Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Everglades

Since I am so far behind in my blogging, I am going to be playing catch up for the next little while. I still haven't finished writing about Israel, but I figured I'd give you a little taste of Florida. (As a side note, G and I broke up last month, so don't be confused when he is in a lot of the forthcoming pictures. This little adventure happened in May, and we were still dating then...)

I had to go to Miami to lay some people off at the end of May, and decided to plan it for when G was visiting so that we could go on a road trip. I love road trips. I don't love laying people off, but sadly I have had lots of practice, and am pretty darn good at it.

There are two ways to get to Miami--the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley. The Tamiami trail goes past lots of Indian reservations, and we took it on the way, and Alligator Alley goes right through the middle of the Everglades, and we took it on the way back. Alligator Alley is a strange road. There is a huge canal that runs along it, and you see gators all over--swimming along, laying on the banks, etc. There are lots of rest stops along the way to observe them, and a few gates like this one in case you want to step into the Everglades and go hunting. It was kind of eerie. It reminded me of "Lost."

Here are the canals that run all along. We didn't get any alligators in this shot, but trust me--they were there.
Apparently people dump bodies in the canal to get rid of the evidence. I'm pretty sure this truck was dumping bodies. I told G to let me pretend to take a picture of him so that I could get the license plate number in case I saw on the news that someone was missing. Not that I have a TV to watch the news, but I was trying to do my part to be a good citizen...
We took an airboat ride out to the Indian villages in the middle of the Everglades. You can see it behind us. Basically, it is a flat bottomed boat with a jet engine on back. The Everglades aren't very deep, but the boat can maneuver around on just a few inches of water. I loved the ride--there were tons of interesting birds, and there were allligators jumping out of the way of the boat all over. I think the Everglades are really beautiful, and I would definitely go back. Word to the wise--bring your own earplugs because that boat is noisy, and you might get stuck wearing the cotton they hand out to stuff in your ears...
We also went to the alligator wrestling show at the Indian reservation. Here are 10 things that I learned from the alligator wrestler:
1. There are over 1.5 million alligators in Florida.
2. They can weigh between 200 and 1500 pounds.
3. They have 80 teeth (40 on top and 40 on bottom).
4. Said teeth are hollow, and can grow back if broken.
5. The ridges on their backs (called scoots) act like solar panels, enabling an alligator to stay warm if he has to go down to deeper, colder water.
6. They hiss when they get mad or feel threatened, and it sounds kind of like a cat.
7. 1500 pounds square/inch. I have this written in my notes, but am not exactly sure what it means. I think this refers to the amount of force their jaw has, but I can't be sure. (This is what happens when you are trying to take notes and it's pouring rain and the only paper you have is a small gas receipt, and then you don't transpose the notes for 3 months.)
8. When an alligator has gotten into a scuffle with another gator in captivity, they have to keep them apart for several months. Alligators have very fragile egos, and good memories--if the gator who lost the fight were to see the winner on a daily basis, he would become very depressed and eventually die.
9. Before the wrestler stepped into the arena with the gators, he prayed and meditated and told the spirit of the alligator that he didn't mean any disrespect and was just trying to teach people about gators. That is how he avoided getting his head bit off.
10. If my career in HR doesn't work out, I am going to move to the reservation and try my hand at alligator wrestling--I think I've got some skills.
P.S. In case you're wondering, alligator meat isn't my favorite. It has a texture kind of like chicken, but tastes fishy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

2 weeks or 8 months. It's all the same, right?

For anyone who was worried that the alligator did, in fact, get me, rest assured I am alive and well. My two week hiatus turned into 8 months, but who's counting? In case anyone still reads this blog, I present to you a peace offering: a video. This is a new technological advancement for my blog (and still a little too advanced for me, since I didn't manage to get it right side up).

I have a coworker here who has become a dear friend. Her name is Robin, and I spend a lot of time with her and her family. She sends her husband to fetch me at the airport when I have a late flight. She feeds me dinner. She sends me home with leftovers. She keeps me sane at work. And her dad is teaching me to play the accordion.

His name is Gulio (pronounced jew-leo), but I just call him Gules (like jewels). Gules is quite tickled that anyone under the age of 65 would be interested in playing the accordion. He told me this weekend that if he was 27 he would marry me in a minute (this after Robin advised that I should never mention to any man that I was taking accordion lessons if I wanted to find another boyfriend). She told him that it would never work between the two of us because he would have to convert to Mormonism (Gules was raised Italian Catholic, but isn't religious anymore). He was quite adamant that he didn't care what it entailed--he would do whatever it took to win me over. How could I not love Gules?

So without further adieu, here is my accordion duet debut of "Let's Dance the Polka." Gules and I are already talking about open mic night at O'Brien's Pub...
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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I'll be back soon

I made it to Florida, but I am still getting settled in. JetBlue lost my bag (permanently), my POD was 2 days late, and there is a reportedly an alligator that lives in the pond behind my bedroom. I plan on blogging again soon, but I just got the internet hooked up in my apartment, and I need to hang things on my walls before I can post in good conscience. Give me 2 weeks. If you don't hear from my by then, maybe the alligator got me...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Israel: Hammat Gader

Hammat Gader was perhaps the most curious place that we visited. I tend to think that hot springs and alligator farms and parrot shows should be housed in separate venues, but that's just me.

Even the drive there was interesting. We had to go through the Golan Heights, where a lot of fighting has taken place with Syria and Jordan (which could be seen to either side of us). There were short cement walls every few miles that were meant to hide behind if either of the two countries started shooting at you while you were en route. There were also 2 fences with minefields in between. There used to be 11 bridges connecting the countries, but the Israeli army blew them up all in the same night because they didn't want to be connected to Arab countries. The blown out bridges really contributed to the ambiance. Once you get through the war zone, you end up at Hammat Gader, a hot springs that was the second largest Roman bath during the Roman Empire (after Naples).

I'll tell you something about hot springs. They stink like rotten eggs, therefore you stink like rotten eggs for the rest of the day.
I'll tell you something else. They are not chlorinated. I am kind of afraid of public bathing facilities that lack chemicals. If I die from a strange illness sometime in the near future, I'll bet I picked it up in the cloudy water.
Once we were done in the hot springs, we headed to the alligator farm. In the true spirit of the Middle East, there were very few safety considerations, and no officials to keep us from jumping over the waist high floating walkway into the water with the alligators. There were, however, signs.
Most of the alligators looked like this. Obviously, they've gotten lazy, and are hoping that if they just lay around with their mouths open, something tasty will wander in.
At the end of the alligator farm there was a parrot show. Hammat Gader just kept getting better. It was perhaps one of the most entertaining events I have ever attended. I love the fact that it was entirely in Hebrew. I also loved the fact that we beat all of the kids to the front row seats so that we had a good view. Despite my dislike of birds, I had to admit that these birds had skills. Like roller skating skills.
And scootering skills.
They also did puzzles, gave kisses, rode bikes, and myriad other things. Unfortunately, we ran out of time for the petting zoo that we found on our way to meet the bus. Because really, what's a hot springs/alligator farm/parrot show without a petting zoo? Maybe next time...

P.S. I've got videos of the birds in action, but I am too technically challenged to post them here. I guess that means that you'll just have to visit me if you want to see them. Did I mention that I'm moving to Tampa, FL? Probably not, because I am trying to post about Israel before I move on to other things. I leave Bahrain in 4 days, but I will probably be posting about it well into March.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Israel: Tel Aviv

Our first stop was Tel Aviv. Cristina and I had the afternoon to explore on our own, since the rest of our group was not arriving until dinnertime. Tel means artificial mound in Hebrew. Aviv means spring. So Tel Aviv is supposed to signify the old and the new. The city is 100 years old, and boasts the highest concentration of Jews in the world.

My favorite thing about Tel Aviv was the beautiful promenade that stretched for several miles down the Mediterranean coast. We had a great time watching the public dance lessons, the men playing a tennis-like game without a net, the groups of people meeting to eat and talk at the cafes, and the families out for a walk together. The people seemed happy and I was surprised at all of the PDA (that is something you don't see very often in Bahrain, unless of course you count all of the Indian men who hold pinkies and swing their arms as they walk down the street. This is cultural thing for them, and not a sign of homosexuality). The architecture wasn't my favorite, but what they lacked in design, they made up for in rainbow colored paint.
There were beautiful flower bushes everywhere. I loved these yellow and pink ones (this was the most focused picture I had).
There were plenty of places for people to sit down along the way. I love this awning, and since I hate to take pictures with no people in them, Cristina graciously posed for me.
Tel Aviv apparently has a problem with stray cats. They were EVERYWHERE. I'm not exaggerating. I wonder if Jews don't like cats. Most Muslims don't like dogs because they think were created out of the spit of Satan. But I digress. On the rocky parts of the beach, there were lots of fishermen with the longest poles I have ever seen.
We caught the sunset through the clouds. At this point I was accosted by a couple who wanted their picture with the sunset. I spent about 5 minutes trying to get the picture right, because the man was very particular about what he wanted, and kept telling me my pictures weren't good enough. I told him perhaps he should think about hiring a photographer if he was going to be so anal. Just kidding. I thought it though. We walked all the way to Jaffa, which is an artist colony on the hill. Jaffa (also called Jappa in the Bible) is pronounced "yaffo" and is one of the few mixed cities in Israel. And by mixed, I mean that Muslims and Jews live together, wheras most cities are either inhabited by one group or the other. It is a very important port city, and has been for it's 3,000 year existence. All of the timbers for Solomon's temple were lashed together and floated here from Lebanon. It is also where Jonah left on a boat before he got swallowed by the whale.

There were a lot of vendors selling interesting things in the square in front of the church, and we spent quite a bit of time perusing (and purchasing) their wares. In fact, we spent so much time at one booth that the woman got our life stories. She then announced to me that she "really had to pee" and wondered if I would watch her shop for her while she found a restroom. I guess I have an honest face, because I certainly wouldn't leave my shop with some girl I had just met. Her advice to me "just watch their hands." I don't think there was any shoplifting going on while I was in charge. Then she wanted to take a picture with me. Please notice our fanny packs. I really wish that the fanny pack would come back in to style. I am tired of carrying a purse.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Israel: The Dead Sea

For a good time, visit the Dead Sea.

Reason #1: Nothing lives in it. There will be no strange plants wrapping around your ankles, and no hungry fish trying to take a nibble out of your toe. Thus, the things that I dislike most about lakes and oceans are resolved immediately.

Reason #2: There is no effort required. Sit back, and float. Consciously try NOT to float, and you will fail. Lay on your stomach and put your hands and feet in the air. You can't sink. This is because the Dead Sea has a 35% salinity rate, while your average ocean has around a 3.5% salinity rate.

Reason #3: It is fully stocked with mud. Not only is it fun to play with, it apparently holds many benefits for your skin. Benefits or not, we had a great time smearing it all over ourselves.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Israel: What we ate

Food is always a good place to start. In short: If you don't like garbanzo beans, you probably shouldn't visit Israel. I happen to love garbanzo beans, and was perfectly happy to eat them in different forms 2-3 times daily.

First, you should know that every hotel we stayed in was kosher. For those of you not up on the kosher rules, it involves a whole lot more than not eating pork. I got a pretty good grasp of kosher from my days living in New York. Someday I'll tell you about my Orthodox Jewish friends and coworkers, and my neighbor Naked Charlie (who wasn't Jewish, but liked to use the Jewish ambulance service). But I digress. Here are the basic kosher rules (keeping in mind that I'm a gentile, and in no way the authority on this):
  • Observant Jews can only eat animals that have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Pigs have cloven hooves, but don't chew their cud, hence the pork ban. Animals also have to be killed in a Rabbi certified facility in a ritual manner. According to the Torah, the animal must not suffer any pain, so it has to be rendered unconscious instantaneously and die immediately. Then the forbidden fats, blood and veins are removed, and it is further prepared.
  • Observant Jews can eat fish, but only fish with fins and scales. That means no shrimp, lobster, mussels, etc. Fish is not considered meat, and can be eaten with dairy.
  • Observant Jews cannot combine meat and dairy at any time. And not only can they not combine the foods, but the utensils used to prepare and eat the two must not touch. My Orthodox Jewish friend invited me to dinner at her house once, and she had two sets of everything in her kitchen (dishes, silverware, even a high chair tray for her baby). I think that she also had two refrigerators, and possibly two ovens (it's a little hazy). After you eat meat, you have to wait between 1 and 6 hours before eating dairy (depending on which sect you follow), but after eating dairy, you can eat meat right after. If I was Jewish, I think that might encourage me to eat dessert first...
  • There are many processed foods that use ingredients like whey (which is often made using a tiny bit of milk) which could contaminate a product like bread, making it unfit for eating with a meat meal. That is why Rabbinical associations have to certify EVERYTHING before an observant Jew can eat it. There are kosher stamps of approval on things you eat every day, but you probably didn't know that the U with a circle around it meant certified kosher. If you're interested, you can see all of the symbols used here.
Now that everyone is clear on the kosher rules, you will have a much better understanding of our daily buffets. Breakfast was the dairy buffet, which included eggs, toast, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cold chopped up fish (which I never sampled to tell you if it was any good). There was also plenty of cheese, pickled salads, vegetables, and of course hummus. Americans differentiate breakfast from every other meal of the day, and we think that other people are strange for eating lunchmeat in the morning. Curry and rice for breakfast? I think not. It turns out that we're the weird ones. Everyone else eats the same food for breakfast that they eat at any other time of the day. My American ways got the better of me, and I just stuck to the muesli and yogurt.

For lunch we usually had falafel (ground up garbanzo beans mixed with spices and bread crumbs, shaped into balls and deep fried, then put into a pita with vegetables and an assortment of salad). Here I am loving me a falafel (after eating so many, I now consider myself a conossieur of falafel). When we were staying at the Sea of Galilee (which is really a lake), we went to dinner at a kibbutz (which is like a small town or settlement). When I asked a member of the kibbutz what exactly it was, she told me it was "like communism." Basically, it is communal rural living. When they first gained popularity, nobody got a paycheck, and everything was collective. This included the children. If you had a child, you didn't name it, the kibbutz council did. The child didn't live with you, but it lived in a house according to it's age (all the 3-year olds in one house, etc.). Now it has evolved a bit, so people have some personal property. You have to be voted in, and if you are not a member, you have to pay a non-member fee to live there. The girl I talked to said that both of her parents were members of the Ein Gev kibbutz, but that she had no intention of joining. Anyway, Ein Gev kibbutz was right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (now called Lake Kinneret), and they served St. Peter's fish (one of the tilapia species). Biologists have confirmed that this fish has not evolved much at all, and it has been around since the time of Jesus.

I generally avoid fish with their heads and scales still attached, but I figured it would be an adventure.
I thought I did a pretty good job of eating my fish (minus the skin).
Then I saw Cristina's fish.
Besides the kibbutz night, every other evening was spent at the meat dinner buffet. I generally don't like buffets, and am especially skeptical of mass produced meat, but I was very happy to stick the peripheries and get my fill of good salads, hummus, and soup. I found some new favorite salads that I am going to try and make when I get home.
First we have shredded carrot and cilantro salad. It doesn't look good, but looks can be deceiving sometimes. Next we have my very favorite, which I like to call avocado goodness. We only had this one night, but it was divine (despite looking like throw up). It had cubed avocado, red pepper, tomato, onion, cilantro, and diced lemon (which I think was the secret ingredient to give it the great texture). And finally, we have cabbage salad. Cabbage salad is a new favorite for me. The one here is somewhat sweet, with a dressing that tasted like cream (but couldn't be, since it was at the meat buffet). The other variety I liked was slightly pickled and sour tasting.

Besides the buffets, I also ate Jewish bagels (very good), kosher pizza (also very good) and some ice cream that our tour director said was the best he had ever had (I learned that the tour director doesn't have very developed taste buds, and never went on another one of his recommendations).

And the best part about the food? The fact that when I got home and stepped on the scale, I had not gained any weight. Take that buffets.

Israel: Part 1

I wasn't sure I was going to make it to Israel with my sanity intact. The few days before I left were crazy and stressful; I was working late, trying to finish my Christmas shopping, scouring the stores for thermal underwear (which was no small feat--I finally outfitted myself in a pair from the little boy's department), unsuccessfully trying to get packed, and throwing together a Sunday School lesson, as I had to teach a few hours before my flight left. It was not a fun send off.

My hotel provided me with a courtesy airport drop-off, which was a pleasant surprise. The driver assumed that I was flying 1st class, and tried to take me to the 1st class terminal, but I told him I was headed for the economy terminal just in time for him to slam on the brakes and get me to right curb. He loaded my luggage on a cart, and I was off.

The Bahrain airport is an interesting experience, especially when you are flying to Israel. First, you wait in line for your bags to be scanned. Once they are scanned, they put a band around each bag so that you cannot open it again. Then you take all of your banded bags to the ticket counter. Despite the fact that I had my e-ticket confirmation, they could not find my reservation. The first problem was that they assumed I was going to London (by this point, the white stereotypes were starting to get old). I was, in fact, going to Jordan, I told them. They yelled back and forth down the aisle at each other, until finally a supervisor came over, and told me that I had to go to customer service. I will spare you the back and forths, but let's just say that it took me about 45 minutes to get checked in, despite the fact that there were only about 3 customers to be helped. I learned that this is what happens when Bahrain doesn't want you to go to Israel, because they hate Israel. When you try to be sneaky and fly through Jordan, you have to code share the first leg of your flight with Gulf Air, and that causes all sorts of problems (and you get a lot of dirty looks and decreased service as soon as they see that your final destination is Tel Aviv).

Then it was off to passport control. In Bahrain, every flight is an international flight. After a long line, and a quick stamp of the passport, I endured another x-ray screaning of my carry-on luggage, I then I was free in the terminal. I really appreciated the fact that I didn't have to take off my shoes, or my coat.

But my shoes were starting to give me blisters, which is not a good sign when you are only 2 hours into your trip, so I took them off at the terminal. It turns out that one is a size 9 and the other is a size 10. My feet are size 8.5. I'm not sure how I didn't catch the difference, but I guess that's what happens at the TJ Maxx clearance racks. Soon my friend Cristina showed up, and before we knew it, they were announcing the final call for our flight. I was still trying to get a hold of our travel agent to find out who was picking us up in Tel Aviv, but we rushed to the gate, only to be some of the very first people on the plane. It turns out that in Bahrain, "final call" really means first call.

The sad thing about our situation is the fact that if we could have flown directly to Tel Aviv, we could have been there in under 3 hours. But we got the pleasure of an 8 hour overnight layover in Amman, Jordan. I can safely say that the Reno airport is no longer the worst airport I have ever had the unfortunate experience of laying over in.

It was a very long night, and after the first hour, I pointed out to Cristina that had we flown to Jordan and then rented a car and driven to Tel Aviv, we could have been there and back in the time that we would be waiting. After about 3 hours, we managed to find the haven of Starbucks. Not only did they have comfortable chairs that could be pushed together to make small beds, but they had powerful overhead lighting which kept us warm, chamomile tea to keep us calm, and very friendly staff (which is a rarity around here).
Our Tel Aviv destination was not a popular one in Jordan, either. First of all, they changed the gate we would be leaving from, and didn't bother to make an announcement or change it on the screens (like they had for every other flight that had been changed). Second of all, security wouldn't let us through to our gate, when we finally figured out where we had to be. I thought I was going to witness a riot or a stampede when everyone flying to Tel Aviv was facing off with the security guard who wouldn't let us in, and wouldn't get his manager for us to speak to about why he wouldn't let us in. At about the point it was going to get physically violent, the security guard wised up and let us through. Then they changed our gate again, and we were also delayed for no good reason for about an hour. All I can say is no wonder there are tensions in the Middle East. Seriously.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I'll bet that your Christmas party didn't...

Just when I thought that I'd seen everything, that Bahrain could no longer surprise me, I attended the church Christmas party the week before my trip to Israel. Wow. I think it would be pretty safe to say that there were some rather unique elements to it. For example, I'll bet that your nativity didn't feature angels wearing hospital gowns and garland, wise men bearing gifts of a potted plant, a plastic toy house, and an another unidentified object, a Jesus made of random bits of newspaper wrapped in a paper towel, and a Mary who had a good 6 inches on Joseph (and failed to crack a smile all night).
I would also wager that the children at your party didn't favor guests with a rather sexual dance to Flo-Rida's "Shorty Got Low." I'm not sure where they learned their moves, as MTV is definitely not an approved channel over here. I would post the lyrics for those of you who are not familiar with the song, but my mom reads this blog, and I don't think she would approve.

And finally, I'll bet that you didn't arrive at your party with a trunk and a back seat filled to the brim with pads (or sanitary napkins, as the Brits like to call them). We were doing a service project for the abused housemaids who ran away to the Filipino embassy, and I volunteered to buy 86 packages of pads for the hygiene kits we were putting together. Let's just say that I got PLENTY of odd looks and comments (in Arabic and Tagalog) when I made not one, not two, but three trips to three different grocery stores, and filled my shopping cart completely each time with packages of pads. I imagine that when my 12-year old Brit friend Josh asked me if I needed help with anything, he had no idea I would make him unload the pads from my car. He didn't even complain. And that, my friends, is true Christmas spirit (which I am happy to report was abounding at our party, despite it's oddities).

Friday, January 2, 2009

A lesson in customer service

People in the Middle East are not familiar with the addage that "the customer is always right." In fact, if they had a mantra, I imagine it would be something like, "the customer is always wrong, and you should tell her she is wrong (repeatedly), until she proves to you that 1) she is right, and 2) she will speak to your manager if you cannot manage to see that she is right; at which point you should deny ever speaking with her and then solve her problem immediately."

While I realize that Bahrain does not get cold by most world standards, when you are used to over 100 degree heat, temperatures in the 40s and 50s feel downright frigid. As the nights began getting colder and colder, affecting my ability to sleep, I decided that something needed to be done. I couldn't get my thermostat to give me warm air, and I determined that it was broken. After 3 phone calls to the front desk, maintenance finally came to look at it (twice) and said they would get back to me, which they never did. After a 4th phone call to the front desk, when I managed to speak with someone who knew that no number of maintenance visits was going to solve my problem, it was revealed that there was no central heat in my hotel. That would have been nice to know after my first phone call. I explained to the woman on the phone that I would need a space heater, as my apartment was too cold to provide for my comfort. She told me that that was impossible, as all of the space heaters were in use. I told her that was fine, but I expected them to purchase more so that I had one by the next night. She told me that the chances of that happening were slim, but that she would double check with maintenance to see if they could find an extra heater. Since she never bothered to call me back, I called the front desk a 5th time, and spoke to a man who told me that there were plenty of heaters, but their policy was that long term guests could not use them, as they were only for short term guests. As you can imagine, that didn't exactly go over well with me. I told him that I would need to speak with his manager, which he told me wasn't possible until after the weekend.

The next day I decided to try my luck with the front desk in person. I informed the woman that I knew about their policy, but that since there were extra heaters, I would appreciate her sending one to my apartment until I had a chance to speak with the management. She refused, but told me that she agreed that the policy was stupid and encouraged me to speak with management.

Later that afternoon, I came back from running errands, and happened to see the manager at the reception desk. After explaining to him the many reasons I found his policy to be completely ridiculous, informing him that my comfort should be his number one priority, and letting him know that I was happy to escalate my issues to a higher level of management, he agreed to send me a heater, but told me he would need 2-3 days. He also told me that they had no such policy regarding long term guests, which was clearly a lie, because the next day at work I had the man who makes lodging arrangements call the hotel management office to make sure that I would have a heater by that evening, and they again told him that it was not their policy, but that they would make an exception for me. The next morning, a heater was delivered to my door, and I have been toasty warm ever since. I realize that this is a very long, tedious, and somewhat boring story, but that is what most customer service experiences are like for me and I didn't want to deprive you of the full experience...