Washroom Attendants – A Consideration of Two Different Kinds

Do you sometimes find yourself heading off to the bathroom, reluctant to leave the society of your friends and family, but called insistently by nature? What you need is a bathroom attendant! I don’t mean the traditional kind– Continue reading

Pink Ladies go on the Hajj


Hong Kong airport has a pay-to-use lounge, complete with very nice shower rooms and 15 minute massage. Since I was stuck there for 6 hours, I signed up to spend some of that time at the lounge. It was a very pleasant interlude. Which was good. I needed that calming peace for what was to come…

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3rd visit to the camel farm

Camel Farm visit – #3 at Salem’s farm

This time, Mom and I didn’t call ahead because Salem said, last time, “no need to call, just come. You are welcome any time. My farm for you.” He was pretty adamant, I swear. We arrived this time just as he was driving off in his Land Cruiser somewhere (Land Cruisers are de rigueur for any self-respecting Emirati Bedouin).  He drove over to us as we were standing there sorting out if we were in the right spot. Big smiles and greetings and welcomes, and then, “Why you no call to tell me you come now?”

I was indignant, because “you told us NOT to call last time! You insisted!”

He laughed at me, and then explained how I had missed the subtext and been over-literal: “But this because I want you understand: no problem, come any time, is like your home. But you should call to tell me, because if I am not here, then I will come, and sit with you. Anyway, no problem. Very happy you are here. I must go now for a little – I have two camels over there, and I must help to make,” pause, “married between two camels. Understand?” followed by hearty laughter.

So he sent us to wander around, take photos, visit the camels and generally entertain ourselves, until the camel wedding was done. We spent the next 20 or 30 minutes wandering accordingly, amazed at all the little flowers and grass that had sprouted up from the thunderstorms that have swept over the country the last couple of weeks.

Greenery is quick to sprout up after a good bit of rain

The three tents that were there last time – two white sleeping tents and a black wool visiting tent – were nowhere to be seen. When Salem, and his friend and helper in the above operation, Abu Ali, who turns out to be an uncle of some sort (I think – family relations can get complicated and intertwined here), returned and we were all settled down around the fire, the missing tents came up. And, yes indeed, just like our rooftop tent that was completely demolished by a storm last year, Salem’s tents were flattened by the storms we had this last month.

Last year, when he heard about our much laboured over roof-top tent’s demise, he was highly amused, teased that it was because a Bedouin hadn’t slept in it, and generally expressed no sympathy. So, you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly crying into my tea for his misfortune. In fact, the word Schadenfreude comes to mind… He was a lot less emotional about his tent disaster than I had been about mine, and actually was laughing as well. He told us there was an old Arabic saying, that if you enjoy another’s misfortune, the same, even stronger, will come to you, and then he pointed at himself, with a ‘well-I-had-it-coming, didn’t I?’ smile.

Rasheed, the young man who was there the first time we came, to make tea, coffee, etc, ran away as soon as he got his first paycheque. Off to make his fortune I guess. This seems to amuse Salem as well. Unusually, Rasheed had possession of his own passport, because Salem says he doesn’t believe in keeping his employees’ passports. So Salem was the host, and the chef and the tea and coffee maker as well.

We had tea and coffee – which is called qawa, and has cloves and cardamom in it, but not much actual coffee as far as I can tell – and then he said, “Come with me. Bring your camera. You have a flash on your camera? I have a surprise for you.” We followed him some 300 or 400 meters into the dark – no moon, only starlight, and then we saw: a small dark shape in the sand, and a much bigger one standing over it. He told us it was a two-day old baby camel with its mother, and she was out here to eat the greenery and just be alone with her baby. The baby struggled to its feet and then walked awkwardly but directly over to us. It was all very heart melting, of course. Silky soft like a new puppy or kitten, and friendly, or possibly just confused, but it kept coming to us and bumping us with its head and then just standing there while we pet it. It may have been looking for milk. The mother, Sharifa, stuck close, but she didn’t seem aggressive, though Salem was clearly concerned. He kept saying, “careful…” and calming things to her like “Hup! Hup! Ehhh, Sharifa…” and then a sort of blowing through his lips, like horses do.

Even more adorable in real life!

Mom and I were floating with the delight of it all, and went back to the fire with big, dumb smiles stuck to our faces. Salem took a phone call, and then said “Ah, my father is coming. It will be good for you to meet him!” Ten minutes later another Land Cruiser rolled up into the sand near us and two more men in kandouras (long white kind of shirt/dress) joined us round the fire. One was Salem’s father and one a business friend of his, an old man from Yemen. We all sat for a while and Salem told his father I was taking Arabic lessons and he should try talking to me, so he asked me about my father, my brothers and sisters. When he heard there were only three children in my family, he laughed and told me he had 18 children, though 3 had died. He gave me a breakdown, this many girls, that many boys and 3 dead. I said oh, hazeen, meaning sad. And he turned to Salem and asked why I was saying sad? I thought, shit, I must have said it wrong – this is always happening with my rare attempts at speaking Arabic. Salem explained that I meant that it was sad that three had died. And the father turned to me, laughing again and said, “Hamdillilah,” as in, thanks to God, we mustn’t get worked up one way or the other, He makes these decisions and we have to just go along. Then Abu Ali, told me that of his 18 children, 9 had died, which I thought pretty bad luck, but now decided I wasn’t supposed to express such unhappiness for, so I just sort of said, oh, and how many boys and how many girls?

There was lots of chatter and lots of joking, most of which went over mom’s and my head, but Salem translated some of the stories his father told into English for us, like how they used to sit out by the fire with a gun, keeping an eye and an ear out for wolves and tigers, because they would kill the baby camels. I know, you’re probably thinking, tigers, in the Arabian desert? What tigers? I don’t know, I’m just reporting; that’s what he said.

As this story closed, Ghasim, the man who takes care of the camels, was around the passenger side of the car looking for something and then he closed the door.  The thing is, none of us knew he was there, and when the door shut, everyone looked with surprise at the car. Salem’s father called out, and when there was no answer, he called out again in a more, you-better-answer kind of tone. Then Ghasim appeared and Salem’s father relaxed again. So I said, (in no doubt, very bad and broken Arabic) “maybe you thought it was a wolf or a tiger?!”  Well, this hit the man’s funny bone (not difficult, as we was a very jolly guy), and he laughed and told the other guys what I’d said, and they all had  a good laugh too, and then he told Ghasim about it, but said, I think you are a fox, and I would be the wolf! I couldn’t remember for sure if I understood the word for fox correctly and so it took me a minute to get this sorted out via Salem …

There are three loaves of bread in there – our dinner!

After some more time, Salem and Abu Ali made bread. They made it from scratch, with water and flour and salt. The process was actually started much earlier when Abu Ali started mixing it, then it was allowed to sit for a while, and then Salem rolled up his sleeves and took over kneading the dough. He separated it into three pieces, which he made into round loaves, and they were placed into the coals in the fire. After half an hour or so, a little oven was dug into the sand under the fire and the bread was baked in there.

We ate it with a kind of a bean stew and fresh camel’s milk and it was all delicious. I ate till I was stuffed. After the meal Salem took the leftover bread and put it into a bowl for the new camel mother. I said, “I’ll take it to her!” and his father told him to go with me, so I wouldn’t get lost. Her baby was resting when we got to her and she came over and ate all the bread with gusto, almost taking one of my fingers in as well once. When it was gone, and we turned back, she followed us for a bit, hoping for more, till Salem went back to her and showed her the bowl and tapped her on the neck with it to go back.

When we returned to the fire, I learned that Salem’s father had handed his phone to my mother and asked her to call Canada. She tried my brother and sister, but there was no answer. Ah well, so he called a friend of his to chat with. He is a very social, cheerful character. We left shortly thereafter, with a container of camel’s milk, two bottles of water, and a container of chewing gum from Salem’s father. It seemed he just didn’t want to see us head off with nothing from him, and that’s all he had handy…

Teaching in Abu Dhabi – the military class and the ladies class and a side trip to the edge of the Empty Quarter

Military class and the ladies class

I’ve had two classes. A small class of ladies who were working in the government and have a very high level of English, and a large class of men in the military, mostly young, who have a very low level of English, and it turns out, some aren’t very educated even in Arabic.  The women are smart and love veer off into some really interesting conversations about life and society and values, and they love to laugh. They also love to hear tales of the military class. They think those guys are hilarious!

One guy, about 18, called Abdullah and I have been butting heads about the late policy. The policy being, if someone’s late, I mark an “L” beside their name. Abdullah is ALWAYS late. And always argues about it. He argues with me in Arabic, and then Talal interprets. The last time it went like this, not including the translation component:

Rachel: No Abdullah, it’s an L because you were late, and I’m not changing it. Go sit down.
Abdullah: No, I was praying!
Rachel: Look, we’ve had this conversation. Everyone else seems to manage to get their praying done during the break, so you should be able to too.
Abdullah: But I had to go the bathroom and the canteen too!
Rachel: Well, you should have gone to the canteen during the long break. That one’s 45 minutes, plenty of time.

Abdullah discussed with Talal, and then went to his desk, saying something else, which wasn’t translated. So I said to Talal, “What was that last thing he said?”
Talal shrugged and said, “He says he wants to be mad at you, but can’t be mad at you. I don’t know.” Sure enough, he was as participatory and enthusiastic as ever, which is to say, quite. So I guess he’s not a grudge-holder. I don’t even know why he argues so much, because as far as I know, there is no actual consequence for the L’s I put into the attendance.

Next class, we stop for our first break, and I say, “Be back by 6:00.” And then I write 6:00 on the board. Abdullah, looking mischievous, says, “No Miss,” and points to himself shaking his head, and at this point, Bashar, captain of the class, starts to look stern and like Abdullah’s about to get into trouble, and then Abdullah, grinning away, writes on the board under my 6:00, ‘5:55’ (with backwards 5’s) and points to himself. We all had a good laugh, and sure enough, true to his word, Abdullah was back 5 mins early from break. He’s since fallen back off the on-time wagon, and is straggling in late again…

Liwa Oasis – the edge of the Empty Quarter
There is a paved road which goes 30 km into the Empty Quarter, ending at a massive sand dune called Moreeb Hill. We drove out there once on the afternoon we got there, and again early the next morning, to see what it was like at sunrise. On our afternoon trip we encountered some camels on the road and pulled over to take pictures of them. Having heard that camels can be belligerent and cantankerous, and also because they are very big, we didn’t approach them, but just stayed beside the car as they passed us. But they were curious and a few came over to me (I was on the same side of the car as them) so I held out my hand and one came over (Mom named him ‘Dusty’) in an interested sort of way, and so I, rather timidly at first (they are really very big), talked to him and patted his neck. Then I stopped for a moment and turned to say something to Mom, and while I was turned from him I felt a soft nudging at my side. I turned back and he (or she – I don’t know) was investigating the waistband of my dress, and then the hem of my dress. They’re much less intimidating when their heads are so low. So I reached down to pat his cheek and he lifted his head a bit, so I stroked under his chin, and then his face and forehead – it was quite the bonding moment. He didn’t want to leave. Seemed he’d have stood there all day, if the patting was to be kept up. It was altogether quite disarming and sweet. We finally decided it was time to move on and left him trailing along with the rest of his group.

The camel train in Liwa!

The desert in the early morning.


In which I wish for well-washed windows

My bedroom windows have been very dusty since I came here, and it was made worse by the two weeks of morning fog we were having condensing on the windows and creating dusty streaks as the water rolled down. I got out the watering can one day and tried to wash the windows by leaning out of the window that opens and pouring water all over one of the non-opening panes, but half the water ended up inside on the floor, because none of the windows are sealed well. It rains so seldom here that water-proofing isn’t a top priority for the builders. I could only really reach the one pane, and it wasn’t a very successful attempt. The window was still streaky. So, I went and spoke to Ibraheem, the guard/handyman, about it. He speaks very little English though, so it can be a bit of a trick when you need something fixed.

I tried to explain, using a lot of gestures, that I wanted the windows clean and had attempted washing one, and that it leaked, and it wasn’t even one of the windows that opened. He smiled and nodded and sent me away, saying, “I wash, yes. No problem.” I thought, he knows I want the windows washed but I’m pretty sure the whole point about them leaking passed him by. So I went up to my room and moved everything off the floor and away from the windows, just in case. We went out for the day, came back that evening, and I’d forgotten all about the windows by then. I went into my room and walked over to the window to close the curtains and very nearly did the banana-peel, feet-out-from-under-me move when I stepped into the small lake that had appeared all along the window wall and extended a good two or three feet out into the room. Glad I moved things! The windows aren’t really any cleaner. He just sprayed water at them from a hose from the ground. My latest thing is I have bought a squeegee, and spend a few minutes each night when I get home leaning as far out as I can and trying to wash one or another of the panes. In the morning though, when the sun shines in, the streaks are highlighted, and I realize that once again, it has not been a success. I’ve become a bit obsessed by them now. Half the times Mom comes into my room lately, she catches me fussing over my windows. I have a pile of window-washing paraphernalia now stacked up on the floor – paper towels, a hand towel, glass cleaner, a bucket and the squeegee. What I need is a ladder, so I can reach properly. I think I’ll go ask the guard about one right now. Nope, no joy on the ladder. He doesn’t have a tall enough one. If the windows would just open a bit more I could climb out onto the ledge…

Window cleaning - See how dirty by the light on the wall? The bottom section of windows that I've somewhat cleaned here let a lot more light through than the top section, which I can't reach at all.

Trip to Fujairah, and a new class

Seashells that I collected in Fujairah

Mom and I rented a car this last weekend and drove all over the northeastern part of the country. We started out on Friday morning (weekend is Friday – Saturday here) at 6:30 in the morning. We had the roads to ourselves, which was good, as there was a thick fog for the first hour or so. We headed southeast at first and this part was just sand, sand, and then sand dunes. Around 8, we pulled over to take a photo of the landscape and spied camels walking along a road parallel to the highway towards a town up ahead. Naturally we immediately went on the chase. We drove on and went into the town and back along the road where we’d seen the camels, but they were gone, so then we just stopped at a spot in there and climbed up a sand dune, took some photos, looked around and then turned around to go back to the car. As we were walking back to the car, the herd of camels re-appeared and made their way across the road, not more than 50 meters from where we were parked! Very exciting for us. They’re quite strange looking, I must say. Of course, I’ve seen pictures and seen them on tv, but it’s always quite different seeing things in real life.

The changing landscape as we near the Hajar Mountains

We drove the rest of the day till we got to the east coast, and it became more and more mountainous, and then drove north along the coast. Just before the point where you have to head inland again, or else enter Oman, there is a large and luxurious hotel, JAL Resort Spa Fujairah. There aren’t very many hotels around there and we were tired, so we took a room there, and ohhhh, it was so nice! Beautiful rooms, and all with sea views, and on the beach, there are all these cushioned lounge chairs with little shelters over them, and towels rolled up on them, and as you wander about looking for the one you want, a guy accompanies you till you choose, and then unrolls the towel and lays it out for you, and then if you appear to want anything, there is someone there to get it for you, or move the umbrella for you, or whatever you want (I got up to move the umbrella myself at one point, but no, no, no, the man would have none of it). The water was beautiful, visually and temperature-wise, and there were so many pretty shells that Mom and I and this little boy at the shelter next door had to have had 100 shells between the three of us. I think our small friend had the majority though.

The Hajar Mountains at sunrise from the beach

We stayed until we had to check-out at noon, and then drove through the mountains back to the other coast, had lunch in Ras Al Khaimah, and then drove south back to Abu Dhabi. We had to pass through Dubai on the way home, and as we got closer into the city, the traffic got worse and worse. I mean it was gridlock; so we got out of it and gave the city a wide berth, which was much better. It was so good to come home to much more reasonable little Abu Dhabi. I’ve had admittedly very little to do with Dubai, but it’s really not scoring well in my book.

I have not had a class now for nearly three weeks, but the easy times are about to come to an end! My DCS class starts up on Sunday next week, and I’m going to be doing an evening class 2-3 times a week until mid-January for the military. That starts up this evening, from 4:30 till 8:30. Their English is close to non-existent. We may have to review the alphabet. I was invigilating their placement test two days ago, and some of them couldn’t write their names in English. I had to take the pen for some of them, and have them tell me their names, and write it for them. That group should actually end up in the Fundamentals class. Mom and another teacher, the girl who invigilated with me, Stefanie, and I will be doing the Level 1 group. These are non-officers. Privates I guess would be the equivalent? We’ll see how this goes. Four hours keeping a bunch of young men who speak no English busy.  Should be interesting, possibly disastrous…

My arrival and beginning to teach in Abu Dhabi

This is actually from August in 2007, when I first arrived in Abu Dhabi. I sent it out as a group email to some friends and family, but decided to copy all my old group emails into here to set the scene and background. This is the first one:

It has been a week and a half now that I’ve been living here in a “villa” located in what feels like the middle of nowhere, and teaching ESL to a group of very opinionated, outgoing, irritating and charming women.

I arrived 10 days ago. Mom met me at the airport with a bouquet of flowers, because it was my birthday. I had quite forgotten that it was my birthday by that time, and so was awfully pleased to see her and them. She then took me home in the taxi. This took some time, and far longer than should have been required given the actual distance between the airport and our house. Due to very strange addressing practices here, telling a taxi driver where you live is less than straightforward. Anyway, I am now VERY familiar with a part of town I’ll probably never have cause to see again – Zone 135. Mom kept telling him we were in the wrong section, because all the street signs round where we live say Zone 133, but he just kept saying the Zones don’t mean anything to anyone. At one point he stopped and asked some other guy for directions to the firehall (Mom had said we were close to the firehall – a note from my future self: this turns out to be untrue). This second man spoke and gestured very confidently in a direction-giving kind of way. So our driver decided to bring him with us. At this point, with the two men in the front, Mom and I became invisible and inaudible despite many attempts at communication on our part, and so the four of us circled various parts of Zone 135 for another 30 mins at very high speed. Eventually the second man was dropped off again where we had found him, and the taxi driver called back to the dispatcher to request directions from them. That turned out to be successful, and we arrived at home at 12:30 am local time about an hour after my arrival at the airport, in Zone 133, as indeed all the signs do say around here.

It turns out that this was a useful experience, as I was able to direct another lost taxi driver to our home from Zone 135 five days later. So there you’ve got your silver lining.

I brought along a thermometer and a humidity meter.  When I arrived, the humidity was hovering around 80%, and it has now gone down to between 30% and 50%. The temperature has been HOT. Between 23 and 42 degrees over the course of a 24 hr period, according to my thermometer.

I have, or rather, had, until today, a class of women that I was teaching Level 2 English to. There is to be big upheaval at the school tomorrow and we will see how that turns out.

I came in to the school the morning after I arrived, just to get a sense of the place, settle into my desk, etc. and ended up being put to work teaching my class that afternoon. It was not a good beginning. They didn’t like me, felt I was unclear, and they didn’t understand me. I’m quite sure that I was unclear. I was unclear in my own head; remember, I had at this point been in the country for about 8 hours after approximately 24 hours in airplanes and airports. They are very straightforward, so they headed off to Eddie (the liaison for our program) and also the Tawteen office (Tawteen (means essentially Emiritization) is the program I am part of) to complain. They complain at the drop of a hat I have been told, and have now witnessed on numerous occasions. They told them that they wanted to have morning classes, not afternoon, and they didn’t like me. So, terribly wounded, but deciding against quitting right away as a solution, I pulled the knife from my chest, and focused on trying to get a handle on my job, and developing a thick skin.

We have gotten used to each other now (we’ve done the bonding, as my friend Penny would say) and I think I know most of their names (5 Fatimas, so I have to use middle names there). Then today, some of them received text messages saying that they were to go to a new room tomorrow morning, as they had been transferred to morning classes. Well, it turns out they have grown fond of me, and perhaps I have improved in the clarity department, so they trooped off to Eddie and the Tawteen office to request that I be changed to their morning class with them. But the students staying in the afternoon want to keep me as their teacher too. So both groups now want me to go and tell the office that I am to be with them. I just said, “it’s not my decision! I just show up when and where they tell me too!” which is true. All of the afternoon classes are going to be rejigged and many students moved to morning. It’s better for the women, because many of them have small children, and evenings here are family time, so they don’t want to be at school then.

The women in my class do wear the abaya (long black cloaking dress) and shayla (headscarf), but they do it with such queenly elegance, and even pride, that it doesn’t strike one as a hardship or an imposition at all. They pace about, never hurrying, constantly rearranging and tossing their shaylas over their heads gracefully in such a way as to give the impression of royalty.

One of my students, Fatima Salem, taught me how to count to ten in Arabic a couple of days ago after class. Then, while the class was busy doing a pairwork discussion exercise, she wanted to show another student what she’d taught me, so I demonstrated my new counting ability, and as I was reciting, the whole class hushed up and started listening to me. I finished and they all erupted into clapping! Yes folks, I got a round of applause for counting to ten! It was quite gratifying actually.

Three of us from my villa attended a wedding last weekend, and that was a different sort of affair altogether. We were, of course, at the women’s side of the party, and it is a party indeed. All the women are done up to the nines, with shiny, tight, low cut gowns, and more makeup than Miss Universe and there is music, and u-u-lating, and circles of women and children dancing belly dancing moves with each other. Food is on the tables, serving women walk around with little tiny mugs of tea and coffee, and perfume that you put on yourself, including a smoking perfume that you waft towards yourself. Then more food appears. Then dessert. And then! The bride… She wears a white dress so heavy and unwieldy that she can barely walk, but she does her best, walking down the red carpet from the door to a raised catwalk at the other end of the room. There she has to be helped up onto the cat walk—the stairs are too much to be managed in that dress—and she walks the rest of the way to the chaise lounge set up at the end. Once arrived there, photos are taken of her with family, friends and babies, and an hour later, the groom and some other men(family?) come into the room. There is lots of warning before this happens, so that the women can all put on their abayas and shaylas, and be well covered by then. Once the groom has made the walk down the red carpet and he and his group are with the bride, everyone suddenly starts leaving! Party’s over! All the women started leaving, so we did too (besides, it was 1am), and I looked back and saw that the bride and groom were cutting the cake. But it just seemed like an afterthought.

They are also very interested in the status of my love life. In particular, when I intend to marry. I made the mistake of telling two who asked early on that I had no intention of ever marrying, that I didn’t see the point. I have no religion that compels me to marry, so why bother? This was met with shock and confusion. Especially when I said “maybe” about children. This pair told me I needed to marry if I was thinking of children. Right, I said , well, perhaps I will then… I’m going to be less honest about that in future. It’s too difficult to explain to people who don’t have advanced English, and have a very different cultural background, and it just makes it more difficult for us to relate to each other. My new line has become: maybe, on both counts. They encourage me to marry by next year.

What else…the villa. I live in Villa 3 and have 5 villa-mates, one of whom is my mom. There are 6 villas in our ‘compound’, that is the Arak Compound, and we really feel we are in the middle of nowhere. It’s half an hour by taxi to town, and taxis are most easily picked up half a kilometre walk from here. Therefore, we are strapped for entertainment. It’s like a little village in the middle of the desert. There is a group that meets at Villa 6 on the front steps for drinks (which are actually quite easy to get here) and sitting about in the evenings. It’s referred to as the stoop, as in “Are you coming over to join us on the stoop later?” So, anyway, sometimes I go and sit on the stoop with the others. It’s actually quite pleasant. It’s hot out, even at night, but they leave the door open and so get a cool breeze from inside the house. We just sit about and chat, or are quiet, and sometimes a taxi will appear and so we get a bit of speculation/entertainment. Who will this be? What have they been up to? One of the natives of Villa 6 used to be a cook for a living, so he sometimes disappears inside for a bit, and then reappears with snacks he’s cooked up.

Went into town, a 20 minute drive from here, on both days of the weekend, but it’s too hot right now to do anything outside, so I have really only been inside malls and a little wander through the Emirates Palace Hotel (a 7 star hotel, I’m told) just to gawk at it with the other tourists.