Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Time to Hit the Books

None too pleased to be stuck in the library.
When I first came to AUD, I was really surprised at how easy it was.  I never seemed to have to study, and I rarely did homework.  Now a month in, I feel like I've been transported back to junior year of high school with AP classes keeping me up at night and midterms demanding intense study sessions.  So after the insane weekend two weeks ago which had us traveling all over the GCC, I was glad to have some time to chill in Dubai.  With so much studying for midterms and term papers, I was looking forward to the weekend until Wednesday when disaster struck.  A few coughs and a temperature reading later, it was official - I had a cold.  After the team lunch at Red Lobster as a reward for all the data entry we had been doing at work, I went back to my dorm room and crashed.  I never get sick, and staying in on a weekend night was simply unacceptable.  But after dinner at the beach on Thursday evening, I knew that going out again and not sleeping would be a horrible idea.  So there I was with a bottle of Robitussin watching government-censored American movies on the local channel.  It was kind of sad, but after fourteen hours of sleep, I awoke Friday morning healthy and ready to go!

The Consulate General's speech on voting day.
Before dinner on Thursday, however, there was time for at least one social activity.  Thursday was absentee voting day for Americans living in the UAE.  A group of us jumped on the metro and headed to the consulate in Dubai for a voting day celebration.  We presented our passports and walked into a quintessential American festival complete with smartly-dressed sexuality-questionable greeters, stars and stripes table decorations, pulled pork sandwiches, and noticeable increases in the percentage of obese people.  After being out of the country for a month and a half, it was nice to get a dose of America.  Besides that, it was rather amusing that they served pork sandwiches and invited the crowd to the on-site Marine Corps bar right next to the Saudi Arabian embassy.  We could feel the judgement coming over the 8-foot reinforced concrete walls.  It definitely made a good story for first voting experience, even if I did spend the rest of the night taking cough syrup in bed.

Excited to be at Africana
The Band
I got up on Friday and was feeling well enough to get back at it, so I met up with some friends that evening, and we tried to decide what to do that night.  We had been to a lot of the tourist areas of the city already, and since none of us felt like spending much money at those places anyway,  we decided to go exploring.  None of the girls cared to go with us, so we decided to go into the cheap area of the city, where most of the locals and workers live.  A few hours later, the six of us set off for Bur Dubai on the same street where the Iranian restaurant and somewhat sketchy malls are which we visited for dinner the week before.  We 

started at a normal Irish pub and after a couple rounds of pool, we decided to move down the street to see what we could find.  We were a little early for the crowds and ended up chilling alone for a while in Club Africana, a club that caters to Sub-Saharan African people living in Dubai.  The waitress told us to come back in about an hour and a half, promising a crowd.  We explored down a couple side streets and found some less than classy establishments, mostly owned and frequented by the large population of construction workers of the city.  A little later, we returned to Club Africana, and the place was jumping.  I for some reason get a strange thrill from being the only white guy in a place, and let me tell you, I got more than a few stares from the couple hundred Africans as I jumped onto the dance floor with the rest of the crowd.  After a few minutes, a couple of my friends joined, and the people were just taken aback that three random American kids were dancing in the middle of the crowd of Africans.  It was such a strange experience but a lot of fun, and everyone there was really nice!  On the way out, we stopped by an Indian establishment to round out our cultural night life evening.  It was such a change from Africana and was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.  Though I can’t post much about it here, look for a post about it after I return to the United States and don’t have to worry about my speech.  For now, let it suffice to say that there is a whole underworld to Dubai; removed from the tourist areas are places that are so different from my base of experience in America and are hard to forget. 

I'll file this under places I don't care to revisit. (Bus Station)

The next week was incredibly productive.  I got a lot of work done toward my professional goals for the semester and made some great contact.  One event was on Wednesday evening after work when I went with one of my coworkers to an MBA fair in the city.  It was good to learn about things I should be doing now to prepare myself as well as get an idea of what options there are for the future.  On the academic side, I decided to take a little research journey.  On Thursday after class, I headed to Abu Dhabi to interview a couple of the employees at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) as part of two research projects on the oil economy diversification in the Middle East and the international push for renewable energy.  Despite planning out which bus to take and getting directions from the bus terminal to the office, it was still quite the adventure to get there, taking twice as long as it should have.  In standard Jacob-with-public-transport fashion, I went to a random parking lot in Dubai, gave a guy twenty dirhams, and hopped on a bus that looked like it had seen one sandstorm too many.  Ninety minutes later, I arrived at a bus terminal that was seriously straight out of Indiana Jones with hordes of smelly people, stores selling dates (and racy magazines in the back), and of course the hole-in-the-ground toilets.  After taking the city bus way past my actual stop and climbing to the top floors of three skyscrapers, I finally found the correct office (and was only fifteen minutes late at that!).  It was a really good interview after I finally arrived, and I learned a lot that I'll be able to take with me back home and use for my senior thesis.  
Seems legit.

I returned to the bus terminal, got a ticket home, and stood in a line of 300 people as bus after bus shuttled us back to Dubai.  When we entered the city, we drove right past the parking lot where I got on the bus, and I had a moment of panic when we still hadn't stopped fifteen minutes later.  I knew for sure that the driver was taking us hostage and kidnapping us to Saudi.  Fortunately, we eventually stopped on the side of a road under an overpass, and I decided that was my cue to leave.  Half of the passengers also got off, and after getting my bearings, I realized that I was a half hour train ride from campus.  I kicked myself and cursed the public transportation system while following the throng of people to the metro station.  

Birthday Party!
I got back to school forty-five minutes later, ran into my room, got cleaned up, changed clothes, and headed out right away for a night out with friends.  We began the night at the rooftop bar just behind campus before heading off to one of our friend's birthday party downtown.  It was a great time, but after we left, I was exhausted and ready to collapse.  Everyone else was in the mood to eat, so off we went to the beach-side cafes for dinner/breakfast.  I really nearly feel asleep at the restaurant  and I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't even shower before falling asleep at 5:30 that morning. 

The next day was full of studying; I could finally finish the paper with the research from the interview on Thursday.  Since it was midterms week, we worked all day and decided for a chill evening at the mall -- here they call it "going malling."  I think that it's roughly equivalent to goin' to the Wal Marts back home on a Friday night.  After a delicious meal at my favorite restaurant (McDonald's), we caught a movie at the theater in the mall.  It's times like this that I remember where I live.  After sitting through the 90-minute movie, I'm still not exactly sure what the plot was about due to the excessive censorship.  Random scenes were cut out, and conversations would obviously jump, so the dialogue didn't make sense.  Any conversation deemed immoral, especially those referencing sex, was removed from the movie because such been behavior isn't acceptable for public.  It was really annoying.

Though the past couple weeks have not been full of adventure like last month, it's been a great chance to get to know Dubai a little better and to get some good professional activities in so that my parents don't think I'm just over here being a slacker.  There is only a week and a half left until the week-long Eid break which will be full of crazy stories as we make our way to Jordan, the Dead Sea, and maybe even Israel/Palestine, but until then, it's back to the books. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Outside the City Gates

It's easy to get a false sense of security in downtown Dubai with the five-star resorts, trendy bars, and high-class restaurants.  We tend to forget that we are living in the Middle East and that things aren't as rosy on the other side of the horizon.  After a full month in Dubai, it was time to get out of the city and explore some of the area in which I live.  The week took me from one extreme to another, from dining with the nation's elite to staring down the barrel of a sniper.

The week started off as any other with a series of uneventful classes and days at work.  On Sunday, I went to an office party at a coworker's apartment; it was an interesting night hearing about the others' travels through the Middle East.  It was cool to get a firsthand account of what's actually happening in places like Syria and Bahrain, names I'm used to only hearing in news reports.  It's pretty cool how diverse the staff is, with everyone having incredibly different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.  I decided that I needed my own stories to tell and thought that a visa run to the border would be a great place to start.

Bur Dubai - not quite like the glitzy downtown area
Iranian Restaurant, complete with live birds
On Wednesday night, the study abroad mentors organized the weekly CRF night (Cultural, Reasonable Food) to an Iranian restaurant in the old part of the city.  I ended up getting off work much earlier than I anticipated and got a ride to the right neighborhood with one of my coworkers who lives in that direction.  I arrived at the metro station meeting point an hour before we were supposed to meet, and, since the rest of the group was still a 45-minute train ride away, I decided to do a bit of exploring on my own.  Like I said, this was the old part of town, and for the first time since I've gotten here, I was the only Westerner on the street.  I entered an old mall and thought I had entered the opening scene of a horror film.  Most of the shops were closed except for a laundromat and a store full of gold and silver trinkets in the back; the halogen lights flickered as a few people roamed around the joint, fading in and out of the dark corners of the mall's main hall.  In the background, a young girl was on a mechanical car ride that sang "Frera Jacqua," but instead of the usual lyrics, the song got stuck on "mother's coming; run away.  Run away."  I was more than a bit spooked and decided it was time to go.  I walked the couple blocks back to the metro station and noticed a few oddly dressed middle-aged Asian women on a street corner.  As I walked past, I caught the eye of one of them, and it didn't take me long to realize what she was doing there.  I hurried along as she followed after me, hearing another man discussing prices with the woman.  I continued walking toward the metro station, found some M&M's, and sat on a bench inside the station, wondering how this could be the same city, just 15 stops from my dorm gate.  Side note - the Iranian food was really good once everyone finally got there!

At  the Atlantis Resort Aquarium
By Thursday, I'd had enough of Dubai's less-touristy side for the moment, and we decided to explore some of the more up-class areas of the city.  We took a cab from campus out onto the Palm Jumeirah to the Atlantis resort.  While there, we had desert and drinks at a Moroccan restaurant, complete with dancing and live music.  Though I had no idea what I was doing with the dance and instead elected to take pictures, it was a really cool place.  After we took some time to explore the incredible aquarium, amazing city views, and interesting clientele at Atlantis, we drove downtown to meet some of Mary's cousins at a bar under the Burj Khalifa.  The restaurant was all outside, situated next to a lagoon, with palm trees lining the sitting areas, and the Burj Khalifa standing tall across the water.  After a fun, chill evening, we headed back to the dorms.  I ended up going to sleep a bit too late that night, and five hours later, I was awake again for our trip to Oman.

Hiking up the Hatta Fort Foothills
I'm in the UAE on a temporary 30-day tourist visa, meaning that every 30 days I must leave the country or provide a two-week notice to AUD officials with a detailed itinerary prior to leaving.  Rather than having to plan ahead and have AUD all up in my business, a group of us decided to leave the country to get another 30-day tourist visa, a rather quick road trip through the desert to the Omani border.  Friday morning, Tom, Sid, Oliver, and I got a ride to the airport where the cheapest car rental agencies are.  We rented a car, met up with the rest of our group, and and began our drive through the desert.  We drove through small outposts, mini sand storm cyclones, and incredible sand stone mountains.  We got through the first two checkpoints without any problem - just flashed our American passports and we were on our way.  At the border crossing, things got a bit dicey.  We pulled over at the passport control office at the UAE exit gate, looked around, and I realized for the first time where I was in the world.  Passport control was housed in a run-down trailer next to a series of small concrete buildings that looked like they'd been burned down years ago.  Half of the road was blocked due to a collapsed overhang whose metal roof lay crumpled in the road  I was glad to get out of there quickly.  We drove into Oman and stopped 100 yards into the country at the visa office.  After an obligatory picture in Oman, we got back in the car and drove right back across the border.  On the outskirts of the UAE, we stopped at a resort, the Hatta Fort, and had a great dinner at a pool-side cafe before hiking up one of the nearby foothills to watch the incredible desert sunset.

A desert sunset at the Omani border
After enjoying the sunset and the first rain shower we had seen since arriving in the Emirates, we got in the car and began our journey back to Dubai.  The first checkpoint was similar to the one on the way - just flash our passports and on we go.  The second, however, was a bit unnerving.  We pulled up to the checkpoint guards who had AK-47s at the side, ready to go.  The guard took each of our passports and took his time going through each of them, looking for issues with our visa statuses.  We sat in the car, watching as cars in the other lane zipped past, while the armed security officer scrutinized our entry.  With a nasty look and a wave of his gun, he tossed us back our passports, and we were home free.  After the sketchy checkpoints and border crossings, I was really glad we were back in time for happy hour at our go-to local standard.  It was a fun night, just relaxing at the rooftop restaurant next to campus and hanging out on the beach walk.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Chillin' in the palace
As if we hadn't done enough the day before, the study abroad mentors had arranged a day trip to Abu Dhabi for us on Satuday.  I crawled out of bed at 9:30, completely exhausted from trip the day before, and headed out for a new day of exploring.  Abu Dhabi is about a 90-minute drive from campus via a huge highway, so there wasn't much to see on the way there which was good since I spent most of that time catching up on sleep.  Our first stop was at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, an incredible building that looks like something straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights.  All of the men had to wear long pants and sleeved shirts, and the women borrowed abayas from the mosque to wear as we toured.  The courtyard was huge and seemed celestial, made completely from white stone and highlighted with gold on the minarets   Inside the main hall, there were three domed sections, each with elaborate chandeliers hanging in the center.  The floor was carpeted with one enormous Persian rug, the largest in the world.  In all, the mosque and courtyard can hold 50,000 people when completely filled on the holiest of days.  After a quick lunch, we made our way to the Emirates Palace Hotel.  Years ago, some of the royals lived in this palace, but it was converted to a hotel after the royal family upgraded to a nicer palace.  It's actually the same hotel featured in the Sex and the City movie.  I don't know if I'm more amazed at how opulent and luxurious places here are or at the fact that it's incredibly easy to get into them for free.  Though we of course didn't have a room, nobody questioned us as we roamed about the palace hotel, sat in the plush lounges, watched performances, took pictures in the porticoes, or gazed in amazement at the gold ATM -- yes, this ATM seriously dispensed pure gold.  I thought back to 24-hours before when we were at the dilapidated border buildings and couldn't believe how two such different worlds can exist so close to one another.

Our Group at Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Dubai is an amazing city, full of some of the world's finest resorts, restaurants, bars, malls, and countless other attractions, but to truly get a sense of the UAE and the Gulf area in general, we had to get out of our comfort zone and leave the tourist areas.  Though many visitors choose to ignore the old city and other less-refined areas of the country, these places offer some of the most incredible experiences and can be even more exciting than another fancy meal or another beautiful beach.  This week, I set out to get my own Middle Eastern adventure stories; it never occurred to me that all it would take is a quick trip outside the city gates.