Fun Facts about the UAE

I was intrigued by many things about the country and the people, but these things deserve some special mention about my visit to the United Arab Emirates.

1. Derek Zoolander would feel right at home. Zoolander couldn’t turn left on the runway with all the other incredibly-good-looking male models. Neither can the Emerati. If you want to make a left turn while driving down a street, you generally have two choices: 1) maybe you’ll get lucky enough that your desired street is one of the nodes of a roundabout, or 2) more likely you will have to drive past the street where you would like to turn left until you get to a designated U-turn lane (see pic) and then proceed back to the street which is now a right turn. The major streets and the highways are all designed this way.

2. Cell phone ownership – I heard from more than one person that the number of cell phones per capita is 2 or more. That seems crazy, right? It is true that everyone seems to have a cell phone, but why would they have two mobile phones (on average, which means that some have more than 2)? My UAE friends tell me that the young Emirati women often carry multiple phones – one for communicating with their family members, and one or more others for communicating with people that their family doesn’t want them talking to (men/boys, of course). Seems like quite a game of cat and mouse.

3. The garbage strewn all over the countryside is very sad. Apparently there is no fine for littering and very little effort to stop the continuous disposal of trash anywhere and everywhere. I tried to get a shot of some of the trees that have 6 or more of the national flowers on them – where the national flowers are brightly colored plastic bags that get caught in the trees like one of Charlie Brown’s kites. While taking this photo of the camel, another camel off to the left was barfing up a green plastic bag that he had swallowed. Very sad.

4. They are tearing down mountains all over the Emirate of Fujairah. Sort of like clear-cutting the rain forest in a tropical country, they are bulldozing mountains in the name of progress. Seems to be multiple reasons for this. Some of the mountains are being leveled because they want some flat land for building purposes. Also, the rocks have a sales value – apparently they are selling it for various purposes, including the construction of the “palm islands” on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

5. In Fujairah, they continue the long tradition of bull-butting on Friday afternoons. Also called bullfighting, this is very different from the Spanish or Mexican bull fights with man versus beast. These are tests of strength with bull-versus-bull. The day that I was there was some sort of end-of-season championship. We watched about five of the bouts and then left since I needed to get to the Dubai airport that evening. Unfortunately we left just before a huge brawl broke out that would have been quite a scene. As my friend Andrew writes: “apparently shortly after we left a fight broke out between two opposing teams, which eventually developed into a crowd free-for-all. Fujairah is scandalized as something like this has never happened in the history of bullfighting in the city.” Rats.

6. There are more people in New York City than in all of the UAE. The population is currently between 6 and 7 million people. One reason I bring this up is that the country feels much more heavily populated than it actually is. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are both large, bustling cities with approximately 1 million residents each, which must give me the impression that there are a lot of people living here, which there isn’t. The other really interesting thing is that the native Emirati people make up 20% or less of the total population. Expatriates come from all over the globe and in increasing numbers. It is an incredible melting pot of people.

7. The Dubai financial collapse has left an unbelievable number of partially completed building sites scattered across the landscape. The number of construction cranes is simply astounding, yet many of them appear to be sitting idle while they wait for economic recovery. Even where construction continues, it seems to continue at a snail’s pace. Several buildings have reportedly been under construction for 3 or 4 years, with very little noticeable progress being made. It does appear that a great deal of the labor is done by hand, which seems to make for a long and arduous process.

8. They have some very interesting customs and/or religious beliefs when it comes to polygamy, drinking alcohol, male/female interactions, tribal warfare, work ethic for young men, and a host of other things. However, if I said too much about any of these things then I would probably never be invited back, So I won’t do that.

For the record: I loved it there. Had a great time and would go back in a heartbeat.

A Week of Workshops in the UAE

Barry Dahl in Fujairah workshop

Photo courtesy of Alan Nambiar - Fujairah Colleges

I’m trying to wrap my brain around the week I’ve just concluded with the fine people of the Fujairah Colleges in the United Arab Emirates. The workshops were held at the Fujairah Women’s College but also included faculty from the Fujairah Men’s College as they immersed themselves into a week of professional development activities during Independent Learning Week (sort of like Spring Break, except that the students work on individual projects and the faculty are not on leave – so really not like Spring Break at all).

In the computer lab

Photo courtesy of Alan Nambiar - Fujairah Colleges

Much of the time was used looking at how Web 2.0 tools can be used by faculty to create engaging content for their courses as well as possible uses for student assignments or group projects that are facilitated through the use of web-based technologies. I spent much of the time with the same cohort of faculty who are working on the development of a laptop program at the college. A few other sessions were open to various other interested parties at the colleges.

Fujairah is located on the Gulf of Oman and is about a 90-minute drive from Dubai which is located to the east on the Persian Gulf. Fujairah is mostly mountainous, and quite beautiful. One of the most amazing experiences for me was finding that the city is an incredible melting pot of people from all over the world. At the Fujairah Colleges alone, the faculty come from more than 30 different countries. I spent quite a bit of time getting to know Andrew Scholtz who is from South Africa and Peter Hatherley-Greene who hails from New Zealand. Talk about global education – here you live it!

Entrance to Fujairah Women's College

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mark Johnson, Director (aka President) of the Fujairah Colleges. He contacted me several months ago about the possibility of coming to the UAE to provide this professional development for his faculty and staff. Mark and I got to know each other when we were colleagues in Minnesota. He was the CIO at MSU Mankato

At Fujairah Colleges. Andrew, Barry, and Mark

L-R: Andrew, Barry, and Mark

and decided to leave Minnesota back in 2006 and move his family to the Emirates (story here). The accomplishments that Mark and his staff have achieved at these colleges are very impressive and he will undoubtedly be missed here in Fujairah when he returns to Minnesota at the end of the academic year.

This trip far exceeded my wildest dreams. The workshops were fun, seeing a new culture and country was fun, but by far the best part was all the great people I met here during the week. Really outstanding.

Bill from Saigon – Rest in Peace

I will be returning to Saigon again in about three weeks. I’m already looking forward to the fabulous fresh fruits such as the pitaya, watching the early risers engaging in group exercise in the park, seeing my friends in the Vietnamese Association of Community Colleges, and dodging my way through the crazy hustle and bustle of the bikes, scooters, cars, and trucks on each and every road. However, I am so sad to say that I can no longer look forward to once again seeing my friend, Bill from Saigon.

Bill passed away on either August 25 or 26 during his sleep. The best information I have been able to find indicates that he had been sick with pneumonia and he just became too weak and died. He was cremated a short time after.

I had been planning to see Bill again when I returned. He was always such fun to talk to. A very kind and gentle man. I started talking to him one day in March 2007 in the crazy Ben Thanh market where he sold postcards almost every day. I was so taken with him that first time that I shot some video of him with a cheesy little digital camera that I had with me that day. The video quality isn’t great, but that video turned Bill into something of a folk hero in his own country. It was re-posted on several dozen Vietnamese blogs and websites and has been viewed almost 160,000 times on YouTube (now over 625,000 times as of 2/26/13).

When I visited him again in early October 2007 he was shocked to find that he was becoming famous throughout his country because of the video that I shot of him. He was shocked, but also very proud that his fellow Vietnamese thought so highly of him, especially the young people.

On that trip in October I made a new friend in Vietnam. Her name is Chau and she is a student in Singapore and has also recently studied in the U.S. in Oklahoma City. Chau is a very intelligent and engaging young person. She was so taken by Bill’s video that she too wanted to meet him. She took that meeting and turned it into a news article about Bill. That article was published in both Vietnamese and in English by one of the local newspapers in Saigon. She also took the top photo in this post of me and Bill.

Bill’s real name was Tran Son Hung. The first video I shot of him explains how he came to be known as Bill and how he learned English and developed an American accent by watching American movies. After the first video was posted (I later published three more video responses from footage taken in October) he was visited by many people from all over the world who had seen his video and wanted to meet Bill from Saigon, or just Bill Saigon as some of them called him. He would proudly show the printout from YouTube as shown above. A couple of other people have also posted videos of their meetings with Bill in the marketplace.

This post really doesn’t do justice to the quality of person that Bill was. I miss him greatly even though we only spent a little more than an hour together during my two visits with him. Bill’s signature saying was a (slightly altered) quote from Helen Keller: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor touched, but are felt in the heart.” Then he’d end that with a hearty “G’day mate!” since he had many Australian friends who would visit him. Bill was the best, and he touched my heart.

Rest in peace my hero on the mountain.