Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fountains, Fotos, and Fools

Had to turn off the spell-checker for this one.

Let's do the Fountains first.  Abu Dhabi is filled with round-abouts.  This wouldn't otherwise be so bad if it weren't that they all have at least three lanes.  There are dozens of these little "Dupont Circles" all over this city of one million+ people.

If you are able to take your eyes off of the big SUV in the lane next to you long enough (a very dangerous thing at night), you might witness one of the biggest arguments for having round-abouts in the first place.


There are dozens of them, and each is a work of art.

And they come in all sizes and shapes.  Which is what leads us (well, me) to the second part of this post.

Fotos.  It is a bit amazing that in my fifteen months in Abu Dhabi, I don't think I shot a single image of an outdoor fountain in daylight.  But I spent hours at night going after a few.  

My experience in the UAE as a photographer wanna-be taught me that it is low humidity there in the day, and high humidity at night.  I remember two false starts getting the image below because I had taken my Sony DSLR out of my climate-controlled apartment out into the night air, only to find that everything was fogged.  Viewfinder, lenses, shutter mirror.  On the second try, I turned the heater on in my car and attempted to "de-humidify" my gear by holding them up to the A/C vent.  So if you wanna take pictures in Abu Dhabi at night, I suggest you first put your Sony DSLR on the balcony in the early evening to avoid the condensation.  Forget about desiccant.  I kept six packs of it my bag at all times.  No help.

Anyway, this photo was taken near the entrance to Zayed Sports City.  The fountain lights up like an Olympic torch at night.  Just beautiful.  And if you get hungry looking at it, there's a KFC nearby.

But cool fountains in Abu Dhabi are not limited only to the outdoors.  Gorgeous fountains can be found inside Marina Mall.  Whether you are sipping your Starbucks or Cafe Moka, there is a nice fountain nearby to entertain you.

But I am sad to say that my collection of fountain photos is far from complete.  Someone suggested that I create a book, or print a poster of all the pretty fountains in Abu Dhabi.  Since I liked the idea of the poster, I set out to find what would be the centerpiece.  And it didn't take long.

While driving around one night, I spotted it.  Three tiers, gold leafing, and spectacular water action and colors.  I couldn't wait to stop the car and capture the image.  But there was a problem.  A big problem.  Across the street from the round-about (remember, round-abouts are for fountains), there was a visible sign that read "NO PHOTOGRAPHY."  I couldn't believe it.  Here was the grand-daddy of all fountains, the very jewel that would complete my collection, and somebody decided it would not be so.

I had no idea what this place was, but it appeared to be guarded, and had a long drive leading to a large gate.  The entire place had walls so high, I couldn't see what was behind it.  I decided that there would be no photo taken on this trip so I headed to my apartment.

A few weeks later, while without a rental car, I hailed a cab from our main office.  I decided that, being sharply dressed, that this might be the day to make my pitch for getting the photo I so desperately wanted.
When the cab driver came around the circle, I asked him to stop in front of the long drive.  His English wasn't very good, but he made it clear that he wasn't stopping in this spot.  Before I could get any words out to convince him to wait for me, a bright light shown inside the cab.  No, this was not a supernatural or extra-terrestrial encounter, but I think I had just entered the Abu Dhabi Twilight Zone.  It was daylight, and a spot light was now shining on us.  I asked the cab-driver, who was now visibly freaking out, to let me out and wait for me up the street.  He did.

Now let's just pause a minute.  We have already covered the first two parts of the title of this post.  Why did there need to be a third?  I could have simply directed the driver on and forgot about the fountain, and that would have been the end of it.  I could see the armed guards near the gate, but proceeded in that direction anyway.  A fool?  Maybe.  Read on.

My mind was made up.  I wanted permission, a waiver of the restriction imposed by the sign.  I came to ask for it, and wasn't leaving until I had at least asked.  But even at this point, I really didn't know what this place was.

I began to walk up the sidewalk toward the gate, and all eyes were on me.  I wasn't bothered by that.  But the sobering thought came to me when I noticed a guy previously out of plain view, now occupying a gun turret on the back of what was an obvious military vehicle.  And the gun was now tracking me up the sidewalk.

Sidebar.  If only I hadn't seen all those Middle-eastern themed movies.  I might have been thinking different thoughts at this point.  The thought of sharing a cell with Billy Hayes or that "Rifke" guy has never appealed to me.  But I never panicked.  That would have been a very bad thing to do.  I maintained my smile and kept walking. 

As I got closer to the gate, one of the armed guards came toward me, and was obviously questioning me--in Arabic.  I smiled and asked if he spoke English.  Another armed guard approached, and he was packing real heat across his chest.  It (the heat) was now within six inches of my body.  But in very polite (and surprisingly good) English came the question.  "What is it that you want?"  "I have come to ask for permission to take a picture of the beautiful fountain."  I intentionally avoided pointing.  That too seemed like a bad idea.

He and the other nice man exchanged a few words, and then another question.  "Why do you want to take a picture?"  Without hesitation, I summonsed a logical response.  "Abu Dhabi photo contest."  This was a logical response because the contest is no small thing, and highly publicized.  "I promise to keep my back to you, and I'll be done in 30 seconds."

Another exchange in Arabic.  But I could now see from the change in countenances, and hear in the tone of voices, that this wasn't going to happen.  The final judgment came sternly.  "Absolutely not."  I smiled and thanked them both, and slowly began to make my way down the sidewalk.  I suppose for all the right reasons, the guy on the gun turret brought the gun back to attention quickly, and was clearly tracking me again.  The mechanical sound it made coming to this position is one I will never forget.  At the end of the sidewalk I waived at the cab driver, and in less than a minute, we were gone.

A few parting comments.  Fool?  Probably.  But I have given great thought as to why I went this far for a photo.  I suppose the desire for that one special shot played a major role.  But why did I continue well beyond what most sane people would have considered reasonable?  For me, the answer is simple.  At the time I did this, I had been in Abu Dhabi for almost a year, so my view of the people, the police, and the military had already been established.  Here is the answer.  I never felt threatened.

I am certain that, had I made one wrong move, appropriate action would have been taken.  But I have learned this one thing about the Emirati people that I encountered during my stay in the UAE.  They love peace.  These men were doing their jobs, and they did it well.  Even when a fool came up the sidewalk of what I now know is a facility of such great importance, they were not hostile, nor did they threaten me.  And also based on what I now know, it is indeed and right to post the "NO PHOTOGRAPHY" sign.

So let me close this post with a message to other fountain-chasing paparazzi.  If the sign says no photography, you may want to think twice about asking. 

This may have been a better post for one of my other blogs, "Bought Experience."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hey Buddy, Got A Camel?

Not that kind of Camel.

I'm talking about the furry hump-backed, "you-don't-bother-me-and-I-won't-spit-on-you" kind.

For this American in Abu Dhabi, camels are a great draw. Camels on a dune say to me, "you are in Arabia." Camels in a caravan on a dune say, "we've been doing it this way for thousands of years."

For me to be fascinated with camels here though, is like a guy in Kansas being fascinated with cows. The only difference is that in the U.S., we don't have annual beauty contests for cows.

And in America it would be uncommon for a pretty cow to go for $5M. That's right, million.

Anyway, my fascination has taken me to the desert a few times, and I have been rewarded each time I have made the trip.

Camels can sometimes be seen in the distance from the highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But then again, camels are everywhere in the United Arab Emirates. Draw a vector from Al Ain, to Dubai, to Abu Dhabi, and back. Right in middle is an area know for farms. My friend Ahmed's family raises camels here. I have spent several hours out in this region which has gorgeous dunes and pretty camels.  
On one particular hot summer day (somewhere around 130 degrees F), me and my Sony SLR were just a couple of dunes off the road and I spooked a group of camels resting under a shade tree. I tried to back away and let them rest, but they were already committed to getting far away from me. So with my long lens in hand, I decided to follow. After only a few yards, the apparent alpha male of the group stopped and turned to look at me, as if to say, "that's close enough." And objects in a telephoto lens really do look closer than they are. But before I turned back, I snapped this shot, one of my favorite images taken in my fourteen months in the UAE.

But camels are just found in the desert sand. Sometimes they are found on the road. And when you see a "Camel Crossing" sign like this, pay attention to it. In my experience, it was quite accurate!


Friday, February 12, 2010

The Beauty of Abu Dhabi Part Ith-Nain

Okay, "Ith-nain" is Arabic for "two."
The beaches of Abu Dhabi are really nice. And the water, in every direction looks like Scope mouthwash. Yet in fifteen months as an expat, I have never stepped into the water here. I don't know why.

I have spent a great deal of time in the desert. Much of it alone. Watch for another posting on my desert photos and you may understand why. To me the desert is peace. Quiet. Surreal even, as you watch the sun set over the majestic dunes.

But my fondest memories of the UAE will include special friends like Pieter, Issa, and Bahaee who took me out to the desert in their nice SUVs for some "dune-bashing." Simply stated, dune-bashing is an attempt to destroy your Land Cruiser in one afternoon while having fun doing it. Find some nice dunes just outside of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Liwa, or Dubai and leave the pavement behind.

Dune bashing is great fun even when you are spending much of your time getting your vehicle, buried to the axles in sand, unstuck. Or helping someone else.

I was out once again with friends recently in an area just outside of Abu Dhabi. The dunes were perfect and we were having a great time. On this particular trip we had Mitsubishi, Honda, and Nissan SUVs in play.

We thought we had the desert to ourselves. After a couple of hours of fun, we noticed a vehicle off in the distance that didn't seem to be moving. We continued with the fun for a few more minutes, then decided to head in that direction. We thought we were on some sort of rescue mission--maybe the vehicle, an SUV, was stuck or having engine trouble. Over the dunes we went.
As we drew near, other vehicles had already arrived. But this was no rescue mission. This was a step into the Twilight Zone.

We had stumbled into what would become a rare treat for many in the UAE, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for expats like us.

Young Emiratis had gathered to train their young falcons in the desert, and they immediately treated us like family. They had no idea who we were, and we didn't know them. It didn't matter. Hospitality like this is common here, and we were experiencing it. They allowed, no, they invited us to sit with them and observe as they worked individually with each of the half-dozen falcons perched in front of us. Most of these preditory birds were wearing blinders.

Our friend Issa, fluent in Arabic, helped us chat with these guys as they worked with the falcons. Most of the birds came from Britain. Once trained, they would be used to hunt in the Gulf region, including Iran.

Each handler, working with his own falcon would rotate through the training ritual. The falcon would be carried about a half-kilometer away in another vehicle. The handler, working near where we were, would use a decoy attached to a rope to attract (and train) his bird of prey.

Watching this part was nothing short of magical. Half hunter, and half matador, the hanldler worked with the decoy to have the falcon come close enough, without getting it. Each falcon was allowed to dine on what might have been fresh quail, which they consumed right in front of us.

If the hospitality had stopped there, we would have already been indebted to our new friends. But it didn't.

One of these wonderful young men asked if we had ever held a falcon on our wrists. When most responded no, the real fun began. A blind-folded falcon was brought out, and we each took turns holding it. You don't get to do this very often. It was kind of the bird to allow it, but even kinder of these great hosts to offer it. This was truly a Twilight Zone adventure. What we thought was going to be a rescue mission, turned out to be the real beauty of Abu Dhabi, once again, on display.

Although we may never see these young men again, we are truly grateful for their warm hospitality. During our stay with them, two or three other vehicles pulled up. When another Emirati stepped out, another "marhaba," (welcome!) was extended to us.

I will never forget the dunes of the UAE, but most of all, I will never forget the kindness of these young falconers. To them I say, "Shukran," thank you!