Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Crazies, Christians, Opera, and Retreat

It was the summer of 2002 when Chad and I pulled into San Diego. We had just finished driving three days with a loaded pick-up truck and I was looking to ditch some boxes of books and other teaching materials at the school I was going to be working at. We pulled into the school’s parking lot and walked through the front doors. This would be my first encounter with Karla, the school’s first line of defense aka the front desk lady who had hair with its’ own zip code. We must have looked pretty disheveled and smelled even worse when we walked up to her desk. Karla kindly inquired “may I help you” coupled with the “I’m sorry the homeless shelter is down the street” look. In my road weary half-dazed state, I introduced myself and asked if I could unload some boxes in my classroom. At that moment I sure she was thinking that the school must have been pretty desperate to have hired me. I realized that she was quick witted and a master at rolling off biting comments. I replied appropriately and we struck a chord.

You know the rest of the story, Karla and I became instant friends and have been close ever since. Although she will deny this; but we both have a knack for attracting those on the fringe of society. I have often stated and my friends can vouch for this; if there is a room with a million people in it and there is one crazy in the mix, they will sniff me out like a bloodhound. I’m the cheese to their wine if you know what I mean. It was quite the rare weekend here in Alex; my weirdo scent must have been off the charts as I managed to pull a couple out of the woodwork.

Going surfing Thursday afternoon was in order. I gathered my board, wetsuit, and towel and caught a taxi to the beach. Within a few minutes of paddling out to the waves, the sounds of a loud and consistent whistle caught my attention. It was at a free beach, so I knew I wasn’t in violation of paying so I ignored him for the first five minutes occasionally glancing back to the shore watching the guy frantically jumping up and down waving me in. His body language and yelling grew more intense, so maybe it’s something serious, I caught a wave to shore to inquire. When I stepped out of the water he got into my face hollering and making hand gestures, I didn’t know what he was saying so I just calmly talked gibberish and named the four food groups. A crowd swelled around us and a hairy old man stepped between us and those two got into a heated debate. The old man turned in my direction and ordered me back into the water while the other man stomped off kicking sand.

There wasn’t much wave action so I called it an early session. When I came back to shore the yeller approached me and shouted “WHAT YOUR NAME!?” I tried not to engage hoping he would get the hint that I just wanted to change and leave. Knowing that I didn’t speak Arabic was his cue to start giving me unsolicited lessons which would entail the surrounding environment and unsuspecting participants. Initially the props were simple: sand, ocean, building, boy, girl…then he started to pull in people to teach me vocabulary for clothing and accessories. In the middle of learning the word for belt, he spotted a pair of teenage girls sharing a bag of popcorn and dragged them into the circle. He reached into their bag for a handful of popcorn and grabbed my hand dumping kernels into my palm. I learned how to say “I want to eat popcorn.” Several of embarrassed beachgoers attempted to stop his antics without much success. I finished changing and started to make my way towards the Corniche. He shouted out “WHERE YOU GO?” It dawned on me that I was being rude so I reciprocated his free lessons by showing him variations of high-fives and fist bumps. He was stoked; chalk this cultural sharing event as a win-win.

Port of Alexandria-Had a tout follow me, he wanted to work on his Enghish since he is in college getting a degree in tourism. I enjoyed his company.

Greek Orthodox Church

The wave report for Friday morning sounded promising and as a precaution to reduce the risk of a repeated incident from the day before, I sought another location. Sadly my kryptonite to ward off unwanted guests remained ineffective. I was joined in the water by a younger male in his twenties who also called out in typical Egyptian fashion “what your name” as he swam towards me. We chatted for a while until he wanted the both of us to get out of the water because he was too cold for him. I had no idea we were together! I mistakenly thought the cold had chased him off until I saw him patiently waiting on the beach for me to finish my session. After I changed, day two free Arabic lessons started. Maybe this is a cultural misunderstanding, but I think he ordered me to follow him down the beach; it was no big deal since I was heading in the same direction. When it came time for us to separate he asked for my number and wanted to set up another time to rendezvous and I politely replied with an open ended “I’ll be seeing you around.” My answer wasn’t concrete enough and he demanded that I gave him a specific time and place. I didn’t know what to say, I reached to shake his hand and he responded by shrugging his shoulders and asked “What you want for me?”

Ana made plans to hang out with our friend Mona for a fancy Friday afternoon lunch and my mission to go buy cheese and bacon from the butcher. As a general rule, where there is a church, alcohol and pork are sure to be nearby. Monaco, the butcher shop is in the heart of Mansheya between a Greek Orthodox Church and Saint Catherine Cathedral. I had a few minutes to explore the surrounding area before Monaco re-opened for evening hours. While I was snapping photos the groundskeeper of the adjacent Saint Catherine School invited me in for a personal tour of the classrooms and the ruins of a former church on the second level. The one-legged man explained the history of the building and the school. The classrooms exemplify the term “no frills” as most were only furnished with desks and a chalkboard, the office did have one computer. The groundskeeper wearing a smile pointed to a group of boys playing soccer in the court yard and said “Christain!”

The innards.

Everyone likes loose wires hanging from walls.

The organ has seen better Sundays.

Where's the flair?

Not even a clock for the kids to look at.

Sayed Darwish Theatre

The dalily gathering along the Corniche

Sunset over Mansheya

Also noteworthy was Thursday’s night concert at the Russian Cultural Center. Our own Dr. Greg Leet (music teacher, composer, conductor) and the 1st grade assistant Nona Killgore (Armenian-Russian trained Opera singer) filled the room for over an hour with beautiful classical music. Parts of the center are currently under renovation to restore this amazing historic building, it’s always a joy to see an event there. Ana and I along with Lianne ended the evening at the 11th grade dance grooving to what the kids are listening to these days.

On Saturday we had a full-day retreat at one of the board member’s house (the parents to one of my students) located 45 minutes outside the city towards the desert. It would be fair to say that the ground’s of the property is like having a personal country club. I believe the hired help outnumbers family members. It was landscaped perfectly and I can understand why they would never want to leave home.

Just think there is dirt, dust and trash outside the gates.

A sitting area for you and 20 of your closest friends!

The front of the house.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hello Dubai

Maybe it was 6 or 7 years ago when Ana and I were at birthday party when our friend's co-worker mention this exotic place called Dubai located somewhere in the middle east. The co-worker's husband had just returned from doing some consultant work with Zoo Dubai since he was one of the directors at the San Diego Zoo. The stories coming from her mouth sounded like science fiction. Ever since then I became slightly fascinated with this futuristic man-made oasis. The opportunity came up for Ana, Greg (music teacher), and I to chaperon 20 of our students to a Junior Varsity Fine Arts Festival at Dubai American Academy. We didn't know what to expect when we landed, so here is our story. 
Getting through customs was a breeze compared with Kuwait. There wasn't the red tape or the dude looking through your belongings to snatch your hooch. It was butter. The only delay we had was playing the "find our bus" game. The good news is that we got some exercise after a four-hour plane ride.

You can say I went into Dubai with a strong prejudice based on hearsay. I was expecting mall culture hell meets Las Vegas on a bad afternoon. There was some hesitation. Once we left the airport parking lot we dove right down the middle of massive skyscrapers-it was almost overwhelming, maybe this is what Moses felt when he parted the Red Sea. I started to think there might be an argument in comparing the over-the-top architecture of Dubai with the Great Wall or even the Pyramids. Perhaps when the oil runs dry and it becomes a ghost town, generations a few hundred years away will marvel at what a great achievement Dubai was and the minimum-wage southern Asian slaves who built them. I can already imagine tour buses and ticket booths at the gate of the ruins. As much as you think I'm being cheeky in my comparisons, I very serious about them. I was impressed.   
We didn't get much of an opportunity to explore the city due to commitments at school, but I think I might have observed at least three distinct groupings of buildings spanning over a 20 mile stretch. The above group is from the middle set. There is the older part near the airport and the newest development being near The Palm Jumeira.  

I was thinking that there might be more cranes than buildings. Half of what we would see in the following four days was but a blueprint 5-10 years ago. Towards the end of the trip when I was walking to the mall with one of my students through a dirt parking lot he commented; "Mr. Bob, where we are walking there will be air conditioning here next year." Very insightful. 

Ana likes this bus, she thinks it could be in a Wes Anderson film.

More buildings.

Lets go to the Dubai Mall to see the sharks at the Aquarium/Underwater Zoo 

Lets go to the Dubai Mall to see The Waterfall stretching 4 levels. 

Lets go to the Dubai Mall to ice skate.

Lets go to the Dubai Mall to see the Gold Souk.

Lets go to the Dubai Mall to see the Grand Atrium. This is one of the newest malls in Dubai, and makes the massive Mall of Emirates look likes the tag-along little brother. This might be the mall walker's nightmare and our host lost their car in the parking lot awhile back. There are four levels and you might get through a level or two in a couple of hours. All the high end stores you can dream of along with chains like Forever 21 and Banana Republic are here. There is even an indoor/outdoor street scape lines with shops and cafes. Fashion Avenue boasts 70 plus stores of the "worlds most desirable" brands. The Gold Souk has over 200 gold and jewelry retailers. The Aquarium/Zoo and 33,000 aquatic animals and glass bottom boat rides. The favorite among Ana, Greg, and I was Book World by Kinokuniya, though not the Tattered Cover in Denver by any mean (hi Matt!) it was the best we've experienced all year and had us wanting more, and best of all it was books and not partitioned to accommodate movies or music. Our two visits the mall was a joke, we barely scratched the surface. 

The 2,717 ft tall Burj Khalifa-tallest building in the world, close to 1,500 taller than the Empire State Building in NYC that overwhelmed Ana and I five years ago. We didn't a chance to visit because tickets are sold out well in advance. 
Overlooking the lake fountain outside Dubai Mall.

Tonya tells us what she really thinks of hot dogs at the conference BBQ social.

Bored and sad that game and fun night went on a little longer than anticipated. She wished that she was at the mall.

The harsh realization was settling in that Youssef and Omar's host families weren't going to be taking them to "the mall" that night. 

At first it was plane turbulence, then it was the food. One of our students enjoying a bed at the nurse's office. Once he found out that he would have to move out of his hosting family's home and into one of the school's apartment with Mr. Greg, Yassin suddenly recovered.

Adam showing off the tats.

One of the teacher at our host school threw a visiting teacher social catered with some of the best finger foods and beverages to wash them down. Minutes outside her house was Dubai's version of the Chrysler Buildings.

At dusk.

Canned tortilla chips. We were curious on how they were stacked but not enough to buy a can.

The bus driver back to our school was nice enough to drop us off at the Marriott Harbor Hotel and we rode the elevator up to the Observatory on the 52nd floor for a panoramic view of the city. Getting a snap shot at night proved to be a challenge. 
The final day of our conference was moved to GEMS World Academy. One of our teaching couples will be moving to teach there next year. The campus is like a resort and let me tell you in the 15 plus years I've been in education I have never seen such facilities. The international schools starts off with a hotel-like reception area followed by a 700 seat auditorium, olympic size pool, tennis courts, 400m athletics track, performing arts facility, squash courts, skate/BMX park, planetarium, soccer filed, recoding studio, AV studio, a black box, smart media center, e-classrooms, teacher business center, cafeteria, library, and more. To all my teaching friends out there, read and weep as I am. 

Ana hanging out the the visual arts teachers from Dubai, Muscat, Beirut, and Kuwait City.

The cool looking cover to the menu of a Northern style Indian resturaunt our host family took us to. Our host Sybille and John were the best, they took excellent care of us like we were their kids and spoiled us rotten with conversation, kindness, meals, and drinks. Their house located near a park and minutes from the beach was amazing as were all the relics they've acquired over the years. It was like living in a museum for a couple of days. We are most pleased by our new friends.

Ana and Greg with our Dubai parents.

Our final day was spent waiting to be shuttled off to the airport. And what a better way to wait than a visit to the Mall of Emirates just a short walk from our hosting school. There was shopping galore but more impressive was Ski Dubai, the indoor ski slopes on the top of the mall. You have 100 degree unforgivable heat on the outside and get frost bitten with artificial snow on the inside. Growing up in Colorado this experience is quite an achivement. I can now boast that I've had a hand-numbing snowball fight in the desert. Our students had a blast, it was pricey but well worth it. I did some sledding and tubing. 

Skis or snowboarding, take your pick.

The lift. I would have suggested painting some sort of mountain scenery on the walls to help camoflauge the wall fans a little better.

Shameless self promotion photo op with children.

The flight back was easy as pie but one of our girls tried to pull a fast one on us by calling her father so he could call one of his connections to get her and a handful of friends through passport control. Her idea was an epic failure as Greg caught on to the scheme. Many Egyptians don't like to wait in lines and feel entitled to cut in front of others. The best was the 5 hour bus ride home where the students try to stall the trip (by having to use the restroom) and telling the driver to "slow down" as to make it home past midnight so they wouldn't have had to come to school the following day. Another example of a failure as we beat the clock by 15 minutes even with the driver taking some ass-backwards way home. He can thank our students now that he's out of a job! If you think the manipulation is bad at this age you should see the magic their older siblings work. Impressive.    

Monday, April 12, 2010

Luang Prabang Laos

In memory of Dee Dee and Mitch Cunnyngham. Dee Dee was a co-worker back in San Diego and her and her husband Mitch were murdered on Easter evening at their home in Poway. Dee Dee was a good, fair, and honest person-an asset to her community. It was evident of the impact their family had on the community as more than 600 people attended their memorial. They will be missed.

In Vientiane I picked up a copy of The Ravens by Christopher Robbins, the definitive book about a CIA sponsored covert military operation in Laos of elite US Air Force pilots operating low flying single engine planes to mark, survey, and engage with North Vietnamese troop and supply movement during the Vietnam War. These cowboy pilots suffered a high casualty rate and their stories are humorous, amazing, and tragic. One of the passages in the book that came to mind while reading and driving through the high mountains of Laos (Hmong territory) was all the slashing and burning of hillsides during the dry season (Dec-April) . As you will note from the hazy photos below, operation "torch the hills" was in full effect. On the drive to Luang Prabang we must have seen about a dozen blazes and stacks of former trees along the highway for curbside pick-up. Visiting the former kingdom capital during the dry season is ill advisable. You might want to bring an oxygen tank and your inhaler. The 100 plus degree heat mixed with trapped smoke is murder on your lungs. This of course is your reward if you survive the 6 hour van ride (or 8 plus by bus) through the (excuse my French) crazy-ass hills. Seriously, where is the opium when you need it. The road was narrow and filled with hairpin curves. The lady sitting in front of us barfed twice and held on the "oh shit" handle for most for the trip. The driver had a stack of barf bags on the dashboard for such occasions. The mountains in Laos are littered with blackened hill and the roads lined with blue plastic bags filled with vomit.

I bet these mountains are to die for during the wet season when the air is clean.

In the midst of the clearing there are freshly constructed huts. The good news is that trees are replanted but take time to grow.

We arrived in Luang Prabang in the late afternoon. Our van driver refused to take us to our guest house even though that was part of the deal. This really upset one of the other passengers in the van who got into a yelling match with the driver. It really wasn't worth the argument, so we got in a tuk-tuk to take us into town and when we paid him he tried to cheat Barbara on her change. It seemed like the problems were mounting, as they say, you only have one chance to make a good first impression and so far there were two strikes against the town within the first ten minutes. Ana needed to get her equilibrium back in order so she chilled out while I went for a short walk around the town center. The population of Luang Prabang reaches just a little over 100,000 but it is filled with enough sights and architecture to keep the eye busy. The above photos is from Wat Xiengmouane Vajiramang alaram.

Outside Wat Choumkhong Sourintharame.

Three nights later I would re-visit this bottle of Healthy Herb Whisky along the Mekong with my new friend Sebastian and the intentions of sampling all four variations of the hooch. Not pictured is the Lao wine, red in color with pealed bananas resting at the bottom of the jar. The Whiskey had mainly wood chips and other unidentified sunken objects. The other two drinks also had natural looking objects at the bottom. Fast forwarding to the future; Sebastian and I had a mission to try all four offerings and since this is Laos we asked the server to pour very little into our shot glasses for we only wanted a tasting and not the headache in the morning. We even ordered a bottle of water to clean our palettes for a proper tasting. As small as the samplings were I got both a taste and a case of the regrets the following morning. The flavors were fine going down, the sunken banana one was voted the favorite.

Ana made the remark that Luang Prabang was like living in San Diego during the wild fires. The orange sky tripped us out as did the occasional falling ash.

A real house boat, two stories even.

A building around town.

Looking towards the center of town.

We saw a traditional Lao dinner show on the first night; the dancers, musicians, and servers all looked related. I was convinced that this was a family operation...dad cooks, mom and daughters dance, the sons play music, while the cousin waits the tables. We enjoyed it. The above dance celebrates the three ethnic groups of Laos; Lao Loum (lowland Lao), Lao Soung (Hmong-higher mountain dwellers), and Lao Thoeng (lower mountain dwellers). You will see these three women in their traditional dresses on the 1000 KIP bill.

The royal ceremony dance.

The two 8 year-old brother and 13 year-old uncle.

Outside our guest house starting at dawn is the morning food market. I suspect that this is the raw version of the popular kelp that is consumed in this region.

Types of fish.

I just liked the way this looked.

Different types of chili. I picked up a small bag of the bottom left.

Lao KIP and spotted eggs.

Another amazing looking building.

The National Musuem (Ho Kham), former royal palace. No cameras allowed inside, you'll just have to take our word that it is a must see. The highlight of the museum is the gifts from other countries on display. All of which had cultural significance from the giving country with the exception of the US, our gift was a model of an Apollo lunar landing. I guess that was our way of getting back at the commies since the war didn't go so well.

The grounds of the museum.

Wat under restoration.

300 long steps up Phousi Hill. I'm sure the 360 degree view of the city is to die for when it is clear.

This is the same view in FEB 2008 (image borrowed from Stopping To Smell The Roses-used without permission.)

Coming down the other side of Phousi Hill is Vat Thammo Thayaram Pra Thatchomsi. Try pronouncing that with a mouth full of sticky rice.

Definitely worth a visit is Tat Kuang Si (the water falls) about 30 km outside the of town. It is the perfect place to cool down as there are several cold natural limestone pools along the path up to the waterfall. It is also a nice place to sit down and enjoy a lunch. Aussies tend to outnumber just about everyone there-be careful because they like to climb on rocks and jump into the pools below. Most had some sort of open wound, scab, scar, or bruise on them, maybe bodily injury is their Lao rite of passage. As you enter the gates into the falls, there is a bear sanctuary at the base of the mountain.

Damm bear and Dinh bear, guess each bear had its' own log portrait. Membership does have its’ privileges!

The first pool.

The waterfall.

BBQ fish.

No meal is complete without chicken feet!

I was really into the people riding bike and motorcycles with an umbrella. This guy was lucky because he had a personal assistant.

From the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme website (http://www.uxolao.gov.la/) Lao PDR has the unwanted distinction of being per capita the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Between the years 1964 and 1973, the United States flew more than half a million bombing missions, delivering more than two million tons of explosive ordnance, in an attempt to block the flow of North Vietnamese arms and troops through Laotian territory. The ordnance dropped include more than 266 million submunitions (known as “bombies” in Lao) released from cluster bombs. Significant land battles, including those during the war for independence during the French colonial era and between the Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao forces, also contributed vast quantities of unexploded heavy bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars, anti-personnel landmines, and improvised explosive devices. It is estimated that up to 30% of all ordnance did not explode. Such unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to remain in the ground, maiming and killing people, and hindering socio-economic development and food security.

Critical Mass-Lao style.

Freshly washed monk robes.


Jack fruit and not Jacky fruit!

Baby elephant at the hotel!

A gentle reminder that the French and company got their ass kicked out of Laos.

Bun Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Years) was a week away and before the celebration is the water festival to kick it all off. One of the traditions is for people of the street to douse passing cars with buckets of cool water. Our van on the way to Luang Prabang got hit a couple of times. These girls were mainly throwing water at teen boys in the back of trucks. Just a mild form of filtration.

One of the tradition in Laung Prabang is the Buddhist monks collecting alms in the early morning (Tak Bak). Monks walk down the street and people kneel down giving the monks food such as rice. Regrettably we never got our act together to wake up in time to witness this ritual. However the procession remains one of the main attractions to the town.

Buckets of rice.

Our other option was a 10 hour bus ride back to Vientiane then catch the 14 train to Bangkok or the 90 minute plane ride. Sure it cost a little bit more but damn was it worth it.

Also worth noting is the Nightly Market that runs along Chaofa Road (from 5-10 pm), vendors sell Lao handicrafts and relics. The Hive bar run by expat Isabella serves up a nice sangria, chilled red Cuban wine, and has a nightly Lao fashion show 5 night a week and live music. Kopnoi Made in Laos craft shop has a nice assortment of Lao fashions and other items such as Lao Lao (rice whiskey) and Lao cigarettes. the museum/gallery on the top floor has a wealth of useful information about Laos and promotes the program "Stay Another Day." there are some wine shops along Chaofa Road to do some tasting of imported wines. We tried to go to the late night bowling alley which is another popular stop for when the bars close at 1030, I guess we showed up to early. A couple of used book, art, and tea shops line Ratsavong Road. And finally there are no shortages of places to enjoy a meal along the Mekong and around town.