Sunday, August 28, 2011

Have the anti smoking lobby lost the plot?

I suspect that this post is going to draw strong criticism from various quarters but I humbly request that you forget which camp you belong to and read it objectively before calling me a "tar-lover", "lobbyist" or "baby killer". To start there are two things that should be borne in mind. I am not calling into question the  ill health effects of smoking, neither am I arguing that the current level of regulation is too stringent and should be relaxed. Secondly, this entire post began at my frustration at not being able to complete my model Mclaren MP4/4 authentically i.e. all Marlboro stickers (the main sponsor) were left out. Since it is the most superficial, I will discuss the latter first.

I recently completed my model Mclaren Honda MP4/4 and loved the experience and the outcome save for one detail, there is no logo on the rear wing and all the original Marlboro decals were either removed or replaced. Had this been the 1992 McLaren MP4/6, that would have been understandable since tobacco advertising regulation was beginning to make an impact in Formula 1 and the Marlboro sticker was replaced with the strobe barcode design on that car in some races. This is what my car looked like...
My Model Mclaren Honda MP4/4

And this is what it looked like in real life...

Ayrton Senna's MP4/4

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My McLaren MP4/4

Almost 2 months ago, I stumbled upon a model car that upon seeing, knew that I just had to build. I discussed it and the significance of the car (McLaren Honda MP4/4) in a post at the time which included a trailer for the must watch documentary on the life of Ayrton Senna.

My initial blog after purchasing the kit

This blog spoke to the history of the car and to a time when the racing was almost indistinguishable to what we see in a F1 champioship today. It took me a significant amount of time and patience but I finally finished it. Introducing, my Mclaren MP4/4...

My replica kit of the McLaren Honda MP4/4 (by Tamiya)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The City of Jerusalem

The city of Jerusalem is well known in modern times for all the wrong reasons. The status of Jerusalem remains one of the core issues in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and has been the site of much violence and attacks in recent history. It is of extreme religious significance to all three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) and regardless of the dangers associated with making a pilgrimage to this great city, it is one that should be made.

This trip was our gift to each other (my wife and I) to commemorate our 5th wedding anniversary. It worked out perfectly because on the day of our anniversary, we miraculously overcame delays at the border and detention at a road block to perform our Jummah Salah (Friday prayers) at Masjid ul Aqsa, the third holiest site in the Sunni Islamic faith. The experience remains unforgettable to this day and I doubt anything will extinguish the elation of that occasion.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Petra - "A City half as old as Time"

There is nothing spectacular about Jordan as a country. The capital city of Amaan is modern but nothing life altering. It is not a particularly cheap place to shop, nor did I find the people to be as warm or as welcoming as the neighboring Palestinians. There are however two significant reasons to visit Jordan. The first being, that it shares a 'friendly' border with Israel and is therefore a necessary stop en route to Palestine and secondly to visit one of the "40 places to see before you die", as chosen by the BBC. Petra - "A Rose red city half as old as time"

People of my generation may remember it famously as the location for scenes in Indiana Jones - The Last Crusade. Younger readers (who managed to stay awake long enough) would have seen it recently in Transformers 2 - Revenge of the Fallen. Pictures are worth a thousand words (which means I get to write significantly less in this blog) but they do not begin to compare to the experience of actually visiting this world heritage site. 

To enter the city of Petra today, you have to approach from the East. It takes you down an impressive long, sometimes very narrow gorge, known as The Siq (The Shaft). Be warned. This is not a short walk and is considerably more difficult on the return journey, so visitors to Petra are advised to dress for a comfortable hike. Walking down the Siq, one gets the distinct impression that the mountain has majestically parted to allow visitors access to this site. The truth, however, is that the area is prone to flash floods and the walkway was caused due to water erosion.

Walking down "The Siq" towards the city of Petra

There are donkeys that may be used to ferry people up and down but I consider this to be an unthinkable mode of transport for all who are able. The reason for this is apparent in the video below of our entry into the city. Who would want to approach a monument such as this, galloping on a donkey!

A quick background to this city. Petra is believed to have been constructed around the 6th century BC and was the capital city of the Nabataeans. This city controlled the commercial routes around the Middle east during the second century BC. Excavations have revealed that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to this artificial oasis. They used a combination of dams, cisterns and aquaducts to control regional floods and store water for use throughout the year. Being in control of the regional commercial trade routes at the time, it comes as no surprise that the most famous and elaborate building in Petra is the treasury, "Al Khazneh".
The Treasury of Petra - Al Khazneh

I have to admit that it took some time for me to move from this building. It was not just it's sheer size or beauty that capivated my imagination, but how well it has stood the test of time. Do you think modern structures like the Empire State Building or Big Ben is still going to be around in the year 6000 AD?
Close up of the Rock Sculptures of the Treasury in Petra
You eventually start to explore the rest of the city, and it is only then that you remember that it is a city! I could not find an easy way to depict via photography how vast this city is. It is as if you are walking down a city street and there are buildings on either side of the road, some simple cut outs that lead into caves. Others are more elaborate and signify a greater purpose in city life.

The Amphitheater of Petra - Even desert people need a show every other weekend!
From this point on, regardless of all the Indiana Jones merchandise you saw en route to Petra, all I could think about was the city of Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings and to some extent the fortress of Helm's Deep. This could be because I loved the movies or... you be the judge.

Can you see the people?

By now, you are possible thinking that I should have wore my cap the right way around becasue there are obvious signs of heat exhaustion. Where is this city? You have only seen pictures, of impressive, yet singular structures. In the next few pictures I will try and show you more of the city but in my defence, I was a bit starstruck and getting the perfect picture was not high on my priority list at the time. You just have to be there, and having the imagination of a 12 year old would help considerably.

The Nabataeans obviously preferred Coke to Pepsi

Admittedly the tombs started looking similar after a while

As can be seen in some of these pictures, the site is still under excavation. It was famously revealed that another chamber was discovered below the treasury but I doubt anything of value will be found because looters probably discovered it first. Even the Pyramids at Giza did not impress me as much as the City of Petra and I hope that I have shown you enough to make you want to visit for yourself. Luckily in this tour you can now just close the window. We had to walk back up the long narrow shaft in quite a  hurry to ensure that we did not miss the tour bus!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Paris of the Middle East

As I was going through the pictures of my Middle East trip, I began to realise that there was so much that I had not shared with people. I remember returning form that trip thinking that I need to write a travel book, start a tour company, become a mercenary, anything just to spend more time there. (Dear Reader. For the rest of this blog and any subsequent post on my middle east trip it would be safe to assume that I have found my tourist googles at the bottom of a suitcase and that I am ignoring all the socio political aspects of traveling in the Middle East. Believe me, it is a lot more fun reading about how I eat Baklava from a street vendor in Old Jerusalem than how I was detained without reason at the Israeli border).

Beirut - Paris of the Middle East

If you have to visit just one place in the middle east and have no inclination for this being a spiritual journey, but rather one of countless splendours, then Beirut and Lebanon will be you destination. The food in Beirut is legendary and can best be described as the fusion between French Cuisine and Middle eastern authenticity. Regardless of whether that last phrase made any sense, trust me when I tell you that the food is so good that had Elizabeth Gilbert started her journey of self discovery in Beirut rather than Italy, she would have never got around to any praying or loving! Tragically, the gastronomic experience that stands out for me is that Beirut will forever be remembered as the city where I had my first Burger King Double Whopper. It too was awesome :)

Beirut - Paris of the East

I am not very well travelled but I doubt many sites would compare to the Mediterranean (on a good day). Beirut is a city that is sandwiched between a mountain and the ocean which means that many people get to experience this kind of view from their homes.

Of course, being an electrical engineer, I was quick to point out to our tour group, the silhoutte of the power station that was famously bombed in the last Israeli-Lebanon conflict. I got comments like "what an eyesore", "Who would put a power station in the middle of the city" etc etc. , but honestly. Look at those towers and tell me you are not thinking, "What an awesome city to host a Red Bull Air Race!".

In any event on this morning, we were told we were going to play in snow. I though they were nuts. Look at this weather. If I told you you will be frolicking in snow in about an hour and a half, would you believe me? Exactly. It therefore came as no surprise when I looked out the bus window and snapped this picture, thinking this may be the most snow I see in one place.

My tune soon changed when I next saw this out the same window!

Who goes on a tour to the middle east and expects to go Snow Biking? Seriously! Camel Ride, maybe. Dune karting, hell yeah. But Snow Biking! I can not recall another incident in my life where I was so elated to be proven wrong. But a note to you novices out there who have never been in snow before. Pack your sunglasses. I am not trying to squint like John Cussack in the picture below for artistic effect, it is the reflection of the sun, off the snow (First world problems :))

P.S This was me still smiling after 2 hours!

Our Lady of Lebanon

Our lady of Lebanon

This statue is not done any justice in any of my pictures so I have taken one of the net.
It is a statue of the Virgin Mary that was built by the French in 1907. It stands 20m in height and overlooks one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, The Bay of Jounieh. This entire journey to the Middle East started out as a spiritual journey to get closer to Mary, or Mariam as she is referred to in Islamic Texts so to unexpectedly end our journey at a site like this was memorable indeed. The architecture of both the mosques and churches in Lebanon were truly breathtaking.

A Maronic Cathedral outside Beirut

 Jeita Grotto
Actually our journey was to end at the Jeitta Grotto. Our tour guide informed us that it was "like Cango Caves". For those of you unfamiliar with the cango caves it is a moderate cave with stalagmites and stalactites in South Africa but one quite remote so I would not recommend it as an option to most international visitors. Having been to the Cango Caves, I was not excited by this trip and when I saw a placard on a lightpole outside asking us to vote for the Jeita Grotto as one of the "seven wonders of the world", I cannot remember what exactly I said but the majority of the bus found it very amusing. Not having learnt from my experience with the snow, I soon found myself touring one of the most truly breathtaking natural wonders of the world, with egg on my face!

The Jeita Grotto is actually two caves that span 9 km. The upper cave houses the worlds largest stalactite and the lower cave can only be explored by boat since it channels an underground river that provides fresh drinking water to the residents of Beirut. We explored both caves and after an amazing but tiring trek, I finally caught up with our South African tour director. As it turns out, he has never visited the Cango Caves, but has always assumed that it looked the same as this! he was clearly a patriotic optimist so I assured him that the Cango Caves bears as much similarity with this natural wonder as a Ferrari does with Hyundai Getz. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited so I got two pictures from the net.
Jeita Grotto - Upper Cave

Jeita Grotto - Lower Cave

I spent two days in Lebanon. Imagine what you could do in a week!

P.S. If anybody from Lebanese tourism reads this, please contact me for banking details regarding any tourism commission that may be due. I am willing to forfeit the commission if you do not charge me for using these pictures without permission :)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia should beware of falling glass

In my post yesterday on the beauty of Damascus, there was something I really wanted to say but decided in the end, not to, as it would detratct from the topic of that post. Furthermore, I did not want to vent my frustration while it was still raw. It began with a scrolling news headline I saw the other day on Al Jazeera news,

"Bahrain recalls ambassador from Syria"

My initial thought was obviously that somebody had changed the channel and I was watching the Daily Show. After the absence of anything slightly humorous and confirmation on my cellphone that it was not bizarrely, April Fool's day, I resigned myself to the thought that I was sleep deprived one night too many and had finally lost my mind. Only after my father laughed at the story which was now being discussed, did I realise that amongst all the traits my father and I have in common, Mutual Concurrent Hallucinations, was not one of them.

Let me be clear form the onset. My personal bias towards Syria, and Damascus, in particular does not extend to the despotic leadership presently in power (Bye Bye Visa). The manner in which the uprisings have been dealt with has been excessive and the people of Syria are entitled to the same civil liberties that we enjoy. So, I am in no way, condoning the actions of the Syrian Government. I just find it insanely ludicrous that Bahrain has decided to publicly jump upon a high horse on this issue.

I know that I am generally critical of Arab monarchies so I have chosen to begin by quoting from the "Amnesty International Report 2011 - State of human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, January to Mid April 2011". I really wish I could quote the entire report on Bahrain but if anybody would like the report, mail me and I will send it to you. I am going to include excerpts detailing the response of the Bahraini military on recent protests in that country. It may be argued that these are excerpts taken out of context, but including all the text would just be too much.

" The worst violence happened during an early morning raid on 17 February on those camped at Pearl Roundabout. Massed ranks of riot police stormed the area to evict the mostly sleeping protesters, firing shotguns and using tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Tanks and armoured vehicles later blocked access to the roundabout. Five people were fatally wounded and at least 250 were injured, some critically. Among the injured were people clearly identified as medical workers who were targeted by police while trying to help injured protesters in or near the roundabout, as confirmed by an Amnesty International fact-finding team"

"On 15 March, Saudi Arabia intervened and sent 1,000 troops in tanks and other armoured vehicles, reportedly at the request of the Bahraini government. Bahrain’s King imposed a state of emergency – termed the State of National Safety – and authorized the armed forces to take extreme measures to end the revolt. For the next two days, Bahraini riot police and soldiers fired at protesters."

"Since then, more than 500 men and women have been detained; at least 40 people were said to be missing and at least four people detained in relation to the protests died in custody in suspicious circumstances. The government said that all deaths were caused by illness. "

The last excerpt is important to my discussion and may seem familiar to most South Africans. In my opinion, The Kingdom of Bahrain is a modern era Apartheid state. The Al Khalifa Royal family has rule over Bahrain since the 19th century and have maintained their authority with the aid and support of the British Empire. What was it about Britain and it's support for minority led governments? In any event although there is no physical separation enforced (legally), the language of the ruling family is very similar to the Whites in Apartheid South Africa or the Zionists in Israel. According to them there cannot be a democracy in Bahrain because the Shia majority are uneducated and will undo all the prosperity and good they have achieved in recent years. How this kind of BS can be used to justify keeping out 70% of a countries population from seeking employment in the military or police force is a tall order. Why Bahrain would therefore try to publicaly rebuke Syria for the manner in which it treated it's protestors was puzzling? It is as stupid as the only country to have ever used a nuclear bomb in warfare, today being allowed to police the rest of the world on nuclear weapons.....perhaps not the best example.
Saudi Arabia has also recalled it's ambassador to Syria, with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz saying in a statement, " What is happening in Syria is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia". I am going to stop now because I am going to start fasting soon and I would be unable to discuss the hypocrisy and idiocy of Saudi Arabia without swearing. Suffice to say that the legs of the high horse that Saudi Arabia sits atop is a lot more shakier, than that of Bahrain.

The beauty of Damascus

The horrific events unfolding in Syria saddens but does not shock me. The Syrian people have for many years been too afraid to stand up to the authorities and for good reason. The authorities is Syria are scarcely tolerant of any dissent and are known to severely restrict ones right freedom of expression. They are aided in this injustice by a State of Emergency that has been continually kept in place since 1963. I hope and pray for a speedy resolution to the conflict and hope that the Syrian people get the freedoms that all people deserve. Furthermore, I hope that this blog does not prevent me form ever visiting Syria again because Damascus, to me, represents one of the most awesome cities in the world. 

Three years ago, I visited Damascus for about 38 hours and in that time, I slept a total of about 5 hours. It was phenomenal and I remarked to my wife that the city seemed to revitalise me. I did not mind the short duration of our visit, because I believed somehow that one day I would return to this great city. I would like to share some of the images of that visit with you.

The Great Mosque of Damascus

The Grand Mosque of Damascus
No description of Damascus would be complete if one did not include "The Great Mosque of Damascus", also known as the Umayyad Mosque. It has always, in it's various incarnations being marveled at for its architecture and continues to remain the heart of the city. Without going too deep into the history of this building, it began in the Iron Age as a temple to the Aramaean god of rain and thunder, Hadad - Ramman but was converted after the Roman conquest of Damascus to a temple to honour the Roman God of Thunder (not Thor!), Jupiter. Signs of the old temple still exist today and I found that truly amazing.
Remnants of the Temple of Jupiter - Damascus
Towards the end of the 4th Century, the temple of Jupiter was converted into the Cathedral of Saint John by the Christian emperor  of the Byzantine empire, Theodosius I. It is believed that the site is the burial site for the severed head of John the Baptist, a legend that was further fuelled by the discovery of an embalmed head in a sealed tomb during the construction of the grand mosque and the famous visit by Pope John Paul II in 2001 to visit the site thought to contain the remains of John the Baptist. this was incidentally the first time a Pope paid an official visit to a mosque.
The Umayyad mosque is most beautiful at dawn
Damascus was captured by Arab forces in 634 AD and later became the administrative capital of the Muslim world. It was only then that the cathedral was converted to a mosque after an agreement with the Christian leaders that all other confiscated churches be returned to the Christians as compensation. It was this understanding that has led to Damascus been one of the few sites in the Arab world that contains churches from that era.

The tomb of Saladin
Saladin (Salah ed Deen Ayyubi) is one of my greatest heroes. His military prowess and compassion was so well documented that even in Europe, where he should have been hated, he became known for his chivalry and justice earning the respect of European leaders including Richard the LionHeart. His tomb is in a garden outside the Umayyad Mosque. When emperor Wilhelm II of Germany visited the mausoleum centuries later he was shocked to find that the site was not more elaborate. he donated a new marble sarcophagus to the mausoleum. The remains of saladin was however not moved so today the mausoleum contains the empty marble sarcophagus and the wooden one in which Saladin was originally buried.
Mausoleum of Saladin - Damascus
 The tomb of Zaynub bint Ali
By now, you are possibly thinking that I did not sleep much in Damascus for spiritual reasons but the last tomb that deserves mention is that of Zaynub bint Ali. Grandaughter of the prophet, she remains one of my favourite women in Islamic history (to the point that if I had my way, my daughter Sulaym would have been named Zaynub which means "the adornment of her father" :) ). After the battle of Karbala, where she lost in battle both of her sons and her brother, she was captured and taken to Damascus. En route she spoke to the people in the towns they passed and to the people of Damascus, planting the seeds that ultimately led to the overthrow of the regime of Yazid I. I often site her example when confronted with Taliban-esque people who insist that muslim women should  "be seen and not heard" and should not address mass gatherings, but that is a debate for another time.

Mausoleum (mazaar) of Zaynub bint Ali - Damascus
The Mausoeum Mazaar of Zaynub bint Ali was in my limited travels the most beautiful building I have ever visited. My daughters would have loved it for it resembled a "crystal palace befitting a princess". If you ever visit Damascus, I strongly recommend that you veer slightly off the beaten track to visit here.

I know that most of you are by know thinking that all I did in Damascus was visit spiritual sites but I assure you I did not. The reason why I hardlyt sleep was because I am experienced all aspects of Damascus life (with my tourist goggles firmly in place). I even found the time to take a traditional Turkish bath in a Hamam that was established in the 1800's.
Relaxing after a turkish bath with my friend Shameel enjoying a hookah and tea
The bath involved being led from room to room where the temperature in each was higher than the next to allow your body to acclimatise to the heat you are ultimately exposed to. Without going into too many details, it is another highly recommended activity. in the end you are not towel dried but several layers of cloth are applied and then re-applied to ensure that the oils used are not immediately rubbed off. Walking in the city at night, we found cool coffee shops, clothing stores etc. and at night the Bazaar was where we did the majority of our gift shopping for friends and family. Unfortunately you don't generally take pictures of yourself shopping and window shopping so their is unfortunately not many pictures of these activities.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Plunging into the world of eBooks

It may surprise you to note that although I claim to be technologically savvy (geek) and an early adopter (pretentious), I have only made the transition to eBooks today. I have often spoken about it and I have four apps on my iPad that are primarily used for eBooks (iBooks, Stanza, Kobo and Kindle). For correctness, they are primarily used as eReaders by others. I used them to either read comics/ magazines or to take up space on my screen. I have downloaded many free books from iTunes that I am sure many iPad users have on their shelf (Winnie the Pooh, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Art of war, The adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and I often page through these books when showing people how amazing an iPad is, but have not ever read any of them and neither to be honest do I ever intend reading them. The only books I have read is some of the free children's books and sometimes I even take the time to read these to my daughter.

I am very aware of why eBooks make sense. It is more convenient (entire library in one device), it takes less space when packing to go on holiday, it is more environmentally friendly, it is cheaper amongst others. However, the library cannot be shared (legally), the books cannot be sold on Kalahari marketplace when you are done reading it, and it does not have the same 'feel' of a book (regardless of the type of leather cover you attach to your device). These Pro's and cons will be expanded upon in an article I intend writing on this topic, but for now feel free to comment on your experiences. Especially if you have a Kindle. I know that the Kindle is much easier on the eyes (in that there is no backlight! The iPad would definitely win the swimsuit segment of that pageant), but do you find yourself doing the majority of your reading on the Kindle now?

I bought two books form the iStore today. The first I know I am going to love is "Bossypants" by Tina Fey. I splashed out and spent the extra $1 to get the enhanced edition which would hopefully also include Tina Fey's opinion on eBooks. The second was Bill Bryson's, "Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors". Having paged through this book numerous times at Exclusive Books already, I feel like it is a book I already own but the problem with a lot of the entries is that it gives the correct use of words and phrases which if used would be assumed incorrect since the incorrect usage is much more popular. An example from the book,

"Between you and I: is always wrong. Make it "between you and me". The object of a preposition should always be in the accusative. More simply, we don't say "between you and I" for the same reason we don't say "Give that book to I"

Another one I liked was

before, prior to. There is no difference to these two except length and a certain inescapable affectedness on the part of prior to. To paraphrase Theodore Bernstein, if you would use 'posterior to' instead of 'after', then by all means use 'prior to' instead of 'before'

As can be clearly seen by the above two examples, I am still in the "B" section of the dictionary. I remember thinking during LRE (Library Resource Education) a teacher in primary school suggesting that we try and learn one new word from the dictionary every day to improve our vocabulary and language skills, that that idea is as idiotic as the need to have a subject in school to encourage people to read. I feel ancient know having admitted to being old enough to have had such a subject as LRE and the realisation that I know find enjoyment in reading a Dictionary. Admittedly, this is a lot funnier than the Concise Oxford version but an 'over the hill' feeling remains. To be fair I suspect your opinion of LRE as a subject would be very dependent on the educator in charge of the class.

For now, I believe the only eBooks I will purchase are those that offer something 'extra' to the normal experience  (i.e. the Tina Fey book has chapters read by the author) or those that are unavailable in South Africa or a lot more expensive. I doubt that the future of books is in danger because the majority of the world have no access to iPad's or Kindle's but publishers may want to take notice of the potential threat that this new medium poses.