Sunday, July 11, 2010

A year ago, we promised ...

Love and laughter, all the days of our life.

Kilauea, Kauai, Hawaii, USA

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Um, It's Art Right?

In the isolated village of Khajuraho are a group of temples built by the Chandela dynasty around 1000 AC. They are covered in stunning Kama Sutra carvings that put the Taj Mahal to some shame, because for all that the Taj is all about love, you don’t see men pleasuring three women at a time there, do you?

But seriously. For all that it appears that the Chandelas were just hornballs into horse fucking (seriously) the Khajuraho temples were where we received our first real education in the balance that exists in Hinduism. The extraordinary beauty of it, for us, is that Hinduism seems to actually recognize that humans are, you know, human. In order to have creation, you need destruction. In order to have beauty, you need ugly. And in the case of the Kama Sutra, in order to have a healthy, complete, and focused mind, you need a healthy, complete, and focused body. Which is achieved through sex.

Get inspired.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shiva the Destroyer (Sunday, July 4)

One of the most common observations about India is that spirituality is bound to everyday, ordinary living. Faith is twisted into life in beautiful, devastating, and totally quotidian ways. But we didn’t really get it until we stopped at an evening ceremony at a small temple devoted to Shiva, in Khajuraho.

Twice a day a holy man leads the ceremony, blesses the devotees, who sing and pray, then it’s over and everyone goes on with their day, hustling for tourist dollars, tending to children, sweeping the streets. It takes maybe 15 minutes. It is beautiful and astonishingly abrupt, and as cacophonous, crowded, hot and hectic as anything is in this country.

But there is a moment – just a moment – when the faithful press their cheeks against the temple, the incantations fall into a cacophonous harmony, and you feel the press of the priest’s finger on your third eye, that India almost makes sense. We hope for more moments.

Local Indian bus. Worst decision ever. (Friday, July 2)

So, all we can say is, a 20-hour bus ride in Egypt has got NOTHING on a 6-hour bus ride in India. Not a fucking thing. 110 degree heat. No air conditioning. 125 Indians on a bus with 50 seats, not including the ones on the roof with the tomatoes and feed. We test the strains of our traveling endurance and marriage. We make it through.

The highlights:

We get a demonstration of a lime juicer an hour before we leave Jhansi for Khajuraho.

The view from the window at a bus station, somewhere. Not sure where. This is a quiet day.

The best Coca-Cola I have ever drank in my life. The most uncomfortable I have ever been in my life. Please note that I am fully covered up despite the heat and humidity in order to try and stave off as much leering as possible. I am unsuccessful.

Upshot of the local Indian bus ride: Unforgettable experience, that we will NEVER REPEAT.

Rickshaw through Agra (Thursday, July 1)

On a relatively quiet afternoon in the small town of Agra, we took a cycle rickshaw from the Eastern Gate of the Taj Mahal to the Agra Fort. In these two minutes of video, enjoy donkeys laden with bricks, bovine traffic, and me almost getting peed on by a water buffalo.

It was a lot of pee.

The Taj Mahal (Thursday, July 1)

Gorgeous. No words. Gorgeous. And, of course, a nice way to pay tribute to your “favorite” wife (though I think I’d still prefer to be the “only”).

34 things learned in Lebanon (Tuesday, June 29)

1) The flag looks like a Christmas tree. It is, in fact, cedar.

2) Middle East Air will ask you, before issuing you a boarding pass, if you have ever been to Israel.

3) Immigration really does comb your passport for Israeli stamps.

4) Lonely Planet is useless in Lebanon.

5) The Lebanese LOVE German football.

6) There are faaaaaaaar more Lebanese outside the country (mostly in Australia and Brazil) than in the country.

7) Mint leaves in hummus. Good.

8) The Hezbollah “tent city” in downtown Beirut is to be avoided.

9) Due to the rebuilding efforts after some 40-odd years of war, Beirut is new. Like, occasionally, West-Palm-Beach-too-much-sandstone-and-bright-lights new.

10) People carry several different SIM cards. Different hos, different area codes.

11) Colombia is no longer an acceptable fake nationality, due to the Lebanese wanting to talk about cocaine and assuming you are a rich drug dealer. We have moved on to being Argentinian.

12) Palestinian refugees are not allowed to work or live outside of refugee camps. They must attend Palestinian-only schools, and are generally looked upon with much scorn by the Lebanese.

13) Filipinos comprise the majority of household employees and caregivers, while Syrians fill the ranks of construction workers and Sri Lankans often do sanitation work.

14) One of the reasons Amy is stared at so frequently in Lebanon is that most Asians are laborers or caretakers. Because of the lack of tourism, it is VERY rare to see an Asian woman of any means.

15) Lebanon has more than a 20% unemployment rate.

16) Backpackers can be assholes too. Our hostel manager asked us to pay our nights upfront, half apologizing, saying that last week a couple ran out on them in the middle of the night without paying their bill after staying a WEEK. May that couple be cursed with traveler’s diarrhea and faulty plumbing for the rest of their travels.

17) Lebanese glitterati, can, without any sense of irony, be viciously anti-American while wearing American designers, listening to Michael Jackson and buying prints of American celebrities.

18) Patience, when bargaining, is a virtue. Stand around long enough without rushing a decision and the price will drop by at least 30%.

19) Standing on the side of a highway picking up buses can actually be pretty fun.

20) When redeveloping downtown, the crown jewel of post-war redevelopment, city planners kicked out the independent shop owners and instead built a mall. It is sad.

21) Battle of the Hotels. The strip between the former Holiday Inn and another high-rise downtown was one of the deadliest places in downtown Beirut during the war. Snipers used to pick people off from the upper levels of the hotels, while kidnappers would throw their victims off the roofs.

22) People automatically assume you haven’t been to Israel. It is wise not to correct their mistake.

23) Fattoush. Good.

24) Cats. Mangy.

25) The majority of industry in Lebanon is based on trade, much the same as the ancient Phoenicians.

26) A great deal of wealth in the country came from arms trading during the war. As one circumspect local said, “The war made a lot of people in the country really rich. Why do you think it lasted so long?”

27) People do not recycle.

28) Do not wander refugee camps without a local.

29) Power outages. All the time. Often without you knowing it. We were on “emergency” generators at least half the time we were in the country.

30) Due to the unreliable power sources, people charge their personal electronics whenever, wherever. Example: At a hip restaurant in Gemmayze, girls in skintight outfits and giant Gucci bags will order food, then crawl underneath the table to find an outlet and plug in their Iphone.

31) If people give you a “tourist” price, and you just hand them the “local” price, they’ll grudgingly accept it.

32) On the highways, walking through traffic, boys will sell everything from stuffed toy dogs to squeaking handpuppets to swords. Yes, swords.

33) Le Chef is our jam.

34) Shit is fucking complicated.

Sanctions against Syria. Really?

So, the U.S. government recently renewed a number of clumsy economic sanctions against Syria, including those on technology. Their value is questionable.

Yes, we know all the bad things that the Syrian government supports and has supported in the past. But we also know that it is trying to develop as a country, and that the government does not always represent the will or the heart of the people (uh, hellooooooooooo George Dubya!). Syrian NGOs and other non-profits are trying to build networks and infrastructure, educate their people, and provide access to a world outside of the conservative Middle East. Isn't that what we want, too?

But we have a friend working to try to develop legitimate technology infrastructure in Syria, and she is stymied by the fact that she can't buy a damn Microsoft product. She can't rely on support for SaS products that she would rely on in lieu of Microsoft. Her one channel to the Internet is controlled by the government. And while her IT development work, which ultimately aims to aid non-profits in the field of education, is definitely hampered by sanctions which nobody will say definitely DOES hamper terrorism, executives from top U.S. technology companies, including Microsoft, are meeting and building relationships with officials across Syria. That doesn't sound like economic sanctions to me. Or sanctions with any weight, whatsoever.

It's a complicated issue, and obviously one that I'm too ignorant to really address. Think tanks around the world are tasked to deal with this. But in my gut, I know it's wrong. Being in the Middle East is frustrating, infuriating, and more frightening, in some ways, than expected. I did not enjoy being there. But it seems like what we're doing is wrong. Much of the resentment is deserved. Why do we say one thing, and do another? How can we have any push as a moral authority - if we are one, period - when we are fucking lying about actions that just plain hurt people that want to help themselves?

Okay. Soapbox: Exit.

Without a house, not without chores

I wonder when the next time is that we’ll shower, and then NOT need to squeegee out our bathroom.

Pension Al-Nazir, Beirut, Lebanon

Love America, hate America?

Lebanese people aren’t so much fans of Americans.

Sometimes it’s outright, awkward dislike. Example: The guy who works at our hostel introduced us to another couple in the lobby one afternoon. He says: “They’re Americans too! I hate Americans! Ha, ha! I hate Americans!”

Other times, it’s slightly more subtle. Example: One night, we sat in a hipster bar in Gemmayze while the crowd ferociously cheered for Germany, against Ghana, in the World Cup. A few nights later, we sat in a café across the street and watched the crowd freak out with joy, cheering for Ghana, against the U.S. Like, stop everything, whistles and horns freak out.

And yet – A hipster gallery on the same block sells prints of Jimi Hendrix. The “Corleone” restaurant is entirely based on American cinema iconography. The DJs in the local bars mix Akon and the theme from Pulp fiction. Live bands play covers, badly, of decades-old Pearl Jam. Everyone is wearing 7 for all Mankind.

If you hate us so much, then why …? Or is this why you hate us?

You want us to pay WHAT?!

Downtown Beirut is stunningly lovely, if a little shiny. It’s without the charm or grace that I’m sure it had before the war tore it apart. Today, the brand-new construction (the city was almost entirely rebuilt in the mid-1990s) echoes the facades of the former city, but right now all of the new buildings, even the gorgeous grand mosque, are very Florida. The city would benefit from some wear.

Wear, of course, is different from war, the signs of which are plentiful. Bombed-out buildings, piles of rubble, and stories about snipers here and kidnappers there are everywhere you turn. The power goes in and out all over Lebanon constantly, and you are likely running from an emergency generator without even knowing it.

But in the heart of downtown, at the rebuilt Place de E’toile and the newly built clocktower (sponsored by Rolex, of course), it’s all luxury shops, fancy hotels and Lexus and BMW SUVs. And cafes, lots of cafes.

It’s gorgeous.

It’s also retarded. We wandered the Place de E’toile late one evening, browsing menus and thinking we’d stop for tea and a small bite to eat. We glanced at the menu at one crowded, casual burgers-and-fries place that seemed promising. The manager informs us that there is a $50 minimum PER PERSON to sit down. At what would be the equivalent of an NYU student joint in the city.
$100 for a night. We thought of what that could be. Dinner and drinks at Fatty Crab. Dinner without booze at Babbo. An hourlong massage. Mani, pedi, and beauty products at Rescue. Sushi at the Princeville. FIVE NIGHTS of lodging.

All of those things seem reasonable for $100. Not a burger and hummus.

The story was repeated elsewhere, at all of the other cafes. The cheapest café we came across, at the edge of downtown, had no food minimum and “competitive” pricing – $14 for a sandwich, $18 for a burger -- but a $10 cover per person to watch the World Cup game. The World Cup, by the way, is being broadcast for free in Lebanon by Al-Jazeera due to a government subsidy. Seriously, a soccer subsidy.

There is something really ballsy about a city so fully committed to moving on from war and finding a fresh start, hedonistic and ridiculous as it is. We moved on, though. Place d’Etoile. Pretty, yes. Tacky, yes.

Admirable – we think so?

Palestine in Beirut (Friday, June 25)

So, we’re non-Arab Americans. By default, without consciously knowing it, or thinking it, we tend to tacitly accept the state of Israel. Or support it. Or whatever. Right? I mean, for me especially. I grew up with Holocaust survivors visiting my junior high, waiting to play with my friends until they were done with Hebrew school, being proud that Koreans were considered that “new Jews” (read: family-focused, well-assimilated, academically and financially successful) of the U.S., joking that I should get to go on a Birthright trip alongside everyone else I knew. My first love was a Conservative Jew, and I seriously, albeit briefly, considered following him to Israel to work on a kibbutz for a summer. Because of course Israel was a Jewish birthright.

Because of course Jews needed a country. Christ. I think I was midway through college before I even considered that Israel hadn’t always existed as a safe haven and rightful home for the Jews. But I didn’t think of myself as politically pro-Israel, either. Israel just was.

When Gabe and I traveled to Israel a few years ago, we completely fell in love. We loved the food, the culture, the people, the energy, and the pure magic of the place. Because Israel is magic, no matter what your religion or politics. The sadness and violence there is tempered by a joie de vivre unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else in the world, and though we were depressed by the walls and the checkpoints, the endless three-ring binders filled with Palestinian names and teenagers toting guns, we still loved it. It is gorgeous country.

Whose country it is, of course, is The Question, the Endless Tragic Painful Miserable Warfaring Impossible Fucking Forever Question. And one that we’ve never REALLY asked ourselves. But our two-month tour of Islamic North Africa and the Middle East has been capped by an afternoon in the Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut, where displaced refugees without citizenship or protections are trapped with separate-and-not-equal schools and no access to jobs or resources outside of the camps (where, not coincidentally, Hezbollah has a stronghold). We’ve had our first conversations with legitimately non-anti-Semitic, yet fiercely anti-Israel, Arabs about the creation of state of Israel, forcing us to question assumptions we didn’t even know we had.


Thanks, Najla, for giving us the opening. We’ll see you … somewhere?

Feeling empowered, or not

The last bit of traveling I did before we left for the Chermeo World Tour was a quick reporting trip to Dallas in early February for book research. It was pretty routine – 3 days, 3 nights, back to New York in time for the weekend.

I called a gypsy cab to our apartment, finishing off some notes on the 25-minute ride to the airport. Met Tyler, then a nap until we land in Dallas. I’m not feeling so hot on the plane, but no big thing. We rent a car, get to the Galleria, have a beer, tuck in early for the long day ahead.

By 3 a.m. I am full-blown sick and so uncomfortable I can’t sleep. I ask the concierge if they have a pharmacy in the hotel, and they don’t, so they arrange for a cab to take me to the nearest 24-hour CVS. By 3:45 a.m. I am back in the hotel, over-the-counter drugs in my hand, on my laptop filling out an online prescription for Walgreens that I can pick up the next morning. I check to see that my AOL blog is up without a hitch, return some emails, finally get to sleep.

9 a.m., Tyler and I are done with breakfast and headed to Walgreens. I take my pills and we move on to a day of interviews, led and organized by me. A few days go by, we find ourselves back in New York.

Tyler and I become new best friends, we get the work done, all is good. Not at all spectacular.

I mean, it’s all so simple, right? But I had a moment the other day, when I was in yet ANOTHER uncomfortable situation, feeling alienated as a woman and confounded by the simplest task, a little afraid to speak up, made awkward and self-conscious by the men staring at me, confused by the language and the customs, and completely frustrated and unsure of myself and what to do and how to do it, even if I knew what the hell was the right thing to do in the first place. And I flashed back to that moment in the middle of the night at the Westin Galleria, when I knew EXACTLY what to do to take care of myself and how to get it done, when I was so completely sure of my actions that I never would have dreamed of calling it confidence. I mean, what other way would it ever be?

Lots of other ways, it turns out. Somehow for all my ruminations on the importance of “getting out of your comfort zone,” I never realized that I might be actively uncomfortable and uncertain, for much of the time I was traveling. Stupid and strange of me. Stranger still, that I don’t want it to end.

Corn on the Corniche (Thursday, June 24)

I mean, everybody likes corn, right?

The Corniche, Beirut, Lebanon

22 things learned in Jordan (Monday, June 21)

1) Gabe tends to be completely in the moment when in the face of ruins or natural wonders. Amy tends to use the time to reflect on her personal past.

2) No baksheesh!

3) Turkish coffee, medium sweet. Good.

4) Nescafe prepared instant sweetened coffee. Good.

5) Lonely Planet guidebook. Decent, but prices are woefully outdated.

6) Wadi Rum and Petra are all they are cracked up to be.

7) The more you go to a restaurant, the cheaper it gets. Example: When we first went to our neighborhood hummus restaurant in Amman, it cost 5 JD for hummus, fuul, and falafel. By the end of the week, it cost 2 JD.

8) The frame of reference for Gabriel’s name is the Koran (Ah, Jabril! You Muslim?) or futbol (Ah, Gabriel! Batistuta?)

9) Watch out for evangelists at the top of Mt. Nebo.

10) Eurovision Song Contest. Nuff said.

11) Our ceiling for hummus and falafel is once a day.

12) Breaking one of the cardinal rules of third-world travel (eating unpeeled whole fruits and veggies) only occasionally gets you sick.

13) Everyone in Madaba, the Christian capitol of Jordan, has “The Forbidden Dance” as their ringtone. No joke.

14) Shower in the midafternoon or during the second half of important soccer games for the hottest water and best pressure.

15) Speaking to a woman wearing a full face veil means you are always staring directly into her eyes, which can be unsettling.

16) Do not, if you are a woman, sit in the front seat of a taxi. Bad, inappropriate questions and touching will happen.

17) Even when your clothes are clean, they are never really clean.

18) When in a room with three Muslim men, the likelihood that their names are Mohammed, Ibrahim, and Ali, are high.

19) Plumbing can be held together with Band-Aids and soda cans.

20) Tons of Filipino women work in Jordan as retail workers, housekeepers, and hotel staff. They are literally shipped in in huge groups. If you’re in the airport for a few hours you’re likely to see at least three different groups.

21) Everyone thinks Amy is Filipino.

22) Looking at a map in Amman is useless unless you already know exactly where you are, because every street corner is an intersection between King Hussein Street and Prince Ali Street.

23) Gulf Arabs are into Starbucks pastries and Tazo tea.

24) The power outlets in the Queen Alia airport in Amman are British. The power outlets in the rest of the country are European. This is strange.

25) “Arabic” flavored ice cream at Freeze Creamery is the idealized version of every traditional Arabic sweet created. Worth a return trip to Jordan. For serious.