Last August, I boarded a plane in Atlanta, bound for JFK and then Abu Dhabi, excited and scared and curious about what awaited me on the other side of the world. This wasn’t turning a page or starting a new chapter; this was a new book. Maybe a whole new library.
After eight months in the land of sand and sheikhs, I’m happy to report that it has been an unforgettable and rewarding experience, one I will never regret, easier than I ever dreamed at times, and much harder than I imagined at others.
It has made me appreciate my family and friends more than ever. That’s not really unexpected – I have the best family and friends a man could have, so of course I miss them terribly. But I miss home, too. I miss Atlanta and the South, and everything they mean to me. I even miss “America.”
That’s a magic word here. People are excited to meet an American. We take a lot for granted in the U.S. — we bicker about our politicians and whine about our taxes and fret about our future — but I meet people everyday who would move there tomorrow if they had the opportunity. I’m not overly patriotic, and certainly not political, but being here has made me grateful to be an American.
The biggest surprises? The oppressive heat of summer (I knew it would be hot, but 115 degrees with 80 percent humidity? C’mon!). The high cost of living (rent). The affordability (food, taxis). The diversity of the population. The tolerance for western values in some regards, the unwillingness to accept them in others. How much I really do like falafel. The mystery of Emiratis. The dichotomy of downtown Abu Dhabi, where you can walk down one street and feel like you’re in L.A., then turn a corner and be in Karachi.
Surprising and impressive, too, is the friendliness of the people from around the world who come here to make this place work and grow. I am especially in awe of taxi drivers, perhaps because I meet a new one almost every day, and because the sacrifice they make for their families is humbling. Many work 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, sending home every dirham they can to support their families and stoke their dream to return one day to a better life in Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.
The things I miss the most? Family and friends, of course. Watching American sports at normal hours. Shady, tree-lined streets. Atlanta’s restaurants. A bartender who cares who’s playing right field for the Braves. Florida, all of it. A crisp fall day. Hearing someone say “y’all.” American-style crossword puzzles in the newspaper. Live music. Rain, and weather in general. (It has been said that Abu Dhabi doesn’t have weather, just climate. There’s a difference between summer and winter, but the change is so gradual you don’t notice it. Each day is pretty much like the one before.)
So there it is, eight months under my belt, with who knows how many more to go, nothing but blue skies and sunshine and good times ahead.
Follow more of Robert Mashburn’s adventures at his blog, Abu Dhabi Do!