I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Monday, January 30, 2017

One sweet dream came true today


Petra.

A mere nine years after I was first planning to see it, here it is: the first glimpse of the Treasury from inside the Siq, the long narrow canyon that leads to Petra.

My laptop battery is almost run down, and for some reason the adaptors that worked perfectly fine in Amman don't fit in the outlets here, so this is all I'm going to post today.

Plus I'm exhausted. Apart from the hiking, I also rode a mule for a couple of hours, up narrow stone steps to the Monastery and back down again. It was absolutely worth it, but not exactly comfortable and I won't be able to sit down tomorrow; honestly I can barely sit down right now.

Tomorrow night I'm playing Kathleen of Arabia and staying in a Bedouin camp at Wadi Rum, so I won't be back online until Thursday when I have a long layover en route to Paris.

But I had to get this up. Many, many more pictures to follow.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Cities ancient and (relatively) modern


I love the juxtaposition of the modern city of Amman viewed through the ruins. This is western Amman, the older part of the modern city, mostly undistinguished concrete blocks stacked up the steep hillsides. Eastern Amman, where my hotel is, looks much more like a typical modern city. (I can even see a McDonald's from my room.)

Umayyed temple


This temple is a later addition to the Citadel -- mid 8th century. 

The dome is reconstruction, presumably to protect the interior.

Temple of Hercules


There isn't a lot left of Roman Amman, but what there is is spectacular -- this temple at the Citadel and the amphitheater down the hill, both built in the 2nd century AD.

Amman

Amman, like Rome, was originally built on seven hills, and this is the view from the tallest of them, Jebel al-Qala'a. There's a complex of Roman and Umayyed ruins known as the Citadel at the top of the hill, and caves that have been used since the Bronze age. It was also the site of one of those gruesome Old Testament slaughters when King David burned many of the inhabitants of what was then known as Rabbath alive.

It snowed here yesterday, but I got lucky with the weather today -- chilly enough to need my coat, but not the scarf and gloves I carried just in case, and mostly clear skies. When I asked at the front desk about getting a cab to the Citadel, they found me a driver who volunteered to take me around the old city downtown and back to the hotel for 20 dinars (about 28 dollars.) Since I only got a few hours sleep last night and only have today in Amman, that worked out perfectly. I saw what I really wanted to see, and I was back at the hotel drinking coffee by late afternoon.

Sunday bird blogging

An Oriental magpie-robin, in Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur.

This bird reserve used to be the private duck-hunting grounds of the maharajahs; now it's a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's home to hundreds of species of bird, and although the tour description claimed that you can also see cobras there, I didn't consider that a recommendation, and wasn't disappointed not to encounter any. (Although one pathway was blocked off because there were leopards in the neighborhood.)

It was 4:30 am by my body clock when I finally got to my hotel in Amman, so I'm not sure how much I'll actually get to see today. Tomorrow I leave for Petra.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

In transit


This is a quick phone snap of one of the amenities at the Oman Air business class lounge in Muscat, where I am waiting for my flight to Amman: chaises complete with blankets and pillows where one can take a  nap. That's my idea of an airport lounge. Plus, the pistachio cookies are delicious.

One of the things that I had a hard time with in India was all of the sometimes obsequious service. I'm not someone who bristles if someone opens a door for me; I believe in common courtesy. But when I've stopped for ten minutes at a truckstop on an Indian highway, and ordered a cup of tea, I just don't know how to respond when the owner not only brings the tea and pours me out a cup, but insists on adding the sugar and stirring it for me as well. When you use a public restroom, there's an attendant who hands you toilet paper when you go in, and turns on the sink for you to wash your hands afterwards. (The first time I encountered this, on the road to Bharatpur, the attendant was a man and it was disconcerting when he followed me into the bathroom and was waiting when I came out of the stall.) But you give the attendants 100 rupees, so you feel like they're not waiting on you so much as doing a job and being paid for it.

So I've been thinking about this and my reaction to it, which made my experience today especially amusing. When I bought this ticket, Jaipur to Amman, a prompt popped up asking if I wanted to buy a business class ticket instead for what seemed like a ridiculously cheap price (I don't remember exactly, but it was around $230, not much more than the economy price.) So of course I did. Comfortable seats and access to the lounge for the layover in Muscat -- count me in.

When I checked in at the Oman Air counter in Jaipur, I had to show my reservation and my passport and the credit card I'd used to pay for the ticket. There was a lot of whispered consultation, and then I was asked to have a seat and wait.

Well, that's never a good sign. I tried to remember why I wanted fly around these nervous parts of the world in the first place, and wondered where I'd go if for some reason they didn't want to let me into Jordan. I didn't think I was being arrested, but I did wonder what an Indian holding cell looked like.

Then the woman who'd escorted me to my seat reappeared with my boarding passes and it dawned on me that this was just service -- they didn't want to make me stand up while they tagged my luggage and printed my passes. She summoned another attendant who picked up my backpack and purse and I followed my new retinue through security and up to the lounge.

When it was time for my flight to board, I was escorted to the gate, and yet another attendant carried my luggage onto the plane, where I turned out to be the only passenger in business class. I was given lemonade and dates and Arabic coffee before takeoff, and provided with newspapers and an iPad with movies and mint tea during the flight.

When we landed in Muscat, I was obviously the first one off the plane. I walked down the steps to the tarmac and boarded the waiting bus, which immediately left with me as the only passenger. Yes, I got my own bus to the terminal.

All of this and pistachio cookies too. Perhaps I could learn to like this.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Random things I saw at toll plazas


You can't drive for more than half an hour without coming to a tollbooth. I quickly lost track of when we were on toll roads and when we weren't but I think the toll roads had fewer camels.

Here are the ubiquitous vendors selling bags of popcorn and papadums, a man delivering water to the tollbooth workers, a myna hanging out hoping for popcorn, and some fellow travelers.

Off the road


I don't seem to have many good pictures of city traffic -- I was too focused on attempting -- and failing -- to get a good picture of a cow crossing the road.

But this gives you some idea. This is one of the towns we drove through on the way back from Bharatpur.

On the road


I have been startled, dumbstruck, gobsmacked and generally overwhelmed by a lot of things in the past couple of days, but I think the traffic on Indian highways has to go to the top of the list. And this is speaking as someone who saw the Taj Mahal yesterday.

The congestion in the cities is every bit as insane as you might have heard. (At least in the old city in Jaipur. In Agra, multiply that by a thousand.) What I didn't expect is that it's just as insane on the intercity highways.

In the streets of Jaipur: cars, mini taxis, buses, jeeps, trucks, bicycles, carts, rickshaws, pedestrians, cows, camels, elephants, donkeys, horses, goats, pigs, dogs.

On the highways: all of the above, plus sheep, minus elephants.

Wednesday, I had booked a tour to the bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, about a three-hour drive from Jaipur. We left at six in the morning, so the streets in the modern section of Jaipur where I'm staying were mostly empty, and there was a thick fog. The highways are divided, with a median and two lanes on each side, so despite the low visibility I thought I could have driven without too much difficulty, even with that whole driving on the left hand side of the road thing that's a legacy from the English.

Then a small truck appeared out of the fog, coming at us head-on. “Look at that guy,” said my driver, swerving out of the way. “He doesn't even have his lights on!”

Seriously? You think that was the problem, and not that he was barreling down the highway in the wrong direction attempting to kill us? 

Welcome to driving in India! The highways are well-maintained by Western standards (better than a lot of the roads in the U.S.) but they have no overpasses or off ramps. When you want to pull into a restaurant or one of the charmingly named Lay Byes on the other side of the highway, you cross the median at one of the breaks then drive along the other side of the highway in the wrong direction until you get to where you want to go. (Why you don't go past your destination and then backtrack, so you don't have to drive into oncoming traffic, is something a native would have to explain. I was too stunned to ask.)

At least on Wednesday, we got back to Jaipur at five, so we didn't have to deal with the big trucks, which by law only travel at night. The next day I went to Agra, retracing much of the drive I'd done the day before (for reasons I'll explain later) and we didn't leave Agra until almost five, so didn't get back to Jaipur until 9:30. Once it got dark, the trucks came out. Plus it was pouring rain. At one point a truck was coming at us, and the other lane was blocked by two camels (I am not making this up.) I was pretty stoic until then, but I did scream. A little. Fortunately camels aren't that fast, and my driver managed to speed up and cut in front of them before the truck could flatten us. 

Indian drivers are quite skilled at navigating through the chaos (that driver who took me to Agra got an enormous tip simply for not killing me or allowing anyone else to) and I only saw one accident in those two days, a cart knocked onto its side outside Agra. The driver looked unhurt; he was pacing around yelling at everyone. 

Maybe someone came at him without their lights turned on. That, apparently, is a no-no.

A token acknowledgement of the existence of other elephants


A few more pictures from the elephant farm.

More Sampa

After her strenuous exercise, Sampa got water (I held a hose over one of the nostrils in her trunk; after a few minutes she put her trunk in her mouth and sprayed the water into it. Most of the water -- I also got a fair amount of it, which I suspect she found amusing.) 

And then some bamboo. Her trunk is amazingly dextrous; she held each stalk of bamboo and stripped the leaves off, then snapped the stalk into two pieces and stuffed them in her mouth.

Me and my Sampa


I think Sampa would have preferred to stay near the alfalfa rather than going for a walk with what was probably just the latest in a long line of besotted tourists, but she was good-natured about it (though occasionally just stopping on the path and looking around and refusing to be nudged, just because she could.)

There were several elephants walking ahead of us so the path was occasionally festooned with droppings and I found it fascinating how Sampa avoided stepping in any of them. You wouldn't imagine that a creature so large could be so graceful, but she stepped delicately around without slowing down, occasionally veering off the path and then back on again if there was a particularly large pile in her way.

Oh I just don't know where to begin


I have spent three very long days seeing a tiny portion of northern India, and I think it will take me weeks to untangle my thoughts about it (not to mention the hundreds of pictures.)

After a five-hour drive back from Agra last night, through a thunderstorm that reduced visibility on the already scary Indian roadways to near zero, I'm not up for anything complicated. Or energetic.

So here's something easy: my new friend Sampa. She's a rescue elephant, who after decades of carrying tourists up and down the hills from the Amber Fort, is now living in elephant luxury on a farm called, appropriately enough, Elefantastic, an hour or so outside Jaipur. I got to spend an afternoon feeding and watering and walking with her and several of her friends, and it was wonderful. She's gentle and funny and a little bossy -- I was feeding her bundles of bamboo wrapped in alfalfa and she kept nudging me out of the way with her head trying to sneak extra alfalfa.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Passage to India

It was....interesting.

I saved this weather forecast from last week because I thought it was funny; I'd never seen “Smoke” as a weather condition before.

And it's still Smoke this morning, although the sun is starting to peek through the dusty haze and I'm leaving shortly for an all-day tour (Another one tomorrow. And the day after that. So I won't post many photos before the end of the week.)

The flight from Abu Dhabi was almost entirely made up of Indian men. By my count there were a total of four women on the plane, and only three non-Indians. Most of the service workers I saw in Abu Dhabi were Indian, so it makes sense that a lot of Indians fly back and forth. But although all of the lunch choices were curries, the flight announcements, like everything else in the Emirates, were given in Arabic and English only. No Hindi or Rajasthani. Many Indians speak perfect English of course, but it still struck me as disrespectful. (And a little dangerous -- when we were taxiing to the terminal in Jaipur, several of the men got up and took out their bags from the overhead bins, ignoring repeated announcements to sit down. Finally one of the Etihad flight attendants sprinted down the aisle and basically pushed them into their seats. I don't know if the men didn't understand or were deliberately disobeying.)

I got delayed at immigration because the fingerprint machine at the e-visa counter couldn't detect any fingerprints on my right hand, and by the time I got to baggage claim, the baggage had arrived and mostly been claimed. Except for mine, which didn't show up until I was halfway through filling out the claim form with the airline offices. Next, I needed some money. I still had 1500 of the 2000 dirhams I got by mistake in Abu Dhabi, so I tried to change them into rupees. No, they were very sorry, Madam, but the most they could change was 300 dirhams, and the smallest bill I had was 500 dirhams.

Okay, is there an ATM?

Yes, Madam, there is an ATM over there, but unfortunately it is not working.

I did have some dollars, so I was able to get a small number of rupees. (A small number was all I needed -- the taxi to the hotel turned out to be the equivalent of four dollars.) The taxi driver grabbed my suitcase, told me to follow him, and I walked out of the terminal into ... India. I can't say that the petty annoyances of travel dropped away -- they were swept away by a tsunami of noise and color and smell. I followed the driver, elbowing my way through the crowds and then walking in the middle of the road, while motorcycles and cars and speedy little vans the size of an armchair zipped past me, miraculously avoiding colliding with each other, or with me. It was overwhelming.

Then we passed a white cow, strolling along the side of the road, and I just started grinning. Yeah, this is India. I hope I'm ready for this.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Camel farm


Or maybe the best part was actually the camels. We also stopped at a camel farm, and though our driver warned us to be careful -- “Some camels are crazy!” -- most of them ignored us, and the curious ones who wandered over to check us out were pretty easy-going.

They posed patiently for pictures, and even seemed to understand what was going on -- one camel kept sticking her head into the frame when I was trying to take a picture of something else.

Convoy



The desert barbecue was about an hour's drive outside the city and it was fun and only a little silly. There were henna tattoos and belly dancing and a falcon you could hold, but the best part was the 4x4 ride in the sand dunes before dinner. My fellow passengers were three young women from Switzerland and a couple from Austria, so there were a lot of shrieks of “Nein!” as we went barreling up in the slippery sand and came bouncing back down.

There were fifteen or so cars, which meant that I could take a few pictures of the other cars. Unfortunately it also meant that we could see what was coming. Oh no, that guy ahead of us just slid down the dune sideways! We're not really going to... Nein! Nein!

The Grand Mosque


I don't have time to do it justice -- I'm off to a touristy barbecue in the desert, and I leave for Jaipur in the morning -- but here's a sort of selfie of me, reflected in the starry windows at the mosque yesterday.

Look, up in the sky!


It's a bird!
It's a plane!
It's Petrodollars!

Manifested here as three of the Etihad Towers.

I had never realized how new everything in the Emirati cities is. A little more than fifty years ago the people in Abu Dhabi were living in mud huts. Oil was discovered in 1958, and the seven emirates that comprise the UAE formed a federation in 1971. There are old forts and oasis cities out in the desert that are older, but in the city even the landmarks are new. The Grand Mosque is nine years old, and the Emirates Palace Hotel, which cost 3 billion dollars, opened in 2005. And the mud huts now exist only as replicas for the tourists in Heritage Village on the Corniche.

The collapse in oil prices doesn't seem to be slowing down construction here -- new towers, new palaces, new luxury villas are going up everywhere. And some of the architecture is stunning. I didn't get to see a few of the more interesting new buildings -- one shaped like a coin, balanced on one edge, and another that tilts like the Leaning Tower of Pisa -- but I loved a lot of what I did see, like these towers.

Sunday bird blogging



These doves are everywhere. They're the pigeons of Abu Dhabi.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Urban poetry

The Starbucks at the Abu Dhabi mall. I didn't really want a coffee, but I bought one anyway, just so I had an excuse to sit at a table and take this picture.

There's an old saying, which I may have made up, that you don't really know a city until you've been lost in it. I don't get lost often, as I like maps and try to know where I'm going, but I got thoroughly, completely lost in Abu Dhabi today.

I took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, spent some time at the Grand Mosque, and was debating whether I wanted to go to the Heritage Village or not, when the bus stopped at the mall and I decided to get off and go to the pharmacy I saw there to buy some bandaids. (The dry desert air is making the eczema on my hands flare up and my skin had cracked open in several places.) The mall turned out to be a great place for people watching (see accompanying photo) and I wandered around for an hour or so instead of getting back on the next bus.

I checked the bus map, and saw that although the route looped off to another Abu Dhabi island before returning to the Corniche and the stop near my hotel, the mall itself was reasonably close to the hotel and I decided to walk back there. I enjoyed the walk -- this was a much less glamorous section of the city, where you could imagine that ordinary people who weren't emirs or their pals lived and worked -- and I thought I knew where I was going. The bus map wasn't detailed and only had a couple of street names on it, but you could see the Sheraton and you could see the mall, and it looked like it was maybe five or six blocks going straight and then bearing right to the Corniche.

Except I never did hit the Corniche, and the streets got less and less familiar. My Arabic is very limited but I do know how to say I'm lost, and I got the opportunity to use the phrase several times, followed by the word Corniche (pronounced Cornish by most of the natives) as an increasingly less hopeful question. A few people said, “Ah, Cornish!” and pointed decisively back the way I'd just come, and one man explained in broken English that he didn't speak English, and I replied in broken Arabic that I didn't speak Arabic and we smiled at each other and he gave me a thumbs up and I tottered on, just as lost as ever.

Finally I saw two young boys with skateboards, and asked them: Cornish? Sheraton? The older boy looked puzzled and said in perfect English, “But, Madam, the Sheraton is right there.” And it was, the red stone domes obvious enough if you happened to be looking in that direction, which I clearly wasn't.

I had to navigate a maze of closed streets and missing sidewalks to get there, but at least I finally knew where I was going. I was hot and dusty and tired but feeling a little -- triumphant? -- at having successfully negotiated the streets of Abu Dhabi and gotten myself to where I wanted to go.

Then I found that the toilet in my room was clogged again and after a series of apologetic young men with increasingly sinister looking tools paraded through the bathroom attempting to fix it, I had to pack up and move to a new room.

And that, my friends, is Travels with Kathleen.

Saturday reflections


I passed several of these small mosques tucked in among the steel and glass towers along the Corniche.

The Corniche


I hadn't expected water that blue. For some reason when I think of the Persian Gulf I think of oil, and steely gray waters like the North Sea.

CORRECTION: This is apparently the Arabian Gulf, not the Persian Gulf. So obviously my comment above makes no sense at all, except that I still wasn't expecting the water to be that blue. I'm glad we got that straightened out.

CORRECTION TO CORRECTION: It is the Persian Gulf. That everyone in Abu Dhabi refers to it as the Arabian Gulf is apparently a political decision and not a geographical one. Because of course, Persian = Iran, that big country on the other side of the water.

Jet lag

I got slammed.

I'm pretty good at minimizing jet lag -- watch the caffeine, try to get on the new time zone schedule as quickly as possible -- but sometimes your body has its own ideas about time zones and when it's appropriate to be awake and you just have to ride it out.

I slept for a few hours on the plane to Heathrow, and then deliberately stayed awake on the flight to Abu Dhabi since we'd be arriving around bedtime. I felt okay, though I would not have wanted to have to pass an IQ test upon arrival, and I had a complete brain freeze at the cash machine. (What was the exchange rate again? I could remember the ones for India and Jordan, but not the one I happened to need at the moment. 5000 dirhams was probably way too many, but would 1000 be enough? How much was the cab likely to be again? I compromised on 2000 dirhams, which turned out to be approximately 540 dollars, most of which will probably end up getting converted to rupees next week.) But all I had to do was get a cab (83 dirhams, as it turned out) and check myself into the hotel, and I had enough functioning neurons to manage that.

I woke up yesterday morning feeling pleasantly fuzzy but more or less in synch with my surroundings. I wandered through the hotel gardens (that's the private beach in the photo, because of course there's a private beach) where doves were singing hoo hoo-HOO in Arabic, and tiny birds I couldn't quite see were chittering away in the palm fronds. The breakfast buffet was lavish, and I had a Middle Eastern meal of hummus and feta and black olives so briny they brought tears to my eyes and woke me up more thoroughly than the three cups of coffee. (Also a waffle.)

I decided to take a walk along the Corniche, and maybe even get on a bus tour if I saw a bus and I felt like taking a tour. But it was hotter than I'd expected and by the time I turned back, the red towers of the Sheraton were like a mirage in the distance that didn't seem to get any closer, and I felt like my batteries had run down but I'd been plugged into the wrong charger: Crackle, crackle zzz! Crackle, crackle zzz!

I tried hard to stay awake but finally went to bed around six, when I was literally falling asleep sitting up with my book in my hands, and woke up a few hours later. And again, around midnight, when I was awake until three. And again, just before dawn when the call to prayer jerked me out of a nightmare about wandering through Istanbul trying to find my hotel.

So Day 2, and I'm ready to give Abu Dhabi another try. Wish me luck.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The journey not the arrival matters

That's a quote attributed to both T.S Eliot and Montaigne, but after more than a couple of hours in airports and on planes -- even in business class -- the journeying becomes progressively less interesting and you just want to get to the arrival part.

I got to Abu Dhabi late last night after a long, but mercifully undramatic journey. The British Airways flight to Heathrow was a fully packed 747, and that was fun. I hadn't been on one in many years -- U.S. carriers are packing more and more people into smaller and smaller planes -- so this felt as though an entire city was taking off into the night. Business class alone was probably a couple of hundred people -- I was in row 22 -- and navigating my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night after they'd turned down the lights was like wandering through the streets of a strange, slightly spooky, village.

The Abu Dhabi flight was half-empty, and I watched two movies and then turned on the sky map, watching our progress past places I've been -- Poland, Turkey -- and places I haven't -- Georgia, Lebanon. It's exciting, and a little scary, to be doing it all on my own again, without relying on a tour group to make all the plans for me.

I'm cross-eyed with exhaustion, and I've been writing and re-writing these two paragraphs for at least an hour now so I'm going to give up, click Publish, and try to make more sense of where I am tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

His destination India, and I had none at all

This was NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day yesterday, and it was too appropriate not to repost.

I'll skip the scientific explanation of why the contrail appears red rather than the usual white (go to the NASA site if you're interested) and instead report that I am finally, officially, on my way, having endured a two-hour crawl of the back streets of Queens at rush hour. (It was a reminder, in case I needed one, why I avoid flying out of JFK whenever possible. Also why I no longer live in Queens.)

But I'm comfortably ensconced in the British Airways lounge, making a surprisingly tasty dinner off of salad, crackers and cheese. This lounge, unlike most, actually serves dinner, but I'd rather snack so I'm more likely to sleep a little on the plane. I have a short layover at Heathrow in the morning, then a long flight to Abu Dhabi, arriving late tomorrow.

And after the Emirates? It wasn't all finalized until this past weekend, but the two weeks in Ethiopia has been replaced with five nights in Jaipur, five nights in Jordan, and three nights in Paris.

Blogging will be sporadic; I'm cramming a lot into less than three weeks. (There will be a lot of catching up to do in February.) But I'm excited. I think this is going to be a very interesting trip -- elephants and birds, mosques and temples, ancient sites and modern cities. Plus Paris.

Image Credit and Copyright: Tamas Ladanyi (TWAN)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Astronomy Tuesday


Here's a lovely nebula that can't be mistaken for anything else: the clouds surrounding the stars Rho Ophiuchi.

That globular cluster M4 in the lower left is the real star (ha ha) of this image though, I think.

Image Credit and Copyright: Rafael Defavari

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The sands of Araby


My apartment is even more chaotic than usual while I attempt to redo my packing list for the new itinerary (Water purifier? No. Sunscreen? Yes.)

It's the electronics that I'm probably going to get wrong this time. The number of adapters, converter plugs, cables and batteries that I have to bring along just to have a working camera, laptop and phone in four different countries is beyond ridiculous. I can be fairly confident that I'll pack everything on the list; I just have to manage to get everything I need on the list in the first place.

It will be fine. As long as I manage to remember my passport and credit cards and some clean underwear, I'll manage. In the meantime, here's a reminder of why I put myself through this: an image from the European Space Agency, showing a satellite view of the Arabian peninsula, where, if all goes according to plan, I'll be landing sometime late Thursday. That's the Persian Gulf on the left, and the Gulf of Oman on the right, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai are part of the tiny swath of habitation on the coast of the Persian Gulf as it curves up into the peninsula. The darker, mountainous region on the right is Oman, and the rest of the peninsula is Saudi Arabia. And the land north of the gulfs is Iran (Hi, Iran! Hope to see you again someday.) Such a beautiful planet, and there's so much still to see.

If I end up loving Abu Dhabi and points beyond half as much as I loved Iran, it will be more than worth the hassles of getting there.

Image credit: ESA

Sunday bird blogging



I do love tufted titmice. They're so fast that it's hard to photograph them away from the feeders, because they tend to stay in one place for only a couple of seconds before darting off somewhere else.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saturday reflections


The real Tenth Avenue freeze-out -- rush hour, and the Lincoln Tunnel traffic mixes in with the Port Authority traffic and the usual any hour of the day or night in Manhattan traffic.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Urban poetry

A yellow car pretending, without much success, that it wasn't recently working as a yellow cab. I assume a paint job is in its future.

I sympathize -- undoing isn't easy. I have unplanned and re-planned my upcoming vacation now, and while most of it turned out to be simple enough once I actually had some destinations in mind (I'll write about that more later) some things were ridiculously complicated.

For example, the flight that I had booked from Addis Ababa home to New York, changing planes in Paris, was so unexpectedly cheap that I paid for business class rather than trying to snag an upgrade. It was going to be two very long flights so it was worth it, and I had been looking forward to the chance to have a French breakfast along the way, even if it was in an airport.

I decided that I still wanted breakfast in Paris on the new itinerary, and a couple of lunches and dinners while I was at it, so the layover is now a three night stay, returning to New York the same day I originally planned. I just needed to cancel the Addis Ababa to Paris segment of my plane reservation, and keep the Paris to New York segment. I didn't even care whether I got a partial refund or not -- well, I didn't care much -- since the fare had been such a bargain.

Should have been simple, right? Au contraire. Instead of a refund, the airline wanted to charge me $3000 to make the change. Three thousand dollars. The convoluted venality of your major American airline is already familiar to anyone who has dealt with them, but I actually burst out laughing at the sheer outrageousness of this. Three thousand fricking dollars to use half of a ticket I'd already paid for -- that is some world-class highway robbery.

Needless to say, I did not accept their generous offer. I cancelled the entire ticket for a full refund, and used miles to buy the same seat I had originally. For free.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Astronomy Tuesday

There's no other way to describe it: this is just very cool.

Remember a few weeks ago, when I mentioned that the word nebula comes from the Latin word for cloud, and so was originally used to describe any bright fuzzy patch in the sky? And most of what we call nebulae are very cloud-like.

So what the heck is this? IC4406 is a planetary nebula, the ring of gases cast off by an aging star. The reason this looks like a rectangle rather than a ring is because we're looking at it from the side. The gases are forming a long cylinder; if we were a few light years off to the right or the left, we'd see the usual (boring) ring shape.

Image Credit: C. R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt U.) et al., Hubble Heritage Team, NASA

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sunday bird blogging


Another picture of the female house sparrow from Christmas morning.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Saturday reflections


The snow coming down outside my window looks suspiciously overenthusiastic for a storm that's supposed to produce only a light dusting.

It's an excellent time to be getting away, and I am scheduled to leave for Abu Dhabi in eleven days. It's just a stopover, a chance to see the Grand Mosque and Masdar City, before heading off to the real vacation, two weeks trekking around Ethiopia. Or that was the plan, anyway.

Unfortunately, the Ethiopia tour is now cancelled. The State Department has issued an advisory against travel there because of a government crackdown against unrest that has included cutting off all phone service, landline as well as cellular. I really don't want to be in some remote village where there's no way to communicate in case of an emergency, but I have to admit that I was tempted to just go anyway -- I'd be okay if I never left Addis Ababa, right? -- at least for a couple of days.

I know, I know -- Very Bad Idea. So I am now not sure what I'm going to do. I'm committed to Abu Dhabi -- I've always wanted to go there, and I used points to pay for the plane and the hotel and I don't want to go through the hassle of undoing that -- but I don't want to spend two and half weeks in the Emirates, either. I'll get a refund for the cost of the tour, but I booked my own flights so there's a lot to undo and reschedule. That won't be fun, and I should be on the phone with the airlines already, but I can't reschedule until I decide where in the world I'm going to go instead.

It has to be easily accessible from Abu Dhabi. Somewhere I can go on my own, and at the last minute. And, after getting another round of expensive booster shots and stocking up on anti-malarial pills, I'm determined to find at least one destination that requires immunization so the two days of being unable to use my right arm won't have been in vain.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Urban poetry



Another photo from New Years morning: no confetti on this side street near Times Square, just these three party hats dancing in the wind.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Astronomy Tuesday


Gravity keeps our moon locked into a synchronous rotation with the Earth, so that we always see the same side of it. It may look upside down, depending on where we stand on this planet; it may be partly or totally in shadow, but the same familiar seas and craters are always there, keeping an eye on us whether we can see them or not.

This is the side we never see -- and that never sees us -- courtesy of the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter. The craggy cratered surface really shows its age, compared to the relatively smooth Earth-facing side.

Image Credit: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State Univ. / Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Monday, January 2, 2017

The party's over


I walked through Times Square on my way to the office yesterday morning. It was breezy so the air was still full of confetti hours after the ball dropped.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Sunday bird blogging


As apology for posting late, here's a triptych: a black-capped chickadee posing on the feeder.

I had to go into the office yesterday and today -- I made my feelings on this subject very clear to everyone within earshot on Friday so I won't whine here -- so it's not quite the leisurely kickoff to 2017 I'd been planning. But Happy New Year world, anyway.

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