A Travellerspoint blog

The Land of Extremes

So now that I'm back in New York and in the full swing of school and my day to day life, my summer travels seem like already distant memories. But it was just a few weeks ago that I found myself sitting on a ski lift, pondering how it was that I was freezing cold and losing feeling in my fingertips despite being in the middle of the desert. Welcome to Dubai.

Now some have already noted that Dubai and Turkey aren't exactly on the way home from Nicaragua - but when you have a once in a life time opportunity to visit a friend who is working in Dubai for the summer (and can offer a free place to stay to boot) - you make an exception. Given all the things I had seen and read about the explosive growth of the most famous of the United Arab Emirates, I was surprised upon my first view to see how spread out it was. My friend MJ and I both commented that we expected it to be more dense - but then again, it is in the middle of a desert, and so has room to be a little more spread out than Manhattan. When we later ventured into the heart of downtown and saw close up the hundreds of cranes in every direction it was more in line with the images I had seen - but on first impression, I was surprised.

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Granted, our first trip through downtown was en route to the real desert - several miles outside of "town" where we went for our desert safari adventure - which basically consisted of about 100 white Land Rovers flying up and over sand dunes at ridiculous speeds. My friends thought this was highly entertaining - I thought it was terrifying and was convinced we were going to flip (having twice spun out in SUVs that someone else was driving, it was an all too familiar sensation). I think the rest of the group got as much enjoyment out of laughing at me as they did from the actual ride.

This video doesn't really do it justice, but will give you an idea: http://www.new.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=34961290850

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The safari ended with a desert dinner, complete with a belly dancing show. Considering it was an entirely tourist contrived event, it was actually a great dinner, though perhaps not an authentic Bedouin experience.

While we were lucky enough to spend most of our nights at Anthony's apartment, he was also able to get us a great rate on one night at the super swanky Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, which is really a series of four interconnected hotel properties. Our room was in a lovely villa style building that was connected to the main buildings by a series of canals and walkways. But, we were only a short golf cart away from the Burj Al Arab Hotel, the famous "seven star" hotel that looks like a sail and is one of Dubai's most prominent landmarks. The interesting thing about the Al Arab is that despite its beautiful and modern exterior - inside its like a bad version of a cheap Vegas hotel combined with the I Dream of Genie set. The architect's daughter in me was dismayed to see such a clash of good architecture with bad interior style - but nonetheless it manages to be one of the more expensive hotels in the world. On our budget we only made it as far as the bar - where a $150/person minimum made even that hard to swallow!

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An additional perk of the hotel was that it gave us free reign the next day to the adjacent waterpark. Now I can't remember the last night I was on a water slide, but I'll have to say, it was pretty fun. The highlight was a new system of "rides" which use jet propulsion to push you up a series of slides on an inner tube. So instead of the traditional slide where you climb up a lot of stairs before taking the slide down - in Dubai you get to ride up and down.

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And this brings me back to the ski slope where I found myself later that night. In a continuing theme of taking things to extremes, Dubai also has an indoor ski slope located inside of a shopping mall. This isn't like the little conveyor belt system that the Oshman's Sports Store had to help Texans get ready for the slopes when I was a kid. This is a full on ski slope with a lift chair and snow. For around $60 you get all of the equipment and clothes and a two hour pass to go up and down the lift. After a while of going down the same two runs I suppose the novelty did wear off a bit - until I remembered that I was in the middle of a desert. The skiing itself is pretty real, as Anthony can tell you as he managed to crack a rib while trying to learn to snowboard (in a shopping mall!). It was definitely a trip - especially because at the bottom of the run you could see through the windows into the rest of the mall - and the local TGI Fridays. Who knows what Dubai will come up with next, though lots of new developments are under way, but I'm sure it will manage to be even bigger and better and more extreme!

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Posted by jme75 19:16 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

Turkish Delight

Ok, I know, it has to stop – it is getting a bit ridiculous. But, when else in my life am I going to have this amount of vacation time?? So when my classmate Anthony got a summer internship in Dubai and wanted to know who was coming to visit, I signed on for the ride.But, Dubai is a long way to go – so MJ, Anita and I met up with Anthony in on Istanbul on the way. I’ll be honest, prior to this trip I hadn’t really thought much about the possibility of travelling in Turkey – but after just four days in Istanbul, I’m hooked, and will definitely be back.

We had the good fortune to visit when our Turkish classmate Gunay was home visiting family, and so had a wonderful guide and translator with us most of the time. We were also joined for the first part of our trip by another classmate, Karlyn.

On our first full day, cruising up the Bosphorus River on a ferry, you could quickly see that Istanbul is full of many contrasts. Straddling two continents and two seas, Istanbul forms a bridge between Europe and Asia. Through the years many empires have called this land their own, and there is no doubt that the ubiquitous Turkish flag which can be seen everywhere is a sign of the pride that modern day Turks have for their country. A mix of mosques, cathedrals, lush palaces and modern skyscrapers, Istanbul mixes the old and the new in a way that can be both breathtaking and overwhelming.

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It is also a great place to celebrate a birthday, and I was lucky to spend my, um, 29th, enjoying the river by day and the winding streets and fabulous restaurants that night. And of course, all of this was topped off with a piece of birthday baklava (candle and all)!

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Two of the city’s most well known monuments are the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque which are side by side in the old part of town. The Aya Sofia is most famous for its free-standing dome, which was a feat of engineering in its day, and has continued to be an architectural inspiration ever sense. What started as a cathedral then became a mosque and was eventually turned into a museum, so inside you find a mixture of Christian mosaics and Arabic script (and a tourist or two!). The Blue Mosque was built years later to outshine the Aya Sofia and is probably the most easily visible landmark with its towering minarets. It is also a still functional mosque so visitors can only enter during certain hours and are required to remove their shoes and cover their shoulders before venturing inside.

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While impressed by both the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, I was perhaps the biggest fan of the underground cistern which used to be the water source for both. In addition to being a fabulous place to cool off for a few minutes, it also boasts 336 columns and an elevated walkway so that you wander through the whole structure without getting wet!

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After another day of sightseeing we had worked up quite an appetite, but stopped first for drinks at Mikla on the rooftop of the fancy Maramara Pera hotel. Definitely a place where local Turks and tourists come to be seen, the bar was complete with $30 cocktails and an in-house DJ. It also had fabulous views of the city. Anthony was quite happy with his harem of five women – though he didn’t look quite as cool when the wind turned him into an Indian version of Alfalfa!

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The high price we paid for the drinks was somewhat offset by our dinner at the baked potato stand! For about seven dollars, you can get a baked potato stuffed with everything you can imagine – and then a lot of things you might not – like pickles, olives, corn, peas, or sliced up hot dogs. Once the potato is sufficiently stuffed it is topped with mayo and ketchup and makes for an excellent dinner. And just in case that’s not enough, you can follow it with a stuffed waffle. Pile anything you like – fruit, chocolate, nutella, etc. onto a large waffle, roll it up like a burrito, and voila – dessert.

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The next morning we fit in one more palace before going to have our fortunes told from the grounds in the bottom of our cups of Turkish coffee. The experience got off to an interesting start given that the guy doing the readings had a very uncanny resemblance to the Devil. And after translating all of our readings for us, Gunay was more than a little bit skeptical. But there are parts of it that I’d like to believe – like that events in my career and my love life will make me very happy in September, that I will receive a large sum of money in December, and when I do eventually get married it will happen quickly and I will be very happy (sorry mom, no real specifics as to when that will be).

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Last but not least we of course felt obliged to check out the local club scene, and spent our final night at the over the top club Reina, a several story outdoor venue on the banks of the Bosphorus. The club has two entrances, one for the who’s who of Istanbul, and one for the rest of us. It also has a back entrance where people pull up in their yachts (try as we might, we were not able to talk our way onto anyone’s yacht). Anthony was once again accompanied by his harem of women, though this time only four as Karlyn had moved on to Syria by that point. While he did revel in this role, he did have a conversation with a group of Turkish men celebrating a bachelor party which made him realize that one man with four women left some with the impression that he was not our friend, but actually our boss. We couldn’t decide if we were insulted or flattered – but needless to say Anthony made it clear that we were not for hire.

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And that was the end of Turkey for now, but I hope to one day go back and spend more time exploring the countryside and the coastal towns. However, Dubai was calling – and it has not disappointed – but that story will have to wait because we are off to go skiing on an indoor mountain top (this place is a bit over the top!).

Posted by jme75 07:43 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Adios Nicaragua

It’s over. It’s done. Ten weeks in Nicaragua have flown by – but I think I have a good amount to show for it. In addition to getting to know the country better, and exploring all that it offers, I actually did do some work (my father is a bit worried that that has not been clear in my blog). All in all, did I change the world in 10 weeks? Probably not. But I learned a great deal – and I’d like to think I did contribute to Agora’s overall mission.

But before I left, I did manage to squeeze in a few more trips around the country – and knock a few more things of my list of things I wanted to do. First, I finally got to milk a cow. I don’t know why, but I’ve always wanted to milk a cow. I’ll have to say, it was a little anticlimactic. The cow in question didn’t seem to have a problem with it, but I felt a little bad tugging on her udders like that. I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.

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I also made it out to the Chacocente wildlife reserve where Matt owns several plots of land. The dry tropical forest on the edge of the Pacific was declared a reserve primarily because of the turtles that come to lay their eggs on the beach. We didn’t see any of the turtles, but we did see their nests. Unfortunately, many of the nests had already been scavenged. In addition to animal predators, the eggs are also at risk of humans who sell the valuable eggs to be eaten, or exported to El Salvador to be used in shampoos and lotions. Though the beach is monitored at night by a handful of rangers and members of the army – they still can’t protect all of the nests.

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And finally, I made it up to the Cañon de Somoto on the Honduran border. Local Nicaraguans from the region of Somoto have of course known about the canyon’s existence for years, and in fact it was through this area that the US backed Contras crossed into the country to fight the Sandanistas. But, it was only recently “discovered” by European tourists, and so is even less untouched than other regions of the country.

To reach the canyon you drive up through the lush foothills of Northern Nicaragua. In Giaconda Belli’s book “The Country Under My Skin” she talks of the great joy she felt returning to her country and its beauty after years of living abroad prior to the revolution. Reading her book in the not quite so picturesque Managua, I had a hard time imagining what she meant. But on the drive north it finally made sense. At this time of year the country is alive with lush green vegetation, and pictures don’t begin to do it justice.

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Part of the impetus for this final trip was a visit from my friend and traveling companion Irene from Spain. We only had two days to get up to the canyon and back, but it was worth. We set out early in the morning for the hike into the canyon, which starts in a small village just outside. Once we reached the canyon, we hiked along the river for a ways until we came to the site where Irene would repel off of a 60 meter high wall. I, on the other hand, decided that ziplining and sandboarding were enough adventure for the summer, and only climbed up to the drop off so that I could take her picture.

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Next we donned life jackets and set off floating down the river. Most of my experiences in rivers have involved a boat, or at least an innertube – but for this voyage all we had was the life vest and two guides. Luckily, they knew the river fairly well, and before each set of rapids they would head down first so that they could catch us and pull us out of the current before we got too far down the river. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of that part of the trip – though it may be just as well as I’m sure we ended up in some slightly comprising situations as we grabbed onto them each time – but I’m sure it was all for our safety. . .

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I spent my final night in Nicaragua in my favorite town of Granada and had a wonderful send off. It’s an amazing country – and for all of its political and economic challenges – it’s so beautiful and full of potential. I don’t think this is the last I’ll see of Nicaragua and I have a feeling my path will lead me there again. But for the time being, it’s time to say adios.

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Posted by jme75 20:09 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Saints, Flying Gringas and Chicken Love

-17 °C

There is only one week left of my summer in Nicaragua, and I've been trying to make the most of it. This past Friday was a holiday in Managua to celebrate Santo Domingo, the patron saint of the city. The saint (well, the small statue representing the saint) spends most of its time living in a church in the foothills of Managua, but once a year he is brought down to the main cathedral on an alter of sunflowers. The procession starts early in the morning and spends the whole day winding through the streets, with thousands of people joining in. Many walk out of homage to the saint, some wear costumes, and others spend the day partaking in the national liquor (rum) – all of which makes for a very colorful parade. For those of you from San Francisco, it was a bit like a holy Bay to Breakers.

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Friday night I left the revelry behind to meet my friend Linda at the airport and head down to Granada for the weekend. We were up early Saturday morning to head to the top of the Mombacho volcano. After endless warnings to Linda about how hot it would be in Nicaragua, I was surprised to feel something I didn’t think existed in Nicaragua – cold! The top of the volcano is covered by a cloud forest, so we spent the morning hiking through the clouds and enjoying the wildlife.

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We then headed back down into the heat to go on a canopy tour half way down the volcano. Canopy tours consist of multiple platforms (14 in this case) built high up in the trees that are connected by cables. Similar to the zip line we had in the backyard when I was a kid – you move from cable to cable by flying at break neck speeds along a cable that are you attached to by a harness. It looks something like this: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=32129765850

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It is a lot of fun, if not a little bit terrifying. Unfortunately for us, a thunderstorm hit us when we still had four platforms left. At that point there was nowhere to go but down – so we continued zipping through the trees, soaking wet. The guides didn’t seem all that perturbed by the nearby thunder, or the fact that we were surrounded by metal wires. To their credit though – they got us all down in one piece!

That night we joined my friend Matt and other friends at a birthday party in Granada. The theme was “70 Japanese Disco” – noone was quite sure what that meant, in English or Spanish, but there were some interesting outfits. We were in charge of bringing the piñatas (and stuffing them with “treats”). There is nothing quite like watching grownups take a whack at piñata (especially when they’ve also taken quite a few whacks at bottles of rum), and I don’t think I’ll ever look at Dora the Explorer or Barney quite the same.

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Sunday, Matt was kind enough to take us to see some of the sites around Granada (the benefit of having a car!). From the Catarina Mirador you can see not only the Laguna de Apoyo (where we spent the afternoon swimming) but also the Lago Nicaragua.

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Finally, I leave you with this image. Two weeks ago we had an office bbq, and my coworker Brian (who is also from Texas and loves to cook) and I were in charge of the food. Brian came up with the idea of making “beer can butt chicken” – for which you cut off the top of a beer can and fill it with spices and set the chicken on top, and then stick the whole thing on the grill. It should look something like this:

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However, it turns out that Nicaraguan chickens (like Nicaraguan cockroaches) are bigger than those we have in Texas – so two of the chickens were too top heavy to sit alone on their beer cans (breast implants?). We were forced to improvise – and ended up with a new recipe – Chicken Love. It was delicious.

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Posted by jme75 09:37 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Isla Bonita

There are less than four weeks left in my internship, and I've gone from feeling like I had all the time in the world to finish my projects, to feeling a wee bit stressed about getting everything wrapped up before it is time to head back to reality. I have to keep reminding myself that a) it will get done and b) they're not paying me. Still, sometime between now and the first week of August I need to see the rest of Nicaragua, write a social impact report, analyze a year's worth of deals and design and implement a monitoring and evaluation system (all things I clearly learned to do in my first year of business school). Apologies ahead of time if the blog gets neglected - saving the world apparently takes a lot of time.

I also need to make sure that the Asociacion Puesta del Sol on the Isla de Ometepe has a completed business plan before we go. Last week four of us set out for a consulting project in the community of La Paloma on the Island of Ometepe - which is formed by two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Cocibolca (which, incidentally, is the only lake in the world with sharks – thanks to an industrious few who swam up a river to the lake and decided to stay. At one point there were quite a few in the lake, but they have been mostly wiped out by fisherman – or so the people of La Paloma told us when we joined them for a swim in the lake.)

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The association is made up of sixteen families who each offer up a room in their home for adventurous travelers who are looking for a rural community cultural immersion. They mainly work with groups from Canada who come to stay for several weeks or months and spend their time participating in the daily lives of the families (i.e. working in the fields) and doing various community projects. They offer a simple life and three meals a day (lots of beans and rice) – and the opportunity to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Ometepe by the way is on the list of contenders for the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World list. They don't really have a fair chance considering the voting is done online and there are only 38,000 residents, the majority of whom don’t have internet. But you can vote here: http://www.isladeometepe.com/.

But first we had to get there, which is no small task in itself as it involves a cab to the bus station, a bus to Rivas, a cab to the ferry, the ferry to Moyogalpa, and a van ride to La Paloma. Then it was two days of outlining and guiding the association through a business plan, all the while trying to avoid using too much (or really any) MBA speak and ignore the lake that was beckoning to us all day (our “office” for the two days had quite the view). In the end we felt like we had made a great deal of progress, and now its mainly up to one of the leaders of the group, Danelia, who will be in charge of getting everyone’s ideas down on paper and flushing out our outline. But, in theory, by the time we leave in four weeks they will have a business plan that they can use both to expand their work, as well as to show to potential NGOs and other organizations that might want to fund their projects (“rural tourism” is actually kind of big in these parts).

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We did also make it into the lake, which was divine, and as far as we can tell, shark free. And Camila had yet another wonderful setting for her photographs. The great thing about living and traveling with a fantastic photographer like her is that you get to use some of her pictures in your blog (though for this post I only borrowed the shot below). The not so wonderful thing is that eventually you get your arm twisted into being her “model”. Not surprisingly, I’m not a very good or patient model.

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I thought those of you who are part of the Stern Social Enterprise Association would appreciate how far our "Think Social" t-shirts have travelled (and yes mom, I'm sorry, I am riding in the back of a pick up truck - it was the only option) - as well as the fact that one of our first stipend recipients is taking to heart the "Drink Local" part as well.

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Now we’re back in Managua, which I’ll have to say we’re learning to enjoy more and more during the week. The past few weeks we’ve gotten to hang out with Valeria, a friend from NYU who is Nicaraguan and has been in town visiting her parents. Thanks to her and her friends we’ve been able to branch out from the two areas of town that we know, and experience a bit more of Managuan lifestyle and culture.

Posted by jme75 23:38 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

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