Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quiet, for now

Streets are quiet and we have a new Prime Minister, nominated by the democractically elected majority, approved by the President. Hecka tall billionaire Najib Mikati (apparently you don't have to be tall but you do have to be a billionaire), is Sunni as required by the constitution. The US spin is that Mikati is the Hezbollah candiate, and that the whole new government is Hezbollah-led (not true, though their huge and powerful private army is hard to ignore) and that US aid to Lebanon will be discontinued. That may not be such a big deal, as the aid is microscopic compared to that given to our neighbor to the south. The French are more pragmatic, and the EU "urges Mikati to seek the widest possible concensus" in forming a government. Which he has vowed to do.

But the Hariri assasination tribunal report will rear its ugly head again soon, the new govenrment having vowed to quash it and the old government, backed by the US and France, vowing to air it. That is currently scheduled to happen Feb. 7.

For now, schools and shops and banks and traffic and nonstop building construction are normal.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The heat is on in Lebanon

Sigh. Here is the thing: what you probably hear in the US is all about Prime Minister Hariri vs. Hezbollah and about justice being done in finding the perpetrators of the assassination of Hariri's sainted father. Well it just isn't that simple. Hariri is an old boy billionaire (with all his money safely away in Saudi Arabia) who enjoys endless US (and usually French) backing. The other side, which is now the majority, does include Hezbollah but has a huge Christian bloc who are tired of the old boy ineffective government.

Last week, the Druze swithced sides to join the opposition, tipping the balance so that "the opposition" is now the majority. In a democractic government, the majority should be allowed to vote on its leader, the Prime Minister, right? Isn't that the democracy the US stands for?

But as of today we have the first burning tire roadblocks of major highways and a massive strike--all by Hariri supporters who don't like the moderate candidate who has been brought forward by the opposition to replace Hariri as prime minister. He has previously served as Prime Minister and has pledged fairness and openess, and is even approved of by France. But here's the rhetoric from the US:"US warns of leading Hezbollah role in new government".

The root of this is the Tribunal looking at the assassination. The Tribunal may or may not be flawed, but as the Druze leader said several months ago,with so much at stake (i.e. peace), is it worth it to pursue??

Many people we know--smart, well educated, worldy, and mostly Christian--voted for the opposition. They don't like Hezbollah, but they don't like Hariri either.

Will cooler heads prevail? Well, you would have hoped the sitting govenrment would not act rashly, but they are the ones lighting tires on fire. Fortunately the Lebanese Army, amazingly neutral and composed of all sectors of the population, is going around breaking up the roadblocks and putting out the fires.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beirut to Baku, or Can you spell Azerbaijan?

We've done it. Signed on with the International School of Azerbaijan for next year. Goodbye Beirut.

A huge pay raise made the choice a lot easier. We love crazy Beirut, and K had been offered an ESL teaching position here. But at Baku (photo at right--looks a lot like Beirut!), T alone will make what he and K together would make in Beirut. And K can hopefully find some ESL work in Baku. The school also offers better benefits, like yearly R&R to London--how civillised!

On the Caspian Sea and within handy travel distance of Turkey, the "Stans" , all of Asia and even Europe (same cost to fly there as from Beirut), it is an intriguing place!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tutoring fun, and ho hum political drama

A kind friend sent a referral my way: someone in "fashion" who was going to be going to the US later this month for "a festival or something" and who would be meeting "cinema people" and wanted to brush up on his conversational English. She had even arrnged a fee considerably higher than my usual for tutoring.

I arranged to meet him. He had a car sent. It pulled up in front of his shop in a trendy area of town, his name in large letters engraved on a brass plaque outside. Oh my. I am buzzed in. Gowns. Gowns and fancy lights.

A very nice perosn. Very gay. I ask him what his plans are and what he wants to work on. "You are going to the States," I say. "Yes," he says, "to Los Angeles, to the Grammys. I am hoping some of the stars will be wearing my gowns." Oh my.

Being wildly uninformed on fashion and LA culture, I send emergency emails to my friend Leslie in LA, a former model. Suggestions roll in and the sessions go well. He particularly enjoys a tape of an LA radio traffic report as a listening exercise... I will be helping him practice for the interviews he expects to have and presentations he will make. Fun!

Hezbollah has left the coalition government. Sigh. Honestly, parliament has been so ineffective anyway you have to wonder if it will make much difference. Lebanon is so pressed by outside interests. The US and France want the report on the Rafic Hariri assassination released and Syria and Iran don't, because Hezbollah may be implicated. And the fragile consociational form of government unique to Lebanon has 14 diferent "confessions" = religious parties, sharing power and, well, too many cooks. And then we have Israel, which lost no time stepping up its illegal overflights of Lebanon the day after the gov't fell. Vultures, too early for a feast.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sri Lanka

Gorgeous hill country, loads of ancient ruins, idyllic beaches, lovely people, few tourists—wow!

Care for a Kik Cola, or some Munchee biscuits? Or Smak brand water? Maybe skip a visit to the “Quasi Court” and the “Neo Pharmacy”? [above, Cam with a Kik; Ben with buffalo curds with fruit and honey]

T notices a place of business for a “Justice of the Peace and unofficial magistrate”. (Perhaps he works at the Quasi Court)


The plan was for T and K to arrive on December 22, and the boys the 25th.

T and I arrive at 5 am the 22nd, and make our way from the airport to a shuttle bus and then to a city bus to Colombo train station. Two hours! Finally, a train south to Galle, walled city on the coast. We have to stand for a couple of hours on the crowded train. Drooping energy. Finally a man offers me his seat--Ahhhh.

An entrance through the city walls in Galle fort:

In Galle we see Portuguese and Dutch churches, and a couple of museums. That's about it. We stay at Mrs. Khaled’s guesthouse, where we are locked in (or out) at night and signs on the bedroom door ask us to refrain from consuming alcohol or other intoxicants.

Returning the 24 to Colombo by train, K shows no mercy battling through passengers trying to get off, in order to secure seats. She is successful, and only very slightly bruised.

Colombo sprawls and holds little appeal, but we wait there for the boys to arrive from NY. And wait. And wait. There unfolds an unbelievable story of Kuwait Airlines’ ineptitude and appalling customer service. A saga UNRELATED to the weather. Instead of arriving Christmas morning at 5 am, Kuwait Air did not hold the Colombo plane for them for 20 minutes, but put them up in a hotel Christmas Eve., kept them all Christmas Day before deciding there was no room on the evening flight to Colombo and sent them instead to southern India, where there was no ongoing flight and they were kept in an immigration holding area without food, water or communication for 8 hours, then sent on to Dubai. In Dubai, airport staff (not Kuwait Air) are shocked at the treatment they have received at the hands of Kuwait Air and plead with Kuwait Air to do the right thing and get them on another airline or bump them to Business Class to get them to Colombo. But no, it is back to Kuwait. There had been four other people stranded with them, trying to get to Colombo. One bailed at an early point and spent $600 to take a Business Class flight. Another was due to be married on the 26th and had to postpone his wedding! All this time we waited anxiously in Colombo, with no idea where they were or when they would arrive. We had to change hotel reservations and rework trip plans. Finally, on the 27th they arrived, four days after leaving NY. It took a further two days for their bags to catch up with them.

T and I spent the limbo time seeking out internet cafes to check whether there had been any word from the boys, and trying in vain to call Kuwait Air. We were in a very nice hotel, the Galle Face, which helped distract us, and staff were very helpful with our predicament.

We witness from a distance a gala Christmas program for children at the hotel. In a distracted daze we catch a few wildly inappropriate tunes they are playing on the canned music reel, such as “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow?” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head”. Everything is just a little bit bizarre.

The hotel is expensive; we have Christmas dinner in a shopping mall food court—depressing!

At last we learn B and C have landed, then several hours pass and they still don’t arrive. I decide they have been kidnapped, or in a dreadful accident. Thankfully not, it’s just that the driver has mistakenly driven toward Galle in the south instead of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. They do arrive, in one (well, two) piece and it is a joyous reunion indeed.

We take a train to Kandy later that day, in reserved seats--Yay. We visit the cave temples at Dambulla and the amazing Lion Rock at Sigiriya. The “rock” is actually an ancient magma plug of an old volcano, which has worn away. Just juts up 1200 feet from the flat plain around it.

We sleep in a very basic guesthouse under pink and green mosquito nets, and breakfast on an elevated platform with a stunning view of the rock.

On the way back to Kandy we visit an Ayurvedic herb and spice garden, and see how cinnamon, pepper, cardamom and vanilla grow—neat!

At Kandy we visit Temple of the Tooth. Our guesthouse is on a hill overlooking Kandy’s lovely lake. The city is wedged between the lake and surrounding hills.

On a third class train to Ella, in hill country, a six hour journey, we have been unable to get reserved seats. A kind man puts his young son on his lap so that I can sit. T, B and C stand… A six hour journey that takes seven, but we all get to sit after about four. Fabulous views of hills, tea plantations on the way.

The next day, New Year’s Eve, we hike to a tea factory.

January 1st, the guesthouse serves us delicious squares of milk rice, rice cooked in coconut milk—a New Year’s must. He tells us it is good fortune on this day to meet a beggar, a child or a mentally ill person, for their heats are pure and free from anger. Hs son with the beaming smile will do nicely.

We head south from Ella to the beach and our last two days together, sniff sniff. In a bus along the coast, we are grateful that we had managed to find a taxi for the bulk of the journey from hill country. By the first stop on the bus there are no seats left and about five people standing. The small luggage rack holds four large speakers, each nearly 2 feet long, belting out music. The driver zips through curves in the road so fast I am sure it is only our over-packed bulk that keeps us from tipping. But we have made it to the coast and we are together and that is good.

Rice fields, palm trees, tuktuks, stands selling coconuts and papayas. 44,000 people were swept away by the tsunami six years ago. There are many graveyards—are they only markers, I wonder?

We swim, snorkel and walk barefoot along the beach to dine at the Antarctic View CafĂ©. We are served bottled water with the label: “American Water-- Just Drink It”

There is a fairly large police presence in Sri Lanka, and orderly traffic, unlike Lebanon which has police but no order.

Hard to leave Ben and Cam, who have a few more days here to dive and drink Lion Lager on the beach before they head to Los Angeles and Paris, respectively.