Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ski Dubai...

Enjoy...

All I do is plan...

Hey Everyone...

Well, fall is finally in the air in Doha. The searing heat has ebbed, and the colors have begun to change... meaning the plants are turning green again. It was incredible the temperature change! We were still having upper 90s during the day just one month ago. Then, suddenly, in about two week's time, the nights became much cooler and the days became livable! Right now, we have midday temps in the upper 80s to low 90s, and nighttime lows in the 60s... gorgeous weather. Over here, the winter is when everyone starts enjoying the outdoors. The empty lots around town start to fill up with large majelis, or tents used to hold weddings. The larger empty spaces are now used for marathon cricket matches. People are walking outdoors... outdoors!!

A few weeks ago, some friends and I enjoyed a professional tennis tournament in town. The Sony Ericsson World Tennis Association Ladies Championship held a tournament at the tennis stadium. The top ten female tennis players in the world, and the doubles, played a long weekend match. Serena Williams canceled last minute with food poisoning, a common ailment here for foreigners. But I did get to see the gold medal pairs play the number one pairs in the world, including Elena Dementieva. Next up, I saw Venus Williams beat #1 in the world, Jelena Jankovic. A full day of world class competition, in a beautiful stadium, under clear blue skies... nice day.

But it's not all just fun and games over here. The last semester is always the busiest over here. You have third exams, final exams, grading, lab cleaning and prep for next semester... all while the students complain that they don't have enough time to study. I have one more week of teaching and grading, then it's two weeks of moving our research labs into our new building.

But I do have a lot of fun and games! Last weekend, some friends and I went for a weekend in Dubai. I took a few days to plan and thought, if I'm spending the money to splurge on a quick trip to Dubai... why not do it right? So I booked a room at Atlantis the Palm. This is the same hotelier as the Atlantis in the Bahamas. Five stars, brand new, one billion Euro cost. I flew over on a Friday morning with [NAME REMOVED] and took a cab to The Palm. Dubai is amazing... it is just skyscraper over skyscraper... all brand new, and each with its own unique and stunning architecture. You can see the Burj al Dubai tower from anywhere in the city... the tallest building in the world. It's only about 4/5th completed, but it's already the tallest structure in the world. When finished, it will be just under one kilometer in height. It dominates the skyline in a way that is unbelievable...

I also saw the sail shaped Burj al Arab, the only seven-star hotel in the world, anchored on an island just off the coast. You have probably seen Nike ads with sports stars hitting golf balls or playing tennis off of its helipad. Anyway, took the cab to The Palm, the first in many of reclaimed land built off the coast. Pulling onto it, you wouldn't even know you were on the Palm, because all you see is the line of high rise apartment buildings spreading out left and right. Next a tunnel, then you see the resort, Atlantis. It was magnificent!! You enter the lobby and see a Geoffrey Chihuly glass sculpture that is gorgeous. The room was great, with a tiny balcony overlooking the Palm. Dubai is currently building a monorail (no shitty El trains here), and the monorail has a station directly in the hotel! I spent the day enjoying the in-hotel waterpark. And this wasn't some rinky-dink SplashTown... this was built by the same family as Schlitterbahn! Uphill coasters, tube chutes, rapids, and a body slide that takes you into a dark pit, followed by a clear acrylic tube thru a shark tank! Killer!! One problem, the uphill rides are designed for the generally much smaller people of Arabia. I took an uphill run but bumped into the sidewall and slowed down... and I didn't have enough velocity to make the next uphill... and I stopped the ride. The cut the water, and I coasted to a stop, and took a very embarrassing walk down the stairs. Ouch. Also, the hotel has an incredible aquarium... 11,000,000 liters of water! The largest viewing window is about thirty feet high and fifty feet across! It was a very filled day. But the night was almost as good. We got a reservation to Nobu, one of the best (and most expensive) sushi and Japanese food restaurants in the world. You may remember it as the restaurant where Iron Chef Morimoto used to cook, and owned by Robert DeNiro... cool. An eight course dinner was to-die-for, and so was the bill. Best part, besides the scallops on miso chips, were the four greasy Russians with six of the most obvious hookers I have ever seen. We're talking six foot tall blondes with dresses so short I could count how many kids they had... plus twelve of the most uplifted, angriest boobs I have ever seen!
The one down side of our stay was that the main beach and pool were closed. The hotel's grand opening was in one week, and they were building a stage for the opening ceremony. They also were discussing the many barges floating out around the hotel and fronds of the Palm. Turns out they were firework barges... holding ten times as many fireworks as the Bejing Olympic opening ceremony!! You have to check out the video at http://www.atlantisthepalm.com/grandopening.aspx.

The next day, we met up with some friends at their hotel, and went to the Mall of the Emirates. We did some shopping, but were really there for the skiing. Yes, skiing. I went snow skiing at the famous Ski Dubai. A multistory, two run indoor ski slope with lifts, jumps, ramps, and even a landing bag... and hot chocolate. After a twenty minute struggle with the provided ski clothing (damn... my ass has gotten huge!) we took off for the lift to the top. I was a bit wobbly at first, but picked my form back up in no time. Now, the runs are fairly short, but it is just so cool knowing that outside it was 92 degrees, in the mall it was 72 degrees, and in this large room, it was -2 degrees. We had a ton of fun! Hopefully you watched the video above documenting the entire run. I only fell once when I was slammed into by a rowdy ten-year old on a snowboard. But I got him back by smacking him later with my ski pole. We were going up for our last run when [NAME REMOVED] slipped a little and took a fall. Unfortunately, her ski didn't come off and she ended up tearing a ligament. Ouch... But on the bright side, when we left, we were able to skip the taxi lines and got full handicap cutsies thru security and customs. Her pain... my gain. Thankfully, she's OK... just a little hobbled until she finds out if she needs surgery...

I had some more fun this past weekend... I stayed in my winter home! Some friends and I bought a large tent, got a permit, and went out to the inland sea to find a home. We caravaned over the dunes and searched around for our little slice of heaven. We ended up picking up a great spot just over a dune from the sea and went to work. It took a few hours, but we were able to get the tent up and ready with chairs, tables, coolers, and beds. We even have a screened in porch... and a separate shitter! After putting the tent up, we took a swim in the crystal clear inland sea to cool off, and spent the night relaxing under the bright stars. The occasional LandCruiser would pass by, and nearby tents were shooting off fireworks... but it was a beautiful night. The air got cold, we bundled up, and we lit our firepit to cook our handmade South African sausage. After a great night asleep, I awoke first to watch the sunrise over the dunes. On the way home, we stopped to take some photos of a wild herd of camels. Nice weekend.

Well, two weeks more of work, and then I'm off. I'm headed out to Europe for two weeks to backpack around Germany, Austria, and France... in winter. After that, I'm heading to the States to visit my family and friends for three weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing my parents, my sisters, my friends... and my dog.

I live... one hell of a life.

ben

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

India on one bag... Part 3

Last week, on India on one bag... our intrepid hero and his quirky gal-pal, [NAME REMOVED], had just escaped from the evil clutches of the Coconut Lagoon and were headed into the mountains with their trusted sidekick, Benny...

We started our drive to our next stop, Blackberry Hills. As we rode along, Benny noticed my wrist and recoiled in horror at the sight of pus dripping down my arm. The arm was looking terrible, but was really fine. We slowly drove into the mountains, called the Western Ghats. Along the way we pulled into a small town to fill up with gas. A small car with enormous speakers attached on the roof was driving thru the city center blaring a woman's voice. I asked Benny what she was selling, and he said it was a political advertisement for the Communist Party. Turns out that Kerala has been ruled by the Communist Party for many years. They come and go in power, but it really is communist. More of an idolized "everyone is equal" type of communist... not so much the "red menace" type.

After a few hours of driving, we were deep into the mountains headed to the village of Munnar. Huge waterfalls kept appearing thru the mountainside. Once again, our car was skirting the edges of very high cliffs, squeezing around large trucks and out-of-control motorcycles. Occasionally, Benny would give the car a hard jerk left or right, disturbing my slumber. I woke up and was looking at the magnificent vista that surrounded me when I noticed that Benny's eyes were closing for waaay to long to be blinking. I asked if he needed a break, and he said no. We kept driving, and I kept watching Benny's eyes close and head bounce up and down... he was falling asleep. Not good considering we could careen off a thousand foot cliff without barriers at any time! I told Benny to please stop so we could all get out and stretch our legs... and hopefully not get killed in the process.

Later, we arrived in Munnar. It sits high up in the Ghats at about 5,000 feet above sea level. As we approached, the dark green of dense trees gave way to mountains covered in an almost neon green that was tiled onto the sides of the hills. From a distance, it actually looked as if God had done decoupage on the landscape with little squares of green! When we got closer, we saw that these hills were covered in tea plants, and the grout lines between them were the footpaths of the workers. This landscape continued as far as the eye could see. We drove up one of the mountains and came to our destination... Blackberry Hills.

Blackberry Hills... is a fairly small hotel tucked into the side of a mountain. Unlike our other hotels, this one was not part of the same company, CGH Earth. All of our hotels were promoted as an ecotourism site... very green, recycling, save the whales type establishment. This one was more of a mom and pop place. A tiny lobby awaited us as Benny directed the porters to our luggage. The hotel guy said that the restaurant was upstairs, and that he would direct us to our room, unless we wanted to eat first. We said that we would check into the room, then come back for lunch... very stupid mistake. He walked us to a footpath to take us to our room, then pointed out our room to us... several hundred feet down the mountain! Oh shit. I started down the narrow footpath that zig-zagged down the side of the cliff. I was having trouble slowing my pace while walking! It was so steep I was afraid what would happen if it rained... you could never get down to the room! Then it hit me... I was going to have to walk back up. It took about ten minutes to walk down to the room, on the third floor of a tiny building built into the hill. The room was sparse but comfortable, with a thermos of spiced water for refreshment. The one really nice part of the room was the balcony. Very small, but with an amazing view of the tea plantation valley below, and the Western Ghats expanding away to the east.

After we unpacked and got settled, [NAMED REMOVED] wanted lunch, so we started the hike back up the paths. Now... I should say... I'm not in the greatest shape in the world. I've gained a lot of weight in the past year, and allowed myself to smoke on this vacation, so climbed up steep paths in the thin altitude did not fare well to my well-being. I could only take the paths in stages, having to stop and wheeze for five minutes between fits of coughing. By the time I got to the top, I needed several minutes to catch my breath before taking the steps up to the restaurant; sweating like I just ran a marathon. At the restaurant, we didn't have the huge buffets and world-class chefs like the previous hotels, just some simple hill-country fare. But we did have a special type of Kerala flatbread that was sweet, buttery, flaky... and one of the best things I have ever eaten. We also got a bowl of a curry-type dish with fresh peas that we ended up fighting over who got to lick the bowl. That night we relaxed on the balcony with some books and cards, and watched the purple mist flow into the valley over the hills. The thin air became cold, enough so that we could see our breath... something we had not felt in almost a year. Actually getting chilly and needing a blanket seemed so strange, considering we were sweltering in the humid backwaters not ten hours earlier.

The next morning, we hired some Sherpas and goats to guide us back to the lobby, where I offered to give the manager all the money I had to install an escalator or at least a tow rope. After breakfast, we met with Benny and headed out to a tour of a tea plantation. We met up with our tour guide (let's call him Joe) at the base of the mountain. We were early, and had about twenty minutes to kill before the tea museum opened, so we took a walk through the nearby plantation. The tea plants, which are actually trees that they keep small thru cuttings, were growing into the sides of the rocky path. Joe told us that all tea comes from the same plant, and all varieties are just how the tea is harvested and cut. We walked along a winding driveway with tea on one side, and an open field with grazing cows on another. I couldn't help think that it looked just like The Shire... I was expecting hobbits to come creeping through round doors just past the curve in the road. Joe explained how just the very tops of the tea is hand-picked by an army of workers that are born, live, work, and die in the fields. The plantation were were walking thru was one of the largest in India, and was once owned by a huge conglomerate, TATA; but was now owned by the workers. You might know it as its American name... Tetley Tea. He talked about the history and tradition of tea as we walked under a perfectly blue sky with multicolored dragonflies flowers all swarmed around. I asked him about some signs we saw coming into town about "Munnar Blue." Joe said that there is a huge park on top of one of the mountains that is restricted, people are only allowed access to a small portion of the park. Every twelve years, a special flower, the neelakurinji, blooms for about a week and blankets the entire hillside with bright blue flowers. Joe was very proud to say that he has seen all three bloomings in his life. Benny came and picked us up after our walk, and drove us to the tea museum. We watched a short film on the history of the plantations, how the British planted the first tea, built the first railroads and hillstations, and how the workers came to own their own fields. Afterwards, we got a tour of the original equipment, and watched how the tea was dried, cut, roasted and sorted. The smell of fresh cut leaves followed by the sweet smell of the roasting was thick in the air. We had our complimentary cup of dust-cut cardamon chai (my now favorite tea) and headed back into town.

As I mentioned before, that day was Ghandi Jayanti, the anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Ghandi. In Munnar, and all the small villages we drove thru, the statues of Ghandi were all polished and wrapped in lotus and jasmine flowers. Streamers of paper and blossoms were strung over the roads, and firecrackers were for sale on every corner. We pulled into some shops and bought a large variety of tea for ourselves and gifts, and headed back to the hotel. That afternoon, we followed the path past our room and tried to hike down the mountain side to the valley below. It turns out that the path was more for experienced climbers than simple walkers trying to burn off a fattening lunch. After about half an hour, we turned back and headed up to the room to pass out from exhaustion (or at least I did). Thankfully, I was able to convince [NAME REMOVED] to get dinner delivered to the room, where we feasted on the kerala bread and peas over games of gin. It was really nice to spend half a day just sitting back and drinking in the clean, cool air. We had been traveling non-stop since Delhi, whether in the car, or being shuttled from boat to tour to elephant... just sitting with a book with our feet propped up on the railing was incredibly nice. At least until a vampire bat that could have picked up an ox landed just a few feet from me...

The next morning, I rode piggyback on a porter, and he carried me up the slopes back up to the lobby landing. We met with Benny for our final port of call... Kochi.

Kochi... or Cochi... or Cochin... or Kochin, whatever they call it today, was our last stop. We drove the five hours into the city, and arrived in the early afternoon. Kochi is large coastal city known for its shipping and waterways of about 600,000 people. We pulled into our hotel, and were a little disappointed. After the beautiful, all natural hotels of the spices, waters, and hills, our last hotel was like a very nice Holiday Inn. It was actually located within a dockyard, so our views were of shipping containers and 18-wheelers. The room was very nice, but [NAME REMOVED] got a little miffed with the staff about our reservations, so she was a irked from the start. We ate a nice buffet, and headed to the pool. Since this hotel was in a city, and didn't have the need to recycle its own sewage like the others, we felt the pool water was safe... but still didn't open our mouths. After a little while of sunning ourselves, we dressed and met up with Benny and our new tour guide (we'll make this one... Sammy). Sammy explained the history of Kochi, how it was the first part of India that was conquered by foreigners: first the Dutch, then Portuguese, the British. It was the most important port in the history of India... all spice and trade thru India come thru Kochi. Because of this, there are monuments and customs in Kochi that are not in any other part of India.

We drove thru the old Fort Kochi, and toured some old churches. One of them contains the grave of explorer Vasco de Gama... or at least it did until is son took his remains seventeen years after he died. No offence Dad... but wherever you drop, you're staying. Sammy then took us to Jew Town. This is a long street were... you guessed it... the Jews used to live. Now it is a thriving area of antiques and art stores. We walked along, letting each store's barker try to sell us art, statues, and figurines. Unfortunately, we walked into a rug store. Fifty strong sales pitches and a lot of money later, [NAME REMOVED] and I walked out of there with two new Persian rugs. I told myself that I would only buy one rug on this trip, but I bought two. And this rug was really expensive. I paid more for the rug than my plane tickets. But it is a gorgeous rug. The last stop was the famous Chinese fishing nets along the coast of the waterways. Large square nets are hung horizontally from four corners by a spindly cross of logs. The nets is counterweighted with large stones tied to an A-frame. The entire structure is lowered into the water, then pulled back up to trap any fish. They stretch along the water like spiders waiting to bounce. While we were there, the fish auction was being held, with purveyors bidding on crates of squid and cuttlefish.

From there we walked to a small cultural theatre for a performance of Kathakali, the traditional dance of Kerala. We watched the two male performers paint themselves orange (powerful and evil) and green (good, royalty and godlike) before the show. Next, three men not wearing shirts came onstage with simple instruments and played music while one of the performers went through his pre-show exercises. Most of the story is told through the facial expressions, of which there are 24 only... each expression means one thing. So the performer must sometimes hold the same expression for a long time, and will only move his eyes... and somehow we are supposed to understand the story of an ugly god who disguises herself as a beautiful woman and tries to seduce one of god's sons... makes sense to me. The performance started, and we were treated to a very beautiful, and loud, scene from folklore. Turns out that these guys have to apprentice for eight years before they even take to the stage. A weird way to finish the trip, but somehow fitting.

We went back to the hotel, and had dinner at the restaurant at the hotel, which is very famous for its seafood. Our waiter came to our table with a cart full of fresh fish and lobster, and we let him pick out the best items, and to cook them however the chef wanted. Had some great lobster and prawns, and we shared a very spicy fish with wine. A really nice, elegant, candle-lit dinner for our last meal in India.

Back in the room we packed up for our return trip. At this point, the one-bagging idea started to show its cracks. The one bag scheme works well... unless you buy stuff that won't fit in the bag! Thankfully, [NAME REMOVED] had that covered. Buried in her one bag was a very tiny BIG BAG! A folded up duffel bag big enough to hold all of our souvenirs and two rugs! So we got everything packed and ready to go for our 3:15 a.m. wake-up call.

Unfortunately, the front desk called us at 3:50 a.m.!! We grabbed our bags, ran out the door, cursed the front desk people as we sprinted past where Benny was waiting for us. He hopped in the car, and he burned rubber for the 40 minute drive to the airport. Driving through the docks and over the bridges to the airport, seeing the last of the painted big rigs and autorickshaws swerving back and forth, we realized that we were finally leaving India. At the airport, we said our goodbyes to Benny and gave him an enormous tip (around two months salary) for being a great driver and guide. If you ever book the Kerala trip through Qatar Airways, make sure you ask for Benny.

It was an amazing trip! The polar opposites of the city to the country, the coast to the mountains, the temples and the churches, the rich to the poor... all made India a place to marvel. I know that I will never forget the smell of Delhi, the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, the shits of Agra, the men of Kerala, the taste of young cardamon, the waters of Periyar and the backwaters, the hands of Rajee, fresh coconut juice, the sound of the flute, the burn of walking up the lobby, the aroma of tea leaves, and the sun cresting over the fishing nets.

I was really worried about traveling through India... and now... I can't wait to go back.


later...

ben

Thursday, October 30, 2008

India on one bag... Part 2


So, where was I...

Oh yeah... [NAME REMOVED] and I were at the New Delhi airport at 4 a.m. We boarded our flight on what I believe was a converted crop duster on Air India and flew to Bangalore. After a short layover and a brief conversation with a nun in the airport (true!) we took yet another conversion plane (I believe this one was formally used to transport livestock) to Kerala.

Kerala... is a small state on the southwestern coast of India. Its motto... God's Own Country. A little bold... but we'll see. We arrived in Kochi and walked straight out the door... the best part of only carrying one bag. Kochi is the largest city in the state, and we were greeting by a rep from the travel agency. He introduced us to Benny... our driver and defacto tour guide. With only about two minutes of greeting, we were told that our first destination was the town of Thekkady... four hours away.

Benny was rail thin, and wore an all white tunic that was made from the same material as the seat coverings that lined every inch of the little white TATA car. The car was drenched in an aroma of jasmine from the fresh flower lei that was dangling from the rear view mirror. We headed out of Kochi and started into the hill country of southern India. The hills seemed to slowly creep into the scenery after passing little town after little town. The men were all dressed in simple shirts with a wrap-around skirt on. Since the weather was warm, they all folded their skirts up and in, like a Daisy Duke halter top.

One of the biggest shocks to our system came from the smell and the colors. The air is thick with the smell of flowers, trees, and rain. There is almost no manufacturing in Kerala... most of the state is dedicated to agriculture, mostly tea, fruits, and spices. Those spices permeate the air wherever you go. And the deep green of the forests was spellbinding. Coming from a country where any green you see is rare, and clear blue skies only happen once in a blue moon when the dust is blown to sea... seeing lush green trees under an azure sky was breathtaking.

After a few hours of driving, we stopped for lunch at a little open air restaurant that overlooked a crystal clear river. It reminded me of the Comal in Texas, but much wider and forceful. Women lined the banks washing clothes as men played with naked children in the rapids. It was a very peaceful and serene setting... such a contrast with the urban warfare that Delhi and Agra provided. We left and Benny soon was driving on roads that winded around the edges of the massive hills. More than once I could look out my window and stare straight down several hundred feet at homes that were perched on cliff sides. My ears popped several times as the elevation increased hour after hour. After a few more hours in the car, we arrived at our destination... Thekkady and Lake Periyar.

Thekkady... we pulled into our hotel for the night, called Spice Village. The staff was very warm and friendly, and we were given jasmine leis... fresh jasmine flowers are my new favorite smell. We walked through the resort, in between tall trees and meandering through the thatched roof huts that were to be our room. Our little hut was very nice, with all handmade furniture and itty-bitty beds. We got comfortable and sat outside enjoying a drink. The air was much cooler than earlier in the day. There was an abundance of different plants surrounding our huts, each labeled with a name showing which plant bore which spice. Spice... you were always told about the spice routes and their importance thru history... but when you come to a place that was founded, fought, and survived thru nothing but seeds and stems... it really puts some things in perspective. Later, we went to a cooking demonstration of some simple Kerala dishes (fish masala and something even more delicious) and had the first of amazing buffet dinners! God the food!! The best Indian food I ever had in the states was absolute dogshit compared to the food I ate here. Not even close. I ate many a multicolored dish that had no discernible ingredients, and came back for seconds. Later, we went off to the bar for a beer. The bar was the original home of the nature conservator for the British East India Company. Its walls were lined with pictures of the first elephants spotted, tiger hunts, and of the elite British society that came to rule India.

The next morning we went off with Benny to Lake Periyar and the national tiger preserve. Yes... a tiger preserve. We drove thru a simple gate with signs that cautioned against opening your car windows and not to stop for elephants. Stopping at the lake, monkeys greeted our car looking for scraps of food. And not the cute Curious George kind... but the mean looking gnarled kind with red asses. We boarded a small boat with some Indian and Arabian families, and took an hour-and-a-half ride around the lake. The lake itself was a beautiful mottled green that was perfectly glassy. We saw wild boars, gnus, and a weird type of deer with curled horns drinking from the lake's surface. Unfortunately, we didn't see any wild tigers or elephants... there was plenty of water still in the hills, so they were staying home. But the ride was beautiful and serene, anyway. Later, we went on a tour of a working spice plantation. We walked thru a dense forest, and every few feet our guide would stop and explain spice after spice. Pepper, cardamon, tumeric, vanilla, etc. It was all very pretty and informative, but a little boring... then we saw the elephants.

They had four elephants under an alcove lazily eating hay and fruit. Two men were cooking a meal right next to them in a little lean-to, most likely their handlers. We paid a few dollars, climbed up a very rickety stepladder, and jumped on the back of a very large Indian elephant. The elephant slowly walked thru the spice plantation with a small man with a long white beard walking behind shouting commands. Squeezing thru impossibly narrow trees, the elephant lumbered on for about half an hour... occasionally pulling huge limbs of sugar cane and bamboo to each along the way. Once we were off, I bought a bowl of fruit to feed the beast, and he used his truck to steal a pineapple straight out of my hand.

On our way back to the hotel, we noticed that the car was starting to smell a little... funky. Almost immediately we realized that Benny was sleeping in the car at night. Not sure what to do (no please, Benny, come shower in our room...) before we left, we made sure to grab some extras jasmine leis from the front counter to mute some of the stench. After an incredible lunch, we set off for our next port of call... the backwaters.

The backwaters... before we got there, I was trying to figure out on our map just how far we were driving. According to the map, we were only about 150km from our destination... yet we drove for four-and-a-half hours. The roads winded around and around and around... sometimes they were just gravel and only wide enough for one car at a time. It turns out that the roads were made by elephants! India just came behind them and paved their walking paths! On the way, [NAME REMOVED] and I started the longest card game of War every undertaken. We couldn't even finish in the car, and took our cards to finish later.

We went from the spiced hills down to the backwater area near the coast. The backwaters are a maze of over 400 rivers, streams, and inlets that come together from the mountains. They are used for transportation, irrigation, and food. Benny parked the car near a bridge, and instructed us to board a longboat for the trip to our resort... since our resort was only accessible by water.
Side note: around this time, I noticed a zigzag rash along my right wrist. I thought it was a strange sunburn or maybe some sort of irritation I picked up from the elephant... and didn't think much of it... more to come later.

We took the longboat for ten minutes along a narrow waterway, passing huge houseboats called kettuvallum, made from reeds with thatched roofs, small stain glass windows along the sides with intricately carved wooded prows. Women were slamming clothing against the rocks to get them clean, and men in dugout canoes were using poles to skim the surface for fish. Our boat pulled up to a water gate where a guard let us enter the resort... Coconut Lagoon.

Coconut Lagoon was something you never forget. A small white wall separated the resort from the sunken river. The entire resort was bisected with small canals and bridges. We got off the boat and walked directly from the boat into the open hotel lobby. Immediately we were greeted by the staff, and they sliced open some coconuts for us to drink from while we checked in... nice touch. To get to our room, we crossed several small curved bridges, ducking under very low roofs and overhangs. The name of the area actually means "land of short people." It is because the locals were always knee deep in rice paddys, and they looked very short. It also meant that I cracked my skull open more than once while ducking into doorways.

Anyhow, our rooms was another small hut that overlooked the waterway. To the right, the waterway opened up into a large, shallow lake that was covered with water lilies. The best part of the villa was the bathroom... it was outside. That was a little strange, but very cool... you open the bathroom door, and there is only a little roof over the toilets, while everything else was in the open air. They had orchids growing out of coconuts hanging from the branches of trees, and an area dedicated for the local fish. The resort, and Kerala, is known for its massage treatments. In fact, the entire area is famous for its ayruvetic massage... a series of treatments, each one treating a specific ailment... from pimples to cancer. As [NAME REMOVED] was signing up for her two hour treatment for the next day, she was anxious to get me into my first massage. Now, I've had massages before, but they were always for physical therapy, not relaxation. So, she signed me up for one that was to cleanse the mind and spirit... so off I went.

The massage... oh boy. I walked into the massage center, isolated behind the resort overlooking a rice paddy. I was instructed to only whisper, and to follow Rajee, a tiny speck of a man about four feet tall. He took me into a back room, and asked that I take off my clothes. So I undressed down to my undies, and he looked at me and said, "all clothes." Damn... I'm not a huge fan of getting naked in front of other men... much less complete strangers. But there I was, completely naked... but not for long. Rajee then spun me around and tied a tiny string around my waist, which was to hold up the loincloth that covered my junk. And when I say covered... I really mean strangled my junk.

I sat on a tiny stool while Rajee gave me a twenty minute head massage; constantly rubbing his fingers over my scalp in swirls and patterns. So far, this was pretty nice. Next up, he laid me down on a table, face-up, with my head resting under some sort of scaffold. Soon, another little man came in carrying a large bucket on his head... filled with coconut oil. The restorative that I was getting is a procedure where they pour warm oil on your forehead to cleanse the mind. Slowly the room was filled with the smell of coconut oil warming on the heater behind me... I could hear the pops from the oil like frying bacon. They then filled a gourd over my head that was dangling from a rope, closed my eyes, and let the oil pour.

At first, I freaked out. That oil was hot... really hot. The sensation of hot oil being poured on my head and dripping off of me was strange. Rajee slowly moved the gourd from side to side. It became quite relaxing and nice. You could hear the insects outside, smell the oil and incense, and I drifted off for a while. But after about an hour, I was ready to finish... but they kept reheating the oil again and again. I kept thinking "they can't be heating more oil... it has to end sometime." When it was over, I very easily slipped off the table, and they held my hands into the outdoor shower. There, the oil was washed off my body... by Rajee. After I was soaped and rinsed, Rajee had me put my clothes back on, and then he gave me a red stripe on my forehead for luck, and some spice on my scalp to head with my breathing. I'll be honest... this was a really weird experience... but I really loved it. I tried to elope with Rajee, but he spurned me.

After breakfast, I read a book outside and walked around the resort for a few hours, before my next massage treatment. This time... it was a full-on two man job. Non-stop, oiled up, naked on a mat. Rajee and friend had their hands working up and down my body with a style that could only have come from watching synchronized swimmers. Two hours of unending man-on-man flesh rubbing. I was expecting them to start ripping their clothes off and to have the cheesy 70s soundtrack to start. Near the end, they started cracking every bone in my body. When they started cracking my toes, I lost it. I started laughing uncontrollably, trying but failing to keep my voice below a whisper. Thankfully, the treatment was over, or I thought it was. While still oiled up, I was put into a tiny steam bath and allowed to baste for about thirty minutes. When they pulled me out, the combo of steam and oil made me almost a frictionless human being. I was afraid if I slipped, no force on Earth was going to be able to stop my momentum. Finally, once again, Rajee washed and dried me down. And once again, I loved it!

And for the record... I am a heterosexual.

On our itinerary we had a one-line note that read, "lunch at backwater farmhouse." Not knowing what was going on, we were about to have lunch at the resort when they called and said that Benny was waiting to take us to lunch. We got in the boat and met Benny at the dock. He drove us for about ten minutes until the road actually ended against another waterway. He honked the horn, and about 500 meters across the water a man got out of a house, climbed into a dugout, and used his pole to push the boat across the water to meet us. We boarded, and without a word, he pushed us across the lily covered lake back to the farmhouse. We were met by a very nice woman who explained that we were on a private island farm that was owned by her family. She showed us their coconut and banana trees along with all their homegrown spices. After the tour, we were introduced to her grandmother, who was going to cook our lunch for us in their home. They have rooms on the island where people come and stay, and let the family cook and clean... called homestays. So while we waited for lunch, we browsed thru the photo albums that were on the coffee table, surrounded by photographs of children and dead relatives. In the photo albums were articles about the island and the family. But most surprisingly, their were large articles about the grandmother! According to Gourmet, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler, the grandmother was one of the most celebrated chefs in all of India! She is reknowned for her southern Indian cuisine... and she cooking for us in her own kitchen! Needless to say... it was some of the best food I have ever tasted. She even sat down with us and ate while answering the phone and making dessert. Incredible. We said our goodbyes, and went back to the resort so [NAME REMOVED] could get another massage. I took a nap in a hammock, and was awoken by a phone call from the front desk. "Sir, your sunset cruise is ready."

I rushed to the lobby and was guided to the large two-story boat. I met with [NAME REMOVED] and climbed on top along with an Indian family and a British couple living in Dubai. We pulled away from the resort and drifted into the lake. A man sat on the floor of the boat and began playing Indian folk songs on a carved flute. The sun began to change colors as we photographed snakebirds catching fish and flying off to their nests. Giant vampire bats were circling overhead and heading into the trees to feast on the insects. As the sun started to set, the boat cut the engines, and with solitary sound of the flute, we watched the red sun slowly sink under water. A beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

After dinner, it was big fruity drinks at the bar and some games of chess to finish of the day. Our bartender told us to get our drinks in, since there would be no alcohol for the next two days. The first of every month, no alcohol is allowed to be sold. On top of that, the next day was Gandhi Day, the national holiday celebrating the birth of Gandhi. So we made the most of our booze, and spent our last night on the water's edge.

Early the next morning,we climbed aboard the boat and met Benny at the bridge for yet another four hour car ride... this time heading straight up to the mountains and the famous tea plantations of Munnar.

Side note: one bagging is excellent! I had just enough clothes to last me until the backwaters. I paid about five dollars to have all my clothes cleaned by the hotel, and got them back before we left. With the additions of some small trinkets and gifts, everything (except for the rug) fit into the one bag. When it was time to get ready, simply everything went into the bag and we were off... very nice. My little daypack holding my water and cameras was working perfectly. Also, no Delhi Belly! The constant hand washing and checking of the food and water was paying off in spades by way of not shitting myself.

Remember that rash on my wrist? The first night, the rash started to slightly blister like poison ivy, but without any scratching or itching. The next morning, my wrist was covered with one, large, pus-filled blister. Although it never hurt, it looked like I had spilled acid over my arm... my skin seemed to be rotting off the bone. The pictures online don't even come close to how bad it looked. I kept having to give the pustules a squeeze to drain the fluid. Not the most pleasant thing. I'm pretty sure I must have brushed up against a plant while on the elephant and it did not like me one bit.

My wrists are starting to kill me from all the typing. I'll finish up my final two stops in India later today after flag football in Part 3.


later...

ben

Thursday, October 23, 2008

India on one bag... Part 1



Finally back from India! But not really. I got back about two weeks ago, and finally have a little while to sit and type. I'll post Part 1 today and the rest tomorrow. I've add a few pictures to the photobucket site (around 500) to keep everyone busy... http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/.

India was amazing! Absolutely, amazing! Now, as you read below, I definitely had my doubts about vacationing in India. But the country met, lowered, and raised my thoughts about the country at different times throughout the trip. Let me start from the beginning...

We're off... Flying out of Doha can sometimes be a hassle. It is a fairly small airport that is constantly growing, an incredibly tiny security area, and lots of passengers. We, [NAME REMOVED] and I went through security with no hassles, and got in the massive line for the final security check before customs. Thankfully, we both had gotten our E-Gate cards... which allows you to bypass the final security check, and ALL of customs! This had to have saved us half an hour of standing in line at least! We then snacked our way thru the Qatar Airways Silver lounge (it pays to date someone who travels a ton) and made our way to the gate. As we were boarding, we were upgraded to business class! Now that's a start to a vacation!

New Delhi... we arrived in Delhi at three in the morning, taking about an hour to clear customs. As you leave the airport, the first thing that hits you is the swarming mass of people. Hundreds upon hundreds of drivers, taxis, chauffeurs... all pushing into each other to get your attention. Now this was where I had my first sense of trepidation... because this is where [NAME REMOVED] and I were splitting up. She was headed to a friend's house, and I was headed in the city to find my hotel. She has traveled to India several times in the past, and is accustomed to how India works... not so much me. I prepaid for our taxis, kissed her goodbye, and watched as my girlfriend was swallowed up into the night in one of the most populous areas in the world. I then got in my taxi and left for the Clarke International Hotel.

Now, I should mention that I found this hotel on my own online. Good reviews, very cheap, situated in central Delhi. Translated... this means a very nice but very old hotel in the scariest part of all India. Where my hotel was located, the Karol Baugh area of Delhi, I soon found out is not considered the most scenic, or safe, or sanitized area of Delhi. Driving thru back alleys, pushing people and animals out of the way with the car to get to the hotel would definitely be considered one of the most harrowing times of my life. I have never traveled alone in a foreign city besides weekend trips to Mexico... and let me tell you... Brownsville ain't got nothin' on Delhi in the nighttime scary factor!

Thankfully, the hotel was very nice and comfortable. It had one of those old-fashioned elevators that you had to close the two wrought metal gates, hit the button, the pull the lever to move. Every time I operated it, when it stopped, I kept waiting for the doors to open... force of habit. I took ever bottle of water from the mini-bar, and kept washing my hands with disinfectant. See, in India, you don't drink the water... ever. You don't wash with the water, brush your teeth with the water, touch the water, or even look directly at the water. Even a slight glance at a faucet and you will come down with "Delhi Belly." Everyone who has ever been to India warns you... constantly. [NAME REMOVED] did a very good job as scaring the shit out of me before we left. At any given time, I was carrying at least three bottles of hand sanitizer and two bottles of water. I was sanitizing my hands so much I think people thought I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The next morning, I went downstairs and asked the hotel how I could get a taxi to take me around Delhi. He pleasantly said that he would take care of everything, and walked outside. I thought he was going to flag down an rickshaw(a three-wheeled scooter). Instead, he slams the roof of a car parked outside, and up pops a formally sleeping head from the driver's seat. "Oh no"... I thought. I only wanted a cab to drive me around the city, to follow the Lonely Planet guide... I really didn't want to pay for a car and driver, but that's what I ended up doing. I got in the car (an Ambassador Classic... see the pics), and my driver Kareem, barely awake at this point, smiles and says "where to?" I tell him to show me all the sights of Delhi. He smiles, changes his shirt in the car, and we were off.

I knew about driving in Delhi. I had seen images of driving in Delhi. But still, nothing in the world prepares you for driving in Delhi. It has got to be one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, and panic-inducing activities in all of man. Bungee jumping is for pansies... skydiving is for sissies... I rode shotgun in Delhi!! The rode can be one or five lanes across, doesn't matter, as everyone shoves into every possible nook and crevice that can fit either a large truck, small car, autorickshaw, rickshaw, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, or cow. And yes... I said cow. Several times we were actually touching other vehicles, while doing 60 kilometers an hour!! How there is not piles upon piles of bodies on the roads is beyond me! Once, while in an autorickshaw, I had to pull my arm into the window really quick because we were sideswiped by a bus! And the noise!! Dear God, the noise!! Every driver is constantly honking their horns. The don't honk in anger or frustration, but to let the people in front or to the side of them that they're coming closer... which is always! That was one thing that really got under my nerves was the never ending cacophony of horns blaring at all hours of the day.

While in Delhi, I saw a giant Hanuman (monkey-god statue), the Lotus Temple, the Quitab Minar Tower (800 years old), the Dehli Gate, Parliment, and the Red Fort. All of these places were stunningly beautiful. The size of the Red Fort was incredible! Huge red stone walls with a twenty meter deep moat that used to hold crocodiles, and this thing was built in the 1500s! Everywhere we stopped were the merchants pushing into me to try and sell me some such junk... postcards, whips, figurines... you name it. I did end up buying a used memory card off a ten-year-old kid for way too much money... but he had what I needed, and I had what he wanted. The whole time I kept my hands by my sides to stop any potential pickpockets. My driver kept shooing them away, and kept warning me about scams. "Don't give any money to anyone who says they are guides, carry your bag on your chest, and make sure not to accept any stickers about a school!" At the Quitab Minar Tower, a group of school kids kept following me around. I soon noticed that they weren't following any of the other westerners or Europeans that were there... just me. Finally, some came up to me and asked me for my autograph. Well what the hell do you say to that?! At first I said no, but they kept pestering me about getting my autograph, and then taking pictures with me! For the life of me, I had no idea about what was going on! Turns out, in the paper and news was a big story about a very famous American wrestler who was in town for a part in a Bollywood movie and a wrestling match. The kids saw a large American, and they thought I was him. The wrestler... Baptista. Google him... he's like my long lost twin.

After the Red Fort, Kareem got us a bicycle rickshaw (the driver looking thrilled when he saw my fat ass approaching) to guide us through Old Delhi. This part of Delhi has not changed... ever. The roads can only fit bicycles and people. Narrow storefronts selling colorful clothing and flowers lining every wall, the smell off street foods being cooked wafting through the air. Strange faces staring at me as an outsider. But along with the food smells was the smell of diesel fuel and soot, body odor and shit, sewage and animals. The air started to become stale and reeked. I realized later when I left Delhi that all of Delhi smells like that... but I had only really noticed the smell then. Power lines draped over each other into intricate cobwebs overhead. People were sleeping on the stained black concrete and gravel gutters. Half-naked kids played with stray dogs. This is what I had always thought Delhi was. Not an enormous, metropolitan city, but the squalor and filth of poverty. There is a strange balance with Delhi... the poor with the rich, the classes and the caste. Everyone shares the same space. You never really know where you are, but you never, ever, feel alone.

After an exhausting day out, I met up with [NAME REMOVED] and her friends at the Delhi Golf Club for some food and drinks... making sure not to each anything uncooked or anything that shared a plate with anything that was uncooked. Later I went back to my hotel and ordered a wake-up call for 3 a.m. to catch my train...

Agra... after I woke up and got ready, I went downstairs to get a ride to the train station. Yet another sleeping driver was awoken, and we took off. This driver, though, did not quite wake up fast enough. He pulled down an alley that was only about as wide as my hips, that was filled with cars on both sides, for about 500 meters. At the end, we found ourselves facing a locked gate. So, what any industrious driver would do, he tried ramming the gate... thankfully without success. So, he looked back at me, and started to go in reverse... at almost full speed. After the two motorcycles and three cars that he utterly destroyed (really, almost took the doors off our car), he turned down another road and took me to the train station.

The Delhi train station is large, stark, and scary as hell. At least a thousand people were scattered on the concrete, contorted and sleeping. Beggars with every known malady kept coming up with hands or stumps outstretched. I had prebought my tickets, so finding my platform was relatively easy. The train pulled in exactly on time, and I boarded the first class, air-conditioned, executive car for the two hour trip to Agra. Total cost of the train ride... $14.

As the train was about to set off, a very dapper dressed Indian man sat next to me and ordered his tea from the porter. He saw my guidebook and asked if it was my first time in India, and I said yes. He then took a minute to extol what a beautiful country India was, and that there was no other place like it in the world. The train then pulled out of the station, perfectly on time, and for the first twenty minutes, we moved at a walking pace out of the city. But not before I got to see about two-hundred men, women, and children crouched down in the fields, ditches, or next to the tracks to have their early-morning shit. Hundreds and hundreds of people just bending over and shitting in piles as far as the eye could see. Men crouching ass-to-ass with other men, shitting into the same pile. People would just disappear then pop up out of nowhere in the middle of fields and wipe their ass with their hands. The irony, or whatever you call it, of the gentleman telling me of the beauty of his country and the fact that I could actually see more than one man's asshole pushing out last nights lamb biryani was not lost on me. But that was India... wealth piled on top of the shit...

I was well-fed on the train, as the food was rated very safe by my guidebook. I ate something I have never had before in my life, but feel that I must share it with you. I ate Kellogg's Cornflakes with sugar... and steaming hot milk! If you have never had cereal with hot milk, you have no idea what you are missing! It's as if I had never had eaten before in my life... you must try it!

I arrived in Agra and was quickly bombarded by the smell of poverty. Trust me, you know it when you smell it. Then, the smell of flowers almost knocked me over. About fifty people were passing out orange blossom and lavender leis to everyone who got off the train. I thought it was a scam and tried to avoid it. But then I overheard a British couple talk about how lucky they were to make it to Agra on "World Tourism Day." Honestly, real thing!! I quickly paid for an all-day taxi and driver, and we headed to the one thing that brings people to Agra... the Taj Mahal.

The car could only drive about five kilometers, then it had to pull over. No engines are allowed within a kilometer of the Taj Mahal to prevent pollution damage. I then grabbed a rickshaw, and made my way through some backalleys that could only be described as sewers. Agra was filthy and bordered on disgusting. It was once the capital of India, but is now a decrepit city. Once I reached a roundabout, the rickshaw driver told to me walk about 500 meters down the road to the Southern Gate. Immediately, people started to flood the street, forcing trinkets upon me; pushing the hard sell. I felt a few hands go for my pockets, but I followed the rules and kept my hands in my pockets, while my daybag was strapped on my chest like a baby-carrier.

As I approached the gate, you could see a large, red wall was intersecting my path, with a small gate and some security guards. I paid to get in to the Taj (750 Rupees for tourists) and went to the security check. This was the most intense security check I have ever had the pleasure to go through. A metal detector, hand wand, then one guy not only pats you down, but gives you a hard squeeze across every inch of your body! They then emptied the entire contents of my bag on the table. I had to give up my cigarettes, lighter, and monopod. The guard kept saying that it was a tripod, but I explained to him that it was for my camera to hold in my hand, not on the ground. He then asked, "camera go here?" Yes. "Tripod. Not allowed." End of conversation. They even took my copy of The Hobbit (for train reading.) That was a fun conversation between the guards... "Hubbit??" "Yes, Hubbit... Hubbit... little man... little man... movie."

Once they let you in, you enter a beautifully landscaped garden, but no Taj. This in an entrance courtyard for the three gates. The large gate in front of me was a beautiful red inlaid with the same stones and scroll work that I had see in pictures of the Taj. As I walked up to the gate, marvelling at the site and the people, for the briefest of moments, I totally forgot what was through the next gate. As you enter the gate, it gets very dark, and the light from the far exit shines in and almost blinds you; making it impossible to see what's beyond. And then... you see it... and all comes into focus.

They say that you can't miss the Grand Canyon, because it is the one thing that doesn't disappoint you in real life. Well... neither does the Taj Majal. Words cannot describe the size and symmetry. The peaked domes and minarets, the brilliant white marble set up high about the surrounding area, giving it only a sky blue background...

It is considered the most beautiful building in the entire world... and it is. Just stunning. The only thing surprising is that it's fairly small on the insides, and there are two almost as beautiful buildings flanking the Taj Mahal. Had no idea...

Trying to write what it's like seeing it for the first time is almost impossible. I'll try to do it in person the next time I see everyone. It's almost indescribable.

I spent a few hours there, and later went to Agra Fort. About TEN TIMES the size of the Red Fort, this thing covers about twenty city blocks! It has 16 palaces inside, and once housed Akbar's 5000 concubines!! They even have their names and pay stubs! I later joked about the 5000 concubines with my driver... I told him I could barely handle my three concubines! At this point, I had see about all Agra had to offer. I went to see the Baby Taj (not very impressive after the real thing) and took some pictures from across the river. I had a nice lunch, bought some gifts (and a damn nice, and damn expensive rug) and decided to wait out the remaining four hours until my return train back to Agra at the train station... stupid mistake. The train station is not air-conditioned, has barely any seating, and was filled with beggars and what can only be called street-urchins... kids who would come up to you and yell at you until you gave them money. Thankfully, having grown up with four harpy-like sisters, they were no match for me. But the concrete floor, god-awful humidity, and foul stench was really starting to get to me. All this time, I have an iron grip on my bag at all times (plus a heavy, folded up rug). Suddenly, men in army uniforms flooded the station with about ten dogs. They were running up and down the platforms, yelling things back and forth, shoving people out of the way. I talked to a cabbie, and he said that a bomb went off near the Delhi airport, and that everything in the country was on high alert. Well, this snapped me back to attention. One day earlier, my phone went dead, and I had no way of checking on [NAME REMOVED]. So, now I was trapped in a disgusting train station, sweating beads of spice and stink-ladened sweat, figuring out whether my friend was OK, and whether or not we were going to be able to fly out the next morning. To be honest, at this point, I started to think India was really testing my resolve. That four hours was the most physically and emotionally draining period of time I went through in a long while. Night descending on the train station, and I was left as the only person waiting on the platform for a good hour. It never even dawned on me to go back to the Taj Majal to see it at sundown... dumbass. I got on the train (on time, again) and headed back to Delhi. Unfortunately, the train was stopped by the army and searched for about an hour. Everyone got off in Delhi and went out into the crowd of cabbies fighting for our fares.

Then I discovered I had a big problem... I lost my hotel card. Everyone carries the card of their hotel, because in a city of 21 million people, not everyone is going to know every location in town. I could not find anyone who knew my hotel, or even anywhere close. I finally found a guy who could take me to Karol Baugh, and I said "Karol Baugh, find the McDonalds." I knew my hotel was a few blocks from McDonalds from the map. He drove around and around the back alleys until we saw the golden arches, and I found my hotel.

Safely away, I was able to call [NAME REMOVED] and make sure she was OK. A bomb had killed a kid in a market in Old Dehli, the place where I was in the day before. At this point, I cleaned up with a bottled water shower and got packed up, ready to go. By the time I finished, it was already two a.m., and I had to be at the airport by four a.m.. So, I stayed up and watched some cricket matches, got my bag back on my back (rug included), and took an autorickshaw to the airport for my next adventure in India.

Ask me what I didn't write about... getting a cobra thrown at my face, my hotel bathroom, the other sleepy driver, the Ambassador Classic, floating houses, indoor rivers, one-bag travel, killing boulders, autorickshaw fatigue, temples on the golf course, train station lepers, how Asians love me, the marble factory, how I got my shirt, and Will Smith...

Part 2 to follow tomorrow...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eid Mubarak!

In case you're wondering, that means "have a blessed Eid." Ramadan is just about over, and to celebrate, almost every expat in the country is leaving tonight! Seriously... at least thirty people I know will be on flights out of town (including me) tonight. Why? Well, for starters... we get a bunch of days off next week because of Eid. Eid is the week long celebration of the end of Ramadan. Everything is shut down... the government, the schools, lots of the entertainment... etc. So, instead of sitting through some firework shows and eating shwarmas, everyone who wasn't born in the desert heads out.

As for me, I am headed to India. Two days in Delhi, one day at Agra, and six days in Kerala. Everything is packed and ready to go... I just have to finish up the work day and we're off. I'm trying something completely new for this vacation. The six-day stretch in southwestern India is set in the countryside among the backwater canals and plantations of Kochi. Our hotels and resorts are known for "eco-tourism"... turns out people like to pay big money to hang out with nature. And I guess I'm one of those people. Personally, I thought I was done with nature when I moved to the desert...

And to get in the "eco-tourism" mood, I'm one-bagging it. That's right... ten days... one itty-bitty bag. Just a slighter larger than high-school sized backpack is all I'm taking. I went online and researched the one-bag travel philosophy, and it makes good sense. You don't pay for checking in, you aren't worried about your luggage, no waiting in the airport... just get up and go! I bought a very nice, one-bagging custom bag from the Rick Steves' line... but the merlot-and-tan was on backorder so it won't get here in time. So instead I borrowed a similar bag from Tex, through in my Rick Steves' merlot Citiva daypack (tiny backpack), and was done. No more than three changes of clothes, and no extra anything. And when it's time to wash some clothes, hopefully I'll be able to talk [NAME REMOVED] into doing it for me like a good girl...

Of course there is only little that's holding me back a smidge. A series of bombs went off in Delhi last week from a Muslim fundamentalist group. And wouldn't you know... all the bombs went off at the places I was supposed to visit. God help me... I'm going on vacation in a warzone...

To all my friends and family that were huddling under the stairs when Ike was barreling down on Houston... glad to hear you're all safe and sound. Thankfully, everyone I know got through the storm. My great friend Johnny lost parts of his house, but is in good spirits. Best of luck, Johnny! I really do wish I could be there...

Take care, everyone...

ben

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ramadan Kareem!!

Ramadan Kareem!! I hope everyone is having a great Labor Day! I'm celebrating a different type of holiday...

Yesterday was the official start of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. My knowledge of Ramadan was very sketchy. Originally, I thought Ramadan was a time when all the muslims fasted and prayed all the time... and that was about it. I don't think I've ever been more wrong about anything ever... and that includes my affair with Gov. Sarah Palin's underage daughter.

Ramadan is a party... think Marti Gras, not Lent! Yes, the muslims do fast during the day; no food, water, smoking, or sex from sunup to sundown. But once the sun goes down, the city is filled with huge tents set up in vacant lots brimming with families getting together to break their fast, called "iftar." Education City is having a large two-day celebration for all of us to experience our own iftar. Once they break fast by eating dates and drinking water, everyone celebrates into the night! Islamic law says that all muslims must fast during the day, give to the poor, and perform charitable works during Ramadan. But, these are not done out of supplication to Allah, but as a way of giving thanks to God. And since God is merciful, God insists that muslims stop fasting as soon as the sun sets. I even have to let my students out at 5:58pm to allow them to break fast! Lights are strung up around the city, and the public areas have intricate displays of traditional Ramadan lanterns. In my building, the students have decorated one corner just like a traditional iftar tent, with musical instruments, lanterns, and plates of dates and nuts.
There are some disadvantages to Ramadan for non-muslims, though. All restaurants are closed during the day... so no breakfast or lunch. When they do reopen, it is almost impossible to get to them since every muslim is racing to get to eat! Also, it is considered EXTREMELY RUDE to be caught eating or drinking during the day, so most people only eat in their offices, and carry any food or water in bags or coolers. Men are not supposed to wear shorts in public, and women are asked to dress very moderately (long skirts) when out. These are inconveniences, but considering I'm in their country, I have no problem with this. In fact, I've decided to join the fast! Lots of the expats try it out to see what it is like... and I'm going for it. And as an added bonus, when the restaurants reopen at night, they give anyone fasting a free bowl of lentil soup! Mmmm... soup!
My chemical education conference in Mauritius was fabulous! The conference was incredible! I learned a ton of stuff regarding teaching chemistry labs and interacting with students. One fun little fact, I ended up staying in the same hotel as 1981 Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffman. We shared meals and drinks several times during the conference, and I had a lot of fun hanging out with him.

When I left Doha with the high humidity, it felt like it was 44C. When I landed on the island, it was 22C... half as hot!! That's a big, damn, difference! The island was incredibly lush and green, full of sugar cane and tea plantations. Huge palms with large coconuts dangling in the wind, ready to fall. Increadible beaches, gorgeous cool blue south Indian Ocean water, and lovely women! I stayed at La Plantation Resort, sitting right on Turtle Bay. Directly outside my room was a rain fed river that flowed directly into the ocean. Hammocks dotted the landscape between the trees where I relaxed with a book, swaying in the breeze. They speak a beautiful mix of Hindi, French, English, and Afrikaans that floats overhead, mingling with the rustle of the sugar cane leaves and tropical bird songs. It was... beautiful.

We went on a day long tour of the island that included touring a dormant volcano that overlooked the capitol. Later, we checked out the second largest Vishnu statue in the world! Turns out half the island is Hindu, and we toured a large temple and holy lake. At the temple, I got blessed by aholy man who gave me a tikka (stripe) and a third eye... by painting my forehead! There were small tables surrounding this lake where people gave offerings of fruit, incense, and beads. We stopped by the reservoir, where our guide told us that the man-made lake was purposely surrounded by pine trees. When we asked why, our operature looked at us oddly and stated, plainly, "because everyone knows pine trees attract rain." We also went to some incredible overlooks that gazed over multiple waterfalls and huge chasms! Monkeys slowly came out of the trees to steal food from all the tourists. In all, I have never been to a more fertile and green place in all my life! Make sure you check out the photos of Mauritius at http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/.

I took a personal day and went scuba diving. They took me to an area called "poison reef." I saw black tip reef sharks, sea snakes, stone fish, lion fish, moray eels, sea cucumbers (eww) and huge schools and columns of colorful fish and coral. To prepare for the dive, Tex and I went on some practice dives off the southern coast of Qatar. Not quite as lovely as Mauritius. Just some sunken buses and a shitload of spiny sea urchins!

The new fall semester has begun, and already I'm getting it with both barrels. This semester I'm teaching two sections of freshmen chem labs along with the junior quantitative analysis lab... around sixty students total. That's a ton of grading and prep for me, but it's going well. We're also in the process of moving our research labs into the new engineering building. With any luck, we should have all the teaching labs moved into our actual building by next year. Maybe then the chemistry staff won't be the forgotten bastard step-children of TAMUQ!

Finally, with any luck, me and [REMOVED] will be taking a trip to India later this month! I'm going to try and take a day trip to the Taj Mahal, followed up with a weeks tour of the backwaters and plantations of the state of Kerala in the southern tip of the subcontinent. To prepare for the trip, I went to a birthday party with a Bollywood theme last weekend. I spent an entire day looking for a khurta to wear. But it turns out in a country of 1.2 billion, there isn't a single Indian that is over six-foot tall and heavy-set!

One last thing... I BOWLED A 203 THIS WEEKEND!!! THAT'S RIGHT... I'M A TWO-HUNDRED POINT BOWLER!!! I'M COMING FOR YOU, DAD!!!

Hope everyone is throwing strikes this summer!!

ben

Sunday, July 13, 2008

the lost month...

Hey everyone... sorry I haven't posted anything in a while. But to be honest, nothing has happened here as of late. Nothing. I finished up teaching the summer semester last month, and then everyone decided to leave the country, except me.

July is the month that all the Qataris and expats leave for vacations. The weather has become more and more aggressive, the nights are sweltering hot, and not much is happening around the country. For the past three weeks, I've been preparing to teach my fall classes, and reading up on teaching a new lab. To say I'm taking my dear sweet time is a misnomer... I'm trying to take as much time as possible.
My four professors and three coworkers are all out of the country as I type this. Most of my friends are in Vegas, Ireland, Turkey, Texas, or the Maldives. I am the only person in the chemistry department. I could have scheduled a longer vacation, but why? I'm going to Mauritius in a few weeks (on the university's dime), so why bother? I have been looking into taking a weekend trip somewhere (Dubai, Cairo, Bahrain) but these trips are very cost-prohibitive... not worth the effort either. Maybe later...
As for this fall, I'm planning a trip to India. A friend of mine is going there for a wedding, and I hope to join her for part of the trip. But where she wants to go is very different than what I'm used to. She hopes to go to the Kerala part of the country... a scenic, pastoral area of the southwestern tip of the subcontinent. Comprising beaches and inland waterways, tea and spice farms, Kerala bills itself as "God's Own Country." But beside the beauty, I don't know what we're going to do there? When I travel, I like to plan ahead and organize my trip to see and experience certain things... architecture, history, cities, museums, a good concierge. When I look up Kerala, all any of the websites or tourism books say that it is known for its natural beauty and "Ayurveda" treatments... one of those holistic medicines designed to clear the chakras with jasmine and coffee enemas while emptying my wallet. I have no idea if I'll enjoy this trip at all, but you never know unless you jump right in. I hope to try and take a side trip to the Taj Mahal and Agra... so we'll see how that goes.

Everything in Doha is going well. We've been under sandstorms for most of the summer so far. Check out the picture taken by one of my coworkers during the middle of the day...

When I say that the sand here can make you start choking, I'm really not kidding.

I want to go back two months to the Education City convocation that I blogged about earlier. I forgot to tell you on of the more charming stories of the night. I've posted some pictures from the convocation (thanks Shane) at http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/. During the convocation, the ruler of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani eloquently spoke about the future of the students and the great accomplishments that they will achieve for Qatar. He started speaking about Education City and the Qatar Foundation, both of which were founded and are run by his wife, Her Highness, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned. When he mentioned the work and drive that she had put into Education City, he looked directly at her and called her by "Her Highness." At this point, the crowd went wild with applause and cheers! All of us expats looked around and didn't know what was happening. When the applause ended, the emir thanked her for her work, and said something in Arabic while placing his fist against his chest. At this point, every student in the crowd jumped up and started to yell, whistle, clap, and basically become very raucous! Once again, the non-Arabics stayed seated... not quite sure what was going on.
Later, I asked one of the professors who told me the meanings. First, for the emir "His Highness" to address his wife in public as "Her Highness" was a monumental thing! That demonstration of respect and admiration for his wife (remember, this is the Middle East) was nothing less than amazing. Then, on top of that, the Arabic word he called her was like a pet name. Something akin to "sweety" or "honey"... but a little more formal. That was when all the students started to really get excited. No ruler in this part of the world has ever been so openly affectionate and respectful of his wife. And to point to her, on camera, and call her "sugar" was a testimony to the emir's utmost reverence for her.
And at the end of the night, the Emir and his wife strolled into the mass of students that were watching the Andrea Bocelli performance and were mobbed with affection. Students were allowed to walk right up to the emir and take their picture with him; most of the time with emir just beaming with pride. The Emir is absolutely loved in this country, and they call His Highness the "Emir of Generosity." The more you see him, you can plainly see why. Kinda wish our leaders were like that...
Keep in touch...
ben

Saturday, June 7, 2008

it's starting to get a little warm...

Amazing how this country keeps throwing curves at you...

It's getting a little warm, and by warm... I mean ungodly hot. It turns out that summer came early this year. Since the first of May, it's been over 100F everyday... normally close to 110F. Some days the humidity pours in and you feel like you're melting on the stairs.

It's been a really busy month. At the start, we had the Education City convocation. It was beautiful! We had it in our ceremonial court on campus, which is an ornate outdoor stage with massive screens and lit towers. Guests included the Emir and wife, multiple sheikhs and sheikhas, the Emir of Dubai, and the president of South Africa... and me. I would love to show some pictures... but we weren't allowed to bring cameras... or at least that is what it said on the invitations. But when I arrived, everyone had brought cameras. As soon as I get some photos from someone else, I'll post them.

After the convocation, Andrea Bocelli performed. I sat about thirty feet away from the singer, backed up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Normally, tickets to his shows run around a thousand dollars each, and I saw him in a gorgeous outdoor stage on a beautiful night for free... incredible. Have to say... it was one of those things I will never forget.

Next up was the arrival of Jeremy, a grad student from College Station to help out with our research. He showed up and we worked in the lab and hung out for two weeks. We went to a rugby game, Korea versus the Arabian Stallions. I've never been to a rugby match, and it was different to say the least. The sporting events here are almost always free, and no one ever attends. Check out the photos on the photo site... http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/. Jeremy was, and is, a total spaz... and fun as hell. It was great having a bombastic squirrel to hang out with for a while. I took him to the souqs, hung out at the malls, and played in some poker games. Make sure you check out the great video of him burning his ass hairs off.

Later, we went to the inagural TAMUQ graduation. Thirty-plus students walked for their diplomas at the Four Seasons Hotel on the corniche. First off... that is one ungodly beautiful hotel. The graduation took place in a massive ballroom and... thankfully... only took an hour. A lot better than the five-and-a-half hours my graduation took.

Afterwards, there was a reception in a large tent out back. In fact, most hotels have large tents to hold big functions. But these tents are the size of gymnasiums, have air conditioning, and crystal chandeliers... not too shabby. We all ate tons of food... rumored to be the best in Doha, followed by a band playing the Arabian classics. Best part of the night was when a group of Qataris swarmed the place wearing their best bescht (dress robes), drums, and swords. They performed their ceremonial sword dance, which you can see in the video posted nearby.

I've started teaching again this summer. Two labs a week, four-and-a-half hours each. Plus proctoring a two-hour exam every Sunday. Thankfully, it's keeping me very busy so far.

And I have some good personal news. I've started dating a very cool woman who works for [CLASSIFIED]. You have to give me some credit... Qatar has the largest male-to-female ratio in the world... and I found a girlfriend in four months. She's a [DETAILS REMOVED BY ORDER OF THE GIRLFRIEND]. She's really cool, very well traveled, and is a lot of fun. We took a trip to the beach of Fuariit, and had a great time. I'm not allowed to take photos of her, and definitely not allowed to post any pictures... so I'll have to sneak a picture to get everyone to see her.

I have some great work related news!! I'm going to an international chemical education conference. There, I'll learn about process orientated guided inquiry learning, teaching international students, and modern chemistry teaching techniques. And it doesn't hurt that it is on the island of Mauritius. For those of you that have never heard of Mauritius (and I'm almost sure that is all of you), it is a tiny island about 600 miles off the eastern coast of Madagascar. Make sure you look it up on google earth... it's suppose to be one of those secret places that only really rich people know about. And I'm going there on TAMUQ's dime for an official reason. Although, I am taking a catamaran around the island to go snorkeling and spear fishing while I'm there... just for fun. I'll be gone from August 2nd thru the 9th, and will be back just before the fall semester starts. Fun stuff...

Also, my bowling league has finished up. My team finished in fourth place... and we were robbed!! We should have been in third, but another team cheated... seriously!! We should have been in third!! Anyway, I finally got my bowling shirt and got a special award... most improved! I went from bowling a 70 in the first week to a 184 in the final week... one hell of an improvement if you ask me. Of course, I went bowling this morning and threw a game average of a 102...

Hopefully, I'll be heading to either Turkey or Egypt this fall for a vacation during Eid (the holiday week after the Hajj). This is going to be a fun year...

Enjoy...

ben