Holiday Time…Paddle Boarding and Santa

One of the biggest adjustments to living in Abu Dhabi has been that the leaves don’t change; a visual reminder that the holidays are approaching.  The temperature has dropped from the 110+F to a more comfortable low 90s, but it is mid November and all the vegetation is still green.  For me, November is time for Thanksgiving (yes, I’m American) and the site of holiday decorations in the stores. But in Abu Dhabi this is the time to go outside and enjoy the pleasant weather.  Restaurants have set out their outdoor seating and the beaches are crowed.  I’m not complaining…I spent last weekend on a paddle board exploring the Eastern Mangrove region. (That’s me in the pink top.)

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But not to fear…the holiday season, complete with Christmas blend Starbucks coffee and mall decorations, is fully present in Abu Dhabi.

IMG_1863My husband and I stopped in the local Ace Hardware store last week and I immediately turned into a giggly 5-year old girl upon seeing the huge Christmas trees and rows and rows of holidays decorations.  Everything one could possibly want to add holiday cheer to the home.  It was all there…lights, wreaths, life size Santas, tree toppers.  I couldn’t resist and added a small tree and this lovely book to our cart.

IMG_1865All the malls add traditional holiday decorations to their stores, but the ones nearest the expat areas really show their holiday spirit.  The Abu Dhabi Mall, shown below, features a three story Christmas tree and Winter Village, complete with a jolly old British Santa.  Photos with Santa are free and come with candy! I love watching families of all faiths and nationalities que (line up) to have a moment with Santa.

10431509_10205280715325764_7369298768998747978_nThis year, we are staying in the area for the holidays.  We have made reservations at the JW Marriot Marquis in Dubai and will spend a few days there to ring in the new year.  We have reservations at the “Vault” on the 72nd floor for New Years Eve.  Our table looks onto the Burj Khalifa which will be the site for a huge fireworks display at midnight.

Marriot signSo although the leaves don’t change and layers of clothing are not required, the holiday season is certainly present in Abu Dhabi!

Major Sandstorm hits Abu Dhabi

I’ve experienced blizzards, zero visibility, and icy roads, but nothing prepared me for driving in the sandstorm that hit the city this morning. Visibility was under 25 meters (roughly 25 yards) at times! Seeing traffic lights was almost impossible.

The sandstorm came in from Iraq, traveling through Kuwait with wind speeds clocking 25-35 knots. According to the national weather service, the regions experiences 8-10 severe sandstorms each year. In addition to the traffic accidents due to low visibility, health issues, especially respiratory infections, increase due to the storms.

Think I’ll stay in the rest of the day.

Downtown Abu Dhabi. Visibility was better here then on the coast there we live (see below).
Downtown Abu Dhabi. Visibility was better here then on the coast there we live (see below).

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The visibility was so bad, that I nearly missed the turn from my building coming home from tennis.

View from our balcony.
View from our balcony.
Can barely see the apartment building next door.
Can barely see the apartment building next door.
There are huge apartment buildings in this photo...really there are!
There are huge apartment buildings in this photo…really there are!

Tennis Lesson in a Sand Storm

Those of you who know me personally know my passion for tennis.  Cold, heat, sleet, even snow, has not kept me off the court. But today was a first. Gorana, my awesome tennis coach who is getting my game back in form, and I took to the court early this morning before the brunt on a major sand storm hit the city.  As you can see from the photos, sand was beginning to form on the court, which is a hard court by the way, not clay or sand. The balls, our clothes, our hair, everything was covered with a reddish coating of sand by the time we finished. But we had a great lesson. I guess all the years of hitting in the wind in Kansas City proved useful since I was striking the ball really well in the strong wind. If your are going to play tennis in Abu Dhabi, it’s not just the heat you must get use to!

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It's easy to see where your shots land when the court has a thin coat of sand!
It’s easy to see where your shots land when the court has a thin coat of sand!

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Driving in Abu Dhabi: Playing Chicken in the Rain

I’m American. I LOVE to drive and have driven since I was 15. I’ve driven across the US three times, by myself; I’ve driven in Atlanta, Dallas, LA, and numerous other major cities. But nothing prepared me for driving in Abu Dhabi….and NOTHING prepared me for during in Abu Dhabi in the RAIN!

First, let’s think about who is driving here. Remember that 85% of this country is composed of expats from around the globe…many of which drive on the “wrong side of the road.” Also, understand that the Emirate (locals) cannot even learn to drive until age 18, so once they do pass their driving exams…watch out! Did I mention that many of the locals have really fast sport cars. This odd mix makes for some interesting driving experiences and “customs.”

Being American, getting my license was easy.  Pay a small fee, have a photo taken and done.  The entire process took less than 30 minutes.  No road sign test, no eye exam, no actual driving test.  The fact I had a valid US license was sufficient.  That in it self should tell you something about driving here.  Many countries have nearly “automatic” approval.

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Now driving is an experience.  The website below gives you a taste, but understand it is five years old and the traffic is much worse.

http://wn.com/abu_dhabi_driving

Driving is like playing “chicken” at 60 kph. First one to blink, loses. Therefore, here are my rules of road:

Rule #1 Don’t look in the rear view mirror. It will only make you nervous and there is nothing you can do what’s back there anyway.

Rule #2 Be slightly aggressive. Meaning don’t give way (except for city buses). The big cars and trucks like to “bully” themselves into your lane.  If there is the slightness bit of space, they will turn in.

Rule #3 No hand gestures.  This is a tough one for me to remember, but showing someone, especially a local, how a “bird flies” can get you arrested and deported.  There are cameras everywhere.

Rule #4 Remember there are cameras everywhere, so if you run a red light you will get a ticket. But the country makes this issue hassle free…there is an app in which you can log in with your tag number and check for fines. You even pay online.  Rarely will you see police pull someone over; if there do, it is usually for erratic behavior, etc.  Minor offenses, speeding, illegal turns, lights, etc., are all handled electronically.

Now, back to the rain issue.  It rained on my way home today.  To you, that probably isn’t news, or blog, worthy, but here in Abu Dhabi any small about of rain is a major event.  The rain was enough that I had to use my wipers (blades for you British folk). It wet the road, but barely. So I’m talking about a very, very small about of the wet stuff. But this is enough to make everyone crazy.  You would think they would slow down….you would be mistaken. Just the opposite.  They speed up so as to get out of the rain faster!  That makes for even shorter braking distances, faster lane changing (forget about using blinkers…that just doesn’t happen), and lots of horn honking.  After several near misses, I managed to get home without a scratch on the car, but I know there are a few more gray hairs on my head.

Very glad it only rains a couple of days a year. 🙂

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Earlier this month, Kevin and I visited the Grand Mosque.  This is an iconic structure and can been seen for miles; we can it see from Reem Island, where we live.

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We arrived at the mosque be local bus (we still don’t drive here). After a 10 minute walk to the entrance, we entered the grounds, which are richly landscaped. The building is constructed out of white marble.  It was a bit cloudy the day we visited, so some of my photos don’t show the purity of the marble, but believe me, it is white.

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We timed our visit so that we could take part in the free guided tour.  Our guide was well versed in the culture and history of the mosque.  She did not speak much about religion, expect when pointing out significant parts of the structure.  She emphasized that the mosque was built not only as a religious building, but with the intent to unite the world.  This was shown, in part, by the use of artisans and materials from around the world, not just the Middle East.

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The building has 82 onion shaped domes of seven different sizes. It is hard to show the size of this immense house of worship, but is is large enough to hold over 40,000 people for prayer. The majority of the building is made of marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics.

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The arcade was one of my favorite spots for photos.  The columns are inlaid with mother of pearl and colored marble.  Each flower is unique.  Below are close ups of some of their detail.

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But the highlight if the tour are the chandeliers.  The mosque has seven chandeliers, made of millions of Swarovski crystals. All of them are massive, the largest is 33 ft is diameter and 49 ft in height! Their light was like that of a kaleidoscope.DSC00788  DSC00791

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Even the doors to the main pray arrive were of stained glass with floral images.  I couldn’t resist snapping a few pics as the tour group moved on into the main prayer room.

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The main prayer room is massive.  The carpet is considered to be the world’s largest carpet and weighs over 35 tons and contains over 2,268,000,000 knots!  It took two years to complete.  The columns in the main hall also have the floral designs.

DSC00826  DSC00811We spent about three hours at the mosque and there was something new to see every minute.  The grandeur of it is overwhelming.  We will return again, only this time at night.  The lighting changes based on the lunar cycle and the “clouds” that are projected on the domes move toward Mecca. During full moon, the lighting is white.  During new moon, the lighting is bluish.  I must get pics of this.  I have only seen it at night from a distance.

Mina Port Fish Market in Abu Dhabi

What an experience! This huge building has everything a fish lover could dream of.  First…the selection.  Fresh off the boats; every possible type of fish and sea creature.  Shark, squid, sea bass, tuna, blue crabs, and prawns the size of small lobsters.  Oh yeah, they also had lobster.  Second, the cleaning stations.  After you make your purchase, you take your catch to one of the cleaning stalls where for 2 Dhs (.58 USD) for them to clean the fish to your specifications.  Third…and this is the best part, you take your cleaned fish, or in our case blue crabs and prawns, to one of the many grilling stalls.  Here your catch will be grilled, fried, or baked to perfection in about 30 minutes for a cost of 10 Dhs per kilo.  The result…beautifully charcoal grilled crabs and prawns.

As soon as our food was ready, we hailed a taxi and hurried home to enjoy our feast.  What a treat!  Yes, the market smells like fish.  Yes, it is noisy.  Yes, they speak little English.  But the food and experience is so worth it.  If you are in Abu Dhabi, you must make the trek to the Mina Fish Market. Bus 54 takes you to the front entrance.

Bon Appetit.

DSC00872                                                              Grilled blue crabs.

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Grill king sized prawns.

Falconry in the UAE

Last week Kevin and I spent the afternoon at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Heritage Exhibition. Food, crafts, and FALCONS! I was captivated by the birds. They were so beautiful. Many dealers were present selling everything a bird owner could possibly need, from frozen rats to custom fitted hoods. I could have spent hours taking photos. Below are just a few of the images from that day, followed by an article explaining the history of falconry in the UAE.

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http://www.sheikhmohammed.co.ae/vgn-ext-templating/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2bec4c8631cb4110VgnVCM100000b0140a0aRCRD

Falconry is an integral part of desert life which has been practiced in the UAE for centuries. Originally, falcons were used for hunting, to supplement the Bedouin diet with some meat, such as hare or houbara. In the time before the UAE was formed, and before the discovery of oil allowed the development of roads and communication systems, hunting expeditions were also frequently used as a way for the tribal sheikhs to ‘tour’ their territory and keep in touch with the latest developments in areas which were otherwise incommunicado. The sheikh would hunt during the day, then a desert majlis would be held around the campfire in the evenings, when the Bedouin would come to pay their respects and raise with him any matters of concern.

Nowadays, falconry is practiced purely for sport. The main prey for falcons in the UAE are MacQueen’s bustard, houbara, or hare. There is now a very successful captive breeding programme in the UAE for houbara, ensuring that this popular sport does not eliminate this species.