I can hardly believe that I have been in Dubai for more than a month already. In some ways I feel completely at home, but then I look at my behaviour here and I hardly recognize myself. I have already commented about the extremely unusual shopping/fashion obsession; now let me talk about my eating habits. I have been out at a restaurant for dinner, at least once a week since I got here. I am probably averaging two or three meals out each week – either at restaurants, or enjoying the kindness of my colleagues. If you don’t count eating at fast food restaurants, there was never a time in my life when I ate out as much.
The social dynamic reminds me of when I got my first full-time job teaching high school in northwestern Ontario. I was in a small town with teaching at a school with about 300 students and 30 teachers. As the new teacher on staff, I quickly got to know everyone, and people were friendly and generous. Now I am teaching in a big city, but a small school – less than 150 students and a small staff. I often find it hard to get to interact with people I don’t know well, and, despite the fact that we all worked at the same university in Canada, I didn’t know anyone before accepting this job. But here it has seemed very easy to connect with my colleagues in social settings. You might assume that this was obviously going to happen because we are all expats working at same place. However, I look around and see people with very different experiences from me. Of the approximately 20 employees of the University of Waterloo Dubai campus (faculty and staff), I think there are only three of us who were born in Canada. I feel a little guilty that I only speak English, when almost everyone else around me speaks at least two languages. I definitely feel somewhat intimidated by other people’s broader cultural experience, but I am also grateful that everyone is so willing to share their knowledge.
Another surprise for me has been the fact that I have actually met so many family members of the people I work with. This past week was a good example of that. Last Wednesday our Dining out in Dubai dinner was at a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. We were invited by Elnaz, who is the Executive Manager on campus, and her father. The restaurant offered a nice casual atmosphere, and good Persian food options. At the end of the dinner a few people were having tea and Elnaz suggested that I try some. Even drinking tea in Dubai is a cultural learning experience. I was introduced to saffron laced sugar, and told that the saucer was not just decoration, but part of the tea drinking process. I was encouraged by one of my colleagues, Mazda who is from Iran, that the proper way way to drink the tea was to pour it into the saucer and then drink it from there. Now, a small part of me thought that he might have been pulling a practical joke on a gullible Canadian, but I took him at his word and drank from the saucer. The idea is that pouring the hot tea in the saucer will cool it down more quickly – and that was absolutely true. I never really appreciated a saucer until this dinner.
Two days later I went to dinner with Karuna, my new friend who encouraged me to buy my silver watch, and her son Jonathan. We went back to the gold souq so that I could get the watch band adjusted. From there we went on to have a very nice dinner at a Pakistani restaurant with a fantastic buffet. The restaurant was very glitzy on the outside. There was a little person who was dress in traditional clothing who opened the large wooden door for us. Again, once inside, I felt culturally illiterate. I had to keep asking Jonathan what each dish was. I can’t really remember the names of anything, so I took pictures of the buffet. Of course I ate too much food, but still managed to find room for the homemade pistachio ice cream on a stick at the end of dinner. I was another very nice evening out, although Karuna was clearly not feeling well.
Earlier in the day on Friday I spent a couple of hours at the Ibn Battuta mall. For those of you who are counting, I believe that this is mall number five for me since I arrived. (Have I mentioned that I hate going to the mall?) Well, as much as I dislike the mall I must admit that the Ibn Battuta mall is an experience – and I will probably go back again. I didn’t give myself enough time to really explore the place, but what I saw was stunning. The mall is divided up into different sections, representing different regions in the middle east. The ceilings in particular are awesome. Just when I was starting to feel more like a resident of the city, I acted completely like a tourist in the mall snapping pictures everywhere.
I took the metro to the mall, and it was about a 45 minute trip – near the end of the line. The nice thing about being near the end of the line, is that you are almost guaranteed a seat when you get on the train – even at busy times. Within a few stops, there were no more seats available, and I was grateful that I was able to sit down for the long ride. At one point an Emirate man and his wife and two young children entered the car. I didn’t immediately realize why this seemed odd, but then I realized that I had not seen many Emirate riding the metro at all, and those who did were in the Gold class car. The man beside me immediately jumped out of his seat and offered it to the Emirate’s wife. The man in the next seat over also quickly got out of his seat and offered it to the Emirate man himself. The Emirate man declined the offer, but his daughter took the seat. He seemed a little confused about how the metro worked and asked about the Gold class ticket. Another man (I think he was from India) in the car explained to him that the Gold class seats were at the end of the train. The Emirate man said that this was his first time on the metro – and he was heading to the Dubai Mall/Burj Khalifa. The man from India recommended that he take a taxi from the metro station to the mall. The Emirate man was confused by this, and I chimed in that you needed to take a bus from the metro station to the mall. He asked if it was possible to walk from the metro station, and we suggested that it was probably too far to walk. I found the whole situation a little surreal – giving directions to a man who was a true native of Dubai.
Last Saturday was one of my favourite days in Dubai since I arrived. On the first Saturday of the month there is a flea market in Safa Park. This is a relatively large park, just two metro stations away from our hotel. Six of us headed to the flea market at 8:00 a.m. Even at that time of the morning we were sweating as we walked from the metro station to the park. The flea market was basically just a large community garage sale – except the community was very multi-cultural. The people selling things were from all parts of the world – including one Australian wearing a T.J. Ford Raptor’s jersey. The market itself was set up under a section of palm trees, which made it bearable to walk around. Many shoppers came well prepared; toting suitcases behind them as they went to look for bargains.
I have been to many garage sales in Canada – and my mother is what I would call a garage sale expert. She would have been annoyed by the prices of things at this flea market. Only under extreme duress, would my mother pay more than 10 cents for a book, and people were charging between five and 10 dirhams (almost $3) for old, used paperbacks. Nobody had prices on anything, and many of them didn’t seem to have an idea of what they wanted to charge. It turns out that I was the only one from our group who actually purchased anything. I bought season one of Lost on DVD for 10 dirhams (down from the original asking price of 20 dirhams).
Our group reconvened after an hour or so, and at that point half wanted to go back to the hotel and get out of the heat. Peter and his wife Liz had walked around the park a bit and said that there was a waterfall and pond to see. I was definitely interested in seeing more of the park and Peter and Liz decided to stay as well. Although it was hot, there was a nice breeze, and I was comfortable enough walking around slowly. It was so nice to spend some time outside, surrounded by greenery. The park includes a maze, and several ponds. There is a padded track that encircles the park, outside the fence. When I was on the metro today, I saw lots of people walking and running around this track. At one end of the park there is a building that contains a prayer room for men, and a prayer room for women. Liz and I looked inside the women’s prayer room. I was pleasantly surprised that it was air conditioned. We had been walking for almost an hour since leaving the flea market by this time, and I was starting to feel the heat.
Liz, Peter and I headed back towards the hotel for lunch. We decided to have lunch at the same restaurant where we had eaten dinner on Wednesday evening. The three of us enjoyed a leisurely 90 minute meal and then walked back to the hotel. At this point, I decided just to stay in for the rest of the day. I stopped by Mazda’s apartment to drop off a few movies that Karuna had given to me to pass on to him. He invited me in, and we had a very nice chat over iced tea. He said that he may go to the gym later and asked if I was planning to go. I had managed to find lots of excuses not to go to the gym lately (too much work, I was sick, …), and I was regretting not getting in more work outs. Mostly I was just trying to avoid running on the treadmill. When I got back to my apartment, I spent some time on the computer – but didn’t really get much work done. I decided to head down to the gym at about 5:30. After doing some intervals on the treadmill I started to do some weights. Liz and Peter had been at the pool, and saw me in the gym. Liz asked me if I wanted to join them for dinner, and I accepted the invitation. Just as I was finishing my workout Mazda arrived at the gym. I wished I could stay for one more circuit, but I had to get cleaned up before dinner. Of course as much as I dreaded the treadmill, I felt so good after finishing a workout. Once again I had a nice meal and conversation with Liz and Peter. Although I have known Peter for a month now, I just met Liz for the first time on Wednesday (she had just arrived from Canada earlier in the week). By the end of Saturday, I felt that I had known her for years. Throughout the entire day, everything felt very familiar. It is amazing how much this place feels like home after just a month.