INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for tourism

الطيار من طاير

The Levant: Part Five

It is hard to make plans when there’s nothing you really want to do. When I drove into the gas station in Furn al-Shebbak before heading off to Baalbek, I was sick of the traffic and of looking at maps, and I was leaning further and further towards driving to a beach in the south, sticking my head in the sand, and hiring the first shared taxi out of the country in the morning. But more happened at that gas station than I let on about in my last post —it wasn’t so important then — and in the hour and a half I spent parked not buying any petrol, I filled up on ideas and got back into the traveling spirit.

The air force cadet, around my age and dressed in camouflage, did tell me not to go to east towards Baalbek, but he told me not to go south towards Sur (also called Tyre) either. Go tomorrow morning, he told me, and I’ll go with you: fish for lunch, jet skis, the beach. The cadet, his name was Marwan, was from there. “And nargila?” he asked. “Of course.” Huge smiles. This dude was speaking my language.

But if I didn’t go to Baalbek, I really had fuckall to do. I tried to explain that, but I couldn’t quite get it across in Arabic. “Do you know people in Lebanon?” Marwan and the pump manager asked.   No.  “What are you trying to see?”   Nothing. Anything, something different.  “Where are you staying?”   Nowhere.

Their faces grew more and more incredulous with my every hopeless shrug. I truly had no good reasons to do anything at all — no sights to see, no people to meet, and an unfaltering confidence that my rental insurance would cover robberies.

“Meet me outside Melek al-Tawwous at 8:30,” Marwan repeated, unknowingly accepting as his all of my stresses about filling time. I had few wants but I wanted to, I felt I needed to want — but with the air force in charge, I could take the passenger seat and throw my baggage in the back.

And so I asked for directions to Zahle and went to Baalbek, and I came back and crashed in the one pension I knew, and I picked up Marwan outside the breakfast place just as he said. “Let me drive.”

The day started so right. We shortcut through side streets and raced onto the highway, stopping to pick up two pirated CDs of Lebanese Pop from a shack on the road; by the end of the day we’d listen to the good one about 40 times — and the bad one 65. We learned little about each other: he fixed planes for the air force, I wandered around countries. “You have a good heart,” Marwan would say to me. I tried to live up to his assessments, based on my willingness to travel alone or with a very new friend, by trusting in his plans for fun à la libanaise.

We had unbelievable foul (he paid) and pepsi in his town, Ghaziyeh (he wasn’t from Sur), and he ran in to his house (which he never let me see) to change out of his army uniform. “When I come back I will be a real person.” He came back in a sleeveless muscle shirt with his hair gelled. We were going to the beach. “Do you have any cologne?” Tolerance, I told myself.

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Wonderlust

Or, Vending for Yourself

Thalia read my fortune on the inside of my coffee cup.  It was unpredictable — large, empty white spaces told her that I had a standing date with the unknown, and crinkly dregs pointed to my need for motion.  One thing was sure: facing the figure of a man with big, “heavy” feet and arms lifted and waving were the undeniable letters “A–D” — the first two letters of my name, the initials of the city I live in, and a close misspelling of my favorite kind of arithmetic. Whatever the message was, I think it was for me.

Deep in the underground cistern sixty meters away from the entrance to the Hagia Sofia (street signs are very accurate) big fish swim around in fresh water and their own shadows, just as they have been doing for the past 1500 years.  Wet walkways under the round, vaulted arches lead to two columns whose bases are carved Medusas, one upside down, one sideways.      

"Please, sir, can you spare some Wi-Fi?"

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Entran¢e Fees

Sri Lanka Part Nine

Sri Lanka Part Eight

Kandy revealed itself in the morning, pressed against a wide sunny lake invisible the night before. We left our hotel — the cheapest of a certain class in Kandy, with dark gray carpet and heavy curtains and clearly designed for vampires — for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The entrance fee: more than 10 US dollars — a shock after driving through towns where so much could buy dinner for a week. “We’ve come from America,” we suggested, readjusting our sarongs. Half price. Is it okay to get a deal at a temple?

The temple is stunning, not for its size or for the goldenness of its Buddha statue, but for the smells of floral offerings on the second floor, and the beautiful devotion with which they are laid. Common practice is to touch the flowers with flat hands and fingers outstretched, to lean forward to touch them again further along the table, then to pray with palms pressed together above the heart, and lift them to the forehead. I stayed bent over to smell the flowers. “Wow, this American is very devoted,” they might have thought. “Mmmmmm,” I was thinking.


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Carrots in a Cage — جزر في قفص

Sri Lanka Part Five

Sri Lanka Part 4
Sri Lanka Part 3
Sri Lanka Part 2
Sri Lanka Part 1

Yala National Park is not fun. It may have once been fun, but it is certainly not now, and I’m mad at everyone Google found that tried to convince me otherwise. Except, actually, now that I’ve followed their bad advice, I wouldn’t redo it all any differently.

It is supposed to be one of Sri Lanka’s prime destinations for wildlife spotting — thousands of kilometers of open area where majestic island creatures roam, discoverable only from the back of a hired Jeep. Buffalo, leopards, beautiful wild elephant — Yala is your gateway to a personal, personalized experience with Sri Lanka’s wild fauna. Yours and five-hundred other tourists, in six-hundred jeeps, making every breath feel like sucking from the back of an exhaust pipe.

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Fool of a Tuk-Tuk, or The Carma Sutra

Sri Lanka Part Two

You drive like a local is everywhere both curse and compliment, a label given to one that has just saved a life or nearly lost one (or both). To earn such damnation/praise in Sri Lanka, a driver must adopt all of the English sentiments toward the left side of the road while rejecting every ounce of their trademark restraint, propriety, and unexcitability.

Almost every road in the country is two-lane (one in each direction), always curvier than topographically necessary, and rarely with room for central Asian third-laning between your lane and oncoming traffic. Passing has got to be fully committal, usually before a blind curve and with no shoulder for aborted missions. Honk honk.

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“Busy Busy, Fucking Busy.”

Sri Lanka Part One

I left for Sri Lanka in less than perfect conditions.

The only weather reports I had seen showed thunder and lightning in Colombo every single day of our stay. Our car rental company discouraged “self driving” — and I could hear over the phone the jaws of owners of hotels, rest houses and shacks drop when I asked for directions for myself. I tuned in to news about the island’s flooding… after buying tickets.
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Welcome to the Holy Land. Here’s Your Change.

Or, The Ruins’ Point

The land marked on many maps as “Israel”, or as a series of dotted lines, or a be-yarmulka’d frowny face, is exactly what it has been for millennia: ever-changing. Every neighborhood and time-tested city is a variable function that depends on your state of mind: Feel like a local? The city is x. Feel like a tourist? The city has this to offer. Feeling especially Jewish today? Come, have a homentashen.

As the first familiar place I’ve been in seven months (save a week at grandma’s house), Israel — as it does for many — felt like an old relative. Like at grandma’s house, Israel always feeds to excess and loves to retell old stories. But insomuch as any past posts have been a travelogue, the document of this short stay in the Holy Land can’t be. I’ve changed too much throughout the course of my Isrelationship — I haven’t been just the brief courtier I was in North Oman or Eastern Azerbaijan. In rapidfire, express-tourism, vision is clear because it is so heavily filtered. Depth makes statements difficult, assumptions even harder — putting complete thoughts together after visits spanning nearly 15 years and a brief stint as a semi-professional is harder than trying to chart the evolution of your favorite color in your first seven months in utero. I can’t write advice for tourists because I’m all mixed up about what it means to be one. Less is more sometimes, and as much as this is a failure to reveal the value of touring in the first place — it’s not you Israel, it’s me.

Long story short: it hurts to think. So I’ll report the facts unmarred by that aggrandized pastime, and all that deducing and synthesizing that purport to accompany “clever” writing and “helpful” analysis — well… that’ll just be your job for the moment.

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