Sunday, 20 February 2011

Officially A House Wife

Not Surprised the Vaccuum Didn't Work
I am officially a housewife or at least that's what the residency permit I was issued this morning says... however today I have been a plumber (unblocked a bath plughole with a wooden BBQ skewer), an electrician (changed a rickety two pin plug for a sturdy British three pin) and done some vaccuum maintenance. All this alongside several housewifely loads of laundry.

Since we arrived in the Middle East we've found that on the plus side the electric supply uses British three pin plugs, however most of the electrical gizmos on sale are European ie two pin. As a result we have acquired an array of adaptors. There are some other solutions, some more safe than others; you can buy socket covers rather like the child proof ones sold in the UK but with two holes to accomodate a two pin plug whilst several of the sockets in our apartment have had something jammed into the top hole! The latter is very annoying when you try to insert a UK plug.

For my part items that are regularly plugged and unplugged like the vaccuum or a phone charger are better off with plugs to match the sockets. For the rest like the kettle or table lamps once it has been plugged in it really doesn't matter, though investing in a few Terminator multisockets with holes designed to take any style plug makes life easier.

Back to the vaccuum; if you look closely at the picture above you can spot the sticky tape that held the plug together, the tiny screw that was loose inside the plug and the ingenious use of a self-taping screw to hold one a few strands of the wires in place! The other wire was wandering round with the loose screw, how I didn't electrocute myself the first time I hoovered I'll never know! And, on completing the cleaning, I opened up the so called "bagless" machine to find a cotton bag jammed solid with fluff, desert dust and hair - presumably the maid's tasks didn't extend to emptying the thing. Ah well at least I can only blame myself for shoddy housework!
Tidy Replacement Plug

Friday, 18 February 2011

Getting Advice on Expat Life

If you've ever found yourself in a strange town looking for a particular brand of widget or wanted to know the cost of living or the average rent for a two bed apartment in another country or some similar such question then the Internet is a wonderful invention. We often wonder how we would have coped without our laptops and almost instant access to almost accurate information!

During our time in Bahrain and again now in Dubai we've found a few useful websites. Some were simply tourist information like the best places to eat, shop, rent a car, what to see and what to miss, others belonged to utilities providers or contained TV schedules or were blogs by fellow expats. And the most read have proved to be expat-focused forums where questions could be raised and answers found. In no particualar order here are our top favourites:

Live Work Explore - both the Bahrain and the Dubai sites have been useful for general info and the shopping pages which list shops by type are a great start when looking for a specific item. They also publish books which as handy for reading in bed and their maps of Dubai live in our car.



Expat Woman - the Dubai forum is a great (mainly female) community where someone can usually help you out with an answer to the oddest problem and you can waste away a whole morning doing nothing but reading posts if you are not careful!

Expat Blog - The Bahrain section of this website helped us get to Bahrain and through the first few weeks while some of the blogs promoted have become firm favourites (you'll find them in the Blogs I Read list on the left of this page)

Expat Arrivals - a bit biased here as Susie has contributed to the Bahrain section of this expat site.

Time Out - we occasionally buy the print edition of this weekly listings magazine, usually when we've got visitors but regularly refer to the reviews online for both Bahrain and most recently Dubai. Also a good source of info when trying to locate that particular shop or destination

Trip Advisor - a great wealth of restuarant and hotel reviews we usually refer to when travelling and as a result found some gems in Athens, Austin and locally.

Gulf Daily News - local papers are also a good way of getting to know the place. The GDN is great for the Court Circular as well as local and international news and whats on info plus it carries the UK Guardian's Quick Crossword if you fancy a bit of a brain workout.

The one thing you rapidly learn though is that the knowledge gleaned is not always correct but not intentionally. Rules change, new roads are built, businesses move but part of the fun of life as an expat is coping with the unexpected so treat what you read as a guide and learn to laugh when things don't quite work out as planned.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Volunteeering

Introduction
Spent the weekend helping out with managing the racing at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (DOSC). The event was the 4th round of the UAE National Championships, two days of dinghy racing. For the sake of readers not familiar with the magic art of dinghy racing I'll start with Saturday and then go back to Friday for reasons that I hope become obvious as I write. The aim of our volunteering is that we want to be back on the water as soon as possible and helping out at DOSC can bump you up the waiting list of of membership applicants whilst from our perspectve it would help us get to know a few people here.

The Start
Waking up on Saturday morning was hard, Kevin arrived on a slightly delayed flight from the UK at just after 1am so we'd had about five hours sleep. Arriving at DOSC in time to get a coffee and collect our lunch pack we joined the race team briefing. Today's task was to be part of the committee boat crew. The boat in question is a broad dory with a pair of huge outboard engines providing a flat, relatively stable platform from which to start the races even in the strong breeze that was kicking up a choppy sea. Four races in all, five starts per race for the different groups of boats.

Sailing dinghies come in all shapes and sizes and boats of an identical design are termed a class. Here in Dubai the classes were Optimists - the largest class with around 30 entries, Laser 4.7s - the next largest group, Laser Radials, standard Lasers, Catarmerans and an Open dinghy class for everything else with just two boats a trimaran and a two handed monhull. Lasers look like windsurfer boards with a shallow cockpit and a single unsupported mast, the difference betwen them being mainly related to the size of the sail and the age of the single crew. Radials and 4.7s are sailed by teenagers, the Standard with its larger sail requires a modicum of bodyweight, so is usually sailed by (heavier) adults. Optimists are tiny bathtubs whose helms must be under 13 and are mostly under 10, they zip around like a cloud of tiny gnats apparently fearless even in the waves and stiff wind that was blowing. They treat capsizes as part of the fun and often have to be entreated by their coaches to leave the water when close to exhaustion!

For piccies see here

Laying the Course
So the day began. For the committee boat the technical part is setting the course correctly with an upwind start so, having anchored a mere five minutes north of the harbour in the partial lee of man-made islands of The World to the west of us, the measuring began. Suze (a sailing instructor here who we know from Bahrain) stood in the bow measuring wind angles and the outer buoy was laid so that the start line between boat and bouy was as close to right angles to the wind as possible. Then the buoy layers headed off upwind on the course given by Race Officer Joel (DOSC's Sailing Manager) to lay the windward marks, a nearer one for the small Optimists, the further one for everyone else. Then they completed laying other buoys to provide a selection of triangular and sausage shaped courses. Every boat would sail a triangle and a number of sausages but depending on size and therefore speed the combination was varied by class.

Racing yachts and dinghies like cricket is a gentlemans sport with rules that seem archaic and meaningless to the untutored eye while the actual racing is not a prime candidate as a spectator sport unless viewed from another boat moving around the course. Like a good novel a race has three principle parts the Start, the actual race and the Finish with rules that govern each. The Committee Boat is primarily concerned with the Start and controls everything with flags back up by optional sound signals.

Tasks were allocated Joel was in overall control, Kevin had the watch, Marie (an Indian national looking for work as a lawyer) and Susie were to manage the flags, Suze to record the actual starters (the boats being identified by numbers on their sails) together with race start times and Kevin 2 (an Amercian employed by one of the UAE newspapers) had the video camera to record the starts to ensure we identified correctly any boats over the line before the start. The bouy laying boat assumed a position at the outer end of the line to assist in the latter task too.


Flags Explained
With the orange flag up indentifying ourselves as the Committe Boat and already surrounded by a flock of Oppies we raised the red and white triangular AP (officially the signal flag called the Answering Pennant form the days when flags were used by HM's Navy to communicate between ships) to indicate a postponement together with two horn blasts. We would not start dead on the 11am indicated in the sailing instructions issued to the sailors before we left the shore. When all was ready with flags untied for a quick hoist, Kevin took up the watch counting down to a convenient time of 4 minutes past the hour. Down came the AP with a blast of the horn. The oppies began to converge on us expectantly. One minute later as the AP came down up went their white class flag with its Q logo, thirty or so oppies surged away dodging and weaving around their fellows to find the best spots on the line. Another 50 seconds and Kevin started his count down again 10, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 go, up went the square Preparatory flag with its blue boarder and white central square (representing the letter "P"), Joel simultaneously sounding the horn, Kevin 2 taking his place behind Joel looking down the line.

The youngsters careering about in the hectic seas peered over their shoulders at us and those who hadn't already done so at the class flag hoist, set their watches as the "P" went up. Three minutes later and one minute before their start Maria took  the "P" down at Kevin's time signal. Then "thirty seconds" Kevin called, Susie undid the class flag string whilst Maria readied the yellow class flag of the next set of starters, the Laser 4.7s.  5,4,3,2,1, Go coincided with a  flag down, and a flag up. The oppies zipped away cleanly not a single recall (for a boat over the line) necessary, they were beating (sails hauled right in and sailing as close to the wind as possible), mostly heading south-ish at 30 degrees or so to the line away from us. Meanwhile we went through the same sequence another four times starting the 4.7s then the Radials followed by the few Standard Lasers and finally the combined Cats and Open boats.  We hadn't time to watch the melee of boats heading up the course.

Time to Watch the Sailing
The high tech cats and the single trimaran choose to hang around a few hundred yards off our stern behind us before their start. It was odd going through the process without actually seeing the boats it was intended for, leaving the crew and helm of the sole Kestrel with a bright yellow hull to plough up and down the line alone. As their class flags came down the multihulls with their almost transparent sails came whistling through. The Kestrel pulled in her sails and headed on a course as close as possible to the wind slicing through the now sizeable waves at perhaps 40 degrees to the wind. It would take them several changes of direction (tacks) sailing around twice the actual distance before they reached their target and could ease the sails to reach to the next mark of their first triangle. Meanwhile on board we helped Suze complete the paperwork, with start times and fleet numbers before relaxing for the next hour or so. We could watch, chat and potentially eat our lunches before race one was complete then we would run through the starting process all over again. Joel occasionally dealt with infringements into the course area by boats minding visiting Oppie competitors.

Four races later we were exhausted but happy, not a single hitch on the committee boat and only a few individual recalls of overeager Oppies who all returned to cross the line correctly or took their penalty so we didn't need recourse to disqualifications. One or two boats approached us after completing one or other race to lodge a protest against a boat they felt had infringed the rules in some way. The crew was instructed to fill in a form once ashore, we informed the Race Office and ultimately Joel convened a Protest Committee including Kevin to hear three protests none of which impacted the results and two of which involved the same two Oppie helms - young pirates in the making! We ended the day with the prize giving (first, second and third in each class) and a BBQ of burgers and sausages.

The Finish
Back to Friday, overall a much windier day. Kevin was somewhere in the air between Las Vegas, Gatwick and ultimately Dubai. After a 10am briefing of the sailors and then the race management volunteers (race officers and safety boats) with one last dash to the loos, three of us headed for a tiny 22 foot yacht (a J22) which was to form one end of the finish line. Joel provided directions over the VHF radio and we dropped two small fortress anchors, later we added a slightly larger one from one of the safety boats to prevent us dragging further towards the beach in the rough seas! An outer bouy was laid to mark the other end of the line. The J22 was bobbing up and down some 50 metres from start line, almost at right angles to it and not far off the stone reef protecting the beach. All three of us lined up part of the boat with buildings ashore to check if we wer moving, a precaution which became a feature of our day!

Boom off and stowed below to make space on deck we hoisted a blue flag on the mast to mark the actual end of the line, Alistair, sailing instructor James (coincidentally also a Harris) and I settled down with horn and clipboards to await the first finishers. Alistair called out sail numbers and boat class as they approached then sounded the horn as boats crossed the line. James and Susie each recorded the time to the nearest second for each competitor to ensure we captured everyone. The boats arrived in batches and at times it was quite hectic with the horn sounding almost continuously. Some boats failed to cross the actual line, passing the wrong side of the outer end - their helms would be cross to find they'd scored a Did Not Finish (DNF) but after eight races could discard their two worst scores.

In fact once the first boat's time was recorded for a class with the exception of the open & cat classes only the position of the finisher was needed. Twenty minutes was added to the time of the first finisher to compute the time limit for each class, any boats crossing the line after that would be said to be out of time and score a DNF. We relayed these time limits as they were established to the Committee Boat so Joel could judge when to start the next race. For the open boats and the cats each boat's time would be needed to calculate on handicap their actual finishing position. The handicap attempts to level out the differences between the boats to enable different boats to race each other - another apparently mysterious art which works surprisingly well!

Anchors
The little J22 had to re-anchor after race one as it had dragged dangerously near to the rocks extending the finish line to a ridiculous length. Through the day the numbers of competitors diminished as the wind ground down the stamina of the young helms and capsizes resulted in mechanical failure for other boats. Eventually half the orginal fleet of about sixty boats remained so the finishing task became easier. For the final race with a slight change in wind direction we moved to use the end of the start as our own outer distance anchoring at 90 degrees to the start line. Alistair was feeling the pain of hauling up anchors by the time we were done plus he'd had to hold onto all three on the tiny unguarded foredeck on his own whilst we motored into position each time as Susie & James' weight was needed in the cockpit to keep the outboard in the water in the bumpy seas!

By 4 pm everyone had finished. It was time to hoist all three anchors once more (we felt sympathy for Alistair but he did volunteer to heave on the lines one final time), stow them below and head in. The wind had eased only a tad so the little outboard struggled to keep the boat making way towards the harbour as waves broke over our seaward side. Everyone got a thorough soaking and by the time we were tied up the chilly breeze ensured discomfort all round. A quick check with the race office to confirm tomorrow and I was in the car with the aircon off to drive home for a hot shower and a long evening at home before heading to the airport. 

So there you have it - volunteering as a race officer is as important to ensure a successful race series as having enthustiastic competitors to take part and (almost) as enjoyable.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Winter in Dubai

Its nice to be back in Dubai after the chilly almost zero temperatures of South East England. For those of you in the frozen north I thought I'd describe Middle Eastern winters...

Winter here is a time to do all those outdoor things which everyone else does in the summer. Sight seeing, days at the beach, camping (admittedly in the desert which is a bit difficult to do in the Home Counties), actually sailing rather than lolling about trying to get cool in the sea by an anchored boat, lounging by the pool, walking outdoors, BBQ suppers and cultivating flowers (mostly petunias which are amazingly hardy).  The air conditioning is off and the patio doors are open most of the day unless it's windy, in which case the washing remains firmly inside behind closed indoors. A day of wind earlier this week converted our balcony to a sandpit, battered the petunias and whisked away our neighbours undies. Now trips outside end with sandy footsteps across the floor inside. I'm beginning to understand why everywhere has tiled floors, carpets just couldn't cope.

It is a time of clouds; most of the year the sky is blue and the appearance of cloud is a thing to remark on but since November there have been periods when clouds fill the sky for several days at a time. Evening temperatures drop a little but not as much as they do further north and a thin cardigan or jacket is required. Occasionally it even rains and when it does it can be spectacular. Not Indian monsoon-like for hours and hours but in a couple of hours sufficient rain falls to flood streets(good drainage isn't a priority in many areas) and cause a good few car accidents. On the plus side the rain washes away the dust so when the sun comes out again palm trees and plants are freshly green rather than grubby grey. The effect is almost like the new leaves of a European spring.

Indoors is often warmer than outside but mostly nights are as warm as days - as I write at 21:00 it is currently a comfortable 24 degrees indoors and 20 outside. The average daytime temperature in London is usually around 21 degrees June to August with 12 degrees at night (the Met Office figures for 2010 show last summer in the UK was slightly warmer than the 30 year average).  So there you have it. For a few months of the year life in the Middle East is almost like home and we can forget the hum of the air conditioning, the fact that water from the cold tap can almost scald the unwary and that the effort of walking down the street necessitates changing every stitch of clothing afterwards until next May or June.