Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Little Bit of the "Real" Abu Dhabi

This weekend some of us decided to break away from the city and go exploring around the Empty Quarter (the western desert region of the emirate of Abu Dhabi). We found our way to the Liwa Oasis and ended up camping in some of the biggest sand dunes in the world for a night. Here is a map to show where we were in relation to the city of Abu Dhabi (we were pretty much right where the yellow box that says Liwa Oasis is located):


Unfortunately we weren't able to leave the city until after 4:00 on Thursday afternoon, mostly because yours truly wasn't watching the time while he was BBQing on the roof for a late lunch. Therefore, we didn't reach Liwa until after sundown. As we were driving up and down the winding road that lead through the dunes, we were completely oblivious to the natural beauty that surrounded us (it was pretty much pitch black out there). We picked what turned out to be a great spot to set up camp, about 100 feet up the side of a sand dune in a nice little flat spot. By the time we got to this spot, it was already close to 8:00 at night. Luckily we had a nice, bright lantern and used it to help us see as we set up our tent for the night. After that, we just wandered around the giant dunes in the dark for a long time, stopping frequently to lay down on the sand and stare up at the big night sky. Since there was absolutely no light pollution to interfere with our view, we could see all the constellations perfectly. This was probably the best part of the whole experience. After a few hours of exploring, we found our way back to our campsite, we munched on some snacks, threw back a few cold ones, and just talked for a few more hours.
Probably the worst part of the whole trip was trying to sleep. There were five of us crammed into 1 tent (we were too lazy to put up both tents), and only 1 of us remembered to bring a pillow. That left Jeff, Mike, and I sleeping on our backpacks (mine might as well have been a sack of bricks). The ground was not too comfortable either. Therefore, by the time the desert sun came blaring through the sides of the tent, none of us had gotten more than 3 or 4 hours of sub-par sleep.
Nonetheless, getting up wasn't too painful because, for the first time since we'd arrived in the dunes, we were able to enjoy the natural beauty of our surroundings. Here are a few pictures I took when I woke up in the morning:
Walking up the sand dune to our campsite from the car (doesn't really capture the elevation at all).

Our campsite. You can see some of the sand dunes across the road. That is our car on the right side to give you some perspective on how high we are from the road (and the dunes behind me go much, much higher!).

The 2 1/2 hour drive home through the desert was pretty rough for me because I was tired and sore and everybody else was sleeping. But the scenery was also a nice change from what I'm used to seeing so I tried to enjoy it as much as I could.
Overall, I'd say that everybody had a great time camping and I think all of us are looking forward to doing it again soon!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Eventful Weekend

This weekend is surely one I won't forget anytime soon. First, I had my 1/2 marathon in Dubai on Saturday morning. In order to do this, I had to get up at 4am to eat a quick breakfast and speed my way to Dubai for a 7am start. My race started off great, but I slowed down quite a bit toward the end and I was pretty disappointed with my overall finish. But I have to say that the course was very scenic and is definitely one I'll do again next year. Plus, after the race, I got a free massage so that helped me forget about my race a bit too.

On the way back from Dubai, all I could think about was the nice little nap I was going to take when I got home. However, right as I was pulling in, I got a call from Jeff and we decided that we should host a BBQ that afternoon. So, instead of sleeping, I ran in, took a quick shower, and then we were off to buy food and charcoal for my grill. When we got back, I pretty much had to go straight up to the roof to start the grill.

As the chicken kabobs were cooking, all I could think about was how I was going to go to bed at like 7:00 that night because I was feeling so tired. However, when my friend Hector came up to the roof, he had 3 extra tickets to the FIFA Club World Cup quarterfinal match and invited Jeff, Danielle, and me to go. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I figured I would rough it out and then go to bed when I got home.

The soccer game was a lot of fun. It was between club teams from Korea and Congo, and not only was it a close game, but the fans were going pretty crazy the whole time (especially the Congolese fans, who had a little band there and they were playing music and dancing literally non-stop the entire time). Even cooler was the fact that we got our FIRST RAIN since I've been in Abu Dhabi. I had heard there was a chance of rain that night, but I had no idea that it would rain so hard! We were all soaked through our clothes, but we didn't care because we were just so excited that something different was happening with the weather.

Feeling recharged after the game, we all decided to go to our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Al Nasr Grill, to grab some food. During dinner, we started talking about our favorite Disney movies and we decided that we had to go back and watch Aladin after dinner. By the time we got back, got changed, and watched a bunch of random video clips on YouTube first, it was already well past midnight. We decided to watch the movie anyway, and it was close to 3am by the time I went to bed.

The next day (Saturday), it was still raining and since Abu Dhabi has basically no drainage system (it would cost more than it is worth since it only rains a handful of times a year here), all the streets were partially flooded. It was not that bad to drive in, but kind of funny to watch all the local drivers (who normally throw caution to the wind when they drive) be so overly careful on the wet streets. It reminded me of what I probably looked like the first time I drove in the snow. Anyway, I went to the post office to pick up a package and deliver some more of my own. What would normally be a 5-minute ordeal back home ended up taking me well over an hour because . . . well, it's Abu Dhabi. But I didn't care because I was just relieved to get that all taken care of.

Finally, Saturday evening, Andrew and I went to return our old car and get a new one! Our 3 month lease was up and we decided that we wanted to go with a different company, so we dropped off the Chevy Optra and then picked up our new 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer. The Lancer looks pretty nice and still has the new car smell to it, and it only has about 3000 km (about 1500 miles on it). We're probably going to break her in by taking her camping down south this weekend.

To make a long story short, I had a good weekend!

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jordan Highlights

Here is kind of a highlight reel of each of my days in Jordan.

DAY 1
I awoke pretty early to catch a morning flight to Amman from Abu Dhabi. The flight there was quite enjoyable, and we arrived in Jordan with no problems. The line at immigrations to get our traveller's visa was a bit ridiculous, but we got through it and were on our way to Madaba in a taxi in no time. Madaba, a small market town about 30 minutes from the airport, was a nice, quiet place to begin our trip with. We walked around the town and took a look at some of the local shops, many of which specialized in small mosaics--a local specialty. Then we went to St. George's Church, which is famous for the centuries-old mosaic that was discovered underneath the floor there. The mosaic once served as a large, detailed map of the entire area, and includes parts of Jordan, the Dead Sea, and the West Bank region of Israel. After walking around all afternoon, we called it a day early to rest up for a big Day 2.

Inside St. George's Church.

DAY 2
We arose early to get the most out of our day. First, we traveled a short distance to Mt. Nebo, where it is said that God revealed the Promised Land to Moses. Though the haziness limited our views of the surrounding area, we thought it was pretty neat to be at the historic site.
A view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo.

Next, we traveled down the mountain and through the Jordan River Valley to Bethany, the place where it is said that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Though this area is military tension zone (it's right on the border of the West Bank), everything was very calm and peaceful there. As with Mt. Nebo, it was very cool to be at a religious and historic site such as this and it seemed to be a place that people of all religious backgrounds in our group seemed to enjoy.
The point where Jesus was baptized. (The river has migrated away from this point over the past 2000 years, but it used to be here!)

Just 30 minutes down the road from Bethany was one of the main beach areas for the Dead Sea, which was our next stop for the day. Keeping in mind that Jordan is very much a developing country and therefore the beaches shouldn't have been expected to match our sometimes very high, Western standards, I rather enjoyed our brief 3-hour stop there. The water was very calm, and like most people who come to visit the place, I just had a lot of fun floating around in the super salty water. (For those who do not know, the Dead Sea is so salty that 1) it is pretty much impossible to sink in the water, and 2) it is completely devoid of marine wildlife.) We were even able to rub this black mud dug up from the bottom of the Sea all over our skin, which, after rinsing off in the water, made our skins feel super smooth and healthy.
Me with some Dead Sea mud on me.

After we had our fill of the Dead Sea and had dried all the salty water off our skin, we moved on up through some mountains to the Ma'in Springs, where people can swim in play in these natural hot springs and waterfalls. While I had my fill of this place in no more than 30 minutes, the natural beauty of the place made it worth the detour on our way back to Madaba. After a pretty full day of events, we were pretty exhausted by the time we got home. We went out for dinner, then again hit the hay early to prepare for our next day's travels.

DAY 3
This day was mostly spent as a travel day. We spent a better part of the day on a 6-hour drive on winding, mountain roads, with stops at Wadi Mujib and Karak Castle. If it weren't for the gorgeous scenery to keep my mind off of all our drastic elevation changes, I think I may have gotten a bit of motion sickness. Nonetheless, it was a very enjoyable ride. Wadi Mujib, dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Middle East," was simply breathtaking. And the stop at Karak Castle gave me a good warm-up for all the climbing I would be doing over the next few days.
Hanging out at Wadi Mujib.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived in Wadi Musa, the city that kind of serves as base-camp for the Petra site. Not to be caught slacking off, we chose to take a mini-trip out to "Little Petra" that evening, where we got a nice sneak preview of all the cool things we would see the following day. After witnessing a nice sunset over the top of the mountains, we went to bed.
A part of "Little Petra."


DAY 4
This day, the day we went to Petra, was easily my favorite day of our trip to Jordan. Basically, Petra is an ancient city where most of the buildings are not free-standing structures, but rather carved out of the side of the mountains. Between these amazing structures and the cool mountain paths you travel on to see many of them, I had a blast! As an added bonus, for somebody who loves to climb on and explore things like I do, this place was pretty much a giant playground for me.
The Treasury at Petra. This place was not built, but rather completely carved out of the side of the mountain.

A view of some tombs from above. (You always get cooler pictures when you climb on stuff.)


Side-view of the monastery at Petra. Had to climb up 900 steps to get up this place!


We spent a good 9 hours of non-stop hiking and climbing at Petra, and I was exhausted when the day was over. Near the main entrance to Petra, there is a bar inside a cave (not unlike many of the structures we saw in Petra) which is said to be the oldest bar in the world, have served as such for nearly 2000 years. Naturally I couldn't pass up finishing my day with a fresh beer in such an establishment.

DAY 5
On this day, we took a 3 hour bus ride up to the capital city of Amman. We purposely avoided the city all week (our main goal of the trip was to get away from the big-city setting), but our curiosity about the Roman Citadel was enough to get us there for a few hours. We toured the Citadel, which at various times throughout history has served as a fort, hill-top acropolis/marketplace, and/or religious center for the area. Still experiencing some hangover from the awesomeness of Petra, it was difficult to get super excited about the Citadel on that particular day, but in hindsight I can say that it was a pretty cool little area.
Some ruins in the Citadel.

After we had gotten our fill of the city of Amman, we headed back to Madaba to rest up for the night so we could catch our morning flight back to Abu Dhabi the next day.


Though my narrative of my trip may seem a little lackluster, it was actually one of the coolest vacations I've ever been on. In fact, I've been recommending it to all my friends here in Abu Dhabi for their travels in the near future!

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Monday, December 7, 2009

Back from Jordan

As many of you may well know by now, I have returned from my wonderful trip to Jordan. Unfortunately I have been pretty busy with jumping back into the workday grind the past few days, so my apologies for not having posted sooner! Also, I have had some trouble with my pictures uploading onto my computer properly but you should be glad to know that they are all there now. I am hoping to give you the full run-down of my trip, pictures included, tomorrow.

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thankful for a Fun Thanksgiving

Though it was no substitute for being home, yesterday's Thanksgiving celebrations were a great way to begin the holiday season with friends here in Abu Dhabi (as well as the beginning of our 10-day break).

To begin the festivities, some friends and I did some grilling on the rooftop of our building on Wednesday night. We sat and relaxed under the stars and enjoyed the nice Abu Dhabi weather for several hours.

Then, on Thursday morning, my friend Sorcha had people over to her apartment for a nice brunch, with pancakes, fruit salad, yogurt, good freshly-baked bread, and some mimosas. Many of the people there were heading off to various places around the world this upcoming week, so it was fun to hear everybody talk so excitedly about their vacations. Marguerite and Kerri are going to Thailand; Sorcha, Steve, and Layla are going to India; John and Lyla are going to Egypt; and Andrew and Danielle are going to Oman. Several other people are staying in the Emirates but are traveling up north to the mountains or are going to explore the desert to the west.

After a big morning meal, I had to recover quickly in order to prepare myself for a dinner feast at Erin's place. We decided to divide and conquer for dinner, so I was put in charge of green beans and corn. So I ran to the store to grab these items real quick so I could begin preparing them. About 2 hours after brunch ended, I arrived at dinner ready to eat to my heart's content. Everything smelled so good (especially the turkey and pies), and Erin had some good old-fashioned holiday music playing to get everybody in the mood. Dinner was fantastic, and Jeff and I were competing to see who could eat the most. We called it a draw after 4 heaping plates of food. While recovering from dinner and making room for pie, we popped in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and enjoyed some good ol' Chevy Chase fun. Afterwards we polished off a few pies, then all of us went home to crash.

All in all, I'd say my first Thanksgiving in Abu Dhabi was a great success. Now I'm ready to go have some fun in Jordan next week!

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Here I Am.

So you've probably been wondering the past month or so, "Where is Matt? What has he been up to?"

The short answers to those questions would be, "Abu Dhabi still. Teaching mostly."

The short answer is pretty boring though. So let me fill you in on what I've been up to since the last time I've posted:

I've been to Dubai a few different times. Not to be a pessimist, but I really think that city is overrated. Other than the many awesome architectural feats on display there, it really isn't anything but a big city in the middle of the desert! The first time I went to go clubbing with some friends. We had some very high expectations, and were therefore a bit disappointed when we had but an average night out. Some people tell us we just didn't go to the right places on the right nights, but I remain skeptical. The 2nd time in Dubai, I went to the Dubai Mall which, simply put, was ridiculous. The place wasn't the biggest mall I've been to, but it was still quite large. However, what separated it from any other mall I've been to was the sheer glamour of the place. Right down to the bathrooms, just walking through the place made you feel like you had a million dollars in your pocket.

The weather has been particularly nice the past few weeks, which has made getting motivated to go running each afternoon quite easy. Each day this past week has been in the 70s or low 80s and sunny, with the exception of this past Sunday, which was (gasp!) a bit cloudy. I hear I should get used to this because that is how the weather will be for the next 5 months, with the exception of when we'll have a chance of rain once or twice this winter. I think I'll miss the snow around Christmas time, but otherwise, I think I'll live with this.

Teaching has been going smoothly, and I really love my boys. They are so eager to please me most of the time (something I'm not totally used to from my other teaching experiences), and they seem very excited to be learning a new language. I am having a blast and have felt very good about my decision to come do this for 2 years as of late.

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching rapidly, I have begun to feel a bit homesick this week. My friends and I are having our own Thanksgiving feast here, but doing it without family for the first time will be different for sure. Looking on the bright side, I do have a vacation of my own coming up starting tomorrow. In lieu of both an Islamic religious holiday and the UAE's National Day (the equivalent of our Independence Day), we will have 10 days off of school over the next 2 weeks. During this time, I will be traveling to Jordan for 5 days. I will be sure to fill you in on that trip when I get back!

Honestly, it feels good to be back on the blog again. Hope to write again soon!

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Week 3

Week 3 of school went by faster than any school week ever has for me. I could hardly believe it when Thursday came around and it was our last day of the week already. I think most of this is due to the fact that I kept myself and my students more busy this week, and I was also busier outside of school as well.

Sunday and Monday were definitely a step backward for both my 1st and 2nd graders. By the end of the 2nd week, things felt very under control and we were able to be productive and get things done. I expected to be able to build off that success during this 3rd week, but was unpleasantly surprised by the fact that students were a little bit more wild and weren't staying as focused as I had hoped. I did my very best to not take this personally and remember that there are a lot of factors that affect children's behavior that I have no control over, so that as long as I am consistent in doing my job things should be fine in the long run. Instead of trying to overhaul my classroom management strategies because of a less-than-desirable few days (a mistake I made quite a few times last year), I stuck to what I had been doing and the rest of the week was smooth sailing.

As a whole, my 2nd graders are beginning to understand me a lot better. Not only have we established some routines, but also I have been trying to use the same body language and visual aids each time I say something. I really don't know whether they're understanding my words or my actions, but they're doing what I want them to do and acting how I want them to act and I think as long as I keep doing this, they'll keep learning the spoken communication piece of the puzzle in due time. One thing that has been a bit of a frustration for me is that in teaching math, so much depends on the students recognizing the numbers and their names. Since Arabic language users use a different set of number symbols and of course number names, we have spent a majority of time just learning the English numbers 1-20 these past few weeks. If these students had never had an English class before, I would totally understand and be okay with this. However, since they supposedly had English instruction last year and were supposed to know their numbers to 100, this has been a bit disappointing. I think the students have been getting a little frustrated by this as well, since I know they are capable of learning 2nd grade math concepts. I guess that's the name of the game in this business though.

As for my 1st graders, we made huge behavioral strides in week 3. On Wednesday and Thursday, they were just as good as my 2nd graders (something I though I wouldn't see until at least November or December to be honest), and even some of the Arabic teachers were surprised to see how under control and calm everything was going in there when they walked by. We didn't make a ton of progress academically this week--we're still hashing away at color names, numbers 1-10, and learning our ABCs--but I figure not a lot of learning can happen until things get settled down anyway.

Outside of school, I have been in full swing with my running. I ran at least 4 miles every day, even despite my football injury (keep reading), and I did it all with pain-free ankles and knees (which hasn't happened since before I left college). I was even able to run 17 miles on Friday morning, and if it weren't for the heat bearing down on me (it was 90 degrees by the time my run was over with), I feel like I could've run farther! I am excited to build off that great week and do a lot of good running in this upcoming week.

Also this past week, my flag football team had our first game on Wednesday night. I wasn't really sure what to expect as far as the pace or physicality of the games, but it turned out to be much faster and physical than I would've guessed with the team we played first. Many of them were American from what I gathered, and they were a pretty rough bunch. Though we weren't supposed to do any real blocking or tackling (because it's flag football), I was blocked from behind/pushed down twice while running my route our first time up on offense. Since we only had 1 ref, they got away with it. On defense, I figured I would take the higher road and try to make plays on the ball instead of tackle their players. At the end of their 1st possession, they had a 4th-and-goal situation. It turned out to be a pass to the guy I was covering, and I ended up diving into the air to tip the ball away from him (even though it was tempting and would've been a lot easier to just drill him as the ball was hitting his hands). I ended up breaking up the pass, but also ended up landing on the ground ribs-first, then somebody else from their team landed on top of me. I couldn't catch my breath for the rest of the game because it hurt to take in deep breaths, not to mention we only had enough players so that only 1 person didn't have to play both offense and defense to whole game. I went home and iced my ribs for a while, which helped, but I couldn't really sleep that night due to the pain. The next day, I went on a run (don't ask me why) and got a sharp pain in my ribs every time I took a step (don't ask me why I didn't stop). During that whole ordeal, I got the feeling that maybe I had a broken rib or something so I went to the hospital for an x-ray. Upon examining the images, we determined that I had no broken ribs, but probably had a few bruised ones and that most of the muscles in between the ribs were probably bruised as well. The doctor told me to take it easy for a while, at which point I laughed at her (on the inside).

Finally, there was an Middle Eastern film festival in town this past week and I was able to go see a few documentaries that I rather enjoyed. The first was called Shock Doctrine (based on a book by the same name), which was basically about how America has exploited different disasters of all kinds all around the globe over the past 50 years to implement free-market ventures that earned lots of money for American companies while completely neglecting (and sometimes even ruining) the lives of the people there. It was a little dry, but very interesting. The 2nd movie I saw was Michael Moore's new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, which provided a pretty humorous summary from the blue collar perspective on how our economy found itself in the state it is currently in and what it has done to the lower and working classes. I would highly recommend this film.

Good afternoon from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Sunday, October 11, 2009

2nd Week of School + Desert Safari

So my 2nd week of school was vastly different than my 1st. I think the biggest difference was that I had the weekend to sit down and plan better for 2 reasons: (1) I had a much better understanding of where the kids were at academically so I could provide them with activities that were right at their level, and (2) I was much more prepared for the behaviors I would see and was able to put some thought into how I would deal with individual cases as they arose.

Overall, I think I'm going to really love my 2nd grade class. Already, I felt in total control of things with them and we were able to get a lot of things accomplished. At times, I felt comfortable joking around with them and letting them see my lighter side without feeling like they would take advantage of it. In other words, I feel like we have begun to establish a mutual respect for one another.

First grade was a bit different. I had to be extremely firm with them 100% of the time just to make it through my time with them successfully. That took a lot of energy, and to be honest, there were times when I felt like letting up because I was so exhausted with it all, but I knew that would be taking a step backward with them. By the end of the week, I felt like I had made considerable progress but also feel like I have a long way to go with them. But to think positively, I am seeing that I am going to be able to teach these boys a lot this year.

As for planning, my colleagues and I have fallen into a bit more of a groove as well. Instead of each of us doing our own thing, we have decided to split our sessions into 3 parts (since there are 3 of us) and each of us specialize in certain subjects for a few weeks at a time. So I am concentrating on math planning for the next few weeks, and I can already see that that is going to be a time saver for all of us. Some might argue that we should each plan our own lessons since we each have different teaching styles, but I feel like with as difficult as resources are to come by here, it is a little different. With the few lessons that Andrew or Christopher have planned, they have come up with some great ideas actually, and I have just added my own twists or tweaked the plans to suit my style and my kids with pretty good results. We'll hope that continues.

After a hard week, some of us thought we should treat ourselves to something really fun this weekend. So I organized an overnight desert safari with a local company and 5 of us took part in that this Friday/Saturday. First, they picked us up and drove us out of the city about 45 minutes to a camel farm. The camels there were really friendly and would come up to us so that we would pet them. One of them seemed to be particularly fond of me and kept following me around! After that, we did some dune bashing. For those of you who do not know that that is, it basically just means we hopped into an SUV and a driver drove us up and down giant sand dunes through the desert like a crazy man. There were so many times when we thought our SUV was going to flip because we were pretty much sliding down the dunes sideways, but sure enough, our driver (who was really awesome) would always turn the wheel just in time so that we would fishtail our way out of it. This was probably my favorite part of the safari.

Once we got to our camp out in the middle of nowhere, we had lots of choices: 4-wheeling, camel riding, and sandboarding (like snowboarding down big sand dunes). Of course I wanted to do all of these things, but since we were staying the night and I knew I would have plenty of time to do it all, I just tried some sandboarding before dinner. Since the sandboards were all one-size-fits-all, none of them really fit me snug enough to be able to maneuver my board very well. Consequently, whenever I got going really fast I had no way of stopping myself. Eventually I started trying some dunes that were very steep even though I knew I was going to wipe out at some point along the way, and those were the most fun for sure. The only bad part about sandboarding is that they don't have lifts in the middle of the desert so if you wanted to try the biggest and best dunes, that also meant you had to find a way to climb up them first!

The BBQ dinner they served us was very delicious. They had all sorts of kabobs for us, some curry rice, and plenty of flatbread and hummus to go around. Too bad they didn't have s'mores though! (Just kidding.)

After dinner, some of us went 4-wheeling out in the desert in the dark. I got my first glimpse of how difficult it is to maneuver a vehicle in the sand, but all the fishtailing and bumps made the driving more exciting. When I was finished with that, we figured we'd go on a short camel ride under the stars to wind down our evening. That was pretty fun too! Since we weren't quite ready to go to bed yet when the camel trek was over, some of us climbed up one of the sand dunes and laid down under the stars to contemplate the meaning of life and other such things. I could've fallen asleep right there, but figured I'd better join the rest of the group in heading back down to our camp. We slept outside with a few blankets and pillow each, and it was nice to fall asleep under the stars for the second time in about a month. The only thing I didn't like better about this than the last time (in India) was that at about 4:00 am, a rooster nearby began to crow and didn't stop until after sunrise. I'm pretty sure that rooster would not have liked to cross paths with me Saturday morning!

All in all, my 2nd week of school was pretty great and I am now ready for a 3rd after such a great weekend!

Good afternoon from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Saturday, October 3, 2009

First Week of School

First of all, I'd like to apologize to my avid readers for the lack of posts this week. Not only was I having some troubles with the website (it decided to show everything in Arabic instead of English), and the week was too crazy for me to really want to deal with it. But . . . I seem to have everything worked out so here we go again.


All I have to say is, WOW. And I think it's worth repeating. WOW. For anybody and everybody who has ever told me I have the patience of a saint, that claim was put to the test BIG TIME this last week. Sunday was our first day of regular school, and things were definitely hectic when we got there that morning. The entire courtyard was filled with boys swinging their backpacks and throwing their sandals at each other, chasing each other around and tackling each other, and shouting at the top of their lungs. In a way, I wasn't surprised at all; what should one expect when you put 600 boys together in a small space with relatively no adult supervision? At the same time, however, those first few minutes put what I will be working with all year into perspective right away: my job this year will be to instill some structure into the lives of children who have never had any, to expect things from children that have never had anything expected of them, and to inspire children who have always had everything handed to them on a silver platter to put effort into their learning. (Upon re-reading that last sentence, I make it sound like every child at the school is like that, when in actuality there are some who seem to possess some self-control and eagerness to be there to learn.)

On Sunday, things didn't go to terribly bad. Most of the students (especially the 1st graders) seemed a bit uncomfortable and nervous around me, which in turn kept them in check for the most part. They were content to color some pictures, play some games with each other, and even learn a few of their colors and numbers. In the afternoon with my 2nd graders, the students seemed a little less focused since they weren't (and aren't still) used to being at school all day. However, I felt good about what we got accomplished together. My only real beef about the first day was that some of my kids walked in up to 2 hours late in the morning, and that we kept getting interrupted by various teachers and parents every 10 or 15 minutes.

The rest of the week seemed to get worse by the day. As the kids began to get more comfortable, they began to test me more and more. I nipped things right in the bud with my 2nd graders, establishing clear expectations and consequences right away. Some of them struggled with it all week, but some good progress was definitely made. The 1st graders, on the other hand, were something else. Since about 95% of them speak not a word of English and/or had no prior experience at school, things were a bit messy. I tried reward sheets, stickers, candy, and even getting to play soccer as a reward, but these things did not send the message of what my expectations are to everybody. What made matters worse is that there were several occasions during the week when I would be walking around during my afternoon break to find that my 1st graders had no teacher in their classroom, erasing all of the things I had been trying to teach them about staying in control and following rules at school. One Wednesday afternoon, I noticed several kids running around the courtyard when they should have been in class. After a second glance, I noticed that they were the 1st grade students I teach in the mornings. I a bout of frustration and annoyance, I quickly herded them back into the classroom, only to find that not only was there no teacher in there, but also that (1) two students had another two students on the floor kicking them, (2) at least three students were crying because they were scared or confused as to why they were being left alone, (3) a group of students were tearing the blinds off the windows (they are now completely ruined), and (4) another group of students were poking each other with pencils. There were maybe--maybe--2 students who were sitting down in their chair not doing something either hazardous themselves or others. I immediately called for help while I attempted to restore order to the room (not a peaceful or calm task on my part, to say the least), and found out that they had no teacher because the religion teacher hadn't come to school that day. The lack of concern the other teacher had for there not being another teacher covering the class or for what the boys were doing while unsupervised gave me some additional insight on what I'm dealing with this year. So, even though it was my plan period and only break of the day, I ended up staying with the students for the rest of the period to ensure that everybody in the room remained alive.

Later, I asked our English supervisor what sort of structures the school had in place for disciplining students who are acting that way, and his response was as follows: "You see, it is the nature of children--especially boys--to want to play and have fun and not do work. You will have to be patient and understand that teaching them how to behave will take some time." And that's where the advice ended. To me, that seems like half the problem right there: the other teachers expect that the students are going to act that way and accept it with a "that's just the way it is" attitude.

Still baffled by this response the following day, maybe thinking that he didn't fully understand my question, I returned to the supervisor and made it more clear that I wanted some advice for how to deal with children who are being obstinate and positive reinforcement just doesn't seem to be working for them. Without even saying a word, he pulled (I kid you not) a leather-wrapped baton-like object out of his bag and struck his desk with it. "So . . . you hit them?" I asked in disbelief.
"Yes, yes of course," he replied. "It is very common to do that. Some parents don't prefer it, but many others encourage it. Sometimes it is the only way." The matter-of-factness he spoke with was almost humorous to me, but at the same time quite disturbing.
"What if we don't want to hit our students?" I asked respectfully.
After a brief chuckle, he replied, "If you don't hit? You will go crazy!" Once again, WOW . . .

To wrap things up, my intention of this post wasn't to make it out that nothing good is happening at my school, but rather only to point out some of the cultural and structural differences I experienced over the week. Despite their lack of sense of community accountability at the school, the teachers have really warmed up to us Western newcomers, and I felt very welcomed by the few parents that I met. Also, despite the grave behavior concerns I have for my students, they are really very cute kids. And my 2nd graders have learned more English than I had hoped to teach them this first week, so I was encouraged by that.

I've just gotta keep telling myself, Great change doesn't happen over night. I've got to keep being firm and focused, but a little patience will go a long way too.

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Weekend

This was a pretty great weekend. On Thursday night, I went to a going away party for some people who are moving out of our hotel apartments to another building where pets are allowed (they missed their dog too much). It was fun to swap stories about our first few days at school, and now I feel like my first two days were a lot more productive than I thought; most people didn't even get to (or choose to) interact with any students the first few days, so I feel a bit ahead of the game.

On Friday, Hector, Jeff, and I decided to throw a little dinner party. So we went to the store, picked out some food for our Valencian rice, then headed back. I worked out real quick, then headed over to get started with preparing the meal. The preparation/cook time lasted about 3 hours, then our guests started arriving. We sat and enjoyed the good food and company for another 3 hours, then some of us decided to have a movie night. We headed over to Graeme's house, where we learned that he has this really awesome sports package on cable. We ended up watching baseball for about an hour, and even though it was a game I had no interest in, it was nice to enjoy one of the comforts of home that I haven't been able to do since July before I got here. Then we watched Zoolander, which I also haven't seen in a long time, so that was fun. Jeff and I capped off the night by going to his place and eating some cheesecake.

Today, I went to the post office to mail about 25 letters, along with a birthday package to a certain brother of mine. That was kind of a pain, since the lady helping me didn't really know any English. Nonetheless, we were able to communicate out what I needed to be done and my mission was accomplished. Next, I headed to the Marina Mall to pick up my new suit. After I picked it up, I went to the bookstore to look at books. I ended up being in there for well over an hour checking out a bunch of different books, and I eventually bought three of them. After that, I went to Ikea, where I picked up some more things to decorate my apartment with, most notably an indoor plant for my living room. Hopefully I am a better with plants than my sister and it stays alive for more than 2 weeks. I'm pretty sure it will.

Tonight, I went to see Inglourious Basterds, which just came out here a few days ago. I thought it was a great film and it was a good way to wind down my weekend to get ready for a full week at school.

Speaking of which, I need to go to bed so I have a good, productive week!

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

First Day of School . . . Kind Of

So . . . today was our official first day of school with students attending. I woke up at about 5 this morning, rearin' to get to school and meet some of the students.

By the time we arrived, some students had already arrived and were giving Christopher, Andrew, and me funny looks (which I don't blame them for doing). We walked to our office, set our things down, and then went to search out an administrator to find out what our schedules would look like and which classrooms we would be in. At this, the vice-principal chuckled for a minute, then explained that we should not worry because no actual teaching would be done today or tomorrow; rather, it was supposed to be a time for the kids to get re-aquainted with the school and socialize with friends after not seeing each other for 3 months. Though this made some sense to me, I still feel like this can be accomplished with a bit more (or a lot more) structure in place. However, I realize I can't change certain cultural traditions in a day (or probably ever), so I let this one be. Anyhow, to make the point I was trying to make, because everybody knows that nothing actually happens on the 1st day of school here, only about 1/3 of the students actually showed up.

Since we are supposed to be teaching 1st graders in the morning, and since the 1st graders (new to schooling since they don't do kindergarten here) were all shuffled into the gymnasium to watch movies all day (not a totally bad way of getting them hooked), guess what--I watched movies all morning. The Lion King. In Arabic. Twice.

The afternoon was a little better. While the other two were lounging around in the office (because presumably we weren't supposed to be doing anything according to several of the teachers), I decided I would go walk around the school and create something to do for myself. As I was walking across the courtyard, I noticed some boys from the 2nd grade classroom peeking their heads out and then running back inside. I thought I'd go check to see what they were up to, and to my surprise found that there was no teacher in the classroom! So I quickly ran back to our office (they'd been in there for 10 minutes with no teacher without causing any real trouble, what was another 30 seconds), grabbed some coloring pages and some puzzles, then went back in to supervise the teacher-less 2nd graders. Without my knowing any Arabic to speak of, along with their not knowing any English, we managed to get some coloring done in a very orderly fashion. I even got them to understand that they were to only use 1 crayon at a time, and if they needed to get another one, they had to either trade with a friend or come trade with me. Not a bad start, I thought. Then we got a bit more serious. I got some puzzles out, split them into 2 groups, and had each group work on a puzzle with each other. They were pretty timid to get up and work cooperatively with each other (something they probably don't normally do in school here), and so it took a lot of hand-gesturing and intense guidance to get the activity up and running. However, to their credit, they didn't do half bad working with each other and solving the puzzles once they got going.

At this point, Andrew and Christopher came looking for me and we did the rest of the activities through co-teaching. Since we still had quite a bit of time left, and we didn't really have any other tangible things for us to work with, I decided I would teach them some common classroom phrases in English. We spent a good solid 30 minutes on "sit down," "stand up," and "line up," all successful and all without them understanding a word of what I was saying (initially anyway). Finally, to wrap things up for the day, I wanted to see how well they knew their numbers from 1-10 in English. What I found is that they could recognize the symbols for the numbers ("1" for "one") and that they could recite the numbers in order from memory, but things got a bit screwy when I had them try to recognize the numbers out of order. Though this was a bit frustrating, it gave me some good insight into how they have been taught English before, as well as where they're at with their English-speaking skills.

At the end of the day, the kids all rushed off to the buses, and all of the students and most of the teachers were out of there within 10 minutes of the bell ringing.

All in all, I'd say the day was most interesting and a great first experience with working with students who could not speak any English. We'll see how the rest of the year goes!

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Eid Mubarak!

At the end of the month of Ramadan (the past few days), there is a 3 day holiday called Eid, at which time everybody basically goes nuts about not having to fast during the day any more, amongst other things. For us non-Muslims, this has basically been a time for us to celebrate not having to conceal the fact that we were eating and drinking during daylight hours any more. What a relief for everybody involved!

To catch everybody up to speed on things, I have kind of been a bum for the past few days that we've had off. On Saturday, I went to the Abu Dhabi public beach with some friends. The place was actually very nice and clean, and there weren't that many people there so we had our own little plot of sand to enjoy. We had heard that there was a little barrier reef not but 20 yards from the beach, so a few of us came prepared with some goggles to go scope it out. Turns out that this little barrier reef happens to be home to lots of tropical fish, and we even some a couple of sea turtles swimming around right beneath us!

On Sunday, I slept in, then headed off to the Marina Mall to scope out all of the Eid sales that were going on. I ended up buying some more professional attire, as well as some odds and ends to spice up my apartment a bit more. Also, I spent about 5 hours pulling some resources together and started creating some activities for my students and I to do during the first 3 or 4 days of school. Not surprisingly, I really enjoyed getting things together for the start of school and got really excited about the upcoming school year, and, in a good sort of way, my job has begun to consume my energy and my thoughts.

Today, I went to the Abu Dhabi Mall to eat lunch with Jeff and do a bit more shopping. I was a bit shopped out by this point so I didn't really buy anything, but it was nice to walk around and see everybody at the mall in such a great mood. (I can't stress enough how much different the atmosphere is around here when people allow themselves to follow "regular" eating schedules again).

Another, less positive (but more realistic) difference I noticed today was on my run along the Corniche this afternoon. Now that people aren't rushing off to eat all evening after fasting all day, the Corniche was really, really crowded with people, to the point where I could hardly get a good run in (it felt more like I was completing an obstacle course than anything). During Ramadan, there would be times when I would run for minutes at a time without passing another person, and I think that kind of spoiled me and gave me false conceptions about how much space I will have to run here. Regardless, the Corniche was still beautiful at dusk, and I don't really blame all the people for wanting to be out there to enjoy it!

Finally, this has been my last night off before school starts. I didn't really do anything too crazy because I'm trying to create a somewhat regular sleep schedule for myself. However, I did find time to go downstairs and relax with some friends and talk about things non-school-related (possibly the last time that happens for a really long time).

Now I'm off to bed, so good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My First Week at School

This was my first week at Al Bahya Elementary School for Boys, and what a week it was!

As I mentioned in my last post, on Sunday we got lost on the way there and it ended up taking us 2 hours to get there. Luckily, we didn't really get lost the rest of the week and so now it only takes about 35 minutes to get there. Unfortunately, with the traffic coming back into Abu Dhabi in the afternoons, it takes a little over an hour on the return trip.

Overall, everybody seems very laid back and friendly, though for the first 2 days nobody really went out of their way to make us feel welcome and accepted into their community. By Tuesday, I realized I needed to take more initiative and make a greater effort to show interest in them versus trying to get them to take an interest in me. Over the past few days (Wednesday and Thursday), many more of them have come up to me and my English-teaching colleagues and we ended up all having some really great conversations.

One of the things I like most about the school is that the teachers all come from such a variety of backgrounds. Since Emiratis (people native to the UAE) don't partake in "lowly jobs" such as teaching (most of them really don't work at all but rather are pretty much given a free ride on life via oil money, but that topic is for another day), all of the teachers are expatriates from neighboring countries in the Middle East. So far, I have enjoyed getting to know teachers from Oman, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, and Lebanon, and I'm sure other nationalities are represented at our school as well.

Another thing I like about our school is the actual layout of the building. Basically, the building is a giant 2-story square: there is a very big courtyard in the middle, with all classrooms facing out to it. There is a soccer field set up in the courtyard, which I think is pretty cool.

One thing I don't like about the school is that none of the teachers were really doing any work all week. With a 3-day holiday coming up next week, our next day at school will be the first day students arrive. And yet, we still have no idea which classrooms we will be in, nor have we seen any sort of concrete schedule or class lists. Everybody here is just used to that and says that the first few weeks are for everybody to figure out what is going on, so I will try my best not to get to stressed out about it.

Since we were required to be at the school every day this week, and since there was no organized work to be done, I spent some time on my own trying to figure out how I can utilize the (very limited) resources available to me to start delivering the curriculum in some capacity. I also spent some time collaborating with my fellow English teachers on how we are going to get through the first few weeks since our kids will probably not know a single word of English.

Upon re-reading what I have written so far, it may sound like I did not enjoy my first week at my school. In all honesty, I though it was a great to get my feet wet with something so different than what I am used to and finally find out where I will be spending a great chunk of my time over the next 2 years.

Since it is the weekend here, I am going to go relax with some of my friends now.

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Week in India, Pt. 2

DAY 5, Monday, 7 September 2009

I left off with our relaxing night in Jaipur. The next morning, our driver drove us up another mountain nearby to see the Jaigarh Fort, which due to it's (scenic) mountain location has never been conquered in battle. We walked around the fort for several hours to see the nice architecture, gardens, and the world's largest cannon located there.

Me standing on a bridge at the Jaigarh Fort.

World's largest cannon, complete with a tacky tin-roofed housing.


After we got our fill of the fort, we headed back down the mountain to see the Jal Mahal, literally meaning "water palace" due to the fact that it sits in the middle of a lake. Pretty cool.
Me trying to take a tacky picture. Didn't work. But that's the Jal Mahal.


Next, we went to see a textiles factory where traditional Indian clothing, blankets, scarves, etc. are made. After watching some things being made, I decided I would try on some Indian paijamas (traditional clothes, not sleepwear) and really liked the way they fit. So I had some tailored for me and now I own some. Unfortunately, I did not buy a turban. That night, we went in to get Ayurvedic treatments. This basically consisted of receiving a light massage with oil to help relax me, improve the flow of my circulation, and clear my mind. It was very nice.
After our treatments, we felt very calm and decided it would be best to go to bed early.


DAY 6, Tuesday, 8 September 2009

We slept in a bit and, feeling quite refreshed, headed for the holy city of Pushkar, a much smaller and less congested place than anywhere we had been yet. When we got to our hotel there, we ate a good lunch, changed out of our riding-in-the-car clothes, and went to set up a camel desert safari. We found out that one of the packages included a night's stay out in the desert, and even though nobody else really seemed interested in doing this, I thought it would be a great opportunity and signed right up for it. Then we did a bit of walking around Pushkar to have a look at all the temples there. We also were were pretty excited to see the holy lake there, but were a bit disappointed to find out that the thing had dried up during the dry season. Oh well. We finished our day by trying an Israeli restaurant in town, which served up some great food.

DAY 7, Wednesday, 9 September 2009

This day was by far the most memorable of the days we spent in India. We started it off by waking up at 5:00 am in order to be able to hike up the mountain to see the sun rise over the city from above. We got a bit lost in the city, and since it was 5:00 in the morning, there weren't really any people to ask for help. However, thanks to Andrew and I's superior masculine navigation skills, we found the foot of the path up to the top of the mountain. When still at the bottom, Andrew was foolish enough to challenge me to a race up to the top. Though the guide book said it takes an hour or more to climb to the top, Andrew made it in 25 minutes, and I made it in 20 (funny how pride speeds things up). We got up there just as the sun was rising over the top of the mountains opposite us, and the views from up there were simply breathtaking (or maybe we were just out of breath). We stayed up there for 2 hours, basking in the glory of being on top of a mountain and enjoying the company of some very funny monkeys. We even got a chance to meet some locals and talk to them for a while.
The sun rising over the mountains and Pushkar.

Some monkeys sitting on a tree hanging over the edge of a cliff, overlooking the valley down below.

Making some new friends at the top of the mountain.


After a much more slow-paced walk back down the mountain, we headed back to our hotel to take a much-needed nap. We woke up, ate lunch, walked around and did a bit of shopping (the candy store was the only thing that piqued my interest), then got ready for our camel safari. I was so excited! We walked over to the place, got on our camels, and headed out of town into the desert. Not surprisingly, the desert in India was still pretty dirty and smelly, but it was still fun.
Me on my camel. I'm not mad at all, so I don't know why I look like that.

Sunset in the desert.

After about 2 hours of riding around, we stopped at the dinner/camp-site and chilled for a bit while the guides made a traditional Indian dinner. We ate, then Andrew and the Danielles headed back into town in the dark while I hung out with one of the guides for a while. He was really nice, and asked me all sorts of questions about living in the U.S. and American politics. My favorite one: "How did Bush get re-elected for a 2nd term? Nobody even likes him." Haha.
Finally I got really tired and he handed me a blanket to sleep on. I will never forget looking up at the stars in the Indian night sky right before I fell asleep, thinking about all the different things that had to happen in my life over the past few years to got me to that single moment. Needless to say, I had a huge smile on my face.

DAY 8, Thursday, 10 September 2009

I woke up in the morning with sand in my mouth, wondering how many bugs had crawled on me while I was sleeping. Still, I had a pleasant view of another sunrise to look at and I was happy.
First thing I saw when I woke up.

After breakfast, I got back on my camel and rode back into town. I went back to sleep for a bit longer, then we got ready to take a taxi to nearby Ajmer, where we caught a train back to Delhi. Though the train ride was 6 hours long, nothing really that exciting happened. We all read/took naps pretty much the whole way. When we got back to Delhi, it was nighttime so we found a hostel to stay in for the night. We were pretty much exhausted by this point, so we all went to bed early.

DAY 9, Friday, 11 September 2009

This day pretty much consisted of us going to the airport, flying back to Dubai (thankfully with no emergency landings in Pakistan), catching a bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and telling the same stories over and over to all of our friends.

This concludes my narrative of my trip to India.


In other news, we began "meetings" at our own schools yesterday. We got lost on the way to ours because nobody actually bothered to look at a map before we left, so it took us 2 hours to get there (with a nice trip out into the middle of the desert along the way). Our principal and all the teachers seemed friendly enough, though everything seemed to be pretty disorganized (imagine that). But we kept our chins up and tried to make the most of the situation.

Well, I'm tired, so good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My Week in India, Pt. 1

As many of you know by now, I just got back from spending a week in India. While it would be impossible to fully share with you what I experienced there (especially through a blog), I will try to hit the highlights as well as I can:


DAY 1, Thursday, 3 September 2009

First thing in the morning, Andrew, Danielle, and I caught a taxi to the Abu Dhabi bus terminal, where we then got on a bus headed for Dubai. The bus ride lasted for about 2 hours and I got a good nap on the way there. Once in Dubai, we caught another taxi to the Dubai International Airport. As are most things in Dubai, this was the most grand airport I've ever seen. Our flight left at 3:45, and everything seemed to be going very smoothly. The service on Emirates Airlines was top notch, as our every whim was tended to from the moment we stepped on the plane (mostly in the form of all-you-can-eat food and drink).
Part of Dubai from the air.


Once we began to approach our destination of Delhi, India, we hit some very violent storms and our plane was getting tossed around a lot. After we were kept in a holding pattern around Delhi for nearly an hour, the pilot came on and said we would be unable to land in Delhi at the moment and since we were running short on fuel we needed to make an emergency landing somewhere. All the airports nearby in India were apparently very congested, so we had to make our emergency landing in Pakistan. Everybody on the plane was a bit nervous, as it was very obvious that we were not very welcome at their airport. We refueled as quickly as possible and got back up in the air. Once again, the pilot came on and announced that due to weather conditions in India, we would be heading back to Dubai. So, six hours after we left Dubai, we landed back in Dubai around midnight. The people from customer service announced to us that we would be placed on a flight back to Delhi that left at 4:45 am. We went to our gate and tried to get a bit of sleep on the floor of the airport for a few hours.

DAY 2, Friday, 4 September 2009

Without much sleep, we boarded the plane headed back to Delhi, India at about 4:00 am. I was extremely grumpy due to the fact that I had been traveling for nearly 24 hours and hadn't even made it out of the United Arab Emirates yet. Nonetheless, I tried to think positively as we flew back to Delhi. We landed in India at about 8:30 am (their time). By the time we went through customs and exchanged our currency, it was about 9:30 am. We went out to grab a taxi and headed to our first hostel. Immediately, I realized that traffic in Delhi was a complete nightmare, as there were rickshaws, aut0-rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, bikes, and even some people traveling on horse carts all trying to share to same roads, most of which did not have any lines on them. Also, many of the major intersections did not have traffic lights, so most of the time there was traffic crossing from all directions at the same time. Never have I seen such chaos, yet we didn't see a single accident. Our taxi took us to the end of a very dirty, run-down street and we were left to try to find our hostel on our own. As soon as we stepped out of our taxi, we were instant targets for beggars and people trying to get us to go to their hotels and hostels, as well as shopkeepers and men selling random things from their street carts. The ground was still very muddy from the previous nights storms, and the whole street reeked of human waste. After walking around for about 2 hours and getting pointed in every which direction, we finally found our hostel. We all chilled out for a while, took showers, and then decided to go explore the city of Delhi. First we found a travel agent there, and we set up a loose agenda of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go for the six days we had left in India. Then we got on the subway and headed across town to get away from the run-down part of town we were in. The problem was that no matter where we went in the city, there were tons of homeless beggars, filthy overcrowded streets, and a terrible smell. At one point, we came across a baby (maybe 9 months old) that was tied to a brick on the side of the street, playing in a puddle of urine; the mother must have been out begging nearby while the brick served as baby-sitter. I couldn't help but start crying, and quickly suggested that we leave the area immediately.
One of the least busy streets we saw in Delhi.

After a bit more walking around, we concluded that Delhi was the craziest, most congested, most depressing city we ever hoped to find ourselves in and went back to our hostel. Though we hadn't really eaten a proper meal all day, none of us had any sort of appetite. Since a driver was going to come pick us up and take us to Agra the next day at 7:00 am, we went to bed early.

DAY 3, Saturday, 5 September 2009

Our driver was waiting for us promptly at 7:00 and we headed out of town towards Agra. It took us nearly 2 hours just to get out of Delhi, and even though we were not considered to be in a city for most of the 6-hour drive, there were people with their carts, cows, goats, etc. lining the road all the way there. At that point, India just seemed to be an endless expanse of people in all directions. About half way to Agra, we stopped off at a Hindu temple.
Hindu temple on the way to Agra.

There was a man there who was kind enough to show us around and explain some of the different things we saw. Then we were back on the road. Still behind on our sleep, we all slept most of the way. When we arrived in Agra, we first stopped at a site called Akbar's Tomb, a large monument and temple where an emperor was buried.
Part of Akbar's Tomb.

We then went to our hotel, freshened up a bit, then headed out for some food and to see the Red Fort. The fort was really cool, and it was here that I had my first of many monkey encounters. Also from the fort, we got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. After wandering around the city for a while longer, we headed back to our hotel for some sleep.
Me with part of the Red Fort in the background.


View of the Taj Mahal from the Red Fort.


DAY 4, Sunday, 6 September 2009

We woke up at 5:00 am to go to the Taj Mahal early. We heard this was the best time to see it, not only because there would be far fewer tourists then than there would be later in the day, but also because the lighting of the sunrise on the building was supposed to be superb. We got to the site around 6:00 am, then walked around for about 2 1/2 hours. The whole place, especially the mausoleum, was truly amazing.
Me supporting my favorite baseball team in front of the Taj Mahal.


After returning back to our hotel briefly, our driver picked us up and we began heading toward the city of Jaipur. This entailed another 6-hour car drive, which was pleasantly interrupted by our visit to a "ghost town" (basically a city that seemed pretty in tact but was currently unoccupied). It was cool to walk around it and imagine what life there used to be like.
Part of the "ghost town." Where is King Louie?

When we were just outside of Jaipur, our driver took us to this place called nicknamed the Monkey Temple. We immediately saw why, as the place was completely infested with monkeys. We walked up this path leading to the top of the mountain there, and all the monkeys followed us up to the top. (To be honest, the whole thing was a bit creepy, like a scene out of a Stephen King story).
Monkeys following us. Cool, but creepy.

Once we got to the top of the mountain, there was another small temple, from which we could see the whole city of Jaipur. It was pretty cool.
Andrew and I heading back down the mountain.


Finally, we drove into the city of Jaipur, where we decided to take a much-deserved night off. We ate dinner and listened to some local music on our hotel's rooftop restaurant . . .


I will tell more about the 2nd half of our trip tomorrow. Right now, I'm getting ready to go put on my Chiefs jersey and eat dinner with some friends. (By the way, I also just ordered NFL Network Team Pass, so I can watch all the Chiefs games on my computer--only a day after they play for real. Whoo!)

Good afternoon from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Leasing a Car and Getting Ready for Vacation

Today was a fairly busy day for me. First thing this morning, Andrew and I traveled all around the city pricing out car leases. After visiting about 7 different businesses, we decided that Budget had the best deal for our situation. So we went back there, filled out some paper work, and chose the kind of car we wanted. We ultimately decided on a Nissan Tiida, which we though is small enough to maneuver the tight traffic here in the city but spacious enough for our 4-person carpool that we have set up to go to school and back each day this year. To lease such a car will cost us 1900 dhs per month, or approximately $520 per month. Since we will be splitting this cost between the two of us (plus getting some compensation from our fellow car-poolers), this operation will only cost me the equivalent of about $250 per month. Not bad.

On the way back from getting that all done, I received a call from the Indian Empost office with news that my passport was ready to pick up. So this evening, I headed over to the Empost building, picked up my passport which now sports a travel visa to India, then headed for the mall to pick up a few things.

Tonight, Andrew, Danielle, Danielle, and I booked our flights to India. We will be leaving from Dubai early tomorrow afternoon and will be arriving in Delhi in the evening. We will be returning on the 11th of September. We don't really have a set plan as of right now, but tentatively we have agreed that we would like to hit up Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), Jaipur, Pushkar, and Varanasi. We will hopefully be doing a lot of overnight traveling on trains so that we can maximize the amount of things we can do during the day.

For obvious reasons, this will be my last post until I return to Abu Dhabi. Expect a nice long post with lots of pictures then!

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Last Day of ADEC Meetings!

Today was the last day that I had to go to a meeting hosted by the Abu Dhabi Education Council. I now have nearly 2 weeks off, of course during which time I am going to be traveling to Dubai and then on to India. Woo! After that point, all teachers must report directly to their principals at their own schools in order to prep for the upcoming school year.

Following my meeting today, I was feeling pretty tired so I laid down for a nice little nap and ended up sleeping for 3 1/2 hours. I felt pretty bad that I wasted such a big portion of my day so I decided to make up for it by being super productive: First, I started a new load of laundry, as well as folded my freshly dry laundry. Second, I washed some dishes that had been building up in my sink. Third, I ran over to the dry cleaners to pick up my clothes there. Next, I tidied up my living room a bit. Finally, I went to the gym to get a workout in before dinner.

For dinner, we went to Ponderosa Steakhouse (haha) for a "family dinner." Our family consists of Jeff, Kate, Erin, and I, and we have such a family dinner about once or twice a week. Now you're probably wondering why we call ourselves a family. First of all, we are all pretty close and tend to keep an eye on each other the way a family member would. But mostly, it's because we were out to eat at Darbar (an Indian restaurant nearby) a few weeks ago, and only men can sit in the front of the restaurant while women and families must sit in the back. So, Jeff and I (being gentlemen) decided that we wouldn't make the girls eat in the back by themselves and therefore dubbed ourselves a family.

Well, I am off to a movie night!

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Getting My Indian Tourist Visa

In order to travel to India, one must obtain a tourist visa. So first thing this morning, I caught a taxi to the Indian Empost building here in Abu Dhabi to get that taken care of. First off, I've got to say that everybody there was EXTEMELY nice. They were so excited (almost a bit giddy) that I was going to India. Second, this was probably the least difficulty I have had with getting paperwork processed . . . ever. I just filled out a form in about 2 minutes, gave it to them along with my passport (of which they made a copy) and some passport-sized photos of myself, and then they told me I could have a tourist visa! The only downside to getting a tourist visa for India is that it cost me 315 dhs ($100), but oh well. Now I'm going to India.

Then I went to a meeting about the importance of using hands-on activities to engage learners in the classroom . . . during which there were NO hands-on activities. Once again, the so-called experts here failed to use the best practice that they so strongly and persistently preach to us. To make matters worse, one of the people in charge was eating in the back of the room while waiting their turn to present, which was extremely insensitive to the Muslims in the room (recall: eating in public during Ramadan can be punishable by imprisonment). People never cease to amaze me.

When I got home from my meeting, I was feeling like eating breakfast even though it was really lunchtime. So I got out my steak and made a steak, egg, and cheese (with a few mushrooms for good measure) breakfast burrito using some Arabic flatbread as my tortilla. It was pretty awesome.

Then I played Audrey's violin for about 3 hours again. Haha. I am such a nerd.

This afternoon, I did some running inside since it was about 110 degrees outside. I went down to the bottom of my stairwell and ran back up to the top. It was exactly 20 flights of stairs. I was amazed by how I could feel the increase in heat/humidity as I ran up--by the time I got to the top, I might as well have been outside! Anyhow, I did this 4 times and my legs were burning so bad by the end (on my last time up, my legs gave out involuntarily and I had to crawl up the last to flights of stairs)! Good workout for sure.

To celebrate getting our first paychecks today (even though they shorted us but don't get me started on that), some of us went to a place called the Lebonese Flower which is supposedly the most popular Lebonese restaurant in town. We ordered some hummus, baba ganoush, felafels, and salads for appetizers, and we got the big assorted meat platter to share for our meal. The tray of meat they brought us was epic in size, and all 8 of us stuffing ourselves could not finish it. All the food was VERY tasty, and I'm pretty sure Lebanese food is my new favorite kind of food.

Tonight, I hung out with Audrey for awhile. She let me try on the new rollerblades she bought, and I skated around the hotel for awhile. Then I gave her violin back to her so that I will do something social tomorrow afternoon. :)

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Monday, August 31, 2009

Rest Day, Kind Of

After a long day in the sun yesterday, I figured I better take it easy today. After sleeping in, I got up and began writing some letters to people back home (former students and ex-coworkers). Then I played my friend Audrey's violin for about 3 hours. It was pretty nice to sit down and really work through some pieces I haven't played in a long time. Maybe I'll have to give a little concert sometime.

This afternoon, I got on the computer and was doing a little bit of research on different running/triathlon/aquathlon races I could participate in over the next year. I have pretty much made up my mind that I am going to participate in the Dubai Marathon in January, and there are several 1/2 marathons I could do leading up to it. I also noticed that aquathlons (any combination of swimming and running) are much more popular here than back in the States. I saw several on the schedule that were a 2 mile run/short swim/2 mile run, and there is one that is an 800m swim, followed by a 5k run. I think that would be a great way to mix up my long-distance running, and I think I'd probably do okay in an event like that with my swimming background.

After doing all that research, I felt really excited about working out. So I kind of threw my "day off" mindset out the window and decided to go to the gym to workout for a while. I came back to rest for a bit (and to wait for the outside temperature to drop), then went for a good hard 6.5 mile run along the Corniche.

Finally, after working out, I felt more productive, so I wrote a few more letters, went to take care of some things I need in order to get my travel visa to India, and took my clothes to the dry cleaners.

After today, I totally feel re-charged for my big 2-day work week . :)

Good night from Abu Dhabi,

Matt

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Road Trip to Al Ain

I know I haven't written anything in the past few days, but in all honesty, I haven't really done much other than take it easy with my friends and try to to get over my sinus infection.

That is, until today . . .

We were sitting around last night and I got the notion that we should get out off the island for a bit. So after a little brainstorming, we decided we would take a little road trip to a city about 2 hours southeast of Abu Dhabi called Al Ain.

So this morning, Jeff, Danielle, Danielle, and I got up and took a taxi to the bus station. Tickets to Al Ain were only 10 dirhams (roughly $3), and we only had to wait about 15 minutes for the bus to leave. Here is a picture of what is essentially my back yard here in Abu Dhabi (you can see Abu Dhabi Mall and some surrounding hotels) . . .


Before leaving the island, our bus passed the Sheihk Zayed Grand Mosque . . .


Once off the island, the scenery changed quite dramatically from big city to miles and miles of this . . .


There were some really huge sand dunes, which made me remember how much I'd like to try my luck and sandboarding (like snowboarding, but on sand dunes).


After a pretty uneventful 2-hour bus ride, we finally arrived in the city of Al Ain. There were a few things that I noticed right away about the city that made it seem a lot different than Abu Dhabi: (1) there was a LOT more green space throughout Al Ain, and (2) everything and everyone seemed much more laid-back in contrast to the fast-paced hustle bustle I've grown accustomed to in Abu Dhabi.

As we approached the Town Centre area of the city, I noticed the clock fountain they have instead of a clock tower . . .


After we got our bearings straight, we decided the first thing we wanted to do was go to the camel market. Apparently, if we were at market at 8:00 am, we could have seen hundreds of men buying and trading camels (along with some goats). At 12:00 noon, however, the place was much less busy, as there were only a handful of prospective buyers and a few tourists like us there. I had a few people ask me if I was able to ride any of the camels, and the answer to that is no. However, the owners had some fun teasing us about touching the camels. I got to pet some of them, and one in particular really seemed to like it because it kept leaning its head over and rubbing it against my hand.



One of the highlights of the day was watching some camel owners trying to break one of his younger camels. He had a rope tied around the camel's neck like a leash, and he was trying to lead the camel around this open area. But the camel apparently didn't like that very much, because it was jumping up and down, bucking it's hind legs much like a rodeo horse would. I was watching this for a minute, then turned away to look at some of the other camels. However, about a minute later, I hear all of these men screaming. I looked back over and the wild camel had gotten away and was running around loose all over the market. There were about 5 men chasing it around, and the camel kept looking back at them like it was having a grand old time playing this little game. Eventually, the men caught up with the camel and roped it back in . . .



After standing out in the sun looking at camels for about 45 minutes, we were all ready to sneak ourselves some lunch and water. (Recall that it is not allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight during the month of Ramadan.) So we went to the mall, where we had to secretly eat our lunches in the stalls of the bathrooms. What an experience that was . . .

After our less than desirable bathroom picnics, we were ready to head to the Al Ain National Museum. Here, we were able to read a lot about the history of the United Arab Emirates and what it was like here before oil was struck in the 1950s. In a lot of ways, the culture was still very primitive up to that point. I saw some pictures of the island of Abu Dhabi in the 1960s and 70s, and the island was still pretty much all sand with some buildings scattered throughout--nothing like the island today, which is covered by hundreds and hundreds of skyscrapers and many more being built as I write this. Here is a view of the front of the museum . . .


And a model of a typical home setting in Abu Dhabi prior to the striking of oil . . .



After walking around all the exhibits in the museum, we decided to go to the Al Ain Oasis, which was like a big forest of date trees with paved paths to walk through it on. Probably the best of this was all the nice shade. We walked around for about an hour, and Jeff and I were able to pick some dates right off the trees to eat.

Finally, we got tired of walking around outside in the 105 degree weather without being able to drink any water, so we called it a day. We went back to the Al Ain bus station, got our 10 dirham tickets back to Abu Dhabi, and headed home. Here is a mosque I saw on the way home . . .


Overall, today was a fun day!

Just a side note: Since we will have about 10 days off coming up in the next few weeks, some of us have tentatively planned on making a trip over to India for a bit (Mumbai is only 2 1/2 hours from Abu Dhabi by plane). I'll keep you posted as these plans develop further.

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,

Matt