Sunday, December 24, 2006

Jingle Bells - Oz style

The carol singers had gathered. The guitarist strummed the opening notes of the familiar 'Jingle Bells'. I opened my mouth to sing along and suddenly found myself alone in the crowd. The tune hadn't changed, but the words jingled in another direction. Here's the Aussie-styled carol, with translations of the slang at the bottom.

Dashing through the bush
In a rusty Holden Ute
Kicking up the dust
Esky in the boot
Kelpie by my side
Singing Christmas songs
It's summer time and I am in
My singlet, shorts & thongs


Engine's getting hot
Dodge the kangaroos
Swaggy climbs aboard
He is welcome too
All the family's there
Sitting by the pool
Christmas day, the Aussie way
By the barbecue!


Come the afternoon
Grandpa has a doze
The kids and uncle Bruce
Are swimming in their clothes
The time comes round to go
We take a family snap
Then pack the car and all shoot through
Before the washing up


In the words of one of the new Australian mates: MERRY CHRISSY to all of you.

Slang translated:
Ute : utility vehicle, pickup truck
Esky : large insulated food/drink container for picnics, barbecues etc.
Kelpie : Australian sheepdog originally bred from Scottish collie
Thongs : (NOT the G-strings you're thinking of!) cheap rubber backless sandals
Swaggie : swagman, tramp, hobo

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Yeeya, Down Under

The first impression about Australian currency is that it resembles craft paper – thin, smooth and colourful, with a tiny plastic window in one corner. So that when you hold it up to the light, you not only see the fearsome, handlebar-moustached gentleman on it, but can also the thin-faced, flare-nostrilled man at the money exchange counter, through it. The former gazes into eternity, the latter looks on a bit impatiently, as you pore over the notes, looking for other quaint features.

Currency apart, there’s much to marvel about Australia, as I’ve discovered in the last 2 days that I’ve been here. I’m on a 3-week vacation on the East Coast, ostensibly soaking up the summer sun. I say ‘ostensibly’ because the the summer I was told about, warned about, seems to be as much of a myth as, well, Santa Claus. As we touched down in Sydney, the pilot announced, “The temperature outside is 16 degrees, with light showers.” Having shivered through most of the 7-hour flight from Dubai to Hong Kong and the 9-hour flight from Hong Kong to Sydney, the only thought that kept me going was the toasty warmth of Sydney. I was looking forward to a ‘sunny Christmas’, and the only ‘warm’ clothing I’d packed was a denim jacket, and not a very thick one at that.

The weather may not have lived up to expectations, but the Australians certainly did. Bleary-eyed entrants to the Sydney airport were welcomed by the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols. At 6:30 in the morning!

Ro, a dear old friend from pre-college days, already had her hands full with 3-year old twins. But she greeted me enthusiastically and the twins looked at me curiously. “Kirk and Jadyn, this is Leela,” she announced.

Shy smiles appeared. “Yeeya,” said Jadyn. “Yaya,” rasped Kirk, faint sounds issuing from the tube in his throat which covered his tracheostomy. His vocal chords hadn’t normalized yet, and he still needed to be fed through a tube in his stomach. But nothing stopped him from being the more boisterous of the two. Still, I couldn’t help marveling at his restraint when both were handed chocolate chip cookie, and Kirk was told gently, “Only to hold, you can’t eat it.” He wasn’t curious about eating anyway; he only wanted whatever Jadyn was being given.

Jet lag kicked in by the time we headed out to the Darling Harbour. But swiveling my head back and forth to take in the sights ensured that I didn’t nod off. Parking the car, we took the tram through stations with names out of an Enid Blyton book – Rozelle Bay, Lilyfield, Paddy’s Market...

Sitting at the Sydney Aquarium café overlooking the harbour, we noticed a well-dressed group of people – the men in black suits, the women in little black and pink numbers. The women shivered and sported gooseflesh as elegantly as possible. Some even turned a bit blue as they looked out for ‘Michelle & Vito’ – the couple who was to be married on one of the cruise boats that go around the harbour.

At another end of Darling Harbour, the Chatwoods High school orchestra performed Christmas carols and jazz medleys to a crowd of delighted children and their parents. Strollers, shoppers and tourists ambling along, spread themselves on the grass in front of the stage to watch the action. The 25-foot tall Christmas tree, aglow and animated, joined the festivities.

Day 1 in Sydney. Not a bad way to start.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Turns out...

... the 'Writer by Night' is usually fast sleep. New post coming up soon. Thank you all for your vigil.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Festival City

There is a place tucked away in the folds of the raucous, colourful, congested Meena Bazaar area of Bur Dubai, fairly close to the bustling abra station. It’s a place I chanced upon quite by accident last year, and if I’ve to pick out one of my favourite places in Dubai, this would be it. There’s a grand, alabaster-hued mosque with tall spires and wide steps, and standing next to it, looking out over the creek, is an equally solemn-looking temple. A mosque and a temple. Cheek-by-jowl. Worshippers streaming out from one. Worshippers streaming into the other. I happened to stroll by last year on the eve of Diwali, which coincided with Eid-Al-Fitr. There were fairy lights all over, and people in rustling silks streamed past with platters filled with flowers and candles. Solemnity mingled with gaiety. There was something mystical in the air that evening, and I wanted to go back there this year and soak in that magic.

Things didn’t turn out as planned. We spent most of last week anticipating the moon. Or more precisely, anticipating when the Eid holidays would be declared. Would it be a 4-day break? Would we work on Sunday and have the next two days off? Could we plan the drive to Oman without knowing the actual holidays? The newspapers were scanned earnestly for more information, but like the moon, answers proved elusive.

The government employees, always the lucky ones, had no such confusion. Nine days off, I’m told. Later, I discovered some of the benefits trickled down to us luckless private sector sorts as well. The parking meters all around the city cheerfully announce, ‘FREE PARKING UNTIL 28 OCTOBER’.

There’s more: according to a newspaper article, those caught in the act of a minor traffic transgression would be spared a reprimand or a fine, and given an Eid greeting instead, courtesy the beleaguered Dubai Traffic Police. A friend also related how he received a full refund for his ticket fare on his way out of the Dubai Museum along with a Eid card.

Fireworks are banned in Dubai, but that hasn’t dimmed the ‘festival of lights’. Multi-hued fairy lights strung across balconies shimmer alluringly. A special effort is made to assert the festival, in a way, to affirm one’s identity in a city as multi-cultural as Dubai.

A colleague mailed urging us to dress in Indian attire on the lone working day wedged between the weekend and the Eid holiday. Most of us poked around the bottom of the wardrobe to pull out a rumpled kurta or sari or salwar kameez… A sporting colleague from the UK also showed up in a kurta, and there was much appreciation as well as good-natured ribbing. Several boxes of Diwali sweets in shiny, cellophane wrapping made the rounds of the office until people groaned at the sight of them.

‘Eid Mubarak’, I wished a Syrian colleague, and without a pause, he responded, ‘Happy Diwali’.

If only there was a way to spread that feeling throughout the world…

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Nobody's Berfect

(I've had second thoughts about the post that was here previously. In these times of heightened sensitivity, it's probably not a good idea to flaunt one's political incorrectness. Apologies if I've caused any inadvertent offence.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Absolute Lee turns three

I've changed jobs, moved to a different country, lost someone dear to me, even sprouted a few gray hairs - all over the last three years. It’s odd then to think of this blog as being a constant in all this time.

I use the word ‘constant’ in a loose sense, of course, considering that I’ve been anything but that in the last few months. From 6 – 8 posts a month, when I started out, I barely manage 1 post a month. Quit, I’ve told myself a few times, but then I lie down and let the feeling pass. There’s a frail thread of continuity, a chronicle of mercurial time, that I’m loath to sever.

Of the multitude of bloggers that I’d started out with, only a handful remain: Rash, Alpha, Smiley, Parmanu, Patrix, Fairy… Blogging was a riot then, an obsession even. The posts were just a delectable prelude to the comments that followed. The comment-conversations would go on for days, and would end up without a jot of relevance to the original post. The conversations would spill on into emails and then, phone calls, and blogger meets. There’s less time, and lesser inclination for that now, but I still miss all you guys - Spaceman, Anita Rodricks, Subs, Uptowngirl, XXX, Aqua, Two Penny, Adi, Josephine, Aekta...

The migration to Blogspot has been on the cards for a while. I guess even the folks at Rediff have forgotten about the existence of rediffblogs. The home page hasn’t changed for probably two years, and there have been no enhancements to the Neanderthal interface since then. I’ve been waiting for Blogger to introduce categories, and when the Beta version announced categories among other features, I made haste to switch. Even with my limited tech skills, I found it incredibly simple to use. From choosing the font, to background colour to sidebar widgets, everything is easily done, without requiring advanced software skills. I was hoping for a fancier template, but I couldn’t arrange for it in time for the launch.

(Many thanks to Zigzackly for the Beta Blogger recommendation, and also to Chugs, who’s been especially patient with all my queries.)

Oh yes, some other changes as well. I guess I outgrew the 'girl-next-door...' line. I lived in terror of someone asking me what it really meant. Truthfully, I haven't figured it out and it was just something I came up with on a whim when starting the old blog. The new line is a better descriptor of me, I feel. The photograph is another whim. I'm still trying to figure out if I'm comfortable with it or not. If you don't see it in a few days, you'll know why.

Finally, a big thank you to all of you who’ve been around in the last three years, who’ve left comments and who’ve made this a great experience. Absolute Lee has been fun because of you.

Anniversary Posts 1 & 2

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The road to Jebel Hafeet

A few years ago, while on a trek in Ladakh, I stood enraptured at the Advanced Base Camp of the peak Stok Kangri. At 17,000 feet, it was the highest I'd ever been, and my quickened breathing wasn't because of the thin air alone.

Last weekend, standing on top of Jebel Hafeet, the highest point in the UAE, I felt a faint stirring of that old magic. True, the altitude bore no comparisons. At 4,000 feet, Jebel Hafeet was more molehill than mountain. Still, the thrill of feeling a step away from the sky, of being surrounded by jagged outlines of mountains, of looking down at the city with an omniscient gaze - all of it more than made up for the lack of altitude for someone afflicted by acute mountain deprivation.

"The journey is the destination,"
announced my philosophical friend, M, who was also the guide on this trip. M has cris-crossed the length and breadth of the UAE in his tiny but trusty Mini Cooper, and had been coaxing me to do the drive for a while. My 3-month old car was raring to get out of the traffic-clogged city limits and tear away on the highways. Things came together last weekend. When most of Dubai was napping away the afternoon heat, five of us and two cars set off for Jebel Hafeet, on the outskirts of Al Ain.

The route between Dubai and Al Ain might have been drawn using a ruler, so rarely does it meander. And that's what made it an absolute pleasure to drive on. Empty roads and a speed limit of 120 - it was everything a newbie driver hoped for. Sand dunes rose and fell like waves on either side of the 6-lane highway. The horizon was mercifully exempt from towering half-finished structures, which dotted so much of Dubai.

Two hours and a couple of rest stops later, we reached the first of the roundabouts which announced our entry into Al Ain. Some of the roundabouts seemed familiar from my previous trip to Al Ain six months ago. But the circuitous route soon turned into a maze and I lost sight of the car I was supposed to be trailing.

Perhaps it was a case of 'bringing the mountain to Mohammed' but even as I was searching for a way to retrace my steps, I saw a sign up ahead which read 'Jebel Hafeet". Quite serendipitously, I found myself at the base of, what has been adjudged, 'the world's greatest driving road'.

Photo courtesy:

The sun was beginning to set when we started our ascent. Bathed in the evening glow, the craggy, limestone rocks were a soothing sight to city-weary eyes. The AC was turned off, the windows were rolled down. Heads swiveled back and forth not wanting to miss anything. It was hard to imagine that this 'flat-as-an-airstrip' road was hewn right through a mountain. Even my car purred in contentment.

According to some estimates, there are 60 curves en route to the top, and each time we rounded a bend, the view turned even more spectacular. As dusk set in, the lamps on either side of the road lit up, turning limestone into gold. The peak now resembled a dazzling tiara. Undoubtedly, a good deal of planning had gone into this route. There were emergency parking areas after every 150-200 metres, and observation points with ample car parking at two or three places.

A cool breeze was blowing when we finally reached the plateau at the top. There were almost a hundred cars parked all around the periphery, with people spilling out of them � families with picnic baskets, kids, even a few pets. There were more hordes milling around the vapidly titled 'Top of Hafeet Mountain Cafetaria'. There was even graffiti scribbled all along the surface of the peak.

A bit of the magical spell cast by the drive up the mountain was broken. But we found a tiny quiet spot to take it all in, and to gaze at Al Ain below. The city was ablaze with lights. The snaking route below, bathed in an incandescent light seemed almost surreal from our vantage point. We took a few pictures, walked around the periphery of the plateau and then headed back.

Perhaps M was right. The journey is the destination�

Saturday, August 19, 2006


The early years are a bit fuzzy, but the one memory that stands out clearly is of the day I turned six. I even remember the frock I wore to school. It wasn’t pink or yellow or anything else cutesy. It was beige with a criss-cross pattern in front, and it ended just a little above my scarred knees. It also had two roses embroidered on the lapel, and I couldn’t stop running my fingers over its knotted texture. I remember the day so well because I was the only one in beige in a sea of blue uniforms. I was also the only one with a plastic bag bursting with toffees. “Two for each girl” – mum had counted.

I waited impatiently for the class just before the recess. That’s when the teacher, Miss Pushpa, closed the book, looked straight at me and called me to the front of the class. I acted coy, just like the other girls who’d gone through this routine on their birthdays, but in effect, I simply lapped up all the attention, even took my time getting to the front of the class. That’s a Leo for you. But then, you would know that.

I grinned from ear to ear, not knowing where to look, while the class went through the birthday chorus. When the applause had subsided, I sashayed through the rows handing out two toffees to the girls, and holding out the bag to the teacher, so she could take as many as she wanted. Which was usually one. And then, as girls before me had done, I pulled out a fistful and pushed it into her hand while she protested initially, and then, accepted with a sigh. The dozen or so toffees left were reduced to wrappers by the time the school bus reached our lane.

I cannot remember any other birthday in school, except for this one. Maybe it was because it was my first year in school, just like it is yours. I’ve been trying to imagine what your day will be like. Will your classmates make you feel special? Will you be carrying a bag full of sweets? Will you be overrun with gifts this year, like every year?

Speaking of which, I bought your gift before you expressed your desire for ‘something with a remote control’. I was wondering if you meant a TV, when you clarified that it was a car. Were you serious? A car? You never fail to surprise me.

This would be the second year that I’m not around to wish you on your birthday. But you can be sure, I will be celebrating with you every moment. Happy Birthday dearest Alison.

Technorati Profile

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Abby Lee, I'm not

To all of you who've been directed here by your search for the Abby Lee blog, um... welcome and thanks for the gratifying increase in traffic.

I'll admit I won an Abby a couple of years ago, and that my blog pals call me Lee, and that the tag line of my blog, 'the girl next door....' rings somewhat with '... seductress next door', but my life isn't half as exciting as the real Abby Lee. Well, I'm only guessing it's exciting and racy since it has been deemed "...inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates", and has subsequently been blocked.

Guess I'll just have to buy the book.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Love Hurts

Tucked in between Britney Spears: The Ultimate Collection and The Pussycat Dolls at the Virgin Megastore in the Mall of the Emirates was the intriguingly-titled anthology: Break Up Songs.

Break Up Songs?! What marketing insight could have prompted a compilation of this nature, I wondered. Would you snap up the CD as a reminder of a relationship gone south? Would it make you feel better to hear ballads like 'I can't make you love me' or 'Just when I needed you most'? (In your distraught state, would you even notice the contradictions in 'Leave right now' and 'If you leave me now'?)

On another note, was it meant to be Gen-Y's equivalent of a 'Dear John' letter? ("Aw, I couldn't, you know, send him an sms that we're quits. That's so, cruel. So I gifted him the CD on Valentine's Day.")

One couldn't also overlook the possibility of it working as a subtle hint to a love-blind friend that the person he/she is dating is a loser.

My respect for the marketing brains behind Break Up Songs went up a few notches when I spotted the price tag. Where the average price of a CD ranged between 45 - 70 Dhs (roughly Rs. 540 - 840), Break Up Songs was priced at a heart-stopping 100 Dhs (approx. Rs. 1200). Clearly, according to the men in suits, there's no fool like a lovelorn fool.

I can't wait for them to come out with an anthology called, Songs to Inspire Regular Blogging...

Friday, July 14, 2006

It's possible...

… to read every single article in every single newspaper, travel from blog to blog assimilating first person accounts, updates and pictures, and feel sadly disconnected from it all.

It’s possible…

… to feel a wave of admiration for the unyielding denizens of my city and anger at their ‘resilience’ born out of helplessness.

It’s possible…

… to be shamelessly grateful that none who perished were my own, and feel a strange ache for the friend’s friend who wasn’t so lucky.

It’s possible…

To be relieved that one is far from it all, and feel a faint sense of betrayal that one is far from it all.

Monday, June 26, 2006


The Annual Cannes Advertising Festival results are out. The creative department in the agency is agog. There’s a huddle around the computer downloading the winners’ list. It’s a great year for Indian advertising – 58 nominations, of which 12 have turned into gold, silver and bronze.

The brilliance is sizzling; humbling even. Some ideas leap off the screen and strike you between the eyes. Some creep up slowly and punch you in the gut. A whistle of appreciation. A dismissive snort. A reverential silence.

There’s this winning entry in the Outdoor/Poster category from Everest Advertising, Mumbai, that demands a closer look. There are two pictures. The first picture depicts an unusual vantage point – a view from the bottom of a freshly dug grave. A square patch of sunlight is visible; around the edge of the ‘grave’ stand mournful relatives and a priest ministering the final blessing.

The second picture shows the first picture stuck on a ceiling of a Smoking Zone. Two people standing under the poster with cigarettes dangling from their fingers look up at it with tremulous expressions.

The penny drops. It’s a poster for the Cancer Patients Aid Association. By putting it on a ceiling, it gives those smoking below the impression that they’re being readied for burial.

A bold new way to convey an age-old, almost clichéd message. The murmurs of approval from those huddled around the computer reaches a crescendo. Even the cynics among the lot hail it. The finger on the mouse pauses before moving on to the next entry. Two questions hover in most minds - How did they think of this? Why didn’t I think of this? This is the best Indian entry, one person declares. What a killer idea, another repeats for the fourth time, shaking his head in awe.

They troop out one by one and meet again in the passage outside the office. The sole lighter is passed around. Amid puffs of smoke, the killer idea is once again given the thumbs up.

P.S. I doubt if my description of the poster did enough justice. Here it is

Sunday, June 11, 2006

More than one good reason

1. I have no time

2. Work's too hectic

3. I've lost the rhythm

4. I have nothing to write about

5. I have so much to write about I don't know where to begin

6. I can't write with interruptions

7. I'll write on the weekend

8. It's such a shame to be indoors on a weekend

9. I'm not inspired

10. It's too hot.

11. The A/c is freezing. I'll write when my fingers thaw.

12. After this call...

13. Tomorrow..

14. It's time for a blog break.

15. It's time for a blog makeover.

16. There are more important things in life than blogging.

17. I've run out of excuses and I still don't have anything to write about.

18. There's a Sale on across the street.

19. There are better writers...

20. It's all been written before...

21. I need my sleep.

22. Writing excuses is such fun...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Friday, April 28, 2006

A glimpse of the desert

Doing a desert safari in the UAE is a bit like getting your picture clicked at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s the touristy thing to do. And like most touristy things it looks good in pictures and ranks high on the ‘been-there-done-that’ scale. But it also feels a little dissatisfying, especially if packaged tours are not your idea of the right way to experience a place.

Having said that, I quite enjoyed the all-too-brief tryst with the dunes. Dubai does a great job of camouflaging the fact that it’s actually a desert. And in all the time I’ve been here, I’ve only heard travellers’ tales of the stark beauty of the desert. It was time to make an introduction – a formal one, albeit.

Desert safari operators in Dubai are a dirham a dozen. So considering it was the month end, we chose economy over effusive claims, and signed up with Fairyland Tours for 165 dirhams per person. Mustafa, our driver, arrived sharp at 4 p.m. to pick us up, and we set off to meet the rest of the group.

One of the redeeming features of Dubai is that you can get out of the city and cruise on the open roads in less than 20 minutes. The Dubai–Hatta Road was almost deserted on a Friday afternoon and we hurriedly rolled up the windows as the speedometer touched 140. The distances between the houses on either side of the road increased until only sandy hillocks and sparse trees were visible. Sand particles flew onto the road and receded like waves as vehicles sped by. The hour passed by unnoticed.

We reached an incongruous café and souvenir shop on the side of the road. People spilled out of half a dozen SUVs parked there. This was the last halt before we entered the dunes. While some used the opportunity to buy colas, chewing gum and other essentials, the drivers of the SUVs began preparing for the Dune Bashing (as the ride on the sand dunes is popularly called) by deflating the tyres. Apparently, flattened tyres ensure the vehicle doesn’t get stuck in gritty terrain.

Suitably deflated, our vehicles climbed into the dunes, which at first glance looked rather tame. There were mild undulations in the terrain, which stretched out for as far as the eye could see, and for someone who’s been awed by the topography of the Himalayas, this was not something to write home about.

I was unmoved when Mustafa began gearing up. First he pulled out a pair of wraparound shades. Then he fished out a zutra – a traditional Arabic headgear – and performed some complicated maneuvers before patting it down on his head. Next he asked all six of us in the vehicle to wear the seatbelt. Dune Bashing, indeed, I thought, rolling my eyes and blowing on my nails. This was going to be a ride on S.V. Road in Mumbai post-monsoons.

Dune Bashing requires special driving skills. Drivers usually have to undergo basic training and need a certification for desert driving. Mustafa mostly drove with one hand gripping the handle above the door and the other hand twisting, turning and pummeling the steering wheel. There were nervous giggles and muffled screams in the back when we went into a 45 degree slant or when we careened down the dune. Interestingly, the SUVs which customarily dominated the roads with their haughty presence, now seemed like little beetles scuttling in the sand.

We rode dune after dune in this similar jerky manner, and while my heart didn’t do any somersaults, I was dismayed to note that my stomach did. I had to ask Mustafa to stop the vehicle twice, and he willingly obliged. ‘Mostly happens with Asians’, he muttered, handing me tissues, and adding to my discomfiture.

The sun was a molten orb on the horizon when we made our next halt on the peak of a dune. Surfboards were brought out and those interested could surf down the dune. My friends and I tried it before we decided it sounded more exciting than it actually was. The ride was over in less than 10 seconds and climbing back up the dune with a heavy surfboard turned out to be an unanticipated aerobic activity.

Back in our vehicle, we headed to the campsite for an experience of Arabian culture. This included smoking (or for the inept, choking) on the sheesha, camel rides, henna tattoos and even dressing up in the hijab (for women) and the kandoora (for men). UAE law prohibits non-Emiratis from donning the national costume. However, an exception is made during safaris as long as one doesn’t step out of the campsite.

The perimeter of the camp was lined with tents where people could stretch out and allow their dune-bashed innards to recover before heading for the bar or for any of the other attractions. We took our time before heading to each of the tents where we got the henna tattoo, smoked an apple-flavoured sheesha and rode a camel called ‘Jaani’. The most novel part was posing for photographs wearing the hijab. There’s a certain mystique attached to the hijab, which cloaks everything but the eyes. For the few minutes that I paraded in it, there was a sense of having a secret vantage point to the world, of being more in control than those whose faces reflected every emotion, of being able to retreat easily into an inner space. But like I said, for me it was a novelty. A person required to wear it might opine differently. Or might not.

The star attraction of the evening was the belly dancer, who took to the podium in the centre of the camp. We watched for a while, but quickly tuned off when she began inviting members of the audience to dance with her, and who proceeded to imitate her moves to dreadful effect.

Soon, we were hustled into the food tent for an Arabic barbecue along the ubiquitous Indian food. It was 9 p.m., just 5 hours since we’d left home, although it felt like ages. Mercifully, we didn’t have to ride over the dunes to get back to the highway or I might just have done my Asian roots proud again. We reached the Hatta road in less than ten minutes and were home by 10 p.m.

A fun trip, no doubt, but I have a feeling that the real desert escapade is yet to come…

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Mozart, a desert safari and a heritage village

It’s been a busy month, March. But a nice kind of busy. Because it involved trips and new friends and achievements all coming together in a happy blur. And speaking of achievements, can one regard not having stepped into a mall in a whole month as a minor feat?

Mozart in the oasis

A couple of years ago, my travel wishlist had the following entry:

* Travel to Vienna in 2006 for Mozart’s 250th birth anniversary

I never really did much more than pen down that entry and entertain a vague hope. But I never imagined the universe would conspire (as Paulo Coelho would say) to bring Mozart right next door to me.

The Mozart Festival in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, was magnificent for more than several reasons. To begin with, the setting was incredibly scenic: Al Ain is popularly known as the Garden City. But what was more enthralling was that the concert was staged at the Al Jahili Fort, which dates back to the 1890s. Listening to the Vienna Chamber Orchestra play the finest compositions of the prodigious composer who died when he was barely 35, was an experience that can best be described as magical. Speaking in a droll Japanese-Italian accent, Joji Hattori, the Japanese conductor attempted to add some humour as he introduced each of the pieces. The 1500-strong crowd tittered on cue. But the highlight of the evening was the Lebanese singer, who along with a few local musicians and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra did a soulful tribute to Mozart.

The Coffee pot roundabout at Al Ain

Al Jahili Fort

The stage is set for Mozart

The Vienna Chamber Orchestra

(Next: the desert safari)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ha Ha Hee Hee

There's nothing I enjoy more than reading the newspapers out here. Apart from the daily exercise involved in merely lifting a single day's copy of the Khaleej Times or Gulf News , there are other salutary benefits. Most newspapers dedicate a page or less to the funnies; here, there's entertainment aplenty on every page you look. Like for instance, this little gem tucked away in the 7 Days (a hugely popular, free tabloid).

Interview 'attacker' cleared

A man has been found not guilty of molesting a woman who came for a job interview. The man was accused of molesting a woman, who applied for a job working at the Global Village. The woman claimed she asked him to stop, and was then offered money for sex, which she refused. The suspect denied the charges, and his boss testified that he was not likely to have molested anyone, because he had memorised the Koran.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

And what a journey it is!

The first line in his introduction - 'The jobless banter of Tarun Jacob' - doesn't quite prepare you for the second, '... a guy who's going through chemo for lymphoma'.

The blog is every bit as remarkable as the person. Do read it. And do pray for him.

(Thank you, Dilip for the link.)


Priceless Pictures, MP3s,
A million documents -
Excel sheets, half-finished blogs,
Now just a figament.

Prayers, epithets, run their course,
Rave, rant, fume!
The blue screen stolidly informs:

Backups!! We clutch at straws.
But we can't reap what we don't sow.
Our last available backup
Is dated six months ago.

Books never betray us thus;
Pets seldom offend.
But technology stabs us in the back,
While pretending to be a friend.

We'll blow on our burned fingers,
We'll feign a calm zen.
And while the darned laptop's being fixed,
We'll rediscover paper and pen.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Desert rain - 8.30 a.m.

The Dubai Marathon 2006: A little high, but mostly, dry

I was halfway through the 10 km run when the mild irritation turned into full blown steam. Up ahead, I could see the bright yellow marker with 6 Kms. inscribed on it. Standing on the right side of the broad, empty road was a Marathon volunteer in a bright yellow T-shirt. I waited until I was in his earshot and then hollered:


The volunteer, whose hand was in midair waving at me, looked sheepish. And then with a shrug said, "Ahead."

Friday morning at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2006 saw international runners, parachutists, life-sized toons, a few thousand runners, a few million green and blue balloons... but when it came down to providing the single most essential requirement for a run, someone had been sleeping on the job.

The Marathon was originally scheduled for January 4th when temperatures are below 20 degrees. It was postponed on account of Sheikh Maktoum's death to mid-Feb. On Friday, the temperature was close to 31 degrees C.

Further, the manual given to each participant at the start of the race clearly stated that there would be water stations every 5 Kms, which isn't the most ideal in any case. There ought to have been water provided every 2 1/2 - 3 Kms.

Finally, there was my own adherence to the rule book. I drank two glasses of water at 5 a.m., because the manual stated that one should drink water 2 hours before the run. So I was suitably depleted by the start of the run.

The fanfare and excitement proved to be a good distraction for the first few kilometres. I couldn't help pointing out the runners in costume to K, my running buddy. One had bunny ears and had a little tuft pinned on the back of her T-shirt. Another had a green nylon costume which I presumed was a frog of sorts. A third had butterfly wings. There was even an 'Old Mother Hubbard' with voluminous skirts and braided hair.

It was around the 4 Km. mark that the novelty wore off and the heat and dehydration set in. 2 Kms. later fury was added to the mix. How could the organisers have overlooked the provision of water? I finally spotted a water station on the other side of the road. Apparently, we were supposed to run all the way to the roundabout on Zabeel Road and get onto the other side to reach it. I estimated it would be around 8 Kms by then. I was beginning to work up more than a sweat.

The lack of water worked on my febrile mind like an obsession. The more I thought about it, the more I got incensed by the organisers' callousness. Other aspects about the run, which I would have barely noticed before, also stoked my ire. The 10 km. route which went past the Trade Centre and then onto Zabeel Road was exceptionally bland, whereas the 42 Km. marathon route went all over Dubai. I understood there would be logistics involved, but running up and down the same deserted stretch was undeniably boring.

There was a nasty surprise in store when we finally did reach the beleaguered water station around the 8 Km. mark. There was no water. Sanitation workers in orange overalls were clearing away the plastic cups and half-empty mineral water bottles strewn on the road. There was not a single volunteer in sight. Which was a good thing. Because at that point, you could have held a dry match under my nose and it would have burst into flames in an instant.

There was no option but to focus and run the last 2 Kms. Seething about the invisible organisers or worrying about collapsing from dehydration only made it tougher. I was feeling ok, and the sun hadn't become searing hot yet. So K and I just kept up a steady pace until the finish sign came into view. We sprinted the last 200 M. so that we could complete the run under 80 minutes. Incidentally, the winner of the 10 Km. race clocked in at 32.56 minutes.

We were handed medals as we entered the enclosure behind the Finish gantry. Complaining to the volunteers seemed futile at that point because not only were they preoccupied with taking away the chip embedded in the running bib, but also because it required energy, something I had all but run out of.

Comparisons are odious, but I couldn't help commenting to K, how much more thrilling the Bombay Marathon had been. Even though it was an uneven terrain, more humid and more chaotic, it was also a lot more colourful. If the 42 Km. run was the showcase event and the 3 Km. run was for charity and cheer, then the 10 Km. run fit nowhere in the scheme of things.

Possibly the only uplifting moment was watching the Marathon winner, Joseph Ngeny from Kenya, effortlessly race to the finish line, clocking in at 2.13 hours.

Will I run another Dubai Marathon? Most probably. But until then, i'm going to take a lesson or two on water retention from the camel.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Overshot by 4.49 minutes...

Time taken to run 10 Kms: 79.49 minutes

End of race state: Hot, thirsty and bite-your-head-off angry

P.S. Marathon update to follow

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Another city, another marathon

There's always an incredulous cab-driver incident.

A few minutes after I'd sat in the cab and said, "World Trade Centre", the cab-driver piped up, "Aap kyon ja rahen hai World Trade Centre?" (Why are you going to the World Trade Centre?) Perhaps my faded jeans and T-shirt and shapeless backpack didn't suggest that I was a World Trade Centre regular. Taken aback as I was, I hemmed a bit before replying, "Kal daud hai, number lena hai." (There's a run tomorrow, I'm collecting my number.)

There were no questions after that. He'd pegged me for a loony for sure. I mean, whoever talks of walking in Dubai, leave alone, running. Two years ago, there was another cab-driver who looked at me with narrowed eyebrows when I told him of a 'daud' in Bombay.

Skeptics notwithstanding, a few thousand runners are going to hit the streets of Dubai tomorrow in the Standard Chartered 2006 Dubai Marathon. Yellow signs have appeared all over Zabeel Road which read, 'Caution Runners'. (Caution us, about what??)

Runner No. 3045 isn't doing the 42 km. Marathon. Not this year, at least. In the absence of a Half Marathon, Runner No. 3045 will be doing the 10 Km run.

I can't say I've been training like I did two years ago. A mere 3 km. jog three times a week doesn't really qualify as training. But I'm going along for the fun of it. I'm keen to see how Dubai handles a Marathon. I'm also looking forward to those fabulous Kenyan runners. And to all the assorted madness that's part of a Marathon.

I collected my T-shirt and running bib at the World Trade Centre. Interestingly, there's a chip attached to the running bib which will record the finish time. The run starts at 7:10 tomorrow. If all goes well, I should hopefully complete the run in 1.15 hours. Hopefully.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Freedom & Censorship

It's not uncommon to come across a sign like this one while surfing the web in the UAE. Etisalat, the sole service provider, has the onerous responsibility of protecting the religious, social, cultural and moral fabric of the UAE, and so goes about its job with righteous zeal. Initially I was a bit amused by the blue sign - putting it down to another of the quirks of the Muddle East, until I found inaccessible. No reasons were offered as to what was found objectionable in a photo site. Using the feedback form proved futile too. Since I used to upload most pics for the blog on Flickr, this development was downright irksome. But the greater struggle was in trying to reconcile the anachronistic censorship in a “progressive” and “modern” city like Dubai.

While we chafe at the moral policing in this corner of the world, freedom of speech has stirred up more than a hornet’s nest in another part of the world. Jyllands Posten, the Danish newspaper, might have anticipated ruffled feathers when they printed a dozen caricatures of Prophet Mohammed as an expression of their right to free speech. But they couldn’t possibly have envisaged the extreme backlash all over the world. “Clash of civilizations”, some editorials have called it. The outbursts have reached ludicrous levels with embassies getting torched, bomb threats and a rash of riots around the world. Free speech has never had to pay a higher price.

Which brings us really to that all-important question – Is free speech really the absolute it’s made out to be? While there’s absolutely no justification for the violent response from some sections of the Muslim community, there seems to be no excusing Jyllands Posten either. Is freedom of speech more supreme a virtue than tolerance and respect for another person’s beliefs?

The gratuitous expression of free speech is as bad as censorship of the media. Both extreme. Both unwarranted. If there ever was a middle path, a way out of the madness, then this – - would be it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Inscrutable Cube

When I'm not gazing at the sky and wondering about the birds, I am absorbed by another distraction - Rubik's Cube.

One of our clients had launched a new mall; the Cube, with the mall logo printed on one of the sides, was a souvenir. The plastic-covered, multi-hued Cube was distributed to everyone at work. Some turned it around, scratched their head and tossed it into the back of a drawer, plastic wrapping untouched. Others took it home for the kids - who would probably look up from the video game console, shrug and go back to killing one-eyed aliens.

None of that for me. I viewed the Cube as a wonderful opportunity to brush up my mechanical and logical skills. I remembered having a go at it once when in school, and the rush of triumph when I managed to complete one side without even realising how I'd done it, puffed up my not-so-tiny ego. The Cube, I figured, could provide the much needed relief when lateral thinking hit a roadblock or when logical thinking by Client Servicing proved impossible. I'd heard about pros who cracked the Cube using their feet. I figured it would be a matter of time before I could work it using one hand only.

Perhaps Rubik made some complex modifications to the Cube since my Primary School days. But how was one expected to get the pink squares on adjacent sides to meet on the same side? Maybe pink wasn't my colour. So I tried green. Ok, that wasn't so bad. Let's not split hairs over light and dark green now. Clients' logos will always be a pain in the posterior; you can never get them right, either in a layout or on Rubik's Cube. If I got the bottom row, the top row would stray. And vice versa. And vertically. And so on. And so forth.

If sky gazing left me all dreamy-eyed, cube-grappling had me scowling. A colleague feeling sorry for me (or perhaps, irked by my frequent groans of despair) showed me a few easy moves. Things improved a little after that. Now I could get two rows out of three in the same colour.

The more I sweated over the Cube, the more I came to appreciate (and loathe, in equal parts) its elegant yet fiendish complexity. Crosswords, I could crack with ease, even the ones with obscure American or Brit references. Sudoku ceased to be a challenge after a while. But the Cube, with its many million combinations, confounded me thoroughly. And I was still struggling with just one side. Logic simply collapsed and sat with its head in its hands, looking glum.

And then the weirdness began.

I would toss the confounding Cube on my desk, one side pathetically close to completion, and the next morning I'd find the offending side immaculately resolved. I questioned my colleague but he refused to take credit. It happened several times, sometimes during the day as well. The Mystery of the Self-Solving Rubik's Cube was almost as bad as the Misery of the Un-resolvable Cube. How did the Cube gremlin nudge that single square, that had foxed me, into place? And how did it succeed in completing TWO sides?? I was ready to concede defeat to this genius when even the other sides were in varying stages of completion.

One day, in utter frustration, I just said aloud to no one in particular, "Who's working out my Rubik's Cube??"

A colleague looked up from a magazine and said, "Oh that. I've seen Raju playing with it."

"Raju?!" I asked, hoarsely

"Raju," she repeated, "our canteen boy."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The best laid plans...

I look at my blog each morning, and my promise of being on the blog more often glares at me. Has it already been 15 days since I wrote that? After dawdling along for months, life seems to have picked up its skirts and is sprinting ahead faster than I can catch up.

For once, there are no complaints. The most delightful weather is upon us. A bit like the oxymoronic 'Bombay winter' - nippy, but comfortably so. The sky goes berserk with colour at sundown. I eagerly throw open the blinds on the window in front of my work desk, and look out as the yellow streaks turn orange, and then purple, blue, mauve, maroon... until it's dark enough to see my own reflection in the glass. The giant metal crane swings in long, lazy arcs, adding the finishing touches to the skyscraper which now blocks the central view. Down below, the toilers are ensuring that it will only be a matter of months until a new building comes up to shut out a little more of my view.

Why do birds fly in circles before sunset? Where exactly are their nests if there aren't any trees around? What do birds really think when they see airplanes? Questions spring unbidden and linger awhile; the answers aren't really important.

It's perfect weather for walking along the Creek, for meeting friends, for long conversations and convulsive laughter. Even the Gods agree. In the first two weeks of the year, we've barely had 4 working days. I happily count out the holidays to anyone who'll listen: three day New Year weekend, three day mourning for Sheikh Maktoum, five days off for Eid Al Adha. In between lazy brunches and frenzied shopping, movies and dinners ice-skating and lame attempts to work off all that food... the days blissfully merge into each other.

The blog and other resolutions feel like they belong to another lifetime. To-do lists are coldly ignored. Musts and shoulds are sent packing. Living in and for the moment has never felt more blissful.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Priceless Pictures # 6: Happy New Year

A special thanks to all those who've been around this blog a lot more than I have. Am working on changing it this year :)

Also see: Priceless Pictures # 1, # 2, # 3, # 4, # 5