The Lounge Life

It is a little later than usual, but I have finally reached the moment of Spring Break. That means leaving those books and papers behind, and spending time exploring the world. A typical conversation that is had among teachers at international schools is where they will be traveling during the break, and of course that always leads to conversations about airports and the pains of commuting. It used to be one of the things I dreaded the most during the travel seasons, but since I have gained access to the lounges in airports, it has made the layover part of traveling less burdensome. While I wait for my plane to arrive at the gate, I can enjoy a comfortable chair, a buffet featuring the cuisine of whatever country I find myself in, and a couple of free drinks. It has made life so much better, and I will always get on that plane feeling a load lifted off of me as I make my way to my final destination.

I have recently found out that this privilege is not given to people of all countries. Colleagues of mine from Ireland, Australia, and Canada are not able to obtain those credit cards that give them access to these oases. It made me feel a little bad that I brought up these locations to my friends. While I was departing from Amman and sitting in the comfortable lounge there, they were only granted access to a few restaurants, most of them slapping together a quick meal that they still had to pay for. It is not like they do not deserve this luxury, and I do hope that things can work out for them so in the future they can. It still seems a little absurd that these places only give access to people from certain countries. I would hop that in this day and age that we would no longer see this kind of restriction, and hopefully we can work to making this less of a problem in the future.

Though I do like the fact that I am able to enjoy my time at the airport in a comfortable space that is free from the masses, I do believe that it should not be so exclusive so certain people from certain countries can never gain access to them. I am told that it is because there is not the competition among banks and credit card companies in certain countries, therefore, there is no reason for them to offer these kinds of benefits to their customers. In a way, it does make sense, but still, if a person flies on a regular basis, they should be allowed to have these privileges. It makes me feels a little bad that I am relaxing in a comfortable place; whereas, a friend of mine, who travels just as much as I do, who happens to be Irish, can’t come up because their bank won’t allow them to. Maybe, these privileges should not come from banks, but through the airline instead. They are the ones who would know the frequency of travel from some people and offer them that option. It would make more sense to me then what bank someone belongs to, but the world runs through banks, and until we figure out a way to work around them, we will always be under their rules.

Until then, I will continue to enjoy these spots. They are great, and I hope to one day see you and everyone that travels a lot there, so we can enjoy the space together.

St. Patrick’s Day in Italy

Will there be complaints if my drink is red,
Instead of being traditional green?
It is not what the ceremony bled,
But it is the drink of my current scene.
There is still a fair amount I will imbibe,
So I can find the proper state of mind.
I do not want to hear your diatribe
Of how the island is not so refined,
But I find myself a lot further south,
And they still celebrate this holiday.
Something different goes into their mouth,
Toasting the saint in their own special way.
The bottle of red wine will do the trick
On the Venetian’s day of St. Patrick.

San Marco Square – Venice, Italy

When you travel to a famous place, there are always must see sights, especially if it is your first time there. Sometimes these places are so important that when you travel back to these certain places, you find that you want to make it there again to see if it is the same as you remembered it the first time you were there. When traveling the Venice, there are two such places, the Rialto Bridge, and San Marco Square. These places are even better if you can make it out to them during the off season, when the crowds are not as large.

It is also interesting to see how much the place has changed over the years. Of course, the same stores and sites are still in place, but the last time I was out here, the square was covered in pigeons. Back then, you could buy bird feed and wait with it in your hands as the birds would crawl all over you to get a bite. The city of Venice was okay with this, because back then, they would add birth control to the bird feed to keep the population of the pigeons down. I found out later, that they stopped doing this shortly after I was there last time, but apparently the plan had worked. These birds were no longer all over the place, and the square was open for people to walk on through.

The pigeons are not the reason that people come to this place though. There are plenty of other great sites lined up on the square that make it worth visiting. The Doge’s palace is one of these sites. It was where the leader of Venice used to live during the height of its economic power. It is a fancy building filled with ancient art from before and up to the Renaissance. It also has the spot where people can peer out the Bridge of Sighs. People being imprisoned in Venice would cross over this bridge when they were being led to jail for the rest of their lives, and the small window would offer their last view of Venice as they made their way to this final spot. It is pretty expensive to get in to see these things, starting at 30 Euro a person, but if you walk behind the building, you can still see the Bridge of Sighs and people peering out of it in a much better mood than the people who gave the bridge its original name.

And of course, there is the Basillica di San Marco which attracts an even larger crowd. Most of this is because it is a lot less expensive to enter being only three Euro a person. This will take you inside the cathedral whose inside is covered in mosaic that is worth a fortune just in stones used for it alone. Add together the intricate patterns that are created with these stones, it makes for a place worth your time to walk around.

For a little extra, you can go up to the top floor and tour the museum. It is filled with precious pieces of art, which the one being the most impressive is the four horses. Replicas of these horses can be seen on top of the basillica, and it used to be the resting place that housed these horses. This is not the end of the story though. The horses are actually older than the cathedral itself. They were found originally in Constantinople and were stolen by the Venetians to be brought to this cathedral and placed there. Nobody is sure how old they are, but they think that they date all the way back to the third century AD.

All in all, it is a great place to visit twice, and both of the times I have come here, I have enjoyed it. San Marco Piazza is a must see place, and I hope that someday you can make it out there to enjoy it as well.

Is Murano Worth It?

Don’t be fooled. You are not looking at a picture of Venice. This is an island very close to Venice and usually associated with a visit to this historic site. If you ever walk down the streets of Venice, you will find many shops selling the very expensive blown glass sculptures. These small pieces of art come from this other island where artisans come to show their hands at this craft, and if you want, you can take a short vaporetto, water bus, ride out there to see how it is done. You just need to find one of the buses that will take you out to the island of Murano, and you can see where all of this blown glass comes from.

The big question is whether the trip is worth it. It is not that far of a ride, and when you get there, you will be able to see more shops selling more intricate pieces. It is fun to look at the art, but the island has the same kind of feel that Venice does, only on a smaller scale. If this is a type of art form that you are interested in, there are displays that you can witness to watch how they create it. If you get tired of looking at art, there are places where you can grab a gelato, or a nice Italian meal, and when I went out there, the crowds were a little smaller than the ones I experienced on Venice. So for these reasons, it is a nice day trip to take if you find yourself staying in Venice for an extended stay.

But this comes with a warning. The way you got out there is the way you have to get back. The vaporettos only come every twenty minutes, and that is if they are running on time. There are a lot of stops along the way, and at a certain time in the afternoon, they start to get packed. I was there during the off season in March, and I had to wait for four different boats before I was able to squeeze onto one. I also left at 2:30 in the afternoon thinking that it would be before the crowds got there. I could not imagine what it would be like during a rush hour, or during the height of the tourist season. The point being if you go out there, you might find yourself stuck in line for a long time trying to get back to the main island.

To be clear, I really enjoyed the afternoon I spent on Murano. It was fun looking at the glass sculptures, and I had a great lunch. My frustration came when I tried to leave the island. The feeling I got from the island could have easily been found on Venice without the frustration of having to travel both ways to get there. Murano is not a must see, but for a certain select group of people, I could see why they would want to go there. If you are one of those people, please make your way out there, but try to plan it to avoid the frustration of trying to get back. Make sure you are on the stop that picks up passengers first, or leave later in the evening where there is not a mad rush to get back to Venice. It is the one thing that can make the time there not worth it, but otherwise, it can be a lot of fun to experience what all the noise about the Murano glass is all about.

Thanks for listening, and until next time, enjoy your time traveling.

Getting Lost – Venice, Italy

When I was just starting off in my teaching career, I had saved up enough money to fly over to Europe to spend fifty days traveling around the various countries. I was working on a shoestring budget and spent a lot of time in various hostels, eating meals of bread and cheese to make sure that we were able to enjoy ourselves the best our budget would allow. There were many cities on that trip that I really enjoyed and I always told myself that when I could afford them more, I would come back to see them again.

Venice, Italy was one of these places. Some of the others disappeared from my mind as I continued to travel around the world, but Venice never did. It has always been one of my favorite places to have visited, and I tell people all the time that if they ever get a chance to make it out there, they should.

There is not another place in the world like it. The city has taken over this tiny island on the eastern edge of Italy. Because of all the water and canals, no motored vehicles are allowed to make their way across the cobblestone streets. This means that the roads are free for people to walk up and down at their leisure, and it also makes Venice the best walking town in the world.

One of my favorite memories from the last trip was wandering around Venice for a day. It is the perfect place to get lost in. You can’t get so lost that you will never be able to find your way out because you are on an island, and you cannot leave it. At the same time you can get lost enough where you find yourself strolling down back alleys and seeing sights that you would never suspect seeing. You will always be able to make it back to some place where you know where you are, such as San Marco Piazza, or the Rialto Bridge, and from there, you can catch a water bus back to a place close to where you are staying. It makes for a fun and cheap day of exploring one of the best cities in the world.

I am glad that I have been able to make my way back here, so I can explore more of this city. Coming back before the tourist season, in March, has been another treat. The crowds I had to fight sometimes, the last time I was here, are nowhere to be seen which allows me the freedom to get completely lost in the medieval maze and sometime feel like the whole city is here for me and me alone. It is great to know that the memories I made the last time I was out here did not steer me wrong, and it is still a great place to visit. I hope you get the chance to do it yourself some time, so you can share the corners of this city that you have discovered on your own day of wandering the city.

Ma’in Hot Spa – Jordan

We all need weekend getaways, and when given a three day weekend, we all like to jump on the opportunity to go take some time for ourselves. This is what I did this weekend. I did not have enough time to fly out of the country, but I still wanted to find a nice place where I could relax for a bit. I also wanted to experience something new. A friend of mine told me about these hot springs by the Dead Sea, so I thought that I would try that out.

Heading there, I instantly felt that this was the perfect place for a getaway from Amman, especially during the winter months. Amman has been hit with cold weather, and bouts of snow, but just an hour drive away locked away in a hidden canyon, the weather is perfect. It feels like a crisp fall or spring day with just enough sunshine to leave you comfortable. It is a very relaxing atmosphere, and the best part is, when you feel a little too cold, you can always hop into the warm, soothing water of the pool. It is like stepping into a hot tub, except there is enough space for everybody to find their own little corner. It is perfect on a day like the ones we experienced. I don’t know if it would as great during the summer months, but there is another pool there that was closed in February. I believe that this is the regular swimming pool, so during the warmer months, you could go there to cool off.

Some people drive down from Amman, just for the day. The pool is open to the public from nine o’clock in the morning until seven at night. But if you are looking to have a little privacy with the pool, there is a hotel attached to the pool. If you stay there at night, the pool is made available to you at six in the morning, so you can have the pool to yourself for a couple of hours before the crowds arrive. It is a little expensive, but a night’s stay does include dinner and breakfast, and the buffet does make the stay worth the price. The rooms are also really comfortable with amazing views of the valley.

The Ma’in Hot Spa is a great getaway, or even a nice night stop if you are traveling around the Dead Sea. It is only Qwant kilometers off highway 40 next to the Dead Sea. You just take the turnoff for the Panorama Plaza and follow the signs until you reach the hotel. It is a nice addition to any holiday, an definitely the perfect weekend getaway from Amman, Jordan.

A Quick Tuk Tuk Ride – Chennai, India

There are a couple of places in this world that are known for their tuk tuks, and India is one of them. Basically a tuk tuk is a motorcycle that has a backseat attached to it, so some driver can speed tourists around a busy city. They are called tuk tuks because of the noise they make as they putter around. They are fun to take, but depending on where you are, you need to make a deal with the driver before you leave about how much you are going to pay, and where they will be taking you. There are many scams surrounding these vehicles, but if you stick to your guns, you can get a reasonable price, and have a driver waiting around for you as you go from place to place. The trips are usually short, but the feeling of being rushed around in an open air vehicle is one that is too much fun to pass over if you find yourself in one of the countries that relies on these as a form of transportation.

I recently took a trip to Chennai which, in retrospect, was a lot like a tuk tuk ride. I guess you could call the trip a business trip. I was taking a group of kids from my school to a track meet at a school in this city. For those of you who have been on a business trip before, you know that they rarely give you the opportunity to do anything more than the business that you were sent out there to do. You could find yourself in one of the most amazing tourist destinations in the world, but all you could see of that place is the inside of a board room. At least, I got to experience the beautiful campus of the school that I went to, and a track meet is always going to be a lot more fun than sitting in meeting after meeting. But I was still busy, and like take a quick ride on a tuk tuk, it was nothing more than a whirlwind that I am still trying to wrap my head around.

During the short moments that I was able to get and explore the city, they were never to go some place that would have enriched me culturally. My first responsibility was to make sure that the students I had with me enjoyed their experience first. This meant that I went to a beach where they were able to spend some time figuring out how to boogie board, and dig around in the sand. We also went to a mall to waste a little time before we headed to the airport to fly home. The mall was a little too western for my tastes and was like any other mall that I have been to in the world, but my students enjoyed it. All of this did was give me a little bit of a teaser that made me want to eventually return to India so I could explore it more on my terms rather than the short spurts of energy that was required of me by coming out here on this school trip.

Still I was able to sneak in a tuk tuk ride on my tuk tuk ride of Chennai. It was probably the most cultural significant thing that I was able to do. It was a quick run to a store so I could find a gift to bring back to my wife, and we had to pay the tuk tuk driver a little extra money to have him stick around for us. Still, it was nice to get away for a thirty minutes and have this small moment in this new country for me. I enjoyed the tuk tuk ride, but I am looking forward to something a little slower next time. This way I will be able to experience the moments a little better than being whisked away through the landscape. But it still better to have a tuk tuk ride rather than no ride at all.

Here is to all of those tuk tuk rides out there, and I hope that the next one that you find yourself on, though it may be quick, will still be memorable.

Grit – SIASA Track and Field Meet – Chennai, India

India has always been on my list as one of the countries I have wanted to visit, so when I was told that our big meet of the year for the high school track team that I coach would be in Chennai, I got really excited. I knew that it would be a busy trip where I wouldn’t have much time to explore, but what I didn’t know was that it would be a grueling slog that I would have to push my way through.

The meet took place at the American International School of Chennai, an all day travel day from the place I live and work in Jordan. It is never easy to guide twenty students, a majority of whom were middle schoolers, through the process of getting on planes and working their way through customs, so they could compete in this event. The meet itself was a three day affair where events were taking place early in the morning, and went until late in the evening where we were whisked back to our hotel. It allowed enough time to decompress for a bit before having to crawl into bed so we could do it all over again the next day. I have been on trips like this before, and this was just another example of how a busy five-day schedule could wear somebody out.

Despite the grueling schedule, the trip was totally worth it. We had spent a couple of months getting our athletes ready for this event. At times, they wondered why we were working them so hard, but when they got out there, they were able to see how fast they could run, how high they could jump, and how far they could throw puts, and discuses.

Track has always been one of my favorite sports. I enjoy watching the events, and it is even more fun when I am able to be out on the track, coaching my athletes through their long distance races. It is fun to watch the grit that these kids have finally pay off. training takes a long time to get ready for one of these events, and it is hard to come after a hard day at school to push one’s self to lift weights and run laps when you don’t see any payoff during that whole time. Finally, they got to show off what they could do.

But it was not just the medals that the kids won that made this trip so great. We weren’t able to do the cultural thing which I love to experience so much while going on a trip like this, but we were able to connect with other students from other countries, and get to know each other better. There is a bonding experience that only happens at a track meet. It is not just with the members of your own team, but also with the members of the other teams as well. You might go out and run a race against another individual, and you might win or lose, but in the end, you are both congratulating each other for the battle that had just ensued. Even on occasion, you will even pick each other up from the track, or give advice about how to do an event better. You push each other to do better while collaborating to be better yourself. I do not think that there is another sport out there that allows for this kind of dynamic, and I love it.

So, the trip on a whole wore me out, and it might take me longer to recover from it than how long I was out there experiencing the whole event. It required me to show a little grit myself, but it was still worth every moment. I am glad, just like my students, that I saw that grit through.

Waking Up in India

It is always fun taking a flight that lands you in the middle of the night. You are whisked away from the airport in some random transit towards your hotel. Your brain is a little foggy with the pressurized atmosphere of the plane, the change of time zones, and the long day of travel. All you want to do is lie down on a bed and get some sleep, but still you are excited about the new environment you find yourself in. You try as hard as you might to look beyond the street lights and closed shop to get some idea about the lay of the land, but you can’t find any insight about it. You only get glimpses and hints of what your trip will be about, and entices you enough to keep your eyes open though you can feel the weight of your lids press down. Even the abandoned hotel lobby won’t give you any information about where you have landed. It looks the same as any other place that you might have encountered on the many different voyages you have taken in your lifetime. You just have to stumble off to your room, and try to make sense of the time you have left in the evening, and as you drift off to sleep, you wonder what this new adventure will bring.

This is what I experienced last night as I landed in Chennai for a track and field meet that I am taking my students to. When the alarm woke me up this morning, I opened up the blinds to my room to find a city outside that was familiar in some aspects. The tuk tuks, reminiscent of Bangkok crowded the bust streets, a heavy humidity hung over the air, and the haze of a busy Asian city loomed in the air just beyond the horizon. Yet, I could feel that things were going to be just a little different. The morning news talked about the most recent Cricket match, the statues around the city were of various Hindu gods, and I have not seen Buddha anywhere, and the air carried the aroma of Indian spices. It was different enough to excite me about this next adventure though it will be spent mainly at a high school track. It is still fun to wake up in a different country with new experiences and the possibility to be exposed to a new culture.

I can’t wait to see what I will find.

The Holidays in the Middle East

Christmas decoration in the mountains of Oman

It may be that I was trained at an early age, but I always find it weird to be a warm location during the holiday season. Snow should be coming out of the sky, forcing me to bundle up in a warm coat, and watch the blinking lights from a safe distance. The malls should be crowded with holiday shoppers, and everybody should be in good cheer.

Jabreen Fort in Oman

But when it is warm out, it doesn’t have the same feel. I want to go for hikes, and explore the world around me. This was more the focus of this holiday season, and though it may have been different, in a way, it was more authentic.

Abu Dhabi’s skyline

In the hustle and bustle that we lose ourselves into during every holiday season, we sometimes forget that in reality, it is not about the snow, and pine trees. It is not about the presents, and the parties. It actually started off in a very humble manner, in the place where I am now living, and traveling through during the holiday season. Maybe, instead of having this Nordic experience every year, we should turn our attention to sand, and camels.

The Old House in Misfah, Oman

Despite the stringing up of power lines, and the introduction of indoor plumbing, the Middle East has not changed a lot over the two thousand years since the birth of the holiday season. There are many opportunities to find small old houses to stay in, sleeping on the floor, and hearing the voices of animals just outside your window. The community still gathers together in those places for meals, and enjoys the company of each other under skies that do not threaten you with anything more than a warm day. It is completely unlike anything that we think about when the holiday season comes to mind.

Staircase up to the Imam’s rooms in Jabreen Fort in Oman

Granted the Middle East is a predominantly Muslim part of the world, and the further that I get away from my home in Jordan, the harder it is to see the aspects of Christianity that I grew up with and became accustomed to. That does not mean that the holidays are not celebrated there. New Year’s Eve looks like the bigger celebration, especially in the bigger cities, but still there are aspects of Christmas around as well. It is just shown in different ways, and it reminds me of those ornaments that, as a child, we always placed on the bottom part of the tree. They were of shepherds, and camels, and donkeys, and of course, the whole crew to fill out the nativity, and those are everywhere to be seen out in the Middle East. It just reminds me of a Christmas celebration that is sometimes pushed to the side, instead of being celebrated more.

The Corniche beach in Abu Dhabi

Though I found myself wandering the desert, and relaxing on the beach this holiday season, it did not mean that it wasn’t any less special. Yes, it definitely felt different than what I was accustomed to, but it was still a nice way to spend the holidays.

Sunset in Abu Dhabi

The beauty of the season did not come in electric systems that were put to the test to keep lights blinking, but instead from the explosion of color in the sky that came from when the sun set. The warmth of the season did not come from bundling up close to a fire, but standing in the sand letting the sun thaw me out. The feeling of the season still came from those I was able to share it with which, in the end, is what the holiday season should be about.

Al Qana in Abu Dhabi

I did enjoy the time that I got to have in both Oman and Abu Dhabi. It is a side of the world that I have gotten to explore, and I do believe that this experience has given me a greater appreciation for the place in the world that I live in. I hope that you can come to the same agreement with wherever you find yourself. Be sure to appreciate the ones you are near, and look forward to not just the dawn of a New Year, but each day that follows it.

Thanks again, until next time.