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The Afghan Ski Challenge — Women’s Edition

The third annual Afghan Ski Challenge kicks off above 10,000 feet in central Afghanistan. For the first time, the festival holds a race for Afghan women, seven skiers and a snowboarder.

All powder, no nonsense.

I originally filed this video/pics/article for the Al Jazeera English Magazine. Check it out here.

Afghan photos and more at a-vl.com.

عبر زقاق القرصان : من اليمن إلى الصومال بسفينة — Across Pirate Alley : From Yemen to Somaliland by Boat

More soon!

A story and some travel tips for that trip you’ve always been talking about.

Or, abiding by YouTube copyright restrictions:

People and Fish and Colors and Stuff

The island of Bali is the face of a duck with great volcanoes for eyes, with the Bukit Peninsula, where surfers make year-round pilgrimage, dangling by a narrow isthmus like the giant testicles of a holy bull. Bali is an expanse of unspeakable beauty. It is the land of the gamelan — the orchestral ensemble of bronze-keyed percussion instruments — and temple dances, and theatrical ritual. For centuries, the Balinese have waylaid the forces of cultural change on its jagged reefs that bite into the Bali Sea. Big cities teem with tour-driven tourists, Kuta more than any other, and parts of the southern coast are caked thick with resorts and thousands of turis all getting away.

On Bukit, near the cliffs of Uluwatu, is a beachy surf spot called Padang-Padang (“fields”), hidden but popular in a crescent-shaped dip in the coast. Minutes north are Impossibles and Bingin and Dreamland and Balangan. A little shack on the beach serves up nasi goreng (fried rice) and the traveler’s staple: Indonesian Bintang beer in half-liter bottles. The Peninsula lives by the tourist pulse — Mexican restaurants, happy hours, an Italian trattoria, burger joints in a culture where cows are sacred. (Bali is a Hindu enclave in the largely Muslim Indonesia.)

Travelers here are rarely sweet to the random traveler. There is no surprise in seeing western faces, in Spaniards meeting Spaniards, in Australians finding Australians, in Manhattanites finding Manhattanites. Though for more than a hundred years Westerners have lamented Bali’s lost mystery at the hands of all-them-that-have-been-here-too, recent decades have increasingly watched parts of Bali paved and primped for the world’s pleasure-seeking onslaught on its southeast. Some of us that travel there may never let go of the idealized “untouched”. Some of us doing the touching will continue to look for the “untraveled”. Along the coast of the Bukit Peninsula, at least, this is not the healthiest expectation.

The duck’s bill is almost entirely uninhabited. West Bali is gorgeous and ravenous (as in, having lots of gorges and ravines) and as seen from above is nothing but pointy green hills rolling towards Java. At the very northwestern tip of the island is a tiny, separate island easily reachable by boat: the steeps walls around Menjangen are a diver’s paradise, with rays, sharks, fish dressed like it’s the 1970s, and ones like the Scorpion Fish, with rocklike skin that changes color almost instantly to match its surroundings. The extremely lucky (not I) may see a massive ocean sunfish, a mola mola, rising to the surface mouth agape to have its teeth cleaned by a swarm of tiny fishes.

By the volcanic black sand beaches in the far east of Bali, resorts and bungalows are easy to find but not overwhelming. There is little to do but snorkel and relax, or buy blowguns from Komang on the beach and shoot them into trees. Life is relaxed. Predawn Balinese prayer may waft from loudspeakers into open bedrooms if it is a holy day. It’s often a holy day.

I spent the largest part of my summer month just outside the town of Payangan high in the hills of central Bali. From Ubud, a major destination for temples and monkeys and restaurants and big city life à la Balinese, we drove an hour and a half towards away. Small, square floral offerings plated in banana leaves are common, set down in the road to protect against evil and accidents. Up here in sight of the great mountains was yet another side of Bali, more rural but perhaps more complex in its balance of tradition and tourist desires.

"Official Bananas."

Ducks padded around in the rice paddies, picking out bad stuff and leaving the good. Just opposite on the semi-paved road that wound around to the local temple was the understated entrance to a huge villa, anyone’s for the renting.


Lots and lots of pictures from Bali if you click here.

Selamat Datang Ke Bali

A preview of things to come:

Welcome to Bali.

(The pictures from Bali are here: here.)

Pop a Cap — الاطلاق


The Levant: Part Six

The closest I came to gunfire was just after we crossed the border into Syria. They told me it was dangerous, but I thought it would come from the cities, from the police, from around the crowds, and not on the road that cut up from Beirut through the mountains and back down again toward Damascus, Ash-Sham.

Leaving Lebanon at Masn‘aa, we would first reach Haloua, the town whose name means “sweet”. I had passed through each country’s checkpoint without an issue, accepted into Syria without knowing my destination, with nothing but my visa and tempered American smiles.

I sat in the back of the taxi. Just me, and the driver’s fat friend in the passenger seat. They had gained interest in me with the altitude, but lost it quickly when I told them that I wasn’t at all ethnically Lebanese. We entered into Syria and the fat friend lent me his phone, or rather rented it, fidgeting angrily when I had spent too long trying to make out my friend’s directions to a meeting point. Tension mounted as he demanded eight thousand lira, almost six dollars, for a five minute call. The scruffy driver took his friend’s side. Pressure.

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Monky Business


The Levant: Part 3

A young man on a Vespa drove towards me with the slumped and bloody carcass of a dolphin slung over the floorboard, its nose and tail nearly dragging on the rough pavement. It was probably just a big fish, but the children playing outside the few shops on the seaside street stopped to tag along excitedly behind the motorbike. I followed in my rearview mirror as the group turned off the street to make their next move.

*     *     *

This was the rural road that ran parallel to the North-South highway; not far behind were the ruins of Byblos, in the near distance was the broad, flat profile of urban Tripoli. Many Lebanese would give the impression with their tone that it was all still a ways away: “Yes, far: twenty kilometers maybe.” In a small country where lifestyles and landscapes change at every few mile-markers, far is never so far. Russians and Australians, I imagine, would give very different answers to those sorts of questions — “It’s easy, just six timezones west. After the bridge.”

But minutes after leaving Tripoli, I was driving through the dark clouds above the Wadi Qadisha seeking shelter in the only places I knew to look. Aramaic for “Holy Valley,” the area and its many caves have for millennia been a site of Christian hermitage; painted signs for deir dot the side of the road, sometimes appearing not to point to anything in particular. These are the modern markers of ancient monasteries, still inhabited and many still offering friendly lodging to retreaters. But to find even the largest complex, you may need to believe (in the side-roads); the signs on the main route are about all you can get for advertisement. As loud as Tripoli is with blasting car horns and old engines grumbling, the crest of the valley is silent. Read the rest of this entry »

Azerbaijan Five: Lost and Found — أاذربيجان خمسة: مفقود وموجود

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

We had maps. We had names of towns along the route. We had the word “where”. And we were completely lost.

According to our screenshot map, there were two roads out of Sheki toward Yevelax, a town at a junction from which a road would head south into uncharted (for us) territory. One of our friendly pedestrian human GPSes pointed straight, convinced us left was right, and we sped off down a narrowing road into the kind of scenic countryside correct directions always seem to miss. We had intended to retrace our steps from the night before, but with this our first experience in daylight, we assumed the mountains around us were the shadows we had seen the night before, that the wide open fields had been the deep black emptiness. But nope, we were just going the wrong way.

We slowed down in the early morning cow traffic to film a rush hour chat with the cowherd. He was delighted to speak to the camera, and I understood the question “what channel?” “Ameriki” — easier to agree than to attempt the truth.

“Azerbaijan kharasho!” I said, Azerbaijan good! He didn’t agree. Not good. President not good. Clearly, the man controlling highway traffic to get his cows out to pasture couldn’t care less about political censorship — or political fallout from his high-profile media appearances.

Just when things started to look wrong we found another junction, one not on any map, where men at a service station pointed back the way we came — “Yevelax.” Or, it seemed, we could take the road Google didn’t know about (still paved) and hope for the best.

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Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

(اذربيجان اربعة: الاستراحة (وشويّ جنون العظمة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

High-beams blazing, we barreled down the road to the north. With the scale on screenshots of Google Maps as our only indicator of distance, we would slow each time we felt close to a turn to ask passers by if they had any idea where we were. I’d pick a town name just past where we wanted to turn and repeat it over and over, sometimes with haradadir, “where is…?”

We passed ready to forage through the town of Göyçay, hoping to find anything to keep us alive and driving. A breakfast of half a pomegranate and a lunch of part of a roll and baklava-like pastries that taste like peanut brittle can only go so far. And almost too conveniently, we found a group of young guys who knew the only restaurant in town. As our tradition of total incomprehension required, we followed their car — “No,” I had to say, “you can’t drive ours.”

The Göyçay Cafe looked just like a motel, with a long row of identical small rooms. The dining area, it seemed, was just a small bedroom converted into eating space — our guides did the talking and arranged for a waiter (shockingly professional) to bring a spread. They weren’t hungry.

Again, paranoia kicked in like practiced defense. You don’t know martial arts, so you should probably just stay a little scared. Why would five guys drive us to a cafe just to sit? It was freezing, especially after October in the Gulf, but I kept making excuses to open the door when they closed it. And even though we had left wallets in the car, the tiny motel room still begged to play host to trouble should anyone want to cause any. I caught myself thinking, if we were really in danger, why would they have given us knives? The cutlery certainly had us on an even playing field.

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Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

Our destination was big: not here — but still we found it hard to find. It was either linguistically or culturally impossible to ask directions, so we turned like explorers of old to our (iPhone) compass and sought a course north and west out of Baku. We ended up going south in heavy traffic. So we paid five manat and followed a taxi, our Azeri Sacajawea, to lead us to the great wide west. And very suddenly, over a few hills and around a bend or two, the city was gone.

After such inauspicious beginnings, a traveler may succumb — opting for a nap instead of ten hours on the open road. But should you defy the dead end, you explode like a stallion from the starting gate of every detour. Extend your middle finger to lockers of gates. This is your lightening rod.

The M1 highway was quiet; old Russian cars straining to go highway speed, a few new models, rickety sedans filled to burst with apples. The road flattened and the scenery changed instantly. Thirty miles inland, the capital seemed a continent away, with its industry and trade and petroleum. Here, a man sold sweet, ruby red pomegranates by the roadside. A couple dollars for a kilogram.


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Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة

(Click photos to make big)


Stocked with only a hostel address and a belly full of McDonalds, we boarded an airplane in Dubai, half full with Brobdingnagian body builders and others who looked like they knew where they were going. We didn’t. Shouldn’t I feel like I’m going home at long last? said the Caucasian in me. It is, after all, the Caucasus. But the feeling didn’t take, and I settled in excitedly for our trip north (“it’s north right?”) — to a capital city whose name I’d learned a month earlier, in a country I couldn’t yet place on a globe.

Baku is calculated city filled with spontaneous people. Or is it the other way around… somehow, in the hustle and bustle that surrounds and penetrates the walls of the millenium-old “Inner City,” a sense of order prevails — the sense that someone knows exactly what’s supposed to be going on. The popular section of downtown near İçəri Şəhər (ih-cherry sha-har), the “Old” or “Inner’ City, could compete for most fountains per-capita, with wide, immaculate stone boulevards reminiscent of Vienna or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. In this small section of town where Medieval meets Soviet and the urban plans of a new and liberated city, folks mingle to the sounds of construction and cultures smashing together.

But a traveler also gets the feeling that most of the smashing is in yesterday’s history — that Persian traditions, Turkish culture and Russian influence have already been absorbed, and that the modern result is a cocktail that is almost exclusively Azeri. This is not like the New York of today, where we eat sitting on the floor to “try something new”. This is like the New York of tomorrow, where we pick up tacos with chopsticks because it’s what we’ve been doing for years.

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