Wednesday, December 13, 2017

From France with love

It's not often that a major international museum with a hefty collection of Old Masters opens up an hour and a half's drive from your doorstep, so it was to Abu Dhabi that we recently wended our way to visit the newly opened Louvre.

Those of you who take an interest in these things will know that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is not, as tends to be the way of things in this region, without its fair share of controversies, and having a less than three-year-old in tow is reason enough to sack it off until she's a bit older and less likely to try to climb on to an Egyptian sarcophagus (that happened, but you know, that's to be expected). But, the lure of such a cultural achievement was a bit too much for us to resist. I told myself I wasn't going to get into the controversy surrounding the building of the Louvre in this post. It's well documented, as you can see from that link, but I would rather concentrate on the place itself rather than go into it all, there is ample places for you to find out more about it and let that influence whether you choose to go or not, should you so desire.

These days, I tend to think of places in terms of "suitable to visit with small child" and "not suitable to visit, stormy weather involving tantrums, dirty looks and tuts ahead, to the life boats, to the life boats.". Most places in the UAE fall into the first category as the culture here largely welcomes children, within reason. Taking your little darling to smokey bars and other "night-time" establishments might earn you a few hard stares, but it's perfectly normal to see small kids out with their parents in restaurants long after what us Brits think of as "bed time", as well as in evening showings of films, etc.

The Louvre is largely OK for a small child, but I would say if you've got one that's a bit appetite for destructiony, it's probably not for you. Desert Baby is a pretty placid type, she'll sit in a buggy for reasonable periods of time and will be engaged by parental attempts to talk to her about things she is seeing in her terms, ie, pointing out animals featured in art, telling her some very basic historical things, pointing out the baby in Madonna and Child paintings (they were a particular hit), but she definitely suffered a bit of a sense of humour failure by the time we reached hall 10 or 11.

I realise I sound like a right "oh, my little Jocasta has such an interest in fine art, particularly the Impressionists" type w***er of a parent right now, but I do think it was definitely worth taking her. However, here are a few dos and don'ts, to help those of you with sprogs who are contemplating going, to plan ahead.

DO - If your desire in going to the Louvre Abu Dhabi is to see the headline acts - the Manet, the Monet, Whistler's Mother, Van Gogh, etc, and you have small ones in tow, then take my advice and skip straight to the end to see them. From memory, check the map and head straight to halls 10 and 11, so you have time to contemplate them before your beloved offspring starts demanding snacks, milk, toilet trips, or to watch "she that shall remain nameless", whose name rhymes with Queppa Qig, on an iPad. As it was, Him Indoors and I had a conversation like this during Desert Baby's aforementioned sense of humour failure:

Me: Did you know they had Whistler's Mother here?

Him: No.

Desert Baby: I wanna go home!!!!

Me: They have Whistler's Mother here, you should probably check it out.

Desert Baby: Daddy, I wanna go home!!! I want biscuits!!!!

Me: *Picking up Desert Baby and holding her by the waist*, quick, we're losing the light, repeat we are losing the light, haul anchors, etc etc.

DON'T - No food or drink whatsoever is allowed inside museum, there's a cafe with both a la carte and counter options, as well as snack trolleys once you're through the main part of the museum,  otherwise you'll be expected to put any food or drink, including water bottles, in a bag in the cloak room. This probably seems like stating the bleedin' obvious to those of you who are art aficionados, but it's a rule that is rarely enforced in most places frequented by us parents of midgets in the UAE, so it's worth filling your youngster with snacks and/or milk before you go in to avoid a low blood sugar, hungry toddler meltdown half way round.

DO - Leave a bit of time to check out the building itself. There is a large covered but open air section which seems to have been designed to keep the sun off while making the most of the benefit of the sea breezes, which, I must say, is simply fabulous in winter, and who knows, may even be a bearable place to sit and contemplate the art works you've just seen during those pesky 45C+ UAE summers.

DO - Check out the Children's Museum, it's got a mixture of UAE and French culture exhibits combined with art activities.

DO - Book in advance online. It was fairly quiet when we went first thing on a Friday morning, but if you have an online ticket, you avoid having to queue to pay.

DON'T - If you're taking the offspring, at least one of your will have to forego the multimedia listening commentary device whatsit to give full attention to stopping your precious darling climbing on to or touching the exhibits, as the "do not touch" rule is enforced strictly. Again, this probably seems like stating the obvious to those interested in art, but those of us with youngsters are not in this kind of environment often!

DO - Think about making a weekend trip. We stayed at the Beach Rotana, which was handily close to the Louvre and had the added bonus of a Swiss Christmas fair, complete with yodelling singers, beer, sausages, gluhwein, as well as a children's activity section with TV showing the obligatory Thomas the Tank Engine Christmas, and cookie decorating, which was a bit of a result. If you go to Abu Dhabi the night before, you can get the sprogs to the museum early in the morning rather than attempting to interest them in it after the drive from Dubai. That way, they'll be in more cooperative, less "destroyer of civilisation" mode, which, I think we can all agree, is better for everyone.

DO - Just go. I'm a total thicko, really, when it comes to fine art, but even I can appreciate the value of seeing such extraordinary works of art in the flesh. The standout works for me were Ai Weiwei's Fountain of Light, and of course it's hard to beat the fascination of a Van Gogh self-portrait. And, within a day of us visiting, it was announced that the "world's most expensive painting", a Da Vinci, is soon to be exhibited there. I'm also no expert on architecture, and again, the issues surrounding the alleged treatment of the work force that built it may cause some to stay away on principle, and, I hate to sound self-justifying, but wouldn't it be a pity for the efforts of those workers to not be seen? It's a remarkable building, in my very ill-informed opinion, and worth the trip alone. Plus, at the moment it's only AED 60 per adult, children under 13 are free, which is an absolute bargain.

The opening hours are 10am-8pm Saturday-Wednesday, and 10am-10pm Thursday and Friday. You can buy tickets here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Apart from coming up with one of the greatest ever (in my view) titles for a novel, old Philip K Dick was a pretty bright bloke, in that his book explores the relationship between humans and our machine counterparts - something we are only really scratching the surface of nearly 50 years after it was first published.

This robot was not featured at the conference, it's just a random picture, but ah, bless him, what a cutie
His book was never far from my mind when I was at the inaugural Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), at the end of March, in Abu Dhabi, because the topic of robots, automation and artificial intelligence arose again and again throughout.

I think I was probably one of the few people to have sat through the entire three day summit, as I was compiling a report for a forecasting and research company on the major outcomes, and I came away feeling slightly reassured that while perhaps we are all dooooooomed, doooooomed, I tell you, as all of our jobs, even mine will one day be taken over by a robot that is vastly more intelligent, efficient, and less demanding of biscuits, Yorkshire teabags, chicken sandwiches and Cadbury's Dairy Milk, than I am, it may not happen as quickly as some might think.

An electric sheep, also not featured at GMIS, but, oh you know, see above

Here are my key takeaways from the event:

1. Automation and robots are coming, there is nothing we can do about it. It is human instinct to want to find ways of doing things more efficiently, and eliminating human error through the use of robotics is therefore inevitable.

2. We have been here before. The headlines you are seeing about "humans need not apply" were described as "scaremongering" by an Oxford University academic, who said that all the arguments currently being made against automation were made in the first industrial revolution (we are on the fourth now) and that while technology exists, it is not being implemented as fast as you might expect. In addition, the origin of the word "sabotage" comes from when workers in the first industrial revolution threw their wooden clogs or "sabots" into machinery to jam it and make it appear faulty and inefficient, with the hope that they would keep their jobs for longer.

3. There are two schools of thought. One - robots are the beginning of the end for humans, they will take our jobs, we will be redundant, social problems will increase enormously as unemployment rises. Two - automisation will mean a massive improvement in the lives of workers in manufacturing, who will be able to work shorter hours and thus enjoy better quality of life as they depend on smart machines.

4. It's not just robots, it's co-bots. While in some areas, robotics are taking over, humans work alongside them in others. For example, in the Chinese jewellery industry - gem setting is increasingly done by robots, but the more delicate polishing work is done by humans.

5. "It's not about costs, it's a necessity". Back to China - one Chinese manufacturer said the new generation of Chinese workers have aspirations beyond the factory, and do not see themselves as manufacturers, therefore, manufacturers are using robotics in their production lines out of necessity, saying they could not fill the jobs with humans even if they wanted to.

6. We have to make it work for everyone. As previously discussed, automation is coming, whether we like it or not, and there is a great deal of fear and anxiety about what it will mean for society. We are only just beginning to understand what it will mean, and it has to work for everyone, not just the top one per cent, otherwise it is in danger of being a step backwards, not forwards.

7. Something needs to be done to bring in more women. Apart from in the media room, where there were several females of the species, XX chromosomal makeups were distinctly thin on the ground. Of a three-day conference, I could count on one hand the amount of female speakers. One of the women speakers particularly stuck in my mind, as she addressed the fact that women working in manufacturing, particularly at a high level, are rare.

To expand on this topic, as it's rather a big one, and obviously close to my heart, one of the few female speakers, Kathryn E Wengel, worldwide VP and  chief supply chain officer of Johnson & Johnson, said only five per cent of jobs at her level were filled by women. To paraphrase her view on the subject, we don't need to increase the number of women for the sake of it, but it's actually a necessity because there are millions of unfilled jobs globally, not just in manufacturing but in the wider STEM sectors, and the industries can't afford to not make sure more women play a part. The way to address that, she said, is looking at what happens to put girls off the science and maths subjects early on in education, as far back as kindergarten level, and work on it throughout schooling, to stop girls getting "tracked away" from those subjects and therefore being ruled out of that kind of career.

It got me thinking about my own education, the choices I made, and how that has impacted on my own life, career wise. It is true that I was much better at all the "artsy" type subjects, English, Music, languages, traditionally associated with females, and thus likely to get better results, so my school was pretty happy for me to follow that path. I don't ever remember anyone saying to me: "If you're not going to be a teacher, jobs in those fields are pretty few and far between, and the pay and conditions are rubbish, oh and there is this thing called the Internet coming which will make a lot of them totally disappear". Joking aside, as no one really had any idea what impact the Internet was going to have when I left school way back in *gulp* 1997, you could argue that it was the school's job to get good exam results and that was it, but I wonder how different it is for today's teenage girls.

I remember a definite undertone that, as long as I got my C at GCSE maths that showed I could count to 10 without breaking into a sweat, that was sufficient, and I could spend the rest of my schooling burying my strange little head in 20th century poetry and harmonising Bach chorales to my heart's content.

I don't meet many Brit teenagers these days, but when I attend conferences, if admittedly, not the most recent one, I do come across local women who are studying for Ph.ds and carrying out research in scientific fields that I cannot even begin to explain, due to aforesaid lack of ability in science and maths. They seem to outnumber the men, although that could well be due to the fact that traditionally, more Emirati men than women choose to study abroad, and may follow those paths elsewhere. However, a speaker from Kerala, India, said that women outnumber men in science and maths subjects at universities, although, I would point out that you would need to have a look in 20-30 years' time, to see how that levels out, whether all those women with STEM degrees actually manage to sustain careers in those industries.

Anyway, I could start banging the drum here about discrimination and poor maternity provision and lack of flexible working which limit women's choices once they reach a certain stage in their lives, as God knows, I and many women I know have had experience of that in recent years, but that wasn't the point of this post. Robots, people, they're coming. And hopefully they won't be trained to recognise your skin colour, sex, age, weight, height, disability, or whatever, and treat you differently according to what they think that says about you. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no one in the driving seat

I am not known for my early adoption of technology. I am a recent convert to the Careem driver app, (local equivalent of Uber) several years after everyone else, I clung to my keypad Blackberry, with friends picking it up and saying: "I can't remember the last time I saw a phone keypad, wow," until various members of my family despaired and clubbed together and bought me an iPhone a couple of Christmases ago, and my iPad these days is mainly used for showing Peppa Pig to Desert Baby while I am preparing her dinner. You just have to ask Him Indoors - any introduction of new technology to our house is met with swearing, grumbling, sighing, denial, sometimes even weeping, wailing and fist thumping before eventually I reluctantly admit that, yes, it is more efficient than whatever it is replacing.

However, an event I covered for work recently got me thinking about what self-driving vehicles will mean for a place like Dubai and I found myself, surprisingly, to be in favour.

I will start by showing you this picture of a self-driving vehicle that was on show at the World Government Summit, a Dubai-based gathering designed to encourage dialogue between governments and to share knowledge on how to revolutionise the way they operate for the 21st century.

This, my friends, is a passenger drone, capable of carrying a 100kg person, plus a small suitcase, operated from a central command unit. Apparently test flights have already taken place, and the RTA (Dubai's Road and Transport Authority) plans to have them operational from July 2017.

I discussed it with Him Indoors, who, not being the happiest of flyers at the best of times, remarked "Hell. No," when I asked how he would feel about giving it a go - climbing into and flying around in what is effectively a giant, computerised remote control helicopter.

I, on the other hand, remember being aged around 10, living in a relatively rural village, reliant on my parents to drive me if I wanted to go anywhere - after school activities, friends' houses, the sweet shop, and I imagined this very thing. Fair dues, my imaginary metal flying carpet of (*cough* 25 years ago) had its own manual steering mechanism, and it was open air, because I hadn't got to the practicalities of what what wind chill would feel like flying through the UK East Midlands air in mid winter, but, this is very much one of those sci-fi dreams becoming reality for me.

Also at the summit were everyone's favourite real life Iron Man Elon Musk, founder of Space X and electric car manufacturer Tesla, and the tech disruption king and Uber CEO everyone currently loves to hate Travis Kalanick. I did not hear all of Musk's session, as I had to run off to cover another part of the event, but I found him engaging, although there were grumblings from the summit floor that he was not at all charismatic. Personally, I think the expectation of a metal suit wearing, super genius wise cracker muttering "doth mother know you wearest her drapes?" is a bit much for anyone to live up to.

Tesla's cars, he revealed, are already equipped to be fully autonomous, it is just a matter of upgrading the software when the time comes that self-driving cars are legally permitted on public roads. What I liked about Mr Musk was the fact that he raised the issue of what will happen to those who drive for a living once the world's cars are fully autonomous - a process he believes will take about 20 years once underway. His calculations are that it will leave 12-15% of the world's workforce unemployed.

Mr Kalanick was perhaps the more charismatic speaker of the two, but it all felt rather blue sky to me. There was wild talk of no traffic on the roads in cities like Delhi within seven years, thanks to Uber, with his assertion being that people will not bother owning cars, they will simply summon an Uber Pool, with self-driving technology being integral. You can't help but feel that the motivation to get self-driving cars on the road for Mr Kalanick is at least 49% from a desire for no pesky humans whining about their dwindling incomes.

But still, another argument for self-driving for the Uber CEO is one few could disagree with - reducing road deaths. Death, I think we can all agree, is A Bad Thing, with vehicles being responsible for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. I don't know what percentage of those deaths are due to human error at the wheel, but if Dubai is anything to go by, it's a lot of them, with examples of poor driving such as tailgating never far from the agenda when it comes to road safety. That is why I personally would be in favour of self-driving car technology on the roads. Yes, it is the rise of the machines, and another example of an over-reliance on computers and technology for our daily lives, and yes, we stand to lose the skills that have given us independence, ie, driving a vehicle, but honestly, even six years down the line, I still find the dreadful driving standards on the UAE roads hair-raising. I am used to it, in that if you were my passenger, you wouldn't know that I find it hair-raising, but tailgating, cutting up, racing away from traffic lights, ignoring road markings and the frequent near misses that go with them are the norm, not the exception.

I covered another event in Abu Dhabi not long ago, and the 200 mile round trip commute, on top of sleepless nights thanks to one of Desert Baby's night-time party phases, was, frankly speaking, dangerous. Allowing a computer, programmed only to get the passenger to their destination safely, on a road with only other computers programmed to get their passengers to their destinations safely, without the human ego-fueled speed freak lunacy of the driving experience in the UAE, can only be a good thing as far as I am concerned.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Arrivederci, Ma'a salama and Farewell to Barnaby

One of the ways I spend my time here is trying to gain publicity for the Dubai Chamber Orchestra - a lovely bunch of professional and amateur musicians who are kind enough to let me saw away badly in the violin or viola section (depending on requirements) each Wednesday night and join them for concerts, even though I am usually late every week due to having to wait for Him Indoors to get home from work to look after Desert Baby so I can leave for rehearsal. 

In recent weeks, I have tried and failed magnificently to get various newspapers, magazines and websites interested in writing about the departure of our dear conductor and musical director Barnaby Priest, who conducted his final concert with us on Thursday, 2nd February, after more than eight years in charge. I am not sure why I failed, probably because I am not as efficient as I used to be post-Desert Baby, but also, I suspect, due to the fact that staff at most media outlets now barely have time to lift their heads up from inboxes bulging with press releases about the latest incontinence pants, "clean eating" diets and the most recent cacophony created by one Donald J Trump. Grrr, the state of 21st century journalism, etc. 

Another reason they were less than interested may be that that saying goodbye is a regular part of life for us expats here in Dubai - the majority of us are only here because we (or in our case Him Indoors) have something useful to contribute to society or business, and we are granted a visa to live and work here (I don't, I am a burden on society, I am on a spousal visa but that's another story).

 These figures, published last year, suggest that just 11 per cent of the 9 million odd population are actually UAE Nationals, with the biggest nationality group Indians at 28 per cent and Pakistanis at 13 per cent. Presumably the Brits are lumped in with "all other nationalities", although I've seen suggestions that the numbers in Dubai alone are in the hundreds of thousands. So basically, unless you do something pretty special, when retirement comes around, if you are not being sponsored by someone else, you are out. 

I digress, as the purpose of this post, then, due to my magnificent failure to do it elsewhere, is to say Shukran and Ma'a Salama to Barnaby, who has been the fearless leader of the Dubai Chamber Orchestra since 2008. 

The Dubai Chamber Orchestra is an impressive 13 and a half years old now, which is positively ancient by Dubai standards - Barnaby joined the orchestra in 2005, sitting in the viola section - that most mocked of instruments - sample joke:   

                         What's the difference between a viola and a coffin?
                         The coffin has the dead person on the inside.

Then he took over as musical director. I can only speak for the time since I joined in around 2011 or 2012, but I have always been staggered by his commitment - choosing repertoire, organising concert dates and venues, sourcing sheet music, badgering us all to turn up every week, and he has gone beyond that - composing and arranging music for the orchestra, and this is all on top of a full time job working at a university.  

I may have raised an eyebrow at some of his more unorthodox repertoire choices from time to time, but I can honestly say I have never looked back on any of our concerts and thought "well, that really didn't work". It's a long time since I've had stage fright, as I have been playing music in one form or another for (cough) 32 years, but I have never been so frightened in all my life as I was the night we played the really quite difficult Shostakovitch Chamber Symphony at our 10th anniversary concert. But, Barnaby has always managed to make it work in the end, it has always been alright on the night. 

It is a huge challenge conducting an orchestra in a place like Dubai. As I explained previously, most of us are here at the whim of some multinational company or other, so the orchestra line up changes on a season by season basis. Barnaby has always managed to search through his encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral repertoire and think of something that can be played by 10 violins, 3 violas, a couple of flutes, one oboe, two horns and a trumpet, or whoever happens to be available that season, or persuade absent or new players to join and make up the numbers. Or, failing that, he composes or arranges something himself. Just that one sentence alone sums up how incredibly lucky we have been to have someone like him in charge.

Harking back to my own early experiences of the orchestra, it's fair to say we have come a long way in five short years. When I joined, I am not sure I had opened my violin case for several years, but decided joining an orchestra would be a nice way to meet some new, like-minded friends. I turned up to Safa Private School and scraped away at the back of the violins really quite abysmally, my fingers stiff and unaccustomed to finding the notes and my bowing arm aching like crazy after just two short hours of rehearsal. I felt pretty discouraged by my horribly inept playing and considered leaving and never coming back, but I sidled up to Barnaby for a chat at the half-time break, and he said: "Can we do this over a cup of tea? I'm absolutely parched." 

It was if a window had opened in the ceiling and the sunlight poured in at that very moment (it hadn't, it was evening, but suspend your disbelief, damnit)  - the use of English colloquialism "parched", said with the ever so slight Southern England twang, - the desire to drink hot tea for refreshment even though it was several billion degrees Celsius outside. It was like coming home. "I think I am going to like it here," I said to myself. 

Since then I have played in as many concerts as I could when not heavily pregnant or dying of baby-related exhaustion, the orchestra's audience has swelled in size and enthusiasm, with us frequently receiving standing ovations. We have moved to a new rehearsal venue, the superb Centre for Musical Arts, and each season, I have watched new players arrive and be greeted with warmth, kindness and enthusiasm by Barnaby. 

Being allowed to play in the orchestra, in such a supportive, friendly environment, has done a huge amount for me - it opened the door to paid work as a musician, something I never would have had the opportunity for back home, including with the UAE's flagship orchestra, the NSO, and met and made friends I am sure I will keep for life.  I will always be grateful to Barnaby for those opportunities, because without him, they would simply have never happened. I am sure I am not the only one who can say that. 

Thank you, Barnaby, safe travels, and viva la musica

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

We are gold!

Living in a place with the international reputation for excess that Dubai has, you often hear the phrase "Only in Dubai" bandied about the place. There's the police super cars, the gold vending machines, the gold-laced and super expensive foods, and the sometimes but not always unfair reputation for coating everything that will stay still in gold. It won't surprise you to know that the super-glitz hyper-expensive side of life is of little relevance to us ordinary Dubai-residents, but every now and then, something happens to you that you know would never happen to you anywhere else in the world.

I have been debating writing about this as I am worried that you mere mortals may read it and then come and flex to my crib one night and steal all my swag. That's right, the vain usage of out-of-date street slang will give you a clue as to what is occurring here, yes that's right, Him Indoors and I have finally made it in Dubai, we have finally accessed the pot of gold that everyone thinks is going to fall into their lap when they move here. Yes, we have won gold.

Or for those of you with more, ahem, mature tastes:

How did we win gold? You may ask.
Well, first of all, here is a picture of the stupendous riches of which we are now in possession. Don't get too excited. Don't start the begging charity letters just yet, but here you go:

Calm down!

Stop rubbing your hands with glee, Gollum!

Four whole grams of gold! We are surely in the money, that must be worth, millions????? No?...... OK. Thousands.......? ... No, hundre....d????s OK, one hundred, $160USish depending on the gold price. Well, it's better than a slap in the face with a wet fish isn't it?

Let's face it, we would have to be in pretty dire financial straits for the bother of heading down to Dubai's Gold and Diamond Park in order to cash it in.

Goldie, as I have named him, was our reward for buying a massive shiny new fridge-freezer. We have been in Dubai well over six years now, and try as hard as you like, some of the sheer Dubai-ness of it starts to rub off on you and you gravitate towards the big and shiny.  But, it's not that bad. Despite having moved house, oh, I don't know, 11 billion times at the last count, Him Indoors and I have only ever bought two fridges in our time. The first was for our most recent old flat - our first flat ever to have not a stick of furniture, no fitted kitchen, no appliances, no nothing, so, having just dropped a minimum of AED 10,000 (2,200GBP at current exchange rates) for the privilege of moving house, we bought the rubbishest cheapest fridge we could find, which lasted a while, then we stored a large amount of fresh vegetables from Kibsons (don't judge us, we haven't become w***ers, it actually works out cheaper than the supermarket) in it, and it basically wet itself, by which I mean it sprung some kind of leak and set about urinating water all over all of our food and generally stopped being a fridge and became more of a cold swamp.

So, as we have a small child now, who requires about eight litres of fresh milk per day, and we do, *eugh, I really hate this phrase, it's bandied about on mum forums by martyrish witches who suddenly turn into Martha effing Stewart the second they reproduce*, "batch cooking" (vomits) it seemed a good idea to get a massive fridge-freezer. And because it was during the Dubai Shopping Festival, it has been decreed that he/she who spends a large amount of dosh at Carrefour in Mirdif Centre shall receive several scratch cards with which they can win gold if successful. Actual gold. And sure enough, one of them told us that we had won four grams of gold. So, off we went to the Carrefour cash desk to receive our prize, with Him Indoors saying: "They're not actually going to give us gold, that would be silly, they're just going to give us the cash equivalent of what the gold price is to.... Oh. No, they have given us gold, an actual gold coin. Bizarre."

What are we going to do with Goldie? I don't know. One idea is, that we could melt him down and make him into something nice for Desert Baby. Or we could just keep hold of him, chuckle to ourselves occasionally at his existence, and vaguely consider cashing him in if the gold price reaches an all time high, but actually never get round to it. That. That is what will happen to him, I expect.
But now, it is definitely one of our best "Only in Dubai" anecdotes - the time we won gold because we bought a fridge at the supermarket.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Into the Woods

If you don't live in the UAE, you won't be aware that Dubai now has a rain forest. I start this post in such a glib manner because, so used are we to improbable man made architectural exploits, that creating a rain forest in one of the dryest places on earth seems positively sensible.

I was pondering the lack of international publicity for this intriguing project, because you know, it's a rain forest, with the emphasis on "rain", the wet stuff, that we don't have much of. But that is, as I say, pretty run of the mill when you compare it to under water hotel rooms and man made islands with their own artificial weather systems to create snow, yet The Green Planet is a pretty diverting morning or afternoon out. Particularly so during the long, hot summer when indoor only activities are necessary and you need something do other than shop, eat and moan about the heat.

As you can see from this pic*, you can get pretty up close and personal with the wildlife, and it's a different kind of experience from the all encompassing fish fest that is The Dubai Mall Aquarium. You walk in through a small aquarium exhibit, featuring examples of rain forest fish, then take a lift to the top floor. The structure is built around a giant artificial tree with a spiraling walkway that takes you down through the various levels of the jungle canopy until you reach ground level. Along the way you meet guides who explain the significance of the various species. The tree structure is inside a bio-dome or "greenhouse", for those of you who prefer to call a spade a spade.

I have a confession to make, my best beloved readers, for which you are likely to mock me really quite severely. I live in skyscraper land, "Vegas on steroids" "the world capital of skyscrapers" etc, etc, yet, I am afraid of heights.

I spent a couple of our years here living on the 22nd floor, and when we were unceremoniously kicked out of that apartment, we looked at one of the 48th floor *vomits* but enough was enough. I had visions of multiple falling deaths the first time we threw a party, so we moved to floor seven then eventually to floor four, and that is quite high enough for me.

The reason I mention this, is that while the Green Planet is of piffling height compared to some of the mega structures in Dubai, I mean, it's like the equivalent of four floors I think, the fact that you can lean over the barriers of the spiral structure to look down at the forest floor below, and that there are optional rope bridge type walkways, had me biting my nails and nervously hanging on to Desert Baby. The thing about taking a nearly 20-month-old, you see, is they have no sense of danger, and they can get a bit wriggly and thrashy when you try to pick them up and point them in the direction you want them to go, rather than, say, let them run up and down past the same exhibit for a solid half hour tripping up various people as they go. And having a thrashy wriggly toddler next to a chest high barrier on a slightly flexible-feeling structure in front of a sheer drop, is, for the vertigo sufferer, "ungood".

Anyhoo. Please don't let this put you off visiting in any way. I am literally the world's biggest wuss about heights, and if you are not troubled by them, this will be no problem for you at all. I just thought the image of someone who lives in the land of mega buildings, and indeed, for now at least, the world's tallest building, who is afraid of heights, might amuse the heck out of you.

Practical stuff. The parental units among you will want to know if it's pushchair friendly. You can take them in, but they encourage you to leave them outside in the "stroller park" and to be honest, I think you're better without, as at busy times it would be a bit of a nightmare maneuvering the bulkier models on some of the narrow pathways. It's not loads of walking, so toddlers will manage it, possibly with a bit of a carry. Baby carriers are probably a better idea anyway because there's not much to see at buggy eye level.

It's not cheap - 95dhs per adult, 70dhs per child, and either under 3s or under 2s free, not sure which as both were indicated on signs. It's in the Entertainer, with a two for one adult ticket offer, and bound to be on other deal websites at some point. It opens at 10am until 10pm, except on Thursday and Friday when it is open until midnight. If you're keen, like we were (woken at dawn by toddler), then there is a little coffee shop next door when you can hang out until it opens and be first in the queue for tickets. I am told that if you go later in the day, the sloth is more likely to be awake, but, personally, considering his name, I would say there's not much point planning your visit around a sloth being awake or moving.

Bear in mind that the survival of the plant and wildlife species inside depend on conditions being kept similar to a rain forest, ie hot and steamy, so dress accordingly, particularly if you're the one wearing the baby.

It is definitely more than worth the visit, if nothing else, it is a much needed blast of green for us desiccated desert types, and, as is typical of Dubai, they have pulled out the stops with the architecture.

*All pics courtesy of Him Indoors and benevolent friends

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Night at Dubai Opera

Being a cantankerous, easily irritated sort, one of the things that really gets on my t**s is people who have never set foot in, let alone lived in Dubai, telling me that it has "no culture", "no soul", and nothing but sand and skyscrapers.

While it is the case that sand, yep, we have that in spades, sandy beach, sandy desert, sand invading our homes, gardens and roads during sand storms, sandy sandy sand. And yes, skyscrapers, there are a lot of those, some of them beautiful, some of them groundbreaking, in more ways than one, and some of them neither of those things.

This is a newsflash to those of you who have leveled the "no culture" claim, the sand has been here a long, long time, the skyscrapers less so, Western ideas of what constitutes "culture" an even shorter time, but, the powers that be have been seeking to rectify that "no culture" image of recent. The latest example of which, the Dubai Opera, I will come to shortly, but I just want to embark on a small rant as to why the lack of culture accusation really does do my head in.

Believe me, during the years I have lived here, I have from time to time felt frustrated by the fact that I can't just go to one of choice of hundreds of theatres, as I would in London, rely on a  thriving classical music scene to go and see concerts whenever I want or see some of the world's truly great works of art for free whenever I feel like hopping on the Tube into town. You don't need to tell me that those things have not been readily available here. I am aware of it, I am the one that lives here and experiences the lack of them every time the weekend arrives, particularly during the hot months, and I am not quite sure what to do with my free time. But, and this really is the key here, I would point out all those things are "culture" from a very Western perspective.

People lived and survived in this harsh, coastal corner of the Gulf for a very, very long time, though, without those things. They fished, kept camels, farmed dates and dived for pearls, and managed with no air conditioning in a climate that regularly tops 50C. And the descendants of those people are immensely proud of that extraordinary ability to survive in an arid climate, and you can learn about it at Dubai Museum and other places around the Emirate. Once you have spent a few summers here, even with the luxuries of air conditioned buildings and cars, you start to appreciate just how very strong that will to survive was.

That tradition that I am talking about, that will to survive, making the most of the natural resources - it has not necessarily been recorded on paper. Pre-oil there was not much interest or investment in this part of the world, and quite literally not much around to protect those who lived here from the raging sun, so, I suspect not recording their culture that much was down to the fact that they were too busy staying alive, to worry about what generations to come would think of the way they lived.

There is a tradition of storytelling, music and dance here that has been passed down the generations, which can be seen in this video and others on Youtube. It's culture, people, but not as we in the West think of it. There are not orchestral scores with 50 odd different instruments playing different parts, or giant canvases of skillfully rendered oil paintings or sculptures, but Emirati culture exists in all art forms. You only have to visit the historic district of Bastikiya to appreciate that.

So, having got the "no culture" accusation out of the way, can we agree that if you say it to me again, I will simply call you a post-colonial plonker and give you a shove? OK, good.

So, to Dubai Opera. Dubai Opera, along with the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of a number of examples of Gulf investment in "Western" art forms. Pre economic crisis, the opera house was to be located on an island of Dubai Creek, but last week, it opened its doors in the newly minted "Opera District" in Downtown, just across the Dubai Fountain pond from The Dubai Mall.

As with many large scale projects in Dubai, it had that "miraculous" feel about it. Would it, or wouldn't it be finished in time? An ambitious deadline was set and the programme organised long before the building looked close to completion. Some friends of ours, who live next door and have some expertise on the matter, looked a bit concerned when we told them we had tickets for the third night. "You'll be lucky," were their precise words I think.

But yet, come Friday night, we left Desert Baby in their tender care, changed into some of our "posh" clothes (the ones not covered in yogurt and baby spit) and tripped next door for some culture.

I am willing to admit that I am going soft in my old age, but walking into the opera house for the first time, I felt emotional. Yes, it was obvious that a water feature snaking around the edge of the building had not been finished, and, yes, there was a little scaffolding still clinging to one side of the building that we were turned back from by a security guard, but it was finished, near as damnit.

"All the terrible things going on in the world," I mumbled to Him Indoors, "and they have managed to do this. It's marvellous."

I am no architectural expert, but it is a lovely building, inspired by a traditional Arabian dhow boat at the exterior, with a feeling of clean lines, modernism, light and space at the interior. It is a huge, positive gesture, a shrine to an elite art form, yes, but what is opera for other than to explore our capacity for love, joy and grief?

The foyer was packed with people of all ages, demographics, nationalities, excited about the performance of Rossini's The Barber of Seville that was to come, the house was full, and apart from what appeared to be a rather enthusiastic member of the catering team getting a bit over-exuberant while bashing an ice tray so the sound carried through to the auditorium, it all went without a hitch.

The Fondazione Teatro Lirico Guiseppe Verdi, Trieste, acquitted themselves well in what must have been a nerve wracking experience, being among the first to perform in a brand new venue. Beforehand, I had visions of the balcony on which leading lady Rosina appears collapsing, or clouds of construction dust invading the auditorium, but there was not a bit of it. There was widespread appreciation of a hugely popular opera, particularly Figaro's Aria, which was accomplished by Massimo Cavalletti with wit and charm.

For me, Rocio Ignacio as Rosina was the highlight. You can keep Katherine Jenkins, frankly. Give me an old fashioned highly trained soprano who can manage the vocal gymnastics of a difficult part while still filling an auditorium without the need for a microphone any day of the week.
Yes, I may have had a teeny, tiny snooze half way through the second half, but the finish time was 11pm and I have a 19 month old. I'm normally fast asleep by then. Don't judge me, or indeed the performance by that fact.

So, what's coming up at the opera? Well, if you look at the website, you will see that there is a fair amount of populist type fare, things like musicals, ice skating and magic shows coming up, as well as opera, ballet and classical music. It remains to be seen whether the opera house will pay its way as a venue for those elite "Western" art forms that we bemoan the lack of, but I think from what I saw on Wednesday night, many are willing it to succeed.