Thursday, November 29, 2007

Doing the Camel Running

So, after the standard visit to the Jaisalmer fort, and a night of way too many Kingfishers, Bestman and I went on a camel safari into the “desert” outside Jaisalmer in India. I suppose that there may have been the requite amount of sand for it to be an actual desert, but after living in Mauritania, the bar is set a little high these days. In any case, the way out involved an extremely hungover me rocking back and forth on this great smelly beast and wishing I was dead.

Upon arrival at our sand dune that would be the camp for the night, we climbed up the dune (with the hoards of other camera toting tourists) to watch the sunset, while the guides fed the camels, set up camp and built the fire to make dinner. Eventually, the other tourists drifted away, back to town, or to luxury camps (places where the bathroom isn’t defined as “that thorn tree over there looks secluded” – pansies.) We sat with the crew as they were making dinner. They let Bestman try his hand at making chapattis (like Indian tortillas), which likely was a deeply moving cultural experience for him, but mostly just resulted in lumpy sandy chapattis for the rest of us.

After dinner, we were offered the choice of sleeping or “doing the talking-talking”. (They had set up bona fide beds in the desert for us, complete with frame and comforters. It looked a little out of place on the dunes, but made for an enjoyable night.) We opted for the talking-talking, and so we all sat around the fire and they told us a little about the life and times of a tourist camel guide. After a while, they packed us off to bed because tomorrow we would be “doing the camel running.”

Next day, sure enough, up at dawn and back on the camel. Today, we went on a longer trip, and I learned how to trot on a camel. I wasn’t very good at it because I didn’t like to hit the camel to make him go faster. (The little boy guide on the back of the camel in front of me kept screaming “Heeeet heem! Madam heeeet heeem!” when I fell too far behind.) But nonetheless, up on top of a camel, ropes in my hand, trotting across the dunes, felt pretty damned badass.

After a miserable overnight train ride in a freezing and dusty third class bunk, we arrived in the blue city of Jodhpur. A hike up to the fort confirmed that many of the houses were in fact blue. (This is due to the blue being the traditional color of the Brahmin elite, and because apparently the blue paint confuses the bugs.)

Then, after a little more of doing the drinking-drinking, back off to Delhi. The last day in India, I had been planning on maybe doing a little rug shopping, but that was not to be. I was traveling with an Englishman and it was the fourth day of the five day test match between India and Pakistan. We were going to the Cricket. (Definite articles must have been on sale this week because they are turning up everywhere…)

I have to admit, I was expecting something truly exciting. Cricket is the most popular game in this part of the world, and the India-Pakistan rivalry is comparable to the Yankees-Red Sox, had New York and Boston fought a couple wars against each other in the last 50 years. I was all jazzed up when we get to the stadium. But, much to my chagrin, cricket is *boring*. It’s boring to a baseball fan- with infinite patience for slow moving sports. They stop for tea, which is weird enough, but you wouldn’t know they stopped because the level of activity involved in drinking tea is about the same as that is required to play cricket. And people watch this stuff for days…

But all in all, a good cultural experience. And, if I ever need to pick an Indian up in a bar, I can tell him that I saw Sachin Tendulkar bat.

The way home was bit of a nightmare, as I flew from Delhi to Singapore to Jakarta to Tokyo to Washington. And I almost missed the plane in Jakarta because man made the factories, that heated the air, that melted the glacier, that fell in the sea, that raised the water, that flooded the road, that led to the airport. Yes, global warming’s first victim, the rising water level, coupled with a full moon and high tide, renders the road to Jakarta airport impassable. Fortunately, my driver knew a short cut through the ghetto (he made me lock my doors), and I just made the flight. About 60 out of 600 of us were on the plane when it took off for Tokyo.

But I am home now. Back to the daily grind in DC. I should be here through the holidays, so I wish everyone the best and I will be back in action in January.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nuptials and Camels

The advertising slogan for India these days is Incredible India. And it certainly has been incredible. The noise, the dirt, the colors, the energy - it is all here in excess.

The first few days that I was here, I was in Udaipur, for the wedding of a friend from graduate school. This was the single most beautiful, opulent, over-the-top experience I have ever attended, bar none. The wedding was three days long, with the first and third days being at the City Palace and the second being at a white marble temple in the middle of the lake. These are places where Bollywood stars get married. Even the fireworks over the lake after the marriage was official would have been sufficient for the July 4th celebration at a mid-sized American city.
After the festivities ended, I packed up the ballgown and glitzy jewelry, picked up the ol' backpack and went to join a small group of wedding guests headed for the Pushkar Camel Festival. A yearly event in which the tourists are outnumbered only by the camels, Pushkar is a bit legend on the India backpacking scene. Thousands of camels and horses and all matter of things hoofed are brought to the town to be sold and traded. It coincides with a religious celebration at the town's sacred lake, so there are a couple thousand pilgrims in the mix too. All this, coupled with the magicians, stilt-walkers, snake charmers, acrobats, thieves and hustlers give the place the air (and likely approximate level of sanitation) of a medieval carnival. It was mayhem. One of the bridesmaid's and I walked around fair grounds to try to get some good shots, but it was difficult to capture the scope from eye level. Hmm... what around here is higher than eye level... Buildings (not tall enough)... cell phone towers (likely guarded)... hills (way too far)... half finished water tower on the edge of the camp (bingo). What are the chances that the workers speak enough English to tell us we can't climb up? Admittedly, they seemed a little surprised, but as long as we didn't step in the wet cement, they seemed pleasant enough about it. A couple stories up were some great views. (Again, I will post pictures as soon as I can.) And, as there have been complaints in the comments section lately that I haven't been engaging in an adequate level of death defying behavior, I made sure to lean out over the edge of the platform, holding on to the rebar, to get a shot of me with the fair in the background. (Editor's note: I had no idea actually how dangerous it was climbing up this thing until we started down. The steps were narrow and covered in loose gravel. They hadn't gotten to installing any handrails yet, and we had to climb over the horizontal waist-level bamboo support poles at each landing. I was happy to get to the bottom...)

Other than that, not too much going on. I am currently in Jaisalmer, up north near the Pakistan border, because I apparently haven't gotten enough camel yet in my life. I will be camel trekking in the desert tomorrow night with the Bestman. And now, if you will excuse me, Pushkar is a pilgrimage site, meaning no meat and no booze. I have some catching up to do...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dili to Delhi, by Way of the Incredible, Edible, Singapore

So I am on vacation (finally!) in India. Things in Timor finished up mostly uneventfully (though we did get to dash through an angry crowd under the cover of Australian UN police with automatic weapons at the ready. Fortunately the crowd hadn't turned violent yet, so it was more dramatic than dangerous.)

From Dili I flew to Jakarta, checked into a 5 star hotel to enjoy the last night of my WB expense account, swam in the pool, and had dinner with a friend from grad school at a posh Italian restaurant. Early the next morning, I was off to Singapore for a couple days of concentrated shopping and eating before heading to India. I have two friends living in Singapore, one of which was generous enough to have a spare bed and one of which was generous enough to be a government employee for the tourism board with a free museum pass. So it worked out well for me.

The first day the friend I was staying with took me on a walking tour of the major sights in the city. Singapore is a somewhat strange place. Despite its fairly long and colorful history, it is a completely created place. Most of the the people (at some point in their history) immigrated from somewhere else (more than half from China), the land is mostly reclaimed, the buildings are all new or recently remodeled. The two newest additions are a giant ferris wheel and a theater house that looks like a pair of giant sleeping metallic hedgehogs. For a number of reasons, this is likely not the place to try psychotropic drugs.

That night we went out to the tourist beach island to drink beer and watch the sunset. (Island entirely created as well, down to the imported and bored looking peacocks.) And behind the planted palm trees, cargo ships and super tankers filled the horizon. But the beach was nice and the beer was cold, so the combined experience was quite enjoyable.

Over the next couple days, I also did a walking tour of Chinatown, a visit the Asian Civilization Museum, and some shopping in a few of the thousands of stores and malls in town. Blah blah blah.

But let's get down to the real business of Singapore - eating. The food there was out of this world. A perfect storm of Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisines merged into one place. Singapore had been known previously for its street food, but the government decided that that wasn't in keeping with the image of the new Singapore. So the street vendors were rounded up and places in "hawker centers," which probably damaged the culture a little, but they are convenient for us. The first night we had sitay and stingray accompanied by noddles and rice. I don't know why the rest of the world doesn't eat stingray, it's delicious. Next day it was fried tofu for lunch, and then "steamboat" for dinner.

Steamboat is a cousin to Mongolian and Schezuen hotpots, with dinners selecting raw food from the buffet and then boiling it at their tables. The guys were nice enough to get a half spicy and half broth hotpot, because spicy in Singapore would actually probably prove lethal to my bland American palate. It occured to me that there was a chance that the open air collection of meat, fish, vegetables, etc might not be the most hygenic thing in the world, but, as the wise-but-insane Peace Corps nurse Molly once said, "Boiling continuously for one minute kills anything. Bacteria, germs, pathogens, ants, mice, anything." So I loaded up a plate with clams and made sure they were in the pot for at least one minute. If I am going down with food poisioning, I am going to earn it. Street shellfish in a tropical climate, here I come. And this may be blasphamy to many on this list, but clams do not necessarily have to be eaten with lemon and melted butter. They are also quite tasty with a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, cilantro and green onions. Many other things went into the pot that night, crab, shrimp, meat of all forms, mushrooms, but those clams were really good.

The next day I went shopping for clothes for this wedding I am in India to attend. (The groom is a friend from grad school. In typical male fashion, he didn't think to mention to me that the three day wedding was black tie until the night before I left. Consequentially, I was shopping for my life in Singapore.) Grabbed a flight that night, and here I am in Delhi.

It has been over three years since I have been here, but the place is generally the same. Same crowds, noise and chaos. They have since added a subway system that I have yet to try. It somehow though seems calmer and cleaner here than last time. I must be getting older and more mellow. I guess we will see if I still feel that way after being here for two weeks.

One last thing before I go. My friend that was nice enough to take me to the sites works for the tourism board and his bonus depends on how much tourists spend in the country. To thank him for his hospitality, I am starting a grassroots internet campaign to encourage tourism in Singapore. (Hey, if it works for Ron Paul, anything can happen...) So if at all possible, please visit Singapore in the next six years.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

So I have been in Dili about 10 days and nothing has happened to me. But that doesn’t mean that things have been quiet! Last Wednesday, a boat carrying smuggled gasoline caught fire in the harbor right outside the office. As I drove by a lunch, the explosion had just happened. Huge flames and black diesel smoke was pouring out the left side of the big wooden fishing boat. There was still a guy standing on the very tip of the bow though, staring at the flame, hands on his hips, and a look on his face that could best be described as “Hmm. Guess they meant that bit about the no smoking…” The fire burned almost 24 hours. Coming home from a video conference just before midnight, the fire was still lit up the harbor. Fun stuff.

Other highlights: Food shortages are anticipated in some of the IDP camps around town. Some have already turned violent, throwing rocks and occupying roadways with their tents. There are rumors of renewed guerilla activity in the mountains, new government slightly shaky. Politician’s house on the same road as I live, though on the other side of town, raked with gunfire on Friday night, man stabbed in neighboring IDP camp… Etc. etc. etc.

And yet, I was sitting in yesterday’s security briefing with this nagging sense that something was missing. It just didn’t feel right, you know, just not quite… complete. Then, as if to answer my dark prayers, here he was! PESTILENCE! Galloping across the metaphorical World Bank parking lot to join his brothers Famine, War and Death, the Fourth Houseman of the Apocalypse finally arrived! In the form of an anthrax outbreak on a neighboring Indonesian island no less! I relaxed and smiled, as the security officer sternly warned against importing livestock from the affected areas, knowing that Dili was packed and ready for the second coming.

It’s not all bad though. [If there is any country in the world where the Ministry of Tourism has enforcers, it’s here. I have to make sure to offer balanced coverage.] I got to do some touristy things this weekend. I haven’t had a day off since I went to Bali, working straight through the weekends, so I decided that this week, I was leaving at 5 pm on Saturday and not coming back to the office until 7:30 on Monday morning. Drawing a line in the sand.

Saturday night I went with another of the visiting consultants to climb Jesus and watch the sunset. You always have to be careful of the guys that are the same age as your parents and want to climb things. They are in dizzying shape. The run-up to Jesus was a long series of steps climbing the hillside, with distance intervals marked by the stations of the cross. Finally a practical use for something I learned in St. Pat’s. “Oh thank god, Jesus just met the women of Jerusalem, more than halfway there…” The view from the top was nice though. Dili, which despite being the capital has a population of less than 100,000, looked like a tiny fishing village on the edge of the sea. We had just enough time to make it back down the hill, take a quick swim in the ocean, and walk about to a beach bar for a beer and sunset.

The sunset was spectacular yes, but it was definitely the secondary show that evening. There are 1600 UN police patrolling Timor Leste, most based in the capital, it was a beefcake convention on the beach. This guy running, that guy swimming, this guy lifting something, someone doing push-ups, someone else doing one-armed push-ups, a beach volleyball game likely to induce combat trauma. A Creatine circus at its finest.

The next day I truly took a day off and went diving. You can dive straight off the main beach road in the capital here, but I decided to head a little further a-field to the volcanic islands about an hour’s boat ride north. Highlights of the trip out include: meeting hundreds of dolphins who raced along side the boat and generally did the SeaWorld thing until they grew bored of us, a pod of pilot whales lazing about on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and a splash way off on the horizon that might have been a humpback whale (or dynamite fishing.) It was a much needed relaxing day on the water.

I am here until the end of the week then *I am on vacation*! Provided that I can get out of Timor. But really, what are the chances of the airport being closed because of riots at the nearby IDP two Fridays in a row?

P.S. I am trying the new video blog feature. The fish video itself is nothing interesting, but if it works, I can shoot better things. Like fires.