30 November 2005

Maldives Diving

We just returned from the best holiday ever - ten days diving in the Maldives.

The first thing we did is make major use of our recent diving qualification by spending every possible moment underwater in the Maldives. We had planned the trip to be the relaxing break for Stuart after go-live, so we chose the hotel because of its 'no news, no shoes' policy. And then we ruined it by getting totally hooked on diving so that we went on the boat every day to see more fish. In between we just had enough time to catch some rays, eat lots of great food and read a whole pile of books.

There were so many highlights on this holiday - and that's without ever leaving the island except to go diving - that it's hard to begin. Everything was taken care of, from the little things, like aloe vera after-sun lotion in the bathroom and bicycles to get around, to the big things like fresh fruit cut up to order in the morning and being able to leave our dive kit at the dive school to find on the boat whenever we went out. The rooms were ideal, large with sofas in all the right places, like next to the - outdoor - bathtub, so that I could keep Stuart company in his favourite way to relax. We had a piece of beach to ourselves and loungers, table and chairs and a hammock with our villa number on them so that they were reserved for us, and we were in the most basic accommodation there was on the island. Other villas had pools and sunken living rooms on multiple levels.

But it was the diving that really got us hooked (can you tell?). We thought we'd take it easy and not go diving every day, but after the first time over the drop-off of the house reef it was all we could do not to go out twice a day. The reef is really beyond description. There is more animal and plant life there than I have ever seen, and in such variety that we stocked up on books on fish, coral, invertebrates and every other creature to be found below the water line. I have never been so glad to have a camera! We saw every kind of fish from parrot fish to mantas, sharks and turtles, schools of bat fish and huge swarms of little silver fish so dense we couldn't make out the reef. There were corals in every colour hiding the most incredible life, poisonous stone fish and coral groupers, sea anemones housed pairs of clown fish, shrimp and lobsters hid in caves, moray eel looked more dangerous than they are, star fish and sea cucumbers, and on and on.

Lots of pictures here and here.

18 November 2005

15 November 2005

Lunch with the Sheikh

Well, not quite literally, but almost...

Stuart and I met at the Noodle House for lunch as usual. At the table behind us were a bunch of local guys, but only when Stuart pointed it out did I notice that Sheikh Mohammed (bin Rashid al Maktoum - UAE Minister of Defence and Crown Prince of Dubai, as the local papers like to add, also called Sheikh Mo) was lunching with his gang. Apart from the fact that the group had a serious number of waiters fawning over them and the head chef was in attendance there was really no way of knowing that the de-facto ruler was lunching in the local noodle bar. No visible security or protection from the unwashed masses. They must be doing something right here considering the danger that most other Middle-Eastern rulers expose themselves to when they step out of their front door in the morning.

He should really get some more stylish glasses, though.

13 November 2005

London in Autumn

The air was cool, there was a smell of wood and leaves in the air, and the theatres were filled with good shows. Summer is definitely over.

We managed two shows, despite the fact that Stuart was working his socks off as usual. The first, "I Am My Own Wife" was a Tony (and other)-award winning one-man show about a transvestite who had lived through both the Nazi and the Communist regimes in ex-East Germany, in the process creating a famous museum of daily life in the late 19th century, the 'Gr├╝nderzeitmuseum'. Brilliant, if a little whacky. And we were all given a string of pearls to wear on our way home.

We also saw Kevin Spacey as Richard II in the Shakespeare play of the same name. He was good, but from our vantage point looked like he had rather large feet, which was a bit distracting (although we were seated in the upper circle at a 90┬║ angle to the stage, which might have skewed our view a bit). Star of the show though was Ben Miles of 'Coupling' fame, as Harry Bollingbrooke, he cut a fabulous Blair-esque figure. V. creepy.

I also saw a few exhibitions, mostly at the Tates. This year's Turner Prize show was a bit thin, I thought, although I liked Darren Almond with his very imaginative ways of visualising environments and journeys. Rachel Whiteread's installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern had only one thing in common with the Kabakov's piece in the Serpentine Gallery, and that was that they were both white. But while Whiteread's jumble of translucent casts of the inside of one of her grandmother's cardboard boxes was evocative and beautiful, the Kabakov's 'House of Dreams' was unimaginative and lacking in atmosphere. But they were both white.

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Rachel Whiteread at Tate Modern

The best thing I saw all week were the cute, beautiful and ambitious, but futile paintings of Henri Russeau at Tate Modern. He really couldn't paint, but he was so determined to be accepted by the establishment that he never gave up trying. His allegorical paintings are so bad that they are good, but his jungle images full of damp leaves and succulent flowers, shrieking monkeys and growling tigers are a triumph of ambience over technique.

11 November 2005

Camel Jockeys

Good Article on Wired about the newly invented camel robot jockeys.

The Swiss came up with it, of all people.

10 November 2005

Things I Had Forgotten

Back in the UK for a few days feels like visiting a long-lost place. 

I had forgotten how cold tap water can be. It's strange to need to wear a coat despite the sun shining hard. It's a shock to be surrounded by so much old stuff, houses that have stood for more than 30 years and heritage oozing out of every street. Pork bacon and sausages for breakfast make Stuart happy, as does the fact that cold milk comes with strong tea - without having to ask for it. It's a joy to read a newspaper where articles are well-written and original, not copied from press releases.

And that's before I have even left the hotel.

09 November 2005

Residence Committees

A quiet revolution is washing across parts of Dubai, a revolution of empowerment and self-help.

A few weeks ago friends who had recently moved to Dubai found - after a frustrating and long-winded search - a house in the Springs community in what is now called New Dubai, way out of town along Sheikh Zayed Rd (or SZR, as it is known). It is a brand-new house, but there is lot of cosmetic damage in the rooms. The stone surround for the sinks had been gouged, for example, and the bath tub surface was heavily scratched, as if tools had been dropped on it from a great height.

It had taken them so long to find a place that they were willing to put up with these faults, even though they had no great hope that the developer would rectify them, but now it seems that help is at hand: Residents committees are springing up in the large new communities in New Dubai in response to a lack of interest from developers to deal with complaints. Some developers even tried to raise maintenance charges without giving residents access to accounts or insight into spending requirements, which never goes down well with those who have been through the harsh fires of UK-landlord practices. This is a first in Dubai, where the newspapers are full of letters from people complaining about problems and then demanding that "the authorities should do something about it" rather than setting up a group to address issues themselves.

07 November 2005

Qualified - Diving Part 3

Today was our last dive to qualify as PADI open water divers. We had to go out to Al Boom's dive centre at Fujeirah to do this, but it was worth it, diving there is really something.

We had actually gone out towards the East Coast yesterday for a bit of wadi driving with Peter, Sabine and Jannek, their Danish visitor, so we stayed at the Fujeirah Hilton for the night. A lovely place with a cute little beach (home to many crabs), where we enjoyed the sunset on our balcony.

Diving off a boat brings a whole new set of challenges for the inexperienced diver, including having to roll backwards from the edge of the boat into the water like they do in spy movies (called back roll entry, surprisingly). The other is having to share a boat with the inevitable dimwit show-off who has seen sharks, whales and turtles in every ocean of the World.

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So far no underwater pictures, just us (and a German guy in the background checking his kit) Luckily there is no talking underwater so we could enjoy the sights of colourful fish darting in and out of rosy red corals in peace. We also followed the lazy path of a turtle and discovered a flounder disguising itself as the seabed. On the beginners-mistakes front we managed, in the first minutes of our dive, to: get tangled in the descent line from the boat (Fiver); get detached from the tank (Stuart); get stung by a sea urchin (Stuart); and almost lose the snorkel (Fiver). Despite this we were allowed to qualify, so now we are now able to borrow tanks and dive where and when we like. Maldives - here we come!

05 November 2005

Cinema Saudi Arabia

I don't normally comment on the culture of a country I haven't even visited, but I'll make an exception in this case.

The local newspapers provide good coverage of the goings-on in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, so we can follow its slow and painful movement towards becoming a more modern and liberal country. Most people know that women are not allowed to drive (although a government official was quoted as admitting that some do in rural areas - which would cover most of Saudi), and recently a law was passed that allows women to work in any part of the economy "according to their nature", whatever that means.

But I was still surprised to read that this Eid celebration will see the first public film screenings in Saudi Arabia in 30 years. Apparently the depiction of the human form has been considered immoral and the US-dominated film industry with its emphasis on sex and violence is specially bad (there's a discussion for the next film studies course). There is a lot of opposition to film screenings from religious traditionalists, who consider film to be the thin end of the wedge, despite the fact that only children's cartoons are going to be shown and audiences will be segregated.

In another revolutionary move women will be allowed to stage plays, although only with other women actors and in front of a female-only audience, which is not immoral according to Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Mohammad, mayor of Riyadh. I see an opportunity for some radical re-working of Shakespeare, taking on some of the issues desperately needing airing in Saudi. 12th Night, maybe?

03 November 2005

Real Fish - Diving Part 2

Today we met Nemo, who moved to Dubai to live here incognito after fame got too much for him in Australia.

But really, we did our first open water dive today, nowhere exotic, only on Jumeirah Public beach, but what amazing things we saw: Sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, sea urchins and the famous Nemo (or another clown fish, it was hard to tell). Diving for the first time in the sea is a bit scary, but exhilarating at the same time. The surface is suddenly a lot further away than it was in the training pool (as in 6 meters, although we will be qualified to dive to 30 meters eventually) and there is a vast expanse of water all around. But we are down there and still able to breathe, which is a cool feeling. There is a lot more going on down there than is visible on the surface, all kinds of fish and invertebrate life, all just an arm's length away.

The least enjoyable bit was the fact that we had to lug all our heavy kit down to the beach and back again - not the easiest when you're wearing a wet suit and you're loaded with bit and pieces and 10 kg of extra weights.

After the dive at the beach, and the pool dive to practice swimming without a mask and keeping neutrally buoyant (i.e. not floating upwards or dropping to the ocean floor, but hovering just above the ground and controlling your diving level by breathing - one of the trickiest things to learn so you don't go off in unwanted directions while distracted by a pretty fish) we went on a shopping spree. It's better to dive with your own equipment, although it is possible to rent everything from the dive centre. But we decided to get at least the main pieces, a wet suit, a BCD (buoyancy control device - kind of like a life vest with pockets that the tank and other kit is attached to), mask and fins. That way we know it fits and we can look after it and ensure nothing is broken. So now when we travel to hot countries on diving holidays we will be carrying as much luggage as on a two week skying trip to Norway in winter. Oh goody!