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.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Get thee to soft play... and other summer expat commandments

It is the middle of August, which means we have officially "broken the back" of summer in Dubai. The countdown is on for when it's bearable to venture outside without arriving at your destination looking like you have stopped on the way for a fully-clothed sauna.

When I first moved here, I was asked quite a lot about how I manage in the summer heat. The short answer to that is box sets. There were summers when Him Indoors and I debated moving to Scandinavia and joining the police force, such was our familiarity with the fictional procedures of Wallander, Sarah Lund and (my personal favourite) Saga Noren.

Then Desert Baby arrived, and surprisingly, she is less keen on patiently unscrambling the fictional gruesome crime wave that is currently blighting the capital cities of Sweden and Denmark, and the need arose to actually leave the house.

So, what the heck do you do in summer with a toddler when it's 50C outside?

Well, those who have the kind of lives that allow such things, disappear for up to two months to escape the heat. Or, pack the children off to relatives or friends in cooler climes. I couldn't face the weeping, home sickness, separation anxiety and sleep regression that would result from that (and Desert Baby would not have been much better, boom boom) so that was out.

So, there is quite a lot of this:

Soft play is your friend, people. This is the first commandment of surviving the summer with a child in the UAE - "thou shalt go to soft play until you want to climb into the bottom of the ball pit and weep silently to thyself".

Love 'em or hate 'em, you're going to be there a lot. You need to take socks for you and offspring - something easily forgotten for the newly arrived expat who has just got used to schlepping around in sandals and can often be seen weeping next to the sign at the entrance which says "no socks, no play".  The savvy UAE parent carries socks for themselves and child along with the 500 other essential baby items in your giant detritus-filled bag of doom.

Desert Baby is pictured above at the mother all soft plays in my view - Cheeky Monkeys in Etihad Mall, Mirdif. There are several branches across Dubai and it's one of those places that makes me think, "crikey, children here in the UAE and in the 21st century really don't know they're born". Sponge ball guns, a set of four trampolines (which I may or may not have bounced on rather a lot), the "roller coaster" (see above) arts and crafts, ball pit, slides, giant jump-onable piano, it has the lot.

It doesn't come cheap - 50dhs per hour (more than GBP10.50 at current exchange rates) but thankfully it's on Him Indoors' employee discount scheme so it's doable. In common with Extreme Fun, Motor City, it has a cafe, serving kid-friendly food and coffee, which, unusually for such places in the UAE, does not taste like it has been vomited through a steamer and left to stew with rat's urine for several weeks before being served.

Soft plays in Dubai are excellent on the whole, clean and with good facilities. They would have to be, because they are they are the core of all summer child-tiring activities here. I have found cheaper ones - Fun 'N' Learn in Fun City, Arabian Centre, Mirdif, for example, is 30dhs to stay as long as you like.

One of the things that I like about living here with Minime is that Dubai is, in some respects, heaven for small children. Everyone seems to love rugrats. Desert Baby is cooed over and talked to by total strangers everywhere we go, from other mums to sales assistants and waiting staff to random blokes in sensible business attire. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable or asked to leave anywhere when I have her with me, tantrum or not. And there are child-friendly indoor amusements in most shopping malls with wide selection of flashy, noisy, games, cars, motorbikes and tiny buses to sit on and shout, wave fists and demand money to load on a swipe card to make them work.

Then there are things like Jump Boxx, a trampolining centre, the record-breakingly massive Dubai Aquarium at The Dubai Mall, Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates, which sometimes offer summer discounts and packages to keep your children busy.

Then there's the hallowed ground of what has, over the years, become a Dubai tradition - the mighty Modhesh World. It's a giant indoor fair which opens up in the Trade Centre over the summer, full of fairground type activities like shooting galleries, spooky ghost houses, enormous slides, those water orb things that you climb inside and float on, bumper cars, and more. If you go with an under two, it costs next to nothing as they are happy to run around and goggle in amazement at the sheer scale of this insane kid-paradise, but if you go with children old enough to understand and demand, be warned, you could be in for a pricey day as each attraction is charged separately.

I enjoyed going just to see the "Dubainess" of it. You know those little automated cars/boats/buses they have outside supermarkets in the UK, that you put a coin in and the jig your child around? There are HUNDREDS of them, brand new of all shapes, sizes and descriptions, and that's just the start, there's a regular parade of brightly dressed and made up dancing stage school types, two food courts, a soft play and the feeling that you've stepped into a Willy Wonka-style wonderland of child-attracting technicolour. We went in the morning when it was fairly quiet. I suspect in the afternoons and evenings it is actual mayhem.

Modhesh and other activities are pretty hard on the pocket, though, so bearing in mind that Desert Baby's parents are in retail and journalism rather than oil and gas or banking, we find ourselves seeking out cheaper alternatives.

So here is the second commandment of Dubai summer parenting -

"Thou shalt head north to Sharjah, and find child-friendly activities that are so cheap in comparison to Dubai, that it would not matter if they were total pants, but are actually on the whole pretty good."

The hands down favourite of the Sharjah-based activities is Arabia's Wildlife Centre which is home to a collection of animals native to the region including the incredibly cute sand cat, cheetahs, leopards, wolves and baboons.

The centre is educational and has decent explanations of all the species in English and Arabic and the enclosures are well constructed in a naturalistic way. Most importantly, while many of the animals are outside, you view from indoors, so you can go there at any time of year and not be troubled by the heat. There is also a restaurant, along the lines of one of those roadside places you see everywhere in the UAE, serving fresh juices, icecreams, tea, and "local" delights including byriani, "zinker" (zinger) chicken burgers and the like. If you're one of those crunchy, organic, gluten free parents, you're probably better off taking your own food.

As you can see from the above map link, the site is also home to the Natural History and Botanical Museum, which is another place to run round inside and look at some educational stuff, a "children's farm" (petting farm) and a breeding centre for endangered species. I'm not sure about the breeding centre but the cost you pay when you enter the main gate (15dhs per adult, free for Desert Baby until she's two at least,) covers you for all the attractions. Bargain.

For other Sharjah attractions, I recommend visiting the comprehensive Sharjah Museums website. So far we have visited the Discovery Centre, and the Aquarium, both are cheap as chips and occupied Desert Baby for a good couple of hours. The Maritime Museum, which is right next to the Aquarium, was closed for refurbishments when we went, so it's worth ringing ahead. Don't, repeat, don't, order the coffee at the cafes. I'm still traumatised by it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Ramadan Mubarak - pulling a fast one


You are probably wondering, dear reader, why I am posting at this time of the morning, apart from in homage to Renee Artois (very old British TV reference for those who have no idea what I am talking about).

Well, I will be celebrating six years in Dubai in September, and I have yet to take part in the rigours of Ramadan in any meaningful way.

So this year, I am following the path of a hundred other journalists who have turned around in the broiling heat of the UAE summer and realised they are fresh out of things to write about, and for one day only, I am going to attempt fasting during the daylight hours. This is why I am up before the sun chowing down on my usual breakfast of yoghurt, fruit and tea plus an extra side order of Camembert sandwiches. No, Camembert is not a traditional pre fast snack, but it's what I had to hand this early. It turns out the pictured beverage is something of an institution for breaking your fast in the UAE (of which more later), so I thought, "when not in Rome, indulge in the idiosyncrasies of the locals". Ie, I'll be having some of that later. I realise the original version of that saying is somewhat catchier, but it is very early. I was going to try to scarf down some for the pre-dawn meal, but reader, I just couldn't.

Anyway, I shall be keeping you updated on how I am doing throughout the day. Lucky you. I will probably be doing very badly as I'm the kind of person who turns into a psychotic fiend if I am separated from my food supply for more than two hours.

Wish me luck.



I've chosen a day when Desert Baby is at nursery because she is a girl after my own heart, ie, needs plenty of snacks and reviving treats on a half hourly basis, so I thought best stay away from that temptation.

I also have two freelance jobs on so I'll have plenty to distract me from food daydreams. I'll tell you what, though, it isn't half hard to sit down at a desk and start writing without a cup of tea. I think thirst is going to be the biggest challenge throughout the day. There will be highs of 39C today, which for a Dubai summer isn't that bad, but that's still hot enough for you to want to gulp a glass of water when you get indoors after any time at all spent outside. So I think the dashes from house to car, car to nursery and back again will be my only trips outside today.


I really want a cup of tea. I mean really want one.


A thought just occurred to me - what to people who are fasting do to break up the day? I'm accustomed to a point in the day when I stop working (staring blankly at a screen) get up, move around, prepare lunch (intend to have salad, usually something in a sandwich). I am realising how much I use tea, coffee and water as a procrastination device. I reckon I would normally have had three glasses of water and be on my third or fourth coffee or tea by now. As it is, that one at 5.10am is starting to feel like a loooooooooooong time ago.


I am officially fed up now. Can't imagine doing this for 30 days. Also, I am realising how I get a lot of my body heat from eating and drinking, particularly the large quantity of hot drinks I usually have during the day. I've had to shut of the air conditioning, something that happens not that often during a Dubai summer.


Only six hours to go. So I'm well past the half way point. My eyes feel puffy. What's that about?


I think I'm reaching the hysterical stage now. I was just remembering the 24 Hour Famine thing we used to do at school to raise money for people in areas of the world where there were food shortages. I seem to remember we were allowed water, were we not, or it would have had health implications. That was ONE DAY. I honestly can't imagine doing this for 30 days.


I just tortured myself by watching of video of how to make Upside Down Banana Cake on facebook. Why do I do these things to myself?


I have to go and pick up Desert Baby now, who will hopefully distract me from my plight. Here is some musings about Vimto and its place as an Iftar staple in the Gulf:

Vimto has a key role in the tradition of breaking your fast at Iftar in the UAE and the Gulf. Either that or the PR company in charge of promoting it has done one heck of a job pushing it this year, as the newspapers are full of articles about the rise of the sticky syrup and it's prominently displayed in every supermarket. 

I’ve read references to it “bringing you back to life” at the end of a long day of fasting (a little under 14 hours at the moment according to the UAE sunrise and sunset times) and it’s perhaps not surprising when there’s 13g of sugar per 100ml. Yikes, diabetes in a bottle.

There is an interesting article about it here which reveals its roots in the temperance movement, which is perhaps why it would appeal to followers of a religion which eschews alcohol:

The version available in the UAE is made in Saudi Arabia and has been since 1927, so it was the purple stuff that fuelled the region long before the black stuff (oil).

I suspect the UK version is far less sweet due to boring little politically correct things like not wanting the nation to lose all their teeth before the age of 35. Either way, as a fan of the works of P G Wodehouse, I think it’s crying out for a 1930s style advertising campaign involving the word “vim” – a word which should never have fallen out of usage in my opinion.


I  made it, which meant it was time for this:

A glass of the aforementioned "Vim Tonic" and some dates. You eat a lot of dates in the Gulf, but these were definitely the tastiest I have had for a while, even though they were the bog standard Carrefour ones you serve yourself, rather than the endless varieties packaged in fancy boxes you can buy in the supermarkets at this time of year. I have to say, I can't say that I'll be buying Vimto regularly. Very odd tasting stuff if you ask me.


So, the last couple of hours of the fast were the worst, except for the early hours of temptation to just have one little cup of tea. After 5pm was when the dehydration headache, which I haven't quite managed to shake off yet, set in. Luckily for me, Him Indoors cooked a dinner of sausages which we ate in front of Peaky Blinders. I was subdued enough by the day's exertions to not get too irate with the annoying blonde girl police spy Grace, who is always banging on about making men cry with her singing, when she's really not that great at it.

I've read a bit during today about why fasting is the done thing during Ramadan. There are lots of reasons - some of them include feeling greater affinity with those who have less, feeling closer to God, etc.

I'm pretty sure there was no spiritual experience in Sand Witch Towers, just a greater level of grumpiness and a marked dip in productivity, but I will definitely have greater empathy for those who observe the fast for 30 days from now on. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Peak Dubai

I'm starting this post in a bit of an emotional mood, having in the past week said goodbye to two ladies who've basically saved my sanity during the past year and a bit.

The first is a friend who I met at a baby yoga group. She spotted me managing to look both socially inadequate and weird while clutching a squalling Desert Baby, and clearly thought "that's the kind of lady I want my own baby to hang out with, I'll invite her and her baby to join my friends and I for lunch." We hit it off, due to having certain things in common - a rather "matter of fact" approach to parenting being one of them. And while I knew the day when she had to go back to the UK would come, and Dubai is a transient place and we must get used to these things, and so on ad infinitum, I am feeling distinctly Eeyeore-like about her departure.


*Brief pause while I wallow in self-pity*

The second was the lady who, over the past year, cleaned my house once per week and sometimes babysat for Desert Baby, so I had time to try to find work, speak to someone who knew other concepts beyond "milk", "nappy", and "no I shall not take a daytime nap no matter how exhausted I may be". This is a First World Problem of the highest order - losing one's' cleaner and babysitter when it's just so damn hard to get the staff these days, but, I am often reminded of a line from Kathryn Stockett's intensely readable novel The Help, when I think about her. It goes something along the lines of "good help is hard to find, it's like falling in love, it happens once in a lifetime". There was something about her that meant we just clicked. She's going home for not particularly happy reasons, and I felt decidedly wretched as I dropped her off at the Metro station for the last time earlier this week, not least because her experience reminded me of how miserable the lives of those in some of the poorer sections of UAE society can be.

I've talked about my British guilt about needing someone to help me around the house in this post, but honestly, the women I have met that do this kind of job in the UAE are way better women than me. Many of them do the dirty work in the homes of people like me who think they've got it hard because it's a bit too hot to go to the beach, or, they're out of money for a manicure that month. Domestic workers in the UAE often get paid less than 2,000dhs per month (around GBP377). Many get accommodation paid for as part of their job, but considering the high cost of living, it's not a lot.

And then there's the fact that many of them have left their own children in their home country to be cared for by family members. Received wisdom on this is that it's so much easier these days for them to "parent at a distance" thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and things like Skype, but I'm not sure that would be enough to stop me going insane with misery were I in that position.  I realise that with time, such arrangements must become easier to bare, but I can't imagine it.

The reason that so many of them do this, of course, is that if they want to improve their family's financial position and give hope of a better lives to their offspring, they have very little choice. There is an army of low paid workers in the UAE and the wider Gulf, not just in the domestic sector, but in hospitality, customer service and so on, without whom the super privileged lifestyles of some locals and expats would be unsustainable.

I recently talked to one lady from the Philippines, who has a job in a beauty salon. She told me that the minimum wage in the Philippines is 34dhs per day (GBP6.40). "This is why where ever you go, you will find lots of us working", she said. While in Sri Lanka, the latest info I could find suggests that the minimum wage is less than GBP2 per day, which probably makes getting several times that with accommodation thrown in seem fairly attractive. To be clear, some of them live out, which means a higher basic salary, but the cost of living must mean living on practically nothing in order to send the bulk of their salaries back to their home countries.

Another lady I met a while ago, also from the Philippines, was working in a coffee shop. She struck up conversation with me, and it became pretty obvious that she had done so because she was absolutely desperate to talk to someone who had recently had a baby. She had just left her little boy back home to be looked after by his grandparents, having taken the UAE's standard 100 days maternity leave - 45 days paid, the rest unpaid. While I may have taken Desert Baby to a freelance job meeting with me when she was aged just four and a half months, I can't imagine being back at work full time that early, even though it's officially the norm in this country and I know people who have done it.

I think this lady was fairly traumatised by it, as I probably would have been, as I was barely in a fit state to leave the house eight weeks after Desert Baby's birth, let alone ready to think about full time work. Leaving her behind while going to work in another country would have been, and still is, out of the question.

I chatted away to the lady about the healing cesarean scars, feeding, nappies, sleep - all the things that people like me had the luxury of nattering away about for hours at various coffee mornings and mummy meet ups, until duty called and she had to go back and serve coffee. And back she went to work, with colleagues who in all likelihood had kids of their own in their home countries and may also have understood what it was like to be working thousands of miles away from your newborn while still healing from giving birth.

I once tried to talk to my "helper" (for this is the preferred term for those of us who balk at the term "maid") about what it is like leaving your children to go and work in a foreign country. "What to do? Need money," was her succinct response. Point taken: Talking about it to someone who cannot imagine doing it was unlikely to make her feel good about the situation, so I backed off.

Life in the UAE has an interesting dual effect on your perspective when it comes to your standard of living which I am fairly sure I have alluded to in a post before. There is conspicuous consumption and wealth everywhere: Enormous shopping malls crammed with luxury stores of every description, more super expensive hotels than you can shake your Louis Vuitton luggage at, car parks groaning with super cars and the blingiest of four-wheel-drives, days spent lounging on the beaches and by the pools of aforesaid luxury hotels, embarrassingly excessive weekend brunches where you consume your weekly calorie allowance in one sitting while pouring unlimited glasses of champagne down your throat.

These rich fripperies and baubles become part of your every day life, along with being able to pick up the phone your local supermarket and have someone who earns less in a week than you do in half a day deliver cans of cola to your door within minutes, incredibly cheap petrol to fill up your four-wheel-drive's fuel tank for next to nothing and shopping for "real fake" sweatshop-made handbags in Karama.

But, if you are willing to look beyond the end of your nose before you stick it in the brunch trough, it doesn't half have the ability to make you appreciate your life compared with those of many in the UAE.

I remember when I first arrived, noticing, for example, gardeners sweating away in the heat to maintain the lush green lawns and foliage of the UAE's luxury hotels, and thinking, it's only the accident of my birth - that I happened to be born in the West while he was born into a poor family in a developing country, that means I am inside enjoying the air con and slurping a cool drink while he's out there. I wondered then, as I still do now, how people can apparently not notice such workers when the mercury tops 50C and go about their highly privileged lives as if they simply aren't there.

I suppose that after a while, the workers and their discomfort simply blend into the scenery for some people. Personally, I think, when that happens, you've reached "Peak Dubai" and it's probably time to cash in your chips and go home.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A visit to the Baptism Site from the Jordanian side

This is the second of my posts about our Jordanian Odyssey because this particular aspect of our visit deserves a post in its own right.

Even if you're not particularly religious, the place known as the Baptism Site, where Jesus is believed to have been baptised by John the Baptist, is something worth doing. Particularly in the light of news that broke yesterday that the site, most of which has been a no go area for nearly 50 years thanks to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is finally to be cleared of land mines.

Church built to honour the site, with more likely to follow, I expect, after mine clearance

The site, as those of you who have good bible knowledge will know, is on the River Jordan. It's 25 miles or so west of Amman, at a place called Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. A small part of it was declared safe and reopened to the public in 2011 - the part which Him Indoors, Desert Baby and I went to late last year - now the rest of it will hopefully be open to the public too, post mine clearance efforts by a Christian charity. To get there, you'll need to drive to the site entrance, buy a ticket and await a small tour bus which, from memory, travels to the site itself once per hour with a guide. There is a fair bit of walking to be done on uneven ground around it, but many of the walkways are shaded from the sun.

As you can see, the site where the baptism itself is believed to have taken place, is not much to look at. The river's course has changed over the centuries, so what you're looking at here is the remains of an archaelogical dig. The structure behind is the shelter built over another dig of an ancient church.

Him Indoors told me first thing this morning that he had just heard on the news that the site was to be cleared of mines, perturbed that we had taken Desert Baby within spitting distance of deadly IEDs during our family holiday. It's not quite as bad as it sounds as the part of the site we saw had been declared safe and visited without incident for five years and the guides there are pretty strict with you, that on no account are you to stray from the paths. There's a phrase about holes and stop digging that is thundering through my head as I write, and I'm not referring to archaeology.


Pilgrims visit regularly, and you can take part in a baptism on the part of the river that now flows closest to the site. This is what these folk are doing on the side of the river our guide referred to as Occupied Palestine, as the thing about the River Jordan, you see, is it effectively forms the border between the two states.

Here they are arriving with a rather heavily armed soldier keeping watch above:

 And here's his equivalent on the Jordanian side:

So basically, there's no messing about.

I did feel, the whole time I was there, that was I under surveillance, that someone may have gun sights trained on me from some long range watch tower. And as we turned and walked away from the narrow, sandy river and prepared to leave, I felt a desire to roar or weep, I wasn't sure which.

I am a pacifist by nature, so it's possible that proximity to heavy weaponry at a site of enormous religious significance with my nine-month-old offspring in tow was what troubled me, or that I was moved by the sound of the pilgrims singing a hymn on the other side of the river. I suppose that's it - the significance of  phrase "the other side of the river" sounds as super loud in my head today as it did then.

The thing is, even those of a faith as lapsed as mine will know that Jesus preached peace and love. Therefore the sight, on both sides of the border, of men with guns capable of ripping a person apart at the place where he was baptised, filled me with something approaching horror.

This makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the visit. I suppose "enjoy" is the wrong word, for something that provoked such feelings. But I think no matter what your faith, or if you have none at all, you can appreciate the importance of the place, and I would recommend seeing it.

In the mean time, here's a picture of a cute baby to lighten the mood:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Go to Petra

There are certain trips that those living in Dubai should make as a matter of course, and a visit to Petra - the ancient Nabatean city cut into rock, deep in a Jordanian valley - is one of them. I must admit that I was never that bothered about going there myself, ignorant as I was of the wonders therein, apart from a vague childhood memory of a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's fair to say that I am now a convert to the cause of Petra and tell anyone who will listen that they should go.

Credit for our trip goes to Him Indoors, who had rather more memory of the Indiana Jones film, and an interest in ancient history which means he reads stuff about these things and listens to obscure history podcasts.

Petra, is quite frankly, indescribable. But I am going to give it a go. 

Those of you who have visited the Grand Canyon will probably remember the first memory of seeing that awesome expanse of nothingness opening up before you as you approach the edge, with the cascading rust red rock formations seeming to pour down from the precipice on the opposite side. Petra, is man-made, if very ancient man, so the effect is different but similarly gobsmacking.

So, here is my attempt at describing what it's like, walking down the Siq and getting that first glimpse of the Treasury rearing up before you in the morning sun. 

Here it is.... 

Are you ready now?






I saw it for the first time, turned to Him Indoors, and said: "F***... How old did you say this is?"

There it is.

It's simply awe-inspiringly swear-inducingly brilliant, is Petra. And the best thing about it is that once you've seen the Treasury, there's absolutely bloomin' loads of it to spend a day or more seeing and exploring. And, even better, it's in Jordan, which is one of the friendliest places I have ever visited. 

Now that's what I call an amphitheatre

Him Indoors and I have been on some truly splendid holidays since we moved to Dubai, taking advantage of its handy location compared with the UK to visit places like Nepal, Kenya and India etc, but I think of them all, Petra has to be hands down, my favourite. Last year was a heck of a year in one way or another, and I'll be honest, the thought of carting a sometimes sleepless Desert Baby to an unknown country was not exactly a prospect that filled me with joy, but boy am I glad that we did. 

The Monastery, it's carved into the rock. How the hecking heck did they do it?

Travelling in Jordan with a little one has its challenges, but there are also giant advantages. Desert Baby was nine months old at the time (yes she's 14 and a half months now, I've been busy and yada yada yada) and had already entered the giggling, smiling and waving her little starfish hands at nearly everyone she meets phase, and everywhere we went, people engaged with her, and talked to her, told us "mashallah". From the moment we stepped into our hotel in Amman, one of the concierges made friends with her and took her off for a little walk around the foyer and she was showered with compliments and attention for the entire holiday. At no point did you get the tuts and mutterings that having a small child in tow can cause in other parts of the world, even when she decided that she didn't feel like following our proposed itinerary for the day and started bellowing her head off.

The challenge, for those travelling with a young child in Jordan, is definitely food, particularly for those who are used to the 24/7 restaurant culture of somewhere like Dubai, where you can eat your way round the world simply by picking up the phone. Luckily we took a bunch of Ella's Kitchen pouches with us, or we would have been in trouble. Home cooking is still very much valued in Jordan, so on demand food to order is just not the thing. Why would it be when you are most likely always getting satisfying food at home? We were aware of this before we left, but simply didn't quite believe it, assuming that as Him Indoors and I will eat pretty much anything, even from grungy looking cafes, we would be fine. 

Not so, even grungy looking cafes shut on Friday mornings and more or less whenever they feel like it, and when they are open, they tend not to serve food until traditional meal times. For example, hotel restaurants we frequented didn't serve food until 7pm, so we couldn't sit and eat an early evening meal with Desert Baby, we resorted to feeding her a pouch and then trying to silently eat room service dinner while she slept later on more than one occasion. On other days, trotting around Amman, which as a capital city you would have thought would be a safe bet for a meal whenever you fancied one, we existed the entire day on a bowl of funny lentil snacks that came with a cup of coffee, and on another day, it was just the coffee. Those of you who know what Him Indoors and I get like when we're hungry can appreciate how impressive it is that we returned from that trip still married.  

But, Desert Baby, trooper that she is, did not let any of this get her down.

At the temple of Hercules, Amman

She was still being breastfed at this point, which is bloomin' handy for not having to worry about things like sterilising bottles and clean boiled water, and she generally giggled and wiggled her way through the trip as happily as can be. 

She even only got a little bit cross when we did this to her:

All in all, though, I would recommend taking a nine month old to Petra, providing, that is, they are the kind of baby that is willing to spend quite a bit of time in a Baby Bjorn, or similar, because there's a lot of walking involved, and it sure as hell ain't buggy friendly, as is the case with much of Jordan, unless you're inside a large international brand hotel or similar.

Luckily, Desert Baby thinks the sling is the bees knees.

 Entranced by the view at Petra's highest point

There was one thing that we did take away from the trip that irked us slightly, and that was the  attitude of our fellow Brits. It might be that we just got big heads from being told at pretty much every turn what a delightful, beautiful genius baby that she is (which she is, obviously, well, except when she's teething, then she's a rabid beast) but we both got the slight hump about the way that of the two British tourists we met in Petra, both were keen to point out to us that: "She won't remember it, you know." 


"Really? Damn, because I was planning to ask her to pitch a travel piece to when we get back and leave it to her to write it herself. Well, this is a monumental disappointment to me, I wish I had just left her in a cabbage patch in a Fujairah field rather than bring her with me," is what I should have replied, but one only thinks of these things afterwards. Seriously. I am as cynical as the next bod, but really, that is the limit. Sort it out, fellow Brits.      

I will let some pics do the rest of the talking about Petra, but keep scrolling for a hilarious tale of the road trip to Petra which took roughly eight times longer than it should have done, including an encounter with the Jordanian police near the Israeli border.

 Bedouin dudes with donkeys. They offer you a "donkey for later" "all the way up" (by which they mean to the monastery). Obviously the only dignified reply is: "Yes, send them to my hotel room, but saddle them up, I'm not a perv."
 A view of the amphitheatre from inside a cave

 No reason for this, other than this cat looks EXACTLY like my former cat, Kitty, may she rest in peace.

Him indoors embarking on the climb to the monastery with Desert Baby strapped to him. Even the Brits we met managed to congratulate him on his fortitude. 
About half way up and looking pretty happy about it

This is what the climb was for

And this

Followed by this

So, the thing about Petra, then, is that it's really fr***in' remote. It's really staggeringly far from anywhere, and tourist numbers, if the Telegraph is to be believed, are dwindling, due, in part, perhaps, to those Daesh idiots who are currently terrorising parts of the region. This may mean investment in infrastructure may be a long way off, and that many may experience a journey similar to what me, Him Indoors and Sand Baby experienced.

There are two ways to reach Petra from Amman via road. First, the quickest route, the Desert Highway, which is about as boring as it sounds, then the Dead Sea route, where you drive alongside the moodily flat waters admiring the watery view, the salt deposits and the pinkish sands, the bedouin camps and the occasional bromide plant. You keep going along the coast for an awfully long time then turn left along a somewhat rural road to Wadi Mousa, the modern-day settlement next to Petra. 

We, obviously, chose the latter, and hopped into a rather beastly but it turned out handily rugged rented four-wheel drive and set off. We were a little late starting as the hire car company were late delivering us the charger for the sat nav. There was no effing way we were setting off without that. We made a stop at the baptism site of Jesus Christ along the way (also on the Israeli border, and for another post) and then made tracks towards Petra..... 

So along the coast we drove, having fed Desert Baby a pouch and eaten some packets of crisps ourselves for lunch (see above) until we came to the famous left turn towards Petra and Wadi Mousa mentioned above. It was after 5pm, if I remember correctly, and darkness was falling. 

And there was a sign at the start of aforementioned road, saying "road closed". 

"B***ocks," we said. "What do we do?" "Hmmmmmmmmmm."

As is probably more often the case that it should be on our holiday adventures, the theme tune to the BBC series 999 as presented by Michael Buerk began to sound in my head. Along with the downcast presenter's imagined voiceover:  "The young(ish) couple were excited about their trip to new World Wonder Petra, and it was a beautiful day on the Dead Sea as they took the route towards modern day settlement Wadi Mousa. That day was to end in near tragedy, with their fatal mistake being to ignore a road closed sign on their final descent into the city....."

The immediate answer as to what to do seemed to be to sit in the back of the car and breastfeed Desert Baby, who had been surprisingly compliant about a day mostly spent in various vehicles so far. In the mean-time Him Indoors attempted to get a signal on his phone so he could Google the situation and find out what was wrong with the road. 

This went on for a while as the darkness became increasingly inky black and various vehicles turned right out of the supposedly closed road, looking for all the world like vehicles who had just driven from Petra with no problems. But, as foreigners with little Arabic and little knowledge of local conditions and even less knowledge of what the hell to do in an emergency, we thought driving willy nilly along a road that said "road closed" may be classed in the "somewhat foolhardy" category, particularly with an admittedly game nine month old in tow.

As the darkness thickened, and Desert Baby began to give us looks that seemed to say "you know, I may be the world's most patient baby, but even I will lose my sense of humour at some point," and cars continued to pass us nonchalantly, a large, armoured and camouflaged four-wheel drive pulled up in front of us. 

Him Indoors got out to greet the large, burly, peaked cap and fatigues-wearing soldier who got out of the armoured four-wheel drive, with his customary "hellair". The soldier, doing his job, patrolling the Israeli border, started to ask a series of rather sharp questions about what the heck we were doing hanging around there, until I got out, carrying a waving, cheery, smiling Desert Baby, and suddenly, everything was ok. The solder phoned his friend and ascertained that yes, the road was indeed "out", and then taught us another rather vital lesson about Jordan in addition to the rather stiff one we had already learned about the availability of food. 

There was, at this time, nor is there likely to be by now, no petrol station in Petra or indeed Wadi Mousa, so if you find yourselves at the left turn from the Dead Sea with possibly not enough fuel to get there and back, as we did, you need to think on. Whatever we did, said the burly, somewhat frightening, but also in some ways reassuring dad-like chap, we needed to leave quickly. 

"That is Israel," he said, pointing at the blackly disappearing hills on the other side of the narrow Dead Sea, "is problem". 

Aaaaaaah, "problem"... That word, that in the subcontinent and Arabic world can mean everything from a flat tyre to a full scale war. I tell a lie, the phrase used to describe wars, famines, genocides and the like, is "big problem". 

The best and safest thing to do in terms of the road he informed us, was drive to Aqaba, the border city with Saudi Arabia, and then turn back along the Desert Highway. Not only was the road to Petra out, but all of the petrol stations en route to Aqaba were out of fuel, so despite my furious protestations, that is what we ended up doing.     

We arrived at a petrol station on the outskirts of Aqaba, filled up with fuel, purchased some of the crackliest and most uncomfortable nappies Desert Baby will ever wear, because we were running short of those and they were the only ones available, and attempted to feed her a pouch. Unsurprisingly, she was getting a little bit testy by this stage, and a windy, dark, service station forecourt, surrounded by some of the scariest characters I have ever seen in my life is not the most joyful place to enjoy a pureed meal.  

Luckily for us, she sportingly agreed to be strapped back into her car seat as we set off from Aqaba, to approach Petra from the other side. The sat nav, which we have learned during our various comedy road trips over the years to ignore, (there was a memorable occasion when we followed it through an Australian mountain range, when there was a perfectly good motorway we could have used) wanted us to take a choice of terrifying looking single track rural roads through rocky looking hills towards Wadi Mousa. 

We took the route that the map told us was the main route which was still pretty terrifying, but there didn't seem a lot of choice with temperature dropping, the darkness thickening still further, and when we were quite frankly, in the middle of effing nowhere with a thankfully sleeping Desert Baby. 

We set off down this moderately terrifying road, and immediately understood why the original left turn road had been closed. A dense, miasma like mixture of sand and fog made visibility bad enough that we could barely see beyond the end of the car's bonnet. It was, quite frankly, the most hair raising journey of our lives, on top of an already somewhat hair raising day.   

As him indoors had done an entire day's driving to Aqaba, it was my turn in the driving seat, and I clung on to the steering wheel for dear life, as the sat nav continued to give vague suggestions that we should drive off a cliff, turn straight into a pile of rocks, just turn back, for the love of God just turn back! As we crawled along, we were overtaken by a taxi, the driver of which clearly spotted we were not local, and crawled along in front of us, pointing out of his window to the direction we needed to go to give us warning when we needed to turn. The Jordanians are probably the nicest people in the world. 

Luckily, Desert Baby slept on, as the taxi driver peeled off down a rocky track towards what was presumably his home, he gestured once more out the window, pointing out the route, so we finally took the slightly less terrifying road down into Wadi Mousa. We were cross eyed with exhaustion and unable to keep it together to find our way through the town to the Petra Guest House where we were to stay, so Him Indoors got them on the phone to be tactfully told we just needed to head towards the main gate of Petra and we would find them.  

We pulled up at the guest house at about 10.30pm, and got ready to check in, at which point Desert Baby withdrew cooperation, which was probably entirely fair enough, considering the frankly reckless behaviour of her parents, and woke up. After we stuffed a room service dinner into our mouths, and convinced the hotel staff to turn on the heating, because yes, we might look like Europeans, but we are desert dwelling wusses these days who can't cope with the cold (temperatures drop to 2C at night during the winter), she settled briefly in the cot, before waking roughly every half hour until dawn.  

Luckily, the excitement of seeing Petra for the first time was enough to make the next day pass without any of us murdering each other, filing for divorce or child emancipation. The day after that, we got up early, not that we had much choice as Desert Baby was up with the sun, and caught that magical first sight of the Treasury again, as the early morning sun begins to bathe it in light.

So, here endeth my lesson on travelling to Petra. You should go, you really should, but bear in mind it's a good idea to have a supply of snacks with you and, particularly if you do it in the winter months, aim to be there before dark, particularly if you are driving yourselves there, because that night-time trip across the barren mountains to get there is far from funny. Well, it is now, considering we all got out of it alive, but at the time, not so much.