a British man flying to the U.A.E. who was recently detained for drunkedly making joke about having a bomb on a plane. I wanted to know more and immediately searched for information about it on the Net. I found a story about it and it wasn't until later that I noticed that I was looking at a story from a year and a half ago about a different British person flying to the U.A.E. who was detained for drunkedly making a joke about having a bomb on the plane. After reading that, I found the story we were talking about. Among the coworkers discussing the story, my British friend was the one who felt he deserved the punishment the most and lamented how stupid British travelers can be.

On the same search, I found another story from the past few weeks about a French guy who was also detained for making a truly offhand remark with the word "bomb." I actually feel sorry for this guy because it sounded like something I could imagine myself saying without thinking.

As was noted, I couldn't find any stories about Americans making jokes like that. I pointed out that it was because we as a nation are already so paranoid about air travel security that we know better than to make jokes. The moral of the story, don't say anything that could even be mistaken for the word "bomb" in an airplane, even in the Middle East.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Marathon

In my last post I mentioned at the end I was excited for the next time I go to Dubai. Well, when I wrote that, I forgot I'd be going again very soon. I was there twice within the past few days. On Thursday I had to go again to pick up my number and computer chip for my marathon then again on Friday for the actual marathon.

The Dubai Marathon actually was international. Hailie Gebrselassie, the current marathon record holder, won for the third year in a row. I only mention that because having him there made it a pretty big thing and that the prize for first place was a measly $250,000 as opposed to the $300,000 first prize for the Abu Dhabi Half-marathon two weeks ago.

While the prize money for first place wasn't as good, The Dubai event did have several advantages to the Abu Dhabi one. The website was available in English. They actually told people about it. They didn't start letting cars down the course route while the amateurs were still running. They had first aid stations. They had sports drinks available at the stations in a limited fashion. There's a good chance that they'll give such trivial information such as finishing times and place (this remains to be seen, but I'm pretty sure they will). They assisted runners at the end of it instead of just letting people lay all over. The finish wasn't 3 kilometers from the start. Everyone got a nice medal instead of a key chain. The Abu Dhabi race had the advantages of being free and being half as long, but I don't know if that's an actual advantage. It seemed like it at the time.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the whole thing. While Dubai almost bankrupted themselves paying for all the shiny buildings, they did a good job of putting themselves on the map as far as a destination for tourism and international events. With Dubai having to put a halt on construction projects and Abu Dhabi starting to spend mad amounts of money, they seem to be trying to play catch-up. I still stand by the statement that Abu Dhabi is a more livable city, though I don't know how much longer that will last.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dubai

My mom and I went to Dubai for two days to go on the Big Bus Tour that they have there. Now, I think I can understand why everyone thinks Dubai in the capital of the U.A.E. and most people haven't heard of Abu Dhabi.

We were planning on going to Dubai with my wife and kids but when I considered the prospect of dragging a 4 and 5 year old on a two day bus tour, we figured that leaving them home was the best thing for everyone. It would've been nice to have my wife along, but we still can't trust the kids to get ready for school and make their own dinner on their own yet so she had to stay in Abu Dhabi to watch them. My wife was kind enough to book a hotel and research how to get to the start of the tour for me. While I can't say that the 15 pages of maps that she printed out were entirely necessary, they did have the indirect effect of worrying me enough to pay attention when she was explaining how to get places.

First on the itinerary was to go to the Burj Khalifa to reserve our spot for a ride to the top of the observation deck in the tallest building in the world. I would've booked the tickets online, but they haven't set up the system to be able to do that yet. Fortunately, we were able to go in on Monday morning and book for Tuesday afternoon. By reserving a time, we could go up to the top for 100 dirhams each ($27) whereas if we paid to go up immediately, the cost is 400 dirhams each ($108).

From there, we went to the start of the tour. It's the same tour group as the one we used for our trip to Abu Dhabi and was really well run. In Dubai, there are a couple of different routes you can go. There were a few things that we wanted to see so we decided to spread it out over two days. We saw a few mosques and a lot of traditional shopping streets recreated in expensive malls, but I have to say that my favorite were the amazingly over-the-top buildings. It seems that you can't throw a palm date without hitting a building with an aquarium in it.

Just to name a few places that I saw: Dubai Mall with its aquarium, underwater zoo, indoor amusement park, ice-skating rink, and the tallest building in the world. There was the Mall of the Emirates with an aquarium, and largest indoor ski-slope in the Middle East. While there were dozens of five star hotels on the palm tree shaped island that Dubai built, The Atlantis Hotel is the stand-out hotel with its aquarium with a dolphin pool and a water park. With all of the new buildings going up, it's easy to forget about the formerly iconographic Burj Al Arab that was the world's first seven star hotel and may even have an aquarium inside.

I do have to say with all honesty, that the most impressive building in Dubai was the Burj Khalifa. The building dwarfs all the others around it. Looking at the skyline, it's at least twice as high as anything else in sight. That's keeping in mind that there are some pretty tall buildings around it. If you click here, you get a good comparison to other tall buildings. You can see that it blows away its closest rival by over 150 meters. I give the planners credit. They wanted to break the record and they broke it big.

It was known as the Burj Dubai until five minutes before it was opened. The leader of Dubai kindly named it after the leader of Abu Dhabi who bailed out cash-strapped Dubai so it didn't have to default on its loans. I think that situation sums up my feelings about Dubai: Wow, what an incredible place to visit. There are some amazing things to see and crazy things to do like go skiing in the desert. However, it's not sustainable and it doesn't seem livable. I'll admit that I was on a tour bus so probably didn't get a great idea of what it's like to live there, but hardly saw any green space. Sure, the Palm Jumeirah probably had more five star hotels on it than in all of Abu Dhabi, but what use is that to me, especially if they're only half-full? There was tons of flash, but I would imagine that you don't even see it after a few weeks.

I do have to say that I'm glad I live an hour and a half away and am excited for the next time I go. I just don't need to live there.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Al Ain

The good thing about having someone from out of the country come to visit is that it gives you an excuse to search out things in the area to do. The bad thing is if you haven't been to a place before, you tend to do a bit of driving around trying to find things.

Over the weekend, I took my family and my mom to Al Ain, a nearby city. It's on the Omani border. I've been through it a few times on my way to Oman, but never really spent a lot of time there. I thought that we could spend a few days there and enjoy the sites. We were able to get a good deal on a nice hotel near the top of Jebel Hafeet. Our first day went really well. We went to the Al Ain Zoo, which was really nice and very reasonably priced. If you have a chance to go, I would strongly recommend it.

We left the zoo to check into our hotel, the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Al Ain, which was pretty close to the top of the mountain. Because we wanted to take the kids swimming at the pool and let them go down some of the water slides, we didn't go to the top. The pool was nice, but because it was a little cool, the hotel didn't have the slides running. That was understandable because besides us, there were two other people hanging out by the pool. We were able to take the kids to the in hotel mini-golf course and enjoy a beautiful sunset as we finished up. After that we finished the evening with a nice meal. Overall, the hotel was great and I'd like to stay there a couple of nights another time when it's warmer, though I don't know if we'll get as great a deal.

The next day, we were off bright and early because we wanted to see the camel races that started at 7:30. We had a couple of different maps and vague directions from the hotel. I had tried looking for information on the Net, but couldn't find any concrete information like a map or locations. At the time I found it odd that the guide at the hotel seemed to be trying to steer us away from going but I've had that before so thought we'd just ignore him and keep looking anyway. As it turned out, we didn't see any camel races that day and were unable to find any camel race tracks. All of the times it looked like we were in the area, it turned out that it was some guy's palace. As much as I can figure, the guy has bought the land the track was on and walled the whole thing off. That took us a couple of hours to figure out.

After that, we headed to the camel market which was good for my mom seeing camels and getting charged a couple of dollars to take pictures of the camels (after the pictures were already taken). That was good because I got the chance to sit in the car and be annoyed.

After that, we decided to hop over the Omani border to the city of Baraimi. If you just go over the border, you're in kind of a no man's land and don't need to get a visa for Oman. This also means that there's nothing really interesting there. I thought it might be fun for my mom to see some traditional markets and look around there. What I wasn't counting on was that it was Friday morning and nothing is open on a Friday morning. After about a half an hour we decided we'd had enough and went back to the U.A.E. With a few days of this, they changed the rule that if you leave the U.A.E. after entering on a visitor visa, you have to wait 30 days to apply for re-entry into the U.A.E. My wife and kids and I would've been fine, but my mom would've been stuck in Oman for a month or would've had to change her travel plans to fly out of Oman back to the States.

After our jaunt into Oman, it was time for lunch so we went to a shopping mall and had a traditional Al Ain meal of McDonald's. After feeling invigorated from my Chicken Big Mac meal and Starbuck's cafe latte, I was ready to head to the deer park to give the kids a chance to run around. We drove around looking for it with our trusty map that the hotel had given us. After about an hour of looking for it, even seeing signs stating it was up ahead, we realized that where the deer park should have been, there were a whole bunch of new looking buildings.

By this point, I was pissed off from driving for hours and the kids were sleeping so I headed back to Abu Dhabi. The good news was that on the way back from Al Ain, I saw a sign for a camel racetrack about 45 kilometers outside Abu Dhabi. I made a note of the city name and was able to find information on it on the Web right away. While we won't be able to go during my mom's visit, hopefully we can go within the next week or two.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tour

My mom arrived in Abu Dhabi on Sunday so I've been a little busy with preparing for her visit and keeping her entertained. There wasn't anything that interesting to write about picking her up from the airport apart from her plane being 2 hours late because of snow in Amsterdam. I asked her if she brought us any brownies from Amsterdam, but she said that the coffee shop in the airport only had cookies so I'm pretty sure that she didn't get my joke.

The day after she got here, we just took my daughter to the park and walked along the beach walkway. Today, we went on a bus tour of Abu Dhabi with a group called Big Bus Tour. It's a company that has limited itself to five major world cities: London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Philadelphia. (All I have to say is that I hope the statue of Rocky is on the Philadelphia tour.) I've been meaning to go on a tour and have been waiting for my mom's visit as an excuse. The system is pretty handy. You pay for the tour fee and there are a few stops. Buses come every half hour and you can hop on hop off. The concept isn't anything new, but it's the first time I've been on a tour like that so it was new to me.

The tour included really uncomfortable headphones and a choice of eight different languages. The language options were listed by flag and at first my mom got mad because she couldn't find the American flag. I was tempted to let her figure it out on her own but suggested she might want to try the British flag. My wife was thinking of coming with us but she had to pick up my daughter from the school bus. In the end, I don't think she would've enjoyed the tour that much because there was no Japanese option. I ended up using my i-pod headphones and my advice to anyone considering one of these tours is to bring your own headphones and bring a pair with a longer cord if you can.

The tour started pretty close to where I live. We got there for the first one so there was me, my mom and one other woman. The first stop was the Grand Mosque, which was what I've been waiting to see. It was pretty amazing and ostentatious. I also found it funny that they made my mom wear an abaya. While we were there, I noticed a Japanese tour group so my wife could've followed behind them to hear about the mosque. Our tour guide was a last minute fill-in for someone who must've not shown up. She was knowledgeable about the mosque. In fact, I think she was a little too knowledgeable because her explanation of the mosque and the leader of the U.A.E. who commissioned the building of the mosque and Islam was about twice as long as she said it would be.

I felt that her explanations were interesting, but a little more thorough than I was looking for at that point. Also, I could see my mom getting a little antsy, so we broke off, wandered a little bit on our own and went to catch the bus for the rest of the tour. We needn't have worried because for the most part, there wasn't anywhere else that we really wanted to get off. The place were either places that I was going to take my mom later, or places that were nice to drive by but nothing special. It was still nice to get a good view of the city and to hear a bit about the history of Abu Dhabi.

At the end we could use our tickets to go up the tower in Marina Mall. We were also entitled to a 20% discount on the coffees that we had to buy to go up there. The view was nice and I was glad that I was able to relax up on top with a coffee, but thought that it was a bit deceptive of the company to promote what an awesome deal the 20% discount was, only to have the cafe tack on a 20% "view charge" along with a 15% gratuity.

Overall, it was pretty good. We have other fun stuff lined up for the rest of her stay that I'll write about later.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Half-Marathon (part two)

The good news is that all suspicions of any dishonesty with regards to the race are completely unfounded. The bad news is that this is because it was one of the most disorganized events I've ever been a part of. This is a photo from a local newspaper called The National. (You can read the whole article by clicking on the above link.) Clearly, in Abu Dhabi's quest to be an international recognized city as far sporting events, concerts, and high culture, they planned a half marathon and invited elite runners. Unfortunately, they didn't think much past the invitations.

First of all, they had the start time in the middle of the afternoon on a workday for most people. Also, there was no information available in English. I only heard about it by word of mouth. There were only about 300 men and women combined running the half-marathon. There were a few more running the 6 kilometer race and thousands of kids running the 3-kilometer race. I really got the impression that they were expecting more people for the half marathon and were surprised that no one showed for it.

One of the more frightening things about the races was the start of the 3 kilometer kids race. I was warming up in the parking lot near the start line. Because I had heard that the last time they organized this race (two years ago, not last year) they started it 30 minutes early with very little warning, I wanted to make sure that I was ready. Suddenly, A huge group of 10 to 15 year-olds came running towards me. At first, I was annoyed that I had to stop running. Then I had to stop walking and shield myself from all the kids that were stampeding towards me. As it went on, I realized that the kids were running to be first in line for the start. The problem was that a majority of the kids were on the wrong side of the fence of the start line so they all began climbing the 10-foot fence that wasn't even grounded. It was held in place by cement blocks. Luckily it didn't topple over but within minutes, the starting line was so packed, that kids had their faces pressed against the fence and were unable to move. A few minutes later, some kids were climbing back over the fence because it was too crowded. The whole thing is similar to what you used to hear about in European soccer stadiums with people getting crushed.

In my last posting I mentioned how there was a sudden venue change. Originally it was scheduled to be on the the new race track that hosted a Formula One car race a few months ago. They had to change things after they realized that they were going to have a hard time shuttling everyone out to the track which is way out of town. This worked out well for me because the start of the new course was a few miles from where I live and the race passed past my apartment twice. That meant I was able to get some cheering from my wife and kids twice (along with a few photo opportunities). I imagine you can see the difference between the beginning of the race and end of the race in the photos.

Also, it was poorly advertised not only for people who wanted to enter but for people who wanted to drive down the road that they had to close off for the event. For the first half, it was fun to run down the three-lane main thoroughfare and watch all the people in the cars in the oncoming lane stopped in traffic and all pissed off because no one told them about the half-marathon and they couldn't go anywhere. On the way back though, they started letting cars go and for a while I was running next to the curb with a huge embankment while three lanes of cars were zooming past me. After a little of this, the police started driving up to the runners and yelling at us to get on the sidewalk. I did at the first chance I got, but that meant instead of running on soft, paved roads, I had to run on a hard, brick sidewalk for the last third of the race.

You'll notice that on the course map the start and the finish aren't really all that close. When I was starting I figured that I'd want my car with stuff in it close by while I gauged whether I wanted things or not. It also gave me a chance to get sips of water or throw my warm-up sweats in the truck as needed. By the time I finished, I was sore, my knees were screaming, and I was wondering how I was going to make the 3 kilometers back to the start line. Walking it wasn't that bad, but I noticed that a few people I run with on Sundays were limping a bit from the run so I made a sweep between the start and the finish to pick up people I knew that may need a ride back. Looking back, the best thing would have been to lock a bike near the finish and leave my car at the start. Now I know to do that but I'm sure if they ever run this again it will all be completely changed.

In the end I think I did pretty well. I had a watch on but screwed something up on it at the finish so didn't get an accurate time. The organizers had a clock running at some point but must've stopped caring after the top people finished because when I crossed the finish line, it said zero. Based on people who finished near me I must have had a time about 1 hour and 47 minutes. That's not bad considering that I hadn't any plans to run a half-marathon a week ago. Most of the people I asked said to not be too optimistic about the organizers posting times or places so I may never know the real time.

One person I met while signing up for the race was a Japanese guy who's living here who graduated from Fukuoka University, where I used to teach, in 2002. While he wasn't a student while I taught there, I thought it was pretty coincidental that we met while signing up for this race. I ran with him for a while but was pretty happy to have beat him by over two minutes. It just goes to show what a small world it is.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Half-Marathon (part one)

It's the end of the semester at Abu Dhabi Men's College, the tests have been given and corrected. The grades have been submitted. Everyone is pretty much waiting out the last few days until we go on break. I've been busy getting ready for next semester. I have a lot of time, but for the most part, I've been working on getting the tablet PC up and running. I was having issues with one of the main features, writing in word documents with the stylus. While, I think that the IT people at are school are highly qualified, I did enjoy watching four people scratching their heads and trying to figure out why I had the one tablet with problems and what was different about my particular tablet than the ones that worked. They finally gave up and gave me a new one. That was after over 24 hours of attempted troubleshooting.

Thursday is our last day that we have to be at work before we get our two weeks of vacation. Personally, I don't mind hanging out at work and not being busy. It gives me the chance to make sure that I'm ready for the new semester now rather than doing it an hour before I go to bed the last day of vacation. From watching people sneak off early these past few days due to having little to do, I'm guessing that Thursday after lunch will be fairly empty. That's why I decided to do a half-marathon late Thursday afternoon.

I've been wanting to run a half-marathon but couldn't find one scheduled anywhere near me so signed up for the Dubai Marathon later this month. I haven't been following much of a training program but make sure that I run, cycle or swim 5 or 6 days a week. I've been nervous about the full marathon and know I'm not ready for it. That's why when I first heard about the half-marathon this past Sunday, I signed up.

I was running with a group of people that I usually run with on Sundays and they were all talking about it. They told me where to go to sign up. When I got home I looked for it online but could barely find anything apart from a few casual mentions about it in some local publications. I eventually found the link to the website but it was only in Arabic. Yes, I understand that I live in a country in which the first language is Arabic. However, when you consider that 80% of the population is foreign and of the 20% that are citizens, very few are physically active, there should be some English on the site, especially when it's called the Zayed International Half-Marathon (second annual nonetheless).

Here's where it starts to get weird. I went and signed up for the event three days before the event no problem, am handed a t-shit and cap and told that there's no charge for the entry. Then on the application I read that there are prizes for the first ten finishers including a $300,000 first prize and $100,000 second prize. Just to put this into perspective, the Boston Marathon which has been going for over 100 years, is one of the most well-known marathons in the world and that you have to qualify for has an entry fee of $130 and a prize of $150,000 for the top finisher.

I talked this over with a few people, (some of which have also been looking for a half marathon in the area to run and were annoyed that they couldn't swing this on such short notice) and the conclusion that I've come to is: very limited publicity plus excessive prize money for a half marathon equals an excuse to give money to someone who's fairly sure that they're going to win and doesn't want too much competition. That's not even taking into account the sudden venue change within the past week or two that puts the half-marathon running right past my apartment.

At any rate, it's nice to know that I'll be able to participate in an event with such international prestige.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pilot

Recently, I've been asked to pilot a new program at my school. Someone at the school wants to try classes with no printed textbooks. Because I'm already trying to see what we can do with the technology available to us, it sounded interesting. The idea is that students will not receive printed books. Instead, they will download an electronic copy of the book to their tablet PC. I will give their lectures and notes via my tablet PC on which I can write notes directly projected to the SMART board in the classroom. I will be able to then save all the notes to the network and they will be available to the students to review at home or print out and review at their leisure. Having the books on the network eliminates the excuse that a student forgot his textbook. I can just print out the pages that we are working on in class on the printer in the classroom and then the student is good to go for that class period.

In addition, there is already a school-wide network available to the students with computer generated quizzes and activities. The students log in to this network, do the quizzes, and receive immediate feedback. They can review the questions that they missed and try the quiz again with similar questions to see if they can improve on their score. They can do the quizzes in class or access them anywhere with an Internet connection. That way, they can review material until they know it well enough to get a good score on the assessments.

That's the theory, anyway. In reality, students have almost never gone on the network to do the quizzes or activities unless specifically told to. In the cases where I've had them do the work in class, it's a constant effort to keep them on task rather than on Face book, Messenger, YouTube, or whatever video game has caught their attention. I predict that there will be more paper used per student in printing out hard copies of the text via notes, forgotten copies of the the text, or just because the students feel like it than there would by just giving the students their own book. There will be a large number of technical glitches. Still, I'm interested in trying out the technology. I think it will be a good experience.

I've heard from a few people that by having a "green" classroom through no printed books, the school is actually harming the environment more through all the technology necessary. Apart from my prediction that there will actually be more paper wasted, I disagree. The technology is already there in the classroom. Every student already has a tablet PC. Don't worry, the school isn't dumb enough to entrust a pilot program costing tens of thousands of dollars to the likes of me. (at least I hope they're not) Everything is already in place. We're just trying to make use of what's already there. A friend of mine brought an article about the future of publishing to my attention. Number 8 says "College students will begin using tablet PCs in the fall 2010 semester for their school work. By 2011 or 2012 tablets will replace laptops on campuses across the nation." I'll be doing that in the coming semester. Whether or not it will work this coming semester is debatable. I do think that it is what's coming in the next few years, though. Because of the wealth of this nation, my marginally competent students get to be at the forefront of it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Eve

For New Year's Eve we spent the evening and the next day with a family who have two children out kids' age. They had a building-wide party in which we apartment-hopped until midnight. The cool thing is that the husband graduated from high school the year before me from a school in Milwaukee. (Check out the Milwaukee Brewers hat) In my 13 years of living overseas, he's only the second person I've met from the Milwaukee area. (The first being a guy who lives in my building and who I work with.) That's about all about New Year's Eve.