Sunday, 27 March 2011

Of Beds and Bedding

New Sofa Bed
I love crawling in between crisp clean sheets in a freshly made bed, nothing beats that initial feeling of cool and smooth cotton aginst your skin.  And I love a smartly made bed -so satisfying to quickly pull or shake a pile of bedclothes straight, transforming a room from a mess to welcome. However I was beginning to dispair that even newly changed our current bed looked unloved, let me explain why:

Having slept in many hotels over the years you become aware that beds come in a variety of shapes and sizes generally referred to as standard, king, superking and queen by all. In the UK we have a set of accepted dimensions for these which makes purchasing beds and linens simple. The only indication that things might be different elsewhere in the world is the hint you get if you happen to buy a bed or bedding from IKEA.

Brands from all over the world are sold in the Middle East and this can result in mayhem in the bedding department. Unaware of what was to come we originally shipped a selection of our existing bed linen from the UK - basically a couple of sets of kingsize duvet covers & fitted sheets together with a selection of pillow cases - things I thought would cover most beds we might encounter in furnished apartments. Wrong!

In Bahrain our semi-serviced apartment included one set of bedding for each of the two beds - the master bedroom boasted a "superking" mattress of enormous dimensions and the spare room a king sized bed so the supplied bedding wasn't interchangable. Then there were only two pillows per bed so we purchased four rather overstuffed locally made pillows in the hypermarket. They only just fit in a standard housewife pillow case and although they look great on the bed, are just too plump to have two beneath your head and too soft to comfortably lean against for reading! Eventually a luxurious set of Egyptian cotton superking sized sheets, pillow cases & duvet cover were acquired in a sale as getting those provided washed and dried in a single day became too much of an effort, up and down to the laundry in the mezzanine eight floors below (the machine in the kitchen being too small to take the bottom sheet let alone a duvet cover). Life in the bedding department was perfect!

Then we moved to Dubai. The bedstead in the master bedroom is beautiful with its tall dark wooden headboard and a thick luxury sprung mattress. The latter is almost square at 180cm wide by 200 tall but is a challenging 30-something cm thick - once again we were down to one sheet that fitted meaning a rush to get bedding washed and dry. No duvet was supplied so one of our first purchases on a trip to Carrefour was a kingsized duvet, being naive I didn't bother to check the sizes after all it was French wasn't it? The duvet proved to be longer in one dimension and shorter in the other than our UK covers which are actually square! Ah well it had enough duvet to cover us but looked rather odd stuffed in any of our covers, especially the superking where it laid flat but left several feet of fabric unfilled.

With the purchase of a sofa bed a week or two ago so our guests can have somewhere to sleep I resolved to try to sort things out. Mattresses, duvets, sheets and covers were all measured and off I set clutching my precious list of sizes. Ignoring IKEA completely my first stop was the supermarkets - cheap polycotton sheets a plenty but nothing to fit a very thick mattress. No duvets, only ready covered quilts so thick that even in the darkest UK winter night they'd be too warm, protection perhaps against the chills of the aircon? Then onto the homewares stores. In the process I discovered that many products simply stated the generic categories king, queen etc but no sizes and those that did had little or no logic between measurements and category.  Products sold here come from all over the world and despite most being made in China are made for markets like the USA, Australia and elsewhere as well as for the UK so side by side on the shelf you can find two items both labelled "King" but very different sizes.

Next stop a shop selling some well known UK bedding brands like Fogarty. Sucess a 4.5 tog quilt in the right dimensions, lovely soft pillows in a choice of firmess and fitted sheets galore - all at a price. The credit card machine wasn't working and I hadn't sufficient cash so left my potential purchases in search of an ATM. On the way I finally cracked the problem - Debenhams home department! Wow a wall of UK kingsized duvets in a choice of togs and fillings, mounds of lovely soft pillows and fitted sheets with all three dimensions listed on the packet. Plus to cap it all, buy three items and the cheapest was free so compensating for the marked up UK prices. One kingsized 4.5 tog duvet, a packet of two super soft anti-allergenic pillows and a duck egg blue fitted sheet - no more over stuffed pillows or painful necks, no more extra yards of cotton draping lifelessly over the side of the bed, our newly made bed looks gorgeous.

PS: For the protection of my sanity I only iron pillow cases :-)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Being Sponsored...

This morning passport in hand I accompanied Kevin on one more step towards settling down to normal life in Dubai, getting me a cash card for our bank account. Only its not quite as simple as all that. I am here because my husband sponsors me to be here. Images of slavery, servitude, apprenticeship or to use a good old English phrase "goods and chattels" come to mind. So we arrive at the branch of a well known four lettered bank down at Gate 2 for the port of Jebel Ali, a short drive from home (it's located there as its in the free zone and therefore I think, not subject to quite the same legal requirements as an Emirati bank).

This being Dubai, it is not going to be a bank appointment quite like any other I've experienced. Having checked in at reception, a middle aged Indian tea-boy offers us coffee and we settle down in their comfy tub chairs with our tiny paper cups and today's Gulf News, a copy apiece. After twenty minutes or so a smiling young lady in abaya and headscarf greets us and leads us to her office. Kevin explains his two pieces of business and she talks to him a in the manner of a doctor conversing with the relatives of a sick patient - I'm present but can not be involved. I definitely feel like a second-class citizen and it is not a good sensation. A matter simple form filling and signing changes the credit card payments to 100% each month, Kevin doesn't even have to complete all of the fields in the form as they "have the details on record sir", just sign and date with the relevant box ticked.

I cannot though it transpires, have a cash card for Kevin's current account nor can that account become a joint one. In order to sort this conundrum out a new joint account must be opened that is subservient to his current account. Her face showed her thoughts when Kevin turned to me and said "no worries you can access the internet banking so can transfer money to it easily anyway". The form for opening a joint account is proffered for him to complete "just your wife's details sir". She is even more dismayed when he pushes it along the desk for me to complete with the excuse that my handwriting is better than his! I duely start to work my way through the multi-paged form sticking to the second account holder column. No employer? In that case I am a "house wife" as per my residency, the rebel in me was tempted to write "D. Eng. (rtd)" (if you don't know what this means you are probably male!).

It is permitted to supply my own mobile phone number and physical address as well as Dell's PO Box. I tick the box for a cash card then both of us sign and date the form. In a rare acknowledgement of my presence in Dubai the company the handles the distribution of the cards will apparently call me to arrange delivery at some unspecified point in the future. And, it appears that when I use said card both Kevin and I will get an SMS detailing the transaction which I suppose is a step forward on our credit card that only informs Kevin when I use it!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Positive Thinking

It's often said by ex-pats especially those of UK origin but many others too, that one of the bonuses of life abroad is that everyone is much more positive about life in general. Recently I read an upbeat discussion of "Things you CAN do [inDubai] that you can't do at home". I found it fascinating reading giving an insight into both life here and the contributors culture at "home" and thought you'd enjoy this summary:


The Weather

  • Sit with the patio doors wide open on a March evening!
  • Having my car filled for me, I hate having to get out when I’m back in UK freezing wet windy
  • Spend time in the pool on Christmas morning and then barbecue in the afternoon without worrying about the weather (within reason).
  • Swim outside and sunbathe in March (well did on Friday - not today!!)
  • I can wear T-shirts all year around

Culture

  • Eat wherever I want without checking if it's halal or not...
  • Go to a water theme park/beach in a bathing suit (ladies only days)..
  • Leave my car running while I jump out and withdraw cash or whatever...
  • Leave valuable things in the car without worrying that the window will get smashed and my things will get stolen.
  • Being called Ma'am and not "luv", "duck" or any other endearment by people you don't know
  • I can say hello to anyone on the street without them looking at me like I am a weirdo.......
  • Being able to stay home and enjoy quality time with my children....amazing
  • Afford a big villa when it is an impossibility in my home country.....just wonderful.
  • Have time to coffee with friends and for that matter sit and write to this forum or read a book....
  • Develop new friendships with pp from so many nationalities....just great.
  • Drive nice cars.....wow...
  • Travel regularly to amazing places
  • Take nice holidays to around Middle East, Europe or Asia...or Africa...all within reach and affordable and as most of us ladies don’t work giving us time to plan and enjoy...
  • Eating out...variety is amazing...quality depends on where you are comparing with....
  • So many fun activities for kids....could never dream of this back home...
  • Safety...though my home is safe....how many places are really safe in this world? Can we take a train at 11pm..dare not do this in most major cities...
  • Shopping shopping shopping...more variety here..
  • I can free camp on spectacular beaches and desertscapes
  • I can wear shorts and jandals (flip-flops) to 5* hotels for lunch
  • I can have just about any kind of food my little heart desires, delivered.
  • I love studying with people who come from 100 + different countries and unlike UK and USA, they haven't all assimilated so I still get to observe and enjoy their quirky cultural customs
  • When we lived in Abu Dhabi, I loved that there were women only sections in cafe's etc.
  • Go to a Ladies queue (eg at government offices) and get served over the long queues of men!
  • Been on the metro 3 times in the last week and been offered a seat twice.
  • Being able to take my son into so many restaurants and feeling comfortable about it, it's so child friendly here, not like back home.
  • Communicate with 5-6 nationalities in my office during only one working day! Awesome!
  • Be greeted with a hello wherever you go
  • I can have early breakfast at the restaurant
  • I can walk only 10 meters away from Sheikh Mo (the ruler of Dubai)
  • Go for a coffee with your hubby on a whim at 9pm because you have full time live in help who will listen to the baby monitor for you!
  • People usually always give their seat to a lady who is standing on the bus
  • Never lived somewhere where I didn't need a car before so little things like walking to the mall, walking along the Creek at night etc are great.
  • I love bargaining so Karama and the Souqs are fun coming from a country with fixed prices.
  • Being able to take a taxi without thinking it will cost an arm and a leg!
  • Ladies sections on buses, women and children section on train, ladies taxis...
  • Smiling my way to being sorted out first (the bank, the shop, the lift)
  • Love the fact that most people here are cheerful most of the time whereas in Blighty everyone seems to have something to moan about.

Service And Shopping

  • Have my supermarket shop packed for me (and the trolley contents loaded onto the belt too) caused a few problems the first time I returned to the UK – blush
  • Have the car washed everyday by the cheerful man in our car park
  • Wonder why there are no replacement electric toothbrush heads for sale again!
  • Walk out of my front door without being confronted by an array of outsize wheelie bins provided for me to sort my own rubbish and cart to the end of the path on various days during the month - I don't miss clogging up my brain with rubbish collection schedules!
  • Park for free in the shopping malls.
  • Pay for stuff with hubby’s bank card and vice versa without anyone questioning it... we both get called maaaaamsiiirrrr anyway so why should it matter if the card I'm paying with says Mr xxx?!
  • Afford someone to clean the house on a regular basis
  • Can afford a maid...or two if we want...a driver...a gardener....luxury....
  • Get immediate medical attention without waiting months or years in our 'free' system at home
  • Fill up the car with petrol without having to worry about taking out a mortgage to do so!
  • The fact that you can leave your supermarket trolley anywhere in the car park and nobody bats an eyelid!!
  • Get fruit, veg and other food from all over the world in the supermarkets (all year round).
  • I love the fresh mint and lemon drinks.
  • Go to a mall late at night and shop past 21:00.
  • Have groceries, fruits and veggies delivered for free!
  • Call the grocery and getting the delivery 20 minutes later (free!)
  • Order from the grocery and pay a month later
  • Dial out for anything and everything and get it delivered.
  • Not clearing up after myself in a food court. It irks me NOT to do it (I still tidy and gather everything neatly on the tray to be disposed of) but I don't do it 'cause it will take some wee man's job away if I do. If you did that in Canada - well, I don't know what would happen, 'cause you just wouldn't!
  • Go to Karama/Satwa/Bur Dubai and have a slap up meal which costs 30 AED (6gbp)!
  • I can get my car washed here when it is super dirty for only 25dhs, I don't think anyone would get out of bed in Australia for that would they??
  • Get your dry cleaning / ironing collected / delivered…for crazy cheap prices!

Things That Make You Wonder

  • Sit in the car with the car running while someone fills the gas tank (oops you should actually turn it off but many don't)
  • Stop in your car, beep your horn and the grocery store will bring stuff out to you.
  • Push in to traffic queues etc by doing the hand gesture thingy that says please let me in/give me time etc..
  • Get out of traffic tickets by batting your eyelashes and asking them not to give you a ticket as you have too many already
  • Stopping for shwarmas and bipping your horn so people come to the car to take order
  • Let your kids ride in the car like they are animals or even sit on your knee and help you drive!!!!! I'd love to be a traffic cop here.......
  • Drive like a manic and cut people up (not that I do!) without getting punched! Lol!
And Finally (one habit I’ve mentioned before but I’m obviously not the only victim):

Be trailed in a store like a potential shop lifter;
  • I usually ask them why they're following me. Makes me cross (maybe I look like a crim? Lol!)
  • Much more fun to quietly give them something to do; put the coathangers back on the rack facing the opposite way etc.....once slowly turned a whole row of camels to face the shop wall and watched the poor assistant itching for me to move so she could rearrange them! Shadowing brings out the worst in me...
For more on this and topics like 'where can I buy....', 'help maid problems...' and 'I'm pregnant now what' (the latter is a BIG topic here as you can lose your job and if not married you will be deported) dip into the wealth of advice and views that is the Expat Woman forum.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Driving

Kevin & Asif our EDI Desert Driving Instructor
Having done the calculations, purchasing a car becomes cheaper than a renting one within about a year so we've bought a three year old Wrangler Jeep with some seventy thousand kilometres on the clock. The transaction was fairly simple and fortunately the guy at the showroom in the Automarket was happy to drive Kevin around in our new vehicle to obtain a registration plate, insurance certificate, MOT and Salik tag. Kevin having previously signed up for insurance online. The Salik tag is for the tolls on Sheik Zayed Road, the main artery through Dubai. We avoid driving on it as each time you pass under a gate it costs 5 AED (about £1) and in the short time since arriving late December we'd averaged about £40 per month in tolls according to the analysis and bill provided by the car hire company. This is partly because we live near one of the over head toll gates and it lies between us and the supermarket! Now we are a little more canny and drive the back roads to Mall of the Emirates or anywhere else we go regularly.

Kevin got well and truely stuck
We've both purchased Emirati driving licences (mandatory if you have a residents visa) and also spent a saturday in the desert learning how to drive in the sand and more importantly how to get ou if you are stuck so now we feel set to go camping in some of the more remote parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Jeanie Jeep (our lovely purpley-charcoal coloured Wrangler Sahara with its powerful 3.5 litre engine) has proved great fun too. We had a little run down to Abu Dhabi last Friday (petrol is cheap and it is about an hour drive) and explored along the creeks north of the city. I'd read about life there in the 70's in the wonderful book Mother Without A Mask  (highly recommended for its insights into Arabic life) so it was fascinating to see the area with its clear water, islands and mangroves albeit that there are now many waterside villas. Lots of people were out enjoying the sandy banks and the water; European, Asian and local familes indulging in their common passions for fishing, paddling and BBQ'ing and cars. There were people being ferried across to the islands on what looked like floating pontoons barely big enough for a large 4x4. Also alongside the water were several walled Ladies Swimming Pools presumably so local ladies can bathe in the creeks away from prying eyes.

Rest Stop: Jeanie Jeep, Kevin & Dave
Then, on Saturday, together with a former UK colleague of Kevin's, Dave D who lives here too, we headed for the hills. Or rather a ghaf forest then the rocky mountains taking on two routes from the UAE Off Road guide. The book has been described as the ultimate off-road accessory, that may be a bit over the top but it is pretty comprehensive and there is another for Oman sitting on our coffee table calling us too! We did discover the UAE one was a bit out of date despite having the 2010 fully revised edition and weren't able to complete the rocky mountain drive as described as the military have closed the road long before the final haul up the mountain.

Plenty of Wildlife
Driving on sand is huge fun as long as your tyres are soft and you are well equipped. As with a boat you need to take everything with you - food, water, tools and essentials to assist with basic repairs as well as means to navigate and communicate. The latter in case a rescue is needed (our insurance covers this type of receovery but you might have to wait a while for someone to arrive). Jeanie Jeep was loaded with everything except, as we discovered mid-morning, drinking vessels! We had remembered the kettle, t-bags, soft drinks, milk, ice, fois gras, sandwiches, rugs, cushions, water, suntan lotion, first aid kit, iPod, camera and more. The morning took us along some reasonably firm gravely roads in the sand past the camel race tracks into totally quiet countryside, no engines, no airplanes nothing except the occasional bird. At our morning break we spotted all sorts of animal tracks in the sand including a snakes S shaped trail over the sand.We later saw a large lizard by the trackside but failed to photograph it before it disappeared into a burrow.

Tyre deflation was not necessary according to the book but cresting a rise and getting a little confused between the route as described, the GPS coordinates and what we were actually seeing, a passing 4x4 truck made us realise that the route lay covered with blown sand. After a couple of attempts down and up the dune in low geared four wheel drive the three of us set about deflating the tyres by almost half to around 17 PSI. Suddenly the steep sand was easy to climb, Jeanie Jeep roared over the top and onto the firmer track once more. Kevin carefully negotiated us over the main road (not good for soft tyres) and back onto our track this time in amongst the irrigated green fields that give their name to the area Falaj (meaning irrigated) Al Moalla. Beyond them we were in the ghaf forest where finding a shady spot under a patch of trees not too overlooked by farms or modern villas, we picniced whilst reinflating the tyres much to the amusement of the locals for whom the track was the village high street. They initially kept stopping to see if we had broken down but eventually just passed with a cheery wave. One young teen confidently driving alone in a tatty pickup truck with no registration plates - he'll not cost his parents much in driving lessons when he's old enough to take his test.

Ghaf Trees -
amazing how much actually grows in the desert
After lunch we headed further east to the rocky mountains that divide the UAE from Oman for a drive up Jebel Yibir, the tallest mountain in the UAE at 1527m . As we climbed out of Wadi Khabb from the village of Tawain the views were spectacular but our pleasure was short lived when we found a green and yellow military sign marking the closed border area blocking our way. We couldn't get even to the 1350 metre mark promised in the guide. Dave was driving and headed off to our left up a fairly major track. We soon discovered that construction lorries used this route and instead of stopping at a campsite described in the guide, the newly cut track carried on through to the tarmac road we'd set off from. The towering grey and pink mountains devoid of all but the most hardy trees and goats are incredible. More amazing was that we passed from time to time, at least on our way in, small farms with a few goats and the odd camel or donkey. The wadi itself must be an awesome sight when it rains judging by the mangled debris scattered along its banks.

Arid mountain view - all grey and pink rock
We plan plenty more trips into the desert and for some serious dune and wadi bashing have joined a 4x4 club as solo trips into the real sand are not advised. Our first club outing will be a day trip for families combined with a picnic later this month to the New Shwaib area close to the Omani mountains (again). Can't wait although we do need to add some deck chairs to our equipment and this time I'll remember to pack some mugs!