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...


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

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!


Hope everyone is throwing strikes this summer!!