Thursday, August 20, 2009

31 years later... Better than ever!

31 years ago, I took my first breath in this World.

The first act of love I was given was a slap on the ass (So i could breath? yeah right! Torture!).. Fortunately, it got better and better over the years!

Yesterday, my friends all gathered to celebrate my first breath.
Setting? A small private room in a Japanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi (UAE) packed with 13 fun people all around a small table covered with sushis, sashimis and bottles of sake.
I had a truly wonderful birthday night thanks to them.

I left France 5 years ago to come back to the UAE for work. I was a "wreck".. I had gone through a depression, I had gained so much weight, I had lost my self-confidence.
Over those 5 years, I came to meet all those amazing people I am surrounded by today. They all gave me some of their love, they all gave me some of their time and they all helped me become the person I am today.
The best gift I have received was not the Tri-Jellyfisting Gorillapod (don't try to understand), not the NatGeo camera bag, not the small Icon from Ainteb.. Not even the 50D DSLR (you guys are insane! Thank you!)... The best gift was their presence, their smiles, their kind words and all the love they gave to me because today, I wouldn't be what I am without them.

I will miss you all, very much. And I will keep a part of each one of you with me in all my travels.

To all my friends in the UAE, to all my friends outside in the world or on internet: I love you all :)

And last but surely not least.. Thank you to my family, their support, their understanding and thank you parents for bringing me to this wonderful world!
You just could've beaten the crap out of that doctor who slapped me! ;)

Monday, August 17, 2009

How I learned to smell water...

Iceland is known to be an island with plenty of rivers and fresh pure water. One can never die of thirst in Iceland.

Unfortunately, luck wasn’t really on our side when 2 of my friends (Shaf and Nad) and I went trekking in August 2008. Not that we were dying of thirst mind you, it WAS raining all the time.. But the rivers on our path were far from being crystal clear sources of Life.. It was more like chocolate milky, muddy rivers!

We did have the equipment to filter the mud out but it was a long and painful process for just a few drops of clean water.

On the 5th day of our trek, hopping from shelter to shelter, we were running out of clean water to drink and cook with. We HAD to find a river and there was supposed to be one not far from the shelter. I secretly crossed my fingers hoping it wouldn’t be a magical source of Cappuccino again.

After hours of walking with our stinking wet clothes on, we reached the big, cold, lonely shelter and… Hallelujah! There was a plastic can full of clear water next to the entrance! I was already dreaming of a glass of fresh water with a gourmet dish of instant noodles mixed with mushroom cream powder soup (yum!).

We settled in the shelter, drank and drank, cleaned the tables (Why were there so many dead flies everywhere?) and started cooking. It was delicious…

Tired and happy, we went for a 2h nap before deciding to continue.

… Or not.

After waking up, my friend Nad went to drink some more water. One cup down, second in process… Wait a minute..
Guys, did you notice this water smells funny?”.

As my nose hesitantly reached the bottle, it all made sense.. The dead flies…

It smelled pesticide. We had been drinking an unknown amount of pesticide diluted in water!

Ok. How do you react? Images of us lying dead in this cold shelter, in the middle of nowhere, came rushing through my mind. This can’t be! I just turned 30 a week ago! I was too young to die! Not to mention in a stupid unheroic way!

We kept our calm.

Do you feel fine?” “Does your stomach hurt?
It had been more than 2 hours since we last ate and drank so we should have already been poisoned by now. I guess the amount of pesticide was quite low.

However, Nad (who drank much much more than us) felt some slight burning in his throat. It was time to act, move and find fresh water. FAST! Our last chance was the river on the map not far from the shelter.

As I was completely in pain, I stayed in the shelter while Shaf and Nad went to look for the river.
It was hard waiting in the dark, alone, wondering what happened to my friends and how Nad was feeling.

They eventually came back an hour or two later, with a little amount of water. The river was still muddy but they had to filter it again and Nad, feeling worse had to throw up to empty his stomach of the poison.

In the end, after making sure we were REALLY feeling better, we laughed about it. I guess we really got scared but it served us as a lesson: Smell before drinking! (Even if it’s water and it’s not supposed to have a smell!).

We made sure to put a warning sign on the can for any other thirsty trekkers. You never know.
We woke up the next morning early to finish our trek in ├×ingvellir and fill our stomach with hotdogs and 3 cups of hot chocolate EACH!

And it smelled good!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

You know you've been in the U.A.E. for too long when...

1- You don't even go buy groceries; you are only a phone call / honk away from delivery.
2- You only occupation during weekend nights is clubbing in the hypest nightclub.
3- You judge a person by his job.
4- You need a maid to clean your house / do the dishes / cook for you.
5- You find it normal to spend an hour looking for a parking spot (and end up parking on a sidewalk).
6- You have developed a huge ego and need everything to be the biggest/tallest/highest/prettiest/most expensive..
7- You find wearing a dress stylish (for men) and being covered in black from head to toe attractive (for women).
8- Eating in an small restaurant or Cafeteria is out of the question! (It's dirty, you need 5 star).
9- You know the meaning of the word "wasta" (and you have many).
10- Your social status is measured by your car model.
11- You automatically speak broken english/arabic when you face a south-asian looking person.
12- You smoke too much "medwakh" (local "tobacco" ... more like drug).
13- The best place to hang out on weekend afternoons is the mall.
14- You think flashing your lights while speeding will automatically clear the way in front of you.
15- You use your warning signals in your car when it's a little foggy.
16- You have no plans for the future. Daily routine is great!
17- You can't survive an hour without your phone.
18- When you spot a speed limit, your brain automatically adds 19km/h to it.
19- You drive with one foot up resting next to the steering wheel and play with your toes. (YUK!)
20- You accept any credit card / loan offer from any bank whether you need or need (or you can repay or not).

I guess it's time for me to run away before I end up spending tooooo much time in here! (Does anyone think that a total of 23 years in the UAE is enough already? ;) ).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Baalbeck - Lebanon

On Friday 24th of July, after so many years of traveling to Lebanon, I finally decided to visit the famous Roman temple of Baalbeck.

Along with my family, we set off in the morning for a 3h drive through various landscapes. That’s one of the advantages of Lebanon, a small country but with many different rich landscapes.
The first part of the road up to the central mountains was quite amazing: From the city of Bikfaya up to the “Bois de Boulogne” (also called Bologna). Although quite a hype place to live for the lebanese, this area still keeps its original feel with the same old style villas made of stone and red roofs. The area is also covered with forests of pine trees.
Bologna is nowadays known for peaceful retreats. It is a relatively quiet and relaxing place, with the smell of pine trees helping relieve asthma or respiratory problems.
During the Syrian occupation, this area was under their control, thus few Lebanese used to wander around. But now that the Syrians have left, the price of land sky rocketed. Many people cannot afford a home in this area. It is sad to see so many abandoned, crumbling old villas along the way.

After Bologna, we reached the top of the mountains with an amazing view on both sides. Looking west you can admire the Mediterranean Sea and looking East, you have the rich fields of the Bekaa, a flat valley between two mountain chains, an important agricultural area.

Driving back down and getting close to the city of Baalbeck, you can feel the striking difference between the areas. The Central part of Lebanon, where we started from , is under the control of Maronites Christian Lebanese, while the Baalbeck area is under the hands of the muslim Shiite Milicia, the Hezbollah. It is funny to notice the change of shop and commerce names. From French / English names in the Maronites area to Arabic or Islamic names in the Baalbeck area.
One thing that does not change in any area (sadly) is the cult of personality. Everywhere you have huge portraits of political leaders spoiling the landscape and flags hung on balconies representing the colors of the political parties. Nowhere almost can you see a proud Lebanese flag...

After a long drive, we finally reach the temple of Baalbeck.
Known as Heliopolis in ancient times, It’s among the largest temples of the Roman empire dedicated to Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and Bacchus. It’s maybe the biggest treasure of Lebanon.
I was upset to see that the city of Baalbeck was actually build around the ruins. Such a valuable treasure in the middle of busy streets, pollution and noise!

The other thing I found outrageous was the entrance: A Hezbollah yellow tent celebrating “victory” with loud patriotic music spilling from huge speakers. For God’s sake, this is a TOURISTIC place, a treasure of the Roman Empire! Please leave your politics and hatred to places where they belong, and certainly NOT in a roman temple.

We nevertheless entered to visit the place after paying the fees. On a side note, the entrance fees are written in Arabic only and are cheaper (7000 leb pounds ~ 4.6$) for arabs and lebanese than for foreign tourists that cannot read (12000 pounds ~ 8$). Completely unfair...

Although well preserved and quite big, I was expecting something much more impressive. Beautiful old temples, huge columns and amazing carvings in the stone lay around in a somewhat big mess, completely unprotected as I was noticed people climbing and jumping over them like big boulders.

It was nevertheless a majestic place, especially the well preserved temple of Bacchus.

One part of the temple was closed for the public as they were preparing for the yearly "Baalbeck Festival", with a big stage that was going to host a Deep Purple concert a few days later.

Fortunately, there were not many tourists around, mostly arab locals much more interested in taking souvenir photos with the Milicia’s yellow flags and Victory signs than the huge columns.
There is near the end of the exit a very nice small museum with many helpful information and timeline concerning the evolution of the temple.

Overall, I felt a bit disappointed. I was expecting much more: a huge temple, in an isolated place. The surroundings and politics kind of spoiled it for me. This is a cultural heritage, a treasure from the past, it should be treated that way. I personally prefer the smaller ruins of “Faqra” in central Lebanon. Much smaller, but isolated, in the mountains, away from big cities. You can just walk around, close your eyes and imagine living in ancient times, amongst the Romans.

Ah well, at least now I can say that I have visited Baalbeck.