musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Monday, November 16, 2009

En Kötü Günümüz Böyle Olsun

May our worst days be like this one. This is a saying in Turkish that my dad likes to use while giving a toast at an exceptionally fine dinner with family to wish that our days to come will be as good if not better than the wonderful day at hand.

This was said more than once by Lauren (in Turkish) and me while laying on the beach in Zanzibar, having a drink while watching an elephant saunter by, and strolling through the diverse streets of Mombasa – among other times – and came to be the theme of our recent trip to the Middle East and Africa. I’ve taken the time to detail some of our adventures which are broken up into the following posts:

November 2 – Dubai
November 3 – Nairobi
November 4 – Nairobi
Safari Animals
November 4 – Amboseli
November 5 – Tsavo West
November 6 – Tsavo East
November 7 – Mombasa
November 8 – Stone Town
November 9-12 – Paradise
November 13 – Nairobi
November 14-15 – Dubai

As you can already tell, much has been written – certainly not all of which will be interesting to you – and even more photos have been taken. What started out as a mere documentary process for me morphed into the novel that follows, so I will not be offended in the least if you skip small or large portions, leave nasty comments about how unnecessarily wordy I can be, or simply wait for Lauren and/or me to give you the highlights in person.

After sorting through the 1000+ taken, some pictures have been posted that correspond to the posts below. These can be found at http://picasaweb.google.com/eyayboke.

Enjoy!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November 14-15 - Dubai

Shopping. Shopping. Shopping.

In case you were wondering what we did in Dubai for the last two days of our trip, see the previous paragraph. Oh, and we had drinks at the most luxurious hotel in the world, but I'll get to that in a second.

When something is done in Dubai, whether it is a building, a hotel, or a car purchase, it is done extravagantly and with an eye on the record books. Almost complete, the Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower) is to be opened in the next month, becoming the tallest building in the world. I give it the EY Official Seal of Approval; the sleek edifice is massive and will house, in addition to the usually offices and luxury condos, the world's first Giorgio Armani Hotel.

Next door to the tower is easily the nicest shopping venue I've ever seen - Dubai Mall. An olympic size ice rink is hardly the main attraction in a place that must have the highest concentration of designer goods per meter squared than anywhere in the world. After months of Iraq-induced deprivation, a small bout of retail therapy was exactly what the doctor (and my credit card company) ordered.

We were less impressed with the more traditional Mall of the Emirates except for the fact that it is home to an indoor ski piste (Ski Dubai) that offers the opportunity to enjoy snow skiing in the desert year round.

Two days of sleeping and shopping, not to mention an amazing vacation on the whole, was appropriately capped off with drinks in the Skyview Restaurant on the 27th floor of the Burj al Arab Hotel. In case you missed the Travel Channel special where this dainty little creature on its own fake island was crowned 'Most Luxurious Hotel in the World,' the sail shaped Burj is the most luxurious hotel in the world. Oh, and they also offer the standard amenities of any quality hotel: a helicopter landing pad, a stunning view of the ridiculous "The World" islands, and an airport pickup via Rolls Royce. The hotel is also 7 stars. That's like telling someone to get a 140% on a test with no extra credit available.

In all honesty, there was a lot of style in the hotel; Lauren and I just aren't convinced that it was good style. Then again, I prefer hotels with fireplaces in the lobby, comfortable chairs and antique books placed on a wall full of shelves... so I may not be the best judge of absurd 7 star luxury.

In addition to offering a great night skyline view of illuminated Dubai, excellent drinks and even better people watching (we saw at least one Russian prostitute), the Skyview scintillated guest's visual palettes with seemingly incongruous (not to mention a bit dizzying) reds, blues, lines, circles and other indistinguishable patters.

The service was impeccable, the experience one-in-a-lifetime, and the $7k glass (not bottle) of Scotch hard to avoid, but somehow at the end of the day it is who you are with that matters most. New places are definitely fun, but it's not 'where' but 'who' that makes it special. In this regard I certainly lucked out. I couldn't have asked for a better traveling partner in crime than Lauren.

Here's to a great trip and whatever the next adventure may be!

Friday, November 13, 2009

November 13 - Nairobi

What I am about to tell you will sound like a fib. Luckily we have the photos to prove it. Lauren and I played with - and in her case cuddled with - a cheetah. No, it was not a stuffed animal and yes, it was a living, breathing African cheetah. And he was very cuddly.

So impressed with Eastern and Southern (and especially our guide Michael) after our safari, we contacted them about taking us around for a half day in Nairobi and dropping us at the airport in the afternoon. The alternative would've been to try to do our own thing or just stay at the hotel until our flight in the afternoon. It was ultimately a very easy decision.

When Michael picked us up from the Hotel Jacaranda that morning, we collectively decided to do a "nature walk" and then visit a giraffe sanctuary before lunch and our flight. The nature walk ended up being essentially the Nairobi Zoo, but the designers had done an excellent job of making the place look like the natureal habitat of the area, which happened to be right next to Nairobi National Park. It's actually pretty amazing to think that a national park, which is a legitimate game watching locale, is so close to the hustle and bustle. We were reminded of this proximity shortly after passing one of the largest slums in the world (~1m people) when we had to stop to let a family of wild warthogs (think Pumba) cross the road.

I think our guide, a student intern from nearby East Africa School of Aviation studying tourism management, was a bit disappointed that we had seen many of the animals in the wild he was showing us at the zoo. Despite his best efforts to get the resident white rhino to stop eating and turn around (he failed), I got the sense that he saw his tip slipping away. Of course Lauren and I didn't really care and were basically doing this instead of watching CNN in the hotel, but he didn't know that.

The excitement began when we approached the lion area, home to two females and one rather large male that just happened to be relaxing directly on the other side of what I hoped was a very durable plexiglass pane. We did catch a glimpse of a leopard shortly thereafter lounging on the top branch of a tall tree, but it wasn't until we approached the cheetah pen that things got very interesting.

"They're very friendly," our equally friendly and well-dressed young guide stated.

Sure they are, I thought, right before they eat you...

It was about that time that I noticed one of the caretakers inside the pen drawing the male cheetah away from his shady spot under a tree by teasing it with a stuffed animal on a string. This was all happening fairly close to us so I reached into my bag to switch lenses. When I looked up I saw only the guide smiling at me and pointing to an open door leading into the pen through which Lauren had just passed. Sure enough, inside the pen was a real live cheetah, a stunningly beautiful animal mind you, on it's back enjoying a belly rub from Lauren!

In all, we spent around ten minutes with the animal who, despite having rather large paws and a mouth full of sharp teeth, was as sweet as a house cat, even purring when rubbed in just the right spot. Definitely an unforgettable, and unexpected, experience!

Next stop on the dime tour of Nairobi was a giraffe sanctuary. I had actually attempted to book a night at the famous Giraffe Manor - a 19th century British colonial manor that had been converted into an exclusive (and expensive) B&B where Rothschild giraffes poke their heads into your room in the morning - but they were completely inflexible with the non-standard hours of our stay and all around not very accomodating. The sanctuary, situated next to the Manor and sharing the same giraffe population, was not a very big place and was teaming with school children on field trips. Walking up to the viewing platform Lauren grabbed some food pellets and was soon feeding Daisy, an 18-foot tall female giraffe, by hand. We both gave Daisy a big neck hug and then hung out for a while watching the rest of the bunch feed on trees, play with one another, and watch as Japanese tourists fought Arab ones for a better viewing spot. We weren't really in a rush and, after all, when would we next get a chance to hang out watching a bunch of giraffes watching us?

A barbecue meat lunch (think Brazilian steakhouse with the addition of crocodile meat) followed and we were soon sitting on our Emirates flight back to Dubai, reminding ourselves that just that morning we played with cheetahs and hugged a giant giraffe, expecting to wake up from our dream at any moment...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 9-12 - Paradise

After Stone Town, Lauren and I left this earth (everywhere else) and journeyed to paradise (Sun and Seaview Bungalows) on the east coast of Zanzibar's largest island. Instead of boring you with the glorious redundancy of our daily routine (sleep, eat, lay on the beach, swim, eat, swim, lay on the beach, nap, swim, etc.), I've decided to break the description of our time on the beaches of Zanzibar up by characters.

Federico: Our heavily-accented host welcomed us upon arrival and responded to our every need (read: snorkelling) with ease and efficiency. He even readily offered up his own personal satellite internet card without hesitation. An Italian from Torino (Turin), he had moved to Zanzibar five years ago, presumably after marrying a beautiful Kenyan woman, to try his hand at living in paradise. Only five months ago he took over this place and is well on his way to making it one of Zanzibar's premier getaways. Not the outright owner but basically the outright operator, Federico and his wife (we think they spoke English with one another) enjoyed candlelight dinners and listened to soft European cafe music in the lounge each evening.

Federico's wife: Yes, she has a name but sadly I did not catch it. We first met her when she was holding Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father." Like most Kenyans (she was from Nairobi), she was infatuated with our Barry and lit up when Lauren informed her she lived about 1km from the White House. Also like most Kenyans with whom we discussed this topic, she hoped desperately that Obama would live up to the hopes Africans have for him. Unlike the others; however, this obviously well-educated woman hoped that, more than dollars and cents aid, Obama would inspire Africa's leaders in the way he has inspired so many in America. Maybe then these Africans would truly be interested more in the well-being of their people and less about doing whatever it takes to stay in power.

Emmanuel: Originally hailing from a village in the shadows of Mt. Kilimanjaro on mainland Tanganika (what Tanzania used to be called before unification with Zanzibar), Emmanuel was one of two Africans helping Federico run the place. More so than Said (the other); however, we got the sense that Federico was grooming Emmanuel to run things without him. Well-dressed, polite, and very attentive as he was, I could see why. Goodness knows how this man went from being a nature guide on Kili to Sun and Seaview, but whatever the case, I got the sense that he was happy to be there.

Said: The quiet one and coincidentally the son of the real owner, Said was the only one of the crew actually from Zanzibar. His father owned the place and apparently Federico had decided to keep him on when he took over. Life seemed a bit slower for the deep-voiced Said, perhaps the only true islander with whom we had the chance to chat. His biggest contribution to our stay was to teach Lauren how to play Bau, a Mancala-like game that Lauren soon conquered, leaving Said and me in her tracks.

Shaggy: If Shaggy wasn't the star of your show, he would soon figure out a way to be. Always there to receive some loving from the muzungus (white people), Shaggy 'protected' Sun and Seaview and became instantly jealous of any other dogs on his territory. Except his girlfriend - she was allowed to stay as long as she didn't seek our affection. His shining moments were protecting his turf against another very cute dog (shh, don't tell Shaggy I said that) and giving a wandering cow on the beach 'the business' for no apparent reason, the second of which earned him a few thoughtful 'bravos' from Federico.

Mark: At first it was very difficult to figure out what language Mark, our snorkelling guide, was speaking or where he was from. For those of you that know me, you understand how frustrating that is for me. Turns out that we didn't figure it out because he was speaking multiple languages to different people - French to the French smoker scuba diving off our boat, Italian to the young female trainee scuba-er, and English to us.

"I guess that's what an international relations degree and German/Italian parents will get you."

Indeed. Apparently this killer combination also gets you the opportunity to run the Buccaneer Diving outfit in Paje and spend your days between the whitest sandy beaches in the world and the fascinating underwater world of exotic fish and coral reefs that hide beneath Zanzibar's multiple shades of crystal clear blue water. Tough life indeed.

Crabs: So this character is actually a whole host of characters that provided hours of non-stop entertainment to Lauren... and subsequently to me as I enjoyed watching her get excited about them. As I alternated between writing in my journal and napping while on the beach, Lauren would spend goodness-knows how much time checking out the different types of crabs on the beach. Who knew she was so easily amused?! (Don't answer that question if you value your friendship with Lauren.) To be fair, the crabs were interesting, white as the sand and continually digging deeper holes in which to reside. They would disappear when the very occasional passerby would unwittingly walk through downtown Crabville, but that didn't happen very often because Lauren and I were the only people staying at our little piece of heaven. This afforded Lauren ample viewing time and plenty of opportunities to use an obscure South Park reference to crab people (apparently they taste like crab but walk like people).

Zanzibar, you will be sorely missed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

November 8 - Stone Town

Just before leaving for Africa, I found out that our Kenya Airways flight from Mombasa to Zanzibar was canceled. Naturally this happened while on Skype with my mom, so she undoubtedly worried the entire time we were there. Instead of re-routing us through Nairobi on the same day, someone had thought it would be a good idea to book us two days later, apparently assuming that having a direct flight was more important than arriving on the originally-planned day. Well, we all know what happens when you ass-u-me...

In any case, we were able to re-route through Nairobi and we arrived in Stone Town, Zanzibar's only 'city' about four hours later than we should have. Zanzibar is a tropical archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. Although technically part of Tanzania, Zanzibar boasts relative autonomy and a mostly independent economy based on tourism, fishing and... well... tourism.

We dropped our things at the basic but clean Hotel Kiponda and promptly got lost in the windy and unmarked streets. We should've turned right when leaving the hotel, but luckily for us, even to the left Stone Town is a small and, during the day at least, safe place. It wasn't long before we were on the right track and thanking our lucky stars that we hadn't taken the ferry from Dar es Salaam. The port was a muddy madhouse and would've been a nightmare with our bags.

First stop on the Lonely Planet-inspired walking tour of Stone Town was the Forodhani Gardens in the shadow of the old fort and adjacent House of Wonders - basically Stone Town's two main historical attractions (unless you're a Queen fan and want to make a pilgrimage to Freddy Mercury's house). The Gardens had been recently redone and had obviously become the gathering spot for tourists and Zanzibarians alike. The Aga Khan Foundation had contributed heavily to the renovation.

I first heard of the Aga Khan from a nice man visiting Iraq who had done some work for his foundation in the past. Super rich and not lacking in the ego department, the Aga Khan owns (among other things) the Serena hotels in which we stayed on safari and spends much of his time gallivanting around the not-always-Islamic world.  A lover of all things Muslim - not to mention greatly revered in the Islamic world for his 'enlightenment' and no doubt check book - his foundation spends millions of dollars every year renovating buildings and other things of import to Islam around the world. Thus the work in predominately Muslim Mombasa; and thus his focus on Zanzibar.

Neither Lauren nor I had realized it before arriving, but Zanzibar is an almost 100% Muslim island. Almost all women covered themselves and tourists are even advised to dress conservatively in the urban areas (i.e. anywhere not near the beach). Not really a problem for us, just an interesting culture clash: think Bob Marley meets the Aga Khan.

Next stop was the old fort. For some reason, if there is an old fort somewhere, I want to see it. Stone Town's was a bit weak on the history side - no one offered it up and I was too lazy to look at the guidebook - but had been converted into an overpriced restaurant and a series of trinkety shops selling the traditional African knickknacks.  The only time we stopped was to admire (and consequently purchase) some island jewelry. We discussed maybe attending the reggae concert inside the walls that evening then, when the time came, conveniently forgot all about that conversation.

By far the most interesting stop on our mini-tour was the Beit el-Ajaib, or House of Wonders. Despite the cheesy name (and possible bad translation), this was not a ride at Disneyland or a haunted house at the state fair; although the house - built in the late 19th century - could've easily been haunted. It just had that feel. In essence it was a museum giving visitors small glimpses into the history of the Zanzibar Archipelago.

Quite influential in the Indian Ocean trading scene back in the day, Zanzibar can trace its history to the first millennium after Christ and has seen Arabs, Persians, Omanis, and Portuguese rulers (among others) over the years. As mentioned before, Islamic (I hesitate to use the word Arab since it was quite different than traditional Arab culture - Africans, it seems, always take outside concepts and make them uniquely their own) culture survived and that is what one sees.

Wandering through the mansion's four floors and countless rooms, we stopped occasionally to look at exhibits like most humans do in a museum, although two points stuck out for me. The first was a journal written by members of the Sultan of Zanzibar's voyage to Washington, DC in the late 19th century. The journal was flanked by several fascinating black and white prints of the arrival in Georgetown harbor.

The second was an exhibition on a Zanzibari princess, Salme, who had escaped her life as a member of the royal court (including living in the House of Wonders) to live in Germany. There she married a German, had several children, and became the first teacher of Swahili in Europe having secretly taught herself to read and write while in Stone Town. Zanzibari Swahili is generally accepted as being a very pure form of the East African language. Never allowed to return to her native Zanzibar in her later years after willingly 'disowning' it by leaving, it was a positive sign that she was being revered in her native land as a figure for young women to look up to.

The 360 degree upper patio of the elaborately decorated, and entirely wooden, palace was a welcome relief from the stuffy museum rooms. The breeze, combined with a wonderful afternoon view of the old fort, Forodhani Gardens and the ocean, created an atmosphere that was tough to leave. Finally we did and, after another stroll through the Garden and a lovely rooftop dinner (complete with the clumsiest waiter in history), we called it a night.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

November 7 - Mombasa

We were told that Mombasa literally means cocktail, and it's easy to see why. To be honest, neither Lauren nor I had done much research on Mombasa and, arriving at the Castle Royale Hotel we weren't even 100% sure we had a place to stay (Lauren had reserved online but they had never sent a confirmation email). So, despite hearing bits and pieces along the way about 'crazy' Mombasa, we were pleasantly surprised with the level of activity. Our hotel (we did in fact have a reservation) was a colonial-style oasis from the bustling main street on which it sat, offering a no frills room with air conditioning that was more than adequate.

After taking a few minutes to gather our thoughts and put valuables in the room safe, we decided to venture down to Mombasa's two main tourist attractions: Ft. Jesus and the adjacent old city.

Most places you would imagine name Ft. Jesus would be either shaped like a traditional coastal fort i.e. the shape of the cliff or like a cross. This one, built by the Portuguese in the era of Vasco de Gama, was shaped like Jesus. Literally. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, this strategic location at the mouth of a river leading into the Indian Ocean came under immediate attack and would ultimately fall to the Sultan of Oman. Before all this the Chinese had come to Mombasa to trade and after the Omanis came the Brits; hence the cultural cocktail. Each conqueror seems to have left a mark, but the most obvious one still vibrant today was left by the Omanis: Islam. Scarved women and the 5-times daily Sunni call to prayer were unavoidable reminders of Mombasa's predominate religious affiliation.

No, no, we don't need a guide, I insisted when approached by a tall, awkward man with a coin in his right ear.

"It's ok my friend. It's my job. Hakuna matata!"

Alright fine. You win. No worries indeed, I thought to myself as I resigned to accept his offer making sure I had some cash in my pocket. Turns out this reluctant decision was one of the best of the trip. Our guide, who's name I didn't catch, spoke a quirky English and insisted on asking, then answering, his own questions.

"You know what this hole for? I tell you what it for. Natural air conditioning while you go," he told us several times when pointing out holes in the wall that were apparently used as toilets. Ft. Jesus was built to protect the port, he told us, because Mombasa has for centuries been the main sea gateway to Eastern Africa. He showed us the beautiful Arabic doors, the wonderful view, and other quintessential fort buildings (barracks, etc.). But the tour really started right when we thought it was about to end.

"You want to see the old port? Of course you want to see the old port."

Okedoke. Hakuna matata.

The old port, and adjacent old city, was not a very big place. Narrow streets were lined by decorative wooden balconies jutting out from two story buildings. Some of the buildings definitely needed some love so I was glad to hear that UNESCO and the Aga Khan Foundation were going to restore some of these historic buildings in the coming years. More on our friend the Aga Khan later.

"This is a Shia mosque," our guide said with thinly veiled disdain. "Fanatics."

I thought about, then decided against, pointing out that al Qaeda and the extreme Wahabis of Sauda Arabia were Sunni.

"This," he went on with more pride pointing at an old yet quaint white building with blue trim," is the oldest mosque in East Africa. Is it still running? Yes, good question. It is still running although not many members. It's too small." I guessed from his enthusiasm that it was a Sunni mosque.

We weren't interested in shopping having already bought gifts on the safari, so with a small hint from me he mercifully brushed us past the shop vendors stopping only to point out the oldest 'apartment' in Africa.

Thus the tour continued. Lauren and I struggled to keep up as our guide weaved us through main streets and back streets, occasionally pointing out something of interest. Yet strangely it didn't feel rushed at all. What was most interesting about the walk were the juxtapositioned cultures inhabiting tiny neighborhoods sometimes only one street apart. Colorful clothes hung next to black abayas across the street between houses and shirtless children played tag at the knees of fruit vendors. Covered women bartered for nuts while young girls in tribal outfits sat on stoops watching the day go by. Boys in white robes and traditional fez-like hats scurried to Islamic madrassas where they learned the teachings of the Q'uran on Saturday and Sunday - the off days of their Christian weekday schools. Almost like a multi-colored jigsaw puzzle, everything seemed to fit together in a peaceful and symbiotic universe dominated by one religion but accepting of others.

He took us to the old slave market consisting of two separate buildings - one for men and one for women - that today was a vibrant market for just about anything except slaves. Rounding one final corner, we were informed that our tour had come to an abrupt end and that our hotel was just a few hundred meters down the road. After giving our guide a hefty tip and not regretting a single pence, we thanked him and went our separate ways.

If you ever find yourself at Ft. Jesus in Mombasa, look for the guy with the coin in his ear. You won't be disappointed.

That night we took a mega-touristy but surprisingly enjoyable dhow dinner cruise that offered great food, a nighttime tour of the river, and interesting conversations with a South African couple and two British security risk specialists. It had been a long day that started on safari and ended on a dhow, so not long after returning to the hotel we were lost in dreams of where we would be the next day... Zanzibar.

Friday, November 6, 2009

November 6 - Tsavo East

Tsavo West and East are generally one big national park divided in half by the Nairobi-Mombasa highway (which coincidentally loosely follows the aforementioned railroad). Turning off the highway that morning, it wasn't long before we arrived at the gate to Tsavo East. I was very impressed with the Kenyan authorities with respect to registration of visitors and maintenance of the parks. Michael even confirmed that poaching was not a big issue anymore and that the park service was quite efficient.

I quickly realized that Tsavo East was going to be my favorite of the three parks. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the other two, it's just that Tsavo East was very green and savanna-like, not to mention full of animals. One gets the sense that, due to the vast amount of hiding spots, and the fact that visitors must stay on specific driving paths (this was the case for all parks - no more off roading), the animals here were just a bit more wild. Periodic hills of brown rock and greenery complemented the open savannas and strategically placed shade trees.

Since we had 'limited time' in his mind, Michael opened the top of our van so that the drive to the lodge would, in essence, be another game drive. We very much appreciated it partly because we got to see more animals but mostly because we slowly made our way through the park, soaking it all in.

Catching a glimpse of some buildings wedged into a hillside overlooking a vast landscape, I secretly prayed that this was Voi Safari Lodge, our destination. It was.

Not a wonderful lodge amenities/facilities-wise (it very much had a 1970s backpacker feel and was in need of some updates) and definitely not up to the Serena standard, Voi made up for all deficiencies with its glorious view. We immediately went swimming in the pool that sat just below the main buildings, which leads me to the #1 recommendation I have for Voi.

Dear Voi,
When you update the pool, please make it a negative edge pool. Oh, and there were a lot of flies, fyi. Thank you.
Kind regards,
Erol

We started our afternoon game drive a bit early hoping to catch as many animals as possible on what was to be our last outing. We were not disappointed. Less than 15 minutes into the drive we came upon a large family of elephants escaping the heat in a muddy pool of water. It had mercifully rained the past two nights so this family had come out to feast on the lush greens and cool down, turning their normally gray skin into an earthy brown. We stood in our vehicle for probably 10 minutes watching them play with and generally enjoy one another. All of this was happening less than 100 meters from us and I felt for a moment like I was witnessing a silent film that was created just for us and screened only once. Elephants are incredibly loving and expressive animals and I felt honored to have been a part of their afternoon fun - even though they probably had no idea we were even there. Later in the drive we were lucky enough to spot an elusive leopard hiding between two trees. The next day Michael told us that he was pretty sure we were the only folks in Kenya to see one that day.

That evening, back at Voi, Lauren and I hiked down to the viewing platform that had been built (although not well-maintained) for guests to get close up views of animals drinking at the watering holes situated at the bottom of the hill. Dinner was not as good as we had come to expect from the Serena lodges but, once again, the view made up for it. Lauren conned me into a post-dinner beer but being the old man I am it wasn't long before I crashed.

We found out the next morning that shortly after we went to bed a lion showed up at the watering hold and marked its territory by roaring loudly... thanks to my sleepiness we had missed it all! Doh!

Ratings for Voi Lodge and Tsavo East are:

Room amenities: 2 (bathroom was weak but view from the room was nice)
View from restaurant: 5
Staff: 3 (borderline non-existent except for the guy that Lauren kept tipping)
Animals in park: 5
Scenery in park: 4 (great, but not as stunning at Tsavo West)
Overall lodge quality: 3 (only this high because of the location)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5 - Tsavo West

The next day started with an early morning drive in Amboseli that afforded us the first opportunity to see Kilimanjaro's normally cloudy peak. Distinctly flat and surprisingly spread out, the peak and its supporting mountain, despite being Africa's highest point, reminded me more of a large hill. If you think all mountains should have a distinct and easily viewable pointed peak, Mt. Kili is not for you.

150 very bumpy kilometers later, we arrived at the Serena Kilanguni Lodge in Tsavo West National Park. Not having had the chance to do the same the day before, we took advantage of the early arrival to take a quick dip in the pool before lunch. Tsavo West, despite having the reputation among our fellow visitors for a dearth of animals, was Lauren's favorite park. True, we didn't see many animals other than some giraffes and elephants, but the landscape was what left us most in awe. Even on the drive in Michael stopped at a spot where as far as the eye could see in all directions was uneven black lava rock. Full of volcanic hills and mountain, Tsavo West was dramatic. Whereas Amboseli and Tsavo East are basically what you would expect on safari after watching the Lion King or Planet Earth, this place was one of bountiful greenery, never-ending hills, and stark visual contrasts of reds, browns, greens and blacks, all together painting as stunning picture.

Due to the draught, most of the animals had moved on to the East and we later encountered several disgruntled tourists who went looking for leopards and cheetahs on the rocks and came up empty-handed. This leads me to a fundamental lesson learned: when you go on safari, do not raise expectations beyond reasonable levels. We traveled to Kenya knowing that we would undoubtedly see some animals, but fought the urge to start a checklist. Instead, we breathed in the fresh air, gawked at the occasional animal and soaked in the marvelous surroundings of another one of God's monuments to himself. What animals you see is dependant on a whole host of external factors that have little to do with your tour. You will see what you're meant to see, so you might as well pull out the binoculars, focus the mega-zoom lens, and enjoy the ride.

Towards the beginning of our drive, Michael took us to Mzima Springs, the source of water for the surrounding area actually originating some 30km but coming together in this place to form a jungle-like oasis beaming with wildlife. Pete, a kalashnikov-wielding soldier in full camo gave us a tour. We think Michael came straight to Mzima because when we arrived there wasn't another tourist in sight. Well-maintained, Mzima Springs was home to crocodiles and hippos, among other birds and less harmful creatures. Lauren swears that hippos are the deadliest animals in Africa (Dirk confirms), but I'm not sure how something so fat and cuddly could be dangerous. Nonetheless, I kept my distance just in case.

During the walk we actually saw two smaller crocodiles, one before and one after the submarine viewing station halfway down the path. This sunken "booth" of sorts was reached by a short ladder that took you to a glass viewing area. From there we watched fish swim by and other underwater life. If was definitely amused when Pete and Lauren both spotted a submerged hippo not too far off, his head visible above water and body sitting down underwater. I'm not sure who was more excited about it really, although I'm pretty sure it was Pete.

Before heading in that evening Michael took us to the Mudanda Rock, a kilometer-long freak of nature on which for centuries locals have dried meat. Climbing to the top under Michael's very watchful eye (safaris don't usually involve leaving the vehicle... for good reason) we could see for miles around and felt, maybe just for a moment, like we were on top of the world.

Ratings for Tsavo West and the Serena Kilanguni Lodge are as follows:

Room amenities: 3.5 (it had everything, just not as nice as Amboseli and the mirror in the bathroom was not over the sink... big faux paus)
View form restaurant: 5
Staff: 4
Animals in park: 3 (not that many but the elephants, giraffes and pack of wild dogs were great)
Scenery in park: 5
Overall lodge quality: 4 (decent room, great food and good facilities outside the room)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November 4 - Amboseli

Michael was our driver and tour guide. A rather large man by Kenyan standards, his English was excellent and he seemed to know just about everything about wildlife. We ultimately chose Eastern and Southern for our safari because they came highly recommended from a friend, were incredibly flexible with our needs, and offered an individualized tour for what we thought was a very reasonable (under $2k for 2 people, 3 parks and 3 nights at top notch game lodges) all-inclusive price. We were not disappointed.

Our first morning was spent navigating the bumpy 5-hour road from Nairobi to Amboseli National Park. Located near the Tanzanian border and in the shadow of Africa's highest mountain (Mt. Kilimanjaro), Amboseli was a vast area of open land with little vegetation. At some points, especially near the entrance, I felt like I was back in the desert of Western Iraq (complete with mirages) until I saw a family of giraffes that would thankfully snap me back to the moment.

We made it to the Amboseli Serena Lodge by lunch and were able to gather ourselves before the afternoon 'game drive.'  Especially in the summer, animals tend to find shade and rest during the middle hours of the day, so guides generally take folks out in the early morning and evening.

Before the afternoon outing; however, Michael recommended visiting a local Maasai village. The Maasai are generally unwilling to have their pictures taken, so this would really be the only chance for us to capture on film, not to mention experience, the vibrant colors and fascinating culture of these nomadic peoples. We jumped at the opportunity.

Not far from our lodge, this village had obviously made the conscious decision to become a tourist attraction, charging visitors a nominal fee ($30) to spend an hour or two getting to know them. Benson, who proudly introduced himself as the son of the chief of the village, was our guide. Having been educated at a missionary school in Tanzania, he spoke beautiful English and gave us an hour-long tour of his village. When we entered through one of four gates to the village encircled by a makeshift fence to keep away predators, we were greeted by a line of villagers in the middle open space of the village. Benson explained that all visitors were treated to a traditional song and dance, men on the right and women on the left. At his insistence, we joined in, Lauren chanting and jumping forward hand in hand with a 20-something woman, and me holding a stick as I bent forward in rhythm with the other men.

"We are Christian," explained Benson after the crowd had dispersed to go back to the business of the day. "But we are also polygamists. You are not allowed to choose your first wife but you may choose the 2nd, 3rd, etc."

I wasn't entirely sure how that all worked, but I guess if the Mormons can do it so can the Maasai. The village was divided into four parts, each for one of the four families that lived there. They pretty much only eat goat and cow meat, which probably explains why they were so thin, but the drought had unfortunately killed 120 cows this year so some of their food was subsidized by humanitarian NGOs. During the day the adolescent boys, identified by their black outfits as opposed to the normal vibrant reds and blues and known as the Junior Warriors, would take the communal animals out to graze, returning in the afternoon to put them safely in pens (for the smaller animals) or out in the middle of the village. Sure enough, throughout the course of our visit some of them did return and followed us around, probably unaccustomed to seeing younger muzungus (white people).

Our next stop was to watch the elders play a game I immediately recognized as Mancala, a game I had played in my childhood and a favorite of my cousins in Texas.

"They normally gamble, but this time is just for fun."

Two small stools were brought for us and Benson gave us a rundown of Maasai herbal remedies. There was the tree to cure malaria; boil the branch into a tea, drink, and proceed to vomit for four hours. When you start to see something green, the malaria would be out. No one in his village had ever died from malaria. Then there was the branch, also boiled, for stomach ailments that would give you the runs for four hours after which you'd be cured (and probably a little weak). Lastly, there was the 'Maasai Viagra' used not surprisingly for older men with multiple wives.

"Not for men with one wife," Benson half-joked. "That's considered a punishment for them."

According to Benson, the village had one 'doctor' who had also received an education in Tanzania, and the nearby game lodges assisted with an emergency needs; usually only necessary when some sort of surgery was required.

Despite seeming permanent to us, this village was actually not. These are a nomadic people and periodically they would destroy everything and start over at the base of Kilimanjaro. The mud houses would be taken down and only the most valuable things would be carried by the men and women on their backs to the new location.

Next on the agenda was a fire demonstration. Apparently, elephant dung is full of flammable fibres in addition to a lovely stench, so each morning a small group of men would collect a chunk and start a fire that would then be used by all the women for cooking in their respective domiciles. Holding a circular stick in his hands, one man would rapidly twist it between his hands until the heat from the friction became unbearable. At this point his buddy would take over and the process would continue until, alas, a small spark would light the dung and branches.

"How do you call it? Shit or dung?"

Dung is fine, Benson, there is a lady present, I said, only to be pinched by Lauren. We walked around the small village - around 200 people total lived there - until arriving at Benson's mother's house.

"Watch your head and shoulders," he warned me, "we Maasai aren't as big as you white people."

After winding through a small entryway, we arrived in the living room/dining room, off of which were two holes big enough for two beds. the entire space couldn't have been more than 50 sq ft. and kind of made my small DC apartment look like the Taj Mahal. Generally, the father and mother would sleep in one bed, basically an elevated wooden platform on which were placed overlaid thin leather skins, while the children would sleep in the other bed. At a certain age, the boys would have to leave the house, take a wife, and build a new home. It was a simple place, but apparently adequate for a people that spent almost every waking minute outside. A small fire pit in the middle completed the hut and small holes in the walls and roof served as makeshift chimneys.

Not wanted to be rude and resigning to the fact that we were tourists (*gasp*), we browsed the obligatory assortment of arts and crafts set up by the villagers and obligatorily overpaid for several really neat knickknacks.

"Would you like to see our school?" Benson offered after we had emptied our pockets.

Sure!

The small schoolhouse was just a few hundred meters from the village and was the only one in the area, serving several groups of children in staggered lessons from the surrounding villages. The building also served as the storage place for rice and other food sacks provided by the World Food Program. The drought this year had affected most Kenyans, and these Maasai were no exceptions, losing many animals due to lack of water and the resulting lack of vegetation. Classes in English and Swahili (the Maasai speak their own, unique tribal language) were combined with basic math and science, offering many of these children the only opportunity they had to learn anything outside traditional Maasai culture. Probably hoping to elicit sympathy (read: donations), the village children duly sat in their chairs for us while the teachers, of which Benson was one, told us about the school. We then signed the guestbook and rejoined Michael out by the car, thanking Benson for his hospitality and Michael for bringing us.

We hadn't even been on a single game drive and the safari had already exceeded all of my expectations.

That evening, after a stunning sunset at the tail end of our game drive, Lauren and I plopped down on the patio at the lodge to enjoy a cold bottle of Tusker (a Kenyan lager) before dinner. As we chatted about the eventful day, including the sighting of two sleepy mating lions, an elephant decided to join us. Marching up the slope in the methodic steps less than 50 meters from us, the gentle giant seemed not to care or notice that a lodge full of people were gaping at her, no doubt wondering, like I was, on what planet they had landed.

On a scale of 1 to 5 - 1 being 'meh'and 5 being 'fantabulous,' Amboseli and the Serena Amboseli rates as follows:

Room amenities: 5
View from restaurant: 2
Staff: 5 (including several Maasai hosts to answer any questions)
Animals in park: 5 (known for big game, we saw many many many many animals in Amboseli)
Scenery in park: 2 (flat, semi-desert in places, good for seeing animals but boring for the most part - good views of Mt. Kilimanjaro if the clouds cooperate)
Overall lodge quality: 5 (top notch food, rooms, service and amenities)

Safari Animals

Below is an incomplete list of animals, in no particular order, seen during our 3 day safari in Kenya and documented in photos - incomplete because there were surely animals that we saw that we didn't even know we saw.. Some of them can be seen here, although not all of them were particularly good photos so you'll have to live with just a description. If you're really interested in the pictures of the ones not posted either email me or visit www.google.com. 

Many thanks to the 'National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife' and my colleague Dirk for helping identify the animals in the photos.

Impala: You can see where Chevy got the inspiration with these slick and graceful beasts that usually travel in groups. Also, apparently they taste bad so lions don't like to eat them.

Zebra: You know you're on safari when seeing a zebra becomes routine and not even worth stopping for a picture after a while.

Elephant: We saw lots of these and doing so never got old. Majestic and oddly graceful, their personalities were readily apparent. They usually travel in families and are colored based on the color of the water - i.e. clear water means the local elephants will be grey, muddy water they're brown. Probably one of the best moments of the entire safari was in Tsavo East where we witnessed an entire family of elephants (including babies) playing and cooling off in a mud hole after a rain.

Wildebeest: These poor guys definitely got the short end of the stick with regards to looks.

Baboon: 'Please do not feed the baboons' signs were all over the game lodges, apparently because these naked-bottomed mammals are not shy and will definitely be a nuisance if given the opportunity. They can also be dangerous thanks to sharp teeth.

Egyptian Goose: Not sure what they were doing in Kenya, but these white and red feathered birds enjoyed being close to water.

Water buffalo: Cheers to Sally, proud sponsor of her very own water buffalo through Heifer International. We saw many male and female water buffalos, but by far the most interesting time was in Tsavo East when an entire herd crossed the road in front of our van.

Sacred ibis: Tall bird with black head and tail.

Lion: Michael told us that lions mate every 15 minutes for 7 days straight. Perhaps they were tired when we saw them (or more likely the male was pretty old), but we did watch a male and female sleeping in the shade of a shrub a mere 50 ft from us in Amboseli. We caught sight of another female one of these elusive creatures in Tsavo East, just returning from a bath.

Buzzard: Easily confused with an eagle (they actually look very similar), these guys had lots of work to do in Amboseli because, due to the drought plaguing Kenya at the time, carcasses abounded.

Grey crowned crane: Caught one of these feeding next to a herd of elephants and water buffalo.

Ostrich: Awkward and feather-filled, just as you learned in elementary school.

Yellow-billed egret: Saw him hanging out with his friends the sacred ibises.

Hippopotamus: We saw some half-submerged in the semi-swamps of Amboseli, but the most unique sighting was at Mzima Springs in Tsavo West where we saw the outline of a huge hippo underwater via a submerged viewing platform that felt like something straight out of the Dharma Initiative.

Black-backed jackal: Sorry buddy, Lauren says there's nothing special about you.

Hyena: Brutish looking with long necks, we unfortunately didn't hear them laugh but did mistake a sleeping one for a lion once... not sure how that happened.

Secretary bird: Mangy looking with a funny hairdo.

Warthog: Hanging out near the elephants, these guys put on a big show for us by stopping to poop.

Thomson's gazelle: Strikingly similar to the impala and no less graceful.

Greater kudus: Stopped to pose for us but unfortunately didn't come out too clear in the photos thanks to the lack of auto-focus compatibility between my camera base and monster lens. I guess it's just an excuse to get a new camera!

Giraffe: Definitely striking, these regal animals were "probably my favorites" according to Lauren. Unlike Zebras, every giraffe sighting warranted a stop, some photos and more than a couple oos and ahs.

Water buck: Antelope family, nothing too special really. We saw quite a few of them and the females have beards whereas the men don't.

Red-headed agama: Lauren had a blast trying to watch the male mate the female but, according to Lauren, he could just never close the deal. Oh, and this all took place over lunch at the Serena Kilanguni Lodge in Tsavo West. These little showoffs (they do pushups when in the presence of a female) also made an appearance at the Voi Lodge in Tsavo East.

Dik-dik: Mini deer of sorts, these guys were very close to winning the 'cutest animal of the safari' award.

Rock hyrax: One of Voi Lodge's bars in the Hyrax Bar; and for good reason. We saw this friendly little guy hanging out on the wall right outside the entrance to the bar after lunch but decided against petting him for fear of rabies.

Hartebeest: Not as ugly as its wilde' cousin, this guy is easily confused with a water buck.

Crocodile: Mizima Springs in Tsavo West provided us the opportunity to see two of these deadly guys. One was a baby resting on a log by a creek and the other was, much to the surprised of our Kalashnikov-wielding guide through Mzima, an adolescent waiting on a crocodile viewing platform for the next unsuspecting tourist (luckily not us).

Spectacled weaver: Little yellow birds that build their nests on far-flung branches to protect their young from snakes.

Reichenow's weaver: The cousins of the spectacled weaver, also yellow and small, joined us for dinner at the Kilanguni Lodge in Tsavo West.

Greater blue-eared starling: Also viewed from our primo table at the lodge in Tsavo West.

Leopard: Veteran safari-ers, of whom we saw many - including the guides, always talk about seeing the elusive 'big cats.' Often people won't consider the safari a success unless they get to see a lion, leopard or cheetah. If they're very hardcore they'll be disappointed if they don't see them all. Lauren and I carried none of these yearnings, and by the third day we had seen many animals (including lions) and experienced the beauty and grandeur of three of Kenya's great national parks. On a 3-day safari - considered rushed by most although I'm not sure how many days in a row I can stand looking at animals - it was unlikely we'd see the other 2 big cats (we had seen a lion); so it was a huge surprise when I spotted a leopard resting in the shade of two trees. STOP! I told Michaels who had, for the first time all safari missed an animal. What is that?

"That, my friend, is a leopard!" He immediately got on the short wave radio to inform other guides of the spotting. I very much like this practice of sharing despite being with competing companies; everyone wants everyone else to have a wonderful safari. Unfortunately for the others, our leopard only stuck around for a couple of minutes and, before anyone else could see her, she vanished into the depths of Tsavo East. According to Michael, who ate dinner with the other guides and continuously monitored the radio, we were the only people in Kenya that day to see a Leopard!

"You got a picture, right Erol?" Michael said trying hard to mask his excitement.

Yes, sir. Indeed I did.

African wild dog: If Michael was giddy over seeing the notoriously reclusive leopard, he was terrified when we came upon a pack of African wild dogs playing and bathing in a shallow mud pool. Apparently these deceptively cute, and also difficult to see in the wild, animals would attack and eat anything, from lions to the tires of vans like ours. Luckily this bunch didn't seem to care we were there and after a few photos we went on our merry way.

Helmeted guineafowl: Caught trying to hide in the brush but they were no match for Michael!

Marabou stork: Captured on film at the semi-arid entrance to Tsavo East, this guy looked like every cartoon vulture I've ever seen. Apparently he was a stork though.

Black-headed heron: This one's for you Baba!

Bushbuck: This male decided to pose for us nicely, not concerned one bit about the noise of the van.

Kori bustard: Despite the unfortunate name, this bird had some very interesting spots just on the bottom front side of its wings.

Savanna monitor lizard: This mini-crocodile-looking lizard definitely wins the award for best animal walk, which was a cross between a waddle and a saunter, all the while moving his money-maker from side to side.

Ground hornbill: Dirk let out a gasp when he saw this picture. Apparently his girlfriend had spent 3 years bird watching and had only last month seen one of these birds in the wild. I told him not to tell her we saw it and didn't even know what we were looking at... it might upset her.

Oxpecker: A crucial part of the ecological system, this bird eats ticks off the skin of large animals like buffalos.

Cattle egret: Small but thin white bird caught hanging out with a hippo.

41 one animals in all, which is undoubtedly less than what we actually saw but all that was easily identified on film.

November 4 - Nairobi

If possible, the drive to the airport the next morning was more harrowing than the night before. Needing to drop off our vehicle at the arrivals terminal, we had arranged for Eastern and Southern to pick us up for our safari at 8am. They, we found out after finally making it, had left before 7am, knowing that traffic after 7:30am in Nairobi is terrible. We left the hotel at 7:27.

Relying on Lauren's Blackberry to provide directions, we immediately got stuck in traffic. However, this traffic was different than the night before because her phone had decided it would be more fun to take us through the center of Nairobi instead of the larger outskirt roads we knew from before. All the usual suspects were there - mini buses, pedestrians, potholes - but somehow the morning produced more of each and my hands soon bore indentations from the streering wheel.

Nairobi is a relatively young city, compared with other areas in what was probably the cradle of cizilization. When the British arrived in Kenya in the late 19th century they began building a railroad from the coast (Mombasa) inland, ostensibly to give them better access to the jungles of Uganda. In any case, the Brits imported thousands of laborers from what was then Punjab (India and parts of Pakistan today) to build the railroad since the natives did not have the skills and familiarities with tools to do the job. Braving man-eating lions, disease and other joys of rural Kenya, the work on the railroad eventually resulted in the settlement of many sub-continentals in a location that would later become Nairobi. Today the Indian culture is still visible although the city - which later became Kenya's capital after Jomo Kenyatta liberated it from British colonial rule - is dominated by native Kenyans who moved to the city and, at some point, converted to Christianity.

Somewhere during this story of Nairobi, someone thought it would be a good idea to place traffic circles every 200m. He or she was wrong. These circles quickly became the bain of my driving experience and more than once a blind guess as to which 'exit' to take miraculously resulted in us still being on the correct road.

Finally though, our luck ran out and, after 10 minutes of hoping we were on the right road, we were a bit lost.

"Oh the airport?" said the nice man in a suit at a gas station. "You are a bit lost."

He was right, but luckily his directions were spot on (especially his note about looking for the elephants... but not real elephants) and we rolled into the airport less than 30 minutes late.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November 3 - Nairobi

"I'm sorry sir, your car is not here yet. I don't know where it is and the driver won't pick up his phone."

But I reserved it 3 weeks ago... nevermind. Do you have any vehicles available?

"We have a 4x4 for $169. Or, if you'd like, we can ask them if they have one," the tall woman in the Budget Rent-a-Car office said as she pointed to the next office over. I had completely missed this other office on the way in because, having arrived an hour earlier from Dubai, it had taken quite a while for our bags to arrive and we were losing daylight fast.
  1. I didn't want to drive in rush hour Nairobi traffic - on the wrong side of the road mind you - for the first time in the dark.
  2. We had an appointment to see Tano - the baby elephant that Lauren and I sponsored in honor of my nephew Josh - in an hour and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (Tano's home) was at least 45 minutes away without traffic.
Fine. I'll take the $169 one. You said it was ready right now... right?

"Yes, but their car is only $70. Don't you think that's a better deal?"

Thoroughly confused by now as to why Budget would be sending me to a competitor and more than a little skeptical about said competitor, I did what any irrational human being would've thought was completely normal.

I'll take the $70 one.

10 minutes later we were sputtering away in a white Toyota Corolla which I'm pretty sure was somebody's brother's car they had borrowed to make a little cash. Nevermind that though - or the suspicious-looking canvas bag in the back window - the car seemed to run and we would certainly blend in with the crowd. Nairobi is not quite known for its vast array of luxury cars apparently, and after having been driven from the hotel to the Dubai airport in a Lexus, this was quite a change.

A few u-turns after leaving the airport, I noticed something funny. Either the gas gauge was broken or we had no fuel; as in, I didn't know the dial could physically go that far past the 'E.' $40 later, courtesy of a fortuitous Shell station sighting, it became apparent that whoever it was's brother hadn't put gas in his car in quite a while.

I learned very quickly that, despite being on the opposite side of the road, driving in Nairobi was a lot like driving in Istanbul. If one simply followed several rules, one would be just fine:
  1. Never show fear. As a matter of fact, don't even look at your fellow drivers to give them the impression you're not paying attention. Sunglasses help with this allusion;
  2. If your bumper is in front of his bumper, you have the right-of-way;
  3. Red lights are merely suggestions;
  4. Mini buses will stop unexpectedly in any lane at any time. We were told later that these bus drivers have to get ~3000 paying customers per day just to break even;
  5. It's like a video game, except that if you hit a pedestrian 'Game Over - Insert Coin' is the least of your worries.
The traffic was predictably miserable and very soon we were in fully stopped traffic. Nonetheless, miraculously we inched our way to the wildlife trust mere minutes before sundown and, at long last, met Tano!

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was impressive. Although we spent less than an hour there, it was obvious that the animals were well-taken-care-of and the folks working there truly cared. Tano, a 6-month-old orphan elephant, lived in a spacious pen along with her 24/7 caretaker. This man, who's name I sadly could not pronounce and can't remember, was obviously a huge part of Tano's life. As we petted the tough skin and sparse hair on her head, she clung with her trunk to her caretaker's leg, glancing up at us occasionally through wary eyes. Finally, perhaps sensing that we had come in peace, she released his leg and 'shook' Lauren's hand with her trunk in a moment that made the entire trip worth it.

Back out in the parking lot, Lauren and I were preparing for our next adventure - finding our hotel in the dark - when a tall, nice looking man approached us.

"Are you going into town? if so, would you mind if I rode with you?"

Murderer? Con artist?

Sure, I said, hop in. I think I was led to give a ride to this complete stranger because in his hand was a $1000 camera and an even more expensive lens.

"Thank you so much. My name is Mudiari and I'm a photographer for the Daily Nation. It would've taken me forever to get back to the office by bus at this time of night. Here's my card."

It turns out that Stephen Mudiari was indeed a professional photographer on assignment for Kenya's largest daily to do interest pieces in the run up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He had been selected as one of only six people to have this honor. So what brought him out to the Trust?

"I had heard that the baby elephants play football and I had to come see for myself."

So... do they?

"As a matter of fact, they do!"

Mudiari was actually not a big football (soccer) fan, but had been selected to cover the event nonetheless next summer. I noted that not being a fan probably made him a better, more focused photographer. Not caring about the match he would be able to stay glued to the camera even in the most exciting moments.

We agreed that we would drop him off at our hotel which served a dual purpose: he would get a ride into town and we would get our own personal guide. Unfortunately, upon arriving at our hotel we found out that our reservation had been changed to another hotel without our knowledge because construction had closed several Sarova Panafric rooms - including ours. T.I.A. - this is Africa.

Deciding that food was first priority at this point, we ate at the Panafric then set out on yet another - mercifully our last of the night - adventure. Of course, it took us about 5 minutes to get lost despite the 'simple' directions and assurances from the Panafric front desk person that it was very easy to find. He was wrong, but eventually we did find Hotel Jacaranda, a nice, quiet place with clean rooms and mosquito net under which we were soon asleep.

Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2 - Dubai

We began the day at a hospital and almost ended at a police station. Not satisfied with an extravagant shopping experience that satiates the average tourist in Dubai, Lauren and I decided to go on a ‘desert safari’ – not too outlandish (as was evident by the multitude of other visitors there) but unique in our own, unforgettable way.

The day started as most often do not, with a quick trip to Dubai’s (hopefully not) finest public hospital. Arriving at a vehicle gate – the only entrance I could see without a padlock on it – we found a couple of bored-looking security guards, to whom I promptly made the hand signal commonly used for “I need a vaccine” before awkwardly realizing that they spoke English.

I need a vaccine, where do I go?

“Follow the road then turn right.”

The ‘hospital’ was essentially a series of white, one-story buildings that had obviously seen better days. Overgrown foliage everywhere, especially on what seemed to be a playground in the distant past, didn’t help the picture. Finally we found the ‘Travelers Clinic,” from where I would be inoculated and, lo and behold, yellow fever was injected into my system.

After the hospital, we walked back to the hotel through a neighborhood that probably could’ve just have easily been in Mumbai. Dubai is basically an extension of India with a few Arabs – distinctly dressed in white robes to differentiate themselves from the proletariat – scattered about to periodically remind you that you’re still in the Middle East.

For those that have an urge to experience Arab culture in Dubai, the hotel (and no doubt Lonely Planet ‘experts’) recommended the spice and gold souks just down the road. Unfortunately, even in November, the walk along the Dubai Creek from the hotel to the markets was borderline oppressively hot, leaving yours truly in a not-so-happy mood. Add to that the fact that the souk was child’s play compared to Istanbul’s – even Ankara’s – markets… Lauren and I decided to return to the Radisson to enjoy one of their 14 (no joke) restaurants.

Some very tasty/pricey Chinese food later, it was time to be picked up for the first of two ‘safaris’ we would take on this vacation. This one appropriately has the word ‘desert’ attached to the front and, before long, Lauren and I were weaving through afternoon Dubai traffic courtesy of our, you guessed it, Indian tour guide/driver. The Land Cruiser was thankfully equipped with AC and copious amounts of Michael Jackson throwbacks, not to mention a decorative Toyota hood ornament that probably was not standard issue. Crammed into the very back of the car, Lauren promptly fell asleep while I feared for our lives, all the while waving to drivers that my new young Indian friend had just cut off.

Finally we arrived at the turnoff point to the middle of no where.

“Please seat belt.”

No problemo chief.

After some discussion, Lauren and I decided that our fellow three passengers were friends of the driver. Unfortunately it’s hard to know for sure because we were summarily ignored (not that I’m complaining about that part) and, alas, do not speak Hindi. In any case, it was time for our guide to put on his proverbial cape and take us on a ride we would never forget.

Dune-bashing, as it is called, consists of the driver driving skillfully (or recklessly) over a series of sand dunes, giving the passengers a roller-coaster-like experience, complete with grabbing anything you can and a nagging sense of nausea. Finally, the bashing ceased inexplicably in the middle of a circle of dunes; it was time for pictures and/or catching one’s breath. For me, it was time to actively keep my fried rice in my stomach where it belonged.

Done with our first bout of maniacal driving, we were dropped off at what appeared to be a cross between a desert zoo and luna park, except that bumper cars were replaced with four-wheelers and the main attraction was an understandably irate camel.

Our driver lowered the air in the tires, apparently to give us more traction in the sand, and we were off again. We had been told that the evening would eventually end in dinner at a Bedouin camp in the middle of the desert, but to get there we would have to bash some more dunes. Don’t get me wrong, I was simultaneously impressed and thrilled by the experience that was, I must say, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Those of you that know me know that roller coasters aren’t my favorite pastime, but this was a separate experience altogether – not for the faint of heart and definitely not for children.

After a quick stop to catch the setting sun across the vast expanse of sand (Lauren’s question: are there more grains of sand on the earth that stars in the sky? Think about it…), we met up with another Ibex Travel Land Cruiser and continued our quest.

It was about that time that our experience became a little more interesting. The techniques used by our driver, skillful though they may have been, had seemed to us a bit reckless the entire trip. Whether to impress his friends or give the white people in the back the time of our lives, I sensed that therewas a fine line between thrill and danger. As he approached a steep incline sideways, the car in front deftly angled the hood towards the sky, in essence skidding the vehicle along until it found more level ground. Our driver attempted the same feat, but half way through we felt the left two tires slowly lift off the ground…

Here we go, was all I managed to murmur as our bodies strained against the seat belt, the car first turning over onto its roof then continuing the roll down the hill, ultimately coming to rest right-side up after sliding a few more feet at an awkward angle.

I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Luckily everyone was fine and Lauren immediately reveled in the fact that not many people would’ve had the experience of rolling over in a car in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. I agreed, but also wondered if I’d get my money back.

The car was eventually dislodged from its resting place by the more experienced driver (our young guy was visibly shaken) and we got back in to continue on. Unfortunately for all, this didn’t last long as something was obviously very wrong with one of the tires, not to mention the spider-webbed windshield that threatened to shatter at any moment. Funny how that happens after a wreck…

This leads us to the Al Madam Police Station. The following bit is entirely my guess as to what happened since my Arabic seemed to be the strongest out of all the passengers and our driver was having trouble lifting his chin off his chest long enough to translate. My guess is that we had come to this desert outpost so that we could all file witness statements as part of the police report needed for insurance purposes. One by one we all stumbled through giving our names (translating Lauren into Arabic was fun), birthdates, etc. to the not-so-amused officer obviously annoyed by the interruption to his people watching activities.

In any case, after the near hour-long detour, we re-started our journey to the elusive desert oasis hungry, amused, and wearing our seat belts. We had switched cars but kept our driver who seemed to be slightly more cautious although still prone to weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds. I guess some people never learn.

The night finally ended with a tasty and touristy dinner preceded by some henna for Lauren and followed by a performance by an angular and slightly manly faced, albeit talented, belly dancer. Needless to say, the first day of our two week trip had been interesting and we were very glad to be back at the hotel later that night.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Babylon

Babylon means different things to different people. To the writers of HBO's 'Carnivale' it was the holy grail, the place where good and evil would finally meet and have one last epic battle. To Biblical scholars, the land of the Babylonians (otherwise known as Babel) contained a massive tower housing thousands of people who, thanks to an ongoing bout of irreverence to God, spoke in a confusing mix of unintelligible dialects. To those of you with proverbial green thumbs... well, I bet you think the Hanging Gardens are pretty neat.



To Iraqis, the story of Babylon is an all too familiar one of former glory marred by poor decision making and megalomania. An archeologist's paradise, the actual ancient city of Babylon is vast - no less than 2 square kilometers - and contains who-knows-how-many undiscovered keys to understanding a civilization that roamed these same streets some 25,000 years ago. Like most of Iraq, the area around the site is very flat and arid; but once you enter the vicinity of what used to be King Nimrod's (the founder of the city) stomping grounds, hills abound. Apparently these hills, a natural by-product of centuries of neglect, cover up the markets, homes, and bath houses of the old city. Unfortunately, western archeologists don't exactly have full access to the site due to a number of complications (the existence of more weapons per capita in Iraq than any country in the world plays a minor part), so it might be some time before we see what's really there.

Now to the aforementioned megalomaniac. It's no secret that Saddam Hussein liked himself... a lot. Unfortunately for for the ancient city of Babylon, he saw himself as just another ruler in a long line of great kings of Babylon, and in 1983 he set out to make his mark. He decided to try and 'reconstruct' the old city by building new walls and temples on top of the old ones. One of the many problems with this, not withstanding how wrong that is morally even to a non-archeologist like myself, was that he used very poor construction methods. Instead of using mud bricks like the ancients did, he used concrete and fired bricks that, less than 30 years later, are already starting to crumble under the extreme temperatures of southern Iraq. In a tragic final twist, the weight of Saddam's bricks - many of them labeled "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq" - are crushing the ancient edifices below.

Nonetheless, the site is fascinating. Knowing that I was walking on stones that have been there since the beginning of recorded history made me pause more than once. I had managed to sneak my way onto a heavily guarded excursion with a State Department consultant by posing as a photographer (I'm sure they would've let me on anyways but it sounds more daring if I make you believe my cunning wit played a part), but here I was just staring at a blank wall, wondering whose blood had been spilled there thousands of years ago and for whose wedding was the place adorned with decorations. It felt somewhat similar to climbing through the caves of Cappadocia or admiring the library at Ephesus; but somehow this was different. Visually, earth tones rule in Babylon, the marble of Turkey's ruins replaced by dust colored bricks with dried mud sealant. Emotionally, a sense of hope for the future preservation of this wonderful place won out over the heavy sorrow caused by Saddam's short-sightedness.


As with most things in Iraq, personalities dictate reality. In some cases this leads to much-needed inter-sectarian dialogue, interstate commerce, etc.; in this case it has led to inactivity. Despite having a staff of 100 people who desperately hold on to the memories of the last Babylon Festival that happened over 10 years ago (giving new meaning to Prince's song about partying in 1999), the ruins of Babylon continue to be heavily guarded yet not visited by tourists of any kind (I'm sure the Japanese would be there in a heartbeat if they could), not to mention littered with bottles, petrified Coke cans and a strong stench of guano.

That's right, bat you-know-what. This delight to the senses was most profound when we were, at one point in the walkabout, shuffled down a flight of stairs to where the German archeologists who first excavated Babylon believed (apparently with little scientific backup) is the foundation for the Hanging Gardens. Breathing through my mouth to avoid passing out, I couldn't help but think of the thousands of other things this place-that-looks-oddly-like-an-underground-warehouse-for-lemons could be.


Finally, as the sun set over one of Saddam's many palaces on an artificial hill, it was time to go home. Walking back to the armored 'sub' (as some affectionately call our monstrous Chevy Suburbans), I took one last quick glance over my shoulder at Saddam's personal playground on top of one of the ancient wonders of the world, wondering what it would've looked like 20,000 years ago.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Preparing for Life as a Retiree

Yesterday I turned on my television and, for some strange reason, the satellite opened to Turner Classic Movies. Now I'm a big fan of movies, but HD is usually preferable to Technicolor in my book. For some reason, I couldn't change the channel. It might've been that I needed to switch out the batteries in the remote control, but I think it had more to do with the fact that I was enthralled by the powerful primary colors, fake backgrounds, and scenes of 19th century high society (riverboats, etc). After watching the epic "How the West was Won" (1962) last night (in case you were wondering, it was railroad that won the west), I woke up this morning, still in last night's trance, to "Billy Rose's Jumbo" (1962). Here are some thoughts on my journey down pre-memory lane:
  • The women in these movies are stunningly beautiful, akin to porcelain dolls, albeit surprisingly similar in appearance to one another.
  • Every movie made before I was born seems to have been a musical, something distinctively lacking in today's flicks. Now I know where Bollywood got the idea.
  • British accents were synonymous with sophistication even in the days of yore.
  • Butt chins were acceptable and made the manly men even manlier.
  • Horses featured prominently in every movie.
  • Kissing sequences never lasted less than 5 minutes, were always accompanied by sweeping strings, and rarely involved anything other than the actor/actress locking lips at extremely awkward neck angles for excruciatingly long amounts of time.
  • "Special effects" are almost more special when you realize that they were accomplished before the advent of computers.
  • Any given group of Native Americans ("Indians") had vocabularies eerily similar to a pack of hyenas.
  • Did life exist before computers?
I have to note that Billy Rose's Jumbo was particularly entertaining at the end. If you haven't guessed by now, it's about a circus and contains all the normal mid-century drama: love found, love lost, rags to riches to rags to riches, love found again. The fun thing about BR's J (as a gen. next-er I feel the need to abbreviate everything) was that after the final plot resolution (read: love found again) the movie extended for several more minutes on a colorful dance/circus/song master performance that made me want to dust off my old clown nose, train an elephant on my upcoming trip to Kenya and join a mid-western circus circa 1934.

Anyone care to join?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

We're Everywhere

I was walking to dinner last night with Ahmed, talking about something generally inconsequential, when I bumped into one of our security guards wearing a Texas Longhorns t-shirt. Yes, I still live in Iraq and no, I couldn't communicate with him well enough to know where in God's name he got the t-shirt - I guess that part will always be a mystery.

To all you non-Longhorns out there: we're everywhere.
To all you Longhorns out there: Hook'em!

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11

I'm not sure why 9/11 was more significant for me this year. Perhaps it's because this afternoon I re-watched the entire NBC coverage from that fateful day; or perhaps it's because I find myself in a place haunted by the violence that was, at least indirectly, a result of those plane crashes.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of not only the victims of 9/11, but to all folks negatively affected by, as the History Channel calls it, the 10 minutes that changed the world.

Below is a short piece I wrote after being a part of what happened at the University of Texas on the evening of September 11, 2001.

-----------

Never before have I seen so much love, so much hurt. Never before have I seen a group of strangers come so close. Each holding a candle, each lost in his/her own thoughts, each student feeling the weight of the red, white and blue ribbon they wore. In such a huge school with such a wide variety of students, everyone became American, at least for that one hour on the South Mall this evening. The speakers spoke of unity, of sorrow, and of tragedy; they spoke of a small group of criminals responsible for the massacre, not of a whole race or religion bound to destroy the United States. They spoke of rebuilding the country and of carrying on as a nation. They needn't have spoken, for the unspoken feelings lay in the hearts of every person there; in the gestures, the hugs given to strangers, the tears shed for people far away. 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound' of a crowd so far away united in song; united in more than a song, united in purpose; united in more than purpose, united through compassion. The ceremony done, no one moves, no one speaks. Far off to the side of the crowd, a small female voice sings the only thing on her heart, singing also straight to the heart of everyone there resulting in the chorus of people joined in our nation's anthem which softly echoed throughout campus. 'And the home of the brave…' Not a sound was made, not a pin was dropped, we weren't ready to leave yet. A glow began to rise from the steps in front of the great Tower, normally the symbol of its students, tonight a symbol of the nation. A glow began from the steps, a glow from the candles placed on these steps. Each candle left behind was a piece of the heart of he/she who laid it there. Those who prayed took a knee, those who said they were sorry placed their candle down in a moment of silence. Each one, flickering in the wind on this faultlessly clear night, signifies the people of this nation amidst its tragedy, for as the wax burned low and the wicks fused together, a unit of fire was created, a unit commemorating those who died this day. Slowly the crowd dispersed in silent contemplation, leaving the stairs to burn still, to send a silent message, to hold onto the hope that seems so distant.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ol' Blue Eyes and Gettin' Hitched Pakistani Style

Every day I'm in Iraq I try to see my life through a novelist's lens, narrating my own story as if someone somewhere would someday be interested. I do this even though I know full well that the only person who would be interested in the mundane details of life in Hilla's fanciest prison would be, God bless her, my mother.

Today was no exception. Well, that is until I downloaded the latest This American Life podcast and lost myself on the elliptical. 55 minutes and 5 miles later, I was so proud of myself that I went back to my room, threw on some Frank Sinatra (check out the Aug 28 edition of TAL to understand why), and contemplated blogging about my new found secret to conquering the most boring exercise machine ever invented. Alas, I decided that such a story would only interest a slightly larger audience than my mother... so I told Lauren and decided not to blog.

Then dinner happen. As I've mentioned before, dinner is usually nothing special unless Mohammed the cook decides to make banana bread. During Ramadan I make a point to eat when Ahmed, my Pakistani colleague, is able to break his fast each evening - usually around 6:30pm.

The conversation started as it usually does, griping about this or that, complaining about or praising the food, and listening to our security folks tell Chuck Norris jokes (favorites of the day include: when your shadow falls Chuck Norris picks it up for you, and Chuck Norris is so fast he can run around the world and punch himself in the back of the head). Ahmed seemed quiet and a bit down, so I brought up the one subject I knew would cheer him up: his family.

So, Ahmed, did you and your wife have a choice of whether or not to marry one another? (Before you judge me for any perceived insensitivity, know that I already knew his married had been arranged.)

"Actually... sort of."

Sort of? What do you mean?

"Well, as you know it was my sister who arranged the whole thing with the girl's aunt. She (the girl) was 17 at the time, about to be 18. I had nothing to do with it at first."

How old were you?

"29."

Wait, so you're telling me that the girl i.e. your future wife and you never met before the wedding?

"Not exactly. You see, mine was a special case; I was actually able to see her a couple of times before our wedding day, but we were not allowed to communicate. Her family is pretty conservative but mine is generally not to strict on these things."

(At this point I'm not pursuing this line of questioning because I'm trying to make him feel better; I'm truly intrigued.) Ok, so what were the mechanics of this? Your sister and her aunt met and decided for you if it was going to be a good fit? I thought you said you hadn't communicated with...?

"Let me explain this to you Erol. Arranged marriages in Pakistan typically do not allow for the bride and groom to even see each other before after the marriage is signed, sealed and delivered. I was lucky. When the possibility was first brought up her aunt came over to the house and, together with my sister, they told me about this 17 year old girl in the aunt's family that would work perfectly. You see, we had gone through this process several times already. The aunt was actually the sister of one of my colleagues at USAID and had been asked to help find a wife for me. When the previous few tries didn't go so well, she finally thought about her niece - a little young but still a wonderful girl. 'Ok,' I said, 'I'll think about it but I want to see her picture.' After seeing her picture I still wasn't convinced. 'I want to see her in person.'

"So it was arranged. She came over with her aunt and sat in the drawing room of my house and I was able to see her for the first time."

Wait, so she came over, sat on your couch, drank your tea, and you didn't even exchange pleasantries?

"That's right. We were introduced as I came into the room to get my shoes but we did not speak to each other."

You just looked at one another for a few seconds?

"Yeah, it was about 10 seconds or so. She looked me up and down and I did her the same. After they left I told my sister that I was ok with it and that we should move forward."

"So were you nervous?" piped Dirk, silent until now but unable to contain his excitement in the story. "Your hands weren't sweating or anything?"

"No, I wasn't nervous. I was fine with it. She seemed like a nice girl from a good family. (**complete silence from the peanut gallery**) After that my sister secured the approval of the other family and I agreed to buy her dresses. You see, in Pakistan the man buys the woman several dresses, saris and other outfits for the ceremony and ensuing parties. That was actually the second time I saw my wife."

Wait, when?

"When we went shopping for the dress. Actually, we just went shopping for the material and then she was sized, after which the outfits were made at my house."

So you went shopping with your bride-to-be, her aunt and your sister but you didn't speak to her at all? Also, why your house? (I wondered if he was getting tired of my questions.)

"That's right, we went shopping together to have her pick out the material because I wasn't interested in doing it. I didn't really care. The material was brought to my house naturally because I bought it. After the clothes were made they were taken to her house. Actually, I was able to see her a total of three times before the wedding day. We even had a short engagement period where I was able to give her a ring - not a ring like you know it with diamonds and such, but a beautiful band with several embedded stones. This is actually unheard of in my country, but her family agreed and I was able put the ring on her finger myself. No, Erol, we still did not talk when I did this but it was nice to have a short engagement.

"Actually, we did speak once by accident. I called her house once and she picked up. We talked about the engagement and how she was wanting the wedding to just be over so that we could get out of there and on with our lives. I told her not to worry, that I would bring a safety pin to move her along and prick anyone else who got in our way.

"Then came the wedding at the Islamabad Club. It was actually outside in a tent that was partitioned. The left side was for the women and the right side for the men. So I entered the right side and sat down amongst male members of my family and hers and some friends. I was in a formal dress myself with a small turban on. Remind me and I'll bring some pictures from Pakistan next time I go."

That would be great!

"When everyone was seated, the Mullah arrived and came only to the men's side. In fact, he would never even go to the women's side. After the greeting, the papers were brought to me and I signed in front of several witnesses. They were then taken by her representative, I think it was her uncle, and two witnesses to the women's side of the tent. This was the first time anyone of the opposite gender had come to the other side. In front of the two male witnesses she signed the papers and it was time for the ceremony to begin. After a few prayers and more than a couple verses of the Quran, it was official. I was married and I had never even spoken in person to my wife.

"After a short while the non-family guests started to leave and it was finally time for me to see my bride. Escorted by members of her family, I was taken to the women's side and placed on a couch, right next to my wife. Traditionally the newlyweds are then given a mirror to hold together and that is the first time they see one another, but again I was lucky and was able to look directly at her."

What was the first thing you said to her?

"I told her not to worry, I had a couple of safety pins in my pocket and we would be getting out of there very soon."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cowboys and Indians

A friend of mine was telling me a story the other day about his little cousins who had this really neat place to play just down the street from their house. Imagine an old dusty street in West Texas, boarded up windows and gates the only remnants of the boom years when those rustling cattle ruled, Indians could attack at any time and the law was all but the enemy. A once-dusty road was now a pot-holed oasis for hiding spots and where a broken wagon once sat on the side in the olden days, an old Ford pickup now provided cover for the mini cowboys awaiting oncoming Indian hostiles.

"Bring it on you filthy Indian," the leader of the rag tag band of brothers would cry out as he pointed his toy gun at my friend approaching in the distance. "You'll never take us alive!" Ducking behind another decrepit vehicle, my friend avoided the pretend pistol fire, even faking a wound to the shoulder.

"I hit I hit, have mercy. I lowly Indian, you powerful cowboys."

"No way mister, you'll never bother us good folks around these parts again," another cousin shouted as a spray of fake bullets whizzed by my friend's head. Having played the same game as a child, he quickly faked his death and walked by the group of cowboys and into the house, patting on the head the one cousin who wasn't agile enough to get out of the way.

Now imagine the friend is me and the same scene takes place in Iraq... somehow it's different; although the reason makes me sad.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Random Thoughts

After living in Iraq with limited ability to do anything but work for a few months, I appreciated the following things much more than I used to on my two week jaunt to Turkey: Lauren, my family, bodies of water, restaurants, the US health care system, cherries, sunflowers (even the sad ones), non-armored cars, the sound of the ocean and the taste of fresh simit in the morning.

I've decided I really like plums, although not ones that are soft. Also, dates from Medina taste better than dates from Iraq.

After discussing the difference between Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians with one of my employees, I quickly erased the white board, less out of fear of reprisal and more out of fear that everything I said was completely inaccurate.

Glade's "I Love You" scented spray (probably only available in Iraq) does actually smell like "I Love You."

Stories of how we are positively affecting the lives of Iraqis never get old.

One should never take a good role of Scotch tape for granted.

Note to self: please remove pictures of your girlfriend in a bikini from picasa before showing the album to your Iraqi colleagues during Ramadan.

Despite my insistence to the contrary, 'fag' means cigarette to my Australian colleague.

Playing futbol with the neighborhood kids is difficult in sandals, especially after one of their parents watered the concrete creating a sea of mud. Solution: crocs with a strap at the back... genius.

I must find out who this man is and congratulate him on his perfectly shaped, and well-tanned, mid-section:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Correction

Today we went back to the mosque next door and I found out the man I've been calling a 'Sheikh' this entire time actually should be called 'Sayyid.' By calling him a Sheikh I have completely ignored his direct lineage of the Prophet Mohammed, despite the fact that his black turban can not be worn by mere Sheikhs. That honor, and the Sayyid title, are reserved for those that can trace their exact blood lineage back to the Prophet. In his case, that's 16 generations.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Day in the Life

0730 - Beep. Beep. Beep. Snooze.

0735 - Beep. Beep. Snooze.

0740 - Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Why is the snooze on my alarm set to only 5 minutes? (I reset the alarm for 7:50)

0803 - After a cool shower (the water in the tank on the roof has cooled considerably overnight), I sit down at my laptop to read the news, see what kind of story Lauren has told me while I was sleeping, and check my work email.

0845 - It's already starting to heat up outside and the sun's relentless stare follows me even into the shadows. I wave to the elderly man across the street as he stoops over a dusty flower, gently tending to the small area of foliage outside the family home he has worked so hard to maintain. He stops what he is doing just long enough to return my greeting with his right hand over his chest and smile at me as I walk by in my dusty leather shoes, khaki pants and short-sleeve button-down shirt.

0846 - "Sabah el-khayr" says the guard at the gate. Good morning to you to my friend. Inside this villa, a mere 50 meters from the one in which I reside, live several of the personal security team members and, more importantly, the dining room. Breakfast is optional both as a general rule and to me personally; more often than not a banana/apple combo followed by a mid-morning snack of another banana will suffice. This morning I'm feeling particularly invigorated, so I settle myself down in the heavily curtained, and always frighteningly cold, dining room to enjoy toasted Iraqi diamond-shaped bread with honey and bananas. Sometimes, if I find myself missing the familiar tastes of DC's Busboys and Poets, I'll throw in a bit of peanut butter to the mix. Not this morning though, just a solid breakfast of champions for me.

0904 - Walking through the 'secret' door between the dining villa and the one right next door, I notice that the pile of old furniture, generators, etc. to the side of the building is noticable smaller since yesterday. Possibly a 'sticky hands' situation, but more likely the reincarnation of a purging process that began soon after our arrival in Hillah. As always Zeid, the cleaner/misc. employee, greets me with a smile and handshake, his bright young face accented by an unmistakable unibrow. Ehab is next, getting up from his desk to say a few kind words and practice the few phrases he learned during his time working for a Turkish construction company in the North, followed by a wave to the logistics department on my way upstairs.

0906 - Climbing the uneven stairs the the 1.5th floor (my office is directly off the staircase in between the ground and second floors), I enter the space that has become my second home. As usual, Muthana is sitting behind his desk with headset on, Skyping with other staff in the surrounding provinces. Offering a silent smile and a handshake, he continues his work undisturbed. Ayad is tucked away in another corner of the small office, facing my desk, pretending like he is hard at work...

0914 - Muthana ends his call, asks me how my previous evening was, and starts a theoretical discussion into why Iraqis have been cursed with perpetual sandstorms, like the one we had yesterday, in recent history which ends with an update on the status of his refugee application to the US.

1036 - I receive an email from Yousif telling me that we recently completed construction of a women's center in Najaf that provides computer and sewing machine access, not to mention vocational training courses, to local women many of whom haven't been employed in 5+ years. He sends me this to me because I have become "Mr. Success Story" i.e. the one charged with pulling the heartstrings of our benefactor (USAID), Congress, our US headquarters, and anyone else who may be interested. It is a rewarding yet somewhat frustrating task. I see their faces through the pictures taken by our staff and the transformation of their lives in still images on the screen of my laptop. Although it's an incredibly selfish sentiment given the change I truly believe we are making here, I can't help feeling like I'm so close to them, yet somehow so far away.

1225 - Ahmed calls - it's time for lunch. This time I enter the kitchen first, paying homage to Muhammed, a tiny man who is charged with providing us with sustenance, spice and variety in our lives i.e. the cook. His English is quite good after several years working in the kitchens of the al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, once the center of distinguished Iraqi culture and life, now a decaying relic of the glory days. Today we have chicken soup, rice, beef and potatoes, and salad. Do we have any yoghurt today Muhammed? "Yes, Mr. Erol, I bought just for you."

1231 - Lunch in the dining room brings me back to the reality of my situation. Having just spent the morning working closely with my Iraqi colleagues, discussing management best practices, solving problems, and sending emails to my staff, I almost forget that I:
  • live in a compound; and
  • can't leave the compound without 72 hours notice, a convoy of armored cars, and a darn good reason.
Lunch with a mix of the other expatriates and the 7 large security guys, all carrying sidearms, quickly snaps me back to earth. Although I'm extremely grateful (and spoiled) not to have to cook or do dishes, I resolve once again to start scheduling regular lunches with my Iraqi staff.

1427 - Lauren is awake and sends me good morning/afternoon wishes; a welcome reprive that never fails to make me smile.

1456 - Muthana saves me from the excruciatingly tedious task of analyzing project data provided by those in the field offices *yawn* by asking me my opinion on something. Muthana is my right-hand-man for the five provinces in South Central Iraq in which we work, managing the folks out there directly so that I don't have to. He often has questions about... well... anything, and they all follow a similarly endearing pattern:

"Um, excuse me sir, sorry, may I ask you a question?"

Of course, Muthana (I've long since stopped trying to get people to call me sir; I guess it comes with the territory).

"Thank you sir. I am very interested in building the capacity of M&E (monitoring and evaluation) officers. I want them not to have to say 'oh, Muthana is not here, what will we do?'"

The phrase 'building the capacity' is one heavily used and beloved by most staff here.

"I want them to learn to be good managers."

Although not a question per se, I understand where he's going with this, and we spend the next 25 minutes discussing the phrase (and meaning of) 'delegation of responsibility,' how it can be implemented in this environment, and how it is a first step to managerial capacity building. I also stress the importance of patience and the power of incremental delegation - two things that are exceedingly difficult in a world where funding is finite and project timelines short.

1532 - I arrive sweaty and two minutes late for a meeting with Richard, who is of course waiting for me when I arrive and asks me if I'm on 'Iraqi time.' In reality, I would've been on time had it not been for Duraid, whom I haven't seen for few days, stopping me in the road to tell me about his new son and how his wife would now be staying with her family for the next 40 days in accordance with tradition. I'm not sure which he was happier about... I'm sure it was the child.

1647 - With my two officemates gone and the office in the US awake and humming, I spend the next three quarters of an hour discussing strategy and other things of purported import with those that care to listen.

1752 - I close my laptop and head back to my room. It is still bright and the streets are blazing from a days worth of unrelenting sun, but the streets are starting to fill up with children chasing each other, riding bicycles, playing soccer and, as I walk by, waving to me.

1803 - After forcing myself to put on athletic shorts and a t-shirt, I head downstairs to the exercise room. Those that know me know how much I love the gym, so it takes a heavy daily dose of the "Lauren's Workout" playlist on my i-Pod to get me going after a long day at work.

1844 - Sweaty and exhausted, I slowly climb the stairs to my room, satisfied with myself but frustrated at the continued existence of doughy love handles clinging to the sides of my waist...

1900 - The thrice-daily Shia call to prayer from the mosque next door reminds me that it's time to go eat again. I think it's meant for a different purpose, although I haven't quite figured that one out yet. Dinner is a minor variation of lunch, both in terms of food and the cast of characters. Tonight Muhammed has added on some nice banana bread, presumably for dessert but realistically for breakfast.

1933 - Having worked hard, exercised, and eaten well (sometimes too well I must admit), I sit down to work for a few more minutes, wrapping up anything that can't wait until tomorrow. Richard and Vince are out in the garden gossipping over gin and tonic... tempting, but three nights in a row would be a bit excessive in my opinion. The gchats and Skype conversations with those back home are flowing abundantly now and I do my best to tell everyone that I'm fine, that Baghdad is indeed far from where I am and thus I didn't hear the explosion that happened there yesterday, that my work is very interesting, and that life is different - but not all bad - over here in Iraq (I look forward to now giving them the link to this post).

2204 - Before I crawl into bed to read, satisfied that another productive day has passed, I glance at the corkboard above my desk filled with pictures: Lauren and Mom in Cappadocia; Nene and Dede all dressed up at the Sheraton; Kate trying to look as short as she can next to Jamin; Josh telling Lauren a funny story on the futon; Baba and my brother smiling at Errol's birthday party; the Tejas boys at Stephen and Jonathan's graduation; the Haralsons and McClures in front of the Capitol; Natalie, Lauren, Carly and Josh at the zoo; etc. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss them all terribly.

2259 - As I drift off to sleep, I wonder what tomorrow will bring (although I know it'll be much of the same) and salivate at the thought of banana bread in the morning. Maybe I'll change my alarm to 7:45......