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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mourning

The big news here is that Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the half-brother of the current ruler of the UAE (His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan) and one of nineteen sons of the founder and former ruler of the UAE (His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan may his soul rest in peace) has been found dead in a plane crash in Morocco. (The photo here was not actually taken by me but rather accompanied this news story.) Like with other royalty that have passed in a light-aircraft accident while in their prime (John F. Kennedy Jr. comes to mind), a nation mourns. As a consequence, the flags of this country will be flown at half-mast for the next three days. And all the liquor stores are closed.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Track

With all my complaining the other day about the beach closing, I forgot to mention that I was going to go cycling on the F1 track tonight. I had heard about it sometime last week and was considering going but with it being the middle of the week, I didn't feel like driving out of town to go riding my bicycle on the F1 track making "vroom vroom" noises and pretending I was a race car. The more I thought about it, the cooler an idea it sounded. I didn't know if they would do this again and I didn't want to regret missing it.

As it turned out, it was a good chance to get a cycle in during the week. The turn out was the usual suspects from my Friday ride. The person who organized it said they're hoping to make it a weekly thing. They're also looking at having events like an all-night ride and possibly other cycling events like races.

It seems that they spent a lot of cash on making this track and they want to make sure that it gets used more than once a year. Shortly after I hear about the chance to go cycling on the track I noticed a sign advertising a a night where people can drive their cars on the track. From what I heard, the cars need to have certain specs. I think they're looking for people with sports cars so I don't think there's much chance I'll get an SUV on there. To be honest, with the way people here drive I'd be scared to. As it is, I'll be surprised if there aren't any big accidents that evening.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Beach

Every Saturday when the water is not too cold (and believe me, it does get cold in December and January), I go swimming with a group of people on a mile swim in the ocean on the other side of the Emirates palace. It's a good wake-up and even though getting up at 6:00 on my day off isn't great, I feel pretty glad I did it even though I might not feel great while I'm inching my way into it. It's a good location because it's the only place with open water and one of the few places where there aren't idiots on jet-skis tooling around.

It's also a good place to go snorkeling from what I've heard. Some friends of mine took their kids snorkeling around there and saw a pod of dolphins. Because all the other beaches are man-made with fine sand imported from Australia and behind a breakwater, it's the only place that you can look at coral and other aquatic wildlife.

There used to be a bunch of palm trees there but they were removed last July just before I arrived here. Little by little, there have been signs that things were changing. As it turns out, last Saturday was the last day that beach will be open to the public. The Sheik has decided to build another palace on that location. It's sad to say that only a select few will be able to access that area from now on and it's a sure bet that if they do, they'll only do so rarely.

It is a bit of a reminder that my fellow swimmers and I are only guests. Even the citizens of this country are only borrowing the land they live on. It all belongs to the Sheik to do with as he pleases. It's only by his grace that we have all the green space and beaches that we do. As many events that are put on here and as many great places there are to go around town, it's important to remember who runs the show.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Red Bull Race (part two)


While I enjoyed watching the planes fly a tight obstacle course insanely close to the water, it wasn't as great as I'd hoped it would be. I heard last year that our building was right in the center of the action but they'd moved it this year. I could see the course from our roof, but it was a little further down than I'd expected. Also, it was a little too hot in the sun to be comfortable. I could've spent ten minutes walking to the beach where all the times and announcers were to be more part of the action, but I was comfortable in my camping chair with my cooler full of drinks. Also, I didn't really care that much.As it turned out the only seats that they charged for were on the other side of the course. Standing on the beach and watching was no charge. Overall, it was a relaxing weekend and if given the chance, I'll plan to watch it again next year.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Red Bull Race (part one)


This weekend is the Red Bull Air Race in Abu Dhabi. The planes have been flying around on the course all week doing practice runs. Today, I took the kids to the promotional sight near our apartment and had a look around.The race itself is right past our apartment building and from what I've heard the building management open up the roof to let people watch the show. Tickets cost about $125 each for the qualifying round on Friday and about $230 each for the race finals on Saturday. Prime seats on the roof of my building with a cooler of beer and the risk of an out-of control plane flying into us: free!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Getaway

For the past five years my son has had a birthday party. His birthday falls on a national holiday in Japan so most people are off from work. That was a great excuse to have people over. While the first three were really just excuses for me to invite a bunch of my friends around for a BBQ, it was on my son's birthday, it was a party, and there were other kids there so technically, he had five birthday parties. Now he has in his mind that he gets a party every year. Add all the other birthday parties that he gets invited to by his classmates and you get a kid who expects a party for his sixth birthday. With all that working against us, my wife had the brilliant idea to leave town for the weekend.

This past weekend, we had another stay in the Mercure, the hotel we stayed in with my mother in January. This time we decided to stay for two nights so we would have a full day to relax by the pool with the water slides and play mini golf with the kids.

Overall, it worked out pretty well. The kids had off of school so my wife and kids met me at work at 3:00 and we went straight to Al Ain. We got there about 5:00 and went to the Palm sports resort and ate at the golf course club house.

We drove up the mountain and right to the hotel. We spent the whole next day swimming in the pool, riding the water slides, and playing miniature golf. The great thing about the hotel being on a mountain was that it must be fairly expensive to pump water to the top of it for water slides and a pool. I felt even better getting to the slides with two children right at 9:00 a.m. when they opened and making them turn on the slides just for us. Even though it was a little cool, I felt obligated to keep going down them until someone else arrived 10 minutes later.

In the afternoon, we drove to the top of the mountain and parked at a lookout spot. There was a 10-minute hike to the top that I didn't feel like doing in the heat with two small children, so we drove back down. I went back the next day on my own at 6:00 to see the sunrise and got photographic proof that the Chinese are taking over the world. After another morning of of mini-golf and swimming, we packed up and went to the zoo to see the robotic dinosaurs. By the time we got home in the evening, we were all pretty beat.

It was a nice weekend out but tiring. Friday night as my wife put the kids to bed, I sat at a cafe and puffed away on a shisha pipe for a few hours. that combined with waking up early to see the sunrise and all the swimming and driving really wore me out. This weekend was supposed to be a relaxing escape from the city, but ended up wearing me out more than anything.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Leave


Every year, I get a flight to Milwaukee for my family and me paid for by my college. Because we booked early, we were able to stretch the money to pay for flights to Wisconsin, then flights to Fukuoka, Japan, back to Wisconsin and back to Abu Dhabi. The catch seems to be proving that my wife and kids are indeed my wife and kids and not just some elaborate scam to get money from my place of employment.

Last year around this time we had a headache trying to get the necessary documentation together to get my wife and kids sponsored. It seems that apart from St. Rita's Parish in West Allis, Wisconsin, no documentation of my marriage exists in the U.S. To add to the headache, both my kids were born outside the U.S. in Fukuoka, Japan. I was smart enough to get the "Consular Report of Birth Abroad" from the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka, Japan. Unfortunately, I found that the U.S. State Department wouldn't accept this as a birth certificate even though they were the ones that issued it.

After messing around with the U.S. government for a month or two, we decided to try our luck with the Japanese government and my wife's family register that includes our marriage and both kids' birth records. Despite my initial hesitancy of dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy, we were pleasantly surprised at how easy they were to deal with. We got the paperwork in time to apply for everyone's entry visa in August and were able to apply for their residency within a month of arriving here. This is where things start to break down.

Suddenly, my kids' school said that the Ministry of Education need proof that the kids are mine and here legally. Logic would dictate that copies of the kids' visas would be enough for that because the visas show that they have already gone through the process. No so. The Ministry of Education wanted not copies, but original attested copies of birth certificates and they wanted an official English to English translation. They also had a recommendation of a great place that could do the translation for for a fee. Fine. We needed to keep our kids in school so we decided to jump through the hoops.

That was a few months ago and we haven't gotten our paperwork back. Earlier this week, I went to my employer's web page to apply for my travel money and saw that my family's names weren't on the page. When I inquired about this, I was told they needed to see attested birth certificates and marriage licence (never mind that they saw all that when they applied for the visas). When I told the staff where it was, I was reprimanded for being stupid enough to give the original copies to a government agency when they said they needed it so my kids could attend school.

With that, my wife began the process of getting new paperwork from Japan. Fortunately, I don't think that will be necessary. When I contacted the school, I was able to get what I think is the original paperwork translated and attested (it was nice of them to sit on it for us). Hopefully when I go in to work tomorrow, it will be what Human Resources is looking for and I'll be able to apply for our ticket fares for Milwaukee.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mug

I've had a few people say that recently, my blog has read less about life in the strange wonderland of Abu Dhabi and more like just the daily happenings in my life. After reviewing the past few weeks entries, it seems to be the truth. To be fair, I've been living here about seven months and a lot of the "wackiness" has become ordinary. Sure, I'll notice the crazy way that people park their cars and chuckle to myself, but you can only take so many pictures of that. A lot of the things that make living here unusual are part of the ordinary. Things that irritate are still things I might encounter in other situations but the difference might be in the scale of how it happens or in the solution. One example of this is in my disappearing mug.
I enjoy having this mug and while it seems like a small thing, having a familiar mug with stupid little saying goes a long way to making me feel better when I come in in the morning. It also goes a long way to pissing me off when it's missing because someone has taken it.

I didn't really have a problem with this when I first started because I would carpool with someone who would arrive really early. This meant that I was usually one of the first people to get to work. It also hadn't occurred to me that there were such a thing as communal mugs. I thought everyone had their own mug out of the dozens in the break room. I guess a few people had their own ideas about that.

Some days when I got to work later, my mug would be gone. After a few times of this happening, I wrote my name on it in permanent marker. It still went missing so I kept it by my desk. It would be gone the next day, sometimes in the break room and sometimes on someone else's desk. As it turned out one of the helpers goes from desk to desk each night collecting and washing the mugs then puts them back in the break room. I figured that I could turn it upside down and that would get the message across. It did, but that meant that I had to wash my own mug. That in itself wasn't that bad but seemed strange when there's a guy working at the school to wash them and I sometimes was washing my mug at the same time he was washing the others. (and he gets them sparkling!)

I finally realized that I could write my name and desk number on the mug and asked him to bring it to my desk after he'd washed it. Then I gave him a few dirhams tip. That didn't seem out of line since for a week stretch he'd been washing and delivering my mug to the wrong desk. While I admit that this whole drama is fairly mundane and petty, I don't know if I'd be able to come to the same solution in the States. Now I have my favorite mug sparkling clean and waiting for me when I get to work in the morning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Triathlon (part two)


The good news is that for the most part, the triathlon went well. The bad news is that I don't have much to complain about or make fun of. Things started off fairly promising for a chance to complain when the triathlon was postponed for 30 minutes because the police hadn't closed off the roads completely. That pushed the cycle and the run closer to the middle of the day in 90 degree heat. Here is a video of the event that the Abu Dhabi Tourism Department put out. You can see me ride past on my bike and wave at 2:47.

More good news is that they put up the results on the website (you have to search under my name) and is really easy to search. Based on the results, my unbelievable 23-minute 10 kilometer run was ruined by the 30 minutes it took me to change from my biking gear into my running gear. What must've happened is that one of the sensors that picks up the computer chip we were wearing wasn't working. The first 5 kilometers of my run got lumped into the bike to run transition. I checked other people's results and it seems the same thing happened to everyone.



Overall, the whole event was pretty well organized with a lot of media coverage. With top prizes of $115,000 each for the top male and female finishers, it was well attended. It was reported by the announcers (over and over) that this event was second in drawing top athletes only to the Ironman triathlon world championships in Kona, Hawaii. I doubt that it had the same number of spectators but that it was nice that my family got a chance to see me and take pictures of me easily. As you can see from the picture of me at the beginning of the cycle and the beginning of the run (just after cycling 100 kilometers) I was much fresher in the cycle.



Even for the age group competitors, there was a lot of enthusiasm and cheering. Because I swim, cycle, and run with most of the people from Abu Dhabi, it was great competing with friends and cheering everyone on.

The highlights of the triathlon included:

-- being handed a handful of white goop at an aid station while cycling and having a few seconds of uncertainty whether I should eat it or not before realizing it was sunscreen
-- riding on the new Formula One track for part of the cycling course
-- throwing my garbage on the Formula One track
-- passing a one-legged man on a bicycle on the Formula One track
-- almost getting in the way of the elite competitors during a narrow portion of the cycling course
-- passing loads of people on the cycle and the run
-- finishing the race hand in hand with my son (watch the below video to see me trying to catch my son after a long day)
-- going home, showering, relaxing for a few hours, then returning to the finish line a 10 minute walk from my apartment to watch friends complete the long course


video

Some lowlights of the triathlon included:

-- the last 20 kilometers of the cycle
-- the middle 6 kilometers of the run
-- my daughter missing out on finishing the triathlon with me because she didn't hear my wife tell her to run out to join me on the course



When I crossed the finish line with Lucas, the person handing out medals was nice enough to give a medal and towel to Lucas. Of course that only irritated Tia more because not only did she not get to run with me, she doesn't have a medal. The encouraging thing that my wife said was, "You can run with Daddy next time." The key words in that sentence were "next time" meaning that my wife has just accepted that this triathlon thing isn't going away any time soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Triathlon (part one)


The reason I first started doing triathlons last year was because I wanted to complete one in Japan before I moved to the Middle East. I figured that I wouldn't have the opportunity to compete in a triathlon once I moved here. It seems that the opposite is true. There is a much more tightly organized and active triathlon scene here. What's more, this coming Saturday, the first Abu Dhabi International Triathlon will be held.

Last year, I balked at the standard triathlon distance of 1.5 kilometer swim (about a mile), 40 kilometer bike ride (about 25 miles), and 10 kilometer run (about 6 miles). After completing that in May and and June last year in addition to meeting up with some cyclists here, I feel much more confident. For this race, I'll be doing the "short" course of 1.5 km swim, 100 km bike ride (about 60 miles), and 10 km run. The long course is 3 km swim, 200 km bike ride and 20 km run. People would be right to wonder why the cycle is so disproportionate to the other two events. Apparently, there is an elite Emirati athlete that is strongest in the cycle and the rumor is that they might want to give him an advantage.

On Saturday, I have to be down at the Emirates Palace a few miles away at 5:00 am. I don't expect my wife to drag the kids there to see me start the swim at 7:00, but I was a little disappointed at the resistance I encountered in trying to convince her to come out and cheer for me a little. I know dealing with two kids can be a pain, but since the cycle passes our apartment four times, the run twice and the finish line is a block away from our apartment, I didn't think I was asking too much. She said she was kidding, but I suspect that she was partially serious and changed her story when she saw how upset I was getting.

While I hope that the day goes smoothly, there's a small part of me that wants things to go as poorly as the Half-Marathon in January, if only so I have something interesting to complain about. So far on that front, things look promising. Less than a week before the event, the organizers have completely changed the long course at the suggestion of the Abu Dhabi Police Department. It seems that closing down two of the three exits from the city on a weekend so the cyclists can ride past the pretty mosque wasn't an acceptable idea. Luckily for me, it doesn't affect the short course that much. Also, I still get to do a loop around the Formula One racetrack so I'm happy with that.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Race

One thing about living here that should be noted is that the U.A.E. nationals are multi-racial. Skin color can vary radically. I have seen red-haired, blue-eyed Emiratis and have several students who would be called African-American back in the States (though I doubt whether my students have been to either Africa or America). There seems to be no differentiation among races or based on skin color.

I hadn't really given it much thought until today when two of my students who were jokingly giving each other a hard time began calling each other the worst word in the English language, a word so bad that I can't even type it out fully: "*i**e*!" While I should mention that they both have dark skin and seemed fully aware of what they were saying, it did surprise me to hear and I asked them to stop. At the end of class, I took the two of them aside and made sure that they knew fully what they were saying and that some people might find that word offensive. They said that they knew but would be more careful.

I did think the whole thing was kind of funny. One of the guys identifies with African American culture so obviously knew what he was saying. There isn't much of a distinction by race, only by nationality.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Festival

Our kids' school had their International Food Festival today. I convinced my wife that she should get together with the other Japanese moms to have a Japan booth. One of the other moms was concerned that I might get mad because I wanted our family to be a part of the American booth. My wife assured her that wasn't the case and that she shouldn't worry.
In addition to providing "kakigori" or snow cones, she had lots of examples of "origami" (paper folding) and "kirigami" (paper snowflakes). The other moms provided sushi rolls and other typical Japanese food. After several weeks of preparing for this, my wife was delighted to be invited to the school to help with the origami club and to give a demonstration for my son's class.
She spent a lot of time preparing for it and at first I worried that she was over preparing. After seeing the other booths, I'd say she was right about the middle for preparedness.

Overall, I thought it was a good evening, but the festival itself wasn't all that well organized. It seemed like the festival was originally meant to be a pot-luck type thing that someone decided to make a fund raiser and at the last minute changed their mind about. They started off by selling tickets to games then as I was in line to buy tickets they made an announcement that games were free. I wouldn't have minded paying if it was better organized.

One thing that my wife noticed was that the Emirati moms had their maids do all the cooking and setting up and cleaning. I guess that at least they showed up.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dinosaurs


We went to the Al Ain Zoo again. This time there were animatronic dinosaurs that roar. I felt it was pretty impressive. One of the friends that we went with said that she saw the exact same exhibit in Portland about five years ago. It must be making the rounds.

I started this post right after we came home from Al Ain but was tired and didn't finish it. Now it's a few days later and I can't think of anything interesting to say; especially with how busy I've been.

Here are some pictures of it:


Also, here's a video of a T-rex that involves my daughter throwing a rock at a dinosaur then my son yelling at me to hurry up.



video

It was a pretty fun day and well worth the $20 for us all to get in. I recommend it to anyone in the area.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Transfer

Since I began teaching last September, I've had one class in particular that has been giving me and their other teachers some grief. Even experienced teachers have had to walk out of classes in which they were completely unmanageable. Fortunately, it was months before I realized that was even an option otherwise I would've probably left the first week. Not knowing that has forced me to learn other classroom management techniques. Basically, I learned how to enter comments into the computer and gradually build up a case of how particular students are ruining a class.

Furthermore, I've been conferring with this class's other teachers and we've been writing comments and sending the students' supervisor mails telling them about the situation. While it is virtually impossible to get students removed from school for anything apart from poor attendance, our efforts have had the effect of having the three worst offenders of that class split up and transferred into other classes. The initial reaction would be to say, "Great, now you have four bad classes instead of one." As it turns out, once the students are isolated and on their own, they tend to settle down. Plus, it has the added bonus of pissing off the offenders.

I have to say that this was only possible because of the great support we have from the supervisors in our school. I've heard that it's not always the case in other schools.