Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Furniture Expo in Jeddah - WTF?

For a few days now there have been several signs in Jeddah advertising the upcoming (and I quote) "International Furniture Exhibition". Great, I thought. Although my new apartment is already furnished with the basics, I still had an extra room that I'm planning on working on at a later date. My wife is also something of an amateur decor designer and has a gazillion and one design magazines, so we were both hyped about this.

So taking a few hours off of our busy schedule (heh heh) we hopped over to the JIEC, and for a moment I thought we had made a mistake about the dates. The grounds were uncharacteristically empty. Anyone who has been to the JIEC during their annual motor shows and computer shows knows how jam packed the place can get. Now, for the first time in living memory, I managed to find parking space inside the exhibition center. Crazy, I know. Feeling more than a little worried, I stepped into the expo center with my wife.

My worries were substantiated.

There was a grand total of maybe five furniture related shops inside. Tops. One of them was Syrian, so I guess the "international" bit of the name was right. The rest? Jewellery, textiles, nuts and spices, stuff you find in your usual run-of-the-mill souq.

Jeddah Ghair indeed.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Triumphant Return

Back again, this time with a particularly binding metal band on my left ring finger.

Spent the week luxuriating in the Jeddah Hilton and the Nawras Village Resort for some much needed R&R. Though an overzealous desire for a tan has resulted in sunburned shoulders, it's been fun stamping what's left of my bachelorhood to death. Once I get my bearings again I'll be posting some pics.

See when I see you :)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Wonderful World of Southeast Asian Fruits

One of the wonderful things about the tropics is the endless varieties of flora and fauna. The vast cornucopia of colors, flavors and smells of tropical fruit never fail to astound me. As big part of the Jawa culture here in Saudi Arabia, exotic fruits has always been part of my (culinary) identity. So here are some of the most common. You can find most of these in top supermarkets, though they will be far from fresh. But unless you're willing to pay your way to Indonesia every time you crave one of these beauties, supermarket fare should be good enough.

"Rambut" means hair in Indonesian, and it should be quite obvious from the pictures where this fruit gets its name. A relative of the lychee fruit, this sweet and juicy morsel is a popular favorite. Easy to peel and easier to eat. Though the external layer of the seed does tend to stick to the fruit despite one's best efforts. You can also find canned rambutans, which taste pretty good.

You think fruit with hair is weird? Try fruit with snake scale skin! But don't let the serpentine appearance fool you. This fruit is heavenly, especially when fresh. Last time I was in Indonesia I was addicted to the stuff. Inside the skin are 2-3 lobes. The flesh is rather dry and the seed is huge. Oh and don't eat too many. Many a stomach ache I've had back during my salak eating spree.

Manggis (Mangosteen)
Not a particular favorite of mine, but I know a lot of people who adore this fruit, and it's fairly commonly available in supermarkets as well. Inside a thick skin you can find several soft garlic like bulbs. These have a somewhat sweet citrus-like taste, almost like a mandarin.

Belimbing (Star Fruit)
Now this little wonder of nature is beautiful. With its wax like outer layer, its brilliant color and unique shape few fruits in the world make better presentation pieces than the star fruit. Like its name suggests, it's shaped like a five pointed star so make sure you slice it breadth wise for the full effect. They taste very good as well. Nice and tart.

Ooooh the durian. King of Fruits. Stuff of Legend. The strength of the durian's polarizing effect is only rivaled by the strength of its smell. You basically either love it to pieces, or you hate it with a passion. About as big as a mid sized water melon, this fearsome fruit sports a skin that is bristling with military grade thorns. You do not want to be hit in the head with a durian. But its resemblance to medieval weaponry isn't the source of its dire reputation. "It's the smell ..."(paraphrasing Agent Smith from the Matrix). The smell has been described by travel writer Richard Sterling as "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." And it's powerful. If you bring a durian home, be rest assured your whole home will smell like durian for days. Some airports and hotels forcefully ban durians from entering the premises.
If, brave soul, you have survived opening up a durian fruit you will find several pieces of yellowish pulp, with a texture that is somewhat custard like. And the taste? Well, that's what separates the lovers from the haters. While I belong to the former camp, my wife-to-be is firmly in the latter. So I guess that's the end of my durian adventures. This fruit is hard to find outside of SE Asia, but you might be able to find durian flavored candy in Asian shops, which are a milder alternative to the real thing and a good starting point for those who don't mind trying something new.

Nangka (Jack Fruit)
Don't mistake this with the durian. Though they may look similar from the outside, they're very different fruits. Inside the thorny husk are several yellow and firm bulbs. They are very sweet with a distinctive flavor that is somewhat similar to a pineapple. They are widely available in canned form.

Jambu (Wax Apple)
Ok I haven't actually seen this fruit outside of Indonesia but I thought I'd mention it since it's a favorite of mine. There was a jambu tree outside Grandfather's house and I grew very fond of them. I remember first biting into one and thinking: "Shape like a pear, red like an apple, and taste like a sweet crunchy tomato!". God I miss them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Elevator Idiocy

Much like queues, there's something about elevators that brings out the worst in people. Perhaps it's the enclosed space, or the enforced waiting that rubs our inner barbarian the wrong way. Whatever that reason may be, elevators tend to devolve humans into apes.

Some time ago, I was in the legal notary in Makkah doing some legwork for some boring (but necessary) legal matter. Legwork. There's plenty of going up and down stairs. Yes there's an elevator, but it's so old and slow that I usually dispense with its use and depend upon my own personal locomotion facility. I could use the exercise anyway. While waiting for my papers to finish I noticed a couple of people who weren't as industrious as I was, waiting by the elevator. The door opened and there was a woman inside.

"Is this the third floor?" she asked. It was only the second floor.

For the benefit of those not steeped in Saudi etiquette lore; riding in an elevator with an unrelated woman can be considered "simply not done", especially by the more conservative.
So what did our two ne'er-do-wells do?

They said "Yes, it is!".

As the poor confused woman vacated the elevator, the two assholes rushed to get in before she wised up to their subterfuge. Divine Justice struck and the elevator chose this moment to blow a fuse or whatever. The doors chose that moment to close prematurely. On our two crafty villains. Sandwiched like peanut butter and jelly between two iron slices of toast. Understandably, no one moved in to help. One of our dastardly pair had to do a minor feat of gymnastics and stretch his arm behind his back and press the open button to release them from the grip of their sin's vise. Meanwhile, our poor victim climbed the stairs, thanking God she wasn't in the elevator when it decided to go crazy.

I'm sure we all have elevator related stories, and I'll be posting more soon.

See you then.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: "Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson

I have always been of the opinion that the lure of science fiction was its easy entry point and the richer rewards you get when you delve deep enough. I started reading science fiction for the space ships, robots, laser fire and all that Star Wars type special effects laden action. I stayed for the fascinating ideas, the sense of wonder, and the power of science. While I still enjoy the occasional space opera, it's books like the Hugo award winner "Spin" that keep me coming back for more.

Tyler and his best friends; twins Jason and Diane, witness the day that the stars disappeared. The day an unknown alien force wrapped the whole of planet Earth with a mysterious black membrane, for reasons they did not share with humanity. The Spin, as it has been called, allows sunlight to filter to Earth, but little else. What is more disturbing, it has isolated the Earth from time itself. Where only a few minutes pass on Earth, thousands of years pass outside the Spin. The threat of a dying sun killing off humanity is now no longer just a hypothetical exercise of thought. Humanity struggles to make sense of its new position. Some, like Jason, choose to pursue a scientific solution. Some, like Diane, pursue a more spiritual end. Others still, like Tyler, choose apathy.

The idea of a temporally unhinged Earth is a mind bogglingly fascinating idea, and opens several doors to many others. Time has always been one of humanity's greatest identifiers, and taking it out of the equation is an interesting prospect both scientifically and philosophically. If the book had only relied on these elements it would still be a good SciFi book. Asking interesting questions and exploring, along with the reader, the answer(s). But what makes it a great book, is that Wilson didn't stop there. A monumental event like the Spin would also have far reaching sociological implications. Faced by the very real possibility of global Armageddon, humanity itself becomes unhinged. And Wilson explores the new human condition masterfully through his three protagonists. But what makes it (in my opinion) a modern SciFi classic is that Wilson's characters are not just abstract cut outs used as placeholders in a moral debate, Tyler and company are real characters. They grow and they interact. Changing each other as they change themselves as they play out their lives in a well written drama.

"Spin" speculates and fascinates, makes you laugh and makes you cry, takes you to the farthest ends of the universe then reminds you of what it is to be human. That Hugo award is very much deserved. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We Don't want no Stinking Democracy!

A couple of days ago the quiet country called Bhutan made the jump from hereditary monarchy to a constitutional one (BBC article), holding their very first parliamentary elections. So far the news, while certainly momentous and historical for the Bhutanese, is of very little note. Bhutan is just a little, mountainous, land-locked kingdom with little to distinguish itself (apart from having a kick ass flag). What made me take pause during my news hounding was the reaction of the Bhutanese people. It can be summed up as "Democracy? Why the hell do we need democracy?!". Bhutan seems to be one of those very few countries that were small enough, and fortunate enough, to have a very stable and prosperous monarchy. The populace just don't see the need to make the shift. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" seems to be the mood.

Being a huge fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, I couldn't help draw similarities with the Kingdom of Bhutan and the fictional Kingdom of Lancre. Both are mountainous backwaters that are blessed by young, recently enthroned, progressive-thinking kings. Like real world King Jigme Khesar, Lancre's King Verence II introduced a parliament to his fiefdom among his many reforms, thinking it a marvelous idea. The result? Having to quell a small rebellion by the villagers who protested that it's his job to rule!

Democracy? Pah! Go back to your palace Kingy and get back to reigning! The nerve of some people! :D

Thursday, March 20, 2008

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

And a giant takes his leave of us. The last of the Big Three of Science Fiction (Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein), Arthur C. Clarke died yesterday aged ninety, having left his touch felt by everyone not just readers of SciFi. A pioneer of Hard Science Fiction, a departure from the Flash Gordon style of adventure SciFi and into the realm of tangible physical possibilities, he wrote such classics like "Rendezvous with Rama" and "Childhood's End". Yet he is perhaps best known as the author of the book (and movie, filmed simultaneously by Stanley Kubrick) "2001: A Space Odyssey", an exploratory and prophetic journey into the destiny of Man in space. Both book and movie were not only ahead of their time, predicting space stations and moon landings, they remain untouchable iconic figures in the genre, much like the mysterious black monoliths of Space Odyssey themselves. Space Odyssey was so influential that forever now will the image of space be connected to Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" echoing the movie's famous musical motif.

But Arthur C. Clarke was more than just a SciFi writer. Trained as a physicist he was also a visionary and a futurist. In 1945, when humanity was just taking its first baby steps into space, he published a paper called "Extra-Terrestrial Relays - Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" in Wired Magazine. In it, he put the groundwork into what was to become the geosynchronous communication satellite. He used to joke that he would've made millions had he thought of patenting the idea. The orbit that the satellites that give us modern day essentials such as TV, internet and cross continental communication is named after him, the Clarke Orbit. He is also known for popularizing the idea of the Space Elevator, now a fixture in most SciFi and the target of much real research.

Farewell Arthur. You've left the world a better place.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws of Prediction.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Back in the Sandcrawler

It feels good to be behind the driving wheel of the Sandcrawler again. Wow was this place ever dusty. Can't believe how long it's been since my last post. You know the drill; life and work got a whole lot busy ... yadda yadda. My rapidly encroaching wedding day didn't help things either (if you listen carefully you can hear the death throes of my bachelorhood). Anyway, I somehow managed to pull enough energy into updating again. And like they say in Saudi Arabia: "If you're going to steal, steal a camel." Well I'm not into stealing livestock (and certainly not camels, those beasts scare me), so I thought I'd come back with a visual bang. Updating the look of this blog to something a bit more original than a default blogspot template has been one of those things I had filed in the "for later" department, and since nothing gets the blood flowing again like dirtying your hand with some work I went forth and done it.

I hope you like the new look. Be sure to visit again since I'm adamant that I'm going to keep a more or less regular updating schedule.

See you guys in a few...