Friday, 27 September 2013

Supermarkets, and other chores.

As Joni Mitchell sang 'you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone', and that's how I feel about Tesco.  I used to moan about having to wait for them to deliver on a Tuesday morning but how I long for those bygone days...

Big supermarkets don't deliver here, perhaps due to the fact we don't have addresses.  Small shops do a great job.  Customers pull up outside, honk the horn of their car and the shop employee comes out to ask them what they want.  He then goes in to get it and brings it out to their air-conditioned environment so as not to inconvenience them.  And they wonder why so many of the population are overweight.

So we now have to do the Friday morning big shop in Carrefour, which thankfully is virtually empty at that time of day as the Emiratis do their shopping late at night.

Go on, admit it, when you go on holiday you like to visit supermarkets and take note of what they do or don't have?  To note how universal chocolate digestives are and how hard it is to get hold of Marmite.  It's the same here, there are some brands that travel more than others, and some local tastes that are the same but so different.

Due to the large number of people that live here but are originally from the Indian sub-continent, there is a huge choice of rice and root vegetables found in that region.  No alcohol at all in the supermarkets, but there are two off-licences in the area, well hidden so as not to offend non-drinkers.  A tiny section for sun-cream ('no-one goes out in the sun unless they are a tourist' is what we were told!), a huge section for energy drinks (often given to school children to keep them awake during the day..), and more sweets than you can shake a diabetic at.  To say they have a sweet tooth is understatement, locals also have a taste for extremely sugary squash made from powder and water, so dentists have a field day here.

No pork products can be found in the main two hypermarkets but there is one local store that does sell them.  At the back of the shop there is a door with a bell push style button to open it.  On the door it says' non Muslims only' and inside is the food of choice for the ex-pat.  Pork sausages, bacon, ham, saucisson, if it once had a curly tail it's in here.  Likewise there is a section in Carrefour marked 'muslims only', where they can buy holy  books, touché!

Most of the checkouts at the bigger shops have people who pack your shopping for you, then take it to your car if you wish.  They often then get to take the trolley back and keep the AED1 for a tip.  However if there is no packer then customers often won't pack their own bags at all, they just stand and watch while the till assistant does it, or maybe they're hoping for a Mary Poppins-esque miracle of the bags packing themselves?  Still, no-one in the 12 person long queue minds I'm sure...  Imagine their surprise when I rock up with my 'bags for life' and then pack them myself, as if I didn't stand out enough already!

Our packing cases from England should arrive in the next week, they are going through customs in Dubai at the moment.  We've heard numerous tales of cartons being opened by customs and then not re-packed, so the whole consignment arrives as a big bundle! We shall see..

Friday, 20 September 2013

Temporarily lost.

One of the things that you take for granted when you've lived somewhere for a while, is that you know where everything is.  Whether it's shops or the beach, you have an inbuilt compass and GPS with years of knowledge as a database, so much so that you don't have to consciously think about the directions to where you are going, it's often done on automatic pilot.

If you've ever moved to a completely new area you'll probably remember this feeling, that you are temporarily completely lost.  Then gradually you learn new routes, to school, the gym, supermarkets and you soon begin to build up a mental map of your new environment so that when you do get lost you can fathom out the most likely direction you need to be travelling in.

So when I got lost approaching town from a new direction today I managed to stay calm!  One of the useful things about living in a tower block in a city with many of them, is that you can use the tall buidings as reference points.  However as they are building a cross city trunk road at the moment there are plenty of road closures to thwart your direct route.  I ended up circling our flats like a plane in a holding pattern, trying to find the way in to the maze and being faced with roadworks and closures.  I made it after half an hour, then the second time I had to make the same journey it was ten minutes.  Who says men don't learn from experience.

What doesn't help navigation is the fact no-one has personal addresses.  We all have PO box numbers and ours is the school's so shared with every one else who works there. This works OK for parcels coming from home but not so well with the Indian take-away delivery guy.  He telephones me to say that he is outside flat 5006 and why aren't I opening the door?  Could be because we're in flat 506 in the building approximately 100 meters away from the one he is currently in...

We had a four and a half hour round trip to Oman this week to get Amélie and my visas stamped.  This was the first time we'd been out towards Oman and the RAK  changes character the further you go away from the city centre.  The hypermarkets, malls and tower blocks fade away to make space for small shops and businesses in towns where cows roam the streets.  What becomes obvious is that there is a myriad of artisans who's purpose is to keep everything working.  Cars, household appliances, computers, you name it.  Things that would be discarded in Europe are kept running by skilled people making a fraction of the minimum wage in the UK and working late in to the night.  There is so much more to see of this country than first meets the eye, and some of it is very different to the gloss of Dubai.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Back to school.

As Amélie started school this week, I thought that 'back to school' would be a good report (pun intended!) for this week!

She is at a British curriculum school so you'd expect it to be similar to one back home, and in essence it is.  She has a super teacher who has gone the extra mile to ensure the classroom is ready and the pupils feel welcome.  Her class has 25 children of whom 7 or so are from outside of the Emirates.  The school day in the early years runs from 9 to 2, there are two TA's in each class, one of whom speaks English and Arabic as some of the children have little or no spoken English when they arrive.

All very normal, so where's the story?  Last week I talked about transport and this week the theme continues!  If you'd ever wondered what the school gate would be like at drop off and pick up times without the parking restrictions, PCSO presence and if the parents were allowed to do whatever they like, I can now tell you, it's chaos!

Virtually no-one lives within walking distance of the school, especially in the summer heat, so all the students arrive by car.  The school has a group of security officers who haven the unenviable job of keeping order in the rush hour.  However the majority of parents do not think that they need to pay any attention to these poor beleaguered guys and park/drop off where they like.  For these people any distance further than 10 feet from the gate is unacceptable so they will double or triple park in order to get as close as possible.  Often blocking the road and causing massive unnecessary conjestion.  You see cars 'parked' at 45 degree angle to the pavement causing a chicane which others will try and pass two abreast.

Others in cars the size of a double decker bus will stop outside the gate completely blocking the road.  Out gets the nanny, carrying all the bags, then the driver to open the door for his employer, then the  mum with child.  All oblivious to the mayhem they are partly causing.

Being British, I park 50 yards up the road where there is virtually no-one else and walk the last bit,  with my stiff upper lip and a pith helmet, 'an Englishman will walk but never run'!  So next time you  question the zig-zag lines or the lollipop person stop and be grateful for common sense, a few regulations and a climate that's not at boiling point for three months of the year.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Everything you've always wanted to know about driving in RAK, but were afraid to ask..

The subject of this weeks blog is transport, as it's been a crucial part of our experience so far!

There is no public transport here, no buses, no trains, nuffink!  Walking or cycling is not easy as pavements are few and far between outside the old town and many of the roads are 2 or 3 lanes wide, so crossing them requires a lot of concentration!  Some of the Indian and Pakistanis cycle, normally on old boneshakers and often on the wrong side of the road, but I've only seen 3 Europeans on bikes the type of which we'd see at home.

So the car is king.  Taxis are cheap, the meter starts at AED 3, which is 55p.  A trip to Domi's school which is about 7 minutes cost AED 9.  You can ring and book but it's anyone's guess as to when they'll come, so regular users will get a favourite driver and take his number so they can book direct.  They are easy to flag down, and you don't normally wait more than 5 minutes for one to pass by, but in 46 degrees that is a long time for Amélie!  You also then may or may not get a driver who speaks English or even Arabic, most cabbies are from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan etc.  They memorise the names of the most poplar places but if you're going somewhere other than that, tough luck!  A journey that should have cost AED 9 was AED 27 for us the other day because we ended up on the highway out to Dubai rather than the town centre! I could have rang the company and complained but what if the guy had then lost is job?  I didn't want that on my conscience so I paid up the £4.90 and out it down to experience!

So most of the new teachers rent a car until such time as they decide to buy.  Rental costs AED 1800 a month for a Yaris or Nissan, and that's the quickest way of spotting a teacher, as we are the only ones who drive cars like that!  The only other group are the Indian drivers who work for local companies and ferry middle management about.

The Emirates drive huge, bigger than Range Rover size Toyotas, Nissans and American made SUVs.  There must be more V8's here than in Detroit!  Other favourites are Mustangs and ultra high performance Japanese cars.  Petrol is about AED 1.4 a litre, so a gallon is around a £1.  All the petrol stations are attended so you don't need to get out of your air conditioned car, just pass the money or card through the barely opened window!  They do have signs up telling you to turn the engine off but most people ignore that in favour of keeping the a/c running!  At least you'd be cool until the fireball hits you!  The same goes for mobile phone use, I saw a guy drive in to the petrol station on his phone,  stay on it while his van was being fuelled, then continue with his call while he drove off.  It does appear that when you buy a big 4x4 it becomes compulsory to talk on the phone all the time, but only when driving.  Maybe they are receiving directions so they know when to do the 3 lane change of course at the last minute?

A lot of the local employers provide transport for their employees.  This could be a reasonably modern bus (RAK ceramics for example) or the back of a van or lorry with a metal roof fabricated over the otherwise open back, air conditioning in its purist form, it must be like being on a poorly constructed roller coaster heading in to a blast furnace.

Finally, it's worth mentioning the concept and design of the road system.  It is based around the 'U' turn so most of the roads have concrete sections dividing the opposing carriageways.  Hence you may see your destination on the other side but reaching it could take a mile long detour looking for the chance to bring her about.  Hence my hire car running out of fuel in sight of the nearest petrol station and in sight of the car hire office..

Sunday, 1 September 2013

So after all the planning, we're here and the first week has passed! It already feels like we've been here longer, I would guess a month, but that's mainly due to the amount of things we've done and experienced. Before we came out, we and our friends/family speculated about how we'd feel and what it would be like. Naturally some of these things have accurate and others not, which is what you'd expect I guess. We need to bearin mind what our motivation was to do this in the first place. We weren't running away from anything in England, we were happy with everything we had there, however we were aware that we needed to work for another fifteen years at least and did we want to carry on doing the same thing for that period of time? I guess not! So that started our thought process on what else there was to offer and voilà, this is the end result. What have we been up to in our first week? Dubai twice, to visit three malls including Ikea and the aquarium. Taster session at the Hilton resort and spa, which we plan to join. A visit to the local dingy sailing club, which is a friendly and volunteer run organisation, very tempting too. We're visited our two local malls and been food shopping at Lulu's, Carrefour and Spinneys! Found the off licence, or 'powerhouse' as the local taxi drivers know it. Played golf at night, had one job interview Domi has completed her induction and started teaching. W've had the obligatory visit to the hospital with Amélie, who has now recovered but is still not happy in the heat :-( ! No wonder the week has flown by! One of our friends asked us on Skype (which works to a fashion most of the time unlike FaceTime which doesn't work at all!) what the best and worst things are about our experience to date. I think the best is the people that we have met, both existing staff and new arrivals. The existing staff are very understanding of how we feel and went out of their way to make us feel at home. Sharing how you feel with other new arrivals and finding out that they have the same hopes, fears, worries, excitement, expectations and optimism makeshift, you feel that you are not unusual in feeling how you do. The worst thing is the not knowing, and I guess you don't know what you don't know until you don't know it! Getting accurate information can be hard and even after just one week we would have changed what we've shipped and been better prepared for the admin when we got here if we had been pre-warned about some things! The big factor as to whether this works out or not is likely to be Amélie. If she settles in to school and a routine then we have a chance, if she doesn't it's going to be difficult. Domi and I can rationalise what we're all going through and clearly Amélie can't, everything is a reaction at her age so that has a big effect on our well-being. Ultimately we wanted an adventure and we're getting that! I have another job interview this week and for me that is the next key thing, finding work and getting an income. My 'to do' list this week includes sorting out a car, joining the health club, getting more passport photos done (we should have bought about 25 each!), starting Amélie off at schools, oh and maybe sorting out some tennis!