Friday, November 21, 2003
Last weekend we went out for a little chalet getaway (photos are in Recent Photos, really). A gang of us went down to the south end of Kuwait for a few days relaxing on the beach. Here are a couple pictures. Ramadan is the best time to go since all of the Kuwaitis who usually fill the place to bursting are at home trying not to think about the fact that they are fasting.
We're coming to the end of Ramadan. This week we only had three days of school and two days of parent interviews. Next week there are only two working days and then we have a 6 day weekend for the Eid holiday. It was supposed to be a five day weekend, but Ramadan started a day later than they had expected (it begins with the new moon and lasts until the next new moon). The government added an extra day onto the holiday so everyone can get in all the celebration due to them after a month of fasting. Lots of people are taking the opportunity to get out of Kuwait for a few days, but we are just staying put.
For Christmas, we are going to Cambodia. We are still working out our exact plans. There is not that much to see there except for Angkor Wat, an ancient Khmer temple complex of about 100 buildings that people here who have seen it say is pretty amazing. So after that, we might head up into the hills if we have time, which we probably won't since the hills are difficult to get to, or see how long the capital Phnom Penh holds our interest, or stopover in Bangkok on our way home and try to go somewhere in Thailand. We are meeting up with Karla's cousin Kathy and her good buddy Chad, so our plans will depend on them too.
People who have been there have said that the Cambodian people are much friendlier and welcoming that others in the region - even the Thais. The capital has a problem with crime at night, but by staying in established areas and travelling by licensed taxi, you are safe. Cambodia will be a safe place to be. Plus it has no Muslim population, was a French colony (so, it has minimal British and American interests) and is not a popular draw for western tourists!
I started tutoring a new kid. He was passed to me from our head of department, who was just too busy to tutor the Faisal. He's a very sweet little guy. Whenever I arrive, somehow he can always remember to make sure I get served tea, water and something to eat (fruit, popcorn, sweets). But the homework that we work for an hour to do, he forgets in his bag and doesn't hand in the next day at school. When I was there yesterday yesterday, I got a tour of the family garden at the end of the lesson. So far, I haven't really gotten attached to any of the kids of tutor. It's always been a pretty businesslike relationship. Most days I don't see anyone but a maid and the kid. But Faisal and his family are very welcoming - I feel much more like a guest in their house that someone working for them.
I have been keeping myself busy in my spare time with putting all of our CDs on the computer. I got a new hard-drive and an external case for it so there's tons of room for music. The computer is hooked into the home theatre speakers and the Musicmatch software does a pretty good job of playing the music. It will play be artist, or album or make a mix based on the mood or speed you request. Plus you can tell it which songs you like and don't like and it remembers to play those more or less often.
We had a problem with the car again last week. It is running well again, but we needed to have the distributor replaced for the second time. When it wouldn't start in the mornings earlier this year I took it to our regular mechanic who checked it out and tuned it up, but couldn't find anything wrong with it. But the next day, it wouldn't start at all. So I got a mechanic who lives right around our building to work on it. He checked everything out and replaced the distributor and it ran fairly well. But last week, it ran really rough on the way home from the chalets. Anytime we went up an overpass or were just cruising in top gear, it would misfire. So I took it to the local guy and he wanted to put new spark plugs in again - the last ones I got weren't good enough - I needed Chevrolet factory plugs. It didn't sound right, so I took it back to the regular mechanic. He took a look at it and decided the distributor was no good. Since we got it back, it has been running perfectly.
Since the beginning of the year, we've had to replace the battery once and the distributor and sparkplugs twice, plus had a tune up and the car towed to the shop. When the car was in the shop the second time and we were looking for a ride to school, it started to feel like owning this car wasn't such a good deal after all. But when it's all added up, the car has always got us where we needed to go and has never broken down and left us in the middle of nowhere. Plus all the work we've had done so far this year has only cost about $500 - which is what it costs to rent a small car for a month here. Plus, a taxi driver told Karla that our car is worth more now than when we bought it because there is a great demand for them in Iraq!
Thursday, November 06, 2003
When I penciled in my grades, I admit I was one of the last (but still on time), I got to see all the grades. I am hard marker. My students have to work to get A's and I'm not too worried about giving F's to students who are not able or willing to do the work. It wasn't any particular students that interested me, but what the other teachers are doing. It was very interesting. In grade 6, the grades that teachers who are in their first year at the school gave are significantly lower than those of the teachers who have been at the school for a long time. It looks like it takes at least a year (perhaps two in my case - my marks still aren't that high) for teachers who come here to figure it out.
In Kuwait we have something called "wasta". Well, I don't have it, but Kuwaitis do. Wasta is a magical problem solving agent that is directly related to how much money you have and how close you are to the important families. Wasta lets Kuwaitis walk past the line and be served. It gets them out of having to pay speeding tickets, or overdue electricity bills. And it helps students. Students who don't do well result in parents who are used to getting their way come in to meet the teacher.
This year, my scores are not the lowest. I am still in the low end - my scores are close to the new teachers. Maybe it means I am learning slowly. I hope that means I can look forward to fewer parents arriving to tell me what and how to teach.
Friday, October 31, 2003
Last week I caught I a student cheating in my exam. Printed copy of notes that answered on of the test's questions was in his hands during the test when he knew he was not allowed to have anything in his desk. Father didn't believe it. He had just found the paper in his desk and was trying to hand it in. So dad came into school and we had a meeting with the principal. I could tell it wasn't going to be a good one when he started with "I have three children in Al-Bayan and, while I think it's a good school..." In the end when he didn't get his way, he decided to make his statement by pulling his kids out of classes in the middle of the day to take them home. Is it any wonder that this kid is the little sneak that he is when dad so charming.
This weekend, we attended a little Halloween party at our friend's apartment. There are a couple photos of the event in the recent photos section. At the end of this week, the first quarter ends. Is the year passing that quickly?
Today is the day we make our first even mortgage payment. Out little house has been rented for the winter. Someone we know from the ski community in Winnipeg will live there with a couple other people. At least it should be well taken care of. Plus it's comforting to know that someone has committed to paying the bills for the next 6 months.
Monday, October 27, 2003
We have been leading a quiet life since we got back. A few parties to keep us busy on the weekends. But, we've stayed away from restaurants. There's lots of tutoring and exercise. We've worked out a system whereby we earn our pocket money based on the number of times we exercise each week.
Karla bought me a DVD player as an early Christmas gift (it was on sale) and I paid for the home theatre speaker system out of my exercise money. Our CD player stopped working and we took advantage of the misfortune to upgrade. We can still listen to regular CDs as well as CDs with mp3s on them, plus we can watch DVDs. It will even accept a CD with pictures on it and run a little slide show. But trouble started on Wednesday when a student asked me in class to hold onto her DVDs. Well, she forgot them and I brought them home. I popped one into the DVD player to see the wrong region screen - a screen I was not supposed to seen after being promised that the player I bought was a multi-region player. In fact, none of the three would play. I went to bed Wednesday night thinking about what I would say when I went back to the store.
Thursday morning I got up early and while I sipped my coffee, I decided to check on the internet to see exactly which DVD players were multi-region and which weren't. After a bit of surfing, I had a pretty extensive list scribbled down, (including the cheaper model I had almost bought t hat didn't have the surround sound outputs). I read that some players have a switch inside the controls which region's code it accepts. Just for the hell of it, I thought I would do a quick search to search to see how difficult it would be to alter ours. My first Yahoo result took me to a page that described a process of pushing a few buttons on the remote in the magic order. And sure enough, in a matter of 30 seconds, I had adapted our DVD player to accept discs from any region.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
I was driving home (alone) today, when good old Bruce Springsteen came on the radio. VOA's Roots and Branches (folk music) programme was doing a show on baseball song and "Glory Days" made the cut. Apart from reminding me of Bruce's own glory days with his Born in the USA album, I really could hear the bit that influenced Dan Bern in his lyrics and vocal style. I read a BBC review of one of Dan's shows that described him as a "Salvation Army Bruce Springsteen". I could hear the straightforward storytelling style and enjoyment in Bruce's voice that makes Dan so fun to listen to. Bruce doesn't have Dan's unconventional values or his senses of humor and the ridiculous, but he did have a hand in it.
I also watched a shop called "Rough Science". It was a reality documentary. Take five scientists, drop them at an old lumber mill in New Zealand, furnish them with simple tools and a box of junk - old radios, pots and pans, wire, elastics, zip ties, a bag of sugar, etc. and give them a job to do. In this case, it was to find and accurately weight gold. The geologist scouted the rivers for good places to look for gold, the electronics whiz started building a metal detector, one set to work building a scale and using a bag of nails and wire to make it accurate down to a tenth of a gram, the botanist went into the forest to find plants that would strain the gold flakes out of the sediment as it ran through a sluice. No alliances, no hissy-fits, no insects to eat, just some good old fashioned resourcefulness. There may be hope for TV yet.
Sunday, October 19, 2003
The highlight of my day, other than being able to drive home with my wife, was an episode of Seinfeld and a Surfer on Acid (Kuwaiti style - made with real coconut milk because Malibu is only 20% alcohol and therefore an inefficient product to smuggle). Karla is about to kick me off of the computer and send me back to Midnight's Children, which might be my new highlight of the day - but so far the book hasn't really grabbed my attention. In fact, I look at the six hundred pager and wonder how long it will take me to get through it.
Sunday, September 21, 2003
Thursday, September 18, 2003
I also added a few photos from the summer in the Recent Photos section.
Tuscany is an ideal place for a bike tour. It is teeming with quaint little towns and not so crowded with tourists in early June. There is a lot to see within an easy day's ride. And with such a ready supply of delicious food and wine the commitment to a few hours of exercise leaves you feeling guilt free at meals.
It's hard to be critical of Tuscany, but the transport system lends a hand. The bus system and train system are not coordinated. Bus hubs are large towns, so when trains drop you off in small towns, you're stuck. There's no way to get to neighboring small towns without first bussing your way back into a large town. Except via taxis. Even then, you have to be lucky enough to locate a public telephone (bus terminals and nearby hotels aren't overly interested in helping tired backpackers with their transport problems - not even offering or allowing use of a phone), and lucky enough to find the only taxi driver in Montepulciano at home!
When the town's one taxi driver pulled up in a Jaguar, we had no choice but to hop in and make our contribution to his luxurious service. By the time we had made it to Pienza, the couple who were renting the bike to us were upset that we were late. We checked into a modest little hotel, ate wonderful handmade pasta for dinner, and repacked our huge packs into tiny panniers. We only had time to take a quick peak at the medieval town perched on top of a hill before we turned in.
The next morning we consulted with the renters about our route, insisted our bike had working brakes, and headed out with only a minor delay. We made great time as we followed the quiet side roads from Pienza towards San Quirico d'Orcia. It was only a week later, going the opposite direction on the same road, that I realized how much the slope favoured us on that first day. Nevertheless, we made great time and stopped in San Giovanni d'Asso during the mid-day lunch break that all Italy takes. We sat in the courtyard of the cathedral and had a little rest. The next hour, we worked our way up to Abbazia di Monti Oliveto Maggiore. An Benedictine monastery that featured a series of frescos, an apothecary, and an ancient library (whose size was reduced from 40 000 volumes to 10 000 when Napoleon turned the monastery into a barn and the shepherds burned the books to keep warm during winter).
The last 12 kilometers of the day were a speedy downhill cruise into Asciano where the tourist office directed us to a room for rent in a private house. They spoke no English, but the room had a huge balcony. Breakfast in Italy is coffee and a croissant. Had we known, we would have skipped the exercise in English-Italian translation, an attempt to communicate that we wanted breakfast with no meat. The older couple were very friendly and served up a delicious sweet lemon cake with coffee - a great start to our second day!
Before leaving, Karla decided that a stop at the local bike shop for proper bike attire was a necessity. The super padded shorts made riding on an already very bruised butt almost tolerable, so we set out to ride up into the Chianti region. After a few worries about being lost and another English-Italian translation experience (this time with the help of a map), we made it to the foot of the hill that climbed way, way up to the town where we were going to stay. We made it a few hundred meters up before we hopped off to push the bike. After an hour of walking and one German shepherd attack (aborted, thankfully), we reached the top. We rode across the top of the plateau, stopping just before Radda in Chianti at a quaint little garden cafe to be shamelessly gouged for water.
Radda was a beautiful medieval town on top of a high ridge. Our lesson of the day (that restaurants close after lunch from 3:00 to 7:00, when they open again for dinner), made our first authentic Italian pizza dinner even more delicious. After dinner, we sat out on top of the city wall to watch the sunset over Chianti's famous hilly vineyards.
The next morning, the climb to Radda paid off. For the first 20kms, we cruised downhill towards Poggibonsi, passing tens of Sunday cyclists beginning their week-end ride in the upwards direction. We passed through Poggibonsi and started our climb to San Gimignano, the medieval Manhattan. A skyline that resembles a modern city comes from the medieval fashion to build square towers to demonstrate a family's influence. We arrived to find nobles, maidens and soldiers roaming the streets in honour of their medieval festival. After lunch, we visited the torture museum. At first it was an opportunity to see some of the real artifacts that had inspired the Hollywood dungeons. The museum had an extensive collection of items and artwork whose detailed and explicit explanations were disturbing. The Hollywood side of torture and execution are the most benign forms that existed and were reserved for nobility. Much less consideration was afforded to commoners, and the treatment of heretics and traitors shattered my prior definition of cruelty.
Leaving the museum with a quesasy feeling, we needed a little time to recover wandering the quieter parts of town and exploring the quiet and frescoed cathedral. We left San Gimignano as afternoon turned to evening to ride to Colle di Val d'Elsa, an old but ignored town. As we wandered the streets looking for a restaurant, we discovered that a community dinner was being held in the old town square to raise money for schools. Our genuine Tuscan peasant meal was nothing like the pasta and pizza we had been served up until then. The salads, beans, vegetables and bread (we skipped the wild boar) were equally delicious.
We stayed two nights in Colle di Val d'Elsa. The next day we rode out to and back from Volterra. As I write this, it's beginning to feel a little repetitive. Volterra is another medieval town perched on top of a tall hill. Again, we visited the cathedral and wandered its narrow streets, stopping for delicious, fresh pasta and/or pizza. Did I mention that it's set in the middle of beautiful rolling fields, covered in long rows of grape vines, or even in mid-June, golden wheat or yellow sunflowers?
The next morning we opted for a short ride and stopped in Siena, a city of 60 000, and the largest stop on our tour. It was a real city. It was big enough to get lost in and to have an ostentatious cathedral. The term "golden oldies" took on a whole new meaning as we toured the museum, that had seemed to dedicate its all of its 50 or so rooms to those life sized gold-leaf backed panels portraying either a standing Virgin Mary or Jesus.
We left Siena and headed off road (off asphalt anyway) to head towards Montalcino. The small country roads took us through small villages, but led us over hills instead of along them, and eventually down to cross the river. We began the longest climb of our trip. After three hours of continuous uphill grind, we reached the home of famous Brunello wine. We went out and splurged on expensive glasses of smooth and savoury wine that afternoon, then foolishly ordered a carafe of watery, bitter grape juice, uh, I mean, house wine with dinner.
Our last day of riding started with a 10km decent to Abbazia di Sant' Antimo, an old stop on the medieval pilgrimage tour that had lay in ruin until about ten years ago, when the chief Benedictine monk sent five monks out to restore it. When we arrived just before 10, when it opened, we peaked through the old wooden doors to see two shafts of sunlight light up the incense smoke that wafted up from the swinging censer and to hear Gregorian chanting as the monks performed a Latin mass. After the series of immense, ornate cathedrals we had seen, it was a mystical experience to see this simple almost undecorated stone church, nearly empty, but very much in use.
The road home seemed long and continually uphill. By the time we got back to Pienza, the idea of a few days travel without pedaling was welcome. We enjoyed our quiet small town evening before heading for Rome the next day.
The capital was busy, crowded, and swarming with tourists. Our first afternoon we visited the Colleseum, the ruins of the ancient city, and walked past Fontana square and Trevi fountain. By the end of the day, we felt overwhelmed by the scale of the city. The next day we got up early and returned to Trevi Fountain and Fontana Square to catch a glimpse of them with only tens of other people, instead in a crowd of hundreds if not thousands like the day before. The fountain in Fontana square is supposed to represent the four seasons. Personally, I think it represents four typical reactions to morning - despair, shock, delight and denial. We walked over to the Vatican and despite arriving before it opened, we were easily behind more than 1000 people, more than three blocks away from the entrance.
The line moved quickly, and we were in the museum before we knew it. No other art gallery or museum, or for that matter, any building I had even been in prepared me for the size and scale of the Vatican. It was hundreds of rooms, not only filled with world class pieces of art, but frescoed and mosaiced floor to ceiling. We walked (without stopping to look at the displays) for an hour inside the building to reach the Cistene chapel. Even the exit was grand. Saint Peter's Basilica was also regal: enormous, opulent, majestic (pompous?). It made every other church we had seen a mere warm-up.
When we rose the next morning to catch the train to the airport, we weren't very sorry to be leaving Rome. We appreciated even more the beautiful country setting of Tuscany.
Monday, September 15, 2003
Since we returned we have both been busy getting ready for school. We returned to a rumour that the school would be moving us out of our homes into smaller, cheaper places. This after having almost forced us to move last year only to have backed off and promised that we could stay where we were through this year. Sure enough the first week back at school, a memo appeared in our mailboxes telling us we must move. Fortunately, the next day, another memo turned up saying that the staff could stay where they are after all. And since, we have gone a whole week without another memo!
I also had to have our car registered and insured for this year. Although it took two afternoons to get the insurance, then to go through the safety check and registration, it was cheap and mostly waiting around for my papers to be processed, copied, stamped etc. The safety check consisted of reving the engine and showing that the brake lights worked.
Karla is off tutoring tonight, having been hired as a deputy-mom to a Kuwaiti family. The chief-mom is expecting and wants Karla to supervise the academic performance of her three other kids (age 8, 9 and 11)
Otherwise we are back to life as usual in Kuwait. The maid is back and preparing food this year. Every Sunday she whips up a couple Indian dishes that we eat all week. Last Sunday she surprised us with salad and creme caramel to boot.
Friday, June 06, 2003
Sunset on the Arabian Gulf
Aziz and Dave
Relaxing on the high seas
Dan, Michelle and Rudy
Jason, Margaret and Karla
Martine, Aziz and Dave
Are we having fun yet?
Friday, May 23, 2003
Then on Monday, the US Embassy finally issued the ordered evacuation that would extend the holiday and provide financial assistance for the teachers to travel. By the middle of the morning, the principal had come around to ask if we wanted our flight home or cash in lieu. Since we already had our booking to Thailand (and it was already looking like it might be tight getting out) and we though the break would likely be brief and we would be back to school in a couple weeks, we opted for the cash. We would continue on salary, plus the school would give us money for the price of a ticket to Canada to cover the cost of our ticket to Thailand, plus a few dollars for spending money.
However, just as we got home and were about to go pick up our ticket, the director of the school called to let us know there had been a misunderstanding. He told us that teachers who took the flight home (or cash in lieu) would not receive the bonus that the school had previously offered to teachers who stayed and worked while the school was open. Up till then, he had promised that if the evacuation happened to coincide with a holiday, that teachers might claim both, as long as they didn't miss any days of school.
With our disappointment and mistrust of the school beginning to grow, we picked up our ticket and were ready to go. When school ended Wednesday afternoon, we hurried home and picked up our bags, locked up and headed out to the airport. We arrived half an hour before the counter even opened and joined the mob to wait. There were six flights to Cairo that were delayed and all their passengers with all their belongings (including at least probverbial two kitchen sinks from the size of the mounds of luggage) occupied any floor that wasn't dedicated to the mobs that were waiting to check in. After an hour of pushing, jockeying, shoving, elbowing, and the telling off of one Kuwaiti woman who "just needed to talk" to the counter agent (along with her four tickets and passports, mind you), we had our boarding passes in hand and were headed through to the lounge.
We were left in the line to board for a nervous hour, and finally, we were off. By the way, keen observer that I am, I noticed that they will not serve beer until after the plane has taken off. Thai Airways was comfortable enough and popped us out into Bangkok the next morning. By the time we arrived at our guest house in the centre of Bangkok, the bombing had begun in Iraq. After a little nap, we headed out into the streets to see all of the wonders Bangkok had to offer.
We stayed along Khao San Road, the backpackers headquarters in Bangkok.
The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, travel agents and shops selling everything from Thai handicrafts to used books to knockoffs of brand-name everything. It was a typical city in a developing country. The streets and sidewalks teemed with vendors to the point where it was difficult even to walk down them. When the police arrived, the vendors on the street packed up instantaneously and hurried around the corner.
We spent the first two days kind of decompressing from the rigours of staying in Kuwait until the last minute. But at the same time, we stayed in touch with the situation there. I felt fortunate when I watched the empty streets of downtown Kuwait as the first of the air raid sirens went off. But I also felt sad for the people I knew who could not afford to leave even if they wanted to.
We visited the temples and palaces around the old city. Thailand has never been a colony. Some of its buildings reflect the arrival of Europeans in the area, but there are almost no entirely colonial or European buildings.
There is a definite Thai architecture. Statues teem and the roofs sparkle with coloured glass mosiacs.
Temples house the usual collection of numerous and/or enormous Buddhas reside. For a religion that strives to eliminate desire for worldly things, the temples certainly reflect a bigger and more is better attitude.
Bangkok is a test even for the seasoned traveller. In our ten minute walk to the palace, we were approached twice by seeming passersby who just wanted to let us know that the palace as closed until the afternoon due to a Buddhist observance when was open all along. And that sort of helpful deception continued. At first it was surprising, then funny, but finally it just made us want to leave.
The national museum is immense, well designed and signed.
After 45 minutes we found ourselves only partway through the first of its almost 40 buildings. The museum is as if someone took a university textbook covering the complete history of Thailand and turned it into maps, videos, dioramas, models and artifacts to accompany the pages of writing. We gave up on watching the videos and trying to understand the history of Thailand to just look at their loot.
After two days of the bustle of the capital, we boarded a second class sleeper train to for the north. We chugged out of the station on time in a clean and comfortable car. About an hour into the trip, the attendant came and efficiently turned the seats into beds (and even made the beds for us). We climbed up (the bottom bunk tickets were sold out) into our beds for the night.
The ride would have been entirely wonderful, if it weren't for the a/c being left on full blast all night. By the time we arrived in Chaing Mai, most of the passengers were huddle in their seats trying to keep warm.
Chiang Mai is a wonderful small city. It is the capital of the north and the center for a booming trekking industry. There are tons of restaurants and hotels, even an Irish pub (run by an Australian, which apologized that Thailand was out of Guinness). But the city has not developed that attitude that usually accompanies tourists. The city also has hundreds of temples
and a strong artisan community (both traditional and contemporary).
People were friendly and helpful (and honest), and prices were very reasonable. We even felt safe enough to rent a little motorcycle to tour the city.
Karla fell ill after a night in the icebox/train. While she recovered (then shopped), I went on a overnight hike to see one of the "remote" hill tribes. The walk was easy and the village was far from remote, but my fellow hikers were a fun group. The Thai government, in an effort to improve the standard of living of the mostly fruit farming (and occasionally opium growing) people have build recreation centers and schools. The village we visited had a ping-pong table, soccer field and a court to play the local sport, a combination of volleyball and hacky-sack, all build around the school and the solar-powered community TV. That evening, we played a pick-up game of soccer with the village kids. When we left the next morning, the kids were all grouped around the TV.
We left Chiang Mai for Ko Pha Ngan, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand whose remote location preserves its quiet pace. After 24 hours of travel (overnight train, internal flight, 2 hours on a bus, three hours on a ferry and 45 minutes in the back of a pickup truck along rutted dirt road) we arrive and took up residence in our own little bamboo hut on the beach, complete with private bathroom, fan and mosquito net.
The beach was practically empty.
The nearest neighbours were at least 50 feet in either direction. There was breakfast, lunch and dinner and beach. If we made it to all three meals, it was a busy day. The town was a strip of simple hotels and restaurants. On our second day the German couple that we rode the truck to our hotel with invited us to a fundraising dinner for the local school. When we arrived, even before we had reached the food stands, we heard our names and looked into the crowd to see a friend from Kuwait. It turned out that Dave was installed at the beach next to ours.
The next day we walked over the hill and down to the next beach to visit. The town wasn't quite as quiet as the one we were staying at, but we decided to move over to join Dave and a couple of other teachers from another school in Kuwait that were staying at the same beach. We had someone to commiserate with when the missle hit Souk Sharq in Kuwait city and the schools still called us back for the next week.
After a few days on the beach, we headed back to Bangkok. We debated staying on longer, and left in mid-debate. We had flight reservations that we decided to keep. I hoped that we would still have the holiday extended by the school before we left. We arrived in Bangkok with two days before we had to get on a plane to return to Kuwait. We avoided the tourist alley we stayed in when we first arrived in favour of Siam Square, an area near the university where we would see more of the "real Thailand".
Siam Square is home to several embassies, almost as many Starbucks, at least two of every fast-food restaurant and two 7-11s on every city block. It was almost like being back in Kuwait. We enjoyed, The Hours, the first real, uncut movie we had seen since we left and called our director with a few questions about going back.
On the day we left, we took the train to the airport and dropped off our bags then continued to Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand.
Even though it has never been a colony of anyone, it has been sacked by the Laos, Burmese and Khmers. All that is left of the ancient city are extensive ruins of temple and palace foundations with a few towers and walls standing.
By the time we boarded the plane, there were 7 Kuwaiti teachers standing together in Bangkok. In the boarding lounge in Dubai, we numbered 30. No one was really happy to go back, but we had all decided for our own reasons that it was time to go back.
Thursday, May 15, 2003
13 Cycling in Tuscany
24 WCT Preparations
26A walk on the West Coast Trail
2 More Vancouver
4 Eugene, Oregon
6 Chris' Wedding
8 Fernie - Wing night
13 Canoe Tipr
19 Kara's Wedding
7 Edmonton Folk Festival
3 Back to work
Comments and suggestions welcome.
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
In other news, we finally joined the majority of people in Kuwait by buying a mobile phone. We have a line here in Kuwait, which you can use to get in touch with us at (965) 902-5583 (965 is the country code for Kuwait, there is no area code). We plan to get a different line in Canada when we get back for the summer so we can use it as we move around.
Sunday, March 23, 2003
Monday, March 17, 2003
We are scheduled to leave on Wednesday night on a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. The school, in one of their few wise decisions, have extended our spring break to two weeks. The break could be extended further, if the military action continues longer than the two weeks.
Yesterday, when the evacuation was ordered, the mood at the school became very excited. Teachers were happy that some decision had been made. The administration came around and asked teachers if they would prefer a ticket home or a cash payment (which we took as we already had a reservation to Thailand).
By the end of the day, we had all made plans. At a staff meeting the school began to revoke its promises. First, the one month salary advance that accompanies the ticket home in case of an evacuation would not be given since we are being paid our regular salary this week. Furthermore, the money the school claimed it had to pay for such a situation would not be available. Teachers who wanted the money to pay for the tickets that they had booked on t he school's advice were told that the school could not say when they might be paid. The school has said that teachers who work everyday that the school is open will receive a bonus at the end of the year. If the evacuation accompanied a school closure, the bonus would not be affected. Minutes after we got home, we received a call from our director saying that their announcement that evacuation would not affect the bonus, had been a misunderstanding. Now the school's position was that staff who took the evacuation would give up the bonus.
Karla and I are not impressed by the school and their decisions not to live up to their word. But departure is a day and a half away for us. As long as the airlines continue operating and there is no pre-emptive attack from Iraq, we will leave on Wednesday night (Wednesday morning, North American time). Hopefully, the next posting will have photos of Thailand.
Hoping for as short and safe a conflict as possible...
Friday, March 14, 2003
It's been a week of ups and downs.
Some schools have come back from the extended holidays they took at the beginning of February (and some are due back on the 22nd) to face futures that are much more uncertain than when they sent their teachers and students home. Our school has hung in there and stayed open. Teachers have left in a trickle since the beginning of February and we are now at about 2/3 staff. A few of the teachers that left have come back, having run out of money or faced some other unfortunate consequence of not working.
The staff requested a meeting with the board to talk to them about what plans are in place for evacuating the staff. We met on Monday afternoon. Despite the March 17th deadline, the school continued to take a wait and see attitude. It would not make a prediction about the start of hostilities and cancel school, or extend the holidays. At the meeting, this upset quite a few of the teachers and the director faced quite a few accusations of the school not being concerned about the welfare of its teachers. The director did however show a much better understanding of the staff's feelings by the end of the meeting.
The next day, the UK proposed its extension, and the certainty that the invasion would begin before our vacation that begins on the 19th looked less certain. We all felt more secure, holiday plans began to extend. If an invasion started during the holiday, who knows how long it might last.
Now, with it looks like a vote, if it even happens will take place on Monday. So our Wednesday holiday will go ahead. Our next worry is that will we over having to come back at the end of a holiday. (Is it wrong to hope for the war to start so we can stay in Thailand for a couple extra weeks?) Unfortunately, the board probably won't extend the vacation unless it is fairly definite that an attack will begin.
What we really fear is that the discussions over disarmament will continue over the summer and into the fall. And that when we come back next year, we will just be repeating the same situation all over again. (If it's wrong to hope for a war to stay in Thailand, it's even worse to hope for a war to make life a little easier)
Sunday, March 02, 2003
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Friday, February 14, 2003
For the moment, we intend to stay and watch how things develop. Important decisions will likely be made in the next few days. We are going to try to make a airline reservation to make getting home that much easier if and when we make that decision.
It is true that three of the schools in Kuwait have closed for extended holidays until the end of February up to the end of March. These are schools that serve the American and diplomatic communities and are more effected by the US's evacuation of families. Those schools are scheduled to restart classes and run on extended hours until the end of June.
Like anywhere in a time of change or uncertainty, Kuwait is awash in rumors. We laugh when we listen to the American news, especially the reports from Kuwait. There is an increased police force on the streets and military vehicles posted around the palace, but otherwise things are nothing like the crisis situations that they describe. This weekend at the mall, the parking lot was full, there were inflatable jungle gyms for the kids to play on, and even when a fire alarm was set off by one of the restaurants in the food court, the line-up at Starbucks hardly stirred. This is hardly the war-ready state that the news would have you believe Kuwait is in. Nevertheless, Jamie and I try to remain alert and ready to get out should it seem warranted.
Friday, January 31, 2003
This weekend we got a package together with all our important documents and changed some money into US dollars. We have decided not to travel this holiday. Karla has had a sore throat for a few weeks and doesn't feel like moving around too much. We are also saving a bit of money in case we end up taking an extended break. The ministry of education here has said that if there is a military action, schools will be closed for 15 days. And after that a decision will be made to reopen the schools or to close them down until September. (Note to relatives: Who has space for a couple of couch surfers until late August? Does anyone know about any under the table jobs for a couple of non-residents?) (Note to the taxman: Ignore that last sentence.)
These are interesting times (to say the least). We are talking with the school and each other daily to decide what we will do. For the moment, we are going to continue working (which our contract says we have to). If there is an evacuation notice, we will turn our noses up at the rumoured double salary for those who stay and come home. If we leave, it is with the understanding that if the school's population shrinks due to Kuwaiti families leaving the country for the duration of the fighting or longer, we may not be called back until September. We would hope that the evacuation would be brief (How long can Iraq remain a threat?) and that the impact on Kuwait of any combat would be minimal (No surprises falling from the sky). That way our students' families would be more likely to come back and re-start our jobs.
So, to sum up, it's a time to be vigilant (ear to the ground, stick on the ice), but not to be fearful or worried. We are prepared; we are connected; we stay informed. As Jasper says on the Dead Dog Cafe: Stay calm. Be brave. Wait for the signs.
Saturday, January 18, 2003
It all started with an overnight flight the day school let out that deposited us at the airport (a awkward 40 kms north of the capital) at 5:30 in the morning. Fortunately, our guest house (the Sri Lankan term for a B and B – that offered anything from only the bed to complete room and board) let us check in early and we slept that morning and got out into Colombo for the afternoon. Russ met us and took us around. Wouldn’t you know it. We landed on a poya day (the Buddhist full moon holiday) and there was no alcohol to be had anywhere. Colombo was nothing special. Your average developing country big city: dirty, busy, polluted, but still the center of the country’s business and people.
After a couple days we were ready to hit the road. We followed the guide book to a little hole-in-the-wall travel agent, who walked us to see some friends who were still in the business of cars and drivers. We got ourselves set up with Ari and his white van for 8 days.
We left the capital to find that crowed, narrow, winding roads were the rule all through the country. Thank goodness the country is so small. If you can average 40 km/h you are making great progress. We spent the next three days touring the ancient cities and temples north of Kandy.
Dambulla rock caves, hidden high hill, behind the world’s largest (and possibly gaudiest) gold sitting Buddha, were frescoed top to bottom and filled with statues, many of which were part of the mountain just not chipped away when the caves were enlarged.
Sigiriya was the highlight of the trip. The history goes that the bastard son of the king killed his father and drove the legitimate son into India. He got nervous and spent the next 30 years building an unassailable castle/palace on top an enormous rock.
A metal pathway has been bolted into the side of the mountain to get up to the enormous lion statue who's mouth once served as the starting point for the final sheer ascent.
Only the foundations of the palace are left.
It is beyond my imagination to envision what a splendid and remarkable place it must have been. The legitimate son did come back. The bastard and his army took a wrong turn and got stuck in a swamp. The army deserted its leader, who killed himself. Also partway up there is the only example of secular ancient art in Sri Lanka. Several women's portraits served as a kind of ancient Playboy for the ruler.
Eventually the palace was forgotten and just rediscovered in the last century.
Later that day we headed out a road (it barley qualified!) that Ari told us had been too dangerous to use in years past because of the separatist movement. An hour got us 20 kms through rice fields and small villages to Medirigiriya.
It was practically abandoned and the guards were having a little swim in the lake when we got there. Words don’t do it justice. The rock of the columns and statues shone like it was encrusted with raw diamonds.
The next day we set out on clunky Chinese bicycles for a tour of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the 13th century capital of Sri Lanka.
The city is on the shore of a large lake that is, to a great degree, man-made. It was carved out from the rock by a series of kings (all trying to outdo each other) whose philosophy was that “not a drop of rain shall flow to the ocean until it has been used by man.” A great museum helped to recreate some of the ruins.
We almost got rained on and practiced riding bikes with umbrellas. By partway through the bike tour we were feeling ruin-apathy, the affect of too many ruin visits.
One more stop to see a temple that had been moved due to a hydro project pushed us over the edge and we were happy to get to Kandy where we would spend Christmas. Christmas eve, we visited the Elephant orphanage where they take care of young and injured elephants and train them to be working animals. The keepers have them very well trained (with big metal spears – but I guess you need to show them who’s boss). We were face to face with about 60 of the big guys as they rounded them up to take them down to the river for their bath. We also took a long walk around the botanical gardens – which should rightfully be called the “bat”-tanical gardens due to the huge bats filling the trees and the skies above.
Christmas day was quiet. It is a holiday in Sri Lanka, so most of the shops were closed. We roamed around a bit, made a couple of phone calls home and then spent the rest of the day eating and drinking. The Kandy dancers did some fine footwork and then walked on hot coals at the end of the show to cool off.
We had Christmas dinner at a fancy hotel. A children’s choir came in and sang some carols for us and we got a visit from Santa Claus himself. He came danced along to the carols ringing his single sleigh bell. He wore one of those grotesque rubber old-man Santa masks and his white gloves were latex (we discovered when he shook our hands on his tour of the room).
Boxing day we set out on Sri Lanka’s narrow twisty roads again, headed into the high country. On our way, we passed two men painted a fresh line down he road that gently weaved from side to side. One man guided the other as he held a small can of paint and a paint brush and painted the lines one by one. Ari, told us the line was going to be the new middle of the road when they got around to widening it. We arrived at our small guest house around lunch. We spent the afternoon roaming around the small town getting ready for our big climb to the top of Adam’s peak the next morning. We settled into bed early.
The next morning we got up at 2:30 to be on the peak for sunrise. After a quick cup of tea, banana and handful of cookies, we began the ascent. The path began as a road, lined by stalls selling refreshments as it climbed out of the town. As we walked, stairs began to interrupt the path that was still as wide as a dirt road. As we climbed the path stairs became more and more regular. The last hour of the three hour climb was one winding but continual flight of stairs up to an immense concrete temple perched on the top. The temple houses a footprint that is a pilgrimage site for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. During the peak pilgrimage season, there can be 20 000 people climbing the mountain at one time.
We were five out of about 300 that were at the top for the beautiful cloud-obscured sunrise. We could see green mountain tops poking through the low blue clouds as the light intensified.
Finally the sun broke out above the clouds on the horizon and rose up to cast a shadow the the mountain across the western half of the island.
After a hour and a half on the top, we began the long downhill walk.
That day we traveled to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s most English city. We stayed in a questionable guest house, that definitely had a very different idea about what constituted hot water than we did. We were just down the street from a little hotel where we would have stayed had they had space for us. We took over their bar for dinner while they tried to temp us with their karaoke system. After a few minutes of a BeeGees concert, we talked them into a putting on a few episodes of Mr. Bean. Again we were early to bed.
The next morning came at 5 am. We set out for World’s End.
We got to the park just after sunrise and were lucky enough to make it to the cliff to see the 700m drop (No, mom, we didn’t get to close to the edge) before the mists rolled in. We even saw a few deer munching some dewy grass. No leopards though.
Our last official inland stop was an old tea plantation set up by the Thomas Lipton. We toured the factory from where they pay the pickers a couple dollars for the 15kgs of tea they collected while walking up and down the steep hills where it grows to the sorting area where they collect all the good tea to send overseas and save all the second rate tea to sell in Sri Lanka.
Then we hurried down to the coast, making our last inland stop to receive a speeding ticket (78 in a 60km/h zone – fine $4C). We arrived in Tangalle where we spent a couple days relaxing on the beach. Near our simple little cabana was a secluded little beach where we spent a couple days body surfing and generally enjoying how unlike Kuwait our surroundings were.
December 30th, we headed off to Unawatuna, a more popular beach town. Our hotel reservation turned out to be in a dive, but after a little searching we found a beautiful hotel just out of town looking down the coast. The beach was sheltered by a coral reef, which proved some interesting snorkeling and the beach was lined with restaurants with comfy beach chairs set up to attract customers. We were attracted.
New Year’s we had dinner on the beach. After dinner we walked along the wide bay past the picnics and tens of restaurants all serving celebratory meals. We returned to our restaurant for a little news year’s boogie. At midnight everyone stood out on the beach as all the bay reflected the fireworks that filled the air all along the beach. Out at sea, fireworks flashed above the glowing lights of the ships at sea.
The next day we headed back to Colombo for the next day’s flight home. Even though New Year’s Day isn’t a holiday, all the places we wanted to go in Colombo just happened to be closed. I did buy some alcohol and get it all repackaged and disguised in my bag.