Thursday, October 25, 2007

Back to School

The other morning, as I stepped onto the treadmill, the phone rang. It was my children's school.

Could I substitute for an absent teacher? Yes, I could.

"I don't know anything about history," I said to M as I raced around our villa getting ready.

"You know more than you think you do," he replied.

"What do I wear with teenagers?" I asked. Jeans? A conservative skirt?

Thankfully M had already gone to refill his tea. He would have said, "what you usually wear."

Of course I was nervous, I hadn't worked in nearly 18 years.

But the day went well. The students and staff were polite and friendly. My own children didn't mind that I was in their "world" for the day. My 14-year-old was unfazed by my presence in his class, my 16-year-old held the door for me, and my 18-year-old helped me with a computer question.

By the end of the day I was reminded of how much one learns in school that has nothing to do with school.

"How do you pronouce your name?" an American student asked a Lebanese student as they walked into US History and settled in to their chairs.

"Abdullah, not Ab-DOO-lah," the second fellow said, pronouncing the second syllable like "dull," as in unsharpened.

"In the States people call me Uh-LEE-a, but my name's Alia," a female student said, putting emphasis on the beginning "ah" sound.

These students seemed disappointed but resigned to the fact that their names are often mispronounced. Two other boys, Zaid (rhymes with maid) and Zayed (pronounced zye-edd), are frequently both called Zaid though their names are actually very different.

I don't speak Arabic, except for a few phrases. But I was glad, in this international school setting, that children have the chance to understand each other better - even if it starts with something as small as pronouncing someone's name correctly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Khalifa Park, Abu Dhabi

Over the recent Eid Al Fitr, the holiday following Ramadan, we went to the opening of Khalifa Park in Abu Dhabi. Though there's a lot of pavement running through the middle of the park, there are beautiful side lawns and lots of monkey-bars for younger children to play on. I plan to go back, when the weather is cooler, with a thermos of tea and a notebook for writing.

Despite the fact that we were the first on the platform for next the train ride around the park, we barely got on. Most Abu Dhabians do not queu for things - they just go right to the front of the line! Once on board, we waited 40 minutes before the train moved: people who'd been on the train were refusing to get off so others could ride. The police had to come to make them deboard.
As we pulled up to the platform at the end of the tour, people began lifting their children over the chain into our compartment before I'd even stood up. I could barely get off the train. A woman in an abaya and veil grabbed my hand with her hennaed one.

"Sorry," she said. Through the cut-out part of her veil, I could see her eyes. She was smiling sincerely, holding my hand as if she knew me. Suddenly we were just two mothers, and it was obvious that she hadn't meant any offense - she merely wanted to make sure that she and her little ones got a seat.

"It's okay," I said. I smiled back just as sincerely.

My rambunctious 8-year-old found this slide was more his speed than the train. Even climbing the stairs was exciting. Lots of children were cutting the line - a woman in an abaya was even helping a group of children to do so. But then the park staff intervened: as the "cutters" climbed over the side wall of the stairs, the staffers hit their hands as fast as they could and the children backed off. Noone batted an eye at the cutting or the swatting.

Whenever I see a garden or a fountain in Abu Dhabi I am grateful to whomever is responsible for adding beauty to this city. This photo, taken by M of course, was on our way out of Khalifa Park.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Fossil Valley, Oman

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended Thursday night (Oct. 11th). Our good friends and neighbors invited us to join them in the desert. A popular place to camp, Fossil Valley is a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi in Oman.

Above is just over the UAE border in Oman. It's the lead car, driven by our new Dutch friends who were patient and unflappable when various problems arose (see post below!).

We had to remind our children not to drink water or show they were chewing gum once we crossed into Oman - the Omanis were in their last day of Ramadan.

Fossil Valley is a vast, open and flat area that was at one time under water; it now contains fossils of marine life. Stark and dry, dotted with an occasional acacia tree, it reminded me of pictures I've seen of the African plains.

Despite the heat, the children immediately began climbing the surrounding rocky hills and scratching the sand in search of fossils. Our new friends, who'd camped here numerous times, picked out two trees where we set up camp. It was a good 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler in the shade.

My 16-year-old and I enjoy the shade and company of new friends. My youngest two boys were flying kites near us with a Japanese schoolmate of my second-grader's.
In the distance (picture above) is the mountain we were to hike. The intention was to reach the "Hanging Gardens," which grow downward in the crevices of the steep rocky mountains here.
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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Hanging Gardens, Flat Tire in Oman

Here we are following our friend's car further into the desert near the Fossil Valley in Oman.
I was game for hiking the mountain in the distance (above) to see the "Hanging Gardens," which are famous for growing downward.
M did a superb job driving over the sand in our Toyota minivan. It was the only non-AWD vehicle in the group. (Someone called our car a "saloon car.")
An Omani man - you can see him if you enlarge the picture above - waved hello as he ran after his camels, herding them like a shepherd. A true desert experience. I practically swooned.
But the firm sand turned soft. Then it turned rocky. Then very rocky.
"I can't take this any more - we have to stop," I announced.
My imagination had us either bottoming-out on the sharp, grape-fruit-sized rocks or getting a tire puncture and being stranded in the desert.
"We can't - there are cars following us," M replied coolly.
I was tense. I am a worrier. World class. (My nickname in high school was "Atlas" for a reason.)
As M continued over the ever-larger rocks, I began to think of winters in New Hampshire, when we'd drive over icy mountain roads on our way to cut down a Christmas tree. (I'd clutch the arm rests, envisioning our car sliding off the road into a snowy embankment and our frozen bodies found weeks later.)
Then a surprising thing happened: our neighbor's car, the best car in the group, got a razor-like gash in the side of the rear tire! It was replaced with an excellent spare, which was flat (!). But the spare was quickly pumped up by our amazing friend and guide.
When the repair was finished, we decided to skip the hike and call it a day. By then we'd been out in the sun for hours. We felt lucky our humble minivan hadn't had any trouble thus far. Some of the others did the hike and said it was difficult, because of the steepness, but that it was great fun.
Walking back to our car, we caught sight of these camels making their way over the hills, one after another.Posted by Picasa

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Falling in Love Again

Early this morning I opened the door and fell in love with Abu Dhabi all over again.

The feeling came just in time, as I was beginning to miss home a lot lately. I haven't told anyone about this small bit of melancholy I've been suppressing. In fact I was surprised by how much I've missed home recently, because I love living here.

The homesickness started about three weeks ago. It was the morning after M and I had a big party. After the great fun and late night, we woke up and made a big breakfast. The smell of coffee brewing, of bacon and sausage on the stove, combined with the luxury of all of us sitting around lazily in pajamas and the house still sparkling with new glasses and a platter or two purchased for the event...well it all reminded me so much of Christmas morning that a great feeling of homesickness came over me. Like a tidal wave.

I think the prolonged hot weather played a part too, for I knew it would be crisp and cool in New Hampshire then. Meanwhile in Abu Dhabi the air was still heavy and the temps were still hitting 104 or more.
Since that morning I've been using some of the spices we use during autumn - cinnamon in particular - to give me that feeling of autumn in New Hampshire.

This morning, a Saturday, I was up at 6:30 a.m. I had to drive our eldest to his college-entrance SAT exam. I opened the front door for the newspaper and sweet-smelling, mild air hit me immediately. It must have been about 70 degrees. The air was light and clear with the gentlest breeze. I love Abu Dhabi again.

Separate from that: yesterday I heard an expression I've never heard before. A South African neighbor said raising her three children - now 7, 5 and 3 years old - is "a dead lolly." She meant it was really manageable.

Something I cannot get used to here is that people always ask how much you pay in rent. Back home we'd never ask how much someone pays in rent or how much their house costs. But here, in Abu Dhabi, where the price of rent is all the talk as prices rise nearly as often as we breathe, it is entirely acceptable to make that inquiry.