May 12, 2011

Watching the Calm Peaceful -- WTF??? - Kuwait 2011

Go to grab a sandwich and OJ at the local coffee shop, which happens to sit on the Marina harbor of the Gulf.

Lazy afternoon.

Not much going on.

Walk up to the railing to look at the boats and ... well, the video shows how the situation is not what I expect.

Amazing. So wonderful in a country that at times seems devoid of all wildlife.

April 2, 2011

A Slight Change in the Forecast - Kuwait 2011

I haven't posted much about Kuwait (anything?). I will eventually when the mood hits me.

However, sometimes an event happens that is too weird to pass up. Such is the case with my usually non-eventful 5k run along Gulf Road.

At first it seemed amazing and exciting.


Then it slowly changes to "What have I gotten myself into?"

Then it becomes surreal.

And then the last hour is a slog through brown thick soup walking a kilometer back to my car, barely able to see a meter ahead of me, my eyes burning and watering from the sand, and thinking that I might collapse and be buried under a be found a few months later, I suppose.

Ah, don't worry. I made it out alive. Three days later I was still digging mud out of my ears.

December 12, 2010

A Moment of What Wasn't - Stockholm 2010

(NY Daily News Photo)
This week, a car exploded in downtown Stockholm. The location is near the hotel where I stayed last August.

It's quite strange to hear news like this. Makes me wonder about fate and destiny and near misses ... Today, I was planning to write a post about my first step into Palestine. Or more accurately, my first attempt to enter Palestine from Israel.

However, with this news, I think I'll put that off for a bit.

In the end, violence of this sort, which strikes a nerve as easily as it strikes a location I once walked, reminds me of 2 truths.

1. I've roamed many places where conflict seemed to follow me around. I once thought that was a unique aspect of my life. But over the past 10 years, I realize that anyone who travels comes in contact with a "ground zero", in one way or another.

2. There will always be someone who thinks death is the only option to be heard. Unfortunately, that death is not their suicide but the murder of someone else.

From what I've read, only one person died in Stockholm due to the explosion. What does that say about us, when this news is greeted with relief, not sorrow.

November 27, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 5 – The Long Kiss Goodbye) – Sri Lanka 1997

I could easy write another dozen small incidents which occur over the next month and a half, while sharing my bathroom with the creature. Sudden appearances, creepy hairy legs sticking out from behind the sink, noisy scurries across the floor behind my back, etc. But why bother? I have long ago given up any retaliation. The splashes of water or the classic broom jab only make the situation worse as once again I witness the incredible speed of The Spider. I realize that an unspoken d├ętente is easier and safer. There reaches a point where you simply have to shrug and accept him for what he is: a large, poisonous predator that would kill and eat me, if only he was the size of a Chihuahua.

So, in that light, I’ll move to the end.

I'm beginning my shave, when I see him on the opposite wall, near the ceiling, legs spread out and motionless. Nothing new. He is a good 10 feet away and I barely even think about it. However, this morning, what is unusual about my bathroom is the large number of cockroaches crawling on the walls. Normally by sunrise, the cockroaches have fled to darker, moister places. Yet, for some reason, the air is especially chilly and there are 6 to 10 of these insects moping around the walls and corners.

(the internet has a picture of everything)
Now, these are Asian cockroaches: about 3-4 inches in length, brittle brown wings forming a back shield, large clicky legs, and two thin long antennas. Unlike the American/European cousin, these are large, unafraid, outdoorsy insects that are more like small armored tanks than speedy racecars. And yes, they do fly. [One day, I’ll tell you some of my cockroach stories.]

So, I’m not concerned about the cockroaches at all, even as one lumbers down the wall towards the sink. No doubt, it's attracted by the incandescent light and warmth.

As I continue to shave, I see in the mirror, over my shoulder, that Spidey has suddenly moved. He’s tenser. More erect and scurries about a foot and then freezes. What’s up with that, I think.

The cockroach continues to move, slowly, towards downward at an angle. Spidey rushes a few more feet, and then freezes again. Repeat.

Wait a minute, I think. That monster can distinguish a cockroach from over 10 feet away? That’s 20 times its body length. That’s not … but there it is unfolding before me. I step back and watch as The Spider stalks his victim by circling the room, sneaking in from the rear of the cockroach. By the time the poor insect is near the sink, Spidey has crept along the perimeter of the room and is a mere 2 feet away.

On the shelf by the sink are a line of old empty spray paint cans. Why are they there? Oh, that would require a dissertation on the pack rat habits of Sri Lankans. Just trust me when I say that the dozen or so spray cans are there (and are probably still there to this day, 14 years later). The cockroach seems to be heading for that space between the cans and the wall. It squeezes its body into the gap, and at the same time The Spider makes the last dash, zooming in for the kill.

They both end up behind the spray cans at the same time. The metal cylinders rattle and bump and tussle violently, but I can’t see a bit of what’s happening. Then, as quickly as it begins, it stops. So goes the cycle of life, I say to myself.

Then, as calmly as if nothing happened at all, the cockroach crawls out from behind the cans, slowly moving up the wall. I stand and watch, waiting, but nothing follows. Though I live in the house for another month, I never see the creature of the bathroom again.

November 26, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 4 – Honey, I’m Home!) – Sri Lanka 1997

I walk into the bathroom and immediately say hello to my little friend on the wall above the toilet. Fine. I can wait to pee until the monster’s gone. Yet, I pause for a second, because it looks a little different. Smaller? Thinner? A lighter color?

I step closer – yes, I’m thinking this is a trap, too – and then I see something that catches me by surprise. Is that a dust ball? No. Maybe a wad of cotton? No… ah, now I see. It’s a large white, silk-enwrapped egg sac nestled under its short mandibles. Babies! Well, soon-to-be baby spiders. I’m amazed and horrified at the same time; the cavalry is coming, but it ain’t for me.

Then, from the upper ledge comes a movement. Oh, I see. It’s all clear now.

(thank you internet for another
perfect image of my past life)
The original monster of the bathroom appears in “his” regular size and weight and color. It’s his wifey I was staring at, taking care of the young’uns. It’s now a family affair.

November 24, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 3 – Almost) – Sri Lanka 1997

In Sri Lanka during the first month, I have to urinate frequently. Part of the problem is the huge amount of water I’m drinking because of the heat. Another part is the daily stress and nervousness of being suddenly thrust into a foreign situation with only a rudimentary understanding of the customs and language. Often, the sudden need to pee wakes me up in the middle of the night.

Now, in the usual sense, this is not a big deal. But in Sri Lanka, even the simplest things can be complicated. To get to my bathroom, I must weave my way through the pitch black house. My first attempt ends in a stubbed toe, locked doors, and the whole family awake and shooting questions at me at 3 a.m. But I’m a quick learner; with a flashlight and my route memorized I’m able to skirt through the living and dining room with a problem. Then, into the courtyard, past Lenny wrapped in his burlap blanket, and then to my bathroom.

After a few of these trips, it is second nature. This night, as usual, I reach into the darkness to turn on the light switch and … wait for it … suddenly I stop. I’ve done this motion almost every night for the past 3 weeks, but for some reason I withdraw my hand. I turn my flashlight towards the switch and, yes!, there is The Spider, directly on top of the light switch, waiting so patiently in ambush after days of observation. Only the last second tingling of my spidey-sense saves me from grabbing the hairy, large, fanged body of this creature in the pitch black darkness of my bathroom.

(yes again, because it deserves another look)

November 23, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 2 – I’ve Got My Eyes On You) – Sri Lanka 1997

I’m showering away with watering spraying everywhere from the overhead nozzle. It’s a dual-purpose activity: I wash myself and the inside walls of the bathroom at the same time. Very eco-friendly. My mind is drifting through last week’s activities of language learning, exploring my neighborhood, and getting to know my family and their staff.
Soap suds cover my arms and shoulders. I’m scrubbing away. And, of course, have now completely forgotten I’m the target of an 8-legged vendetta – which is exactly what it wants.

I happen to look straight up into the oncoming water. No reason in particular. It's not something I normally do. But for that moment, my head tilts back and I open my eyes. Directly above maybe 3 feet away, The Spider clings to the rafter, upside down. That large body. Those long legs. Those soulless black orbs. In that split second, I let out a yelp of pure terror and leap to the side.

But it’s too late.

No, it doesn’t drop. No it isn’t latched onto my face sinking inch-long fangs into my eye – it’s large enough that its legs would wrap from cheek to cheek. Nope, nothing like that happens at all … it is still on the rafter, watching.

Then I realize that this is the whole purpose behind the sneak attack. It wants me to know that it could’ve had at me unmercifully. With one swoop, cold revenge would have been served. Yet, this is not how it works. This isn’t a war to be won in a swift decisive move. It is a feud ... and needs to play out in a long, slow, torturous series.

November 22, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 1 – First Encounter) – Sri Lanka 1997

My Sri Lankan host family is well off, in relative terms. Their house is recently constructed and has ample room for my host mother, sister, and older brother and his young daughter. My room is smallish but good enough for me, with privacy and a comfortable bed – you won’t find me complaining.

(generic photo of a much better
squat toilet than the one i had)

Except for the bathroom. I’m shown my “private” bathroom, which is a cinderblock booth isolated behind the house. Inside is a squat toilet (and the plastic bucket used to flush), a deep rusty steel sink, and a small shower head in the middle of the ceiling. I will admit I’m a bit taken aback when I first see it. My host mother, who speaks no English at all, is rattling on in Sinhalese and nodding and smiling and what can I do but smile back and say thank you in my only two-word phrase I’ve learned so far.

In that first impression, there's one structural oddity I don’t quite see: the walls don’t meet the ceiling. They stop short about 6 inches and then the roof rafters angle downwards supported by bricks, leaving a nice gap so the heat escapes and air flows across freely … and anything can crawl to come visit. Among the numerous cockroaches and mosquitoes and the occasional rat, the most shocking guest made a nondescript entrance.

My first morning on the squat toilet (which by the way really is great for the natural flow of things to exit your butt) and off in the corner I see this gray, hairy predator staring at me with big black eyes (and a small group of small black eyes). I’m teetering over the toilet, naked from the waist down (Pantless? Well, yeah, if you’ve ever used a squat toilet, then you’d understand. For those who haven’t, well some things have to be discovered on your own.) staring at the biggest spider I've ever seen and not quite believing. It’s 1950s Sci-Fi Movie size. To give a real graphic description, hold your hand outwards and spread the fingers like a claw. That approximates the size of the thing; certainly large enough that I can see the fangs hanging downwards.

(yeah, like this ... only bigger)
Then it moves, in that slow motion creepy style, along the wall in my direction. I can’t really get myself up and out just yet -- mainly because I’m fascinated by the sheer terror the spider inspires. It glides over the concrete and inch by inch comes closer. Stops. Sizes me up and thinks “If I pull this off, I’ll eat like a king.” [Sorry, that line isn't original.]

Far Side:"If we pull this off, we'll eat like kings"

Well, I can’t just squat there and do nothing, so I grab the small roll of toilet paper and give it a toss. Nothing exceptionally malevolent. More like a shot across its bow as a warning. Whoops, that was a huge mistake for 2 reasons.

First, the spider reacts by running up the wall towards the ceiling and then through the gap with an incredible speed. I mean, I’m expecting the slow methodical one leg at a time movement, but nope. This monster covers over 6 feet in a split second, which makes sense if you consider it does have 8 legs scampering together. The speed! The agility. The pure ability! I admit, I let out a small yelp. And now with it out of sight, it’s only worse. The wall-ceiling gap is around the entire room. This speedy spider could appear anywhere at any moment. Ooooooookay. Enough for me. I’m up, throwing on my pants on and outta of there.

Oh wait, you say. I said it was a mistake for 2 reasons, didn’t I? Well, the second reason is that little toilet roll toss is a declaration of war. A war I’m not nearly ready for. And I don’t even realize it.

November 21, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Movie Time – Poland 1998

(at the bottom of the stairs,
go left for the cinema.
go right for the train station,
straight ahead for Zabrze's PO)
There’s not much to do in downtown Zabrze, even though the population tops out at over 250,000. This subset of Katowice in southern Poland is more like a small country town than city. There’s a MacDonald’s. A few small stores. The bus stop. The Post Office. My school. And the movie theater.

Not just any movie theater, but a remnant of those years gone by when the screen is so wide you have to turn your head a little to see the edges. The building has maybe 500 seats, with an overhanging balcony that sits another 100. And, being Poland, there’s no need for all that extraneous safety nonsense; when the lights go down the room is pitch black until the film begins. The exit doors on either wall have thick chains wrapped around the release bars, padlocked shut. You may risk death to see this film, but you do so in grand style.

When I first start showing up, the staff are a bit taken aback. On a Saturday afternoon, I expect a line, but I’m the only one there. The clerk is unsure whether to sell me a ticket or not. But she does. Slowly, as the weeks turn into months, they get to know me. On days when they would turn anyone else away, I’m allowed in. Oh, I still pay my 12 zloty (about $2.50), but that’s fine. And, even more amazing, like all other European theaters the seating is assigned. Every time – for the entire 2+ years I live there – I’m required to choose my seat. 600 empty slots but I still have to make that decision.

Sure, on occasion, a more well known film has a handful of other viewers, but the majority of the time I’m by myself, sitting in the aisle seat of the third row, in the darkness of this cavernous room, eating popcorn and feeling a bit of a mogul. My own private screening of the latest release. Over the months, I go to everything that’s shown – sometimes out of desire, but mostly out of boredom. Makes no difference to me who or what is playing … I rarely know before I arrive. The posters go up every Friday afternoon, but it’s all a bunch of titles to me. I have no TV. No newspaper. No internet. So often I enter a movie without any of the hype.

Seeing a movie in this way is liberating.

Matrix is a complete shocker to me, with no idea of what I am about to see. Phantom Menace is also a surprise, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. I see Disney’s Tarzan and marvel at the animation while trying to decipher the Polish dubbing. Well, at least Disney puts some real care and expertise into it, where the characters on screen closely match the type and tone of voice. My Favorite Martian? Yeah, not so much; it is subjected to the usual Polish dubbing of a single, male baritone reciting each portion of the dialogue in the same unending, unemotional drone; the somewhat audible English plays underneath. Yet, that in itself is sort of funny, lousy movie or not.

It becomes an adventure to guess what a movie is about. Payback with Mel Gibson hints it’s a typical action flick, but turns out to be something funnier and darker. Fight Club drops on me like an atomic bomb and I love it. The Sixth Sense is amazing, because no chance of a spoiler. And yes, without all the buzz, I think The Blair Witch Project is an actual documentary, and it scares the shit outta me.

Nowadays, I’m so connected and updated about what’s coming out and who likes it and who doesn’t and plot twists. I’ve got internet and TV and movie magazines and friends and a constant stream of what’s happening nonstop. I’ve lost that exploratory wonder from those days in Poland. Movies are still good, but they’re not mysteries anymore waiting to unfold in the dark. I miss that.

November 20, 2010

At Sea – Egypt 2002

It’s the end of our second dive of the day and as I climb aboard the small yacht, I’m bored. How many small streaks of silver or grayish rock or parrot fish do I have to stare at before I finally admit to myself that only about 1 in 100 dives is worth the time. Each submersion is a lottery; I’m so tired of smiling and pretending that even those mundane moments are such amazing life experiences that I’ll write home and remember for the rest of my life. Please. Dozens of dives and I can no longer remember one washed out coral reef from another.

(don't we look so happy?)
Yes, my mood is borderline sour and it doesn’t help that I’m there with TT. A lull has settled over us; a span of time when I can no longer be devastated by this epic fail of a relationship. Neutrality is my goal, and rarely do I achieve it, but at least on this bright sunny day floating in the Red Sea, she looks so damn good in her bikini. I vaguely recall those feelings of lust and joy … more like remembering a movie I saw rather than what used to be us. Lately, her beauty only makes me more distant. More angry.

Yet, like always, I’m still smiling and talking about that great school of whatever that swam just near enough to still be indistinguishable. A couple of other divers talk about an octopus they saw and the rest of the small crowd gasps and oohs while we stow our tanks and pry ourselves out of the wet suits. Another dive. Another missed opportunity.

I move away from them to the rear of the boat. The surrounding water and sun is interesting, in its massive endless way. I watch the unchanging scene for a few minutes, ignoring the continual chatter of the others. I should be happy, I think. Even with TT and all that shit, somehow I should be having the time of my life.

In the distance, just breaking the waves, I see them at the exact same time someone else on the upper deck sounds the alert. Dorsal fins cut the surface and go under. Then reappear in a gentle arc and go under again. Dolphins. They are moving towards us. For a moment I’m terrified that they’ll see the boat and move away. That doesn’t happen. The fins continue to break the water, disappear, and reappear. They are headed to exactly where I’m standing.

This location is called Dolphin House, but we assumed that was the bait (and switch) for us paying divers. Just like other spots: Deep Blue (mostly gray-green), Coral Heaven (boringly mundane), The Hole (filled with nothing). So, even though I’m seeing the dolphins with my own eyes, I still don’t quite believe. But there they are.

Within a couple of minutes, three dolphins – two adults and child – are within 10 meters of the boat. No time to worry about air tanks or wet suits, we clumsily force our flippers on, grab our goggles and snorkels, and jump in. Rather than hesitate or shy away, the mammals (yeah, I can’t call them fish) approach us with ease; the three of them and maybe ten of us meet. The water is crystal clear and warm at the surface. I can see them so clearly: mouths open showing long lines of sharp little teeth, blue splotches covering their skin, and a certain active glint in their eyes. Their ease of movement is astonishing. While we humans flap our flippered feet and skinny arms, they swish around seemingly without moving a muscle. Tantalizingly close … an adult passes just outside my outstretched arm. I can hear the clicking under the water. The other adult approaches from the opposite side, keeping an eye on me as she/he slowly cruises by.

Suddenly TT is by my side and the two adult dolphins decide to whirlpool around us. We are the hub of this undivided attention. We gaze at them, bubbling with laughter … literally, as air escapes our puckered lips around the snorkel mouthpieces. They study us, bobbing their air hole to the surface to take a quick breath. My hand reaches out and TT takes hold, lacing our fingers together. Then from directly below, cruising out of the darker blue, the younger dolphin corkscrews upwards right under our feet. At the last moment, he/she arcs away, just avoiding the touch of our outstretched legs.

(not actual picture ... stolen from web)
Of course, the moment feels like eternity. These dolphins live in the Red Sea, free, untamed. They choose to be at this spot – they are not fed nor lured with any devices. They simply happen to be curious about the white awkward creatures that come here to jump in the water. Of the hundreds of square miles these three could be, they are here with me. And TT.

My god, for that one moment, holding her hand, and watching such magnificent animals, I love her again. I deeply, completely love her like once upon a time. Yes, intellectually I know it’s the immediacy of the shared experience, but I don’t care. She looks over at me and I see the same in her eyes, too.

The dolphins curve away to visit other swimmers, return to us for a minute or so, and then weave around our group some more. I lose all track of time, but I guess we’re together for almost an hour. Maybe less. The dolphins eventually have their fill and move farther out. We humans reluctantly climb back on board, pruned fingers, but at peace.

No one speaks much. Each of us has to process what has just happened. TT sits by me, in the sun, and without a word leans into my body. It’s such a comfortable fit.