21 December 2011

London; Just...Kinda Weird

After spending a week hijabed and locked behind blast walls, London, the last stop of my Georgia-Azerbaijan-Afghanistan-UK tour just seemed really strange and surreal. For one thing, it was a city, a proper functioning city with hot water.

 Why there was a giant ship in a bottle in Trafalger Square I do not know.

 Trafalger Square

The Christmas tree that Norway gives to London every year.

Also, Regent street was shut off to traffic for shopping and a mini carnival and there was some sort of Santa pub crawl happening.

There were Santas everywhere. In the above picture they'd stopped traffic on Picadilly and were singing the 12 Days of Christmas. Also there's no open container law in London so seeing hundreds of Santa Clauses running about swigging beers was odd. You cannot really tell from these pictures but some of the Santas were themed...there were Santas in president masks, zombie Santas, and we even saw two Santas wearing speedos, hats...and nothing else.

I did have a great time though, especially at the South Bank Christmas market:

Maybe a little blurry but quite the image nonetheless.

Discovering new drinks like the apple pie and custard martini

Sip martini, then sip the shot, swirl in your mouth and swallow. Complicated but yummy.

And exploring the Chrismtas market and ice skating in Hyde Park

Sadly there are no pictures of us skating because cameras were not allowed on the ice...so that they could have a staff photographer charge an outrageous 8GBP for a picture. After probably 20 years of not skating I did better on the ice than I thought I would; didn't fall once. Shocking I know. In four days in London it only rained once, and of course that once was when we were skating. And it didn't just sprinkle, it poured so we were skating through huge puddles.

I also went to a show called Uncaged Monkeys: In a Night of 200 Billion Stars...which was basically physicists being funny. Think Big Bang Theory but even more hilarious. And while I may have initially rolled my eyes at my friend when she said one of the guys was some sort of science heartthrob...I am now a Brian Cox convert. Also randomly in the program was a group called Feeding the Fish...I absolutely must have a pair of the pixel poi they use. MUST HAVE!! If anyone knows where I can get a pair please let me know. Tim Minchin also popped by the show...and if he isn't surreal then I don't know what is.

Also completely randomly...I showed up at Saint Peter's Sunday morning (the closest Catholic church to my hotel) all excited for Mass since I hadn't been in two weeks cause of the travel...only to discover Mass was in Italian. WTH?

So ended my first trip for the new job. It was the longest shortest trip I've ever been on and while I had some great experiences, I hope the next one will be a little more leisurely and will involve more hot water.

17 December 2011

Kabul-Dude I Don't Even Know

So Kabul, yeah. I was pretty excited to go to Afghanistan because for one thing, it makes my EAW field cred soar. Also I figured that after I returned safely from Afghanistan, anywhere else I go in the future can't be as bad and I will point that out to my mom.

Frankly I don't even know what to say about Kabul. It was hard to form an impression since I wasn't allowed to walk around. A car picked me up each morning from the guest house and a car returned me to it in the afternoon. Many buildings are hidden behind high blast walls (my office and hotel included) and there are guys with big guns posted at every entrance. Because of this I also don't have a lot of pictures.

There's me all scarfed up. I had to wear one at all times outside the hotel. I could have taken it off in the office but several of the staff are very conservative and I figured I was causing enough scandal sharing an office and, gasp, eating with one of my male coworkers. So I kept it on.

The guest house I stayed in is called the Park Palace. I think the name overstates itself. When we drove up my coworker told me it might look like a prison (it did but then I discovered so did almost everything) but that it was fairly decent. It was surrounded by a high wall and a man with a gun went through my suitcase before allowing us to enter. We walked into a large, enclosed room and across the way a second heavy door opened to reveal two more men with guns. We walked through another courtyard and gate (where there was only sometimes a man with a gun) into the hotel's actual courtyard.

The room was actually not the scariest room I've ever been in. There were a couple in India and one in Serbia that were worse.

There was no heat so that tiny little space heater to the bottom right of the picture was all I had. I wore a lot of layers and rarely took off my coat while I was here. I also made a list of everything I should bring if I ever go back to Afghanistan, including: several flashlights, batteries, long underwear, lots of make up and hand wipes, heavy socks, and lots of sweaters. Electricity was iffy but it never stayed off for too long.

The bathroom was the trickiest part. Anytime I turned on the shower water went every where. Also there was no hot water. I spent almost a week making do with "washing up" but a couple days in I couldn't stand my hair anymore. I stood just outside the shower area and turned myself into Gumby so that the majority of the icily frigid water fell only on my head. It was not pleasant. My last day there the water coming out of the sink tap was so hot it was almost boiling. I got pretty excited only to find that the shower wouldn't even turn on that day.

I was in Kabul for the Shia holy day of Ashura. Ashura is generally bloody enough in that the devout beat themselves in the mosques...but this year on December 6 it was especially so as a suicide bomber walked into  the Shia mosque courtyard and killed over 60 people and injured over 100 more. The New York Times ran a picture from the AFP that was shocking...both for content and that American media are usually more conservative. Many of those 63 killed that day were children. The bomb was thankfully in another part of the city, we didn't even hear it, but security was extra cautious over the next few days in fear of reprisals.

Looking at the city as it is now, I have a hard time imagining what it might have looked like before...and that there could have been a real city here at all.

 This is Chicken Street, a market area with largely jewelry and textiles.

I was able to go to a couple more places than just the office and the hotel. I went with coworkers to a few restaurants. Getting in was a very similar procedure as with my hotel...except there were multiple signs posted barring carrying weapons and requesting that you deposit your sidearms with the guard. The guys I was with were also patted down while I, a woman, was allowed to pass through without a search. Which on the one hand showed their respect of women but on the other was incredibly stupid. You could fit a lot of weaponry under a burka.

In addition to Chicken Street I was also able to go to Darullaman, the (former) king's summer palace. It was, as you can see, destroyed but is being rebuilt.

 The region is quite mountainous.

Now, I think I may have mentioned that I have airport fear. They completely freak me out. Getting into the Kabul airport did not help matters. The airport is only a 15 minute drive from where I was in the city, but getting into the airport took longer than the drive. We got to the main entrance and a male coworker had to get out and walk a few yards down the street and be patted down. The driver got out, was patted down, and opened the trunk so the guard could inspect the car. I just sat inside. We drove a little ways and all three of us had to get out and be patted down. Being female I went to one side to a small building where an older lady just ran her hands down me and sent me on while the guys got in the long line of men being searched outside. Then we had to take out our bags and run everything through an x-ray machine. We put everything back in the car and were driven to a small parking lot from which we then had to walk. We were stopped once to have our tickets inspected, then again in a few yards where my male coworker was searched. We were searched going into the airport, again I had to go into a separate small room, and bags were run through another x-ray. Then I checked in and went through another x-ray and metal detector at the gate.

I just hope the thrice damned TSA never experience that and get any ideas from it.

13 December 2011

Baku-I think it was worth the visa fuss

Ah Baku. Such an interesting blend of the very old and the very new. Azerbaijan seems to me to be as eastern as a country can be while still being part of the west. It's like the last barrier between Europe and lands of the rising sun as it were. It is also a really surprising mix of the very new and the very old. Azerbaijan has a rich history and its contemporary history includes black gold...oil. This means there's been a great deal of development in Baku especially. Some of that involves brand new modern buildings but it also happily involves putting nice, traditional facades on the ugly concrete blocks left over from Soviet occupation.

Black gold also means that the local currency, the Manat, is worth more than the US dollar. I think the exchange rate was about 1 Manat = 78 US cents. The Euro was only slightly more than the Manat with the Pound being, as ever, the clear winner...although not by much.

These three buildings are called the Three Flames and apparently will be the representation of an eternal flame for Azerbaijan. Gots to love oil money.

 That's a metro station. Seriously! I didn't use the metro but the pictures on Wikipedia look fantastic. Each station is nicely decorated and, shock, well lit!! (hint hint DC metro you bastards).

Getting ready for Christmas.

There were interesting fountains everywhere.

 Large pedestrian shopping area with major brands and high end designers.

This is such a perfect example of the new/old paradigm...the old city with a view of the Three Flames.

Then there's the old city

There was definitely some fun to be had in Baku.

 The fanciest Turkish coffee ever

 Smoking shisha while being entertained by Sophia the parrot.

 Fried cheese. Yes.

They love carousels. I counted three or four. There also seems to be a permanent fair in one of the parks with rides.

I only had three days in Baku but hope I can visit again. The visa was a pain to get and involved a lot of time, money and confusion. Eurovision 2012 is going to be in Baku and I hope they're either going to lift the visa restrictions or at least make the process clearer. I got mine from the Azerbaijan embassy in Tbilisi which we thought would be easier...but it wasn't. It was a nightmare. If you want a visa for this country, plan two months or more ahead.