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The ongoing adventures of PJ, Tara, Anabelle, Porter, and Genevieve.
We will share our stories as this exciting new chapter in our lives unfolds.
Check the pages on the side for more.
June 26, 2013
Last week was Tara's birthday. As the day approached, my mind was awhirl with ideas for making the day special. In the past, birthdays have been a quiet affair where favorite breakfasts were cooked, a cake was baked, a gift or two was given, and a baby-sitter was hired so we could go to a restaurant. But, since we've been here, we've been invited to a number of birthday parties for neighbors both young and old, and I began to wonder whether Tara might not like a celebration more like those we had attended with guests, games, snacks, noise, and whatnot.
I had all but made up my mind to arrange such an event, but my insecurities inserted themselves, and I broke down and asked Tara what she wanted. She actually seemed to consider the matter for far longer than I thought she would. Eventually, she meekly declined the offer for fanfare in lieu of a day-long date with yours truly.
Fortuitously, Tara came across an article in the newspaper a day or two later about an old-style souq in Sharjah. (A souq is like a swap-meet, but Arab style.)
Finding an authentic souq with antiques and unique Arab artifacts, has been something of a quest for us since arriving in this hemisphere. Unfortunately, every so-called souq we've found so far has suffered from the same degradation that swap-meets have experienced back home. Namely, an overabundance of cheap, mass-produced, name-brand knockoffs. Regardless, our hopes were high.
So, we did the classic choose your breakfast (stuffed french toast with strawberries), bake a cake (glazed brown sugar cake), birthday dinner (PJ's signature omelets) thing on Tara's actual birthday (Friday, June 21st), but rather than receiving gifts, Tara had to be satisfied with visualizing all the treasures she would actually be allowed to buy at the souq the next day.
I had sent out requests to three different potential baby-sitters the week prior, thinking it would be nice if we could divide the duty between at least two of them. I was rather surprised when Cheyenne, a lively seventeen year-old from Tara's seminary class, enthusiastically volunteered to watch them for the whole day. I was reluctant to accept her too-kind offer because two weeks ago she had watched our velocibrats for a full Saturday while we participated in a humanitarian project in Dubai and refused to accept payment. She had done an amazing job and the kids loved her, but I couldn't quite make myself believe that she truly wanted to spend her Saturday watching My Little Pony and playing Super Smash Bros with my darling curtain-climbers. However, she insisted. So, I relented.
Tara and I left at about 9 am, stocked up on snacks, and plugged in the audio book we had started listening to on a road trip to Abu Dhabi back in March, giggling all the way.
For those of you who have yet to have the pleasure of driving the streets of Dubai, it's no easy thing. (I say "yet" because according to the Emiratis, all the world will soon be flocking to their sparkling shores. So, you might want to free up some space in your calendar to get it over with before it becomes ultra-crowded. I recommend December. Right, Karen and Lavar?)
I'm sure many of you have had ample experience navigating notoriously nasty neighborhoods in countries around the world, but have you ever tried to find a store in a city that has no street addresses? Or in a bustling metropolis that names every street after the same four sheikhs? Or in a city that does not allow left turns? Add to that hordes of me-firsters driving large SUVs with NASA grade window tinting, nearly-opaque designer sunglasses, and, in the case of the she-Emiratis, black veils, and you begin to understand the Herculean task that I faced.
Fortunately for Tara, I've got more than twenty years of serious gaming experience that have taught me two important navigational skills: reading digital maps and focusing on a screen while performing any number of other important tasks, like listening to teachers, doing dishes, mowing the lawn, or dodging crazed half-blinded she-Emiratis in a crowded round-about.
Though the route we took wasn't necessarily the most direct or the one I had planned, we never got lost (though one might think from the number of times I said, "Whoa, I just missed our turn," I might have been lost, I really never was. If you don't understand the distinction, go ask a man to explain it; he knows what I mean.)
Our path took us past some gorgeous Arab buildings, a canal filled with lovely wooden dhows, numerous picturesque mosques, and ended at a collection of drab adobe-looking hovels in a dirt lot. Though I couldn't say exactly what it was I had been expecting an "old-style" souq to look like, I knew this was not it.
Clinging to hope, we forced our way through the quagmire of stifling 11 am super-heated air to an unassuming door in the side of one of the adobe shanties. Upon entering, my fears were immediately allayed.
Immediately to our left, was a cramped and cluttered toll-booth sized store manned by a venerable Arab. Its window display was filled with bits of tarnished jewelry, faded coins and banknotes, figurines, black and white photographs, a bladeless sword hilt, and other treasures innumerable.
Stepping into the tight quarters, we were greeted by knick-knack and brickabrack from the world over. A lute, a four foot long model of an Arab sailing vessel, old-school cameras, swords galore, and medals of valor swam before our eyes. There was too much to take in; every heartbeat brought another jolt of surprised and delighted recognition of some fantastic antiquity as we turned in slow circles in the middle of this musty stall.
In passable English, the proprietor politely offered tidbits of fascinating information about each object of interest. Dim-wittedly, I made the mistake of asking if I could take pictures of some of the treasures, thus labeling us as tourists-to-be-fleeced. When Tara at last asked the price of a pair of decorative glass spheres, we were shocked to hear they were 150 dirham ($40) each! A tarnished old sword was said to cost 1,500 dirham! With a quavering laugh, I said, "Whoa, that's too much."
To which the smiling shopkeeper replied holding up another sword, "No, no. This one is 3,000."
I'm not sure if that particular sales strategy works much for the old man, but it definitely didn't make me reach for my wallet. (Though, I suspect it nearly gave Tara the impetus to purchase the modestly-priced-by-comparison glass spheres.)
As I ushered my wistful wife out of the stall with polite promises to possibly return after we'd explored more of the market, my heart was wilting. I feared a similar reception awaited us in each of the shops.
We poked our heads into several stalls, oohed and aahed at lovely pieces of jewelry (the most common item to be had, for sure), hefted ceramic vases, learned the names of all the genuine semi-precious stones from overly-excited men, and repeatedly made awkward retreats from over priced artifacts which Tara sort of liked.
Though I had mentally committed myself to allow and even encourage Tara to spend some money, (being her birthday and all), I was having a hard time of it. Old habits and all that. Besides, I wanted to make sure she didn't end up with a bunch of stuff that she liked rather than the perfect pieces that she loved. (The salesmen helpfully pointed out that there was no reason she couldn't have both.)
After half a dozen or so shops, we entered Mohammed's stall. He was in his mid-twenties, from Yemen, and extremely pleasant. He had a marvelous selection of jewelry boxes from all over. While Tara was weighing her options, I was engaged in conversation with the friendly proprietor. In response to one of his questions, it came out that we lived in Al Ain.
The change to his demeanor was immediate. Even though he had been friendly before, it had been an Applebee's waiter sort of friendly. Now that he knew we might come back and bring our friends in the very near future, it became a small-town-barber-ya'll-come-back-now-ya-hear kind of friendly. Also, the prices came down significantly.
Armed with this new found knowledge, I dragged Tara away from a shiny brass jewelry box from Syria to get a feel for the locals-only-price range before we actually spent any cash.
A tidal wave of vibrant colors drew us into a shop across the hall. Hundreds of shawls in every hue and pattern imaginable cascaded down the walls. Heaps of the things spilled off tables like rainbow filled fountains.
I oh-so-casually let it be known that we were long term residents who had long been searching for an authentic souq in the UAE. The torrent of obsequious courtesy that followed nearly swept my feet from under me.
As soon as Tara expressed the slightest interest in a shawl, the two Pakistani men immediately deluged her with a myriad of shawls of a similar color, or pattern, or material in an effort to pinpoint the exact combination of features that would appeal to her. To me, it seemed they must have unwrapped and unfolded half the shawls in the store in a matter of a few minutes, layering them over one another in a rapidly growing pile before my wife. (Their efforts and attention had the additional effect of creating within me a sense of guilt and of obligation to reward them; completely coincidental, I'm sure.)
After much deliberation and lip biting, Tara finally narrowed her selection down to two. When asked the price, our new best friend replied 140 dirham ($37.66), nearly the exact amount Tara had been given by her mother with which to buy herself a birthday present. Having priced shawls at other markets and our local Carrefour, we knew this was a fairish price.
When we moved to the counter to pay, he pulled back some hanging shawls to reveal his secret stash of pashmena shawls made from the neck hair of rare mountain dwelling goats in Pakistan. I didn't get the feeling that he was trying to sell us any, so much as he was demonstrating his uniqueness and impressing himself upon our minds in hopes that we would return with friends with whom he could share his wisdom and courtesy. I have to say, it worked. I have his business card if anyone's interested in nicely priced shawls, textiles, antiques, and fine Arab souvenirs.
After ten minutes or so, he wound down enough to accept our payment, though he only took 120.
In the next hour or so, we wandered through stores where we were tempted and tantalized by more antique jewelry, fine figurines, bronze shields (full sized things that really tempted me), and mix-your-own-perfumes.
Our grumbling stomachs finally drove us back into the oppressive heat. The wall surrounding the cultural heritage compound in which the souq resides was made of sandstone with coral imbedded in it. We wandered the streets for all of fifteen minutes before deciding that this wasn't exactly the neighborhood for fine dining choices.
Instead, we went back into the cultural heritage compound and into a UAE culture museum.
The deliciously cold A/C made up for the fact that the museum turned out to be exactly like all cultural museums I've ever visited. The displays were well made and informative, but rather basic, too. The most shocking part was the collection of authentic color photographs of people living in mud huts, cleaning fish on the seashore, cooking on open flames, and practicing bush-medicine. It reminded me that just over forty years ago, there really was nothing here; the very few inhabitants were desert dwelling bedouin.
Once done in the museum, we decided to take one last look through the souq and then go find a restaurant, rather than braving the terrifying traffic to come back.
We entered through a different door and into "How Not To Sell To Americans." It was a lovely shop, but the salesmen were pushy and in-your-face types. They kept putting things in our hands and telling us how marvelous and wonderful they were. One of them had Tara try on three or four different necklaces and bracelets, even though she clearly didn't like them. Finally, I gently pushed Tara out the door to the accompaniment of, "Give me a price! Any price!"
Just across the courtyard from the Little Shop of Boars, was a cluttered collection of crazy trinkets. We literally had to squeeze and duck our way in between the jewelry encrusted walls and overladen shelves. (It forcefully reminded me of my grandpa's warehouse; Smalleys know what I'm talking about.)
Upon meeting the proprietor, I immediately made it known that we were locals on a holy quest to find the perfect souq to which we could bring our souvenir seeking friends. I don't know if my shameless pitch made the difference or not, but Nazeem was a very friendly, courteous man who beguiled us with tales of his collection's origins while Tara mazed her way through box after box of antique silver rings at her own appreciative pace.
She ended up buying a lovely silver ring and receiving a couple bracelets and fridge magnets as gifts from our new friend. He was even kind enough to take us on a walk along the street to show us where we would find some places to eat.
Of course, neither of us had the guts to tell him we actually wanted to go back to a different part of the souq before eating, so we hid in the shade of a beautiful blue mosque until Nazeem was out of sight, made our way back into the souq by another entrance, and returned to Mohammed to buy the gorgeous brass jewelry box Tara had seen earlier. (When we entered, I think we woke Mohammed up from his afternoon nap on the floor behind the counter, a clear indication that souq shopping is probably best done in the evenings, like so many other things in the desert.)
Weighed down with our loot, like two camels coming to market under the tyrannical gaze of the desert sun, we bravely trudged our way across the expansive twenty yards to our car. Using my gaming-enhanced sense of direction and the Google map app on my iPad, we made our way smoothly to one of Dubai's innumerable malls, enjoyed some delectable digs, and then made our triumphal way back home.
June 6, 2013
My classroom is empty. Completely empty. No homemade compound sentence posters, no word wall, no giant stack of newspapers and English/Arabic magazines. My desktop computer magically disappeared last week (with many of my files still on it). The totes full of students' work files are gone; the files stashed away in a steel cupboard in case some dispute about marks should arise. I've boxed up my personal stash of books, gadgets, speakers, and snacks. Even my "Teacher Toolbelt" (patent pending by Flanders International) is lovingly packed away. The only evidence of my brief residence in the now echoey chamber is a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If" which I couldn't bring myself to take down from the wall. But, of all that is now missing, most notably absent are the students.
Now, before you click away from what you are sure will be a sappy-end-of-year-I-can't-believe-it's-already-over-I'm-going-to-miss-them-so-much lament, let me explain; school's not over yet! In fact, school's not officially finished until July, 4th (Independence Day takes on a whole new meaning, eh?)
I am not being critical of the students or the system (or perhaps it's the culture behind the system that determines this aspect of life, but either way I'm not criticizing!) I just thought it would be amusing to describe the differences between what I've come to expect at the end of the school year and my current reality.
Officially, the end of year exams are scheduled to begin June 9. Here, as I believe I wrote about back in December, that means during the two weeks of exams students will be expected to come to school by 8:30 and sit for one 90 minute exam each day. After the exam is over, they are free to go home. In fact, it's expected that they leave.
Though unlike what I am accustomed to, I can understand the reasoning behind this method of examinations. It's not unlike how many colleges and Universities conduct their final examinations.
A little harder to understand is the practice of non-attendance the week leading up to exams. Ostensibly, this is meant to give students time to study for the exams. As though the best place to prepare for examinations were not in the classroom with a trained, licensed professional who knows the material, the individual students, their learning styles, the exam format, and has a vested interest in their success? (Not criticizing. I'm questioning. Didn't you see the question mark?)
But, again, I will admit that as a student I would have greatly appreciated the chance to focus completely on preparing myself for a series of high-stakes exams without the distractions of end-of-year projects, assemblies, and summer-crazed classmates. I will also admit that I would have totally squandered that chance and forgotten what little test-prep material my teacher had managed to cram into my all-but-impermeable cranium. But that's just me. I'm sure.
I digress. My intention was to give you an idea of what it's like to be a teacher in a school with no students. My apologies.
My studentless existence really began last week. Officially, students were required to come to school every day last week, and many of them did, and many of that number actually stayed for most of the day, on Sunday and Monday. But, by Tuesday, the already exaggerated word "many" will bear stretching no further. Some students came, in the mornings, if they had exams in other classes or they needed to turn in a major assignment.
However, very few came willing to learn even the week before that. I had some great review games ready to go. I was armed with some awesome activities to practice English. I literally had three takers and a whole lot of awkward silence.
I think, for non-teachers this might be a difficult concept to explain fully. I see it in the eyes of the uninitiated any time I try to explain the horror that is a failed lesson. "Why don't you make them play the game?" Their eyes ask haughtily.
To what shall I compare it that you might understand? Have you ever been to a party where everyone's having a good time just hanging out, talking, telling stories, laughing, and snacking when the host bounces up and enthusiastically proclaims it's time to play a ridiculous party game that nobody but the host is any good at according to the plan she made before anyone ever showed up? You humor them, of course. You all play the game, and maybe you even have a little bit of fun against your will. But then, she pronounces that you will play another game, quite similar to the first one. You look over at your friend and he gives you the "let's-make-a-break-for-it" look. You look around and notice others are rolling their eyes and checking their watches. But, the hostess is a friend of yours so you heroically muster your waning enthusiasm and rally the forces for another round. This time, however, the rules are a little confusing, people make mistakes, there are a few arguments, people pass on their turns and suddenly it's just you, the host, and her twelve year-old niece that snuck into the party when nobody was looking playing while everyone else watches. You intentionally lose to end the game, the niece storms off in a pout, and it's mercifully over. BUT THEN, the hostess exuberantly declares that EVERY ONE will play another game! She insists! She will not take no for an answer, and nobody is allowed to pass on their turns because that takes all the fun out of it.
Several people groan.
Your friend the hostess turns to you with a pleading look in her eyes. She's begging you to be excited about this, while everyone else in the room is silently threatening to beat you to death with carrot sticks and little smokies if you dare.
Feeling uncomfortable yet? Squirming a little? You should be.
I am the party woman (there's a sentence you won't hear me say every day). It's my job to keep a room full of disinterested teenagers engaged according to a rather strict, predetermined, and often ill-suited scheme. If that's all it were, I wouldn't be complaining (as much); it's my job, what I'm payed to do, and I'm quite good at it. (Remind me to tell you about the pigeon outside the window. Hilarious.) But, think about how you felt when you were the designated enthusiastic friend at the party. How can I ask any of my students to go against the tide of their peers? What unfeeling, heartless monster would continue to prey on a sweet, good-natured student by forcing them to play along when everyone else has chosen to snub me? Do you have any idea what you're doing to that poor kid? Besides, are they really learning anything anymore?
"Ok, so don't play games." Those haughty eyes invariably reply. "Give them a mandatory assignment. Tell them it's worth 1,000 points and they'll fail if they don't do it. How hard is that?"
Well, besides being dishonest (what are you teaching these children?), your solution is still destined for failure. Quite honestly, it stinks. Here's why.
#1 Let's say I tell them this activity is worth 10 points. They eagerly complete the assignment and bring it to me to receive their points. Now, in their minds, they are 10 points ahead of the students who didn't bother coming to class today. So, what are you going to do tomorrow? Give them another ten points? How about the next day? Remember, over here I have these students for 90 minutes every day! How many ten point worksheets will you need to keep them engaged for 7.5 hours a week? And then what happens when they get their final marks and find out their grade is only a couple percentage points higher than all the goobers who skipped class that week? (It's kind of the same problem as the government printing more money whenever they're a little short. Suddenly, points just aren't worth anything any more.)
#2 I've learned the hard way that students often cheat on assignments. Here's what happens: You explain the assignment. You pass out the papers. You do the first one with them on the board. You ask, "Are there any questions?" A student asks a question about number 2. You carefully guide him through it without just giving him the answer. He asks you to come over and check his work.
Three minutes later you turn around and a herd of students are all clamoring for your attention, "Done, teacher!" "Finished, teacher!" "Khalas!" (Arabic for finished because he doesn't know the word in English, but somehow he's managed to complete the entire assignment in record time.) Then you notice they all have the exact same answers down to the same spelling and grammar errors.
Congratulations, your thirty minute lesson has taken seven and nobody's actually learned anything, so you can't move on to the next step.
#3 This is what I call, "The Gula Effect." (Gula is Arabic for, "tell him") Remember, these students are still learning English. Most of my students struggle to understand even simple instructions. I have some who are quite proficient and even willing to translate for them. I affectionately call these young men, "Gula."
I say to them, "Gula, tell them they need to describe the picture using a compound sentence, just like we practiced."
Gula translates for them and they then say, "Gula... something in Arabic" which turns out to be, "It's okay if we work in groups?"
I reply, "No."
They say, "Leish?" (I don't need Gula for this one; it's the universal response we all know to expect from a teenager who didn't get the answer they wanted: "Why?")
Now, I have to decide if I really want to try and explain through Gula why it's important that they work by themselves or stop the two kids in the back who have decided to demonstrate John Cena's (pronounced Joansina) signature wrestling moves in the back of the room.
What usually ends up happening is that Gula stops translating and instead says to them in Arabic, "Don't worry, I'll give you the answers when he's not looking." (I don't speak Arabic, but I do speak teenager, so I know.)
Now, I'm forced to decide whether to confront Gula, who is helping me out of the goodness of his heart, and thereby alienate my only means of reliably communicating with the whole class, or to pretend I don't know what's going on and continue circulating through the room.
Earlier in the year I wore out one of my Gulas. He was the only one I had in that class, so I used him up. It got to the point where the rest of the class wouldn't even bother to listen to me, knowing that Gula would be along to explain it and give them the answers. He stopped coming for three weeks.
My solution? Hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. I gave up trying to engage the whole class. Instead, I cornered pockets of students by turns. Taking advantage of the small group arrangement of the desks, I would invade one of the student held positions and attack the troops with questions, flash cards, mini-whiteboards, and sharpened shovels. Sometimes I would have a video (Survivorman, Mythbusters, and Planet Earth) playing on the projector to engage the bulk of the forces while I focused on individuals.
It was grueling work, but in a way quite gratifying. I think more learning happened in those one-on-one brawls than the rest of the term combined for some of my students.
But, that all ended last Thursday. In total, I think six students came to school on Thursday to turn in final late assignments. On Sunday, I saw a dozen or so, but they only wanted to know what their final marks were.
In between spurts of doling out grades, I cleaned out my classroom. It took most of the day and left me feeling an odd mixture of relief and disbelief. I had survived. Nine months of chaos and confusion, introspection and indecision, anger and anguish, and finally an uneasy acceptance of my real role here. While rolling up posters and sorting through files, I decided that I could do another year of this. I even feel that I can make some changes to do a better job of it. There are no year books to sign, there's no faculty vs. students softball game, there are no hordes of eighth grade gamers getting in one last game of Smash Bros (some of you may be interested to know that I did try initiating Thursday game time and teaching them Smash Bros, but they have no patience to learn the intricacies of the game), there will be no final interview with the principal (oh, how I miss those conversations in the Red Sox shrine). No slow long walk to the car with a final misty-eyed look back at my home at the foot of the Oquirrhs. I have no idea whether I might be transferred to another school come September. I don't know how I will feel if I were. But I've got until July 4th to sit in my office, writing, reading, playing games, with sporadic all-Arabic professional development meetings thrown in to spice things up to figure it out.
March 17, 2013
Term 2 teaching English to 12th grade boys in Al Ain, UAE.
At the end of first term, during the two weeks in December when students come for only an hour and a half each day to sit for an exam, Edwin and I determined to make ourselves as massively over-prepared for the second term as possible. (At this point, I was teaching three sections of grade twelve, and he was teaching one, so we worked together to plan our curriculum and collect our resources.) We worked feverishly during the free hours we had each day in order to try and gain some control over our students in the classroom.
Any teacher knows that the most important part of maintaining discipline in a classroom is having a solid curriculum and learning expectations for your students. If students are engaged and learning, most behavior problems never even crop up. At the beginning of term one, this didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. First, I didn’t know what grade I would be teaching until the first day of school. Of course, there were only a few students at school the first week, but still the wrong impression was made with them. Second, I had no idea what level of English my students spoke. I had mistakenly assumed that my students would be able to read and write more than they actually can. This led me to retool my lessons multiple times in the first few weeks as I zeroed in on their level. Third, I had received very little training on the curriculum expectations from on high. Whenever I had asked a person in the know about how the specifics of units, projects, and assessments were going to be done, I was told not to worry because there would be an experienced person in my school to guide me. There was not.
So, Edwin and I worked our kandoras off to make sure everything was laid out for the entire term before we left on winter break. We even got all of our copies made for the students’ portfolios.
The difference it made in my personal emotional state as I walked into the classroom each day was immense. I’ve never been the best at planning ahead for lessons, but necessity and a short British man taught me a lot. I’m now converted to the school of, “It’s better to prepare lessons in advance, even if you never end up using them.”
While preparing for term two, Edwin dealt me a mighty blow; he informed me that he was looking for a teaching job back in England, and that he had found one. Mid-February, he would be leaving.
I think I have mentioned before in this journal, that if it had not been for Edwin’s cool voice of experience, I would not have lasted two months here. If I had been the only western teacher in the school, I would have surely gone mad.
I suppose now is the time to see if I’ve learned anything under his tutelage. Final exams have returned, and again I am faced with the prospect of preparing for the coming term. This time, I do it alone.
Our previous combined efforts were helpful, but ultimately ineffective in regards to classroom management. I have evidence that students’ English levels have increased, but not to the point that they are ready for college, to put it mildly. Now I must decide whether to continue on the same tack as Edwin and I set with perhaps more refinement, or to turn my bow in another direction entirely. Not having someone with whom to confer as important decisions are made, leaves me feeling daunted and nearly overwhelmed.
January 9, 2012
Why was this the best holiday season I've ever had? Well there are many contributing factors, I'm sure. Three weeks off might be one. Living in an exotic desert oasis may be another. Having children who are now old enough to appreciate the wonder of the season certainly makes a difference. Friendly neighbors who go out of their way to spread Christmas joy help ward off homesickness for sure. But spending all of each of those days and nights (no overtime at the post office this year) with my glorious wife made all the difference. I can easily endure all manner of unpleasantness from work or being away from home when balanced against having every Christmas and summer for decades to come (assuming we can save enough money while here) with my Tara. *sigh* She totally rocks.
I'm assuming, however, that among my few remaining readers (thanks to those of you who have stuck out the drought), there are few who want to read extensive paragraphs extoling my wife's many virtues. (If I am mistaken, please send me a message and I will be happy to reply with a long list of her divine qualities and attributes. I always keep one handy.)
For the rest of you, I will describe what we actually did during our holidays. (I am officially puting Tara in charge of adding pictures. Did I mention how wonderful she is?)
Halloween is as good a place to start as any, I suppose. Fortunately, we're not the only ones around these part who felt a bit of trick-or-treating was necessary. Most everyone in our building wanted to join in the spooky fun. We carved pumpkins and made ghosts. Genevieve, being too little to object overly strenously, was Little Red Riding Hood by virtue of looking so darn cute in a red coat found among the things left for us by the Richardsons. Porter was a silly ghost, not a scary ghost, a SILLY ghost. Of course, he didn't want to keep the mask on over his face, so I turned it around backwards and he became an extremely-silly-two-faced ghost. Anabelle was Bastille, a knight of Crystallia from the book
Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians
.I don't know if I've ever been more proud in my life.
A few days later, Anabelle turned seven. We had a lovely Hello Kitty themed party and invited all the younglings from our building and branch. Our little Cricket missed her grandparents, cousins, Miranda, Mike, and Dru rather a lot. It just wasn't the same without the whole gang there to pile on the love and crazy.
In fact, around this time we all began to feel the yearning for home more strongly; it's to be expected when staring the holiday season in the face without the usual faces around to share it with.
Besides loved ones, the most notable absentee from the season was snow, or even a cool breeze. Actually, going outside during the day for any extended amount of time was just bearly becoming bearable. Which was good because our kids were developing cabin fever from two months of confinement in our none-too-large apartment. We began to prowel about the city in search of suitable stomping grounds. We've tried out nearly every green patch on our map labeled "park." Unfortunately, many parks in this country are restricted to women and children only. And really, what's the point of going to the park if you can't take your crazy dad along with you?
Fortunately, we found a fantastic venue right on the Oman border (a five minute drive from our apartment), which has everything three crazy Smalleyites could ask for; including a giant spinning-wobbling pear! (Does your park have oversized rotating-gyrating fruit? I don't think so. Don't worry, that emotion welling up inside you is perfectly natural: fruit envy. It will never go away, but you'll learn to live with its ever present shadow looming over you clouding every moment of the rest of your life.)
For Thanksgiving, we again joined with the other dwellers of the Ali Saeed Bin Harmal building for a potluck feast. We brought our tables, chairs, and tasty offerings into the hall. In my opinion, the whole scene was rather Seussian... and very tasty. In fact, there were so many loud conversations and rambunctious children about that it felt a lot like Thanksgiving at the Drummonds. (Although with a little more alchohol than usual.)
With Thanksgiving behind us, dancing visions of sugar-dates became all too frequent visitors in our heads. Tara had been hinting for weeks that we really needed to buy a Christmas tree. There were several stores that had a range of artificial trees to choose from, though they were on the scraggly-side and none too cheap. Ace hardware even had a large sign offering live trees! Though for the price, I could have flown home, cut my own, and brought it back! (Hyperbole: an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as "to wait an eternity.") As I have said before, my primary goal in being here is to save money so that upon our return we will be able to make a substantial down payment on a smaller house, lower our monthlys payment, and enable Tara to stay home with Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. (Sorry Yakko, you're now a seven year-old girl, but the characerizations fit so much better than they ever did for Jodie, Domenic, and me.) That being the case, I am reluctant to spend money on even so important an article as a Christmas tree. Tara knew all this but couldn't resist hinting nonetheless. I deviously put on a mask of oblivious-stupidity to her hints. (I was a little disturbed by how comfortably the mask fit... but only for a moment or two.) You see, I had already arranged with our branch president, to take their Christmas tree since his family had already returned to Canada after five years in the UAE. Of course, I made no mention of this to my family. They were quite surprised when I came home the night after Thanksgiving with a tree and boxes of decorations. 10 points, PJ.
As luck would have it, we weren't alone in putting up decorations; you see, December 2nd is the UAE National Day. Houses, streets, buildings, and especially the cars were absolutely bedecked with lights, flags, and pictures. Since UAE's national colors are white, green, red, and black, it felt rather Christmasy indeed, if you could ignore the fact that instead of Santa's bearded visage smiling down upon all, it was H.H. Sheikh Zayed. I discovered that if you squint, tilt your head a little, and ignore the aviator's sunglasses you can almost imagine that it was the jolly-old elf himself staring back at you from the rear-window of every other Land Cruiser.
Tara and I made several excursions to the many marvelous mega-malls in Dubai in search of the perfect Christmas presents. We've always tried to deemphasize the commercial part of the holiday, but being so far from friends, family, and Temple Square, we felt that the right gifts would go a long way towards making the season bright. Besides, it was a great excuse to leave the kids with sitters and run amok.
Also, the kids had a primary Christmas party at the Smith's home. Much to everyone's delight the guest of honor was Raja the camel. Anabelle very bravely mounted the massive beast giving her siblings the courage to follow. It was terrific fun and the pictures and videos will be family treasures for years to come, I'm sure. (Every time Ginny sees a camel now, she says, "Camels eat cookies." Which Raja was more than happy to demonstrate.)
Christmas morning was more joyful and smileful than any before. Squeals of delight punctuated the unwrapping of each gift. (Anabelle in particular is quite the joy-squealer. Though, Ginny soon caught on and added her angelic shrieks.)
Once the gifts were all taken care of and the noise level had returned to normal, a small pall of loneliness settled over the house, as traditionally this would be the time for packing up kids and presents to head to grandparents' houses. So, we fired up Skype. I love living in the future.
The week gollowing Christmas was oh-so-sweet. We visited parks. We went ot the zoo. We sat around and played games. This may sound boring to some, but it's my personal idea of paradise.
Traditionally, in the Al Ain branch, they have a Christmas in the dunes activity, but due to conflicting schedules, it didn't happen before Christmas. Instead, we turned it into a New Year's Eve in the dunes party. I've had some memorable New Year parties, but there's something cake-taking about thirty friends in a red sand bowl around a bonfire. The kids in particular enjoyed rolling around in the overgrown sandbox.
And, of course, there were good eats to be had. We introduced Tim-Tam slamming to a new crowd, to great acclaim. In turn, we were introduced to tacos in a bag: open a small bag of Doritos, add cooked seasoned taco meat, salsa, and any other toaco toppings, fold the bag closed, and shake. Voila! Instant taco salad. Apparently, in some places in the US, this is a pretty big deal, and I can see why.
With January came the birthday-blitz. My brother-in-law: Jerry, my father, Porter, and I all have birthdays between the 4th and 12th of January. Those who know me, know that I really love german chocolate cake, but pecans are hard to come by over here. Yet, somehow, Tara found enough to make me my dream cake. Porter just had to have another sword cake.
In the meantime, school had started again, and it was back to crazy-ville for me. More to come on that.
December 16, 2012
The technical difficulties which have been preventing me from editing the blog appear to have been resolved, finally.
Summarizing all that has occurred in the last month would be difficult and lengthy. Additionally, I don't know how much information I'm allowed to share about the education council's end of trimester testing procedures.
Let's just suffice it to say that I will never EVER complain about end of year testing in the US again. My fellow expats and I have had warm conversations about the classic "When in Rome..." doctrine as opposed to preserving your own integrity even if your philosophies may be completely different than what others are practicing around you.
As for myself, I decided not to wear that toga, as it were. By the end of the two week testing and exam correcting period, I was jubilant to see others doffing their adopted principles in the name of integrity. As we unflinchingly enforced the official rules and policies against copying and cheating, many students asked me "Why, teacher?" in a quavering voice of desperation.
After much thought and consideration I minted a response to satisfy that question for myself if not the students: "There are many things in life more important than grades (or money, or popularity, or comfort, etc.): integrity, honesty, duty, trust, faith, truth. I will not trade any amount of the first for even a shard of the second."
November 9, 2012
In Abu Dhabi, students are expected to learn English while researching some topic related to a theme chosen by the Abu Dhabi Education Council. There's a different theme each trimester and for each grade. The theme for twelfth graders this term is Ancient World/Modern World. They are meant to analyze the ways that our world has been impacted by our previous generations and make connections as to how they might in turn impact future generations. Wonderful.
Except our kids don't understand English, therefore explaining such abstract concepts can be rather difficult. However, Edwin and I have worked very hard to support our students and guide them as they've been working on their research projects for the last month and a half. These projects are due next week.
Edwin and I were discussing the progress our students had made when he told me about one of his twelfth graders who had been assigned to research ancient Greece. The young man had been given multiple pages of information about the Greeks. His class had created vocabulary lists related to the topic. He was given a blank template with the titles and subheadings already provided about Greek civilization, architecture, government, and influence on modern society. All he had to do was put the information from the research in his own words and plug it in the right spot.Imagine Edwin's surprise then, when the student enthusiastically turned in a lovely pamphlet titled "Ancient Greece," filled with information about the internet. (The topic that had been assigned to the other half of Edwin's class.)
Edwin said to me, "I'm not surprised he copied a classmate, but I can't believe he didn't notice it wasn't about Greece."
I replied, "Don't be too hard on the boy; it's all Greek to him."
October 29, 2012
Enough of the whining. Let's get to the camels. That's right, camels.
It all began innocently enough. I was ride sharing home with my friend Shon, and he mentioned that one of his tenth graders invited him to come out to visit his family's camel farm and have dinner later that week. I enthusiastically expressed my admiration of his good fortune and wished him luck.
All the while, internally, I was trying to decide how I would feel/react were one of my students to extend such an invitation to me. I eventually decided that I would likely politely decline for several reasons. For one, I'm a somewhat awkward individual in new social situations. (Go ahead, just try and act surprised.) For another, it's a guarantee that they would offer me either coffee or tea as part of the guest welcoming ritual. I had vague misapprehensions that l would start an international incident by refusing the hospitality of some dignified Emirati elder. Also, Tara and the kids had only been in the country for a little while, and I wouldn't want to abandon them to run off to the desert.
All in all, I was glad none of my students had made such an offer to me.
Imagine my surprise then, when later that week Shon extended the offer to me. My reluctance was obvious, but he reminded me of all the reasons to go, and I soon relented. I think the two biggest factors were the realizations that I really did want to see a camel farm and the way Emiratis live, and the next time I had the chance, I would be embarrassing myself in front of my own students alone! This in turn helped me realize that if I declined, Shon would be in exactly that situation. (Not that Shon is socially awkward like me, but he is a vegetarian, more to come...)
Decision made, I set about gathering information so as to be better prepared for the experience. I explained the situation to several of my fellow teachers who were Muslim and from neighboring countries (as far as I know, there are no Emirati teachers in our school) and asked them for advice. They were all rather puzzled when I wanted to know what was the best way to refuse any tea or coffee. At first, they all said I should just drink it. It took a couple tries to explain that it was prohibited by my religion, but once I did, most of them agreed that I would be okay to politely refuse the offer. One teacher warned me that under no circumstances was I to accept the drink and then not drink it. That would indicate that I was refusing their hospitality because I had unfinished business with my host. A few suggested that if I was asked why I refused, I should blame it on bad health or something. That led to a further discussion about my religion's strict rules about honesty... by the end of our conversation, I think I convinced them that I was crazy.
So, we met Shon's student, Hamad, at a parking lot on the south end of Al Ain, and he drove us out into the desert. Remember, this kid is fifteen. The legal driving age is eighteen, but he owns a 2012 Toyota Landcruiser and he's been driving since he was twelve. He actually drives quite well.
It was a twenty minute drive through gorgeous red sand dunes. The roads and land were utterly desolate; no signs of life were to be seen.
I knew we were getting close when we passed ten camels tied together in a line trotting along the side of the road. Our host explained that there was a camel race scheduled for later that evening, and this was how they got them there.
Soon thereafter, we arrived at Hamad's family's camel farm. There was a single whitewashed ranch style house surrounded by several sheds and tall fences made of palm fronds that separated the property into various corrals . The buildings were well maintained and the ground was clean.
Scattered thorn bushes of various sizes were the only plants visible. The rest was just sand.
Hamad led us to the house where we added our shoes to a rather sizable pile outside the door. Upon entering, we found ourselves in the living room with two Arab men and about eight teenage boys. They were sitting in a large circle on a beautiful rug on the ground. Along two walls, there were intricately embroidered cushions to lean back on.
As soon as we came in, everyone stood up and greeted us. "A salaam melaikum" to which the second party replies, "Melaikum a salaam." (For any of you who actually know Arabic, please forgive my spelling. Though, from what I've seen, when you're writing Arabic words with the English alphabet, the natives don't really care about spelling, so why should I?) We were introduced to Hamad's father first, then the other adult. We shook hands with everyone in the circle before Hamad's father indicated where we were to sit. I nearly made the faux-pas of sitting before the patriarch, but Shon stopped me in time.
Once we were seated, the moment I had been dreading arrived, one of the young men was assigned to pour coffee for everyone.
Now, Arabian coffee isn't like the stuff you see people swilling back in the states. Apparently, it not only looks and tastes quite different, but it's also more potent. The coffee was poured from a lovely white urn into small porcelain cups with gold leaf. Hamad's father received the first cup, then the other Arab adult, and then I was offered one.
In a quiet, sincere voice, I politely declined. The young man with the urn was rather surprised. He glanced at the patriarchs who were staring questioningly at me. I smiled and with a bow of my head and with a hand to my heart (the Arab signal for sincerity) said, "I cannot."
The poor young man hesitantly offered the cup to Shon instead. Shon enthusiastically accepted it. I could tell he was trying to help deflect some of the attention from me. And, just like that, the moment had passed. Easy. Nothing to it. Or, so I thought.
After sitting on the rug for a few minutes, listening to Arabic conversations while a recording of an old camel race played on the TV (they had dozens of VHS tapes lying around on the floor in front of the TV, all full of camel races) another Arab man came in with a few more teenagers. The whole handshaking and coffee pouring ritual was repeated.
Again, I politely refused. It wasn't as bad this time because I wasn't the only one to decline. Apparently, once you've accepted one cup, you're allowed to pass on the next round. I did notice the father taking note of my response.
To make up for my rudeness, Shon again enthusiastically accepted.
A minute or two later, I was offered a drink of water. This I joyfully received with much thanks and smiling. The tension level dropped a few notches once I accepted a piece of their hospitality. Likely they decided I wasn't an obstinate, rude jerk, just a weirdo who doesn't like coffee.
With the arrival of the new guests, they rewound the tape and began watching the same race from the beginning. Hamad explained that this race was from a year ago, and his father's camel had won it. Sheikh Khalifa (president of the UAE) had been so impressed that he bought the camel for 2 million dirhams (about $500,000)! That explained why they were watching this particular race, I suppose.
Eventually, a signal was given and the teenagers were given permission to leave the room. We went with them into a room with a pool table. It was soon obvious that these guys played rather often. We got to play a few games with them; it was a one-sided battle.
Once we had thoroughly embarrassed ourselves, the suggestion was made that we go out and see the camels. I grabbed my camera and gleefully followed.
We were led through the maze of palm frond fences to a corral where several dusty, hairy beasts were roaming about. The teenagers encouraged us to go make ourselves better acquainted. (smiling and sniggering all the while)
Shon and the non-finger-munching camel
Shon and I boldly walked up to the biggest camel we could find and patted it on the neck as I would a horse. (I can only speak for myself, but I was internally preparing myself to snatch my hand away and dash for the gate should the creature turn out to be a finger muncher. Don't judge me, I was bitten on the leg by a horse once, and it hurt!)
Unfortunately for the on-looking crowd of giggling adolescents, there was no munching of fingers.
Having passed the test, we were next led to a pair of saddled camels in another corral. If you're like I was before I saw the tapes of the camel races, you're probably picturing the kinds of camel saddles they have in the movies, big fancy looking seats that are strapped on in front of or on top of the hump. Not even close.
Instead, it's really just a harness and a couple ropes with a bit of padding behind the hump.
The camel is in the classic folded-up, flat on the ground position with a ranch hand standing-by near its head. We were led to the rear of the camel and told to get on. The giggling started again.
Background information: another teacher at Shon's school had already been camel riding the week before. He fell off as the camel was standing up. His students had filmed it and then shown all the other students in the school. This was the real reason we had been invited. Luckily for us, this other teacher had explained to us his mistake. When a camel gets up, it does it in stages. First, it rises onto its knees in the front, causing the rider to tilt backwards. The natural reaction is to lean forward. That's when the rear legs come up quite quickly, throwing you forward. If you're already leaning that direction, you go tumbling heels-over-hump to the ground.
We made sure to hold on tight and lean back the whole time. The teens were rather disappointed that neither of us fell.
For the next half hour or so, our camels were led around by Hamad and his friend while we endeavored to strike various noble poses on the back of a gallumphing beast of burden. I felt a little like a kid at a carnival on a pony ride, but then I remembered that I was literally riding a camel through an Arabian desert. How many people in America can say that, eh?
Once our epic journey had come to an end, the evening's real adventure began.
Back in the house, we were playing pool with the teenagers when they were all summoned away for evening prayers (muslims pray five times a day).
Shon and I were content to chill in the pool room, but they invited us to come watch as they said their prayers. I had been warned by a friend that this might happen. My friend had explained that there was nothing wrong with standing in the shadows while they performed their religious obligations. In fact, I was rather excited to witness their devotion in action.
My excitement evaporated when Hamad's father directed us to stand in the line and join in the prayers...
Several thoughts churned around sluggishly in my mind. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" being the foremost of them. I also felt incredibly uneasy about faking someone else's sacred ritual. It felt wrong. I also didn't want to simply walk away. Though, in hindsight, that might have been best.
Instead, I stood there. Stock still. Blushing like a vegetarian in a hotdog eating competition (more on blushing vegetarians to come).
Hamad's father was standing at the front of the room with his back to the rest of us. Fortunately, he had no idea that I was not participating. Unfortunately, all the teenagers in the line were exceptionally aware. And giggling. This of course only amplified the magnitude of my blushing. An overwhelming urge to kick the chuckling chumps surged within me. I contented myself with doling out class 1 glares of indignation instead. I think one of them might have even taken my picture with his camera phone. Booger.
But, the awkwardness soon passed, and as far as I could tell, no international incidents were instigated.
Soon, two more sets of honored guests arrived. Each new arrival was followed by another round of hand shaking and coffee pouring. Again I refused. Shon again accepted both times. By this point, he was getting a little jittery.
One of the new arrivals was Hamad's grandfather. He was in his eighties and he was a commanding character. It was interesting to see the way Hamad's father, who had dominated the room before, now deferred to his own father. In fact, the atmosphere of respect was palpable throughout the evening to an extent that I have never witnessed in a family setting before.
When the grandfather noticed that I did not take the coffee, he was bold enough to ask the question the others had all been wondering- Why?
He had to have his question translated, of course. I felt sorry for the poor young man who had to do the translating; none of them spoke English all that well.
I quite simply told him that it was against my religion. Something didn't quite compute for him.
He tried to explain it to his grandfather, but it was clearly a no-go. There was a bit more discussion, and from their hand gestures I think they decided it was bad for my health. I had no way of correcting their mistake.
The spotlight soon found a new target with the arrival of dinner. I wish I had taken a picture; there's just no way words will do justice to the awesome sight. A 3' round platter was carried in. Upon which rested a massive mound of seasoned rice, an array of grilled meats and vegetables, and a whole lamb. Or maybe goat. I'm not sure. But it was tasty!
We ate Emirati style; that is, kneeling on the ground around the platter and scooping up the food with our hands. There were no utensils to be seen. Other than grandpa's 3" folding knife which was used to carve up the carcass. I watched the youngsters around me for clues as to best eating practice. The trick is, you pour some sour-creamy substance on the rice and then squeeze it into a ball. Not only was it less messy than trying to pour handfuls into your mouth, it was fun! If you've never had the pleasure, I highly advise making your own squishy riceball at your next family function.
Just as we were getting a feel for the way of things, Hamad's father popped the lamb/goat's head off. He scooped out the eyes, offered them to grandpa, and then cracked open the skull. He did so with a practiced hand. After clearing away the cranial fragments, thus exposing the lovely little brain, he placed the whole thing in front of the guest of honor, Shon. Did I mention Shon's a vegetarian? Who's blushing now?
Throughout the meal, Shon had been studiously ignoring the lamb/goat while shoveling fistfuls of rice and carrot sticks into his mouth. But, he couldn't help but watch in horror as the head was prepared. The expression on his face when it was then placed in front of him was one I will not soon forget. I could see the gears turning madly in his mind.
All eyes were on him.
Finally, Hamad's father gestured for him to eat. Shon bravely declared his vegetarianism to the gathering. They blinked. He rephrased his statement. Blinks and head tilting. Long awkward pause. God then answered Shon's prayer and struck one of the youth with sudden understanding. A flurry of Arabic ensued. It was obvious that they understood the boy by the looks of sheer pity they directed towards Shon. As if the boy had just explained that Shon was suffering from an incurable brain-disease that greatly limited his mental capacities. That, and they began shoving every vegetable within reach in his direction. They really are nice people.
Shon having declined the delicacy, it was offered to me. I smiled and said,"No thank you." They didn't push the issue with me even though I was clearly not a vegetarian. (My status as brain-damaged having been previously determined.) So, Hamad's father and grandfather split the brains between them. nom nom
After dinner, they taught me how to wear a keffiyeh, we played a little more pool,
watched the teenagers chase each other around with a battery powered camel whipping robot, and witnessed a traditional rifle-spinning dance. You know, nothing special.
On the ride home, Hamad asked me why I didn't pray. I explained my reasons the best I could, and he seemed to understand. He even told me I was a good person. Though, he did advise converting to Islam. 10 points.
Once we were alone in Shon's car, we both agreed that it was a great, eye-opening experience that neither of us are likely to repeat any time soon.
October 2, 2012
As a teacher, one expects the first few weeks of school to be particularly stressful. It's just the way that it is. When one is a new teacher in a new school in a new country, one naturally expects the stress to be at least a bit more acute, perhaps even exceptionally so. Such were my expectations, I assure you. My expectations paled in the light of reality.
The full magnitude of the stress of my situation is impossible to adequately express. I whole-heartedly wish I had taken time each night to write the events of the day here. I know there is no way I can possibly recall every event that has contributed to what has been the most trying month of my life bar-none. (Nor would it be wise for me to attempt to do so, as this is a public site. It is the practice in this country to pay very close attention to what is published by those who are in the employ of the government, or so I've been told. Bearing that in mind, you will please remember this when parts of my narrative seem disjointed, disconnected, or unemotional; my mental stability is not entirely to blame... not entirely.)
I will, however, attempt to relate events of particular import or which are demonstrative of my general condition as a teacher here. Additionally, I will endeavor to relay at least as many positive examples as negative.
A taste of what you've missed.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not have a grade 12 English team. For the first three weeks, I was the only person teaching grade 12 English (more on the changes in that regard later). ADEC has extremely high standards for their students. Of this I am quite pleased. They have also provided us with a well-written, detailed framework which outlines and defines those standards splendidly. It even clearly lays out the process all teachers are expected to follow in planning units and lessons. Unfortunately, the first four steps of this process are intended to be completed as an English department, which I don't have.
So, I decided the best place to start was square one: What do my students already know? To that end, I designed some diagnostic preassessments. Adminstering them was a bit of a challenge that first week, as 90% of my students did not come to school.
Undaunted, I gave the assessments, engaged students in informal conversations, asked them to read passages and answer questions pertaining thereto, and very quickly discovered that of the 20% of my students who showed up that week (about 7), only one could communicate in English with any degree of proficiency.
Accordingly, the laws of statistics would suggest that if one out of seven of my students had basic skills, then I should have about five out of thirty-five. It actually worked out to be more than that, because the smaller of my two groups are on the "science track." That is, they are preparing to study medicine, engineering, or science, and they usually speak English better. In that class, most of them can speak English comfortably. In my other class, I had another four who scored reasonably well on the benchmark assessment ADEC asked me to give them.
Among the rest, however, it's a full nother thing. I have many students who need their classmates to translate when I tell them to take out a piece of paper and put their names on it. When they copy work off the screen, they do it one letter at a time, as if they are translating Egyptian heiroglyphics.
But, with a class of students who speak as well as I was promised at my interview and a class with four out of twenty-four to translate and lead groups, I thought I could manage.
Then they gave me another class. I couldn't complain, because every other EMT is teaching the same number of classes. The problem was that they gave me 0 warning. I showed up for work on the twenty-third and my schedule had changed. In this new class, I had three students out of twenty that understood enough English to follow instructions. It was a frantic business getting them caught up with my other two classes, but I glued a smile on and soldiered on.
The big blow came the last day of that week. I had just taught first period to my original class of twenty-four, when the deputy (assistant principal) came in and told me to take my class to the courtyard.
We weren't alone. All four classes of language track students were there. They were then condensed into three classes. The class I had just taught was dissolved, and I was given two new classes of thirty students each, many of whom I did not know. In fact, I have a class containing only three students with whom I had already worked. So, I had to start all over again, again.
In my new class, there is only one student who can understand me well enough to follow instructions. Think about this for a minute, thirty seventeen year olds in one room who don't understand a word the teacher is saying. Try to think back to your high school Spanish or French class. Remember when the teacher would go on one of those, "I'm-not-speaking-English-any-more" kicks? How much control did that teacher have over behavior? Now imagine that the teacher not only won't speak your language, but he can't. And every worksheet and book is written in English. And the teacher is required to have you produce twelfth grade level research projects in the foreign language. Oh, and there is NO discipline policy in place in the school. Plus, the teacher is required to pass them as long as they turn in anything no matter how they got it.
Truthfully, I'm not sure what ADEC expects me to do. I will do my best, of course, but what they're asking from me and my students is on the far side of impossible.
September 17, 2012 (Tara)
Well, the kids and I have been here in Abu Dhabi for almost a week. Perhaps it's time for me to update?
Day 1: Plane ride
This was, perhaps, my worst day. Ever. Now, I will admit that in my relatively short and uneventful life, I have not had any truly terrible days. But I've had some stressful times. This one beat them all. It started out quite well. I have to give a HUGE thank you to my parents and PJ's parents for getting us all to the airport and checked in. Without their help, it would have been miserable trying to get boarding passes while wrangling three cranky kids. I'll tell you how I know in a minute. Another HUGE, HUGE, HUGE thank you to my brother Aaron, who works for FedEx at the airport, for helping me get through security and to our gate. Again, it would have been pure torture trying to get myself and three kids and three carry-ons and four backpacks and all of our shoes through security by myself. Again, I'll tell you how I know in a minute.
The first plane ride went rather well. Of course, it was only two hours long, but who's counting? The kids were so excited. They loved take-off. They were giggling and squealing. Fortunately, the seat next to me was empty. It was at this point that I began to regret not buying a ticket for Genevieve. She is just under two, so she was my lap rider. As I watched her bouce around on the seat next to me, I contemplated what it was going to be like on our next plane. Without her own seat, she would have to be bouncing on... well, me! Sigh. Well, a person can live through one day of anything, right?
So, we got to Chicago, safe and sane. Now I had a problem. There was no gate number on our boarding passes for our next plane. Which way to go? The Chicago airport is rather sizable. And I had Anabelle and Porter dragging their carry-ons behind them while I pushed Ginny in the stroller while dragging my own carry-on and wearing one backpack, with two backpacks hooked to the back of the stroller and the other backpack strapped to my carry-on. I'm sure we made quite a sight. I tried to keep Belle and Porter walking in front of me. I was constantly calling out, "Porter, scootch over a bit, you're going to run into that man" or, "Belle, slow down, you're getting too far ahead" or other such things. So we picked a direction and started walking. At this point, Porter started to give out on me. Already. "It's too heavy, Mom, I can't do it." Well, it turned out that he could, because he had to. He whined a great deal, but he dragged that suitcase, poor thing. It was rather heavy. I'll tell you how I know in a minute. We found a map and, thank goodness, we had been going in the right direction. Unfortunately, continuing in the right direction meant going to another terminal. Which meant leaving the secure section of the airport. This is very bad. I'll tell you how I know in a minute. We actually had to get on a train to get to the correct terminal. Another HUGE thank you to the nice ladies who helped me get my kids and all of our stuff on and off the train. This very fast, very jerky train was standing room only. Poor kids were falling all over the place. Another thank you to those very nice ladies.
We found our terminal and got in line to go through security again. That's right. Remember, we left the secure area? Big sigh. Fortunately, before we were in line very long, a nice security man noticed that we didn't have the right boarding passes. Can you tell I don't have much experience travelling? So, now we walked over to the Etihad ticket counter. Not open yet. So we walked back over by the security line to get the kids an ice cream that they had seen while we were in line. They were getting rather hungry, but I wanted to get to our gate before we stopped to have a meal. I was a bit paranoid about missing our flight. I don't know why, we had a five and a half hour layover. But we were so slow. Porter, still whining rather steadily, was having trouble with corners. I couldn't get him to walk out far enough to get his suitcase clear of the corner before he turned, so he kept catching it on walls and chairs and anything else we were trying to pass. Sigh. So, we got ice cream, made a mess, got cleaned up, walked back to the ticket counter, waited for it to open. When it did, as we made our way to the counter, there was a very nice airline employee weighing our carry-ons. Oh no! I had been told by many, many people that they NEVER weigh your carry-on luggage. Well, it turns out that's not true. And we were over weight. A lot. So, we took our luggage over to a scale that wasn't being used, and I started taking things out. I threw away books, cards, toys. Still over. I threw away diapers, wipes. Still over. I transfered some things to our backpacks (which were already quite heavy) and finally got us at exactly 7 kilos per bag. Goodness. Back through the line, got our boarding passes. The wonderful, wonderful man behind the ticket counter gave us a spot with an extra seat next to us for Ginny. I could have kissed him. Now back to security. Have I told you about Porter's incessant whining? Well, this is when Anabelle started in too. I thought she held out quite admirably. As we were in line to go through security, I fortunately overheard somebody saying that there were no restaurants on the other side. So, out of line we went, and to McDonald's. Made another mess, got cleaned up again, back to security.
I won't even describe going through security. It is sufficient to say that it was awful. The one bright spot is that the kids didn't have to take off their shoes in this airport. The bad part - Ginny now thought she ought to be able to, so she was screaming to have her shoes taken off the whole time. Sigh.
We got to our gate and waited. I had some little balls to blow up for the kids to play with. They had a good time. The bubbles I brought didn't work, but it was probably just as well. I felt kind of silly standing up in front of everybody trying to blow bubbles, and I was glad to sit down again. When they started boarding, they called seats 35 through 55 first. Every single person at the gate stood up and got in line. They tried to call just those rows again, several times. No dice. So, we stood up and got in line, too. We were in row 35. We could have been in a rather short line. Sigh. When we got to the front, they had a drug sniffing dog. Ginny went crazy. I could hardly keep her away from it. She loves dogs. So, while trying to keep her by me and trying to make Porter drag his suitcase the right way and trying to make Anabelle pay attention and keep up with us, I showed our passports and boarding passes, checked our carry-ons and the stroller and hauled the backpacks and the kids to our seats. Sigh.
They LOVED this plane. There were TVs in the seats in front of us and pillows and blankets on our seats,. The flight attendants gave them little activity pouches and were constantly bringing around drinks and snacks. We were having a great time, really. Until it started to get late, and the kids started to get tired. They brought dinner around. We had four seats next to each other. Somehow, I ended up on one end and Porter on the other. He was having some serious trouble with his dinner, and I couldn't reach him. Huge, HUGE thank you to the very nice British-sounding man across the aisle from him for helping him out. The kids were getting quite cranky by now. Thank goodness for those TVs in the seats. Porter and Belle fell asleep watching shows. Not so for Ginny. She cried. A lot. I got rather a lot of nasty looks. At this point, I really didn't care about them. Another huge thank you to the very nice Muslim woman who loaned Ginny her kids' iPad to play with. She really meant well. But, in the end, it made things worse. Ginny couldn't get it to do what she wanted and it just made her more cranky. But I finally got her to sleep.
The sleeping arrangements we went through were probably rather comical, but it didn't seem so to me. We went through untold numbers of positions. For several of them, I had to channel my inner Parvati. (Survivor reference. What I mean is that I had to hold a very uncomfortable position for a very long time.) One of my favorites included Ginny laying across my folded legs and Porter resting his head on my thigh for two and a half hours. I finally had to move. Another good one was when I had to keep Porter's head from sliding off of the seat by holding it up with my foot. For forever, it seemed. Anabelle, bless her heart, pretty much took care of herself. But the other two got restless every time I moved an inch and then we would have to rearrange and settle ourselves back in. Generally there was a lot of crying at these points. I didn't sleep a wink for most of the night. As it started to get toward morning, I laid down on two of the seats with Ginny laying next to me. I woke up an hour later with Porter laying on top of me, his hip sticking into my side. I was so glad when that flight was over.
One of our many attempts at getting comfortable.
When the flight was over, and we got ourselves dragged off of the plane and through the passport and visa checks (while standing in line at this point, Porter had to go potty. He stil had his diaper on from the night before. He had to use it. Poor boy) and to the baggage carousel, we ran into rather a large problem. I had envisioned PJ being there to help us with the luggage. He wasn't. Sigh. Fortunately, they had free carts to use. Unfortunately, they were not big enough for all of our luggage to fit on one of them. So, I got a small cart and put all of our backpacks on it. Porter pushed this. Then I got two big carts and piled our luggage on them. Anabelle and I pushed these. Ginny pushed the stroller. Again, it was probably a rather comical little parade. I certainly didn't think so at the time. I wish I had pictures of this too. Sigh. After much ado, we got ourselves out of the secure area and found our PJ. WAAAAHOOOO!!!!! It was indescribably wonderful to see him.
The kids fell right to sleep on the hour-long car ride into Al Ain. Little beasts.
PJ had to go to school today. Nuts. Most of the day was spent unpacking and getting settled in. When PJ came home from school, we walked over to a little grocery store about two blocks away. We got some essentials, milk and diapers and the like, but not too much as we were walking. There is a little shawarma window next to the store, and we got some and took it home. It was absolutely fantastic. Turns out they deliver. We are in trouble.
PJ had school again. Nuts again. Spent most of the day unpacking again. But today when PJ got home, we took a taxi (my first one ever!) to the Al Ain mall. While PJ visited the bank, the kids and I watched some people ice skate in the lobby. Totally not kidding. Then we wandered around a bit and got some things at the grocery store. Seriously, they have practically everything in their malls. We got some 1 dirham (about 25 cent) ice cream cones from Burger King that tasted exactly like funfetti frosting (yum!) and took a taxi back home.
The door into the mall.
Today was Friday, so of course we went to church. If this confuses you, see PJ's post below. Church is held in what pretty much amounts to a mansion. It is really quite beautiful. The branch is wonderful, everyone was very friendly and welcoming. Relief Society is, of course, held in the prettiest room of all. Some things just don't change. There were, however, about eight of us in the room. I guess some things do change. It was a very new experience for me. I don't generally share much during lessons, but I really didn't have a choice today. Definitely a new experience for me.
Saturday! Saturday is still Saturday, even in this crazy place. This means that I finally got to have a whole day in which I never had to leave PJ's side. HOOORAAAYYY!!! We went to LuLu's, which is basically the Wal*Mart of Abu Dhabi. Here's a little advice for you. Don't go to LuLu's on Saturday. It was an absolute mad house. They have a great produce section, though. We even got some strawberries and a pineapple.
Today was Sunday, so PJ had to go back to school. Again, see below if this makes you scratch your head. I had my first seminary class in person, which we will be having once a week. It went well, I hope. They are really a great bunch of kids. This calling is rather time consuming, but I am enjoying it quite a lot. They really are an awesome group.
It was also my first day of homeschooling Anabelle. It's going to be a long two years if every day is going to be like that. I think she'll settle into it, though. She gets pretty upset when things don't go exactly the way she pictured them going. Evidently, reality and her vision of it didn't match up today. Sigh.
This was also laundry day. That will be another adjustment. We have, thank goodness, a washer. But no dryer, and no hookups for one. Sigh.
Laundry racks in our kitchen.
After school today, we went to The Bookshop, where you can find just about any office supply item you can imagine. And some I couldn't have imagined. We got Anabelle a notebook, which opens backwards since they read and write from right to left here. Then we had some shawarma delivered. We are definitely in trouble.
Today has been largely spent writing this post. The laundry is dry now, so I will be putting it away soon. All in all, it has been a very good first week. Very new, but very good. I think we're going to be very happy here.
September 11, 2012
I feel like I am coming home. Tara, Anabelle, Porter, and Genevieve are on a plane flying across the world towards me. My heart races steadily faster as the day drags on. In a few short hours, I will be whole again.
September 9, 2012
(In a previous post, I covered the proper use of dude-adjectives. I hope you've found this information helpful. One must remember, however, that dude is a very versatile word. While its place as a general term used for addressing an individual has declined in recent years [as in, "How's it going, dude?], its other functions have retained their efficacy. Depending on the tone of voice and accompanying facial expression, dude can do just about anything. The king of all stand-all-alone dude expressions is the deadpan, straight-faced, wide-eyed "Dude." It is used to express surprise, awe, or a sense of overwhelment.)
Again I say, Dude.
Today was the first day of "class" with students. (The moment many of my teacher friends have been waiting for, I think.) All of the confusion, chaos, and craziness leading up to this point was not sufficient to prepare me for the complete culture shock of being a teacher in the UAE.
Had I actually been diligent in posting throughout this week, my previous statement would have significantly more weight. Let me explain. No, there is no time; let me sum up. (said in the voice of Inigo Montoya)
After the "Bedaya" last Sunday, I was all smiles and sunshine. I fully expected to receive my visa this week so I could bring Tara and kids over. I was excited to move into another glamorous hotel, this time in Al Ain. I was certain that I would very quickly get the internet hooked up, so I could skype with Tara without the obnoxious lag. I knew that being in Al Ain meant I could get my apartment fully set up, including my washing machine. Plus, I couldn't wait to get into my school for a few days and plan with the veteran teachers!
The reality: No visa. "Very soon, very soon." Right. Instead, Tara and I just bought tickets with the hopes of being reimbursed some day. (She's coming on Tuesday! I'm having a hard time concentrating on anything else.)
The Al Ain Hilton is quite like the hotels I'm used to staying in. That is to say, old. Faded carpets, an A/C that sounds like a semi-truck, etc.
They actually did come and hook up my internet on Monday. (He wasn't scheduled to do my apartment that day, but I followed him around looking so pathetic, that he took pity on me.) But, I didn't have my router with me, and now I can't get the blasted thing to work! I can only use the internet on my laptop, sitting at a too-tall-table in the hallway.
I actually did get my washer hooked up. (And it only took me four tries to hook it up without it spraying water all over the kitchen!)
day last week in the school, but there were no veteran native English teachers. In fact, there won't be any veteran teachers at all! Their contracts expired in June, and they're not coming back. Fortunately, I'm not the only new EMT (English Medium Teacher). My new bestest friend in the world, Edwin, and I will be trying desperately to keep each other afloat.
Now, to the details of today. School officially starts at 7:30. Teachers must be there no later than 7:15. So far, so normal. I showed up extra early to find out which periods and grade I will be teaching. (Apparently, this is business as usual around here; all the teachers were mobbing the school secretay to find out their schedules. [I miss you Nadine Troxel!])
I was terrified to discover that I will be teaching twelfth graders. That's about as far away from my realm of experience as you can get. I've got more experience with teaching kindergarten than I do with twelfth graders. I was never even in the twelfth grade!
My friend, Edwin, is teaching tenth grade. At first I was a little jealous, but after he told me how incredibly little English his tenth graders know, I began to feel a bit grateful for my assignment. (Especially since I only actually teach four out of nine periods... for now. That could, and likely will, change.)
Besides not having a clue what I am
to teach my twelfth graders, the biggest shock of the day, was that only one of them showed up! Out of all four of my classes, I had one student!
Apparently, around here, the first day of school is treated much like the last day of school in the states. Nobody takes attendance, nobody teaches anything, kids just wander around the halls. If I had known this, I would have brought my Wii and we could have at least played some Super Smash Bros! (Not really. I'm not stupid enough to start the school year like that.)
In my student-free time, I chose to wander about and find some students who were also wandering about. I found a group of three twelfth graders hiding in an empty classroom, (they might have been mine, but since they didn't even give me a class roster, I really couldn't be sure), and I began a conversation with them in English, just to see how much they knew. My observations were not comforting.
They speak English as well as I speak Spanish... that's not good.
Lest you think me a whiner, let me end on a positive note. The one student who did show up, Hamad, was very intelligent, very polite, and he recognizes what a great opportunity it is to be a citizen of a country who has placed top priority on his education.
Moments before that class, I told Edwin that if I could have just one student who cared, I could endure any amount of apathy and chaos for his sake. Thank you, Hamad, for giving me purpose.
September 2, 2012
I confess, I had a hand in coercing Tara to add to our blog. And I'm , you hear me? Glad!
Above all else, these three weeks have taught me just how much my world revolves around that woman. I'm beginning to worry that it might not be entirely healthy. I'm a bit obsessed, in fact. Apparently, I've even earned myself a reputation among the other teachers here in Abu Dhabi. To whit: I was standing in front of the hotel, waiting for a taxi, when a very nice lady asked if I was PJ.
Chilling in a tent at the Bedaya.
"I am," I replied. "Have you heard anything new about bringing over your wife?" she asked. As I related the latest information I had received regarding the importation of four more Smalleys, she wore a look of utter sympathy and comiseration, as if I were pronouncing my own foretold unalterable demise!
Truth be told, each time I receive unfavorable news about bringing Tara over, I do feel a bit forsaken. *sigh*
On the bright side, at an Abu Dhabi Education Council shin-dig today, (more about which I will narrate shortly), I was told by an official member of the ADEC General Services department, that our visas are being put into our passports today, and we will receive them this week. Once I have my visa, I can apply to have Tara and the kids brought over through the established and official channels. To which I say, it's about flaming time! (Wheel of Time reference)
Besides pining over my Tara, I have been keeping myself busy and productive.
I attended church in Al Ain again, this time with several other teachers from my hotel. Again I was impressed with the overall level of intelligence and devotion demonstrated by the members of this humble branch.
On Saturday, I returned to Al Ain with a new friend of mine, Heywood. (Believe it or not, he's actually taller than me!) Our goal for the day was to sign up for internet for our apartments. To that end, we drove to the Al Ain mall (one of four malls in this modest sized city) and found a kiosk for the only internet provider in the country. One of the pieces of information required to register for internet is an address. No surprise there, right? Yeah, except houses don't have street numbers. (I think this has been covered in an earlier post.) Instead, you are asked to provide a "plot number." Where a person is supposed to find this plot number exactly, is a matter of some debate.
Luckily for me, Connie, who lives in my building, went through the onerous task of obtaining that number last week and was kind enough to email it to the rest of us. It only took about forty minutes to get it all set up.
To celebrate our unexpectedly easy success, we got some Papa John's pizza. I am thrilled to report that it tasted easily as good as any Papa John's I've had back in the states. And I like Papa John's.
Sunday was a much less mundane day. We were all invited, or rather summoned, to attend the annual "bedaya," which means beginning. It's kind of like a commencement ceremony at the commencement of the new school year. (Funny how we call the ceremony at the
of a school year commencement when it really means
. I'm sure many a ho-hum commencement speech has begun with a reference to the fact. I wouldn't know personally, having never attended a commencement in my memory.)
As we got off the bus, we were met by an army of attendants and photographers who took our pictures. They ushered us into the national convention center, an impressive and large structure, and along a red carpet.
Once we made it to the convention center's promenade,
I was surprised to see several thousand individuals, most of whom were wearing traditional Arab garb. They also had a lovely traditional Arab tent and man holding a falcon... it's traditional here; look it up if you don't believe me.
(The iPhone on which the falcon-man is talking, is less traditional, but much more common to see.) I got a picture of myself holding the nice man's falcon, but it's on my friend Shon's phone; I'll put it here when I get a copy.
Not wanting to miss out on a cultural/photo-opp experience, I sat in the lovely traditional Arab tent and tried a tradtional Arab date...
tasted like a cross between a carrot and pinenut, with the consistency of a raw potato. Want one?
The actual meeting was rather short and sweet. They only had one speaker, a scholarly Phd type with a passion for ADEC's vision. We got to
100 dirham to the first person who can guess what this thing tasted like!
use translation headphones. Made me feel like I was at a United Nations conference.
After the meeting, we were treated to a lovely luncheon and then bussed back to the hotel.
There was a notice on the ADEC bulletin boards informing us that tomorrow we are being transferred to hotels in Al Ain. I'm going to be in the Hilton! That'll make three schmancy hotels I've stayed in during my short stay here.
August 31, 2012 - Tara
Having been told numerous times - and I do mean numerous, my friends - that I need to contribute to this effort, I have decided that, in order to deflect future harassment for a time, I will post something. My hesitation thus far has been that I have nothing interesting (relatively speaking) to write about. I have no pictures of beautiful five-star hotel lobby windows, no brand new apartments to describe, no walking adventures to relate, no culture shock, no new monetary systems, not even a dude-cool catch phrase.
I have been informed, though, that all of those glamorously interesting things are only half of the story. And, apparently, I am willing to concede that point. So, what have we been up to here in the US of A?
Well, our first week of fatherlessness went more smoothly than might be expected. We went on a road trip to Denver with my mom, and that alleviated some of the separation pains. We had a wonderful time there. We played cards with my brother Ryan and went to the park and the Denver zoo. I'll have to see if I can get PJ to show me how to upload pictures.
The next week was spent getting our house completely cleaned out and cleaned up and ready for renters when the time comes. A HUGE thank you goes to PJ's parents and his brother Domenic for all of their help with this. The decision to rent was made when we found that we cannot come even close to getting what we owe for the house at this point. Like the rest of the country, I'm sure. So, since we have some good family friends who were in my ward as I grew up who own a property rental management company, we decided this was the best direction. We hadn't wanted to even consider renting the house, but having it in trusted hands is a huge relief!
A good deal of our time has been spent, predictably, in preparation for leaving. I've been hemming all of Anabelle's pants into capris and getting size 3T clothes for Genevieve for when she grows out of the ones she's wearing now, although it seems like she'll never need them - that girl is constantly eating and never growing!
One shocker of the whole process has been that I have already received a calling in our new ward. That's right, I have a calling halfway around the world! I am going to be the online seminary teacher for the branch in Al Ain! For most of this last week, I have been going through all of the online teacher training programs. The more I learn about this program, the more excited I get. It's going to be a lot of work, but I think it will be really good for me. And hopefully for my students, too!
Goodness, I keep thinking of things that are going on that I can write about! Don't tell PJ, but I think he was probably right about this. I will add more soon. And perhaps some pictures, too!
August 29, 2012 (part II)
Whether I wanted my crazy Al Ain adventures to continue beyond Sunday or not, was a non-issue. Our first day of new-teacher orientation was scheduled for Monday at nine in the morning.
One of the lessons learned by anyone with hopes of staying sane while teaching in Abu Dhabi is to not have expectations... about anything. You've got to stay open and be flexible. Our orientation was no exception to the no expectation experience.
Our busses disgorged scores of new teachers at a lovely elementary school. We innocently bustled through the doors and into our old friend CHAOS!
Still more scores of new teachers were already milling about a largish cafeteria space, gradually forming into lines in front of tables with signs bearing one or more letters of the alphabet. No instructions were given, no explanations made, nobody had a clue.
Being a mature (*snort of derision*) sensible adult, I made a logical assumption and jumped into the "S" line, which was one of the longest. After about ten minutes of waiting, someone in line behind me introduced themselves. When I in turn introduced myself, this kind individual informed me that the lines were organized by first names, not last names.
I blinked. A couple times.
"First names?" I asked.
They nodded. And smiled.
I got in the "N-R" line, which was by this time even longer than the "S" line had been. *sigh* On the bright side, it's length was rapidly reduced as others in front of me vacated upon being informed of the odd alphabetical arrangement.
The reward at the end was worth the wait. I finally got my actual contract. (Why would a person quit his dream job, sell all his stuff, leave his beloved wife and children, fly to the other side of the world, without having first signed a contract, you ask? Good question. I try not to think about it too much. You should do the same.)
Once contracts were received, we were directed into the school's auditorium for an endless parade of partially pertinent presentations. All the teachers out there aren't amazed in the least by this alliterative announcement. It's part of the job.
But, while waiting for one of these meetings to begin, have you ever been asked to stand up and offer thanks to a particular presenter on behalf of everyone present? I can now say that I have.
"It's a cultural thing." the man sitting next to me said. (He too had been asked to voice appreciation.)
But, by the expressions of bewilderment on the faces of each successive speaker (bewilderment that grew greater each time
teacher stood), they had never heard of this "cultural thing" any more than I had.
What's even more amusing, the first assigned thanker did a very thorough job of thanking His Excellency in very eloquent words, leading each succeeding thanker to try and top his grateful expressions in both wordiness and length! Dude-awkward.
I, of course, was assigned to thank the day's final speaker. Being the rebel that I am (*snort of derision*), I broke with tradition and said a very short, but oh-so-heart-felt thank you and sat my numb-bum back down. (Several of my fellow educators later thanked me for my brevity.)
Other highlights of the day's presentations included a lengthy list of the things we may be fired for mentioning in front of students (including, but not limited to: pigs, dogs, dating, divorce, religions other than Islam, Israel, the Persian Gulf, politics, and Jackie Chan... I'm not sure about that last one, I may have been having another "Rush Hour" daydream and gotten them mixed up.)
We were also treated to a Q&A with some of Abu Dhabi's fine policemen. Did you know, that in the UAE, if you cause a car accident in which someone else is hospitalized, you have to stay in jail until the other guy gets out of the hospital? True. Pray you don't put someone in a lengthy coma.
At the conclusion of the presentations, I cornered a couple ADEC muckity-mucks and asked them how I could go about bringing Tara and the kids over ASAP. They regretfully informed me that I would have to pay for their plane tickets and then get reimbursed at some future date. The only other option is to wait for my residency visa to be issued. This could happen tomorrow, or five weeks from now. I nearly started crying. I really need my Tara.
Putting my anguish aside as best I could, I rushed over to the Marina Mall after the meetings to get birth certificates and our marriage license attested and translated. It cost me 1,350aed ($367.44 the most I've spent on anything since I got here.) I found out the next day that the company I used overcharged me considerably, but since they got them back to me the next day, I have a hard time caring. I really truly need my Tara, and these documents will help get her here sooner.
The next day of orientation was comprised of more individualized training in the emirate's educational framework. I walked away feeling overwhelmed and very impressed. I've learned a lot about the best educational practices during my time at FHMS, and these guys are on the ball. It's a beautiful and complicated system.
If the teachers, administrators, students, and parents actually buy into this and follow the system as outlined, this is going to be amazing! Here's hoping.
August 29, 2012 (part I)
It’s now been a week since I last posted. Why? Well, I’ll tell you, but don’t blame me if your head explodes from just how crazy busy I’ve been!
In conjunction with President Penny of the Al Ain LDS branch, it was decided that I should head down to Al Ain to get my apartment squared away in one fell swoop. To that end, I caught a ride with my friend Bryan of Denver, (met them in the Chicago airport and sat next to his way cool son Ian on the plane from Jordan to UAE). Connie Wood, another member of the LDS church, was also riding in the car. We got there just before four.
Since my apartment was still completely empty, I couldn’t do much by way of cleaning; no broom, sponge, or mop you see. Instead, I availed myself of the opportunity to chat it up with my grand neighbors. Again, I am very grateful to have been placed in a building full of such dude-wonderful people. (Proper usage of dude-adjectives was explained in the previous post.)
A little bit later, President Penny called to inform me that he had finished with helping another family. (At this point, little sprouts of guilt began to wiggle up within me; undoubtedly, Prez Penny has much that he would rather be doing than helping me. He’s already spent a good portion of his day helping some other lost lamb. Now, he’s coming over to solve all of my problems. *gulp*)
We went to a couple stores, bought some cleaning supplies, ran some errands, found some parts we’d need to hang curtains, and then returned to his lovely home. All in all, he was privileged to endure four hours of my goobery company. It’s a good thing he’s already talked with Tara, or else he might be feeling pretty picked upon to have had the Smalley family placed in his branch.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: the Penny’s are dude-amazing! The whole lot of them. I owe them big time; especially young Jonah, who had to endure sleeping on his brothers’ bedroom floor while I slept in his grand bed.
The next day, being Friday, we went to church. (We’ve talked about this; it’s perfectly normal. Read the post from a week ago if you need a refresher.) Again, it was fantastic. I was thoroughly impressed with the level of knowledge and preparation displayed in the sacrament talks. Utah saints need to pick it up a bit; these guys put you to shame. It might have something to do with how frequently they must be asked to speak as part of such a small group.
We went back to the Pennys’ home and rested for a bit before the
fun began. Moving! (With a quick cleaning out of dust in the apartment beforehand, so as not to filthify the furniture.) The stuff we had agreed to purchase from a family who had already moved back to the states had been stored over the summer in the church’s gatehouse. (Yeah, that’s right, our church has a gatehouse. Booyah!)
The rug that is now in our bedroom.
With the expert mover Iqbal leading the way, we very quickly loaded up two SUVs, a pick-up truck, and a large delivery truck with all of our furniture and such. President Penny mentioned that this was approximately the 25th time he had helped someone move in the UAE. (The guilt seedlings, which had already grown from stealing Jonah’s bed, were in full sapling mode by now.)
Our caravan made its way to our apartment, where the
fun began. Many trips up and down the stairs and 900aed ($246) for Iqbal and crew later, my stuff was in the apartment and we were ready for dinner and bed.
As fun as all that was, the
fun began on Saturday. The Prez and I did some serious furniture assembling and curtain installing. His goal was to show me how it was done, give me practice doing it, and make fun of me all the while. All points were amply accomplished.
A point of interest, when living in the UAE good curtains are a must. And installing good curtains in the UAE is a pain. Fortunately for me, Prez has done this onerous task dozens of times for others like me. (Guilt tree in full bloom.)
Now, at this point, I’ve got electricity, A/C, a bed, pizza, and cold water in the fridge, everything a normal person would need to STOP MOOCHING OFF THE POOR BRANCH PRESIDENT! Everything, that is, except internet. No internet, no skyping with Tara, no good. (I spend about three-four hours skyping with my wife and kids most days. It keeps me whole.)
Our living room.
So, for the third night, I imposed myself upon the too-incredible Penny family. (The guilt tree has grown to sequoia proportions. When I asked how I could ever repay their awesomeness, they simply answered, “Pay it forward.” To that end, Tara and I are thinking that when it comes time to buy a vehicle over here, it will be an SUV, so that we can perhaps take some of the burden off Prez’s mighty shoulders in the future; he does a lot of people-moving on Fridays and whenever there’s a church function. Since I can’t return to him the hours and hours he spent helping me, maybe I can at least save him some hours and hours in the future.)
Sunday morning, I showed the three Penny boys my Super Smash Bros skills. (Remember, there’s no church on Sundays; we did that on Friday.) I must say, they’re pretty good brawlers. It made me miss my FHMS crew a ton.
The girls' room. Notice the curtains covering the balcony door.
Once I was done displaying my gooberness, Prez dropped me off at my apartment, and I got to some serious cleaning. By the time afternoon rolled around, I had made quite a bit of progress. Everything’s in its place (pretty much), the dishes are done (mostly), the bathrooms are cleaned (nearly), and all’s well (except now I REALLY want Tara and the kids to be here!)
I was going to walk about until I found someone to point me to the bus station, but upon entering the hallway, I found my friends Bryan and Laura. They kindly offered me a ride back to Abu Dhabi, and my fruitful (guilt-berries anyone?) adventures in Al Ain came to an end.
August 21, 2012
Random large statue of a cannon in the middle of a busy Abu Dhabi street.
Anyone want to play a game of Risk? You should see the dice!
I went on another late night stroll yesterday evening. My goal was to make it to the New Souk. (A souk is a traditional market; you know, with the little booths and people sitting on rugs, maybe a snake charmer or two?) My map app on my iPad said it was 5.2 km. That's like 2.5 miles, right? No big deal. Besides, I really needed some pizza, and somebody said there was a Papa John's in that area.
I left the hotel around 7:30, turned my audiobook on, and started hoofin' it.
Twice, a cab driver stopped and gave me a, "who-are-you-kidding-pal-just-get-in-the-cab" look. I gave them both goobery grins and waved them on.
I've noticed, during my metropolitan excursions, that much of this shwanky city is under construction; buildings have cranes crawling about on their rooftops, roads are littered with orange barrels and detour signs, and sidewalks are closed at every turn. There is a much higher than average percentage of higher than average priced cars all around, but no matter the horsepower, nobody's going anywhere very fast. What you don't see much of, are busses. As far as Abu Dhabi public transit is concerned, taxis are option #1 of 1. As such, they're rather reasonably priced, (though, truth be told, I have no frame of reference with which to compare the taxis here; last week was actually my first time ever in a cab that I can remember.)
About twenty minutes into what would turn out to be a forty-five minute one-way walk, I passed a Figaro's Pizza. I saw people eating Figaro's in the Marina Mall the other night, and it had looked good, but I decided to hold out for a brand I had actually heard of/experienced myself. You know, so I could compare and have something to talk about.
By the time I made it to dot on my iPad labeled, The New Souk, I was dude-hungry (for those of you who've never been a student of mine, dude-
is defined as something being so
that you actually say, "Dude, I'm
or, "Dude, that was
As in, "Dude, that sandwich was tasty."="That sandwich was dude-tasty." Please, use your dude-adjectives wisely.)
Upon entering The New Souk, I was dude-disappointed. It was just another high-priced mall. By the number of yet unoccupied sites, it was a rather new high-priced mall, but there was nothing of real interest to see,
except a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, that is.
Somehow, seeing this sweet-shop from home on the opposite side of the planet, makes Utah seem just a little less special. I mean, seriously, what do we have that nobody else does?
~Dude-tasty candied apples- UAE has.
~Desert- UAE has.
~Road construction- UAE has.
~Large population of ultra-conservative, religious types- UAE has.
~Snow- they've got ski slopes INSIDE THEIR MALLS!
~Smalleys- they've even got one of those now!
*sigh* We just can't compete. I'll bet they've even got plans to build a full-size mountain range alongside the world-class beaches.
Like I said, other than the Rocky Mountainless Chocolate Factory, there really was nothing special. They had a couple of pseudo-souk stalls, but just to buy a gatra (traditional arab head garb for men, which is basically a 3'x3' piece of cloth with a bit of fringe) would have cost 135aed! ($36.74!) I really want to dress like a black-veiled Aiel, but that's a bit out of my price range.
So, feeling dude-dejected, I walked back the way I came, found Figaro's pizza, paid 42aed ($11.43) for a medium pizza of marginal quality, carried it back to my hotel, slumped up to my room, showered (I was dude-sweaty-gross), ate a slice, and went to bed at 10:45.
I think when it comes to seeking authentic cultural experiences, I'm going to hold off until I have a guide who actually knows where the dude they're going. (example of improper "dude" usage)
August 19, 2012
Here's an interesting fact that you may not have known: Friday is the Muslim holy day. It's also the first day of their weekend. Meaning, when I actually start teaching, I will be teaching Sunday-Thursday. It also means that if people of any other religion operating in the UAE want to have people attend their religious services, it would be wise to conduct said religious services on a day that people have off of work.
I went to church on Friday. Other than that rather insignificant detail though, it was pretty much the same as going to church in Kearns... well, almost.
Services were scheduled to start at ten a.m., so I woke up early enough to do the usual Sunday morning routine... except it was Friday... and without any kids... and on the 19th floor of a five-star hotel on the Arabian peninsula. Showered, shaved, ironed shirt, skyped with wife on the other side of the world, went down to eat at the breakfast buffet; you know, the usual stuff.
It was funny, actually, because as I entered the dining room at seven, it was rather empty. The only people there were four other families all dressed in their Sunday, I mean, Friday best. And we were all Mormons. We didn't plan it that way. We weren't even going to the same place. They were all going to visit the ward here in Abu Dhabi. (There are actually two full wards in Abu Dhabi, but they combine during the summer, because so many of their members leave on vacation.) I, on the other hand, was going to catch a ride with a stake high councilman to Al Ain. (Ain rhymes with rain, by the way. It almost sounds like you're saying the name Elayne, but it's Al on the front instead of El.)
The cab ride to their house was interesting, as most cab rides to anywhere other than a major attraction are in this country. Another interesting fact: did you know not all countries have addresses for their houses? They have street names for
of their streets here, but they don't have house numbers for anything! The big buildings, shopping centers, and neighborhoods have names, but not numbers related to anything outside of themselves. For instance, this nice couple lived in villa B31 (or something like that) in the Golf Gardens Village. They told me that if I told the driver it was next to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, he
be able to find it. Well he did. But, I was worried because I was already running late. The cab ride cost 55aed with the tip (about $14). I have no idea how that compares to a twenty-five minute cab ride back in the states.
Brother and Sister Knight were very pleasant. They told me lots of interesting things about living in this country, and I told them lots of random uninteresting things about myself. All in all, it was a very pleasant drive.
We made it to the meetinghouse with five minutes to spare. It's actually in a very beautiful villa near the border of UAE and Oman. The sacrament meeting was held in the large front entryway/livingroom area. There were about twenty-five people there. (Just like at home, remember?)
It actually reminded me a lot of Sundays on my mission in Maribor. Except we would have been
to have ten members in church. And this was Friday. And their building was way nicer than ours. And I'm not a nineteen year old missionary any more. Now, I'm fresh meat.
I felt like a new RM in a single's ward! Everyone was so excited to meet me. Lovely bunch of people, really. A bit misguided perhaps, but they'll learn the error of their assumptions once they get to know me, I'm sure.
The meeting itself was absolutely lovely. Very peaceful and heart-warming. (Might have had something to do with the lack of rambunctious children for whom I was responsible.)
An incredible man from a different middle-eastern country spoke about his conversion story, followed by two members from two entirely different regions of the world. Very intercontinental, all in all.
The next surprise was that we only had one class after Sacrament. Apparently, during the summer time, it's hard to know with any certainty who will be present on a given, uh, Friday, so they combine classes and cut one to make sure they're not left with too many surprise teacher absences. The level of participation and thoughtfulness of the comments made were impressive. I was again uplifted and edified.
After class was over, I was fortunate enough to be present for their monthly potluck social. The meal was delicious, not just because it was the first non-breakfast meal I had eaten since President Penny took me to Fuddruckers on Sunday, either.
Somehow, I ended up sitting at the young men's table. (Uh-oh) We talked about the food, interesting things they've done while living in UAE, what it's like attending such a small branch, and, of course, video games. I want to say I didn't start it, but I can't remember, and I probably did. *sigh* I'm a nerd.
Following the meal, we all cleaned up, and I got to see where they were storing all of our furnishings left for us by the Richardsons who moved back to the US earlier this summer. It's hard to tell what it looks like/what condition it's in when it's all piled into two small rooms, but I'm excited to get it all moved to our apartment. Assuming I ever get down there and get it cleaned out, that is.
President Penny next took me to their house where we relaxed for a little while until it was time for him to head to Abu Dhabi to meet with some of the other members living in the hotel.
They're a wonderful and very intelligent family. And I'm not just saying that because their oldest son loves The Wheel of Time. But that certainly doesn't hurt. I fear I may have further revealed my nerdy colors while conversing with Riley about the wonderful world of Robert Jordan. *sigh*
On the drive back to the hotel, President Penny subtly interrogated me to determine where Tara and I may best be put to use within the branch. It's obvious he's done this before, because I really couldn't tell what kinds of callings he's looking to fill by his questions/comments. (I'm a little nervous, truth be told.)
Besides skyping with Tara (something I take any excuse to do as much as possible), that was about it for Sunday, I mean Friday.
On Saturday, I followed my usual basic routine of skyping, exercising, breakfasting, reading, writing, doing laundry (not fun washing clothes in a bathtub, I'll tell you what), napping, and playing Wii (nerd, remember?).
While doing laundry and listening to the Book of Mormon on my iPad, I began to think about how it is that men like those in the scriptures, President Penny (really impressed by the man already) and others I have known, become superhuman heroes. It led me down an interesting trail and inspired me to go study the matter. My conclusions were very personal and transcendent. I feel that August 18, 2012 will be a day upon which I will think back often throughout the rest of my life. All I feel to say here is, reading with an intent to learn is powerful stuff.
That big building with the dome on the left, is just the gate! The palace is in the background, and it's huge!
Once the sun dropped, I decided to go for a walk about town. In the Muslim world, it was the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a holiday known as Eid. It's supposed to be quite the experience for those who've never seen it before. I still wouldn't know, as I couldn't find any festivities.
I started out by walking to the Emirate's Palace. But it looked closed to visitors, so I continued on to the Marina Mall again to get some batteries and food.
By the way, if you've ever had Popeye's chicken in the US and you absolutely loved it, like me, don't expect it to taste the same over here, because it doesn't.
After the mall, I walked down what's known as the Corniche, basically the seaside road. Somebody on Facebook said there would be some celebrations going on there tonight. There weren't. So, I headed back to the hotel. All told, I walked for about two hours and saw little. It was nice to get out, nonetheless.
August 17, 2012
Here's a tip for you: if you're ever in Abu Dhabi in, oh say, middle of Augustish, walking two blocks to the grocery store at three in the afternoon may not be what you would call a pleasant stroll. It's bearable, but just barely. (See what I did there? Funny.)
Two blocks? Two blocks is easy, you say. Yep. That's what I said. Well, it's not hard in the way that earning a college degree is hard. It's not even hard like working a twelve hour shift is hard. But it's a lot harder than a simple two block walk
you happen to be in Abu flippin' Dhabi in August!
Look, I'm not stupid; I knew it was going to be hot out there. I even knew that it was going to be hot
humid. What I
know, was that sweat would be running down my back after I had gone less than half a block; we're talking five minutes here! I
know that my socks would get soggy walking on dry pavement. I mean, my socks have gotten soggy before, plenty of times. Usually, however, socks in such a condition would have indicated rain, puddles, rivers, or even spontaneous frolicking among some sprinklers. I'm telling you, there were no sprinklers! (Actually, I did see some overworked sprinklers trying desperately to keep a pitiful patch of pale grass alive, but my socks were already well soaked before that point! And there was certainly no frolicking.)
How did this all come about you ask. Well, Mr. Nosypants, like I said in my last post, yesterday was a free day. I sat around throughout the morning writing amusing accounts of adventures had by me here in Abu Dhabi for your reading pleasure, as well as a few new pages in my book, with a little Wii playing action to vary the monotony, and as is wont to happen, I got bored. And hungry. Naturally, that, coupled with my miserly tendencies, led me to seek food, distraction, with a low price tag all rolled into one factory wrapped package.
I've come to find that living in a five star hotel, one may easily find the first two sought objects with minimal ease, but the third (the low price tag, for those who don't care to go back and count) is nowhere to be found within said premises.
Therefore, I was very naturally and logically led to the reasonable conclusion that I must go out to seek my food and diversion on foot to avoid unnecessarily adding taxi expenses. So there! Now stop looking at me like I'm an idiot.
I went to a cool little market called Spinney's. I had heard it mentioned by more experienced expat teachers as a place to find a fair supply of American foodstuffs. Now, before you scoff at me for eschewing authentic cultural cuisine, let me say that my intention besides said diversion and eating was to find evidence for my readers back home that I am not living in a tent in the dessert munching on fried spider legs. You see, my kids can have their Oreos, Fruit Loops, Jif, Fritos, Spaghettios, and cheddar cheese. And I can even have my Betty Crocker cake mix! (Don't freak out, those aren't dollars on the price tag; they're Dirham; $1 = 3.6 dirhams. So a Betty Crocker cake mix only costs $2.56, and it's worth every penny.) So, before you start feeling bad for us and sending care packages with Colgate and Pace salsa, know that we've already got them. It's just a little more expensive. So if you want to help, send money! (Again, funny.) For those of you who are planning on visiting us though, you may want to bring your own Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce; mine will be all gone by the time you get here.
The saddest part about my little pilgrimage across the 1/2 mile of asphalt desert, was that they had Magnum ice cream bars in the freezer section. The almond kind. I've been looking for almond Magnums pretty much since I got off my mission nine years ago. AND I COULDN'T BUY ONE!
Explanation: In the Muslim world right now, they are celebrating the month of Ramadan. During the holy month of Ramadan, faithful Muslims fast during daylight hours. No food, no water, from sun-up to sun-down. In Muslim countries, like UAE, they ask foreign visitors, like me, to show respect for the men and women who are practicing their religion by abstaining from drinking or eating food, like Magnums, in public...
Those who know me, can picture the slack-jawed expression on my face as this mental battle was waged in my brain while I stared at these delicious frozen confections. "Can't eat in public. Ice cream will melt during walk back to hotel room. Eat ice cream in bathroom? No, too gross. Buy ice cream and eat in an alley somewhere? What if I get caught? They might take my ice cream and throw it on the ground. That would make me cry. That might make them think Americans are weak. They might launch an assault against America, killing millions. Plus, the dang thing cost 8 dirham. That's like $2. I'm not wasting $2."
Instead, I bought a jar of Jif and a loaf of caramelized onion bread. (Those who know me, know that this more than made up for the whole "Magnum Storm" incident. [That's what the newspapers would have called the war that I averted by not buying the ice cream.]) I slogged my way back to the hotel. (Remember, I'm slogging because my socks are soggy. One can't help but slog when they have soggy socks. Try it, you'll see.) And that was about the end of the day.
(And that, my students, is how you turn a simple sentence like, "It was really hot when I went to the store today." into 961 words of reading fun.)
August 16, 2012
Today is a rest day. Which means, there's nothing scheduled for us to be doing, even though I'm sure there are plenty of things I should be doing. I mentioned to Jonathon Penny that I feel like I don't know anything anymore. I've been given vague impressions that there are papers I need to fill out to get electricity turned on in the apartment, there's something I need to do with Tara and the kids' birth certificates to enable them to come over, somebody mentioned something about getting banking cards, but I don't actually
how to do any of them! It's a little scary, actually.
Luckily, all of us teachers in the hotel are already rather tightly knit. We try to keep each other apprised of what's going on as any of us receive official word on anything. Unfortunately, this also leads to the spawning of countless unverifiable rumors. Which, of course, makes it hard to believe anything you're told. *sigh*(I seem to be doing that more as of late.)
Yesterday was not a rest day. We were divided into four separate groups with assigned times to go have medical exams done. I was in the last group. As is my custom, I made my way to the lobby early and waited for the rest of the group to assemble. I spent the time chatting and acquainting myself with my fellow adventurers. The more that I do so, the more I pity America for the pluthera of good teachers it is losing. These are not slouches seeking an easier job and a bigger paycheck. These are adventurous, skilled, dedicated educators hoping to make a difference in the world. America needs to do something soon if they ever hope to salvage its struggling educational system.
View of Abu Dhabi's downtown from my hotel room.
Half an hour after we were scheduled to leave, we loaded onto the mini busses and zig-zagged our way across town to one of Abu Dhabi's many high rises.
Thirty or so of us crammed ourselves into elevators, rode to the top floor, and stepped off into chaos incarnate. There was already a substantial line of ADEC teachers from the previous group waiting non-too-patiently for their turn to be fingerprinted, x-rayed, examined, poked, and analyzed. I've heard other teachers complain about how disorganized it was, but honestly, I thought they did an admirable job considering the sheer number of people that had to be processed and the inherent language barrier. Sure, I was there for three hours, but it's not like they were wasting any time. Every single employee that I could see was actively doing their best to move the process along. And I'll tell you what, they were quick. These people know their business, no doubt.
At long last, I was duly processed and set free to wait on the bus for others to finish. While waiting, I was privileged to listen to the complaints of teachers who are dissatisfied with their assigned living arrangements. At least one of whom, lives in my building.
I am convinced that were any one of these people given the exact same apartment and told that it was the best apartment that any of the teachers in the entire country had been given, they would be thrilled with their situation. The only reason they are so disgruntled, is because they had heard how beautiful some of the other complexes were, and they got their hopes up. When they saw that their apartment was a little smaller, or further, or pool-less, they became jealous and like five year-olds began whining for the bigger cookie. *sigh*
Upon returning to the hotel, I was called by my friends from Denver and invited to return with Ryan in his rented car to Al Ain. We were hoping that they had slipped our leases and applications for utilities under our doors as they had promised. They had not.
However, it was a great opportunity to get to know my new neighbors and to make sure that we could actually find the place. I had previously located the building on Google maps, so I had the coordinates, ( 24.211998, 55.720242 ) and my iPad was able to track our location even without internet. But, it was good to know that it was findable.
August 14, 2012
Yesterday, I saw the ugly side of Abu Dhabi's laidback attitude. I woke up at six o'clock, hit the gym, showered, ate breakfast (delicious food, but the dining room is much more mundane. It's not elegant or interesting like Beach Rotana), skyped with Tara, and then went down to the lobby to get on the Al Ain bound bus.
The enthusiasm amongst the teachers was palpable. However, it was tinged with a hint of apprehension. Afterall, whatever our living arrangements are, they're ours for the next two years. There's no arguing, appealing, or altering allowed.
We filled four mini-busses. In our bus, heading to the Ali Saeed Bin Harmal building, were two of the other LDS families. Also present was the nice family from Denver I met in Chicago. Actually, there were quite a few youngsters on our bus. Which means, all these youngsters will be living in the same building. That's a good thing, in my opinion. It might make our building a little louder at times, but it will also means that Anabelle, Porter, and Genevieve will have friends to play with.
The highway to Al Ain is a beautifully maintained stretch of road. Connie Wood told me that the Sheik of UAE is from Al Ain, so they planted palm trees and greenery along its entire length. They have separate speed limits for cars and larger vehicles, including busses. Unfortunately, that meant what could have been an hour and a half ride, took a full two hours, plus a rest stop.
When we got to Al Ain, we pulled into a gorgeous neighborhood of villas and apartments. I asked my bus driver if our building was in this area. He hesitated and then replied with an unsure affirmative. I was totally excited.
My enthusiasm would not last, however. The man in charge of the expedition, pulled everyone off one of the other busses and led them away, presumably to their apartments. And we waited. And waited.
After forty minutes or so, he came back... and led away another group of teachers. And we waited.
At this point, many people on our bus became tired of waiting. So they got off to get some fresh air. I was sitting in the front passenger seat, but I did not have a door of my own, so getting out was complicated, and, though the air conditioning on the bus was not impressive in its strength, I knew it would be cooler than the desert heat outside, so I decided to stay in the bus.
A few minutes later, I was shocked out of my heat-stupor when the bus driver nudged me and pointed out the front window. Wendy Penny was in her car waving at me! She pulled into the stall beside us and I got out.
For the next half hour or so, I enjoyed her much better A/C and company. I told her I thought our building was somewhere in this area. She told me that her family and many of the other LDS families lived in the same neighborhood. She then proceeded to tell me how amazing and incredible the Village, as it's called, was.
So, when our bus finally pulled out to take us to our building, you can imagine how disappointed I was when we left the Village.
As we left the parking lot, our bus and the one we were following passed the Nirvana Travel Agency representative's Porsche and drove off without him. I remember thinking at the time, that this was probably not a good idea. The next hour and a half wandering aimlessly through the streets of Al Ain, would prove my premonition to be true.
I will spare you the details of the boring trip and skip ahead to when we finally reconnected with the man in the Porsche and he led us to our building.
After seeing the Village, I was a bit underwhelmed to be truthful. The building itself is beautiful, brand new, modern looking. But, as you can see from the picture, the landscaping leaves something to be desired. As far as we could tell, there's really nothing in our area that would make this a great place for families with little kids, but it's where they chose to put ALL of the families with young children.
Inside, the halls are nice, with white marble everywhere. But, there are also signs that things are still not finished here either.
We tried to maintain our positive attitude as they handed out keys, though. As soon as we had those keys in our posession, we all took off to see the apartments themselves.
They are gorgeous! Lots of that same white marble everywhere, high ceilings, plenty of storage space. It has three fair sized bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, a large living room, a balcony off each bedroom, a very nice kitchen, and a maid's room (which is smaller than many walk-in closets I've seen).
I'm very excited about living here for the next two years. Like I said before, my only real concern is for the lack of a neighborhood.
Once we were all finished checking out our places, we got back on the bus and drove another two hours back. In the end we were gone for seven hours, all but 30 minutes of which, were spent sitting on the bus.
Needless to say, by the time we got back to the Intercontinental, we were dude tired.
August 13, 2012
Beach Rotana's lobby ceiling.
Much to be said. It's amazing how much noteworthy conversational material one comes upon while living in a completely foreign environment. If one were to look back at the older posts, (click on the Smalley Stories link on the left), one would notice that even while packing and cleaning an entire house, going on some awesome road trips/vacations, and preparing to embark on an epic adventure, I really didn't have much to talk about.
Now, even though a lot of my time is spent sitting alone in a nice-but-dull hotel room, the excursions outside are all comment-worthy.
To continue with my narration, after my meanderings through the mall, I stopped to fill out an application for a required local bank account, and subsequently returned to my room. Then, I called Tara and the kids again, went back to the gym, (did I mention that Tara and I have a bet on to see who can lower their BMI the most while we are apart? She's so going down!), showered, set up my Wii and played some Xenoblade Chronicles, (thanks to Joaquin Coleman for the recommendation), went to bed, got up, back to the gym (Tara seriously has no chance!), and back to the glorious buffet, (ok, maybe Tara has a little bit of a chance). *pause* (I feel I must interrupt my comma-ridden list of activities to describe the buffet a little. The dining room itself is positively gorgeous. Its ceiling is eight stories up and there are plenty of windows. In the center there is a lovely fountain surrounded by well ordered tables. A dozen or more attendants in crisp white shirts, black vests, and ties stand about ready to fulfill your least desire. Selections of meats, cheeses, fruits, breads, pastries, and breakfast cereals are provided to tempt and please. They offer several varieties of American looking cereals, but don't be fooled; they don't taste the same. My favorite part would be the two chefs standing ready to cook eggs and omelets to order. Sadly, there are no pork products of any kind.)
Once I consumed more than is strictly wise for a single individual in true buffet style, we were off to our first orientation meeting. In the foyer, they had posted lists telling who would be living in Abu Dhabi and who would be sent to the western regions of the country. My name was on neither list. This was comforting and worrying at the same time. It was comforting because I expected to be placed in Al Ain, not Abu Dhabi city or the western region. It was worrying because I had just become an exception, an oversight, an error. More experienced teachers here had warned us that such things would happen and to remain calm and not worry. So, calm I remained. Signs led us to a gran ballroom filled with chairs facing a typical raised platform with a microphone lined table and podium. There were the usual screens for displaying powerpoint presentations and bags on the seats with papers and booklets.
The actual presentations were short, to the point, and rather unenlightening. When it was opened up to questions from the audience, however, things got interesting. It seems that those who were chosen to go teach/live in the western regions were a bit concerned about the situation. They had many questions about living arrangements, accommodations, roommates (yikes), etc.
It became quickly clear that they would be dominating the scene for some time yet, so I slipped out, rushed to my room to grab my wallet which I had stupidly forgotten, and proceeded to the business center to make copies of the stamp in my passport since it was mentioned that I might need those.
When I returned to the ballroom, they had just begun the process of filling out applications for bank accounts. Even though I had done this the day before, they required me to do it again. But, I had nowhere else to go, so I didn't mind.
Once it became clear that they were about to release us to go get housing packets, including keys to our apartments, I slipped out again and got in line.
Almost immediately, my fears of being an oversight were realized. I was redirected to a separate line where they determined that I was indeed listed as living in Al Ain. Great! (Said in an excited voice with much enthusiasm.) Except, everyone who is supposed to be living in Al Ain, was supposed to have been checked into a different hotel. Great. (Said in a flat voice with no enthusiasm at all.)
I was instructed to get into the "turn-in-your-entry-permit-and-passport line" then rush to my room to pack. The line had filled up in the meantime, so I had to wait for close to an hour and then rush to my room.
Did I mention that just that morning I had finished UNPACKING the last of my bags? No? Well I had. A little bit frustrating. I got it all stuffed into my bags, dragged them down to the lobby, and... waited. Waited for an hour and a half for the four other people who had needed to be moved to the other hotel.
They took my luggage and asked me to wait in the van. I politely, (and very wisely) declined. Instead I sat in the gorgeous lobby and chatted with several of the other misplaced teachers. Very nice fellows.
Finally, we were taken to our new hotel, the Intercontinental, where we were informed that our rooms were not quite ready and we would need to wait some more. *sigh* Frustrating.
This hotel is also very nice. But, not quite as classy. Plus, it was obvious that the staff here had already suffered their fill of whiny Americans. They were a little brusque with us. Also, the internet is slower and the gym is smaller/less well equipped.
View from my room at the Intercontinental. (The Sheik's palace is on the far left.)
Otherwise, my room is larger, has a better view, a wonderful shower, and more storage space. I shall endeavor not to complain too much about my five star accommodations.
I proceeded to unpack, again, and rest a bit. I fiddled with the TV for a while, which sadly doesn't have the proper connections for my Wii, and then contacted my wonderful wife again. It's clear that the separation goes no easier for her than for me. In fact, since she has three small children to care for and the all the moving-to-the-other-side-of-the-world preparations which I didn't finish to take care of, it's safe to say that she's stressed more than me.
While I skyped with Tara, I was also waiting for the president of the LDS branch in Al Ain to come visit me. We have been in contact for some time now, and he asked if he could come meet me.
Before long, he, his wife, and eldest son showed up. I got to sit and chat with Wendy and her son while Jon went to chat with some other LDS members here in the hotel. When he returned they offered to take me out to dinner. We drove to a nearby mall, (crazy cool mall. Very fancy and lively, quite large too.) We had dinner at Fuddruckers... weird, I know. Seriously, who would name a restaurant Fuddruckers? It's not exactly an appetizing name, is it?) It was comforting, reassuring, strengthening to chat with people with whom I have so much in common, and who already care about me and my family. The Penny family is an awesome bunch. I'm really excited to get to know them better.
They brought me back to the hotel around eleven. (Meaning they wouldn't get home to Al Ain until after midnight!) I skyped with Tara for a bit and then went straight to bed, as Monday morning we are scheduled to go see our apartments in Al Ain.
August 11, 2012
Somewhere between Utah and Abu Dhabi, I seem to have lost an entire day... if anyone sees it lying about, would you please mail it to me? I'm in the Beach Rotana Hotel; just leave it for me at the front desk.
To continue where I left off last time, the flight from Salt Lake to Chicago was uneventful and easy. I have been saving the last two books of The Wheel of Time for just this occasion. I listened to Michael Kramer and Kate Reading narrate one of my all time favorite series while I played games on my iPad, and before I knew it, I was in Chicago.
Marching through the busy corridors of the massive O'Hare airport, I began to detect hints of the culture shock that awaited me beyond my secluded little salt lake valley. I actually had to leave the airport, get on a train, travel a couple miles, reenter the airport, recheck-in with the airline, and go through security again before I could actually get to my departure gate. Observing as much as I could while on this mini-expedition, I noticed that there was a much, much higher percentage of racial diversity present. In fact, from the moment I stepped into terminal five to the present, I have remained in the minority. Those who know me, know that such things do not bother or phase me; I'm a smiling goober no matter who may be watching. But, my gooberness seems to attract even more attention in mixed-culture company.
I was privileged to personally witness one cultural difference of which I had previously been warned; while waiting in line at the Royal Jordanian ticket counter, four separate groups of men from elsewhere coldly cut right to the front of the line without so much as a by-your-leave or a blush. This happened quite a few more times during the journey.
While waiting in the O'Hare, I called my Tara and chatted for quite a while. Again the weight of my extended absence from my family sparked questions in my own mind regarding my sanity and the worthwhileness of this whole endeavor. When you're married to someone as amazing as Tara, every minute away is a hefty cost to pay. The only argument that has sustained my drive to continue this quixotic adventure, is the knowledge that this short time away will very soon lead to much more time together! AND if all goes according to plan, it will enable years and years of extra Tara-time that would otherwise have been missed while she was at work. *sigh* I can hardly wait.
During the flight from Chicago to Amman, Jordan, the tutorial-for-world-traveling-newbies continued. I initially sat beside a middle-eastern older lady in a row of four seats. Shortly after the plane leveled out, her husband got up and sat in a seat with another empty seat next to it, giving himself and the woman an extra seat to set their stuff on and spread out. Of course, she chose to still sit right next to the 6'6" guy who could obviously use a little more space. About an hour later, she asked me if I would mind moving to an empty seat across the aisle next to some poor young chap who was trying to nap.
"Okay, sure." I said. Slightly perplexed, I got up and moved. The travel-wise woman then stretched herself out across the three seats! I was surprised by her temerity, but since I left my backpack under the seat where I had been sitting, thus gaining me the ability to stretch my legs, I didn't mind so much.
The plane was large and well equipped. I could have watched Hunger Games, but chose not to, so I could watch it with Tara when she comes. They served us some fancy TV dinner looking stuff that was m'eh. I tossed, turned, struggled with my seatbelt, had my foot run over a couple times by food carts and passengers headed for the lavatory, lamented ever being able to fall asleep, and then woke up seven hours later.
It was an odd sensation. I fell asleep at 11:00ish pm Chicago time, which was 10:00ish Utah time, then woke up at like 3:00 pm local time after only sleeping seven hours. It was the afternoon light from the window which my seat-neighbor had uncovered that woke me. The moving map on my TV screen said we were over Slovenia. That was cool, even though I couldn't see anything for the clouds.
Once awake, the headphones and iPad came out again, and just like that, I was landing in Amman, Jordan.
The trek through this airport was not long, but certainly strange. There was no sense of order or urgency to be seen. People wandered and meandered aimlessly. I was directed to the wrong gate, then denied access to the correct gate until a designated time. So, I found a patch of wi-fi, and began trying to make contact with my wife. I sent several emails, iPad text messages, and even asked everyone on Facebook to call her and tell her to check her messages. Unfortunately, she had not been expecting me to be able to make contact until later, so she had gone shopping.
While waiting, I met up with a few other Abu Dhabi bound teachers, including a family that I had met in Chicago who had three boys the same ages as my own children. I had been watching them carefully throughout this leg of the trip to get an idea of what it might be like for Tara. I came to the conclusion that I suck. It's going to be really tough for them, I think. Genevieve is going to want to be held constantly, and Porter is going to run amuck. I'm trying to convince Tara to forego the carryon suitcases and bring a stroller for Ginny instead. Even still, though, I think it will be really unfun for them.
Once we made it through another security check, we were left to wait in a smelly, crowded "terminal" for forty minutes, before loading us on a diesel-fume-filled bus and driving us to the plane.
On board, I ended up sitting next to the teacher family I had met. Actually, I was sitting next to their youngest. It was no deep mystery that he was getting tired of this whole traveling thing. I did my best to distract and amuse him, and I think I made a new little friend in the process.
I very easily could have fallen asleep on the three hour plane ride, but I chose not to. We touched down in Abu Dhabi at 11:53 pm on Friday. I left Salt Lake 11:05 am on Thursday, flew 3 hours, waited in Chicago for 4 1/2 hours, flew 12 hours, waited 2 1/2 hours, and flew 3 more. That means I was travelling for about 24 hours, but because of the timezone changes I lost an extra ten hours. So, though it was midnight here in AD, it felt like 2 pm to me.
Of the four airports I saw in this trip, the AD International was the nicest by far. It didn't hurt that there was an army of wonderful travel agency employees there to guide us step by step. The very first thing we saw upon exiting the plane, was a man holding an iPad with the message "ADEC teachers" displayed on it. He pointed us down a hall where we were asked our names and given lanyards and badges marking us as ADEC Teachers!
Next, we were taken to a small room where they scanned our eyes, (not sure what they were looking for). I had to slouch in the chair to fit in front of the machine. Then we waited in lines to have our passports stamped. All the way through the airport, we felt like rockstars. Nirvana (our travel agency, not the band) employees held back crowds, told us which hotel we'd be in, waved us to the front of lines, smiled, and made it all so simple.
We came to the baggage carrousels, waited, chatted, laughed, and gathered our luggage. There were plenty of free baggage carts to use and lots of helpful airport workers.
As we waited for everyone to gather their belongings, I found myself being particularly gooberish. It's well known that when I'm nervous, I joke... a lot. The other teachers didn't seem to mind too much though.
Before too long, we were loaded into a bus and zipped off through the beautiful sleeping city. The lot of us oohed and aahed at the sights as they whizzed by. I snapped a picture of the plastic grapes hanging from the van's rearview mirror.
Taken in a different van on Monday.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we were again welcomed through the elegant halls to a ballroom where we were greeted, given drinks (orange juice with a splash of cranberry juice on the bottom), and instructions.
At long last, I made my way to my room on the seventh floor, set up the wi-fi (paid for by ADEC, otherwise it would be >$20 a day!), and skyped Tara and the kids. We talked for a good long while, (until three or four o'clock AD time). It was great to see and hear them. They really are my world.
When I woke up this morning, I worked out in the gym, took a shower, unpacked a little, ate a delicious buffet breakfast, and then called Tara again. This time it was night in Utah.
After sending her off to bed, I went out and wandered around the Abu Dhabi mall. I ended up buying a power strip for my American plugs, some hair mousse, and a bit of laundry detergent so I can wash my clothes in the tub. All together it cost me about $15. Later, I bought a prepaid sim card for my phone for another $15.
All in all, it's been a great first day.
August 9, 2012
At the present moment, I am sitting in the Salt Lake City International Airport. In about 25 hours, I will be in Abu Dhabi. An hour ago, I left Tara and my three children for at least a month. Dude.
It didn't really start sinking in until last night just how much of a change this was going to be. Judging by the gargantuan butterflies rampaging in my gut, it has now officially sunk in.
I got the itinerary email while we were on vacation in California, last Friday. Originally, I had expected to receive it on the 29th or 30th, but as everyone already in UAE continually warns me, what you expect is rarely what you get.
The email actually listed all of our names with instructions to reply and indicate who would actually be flying out. When Tara saw her name on the itinerary, she thought they had made a mistake, and she was glad. It's like when you flip a coin to decide where you want to go for dinner, and you feel a thrill of exhileration when the place you secretly wanted wins. We took most of the day rethinking our decision for me to go alone. Eventually, common sense won out, again. Five people in a hotel room for a month does not sound like fun. But, living on the other side of the world from my family will be the hardest thing I've ever done... adulthood stinks.
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Turn off "Getting Started"