Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Getting the Hump in Al Ain

For Sale!!
Congratulations to the lovely city of Al Ain, which this week was awarded UNESCO status.  Al Ain is a beautiful place about an hour outside of Dubai, known for its greenery and for being the original home of many of the Sheikhs, before they moved to the bigger metropolises.  It's long been a favourite haunt of mine for a relaxing weekend away, with the visibly slower and calmer pace of life providing a welcome respite from a week in the washing machine that is working in Dubai.
Rather than drinking, brunching and dancing, the activities on offer involve exploring the six beautiful green oases, perhaps a drive up the huge Jebel Hafeet mountain, or (my absolute favourite) a trip to.....the camel market!!!

Yes, even after three years, my fascination, nay ADORATION of these amazing beasts has not abated one jot, and last weekend we went for our second nosy around the infamous market. It's hard to imagine the sight if you haven't witnessed it first-hand: basically there are rows and rows of large pens, full to the brim with all sorts of camels.  Goats and cows too but who cares about them when there's camels to look at!

In cooler weather you can get out of the car and stroll amongst the pens - the camel farmers are extremely welcoming and almost drag you in to fee them and learn interesting facts about the hairy creatures.  As it is, after all, a functioning market, you will also see the very serious and protracted discussions regarding camel sales....

Here's the process, as I understand it:
  • Nissan truck ambles into market, with camel in the back, secured by ropes.
  • Driver (owner?) gets out and crowd of potential buyers gather around the camel.
  • Camel inspection: the hump is always the first thing to be examined, with a firm squeeze.
  • General poking of camel.
  • Camel protests, loudly, at being poke.  Hard to explain the sound but a bit like a donkey's bray crossed with a foghorn.
  • Loud discussions about camel (in Arabic - oh to be able to understand the negotiations!) with lots of gesticulating and intermittent camel poking.
The outcome is different depending on deal or no deal of the camel.  By this point I am usually weak with excitement.  You'll also see teeny tiny baby camels being moved from pen to pen - comedy moments when a few make a break for "freeeeedom"!!!!.  Overlay the fact that throughout this process the camel farmers are v giddy to see a white blonde western woman in their midst and you have one magically hilarious morning.

The fun doesn't stop there, there's also shops nearby selling everything you need if you're a falcon, horse or camel owner.  Whilst I'm not interested in camel shampoo or feed, the shops are truly fascinating places, treasure troves full to the brim of super-interesting things.  And my favourite top tip: they sell the most beautiful and original camel blankets.  These are usually put over the top of the camel for decorative or warmth purposes, but they look equally lovely on the foot of the bed, or as a throw on the sofa or chaise.  They're usually brightly coloured and patterned and sometimes embellished with ribbons.  A camel has to look good!

They cost between 5 and ten English pounds, so are compete bargains.  Needless to say I left with armfuls and they are now festooned around the apartment.  One small snag, as camels (obviously) have a large hump, the rugs usually have a hole in the centre to accommodate this. You can't see it when the throw is folded, but it does make me smile every time I see it.  Off to Al Ain (again) next weekend.  If you haven' been, you really should.....

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Struggling on in Dubai....

We sat just to the left...
Unless you've been living under a rock the last few weeks, you will have heard the excitement, nay hysteria, that followed the opening of The Ivy in Dubai.  If you're me, you will have been thoroughly swept up in aforementioned excitement.

If you're a Brit, The Ivy needs no introduction.  It was always a favourite haunt when visiting London, especially when entertaining media, who at one point in my early career, we allowed to choose their own lunch or dinner venues.  Now, I think they take what they're given..

I can even remember the days when you called The Ivy to book a table and spoke to a real person, rather than the automated system they were forced to bring in when their popularity skyrocketed.  Everyone has a story of a great meal there, which would never be complete without a celebrity sighting.  My favourite remains Dale Winton and Barbara Windsor: at the same table!  A friend also saw Posh, David and Gordon one night.  Good times.

So when The Ivy opened here, we were all over it like a rat up a palm tree, natch.  There's been so many reviews about it that I won't spend too much time waxing lyrical, suffice to say: it was good.  Everything from decor, ambience, food (top notch), service, it ticked all the boxes.  I always find that brand new high-profile restaurants have a palpable zing about them when they first open, there's just something in the air - The Ivy Dubai was no different, and a thoroughly great time was had by all.  I'll definitely be heading back. 

The Ivy is from the same Le Caprice stable as The Rivington Grill, in Souk Al Bahar.  Those who know me will know that this is a real favourite of ours: great British food served in light, bright, airy surroundings, with a fabulous atmosphere.  It overlooks the Dubai Fountains and is in the shade of the beautiful Burj Khalifa.  In the few years it's been open I've never had anything less than a fabulous meal and experience there, and I've eaten there A LOT.

In recent weeks we've started a slightly naughty habit: Saturday lunch.  What started as a pit stop on the way home from shopping one afternoon has become a regular diary fixture.  Whilst much of Dubai swills beer and behaves outrageously at a Friday brunch, there's something decadent and civilised about perching at the bar and setting the world to rights with a glass of chilled rose and salad, created by one of the city's best chefs, just because we can. 

And this brings me onto my final thought: Love The Ivy.  But also love The Riv.  And if I absolutely had to choose...well....I think that the Riv has the edge.  Dinner there (again) on Wednesday evening.  Well, a girl has to keep up to date with the cities beast eateries, yes?

Visa Renewal Time

I'm always surprised by how quickly time passes in Dubai.  I don't know if it's the perpetual sunshine that makes me lose track of time - I honestly couldn't understand why Wimbledon was on last week when it was surely still winter in the UK - but for whatever reason, it whistles past you like a desert shamal.  Hot on the heels of my three year Dubai anniversary, is my three year visa renewal. 

In case you're not familiar with the process, you have to have a visa to stay in Dubai on a permanent basis.  When you first arrive they will give you 30 days grace, which can be extended a bit, but if you don't have permanent residency you're forced to do visa runs every month - not ideal. 

To get your visa you have to submit umpteen pieces of paper, and go and have all sorts of medical checks, including x-rays and blood tests.  If you're lucky enough to work somewhere like DIFC (the financial centre) you simply nio downstairs to their state of the art medical centre.  If you don't work at DIFC (like me) you have to go to some godforsaken hospital in Deira which looks like something out of Platoon.  Less said about that the better.

I was super giddy to get my visa the first time round, it took an absolute age, and caused me a lot of stress as without it I had no bank account, amongst other things.  I used to get paid my monthly salary in cash, in an envelope.  Crazy times.  I also remember looking at the three year expiry date and wondering "will I ever need to remew this; will I really stay in Dubai that long...?"  Now you'll have to force me out by my fingernails....who ever could have predicted..?!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Into the 21st Century!

ipad in bed...yes please!

I'll come straight out and say it: I'm not a massive lover of technology. I like my phone to be a phone, not a camera, not a laptop.  I like a book to be made of paper, not plastic.   I couldn't care less if my tv was never connected to the outside world again.  In my day to day life I'm so overwhelmed and immersed in technology (blackberry, email, vc's and the like) that when I get home I breathe a sigh of relief and switch as many connections off as possible.

That was until June 16th......and my (ahem) 25th birthday. In addition to the myriad of amazingly thoughtful gifts from friends and family around the world there was one particularly future-forward present: a brand new shiny iPad 2.  Yes, you heard right. The girl who still likes to write notes in a paper notebook and uses a hardback Paperchase diary, opened possibly the most amazingly advanced present in the whole wide world.

And what do I think of it? Well, after regarding it like a pig staring at a wristwatch for quite some time, let me tell you dear readers, it has changed my life. I'm not exaggerating when I say its the best thing EVER!

Why? Well aside from the obvious (easy Internet access, Skype wherever in the world I am - and with my travel schedule from now until November, this is pretty crucial - it fits so perfectly and easily into my handbag.....) it has also solved one of my biggest recent dilemmas: should I by a Kindle.

The answer is no - you can download a Kindle app and it comes with ibooks as standard.  I've already downloaded a host of bonk-busters to read on the plane to Beirut tomorrow.  It's never ever going to replace real books, but it's just perf for travelling.  And don't get me started on Vogue, Time, People, Elle and every other magazine you've ever known and loved.  A-mazing.

Evenings on the purple velvet chaise longue have already been transformed, not to mention that 13 hour flight to Toronto next month.  Best. Present. Ever.

City of Life

Spent a really interesting evening in the company of this young man tonight, Ali Mostafa.  If you haven't heard of him, he's an up and coming film maker with a difference: he's Emirati.  His first film, City of Life, had great reviews when it debuted at the Dubai International Film Festival last year, and despite not receiving global distribution, still caused a huge stir in the region.

The film chronicles some Dubai stereotypes: the taxi driver, the air hostess, the Emirati, and how their lives are woven together through a series of events.  I really enjoyed it: it's not often that I get to see my favourite city and hometown featured in a movie that doesn't involve terrorists.  The city looks stunning, and the film also dealt with some pretty gritty topics, so the film definitely scratches beneath the surface of the usual glam side that Dubai shows.

The evening was different as Ali was in conversation with a childhood friend, and their easy banter threw up some great conversations.  Some of the most interesting stories about the film involve the making of it: Ali outlined the challenges he faced - for example the script was amended 27 times,  and even after going through multiple approvals, the film was very nearly never shown after it was vetoed by the censors.

In a final effort to get the film approved, Ali went straight to the top, HRH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Radhin Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.  He got one one of the film's stars to hand deliver a copy to him, with the message:  "The future of the Emirati film industry rests on your decision as to whether or not this gets approved."

You'd think that this would have been nerve-wracking, but I loved Ali's comment: "I knew that a man with the vision to create a city like Dubai would have the vision to support and accept my film."  And approve it, he of course, did.

Another favourite quote of the evening was when the interviewer asked him: "What do you say to people who say that Dubai is plastic, with no soul?"

Ali's response?  "Well firstly it's very hurtful to hear that because that's not the city that I know. The city where I was raised.  But if they say that, then I say that's their problem. They should get out and go and see the real city. The city that I love."

 The spontaneous applause that rang out after this statement really warmed my heart.  Well said Ali, well said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another Year of Fabulosity

Me, this birthday weekend?
It's my birthday tomorrow.  Eek!  After this one I'm counting backwards.  Cannot believe that it's my FOURTH birthday in Dubai.

I don't think I blogged about my first one (there wasn't much of note to write about. I'd only been in Dubai a week.)

My second birthday is here. Favourite quote: "I have a great job, lovely home, and exciting travel plans. But most importantly, I'm lucky enough to be blessed with a group of gorgeous friends who make me laugh til I cry pretty much every day."

My third is here.  Favourite quote: "Dinner and drinks with my lovely friends closely followed by mayhem at the weekend."  I'd moved into the new pad just a few days before the day.

Yes I know, this is lazy blogging, but a) I'm extremely busy this week, and b) I do think that this is part of the joy of a blog: being able to nip back to a point in time, significant or not, and see how you were feeling and what you were up to.

The main theme has been that each birthday and year has seen me happier and more in love with Dubai.  A constant is that I'm truly blessed to have such wonderful people in my life.  Thank you desert and UK families for filling my life with laughter and very deep joy.  Now where did I put that number for the one stitch facelift doctor?!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Three Year Anniversary

How many more?
Honestly can't believe that it's been three years since I arrived in Dubai.

Here's my very first post.

And my first day at work.

I think you can smell the excitement and glee that was present in my first few weeks.  There's no denying that Dubai got worse for me before it got better (about nine months after I arrived, yay).....enough said.

But I'm so happy that the very initial giddiness that I felt (three days in and I wrote: "It's the weirdest sensation being here. It feels like home already") has embraced and enveloped me to the point where I'm overwhelmed with love for my new home, on a daily basis.  Dubai, thank you for having me.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Great British Grub

What's not to love?!
Those who know me well know that I usually eschew most things British here in Dubai. With the exception of one very cute pub, I can't stand the usual haunts where Brits congregate, brunch, get drunk and occasionally fight (I've thankfully never witnessed this but was told about it by a friend of a friend the other night. Horrific).  If I wanted to do that, I'd head to Wetherspoon's on Market Street in Manchester.  Really, what's the point?

But last night that all changed.  There's a great buffet restaurant here, which for the sum of about 30 quid, serves up an enormous spread of food, with free flowing wine.  Each night of the week has a different theme; Indian, Italian, Seafood....I'm not a big fan of stuffing myself stupid (no, really, I'm not!) so I've only ever been a couple of times.  But one night in particular caught my eye....British night.  We decided, for one night only, to embrace all things British...and it didn't disappoint. 

The usual suspects were there: fish and chips, mushy peas, cottage pie, roast beef, lamb, duck and chicken, Yorkshire puddings (divine) and gravy by the bucketload.  And British food is clearly more popular than you might think, the restaurant was packed with all nationalities; Italian ladies were all over the beef and a chinese couple ladled on the mushy peas with gusto.  We stuffed ourselves to the point of immobility and left happy and full as bananas.  It's not something I'd do every week as I just can't stand to eat that much, but the Indian night is tempting me...maybe it's a monthly thing....

Thursday, June 02, 2011


Just beautiful.
When I lived in Manchester I was forever muntering my way round the city on a variety of history walks and tours - which resulted in much teasing from my friends.  These often involved getting up at the crack of dawn and marching around canals and libraries in the cold Winter air.  I was very often the youngest person in the group, but what can I say, I love history and the past and was giddy as a goat as I explored with the OAP's.  This might explain why since I moved to Dubai I'm often seen muntering around the creek, the old souks and Bastakiya - anything with a bit of a backstory and I'm there. 

So when I heard about an old deserted village in RAK, I was all over it like a rat up a palm tree!  Jazirat Al Hamra is quite the most fascinating place.  You can read more about it here, but basically it's an old fishing village that sits right on the coast, that was abandoned in the late sixties.  It's in various states of glorious decay; most houses and shops don't have roofs, there's graffiti everywhere (new additions to arabic graffiti collection on their way!) and slowly but surely the vegetation is re-claiming the buildings.  Some houses are remarkably intact - and there's something truly magical about stepping into a mini-compound, seeing the kitchens, bathrooms, cooking areas and standing in the courtyard looking up at the huge palm trees gently swaying in the silence.

There's also a real sense that you're exploring - you see virtually no-one else at all, and if you choose, there's quite a bit of effort involved in climbing over walls, though holes in walls, around collapsed get the picture.  It was an absolute treat!

It's rumoured to be haunted by Djins now (so much excitement in  the office when I announced I was off 'djin hunting' for the weekend) and this was definitely at the back of my mind as I pushed open creaking, dilapidated doors and peered through windows into black rooms beyond.  But it's hard to feel shivers when it's 40 degrees and sunny, and I didn't feel unnerved at all.  That said, I wouldn't want to hang around there when it gets dark, it's just a  little too remote for my liking.

If you haven't been, I can't recommend it enough.  We'll be back.