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!!

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