My Neighbors: The Crack Heads without Crack

I live in a compound. This scares many Americans because it conjures up memories of Saudi oil ambushes and other infrequent occurrences. In reality, a compound is another word for subdivision except with tall concrete walls and guards. Very nice guards I should clarify because I seriously wouldn’t trust these guys to protect me. They mainly argue with housemaids and taxi drivers because they need to feel some sort of authority. This is directly due to the Arab kids bossing them around all the time and then the British kids start bossing them around too and then the Australian kids join in. Next thing you know we have a bunch of whipped security guards afraid of being deported due to a bunch of bossy kids. A new guy showed up the other day and gave me a little lip about entering without a pass so I sicked Mini on him.

The tall walls, on the other hand, are desperately needed because I live next door to the community crack heads. No, they are not really crack heads because we live in the Middle East where even Advil is closely monitored but these people otherwise fit the profile. Their place is a mess. Deflated bouncy toys every where, the swimming pool doesn’t have any water, their windows are cracked and broken, they have five different curtains on their windows, and a never-ending menagerie of animals that quack, bleat, hiss and moo all day and night. They are crack heads without crack.

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My View from the Kitchen

On the other side of my villa, resides a very nice Egyptian/Swedish family. They are both very attractive people who recently went on an exercise frenzy that lasted approximately 2 1/2 weeks. They ran, squatted, and did sit-ups in the neighborhood garden every morning. I didn’t have the heart to tell them their mat was located directly on top of my dogs favorite dumping grounds. It was a long 2 1/2 weeks for me because my dog doesn’t like to dump just anywhere so I had to wait for them to give up on the fitness frenzy and move their mats. The exercise couple has one housemaid, one nanny, and three children. One wakes up very early in the morning and rings the door bell which is not a polite door bell, but something like I imagine the electric chair sounding. This scares the beans out of both me and the dogs who bust into a full chorus of all hell-is-breaking-loose at 7:00am.

On the other side of the exercise couple would’ve been my good friend, AAA Elize from South Africa, and her well-connected American husband, Carl, but the landlord wouldn’t fix their pool so they moved to the other side of the street outside the compound (boo-hoo). If they were still here life would definitely be different because Carl is a story-teller and he would share his endless stories of Sheik I-Have-More-Money-Than-God and all the fascinating things that happen in Saudi, Jordon, Qatar and Kuwait and Elize and I would be sharing expensive champagne. AAA Elize has a love/hate relationship with food. All food is shitty unless she loves it, and then, she really, really loves it. She will then say in her South African accent which is totally different from the British South African accent, “Gina, you must try this.” So of course I must try it because AAA Elize suggested it and she and Carl are the kind of people who walk on the red carpet, stand in front in front of the overly used sponsor backdrop, and then end up in magazines.

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Gobble, Gobble!

It wasn’t long after losing the election when I was asked to chair the school’s Thanksgiving celebration committee. “Sure,” I said. “Who should I report to? Does the school have someone who coordinates the events?” And with that one little question, I came full circle. After losing the election by two votes I was appointed to the executive board of the Abu Dhabi PTA by the mere fact that nobody wanted to tackle the crazy job of organizing parties for 800 screaming children and their families. I had been in the Middle East approximately 1 1/2 months and I was throwing a dinner party for 1600 of my new BFFs. That week we kicked off the Thanksgiving committee with about twelve people in attendance. My agenda included the venue, the theme, the decorations, the donations, and of course, the menu. I was so wrapped up in the planning process that I failed to recognize the look of confusion on the faces of some of the attendees.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

No answer.

“Any questions?”

No answer.

And then it dawned on me. “How many of you do not know what a turkey is?” Several people raised their hands. “How many of you have never heard of the holiday Thanksgiving?” Several more people raised their hands.

“Okay, let’s rewind the meeting and start from the beginning.”

A turkey is a large bird that Americans typically serve for Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is a national holiday which celebrates thanks and community togetherness. It signifies the time before the settlers (now known as Americans) raped, pillaged, and spread sexually transmitted diseases to the local people.” I hope this helps clarify things for everyone. Now, let’s get busy organizing this very important event in American history. “Has anyone ever heard of a sweet potato?”

Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving

Planning the Thanksgiving celebration is a good analogy for the extra layer of difficulty that exists when living in the Middle East. Communication and cultural differences, although many speak English, is always a struggle. Just when you think everyone is on the same page the waitress serves a dish that you did not order, the dry cleaning you thought was ready on Wednesday will be ready on Friday, the BBQ grill that is being delivered to your house is accidentally in another part of town and although these mishaps occur regularly they are always followed up with a universal no problem because regardless of what happens accidentally it is typically— no problem. It will be fixed, remedied, repaired and delivered with a smile (usually).

For example, my friend Wlede went shopping with us two days before Thanksgiving in the ram-shacked plaza known simply as “The Pink Shops” (they are not really pink. not sure. don’t ask.) and she was carrying around the cushion to her dining room chair which she intended to get reupholstered before Thanksgiving. The idea that she was going to find fabric that matched, have it reupholstered and delivered to her home two days before Thanksgiving, boggled my mind. As it turned out, not only did this occur but the fabric didn’t match to her satisfaction (another story entirely because Wlede is a little bit of a diva) so they took it back, got new fabric and resewed it and delivered it again — in one day. And the whole thing, delivery and all cost less than $20 US dollars. This is the kind of stuff that does not happen in America.

Yes, regardless of where you live there are pros and there are cons. This is definitely a pro. The con would be I am shopping at a Pink Shop that isn’t really pink and it looks like it could collapse at any minute. Actually, it looks like one of those buildings on the news when they show footage of war torn countries. That’s definitely a con. Pro for America is at this time last year I was shopping at Scottsdale’s Fashion Square.

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The Land of the Housemaids

There is a love/hate relationship that goes on with the housemaids in the UAE. I first became acquainted with housemaids while at my husband’s bosses house. Their housemaid, a 30-ish Filipina woman who has been with their family for over 3 years was sweet, polite, and an excellent hostess. Helen was everything I wanted in a woman and it was right then and there that I determined to find my own. Since I hadn’t made many friends yet I didn’t have the benefit of their housemaid experience so I was sailing in uncharted territory. I just knew I wanted my own Helen. Someone to serve food on toothpicks, clean up and smile like she loves her job and my child as if it came from her own womb. I ran an ad on the online site Expat Women. It was overly flowery making us look like the perfect American family complete with a golden retriever and a handsome boy (with a foul potty mouth, but non-the-less, handsome). It was the perfect ad that would entice any housemaid to want to move in with us. Only one small problem, depending upon a housemaid’s nationality they may not be able to read so all of my perfection was pointless until one American man happened to stumble upon my ad. As it turns out, this man needed to rehouse his housemaid because, I was told, whether it was true or not, that his wife unexpectedly became pregnant and the current housemaid did not want to deal with a new baby. So I invited the housemaid to an interview.

Joti
Joti from Calcutta

She arrived at the Westin with a lime green shirt that read “I love Abu Dhabi” red stretch pants and red lipstick. I almost put her back in the cab because the combination was painful to look at but I realized that was far too judgmental of me. We sat down in the lobby and she began telling me with an Indian accent that was difficult to understand, that she was looking for a Western family and that she was an excellent cook, an excellent cleaner, and a very responsible person. She said that she became a housemaid at the age of 13 and worked for an English family for 8 years and they sent her to cooking school, taught her how to run a proper house, and how to garden. The next night she cooked our dinner and brought it to our hotel room. We took one bite and decided to hire her. Joti obviously knew her business. She helped us move into our new villa and it was obvious from the start that Joti was a career housemaid and she did it with an enormous amount of pride. I didn’t have to tell her how, when, or where — she read my mind and got things done. The only thing Joti asked from us was to give her a month off in January to take care of her ailing father. “No problem!” we said.

In hindsight, I guess maybe it was problem but at the time my mind was thinking all Ghandi and Mother Teresa instead of thinking The Great Escape. My friend Maha, with her Lebanese accent says, “I will never hire another housemaid again!” Apparently, the last housemaid Maha hired was from Ethiopia and suddenly became possessed by some sort of strange demons and began having demonic seizures in Maha’s house and yard. Prior to the possession seizures she started loafing around the house claiming to be sick while Maha was left to nurse her back to health so she could resume the duties she was hired to do. Eventually, Maha became tired of playing nursemaid to her housemaid and cancelled her visa. As they took her to the airport to send her back to Africa, the housemaid started slapping herself while screaming “They abuse me!” Everyone stood there staring at the housemaid throwing herself on the airport carpet as she attracted a crowd and scared Maha’s children. This alerted the Abu Dhabi police to intervene as the housemaid screamed at the top of lungs, “No money, no food, they are hitting me. Allah, Mohammed help me!” Maha in her Lebanese accent says, “She used to sit, watch TV, and eat all day. Not even one hour of work a day. When we went out, she only ordered the Ribeye and the shrimps. One day she woke up and I swear she was possessed… Screaming Allah in the backyard and making cou-cou and ouah-ouah sounds…. the next day it got louder. I knew I had to send her back when she put a white towel on her head and started walking like a mummy. It was FREAKY!”

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Maha’s Possessed Housemaid
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Cou-Cou Ouah-Ouah
Maha's Possessed Housemaid
Demonic Seizures

And then my South African friend Elize added to the story, “Oh, Gina! You wouldn’t believe the things the housemaids do. We found out one of our housemaids was sneaking out and turning tricks at night. My husband caught her hiding underneath his car. He had to pull her out by her feet and call the police. Another one of our housemaids ran away while we were in Italy. We had just arrived and I planned a cathedral tour for us on the next day. When we woke the next morning and walked the baby over to her room she was gone. We arrived at the hotel at 8:00pm and the hotel security camera showed her leaving the hotel and getting into a car in front at 9:00pm. Apparently, she had made plans for her escape prior to our arrival.” My Liberian friend Wlede says, “Everybody knows you don’t take a housemaid to the USA because as soon as her feet hit the soil there is a welcome committee there to whisk her away.” And another friend Brenda says, “I have to tell Mary Anne all the time to use her inside voice. Her high pitched, overly excited voice drives me bananas! She asked if her boyfriend could stay over from time to time but we said, absolutely not. She can do the wild thing somewhere else — not in my villa!”

The housemaid saga is never-ending. Stayed tuned for “Where is Joti?”

The Election

It was a big day. It was election day for the Abu Dhabi PTA. Yes, six months prior I had spent months in political leadership courses and had recently thrown my name into the race for Arizona State House of Representatives but then the Smokers House fell apart and with it went my residency requirement and then everything went to pot super quickly. Funny how life changes sometimes with the blink of an eye because six months later I found myself in the Middle East, in the UAE, in an American school, running for the PTA’s volunteer coordinator. Weird.

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Yes, I know. As Americans, when we say PTA the first thing that comes to mind is Jeannie C. Riley and the Harper Valley hypocrites. But instead, I found myself in a room packed with extraordinarily qualified people displaced from their home countries with absolutely nothing to occupy their time so they wanted to shove all of their energies into the PTA. There where lawyers, MBAs, teachers, life coaches, fungi shui specialist, doctors, nurses, architects, and yes — a few of them were wearing their dresses way too high. Some of them spoke several languages besides English, some of them spoke no English at all. There were the corporate types, the indulgent housewife types, the absolutely clueless types, the gym moms, the soccer moms, and then me, a disqualified political candidate and social change advocate — and damn it, I was going to win this freaking election!

I found out shortly before the election that I was running against an incumbent — the absolutely worst scenerio for me. Here we were, most of us in the UAE for the first time, feeling completely and utterly lost, and I was running against someone who had the answers to the questions on the minds of everyone in the room. Such as, where do I find Charmin toilet paper? A gas station? And Miracle Whip? I prepared a strategy which usually works for me. In a pinch crack a joke. Yes, absolutely, this is what I will do. And then it dawned on me. How exactly do I amuse a Korean? I’ve never gotten the punchline to a Korean joke — have you?

I looked around the room while the candidates prepared to introduce themselves. The chairwoman was speaking. She was a super thin South African lady around mid-30’s. She had a tattoo around her arm which gave me the impression that she liked to drink cocktails. She also wore clothes that look a little like a European Grateful Dead follower. Although, her accent was very no-nonsense. It was kind of something left over from the British rule infused with a German precision. She spoke distinctly, no-nonsense, but with perfect mannerism. She made me a little nervous, because as an American my manners are sometimes terrible. Next, she introduced the marketing and design executive. At first, I was surprised that the Abu Dhabi police hadn’t arrested this woman already. Her shoulders were showing. Her cleavage was showing. And she was wearing heels that almost doubled her height. She looked like a Lebanese Kardashian. Every move was a pose as though the paparazzi were following her. Her hair shined. Her make-up was flawless. And I was getting the feeling that it must be tattooed on. She moved with an air as though the PTA is a throne and she is the heir. I thought to myself, I don’t know if I like her. The jury was definitely still out on this one.

The first candidate announced was an Italian lady. She spoke 5 or 6 different languages and had a super nice demeanor. I liked her. Who else can speak that many languages? I voted for her. The next candidate was a Liberian who was raised in the USA. She was super cute and poised. Had adorable little braids in her hair and cute shoes and earrings. She had my vote too. And then there was me. What the hell do I say? Crack a joke? No. Nobody will get it. I’m thinking, tell them I went to school in Boston. I’ve heard all foreigners know Boston. Tell them I moved from the desert so they’ll know I don’t crack under the heat. Tell them I need this crazy little job because without it I will go stir crazy and drive my family nuts with my hyperactive mind. I will stress my husband out and his work will suffer and he will be fired and we will have to move back to the States and I’ll have to ship my dogs and my furniture back across the Pacific Ocean and that costs a lot of money and I will be stuck in front of a computer trying to amuse myself and I will gain an enormous amount of weight and I will need to join the Biggest Loser. No, first I will need to start the Biggest Loser Middle East series and then I can join. Okay, just say it. Just spit it out. Say something. Say anything. Half the people here have no idea what the hell you are saying anyway. Just say something!

Hello, my name is Gina. I moved here from the USA two months ago with my husband and our little boy who is in third grade. In the States, I created a non-profit that uses incentives and social media to encourage the use of strong thinking skills in the college population. I have a Masters from the University of Massachusetts Boston in Critical and Creative Thinking. I also teach social change, innovation and entrepreneurship in adult workshops. I am a social media junkie so as volunteer coordinator you cannot hide from me. I will Google you, I will Tweet you, I will Facebook you, I will Link-You-In. When the school needs volunteers, I promise you that somehow, some way, I will find you. And although I was half serious when I said this, they LAUGHED! Somehow I managed to make the Koreans and all the other people from all the other corners of the world who probably only understood half of what I just said LAUGH!

Whew! So glad that is over. But unfortunately, I lost the election to the incumbent by two votes.

A Buffet of Life

Abu Dhabi is home to the buffet. There are buffets everywhere and they are a regular pass time for both expats and nationals (the word National is defined as anyone from the UAE). Expats here in the UAE live a hotel life. Most restaurants, although there are a few exceptions, do not serve alcohol so we are forced to drink our booze at hotels. The fancy and over-the-top buffets at the hotels offer three options: 1. food only 2. food and drinks 3. food, drinks, and bubbly. Many have bands, chocolate fountains, oysters, lobster, sushi, and an enormous array of calorie laden desserts (more on this later). They are as beautiful as they are tasty.

Hong Kong

But the hotel that the company put us up at during the interview process doesn’t have a chocolate fountain or even a band; it’s quite boring really except for the steady stream of people who support my never-ending habit of people watching. It’s a buffet of people. People from all over the world. Some are smartly dressed, others are mismatched, attractive, rich looking, poor looking, and then in walks what appears to be an American couple. So of course, I ease drop on their conversation and as it turns out they are from Arizona too. And they are interviewing with the same company as my husband. What a coincidence. By the end of the brunch we are all making plans for the joint yard sale we are going to throw in Arizona when we decide to move over. The family reminds me of the Partridge Family. There are several members of the family and they all play musical instruments. As I’ve gotten to know them better they will actually bust out in song at the drop of a hat. The kids are hippy intellects who wear flea market clothes and travel the world staying with people they don’t know. I learn that they lived in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The mother is English and was raised in the Middle East because her father, a psychiatrist, packed the family up and moved to provide counseling to abused women. And as an adult, she and her husband followed tradition and packed up the family and moved to Afghanistan where he provided medical care to Afghanis. They decided to move when taking an armed bus to the hospital seemed a little extreme. I am told she speaks really bad Urdu. Which, I must admit, is better than anything I could produce.

the-partridge-family

So what kind of people pack up and move to the Middle East? You would be surprised. So far I have met the Partridge Family, a few other well paid executives, and country hopping teachers. I feel like I have been introduced to a group of people that I did not know existed: the nomadic, countryless people. It is really difficult to classify these people. They are kind of from here but they’re really from there. Their accent is from here but they’ve lived primarily there. It’s odd to meet a Texan from Thailand or a New Yorker from Liberia. I meet a farmer from Tennessee who sold his cattle, auctioned his house and moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s — that takes some serious kahunas. Seriously, who does that kind of thing? This being my first expat experience the idea at first seemed a little crazy to me but as I get to know these people it seems less crazy and more normal. Maybe the folks sitting at home in their recliners are the crazy ones?

Al-Bateen-4-Bed-Room-Villas

On the last day of the trip we took a tour of rental villas with a real estate agent. The young guy showed up looking as though he was a leftover from last night’s party and he must have showed us four of the worst looking homes Abu Dhabi has to offer. Compared to our previous homes in the States, and these attractive villas above, these villas looked like squatters tents or foreclosed properties. Real estate practice in Abu Dhabi is different because the homes are not cleaned until someone leases them so the villas we looked at were disgusting. The lawns were overgrown with weeds, the pools were full of green slime, windows were completely missing and birds were flying in. Our first impression was not only no — but hell no! Why would we leave the comforts of everything we have worked so hard for in order to move into this mess? My husband, being far more diplomatic and courteous than me, tried to explain to the Realtor that this isn’t quite what we had in mind. Me, on the other hand, wanted to slap him for wasting our time. I gave him a serious what the hell is wrong with you look and we returned to our hotel with our excitement squashed and a sad feeling of uncertainty.

The Interview Trip

Did I oversleep on the plane and wake up in the Phillipines? I thought to myself as I walked through the Abu Dhabi airport and noticed there were very few Arabs and hundreds of Filipinos.  It was odd. I also found it interesting that there were people from all over the world dressed in a variety of different styles: fully covered, semi-covered, and not covered at all — not at all like I was expecting. Where are the swordsmen ready to behead me if I show my shoulders?

This is Where I Live
This is Where I Live

Having only experienced the Middle East through American news channels, I was thinking to myself on the way to the hotel that this isn’t at all like I have seen on TV. I was worried about roadside check points and potential car bombs, and mobs of protesting men throwing rocks. I wasn’t really thinking about huge malls, amusement parks and swanky resort hotels but as we drove away from the airport advertisements of smiling blonde models were everywhere. To my surprise all of the road signs were in both English and Arabic and the entire city appeared to be under construction. Due to this, the hot humid air was filled with concrete dust which created a paste that was stuck to all the palm trees giving the entire place a dirty look. Being accustom to the beauty of the Arizona desert I remember thinking the landscaping here needs serious help.

The Corniche at Night

We arrived at one of the many luxury hotels that sit along the beach in Abu Dhabi via our Filipino driver. The lobby of the hotel was filled with marble from top to bottom along with photographs of the current Rulers and other important Arabs hanged prominently on the walls. It looked extremely official. The first thing I noticed in the hotel room was the arrow beside the bed instructing me of the direction to pray and the neatly rolled up prayer rug laying on the divan for my use. But even these items, which are totally foreign to someone raised as a Southern Baptist, didn’t hold a candle to the oddity in the bathroom which was the lack of electrical outlets near the sink. For some reason, of all the things the Arabs could be concerned about, their greatest fear appears to be that someone will electrocute themselves in the toilet. Electricity here is a highly regulated — in a highly unusual way. For example, there doesn’t appear to be a requirement for junction boxes and things of that nature but there are different plugs for different things such as; toasters, hair dryers and appliances etc. But the crazy things is if you stick a fork into the outlet, and this is common practice here, you can pry the plug of your appliance into any outlet. To this day, I have not stuck a fork in the electrical outlet. I prefer to buy adapters. Oh, hey, it was about the time that I heard my first Call to Prayer. At first, I heard it faintly over the hum of the traffic and thought to myself, what is that? Take a listen.

The Plan

Oh, Shit I Feel Lost!
Oh, Shit, Am I Lost?

“I moved out of house 1 and into house 2. Have to unload/release 1, 2, 3 cars, sell the stuff in 1, 2, 3, 4 storage units that have been gathering dust since 2010. Obtain 1, 2, 3 visas to a country that doesn’t give them away liberally. Plan 2 vacations, 1 to bribe my parents to take 1 of my 2 dogs and the other to restore my sanity. All of this and more… in 18 days. Ready, set, go!”