Friday, July 18, 2008

Ah! Real Estate

Unlike the States, the real estate market in Dubai is posting double digit gains per quarter. Yeah, I said per quarter. And not ten and fifteen percent gains, forty percent. The price of housing in Dubai jumped 40% from the last quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008. Which brings me to my topic. Looking for another villa. Rentals prices in the emirate are climbing at a daily rate. You have to call on a villa to rent expecting the landlord to raise the price Dhs 5000 just because he knows you are desperate.

We have been living in our current villa for two years. The first year's rent was Dhs 140,000, about $38,000. Two years later the same villa is renting for Dhs 260,000, about $70,000. Adding to the problem of skyrocketing prices is the housing shortage in Dubai. If you want to live in a warren of high rise apartment blocks, you have your pick of apartments. They are outrageously expensive, but at least they exist. Unfortunately if you aren't one of the single people who only have one car and no kids, an apartment isn't going to provide the best lifestyle for your family. It was with this knowledge that I went out villa hunting a week ago. From my experience when I rented our first villa I knew that I needed to have my checkbook in my hand if, on the slight chance, I found something. When you do actually drive past a villa with a for rent sign on it you park in the car port, take down the agents sign and sit in your car on the cell phone until you reach the him. If someone does come by looking at the villa while you are waiting, you lie to them and tell them that you have already rented it and to move along quickly. When you do finally get a hold of the agent, who usually doesn't answer his phone, then you ask desperately if it's still available. This is his clue to raise the rent by Dhs 5000. If it is you tell the agent that you want it and tell him that you will be at the office immediately to write him a deposit check. There is no, "I'd like to think about it." or "Can I get you the deposit tomorrow?" or "My wife would like to look at it." If you want the place you better be prepared to slap money down on it now. (Just as an aside, they will throw you in the clink here for bouncing a check, not for writing a series of bad checks, for bouncing a check. There's no overdraft protection or bounced check fee here, unless you count bail. So you better have the cash in the bank, and be sure of it.) So you impress upon the real estate agent that you want the place and you are in the car now speeding down Sheikh Zayed, road breaking the law talking to him on the cell phone while you do so. This will show him you are a "serious buyer." I like to add "I'll stab you in the neck if you give the place to anybody else" just to seal the deal.

So you find yourself screaming down Sheikh Zayed road, alternately slamming on the brakes and the accelerator as you go past the speed cameras. Racing against time and the other guy that's headed to the agents office to offer the landlord Dhs 5000 more than you to steal the villa out from under you. You know you have to get there before him because you will forced to commit murder if you don't get this villa. By some miracle no mini-bus driver has rolled his bus over on the road spewing his 14 passengers all over the highway causing a 4 hour, 30 kilometer tailback. You arrive at the agents office before anyone else, with your check book in hand, short of breath. Or you think you do. Now you've got to park. You retain the option of parking on the sidewalk as a last resort. You'll risk a Dhs 250 parking ticket if you have to. You already risked your life breaking all the rules of the road and common sense to get here, a parking ticket doesn't even register. The first three spots you find are 75% free. The remaining 25% is taken up by some moron who can't seem to figure out how to pull a Land Rover into a parking space straight. You pull away knowing you don't have time to let the air out of his tires. You also know that the bone head would drive for thirty kilometers before he realized he had flat tires. You find a spot a little ways down the road which, for Dubai, isn't actually that bad. You calculate that you can cross the street and walk to the office before sweat starts soaking your clothes. You spend about five minutes crawling through the car looking for that elusive 1 dirham coin to feed the meter with so you won't get another one of those annoying Dhs 250 parking tickets. A dirham is worth about 28 U.S. cents. Hardly even worth the bother of putting it in the machine. But the ironically named Roads and Transport Authority requires it. After searching all the usual spot you find one under a pile of old McDonald's french fries. Excellent. Let's go. You find the meter, slam your dirham in, get your ticket which gets smudged by the sweat that has dripped off your nose. You rush back to the car to put the slip on the dashboard and now you realize that fate has dealt you a fatal blow. Your on the wrong side of the road. Crossing the road, any road, in Dubai is a life changing experience. I read the fine print on my life insurance policy and it specifically excludes and payment for death or dismemberment caused by crossing a road in Dubai. But you need that villa and that guy on the other pavement is going to beat you out of it if you don't get to the agents office before him. (You have begun to suspect everyone.) Therefore you do something your mother told you not to do and you run into traffic. Trusting the Paki driving the laborer bus to decide not to hit you in time. Oh, he'll see you with plenty of time, he just needs to decide not to hit you in time to do something about it. There is a difference. And his choice isn't always clear. Luckily you make it across the street alive and to the agents office in time. No one has offered him more money, the landlord hasn't decided to move in himself and the agent hasn't raised his fee to 15%. Everything is working out as planned, whew. With hands shaking from excitement at the chance of being taken advantage of, you write out the deposit. Now you can settle back in your chair and relax. Then the agent asks you "So when will you have the rent check?"

Welcome to Dubai.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

About Time

Well, my last post was December 25th 2006, some time ago. We have done many things and been many places as a family since then. Let's see, we took a trip to Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar in Africa. Visited the Maldives, Oman, Bahrain and spent a week in Paris and Normandy. I've been to the Gulf of Oman several times on diving trips with my friend and have seen many interesting fish and mammals. The Atlantis resort is just about finished and now we are looking for more work in the U.A.E. I just put some money down on a new villa down the road from where we are now so we are going to be staying here for at least another year. We have signed the contract for the Yas Island water park so we have something to do while I'm here. All in all things are looking good. So I'm wondering when it is all going to fall apart.

Now that I've covered the last two years in one paragraph, I'll start from the present and give you an idea of what it is like living in Dubai. It is July now and the day time temperature hovers any where from a chilly 98 to a balmy 114. The humidity hovers anywhere from 50% to 85%. The hotter it is the lower the humidity. The air can only hold so much water. Just as an aside. I've heard a lot of Texans claim that's what the weather is like in Texas. The highest temperature recorded in Dallas by the National Weather Service was 114 back in 1927 or something like that. We have 114 just about every day. So it isn't as hot in Texas, sorry. Just so everyone knows. No matter where you've been, it's hotter here. Unless you've been to Riyhad or Kuwait City. And I know no one reading this has been to either of those two places.

Ok. Ranting done.

So in mid July two of my villas four air conditioning units stop working about two days before my boss comes into town. Now since I don't have the time to sit at home waiting for the AC guys to show up, I suffer through a week of sweaty sleep until the boss goes home. I call the landlord advising him of the need to fix the AC units and he sends me a text message that the guys will be there at 10:00 am the next morning. So I shuffle around my schedule so I can be there when they show up. (I have this thing about letting unknown Pakistanis rummage through my house when I'm not there.) The next morning I get an SMS from the landlord telling me that the guys won't be there until noon. Which is OK because I forgot about an appointment I had that morning at 10:00. Great looks like things will work out. Well my 10:00 am went a little long so I rushed home to get to the house by noon thinking these guys would show up on time. Ha ha ha! What a moron!!! I've lived here for two years and I expect these guys to be on time. Stupid me. I arrive at home at 11:59 and begin my 3 and a half hour wait for these wing nuts. After three hours and four phone calls telling me they were just turning up the road, they showed up. They brought in their ladder and their plastic bag with a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer. What they would need a hammer for to fix the AC I couldn't tell but there you go. They rummaged around for a half an hour, talked on their cell phones, ate a shwarma and then told me that the compressor was "finished" (accompanied by a head shake) and started to walk out the door. "Whoa!, hold on there Rajiv, you guys made me wait all day and now you are telling me you didn't fix anything?" His reply was "It's OK sir." At this point my blood, already 114 degrees, began to boil. "No it's not OK. I waited for you all day and you didn't fix a bloody thing. It's not OK." After a pointless 5 minutes telling this monoglot why it was not OK he said that I needed to talk to the boss, Ravi. "Where's Ravi?" "In the truck sir." I found Ravi in the truck, asleep. I thought he was dead because of the flies crawling out of his nose and on his lips but he wasn't. As evidenced by his hitting the roof when I yelled at him to wake up. I've never seen an Indian (dot not feather) move so fast in my life. It probably took 10 years off his life. A quarter of his life expectancy. Ravi got an ear full from me about how it wasn't OK, that they couldn't come back tomorrow because I had a job to do and I couldn't wait around for them all day. After about 20 minutes of brow-beating and pointless calls to someone, probably his brother in Kerala, he promised me that he would be back that night with the tools to fix the AC. Well stupid me, I believed him. I should have taken one of his guys hostage to make sure they came back but I would have just ended up with another mouth to feed.

So the next morning I got another SMS from the landlord telling me that they were going to be back at 10:30. This time I was smarter I didn't get home until 10:05 expecting them to be late. The problem is they aren't even reliable enough to always be late. You think you've got these guys figured out so you give them 1/2 an hour to be late and they show up on time. Then you get this condescending phone call from some guy telling you he's at your house waiting for you, why aren't you there?

Anyway, they only showed up about 45 minutes late, and it was a completely different crew. I think a different company too. I must have scared Ravi and his band of loony tunes off. They are off sending some other expat stark raving mad.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Santa Safari

Everything you do out in the desert can be termed a safari. We had a party with the American Women's Association this evening. It was dubbed the "Santa Safari" The group met this afternoon at around 2:30 at Safa Park. I didn't know what to expect when were are told that you will need four wheel drive to get to the party. I was expecting some extremely modified 4x4s like you see at the Moab Jeep Safari (yet another safari reference). I was glad to see that everyone was driving their high end luxury 4x4s; Land Rovers, Navigators etc. I didn't see anything with a winch or a roll cage in it. All the trucks had doors and roofs so I stopped worrying.

We convoyed out to a part of the desert near Dubai (Yeah that part of the desert) to a camp that the safari company had set up. It consisted of about seven huts made out of palm fronds with low tables and cusions in them. They all faced out onto a low platform where a belly dancer would perform a little later. We had the chance to ride on camels which is now something we can say we did. To get on the camel herder makes the camel lay down on the ground so you can "mount up" like you get on a bike. Then the guy smacks the camel in the chin and the standing up process starts. You need to realize that a camel is probably about four feet higher than a horse so getting up there is a process. First the front end stands up so you are rolling off backwards, then the back end stands up and pitches you back to an upright position. Then the camel slowly lumbers off into the desert. We sat on the camel western style with one leg on either side but the bedu sit on the front end of the hump with their legs tucked up under them on either side of the hump. They can ride like this all day without getting off the beast. I thought the five minutes we were on the camels was enough for me. A lot of people look forward to riding a camel in the desert, well I'll tell you, it's a pain in the be-hind.

After the camel ride we went "dune bashing". Dune bashing is simply driving your 4x4 out in the desert and trying to get as close to rolling it over as you possilby can without actually doing it. We had a driver from India who said it was his first day. He drove around the dunes lot a lot differently from how they drive on the roads, so it was a wild ride. Christopher had a blast. Every steep dune he saw he wanted to go straight down. The kid had no concept of fear or danger.

As the sun went down our sherpa's lit the fire and started our dinner of Arabic Mezzes and Indian Tikka. After dinner we were entertained by a belly dancer dancing to modern Arabic music. Afterwards Santa rode into camp on a camel with a present for all of the children. Christopher assumed that this was the real Santa Clause because he had a present for him that he actually wanted and it had his name on it. Some of the older kids at primary were saying that Santa wasn't real and this was his way of reasoning him back into existence.

This ended our Santa Safari. It was a really enjoyable night filled with contradiction. As we drove into the camp with the camels at one end, the reed huts at the other, a guy in a dishdasha and gutra walking around, Bing Crosby was singing "White Christmas" over the sound system. More than anything else I think this defines Dubai's multicultrualism.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where's Ranjit?

I've been compiling a set of photos of laborers here in Dubai. It is to remind me that my job isn't all that bad. I took this picture some time in July. It was probably 900 degrees C. I'm standing on top of a pile cap that was probably fifty feet away from the edge of the floor slab. The pile cap was about four feet thick with two layers of reinforcing steel, one on the top and one at the bottom of the cap. If you look closely you can see a guy, we'll call him Ranjit, in between the layers of reinforcing steel. Aside from being freaking hot down there he would have had to crawl about 50 feet on his belly to get to this spot. The floor was only about 18" thick so his "crawl space" would be only 12". Your job isn't so bad is it.
I will be posting more of these pictures in the future so stay tuned, and enjoy your job.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Spewed up on the sand

The trouble with modern intercontinental travel these days is you don't have any time to get eased into a new culture. I left Salt Lake City on May first for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Up to this point in my life the most exotic place I had been was Hackney near London. Even then I only stayed the night and fled to the comparative normalcy of Kent. The strangest thing I encountered on my flight to Dubai was a weird faucet on the sink in the restroom in Amsterdam. I thought "Gee, that's different." I had no idea what I was heading towards.

I thought that I would see a mix of people at the departure lounge for my flight to Dubai, dishdasha, gutras etc. but there was nothing of the sort. Admittedly the people were a bit swarthier than the flight from Minneapolis but nothing like I expected. I was hoping to see some bedu with small wooden cages with chickens in them but I was disappointed. It looked like it was mostly European business people and holiday makers.

That all changed when I got off the plane. The customs counters were manned by stern looking women (the ones who's face you could see) in traditional Arab robes. This was the first indication that i wasn't in Kansas anymore, and it sure wasn't Utah. I got through immigration and customs with only a few suspicious glances and headed out the door to get a cab. It was like stepping onto a different planet. The first thing I remember is the heat, of course. I don't care where you've been, it's hotter here. People that have spent the summer in Kuwait and Iraq say that Dubia is worse because it's humid. Well I can attest that it is hot and humid. It was 11:00 pm and it was about 105 degrees. Immediately as you walk outside your hands become damp with the humidity in the air. Then you feel water trickle down the small of your back. Your thinking, "I've felt all of that.." Then your ears begin to sweat. I've never had sweat running off of my ears until I got here. When your ears sweat you know it's hot.

As you exit the arrivals hall at Dubai International Airport there is a greeting section just outside the doors where all the greeters from the subcontinent wait. It's like walking into a National Geographic documentary of Pakistan. There are huge crowds of guys, mostly, in the long shirts and blousey pants traditionally worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The airport authority had kindly installed the cooling fans that you see fanning the cattle at a football game. Unfortunately the fine mist that they spray into the fan only accomplishes increasing the humidity from 98% to 125%. It also sprays the air/water mixture over the crowd so you not only get the sights and sounds of the arrivals hall but you get a nice noseful of the teeming mass of swarthies that are waiting for their brother from Kerala.

It's at this point that you realize that you are not at home. Far, far from it. Luckily you see, across this mass of people, a large queue of nice European looking taxis. So you drag your three massive bags across the pavement to the taxi queue, hop in and are greeted by a head wobbling Indian, dot not feathers. Dubai has the best taxi system that I have experienced in my small experience of taxis. The taxis are well regulated and you don't need to worry about getting ripped off if you don't know where you are going and how to get there. The traffic in Dubai is such that people will take a cab somewhere simply out of convenience rather than drive their own car, get hit by a van on Sheihk Zayed Road, dinged by a car door in the car park and then get pulled over and thrown in jail when they've had one pint at the club. The benefit of this is the cabbies can't ever be sure the guy they got in the back doesn't know exactly where he's going and how to get there. So they usually don't take the chance. I've had to yell at one or two cabbies in the past but they had only been in Dubai for two or three months so they didn't know where they were going.

So I jump in a cab and am thrown back in my seat as my driver speeds off into the Arabian darkness, wobbling his head as he honks his horn.

Depending on the time of day you come into Dubai the trip from the airport to the Trade Center Apartments, where I spent my first month, is anywhere from twenty minutes to six days. Luckily I arrived at about 11:00 pm so it only took me about a 1/2 hour. I was put in a two bedroom apartment that was actually pretty nice. Anyone that enjoyed watching Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best would recognize the furnishings. The building was only about 25 years old though. I found out later that they are going to tear it down and build something else more modern. I think the life span for structures in Dubai at present is about 20 years. After that something bigger and better has to be built.

I had been up for about two days with only a short nap on the plane so I was a little hammered. Despite that I had to turn on the TV and see what kinds of programing we had. A nice mix of British, American, French, German, Filipino, Arabic and some comedy from the Shiny Happy Peoples Republic of the Sudan. I couldn't understand it but I'm sure the Sudanese appreciated it.

After some time researching the viewing habits of Dubai-ians I went to bed with visions of camels and dates in my head.