Two days in Tea Country

January 27, 2008

For those who haven’t been following my blog, I’m staying in Thrivanthapuram this month. I’m here on business but I’ve been doing a decent job at finding things to entertain myself here in, “God’s Own Country”.

Of course, the company I’m working with has made that task very easy for me. A few days ago they asked if I would be interested in visiting Munnar, the highest region in southern India, and touring the tea fields there. …Naturally I said yes, how could anyone pass up on that?

The ride to Munnar was long, and for me, basically uneventful. We got off to an early start (a car picked me up at my hotel around 5:30am) and I slept through most of the trip.

Occasionally I would wake up to the sound of honking horns and swerving tires as our car narrowly avoided yet another collision with a huge bus. I’d send a few moments wondering at the India highway system and our driver’s well honed Halo-Slayer like reactions, then dose off again. I suppose I should have been more alarmed at the perilous road conditions but by now I was used to it. I trusted our driver.

Below is a picture of one of the nicest roads we encountered. Occasionally we’d hit a sweet-spot like this, the rest of the time we were roughing it on a bumpy narrow roads filled with cattle, bikers, pedestrians pushing carts and huge busses racing around at ludicrous speed.

Between Trivandrum and Munnar we passed countless pineapple fields. I’ve been told pineapple farming is a very lucrative business. By the appearance of things that’s probably true. The lavish homes adjacent to most of these fields seemed really out of place.

Every time I see a pineapple I think about a fable my grandmother/parents used to read me, “The Pineapple Story” by Otto Koning. If you have kids it’s worth a read. Aside from a bit of morality, this taught me that pineapple plants are bromeliads.

Bromeliads are a special kind of flower; fruit pops up in the middle when they bloom instead of a traditional blossom. Another cool pineapple fact; they’re commonly pollinated by bats. …I guess that explains why I’ve seen so many of them flying around here.

I probably already wrote about the local bats but they deserve a second mention. Dusk in Thrivanthapuram ushers in a nightly ritual; scores of huge bats flying into town to raid the fruit trees. And these bats aren’t like the tiny blind variety we have back in the US, these are Flying Foxes. Full grown they have a wingspan in excess of 4ft! And they don’t fly with sonar; they use their eyes (how original).

Almost every night I go down to the lobby to watch them crashing into the tree across the street from my hotel. They look clumsy, but I’m sure they’re in perfect control.

I read online that we used to have lots of these bats in the Americas. Apparently people hunted them for food to the point where they’re very scarce now. That’s a shame because pineapples aren’t the only things bats pollinate. They also do their thing for flowers that open at night, bananas, mangoes and guavas.

(Think flower)

Just before ascending the mountains we passed over this beautiful bridge. The contrasting red with the blue sky and green foliage accents was picturesque. My digital camera really didn’t do this justice but this gives you a glimpse at what I saw…

About an hour up the mountain we passed this building (picture below) and I just had to take a picture. I wondered, does this girl realize she’s throwing the universal sign for loser? I later learned that gesture means #1 in India. …Of course that’s what I tell people it means after I throw them the sign to in the US. Maybe this is a global joke only half of the population is in on.

I don’t really want to re-live the memory of our ascent so I won’t spend a lot of time writing about it, it’s sufficient to say that the road to Munnar was quite dangerous. Imagine riding in a small SUV on the road below when the driver starts to pass a huge bus only to find another bus headed towards you in the other lane. We had more hair-raising moments then I care to remember.

We finally arrived in Munnar 13+ hours after leaving Thrivanthapuram. I was thrilled to see that our hotel was situated in the middle of a basin on the top of the highest mountain in South India, surrounded by peaks that soared into the clouds.

The interior of the hotel was nice and elegant, a little neglected but probably only due to a lack of use rather than misuse. …I think it’s very expensive for the locals to stay here.

Walking to my room I noticed a flock of groundskeepers trimming the lawn with scissors. As you can see they do a good job…

After being shown to my room I rested for a few minutes and then strolled on over to the hotel pub where I was met by my German traveling companions for a pint of Sand Piper. …I think already mentioned in my blog about the backwaters that I tried the Kingfisher Preimum, and that it wasn’t my favorite. To be honest, I thought it was lousy beer (much appriciated though on a hot day).

Well, In India I’ve only seen two bottles: Kingfisher Premium and Sand Piper. As I lifted the bottle to my lips I wondered how Sand Piper would compare to Kingfisher. …Moments later I realized the purpose of the Sand Piper. It gives you respect and appriciation for the Kingfisher. Sand Piper, in my not-so-humble opinion, is one of the worst beers I’ve ever tried. Even still we were happy to have it.

After a few minutes I stepped away to use the restroom. On returning I noticed the Germans glued to the window with their camera. “Quick Brien! We found a snake!”. I lept into action racing around the building out onto the lawn and around the corner.

I’d been hoping to catch a snake while in India, or at least touch one. I’d moved as quickly as possible, but unfortunatly the serpent had already slithered into the tea plants before I’d got close enough. I decided not to follow since it had the upperhand in the tea plants which blocked my view of the ground. In hidesight I wish I’d have risked it. Things being what they are, all I have to show for this encounter is a picture one of the Germans took from inside the pub.

Just to give you an idea of how close we were to the snake, here’s a picture of the scenario…

So, after another pint we called it quits and retired for the evening. Before going to sleep I turned on the TV and caught an episode of StarWars (the Indian version of American Idol). That was thoroughly entertaining and almost made up for missing out on the snake.

The next morning we woke up and, after a quick breakfast, headed out for a tour of the tea fields…

In case you’re wondering what those dots are; they’re locals picking tea leafs. In the picture below it’s a little easier to make them out…

Two things impressed me about the tea fields; 1) they are beautifully landscaped with the local rocks, trees, etc. and 2) they are huge, 220 square miles of tea.

In the distance you can see a slick streak running down the solid rock mountain side. Apparently that’s raging river during the monsoon season. That must be impressive when it’s flowing. Pitty it wasn’t while I was here.

Next we headed up to Eravikulam National Park, home of free roaming ibex, elephants, lion-tailed macaque, and the Nilgiri tahr. …We only saw the goats. Though they were wild, they weren’t afraid of humans. I strolled up to one and had a nice little chat with it…

I named the goat below Maddan, after one of my favorite co-workers. Maddan didn’t talk a lot and neither did this goat, so it seemed like a good fit.

Back to my trip, next we headed northeast about 35km to the Munnar reservoir. I wish I had a picture of that, but unfortunately my camera was out of batteries, c’est la vie (that’s life).

A few miles up the road from the reservoir we spotted an elephant. Our driver stopped and I bought a ride.

(Photo courtesy of my German comrade Olaf)

Yes, that’s me on a 5 ton (10,000 pound) elephant. I’ve had the pleasure of riding elephants two other times in my life, but this was the first time I was able to ride on a public road with cars and other elephants. It was defiantly worth the 200 rupees (5 dollars) I paid.

The elephant’s manager didn’t speak English, but somehow I made out the elephants name, Eknath Raja (which means poet king). After my ride I threw down another 50 rupees (1 dollar and 25 cents) for an entire basket of pineapples which I fed to Eknath. That was a little intimidating because he immediately wrapped his trunk around my arm and the pineapple. Suddenly I remembered all the stories I’d read about elephants dismembering people and horrible thoughts flashed through my mind. But an instant later untangled his trunk from my arm and gracefully put the ripe pineapple in his mouth. Feeding him a whole basket didn’t take long, he ate each pineapple in a few seconds. It was so entertaining I had to buy two baskets.

Leaving the elephant we stopped at a roadside bazaar a few km up the road. One of the stands there was a balloon shootout with a .22 caliber BB gun. Target practice was a favorite family activity in the home I grew up in. Even when my parents were first married they had a shoot-offs to see who’d clean the dishes. But even with my extensive experience I knew showing up the locals wouldn’t be easy. I could see the sights were off at a glance. Fortunately the rifle had a long barrel, and I’m comfortable aiming with that. I threw down a couple of rupees and popped all but two balloons, taking only a few seconds to aim between each shot. Mission accomplished, locals impressed.

We left the bazaar and continued driving north-east until we stopped at a dirt trail. We hiked that out of Kerala and into the next state over (I think it was Karnataka). Below is a view from the end of the trail. After the hike we returned to our hotel and retired for the evening.

The next morning we awoke early and headed back for Trivandrum. On our way back we stopped to at the Kuthumkal waterfalls, something we’d missed during our ascent.

(I think I’ve seen this waterfall in Bollywood movies before)

We left after a few minutes and continued our descent. Everything was going smoothly, until our driver decided to pull over for a quick stop at a spice garden. Apparently he missed a cement ledge that was camouflaged with red sand. There was a loud thud as the SUV’s frame slammed into the cement.

First the driver tried to drive off the ledge, the wheel simply spun in mid air. Then, very nervously, he exited the vehicle and inspected the damage. We follow suit.

Once again, this time without us in the car, the driver attempted to drive off the ledge. Seeing the futility in that (and possible destructive consequences) I suggested he jack the car up then stack stones under the tire until it was (near) flush with the ledge so he could just back up.

Noticing the pile of granite rocks behind me our driver took my advice and sent us off to enjoy the spice garden while he fixed the car. I offered to stay back and help, but he insisted so I didn’t protest. So we left him to do his thing and proceeded to check out the spice garden.

A gardener soon noticed us wondering around and proceeded to give us a tour of the garden. I sampled so many spices, fresh from the plant, that I can’t remember them all. I remember; cinnamon, various peppers, vanilla, coffee, paprika, tamarind, curry leaf, clove, kokum and turmeric but I can’t remember the rest.

Aside from spices they also had flowers, these were some of my favorites…

(These flowers are called Cross Flowers because they bloom into little crosses)

(And these flowers are called Cigar Flowers look like little cigars.)

The garden also had fruits. Next we toured those…

(These are Bell Fruit, I loved these! They tasted something like an apple fused with a cranberry)

(These fruit, proudly displayed by our tour guide, are called Passion Fruit.)

(This is a picture of the Passion Fruit I ate just before I sucked the inside out. It looks nasty, but they taste like a blend of Pomegranates and Oranges. I liked it!)

This is the home of the gardeners who gave us our tour, it’s set at the northwest corner of the garden…

Eventually we left the spice garden (apparently the jack/granite trick worked) and made our way back down the mountain. At the bottom we stopped for a quick bite at The Copper Chimney, a nice second-floor open-air restaurant.

(Two of my German traveling companions, Olaf and Mr Schneider pictured above enjoying the view. …Possibly celebrating that they survived the descent.)

I had some kind of “sweet-water” fish for lunch (below). It was sort of bony, but I was so hungry it really hit the spot. The fresh onions and cucumber went great with the spicy marsala fish dish. I’m really going to miss the plentiful fresh fruit when I go back to the US.


This morning I decided to spend the day at the beach. I’ve been working hard (don’t forget I’m in India on business) and I really needed a reboot and defrag. So I did just that; after rolling out of bed and enjoying a fine authentic Kerala breakfast I caught a $5 auto-rickshaw to Kovalam.

I don’t remember that much about the ride to the beach. I might have left my laptop back in the hotel but my mind was still deep in the matrix. Fortunately that all changed when the rickshaw stopped.

As I strolled onto the sand I spotted a street vendor pushing coconuts. Having recently acquired a taste for the local delicacy I had to stop. For a mere 15 rupees (30 cents) an old lady with a toothless smile cut me some fresh coconut water and threw a straw in it.

Before sipping my tasty beverage I removed my shoes and tossed them in my attaché bag. Then I closed my eyes welcomed the salty sea air with a smile. There are few things I enjoy more than the feeling of sand between my toes and the smell of the sea. Add a sweet coconut and the list is even shorter.

I wondered aimlessly along the shore with a Zen-like satisfaction, letting the hot sand work at my sore feet, occasionally cooling them down in the surf.

Eventually I gave that up and basked on a rock until I was hot and hungry. About a hundred yards from the water I spotted a restaurant on the sand and made a b-line for it. After being seated I ordered King Fisher Premium (the local beer of choice) and some garlic Naan (soft thin Tandoori bread). I don’t think establishment had a license to serve because they poured my beer in a coffee mug, put the bottle under the table and told me to leave it there.
Maybe the consequences are less severe here? Maybe competition for tourist dollars is so critical the consequences aren’t taken into consideration? I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I didn’t care. The sea breeze was blowing on my red sun-kissed face; I had a beer in one hand and garlic bread in the other. I’d earned this moment and I was going to enjoy it without analyzing life.

From my table this was the view to my right…

And this was the view to my left…

All around me were babbling tourists speaking what sounded like everything but English. I could make out German, possibly Dutch and Korean, but I wasn’t sure about the rest. Even though I couldn’t understand their language the smiles on their faces and mixed laughter told me we were all enjoying our day in Kovalam.

After polishing off two plates of garlic bread and a liter of Kingfisher I went for a walk along the boardwalk. After a few minutes the zealous trinket-pushers got the best of me. I decided to chill out under an umbrella for a while and enjoy the sound of the breaking waves.

Apparently I was being watched as I approached one of the reclining chairs. An attendant rushed to beat me there, picked up the chair and beat off the sand for me. He put it back on the sand with a smile and asked if there was anything he could do for me in broken English. I told him he could have a nice day and threw a few rupees his way. Then I stretched out on the chair and drifted off into a nice nap to the sound of the sea.

I awoke to the squawking of some large British ladies waddling past my umbrella. Realizing it was getting late I decided to head back to my hotel.

Exiting the beach I found myself being surrounded by a heard of taxi drivers competing for my business. I spent about a minute haggling over the price, but I wasn’t really looking for a deal. I was planning on paying a lot more than I bargained for, but I wanted to give my money to the person who needed it most; the desperate low bidder.

I had to focus to suppress my smile while I tried to get the locals to go from 300 rupees (7 dollars and 60 cents) to 150 rupees (which is what I’d paid to get here). The lowest I could manage was 220 rupees (which I later learned is the going rate due to extra taxes in Kovalam). Moments later my rickshaw roared to life and we were off.

I didn’t mention this before, but Kovalam beach is at the bottom of a steep hill. The ride down had been easy enough, but now I could feel the rickshaw struggling to crawl up the hill.

Finally we cleared the top and started picking up speed, soon were racing along at a good clip. I decided this was a good time to take some photos so grabbed my camera and started snapping away. A few minutes later I ran into this lovely family of four riding a Honda Hero…

Notice that everyone was smiling at me except the little boy in the front. He’s undoubtedly angry his dad wasn’t paying attention to where he was driving, can you blame him?

All along the road I passed countless fruit peddlers. Seeing the watermelon salesman below a thought struck me; if he doesn’t sell all of those he’s going to have to pack them up later tonight. That’s a lot of lifting. Of course, Indian’s aren’t afraid of hard work or lifting. And this isn’t only a trait of the young adults or those in their prime.

Checkout this seasoned citizen carrying a big metal tub filled with bananas. I’ve seen women that looked ancient doing all kinds of hard work here. It sort of makes me wonder if American seniors haven’t gone soft.

I’d expected to see a lot of bananas in India, but I hadn’t anticipated the variety. The stand below only had 7 different kinds, but there are even more. On the right those are red bananas, they’re not over-ripe that’s simply their color. I’ve also seen and tasted black ones. There are also a lot of various sizes; the tiny ones make great bite-sized snacks.

This is what a fruit laden banana tree looks like. …Technically they’re pseudo-stems not trees, but everybody here (including yours truly) calls them trees.

One of the odd things about Kerala is the stark contrast between rich and poor families. Below is a typical rural home…

But every so often I’d pass one that looked like this…

This mixture of wealth and poverty is also quite evident in the market. Below in the distance you can see a posh retailer. In the foreground a much more typical fruit stand is being setup.

Yeah, the ride from Kovalam was full of all kinds of sights. Seeing a second person riding side-saddle on a bicycle is very common here…

And checkout the cripple below on his moded moped, someone added an extra wheel. He looked like the king of the road as he smiled and raced past us. …I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever had a cripple smile at me in the US? …I don’t think I have, most of them come off as very bitter.

Actually, if a countries worth was measured in smiles rather than dollars India might top the list. I’m really going to miss that back in the US. I think we have a lot to learn from our Indian brothers, I wish everyone in the US could spend a month here.

One day at work during lunch a co-worker asked if I’d like to visit the Kerala Backwaters. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was, but on John’s recommendation I said yes.

I soon learned that the Kerala Backwaters are a series of brackish lagoons (a mixture of saltwater and freshwater) formed by rivers and streams of the mainland as they fuse with the Arabian Sea.

Don’t bother looking on Google maps for them because this place, like so many other wonderful places in India, it isn’t listed. I stole this map from Wikipedia to give you an idea of what they look like…

Due to their massive size and location relative to the equator tide changes are almost undetectable. That combined with plentiful fish and topical weather has made this an ideal place to live throughout the ages.

In fact, according to most historians, around the 100BC when the first Greek and Roman traders visited Malabar (now known as Kerala) they dubbed this “The Venice of the East”. …One can only imagine that at the time Venice was much more similar then that modern city is today.

Today life on the Kerala Backwaters doesn’t seem to have changed that much. At least it hasn’t for many people who still live in the small huts of villages that dot the shoreline. There are of course modern resorts now; fully furnished with AC and all the necessary modern conveniences. But I digress, back to me and my trip…

The drive to Kollam was a bit of a journey, as most road trips are in India. Traffic here lacks the rules and order of western infrastructure, but what they lack in guidelines they seem to make up for with common sense. With few signs, lights or stripes on the road Indians defer to their personal judgment and do a fine job of getting from A to B with much less drama then one would expect.

Upon arriving in Kollam we strolled unto the nicest boat in the backwaters and got comfortable while the crew stocked supplies and prepared for our trip. This is what the boat looked like…

After a few minutes we were given Coconuts with straws in them to sip while we passed the time. I took my first drink expecting milk only to be surprised by a sweet-somewhat-salty flavor. That didn’t go with that mental image, but I believe in trying everything at least twice, so I chanced another sip. This time the flavor met my expectations and I soon realized how much I enjoyed coconut water.

As we pushed off shore and cruised out to the open water Amit (an employee of the company I’m working with here) started talking shop with John (my traveling companion and co-worker) about our project. I kept to myself, enjoying all the new sights and sounds.

Glancing around I spotted what looked like an elementary school built on the shoreline, it looked pretty great. There were plenty of trees to provide ample coverage from the sun, lots of room to play tag, places to relax along the water, even a roller skating ring!

What an awesome setting for a school. My good buddy Derek and I would have killed to go to school here when we were chillen.

Looking towards the other side of the water I spotted a series of restaurants cast in the shadows of the hot morning sun. Just behind a railing that snaked along the shore was a series of tables speckled with patrons enjoying their meals. The picture (below) really doesn’t do the scene justice. (My camera really failed me on this trip. It’s just a compact digital and obviously my hand did a poor job of shielding the CCD from the glare of the sun).

I was surprised how clean the water was. I thought it looked dingy in the picture above so I decided to take a close up (below). It’s green of course because of the ample life in the lagoon, but honestly it looked very clean and inviting.

About this time the crew distributed some King Fisher Premium, one of India’s “premium” beers. It wasn’t my favorite pint, but it really hit the spot.

After a few sips I was very relaxed, soon John and I found ourselves in the middle of a heated discussion about PC security. John claimed his XP machine was “secure enough for most businesses” while I took the position that it was one of the biggest failures in IT security. Adding that Vista was the only Microsoft OS I recommended for businesses.

I love talking geek, especially with someone brilliant like John, but I’m constantly amazed at how little some/most people know about Vista. I think penguin lovers (Linux users) and fruit cakes (Apple users) are blinded by their rebellious nature, but I digress. Getting back to my trip…

In the distance I saw what looked like a small version of the statue of liberty rising from the shore-line. Upon closer inspection I realized it was in-fact, “The Goddess of Light” (pictured below). Having been lost on large lakes before I can only imagine how helpful this is on a moonless night. I would have loved to stop at the adjacent hotel and learned more about its history and myth, but we had to push on.

A little further along the way I spotted what looked like an empty canoe. As we approached a head popped out of the water. Apparently this local fisherman was hot and wanted to go for a dip. I can’t blame him; the brackish water was very inviting.

Another real treat was watching this ancient canoe sailing along. I’ve read about these sailboats in history books, I’ve even seen a few in museums. That was nothing compared to watching one in action.

Apparently these sailboats aren’t complicated to build, one simple needs to find a large tree and burn/carve/hack out a channel to sit in. If there are no large trees, you can bind thick reeds with thin ones. People have been making boats just like this one since the dawn of written history, and they’ve been used to sail just about everywhere.

The next familiar site was a series of fishing nets (above). Judging by the color of the water one can only assume that the fish here have an ample supply of phytoplankton. I’ve eaten a lot of fish on this trip, I’ll bet at least one of them came from this place.

It seems fishing here is very popular. Below are some fishing boats owned by Amma (a local spiritual leader and “universal mother” to millions). I don’t know that much about Amma, but I’ve only heard good things. Apparently she’s fed over 7.5 million people (among many other good things) and still lives in a humble home, so I’m going to give her charity the benefit of the doubt.

In the distance below you can see one of the many temples, churches and mosques built along the shoreline. I was keeping track of how many there were, but I lost count. Some of them were playing pleasant Hindi music, others were silent. Closing my eyes I tried to imagine what it would be like to paddle to church. …That made me smile. My family was usually late and rushing to get to church on-time. I my mind I could see my brothers and I padding tirelessly to try and get to temple on time.

Eventually we rounded this corner and floated into a narrow channel, about 30 meters (100ft) wide. There really isn’t a point to the picture below, I just thought it did a fair job of representing the tropical setting I found myself in.

As you can see (below) we spent almost the entire trip chatting, snacking on spicy cashews and sipping King Fisher Premium, naturally I thoroughly enjoying myself.

In the picture above Amit was telling John why he returned to India. Apparently Amit lived in the states for some time, and his brothers still live there now. I was curious why someone leave the US so I listened attentively as Amit told of his love for India, his family/friends here and his passion for giving back to the place he came from. Hearing this Amit’s stock went up in my book. I dig people who are crazy enough to follow their heart, especially when that comes at a high price.

Above you can see a family of four pushing their canoe along with long poles. When the water is shallow enough this is how the locals get around, it looks a lot easier than paddling.

The picture above shows one of the more common views on this trip. This glimpse into the local’s word gives you an idea what life must be like here. In the long grass by the water are children at play, in the background a simple cinderblock house. Most the homes here cinderblocks or cement, a few were wooden. The more meager abodes were simply made of palms like the one pictured below…

Below are a few more of the local sights, honestly life here looked pretty inviting to me…

One thing I wasn’t thrilled to see was that, even on the backwaters, communist (Marxist) propaganda was quite prevalent. Personally I’m very opposed to socialism in general, especially this flavor. I think Marxist prey on the uneducated and misinformed. Then again I’m very pro-expression so I appreciate their freedom to share views and opinions.

Every once in a while we’d pass by a small group of the locals. Usually they’d stop to wave and smile. I wish we’d had time to stop and mingle, they probably spoke Malayalam instead of English but I think we could have managed. …That’s defiantly on my TODO list for the next trip.

Eventually we stopped the boat at a dock adjacent to a simple church. They had a well and we ran out a garden hose to refill our boat’s fresh water tank.

We hadn’t been still for 10 minutes when John asked the locals if it was safe to swim. They seemed shocked but he was already undressing before he got an answer. Without hesitating he dove off the boat plunging into the cool green water.

John stayed underwater for some time. After a long 20-30 seconds I was starting to wonder if he hadn’t got stuck on the muddy bottom or been impaled on a sharp stick. But apparently he was playing with our minds, a few moments later he popped his head back up and we all exhaled. I have to admit that I was completely jealous of John. It was hot and, as I already mentioned, the water looked very inviting. …I told myself I didn’t jump in after him because I’d promised my sister that I wouldn’t swim in India. …I’d like to think that was the only reason, but I’m not sure I would have even if I hadn’t made that promise.

After John had tried off and we’d settled down lunch was served. I was pleased to learn that our crew included a local gourmet chef. I thought his spicy fish fillet (pictured bottom-center) was especially tasty. The carrot/pepper/etc veg item (pictured top-center) was a foreign melody of flavors that I really enjoyed. I want to try cooking something like that back home.

After lunch we returned to wondering the water ways. It’s difficult to make-out, but that dirt along the shoreline above was a road with people, cattle and motorcycles. Seeing someone my age ripping along the pathway made me realize that I would love to tour the backwaters on a dirt-bike. Unfortunately I’ve found it almost impossible to borrow a bike here, maybe next trip I’ll just buy one.

Well, that’s about it for pictures. I decided to put the camera down to enjoy what I supposed might be a once in a lifetime experience. I spent most of the ride back in silence, listening to the music pouring down from the nearby temples, watching children play along the shore and wondering through the ship’s guest log. It was filled with a variety of languages and pictures, even some mirror writing. Reading between the lines I could understand every page, “We had a great time!”

Three Hours in Dubai

January 5, 2008

The first leg of my trip to India was a flight from NYC (JFK) to Dubai (DXB). This was scheduled with Emirates Airlines as 14 hours in the air, but a nice tail wind pushed us there in just under 11.

My luck didn’t stop there. I also sat next to the ONLY open seat on the plane. …And this was a big plane. The A345 (aka Airbus 340-500) seats 313 passengers + crew. …What were the odds the guy next to me would lose his passport in JFK? Oddly enough, that’s exactly what happened.

Knowing this flight would be a long one I forced myself not to sleep the night before, so I was ready for some serious slumber. I fell asleep before takeoff.

I remember waking up a few times during the flight, once long enough to watch a movie. The plane had an excellent selection of films, maybe a few hundred movies and shows? …The 7″ touch-screens also offered seat-to-seat communications, video games, cameras that give passengers a view from the nose and belly of the plane. …IMHO, Emirates Airlines sets a new standard for in-flight entertainment.

After 10 minutes of browsing videos I chose The Man from Snowy River. The movie is based on poem written by Banjo Paterson, an Australian bush poet from the 1800’s. …I love bush poets. You really should watch it if you haven’t, the soundtrack alone is worth your time. …But I digress. At the films conclusion I promptly fell asleep again. The next time I opened my eyes we were landing in Dubai. That’s what I call a great flight!

Exiting the airport in Dubai John (my co-worker and traveling companion) made short-work of tracking down a “tour guide”. He chartered a 3hr tour of the city for something like 150 dirham ($40). …We would have liked to spend more time, but we had to catch our next flight to Trivandrum, India.

Our tour guide was in plain clothing and his car was decal free. For a moment I wondered if he was “really a tour guide” and half expected him to drive us down some dark narrow alley. …Fortunately that’s not what happened.

The first place we stopped was Al-Fahidi Fort museum. The fort was allegedly built in 1787, it’s believed to be the oldest building in Dubai.

Before we went in I realized I was leaving my laptop/life with a complete stranger. Quickly I snapped a picture of his license plate and told myself that would have to suffice.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum. …But long enough to get the distinct impression that the king doesn’t really like museums. Most the exhibits looked like they were thrown together and it smelled bad. I was curious and wanted to learn about their history, but there wasn’t much of an explanation for many artifacts (like the boats pictured below)…

That’s John in the distance on the left. He seemed just as eager to get through this museum as I was.

Pulling away from the museum I caught a glimpse of two locals relaxing on a cart. It looked like a nice relaxing lunch break to me.

Something about this scene brought back good memories. Watching these guys chat reminded me of all the times my buddy Erik I used to meet-up for lunch. Every day we used to act out the same routine.

We’d meet at a nearby grocery store, usually within range of a Starbucks. I’d score a muffin and a Starbucks or Sobe Cranberry Grapefruit Elixir, Erik would grab a bagel and a Sobe Green tea or something exotic. Then we’d sit under the sun and I’d listen to Erik complained about the price of bagels while I sipped my $4 Starbucks and plotted world conquest. Great times, but I digress…

We were now in an older, somewhat rundown part of Dubai. These pictures really don’t do justice to the smell and dirt that tarnished the area. …Though, I’m sure you get used to it after a while.

I was a little surprised to see laundry hanging from windows (pictured below), but I know from experience that high humidity can cause clothing to go moldy. Besides, hanging clothes like this eliminates the need to iron. I figure the eye-sore is worth having clothes that don’t smell musky.

Drying clothes outside is actually a very eco-friendly thing to do, but you try this at home please remember, “Tops by the bottoms, bottoms by the tops” …You’ll understand what I mean if you don’t figure that out.

Back to my trip, my family has done quite a bit of house-boating over the years. These have been some of my favorite family vacations. Naturally I thought of them when I saw this posh houseboat along the riverside. Talk about posh…

As our car moved down the river towards the beach it was hard to tell if I was in Dubai or California. Even the haze seemed to fit the bill…

A few miles down the road we pulled into what looked like another museum. Turns out it was an art gallery, filled with mass-produced art and knock-off carpets. …I guess our tour guide was a villain; no wonder the ride was so cheap.

Take the bird below for example, that’s cast metal (poured not pounded). It made a shallow plinking sound when I flicked it with my finger.

I enjoyed the gallery a lot more than the museum, but I took off when the proprietors started pushing rugs.

Back in the car we headed down the coast towards a more modern and developed area of Dubai. Several miles of the trip looked a lot like Newport Beach’s balboa peninsula.

Eventually we ended up at some hotels that are apparently owned by the king of Dubai. Judging by the building’s he owns, king loves symmetry. The hotels on the Palm Island are a great example. …Not that symmetry is a bad thing, everybody has their own style.

My favorite part about this hotel was actually the courtyard, moat and surrounding vacation homes (presumably rentals)…

This stage area also looked like a fun place to watch a concert at night (minus the xmas tree), I really wish I’d have had time to do that.

Notice the building in the distance on the picture above on the left? As we drew near that skyscraper our tour guide caught site of a helicopter that was just about to land. It was a very hazy day, so you can barely make it out in the picture below in the upper left corner…

A little further down the beach we ran into those Palm Islands we’ve all seen online. I was especially excited about visiting this site.

In case you’re not in the know, Dubai has been building islands in shapes. Some look like the world, with islands in the shapes of countries. Others look like Palms, crescents, etc. You can read more about these on Wikipedia, they’re really quite amazing.

The model above should help you get an idea of where the shot below was taken. It’s still under construction, but they’re building fast. Checkout all those cranes!

Leaving the Palms we headed past the city of Burj, Dubai (picture below). As you can see, there were cranes were everywhere. Apparently Dubai has over 30,000 of them, just over 33% of the cranes in the world.

In the distance below on the left you can see the largest building in the world. That’s still under construction, it’s going to be a must-visit 7-star resort when completed. …I’m looking forward to it!

Next we visited the mall. …Aside from the indoor skiing facility, I wasn’t impressed. But the indoor skiing facility is something to behold. It’s an amazing achievement and very cool attraction (though it can’t hold a candle to my local Mount Hood). Below are some stock photos mixed with those of my own, unfortunately we didn’t have time to try out the slopes.

About this time our guide informed us that we only had 45 minutes left before boarding. That was a problem because we weren’t ready to leave. John and I wanted to try some of the local food. I wasn’t sure if we had the time, but John assured me we did and the tour guide agreed so I went along with it.

Briskly walking from the mall we climbed into our car and raced off. The tour guide wanted to take us to an authentic restaurant that was near the airport. Everything was going perfectly according to schedule, until we placed our order. …20 minutes passed before we were finally given our food.

Now we had 25 minutes before boarding. We raced to the airport but by the time we got there our plane was already boarding. Even knowing this John wanted to stop and eat. I insisted we find our flight first, a few moments later they announced our final boarding call on the overhead. Reluctantly John agreed and we raced off.

Somehow we made it through all three security checkpoints WITH OUR FOOD and still made the flight, but it wasn’t easy. We had to run through the entire airport and, go figure, our plane was at the very end of one of the furthest concourses. Fortunately there were several other tardy passengers so we didn’t miss the flight. …I guess John was right, why did I ever doubt him?

A theory of everything (ToE) is a hypothetical theory of theoretical physics that explains how our reality behaves.

The history of this question is traced back scientifically to ancient Greece, but I’ll bet humans have been asking how things work almost as long as we’ve been wondering why they do.

Modern physics explains how reality behaves using “fundamental forces” which are combined in the process of “fundamental interaction”. The “fundamental forces” include the Strong Force, the Weak Force, Electromagnetism and Gravitation.

Those four “fundamental forces” belong to different studies (Quantum electrodynamics, Quantum chromodynamics, Electroweak Theory, and Einstein’s theory General Relativity).

These scientific theories don’t really explain how everything works together, rather how each “force” operates.

And please note my mention of General Relativity as “Einstein’s theory”. That’s because it’s based on Einstein’s hope of black holes that operate exactly according to his theory. If black holes hold any surprises they would probably crush General Relativity. Fortunately for General Relativity fanboys, black holes can’t be described without a theory of quantum gravity and they cannot be observed.

Modern theories of everything seek to unite these separate studies into one single theory. All ToE theories fall into two camps; those that can be validated using physical experiments and those that cannot.

String theory is probably the most popular model today. It cannot be proven or disproven with a physical experiment and it requires 22 new dimensions. I don’t like String theory because I only believe in four physical dimensions; Space (x,y,z) and Time. I think Extra Dimensions are String theory’s Black Holes. Again, they are essential to the theory but can NEVER be observed.

I used the same sort of argument as a child regarding my powers of invisibility. I would claim to be invisible, but only if you weren’t looking at me. …Think about the similarities between that and General Relativity or String theory.

The whole idea of reality being made up of independent forces is very old, Wind used to be considered a force of nature. I think it’s funny that science has shortened their list but kept their old argument, but I digress.

I want to be clear that I’m not claiming String theory or General Relativity is wrong. I’m trying to explain why they don’t conform to deterministic experimentation, experimentation capable of proving or disproving a theory.

In my opinion all science falls into two camps; one that suffers the burden of proof and another that seems to be exempt from it. I have more respect for the former then the later.

Most of Theories of Everything don’t allow deterministic experimentation, experimentation capable of disproving the theory. …Most of them don’t, but Garret Lisi’s new theory does!!!

Garret’s Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything can be tested using a particle accelerator. His theory explains how everything might work, how all fundamental forces interact. I like his theory, if for no other reason, because it can be easily proven or disproven. I think he’s doing real science the right way.

So, who is the man behind this new theory? Antony Garrett Lisi, a surfer-bum who just happens to have a Ph D in theoretical physics. And he sounds as exceptional as his paper reads. Garret’s theory is based on a mathematical structure known as E8. Garret thinks it can be used to explain the behavior of everything, literally. This structure was only recently plotted/calculated/drawn by the world’s largest super computer. I won’t try to re-write Garret’s paper or better explain his theory, but I do want to show you what E8 looks like…

That picture jogged my memory. A few years ago someone handed me one of those growing/shrinking sphere toys at a party. I don’t remember how much I’d had to drink, but I was totally memorized by the shadow it cast. I’d completely forgotten about that memory, but it came back in a flash when I first saw the E8 pattern.

After some quick Googling I found the picture above on Google. Isn’t it odd how that spherical toy cases an E8-like shadow? Would the correct structure cast an exact E8 pattern?

Garrett’s theory has been receiving an amazing amount of interest. A new article on this subject appears on every hour. A lot of people (including distinguished scientists) think Garret might be onto something, but many scientists (especially lovers of String theory) disagree.

String theory fanboys and craky physicists have bashed Garret saying he doesn’t understand the math well enough to approach this topic (did they forget that Einstein’s wife helped with his math). Some of these critics don’t think his theory should have even been published. Sometimes these critics include math in their arguments against Garret’s theory.

Personally, I can’t speak to Garret’s math or that of his critics. I’ve been trying to understand the math behind this and I don’t think I ever will. All I can say is that it’s very complicated. This exercise made me wonder, if mathematicians are so smart why can’t they communicate with words? I realize that many brilliant people are only brilliant on certain topics, and total loons on others. …Is it too much to ask for one brilliant critic who’s also a brilliant communicator?

One argument I did understand against Garrett’s theory is that it would send science back to Keplers idea of one tiny universal particle if it were correct. ….But so what if the universe might be made up of one kind of ultimately tiny particles?

In my opinion mentioning Johannes Kepler only gives Garrett more credibility. Especially since Kepler believed geometry was the key to understanding science. In fact, that premise was the key to many of his discoveries.

One of Kepler’s key discoveries was the rotation of Mars. Below is a picture, the line ends where it would continue in reality. Prior to Kepler it had been thought that things moved on a maze of perfect circles.

Kepler proved there was complex geometry behind orbits. We now acknowledge an abundance of geometry in nature, so why it impossible is that everything operates within the bounds of a single geometry? If I understood the paper, Garrett’s theory contends that everything conforms to the geometry in E8. That seems like a good guess to me.

Michelle the Flying Cow

November 6, 2007

No, I didn’t forget about my blog. I was simply waiting and watching for the next great article. …Today I found it. You want to read this.

Fresh from today’s headlines, this is totally legit…

Couple escapes injury when falling cow hits minivan

Early Sunday morning in my home state of Washington something terrible happened. A visiting Michigan couple was driving home from church along the lake when all the sudden…

SLAMMOOO!!! A huge freakin’ cow landed on the hood of their car, instantly killing the peaceful creature.

The escaped cow was a beloved local prize heifer, affectionately named Michelle. It has been said of Michelle that she was fond of gazing into the heavens, sometimes with a longing look in her eye. …Not exactly normal cow behavior.

Obviously Michelle had decided she wanted to fly. Being an intelligent animal she must have planned to make her attempt over the lake. Unfortunately Michelle probably miscalculated her speed and trajectory by a few decimal places, resulting in a leap that landed her in history but was tragically short of clearing the road.

This is the cliff where Michelle made her fatal flight attempt…

This is the car…

And this is Michelle…

Your thoughts?

48hrs @ Ocean Park

September 14, 2007

A little while ago my sister April (picture below) invited me on a last-minute weekend vacation to my parent’s beach house in Ocean Park, WA. We both have somewhat stressful jobs and we needed a break.

(she wishes that was her bus)

April had also invited my little brother Richard and her friend “Chips” aka Zeinab. Zeinab is an exchange student we know from Senegal. The Friday we left landed on the same day as Richard’s first football game. Fortuitously his game ended up being half way to the beach house. Richard took the bus to the game and we got there just in time to catch the last quarter. Here’s a pic from my camera phone…

After the game we hit the road. An hour later we were parking at the beach house. This map gives you a decent idea of the distances…

After unpacking we ran down to the beach to find ourselves on an empty beach. In the distance we could see one bon-fire. After a strolling for a minute we decided to build our own fire. This trip I constructed a nice blaze eight logs high using the Log Cabin technique. We had a total on two bundles of firewood stacked. It never fell over, but it wasn’t easy. We couldn’t find an Axe and I left my trusty hatchet at home. So… I grabbed the only hammer and got busy, leaving Richard to strip the wood off the logs by hand. He’s younger, it’s good training.

We relaxed by the fire and watched a meteor shower without saying anything. I think we were all just really tired. I know I was, and I enjoyed the silence. Eventually April and Zeinab fell asleep, so we headed back to the beach house.

We woke up the next morning to find ourselves famished. My sister had recently heard about the “ultimate breakfast café” on the peninsula, so we decided to hunt it down.

…April was driving, and we got lost. We were aimlessly wondering the peninsula until I spotted a gray hair and told my sister to pull over. I simply asked, “Hey, do you know where that new café is? You know, the new one that’s supposed to be ‘so-amazing'” Sure enough, he knew right where it was and piped back exact directions. …The gray hairs there know everything.

Within 5-minutes we had found the restaurant. I took a seat at an aging picnic table under a large maple tree while I waited for my dish. There I was entertained by a variety of friendly caterpillars…

My breakfast was an egg sandwich made up of two thick slices of homemade bread, spread with top-shelf butter and sprinkled with a hint of spices. I bet the eggs were gathered that morning, they tasted very fresh.

After the meal we decided to visit Long Beach (the largest city on the peninsula). Along the way we stopped at a garage sale and I scored some toys for my puppy. I think he likes them…

…I just love the facial expression on that elephant (we named him Babar). The puppy is teething, and as you can see he prefers ears.

So, after the garage sale we continued towards Long Beach. Eventually we found parking and headed towards the scooter rental shack where we procured two scooters (Richard and Zeinab don’t have a license yet).

A few minutes later we were the roads of Long Beach!!! Covering half the town only took a few minutes, so we decided to head out towards the Cranberry bogs.

Long Beach produces 20% of the cranberries on the West Coast. It was a fun ripping along the bogs, occasionally sampling the berries (suck on them, don’t bite them).

The scooters 20mph max sort-of felt like a standstill, but as you can see from the videos we still managed to have a good time…

We dropped off the scooters off right next to the go-kart track. The tack in Long Beach is as ghetto as they come. No helmets, no rules, just crappy go-karts on a track lined with rubber tires. …We all hurt ourselves there, but it was fun.

Here’s an aerial shot of the course and action right before we started racing. I had planned on taking a shot while I was racing, but I was so busy spanking Richard and Zeinab that I forgot to.

Talking smack was probably half the fun of racing. I ensured Richard and Zeinab that I would be completely unbiast when blogging about the race….But I never said I wouldn’t lie. Take it or leave it, this is my version of what happened.

The last stop on the trip was the huge frying pan. April and Zeinab couldn’t resist the photo op…