Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shark dive in Dubai Aquarium

While attending the TESOL Arabia 2011 conference in Dubai, I made a quick rendezvous to the Dubai Mall on Thursday, March 10. Despite being a great opportunity to ride the Dubai metro for the first time, considering my phobia for shopping malls, this may have seemed a rather strange choice to spend the day. However, the real reason was to go scuba diving in the mall’s eye-catching aquarium. A 40-minute dip with the sea-creatures costs a whopping 625 Emirati dirhams (US $170). But perhaps the biggest catch (and one I only found out about when I arrived to check in) is that NO UNDERWATER CAMERAS are permitted! After much internal mental debate, I finally decided to go ahead and dive, and my brother Dusty agreed to do the camera-work using my Sony Eriksson mobile phone. In the end, I guess it was all worth it. The world’s largest world's "largest acrylic panel" is filled with some 33,000 marine animals. Amongst these being all sort of sting rays, napoleon humpheads, sand tiger sharks, lemon sharks, guitar fish, etc. , etc…. and of course one of my all-time favorite animals, the hammerhead shark! Check out the video that Dusty shot below, musical accompaniment provided by MGMT, “Siberian Breaks”.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Guns n' Roses & FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi 2010

Dubai has long been known as the “Las Vegas of the Middle East” – a city of commerce, culture and a city that never sleeps, where you can find whatever you want whenever you want. However, Dubai’s claim as the entertainment capital of the region is now facing some fierce competition for that tribute from their neighbors next door. Country-capital city Abu Dhabi’s star has been rapidly rising over the last decade, especially with the addition of artificial island projects such as the Yas Island Formula One Grand Prix and the Saadiyat Island project, soon-to-be home to the world’s largest Guggenheim and Love Museums. With all these new venues comes the ability to host bigger and better events and I was lucky enough to catch two in the span of three days in December – the Guns n’ Roses concert at Yas Arena on December 16th and the FIFA world club cup final two days later.

I flew in from Qatar immediately after work for the GnR show, met at the airport by my brother Dusty and wife Gulya. Although I flew in with ample time to make the show, the fiasco that was the Yas Island parking organization did its best to try and make us late. After finally finding a spot though, we managed to get into the venue just before the opening track. Guns n’ Roses were a band that I had desperately wanted to see as a teenager but never had the chance due mainly to my upbringing in the Middle East. So it was somewhat ironic and surreal even that here I was finally seeing the band live in Abu Dhabi of all places. Although Axl Rose is the only remaining member of the band, this was not a show I was going to miss.

The thing about Guns n Roses is that you really never know what you’re going to get with them live. Sometimes they’re on, sometimes they’re off, sometimes they don’t even show up at all as Axl is notorious for showing up late to gigs, storming off stage, or not even showing up at all sometimes. Fortunately, Axl n’ co. came out with all guns blazing and tore through an awesome 3-hour 25-song show that left the crowd mesmerized. Despite all the years of rock n’ roll excess, Axl sounds better than ever and while many may dismiss the rest of the band as simply “Axl n’ Friends” on performances like this - I consider it more, “Guns n’ Roses 2.0”. I may be one of the few who quite enjoyed Chinese Democracy, so I was quite pleased with the way the new tracks blended in with the classic GnR tunes.

The FIFA world club championship final turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax. Prior to 2010, the world club cup final had 100% always been played between the champions of Europe and their South American counterparts. This might have had something to do with the fact that the European and South American champions were the only two teams that actually played in the tournament up until the turn of the millennium. Nevertheless, despite all other continental champions taking part for the last decade, the European and South American champions always duly prevailed to the final. This year Italy’s F.C. Internazionale Milano were due to meet Brazil’s Sport Club Internacional, making the 2010 club world cup final an Inter v Inter affair. However, DR Congo’s TP Mazembe hadn’t read the script and in a David vs. Goliath like feat defeated the Brazilian Internacional in the semi-finals, making this the first ever Europe vs. Africa final affair.

While that may have given the historic final a special air of romanticism about it, the game itself was effectively over within the first quarter of an hour. That’s how long it took Inter Milan to storm off to a 2-0 lead with goals by Pandev and Eto’o. Mazembe were never going to recover from that and Inter Milan easily won 3-0 in a vulgar display of power. The 3rd placed game, played immediately before the final was a similarly one-sided affair with Internacional beating South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 4-2 with D’Allessandro scoring twice. The great thing about football though, and especially about tournaments like this, is that it truly is the world’s game and it may not always the players on the pitch that entertain you the most, it can sometimes be provided by the supporters in the stand and that was definitely the case here. Inter Milan brought their ultras who brought their banners and even flares. The Congolese fans, despite watching their team thoroughly beaten provided plenty of color, displaying traditional Congolese dance and dress. Ironically, the biggest and loudest bunch was the Brazilian contingent who sportingly stayed after the 3rd place match to watch the final, despite their team not even playing in it. All this ensured that Abu Dhabi was transformed into a “paradise city”… well, for that weekend at least.

Set list:
Chinese Democracy, Welcome to the Jungle, It’s So Easy, Mr. Brownstone, Sorry, Richard Fortus Guitar Solo, Live and Let Die, This I Love, Better, Rocket Queen, Dizzy Reed Piano Solo, Street of Dreams, You Could be Mine, Dj Ashba Guitar Solo, Sweet Child O’Mine, Another Brick in the Wall/Axl Piano Solo, November Rain, Bumblefoot Guitar Solo, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Whole Lotta Rosie, Night Train. Encore: Don’t Cry, Patience, Madagascar, Paradise City

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seychelles 2010 - Mahe & La Digue Islands

They say there are two ways in life to get to heaven – one is to live a life of purity, staying clear of sin, and the other option is to just buy a plane ticket to the Seychelles. Without trying to compromise the former, I decided just to be on the safe side to try the latter as well. So for my 2010 Eid Al Adha vacation, I decided to take advantage of Qatar Airways’ direct flight from Doha to the Seychelles and check out this much-fancied archipelago of earthly delights.

This was actually my second consecutive trip to this region, having travelled to nearby Mauritius the previous year’s Eid break. Although the Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion do share many commonalities; most notably they’re all wrapped into one Lonely Planet Guidebook – they’ve all got their own distinctive flavor. Reunion is still a French colony and will probably appeal more for serious mountaineers than scuba divers. Mauritius is very much a compact, single-island state which harmoniously integrates French, English, Creole, African and Indian cultures. The Seychelles on the other hand is an archipelago distinctive for its many islands’ granite rock formation. The tranquil scenery created by this distinctive geological feature has made the Seychelles one of the world’s most romantic honeymoon destination spots. Like Mauritius, another lure the islands have for travellers is scuba diving – which was the main draw card for yours truly.
Although the Seychelles is notorious for being exceptionally expensive, travelling on a more modest budget is becoming increasingly easier as a variety of guesthouses and midrange accommodation options are continuously sprouting up in order to diversify the country’s tourism industry. I chose the reputable Georgina’s Cottage in Beau Vallon and arranged an airport pickup from my hosts as I arrived in the wee-hours of morning in Victoria. The sleepy town of Beau Vallon is located on the northwest coast of Mahe, by far the Seychelles largest and most populated island – and is the base to some of the Seychelles’ signature dive sites, including the Shark Bank and Dragon’s Teeth. I booked two days of diving with a local dive center, Ocean Dream Divers and they guaranteed and duly delivered excellent dives at the aforementioned sites - as well as a couple of sites closer to shore. Oddly enough the Shark Bank was completely bare of sharks when we dove, but we did still see plenty of other exotic sea-creatures including schools of barracuda, giant stingrays, eagle-rays, a massive humphead wrasse, lobster and a swarms of yellow snapper. We did finally see a shark at Dragon’s Teeth – an equally impressive site.
After a couple of days of diving and exploring Beau Vallon, I decided to move on and explore another island in the Seychelles. I only had time for one so I chose La Digue, home to Anse Source d'Argent - one of the world’s most photographed beaches. Stepping off the boat and onto the island really is a step through time as there are literally no motor vehicles on the island, the best way of getting around for both locals and tourists is by bicycle. So after finding a reasonably priced guesthouse, I then rented a cycle and set off to explore the island. Anse Source d'Argent really is the quintessential postcard picture of paradise. With its massive granite rocks spilling onto the snow-white sandy beach, which melts into the turquoise crystal-clear waters, it certainly is a tranquil place.
I could have stayed in the Seychelles forever, exploring La Digue and all 150 of its scattered islands but like all good things, my vacation in the Indian Ocean had to come to an end. So I made my way back to Mahe to catch my flight back to Qatar. With about 6 hours to burn in Victoria, the world’s smallest capital city – entertainment options were far and few between. After treating myself to one final delicious creole seafood dinner, I made my way to the city’s only single-screen movie theater to catch the late night showing of Leonardo’s new movie Inception. A strange thing happened in the theater that night. As the movie started, I immediately began to feel drowsy…. the next thing I knew the end credits were rolling and the theater usher was shaking me… “Sir, sir wake up, the movie is over.”… As I came to I began to wonder, was the vacation in Seychelles for real, or had it all just been a dream within a dream within a dream.......

To see more photos from the trip check out:

Friday, October 29, 2010

East Europe Tour 2010 - Part 3: Romania

I woke up from my first night in Brasov, Romania feeling extremely weak and with a strange dizziness in my head. It was almost like I had a terrible hangover and just gotten back from the blood donors at the same time! At first I thought it might have been because I hadn’t fully recovered from the previous nights’ arduous train journey from Belgrade. However, I looked in the mirror that morning and noticed two strange mosquito-bite sized marks on my neck, my eyes were both very red, and most strangely of all - my two frontal canine teeth seemed to have expanded downwards by a millimeter. As the day wore on, other eerie symptoms began to arise. I found myself become increasingly lethargic from the sunlight - quite bizarre for someone who has lived most of his life in the Middle East! I also found myself shying away from visiting any of Romania’s many distinctive medieval cathedrals for some strange reason, preferring to linger around the cemeteries instead and another strange occurrence happened at the restaurant that night. Although I normally love my meat well done, I had this sudden craving for an ultra-rare steak that night, had red wine as opposed to my usual white and couldn’t go anywhere near the complimentary garlic bread – usually one of my favorite appetizers.

I went back to the hotel that night feeling increasingly restless. For some reason I wanted to go back to that restaurant and get another blood-filled rare steak. I couldn’t sleep that night and as the craving got stronger, I noticed my canine teeth had grown into two full sized wolf-like fangs dangling parallel to each other like a pair of icicle spikes. I immediately got up, turned the light on and went to the mirror and to my horror I saw….. no reflection! It was at this point that I decided to seek medical help. I raced out of my room and downstairs to the lobby where I saw the receptionist but just as I opened my mouth ask for directions to the hospital, she screamed… “Ahhhhh….. DRACULA!!!!!” And at that moment, she picked up a wooden stake she had stored under the reception desk and drove it painfully, straight into my heart!

The next thing I knew there was a flash of white light, I heard a train whistle and then heard a voice say, “excuse me sir… wake up…. this is Brasov”…. I opened my eyes and realized I was still on the train and we had just reached Brasov, Transylvania’s transportation hub and one of Romania’s most visited cities. It had all just been a bad dream on the night train over from Belgrade and had ironically come to its climax just as we’d choo-choo-ed to my preferred stop. With its’ plethora of sites, compact medieval heart, abundant baroque architecture, cobblestone alleyways and excellent lookout points from the surrounding Carpathian Mountains – Brasov is an excellent entry point for travellers in Romania. However, the city’s beauty is unfortunately overshadowed by the region’s main draw, the nearby Bran Castle. The well preserved fairytale-structured fortified chateau rose to touristic prominence as it bore an uncanny resemblance to the lair of the vampire guru in Brahm Strokes’ 1892 landmark novel Dracula.

Oddly enough, the historical connection between Bran Castle and vampires is a bit of a historical innacuracy. The real son of Count Dracul, Vlad Tepes (aka, “Draculea” due to the patriarchal-naming system that was in place at the time) – never actually permanently bore residence in Bran for any considerable period of time. In fact Tepes was the voivode of Transylvania’s then sovereign neighboring kingdom Wallachia. He may have spent some time in the castle, as is acknowledged inside the castle’s museum as he fended off the region from countless Ottoman attacks; however, the most noteworthy resident celebrated by the castle’s museum is in fact Queen Mary of Edinburgh. No need to mention that to the hordes of stall and shopkeepers outside the castle’s gates selling pretty much every kind of Dracula merchandise you can possibly imagine. I made due with a T-shirt and Dracula beer mug before heading off to nearby Râşnov and its equally impressive hilltop castle.

Notorious Vlad Țepeș ruled Wallachia in the 15th century and got his nickname “Vlad the Impaler” from his rather peculiar torture methods of captured soldiers during his kingdoms’ continuous strife with the Ottoman Empire in which his victims were pierced with metal-rod stakes intricately placed through vertically through their bodies leaving all vital organs unharmed. This meant victims suffered days of excruciating pain before eventually bleeding to death. Despite this cruelty, Tepes was not the only one who did this during his time and he is now celebrated as something of a hero throughout Romania due to the heroic resistance he put up against the Ottoman invaders. A visit to Tepes’ historic birthplace Sighişoara is an absolute must. The beautifully preserved medieval citadel center is certainly a picturesque place and one of Romania’s highlights.

The last stop on my Eastern European adventure was Romania’s capital city Bucharest. Although crowded, crazy and chaotic and not as quaint as its Hungarian counterpart Budapest – Bucharest still has its own unique charm. The city’s most monumental structure is the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the world’s most heaviest building and largest of its kind. Although locals don’t always speak favorably of it due to it being a leftover relic of Romania’s former communist repressor Nicolae Ceauşescu, it is most certainly an essential most tourists itineraries. Bucharest is also home to many of Romania’s finest museum – amongst these being the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which pays homage to Romania’s ample Gypsy culture. Like Belgrade, perhaps Bucharest’s finest quality however is its vibrant nightlife which I was able to sample in the central Lipscani district thanks to its proximity to the nearby university before heading back to Budapest to catch my flight back to Qatar.

To view the photos, check out:
Part 1:

Part 2:

Monday, October 25, 2010

East Europe Tour 2010 - Part 2: Serbia

Have you ever taken what you thought would be a slight detour which turned out to be a lot longer than you thought it would be but pleasantly surprised you took it in the end? Well this was what happened to me when I rendezvoused for the night in Belgrade, Serbia on my way from Hungary onto my final destination, Romania. My initial plan was to take catch a Bucharest-bound train from Budapest and get off in Brasov, Romania. Looking at the map, I realized that Belgrade was a quick seven-hour train-ride away from Budapest and that technically I wouldn't be gaining that much more distance onto Brasov than going directly from Budapest. This logic turned out to be flawed however, as while Serbia is well connected to Hungary via public transport; Romania is an entirely different prospect. There were virtually no buses and the train schedule erratic. I wound up having to take a nightly train from Belgrade to Brasov, via connections at Timisoara and Arad - a grueling 15 hour overnight journey, with train stopovers included. However, regret this logistic miscalculation I most certainly did not as my two-day detour in Serbia's formerly war-torn capital turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

With only one night, there was not much time to spare and after having found a place to stay and taking a short rest, set off to see the city. One nice thing about Belgrade is that its center is very compact. The train station is just a short walk up-a-hill away from the city center and most of the sites are located between Kalemegdan Citadel and the Saint Sava Cathedral, a pleasant 1.5 kilometer walk. It was only natural to stay somewhere between the two, so I checked into the Hotel Kasina, overlooking a square opposite the more illustrious Hotel Moscow. Another thing I really liked about Belgrade was that, as opposed to Budapest, it was almost devoid of tourists, especially during this time of the year (September). Despite this, things are well marked in English and tourist information booths plentiful, yet with hardly any tourists it seems as though they have all been put in place especially for me. I also found myself having most of the tourist attractions to myself. A third thing I really enjoyed about the city was my encounters with the locals. While Serbians may get a bad rap, I found those I talked to be very friendly and approachable. Keeping in mind, I was selective about who I did talk to, not trying to stike up a conversation with any of the ultra-soccer fans at the Partizan vs Rad soccer match. I also found that, despite the US-led NATO bombings on the city a good decade before, Serbians were equally as interested in me as I was in them - wondering what an American was doing in their city.

The most natural place to start off in Belgrade was the Saint Sava Cathedral, which while still not entirely complete (mostly notable in the interior) is still an impressive structure and reminiscent of Hagia Sophia. It is in fact the largest Orthodox Church in the world by volume. Serbia is notorious for its soccer hooligans so I was sure to try and catch a game while I was there. I wasn't able to catch the historic Partizan v Red Star derby but I did manage to see FK Partizan hammer local rivals Rad 3-0 with the notorious Grobari Partizan-ultras in full voice. The next day I checked out both the Nikolai Tesla Museum (one of the most overlooked scientists of his time) and spent the rest of the day at the Kalemegdan Citadel complex, where most locals go to wander as well. Perhaps the thing about Belgrade that makes it special however is not so much its monuments or tourist attractions but its nightlife. Belgrade promotes itself as the new party capital of Europe and the locals certainly take to the streets when the sun goes down. The sports mad Serbs were not too happy that night when their basketball team lost to Turkey in the World Basketball Championship semi-finals though.

I guess the downfall to Belgrade would be the accommodation situation is not the greatest. While I had no trouble finding a room, what you get for what you pay is a firm reminder that you are now entering Eastern European standards. However, the complimentary breakfast at the Kasina was massive and the view from my room's top floor porch made it hard to complain. Food was probably another downer, while portions were never meager; the quality was usually of the fast food type. Despite these minor blemishes, I thoroughly enjoyed my deviation into the ex-Yugoslavian capital city and found myself leaving wanting more. I think a return trip to see the 'greater-Serbia' will definitely be in the cards in the near future.

To see the full photo-collection from the trip, check my main site here;

Thursday, October 21, 2010

East Europe Tour 2010 - Part 1: Hungary

These past couple of years, Eid vacation (the end of Ramadan) has fallen towards the beginning of the fall semester, making it the perfect time to visit Europe. The weather is still warm and the sun still up but both the summer crowds and inflated high season summer prices are starting to go down. I had made recent trips to Greece, Turkey, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland in the past couple of years so with Eid 2010 falling in September; I decided to return to Eastern Europe. For this trip I selected Hungary and Romania as my choice with a rendezvous in Serbia’s capital city, Belgrade along the way.
The first stop was Hungary’s majestic capital city, Budapest. With no direct flights from Qatar to any of these places at the time of writing, the easiest and cheapest way to get there was via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Fortunately, thanks to the Istanbul Airport’s duty free shops’ generous portions of free Turkish delight samples and very affordable and relaxing water massage machine, the 5 hour both-ways transit was nowhere near as vexing as at first envisioned. There wasn’t any free internet or enough time to go into the city but if you like Turkish Delights as I do - then Istanbul Airport is not that bad a place to be stuck in for a couple of hours.Located on the Danube River, Budapest is without a doubt one of the world’s finest cities. The river literally splits the city into two districts in which the city derives its name from with ‘Buda’ located on the west bank and ‘Pest’ on the east. Historic monuments and buildings line up along both sides of the river. Perhaps the finest of these is the almost surreal neo-gothic parliament building which dominates the city’s skyline. Across the river lies the Var – a walled plateau which contains the Buda Palace, the Hungary National Gallery and a plethora of various other museums and monuments.One could spend days, if not weeks wandering around Budapest’s time-honored streets as I did but there are also many interesting side trips to be made. One part of Hungary’s epic history that is not prevalent in its capital city’s architecture is the 40 years that Hungary spent under communist rule. This is because most of the monuments forcefully erected during this period can all be found in one place, at the Statue Park. The park is filled with statues and monuments of communist propaganda and is well worth the trip to its rather remote suburban location. On my final day in Hungary, I took the train northwest to the riverside towns of Eszertgorm and Szentendre. The main attraction in Eszertgorm is the stunning Bascilla which dominates its skyline. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Danube, the Eszertgorm Basicilla, Hungary’s largest cathedral is certainly a stunning site. I even walked up to the cupola and the walk around its exterior and while it’s certainly not for agoraphobics, the views from the top are breathtaking!

The only downfall to Budapest, apart from the constant rain, is that the thriving nightlife that I’d later find in some of Hungary’s neighboring capital cities of Bucharest and Belgrade is a little harder to find. My hotel, the Kalvin House, was conveniently located right in the heart of the Pest side of the city, just a couple of blocks away from the Szabadsag Bridge and the Vaci Utca pedestrian street. While the latter was quite vibrant during the day, things seemed to close down pretty early at night. There’s still plenty to do after dark in Hungary, it’s just most of it seems to cater more for tourists. I still did however find my fair share of entertainment. I managed to get my football fix by attending the Hungary vs. Moldova European qualifier. It actually turned out to be quite an experience! I also attended a Hungarian music & dance show put on by the Danube Folk Ensemble at the Danube Patola Theatre.
To see more photos from the trip, check these links:
Set 1:
Set 2:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

John Mayer - live @ the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles - August 22, 2010

There was no better way to end our little road trip of western United States than an evening with one of my favorite contemporary musicians, John Mayer. Although some of his more recent work may drift a little too close to the middle of the road for yours truly’s liking, there’s no doubting his ability as a musician. Mayer is also one of those guys that seems to be at his best when performing in concert and it’s his live recordings like Try, Any Given Sunday and Where the Light is which get the most plays in car stereo. Having become a Mayer fan after the last time he was in Dubai (UAE Desert Rythem Festival 2006), I was sure not to miss him this time.

Having driven all the way down from San Francisco the same day, I got to the Hollywood Bowl just as Johnny came on, unfortunately missing opener Owl City. Unlike many artists who make their audience wait endlessly before coming on, Mayer was out bang smack right at 7.30 – treating us to a four-song acoustic taster that included “Stop this Train” and three covers; Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary”, “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith and an inspiring duet with pianist Brad Mehldau of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”.

Live - John Mayer is a completely different experience than in the studio. Although I do love most of his records, you can often tell he’s holding back a little. Fortunately, this is not the case in concert as he constantly lets himself go on the guitar throughout, while also allowing his co-musicians the occasional moment in the spotlight. This is immediately evident the moment he gets onstage and begins belting out the guitar solo jam of “Cabin Fever” before wah-wahing his way through the funky “Vultures”. Mayer’s voice has also come a long way as can be heard in the way he belts out the newer tracks like “Perfectly Lonely”.

As this was the Battle Studies tour, the majority of the tracks played on the night came from his latest record with a handful from his previous release Continuum. This is something I liked as Mayer has released his older stuff live on CD numerous times so it was nice to hear how the newer tracks went down live. The addition of the rather obscure “Do You Know Me?”, in which he acknowledged that only the ‘true fans’ would know, was a pleasant surprise. He played only one song each from his first two records, “Why Georgia” and the brilliant “Clarity”, as well as a cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t no Sunshine”. Although Mayer only played a total of about 17 songs, it was not exactly a short concert as the songs were all made longer well beyond their studio time with awesome jam sessions and extended guitar solos, as well as Mayer’s trademark stage-patter humor – which he displayed throughout the night. I do feel however that he could have extended his encore a bit which was only one song, “Edge of Desire” – a surprise but very good song as it contains one my all time favorite JM guitar riffs.

The whole show can be downloaded in MP3 here:

Set List:
Acoustic (w/Brad Mehldau): Wind Cries Mary, Can't Find My Way Home, Going To California > Stop This Train, Bittersweet Symphony, Main set: Chest Fever > Vultures, Clarity, Why Georgia, Ain't No Sunshine, Perfectly Lonely, I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You), Heartbreak Warfare, Gravity, Who Says, Waiting on the World to Change, Do You Know Me, Half of My Heart > Don't Stop Believing, Encore: Edge of Desire