Introducing Tartus

"Syrians love Tartus for its beaches, but visitors brave enough to pick through the junk on the sand and go for a dip should note the occasional dribble of sewage into the sea."

WTF lonely planet???!!!   That's no way to "introduce Tartus" to tourists! I spent every summer there for 24 years, and I didn't see any "dribble " of sewage. 

well.... ok there was this one time where we saw some floaties .... but that was before they had introduced the shawerma cafe by the beach that has a toilet !  Please update your webpage LP ! 

Next post will solely consist of  Syria Propaganda and Tourist-brainwashing photographs to make up for all the damages and losses Lonely Planet may have inflicted. 

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Tafneesh = Termination = Firing = Laying off = Case of 1/3 people I know.

Is anyone else really tired of hearing how "well" Dubai's economy is doing, or how "fast" it's "recovering" , or how the "real estate sector" is going to "bounce back in 8-12 months"?  Come on propaganda, make an effort to sound a little less desperate.

Credit Crunch Crisis Catastrophe Slowdown Meltdown zzzzzzzzzz..... If it means that dredgers are pulling out of Palm Jebel Ali ( which is what it looked like today) I can't say I am really sad. Of course job loss sucks, and the Palm Jebel Ali dredging is 99% complete anyways, but still, small tinge of "haha. you had it coming, Dubai "

I am in the mood for a holiday. I have this idea for a project. Shooting a "road trip" style documentary in Syria, over the summer. Requires car, fuel, video camera, someone who actually knows how to edit digital film using something other than windows movie maker, and road trip buddies.

If anyone is planning on visiting Abu Dhabi between now and April 16th, I recommend the Emirati Expressions Exhibition at the Emirates Palace (it's free). Really cool stuff by local artists, e.g.:

(I am sorry I am too lazy/tired to look up artist name and title of the piece. I spent 5 hours underwater today). One piece that really stayed with me was called "Dubai: What is left of my land" . I do not have a picture of it but it was a collage/abstract piece and it included caution tape, screw drivers, an electrical box and silhouettes of labourers. Underneath all of this was a carboard cutout of words and phrases in arabic and english ( "dreams" "artifical island" , from what I remember).

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    Give in - The Secret

Diving in palm tree-infested waters

So this is what it feels like to actually get what you wish for. 

A grant proposal, a 5000 word literature review , an 8000 word report and 6 months of  research on tiny marine invertebrates at the bottom of the Arabian Gulf  are the only things separating me from a Masters degree. It just hit me that I might actually become an aquatic biologist. I always thought I would end up settling for  some standard desk job because I chose to study "what I loved" and not "what is practical". This feeling was even stronger after graduating, when my focus quickly shifted from "finding a marine ecology job " to " finding an environmental science job" to " finding an environmental consulting job" to " finding a job".  After almost 8 months of regretting my decision to go to Grad school so soon, I am just,.. shocked... to realize that doors are opening, when I had stopped banging on them long ago. This project came through, and with it a long-term (paid !) position to be filled in the near future, if all goes well.   Other fascinating research topics that I could have chosen if this hadn't worked out:

1. How ocean acidification affects embryonic development in fish ( everyone knows what ocean acidification is right? If not, go read about it NOW, then ditch your car and walk to work/school )
2. Study in Norway about using crabs and other marine animals to understand effects of oil spills
3. Monitoring liver cancer in fish in the North Sea and linking it to traces of heavy metals.
4.  How traces of pharmaceuticals in water can cause inbreeding in zebrafish.
5. GIS mapping for marine reserve design
6. Brain development in cephalopods (squids, cuttlefish, octopi, the smartest invertebrates!)

I fly out in 2 days, and will only be coming back to this rainy, cloudy, tea-drinking, booze-loving part of the world for a few weeks throughout the next 6 months. I am going to miss recycling. And not driving. And not using plastic bags. And being able to drink tap water. And taking the bus. And the train. The rain, the cows, the parks, the random old people telling me their life story while waiting in supermarket queues, the polite homeless people, free medical care, unrestricted internet sites, and vegetarian restaurants. . But... In just a few days I'll be home ! Woohoooooooo
What can I say, I love my family.

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    Blue October feat. Imogen Heap-Congratulations


I am scared. Scared of a software package. I do not mind doing statistics and when you are in biology you really have no choice, but complicated stats software that requires you to write things in code makes me cry.  Why can't everything be as simple and user-friendly as Excel? *Sigh* Maybe I will just come up with a simple research project that won't involve any complex stats... : Are oxygen levels upstream  different from oxygen levels downstream? Yes/No

It's getting colder, but I am still living in the 24oC tropical rainforest that is my room. I love heaters, and heated towel rails. There's nothing like a toasty towel after a shower or a pair of toasty socks to keep you warm and in denial. 

Last week I discovered that surviving at sea if your ship sinks in cold waters is really difficult. We had sea survival training since we will be going on 10 day research cruises some time in May/June. I know the word "cruise" automatically invokes images of cocktails and elderly people dancing to calypso, but I think this "cruise" in the North Sea for hydrographic and biogeochemical surveying will be a little different.. 

Anyway, surviving at sea is hard. First of all, as it said on one of the slides, you have to have THE WILL TO SURVIVE. I don't think I have that. Second, climbing onto rafts is not as easy as it looks (but firing flare guns is as fun as it looks).  Apparently if you constantly swim and shower in cold water you can develop some amount of tolerance that will increase your chances of survival. I could start doing that...or I could continue toasting my pyjamas. 
Oh, and for everyone who has had some First Aid training in the past, things have changed now. When someone is unconscious we are no longer supposed to "waste time" checking for a pulse. If casualty is not breathing, commence CPR right away. Although, CPR can sometimes kill, so totally up to you to decide MURDERER.. or hero.. whichever works out.

Oh, here is dubaiwalla's meme :

Awakenings:  No, not the movie. Although it sounds interesting. Moments of realization where everything becomes clearer, where you wake up and somehow have the solution to your problem. Different from an epiphany in that the "truth" or "insight" you discover has been there all along, while you were purposefully ignoring it. You "awaken" when you finally make a conscious decision not to ignore it anymore.

Homs:  Location 34° 44' N, 36° 43'E.   Elevation 508 m
Place of birth and loved ones. Not the cleanest, or most interesting, or most modern city, but part of me lives there. An old, dirty refinery welcomes you as you enter; it has been spewing out cancer since the day it opened because of its idiotic design and location. I want to shut it down forever.

Mysteries: Medical mysteries, murder mysteries, historical mysteries, culinary mysteries... I love them all, especially the ones that remain unexplained. I don't like fictional mysteries though (e.g., Agatha Christie books).

Playing cards: If I didn't know how to play cards I would have very boring summers and a very limited social life. Tricks, Kent, Tarneeb (is there an english name??), Harb(War), Fawakeh (fruits) Hmar (donkey), Aboul foul(father of the bean) and Ghamzeh (wink) are some fo the ones I have played. I still need to learn poker and others that don't solely exist in Syria. 

Subtility (subtlety?): Heh. Did this one get chosen just because of the spelling mistake? Sometimes my French acts out. Well, subtlety is something I really value in some people, in some books, in music, in art in general, in politics even. When something doesn't hit you in the face you tend to appreciate it more, it has more of an effect. Ok, maybe I have created my own meaning of subtlety . 

Syrian Social Nationalist Party: Ahh. I am not sure that this should remain part of my interests.The initial idea of what it was supposed to be was interesting, but what it is now is not. The fact that it has been legalised and joined with another party now makes it much less interesting and if you ask me a little useless in Syria. In Lebanon however, true SSNPs were (and in some cases continue to be) some of the less corrupt and most intelligent leaders ( not that hard really when you know what you're comparing them to).

Torture prisons: We should all be interested in current and past torture prisons. Where they are, what goes on, why some people want to destroy them. In some places, all prisons are torture prisons. A lot of these places are in my part of the world. 

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    Cary Brothers-Ride


 A doctor examined Alex the night of the rape, taking swabs of DNA for traces of the rapists’ sperm. He did not take blood tests or examine Alex with a speculum. Then he cleared the room and told Alex: “I know you’re a homosexual. You can admit it to me. I can tell.”

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"According to Dr Al Ka'abi workers can legally protest over unpaid wages, poor living conditions and the lack of safety procedures."


"The road remained blocked for more than 20 minutes at 5am until police removed the workers and cleared the road,"

"The workers are demanding a salary increase of Dh200-Dh400 and better living conditions and an increase in buses. Their current basic salary is Dh600-Dh800."

"There are several channels for workers to express their grievances and to demand their rights, but to protest without a valid reason is against the Labour Law"

Wow. The road was blocked for MORE THAN 20 MINUTES . At 5 am .And for NO GOOD REASON.They totally deserved being deported.  I mean, they had "several channels" and didn't even use them.

River Dart and Devon cream teas

How do you know that your shoes are not appropriate for freshwater invertebrate sampling? When green and red fungi start growing in them. 

We went on our first field sampling exercise last week, to collect tiny creepy water insects from two river sites. Amazing locations but I greatly underestimated how useful Wellington boots would have been.
First, feet almost fell off because of the cold, cold water. Second, damp socks and squishy sounds all day until 6 pm when I reached home. Third, fungal growth in shoes observed after 24 hours. Growth did not subside following thorough rinsing with soap and detergent. Shoes disposed of permanently. Feelings of guilt and frustration following disposal due to comfort that shoes provided, especially when walking up steep hills .

Photos from the field:

In other, indoor news: I have fallen into the frozen meal trap : so convenient and quick, but so flavourless and plastic. Tiawanese flatmates cook for breakfast, lunch and would think I would get inspired to do the same, but laziness and hunger always take over . 
It's now my third week here. After completing all the touristy tasks last week and finally knowing what "cream tea" is I no longer have an excuse to avoid reading.' Cream Tea' involves tea, scones, jam and clotted cream. The first thoughts that came to mind when I discovered clotted cream were arterial clots, heart attack, death.

 After trying clotted cream however those thoughts evaporated instantly.

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    Eyes-Rogue wave

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Hip Hip Hooray. Smoking ban in Dubai malls has come into effect. Considering I spend almost 65% of my free time in malls ( what? It's the UAE, what else is there to do?), this is a relief; but honestly, smoking in malls has never bothered me that much. It bothers me only when the smoke is right in my face, or when I'm eating, or when it's at home and stinking up the entire room, or when it's in my car, or when it's my friend/cousin/mother smoking, or when it's in a crowded place and burning my hair. However, anything that makes smokers miserable makes me happy. Also, it looks like my lungs are no longer willing to make an exception for Shisha. No more Tutti Frutti for me, everytime I order a Shisha nowadays I end up paying 35 Dhs for a 4 sec. smoke and then I start coughing like mad. While we're on the subject, "Thank you for Smoking" is an excellent movie. Excellent direction, dialogue and acting. 

Since I did not blog about my Dominican trip last March, I thought I'd copy paste some memories about my experience. Summary if you are in a hurry: Ate beans and rice. Learned (and forgot) merengue.Swam in algae infested lagoons. Got bit my mosquitoes. 

"Dominicans like to party. Dominicans are loud.  Dominicans are really fascinated by foreigners, especially ones that are not trapped inside the hugely expensive beach resorts. Dominicans like to ask you if you believe in Jesus and if not why you don’t.  Dominicans drive just as bad as Syrians (but not as bad as Beirutis). Dominicans have no concept of time (in 15 minutes= in 1, 2, or 3 hours). Dominicans will hit on any moving thing that is female. Dominicans will ask you a billion questions even if they see you are really struggling with your Spanish. Finally, I have learned that a typical Dominican greeting goes something like: “Hi, what’s your name? I love you, will you marry me?”

I have to admit I was in a bit of a culture shock the first week I got there... probably cause the volunteer agency do not do much other than pick you up ( an hour late) from the airport and then give you passion fruit juice. After that you are totally on your own and you have to figure things out yourself.. Like.. How to get to the place where you work, where to go for food, how to go on trips to other parts of the country etc...Luckily I had one other volunteer working on the same project as me, and we got along very well... we took the bus from the capital to a place called Punta Cana (5 hours away).

The “dormitory style private room” promised to each one of us turned out to be really an insect-infested dusty tiny, damp room for the both of us to share in a place that is along the highway surrounded by a pool hall above a brothel, a cafeteria serving chicken necks and rice, and a bus station. I miss waking up to the sounds of roosters, dogs, donkeys and to the sweet smell of morning sewage. 

The bus ride to work was an exciting 20 minute ride every morning while standing up crammed in a rusty squeaky bus with Dominican construction workers smiling as wide as they can when we fall in their laps during a sharp turn.

The foundation itself well ironically, is part of the same American group that owns all the beach resorts and golf courses in the area. So basically, just so they can claim to be “socially responsible” and “helping to sustain biodiversity” they created this tiny foundation with a few iguanas, a ranch with cows, goats and ducks and organically grown lettuce and tomatoes, and a small patch of forest with 4 lagoons they call a “reserve” , where hotel guests can walk and swim to feel that they are “ in nature” . 

 It was kind of difficult to think about the fact that we were there, taking out branches from the lagoons and actually CUTTING DOWN trees inside the reserve so as to make it easier for tourists to swim. Other days, we would remove weeds and plant lettuce or move rocks from one part of the park to the other...

Well, the job was boring and useless, but the people we worked with ( underpaid workers from Haiti and a few Dominicans) were incredibly nice. I had to translate stuff because Sara (other volunteer from Britain) did not speak a word of Spanish other than “Si” and I had to let her know that she was saying yes to many marriage proposals and it was creating some heated arguments among our co-workers.

We spent the afternoons after work at the beach ( we were allowed to use the resort, its really easy to forget you’re being a hypocrite when you’re lounging in a hammock by a beautiful beach or sailing on a catamaran or playing water polo and sipping on pina coladas...). In the evenings we would have to go back to our room because there were no buses after 7 pm.  The first week two other volunteers were there and we would play cards for hours or we would go to play pool (after 20 pool games, I still suck), but after  two other volunteers left, Sara and I would mostly just read and fall asleep at 9pm.

On the weekends we went out to a place called Mangu for dancing and I think I might end up on this show on the E! Channel cause they were filming over there one night. We also went to an island one weekend and to another city where they had a carnival and we also went to swim with dolphins, although it kind of depressed me to see the dolphins trapped in a very tiny pool and trained to kiss people and flip in the air... 

All in all, it was a pretty memorable trip, even though I did not gain any environmental experience from it other than learning that lettuce should be planted 15 cm apart. It was also amazing to discover that complete strangers can sometimes be incredibly nice to you and will help you out for nothing in return...without them I would still be lost somewhere in the Caribbean waiting for a bus. 

Do you want to hear something weird ? The lady renting us our room has some arab roots ! Her grandparents were from Lebanon and her last name is BADIA as in,. Badi3a. She showed me a picture of her late grandmother and then remarked that my nose was just as humongous as her grandma’s nose and so that seemed to confirm to her that I was arab as well. 
Also, the Dominican guy sitting next to me on the plane back was called Mustafa and had a Lebanese grandfather... Wherever I go, I can’t escape Arabs-- but it was actually comforting to meet people with some connection to my part of the world. "

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    Straight lines-Silverchair