Dubai Tech Conference

We at ASK are a NESA school, a member of a consortium of American Schools affiliated with the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools. In the past few years, a few of these schools in Cairo, Tunis, Islamabad and Damascus have had to  close their campuses due to security concerns. The NESA Virtual Schools (NVS) project helps the 26 schools in our group to develop an online presence in such a manner that any school that needs to close its physical campus can still operate over the Internet. To accomplish this, we use an online platform called Moodle, similar to the systems used by schools and universities around the world to provide courses online. The process has been used quite successfully when needed, allowing for seniors from the Damascus school to complete their degree and even hold their graduation ceremony in Beirut.

While all of this is a great idea, a school can’t have its faculty and students scatter with the winds on Friday and still hold class online on Monday unless a lot of planning has taken place well in advance. So, my right-hand-man Karim and I headed off to Dubai last Monday to learn all we could about how we can have such a system in place in case of an emergency.

Welcome to your suite, Mr. Paul Erickson MrWe were looking forward to our stay in Dubai but were briefly disappointed when the Intercontinental Hotel erred in reserving our two rooms. Luckily, we were able to work out a compromise such that instead of two separate $220/night rooms, we were offered an upgrade to a two bedroom, three bathroom $2200/night suite overlooking Dubai Festival City on one side and a view of the Burj Khalifa on the other. Their breakfast buffet was the best I’ve ever had and we even bumped into members of Megadeth who had a concert at the Atlantis here as part of Dubai Bike Week. While I don’t normally book such lavish suites when traveling, it is comforting to know that they are there when needed.

Caribou Coffee in the Dubai Mall

Minnesota based Caribou Coffee is also in Dubai (and Kuwait)

The conference was by far the highlight of the trip. But, I’m not sure how interested you are in hearing about our plans to integrate Google Apps with our Moodle instance, BOYD policies, multiple redundant Internet branches or whether we’re going to use Aruba or Merakai networks for our campus-wide wi-fi. So, I’ll move on…

Karim at Tim Horton's

I got my Caribou fix while Karim, being Canadian,swung by Tim Horton's.

The other part of the trip involved some really great food and shopping. Our first night found us exploring the local Festival City Mall next to our hotel. Arabs know how to do malls. Each section has a distinct look, often with similar shops close together. If, for instance, you’re looking for a new tablet, say to replace one left on a plane in Frankfurt (damn), there are several electronics stores in one area so that you don’t need to go traipsing around the mall from end-to-end to find what you want.

QD's Restaurant at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club

QD's Restaurant at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club

When you can’t decide between the New iPad, the Galaxy Tab2 and the Galaxy Note, you can always give up and settle for a corned beef reuben at the Brooklyn Diner. Really, you can pick up any of those tablets tomorrow.

If you’re just looking for a quiet place for dinner, the surprisingly affordable QD’s Restaurant at the Gulf Creek Golf and Yacht club has a fantastic lamb chop dish, my favorite gin drink, Bombay Sapphire and tonic and a beautiful vista for an after-dinner coffee and double-apple shisha from the hookah.

Burj Khalifa

The base of the Burj Khalifa from the Dubai Mall.

Excess is nothing new to the Middle East and of course Dubai does “excess”, well, to the excess. The tallest buildings and biggest malls are all part of the regular landscape here. Harley Davidsons and Ducatis ride alongside Hummers and Maseratis and while the driver may be wearing an Armani suit or a well-tailored dishdasha, they all fit well into this cosmopolitan jungle of glass and steel.

Hockey rink in Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall's hockey rink.

While at the Dubai mall, you can walk through the tunnel of their massive aquarium or even go diving with their sharks and sting rays. Pick up your favorite sweets at the 10,000 square foot Candylicious and get lost in the gigantic Kinokuniya book store. As for me, I was able to shop for Levis (strangely missing in Kuwait) and pick up some pants at the Columbia store which just happens to be right next to their full-size hockey rink. Surprisingly, two pairs of Columbia Roc Pants and a leather belt came to 340 dirhams or a little over $90 – about what I’d expect to pay at Younkers in Eau Claire.

With just a few days in Dubai, I wasn’t able to make it to the Emirates Mall to try out their indoor ski hill. That’ll need to wait for another trip. But I can assure you that now that I’ve been, I’ll be back, though probably not in the same suite.

Speaking of traveling, if you ever find yourself planning a trip to this region (Europe, Africa or Asia) let me know. If it happens to coincide with a school holiday, I might just meet you in Kenya for coffee, Bangkok for breakfast, or Sri Lanka for, well anything.

In the meantime, be good to each other and know that I’m thinking about you today.

Love,

Paul

 

December – January

Hello friends. Uncle BobOne of the things I’ve dreaded while living 8,000 miles from home is the day that I received notice of the death of a loved one. That day came the first week in December when my beloved Uncle Bob succumbed to a stroke. I so wish I could have been there with Aunt Helen, Barbara, Paul, Tom and the rest of the family.

Robert Cornwell was an amazing husband, father and servant of all. The fond memories are many. From my youth at the Paulsrud reunions in Slater and Hayward to the many recent Fourth of July reunions in Menomonie, every moment spent with Bob was a treat. If you never knew him, you could learn from his life. Read what others thought of him here.

It was a little surreal going on with my normal life as my family in the U.S. was going through the first Paulsrud family loss in years. But go on it did.

Our school’s December break began on the 16th with me still in Kuwait. Normally I hit the road as soon as possible. But this year my traveling buddy Chris and I decide on a more relaxed approach to vacation. Canadian SecurityI spent our first five days on menial tasks like renewing car insurance, grading Calculus and Algebra tests and (gasp) doing laundry (my maid was on vacation). We were also lucky enough to spend a night at the Canadian embassy for a CIK (Canadians in Kuwait) party with tasty treats including beer and booze which is rare in this otherwise dry country. Sadly as the night’s driver, I only allowed myself two Heineken’s during the 4-hour event.

Canadian embassy security is decidedly less stringent than that at the U.S. compound. At the U.S. embassy, one needs to pass through several layers of security starting a couple hundred yards from the actual entrance, passing through turnstiles and more just to get out. On Canadian soil, though, after-hours doors are propped open to allow easy entrance and exit for visitors. So friendly and welcoming, those Canadians.

Bangkok Fruit CakeBut I did get out for a week in Bangkok, a Wednesday-to-Wednesday trip of blissful relaxation, 90% of which was spent on or near Khao San Road, the backpacker/tourist Mecca of Thailand. Pad Thai was on the menu at least once a day at the local restaurant/bars and sleeping until almost noon wasn’t uncommon. But when one works as hard and long as we do in Kuwait, relaxing long and hard in Bangkok seems well-deserved.

We saw all kinds of people, hawkers and products (including Christmas Fruit Cake) on Khao San but I’m pleased to announce that I have no new body modifications, tattoos or ill-gotten diseases (which are abundant in Bangkok).

Christmas Day found us cooking out with our good friends Matt and Chelsea on the campus of the International School of Bangkok. With salaries and benefits significantly better than ASK (and typically more serious students), it’s risen on my list of potential new schools to consider. I’d bet that I could even get people to come and visit in an actually cool location.

Movie add in BangkokChris and I were in Bangkok a few years ago and saw the first (new) Sherlock Holmes movie. As luck would have it, the second installment with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law came out as we arrived. We were able to see the show in the same theater we were visited in 2009. Now as then, the show opened with a 5-minute tribute to the King of Thailand, regarded by the Thais as no less than a god. The clip, backed by a song extolling the accomplishments and dedication of the beloved leader shows pictures of him at a variety of times in his life from his youth to the present. Sadly, the beloved king, the longest serving royal in the world, is in declining health. With any luck, he’ll still be on the throne when Sherlock Holmes III comes out.

Old Living RoomAfter just a week in Thailand, Chris and I packed up our bags and headed home. I did manage to do some shopping and finally picked up some things to update the look of my living space. New Living RoomI had grown weary of the floral paintings I picked up in Chang Mai a few years ago and much prefer the look I have now. The (old) pick on the left has been replaced by the (new) pic on the right featuring a bas relief carving of elephants, a Thai Buddhist prayer bell, Sri Lankan batik and Greek paintings. Yessir, the life of a traveling teacher is all good.

Joe PugSo, now we’ve returned to school for the long slog between Christmas and our spring break in April. In between, Chris (who shares my birthday) and I are looking for a weekend getaway in February. I’m hoping to talk him (or others) into flying to Dublin to catch a Joe Pug concert and see some of Ireland. Joe’s there the same weekend as Kuwait’s National/Liberation Days celebrating the country’s founding and the 1991 liberation of Kuwait from the Iraq invasion. With any luck, we’ll have an extended weekend allowing for some more sight-seeing in the Emerald Isle. I tell you what; if you have a chance to see this guy or hear his music, don’t pass it up.

As always, I’m missing you all and long for a reunion.

Peace to you, my friend,

Sri Lanka IV

One full quarter without so much as a three day weekend. That doesn’t happen to us very often, but it’s how things worked out this fall. Not that I never made it out of Kuwait during that time. I was on both U.S. and Canadian soil as a guest at their respective embassies. My buddy Aaron has a friend who is beginning her State Department career in Kuwait and she invited us out to the Oasis Bar for an evening of dinner and drinks. The following week, the Canadians In Kuwait group organized a social get-together complete with Dominoes pizza and cold beer. Um, not that like, my life revolves around beer or anything. It’s just that since I can’t have one any ol’ time, I kinda relish those few times I can.

First beerWhen the end of 1st quarter rolled around on November 4th, Chris, Aaron and I boarded Kuwait Airways flight 361 and flew that silver bird down to Sri Lanka. Having been there three times previous and checked off elephant riding, temple visiting and multi-city travel, we took this week to just sit on the beach, read some books and relax in the Sun. Oh, and have a beer or two.

I don’t read a lot for pleasure, but I do pretty well on vacation. This week I made it through the first two Ender’s Game novels. I had heard about them from several people and though I’d give ’em a try. I’m not a big sci-fi fan but appreciated the first book. The second? Not as much. I think I’ll leave the rest of the series unread and will move on to something else during our December break.

MorningI’d love to regale you with fabulous tales of adventure. First beerBut on this trip, it was pretty much the same each day. Get up and watch the sun travel from the left to the right. Watch the boats carrying fishermen and divers to and from the beach. Buy some shirts or sarongs from the beach salesladies. Stop at a neighboring resort for lunch. Finish the day with a beautiful sunset and a fresh seafood dinner. Maybe a nightcap and friendly conversation before turning in for the night.

Chris and I are looking forward to visiting our friend Brian who took a teaching position in Lesotho. We’re hoping to be able to spend a few days in Addis Ababa on our way down to see his place and hopefully make it over to Mozambique and South Africa. Stay tuned for an update in January.

Spring, Summer…

I’m writing this on Sunday night on mom and dad’s breezeway, enjoying the cool temperatures and various animal and insect noises on the hill to our south. Earlier in the summer, we were visited on several occasions by a doe and two fawns who made their way up from the river. The Greens-EatersOur neighbor has a section of his yard full of clover and they seem to enjoy dining there. Unfortunately, they also enjoy just about every manner of flower and leaf, having devoured several gardens worth of blooms around the West Hill. They look so kind, gentle and harmless. But beneath that doe-eyed face is a heartless, herbavacious eating machine willing even to take the last three leaves off of dad’s 12″ maple seedling. Oh, the unkind words I’ve heard around town about this three-deer herd.

Brian the Fickle

Backing up a little, in April, two of my traveling buddies (Chris and Brian) joined me on a trip up to Greece. As soon as we landed we jumped in a taxi for the ride to the Loutraki Casino Resort on the eastern edge of the Corinthian Sea. While I’ve never been much of a gambler, Brian helped me navigate the blackjack tables while Chris played banker, always keeping a tally of our wins and losses. With a little luck and a lot of “NO, NO, NO! What are you doing?” from the local regulars, I actually managed to walk away with an extra 400 euro in my pocket.

Of course, the Fourth of July found me with mom and dad over in Menomonie at our annual Paulsrud Family reunion. This is always a highlight of the summer and has been a driving factor in determining my return trip these past three years. Beyond being able to spend quality time with relatives who I dearly love, I get to have a cold Leinenkugel’s, pulled pork sandwich, an ear of corn and fresh, deep-fried cheese curds all in one sitting. Having it all in the presence of family makes up for the months I go without. Jacob and GrandpaJust after the Fourth, my brother Phil and his son Jacob arrived from South Carolina for a long weekend. While Phil and I spent many a summer night in a tent, Jacob had yet to experience nature in, well, nature. So we along with dad spent three glorious days up at Luther Woods, a 320 acre retreat near Birchwood, Wisconsin. The property has a lovely new pavilion with miraculous properties. Walking through the woods, flies would form an unbelievable cloud around one’s head. They were everywhere. But there seemed to be some anti-fly force field around the pavilion because as soon as we stepped inside, the flies seemed to  simply disappear. Unfortunately, it seemed that the bugs had not gotten the “Keep Out” memo for our tent. Honestly, I think all of us would have liked to get a little more sleep on Friday night. Luckily Eagle-Eye Phil noticed that the back door to our tent had been left wide open all night welcoming in all manner of blood-sucking flying n’ere-do-wells. Saturday night was much more comfortable either because we had closed the tent door or because we were so exhausted that we were oblivious to the feasting bugs.

Lions and Kalen and Tyce (Oh my)Shortly after, I was able to fly out to California to spend a week with Susan’s family. While I was lucky enough to be able to arrive on Amaini’s birthday, the true highlight of the week was taking my first ever trip to Vegas with Susan and the kids. We stayed at New York, New York, saw a Cirque du Soleil show and several other sites on the strip. I felt so bad for Tyce who was just a few inches from the required height for the roller coaster. But seeing M&M World, Le Rêve, a pirate show and the Bellagio Fountains (to Elton John’s “Your Song”) I think it turned out to be a great few days.

Mary, Gary, Mom, Dad, PaulI’ve never gotten tired of the drive from Chippewa Falls down to LaCrosse, LaCresent and on to Decorah, Iowa. Particularly in the fall when the leaves are changing color, the drive through and around the Mississippi River Valley is beautiful. And so it was with great joy that I drove my parents’ van (with mom and dad of course) down through Western Wisconsin and across the Mighty Mississip to meet Aunt Mary and Uncle Gary at the historic St. James hotel in Red Wing, Minnesota. The St. James is a grand ol’ hotel and a highlight of our time there, after the conversation and catching-up, was visiting the hotel’s library to see the history of the hotel and area.

Future Christmas TreesOK, truth be told, I started this post in the breezeway but didn’t get it done until I got back to Kuwait. Here’s the rest: all too soon, it was time for me to pack up and head back to Kuwait. In the past, I’ve smuggled bottles of booze (shh, don’t tell anyone) but this time, I thought I’d risk a public hanging (yes, that happens here but, umm, don’t worry mom) by sneaking in two white pine seedlings. Right now, I’ve got them in a couple little planters by my window looking out to the Arabian Gulf. With any luck they’ll survive the winter and leave the sweet scent of pine wafting through the air.

We’ve finished the first few days of school here and things are going super. I’m teaching Algebra 2, Precalculus and Calculus, a position that I’d never have dreamed of at this point in my career back in the States. I’m planning on visiting by friend Brian (pictured above with the calamari mustache) in Lesotho this December and Sarah (Keller) Hoefflin and family in Spring.

I already miss my family and my morning coffee and scone at 4:30AM. But I’m looking forward to the coming months of school and travel. Take care and keep in touch.
-Paul

Greece, Zanzibar and Sri Lanka (oh, Kuwait too)

Last spring, my friend Lindsey heard that U2 was playing in Athens just a few days before we needed to be back at school. While not a rabid U2 fan, I have seen them twice before and knew I would not be disappointed seeing their current 360 Tour in Athens’ Olympic Stadium.  So, she and I returned to Kuwait a little early and flew out to Athens on August 29th. 

ErechtheionWe spent the first few days seeing the sites. The hike up to the Acropolis was taxing: hot, with a blazing sun on a cloudless day and vending machines sold out of bottled water. But what’s a little dehydration when seeing ancient Greek architecture?  The remaining structure of the Parthenon was something to see and the statues surrounding Erechtheion, the temple of Athena (seen to your left)  were amazing. Just as interesting was our tour through the Acropolis Museum at the bottom of the hill. Inside was a replica of the Parthenon with many of the original marble bas-relief sculptures from the frieze and dozens of centuries-old scupltures of incredible detail. The hundreds of works of pottery panstakingly reassembled from small pieces were a testament not only to the original artisans, but also to those spending countless hours putting them back together.

Knossos Beach BungalowsAfter our first two days in Athens, we boarded a flight to Crete where we spent a few days on the beach taking in the sun and surf. The resort staff were bemused by us typical North Americans who come and stay for a few days while their European visitors usually book a vacation for weeks or more. While there, Lindsey and I were “lucky” enough to be one of three couples (no, we’re really not a “couple”) called up on stage for a friendly competition that was the night’s entertainment for guests. The culmination was an event where we needed to go backstage and trade clothing. Now, many of you don’t know Lindsey, but she’s about half my weight and wears tighter clothing than I do. I looked like 100 pounds stuffed into a 50 pound sack. She looked like 50 pounds…oh well, you get the idea. Needless to say, we won that competition hands down. Unfortunately (for you, not so much me) we were on stage and neither of our cameras was able to capture the moment (sorry).

U2 in Olympic StadiumThe next day we were back on the plane to Athens and off to Olympic Stadium where we saw a most amazing U2 show. They had this crazy, expanding tubular video screen above the stage ensuring that everyone had a great view of the show. Bono and the boys didn’t let anyone down as they played songs from throughout their nearly 30-year career. The show also had a most European feel as there were folks on the floor burning flares and lower aisles were packed with people from nosebleed seats looking for a better view, not the kind of thing your local fire marshal would approve.

All too soon, our time in the Mediterranean was up and the next day we boarded out last flight of the week back to Kuwait to begin the school year. It was great to see old friends and make new ones as we prepared for and began another school year. Marriages, divorces, births and deaths were celebrated and mourned those first weeks as September turned to October.

As our November Eid break approached, Chris, Chelsea and I narrowed down our options for a trip, eventually settling in on Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. Tanzania, as many of you know, was home to my beloved cousin Barbara Solsaa in the late 80’s-early 90’s (if memory serves) and I was looking forward to getting a taste of African life for myself. My first trip to Africa and my fist time below the Equator will not soon be forgotten.

Sunshine ResortOur resort in Matemwe, Zanzibar was a beautiful, eco-friendly collection of thatched roof buildings apportioned with spacious rooms complete with open balconies, local artwork and the necessary mosquito netting surrounding the comfortable bedding. Being south of the Equator, it was the hot season, but the constant breeze and frequent dips in the pool kept things comfortable. While on the island, we enjoyed visiting Stone Town and the Forodhani Food Market (thanks for the tip, Peter) on the culminating night of Eid Al Adha, the Muslim holiday commemorating Ibrahim’s (Abraham to Christians) willingness to sacrifice Ismail (Isaac). There was quite a crowd at the market with everyone dressed up in their Sunday (well, Friday, as they’re Muslim) best. The grilled meats and fish were tasty but didn’t hold a candle to the pressed sugar cane juice we drank to wash down the treats. Yummm.

A fishThe highlight of the trip, though, was my snorkeling trip to the atoll surrounding Mnemba island. Our boat dropped us off in front of a pod of dolphins and we thoroughly enjoyed watching them swim under us, just feet away. We then rode to the atoll where the water was clear, the fish were amazing, and the diversity of size, shape and color of everything was awe inspiring. Finding myself in the middle of a school of blue and yellow felt like being in an Imax film, except actually being there.

We left Zanzibar just before the 19th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death (I know, it doesn’t seem that long). Freddie, lead singer for the rock group Queen for you over 60’s out there, was born in Zanzibar in 1946. Who knew?

Reef SharkUpon returning to Kuwait, I mentioned to some students how spectacular I thought it would have been to be eaten by a reef shark while snorkeling. My students, of course, were dismayed “Sir, we would be so sad and who would teach us?” I appreciated their sentiments and agreed that they would, indeed be sad to lose such an outstanding teacher and mentor. “But”, I pointed out, “eventually  you would all get over my death and really, a few years from now when you’re in college, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say ‘I had this really great math teacher in high school, but he got eaten by a shark'”. Some looked at me like I was crazy, but a few chuckled and Khaled admitted “Well, yeah, that would be a great story”.  Khaled is now my favorite student. 

Having returned safely to Kuwait we needed to start making plans for a December trip. With many friends returning to North America or Europe to see family, Chelsea and I (no, we’re really not a “couple”) decided to return to Sri Lanka for another week at the Unawatuna Beach Resort. When we were here last spring with the “Magnificent Seven”, we had such a relaxing time sitting on the beach, reading and floating in the Indian Ocean, we felt an encore was in order. It’s really something to walk in to a resort on the other side of the world and have the waiters welcome you back, showing you to your old table.

It’s a little more overcast now than it was in March, but the sun comes out for at least a few hours in the afternoon and the ocasional downpours generally last only minutes and are welcomed by those who live in desert climes. Otherwise it is comfortably warm without being hot, perfect weather for reading a book.

Merry ChristmasWell, that’s about it for now. We still have a few more days here in Sri Lanka. But I wanted to get this out to you all before the end of the year. I am blessed to be living in a community surrounded by good friends who care deeply about me as I do them. I am grateful for technology such as this blog, email and Skype which allow me to stay close to friends and family around the world. It is my Christmas wish for you that you find yourself similarly surrounded by friends and family that are dear to you.

Peace to you and best wishes for the coming year,

Paul Ericksen

Thailand 2009

Paul and friendIt’s not that I feel like I need beer and bacon. But when you can’t have something, it often leads to a craving. So it was nice to spend December break in Thailand where we could enjoy bacon-wrapped shrimp washed down with local Chang beer just about any time we wanted.

Thailand is a very busy place. With over 67 million people, it has roughly double the population of California in just a slightly larger area. Bangkok itself has a population over 8 million, similar to New York city. So we shouldn’t have been surprised to find ourselves in a traffic jam from the airport to our hotel when we arrived during the evening rush hour. Luckily, even with almost an hour and a half in the taxi, our fare was only about $15.

Khaosan RoadArriving in time for dinner, we dropped our bags in our hotel room and headed downstairs to Khaosan Road – a bustling hub of restaurants, bars and tourist shops. A plate of pad thai sustained us as we strolled around, scouting out the wares for purchase. Cheap and colorful clothing, artwork and jewelery was everywhere we turned and it was with some reluctance that I avoided buying everything in site. Over the course of our vacation, though, I picked up enough to need the extra backpack I brought for our return trip. During the next few days we visited several sites including Buddhist temples and the king’s palace. One night we even caught up with two ASK couples also spending the break in Thailand.

Paul and dinnerOn December 22nd, we packed up and took a taxi south to a marina where a boat took us on a 30 minute ride out to Ko Samet Island and the Silver Sands Resort. While it was quite warm, the near constant breeze and shade trees made our stay quite comfortable. Lazing on the beach, reading and just enjoying the view became the default activity of the day. An afternoon ATV tour of the island provided beautiful, panoramic views of the island and the mainland in the distance. Christmas Eve was spent on the beach for dinner and entertainment including fire dancers.

Lindsey makes a friendOn Christmas day, we packed up again and headed back to Bangkok to fly up to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city in the mountains to the north. Here we toured silk, umbrella and lacquerware factories as well as a Buddhist temple on the highest point in the country and an elephant ride and show. It was also in Chiang Mai that two of us got sick after eating pizza. We had used the “if there are a lot of westerners eating there, it’s probably safe” yardstick when looking for meals. But this apparently isn’t a stringent enough standard in Thailand. So Lindsey and I spent 30 hours in the hotel, tag-teaming it to the bathroom every half-hour or so. Thankfully, Chris was well and willing to run out for water, Gatorade and food as we recuperated.

King Bhumibol AdulyadejA couple days later, we flew back to Bangkok for a few more days of shopping and sight-seeing. At the MBK mall, we took time to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Interestingly, before movies in Thailand, the audience stands for an anthem-backed video honoring King Bhumibol Adulyadej showing the King from his childhood to the present. They sure love their king in Thailand. His birthday is the biggest holiday in the country and there are posters, billboards and shrines everywhere.

Sadly, on New Years Eve, we once again headed to the airport to return to our desert home. With luck, the last day of the year is one of the best to fly as traffic is sparse. We each had our own row of four seats allowing us to stretch out with first-class comfort in economy seats. While we reached home before 5:00 pm, I was asleep well before midnight as my body was still on Thailand time, four hours later than Kuwait. Now, we have a couple days to prepare for school which starts up again on Monday.

If you’d like to see some more pictures of our trip, I’ve created a Facebook album that you can access by clicking here.

It’s a rough life…

The Gang in KandyLiving here in Kuwait can be rough. Sand storms, 120 degree days, restaurants closed during Ramadan, lack of colby cheese and Leinenkugel’s Beer all make for challenging times. But there are benefits. Like this past week, the Eid al Fitr holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. After two and a half weeks of school I headed off to the airport with three good friends for a trip to Sri Lanka, the island nation on the southern coast of India.

Just a few months after the end of a 30 year civil war with the Tamil Tigers, we have been able to travel to three distinct, infinately interesting destinations. In the costal city of Kalutara, we lounged on the beach, snorkeled over coral reefs and watched an annual Buddhist parade complete with children on costumes and painted elephants.

Manuella carrying us through the woodA six hour taxi ride then took us to the beautiful four-star Amaya Lake Resort. Here we enjoyed the mountain region, basking in the sun along the lakeshore, watching the local cattle herds, bird watching and generally enjoying the doting resort staff look after our every need. On our second day here we took an elephant ride through a jungle trail and shallow lake. We fed Manuella mangos and bananas and didn’t complain when she showered us with water from her trunk. The next day we spent hiking up to an ancient Buddhist temple carved into caves in a mountainside. Dozens of Buddha statues fill several cave rooms complete with paintings dating back 2000 years. On the climb up we were greeted by monkeys, wild (but kind) dogs and a scary looking snake that thankfully took cover from our approaching feet.

The last few days have found us in the capital city of Colombo. Low-stress shopping and excellent food have kept us busy as we prepare ourselves to return to “the sandbox”. Everyone here seems so completely happy and welcoming, not nearly as pushy or hovering as we’ve found in other tourist locales. So, I’ll leave you with the well-wishes left for us by our housekeeper in Dambulla. He met us outside our chalet on the last morning, giddy over having been lucky enough to be the one to spell out welcoming and farewell messages using the leaves and flowers of local plants.

Until next time…
Paul

Home stretch

Well, in a few days, I’ll be on a plane for Minneapolis. It’s been an interesting year and I’m looking forward to shaking the Kuwait dust off my shoes and heading back to the land of lakes and trees.

Fahaheel at nightBefore I leave, though, I have a few things to wrap up. Last Thursday night, a bunch of us guys headed down to Fahaheel for Shisha on our last “Guys Night Out”. Shisha is a sweet flavored tobacco smoked in a tall water pipe popular in the Middle East. The Vee Club is our favorite shisha joint as they have comfortable sofas, great drinks (I love the lemon with mint) and flat-screen TVs with the latest shows. So we hung out for a few hours, talking about the year gone by, summer plans and ideas for fall trips. It was a much needed night of relaxation and decompression after a stressful week. The night’s camaraderie, drinks and a brownie sundae was just the thing for me to put the week behind me and start thinking about the next.

Maseratis at AvenuesOn Friday, I headed out to Avenues Mall to pick up a few things to bring home and my last pound of Dean and Deluca coffee. While there, I checked out the latest offerings from local auto dealers. I’m thinking about getting a car in August and I figured as long as they had cars on display, I’d check them out. As it happens, the malls here don’t usually show Buicks or Chevys. While you see them on the road from time-to-time, the cars displayed in the mall here are more often Feraris, Lamboughinis or Land Rovers. The three cars on the left are Maseratis. One of my students drives one priced at around 32,000KD. Sounds just a little expensive until you hear that one Kuwaiti Dinar is about $3.45, making that high schooler’s car worth around $110,000. Did I happen to mention that Kuwait has one of the world’s highest per-capita incomes?

[Editor’s note: this is where I take a 4-day pause while I administer and grade final exams]
Ramzi, Paul and Ali
OK. We’re now past final exams, spending our last few days on campus packing up books, clearing walls of posters, and all the other fun stuff that comes with the end of a school year. Yesterday, students stopped by campus to pick up their report cards. Most were expecting what they received, though there was the ocassional “Oh, crap – mom’s gonna kill me” or “YES!” that instantly told the listener how they did on exams. Late in the morning, a couple of my Geometry students (who I’m lucky enough to have next year in Algebra 2) stopped by for their report cards and a quick photo-op. Yessir, three handsome fellers.

Paul and Annette at the VanHeels

Tuesday night, a bunch of us got together for one last hurrah at the Van Heel’s apartment. I’ve never been a big fan of charades. But I have to admit that I did pretty well – guessing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in under 10 seconds. My other favorite was watching my good friend Aaron act out clues to “Born in the U.S.A.” Of course being a new father, he made short work of that round.

Then on Wednesday, we said “Good bye and good luck” to our graduating seniors. Commencement is quite a production here. With many members of the royal family, government officials and embassy staff from several countries, the Marriott ballroom was packed with a “who’s who” of Kuwaiti society. A video crew was there recording the whole event and showing live shots of the graduates, families and friends on two monstrous projection screens. Of course there were the obligatory speeches, camera flashes, hand shaking and hat tossing. In the end, 110 graduates paraded out of the ballroom to be congratulated by well wishers, snap pictures and swing by the buffet table before heading home or out to parties. Apart from the dishdashas, serious security and ostentatiousness, it was quite a lot like graduations back home.

Today we have a luncheon at school and then it’s back to the apartments to do some more packing and moving. I’m headed up to the 12th (top) floor of our apartment for next year and I’ve got a lot to do to make the new place “home”.

Speaking of back home, I’m headed that way soon. It’s Thursday morning here in Kuwait and a little after midnight tomorrow, I’ll be boarding a Lufthansa flight for Germany and then on to the U.S. With any luck, I’ll be able to have a brat off the grill Saturday night and make it to church in Irvine Park Sunday morning. So, if I don’t see you there, look for me Monday morning at the 4:30AM coffee shop. I’ll be the guy with a large dark coffee, a chocolate chip scone, and the biggest, contented grin in the shop.

Peace out,

Paul

Auschwitz and Birkenau

It’s a little surreal. I’m sitting in the Warsaw Hilton bar after a fabulous dinner of deer medallions, Eintrance to Birkenaucabbage salad and cranberry sauce having a beer and editing pictures from the past week. And so it is with a little guilt that I remember the residents (what word do you use for them?) of Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). For many of them, as slave laborers, their daily caloric intake consisted of weak coffee or tea, a few small pieces of bread and (sometimes) a very small piece of sausage. Most lasted less than three months before succumbing to starvation.

I’m sure you’re aware that the inmates (a better term) had numbers tattooed on their left arm. This became the preferred method of identification because the original photographs became useless as the quickly emaciated prisoners bore little resemblance to their photos.

Forest of chimneysAuschwitz and Birkenau, two of the most infamous Nazi death camps, were responisble for the death of well over a million people – 90% of them Jews. The numbers are simply staggering. Hell, they could kill as many as they wanted. That wasn’t a problem. But disposing of the hundreds of thousand bodies was a real challenge. Their best engineering efforts in buiding coke-fired furnaces could only keep up with a couple dozen an hour. Soon, they began piling and burning the corpses in the open fields.

Words can’t do justice to the experience and if you’re ever able, I highly encourage everyone to experience this monument to the evil capabilities of people.

BarracksBirkenau, 3km from the original Auschwitz, was built by mostly Jewish slave labor, at first using the brick of demolished homes in the former Polish neighborhood. When the bricks ran out, they built dozens of wooden horse stables, roughly converted to bunk houses packed to the gills with up to 1000 each. Today, the remaining chimneys look like a forest of well-spaced trees, not unlike the pine plantations common in Northern Wisconsin, though more widely spaced.

Gas Chamber and incineratorAgain, the numbers are just staggering. I stood in the gas chamber in Auschwitz where up to 1000 people, naked, assured of a fresh shower were instead efficiently dispatched with gas pellets dropped down through the roof. Just feet away was the furnaces which, over the following day or two, would dispose of the remains. Before cremation, though, the dead would be shorn of their hair which was sold to be woven into jacket linings. The museum still holds a bolt of this “cloth”, hair visible on the edges. The whole process is a study in efficiency.

 

You know, we read about World War II in textbooks. We hear the numbers and see some pictures. But a number like six million people killed (roughly the entire population of Wisconsin) is hard to comprehend. It becomes a little easier to grasp when you witness a room 150 by 50 feet layered with human hair – a tiny fraction of the literal tons of hair (yes, TONS OF HAIR) that was harvested to profit the Third Reich. The babies’ shoes, the piles of eyeglasses and suitcases, all tagged with the names of those killed to “purify” the human race. It’s astounding.

I would love to go back and edit this post further. But alas, my battery is giving out and I need to sleep before Istanbul. I wish you all peace and remind you to work for a peaceful world.

Love,

Paul

Desert Camp

Well, it’s taken six months, but I’ve finally gotten a little sunburn. Yesterday, a few hundred people enjoyed a traditional Kuwaiti desert camp very near the Saudi border.  Games, bedouin singers, a delicious lunch and a trivia contest filled our five hour stay out in the brilliant sun. The sunscreen came out when we first arrived, but I declined it thinking that I’d get a little sun and then apply some lotion in time to prevent a burn. My memory, not being what it once was, neglected to remind me to protect my ever-increasingly epidermal head. And so I’m a little pink.

Having just finished my first introductory Arabic class, I was a winner at the trivia contest. My question was “How many letters are there in the Arabic language?” Anyone…? take your best guess and check the end of the post for the correct answer. When I’m back in the States, you can check out the cool Kuwait history picture book that I won.

Paul on his trusty (though ornery) rideThe highlight of the day had to be my brief ride on a camel. With luck, I pulled the short straw and got to ride the most finicky, not-too-happy-about-toting-tourists dromedary. As I approached the beast, his vociferous bleeting expelled a glob of saliva which was picked up by the stiff wind and directed into my face. Thankfully, I had worn long sleeves and was able to dry off before mounting the beast of burden and parade about the grounds. I don’t know if you’ve had opportunity to ride a camel, but I can tell you it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one would want to do for hours at a time. But after a few minutes, my even-toed ungulate collapsed like a slow, but intensely-angled mechanical bull as it’s crazy-jointed legs folded under him.

After a full day of eating, playing, riding and enjoying the company of many, we headed back to the buses for the long, nap-filled ride back to Surra before catching a taxi back to our apartments in Maboullah. Just a few hours later I was sound asleep, resting up for a new week at school starting today (Sunday).

– – – – – 

The night before our desert outing, I headed back to Fahaheel with some other teachers for our monthly “Guys Night Out”. We had a delicious dinner at our favorite restaurant Mijan in the Al Kout Mall. The other fellas smoked some sheesha – a kind of flavored tobacco pulled through a sheesha pipe like a houka. It smells kinda like pipe tobacco but very mild and flavorful and isn’t so much inhaled as tasted. I haven’t tried it yet and have so far handled the peer pressure to “just try it” (though I’ll probably break down before June).

My buddy Chris, the Algebra teacher next door, has the same birthday as I do (today). But as he’s been under-the-weather the past few days, we’re putting off our celebration dinner until Tuesday with a dinner out with friends at a place down the street on the Gulf Road. With The Coffee Bean being next door, we’ll probably be able to pick up an after-dinner latte and blueberry cheesecake too. Mmmmm…

Well, that’s all for now. We’re well into 2nd semester and I’m starting to look forward to heading back to North America in mid-June. As Garrison says, “Be well, do good work and keep in touch.”

-Paul

Trivia question’s answer: The Arabic language has 28 letters from Alif to Yaa.