Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Live from Abu Dhabi

Like many people, I work with technology daily. Intellectually, I recognize the power of it all...the ability to transcend time zones with a simple mouse click or videoconference in real time with others halfway around the globe. It's a scene straight out of the Saturday morning Jetsons’ episodes of my youth, minus my footie pajamas and George’s flying car (although I’m still hopeful).

There are times, however, when the certain “coolness” of technology will bring pause…like the Facebook message I received from my cousin Michele Fortin, a self-described “ex-pat” currently living with her husband Bill Lay and sons Cooper, 12, and Holden, 8, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Abu Dhabi, to be exact.

Michele noted that when she clicked on Chelsea Stories to read a recent post, the blog opened with a choice: she could view it in English or Arabic. The thought of my blog, written in my small, rural surroundings and then accessed 6,533 miles away – in Arabic, no less – left me amazed.
I knew very little about Abu Dhabi, other than its name was fun to say, so I asked Michele to share some of her family’s experiences.

Michele's family moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago when Bill's firm opened an office there. Bill grew up as an ex-pat kid of an Exxon executive himself and he and Michele wanted to give their kids the same experience. Their sons attend an international school taught in English, have enjoyed meeting kids from all over the world and have adapted well to the transition.

Michele describes UAE as a relatively easy place in which to live. "English is widely spoken because the population is so diverse and the UAE is modern and religiously and culturally tolerant. Women have a high degree of freedom and I can drive, go anywhere by myself and do not have to wear a robe or veil. It feels very much like a modern western city with little touches of Arabia here and there."

Surprisingly, she says, UAE natives account for only 10 percent of the population; the remaining 90 percent are global transplants. While she acknowledges a lessened degree of freedom of expression and legal rights that one would experience in the west, the government "is generous to the local population and tolerant with ex-pats like us, so it isn’t hard to live within the rules."

Abu Dhabi, Michele says, is a humid island city. It has extensive trees, grass and flowers, but most are not native and survive thanks to generous irrigation fueled by desalination facilities. The government subsidizes prices of goods and services and residents do not pay taxes. While she describes her family's living arrangements as "luxurious," she is saddened by the poor quality of life for millions of laborers and household servants who come to the UAE "to eke out a living so they can send money back home to their families in India, Pakistan, the Philippines and many other countries."

Michele's family lives across a waterway from the Sheik Zayed Mosque, the final resting place of Sheik Zayed, the UAE's first president. The third-largest mosque in the world, it is the only one of its size open to the public regardless of religion. It has 82 domes and can accommodate 40,000 worshipers. 

The photo of Cooper and Holden, at left, shows them hiking through sand dunes at a desert resort called Qasr al Sarab, about an hour's drive from Abu Dhabi.

"The photo gives you a feel for how expansive the desert is," Michele writes. "It took us about 20 minutes to climb at a steady pace to the highest dune and the desert went on far as far as we could see.

Later, as we were driving in the desert, we came across this herd of camels. They were probably owned by someone but are allowed to run around free to feed," she says, adding that people in the region have traditionally used camels for transportation and food.

Michele notes that camel's milk is available in most supermarkets and camel milk ice cream and chocolate are sold at some speciality stores. Camel meat is served on special occasions and is actually "quite tasty," she notes. Camels also are raced at numerous places and are very expensive to buy.

"We are still hoping to visit the camel market and the camel beauty contest held each fall," she says.

And lastly, for a true connection to her central Maine roots, Michele sent along this photo of Ski Dubai, a famous indoor ski resort in Dubai. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two of the emirates that make up the UAE. Michele says Ski Dubai has bobsled runs, downhill skiing complete with a chair lift and a black diamond run and a snow playground for kids.

"Many of the instructors were taught to ski there and have not been skiing anywhere 'real.' They get employee awards like ski trips to places where they can ski outside on real mountains. We go once in a awhile; it's fun to be cold for a bit and be reminded of winters in Maine."

Michele has long considered writing her own blog chronicling her family's adventures in the Middle East. Hopefully this CS promo will push another budding writer at heart to leap into the blogdom abyss. I'll keep you posted.


  1. Another awesome blog, John & Michele. Very much enjoyed reading it.

  2. thanks John - I've now been blogged! I love letting people know about Abu Dhabi and how much I enjoy living here... especially when so many people are not always aware of how different the attitudes towards the west and the degrees of freedom are across different Mid-Eastern countries.

  3. Yes, I’d say Abu Dhabi is a safe place. Of course you will hear about some crime episodes from time to time and you should look after yourself as you would anywhere else in the world, but it is a safe place.

    Bloom Gardens Abu Dhabi

  4. Abu Dhabi won't disappoint people who comes to their place. There are really lots of things happening in there and events to attend to.

    property shop