Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Relocation, relocation...

It seems we may well be on the move again. Dell's Middle Eastern HQ is in Dubai and hubby's newly acquired knowledge from our Texas trip is mostly required there, plus he's temporarily picked up the management of a mega-project in the Emirates.

I know little of Dubai except that size seems ot matter! Apart from being the most populous of the Emirates, the state is the home of the world's tallest building and the world's largest shopping mall. More relevant, there are several yacht clubs and a huge marina development plus a very large ex-pat community.

The currency is the dirham (AED) and apparently the coins have only Arabic numerals on them, all that practise with number plates here in Bahrain may just have been worth it. There is approximately 5.75AED to the UK pound or put another way 1 dirham is just over 17p, sounds like I better practise my seventeen times table. For my Bahraini readers 1 BHD is around 9.75 AED which makes for slightly easier maths when in the supermarket (divide by ten), both currencies are pegged to the US dollar.

At least it's not so far to transport ourselves being only about 300 miles or so away from Bahrain as the crow flies. So how to relocate? Here's my plan so far:
  • Step 1: Find somewhere to live - a quick web search throws up hundreds of apartments and villas for rent, there is apparently a surplus so we can hope for a good deal of around 150K AED per annum (you can do the maths). Rent appears to paid annually in a number of cheques, no idea how that works but I'll let you know when I do. And the tenant pays the agency fees - wierd - as well as a small deposit.
    Dell's office is close to Dubai Marina. Jumirah Beach is slightly further along the coast (south?) but offers seaviews. Then there is Emirate Hills, billed as the Holywood of Dubai, just inland with views over lakes and the green grass of the golf course(s), I could do green views but can we afford them!
    We know our requirements and preferences - car parking, integrated air con, minimum of 2 bedrooms, swimming pool, gym and if possible a seaview. The problem will be identifying fully furnished apartments to our taste from a distance as few of the web sites have interior pictures. So I am heading there on Saturday for a week to scout around whilst Kevin is working.
  • Step 2: If the move is definite we will need to ship our personal effects again, groan. Gulf Agencies acted locally for our UK shippers and were great when we moved to Bahrain, collecting our stuff at the docks, arranging painlessly the customs clearance, delivering to the door and unpacking. So will ask them for advice on Dubai's import regulations, how long it takes (possibly it will go by road via Saudi not sea?) and importantly for a quote.
It will be sad to leave our new friends in Bahrain and to have to sell Shawa'al but there's an exciting new adventure in prospect with new places to explore, new friends to meet. As Dubai is only a short hour and a quarter hop by plane we can always come back to the island for holidays!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Gulf Widow

This is it the weekend is over and a week on my own as a "Gulf Widow" to come. There are plenty of these in Bahrain, expats who prefer the lifestyle here to living in a compund in Saudi. The wife and kids live and go to school here whilst hubby works over the border in one of the Saudi cities nearby returning home on a Wednesday evening for the weekend.

I can't complain as most weeks Kevin is home for 3 or 4 evenings with occasional overnight stays in Kuwait, Dubai or elsewhere in the region. This week however he is working at regional HQ in Dubai all week so I have to occupy myself until Thursday evening. Dropped him off at dawn at the airport. Drove back home past hordes of locals out jogging or walking in the "cool" of the morning round the shore at Hidd. It was already more than 30 degrees and so humid my glasses steamed up as the car door was opened!

Plenty to do though - usual housework stuff like the laundry plus we are off to celebrate the passing of summer with Oktober Fest at the Gulf Hotel on Thursday evening so I need a Dirndl. Pattern ideas are relatively easy to come by on the web but suitable fabric may be harder... we'll see. Need some cotton preferably in a pastel shade either plain or with a small sparse spriggy print for the skirt.

Must also try to track down a missing pillow case and get the dishwasher fixed. The former probably went AWOL when hubby laundered the bedding in my absence over the summer; we use the downstairs machines for this as the washer drier in the apartment is full with a couple of pairs of trousers and a handful of undies, so will interrogate the staff.


The dishwasher basically doesn't and ends the cycle with an "E3" error which the book of instructions says is failure to reach temperature. In the past few days we've had several visits from building maintenance but no one has actually been near the machine as they've not got the parts and or the dishwasher repair man.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Jet Lagged and Mouldy

Landed in Bahrain before 5am this morning, some 50 minutes earlier than scheduled after a very fast trip from LHR. Thx for looking after us so nicely Gulf Air - edible food (in fact I'd go so far as to say the lamb dish was yummy, lots of cinamon and fall-apart tender), hot coffee, wine and cosy, fleece blankets plus smiling, happy staff who want to make your flight as pleasant as possible - such a contrast to Saturday nights flight with grumpy Continental. And no excess baggage charges (again unlike Contintental) despite two heavy suitcases, two solar panels (taped to become one box) and four albeit small, carry on bags. We've definitely joined the long haul crowd.

An impromptu car hire at the airport got us home and to the super market, though Kevin later organised a longer term rental starting tomorrow with a Saudi permit. At 5am Elite's airport branch (2 men in a tiny cubicle) were in rent-a-wreck mode but it's got wheels so will do until tomorrow. We probably won't even go to the garage to put some much needed air in the tyres and certainly won't be cleaning the ashtray out.


When we left the terminal building, bleary eyed, the humidity hit us. It was the same temperature as an Austin afternoon but almost foggy, instantly everything was damp. A quick drive back to the flat.  Everything in the living room was a bit disordered, the rug rolled up. We soon discovered why. During our lengthy absence the humidity had brought mould to our un-aired flat despite the fact that the aircon and extractor fans were left on. Oddly only the living room and kitchen have been invaded.

The Belvedere staff had fought the mould as best they were able at intervals over the past few weeks, apparently serveral flats, even occupied ones are suffering due to the high humidity. I wiped down photo frames,shelves and ornaments, then threw away the t-bags and the coffee. The latter was a solid block in the jar and the former green - yuk! Someone spirited away my collection of cork and woven table mats whilst we were at the supermarket at lunchtime... presumably to give them a scrub as they'd all grown fur coats. Even the iron in a kitchen cupboard was looking a little fluffy. Will have another go tomorrow and take all the books off the shelves etc. Too tired to worry too much more about it today.

Having flown on three airplanes since Saturday lunchtime and now 8 hours ahead of Texas my brain wants to sleep and my stomache thinks its breakfast. We did sleep on the long haul legs but it obviously wasn't enough. Feel like I've just finished a Fastnet and been partying all night!

Have stepped on the scales...was dreading this as waistbands were feeling a more than a little tight in recent days. Despite a month of eating out Texas style (ie obscene amounts of food) I seem to have only put on a couple of kilos. Not certain why my clothes therefore feel so tight! September resolution: eat less and exercise more for the next month or so. Started with a few laps round the rooftop pool this afternoon then feel asleep on the sun lounger. The Bahrain Mall fitness programme sounds like a great idea, circuit training before the shops open in the cool of the air-conditioning, and its free! Meanwhile there's the pool, the treadmill and the exercise bikes upstairs to keep me occupied until Wednesday morning if I can stay awake.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Waitron Rant...

Rant On: There is one aspect of Texan life that is driving me mad, and has probably been accentuated as living in a hotel for the past month, we eat out for every meal... the waiters/waitresses/waitrons in virtually every establishment we've been to.

I have sort of come to accept the "Welcome, I am *****, your server for this morning/afternoon/evening" delivered as if they are a bosom friend. However if one more places the bill/check on the table with the words "I'm putting this here but you don't need to hurry" before I've even made any inroads into my meal I not sure I can be held responsible for my actions.

Then there is my other bugbear; almost everywhere, even in the poshest of eateries, a member of staff will start clearing your table BEFORE everyone has finished eating, leaving those still eating feeling guilty that they are slower than the rest of the party. Don't they teach these kids any manners?

Eating a meal should be a relaxed, enjoyable process offering the chance for talking and savouring the food and not interupted by multiple checks that everything is ok, making space to place the folder containing the bill or clearing the empty plates. 

And when you need a service like more coffee, water or another bottle of wine, guess what there is often no one around to come to your table! I'm beginning to think they should be termed automatons not waitrons!

Rant Off

Monday, 13 September 2010

Sundays Texas Style

Sundays in Texas are Brunch Days and here in Austin that means for a lot of people, Threadgill's on Riverside Drive just south of the Colorado River. A huge buffet offers cooked to order omlettes, fresh fruit, pancakes (more like the Scotch variety than the French crepe), maple syrup to put on them, bacon, sausage (think burger style patties not the British Banger), fried potatoes, creamed corn, muffins and eggs in varying forms. Add to that fresh orange juice and endless coffee and you probably don't need to eat for a week! Total bill just over $30 for two.

The place was packed and it being late Sunday morning a band was playing country and western style gospel tunes. Families, couples and groups of friends looking for hangover cures queued for tables. The staff were friendly and laid back. I spied one older couple sipping margeritas long before the sun was over the yard arm!

Once we'd paid the bill we headed out of Austin for a bit of recreation at Pedernales State Park 30 miles or so away. We definitely wanted to see the falls in spate but also hoped that despite the huge amounts of rain that fell last week as Tropical Storm Hermine passed over Austin, we'd be able to swim. Muddy water was running hard over the falls but not as much as there had been a day or two earlier: See these piccies on Facebook. The falls aren't one big drop but more a series of undulations in the rock strata like large weirs and there was a fair amount of water roaring over them. It was a cloudless midday with temperatures in the high 90's F or  around 35C so after the walk down and a short stroll over the rocks to the lowest part we were too exhuasted to do much more than climb back up the steps and path to shade and aircon of the car.

A little drive back through the park brought us to the swimming area car park. We drank all the water we had then headed down the valley once again towards the river. There are several miles of swimming area but we simply changed into our cossies at the first unoccupied piece of shade under the nearest tree, spreading our sweat-soaked shirts out on a branch to dry out! Typical of any old river bend there were cliffs on the far side and a tree lined beach on our side. The river was running hard, being mud coloured it was difficult to spot underwater objects and keep a grip on something stable. But the best fun was to allow yourself to be swept downstream, avoiding the larger obstacles of course, then stand up in the knee deep water and wade back to repeat the process. One mum (or mom) was releasing her two young boys in turn to "swim" to daddy standing 50 yards or so downstream - much better than a day at a water park!

The water wasn't chilly and combined with a light breeze and a few clouds Kevin & I soon recovered from the heat of our falls walk. We stayed mostly submerged in the water like a pair of hippos for a good couple of hours occasionally trying to make for the rocks on the further bank with greater or lesser degrees of sucess. If you got there your reward was that is was much easier to wallow in the calmer waters behind a rocky outcrop without having to cling on.

The riverside beach was empty of people, everyone was sitting or lying in the water in small groups scattered down the river. And as usual for Texas it wasn't long before we were being chatted to. One sun-hatted group lazed in the water drinking from ostentiously large plastic beakers ("it is an offense for any person to consume or display an alcoholic beverage in a public place"), another individual was snorkling though even he had to admit that he couldn't see anything! An elderly Indian gentleman beat his grand-kids into the water and a middle aged couple found a pleasant spot in a nook in a large mid river rock, in the sun and breeze but out of the stream, just room for two.

I doubt you'd want to spend so much time in any UK river, even in the middle of summer the Dart in Devon is bone chillingly cold. There are plenty of good things about the Texan way of life and its been a privilege and a pleasure to enjoy some of them over the past few weeks. 

PS: In case you are in any doubt about the power of a river in flood here is a photo I took on Friday in the small town of Salado north of Austin.










Barton Springs after the storm (Scott Cassady/KXAN)


Or compare this photo of Barton Springs swimming hole from the local news station KXAN's website  (spot the life guard chairs)....








with this one I took just a couple of days earlier when we were there swimming!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Saturday Nights In Austin

10:00am Sunday and we've just woken up after what could be our last sample of the nightlife here in Austin, self proclaimed capital of live music. My ears are still ringing!

Last night four of us managed to listen to three good to mediocore bluesy rock bands as well has fit in a couple of games of pool between setting out from our hotel at 20:30 and bar closing time at 2am. Needless to say a quantity of alcohol was consumed but as the glasses are first filled with ice, as there is no control over the measures and once its diluted by coke or tonic there really isn't a deal of rum or gin in the content. Oh and supper was from a bratworst (spelling?) stand.

Having read the music section of our guide book one of our foursome, Jason wanted to search out the 311 Club. We missed it on our first prowl down the street last night but having crossed the road found it was the place we'd already visited on at least two previous occasions! One of our favourite bands was on stage as always. Two elderly afro-caribbean gentlemen playing laconically anything the punters request, a mexican guy complete with droopy moustache on lead guitar and a middle aged female who really belts out rock classics all supported by a similarly aged drummer and a slightly younger tall bass player.

Last night was the first match for the Texas Longhorns and shortly after the event finished the bars turned burnt orange. It seemed everyone but us was wearing the team colour - t-shirts, shirts, blouses, dresses, even hair ties. The 311 Club was fairly empty when we first sat down at what we consider now to be our table. Turning round an hour or so later the place was packed, impossible to see the door. The dance floor in front of the stage soon filled up to and the ladies restroom was a place only the desperate visit. As the musicians played their way through a now familiar order of tunes it was time to go and try shuffleboard further along the road.

Both the shuffle board (a fifteen or twenty foot plank of wood, covered in sand with pucks like miniture curling stones) and darts were fully occupied by orange clad players so Kevin & I challenged Jason & Brian to a game of pool. Four people representing three different continents meant we first had to settle on the rules to play by! All too soon we were being asked to finish our game. It was time to go home to bed. Where did the evening go?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

A Shortish History of Texas

Everything is big in Texas starting with the land itself which covers just under 269,000 sq miles so what follows is as short a history as you are liable to find! Before I arrived here my knowledge was based on a handful of alltime classic films...

Long before the Europeans arrived various tribes of Native Americans occupied the land known today as Texas. Some were indigenous, some passed through, the Apaches arrived from further north. From Spaniard's Cabeza de Vaca arrival in 1528, the ultimate outcome for the native tribes was not a pleasant one; wiped out by European diseases or assimulated into Mexican or Spanish populations. The coast was first mapped by Europeans around 1519 but de Vaca was shipwrecked and spent 7 years wandering through the land living with the local natives and documenting his unintentional tour. By the late 17th century the Spaniards had worked out that their new land did not have the gold or silver they sought and the harsh landscape didn't incentivise them sufficiently to leave the comfort of Mexico City.

The French were the next to arrive, mistakenly. La Salle believed he was landing in Louisianna but was in fact a few hundred miles further west, not far from present day Corpus Christi. Once the Spanish heard the French had set up a colony they renewed their interest so sent Captain Alonso de Leon to confront the enemy and reclaim the region for the Spanish crown. de Leon found the colony decimated by Indians and La Salle murdered by his own men. Spain ruled the land once more.

For the next hundred and fifty years or so the Spanish under the guise of converting everyone to Catholicism protected the lands from any other European invasion. The mission was largely unsucessful, most of the indigenous people succumbed to epidemics. By the start of the 19th century the first Anglo-Americans settlers began to cross the border. And in the early days of the Mexican republic twenty or thirty years later Texas was sparsely populated with just three towns and around 2,500 people. The Mexicans inherited a failed colony, the mssion stations had though contributed the notion of ranching to the future state. Thousands of cattle and horses now roamed the pastures and praires across central and southern Texas. These later gave rise the huge cattle drives after the Civil War which were managed by "vaqueros" or cowboys giving rise to one part of the quintessential culture of Texas. Meanwhile Comanche, Apache and other hostile tribes ruled more than the government in Mexico City.

In 1821 the Mexican government gave American Moses Austin a contract to establish a colony with 300 families. His son Stephen F., the founder of modern Texas, took over the task on his fathers death. Just fourteen years later there were 21 towns and twenty thousand or so Anglo-American immigrants. Santa Anna was by now in charge back in Mexico City moving from democracy to dictatorship, along the way he abolished the state goverment of Coahuila and Zacatecas (Texas). The latter rebelled and Santa Anna's forces invaded, defeating the opposition then raping and murdering thousands of local citizens.

The Texians (the Anglo-Americans) and the Tejanos (the original hispanic settlers) decided it was time to leave the Mexican state. In October 1835 at Gonzales on the Guadaloupe River they challenged the Mexicans to "Come and Take It" - "It" being a small cannon given to them by the Mexican army to defend the settlement against Native Indians. The defiant banner was central to face off with between the local populace and 100 Mexican dragoons. The Texians fired their cannon and charged, the Mexicans withdrew with two fatailities. This small skirmish was the start of a lengthy, bloody revolution. At San Antonio in early December the untrained but eager Texians forced the Mexicans to surrender and then allowed General Cos, Santa Anna's brother-in-law to withdraw back to Mexico. Afterwards most of the Texas volunteers went home leaving around 100 in Alamo.

The Texas Army existed with Sam Houston as commander in chief, but had no regular soldiers, only the volunteers who hadn't returned to their lands. Early 1836 Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande with 4000 troops as well as cavalry and artillery to punish the wayward Texians. Sam Houston gave orders to abandon Alamo. Believing that the fort could be defended with cannon captured from the Mexicans Willam Travis and David Crockett (who came from Tennessee with extra men) overruled Sam Houston. By late February the sick Bowie who'd been elected commander by the men ceded to Travis as Santa Anna's army began their siege. Thirteen days later Santa Anna overwhelmed the fort, 182 defenders and over 600 Mexicans were dead including Travis, Crockett and Bowie, the latter shot on his sick bed in the chapel. However this defeat inspired the rest of Texas. Santa Anna had one further victory at Goliad where 400 men left it too late to abandon their fort and found themselves surrounded by the Mexicans just 6 miles later. All were marched back and executed under the Dictator's orders on Palm Sunday, March 27 1836.

One month later Santa Anna had victory in his sights, the remenants of the Texian Army and the Mexicans faced one another over the priarie at the San Jacinto river, more than 1300 Mexicans to almost 900 Texians. The Dictator decided to let his brother-in-law General Cos' troops rest before commencing the battle. Sam Houston had other ideas so around 3pm on April 21 lined out across the land during the Mexicans' siesta. Eighteen minutes later the battle was over although the slaughter of Mexicans by Texians wanting revenge for the Alamo and Goliad went on into the night.Santa Anna was captured the following day and forced to sign a treaty that meant retreat to the other side of the Rio Grande. The land of Texas was now a republic, Sam Houston was elected its first president. It was officially recognised as such in 1837 by the USA and later by some European countries including France.

In 1838 newly elected president, Mirabeau Lamar (a buffalo hunter) hated Sam Houston and decided that Houston was not the place for the capital so set about creating one from scratch. Austin was laid out in 1839 close to the Colorado river. The original 200 inhabitants had to put up with raiding Comanche so despite the buffalo and their log cabins, it was a dangerous place to live. By 1841 Houston was again president. He preferred living peacefully side by side with the natives so wanted to move the capital back to Houston. He knew the Austinites would not be keen so he devised a plan to sneak into the city at night without waking the residents, load up the archives on a couple of wagons and take them back to Houston. The plan was foiled when one Angelina Eberly, owner of the Bullock Hotel heard them and on realising what was going on fired the cannon normally reserved for protection against the Comanche. Almost the entire city rode out after the Rangers to retrieve the documents, establishing Austin as the capital of the Lone Star Republic (the original Mexican state of  Coahuila and Zacatecas had had two stars on its flag, Texas took one of these).

At the very beginning of the republic the voters were in favour of annexation but the USA initially turned the request down. Houston needed cash so he courted both British and French investors which the USA was not comfortable with leading to annexation in 1845. The dissolution of the republic incidently sparked a new war with Mexico. During the 1850s the population almost doubled with immigration from Germany bringing beer brewing and sausages to the state and through the importation of slaves who came with settlers from the southern states, until then slavery hadn't been common in Texas. With the Civil War in 1861, Texas left the Union and joined the Confederates though most of the battles were outside of the state.

The face of the land changed rapidly over this period with the advent of the railway and the rise of ranching. Land barons, businesses and money poured into the state, cities grew from the small settlements. Late in the 19th century the government raised funds for a state capitol building in Austin by selling land in the Pan Handle (the north of the state) to Anglo-Americans for ranching. The imposing capitol, taller that then one in Washington was not without controversy - strikes over the use of imported labour resulted in convicts being used/ And the insistence of the state fathers that local stone should be used meant the original design for an ornate limestone edifice could not be executed as the local stone was not of good enough quality. Eventually red marble from nearby Marble Falls was donated and much of the planned ornamentation dropped but the building is as impressive today as it was when it was built providing grand views from all over the city.

Oil had been discovered in the late 1800's but not much, then in 1901, a drilling site exploded with a gusher and suddenly the oil boom was on. Just a few years before, further north, Henry Ford had produced his first car so Texas became rich, schools were built, roads surfaced and homes sprang up everywhere. With the stock market crash in 1929 Texan progress screeched to a halt and the state became part of the dust bowl - severe drought, poverty and agricultural decline marked many of the years ahead. But eventually Texas bounced back, during the second world war the military established several major bases here leading to a rise in federal government spending locally as well as manufacturing. Gradually the impoverished state recovered to become what it is today a major oil producer, home to top military bases with ranching as an important sideline - beef, peaches and more are farmed.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Nostalgia

Maddy with her very new Baby Brother, 1983
Odd the way some things impact you.It scarcely seems like yesterday that my eldest was born, today is her thirthieth birthday and she is pregnant with her first child! Am I really that old.... well yes and last night was another "look back at the past" occasion too. Next door to our hotel in Congress Ave, Austin is the 1915 Paramount Theatre. Its a wonderful building,  inside is an ornate cosy auditorium built for vaudeville (music hall) still used as a theatre but at present in the middle of its summer season of classic films. Nine dollars buys you a ticket and a couple of dollars more acquires the traditional bucket of plain popcorn. There was quite a crowd of every age for last night's showing was the wonderfully funny "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" with a cast of household names including cameos from a young looking Benny Hill and Tony Hancock. The real stars are the aeroplanes of course.

For me this was a nostalgic evening; the first time round, in 1965, forms one of my early memories of the gorgeous Granda cinima in Bedford (UK) with its grand staircase and wide 70mm screen (one of the few in the country outside of London I believe). Film-going in the gilt and red splendour of this theatre was a special occasion. Now its sadly demolished but fondly remembered by many Bedfordians.

Much of the film was shot close to the Pinewood studios so many of the aerial scenes provide brief glimpses of the Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire contryside from my childhood. Terry Thomas got his come uppance in Old Warden Tunnel, the scene being filmed shortly after the Bedford to Hitchin line closed (a closure only partially due to the Beeching Axe). A few years later as a teenagers we braved the dark and walked the entire length, 800 or so yards, pushing our bicycles! And the cooling towers of Bedford power station, surely not a 1910 building, are seen clearly as are one of the local brickworks in another aerial shot.

Before the Paramount season finishes I'm sure we'll treat ourselves to another classic even if it is only the final film of the season "Gone With the Wind".... no I'm not that old so have never seen it at the pictures!