Runaway Spoon

Here kitty kitty

December 31, 2011

In this ultra-modern United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital of Abu Dhabi, where many Germans, Russians and Brits vacation, there is a private sanctuary miles from the high-rises where exotic orphaned animals have found a home.  It’s not like taking a nearby subway or walking a few easy blocks to the National Zoo in D.C.  Here, if you know about it, you know about it.

Our tiny group from the DC area learned about the lovely sanctuary from a former Montgomery County family now working in Abu Dhabi.

A black jaguar (Photo by: Natalia Janetti) A black jaguar

Where do these beautiful animals come from to find peace in an expansive man-made oasis in the desert?

“From people who have too much money and wanted exotic pets,” said Steve Smuts, our guide -- one of the 15 staffers -- who speaks with an accent tell-tale of his native South Africa. His mother, Ronel Smuts, manages the sanctuary. Others  –for instance, the ostriches -- were given to the sanctuary by people who stayed in the UAE awhile but moved elsewhere.

Founded and funded more than three years ago by wealthy Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre houses 120 “cats” and a total of about 400 other inhabitants. “He does this for the love of the animals,” said Steve. “He pays out of his own pocket.”

Some illegally smuggled-in animals were “let loose on the streets” or authorities confiscated them as they were seized on the gulfside docks or at the airports, Steve explained. There is a massive black jaguar, lions (including a white lion family), tigers, ocelots and other smaller cats, monkeys, rare Arabian wolves, deer and birds of many varieties. Over time, some of these cast-offs bred; their offspring, too, live here safely protected.

This is a country whose people love cats.  That means lions and tigers, as well as the domestic version.  But, as these bigger “pet” cats grow up, they are harder to contain in the garage or yard. Sometimes a neighbor will report the keeping of illegal cats to the authorities.  The sanctuary may then gain another occupant.

Unlike D.C., walking a dog in the morning or evening for its constitutional isn’t a common sight in the residential neighborhoods or parks hereabouts.  Rather than pets, dogs are more considered outdoor, work animals, said our American driver.  

Saved birds (Photo by: Natalia Janetti) Saved birds

The center, about a half hour from the main city next to an industrial area, is open to the public. About 20 or so people visit it a day, said our guide.  It is not easy to find by car.  After negotiating “roundabouts” where the traffic moves far faster and more unnervingly than on D.C.’s traffic circles, we met up with the sanctuary guide at a gas station featuring a McDonald’s.  Then we followed along a bumpy road in the desert past industrial and construction sites to the sanctuary and its hundreds of hose-watered trees. 

Some of the animals were shy; others came right up to the fence, and some loped along as we drove past, apparently thinking we were the feeding crew that was to bring their dinners shortly. 

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Carmen dazzles at new Royal Opera House in Oman

December 22, 2011

The acoustically splendid Royal Opera House in Oman is a treat not only to the senses but one that should make opera houses all over the world sit up and take notice.

A group of  D.C. travelers to the Middle East were mesmerized by the magnificent new structure that opened only two months ago.  It staged a production of Bizet's Carmen that brought the international audience to its feet in praise.

"It's incredible that Oman would make this significant investment in an opera house, as opera houses everywhere are struggling, and several opera companies in the U.S.  have folded, " said Daryl Glenney, an opera buff and political consultant who travelled from the exclaves of D.C. to sit in an orchestra seat reserved even before the building opened. 

"This opera house is state of the art," she marveled.  "Bravo, Muscat!"

Inside the Royal Opera House (Photo by: Natalia Janetti) Inside the Royal Opera House
Consultants from the Kennedy Center advised in the construction and administrative setup of Oman's new opera facility.  The opera house first opened with a production conducted by Placido Domingo.

Each seat has its own screen that shows lyric translations in Arabic, English, and a choice of other languages airplane style with the screen embedded in the back of the seat ahead.

The Carmen cast of more than 150 plus two live horses found plenty of space on the massive stage.  The orchestra pit stretches the width of the stage.  An awesome touch is that the conductor is lighted and raised up so that he seems to be conducting from the middle of the front row and the audience can view his moves.  But it is not a distraction.

There was a slight glitch in our ticket strategy.  We had purchased tickets online before the opera house was opened.  When we presented them to the ushers , they said three of our four seat numbers "didn't exist" anymore.  Ah ha, we Americans thought, the fire marshall may have nixed the original arrangement, perhaps for narrowing an aisle too much.  But never mind , the ushers had anticipated the problem and had an Excel spreadsheet with nearby alternate locations for the small number of seats that hadn't made the final cut.

The style reflects traditional elements of Islamic architecture such as the use of massive stone and timber, combined with delicate  carvings, mosaics and Islamic patterns.  The floors of marble from Oman  supplement the feeling of light and richness.

It's a not-to-miss experience for those who want to explore this region.

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Arab Games celebrated in Doha as American troops withdraw from Iraq

December 19, 2011

As Qatar celebrated its National Day, Iraq's national basketball team joyfully marked its own country's form of independence with a victory at the Arab Games in Qatar's capital, Doha, just hours after America pulled its last combat troops out of Iraq.

Qatar women (Photo by: Janet Staihar) Qatar women

While many thousands attended festivities on Sunday marking Qatar's version of the Fourth of July, a few score watched Iraq win a tight game over Morocco in a preliminary round game.  An Iraqi player punctuated the win with a game-ending dunk.

Local cab drivers had a tough time finding the venue amidst a large multi-sport complex.  Tickets  were given out free for basketball and others of more than 20 sports being contested during the two-week Games.  The regional event is good pratice for a small nation that will host the World Cup football (soccer) tournament in 2022 and is bidding for the 2020 Olympics. 

Recommendation to the organizers:  step up the marketing, signage and event merchandising.  I wanted to buy an Arab Games poster, but none were to be had at the event or local shops--even an official Games kiosk at a huge mall.

I was in Abu Dhabi visiting a law firm official and took a 40-minute Qatar Airways flight to Doha for the National Day and Arab Games.

(Photo by: Janet Staihar)
For Qatar's celebration of the country's founding, sidewalks flowed with Qatar families, expatriates and tourists.  Cars decorated with maroon and white flags and decals--the national  colors--  sped along streets of this oil rich country.  To a newcomer, Qatar's main city of Doha is fascinating with its tall, sleek, architecturally spectacular office buildings, hotels and  residential complexes rising from what once were sand dunes  and now mostly memories of camels and Bedouin tribes.

In Abu Dhabi , another modern Arab metropolis, construction cranes also zig -zag through the sky.  Underfoot, the older thoroughfares are a maze of new concrete, red cones, yellow warning tapes  and fresh routes--a challenge to even the most polished of joggers. 

Qatar skyscrapers (Photo by: Janet Staihar) Qatar skyscrapers

So much construction is underway that the sea blue glass window  panes of already built high rises must be cleaned by men swinging from ropes on regular flights.

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