Catch up!

Greetings faithful blog readers!

Apologies for not keeping up my end of the bargain here and providing you with fresh new content on a regular basis.  I have no excuse really…other than I’ve been settling in nicely, creating new routines, keeping myself busy and wasn’t finding time or making blogging a priority.  I guess you could somehow consider that a good thing!  I certainly am not bored nor have a lack of things to do when not at work here.

So my last post was at the end of November and I announced that our RIT Dubai president was picked to be the deputy prime minister of Libya.  He’s still in that role and we are now searching for a new leader.

December was spent prepping for my 2 week visit home to the states and visiting family and friends in both Rochester and the greater Buffalo area.  That all went well especially the fact that I saw almost no snow the entire time I was there.  It truly was the winter that wasn’t.  Of course it would be in a year that I move to the desert to escape the cold and snow.  Watch!  Winter 2012/3 will go down in the records books for all the wrong reasons and I’ll be there.   Regardless it was great to be home and the time passed quickly.  I was able to freshen up the house for the new tenant and go through tons of mail that had accumulated while I was away.  I was even able to pick up a prize — a new white wool pea coat!  And I was notified of several other prizes that would be delivered.  Also picked up my new iPhone 4S and stocked up on things that either can’t be found in Dubai or are wickedly expensive here.

The start of the new year back in Dubai meant planning for my family’s visit at the beginning of February.  I had to scope out and then plan a 9 day itinerary for 3 guests covering Dubai and the capital of Abu Dhabi.  I took a week’s worth of vacation to tour my sister, brother-in-law and a dear friend of theirs around the city. We covered it all…and by the end we deemed it “The Malls and Mosques of the Middle East” tour.

Here we are at the Mall of the Emirates. Just one of the many malls on the "Malls and Mosques of the Middle East vacation!

We moved by every means of transportation available — boat, car, metro, taxi, foot, dhow, abra, balloon, Land Cruiser/4×4 and of course they left in the Airbus A380.  We met penguins, we met camels, we met falcons, and we spied on flamingoes.  We were in a hot air balloon to see the sun rise and at a bedouin encampment to see the sun set.  We spent 13 hours in one mall and actually hardly shopped at all.  We went to the top of the tallest building in the world and went to a museum that’s mostly underground.  We saw Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, and Hummers.  We visited 2 mosques that allow non-Muslims in; one where we learned about the religion and the other where we learned about the stunning architecture.  We ate dates, we ate camel milk chocolate, we ate potatoes on a stick and we ate PappaRoti.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. It can hold up to 44,000 worshippers at one time.

Potato on a stick (at Global Village) is the best thing to happen to a potato since the invention of the peeler!

Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon!

Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon! Our sunrise hot air balloon ride over the desert. My first balloon ride ever!

Oh and of course we saw the iconic Burj Al Arab, went to the spice souk, the gold souk, and saw a few performances of the Dubai Fountain.

I, of course, needed some time to recuperate from this working vacation.  Working as a tour guide can be exhausting, rewarding, and educational all at the same time.  People at work who have been here longer than I have have asked me for this itinerary slightly embarrassed that they haven’t done half of these things yet.

Then it became tax season where I had to prepare all the documents I needed to send to a tax preparer who specializes in the unique tax needs of expats.  I normally do my taxes myself with TurboTax but this year and next will be way too complicated for me to handle on my own.

Around the same time I started tax prep, I also traded rental cars.  I had been driving a Toyota Corolla but it had no power windows, no power locks, and no power mirrors.  All of which were a big hassle when I was driving my family around. I’m now driving a sand colored Nissan Tiida hatchback.  I believe this car is sold as a Nissan Versa in the US.

And the big news related to driving is that before my family arrived, I broke down and bought myself a Garmin Nuvi GPS.  This simple act goes against everything I am.  I have a good memory for landmarks.  I have a good sense of direction.  I know how to read a map. I’m a AAA member who gets triptiks when traveling by car.  My iPhone has a GPS.  Well, sorry folks.  All those things don’t help you navigate Dubai!  With new expressways being built daily and streets not being marked and buildings and homes not having addresses, it is near impossible to navigate and insanely frustrating.  The purchase was an investment in my sanity.  I wasn’t going anywhere for a while for fear of getting lost…which can be a frightening experience since you sometimes cannot turn around at all or for quite a few kilometers.  And just because you can turn around still does not necessarily mean you can find your destination.  It has paid for itself already in the sense of freedom it provides not to mention the increased self-confidence.  So even if I make a wrong turn, it will always get me back on track.  It doesn’t always choose the shortest route, but it always gets me home.  Gotta love that checkered flag!

More recently I’ve been focused on planning this year’s vacation.  With the liberal vacation policies here and the need for people to escape the summer heat of Dubai, I’m able to take an almost 2 week vacation this year.  The destination — the Mediterranean.  The mode — cruise ship.  An inaugural sailing of a new ship called The Breeze.  My Rochester readers might think that this is an ironic name because that was the nickname of its failed ferry service.  I think this ship will do just fine.  I’m taking any and all advice on things to see do in Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Monaco, Marseilles, Dubrovnik, Izmar, and Athens to name a few.  I’m busy catching up on my Rick Steves tour books to plan shore excursions as I set sail in 65 days.

So there you have it!  The Reader’s Digest version of what I’ve been doing that’s been keeping me from blogging regularly.  I could elaborate here on any one of these and other topics and I promise to do so more regularly in the future.

Let me know what you want to hear more about and whether you want more photos included.  Otherwise I will simply chat about what comes to mind that I feel like sharing.

Oh, and in case you are wondering…it’s not even April yet and we are in the triple digits for temps.  Four and a half months of these temps to go.  Forgive me if I’m a little cranky when I return!  I hear the heat can do that to a person.

RIT Tripoli anyone?

Many of my RIT readers know about the exciting news and recent developments at RIT Dubai and in Libya.  But for others that don’t, let me explain first in brief, then with a little more detail.

Bottom line is that I now report to the Deputy Prime Minister of Libya!

You are probably asking yourself, huh? what?

Our founding leader at RIT Dubai, Mustafa Abushagur, was selected last week to be the Deputy Prime Minister in Libya’s interim government.  Mustafa is from Tripoli originally and until September of this year had not been home to visit his family since he left the country 30 years ago.  While remaining active politically outside the country, he was on Libya’s “most wanted” list at number 6.  Only once things changed significantly in his homeland did he dare return for a two week visit in September.

The interim government expects to complete its work in approximately 8 months and work towards holding elections in June 2012 or so.  We’ll see what the future holds for Libya and Mustafa based on the work of the interim government and the results of that election.

Who knows?  Maybe I’ll be going to Libya in 2 years or so to set up the library at RIT Tripoli.

Those that are interested in reading more can browse a few articles with details:

Tripoli Post

RIT Announcement

Huntsville Times

Exact plans for leadership at RIT Dubai are being worked out but rest assured that Luther will still report to me!  ;-)

Threading

By last weekend I was well overdue for a haircut and some waxing.  I asked around work for some recommendations on where to go for these services.  I was happy to hear that there was a spa/salon here on the DSO that offered these services.  I want to encourage new businesses to come this far out of Dubai proper, so I try to patronize the businesses that are already here.

I called and made an appointment for the next day at the salon.  When I arrived, I was taken into a room for treatment not unlike the rooms at The Scott Miller Salon or Brown Diva back in Rochester.

Before I could say anything this Indian woman was hard at work pulling hairs out with a simple piece of thread.  In an elaborate, quick, twist and pull action, she was done in no time.  The sensation was very odd but not one of pain, more like one of vibrating and plucking from the quick moving thread.

I must say that aside from not really feeling the pain associated with waxing, there was also no redness, no bumps afterward and no need for products such as lavendar to calm the area.  I could immediately be seen out in public.  I didn’t have to rush home and hide until the redness went away.  And both areas (eyebrows and lips) cost a whopping 40 Dirhams.  That’s just over $10 folks.  I pay $27 plus tip back home for only one of these services.

So what the heck is threading you are probably asking?  Threading uses a cotton thread and one of several techniques to wind the thread to create a mini lasso that pulls the hair(s) out quickly from the follicle.  Watch a video about it here from YouTube.  Or read more about it here.  It is very popular in Arab countries and India.

When I finally did ask why she threaded me when I asked for wax, the woman was insistent that threading was better for any hair on the face and that waxing was more appropriate for other areas of the body where threading would be too time consuming.

Threading is quick, relatively painless (though you have to determine your level of comfort or pain) and relatively inexpensive.  If you can handle the pain of waxing, I’d say you can handle the discomfort of threading.  How does that saying go, “we must suffer to be beautiful?”

There is a salon in the Tops Plaza (practically in my backyard) on South Clinton in Brighton that offers the service if you’d like to check it out.  This is in no way an endorsement as I’ve never been there.  You can watch a video from 13WHAM where they spent a morning at the salon, investigated the technique, and talked with clients.

Kind of ironic that I had to travel halfway around the world to be exposed to something that happens daily within walking distance of my house.  Another reason why it is important to explore all that this world has to offer and to try new things!!

 

ID card

Today I went to begin the process of applying for and receiving a national ID card that is now required here in the UAE.  The card is supposed to be the de facto means of identification once it is fully implemented and by which you will receive governmental and non-governmental services.

Having it by a certain date is mandated emirate by emirate.  Here in Dubai the cutoff date is June 2012.

Of course, the card is required of each national and expat but it is not free.  You have to pay for the “typing” and also pay for the card.  You pay based on how much time is left in your resident or work visa.  I have a new visa so I had to pay the maximum of UAE 370 or approximately $100.

So you go to a typing center with your passport.  You are given a number and you must wait in a queue (I’ll be saying queue a lot when I return rather than “line”) for your number to be called.  You hand over your passport and get asked a lot of additional questions like:  what’s your mother’s name?  father’s name? highest level of education? marital status? religion?  Once all this is filled out you hand over your money and you are then given an appointment to go to yet another center in about a month to complete the process.

Because we went to a typing center in the Emirates ID Authority building and because we asked not to have to go to another center in a month, we were told that if they were not too busy, we could get a number, wait in another queue, and complete the process in the same location.  So that’s what happened.

After waiting in the second queue, you get to be totally finger printed.  And I don’t just mean the tips of your fingers.  They electronically capture each finger and thumb and then they also include the palm of your hand for good measure.  Of course they also take your photo for the card too!  Wouldn’t be surprised if they captured a scan of my iris as well.

All this data is kept in the smart chip that is part of the card.  And when will I see this card?  I will get a text message in about 3 weeks telling me when it will be delivered to me.

Maybe once I have this card I can stop taking my passport as verification.  I’m guessing that since that was scanned too that it might also be part of the data available in this chip.

Here’s to all my data being captured on a chip and carried around in my wallet.  I simply cannot imagine the same requirement in the US.  Yet another difference between these two countries.

 

Pull tabs

So my previous post was about the Masdar Institute and what they are doing to recycle materials, save energy and do research that we can all benefit from to treat the planet better.

Now here’s a contrasting post that will make you shake your heads.  Each time I ask for a Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke) here, I am presented with this:

Coca-Cola Light can complete with pull tab

When was the last time you saw one of those?  Some of my US-based readers will have never seen a soda can like this.  Welcome to the United States in like what? 1978 or something? Didn’t we ban these as a no-brainer way to reduce litter in the country?  I’m not sure why they continue to persist here.  They do contribute to a litter problem.  Maybe they see no incentive in reducing the litter caused by the pull tab since they don’t recycle the can either?

I will note that when I get a Diet Pepsi, the pull tab does indeed stay attached to the can.  And while I have no loyalties and can easily switch between Coke and Pepsi products, when I’m out at a restaurant or using a vending machine, I don’t always have a choice as to which one to purchase.  To avoid the choice at home, I buy Diet Coke in a large bottles and buy Diet Pepsi in cans to take to work as part of my lunch.

Note to self:  don’t walk around barefoot here as you could cut yourself on a stray pull tab!

My PRT! Your what?

So last week I got to drive to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi to Masdar City for a meeting at the Masdar Institute.  It was the monthly meeting of the library directors here in the UAE.  We alternate between having the meetings in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Got there with only a minor navigation issue in the last few kilometres of the drive but quickly regrouped. Upon arriving we (I drove with the librarian from the British University here) were sent to visitor parking where a shuttle bus picked us up and drove us to what I thought was the building we needed.  Little did I know that that was a transportation center and I was just beginning a journey of sustainable transportation. We walked into a little depot area that contained the cutest little pods!  They honestly looked like they could be a futuristic ride at Disney’s EPCOT Center or something.  I soon came to find out that this was the PRT Station we were in.  What’s a PRT you ask?  It’s a Personal Rapid Transit system.  Check out some photos of the station here in the photo gallery.  The images below are mine.

Four people fit comfortably in a pod.  You touch a big arrow button on the screen/monitor in the pod and off you go!  The pod is powered by a lithium iron phosphate battery and controlled by a computer and magnets in the pavement.  The computer chooses the path and constantly monitors it on its journey to it’s final destination.  Very futuristic and way cool!

Other things to note about the Masdar Institute are that they grant masters degrees only. There are no undergraduate students there.  It was created in collaboration with MIT.

There is also a huge solar panel farm there that produces most of their energy.  Solar panels are also placed on top of the buildings where they produce energy and also further serve to further insulate the buildings.

The library here is in a building called the Knowledge Center and it is meant to resemble a human brain…yes, by design!  It also has very bright, almost lime green carpet throughout. Asked why, we were told that it’s an active color that stimulates thought and creativity. Shows a lot of stain too…just sayin’ is all.

Beautiful, functional, and very sustainable housing is available for the students.  They even have a wind tower in their courtyard.  Here are a few photos that I took of both.  Click on any of the photos in this post to enlarge them.

Under the wind tower looking up!

Traditional Arabic Wind Tower

Student housing at the Masdar Institute
Student housing at the Masdar Institute 

We were also told on our tour that Masdar Institute uses no paint or chemicals to add color.  The color of the buildings is achieved by adding in sand from the emirates. The sand is a distinctly different color in each of the emirates.  The color of the buildings was spectacular.  Supposedly this sand came from Al Ain.

Using many different mechanisms (from design, to wind towers, to the solar farm, and much more), buildings in the Masdar Institute use 51% less energy than typically similar sized buildings elsewhere.  That allows them to keep the thermostats set at 26 degrees celsius (almost 79 degrees fahrenheit) and feel comfortable at all times.  So yes, they still need A/C.  They just don’t need to keep it any lower than that set point.

There was also a construction material dumping ground of sorts on the property.  We were told that materials from Abu Dhabi end up here and Masdar will use whatever it can in its future construction efforts.

All in all a very sustainable place itself while doing research to help make the world even more sustainable!

Banking

I received a delivery recently that made me think that it’s time to tell you a little bit about banking here in the UAE.

It is very important here that before you can open account you have a “salary certificate” letter from your employer.  And not only does that letter vouch for you that you have a job, that letter needs to clearly state to the bank how much money you will be making at that job.  Wow, big difference there!  But once you have this, you can open an account without so much as a dirham.  Long as they know there will be money coming at pay day, you don’t have to show up with any cash on hand.  Again, another big difference in the banking world.

Most everything about my checking account here is the same as it is back home.  Except of course for the name.  Here they call it a “current” account.  I remember being a little stymied when I first went up to an ATM with my Chase ATM card to get money.  They do use the word savings as we do back home.  So I just “assumed” that current meant the same as checking.

I got a bunch of checks that I’ll probably never use since almost all bills are paid electronically.  I also got an ATM card so I can start accessing the money I make here instead of pilfering from US-based funds and getting dinged $4 whenever I withdraw 500 dirhams.  But what’s interesting about using an ATM is that within several minutes of making a withdrawal I get a text message telling me exactly how much I withdrew and what my now current balance is.  For a while I was wondering why a check register didn’t come with the checks but if I will probably not use them and I’ll get a text telling me what my balance is, I probably don’t need to keep up with balances the way I need to at home.

So unless someone steals both a person’s ATM card and their mobile phone, you will always know when a withdraw (or deposit) happens.

Oh and speaking of deposits, yes, of course I did get a text when my first paycheck was deposited but much to my surprise I also got a phone call from the branch.  I said, yes, I did know that the salary was deposited because I just got your text about an hour ago.  My guess is that because you must be gainfully employed and be generating an income to live here, they are very attuned to keeping you informed of your financial status every time it changes.

But what blew me over was the credit card situation.  I never intended to get a credit card here.  I switched to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card before I left as that one charges no foreign transactions fees and I can earn points, and I could easily pay my bills as it would be linked to my checking and savings accounts via Chase.   The woman who did the calling and selling of the credit products here was simply relentless–stating and restating that the card comes with the current account that I had just established.  When I finally relented, she came straight to my office (which is nowhere near where she is headquartered mind you) to fill out the application.  She too needed a salary certificate even though the same bank was going to be issuing me this credit card.  Fine, whatever, gave her another original.

I wasn’t expecting what arrived the other day via courier from the bank.   Here’s a photo to illustrate!

This is what arrived from the bank. The presentation of the credit card and it's associated documents was incredible.

So as you can see, what I received was quite a presentation from the bank!  Each one of these packages was about an inch thick or so.  Inside (after breaking all the seals) each one had the actual credit card and also included terms and conditions documents, rewards program documents, reward program terms and conditions documents, service and fee schedules should they apply, and much more.

But as you can probably tell, I didn’t just get a credit card.  I got THREE!!!!  I could hardly believe it!  One card is a MasterCard and that one is geared toward travel rewards.  Looks like rewards for land, see, or air travel.  The second card is a VISA and that’s more of the every day card but wait, there’s more.  That one gives you discounts on restaurants in Dubai.  There’s a little flip out/fold out listing of all the restaurants currently participating.  And if that isn’t enough to keep straight, the third credit card is good for online shopping only!  Now there’s a credit card that I’d like to see come naturally with accounts back home.  During my CyberShopping class, I tell the participants to get virtual account numbers for online transactions but a card that can only be used with online merchants is a real plus and where the UAE is ahead of the game.

And you guessed it, after each transaction you make on any of these cards, you’ll get a text message telling you exactly what you did where.

Just today I read an article here about putting live video cams in ATMs so that if you were having difficulty with a transaction, you could speak to a real live person.  Does this fall into the what will they think of next category or the isn’t that what they call a bricks and mortar bank category?  Or something else entirely?

Now excuse me while I go sort through all the documentation to figure out how to use these cards.  I need to go through 3 card registration procedures and need to find room in my wallet for 2 of the 3 of these cards.  The third one stays home at all times for online shopping!

Happy Banking!  Think about the above the next time you drive up to an ATM, buy something online, or balance your checkbook.