Sunday, December 7, 2014

CHRISTMAS LETTER 2014

Dear Friends & Family,

By the time you read this Doug and I will have been living in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) for almost 14 months. As it stands now, we'll be returning to the U.S. sometime in late Spring/early Summer 2015. I have this feeling that once I'm back in Hoboken and unpacked, it will feel like that "dream episode" in the TV series Dallas - as if we'd never been away at all. As if those almost two years in the UAE were all a dream....

It's been an amazing 14 months. In that time we've lived in three places: one downtown apartment for 3 weeks, then an apartment in the 50-story Sama high rise with views of the sparkling Arabian Gulf, and since May 27th in a lovely, bright and spacious apartment on the new NYU Abu Dhabi campus located on Saadiyat Island. Saadiyat Island is being developed as the cultural center/island of the city of Abu Dhabi with the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening in the Fall of 2015, followed by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Doug was brought in to get IT up and running on the new campus by the move in date of June 1st. Things were not in good shape (understatement) when he arrived, but he and a dedicated team were able to pull it off. There is still much to do with challenges every day, but as I type this  the students are finishing up classes for the first semester on this new campus , so his main mission was accomplished. 

As for me, since I initially thought our stay would be less than a year I had no plans whatsoever to find a job. I wanted my time free to explore. I've never lived overseas before, and I'd traveled only a little, so I wanted to take full advantage of this unexpected and unanticipated situation. After awhile, however, I found myself needing to find a way to fit in, to participate, to be part of the NYUAD community. I wasn't content to just be an observer. Call it luck or being in the right place at the right time or whatever, but a part-time job with the Office of Community Life came my way. For those of you who knew me in Ithaca, the job is pretty much what I did at St. Paul's minus the religion: helping new staff, faculty and their families find their way around Abu Dhabi and their new campus home; making connections between individuals and among families; organizing and running programs, events and tours for all ages. For example we have a weekly Coffee Morning that brings people together at a different cafe every week for casual conversation over breakfast - simple and fun. On the other end of the spectrum, we are in charge of the Annual BBQ which will involve hundreds of people - not so simple but still loads of fun. We also empower and help people to organize their own groups, be it a book club or a dinner club. Most of you will know what a perfect part-time job this is for me. I've met SO many wonderful and interesting people from all over the globe, and I most definitely am involved and participating in the NYUAD Community! 

In spite of our busy-ness, Doug and I made a commitment to travel as much as possible while in this region. Abu Dhabi is centrally located with many fascinating destinations only a (relatively) short flight away. Thus far we've traveled to:

Muscat, Oman - You can drive to Muscat through the Hajar Mountains, but we chose to take the 55 minute flight and maximize the time of our weekend visit. This is one of our very favorite places - more "old Arabia" with low-rise buildings, crenelated rooflines, blue-tiled minarets, and beautiful views of rugged mountains on one side of the long and narrow city and the Gulf of Oman's turquoise waters on the other. The people are warm and friendly, and we plan to go back for another visit before heading home to the US.

Istanbul, Turkey - we went here for 5 days and loved it. The city has thousands of years of history spread out over an area larger than NYC. We stayed in the old section of the city, just below the Blue Mosque and the Hage Sophia. We strolled cobble-stoned streets, sampled lots of Turkish cuisine, shopped (I splurged on a genuine Turkish carpet), visited historic sites and took a boat ride up the Straits of Bosphorus. The highlight, though, was rendezvousing for dinner with our Hoboken friends, Mary Jo and John, who were in the city for a week. 

Spain (Seville, Grenada, and Mallorca) - In June Doug was super busy on the new campus, so I spent two weeks in Spain with my NYC friend, Mary Catherine. We spent a few days in Seville, and then we took the train to Grenada where we toured the breathtaking palace/fort of Alhambra. The second week we flew to Palma on the the Island of Mallorca where we boarded a 50' sailboat and took off for 7 days of sailing around the island. There were ten of us in total on the boat, so we all sailed and cooked in the galley and kept things ship-shape. We sailed about 4-5 hours a day, and then we'd find a small town where we could moor or drop anchor, then we'd explore or go swimming or just hang out. I learned to sail and I didn't get seasick - both huge accomplishments. 

Kathmandu, Nepal - In November I somehow talked Doug into going to Kathmandu for a long weekend. I'd heard this was the best time of year to go, and I was seeking "green" and relief from the hot and humid summer weather of Abu Dhabi. The country is very poor, the city is noisy and dusty and dirty with all manner of people, vehicles, and animals in the streets, but what a fascinating place! We explored Hindu temples including the Monkey Temple (which was home to hundreds of monkeys), Buddhist stupas, and we even drove up into the foothills that overlook the Himalayas. Our driver, Gurga, was charming and friendly and had us laughing. It was a trip unlike any other.

We've also gone on local weekend getaways: 
Qasr al Sarab, the most luxurious, amazing resort we've ever stayed at, located in the Liwa Desert nestled in huge, rust-orange dunes. Breathtaking. 
Bab al Shams, a desert resort located outside of Dubai. Among its many amenities are three pools, all of which have a different temperature. In the UAE you don't heat your pools - you cool them down. Seriously. 
Arabian Nights Village is a very family-friendly place, so my office, Community Life, organized an overnight trip there. We had over 40 people sign up, including young families with babies, which I thought was great. Unlike the other resorts, this place caters to an overnight stay only and offers an Arabic BBQ under the stars with sheisha (water pipes), belly dancing, and oud music. Guests can ride camels, go "dune bashing" in 4x4's or simply relax pool-side. Doug went dune bashing, and I stayed pool-side. 

For me the highlight of 2014 was having our son, Jeff, fly out for a 10-day visit over the Holidays. Instead of buying him "stuff" for Christmas, we gave him Adventures: an all-day trip to the Rub al Khali (the Empty Quarter) where we all went dune bashing, kayaking in the mangroves, a day trip to Dubai (went to the top of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and explored Old Dubai), visited the Falcon Hospital (fascinating!), toured the Grand Mosque, and walked around the city. It was so much fun exploring the country with him.

I was also thrilled to have my friend, Linda Swanson, fly all the way from San Francisco for a week-long visit at the end of January. It is no small thing to travel that far, so I was beyond happy and grateful that she did this. She is my "birding friend", so of course we had to spend a day birding which we did at the Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary smack in the middle of Dubai at the head of the Dubai Creek. We saw hundreds of birds: flamingos and spoonbills, ducks, herons, cormorants and all manner of shore bird. We saw a marsh harrier, but that sighting was eclipsed when a spotted eagle swooped down and landed amongst some reeds. He stayed put for quite some time, so we were able to get a nice, long look at him (or her). I took Linda all over Abu Dhabi, but her very favorite place was the Falcon Hospital.

More recently Doug's colleague and my friend, Laura, visited from NYU (NYC). Her visit overlapped with a visit from Doug's brother, Bob, so all four of us took a full day to explore Dubai. One day Doug and Bob went to the Formula One races on nearby Yas Island followed by a Who Concert, so Laura and I met up for dinner at Hakasan at the Emirates Palace. That place is amazing!

I've left out a lot, but this is enough to give you an idea of our 14 months in the UAE. If you want more details and lots of photos, you can browse through my other blog entries if you like. 

For Christmas we'll be in Denver at Leah and Jorge's house, and Jeff is flying in as well. I am SO looking forward to being together with "the kids"!  After Christmas Doug and I will return to Hoboken - he'll be staying for just a few days, but I'll linger a few days longer and am hoping to catch up with many of my friends.

Doug and I send you our love and best wishes this Holiday Season, and we hope to see you in person this coming year,

Kathi (scribe) and Doug




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