Desert Adventure, Day Two

Thursday, December 31, 2015

I’m back in Canada where it is appropriately cold and windy and snowy and where I’ve been doing an excellent job of doing nothing.  Well not actually nothing.  I’ve reached Olympic-level eating and sleeping and up until now have also been managing some fairly high-level blog-ignoring.  But cognisant of the fact that there's still a whole day of desert adventuring to tell you about, I’ve finally roused myself and ventured out into my natural habitat (a café with free wifi) to dust off the blog.

When last we left our intrepid desert adventurers the sun had set on Day One and we were full of sweet tea and sheep brains and liberally coated in sand.  Having already ridden camels, visited a random castle, seen Abdulla’s farm, hugged baby goats and cavorted in the dunes, we were at a bit of a loss as to what there was left to do.  How wrong we were.

In the morning there was a generous spread of breakfast(ish) food and more arabic coffee and milky tea.  When we convened with Abdulla to find out what was ahead for the day, it seemed he was also at a bit of a loss, until he said “Do you want to meet the Camel Lady?  She is the only woman in the UAE who keeps camels.  They made a film about her.”

Naturally, we needed no encouragement whatsoever.  So Abdulla made a phone call (he is the kind of guy who, I strongly suspect, either knows everyone interesting in the country, or at least knows someone who knows everyone) so we soon piled back into our cars to find the Camel Lady.  Her camp was set up not far off and even though there were 13 of us, she welcomed us into her tent and made us sit down and served us coffee and dates and other delicacies.

Here she is pouring us tiny cups of arabic coffee.

And here’s the warm camel milk I tried, which was not bad.

Fatima Al Hameli is one-of-a-kind, literally.  She is the only woman ever to participate in the Al Dhafra Festival with her own camels under her own name.  Apparently the first year she went to the festival the organisers told her that women were not allowed to participate.  Undaunted, Fatima held her ground and pointed out that there is, in fact, no rule preventing women from taking part.  Eventually, the organisers relented when the Sheikh agreed to let her in, and she has been a fixture every year since then.  (Note: even my above average Googling skills did not reveal what year that was.)

It was awesome and also kind of surreal.  How do you even process something like that? Hanging out in a tent in the desert in the company of the country’s only female camel baron(ess) drinking camel milk, with her dividing her time between taking calls on her gold iPhone, snapping photos of us and posting them to her Instagram account, proposing to kill a sheep to cook for our lunch, and dosing us with the scent of burning oud wood.

I think this picture was on Instagram before we'd even sat down again...

In this form oud is the burning charcoal of the agarwood, which is a dark, resinous heartwood from a tree that has been infected with a particular type of mould.  The resin the tree produces in response to the infection makes the wood rare and very valuable and the oil from it is processed into perfume.  And apparently it’s also burned as a sort of desert incense kind of thing.  We were encouraged to allow the smoke to bath our faces.  It was not exactly refreshing, but I suppose when you’re stuck in the desert it’s better than spending your whole life smelling like a camel.

And of course she showed us some of her camels, including a baby with its mom (Possibly the source of the camel milk?  I didn’t ask, though it seems likely.  Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever met the beast that produced the milk I’ve drunk before.)

She really loves those camels.  She kept feeding them big balls of mashed dates.  Of course.

We begged off lunch (thus hopefully sparing another poor sheep) and headed back to camp where Abdulla had already arranged a feast for us, including a local fish called hamour.  It was served, like the sheep, on a huge bed of rice, and we ate with out hands again (at least those of us who weren’t pansy cowards).  The hamour was delicious - a meaty white fish that must have been very large in life, considering the size of the bones.  After lunch I think I managed to beg a half hour nap before we were off on another random adventure, courtesy of Abdulla.

We decided we’d like another visit to some nice sand dunes, so we hit the road again and Abdulla led us to the top of a high ridge of sand where local crazy people drive UP in their fancy four wheel drive vehicles with their sand buttons on.  Instead of doing that clearly insane thing, we instead decided to run down the dune.  Of course.

It was big.  And surprisingly tiring to get to the bottom of.

Luckily, Abdulla and Nick drove the long way ‘round to the bottom of the hill to pick us up. Because if you think running down a big sand dune is tiring, try crawling back UP.

And then possibly the coolest random thing of the whole trip happened.  We sat for a while at the top of the dune waiting for Nick and Abdulla to find their way to the bottom. (We are smart, and decided not to run to the bottom until our ride back also appeared at the bottom.  See aforementioned difficulty of climbing sand dunes.)  And as we were sitting, we saw a group of men at the bottom of the valley training falcons!  Falconry is a huge deal in the Emirates. Huge.  Owning, training and racing falcons is a very popular and traditional activity in the region, and we’d stumbled on a couple of regular guys, our with their birds.  Once we were all down from the top of the dune (and because he’s awesome) Abdulla hopped out of the car and talked to the guys and soon we were all out looking at the birds and watching the guys and birds do their thing.

I found this weird, but apparently they just transport the birds in the back of the car.  I suppose it's like throwing your Irish Setter in the back of the station wagon to take him out for a run at the dog park.

Traditionally, falcons are trained with a feathered lure on a long string.  The trainer will swing the lure around and the bird’s job is to catch it in its claws while in flight.  Our guys were doing that, but they were also employing a much more modern and cool method for higher altitude training… drones!

They had two different drones, each equipped with a lure on a long string.  The lure was hung from a clip that would pull away from the drone when the bird struck.

Of course the falconers were keen to show off their birds and their technology, so we got to see them both in action, thus satisfying both our traditional touristy inclinations and also the more techie among us.  One guy would release the drone and pilot it way way way up until it was hard to see at all, and the other would take the hood off a bird and launch it from their arm up at the target.  The bird then made a long, spiralling ascent towards the lure before finally grabbing it and returning to the ground.  The first time the string on the lure got caught in a power line and the falconer had to go fetch the bird, who was NOT interested in giving up that lure.  The second time both bird and lure made it back fine and as a reward the bird was allowed to pluck and devour the formerly living small bird that had been the lure (I’m pretty sure it was dead when it went up…)

There were, quite literally, feathers flying.

And to top it all off, a few of us actually got to hold the falcons.

At this point, we figured Abdulla was slightly magical, and would have followed him anywhere. In this case it meant that we followed him (in our Lost Boys car, piloted by the eminently trustworthy Nick) on a quick dune-bashing jaunt through the desert.  Sources in Abdulla’s car report that most of his comments were along the lines of “There used to be a road here” and “I hope Nick is doing ok”.  Most of the comments in our car were along the lines of “Oh my God!” and “Nick, no please don’t”.  Happily, Nick has some experience in dune driving and was just fearless enough to make thing interesting but just sensible enough that we didn’t go nearly as high up the 45 degree slope as Abdulla did.  And we all survived unscathed.  And Nick got to have a bit of fun.  And the sand button was well and truly used to full advantage.

And yet the day was still not over!  Off we went to find another picturesque set of dunes where we could watch the sunset and have one last romp in the sand.

Me and Abdulla, racing along the inside slope of a dune.  He outpaced me by a long way, even in his kandora, but I bet I could beat him on skates any way, any day.

And, of course, the sunset

This was followed by a pitstop at the fancy hotel located near the camp.  The hotel exists basically to serve people visiting the Al Dhafra Festival, though they’re trying to build a clientele outside the festival, though I suspect it’s a hard sell.  It suited us fine though, and let us have a bit of a breather, and even a glass of wine, before heading  back to camp for one last enormous supper.  By this time, the construction of the camp was advanced enough to include a whole kitchen enclosure, so we had grilled meat and fresh flat bread cooked on site. Of course.

We even got to go back to the kitchen and take the bread right off the grill, and have the grilled meat sliced onto the steaming bread in our hands.

And of course then they made fried dough balls dipped in honey and sesame seeds.
Arabic Timbits!

I stumbled off to bed some time later after another evening of sitting by the fire, chatting, drinking tea, and force-feeding myself fried dough.  I think we talked about what an amazing experience the past two days had been, and how we needed share our photos, and how stupid everyone who HADN’T come on the trip was going to feel, and, of course how totally awesome Abdulla was.

The next day we packed up relatively early and Nick got to give the sand button another workout on the way back to the highway, and we had a last few hours of each other’s company on the way back to the hotel where were arrived utterly exhausted, and smelling of campfires and camels.  We then did that thing you do when you’ve had an amazing, intense experience with a group of people but no one can quite accept that it’s really over so you kind of hang around on the sidewalk for a bit before everyone finally drifts away with promises of drinks later.

And then you shower eleven times in a row and have a very very very long nap and dream of camels.

Best road sign. Ever.

Desert Adventure, Day One

Sunday, December 13, 2015

As I start to write this post I'm sitting in the Abu Dhabi Airport on a warm and sunny day, waiting for a flight to take me back to rainy London.  The gig is done and suddenly it’s Christmas, which is exceedingly strange.  It’s been summer since about May for me, so the idea that it’s Christmas in two weeks is simply bizarre.  Though I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I get back to the Western World and get a few mince pies under my belt.  In the mean time, there's a lot to tell about my last two days in the UAE, which was spent on an amazing adventure in the desert, courtesy of a perfectly lovely local colleague and friend, Abdulla.

Here’s Abdulla, sporting his “winter kandora” in beige.  (Note: most of the really nice pictures in this post are by other people who have those kind of cameras that involve knowing about things like ISO settings and hence spent a lot of time worrying about sand getting into their lenses and such but still manage to get some really lovely photos. Thanks for sharing, gang!)

I’m not really sure how we came to be offered the opportunity, I only know that an email went around promising a trip out to the Al Dhafra Festival, popularly known as the Camel Beauty Pageant.  There would be camels (of course) and sand dunes, and camping in the desert… how could I resist?  So it was that 13 of us gathered at the hotel on Monday morning and tried to shoehorn ourselves and our luggage into two big SUVs.  Abdulla was at the wheel of one car, and it soon became apparent that the amount of luggage and people somewhat exceeded the amount of space available. That was when those of us in the second car sacked our local driver and elected one of our own as leader and driver (“Lost Boys Style!”, as Fritha commented.) With the car key recovered from the out-of-work driver who left with it in his pocket, and with our new leader, Nick, suitably schooled in the intricacies of the Sand Button, we set off.

Of course the car came with a Sand Button!  It would become important later on, as you will hear in our next installment.

The Camel Beauty Pageant is actually a really big deal, and a huge event.  It started only nine years ago with a mere 1,500 camels, and now involves about 25,000 beasts, and a whole lot of infrastructure to go with it, all out in the middle of the dessert at Madinat Zayed.  It’s hard not to find the whole thing sort of comic, since to our (or at least MY) Western eyes a camel is a sort of odd, exotic and ungainly creature generally only encountered in Tales of the Arabian Nights and on cigarette packs.  In desert culture though, camels are prized possessions, and breeding, raising and showing camels is a respected (and expensive) tradition.  I saw a lot of camels in my time in Abu Dhabi, and by the end I really warmed to them.  Watching them move, it’s like they’re in slow motion.  And seeing camel after camel you start to recognise the traits that make up a prized specimen: "the length and height of the neck, the size of the head, the shape of the nose, the straightness of the legs, the shape and the location of the hump, the width of the upper part of the chest, and other qualities that define the beauty of the camel." (from the Al Dhafra website of course!)

Also, a camel able to exhibit a wide range of goofy expressions is particularly prized. (Ok, not really.  But they do all seem to be naturally skilled in that department.)

And when I say expensive, I am really not kidding.  Prize money at the Al Dhafra Festival totals about 55 millions dirhams (about ten million pounds!) and a single specimen can easily be worth 200-300,000 AED (£36,000 - £54,000).  Some breeders have a hundred or more beasts, and with each one worth more than a car, you can see how serious the business is.

Driving towards Liwa, it was a bit odd how much it reminded me of home.  The terrain is flat flat flat, and the sand drifting across the road looks remarkably like blowing snow.  After a couple hours of driving and a few pitstops we made it to our desert camp at the Festival site. Our stay was from Dec. 7-9, but the festival didn’t start until the 10th, so the whole site was still very much under construction.  Participants were still assembling their camps, each complete with camel pens and an uncountable number of UAE flags, and vendors were setting up stalls selling food and camping supplies.  There was even a place where you could get your kandora cleaned (of course).  Truly, it is the Glastonbury of Camels.  Our site was inside a fenced compound that included a fire pit surrounded by wooden decking, a large traditional “majlis” tent, a dining tent, a couple of trailers with bathrooms, and a dozen smaller tents for sleeping in.

The camp compound on the left, and on the right… desert.  We were apparently about 30km from the border with Saudi Arabia, at the edge of what they call The Empty Quarter - the largest sand desert in the world.

After we arrived we spent a bit of time just relaxing in the big tent, not really sure what was expected, or what would happen next.  This became the theme of the trip - not being sure what would happen next.  It required a sort of zen acceptance of whatever came, which generally turned out to be totally awesome.

This is the part where we lay about on carpets in the big tent and drink sweet milky tea and tablespoon sized cups of Arabic coffee.

And then the camels arrived!  There were four at the camp, so we trooped off to just outside the fence where we all had a chance to ride the camels and get up close and personal.  The trickiest bit of camel riding is getting on and off.  The camel has to be sitting on the ground for you to get on and they have a quite lurchy method of getting to their feet that obviously works great if you’re a camel but can be quite disconcerting if you’re a person on top of a camel.  The trick is to lean waaaay back before the camel starts to get up because the back end goes up first, thus potentially pitching you very far forward and making it harder for the camel to get its front half up because all your extra weight is leaning onto its front legs.  I did not perfect this pose in time, making for an uncomfortably long pause when I was engaging every poorly toned core muscle I have while my camel was deciding whether it was actually inclined to go to the effort of hefting me and it into a standing position.

It did work out in the end, and we had a few short circuits ‘round and ample opportunity for selfies with the camels.

After camel riding and a very generous lunch, we further embraced the “just see what happens next” plan and piled back into the cars for what we thought was a trip out to the sand dunes. We did eventually make it out to the dunes, but not before we visited a few other highlights. Since Abdulla was in the other car, we in the Lost Boys vehicle didn’t get his running commentary on the local landmarks.  So when we pulled up at Liwa Castle we didn’t really know what it was or why we were there.  We only knew it was very cool, completely deserted, and open all the way to the very tops of its towers.

Here's the castle

And here's Sara, Nick, me and Tom in our new album cover photo.

After that pitstop, we took a few more turns and eventually got some text message commentary from the lead car, which gradually evolved into me putting them on speakerphone in our car so we could hear commentary on the Green Dune and the famous local roundabout (which tradition dictates we go around twice before proceeding).  It was all a bit confusing, especially the part where we turned off towards a farm.

SARA (in Abdulla’s car): “Ok, this is some kind of farm.  We think it’s a farm.  Is this a farm?  Yes, yes it’s a farm.  Wait, is this Abdulla’s farm?!  Oh my god, this is ABDULLA’S FARM!!”

And so we came to Abdulla’s family farm, which I guess is just another of Abdulla’s many interests.  And what grows on Abdulla’s farm?  Dates, of course!

Interestingly, when asked how big the farm is Abdulla said “450".  “450 acres?”  No, not acres, or square feet or kilometres or anything like that.  Of course he meant 450 Palm Trees.  Which makes perfect sense.

And what else is on Abdulla’s Farm?

Goats!  Raised for milk, meat, and baby goats which provide photo ops for visiting tourists.

And still the day was not over!  Smelling of camel, and goat, and not really sure of what to expect next, we finally made it to the chosen spot for a scamper through the sand dunes, just before sunset.  This was really the desert - sand dunes as far as you could see.  We all took off our shoes and ran through the sand and waited for sunset.

It sounds funny, but it’s really remarkable how much sand there is.

And then it was back to camp for dinner, which was undeniably impressive.

It made me feel a little like the Whos down in Whoville and their roast beast

In fact, it was a sheep, complete with skull and baked brains.  Did I try the roast sheep brains? Of course I did!  How could you doubt it?  They were mostly inoffensive and tasted like not chicken.  I also ate the entire meal using only my right hand, and with no utensils, Bedouin style!  Of course Abdulla was particularly skilled in the one-handed eating, which seems to involve scooping up a handful of whatever you want and squeezing it into a sort of sausage in your hand which you then shove in your mouth.  Not to be culturally insensitive or anything, but this seems like a kind of tricky system, especially when you eat a lot of long grain rice that doesn’t stick together.

After dinner, we all sat around the fire in the dark and talked and stared into the flames and enjoyed each other’s company, as you do anywhere there’s a campfire.  In another camp a little ways off we could hear music from a celebration of some kind.  And one of the younger members of Abdulla’s gang made us sweet milky tea on the fire.

Yes, he’s sitting in the fire pit.  And yes, he’s making tea in the desert over an open fire by the light from his smartphone.

Gradually, people drifted off to their tents for some rest.  It had been a long day, and we were all at the end of a long and tiring job, and we had no idea what the next day would bring. However we only had to wait a few hours to find out.  You, on the other hand, will have to wait until I find the energy to blog again and tell you about Day Two which was even more random and interesting than Day One.  And while I may have started the post at the airport in Abu Dhabi, I'm finishing it on my little boat on the Grand Union Canal (Paddington Arm) on a grey and rainy Sunday morning.  Because that's just how I roll.

Tourist Stuff: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Friday, November 20, 2015

I can’t tell whether I’m deluding myself, or whether I and the rest of the team actually kind of know how to do this stuff now, but last few weeks have been kind of ok.  Rehearsals were not hectic.  Our little workshop is up and running and building props.  And a few of the bigger looming things are just the tiniest bit sorted out.  This means that I actually had most of last Friday off.  For those not familiar with working in the Middle East, Friday is the traditional day off here, because Friday Prayers have a special significance in Islam.  So that means everything shifts and it’s not T.G.I.F but rather T.A.I.T!

I took advantage of the lack of rehearsals one Friday to go do something touristy, and visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which is a very short drive from my hotel.  The mosque is named for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the principal force behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.  Prior to that time the Emirates (there are seven) were independent Sheikhdoms in a protectorate treaty with the British.  Sheikh Zayed was determined to bring the different sheikhdoms together into a union and headed up extensive talks that eventually resulted in the formation of the United Arab Emirates.  He was the first President and is widely celebrated as the founding father of the country.

Sheikh Zayed.  His picture is everywhere here.  And it’s almost always this one, which I think is quite flattering.  I like how his fan belt is at a slightly jaunty angle.  Plus the raised eyebrow makes him look a bit mischievous.

As always when visiting a mosque, it’s necessary to dress modestly so I was very careful to read the rules before going.  I wore long pants and long sleeves and I brought a scarf.  I checked with the Guest Services at the hotel before I left, and they assured me I’d be fine. And I checked again with a guard outside the entrance when I arrived… all good.  This was all to avoid the dreaded “loaner abaya” that women have to wear if they are judged to be dressed inappropriately.  An abaya is the female analogue to the men’s kandora, which astute GSWPL readers will remember from my last blog post.  Abayas are normally black and cover the whole body except the head, hands and feet.  In my opinion, a completely black (usually synthetic) full body garment is not the ideal clothing for a climate where temperatures rarely seem to go below 30 degrees but when in Rome...  In contrast, Gerald, who went last week, was careful to hike his shorts up above the knee so he could be assigned a “loaner kandora”.  (We have different priorities, Gerald and I…)

(Aside: Remember last time I mentioned that I’ve never seen a kandora that was less that pristinely white?  Well I have now.  Last week at the breakfast buffet I wheeled around to check out the action after hearing the unmistakeable sound of crockery hitting marble floor only to see one of my work colleagues flustering in front of an absolutely aghast looking man wearing a kandora with a bright orange smear down the front. What a drama!) (Another aside: Dear Autocorrect: Last week it was kangaroo.  This week I can assure I don’t mean pandora.  I mean pandora.  No, dammit, pandora! Oh I give up…)

But back to the mosque. Despite all my precautions, when I finally entered the mosque grounds, the next guard I saw took one look at my apparently inappropriate outfit and said “Go get dressed”.  This was disproportionately annoying to me, especially since as I looked around I could see several women dressed in tighter, shorter or more revealing clothes than I was wearing.  Fuming, I descended to the underground parking garage, which was the unwelcoming route to the location where more appropriate coverings were dispensed.  Women normally wear a scarf as a head covering, but the loaner abayas had a built in hood, which had the unsettling effect of making shorter women look very much like hobbits, so I elected to use the scarf I'd brought.  Also, it was windy so keeping the hood up was annoying and the scarf stays up better.  And no, I don’t have any photos.

Will I ever actually tell you about the mosque?  Eventually yes, but there was more drama to come.  Once I was suitably attired, I still had to wait around, silently fuming, waiting for a friend who was late in arriving.  We were planning on doing the 5:00pm guided tour, and so I chose to wait near this sign:

Call me crazy, but I figured it was a good place to wait. (See hobbit in the back right...)

When Iola finally arrived and got appropriately hobbited up, we asked around only to find out that the tour actually started in another section of the mosque and not “HERE” at all.  We raced over to the actual starting place, only to find that the tour had already begun and was heading back to where we’d just come from.  When we finally caught up we were blocked by a sort of gate-keeper kandora man who refused to let us join because we were late.  There was another “latecomer” as well, who was passionately arguing with K-Man about how he should just let us join.  This went on for a ridiculously long amount of time until I pointed out that the only reason we were late is because their signage was very misleading.  I eventually explained the injustice of it all using the arabic words “hena” (here) and “henak (there) to point out how poor translation lead us astray.  (Learned that in Egypt, I did).  That seemed to be what finally broke his spirit because he let us join, though he flatly refused to give us the little headsets connected to the guide's wireless microphone.  No matter, we just stood close by and it was all fine.

So… the mosque!

It’s actually quite stunning and much newer than expected.  Built between 1996 and 2007, it was the vision of Sheikh Zayed, "who wanted to establish a structure which unites the cultural diversity of Islamic world, the historical and modern values of architecture and art” (Wikipedia, of course).  Sadly, he died in 2004 so he never saw it completed.  It’s the largest mosque in the Emirates and is the centre of worship for the country, accommodating 7,000 worshippers in the main prayer hall alone, and 40,000 in total when all the interior and courtyard space is used.  It’s also quite well known for its architecture, which is supposed to be a blend of styles and materials from around the world.

Here are a few impressive facts: The mosque has four minarets, each 350 feet high.  The courtyard covers 180,000 square feet and is covered in the largest marble mosaic in the world. There are 82 domes in total, and each is capped with a spire covered in gold glass mosaic tile. The largest dome is over a hundred feet in diameter.

These pillars, and there are a zillion of them (actually one zillion seven hundred and thirty two, to be exact), are clad in marble and inlaid with floral designs.  And the motif on the top is of palm leaves because, as I mentioned last time, date palm trees are a big deal here.  Apparently it’s an offence to chop down a palm tree.  If you do, you have to plant two new ones as compensation.  Plus they ritually throw pickled beetroot at your nice white kandora.  (Ok, I made one of those things up.)

When we got inside the main prayer hall, it was undeniably impressive.  It’s only used for Friday noon prayers, Ramadan and Eid, which is a shame because it’s magnificent, with two main striking features.  The first you see when you look down.

Yes, it just looks like a carpet.

It is, in fact, the largest handmade carpet in the world.  Measuring over 60,000 square feet, it was hand-knotted in Iran by more than a thousand women over the course of two years. It repeats the floral theme seen throughout the mosque in marble mosaic, inlay, bas relief and elsewhere.  I might have chosen a different colour scheme, but they didn’t ask.

The carpet also shows an interesting feature:

See there’s a sort of extra-fuzzy line?  The carpet is covered in parallel lines like this which allow the worshippers to line up in perfectly parallel rows, as is the custom.  I think that’s very clever.  Of course if they left this kind of thing up the theatre people they’d just end up with long worn out rows of layer on top of layer of crusty gaff tape.

The other most impressive feature of the main prayer room is the chandelier.  It’s an unexpectedly modern design made from gilded metal and fitted with LED lighting.  It’s also hung with Murano glass and Swarovski crystals and has a diameter of 33 feet, so it weighs in at an impressive twelve tons.

The chandelier.  And of course there are six other smaller ones throughout the mosque. 
This is not a building that does things by halves.

By the time our tour finished in the main prayer hall they were sounding the call to prayer and it was getting dark.  We’d cleverly planned to arrive in daylight and leave in darkness so as to see the mosque in all lights.  It’s impressive in the daylight, without a doubt, but they’ve also taken great pains to light it up beautifully at night.  In fact, the lighting design is computer controlled and changes in relation to the phase of the moon, so it’s subtly different each night.

Here's a look from the outside at night.


And this is also not too shabby.

Sunset comes early these days, so though it was completely dark by the time we had our fill of white marble and mother-of-pearl inlay, it was still by no means late.  Nevertheless, I resisted all efforts to get me to go out to dinner, headed straight back to my hotel room and treated myself to an early night of room service and videos and a cheesy novel and went to bed early.  I think my brain is just tired these days, and spending what little free time  have doing essentially nothing is exactly perfectly what I want.

Meaning, of course, that this post is over!

Hello from... Hang on, where am I?

Friday, October 30, 2015

When last I left you I was on the way to a job in Cairo, which ended up being a good gig.  The show was relatively simple, the local staff were lovely (if culturally incapable of getting to work on time) and I even got to have Gerald on the job for the last few weeks.  And of course there was a little bit of time to be a tourist as well.

Not my first time at the pyramids, but I am certainly not complaining!

Astute Go Stay Work Play readers will recall that the Cairo gig was an unexpected and very last-minute affair.  I got the email while I was in Canada and three weeks later, I was in Egypt. The advantage was that it was a pre-existing show so most of the work was in unpacking the props that already existed, running rehearsals, and doing maintenance.  Yes, there was stuff to be bought and fixed and generally tarted up.  And there was a very green staff of young Egyptian men to be taught from the ground up (starting with “stage left”, and “stage right” and working up from there).  But essentially, it was manageable.

IMG_8769 (1)
Here's my lovely Egyptian Props Team!

As that show drew to a close, my thoughts turned again to my little boat in London and I started to look forward to the down time I’ve been promising myself since Baku.  Puttering through boat renovations, slapping a bit of paint on the walls, investigating the worrying squishy spots in the kitchen floor, learning how to light and tend a coal fire properly, and pootling down the canal past bright autumn colours with a pot of something hearty on the stove.  Aaaaahhhh!

(If this was a dream sequence in a cheesy TV show, this is where they’d insert the sound of a needle scratching across a record.)

Or… I could agree, after much arm-twisting, to land in London after the Cairo gig, have exactly 43 hours on the ground, and then turn around and board a flight for Abu Dhabi.  Of course.  If I thought Cairo was last-minute, I had another think coming.  I literally got out of the airport taxi and onto the boat, opened my suitcase, extracted what wasn’t needed (tiny plaster pyramids and sphinx keychains, mostly) added a few items I should have had all along (corkscrew and, er, well that's it actually), zipped up the suitcase again and hopped in another taxi to a pleasant hotel room above a pub in Fulham.  Total elapsed time on the boat: about 45 minutes.  As pleasant as life on the boat can be, and as much as I was looking forward to it, it’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to dip your toe into for short periods.  There’s a certain amount of set up and pack down that happens when you leave for longish periods, and I just didn’t have the heart for it this time around.  The hotel was easy and central and required no effort beyond the swiping of a credit card.  Plus it included breakfast.  Sold!

And so now I find myself in Abu Dhabi, which astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will of course recall is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and just down the road from Dubai. Somehow my life is all Middle-East-y these days.  The show is a big stadium style affair celebrating UAE National Day on December 2.  That’s December 2, 2015.  It’s very much in the style of a ceremony like Baku or Sochi, without the sporting event to go along with it. And, of course, without the eight months of lead-time.

It’s all happening at a ridiculously breakneck pace.  Luckily, the team here is basically the same group of people from Baku, so we’ve all got a shorthand with each other.  In many ways its terrifying, but at the same time it’s a bit weird how quickly it’s all coming together.  We regularly look up from our feverish tapping on computer keyboards, blink, and say things like, “Why did this always take 4 months before?” and “The first day of rehearsals is always a shambles - it doesn’t matter if you’ve got 6 months or 6 days to prepare for it.”  I feel like all those other ceremonies have been training for this - the equivalent of a series of long, slow runs in preparation for a really hard, fast race.  There’s no time for second-guessing yourself. You just have to trust that you know what’s needed and push until you get it.  There’s no time to think, “maybe we could make this work” or “I guess we could manage with…”.  Instead, it’s “If you want this to happen, I must have this, this and this.  By Friday.”  Invigorating.  And did I mention terrifying?

As for Abu Dhabi itself, it’s a very different place than Cairo.  It’s glaringly obvious that the country oozes money.  The roads are clean and wide and uncrowded.  Traffic moves smoothly. And there’s no livestock in the streets.  This has kind of become my new metric for judging the modernity of a city.  How many pens of live sheep and goats do you pass on the streets on the way to work?  Also, how many times per day do you come close to flaming death because of the traffic?  (Dear Cairo, Love ya! (not really) But oy, you all need to just calm down and back off the gas pedal!)  And though our hotel in Cairo was attached to a bafflingly massive Western style shopping mall, with a lot of favourite chain stores and restaurants (including, bizarrely, a Fuddruckers), when you walked outside onto the street you could see that it’ll be a while before that prosperity is widespread. This is not to imply that a shopping mall should be the indicator of having reached the peak of human civilisation.  Then again, when you’re disoriented and tired and stressed sometimes the green and yellow gleam of a Subway sandwich shop is like a little beacon of normalcy.

Or this!  There are Tim Hortons in UAE!  Lots of them!

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged.  I could write volumes about Egypt in general and a whole blog post just about the Egyptian U-turn.  And the UAE is fascinating.  Did you know that only 12-20 percent of the population are actually Emerati citizens?  The rest (myself included, I guess) are foreign workers.  I find that staggering.  And petrol is about 19 pence per litre.  And date palm trees?  They're everywhere and they're fascinating.  They’re like the buffalo of the desert.  Historically every part of the tree is used for something - the dates are harvested and eaten, of course. (Have you even eaten a fresh date?  I have, now).  And the fronds are cut down and used for everything from building walls and roofs to weaving baskets. And the trunks are used for heavier construction.  Somehow they even make rope from palms too.

Date palm tree trunks and fronds, waiting for someone to do something interesting and historical with them, at a festival of traditional crafts in Al Ain.  And waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  It seems nothing happens before about 5pm there.  Which continuously flummoxes we western types who are left to do nothing more than snap pictures of stacks of dried palm fronds and speculate.

And most Emerati men truly do wear the white dress with the tea towel sort of thing on the head.  Sorry.  It’s terribly disrespectful to call it a dress and tea towel.  The outer garment is a kandora (pronounced kan-DOO-rah) and the head covering is a ghutra.  The ghutra is held in place with a double-looped fan belt.  (Just kidding, the fan belt is called an aguial)  You see it everywhere.  And I have no idea how they manage to stay so pristinely white all the time.  I’ve never seen so much as a crumb on anyone's kandora.  (Aside: hilariously, autocorrect persists in changing the word “kandora” into “kangaroo”, which conjures up some very strange images.)

So yeah, there's a lot I could blog about.  Except there's that little show I mentioned, so I'm not making any promises.  I will, however, leave you with this:

Prairie kid in the desert!

Floating Again

Monday, August 31, 2015

Long pause again, I know.  These days you'll just have to take what you can get.  When I left you I was hanging out in Canada; now I'm back in London, though once gain only briefly.  This is because I've had an out-of-the-blue offer of six weeks of work in Cairo, Egypt.  I won't get into the details, but it seemed a good opportunity, so I'm leaving on Wednesday and I'll thank you all to keep your opinions about the general security situation in North Africa to yourselves right now. You can say "I told you so" later if it's warranted.

Now for a cheerier(-ish) topic: the boat!  Even though I'll only be in the UK for about ten days, this is the first time I've lived on the boat full time.  No more the Happy House in Brixton - I just landed at Heathrow, got a taxi straight from the airport to the boat and have been onboard ever since.  It’s now official... I live on a boat!

First of all, I am super super happy with the new paint job.  Everyone remember this boat?

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It was a bit sartorially challenged, I think you'll agree.

And now look!

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What a transformation! It looks like it actually belongs on the water now instead of on a scrap heap!

It doesn't have the new name on it yet but when it does it will look like this:

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I now live on a boat called “Lucky Nickel”  Thanks to everyone for the suggestions, but Karen wins the prize.  Which is in the mail.

So that's the new name, officially registered and everything.  I didn't do any of that breaking-a-bottle-of-bubbly-on-the-bow business, which I guess is unlucky but I don't really hold with that.  Then again, considering the week I've had, maybe I should splash out for a bottle of Moët right now!

My first week on the boat has been... challenging.  First, when I arrived from the airport to the marina where it was stored there wasn't even anyone there.  I guess the guys at the marina weren't expecting me to be back when I was, so I found my cooker in pieces waiting for a part that would fix the grill.  (North America Translation: the oven was in pieces waiting for a part to fix the broiler).  However, the marina guys were really nice and managed to get the right part the same day and the lovely Neil came and fitted it, so now I can apply intense heat to foods from above, which I haven’t been able to do before.  I also have hot water on tap (including hot showers) and I can refrigerate things and even do laundry.  All the mod cons!

Getting everything unpacked and finding a place for it all was a bit of a trick.  Witness the bedroom the afternoon I arrived:

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And now that I’ve squirrelled things away:

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The day I arrived the Lovely Neil also stuck around and fixed a broken connection between the water filling inlet and the water tank, which I cleverly deduced was faulty because when I stuck the hose into the inlet water started pouring directly into the bow of the boat instead of into the tank.  Luckily, this meant I got to try out my new shop vac.  Luckier still, all that was needed to make the repair was a new hose clamp (UK Translation: jubilee clip).  The next morning I was ready to go and managed a short cruise down the canal to Tesco to stock up and get ready to run further into London.  The weather was hot and sunny, the solar panels were sucking up tons of power and I sent out invites for gin and tonic on the deck.  Hell, I even had lemons and ice.  ICE!

Sadly, it did not last.  The weather turned cool and rainy and, more sadly, it became apparent that while the solar panels were doing all they could to charge the batteries (that power everything from the starter motor to the water heater) the alternator, which is supposed to charge things when the engine is running, was not pulling its weight at all.  Nope.  And on a cloudy, rainy day, when the solar panels can’t be expected to produce nuclear-level wattage, the alternator really needs to pick up the slack in order to keep things ticking over.  This discovery was followed by an intense flurry of text messages between me and the continually-not-present Nes, who astute GSWPL readers will remember as my certified guy who know about engines and electricalish stuff.  He’s currently in South Africa, but always up for a remote engine troubleshooting challenge.  There was a LOT of "try this", and "What's the voltage at the blah blah?" and "Check the connections on the reverse oscillatronifier" and such. LOTS of that.  Basically, it was me standing in the engine bay waiting to drop my iPhone into a greasy bilge while texting stuff like "Tell me EXACTLY where to put the meter leads" and "I don't understand.  Explain again." And stuff like that.

What eventually happened was that I removed the old alternator and travelled across London with it in my backpack to visit a tiny rundown shop in Cricklewood where Nes promised there would be a guy who can rebuild or replace old alternators.  Because of course they don’t really make new ones for this vintage of engine anymore.  Of course.  (Ok, did anyone catch that?  I REMOVED MY OWN ALTERNATOR.  How awesome am I?)  Luckily, while waiting for the Magical Wizard of Cricklewood to create a new alternator, I managed a side trip to IKEA, where I got a bunch of stuff that makes the bathroom pleasant and functional instead of sad and dingey.

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Look, it’s like a real place now, with actual storage that is not made out of scrap lumber!

And then I got a cab back to the boat and installed the new alternator and everything was fine.


Of course it wasn’t.

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A Girl and Her Diesel Engine.

I did get the new alternator installed by myself, but despite an unending stream of advice and instructions from Nes, it just wouldn’t send an appropriate amount of voltage to the batteries. Eventually we had to concede defeat and I headed back to the main marina for some attention from a certified engine guy who was actually in the same postcode as the boat. Unfortunately, that main marina is up the sad and weedy Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal, which dead ends at Slough, a remarkably fitting thing for such an unpleasant bit of water.

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I had to stop several times to clear floating clumps of weeds away from the boat

I made it to the marina, where I remained for three more days waiting for a new starter battery and the careful attentions of Young Bob.  He gamely battled my aged engine, troubleshooting his way through an air leak or two, much confusing old wiring, a possible clogged fuel filter, loose engine mounting bolts, a very recalcitrant split charging relay, and an unusually needy exciter circuit (that’s a real thing!).  All the while, I at least was able to plug into mains power (North American Translation: I could plug into a regular hardwired power source) and fill up with water whenever I wanted.  On the downside, I was about a hour on the train from Central London.  Tedious.

I finally got out Sunday morning and had a pleasant and slightly less weedy chug back to where I started, though I’m still waiting for the itemised bill from the marina (!).  The engine seems to be running well, but I’m kind of resigned to the idea that it’s simply a matter of time before the next thing crops up.  I can only hope that eventually I’ll run out of things to replace, by which time I should be able to strip that engine down to its component parts and reassemble it blindfolded.  And if nothing else, the fact that I fitted the new alternator myself gave me some serious street cred (or would that be canal cred?) with the young mechanics at the boat yard, meaning I think they gave me a more attention and help than they might have, and spent more time explaining things like stern glands and fuel lift pumps and thermocouples and, of course, alternators.

Floating Again
The new alternator, WHICH I INSTALLED MYSELF. And even though it didn’t work right it’s not my fault because there was a lot of other stuff going on.

So that’s the boat report from NB Lucky Nickel.  The next few days will be all about getting ready for Cairo and putting the boat back into mothballs for another six weeks.  Then off for the next chapter.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to grease my stern gland (Also a real thing.  Stop snickering.)

*NB stands for narrowboat, of course.