Saturday, July 28, 2007

Last Days

The last few days here have been pretty sweet, with the woeful exception of my ailment, which seems determined to systematically undermine my system, one portion at a time. It has now transformed itself into a full-fledged cold/flu type thing, and I am typing as I sniffle incessantly. In other news:

The dunes stretch out infinite and undulating, camel-colored but run through with salmon ripples, as though some object was dropped upon them, sending tiny waves cascading out. They rise and fall in the receding sunlight like so much flesh... at points actually appearing to be the arcs of hips, funnels of twisted bodily contours. If you venture out into them, over several of their apexes, press your body to them, and they are warm, lifelike. Close your eyes for a moment or two, and you will be unable to figure out where you begin and end. You could become hopelessly lost here, if not for your telltale footprints leading you back to the point of origin.

The call to prayer slithers around the sundrenched streets of Abu Dhabi outside the window. I think I am falling in love with the Middle East.

Yesterday, I made friends with a camel. Those "ships of the desert" are truly some of the most remarkable animals on earth. Purely otherworldly. This big gal pressed her nose to mine, and nuzzled my face as I fought uneasiness. A Pakistani camel farmer came out and invited us to drink some of the milk he was extracting from one of the herds. In spite of my hatred for milk, I couldn't resist the kind offer, and so I lifted the jug to my mouth and a huge dollop of foamy camel cream landed on my face. We all laughed and laughed. It was delicious, and even though he spoke no English, and me no Arabic, he was clearly indicating that it would "make me strong." Considering how weak I've been, I crossed my fingers that he was right.

You could lose yourself here, in the sun and the sand, beneath the date palm fronds...I think I just might.

Chip and I headed from the desert oasis of Liwa to the Northeast, where we were embraced on all sides by mountains along a cerulean blue coast. These Arabs, they are crazy about building fake islands! Fujaira is lusciously gorgeous. We visited the region's oldest mosque (pictures to come) and went snorkling around a little offshore island. Miraculously, neither of us was burned by the relentless sun!

Chip and I had a better time in Sharjah than I did the first time around. We visited the Yemeni shop in the souq, procured some Xmas gifts (no spoilers, as many of you dear readers will be recipients) and drove around lost a lot. You do that in Sharjah.

Now, back in Dubai, we need to get to the ski slopes. I reckon if I am going to be nursing some stupid sickness and a sporting a chapped, red nose, I might as well be cold while I do it!

Leaving is bittersweet. If I was in tip-top condition, I might even wish I was staying. But right now, I look forward to English speaking, ease, and a little climate comfort. All this, awaiting in NYC. Picture post really is coming soon. I promise!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Intestinal Fortitude...and it's failure

Dear All,

My apologies for not chronicling my more recent adventures in UAE land. Suffice to say that Oman takes the cake as the most glorious nation in the region, scuba diving there I forged fragile friendships for a few fleeting seconds with a myriad of aquatic life, spent a fortune on taxis, made a new friend of the Kiwi persuasian, and purchased a few precious items at the souq.

Chip arrived Sunday, and so did some intestinal flu that has literally laid me out, left me limp, feverish, body creased by paralyzing cramps and many other afflictions too terrible to divulge. Let your imagination fill in the blanks.

I'm shaky, but the fever seems to have subsided, and we are heading into the desert today! I shall declare, and loudly, that Chip is my hero, and has been a perfectly amazing counterpart to my infirmity. Were he not here, it would be perfectly miserable. Know that even in my most agonizing moments, I have been unable to stifle giggles, and even some guffaws--thanks to brave sir Chippins, and in spite of myself.

Onward, to the Liwa Oasis!!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Follow up to rant

Okay, okay, after all my grousing in the last post, I feel inclined to mention the multiple things about the place that are both fascinating and wonderful. Some of these things are the exact same things I was complaining about earlier today.

Bur first, let's begin with a confession, shall we? Today I fear I became the very same "ugly American" that I have always loathed the many times I have observed them in their native habitat, the foreign country. It all started with some laundry that was supposed to have been done in the morning. This morning. Long story short, it was not ready when I went to pick it up at noon today. The clerk told me in very poor, virtually nonexistent English that it would not be ready until tomorrow evening. I am supposed to be on an airplane to Oman tomorrow evening, and the thought of spending any more time than absolutely necessary in Sharjah was actually physically painful. So we went back and forth, which is never good between 2 people who literally do not speak one another's language. I yelled, I cursed, I cried, and eventually I hauled out my sketchbook and made a little comic strip of what I was trying to communicate (it was a tremendous failure, and I think it made me look a little bit insane.) Finally, he got someone on the phone (who I also yelled at) who agreed to give me my dirty clothes in a few hours. You see, I succumbed to the age-old conventional wisdom of the tourist that if you speak loudly and slowly, they will understand you. This is never, ever true. Deep down, we all know that.

In the end, I got my laundry, perfectly clean, folded & on hangers as well as lovingly wrapped in plastic. Maybe I should have my good friend Jen write them an apology for me in Arabic, because I really was a jerk.

So. The good things about this place:

1) Safety. I stopped locking the door to my rental car after the 2nd day of driving when I realized, there is nothing to worry about. Crime here is as nonexistent as my laundry man's English.
2) Dates. No, not the ones where you have long awkward pauses and wonder if some creep is going to try to kiss you when he drops you off after dinner. The kind that grow on palm trees. I watched more than one worker today throw a stick up into the fronds to loosen up some ripe dates. There are dozens of varieties. I had a stick-throwing walking tour around the lagoon in Sharjah today myself, and ate so many dates that I couldn't bring myself to eat lunch.
3) Food. All of the food here is top notch. And yes, in spite of the language barriers, this diversity brings great Lebanese, Pakistani, Egyptian, Indian, Thai, Philippine and Chinese food to the UAE.
4) Islam. That's right, I said it. Forget what you hear on the news...Those crazy jihadists are no different than our own abortion clinic bombers and shooters! Muslims are some of the most decent people around. Also, the call to prayer is a haunting and beautiful thing that wafts over the city 5 times a day like exotic incense pouring out from the countless minarets rising out of the mosques.
5) Taxes. Yeah, there aren't any. I'm pretty sure there is nothing not to like about that! I don't know how many double negatives I just used to describe something that is overwhelmingly positive... And the lack of representation? Well, at least when your government royally (no pun intended) screws things up, you can't blame yourself for voting in the wrong guy.
6) Dress Code. You know, I kind of like the fact that I haven't seen any little sorostitutes lately wearing barely-there tops and teensy tiny shorts with clever things written across the butt cheeks. In fact, I don't miss the general slutting up of my country's youth culture at all. These women in abayas are certainly showing off their most telling feature: the eyes. A little dignity and mystery go a long way.

In answer to Granddad's query: I have mixed feelings about this place. I love Abu Dhabi. I am interested in perhaps seeking work here after I graduate next year. For those of you who don't know, my champion amongst champions boyfriend Chip will be joining me here on Sunday! I guarantee you that I will enjoy this place even more with him at my side.

Viva Arabia!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Cultural Capital (of Crap)

Before I start sounding like everything about this place is just fantastic...allow me a very brief rant in which I will tel you all the things about this place that are terrible:

1)The weather. Today, I had to abort a walking mission because I was afraid I would die of heatstroke
2)The ogling. I am really really really tired of being stared at. Seriously. It's ebough to make a lass go out and buy an abaya.
3)The language barrier. Which language? Pick a language: Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Togalog, just to name a few. It is a bit much.
4)The traffic. If you haven't done some serious 3rd world driving, this is not the place to start. It is a nightmare, a nonstop nightmare of epic proportions.
5)The prevailing attitude towards Western women. People keep asking if I am Russian. I am not sure, but I think that means they think I am a prostitute. Mind you, I am dressed VERY conservatively.
6)The attitude surrounding alcohol. I mean, for crying out loud, I need a beer just to deal with issues 1-5!!!

Okay, I will stop now, because I could go on all day. I am in Sharjah (which I'm pretty sure is Arabic for "shitty") the UAE cultural capital. I hate to say it (but really, I LOVE to say it) but if this is the cultural capital, this place is severely screwed.

You heard it from me first. I'd post pictures, but I am at a cafe...all it is is a bunch of ostentatious architecture surrounded by poverty, heat, sand, and endless construction, anyway. I'm sure your mind can fill in the blanks....

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Desert Safari!!! (finally)

I've been besieged by really crummy internet everywhere. Fortunately, here in Abu Dhabi I have finagled my way into a 5 star hotel (with a bargain -basement discount) with excellent internet.

So, with no further ado:

A white Land Cruiser with "Hormuz" emblazened on the side picks me up. Inside, I meet a lovely American family of 3, Joe and his 2 daughters Paige and Kadria. They are incidentally, ethnically Indian, and are on a 12-hour layover on the way back home from the girls' first visit to India.

We head out to the desert, where we stop at a pretty seedy little shop selling snacks and tourist stuff. I am filled with this going to suck? Are they going to aggressively try to sell us a bunch of crap for the next 3 hours? No! 5 more white Hormuz (the tour company) Land Cruisers sidle up to ours, and the drivers begin to take air out of the tires. This is for the "dune bashing."

Did I mention that it is about a million (honestly~about 115) degrees here? It is. And it is decidedly NOT a "dry heat" if you consider the 80+ percent humididy. We are all incredibly relived to return to the air conditioned SUVs. Then, we head out into the desert. This is the desert of my childhood desert dreams!!

Except that, even with the naivety and limitless imagination of a child, I could not have imagined it as wondrous or vast as it really is. It was simply amazing, but before I could fully lose myself in a rhapsody of desert musing, our vehicle made a sharp turn, and acceleratated aggressively, and before I knew it we were literally experiencing a dune rollercoaster. Here are a few images:

I would be a liar if I told you I ever imagined that driving up and down sand dunes could be so phenomenally thrilling. But oh, it was, and is. Finally, the caravan came to a halt, good news for me, because I was beginning to get a little motion sickness.

We all stepped out into the searing heat, and our hosts produced a number of snowboards. Yes, snowboards, for sandboarding. Images follow here:

The trip down was a lot more fun than the trek up! These are my sweet new friends:

Then, we packed it in, watched the sun set from the acme of another dune, and headed to a "Bedouin Village" where I got to ride a camel and hold a falcon!!

Then, we got henna designs, smoked a shisha pipe (that's not drugs, in case you were wondering!!) and ate a Middle Eastern feast while watching a belly dancer.

All in all, this was a major highlight. It was in fact so awesome that I went again a few days later with my friend Jereme, a landscape architecture student and fellow NWF fellow who is in Dubai doing an internship. More on him later.

I've done a full 180! As of today I have seen and done much more than the desert safari, and I am beginning to really like the place quite a bit. Surprise, surprise...

Next Post, Al Ain and the livestock market.

and why the hell am I here?

So, dear Aunt Amy inquired as to what the purpose of my being here is. My first thought is, "Jeeze-Louise, don't these people (ahem, my family) tell each other anything?" Immediately followed by the thought that my parents might not even know precisely what this is all about.

I'm going to put it in a nutshell for those of you not in the know:

In January, I applied for a fellowship with a big huge design firm. The prize was worth 20 thousand dollars, and I didn't really think I stood a chance. But (in keeping with my regular practice of scholarship/fellowship application) I applied in spite of the rather poor odds of winning. I submitted a portfolio, as well as an essay answering the question, "If you could go anywhere in the world to study a completely designed environment, where would you go, and why?"

I wrote them a pretty outrageous (and by that, I mean outlandish) essay about how I would go to Dubai, scuba dive, charter a helicopter, and so on--in order to better understand the Palm Islands. In case you want to know more about the islands:

I received a phone call in late February telling me I was a finalist, the week later had a phone interview...and the following week was told I didn't get it. WHAT?! It's true. and then...

Right before the end of the semester, I received another phonecall, informing me that one of the fellowship recipients had dropped out, and I was next in line!!! The rest is history! I've been working in NYC all summer for my internship with the firm, and now I am being paid full-time to be here in the UAE with a travel stipend to conduct "research." Not bad, huh?

If you want to read more, here is an article:,1370,135131-9886-52162,00.html

Ball State loves writing articles about me:,1371,300258-18490-51715,00.html

I'll stop bragging now, and get back to the Desert Safari. Next!!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The shopping capital of the world

Single female travel here is not advised~not because it is dangerous (it is really, really not) but rather because it is uncomfortable. The worker men just stare and stare. Not like the playful Latins or Italians, there is no accompanying ch-ch-ch! or "oye, guerita!" or anything, really. Just a somber, earnest stare that burns itself into your psyche.

Not to be melodramatic or anything.

Then there was yesterday, meeting up with a classmate of mine who grew up here, and her mother, who's been in the Middle East for 30 years. They pretty much drove me around to a ton of shopping malls and centers, and indicated that shopping is a national pastime, which it really does appear to be. I was pretty impressed, for someone who is not really impressed by shopping malls. Don't worry, you would be too. Emirates Mall comes complete with an indoor ski slope featuring a 400 meter run,
as well as a bevy of tall Persians in long white dishdashas and more ladies in long black abayas than you can shake a shwarma stick at. All of these people appear to have more money than god, and seem to rather like spending it. Unlike everyone else in Dubai, I really didn't come here to buy a bunch of stuff I don't need and can't afford, so the whole outing left me feeling a little out-of sorts. What am I doing here?

I retreated to my hotel and resumed reading a book... I really have become quite dull.

o, after determining rather hastily that this entire trip was a mistake, that the 20-year-old me had 20 times more balls than the 28-year-old me, and a bunch of other nonsense, I finally decided to get over it and ventured out into Dubai in a big way. What better way to break the proverbial ice (or in this case sift the sand?) than a desert safari?

I thought it sounded pretty cheesy and touristy, but what the hell? I am a tourist here, after all.
I will end this entry with a little tiny teaser. The description for the desert safari read:

  • Dune bashing
  • Sand skiing
  • Sunset in the desert
  • Camel riding
  • Arabic tea and coffee
  • BBQ dinner
  • Shisha, Henna
  • Photo with Falcon
  • Belly dancing
Timing: daily 3:30 to 9:30 pm

All this for a mere $45? And what in the world is "dune bashing?"

Intrigued, I made a phone call. The driver picked me up at a fashionably late 4pm, in a world that was surely over 110 degrees, and the rest is history!

Next chapter: Desert Safari

Monday, July 9, 2007

Welcome to Dubai

It's been a harrowing few days...another little bicycle smashup, although the blame lays squarely across my shoulders this time, and I was the only thing that got smashed up, in addition to having my front wheel stolen, in broad daylight on 1st Ave. All this the day I departed! No wonder I barely squeaked out to the airport in time.

Too many hours in the air, followed by too much harrassment at the Dubai airport. All my luggage was searched, exhaustively (pots of hair and face product were unscrewed, yes) and then my body was groped a bit in excess of what I thought was decent (by a very heavily made up Emirati woman in full abaya sporting blue contact lenses, no less!) particularly in the breast region. This is the benefit of looking like a drug trafficker, I suppose.

Good times.

Initial impressions: a city rising from the sand, mostly as monochromatic as the sand itself.
Clumps of construction workers form a sort of human topography, rising in dark, sweaty swells clustered around cranes. They work around the clock, and the music of the night differs only slightly from the day. The din of vehicular congestion is replaced by the steady throbbing of African drums and techno music emanating from hotels around the city, but the steady clanking of structural steel and pile drivers is perpetual.

I am restless, and the sun will be up soon. I need to get over this jet lag, but have no idea how or when. Arabiya music television is rather surprising, or not. Lots of buxom women with ripe mouths and bodies singing poppy songs, "mudwrestling" while singing said songs, amidst strange backdrops involving Satan, sadomasochism, and marriage.

Who knows? More soon.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Desert Calls

Dear friends & family,

I am, at long last, deigning to share my adventures with you. Whooooo! I know, don't break anything as you cartwheel about in unabashed revelry.

Working full time and riding a bike to and fro through the chaos of this city has taken a toll on my eloquence. Being constantly busy is quite tiring. Also, having a social life in this city could easily be a full-time job.

I've been studying Argentine Tango and trying to brush up on some French here. A bicycle accident last week reminded me that I am not as invincible as I like to imagine. Paradoxically, emerging uninjured from the event (stiff neck, no bruises) has certainly made me wonder.

Thus far, my work here at Hart Howerton has been both interesting and uneventful, almost equally in turn. Designing places for people far richer than anyone I will probably ever know is very funny, and a bit disturbing, too. Let's just say that I do a lot of moving pools and tennis courts around, and contemplating what the "mood" of equestrian centers and tropical roadways should be.

Currently, I am in NYC, staring down the barrel of a gun that looks suspiciously like a voyage on a Boeing 747, more likely than not bound to deliver me to the fringe of the Near East. Please feel free to correct me--isn't the UAE considered the Near East? I am quite ready to jump off this cliff and explore the bizarre twists and turns of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the other 5 Emirates, and Oman

I am told it will be hotter than Hades, on the order of 120+ with 80% humidity. Please believe me when I admit that I rather like it hot. Perhaps not quite that hot, though.

I will update when I arrive, and you can be certain that I will be posting many many pictures along the way.

Welcome, to a vicarious experience.