Sunday, November 21, 2010

a beirut evening

Beirut is a fascinating and fun city. I'm not going to purport to know nearly as much about it as I should considering I just dedicated five days roving around in it. But I can share a few observations.

Decades of civil war left the city holed and ruined, and parts, such as downtown, were completely rebuilt to look like they did before the war. All neighborhoods are full of barricades, tanks, and soldiers. Despite the grim past and its present reminders, the city feels vibrant and spirited, and its inhabitants party hard and late in a variety of bars, clubs and cafes that make it easy to understand why its known as the Paris of the Middle East. It feels even Frenchier because French is just as much the second western language in this area as English, and there are a lot of linguistic bits of French in Lebanese Arabic.

Yesterday, Eman and I stepped out in the afternoon and (after a couple apparel store detours) enjoyed a late lunch in a Hamra Cafe near American University of Beirut whose vibe was reminiscent of the Hungarian Pastry Shoppe, down to the fact that Cafe Younes' staff leaves patrons to suss out the chosen ordering method for themselves. After a long stroll around Hamra in search of a gift for Eman's fiance (she found one, but no spoilers here!), we settled into another cafe, Buttermint, which was playing Feist and had an outdoor patio garden that made the crazy streets, just yards away, feel distant.

Finally, we decided to return to the bar in the Gemayze neighborhood, Godot, where we'd had a blast the prior night; cue overkill of 'going to find Godot' punnery. We set out on the 20 minute walk and hadn't gone far when Eman tripped on a bit of metal popping from the sidewalk and got a nasty cut on her toe that was basically a more intense twin of the toe wound I got in the Dead Sea. Now with twin bandages, we drank mojitos at the bar--the Middle East uses fresh mint better than anywhere else--and sang along to the bar's American soundtrack.

Leaving at a barely respectable 11:30, mostly because I couldn't stand the cigarette smoke that floats thick in the air of Lebanese nightlife, we hopped into the nearest cab and found ourself being driven by a drunken cabbie. Half thinking we wouldn't survive the ride and half enjoying his seat dancing, poem reciting, radio station surfing spirit, we endured what turned out to be the most bizarrely entertaining moments of the evening, which ended with a gallant kiss on Eman's hand and a hug for me, because 'anything from the land of Obama is OK with me.'

Thursday, November 18, 2010

blog list: things I now know should be packed for a trip through developing countries

*A flashlight

*portable clothesline

*real sneakers


*sunglasses (though buying them in Dubai was great)

*a water bottle holder so as not to always carry it by hand

*outlet converters

*Lonely Planet guides

i want... write some overarching, eloquent, what-have-I-learned-on-my-travels type posts, and plan to do it. But right now, I'm having too much fun running around Amman and Beirut to do much more than peruse the internet when a connection is available.

So, cheers for the moment!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

a croc tale

Life advice: if going for a water hike in a flowing river--one that involves pulling yourself up slick rocks with rickety ropes while being distracted by the majestic rock canyons rising on either side--don't go in Crocs. I got a pair in Goa (don't judge; they looked like ballet flats). And I figured they'd be perfect for a water hike at Al-Mujib, a Jordanian nature reserve abutting the Dead Sea. They're supportive and lightweight. They dry quickly.

And indeed, the first half of the hike against the current proved me right. I didn't slip or feel weighted by the dreaded soggy sneakers. However, the moment we turned back (after reaching a canyon waterfall that toppled in from a bunch of high-up crevices in the reddish rock to form a forceful flow by its base) and the current was propelling us forward, one of my Crocs flew off. A moment later, so did the other. Did I mention the entire hike was over stones and pebbles and I was suddenly barefoot at the point furthest from the beginning?

I was able to retrieve one Croc, but the second one disappeared, leaving me to limp back half unshod, negotiating my way down all the rope-assisted steep rock faces we'd scrambled up. Eman said, "Only in Jordan would they let people do this kind of stuff without a guide."

I made it back, slowly, to the entrance and slipped on a lone left flip flop lying on the bank to wear on the walk across the street to the rustic chalet where we slept. (It and the reserve are run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, where Eman's sister works. The views here are unparalleled, but the flies are vicious.)

"Why must I always learn things the hard way?" I sighed to Eman. "I'll have to add 'don't wear Crocs on water hikes' to my list of things to keep in mind."

"You should also add, 'when Eman tells me I should wear sneakers, do it,'" she replied.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

dubai bullet points of interest

*Clothing items in a discount store: a women's t-shirt made out of a lewd Angelina Jolie photo collage; a pink, rhinestone-studded men's t-shirt with a Scarface decal; neon strappy sandals

*Thanks to censorship, everyone here thinks the lyrics to that song are "I want to be a billionaire so freakin' bad."

*Some women use Islamic clothing as more of a style statement than a means toward modesty.

*We spent a good hour chatting with an Iranian antique art dealer who sells statues of prawns made in China from bull horns.

*Indian sweets are better than Middle Eastern ones. This is probably a good thing from the perspective of my thighs.
*It's kind of embarrassing to be examining souvenir bobble heads that are caricatures of folks in Islamic dress as a woman in a hijab walks by.

india left me unprepared for the automatic toilet flushers in dubai's airport, for starters

Since arriving in the UAE since Nov. 4, I've spent a lot of time in Dubai's malls. A lot of those superlative accomplishments that define the emirate abroad--indoor ski slope, largest musical fountain, tallest building--are either in or adjacent to large, shiny luxury brand-filled malls peopled with the most diverse array of folks I've ever seen. You can reach the malls on the metro, whose maps are misleading because only one of the lines have been built though both are represented. The trains (and there's one car that's women-only) are so sparkling clean that I would eat food that's been prepared on them.

That stream of consciousness description contains all my first impressions of Dubai: it's shiny, under construction, over the top and there are too many rules. And Dubai (not so much the other emirates, which I was driven through yesterday and were more normal places) is chock full of foreigners. Yet, food aside, there are no indicators that there is diversity in the city. I saw mosques but no churches or Hindu temples, and foreigners and locals seem to occupy the same space without actually acknowledging one anothers' presence.  Everything is clean and beautiful, but it remains so thanks to laborers from developing countries who stay in perpetual debt to their employers and because there are a million and one rules about everything that make me think twice before blinking.

Rules govern everything from daily life to quotidian economic policy to personal behavior. Unmarried foreigners aren't allowed to share apartments. No public displays of affection. No public dancing. No eating on the metro. No photographing locals. If you speed on the roads, the surveillance cameras will catch you, though the creepier feeling of being watched comes from billboard-sized portraits of the emirati rulers that proliferate on the roadsides. Truthfully, I'm probably not supposed to be writing this.

There are also a lot of building project shells that began before the financial crisis. We passed the exterior wall of an amusement park which had no inside. Its outside decoration was still perfectly lit up, a Potemkin amusement park, for whatever that's worth. But a lot of things -- like the metro system, and that tallest building ever -- have been or are well on their way toward completion, and Dubai residents are proud of the way a world-class (though rather start-of-a-dystopian-novel-before-the-underbelly's-revealed) city has sprung up from the desert in the past decade or so.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

new location, new album link

I've started a new Facebook album for the new phase of my travels, in Dubai and its environs. Enjoy here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

how to make an indian cappuccino

Credit: Facebook
Here is how the espresso drinks chain Cafe Coffee Day made me a pre-flight cappuccino (order: capp with an extra shot) in Mumbai's domestic airport this morning:

After some confusion on the part of multiple customers about the fact that we couldn't order at the drink counter, only the register (there was nobody manning the register), I waited my turn, announced and paid for my drink. Register man called it out to his colleague, Starbucks style.

I walked over to the counter to wait. A moment later, drink man looked at me and asked, in Hindi, "What was your order?" I told him. Register man continued to shout drink orders that he wasn't paying attention to. He took a cup full of pre-drawn espresso and splashed some of it haphazardly into my cup. Then he steamed some milk for about five seconds and dumped it foamlessly on top. Voila!

And yet the drink tasted fine--hot and strong, like I wanted. India may be half assed (see Obama preparations in previous post), but it somehow gets the job done nonetheless.

i was there first

Obama--or as a cabbie described him, the prime minister of America--comes to Mumbai two days after I leave, and across the city there are all sorts of frenzied preparations underway, with Indian and American security personnel rushing to spiff up the place and to secure it..

I saw some of it first-hand today when I tagged along as a local journalist reported a visit-related story. (Nope, not specifying, but I will tweet a link once it's published)

Obama is stopping at a local university on Saturday or Sunday. We were there today, easily passing a long line of police guarding the entrance and wandering around as a bunch of laborers built wooden bleachers from scratch in the courtyard. (Only in India would things be built from scratch from raw materials at the last minute; I saw a couple doors, complete with latches, being used as sidewalk construction covers in Bangalore, and building scaffolding is sticks of bamboo that look haphazardly knotted together. Also: only here is there always a slew of security personnel that don't actually seem to be securing anything.)

In the midst of the bleacher building, a mix of white folks and Indians sauntered around with clipboards looking overwhelmed. Two visitors' bald spots reinforced my observation that Indian men generally keep their silky manes much longer than men do in the west. As we walked out, a bag inspector was being wheeled in for installation.

That's it for now; no thematic conclusion or what have you. I leave the country tomorrow, and I'm going to enjoy my final hours here. Kulfi, here I come! 

Monday, November 01, 2010

notes from a blackberry scribe: mumbai

As he drove me to Dabolim Airport on Friday, the owner of my guest house in Goa told me I'd take one look at the city as the plane was landing and then turn right 'round again. Prati said she hated Mumbai. The guy who took me to dinner in Goa said he'd lived in Mumbai for a couple years, and it sucked.

I haven't seen the infamous slums yet, but the place doesn't seem all that bad. Like the rest of the country, traffic congestion is horrible and drivers are insane. The cityscape is full of gaudy Diwali season light displays at night. There is street shopping, nice shopping, seemingly reliable electricity and a brilliant array of diversity coexisting. There is a slew of last-minute cosmetic work being done in advance of Obama's visit in a couple days and a new toll bridge allowing drivers to avoid much of the traffic when changing neighborhoods.

And like in the rest of the country, I bet I'm mostly getting a favorable impression because there are a multitude of Indias and I am living in the affluent one. Yes, I spent a day visiting grimy tourist sites and got swindled by some street vendors. But, staying with a couple different people these last few days, I've also had exquisite international cuisine, been to a comedy club and lounged at a members-only swimming facility beside the sea whose pool is India shaped. Last night, my hostess got Diet Coke delivered to her apartment because she knew I liked it.

I also spent a day with a family I knew back in New York. We went to a fancy mall (the one that has the comedy club on an upper floor), and their 10 year old and I had a blast being silly in the fancy stores. She would enter, amass an armful of the store's ugliest, clashingest clothing and then dress up in them and pose for photos. Then we went back home to play with their westie. Everyone has been so kind to me in Mumbai, from cabbies on up.