Tag Archives: expat

Living in the ‘Pound: A Glimpse of Life on a Western Compound in Saudi Arabia

2016-06-21-21-28-13
Follow Me…

Dogs are not welcome in Saudi Arabia. Foreigners are not welcome in general, but dogs are particularly unwelcome. In many countries, an imported animal must be kept in quarantine to prevent spreading unwanted diseases to the native herds; that’s what it’s like to live in Saudi Arabia as a westerner. The Saudis are kind and friendly, but to protect their social structure, they must be protected from the rabid influence of the immigrant workers that keep the economic wheels turning. The liberal social customs of imported workers could infect the poorly inoculated locals, leading to chaos and destruction- at least that would be the conclusion of an outside observer visiting the “western” compounds that house the many workers from around the world.

The truth is, as always, more complex. Many expats live within Saudi neighborhoods, and culture, with minimal difficulty. This living arrangement involves a very clear and non-negotiable arrangement, however; you must abide by Saudi traditions and customs. Women must be covered in public (including the abaya and something to cover her hair, such as a niqab or hijab), and they cannot drive. Well, actually this woman from British Airways can drive, but only on the runway:

2016-10-08-22-46-00-1

In fact, unmarried or unrelated men and women may not mix at all. This is supposed to include the workplace, although typically this just involves separate sections of the cafeteria or lecture hall. An interesting paradox is the “driver” culture; because women may not drive, there is a huge industry of professional drivers that chauffeur women and families to their destinations. The irony is that, of course, these men are not related nor married to the women they are spending time with. I guess we all rationalize away those things that might upset our worldview.

Life is different, however, on the compounds. Separated from Saudi culture by a bubble of reinforced concrete walls and barbed wire, inside you will find an oasis of progressive ideology, mixing of men and women, and even cinemas!

From the outside, you think you are entering a maximum security prison. Maybe you are.

Once inside, however, women can shed their abayas, men can wear shorts that go as far above the knees as they dare, and unrelated boys and girls can ride bikes, swim, and engage in whichever activities their home culture deems appropriate.

2016-10-22-18-37-37

Bikes, typically off-limits to Saudi girls, are everywhere on the larger compounds. They transport kids, teachers, even burgers! Bikes can even be used to pick up refreshments that are definitely not allowed. Hypothetically speaking, so I’ve heard.

When you choose your Scotch-like beverage based on the number of months it has been aged, rather than years, you know you are living in an alternate universe. Another sign that there is a little home-brewing going on is the bulk purchasing of grape juice at the local supermarkets:

2015-02-26-18-02-23

Another difference between the wealthy Gulf Coast Countries and the real world is the attitude toward laborers. In North America and Europe, a street sweeper is a machine. Here, it is typically a guy from Bangladesh who probably makes just enough money to pay off the agent that arranged his visa and (at best) send some home to feed his family.

2016-02-07-09-02-19

Once you venture outside of the compound, everyone has to conform to the local customs. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or meet amazing people.

2015-01-03-15-10-59

Camping and off-roading are one of the few activities that allow you to escape the gilded cage of compound life. Fortunately, there’s plenty of desert for everyone.

 

Sometimes, the desert comes to you. Our kids looked forward to the occasional sand storm, as this usually resulted in cancellation of school.

2015-04-01-18-14-22

My favorite photos from Arabia are mostly sunsets, perhaps representative of how hard and barren life in Saudi Arabia can be, and how that focuses one’s appreciation on beauty and peace that can’t be repressed.

After a while, aspects of Saudi culture that I found shocking or hilarious became normal. It has been revealing to scroll back through those memories and relive the initial emotions upon arriving for the first time.

 

I appreciate that my family and I were able to explore this part of the world while having a comfortable home that felt like “home”, replete with Girl Scouts, soccer, and lemonade stands.

My prediction for the future is that Saudi culture will change radically in the next few years; combined with the departure of many of the western workers, it is likely that the compounds will become enclaves for western-minded Saudis. I hope they enjoy the lemonade and Thin Mints.

2016-09-16-17-31-15

 

Mada’in Salah, the Cursed Tombs of the Nabateans

Around Halloween, you can’t beat a haunted house for a little spooky fun. If you are fortunate enough to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, the ultimate taboo is Mada’in Salah. The dark history of this place extends back to the period of the Nabateans, the architects of Petra; their civilization extended into the Arabian peninsula, and their trademark sandstone tombs can be found there as well. According to our local guides, the Quran describes this area and its inhabitants as cursed. Something about killing a sacred camel; thereafter, Muslims have avoided this area. Our flight to the neighboring airport even flew a longer path to avoid the obviously dangerous airspace above the tombs; ironically, it took us closer to Iraq, but I guess you choose your risks in life.

Next to the World Heritage Site around the tombs, there is a restored portion of the Hijaz railway; not the exact section blown up by T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, but close enough.

2016-11-04-09-06-58

There are two unique qualities of this tourist attraction; the first is that, being declared cursed, you won’t find many local Saudis there. Secondly, being under the protection of the tourism board, you also won’t find any Muttawa (religious police), so the few tourists there tend to be western women in yoga pants enjoying the freedom to hike without an abaya!

2016-11-04-17-42-46

Look! Her ankles are almost showing! Scandalous.

Once you arrive at the tombs, the differences with Petra are astounding. No gypsies, no swarms of tourists, not even a gift shop! Also, no marked trails, no tour guides (bring your own), no place to buy water (bring your own), no snack shops (you get the point…).

It is just you and the work of the Nabateans:

2016-11-04-10-13-42

You can wander around freely, as long as you pack plenty of water and have a four wheel drive to navigate the “road” on site.

2016-11-04-10-36-37 2016-11-04-10-55-36

The edifices are not as grand as Petra, so after an hour or two of exploring, you can shift gears and climb the bizarre rock formations that give the area a truly haunted feel.

 

 

2016-11-04-11-16-54 2016-11-04-17-19-46 2016-11-04-10-37-35

Nearby, at the end of an unmarked dirt trail, you can find Elephant Rock. Actually, you would never find it on your own, but hopefully your guide knows where it is!

2016-11-04-15-56-53

Like any travel adventure, there are a few nuances to traveling in this area. Because it is close to the Jordan/Iraq border, there are some people who are somewhat less friendly to Westerners. In fact, the local police Captain arranged an escort to and from the airport:

2016-11-05-09-42-50

We were almost late because our driver had evidently planned on driving at twice the legal limit, and had to maintain a slightly less insane pace. Of course, police escorts don’t eliminate the other hazards of crossing the desert T. E. Lawrence-style. Like waiting for road crews to move a sand dune off of the road:

2016-11-05-10-01-49

Or yielding to four-legged pedestrians:

2016-11-05-10-25-08

I’ll probably never set foot on Mars, but it would feel familiar there I think:

2016-11-05-09-47-48

There’s something appealing about venturing into that which is forbidden; I’m glad we were able to visit before the area is developed and is littered with chain hotels and tourist traps. Add in the vast desert landscape and achingly beautiful sunsets as a backdrop, and Mada’in Salah makes for a perfect Halloween weekend getaway.

2016-11-03-17-53-40

 

Seattle- Home of Jetson Motors, With a Double Shot of Dreadlocks

Seattle really doesn’t know what it wants to be. The next San Francisco (there are only a few places dreadlock-wearing homeless white people can feel at ease), the reincarnation of our dearly departed Detroit (home to Boeing- the General Motors of the aviation industry), or a copycat London (pretentious yet approachable)?

2016-05-02 16.55.03

The space needle is the incontrovertible icon of the city. It boldly lays claim to a techno-future that few would have predicted for what was once a sleepy secondary port for logging and fishing. The needle is rigid and inhuman, and Seattle as a center for aviation and technology is well reflected thus.

2016-04-30 19.36.04 HDR

An interesting thing happened on the way to the Jetsons, it seems. The pacific northwest began to attract people who weren’t engineers; some of them didn’t even have real jobs! Artists, musicians, and other social deviants were drawn to the intersection of ocean and mountains. A friend of mine once told me that we go to the mountain to find God, and to the sea to find ourselves; there is a certain innate wisdom in seeking out places where the two are so close.

2016-05-02 16.31.30

Dale Chihuly is a great example of those who had an alternate vision for the future. His work is displayed at the base of the space needle, like alien wildflowers springing up around the base of some deserted  spaceship, waiting for a perpetually-distant  launch window.

2016-05-02 16.22.18

The hills of Seattle lead you to the ocean eventually. You can strive up the steep grades of self-discovery, but the ever-churning tides are waiting when you join the river of humanity flowing to the sea.

2016-05-02 19.37.54

2016-05-02 19.50.24

 

2016-05-02 22.36.12

2016-05-02 20.06.46

 

 

Leaving Seattle is bittersweet, unless you also happen to live in a vibrant, green place flush with energy and optimism. The dream of Seattle is out of reach for most people, but it provides an optimistic lens to view the world. 2016-05-03 15.21.32

The future may not look like Seattle, and Seattle may not be able to write its own future, but at least there is a vision of what tomorrow could be.

Crazy Kathmandu

At an altitude of 21,000 feet, you typically have a sense of omniscience; you can look down upon the world with power, confidence and knowledge. This false sense of superiority is laid bare by the Himalayas. From this lofty position, you are barely a peer to the foothills surrounding the true giants. The stark, jagged ridges and vast glaciers do not look like a world humans should inhabit.

Visiting Nepal is a visit to two places; crushing poverty that exists in the shadow of the most majestic of mountains. Kathmandu, the capital, is reminiscent of rural China or sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the Nepali people have a well-deserved reputation for kindness and authenticity. As a westerner, you wonder what it must be like to work in the streets of the city, where the average yearly income is $500 USD, and see the rows of stores selling trekking gear that costs many times that.

Most visitors to Nepal are seeking the mountains (my friend Curtis would say that they are there to find God, even if they don’t know it). There are countless trekking companies to choose from, but if you don’t have weeks to sacrifice to your pilgrimage, there are a few short-cuts to catching a revelation of the mighty Himalayas. The most direct method is to book a “Mountain Flight” from the main airport. I hopped on board a reasonably modern twin turbo-prop from Yeti airlines, and resisted any comments about the abominable service; it was actually quite nice.

2016-07-03 04.51.59While there was some nod towards security at the airport, you can tell that regulations are a little less strict here. We were allowed to come forward to the cockpit for photos during the flight! The helpful flight attendant pointed out the highest peaks as we cruised past. Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha “Goddess of the Sky”, sits behind the others, an inner sanctum of ice and altitude.

2016-07-03 04.28.45

The second way to view the mountains from Kathmandu is to drive up to a small hill (just 6000 ft above sea level) and watch the sun rise over the peaks. Of course, this involves driving up the side of a mountain in a developing country in the dark:

2016-07-04 04.30.03

In North America, you would have a trail-rated off-road SUV, with 33 inch tires, a winch, and a half dozen extra lights to conquer the wild. We took this:

2016-07-04 03.50.13

Cute, isn’t it? We scraped the bottom of the car on a few large rocks, but our little burro never got stuck.

Once we reached the summit, we climbed an observation tower. Like other adventures outside of the US and Europe, the lack of safety equipment takes me back to my childhood, when riding in the back of a pickup truck was a perfectly normal means of transportation.

2016-07-04 02.29.27

The cloud that had obscured the sky for days suddenly lifted, and the tour guide urged me to shoot before the mood of the skies changed again.

2016-07-04 02.09.19

He told me that for two months they had seen nothing but fog, and he was almost as excited as I was to see the painted skies over the mountain tops. Within just a few minutes, the clouds remembered their monsoon duties, diffusing the glow of the sunrise until it disappeared again.

2016-07-04 02.13.462016-07-04 02.27.16

Descending in the gray enlightenment of day, we could finally see the land we had sped through in the pre-dawn darkness. Terraced fields of corn and barley, subsistence farms, and empty power lines that only intermittently provide anything other than a blemish on the otherwise simple beauty of the valley.

2016-07-04 02.50.21

We stopped on the side of the road, where a man was making condensed buffalo and cow milk, a common breakfast among the rural Nepalese. His grandfather had taught him the trade, and it looks like the method hasn’t changed in centuries.

2016-07-04 03.15.56

Back in Kathmandu, we toured the many Buddhist and Hindu temples. Tragically, many of them were damaged during the massive earthquake of 2015, and those still standing are often supported by struts. The architecture is beautiful, and the intricate craftsmanship is fascinating.

 

One of the benefits of having a devout Buddhist as a tour guide is that in his drive to convert you, you have access to the inner workings of the temples. Leather shoes are not cool (wearing something made of cow parts here is like wearing kitten- and puppy-fur slippers in the US). We always toured religious sites barefoot, in a clockwise fashion, casually rolling the prayer drums as we passed by.

2016-07-02 10.50.222016-07-02 08.25.13

 

The first temple we visited, Swayambhunath or the Monkey Temple, is known for two things. The first is the series of 365 steps required to reach the site, one for each day of the year. The second is, as you might guess, the monkeys. They confidently strolled among the monks and tourists, and looked as if they owned the place.

2016-07-02 08.05.13

There is an easy way to determine if you are in a local market or one targeting tourists; if the wares all appear authentically Nepali, or the T-shirts have slogans about Everest, Nepal, Trekking, Bob Marley or smoking hashish, you are in the tourist bazaar. If the vendors are selling “Name Brand” jeans, flat brim hats, or T-shirts with Nike/Adidas/ fill-in-your-brand-or-rock-band-here, you are in the local market. Ironic.

During the trekking season of spring and fall, many tourists are trustafarians from western countries, putting their parents’ money to good use by eating pizza and drinking beer in a place much more exotic than the usual places they eat pizza and drink beer. A majority of the tourists during the summer monsoon season are from India or China, so the local merchants target their audience accordingly.

2016-07-03 11.52.592016-07-03 11.57.01

Despite the earthquake that disrupted what little infrastructure existed in Nepal, the people I met seem to have a sense of calm and satisfaction with life that is uncommon in the west. Some of us might feel that having a damaged temple is a great tragedy, but this guy knows it is still a great place to take a nap until the rain passes.

2016-07-02 09.51.01

Amidst the chaos and ruin, people seemed to be going about their lives, as others have done for millennia.

 

Overall, Nepal is a beautiful land of beautiful people, both filled with peace. I don’t think anyone could visit and not be moved by both.

Here’s a gallery of other images and observations from Nepal:

Namaste!2016-07-01 13.39.522016-07-02 10.18.45

Early medical textbook:2016-07-02 10.24.33

Momos- tasty dumplings that are a local favorite. I tried the fried buffalo momos and they were delicious:2016-07-02 15.58.54

Hint of the hippie days before hashish was made illegal and all of the hippies deported at the request of the US State Department in 1973. Nixon was such a buzz kill!2016-07-03 05.05.56

This discerning goat peruses the market for the finest ingredients:2016-07-04 05.38.35

Looking for a crosswalk in Kathmandu:

 

 

 

Bahrain- The Forgotten Middle Gulf Coast Country

The Gulf Coast Countries are a glamorous family. Dubai is the beautiful but narcissistic one, most likely to “accidentally” post inappropriate images of itself on social media. Abu Dhabi is the older brother who works at a hedge fund and never has time to drive his new Ferrari. Kuwait is the rich uncle who has been divorced 3 times but likes to lecture you on your moral character. Oman is the laid back cousin that spends the summers surfing, gets a job as a ski instructor every winter, and everyone in the family is either insanely jealous or judgmental of their choices. Saudi Arabia is the matriarch that rules the family from their 1970’s-era shag carpet living room. Yemen is that step child that ended up in rehab and no one ever mentions anymore.  And then there’s Bahrain…

 

Bahrain is that awkward child that never gets into enough trouble to be noticed, but isn’t quite successful enough to be the hot topic at the family reunion. Let’s start with the skyline of Manama, the capital (and only city- its a small island):

2016-04-08 17.37.57

Adequately attractive. Of course, we all know there’s no Burj Khalifa here; why can’t you be more like Dubai? You’ll never get married to a respectable trade organization with that look…

I mean their architecture is cool and all, but are Boat-Plane-Buildings still in fashion this year? Who wears that?

2016-05-05 20.57.22

Being in the middle of the family has its advantages, though. A standing engagement with the US Navy’s Fifth fleet means there’s never a dull Friday night, even if you’d rather be invited to the parties that the Lebanese girls always talk about. There’s also a little crush on the neighbor boy Iran, which infuriates the parents, and results in Bahrain getting grounded occasionally.

bahrain map

Like most forgotten middle children, there’s more to Bahrain than not being the others. Spending enough time with the Navy will inevitably result in a tattoo and maybe even a story or two; just don’t tell mom and dad! You can even get a haircut at a place that is evidently endorsed by Justin Bieber!

2016-05-06 19.48.13

Other bad habits that Bahrain brought home include a certain Tex-Mex chain:

2016-04-09 14.56.33

…and an authentic Texas BBQ joint, complete with huge chunks of cow and a cover band that sings about momma, pickup trucks, trains, and going to jail.

2016-04-08 19.48.16 2016-04-08 19.49.40

There is a rebellious side to Bahrain, and you wonder when it’s going to quit its day job and join a Jihadi punk band. 2016-05-06 20.15.14When the little old ladies sit around the quilting circle, do they ask each other “I don’t know Martha, which color should I use for the grenade? Should it match the armored personnel carrier?”

Stay tuned, I think the next few seasons of Keeping up with the Bahrainians could get interesting!

 

Traveling With Short People (Or Children, if you want to be more specific)

The world is a really, truly big place. Even during the lamest excuse for a “stay-cation”, your eyes should open just a bit to how expansive it is, and how narrow our perspective tends to be. If you are fortunate enough to leave your familiar surroundings and venture into the unknown, your eyes will be peeled back into a full Hollywood diva too-much-plastic-surgery “surprised” look. Perhaps the perfect example is hiking; how often do you top a ridge, only to find that it was merely a foothill that was obscuring the truly majestic peak beyond?

I’ve been blogging to share my small steps into the greater world, and perhaps a unique aspect of my travels has been the particular baggage I bring along- namely, my children. It has been exciting to see the world through my own eyes, but even more so through theirs. I hope that expanding their horizons will give them a head start on the life lessons it took me a few decades to learn.

2014-07-25 16.12.35 2014-07-25 16.08.53

I usually plan a vacation in a fit of mania, drawing up grand plans and optimistic itineraries. Children are the travel equivalent of a sea anchor; yes, they slow you down, but that helps parents with a wandering mind to focus on what’s essential. For example, an itinerary without kids might include a half day of museums, an afternoon of walking through a shopping district, dinner at a well-recommended local restaurant, followed by an evening frolicking with trust-funders. The same vacation with kids might include an hour or two at the most interesting museum, a casual lunch (read: someplace that serves pizza), followed by an afternoon at a nature park. Dinner might be at the hotel, with an evening drink on the hotel rooftop while they watch a movie in their room. There isn’t a drastic difference, but the goals have to be scaled back a little.

However, I think that we probably do more “fun” and spontaneous stuff with the kids than we would alone. For example, stopping at an amusement park in Oslo:

2015-05-15 18.47.52

And whatever this moment was in the Athens airport:

2015-12-31 11.35.54

Everyone gets tired when traveling, but kids can be remarkably resilient; just make sure the iPads stay charged, and the kids will keep going long after mom and dad’s batteries are drained.

 

2015-05-16 13.14.55 2015-05-16 13.14.48

2015-12-19 06.19.27 2015-12-06 12.55.03

The most satisfying moments are when we don’t have to build enthusiasm for them; when they yearn to venture out and explore, and are excited by what’s around the next bend.

2015-05-15 19.10.52 2015-01-03 14.44.42 2015-11-08 13.24.54

2015-11-07 12.27.40

Enthusiasm is infectious though, so I suspect that a large part of a child’s enjoyment of the world is a reflection of the parents. If the grown-ups are enjoying the moment (even if it means standing in the rain waiting for a ferry), then the kids are likely to adopt the same attitude.

2015-05-22 09.42.23 2015-05-15 19.36.13

Of course, they will always be honest. When the fish market in Muscat smelled like a building full of day-old fish, my kids were not impressed…

2015-03-22 10.24.46

We have to allow more time for just playing, and that is a good thing. Maybe the most important thing.

2015-03-21 16.45.29 2015-03-21 16.46.10 2015-01-03 16.58.09

Its fun to see them get excited about new experiences, and even catch the photography bug:

2015-12-21 16.49.56

2015-12-21 17.38.00

2015-11-09 11.36.17 2015-03-26 17.28.43 2015-12-20 09.53.40

However, even the boldest of kids reaches the limit of experimentation, and you have to fall back on comfort food. Fortunately pizza is the universal language:
2015-12-24 16.55.24 2015-05-17 14.06.58

The second image was actually part of a story much cooler than you would expect. We had returned to a great little hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Bergen, Norway, and the owner took pity on our rain-drenched and pathetic looking herd. It probably helped that we had tipped well the day before. Whatever the reason, he brought us upstairs (which was half storage for the restaurant, half apartment where he obviously lived with his family). He was very interested to hear about our experiences in the Middle East, as he was a refugee from the region. It meant a lot to him to be seen as a person with a culture, a heritage, and a family that he was struggling to provide for. The pizza was great, but the story was even more memorable. Without the kids, my wife and I would’ve probably had much more pretentious food without the human connection.

Don’t misunderstand me, we do make our kids try all sorts of uncomfortable food. Vegetables of every shade of green, strange soups with unnameable things floating in the murky depths, and many other non-chicken-nugget food groups. Sometimes it works, sometimes they revolt.

2015-06-13 15.33.30

2015-12-21 14.13.422015-12-21 16.12.27

Children have a fresh perspective on life, and given the opportunity they can surprise you with their insight and appreciation for the beauty that can easily be missed.

2015-11-07 12.08.29 2015-11-07 12.09.48 2015-03-22 09.08.45

Of course, most 8-13 year-olds are not full time philosophers, so there are moments of frustration.2015-12-20 09.46.29

“Not another old church! It looks just like the last one!”

 

 

 

 

 

Or, “Yeah, whatever, I’d rather be playing on my iPad than sitting on this ancient sea wall”

2015-12-25 12.39.59

All in all, traveling with children can be worth the effort. Usually. It helps if the place you are visiting has plenty of partially-tamed animals and you don’t mind taking the small risk of rabies:

2015-12-28 16.03.52 HDR 2015-12-25 14.45.102015-12-27 17.21.28

Traveling with the people you care most about is the most rewarding, and I hope when I’m old they’ll lead me along a forest trail somewhere and let me share some of their wonder and enthusiasm again.

2015-12-23 13.21.49 2015-12-20 10.30.04 2015-12-23 14.52.57 2015-12-23 13.50.02

 

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

There’s a reason “lost in translation” is more than a movie, its a cliche. Phrases that make sense to a native speaker may not impart the message they intended. The fun starts when you make your own interpretations; this is a collection of some of my favorites.

In Norway, motorcycles are not allowed to jump over cars. Not on this street anyway.

DSC_0913

 

IMG_4853 This cafe sells ridiculously huge hot dogs. Are they the biggest in the world? Probably.

This is something I found at the market while looking for gloves for doggy clean-up duty. Not sure what their intended use is, and I didn’t want to take any chances that the check-out guys would make fun of me, so I didn’t buy them.

IMG_4644

 

I think this next one is a travel brochure for spring break in Mexico:

 

IMG_4039

 

Reminds me of college.

Speaking of liver damage, this was an unfortunately ironic sign in the New Orleans airport:

IMG_2502New Orleans is probably also #1 in tattoo removal and nicotine patches. At least in Turkey they warn you when things are bad for your health (this is a carton of cigarettes):

IMG_3855

 

On the topic of nannyish signs, we were protected from all types of dangerous behavior while staying at a hotel in Oman:

IMG_4129I can see how you might hurt yourself with hand sanitizer. But a phone? And the restroom?

IMG_4122 IMG_4128

My wife the risk-taker.

And really, is this some type of tourist-eating Venus flytrap?

IMG_4130

And lastly, on the juvenile side, here a few of my kids’ favorites.IMG_5107IMG_4331IMG_4297They particularly like the “historical diarrhea” sign. Gets a laugh every time.

 

 

London, Old and New

IMG_5427

 

London is the ultimate international city; everyone is drawn there, and everyone is welcome. (Well, everyone with a credit card.) Perhaps more than any other metropolis, London lays bare the schizophrenic effort required to balance the history and future of a place and a people. Walking through London is an exercise in choosing culture or couture, past or present. Every neighborhood is a young city trying to push aside the shell of the old.

IMG_5435

Do we really think Churchill would want to be immortalized next to a delicate tree in full bloom? I think he might’ve preferred his name on a cask of Scotch, with cigar smoke obscuring any other perspective of history.

Lord Nelson keeps a vigilant eye on the coast; never mind that you can ride a train from France, no matter the weather in the channel. He doesn’t seem to notice the even more archaic creature sneaking up behind him, distracted as he is by the Eye of London.

IMG_5406

 

Give the brits credit for trying to integrate the past with the future. Where else can you find a phone booth like this- with Wi-Fi?

IMG_5415

Some buildings look to the past, but many more just gleam into the future, without any granite or gargoyles, and no apologies.

IMG_5407IMG_5441

In places, the old and new are blended, with a beautiful harmony:IMG_5448

 

There is a tragic abundance of war memorials; seems such a pity that some are for wars against France, others to liberate France, and still others yet for places nobody cares about any more.

IMG_5389

 

The only “peace memorials” were statues of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. I liked that they were not up on grand pedestals, and were humbly life-size; I think they would’ve wanted it that way. Or maybe we are just making their humility as grandiose as Admiral Nelson’s military brilliance or Queen Victoria’s nobility,

IMG_5393

because that’s what we want them to be. That’s how we want to remember them.

I shouldn’t be too critical,  I like being able to buy a hot dog and an ice cream at Westminster Abbey…

IMG_5436

… but it does seem to detract just a little from the holiness of the place.

Once you escape the watering holes where the tourist herds gather under the watchful eye of various lions, there is a genuine vibrance in London. I found the entrance to this place of worship much more welcoming than any of the cathedrals in my guidebook:

IMG_5418

I also found it ironic that one of my favorite Banksy street paintings has been defaced:

IMG_5421

Every memory and its memorial fades eventually. London taught me that.

 

The Ozark Special

When you are stressed, tired, or just have nothing left to give, there’s nothing quite like comfort food. After trying edgy reimaginations of the classics, restaurants that try to fuse anything and everything with Asian, and international mystery plates, sometimes you crave some homemade goodness.

This past week we indulged in the travel equivalent of momma’s cookin’. For several years we have been spending a long weekend in the Ozark mountains along the Missouri/Arkansas border, and decided to go back for another helping this summer. To spice up a classic, we sent the kids off to camp and rented a cabin at Table Rock Lake. After our recent adventures, it was nice to visit someplace where the native language was (a version of) English, the food was familiar, and there was no rush to ingest every exotic moment before it faded back into the haze of “someday”.

DSC_0056

 

The verdant hills of the Ozark range are not as impressive as those farther west, but have an attainable beauty that is more apple pie, less caviar and pate’.

DSC_0054

Of course, any barrel has a few bad apples. We weren’t impressed with the guy driving a $400 pickup with a 4’x5′ confederate flag trailing behind, but you can find bigots and scared people with small minds anywhere. Like every place we’ve visited, people are generally kind and generous…

DSC_0067

 

The best part was a hiking trail behind our cabin that was virtually unused by anyone else; it’s like finding that hole-in-the-wall cafe where the waitress knows your name, and you can sit with your coffee for hours and feel right at home. It might not make the Michelin list, but it is special all the same.

DSC_0077

 

Comfort is the standard by which we judge newer experiences; just like momma’s cookin’, sometimes the standard is hard to beat.

Open Doors

DSC_1056

Saudi Arabia has undergone a generational shift that would leave the Baby Boomers’ heads spinning. Thirty years ago, it was common to live in “muddy houses” made of an adobe-like brick.

DSC_1042

DSC_1058

Those same Arabs are now driving Land Cruisers and helping me get up to speed on the latest apps for our smartphones. Most Saudis have visited more places in Europe and North America than I have. This rush to catch up with western culture has inevitably left traditional Arab culture behind in some ways; only the silly visitors from outside the kingdom want to visit the old places and see the old ways!

A colleague invited me to his family “farm”. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so we brought sleeping bags and bug spray.

DSC_1082

Turns out that those were not necessary. This was the guest house we “camped out” in:

DSC_1040

 

Oh, it felt like roughing it in the wilderness- we only brought one iPad charger! The kids even had to share a room, and the air conditioning worked so well they were a little cold. Tragic. I was disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to milk a camel; maybe next time.

Our hosts took us on a tour of “Old” Saudi Arabia, which started with an open-air souq (market):

DSC_1007

DSC_1014

DSC_1013

DSC_1008

I wanted to buy the ’63 T-bird and the black powder pistol from the Ottoman Empire era. Neither would make it through customs I suppose, so I was forced to leave them behind.

I don’t recall the name of the pastries we tried, but I will always remember the woman working over a gas-fired oven in the midst of the desert heat. Any North American would have been reduced to a puddle of sweat with a slick of sunscreen on top as the only remains.

DSC_1018

The old village, which was occupied only 30 years ago, is slowly melting back into the desert it was molded from. The occupants have all moved to modern housing in the small city nearby, or on to the glitzy lifestyle of Riyadh and Jeddah. The guard/guide at the entrance looked surprised to see us; I got the feeling he doesn’t typically receive many visitors when the temperature is over 110.

DSC_1053

 

An acquaintance of our acquaintance collects antiquities, and was more than happy to let us share his air conditioning and private collection. I liked the display of Arab media consumption through the past 6 decades:

DSC_1061

This gentleman farmer also collects birds, and led us through his garden aviary filled with birds of paradise.

DSC_1075

 

As a gift, he insisted we take two Love Birds; if only they could be fed the enormous box of dates we also couldn’t refuse, we would be in great shape for bird-caring. We accepted the birds, thinking they must have the life span of goldfish or Sea Monkeys, but it turns out they may live up to 15 years. If getting an antique Ottoman firearm through the airport would be difficult, I can’t imagine what trouble these birds will be.