When is a stop sign not a stop sign?

Driving through our compound the other afternoon, I found myself behind a school bus. The big, yellow bus pulled to the side of the road; and the driver extended the stop arms, ready to eject the kiddos onto the pavement. Now, as a car driver, what does that mean to you?

A) Stop.  B) Slow down, but get past.  C) Speed up.

I chose A. I drove in the US for five years, where motorists stop 20-25 feet behind or facing a school bus with flashing lights or stop arms, EVEN when it has halted on the opposite side of the road. I was so careful about this in the States, I would have stopped dead in my tracks in instances where the school bus driver had just parked for 10 minutes to eat his sarnies.

A stop sign mean stop, right? Until it doesn’t.

A stop sign means stop, right? Until it doesn’t.

The driver behind me opted for C, zipping round both my vehicle and the school bus. (Those who navigate Middle East cities on a regular basis, and already know all the different levels of stupidity, won’t be surprised by this at all.)

There’s another permanent stop sign – just outside our compound – where the correct answer isn’t so clear, though. Imagine this scene if you will: you come off the highway and at the bottom of the exit, where you can turn left into a tunnel (from which cars are also emerging) to make a U-turn or go straight on, lies the largely ignored stop.

Here, your options are: A) Come to a complete stop and risk being rear-ended.  B) Stop, and develop dangerously high blood pressure as the car behind rudely darts round you.  C) Slow down and go through it carefully.  D) Blow right through it at speed, as though you’re still sailing along the highway you’ve just left.

And believe me, this particular junction has been a huge issue for our compound. Several friends have (rightly, in my opinion) followed cars home that have sped through it, to confront the drivers.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a police car behind me, and thought I’d better pick A. It’s clearly an octagonal red sign, with the words STOP in big white letters, and cars make turns from the other direction.

I came to a halt. So did the green-and-white squad car, which I could see in my rear mirror had pulled up just a few inches behind my bumper.

HONK-HONK

Yes, that came from the police car. I kid you not.

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Silent Sunday: Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it's a flying palm tree … No expense spared landscaping!

No, it’s a flying palm tree … No expense spared landscaping!

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Inside the KHDA’s (quirky, Google-like) inner sanctum

If you’re a mum of school-aged children in Dubai, you’ll have heard of the KHDA inspectors. You’ll realise that if you don’t want to know what ranking your child’s school has received (unacceptable, acceptable, good or outstanding), you’d better keep your fingers in your ears at the school gates.

You might also have noticed that all the stops are pulled out when the KHDA calls. Stories abound of equipment arriving just before inspections and promptly disappearing afterwards; extra teachers – even painters – being brought in the week before; and students being drilled on how to put up their hands (left if they know the answer, right if they don’t).

From the outside, Dubai’s regulatory authority for education looks like a fairly ordinary office building, out in the desert.

From the outside, Dubai’s regulatory authority for education looks like a fairly ordinary government building, out in the desert.

How prevalent these tricks are is unknown, but I can vouch for the fact that when Son1’s school was inspected earlier this year, I agreed to spend a lunch-hour sitting under a palm tree reading to any child who’d listen – just as the inspectors, who look for parent engagement as a sign of a quality school, happened to be in the vicinity.

So who is this body that has ALL THIS power? Whose reports cause Dubai’s schools to go in and out of fashion, and grants them the right to raise (already expensive) school fees? Today I got the chance to find out (more in the Q&A below). Even if you don’t live in the UAE, or have no children, keep scrolling: my visit to the Dubai government’s amazing KHDA-plex in Academic City was truly illuminating, and anyone would be forgiven for thinking they’d actually stumbled across Google HQ.

On the inside, you discover the KHDA offers staff and visitors a crazy array of perks, from yoga classes, kung fu and tai chi to a chef who makes delicious food and entertaining spaces like this one.

On the inside, you discover the KHDA offers staff and visitors a crazy array of perks, from yoga classes, kung fu and tai chi to a chef, who makes delicious food, and stylish hospitality spaces like this one.

Right in the middle of the main concourse, you’ll find this piano – which anyone can play, and everyone stops to listen to.

Right in the middle of the main concourse, you’ll find this piano – which anyone can play, and everyone stops to listen to.

Just keep in mind this is a government regulator, a department of education … because it gets better and better.

A very quick peek in here revealed a phone charger point. Just as quirky was the yellow budgerigar in a little aviary upstairs.

A very quick peek in here revealed a phone charger point. Just as quirky was the yellow budgerigar in a cage upstairs.

I’m not quite sure what goes on in here, but it was called the water room. Next, we walked past two office-workers in a glass room running a call centre. “They’ve been holed up in here for a while,” our guide told us. “They don’t know it yet, but things are being re-designed so that they’ll soon be sitting in the middle of a forest.”

I’m not quite sure what goes on in here, but it was called the water room. Next, we walked past two office-workers in a glass room running a call centre. “They’ve been holed up in there for a while,” our guide told us. “They don’t know it yet, but things are being re-designed so that they’ll soon be sitting in the middle of a forest.”

Treadmill workstations are located all over the building. These facilities allow staff to work while exercising, and they can do presentations from exercise bikes. There’s no claiming you don’t have the right shoes: one of the treadmills is high-heels friendly.

Treadmill workstations are located all over the building. These facilities allow staff to work while exercising, and they can do presentations from exercise bikes. There’s no claiming you don’t have the right shoes, either: one of the treadmills is high-heels friendly.

The Thrive activities schedule offers free stillness classes, hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga and Chinese martial arts. On the fifth floor, there’s a spa bathroom, with hanging crystals.

The Thrive activities schedule offers free stillness classes, hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga and Chinese martial arts. On the fifth floor, there’s a spa bathroom, with hanging crystals.

A brand new feature is the English/Arabic smart-signs that ‘nudge’ people to climb stairs instead of using the lifts. The high-tech mounted screens display the exact calorie-burn for each stairway and give motivational health messages. KHDA workers can then track, ‘gamify’ and share their stair-climbing performance using a smartphone app. “The only better stairs I’ve seen are at Dewa (Dubai Electricity & Water Authority),” our guide said. “They’re surrounded by mirrors, and by the time you get to the top you look like Kate Moss.”

A brand new feature is the English/Arabic smart-signs that ‘nudge’ people to climb stairs instead of using the lifts. The high-tech mounted screens display the exact calorie-burn for each stairway and give motivational health messages. KHDA workers can then track, ‘gamify’ and share their stair-climbing performance using a smartphone app.
“The only better stairs I’ve seen are at Dewa (Dubai Electricity & Water Authority),” our guide added. “They’re surrounded by mirrors, and by the time you get to the top you look like Kate Moss.”

Gorgeous works of art are everywhere – oh, and more exercise equipment if you fancy hanging around.

Walls are adorned with gorgeous works of art – oh, and here’s some more exercise equipment if you fancy hanging around.

On the way out, after writing a message on a tablet that was projected onto a TV screen for all to read, I noticed this rug. This is the morning rug, welcoming visitors in numerous different languages. At 12 noon, it’s changed to a ‘Good afternoon’ rug.

After writing a farewell message on a tablet that was projected onto a TV screen for all to read, I noticed this enormous rug on the way out. This is the morning rug, welcoming visitors in different languages. At 12 noon, it’s changed to a ‘Good Afternoon’ rug.

“We place great importance on wellness at KHDA, introducing numerous healthy initiatives for our staff,” said Hind al-Mualla, the authority’s chief of engagement. “We believe that both health and wellbeing are a vital part of happiness.”

I was sold. I asked for a job. I’d wanted to work in the civil service in the UK years ago, perhaps this was a second chance. And when they told me they offer a ‘working-mum contract’ with hours that fit around school, I was ready to rush home and dust-off my CV.

“We don’t accept CVs,” smiled the director-general. “Send us a selfie.” And he wasn’t joking: To apply, you need to download KHDA Connect from the Apple app store, and tell them about yourself by text, audio or video.

Q&A

What is the KHDA?
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority is Dubai’s regulatory authority for education, responsible for the growth, direction and quality of private education and learning in Dubai.

When was it established and why?
In 2007, the World Bank published a report on private education in the Middle East, The Road Not Travelled, which inspired the KHDA – established in the same year – to follow its guidelines and set up an inspection regime.

Has it made progress in raising standards in Dubai’s schools?
Yes. This has been a challenge for various reasons, not least because of the speed at which the education system is growing (this year has seen 11 new schools opening in the emirate); the large number of different curriculums (16, including British, International and Indian) and the hugely varying price points (you can pay up to AED55,000 / US$15,000 in annual tuition for a 3-year-old; and as much as AED103,200 / US$28,000 for Year 13).

After five years of inspections, the percentage of pupils attending good or outstanding institutions has risen from 30 per cent to 51 per cent. “Every year, we raise the bar,” says director-general Dr Abdulla al-Karam.

If schools do well, they are allowed to raise their fees.

How fast are admissions rising?
Enrolment is rising at 7-8 per cent a year, and not just among expats; over the past decade, the number of Emiratis in private education has risen from 34 per cent to 57 per cent.

What is being done about the waiting-list problem?
While some ‘waiting lists’ serve a marketing purpose, the better schools do tend to have limited space and lengthy waiting lists (which you have to pay to get on). The situation is improving as more schools open, although with Dubai’s rapid growth, it’s hard for services such as health and education to keep up. This year, an extra 23,000 new school places were created. As parents were unsure if some of these schools would open in time for Sept 2014, the number of requests for tranfers is currently high.

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What on earth are children doing in PE these days?

What do you remember about PE in school? I think I must have blocked out much of it, but I have vague recollections of attempting to climb thick, coiled ropes in the gym and going on cross-country runs in little more than a vest and underwear. This was in secondary school, where it was all too easy to develop a lifelong loathing of organised physical activities – and sports all too often took place on rain-lashed pitches, wearing plimsolls [shudders].

But we were expected to take part in all manner of activities, from netball, hockey, rounders and gymnastics to track-and-field events such as the long-jump and throwing the shot put. I might have endured it rather than loved it, but I recognise now that Mrs Wilson didn’t personally have it in for me, and forging sick notes didn’t do me any good.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I’ve been wondering recently what on earth my older son is doing in PE lessons. While I send him to school in his PE kit and trainers (we’re still working on the laces) twice a week, I know for sure he’s spending far less time doing games than I did. (Read into that, building up a reserve of humiliating memories, if you like.)

Demolished years ago, this is a photo of my local town’s Soviet bloc-style masterpiece – aka, the swimming pool, which we had to walk a mile to from primary school. Yes, WALK TO, Son1!

Demolished years ago, this is a photo of my local town’s Soviet bloc-style masterpiece – aka, the swimming pool, which we had to walk a mile to from primary school. Yes, WALK TO, Son1!

Obviously there’s a climate issue here in Dubai over the hot months, but much of the academic year is blessed with beautiful weather. So, why then, does my son tell me he’s done things like Simon Says in his PE lessons? Today was an even more classic example. “We had to Skype someone in PE today, and ask her questions,” Son1 told me, to my astonishment. “It was a lady in India – the PE teacher’s friend.”

Seriously? No, not skipping – Skyping.

Further questioning revealed this was connected to their current Unit of Inquiry, but I honestly would have preferred that he’d spent the hour running around. After those early years where Son1 was continually moving like a whirling dervish, we’ve now reached the stage where more time is spent on the sofa chasing electronic baddies across a screen.

Swimming is obviously a huge thing in schools here, and both my sons have been swimming twice a week in their school pools, but it seems that to get your children into team sports you have to pay money to private companies that organise sessions in various locations – such as Soccer Kids, who my boys do football with on Saturdays. Then drive your offspring all over the place to attend, knowing that if you don’t their legs might fall off through lack of use.

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Silent Sunday: Walk like an Egyptian

Sometimes we come up with crazy travel plans – this weekend being a case in point. More on Cairo to follow, but here’s a few of my favourite snaps of the exuberant and exotic Egyptian people who really made our trip for us. First up, this gem of a coffee shop that I fell in love with in the heart of Cairo.

Sometimes we come up with crazy travel plans – this weekend being a case in point. More on Cairo to follow, but here’s a few of my favourite snaps of the exuberant and exotic Egyptian people who really made our trip. First up, this gem of a coffee shop that I fell in love with in the heart of old Cairo.


Clockwise from top left: an Egyptian wedding; a man rides his horse and carriage past a scene that’s been part of the landscape for thousands of years; a belly dancer mesmerises her audience on a Nile river cruise; and standing room only on the bus.

Clockwise from top left: an Egyptian wedding; a man rides his horse and carriage past a scene that’s been part of the landscape for thousands of years; a belly dancer mesmerises her audience on a Nile river cruise; and standing room only on the bus.


Ancient craftsmanship: Despite millennia of plundering, the antiquities of Egypt are remarkably well preserved. This carving is part of the tomb of Queen Meresankh III near the Giza pyramids.

Ancient craftsmanship: Despite millennia of plundering, the antiquities of Egypt are remarkably well preserved. This carving is part of the tomb of Queen Meresankh III near the Giza pyramids.

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Travel post: Winter get-aways with bells on

Where do you dream of jetting off to this holiday season?

Dear Christmas, What the heck? It’s not your turn yet. Sincerely, Thanksgiving. But even so, as the temperature falls, and the number of tourists flocking to the UAE swells, it’s time to start thinking about our own travel plans for the upcoming holiday season.

December is one of my favourite months in the UAE – sailor-blue skies, cool evenings and warm days, with plenty of festive fun around for the children. What’s not to love? But the holiday season is also a time when many people choose to travel, either to see family elsewhere in the world, or to spend quality time together during the school holidays.

If you haven’t already, now is your window to book, before airfares skyrocket, and that means letting your mind wander. Fancy spending the festive season sunning yourself on a beach in Mexico, snorkelling in Indonesia, or strolling around Christmas markets in Germany? Why, yes please!
 Here’s some ideas, with the all-important low-down on the local weather conditions. Happy daydreaming – and may your dreams turn into plans.

xxxxx

This island paradise is a world away from the hectic pace of South Bali

Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia: Still relatively unknown, Nusa Lembongan is a small island off the southeast coast of Bali. With a drier climate than the main island of Bali (until January, when the rainy season begins), Nusa Lembongan offers adventure in the form of aqua blue surf, perfect for surfing, drift diving and snorkelling. You’ll also find tranquil sandy beaches, coastal paths for exploring the island on foot, mangrove forests and seaweed farms. For those who like sweet treats, cookies are a must at Christmas in Indonesia.

xxxxx

Offering abundant diving opportunities, the Red Sea is an extension of the Indian Ocean

Aqaba, Jordan: Famous for its warm sea, stunning beaches and watersports, Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastal city. Explore the underwater world of the Red Sea, or kick-back on the beach and enjoy the winter climate (the temperature reaches highs of 27 and 22 degrees celsius in November and December respectively).

xxxxx

Many people in Musoma fish Nile perch from the lake

Musoma, Tanzania: After the summer rains have watered the grass, a trip to the national parks of Tanzania promises a lush visual feast in peaceful surroundings. Stay in Musoma, the capital of the Mara region, which sits on the edge of Lake Victoria and is just a drive away from the Serengeti National Park – home to lions, elephants and buffalo, to name just a few. While the likelihood of rainfall in the winter months is high, average temperatures reach 28 degrees celsius in November, December and January.

Edinburgh ice rink in East Princes Street Gardens on Christmas Eve

Edinburgh ice rink in East Princes Street Gardens on Christmas Eve

Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Scotland’s capital city holds a traditional German Christmas market from the end of November until Christmas Eve, filled with festive treats. If you’re looking for a colder climate – temperatures average at a chilly seven degrees celsius – Edinburgh is the perfect yuletide destination, with spectacular decorations, ice-skating rinks, Christmas trees and a real life advent calendar bringing the city to life. There’s also a children’s market and family friendly amusement rides.

Livingstone is Zambia's gateway to the magnificent Victoria Falls, considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world

Livingstone is Zambia’s gateway to the magnificent Victoria Falls, considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world

Livingstone, Zambia: If you’re looking to escape all the usual traditions this holiday season, get away from it all by taking a trip to the Zambezi River and experiencing the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls. As well as this stunning waterfall, known as the Smoke that Thunders, Livingstone offers wildlife safaris, museums, colonial architecture and an insight into traditional village life in Zambia.

Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast

Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast

Cartagena, Colombia: Christmas in Latin America is known as Las Posadas, Navidad and Dia de los Tres Reyes, and is celebrated with flowers, songs and festive foods. Travel to Cartagena de Indias, a beautiful, colourful city on the Caribbean coast, and celebrate in the stunning old town. Roam along the cobbled streets of this Unesco World Heritage site and take in the lights of the festive decorations while enjoying the hot climate (temperatures average 31 degrees celsius in December).

Green, tree-covered hills surround the beautiful medieval town of Heidelberg Germany

Tree-covered hills surround the medieval town of Heidelberg

Heidelberg, Germany: Another breath-taking winter destination, you’ll need your hats and scarves for this one. With temperatures scraping only five degrees on average, Heidelberg is perfect for those looking for colder climates. Located in the state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany, Heidelberg is home to a 30-year-old traditional German Christmas market, with stunning illuminations, an ice rink and more than 140 individual stalls. Enjoy the romantic, picturesque landscape of Heidelberg by strolling through the baroque-style old town, and taking in the views from Heidelberg Castle.

Thanks to Lamudi, the leading property website focusing on the emerging markets, for these great suggestions!

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On saying the sweetest things

Bedtime isn’t my favourite part of the day. I’m talking about the children’s bedtime obviously. My own is something I look forward to. The boys’ bedtime, on the other hand, can feel like a round of whack-a-frog – the little toads keep popping up, I cajole them back into bed (without a mallet), then someone randomly springs up again, just as my triumphant lap of honour (walking downstairs to a child-free sofa) is in sight.

But they do say the sweetest things, and that goes a long way towards making up for all the rowdy, mischievous bedtime antics.

Whack-a-frog (bedtime)

Whack-a-frog (bedtime)

“You’re the best mummy in the world,” Son1 told me this evening as I kissed him goodnight.

“Why’s that?” I asked, genuinely curious (because I know I’m far from it). I wondered if he was thinking about the fact that this afternoon I’d left work early and rushed home to take them to their after-school sports activity; waited 2.5 hours (not reading a good book, but listening to whines about hunger, boredom, etc, due to their lessons being at different times); then drilled Son1 on his spellings, and watched at least 10 minutes of YouTube drivel with him while being elbowed and kicked by fidgety Son2.

Or maybe it was down to all the reading we’re doing at the moment. My children seem to have zero interest in reading, until it comes to bedtime, when I’m held hostage for up to 45 minutes (Son2 doesn’t pick the most suitable book, he chooses the longest). Or could I be the best mummy because I’ve just invited 15 boys (help!) to Son1’s birthday party this month.

There’s a pause. Son1 considers my question. “Why is she the best mummy?” he’s thinking. Tricky question.

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” he replies, totally deadpan.

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