Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oh hai!

Off to Thailand!

I'm flying out to Bangkok tomorrow to attend a PROCAP training course. I've been looking forward to doing this course for close to a year now, and it will be a great opportunity to not only develop some new deployable skills, but also meet some interesting aid workers and learn from their experiences.

I've flown through Bangkok airport way too many times to count, but had never been into the city. I was looking forward to checking out the sights (and by sights I mean markets) in the free day I have before the course starts, but certain protests have put a stop to that. The course has been moved down to Pattaya, so hopefully there will be plenty of shopping opportunities to be had there.

A few weeks after I started my first job in the humanitarian sector, I was sent to Thailand for a conference about philanthropy in disasters, with a particular focus on the Asian tsunami of 2004. The conference was held in Phuket, and after the stress of facilitating my very first workshop, I was then free to enjoy the presentations and the sights of the beach town. That was my first experience with bargaining and I quickly became a hard talker. The process of bargaining: the polite exclamation at the first price, the ridiculously low counteroffer and then the back and forth until an agreement was reached was so fun for me.

But I still remember the bargain I couldn't get. There was a particular t-shirt, with a pop-art style cartoon of a woman with a thought bubble coming out of her head. She was thinking "Global warming is coming....now where did I put my bikini?" I thought it was fantastic. I bargained. I bartered. But the woman just wouldn't budge. So I walked away, thinking I'd find it at another store. I didn't, and when I went back a couple of days later, the top was gone. In my quest for the best bargain I could make, I'd let it go over a price of about 30 cents. It wasn't a particularly bitter pill to swallow, and I learned a valuable lesson: yes, it's important to bargain (and fun!) but at the end of the day the storeo wners need that 30 cents much more than I do.

Hopefully I'll have some interesting stories and photos to share while I'm away. In the meantime, take a jump over to my other blog, The Travel Tails to see a post by a very special guest blogger: my Mum! :-)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunrise and Sunset

Yesterday morning, the Australian embassy organised an ANZAC day dawn service in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Beirut. It was a lovely service, with probably about 60 people there.

The sun rose as the ceremony progressed and it turned into a beautiful day. Coffee (with a dash of Bundy rum) and some ANZAC day bickies were on hand afterward, and it was good to meet a few other Australians.

It was all over and done with around 7ish so I jumped on a bus and headed for home. The Tripoli half marathon was on yesterday morning and caused complete havoc for traffic trying to get into Tripoli and anywhere around the city. It took me a good forty minutes to get home once the bus hit the Tripoli city limits.

After a productive morning of laundry and listening to Hamish & Andy podcasts I fell into bed for a few hours. Ingebjorg and Yassmin had the wonderful idea of sunset ice-creams so I wandered down to meet them.


The ice-cream couldn't compete with the Syrian souk, but the scenic view helped a lot. It's not often I get to (or aim to) see a sunrise and a sunset in the same day.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The verdict

It was lovely to meet Nour this afternoon (I've literally run upstairs after saying goodbye to write this post) and I was very nervous for Shwarma Man as today was the final showdown for the Best Shwarma title. I knew the competition was going to be tough, having read Nour's description of the shwarma in Amman as "magic".

I'm not going to drag it out, I know the anticipation is killing you. Nour said that this shwarma was the second best shwarma she'd ever had. Unfortunately for Shwarma Man, the Jordanian shwarma has lived up to its proclaimed title as "the best shwarma in the Middle East". I know you must all be disappointed for Shwarma Man, I was too, but even with this verdict he's still number 1 in my book.

While today is a sad day for Lebanese shwarma, it was also a nice occassion to meet someone I've been connected to through blogging. There are many other bloggers out there that I hope to one day meet, and it was great to have the opportunity here.

So thanks to Nour for being an impartial and honest judge!

It puts a rose in every cheek

It's Friday. What's the word to describe how Fridays are when the sun is out and the weather is warming up and it's Friday and it's much too nice a day to be shut up in a container? Yes...lazy is exactly the word I was looking for! After finishing off the last of the coffee when we got to work, we had to go to the big supermarket to get some more to help us through such a nice Friday, and as I was wandering through the aisles something yellow caught my eye.

VEGEMITE!!!

Artfully placed next to the instant yeast! And a bargain at only 12,999 pounds. US$8.60 for a tube of Vegemite! Pfffffffffft! Thank goodness I always BYO!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The thieving octopus

I might just have to add a label for octopie, because here is another really cool video featuring a thieving octopus. I guess it can just be filed under animals...

octopus steals my video camera and swims off with it (while it's Recording) from Victor Huang on Vimeo.

24/7: Campaign

"Our aim is to alter the servant stereotype, established between an Asian/African person and a Lebanese person. We want to show a more creative, powerful, proud, self-reliant, and intelligent face to migrant workers, as business women and representative of rich and sophisticated cultures."

Check out the website for this campaign to support the rights of migrant workers in Lebanon. There are going to be lots of fantastic events in Beirut surrounding International Workers' Day on May 1. (I'm very disappointed to be missing the African Dance Party on Friday 30th)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I'm a Winner!

This has been a pretty lucky year so far for me. First I won a Lonely Planet and today I found out I've won a handmade, autographed promo from my favourite band in the whole wide world, Ash!!! Say it with me now..."YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Showdown this Friday

It's confirmed. Nour and I will be meeting at Shwarma Man's place for the final judging of the world's best shwarma. The anticipation is killing me...

Monday, April 19, 2010

2010 ACFID Humanitarian Forum

It's a bit late notice, but the ACFID Humanitarian Forum will be held 28-29 April in Melbourne, Australia. The theme for the 2010 Forum is "Challenges for operating in insecure environments: A practitioner's perspective". There are some great speakers and facilitators, and the workshops look really interesting. You can find out all the information at the ACFID website.

YESSSSSSSSSS!!!

Last night was the world premiere of "YESSSSSSSSSSS!! Positivity for Dummies." We had a select group of VIPs attend a pre-screening dinner and all the reviews were very positive.

We hope you enjoy our instructional video:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Another birthday shout-out

It's Wendy's birthday today!

Wendy, who came up with the the most creative Dynamic Steve chapters, not to mention the whole Carl-meister side story. Wendy, who used to let me help her come up with newspaper headlines, providing much hilarity for us both. Wendy, who is just an all round awesome gal!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Footy in Nahr el-Bared

I tagged along with Yassmin to the camp yesterday, to facilitate the entry of some rugby league players, who have started running development sessions for kids all over Lebanon. Yassmin had been a bit concerned that only a few kids would show up, and initially there were 10 little tackers who were at the field. And by field, I mean gravelly dirt patch. These kids had no idea what rugby league was, and were a bit bemused by the oddly shaped ball.

The session started with some warm-up exercises, which Yassmin joined in on

There were some smaller kids who came to check out the commotion, I call this one "Shy"

There were some ball drills, which looked pretty fun!

After about half an hour, they were starting to pass the ball like pros

By the time drinks break rolled around, the number had increased to about 20 boys.

They were hot and sweaty but the smiles on their faces said it all. The coaches were fantastic, they're both Palestinian so they were able to inspire the kids. They got a big laugh when they told these scrawny boys that if they keep playing rugby league they could grow up to look just like them!

I hope they can get some funding together to keep these sessions going. You can imagine that these boys probably have a lot of pent up agression in them, so what healthier way for them to expel that than to crush each other on the field! (Of course, they'll need to be transported to a grass field, tackling on gravel won't be too much fun...)

Special birthday shout-out

Very big happy birthday wishes go out to my oldest e-pal Cathy. I can't include a photo of Cathy, because we've never actually met in person. I think we first met online when we were 15, and yes, she is actually a female who happens to be the same age as me, and not some creepy pedo-bear!

So, happy birthday Cathy, and let's hope we can meet in person before the next 13 years go by!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More amazing footage of sea lions

This is another fantastic bit from National Geographic about endangered Australian sea lions. Crittercam!!

UNIFEM campaign for domestic workers

The gender consultant we've got working with us at the moment thoughtfully brought me back the below flyer from UNIFEM in Jordan, having read my post on violence against domestic workers. Basically what is says at the top is "when you work you have to get paid."

On the reverse, the right side (which you read first in Arabic) says "you are not a machine," and "in fulfilling your job you have a right to be treated well." The left side is directed at employers and tells them to "address your employees nicely."

It's great to see a campaign on this issue.

SELMTMS

I can't count the number of times I've talked about my patented "super effective last minute time management system" (actually I can, it's twice) but I'm going to mention it again. When Julie was here in October, we marvelled at how we had seven months to get ourselves looking trim, taut and terrific for the big Vardy/Cox wedding in May. Turns out six months can go by pretty quickly!

I walked into the M&E office this morning for my daily coffee and was amazed at my colleague's appearance. She's been hitting the gym almost every day for a month and suddenly I could see the results. Nicole is now my inspiration. The woman is awesome! This time in a month I'll be sitting on a very long flight to Australia, so I've got 30 days to buckle down at the gym. Have I mentioned how much I hate gyms and how much I miss Jazzercise and badminton??

It's time to put my super effective last minute time management system into place with an exercise regime to make Nicole proud!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily

I remember my boss in Bangladesh telling me of a technique she'd been taught at some sort of retreat, to write 750 words every day. Those 750 words could be anything from a long to-do list to a random rambling stream of consciousness. The point is to do it every day, and by emptying out whatever is in your head you can better induce the creative juices.

Now there's a website that lets you do the same thing: http://750words.com/ There's a nice little point system there as an incentive (as meaningless points that can't be redeemed for anything are known to inspire) and a little tally at the bottom of the page that counts as you go. If you're really keen, you can get an email sent to you at a certain time every day to remind you to write (at day one, I'm not that keen). But I think it will be a nice way for me to just churn out the passages of my novel that I want to write, and worry about putting them in the right place later on. Why be constrained by writing in sequence, when I can write the argument that really builds the tension between my two main characters, or an hilarious 'lost in translation' moment between Sam and her translator?? Perhaps the idea of 750 words is to more introspectively explore yourself, and perhaps some days I'll do that to, just to shake things up a bit. The idea of having to write 750 words every day though of my novel means it could be finished in about 80 days! Sweet!!

The competition is on!!

Nour has accepted the very important job of objectively comparing the "best shwarma in the world" to who we all know sells the best shwarma in the world, Shwarma Man!

I know all of you out there will have your fingers crossed for Shwarma Man, but as an objective judge, Nour's verdict will be final. I'll let you know when we have a decision....

An Arty Afternoon

We headed down to Beirut this afternoon to check out our colleague's art exhibition. I'm just going to copy what's written on her flyer for an explanation, because I'm not really an arty person and she obviously knows how to explain her art much better than I could ever begin to.
Saba Innab is an artist and architect whose work is concerned with urbanism and the processes of space production and reproduction. Her architectural practice in Amman, Jordan landed her recently in the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared Camp. Saba's artistic practice is very much influenced by her architectural work and a critical examination of cities and places. Her work probes construction/destruction as a process/form which in itself builds its own content, despite its contradictory state of being. Rather than static architectural forms, devoid of context, the works metamorphose into living bodies.

It was interesting that when we looked at many of the pieces, we proclaimed they must be of Nahr el-Bared, but when Saba took us through them, it turned out that most were not of destruction at all.

I was so impressed by all of her works, and wish I could afford to buy one!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Competition for Shwarma Man?

Dear Shwarma Man

My friend Rowan sent me a link to an interesting article. And by interesting, I mean it's a load of crap. "Shawarma you just can't beat" - in Amman, Jordan? I don't think so!! I don't care if this dude does sell 5,000 shwarma every day, his definitely can't beat yours.

If I had any holiday time left, I'd pop over there myself and try it out. Not for the deliciousness that I'm sure is in there somewhere, but because I could then prove that your Shwarma is still number 1. Shwarma Man, there's a girl named Nour who lives in Tripoli who reads this blog who is going to Jordan very soon. Perhaps she could go and visit the Reem shwarma stand, and then come and see you (just down from Groupy dowra towards Mar Elias, Al Mina) and let you know first hand how much better you are. And then she could let us all know in the comments how much better you are.

Wouldn't that be great Shwarma Man? I think so too!

Love Carly.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It's finally happened!!

I can get the mini piggie I've always wanted!!!

Adorable!!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Perceptions of Aussie travellers

I read a post the other day on the SMH Backpacker Blog about perceptions of tourists that come to Australia. I'm sure in the past there has been a post about perceptions about Australians travelling overseas and I was reminded of this while in the souk in Aleppo. Now, usually in a busy market, people will call out things to foreigners, trying to guess their nationality or inviting them into their shop. I mentioned that there were a lot of Australians in Aleppo so the hawkers are pretty savvy. I heard a lot of "G'day mate"s (which was pronounced as g'day mite) and the like, which is fine.

What disturbed me, and still disturbed me is what one seller called out as I walked past.

"Australia? G'day mite. Come on sheila, come have a look," and as I got further away, "Pauline Hanson! One Nation Party! REDNECK!!!!"

I couldn't believe that this was what one guy knew about Australia. About a racist right wing political party and its red headed, rednecked instigator. Shocking.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Belated birthday shout-out

I didn't get a chance to put this up while I was in Syria as none of the internet cafes wanted to let me onto my own blog (does this mean the Syrian Government doesn't like me?? They were happy enough to take my money for the visa!)

Anyway, Ingebjorg celebrated her birthday the other day

I can't wait to hear all about it!

Adventuring to Aleppo and beyond

This is going to be a bit of an epic blog post, so perhaps you'd like to get yourself a cup of tea first.

From the outset, I have to say that adventuring in an Arabic speaking country is made all the easier by adventuring with an Arabic speaker. So for that reason, I send a big thank-you to Yassmin for (a) being an awesome adventurer, and (b) being an Arabic speaker.

Our adventure started slowly on Thursday morning, with a three hour wait at the border crossing, as people with American passports have to wait a long time for the immigration dudes to get in touch with Damascus, maybe drink some tea, smoke some cigarettes, and by the looks of it, pissfart around with well practiced ease. So by the time we actually got into Syria half the day was gone, but we were in high spirits. We jumped in a minivan and sat in front of a gypsy family whose children provided some entertainment for those who speak Arabic.

We'd been told to check out Krak al Hossan (also known as Castle de Chevalier) and the minivan driver told us that he'd drop us off at the base of the hill it sits atop, and we'd be able to jump in another service minivan to take us up.

So there we were, sitting by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere

watching cars and vans speed by, some of them dodgily pulling over saying "taxi?" when they obviously weren't. I saw a tourist bus approaching and said to Yassmin how nice it would be if they pulled over. It drove past us, but then miraculously stopped and reversed up to us. Spanish tourists, we love you!!

The castle was pretty impressive, with a fantastic view over the countryside (which from my research comprises a lot of rocks and greenery)

video
Our next adventure came when we had to get back down the mountain and to a town called Homs to catch another bus to Aleppo. The Spanish tourists were still somewhere inside, and the taxi drivers out the front of the castle were being very unreasonable. We ended up jumping in a minivan, and the driver told us that if he picked up more passengers he'd take us to Homs, or otherwise drop us somewhere to get another minivan. We got about 5 minutes down the hill and he gave up and dropped us at a crossroads. We had no idea if and when anyone would pick us up, but just when we were debating getting an ice-cream, a van came along and in we jumped. Success! It took quite a while to get to Homs and then another couple of hours on the bus to Aleppo. By the time we got there and found a hotel to stay in, the sun was setting. The guys at the hotel/hostel were all very nice, and were used to tourists. Particularly Australians...there were two other Aussies there that night, and more to come the next day.

We decided on Friday morning to go and check out San Simeon, a church dating back to the 1500s. Yassmin negotiated a good fare with a taxi driver, who gave us tidbits of information about Aleppo as we drove.

I thought the ruins were pretty cool. Apparently Simeon was a very pious man, who decided that this spot was a good place to pray. It took 40 years for the community to build this church (which is actually four churches laid out in the shape of a cross) in his memory.

We wandered around, musing how awesome it would be to be a kid able to run around and play in these ruins. While we were stopped to take some photos, an English speaking guide leading some Germans came past, and saw me preparing to pose for a pic. He came up and asked if I would mind him adjusting my scarf. "You'll look like a princess," he said as he wound it around my head...

video
I'd noticed flocks of sheep and goats on the way, and so we asked the driver to stop on the way back, so I could get another Travel Tail. Yassmin led the way through a field right up to the herd, and the shepherd was delighted to have us. His wooly sheep and rams were quite interested in us too, and they all came wandering over, the bells around their necks ding-donging as they walked.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, stopping for a coffee in a small cafe where there were some interesting men.

Later that afternoon, one of the guys at the hostel volunteered to take us to an internet cafe. We thought he'd just drop us off, but no, he then took us on a big walk through the old city, and the famous souk, which was quite atmospheric at night with no people around.

We ended up by the town citadel, which looked majestic all lit up. We said a forceful goodbye to the hostel guy as we got the impression he wanted to hang out with us all night, got ourselves a shwarma (2 other countries have proven that Shwarma Man reigns supreme) and sat and watched the masses of people enjoying the balmy evening.

We'd been told that Aleppo souk was the cheapest place to shop, so on Saturday morning after fortifying ourselves with some coffee with hit the market. While I did manage to pick up some scarves, the prices weren't as cheap as we had expected and we just weren't impressed. We ended up jumping on a bus to Damascus earlier than expected, which was good since it took over 4 hours.

A word here on Syrian roads: they're wonderful!! So smooth, with marked speed signs that people seem to obey, as they do the lane markings, and the traffic lights! Remarkable!

After finding another cheap hotel to stay in near the Souk al Hammoudin, we wrote a list of the things we needed (wanted) and hit the souk. I'd spent a couple of hours there in 2008, and remembered how crazy it was. We got there around 7pm and it stayed that crazy till 10ish.

My goal was to find a traditional coffee pot, and we got a good deal early on. A reward was in order...

Bakdash is famous across the Middle East for its ice-cream. Again, I'd been here a couple of years ago and had been dreaming of it ever since. You find yourself a spot at the long tables, and sure enough, minutes later, a man comes along and plonks a bowl of vanilla ice-cream with pistachio nuts down in front of you.


The sugar rush gave us the strength to carry on. The cute little girl sitting behind me didn't have the same luck, she was falling asleep with her ice-cream cone in hand, and every time her eyes closed and her chin fell down, she'd wake up again and take a lick. It was adorable, though how she could fall asleep in there is anyone's guess - not only is the place always packed, but they make the ice-cream right there...
video
The shopping continued with more and more success, and I just loved looking at all the shops as we dodged the other shoppers. There have been news articles and books of late about the lingerie produced in Syria - while we didn't see any of the crazy stuff, as we didn't want to go in ask since we weren't going to buy, I was highly amused by the selections on display, and the hijab-covered women looking at pieces with their husbands.

Sunday morning came all too soon, and we set off to find a women's hammam to get massages. Talk about adventure! We walked and walked and walked, and asked and asked and asked. We ended up at a men's bathhouse and they provided some directions. Yassmin stopped to ask a man on the street, who told us he'd take us there.

It felt like we walked for about half an hour, through tiny alleys, past a Shi'ia mosque, through markets. Finally we got to a point and asked another shopkeeper where it was. He pointed at the curtain we were standing in front of. After thanking our guide profusely we rang the bell and were let inside. Unfortunately, the price they wanted to charge for a massage was outrageous (damn my white foreigner skin) so we chalked up the adventure to getting to see the tiny streets of Damascus and headed to the Umayyad mosque.

We had to go into the "place to change special clothes" to pick up a long robe (and for me to pay a small entry fee) and then into the mosque.

It's absolutely beautiful, and took ten years to build in 705AD (so quite early on in the history of Islam). The tiles were cool under foot, and the engravings and decorations were stunning.

video

We'd heard there was a bus to Beirut at midday, so grabbed our (heavier) bags and headed for the bus station. Arriving right on the dot, we were told that the bus would actually leave at 1pm. It took us about an hour to get to the border. Then about half an hour waiting around for various people to do various things. The bus driver actually left at least one person behind! We were a bit nervous after this, but were pretty confident he wouldn't leave the ajanib (foreigners) behind. We then stopped again to get more stamps and approvals. The no-man's-land between the two borders took about 10 minutes to drive, and then more stamping, more waiting.

By this stage, we were so happy to be back in Lebanon because we knew how things worked, that we'd be able to get our passports stamped easily with our residence permits in hand. Of course, not everyone on the bus had that luxury, so for a change, we were the ones waiting. We drove a few minutes then the bus driver pulled over again. Food break. We'd already stopped just before the Syrian border for people to buy food, so we were getting frustrated. So close, yet so far from home. We got to the bus station in Beirut just before 5 and had to wait till half past for the bus to Tripoli to leave.

Tired, sweaty, and smelly (the blurriness of the photo above is an apt display of how we felt!) we got home around 6:50pm, and were delighted to find two beers in the fridge. A wonderful end to a wonderful adventure!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Everything I know about Swedes, I've learned from IKEA

From a perusal of the IKEA catalogue, I can summise the following about Swedish people:

  1. They are very conscious of time. In most photographs, there is a clock positioned prominently.
  2. Swedish people are big readers; the bookshelves are filled with interesting looking books.
  3. Swedish children tend to leave toys in random places. Similarly, Swedish adults leave their shoes lying around a lot too, even though they have wonderful shoe racks.
  4. They are a pet friendly people.
  5. Swedish people are creatively minded. This is demonstrated by the thick framed glasses adults wear.
  6. They have green thumbs, almost every picture has a plant or flower of some description.
I haven't finished the whole catalogue yet (and I must say, reading it in Norweigan makes no difference to reading it home - the names are still all fun things like Gorm, Oppbervaringskasse, and Jönåker - it's only that the prices are in Kroner which detracts from the experience since I can't tell what's a bargain) so there may be more lessons to know about Swedish people. I'll let you know.