Sunday, December 26, 2004

The holidays have left us with lots of time to relax, rest, think about things and plan for the future.

We have decided not to return to Kuwait next year. We have gotten moving this break making plans for next year. Our 'plan A' is to find jobs in Fernie at the private school there, move back to our house, and return to the world of tax-payers who don't have maids. 'Plan B' is to look for international work closer to home. Somewhere in Mexico would be ideal. It is both close and easy to travel to from home. It would be easy for us to get home for holidays and for you all to come and see us. Other possibilities are Central or South America. They aren't as close or easy to get to, but at least they are in almost the same time zone. It makes communication easier and travel easier. For shorter holidays, it would be more practical to go home if we don't have face major jet-lag getting used to the time change and then switching back a week or two later. Down at the bottom of 'plan B' are a few European school. Europe won't have the time zone advantage (though it would be better than Kuwait), but it will have the advantage of ease of travel, probably more than even many Central and South American destinations.

We've also been getting ready for the baby too. The apartment has been reorganized. The crib is assembled and in place. Despite the urban legend, it was easy to assemble, went together with no parts left over, and has not spontaneously collapsed one in several hours of standing. We cleared shelves and set out baby's clothes, toiletries, feeding supplies, toys and a changing station. Soon, I'll be installing the child seat in the car and Karla will be packing her bag to take to the hospital with her.

Baby stuff at the ready

Here are a few pictures from our tour of the Mowasat Hospital. We spoke to a doctor about the delivery procedures there and took a quick tour of the rooms, with the camera this time. We'll have an appointment with Dr. Laila next week and go over the birth plan to finalize the plans.

We are a little worried here. We've got a few friends and students that we know of (and probably more that we don't) who are travelling in Asia over the holidays. We only have word that one, Greg, is safe as he decided to go north in Thailand before going south to the beaches. He said that he felt the quake in Chang Mai in northern Thailand. When Karla and I were on Koh Pha Ngan, a island on the east coast, we stayed in a little bamboo hut, only 100 feet from the water. I can imagine what the beaches would have looked like. At ten am, people getting up and coming out of their huts to survey the beach on their way to breakfast when a huge wave rushed past moving everything up land then pulling it back out to sea. So out thoughts are with Beth and John, who went to relax on Koh Phi Phi, and Ibrahim, one of my tutor students whose family went to the Maldives.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

There is another photo of Karla up:

Big mama #7

Egypt Travelogue

Land of hassles.

Jamie and Karla at Abu Simbel

We boarded the Kuwait Airways flight (late) on Thursday morning, bound for Cairo, Egypt. Martine, Karla and I were looking forward to a week away from Kuwait, as we always do. This time especially because we would miss the height of the pre-Eid shopping when the streets are crowded past capacity (the sidewalks too) with cars and shoppers desperately in search of the something to buy. It's kind of like Christmas eve, but in a country where doing whatever you can to get somewhere is considered par for the course.

So we found our extremely snug seats, to wait for the late departure. After a routine flight, we landed in Cairo. Now, prior to leaving Kuwait, I had made arrangements with an Egyptian travel agent for train tickets and a cruise on the Nile. Sure enough, our man had sent a man with a black-marker-on-white-paper sign to pick us up. Cairo airport is well arranged, but poorly signed. Once off the plane and past duty free (which, we discovered is happy to take any currency except Egyptian pounds), we came to several long line ups leading up to the customs agents. Lining one wall of this room are the exchange offices of several banks. There is nothing to tell you that the bank booths sell the tourist visa (except for the customs agent at end of the long line you've been waiting in). Fortunately, Karla knew what to do and we sailed through.

Karla had said that Egypt was the land of hassles. I had steeled myself for the barrage of touts that would try to guide us to taxi, hotels, shops, camels, brothels, deals, tours, weddings, bazaars, pyramids, romantic getaways, and the latest stop-smoking gimmick. But there was nothing. We walked past the crowds and met our travel agent, Abdou. We went outside to a well-maintained mini van that took us through the traffic (and I mean traffic) of Cairo to the train station. Traffic in Cairo moves slowly and is jam packed. There are no lines on the roads, possibly because there is never a time when they aren't jam-packed full. And they're not just crowed with cars. There are donkey carts, buses, and pedestrians . As we drove (inched) along a tangled head came bobbing by the window. It was a little girl, probably 6 or 7 years old, making her way along the street between the lanes of traffic.

We arrived at the train station, starving hungry and three hours early for our train that left an hour late. We feasted on potato chips, chocolate and soda. We met our guide, Marianna who was an unmentioned part of our package tour. When I booked the tour, I knew the cruise included trips to the sights that it passed, but I didn't realize that there would be a full time tour guide for us. The train's lateness, which Marianna told us was due to the fact that it was Ramadan, turned out to be the norm for Egypt. Everything happened an hour later than promised.

We caught the sleeper train south. We checked into our little room on board and got set up. The Egyptian railway uses old European train cars, which means they are nice, but well used. The meal service was not beef or chicken, but beef and chicken, neither of which, reports suggest, were any good. But, Martine and I did have a duty free beer with dinner (no drinking for the expectant mother) and we settled in for a good night's sleep.

The next morning we rose to find ourselves, you guessed it, an hour late arriving in Aswan (to be precise, an hour later than the promised one hour late - or in other words, two hours late). This meant that Karla's plan to see the temples around Aswan would not happen. We had to be in the convoy headed south to Abu Simbel under police protection by 11:00. The convoy left on time, but since the train was late and we didn't have time for some of the planned sightseeing, we were early for the convoy and still waited for 45 minutes.

Egypt must rely on tourism for the great majority of its revenue. Tourists are well protected. At all the sights, it is common to see uniformed and plain-clothed officers with big guns walking around. And so the road to Abu Simbel, which is 300 km across barren desert and just a few km from the Sudan border, is only accessible to police convoys.

We set off on time - eight vehicles, including a few large buses and a few minibuses. It seemed orderly on the way out of town, but as we hit the open highway it became a bit of a free for all. We were passing and being passed. Eventually we stopped at the only little rest stop en route (They sold coke, potato chips and chocolate). According to Marianna, we had to stop because the police had stopped. I had it figured out. The police had two cars - one at the front that drove as fast as they could to the rest stop and waited for everyone to catch up, and the other that followed along at the end.

Abu Simbel was worth the drive. Originally carved into a valley wall on the shores of the Nile, it was moved to the top of the valley to prevent it being submerged under Lake Nasser when the dam was built. There are two temples, both guarded by huge statues. Inside are rooms covered floor to ceiling with carved and painted hieroglyphics that describe the military victories and the offerings to the gods from the pharaoh.

The big temple at Abu Simbel

The small temple at Abu Simbel

We left, an hour late, for the long drive back to Aswan to get on board the boat. We stopped at the rest stop on the way home. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave (Karla needed to get something real to eat- mama and baby can only survive on chips and chocolate for so long). It was here I discovered that there was no police escort.

It was dark when we arrived at the boat. The MS Caprice was grand. The interior was finished with marble floors and wood paneled the walls. Unfortunately, our rooms were not ready. We'd have to wait. Almost immediately, one of the rooms was ready and we moved in to have a drink and wait for dinner.

The common room on the cruise ship

Our room on the cruise ship

Killer swan (with fleece)

Our next day began at 6:30, when we arrived at the Kom Ombo, the temple of Sobek, the Crocodile god. Even though it was early, we were in a mob of hundreds going to see the temple. Even though there were crowds, I was impressed. It was massive. It's walls were carved with kings defeating enemies and giving gifts to gods. There was even a mummified crocodile. After an hour at the site staring up at huge carving covered walls and columns, and being told in front of at least six different sections of carving that we could see the king making offerings to the gods, we were back on the boat, enjoying breakfast. After breakfast, we stopped in Edfu to see another temple.

The king making an offering to the gods

The temple at Kom Ombo

That afternoon, we relaxed on the boat and watched the banks of the Nile drift by. Martine and I also enjoyed a couple beer. By dinner, the food on on the boat was getting to be a bit monotonous. Every meal was a big buffet of similar tasting foods. I dared to try a Stella, an Egyptian beer of questionable formulation (according to the Lonely Planet). After dinner, we retired to the lounge upstairs for the Ghalabia party, which meant dressing up in colorful traditional Egyptian clothing. After ten or fifteen minutes, we retired to the room due to exhaustion compounded by an early morning and an afternoon of drinking beer.

Day two on the boat began with breakfast (identical to the previous day's morning meal). We arrived in Luxor soon after. Our first visit of the day was Karnak temple - an immense complex of carved walls depicting kings offering gifts to the god. Despite the repetitive decoration of the temples, Karnak was impressive. The temple itself was a series of elaborate structures which were erected by a series of pharaohs over centuries. In one magnificent hall, I found myself in the middle of a forest of enormous pillars. In places, the remnants of the colors that decorated the temples were visible. Ancient Egyptian temples would have been brightly painted - the hieroglyphics would have not been subtle sandy coloured carvings, but more like comic books, full of lively simple pictures and stories.

We visited the mummy museum, which was well laid out - dark and mysterious, with focused lighting on few exhibits. There was a mummified crocodile, baboon, cat, fish, and even a high priest. The high priest's coffin was there too. In fact, the Egyptians liked coffins, and nested them one inside the others. Maybe those little Russian dolls were all the rage back then. Whatever the cause, the coffins were like the temples - covered wall to wall to wall with brightly colored designs.

Before lunch we squeezed in the Luxor temple, which was not as large or grand as Karnak temple. But in the middle of town, it had been buried in sand. At some point, a mosque was build on top of the temple. Then, once the temple was found and excavated, the mosque had to be left perched on top of a section of the ruins. Temple fatigue had definitely set in. On the way back to the boat for lunch, our tour guide told us we had to stop at a government run papyrus factory and outlet store. We had to use the excuse that Karla was exhausted to escape being taken to some other "official" (i.e. overpriced and commission paying) bazaar by our guide.

After lunch we retired to our rooms for a little rest, and then snuck out. With Marianna back on the boat, we hit the town to look for a hotel for the next night after we left the boat. I wasn't feeling 100%, but we wanted to try Egypt on our own and we needed to find a hotel for the next night. The streets were decorated for the Eid festival and crowed with everyone out in their finery. Boys were out in the streets on horses and donkeys. Two of the Lonely Planet's recommendations were dismal but we found the hotel Karla stayed in when she was in Luxor the first time. It was two shades brighter than dismal. But the owner was friendly and showed us up to the banquet room that was set up for his daughter's wedding reception that night.

On our way back to the boat for dinner, we were the victims of a hit and run. An out of control horse and rider came from behind us, knocking Karla out of the way but not off her feet, and Martine to the ground. The rider kept on his out of control progress. The people around us apologized and we decided it was time to head back to the boat.

When we arrived, I had begun to feel considerably worse. I tucked into bed and skipped dinner in favor of trying to read a bit of The DaVinci Code while submitting to the occasional whimper. When Karla returned from dinner she diagnosed a fever in addition to my by then well-established stomach troubles. She headed out to find help and sent one of the boat's crew out to get me some medication.

The next morning I was improved but still not up to the day's tour. Karla and I missed breakfast thinking that we had an extra half hour to pack up. All three of us decided to skip the tour that day and rest - party due to my illness and partly due to being annoyed by our guide. Marianna left at noon to head back to Cairo. We checked into our hotel and Martine and Karla left me to rest while they went to do a bit of shopping. By evening I was feeling better and we headed out to be tourists in Luxor. We had dinner at a touristy restaurant that was identical to the touristy restaurant right beside it - both with the same menu. After dinner we bought a few carvings from a shop that Karla and Martine had discovered and went to bed early.

Our friendly hotelier had arranged a ride to pick us up early to go see the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles. These valleys in the rocky hills on the other side of the Nile from Luxor are only a few minutes away from the river by car. The first stop, the Valley of the Kings, is a barren, narrow uphill slope. Over the space of a kilometer or two, there are more than 50 tombs. The tombs open for viewing rotate, and we chose to see six. The tombs have similar layouts - long, straight, downward-sloping hallways with one or more rooms at the end. The walls throughout were decorated. Some of the tombs were busy, and some were almost deserted. In the deserted ones, the guard was very obliging, offering to let visitors stand on blocks of stone and take pictures (otherwise forbidden) in hopes of getting a little tip at the end.

Some temples were carefully decorated from end to end with detailed, colorful carved hieroglyphics. Others began well, but deteriorated as they went back so that the tomb had sparse designs, unpainted carvings or even paint on flat walls. It seems that the old adage, if you want something done right, do it yourself may have originate among ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Once they were dead, their successors cut corners on the funeral, getting the old king buried and put away as soon as possible so he could begin on his own tomb before it was too late. At times, pharaohs would even take over their predecessor's tomb. Tutankhamen's tomb is in the Valley of the Kings, and is the only tomb to be looted by a museum instead of looters. But we missed it, as it was a long decorated hall (like all the others) with an exceptionally long line and an expensive ticket. All the loot is in the Cairo museum anyway.

The next stop was the Temple of Hatshepsut (hat-ship-suit), Egypt's first female leader. Her temple is a striking sight at the end of the rough valley that houses it. In the gathering midday heat, it was a long, hot walk to the top, only to find that the temple itself (I'm sure full of carved hieroglyphics that depicted the Queen making offerings to the gods) was closed to viewing. By this point, a serious case of temple overload was beginning to set in.

We made a brief stop in the Valley of the Nobles to see a couple of tombs of less important people - royal administrators. The decorations depicted more of the day to day life - dancing, hunting, funerals. These tombs are now in the midst of a town - certainly unsanctioned - that have grown up around them. A young boy led us through the maze of buildings to get there. The young guy was eager, quiet and patient - probably the most pleasant person we met the whole trip. These remote temples were staffed by persistently bothersome guards.

Our final stop was the Ramesseum - one of Ramses's temples. This temple was exactly like all the others we had seen. It was huge, stone and covered in a stupefying assortment and density of familiar but incomprehensible symbols. Whew. Temple overload was serious. Before long, we were back in the taxi headed back towards Luxor, politely rebuffing the driver's offers to take us to lunch and to several "official" (see above) outlets of all things Egyptian.

We got a few provisions for the overnight train ride back to Cairo. We stopped off at the King's Head Pub, a British pub that served all Egyptian beer) for a pre-train meal. We caught the first class seated train on the way back north. Karla's report that it was good, turned out to have changed. The train was uncomfortable. And the whole atmosphere of our little six seated cabin was poisoned by a pair of Dutch travellers. It seems they couldn't get two seats together and so took up two seats in our cabin. When the nice Egyptian man arrived who had a ticket for the seat that one of them was using, they got downright snippy. And when, after spending 15 minutes trying to find a place where he could sit, he insisted that they give up his seat, it was cause for much huffing and puffing and stomping about. Well, there wasn't very much friendly chit-chat in the cabin after that.

We arrived in Cairo tired and sore at 6:30 in the morning. We caught a taxi to our hotel. The Windsor was built around the turn of the century (as were many of the grand old buildings of downtown Egypt). It's been used as a royal bath, served as the British Officer's Club, been set on fire, and now houses a second rate Egyptian Hotel with two extra scoops of character. They were good enough to check us in at 7:00 in the morning. After breakfast (completely lacking any love in preparation) and a surly waiter, we tucked in for a nap.

Around 10, we set out to the offices of Kuwait Airways to reconfirm out tickets home. Since they weren't bothering to answer their phones that day, we had to show up in person. Martine (who wasn't feeling top banana) and Karla waited in the waiting room while the agent informed me that our tickets had been cancelled since we hadn't reconfirmed our flights at least 72 hours in advance. After an hour or so and a discussion with the manager, we were asked to come back tomorrow with the promise that everything would be alright. Reluctantly, we left. We visited the Egyptian Museum that afternoon. Security was tight. They don't tell you at the entrance and locker area that you have to check your camera in. They wait until you have gone through the next section to tell you that. But, with a sincere promise that I would keep the camera in my bag, I was permitted to enter.

The Lonely Planet boasts that if you took a minute to look at each item in the museum, you would need nine months to see it all. It is a huge place, not well labeled and jam packed with goods. It's a massive collection, organized in chronological order from the old, passing through the Romans and Greeks, to the new. Upstairs, the contents of King Tut's tomb have been laid out. An unimportant king who died young, Tut obviously had a "you can take it with you" philosophy. You roam through a collection of stuff he must have regarded as indispensable: couches and beds, bows and arrows, boxes and chests, thrones - no less than 5 - fill several rooms down one whole side of the museum. Around the corner, you walk past his six chariots and the boxes that housed his coffin. Starting out as a gilt enclosure the size of a garage, the rectangular boxes nested tightly inside each other.

At the back of the museum, you duck into the room with the goods. Here's the stuff you've seen - the solid gold mask (17kg) that he wore, along with the hordes of other jewelry that was layered between the layers of linen his body was wrapped on, and the two body shaped coffins that nested inside one another. You have to wonder what they did for someone who was popular and powerful.

Then there are hundreds of other body shaped coffins, none quite so shiny as Tut's. The Romans arrived and started mummifying their own, but including a lifelike painting of the person's face in their prime over the deceased's linen wrapped face. It was kinda spooky.

For dinner we tried a place the LP recommended for great sandwiches. However they served no sandwiches and so we opted for Egyptian fair - falafel (called tamy'ya in Egypt) and hummus. It hit the spot, especially since we were starved after a day of walking.

Day two in Cairo began with a nervous trip to the Kuwait Airways office, where we were given confirmed tickets back home. Martine and I set off for the pyramids and Karla stayed at the hotel to do a bit of marking. Karla's dire warning that the Sphinx was face-to-face with a Pizza Hut, turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, there was one just outside the gates of the site, but it was at least 100m away from the Sphinx itself and unobtrusively nestled in with the other touristy shops.

Pyramid with camel

Nothing will separate this man from his customers

The pyramids themselves stand in rocky dunes. The temples that once led up to them are just piles of stone that occasionally got in our way as we tried to navigate around. It is hard to say if there are more tourists, or camels, donkeys, and horses to take your around. And five minutes certainly didn't go by without someone offering to take us around on the back of some beast.

On the advice of our driver, we opted to go down into the smaller pyramid, rather than its larger brother pyramid. With my chest to my knees and staring at the behind of the person in front of me, I began my way down the steep passage. As I went, it got hotter and stuffier. I was surprised how far it went and was glad we hadn't chosen to line up for the big boy. At the bottom, there were a few plain stone rooms, which was just as well since it was so unpleasant that I was ready to go up as soon as I got down.

We stopped at the Khan Al Khalili bazaar before dinner, the main tourist market in old Islamic Cairo. We shuffled through and dusted off our bartering skills to make a couple purchases: very atmospheric; very full of junk; very, very full of tourists.

We caught a ride to the Hilton to have a good meal. The last night of Eid, the Cairo traffic was out in force. As we crawled toward dinner along streets packed with cars, it seemed that if we all tried to get out of our cars, we wouldn't be able to open the doors because the cars in the lane next to us were so close.

We used the morning of our last day to go to Coptic Cairo. We caught Cairo's subway to get there. Unfortunately, being Friday (the day of rest in Egypt), services were in session, so we didn't actually go in any of the churches. We just peeked in from the door.

We headed to the airport early - a combination of distrust for Kuwait Airways and a bit of eagerness to leave the hassle of Egypt behind. When we arrived, there was no line and I approached the check in agent. He told me that we couldn't check in yet for our flight as the flight before ours was still being processed. When I asked if we might sneak onto the earlier one, he laughed. He explained that it had been overbooked by 80 people. When we did go back to check in- 15 minutes prior to when we were supposed to, a jostling mob had already formed behind the angry mob who were crowded around the counter trying to yell their way onto the flight.

Karla, Martine and I waded into the fray (which was like a rugby scrum with luggage carts). Before long, the people behind Martine had pushed her through the line up to the front. Karla and I weren't so lucky and were pushed aside. We did get checked in, which involved some passing of bags forward past the people who had butted in front of us.

Our flight home was par for the course. We were all searched getting on board the plane - the women physically patted down for booze hidden on their bodies. The flight left late. They lost our request for vegetarian meals. They took the headsets to land five minutes before the end of the movie (one of which wasn't awful).

Sunday, December 19, 2004

We dropped in to see the doctor again last night. Baby is doing well - growing nicely, positioned properly, and squirming frequently. The ultrasound pictures of the face were difficult to take since baby is tucked down in the pelvis. Nevertheless, here are a couple of the baby - the eyes, nose, mouth and pudgy cheeks are pretty clear. (that's a little hand in the second one)

December ultrasound 1

December ultrasound 2

We are finally on the Christmas break. Just before the break, the school sent out the contracts for next year for the staff to consider. It said that the board had agreed in principle to the raises based on the additional year of seniority that everyone would have, but that contracts had been printed without it. It seems the school has hired a consultant to look at the salary and benefit package and his results would be published in March. The school wants to see what their man says. I guess if they can get away with paying less, they hope to sneak it into the already signed contracts. It's absurd.

We got all of our Christmas shopping done in a little more than an hour at an authentic Vietnamese craft store near our house. The basement shop is large and full of products, but not very well marked and always empty. It is staffed by a half dozen friendly and bored Vietnamese women. While chatting, Karla even found the sister of on of the sales staff to do some clothes mending for her. Karla was even good enough to point out what she wanted under the Christmas tree this year.

Otherwise, we have agreed that on Christmas morning we ill swap gift ideas and then discuss the other's idea and make a decision as to what gift we each ought to receive. If Karla wanted some gaudy gold jewelry, Muslim fashions (complete with matching hejab), or bootleg action movies, I'd be on top of it. However, she is not so accommodating.

When Karla gets up from her nap, she has promised to pose for another photo.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Can't sleep. I worked tonight to get a test written and some pages scanned to add to the class website. We tucked in early, only to have a friend call just as we were dozing off. After half an hour of tossing and turning, I decided to get up and add the latest photo of Karla.

Here it is:

Big mama #6

Thursday, November 25, 2004

It's been a while and I realize we have missed a photo of Karla. The morning we usually take the photo, we headed off to Egypt. I will take one tomorrow morning.

Egypt was an adventure. It was full of ancient and gigantic ruins, but all that was wonderful about the country was eclipsed by the overpowering salesmanship of each and every Egyptian. Photos and a more detailed description of our adventure to come in the travelogue section.

It's been an exhausting week. We got back from Egypt at 10:30 on Friday night and had to show up at school at 7 the next morning. Then all week was an adjustment, getting used to both being back from holiday and going back to the regular schedule after the shortened Ramadan schedule.

We met with our doctor again. Despite having an appointment, we had to wait for an hour to get into the office. We've had to wait for quite a while every time we have gone there this year. Karla got a recommendation from another expectant mother, so we might check out another doctor.

Monday, November 08, 2004

This weekend we had a baby shower put on for us by Jennifer and Jamie, two teachers that we have worked with since we arrived in Kuwait. There was lots of yummy food to eat and we played several baby theme games. I was terrible at the baby product "The Price is Right". I didn't guess a single price correctly, but Karla got three (which tied her for the most correct guesses). People were very generous. A bunch of teachers got together and got us a very nice pine crib and mattress (that turns into a bed later on). We also now have a stroller, some bedding, cute clothes and other odds an ends (including a rubber ducky). When the Christmas break comes we'll head out to finish off the list of baby supplies (since we won't be travelling anywhere).

We also saw "The Station Agent". It won a bunch of awards at the Sundance Festival. It's unusual, but captivatingly so. It slow paced, and says as much with silences as with words (except for the character Joey). I don't think it has a single special effect. It's worth the couple hours it takes to watch.

We visited another hospital - The Dar Al Shifa hospital. It's newly built (a year old) and very near to the school. As we looked around the 3 rooms (Special, Royal and Imperial), I was kicking myself for not bringing the camera. The Imperial room, was actually three rooms. It looked like it came out of a French chateau prior to the revolution - all the walls were paneled in dark wood; heavy gold curtains hung from ceiling to floor; ornate, scrolled couches lined the walls - except for the plasma screen TV hanging at the foot of the bed. There was also a desk and a bar and a second TV in one of the other rooms (in case any of the guests got bored, I suppose). Altogether, I counted couch and easy chair seating for 20.

But, sadly, the room is not for us. Our doctor advised us that the hospital makes up for its second rate medical services with luxurious rooms. We had another doctor's appointment last night (stay tuned for the next ultrasound picture). We talked about the birth plan - and everything went well. Dr. Laila was open to following as natural a birthing process as is possible.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

We (finally) watched Super Size Me this weekend. It was mostly what I expected. Yet, even though I expected every grease smeared bit of McDonalds analysis, I still enjoyed all my groans and grimaces at how disgusting it all was. I was surprised at how naive the doctors were about the effects of the McDonalds diet on the body. Even with a common sense approximation of the nutritional value of McDonalds' food, I would have thought that doctors would know that it would do serious harm to a person's body. The nutritionist's numbers sounded about right - double the calories with only about 1/3 of the vitamins and minerals. All of the good stuff that you're supposed to eat just aren't there: no fruit, no veggies.

Temptation. I mean, I'm not really one to speak. A cookie jar in my proximity is in peril of gradual consumption. McDonalds gives you what you want, when you want it, without having to pay much for it. It not much different from smoking or drinking. Some people can resist, some people indulge prudently and others go way overboard to the detriment of their health.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Report card grades had to be entered by Wednesday (our Friday.) The school has bought into a database package to manage all the school goings on - attendance, counseling, illness and grades. Previously, we all entered out grades by hand into a notebook which was transcribed into the computer by one of the secretaries.

I read in a Douglas Coupland book that for the first 30 years that computers were used in the workplace, productivity declined -some confusion over how to use them, some data loss with a game or two of solitaire thrown in. I understood how computers add to the workload, but 30 years seemed like a long time to get used to them. After entering my grades yesterday, it makes more sense to me. The school has duplicated the paper process on the computer and now it takes about three times as long to enter grades. Plus, they've just invested who knows how much in the software and we'll use it forever.

Last night we had our last salsa class with Yann. He was the teacher for the rueda. He was a great teacher. He made the classes a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Tonight we went on our first hospital tour. We took a look at the Mowasat Hospital, where our doctor said she likes to work and the closest hospital to our home. The hospital sent us home with a little price list of the various possibilities: from standard room and delivery up to Royal suite and C-section. The delivery room looked a little more informal than I had expected (from my experience, based mostly on TV viewing and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life). I definitely didn't see the machine that goes "bing". We also looked at the standard rooms and the junior suites. Standard rooms are basic private rooms with phone, tv and bathroom. Junior suites have a little sitting areas and fridge and sink. We didn't check out the VIP and Royal suites. We'll have to talk to our insurer and find out what they will pay for.

There are a couple more hospitals that we are going to check out. One near the school and one closer to downtown. We'll keep you updated.

We came out of the hospital to find a shiny new Rolls Royce looking for a parking spot. It was enormous. Very tall, and boxy. Like a Hummer sedan. It actually made the Caprice look like sporty.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Ok. I started Ramadan with great intentions to get some work done on the website, but it really hasn't turned out. Even though we spend less time teaching, it feels like I'm even busier than usual. Karla is still feeling sick. I convinced her to stay home one day this week to rest. She is starting to feel better. We skipped dance last night and will stay home this weekend to get caught up on some work.

Last night I found myself in a place that I would not have predicted. It was Friday night and I was at home, eating pizza with alcohol free beer, and reading about the procedures involved in delivery. Last night we worked on a birth plan together. Well, we started. By the time we were halfway through the labour and delivery chapter, we had six pages of notes: a list of questions to ask and decisions to be made about the delivery - from location, to medical decisions to how mother and baby will be taken care of at the hospital after the delivery. The book (What to Expect When You're Expecting) describes the current philosophies about what doctors and hospitals do, as well as what they used to do. We'll see how the Kuwaiti hospitals measure up.

This week I noticed that Pepsi giving away one iPod every hour from now until Christmas. The trick was that every hour they started fresh - they got rid of all the old entries and started over. I was interested for a while - you could get free entries online. At first you had to fill in a short survey, but by the end, the survey had gotten longer and harder to find. And now, the site reports that they have given away all the free entries they are going to. From now on you need a entry number from a Pepsi product sold in Canada. So I guess I am cut off. I thought I might have a better than average chance, since when I was at school is when everyone was sleeping in Canada. I could enter all of the draws with fewer entries.

Our Egypt trip plan was more or less finalized this week. The travel agent that I had been emailing got it all set up. He's meeting us at the airport when we arrive and taking us to the train station where we will go on the fancy overnight sleeper train down to Aswan. We will go on a tour to Abu Simbel, a pair of temples that had been in the side of a mountain until the Egyptians decided to dam the Nile. The whole temple was cut out and moved to higher ground where it currently resides. That night we will return to Aswan to spend the next three days on a sight seeing cruise up to Luxor. After a day to rest in Luxor, we will get back on the train to Cairo, where we will have two days to visit the Pyramids, Old Cairo and the fabulous Egyptian museum before returning to Kuwait. There will be no Christmas vacation for us Just a few shopping trips to get the nursery stocked up for the baby's arrival.

Friday, October 15, 2004

I just did a little web page maintenance. I moved some of the main page into the archive section. I thought that it might be getting a little slow to load for some of you since there are so many more pictures this year. It's probably actually not that much faster since I didn't really take any of the pictures off the site. I will have to take some of the pictures off the page - or at least change them to links (like the animations) so that they don't automatically load with the page.

I was also looking at the site statistics. Geocities is nice enough to keep track of how many people visit and even when they do. By far the heaviest months for visit - with 2-3 times as many hits were last year after the Cambodian and Omani travelogues (even though Oman was just photos - I never found time to write the description of what we did).

Ramadan should give me a few minutes every morning to get things organized a little better.

Sorry it's a day late. Karla's feeling under the weather with a cold, so photo taking was delayed. Ramadan officially began today. Karla napped and corrected. I watched Kill Bill, one of the films left us by a teacher last year. It was awful. Tomorrow school starts two hours late - which is good for sick mamas. Karla has a light load tomorrow (I have already been encouraging her to stay home and get well), so she says she will go in tomorrow. Hopefully, she'll take the day off on Sunday if she isn't feeling better. Anyway, I should be getting to bed soon too. And here's the photo.

Big mama #5

Last weekend we tried to watch Super Size Me, which (I thought) I had been clever enough to download from the internet and copy onto a DVD. I mostly worked. The audio track was flawless; however the video track ran at double speed. I tried to watch it, but it was too hard. You had to pay attention to the audio and at the same time remember what was happening on the screen (because the audio would be coming in a while) AND remember the scenes that you had seen a few minutes ago that corresponded with the commentary that was currently playing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Not much has been happening here the past two weeks. We've been making plans to go to Egypt at the end of Ramadan (which begins tomorrow). Tutoring is going well. We both started clubs at school. Karla is running the photography club and I am risking disaster with a tie-dye club. So far they are both going great. I've even got a couple boys doing tie-dye. Except Karla's field trip bus was late both to take them out and bring them back. When we get home, it's a long day, which makes going to salsa class hard. There's not time for a nap in between school and dance like there was before clubs. Since there are no clubs during Ramadan, we'll be able to dance a little more.

Our dance groups is a very international collection of people. We still haven't figured out where everyone is and how they got to be taking salsa in Kuwait. There are a few Kuwaitis, a guy from Equador who works in the oil industry, a Lebanese mother and daughter (the daughter made the mother to come lessons, but she really enjoys it now), an Egyptian woman, our teacher Yann is Algerian-Guadaloupe, and a new Austrian woman showed up last night who spoke English, French, an Arabic (and, I assume, German too).
I'm still waiting for Karla to get up this morning to take this week's photo, but here are a couple things I have been meaning to post.

First, here's the ultrasound of the baby. It's the computer generated 3D picture, not the ordinary kind. It's a little less like looking for animals in the clouds. In both pictures little Prudence is demonstrating prenatal flexibility, with her face resting against her shins. Just above the arm you can see the umbilical cord (which the doctor promised us was not wrapped around the neck, but in a perfectly normal position). Sorry it took so long to post, I hadn't set up the scanner yet.

October ultrasound

The second is just a bit of a laugh. It's a box of cleaner that the maids at the school use to keep it clean. I always wondered what the smell was... (the directions on the side panel are especially peculiar)

What's that smell? It's Barf!

What helpful directions!

She's Pregnant!

Class was interupted by an eruption of students' laughter. "She's pregnant," several voices called out. The story was explained to Karla as one particular student turned bright red. The student, noticing Karla's increase in size, commented to the people around him, "The teacher is getting fat." He had no idea that she was pregnant.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Living in an Aquarium

It's hot and now it's gotten humid. Kuwaiti weather is more awful than ever. We wake up to all the windows completely covered with condensation. Stepping outside is to have all your clothes stick to you. You don't sweat so much as the humidity condneses on you. When we are driving in the car with the AC on, the windows fog up from the outside.

Lianne, Kalra's sister, was looking for a web solution so she could keep everyone updated without sending group emails, so I suggested a weblog to her. Then I decided to try it myself.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Blog Experiment

In less than ten minutes I was about to set up this baby and make this little post. The hardest part was picking a name that nobody else had used.

So far, it's very easy!

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Hello world. I know you have been waiting for another photo and I've got the goods.

Big mama #4
We're doing well. Nothing much to report. We've got an appointment with the doctor on Saturday. There might even be a little ultrasound picture in it for you, if the baby will sit still enough to get a clear shot.

The name search continues. Since discovering the provincial lists of names, we have all but abandoned several of the ones that were top ten names. Karla's new favourite for boys is Atticus. I support the idea behind it, from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I don't like the sound of it. I think it would make a good middle name. I still like Conan. Even more since I started to think about all the cute little nicknames that the names inspires, such as Conan the veterinarian, Conan the humanitarian, or Conan the centenarian.

Our vacation plans for Egypt are progressing. We have booked a flight and will spend the week there with Martine. Her boyfriend, Willy, who is a farrier (he makes horseshoes), can't get time off work. We're planning on spending a few days in Cairo, then cruising the Nile from Aswan to Luxor to see some of the ruins in Upper Egypt, like Karnak and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.

The car is back and is freshly painted. It's a relief to have it again. I went to have it checked again. It took a few minutes since all of the inspectors took the first 15 minutes of work to go pray. When they got back though, they all set to work: one stamping the papers, one inspecting the cars and the third reading a magazine. Eventually I was processed through and they licensed it for the year.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

No photo this week. But Karla continues to do well. She can feel the baby's movements regularly now.

School is back in full swing now. I gave my first test this week and Karla's got lots of marking to do. She always had lots to do last year in grade 5. She might have to slow down a little since grade 8 produce quite a bit more than itty-bitty grade 5's do. Tutoring has picked up. I've got 7 or 8 hours a week (two kids I taught last year (the good ones, thankfully) and one new guy I see today for the first time). And on Tuesday I went out to tutor and came home to find Karla sitting at our dining room table with a grade nine student. Karla talked to the mom and told her that she would only tutor if the kid came to our place. The mom said they would talk about it and called back to say that they would like to come over right away. That's right "they". Both mother and daughter came over. Mom sat in our living room and chatted on her mobile phone during the lesson. I guess you never know what wickedness we might be imparting to children under the guise of parts of speech and algebra.

We were back at salsa and rueda class last night. Still no do-si-does, so it's not that much like square dancing. Tonight, we're going to games night at Josh and Tamara's place. It's a busy weekend! Josh is planning on running in the Dubai marathon in January and I am thinking about going with him to run the 10K. It's the weekend right after the Christmas holiday, but since Karla and I will be staying here, the timing is pretty good. Plus, it's only an hour away and there are several flights a day. It's not likely, but in case I need to come back right away, I will be able to.

Last weekend I took the car in to be painted. We've had to beg rides here and there all week. Hopefully it will be done today. We were also headed to get some groceries. We had to stop at the bank to get some cash. I popped in my card and punched all the usual buttons (when you hit "fast cash" in Kuwait, the lowest amount offered to you is worth about $250). Then the machine started beeping at me. "Take your card," it said. But my card hadn't come out. When I peered into the card slot, I could just see the edge of it, but there was no way to get. After a moment the machine sucked it back, the edge disappeared, and tried again, the edge reappeared. It looked like it was getting caught on the plastic trim around the card slot. I thought that if slid a paper business card into the slot, the bank card would slide along the card over the lip of the trim that it was getting caught on. I was all ready when the machine stopped beeping at me the second time. The edge disappeared. I stuck the card in. The screen flashed a message that said since I didn't take my card, it would keep it. Oh, it didn't give me any money either. Karla can't remember the code to her card since we never use them (tutoring money provides all the cash that we need). We pooled all the money we had and did manage to get some groceries. The bank phone line told me that I had to go into the branch when it opened in two days to get my card. But when I went in, they had sent my card to my home branch, which is a long way away from where I live. But in the end, they will send it back to the branch I can walk to. I pick it up today (inshallah). But they were nice enough to give me some money.

Oh well, I'd better see to those tests I gave yesterday. Masallama until next week.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Here's a little something.

Big mama #3
I got the car washed again yesterday - even though I was taking it to get painted, I went for the wash since they clean the inside as well. The guy started by filling up two four liter bottles and put one at the front and the other behind the car. He wet the car down with his hose. Then, he picks up the bottle at the back, takes a couple steps back, and pours the bottle of soapy water into the jet of water. Instantly, the car was covered in a blizzard of suds. It turned white. He repeated the process from the front before getting out his cloth to scrub it down. It was one of those moments when you take pleasure in the creativity people show in doing ordinary things.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

It's time for another picture! Karla has been feeling better this week. Her stomach hasn't felt upset for a while and her back is even feeling better. Whether it's that she's getting used to climbing the stairs and being on her feel, or she has time to do a bit more exercise. We even did prenatal yoga together.

The adventure in Kuwait this week has been the car registration. All car over three years old need to go in for a safety inspection. The inspection consists of revving your engine - they check for smoke out the tailpipe, and showing your brake and signal lights. I passed all of those, but the car need a new paint job before it can be deemed roadworthy for another year. So today, I have to take the car in to get painted.

It's the start of the first long weekend of the year. Last night we went to our usual salsa lesson, which was followed by the rueda, a version of the salsa that is done in a circle. It's a little like square dancing (but not that much!). It was good fun. It uses the moves from salsa, but just modifies them slightly so that at the end of the move you pass your partner off and pick up another.

We are thinking about a trip to Egypt in November during our school holiday. Martine, who we travelled in Oman with, is interested in coming too. Her boyfriend will be too busy to get away. It will be good to have another person along. Martine and I have never been, but Karla spent a week in Egypt when we were in Turkey. She can take it easy, picking and choosing what she wants to see and when she wants to relax. There aren't any tickets available right now, but lots of people book several trips and cancel later. So there's still hope. We don't have to commit right away, so we can see how Karla is feeling later on too.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

It's Thursday morning again. It's the first real weekend. Last weekend we spent both days at the school getting our classes ready for the beginning of school. Unfortunately, Karla has rejected the idea of a weekly photo. There won't be much difference between them. I think I have got her to accept a photo every second week.

Karla has been feeling better lately. She was sick last weekend, but has felt better since then. Work has been tiring. After the first day, she came home and lay down for a nap at 5. I tried to wake her up at 7:30, but she refused and ended up sleeping through until 5 the next morning. There's no tutoring yet, so she's getting her rest. I hope that she will try to find students to tutor who are willing to come to our apartment for their lessons. Unfortunately, since she started work, her back has been sore. But last night, we went to our usual salsa lesson, and she felt better afterwards. I think that a little activity will help her to keep limber.

I went for my first hour of tutoring this week with Faisal - my favourite student from last year. His assignment was to practice measuring things for science. So I have a few dimensions to give you an idea of the scale of a Kuwaiti house. His living room is 14.5m by 7.5m. The dining room table is 7.5m long. He was telling me about the new house his family is building, "bigger than this one". The new plan is to have a soccer field, basketball court and tennis court around the house. Then, as the three boys grow up and get married, the sports fields will be taken out and their houses can be put up beside the parents' house. Kuwait is so small that anywhere you might work in the country is close enough to get to.

It will be a quiet weekend. We've both got a couple details of the school opening to set up still, but mostly , we'll be just taking it easy after the last two weeks of being pretty constantly busy setting up house and work. Last night we watched Connie and Karla with our friend Jamie from Vancouver.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Karla is doing her Kathy Smith pre-natal exercise video for the first time right now. She is wearing her exercise outfit, which is also her pregnancy development photo uniform. She has just promised to pose for the photo after her workout. Right now, her hair is not up to standard. I think she may have unrealistic expectations about how much the video is going to do for her.

Mission accomplished. She had a change of heart and volunteered to have the photo taken before the work out. Here is the beautiful mama-to be.

It's our first weekend in Kuwait. We're headed to see the doctor today for a checkup for Karla. Then a little trip into school to get everything ready for the kids who start on Sunday. We'll pick up our plants from their summer babysitter and head off to a little salsa party this evening.

Monday, August 30, 2004

We have been back in Kuwait for a few days now. It's been busy unpacking tons of boxes. Karla has been working hard and sleeping lots. We will being the pictures of the growing mama tomorrow. But then there is a debate over how often to update the picture. Should it be weekly, or monthly? Or a compromise at every two weeks?

Our new place is looking more and more like home. It's hard to believe how much junk we have. Somehow, after packing it, carrying it down and up, storing it, and carrying it down and up again motivates me to get rid of anything even mostly unnecessary. Not Karla though. She's still got two boxes of ceramic tile that she bought 2 years ago to use to make a mosaic that she has never even started to plan.

We've got a new phone number. It's (965) 571-3265. Check back tomorrow for a photo of the expanding Karla.

Friday, June 11, 2004

There is less than a week before we leave for the summer again. At school, most everything is done. At home, packing has barely started After packing we have to move all our stuff out to friends' apartments for the summer. It's enough to keep us busy for the rest of our time here. Karla planned a boat trip on the gulf as a surprise party for my birthday. Last year we went on a year end cruise on the same boat. But Karla got everyone (except me) organized this year to meet up on Wednesday night to celebrate. She told me about the party that morning (and about the clues that I had failed to pick up on). It was a good thing too, since at about 4, the boat called to tell us that we would have to leave at 9 instead of 8. So she had to call everyone to let them know. That would have been hard enough to do. But at 6 they called back and said they were ready to go anytime, so we decided to call everyone and meet at 8:30. In the end, a we couldn't geet in touch with a few people and we had to be there at 8 to meet them, and Rose, a co-planner, got caught in traffic and so we couldn't leave until 9!

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Last night was a lunar eclipse in this part of the world. Between 9 and 10 the shadow of the earth moved almost halfway across the full moon. We didn't have the energy to stay up and watch the whole process. But one of Karla's students was considerate enough to video tape it. That way they could watch the whole eclipse in a fraction of the time but using the fast forward. I didn't see it so I can't really capture the magnificence of watching the lunar eclipse on video. But frankly, it doesn't sound as good as my fireplace idea in Montreal. I wanted to put our tv in the fireplace and get a video tape of a fire burning to put on when guests came over.

We went out to the mall tonight to do a bit of shopping to get ready for the summer's festivities. We went to Debenham's, a UK department store. I have seen women in all black, even the ones who one see the world through a narrow slit for their eyes, shopping for clothes. Tonight, while waiting for Karla in the change room, I observed the women in black shopping for makeup.

Friday, April 30, 2004

It's feels like it's been ages since I updated the website at all. But we haven't been doing much besides the regular routine. The end of the year is coming up quickly and we're both busy fitting in everything that we need to. Tutoring is starting to pick up as people start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and wish it were a little brighter.

We haven't even really though about the big packing job we will have to start in a couple weeks. Everything we have into box and over to a friend's house for the summer. It will be good to sort through everything - it will encourage us to take some of the stuff that we thought we'd use but haven't home. But I am a little worried about seeing exactly how much we have collected in the two years that we've been here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Due to the delicacies of car rental, we have adjusted our schedule a wee bit. We are now planning to go to Humboldt and environs the first week of July (before the Winnipeg Folk Festival, instead of on the way home).

In other news, the school has settled out housing for next year. They have offered to let us move into one of the old buildings. We can buy the furniture that is in the apartment right now. For us, as a couple, we will be able to cover the rent and the cost of the furniture with our housing allowance, with even a bit left over. Next year, singles will need to put up a bit of their own money every month for what they get for free this year. The alternative for them is to find their own place and furnish it themselves. At the end of the school year, we will box up all our stuff and store it at a friend's place for the summer. When we get back in September, we'll move
into a freshly painted apartment.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Our plans for the summer are coming together. Somehow the summer always seems too short to do everything we want to. We are coming straight home this year to enjoy as much of Canadian life as we can. Fernie is green, Saskatoon and Humboldt are gold.

17 Arrive-Calgary
18 To Fernie
19 To Kooteny Lake
21 To Fernie
29 To Humboldt

7 To Winnipeg
8 Winnipeg Folk Festival
13 To Fernie
19 To Fernie

4 To Edmonton
5 EdmontonFolk Festival
9 To Fernie
18 To Calgary
20 To Humboldt
21 Janice and Craig's Wedding
25 To Calgary
26 Return to Kuwait

Plus in late July or early August, we'll be up around Kooteny Lake for a couple days.

Friday, February 20, 2004

You know The Lorax? The Dr. Seuss story where the Once-ler comes along and finds a forest of Truffula trees. He turns the trees into Thneeds, which sell like hotcakes. As his business develops, he is visited by the Lorax, who warns him of the effect he is having on the forest and the animals that live there. But in the end, the Once-ler doesn't realize until it is too late and he's chopped the whole forest down. Well, Karla read it to her class. They responded to it with lines like "But my mom says when I wear new clothes and wash them, they don't look as good," and "We'll still have nice places to go - the mall."

One of the reasons that they don't get it, is that Kuwait has always looked like the forest after it has been destroyed - that's as good as it gets. Here, the environment isn't your friend - it's nasty. Getting indoors is a relief from being subject to the outside - fromthe heat, the dust, the bright blandness that's everywhere.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Here are a few of our digital photos from Oman.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Well, it wasn't a big weekend. But it was a weekend. After a week in Oman, we've been back for a week. We went to a charity flea market on Thursday. It was a pretty typical flea market - lots of old junk. Except that Kuwaitis mostly like ugly stuff at the best of times, so there wasn't a lot. It was a good day for other reasons though. First, on the way there I saw a real Lamborghini Countache in a used car lot. It was the first time I had really seen the car of my boyhood dreams other than in a photo. And as we were leaving the flea market, what should be pulling up but a pink Cadillac.

Oman was a beautiful surprise. It is a desert - but is a mix of real sand desert and rocky mountains. Plus the weather is considerably more mild than Kuwait, so people have wanted to live there long enough that it has some history - forts and museums around the country. To top it all off we got to see little baby sea turtles emerging from sand to make their break for the sea. A detailed travelogue with some photos in being put together.

I was poking around the internet last week, when I discovered that Scottish folk festival favorites Shooglenifty have reformed and are planning a summer tour in Canada. It kindled my summer folk festival excitement. I checked the websites to see if they had posted any performer lists. Only the Edmonton festival had posted a few names - Ani Difranco the big one. Karla and I have been discussing which festival(s) to go to. I am supporting Winnipeg, she is in favour of Edmonton.

Karla got me a subscription to the New Internationalist magazine for Christmas. The first edition arrived this week. It's focus is sugar: how people have just been eating more and more of it since it became available and how we've been getting larger. Not to mention all the dastardly economic effects of its production. I've been watching how much sugar I eat all weekend. It didn't stop me from making the brownies we had in the cupboard though.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

We signed a contract to stay with Al-Bayan for the next year. Quite a bit of the English departments is staying for various reasons. We like the people we work with. The school agreed to let Karla move up to grade seven next year, after they had said she would need to sign on for two years before she could change grades. We don't know exactly where we will live next year as the school is going to begin giving money in lieu of accommodation, but they have made some noises about letting us know the details soon.

Exams for the first semester ended this week and the new semester begins next week. The week after, we've got a one week break a Muslim holiday. We've decided to go to Oman for the week. The visa application would have taken too long, so Iran wasn't even a possibility in the end. In Oman the desert, parts of it sandy, runs into mountains before turning into the Indian ocean. We're looking forward to seeing some nesting sea turtles, old forts and striking mountains and canyons.

Friday, January 23, 2004

We signed a contract to stay with Al-Bayan for the next year. Quite a bit of the English departments is staying for various reasons. We like the people we work with. The school agreed to let Karla move up to grade seven next year, after they had said she would need to sign on for two years before she could change grades. We don't know exactly where we will live next year as the school is going to begin giving money in lieu of accommodation, but they have made some noises about letting us know the details soon.

Exams for the first semester ended this week and the new semester begins next week. The week after, we've got a one week break a Muslim holiday. We've decided to go to Oman for the week. The visa application would have taken too long, so Iran wasn't even a possibility in the end. In Oman the desert, parts of it sandy, runs into mountains before turning into the Indian ocean. We're looking forward to seeing some nesting sea turtles, old forts and striking mountains and canyons.

Cambodia Travelogue

As is the custom in Kuwait, it was about a week before we were set to depart when called the travel agent to pay for and pick up our tickets. Only when we called, the ticket price was about almost 50% more than we had originally been quoted. We checked online and found that if we bought the Bangkok to Phnom Penh portion of our ticket from a Thai travel agent, we would end up paying just a little more than the original price. So we went with the the online ticket for that portion of the trip, and paid a ten dollar delivery fee to have them send it out to the Bangkok airport for us.

It wasn't until we were taxiing up to the terminal in Bangkok that I started to worry about the possibility that these tickets might not present themselves so easily. We did have a contact name and meeting point at the airport, and a contact number if anything should go wrong. So after flying all night, we wearily walked down the bridge towards Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok, trying to scurry to customs before as many of the other passengers as possible. We didn't make it far. Waiting for us, with one of those little signs with our name on it, was our contact from the travel agency. A quick passport check and the tickets were in hand. Plus, he advised us to head down to the connecting passengers check-in, to see if we could save ourselves having to go out and check in again. Well, the lounge was clear at the other end of the airport. It took at least 15 minutes to walk down to it. For the last 10 minutes the airport was deserted, except for solitary Thais napping at duty free carts.

When we finally did arrive, our airline (whose flight didn't leave for four hours) didn't have an agent on duty for two hours. However, after a few inquiries and language difficulties, the agents from Thai Airways assured us that we did not need to worry. Once all the other bags had been picked up, and ours were left on the carousel, someone would pick up our bags and store them in the unclaimed baggage area. When President Airlines opened their desk, they could send someone down to collect them and see that they joined us on the plane. Despite fears of our bags being picked up by someone who watched them travel around and around until they realized we weren't coming, we decided to risk it.

Of the few other passengers that trickled into that secondary connection lounge was a man who must have been an African chief of some sort. He was dressed in a sarong style skirt and was bare-chested, except for a folded blanket that he wore over his shoulders like a shawl. He was barefoot, but wore a large nose ring and heavy bracelets and anklets. After two hours, prolonged by exhaustion and waiting in airport waiting-room chairs, an agent arrived. We checked-in and, after another half hour of waiting, she promised us our bags had been found and would be sent on to Phnom Penh. Our gate was just past the gate where we arrived - as far away as physically possible without leaving the building.

I had noticed in the wait that we needed a photo for the entry visa to Cambodia. We stopped at a little photo booth. I opted to follow the new "no-smiling" rule and produced four photos of a quality that could have come from the waste paper basket of the mugshot room of any on the world's finer police stations. Karla, rebel that she is, smiled and her photos looked every bit as bad as mine, but she looks like she was happy to have had them taken.

Aside from being locked out of the airport and having to wait on tarmac for about five minutes, Phnom Penh airport was clean, modern and efficient. In about 30 minutes, we had filled in the paper work, bought our visas, picked up our luggage, and cleared customs. We changed some money and caught a taxi into the centre of town. Eventually, we learned that there was no need to change money. 4000 Cambodia riel has been consistently worth about one US dollar. Most transactions are negotiated in US dollars, with riels taking the place of change. It doesn't help the riel's usage that the larges bill, 10000 riel, is worth $2.50. Cambodians used riels. One driver we hired for the day explained that he usually earned about 10000 a day, which was enough to support his family of four.

Our taxi took us straight to the area where buses leave for other parts of the country. We were lucky enough to hop on a bus as it was pulling out. The Lonely Planet stressed the fact that Cambodia had some of the worst roads in the world. The first road out to Kompong Chhnang, a national highway, was a narrow two lane strip. It was being replaced along one section, where the dust that would form the base for the road had turned the plants along the side of the road red. It took a couple hours before we pulled into the little town that the LP described as an atmospheric little colonial town.

As we pulled into town, we realized that no one on the bus spoke any English. The town was so small that our book didn't provide the handy map of it either. Passing one guest house, we stopped the bus and got off. It wasn't the guest house the LP recommended, but it would be a place to stay. As soon as we were off the bus, a friendly, but non-English speaking motorcycle taxi driver stopped to take us wherever we needed to go. After a couple minutes of failed attempts at English, and even an attempt at Khmer (using the not-so-handy-dandy language section at the back of the Lonely Planet (LP)), we tried to thank him and began walking back towards the guesthouse we had passed. Three-quarters of the way there, we passed a roadside barber, who the motorcycle taxi driver (he had been following us) used as a translator to figure out where we wanted to go. The two of us, plus our big backpacks, piled onto the one little moped and putted off to the guest house.

The guesthouse owners looked a little surprised to see us and spoke no English. But they did show us a room - $3 with a private bathroom, HBO and an unlimited supply of creepy crawlies. We took it, since we were hours past exhausted and not feeling at all confident about our ability to explain that we wanted to go somewhere else. Karla napped. I went out for food.

Down the street, I came across one of the recommended restaurants. Their English menu consisted of steak, chicken and an omelet. I opted for the omelet. And experienced some success with the Khmer language section in ordering a beer. After lunch and a little nap, we discovered that The Fellowship of the Ring was on HBO. I was hoping to catch Return of the King in Bangkok on our way home. At 9:30, after the movie, we decide to pop out for a little snack before bed. Kompong Chhang was black - no street lights and no house lights. The town was asleep. Even our attempt to go for a little walk to look for water was abandoned after madly barking dogs came out of every dark house. So far, rural Cambodia was not making us feel very welcome. We went home and climbed into bed and slept, clothed and with the lights on for fear of losing a limb to insects in out sleep. Later in the trip, we bought a new copy of the Cambodia LP. The guesthouse where we stayed the first night, which had been to recommendation in ours, was now included only as "stay here if there's nothing else" location.

The next morning we hopped a bus on to Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city. After four hours rolling through endless rice paddies, we arrived in Battambang's bus station to be greeted by several touts suggesting the city's hotels. After several polite refusals, they seemed to get the idea. With directions to their respective hotels and new advice to make up our own minds, they let us set off on foot. We took the LP's recommendation, which this time was clean and free of biodiversity in the room. The town itself doesn't have much to offer other than being a typical Cambodian town. Daily life in Cambodia begins and ends early. By the time 6 am rolls around, the town is in full swing - cars, music, construction. (I'm sure than in Cambodia, "up with the birds" describes a lazy person). But by 6 pm everything is closed. Even all the local restaurants. At least in Battambang there were restaurants (at least two) that stayed open all the way until ten o'clock serving tourists. We had the best Khmer food here.

One day we hired a couple motorcycle drivers to take us around to two hilltop temples. When we stopped for gas at the edge of town, another driver appeared and after a brief conversation in Khmer, one of our drivers suddenly remembered he had a class to attend that afternoon. With a new driver and a bit of suspicion we set off. Once we were off the national roads, there was no asphalt. To avoid the dust-churning traffic as much as possible, we stuck to little side roads and lanes through the country. It took us almost an hour to get out to the first temple. Along the way, the driver told me that in Battambang, they have a system. When tourists get off the bus, the tout that sees them, claims them. If that tourist ends up staying at the hotel that the tout represents, all that tourist's business goes to that tout. When we had left that morning, one guy that claimed us wasn't there, so the other guy got his friend to help him. But the rightful tout found us before we could get away and claimed his job. The whole day was spent chatting with our guides about Cambodian life.

The first temple, a combination of a Hindu temple and Buddhist temples, had been taken over by the Khmer Rouge. The temples had been used as prisons and a cave on the mountain had been used as a "killing field". Wire chests were filled with the bones of the victims who had been tossed into the cave. One cave, the guide told us, still had bones down in it that we could climb down and see, but that from the top, all we could see were the clothes of the victims. The majority of the bones were locked up to protect them, the guide explained, from people who would steal them to minimize the atrocities of the past. The mountain top was also the front line after the Khmer Rouge had fled to the north of the country. Some old government heavy artillery still pointed towards the next mountain. Four recent temples topped the hill, with two new ones being built. The second temple was much older and mostly in ruins. On the way home we stopped to check out the traditional Cambodia beer snacks - large insects, frogs, snakes, small birds and ant salad, and for a taste of palm wine.

The next day we bought tickets on the ferry to Siem Reap. The ferry and taxi both were supposed to take 6 hours to get there, although the British couple we met the day before said the ferry ride took them nine hours. While we were waiting the ferry did arrive, in just over seven hours that day. We discussed the idea with a Swiss couple and decided to take a chance. We took it easy in town that afternoon, visiting some of the shops in the market and soaking up the atmosphere wandering the streets.

The next morning we arrived at the dock. We were encouraged to get onto a long, narrow, enclosed boat, but opted for a more rustic looking open (but covered) wood boat. For the next hour we cruised down the wide river towards Siem Reap. The banks were lined with river villages of houses perched high and low above the water as well as large wooden boats that looked they doubled as place of work and home sweet home. All along the route, the children seemed to be on waving duty. From standing silently to jumping ecstatically, they were always waving to us. We reached a fork in the river and turned onto a much more narrow stretch. There were fewer people here and our boat sometimes only made the corners by deflecting off of the vegetation along the side of the river.

After a couple hours we reached a water town on the edge of the lake. The schools, houses and store, either lined the banks, or were floating on the water. We pulled into a little shop here. We waited for an our until the boat we did not get on first thing that morning pulled in and we were told to switch boats. Inside the air conditioned cabin, we were treated to Khmer karaoke videos (without sound) on the ride across the lake. Cambodia has recently banned karaoke, seeing it as an encouragement to prostitution. Of all the things that people have thought of doing to try to control the world's oldest profession, this probably won't be the most effective. In fact, the law has just driven karaoke underground. Walking around Phnom Penh, we did see little karaoke bars. Everyone sat at a table and watched the video, while one person sneakily sat with the microphone and sang along inconspicuously.

We shared a taxi into Siem Reap with the Swiss couple we had met who had a third party recommended for a guesthouse. It turned out well for us, as the guesthouse we had hoped to stay in was full. We met up with Kathy and Chad as planned. Our time in Siem Reap was dominated with the temples known as Angkor Wat. In all there are more than 50 temple sites that were built by the Khmer kings over about 500 years.

The next morning, after Kathy and Chad had moved in at the Smiley Guesthouse (happily free of insects), we set out on two tuck-tucks to begin our tour. First stop was the ticket centre. 40 USD got us three days access to the sites. The man who sold us our tickets reeled off the rules and regulations so mechanically that we would have suspected he was actually a very human-looking robot. Except that after we asked him to repeat them for the third time, he got a little irritated with us. Of that 40 dollars, half of it goes into the pockets of the oil company that manages the sites. Sadly, corruption in Cambodia is such that if the government got their hands on the kind of money that tourism at Angkor Wat brings in, it would be too tempting. This way, at least there is some accountability - a portion of the ticket price does go to the preservation and restoration of the ruins.

The first three temples that we visited, called the Rolous Group, were the oldest of the temples in the area. About 20kms east of town, these sites were simple and largely under restoration, or at least preservation. When we first arrived at the site, we were greeted by the group of pushy, but polite hawkers. The same cold drinks, postcards, t-shirts, handicrafts and locally published copies of books were available at every site. The local strategy seemed to be to establish a relationship to get the business later with lines like, "When you are finished you will buy from me. I will remember you because you are so handsome."

It's hard to imagine what the country would have looked like in the 1860's. Today, Cambodia is practically an endless rice patty. When the French arrived, these huge temples were lost in the jungles. Our next stop was Preah Khan. This old set of Buddhist shrines has never been cleared of the jungle. It demonstrates how the jungle can grow in, around and even overtop of the stone structures. Some walls and temple are still standing, but much of the site is seemingly enormous piles of rubble. Except the rubble is actually piles of large pieces of carved rock.

After lunch, we toured Bantey Kdei, a temple and its grounds. And I can't remember a single distinguishing feature about it.

Our final stop for the day was Angkor Wat. As our tuck-tuck approached I was trying to figure out where we were on the map of the area, based on the river we had been following for a few minutes. When finally, we rounded the corner, I realized that the river was actually the huge moat. This was where the tourists were at. Hundreds, no, thousands of tourists are there for the Lonely Planet recommended sunset. Fortunately the ground of the site rival West Edmonton Mall in size. Over the moat and through the gate, and up to the temple we went.

The temple sits in the middle of a huge garden. The first wall is decorated with bas-reliefs (pictures carved into the rock). The pictures are massive and depict scenes from mythology and of the king's achievements. The murals are ten feet tall and to walk around all four sides took us past more than a kilometer of carvings. Inside the outer wall, an inner wall is raised up on a platform. Inside the inner wall, is the main temple, again raised high above its surrounding walls. Khmer steps are something else. They must have had long legs and tiny feet. Their stairs are dizzyingly steep. Each step rises about 40cm, but is only about 10cm wide. Today, the main sanctuary is a working temple with a statue of Buddha surrounded with offerings of candles, incense, and flowers. But the rest of the temple at the top, like the whole complex, is sparse. The wide stone hallways and courtyards are empty.

We began day two at sunrise, climbing to the top of the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng. There is not much to the temple itself, but to the east it overlooks Angkor Wat. It's a great spot for sunset. But since there are several hundred people huddled at the top of the temple to catch the setting sun shining of the temple who then have to make their way down the perilous Khmer steps at twilight, we opted for the morning view.

Next we headed for Angkor Thom, the megalopolis of King Jayavarman VII, the Khmer equivalent of Louis XIV. When it was built it supported about one million people. At that time, in around 1200 AD, London and Paris could only boast about 50 000. The Bayon looks like a pile of rubble. It is a nice, big pile. But this temple has definitely seen better days. When you do get close, the outer wall is decorated with bas-reliefs. They are not on nearly as momentous a scale as the ones at Angkor Wat, but they depict more domestic scenes. The first scenes are complex and detailed, but as we made our way around, the artists either ran out of time or energy. By the fourth side, the carvings were not much more than outlines.

Once inside the wall, we climbed up to the temple. The temple is made up of 54 covered shrines, arranged so that they surround and build to a central tower. The roof of each shrine is made of four carved, placidly smiling faces looking in the cardinal directions. In among the towers, the impressive organization of the construction was apparent. From inside each shrine, looking out two or three of the four doors, you could see the faces of the adjacent shrines. The faces are Jayavarman's. The Bayon symbolizes the care with which he watched over his 54 provinces.

The Terrace of the Elephants was a long, wide walkway just outside the grounds of the palace (of which nothing was left, except the temple and a couple of swimmin' holes) where the king could watch his army parade by. It overlooked a set of twelve small towers which, it is speculated, served as the justice system. To settle a dispute, both parties would confine themselves to one tower and stay there until the other gave up or god stepped in and one of them perished.

That afternoon we visited Preah Khan, another temple complex (which I am sure you are eager to have described in meticulous detail). All the temples we visited were carved stone structures that contained sets of small shrines- small rooms where a state of Buddha was found, and courtyards. I can't say I understand exactly how they would have been used. This was another nicely overgrown one. It's layout was very repetitive - form fits function, with not much to look at, one was left to reflect on the important things (for example, when the next beer would be had).

We stopped at one more temple on the way home. It was unremarkable except for the tree that had decided to grow on top of its east gate. By this time, temple overload was really beginning to set in. We stopped at a big fountain on the way home whose highlight was a human head spout (by which I can't help but be reminded of certain inflatable dolls). We had only seen about ten of the fifty, and they were already starting to be like McDonalds restaurants - characterized by subtle variations, but ultimately a whole lot like one another.

Day three, which happened to be Christmas, began with a long ride out to Banteay Srei, the women's temple. It was so named because the carving was reputed to have been too fine to have been done by men. Temple overload evaporated. We happily spent an hour roaming this small temple. The details were remarkable. Archeological work was going on while we were there. Unfortunately, it did overshadow the other two temples we stopped at - the second completely undeserving of the Lonely Planet's "interesting" description, and the second offering a dry internal moat that would have left the central shrine an island. Around lunch time, we headed back to Angkor Thom to do a bit of shopping. The journey took us past a couple of the temples that we had not seen, but which we could definitely recognize as either larger or smaller versions of other temples we had seen.

We took the afternoon off to eat and rest. I arranged a taxi he next day to take the four of us to our next destination, a town called Kompong Cham that was a stopover on the way to Kratchie. We met a couple of Kathy and Chad's Canadian friends from Taiwan at a swank restaurant for Christmas dinner. We turned in early for the next day's early start.

After about five hours on the not-as-fearful-as-their-descrition roads, we arrived in Kompong Cham, a true cross roads kind of town. There was nothing to see or do, and few places to eat or stay. The next morning we hopped a ferry to Kratchie to avoid the some of the worst roads in Cambodia.

In Kratchie, we were greeted by some of Cambodia's most persistent touts. The only way to even discuss where we wanted to stay was to stand in a square shoulder to shoulder and leave them all was repeating their hotel's promises to each other around us. Other than our boisterous welcome, the town turned out to be very hospitable. Our hotel was nice and they set up all our transportation out to the see fresh-water dolphins. The beautiful, wide Mekong River is home to a colony of dolphins that small boats take tourist out to see. Dolphins are grey bumps, no matter how close you are. But the boat got us close enough to hear their watery gasps as they took breaths.

That night, we ate at the recommended budget guesthouse. Their restaurant has two large tables, which meant we ended up sharing with other travelers. One of whom was a tour leader for Adventure Tours, who took people places that in general people don't want to go. We were shocked to hear that he hadn't yet been to Kuwait.

Our hotel arranged a car to Phnom Penh. Apparently the awful roads had been improved. We rolled into town just after noon and found a hotel just across from the national museum. For lunch we went to Friends, a little place that Kathy and Chad had found. The restaurant was staffed entirely by street kids who were being rehabilitated. The service was only exceeded by the food. It was like being in heaven. The whole place just gave you a great feeling. We took a quick look around the national museum that house the originals of all the sculpture we had been looking at in the souvenir shops.

Later that evening we met up to witness of the Lonely Planet's recommended Phnom Penh sights - the bats. Some say the museum hold the worlds largest colony of bats that live in a man-made structure. And at dusk, they come streaming out from under the roof of the museum. We were there. We waited. And waited. No bats. But we waited on the hotel balcony. The museum was a block away, across a park. Maybe the bats snuck away.

The next day, Kathy and Chad headed down to the coast while Karla and I went to the Tuol Sleung Museum. This was a former high school (that looks a lot like the school where we teach). During the 1970's the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison where they tortured and killed their opponents. The museum was simple - bare concrete rooms lined with the photos of the people who had been brought o the prison. The third wing of the museum have paintings of the camp's operations, by a former inmate. The tour ends with a film that follows the life of a pair of people who became victims of the prison.

After this uplifting morning, we headed out to the Russian Market, the main tourist market. Clothes, souvenirs and digital piracy were on the menu. Kathy and Chad wanted to come back to pick up a few things, so this trip was only to survey what was there. After an hour we had seen what there was to see.

Through lunch we couldn't shake what we had seen at the museum. That afternoon, Karla stayed at the hotel to mark, while I caught a moto out to the Killing Fields. Records from Teol Sleung say there are ?? people here. Some of the mass graves have been excavated leaving 10-15 foot wide craters side by side in an area the size of a football field. At a few places, between the graves there were small piles of scraps of clothing and bones. At the centre, was a shrine that contained the skulls from the graves that had been excavated.

The next day we toured the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda where the reigning King Norodom Sihanouk lives. The king, who is 80 and has ruled (on and off) since his teens, is still involved in the country and publishes a daily handwritten note (in French) on the internet. At the palace, a Cambodian who was studying English chatted with us for a few minutes and wanted us to explain the difference between grace and compassion.

We headed off to the Russian market to do a bit of shopping. Despite being four people wandering around a huge, crowded market, we managed to find our loot and each other. We enjoyed another great lunch at Friends rested up for New Year's. The restaurant we had planned to go to, were only serving a set menu (despite promising us they would offer the regular menu as well), so we went to a restaurant that was owned by a German the Kathy and Chad had met in Thailand the year before.

After dinner, the Heart of Darkness, Cambodia best bar, was the evening main destination. We were frisked going in and I hand to hand over by Swiss Army knife. I was sure I would never see it again, but it was returned at the end of the night. It was packed; locals and foreigners, young and old were all getting down. Just before midnight, a Cambodian in an giant afro wig came out to announce that the Ministry of Culture had sent a team of traditional dancers. Cambodian dance is elegant. The movement is slow and controlled. After the dance, we counted down to midnight and watched another dance before the music kicked in again. We lasted a little while longer. We said goodbye outside the bar and went home.

The next morning, we had to get up early and headed out to the airport to go to Bangkok. The airport was modern, clean, efficient and organized. It's not exactly the busiest hub, but definitely feel like an international airport. The President Airlines flight back was a little worrisome. Part way through the flight, there was distinct smell of something burning. But we landed in Bangkok. We found our way to a hotel we had stayed at last year and checked in. We found a theatre that was showing Return of the King and got tickets for that afternoon. We spent the afternoon picking up a few things that we had missed the last tie we were in Thailand, getting a meal at Karla's favourite restaurant and enjoying a Blizzard from Dairy Queen.

The next morning we were on the move again. Back to the airport for the long flight home. We stopped in Dubai, were we are forced off the plane for 30 minutes while they clean it. During that time, we clear security to get into the airport. Clearing security means being about to walk through the metal detector without setting it off, which means many people have to take off the belts and shoes. By the time we'd waited to get through the line, we had to get in the line to clear security again to get into the boarding lounge. Welcome back to the Middle East.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

I have been using the Musicmatch's online music service at school where we have a high-speed connection. Included with their Jukebox software, that I use for managing and playing mp3 files, is an online radio service. The free service includes a bunch of themed radio stations (Smooth Jazz, Top 40, Adult Alternative, Classical, etc.) plus ArtistMatch. Feel like listening to some ABBA? Well ArtistMatch plays a radio station of ABBA, plus bands that sound like ABBA or that inspired or were inspired by them. If you don't like a song, you can just skip to the next one (but you can't pause or skip back). Every four songs there's a ten second add for pay for the upgrade. With that you can choose whatever music that you want to listen to, by song or artist.

We had a little gathering for Karla's birthday last night. Mostly teachers, but a few of our non-teaching friends came. We played a bit of Guesstures (a game based on charades). It's a lot of fun. You act out a series of words in a limited time. A lot of teachers were reluctant to get up and act out the words.