Saturday, November 22, 2008
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.
I live... one hell of a life.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
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.