Saturday, March 1, 2014

1 March 2014... Welcome to the Sandbox (UAE)

Well, it’s about time I got around to writing this blog. I promised I would do it quite a while ago but there just doesn't seem to be much time for these things when the options are sleep or blog. (On a side note, why am I always so tired here?) This particular post will chronicle my arrival in Abu Dhabi.

I am employed as a cycle 2 (middle school) science teacher in Abu Dhabi. I will not mention details about my employer or my school as it’s generally frowned upon to do so. That’s the first point you should note if you are also a teacher for the same company, do not post negative comments about the company, your school, fellow colleagues or students on any form of social media. People have lost their jobs over this. Pretty much keep it positive or keep it to yourself. You also do not take pictures of the women or female students here unless you have their permission. If they do grant permission, the picture should not be posted on any form of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Instagram, etc.) but can be retained as a personal memento.

After a reasonably long wait (2 months), I was finally issued my visa and ‘golden’ ticket on 7 February 2014. [Insert sweet relief here.] This gave me the weekend to get my life in order and spend time with my loved ones. Now while the wait itself was near torture and put everyone under a lot of financial pressure, in the end I was somewhat grateful for it. That statement may sound ludicrous but the extra time allowed me to do the necessary shopping, get my documents in order, copy and scan whatever I needed to, pack, repack (and repack again) and weigh my bags a million times over. With all of this done, my last weekend was exactly what I wanted and needed it to be; quiet, stress free and spent with my family. It was much better than when I left to Korea.

I bid South Africa adios and headed to Abu Dhabi to start my latest adventure on the 10 February 2014. The goodbyes are always the worst. Leaving my grandparents was the hardest part for me but I couldn't be a hypocrite by crying after I had warned everyone else not to cry. So I sucked it up and walked through those gates. The flight to Johannesburg was pleasant and uneventful. My biggest mistake was travelling heavy. I had on several layers of clothing including a jacket, my 7 kg backpack, a 5 kg computer bag, my giant handbag plus a hoodie and snow coat in my hand. It made running around quite a mission and it was particularly difficult trying access my travel documents. My advice here would be to travel comfortably and light. Also it would be a very good idea to have some kid of document bag/wallet/envelope for your travel documents. It will keep them in better condition (mine looked like it had gone to WWII and returned) and will allow for quick easy access. REALLY IMPORTANT INFORMATION: the only copy of your visa you will need is the one you will use to enter Abu Dhabi because immigration will stamp this one. Don’t bother bringing extra copies of your visa, 2 should do (1 to use at immigration and a spare should you somehow lose that one on the journey). Carry a few colour copies of your passport, you will need those. Interestingly however, I have not needed any of the passport pictures that I brought along with me. I’m sure I'll need them at some point so err on the side of caution and bring the recommended 20.

The flight from Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi was not fun at all, I felt green the whole way. I didn't get much sleep and deeply regret eating on the plane. If you are at all prone to motion sickness, take medication for it before the flight and carry a fair amount of motion sickness pills with you (remember to have a doctor’s letter/prescription for any medication that you intend to bring into the country). The roundabouts here will have you wishing for motion sickness pills on the many bus rides you will probably take during your first week here. When I landed in Abu Dhabi on the 11 February 2014, there was a representative from Nirvana waiting with a sign that had the company’s name written on it. They will lead you the rest of the way. Remember that document bag/wallet/envelope because there are no trolleys for your carry-on luggage and you’ll need your documents while shuffling through the airport (why did I pack so much?). Our first stop was an eye scan. From there we were led straight through to immigration where we got to skip the line (thanks Nirvana). This was a very quick process where they will stamp your visa and passport. There may have been pictures taken somewhere along the line. I was too tired at that point to remember the exact details. From there you will be taken through customs… literally taken through, not to, so we didn't have to declare anything. After that you can finally collect a trolley for your carry-on luggage (your back and arms should be aching at this point). Now that you are unburdened, you can collect your checked luggage and add it to your trolley. Once you leave the luggage collection area, you can do your foreign exchange (about 1500 AED cash is a good amount) and get a sim card from Du mobile. It costs 155 AED and comes with 10 AED credit and a little data. Make sure you get your sim card at the airport, unless you prefer to go with Etisalat (which you can get from one of the many malls), because you will need a UAE number almost immediately. The only documents you need for a prepaid sim card are the stamped passport and visa.

From the airport, Nirvana will take you to your hotel. I stayed at the Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate hotel. Some people complained but for a 3 star hotel, I thought it was fantastic. The rooms were what you'd expect (bed, bathroom, TV, airconditioning and a bar fridge), buffet breakfast was provided (6:00 - 10:30 am) and there is a gym and pool (there is a small charge to use these facilities but it is well worth it). The downside to staying at the Ibis is that it is far away from everything and as such cabs cost a lot so share a cab where you can. If you are placed at that hotel, finding food will be an issue and eating hotel food does get expensive. The burger special at the lobby was a good deal at about 25 AED. I personally stocked up on cup noodles, cheese and bread at the Lulu’s at Mushrif Mall. If you are not a picky eater then you can save a lot of money that way. If you prefer a hot meal, there is an ADNOC garage down the road that has a Burger King (the prices however are shocking) and an ADNOC quick shop (it’s garage food so it won’t be that good). Unless you are lucky enough to be given accommodation with a kitchenette, food will be an issue and your biggest expense aside from cabs. Depending on how much money you have, budget about 30 AED/meal for convenience food or 100 AED/meal if you prefer eating at restaurants. Most of us just had a big breakfast, skipped lunch and ate whatever we could rustle up for dinner. IMPORTANT INFORMATION: when you check in at your hotel, they will retain your passport and visa (it will then be given to Nirvana) until you get your Emirates ID. This may take as long as 2 months so don’t make any plans to travel and also ask the front desk if they can scan and email copies of your stamped visa and passport to you then print a copy of these stamped documents and keep it with you. I would also suggest that you get a passport cover. Nirvana stapled my passport and that just annoyed me because now it looks tatty.

If you land on a Thursday, consider yourself lucky as you’ll have some time to unwind. If not then expect to be on the move from day 1. You will have to go for your medicals (again that document folder is great so carry it with you), fingerprinting and photographs, orientation and possibly training. Fair warning, take everything you know about logic and order and toss it out the window. Do the same for any frustrations that may arise from a general lack of logic and order. This is not the western world and nothing is ever done in the way you’d expect it to be done. You should be used to this by now if you've also had to wait for your golden ticket. You will hear ‘Inshallah’ often. Remember you chose to be here so adopt the attitude of the locals. Things will eventually get done, just not as quickly as you’d like it to. Stressing out about it will do nothing to make it happen any faster. Patience really is a virtue. 

After your medicals and fingerprints, you will be given back your stamped visa, passport and a stamped receipt. Nirvana will collect your passport and visa from you but you keep the stamped receipt. Treat it like gold. It is the only acceptable form of ID you will have for many weeks. I suggest you make a copy to keep on you and keep the original some place safe. At orientation you will be given your contract (its actually pretty standard) which you will check for errors, initial on each page and sign. Make a copy for yourself and return the original. You will also be given your placement (Abu Dhabi, Al Ain or Al Gharbia). If your placement sheet says reserve on it, it means you’ve been assigned a region but not yet a school. Just keep an eye on your email or for a letter under your door. It’s not a bad thing if you’re a reserve, you will still get paid, it just means they are looking for a school that needs your skills. I was initially an Al Ain reserve but requested to be placed in Al Gharbia because I’m strange and prefer the quiet rural life. IMPORTANT INFORMATION: they will not change your region if you are in Al Gharbia and want to be placed in the city. My case was different because they have a lack of teachers in Al Gharbia so they were happy to place me there. A few people get upset when placed out west but it has its perks. For example you don’t have to pay a deposit on your apartment and depending on which town you end up in, there is a monthly stipend of between 1400 and 2000 AED. It’s a great opportunity to experience Abu Dhabi culture while saving some money. Don't worry, you will not be living in a tent or riding a camel to work if you end up in Al Gharbia. It's admittedly a little boring but it makes up for that in sheer beauty. They will also assist you in opening up a bank account with a debit card and credit card with the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) and there will be representatives from Home Center (for furniture) and Hertz (car rental). These places usually have a discount for teachers (who work for the same company I do) but a discount does not always equate to a good deal. Be smart with your housing allowance and shop around.

I have not received my documents, Emirates ID, housing allowance or rented a car so I can’t really comment much on those matters. Instead let me share some of my thoughts.

  1. Ladies, do not pack too much. You can get just about everything here. Carry your favourite beauty products (e.g. Clinique) as they are a bit more expensive here and sample sizes of toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, etc. until you can get to the shops to buy full size products. Toiletries are plentiful and about the same price as back home.
  2. Carry clothing that covers all the way to the wrist and to the ankles for work. Some schools may allow clothing that only covers your knees and elbows but honestly it’s less of a bother to be fully covered. In fact, don’t carry much at all. You can buy abayas when you get here if your principal allows you to wear an abaya. They are loose, comfortable and cover everything. I prefer wearing them. As to whether you will have to cover your hair, that is up to your principal. I was asked to cover my hair and I really don’t mind. It takes nothing away from my rights or religion to show respect to the culture and religion of the country I have chosen to live and work in. I carried way too much clothing that I won't use here. Ankle length dresses also work quite well for work. Long sleeved cardigans and lots of scarves are a must (it’s cheap to buy them here). As for casual wear, as long as your elbows and knees are covered, you’re good. 
  3.  The air-conditioning is intense. It may be the desert but it’s always cold inside buildings so carry a jersey or cardigan when you head out.
  4. Carry a bathing suit. The pool/beach will call your name.

The process of setting up banking is a nightmare. To make it easy here's a step by step:
  • Apply for your bank account at the orientation.
  • After 7-10 days someone from the bank should contact you.
  • Arrange delivery of your debit card.
  • When you receive your card, activate it by following the instructions provided with the card.
  • Once you receive the text stating that it has been activated, go to an NBAD ATM and set up a pin code.
  • Visit a branch/email your bank contact and ask for your account details (account number, branch name, IBAN, etc.) if it has not been given to you by this point. You will need some of this information to set up internet banking.
  • Phone the NBAD toll-free number (8002211) and speak to a consultant to obtain your call center number and to set up your call center pin. You will also need this to set up internet banking.
  • Go to the NBAD website and register to set up internet banking.
  • You will need an RSA token (which looks like a key ring) to log on to internet banking. It generates a random code every minute to keep your internet banking profile safe from hackers. Keep this token safe, it's important.
  • You only get your credit card after you've had 2 salary deposits made into your account.
I hope that I have provided some helpful information for those heading over or considering heading over to Abu Dhabi. This blog is from my personal experience and nothing is consistent here so your experience may differ greatly from mine. Just remember to pack an open mind and a positive attitude. Lastly, let me tell you a bit about my actual experience. From the Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate hotel, myself and 7 other wonderful women were transported to the Danat Jebel Dhanna resort, a stunning 5 star resort in Al Gharbia located close to Ruwais. No one can ever say that this company does not take care of it's employees. I have an amazing suite, a king size bed all to myself, a delicious buffet breakfast every morning and I have my own balcony that overlooks the pool and ocean. I'm going to miss this place when I get my apartment. It's a little slice of heaven. I fully intend on joining their club once I leave so I will still have access to their amazing facilities. Again the downside is that it is far away from everything and food is not cheap. There is a mall in Ruwais for grocery shopping and shopping in general. Not many stores are open yet but it will get better with time. I've been buying a few groceries from Lulu's at Ruwais Mall on a weekly basis (bread, cheese, coldmeat, soda, etc.) and when I need a hot meal, the Golf Club is a short walk away, just past the Dhafra Beach hotel. They have very well priced meals which make it well worth the walk.

I have been placed at an all girls combined cycle 2 and 3 school in a town about an hour's drive away from my hotel. I only teach one grade and subject (grade 6 science) so there isn't much planning but the discipline issues make it a handful. I figure the girls are just testing me. Hopefully it will get better once they get know me and we have established some sense of routine. I really hope that I can help these girls excel in science during my time here. At the moment they are reluctant to learn in English. I can understand that, I really didn't enjoy learning Afrikaans when I was in school. Its only been a week. I'm sure the next two years will have many ups (and a few downs) both at work and in my personal life here in Abu Dhabi. I'm just trying to keep optimistic because waiting for me at the end of these two years is my love, my country boy, and everyday brings me closer to him. I might as well enjoy that journey because these will be the stories I tell my grandchildren some day.


  1. �� this blog, very helpful while I'm waiting to travel over there. Thank you for writing it!

    1. Hi Freda. No problem. I remember all too well the frustration of waiting. I will try to post useful information as often as I can.

  2. I want to see your photos! Especially from your balcony hotel. And some selfies. Tell me about the restaurants, food, and especially the night life...if there is any.

    1. Hi Cheng. I have lots of pictures but the internet connection is not very good so I'll upload them on Facebook as soon as I have a better connection. I haven't really eaten out or even gone out much because I will only be paid at the end of March but I will tell you one thing, the hummus is addictive. I can't get enough of it and its only $1.50 or so for a tub.

  3. Keriiiii! So detailed! Loved reading this! I miss you so much and wish that me and Kell bell were there with you

  4. Write more!

    - Netanya

  5. So glad you guys have enjoyed this blog. I will be posting some more as soon as exams are done. A bit snowed under with all this work at the moment but I'll eventually get to it.

  6. Thank you for this blog it has been very helpful. One question how much AED do I need until my first pay?
    regards Lynnie

    1. I carried about 6000 AED in total. 1500 in cash initially amd the rest on card. I lived fairly frugally so it lasted quite a while. Food and cabs will be you biggest expenses at first.