Saturday, July 16, 2011

Quad City Swing... Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, & Vienna...

First off, it’s October... Not really, but I need you to imagine it is October. It’s actually July 4th here. I celebrated in the usual Qatari way by going to work like always. No fireworks, no BBQ. For some reason, the birth of our nation is not a major holiday in the Middle East. Wonder why?

Last fall during the Eid break I needed to get out of town. I was in the mood to do some serious traveling; going old school backpacking in a nice cool climate. I was anxious to see some rain and drink in some cold night air. But with only a week I had to squeeze in as many sites as possible into one trip. With a little help from Alaska, my central-European tour guide, I decided to hit up some new sites in Europe in a four country capital swing… Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, and Vienna.

Less than a week before departing, I got a call from guess who?? Yup… [NAME REMOVED]. She wanted to get out of Abu Dhabi for a weekend, and asked if I wanted to get together. I told her it was too late, that I was headed to Berlin. Her response… “Can I come?” Uh… sure... I like traveling with my friends.

Alaska and I shared a taxi to the airport for an early morning flight to Berlin. Passport control was easy, but all the passengers were lined up one by one and we all had our full luggage dumped onto bare metal tables under guard while every item was pulled apart and searched. Just days before a bomb was sent to the German Chancellor Merkel in Berlin, and they weren’t pulling any punches regarding security. Alaska took off for wherever the hell she was going to, and I bought a multiday public transport pass and boarded a bright yellow bus to the nearest UBahn station. I cannot understand why I had to take a bus to a subway station that was less than a mile from the airport. Why couldn’t they just run the line that extra few kilometers? Buses suck.

The Berlin UBahn is decent enough, easy to navigate and efficient as hell. I knew exactly where to get off and find my hostel, but the line was cut short due to construction. I was forced off the car and meandered aimlessly for ten minutes trying to get my bearings. I finally had to break down and ask a blue-blazered “Ask Me For Help” guy at the station entrance. He directed me onto another bus (ugh) and said to ride a few kilometers until I see another station. I tried to do exactly that, but ended up getting off the bus too soon. I ended up circling a block trying to find the hostel, but found myself back on the bus for a few more stops. Finally I found my intersection and made my way to the bright orange door of the hostel. [NAME REMOVED] quickly found me looking tired as hell. Turns out she had arrived hours earlier and was stuck in limbo as the reservation was in my name. We walked down the street and picked up some stunning Parma ham sandwiches and hot chocolates; and spent the afternoon napping quietly in a tiny fourth floor flat.

When we both woke up, it was dark outside and some rain had blown in along with a severe drop in the temperature. The brisk, damp air filled our lungs like thick soup… I spent ten minutes walking around just drinking in the air. I was looking up a classic German restaurant, and the downstairs desk suggested a very old-school bar for us. A brisk walk in the rain up the road and a quick turn past a late-night patisserie (smelled like a yeasty heaven) and we found our restaurant. It was six small tables in the back room of a darkened bar.

We ordered roasted pork shoulder with dumplings, bratwurst with fried potatoes. Slices of black rye bread with a side of schmaltz and goose fat, and by God the best damn sauerkraut I’ve ever had. Seriously, we actually ordered seconds and thirds of the sauerkraut itself. To top it off were pints and pints of pure German pilsner beer. Very full, nearly bursting with German delights, we rolled back to the hostel and crashed out cold.

The next morning we woke too damn early. We ate the breakfast special of almond croissants and a decaf latte at the diner around the corner. We had to book it to another hostel to meet up for a walking tour of the city. There were only four of us, so it was a short tour that was going to merge with a big group down the road. I cannot remember our guide at all… all I can remember is that one of the ladies joining us was wearing a Burberry coat. Odd…

The group traipsed thru the cold and damp morning and visited the Jewish quarter and synagogues. Guards still patrol the street and ward off hooligans and neo-Nazis. Across the front stonework were lines of bullet holes that had strafed the building. From there we meandered back and forth thru hidden courtyards and back alleys, slightly reminiscent of old-town New Orleans.

We took a break in the partly demolished Tacheles department store. The decrepit and decaying building houses an unofficial artist collective. Every floor, room, and surface is covered by artists squatting in the bullet-ridden warehouse. Somehow they squeeze in bars and restaurants into the space. We spent our time walking thru the installations and shanties set up outside where tattooed Berliners were creating wrought iron sculptures and working rebar. It was interesting, but I prefer my art wearing the audio tour headphones while dodging security guards in tacky blue blazers.

Swerving into an UBahn station, we broke for lunch. I made a beeline straight to the standard German meat buffet and ordered pork sandwiches and the classic Berlin fast food, currywurst. Take a thick, spiced hotdog, slice chunky, and coat with a mixture of ketchup and curry powder, serve with potatoes or kraut and eat with a minuscule two-tined plastic fork… yum. I had to go back and get some pork shoulder with creamed potatoes as a digestif.

The walk continued to the Museumsinsel, the island in the middle of the Spree River that houses several of Germany’s best museums, including the Pergamum. I really wanted to go in, but the walking tour just kept going. Past the museums we joined up with a large group of Aussies on walkabout at the giant cupola outside of the main protestant church. It was here where Hitler used to give many of his rousing political speeches. Nazi items such as the flag and the salute are strictly forbidden; only the guides and movie productions are allowed to use them.

As we were about to walk into the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the guide gave a quick summation of the history of the wall and its repercussions. [NAME REMOVED] chided me about not knowing very much about the Berlin airlift. I had to explain to her that the wall fell during my world geography class in my freshman year of high school. Before that, we knew of West and East Germany; mostly from the Olympics as the muscular (and quite hairy) East German women always won in power lifting or the hammer throw. The politics of the Cold War weren’t really a topic of interest for me or any fourteen year-old. For the bulk of my life, there’s only been one Germany.

A gentle rain started to fall as we reached the former everlasting flame to commemorate the Holocaust victims… I say former because they replaced it with a gut-wrenching statue of a woman cradling a starved man. From there we finally got to see the Wall… or at least the small portion that still remains behind fencing and plastic barriers. Checkpoint Charlie was up next, and was a disappointment. The classic sign of “you are now entering the American sector” still stands, and the guide gave a good story on how close we were to fighting the Soviets at this gate, but the area was really touristy and hokey. People were trying to sell the group wall pieces and stamps, plus there were competing men dressed as US and Russian soldiers to get your picture taken with. Also, the McDonald’s and the Starbucks on opposing corners next to the checkpoint killed any sense of history.

We passed by the Holocaust memorial at dusk, as somber as a place as you can imagine, especially with a setting sun and in the rain. As the rain started to fall harder and colder, we all pulled up into a gravel parking lot next to a nondescript apartment complex. It was here, in this parking lot, where World War II ended. For under the Volkswagens and Beamers were the remains of Hitler’s bunker, and the location of his suicide. We walked in the rain to check out Brandenburg Gate… a stunning site at night. The huge columns topped with the bronze chariot and horses is one of the most iconic scenes in all of Germany. Why exactly there was a man dressed up as an Apache Indian chief standing out front while people took pictures with him was unknown…

The Reichstag was next door, but the line was to get in was down the steps and into the lawn. So we bundled up and took the UBahn back to the hostel and dined on pho ca and hot pot with lemongrass tea at a really good Vietnamese place down the road. After dinner, we mainly argued about what we were going to do the next day. I wanted to go to museums. [NAME REMOVED] wanted to go to a concentration camp. What to do… what to do…

After an early morning hot chocolate and more Parma sandwiches, we made a beeline to the Reichstag in order to get in line early. After a brief wait we took the lift up to the stunning glass dome atop the German parliament. I spiraled up the walkway to the top while listening to my audio tour of Berlin. After marveling at the vista of Berlin, we hustled out to the UBahn since we had to hurry to catch the S1 train north out of Berlin. The graffiti walls disappeared into quiet suburbs as we progressed thru small station houses. Without warning, everyone got off the train four stations early… turns out the construction that stopped my train earlier had derailed our plans on taking the train all the way. Not quite knowing where the hell we were, we just followed the crowd to a bus station where we climbed aboard; hoping to God that we wouldn’t end up in Frankfurt.

Thankfully, the bus dropped us off at yet another train station where we continued our trip to Oranienburg. We popped out of a charming yellow station in the middle of a small town you’d swear was a model for a Norman Rockwell painting. The little blue signs pointed out our twenty minute walk on the sidewalks while elderly people trimmed branches and raked up leaves behind their picket fences. You would never know that tucked behind these homes was Senchenhausen concentration camp.

Under gray skies and drizzling rain, the concrete frontage of the entrance greeted us. Getting the audio tour, we approached the black iron gates with the chilly German phrase twisted into them “arbeit macht frei”… work shall set you free. Inside the camp were recreations of the death zone fence lines and barracks. Exhibits of their clothing, food, tools, and writings were all on display. Boulders that were scattered around the compound were all covered with small stones and pebbles. Turns out it’s a Jewish tradition to honor those who are dead, like makeshift tombstones.

A trench behind a wall was uncovered… the execution trench. It was in that trench where over 30,000 people were killed. Their bodies disposed in the furnaces behind a barren white wall. It was a horrific site, but absolutely worth the visit. Sadness and rage mixed with confusion all wells up inside. No one, absolutely no one can visit a place like Senchenhausen without pangs of guilt or remorse. Walking back thru the cozy houses with local walking their dogs, all I could do was imagine what were the people who lived in these houses previously thought was going on behind the white gates.

We jumped on the train, bus, and UBahn back to Berlin and down to Checkpoint Charlie. For as hokey as it is, good history museums surround the intersection. We paid way too much money to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that demonstrates all the personal history of the wall including ugly dioramas of ingenious devices used to scale, fly, or tunnel thru the wall. The hostel recommended to eat dinner at a very popular restaurant called White Trash Fast Food… a combination restaurant, bar, club, and tattoo parlor. The place was packed full with ultra-trendy hipsters… and us. While waiting for our seats we downed pitchers of vodka lemonade. Our table was barely the size of a dinner plate but somehow held our chili-cheese burgers, greasy onion-rings, and valley porno-nachos. They were showing both the Wizard of Oz and The Last Dragon on the walls filled with oddball kitsch. Great place if you ever have the chance…

In the early morning [NAME REMOVED] woke and left for her flight back to Abu Dhabi. Hopefully, her three day jaunt was enough to cheer her spirits. As for me, I slept in. When I woke up I took off to the Berlin Hauptbanhof to catch my train to Prague. The hauptbanhof (main train house) is beautiful! Layer upon layer of escalators and bridges crisscross a mall while the trains pull in beneath you… really cool.

I pulled out of Berlin in my first class seat; I treated myself. The scenery outside of Berlin was stunning. The tracks followed the Spree River and later joined the Vltava River. Green farms turned into high sandstone cliffs with cathedrals and barns perched overhead. The tracks swerved back and forth following the turns of the rivers. The scenery changed almost immediately as soon as we entered the Czech Republic. The homes became dingy and ragged; the farms not nearly as neat and orderly. After five and a half hours on the train, we pulled into the capital city of the Czech Republic… Prague.

Right off the bat I found myself in a familiar predicament… how to use their metro system. Every time I visit another country or city, I end up standing in front of a kiosk or standing alone doe-eyed staring into a machine trying to decipher where to insert the money. Why can’t all of Europe just consolidate their systems? How come no one explains the difference between IC and EC trains? Worse than buying the tickets is using them. Does the turnstile machine keep the ticket? Or spit it back out? More than once I’ve left my ticket in the turnstile when I need it to actually get on the train. And every ticket should at least say or at least have a diagram that describes whether or not you have to validate your ticket. I know I’ve rode trains illegally since I never can tell if I need to punch my cards or not.

After I exited the metro, I boarded a tram to a nearby park, and walked the last block to my hotel, Mosaic House. After my stay, I found out that Mosaic House was named one of the top budget hotels in Europe, and it was definitely worth the stay. Really pretty, very modern, in a great part of town… and really cheap. Best part, they were showing an NFL game… God I miss real football.

The only downside of the hotel was that they room was way too hot. I woke up at three a.m. sweating like the proverbial nun in a whorehouse. I spend all morning watching Burn Notice episodes on Hulu until breakfast. After my good yogurt with chocolate granola and fruit, I headed out for the free walking tour of Prague. The city itself is incredibly beautiful and romantic! Cobblestone streets weave between the gothic buildings. At the Old Town Square I joined up with about fifty other people for the tour. We started at one of Prague’s most famous landmarks, the astronomical clock. It’s a clock with the sun and moon on it, tells you your zodiac sign and other things… it’s still just a clock. What is neat is the calendar under the clock. For every day of the year, there is a corresponding saint. And according to Czech law, children must be named for one of the 365 saints. So on St. Benjamin’s day, it’s the birthday of everyone in town named Benjamin… great idea actually. But the best part of the tour start was that in the town square they were setting up the kiosks for the Christmas markets… and were roasting whole pigs on spits for that afternoon’s local wine fest. Oh holy hell did Prague smell good…

The guide Katherine was quirky and funny. She gave a long history of Prague and the Czech Republic, including the uprisings, the Nazis, life under the Soviets, and the Hussites… whoever the hell they were. The Jewish quarter was particularly quaint. It was there where the oldest synagogue in Europe still stands in what looks like the bottom of a crater. It was at this synagogue where the story of the Gollum was created… sculpted from clay and stored in the attic. When the Nazi’s occupied Prague, they were scared to enter the building. During this trip I was reading Bill Bryson’s At Home, a great history of everyday life. In it he explains why all the really old churches look like they’re sinking into the ground. They’re not… the land around them is rising. Overtime as bodies of dead parishioners are buried around the church, the accumulated mass builds up and swells around the buildings. Just beside the synagogue was a massive tower of earth behind a stone wall that was holding back centuries of the Jewish dead.

I quickly popped my head into Big Ben’s Bookstore, just to make sure they didn’t have an effigy of me in there. The tour ended at the national theatre right by the Charles Bridge over the gorgeous Vltava River. I perched myself on the steps of the opera house to wait for another tour to begin. After sharing my lighter with a young Arabic man on the steps, I found out he was a cousin of someone I work with in Doha… yet another small world.

The new guide Michael showed up to lead the tour. An American who moved to Prague to follow a woman, he was a Ph.D. student in political science and liked to rail against the fascists in power. We crossed the bridge and began the hike up the hill to Prague Castle. Damn I hate steps…

Prague Castle is a huge mish-mash of buildings, styles, and Gothic architecture. The largest castle in the world, it’s over half a kilometer long and gives a stunning overview of the city far below. Capped by the Monastery of St. George and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the twisting alleys skirt every-which-way, and around every corner is another tucked away another square or tunnel. The cathedral itself is a monument of Gothic architecture; honestly the most beautiful church I have ever seen. But to gain entrance, I had to fib a little. Political infighting between the Catholic Church and the Czech government has placed the ownership of the church in limbo. To enter, I had to say I was Catholic (true) and I that wanted to pray (not so true). But after getting in the church and marveling at the Gothic apses and stained glass rose windows… I did pray a little.

Taking a break, we got some hot chocolate from a café next door. Although it wasn’t really hot chocolate… it was more like scalding chocolate cake batter. I actually stood my spoon up straight in the cup. It coated my insides like delicious, sugary road tar.

We walked around the castle grounds including garden, mini-theater, and site of Nazi SS, Gestapo, and Secret Police headquarters. One secret police car pulled over and told us all to not walk on the street. Michael ended up railing on how people were prosecuted and pulled out of their homes by the police in the middle of the night. Michael holds a grudge.

As the night got dark, the tour kept going. We had great overview of city and the Charles Bridge at night. Soon we all split up and walked down to Bridge with members of group, including an apprentice guide. The Charles Bridge at night was amazing with the orange street lights of the city reflecting off the damned river; although the guide suggested that we keep a hold on our wallets. My feet were starting to die on me, so I passed by the wine fest to grab some pulled pork right off the pig. A jazz band was playing in the bar of the hostel, but I didn’t have the strength to party down, so I just crashed out cold.

I awoke was too early again to what was a great scene. A girl came into the room and tried to climb up the steps to her bunk while wearing stockings. But either the silken footwear or the stench of booze wafting off of her gave her a slip, and she ended up falling down the steps onto her ass with a squeal. I rolled over and offered to help and all she could muster to say was “my ass… my poor ass…”

Rain was coming down in sheets as I ate my granola and yogurt before heading out to catch the tram to the train station. As the train took off thru the rain out of Prague, they city was gray and morose; but still beautiful and noble. I grabbed a seat in a compartment with an old lady, and opened my book for the six hours to Bratislava, Slovakia.

The scenery passed by fast, small farms were quickly swallowed by dark forests. The trained stalled for half an hour in Brno, but I just grabbed a quick smoke on the platform and expensive water. As the train approached Bratislava, the farmland became increasingly junky and dirty. The Bratislava train station was a dump: trashy, tiny, and dirty. The bus system was a mess and I could not figure out where my hostel was in relation to the station. I decided to go ahead and grab a cab, but the cabbie tried to charge me 20Euro for a ride! After arguing for five minutes telling him he was full of bullshit, I finally got it down to 10Euro. The cab ride… four minutes. Dammit… the day just started out poorly.

My hostel was a little hard to locate since it was inside of a bar. I walked into the red door that showed the hostel name, but only found a bar and early morning (or late night) patrons inside. I thought I had the wrong place, when a lady called out my name and said my room was ready. She made me wear a plastic bracelet like at Schlitterbahn for identification, and it was just sad looking. I had to force myself thru a very narrow door and walk up three large flights of stairs to reach the room; actually it was six bedrooms around a central, very tiny bathroom. I chose the largest bed around, a girl’s day bed; not bad if you’re five foot five, not so great if you’re over six foot.

I walked ten minutes into the old town to check out the sights. The rain had stopped and the sun was out in the middle of the day, but I never felt safe or secure. The people seemed cold and callous. Smiles to strangers walking along the road were never returned. Men tried to stare me down, and shopkeeps looked pissed as I walked past their shops. It was kinda eerie.

The old town had its charms, with the white castle looming above, although it was closed for renovation. Nice little squares and wide streets intersected a multitude of narrow alleys. At the end of the town I walked on the edge of the Danube and tried to figure out why they built the Novy Most Bridge to look like a flying saucer had landed on top of it. It is so ugly. In fact, there really wasn’t anything in the town you could call “pretty.” Everything seemed tired and burdened. The only thing that was amusing was watching pretty women in high heels trying to clamber over the rough cobblestone streets. Back at the hostel, I had their local beer and asked for whatever came close to a national dish. What they served me was a plate of heavy, doughy potato dumplings smothered to death in melted goat’s cheese. Sprinkled on top were thick chunks of bacon that were rendered so much that they tasted like greasy bacon croutons. I poured the Plataly Beer down my throat so it wouldn’t close up on me. After that meal, I had enough of Bratislava, and sat in the bar and read until bedtime.

For the second morning in a row, I was awoken in a strange way. A young woman came into the room with a pack on her back, set it down on the floor, and then sat on my chest… not realizing in the morning dark that I was under the covers. I gasped and she screamed, begging my forgiveness. I made a joke about strange women climbing into my bed; she laughed then left the room in haste. I was so hoping to have some fodder for Penthouse Letters…

In the cold drizzling rain I headed out into the sad Bratislava morning in search of Nugeta. Don’t know Nugeta? Neither did me. Alaska had asked me for a favor. She wanted me to buy her a few bottles of Nugeta. What is it? It’s the same as Nutella but made with peanuts instead of hazelnuts. She said I could buy it at the Tesco in Bratislava, and out I went. It was only supposed to be a ten minute walk away, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. I circled and circled while slowly getting soaked without any luck. I finally convinced someone to point me the way, and it led to the same store I kept passing. Turns out, the Tesco changed its name. For the cream on top, it happened to be some sort of national holiday, and the store was opening two hours late. People huddled under umbrellas pulling their grocery carts lined up outside looking pissed off. The door finally opened and I got five jars of the spread. This shit better be worth it (postscript: I ate a bottle, it’s miraculous! Like creamy Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups!) To make my day even better, as I climbed the wet steps up to the hostel, I slipped and threw my back out… fuckin’ Nugeta!!

The barmaid explained the bus system to be, and I caught the bus back to train station, for fifty cents. I wanted to find that cab driver and beat him to death. I bought my train ticket to Vienna, but had just missed the train. I had to wait over an hour in that shitty train station, so I put on my scarf and sat on the platform soaking up the cold northerly wind. Ten minutes prior to departure, the platform changed, and I scuttled off to get onboard the tightly packed G-Train. After an hour-and-a-half the train arrived in Vienna, Austria; at the Sudbanhof… not the Westbanhof I needed.

With the spine on the verge of collapse, I struggled to carry my pack a kilometer down the road to the UBahn station to get to the Westbanhof. I finally found my hostel, the Wombats Lounge. It was really nice with a great, funky atmosphere. My room was an interesting mix: one Sikh, one Aussie, and one really creepy older guy who stunk like rotten shit and wore hipster fashions waaay too young for him. He might as well been wearing a t-shirt that read “GHB peddler and I’m on a pussy hunt.” I tried to walk around town a little, but my back was failing fast. Instead, I bought some cold cuts and pudding cups next door and spent the day reading a book in my dorm. Not at all how I planned to enjoy Vienna.

With only one day left, I forced myself downstairs for breakfast yogurt and ham. The back was about to drop, but I needed to try and walk otherwise it was going to get even worse. I headed to the subway and rode to the Volkstheatre in the Museum Quarter. From there I followed the Lonely Planet walking tour. From the open park area you quickly make your way into dense urban shopping areas with wide boulevards and high-end stores. I occasionally listened in to the English-speaking tour operators guiding bus loads of retirees thru the city. I walked past the statues of Mozart and Josef, and made my way up Kärnten and thru the gates of the old city. From there it was easy to spot Vienna’s main sight, the Stephansdom gothic cathedral. It was nice, but not as nice as Prague’s. I exited the gates of the city thru the Hofburg Palace and toured around the park outside the twin natural history and cultural museums. My back was getting ready to die on me, so I headed to the UBahn and headed for Schloss Schönbrunn, the royal palace on the outskirts of the city.

Christmas trees were being set up for the holiday activities in front of the Rococo yellow façade. The interior was similar to a modern Versailles; gilded gold, blue walls, lots of china and an oriental room. It was nice that there were amenities from the most recent residents still intact. But after strolling along the hardwood floors, my back was just about done. I bought my shot glass souvenir and went back to the hostel. I picked up my dinner on the way, some roadside fried schnitzel with chips. Damn that was good food… especially after Bratislava’s national dish of greasy shit.

I wanted to check out the museums and the Lipizzaner stallions, but there was no way I was going to make it out of Vienna in one piece if I didn’t rest. I cracked my chemical cold pack for my back, and slept very soundly until the morning. After an early breakfast, I made my way out to the airport for the flight back to Doha.

I love traveling in luxury… I love a good concierge and a nice swim-up bar. But I love the slightly dirty, cheapo feel of single bag, street food, hostel travel. When my back isn’t giving out on me, it always makes me feel younger and spirited when I’m roughing it. But even with the pain, Berlin was a ton of fun, Prague was beautiful, Bratislava was a pit, and Vienna was much too short.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Maid in Abu Dhabi...

Mid-summer in Doha… here we go again. Classes are over, and everyone has fled the dust and heat. But not me, I’m sticking it out for the bulk of it, too much work to do, and trying to save a few bucks this year. But it’s amazing just how quiet it is right now. Everyone I know, with the exception of Van Gogh, is gone. Tex, Lady Tex, Beauty, Beast, Boss, Lil’ Boss, Eagle-eye, Rock, Stinky Pete… all have left for cooler waters for almost two more months. On top of that, we’ve permanently lost a few others. [NAME REMOVED] decided to circumvent the globe, Nick & Jess are in D.C., and Alaska just took off back to the frozen tundra desperate to join her people’s annual seal hunt on the ice floes. Godspeed everyone…

Speaking of [NAME REMOVED], I have a quick travelogue about her from last year. Just after my Jordan trip, I got a nervous call from her one afternoon. She was jittery and frustrated. It took a while, but she came clean about a small problem she had. Her new employer provided housing, but no furnishings. So she had her storage unit full of furniture and various bric-a-brac in the states cleared out and shipped over.

Take a look around you. How much “stuff” do you really think you have? Check out your shelves and pantry. Look thru your closets, empty out those drawers. Take a really good look. Now take everything you own and shove it into a two-bedroom apartment without any closets, storage areas, drawers or shelves. [NAME REMOVED] did that… and she was about to freak out.

She called and asked, very nicely, for help. I was hesitant to fly to another country to help unpack someone, but she did say please. I agreed to come under the condition that she would do what I say without any bitching or complaining. I flew over on a Thursday night, and took a cab from the airport into downtown Abu Dhabi. [NAME REMOVED] found me on a street corner and brought me up to her apartment with a warning… “don’t get freaked out.”

Holy shit. Stacks of loose boxes were piled floor to ceiling. Every available space had been covered with various knick-knacks and housewares. It was if a Bed, Bath, and Beyond had mated with a Pier One and birthed out her living room. [NAME REMOVED] meekly kept saying “it’s not that bad” and “please don’t freak out.” She got me a drink, shoved a stack of pictures off the couch to make a spot to sit, and I had to take a moment to compose myself. I just kept staring at the mounds of shit all over the floor. I finally understood why she needed my help.

I’m not the cleanest or neatest guy on the block… my desk is covered in work papers and miscellaneous crap. But I’m known for editing my lifestyle… I have no problem with throwing away old junk and trashing memorabilia. I don’t get personal with my purchases.

So the next morning at daybreak, I got up and started cleaning in the way my Mom taught me. Work in small areas, and use lots of water. We broke the mess into sections, and I pushed [NAME REMOVED] hard to trash a lot of shit. Old frames, stereos, VCRs, and winter clothing... not needed, get rid of it. She actually did a great job of cleaning out her trash. I did fail in convincing her to discard her antique fireplace set… not necessary something you need in the Middle East. So while she left for a fun run, I spent all day doing nothing but breaking down boxes, packing and organizing suitcases, and shoving her shit into any and all spaces available.

By the late afternoon, I was done. Neither my spirit nor my back could take anymore. I had her drop me off at one of the massive malls on the beachfront do to some shopping. Abu Dhabi is similar to Dubai in architecture, but has a completely different feel. It’s much more open and green with beachfront promenades and park areas. The mall was the same as any other mall, but it did have the exception that women generally dress much skimpier in Abu Dhabi versus Doha. It had been a while since I had seen booty shorts.

I made one quick pit stop via cab to a local grocery store for a very special excursion. Of all the differences and similarities between Abu Dhabi and Doha, there is one… very special, difference.

You can buy pork in Abu Dhabi.

Buried deep in the back of special grocery stores are darkened doors behind the produce section. Like the porno-section of video stores of old, you have to go behind the curtain into the forbidden zone. And there, like the porno wing, is where you seen the stunning slabs of pale pink flesh. I ogled the slabs of bacon and cold cuts. I picked up a rasher of thick maple bacon and made my way back to [NAME REMOVED]’s for my bacon omelet. A short while later, we said our goodbyes, and I made my way to the airport for the forty minute flight home.

A short jaunt, a difficult situation, and shit-ton of work… but a fun trip nonetheless. But don’t think this is the last you’ve heard of [NAME REMOVED]… she tends to show up when you least expect it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Me and my Jordans... Amman, Petra, and Jerash...

When I first came to Doha, I asked everyone where I should visit. Everyone gave the same answers: Egypt, the Maldives, India, Dubai, and Jordan.

Jordan? Why Jordan? It has a lot of historical significance, but when you think of Jordan, nothing really comes to mind except the Dead Sea. But everyone raved about how beautiful it was and you could easily spend a week just walking… doesn’t sound like my type of vacation, but OK.

So during yet another Eid break when the temperature was in the high 110’s, I took off for a quick jaunt to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan… leaving one desert for another…

I arrived in Amman after a quick three hour flight from Doha. There was one bonus on the flight. Some guy in business class was wearing a downy-white suit with a bubblegum pink shirt, matching pocket square, think pinky rings and a white mesh fedora. Swear to God, he looked like the evil archeologist from the Raiders of the Lost Ark…

I met my fixer at the airport, a pleasant man named Saladin. He picked me up and we drove into Amman. For some reason, it felt strange vacationing in a place with Arabic on the road signs… too much like home. Amman is built on seven large hills, with row after row of low white homes and thick traffic. Along the roadsides we spotted large squatter camps made from trash and other junk. I thought they were just bums, but Saladin pointed out that they were gypsies, and spit out the window to show his disgust. We pulled up near the largest mosque in the country, the King Abdullah Mosque, where I checked into my really crappy hotel, the Abjar. For some reason, hotels in Jordan are ungodly expensive! For a regular Sheraton or Marriott, you’re looking at $400 a night… so stayed in a discount hotel… ugh. The place was falling apart, and my room was kinda nasty. There weren’t any restaurants or café’s nearby for dinner, and the hotel didn’t have room service. So a costly Domino’s pizza later, I hit the proverbial sack only to feel a metal spring digging into my temple. I was later woken up from the music and yelling of a wedding banquet taking place in the lobby all night long. Fun first night…

I awoke and ate my continental breakfast of bread, jam, and thinly sliced hotdogs in onions… why hotdogs are considered a breakfast sausage over here is beyond all hope of comprehension. My driver and guide for this trip, Mustafa, picked me up in our awesome 1987 Toyota Corolla. With a freshly shaven head, earrings, camouflage pants and an ever present cigarette dangling from his mouth, Mustafa looked more the part of German skinhead than your friendly neighborhood tour guide. He growled from years of tobacco and shisha and talked nonstop while he was behind the wheel.

We drove about forty minutes outside of Amman to the town of Madaba. The town itself was very small and pretty plain, but we pulled into the Greek Orthodox Basilica of St. George for Madaba’s main attraction. Inside the basilica is a large mosaic made up of over two million tiny colored tiles on the floor. This mosaic, made in the 6th Century A.D., is the oldest know map of the Holy Land. It shows the towns, rivers, mountains and lakes of the entire region; stretching from Italy and Greece, covering the entire Mediterranean Sea, and the valleys of what is now Israel and Lebanon, all the way into Egypt. Various temples and mosques are clearly shown on the map, along with the direction of the rivers and the defensive walls of Jerusalem. It’s really amazing that so much detail went into this mosaic.

After the church, we had to stop at the required, cheap discount tour mandated, tourist trap and mosaic shop. Here the incredibly pushy salesmen demonstrated how they made the mosaics (“cut little tiles… interesting…”) and tried to push me into buying. Personally, I had no desire for any mosaics… they just don’t go well with my modern art collections of tacky shot glasses and beads. But I was interested in a painted ostrich egg with multiple scenes on it… and paid a small fortune for it. An egg… hundreds of bucks for an egg… what the hell is wrong with me?

Another half hour on the road thru really beautiful hills covered by thin vines and rocky outcroppings and we came to Mt. Nebo. At the top of the small mountain were a long line of tourist buses sitting idle. Mustafa dropped me off and said to look around for an hour or so. At the entrance is a large stone with inscriptions in multiple languages that tell the story of Mt. Nebo. This is the place where Moses came and God showed him the Promised Land that was to be given to the Israelites, and it was here where Moses died and was buried by God himself. Markers showed where Pope John Paul II came here and prayed as part of his pilgrimage of the Holy Land.

The Holy Land. I was there. I know of the Holy Land, spending so much of my formative youth going to Sunday school and CCD (and quite a bit skipping Sunday school and CCD… sorry dad). We all read the passages from the Old Testament and played with the coloring books on the stories from the Bible… but in all that time, I never once thought of those places as ever being real. They were Middle-earth and Narnia… fantasy places in books and stories, not actually stone and dirt beneath our feet. But here I was, in a place where people sat on the rocks along the sidewalks and prayed while people like me stared at them strangely.

The church on the site, actually all three of the churches on the site, were undergoing renovation and were closed off to visitors. More mosaics on the ground were tarped over, showing scenes of fishing, farming, and stories from the Bible. At the rear of the site was a stunning overlook showing the valleys below… the literal Land of Milk and Honey. I was about 800 meters above sea level, but it seemed so much more. To the north you could still see the white hills of Amman. Rolling valleys of brown were broken by thins green lines of plants; visual clues that natural springs were nearby. A little more east was the city of Jericho, the oldest city in the entire world. They just finished celebrating their 10,000th year of existence… I don’t know exactly where they got that number, but congrats to them anyway. The city itself is barely a town, very tiny in size but rich in history. Roman aqueducts still stand. The ruins of Herod’s palace can still be explored. And right next to it is the site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. The river is mostly just a muddy ditch now due to irrigation and drinking water, but they still clean some of the water to fill a pool for baptismal rites.

But looking directly west was the northern tip of the Dead Sea. It looked calm and beautiful from such heights. Across the narrow sea was Israel, and using binoculars you could just make out some buildings from Jerusalem. It was amazing that I got so close to Israel, but would probably never get to really see it in person.

From here Mustafa told me to buckle up and we started to drive towards the Dead Sea. The weather was beautiful and cool, about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. But as he whipped back and forth down the long and winding single road down the mountain, it steadily got hotter and hotter. At one point he stopped the car and said that we were now at sea level… but it looked like weren’t even half way down the mountain. I had totally forgotten that I was headed to the lowest part on the surface of the Earth… 423 meters below sea level. From Mt. Nebo to the Dead Sea, we were descending a full 4000 feet in less than half an hour, my ears popping continuously along the way. The road zigged and zagged, and the temperature quickly started to rise. By the time we reached the shoreline, it was almost 95 degrees Fahrenheit… and all from the elevation change. We had to go thru some security checkpoints since we were so close to the Israeli border, and made our way onto the highway that ran the length of the Dead Sea.

Fancy resort hotels dotted the shorelines, all nestled about fifty feet up from the water’s edge. Mustafa bought my entrance ticket into the Amman Beach, the public beach area. Inside the clubhouse area were two large chlorinated swimming pools with lots of beautiful women and children all playing in the shallow end and sun bathing. I picked up my ugly rented towel, bypassed the pools, and headed down the steps to the beach. Group showers and troughs of running water were stationed along the steps to persuade you to wash off all the salt and sand before coming back up into the pool deck. On the beach the sand started to burn the shit out of my feet. I threw my towel onto a plastic chair and made a sprint to the water’s edge.

To say it was like swimming in any other body of water is a bold faced lie. Swimming in the Dead Sea is so strange, so alien… and it’s actually quite difficult to explain. As you enter, it feels completely normal, just like the Gulf… very clear and warm water. Signs are posted on the shore, “do not get water into your eyes… do not swim face down, etc.” But once you get to waist level… something just doesn’t feel quite right. You mind is telling you it’s just water… but it isn’t. I dipped my hand into my mouth to taste it, and it almost made me retch. It can only be described as dipping your tongue into a salt shaker. The hyper-salinity of the water is almost pungent.

The water feels oily… but it’s not from oil. The minerals and salts of the lake are comprised of polar and non-polar compounds, giving it the feel of baby oil against your skin. This also causes it to have an increased surface tension, making the water “stick” to itself. As you pull your arms up from the water, it sticks to your skin almost like thinned syrup.

But by far the weirdest sensation is swimming. The water is so dense due to the salinity that you float without even trying. Once you get down past your waist, your body wants to flip you on your back. I struggled like hell just to put my legs under me to stand up in the water. Once up, you can move thru the water just by a regular walking motion. While floating straight up in the water, I could hold my arms straight out to my sides, and they were a good four inches above the surface of the water. Plus, all my less dense body fat is forced upwards, moving all my gut rolls up to my tits… giving me a lovely fleshy inner tube around my chest. I spent a good hour plus just figuring out how to move around. People were taking their picture sitting dead upright in the sea while reading a newspaper. On the shore the lifeguard was charging three Jordanian Dinars to grab a big handful of the miraculous Dead Sea mud. I paid the fee and pasted the inky black mud over my arms, chest, and face. You’re supposed to let it dry for a while then crack it off. I didn’t have that kind of time, so I just went for a quick wash off in the sea…

Big mistake. As I washed off the mud, I loved the feel of my skin, all exfoliated and tingly. But I accidently got some water into my hair, and it dripped down into my eyes. Instantly I thought I was blind. A single drop of Dead Sea water burned my eyes so bad I started to rush back to the shore. I tried to think of sad things hoping that I would tear up to wash the salt out. Oh god did that hurt! I used the last of my bottled water to flush my eyes, and decided to call it a day at the sea. I used the showers to rinse off the sand and salt, dipped my feet in the pools, and climbed back up the stairs to the clubhouse. Wanting to make sure I was completely salt free, I jumped into the swimming pool for a quick rinse…

Big mistake. Even though I was only in six feet of water, I dropped to the bottom of the pool and struggled to get my bearings. It was like I had never swum before… I had to force my hands to move correctly, digging big scoops of water under me until finally my head cracked the surface. I was panicking in a swimming pool… a sensation I have never felt before in my life (maybe once before). The transition from super-buoyant Dead Sea to regular buoyant swimming pool confused my brain. It was used to floating aimlessly in the thick sea water, and just couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t floating anymore. I thought this would be the strangest sensation of the entire day, but other things were yet to come.

Mustafa and I ate lunch at the café of standard Arabic fare of poached fish, a mixed grill, and umm ali, then headed south along the Dead Sea road. This stretch of road followed the shoreline, hugging scenic cliffs that were split open to form wadis, or valleys, along the hillsides. As we drove, Mustafa pointed out very specific details. He described how men used to scrape the shoreline for potash and bitumen. He showed me a cave up on a ridge and told me the history of Lot’s Cave… well basically it was where Lot lived with his grandsons, Moab and Ammon. The people born north of this cave are Ammonites, the southerner Moabites. Just across the Dead Sea is a pillar of rock called Lot’s Wife. I jokingly asked where Sodom and Gomorrah was, and Mustafa calmly pointed out a tongue of land that stretched into the se, “There… there was Sodom and Gomorrah.”

OK… quick question… did anyone actually think there were actual cities called Sodom and Gomorrah? And that we know exactly where they were? Basically, it is believed that the cities were destroyed either by the earthquakes that frequent the area, or a fire broke out fueled by the bitumen and from the sea bed. Soon the Dead Sea closed up and we began to head back up into the mountains. Numerous dirt devils were swirling all around us as we climbed. The little Toyota had to struggle sometimes up the narrow and winding road. We frequently stopped at overlooks and surveyed the stunning valleys and springs below. One wadi is famous because it is the only place where the three great prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed all walked. Boys carrying cardamom tea would sprint out from shacks as we approached. The temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees from less than an hour ago at the shoreline.

We drove a while longer thru the mountains, all the time Mustafa was telling me stories about living in Thailand and screwing everything that moved. Once we reached the mountain tops, we leveled out on the Jordanian plains and headed south toward Ma’an. Along the way we veered off the road and did a quick pass by Al-Karack, a mountaintop castle built by Saladin… the great Arab warrior who defeated the Crusaders.

We finally pulled into a little town called Wadi Musa (Moses’ Valley) and pulled over to stock up on juices and waters for tomorrow. Mustafa invited me into a nondescript building right next to this storefront. Inside was nothing except some stairs leading down into a small stream. “Here you go,” he said, thinking I knew what the hell he was showing me. “This is the Prophet Moses’ water.” It then hit me… this is the spot where Moses struck the rock and water came flowing out. Right here next to a place where I bought my “No Pork” shot glass. I climbed down, drank the clear natural spring water, and we headed to my hotel right next to the entrance of the most famous site in all of Jordan, and one of the new Wonders of the World… Petra.

My hotel was tidy and clean, but had a distinctive flair to it… it was purple. Everything. Everything was purple… my bed, the carpet, the paint, the curtains, the lampshades, the chairs… everything. If you go, you must stay at the Silk Road Hotel… it’s so worth it in the morning being bathed in the purple sheen. I ate a paper thin pizza at Mystic Pizza (?) with Mustafa, and then he took off and said that he’d pick me up in two days. But before he left, he said that I should take the night walking tour at 8pm into Petra. He coughed goodbye and took off. I took a quick nap, and set my phone alarm for 7pm.

I awoke and hurried down the street around 7:30 to join the night Petra tour. But when I arrived at the visitor center, there was no one there. I had to walk around for a while until I heard the sound of the doors being locked. I asked about the 8pm tour, and he told me they had left half an hour ago… my clock was off by a full hour… shit. I thanked him and started to leave when he said, “just leave now, and you’ll catch up to them at the monastery.”

Fantastic! What luck… I get to walk into Petra at night by myself! How cool! I paid for the ticket and jumped thru the turnstile and onto the dirt path leading into Petra. The night was very cool, with a half-moon and clear night sky above. There were no lights lighting the path, just tea candles in paper bags about every fifty feet or so. I could tell dim outlines of huge rocks and approaching cliff faces, but saw no detail or edges. After ten minutes, the patch dipped down into a narrow valley called the Siq. The Siq ranges from twenty to ten feet wide; with sheer cliffs over eighty feet high on either side… sometimes the cliffs would overhang and create natural tunnels. As I begun walking, the sound of my footsteps was all I could hear echoing off the cliff walls. The scurrying of a lizard or the tumbling of pebbles snapped me to attention. The stars overhead were almost completely blocked by the cliff faces, and the moon’s light was nowhere to be found. The tea candles were spaced farther and farther apart and the winding of the path made it seem as though I would walk off the edge of the world at any time.

I was, truly, terrified. For the first time in a long time, I was laughing at how nervous I was. I had no map, or any idea of what I was doing. I didn’t know how long this path was, or even if it was the right path. My pocket LED nightlight was the only thing I had to help me along. But most frightening of all was the silence… after a while I could hear my own heartbeat along the walls. Stones were spread along the path, former Roman roads long worn from hoofs and foot alike. Not being able to see them, I stumbled twice, straining both my ankles. I seriously considered turning back and leaving this all behind me.

Then, out of nowhere, I heard the eerie sound of a flute playing. I kept going forward, and just around a corner was shocked by the view of hundreds of glowing paper bags lighting up the Treasury… a building carved directly into a massive rock face. If you’ve ever watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or the second Transformers movie, you’ve seen it.

It was… honestly… magical. There were about a hundred people there, all perfectly quiet, making no noise at all. Everyone was just sitting on the dirt, listening to the flute, watching the reflections of the flames dance on the Treasury walls. Once the music stopped, they passed out tea and water, and everyone scrambled to get that one great night shot… which I never got. Soon, everyone walked out en masse back thru the Siq and up to the visitor center. The walk back was really arduous, as you don’t realize but you have to walk uphill the whole way back on shifting dirt and rock. After a full day of climbing holy mountains, swimming in Dead Seas, and getting scared to death in a dark valley… I was beat. A quick shower and another mini-pizza, and I was out for the night.

I woke up early the next morning, had my onion and hotdogs, and waited outside for my Petra guide to arrive. I had booked a local guide group for Petra, and a nice guy named Osama (no relation) met me with a busload of very, very old tourists. This group had been traveling together for almost two weeks, and I was just hitching a ride this one day. The entire group was made up of, and I’m not making this up, retired New York Jews. All the men had beards, yarmulkes, and early onset Alzheimer’s. One lady had more facial hair than her husband. This was going to be a great day…

Osama explained the history of Petra, the lost Nabataean civilization, and it’s rediscovery (all of which you can read on Wikipedia). As we entered the gates, the faint outlines from the night before finally made sense. The Djin (genie) and obelisks stones were massive, closely followed by homes carved directly into massive stone boulders. When the path dipped down into the rocks, I knew we had reached the Siq. During the night, it was terrifying; but during the day it was incredible. The giant swirls of pink and purple thru the rock made every corner into a new surrealist painting. I must have taken two hundred photos just walking around, trying to capture the absolute beauty of the scene. The Treasury building was gorgeous and glowing pink in the morning light. From there we walked along into the abandoned city, exploring ancient homes, tombs, and temples. We walked deeper and deeper into the complex. Osama pulled us off the main route and we climbed up into the hills and had to slink along narrow footpaths overlooking even more hidden homes. There’s still one man still living in the caves, and we met him while walking along. He invited us into his modest cave home where he served us clover tea. One of the old ladies was so afraid of heights that she couldn’t walk along one of the footpaths and we had to shield her from the drop to make it.

We made our way back to the main foot path where we ate our buffet lunch, and then everyone went their own way. Right next to the buffet site was a narrow flight of stairs that seemed to lead directly up into the sky. Osama told us that these steps, all 1500 of them, lead to the Monastery, a sister to the Treasury building at one of the highest points in the entire area. I started the climb, and quickly realized there was no fuckin’ way I was going to make it. But I did see a bunch of the old people and children heading up the steps on the backs of donkeys.

“Not the donkeys… don’t be one of the too fat and lazy people,” I kept telling myself. People will be talking behind your back… fat guy on a donkey… I know. But I really wanted to see the Monastery. So I paid a guide to get me the biggest donkey they had. He got me a big grey mule-beast that looked so happy to see me. I climbed aboard and we took off with the guide holding the reins the whole way up. This donkey walked up the uneven steps like it was nothing. More impressive was the fact that the guide was striding along on an incredibly hot day and was barely breaking a sweat. A few times I had to lean forward so the donkey could get some footing, and twice it slipped a little. The hardest part was looking over to one side and seeing drops of around fifty feet to the rocks below. The stairs became narrower and rougher, but the donkey just kept on going until we reached a landing near the top. I paid the guide handsomely, and bought an apple for the donkey… I should have offered to pay for the artificial hip it was going to require. I tried to complete that last fifteen minutes of climbing, but my heart was simply pounding too hard; as steps have always been my greatest weakness. So I started the long walk back down the 1500 steps. Along the way I met someone from Doha who works for a sister Education City university. Well, I more or less stumbled onto his wife pissing behind a rock… but still, a small world.
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As I made it to the Roman colonnade, I soon realized that I had lost all my energy. It was over 100F, and I had forgotten my hat back in the Toyota. I was out of water, and almost out of money… and I had literally miles of uphill walking in deep sand to go. At this point, I was not feeling well and just wanted to get into some shade. There was one guy who was carrying his kid on his back while dragging a stroller behind him; the wheels locked up from the sand and dust. I finally made it back to the Treasury, where the afternoon sun had completely changed the look of the carvings from pink to a deep purple. At this point, I caved again, paying a local guide for a ride back up to the visitor center using his horse and very tiny carriage. It cost me almost fifty bucks, but they could tell I would have paid double that. Unfortunately, going over the rocks and stones almost broke my back a second time. I got some cash, picked up another pizza, showered, and fell straight asleep with a sunburned forehead and a killer headache.

Slept late, ate another helping of hotdog and onion, and spent the morning rubbing my feet and ankles. Mustafa picked me up around noon and we headed south for an hour to take a quick peek at Wadi Rum. But we had to visit the magnificent rock outcroppings from afar because we had to make a u-turn and head north along the desert highway back to Amman. The four hour drive was long and not very scenic. This part of Jordan is just one long, flat desert. The only sights were the dirt devils the swirled around us. A quick lunch of hot lemon yogurt with lamb shank was really good and killed some time. Back in Amman we pulled up directly next to the King Abdullah mosque again, and this time I checked into the Caravan Hotel… the biggest shithole in the world.

My room was no bigger than my closet. The TV didn’t work and the lone light bulb over my head had to be turned on by plugging two bare wires into the wall. Oh, and the toilet was so close to the bathroom wall that I had to shit sitting sideways. And the water from the taps was gritty and brown. Not too bad for $95 US dollars a night. I walked around the mosque and picked up some water and fruit from a stand, then headed back to the room to watch downloaded episodes of Law & Order. I couldn’t walk around anymore… my feet hurt just too damn much.

The next morning Mustafa picked me up with a Canadian journalist in the car along for the ride. We headed into downtown Amman to check out Jabal al-Qal’a, or the Citadel Hill. On top of this hill in the middle of the city stands a fort built by the Romans that overlooks the valleys below. It has another, much older name that means “City of a Brother’s Love”… Philadelphia. The main site to see is several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in a small museum at the summit. From here we drove north to the town of Jerash, passing fruit and olive orchards along the winding road.
Jerash is a small city with one major attraction… one of the best preserved ancient Roman cities in the world. We hired a local guide who gave us a four hour tour of the massive site. We saw the original Hadrian’s arch, the still used hippodrome, rows of shops, baths, colonnade streets and the massive oval forum. Temples and churches with the mosaic floors still intact and plumbing systems that rival what my apartment has in Doha. Sixty ton free standing columns that had withstood thousands of earthquakes swayed in the wind… you could put your fingers into the cracks and feel the movement like a heartbeat. After hours of sightseeing and a long history lesson from our guide, we snuck into the buffet lunch with the other tour groups and noshed on whole roasted lamb.

From here, it was back to the hotel (damn) for one more night, and an early departure to the airport. I tipped Mustafa well and threw in a pack of smokes for him. Jordan has a strange feel to it. When you’re at the tourist sites like Petra or the Dead Sea, it is truly incredible. The absolute strangeness of its terrain and colors makes it feel imaginary. But when you’re traveling between those points, you get a little disappointed… because after the rocks, there’s really not much else to experience.

But I was still incredibly happy I made the trip.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I partied in the middle of Lake, Michigan...

Every three years, my family and I are bound by sacred law to meet in a grove of trees in central Michigan where we slaughter rabbits on the altar of the Dark Lord Cthlulu to preserve our sinister powers over the weak and feeble…

And while we’re there… we have a family reunion.

In mid-June of last year, I flew thirty plus hours from Doha to Frankfurt to Chicago to Saginaw, Michigan for my family reunion. At the tiny two-terminal Saginaw airport, things started off well with my bags being left behind at O’Hare. My parents picked me up in the pristine pine scented air of mid-Michigan. It was fifty degrees cooler there than when I had left Doha a day and a half before. After a quick beer, we picked up my sister Nadine and took off to our home for the next two weeks.

My sister Colleen and my parents were able to rent a house on a tiny lake in the middle of nowhere… actually, just outside of nowhere in a township called Lake. The house was good sized with a large kitchen, a basement for the kids, and a magnificent backyard under a gorgeous oak tree overlooking a dark blue lake. The lake, Perch Lake, was small… very small. But just large enough for the large pontoon boat and fourteen foot speed boat the house owner was letting us use.

The house was in good shape… but it needed a little work. So during the first few days, we all cleaned the floors and cupboards, organized his shed, weeded the beach, and polished the garage to a fine shine… it’s what we do in my family. The owner was incredibly kind to let us use the house for almost nothing, and we weren’t about to overstep his kindness.

Basically, for two weeks, it was my immediate family, all twenty of us, including one who came in from Iraq, plus a revolving door of relatives on both sides of the family coming by to drink beer, play cards, water ski and swim in the lake. In the early mornings, my sisters and I would take the boat out and fish before the kids woke up, catching small perch and sunfish. Dad and one of the nephews would clean them on the shore and fry them up in mustard for lunch with white bread to down the bones. We showered in the lake to save water using rags and bars of Dove soap; I washed my nieces’ hair.

My job was simple… I was in charge of the boats. Keep them clean, gas them up, top off the oil… and teach the kids how to ski. That was fun. I couldn’t get up myself, but everyone, including my sisters and my dad, all got up easily. Even the really little kids tried their best and almost got it. Thankfully, we had a tube where I got to swing them around and toss them off like rag dolls. Unfortunately, my turn on the tube ended up with me giving myself a massive hernia and turning my groin black.

For lunch, we ate our fish, grilled hotdogs, and made sandwiches from leftovers. At night, we took turns making dinner and doing the dishes. Every night we played cards, sometimes with the kids, sometimes just the adults. At dusk everyone would pack into cars and drive to the neighborhood gas station for bait and incredibly good ice cream cones.

We saw our entire extended family and shared meals and beer. A few times we all took off and dined out at the local mom and pop diner, or stopped off for a beer at our parent’s old watering holes. We played golf in the middle of a corn field, and bought tomatoes and cucumbers and apple cider from roadside stands.

After two weeks, we left the house on the lake for a weekend hotel where the families gathered for more beer, games of cards, horseshoes, and cornhole. Polkas were played and the old folks that still could, danced.

I spent every morning swimming in the cool lake water, the days playing with kids under the sun spying wild turkeys and deer in the fields, and laughing nearly nonstop with my parents, sisters, and cousins…

I can't wait for the next one…

ben

IKEA summer... Sweden, Finland, Estonia...

Seven months. Jeez…

I’m exactly seven months behind on posting on my travels. Well, I’m done teaching for the semester, everyone is starting to leave for the holiday break, and I should now have sufficient time to sit down and get my shit done.

A great perk of my job is that I get to travel to conferences and trainings across the globe. This year, I was lucky enough to get to attend two… one in San Francisco and one in Tartu, Estonia. The only problem with the science education conference in Tartu was that it’s really hard to get to Tartu... it’s even hard to find Tartu. I was stuck taking multiple flights, trains, buses, and ferries… and that was just fine with me. After departing a going away/ birthday party for [NAME REMOVED], I took my cab to the airport for my first destination…Stockholm, Sweden.

Stockholm, Sweden

After checking in, I was awarded one hell of a bonus… business class upgrade. Unlike everyone else at work that gets to fly business class all the time, I have been relegated to economy. I keep hearing these wonderful stories about the Qatar Airways business class lounge… the free food, wide seats, showers, and top-quality booze. And there I was, entered the always forbidden, yet now welcoming terminal. Clean, white, and supremely quiet, I was neatly escorted up the escalator and turned left, away from the first class lounge (soon, my sweet, soon) and entered the business class.

Holy crap… I have been flying like an animal my whole life! This terminal was a palace! It was almost midnight, and I was still able to enjoy a full dinner spread and a beer while reading my travel book. I was then summoned to the downstairs exit where I entered the waiting limousine and was driven on the tarmac to the plane… nice.

After making a fool of myself not being able to find the headphone jack (yeah, I fly business all the time), I landed eight hours later in the capitol city of Stockholm, Sweden. The airport was, naturally, very IKEA. Stained wooden floors, glass stairs, and polished steel kiosks were abounding. Instantly you could tell this was part of Scandinavia… due to the women. Every woman had long blond hair, pale alabaster skin, and was nearly six foot tall. After grabbing my bag, I bought a ticket to take the Arlanda Express train into Stockholm’s Centraalstationen. Thankfully, no one else was on the train… because I could not fit into the seats. They were all separated by immovable steel armrests that only fit one of my powerful thighs. I ended up straddling a waste bin on the wall. From the Centraalstationen I took the metro to Kungstadgarten. The metro stop was really beautiful, with art decorating the open rock walls and fountains cascading into chambers below. Especially fun was the longest escalator I have ever seen. I actually went up, down, and then back up so I could time it… almost two full minutes.

When the doors to the outside opened, I could feel the cool air (~50F) coming off the harbor just visible down the alley. The alley dumped me into the city’s stunning center. Colorful pastel buildings covered with chimneys and copper roofs were all around. Fishing boats and ferries were tied to the red steel posts along the water’s edge. In the middle of the harbor was one of Stockholm’s most recognizable landmarks, the Vandrarhem af Chapman, a three-masted former military and royal sailing ship… and my hotel for the night.

Actually a hostel, I walked across the Skeppsholmsbron Bridge to the island of Skeppsholmen. Just moored off the island was my ship, the AF Chapman. It was too early to check into the hostel, so I ditched my bag and resolved to walk around the city under the grey, overcast skies. I was determined to follow the walking tour provided in my Lonely Planet guide; having failed repeatedly in following the guides for Goa and Hanoi. I found the statue of Karl XII and headed north past the cherry red opera house and into the Kungstadgarten park. Colorful flowers were in bloom, and the winter skating rink was now a sparkling fountain. An ugly Friday’s spoiled the view at the far end of the park.

It was around this time when I realized that I had not seen another person since getting off the metro. Not one. There were no tourists along the water’s edge or at the museums, and no one strolling along the park promenade on this Saturday morning. At the end of the park was the city tourist office where I popped in to grab a postcard and my obligatory shot glass. When I purchased the shot glass, the man behind the counter questioned my walking around so early in the morning with all the schnapps still in me. Not having a clue what he was talking about, he explained that three days earlier was the country’s largest holiday, the mid-summer’s eve, and just one day after that was Princess Victoria’s royal wedding. The country had just finished four days of solid partying… and now, everyone was hung over.

I ended up walking around back to the Centraalstationen and down to the water’s edge, passing numerous churches, halls, and statuary. Crossing yet another bridge, I entered onto the island of Gamla Stan, the headquarters of the royal family and the oldest area of Stockholm. Surrounded by mustard yellow and red facades weaving around and around, concealing new sights of museums and cafes around every cobblestoned bend. A statue of St. George slaying the dragon overlooked a small square where the sun finally peaked thru the grey clouds. Along the alleys I walked until a large square opened up with a local musician playing a guitar and singing aloud some song I could not recognize. Three sides of the square were covered in charming tenements and cafes, but one end held the Swedish Academy, and home of the Nobel Prize.

I toured the Nobel Museum, and was kinda disappointed. Having met multiple Nobel winners (six, so far), I thought the museum would be showing off their personalities and discovered knowledge. Instead, it was more of an artist’s interpretation of the prizes. The one cool exhibit was Alfred Nobel’s actual will, the one that gave his money away to awarding “human achievement.”

The grey skies opened up, but coming from Doha with no rain and temperatures over 125F, I failed to bring my umbrella. The rain had started to downpour, and people were scampering under canopies. I savored the rain for about five minutes, and then began jumping between doorways. I bought an overpriced travel umbrella from a man on the street, and continued getting lost along the alleys.

With a complete stroke of luck, I entered the doorway of the Kungliga Slottet, the new royal palace right as they were having their changing of the guard. With silver helmets and appropriate royal blue outfits, they marched in a circle around the palace and took their places outside of the gates. I walked along the moored boats back across to the mainland, and then again to the AF Chapman. Up above the boat on a hill was the modern art museum. I decided to check it out and really enjoyed their exhibits. But the design museum was really crappy… one big room with only one exhibit that cost me twelve euro… insane. I ate my first creamy shrimps sandwich (delicious, and sold everywhere) in the museum cafeteria and walked back down the hill to check into the hostel just as the rain subsided and the sun came streaming out.

I boarded the boat and squeezed thru the uncomfortably narrow doors and steep steps down into the forecastle. My room was a six-bed shared with two small portholes opening onto the harbor. It was late in the afternoon, and I really needed a nap. So I made up the bed and took a nap until 8pm… and it was as bright as noon outside. I soon realized how close I was to the Arctic Circle, and it being mid-summer’s… the sun would only set for a few hours. I spent some time walking around the ship and the surrounding areas, taking in the fishing boats coming in from the sea. I ate some smoked salmon and chips and went back to my bunk to read myself asleep. The sun didn’t set until after midnight, and the younger folks sharing the room were coming in and out all night. The gentle rolling of the ship and the sea air quickly put me to sleep.

I woke up way too early, snuck out of the room, and climbed onto the main deck to watch the sun… not so much of a sunrise since it had been up since before 4am. Breakfast was made up of sunflower bread with preserves and slices of ham. People were squeezing two toothpaste tubes onto their plates, so I had to try some. One was a creamed and frothy bologna… ugh. But the second tube was a bright pink, foul smelling creamed roe. At first, it tasted sweet and salty on the tongue, but soon it became like eating rotten fish sautéed in shit. Four glasses of milk later, I began my morning walk.

Back at the King Karl XII square, I bought a ticket for a double-decker bus tour of the city. It took me to places I had already seen, but the headphones provided a lot more info of the history. We drove across the harbor and saw the public lift and the murder steps. After the tour, I visited the national museum, and realized that the Swedes love their chairs! There were entire wings dedicated to Swedish design principles and ideals, and room after room of nothing but chairs of every shape, size and design. I also finally got to study Eero Saarinson, the famous designer and the only man that shows up in every crossword puzzle published.

After the museum, it was back to the AF Chapman to check out, grab my bag, and held back to the airport once again, shoving one ass cheek into a seat. At the departure terminal, I had to eat another creamy shrimp sandwich and a coconut roll. The sheer amount of blue-eyed, blonde-haired people was staggering. An extremely beautiful and shapely redhead was busy sweeping the airport floors and emptying the trash! In the U.S., this woman would have been married off just out of high school, but here she was in Sweden, banished to janitorial because of her freckles. The Finn Air flight was quick and easy, and I soon landed at my next stopover, Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki, Finland

On the bus taking the passengers to the terminal, I looked around and saw that everyone had the same blue/blonde complexion… everyone but me and one dark-skinned black guy. Our eyes met, and I quickly read the same thing in his eyes… “We don’t belong here.”

I had to buy a bus ticket to get to central Helsinki, since the airport is over an hour away. Unfortunately, I bought the non-express ticket, and the hour-and-a-half bus ride meandered thru little suburbs and towns before we reached Helsinki’s main station. Along the way were dozens of people fake cross-country skiing with trekking poles along the sidewalks. I tried to follow the signs to get a ride to my next hostel. After walking up and down endless flights of stairs and escalators, I ended up walking right out of the rear of the station. It turns out my metro was actually a tram… a tram that wouldn’t take my credit cards or Euros. Shit. So instead I grabbed a cab to my hostel where I was charged ELEVEN EUROS for the ten minute ride!! I was pissed!! I tried to refuse to pay, but finally thru my money at the driver just so I could get the hell out of that cab.

The hostel was packed with people in the lobby getting settled in to watch a World Cup game… Mexico versus who the fuck cares. I unloaded into my singles room and went back out to grab dinner. It was then I found out that even though it was completely sunny outside and nearly 11pm, no restaurants were open. I walked along to a local grocery store where I picked up a nice snack of cold cuts, processed cheese, and some pudding cups. On the way back I passed a crowd of modern skinheads… shaved heads, jackboots, “SS” tats on their necks… pleasant young folk trying to look thuggish.

Helsinki isn’t nearly as nice as Stockholm. It’s not as modern, the buildings aren’t quite as pretty, and it’s a little more rundown… a holdover from the proximity to the USSR. After breakfast of yogurt and granola, I walked along the waterfront and the onion-topped churches. The fishermen were selling their morning catch in stalls setup on the cobblestone quay. Across the harbor were the ferry jetties. I bought my LindaLine ticket to take the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia. After an hour wait of watching two guys dressed like Russian-mobster extras from The Sopranos (track suits, fresh sneakers, greased chest hair catching their long gold chains) the ferry arrived. I was expecting a cruise ship; instead it was a three story, jet-powered catamaran. We idled out of the harbor passing hundreds of charmed islands filled with cottages and lighthouses until we reached the open sea… and then the engines roared to life. We must have been traveling at least a hundred kilometers an hour, skimming over the water. A massive spray erupted from behind the boat, as people crammed together on the rear view deck to feel the saltwater spray on their faces. It was on that tiny deck that someone asked me how my Aggies were going to do in the fall. Every single trip I’ve taken, someone recognizes my TAMU ring, and I meet my fellow Ags… kinda cool.

In just over an hour, the boat slowed as we pulled up into the Estonian port of Tallinn. As we docked, a tall spire of buildings could be seen just into town, right beyond the fifteen Baltic Sea cruise ships that were docked around us.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was a huge surprise. I was expecting the run-down antiquity of Helsinki. Instead, Tallinn is a very modern and bustling tourist town. A quick cab to the bus station to leave my bag in a locker, and I headed to the Tallinn old-town. Built upon a huge mound of rock, the old town is packed with churches, and high walls built as early as the mid-1700’s. It is very touristy… but done is a really well. Disney is touristy, but people still flock there… the old-town Tallinn is similar, and yet very charming. As soon as you enter the city walls, you’re inundated with pretty, busty girls is old dresses trying to pull you into their restaurants and pubs. As you ascend the steep cobblestone roads, curio, t-shirt, and flower shops keep barking for sales. The little squares with the different churches (at least ten in all) were around every corner. Yet more pretty young things were giving archery lessons and selling sodas from bicycle baskets. In fact… all the women in Tallinn were just stunningly beautiful… truly take your breath away women. Gothic and baroque spires kept jutting up out the background, leading you around the maze of back alleys. I had a little more time to kill so I sat down for lunch under the sun at a place called Kalle Kustos where I had to try the house specialty of ice cold local beer, Ale’ Coq (“chicken beer?”)… with a side of moose and cranberry sauce. Oh yes… moose. And it was… delicious. It was a strange mix of people around my table. Young couples with tattoos were mixing it up with Asian tourists with translator headsets. Rows of flower stalls were directly across the road that filled the air with an aroma of spring.

Back at the bus station, I met up with my coworker, Alaska. She and I were both heading to the conference. We boarded our bus and relaxed as we cruised along the narrow roads in between fields of alfalfa, oats, and yellow flax for three hours (reminded me of Michigan) from Tallinn to our destination of Tartu in central Estonia.

Tartu, Estonia

We walked from the bus station to our apartments, the Dormus Dorpatensis overlooking the town square fountain of students kissing under a squirting umbrella. Alaska and I walked around the town square and ate a late dinner outside, along with the rest of the city, where I dined on pickled herring with cottage cheese and boiled eggs; constantly aware that everywhere around me was the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Something about the eastern European/Russian women… I just could not get enough.

I got to sleep with the window open, and woke up covered in little gnats… my bad. I turned on the tv at five a.m. to kill some time, and was able to watch “Hogan’s Heroes” dubbed in German! That is the one show you would never think would be dubbed over and shown in Germany! We went to the opening of the conference at the University of Tartu in their main hall. Covered in faded pink walls, they welcomed us and had their men’s choir sing their national songs overhead wearing flax jackets. Turns out, Estonia is famous for three things: Skype was invented here, their flax is considered the finest in the world, and their “Singing Revolution” where the people fought against their USSR rulers by protesting in song… and succeeded. Everyone in Estonia… and I mean everyone… is part of some choir groups that get together and sing in national festivals throughout the year.

The day was full of talks about teaching and science… boring shit. After the conference, we dined on reindeer and potato latkes with more local beer. A large circle of chess tables were set up outside of my window. The Estonian grand champion and his ten-year-old protégé’ were celebrating a win by competing against the entire town. The two champions were within the circle, playing all thirty opponents at the same time. Geez… I thought I was under pressure when I bowled to break 200. Later that night, we walked just out of town to the botanical garden where a fancy reception was being held for the conference. It was really beautiful, seeing all the grass and flowers… something we have little of in Doha. Back at the hotel I watched yet another World Cup match, team who cares versus why I am watching this.

The morning was spent doing laundry and walking around the town center before the conference restarted. It’s only about two city blocks in total area, so it only takes an hour to crisscross all the streets. Both the main church and the local museum are so crooked you think they’re about to fall over… bad foundations I was told. After a few talks, the conference ended early so that we could all enjoy the excursions that were planned for us. We could choose from a vineyard visit, a river tour, or an obstacle course (“for the young and fit, only.”) Well, since I am neither young nor fit, I thought the obstacle course was the perfect excursion for me. Everyone under thirty and I boarded the obstacle bus. As soon as I boarded, I got some odd looks from the incredible aerobic and active people on board. Once again… “I don’t belong here.”

The bus pulled out of town and headed south to a famed exercise and training facility, Otepaa Adventure Park. The Estonian and Russian cross-country skiers and speed skaters all train here for the Olympics. Off the bus, a skinny stoner passed out the liability waiver forms and our belay harnesses.

Oh shit… a belay harness. When I asked the guy about me and my bulk, he calmly said no problem, that the lines could easily hold me. Oh shit…

For those of you that don’t know, my current largess and general state of laziness is directly related to a belay harness. Back in my freshman year of college, a freak accident while belaying caused me to fall about forty feet and break my back. I repeat… I actually broke my spine. Lumbar 2 vertebrae to be specific. Ever since then, I’ve never been able to be as active. And since that day on April 17th, 1995… I’ve never belayed. Not so much out of fear… I just never went anywhere that required belaying.

So here I am, wearing a harness while the stoner shows how to hook on our safety lines and our zip line rollers… unable to stop my hands from shaking. Once our guide is done, he asks “who’s first?” And before I knew it, I jumped up onto the platform and hooked on. Everyone in the group was staring, thinking that the fat guy was going to slow them all down. Instead… I jump ahead and no one got near me again. The first section was hooking on to safety lines and walking balance beams and swinging logs about ten feet off the ground. The last part was a thirty foot zip-line back to the ground where you ended up being drug along the grass by your own mass. As soon as I unhooked and looked back… I was five minutes ahead of everyone…

I scrambled up the hill path to the second group of stations. It was the same as before, but ten feet higher off the ground, and the obstacles were just a little more difficult… ending in a longer and steeper zip-line to the ground. I went through stations one through three until a fifty-year-old lady caught up to me. I let her go ahead at the start of four, which was a great thing. A simple straight horizontal zip-line is where my leg got caught in a rope and I got rope burn on my nuts. The next obstacle was hanging on to a rope for a Tarzan swing into a cargo net. The swing was no problem, but you don’t realize how difficult those cargo nets are to climb! The close you get to the top, the harder it is to reach the platform… damn near killed me! After getting on top of the platform and trying to catch my breath that was about forty feet up, I crossed a bridge made up of loose, swinging cables and my arms started to give out. My adrenaline rush was fading, and so was my upper body strength. I finished out proudly on a long zip-line through the trees, and joined up with the dozen or so people that had to crap out before me. Hah.

While waiting for the others to finish, I was told to skip ahead to station six up on the hill. When I approached, I realized what station six was… two long zip lines. The first went across the valley to a large hill about three hundred meters long. The guide said to hook on and to run off the edge of the little drop off ahead, but keep running. I ran straight ahead, reached the drop off, and jumped… holding on to the rope, forgetting to keep running. I dropped hard right on my ass and came to a complete stop. After a second to regain my composure and to feel my ass starting to bruise, I started rolling down the hill… the rigging had enough momentum to drag me along the ground! There I was being dragged down the hill when finally the ground fell out from under me and I was freely zipping along the cable. It wasn’t until I stopped on the mat on the other side of the valley that I realized my underwear was filled with tree bark and mulch from the dragging. I had to unhook and dig chucks of wood from out of my ass cheeks.

I followed the signs around the hill and started to worst part of getting back to the park… the two-hundred steep steps up the hill to reach the return zip-line. At the top of the hill were ruins from the ancient settlers of the area… the hill itself was actually an old stronghold of a since destroyed city. It was here, all alone, overlooking the valley ninety feet below when I asked myself, “why the hell am I strapping myself to a single cable and literally jumping off a building?” For a minute, I actually questioned why I was doing this shit anymore? I’m not twenty, I’m almost thirty-five. I have a bad back, a bad heart, and am too old and fat to be risking my life anymore…

Fuck it, I thought… and jumped…

You just don’t know how much fun that sense of danger and speed feels… hearing the little metal wheels of the pulleys spinning to the breaking point… I really need to lose weight so that I can go skydiving…

Afterwards, we all went to a local camp where we ate steamed salmon, dill potatoes, cottage cheese and local wines. We ended up spending hours just talking and getting to know each other. I ended the night flirting heavily with a beautiful Estonian who was assisting the conference, Agny. I had one last beer outside of my apartment before taking a shower to rinse off all the blood from the myriad cuts and scrapes, and to fish the last of the mulch from my ass.

Dear God… did I hurt in the morning! But it was a good hurt. Little bloody welts and abrasions were reminders of how much fun the course was, and how much I want that life again. I skipped the morning session of the conference and toured the museums and churches of Tartu. I went to where Agny worked in the administration building and asked if her out for a drink. We met up later at the fountain and took a long walk outside of the city where she explained the “Singing Revolution” to me, showed me their singing groups, and even gave me a glimpse of her ballroom dancing career. We strolled along the river through the public parks and little back alleys. We ended up walking up the university hill and entered into a doorway that led into an enormous stone barn built under the hill. It was the old munitions storehouse, appropriately called the Gunpowder Cellar. It was an awesome bar that, strangely, had a mechanical bull in the middle of the floor. We ended up ordered a plate of smoked fish and meats, and large glasses of Ale’ Cog, singing along with a bad cover band until they shut the place down. Good times with Agny…

Hungover in the morning, I nodded through the last of the conference talks, checked out of the apartment, and walked to the bus station. My bus was just leaving, so I hopped on for the ride back to Tallinn. There, I bought my ferry ticket, and sat on the quay for an hour under the cool afternoon sun waiting for the ferry. Once onboard, I bought a beer and somehow slept for most of the ride. I arrived back in Helsinki late in the day, and checked back into the same hostel as before, and even got the same room. I undressed and climbed into my single bed for yet another World Cup match and a long night’s sleep from a long travel day.

I booked an early morning taxi to take me to the airport, where I boarded another puddle jumper to Stockholm. From there, I had a two hour wait at that beautiful airport where I had to indulge in one more creamy shrimps sandwich before returning to a god-awful Qatari summer.

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