Friday, January 30, 2015

Abu Dhabi Highlights and Insights

We had a great trip but of course there were highlights (in no particular order):

1) The Corniche
A few short years ago the Abu Dhabi beach front wasn't there.  Well of course it was there but it was apparently a shambled mess.  And then came the beautification that brought it to its present iconic state where it has become THE focal point of the city.  Everyone assembles there to ride bikes and other curious pedal vehicles, swim, drink and be.  That is everyone but the locals.  When we were there the Guggenheim Museum put on a show with searchlights that created a series of light patterns based on people's body rhythms.  A sensor was placed on the heart and its unique patterns, beats and waves were somehow translated into a series of flashing lights that differed from person to person.  You could also eat ice cream.

2) High Tea
It is often said that in England everything stops for tea... at 3 o'clock.  Well I do like a cuppa myself but not only at 3 o'clock.  And I do like what is known in swanky circles as High Tea.  I don't know why its called High Tea, after all its a bunch of sandwiches, scones and a nice piece of cake but if you put it in a smart hotel and wait staff with fancy uniforms, as far as I am concerned you can call it what you want.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  The first I had was at the Mandarin in Hong Kong.  The best was in the Peninsular also in Hong Kong.  The most recent was in the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi with its $3 billion cost, its gold bar ATM in the foyer, its cappucino with gold dust (doesn't taste llike gold at all, sort of a sweetish sugar).... The finger sandwiches were works of art, but very small, the scones also small but delicious as was the strawberry jam and clotted cream -- but if I was to be picky it wasn't Tiptree Little Scarlet. Mind you I still think the best cake was my Mum's chocolate cake with chocolate sugar cream glaze.  Now that WAS something.  I was eight at the time.  This one was pretty good though.

3) Lamb
After a night out at some part in your life, you've probably had a doner kebab.  With lettuce and tomato, possibly onions and definitely hot sauce all crammed into a pita, this is a great way to end an evening.  They should be called shawarma's.  They can be lamb, beef or chicken or a combination of any of them.  But that's not all about Arab food.  There are kofte's (minced lamb), kebabs (chunks of lamb) and lamb cutlets (lamb chops).  We ate local food as often as we could and it was always very, very good indeed.  Add freshly baked pita and combine with salad and probably one or more of the delicious mezzes (dips like humus, tabbouleh, etc) and that is a mouthful that sings.  We had dinner one night in the desert, in a Bedouin tent (as it was cold and windy), and it was lamb everything.  Just fantastic!  One thing does puzzle me is how lamb came to be such a meat staple in the UAE as there's no grass and therefore no grazing potential.  In the supermarkets the lamb all came from India, Australia or New Zealand.  So why lamb?  

4) Sand Dunes
I loved the Lawrence of Arabia film from the 1960's and the huge immensity of the deserts where they traveled and were portrayed.  Seeing as the British quit the UAE in 1968, much was probably filmed there.  Certainly when we stayed in the Anantara resort Qasr Al Sarab in the Liwa Oasis, the staff told us that there were film crews filming there all the time, the most recent being the latest Star Wars movie.  For sure the dunes are both massive and impressive.  No wonder it is called the Empty Quarter -- the biggest sand sea in the world.  Apparently it was the sea bed several million years ago and the sand is very fine indeed.  So fine that it gets everywhere.  On the first time we climbed the big dune outside our window, Viv emptied her shoes 3 times on the way up.  In places the water is only 3-5 metres below the surface so the cognoscenti here actually can find water even in this driest of dry places.  There's a plant that is of the onion family that has green leaves that are squishy and consequently much sought after by the desert animals of which there are many.  Driving through the desert is quite something too.  You have to be highly skilled drivers and let down the tyres to avoid flipping over which would not be good as there's nothing out there at all.  Really.  Nothing.  Oh yes and in the winter it gets really cold.  And the dunes do look all the same.

5) Pork Rooms
It is the Koran that sets out behavioural aspects of life in this part of the world.  A bit like the Talmud really as that book does the same for the Jews.  Included in both are many similarities one being the definition of pork as 'unclean' and therefore inedible.  I think this odd as not all pigs are unclean.  Maybe it's a hygiene thing related to how long meat lasted in the old days pre-fridges.  Perhaps there was greater chance of getting food poisoning from pork than say chicken.  Whatever the case may be, pork isn't to be found here other than by diligent search.  At the supermarket (and not all supermarkets either), you'll find pork in the Pork Room, a specially designated smallish room set away from the rest of the supermarket where all sorts of pork derivative products may be found: pork meat, sausages, hot dog, pork scratchings... and then other stuff like gelatin, some brands of jelly, etc.  Having porked up though, you still get to check out of the same counters as everyone else though.  

6) Planning for the Future
The population of the UAE is something north of 5 million of whom fewer than 1 million are emiratis.  2.5 million live in each of Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the remainder scattered around the other smaller emirates.  Pictures from the 1960's years ago show Abu Dhabi to have been the fort and a bunch of scattered tents and not much else.  Someone I know from Bermuda who lived there in the 1980's remembers quite a lot of newer buildings like the Sheraton on the 1/2 mile long Corniche.  Today the Corniche is miles and miles long and the 5-storey Sheraton about to be demolished and replaced by a gleaming 70-storey replacement.  As property on the main island itself can only be owned by emiratis by law, they have built or maybe just added to existing flat sand bar islands all along the coast upon which new developments are planned.  Miles upon miles upon miles of construction sites.  This is planning on steroids.  The ultimate field of dreams.  And Abu Dhabi is described as being less blingy than Dubai, that's one heck of a bar to beat.  Abu Dhabi is not that far behind though.  I'd say second place.  

The end of the Bridge to Nowhere... they just built it to a deserted island expecting it to be built upon at some point in the future.
7) Very Big Buildings
For such a small population, the buildings in Abu Dhabi are immense.  Not content with 20,30 or 40 storey buildings, double it seems to be the watch word when anything gets built.  Huge mosque, vast purpose built hotel (Emirates Palace), biggest shopping mall in the world (Yas Island), largest indoor theme park (Ferrari World -- yes, that's right.  Better sounding than Kia world isn't it?).  But then again there's lots of space and big ideas and lots and lots of money, so why not?  

8) Respect
Looking back through the history of Islam, one underlying current has been that of respect and tolerance for non-Muslims.  It hasn't been all milk and honey of course, but that was the idea anyway.  Abu Dhabi has it though but that tolerance comes with limits.  No overt displays of affection (i.e. holdng hands, kissing in public) is one.  Generally not pushing it is pretty much all the rest.  My brother-in-law had a book with an impressive number of do's and don'ts in it, most of which it seemed to me came down to using your common sense.  Being roaring drunk on a Saturday night may be de rigeur in South London clubs but here it could be enough to get you thrown out of the country, for example. Well it doesn't make sense in a non-drinking country to flaunt your drunkenness now, does it?  But it does happen.  When in Rome...

9) Humus
It's a bit difficult to identify specific cuisine for a specific country in this part of the world as all the mezzes (starters like humus, tabbouleh, fatoosh, etc.) are the same all the way until Greece.  That goes for many of the main courses too (lamb, kebabs, kofte) and the really sweet and sticky desserts all made with honey and pistachios (baklava and a whole host of others similar to that yummy sweet).  But we'd hoped to eat lots of humus and we sure did.  Everywhere does it slighlty differently thankfully so it was a gentle voyage of discovery through the chick pea and olive oil world.  What really made a difference was the monstrously light pita bread, some coming fresh from the oven like a blown up balloon.  Just fantastic.  We didn't manage to get sick of it in our near 3 weeks in the country either... mind you I'm not in a hurry to seek it out now I'm home yet!

10) Tea & Coffee
So if you can't drink alcohol and eat pork, what do you do?  Well, how about you smoke shishas and drink loads and loads of tea and coffee.  Fortunately I love tea and coffee (but I don't do shishas).  Mind you everybody else seems to do shishas and I have to say sharing a tea or coffee and a shisha and hanging out with a friend seems a pretty nice thing to do.  Everyone seems to do it.  Totally gender non-specific and at any time of day (and probably night too).  So what's your poison?  Well for teas, immediately forget English Breakfast and anything Chinese or Japanese.  How about a Moroccan Mint Tea?  Or a Pakistani herbal tea?  Or something Indian infused with a blend of spices (and not one of those trendy chai teas either)?  Yes please.  But if you fancy coffee, well now you're talking.  Arabs were the first people to actually use coffee as a beverage and they are very, very good at it.  In the nearby mall to where we were staying on the Corniche, there were 13 different coffee bars and other than Starbucks, they were all enormous.  How would you like your coffee?  Arab style -- weak looking but with cardamom to give it an other worldly taste?  Turkish -- so sweet and strong that it feels like you're drinking mud. Sweet mud, that is. Something else...?  Well its all here.  As for the shishas, most places that provide them have a couple of pages of options.  Who needs booze?

Great place.  Thanks for the memories!!

Phenomenal F1

The UAE is just about the size of Scotland, totally flat for the most part and pretty much deserted so looking at it another way, there's plenty of space.

There's also a lot of money too, all from oil which should last another 100 years or so.  With that money and time on your hands comes the urge to race camels and compete with falcons.  But that can only take up so much of your time, so add fast cars. Lots and lots of them.

So there's space, money, very cheap petrol and the love of very fast cars... oh yes and the fact that they need to outdo Sharjah with its cricket and Qatar with the 2022 World Cup, so when Bernie Ecclestone floated the notion of expanding the F1 calendar, Abu Dhabi jumped.

Hence the F1 complex on Yas Island (yet another man augmented island).

It is HUGE but then again it has to be to encompass all the crowds, media and all the other stuff that F1 demands these days.

The recent grand prix, the final one of the 2014 calendar, saw Lewis Hamilton win to take the driver's championship so everyone here is crazy about F1.

Some of the cars we weren't able to drive
We wanted to do a driving course (imagine City Slickers with very big and fast cars, not horses) but the driving school was taken over for the weekend for a private party so we were only able to watch those lucky, lucky people get into those fast cars with drivers that looked like The Stig from Top Gear and whizz around the circuit and not do it ourselves.


Retail Therapy

It had to happen.  The day dawned that we headed to one of the enormous malls with the intent to shop.  We chose the Al Marina Mall largely because it was the nearest and a nice walking distance from the apartment along the Corniche and across the bridge/causeway from the main island ... where only Emirati's may own property.

Al Marina Mall
The big thing was that the flag on the largest flagpole in the world was at half mast.  "Who's died?" we thought and then when we looked more closely we saw that the flag was actually being raised!  "Derr," we thought.  Obviously they raise it in the mornings.

Half Mast
However it turned out that the King of Saudi had died that morning so there was a reason for the flag to be at half mast after all.

The mall itself was enormous.  We'd arranged to head our separate ways for an hour but I hadn't even left the first floor before that time was up.  The blurb said the mall was 235,000 square metres in size -- times by 10 for square feet -- and it includes an ice skating rink and ski slope like the Emirates Mall in Dubai.  Apparently when it opened some leaks were discovered so rather than repair them, the operators simply left the slope as was.  So there it is now, dark and waiting for something.

Waiting, waiting...

And yes, every shop in the world appears to be there.  But its not the biggest mall in Abu Dhabi.  That is the Yas Mall which takes enormous to an all new level.

It was so intimidating that I couldn't bring myself to buy anything!

Well, apart from two or three coffees as there were 15 different coffee shops all packed to the gills with locals enjoying a coffee and sweet thing and perhaps a shisha.

Side by side coffee shops, both jammed
Coffee culture is alive and well in Abu Dhabi and the coffee shops on the whole do it very well indeed.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Falcon Hospital

Today was another first... a falcon hospital.

Having been to the hospital it sort of makes sense but really who would have thought of doing this?

Falcons, camels and Ferrari's are a passion here, only the last being a relatively new thing.  Camels of course have been a staple for years but then again as we found out, so are falcons.

Falcons don't live in Arabia in summer, they are migratory and only come here (by mistake) in winter time when they are aiming for the other side of the Gulf but get blown over to the other side.  That has been going on for thousands of years.  The Bedouin who lived in the desert in those years captured some and used them to hunt rabbits, hares and other creatures of the desert to augment their pretty minimal diet.  

Over time falcons became integrated with the Bedouin but as these days they go to the supermarket (or rather their people do) falconry is now only a sport.  But what a sport.  These birds are expensive and are imported from Germany/Austria in the main but also from other places in Europe and the US.  The royal family and their relatives have their own flock of falcons (is it a 'flock'?) and their own hospital facilities.  This falcon hospital is the largest in the world and deals exclusively for everyone else... not to say that this is cheap.  It is not.  Caring for a falcon is as complex as dealing with humans.

The tour was led by an emirati who was very chatty and cracked lots of jokes.  It encompassed the treatment room where rows of falcons sat/stood/perched patiently waiting their turn.  One doctor (or orderly) demonstrated putting one falcon to sleep and then cutting, trimming, resharpening and filing the bird's nails.  Lying there on the slab, it looked like a dead parrot!

There were loads of them!

"This falcon isn't dead, it's resting..."

The hospital holds reserves of feathers just in case one breaks so they can replace it.  They  put little sticks into the wing itself to reinforce it.  Who on earth figured this all out?  Had to be a German.
The other facility we visited was the moulting room where falcons first shed and then re-grow their feathers (this is an annual event).  The feathers are harvested and used to repair broken wings when something untoward happens to these pampered birds during racing or other interactions with their owners.  

The feather sanctuary
The birds stay in the hospital for half the year anyway due to the heat and the moulting so they are very familiar with the place.  When we were waiting in the waiting room, quite a few clients came in with birds on their arm from all over the UAE.  It is very busy.

The very busy waiting room
The tour also met the head vet, a German lady who set up this place, who spoke only German to the tour group after which the guide showed us all the photos of her with the local royalty and nobility accepting awards and the like since it opened in 1999.  

Mind you the guide said it ranked higher on Trip Advisor than the Grand Mosque so asked us all to add a positive review for the place.  It was probably one of the most unique places I have ever been to and something I am not likely to ever visit again.  I will do that too!

Another first!!

Buses, fish and endangered species

On Tuesday we started late as it kept on raining but managed to find a number 34 bus to the bus station after a while for our intended journey to Al Mina where the dhow harbour and various markets were located.

When it rains, it pours
Public transport here is pretty good and essential for Abu Dhabi is well spread out and that doesn't make it an easy city to walk about in.  The bus stop nearby had a decent understandable map that showed the correct way to get to Al Mina.  Number 34 to the bus station and then one of eitther the 9, 56 or 11 to Al Mina.  Trouble was when we made it to the bus station, we discovered it was huge.

Also no local buses stopped there, only the long distance buses that went to Dubai, Al Ain and elsewhere.

A very kind guy asked if we were in trouble and helped us locate a bus stop ... that turned out to be entirely wrong, but another guy did get it right so we hopped the number 11 to Al Mina.

2 dihrams each for bus fare is the equivalent of a bargain.  About 50 cents.  Everything is subsidised here.

The harbour and various markets are really tatty but functional.  The dhows looked as though they had seen better days and it seems a bit of a wonder to think that these boats used to go out in summertime on pearling expeditions when the men would be out on the sea for 120 days at a stretch.  Maybe they were more sturdy than they look.

Not every mosque is as impressive as the Grand Mosque
The fish market was jammed with fish.  Not sure how much of it is endangered though as many sources say that most of the fish varietals around here have been over-fished and when I saw the dozens of huge fish pots outside, I'm not surprised.  These fish pots have been banned in Bermuda for this very reason.

This guy was de-gutting shrimp

Dozens if not hundreds of fish pots
The market is divided between people dressed in blue and those dressed in red.  No women at all unsurprisingly.  Those in blue sold fish whilst those in red were the fish cleaners, de-gutters and de-scalers.

The restaurants in and near the market were pretty scuzzy looking and clearly operated for the local workers and other call in orders.  The map I'd found showed a restaurant that turned out to be closed when we passed there around 12 noon (it was open and thronged by the time we passed going the other way 2+ hours later... I guess lunch time here is later than in the west) but a few doors along we found the Al Mina Fish Restaurant which happily was open.

The restaurant was divided into 2 parts, one part being regular tables and chairs but the other was divided up along traditional lines with patrons sitting on cushions and mats and taking their shoes off to eat.  That side was jammed whilst ours was half empty.

It was an absolute gem.

As it turned out we had the local Haroumi fish (endangered, sorry) deep fried along with tandoori grilled locally caught shrimps.  Just fantastic!

Before we hopped on the bus back to the bus station (and Al Whama Mall) we gave the fruit & veg market and the date market a once over.  All the F&V were imported which was quite disappointing but the date market was enormous and jammed with loads of different types of date... that we'd eaten in the desert a few days earlier.  Still sweet and yummy though.

But I think we nailed the buses though!

Call that a hotel? This is a hotel!

It only rains in Abu Dhabi on 2 or 3 days a year, tops, but on Monday it rained.  It actually rained on Tuesday as well, so that's it for the year then!  But we didn't go to the Emirates Palace Hotel on Tuesday, we went on Monday.

We would have done more but made it to Joe the Grocer's nearby for breakfast at which point it simply chucked it down with rain even more, so we couldn't leave and drank even more coffee.  Nice breakfast too but the coffees were the highlight.  Single bean, premium type coffee.  Viv's was from India, mine was from Rwanda.  Both firsts.  I bought some Indian to go with the Arabian coffee pot I'd bought the previous day as it was nice and mellow.

Artistic cappucino

We then walked to the Heritage Village at the end of the man made point facing the apartment, next to the world's largest free standing flagpole.

It was very small with a few wood faced stalls selling tourist stuff and a few archaeological artifacts together with some examples of typical Bedouin villages.  I expected more though.  Everything else seems to be big and well done, this was anything but.

The old with the new in the background.  I'd expected a bit more but perhaps that's all there is it to it.
This couldn't be said of the hotel though.  Wow!

Huge domed lobby area where a security guard told me that the dress code did not permit shorts of the length I was wearing -- namely Bermuda shorts.  But fortunately, he said, the concierge keeps loaners for dumbkopfs like me (he didn't say this but thought it).  So I traipsed back to the concierge who gave me a pitying smile and trundled off and brought back a perfectly ironed set of white trousers which I put on over the top of my shorts.

The dumpkopf's loaners, beautifully ironed.

So ready to go, we reproceeded through the lobby area and found THE only ATM in the world that dispenses gold bars.  It turns out that they weren't gold bars but tags that you put on a bracelet or use on a key chain.  I'd expected chunky bars but realistically gold is a heavy metal so it makes sense.

I spotted one of these at the airport too so its not the only one
Time for tea though.

I'd had my mind set on this since I'd read about it and it was the real thing.  Small perfectly crafted sandwiches with crusts cut off, small scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream (also lemon curd and rose petal jam for some reason, maybe its a local thing) and some fancy pastries, many chocolate.

Coffee with gold dust.  Whatever next?  Actually it tasted like sugar.

We both agreed we'd have preferred more sandwiches and no fancy cakes but still with a couple of glasses of champagne each it was a more than pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Some hotel!!

The Grand Mosque

It is difficult to describe the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and do it real justice.  If it is only the 3rd largest mosque in the world, I'd like to see the others.  With space for 50,000 worshippers, this is huge.  And impressive.  And obviously very well planned out -- this aspect took 5+ years to complete, building commenced in 2006 according to our tour guide and even though it opened a couple of years ago, there are still bits unfinished.

The front entrance

The facts and figures about it are staggering.  But if you spend $3 billion on it, I guess you need to have something to show for it at the end of the day.

It is also very well organised.  Raised up by 10 or so feet, the mosque is designed to be seen from all directions and placed as it is near one of the many island bridges, it is well positioned to receive worshippers from all over.  It also means you can have massive underground car parking.

Sartorial do's and don'ts

As Viv and I were in tourist garb, we both were asked to don appropriate and more respectful wear.  In Viv's case, this meant the all black Abaya and in my case the all white head to toe Kedura or Dish Dash.  The day was warm for sure but not much more than mid-70's but Viv said it was quite warm in the Abaya.  I cannot imagine what it would be like in mid-summer when temperatures hit the 50's Celsius and you have to stay outside in the courtyard because the air conditioned inside is full.  But summer time is when some of the muslim feast days are so that must be an issue.

Imagine it jam packed and 50 celsius!  Oh yes, I forgot.  Its marble.

The ruler had set out to build the mosque not only as a place of muslim worship but also as a demonstration of friendship and learning to all religions as he wanted to encourage people from all over and with all beliefs to visit and learn more about Islam with a view to dispelling the misconceptions people have about the religion when all they see or hear on global media are terrorist outrages supposedly carried out with a religious purpose.

For my part, I have read a little but clearly not enough.  A bit like when Viv and I came out of the Buddhist Temple at the City of 10,000 Buddhas in California. I had my pre-conceived notions and both times they were built on insufficient knowledge.  I do plan to read more about this and hopefully learn more.

The inside of the mosque despite the massive chandeliers, immense Persian carpet and other wonders, is quite sparse when compared with the gilt everything in Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals.  No statues or fancy seating.  The Imam sits on a pretty basic chair and thanks to a state of the art sound system projects his voice all over the mosque, inside and out.

A place to wash your feet etc pre-service

A throw-away chandelier in the ante-room

Amazing designs and work on the walls

The biggest Persian carpet in the world ... and the biggest chandelier too.

A bit closer view...

The service itself sounds pretty similar in format to the Catholic church in that there is a church year that it follows so that the topics covered follow a specific sequence.  At any given point in the year therefore you know what to expect.  However as the muslim year is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, the big feast days change all the time year to year.

So much to read about, learn and hopefully digest.

Come on Citeh...

When you consider sports, these days it all about TV and money... and not necessarily in that order.  The best description of the English Premier League (football) creation out of the old First Division that I have read was in Roy Keane's autobiography.  He was very matter of fact about it all saying that one season he left on summer holiday and returned on July 1st for pre-season training playing with and against the same players all earning 10 times as much as before.  How did this happen?  TV and money... in that order.

Then came the billionaires which changed things again.  Now its all about money and TV... in that order.

With just TV money it was the traditional big clubs that would do best.  This would be Man U, Liverpool, Arsenal and that would be about it.  They had the big fan base and they could then demand a greater share of the TV revenues than say Manchester City or Chelsea, at that time very up and down lower middle order clubs.  The TV money assured the continuance of the status quo which meant only those 3 clubs had any realistic chance of winning the league.

First was Abramovic at Chelsea, then came the take overs at both Man U and Liverpool by US major league club owners bringing the US' "know-how" to the beautiful game.  But Abramovic had billions not millions, even hundreds of millions, and he wanted to win the league and everything else.  So he bought it.  Even the big 3 could no longer compete.  Nor could Europe for that matter.

And then came Abu Dhabi and Manchester City (who?) were forever changed.

The early times were laughable.  City's attempts at trying to sign Kaka from Italy and Robinho from Brazil were met with dumbfounded astonishment.  Both thought the approaches were from Man U, so Kaka dropped out when he found out but Robinho signed and to his amazement discovered he'd signed for Manchester Who when he first put on the light blue jersey!  He didn't last though and is now plying his trade in Italy so he doesn't have to visit, say, Burnley on a cold, wet day in January when the rain is lashing down and the  mud is over your ankles.

That's in the past now and with success validating the ambitious move and a lot more money has come the desire to also build a global City franchise as well as build a spanking new city in the desert.  So included in the list are New York City and Melbourne City football teams.

But Citeh are BIG in Abu Dhabi of course to the point where at a sports store in one of the massive malls here, I spotted a training shirt for Chelsea costing the equivalent of $95, one for Arsenal costing $110 and one for Citeh retailing at a bargain basement $25!  Who's shirt will YOU buy?

The Citeh strore at the mall

Sponsorship runs deep here down to and including junior football camps where Viv's brother Anton's sons all play football on Saturday mornings and on two evenings a week.

Happily the chaos on the pitch is the same as in my coaching days at Saltus and BAA where the ball and all the players swirl around the pitch in a mass of kicking legs.  Every minute or so one team or the other bursts through on goal with 3 or 4 attackers facing the poor old sad and alone goalie.  Same at both ends, nobody wants to defend or pass.  Everyone wants the glory of scoring goals!

It made me wonder what benefit the City branded coaches brought to the proceedings.  Thankfully it wasn't diving or shirt pulling which was happily absent.  All it was about was the young uns having a great time running about like madmen for an hour or so.

The two little uns

And that's just how it should be.