Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rickshaws through India

Back in June 2008, I found something ridiculous online, and quipped that I really wanted to do it, with zero expectation of actually following up with it. Well, here goes.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lack of Updates

Average hours per workday: 12 hours
Average workdays per week: 6.5
Average sleep per evening: 5 hours
Average curse-words uttered per day during Ramadan: 0
Average curse-words uttered per day post-Ramadan: Increasing

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Purty trees and dead gunmen

Sightseeing 'round Libnan was twofold awesome. Sure, there was the ridiculous scenery and the fact that a large majority of the country is the perfect mountains-next-to-sea blend. It was honestly one of the most beautiful countries I've ever been to, and I was blindsided by how fantastic some of the scenery was. Although many Arabs come as tourists to Lebanon, I'd never heard a single thing about it before beauty-wise, only negative descriptions of the violence and political problems. It's a big misnomer to pigeonhole Lebanon as a purely "Arab" country though, and that's as far as I'll go into any sort of political discussion on the matter. On to stories.

Oh yeah, the second fold of awesome. I'll get to that in a bit. First, pretty things.

Old Roman ruins by the sea in the city of Tyre, in southern Lebanon. Most of the more famous ruins in Lebanon that I visited were of the Romany-columny variety, with remains of old temples, city walkways, necropoli, and even a chariot racing stadium.

View from one of (or The) largest and best preserved hippodromes EVER. This is from near the center of the stadium. The fuzzy triangle in the background is a portion of the amphitheater seating that once fit about 20,000 people hopped up on classical NASCAR. Chariot races, from what I hear, often involved pretty spectacular crashes, especially at either end of the elliptical track as the chariots skeetered around the non-banked curves. I relaxed in the shade under one of the seating areas (amazing similar to modern stadium seating in acoustics and feel) and imagined watching a specawesometacular combination of NASCAR, figure skating, jousting, and gladiators all mixed into one sport. Oh, and there was hibiscus growing in the stadium (the red thing ruining my stadium picture). I wonder if Lebanese drink hibiscus tea as much as Egyptians do.

Cedar tree in the Chouf Cedar Reserve, up in the northern area of Lebanon in the mountains. Lebanese cedars make for some good wood - these cedar forests are apparently mentioned in the Bible (somewhere in the chapter about trees) and traders used to transport uber-cedar-lumber all over the region, including down to Egypt for use in their boats 'n shizzle. Some of the larger ones are over 1000 years old - this one was just a mere 300 or so years old though. After I learned about the way older ones, this one was still visually pleasing but just not as cool...sorry, whippersnapper.

So, onto the second fold of awesomeness. The stories we heard from random people we ran into (our driver buddy, a ranger/guide in the forest, etc.) were jaw-dropping to my grew-up-in-a-stable-country mind. The first was a cell-phone video our driver showed us while we were at a rest stop or something. It was a wounded Hezbollah fighter sitting against a wall, saying what were close to his last words, filming everything around him, including a dead fighter right next to him. At first I was curious why our driver would have downloaded this off whatever news website onto his phone, and temporarily geeked out wondering about the bandwidth available from his network provider and whether they had 3G, and how long it would have taken to download the video file.

Turns out one of his buddies got the video directly off the phone of the Hezbollah guy, who our driver buddy and posse had fought in their neighborhood during the recent conflict in early 2008 when Hezbollah took over parts of Beirut. Our buddy relayed this fact with minimal emotion or expectation of reaction, just totally matter of fact, like he was saying "actually, this ISN'T butter, despite your belief."

Later on, while walking through the forest with a ranger describing what baby cedar trees look like, he paused in a section of forest, smiled, and whipped out his cell phone. He then played a recording of some staticky panicked yelling and gunfire, started talking to our driver buddy in Arabic, then repeated the conversation to us, in English. The audio was of some Hezbollah gunmen who for some reason were fighting their way into the cedar forests, near where the ranger and his peeps live (and near where we were standing). The panicking was from the gunmen as they were all getting killed and driven out of the forest. Ranger Rambo beamed as he described how he and his posse defended their land, and it almost made me feel warm and fuzzy (from killing enemies) too, so effervescent and contagious was his pride.

A scene from another cedar forest, which pretty much fits my definition of textbook beautiful. A little weird to think people were getting shot at around here earlier this year. I really admire how so many Lebanese deal with the constant instability and just deal with events as they occur, without sensationalizing the violence that seems so intense in my mind. Driver-buddy was talking about how, since his people live in the suburbs in the mountains around Beirut, they were safe when Israeli warships off the coast of Beirut were firing missiles into the capital during the recent war. What did he and his neighbors do during the attack? Sat on their roofs and watched the rockets flying through the air, like fireworks.

A scene from near Sidon, back in the southern part of Lebanon again, what one of the contractors in my office refers to as "Hezbollah-land". Without degenerating into some crappy geopolitical history lesson, the south is where Hezbollah is most active and has the most support, since they were the Lebanese fighting off the Israeli invasions from the south, as well as firing rockets into Israel. There are martyr memorials all over the place of young men killed in fighting (possibly by Israelis, possibly by Ranger Rambo). Hooray sniper-shot pictures from a moving vehicle with tinted windows!

Diversity. Lotta Christians, lotta Muslims in Lebanon, and being pretty ignorant about who's who, I never knew who to salam-alekum or who to, um, hallelujah or whatever. But in the south, it's predominantly Muslim so yay less potential awkwardness when greeting people! Amusingly, since the little Arabic I know is mainly Egyptian colloquial, a few people actually looked at me funny when I tried to talk to them and asked if I was Egyptian. Even weirder, I felt a pang of pride and often replied "well I do live in Egypt". Holy crap were people friendly though, and they barely even tried to rip me off as a tourist! Very refreshing.

Brain is obviously mushifying now. Suffice to say Lebanon is awesome and I will definitely visit again provided all is relatively stable. As cool as it is to see shiny automatic weapons every few dozen kilometers on the road and tanks scattered throughout the city, I don't really have any huge urge to see any of the military in action.

Friday, August 1, 2008

I heart Beirut

First time out of Egypt while on this project. A buddy of mine happened to be planning a trip to Lebanon and invited me along, woo! We'd been talking about this potential trip for a while, but there were some, um, Hezbollah-occupying-downtown-Beirut issues in Lebanon that would have precluded any sort of touristy trip to the area (as much due to the gunfire and fighting as to the closure of most of the nightclubs). Thankfully, the most recent civil conflict reached some sort of ceasefire/agreement in May, so we quickly booked last-minute airfare to hop over while things were cool for the time being.

I knew a sum total of nothing about Lebanon before going there, so was pretty excited to head to an area ubiquitously raved-about by everyone I've met in Cairo. Dancing in my head before I passed out one the one-hour-plus plane ride were tales of beautiful mountains, forests mentioned in the Bible, gorgeous, erm, nightlife, and a cornucopia of friendly cultures accustomed to on/off military conflicts. Was really looking forward to a rockin' long weekend.

Waking up upon landing, I looked out the window to see the suburbs outside Beirut, with residences and offices covering the hillsides - beautiful city, check.

First thing I see after going through the arrivals customs (free visa, whee!) was this.

Very promising.

Plan was for three nights and two+ days touring the countryside during the day, and sampling the nightlife at, uh, night. Our first evening there we took it easy, taking some time to meet with my friend's driver-buddy in Beirut, plan out the next few days, and wander the city a bit without (yet) painting the town red, white, and green.

Eurocup 2008 was going on at the time, and Germany won a game the night we arrived. Apparently, Beirutis love themselves some football - the streets near our hotel (near the American University in Beirut) were filled with revelers driving around honking and waving German flags. At first we thought that maybe they were die-hard Germany fans....until the next night, when Turkey won, and we witnessed the same phenomenon but with different flags. The third night, Russia won, and all of a sudden Russian flags appeared in the clubs and everyone went wild.

I suspected that maybe people just loved celebrations and football, and kept a supply of flags around so that no matter who won, it'd be reason to go nuts. Hell, any relativism that results in constant partying is A-OK in my book.

Speaking of which, holy liver-cirrhosis Batman, Beirut is every bit as good a party-town as I had heard. [Random grammar/spelling victory insert - I somehow spelled cirrhosis right on the first try! Huzzah!] It was dang good idea to take it easy the first night, as I only got an hour or so of sleep the between the second night. After bar/club hopping for a few hours, right as me and my revelry-mates were ready to call it a night around 3 or 4 am, one of the fine fellows working at the bar took it upon himself to show us an even better time. I don't know how my mangled Egyptian Arabic sounded to the dude, but all of a sudden trays of "grapefruit juice" and "sparkling grape-juice-distillate" start showing up, some with random sparklers in the middle. All, for some reason, for free. Sword of Omens, get me sloshed beyond sloshed!

Drinking of fruit juices (3-4 AM), dancing on bars (?? AM), eating ridiculously rich-and-sweet cheese-honey caloric-juggernaut desserts called knefet jibly with breakfasting laborers in the morning (~6 or 7 AM), minimal sleep (7ish to 8ish AM), hop in de car (9 AM), TOUR-TIME (9:30 AM to I-don't-even-know-anymore PM). In totally achronological order, here are some sights we beheld in Beirut.

Pigeon Rocks. Very pretty, resembling pigeons not-at-all. I'm not sure if I even saw any pigeons in the area.....but then remembered that Egyptians are very fond of stuffed pigeon. Not sure if the Lebanese have that culinary tendency.

Memorial to Rafik Hariri, ex-Prime Minister of Lebanon who was assassinated in a block-encompassing car-bomb blast in 2005. The blown-all-to-hell buildings remain in their damaged state. I'm not sure if this is on purpose to memorialize the site, but the new construction of memorial items in and around the block, coupled with the immaculate new buildings throughout this quarter of the city, make an interesting contrast with the blast area. The memorial area still seems pretty politically charged too, keeping with the theme of, um, all of Lebanese history. Random guy driving by with this wife and kid berated me in broken English while I was photographing the area, but luckily drove off quickly after firing off some angry "no-photos-blurb-blurb-blurb-something"s. A politically-indignant Lebanese guy getting in the way of a hungover Asian taking photographs would not be a pretty sight.

Holy f-nuggests, an update!

Still alive and twitching here in Cairo. Project's been pretty insane(r) here for the past two months here, as has everything else, including visits from famry, traveling around and outside Egypt, and somehow not getting sick in the process. Last comment there probably called upon the stars to put the karmic-Murphy-gastrointestinal-ruiner-machine back in motion.

I really have no clue how to adequately face the task of back-blogging over two months of happenings. Luckily, facing certain failure and overwhelming amounts of work have been a running theme these past few months, and I think I've been able to adapt to the constant stress. Someone once said to me "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." I received this frighteningly-prophetic advice about a year or so ago, right around then time herds of elephants started thundering down my throat. As much as I tend to dislike proverbs and catch-all sayings, this question-answer snippet appeals to my love of eating, my love of eating endangered/protected species, and my love of eating way way more than I should ever try to consume.
I'll leave y'all to admire some wrinkly elephant butts (taken on safari in Tanzania around the time I received the advice) as I try to crank out some updates this afternoon.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Twitchy man in the boat

Went on a boat ride on the Nile recently with some hasher friends, in a sailboat called a felluca. They're one of the signatures of the Egyptian Nile in my mind, and some of the only boats that cruise around the city sections of the river. Not many drawbridges that I know of around downtown at least, so there are few big ships that use the river as a thoroughfare.

Heck of a good time to meet up with friendly faces to down some beers and snacks on a silent boat, lazily cruising up and down the river away from the incessantly honking cars and yelling pedestrians. I actually did this 1-2 months ago when the weather was cooler, so it was pleasant to spend a Saturday afternoon in the shade of the boat with the (generally non-sewage-y) constant breeze. It was nice to just close my eyes and face into the wind, kinda like the content dogs with their heads poking out car windows on the road, with minimal cranial processes getting in the way of a good time. The beer, kebab-flavored chips, and caviar (!) certainly didn't hurt either.

I've been under the impression that swimming in the Nile was a generally ill-advised activity, but saw many a child and even a few water-skiers cooling off the in the water, and had some discussions with my fellow hashers about how the little water-nasties only tend to be found in stagnant water. Still, I didn't feel any urges to strip down and dive into the Nile.

A few beers later, I realized one of the limiting factors for felluca-enjoyment time; there are no restrooms of any sort on the boat. It's really just a basic single-deck sailboat, generally not designed for multiple-hour trips by beer-swilling foreigners. Hmm.

A few beers later, I realized that we were surrounded by water, the boat was full of hashers that I knew (well enough at this point), and that everyone else in Egypt was at least a few hundred meters away.

A few minutes later, I realized that the breeze I was enjoying before can also have other effects. Oops.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

omg omg omg


Must have awesome shark-fin spoiler too, like this one I spotted south of Cairo.