Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Adventure Continues...

Please forgive any typos :)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Day two has seen quite a bit of progress so far. Not in learning Arabic but in other equally rewarding ways.

I’ve used the squatter twice now and I’m happy to say that I’ve not had any problems yet. I attribute this to Pepto Bismal (of which I brought tons) but it could just be dumb luck. I also got to experience my first random power outage.

I’m on my way to getting my residency visa. Mohammed took me to a local bank to open up an account. It really made me appreciate banks in America. Now, I’m not quite certain how to go about getting my money back out, but Mohammed has assured me that he will show me how in a few days.

God IS great or so I am told five times each day over a loudspeaker. A loudspeaker that seems to be very close to my window. Fortunately I managed to sleep through this morning’s reminder of his greatness. I’m not sure I will be so lucky in the future, but I was pretty exhausted last night. I don't mind hearing the call to prayer first thing in the morning, but the guy doing it in my location sounds like he's dying.

You might think this is a bit crazy, but I brought 180, Omega 3 Fish Oil capsules with me. After a few hours on the streets of Sana’a, I quickly decided that this was one of my finer decisions. Wait – is fish oil an antioxidant?

I was quickly disabused of any notions I had of properly maintaining my blog while in Yemen. Perhaps I will find a better Internet café, but it took me a good 16 minutes to send off one email. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were sharing a 56k line among all the computers in the room. I had thought that CALES had a computer room available for use, but I must have been mistaken or just haven’t come across it yet.

Mohammed introduced me to his son, Ali, this morning. Ali is a nice guy who speaks English a bit better than I speak Arabic, so between the two of us we manage to understand each other. Ali is only in Sana’a for a couple of weeks while he waits for University to begin again. He has only just begun studying but it is his intention to become a doctor, which he knows will take a long time.

I met the director of CALES, Jameel, this morning. I paid for my tuition, room, and materials for one year which came to a grand total of $4,235. Through in my airfare ($1,750 or so) and assume costs of $200 monthly for food and it comes to a grand total of $8,385. Jameel also assured me that if I need to leave early for some reason, I can be reimbursed for the unused portion of my tuition/room. Of course, there are other expenses like for extending my visa, passport photos, blood tests, overweight baggage, etc. (The cost to study per hour decreases the long your stay).

Speaking of overweight baggage, if you think you might need it, bring it. I may seem a pain to hassle with all that junk, but it has certainly made my transition to being here in Yemen much easier, although, I'm certain you will find everything you need eventually.

This evening I had a most excellent adventure with another student here – English Tom. English Tom is a character inasmuch as he decided one day that he was going to go to Damascus to study Arabic. He stayed there for nine months before coming to study in Yemen at CALES. I asked him his opinion and he felt that he has been able to learn much more here. I think that is due more to the one on one instruction students receive here at CALES.

Anyway, back to my adventure. It seems that another student here, Aaron, was supposed to go into “New Sana’a” with English Tom but decided not to go and instead offered me up as his proxy. Of course, not knowing up from down at the moment, I was more than happy to tag along.

It turns out that English Tom was on a mission to secure some beer from a Chinese restaurant near one of the modern supermarkets here. Tom believes the restaurant is owned by an Ethiopian gentleman and has never eaten there, but suspected that the food was bad.

It is my understanding that alcohol isn’t forbidden here, at least not to foreigners, but that the government hasn’t set in place a system by which a foreigner can buy alcohol – Thus the need to hit the black market. Tom handled himself with the assuredness of an Englishman that was in desperate need of a drink but conducted the business entirely in English even though his Arabic is quite good. Tom said that even though it wasn’t illegal for foreigners to buy alcohol, he just didn’t feel right using Arabic while making his purchase.

A very bright young man, he is leaving for England soon to continue interviewing for a position with the office of Foreign Affairs. My favorite moment of the night was when Tom decided he needed some bread for the night and stopped at a small bread shop. For some reason, after Tom bought the bread one of the Yemenis there asked him, in Arabic, if he were Christian. To which Tom replied back in Arabic, “Yes, but in the future I will convert to Islam, if God wills it.” I thought that to be a very diplomatic response from somebody wishing to work for their government.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

I don’t know exactly what it is, but I always seem thirsty here. It’s not overwhelmingly hot, so maybe it is the dry air due to the elevation. My lips also seem constantly dry. Speaking of which, I think the elevation in Sana’a gives carbonated drinks an extra kick.

I almost didn’t have an entry for tonight, not that I need to have an entry every night, because tonight was interesting for only being my second full day here.

I spent a lot of time yesterday walking around with Mohammed and forgot to put sunscreen on the back of my neck. I didn’t actually get sunburned but very close to it. So today I thought it best if I didn’t go out during the day. Unfortunately, that meant that by that evening I was stark-raving hungry. One of the other newer students, Sofia, said that Aaron was taking here to the silver souq and afterwards they were going to eat if I wanted to come along. Not knowing Sana’a yet and irrationally fearful of getting lost while trying to find a restaurant on my own, I was only happy to agree, and thus my lovely adventure began…

Aaron took Sofia to see Ahmed. If I understood this situation correctly, Ahmed takes old jewelry that was originally fashioned by Jewish silversmiths, and makes new pieces with it. Evidently, the old pieces are quite large and he basically breaks them down, cleans them and creates smaller pieces that are more palatable to Western tastes. His work is good and his prices are fair. This has led to more senior students taking the newer students to him and so on. Ahmed seems to understand well that if he does good work and doesn't try to cheat people, he will keep getting business.

Although, I didn’t buy anything myself (I’m here for a year so I’ve plenty of time), I will no doubt be buying things there in the future. To be honest, I’d be stupid not to. The pieces that they are using to make the smaller pieces are anywhere from 80 to 120 years old.

While downing a nice tasty cup of tea that Ahmed offered, Sofia bought a couple of necklaces and then wanted to go to the “expensive” shop were she saw a pricey bracelet that she also wanted. The shop (World Market) is good, but I think they charge a premium for their work.

Now, I’m not sure what Sophia was doing at the second shop, but she was taking forever to do it. I didn’t mind too much as I was the one tagging along and the pace of life doesn’t move fast here anyway. Aaron makes for good conversation even if he seems full of angst at times. Finally Sophia finished her business and apologized. I really didn’t care as that meant it was dinner time! But alas, no – now it was time to try and find the women’s section of a wedding party that was underway, which also somehow turned into a search for her missing camera bag. Somehow I ended up in the wedding tent with Aaron and Sophia (she never did find the women’s section – it was rather far away I think).

Now, I think you can see where this is going… after a while Sophia left to turn in for the night and I stayed with Aaron, with no dinner, mostly out of fear of getting lost on the way home. Finally, I took matters into my own hands and got directions from Aaron to a bread shop and got four small loaves (hotdog bun size?) of bread for 20 Riyals, which is about 10 cents.

Yes, after waiting a good four and a half hours to eat dinner, I ended up supping on my bread at about 11:00pm. I actually consider myself lucky as the bread was quite tasty and even leaving the wedding party that late, I was being asked to stay even later by some of the guests. Today and tomorrow is the weekend here, and although I really didn’t have anything better to do I begged off their invitation claiming a great need for sleep. I’m also going to need to work something out regarding my desire not to chew qat as it gets tiresome having people constantly offering me their qat and not understanding why I keep saying no. Qat is Yemen and Yemen is qat.

And if anybody is interested, the count is currently:
Sleepy Gary – 1, Annoying Call to Prayer Guy – 1

Friday, February 24, 2006

Today as I was heading out from CALES in an attempt to find a good internet café, I met Sophia on her way in. After explaining to her what I was up to she offered to show me a place in Tahrir Square. I’m sure that she had good intentions but you know what they say about those. And so begins my story…

Sophia wanted to drop her bag off in her room as the strap was coming undone. And that was when the warp began. Now, I only just suspected her ability to warp time the other night when I followed her and Aaron to the silver souq. But today I was able to confirm her mutant ability of time warp.

While dropping off her bag, I ran into Evan who asked to come along for some Internet action followed up with some lunch. For some reason, Sophia pulled out an Egyptian cookbook and declared her desire to shop for ingredients for and Egyptian dinner (warp #1). Now, normally this would seem like a good idea, but firstly, she’s a vegetarian and secondly, she warps time.

So, about an hour later, we head out to find Sophia’s internet café. True to her word, she found it easily enough, and it is a nice place. Evan and I quickly got our business done which for me was quite a bit as I had to email my wife, check my blog and wade through about three hundred emails. We both began surfing while waiting for Sophia to finish, that’s when we noticed she was searching the internet for information about Jewish silversmiths and printing out pictures from various web sites (warp #2). Please folks, remember this bit as it is tied to a future warp.

Finally, she finished up and we headed out to find a restaurant. That’s when the third warp began. Being a vegetarian, Sophia didn’t want to go to any of the nearby restaurants but was intent on going to a place she found in a Lonely Planet guidebook. Yes, you guessed it; said vegetarian restaurant was far, far away. Now, we never actually got her restaurant and randomly settled for a place that we were passing at the moment we finally gave up. This was a couple hours after we started walking. Evan was in near rebellion.

Along the way, we did stop in a honey shop. I had previously read that Yemen has the world’s most expensive honey and due to a slight mathematical error on my part, I ended up paying $8 for a very small container of it. Exactly how small I’m afraid I don’t know but it’s barely half the size of my fist. But, my oh my, it’s some mighty fine tasting honey! I had some of it with bread this morning. Yum!

As we walked back to the school, Evan got sucked into a conversation with a local but to his credit, managed to keep walking towards the school at the same time. Sophia however, stopped to talk to another Yemeni that she says has been trying to be her tour guide. I didn’t realize that Evan had gotten that far ahead of us but by the time I got Sophia moving again, I had lost site of Evan. It was at this point that warp #4 begins. Sophia asked if we could go pick up her bracelet at on of the shops in the silver souk. I remember it being kind of close from the night I followed her and Aaron so I said okay.

Now, I’m not a demanding person, but I do appreciate it if a person asks me to go with them to a place where they actually KNOW how to find and preferable, find their way back. Not everybody seems to think this is important I found out. Somehow, we stumbled on the shop in question after wandering aimlessly.

It was at this point we smoothly transitioned into warp #5. It seems that Sophia didn’t just want to pick up her bracelet and go. She proceeded to bring out the pictures she had printed at the internet café and discuss, what seemed to be, the history of the smithing of silver in Yemen. I stood there in shock disbelief for about forty minutes before deciding to take matters into my own hand by reminding Sophia about her needing to study for her classes.

Reality is the only word in the English language that should always be used in quotes…

Sleepy Gary – 1, Annoying Call to Prayer Guy – 2

Friday, February 24, 2006

My Big Fat Yemeni Adventure

Yay I made it! And without further ado...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Finally, safe and somewhat sound, I’ve arrived in Sana’a and settled into CALES. The past several days as I traveled from Seattle, Washington to Yemen have helped prepare me for the beginning of my stay. No matter how bad things become, I can always remind myself that at least I’m not in transit.

My flights here were mostly uneventful and more than tolerable. That was until I made it to Dubai where I had a 12 hour layover. My plan was to get my luggage and then check into the Dubai International Hotel (located in the airport). What I didn’t realize is that once I went through customs to get to my baggage, I couldn’t get back into the airport as Yemenia Airlines’ desk didn’t open until three hours before the flight was to take place. I didn’t want to hassle with trying to find a hotel offsite so I decided to wait it out in the check-in area. My ass still isn’t speaking to me.

I was met Sana’a International Airport by Mohammed who took me to CALES and my room before taking me off to get exchange some money and grab a bite to eat. I was so worried about getting through customs that I literally walked out of the airport without my luggage. Mohammed and I were on our way to the car before I figured out what was going on. Nothing like making a good first impression I always say. I really appreciated being met by Mohammed and him taking the time to show me around. Granted, one of his functions is to help facilitate the arrivals of new students, but I think he could have done much less if he had wanted, but he was very thorough and patient.

Let me do a quick critique of the airports I went through on my way here:

Dubai – although I was unable to enjoy its splendor properly due to my getting stuck waiting for the Yemenia Airlines desk to open, it was by far the nicest airport. No smoking too! Boo-yah!

Seattle – Second best of the group. It doesn’t have the glitz of Dubai or the style of Frankfort, but the things it does have put it into a strong second.

Frankfurt – Stylish in a European way, it ranks behind Seattle due to the entire place smelling of smoke (I’m okay with others smoking, I just don’t like the smell). The bathrooms seemed kind of cramped too. The airport employees here get around the airport by bike which I though was a neat idea until I saw them riding while looking every which way but where they were going. The kicker was when I saw one riding his bike while talking on his cell-phone.

Washington DC (Dulles) – on the plus side, they had a Starbucks on the negative side, they forgot about my drink. Small bathrooms and a lack of panache made this second from last.

Sana’a – If you’ve ever been here you’ll know why this is the last of the airports on my list but hey, they did have a duty free shop!

Sana’a reminds me a lot of southern Spain in some ways, possibly the Moorish influence. CALES is smack dab in the middle of Old Sana’a. The common areas were pretty clean which I much appreciated (but I’ve not been to the kitchen yet). My room is adequately furnished (nothing special) and the foam mattress on my bed really brings back my memories of Rota, Spain. I met Evan today as I was coming back from dinner with Mohammed (which I got to eat with my hands!) I quickly quizzed Evan about the toilet situation. Yes folks, we’ve got the Turkish Special!

Evan explained that the students are responsible for providing their own TP and offered to take me to one of the larger grocers in the area later on after I’ve settled in. Luckily I brought a lot of tissues with me from home as a stop-gap measure for just such an event. I’ve been putting off using the squatter (as I will call it from now on) but I know it’s only a matter of time.

Tomorrow I get to meet the school’s director, Jameel, and do a few other things that Mohammed mentioned but I’ve since forgot.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Sana'a Calling

I'm off to Yemen (in about seven hours). I'll post again soon (I hope). I'm bringing my digital camera so hopefully I can get some photos posted too.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Arab Academy

I think it’s time for another Arabic Study Materials post. I’ll probably try and do a few more after this as I don’t think I’ll be doing any while in Yemen.

I hadn’t studied Arabic since I left the Defense Language Institute in December 1989. Last spring my wife suggested I take an Arabic class at the Washington Academy of Language.

Their Arabic I class was based on the Alif Baa book, which I think is a good book for somebody that has no knowledge of Arabic but that wasn’t my case. Even worse, I was told by the instructor that the Arabic II class was also supposed to use the Alif Baa book. Doing some fuzzy math, the cost for taking both classes would have been almost $800 for learning the Arabic alphabet and a few words. That’s 10 weeks: two classes a week, five class hours per week – and that’s sad.

At least that’s an option available to somebody in Seattle wanting to study Arabic but in other cities, people don’t even have that option. And those are the people for whom this post pertains; although, I think that anybody interested in learning Arabic will find this an interesting post.

This post is about the Arab Academy. Arab Academy is probably the best way to study Arabic short of studying at a university or going to the Middle East. I’ve had this site listed in my links section since I started posting but never commented on it. I’m not sure why as I use it myself and I wholly recommend it.

The Arab Academy is actually that, an academy. It has a physical presence in Cairo and it is designed to take you from having no knowledge of Arabic to advanced levels of Arabic. It does have some drawbacks but its benefits far outweigh any negatives. Speaking classes are also offered as well as Quranic Arabic and Stories of the Prophet for those that are interested in Arabic from an Islamic perspective.

The Arab Academy begins with Arabic 100 continues with Arabic 101-103, 201-203, 301-303, 401-403 and ends with Arabic 501. Arab Academy has also recently added speaking courses. It is a self-study course that is well structured and easy to follow. Although it lacks the benefit of face to face contact with an instructor, you can easily post questions via a message board system and have your questions quickly answered.

There have been some recent changes to the class structure, but each class is broken up into four units with seven lessons in each unit. Each unit revolves around a theme and there are literally hundreds of online exercises designed to reinforce what you are learning in each unit. Even if complete all the exercises you can just do them again. It is so much better than anything I’ve encountered.

I’m not the only one banging the Arab Academy drum. Their online program is being utilized by both high schools and universities in the U.S. It provides a level of interaction that takes it beyond learning from a book or even a place like the Washington Academy of Languages. This is something that even students studying Arabic at the college level can use to provide a more complete learning experience.

Honestly the only problem I have with Arab Academy is that there is no emphasis on writing Arabic. This is because being a computer based program; its input is all done via keyboard. You learn how to spell the words but typing the word isn’t the same as writing. I don’t feel that this is too big of a problem but enough of one to warrant mention.

The prices charged for their courses are very reasonable. Although after your period of study is complete (it’s a very generous amount of time), you lose access to that particular class, Arab Academy allows you to download each unit’s material in PDF format for future study.

As sycophantic as this post may sound, it really doesn’t do Arab Academy justice.Whether you’re a beginner looking to get started learning Arabic, or somebody looking to improve on what you’ve are learning/learned, or to supplement a college based course, or an advanced student of the language looking for speaking practice, you’ll find what you’re looking for at Arabic Academy.

Here is a link to a review of the Arab Academy, provided by the National Foreign Language Center which does a more professional evaluation.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Yay For Me!

Last night I was checking my email and what did I see? Yep, CALES came through for me with a visa! They sent a copy for me via email and I’m assuming that the gentleman that is meeting me at the airport will have the original.

Sure, sure, my last name is spelled يولن on the visa instead of بولن but I’m just going to pretend that it won’t matter. My middle name is also misspelled come to think of it...

So now I’ve ten days and a wakeup until I leave for Yemen. My wife bought me a most excellent espresso maker for Christmas and wants me to take it with me to Yemen. You probably think that sounds silly, but being from Seattle, coffee is pretty important to me. I probably average four, double espressos a day. That’s $7.20 at Starbucks.

Actually, I don’t really want to take the espresso maker with me, even though it comes with its own carrying case and is only six pounds, mostly because I’m not sure if I can find a transformer for it. That and the fact that it uses a pod system (don’t ask), and I don’t want to have to keep track of it as carry-on luggage for the 2+ days I’ll be in transit to Sana’a. But then I imagine myself hanging out late in the evening with a doppio espresso and well, six pounds doesn’t seem that bad. Sometimes I even imagine US Embassy employees or high ranking Yemeni officials visiting me just for the chance of being offered an espresso. And make no mistake, it is good espresso and hey, twelve months is twelve months :)

Monday, February 06, 2006

No News is Good News

Like the title says, no news is good news but unfortunately, I’ve got news.

Now, I’m less than two weeks from leaving for Yemen and I learn from the news that at least 13 al Qaeda militants tunneled their way out of jail in Sana’a and are on the loose. Come on Yemen, you’re killing me. I mean serioulsy, who digs a tunnel out of prison nowadays?!?

How am I supposed to spin this to my wife when I’m supposed to be in Yemen very soon for an entire year? Luckily, she doesn’t watch much news, but I’m sure one of her coworkers will let this bomb drop.

In an unrelated story but still depressing, STA Travel called to let me know that one of my previously scheduled flights was cancelled. They sent me a new itinerary that now includes four segments to my trip instead of the original three. It’s not al Qaeda, but technically it does increase my chances of dying in a fiery crash by 25%! Even if I arrive safe and sound, the change in my itinerary increases my travel time by a good 8-10 hours :(

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Some Syrian Linkage

Great news for all you Syria fans out there (and you know who you are)! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give to you –!

SyriaLive is the best Syrian navigational guide/portal I’ve come across (not that I’ve come across many). Simply put, it’s pretty neat and deserves a look.