Monday, August 30, 2010

Address, please?

This past weekend, my husband and I were pretty busy getting sorted, packed and moved (before you ask, let me answer: no, we are not moving back to Brazil - we are simply moving to a new flat…). Of course, a new place deserves new furniture. So, we set out to look for the perfect pieces.

For a moment there, going from IKEA, to Pottery Barn to Crate and Barrel, we almost forgot we were in the UAE. But then, they guy in charge of scheduling the delivery gave us a reality check by posing the following question: address, please?

BAM! Back in the UAE!

You are probably wondering why such an ordinary question has that effect. Well, it’s very simple my friend. There are no addresses here in the UAE. No. I am not kidding.

Some streets have names, others have numbers, and you might find a few more that have both a name and a number. Problem is, everything is so confusing, that people rarely know these names and numbers. And, even if you do find the street you are looking for, you will have a hard time finding the building you need to get to because they have no numbers!

I know. It’s crazy. The first time I came for a visit, my husband - boyfriend at the time - was actually flying the day I arrived, so he instructed me: “Tell the cab driver you need to go to X street, in X neighborhood. The building is called X, and is located in front of X park, between a KFC and a Burger King.” I seriously thought he was trying to play a practical joke on me...

When you live in the UAE, the first thing you probably need to do is go to the post office and rent a mailbox so all your correspondence can be directed there. No chance of receiving them at your door!

The second thing you will want to do is memorize a few key landmarks next to your home or places you need to go so you can direct cab drivers, delivery guys, guests, etc. Keep your eyes open for big hotels, banks, shops...

Last, but not least, learn how to draw a map. Yes, you heard me - a map. When you buy something at a store and need it delivered, you will most probably be asked to draw a map of your location. Include as many details as you can and don’t forget to include all those landmarks you memorized!

Address, please? Not as simple and straightforward as you thought, huh?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sex and the WRONG City

Ever since Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte decided to hop on a plane and spend a few days in Abu Dhabi, I’ve been overloaded with emails saying: “it was so good to see a little bit of your world”, or “wow, I did not imagine Abu Dhabi like that” or “I thought about you throughout the movie”.

Well, I am really flattered – at least you thought about me – but I need to let you in a little secret… What you saw was NOT Abu Dhabi.

That’s right folks. Not sure if the plane was diverted somewhere along the way, but apparently the girls ended up 6,000 kilometers away from here, more precisely in Morocco.

To tell you the truth, when I saw the movie trailer, I found it very hard to believe they had actually filmed here. Why? Well, although this is one very Occidentalized Arab country, it is still an Arab country. And although people here are used to hot summer months, I am not too sure they are quite ready to face the heat of our four friends from New York – especially Samantha’s.

The UAE is concerned in protecting the moral and religious values of the country. It does actively filter and censor a series of movies, TV programs and websites, especially the ones that contain pornography or that promote online dating and gambling. If I try, for example, to access Orkut, which they believe promotes online dating, this is the message I will see:

I am not here to discuss if this is right or wrong. I have my opinion and you probably have yours, but this is not the place or the time for this discussion. I just mentioned this because the local reality made me anticipate the obvious: that Carrie and her pals would be banned from the big screens in the UAE just like they were banned the first time around with Sex and the City: The Movie.

I was actually in Canada when the film was released so I obviously headed to the movies to check out the sequel. I must confess I was a bit disappointed by what I saw. I mean, I am not an Arab and even I was bothered by the stereotypical and partial way the culture was portrayed.

I am not trying to say that everything they showed was a lie. On the contrary, some things are actually very true. But, you know when they make movies and Brazil is always mentioned as the place where crooks and thieves run to or when all they show is samba and Carnaval and naked women? Brazil is not only about that is it? Well, Abu Dhabi is not only about what appears in the Arabian adventures of our friends from New York.

Look, don’t get me wrong, I love the characters, the fun, the fashion, the friendship, and I am all pro freedom of speech, but to choose a Middle Eastern city as the background to the all so famous topics addressed by Sex and the City? What were they thinking?

I just hope our girls step into their Manolo Blahnik’s and head straight back to New York – that’s where they belong and where we love them best.

Meanwhile, if you want to come for a visit, I’ll show you the real Abu Dhabi desert, souk and luxurious hotels – not the Moroccan ones!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cultural Mix

If you are really following my posts, you should know by now that the United Arab Emirates developed immensely over the last years.

To manage the change that happened over such a short period of time, the country had to open its doors and welcome a series of resources – from the very basic to the highly qualified.

Today, only 20% of the entire population (that actually recently reached 8 million) is composed of Emiratis (people born in the UAE). The other 80% are made up of expats - like moi - that come from all parts of the world: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, a series of Arab states and also from many developed countries in Europe and around the globe.

The UAE government and companies based here had to come up with very attractive packages in order to draw in and hold on to all these professionals, especially the more schooled and experienced ones.

I won’t lie to you. The packages can be amazing. They usually include high salaries, housing, medical insurance, school allowances for the kids and much more. The game plan of most people is to come on over, save loads of money and leave after a few years.

But, it’s not all about the money. The UAE had to make sure that the overall setting and atmosphere of the country would also serve as bait. Can you imagine, for example, over 100,000 British nationals living here with no access to pubs or booze? Well, jokes aside, I do believe some restrictions would make it harder to lure people and keep them around.

So, the UAE had to become more flexible and tolerant in relation to other cultures and values. Of course there are rules and regulations to be followed – as in any other country – but one can do here pretty much anything they would do anywhere else in the world.

I work, drive, use public transportation, go to restaurants and bars, eat pork, drink alcohol, wear regular clothes, shop at my favorite stores, find all kinds of food in the supermarket (including something I miss dearly: pão de queijo - cheese bread) and I can even go to church if I feel like it. I’ll come back to each of these on later posts.

Living in the UAE is a great opportunity to learn not only about the Arab culture, but also about so many other nationalities you encounter and interact with on a daily basis.

Take me as an example. I was recently hired by a national gas company where I am immersed in the Emirati culture, working for and with the locals. This is really a completely different ball game from my previous job on a local airline.

My boss was from Finland, the group of managers in my direct network group came from places like India, Philippines, Scotland, England and Australia and my main role was to ensure an effective and efficient two-way communication was in place between the organization and one of its largest populations, which was made up of people from over 100 different nationalities.

I guess it was no coincidence that, a few years back, I chose to write my entire Master Thesis on the role of communications in multicultural organizations.

Someone, somewhere, probably knew I was destined to come here...

Vive la difference!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Feeling cold, are you?

For the past few days all I hear from the folks in Brazil is how cold it is down there. I have only one thing to say about that: you don’t know how lucky you are.

Take a look at the pic below. I took it today, at 3pm. Want to trade your lovely winter days in Rio for this?????

It’s bloody freaking hot out here! Just in case you are having some doubts about the number in the picture, let me clarify: 49 degrees celsius! And this is not something out of the ordinary, a one-off thing that happened today. I have to endure such wonderful (NOT!) temperatures for months and months and months.

Seriously – I am not kidding. End of March, beginning of April, temperatures are already in the 30s. In May and June they rise up to the 40s. By July and August they are way over 40. Sometimes over 50 (although this is never officially communicated – apparently, some law states workers should be sent home if the temperature reaches that mark). It’s only by the end of October, beginning of November, that they drop to the 30s again.

To make things even worse, humidity is excruciating. It is usually between 50 and 60 percent, but in the summer and autumn it can sometimes reach over 90 per cent. Can you imagine?

When I lived in Boston, in the United States, I used to dread the cold winters and basically organize myself to have to leave the house as little as I possibly could. So, from November to March I sort of hibernated.

When I moved here I thought I would be able to enjoy all 12 months of the year again. But I was wrong. I continue to hibernate. The only difference is that this time I do it from April to October!

So, if you ever decide to come up for a visit, try to plan your trip for sometime between November and March. You will enjoy great temperatures in the mid and high 20s during the day and low 10s at night. Perfect weather!

Go on now. Open a good bottle of red wine and celebrate the low temperatures while you still can.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

It's just another manic Sunday...I wish it was Saturday

I know. I know. This is not how the 1986 hit single from The Bangles goes. But, living in the UAE, I had to adjust the lyrics. After all, the weekend here falls on Friday and Saturday. Sunday is actually my manic Monday!

Yep, that’s right. My workdays are Sunday through Thursday and weekends Friday and Saturday. Today, while most of you were sleeping, I got up early and drove my lazy and sorry ass (pardon my French!) down to the office…to work…on a Sunday! Why oh why?

Well, while Sunday is a day of rest and worship in the Christian tradition, Friday is a day of prayer for the Muslims. For this reason, a work week in the Middle East is typically either Saturday through Wednesday, or Sunday through Thursday. This schedule allows people to attend prayer on Fridays.

Actually, the official weekend in the UAE also used to be Thursday and Friday. It was only in September 2006 that all public sector establishments as well as government and private schools adopted the new weekend. Thank God I was not here back then – can you imagine having to work Saturday AND Sunday?!

Before the change, any company here dealing with Europe, for example, had only an average of three days of mutual office hours. This, of course, had a huge negative impact in the business.

The weekend shift maintained the respect of Friday as a day for prayers, but also allowed more working days to overlap with international businesses and financial markets. It helped boost stock markets, banks, and insurance companies, increased private sector business activities and reduced losses from the long interruption caused by the difference between the UAE’s weekend and the rest of the world.

I’ve been doing this for over three years now and I am still not used to this work-on-a-Sunday thing. Sunday for me is a day to sleep in late after a great Saturday night. A day to work on your tan or go to a barbecue at a friend’s house. A day to enjoy a good movie, eat pizza, hang out with friends. A day to be with the family. Can you imagine my pain having to work on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, when I know the entire family is enjoying a great lunch together down in Brazil?!

But we always have to look on the bright side of life, right? So, I guess my comfort is that while all of you have to endure a whole Friday at work, I am already out and about enjoying my weekend!

To everyone, a great Sunday! Going back to work now…

Friday, August 13, 2010

From the camel to the Porsche

If you search the internet for photos of Abu Dhabi during the 60s and 70s, you will probably still find many images like this one where you can see a lot of sand, Bedouin tents and camels.

Now, look at the picture below… Amazing the transformation that occurred in less than 50 years right?!

My father was born in 1944 and I was born in 1976. During these 32 years between us a lot of changes took place in Brazil, but if we think about it, we can definitely still find some common realities. After all, his world is not that distant from mine.

Here in the United Arab Emirates, the impression I have is that people went from the camel to the Porsche in a matter of seconds. Literally. This immensely fast transition makes it seem as if there is a huge gap, like no real intersection point, between a couple of generations.

Up until the 60s, there were no buildings or paved streets in Abu Dhabi. The main means of transportation was indeed the camel. People shopped at ‘souks’ (sort of like a local market were you can buy or sell several products). Luxury hotels were nowhere to be seen.

Today, the setting has changed dramatically! You will find spectacular buildings capable of leaving engineers and architects all over the world speechless. You will check-in to the most luxurious hotels. You will spend hours in the most amazing malls enjoying some of the best brands in the world.

Staying hours on top of a camel is something from the past. Today the streets are full of modern, fast and expensive cars. Scratch that. Very expensive cars. Local food? Sure, you will be able to taste that. But if you prefer any other type of food you will have no problem finding it here.

In Abu Dhabi you will also find renowned institutions where you can pursue higher degrees in several areas: INSEAD, Université Paris Sorbonne, New York University… They all have campuses here.

Into sports? You simply have to visit the Yas Marina Circuit (Yas Marina Circuit), stage of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix, or try the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, that yearly unites some of the best golf players in the world.

And there is still much more to come! Abu Dhabi is investing hugely in tourism, education, health and culture.

On October 28, 2010, people will see the grand opening of the world’s first Ferrari theme park, and the largest of its kind, with over 20 attractions.

The Cleveland Clinic, one of America’s top hospitals, already operating the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (a network of healthcare facilities in Abu Dhabi), is actually set to develop and manage a 360-bed hospital and clinic. The hospital is scheduled to open in late 2012.

Would you believe me if I told you that an island currently under construction will have an entire Cultural District with some of the key museums in the world? Well, it’s true… Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District will be home to the Louvre and the Guggenheim, plus several other museums like the Zayed National Museum.

You can currently check out the plans in a great permanent exhibition in the Emirates Hotel, the biggest and most luxurious hotel in Abu Dhabi (and in my opinion, much more beautiful and sumptuous than the popular Burj Al Arab located in next door Dubai). Here are some pics of the hotel and exhibition for you…

For more info, try the following book and website:
- From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi, by Mohammed Al Fahim

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Abu who? Dhabi where?

My former boss once opened one of her speeches with this and I thought it was fabulous because this is usually what crosses people's mind every time I say I live in Abu Dhabi.

The funny thing is, ever since I moved here, the question I hear most is: how is life in Dubai?

Let's get one thing straight: DUBAI IS NOT A COUNTRY!!!

I live in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), country located in the Arabic Peninsula, with Oman to the East and North, and Saudi Arabia to the West and South.

This young nation, made up of seven Emirates - Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Qaiwain - was established in 1971, after the Brits, who were here exploring the oil, decided to leave.

The Sheikhs, who at that time were the rulers of each of the above mentioned independent Emirates (with the exception of Ras Al Khaimah, who only joined the group in 1972), figured they would have more strength together, under one and only roof, and elected Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan as the first president of the federation of the United Arab Emirates.

Sheikh Zayed led the country for 33 years, until his death in 2004.

Considered a man of vision and one of the key players in the transformation of the country, Sheikh Zayed is extremely venerated and respected by all.

If you take a few minutes to read about the history of the United Arab Emirates and see how much this country has achieved in so little time, you will easily understand why this man is so adored. Even I became a huge fan!

Sheikh Zayed strongly believed that the best way to make a country grow and develop was to invest in its people.

Back when he was implementing basic systems, such as education and health, building a solid economy and managing good relations with nations all over the world, he already had a clear understanding that the oil would not last forever and that he should prepare future generations for a very different era ahead.

His son and current president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is committed to further develop his father's plan to develop the country, especially Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Now... You are probably wondering... If Abu Dhabi is the capital of the country, and also the largest (covers almost 90% of the national territory) and the richest of the seven Emirates, why do I only hear people talk about Dubai?

Dubai became famous for its mega constructions, modern projects, luxury hotels and its capacity to attract a huge numer of investors, international corporations and expatriates to the United Arab Emirates.

Unfortunately, not even Dubai resisted the recent economic crisis that shook the world. The bubble burst and produced a hard reality constituted of debts, companies going bankrupt and cancelled projects, forcing Abu Dhabi to step in to avoid an even bigger colapse. Or so rumor has it...

Seeing all this from the inside, I am positive that from now on the world will hear more and more about Abu Dhabi and its plan for the future, which is actually already designed. It is commonly known around here as the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan.

More on Abu Dhabi? Check out my next post!

Until then, I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from Sheikh Zayed:

"A nation without a past is a nation without a present or future."

"There is no glory without the glory of the country and its citizens. We have to be proud of our forefathers who were able to face the harshness of the life with a strong will and dedication to shape a better collective future."

"Wealth is not money. Wealth lies in men. This is where true power lies, the power we value. This is what has convinced us to direct all our resources to building the individual, and to using the wealth which God has provided us in the service of the nation."

"It is my duty as the leader of the young people of this country to encourage them to work and to exert themselves in order to raise their own standards and to be of service to the country. The individual who is healthy and of a sound mind and body who does not work commits a crime agains himself and society."

"On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations."

"Future generations will be living in a world that is very different from that to which we are accustomed. It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children for that new world."

"We must not rely on oil alone as the main source of our national income. We have to diversify the sources of our revenue and construct economic projects that will ensure a free, stable and dignified life for the people."

Why on earth did you move to Abu Dhabi?

Yes. It does seem like a crazy idea doesn't it? Actually, that's exactly the first question that popped into my head when I heard my boyfriend, who is now my husband, say he was moving from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

I remember he spoke for hours. I must admit I did not really listen to a single word. My mind was miles away and all I could think about or visualize were camels, men with long beards, women covered from head to toe and sand, a lot of sand...

I know. I know. You must think I am extremely limited and alienated. After all, all you need to do is turn on the TV or go through a newspaper or magazine to find information about the United Arab Emirates.

Well, today this might be the case, but the truth is a few years back you didn't hear a lot about this country. As a matter of fact, with the exception of a few stories about oil or terrorism, nothing really was said about the Middle East. Although if you live in Brazil and have watched some of the soap operas produced by one of the main TV stations in the country, you might also remember things like: this is the sort of place where men are entitled to more than one wife, people do bellydancing and there is a lot of gold around (ouro, muito ouro!).

So, of course I had a little bit of a tantrum! What could this man possibly want so far away? What was so good about that place that was making him consider leaving his family, friends, city and country behind? Would he really be happier flying there? Just in case you are wondering, he is not Superman, he is an airline pilot...

I went straight to the internet to try to find my answers. I researched the history and culture. Saw maps and pictures. Spoke with a few friends who are also from the Middle East.

You know what? NOTHING prepared me to what I actually saw when I came here for an initial visit. You need to see it to believe it. And after seeing and believing, you have to actually live here to try to understand what it's all about. And it is much more than just sand and camels and women in burca...

So, in 2007, I got married and moved to Abu Dhabi.

Abu who? Dhabi where? I'll tell you all about it on my next post...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Yes, I have actually tried on a burca...

I was actually only planning on coming back here tomorrow. However, I got so many messages asking for a pic of me in a burca, that I decided to come by and post it.

Ok. So it's not really the complete outfit, with a burca, but it's what I have on me right now. I'll try to find others to post later on.

Actually, I will soon post something explaining the details of the national dress so you know exactly what is what.

Until then, enjoy the pic!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To blog or not to blog?

Ever since I moved to the United Arab Emirates, back in 2007, people (friends and family - it's not as if I am famous or anything) have been asking me to share the details of life in the Middle East. It's amazing how much interest this side of the world generates!

I did consider writing a book. I even had a title for it. The only thing is I am not really a writer and I am not sure how easy it would be to get published.

So, I decided to become a blogger. It just felt like the easiest and most immediate way to help me share my numerous experiences and answer at least some of the questions I've been asked time and time again:

Why on earth did you decide to move to Abu Dhabi? Do you really live literally in the middle of the desert? Is is true that you hardly ever get rain up there? Is a camel the most common means of transportation around there? As a woman, are you allowed to work and drive? Do you have to cover yourself to get out of the house? How do you manage without alcohol, pork and other items not quite so popular with Muslims? etcetera, etcetera, etcetera

Interested in knowing more about the life of a CARIOCA in the land of the BURCAS?

Watch this space and feel free to send in your own questions!