Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A bit about travelling.

I can't believe that I forgot to mention one of the most useful links: Trip Advisor. I don't use it for booking vacations, what it is great for is the hotel reviews. Readers can sumbit reviews of the hotels that they stayed at and this gives you a great insight into what hotels to stay in, and what ones to avoid. Just search for "hotels in XYZ" and the list will come up. I try to use hotels that have at least 10+ reviews (better chance that the reviews have not been stacked by hotel management logging on and giving it a fabulous review). I've used the reviews when picking hotels for the past 3 years and it hasn't steered me wrong yet. Check it out next time you are planning a trip.

I have discovered that the airlines in this region: Qatar Airways, Gulf Air (Bahrain), and Emirates (Dubai) all have an interesting trick. I always wondered why flights back to Doha were full of people who were using Doha as a transit point to their next stop and assumed that the airlines were cutting their prices for transit passengers going to Asia and other destinations. Turns out, and a friend and I checked this out online, that flights to a destination are cheaper if transiting though the regional hub than if you were going there from the hub directly. Example:

Doha -> New York on Qatar Airways: ~$1,125
Dubai -> Doha -> New York on QA: $878

Doha -> London on QA: ~$1,200
Doha -> Dubai -> London on Emirates: $906
Dubai -> London on Emirates: ~$1,150

What the heck is up with that, pay more and take one less flight!? Gulf Air does this as well. You pay a couple of hundred more to fly from the regional hub than if you transited through the hub. Next time I book a ticket I might go down to the airline ticket agency and ask why this is, maybe they'll give me a discount to keep quiet. ;-)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Links to occupy your time

The internet is an interesting and bizarre place. Here's some links to neat sites that you might not have seen before. Something to while away the hours with:

A great site for getting backgrounds and wallpaper for your computer is Digital Blasphemy. It is by an artist who uses computer graphics programs to create beautiful images of landscapes, fictional planets etc. Many of the works can be downloaded free of charge, no registration required. Take a look through his galleries.

I'm sure you have all heard of the film critic Roger Ebert, but did you know he maintains a list of what he considers great movies. There are probably about a hundred of them, each with a detailed review. Some of his choices are obvious (Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssey), some are older films or foreign films you've likely never heard of (Battle of Algiers, Bob le Flambeur, L'Avventua), some are films that you'll love to be reminded of (A Christmas Story, Snow White, Moonstruck) and some that you may recall were in theaters but you never bothered to see (Dark City, Crumb). Go through the list and maybe you'll find something new to rent. I have a copy of A Hard Day's Night in my DVD collection now thanks to this list.

All the news that is not fit to print, Fark.com, a great site for finding out the latest news of the weird. I've mentioned this site before in my blog and it really is worth checking out. The articles that readers submit can range from tragic to comically bizarre. The photoshop contests are usually a treat as well.

And if you're the mellow type, or just feeling a little blue, try Cute Overload, a website dedicated to cute pictures of fuzzy widdle animals. Kittens? check. Fuzzy bunnies? check. Puppies? you got it in spades.

That outta keep you busy. If you know some really cool links, let me know.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Random bits

I was reading a book on Salvador Dali (with lots of pictures of his work) before going to bed last night. Big mistake - I had the weirdest dreams about melting figures and stuff. So make a mental note to yourself: don't read about Dali before sleeping.

French people really do appreciate it when you try to speak to them in French, even if you mess it up somewhat. While in Paris at least three times people complemented me on my French or me trying to use it. How many times have you seen anyone compliment somebody for trying to speak English? So I will make an extra effort to try to learn a bit of the local language when I go travelling (which means I need to brush up more on my Arabic).

Tonight I'm going out with a few people to a local restaurant for a Dosa Festival. Essentially, you sit down and eat lots of Dosas. Sounds good to me! I love crepes. (Not sure about having it with pickles though).

The humidity here has finally started to ramp up, now every time you go outside it feels like stepping into a sauna. It'll probably stay this way until late October. I can't say I enjoy it much as it gets so humid you just don't want to be outside for long. Gotta plan my next getaway, maybe the first week in September.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

London vs. Paris

Okay so how was the trip? Which city did I like better? Well, I figured I'd do a itemized list of things to compare the two cities on, almost like a competition:

Overall look: London has an interesting mix of buildings both old and new but Paris retains much of its architectural charm. Neighbourhood after neighbourhood looks like it is from the late 19th-early 20th century, with four or five storey apartment buildings side by side with the shuttered windows etc. By keeping the architecture consistent the streets of Paris retain a lot of charm.

Winner: Paris

Cleanliness: Both cities were not immaculate of course but the parks were well-maintained even though busy streets were a little grungy. Overall things were relatively good considering they are both major cities. I had heard that in Paris there are dog droppings everywhere but I didn’t find that to be the case at all.

Winner: I’ll give this one a tie, both cities were fine.

Air quality: Both cities had some air quality problems due to all of the cars but there was something else with the air in London – blowing my nose would result in a tinge of grey, something that didn’t occur in Paris. I also saw a number of bicycle riders in London wearing masks/filters, something I never saw in Paris.

Winner: Paris

Least expensive: Don’t get me wrong – both cities are prrrriiicey. Hotel costs are brutal, and food is not cheap either. Overall though I found beer, coffee and most food items cheaper in London, and wine and bread/pastries cheaper in Paris. (in this case “cheaper” still means at least 2X what you’d pay back home). However London doesn’t charge for most museums and attractions, while in Paris most museums charge 7-10 euro for entry. Considering all of the museums these cities have that adds up for someone doing the tourist thing.

Winner: London, thanks to subsidized museums.

Metro: Both the Paris Metro and the London Underground provide great service to anywhere a tourist wants to go. Always make sure wherever it is that you are staying that it is close to a metro/underground station and then you can just use a multi-day pass to get around. Overall I found the Underground a bit easier to navigate, and trains ran a bit more frequently (usually every 2-4 minutes as opposed to 3-7 minutes in Paris). The Underground was a bit cleaner as well, though that isn’t saying much, but the scent of stale urine was definitely to be found in some Metro stations.

Winner: London

Restaurants: Well I certainly didn’t eat everywhere, and wasn’t eating in top-end jacket & tie types of places, but the food in restaurants was generally good in both cities. I recall some service issues in the occasional place in Paris that didn’t occur in London though. One memorable one was in a sidewalk café on the Champs de Elysses where the waiter placed down a paper tablecloth, napkins and cutlery on our table but when we just ordered coffees he grabbed the tablecloth, napkins & cutlery and moved them to another table where another couple was sitting! He then had us move to the table next to them – all because we weren’t ordering food. Weird. We and the other couple had a good laugh when we told them where their cutlery had come from (though we did point out that we hadn’t touched it).

Winner: London, edging out the win due to better service.

Museums: The British Museum is iconic, and it’s collection of Egyptian antiquities can’t be beat outside of Egypt, but as a museum the Louvre is in a class on its own. You would have to combine the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum to even come close to the sheer size of the Louvre collection, and the walls and ceilings of many of the Louvre’s galleries are artworks in-and-of themselves, retaining their centuries-old décor. The park and gardens around the Louvre are also spectacular. And I didn’t even see most of the other museums in Paris.

Winner: Paris, unless you are a massive fan for all things Egyptian

Other attractions: Cruising the Seine beats the Thames. Eiffel Tower is better than the London Eye and Big Ben. Westminster Abbey beats Notre Dame. St. Paul’s edges out Sacre-Coeur (St. Paul’s is more historical and has more to see, though Sacre-Coeur has a must-see view of Paris). Arc de Triumph leaves Trafalgar Square in the dust. Finally there is the walk from the Arc de Triumph, down the Champs de Elysees, through numerous parks, past the Obelisk, past some large fountains, until you reach the parks in front of the Louvre. That walk cannot be matched by anything in London.

Winner: Paris

Nightlife: I don’t know much about the quality of nightlife in the two cities but London is a pub culture so it seemed that anywhere you looked there was a pub or club that you could pop into. In Paris that was a lot harder to find, cafes were much more plentiful.

Winner: London, just due to the ease of finding places.

Safety: Both cities have their dodgy neighbourhoods but overall I didn’t have any issues. There were a few beggars here and there in either city, and the odd homeless guy in the parks or metro stations – nothing to the level you see in cities like Vancouver or LA. There were signs warning people about pickpockets in Paris but I never saw anything or heard any commotion. Janel may have had a pair of earrings stolen from her hotel room in Paris though, probably by a maid but it is possible someone came through the window of her 1st floor room.

Winner: I’ll say London based on the earrings but if Janel does find them I’ll move this one to a “tie”.

Queues: Way longer in Paris than in London for all major tourist attractions. London’s only major queue problem was at Madame Tuseud’s, so we didn’t bother going in. Waited over an hour to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and skipped Notre Dame because of the long line. Crowding was pretty bad at the Louvre as well.

Winner: London

The Overall Winner: Though London beat Paris 6-4 in the categories Paris won the major ones: overall look, museums, & other attractions. If I had to choose for only one of them to go to for a vacation I’d choose Paris over London. Paris Wins!

[People on tight budgets, people who greatly prefer pubs over cafes, families with kids (sodas in Paris cafes cost at least 3.50 euro!), and Egyptologists might be better off in London though.]

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I'm baaaaaaaaack.

Back from the Europe trip. I had a wonderful time in London and Paris and like most good trips it is a bit of a drag that it had to end and head back home. After being in Paris I now realize that my five-years of French class in high school has meant that my French sucked. It definately improved as time went on but was still sketchy at best. However I went from asking the hotel reception:

day one: Key to room six-ten s'il vous plait.

last day: La cle pour la chambre six-cent dix, s'il vous plait.

If I had stayed a few more weeks maybe I'd have really gotten the hang of it. The real problem came when French people would talk back in French because the odds of me understanding them was near-zero. Like one time I asked for a coffee and the waitress said something like dulait and I'm wondering what a dulait is, thinking it was one word, instead of du lait (lait being milk). Oh well, c'est la vie.

I'll blog more tomorrow, I'm pretty tired right now since I took a red-eye back to Doha from Paris so it is time to go to bed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Off to London and Paris!

For the next couple of weeks blogging will be sporatic, I'm off to Europe tomorrow morning! I can't wait. I'm meeting up with some friends in London, and a former housemate of mine from Bermuda will be meeting me in London and journeying on to Paris with me.

While I've been to London a few times I never get tired of it, and I've never been to Paris before so I'm really looking forward to that. I'm taking the Eurostar between London and Paris, so I'll get to see the countryside a bit and go through the Chunnel. I think me travelling by Eurostar will be a one-off though -- a one-way trip is costing >$300! Yikes! Pretty bloody expensive for a 2 & 1/2 hour train trip. Some people have told me that flying between the two cities is actually cheaper, but then again you also have more hassle with all of the stuff you have to go through at the airport. The Eurostar also stops in the centre of Paris so it is more convenient to get to my hotel then from Charles de Gaulle airport.

Temperature currently a moderate 20 with chance of clouds and rain. Works for me! I need an escape from the heat so I'd prefer that then 28 degrees and sunny the whole time. Give me cool and cloudy.

If I get a chance I'll send some updates from Europe. No guarantees though, I'm not going to Paris is the summer to hunt down internet cafes to update blogs.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

One thing to make you sad, one to make you laugh.

Here's a couple of links that you might find interesting. First the sad one, the website for the orphanage in Nepal that my friend Mary taught at this Spring:


If you click on "About Us" then "Children" you get a bio of each of the kids at the orphange. While many of the orphans have lost their parents some of them have one or both of their parents still alive. Mary was telling me that in Nepal it is not uncommon that when someone gets remarried that they have to abandon the children from their previous marriage, so many of the children in the orphanage have simply been abandoned. Unbelievable. Some of them were beggars and living on the streets before being brought to the orphanage.

Anyway take a look through the website, and if you're ever in the Pokhara area of Nepal maybe pay them a visit and see if you can help out. The orpahange's primary focus is on educating the kids so that when they grow up they can get jobs and a decent start in life. My friend Mary taught secretarial skills to girls in their late teens and most of them have gone on to decent-paying secretarial jobs somewhere in Nepal. Mary has done at least two stints there so I know that it is a legit organization that really helps improve the lives of children.

On to the funny link: First you have to know who Stephen Colbert is, if you don't, click on this wikipedia bio first. His show on Comedy Central is a riot.

Anyway, Fark.com is a website that has all sorts of weird news stories but also has daily Photoshop contests. A recent one was phtotshopping Stephen Colbert as a relgious figure. It turned out to be one of their best photoshop contests ever. Click on the link and hopefully you'll get as big a kick out of it as I did.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Medication warnings

I just noticed that:

1) all of my medications were made in either the UAE or Egypt; and

2) none of them say that you can't take them with alcohol

Maybe it's because they assume that the person taking them would never drink alcohol anyway, right?

Well, off to the BBQ to have a couple of beers. WhooHoo!

You just never know what it's your turn.

A while back the cafe at the compound had a new waiter, Raju, a young guy from (I think) Nepal. The company who runs the restaurant has six locations in various compounds so any new waiters train at my compound's cafe for a month before being reassigned. We chatted a little here and there when I stopped in to get dinner, but I didn't learn too much about him. He was then transferred to another location around the beginning of June.

A week or so ago the waiters at the compound approached me to ask if I wanted to donate to a collection for Raju's family. Apparantly on June 22 he came down with a high fever and passed away! Just like that he was gone.

I couldn't get any more details as to exactly what happened, the best the other waiters could tell me was that he came down with a high fever. Man that just bites.

Things like this make me reflect on how you just never know when you're going to die. We always think it'll be a long way off but I bet poor Raju did as well. So . . . are you living life to the fullest? I don't think I am, I'll have to think about it in a couple of weeks. Today I'm going to a BBQ, tomorrow to a party, and next week I'm off on vacation to Europe, so I guess it's not like I'm just stuck doing nothing all the time. But I will think about this when I get back. How about you?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Oh yeah, I forgot the heat exhaustion!

. . . and as well as the flu followed by bronchitus I've had my first experience with heat exhaustion this year. June was not a good month for my health.

A friend of mine, Mary, stopped by Doha for a few days on her way back to London from Nepal, where she had been teaching in an orphanage the last three months. Despite my cough I took a couple of days vacation to show her around Doha and the countryside. The first day we toured around in the car for a while before going south to see the sand dunes. We got out of the car, walked 100m to the dunes, took a few photos, then went back to the car for a half-hour drive to a hotel in Doha for coffee and snacks.

We got to the hotel, I sat down, then suddenly every ounce of energy just drained out of my body. My appetite went to zero and Mary told me later that the colour just drained out of my face. I couldn't keep my eyes open, and since in this particular hotel restaurant we were seated on Arabic-style couches, I just lay down for a sec to close my eyes.

I woke up about a half-hour later! I was out like a light.

I still felt like crap so Mary and I left my car at the hotel and took a taxi home. I went straight to bed and slept for another 2+ hours. After that I felt great, but we decided to just chill out at my place for the rest of the evening rather than risk it.

Man, heat exhaustion sucks. I don't think it was due to my outside exposure, we weren't out long enough and I was wearing a Tilley hat and drinking water the whole time. My guess is that the constant sunlight pouring down on us for hours in the car while cold A/C air blew in my face probably messed me up. Mary had started feeling a little queasy as well when arrived for lunch but felt fine when she got inside. Another twenty minutes or so and see might have been ill too.

I just thank my lucky stars this didn't happen while I was driving or we could have been in real trouble.

Oh, and Happy Canada Day everyone!