Monday, July 22, 2013

A story from Stu

I lived in Abu Dhabi, UAE, for one year. I worked in the student support service department at an international school as an ESL/Reading Specialist. My partner Nicholas, and myself developed and operated our own program, which assisted students from non-English speaking countries develop their basic English skills. This included standardized testing and small group lessons focusing on each students individual goals. Despite the absence of managerial direction and times of complete confusion, the job was amazing and I had a lot of fun working with Nic and the students. Nothing is better than having the freedom and power to cancel an "important" grammar lesson, and focus on developing the student's vocabulary and conversation through the demonstration of magic tricks... Sorry, I mean illusions. I really did love that job. Also, I did love the downtown apartment down the street from the beach, two free flights, lots of vacation time, paid summer and bonuses, and the steady healthy paycheck. Why the hell did I leave?! Oh yeah, unfortunately, as much as I love teaching and working with students, teaching isn't a career choice for me......yet. Maybe one day, but not today. Plus, I didn't want to live in Abu Dhabi, and that's a whole other paragraph...Or more.

Lets start with "life in the Middle East". I don't think I have ever encountered a topic with so many opinions and misunderstandings, and so much confusion and just general ignorance. First, the Middle East is a huge mass of land within the Asian and African continents. It has around 17 countries within it. Each of these countries have their own array of cultures, foods, politics, languages, environments, religions, and laws. So, your friend who lives in Beirut has a much different view of the Middle East, than your friend who has a sister living in Saudi Arabia. This was a mistake I made early on. I was looking for Mediterranean Lebanese Middle East. Instead, I got desert gulf UAE Middle East. Lebanon and Israel, while not on the friendliest terms, are two of the biggest party destinations on Earth. Think, clubs, alcohol and drugs, beach parties, thongs, and lots of plastic surgery. Traditionally, the gulf region, which includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, etc, is a more conservative region. Think, no alcohol, cover your daughters and wives, and "that woman better not be driving no car!". Prior to the oil boom, this was also a poorer region, with only pearls and date trees.

The UAE is a bit of an exception to this rule. The Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have decided to use their oil money to bring in hundreds of low paid labourers, build incredible skyscrapers and hotels, and develop their countries as tourist destinations. Well played UAE. But, remember, tourist love to go to bars and get really messed up, stare at beautiful scantly clad ladies, and then wind up going home with a prostitute. No fear, tourists and foreigners can drink to their hearts content, but only in a bar/club connected to a hotel and please don't pass out in the streets, or we're sending you to jail. And shit, we'll turn a blind eye to prostitution. Oh, and to sweeten the deal, all bars/clubs shall host a ladies night at least once a week, where all ladies shall drink as much as they can at no cost. Let the debauchery ensue! But you better not be rollin' up to no club without your designer boots and a fresh new Rolls Royce!! If drinking champagne and chilling in classy bars/clubs with beautiful ladies is your thing, Abu Dhabi can be a blast. A friend once told me, "there are beautiful women all over the world", maybe he was on to something.

With all of the money around, Abu Dhabi must be an expensive place to live?? Not really. Due to the lower class of labourers and secretaries, which make up a giant percentage of the population, food and drinks can be had for pretty cheap. It's important to keep the working class within reach of things that make them happy..... and living. Think $1 shawarma and $2 Indian talee. When in doubt, shoot for the big spinning stick of meat.
It's important to remember that native Emirates only make-up around 20% of the population in the UAE. And generally they don't want much to do with the other 80%, just as long as they keep the machine rolling. I knew a few women who dated Emirate men and I've met many Emirate men at bars, but that's usually the extent. I don't think I saw an Emirate citizen for the first 2 weeks in the UAE. The Emirates want to make their country rich and powerful, and maintain that wealth and power, everyone else is just swinging by to either spend some cash or make as much as they can and run. 
This national psyche transcends into everything and results in a strange emptiness to the cities. Make money, drink, party, sleep with a hooker, and then get the hell out! Don't get me wrong, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It makes the UAE a very easy place to make some money, relax, and then leave when you're ready. There are some really great things about life in the UAE. I know people who have lived there for 20 years, and will continue to do so until they revoke his visa. Abu Dhabi is an easy city to get around in, food can be cheap, there is always events happening, the winter weather is amazing, the beaches are great, and the desert is unreal. I'll always remember camping in the desert with some of my best friends, climbing a sand dune in the middle of the night, and sitting at the top watching the stars stretch all the way down to the horizon with only sand dunes for miles. I also developed some of the greatest friendships of my life in Abu Dhabi. If I hadn't have got into grad school, I would have been back in the big sandbox making a little more cash and enjoying another year with some fine folks.
I hope this helps shed a little more light on my life in Abu Dhabi and the Middle East. It was a bit of a strange place, but so is any country. That's what travelling is all about. It wasn't a good or bad experience, it was just life.

I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Editor's note: 
Stu and I met in Thailand. One night on an island, I got a tattoo of an anchor. After seeing mine, Stu then promptly followed with his own "manchor'. After this, a few other people in our town got anchors. Let's not forget who started the trend. Just saying. Thanks for the post Stu!

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