Hiroshima – An Experience

Although the train ticket was a wee bit too steep, I really had my mind setup on visiting Hiroshima. Actually, wasn’t THAT interested in Hiroshima, but in the island off of it, Miyajima. The holy island of Japan.

There is a floating torii in Miyajima which is regarded as one of the 3 Must See Sights of Japan, but of course during high tide. So I went to the train station, talked to the people and voila! the lady brings out the tide chart for Miyajima. As luck would have it, the high tide today was going to be at 5PM!!! Perfect!! So I handed her the money, got the tickets and happily started skipping to the Shinkansen. I really need to take a pic of the Shinkansen … if the damn things wouldn’t move soo fast, lol!

The ride from Kyoto to Hiroshima was very pleasant. We went thru Kobe, Osaka and some other small town. So in between seeing high rise buildings, traffic and the sort, you’d see the beautiful country side of rice paddies, farmers wading upto their knees inspecting their crops.

I got into Hiroshima around 1, and I was honestly blown away by the beauty and charm of the city. For some reason, considering it was A-bombed and what not, I was expecting some sorry, self-pitying city, but not so. The city is laid out in a clean style, broad avenues criscrossing, with many a gardens for you to relax in.

I had quite sometime before I had to head Miyajima, so I decided why not visit the Peace Memorial Park. And I’m so glad I did. It was a very moving experience, especially the great museum. With the war going on right now, it really shows you how meaningless our quest for ultimate power is. The tragedy and suffering of the millions could almost be felt from the pictures and the testimonies of the survivors. Very chilling.

They’ve done a great job with the park … and the only standing building from August 8, 1945 has been preserved, and again, it offers a reminder of the stupidity of war. There is a flame that burns in the middle of this long water pond that will burn until the day the last nuclear weapon has been destroyed. Looking at how things are going, the flame better be strong enough to last an eternity!

It was already about 4PM when I decided to board my city tram to goto the Miyajima-michi station to take the short ferry over to Miyajima. I was so excited, I could hardly stand myself! At every turn as we got closer, I started imagining that I could indeed see the floating torii, but of course I couldn’t :-D

We finally did get to the station after what seemed like an eternity … 50minutes damnit! … and then ferry wasn’t going to come for another 15 minutes!!! grrrrr!!!! But, this was a good chance for me to eat some seriously delish ice cream. Mucho better compared to my last experience with the seaweed and sushi flavor. I went safe this time with orange and grape. All the kids were lookin at me like I was holding the most prized possession in the world, so feeling kinda guilty, I gobbled it down fairly quickly. Plus I could see the ferry nearing in the distance.

I was so bad, I was in back of line, right, but I didn’t want to let all the kids get on first and take the good spots, so I cut in front of them, shoved my ticket in the conductors face and rushed along like a madman, lol.

The only thing missing from the picture was me snorting and laughing maniacally to myself.

The ride from Hiroshima to Miyajima was very nice, short, but nice. And since I had taken the prime spot, I was snapping pics like no tomorrow. Changing lenses, kneeling down, bending over the railway. Must’ve looked like I knew what I was doing, but the end result will be the judge.

The first thing that strikes you about Miyajima is as soon as you step out from the ferry station, you’ll be greeted by free roaming deer. They’re not scared of humans, and will in fact come right up to you and nuzzle your legs looking for some cookies. You can apparently buy deer cookies and make some new friends, if humans just aren’t doing it for you anymore.

This one lil stag decided to follow me to my destination. It was so flattering! Awww!!!

It was like 5:30 and being a total high-tide dumbass, I didn’t know how much time I had to take my pics, so again, I’m rushing down the coastline like a retard. It actually was very retarded, because the torii is like literally a 2min stroll from the station to the main entrance, lol!

There were a lot of tourists and we’re all busy taking pictures, and it was sooo amazing. So calming! The palace to which the torii belongs to is this massive structure comprising of apparently 21 buildings or whatever and looks so stunning, esp with the time I was there, the sun was shining directly on it!

I must’ve taken over a 100 pics in this place alone and waited till about 7:15PM to get some even better shots before heading back to catch my train back to Kyoto.

I made it back to Kyoto around 10:30, and had an amazing sleep – I kept see-sawing on the torii all night long!

Momo-ji go-zai-maas

So I’m back for another installment! A few days have gone in between updates, but I’m trying hard to make sure the entire trip is documented here, unlike the other times!

Last time I had just gotten to Kyoto, and since it was kinda late, I had to check into a REAL hotel, and had to pay for it too :( But it was worth it, like totally! I was soo tired of walking and having a nice, real bathroom, a comfy plush bed was totally welcome!

As is my ritual, I had to take a bubble bath, followed by an order of a nice drink from room service! This time I ordered a Mango-kiwi concoction. It was really very good. I was able to watch some TV, and luckily the Brazil game was on, so it gave me a chance to catch up with the World Cup. Of course, Brazil kicked a$$!!!

I finally went to sleep around 2 after planning the next day. I woke up around 9, took another shower, and headed out and decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. The buffet was good, but a little too heavy on the seafood side, which makes total sense, I suppose. I had a chance to try fried unagi (eel) and octopus. Yeah, let’s not get into that anymore!

I left around 12 from the hotel and headed to my ryokan for the remainder of my time in Kyoto … the Ryokan Hinomoto. The check-in wasn’t till 3, but the old lady was nice enough to let me leave my things until I came back at night. The location of this place is great, right next to a 7-11, and close to downtown, and walking distance to most of the temples in Higashiyama area.

The city of Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shrines, and each belongs to a different sect of Buddhism. I swear, as peaceful as these Buddhists come off as, they sure have issues with each other. Every temple sign you read “This temple was founded by Foobar-san, who later became the leader of the Foo branch of Buddhism because of differences in ideology with the Buddhism of the time” But let me not take away anything from the actual temples and shrines. They are magnificent to the MAX!

What really boggles my mind is how people from the past were able to produce such masterpieces, at this scale, with the limited technological resources they had. There is one temple, Kiyomizu-dera, which is perched high in the mountains. It is a trek just to walk up there, and to imagine the laborers who had to actually make this thing is amazing.

Anyways, so I did some more temple sightseeing around Kyoto and came across a beautiful Japanese garden, preserved from the Edo period. The garden was complete with the manicured trees, raked sands, and overall peace and harmony. You can spend hours in these places, and I didn’t realize why people talked about Japanese gardens so much! Now it all makes sense.

After walking for over 6hrs, up and down the narrow alleys, I came face to face with a Buddha statue that was just too humungous. Even with the 18mm lens, I couldn’t fully capture it. Took some creative angles to get it in. Again, makes you think of the artisans from back in the day – from all over the world.

I saw my first Geisha in those streets and it was truly a sight to behold. The lady looked absolutely stunning, completely done up in her red and gold embroidered kimono, with the huge bows in the back, the wooden slippers. The hair held together beautifully with a series of jewels, and wooden sticks. She had a beautiful silk parasole with her, and looked completely charming. No wonder Japanese men pay over $300 for an evening. I tried to take a picture, but she was being escorted by a gentleman. So I did what any guy would, I took a pic from the back :-D

I thought NOW, my trip to Japan is complete! Saw a geisha!!! YEEHAAAHHH!!!!

The rest of the day was a blur with shopping, more temples, more shrines, more gardens. Of course, there were frequent stops at the various convenience stores to replenish the water supplies.

I got to Hinomoto, totally exhausted and wanting to sleep right away. Exactly what I did! The sweet, old lady led me to my room, turned the AC on, and I was out without even changing.

First day in Kyoto was memorable, and the city is in such stark contrast to Tokyo, it was almost refreshing. Oh yeah, the women of Kyoto don’t have HALF the style of their Tokyo counterparts! NOTHING!

From the new to the old…

Many of us often wonder what the greatest invention has been, and many people offer their views, from scientific, to artistic but they’re all WRONG! Yeah ok, so the smallpox vaccine saved millions of lives, so the lightbulb allowed us to stay up all night like freakin owls, so the automobile allowed us to travel long distances … yada yada yada!

Today is your lucky day!!! Why, you ask? Simple. I will tell you what the greatest invention of our time is: the Western style toilet. Have you ever tried squeezing into those stalls with 2 bags in tow, and a camera bag slung across your shoulder? Yeah, it’s almost impossible. Then you’re trying to do this awkward squat action to make sure your clothes atleast look clean to others when you leave. Eek!

So, as you can tell, I’m back after a 2 day hiatus. Those 2 days saw me enjoy the amazing city of Tokyo. My friend in Riyadh, Omar, was saying make sure you come back when I was leaving … don’t fall in love with Tokyo, but it’s virtually impossible.

Now onto the amazing city that is Tokyo. The center of the modern Japanese universe. This place is electric. From the minute you step outside the Tokyo Station, the entire energy and vibe is electrifying. You see a million guys, all dressed in black suits, rushing towards their office. And women dressed in the most amazing fashions following right behind them.

Let me take a minute to commend the Japanese women on their fashion sense. It’s totally on point. Everyone is dressed like they’re about to enter the Milan Fashion Show. Hair is perfectly done, as is the makeup, and again, the clothes are just classic.

I ended up taking the train to Shinjuku station. Let me tie the last post with this one. Remember, I was saying that supposedly Shinjuku station in Tokyo is the busiest in the world … I’d like to ammend that. It’s the busiest in the universe. HOT DAMN THAT PLACE IS CRAAAAAAAAAYZEEEEEE!!!! The size, the sheer number of people, and just the feeling is out of this world.

The station is definitely the size of a small city, perhaps my old hometown of Gaithersburg, MD. No, not perhaps, surely the size of Gaithersburg. There are like mega-gazillion exits and each one takes you out into a totally different part of town. For those of you who have seen Aladdin, it’s like that scene when the genie sticks out like a hundred hands indicating the exits.

I know, I keep yapping about the Japanese rail system, but a few more things. There is no comparison to anything anywhere else. I used to think NY and DC subway systems were the shiznit, but those are like maybe 10% of the size of the Tokyo system. There are over 12 train lines, and each station is like it’s own little town. I can go on and on about this, but let me move on.

Back to our regularly scheduled blogging. So yeah, I found a locker in Shinjuku … stuffed my carry-on stuff and back on the train to the temple area of Asakusa. Asakusa really reminded me of Boston for some reason. Well, I mean, Boston doesn’t have huge Toriis sticking everywhere, but the street atmosphere is similar. Paved walkways and a large street market. The good thing I’ve noticed in Japan is that people are not hassling you to look at their wares. You are free to browse, and instead of being an annoyance, the shopkeepers are fun to interact with. Always smiling, bowing their heads, lol.

So anyways, after like a good 20 minute trip down the street market, you come to the main temple grounds. The temple is vast, and in classic Japanese form. Red, gold and white adorn much of the building, with smoke rising from various corners, indicating areas where ‘holy smoke’ biers are giving believers a chance to absorb the smoke for good luck.

A small corner hid a beautiful small shrine where locals where praying to the Buddha, and giving charity to the sweet monks. The praying manner was pretty new to me, and I got a few pics of some of the ppl in the process.

The left side of the main temple consists of a large, 5-story pagoda that seems to touch the sky. The view is so classic Asian, it was great. I strolled around the area for a bit and finally decided it was time to go see something else before the sunset.

I was really hungry, but decided to wait for dinner and opted for some ice cream instead. The shop had a display of 4 ice cream flavors … yeap, in Japanese of course! Two regular: chocolate and vanilla, and then a yellow/orange and a green one. I thought maybe the green was pistachio and tried to ask the old lady what it was. Before I knew what was going on, she’s shoving the cone in my face. I said ok, whatever … I’ll try it.

I tried taking the ice cream and then giving her the money. The lady jerked her hand back and stuck out her free hand asking for the money first, LOL! I almost died laughing. I got outside, and took a lick at the ice cream! OMG THE HORROR!

It was the popular SEAWEED and SUSHI flavor ice cream. It was soooooo amazingly nasty and bitter. I was cursing the woman to no end. The bad thing I noticed in Tokyo … virtually impossible to find trash cans, so I was forced to eat the gunk. But surprisingly, the taste got better, or maybe my tongue kicked into panic mode and stopped any taste from registering.

I got on the train again and decided to head down to the famed Ginza district. Ginza is the place to see and be seen, the place to spend your money if you want to make a claim to your well-offness. The streets are reminiscent of Times Square, and the lighting and billboards make Times Square look like a small town festival.

Before coming, I really wanted to see a Kabuki play (a traditional Japanese theater) and fortunately a show was on at the Kabuki-za, the most popular Kabuki theater in Eastern Japan. I waited in line for the 1-hr balcony view show, and was in there shortly.

The play was remarkable, and even though it was all in Japanese, it made total sense with the actions, the dialogues etc. Very enjoyable. It was already 7^8 by the time I got out, so I decided to walk around Ginza and take pictures. Remember, the women I mentioned above … well, the women in Ginza are dressed even better, if that is at all possible.

From Ginza, I went over to Shinjuku again and marvelled at the lights and the sheer volume of people in the streets. Again, I roamed around the streets, the station and decided to call it a night around 10:30. Yes, I know … I didn’t mention dinner! For good reason too … I didn’t have any :o (

The next day started early and I went to Starbucks for a very good Mango-Chicken sandwich and a nice hot coffee!!! From there, I went to Shinjuku station again to drop off my bag at the locker and then to the bank to replenish my decimated funds!

I had read a lot about this store called Yodabashi in Nishi-Shinjuku and had to check it out. WOW! No words to describe the immensity. 8 floors of NOTHING but cameras and camera accessories! EIGHT FLOORS! I saw cameras in price from $300 – $94,000. Lenses from $150 – $58,000. It was absolute heaven. An open wallet would have been the ultimate blessing right then!

That area of Shinjuku is full of electronics stores so I kept roaming around there and ended up at the Pentax Forum. A shop dedicated to all things Pentax. That was great! I got my camera CCD cleaned for $9!!! It’s as good as new!

I had time in between the cleaning, so hopped on the train and headed over to Ikebukuro to view the longest elevator in the world. Thing is HUGE, but somehow I was expected something going into the clouds, lol. Just to say I climbed it, I went up, saw a few galleries, back down, on the train and back to Shinjuku.

From there, I went to Ginza again for some dinner before heading out for Kyoto. It was drizzling when I left, but by the time I was near the hotel, I was soaked from head to toe!!! But the warm Soba noodles with raw egg and spicy Japanese plum sauce was very satisfying.

Back to Shinjuku to collect luggage, and then off to Tokyo station for the Shinkansen to Kyoto. I arrived in Kyoto late last night and after a relaxing sleep am here.

More about events from this morning coming next :o )

Konichiwa!

Let’s see how this goes. The keyboard is on Japanese layout and is almost hopeless to figure out. The spacebar is literally less than 1in and there are like a gazillion keys all over this keyboard. I think I’m gonna type without apostrophes … hitting Shift-7 is not fun everything you want the stupid thing to show.

Frustrated? Me? Naaah … it’s not that bad that nobody here speaks English, or that nothing sold here has any English text anywhere on it. It took me 10 minutes to find a bottle of water this morning at the grocery store. I know, water is clear, but when you throw in the fact that some of the Kirin beer sold is also clear, it makes it a bit more interesting.

All bitching aside … the place really is wonderful. More than anything, I am impressed by the people. They are just as advertised… extremely welcoming and sweet. And I really thought this head bowing thing was just for the movies … but it REALLY happens! You just have to make eye contact with someone and there goes their head bobbing up and down. They say something with it too, but hell if I know what it means.

I landed in Nagoya yesterday. Now that’s what I call an airport. Absolutely incredible. And it’s almost cute in a wierd way. I guess it’s the really cute PA announcers voice, or the lil cute cartoon characters guiding you around. The airport is spotless and the views of the water are so great! The visa process was a breeze, and within 20 mins I was on my way. The Travel Info center ladies were soooo sweet. Laughing, trying to explain where I was supposed to go. Finally, I got onto one of the famed Japanese trains, and again …just as advertised.

The rail network just in one city is IMMENSE! You have to realize that Nagoya is a city of only 2.2million. Just for comparison, that is less than the number of people passing thru the Shuinjuku station in Tokyo EACH DAY! Mmmmyeah!!!

Anyways, back to Nagoya. The trains are clean, comfy and again, the announcements are sooo cute. I think I really love how the Japanese language places emphasis on certain words and you have to stretch the word to no end. So after hopping on 2 lines, I was finally at the Higashi Betsuin station on the Meiji line. It was raining hard, but I had no choice but to make the short walk to my ryokan (traditional Japanese house). The ryokan is next to this massive, gorgeous temple … the Higashi Betsuin temple. It’s apparently close for renovation, but since most of the work is being done on the temple grounds, looks beautiful from the outside.

I got to Ryokan Marutame and was greeted by the very sweet owner … and guess what … he speaks some broken English! The rooms are very basic, but I like the feel of them. Just imagine Mr. Miyagi’s house in Okinawa! Straw mat flooring (tatami) and futons on the floor, and sliding paper doors.

I was totally pooped, so I just changed, washed up, and crashed into the very comfy bed. I was thinking it would be pretty hard and what not, but I slept like a baby and woke up around 9 the next morning, got ready and headed out.

I had planned to visit a mountain town called Takayama today, but since I got a late start, it wasn’t possible – maybe on the way to Tokyo tomorrow. I got on the train at Yagi-Obi station and just went to the main station of Sakae.

Something interesting happened on the way … I was standing in the train, minding my own business, when this girl, probably in her late-teens, comes upto me, says “you cute”, giggles like crazy and runs away. I thought my ears were on fire. The ppl around me are looking at me smiling. I’m so embarrassed, I can barely lookup!!

So anyways, I decided to head for downtown and ended up in Nagoya Station. Think Union Station and then multiply it by 10. The place is IMMENSE! 4 rail lines converge here, and it feels like there’s a whole city underground. The entire complex is headed by two beautiful 50-story sky scrapers, of which the first 12 floors are occupied by the JR Tanayashami mall. Yeap … TWELVE FLOORS! You name the brand, and you’ll see it here. Most of the items were from the usual designers … Vuitton, Prada, D&G, RL, Burberry, Dior, etc.

The 12th floor is for kimonos and of course, I had to visit. I had heard that kimonos can get pricey, but I wasn’t ready for this. I saw kimonos for over $25K. There were obis that were over $5K – JUST for the Obi!!! (For those wondering, Obi is the belt that holds the kimono in place)The prints are exquisite, and the material even more so. The sheer variety of accessories was eye-popping.

From there, I ventured outside and decided to visit the Noritake Garden. Now, you all know I’m very much into decorating, so this was an obvious choice. Noritake is one of the most highly renowned fine china makers in the world.

The garden is composed of beautiful fountains, walkways, and inviting foliage, replete with a small shrine in the middle of the complex. The exhibits were great; my favorite being the dinner plate processing display. There was a class available to learn how to paint a dinner plate. But I felt kinda awkward … all I saw partaking in the activity were these cute old ladies, chatting away merrily.

I spent a good 4-hrs at Noritake Garden, and then decided to head back to Nagoya station for some more of the window shopping. I rounded the corner from a different side and noticed the beautiful main entrance of the Nagoya Station. Of course, a few pics were in order, and some chilling on the steps. Drank my Gatorade, and for the first time, I was thinking it would be nice if someone else could have been there to take in all the beauty of the place.

Phew … that was a LOT! We’re only on Day 2, and I’m hoping I’ll have the chance to do this for the entire trip.

Oh yeah … I saw some extremely cute things so far:

  1. Individual boiled eggs are sold at convenience stores in these cute lil cardboard boxes with a sweet little yellow chick on the cover.
  2. The pedestrian crossings at the street corners have these speakers installed, and they make this pikachu-type chirping sound when it’s your turn to cross.
  3. Comics everywhere. There are even “comic bars.” You enter the place and are greeted by a wall of comic books! Take your pick, goto a table, and a very polite attendant will come and take your order.
  4. Whenever the train arrives at the next station, the lady announcers voice goes all excited as if she just won the lottery or something. And she has to say the name 3 times! KANAYAMA! KANAYAMA! KANAYAMA!

Also, I must give it to these guys on their punctuality. You can tune your watch with their timings. If it says the train will get there at 6:18, you better believe it’s gonna be there. And if it says it’ll leave at 6:30 … yeap, you best be there or wait for the next one.

I think that is more than enough for now, and hopefully I’ll be able to do this on a daily basis for the rest of the trip.

Sayonara! Domo Arigato for reading!

Peek-a-boo

BOO! I’m back for another quarterly update. I thought I would be good at this, but I’m really stinking it up these days. Everyday I think I should write about this, that or the other, but I’m too lazy to open up the site.

Anyways, I didn’t have any other choice today – the network at work is down, and I am done harrassing everyone else, so it’s just you and I now.

Let’s see, what’s changed since the last Eid … ah yes, the 2nd Eid came and went, too … so to all those who observe, another Eid Mubarak! This Eid was very boring for me, and I am actually glad to be back at work, except the getting up early part. We got 5 days off total, and my schedule for the for ALL 5 days was: sleep at 3AM, wake up at 1PM, crawl to the computer, decide to eat around 4, watch TV, play piano, internet, gym/tennis, and then back to bed after watching some more TV.

Annnnd … I came back from Morocco, I’m sure many of you have already seen the pictures … THANK YOU! I’m going to quit trying to do a day by day writeup of my journeys, because God knows, I really suck at it. I’ll sum it up … Morocco was very nice, not great, not bleh, but very nice.

The people are extremely nice, and you can see everything within a few hours of each other. Meaning … you can drive 2 hrs west and be looking across the Atlantic, or you could drive 1hr the other way, and be among the highest peaks in Africa. Drive about the same distance to your south from Marrakesh, and you’re welcomed by the vast expanse of the Sahara.

As a race, they are probably the most beautiful people I have seen. And the women … out of every 10, you see 11 beautiful, that’s how good it is!!! :o ) And don’t get me started on the food … it was beyond sumptuous. The national soup, harira, is sooooo good, sooooo incredibly goood!!! And then there’s the succulent tajine dishes, made with all sorts of fruits and vegetables, cooked with either lamb, chicken or beef and the couscous. I am surprised that Riyadh doesn’t have very many (any??) good Moroccan restaurants. Considering that the Saudis and Moroccans have a rich history of brotherhood, I was expecting to see more of their food crossover … we all know the Lebanese have done great in that area!

I just realized that I never posted this blog and now I’m at the tail end of my next trip, so let me cut this short by saying all of Morocco is very, very nice. From the beach, to the mountains, to the Sahara, the whole place is extremely enjoyable.

Sorry about that! Read the latest one, it has some good news in it!

Eid Mubarak and other odds and ends

Sorry for the long delay … seems to be the habit these days.

Ramadan ended, and it was by far one of the most amazing experiences of my life, from the feeling of brotherhood, to the exciting and nerve-tickling night prayers, it was great! I can’t wait for next year now.

As exciting as Ramadan was, the Eid festival marking the end was just as boring. There was nothing to do, and I basically spent the 4 day weekend holed up in my home, watching TV, sleeping and that’s about it. But the excitement of the last 30 days was worth it.

Today I went off roading with Gilbert. It was such a fun time – I am all into this activity and can’t wait to go back next weekend.

We drove out about 100 KM from the city to this small town of Nisah in the middle of the desert. The drive was very relaxing and very scenic. The roads have been cut thru the mountains and it’s amazing to see the sands of different colors so distinctly. You’d think over time, the sands would have mixed and you wouldn’t see the individual colors, but not so. You see dunes of complete red sand and over the next ridge is a completely different shade.

I think what also made it more beautiful was the time of day … the sun was hitting the peaks just right, and accenting and highlighting the different rock formations perfectly!

Overall, it was nice to get out of the city and do something different for a change, as opposed to always going out to eat and shopping.

Oooh … speaking of shopping, I bought a really nice watch the other day, as a gift to myself for Eid. Hmm … doesn’t sound all that exciting written out :)

I have more to tell about gay Riyadh … more coming soon, I promise this next one will be fun! LOL!

Yeap! That’s our President!

Donald Rumsfeld is giving the president his daily briefing.

He concludes by saying: “Yesterday, 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed.”

“OH NO!” the President exclaims. “That’s terrible!”

His staff sits stunned at this display of emotion, nervously watching as the President sits, head in hands.

Finally, the President looks up and asks, “How many is a brazillion?”

Ramadan Kareem

To all my Muslim brothers and sisters out there … a very very BIG Ramadan Kareem!!!

I hope all your prayers are answered, and your sins are forgiven in this best of months.

Ramadan in Saudi is so amazing, I cannot even start to explain. Having spent Ramadan in the US for the last 15 years, being here is such a blessing. You actually feel the entire spirit of the city change; everyone becomes nicer, your work hours change to accomodate the long night hours, the shops are open till 3AM, and the sales are incredible!

Another excellent thing is the abundance of dates. Saudi is known for it’s dates, and knowing young guys who come from the smaller towns around the country is great. Usually these folks’ fathers have date farms, and many of them have been kind enough to shower me with a ton of dates. I think I have about 7lbs of fresh, juicy, extremely sweet, melt-in-your-mouth dates sitting in my fridge! It’s baking time!

The best part of Ramadan here are the longer-than-usual night prayers, called Taraweeh. It is so supercharged with emotion, it is hard to keep your eyes dry. In fact, not a single person leaves with dry eyes. Thanks to 2 Lieutenants I work with, Eid & Fahd, I was introduced to a new mosque that opened up recently. The Imam at this mosque is stupendous. His recitation is musical to the point of making you lose yourself completely.

And then when he starts his last prayer stand, it’s all over. You can hear people sobbing uncontrollably, echoing “Ameen” with their voices cracking. The Imam sometimes gets so overwhelmed, he has to stop and regain composure. Everynight, I come home with goosebumps, and the entire time you’re in the mosque you can feel chills in your spine from the electric atmosphere.

As a Muslim, I feel so extremely blessed to be in Saudi Arabia to experience this most beautiful month. I only hope that every Muslim can get this chance at least once in their life. Next weekend I will make a trip out to Makkah and Medina, another first for me during Ramadan.

Again, RAMADAN KAREEM to all the Muslims out there. Please use this time to reflect on your lives and make lasting and permanent changes to improve yourself.

Welcome to India

I think the best way for me to do this is to write the entire trip in one long
entry, but have navigation links on the top, so it’s manageable. I hope you
guys enjoy …. there is much to read!

  • Day 1 – Dubai (Aug 19th)
  • Day 2 – Delhi (Aug 20th)
  • Day 3 – Delhi/Hyderabad (Aug 21th)
  • Day 4 – Hyderabad (Aug 22th)
  • Day 5 – Hyderabad (Aug 23th)
  • Day 6 – Delhi/Agra (Aug 24th)
  • Day 7 – Agra (Aug 25th)
  • Day 8 – Jaipur (Aug 26th)
  • Day 9 – Jaipur (Aug 27th)
  • Day 10 – Delhi (Aug 28th)
  • Day 11 – Dubai/Riyadh (Aug 29th)

    Living like a King

    Traveling in style kicks ass! Can’t stress that enough.

    It wasn’t all my doing though, and I had a lot of help from the folks over at Emirates Airlines. They had this promotion going on that if you traveled First Class before Aug 31st, you would get 2 free nights in the Ritz Carlton, and a complimentary desert safari south of Dubai, complete with a traditional dinner and a belly dancing show to cap it all of.

    So anyways, I left Riyadh Thursday night, and en route to Dubai I met an extremely friendly, and affluent, Saudi businessman. This guy was so refined and so well spoke, it was an absolute pleasure. He completed his education in Creighton, where he got his MBA. Turns out, he owns his own IT company along with his brother, and has offices all across this part of the world. We started talking about various things, and he told me to contact his people if I ever got bored of working with the Navy. Dude was so loaded, he was on his way to his Sussex house for a week because he felt like playing golf. Must be the life! The trip to Dubai is short to begin with, but it seemed even faster having someone to talk to.

    We get to Dubai, and as we’re turning to leave, I see this lady who was sitting behind me. She had to be one of the MOST beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. This is not an exxageration like my cuz Haider talks (“I have never seen this show in my life!” — yeah, ok!) – she was truly gorgeous. She was covered in the traditional black gown, and she was wearing her hijab, only her face and hands were showing, but every feature was so beautifully shaped, and the skin was like rich cream. Oh yeah, she had great taste in shoes, too! WOO!

    Before long, I was in a limo on my way to the Ritz. Many of you reading this have probably seen the Ritz in NY and DC, or elsewhere, and thought WOW, this is nice! You’d need a new word for this Ritz. It is spectacular! I’d be insulting them if I said it was merely perfect :o ) As soon as I got there, my bags where whisked to the back somewhere, I was seated in a plush, regally upholstered chair and a guy appeared with a glass of date champagne, some nuts and chocolates, and a hot towel while the check-in process was going on. Took about 5 minutes, and a bellhop was taking me to my room. The hotel is huge, and it literally took a good 7-8 minutes to get to my room – ALL the way at the end of one hall.

    Before I get ahead of myself, let me describe the incredible lobby. The double doors open into the immense lobby, with a concierge to the right and the receptionist to the left. The area is flooded with soft light and the 2-story chandelier. The tilework is done using geometric shapes, resembling traditional Islamic architecture. As your eyes look forward, a grand 3-story French window foyer takes your eye to the sparkling blue water, surrounded by fine white sand. Grand, calming, soothing … all bundled into one.

    So now to my room – er, deluxe room! Apparently, the Ritz doesn’t bother with a regular room, it’s deluxe and up. The place was about a 1/2 of my entire apartment in Riyadh, with the luxorious bath alone bigger than my kitchen. The room was furnished with very tasteful appointments, and again, the soft light brightening all corners.

    The bathroom was equipped with a nice bath, along with some bathing salts, so I thought why not – might as well try this as well ;o) I lounged in the balcony as the water was filling up, and then I retired to the bath for a very relaxing and rejuvenating warm bath. I might have dozed off, I don’t know … but I found myself in bed around 2AM, after some light exercise.

    I woke up early on Friday since I wanted to catch the 10AM bus to City Center Mall, take another bath, have breakfast, and then have some time to rest before the evening desert safari. I started the day with a refreshing bath, using some of the salts and potions provided by the hotel. From there, I went down for a very delicious breakfast. They had such a large spread, I didn’t even get to see all the stations.

    Being the net junkie that I am, I was itching to get on the net, cuz you know I can’t wait to read all the junk email I get all the time! The charges were a bit outrageous, so I didn’t stay too long, and it was 9:40 anyways … time to catch the bus. I rushed outside, only to find out that today was Friday, and most stores open till 4, some at 2, including City Center. DAMNIT!

    With nothing to do, I started roaming the vast hotel, walking aimlessly up and down the lobbies, and finally sat down on the balcony with a ton of papers. While reading the papers, I found out that according to a survey done by a British organization, more than 50% of men in their mid-20s percieve their most important priority in life to be finding a wife!!!! That really made me feel better … I’m not the only one, and on top of that … I’m not even in the minority!!! That was good for about 2 hrs – it was only 12! Still another 4 hours to go. Then I thought, why don’t I goto City Center at exactly 2, go only where I need to go and I’ll be done by 4 … no problemo. Only that I fell asleep and woke up at 2:30!!!

    So I’m thinking that I would cancel the safari so I could go shopping, and I called the Arabian Adventures people , and the lady on the phone was like “Sir, you do realize this is a complimentary offer, you’re not paying anything – you’ll miss out on this! You cannot redeem this at a later time” And I’m thinking ‘hmm, you know what … she’s right … screw shopping … but wait … what if … what if” She told me that if I went to only one store in City Center I would be ok – so off I went in search of a taxi. The search lasted to the front door, lol … hopped in the cab and on the way.

    The cab driver was a really nice guy, and we kept talking about this and that, and mostly I kept whining “Are we there yet? How much longer? I need to be back by 4!!!!” And the guy kept saying “I promise you’ll be back by 4, don’t worry … I promise sir!” City Center is this huge central mall of Dubai and from the little I saw, it looked more like a mall in America than in the Middle East – I saw more white people than Arabs, in fact, I only saw a handful of locals, mostly foreigners.

    So anyways … I did’t find what I came to look for, and I wasted a good chunk of money on the taxi too … but oh well, I got to see City Center in the process. The way back was like a race against time — we’re changing lanes, honking, braking and zooming down the highway to get back by 4. As the car clock goes to 4, the bellhop opens my door! I went and grabbed my camera real quick, and came down to find my safari guide, Abhay, waiting at the front desk. At first I thought it was only going to be a small group, but more than 25 4X4s were lined up outside.

    I wasn’t expecting much from the safari, but it was an excellent adventure. I sat upfront, and Abhay and I kept going back and forth with idle talk. When we finally got to the real desert is when the fun started. We stopped early on to lower tire pressure, and to take some pictures (see link above) and then we really got going. The entire landscape is plotted with all sizes of dunes, and we sped up and down all fo them … many times completely parallel to the ground. You could feel the cars lose control for a few and drift downwards. It was almost like being in a rollercoaster.

    At sunset we stopped at a very nice location for some more shots. The UAE is known for it’s 7 colors of sand, and all of them were easily visible in the last rays of light. From there, we were taken to the main event of the night … a big feast in a desert camp and the highlight would be an “enchanting belly dancer” – a first for me! They had all these stalls setup where the folks could get henna tattoos, this that and the other. The henna stations were busy all night, men and women alike lined up. Some got the tattoos on their hands, some on their lower backs, some on their ankles. I was thinking about it, but it’s considered such an unmanly thing in our culture.

    I kept roaming aimlessly thru the camp — probably the only time on my trip where I felt alone, because everyone had company. I got some appetizers and went and sat down in the most remote area. A few minutes later, another guy came and sat at the next table – I asked him “you’re alone also?”, he nodded yes and joined me at my table. At least I had some company for the evening – didn’t have to eat by myself. Vishawanath was on his way back to Bombay from a business trip to London – good guy. Dinner was announced, and although it wasn’t anything exceptional, it wasn’t bad.

    As dinner was winding down, the lights on the kneel down tables were dimmed and music with a thumping baseline started. The main area lights came on, and everyone started cheering! BELLY DANCER TIME! Here comes this lady dressed in a green outfit, with a veil covering her face and not much else, lol. Since it was my first time seeing a belly dance performance, I was pretty amused. Roxy, as I found out from Abhay later, was Russian, and she put on one heck of a show. She did things with her body that left you shaking you shaking your head. For example, she took this sword, thrust out her left hip, balanced the sword on it and proceeded to dance up a storm! Everyone is going nuts, clapping, hooting! Mucho entertaining!

    We got back around 11PM from the camp, and since my flight was at 4:30AM, I decided not to sleep and took yet ANOTHER bath! Watched a bit of tennis, and then went downstairs at 2 to take the complimentary limo to the airport.

    The Emirates First Class Lounge is something else! Free food, drinks, internet, satellite TV, plush leather couches, showers, beds – you name it, they have it. I chilled there for a good 1.5hr and reluctantly left to board my plane around 4. I was alone in my row … *phew* Just 3hrs away from India …


    Welcome to India

    We arrived in Delhi around 9AM. It was surprisingly a very easy process to get thru customs, visa and everything. Once I got out, I booked a taxi thru one of the prepaid govenment agencies. 250INR to get to the Crowne Plaza. Not too bad – that’s like $22.The taxi rattled along the way, and the driver, Sudais, kept asking me questions – where are you from? what do you do? how are you speaking hindi so well? I saw the India I was expecting, as well as the India I had no idea existed. Even though I’ve been to Karachi numerous times, it’s a totally different experience. Straight out of the airport, I could see cows roaming the streets with authority. A totally naked man was lying under a tree covered in mud, sleeping like he was in a palace somewhere. Pretty sad site.

    We passed by the Lotus Temple, a beautiful structure made by the adherents of the Baha’i faith. The building is called the Lotus Temple, because it looks like a white lotus flower opening up. Eventually, we entered the more developed part of Delhi, teeming with cars, auto-rickshaws (aka autos), rickshaws, motorcycles, cars, buses, beggars, animals, everything! It takes a little while to get used to the frantic pace of traffic. Everyone has the right of way, and they aren’t afraid to assert it either. You’re sitting there pumping your feet as if you’re in control of the brakes.

    The Crowne Plaza at Surya, New Friends Colony is a very beautiful hotel. The entrance is grand, and I love the way they’ve made their lobby. It’s very different from most places I have seen – right in the middle, is an open terrace like area that looks down to the coffee house, and a very large staircase leads you down. There is a bakery on-site, too. The room was also very nice, but not as nice as the lobby would lead you to believe. Whatever tho, I was only a guest for one evening, and it was more than adequate.

    Soon after I had settled in, and was going thru the gazillion movies on every channel, I got a call from an acquaintance of my sister-in-law whose family I was supposed to meet that day. She insisted on sending her son to pick me up, and although I protested, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. We agreed on the time, and I got ready quickly. Precisely an hour later, a very polite Dr. Farrukh called me up and introduced himself and off we went. Their house was only a few blocks up the road, so it was a quick ride.

    Dr. Farrukh and his family have to be some of the nicest people I have met. Very welcoming, and very soon I felt at home, completely at ease. I spent the afternoon with them, and enjoyed dinner at a very nice Chinese restaurant – Memories of China. I wonder if these are the real memories or the ones we see in the US. I think I would really like to taste REAL chinese food. Everywhere you go, the taste for the same dishes are so different .. makes you think which one is the real dish. But regardless, the food was tasty, and the company was great too.

    It was sooooo freaking hot – I mean, I was just sweating looking outside. My hosts insisted on showing me around Delhi – I felt extremely bad to put them thru this, but they kept saying it had been awhile for them too so it was all good. We visited Lal Qilla (The Red Fort) first. Unfortunately, the old Indian government doesn’t take their job seriously when it comes to preserving it’s Muslim monuments built by the Mughal emperors. Even still, the fort is gargantuan in size, and still looked decent. Aquick look at the beautiful buildings within gives you a vague idea of how beautiful the original must have been. The finest marble was used for these buildings, and to this day, some 400 years later, it is still shiny and smooth.

    It is absolutely amazing how accurate and intricate these places are designed. From the delicate and detailed frescoes, to the complicated underground water systems, and building designs to keep living quarters naturally cool and relaxing in the oppressing heat.

    Speaking of the oppressing heat – imagine the scene from ‘Airport’ where the pilot is dripping like a faucet – that was me, literally! It looked like I was made from ice, and would melt away in a matter of minutes. My shirt was so wet, sooooo incredibly wet, it looked like it was doused in water and put it on me. VERY HOT!

    I really wanted to see a temple, so Tahira Aunty took me across the street from the Red Fort into a big temple. We had to take off our shoes, socks everything. They were even after my belt, but I lied that it wasn’t real leather – I know, so bad – but whatever, I’m not Jain. I was so disappointed man, what a letdown, I swear. Mediocre, and boring. – psssh! I was expecting a scene from the Indian movies, this huge Goddess statue, and a clean marble floor, etc. None of that!

    Since it was hot, and it was getting late, we went directly towards home and I was dropped off a the hotel to freshen up, and Farrukh was going to come pick me up again in time for dinner. As agreed, he picked me up again around 8. It was time for an enjoyable dinner, and meet the rest of the family. We talked late into the night, and I think Tahira Aunty noticed my eyes closing and suggested that I be dropped off – WOOHOOO – sleep!

    I wanted to spend the next day on my own, not because I didn’t enjoy the company, but because I didn’t want to hassle them any further. They wouldn’t hear it, and I was set to have breakfast with them the next morning. Once back in the hotel, I was out in less than a second. Although it was extremely hot. I found out why the next morning – I had turned off the AC by mistake :-D


    Off to Hyderabad

    The day started out pretty early, since Farrukh was going to come pick me up around 8-9. We arrived just in time for a good, tasty breakfast, and sat around talking idly for a bit. It was still extremely hot outside, and we decided to keep indoors. That meant going to the Cottage Industries Emporium (aka Janpath) over at Connaught Place.

    Connaught Place is the foundation of what is now known as new Delhi. It was developed by the British to be a modern capital, and it fits the bill well. A bustling center of activity – literally. CP is laid out in a circular pattern, with the roads bearing the British trademark – traffic circles everywhere. In these parts, that’s like a death trap. You enter at your own risk … getting out is not always guaranteed!

    Anyhow, the Janpath was sooooo nice. They have all sorts of handicrafts from all over India – woodwork, cloth, marble trinkets inlaid with semi-precious stones, brass, silver, everything. Most of the items are guaranteed to have been made in small villages by local craftsmen. That somehow adds more charm to the already beautiful things. If I could, I would have bought one of everything.

    I think the best thing was no one was after us pestering us to buy this, buy that, come here, there .. none of that. It was nice and cool inside, and we must’ve spent a good 3hrs inside. Around 2, Farrukh started thinking about what to do for lunch – already?!?

  • Wrapping Up Kenya

    Sorry for the long delay between posts. (I’m talking like anyone is still reading this!)

    It seems pointless to complete the Kenya trip blog now, but I’ll spend a few minutes to complete the trip. I ended my detailed account on Day 2, when I was still in Samburu. We spent another day and a half there, and then Mynah took me to Lake Nakuru. On the way there, we stopped again at Nanyuki to drop off Gino, Karmen and Jenica. I did the Nakuru leg of the trip by myself, and it was excellent. I told Mynah to stop virtually every 5KM. I don’t want to spend too much time on each destination, but I really cannot convey the absolute calm and peaceful feeling that comes over you as the gorgeous Lake Nakuru comes into your view.

    It is surrounded by a beautiful landscape, varying from searing mountains at one side, to green plains on the other, with rolling hills in between. The sight of hundreds of thousands of flamingoes in the lake is beyond words. The pictures don’t even come close to capturing the beauty. Mynah took me to the top of the mountain for a scene I will not likely forget soon. I was trying to look everywhere at once, creating a mental wide-angle shot. From Lake Nakuru, we headed towards our final destination – Masai Mara. On the way, we were supposed to pick up two more passengers, who turned out to be:

  • Susan – An American working for the Peace Corps in Romania
  • Lee – A Chinese nurse

    Susan and I hit it off pretty well right from the start, and it really made the bumpy ride more bearable, and definitely made the time fly. Lee … now that’s another story. I have yet to meet a weirder, and stupider, person in my life. I hate to be so mean, but man, she was getting on my absolute last nerve! During the 3 days in Masai Mara, Susan and I shared a lot of laughs imagining the lions enjoying a satisfying meal of Lee, but alas, it wasn’t to be!

    Masai Mara – the famed National Reserve of Kenya. What a place. The park covers an area in excess 1,500sqkm. To get a sense of how big that is … imagine going from DC to Boston, and then west from Boston the same distance, and then back to DC. The area of that square is smaller than the size of the Mara. It reportedly takes over 2 months to explore the entire place, and even then you haven’t really seen all that you can. To make a long story short – the place is HUGE! It was again one of the most humbling sights I’ve seen. An absolutely vast expanse of undisturbed land, completely oblivious to your presence. Even the animals could be least bothered to acknowledge you. Especially the lions. They are truly so spectacular.

    I think if I really wanted to, I could write a book about the 3 days in Masai Mara alone. We saw Simba, Nala, Sarabi, Mufasa, Timon, Pumba, Rafiki … everyone! We even saw cheetahs, jackals, hyenas, zebras, wildebeest, hippos, giraffes, elephants, numerous birds, and so much more. The most amazing sight was seeing 2 lions go for their kill – a baby giraffe separated from his pack. Immediately following the kill, a host of vultures swooped in and were waiting impatiently on the nearby barren trees. The cheetahs impressed me the most – the most beautiful, and graceful animal. Their faces look so small and innocent, you’d think how something so adorable could be so vicious.

    Speaking of cheetahs let me recount one of the many tales of Ms. Lee. So we’re sitting quietly in our car, about 6 feet from 2 cheetahs, resting in the bush. Now, Ms. Weirdo, like she has been doing for the past 2 days, is having a fit because she wants to mingle with the animals, after all, she says, she spent all this money to be able to touch the animals. Mynah, quietly and patiently, tries to explain that a cheetah can rip her to shreds in no time. “I will run very fast” Hearing this, Mynah starts cracking up “You? You’re going to outrun a cheetah?” “Yes, I was in my schools track team” “Lee, cheetah is the fastest animal on the ground” “But he won’t hurt me, he looks so cute!” So Mynah firmly says no, you cannot. Start whining again. Susan and I are looking at each other, both of us thinking we could easily toss her from the roof, and give the cats a free meal. A few minutes later, Lee says she needs to use the bathroom. Mynah starts the car, ready to move out. Lee quickly suggests that she can just go a little ways from the car and do her thing. Mynah, visibly mad, tells her that we are in the wild, this isn’t the backyard of some zoo – this is the real deal! Lee … adamant!

    So finally, Mynah gets to the point where I think he was hoping the cheetah would kill Lee, so he says, ok you can go out. This girl jumped out of the car faster than a bullet leaves the barrel. Duuuuuuuuuumb woman, runs around the car right in front of the cheetahs. For a second, the parent cheetah was about to pounce on her face, until Mynah start shouting loudly. The gorgeous animals ran away, much to our chagrin. We were all so extremely mad at this stupid woman – what the hell were you thinking? Have you lost your mind? She’s still confident that she could outrun the cheetah, had the need arose. Surprising thing was, this girl is over 30, and a nurse on top of that. I really feel sorry for her patients.

    Let me wrap up Kenya on a positive note: I will return in the near future. I am going to do the hot air balloon ride the next time, inshallah. If I’ve said it a thousand times, I haven’t said it enough – Kenya is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. The people are wonderful, and the sights and sounds even more so. If you get a chance, let the sounds of Africa wake you up, it’s magical!

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