Apr/May 2005   Travel

Andromeda's Museletter

by A. Lopez

On the Little Differences

So here I am in the United Arab Emirates with my wonderful husband Cory. We are here because of me. I wanted to travel, see the world, have a job in a foreign and exotic place (but not TOO foreign and exotic—I like things like electricity and hot water, after all). So we came to UAE. It's hot. It's humid. I had forgotten how bad hot and humid weather was. In Juárez, where my parents live, it's hot, but dry. So yes, humid heat is very different from dry heat. It's worse. And here, it's humid. Have I mentioned that it's hot? Very hot. I don't have a thermometer (Mami, don't freak), and even if I did, it would be in Celsius and I would have to convert it to Fahrenheit before the number meant anything to me. Everything is air conditioned, so don't shed unnecessary tears for me. I'm comfy. Don't go out much, but I don't care.

My mother always told me "Los viajes ilustran," which means that traveling enlightens. I have traveled quite a bit in the United States. I've lived in various places and met all kinds of people. What I learned was that, yeah, people and places vary, but they're basically still people and places. And that there are Walmarts absolutely everywhere (except Fort Kent, Maine). There are good people and bad people. Good places and bad places. I was a bit disappointed by this realization. So, I decided that AMERICA must be all the same, but the rest of the world, now THAT would be different. So I wanted to travel outside of the U.S., get away from what I knew. This is as far away as I could get. Any farther and I'd be coming back.

I've been teaching here one month. And you know what I've realized? Even though this place is foreign and exotic, on the opposite side of the world, with different people, language, culture, religion, dress, money, food, music... there is still a degree of similarity in everything. Except there are some little differences I've been noticing that really make a, well, difference.

Some examples:

The sugar. Sugar granules are much larger here. I haven't noticed a difference in the taste, just the size. They sell sugar in plastic bags instead of paper ones. The bags of sugar still leak though, just like in the States.

The toilets. The handle is on the left side. Or on the top—a button you push (I've seen this design in some places like movie theaters). The toilet seats are square, making it impossible to use our toilet fuzzies. But you know what? It's hot enough here that sitting on a cold toilet seat actually feels good. And the hoses. There is a hose next to most toilets (in all public restrooms—we have one in our guest bathroom, but not in our master bathroom). The problem is, I'm not sure what those hoses are for. I have various theories, but have yet to confirm any of them.

The grocery carts. Here, they call them trolleys. Ask for a cart and you get a blank look. The carts don't have stationary rear wheels. The rear wheels spin, just like front wheels. Big deal, you say? This little feature makes it very hard to make the carts go where you want. Those buggers slide around as if they were on an ice rink. You can literally push your cart sideways.

The computer keyboards. The keyboard we have at home (which I'm using right now) is mostly the same. Cory had it configured to be the same as an American keyboard, which means that the symbol on the keyboard isn't always what shows up on the screen. But the keyboard in my office is in Arabic. It also has a bunch of other stuff. There are four possible symbols on each key. I don't know how to access any of them. I must admit, looking at the Arabic keyboard makes me dizzy.

The doors. It seems people here are crazy for keys. All the doors (and even some drawers!) have a key. Our kitchen door has a key. Our dressing room door has a key. The bedroom doors have a key. Our front door, of course, has a key. But interestingly enough, we cannot lock our front door from the inside WITHOUT a key. There is no doorknob lock. There is only the key. So, we have a key hanging from the inside of our front door. It's there all the time (the only way to lock the door, after all).

The stacking paper trays. I love office supplies. I love stacking paper trays. In Seattle, we had them by the dozen. So when I got my office and was given all these office supplies, I was in heaven. I was even getting NEW stuff! I would've been thrilled getting USED stuff, but this was even better! I open the box of stacking paper trays, and the three trays come out, along with about 20 pieces of plastic. What's this? You mean, they don't just stack directly on top of each other? No. Some over-enthusiastic German engineer decided to show off and make stacking paper trays that require an advance degree in construction. And do they include directions on what to do with these 20 pieces of plastic? No. Of course not. I look at the picture on the box and figure it out on my own. There is a plastic piece that clips on each corner of each box. You have to push hard to get it to clip on. So that's, let's see, four times three equals twelve. Then, there is another piece of plastic that goes BETWEEN each of the clipped on pieces. That's four times two equals eight. Yup, 20 pieces of plastic. Oh no!! Wait! THEN, there are another four pieces that are caps for the top pieces that were clipped on! Twenty-four pieces of plastic to make a three-level stacking paper tray.


On Things Islamic

I consider myself a spiritual person, but not religious. My relationship with God is a very personal thing, and I find religion to be a thing of man, not God. So for me, living here is very similar to living in Mexico, where everyone is very Catholic. In Mexico, I've had people answer the phone, "Dios lo bendiga" (God bless you—in Spanish, this is not just something people say when you sneeze—it's a sincere blessing). It's also very common to hear, if things are going well, "Gracias a Dios" (thanks be to God, or because of God). I've heard, "Dios no lo quiera" (God shouldn't want it, or, may God not want that) and many other expressions related to God. Here, for everything, it's "In sh'Allah," which, I've been told is everything from a "God willing" to "hopefully" to a divine promise. I tell my students, "See you tomorrow!" and they answer "In sh'Allah." I'm hoping it's not a divine promise, because many of my students constantly break that promise and don't show up to class. And if you think about it, there's not that big a difference between the Spanish "Ojalá," which is "hopefully," and "In sh'Allah." So I am living in another society that wears its religious beliefs on its sleeve.

Muslims pray five times a day, and there are mosques everywhere here. Which isn't unusual, I suppose, as there are churches everywhere in the U.S. However, unlike the States, here the mosques call people to prayer on loudspeakers. At first it freaked me out a little, since I had no idea what it was. Then, I began to like it. It was a soothing, lulling chant. Only once did it wake us up, scaring the bejeezus out of us when they turned up the volume of the loudspeakers.

The Islamic architecture here is a thing to behold. It's positively gorgeous. There are domes everywhere, tall spires, ornate façades with beautiful scrolls carved into stone. Everything is light colored: beige, peach, white. The colors of marble. Many buildings look like museums. There is light-colored stone everywhere. In Mexico, I've seen fuchsia houses. No fuchsia here. The effect is very peaceful and calming. I suppose it's also in response to the local weather. Dark colors would eventually fade, so why not start with something light? And besides, light colors don't absorb heat like dark colors.

Speaking of dark colors absorbing heat, let me comment on the national dress. Men wear disdashas, women wear abayas. Both men and women wear something on their heads. The men's white disdashas are like loose robes, and they wear either white or red and white ghotras (head covers), held in place with the black head band. I've seen beige and light gray disdashas. They are worn with sandals. Women's abayas, on the other hand, are black. They are long, to the ankle and wrist, and either button in the front or like a double-breasted jacket. The women are fully dressed underneath. They also wear black shaylas (head covers). No one knows or cares why the men wear white and the women wear black; this is just how it's always been done, so they continue to do it. Here in the UAE, where people aren't as conservative as other Middle Eastern countries, the women don't veil. However, there are many Saudi women here who either veil the lower half of their faces, wear a full veil with only the eyes exposed, or will flat out cover their entire faces with a thin black veil, presumably transparent enough for them to see something.

Cory and I went to a local mall a few weeks back and ate at the food court. The place was packed, like any mall in America two days before Christmas. That was where we saw our first veils. I was fascinated by the young woman (at least her eyes looked young) wearing a half veil and carrying a tray of food. How does she eat, Cory and I wondered. Well, she picks up a dainty forkful, pulls her veil to the side, eats off the fork and lets her veil fall back. Nothing at all like the desperate shoveling I do. That same night, Cory pointed out a woman who I thought was facing away from us.

"Look at her!" he said.

"What about her?"

"That's her front!"

I looked at the uninterrupted expanse of black and thought, huh? She was indeed wearing a full veil. She looked the same coming and going. This isn't even like an Afghani burqua, where they have something like a screen in front of their eyes. There was nothing but black. I don't know how many of you have ever tried walking around with a scarf on your head, over your eyes. Even a very thin scarf. Your visibility is so impaired! But these women live like that.

I don't have many women in my classes--three in one class, four in another, just two in the third. In the first class, one wears a head wrap which is so tightly wound, it seems like she has no hair at all. She has light-colored eyes and eye brows. I imagine she's blond, but I'll never know. She doesn't wear an abaya. She wears regular, albeit very conservative clothes. Another student wears regular clothes, jeans and sweaters, with a head scarf loosely wrapped on her head. I can see her hair, and her scarf constantly falls off her head. She just puts it right back on. The third student looks like any number of students I've seen anywhere in the States: tight hipster jeans, tank tops, big, curly hair, and too much make up. She dangles her sandals from her toes.

In my second class, three of the four women wear the abaya and shayla. One is Somali, but raised here, and the other two are local. The fourth is actually Thai and dresses mostly in jeans and casual tops.

In my third class, I have one Chinese woman and one Saudi woman. My Saudi student wears the abaya, shayla, and these cool RayBan sunglasses.

One of the things I love best about being a woman is that I have so much creativity in the way I can dress. There is a lot of room for me to show my personality with my appearance. The women here, at first glance, all pretty much look the same. I must say, though, that I have never seen such an array of purses and shoes, including some high-heels. Showing ankles is a no-no, but showing toes doesn't seem to be a problem. I've seen female students walking around in four-inch stilettos, carrying Dior purses. They don't necessarily wear black shaylas either. I've seen many designer logos on head scarves, in many different colors: Dior, Louis Vuitton, Channel, Givenchy. They are carrying some serious money on their heads. I have also, interestingly enough, begun to appreciate the differences in the abayas. They do all look like long black robes, but if you pay attention, you'll notice the details. Some delicate embroidery along the edges. Some beading. A muted floral pattern along the hem. Patterned black fabric. I have also seen what I call a "punk" abaya: A strip of black leather down the sleeves and down the sides, accentuated with metal "D" rings about every three inches. They find ways.

Back to the men and their disdashas. I'm curious, and I wonder about things. Like, what men wear under their disdashas. I've seen that some men wear T-shirts, but what about from the waist down? Well, none of the males teachers here wear a disdasha, and I'm certainly not going to ask a male student, "So, what've you got under there?" Again, I'm left up to my imagination. Cory thinks it may be like the Scottish with their kilts (i.e. nothing at all), but I think there IS something under there. I have one student who wears a blindingly white disdasha every day. And I've seen what look like very wide, loose, thin cotton pant legs peeking around his ankles. So perhaps there is a sort of pajama bottom? Alas, another mystery I may never solve.

Muslims don't eat pork, so most of the grocery stores don't sell it. And the meat that is sold is mostly labeled "Halal," which means that the animal was killed according to Muslim law. Essentially "Kosher," only Muslim. But every once in a while a person could get a craving for, say, ham or bacon. Mmmmm, bacon. What is such a person to do? There are several grocery stores in the area. Cory and I are still exploring, looking for one that sells American stuff. Like Q-tips. There is one store which is British, called Spinneys. I thought the name was funny when I first heard it, but the more I go there, the more normal it seems. Anyway, their larger stores have a "pork section." So, for Cory's BLT craving, we need to go to a big Spinneys. In other stores, Cory and I have gone to the deli counter, hoping for some good or even decent cold cuts. All we've found is mortadella, which I don't like. There's beef mortadella. Chicken mortadella. Turkey mortadella. You want mortadella? You got it. But there is nothing else. I'll have to wait until I go to New York for cold cuts.

What IS mortadella anyway?


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