Friday, November 26, 2010

The Hills are Alive

...with monkeys. We have been the past two days up high in the Himalaya foothills. In the charming little town of Missouri. I am so enjoying the greenery, the cooler air, the blue skies, the forest paths to hike on. We have had views of the snow capped peak of the mountains. Amazing. Things I have really missed living in the UAE. We met up with Sarajane and got a good tour of the school. Ate Thanksgiving dinner (mashed potatoes and gravy, grilled chicken, succotash, rolls and apple pie) with the students. Took a nice long uphill hike to a little town at the top of a hill and ate the best pancakes (banana) I have ever had (I'm not a pancake fan but these were really something else). We attended Sarajane's graduation from the gap program which she's attended for the last four months. She presented a great slide show and gave an excellent speech about her experience in the program. I was quite proud of her. Met her fabulous staff. Hiked up and down the hill between Missouri and the school. We enjoyed shopping for souvenirs in the village and picked materials to have Punjab outfits made at a tailor shop. Should be able to pick up this afternoon before we leave town for the train to Delhi. This is an absolutely beautiful spot and the people so very friendly. No out and out begging like everywhere else we've been. Kids rush out to say hello and shake hands. The colors on the buildings and in the flowers and worn by all the women are fabulous. I am tempted to see if I could find a way to take a teaching spot here. After UAE. But I doubt I have anything to teach that they need here. It's just such a beautiful place. And boy would I bee in good shape with a hike up and down the hills to everything.

We are off to Delhi this afternoon and I am so excited that we will be attending a wedding. Can't wait for the experience. Understand henna and dancing will be part of the experience. Until then: Namaste!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Into India

Settled into our second evening in India. Oh how I wish I had a good camera along. But a camera couldn't even begin to capture the intensity of it all. A camera cannot convey the smells: the incense, the frying japates at the market, the stench of the urinals one must immerse oneself in while waiting in line at the ATM, an occasional waft of hashish pipes burning. The colors of India are more vibrant than you can imagine. Coming from the bleached out deserts of UAE may have something to do with my appreciation for this. As I am dumbstruck by it all I keep reminding myself this is their "normal." My "normal" would probably be just as stunning to them, though I find this hard to believe. Even the poorest, dirtiest ladies have on the most beautiful saris.

In Delhi we experienced the Chadni Chowk which is the quintessential market street, having successfully transported ourselves there via subway. I have no idea how we did that. We were guided by a one legged man, Abdulah, in a turquoise sarong who got about on his one leg faster than we could scoot. He took us into the inner depths of the market, taught us which areas were safe and which were not, hired us pedicabs when needed. Senses in complete overload. A completely naked man (who Jasmine said looked pregnant) walked down the street toward a temple, surrounded by his entourage. I thought he must be a mad man. Turns out he was a Jain priest. They go about life without clothes. Even in the midst of a bustling market. We were served tea in a pashmina shop by a kind man with the orangest bad dye job you ever saw. Jaz, bless her heart asked him the significance of his died hair, as we had seen in on other men. "To cover my grey hairs" he said and then gave us a lecture on how the chemical dyes we use are so bad but his natural hennah is much better (yeah, and it looks like a very bad dye job... but whatever works). We bought fried biscuits with curry potatoes from a street vendor. Indescribably delicious. Saw the barbers doing razor shaves right along the curbs. Right next to the professional ear cleaners using long needles on their paying customers. The garbage is everywhere. The parks are strewn with papers and plastics, as are all the street gutters. Another stark contrast to the UAE where laborers are constantly sweeping and picking up any little bit of trash around.

Today we caught a train to Haridwar. I met a lovely Indian family who were on their way to Dehra Dun. He is a retired historian and a writer and he was busy on his manuscript that had "uncensored" in the title. He introduced me to his wife, a beautiful grandmotherly woman. And then his daughter who was holding his 4-month old grandaughter "Rin Jin" which means rain fall. I held Rin Jin and made her smile. It was a lovely encounter.

We were met at Hardiwar by our driver, who does not speak a lick of English so it's been interesting trying to communicate. He took us to the Har-ki-Pairi temple on the River Ganges. Bustling markets surround this holy place on the water. We take off our shoes and enter into the temple which really is steps down to the water where the devout bathe and bless themselves in the water. We are approached by someone who offers to do an official blessing for 5 rupees a piece. But then as we repeat the sacred words and take the flower bowl to float in the river he asks how much the welfare of our family is worth. 5,000 rupees? What will you pay for your family's good fortune. As I stubbornly resist his imploring for my family and more money I realize that now he is probably making me repeat "forgive me oh blessed one for I am a cheap soul who will not pay top money for my family." If we are hit with the plague and illness and loss of fortune you will know what happened. After this dousing in the river, and watching so many in ritual cleansing we head up the side of a mountain to the Mansa Devi temple. It is a good long climb we share with beggars and monkeys and other families out to be blessed. There is a cable car option but we are ready for some exercise. At the top there are more market stalls, mostly selling blowers, puffed rice, candles and other objects to buy for offerings at the temple. Again we take off our shoes and enter in. But at every idol they want donations. It's a very strange mix: Gods and money and one I'm not comfortable with. But it is obviously what works for these people we see as they provide the gods with offerings of food and flowers and money.

After the hike down we head up road, dodging motorcycles and oncoming trucks (these two lane roads are used as three lanes along with a good measure of cows wandering freely along as well. I am so glad we have a driver (they also drive on the left side of the road so it makes it even more uncomfortable).

We drove to Rishikesh where we were greeted at our hotel with bright yellow marigold garlands to wear around our necks and cold glasses of Coke. Heaven! After we checked into our simple but ample rooms we went down the hall to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch: dahl, paneer tika masala, stuffed potatoes in curry sauce, rice, yogurt. Absolutely fabulous and all for 500 rupees ($11) total for the 4 of us. After a too short rest our driver picked Karl and Jaz and me up to see a very special site (Mary Ann is resting up as she is starting to come down with something....I certainly hope this is not caused by my lack of donations to the Ganges). We are driven up a windy mountain road to the Ashram Temple Parmarth Niketan. This temple is along the Ganges as well (but higher up) and we arrive to a swath of bright gold, young boys in ceremonial clothing, swaying around a fire on the steps down to the river. A singer and musicians are melding the crowd into a trancelike joy while a large statue of Vishna or Krishna hovers over the water. It is totally joyful and we are soon one with the crowd. Then as the sun sets leaf bowls with flowers and incense and small fires inside are launched into the water. Now we are back. I am ready to sleep soundly (I hope) and rest up as tomorrow we head into the Rajaji National Park at the foothills of the Himalayas where we are promised wildlife sightings. Will try to add pictures if I can later.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

This American's Life

Had a lovely break from work this last week. In addition to a venture into the desert (see previous post) we hung at the beach at the corniche one day. Terrific people watching entertainment there as east mixed with west. Women dressed from full cover up to skimpy little bikini's and everything in between (that was me). Mostly men on the beach, a good dose of working class who got to enjoy some rare time off as well. The security guys were kept busy but not in the usual way that security guys are kept busy at the US beaches. No liquor patrols: only camera patrol. The native culture here is very sensitive to having their photo's taken. This is amplified in a beach setting. And though the women that were less covered up than others were not of the local variety, the security guys were charged with making sure no pictures of any women (and maybe even local men?) were captured at the beach. And so we watched the security force continuously approaching men with cameras, taking the cameras, looking and deleting, warning, and some were forced to leave the beach when they didn't heed the first warnings. I must say that I like this. I think we should pass a law internationally: no pictures on the beach. At least of me. In a swimsuit.

The balance of the week off I caught up on a little housekeeping, got busy planning the details for the trip to Spain in December and packed my suitcase for India: I leave tonight to catch up with my niece and see the boarding school in the Himalayas that raised my father. I am excited to be seeing family (I miss them so much) and to get to see the bright colors and greenery of India: two things lacking in the UAE.

While working on these things I had a constant stream of old archived episodes of NPR's "This American Life" going. I have always loved this program, but I think it is especially attractive after being situated for a while in this totally unAmerican setting. I nice dose of reality I think.

And so, this American will be out of touch for a bit. Not sure if I will be able to add to the blog while on the road but I know I will have some great adventures to share when I return. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Midnight at the Oasis

(Photos by Melissa. Thanks!)
Just returned from our adventure into the desert. Qasr Al Sarab is located about a two hour drive from Abu Dhabi. Once one heads inland from the coast you are surrounded by nothingness pretty fast. You drive through the suburbs where the working class are housed. First "suburbs" and then the labor camps. Pretty bleak places. Then industrial areas. Huge power lines cross the desert. As we are driving I wonder outloud how the electricity is generated to feed these huge power lines. There are no mountains and therefore no waterfalls to generate electricity, as I am used to back home. I wonder if electricity can be generated from gasoline as that is something that they do have a lot of out here.

Soon we enter the desert. As far as you can see are sand dunes. Much the color of the Palouse hills at harvest time. Every once in a while there is an oil facility where the richness of this country is brought to the surface. Off in the distance I see a flame where gas is burned off. This is all out in the middle of nowhere. The road is a decent asphalt two laner slicing through the desert. Not much traffic. According to the directions we pass through towns but there are no towns. There is one sign and road leading to a place called Gasco. Along the road there are hitchikers, working men in "pajamas" and head scarfs. We wonder outloud where the heck they came from, here in the middle of nowhere. They pull their thumbs in when they realize that it is two blond women in the approaching car.

As we drive we are intent on camel spotting. In our four months in the UAE we have yet to see our first wild camels. We know they are somewhere out there and we are excited to have our first sighting. We imagine every bush in the distance is a camel. And then, of in the distance we see a small herd. Definately camels this time. But not close enought to really encounter. Eventually we see more. Pretty amazing. These huge animals out strolling in the middle of nowhere. Just walking along in little groups. Crossing the dunes. No destination in sight we wonder what they are journeying to. Kind of like us.

We head over a dip and Melissa all but slams on the brakes. There is a herd just walking along the fence that separates the desert from the road. The camel fence. She pulls over, puts on the hazards and is running off to the fence before I know what's up. She has been intent on having a camel spotting since she arrived and is not going to wait another minute. I quickly follow. The camels stop their forward motion to look at these two white women running towards them. Melissa stops about 30 feet away, remembering stories of how camels spit. We start taking pictures. We get quite close though are leery of camel lugie. But just for good parting measure Melissa spits in their direction. It's one of those things we want to experience. Well see, not experience. Fortunately the camels do not return the gesture.

We follow the road to Hameem where we are supposed to turn. Only we don't know we are in Hameem because there, again, is no town. There is a petrol station, and as per instructions we take the second U-turn after the petrol station. Fortunately there is a sign pointing us onto a gravel road into the desert towards the Qasr Al Sarab. Then we go through an archway of sorts. With large urns and basketry and start the 12 kilometer travel to the resort. Melissa says it's like driving in snow as the road shifts around on her. Though the road is winding it is easy to tell if another vehicle is nearby because of the dust storm it kicks up.

Just as we have about given up we come around a corner and there is another archway and some palm trees and then a magnificent resort opens up in front of us. We cross a bridge, not unlike a drawbridge over a moat (albeit a dry moat). A fountain in the courtyard welcomes us and we pull our car amongst the others checking in. Where were these travellers on our way in? We enter into a huge lobby with more fountains and some lovely incense wafting through the air. We hand in our passports and are told to wait in the lobby amongst the other arrivals. It's a big lobby with lots of seating area and beautiful staff from all over the world helping the guests. We are offered some cold fruity drink and before long are escorted by a lovely young Asian women to our deluxe room. By the way, the "deluxe room" is the most basic room available. And even as such we can only afford to stay one night at about $400.

The resort is a maze of stairs and passageways and bridges and walls. I hope we will be able to find our way back to the room once we venture out. The buildings are clay with cutouts on the top. All doors are solid heavy wood with large metal fittings. It feels very much like a desert fortress. The doors open up to our suite and we sigh with contentment. The furnishings are beautiful. We have a private patio with lawn overlooking the hills of the desert. The bathroom is stupendous. The first time I have checked into a hotel and thought I could be happy just spending my vacaiton in the bathroom! The tub is the largest one I've ever been in. I will think later as I am soaking in it that this is such a waste to be in alone.

While we wait for our bags to be delivered we check out all the drawers and features. Lots of little extras. Like our own toothbrushes and toothpaste in boxes saying "time for teeth" next to the "time for nails" and "time for hair" with files and combs. We quickly devour the box of dried fruits that have been left for us. Then we start to get antsy. We are waiting for our luggage to be delivered. This is our first sign that things are not as perfect as they appear to be. Three calls to the desk after good hour and a half. No, our bags are not lost. It's just that they have so many people checking out and so many people checking in that they are not able to keep up. Nor are they able to call me back as they have promised to do to assure me that the bags really are not lost. We want to get to the swimming pool. We want to lay out and soak in the sun and get some good people watching in.

Finally the bags arrive and we start the trek to the pool. It is a long walk but pleasant as we wind our way through the hotel and the grounds Up stairs. Down stairs. Down hallways. Accross lawns. But the trip is worth it. The pool is gorgeous. We have a little challenge finding two empty chairs together. We ask for some help. A harried guy walks us around until chairs are found and then dissappears to get us towels. he is gone a long time and finally he comes. Gracious. The staff are al gracious. Just overworked, hard to find and long about the delivery. We stay by the pool until sunset. The sunset is pretty special. We see several guests have hiked up some nearby dunes to watch it. We are in swimsuites and flipflops so the trek won't happen for us. This time. We watch from the comfort of the patio. Then head back to the room to clean up and rest up for dinner.

According to the website there are four restaurants at the place. We are relaxed and not into making major decisions so we opt for the closest one which turns out to be the buffet one. As fancy as this resort is, the buffet is pretty non-descript. Generally not impressive, except for the dessert buffet. I guess it's good that the other courses were not that impressive as that left more room for the dessert. I do get to expreience my dessert oasis in the desert afterall! We call it a night and return to the room which has been "turned down" for us, with slippers placed by the beds and covers turned down.

In the morning we head back to the pool, soak in some sun and rest up. We get lunch at the poolside restaurant before heading back to Abu Dhabi. We try more camel spotting on the road back. See several off in the distance and the same fence side gang on the return. Then we run accross a group of about thirty not too far from the road. Several are laying down. This seems to be a younger group. No large ones in the midst. Teenagers I think. We pull over and try to lure them over with our sorry imitations of camel talk. Much to our surprise it works. They cautiously come towards the fence. We are amazed at our camel speakng skills. There are grumbling noises coming from them as well. Soon we are nearly face to face. At least within spitting distance (theirs, not ours) It is a lovely encounter and good way to finish our journey into the desert. Operation camel spotting a success! One midnight at the oasis. Camels sent to bed.

(I apologize in advance for getting this tune stuck in your head...)

"Midnight At The Oasis"

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Shadows paintin' our faces
Traces of romance in our heads

Heaven's holdin' a half-moon
Shinin' just for us
Let's slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust

Come on, Cactus is our friend
He'll point out the way
Come on, 'til the evenin' ends
'Til the evenin' ends

You don't have to answer
There's no need to speak
I'll be your belly dancer, prancer
And you can be my sheik

I know your Daddy's a sultan
A nomad known to all
With fifty girls to attend him, they all send him
Jump at his beck and call

But you won't need no harem, honey
When I'm by your side
And you won't need no camel, no no
When I take you for a ride

Come on, Cactus is our friend
He'll point out the way
Come on, 'til the evenin' ends
'Til the evenin' ends

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Got shadows paintin' our faces
And traces of romance in our heads

Oh, come on...


Friday, November 5, 2010

'Tis the Season??

I know bloggers all over the world are lamenting the fact that Starbucks already has the Christmas Cups out. I think I have posted something similar for the last many years. Usually a shock to the system when one is hardly expecting Thanksgiving to be around the corner, to wander into Starbucks half awake and discover the Christmas cups are out. While I love me a half eggnog latte, it always comes slightly flavored with a little stress about how much I have not yet done to be ready for Christmas.

Here in Abu Dhabi at Marina Mall I found the first signs of Christmas: the Starbuck's cups. And I was excited. Because maybe it will mean that there will be some Christmas here. Because folks, there is nothing here that says winter is approaching. I have not felt a drop of rain since I've been here. Four months now. no rain. There are no trees to change color. While I have seen winter coats and hats and boots in the store I don't imagine that I will actually see anyone wearing those things around here. I don't think I'll be doing any Christmas shopping around here. No Christmas coming this way. Except the cups. Seems weird. But welcome. I need some sign of Christmas. I guess it will be the cups.

My major dissapointment is: no eggnog.


Speaking of Starbuck's Cups, here's a repost of my 2005 Christmas letter around a similar theme. My first vivid memory of the arrival of the Starbuck's cups.

Christmas Letter 2005

Two weeks before Thanksgiving the holiday decor schussed into Starbucks. Like the Mouse King vs. the Nutcracker, the Tuscany yellow colored walls battle with the cranberry red and tinsel silver of Starbucks’ Holiday Look. The tall centerpieces on the display tables, made of shiny metallic paper cones and silver spangles are vaguely tree shaped and look tacky. Trashy. The usual non-descript everyday cardboard cups offering stupid drivel of life advice have been replaced with a deep crimson holiday one sporting a cute sketch of a man and boy working together to put up a tangle of holiday lights. “It Only Happens ONCE a Year” it says. I think this is supposed to be encouraging.

Even though we haven’t yet reached Thanksgiving, here Christmas tunes are playing in the background, as if to herald in these garish Christmas decorations. Faint staccatos of cinnamon dance through the typical peppery coffee aroma. Any sign of baby Jesus is conspicuously absent from all the d├ęcor and holiday gifts. Likewise, there are no Stars of David. No green trees. No gold stars. No white doves. It seems commercialism can’t afford to recognize the true meaning of the holidays. This makes me slightly sad. But mostly I am disgustedly amused. I’m certain this whole holiday campaign has been planned for at least ten months. Probably as soon as last year’s last post Christmas holiday sale items were boxed up and sent to some African country, the Starbucks visionaries got together and looked at several benign holiday campaign ideas to select this year’s winner. This year’s attempt looks oddly familiar to last. Which itself looked like the year before that. There is only so much you can do with crimson red, white and silver. It all starts to look the same. Now, if they would throw in some pine boughs, some golden stars, some brightly wrapped gifts: decorations as colorful and varied as the lives of these customers that come here and they might just knock me into the Christmas mood. These people, standing in line in peppermint-mocha daze, craving the wake up that only an espresso fix can give, are showered with snowflakes of holiday stress that this new seasonal Starbuck’s decor has released; depression dancing into their subconscious like the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In Starbucks I see couples and sense a triple shot of tension between some. I remember that. How we would load into the Subaru always saying “next year we should go to the mountains and cut our own.” Son would be sulking. Though he said it was because he’d rather be doing something else, I suspect it is the same reason that my heart was also sulking. I knew that with the Christmas tree would come a day of cussing: help would be hard to find at the tree lot; carrying the tree to and tying on the car would have husband and son barking at each other; the stand wouldn’t fit right; the tree would be unacceptably crooked; the poor dog would get yelled at by husband as she got in the way in the excitement; the decorations weren’t put away right last year; the light strings are tangled and only half work. I do not miss that.

This year son and I got our tree up and decorated the day after Thanksgiving. As we pull the box with our take-apart fold-down pre-lit fake tree (no floss, no tinsel, thank you very much) out of the cardboard box that has been stashed in the basement of our rental, son laughs and calls us “trailer trash” because we have a fake tree which makes me laugh because there is no tree crisis, no day of swearing and moodiness though I used to vow that I’d never have a fake tree or use Presto Logs instead of real wood which are two fabulous changes in my newly single life. Make that a cup of seveneleven coffee trailer trash, please. Stained cardboard cup. Just black. No room.

Here at Starbucks, the Christmas gift packs are expensively assembled. They will be snatched up by the last minute gift shoppers who have to bring something for their seasonal catching up with friends or in return for some small gift somebody unexpectedly gave them. I know this because this is when I buy Starbucks overpriced gifts.

This year Christmas shopping is fun. No frustrating effort in going out with my uncommunicative husband who only whines about the parking and the crowds and how we should have a list. No exhaustive efforts on a mother-in-law who doesn’t like me. No obsessive shopping for careful selection of a special gift for my husband which he will store unused for years on his dresser, claiming he likes it but still wont use it and doesn’t want to return it but wont use it or donate it to a good cause. No, this year our shopping is fun. Son and I spend more than our limit selecting CD players, basketballs, footballs and make-up kits for needy teens. Son asks with worry if we have enough. I say, for trailer trash we are doing OK.

Coming home from shopping, we stop at Starbucks. Son is not as bothered as I by the garish colors and lack of Christmas in the decoration. He thinks I am being silly. He tells me that for trailer trash I sure am opinionated. I am OK with this. We pull into our driveway, crimson cups of Starbucks’ hot chocolate in our hands, reminding us that “It only happens ONCE a year.” Our trailer trash tree looks beautiful, all lit up in the corner window. This has been a peppermint mocha moment. With whip cream.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I Am A Boob

Arabic classes are going well. After five classes I can count to ten, ask for and tell you the time, give greetings, order food at the restaurant and know about twelve letters. So I can read some simple words (though don't necessarily know what they mean). Class before last one of the letters we learned was "Jeem" which gives a similar sound to "J" in our alphabet. This letter is easy for me to remember. I mean really. It's a boob. I wonder if sixth grade Arabic boys get the giggles in class as they write out girl's names that start with jeem.

So in class, the night we learned this letter, I was, unfortunately, in the front and right accross a desk from Melissa. Without my filter on I say to Melissa "Great. My name starts with a boob." Lovely. I mean I like it that it starts with a boob because it makes it easy to remember the letter. And I suppose it could be worse, like if it started with something that looked like a belly roll. Or a vagina if my name was Virginia or Vanessa or something. But did I really have to say that thought outloud?

To my dear friends Judy and Julie: be it known that your name also starts with a boob. See, you know some Arabic now as well.

Masalama. -J