Visit to the supermarket

Just back from a ten day visit to England.  Modern travel is extraordinary – one moment the glory of high English summer (think deep meadows, clear streams and the scent of hay) and then suddenly it’s palm trees, desert sand and serious heat.  No time for adjustment.  So different to when my forebears took several weeks to sail slowly out to India, gently acclimatising all the time.  Still, I’ve snapped back quickly even though my body clock couldn’t believe it when the alarm went this morning at what it thought was 3am.

Food stocks are low, so I’ve just visited a supermarket.  There are two very differing supermarket experiences to be had here.  One is the shop aimed squarely at the expat community, shelves full of reassuring products from UK, Germany, USA and South Africa.  A friend of mine invariably returns from visits back to the UK feeling wobbly, and has to go to the friendly aisles of the Abu Dhabi Waitrose and breathe deeply for a few minutes before she can bring herself to return to her apartment.

I get huge joy from shopping in the supermarket that caters for local tastes.  The goods come from everywhere, are economically priced and many are entirely unknown to me.  Even the mall which houses the supermarket is different – it has a large notice at the entrance imploring honoured guests to dress decently and refrain from obvious signs of affection.

So (dressed decently and behaving decorously) it’s into the supermarket, and a walk on the wild side.  Every time I go I invest in a fruit/veg that I’ve never previously encountered.  This way I have discovered (for example) Dragon Fruit (yum) and Weirdly Long and Convoluted Bitter Courgette (blah).  Today’s excitement is a huge brown banana that was in the veg section.  Hours of fun there, discovering what it is and how to cook it.  Once I’ve done the mundane stuff, I can never resist adding a few extras to the trolley.  Today’s exotica:  pressed tamarinds; rose water; fresh Kneezi dates (couldn’t resist).

Then back home, another adventure in itself.  The road network has changed again while I was away, and I was whizzed round the pretzel-type of junction and disgorged onto the busiest motorway in Abu Dhabi, heading in the wrong direction.  One thing I can honestly say about the UK after years of travel is that you get idiots everywhere, but on the whole we have a most appealing road courtesy.  Not so here, where every square of tarmac is furiously contested.  Anybody who expects fellow drivers to ease on the accelerator or pull into another lane to allow them onto a crowded motorway will have their illusions rapidly shattered.  But eventually I returned home safely and now I’m going to experiment with my new produce.

Written the day after:  the brown banana is a plantain.  I’ll try it in lamb casserole.  The tamarind is unexpected – like a gritty, heavily salted date block.  The rose water is superb, best efforts so far are stirred into yoghurt and just a few drops added to a glass of champagne.  The dates are awful, very bitter.  I’ll ripen them on a rack and then dry them in the sun.  As with most experiments, mixed results!

Catching up …

It’s a long, long time since I’ve written my blog.  This is mainly due to two factors:  the first is that I’m living life so spectacularly different to my previous existence (mud up to eyebrows, deep in village politics, surrounded by demanding sheep) that most of my energies are spent just living it rather than writing about it.  The second factor is that the oven door has opened.  When we first arrived the weather was pleasantly warm.  Then it became excitingly hot.  Now it’s a sticky blast furnace, but due to some British twist of personality I’m still loving it.  When you come from a country which specialises in damp chill, it’s hard not to step out of an icy mall into the searing heat and think “how nice!”  I do, anyway.  But I can’t say that the heat inspires me to frenzied activity of any sort, because it doesn’t.

As a result I’ve got a massive log jam of interesting things that I should have written about.  Here are some snapshots to keep the interest up:

Darcy (stately Labrador) paddling in the glittering, turquoise sea.  He reminds me of a butler on holiday with a knotted handkerchief on his head and trousers rolled up to the knee, the picture of cautious and majestic enjoyment.

Indie (go-faster whippet) who caught a small squeaky thing with a long tail and didn’t know what to do with it.  He sat on it, then rolled on it, then stood up to admire it and while he was considering his next move it said something very rude in desert mouse language and hopped down a hole, and that was that.

The time we were camping out in the dunes a couple of weeks ago, and a man on a pale camel suddenly materialised next to us.  He looked exactly like a man who needed a chilled soft drink, so we offered him one.  He grunted at his camel which knelt down in the jolting, hinged way that camels have and then courteously made it clear that I could have a go if I wanted.  Of course I did, so I climbed aboard, the camel made a bubbling roar with lots of long brown teeth which is the camel’s own unique way of saying “enjoy!  This is my pleasure!” and stood up.  So there I was, 15 feet (approx.) above the desert floor in sole control of a camel.  The camel set off purposefully and after a while I thought I’d turn her round.  So I pulled on a rope and her head came round on a neck like a rubber hose while her body kept straight on towards (presumably) her distant home.  I pulled a bit more, prayed silently, and she finally gave in and took me back to the (by now distant) encampment.  Then we had the roaring, jolting and hinging in reverse and I was back on the welcome sand.

So sorry about the long silence, I’ll blog more as I settle in.  All the best to anybody who’s left reading this, I do hope all is well with you.

Dunes. Some of us love ‘em.

Last night a tropical storm was forecast, but didn’t happen.  So we took a chance and headed into the desert to camp.  We’ve wanted to do this since arrival and have collected some seriously cool camping kit in desert coloured canvas to get into the swing of things, but for one reason or another hadn’t been able to actually get out and use it.  This was the perfect moment, as the purple clouds rolled away with just a brief flash of lightning.

So we hurled camping kit and three dogs into the car and headed East to where the nearest proper sand dunes are.  We drove through heavy rain, but when we arrived at our selected camping spot it had stopped and the air smelt fresh and cool which is a novelty in these parts.  We had a wonderful night out, sleeping on camp beds beneath the stars.  We had heard all sorts of camping tales from the positive to the extremely negative (“the desert floor is a carpet of scorpions at night, except where there’s snakes”).  Our experience was entirely positive:  it was wonderful to get away from the city for the night – apart from a couple of distant camel farms there was nobody else for miles.  But what I found fascinating was the way the three dogs reacted to yet another entirely novel experience.

Indie leaped out of the car on arrival like a bullet from a gun and roared straight up the nearest sand dune and on over the top and out of sight.  After a busy few minutes he reappeared, still going like the clappers and doing a wall of death stunt down the sheer side of the high dune.  Then he zoomed in zig zag fashion out of sight behind another dune, appeared briefly to pose on top of a third dune then disappeared again to the distant noise of galloping paws.  He rejoined us in a while and entertained us with a high class juggling act in which he hurled a Wonderful Thing (that he’d found all by himself) in the air, jumped over it, and did several mad laps around it.  We found, on investigation, that the Wonderful Thing was a sphere of camel dung, but as with so many things there is beauty in the eyes of the beholder.  Indie adored the desert.

Guinness is now very, very old.  She waddled away from the car, tried a short stiff-legged gallop in pursuit of Indie, sniffed the Wonderful Thing appreciatively and then came back to wait for the next meal.  Guinness can take or leave the desert.  Whatever.

Darcy gazed in horror at the sand that surrounded us (orange with cream overtones, very pretty).  He didn’t like the way it felt on his paws. Crunchy and just – wrong.  Then Indie reappeared at warp speed and did a handbrake turn, showering Darcy with sand by-accident-on-purpose.  And it got behind Darcy’s ears.  Again, wrong.  Darcy didn’t like sitting on the sand even though we had put out a rug for him and he didn’t actually need to.  His food tasted wrong (bound to be sandy, yuk).  He didn’t like sleeping in the car, which we insisted on just in case the scorpion stories were true.  Everything was all wrong.  He didn’t like Indie’s present of an uninjured dung beetle either.  He couldn’t wait to get home.  Darcy hated the desert.

Fascinating.  It will soon be too hot to camp, but we’ll take Darcy for fun walks in the sand to try to get him in the mood.  Indie is already in the mood and counting the days till we access the dunes again.  Guinness doesn’t care either way.  Whatever.

I haven’t written a blog for ages, still finding my feet and on such a steep learning curve.  Yesterday, for example, I bought a pack of beautiful white rolls for our picnic lunch.  They were labelled ‘Spanish rolls’, which sounded promising and the plan was to put cheese into them.  When I cut them open, they were filled with yellow custard.  Totally unexpected and not great with cheese.  Still, it was another step down the road of knowledge.

The Bridge to Nowhere

I was driving along the motorway last week, concentrating madly.  It is essential to keep a cocoon of space around your car here, but at the same time you can’t hesitate for a second.  The cocoon is so that you have a chance if people overtake/undertake/stop suddenly/dash suddenly to the right or left (all these happen constantly).  But if you hesitate, everybody else will drive over you so you must keep going.  Interesting combination.  Also, while retaining your cocoon, you must be pushy when merging or changing lanes because nobody will ever, ever pause to let you in.  Unless they are me, in which case they will get rapidly overwhelmed by cars from the rear.  Still with me?  I was driving along the motorway, concentrating.

Anyway, I managed a furtive glance to the left and saw an enormous brand new bridge which seemed to be leaping out from a beach into nowhere.  Then I was simultaneously overtaken by a Lamborghini and undertaken by a Maserati and had to concentrate again.

But the bridge stuck in my mind, and I looked it up on the map.  It seemed to link the mainland to an uninhabited island.  I am always on the lookout for dog walks, especially dog walks with the potential to let them off their leads, and an accessible uninhabited island seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

So I packed the dogs in the car and set off full of hope.  We parked near the bridge, loaded ourselves up with water, bags, leads etc and headed towards the enormous, bare bridge.

And we struck gold!  There was a barrier across the bridge, easily outmanoeuvred by two keen dogs and their handler, and then we walked up into space and down into a wonderful wilderness of sand.  There was nobody else there, and the island was huge.  Behind us I could glimpse the high rise towers of the city through a lilac mist, which is really the best way to view them, and in front of us was desert sand and then the Arabian Gulf which I may already have mentioned is peerless in colour and transparency.  Gold next to the beach, shading into pale turquoise and then emerald green.  There were shells for my collection and the dogs could run in excitable circles and roll in seaweed (I think it was seaweed, I hope it was seaweed).

We particularly appreciated this because our walks have recently been on leads and around the compound, due to reports of poison put down on the beach we used to walk on.  Hooray for the Bridge to Nowhere:  the island and sea were beautiful, and the dogs and I were free for a whole blissful hour!

Camel racing (or not)

Recently there have been posters wrapped around every telegraph pole and speed camera advertising camel racing.  This sounded interesting, so we took careful note of the details and set out full of hope on the appointed day.

We arrived at about midday, which back in England at a point-to-point would have been the perfect time to potter around the stands and possibly get something to eat before the first race.  Here things were other.  After searching many miles of desert we found a small row of stands selling camel rugs and dates and a few clumps of tethered camels looking naffed off (and camels have honed the art of looking naffed off to a pitch of perfection) so we were probably in the right place.  But what of the race?  The crowds?  The atmosphere?

We flagged down some passing men and asked them where the camel racing was.  They stared at us in amazement, conferred amongst themselves, and said that they didn’t have a clue.  What camel racing?  We climbed back in the car, drove around several more miles of desert and eventually found an empty grandstand and a racetrack.  No camels, or people, or anything.

Nothing daunted we returned to the stands, bought some dates and a camel rug (highly recommended, heavy cotton with a hole for the hump) and pondered our next move.  Then we spotted action – in the far corner of a distant racetrack a phalanx of camels was trotting purposefully towards us.  We drove back to the rails.  The camels came steadily on, big ones and small ones.  They stopped in a dusty group next to our car and the two parties (us, and the camels and their riders) gazed at each other with fascination.

The big camels were ridden, the small camels (small because they were young) each had a little robot attached to their back (yes, really) dressed in jockey silks.  After some discussion, somebody grabbed the little camels’ lead ropes and the big camels separated themselves out and set off down the racetrack at a purposeful shuffle.  When they were out of sight, the ropes were released and the junior camels zoomed off eagerly after their friends.  Each little camel seemed to have about 16 legs all going in different directions, the jockey robots bobbed along on their backs, and the man who must have been their trainer added to the glory of the moment by roaring alongside them in his pickup truck, blowing an airhorn.

They disappeared around the corner in the wake of the senior camels and we headed home. We never saw any actual camel racing -  we now know that we should have been there at 7am.  But we had a fascinating and entirely unexpected insight into some part of camel training which, on balance, I wouldn’t have missed for anything.  And as a bonus the camel rug makes an excellent and unusual bedspread.


Getting to the falcon hospital (or not) …

The other day I discovered that the local falcon hospital (yes, I really mean that – it is a hospital for falcons and very good indeed) had a dog agility field attached.  I knew Indie would enjoy this and rang to book it up.

The falcon hospital lies many miles away over busy, unfamiliar roads, but it’s good driving practice so I loaded Indie into the car, sat for a few moments remembering which side of the road I drive along nowadays, and why the steering wheel is situated on the wrong side of the car, and then set off.  We proceeded along the motorway and noticed with quiet pleasure that the falcon hospital was well signed.

Then, just as I was turning from one motorway onto another, the falcon hospital was suddenly signed directly off the slip road.  I couldn’t do a thing about it, shot past the entrance and continued along the new motorway.

When you miss a road in these parts, you are sunk.  I continued into the desert, past dunes and camels, until I finally reached a roundabout many miles further on.  I circled thankfully around it and took an exit which I thought was in the right direction.  It wasn’t.  I had turned off one exit too early and was heading up a bumpy track that finally petered out on the sand.   An enormous pickup was trundling inches from my rear bumper so I had to keep going until I reached a layby where I could pull off and let the pickup roar past me and away to the horizon.  I did a 23 point turn and headed back to the roundabout.  Soon I was on the motorway again, heading back towards the falcon hospital.

But when I came level to it, there was no turnoff that would get me there.  I had to watch helplessly in my rear view mirror as the entrance receded into the distance as I thundered back towards town.  After a heart aching age I finally reached a pretzel-like intersection and, after a series of loops, I could turn and aim for the falcon hospital again.

We approached the entrance carefully and I was just reassuring Indie that it hadn’t been too bad really when I was undertaken by a mega sports car, a blur of speed, sound and red gloss paint,  hurtling along the hard shoulder at – conservative estimate –150mph.  When I had recovered, guess what?  I’d passed the entrance to the falcon hospital again.  And had to drive out into the desert for 10 miles again.   At least this time, old hand that I was, I got the roundabout right.  But then I had to drive half way back to town again before I could reposition myself on the correct motorway and heading in the right direction.

On the third time we managed it, reached the agility field and it was great.  But if I hadn’t been able to think ‘this will make a fun blog’ I really think that on the third time around I would have headed after the huge pickup into the desert and just kept driving until I met the sea.

There are differences …

So (as you can imagine) there are differences.

This morning, for instance, Indie barked at the rain.  It was the first rain we’ve seen since we’ve arrived, and it wasn’t really trying.  Just a few fat drops on the terrace, nothing like the curtains of drenching rain that England can do.  But Indie, although a child of England, likes sunbathing and resented the wet stuff.  So he barked at it and the rain obligingly stopped.  All very satisfactory and Indie went back to making like a sun lizard.

Another thing that happened was that I poured something white into my tea, which instantly turned into a solid block of glue.  The bottle looked like a milk bottle, it said ‘milk’ on it and also ‘100% cow’, which was encouraging.  I sought local advice, and discovered that the liquid I had trustingly poured into my tea was laban milk, aka liquid yoghurt.  Not advised as a partner to a British mug of finest Yorkshire tea.  I live and learn.

One excellent difference is my garden here.  Back in England, I have a lovely garden.  It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally got the garden of my dreams.  Daffodils in Spring, roses in summer, a herbaceous border for year round colour.   Herbs.  Periodically the sheep hurdle over the wall and munch the whole lot down to the roots, but it seems to recover.  Probably something to do with the constant downpour – rain is not all bad.

But my garden here is bliss.  When I arrived there was only recently laid turf.  In the intervening three weeks I’ve planted:  bougainvillea; desert roses; hibiscus; mango, fig, lime and frangipani trees.  A banana tree.  All brightly coloured and wonderful, like a particularly luscious oil painting of tropical paradise.  Goodness how it will cope with the Big Heat when it comes, but it’s made an excellent start.

And then there is the difference of being warm without trying.  When I Skype my friends in England, they are huddled in fleeces.  Through the windows I can see horizontal sleet falling.  You can be warm in February in England, but it takes vast quantities of clothing, wood burning stoves and casseroled comfort food.  Here I can be constantly warm, just because I’m here.  Mind you, warmth rapidly becomes boiling hot if I exert myself.  After planting my new trees I was not a pretty sight.

I could write several pages on other differences – a herd of camels is a beautiful thing, but not remotely like a herd of English sheep.  Come to think of it, a herd of sheep here is nothing like a herd of English sheep.  Much more in the ear department, for instance.  But that’s for the future.  There are fascinating differences, and I’ll keep you posted.  In a perfect world I’d put some photos to illustrate, but I still haven’t worked out how to do it.

My new Arabian life: dog walks

It’s been a long time since I wrote my blog, and I will quite understand if you have gone.  However if you are still here:  WELCOME!  My life has changed exponentially (if that word really exists) in the past month and so have the lives of our dogs.  I’ve gone through bug-eyed amazement at my new life and am now getting settled, and ready to share.

Sitting comfortably?  Here we go with my impressions of swapping English countryside for urban Middle East.  Where there was deep and sucking mud, there is now sand.  Where there were oak trees, there are palm trees.  Bread used to be wholegrain and bulky and is now flat and slightly singed.  But let’s focus in a bit, and begin with dog walks.

Back in England, my dogs tended to be popular with passers-by.  Remarks like:  “Handsome, isn’t he?” (Darcy) and “Had him out after ferrets yet?  Looks like he can shift!” (Indie) were the norm.  Now, when I walk my dogs and meet a local, the best I can hope for is that they withdraw the hem of their garment and hasten away.  The dogs had hurt feelings to start with, they would put on their best smiles and be met with total rejection and in some cases outright fear.

Still, we understand and we’ve risen above it.  We’ve now walked many times around the compound with dogs on leads.  That’s OK, and in fact Darcy rather enjoys pacing along looking noble.  Indie is more like a bluebottle on a string – pirates reject the whole concept of restraint.  We have discovered the whole plastic bag thing (nobody ‘picked up’ where we were in Wiltshire, it would have been bizarre to do this in a huge field full of cows who made Darcy’s best efforts look pathetic).

But yesterday we discovered something wonderful, a beach with nobody else on it within comfortable (20 minutes on the motorway) reach.  I took careful directions, loaded the dogs into the car, trusted in the satnav and set off.  When we got there, it was like walking into Paradise.  The Arabian Gulf was lapping gently at the shore, coloured limpid turquoise and gold.  The sand was pale and speckled with shells, and most importantly there was absolutely nobody there to get upset or frightened by the dogs, so they could go OFF THEIR LEADS!

My goodness we loved the next hour.  Darcy strolled by the sea, looking like a Trafalgar Lion on holiday, and Indie whizzed about in the shallows sending up a plume of spray behind him, like a jetski.  I walked up to my ankles in warm Arabian Gulf, collecting shells and enjoying the dogs’ joy.  My favourite seashell looks like a dragon’s head in miniature.  Or perhaps it’s the one like a unicorn’s twisted horn.  Anyway, it was all great.

And I thought:  I like it here, it’s going to be fun.


Cat up a tree (and down again) (and up again)

This one is just too good not to share with you, so although I blogged yesterday after an absence of many weeks, and although I should be organising something terribly important (forgotten quite what), here I am again.  For a State of the Nation Report, see yesterday’s blog.

Yesterday I was standing on the lawn with a surveyor, talking about important surveying things and trying to stop Indie challenging the theodolite to mortal combat, when a new neighbour walked down the footpath which runs across our field.  He had his four-footed friends with him, which is normal for these parts.  What was not normal was that his four-footed friends were a very small black poodle and a cat.  In his wake were the recumbent bodies of fainted villagers, because normal would have been a Labrador and a terrier, or a brace of spaniels, and these were not those.  Our villagers are conservative in outlook, just like the sheep (see yesterday’s blog).

Indie immediately forgot about the theodolite and unhesitatingly chased the cat up a particularly high ash tree.  I mean, what else could a pirate have done?  The cat sat in a fork in the tree about 50 feet up and yelled insults at Indie, while the new neighbour and his poodle begged her to come down.

I put Indie back indoors and went back to my surveyor.  The neighbour and his poodle were joined by various friends and well-wishers at the bottom of the tree, while the cat gazed expressionlessly down.  After the surveyors had departed, I re-joined the group.  The neighbour asked if he could borrow my longest ladder to save his cat.  We went and found it, struggled it out of the nettles and couch grass where it lay, and carried it back to the tree, helped by family members of all sizes plus the poodle.

The cat watched us put the ladder up the tree, and when it was securely fixed, swarmed down under her own steam, all 50 feet, and sat beneath the tree, licking her paws.  The family members and poodle all rushed at her with expressions of endearment and when they had nearly reached her, the cat climbed swiftly back up the tree and sat in the fork again, 50 feet up, gazing expressionlessly down.

At that stage, it became too hilarious to bear, so I left them all standing in a circle under the tree and rattling boxes of cat biscuit.  Indie and I tiptoed out later on but they had gone, including the cat.  Indie is longing for the next time they come on a walk past our place.  His aim is to get the cat even further up the ash tree, and possibly shift the poodle too.

See what I mean?  This is what my blogging is all about, sharing things I find funny with you.  And I’m sure funny stuff will happen in the desert too, watch this space!

‘Ere we go …

Well, it’s been a busy few weeks since I last blogged.  A container full of home comforts is now sailing steadily towards the Middle East: cushions, pictures and random things such as an old camel bell that Mikey brought me back from Yemen, to make our desert house seem like home.  Serious furniture, such as tables and chairs etc, I will buy or rent out there.  Most of our furniture is old oak, dark golden and much loved but not quite right for airy marble rooms.

As you can imagine, much of my time has been spent making sure that every one of my animals will be happy, and where they want to be.  The dogs all opted to come with us.  Guinness is old, but is loyal to her soul.  If we are away on holiday, she sits in her basket looking at the floor until she hears the sound of our footsteps again, when she simply explodes with joy.  It will be hot in Abu Dhab, but we will have air conditioning, and she can snooze in the sun or sit pressed up against one of us, as she loves to do.  There was never a question about Darcy.  He is mine, and where I go, he goes.  I’ve packed a basket of soft toys for him, which will be there to welcome him along with his enormous basket.  He is not a big thinker and will take life as it comes.  Indie will thrive in the desert, I think, with his silky coat and positive mental outlook.  There are plenty of ways for a pirate to keep himself amused in brand new surroundings; I look forward to introducing him to mangrove swamps (I’ll report back!)

Scarab has decided to stay in England.  He is fond of us, but he also likes his house, his garden, and the collection of dried frogs which he keeps under chairs and drags out when needed to surprise and entertain visitors.  Sarah will be looking after the place while we are away, and he has decided to sit on her lap in the evenings, watch television and cover her trousers with tabby fur.  Scarab will be fine.

Slip went back to his previous owner.  I wrote to her when I realised that I would have to sell him, and she immediately replied that she would love to have him back.  So back he went.  I miss him terribly, but he is surrounded by old friends and rediscovering the original leaf and puddle dragons that are still hiding just where he left them.  Harry lives locally, looking after a collection of small ponies and small girls.  Harry doesn’t move much, and they all find he is reassuringly placid amid a sea of high emotion.

The sheep were born here, and don’t want to move.  Sheep are conservative in outlook.  So I was delighted and relieved that the lady who will rent our fields was keen on taking over the sheep too.  She says, quite rightly, that they will improve the quality of the grazing.  What she still only dimly realises is that she has taken on a handful of woolly prima donnas.  I introduced her to them and they gave her their special, ear-on-sideways look, which means that they know a sucker when they see one.  They will be demanding premium grade hay, fed on demand, as soon as I have set off for Heathrow Airport.

My plans for breeding a new type of bantam, combining the loo-brush effect of a frizzle with the multi-coloured glamour of Joseph the millefleur cockerel, will have to go on hold.  But Sarah is going to look after all the hens, and with luck they will still be up for it when I return.

The geese are staying too, mainly because nobody else quite fancies their special blend of mindless aggression and pointless noise.  Even though Sarah had to take refuge on top of a feed bin the first time she looked after them, she has gamely agreed to try again.  She, like me, admires their style.  And Sweaty (remember Sweaty?) now has the most beautiful colouring, like a tortoiseshell cat, and still relishes living in our orchard and not in the dreadful place he came from.

So that’s us, poised to leave.  Wherever you are, a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS, and I expect that the next time I write this will be from deep in the trackless desert.