Saturday, January 15, 2011

Day 9

Today was the first overcast day since we've been here. We were told it hasn't rained here in over a year, but we saw a little today. When i say a little though, i mean a tiny touch of sprinkling. Nothing substantial. But still, it felt kind of neat, like it was an event or something. We had to meet at 8:15 for our first appointment, so i got up early to get ready and have some time to skype with Jenn. However, our internet was still down when i woke up, so i wasn't able to skype with Jenn at all. Luckily i had slept through the night though and wasn't tired, so it wasn't a problem getting up a little early. We met together in the morning by the pool and got 3 cabs to drive us back to Knowledge Village where Middlesex University is. There is a London based architectural firm there called HDR and we met with the small office of architects to discuss the growth of Dubai and the current status of the construction business. Almost anywhere you go in Dubai these days, you will see skeletons of large buildings all over the place. At one point during the boom of the development, skyscrapers were being built just to be built. They were popping up all over the place with the "if you build it, they will come" mentality. It is estimated that about 20% of the office and apartment buildings in Dubai are still empty. Just there waiting to be filled. The construction business has all but come to a halt here since the credit crunch of 2009. Most of the projects are on stand still, making the landscape on the outskirts of the coastline look like a high rise graveyard. Patrick is the office manager for HDR Dubai. He is a bald guy with a goatee, fairly short, and from Ireland originally so i like the way he talks and his accent. He tells us that funding is stalled for several of the projects his office is working on, but that they are still very busy with projects in Abu Dhabi. He shows us a slide show of the projects they are working on. They are constantly looking for a futuristic way of designing buildings, and they show us some pretty cool things. Most of the other students don't seem to care much, so I ask most of the questions with these guys, but i really am interested in what they are doing. The speed in which they operate out here is astounding. It is largely due to the lack of red tape they would need to go through in the states or Europe and for the rapid pace of growth demanded by the government and other clients. Patrick tells us it takes about half the time to finish a project here as it would in the U.S. That's pretty amazing when you think that many of these projects are built in as little as 12 months. Of course, when you build so much so fast, you can run into liquidity problems, which is exactly what happened when Dubai ran out of money in 2009. I am sure things will rebound for Dubai, and Patrick seems confident that things are on the rise.

The team at HDR rents a couple cabs for the day and takes us out to one of their current projects called Dubiotech. It's a research park in the style of Knowledge Village, being built as a hub to attract several research companies to have an office in the middle east. The area is quite large, but lacks buildings as of now. The only one currently built and functioning houses a medical research lab run by an older man from Atlanta. He's a very nice and enthusiastic man and excited to talk to people from the states about the progress they are making there. He looks a lot like Ron Paul, so i already like him. We tour the rest of the building to see that it's mostly
unfinished. Patrick tells us that's the idea, and that the companies that move in will be able to set their offices up anyway they want, which is important based on the type of research being done and the equipment needed. Seems to make sense, and cuts down costs of the architects. Patrick takes us across the street to the Dubiotech headquarters that are being built. HDR designed the building, but like everything else, it's on hold due to lack of funding at the moment. The site should be crawling with workers, but at the moment there are just a few people there to monitor everything. We are taken into the trailer and given hard hats and then make our way up to the site. They load about half of us in a rickety, scary lift that feels increasingly more deadly as it climbs up to the 17th floor. We get off, and the lift goes back down to get the rest of our group. It was nice of them to bring us up here i suppose, but i don't really get the point of it. Maybe to show us the whole area of Dubiotech and where it will reach when it's all completed. The unfinished building we are in is the center of the Dubiotech research park. They talk about some of the challenges they faced, including the truss structure in the middle of the buildings. It's a really unusual shape and require three separate structural engineers evaluating it to convince them it was structurally safe. When the building is done, that will be a conference center as well as hold some retail stores and be a bridge between the two buildings. It is also going to be covered in windows, and the shape of it will make it look like a jewel suspended between the two buildings. Sounds cool, but it looks like it will be a while before we can see it. Some people take the lift back down, while others (including me) take the stairs. This turned out to be not so great an idea because we had to climb over and through scaffolding in several places and walk through points where the stairwell was pitch black. It could have been considered mildly adventurous though, so i didn't mind.

After Dubiotech, Patrick has the cabs drive us all down to the marina walk and he buys us lunch. It was very generous of him to do. However, lunch took a long time and we are late to our next appointment with Patrick, which is a place that has a platinum rating by the LEED system. I don't know anything about the LEED rating system, but apparently it means the building is very environmentally friendly. We are told that getting a platinum rating is extremely hard. This building is the first to get a platinum rating in the Middle East and only the 16th in the world. I am sorry to say i fell asleep in this meeting, so i really didn't get much out of it. I feel bad cuz we show up late and have to skip a lot of their presentation and tour in order to keep our next appointment, and on top of it all, i fell asleep. They probably hate us, but whatever.

Our next appointment is the fun one. We paid 100 dirhams each (about $27) to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa to watch the sunset. The tallest building in the world is 165 stories tall, but people going to the top only get up to the 124th floor where the observation deck is. The ride to the top only takes about 60 seconds, and you can feel your ears popping every few seconds as you go up. On the way down, i counted my ears popping 7 times. The view is pretty awesome. There is no such thing as a clear day in Dubai anymore with the pollution and haze from blowing sand, but today isn't bad. The clouds have cleared away and we are able to see great distances. One of the cool things is the telescopes at the top. They didn't cost anything today for some reason, and they are essentially just a video screen you can point and magnify. They also have 4 settings, a live feed of what you can see right now, a daytime setting to see what it looks like on a particularly clear day during mid-day, a night time setting so see all the lights of the city on a clear night, and a historical setting to see what the area you are looking at looked like only about 10 or more years ago. The picture shown here is looking at the buildings in the background and the historical view of when they weren't there at all. Kind of neat. And of course, the thing we all came for was the sunset, which is shown in the sequence of pictures below. This is looking in the direction of the Burj al Arab, near where we are staying.

Arabian sunset from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world

The Burj Khalifa is so tall that it was necessary to design it to be able to sway "like a reed in the wind". It is built upon a large spring system in the foundation that allows the building to flex with the wind and rotation of the Earth. Without this feature, the torque on the top of the building would be too great and it would bend or buckle somewhere in the middle, eventually failing and the whole thing would topple over. The top of the Burj can sway up to 1 meter in any direction. Pretty amazing. The view from the outside observation deck shows the city that lies north of the Burj Khalifa. The cluster of buildings lining Sheik Zayed road is known as the financial district of Dubai. Here is a picture of the financial district before sunset and a little while after when the lights of the city begin to come on. We are told that you can watch the sunset from the ground and then ride the elevator up to the top of the Burj to watch it set again. You'd have to be very fast and be able to cut all the lines first though, because it takes a while to get through security and into the elevator. Looking toward the east from the observation desk, you can see the city begin to sprawl into the desert. You can also see the Dubai mall directly below and see just how large it really is. We went to the mall when we got down, but it's not very impressive outside the fact that it's enormous. They have basically all the same stores as the Mall of the Emirates as well as many many more. A lot of people in our group went through the huge aquarium they had in there, but i got my fill of fish at Atlantis and didn't want to spend the money. Marisol, Danielle and i walked around and looked at shops for a while. We ended up in a giant candy store like Dilan's in NYC, but with less of a selection. I got a container of candy for Jenn since i have been bad at buying gifts. I'm pretty bad at getting souvenirs in general. Once everyone else got out of the aquarium, we got a little dinner at Taco Bell, the only one in all the UAE. Kind of a novelty i suppose. No one ate very much though because we planned to go out when we got back. Danielle's 21st birthday is tomorrow and she wants to get a drink at midnight. So after we leave the mall, we get cabs and head back home. At this point, the internet has been fixed and i am able to get on skype and talk to Jenn for a bit. I tell her about Masdar and wanting to look into living there. I thought it would be a hard sell, but she seems pretty open to the idea. It would be something we'd really have to look into. Josie asks me if she can meet Jenn, so she, Mariella, and Danielle come in and say hi. Jenn didn't seem as happy to meet them. She said she looked like a bum.

After i talk with Jenn, we all walk over to the Madinot across the street. Danielle calls Khalid, who comes to meet up with us. We sit outside at the sheesha bar and order some food and wait till midnight so Danielle can get a drink. She has to argue with the bar tender about her birthday and finally gets let it. Once we all finish our food, we head back home and i get Khalid to show me a few ways to tie my head scarfs that i bought. At this point though, it was well after midnight, so i sat down to work on the computer for a bit and then went to sleep.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Day 8

We spent all day in Abu Dhabi today, so there is a lot to be said and a lot of pictures to show for it. After i skyped Jenn this morning, i met with my class at 8:45 to get on the bus to go to Abu Dhabi. A little bit about Abu Dhabi, it's the largest Emirate in the UAE, making up about 80% of the land mass. It has nearly all the oil in the country, which means it has all the money. It is also a city and an island. So when you talk about Abu Dhabi, it's sometimes difficult to know when you are talking about the city, the emirate, or the island. Abu Dhabi is about an hour and half south of Dubai along the coastline by car. Once you leave Dubai, it's nearly all desert. I slept on the bus ride there, but from what i gather there wasn't much i missed as far as scenery. Our tour guy was a really enthusiastic guy named Mosa from Morocco. His name means Moses, but it sounds like Mussad when he says it, which is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA. Since Arabs and Israelis have such poor relations though, i didn't think he would be named after their intelligence agency. He talked the whole time about tons of things related to Dubai and Islam, but i didn't catch most of it cause i was asleep. When i woke up, we were pulling up to the Skeik Zayed Mosque. It is the largest mosque in the UAE and the 3rd largest in the world. The largest is in Mecca and the 2nd largest is in Medina, both of which are in Saudi Arabia. Still, this thing is really impressive. The exterior is white marble and it glistens in the sun. At night, they hit it from all directions with lights and the white marble reflects the light for huge distances. Mosa told us the area the mosque takes up, but i can't remember not. The courtyard is huge though as well as the inside. During certain holidays and special events, both the inside and courtyard completely fill with devout muslims coming to pray. It would be quite a site to see considering the size of the area.

Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The courtyard is on the left and extends a good amount further, i just couldn't frame the whole thing in my camera without standing way farther back.

The entrance to the inside of the mosque. I don't know the significance of the domes, but this mosque has well over 100 of them. A typical mosque i've seen usually has only 1 or 2.

Wealthy muslims from around the world contribute to make mosques like this beautiful. There are mosaics and stone carvings from workers around the Arabic world here. People come from Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, and many other places just to work on this mosque. It seems like it is constantly being worked on as well. People are doing little touches or additions to detail all of the place. There are lots of designs set into the white marble exterior of most of the pillars and walls. It resembles stained glass to me and there is an incredible attention to detail. Here is a picture of me putting my thumb next to one of the flowers so you can tell the scale of the kinds of small cuts they need to make to put these flowers together, and they are all over the place. Being the biggest mosque in the UAE, this is a big place for national business to be conducted, which is actually what was going on today. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Khalifa, is also the president of the UAE. Some dignitaries from the government were meeting inside in the morning while we were there, so we couldn't go in. We actually came back a little later in the afternoon just so Mosa could show us the inside and tell us a little more about Islam. All the girls in our group had to wear an abia (traditional robe) and a head scarf while on the grounds of the mosque. Some other tourists were there, and any men wearing shorts or tank tops also had to put on a traditional robe, though it's not called an abia. The abia is what women wear, but i don't know what the white robe men wear is called. I was told women wear black because white is see through most of the time and can be considered immodest. When we came back in the afternoon after the dignitaries had left, Mosa showed us around inside the mosque. It was a quick tour because afternoon prayers were starting soon so he wanted to be out of there before it began to fill up. But going inside just to see the shear size of the place was pretty amazing. We all took our shoes off before entering and walked through the big sliding glass doors into an enormous room. It was probably around two football fields in length. In the picture inside the mosque looking down the room, i am standing in the center of the mosque looking north. This room extends in the opposite direction the same distance, so it's definitely spacious. This whole room and the courtyard will fill with people during the month of Ramadan while they fast and pray during the daytime for the duration of the month. Everyone prays facing west, which is different from the states since they face east. All muslims pray facing Mecca, so it depends on where they are. There is a little sticker on top of my desk in my room at the academy with an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca. The inside is just as ornately decorated as the outside, if not more so. Mosa tells us the carpet alone cost around $3 million. The center of the mosque has a little pulpit area of the priest, called an imam. The mosque is open everyday for muslims to come and pray throughout the day, but on Fridays, the imam will give a short sermon and then lead the gathered worshipers in prayer from the pulpit at the center. Behind him on the exquisitely decorated wall are forms of flowers with Arabic writing on the pedals. Mosa tells us these are the 99 qualities of Allah. I of course don't know what any of them say, but i was a little surprised to hear that muslims don't believe man was created in Allah's image. The expression they used was, "the Qur'an says Allah stretched forth his hand, but it didn't say he had 5 fingers." It was an interesting stop and i really admired all the work that goes into building and keeping up the mosque. There are plans to add a large garden area surrounding the mosque here within the next few years. Just outside the mosque is the grave of Skeik Zayad. it is surrounded by a large marble gate and the entire thing is covered in white marble. We weren't allowed to take pictures of this area, but there is a small building inside the gate next to the grave (also made of white marble) and inside sits an imam reading, or more so singing, the Qur'an over a loud speaker so everyone can hear it walking by to go into the mosque. Mosa says there are about 4 to 5 imams that trade throughout the day, but they sit in the room and read the Qur'an from sun up to sun down, every day all day. They have been doing it continuously since 2004 and he said they can usually get through it once every 5 days or so. It is a great honor and privilege for these imams to be allowed to read the Qur'an in this fashion at the Sheik's tomb. I get the feeling it's similar to the honor given to the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington, DC.

After we visited the mosque in the morning, we took a tour of the city of Abu Dhabi, which is on the island of Abu Dhabi. It's a small geographical area and is quite different from Dubai. Though they have much more money, they are far less developed. However, Abu Dhabi has been taking lessons from Dubai and is predicted to blow up pretty soon here. We visited the heritage village here in Abu Dhabi, and it was ok, but nothing great. I took some pictures of the huts made of palm fronds. The view from the beach was kind of cool. In the foreground are model dhows and abras used by citizens of Abu Dhabi in the earlier part of this century, and in the background is modern Abu Dhabi's skyline. So far, Dubai has far more impressive buildings, but Abu Dhabi is looking to put themselves on the map also. There are plans to build a building in Abu Dhabi twice as tall as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. There are many more projects as well since everything in Dubai seems to be on hold for the moment due to the credit crisis. Abu Dhabi is looking to flaunt their cash soon here. One of the first attractions built was the Emirates Palace Hotel. It was an attempt to compete with the Burj al Arab in Dubai, but architecturally doesn't really match up. The inside is incredibly beautiful though and holds the real key to Abu Dhabi putting themselves on the map. There is a museum inside, or maybe more so just a display of the big projects that Abu Dhabi has lined up for the next 15 or so years. The island of Abu Dhabi is surrounded by several other islands that are currently undeveloped. One of the islands has been chosen directly adjacent from Abu Dhabi as the site of future tourist destinations to compete with those in Dubai and Europe. The name in Arabic is Saadiyat Island, which translates to the Island of Happiness. Kind of a dumb name in my opinion, but they have way more money than i do, so they can do whatever they like. However, they plan to build another branch of the Louvre in Paris, a new Guggenheim museum, a large opera/ballet/performing arts hall, and another building that i don't remember what it is supposed to be for. All the buildings are incredibly neat in their own regard.

along coastline in model from top to bottom: new Guggenheim museum (pile of blocks), new Louvre (domed top), new Center for Performing Arts (space ship looking thing), and the last square building on the bottom with curved interior area

So this was a bad description and not the best picture of all the buildings to be put on this island, but the architecture behind it all is pretty amazing. The one that impressed me the most is the design for the dome of the Louvre is amazing. They layer it with two domes, each with holes in them so it allows natural light in. Here is a computer rendering of what it is supposed to look like inside once the dome has been completed and the museum is open. I like how is kind of gives like a tree canopy effect, or that of a starlit sky. For those of you interested in seeing more about the developments on Saadiyat Island, i would recommend this website. They have pictures of all the buildings there with a lot of detail included. It's pretty astounding what they want to undertake and makes me definitely want to come back and see the finished product in a few years. All these projects are lined along the coastline, but in the center of the island, they plan to build another big project, which is the Sheik Zayed National Museum. The entrance is on the bottom of the picture there and the whole thing is underground, but those big crazy insect wing looking structures will be coming out of the ground and i assume let in natural light. The whole area is supposed to be very lush and green also, so it's almost like they stole a scene from Avatar or something. I am not sure if people will be allowed to go up into the wings or if there will be exhibits up there or anything, but it's neat looking. I don't know what kind of exhibits there will even be in there, but they gave me a book about this project before we left the hotel. On our way out, we also passed a gold ATM, which literally dispenses gold bars. You buy them by the ounce, and as you can guess, they are quite expensive. I don't remember the price in dirhams, but it converts to about $1504 per ounce, which is roughly the current market price in the USA for an ounce of gold. It's obviously a novelty and i have heard you can get gold for much cheaper in the gold souk in downtown dubai, but it was kind of a funny little thing to see. I actually saw on in Mall of the Emirates next to Ski Dubai also, but it wasn't functioning and didn't have any gold in it. This one almost looks like a vending machine, which may have been a more apt name for it than an ATM. You can see through a glass window area at a selection of the bars and coins they have to offer, make your purchase, and a gold bar drops out at the bottom.

After the Emirates Palace, we went to another hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi and went to the restaurant on the top called Cristal for lunch. It was pretty good stuff for a buffet style. They had good fish, which i usually never eat unless it's really good. At this point in our trip we were supposed to visit a city called Masdar outside of Abu Dhabi. It's being designed to be a completely sustainable city, generating it's own electricity from solar and wind power, and with an aim to be a zero emissions, zero carbon output city. It's just being built now, so it's not really up and running at full capacity at this time. Right now there is just a research center and dormatory area, but there is an idea that there will be homes, shopping centers, mosques, etc., all completely sustainable and green. The city will only be about a 5x5 kilometer area, or something like that. Not big. Our appointment was at 3:00, but we got bumped because apparently Hilary Clinton was in town and she takes priority over us. Our instructors were trying to get Masdar to let us come anyway and said they thought Hilary would love to meet a group from ASU while there since it would be good for publicity, but apparently that wasn't the case. Probably cuz Arizona is a red state. I could care less anyway. So instead of going to Masdar at 3:00, we postponed out appointment there and went back to the Zayed Mosque and Mosa took us inside.

When 5:00 came, we were finally allowed to go to Masdar and see the facilities. I don't remember the guy's name who was guiding us around, but he was really cool. He talked to us a bit about some of the projects they were working on with desalination of the water and with the solar panels they are using and the issues they are running into. Then he took us over to see the institute they have on the site there. They let us ride in these little pods they plan to use all over the city when it's done. They are called Personal Rapid Transports (PRTs) and they drive themselves and are controlled by magnets underground. They sit up to 4 people, two benches facing each other. They aren't on tracks or anything and they are pretty quick. You just get in and push the button of a predetermined desintation, it closes and wisks you away to wherever you want to go. The only destination right now was from the main meeting area to the Institute. It's kind of a research center as well as a university called Masdar Instititute, and it's run by MIT in Boston. They are actually recruiting students at this time for Master's of Engineering programs they offer. The thing that speaks to me about this is that it's completely free. The government of Abu Dhabi is trying to attract engineers to the programs at Masdar, so they offer to fly you out for free, give you free tuition and books, free room and board, and even pay you while you're here. That speaks to me a lot. I really like the thought of that, and i wouldn't mind doing something with solar panels or the like since nearly all space crafts use them for power and i could easily take the work i do with me to any job i wanted to do with NASA. I could come out here and get a Master's degree for free, get paid tax free money the whole time, and not have to work 40 hours somewhere else while i do it. Plus, i could roll around in a sweet PRT all day, maybe deck it out with a sweet sound system and paint flames on the side. Probably not, but that would rule. The programs are heavily research based, so i would be doing probably half research and half thesis. This is assuming i can even get in. I work hard at my schooling and all, but i wouldn't call myself MIT material. That's another year and a half away anyway, so who knows where i will be by then. It's definitely something i want to consider very strongly though.

Masdar was our last stop of the day. We all piled back on the bus and headed back to the Academy. When we got back around 8:00, a lot of people wanted to go to the mall and eat at Chili's, which didn't sound cool to me at all. I wasn't all that hungry and i can eat at Chili's in the states anytime i want (cuz that's how i roll). The internet wasn't working either so i couldn't talk to Jenn , and i was so tired that i just decided to stay home. I found Shaheem and had him teach me how to tie on my sweet head scarf i bought at the Abu Dhabi heritage village today and then i just went to sleep for the rest of the night.

Day 7

I went to bed really late last night, so when i woke up thi morning at 5:30 AM to Marisol's alarm, it sounded like a car bomb going off. It literally jolted me out of my bed. She left her computer and phone in my room over night to charge since the outlets in her room were not working due to a blown fuse. It turned out to my advantage though because i was able to use her alarm later to wake myself up. The internet was down for most of last night and this morning, so i had to wait to skype with Jenn till it was fixed. We woke up around 9:30 though and Marisol, Mariella, Leonard, Danielle and I all made breakfast burritos in Leonard's room. It was pretty good for what we had. Leonard was the master chef behind the plan, and he did a good job. Today was Sunday and we had all the morning time off, so we were able to do some things on our own mostly. They were cleaning our rooms most of the morning, so once i could get back into my room and the internet was up and running again, i skyed with Jenn for a bit to catch up on all the things that i had been missing on telling her. She posted some cute videos she made with her new camera on her blog about wanting me to come home. It was fun to watch them and they turned out pretty good. Once we were all finished doing all the morning stuff we needed to, Mariella, Leonard, Danielle and I all met and went down to the local beach here by the Academy. It's within walking distance and it was a nice enough day outside, so we all get in beach gear and head down to get some sun. One thing i will say about the roads here is that they are really weird for pedestrians to walk around on. The sidewalks are usually really narrow and start and stop at weird places. Also, crossing the road at cross walks can be tricky. They have the little walk guy to tell you to walk across the street, but almost every cross walk makes you stop and wait in the middle of the road for a second walk guy to tell you to cross again. So you are often stuck in the middle of the road with traffic on both sides of you. It seems like a really weird and in efficient way to do it, but these are the typical cross walks here. As a result, we mostly just j-walk everywhere. Shaheem tells us it's ok and we aren't going to get into trouble, so it's just easier this way. I asked a cabbie why the cross walks were like this and he just said, "just walk on greens and run on reds." So that has also been the protocol.

The beach was nice and we ran into Mary Jane, Jamie, Josie, and Tatiana down there. We didn't really hang out with them though, we walked down the beach a bit farther to a different spot. There aren't a lot of people on the beach, but there are a few Europeans in speedos strolling around. Leonard, Mariella and I all get into the water for a bit and it's quite nice. A bit chilly, but it feels good once we get all the way in and then get out of the water. The warm sun is a big contrast from yesterday's cold and windy weather when we were at the beach. I fall asleep in the sun and get a pretty good amount of color. You'll see on the rest of the pictures that i look like i've been cooked, but i didn't really burn as bad as it looks. Once we are done with the beach and looking to head back, we walk past a small little shack that is selling newspapers and drinks and what not, and Leonard says he wants to stop for a soda. He said he has a bunch of loose dirhams he wants to get rid of. Then a few seconds later, he says "loose dirhams" sounds like a medical condition. We all got a good laugh out of it, and now every time i need to go to the bathroom, i say i have a bad case of loose dirhams. When we get back, i put some of my music on a flash drive for Leonard. He says he like mostly country, which is a crying shame, but he said he likes The Fray and Coldplay type music as well, so i put some of that music on his flash drive for him. Hopefully he appreciates it. I take a shower and get ready for the evening.

Our class meets around 3:00 and we finish going over paper presentations and get on a bus to head out to Bab Al Shams for the rest of the night. Bab Al Shams is Jumeirah resort out in the desert. It's about a 40 minute drive by bus to get out there. The name Bab Al Shams means "Gate of the Sun", and it's supposed to be more secluded and has a heavy Arabic theme in the style of architecture and amenities. The tour guide gives us a tour of the place and shows us around. The rooms are nice, but not amazing. It would be cool to stay here, but it doesn't look like five-star quality to me. Jamie tells me there is only so much they can do to make the rooms five-star, and the rest relies on services offered and the like. My main gripe is that none of the rooms even have flat screens, just smaller tube TVs. The guide says this is because they want to make the theme more ancient and less modern. I think if that's the case, just don't have any TVs at all. The rooms are still really nice though, and the grounds are gorgeous. What i enjoyed the most was the camels and falcons they had there. The falcon is the national bird of the UAE, like our bald eagle. Owning and training a falcon was a big part of Bedouin life. I don't know all there is to know about falcons, and apparently, there are several different types, but these guys love their falcons. People here don't typically have cats on dogs, they have falcons, but it's also not like every household has one. They are the only animal (or at least bird) allowed to fly with Emiraties on airplanes as a guest in the cabin. As a result, the falcon has to have a passport and a visa when flying out of the country. How weird is that? I don't know of any other animal that has those kinds of privileges. To hold the falcon, you just have to wear this little arm cover they have with a patch of AstroTurf on top. The bird was completely docile and you could touch it and hold it on your arm no problem. It was fun.

Josie and I riding a camel. There were two camels and people had to double up to make the most of the sun before it set.

They stand up and sit down really abruptly too, as is evidenced by the look on Josie's face in this picture. It's a weird motion, and i don't know that i would ever get used to it.

Camels are also a lot taller that i thought, much taller than when riding a horse. It's a little unnerving sitting up so high.

The camels were sweet too. We had a lot of fun riding them. This camel was named Ferrari, which i thought was cool. They let us ride them for a while before we all went to dinner, and then during dinner you could go ride them some more if you wanted. They were a bit smelly and when you touched them their fur almost felt damp. Not sure if that's just from sweat or something. The muzzle over their mouths are to prevent them from spitting on you. Camels run wild in the desert here and can cause a big problem. People hit wild camels crossing the road all the time, and it's usually a bad result. They are much larger than deer and do lots of damage. A lot of people die every year from camel strikes.

Once the sun set, we were led to the place where we had our dinner. It was a huge area with buffet style dining of food from several parts of the Arabic world. Tatiana, being Lebanese, was in heaven. She was getting all kinds of crazy stuff that looked a little too questionable for me to want to try. The food that i did try though was absolutely amazing. You could eat as much as you wanted, and it was all really flavorful and fantastic. I am not really adventurous when it comes to food, but i really wanted to make the most of it and wasn't disappointed. I also had a date, which it was recommended i eat while here since they are grown locally. It was really delicious. I expected it to be more like a prune, which i don't much care for, but it was really good and very sweet. Not like a prune really at all. During dinner, they also did this live music and show about the history of Arabia. Lots of people in costumes running around, dancing, playing music, and interacting with the guests. Marisol got a little crazy on the drums in this picture, but it worked with the music. They had play sword fights, belly dancers, men riding Arabian horses, fire, and lots of other stuff to look at. It was a really cool night. The service was really good, and we all had a really fun time. I wouldn't stay at the hotel cuz it's really expensive, but i'd definitely have dinner there again.

When we got onto the bus to leave, we saw this car with this license plate. The picture is too dark to see, but it's a new Rolls-Royce Phantom. We see tons of fantastic cars all day long, so this is really no big deal, but the license plate is of particular interest. The story goes that having a license plate with the least amount of digits as possible and lowest letters in the alphabet (A being the lowest) is a big status symbol. It represents wealth and influence. It's a weird concept, but it's a big deal over here. The fact that this car is a Rolls-Royce in and of itself doesn't mean much. But the fact that it's a Rolls-Royce with a license plate starting with B and being only 2 digits long is a big deal. The license plate alone probably cost around the same as the car (no joke). They said to get a license plate with 4 digits will cost you about 10,000 dirhams (about $2,700). For one with 3 digits runs around 100,000 dirhams (about $27,000). With 2 digits, you're looking around 1,000,000 dirhams (about $270,000). It's a wild concept, but this culture is all about status and reputation, and that's one of the easiest ways to distinguish a guy in a nice car from a REALLY rich guy in a nice car. This is the least amount of digits we've seen on a car yet, and i am suspecting it will be the case for the rest of the trip. I doubt anyone will just have 1 other than the royal family. Word is they have the letter M reserved, for Maktoum (their last name). The same is true for phone numbers here. To get a phone number with the lowest digits in the number means you've spent a lot of money to get it and you have a lot of money. A dating practice here, or at least what it used to be, would be for a line of girls to stand on the side of the road. A guy drives up in a car, they inspect his car and license plate, and then he will shout out his phone number. If it's a low number (ex. 000-0000, which i doubt anyone has unless they are royalty), then it's considered a very impressive and expensive phone number. If the girl is interested based on the man's wealth and influence, she will call him and the dating ritual will commence from there. I really don't understand it, so i think you'd have to see it in action to get the full affect. But the concept alone makes sense i suppose. It's just completely different than we're used to. When Leonard went to get his sim card for his phone here, Shaheem went with him to make sure he could get a good phone number for the money. The idea is that the phone number is actually worth money. You can sell your low phone numbers for a lot of money, along the same guidelines of the license plates. Wild stuff.

Anyway, i am perpetually going to be playing catch up on this blog. I have a couple more days to write for, but i will get to it for sure. Tomorrow is a big day. We go to Abu Dhabi to see what life is like in the biggest and wealthiest Emirate in the UAE.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Day 6

So there was a minor complication yesterday... we were without internet for about 24 hours. As a result, i couldn't get on and update the blog. I will do it now though for 2 days, which might make them shorter posts since it's late. Probably not though.

After Wild Wadi and dinner from Shaheem on Friday, i actually fell asleep around 7:00 at night. I was just going to lay down for quick nap and ended up waking up at 1:00 AM. So i was up all night, mostly updating the blog with pictures since i could now add them with the help of the USB memory card reader i picked up in the souk. When the sun began to rise i took a shower and then decided to walk over to the grocery store around the corner and get a few things.

Arabian sunrise

I came back and made myself breakfast, skyped with Jenn for a bit, and then met with the rest of the class outside. We went over a few more paper presentations from the other students and i was falling asleep during them the whole time. Once those were done, we piled into 3 cabs and headed down to the Emirates Environmental Society to meet with the guy who runs it. Mary Jane and Jamie set it up so some of the students could talk to him about the programs they run there to improve environmental conditions in the UAE. Dubai has really only recently began developing, but they have done it at such a fast rate that they currently have the second largest carbon footprint in the world, second only to USA. I still don't buy into a lot of that global warming stuff, but the fact is that Dubai has a lot of pollution already, and it's happened in a very short amount of time. So they are taking steps to try and reign it in before it gets out of hand. Despite that though, Dubai is a fairly clean city. Besides being in a perpetual state of construction and expansion and having a brown cloud of air pollution hanging over the city, there isn't a lot of trash or anything just lying around. Anyway, meeting the environmental guy was a big highlight for a lot of the students that are studying environmental sciences. Mary Jane gave three people pieces of paper with the address of the place so the cabbies would know where to take us. I got in a cab with Marisol, Leonard and Mariella, and i give the paper with the address to the cabbie. He drives us down to the general location and then keeps asking me for the road number. Side note, i have no idea how they number and name their roads here. It doesn't seem to make any sense at all. The cabbie says he needs a road number, and i tell him i don't know anything except what's on the paper. He drives around for a good 15 minutes, getting progressively more mad at me and yelling for a road number. I keep telling him to calm down because i wasn't the one who wrote down the address and i don't know anything but what is on the paper. The general area is between the Dubai Zoo and some place called the Beach Center, which is essentially a small mall. We drive around this residential area looking for the address and everyone in the cab is frustrated, the cabbie with us and us with him. We stop and ask at least 4 people for directions but no one seems to have a clue where this place is. Finally we get a decent tip and spot the other people waiting outside of the place. Turns out they arrived late too though because both the other cabs got pulled over and got tickets. Their cabbies were mad at them too. It ended up costing us about 10 to 15 more dirhams than needed. I don't know what it is with cabbies in this city, but a lot of them don't know where they are going half the time.

The environmental thing was boring for a lot of us, so i didn't pay much attention. I practiced copying some Arabic writing to pass the time. When we were done, a lot of us headed back to the Academy and then Leonard, Mariella, Danielle, Marisol and i got into beach clothes and got a cab to take us down to the Jumeirah Beach Residence Walk (JBR Walk). It's down near the Marina Walk, but closer to the beach, and is essentially just like the Marina Walk. There are lots of shops and restaurants around, as well as hotels and other touristy things. Lots of nice cars rolling through there. We stopped for lunch at another Mexican place, but it wasn't nearly as good as the first one and our service wasn't great. It took forever to get the food, eat, and get down to the beach. As a rest we missed a lot of the prime sun time, and by the time we got settled on the beach we only really had about an hour before the sun was ready to set and it got too cold to want to be out there much longer. There was a ton going on though. The beach was packed with people because there was a wave runner race going on in the sea, two propeller planes doing tandem stunts overhead, and skydivers peacefully drifting down over the Jumeirah Palm. It was a lot to take in and there were so many things to watch that it was almost like sensory overload. I tried to get a video of everything going on, but i am sure it doesn't do justice to the whole experience. Once most of it concluded and people began leaving the beach, we took it as a queue that we should probably bail too. That, and the fact that it was getting pretty cold and none of us were really dressed for it.

Dubai has a monorail system and i thought it might be nice to check it out and see how it does. It's so new though that it is really only one line. Another is being built, but isn't open as of right now (at least i don't think). However, the one that is up and running services enough places that we could take it from where we were to the Mall of the Emirates and then go from there. So we decided to do that. The Metro system is really nice and new. All the metro stations look like futuristic looking Star Trek buildings. And it is fairly inexpensive to ride. We all got short distance tickets for only 4 dirhams (about $1.10). What we didn't realize is that short distance means from one stop to the next. We rode it for 6 stops, and what we found out is that you have to use your ticket not only to get into the station, but out of the station as well. Because we had bought the wrong tickets, we couldn't get out of the station without buying another ticket which allows you to travel within one zone as many stops as you like. So it was another 6 1/2 dirhams to get out of the station (about $1.80). That's still really cheap, but i was pretty upset about the absurdity of the whole situation. Nothing was explained well at all and i have never ridden on a metro that you had to use your ticket to get off as well as on. It was dumb. The metro has potential to be good, but it's just not there yet. It would have been cheaper and saved us time to just take a cab. Maybe if you were traveling alone it would be worth it because it is very cheap.

We got off at Mall of the Emirates and decided to walk to the grocery store by the Academy (not terribly far) because we are planning to make breakfast burritos in the morning since we have it free. So we all get a few items from the store and then head back to the Academy to meet up with Shaheem and his brother Salem. They have promised to take us all out into the desert for a bonfire.

from left to right: Khalid (Salem's friend from the University that i couldn't remember his name), Mariella, Salem

The 5 of us pile into two big SUVs with Jennifer, David, and Jill as well and we all drive for what seems like a really long time out into the desert. We stop at this little gas station area that is basically almost a shack to get some firewood. I hop out to try and use a bathroom, and i am directed to behind the shack. It's a living quarters area with 4 to 5 half dressed Indian and Pakistani men doing laundry by hand, cooking food, and the like. It's filthy, and when i ask to use the bathroom they point me to a wooden door. They open it for me and there is a man showering and a filthy toilet area. I decide i am just going to hold it. We get back in the cars and drive a little farther out to the "desert". I say "desert" because although it was quite desolate and there was indeed a lot of sand and little vegetation, it wasn't exactly as isolated as i thought it was going to be. We were no more than about 300 yard from a major freeway which was visible the entire time and lined with street lights. All around in the distance, the lights of the city could be seen. We could even see the Burj Khalifa towering in the distance. It was still fun, but i kind of expected to be much farther away from everything. I guess that's probably getting harder to do here with the urban sprawl going on.

We sit in the sand around a very small fire and just sit and talk with Salem, Shaheem, and Khalid. They brought some local hot tea they like to drink for everyone to enjoy. At one point another vehicle drives up and a guy named Mohammad jumps out. They are all very cool and we discuss a number of topics. We talk a lot about religion, particularly Islam. We talk a lot about the culture and what it's like to be an Emirati. We talk about what it's like to date in the Arab culture. They are happy to answer our questions and have several of their own about our beliefs and America and the like. Salem is convinced the moon landing was faked, and i have to chime in on this topic. I have heard and seen plenty about the moon landing, and it's just so absurd to think that it never happened. The faked moon landing scenarios are so ridiculous. It was a good time though and we all had fun sitting and talking. When we go to leave, the weirdest thing that was so counter intuitive to us was that instead of putting out the fire, they threw everything on it and made it extra big. I asked if they were worried about it getting out of control, and they just laughed. "What, burn down the desert?" I guess they have a point. They say they do it for the ghosts of those who inhabited this land before them. It's kind of a little Arabic tradition.

Khalid took the 5 of us home and the others climb into Salem's car. Khalid is a cool kid. He reminds me a lot of Jacob Arnison from Moab. He was born in the states and attended school in the UK and Canada. He likes being an Emirati and likes Dubai, but doesn't want to live here forever. He thinks when he is done with university he will probably try and go back to Montreal for a while. When we get back people are talking about going to get a bite to eat at a Lebanese restaurant and we invite Khalid. It's really late already, but he says he will come, so he, Shaheem, Leonard, Mariella, Danielle, Marisol, Jennifer and i all go to a place on Jumeirah Road. It's really nice and we have a really good time for the most part, but we got into a touch of trouble with the staff. We asked for some sample
food for about 6 people and some desserts to share. Some of the people there order sheesha as well, which i am finding is a big part of the culture here. Almost all restaurants serve sheesha. It's an event for a lot of people, like going to the movies or something like that. Anyway, the waiters bring us an unbelievable amount of food, seriously enough to feed 20+ people. It's ridiculous and we don't eat anywhere near what they bring us. So we tell them we need to cancel dessert because we have way too much food, and they give us a lot of trouble. They said the order is already in and they can't cancel it. Shaheem and Khalid are talking to the waiters in Arabic, and then they get the manager to come over. Another heated exchange happens and the manager basically tells them we are disturbing business and that we have bad attitude and just need to lighten up. How were we disturbing business? It's 2:00 in the morning and hardly anyone is here. They got him to cancel our dessert order, but for the rest of the time they don't serve us at all. Any time we ask for something, they say they will bring it but never do. After about an hour of that, we just ask for the bill. They charge us for basically 2 of everything on the appetizer menu and the total is 845 dirhams (about $235). Ridiculous. We're all obviously upset, but just pay the bill without leaving a tip (tips aren't really expected much here anyway) and start walking out. When we are getting in our cars, one of the waiters comes out and tries to tell us we didn't leave enough money. Khalid tells him to count it again, he does coming up about 100 dirhams short, and Khalid tells him that he's not counting it right because one of the bills is a 200 dirham note. The waiter then apologizes and says it's his mistake, and Khalid says, "yeah, it was" and drives off. He says that was the lamest attempt at trying to get a tip he's ever seen. Emiratis seem really indignant to serving classes around here. I mean, granted, they really did screw us over on everything and were gigantic butt holes about it afterward, but i still don't think i could be as mean and rude to them as he was. On the same hand though, it was funny and i think they deserved it. At this point though it was about 3:00 AM and he just dropped us off and we all came in and crashed.

I tried to get on last night to write this, but the combination of complete exhaustion and the internet still being down meant i needed to go to bed. The problem is that it's already late tonight and i have an early morning again tomorrow, so i don't think i will be able to do that other post tonight. I hate playing catch up like this, but i have to get to bed. I'm tired.