Friday, April 30, 2010

Colombo Day

April 2010 - Hindu Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka

28 April 2010 - Colombo, Sri Lanka.

At 5pm I awoke from my jetlag induced near-coma and hit the streets. A local man named something that sounds like “Jack” walked alongside me and explained how everything is closed because it’s a Buddhist holiday. He insisted I see the big elephant ceremony and the next thing you know [bxA] we were crawling into 3-wheel motor tuk tuk. Our first stop was a super funky cool Hindu temple.

13 April 2010 - Phuket, Thailand. Songkran festivities in Rawai.

I had no camera because mine got ‘blessed’ during Thailand’s Songkran water festival a couple of weeks ago. Jack to the rescue: thirty minutes and forty bucks later, I became the proud new owner of a terribly fake totally dodgy Sony imposter digital camera/MP3/video/gaming device.

28 April 2010 - Colombo, Sri Lanka. Man in dodgy camera shop in street market.

As we sped around Colombo Jack repeatedly assured me that things are safe now, there is no more fighting. Jack’s skin is dark with the wrinkles, pits and crevices of a well worn life. His teeth are spaced and rotting with one side tooth sticking straight out of his mouth.

I thought about Lebanon where no one will ever tell you you’re safe. They also won’t tell you you’re in danger. They’ll just say there may be trouble. On the taxi ride from the Colombo airport I spotted a gunman in a tower guarding the port - his rifle was positioned to fire. There are lots of military checkpoints, but it feels pretty calm.

28 April 2010 - Colombo, Sri Lanka. Man outside Hindu Temple.

Jack pointed to a building he said was a very famous. His English is fluent but with a thick accent from which I could discern only the occasional word. He acted out a person strapping explosives around the chest and I understood “bomb” and “many people died” and when he pointed to new construction I understood “rebuilding.”

I asked, “When was that?”

He assured as though it were ancient history that it was last year. There is no more fighting, Sri Lanka it is safe, very safe…last year there were no tourists in Sri Lanka but it is all safe now.

28 April 2010 - Colombo, Sri Lanka. Buddhist Temple.

I said it is a lovely country and he beamed.

We swerved around a few more streets and he asked me how things are in Thailand. I said “good – oh, I mean, you know, they’re fighting but that’s in Bangkok, I live in Phuket.”

He knowingly said yes ‘they say don’t go to Thailand right now because of the fighting.”

“Yes, yes,” I agreed. I guess they do say that.

17 March 2010 - Bangkok, Thailand. Red shirts collecting blood for non-violent protests. (Source:

A little while later Jack asked me how things are in America now, good? I said I haven’t lived there in a few years but yeah, things are good. “Everyone’s always fighting about politics… but not with guns.”

He got excited, “Yes, yes, everyone fights because fighting makes the money!” He motioned wildly with his dark dry hands, one finger mangled in an entirely wrong direction, “If there were no fights there would be no money!”

I pondered for a bit about fighting and the safety of things. Derek recently noted the travel warnings not to go to Thailand because of the fighting. Derek lives in Beirut, Lebanon which has a US State Department permanent warning not to travel there under any circumstance. It was his idea to meet up in Sri Lanka.

Then there’s the US, where we don’t have civil war, but we do have a bunch of relatively privileged educated people turning political acrimony into sport. Jack the Sri Lankan is right: it is about the money. Fox News is making a fortune off of hyperbolic hateful intolerance. Yeah, the left is no better, but I only hear about Glenn Beck these days.

28 April 2010 - Colombo, Sri Lanka. Buddhas under Buddha tree.

I wonder what the Buddha thinks about all this.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Soon in Sri Lanka

27 April 2010
Phuket, Thailand

In the spirit of my new blog approach, which includes the concept of ‘broadcasting’ that Fiona recently pointed out, I am telling you in real time what I am doing.

It’s 5:33pm and I’m waiting for my taxi driver to pick me [bxA] up for a rush hour journey to the north of the island so I can get on an Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur, where I’ll have six hours to kill before my flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

I’m meeting my friend Derek in Colombo, but he’s a few days delayed so I’ll be alone until Saturday.

Today my life seems not my own. Traveling is weird sometimes. Today was like any other day but with the tasks of packing a backpack and getting a few details in order to get on a plane. It occurs to me that there was a time I’d be nervous or even panicked about going to such an off-the-beaten-path kind of place – especially alone. There was a time I would have researched it and assessed the dangers and made lists and bought stuff.

I did check the visa requirements advance, but I didn’t check the weather. I don’t know the currency or the exchange rate. Not sure about malaria. I don’t have a Lonely Planet – or any printouts of anything for that matter. I made a hotel reservation and arranged a taxi from the airport.

Fiona is encouraging me to “check out the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans coz it's a big one” but I like those stories to unfold upon arrival. When I got on Millennium last year to sail from Phuket to Madagascar, we cancelled plans to stop in Sri Lanka because the captain deemed it too dangerous. So off we sailed toward the pirate coast of East Africa and I never got to see Sri Lanka.

I hopped off Millennium in the Maldives, flew to Egypt, sailed to Lebanon and that’s where I met Derek. Now Derek and I will see Sri Lanka together.

The journey continues…

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Another impediment to blogging: I have a touch of OCD.

My hands look like the Wicked Witch of the West because I’ve washed them a few too many times in this life, but [bxA] I’m not totally debilitated by these obsessions and compulsions. It’s not like I’m flipping the light switch on and off a hundred times a day (because eeewwww…do you know how many people touch a light switch?)

My unhealthy fixations are primarily on two things: chronology of events and music. Neither of these obsessions has any intellectual or culturally fascinating slant.

Damascus (Aug ‘09) – Dan Brown books purchased by our host’s sister – numerous copies for the women in the family to read.

Years ago I read the DaVinci Code and recognized instantly that the author is obsessive compulsive but with the artistic genius to turn fact accumulation and regurgitation into suspense fiction. This is a gift I do not possess.

My OCD is pure straight-up boring. I make timelines and lists.

For example, last August Alyssa and I did a couch-surf stint in Damascus, Syria...

Beirut, Lebanon (Jun ’09) - Memorial on street median marking the spot where explosives struck Rafik Hariri’s motorcade (blue billboard in the background depicts Rafik Hariri; 'Stop Solidere' poster protesting Hariri’s real estate development company hangs on the abandoned St. George Hotel).

We were in the thick of the story of Lebanon with its various factions of Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and Alawites, the June elections, the formation of parliament, the international criminal tribunal that could link Syria to the assassination of PM Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005, which ended Syria’s 30-year occupation of Lebanon.

Damascus (Aug ’09) – magazine our host bought for his mother on our way to her house.

Tension between Syria and Lebanon was palpable and it was Obama’s first year in office.

Lebanon & Syria (Summer ’09) – Lebanon PM Saad Hariri; Syria President Bashar al-Assad

On the hours long bus ride from Beirut to Damascus we had watched posters of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri give way to posters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Each of these guys is heir to the throne of his father – with public pressure on Saad, who turned forty last week, to be as good as his father, and public pressure on Bashar, 44, to be not-as-bad as his father. I wish someone would write each of their personal stories as a feature length article in Vanity Fair.

Our couch-surfer host in Damascus had put us up in a rarely-used office over a textile factory in the south side of the city far away from any travelers.
Damascus, Syria (Aug '09)– building where we stayed in the office over a textile factory.

After we feasted with his wife, two sisters and two young daughters, he took us on a long drive up a dark hill where locals park along the roadside to stare into the city lights down below. He told us great stories about being a commercial pilot for the national airline, how he paid 300% tax to have his dream BMW imported into the country, and what it’s like living in a country with a closed economy and limitations on expression, including the banning of Facebook.
Damascus at night. Syria (Aug ’09)

All the while, I sat alone in the backseat of his dream car, totally mesmerized not only by the string of songs playing on his car stereo, but the fact that every song was a live recording. I quietly fumbled around in my bag for pen and paper to scribble nearly illegibly in the darkness:

Songs* Playing in Couch Surfer Host’s Car on a Nighttime Drive
through Damascus, Syria (August 2009)

Tears in Heaven, Eric Clapton
Ironic, Alanis Morissette
Losing My Religion, R.E.M.
Strong Enough, Sheryl Crowe
Are You Gonna Go My Way, Lenny Kravitz
Gallow’s Pole, Led Zeppelin
Summer of ’69, Brian Adams
Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel
Here Comes the Rain Again, The Eurhythmics
Tonight’s the Night, Rod Stewart
Linger, the Cranberries

*All songs were live versions – this is extremely relevant in OCD Land.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On the Fence

June '09 Beirut, Lebanon. Fence covered in political posters of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

I am still on the fence about killing the blog.

My thoughts as I wander through the world often drift to [bxA] globalization, the information age and being overwhelmed. Celebrities are checking into rehab for anxiety. Prescription drugs are the new pot.

This is what happens when people think too much.

We’re overwhelmed and too busy to notice. There’s too much to do. Too much information. We’ve gone overboard, and I don’t mean in the cool-fun Goldie Hawn / Kurt Russell kinda way.

When I started at the bank in Houston almost ten years ago, one of my favorite bosses told me about when he started as an analyst 10+ years earlier. Before the internet analysts had to walk to the library and get archived newspapers on microfiche to research historical stock prices of the companies they covered.

July '09 Houston, Texas USA - Skyline shot from a Ferris wheel car at the downtown aquarium.

In 2000, we were punching the 3-letter stock ticker into our keyboard and pulling up Everything There Is to Know about our companies available on various financial news websites. Instantaneous results.

Then there was my grandmother who, when she was alive, went to three different family owned stores to get her weekly groceries: bread from the bakery, meat from the butcher, that kind of thing. She didn’t have a dishwasher. My sister and I were exasperated by these inefficiencies.

Karma yoga is when you do a task slowly in selfless service with full devotion. Even if you’re not expressly on a path to enlightenment, it gives your mind a chance to chill out.

Photo: October ’09 – Sivananda Kutir Ashram, India. Keren from Tel Aviv doing daily karma yoga outside my dorm. I would love to visit her in Israel but then I couldn’t go back to Lebanon with an Israeli stamp in my passport.

There was a time in my life when these profound duties were called “chores” and I didn’t have the money to outsource them to Molly Maid or fly to foreign countries where swamis would assign them to me.

Those ten minutes it took my former boss to walk back from the library to the office circa 1980s were minutes his mind got to process and reflect on the historical stock price – the zig zag line not unlike a heartbeat on a monitor, showing spikes during booms, dips during busts – and in the case of the bank’s energy portfolio, the ever perplexing story of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Photo: Militant groups in the Niger Delta target multinational oil firms (2008).

The more information we have, the more there is to think about and the less time there is to think about it.

April ’10 – Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.

Unless we stop for a while.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kill the Blog ?

“A blog is a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies.”
- Andrew Sullivan*

I've been thinking about killing the blog.

I'm not really traveling anymore, so is this a travel blog? I go places, but that's because my visa is always expiring. I could call it 'Ali's Visa Run Blog' but [bxA] who wants to read that?

Ali’s new passport (April 2010).

Do you really want to know about my 12 hour ordeal on a bus to Burma sitting next to a hungover Russian prostitute crashed out cold with her mouth hanging open and one of her long lean legs slung across my side of the seat we were sharing?

Then there was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last week and next will be Colombo, Sri Lanka.

But in between these trips inspired by my expiring visa, life is pretty ordinary.

Cleaning supplies at my house in Phuket (April 2010).

Like today, for instance. I cleaned house with emphasis on removing gecko poop from hard to reach places. The tribe of geckos I live with are cute, quiet little roommates but they’re not potty trained (and they give me an inexplicable urge to buy car insurance?).

Beyonce – I am Sasha Fierce (2008 Sony BMG Music Entertainment)

It was a sunny day and I was listening to Beyonce because the shops in K.L. played “Halo” over and over again. I liked the song so I bought the CD on iTunes.

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

With Beyonce blaring and sponge in hand, I answered the door to a neighbor I’ve only met once. She invited me snorkeling tomorrow with ten others who have chartered a boat to Ko Phi Phi. I said yes which meant a walk to a dive shop near Chalong Pier this afternoon to buy fins.

That was my day. See how boring it was?

Malaysia – Sony Ericsson billboard in the Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC) monorail station.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about the internet, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, social networking and the information age in general. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on. (I could blog about it. Hee.) Sometimes I think I need to press forward and really get into it – blog often about everything, anything.

Most of the time I think I’m ready to become an eccentric recluse. Sure, I’ve been postponing it as long as possible. But maybe ‘as long as possible’ ends now?

What do you think? Do I kill the blog?

*Blog post inspired by Fiona Stalker who sent me Andrew Sullivan quote today.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter

4 April 2010

I'm back in the Muslim world so I haven't seen any chocolate eggs or Easter bunnies, but I'm thinking of all of y'all celebrators today. Happy Easter!

Alyssa sent me the above photo because [bxA] it reminded her of our Easter last year...

April 2009 - Jounieh, Lebanon. Eggs on Sybaris.

We had just sailed Sybaris from Egypt to Lebanon and were on the boat at the Jounieh Marina just north of Beirut. Elly surprised us with a big breakfast, lots of chocolate and these cool hand drawn eggs. Hard to believe that was a year ago.

April 2009 - Jounieh Marina, Lebanon.

This year, I'm 4,734 miles away from Beirut....and 9,890 miles from Houston.