Early Spring 2015
Got to London a day early to do an interview for the BBC in their very far away studio. Took for ever to get there. And was a somewhat bizarre set up – big empty space, with a little chair for me in a pool of light, and blue background. Nice people and good interview. As it was, had lovely evening with Mouse (Nickname for Mary Lewis, Jane’s assistant in the UK) and heard all the latest news from John Hare about the wild camels. As I was on Etihad, they sent a car for business class passengers – they sent two!!! I had a lovely man called Sam, from Nigeria, and we discussed how his country was falling apart. I got in very late – around 12:30 a.m. I think. The IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare, which I am on the advisory board of) driver came to meet me – he had got lost with Tara G. (head of Roots & Shoots in the UK and Abu Dhabi) the day before, so luckily he knew where the hotel was for me! Was met in the hotel by the deputy manager, or some such, who escorted me to my room, telling me I had been upgraded. Very excited. And there was an amazing welcome plate with gorillas and rocks and palm, all edible. Luckily we got photos. Only problem was that the staff kept saying “good morning” because it was after midnight! Tara had already spent a day in Abu Dhabi, trying to organize for my visit, and I told her on no account to stay up.
Lazy morning, and a very good lunch meeting with Raymond (friend of Jane’s), who filled us in on a lot of the internal politics. We drove to Dubai the second day, leaving luggage in our rooms. Over an hour on busy roads, but I must admit the traffic moves fairly fast. Even though it was raining – it was not supposed to rain. I explained that as I travel around the world I very often take people the gift of rain!
We were in Dubai for almost two days. The IFAW office arranged all the press – and there was A LOT of media coverage. Very busy schedule, arranged by Maha.
We went straight into the long series of interviews. For some I was on my own, for some joined by the Executive Director of IFAW Dubai – press, radio, and ending up with a TV presenter with short skirts and knobby knees, and only one microphone for our interview, and they could not find another. Interview took place in what seemed a waiting room! We’d had lunch at about 3:30 – Maha had her very first baked potato! I just had a bowl of soup.
There was a lot of confusion – should we drive to the hotel where we were staying that night? In the end I discovered that meant driving about 30 to 40 minutes to get there, and returning to where our last interview was!!! So I decided we would go to the hotel, find a quiet place, and change there. A very wise decision. We went to the tea rooms – very fancy, and with the worst pianist I have ever heard. I don’t think he ‘d ever had a lesson! Palatial ladies room for changing. Tara and I drank tea. We were almost late for dinner as it turned out that to get to the restaurant we had to get a shuttle bus! Even though it was part of the hotel. In fact we arrived – after walking across a board walk over water, in a garden (dark, of course) – at exactly the same time as Razan (the Secretary General of the Environment Agency). Our party included Dr. Fred, Maya and Ahmed Baharon, Razan’s personal assistant – her gate keeper! Very nice man. Told me he had been very moved when he attended my talk at the Khalifa University in 2011 and since then he had long wanted to meet me.
Great dinner except music too loud and could not talk to Fred at other end of the table. And the food was so hot that Razan and I could not eat much of ours! But she really wants to help. We presented her with the Green Apple award that had been won by Tara in the UK. Razan presented it to Maya. Anyway, it was a good evening.
As we drove back to the hotel, near the IFAW office, it began to pour with rain. And I mean, it POURED. Loud claps of thunder. We found we could not drive up to the hotel which is situated in the middle of a pedestrian area. Great – except we would have got DRENCHED. We sat in the car – and amazingly it stopped.
The group escorted us to the hotel. It seemed a strange reception, one small man behind the desk. Three camels outside in the rain, and one donkey.
Actually you have to book months ahead. It is an old style building around a lovely tree filled courtyard. The Arabian Courtyard Hotel. My room was a very traditional suite – cushions on the floor, sofas with no legs, lovely oriental carpets. Huge bed. Shuttered windows that opened, but you could draw curtains to be private. Of course, it was so lovely, I sat up a while, just to enjoy it. And that night the mother of all storms. It arrived, with strong, strong wind, thunder and lightning, and then came fainter sounds as it was blown away. But then the storm returned! This happened three times. Torrential rain. Quite exciting. And in the morning, I saw a silhouette against the curtain – and there was a little black and white kitten. I fed him the roll I had saved from lunch and he came in and curled up on one of my cushions.
Tara and I had quite a walk looking for the breakfast room – which was actually right there by the reception, but no sign. Very elegant. From the hotel we could walk to the IFAW office. A lovely office, the only one IFAW has that that welcomes and educates visitors. Outside is an Arab tent, where Azzedine Downes (President and CEO of IFAW) used to sit and drink Arabic coffee and eat dates during the time he ran the office. His staff said that it was not appropriate behavior for a CEO – but obviously Azzedine paid no attention. I sat at Azzedine’s desk for the interviews. Some with the whole group and some on my own. During lunch break we went to see the exhibition they are preparing for – lots of small traditional buildings, selling traditional things. For the tourists. Carpets laid out to dry everywhere! There is a permanent camel museum and an Arab horse museum. A young man went round opening all the doors, so I felt I had to rush into each room – though no time to really look. Very well done. Showed Azzedine the donkey whose hooves needed trimming – he said he would fix – and I now know he has. Camels are just there for the exhibition. One was saddled for rides.
It was nice getting back to hotel with all our things in place. Like coming home! And then Tara and I had supper in my room.
The big event was the celebration of Roots & Shoots. Nine schools and two universities. They had displays, as we do everywhere. Some amazing clothes and bags made out of recycled things. A little talk from me. Fred came, which was really nice, and I could have a good talk with him, about the big foundation. One strange thing: one of the professors had been in Lebanon during the war, and it had been my TV shows and Geographic articles that made him realize there was another world, and gave him hope. Which reminded me of Micky who was holed up in the basement during the siege of Sarejevo, and how the TV show, Among the Wild Chimpanzees, came on to the screen during one of the rare times when they had electricity. When they were taking turns to go out and search for food, any food. And how it gave him courage to go on, knowing there was another world out there. And refused to turn it off although others wanted the news, and were angry. And there was a woman also holed up, in Israel during the war there, and she too had found solace from a TV program of me and the chimps.
The last lecture was at the New York University in Abu Dhabi. And lo and behold, there was Fisher – who had been doing Roots & Shoots in Shanghai for seven years. Very keen to help us get going in Abu Dhabi. The lecture went very well, and there was time to go round the library, which they are very proud of. Look at the model that showed the lay out of the campus, which is magnificent, and new, large palm trees imported from Egypt!
Afterwards, I had a short interview. It all nearly went wrong because our driver, who never drove in Abu Dhabi before, went quite the wrong way. We were almost late – the audience was seated! But it all worked out.
Tara stayed on another day, had meeting with Maya. I left for Sri Lanka and the next adventure. My duties as Ambassador for Disneynature.
You can learn more about Jane’s trip to the Middle East by reading some of the news articles below.