Sunday, June 28, 2009

Banking on a Global Village

9 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon. HSBC in Hamra.

It’s the Tuesday after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections and the city has resumed normalcy. While I have no normalcy to which I may resume, I do feel a sense of calm that I’m finally settling here after about seven months on the run. It’s time to get cracking on the taxes, reconciling my finances, reflecting on the journey and planning the next phase, right? Right.

It’s mid morning when I walk into the big HSBC branch [bxA] down the street from my flat on Rue Makdessi in Hamra, my bustling little neighborhood on the west side of Beirut. The guy at the customer service desk tells me I need to talk to a manager and leads me upstairs to a smiling, happy woman, likely in her twenties, sitting at a desk piled with paperwork and natural sunlight cascading through the windows all around us. I tell her my story.

I’ve been traveling the world and I have bank accounts in the US and the UK, but for various ridiculous reasons I cannot access either of them. Since I’m going to be in Lebanon for a while, I was thinking maybe I could just open an account here. Is that possible? She tells me pessimistically that it’s only possible if I maintain a balance of $25,000. I launch into my saga about how one of the accounts to which I have lost access is an HSBC offshore account, off the shore of the UK, I add in case its relevant…and I was thinking that since HSBC is ‘the world’s local bank’ then maybe this HSBC branch here in Beirut could hook me up with my cash sitting in my HSBC account in the Channel Islands? I look at her longingly for an affirmative response…that yes, there is a way I can access my money. She has a sympathetic half-smile as she shakes her head slightly and explains it doesn’t work that way, ‘we’re all different banks, same name, but different banks.’ Intellectually, I of course know this because I’m a banker and understand it’s impossible, inconceivable even, that there could be a world’s local bank. I flashback to the London days when Rebecca and I fantasized about opening one of those cross-currency bank accounts advertised by Citi in Canary Wharf, imagining ourselves with one bank and multi-currencies easily transferred and converted in any country on whim. A girl can dream, right?

I press on, urging the HSBC manager with the question that brought me here, but what about the commercials? The commercial is playing in my mind as I ask the question. You know, the HSBC commercial - I think it was Phuket where they ran constantly on every channel – depicting a family that moves from one continent to another. When the family arrives in Japan, the movers have already unpacked the house, aquarium and all, so the children run straight to see the fish they last saw in their previous home…and somewhere in this lovely fairytale is the implication that HSBC awaits them in the foreign land…where they will have access to the accounts they left in their previous home country. Just like the fish, ready and waiting. What about that commercial? The bank woman is sympathetic, but she’s starting to be amused, softly laughing despite my seriousness. She explains to me again, nope, now way, doesn’t work like that. Okay, okay, I concede with disappointment and reeling with jealousy of those little kids in Japan. If they can have their little fishies, why can’t I have my money?

To make me feel better, the kind banker woman reminds me of the one option still available to me. I can open an account here is with $25,000 and a letter of introduction. Doh! I haven’t heard letter of introduction since the early, very stressful London days. I’m deflated… who is going to introduce me here if don’t have a job? Oh but wait a minute, I don’t have twenty five thousand dollars either.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Touring Sour (Tyre)

20 June 2009 – Sour (Tyre), Lebanon

I ventured to Sour (Tyre), about 81km south of Beirut, to see an exhibition of photographs by Palestinian children from the refugee camps of Lebanon. It wasn’t a big exhibit, but I needed an excuse [bxA] to venture south despite the travel warnings which go something like this:

From the Lonely Planet (published July 2008):

“Following Israel’s 2006 offensive in southern Lebanon [which effectively put a stop to its tourism industry], the area remains troubled and its future uncertain.

From Tyre (Sour) - 20 June 2009

At the time of writing, the main north-to-south highway connecting Beirut with Tyre was still closed in one section, due to an un-repaired motorway bridge, the target of an Israeli air strike. Thousands of UN Interim Forces Lebanon (Unifil) troups remain stationed in the region, and there are several Lebanese army checkpoints on the roads between Sidon, Tyre and beyond.

From Tyre (Sour) - 20 June 2009

At the time of writing it was not wise to venture too far off the main roads… A roadside bomb attack on Unifil troups ...on 24 June 2007 left [six] peacekeepers dead, and there are suggestions that there may be other bomb attacks planned. Therefore, some foreign offices also advise staying away from bars and restaurants popular with off-duty Unifil soldiers in Tyre.

From Tyre (Sour) - 20 June 2009

In addition to this, the area is still littered with land mines, along with yet more unexploded ordinance and cluster bombs dating from 2006."

From Tyre (Sour) - 20 June 2009

But, once you get through the disclaimer of all the danger, the Lonely Planet notes some of the highlights of the south… “full of archeological treasures, ...

From Tyre (Sour) - 20 June 2009

...surrounded by lush plantations of bananas, dates and oranges and populated by welcoming locals” …and in Tyre “predominantly Shiite, like most of the South, you’ll notice scores of posters depicting Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite cleric and Secretary-General of Hezbollah, and Iranian clerics and leaders including the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

From Tyre (Sour) - 20 June 2009

I came across a great photo-op that captured the richness of Sour’s fruits and politics – in the center of a massive farmers’ market was a large billboard collage of all the revered political leaders from Nasrallah and Mussa al-Sadr to Michel Aoun. I decided not to photograph it since I’m starting to think curiosity kills more than just cats.

Here's a link to the full photo album of Sour (Tyre), Lebanon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Assie's Departure: Until next time…

Photos taken 4 June 2009 in downtown Beirut, Lebanon

23 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon. Technical difficulties prevented me from posting Alyssa's farewell post, which she composed in early June, just before she left Lebanon on a one-way ticket home to the Gold Coast. Here it is...

Alyssa wrote on 4 June 2009:

Well I am going to hijack Ali’s blog one last time. This time… [bxA]to say see ya later ! NOT goodbye… but see ya next time. I have had a completely kick arse past 5 months traveling around the globe and the majority of that time (4 months) with Ali ! I don’t know how she put up with me for that long !!

The past two weeks in Lebanon in a nutshell for me involve copious amounts of vodka red bulls, dancing for hours on end, eating my way through the entire country and a very half arsed attempt to exercise ! I did miss Ali when we were shacked up in our separate apartments and always loved reuniting again over chicken shawarmas for giggle sessions ! I will miss laughing with her so much…

I have decided to go and visit home for a couple of months before I head to the UK to embark on another adventure. This time though, it will be a working adventure. (Thank goodness says the poor bank account!) It will be good to see home, my parents, animals, friends and touch base with the home world. The main reason which motivated me is that my Dad will be in the UK working in June so I thought I would go home to keep my Mum company. (Not to mention the $0 bank balance hanging over my head!) Plus I am killing to eat my Mum’s spag bol !! My Mum makes a MEAN spaghetti bolognaise (amongst everything else fantastic she whips up) and I can’t wait to feast on that !! It’s my favorite home coming food ! Like I need to eat more though… ughh !

It saddens me to no end on ending this journey (but it’s not ending, I’m just hitting the pause button!!) and since I made my decision to return home it has been an off limits subject of conversation between Ali and me.

Ali has been the best travel mate ever and I’m so lucky to have spent some of my time traveling with her and getting to know her very cool self ! I have never laughed so much in all my life and I’ll have many many great memories from our time together to cherish for years to come. We both had equal craziness, laziness and adventure ness that seems to be compatible with each other. (Not to mention the equal appetites which wasn’t such a good thing!) And no matter what dilemma got thrown our way, we knew exactly how to deal with it. Just laugh !! I think we drove everyone completely insane with our giggles. Sorry, but that was our medicine for sanity !!

We never traveled alone either. We were constantly joined by our friend Nancy. (See earlier entry for Nancy’s story.) Neither Ali nor I were strong enough to tell Nancy to get lost. As much as we hated the b*tch, we loved her too !!!

I also want to wish Nikki a safe and great recovery and be assured that I am always wishing you happy thoughts and passing you along a lot of good happy vibes !!!

Ali… *big sigh and a tear in my eye* thanks so much for your awesome company !!! I’ll miss you heaps and won’t know what to do with myself if I have to eat a snickers bar by myself. And don’t you just know that I will be at some random place in the world and something will trigger me to just laugh my head off, in public, all by myself, looking like a complete fool and only YOU will get it. But it will give me comfort that you can do the exact same thing and we can both look like idiots ! Hopefully you can get a good nights sleep without me sleep talking or randomly poking you in the middle of your sleep. I can’t wait to meet up with you, Penny and Fiona again to jump aboard another crazy sail boat again. I shotgun the V berth and that Fiona is dish pig !!!

I wish you all the best on whatever the hell happens next on your adventure because as you and I both know…we NEVER will know what will happen next and where you will end up !! It’s just another day of pure randomness and randoms which we have grown to love so much ! (But not the creeps part !! haha!) I hope to bump into you again soon in another marina immigration office or Dunkin’ Donuts somewhere in the world soon !!! And if you ever come to Australia, you always have a place to crash with me !! But make sure Nancy doesn’t follow you. Ali, I’ll miss you more than chicken shawarmas !!!

Lots of love, hugs, kisses, snickers bars and donuts,



PS. If you are ever in trouble, just write to those angels !!!

Photo taken 4 June 2009 at Beirut Rafic Hariri Airport

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fuzz's Photos

22 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon

Everyone, meet Fiona, a/k/a "Fuzz". She is Alyssa's best friend and she sailed with us from Phuket to the Andaman Islands (India).

She's a journalist and a great photographer too. After working for a magazine in Vietnam for a while, she's back in Australia and graciously posted her kickass photos of the Andaman's trip. I noticed there were no photos of her in the album since the photographer is rarely photographed. Thus, I thought I'd share these pics.

These photos don't really capture it, but Fuzz is a six foot tall goddess. I'm trying to get her to apply for America's Next Top Model, not because I want her to be a model, but because she's ridiculously smart and cocky and hilarious. Scroll down to for the link to her album.

Photos taken in February 2009 - Andaman Islands, India.

Go here to see Fiona's Picasa album.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Blue Sky

From Blue Sky in Maldives

Photo taken: 26 March 2009 - anchored on Addu Atoll, Maldives. Ali, Sacha and Alyssa visiting Blue Sky.

19 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon.

I got an email from Captain John that Millennium (and John & Nat) are out of Chagos and enjoying Rodrigues (Rodrigues, Mauritius and Reunion form the archipelago of the Mascareignes, about 2500 km from continental Africa in the south Indian Ocean.) John said, "Chagos was Paradise!!!! Beautiful Lots of fresh fish and coconuts, no phones no internet no banks no shopping no worries mate." That reminds me of one of the first nights on Millennium when we were sitting with a bunch of yachties at a picnic table in a secret little beach dive where we'd anchored in Phuket. [bxA] A woman told us that after a few weeks in Chagos you forget what your shoes and your money look like. The same proved true during our two week sea passage to the Maldives. It actually is kind of strange to stop wearing shoes entirely and to arrive in foreign lands with no recollection of where you last saw your wallet. Not that there'd be any useful currency in it...but always the hope that your ATM card will work.

Meanwhile, all the Lebanon election talk about they sky being blue kept reminding me of Blue Sky, one of the sailboats that was anchored with us in the Maldives. The family on Blue Sky were the first (only?) Americans we encountered on the trip. It turned out Jim and Emma lived in Houston in the early nineties...lived in Montrose and hung out at Rudyards. Well, me too on all counts. Small world. As the only American on Millennium, I enjoyed referring to them as "the Americans." They are a really cool family with two happy adorable children. One of the amazing things about sailing is stumbling across couples and families who brave the unconventional life to sail the world together. It's inspirational...and most of them are willing to explain precisely how they afford it. Jim is a super positive guy and when he told me how they did it, I actually felt a resolve that I could do it too. You'd be surprised how doable it is.

Anyway, so...I've been wondering how the Chagos crowd is doing and I checked on Blue Sky's website to see that they have made it to Madagascar. Here is their blogpost about the Maldives sea passage. [Alyssa: note that when the Sri Lankan fishing boats approached them, they had extra fruit which they traded for fresh fish!!!! OMG. They also had cigarettes, which, maybe if we'd had on our boat Sacha wouldn't have wanted to kill us the entire time. At least we had Fruit Loops.]

Check out their Voyage of Blue Sky website which includes a link to their travel log.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taxes & Thomas Friedman

'It's income tax time again, Americans: time to gather up those receipts, get out those tax forms, sharpen up that pencil, and stab yourself in the aorta.' ~Dave Barry

16 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon. Smoke-free Starbucks in Hamra.

So, let's recap...I quit my job last October to escape reality. I chilled out in London, Scotland and Houston for a while, sailed from Phuket to India and the Maldives, flew to Egypt, sailed to Lebanon and Cyprus, flew back to Lebanon...and what awaits me here? My freaking taxes. Ugh.

As Jen, my personal trainer in Houston just commented to me on Facebook, " it's harder being a bum than you thought :)" So true.
But at least the prospect of doing my taxes has inspired me to read/reply to emails and post to the blog (and of course play on Facebook despite Megha's observation that it's pathetic to be on Facebook while on holiday...I contend hiatus is different).

Meanwhile, Nupur sent me this great article in the NY Times where Thomas Friedman talks about being in Beirut last week for the elections. Turns out he was at a coffee shop in Hamra hanging with Kemal Salibi, one of Lebanon’s greatest historians. Even cooler, he got to watch the election results in the Beirut home of Saad Hariri.

I wish I'd seen Friedman in a coffee shop...but I bet he was at one of the cool local places, whereas I usually choose Starbucks for the smoke-free environment, though sadly it is still often ruined by people's fragrances, to which I am deathly allergic. My yoga teacher tells me there's an organic coffee shop around here that's smoke-free...maybe those organic people know fragrance products are toxic.

I need to get back to my taxes, which are coming along nicely but I have about 45 outstanding questions to discuss with my US PWC rep...and then I look forward to going through a very similar drill with my UK PWC rep, not to mention having my dad sift through mail in search of 1099s. Fun fun. Listening to some Texas blues to get me through it:

Whatever it takes you best now surrender
Whatever you know, you gotta tell them quick
Scratchin' the wall with some old barbed wire
Whatever it takes to make the dirt stick
-Chris Whitley

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Cedars

From Cedars (Public)

26 May 2009 - The Cedars, Lebanon.

Alyssa is safely back home in Australia. She wrote a great farewell letter for the blog but technical difficulties are delaying my posting it. Alyssa declared our trip to the Cedars to be her favorite day of the this post is dedicated to Alyssa. Miss you, Assie!

From Cedars (Public)

Here's the album (click to link):

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Peaceful Election Results

8 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon. Sporting Beach Club

Lebanon made it through the elections unscathed...and so did I.

I spent the day with some friends at one of the beach clubs along the Corniche. Just before sunset, I was walking up the hill back to Hamra, and heard the powpowpow of explosives. "That's fireworks, right?" I asked my friend. He assured me seriously, "always assume they're fireworks" then followed with almost a hint of humour, "just don't walk toward them." He wasn't exactly joking. After all, this is Lebanon.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Election Day

7 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon.
Things are fine here. Don't worry about me. The city is quiet and I'm roaming the streets aimlessly. Nearly everything is closed, there are few people out and about and there's a considerable military presence. The weather is perfect as usual. I've got friends checking in on me and several people to call if things get weird...but it does not seem like things are going to get weird.
Here's an great article in the New York Times that explains the election situation in Lebanon.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Just wanted to pop in and let everyone know that I (wheelo/nikki) am home...where I will be trapped for the next couple of weeks. I really want to thank all of Ali's fans for your thoughts, well wishes and prayers. It means more to me than I could ever express. And thank you Jenn, Elaine & Dennis and Mum...hee....I mean, Rosie :) When the candy stripers (I don't think they actually call them that anymore...they call them auxilliary workers...but how clinical does that sound...blech) brought me your emails...I cried...I was so touched. I don't know how many of you know or know of Ali's family...but they are a spectacular bunch. They were so supportive and did so much to help with my move the weekend before the surgery and went so far above and's just...there are no words to describe how deeply grateful I am. Oh my gosh..and I have the most amazing boss! He is one of the most kind and generous people I've ever known and I am so fortunate to work for him. There are so many other people who gave of themselves and sacrificed their time to help me and who have been visiting and checking on's overwhelming and I almost feel a little unworthy of all the love that has been showered upon me. and then there is Ali...I miss her desperately...and I so wish she could have been here...but just communicating via chat and the occasional phone call...warms my heart and comforts me tremendously. Gah...and now I'm an emotional mess and I can tell I'm going to start rambling in about 2 I will end this. Just...thank you...thank you all so much. There are truly so many wonderful people in this world, and I feel truly blessed to be the recipient of even a fraction of your kindness.
i want to thank you, show my gratitude, my love and my respect for you, i wanna thank you"
"kind and generous" by natalie merchant

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Fish, John, Fish!"

4 June 2009 - Giuseppe Zanotti Design in Downtown Beirut, Lebanon

Yesterday was Alyssa's last day in Lebanon. We hung out downtown for a while and I insisted on a detour past this shop to show Alyssa these shoes...because they reminded me of Nat, the captain's Thai girlfriend with whom we sailed for two months on Millennium. Alyssa's impending departure had taken us on quite the trip down memory lane...which meant, of course, many fond memories of Nat. Nat loves fish. She loves to buy fish, catch fish, cook fish, eat fish, watch name it. She whistles to the dolphins. Every time we got to land Nat would go on the hunt to buy fresh fish. She fished off the side of the boat all the time. And when those pirate-like fishing boats approached us in the deep sea, Nat earnestly urged John to buy fish from them, barking in her heavy Thai accent "Fish, John, Fish!!!" John was not keen to initiate the complicated fish swap in the depths of the Indian Ocean so he'd throw his hands up to ask "and pay them with what currency?" It was a good point.

When we got to the storefront downtown yesterday, the window shade was pulled, blocking the shoes…so I boldly went inside (I’m always intimidated to enter the quiet posh boutiques filled with things I could never afford), The shoes were right there behind the shade were I'd last seen them. The shopgirl was nice and let me turn the shoes so Alyssa could see them...she let me photograph them. The shopgirl said the shoes are quite well known - they resulted in Giuseppe Zanotti winning a shoe design of the year award last year…and Carrie wore them on Sex and the City. They cost about a thousand bucks....US dollar, in case John wants to buy them for Nat;)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Richardson Report

3 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon

My dear friend John H. Richardson has once again included me in The Richardson Report on-line at covers some of my pre-election time in Lebanon.

I can't express what a privilege it is for me to have John not only read the dozens and dozens of pages I write him, but to guide me along on this journey, teach me tons about the politics I don't understand...and then surprise me with such a cool article sharing tiny bits of detail I never even noticed might be interesting.

I haven't blogged at all about Lebanon because it's been overwhelming, my experiences with people have been very personal, and the political situation here is too daunting for my novice observations on a blog. Thanks, John, for selecting some snippets that my friends and family (and a few anonymous blog readers?) can enjoy.

Y'all, read more about John here and check out his wonderful book about his dad.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nikki is "doing very well" ! ! !

2 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon.

My best friend Nikki's brain aneurysm procedure was yesterday in Houston, Texas. I just got word from my sister that Nikki is doing very ICU. The 24 hour observation period started around 3pm Houston hopefully around 3pm Tuesday she'll be out of ICU. Here's more:

The surgery went really well and it only took 3 hours instead of the usual 4-4.5 hours. During the surgery, they waited an hour to make sure the blood was flowing properly and it was so they completed the surgery as planned. They will observe her for 24 hours because there’s still a chance that the blood may clot or she may have a stroke. Once she’s in ICU, she can have visitors. Only her dad was allowed in Recovery. At 5:36pm Nikki's dad called my sister to say Nikki was awake and wanted to see Nik (her 11 year old son who is staying with my sister Missy). Missy and Nik headed straight to the hospital, after which he spent the night with Missy.

I'm so relieved. Thanks to everyone who sent thoughts and prayers our way. I only survived yesterday with help from Alyssa, Jen and JohnR...and most of all my sister & brother-in-law, Missy and Jon, who spent all weekend with Nikki and her family...and are taking care of Nik during the ordeal. Love y'all!!!!

St. Luke's Hospital has a Families & Visitors page where you can send an e-mail to Nikki (Nicole Fields) in room: ICU 7 4 Bed 1