Featured Story: Election

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Picture the quintessential high society party — sipping champagne and snacking on caviar. Looking out on a city 60-some storeys above the ground. Catching snippets of smalltalk about business partners and recently closed deals while a piano man plays jazz in the background. Congratulations, you've just pictured the Google Christmas party. If it sounds a little pretentious, well, it wouldn't be New York if it weren't. Relax. You obviously need to grab a couple dry martinis from the open bar. Then leave the wine- and cheese-tasting room and hit the dancefloor.

It turns out that there are benefits to long distance relationships—wait, I should rephrase that. There are benefits to other people's long distance relationships. It's good luck for me that Jasper is in one as I was his replacement girlfriend for the party.

In terms of being his invited guest.

Not afterwards.

Who would have thought that people who sit in front of computers all day long would attend an event in elegant evening dresses and stylish suits? I suppose it's understandable that people will make the effort if you rent out the entire Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center, but I wasn't expecting it. I wonder if the case is the same in California, or if people there show up to formal office parties dressed in shorts and sandals.

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Alarming Situation

From San Francisco / New York

There are two alarms which wake me up in the morning, both of them unreliable in their own unique ways. The first is a cheap plastic one I picked up in Peru when my previous one crapped out. I travelled for a year without a watch, but the number of bleary-eyed 4am rises made an alarm clock a necessity. The alarm on the Peruvian clock is accurate to the minute, give or take 20, which means I have to make sure to set it especially early, then curse it when it goes off and deprives me of those last precious minutes of sleep. It's all the more dangerous for not having a snooze button — several times I've woken up an hour late with no recollection of the earlier 15 seconds of semi-consciousness it took to turn the alarm off.

The second alarm is on my phone. It's much fancier than the standard beeping function that comes on other phones. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10:30 I get a wake-up call, usually in the form of a Spanish-speaking lady asking for a SeƱor Cristobal. It's never the same woman who calls twice, although the call is always from Florida, leading me to believe there is a personal assistant service based there with an unusually high turnover rate.

This level of personalised attention is rare in the modern world, and though impressive, some days I receive 3 calls while on others I don't receive any, making the utility of the service questionable at best. In fact, the reliability seems to be worsening. Two days ago my phone alarm went off at 9:30 in the evening, and I picked up to find someone calling from Chile who took quite a bit of persuading before she accepted that I was not, and did not know anyone by the name of, Eduardo.

The unintended side effect of all this is that when an unknown number calls my phone, I pick up expecting to hear Spanish. It's funny how your mind makes nonsense of English words if it's expecting to hear another language, and responding in Spanish asking the caller to repeat because I didn't understand has resulted in more than a few confused conversations.

At this point I've decided that the Spanish alarm service isn't much use, but waking up is coincidentally when I am least able to speak coherently in another language, so I have yet to be able to unsubscribe. Finding a way around this catch-22 is my current challenge, and I'm hesitant to bring a 3rd alarm clock into the mix.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

One Month Later

I'm sitting behind a large one-way mirror with computers and monitors strewn all over the desks around me. The lights are off, and on the other side of the glass is a brightly-lit room with two people sitting in it. If the table was bare metal and the people sat facing each other, it might be a police interrogation room. Unfortunately for the thrill-seeking side of me, I'm taking notes for a usability study rather than a murder investigation.

I made the move to New York 4 weeks ago. In that time the weather has gone from making me sweaty in a t-shirt to giving me chills walking around in a winter jacket and scarf. I'm living in one place but freelancing, which provides me with the same sense of instability I had over the last year moving to a different town every few days.

Watching the participants try to use the virtual world being tested, I'm reminded why I like this work so much. Also in the room watching the proceedings is one of the developers of the virtual world, and hearing his occasional exclamations as the participants get confused is one of the most satisfying parts of the job. The first point of surprise is inevitably when people click through all the instructions the programmer painstakingly included, explaining in step-by-step detail how to use the program.

"Why did they skip all the text? Why didn't they read what was on screen?"

Bridging the gap between how the programmer assumes people will use their creation and how everyone else actually uses it is what it's all about. A lot of the time all the advice from a usability expert isn't half as effective as having a programmer sit and watch someone else use their creation for several hours.

Particularly interesting is when a participant like the one I'm watching comes in — someone in their 30s who hasn't used the internet in years and who has no email address. It's easy to forget people like that exist. Especially in a wired area of the country where real life soap operas such as NYGirlOfMyDreams.com make up the background noise of life.

As I make my way towards a normal working life, I'm enjoying having some of the important pieces fall into place. I now know where to go for photography equipment, and having discovered a nearby developing studio, I'm excited again about taking photos. On that note, the following are from the last month.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Move

Imagine moving to a new city. What could you hope for on your first day there? I suppose the first thing you would want to sort out is accommodation. It's a big city with a tough housing market. You luck out — the very first place you visit has lots of light, is in a great area of town, and to top things off has a beautiful rooftop with a view. You click with the housemate. Done deal.

Next up is some kind of work. You make a call and set up a meeting for the beginning of the following week to get started.

Anything else? Some entertainment maybe. A night at the Metropolitan Opera watching Anna Netrebko in Romeo & Juliet.

You can see why, traipsing around town in constant rain with soaked shoes, I was happy as could be. Welcome to New York.

Friday, September 28, 2007

My Heart Goes Out

As with most people, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a scam email over the years. As irritating as they are, it puts a smile on my face when I see one of them getting creative.

“Dearest in Islam,” begins the one I received today. The salutation is unique enough to divert my finger from the delete button. I can imagine the scam artist leaning back in his chair, stretching his arms in front of him and cracking his fingers while he thinks, “What character should I invent next?”

Running down a mental list of candidates, he crosses off the Nigerian desperately trying to move his money outside the country, the Russian woman who is looking to "do friendship or more than simply friendship", and the co-ordinator of Lottery Winners International who needs to know how to deliver the jackpot money. Then he reaches “Widow”. Not an instant sell, but maybe it’s got potential. His eyes fall on a copy of The Atlantic Monthly lying next to his keyboard (what, the scammers in your world don’t have a subscription to The Atlantic Monthly? Come join me my friend, my world is a far richer place) and sees an article on President Ahmadinejad denying the existence of gays in Iran. He sits upright, snapping his fingers. “Muslim widow!” he says out loud. “Now that’s an angle!”

Religious affiliations allow our author to appeal to both devotion and fear simultaneously. “Please, let this message not come to you as a surprise, but a divine duty,” begins our widow. I’m already halfway to giving her my bank account details. No one wants to be on the wrong side of God. And no one wants to reject a woman whose husband died and who is herself struggling with cancer. Oh wait, not dire enough. She’s “battling with both cancer and stroke”. That’s more like it. It’s a good thing she didn’t keel over before hitting send. Time’s obviously limited. I better help her quick.

“According to the doctor, my medical report quotes a very short life sperm due to my health status presently.” You want to laugh at the typo, but the situation is too tragic. Poor woman, she doesn't even know what she's saying! By now she's endeared herself to me. I can almost hear our author laughing at his own subversive tactics. I’ve played right into his hands. “Now I’ve got him by the emotional balls,” he thinks.

“Having known my condition I decided to donate this fund to a devoted Muslim individual or a Muslim organization that will utilize this money the way I am going to instruct herein,” continues the widow. As a rule of thumb I try to be honest. I don’t fit into the categories she listed, but then again with the typo she already made, how am I to know she didn’t make a simple grammatical mistake here? Let me fix it. “... I decided to donate this fund to a devoted Muslim, individual, or a Muslim organization that will utilize this money...” Now that’s better. I’m an individual. Sign me up.

“When my late husband was alive he deposited $1.5Million (One Million Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars) with a security and finance company here in Cote d' Ivoire. [...] I am searching for real brother or sister in Islam to assist in using this fund.” Well sister, I’m real. And I’m glad you decided to take a chance on my random email address.

“You will be entitled to 5% of the total amount for your time and kind assistance.” Amen to that! Oh, excuse me, I mean insh'allah. My help’s on the way.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

An Offer I Can Refuse

As soon as I slowed down I realised I was making a mistake. I had just come out of a job interview and was lost in thought as I walked through the SoMa neighbourhood to the San Francisco CalTrain station. The man looked at me as I passed as if he knew me, and I returned his half-smile with a curious expression on my face. I pulled my mind from the interview and back to the present. Did I know him? Maybe we’d bumped into each other when I was working here last year. I stopped and turned around.

“Hi, I’m Jack,” he said, extending his hand.

I shook it and said, “I’m Nigel,” realising a second too late that all was not usual with the situation.

“Where are you headed?”

“To the train station.” And then, because walking away seemed rude and I didn’t know what else to say, “What about you?”

“Wanna go back to my place?” he replied.

“Uh, sorry, I gotta get home,” I said and turned and walked on. If only the companies I’m interviewing with would make me an offer so easily...

Sign of the Times

After a day wandering Chicago’s city streets, from Bronzeville to glitzy retail stores in The Loop to a nighttime view of the skyline from the Hancock Center, I headed to Giordano’s for some Chicago-style pizza. I passed an old lady begging for money.

“Can you spare 10 dollars?” she asked.

It was the surest evidence I’ve seen that the dot-com era is back.


There are a few things I miss about Washington DC. One, the people I grew up with. Two, bagels and whitefish. Three, the sudden summer downpours. So I was more than a little pleased when my bus from New York dropped me off at a DC Metro station just as a storm burst from the clouds. The air became heavy and the sky turned a deep, dark purple. Lightning cracked through the air. And water poured over everything.

Doctor Warren

From Friends / Family

Listening to my sister’s thesis defense presentation, the culmination of 6 years of hard work, I found myself simultaneously impressed and baffled. The thought crossed my mind that getting a Ph.D. is like learning a language only you and a handful of professors are able to understand.

Home Soil

The passport control guard looked at my customs declaration slip, then suspiciously at me.

“What were you doing in all these countries?” he asked, referring to the long list of names I had written in the “countries visited on this trip” section. I wondered if he might confiscate my passport and accuse me of being un-American.

"Travelling," I responded. His expression didn't change, but as I had shaved recently he didn't send me for further questioning. At customs I was diverted from the green “nothing to declare” lane and sent to an inspector. He began questioning me and asked me to put my two bags on the table to be searched. I hoisted my backpack up.

“Oh, a hiking backpack. There’s no way I’m digging through that,” he said. “What’s in the other one?”

I started to list the items. “Some t-shirts, a bottle of vodka—”

“Go on, go on,” he cut me off. "You're fine," he said as he waved me through.

So here I am, back in the States, preparing myself for a string of job interviews. I felt an odd mixture of familiarity and foreignness as I stood in the dark night air after the bus from the airport dropped me at a deserted car park. It’s going to take a while to get used to living here again.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I woke up on my birthday totally disoriented. My head was heavy with drinks. I couldn’t see clearly. I had gone to bed barely half an hour earlier after hitting a couple bars in Istanbul with a friend, yet already it was light outside. There was smoke everywhere. The 23 other people I was sharing a rooftop dorm with were making their way down the stairs. I vaguely remember following. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the curb outside with my head on my knees, trying to shut out the pale morning sky. I couldn’t stay awake. I drifted in and out of dreams. A while later I ended up back on the rooftop, asleep in my bed.

My alarm woke me a few hours later. Feeling slightly dazed, I packed and went to the airport to catch my flight to Berlin. After checking in I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and splash water on my face. Details of the previous night started coming back to me. I remembered one of the bars, and laughing upon finding out that the local slang for “prostitute” is “Natasha”, a token of appreciation of the Russian influence in Istanbul. (This came out in the course of conversation, not through a birthday present.) I remembered trying “Raki”, the local alcoholic drink tasting of anise. And something hazy about an electric shower heater left on, melting and setting a room ablaze. I looked in the mirror and was surprised to find my nostrils black with soot. So the fire and smoke in the hostel hadn’t been a dream.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sticker Shock

I knew I would have some readjusting to do to get used to western prices after a year of discount travelling. Consider London shock therapy. Economists use the Big Mac Index as one measure of price comparison between countries. I’m finding it hard to break the habit of comparing everything against an index based on a particularly cheap dorm room I stayed in in Egypt.

A meal does not register in my head as £15; instead it becomes an outraged, “I could pay a month’s accomodation for that price!” Needless to say, this is a thought pattern I will have to change soon. Otherwise I’ll be forced to dye my hair grey, wear slippers and a cardigan, and start making up stories about my days as a young boy, hiking uphill through knee-deep snow to get to school.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Final Delhi Farewell

Driving from our house to the Delhi airport, my father decided it was time to introduce some order to Indian roadways. As we approached a red light, he slowed down and stopped. Meanwhile, cars and trucks in the other 5 lanes continued speeding past in both directions.

In Delhi at night, traffic signals undergo a transformation. Instead of guiding vehicles they become roadside entertainment: just another set of bright lights, like distant cousins of the mini Ganesh shrines decked out in flashing LEDs found on so many dashboards.

And so the end of my last trip to India served up one more example of the many futile struggles that occur when West meets East. (Another notable incident includes questioning the difference between your “good name” and your plain old name, and what about your bad name?)

I hadn’t planned to end up in India again, but when I got the news that my mother broke her foot and was in a cast for 6-8 weeks with limited mobility, I soon had tickets for a surprise visit. The tears of surprise on my mother’s face when she opened the door one morning to find me standing there let me know it was a good decision. I have high hopes of exchanging the brownie points gained from that trip for a big present at Christmastime. Maybe one wrapped in shiny paper, stationed outside, in the shape of an Audi convertible.

I apologise for the month-long silence. I've been lazy, but the blog's not dead yet.

Happy Anniversary!

Today, the 13th of August, marks the one year anniversay of my travels. It’s been quite a year, yet being in the UK, back in more familiar territory, it feels like I never went away. Thank goodness I have this blog to remind me it wasn't all my imagination.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


It is the most passive and most aggressive of passive aggressive behaviour.

"Want to ride a camel?"
"I'm not fat and lazy like you. I'm walking."

"Where you come from?"
"Your sister's house."

The line between exterior and interior threatens to break. But no, I keep my spite inside my head. How satisfying to walk by someone offering a welcoming handshake as if they don't exist! Mouth shut. Eyes ahead. I don't look at every piece of dirt I pass on the ground, why should I treat these any differently?

The act of ignoring is extremely effective. The minute you open your mouth, you give them a response to play off of. Draw out the irritating sales pitch. Try to fool you into paying more than you should for something you never wanted in the first place. The bastards.

Outside the heat of the moment and the midday sun and the sand and the light that makes my eyes squint and the sweat dripping down my face and soaking my shirt, these are not hated enemies. They are not inferior. They are people making a living. They are not even half as persistant as those in some other places I've been. It's obvious that I need to step back, take a break. A decision: no more sightseeing. When the enjoyment is sucked out to this extent, it's time to stop. The ancient pyramids around Cairo marked the end.

It's liberating in a way. Here's a place I've never been. Now I have no obligation to tour landmarks and monuments. I'm here to enjoy the company of people.

Last of the Dives

I was detained on the way to Cairo. I stopped for a day in Dahab, on the Sinai peninsula. Then the tentacles of scuba diving grabbed hold and pulled me underwater again and again. The stunning scenery wouldn't release me. It was a full week before I managed to tear myself away and get to the big city. These are some of the images from that week I don't want to forget.

Canyon at Night

Watching a body floating downwards, chest down, legs bent at the knees, parachutist-style. Light from my torch illuminates him, then disappears into a black crevis. Darkness surrounding. Outer space.

Sitting at the bottom. Looking straight up. Watching green sparkles follow the commotion of my air bubbles as they float skywards. Long, slow inhalation. The water clears. Peace. Only the sound of my breathing, the canyon walls rising up around me, the night sky visible in the crack above, a faint grey glow through 25 metres of water. And fish swimming nearby, eyes blinking green, on off, on off, like aquatic fireflies.

The Bells

Turning, pointing my body straight down, and diving, diving, through a narrow rock chimney. I maneuver myself like an airplane in slow motion. My oxygen tank grazes a wall in the narrow space. Clang. The name rings out.

Through an archway to find the vast terrifying blue of the ocean open up. A coral wall on my right, stretching vertically down out of sight. 1,600 metres I am told. Don't lose focus, just keep swimming at the same level. Don't be intimidated. Don't let the ocean swallow you.

Blue Hole

Swimming across, the walls fade from view. The hole is effectively bottomless. Nothing but blue all around. All I can make out below me, the strange patterns the sun makes through the water. Rays of light constantly shifting. Sky. Flying. Where am I?

Lighthouse at Night

Ahmed swims ahead. I turn off my light and follow the specks of glowing plankton he leaves in his wake. Strange impression I am in a Peter Pan movie on the trail of Tinkerbell.

The Islands

Moving from one lagoon to the next. Everything teems with life. I am caught in a school of fish and mesmerised by the synchronised movement.


Around and through the wreck. World War II-vintage motorbikes and trucks are lined up. Tires still full of air. Airplane wings. Unexploded munitions.

Exhale. Air bubbles rise and are trapped on the ceiling, silver like mercury, gravity gone haywire.

Outside, fish swarm round and round. Predators dart in. The pack scatters, regroups, scatters, regroups. Trying to avoid becoming the next meal.

Ras Mohammed

Barracudas lurk in the murky blue limits of visibility. A huge green Napoleonfish — 1.5 metres long? 2? — arrives and forages for food on the coral. I swim close by. What makes me so confident about my surroundings? I feel relaxed in the presence of the giant. A parting gift before surfacing — I spot a large sea turtle swimming 15m away.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Driver, Turn South

The dashboard is covered with a faded pink shag carpet. Tassels are hanging around the sides of the roof. The speedometer is stuck at 0. In the back are a young boy and a man in his late 30s. Behind them, next to two tires, is my backpack, full of clothes and a bottle of cologne I bought at one of the many perfumeries in Amman just so I could see how they mix the scented oil with alcohol and water. The man on my left has greying hair and a jolly smile. He drives the pickup with the steering wheel almost resting on his large belly, coaxing it as it struggles up slight inclines and accelerating on the downsides. In about 4 hours we should make it south to Petra.

How I came to retrace my steps through Jordan is a hard tale of rejection. I returned to Amman on the 24th after passing 4 weeks in Israel. Despite 3 previous setbacks in my attempt to visit Syria, I wanted to try once more. I had heard more positive stories about the friendliness of Syrians and the beauty of the city of Damascus than anywhere else.

So I found a taxi going north from Amman and shared the space inside with 3 others. It took an hour and a half to reach the border. I paid the Jordanian departure fee, changed my money to Syrian pounds, and continued to the Syrian border.

I made it close enough to feel the presence of the Axis of Evil, but the immigration checkpoint stood in the way of my entering and actually seeing the greasy cogwheels turning slowly, spreading badness across the globe.

The passport control hall was slightly chaotic — the type of setup where 10 people crowded around each window trying to find a space to put a hand through and wave their passport around, hoping it would be taken next by an immigration official. The man who took mine was short and grumpy. I had given him my second passport, the one without at Israeli border stamp in it. Unfortunately it also lacked a Jordanian entry stamp. It didn't take him long to figure out what was going on.

"You've been to Isra-eel! You — back to Jordan. No Syria."

I protested but to no avail. I considered trying to bribe him with the $10 I had in my pocket for that exact purpose, but there were too many people around. I preferred that my first attempt at bribing an immigration officer be in a more inconspicuous setting. Lack of courage got the better of me. In short order, the official gave my passport to a lackey who motioned me to follow him outside. There, he waved down a taxi, waited while I collected my bag from the car that brought me to the border, gave me back my passport and waved me off. And so my hopes of visiting Syria were dashed for the fourth and final time.

The next day, back in Amman, I decided to go south to Egypt, following the same route through Jordan I had travelled with Eppu a month prior. I timed my arrival at the bus station precisely — when I got there the last bus south had left long ago. I decided to wait and see what turned up, and as I sat on the curb, an old white pickup truck with faded pink shag carpet on the dash slowed to a stop next to me...


"Fuckin' mother Arab countries."

This was not a happy story.

"14 years I worked in Libya. 14 years. Then they took my money and kicked me out."

The man was in his late 40s and dead sober.

"They tell me I'm a spy. They take my money. $300,000. They take my apartment. They take my business."

I risk giving the appearance that I take pleasure in other people's pain in admitting this: this is what makes travel fascinating.

"They put me in prison. Jail. You understand, my friend? For 250 days."

I was on my way to find a late dinner when I met him at the hostel.

"They fly me back to Jordan, my country, in a special jet. With security all around. Like I am... Osama bin Laden or something."

In my normal day-to-day life, where would I ever meet someone like him? Where would I ever hear a story like his?

"I used to live like a king in Libya. 2 cars. A driver special for my wife. Large apartment. And now here I am. In a hostel."

Possibly nowhere. In a house, I feel like eating and I walk to the fridge. On my own in Amman, I get a story to fill my head while my stomach stays empty.

"What I have to do here? I sit in my room. I come out and watch TV. I smoke cigarettes, I use the internet. And wait. This is no life. Everday I wait to get out of this fuckin' country. I go to America. Or Israel."

Israel?! I checked I was awake to hear this coming from a non-Israeli middle eastern man.

"Those places, a citizen is holy I think. The government doesn't allow this to happen. They help. I go to see the foreign minister here. He tells me, 'What can we do?' Meanwhile King Abdullah is making millions in business with Libya. What is $300,000 to the government? That fucking King Abdullah. Money is all these Arab countries care about. They all should burn."

His tale was too fantastic. But he looked, acted, and talked sincerely. What to make of him? What was the other side of the story?

"Be careful of life my friend. She is like a bitch. While you have money she is fun. But one day she will take everything you have and leave you."

All I could do was take in the experience. And remember it. Because one day soon, an encounter like that won't be a normal part of my life.

As with the last post, the quotes here are reproduced to the best of my memory but are not word-for-word accurate. Next time I'll have to travel with a tape recorder. On the payroll of a newspaper.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Of People and Walls

Jerusalem skyline at night

"Jerusalem... Zion... It's the place where God will create peace on Earth."

I had bumped into the man on a street corner in Tel Aviv at night. He was moving his things and I asked if he needed help. As we walked, I started wondering what sort of life he lived that his possessions seemed to include only the guitar slung over his back, a plastic bag full of unknown items, and a flat-screen monitor. But our walk was brief and didn't allow me to ask more than where he was moving and why.

"I will go there. It's... it's... a city in conflict. Jerusalem... She needs help."

The funny thing about the "city in conflict" is that it would be easy to visit and not realise the tension that exists. When I went up to the roof of my hostel in Jerusalem to set out my mattress in preparation for a sleep under the stars at night, I was surrounded by the solemn sound of calls to prayer issuing from mosques on all sides. There were 7 or 8 of them, each with their own plaintive melody. The music of Islam was traded for the churchbells of Christianity the next morning, slightly less welcome if only for waking me up at the crack of dawn following a late night out in bars and clubs.

Jews praying at the Western Wall, Jerusalem

The view from the roof was beautiful — it was possible to take in a panorama of the old city, rooftops interspersed with minarets, church steeples, and the Dome of the Rock. What I didn't see were the views people hold inside that cause conflict. I didn't see the walls people build around themselves to stop opposing opinions entering their space. I didn't see the wall dividing Israel from Palestine, over a hill and out of sight. These were the surprises hidden amongst the beautiful visuals of Jerusalem. They revealed themselves only after the city had bared its ancient white stone buildings and Roman ruins to my eyes.

"Jerusalem is the most international and least cosmopolitan city in the world," said an Israeli I met at a party there. People from all over the world come but nobody mixes, he explained.

I told a young woman who had come on a Birthright trip to Israel that I was planning to take a guided tour to Hebron, in the West Bank. It was clear from her reaction just how worthless an endeavour she considered it to be.

Filming what is presumably Sesame Street Israel on the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem

"What's the name of the guide?" she asked.

"Abu Hassam."

"Right," she said, revealing what she thought of the fact that he was Arab with her expression. "They like to make up facts, you know."

The comment was a brilliantly easy way of disregarding anything that didn't fit her worldview: anyone with a different perspective was a liar. Not only did this stop any potential exchange of ideas, her attitude frustrated me so much it stopped me from telling her about my previous visit to Ramallah, also in the West Bank, with a Palestinian journalist.

Men playing dominoes in the Jewish Quarter, Old City in Jerusalem

On that excursion, crossing into Palestine and looking back over my shoulder at the tall concrete barrier dividing the land, I found it was no longer referred to as a "security fence" but a "separation wall." I also learnt a slew of facts, no doubt all products of an overactive Palestinian imagination. I had not previously known, for example, that if you are an Israeli-born Palestinian, the state confiscates your property if you don't live in Israel for 7 years. Nor that Palestinians in Jerusalem are isolated economically — the Wall acts as a trade barrier to other Palestinians, and guided tours within Jerusalem eschew the Muslim quarter for the Jewish quarter.

Two IDF soldiers in a cafe, Old City in Jerusalem

In the end, on my second trip to the West Bank I went solo, foregoing the guide services of Mr. Abu Hassam. I wanted to see the Wall near Bethlehem, where British graffiti artist Banksy had painted some good pieces. After taking my time exploring the wall, I walked to a security checkpoint to cross back into Israel.

Beep beep beep be—

"Step back. Come here." The woman's voice commanded over the loudspeaker. I looked around, trying to figure out where "here" was.

"Step back through the metal detector." I saw the small bulletproof glass window the border security guard was sitting behind.

"Put your camera through the x-ray machine." I had tried to carry it through with me.

"The film will get destroyed in the x-ray. It's special high speed film. Can I have it checked by hand?" I asked.

"It will be fine. Put it through the machine." I could tell by the tone of her voice she didn't want to hear someone talk back. Her role was to command. My role was to obey.

"X-rays ruin this type of film. Even 'film safe' x-rays."

"I said it will be fine. Put it through."

I didn't want to lose the pictures of graffiti I had just taken, nor a few shots of Jerusalem from earlier.

"Can I take the camera outside? I don't need to cross back into Israel right now. I'll go back to Bethlehem."

"No. Why don't you want the camera to be x-rayed?" Maybe she was hoping I would admit it contained a bomb.

"Because it will ruin the film."

"I said put it through the x-ray," she ordered.

"It's high speed film. The x-ray machine will destroy it."

"Put it through."

"The pictures will be ruined. Can someone check the camera manually?"

"Put it through."

Street in the Old City, Jerusalem

She had left me no choice. I put the camera through the x-ray machine, walked through the metal detector, and collected it. In 10 short seconds she had erased my pictures.

"Stop," the voice came over the loudspeaker again. "Pick up the camera. Bring it back."

Despising her attitude, I obeyed.

"Put it through the x-ray again."

Was this a show of power just to be spiteful? I stared at the woman through the glass as I grabbed a tray, put the camera on it, and rolled it onto the conveyor belt. Back through the metal detector, I watched it emerge from the black box of the x-ray. I collected it along with my backpack and waited to be let out of the gated security area. 6 or 7 others were waiting too. The woman behind the glass was now talking on the phone. It looked like an enjoyable conversation, maybe to a friend. We stood there waiting for her to push the button which would open the gate for us to pass through and continue with our lives.

"That woman, she's a bitch," said a Palestinian student in front of me. He lived in Jerusalem and studied in Bethlehem, passing through this checkpoint almost every day. "Most of the others are OK. But her, always with the attitude."

After a minute she finished chatting, reached over, and pressed the button to release us. I walked out pissed off. Not so much at my destroyed film — I had previously taken pictures at another section of the wall on a different roll — as at the demeaning attitude the woman used with me. While many of the border security may be fine as the student had said, mine was a mild experience compared to some of the stories I had heard.

Muslim women at the Dome of the Rock, Old City in Jerusalem

Alisdair, a friend I travelled with in Israel, took a trip to the West Bank and found Ahdam, a taxi driver, who gave him a tour of several areas. Ahdam had studied and lived in Germany for many years before returning to Palestine due to the ailing health of his father. This is one of the stories Alisdair heard during the time they spent together:

Ahdam arrived at a security checkpoint one morning in his taxi. A man from border security walked up to his car and asked him what he did and where he was going.

"I'm a taxi driver, I'm going to pick up a fare," replied Ahdam.

"Ah, a taxi driver," said the border patrolman. "Then your time must be valuable."

"Yes it is. My time is very valuable," said Ahdam.

"OK. Just wait here a moment," said the patrolman and walked off.

Ahdam waited in his car. An hour later the patrolman returned.

"So is your time valuable?"

"Yes, my time is valuable. If I don't drive I don't make money," said Ahdam.

"Very good. Wait here," said the patrolman and walked off again.

Ahdam sat in his car. And waited. The patrolman returned once more after an hour.

"Your time — is it still valuable?" he asked.

"I told you it is. I'm a taxi driver."

"OK. Wait here please."

Again the patrolman walked away, leaving Ahdam in his car, unable to go anywhere. An hour passed by. The patrolman returned a third time, having made Ahdam wait 3 hours at the checkpoint.

"Now," said the patrolman, "do you still think your time is valuable?"

A pause. "No," replied Ahdam.

"Your time isn't valuable."

"My time isn't valuable."

"Your time is shit, isn't it?" said the patrolman.

"My time is shit," said Ahdam.

"OK, you can go," said the patrolman and waved him off with his hand.

Despite all of the above, I actually agree with those that argue the wall is necessary. People living in Israel have every right to stop themselves from being attacked and to lead a normal life. I have heard stories about working at a popular bar and losing a co-worker to a man who blew himself up at the entrance. About seeing a bus full of passengers explode, leaving a bloody wreckage but no survivors. The wall has stopped these attacks. It will be taken down when it's no longer needed, but today is not that day.

This is not to justify the way it is being built. Michel, the Palestinian journalist, claimed it is taking over 10% of Palestine's land (as defined by the Green Line) and 45% of its water supply. And those unlucky enough to have a shop or house lying in the path of the Wall not only have to stand aside as their buildings are demolished, they have to pay 20,000-30,000 shekels (US$4,700-7,000) towards the cost of the bulldozing. In these ways the wall cannot be considered purely defensive. It is adding fuel to a fire that doesn't need fanning.

These were some of my thoughts when I departed back to Amman. Which is another important point — I went to Israel and Palestine, I learnt a bit, and I was able to leave. Those who are born there have no choice. They start their lives on one side or the other and they are unavoidably bound to the conflict. If I want, I can choose to never think about it again. I have sympathy for those who can't.

Church, Jerusalem

Disclaimer: Most quotes in this post are paraphrased. They capture the spirit of what was said, if not the exact words.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Parade

From Gay Pride Par...

What do you get when you mix a gay pride parade with ultra-orthodox religions? Two years ago there were stabbings and Jerusalem had a disaster for an event. This year, the city added a liberal number of police and military forces. 7,000 to be precise. And the parade went off smoothly.

It was certainly controversial — two gay friends living in Tel Aviv thought it was too provocative an issue to push on Jerusalem. Despite an anti-gay demonstration organised the day before, there was no serious opposition and no trace of violent rioting on the day.

Woman debating gay rights issues with a group of young jewish men. No consensus was reached, but the civil discussion was the best thing I saw first-hand to come from the event.

In fact, I was very encouraged to come across a woman discussing whether or not being gay was wrong with 3 young jewish men. Despite having strongly opposing views, they managed to have an open debate, listening to each others' points without letting anger and righteousness edge into the conversation. It was the type of debate I wish occurred more often in the world.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Here's Something I Should Have Done Months Ago

Why I didn't install statistics software on my blog at the outset, I don't know. I would have loved to know more about who's reading. (Although it is a pleasant surprise to get the occasional email and find someone has been following my travels. This is as much a personal journal as a public record for the rest of you to see where I am, and it does inspire me to write when I know someone out there is taking a look at my ramblings.)

In any case, now I've "done the needful" as they say in India, I can start taking names and kicking asses. Those of you in Delhi — yes I'm talking to you two. I see you. I know where you live. And I know when you're ignoring your son. You've only looked at my blog twice. I don't want to hear any excuses about a typhoid diagnosis and time in the hospital. Shape up!


From Tel Aviv / Je...

What is home? This is a question that's been on my mind for several years. Whenever I'm feeling down and lonely while on the move, it's where I want to go. Then where is it? During my travels I've found the feeling of home whenever I return to a place more familiar than the last I was at. I may only have spent a few days there before leaving, but upon returning, whether I know a couple people or just a couple streets and restaurants, it's more comforting than a totally alien place. But surely you can only truly call one place home.

Is mine in Washington DC where I grew up? None of my family are there now, so if home is a place you can go back to, that doesn't work. Maybe it's in England, where my parents grew up, the land whose culture therefore infiltrated my upbringing and made me not wholly American. But I wasn't raised there, and my British friends wouldn't consider me a Brit. India? I've spent more time there than in either of my two "home" countries in the past 4 or 5 years. But to call myself Indian would be absurd on so many levels.

What makes up the idea of home? Is it pop culture, religion, where your friends are, where your family is from, the community you grew up in? The answer of course is no single one of these options but a combination. It's also something else, as I'm starting to find out here in Israel. It's where your ancestors lived 3,000 years ago. It's a culture you share not through common experience but through your heritage. It's being labeled as part of a group not because you choose to be part of it, but because others decide you are.

My grandfather was an atheist. That didn't stop Nazis in Germany barring him from university one semester before completing his degree to become a doctor. According to them, he was Jewish. I'm an atheist too, but should a similar situation arise in the future, I could do nothing to stop other people calling me Jewish due to the lineage passed down through my mother, and therefore I share something in common with Jews all over the world. Although this connection to something I did not previously feel a part of is a strange concept to me, I can understand it. However, I have as much trouble understanding other ideas as a fish does the Theory of Relativity.

I asked an Israeli friend why Israel had to be created where it is. Why not another, less tense part of the world? His was not religious reasoning, that God gave the land to the Jews; he is an atheist. His grandparents, originally from Czechoslovakia, had never felt at home in that country. He didn't feel at home anywhere but Israel. This was the land the Jews were exiled from almost 2,000 years ago. It is home to them. It's the only place that makes sense. This was his response. It's one I struggle to understand.

Where does this sense of home he was talking about come from? I tried searching for an equivalent example I could relate to. 3 of my 4 grandparents were from Germany. Do I feel a special draw to the country? Two years ago I visited the house one of my grandmothers grew up in in Berlin. It was a nice place which I surely wouldn't mind having as my own, but I felt no right to that piece of land she was forced to leave. With that kind of disconnect in the passage of just two generations, I cannot comprehend the connection some people draw between themselves and their ancestors thousands of years in the past.

The concept of a Jewish homeland is one that also perplexes me. When I visited Jerusalem last week, I went to the Yad Vashem, a museum about the Holocaust. It's a fantastic and devastating place. When confronted with the reality of what happened to Jews during World War II, it's easy to justify the creation of a place where Jewish people could be safe from persecution by others.

But in the end this is a racist solution, plain and simple. It brings up the question, is "good" racism possible? In an ideal world we wouldn't need it, but we live in a non-ideal world and maybe it's an appropriate non-ideal solution.

I found out I'm entitled to an Israeli passport because I'm Jewish, and went to a centre which provides help with immigration. The woman there told me what's involved in the process of becoming a citizen, or making Aliyah as it's called. The law requires people in my age bracket to serve 100 days in the military. The upshot is that the government is keen to attract Jews and provides benefits: 16,000 shekels (~US$3,800), lower income tax, free Hebrew lessons, free medical insurance for half a year.

The key to unlocking all this wealth and good fortune is proving that I'm Jewish. In explaining this, the woman at the centre explained the racist nature of the state itself.

"Israel is the only country in the world where the majority of the population is Jewish. Most people, including myself, want to keep it that way. So we have to do everything we can to encourage Jews to immigrate and discourage others. That's the game you play. If you don't like it, too bad."

I asked if it's possible to immigrate to Israel if you're not Jewish. She looked around and said in a low voice, "no," as if it were a dirty secret.

But what does this mean for me? I'm Jewish because someone somewhere at some moment in time might point in a rulebook and say so. This cannot be enough reason to call Israel my home. I share no more culture or religious beliefs with any given Israeli than I do with many other people on Earth. And I feel no loyalty to the Israeli state. Given this, the underlying question I find most bothersome is why am I entitled to be a part of Israel when others aren't?

On the level of an individual, the way this state is designed to perpetuate a Jewish majority seems no more fair to me than any other system which gives certain people rights and denies others the same ones based on meaningless groupings.1

I am far from having a definite opinion on all this, but in the meantime, trying to understand other people's idea of what home means has brought me no closer to my own understanding. If anyone wants to clear it up for me, I'm all ears.

  1. I realise I'm ignoring the question of other countries' automatic citizenship policies. Perhaps each could be considered as arbitrary as the next?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Golden Temple

Like the previous India post, this one dates to a short while ago when I was still in that country. It's taken me a while to finally write it down.

A visit to the Taj Mahal is an example of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. There is only a small degree of separation between looking at a picture of it and visiting it in real life. What I found at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of places in the Sikh religion, was much more than a building.

I arrived in Amritsar, close to the Pakistani border in northwest India, early in the morning following an overnight train ride. Stepping inside the gurdwara (temple complex), there was an endless parade of people walking barefoot clockwise around a man-made lake, at the center of which sat the Golden Temple. I joined the crowd and before long found myself talking to a Sikh around my age. Normally I would be on edge, expecting some kind of trickery designed to end in the transfer of money from my wallet to his, but he was so genuinely friendly that I was instantly at ease. We sat on the cool marble in the shade and talked, and later, over chai in a stall outside the temple, he played me hit Punjabi and Hindi music from his phone, occasionally singing along with a heavy Indian accent.

That night I returned to the temple with Crystal, who I had met at the accommodation next door. Beds are provided free to any and all pilgrims — even to foreigners and non-Sikhs like us. Several hundred people were sleeping in the many rooms there, and also on the ground in the courtyard and the balconies surrounding it.

We went to the langar — a dining hall dishing out food to any and all who come, 24 hours a day, again, free of charge. It's an amazing operation that serves roughly 30,000 meals daily and runs on donations and the work of volunteers who prepare the food, serve, and wash the dishes.

At 1 am we entered the gurdwara once more to find some people sleeping around the perimeter of the pool and others standing on the causeway to the temple in the center. We joined the line to the central temple where during the day, the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) is kept. Each night it is ceremoniously carried out of the central temple and put to bed. We climbed several flights of stairs and came out on the open roof. There we sat with the stars above and the constant sound of singing and tabla-playing from the priests several floors below coming over the speakers. In front of and around us, people sat with prayer books following the words to the music. With each hour that passed — 2am, 3am, 4am — the temple complex filled with more and more people. By the time we left at 5am it was more crowded than when I had visited at 10 in the morning. As we walked out of the central temple and back along the causeway, I could feel the heat from the mass of people waiting in line to enter.

What I took away from my visit was far more than the image of the beautiful gurdwara. There was a very real feeling of welcoming around the temple, and a peacefulness too. (This despite the fact that there had been rioting nearby in the two days I was there, which I only found out subsequently.) I could have easily passed many more hours sitting, watching, and listening.

Inbox Count: 0

This post is more for my own records than anyone else's general interest. I have zero unread emails in my inbox. This type of momentous occasion (i.e. not being lazy and replying to emails on time) happens only once or twice a year. I'll enjoy the feeling of cleanliness for the next 2 hours while it remains. Then I'll be inundated again. Probably with spam.

In other news, Eero left on Monday and I'm back to travelling solo. We fell short of our goal to eat 80 falafels in 2 weeks. We reached 60, but once we got to Tel Aviv there was such a wide variety of delicious food to choose from that we caved to temptation and got distracted.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Delhi Night

A quick note: this dates from several weeks ago before leaving India. It's taken me a while to snap out of the unproductive funk I was in there and write about it.

The evening began with an explosion. The last time it happened, my mother ducked and looked around wild-eyed, thinking a bomb had gone off. This time I knew it was the downstairs neighbours setting off fireworks. These weren't little firecrackers that shot some sparks in the air, they were full-on July 4th-caliber rockets. They let out an ear-splitting bang as they launched their payloads on skyward journeys; several seconds later the sky lit up with globes of lights and sparkles tumbling back down.

These fireworks are readily available for purchase in India at around US$8 apiece, and being somewhat of a firework fanatic, our neighbour had bought a crateload to celebrate his brother's visit to Delhi. He let off the smaller ones early on — a smart decision as apparently the launch platform had yet to be perfected. One mistakenly went off at an angle, shot into the street and under a car that happened to be passing by. I feared an explosion Hollywood style, sparks shooting everywhere as the vehicle was lifted high in the air, but luckily it let out a harmless flash and a bang while the car drove on.

As the show continued I started noticing other flashes against the dark sky, and soon a strong wind blew in with a few drops of rain. As dust flew everywhere the brothers packed up and headed indoors to wait out the oncoming storm. I went across the street to the Mother Dairy stand to buy some ice cream and as I waited for my change, the sky opened and rain poured as I've never seen before. The streetlights illuminated branches being thrashed by the wind and rain being blown in sheets. When two towers of stacked plastic crates came tumbling down onto a parked car, I thought it best to wait in the shelter of the concrete overhang of the Mother Dairy rather than risk having a tree limb land on me as I crossed the street. I stood and watched what looked like the backdrop of a live news bulletin — the type where the reporter is on site in a hurricane, clutching his raincoat against the weather onslaught.

At some point the wind subsided enough for me to venture out from under the overhang. I made a dash across the street to the house, getting drenched in a few short seconds. There was so much water washing down the road that my feet and ankles got a dirty bath in the process.

After showering and changing, I started opening the windows to let the now-cool air into my room. As I leaned out of one to fasten it open I heard a man coughing. It sounded far too close to have come from the street 3 storeys below. I looked around and in the dark, made out the shape of a monkey sitting on the balcony railing. Slightly surprised, I made sure to close the screen to avoid any surprise attacks while sleeping.

Tragically Forgotten

I've heard "Can't Touch This" and "Ice Ice Baby" more and more over the past few years. The question is, if MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice are retro-cool, why not Milli Vanilli? In an effort to fix this injustice I've dug up a piece of their golden musical past.

One look at this video and I think you'll agree Milli Vanilli deserve to be remembered. There's Oscar-worthy acting to set the scene at the beginning. Some Michael Jackson-rivaling dance moves (the running stomp is a piece of choreographed genius). And even MC Hammer's parachute pants have a tough time beating the fashion sense of huge shoulder pads. You know it's true.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tel Aviv

I believe in love at first sight. It happened to me 3 days ago. After taking a long distance bus up from southern Israel, Eero and I took a local bus through Tel Aviv and I fell in love with the city. It's hard to describe the reasons why, but here are a few: relaxed atmosphere, small enough to walk around, big enough to offer a variety of neighbourhoods, lots of cafes and stores on the street, large parks, green areas, beaches easily reached by foot from the centre of the city, sunny and breezy, fantastic food.

Speaking of food, I went to an annual festival where the city's top restaurants sell samples of their dishes for around US$5 apiece. It's a great deal for restaurants and eaters alike, as people get to try many places they wouldn't otherwise.

I know what you're thinking: "I've been to a food fair before." Not like this. Picture an outdoor music festival, take out the bands but leave everything else: lights, stages, DJs playing music, food stalls encircling a huge area of grass, and above all, people. Huge crowds of people eating, drinking, talking, dancing, and sometimes even crowdsurfing. I couldn't believe that the entire celebration was centred around the enjoyment of food: Jerusalem tortillas, African-spiced sausages and potatoes, east-west fusion beef in coconut sauce, coffee cream cake, cheesecake, I could go on. I'll have some pictures from the event when Eero sends them to me after getting home next week.

I've been trying to find a fault with Tel Aviv, something that will make it easier to leave, but so far I've come up empty-handed. The good news for me is that I don't need to leave yet. I originally planned to travel up through Syria to Turkey, but ran into a 3-strikes-and-you're-out scenario. I tried and failed twice to get a Syrian visa. My last resort plan was to take a flight to Damascus and hope for more luck with the passport control officers at the airport. That dream officially died when I walked across the Jordanian-Israeli border and got a stamp in my passport. When crossing into Syria, if there is any evidence of travel in Israel you are automatically barred from entering. I had asked immigration not to stamp my passport, but the woman behind the counter accidentally put one in anyway. When she realised what she had done, she was embarrassed and apologised, but there was no way of erasing the ink from the page.

The end result is that instead of going back to Jordan and then heading north, I'll stay in Tel Aviv a little longer. Maybe after another week the rush of new love will have worn away.

Out of Jordan

My last dive in Jordan was at night. There were three of us — Eero, me, and our instructor Abdullah — plus one soldier watching to make sure that all the people who entered the water came out again. We dove the same site earlier in the day, but at night it was transformed. Gone were the schools of fish swimming by, shimmering in the light blue water. In their place were lone creatures making their way through the blackness. As we shone our flashlights around we come across a tiny octopus, a strange box-shaped fish, and a large crayfish which Abdullah managed to catch and stuff in his pocket for later.

Because the dive was going so smoothly, Abdullah took us to a nearby shipwreck. The king of Jordan had sunk it specifically to create a site for divers. We had visited it previously during the day and it was spooky then. At night it was positively eery.

We had been swimming along the sea bed for a while when all of a sudden our lights illuminated a wall, the ship's hull, rising up above us. The ship was resting on its side so when we rounded the front, the deck rose up from the ground at a steep angle. 15 metres down in the black water, I couldn't see anything but the captain's cabin above me oriented almost vertically, and Eero and Abdullah floating nearby. Pointing my light away from the boat — up, down, behind me — the beam disappeared into darkness. It was the first time I felt dizzy and disoriented underwater. I had to remind myself of the way the ship was resting to figure out which way was up and which was down.

We swam along its length, the deck a wall on our right. Structures slowly took shape as we approached in the darkness. I pointed my light up and saw the ship's mast looming horizontally above our heads. I pointed it to the right and saw an open hatch with a ladder leading into the gloomy interior. Everything was rusty, with coral growing over it and the odd fish hiding in corners and recesses. As fascinating as it was, it definitely tested my nerves. The constant fear in the back of my mind was imagining what it would be like to get left behind in the darkness with the hulking skeleton of the ship for company.

I was relieved when we at last swam over the side and headed away from it, encountering the sandy ocean floor again. Before getting out of the water we sat with our flashlights held to our chests to block out the light. When we moved our hands through the water, tiny specks of phosphorescent plankton lit up.

The next morning we left Jordan. It fulfilled my expectations in the best way possible: by tearing down a lot of preconceptions about life in the middle east. Namely, that the entire area is a dangerous place and that people are at war with the west. I remember the man running the hostel I stayed at in Amman saying that if you visit a mosque during prayer time, you'll only find 5 or 6 people there. Who has time to pray 5 times a day? He may have been joking, but the point was clear. People are people, no different from the US where some are Catholic and some are Methodist and some are Jewish and on and on. In Jordan, some are Christian and some are Muslim and some are devout and some don't care much. And everyone mixes together, with Ms. Jeans chatting away to Mrs. Fully-Veiled. Not all that surprising, really, though it does conflict with the image we sometimes get from the news where the middle east is a uniform mass of people headed on a collision course with the US and EU.

Overall, I was won over by the genuine friendliness Eero and I encountered everywhere. So many people were keen to simply say hello and welcome us. Try and think of the last place the following happened to you: a policeman stops you in the street and asks where you're from. Maybe you're intimidated by his gun and wonder what problem he is about to create for you. Then he asks you if you've been here before. Upon finding it's your first time, he shakes your hand and says "welcome to our country," before walking off with a smile. If you're coming up blank on memories of this happening in your life, I used to have something in common with you before I visited Jordan.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Women in Jordan

So what about the role of women in society here? Let me skip all of the questions you may have because I don't have the answers. I haven't talked to anybody, man or woman, about the topic. All I know is what I've seen on the street, which is a variety of dress ranging from skirts + t-shirt to headscarf with jeans to fully draped in black with a burqa.

(As an aside, I was curious when I saw a woman with only her eyes showing, looking through the window of a clothing store at jeans and summer tops. There are so many questions I would have loved to ask her.)

Because I don't know the first thing about traditional Jordanian culture, what women think, how they are treated, what rights they have, etc., it would be arrogant to assume anything. Things may be great, terrible, or somewhere in between.

What I can say is that from my foreign and selfish point of view, being a man in Jordan ends up tilting towards the boring end of the scale. Drinking coffee, eating at a restaurant, or smoking a nargileh, the vast majority of people you have for company are men. Think of how a typical nightclub is run. Goal #1 is get as many girls there as possible. The rest of life inside a club follows onwards from that first goal. Life here is a bit like a nightclub on opposite day.

At first glance, this may sound like a wholesome idea for daily life. But as I was walking down the street with Eero earlier today, I realised I wasn't paying attention to what he was saying because I was distracted by a mannequin in a halter top. I haven't checked with a doctor, but being accustomed to living in a different culture I imagine being around real women would be a little healthier.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Deep Water

Today, day 2 of my Advanced Open Water course, I went on a deep water dive as part of my training. My instructor took me down to 28 metres (~92 feet). As we swam down I had a dizzying feeling of slight panic at how far underwater I was. It was strangely similar to the sensation of looking down when you're high up on a ledge with a hundred foot drop opening out below you. It disappeared when we stopped for a minute, however, and it was fascinating to be completely unable to see the surface of the water. I was surrounded by blue, and the only difference in looking up was that it was a paler blue.

My course book stresses that diving below 18 metres, the generally accepted boundary for deep dives, should not be done just for the sake of thrill. You should be descending to a depth because there is something you want to explore that requires it — perhaps marine life that doesn't exist at the surface or a wreck. However, I can't deny that the enjoyment I got out of my dive was largely due to the depth. It was oddly comforting to sit on the sandy bottom in the middle of so much blue, watch the life around me, and be completely enveloped in a different world.

Diving in the Red Sea

From India / Jordan

We pulled up on a beach owned by the prince of Dubai at about 9:30 yesterday morning. It was a barren piece of sandy land in the middle of an even more barren landscape of brown scorched hills by the Red Sea. Some evidence of its previous life as a public beach was strewn about in the form of broken bottles and cracked tarmac parking areas. Some piece of presumably corrupt politics allowed the land to be taken from the public and sold to the prince, husband to the daughter of the king of Jordan, for the purposes of development. The land sat empty — probably awaiting a rise in property prices, at which point he will be able to sell it for a profit.

On this hot summer day in the desert, however, the beach's private ownership was being conveniently ignored by our group of 9 divers for the purposes of scuba exploration. As the sun made its presence felt on every inch of exposed skin, we unloaded tanks of compressed air on the hot ground and started getting our gear on. A jeep drove up with a large machine gun mounted in the rear. Being near the borders of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the military was checking that everything with our dive group was kosher. Maybe kosher is the wrong word. Can you say they were checking everything was halal? I don't know. You get the picture.

We divided into two groups and walked across the beach to the shore. I noticed a family had claimed an old shelter and hung up woven goat-hair blankets to block out the sun on two sides. They had two goats with them. I wondered if they were squatting there. It didn't seem like a pleasant place to live.

Stepping in the water was instant relief from the heat. It was calm and clear which made for very enjoyable diving. It was my first time in 3 years and I was surprised how quickly it all came back to me. Everything went smoothly apart from a slight hiccup with my BCD, the vest you inflate and deflate to control buoyancy, on the second dive. I tried letting a little air in it and something got stuck, causing it to blow up like a balloon. I started floating skywards like a cartoon character who has inflated himself with helium. Luckily I was only 5 metres underwater so there was no risk of decompression problems. My instructor caught hold of me and fixed the stuck inflate button as I pulled the emergency dump valve to let all the air out of my veset. From then on it was smooth sailing.

The most exciting thing I saw was a puffer fish, the type that blows up to a large size to intimidate would-be predators. Of course, it may have just been mocking me but either way it was fascinating.

Once back on dry land, it became apparent that the family under the shelter wasn't living there. They were having a picnic with the goats. Having slaughtered both of them and hung up the meat, they were in the process of grilling as we walked back to the van to take off our gear.

Assuming all goes well, by the end of 3 days Eero will be a newly certified PADI Open Water scuba diver and I'll get my Advanced Open Water qualification.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


For a couple of years I've wondered in the back of my mind what I'd look like if I shaved my head. I had it done once when I was about 7, and I expect the results to be equally as bad now. But there's only one way to confirm my suspicion. Today, far away from the anguished cries of my mother and the laughter of everyone else, I find out...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Diary Notes from Jordan

From India / Jordan

Day 3

We left Amman today to head south. Our days in Jordan's capital city are remembered through a haze of nargileh (water pipe) smoke and falafel binges (total consumed so far: 21). We visited some of the Roman ruins scattered throughout the city, as well as a huge blue-domed mosque. Also enjoyed evenings in a rooftop cafe where the western atmosphere was matched by the menu prices. Looking forward to the sites of Petra.

Day 4

Falafels consumed: 27

Eero and I set a target to eat 80 falafels by the time he leaves in under 2 weeks. Consistency is key. If we keep going at our current rate there won't be any problem.

We spent the day walking around Petra, the ruins of a city carved into the stone faces of hills 2,000 years ago. It's just as mythical as it looks in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and slightly surreal as some of the sandstone has eroded over time, making it seem as if the rock has melted. I walked around wondering how an ancient civilisation had managed to carve away such huge volumes of stone. I also wondered at the presence of a large Mövenpick resort just outside the gates. The connection between Swiss ice cream and a historical site in the middle east escapes me.

Day 5

Falafels consumed: 32

Eero is showing signs of falafel fatigue. He missed the day's goal by 1. I may have to think of a motivational remedy.

Another day spent walking around Petra. It's a surprisingly large area, and when you take things at the lazy relaxed pace we do, you could spend days covering it all.

In the afternoon we hiked through a narrow canyon full of twists and turns. It's not a hidden trail — it's even listed in the Lonely Planet — but it was virtually free of tourists. The walls were only a couple meters apart in some places and worn smooth. Absolutely stunning. Although it looks like it was formed by water, in actual fact it's due to tectonic plates ripping the rock apart. A highlight of the trip so far.

Pictures to follow once my film is finished. Update: Links to pictures added.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

On the Road Again

After a 6 week pause in India I hit the tarmac this morning, touching down in Jordan. The temperature was below 25C, a very nice change from the 40+ searing heat of Delhi. I've yet to do much apart from sleep (the 6:30am flight was precisely timed to prevent me from resting more than an hour last night) but I get the sense of a very friendly peaceful atmosphere walking around the streets.

My good friend Eero is due to arrive in an hour and will be joining me for the next couple weeks. I'm looking forward to his company. For now, I'll wander around until he gets here. Sitting in this internet cafe I can hear the evening's prayer from a nearby mosque. It's a soothing sound in the clear evening air.

Last week I took a trip to Amritsar and the India-Pakistan border, where every evening the guards put on an incredible show when lowering the flag and closing the border gates. I didn't manage to write about it (and really, a video is needed to do it justice) but some pictures are online here. It has become such an event that crowds gather to watch from grandstands and there is an emcee to lead the crowd in chants of "Hindustan! Hindustan!" The guards' marching is straight out of John Cleese's hilarious turn in the "don't mention the war" episode of Faulty Towers.

There was more to the trip, like the incredible Golden Temple (pictures alone unfortunately cannot begin to give a sense of the atmosphere) and an unplanned jaunt up to Dharamsala / McLeod Ganj (abode of the Dalai Lama in exile). I hope to pick up my pen a bit more often now I'm on the move again.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Motorbiking Part 2

When Sunil, one of our guards, got married last year, he received a new motorbike as part of the dowry from his wife's family. His happiness with the bike rivaled his happiness with the marriage, and I could see how proud of it he was when he showed it to me. When he invited me for a ride I couldn't resist.

We set off from the house one night — him in front with motorbike helmet, me holding on in back. After wizzing around the area, we reached some quieter backstreets. At this point we swapped places and he let me take control of the bike. It was good fun to ride, but after cruising for a bit I made a critical mistake. As I came up to a main road I braked to check for traffic before crossing. I forgot that an intersection is not the place to slow down — it is the place to lean on your horn as you blaze across and continue on your merry way.

My pause had given the man in uniform on the corner an opportunity and he waved at us to stop. He sauntered up, looked at me driving in a borrowed bicycle helmet and undershirt, and said, "driver's license." My instinct told me it was a good time to keep my mouth shut. Sunil started arguing in Hindi with the supposed policeman. At fairly regular intervals, when the policeman had heard enough of Sunil's excuses, he turned to me anew to demand with a sour expression, "driver's license." But I wasn't foold by his charms and kept my mouth shut.

After several minutes of the same, he finally turned away and waved us on. A block down the road Sunil said to me, "In India, anything is possible," and we burst out laughing. It turned out the man wasn't a traffic policeman after all but part of the "home guard" and had no legal authority to fine motorists. I then understood the disgusted look on his face as we pulled off — he had failed to convince us to pay him a bribe, a skill all government employees in Delhi should excel at.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Household Staff

Most people, when they think of living in a place where they can employ people to serve them, picture a life of luxury. It's not easy to explain that when coming from a society which places a large emphasis on independence and the value of do-it-yourself, reality can be different than what you would assume.

Let me try to give a basic example: imagine you are the type of person that likes to be fairly inconspicuous in your day-to-day routine without causing other people too much bother. Now imagine that when you walk out of your house, you have a guard that — no matter that he's relaxing in his chair in the middle of a conversation with someone else — jumps to his feet, straightens his back, gives a salute and says, "Good morning sir!" And repeats the same performance every single time you leave or return.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In India my parents have guards 24 hours a day (work requirement, not our choice), a driver, and a housekeeper/cook. I can't carry a bag up the stairs to our apartment without someone insisting on taking it from me. I can't lounge around the house without a shirt on for feeling lazy when the housekeeper is busy washing the floor.

It's harder for my mother, who is turned into a manager in her own home. Our needs are much more basic than the average family with young children that need to be ferried to and from school and other events. My father's work is close enough he prefers to bike many days. I tend to go out at night after the driver goes home, and now I've conquered the traffic system here1 I can take myself. So my mother is the one worrying that without anything to do, our driver isn't getting satisfaction from his job. She also had to deal with a previous housekeeper who my parents found stealing. After being around the housekeeper for close to 2 years and helping her family, it was quite a personal blow.

But obviously it's not all rich man's misery and tears. Our current housekeeper, Asha, is wonderful. She has a great sense of humour and although she refused to go to school after the age of 5, she's very sharp. She has picked up English, language #3 after Hindi and Telugu, at an incredible rate. My friend Em and I decided to take her out to lunch one day for a break from her usual routine. We went via the Delhi metro which is a surreal experience even for me. It's not yet two years old, and to enter it is to transition from one of the dirtiest, dustiest cities anywhere to a modern world where everything is new and surfaces shine with cleanliness. It is so out of place that I expect it to collapse one day, as the city rejects it like an immune system rejects a donated organ.

Asha had never been before, and she gave a small shout upon seeing an escalator for the first time in her life. She was thrilled with the whole trip, from waiting on the platform to riding the train to coming up the escalator in a different part of the city.

As we walked around Connaught Place, she pointed at all the light-skinned, blue-eyed mannequins in the clothing store displays and named them "Em" or "Nigel", gender depending. When I protested that I had brown eyes Asha told me I needed to get coloured contact lenses.2

To make it a memorable experience we went for western instead of Indian food — TGI Friday's. I don't know if Asha understood the random pieces of Americana decorating the walls, and I struggled to explain the concept of a hippie to her although my mother helpfully pitched in with things like "long hair" and "smelly". But I was impressed with her willingness to try things. Had it been me trying Indian food for the first time, I probably would have had a spoonful and left the rest. Asha ate everything but the sour cream, which she deemed too strange.

Several weeks later we made homemade ice cream, one of the few foods that seems to bridge all cultures with its universal appeal. Once she learns to make it by herself and I can ask her to whip up a fresh batch, I won’t be able to complain about the hardships of living with household staff anymore.

  1. It's simple actually — big rules over small. As we have an SUV, "conquered" is the right word. Cars, scooters, bikes, and all other lower life-forms scatter before my wheels.

  2. Funny, but slightly unsettling as I know Asha doesn't like her dark skin. This isn't all that uncommon in a country which is disturbingly overt in promoting pale skin as beautiful — skincare products that claim to make you white are easy to find in stores.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Family Feud

I’m through with film. I’m switching to a digital SLR. This won’t interest most of you, but I know my siblings, at least, will give me some amount of shit and it’s easier to start the process now so I can get it over with. Despite being technophiles in many ways, certain modernities incur their wrath. (For better or worse, mobile phones are here to stay Jolin. At least the future is looking bright these days).

Let me get to the meat of the matter. Take a look at this picture:

The colours are terrible — washed out, old, boring. Any ideas why? I have a few. Maybe the film expired. Maybe I got the exposure wrong. Maybe it went through one too many x-ray machines at airports. Maybe the photo lab did a bad job developing the negatives. Maybe the scans are to blame.

I don’t have the time or resources to pinpoint exactly where the error lies. I have lost more than one film to this and other equally frustrating problems, and at the rate I take pictures that equals months of photographs. I’ve finally reached the point where I don’t care, because there is a better way. All the issues I had with digital photography a year ago have slowly been crossed off my list, to the point where this is my new object of desire:

The Canon Digital Rebel XTi. I know, that’s strike two against me since it’s not a Nikon. Digital is a new and scary world. I’d like to pair it with this:

The Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens. When pared with the smaller-than-35mm CCD in consumer digital cameras, this 17-55mm lense gives the equivalent of a 28-90mm zoom. I’m a one-lens person as it keeps the backpack light, so a lens with this range will give me a very nice break from the fixed 50mm I’m currently constrained to.

So what’s the catch? At a combined total of around US$1700, luxury doesn’t come cheap. I could travel a long time on that money. Unfortunately for me, and for those of you wanting more pictures on my blog, this may have to wait.

In the meantime, feel free to share your enragement at my abandonment of film. You’re welcome to try to convert me back. But I’ll warn you, you’ll probably end up wasting as much time as I have with film photography.

Friday, May 04, 2007


From India Picture...

I was holding onto my seat white-knuckled as we drove from New Delhi airport, dodging the cows wandering along the road, weaving around the huge trucks sharing space with cars, scooters, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, and people just walking alongside the traffic. This is the vivid memory I have of arriving in India for the first time 3 and a half years ago. I remember the sign hand-painted on the back of every truck: Horn Please. "Horn please?" I thought, as the sound of beeping came at me from all sides. "Surely they're not asking people to make more noise."

And I recall realising, upon seeing all types of vehicles heading up roads the wrong way, that in India there are no rules, only guidelines. This idea was reinforced every time Naveen, the driver-turned-friend from my father's work, entertained my mother and me by saying, "In India, anything is possible!" before doing a U-turn into oncoming heavy traffic, or taking a shortcut down an impossibly narrow street packed with people, animals, and cycle-rickshaws.

I also remember talking to people who had visited India in the '80s, commenting to them that it must have been such a different place back then. I was initially surprised when I heard the response, "No, not really." But as I got to know the excruciating beaurocracy underpinning so many facets of the country, I began to understand.

Our driver Sukhdev, for example, is involved in a lawsuit against a previous employer who didn't pay him for his last 3 months of work. The lawsuit was first brought 18 years ago. 3 plaintiffs in the same suit have died in the interim. It is still ongoing. This is the pace of things here.

So you can imagine how fascinating it's been to notice differences on each return visit. India is starting to change. There is now a highway leading from New Delhi airport. Gone are the pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles. Gone is the traffic heading the wrong way. It's smooth sailing, at least by Indian road standards.

Large areas of Delhi are now cow-free, the result of an effort that began a couple years ago to clear the streets of bovine roadblocks. The humorous scenario involved the government placing a bounty on each cow. Freelancing cow-shepherds then drove around spotting wandering groups of the animals, bundled them into the backs of trucks, drove across the river Yamuna and outside the city limits, and then dumped their loads. Sort of what I imagine the mafia do to witnesses after intimidating them.

Many of these steps are undoubtedly required to enable India to progress, but they do take away some of its charm. I left the flat one sunny day a few years ago and walked downstairs to the car to find an elephant there, tearing off tree branches for a morning snack. Although I may have hid it because this was my home and I wanted to act like a local, my excitement was no less than the first time an elephant ambled by the flat, owner in tow. Naveen was present on that first occasion, looking on as I scrambled to get my camera to capture the event.

"This is amazing!" I was thinking at the time. "An elephant! On the street! Walking by my house! An elephant!"

Just as amazing was watching Naveen when my mother commented to him that where we come from, elephants don't wander the streets.

"Really, ma'am?" he said with a look of wonder. "Don't you have elephants in your country?"

Who knows what changes are in store for India? The idea of elephants on the streets of Delhi may seem just as hilarious to Naveen's grandchildren as the idea of elephants strolling around DC seems to me.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Cuba Blog

It looks like the Anonymous Cuba Blogger has put up a final closing post. I wanted to mention the blog again for those that missed it the first time I linked to it — it's been updated periodically since then and is an interesting read for those curious about Cuba.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


From Sikkim / Darj...

A few days ago I got back from an 8-day trek in the Himalayas. It involved a lot of steep climbs, fog, and freezing weather. In other words, not unlike a summer in San Francisco. What was unlike San Francisco was the style of hiking. When I was living there last year I took a trip to Yosemite National Park with Anne. Between the two of us, we carried two hiking packs with clothing, sleeping bags, tent, and supplies. This is not the way things are done in India. I was with my parents and Marlene, a friend of ours. To sustain the four of us, there was a guide, a cook, 3 ponies, a pony-carer, 4 yaks, a yak-carer, and 3 porters. I could die of altitude sickness, but I wasn't going to die of loneliness.

Speaking of altitude sickness, the hike was tempting fate a little bit — my previous two bouts with high altitudes ended with me accepting bitter defeat (one with a dramatic K.O.). But this time, in ascending from 1,700m to roughly 4,500m, we did things in proper fashion and took two rest days to acclimatise on the way up. These seemed to do the trick as I had no major problems.

We had two 4am rises to hike to lookouts by dawn, but the pain and shortness of breath from the thin air was worth it. The scenery was spectacular. We had views of Kanchenjunga, 3rd highest peak in the world after Everest and K2, as well as neighbouring peaks and glaciers at the base of the mountains.

On the last evening, the four of us stood at the small Tibetan village of Tsokha looking out. In front of us, we could see for miles down the valley, and to the side, up to sharp peaks. We watched as an immense cloud engulfed the valley below us, then slowly moved upwards. Standing above the cloud in the clear air, we could see the edge of it approach us bit by bit, until finally we were wrapped in a cold white mist so thick that trees 10 meters away disappeared.

This may have been the last big hike on my trip. If so, it was a fine way to end things. I was a little worried on the drive to the starting point when we passed an overturned car on the windy mountain road, blood-spattered windshield lying nearby. It seemed an ill omen to begin with. It's lucky I'm not superstitious or it might not have turned out so well.