Thursday, April 30, 2009

H1N1 flu

Just a quick update on the H1N1 flu and its impact in the Middle East.

So far there are no suspected or confirmed cases in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is stopping flights from countries where the flu has been reported despite WHO suggestions that closing borders/airports is unlikely to stop the spread of the virus at this stage. No other Middle East countries have followed suit so far. UAE is banning pork products, and Egypt has called for at the culling of the approximately 250,000 pigs in the country. Why I'm not sure, this flu may have started from a mutated flu strain from a pig but is spreading by human-to-human transmission, not from pigs. The cull is unnecessary. Cooking meat would kill any viruses so banning pork products seems like an odd move as well. Anyway Qatar doesn't have to worry about banning pork products as pork has always been banned here.

With the WHO alert level at 5 I expect there will be further action in the region over the next coming days. I also suspect that we will see cases of H1N1 in the Middle East in the next three days. Cities such as Doha and Dubai are major air transport hubs and since the virus is in many countries in Europe, and suspected to be in India, it is likely that it is already in the region as the Middle East is a common midway stage for travellers going between India and Europe. My three-day estimate is because it takes time, 5-10 days, for symptoms to develop from a flu. Given the region where the flu originated from I don't think there will be many cases here since there would not be a lot of travel from Mexico to the Middle East. Tourist travel from Mexico is primarily to the US, Canada, and Europe, and the pattern of cases reflects that.

Otherwise the Qatari Health Ministry has been issuing daily bulletins to watch for symptoms and has advised people not travel to affected countries unless it is necessary.

As for me, I have been doing what WHO recommends and so should you: washing hands frequently with soap or those antibacterial hand cleansers (which despite the name will work against viruses if the main ingredient is ethyl alcohol, effective at killing viruses on the surface of your skin), coughing/sneezing only into tissues, and promptly throwing used tissues in the trash. Things in Qatar are calm, no one here is going overboard and locking themselves in their home, wearing masks or panic-buying. I do admit though that I am using tissues to open commonly-used doors, such as the door of the men's room at work.

If there are any other significant updates on the flu and how it is impacting the Middle East I will let everyone know.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I forgot to mention that last weekend I went out on another excursion with the Qatar Natural History Group. This time we went out to a small nature reserve outside of Doha to see the endangered Arabian Oryx. Oryxs (Oryxes? Oryx? Oryxi?) once roamed across the entire Arabian peninsula but when rifles were introduced to the region their numbers started to decline. When four-wheel drive vehicles were introduced the remaining animals were quickly wiped out. By the 1970s there were only a few left in the wild near the Empty Quarter. These were captured to protect the species. Despite their extinction in the wild they are still considered one of Qatar's most important animals and is commonly used in logos (such as Qatar Airways) or mascots (2006 Asian Games).

Two Qatari gentleman who oversaw the reserve gave us a lecture about the Oryx. In response to their extinction in the wild Qatar and a couple of other GCC governments started conservation programmes where captive Oryx were kept on reserves and bred to increase their numbers. There are now over a thousand of them, but almost all of them are in captivity. About a decade ago a few hundred were released into an area between Saudi Arabia and Oman but poaching has reduced their numbers, so the GCC governments are reluctant to release any more back into the wild except in parts of Saudi Arabia. One of the gentlemen told me that the meat from one Oryx could fetch as much as $10,000 on the black market. This is more than the annual income for many Omanis so it is not too surprising that poaching occurs.

It is great that Qatar is making such efforts to protect the species but it looks like the Oryx will remain in captivity for a long time to come. Qatar is a small country so would not be able to sustain a population of free-roaming Oryx anymore -- I don't think there is enough space. Oryx are about the size of a large gazelle or antelope so would need a lot of desert to graze in.

Anyway my friend Serdar and I asked what we considered an important question -- are Oryx tasty? The Qatari gentleman answered without hesitation, "Oh yes, very tasty! That's why we ate them." he also mentioned that the meat was tough though so needed a lot of cooking. I had suspected as much, I figured Oryx would be similar to venison in terms of taste and toughness.

The Qatar Government also breed other types of endangered Arabian antelope and gazelle which are kept in three reserves throughout the country.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mandated Requirements for Rap/Hip-Hop Videos

Flipping through the channels one day I wandered to one of the music video channels and watched it for a while. This channel seemed to be big on rap/hip-hop videos, not the type of music I'm really into but I was bored so I watched anyway. They haven't changed much over the years, the style and format is little different from a decade ago. I figure there must be a “hip-hop music video" set of requirements mandated by some union or another. But that's okay -- I've cracked the code!

Here it is:

Mandated Requirements for Rap/Hip-Hop Videos

Any video must contain at least five of the following six elements:

1) at least one performer must wear "bling", outrageously gaudy gold/diamond jewellery or accessories

-- this can include teeth jewellery (grillz)

2) at least one person in the video must be wearing a baseball cap slightly askew

3) there must be at least one scantily clad woman shaking her behind provocatively (bootie girls)

4) there must be one expensive car in the video (using another vehicle such as a yacht is acceptable but considered "avant-garde")

5) there must be at least one instance of "the show off", where the performer deliberately shows off a piece of merchandise or wealth to the camera. This can include:
• bling, especially grillz or diamond-studded necklaces
• the brand of shoes or other clothing they are wearing
• cash
• champagne

6) there must be a "posse", a bunch of people normally standing behind the performer looking tough and occasionally shouting "Yeah!", nodding their heads, or making gang symbols with their hands

• a big crowd of people dancing behind the performer is an acceptable substitute (but better if you have a posse as well)

• having a number of bootie girls dancing with the performer is considered meeting the criteria of requirement #3, not #6

• if the video features at least two performers [ex. XYZ featuring ABC and DEF] then requirement #6 is met if at least at some point in the video the other performer(s) are standing behind the singer performing the standard actions of a "posse" ("Yeah", nodding, etc). No posse is then required.

Seriously everyone, next time you see a hip-hop video remember this list and count the elements in it. I swear there must be videos where the guy is attending his mother's funeral and in the background there's scantily clad girls rubbing their butt up against a nice car like they're polishing it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Egypt, part four.

I'm going to try to keep the rest of this brief. I realised that I could probably go on for about another six posts about this trip.

Luxor Museum: it is a small museum, taking around two hours to see everything, but the quality of items here makes it worth the trip. A lot of statuary from the 18th to 20th dynasties, artwork from the period and two mummies. It is the statues that are the highlight of the exhibits, with one guidebook noting that it is one of the finest collections of Egyptian sculpture in the world. Mum and I went one evening and enjoyed it a lot. It helped that we had already seen some of the temples beforehand so that we had some idea about the statues, who they represented, and some of the background behind them.

Karnak Temple: I mentioned it in a previous post when Mum and I did an evening sound & light tour, and we spent about three hours one morning with our guide touring the site during the day. Three hours was not enough given the size of the site and if you were really interested in Egyptology you could spend all day there.

The entrance of the Temple is a roadway flanked by sphinxes, part of a ancient roadway that extended about 3km through Thebes to the Luxor temple. Most of that roadway is destroyed or buried under the silt and excavations are underway to expose the ancient road. Maybe in a decade's time tourists will be able to walk the entire roadway from Karnak to Luxor Temples.

While the site does not have a pyramid it has everything else you would expect from an Egyptian site. Hieroglyph-carved walls, huge pillars with carvings of Pharaohs and ancient gods, large statues, small dark chambers, and huge obelisks. The site was the most active Temple in the Kingdom for about 500 years and subsequent Pharaohs kept adding onto it until the site was over 2 sq km. It even has a Sacred Lake where ceremonies were performed. The most impressive part is also the most well-known part of the Temple -- the Hall of Pillars. I took a lot of photos there.

To go into the history and individual areas of the Temple would take far too long, one of our guidebooks spends 46 pages just on this site, so you'll have to google Karnak to get all the details. Some parts of the Temple are little more than rubble and a couple of times Mum and I were sitting on or climbing over some random 3000+ year old inscibed blocks of stone, which I thought quite bizarre since those stones would rival almost anything in North America (and Europe) in terms of age. The Egyptians did not appear to like small bricks, almost every block of stone seemed to be at least 4x2x2 feet, though most were much larger and had to have required a lot of men to get those blocks to the roofs of temples and other buildings. Queen Hatshepsut was fortunate that such large stones were used -- attempts by her son Thutmosis III to erase her name from all monuments failed because her name was inscribed in a hard-to-reach places like the top of obelisks.

Luxor Temple: the other main site in the city of Luxor itself is Luxor Temple, just a few kilometres away from Karnak. The Temple was active until at least Roman times, Alexander the Great had soldiers do some work on the inner shrine to show himself as a Pharaoh, and there are some Roman-style paintings on a wall of one courtyard. The Temple then lay forgotten for centuries and was slowly buried by the sands or the silt from the flooding of the Nile. In the 18th-century a mosque was built above the site (apparantly back then no one paid much attention to the odd pillar or block of carved stone poking out of the sand). Eventually Egyptologists figured out that a significant site was buried here and excavated it -- but the mosque was left alone. So it is quite weird when you wander into the first main courtyard to see a mosque 25-feet above you on top of one of the walls! The mosque is still in use today, its entrance is to the east of the Temple. Luxor Temple is smaller than Karnak ("only" a bit bigger than 4 football fields) but still impressive in its own right.

The next day was spent touring more of the West Bank, visiting some sites that are off the main tours. Most tourists in Luxor arrive by cruise ship (over 400 cruise barges work the Nile) and stay in Luxor only one or two days, which gives them time to see the major sites like Karnak and Valley of the Kings but not enough time to see other sites. Suddenly instead of thousands of tourists a day we were visiting sites that probably only see a couple of hundred tourists a day. It was great.

Tombs of the Nobles: while the Pharaohs were burying themselves in the Valley of the Kings the aristocracy were building tombs nearby in what is now called the Tombs of the Nobles. There are hundreds of these tombs ('TT' is the archaeological designation and one guidebook mentions TT 359!) but they are much smaller then the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, usually no more than one room or two, and no long corridors. There may be more tombs to discover -- a village exists over the site and the Egyptian government is in the process of moving the villagers to new homes a few kilometres away and bulldozing the current village. Needless to say the villagers are not impressed but the Egyptian government is not impressed with them either -- for decades the villagers have been digging holes in their basements and looting whatever tombs they find, selling the antiquities to dealers.

In some ways I liked the Tombs of the Nobles better than the Valley of the Kings. While the Valley tombs were decorated primarily with paintings of gods and the Pharaohs themselves the Noble tombs were painted with scenes of everyday life. We saw scenes of fishing, harvesting grain, a funeral, even a party where the guests had those perfumed cones on top of their head. It was much easier for a non-Egyptologist such as myself to understand what you were seeing, the scenes were things you could relate to. And like the Valley in most of the tombs the paint was still colourful after all these centuries. Two of the tombs had lighting but one tomb didn't but that was okay because an Egyptian villager was waiting outside with mirrors and, for a tip of course, set up mirrors to reflect the sunlight into the tomb, following us with another mirror to reflect sunlight onto the walls we were looking at -- just like you sometimes see in those old movies about archaeologists entering Egyptian tombs. I thought that was neat.

Anyway we saw three tombs, Ramose (TT 55), Userhet (TT 56), and I think Khaemhet (TT 57).

Next up was the Ramesseum, a temple dedicated to the great Ramses II. It was another large Temple with huge inscriptions on the walls showing Ramses II leading troops into battle, and ruling over the land. At least one scene had him running over enemy soldiers in a chariot. While not as impressive as Karnak or Luxor is still worth a visit and the lack of tourists made it more relaxing and easier to take pictures without dozens of heads being in the frame.

Finally a temple dedicated to Ramses III, the Madinat Habu. This Temple is massive, the entire complex is about the same size as Luxor Temple. It is notable for its tall stone walls with huge carvings on them, as well as intricately carved pillars and courtyards. Ramses III obviously learnt a lesson about erasing other Pharaohs names, wherever his name appeared it was carved so deeply into the stone that birds could roost in it. The Temple also has a large imposing entranceway between the fortifications which I assumed was designed to inspire awe in visitors. Mum and I spent most of our time here taking photos of the various scenes on the walls, as well as one famous part where a lot of hieroglyphic numbers were carved, allowing Egyptologists to decipher the numbering system.

*Whew* I think that's everything. Oh, forgot about the sunset cruise Mum and I took in a sailboat, sailing up and down the Nile for an hour was a relaxing way to end the day.

So in summary: fabulous trip, definitely worth doing, wouldn't have a problem going to Luxor again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Let me just take a detour from the Egyptian vacation to discuss a topic that, sadly, is far more controversial than it should be in this day and age: evolution

I am currently rereading one of my favourite science books, The Ancestor's Tale by Prof. Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins is one of the most famous evolutionary biologists in the world but lately he is in the public eye more for his work critically analysing religion, such as his book The God Delusion and his documentary The Root of All Evil. Even if you are a deeply religious person in staunch disagreement with his views on religion (which I also take to mean that you have actually watched/read the aforementioned documentary/book so that you know what his arguments are), you should not dismiss his books on biology and evolutionary theory. They are great reading for the layman and allow evolution and current discoveries in biology to be understood by us non-biologists.

The more scientists reveal about biology, geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy (etc.), the more fascinating a place the universe becomes. Measuring the movement of continents, the finding of planets around other stars, the interactions of subatomic particles; the more science discovers the more we realize that there is yet more to discover. And in doing so our knowledge grows, and the amount of knowledge we now have about biology is staggering. When creationists say that evolution is "only a theory" they try to paint it as a mere possibility that scientists aren't entirely sure about. The creationists are wrong. They are trying to downplay the vast amount of evidence supporting evolution and trying to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of people not well-versed in science. Evolution is a fact. I will let Professor Dawkins do the talking about evidence in biology. From The Ancestor's Tale (emphasis in original):

"If every fossil were magicked away, the comparative study of modern organisms, of how their patterns of resemblances, especially of their genetic sequences, are distributed among species, and of how species are distributed among continents and islands, would still demonstrate, beyond all sane doubt, that our history is evolutionary, and that all living creatures are cousins. Fossils are a bonus. A welcome bonus, to be sure, but not an essential one. It is worth remembering this when creationists go on about 'gaps' in the fossil record. The fossil record could be one big gap, and the evidence for evolution would still be overwhelmingly strong. At the same time, if we had only fossils and no other evidence, the fact of evolution would again be overwhelmingly supported. As things stand, we are blessed with both."

Unfortunately many people with strong religious views oppose evolution (not just fundamentalist Christians, members of other religions as well), because they believe it disagrees with their interpretation of religious scripture. They are very vocal, especially in the United States, and have been trying all sorts of ways to push their religious views on the population as a whole. A current method in the US is the "intelligent design" movement, which posits that life may have been created by an "intelligent designer" and that this should also be taught in biology classes. They argue that it is not religion because the intelligent designer is not necessarily God. To no one's surprise though all of the proponents of this view are anti-evolution Christians. They attempted recently to get intelligent design taught in a US school district, the resulting court case was very revealing. Here is the summary:

-- "intelligent design" is nothing more than renamed creationism
-- the "intelligent designer" is clearly implied to be the God of the Bible
-- "intelligent design" makes no scientifically testable predictions
-- it is not science and cannot be taught in science class.

The judge's summation is quite damning of the creationists, and the judge (a Lutheran appointed to the post by then President Bush) was shocked at how many of the Christian defendants were obfuscating, contradicting, and in some cases outright lying in their testimony. I recommend everyone read his summation here.

"Intelligent design" is nothing more than creationism renamed to try to hide its religiousness.

It is unfortunate that rather than embracing knowledge there are still many out there who prefer to ignore or suppress any discoveries that do not fit with their own pre-determined view of the universe. We saw the consequences of this in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Islamic world has also seen the consequences of this. From about the 8th to the 15th centuries AD the Islamic world was one of the most advanced in terms of science and mathematics, its centres of learning in places like Damascus rivalling anything in Europe. But strife, invasions, and the rise of religious fundamentalism changed that, allowing Europeans, who by the 15th century had little more than Latin translations of Arabic works (of which many of those were Arabic translations of original Greek and Roman works), to build upon the discoveries of thinkers in the Islamic world* and quickly surpass them in terms of science and technology. And here we are in the 21st century yet there are is still a significant number of people in the West who attempt to suppress discoveries and knowledge purely for religious reasons. It is a shame.

Here are a few websites where you can find all sorts of information about biology and evolution. Please take some time to surf through them.

Talk Origins
Pharyngula, one of the best biology blogs
Panda's Thumb blog
and, once again, The Dover Trial
and there's a million other links to good biology and palentology resources here

*I keep using the term "Islamic world" instead of terms like "Muslim" because some prominent thinkers of the Islamic world, such as Maimonides, were Jewish.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Egypt, part three

The Valley of the Kings; one of the most famous historical sites in Egypt (probably after the Pyramids and the Sphinx). There are 64 tombs here, the most famous one being that of Tutankhamen. At any given time I think there are no more than about 15 tombs open to the public and your entry ticket ($16) allows you to see any three with two exceptions -- Ramses VI (extra $10) and Tutankhamen (extra $20!). Ramses VI costs extra because it is apparently the nicest of the tombs, and Tutankhamen's because it is so famous. Ironically Tutankhamen's is the smallest of the 64 tombs and one of the least decorated. If it wasn't for its fame from all the treasures it held the Egyptian government probably wouldn't even bother opening it to tourists. One colleague recommended seeing it, guidebooks were split on whether it was worth the bother and extra money. Mum and I were not too fussed about seeing his tomb so we gave it a pass.

Another irony regarding the two tombs is that the tomb of Ramses VI was the reason why Tutankhamen's tomb was undisturbed. Our guide pointed out that the entrance to Ramses's tomb was just a little above the hill from Tutankhamen's, so when workers were digging Ramses's tomb out of the hillside they dumped most of the rubble down the hill which buried the entrance to Tutankhamen's. Tutankhamen was a minor Pharaoh and did not rule for long (he died as a teenager) so his tomb was forgotten and tomb robbers never found it.

The Valley was pretty crowded even though it was late in the tourist season. Our guide said that around this time the Valley would get around 4000 tourists a day. At the peak of the tourist season it could be as high as 7000-8000 a day, maybe more. We had to wait in line to get into two of the three tombs, but just for a few minutes each time. Our guide was not allowed in so while we waited in line he stood with us and explained some of the things we would see in the tomb and specific painting/hieroglyphics to watch out for.

Mum and I saw:

KV2*: the tomb of Ramses IV
KV6: the tomb of Ramses IX
KV14: the tomb of Tausert and Setnakht

All three tombs had the wonderful artwork and hieroglyphics that we associate with ancient Egypt with depictions of various gods, animal-headed entities, and the steps one takes in the afterlife. The paint was original, the colours still vibrant after 3000 years. What surprised Mum and I the most was the size of the tombs, they had high ceilings of 10 to 15 feet, even in the corridors, and extended hundred metres or more into the hillside, which would have taken a lot of effort to carve out of the rock. They generally had 4-8 rooms connected by long corridors. Sometimes work was cut short because the intended recipient died, some parts of Ramses IX's had no decoration and in his burial chamber the walls were rough and crudely carved, yet were still painted with artwork and hieroglyphics. In KV14 some of the artwork was just outline sketches that had not been coloured.

We left the Valley content that we had seen good examples of the tombs there. Unless you are better versed in Egyptian history and hieroglyphics I am not sure it would be worthwhile to see every tomb possible.

From there we moved to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, a few kilometres away.

Hatshepsut was the daughter of Pharaoh Tutmosis I and married her half-brother (Tutmosis II). Tutmosis II died when their son and heir was very young so she became regent to the young Tutmosis III. she quickly abandoned the pretext of being regent and ruled in her own right for about 20 years, in the process building a number of monuments including the Temple. (Tutmosis III did not take kindly to his mother's actions. After she died he tried to have her name erased from all monuments and inscriptions.)

The terraced temple is built at the base of some cliffs, with a number of column-filled rooms and halls on three levels connected by a large central ramp. The walls and columns of the Temple are carved with incantations to the gods, boats taking goods up and down the river, and scenes of military victories. On some of the interior scenes much of the paint, though faded, still remains. We wandered around for a while taking dozens of photos. Having a guide or a guidebook is essential as there is no signage explaining what anything is. My favourite part was the small Temple of Hathor on the left side of the Middle level, where about 20 closely-packed columns carved with dedications to the goddess Hathor surround the entrance to a small dark room carved into the hillside.

More to come next blog post.

*all tombs in the Valley were given a designation "KV" followed by a number. The number has nothing to do with the age of the tomb or its location in the Valley but instead it's the order in which they were discovered/explored by archaeologists. KV6 is next to KV 55, KV46 is between KV3 and KV4. Tutankhamen's is KV62, and KV9 is Ramses VI (so KV9 is the VI while KV6 is the IX, got it?)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Egypt, continued

Because we arrived at the hotel in the afternoon we did not have time to book a tour for that day. However we knew that the nearby Karnak temple had a sound and light show in the evening so we called at the taxi driver who took us to the hotel and arranged to meet him out front around 6:15pm (about 20 minutes). He told us his brother would pick us up and made sure we knew his taxi number -- we soon learned why. When we stepped out of the hotel a taxi driver immediately tried to offer us a ride. We told him we were waiting for another taxi that we had called and he told us "yes, yes that's me, he sent me to pick you up". But I knew from the number on the side of his taxi that he wasn't our taxi, which meant of course that this guy was flat-out lying (so tip #2: remember your taxi number if you have arranged a pick up). We told him no and our taxi pulled up 30 seconds later.

This taxi driver, brother of our first taxi driver, was also a pleasant enough person but a more reckless driver than his brother. I swear we spent about half the journey on the opposite side of the road (on a 2-lane road) and we had no seat belts. I joked afterward that he must have thought we were from Britain so drove on the left-hand side of the road to make us more comfortable. He dropped us off and told us he would be waiting here when the show was over.

Karnak temple:

The temple is huge, the grounds are almost 2 square kilometres, and the first half of the sound and light show involved us moving at certain stages through the temple complex where we would stop for 5-10 minutes for some light effects and background narrative before moving onto the next part, eventually winding up at groups of seats by the Sacred Lake for another 20-30 minutes of show. The light and sound effects were not that impressive, in fact the narrative got hokey at times, but being in this Temple, with its 75-foot inscribed columns, hieroglyphic-inscribed walls, and 3000+ year-old statuary, was awe-inspiring. And since it was night-time the temple was quite dark (tip #3: bring a flashlight, the flooring is a little uneven and there is next to no lighting). Mom and I really liked being there and we looked forward to when we would be visiting it in the daytime a couple of days later.

Next day: we had arranged for a private guide to take us to the main attractions on the West Bank: the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Our guide was Michael, whom by his name I could tell he was not Muslim (he's a Coptic Christian).

We had a private car and driver as well, doing it this way was recommended by a colleague of mine since it would apparently cut down on the hassle from touts. We quickly left the city to cross the bridge to the West Bank. The ride took about 15 to 20 minutes and on the way we could see:

Police at every major intersection
a lot of donkeys, giving people rides, pulling carts, or loaded with harvested crops on their back
a lot of farms with small farmhouses made of mud brick and sometimes thatched roofing

The police were there to reassure tourists of the overall safety. In 1997 there was a major terrorist attack at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut where 61 people were killed. Not surprisingly tourism to the area plummeted and a lot of local people suffered from lack of income. Since then there has been a significant police presence. Not that I was too concerned -- the terrorist group that committed the attacks is no more. Everyone in Egypt was so horrified by what the group had done that the group lost whatever public support they may have had. People who would have normally supported whatever cause the group was fighting for were instead informing the police of their whereabouts, and the group was swiftly crushed by the authorities.

First stop: the Colossi of Memnon

What you see here are two large (65-foot) statues of Pharaoh Amenhetep III (1390-1353 BC) in what seems like an empty field. The area is actually the remnants of the Pharaoh's Memorial Temple but unfortunately most of the Temple was made of mud brick and lay and the Nile floodplain so over the centuries the flooding of the Nile destroyed the Temple except for the two stone statues. Now that the Nile does not flood due to the Aswan Dam there are archaeological excavations under way at the site of the Temple. The two statues were still impressive though. Mom and I were there for about 10 minutes, taking pictures of the statues and looking at the graffiti written on the base of them (some of it looked like Greek or Latin so perhaps some of the graffiti is centuries old)

Okay, got to go again. I promise to post more in the next few days.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


The trip to Egypt, or more specifically, Luxor.

Luxor was the capital of ancient Egypt from the 18th through the 20th dynasties, from around 1550 BC to 1050 BC, so the ruins are "only" 3000+ years old. Unlike Cairo and other areas in the north of the country Luxor does not have any pyramids, instead it has a number of huge temples as well as hundreds of tombs dug into the mountains (easier to do than build massive pyramids I guess). It is here that Tutankhamen was buried, in the Valley of the Kings, as was Ramses II, another well-known pharoh. Nowadays Luxor is a city of ~400,000 people with farming and tourism as the main industries.

Mum and I stayed in a nice hotel recommended by a colleague, the Steigenberger. Decent size, had a pool of course, and most importantly I think six or seven different restaurants. This was nice since we were there for five days so it offered variety. Going outside the hotel and walking around was not all that fun as you would get bothered by taxi drivers, store owners etc. It was not as much hassle as other places (I have heard Cairo and other places in North Africa are much worse, the Bazaar in Istanbul was definately worse) but it was still kind of annoying and you did not get to enjoy walking around. So once we finished our tours of temples and monuments during the day we would just stay in the hotel and have dinner there. Mum would wander out of the hotel more often than I would but she stopped doing that after two taxi drivers started arguing with each other over who she should go with -- and she was just out for a walk so wasn't going with either of them!

Anyway, here is part one of the itinerary:

The Flight: Qatar Airways flies direct from Doha to Luxor, three-hour flight. The airport in Luxor is actually very new and comfortable. We had to change money at one of the moneychangers before going through immigration and the guy made a mistake and originally gave me about half of what I should have received (at least, I will assume it was a mistake). When I pointed out what he should have given me based on the exchange rates he apologised and gave me the correct amount. So here's a tip -- make sure you know the exchange rates before you arrive so that you have a rough idea of how much money you should get when exchanging. If I hadn't have known or paid attention to the posted exchange rates I would have been about US$80 in the hole.

Taxi from the airport to the hotel was in a beat up old car driven by a very pleasant Egyptian man with good English. There was no meter but I don't think I ever saw a taxi that did have one. He made sure that we had his phone number and if we ever needed rides anywhere or tours to let him know. During the course of our vacation we figured that every taxi driver probably does the same. I decided to pay him 50 Egyptian Pounds (~$9) for a 20 minute ride, which I'm sure was far more than locals would pay but he was a nice man and drove carefully. Life is not easy in Egypt so every dollar counts.

Oh, gotta go. I'll post more later.

Birthday wishes

I just want to wish my wonderful sister Karen a Happy Birthday! She turns 41 today (keep it secret though, she tells people she is younger than that). I hope you have a wonderful time today Karen, but don't party too hard this evening okay? Think of your poor liver!

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Today I went to visit some friends to see their new baby daughter. The baby is a little over two weeks old and while she is a happy baby her parents are exhausted (no surprise there I'm sure). It can take hours to get her to sleep and even then she will usually sleep only two to three hours before she is up again for milk etc. Mom and Dad are tired and try to catch naps when they can.

It got me thinking about what my parents must have gone through when my siblings and I were born. My parents were probably a bit fortunate when my older brother was born because at the time my parents lived in the same city as an aunt and my paternal grandparents so at least there was family support available to help them out. But by the time I was born my family had moved to Canada and I believe the nearest relatives were a 6+ hour drive away. So unless some friends were helping out they were on their own. Mom and Dad had to endure some sleepless nights while at the same time keeping a house in order, raising my four-year-old brother, and working (Dad during the weekdays, Mom on the weekends). Given how exhausted my friends are I wonder how my Mom and Dad coped with it all. Heck, I wonder how any parents manage.

So for all of you reading this, especially if you have young children, maybe take the time out to give your parents something that they have probably always wanted: a "Thank You".

And I don't mean the usual stuff that we do for Mother/Father's Day, where we get our parents a card and small gift and maybe take them out for dinner. If you feel that your parents did a decent job raising you when you were a young child get in touch with them and give them your heartfelt thanks for all the sleepless nights, diaper changes, and other hassles they must have gone through. It's the least you can do.

(Thanks Mom! You did great. Really.)

Friday, April 03, 2009

Okay I'm back

Hi everyone! It has definitely been a little while since I blogged, sorry about that. My Mum flew down on March 17 and just left today so every evening we had been busy either seeing the sights, being sick at home (me with the flu, her with a cold), or travelling. For travelling we went to Egypt where we stayed five days in Luxor touring Karnak Temple, the Valley of the Kings and so forth. I'll blog about the trip later.

To the surprise of everyone here it is raining! And I do not mean a little sprinkle, a good solid rain. Having rain this late in the year is really odd, it does not rain much in Qatar and when it does it is almost always from December to early February. To have rain in April is really odd.

Anyway a few streets are now of course flooded. Like I said Qatar does not get much rain so drainage here is not very good. Streets can turn to small rivers, roundabouts can hold huge puddles, and you have to be careful if you are driving on a road you are not familiar with as the water can hide any potholes. A vacant lot near me is now a small lake. And as far as I can tell the wet weather does not cause anyone to reduce their driving speed (but I did not see any accidents today).

I will post tomorrow about Egypt.