Summer vacation has come to a screeching halt, and now I am back in the UAE after spending a lovely 7 weeks with my family, friends, and cats. The first week getting back was chaotic – accepting a marriage proposal, unpacking a new apartment, getting my daughter into a new school, and starting back to work on a term system instead of a semester system. I will delve into these crazy and exciting moments another time. First I want to reflect on the big differences that I still, two years after living here, shake my head at in amazement. People from the States always ask me if I like living in the UAE, and I always tell them that I do, but just like with any place, there are good things and bad things.
Here are the top 5 comparisons of Al Ain and Portland, Oregon (& Vancouver, Washington) that kept running through my mind during the summer and since I have been back:
Portland: During the summer, I joined 24hour fitness. I could work out any time of the day that I wanted. Check-in is done with a quick scan of your finger (no gym card needed). I could always find an available elliptical machine. The gym felt clean and the equipment was in good condition.
People wear a lot less clothing at the gym in the States. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes I felt like going over to a few women and educating them on the benefits of a well-fitting sports bra or pulling down a man’s shirt far enough to keep that jelly belly hidden.
The few Muslim women that I saw working out seemed to have a good understanding that a normal headscarf isn’t going to stay on while running and were smart enough to wear a sporty head covering.
Working out isn’t just limited to the gym. The nature and weather in Portland leads to a vast array of outdoor activities.
Al Ain: The Rugby Club is small and ill-equipped. I have to time my workouts to be at certain times to ensure that I can get one of the two elliptical machines. Timing also makes a difference because it feels incredibly awkward to show up just at the wrong time when I end up being the only woman and the only westerner in the gym. The workout mats are a joke and have been “fixed” with plastic bag coverings.
The women working out with headscarves need to figure out a better way of doing things. It drives me crazy watching them constantly re-wrap their scarves while running. Not that you see many Muslim women at the gym, but there are a few.
The gym is basically the only option, especially between the months of April through October. Unless of course you are crazy like me and want to do an outdoor CrossFit class in 100 degree temperatures.
WINNER: Hands down Portland wins this battle.
Portland: The saying is that you can experience all four seasons in just one day in Portland. This is true. I have seen it. However, most of the time, it is rainy. Varying degrees of rainy, but still rainy. Summer is the exception. Now this isn’t to say that it doesn’t rain during the summer, it does. It just rains much less frequently. All that being said, I don’t have air conditioning. It isn’t really worth it – until summer hits, and I regret every year that I don’t buy one. My “guest” room, of which I stay in when visiting back home during the summer, is by far the hottest room of the house. It led to restless nights of sleep that even my special triple fan action couldn’t help.
Al Ain: It is hot in Al Ain. But in some ways I think I have started to adjust. I remember my first year here and feeling like I was going to die during the walk from my classroom to my car. Now instead I find myself saying things to my daughter like, “hey look it is 113F today, I thought it was only like 101.” In the end, it doesn’t really matter how hot it is because I have air conditioning wherever I go (except that walk to my car).
WINNER: People are going to think I have gone completely insane, but I think I prefer the weather in Al Ain. If I have to choose between sun or rain for most of the year, I am going to have to side with the sun.
3. Hired help:
Portland: I watched a hundred home improvement shows over the summer like, “Love it, or List it” “Property Brothers” and “Flip or Flop”. It made me want to remodel my entire house. The problem is that labor is fairly expensive. Getting someone to come to your house to make repairs or clean for you isn’t cheap. There is no way I will be ever to afford a complete remodel like the ones done on those shows.
Al Ain: Labor is cheap, and finding someone willing to help you is fairly easy. I think one of the things I will miss the most when I eventually go back to the States is having someone come clean my house for 2 hours a week. Since being back from the summer, and moving to a larger place with a ‘garden’, I have also hired someone to tend my garden. He also washes my car for me. These are things that would be unfathomable for me to have in the States.
WINNER: Al Ain by a long shot.
Portland: People make small talk. I didn’t realize how often people do this until I lived in Al Ain for awhile. People chitty chat all the time like when at the store, on the street, and when getting nails done. Even Kassandra mentioned how much she noticed it this past summer. With the small talk typically comes eye contact and smiles. Additionally, most people that I deal with speak English, which makes it pretty darn easy for me to converse.
Al Ain: People don’t make small talk probably for two reasons. For one, people like to think they know English, but in reality their English ability is quite low. Since unfortunately I only speak English, this means something that should be a pleasant little conversation turns into a tedious task full of misunderstandings. For another, it wouldn’t really be respectful to stop and talk to a complete stranger, especially of the opposite gender.
WINNER: This one goes to Portland.
Portland: Most people use turn signals (indicators). Even at 3am, with no other cars around, in a left turn only lane, people are going to use their signals. They also wear seatbelts and use car seats. People rarely honk their horns. In fact, I think the only horn honking I typically hear is when someone has zoned out when a light has turned green, but even then, most give it several seconds before tapping on the horn.
They tend to obey the speed limit within 10 mph. In addition to speed cameras, there are police that use speed radars and pull you over to issue tickets.
There are so many traffic lights and traffic everywhere that just a short drive to the gym takes 15 minutes. The 13 mile (21km) drive from downtown Portland to my home just over the state border into Vancouver, Washington can take anywhere between 20 minutes to over an hour – unless there is a bridge lift and then count yourself lucky if you get home in less than 90 minutes.
I have to borrow a car while I am in the States. Although I totally and completely appreciate even having access to a car, the cars I borrow are not luxurious in anyway whatsoever.
Al Ain: People rarely use their signals. You will know they are going to turn as they are turning. As I have mentioned before, seatbelt usage around here is limited. Horn honking is like their alternative to music, and I swear they do it out of boredom. If there is a truck in front of me, an accident in front of the truck, and a street closure by the accident, honking isn’t going to make me magically be able to move, but it doesn’t stop people from doing it. They also love to honk just to let you know the light is about to turn green – courteous really if you think about it.
Driving at excessive speeds is more of a hobby than a concern and driving 20 km/h above the posted limited is not only legal, it is expected. I have never seen the police checking for speed, but there are speed cameras just about everywhere.
There is very little traffic. From “downtown” Al Ain to my house, it takes about 10 minutes assuming there is no construction. Unfortunately there is typically construction on at least one of my normal routes. There aren’t many traffic lights but instead there are roundabouts. Roundabouts take some getting used to, but now that I am used to them, I hate waiting at street lights. Everytime they replace a roundabout with a streetlight it makes me cringe.
People don’t feel the need to follow the rules. It is more about pushing your car forward to get where you need to be. School pickups/dropoffs are a frustrating, stress inducing experience because these people don’t understand that following the rules and driving with common courtesy would actually make the flow of traffic run smoother. Instead, I feel like I am playing an extra in an action thriller movie every day.
I drive my own car. Although it isn’t a luxury car, it is comfortable and it is clean, has air conditioning, and there aren’t any shivs in the backseat. The gas, insurance, and licensing are all fairly cheap.
WINNER: It is a tie really.
In the end, it’s a tie! There are always going to be good and bad things about any place you live in. All you can do is hope that the bad doesn’t outweigh the good, and in Al Ain, I have a lot of good coming my way.