Sunday, August 29, 2010

...across the desert like an Arab man...

Vacation over, back to Dubai, wiping sweat from our brows. Our moving back to the States date was now set and looming closer and closer. In that spirit we began to do "last things". There were tasks like sell cars, starting with this one. (How sad did saying goodbye to Snorkel Car make us, you ask? Sad. Very sad.)

Almost as high on the must-do list was visiting the Empty Quarter.

The Empty Quarter, the Rub' al Khali, is one of the largest deserts in the world, about 250,000 square miles of utter, desolate, burning, and utterly inhospitable sand.

The only reason to go there is for oil, or, like us, to marvel at the desert.

It is hauntingly beautiful.

Our plan was to get as close as one can to the Empty Quarter by staying in Liwa, the southernmost settlement of the UAE. All of our previous explorations had been to the north of the country for the simple reason that that's where things are.

To the south, the Empty Quarter is just that. Empty.

So there we Americans were, to finally explore the real desert and to celebrate a birthday as well, Mike's, who has three years seniority on the UAE and counting.

The United Arab Emirates, for all its glamour, riches, and economic influence will be celebrating all of 40 years since its 1971 union in a year. It will be quite the party. The anniversary is something else as well, a very tangible reminder of how recent the UAE's exposure to the Western world is.

Mike, on his birthday, in one of my favorite photos of all time, at the edge of an oil field and the Rub' al Khali

We drove through a whole lot of not very much to get to Liwa, an oasis best known for its dates and as the birthplace of many of the ruling family of the UAE.

Wilfred Thessinger was the first non-Bedouin to lay eyes upon the Liwa oasis after trekking thought the Empty Quarter in the late 1940's. Can you imagine? That was only 50 years ago.

Thessinger undertook not one but two epic journeys through the desert, an unheard-of and inhumanly arduous feat, hungry and thirsty beyond compare, with tribal Bedouins who undoubtedly thought him an insane Englishman for wishing to traverse the desert that even they of short and hard lives feared.

Reading his book, Arabian Sands I'd say, yes, he was an amazing man, thoughtful and also completely, admirably, and unquestionably nuts.

In Liwa, after two months of crossing the sands. Thessinger found "clean, almost tasteless" water. It must have been the best drink in all of history. While we were there, even in our air-conditioned Jeep and with all possible modern luxuries, we found ourselves thirsting for water on a deep, primal level, the desert striking some survival chord that tells you, stay near water.

Something as simple as setting out without bottled water in the car made us nervous. Blacktop road, GPS, no matter. Every day it became the first order of business to go find some.

There is simply no describing the dunes upon dunes, flowing away forever, and the heat. I had brought my SLR camera with (crazy, I know) real film and at one point stood cooking in the blazing heat for about half an hour to get shots of a herd of camels against reddish-orange dunes, while Mike and the kids waited for me in the Jeep. It was not a comfortable wait for them: heat was radiating from the metal roof into the car and the air conditioning couldn't keep up.

My camera was acting up, but I was really reluctant to stop shooting because what I was seeing through the viewfinder was amazing, and I knew that this was probably my last chance to take desert camel pictures. I only took a few photos with my little digital.

Back in the car, after some poking and prodding and finally cracking open the back of the SLR, the horrible truth. While I was trying to take photos the desert sun had melted the film in my camera. Mike, thinking there was nothing to be done, pulled the rest of the film out of the SLR before I could stop him, exposing any photos that might have been on there.

Sometimes you just have to shed a tear or two and move on. The digital shots were OK, and I was happy to have them, at least, but as you can see from the last shot, the heat and brightness started to overwhelm even that tough little camera too.

Mamma and sweet baby white camels

Camel herd huddling together to keep cooler.*

*No, really. The camel has the ability to lower its body temperature under hot conditions, and then they reduce surface area exposed to the sun and heat by being close together. Along those lines, did you know that the fat in a camel being stored in its hump avoids having it function as an insulator?

In fact, after that day, my digital camera has never been quite the same.

(to be continued...)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Show me the way to go home. I'm tired and I want to go to bed...

As promised, here is the tale of the rest of our very long day, as told by Mike. He was concerned and aggravated enough to post online on Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum. It was the last nail in the coffin, as far as we were concerned, as to our overall feelings about Athens.

(all photos were taken the day before this all happened...why they didn't get us then must have been nothing more than luck!)

"I was the victim of a pickpocket on the Athens Metro. I should have recognized what was happening, but was focusing on my kids (I was carrying my 4-year old). The platform was crowded, but the train was not, so I was appalled at how rude these men were, shoving aggressively past us to get to seats ahead of us, only to get off at the next stop.

One man, stood, seemingly absent-minded, blocking the way to a group of empty seats, a second, large man shoved rudely past me, to get to an empty seat, and a third man followed in the gap cleared by the large man. All three got off at the next stop.

It was two stops later that I realized that my wallet was gone, and the whole scene replayed in my mind, clear as day. Everything was so obvious in retrospect!

I was pretty lucky - only about 40 euro, credit cards (reported stolen the moment I realized what had happened), and drivers license.

Cheap lesson.

Anyway, I elected not to report the incident to the police. It was the last day of our vacation, and I didn't think there was any thing the police could (or would) do, and assumed I would spend a significant amount of time in a police station for no benefit.

My question is: what you think of my decision not to file a police report. Would it have done any good?"

Overwhelming response from the forum: nope.

What Mike didn't post was that he had been furious at the way he was manhandled on the train before he realised he'd been robbed, and was openly and uncharacteristically expressing his displeasure, much to my dismay, and I, not realising how manhandled he'd been, was trying to hush him so as not to offend anyone.

As soon as we realised that his wallet was gone (from his front velcroed shut pants pocket!) he and I turned the kids over to the other adults in our party, got off the train, fuming, back on in the other direction and to the stop where the pickpockets had gotten off.

Not to try to find them, but, with any luck, to find his wallet in a garbage can, cash and (immediately-cancelled, thank goodness for cell phones!) credit cards undoubtedly removed, but there was a chance that his Washington State and United Arab Emirates driver's licenses might have been left behind. We thought it was worth a try as they would be a real pain for us to replace.

So we sorted through garbage cans with plastic bags on our hands, trying not to look like homeless people. There are few things funner than going through garbage in a foreign country when you're supposed to be on vacation, folks.

There were so many cans it turned out to be an impossible task. I even looked in the shaded areas beneath shrubbery in a nearby park, and found another black leather wallet emptied of its contents; alas, not Mike's. The sun was going down and being out after dark was asking for more trouble, so we shook our heads and got on the train back to Terry's house.

Of course, we hadn't taken any especial notice of which station she lived at. since we had been traveling with her...

The Mourning Athena

(There is a postscript to this story. A month later more than 50 people were arrested, including a security guard for the Athens Metro, for being part of an extensive, and sometimes vicious organised ring of pickpockets. A month too late for us, but satisfying nevertheless.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I'm not gonna write you a love song...

The flags of Greece and Athens

We disliked Athens. I am terribly sorry to have to say this. The cradle of democracy, the city of the Goddess of Wisdom. In times past, a place of playwrights and politicians, where great philosophers thought and lectured and learned.

Vizzini: "You ever heard of Plato? Socrates? Aristotle?"

Westley as the Man in Black: "Yes."

Vizzini: Morons.

-The Princess Bride

Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. All called Athens their home at one time or another. I could add other names you would recognise to that list, but frankly it would make me feel even worse for not liking Athens.

Our first negative impressions that we'd tried to look past were constantly validated: too much garbage, nobody smiling (we were like the smiley freaks), and too much graffiti, (though between you and me I admit to kind of liking this one):

Snail. Yeah. There's a street name for you.

There were crowds of young men selling purses and the like on the street, their wares carefully laid out on large squares of fabric that could be quickly picked up to flee from the police.

and with the general, overall feeling of unhappiness, well, we weren't impressed. Even the hurdy-gurdy guy and his young helper, who couldn't have been older than ten, in a black fedora who scampered around in lieu of a monkey, asking for coins, didn't have a smile for us when we obliged.

Sitting at an outdoor restaurant near the Acropolis the waitress reminded us more than once to not put cameras on the table, apparently not without reason. A man sat down nearby and while he appeared to be casually reading a newspaper, in actuality he had stuck out his foot and was pulling Aunt Terry's purse to him on the ground. (He was chased away.)

The changing of the Palace Guard was impressive, yes,

and I appreciated the whimsy of grown men twiddling their prayer beads, a national pastime.

Then there was the Acropolis. Terry had graciously agreed to take us there, and walk up a lot of stairs, even with her bum knee, which was super nice of her. It should have been the highlight of Athens. However the Acropolis was, for some reason, a letdown. I told Mike it reminded me of the bones of a chicken carcass, picked clean, standing alone above the city, and he agreed.

We dutifully had our photo taken in front of the Parthenon.

I wish I had remmebered at the time that the Acropolis was the only place Matt of Where the Hell is Matt fame, had been told not to dance. I would have thrown out some moves for him. In fact, Matt had been escorted off to the police station and threatened when he refused to erase the footage.

Now, I am a Matt fan, (he's modest, endearingly nerdy, thoughtful, and a Seattle homeboy) and am one of those who sheepishly admits that his video gets me teary, picking up a pack of Stride gum now and then because of it. (If you haven't seen this on YouTube , what rock have you been living under? Get on it! Read my post some other time.

Anyway, should you still be here, I have to say that the best part of the Acropolis, after climbing up with the all the other tourists walking around the ruins, (of which we'd gotten plenty throughout the entire trip, not Athen's fault, and perhaps if we'd gone there first in our trip we'd have been impressed), was the frozen lemonade (pricy but SO good) and the rock we spotted crawling through the grass that turned out to be a turtle.

Which we caught and examined, apparently to its displeasure. It's hard to tell with a turtle.

The tourist commission of Athens probably hates me now.

We had seen many, many street performers in Athens, and I need to give a shout-out to this young man as being truly exceptional (and maybe in the process get us not permanently banned from Athens...)

Dressed as a sort of tree nymph (can a dryad be male? One should overlook such technicalities when dealing with the arts, yes?) this performer would stand perfectly still until offered a coin, and then go through an incredible series of graceful motions with the glass orb.

I also have to say that the Acropolis Museum is utterly exceptional. Built over ruins, a wonderful glass-based construction where you can look down into the excavations below, and up four floors to the top floor (which is unfortunate in the case of skirt-wearing museum goers, but that's neither here nor there...if you are wearing a skirt and carelessly walk across a floor of clear glass with people underneath it, guess it's your own fault if you end up on the internet). The displays of ancient metal and glasswork, pottery and sculpture in that open, majestic space were fantastic.

Photography was forbidden, so at the end I dashed into the gift store to peruse the postcards. In the meantime Thomas was running around outside the main doors and a sudden gust caught his little hat and blew it off his head and down...down...down into the ruins not covered by glass.

Predictably, Thomas burst into tears.

Fortunately there was helpful security who went down there for us and retrieved the naughty hat, much to everyone's relief.

Thomas informed us he wasn't going to let that naughty wind play with his hat again.

After the meal where Terry's purse was in danger of walking away, all of us a more than a bit tired and worn down, it had been a long day. And it was about to get a lot longer.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Come take a ride with me to a distant shore...

Our prop plane had us in Athens before we knew it. We were reuniting with Pat and Colleen, and all staying with Mike's Aunt Terry. She had sent us her address and a short message in Greek that we'd printed out, stating "please take us here".

Our taxi driver spoke plenty of English for our purposes, and after some fussing punched the address into his GPS, albeit while hurtling down the freeway. One hand on the paper, one on the GPS, hey, who's driving this thing?

Being veterans of riding with and trusting total strangers in the form of taxi drivers, (despite any perceived shortcomings in such things as adherance to road safety, common sense, or a basic understanding of physics such as two solid objects cannot be in the same place in the same time) on the assumption that they are as interested at arriving at your destination in one piece as as you are, we didn't stress out about the lack of piloting going on and, sure enough, it all worked out.

Terry's home had signs on the door welcoming us, wine and pastries in the kitchen, fat orange trees in the courtyard, and bliss of bliss, a washing machine. Which the kids watched like television.

As their Mommy I was happy to see it; laundry is our traveling Achilles heel. For instance, in Sel├žuk the sole laundromat fellow had taken about 2 loads of clothing from us to wash, dry and press, saying he would call us to say how much it would be. The call came and Ersan nearly blew a fuse on our behalf: $100.00 American dollars.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The fellow knew he had us, and while he did a good job, there was much grumbling amongst ourselves about perhaps buying replacements for our dirty clothes instead of washing then, to save money. Our favorite part of that transaction was when he gave out several of his business cards for us to pass out on his behalf.

Ersan made sure we were up to speed on the highway and flipped the cards out the window. I don't usually litter, but.... he said.

So a warm welcome and a working washer were really, really nice.

Athens, on first glance, was not what I expected. The guide books had warned us; "you'll wonder what all the griping is about" said one. The riots of two weeks before had calmed down, but Greece was still very much in a financially unhappy place. Terry said flat out that she didn't enjoy living there. She showed us around her neighborhood haunts, the school where she taught, introduced us to the local hairdresser and the owner of the tiny grocery store.

Despite it being an apparently nice neighborhood, there seemed to be a lot of graffiti and
trash on the streets. Well, this was the outskirts, I thought.

Ten minutes walk took us to the Metro train, and then the sea, admittedly after a false start or two. Terry was screamed at and called a particularly nasty name by an employee at one of the stations when she tried to confirm the train we should take. This was surprising to us as he was sitting behind the information desk.

Lesson learned: asking the information man a question and then confirming that you correctly understood his answer results in your getting called something that if I was called that would probably result in some bee-atch slapping. But Terry was apparently more calmly accepting of such things.

This having been said, for some odd reason, she was eager to get out of Athens for the day. As there were planty of with Greek islands beckoning nearby, we found the correct boat to take us out to the island of Hydra. Not, however, before more yelling, hair grabbing (his own, not mine), and pounding of and outraged fist on the desk in one of the kiosks that sold boat tickets when we dared ask which one we should go to.

Once on the hydrofoil it was comparably smooth sailing, to picturesque Hydra.

There was a light rain falling on Hydra when we disembarked. A pedestrian-only island, which sounded so darned appealing, we realised there was little for us to do other than eat a meal (once we found a place willing to serve us...the first place, well, the waiter was apparently not interested in silly things like customers), wander the small waterfront, glance into some of the utterly chrming shops, snap some photos and take the boat back.

Nothing wrong with that. The horses waiting to take tourists around were somewhat bad-tempered, and I managed to step directly into a puddle of water deep enough to wet the bottom three inches of my pants. Well, some of it was water. The rest of it, I am sorry to report came from the horses.


Lesson two: when you are in a foreign country, watch where you step.

Outing complete, we bought tickets from the (nice this time!) boat man to go back. I wondered; was it living in a big city, dealing with tourists (surely boat man #2 did the latter all day long?) or being a Greek man who has to work (which was Terry's take on things) that made such a large percentage of the folks we were dealing with act like surly citizens?

I'll leave you with a nice photo of a travel kid moment. (Lesson #3: You bring your kids on a trip, during which they have few choices for themselves, you put them though all sorts of wierd travel conditions, new foods, places and time zones, don't expect them to be perfect all the time. You want perfect, bring a doll.)

And I'll leave you with gratuitous archway shot. Because if you can't get a good photo while travelling, you must not be trying, right?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fly the ocean in a silver plane...

Last day in Samos. Double quick shoving of stuff into suitcases so Bethy and I could take one more trip down to the pebble beach in front of the hotel. She was determined to demonstrate her ultra bravery in holding a spiny purple sea urchin. I had snagged some for her the day before while she sat like a mermaid on a sea-surrounded rock and I lazily snorkeled around her.

The Greeks of Samos, as you can see, are very into painting their concrete with white designs. I do not know why they do this, but we enjoyed the whimsy of it.

After breakfast we had all of an hour and a half before we needed to return the tiny blue rental car, so we headed straight into Samos/Vathy. As it turned out, driving around the town was slightly more stressful than it was worth, with the streets getting steeper, and narrower, and one-way, well, we turned the car around and headed back the way we'd come, then around the other side of the harbor.

This also proved a fool's errand as the road became less like a road and more like bushwacking, with branches nearly obscuring the way forward and no place to turn around. So we called it quits.

Pulling up in front of the hotel I looked at the time. We still had 25 minutes. Enough time, surely, to go along the road a bit further and see what the beach around the corner from our hotel looked like.

This time we were rewarded for persistance with a lovely pebble beach, and even, better, a cafe

with a jolly propriator who served us some especially good Greek coffee.

Back at the hotel, I went to snag the last luggage and to look one last time for two of our acquaintances, the only other non-German guests besides ourselves that we'd met, the large and avuncular Rudy and his commonlaw wife, Rita, from Belgium. We'd met them our first afternoon there, well into their schedule of getting and remaining plastered on vacation. A noble goal, to be sure, as they were friendly, only slightly slobbery drinkers.

I had, on the spur of the moment, asked them about a lullaby that has been in our family for as long as any of us can remember, but no one really knows the words to. We sing it something like "do-do, keenie meenie mootch". It's supposed to be Belgian, so, feeling I had nothing to lose, I asked them about the song. "Of course!" Rudy roared, "all Belgians know this song!" Then he and Rita started to sing it, but then decided they were too drunk and to ask them later.

Later I saw them only in passing, and this last few minutes of the last morning there was my last chance to track down the song. I had spent hours and hours trying to figure it out on Google, so begging Mike's indulgence, off I went with my notebook. And there they were at the poolside bar, merely 2 out of three sheets to the wind, and very enthusiastic about the song.

But first they had to slowly write down another Belgian nursery song they felt I should know and to make sure I could sing it properly, and that I knew what all the words meant. Knowing that Mike was undoubtedly looking at his watch and grinding his teeth, I tried my very best to encourage them to give me the song I was after, quickly, while still appearing polite and grateful.

Finally I had the song in hand. Here it is:

Do do kindje do,
slaap en doe je oogjies toe,
do do do
which basically means:
Sleep sleep little one
sleep sleep and close your eyes
sleep sleep sleep.

With more whiskery cheek kisses from both of them, and fond farewells, I sprinted like mad to where the kids and Mike and our driver were waiting to take us to the tiny Samos airport. It was, in fact the smallest one any of us have ever been in, and waiting for us was an honest-to-goodness propeller passenger plane.

We crossed the tarmac and into our 6th plane of this trip. The propellers did their work and we were off, over the islands, to mainland Greece and Athens.