INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for tourism

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.

New Sense

“I can’t talk Arabic when I’m drunk,” said Yasser, a Bahraini born and bred. Alcohol and the official language of a religion that forbids it, I thought — something about this dissonance was too much. Plus, he told me with a light flick of his cigarette, we think everything western is better.

It felt honest, that Bahrain was a country that had handed over the reigns to someone else. On the weekends, SUV-loads of shop-and-drink-deprived Saudis drive the 16 mile-long bridge from Dammam to use the tiny island nation as their playground — the kind of playground teachers let the older kids supervise while they have their cigarette break somewhere far away.

I had spent the night on the sofa of a friendly local host who answered my CouchSurfing request. When I woke up, he was making banana pancakes.

Perfetto!” Taher was pleased. His other guest, a young Swiss woman looking for work in town, seemed used to the treatment. Taher, 36, had started a contracting business to become his own boss and to leave more time for travel — a month earlier, he was touring Southeast Asia; before that, Europe. “No one even knows anyone that has done what I’ve done,” he said, unaffected. For a country that pulls so much in, it seems to send very little out.

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Recovery — انتعاش

A little boy skewered a pair of green and pink plastic bags to make a kite. Down past the navel of the island to Kerambitan, a girl with her hair folded in a scrunchie backed up deliberately to make the string taut while some geese watched. She wore a crisp checkered and dotted orange and white dress that jumped as she jumped to launch the kite — other times, she just one or other of the two boys standing forty feet away pull it from her hands with the cord. One wore jeans and a yellow polo with pictures of bears in hats. The other stood barefoot in green shorts and a colorful shirt bedecked with blue Hindu deities and the word “KRISHNA” printed on the bottom. After a few seconds — the boys would backpedal holding the string to keep it afloat — the kite would fall, and they would run grinning to recover it.

In October of 2002, religious extremism struck the island for the first time in modern memory, killing 202 and injuring hundreds more. Three years later, three suicide bombers detonated near Kuta, killing twenty. In 2006, Indonesia endured the highest avian flu death toll, but in 2008, the United States lifted its travel warning: two-thirds of a million more tourists found their way to Bali in oh-nine than the year before. Still, from the grumblings of business owners and drivers in Ubud and farther out of town, it seems like those enterprises relying on tourism have continued to suffer. The rebounding years have seen a thickening of the tourist habitat, but in the big money areas, the foreign-owned big capital affairs are the ones that survive. The serene cook and owner of Satri’s, a restaurant hidden down a narrow corridor off Monkey Forest Road, shuffled smilingly when customers came in for cooking classes advertised by word of mouth. But in the tourist’s Bali, there are far too many words, and too few mouths — and the quieter finds are often swallowed in the din. Satri’s Banana Chicken, usually cooked by her husband Susila, must be ordered a day in advance. “Too many restaurants,” said Satri. Too much competition.

Most westerners surfing, partying, or eatingdrinkingsmoking in Bali don’t appear the slightest bit uneasy. The palm trees and reefy beaches and temple roofs don’t jive well with the image of politically unstable deserts as seen on the news or behind Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. A colleague from Beirut swapped summer stories on my return — “Isn’t it dangerous?” She asked. I didn’t know how to answer — I had never even thought to think that it might be unsafe (and so my Spidey senses wouldn’t have tingled even if there was something worth tingling over), but she did. I showed her some pictures.

Certainly Bali’s sunny disposition has not transformed and it remains much safer than many places built on the shifting sands of deep ethnic or political tension, but it’s hard to wonder whether less appealing scenery would have made the cautious less readily willing to forgive. But for piña coladas with local arak for less than three dollars? Even Beirut can’t top that.

Back in Kerambitan, two soccer teams played for the local championship in jerseys bought online — it was Chelsea, the English Premier League frontrunner, against Greece. I asked if I could play and several guys set off to look for shoes my size. The best fit had my toes curled back to the knuckle, but I couldn’t say no — not when the priest blessed us all with holy water and grains of rice pressed to the forehead — even though I handled the ball like Captain Hook juggling. For the first few minutes, I basked in their drastic overestimate of my abilities and took to the field with an obvious nickname to fight for the Greeks. “America,” a fierce-looking Chelsean eyeballed me at the opening handshake. “Wazzzaaaaap!”


More pictures from Bali here and here.

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.

My Day at Osama Bin Laden’s House — رحلتي الى بيت أسامة بن لادن

Very long story short: it seemed like the right time to go. Once, in the romantic glory days when Osama had just been killed and we all saw the world through rose-colored sniper scopes, daytrippers from the capital or from Lahore would come in to Abbottabad (EPP-ta-bad) to pose for pictures in front of the ex-warlord’s house. It is not as big as it looks on TV. Now, men in camouflage weave through the grass holding rifles and eyeballing everything that moves. Dozens of cellphones have been smashed, and, on the first day I was supposed to drive north to Abbottabad, five “CIA Informants” were arrested by the Pakistani government for cooperating with Americans. Still, it’s a very pretty town. Nice hills.

[My apologies, this story has been submitted elsewhere and cannot honorably be published here. Until we can give up on “honor”, I can offer only the poor summary above. To read the full story about my tea party with Osama and the long games of bridge we played while I waited for Seal Team 6 to do the honors (maybe — you’ll have to find out!): send an email with a sentence including the words “Boca”, “curry”, and “fuckface” to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM]

The Karakorum Highway starts here.

Abbottabad Hills.

Cricket in Abbottabad.

Country home.

Pakistani Suburbia.

More pictures from pakistan here.

Mixed Blessings — كراتشي

The town of Karachi is made of many things. For three days, I was one of them — a rare Jew in a the world’s third largest city where almost everyone can style themselves a minority in some way. There are those that seek to destroy everything “different” from themselves — the sadly frequent bombings and killings. Except for them, everyone is awesome, every corner of the city has its own new secrets.

There are Catholic churches, Sikh shrines, Hindu temples, the memory of a synagogue, and Zoroastrian fire temples, not far from the Towers of Silence where the dead are left to decompose naturally in focused sunlight.

[Annoyingly, this story has been submitted elsewhere and cannot be published here in good conscience. Until we can give up on “conscientiousness”, I offer only a poor abridgment below. In order to read the full story with everything you ever wanted to know about Karachi but didn’t know to ask (unless you know things to ask): send an email to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM with a sentence including the words “fondue”, “Pakistan”, and “Sammy Davis, Jr.”.]


Hindu Temple

Tower of Silence

Old Tower of Silence, 1849

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Sikh Shrine, Abudullah Shah Ghazi Mazar

The Lunar Eclipse

— with USA, — rush Israel?

More pictures from pakistan here.

A Day in Lahore — يوم في لاهور

Lahore was blisteringly hot.

In a white shalwar kameez, I adopted the look of the bluer collar, while two men escorted me across the city. The driver wore traditional clothes too, but the man in the back joking loudly in Punjabi had on slacks and a neat collared shirt. He worked for the father of a friend of a friend of a friend, the president of the oldest and largest university in Pakistan. In Pakistan, with the right start, hospitality is easier found than Kevin Bacon. (Bacon, however, isn’t served anywhere.)

You can’t get far without hearing Lahore nahin dekha tou kuch nahin dekha, “If you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t yet seen the world.” The city is peppered with gardens and architecture left by the Mughal Empire and parallel kingdoms. The Shalimar gardens are green even in June, and families picnic and sit by the fountains. A couple of couples nap in piles. Through the Masti Gate in the north of Lahore’s Walled City, the Begum Shah Mosque is mostly hidden behind market walls and a rind of scaffolding. Like most of Lahore’s antique facade, the seventeenth century walls are baked red with delicate patterns painted in yellow and green and bright colors. The Begum Shah (which I translate poorly as “Mrs. King”) was Mariam uz-Zamani, mother of Emperor Jangehir, (“conqueror of the world”).

Shalimar Gardens

At night, this Shahi Mohalla (“Royal Neighborhood”) is better known as Heera Mandi, “the Diamond Market”. You might say it’s why Lahore is called that — it’s the city’s longtime red-light district, thinly guised with music and dance. But recent crackdowns have imposed stricter laws on the dancing, and lady’s of the night have become lady’s of the early evening. What once began only after midnight now ends at eleven p.m., and at dinner at a rooftop cafe down the street, we heard only the sounds of sitar wafting up from below. Some things had modernized in the name of convenience. “It’s all delivery now,” my host said.

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