Saturday, March 31, 2007

And did those feet in ancient time

In the last nine months since moving from the UK to Dubai I have been privileged to go a number of places I thought it would be unlikely I would ever visit. One of the places that was furthest from my mind about this time last year was Jerusalem.

As a regular British lad growing up through the eighties and nineties some of the major history making events kind of brushed passed my attention as merely something to occupy the ITN news. Even the Falklands war, the falling of the Berlin wall and the first Gulf War were distant events brought to my lounge by the ever present Trevor McDonald and Kate Adie. The situation in the middle east over the disputed territories and recent military action in and around Beirut comes into razor focus when you live in the region.

On my guided tour to the city last week I was amazed that three major religions intersect into a very small piece of geography over a period of thousands of years. Wikipedia as usual has a concise account of the history.

For the day of my tour of Jerusalem we had a personal guide who as well looking after tourists had a part-time job as an archaeologist - the chap was a walking encyclopaedia and seemed to know nearly everyone. The first stop on our tour was the Mount of Olives. This offered magnificent panoramic views of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem. The gold dome you can see is the Dome of the Rock.

We then drove down towards the ancient city and got to take a short walk to see the Western Wall which is also known as the "Wailing Wall"

Walking around the walled city was fun and I often felt like I was on a movie set, half expecting someone to be jumping between the roof tops. Here is a shot of the main market street:

The array of goods on sale was quite remarkable:

As a Christian the thing that caught my attention the most was our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church was built up on the ground where Jesus was crucified according the new testament.

The picture below shows one of the altars - this one marks the spot of the crucifixion. It was quite an emotional time for myself visiting this and I had to take a few moments to take all of it in:

The Stone of the Anointing, believed to be the place where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. It has a smell of rose oil on touching it:

Below is the The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre - here it is believed that this was the Tomb of Christ:

It was an intense experience visiting all of these places. The history and intersection of Christianity, Islam and Judaism making for a visit that will be hard to forget if somewhat humbling.

The super tour guide we had used the phrase "mind boggling" a number of times during our trip - looking back I could not agree with him more.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

H3 getting more grunt

The major criticism in the press of the current H3 is that it is a little shy of power. On paper 3.5L (now 3.7) and 210BHP seems reasonable, but when you are pulling 2.1 tonnes an extra bit of power is always welcome sic. blasting up sand dunes with four large British chaps on board. To this end H3 owners go to lengths such as adding in a K&N air filter or even a super charger for the V5 VORTEC engine, jut to get more "beans" out of the engine.

It seems that Hummer/GM have been listening and have just released plans for a V8 5.3L developing 295BHP version of the H3 in 2008. Personally I think this sounds fantastic for flying around the dunes. However probably not so great for my carbon footprint....(I wonder when Liberty will be taking pre-orders)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Rock and Wadi

Two hours after arriving back from Dresden I was back in the Hummer. This time it was loaded up with camping gear and Eddy and Kinda from the office. I headed up to the traditional staging point at the Dragonmart Eppco-I was pleased that I was able to rendezvous with the rest of the party and we convoyed to Al Ghail where we picked up the mountain bikes.

The route Duncan had planned was to cycle along Wadi Assimah then Wadi Tayyibah followed by a short drive down to Dibba beach where we would make camp for the evening. You can see the route here:

There were nearly 30 people in the group and 10 4x4's and we created a bit of a stir at Al Ghail with the local residents wondering what was going on. Certainly some of the younger folk of the town impressed us with their "burnouts" and loud music in vehicles that had seen better days. After a little administration, the obligatory team photo and distribution of bikes we headed out. Here are the rather nice "Scott" mountain bikes and at 160AED for the days rental proved good value:

The first part of Wadi Assimah proved quite challenging for both cyclist and motorist. The cyclists were having to contend with heat of about 35C and a trail surface that was particularly unforgiving. Water breaks were the order of the day with the 4x4s staying close to support the cyclists:

Once we entered the wadi proper there was an interesting (read nerve wrecking) piece of driving we had to take the 4x4s through. Duncan summed it up nicely in an email prior to the trip:

"Incidentally- the very start of the Wadi Assimah, where we start the ride, involves some quite technical 4x4 driving over a dry river bed, with lots of potholes and water filled (depends if it’s been raining) trenches, so there is a possibility that the 4x4 drivers might get a little held up, or even have to go via road to the end of wadi assimah and come back up to meet the cyclists. Hopefully though all of the cars will get through and they can catch up the bikes."

Chris had been a little more direct with me and doubted the Hummer would squeeze through one particular turn. When I saw it - I understood what he meant. Here Matt stands in the gap - not a whole lot of room to drive through (notice the large boulder on the left of the trail) and turn:

With a sharp intake of breath and good directions from both Matt and Chris and an inch at a time the Hummer made it without a scratch. There could have only been an inch of two spare though!

Following this there was a few pools and rock climbs to navigate. After having got the through the tight turn I was pleased and the Hummer confidently went through these:

Here you can probably see me smiling at the fun I was having driving:

Following Wadi Assimah there was a short tarmac section before we reached Wadi Tayyibah. This was to prove much better for the cyclists with a more compact surface and a lot more downhill sections. There was also some interesting rock crawling sections that tested the Hummers wheel and suspension articulation well. When locked in low-range and at a dead slow speed the grip it is able to generate is impressive.

At about 5.00pm we dropped the bikes off and headed down to Dibba beach where we made camp for the evening. A a number of people refreshed themselves in the Indian ocean after a long day in the sun:

It was a nice spot to camp with and reasonably popular with at least four other large groups of expats enjoying the spring weather. It was a very relaxed evening fuelled by barbecues, some tasty beverages and some gentle guitar music (I can't comment on the singing!) Here Duncan plays the blues next to the camp fire:

It was my first camping experience in a long time, let alone in the UAE. My usual idea of camping is checking out of the Hilton and checking into the Sheraton. However what it is all about is having a great time with you friends. The rest of the trip photos are here. I hope to go again before it starts to get really hot.


The amount of resources and technological achievement that goes into making a microprocessor is often taken for granted. As I write this blog the AMD processor at the heart of my PC is performing hundreds of thousands of calculations a second that allow me to instant message, blog, email and listen to a mp3. It was with some excitement that I took a trip to the place where this is all comes alive and that is the AMDs Fabrication plant that is located in Dresden, Germany.

The site is huge with hundreds of of square meters of "clean room", its own water supply and two on site power stations. If both power stations were to fail they are able to use the local grid - I can imagine most of the lights in Dresden dimming if this were to happen. As fabrication plants are high security establishments I was unable to bring my camera. Below is an aerial shot to give you an idea of the scale of the facility:

We enjoyed a tour of the facility, and even glimpsed the "Clean Room". The levels of quality assurance, design and pride in which the employees here take in their work is remarkable. We were shown atomic level pictures as we were lectured in depth about "sub-atomic" gates and the nano technology. The work that goes into producing a modern day microprocessor is staggering.

Once the tour was over we got a chance to take a walking tour around Dresden. A lot of Brits like myself wonder what there is left of Dresden following the amount of bombing it received during World War II - the answer was baroque architecture and history to rival anything in Western Europe. Despite being exposed to a bitterly cold wind for two hours it was worth it while to see Dresden by night. It was hard to hold the camera still in the cold but all my pictures are here. As an example here is the Hofkirche or Church of the Royal Court:

Following the tour we went for dinner at a traditional restaurant which proved to be a very entertaining evening. Here is the team photo:

There was a nice band playing some background music. Later on in the evening the vocalist from the group got upstaged when my colleague Nthabeleng displayed her remarkable singing talents with soul-inspiring renditions of "Killing Me Softly", "You Make Feel (Like A Natural Woman)" and "Some people want it all". Here is Nthabeleng in full flow:

Looking back on the event - the tour, the key note by Brian Wilson, the tour of Dresden and fun and song filled evening we had with our customers and partners - I came away remembering why I joined Sun Microsystems over six years ago. We always wanted to be different.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Lazy Dubai Days

This week while I have been in Johannesburg enjoying excellent steaks and lots of Windhoek, my Auntie and her friend Caroline came on vacation to Dubai. I spent the first Saturday with them on their arrival, this helped to orient themselves and I suggested some activities they should do. Here they are enjoying the weather at Dubai Marina:

They told me they had a great time doing a desert safari, visiting the gold and spice souks, spending time at the beach and various shopping trips. It was great to see the photos they took. Here are a few that capture Dubai very well. Here is a photo I should have taken a long time ago - it is of the apartment complex I currently live in:

They took a positive move when they smiled and waved at the construction workers. I think one or two of them nearly fell in the marina with shock:

They negotiated a ride with a friendly chap who took them on a short cruise along the Dubai creek. This Dhow looks particularly "lived" in:

A whole lot of sheesha smoke:

The 360 bar at the Jumeriah Beach Hotel:

I was really pleased they both had a very nice time and they promised to come back again. I hope they do and it would be even better if I could be in Dubai at the same time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wadi Bih Good

I had been hankering to take the drive up to Wadi Bid for sometime - but for one reason or another (usually as I was traveling) I missed a number of the trips. The opportunity came up last weekend to go on an office outing I was quick to sign up.

The drive toward Dibba and though Ras Al Khaima up towards the entry point for Wadi Bih is pleasant. I always get a great feeling of calm once I leave the hustle and bustle of Dubai.

We had a convoy of seven cars with almost as many children along for the ride. This made it a very family oriented day which was a great diversion from the usual madness that is dune driving. It was also nice to see a fellow Hummer drive come along:

As the trail through the Wadi was in really good shape - despite being rather dusty - Kinda was keen to pilot the Hummer and she did an excellent job:

The UAE Off-Road explorer describes Wadi Bih as "The UAE's answer to the Grand Canyon". I have to agree with that assessment. The vistas were spectacular and easily as good as the North Rim vistas in the Grand Canyon:

Here is the view from well over 1000m above sea level:

Just after we got to the peak - we spotted a nice diversion off the trail with a shaded area which proved to be an excellent spot to break for a picnic and some relaxation. I was amazed at how well prepared some people are - Gary appeared to not only pull his lounge and dining room from out of his Tahoe but his kitchen as well:

It was a really fun day spent in great company and I want to thank Carol for doing a great job organizing everything and using her charm at the various border crossings. I will certainly be going back, as to witness such scenery only a couple of hours out of Dubai is too good an opportunity to miss. However, I had to get the Hummer a good valet after as it was really dusty on the trail:

The day was tinged with a little bit of sadness as I realized it would probably be the last time I would get to spend time with my colleague John Foster in Dubai. I have been working on and off with John for over five years and had the pleasure of working with him directly in Dubai for the last eight months. He is an old hand in the region and was a real mentor to me - showing me patience, knowledge and appreciation of the local culture and practices, without which I am sure I would not have gotten half as much out of my current position. I wish him well as he starts a new challenge in Singapore. Here is a nice photo of John and his daughter Jasmine having fun on our Wadi Bih trip.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

International Women's Day

Whilst in Moscow yesterday it seemed that everyone was carrying flowers, which was nice. Anna in the office explained that it was International Women's Day today. It is a public holiday today in Russia to celebrate but I feel sorry for any man not providing his loved one flowers. Apparently this is viewed very dimly.

One of the ladies in the office must be doing something right as she had received a number of flowers and gifts:

So to the women of Russia not only do you get Valentine's day (described by the Moscow Times as a "Western Import") - I salute you and Happy International Women's Day!

EDIT: This posted was quoted on Global Voices Online

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The truth is out there

I was intrigued the other day following a post on littejimmys blog "Beer and Bloating in Dubai" and the link to the Guardian Abroad website. I liked the idea behind their expat blog section so I duly submitted my humble little blog and to my pleasant surprise it appeared today along with a couple of very nice reviews, you can see the originals here:

Tuesday March 6, 2007 | David Oliver in UK
Cars, bachelor pads and sand. Aaron, sounds to me like you've got it sorted.

Tuesday March 6, 2007 | Felicity Forthright in UK
One for the lads really but still captures the essence of the land of the sand.

I would like to thank David Oliver and Felicity Forthright for their kind and unerringly accurate reviews of my blog (and quite possibly me). Having a surf around the other Expat blogs listed on the site has made an interesting distraction from a decidedly cold, grey and wet Moscow evening.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Trail Blazing

I have to admit I have not yet mastered the art of converging GPS waypoints and Google Earth but Chris has got this down to a science. His research led him to believe that up near Big Red on the Hatta road were some interesting points with intriguing titles such as "Big Dunes", "Encampment" and "Big Dunes2" areas. Chris has been driving around Big Red for a number of years and was fairly excited about trying some new areas so I signed up to come along. Below you can see the planned route:

It was good to be in the desert again and this time I remembered to switch of the all important Stabilsys system in the Hummer. While this a good thing to have in the wet, has the less than desirable effect of braking the car when the car slides around in the sand. With this off and the tires down to 13PSI the Hummer faired well in the "Big Dunes2" area which presented the most challenging terrain I have yet to drive over.

After about an hour or so of some fairly exhilarating driving I came down a slip face and had to make sharp left turn to avoid driving into some bushes when I heard the sound. It was a flapping rattle and the near side dipped down. I instinctively knew I had lost a tire.

I stopped quickly and found that the tire had come off the wheel. This was caused by a low tire pressure (13PSI) and turning quickly at the bottom of the dune when the tire is heavily compressed. I was initially quite shocked upon seeing it:

I have changed a few tires in my time - but never in the desert. Chris had the benefit of experience and decided that a wheel change would not be needed. All we had to do was "just inflate it and it will pop back on" - sounded simple!

First we loosened up the wheel nuts then used some sand ladders as a base for the car jack. While digging around for the jack - I discovered the Hummer comes well equipped with a hazard triangle, fire extinguisher, tool kit, first aid kit and even a space blanket (glad I didn't need to use that this time). Once the car was jacked up - we started up the engine, connected the air compressor and held the inside of the tire against the rim as it started to inflate. Below you can see Chris (in the yellow) and Javier (in Blue/White) helping out and holding the tire as Chris oversees the tire inflation:

After less than a minute - sure enough there was a resounding pop - and the tire was back on. We tightened up the nuts and set both front tires to 14 PSI. We also had a close inspection and could see no damage. We were back up and driving in about 30 minutes. Everyone pitched in to help and the teamwork of the whole thing was probably the most enjoyable aspect of the day.

After a spot of lunch we drove around "Big Dunes2" some more - however at the very highest points, the sand was way too soft for the Hummer. Here I learned to use the momentum of the car to avoid it getting stuck. We found an awesome sand bowl there required some tricky maneuvering to escape out of and I also found myself going down a couple of long slip faces which certainly got the adrenaline running. It was a really good day out and I continue to learn and improve - but still there is plenty more I need to know before I head out somewhere advanced like Liwa.

Every time I head out to Big Red where we have started a number of 4x4 trips I am always rubber-necking an unsual desert vehicle of some description. Yesterday's award goes to the ultimate BMW E30 desert vehicle:

The chap in this car gave us a friendly wave when we pulled in to get a photo. Looked like they were going to have a lot of fun. Just like our group had had.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

An Englishman's home is...

His apartment in Dubai! At long last after a number of weeks of beaucracy obtaining letters from my bank, letters from my company, writing out several dozen cheques, shelling out an infeasible amount of Dirhams in “fees” and giving my inside leg measurement I have finally completed the buying process of an apartment in Dubai.

I am now looking forward to Emaar delivering me “Dubai Marina – a life extradonaire” but I will need to wait till Jan 08. I am lucky being able to watch the construction in progress here is a picture I took about five minutes ago from my current balcony. I will be in the tallest tower on the right:

Hopefully the developers here will not repeat the set back that happened recently at the “Infinity Tower” construction site where when digging the foundations the Marina diaphragm wall collapsed and the Gulf filled the gap. It was good however that no one was injured and congratulations to Foreman who ordered out over 100 construction workers minutes before the site was flooded. Gulf news covered the story here.

Holy Bologna

There are a couple of words that hold something magical for most young men – these are “Ferrari” and “Maranello” This week I was privileged to experience a little bit of both.

Once the flight to Milan finally managed to leave a fog bound Dubai airport – we finally managed to get to Bologna after a negotiation with a taxi driver to drive me and some colleagues the 200km from Milan. I have to say that I was a little disappointed that my first ever trip to Italy and Bologna was marred by a large number of graffiti strewn buildings. Spray paint graffiti is quite noticeable in its absence in the parts of Dubai I have frequented. However later that evening a stroll down the main drag confirmed that Italians are inherently stylish in all details of their appearance and the cappuccino and moped culture is alive and well.

I have been lucky in my career to have visited the F1 factories for Mclaren (in the fabulous Norman Foster designed McLaren Technology Centre - outside Woking), the Williams factory in Oxfordshire and the Red Bull Racing factory on the old Jaguar Racing site. Each time you can not help but marvel at the mix of high technology design with traditional hand craft finishing that goes to create F1 race cars. The Ferrari factory had a very different feel to the ones I had previously seen. For a start the scale of the place is simply huge – we had a mini-bus to ferry us between various sites on the tour. The thing that strikes you first is that the test track is central to everything they do. In the two days we spent on site – the howl of the Ferrari V8 and V12 engines was always in the background as F430s, F559s and F612 Scaglietti's were put through their paces. We also spotted one or two cars that were obviously prototypes being heavily taped up to disguise their final appearance.

The tour was split essentially into two parts. First up was a visit to the F1 factory – here everything is shrouded in top secrecy and on our visit there there was only a test car – with the two race cars and spare being in Bahrain preparing for the opening Grand Prix of the season in Melboune on March 18th. Unlike the other tours we spent a fairly limited time in the F1 factory – no visits to he wind tunnel or anywhere where they machine the components for the car. I was a little disappointed but it was soon made up for.

A short drive on the minibus – took us to the Ferrari factory where they produce the road cars. It is a place where I am fortunate to say I have stepped foot in. Everywhere you look there are homages to their illustrious history as engineers quietly go about their work and a long line of Ferrari's stand in a noble queue awaiting completion of the elite few who have the wealth to own one of these beautifully crafted vehicles.

Highlights for me in the hour we spent in the factory were:

  1. The aqua blue F430 being prepared for a customer in Qatar

  2. The long lines of traditional sewing machines for crafting the leather clad interiors

  3. The 35 stations an engineer visits as he alone assembles a Ferrari engine which at the end he then signs

  4. The F1 and road cars from yester-year lined up next together showing the evolution of the brand

  5. That the only cars allowed on site other than Ferraris and Maseratis were Fiats

Sadly one is not allowed to take photos while on site – but I managed to take a team photo outside the test track:

Also a couple of photos of the meeting room where we held our business meeting for the two days:

Here a plane and F1 car just outside the meeting room:

Sometimes it was hard to concentrate when this is hanging on the wall in the meeting room:

I think this is Enzo Ferrari the founder... either way it is a nice quote:

We went to eat one night in a great Italian restaurant that was full of Ferrari memorabilia:

A nice collection behind the bar:

Overall it was a fantastic two days to be steeped in the history of probably the most famous marque on the planet. I now look forward to two things:

  1. The start of the grand prix season

  2. The day I can afford a Modena 360

I also want to extend a note of deep gratitude to my colleagues at AMD who made this trip possible.