Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bahrain and Dubai

As I suspected, Bahrain and Dubai were similar to Kuwait though I'd have to say that Kuwait was the most over-the-top materialistic and expensive of the three. I spent 2 days in Bahrain. It is a small island country with little oil anymore and a long bridge connecting it to Saudi Arabia. It is about the same size as Singapore (and getting bigger with all the land reclaimation) but has a population of less than 1 million so only the north part of the island is developed. It was even more like home because it was more "normal" than Kuwait. A little smaller, a little poorer (poorest of the gulf countries but about the same as home), a little quieter, more tolerant and relaxed socially and religiously. I could easily've worn my salwar here and there were lots of Indian women dressed up too. Mostly I just wandered around the city but there is very little to do. I slept the first night in the airport but was hosted by a young Indian couple on the 2nd. Again, skilled labour is living it up. Gulf air is a fairly popular airline so there were a bunch of westerners wandering around, probably just on stop overs like me as there really isn't any reason to come here. The weather keeps getting better and better and I am at mid 20s or so now and well on my way to a sunburn. I did go to an Indian festival at the Hindu temple with my hosts. In most of these countries they are tolerant enough to allow foreign religions and temples but in the case of the Hindus they are not allowed to actually have idols as that is really bad in Islam. Thus they can't parade an idol around on holy days and they have to make do with pictures. In all these countries the bus system works pretty well but everyone wants a car to show off in. The front seats and area of the bus is reserved for women and while you will never see a girl standing on the bus, there are plenty of men sitting in there when it's free. Definately nothing like Pakistan. In all it is quite relaxed and modern and I can easily see why Michael Jackson came and hid out in Bahrain after leaving the states.
Dubai is a bit of a madhouse. By far the most famous and popular city in the region, it is growing at an insane rate and I've heard that up to 80% of the population is foreigners of some sort. ALthough not even the capital of the UAE, it has built itself up as the trade capital of the region and bills itself as the Singapore of the middle east. It has a great global location between europe and asia and everyone passes through at some point. It's expanding and planning with so much thought to the future that it is a beautiful and impressive place. They've taken everything into account and it is also the most liberal place in the area. The only problem is the traffic which is horrendous despite their best efforts to build nice roads. As a result of all this, there is a large number of tourists, everything is modern and unless you want to shop in one of it's numerous malls or markets (gold and jewelry are huge deals here) there is actually little to do. They have nice beaches and sand dunes but everything here is expensive and trying to get to many of them a big hassle. For me anyway. It doesn't cater to people like me and would prefer we didn't even show up I think.
Based on my kind of travel and interests I should hate the place but actually really enjoyed my 2 days there. It's like the Disneyland of construction projects and to fully appreciate all they are doing you would need a helicopter. They are currently building the world's tallest building, 1st underwater hotel, largest shopping mall and largest theme park. They already have the tallest and most luxurious hotel (7 stars, don't ask me how that figures and they won't let people near it) and are building several offshore projects. 3 offshore islands (largest manmade ever) shaped like palm trees visible from space, and another one that looks like the world. Pretty cool but no way you can see it. I stayed on the floor in an indian doctor's villa. Very nice set up. If anyone offers you a job out here just say yes.
I have just arrived in Oman. Beautiful country but little touristed and still expensive. Unfortunately that means things are hard to get to as a lot of it is natural beauty requiring a car. I have time to kill and no money but fortunately for me, the weather is good and this is one of the easiest countries in the world to hitchhike so I will try to make my way around the country this way for the next little while before going to Yemen. After the success I've had today (already 5 rides) I don't think it will be too much problem.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Leaving Soon

Wow, I can't believe what this has turned into. Originally we thought that we would be home for only a month and now it's coming up to 4!! Within the four months that I have been home, I have finished a couple of courses and written the provincials. I was able to completely skip grade 9 and some of the stuff I hadn't finished from grade 8 as well. Math was BRUTAL because I never learned the math for grade 9. I want to give a big THANKS to Sandra. I never would have pulled through without her!! She came over at least twice EVERY week to come help and teach me and she doesn't live close by. She is so great! I am going to try and do one more course before leaving in six weeks.
I am both happy and sad about going away again but I am trying to stay excited and not think TOO much about the whole situation. I am excited to see the sun again and I won't be missing the rain. I often think back on my travel stories and all of the experiences I had. I think of the days where I thought I would never survive and how I thought I would never come home. Now it is just a memory and I am blown away when I think that it was nearly TWO YEARS ago that I was dreading leaving my home and my friends..... It's interesting to see how far I've come and how much I've changed. Before I never would have guessed that I'd be travelling around the world with my family....and now I'm surprised to actually be EXCITED about it. I have to admit though, that I have some mixed feelings and I know that sometimes you have to make sacrifices. I'm terrified but thrilled, dreading but anxious and I am not looking forward to the pain but I'm pumped for the adventures I'll find myself getting into.
I hope that you guys will keep reading our blog and looking at the pictures once we're gone. I already miss you guys.......and I'm not even gone yet!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


This might sound a little strange but I think Kuwait is more like America than anywhere else I've been (in a materialistic, quick glance sense). It's really weird. There is tons of money here, oil wealth, and everything is new and spotlessly clean. New skyscrapers and 6 lane roads with SUVs, trucks and shiny new cars. I don't think I've ever seen this many Hummers or Porshe SUVs in my entire life as I have today. There are no tourists here at all as it is a very isolated, boring and expensive country. The only way here is to fly and until last year that was really expensive. The hotels are about $100/night and up. Fortunately for me I am being hosted by a guy from Kenya that works for Kuwait airways. He is quite the character and we are having a good time.
In short the story here is that it is a very boring country and nobody actually wants to live here. There is nothing except a nice, new American style city. It looks like it could be somewhere in Arizona (but it needs a coastline so maybe California without the excessive pollution) because it is dry and flat. It doesn't smell like fast food everywhere you go but they have all the stuff from home here somewhere and you'd have to replace the Mexicans with Indians. They drive fast but at least they stay in the lines. Oh yeah, there is no crime at all and it is arguably cleaner too. The population is close to 3 million, nearly all of which live in the city. I haven't met a single Kuwaiti (though I've seen them but they largely keep to themselves) as they are a minority and only number half a million or so. The whole country is based on and run by others. In fact, it is like little India as most of the population consists of "slaves" from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan (the head wobble is back in a big way). There are other Arabs here too (Egyptians, Syrians, etc.) but they aren't quite as common. I call them slaves because the conditions are horrible for them and they are treated like second class citizens. There is no tax here but as the place is loaded with money everything is quite expensive. Rent is similar to home prices as is McDonald's (though that isn't always a good indicator of food prices, and no I haven't been eating there) but the problem is that the wages are based on your nationality. If you are from the west or are a skilled worker from somewhere else then the wages are quite good and you can really live it up (as much as that is possible in a country with no alcohol or nightlife and a shortage of women). Big flats and fancy cars to drive around and show off is the life. People generally come for a couple years to make big money and then head home. The flipside is that the unskilled workers make almost nothing and can barely live, crammed in tiny rooms by the dozen. They work all day and night hoping to make ends meet (washing cars at 5am for extra cash) and find a little to send their families back home. It is winter and a nice 22C here but in summer it is up to 50C. Needless to say, everything is aircon and nobody goes outside. Except the poor Indian or Bangladeshi guys. They are the only people outside, cleaning the streets, washing people's cars or walking around. I get tons of strange looks because only Indians take the buses and walk around. Everyone else takes a taxi or has their own car. Heaven forbid they should be hanging out with the lower class people. They are really nice though and have helped me out a lot. I have only seen 1 or 2 westerners here. The Kuwaitis meanwhile are all "employed" by the government and receive fat salaries (5+ times more than everyone else) for minimal work and I swear they do nothing but drive around all day. Actually there is nothing else to do here anyway.
They do have lots of shopping now that I think about it but I don't know who can afford it. That reminds me, the hours here are strange. The shops open at 9 or 10am, close at 1pm and then reopen at 4pm for another couple hours. It is to avoid the heat of summer but right now it seems really weird. Really it just feels like there is nothing going on at all. Everything is too quiet except on the road. I didn't really believe it at first. After all, how many places are closed on Sunday at home now and how many Mediterranean countries shut down for their afternoon naps anymore? Well, they really do shut down everything here. I was walking around at 2pm in a ghost town (except for the ever present traffic that is going nowhere) and eventually went home because there was nothing I could do. The money is cool too. One dinar is worth over $3 so the numbers are really low. They have 1/2 and 1/4 dinar bills. Not written in xxx "cents" but actually as a fraction. They also divide the dinar into 1000 fils instead of 100.
As I said, I haven't met anyone here that wasn't from Egypt, India (mostly the southern part) or Bangladesh so I can't say for sure but rumor has it that they still love the Americans here for saving them in the Gulf War. I have seen no evidence of it or any American military presence (Sky was asking and has been through here) though I am sure it is here somewhere. I have been in the city only and the Iraq border is about 50km away. I have seen and done enough so tomorrow morning I fly to Bahrain for the next 2 days. I suspect it will be much the same as here. In fact what I think we should do is give India to the Israelis, the gulf to the Indians and Israel to the Arabs and everyone should be happy :) Things seem to be naturally moving in that direction anyway.....

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Told you so

Don't know if you saw the news today but the day after I leave Lebanon they start bombing stuff again. They're all nuts. Apparently the price of Kalashnikovs is on the rise in Lebanon as everyone is rearming and preparing to the tensions to really get going. They are up in the $700 range. There has to be a better way to do politics.....
Things are good here. I'll write about Kuwait later.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Maybe it is the stress of trying to organize stuff lately, maybe it is the great countries I was just in, but I feel like ripping this country apart. It's not bad, actually everyone here travelling loves it, but it is not really my kind of place. Especially Beirut. It's too, something. I am finding the country a little disturbing, not because of anything specifically here but more what it stands for. It is too superficial and lacks originality. It is a sell out on the middle east, and a sad attempt at being Western. Oh sure, it does a great job of an attempt. The city looks very western, lots of nightlife and restaurants, the most beautiful (read:easiest) women in the middle east, flashy clothes, tons of new Mercedes, BMWs and SUVs. You constantly hear the squealing of tires at these people race around the streets around corners and pealing out just to show off their cars. Even the women do it. The people are nice enough but not to the same degree as Syria or Turkey. It's disturbing because of it's other qualities that don't mesh and while I don't claim that this is my view I think it doesn't take much imagination to use Beirut as a perfect example (some might try Sarajevo but I think it is a totally different case) of why westerners are afraid of immigration from this area. Think of it this way. It is totally western looking, a mix of Christian and Muslim. And yet, it is very polluted, the traffic is ridiculous and the politics is completely non-functional because of the sect alliances. Add to it the violence and it becomes scary. It is a place that destroys itself for no apparent reason. They could have it all, many of them do and yet they want to fight. Imagine that type of thing invading your hometown. You don't believe it could happen to a place so wealthy or "advanced"? Just look to Beirut and be afraid. I don't actually believe it, but it is possible to get onto that line of reasoning and for that reason Beirut disturbs me. I did do a day trip north to a town called Byblos. Kind of hard to tell when I got there because the coastal road is so developed leaving north and south of Beirut than I'm not sure that it ever ends and turns into anywhere new. Beirut is not actually the oldest town around here, the history of places like Byblos and Tyr go much much farther back. Byblos was cool in that it had ruins of different level all on top and beside each other. Imagine 4000 year old tombs beside 2000 year old Roman columns just outside a 1000 year old crusader castle. This weekend I was in Baalbeck. The most famous Roman ruins in Lebanon and it's biggest tourist site but not the purpose of my visit. I went to go and meet the family of my friend Hani. He's a Palestinian guy and way too smart but his family lives in Lebanon. They were extremely nice and I stayed with them for a night. We talked and talked and saw a few things around town. Palestinian politics is pretty messed up and I can't say I agree with the mentality of the people out here. I am always arguing politics and I think the biggest problem is that they don't see the big picture. They are too reactionary and think that they have to do everything on their own. So they lose the PR war and that ultimately is what wins these things. The Bekaa valley is beautiful. It is not very wide but very picturesque, especially now as the mountains on either side are topped with snow. It is a strong Hezbollah area (the original area I think) but again, unless you are Israeli they don't give anyone any problems. I certainly never felt any problems. I also got a tour of the local damage as the Israelis did a lot of bombing runs all the way up there. Got a lesson on landmines too. You wouldn't believe how sneaky those things are now. Tomorrow I fly to Kuwait to start my Gulf tour. I'll be going pretty fast so might not be able to check in for a bit.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lebanon - South

Well, you are probably now thinking that I must have some sick fascination with war-torn countries because I keep ending up in them. I am just going around the world and that is where I end up. I am more inclined to think that it suggests a problem with the world and not with me.....
I don't really know what to tell you about Lebanon. You probably already think you know. It's history has been all over the news for a long, long time. It was a French colony after the Ottoman empire was split along with Syria. Syria never really did like the idea of Lebanon being a separate country and has meddled ever since. The politics of Lebanon has always been extremely messed up. Even now when I ask them about it they say "Forget it, you will never understand, we still don't ourselves". From what I can tell, Lebanon has always had a huge religious diversity and rather than embrace it, it has always been a destructive influence. "Democracy" here means voting for a party along religious sect lines and always has. There simply cannot be another way. The constitution says that the president must be a Maronite Christian (there are or used to be a lot of Christians here), the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the deputy prime minister a Greek Orthodox, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. It's that messed up, especially since the population ratios of each sect has totally changed since the agreement was made. Christians are no longer the majority and probably don't deserve to have the presidency.
I better not need to remind you of the Israel-Lebanon war this past summer, in which Hezbollah was the target in southern Lebanon and certain suburbs of Beirut. Actually one could argue that they effectively control a large portion of the country now. You see pictures of the leader everywhere, especially in the south. There were demonstrations, strikes and riots here recently as well. There is currently a large "tent city" set up in Beirut of pro-Hezbollah protesters (though I have heard that it is actually Hezbollah footing the bill to import homeless people from around the country and give them tents and pay them to stay there to make it look like more people care). I just finished reading a book written by an ex-navy SEAL about his time in Beirut during the 80's so it is interesting being here now.
The weather has been crap so far with thunder and heavy rain mostly so haven't done much. Saw a little of Beirut. It definately has seen some rough days. Imagine a very large Mostar, Bosnia with tons and tons of shot up buildings, empty building shells, the odd burnt out car (from last week) and construction everywhere. Tons of military scattered about the city as well. It's hard to take pictures because so much is "sensitive" as they'll have a few soldiers and an armoured vehicle sitting at major intersections, under bridges and in front of major buildings.
The retarded thing is that the Lebanese are known for their snobbish attitude (for the region), wealth, beauty, culture and liberal thinking. But they just can't help but destroy themselves too. The president runs around begging for foreign aid, while the prices here are pushing those at home and I haven't seen so many brand new expensive cars in a very long time. Lebanon is also second in the world for plastic surgery. It is all about image. They have street lights at major intersections but don't turn them on so people go in all directions at once. In India this is ok but honestly, Beirut looks like home so you would expect a lot more order. The scenery is great, with 2 mountain ranges running the length of the country north to south. Combine that with the ocean on the other end and it could be home.
Today we finally had decent weather so went south to Tyr of all places. It is only 20km from the Israeli border and I was expecting it to look like judgement day. The villages inland more are supposed to be totally trashed but it isn't possible to get out there. But it didn't look too bad at all in Tyr. It was pretty quiet and tame actually. People were nice, there are Roman ruins, a quiet fishing harbour and decent looking beaches. On the way back we stopped in Sidon to see a ruined crusader castle and a beautiful sunset. Of course on the main highways in places there are blown out bridges being rebuilt. I'll be here a few more days.