Monthly Archives: April 2013

Truly Grand

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The Grand Mosque, that is.  Its official name is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  We were invited to a reception recently in the nearby UAE capital city of Abu Dhabi, and that’s where the Grand Mosque is located.  It’d been on my “must do” list since I read about it, and this was an excellent opportunity to visit.

Muslim mosques are not generally open to the public, there are only two in the area available to visitors, this one and the Grand Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai.  Tours are at no cost, but only available at certain times and days, I was thrilled that this time would work out for us to visit.

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I was definitely impressed as I approached this mosque.

TBG as we approached the Mosque.  I think even *he* was a bit impressed!

TBG as we approached the Mosque. I think even *he* was a bit impressed!

Upon entering, there are signs describing appropriate clothing.  There are people that will let you know if your attire is not appropriate, and will either direct you to the exit or to borrow appropriate clothing.

This sign was outside the main entrance - pretty clear depictions of what is and is not considered appropriate.

This sign was outside the main entrance – pretty clear depictions of what is and is not considered appropriate.

My clothing was modest and passed the inspection, and my pashmina shawl was perfectly acceptable as a shayla (headscarf), but I feared with the wind that it would blow it away, and that would have been disrespectful, so I opted for a loaner abaya (traditional black robe) which provided the appropriate coverage without worry of the wind rearranging it.

We noticed a man in a white kandura close to the entrance and there was a large group of people forming around him.  I assumed that he was one of the tour guides, and he was – you just find a group and join in.  He started telling us about the outer areas of the Grand Mosque, the walkways, the spires and minarets and domes,  the columns, floors, it’s all pretty elaborate.  And the floors of the exterior area are made of white marble which helps keep them cool in the summer’s scorching heat.

It was not until a month or so later that I discovered that the gent who was our guide was actually a local celebrity, Ali Al Saloom, aka “Ask Ali”.  This gent provides a local outlook on Arabic heritage, culture, customs and the history of the United Arab Emirates.  He’s not only informative, but manages to pass on a ton of information in a short period of time, and intersperses the delivery with humor.  A winning combination!  He also writes a regular feature column in the local newspaper, The National.  We were very fortunate to land in his tour group.

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The columns are inlaid with semi-precious stones, and they are so well-made that you can barely feel seams where the materials join together.   And there are over a thousand of them!

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Inside the minarets, there are scriptures inscribed from the Holy Quran, each in a different calligraphy style. Some styles are so very elaborate that they’re an art form on their own, and extremely difficult to read.

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The floors in the courtyard area are all inlaid white marble.  White because it reflects the sun and stays cooler to walk (or kneel) on.  But look at the elaborate inset bits that are formed into amazing flowers!  And look at the sheer SIZE of the courtyard area!  It houses worshippers in the event that the prayer room or reception room is full….

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Then, just before you go through these arched doorways with their beautiful glass-work, you’ll remove your shoes, and place them in the shelves provided.  Everyone that enters the mosque must remove their shoes.

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Inside, there’s a large reception area, with one of the most lovely chandeliers I’ve ever seen.  They’re actually gilded in 24 karat gold!

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The entire room was bright and felt welcoming.  The vining flowers on the walls are a work in relief, and they’re pretty amazing.  Everywhere I went, I was so impressed by the amount of work and planning (10 years!) that went into this facility, and couldn’t stop touching the work that had been done.  The hall off to the right side was generally used for the women’s prayers.  They separate men and women here during prayer times because the Holy Quran bids worshippers to pray “shoulder to shoulder and feet to feet” – this connection confirms their solidarity as well as causes them to focus more on their prayers.  If women and men prayed together, it would be seen as a distraction.  This information came from our guide.  Interesting.

A short walk further and we were in the main worship room of this mosque, and please understand when I say that it was truly *magnificent* – that is such a small word to describe this space!  Ornate beyond belief, quiet, with a feeling of reverence enveloping us as soon as we all walked, barefoot, inside.  And the only photo I snapped of TBG and I inside…. sorry it’s so blurry!

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There is the most amazing carpet in the main prayer room – it is the largest single hand-knotted carpet in the world.  Look at how vivid the colors are!

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It took a group of over 1300 Iranian craftspersons to make it, and it was brought in pieces to the mosque and re-assembled.   This wool and cotton carpet has lines shaved into it, you can see them here….

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The purpose of these lines is to help  “line up” up the worshippers.  You see, this mosque can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers at once, and having them line up provides the highest number to be inside at once.

The ceilings, the chandeliers, they’re all so incredible – photos simply don’t do them justice once you’ve actually seen them in person.  The colors, the shimmer, the amazing effort put into the design and construction was simply breathtaking.  Here are some additional photos of the inside of the mosque……

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Our visit managed to overlap both late afternoon and early evening lighting here – it was a truly spectacular view.

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As we left, there was another, less-obvious entrance we passed.  And, as we approached a police car came out, followed by a large SUV with dark windows, and four dark sedans following it at a high rate of speed….. and the SUV had no number on its plate, simply a crown!

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We are assuming that we saw a royal motorcade.  Pretty cool cap to our amazing visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

At the local market

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Grocery shopping here is different from what I was accustomed to in the US – not a HUGE change, but different.  There are no “Super WalMart” stores here, but there are grocery store chains as well as smaller, privately-owned shops.  In order to find what our family enjoys in terms of food often requires several shops and multiple trips, as well as a bit of sleuthing on your part, or an extremely helpful store clerk.

Produce here is widely available, and from all countries you can imagine.  We routinely eat nectarines from South Africa, garlic from China, limes from Brazil, grapes from Cyprus, zucchini (called courgettes here!), tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers are often grown locally, and have excellent flavor.  Check out these tomatoes I saw at the local Spinney’s grocery store this weekend, aren’t they luscious looking??

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Herbs and spices are abundant as well, and are used in a myriad of dishes.  Catering to the extensive expat community here, the groceries carry an amazing array of vegetables and fruits – there’s always something new to try!

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OOhh…. something *brilliant* that is common here that I lovelovelove….. you get your produce weighed and priced IN THE PRODUCE DEPARTMENT! By people that actually know what a white radish is…. and don’t charge you for a “carrot” at the checkout. Only one set of scales, and the checkout clerks simply scan and bag. Brilliant!

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I get tickled at some of the labels on foods here – they’re generally a literal or phonetic interpretation of some sort, but always good for a smile….

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Check out these amazing looking cabbages – they’re quite flat, very dense, and have a “sharper” taste than the round ball-shaped cabbages I’m accustomed to in the US.  Pretty cool-looking aren’t they??

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Many times, I’ve not known what a specific vegetable fruit or spice is used for, or how to prepare it…. but I’ve found that simply asking another woman that’s choosing that item will generally end up in some sort of idea, or at least an attempt to communicate how to cook it.  Thank goodness a fellow shopper steered me away from those tiny cute little peppers, and suggested the larger, milder ones – that dish would have been inedible!

There are some awesome and quite artful displays of food here, and none less colorful than the seafood – rainbow-glistening fish, brightly-striped prawns, and hard shells just daring you to open them and see how pretty they are just inside!

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I’ve come to understand that my expectations are not common to this area… for example – what a local meat counter looks like here.  My western eyes were expecting some small packages with portion-sized bits of meats….lol… not at this store!  Take a look at the size of these!  Now granted, *all* meat counters are not like this, but some are.  These gents were hard at work back behind this meat counter….. see how nicely all the various cuts are displayed?  And they’re labeled with country of origin, price, etc.

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But how did they get into that display counter?  Well, take a look behind the scenes…..  I had noticed a large rack being wheeled into the sawing/cutting area of this meat section…..  filled with carcasses of critters that Ididnotknowwhatthehecktheywere.

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I gestured to the gents “could I take your photos?”  And one began posing, one began covering the carcasses with their original burlap bags, another said “nah, she wants a photo of the critter” (my guessterpation of his native-language comment) and they removed the bags.  And knocked a carcass off its hanging hook to the floor.  And picked it back up and hung it again.

Like I’ve said….. things are different here.

Don’t let me get bored!

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I thought this was kinda interesting….. in order that during those 3 minutes it takes someone else to pump your gas they want to make sure you don’t get bored…….

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Sitting in line at the gas station, there was a dang monster-big TV screen in the storefront across the way.  They are showing advertising, maps of the route ahead (since you can only go one way, no left turns here, remember??), new products, things to entice children, stuff like that.  A great marketing idea, because what *else* do you have to do while you’re waiting for someone else to pump your gas??

Unsubscribing from email rant……

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Folks, I get hundreds of emails daily.  This may surprise some of you, most will think “so?  I do too!”  But if most of them are promotional in nature and since I can’t take advantage of the offers, there is no need to continue receiving them.  Kind of a “don’t show me what I can’t have” sort of deal, you know?  So, I wanted to unsubscribe.  I’m gonna describe that process so far to you – so if you don’t want to hear me whine for a bit, move along.

SOME  ARE EASY      But some are insane.  Local meat shop in Dothan, Butcher’s block for example….. there’s a link to click in their email.  You click that link and it takes you to a page that requires you to decipher a million different options before you can find the one to unsubscribe.  Even then, you have to enter your email address, even though you arrived there from an email sent TO YOU FROM THEM.

Or this one, from Southern Garden Scents, a company I used to order fragrance from…….

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Now remember, I’ve received an advertising email from them.  I clicked on the link in the email to unsub.  THEN, I had to re-enter my email address to access my email preferences or to unsubscribe.  THEN I had to receive ANOTHER email from them with the comment that “someone” had requested I be unsubscribed.  If it was me, and I really want to unsub, click this link…. I did.  And got redirected to yet ANOTHER subscriber update page

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with a “click to unsubscribe” button at the veeeeerrrry bottom.   Now, once you click that, guess what??  Southern Garden Scents and poMMo mailing management software assume that since I’ve only jumped through their hoops and confirmed three times so far that it’s still possible I might not know what I’m doing.  This is insult to injury!!

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I wonder if the page owner realizes what horrible mailing list management software this is???   Icing on the cake is that after all this, I received yet ANOTHER email from Southern Garden Scents confirming that I’ve been unsubscribed.   And poMMo mailing management software – you should be ashamed!!

The total epitome of annoying unsubs, I believe, is my personal experience with a Middle Eastern Business named Namshi.  They have a website that advertises free shipping to the entire region.  I saw a blouse I loved, on sale.  When I clicked to put it in my basket, the sale price disappeared.  But I thought I was in luck, there was one of those handy little “Got Questions?” live chat tabs, so I clicked it and filled it out with my question, and sat back and awaited the answer as to why the price changed.

don't ever ever ever fill in this form on their website if you do not wish to begin innundation with marketing emails!

don’t ever ever ever fill in this form on their website if you do not wish to begin innundation with marketing emails!

And I waited and waited, and finally called to ask why, was told that someone would call me back and provide that help,  must be a mistake so sorry, no can help.  Never got a call.  What I *did* start getting was a brazillion marketing emails from Namshi – like at least 3-4 a day.  I hit the “unsubscribe” link, put my email in, and assumed it would stop.  No such luck, the email kept coming.  No way was I gonna buy from a company with sketchy business practices that doesn’t  reply to their customers.

I put in a complaint form in their “contact us” section, and was told to use the unsubscribe link in the emails.  I explained I had, to no avail.  They asked what email address I had subscribed with.  Though we’d been emailing back and forth, I provided it.  They replied that it wasn’t found in their subscription database.  I explained I hadn’t subscribed to anything, but HAD tried to ask a question using their form – that must be where they added me to their lists.  They replied they’d taken care of the matter and closed out the complaint form.

No joy, the emails kept coming.  *sigh*  So, if you’d like, just re-read the paragraph above to see exactly what happened next, with the exception of an added snippy “Each email you receive has unsub instructions at the bottom.  Please follow them.”

Well allrighty then – I copied every single message – enclosed them in a reply, and asked what I should do next to stop their marketing messages,  because surely they didn’t want to send out unsolicited, unwanted marketing emails.

Amazingly, they sent me a message about “problem resolved”.  And there it was.  Done.  Finally.  After about three phone calls and 12 emails.

And my personal favorite so far – Everyday Minerals…..amazing product, really.  Excellent mineral makeup.  But there is no “unsubscribe” link in their advertising email.  You are directed to their website to “manage your account”.   But this is the deal, you don’t *have* to have an account in order to check out, you can do so as a “guest”.  But then you’re magically subscribed to the email newsletters.  Sooooo, since I checked out as a guest, I have to FIRST create a customer account, THEN reply to the emails prompting me to confirm that I really *do* want to create this account, THEN log into this account, THEN unsubscribe from the newsletter.  Holy cow.  At this point, I decided that SURELY the companies involved had no idea how frustrating or aggravating this process is to their previous (and future!) customer s and I decided to let them know exactly what the procedure was, and how it worked.  Sent to the only email address I could find, a personal shopper named Cristy.  This is her response….

Hello Debbie,

Thank you for contacting us.  I’m sorry to hear about this.  I have forwarded your feedback over to our IT team so that they can look into this right away.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Cristy,
Everyday Minerals

OK, so now I felt just a little bit bad for unloading on such a nice person.  Just a little bit.

Education Woes

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Schools here for expats differ from those in the US in that they’re private, for-profit businesses and not the public tax, federal and state-subsidized institutions that we yanks are expecting. This means that the education of the children here is actually paid for by the ones using the service, the parents of these children. Remember, there are no direct taxes here at all.

Challenges surround local education here, and consist of three main issues…. Cost, accreditation and availability. As this is a private system, driven by the supply of available slots for children and the demand for those slots, prices vary depending on the number of children here to be schooled. When the economy is booming, more workers here, higher demand for slots, higher prices charged. The UAE ‘s economy is on the upswing now, and the demand is shifting upwards, prices are rising, and one school has closed, leaving even fewer available slots.

Competition is fierce to get into these schools. Waiting lists are established FAR in advance, and require a hefty “application fee” to reserve your application space. Not your space in the school, but your space in line to APPLY. Many expats arrive here without knowing this and simply can’t get their children into classes for the school year when they arrive.

Further an issue is whether or not the schools selected possess the accreditation needed to transfer successfully back to the US – most don’t according to a Jordan newspaper article here.    Children may end up with diplomas that are not recognized by American colleges – leaving them out of the college picture till they can sort out what they still need to meet requirements.  I didn’t really know what the costs were here to educate a child for a school year. Even knowing that most employers offer some sort of tuition assistance or coverage for children, I was *quite* surprised to learn that some pay up to AED 65,000 for a sixth-grader’s schoolyear. There are fees on top of the tuition, trips, uniforms, books, guides and incidental expenses included. That’s a lot of money.

So – what’s the solution? Many expats turn to home-schooling to ensure that their children don’t fall behind. And if they’re a first-time educator, it’s daunting. Their spouse is quite occupied with a new job and responsibilities, the whole family is trying to settle into a new environment, everyone’s trying to adapt and adjust, and all these details can seem overwhelming.

There is an interesting solution to help ease some of this new burden though – companies that provide all the “support structure” for homeschoolers. For a fee, of course. They’ll provide all the counselors, the record-keeping, the reporting and the curriculum guidelines keeping homeschooler parents to focus on the actual education of their children. One of these companies is called K¹² International Academy and they have offices here in Dubai.  I also made note of a number of online local support groups for parents, including facebook page groups, message boards and discussion forums, all offering ideas, support, suggestions and guidance from personal experience – sometimes there’s just nothing better than talking to someone who’s traveled down the same path.

Now, none of this is first-hand knowledge of course, since we don’t have children. But I really found it interesting about how differently education is viewed in different countries. Here, the Emirati educate their own. If you choose to bring children here, they are your responsibility to educate. But there are some alternatives for parents!