Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Travelogue Summer 2018 (3/4) Fairytales in Isfahan, Iran


With a comfortable VIP bus we drove from Yazd to Isfahan. A taxi to the hotel. A cheerful young girl without a headscarf (until she hit the street later) welcomed us. It was a kind of hostel around a beautiful courtyard. And for us it was the base to view one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Isfahan

Isfahan Nagh-e-Jahan square 
The Nagh-e-Jahan square is immense. With 150 by 500m it is the second largest in the world. Surrounded by double arcades, two fabulous mosques and a palace. With footpaths and lawns. And in the evening hundreds, thousands of people gather. The stone benches and the lawns were almost completely full. With the darkness in the sultry evening, it was wonderfully relaxed. Groups of women and children formed the majority. They took out rugs, thermos jugs and gas stoves - having a picnic was taken to a higher art here. Under the full moon, surrounded by the façades where each arch was lit, it was Arabian Nights live. The weekend mood made the people even more open to greetings, waving, laughing and welcoming us.
Isfahan Great Abbassi Mosque
The Great Abbassi Mosque, the largest of the two on the square, stood out because of the overwhelming amount of blue tiles and blue mosaic. Halfway through the construction they switched from mosaic to painted tiles, because it went faster. Not only the large alcoves are blue, but also the entire span of the courtyard and a number of niches. Abstract, geometric and fantasy figures interspersed with Koran texts and the occasional scene with animals. A lot of marble has also been used. Several parts of the mosque were being renovated, including the largest niche and the dome which were scaffolded. In a workshop we could see how with a real size mold of 1 / 16th "part" of the dome, the tiles were re-drawn and copied before they were replaced.
Isfahan Khajou bridge 
The Khajou bridge again was incredibly beautiful. 350 years old. The lower base was a dam, then granite pillars and waterways with stairs, then brick pillars under which people were standing in the shade. A man was singing. The upper part of the bridge had raised sides that again formed gates where people were sitting in the shade. Everyone was cheerful and friendly. The only dissonant was that the river was dry, which is almost always the case in recent years. The water is diverted to elsewhere.

Paterns and dimensions

The mosques could be overwhelmingly large, but never pompous. Because of the perfect proportions in the dimensions they always seemed serene and soothing. The surfaces consisted of abstract patterns that overlapped, intertwined, repeated themselves, varied, coalesced with the arches and domes, expanding or shrinking where necessary. Breathtaking mosaic that you could look at endlessly.

If only Escher or Gaudí had seen this ... In fact, Escher did see this in Andalucía, and then became the draftsman we know today. Gaudí studied Persian architecture and Islamic art mainly from books, during his training.

Ladies and dress codes

In recent years there has been a wave of relaxation of the dress code. Especially in fashionable Isfahan you could tell. The long overcoat was by no means always over the knee, was by no means always black, was sometimes open or fitted, and sometimes even almost transparent. Also blouses were sometimes tight, colorful and playful. The headscarves were often worn way back and there was a lot of hair showing. Usually straight black, but also bleached and wavy.  Occasionally it hung loose down the back. Jeans were sometimes pretty tight, but always to the ankle. Some women were exuberant with rouge all over their face, bright red lipstick, and especially the eyes, eyelashes and jet-black eyebrows received a lot of attention.

Not only the more modern dressed ladies were keen to flirt a bit. My blue eyes, long hair and radiant smile :) attracted the ladies' interest, and they showed that openly.

If you do not know that women in Iran are legally disadvantaged, you may get the impression that they are equal. They are fully present in the streets and behave in a self-confident and self-assured manner. They are on average higher educated than men and sometimes they are the main breadwinner in a family. In any case their position is better than in any of the surrounding countries.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Travelogue Summer 2018 (2/4) Fire, water, air and mud in Yazd, Iran

We rented a taxi for the day to take us from Shiraz to Yazd (430km) so we could stop en route in Persepolis. 2500 years ago this was an important capital, and you could still see beautiful remains.

In Yazd we found a lovely hostel with nice rooms on a roof terrace. There we could sit together, eat, drink tea with a view of the city. Yazd is smaller than Shiraz and has a more provincial feel.

Yazd 

We wanted to take a walk through the mud alleys to the Friday Mosque. As the crow flies no more than 500 meters. The houses are turned inwards, so towards the street you mainly see walls with some small windows and doors. Because everything was muddy-brown, it seemed like one design. Some alleys were covered, then there were turns and squares, domes and arches. It was very quiet, every now and then a lady covered in black passed in the distance.

Yazd mud buildings

Because of the twisting and turning of the alleys we totally lost our sense of direction. The maps in the guidebook and even google did not show many alleys, so we did not know which way to go. We asked a few men which way to the Friday Mosque, and they all pointed in different directions. Eventually we saw the tall minarets and managed to keep our course. In the bazaar and in the street towards the mosque, which had been very busy last night, it was very quiet now. After all, Friday morning is a kind of Sunday morning. A few domestic tourists wanted to take a picture with us, with the impressive entrance in the background.

Yazd water supply
The Friday Mosque is decorated with a particularly beautiful mosaic of tiles, many abstract lines, lots of blue. There were some people around making phone calls or sleeping, otherwise it was quiet. A man told us about the qanats, underground channels that used to supply water from the mountains. Now the system is polluted and closed, and the water comes from Isfahan.

We visited the water museum. Actually an old mansion, but suitable as the water museum because there are not one but two old qanats underneath, from which can be tapped. Through narrow tunnels that had been excavated underground, the water ran out of the mountains to the city. Rich families could get water in their cellar. The bottom channel is so deep that there is a cool space where you could store food and the family could sit during sweltering afternoons.

We took a taxi to the Zoroastrian fire temple just outside the city center. Zoroastrianism has its origins in this region and is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. In a garden stood a couple of buildings, above the door the symbol with two long wings and all kinds of details that had a specific meaning. With themes like "good thinking, doing good" and "karma" there were many concepts recognizable from Buddhism. The "eternal flame" burned behind glass. This particular specimen has been burning for 1,500 years, another one outside the city for 6,000 years. In another building was a large photo exhibition with images of daily life of Zoroastrians from the area of ​​Yazd.
Yazd fire temple

Air coolers en wind towers

The first time I saw one was in Rajasthan in 2001. My hotel room had a pack of straw in front of the window with a fan behind it. If you wet the straw and the air flows through it (wind or fan) you get a cool airflow. Meanwhile, there are more modern versions with a grid instead of straw, and a few years ago I even bought one to use at home. For those few warm days a year.

In Iran we saw plenty of air coolers. Ideal because, unlike an air conditioner, they work in an open space, so you can leave your shop door open. And they use much less power, although that does not seem to matter much in Iran. We saw them in shops, in workshops, in restaurants and even on top of a city bus!


Yazd wind towers

Also, in the desert cities Yazd and Kashan you have the ancient wind towers. High towers that protrude above the buildings, and catch the slightest hint of wind in the air in some kind of reverberation holes. That air then falls down the hollow tower, where it flows through the living room like a cool breeze.

We knew it would be warm, in June, in central Iran. But it was "hot for the time of year" and afternoon temperatures varied from 37 to 42 degrees Celsius. "Close to forty" is a totally different temperature zone than "low thirties", which we have a couple of days a year in the Netherlands. All objects are warmer than you are, everything radiates heat and feels warmer than your skin when you touch it. You dehydrate instantly. In the afternoon the sun is almost straight above you and burns mercilessly.

Still, it was dry air, so at least you were not crushed by a pressing sweaty mass of humidity. Hiding in the cool hotel room for a couple of hours in the afternoon was enough to keep all systems going. Emerging from your A/C room, five minutes in the sun was a breeze.

A bonus of the hot weather was that there were very few tourists around and all hotels had vacancies.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Travelogue Summer 2018 (1/4) Shiraz - the Andalucía of Iran


Short connection

We had just half an hour to change planes in Vienna. We had deliberately selected seats as far in the front as possible. When the door opened, an employee asked if we were going to Shiraz? If so, please deboard first. There was a man in the gangway with a notepad. I thought for a moment that he was our guy, but he did not look up when we walked by. Maybe our guy was waiting further down the corridor?

Just as we were walking through a sliding door 30 meters away, he called out: Shiraz? He came after us and opened a side door with an ID card. Normally no passengers were allowed here. We walked down a corridor, down a flight of stairs, and much to my surprise we went outside. Suddenly we were standing between the airplanes. And to my even greater surprise, we stepped into a van. We were driving airside. Our companion was half Persian, and his job was to put people on flights to Shiraz, Isfahan and Tehran. We stopped at a door of a large building. Another ID card to open it.

There were a couple of immigration counters in an empty hall. He explained to the lady behind the desk that we were exiting, normally this was the desk for passengers arriving in Schengen. With the five of us on a trot up some stairs and down a corridor. There was a very long line, but he gestured we could walk past it to reach our gate, which seemed completely abandoned. Quickly through security. And then it turned out boarding had only just started, so we had five minutes to spare.

Arrival

Five hours later, in the middle of the night, we landed at the small regional airport of Shiraz in the south of Iran. An announcement was made that all ladies had to put on their headscarves. A little less than half of the passengers got off, the rest continued to Isfahan. We had a bus to the terminal building, basic and old. Just a few people got in the lane for foreign passports, and at the counter all went very smooth. Our luggage arrived within five minutes. We were considering changing money at a bank counter, but a guy said we'd better do that somewhere else. All in all, we had entered this country in record time. A big contrast with the preparations beforehand: the visa and many other documents that had to be delivered. That had been quite a hassle, especially because of the unclear and contradictory and ever changing information that was available.

In the arrival hall stood a guy with a piece of paper with the name of our hotel and a lot of text in Farsi. On his phone he also had a lot of Farsi with in between my first name. That was enough to trust him. We followed him outside, where it was pleasantly cool. Put the luggage in the back of an old car in the parking lot. A ride into town on a wide boulevard with lots of trees and lights and on every lamppost a big picture of a "martyr" from the Iran-Iraq war. It was very quiet on the street, big neon signs were on, but everything was closed, so we had no idea what all those Farsi texts were promoting.

Cash, lots of cash

Due to the boycott, Iran is not connected to the international money transfer systems. Even though there are ATMs everywhere, and almost everyone pays with a tap-and-go card, foreigners are dependent on hard cash. Euros or dollars. That you swap for very soft rial. There's the official buying rate, the official selling rate, the street rate, the euro exchange rate and the dollar exchange rate.
Shiraz bazaar

Our hotel reception could change money, but, as the receptionist said, the exchange rate depends on how much we want to change. How much we want to change, I said, depends on the exchange rate. We agreed on € 200 for 60,000 rial / euro. Well above the official rate, but in the bazaar we should be able to do better. We got a big pile of money - and then another one, she had already divided it in two for us.

The huge amount of zeros was rather confusing. And even more so because you pronounce 60,000 Rial as 6,000. Then they mean toman but don't say that. On some banknotes it says 500,000 Rial, on older ones with the same value it says 50. That means 50,000 toman, or 500,000 rial. For example, if something costs 300,000 rial, it can be said as 300,000, 30,000 or 30 ... It is not helpful either that 100,000 and 10,000 rial notes have the same color.

Later we would change in the street a couple of times. Every city has a strip where some guys are standing, who ask if you want to change money. In Shiraz an old man was sitting in a folding chair on the side walk, with piles of cash on a small carpet in front of him. You choose a guy and step aside. You negotiate about the exchange rate and how much you want to change. The guy counts a pile of notes. Then you say that is not enough and he will add one or two. Then you count the pile again and give him two euro bills.

Shiraz 

Next morning we walked to the Pink Mosque. More a sight than a sanctuary, and it was already quite busy when we went inside. The main attraction was the prayer hall with stained-glass windows. The morning sun shone through it and cast a colorful pattern on the floor. Everyone wanted to pose in the color spectrum, and especially on draped white robes it was a stunning sight.

Shiraz Pink Mosquee
The prayer niches at both ends of the courtyard were decorated with beautiful tile work, with pink being the prevailing color. Remarkably, sometimes a miniature landscape was incorporated in the floral patterns. There was a well with blue light, to symbolize that there had been water until 10 years ago. There was a small side courtyard, where we had a photo session with a mother and her daughters from Mashhad. Mom made all the pictures of the daughters with us. When I insisted that I wanted a picture of her too, her black headscarf went off, and a more colorful one appeared from underneath.

A bit further away was a museum in the gardens of an old mansion. Beautiful orange trees, water features, and a large guest pavilion. Mirrored walls, painted ceilings with European scenes. On the walls of the entrance building were images that we knew from the Moghuls in North India: elephants.

Shiraz bazaar
The covered bazaar of Shiraz was always pleasantly crowded. There was plenty of shopping going on. There were sections for clothing, for carpets, for spices, for household items. Despite all these people there was a quiet atmosphere, merchants were not shouting, passersby greeted us without being intrusive.
In the middle of the bazaar was a small square with a pond. It was simultaneously busy and intensely peaceful, serene. We sat down on a bench and looked at Iranian life passing in front of our eyes. The ladies all looked fascinating. Sometimes shapeless under a large black piece of cloth, sometimes unassumingly stylish, sometimes concealing, sometimes accentuating their figure, sometimes eccentric and challenging. If you did not know it already: even with the strange dress codes in Iran, women can dress in a personal and charming style.

Shiraz bazaar
Shiraz is a big, cosmopolitan city. Because of the southern location, the friendly atmosphere, the long siesta and the custom to eat at ten o'clock at night, the province is nicknamed the Andalusia of Iran. And that's how it felt.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 3, On familiar grounds (Penang & Satun)


Penang, Malaysia

 

We stayed 6 days on Penang, Malaysia. We’ve been here before and again we enjoyed the great facilities and the variety in cultures. We paid tribute to all three population groups.

We visited a large Chinese temple in the mountains, a mix between a building site and an amusement park.

We visited the floating mosque, a mosque built on stilts over the sea. It was a  peaceful and serene place.

Everyday we visited Little India for a touch of the real India. The sari shops,  Bollywood music blaring from the dvd shops,  grocery stores with all Indian ingredients and spices, ladies in sari and jeans walking hand in hand, restaurants where the food is better than anywhere in India.

An inherent part of Penang’s history is its colonial past. We visited a guided tour around the Protestants cemetery. There were 15 people listening to the funny and knowledge guide. Lots of little stories about Penang’s history and its inhabitants. One of them was the Scottish lawyer James Richardson Logan, who invented the name Indonesia, as he believed its people had the right to have a name that was not made up by or connected with its Dutch colonizers. It wouldn’t be until early 20th century that “Indonesia” was picked up by the independent movement. And so Indonesia stays with us this trip, just like India.

Penang was as cloudy as Sumatra, but much warmer, in the low 30s. Two and three years ago we saw nothing but blue skies here.

Satun, Thailand




This was the fifth time I went from Penang to Thailand. And again I found a new route and a new transport mode. This time it was the super fast ferry via Langkawi. Despite the long wait on Langkawi it was an easy and relaxed route.
As soon as we arrived in Satun, walking to the hotel, we looked for things we recognized, things that were new, things that had changed, things that were gone. Considering the dusty old town it was, surprisingly much had changed. Fortunately not in our hotel. That was as pleasant, quiet and comfortable as we knew it.

Qatari, Indonesians and Malaysians have almost always been very friendly and helpful to us. But the radiant heartiness of the Thai exceeds it all. The famous  Thai smile still is a joy to see.

We were often called at and greeted by passers by. Sometimes when they were on a bike. Like these three young people on one bike, shouting “hello”. We cheerfully waved back at them. The two girls on the backseat did the Thai greeting with hands folded in front of the chest while making a small bow. And they did so in perfect synch. On the back of the moving bike.

As far as understanding goes, it is the opposite. Very few signs are in English and English is hardly spoken. It takes a lot of sign language.

Our favorite lunch restaurant was gone. A search around the new, relocated market was in vain. We inquired with the neighbors of the shed where it used to be, with a picture of the woman, pointing at the former place, and looking puzzled. After some talk amongst themselves we were put on the back of a motorbike and driven to the new location!

Our friends in Satun, the owner of the hotel, the lady of the restaurant, the girl of our favorite coffee shop (who worked somewhere else now) all looked very pleased to see us and they all gave us food.

And so we enjoy having a coffee on our veranda, taking a walk in the countryside or the mangrove forest, cooling down by the pool, reading a book, eating a delicious Thai curry.

At last the skies turned blue and sunny and it got seriously hot. We were lucky to have a clear sky during the lunar eclipse. We saw the shadow of the earth slowly cover the moon that got more and more red, more and more round (in the 3d sense) and in the end looked like a semi-see-through egg with the rabbit inside.

PS Preview of the upcoming Satun info sheet *link*


Satun is a small provincial capital in the far southwest corner of Thailand. It has a definite end-of-the-road feel to it. A dusty little town where nothing ever happens. On the surface.

8km further south is the port and jetty of Tammalang. It has ferries to Langkawi and Koh Lipe, but for neither island this is the main gateway. So Satun sees very few tourists passing through. You may see some people living in Malaysia on a visa run or having their yacht maintained at the wharf. And there’s a hand full of western men living here with their Thai wife.

Satun is part of the Islamic south of Thailand, that used to be part of the Kedah Sultanate, until that was divided up between Thailand and then British Malaysia. Satun has none of the troubles the other (southeastern) Thai provinces have. It is largely Muslim but with a strong Thai influence. People speak more Thai and Malay than English.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 2, Negotiating North Sumatra

From Doha we travelled via Kuala Lumpur to Medan. A rollercoaster of cultures, levels of development, climates, time zones and day-and-night rhythm.  Sumatra is roughly the size of Spain and has a similar number of inhabitants, but its infrastructure is way less developed. So we designed a non-ambitious tour of the province of North Sumatra.


Medan city


At first sight Medan is large, busy, dirty and noisy. At second sight too, but then you also see the relaxed and cheerful people, always willing to give you a big smile and have a chat. Nobody gets upset, everybody is helpful. There are nice vegan eateries and trendy coffee shops. The mood is pleasant, and if the noise and air pollution wouldn’t chase you away, you’d happily stay for a while.

One could measure the degree of development of a country by the number of meters one can walk on the pavement. In Medan the sidewalks are usually blocked by shop fronts, parked cars or motorcycles, or heaps of building materials, mud or dug up sewage sludge. There are holes big enough to fall into the sewer, unexpected steps, loose slabs or ends of reinforcing steel sticking out.

So mostly you walk on the street, between parked cars and the traffic, hoping the drivers will see you. Traffic mainly consists of relatively new cars, motorbikes and becaks – bikes with a side car that you rent for a ride.

One morning after looking at old colonial buildings and Little India, we took a becak home. It was the oldest and most ramshackle one of Medan. The engine stalled all the time, the front wheel wasn’t in line, petrol came via a tube from a jerry can hanging on the steering wheel. When the driver lit a cigarette he held it in his hand right next to the jerry can. We drove slower than the flow of traffic, which was a real problem as weaving in and out of lanes is crucial for negotiation traffic here. Because of the one way system we had to make quite a detour. All in all we took half an hour inhaling exhumes for what would have been a 2½km walk. Still, we survived. And most drivers were relaxed, gave each other room to move, hardly used the horn and didn’t dive into non-existing spaces.

Bukit Lawang jungle


Usually I don’t feel at home in places that are purely touristic. Bukit Lawang is such a place. It’s a village on the edge of a National Park where an orang utan rehabilitation center used to be. The feeding platform used to be a great spot to watch the mighty animals. The platform is closed now and the only way to see the semi wild orang utans that stuck around is on a long, overpriced jungle trekking – and that is what all the tourists do here.

(Here is the story of my 2000 jungle trek)

Bukit Lawang survived thanks to the treks, the river, the fresh air and as a backpacker hangout. We stayed a couple of days in the strip along the river, in the one guesthouse / restaurant that was busy, cozy and had good food.

Then we moved upstream for a couple of days to a rather remote guesthouse, 1km over a small footpath. There we found the real jungle feel. The place was well designed and decorated with lots of wood and bamboo, the Australian-Indonesian couple that ran it made you feel relaxed.

The raging river,  the green wall of jungle on the opposite shore, the monkeys and the butterflies, one more cup of coffee on the veranda – I could get used to that.  Dinner with our hosts in the evening, total darkness at night, the sounds of monkeys and crickets in the morning. After a rain shower water vapor would slowly rise from the forest and form clouds.

Berastagi volcanos


Berastagi is a former Dutch hill station at 1400m. Now it’s an agricultural town, the center of growing non-tropical vegetables. The wholesale market where the farmers bring their produce was a fascinating chaos where huge quantities of carrots, cabbages and potatoes where hauled around in old trucks that got stuck in the mud.

In the weekend Medan people come to escape the city. The dozen western tourists vanish in the crowd. There are two active volcanos nearby, one of which can easily be climbed – and that is what all the tourists do here. We went straight to the hot springs at the end of the descent to soak up the sulphur.
A trip to the foot of the other, even more active volcano was canceled due to the weather. There were daily eruptions, but they lasted just 5 minutes, so you had to be lucky to see one. After one such eruption the mountain had totally hidden itself behind its own cloud of ash. When it started raining a thin layer of volcanic ash covered everything, including our roof terrace.

Just like the rain forest, volcanos create their own clouds. Steam rising from the cracks in the rocks rise and form a cloud that will stick to the top of the mountain.

The weather. The monsoon lasts long this year, it’s cooler than usual with just 23-26 degrees and mostly overcast. Sometimes the sun sort of breaks through, and most rain is at night.

Lake Toba


Travelling in Sumatra isn’t harder than in say India, but over there I know my way around things better. A night in a lousy hotel, a sick day, serious harassment at a bus station, a meal that doesn’t go down well, a credit card that gets rejected – it can be tough and exhausting at times.

All the more pleasant that we could relax at the shores of Lake Toba – and that is what all the tourists do here.

We stayed there for a week and it was the first place on Sumatra where we really felt at home. The mood was relaxed, nature was beautiful. Even though it is rather touristy, there’s enough couleure locale in the small shops and cafes. And it just takes a couple of steps off main street to be among rice paddies and water buffaloes.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 1, Stopover in Qatar


Arrival


2018 didn’t kick off easily for us. We were standing in a long queue for immigration at Doha airport when the clock struck twelve. We wished each other and the Malaysian mother and daughter in front of us Happy New Year, but other than that, the thousands of other people remained rather quiet and subdued.

After a pleasant flight with Qatar Airways, Doha airport was a disappointment.  All the glitter, glamour, marble and luxury couldn’t make up for the bad organizing. With only two immigration counters open, the arrivals hall quickly filled up. Serious looking men with walkie talkies were running up and down and putting passengers in line, but they would have been more useful stamping passports. Occasionally an extra counter would open, but that only benefitted the people at the back of the line. We were stuck in the middle. After one and a half hours at last we got through.

By then I was so dazed and confused that I forgot to take my luggage after using the atm behind the carousel. I only noticed once we were through customs. It wasn’t easy talking my way back against the one way system through security and customs. But I managed and fortunately the bag was still standing  - the bomb squad hadn’t been called yet.

Looking around

Apart from being a bit tired after that night, we enjoyed looking around Doha for the next three days. We walked a lot, mainly in the old city center, that had been enriched with a new souk and the impressive Museum for Islamic Art.
Nights and mornings were cool and hazy, but afternoons were sunny and pleasant.

Most Qatari wore traditional dress. Men in white dresses with shawls on their head. Women with thin black robes over their other clothes – maybe high heels or tight jeans. Head scarves and big sunglasses couldn’t hide the care they took for make up and looks. Not all Qatari women wore headscarves. We saw some young mothers in a café smoking a waterpipe, while their Philippinian nannies took care of the kids.

Eating vegetarian in the Middle East takes you to an Indian restaurant or Lebanese fast food place. It takes some searching, but then you can enjoy delicious  hummus,  falafel, foul and  pita bread.

Qatar development


A fascinating and varied city with old and new, rich and poor, east and west, north and south. People seem to come from all continents and shops and restaurants are as varied as that.

Doha is trying to catch up with Dubai and  Abu Dhabi, investing oil dollars in trade and service industries. They still have a long way to go. The old city center is a patchwork of 25 year old high-rises, a couple of modern buildings, lots of building sites blocking streets and sidewalks, wasteland turned into parking lots, a couple of forgotten 50 year old two-story shops – and in-between all of that sit all these cute tiny old mosques. There isn’t a lot of street life, except at night  in the side streets with old shops and restaurants for the migrant workers.

At first sight the Saudi boycott doesn’t seem to do much harm (though the paper said house prices are falling). Our little neighborhood shop running out of yoghurt rather seemed a logistical issue. And that seems to be the sore spot all over. Building an airport, buying a new fleet of city buses, painting a pedestrian crossing on a six lane road, designing a metro route – all that is doable. But to organize it well, to get enough immigration officers in place, to publish a consistent bus route map, to teach drivers to stop for pedestrians – that is a lot harder. Metro works are going on all over town  but nobody dares to commit to a year it will run.

If I were FIFA, I’d be worried about the 2022 World Cup, given that only one stadium is finished.

India connection


In Qatar the India connection is obvious. Almost half of the 2 million inhabitants is from former British India. When we walked down the aircraft steps a group of Indian cleaners was waiting to board. They tend to do the hard labor and building. Cleaners, cooks and shopkeepers mostly are from South Asia as well. Female laborers tend to come from the Philippines and work as a receptionist, maid or nanny.

New Year’s night we had dinner at Saravana Bhavan, the international chain of Indian restaurants. It was full with indian families, we were the only Non-Indians. The food was authentic South Indian served on a banana leaf, and delicious. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Breeders at The Milky Way


"Good morning" is the opening chant of the single that The Breeders issue on the eve of their tour. It reminds me of Last Splash, the legendary Breeders-album from 1993. They are back with that line-up and with that sound.

The Breeders originated as a side activity when Kim Deal was the bass-player with the Pixies, but didn't get enough creative space. The importance of the Pixies for the development of modern music has often been illustrated by Curt Curbain's quote that with Nirvana he was trying to imitate the Pixies - with more commercial success. Less known is that Curt also said that he wished Kim would write more Pixies songs. We could write a book about the immense influence of the Pixies and Kim Deal.

But now it's 2017. Nirvana and the original Pixies no longer exist, Kim is sober and the Breeders are standing on their own feet. In the Milky Way, in Amsterdam.

*

The venue is half empty when the opening act begins, the Pins from Manchester. But when they have finished their set, the place is packed. Most of the guests are dressed as casual as we know Kim. No expression of subcultures, no striking outfits.
The Breeders
Kim takes the center of the stage and clearly is the heart of the band. With visible pleasure she sings and plays guitar. Drummer Jim brings that same pleasure, drive and dynamics. Josephine plays her bass guitar cool and unmoved. Kelly needs all her attention for her guitar, all the time looking down at her hands when she plays.

We get a one and a half hour set of short and powerful songs that span the four decades of Kim's career. They also have the necessary historical awareness: "In the room next door Philip Glass is playing. This is from the Safari EP that we recorded in his studio in New York in 1993." "This song we played in 1992 when we were on tour with Nirvana, here in the Milky Way." "Back to the eighties" as announcement for Gigantic, the first single of the Pixies, built around Kim's bass line. She swaps bass and guitar with Josephine. Kelly captures Joey's screaming guitar riffs.

Instruments are also swapped for Off you. Now Kelly is playing bass, but she has to sit on the floor to read the chords of a large sheet of paper. Roadie Mike, who takes care of the guitars, is also playing along. It results in a very beautiful rendering.

Warm-up show for the tour in Newport, KY
The performances of  Drivin' on 9 and Beatles cover Happiness is a warm gun show how The Breeders are capable of transforming any song into their own unique sound. After a week on tour with the Pins, they discovered that Pins singer Faith plays the violin, and that's exactly what makes Drivin' on 9. Tonight she plays along for the first time, and it's the perfect addition. This could have been turned into an extended version, but even this song remains within the three minute limit.

The Breeders play all but smooth. The guitar changes take too long and sometimes go wrong. In the beginning, Kim's voice is mixed too low. They're constantly fiddling with the foot pedals and amplifier knobs. Kim has to explain Kelly what part she should play on Wait in the car. But the joy, volatility and energy laid in Kim's amazing compositions and arrangements make for a memorable evening.

*

More concert reviews 

Read more concert reviews (PIL, Patti Smith)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

I got a bad review. Now I want to quit. What to do?

Now reality has overtaken Dave Eggers' The Circle and everything possible and impossible is being reviewed, the people at the receiving end are having a hard time. Reviews, feedback and evaluations can make or break your business, your job, your income, your way of living.

People can get rather upset by one bad review, even if it is outweighed by a hundred good ones. Why is that? Not just because reviews matter. Maybe more so because we take reviews too personally?



It's not personal

Reviews can feel very personal, so the first thing to realize is: they are not. They are not about you as a person, but at best about the service you provide. A review says as much about the reviewer as it says about the subject of the review. Maybe the reviewer has a grudge against the company you work for. Or against the website that acted as the broker. Or against their spouse. Or their car didn't start. Or they are just being silly.

Trust me, I write reviews, and sometimes I do so mindfully, other times I just jot something down. If it is the tenth request for a review that day, I may not realize that on the other end there is a real live person to whom this matters much more than it matters to me. There are a million reasons to give a bad review, and some of them are just unfair and out of your control. A system in which so much depends on reviews by customers/clients is unfair indeed.
All the more reason not to take it personally. And yes, it can harm your business. But so can many other things: the weather if you have an outdoor business. The exchange rate if you have international clients. The budget if you work for the government. The mysterious algorithms that put you higher or lower on a website listing.

How do I overcome the 'negative bias'?

Yes, all these things matter, but we do not get upset by all of them. Maybe you can mitigate the upsetting a little and ask yourself: Why do I let it get to me? Why do I identify as a person with this one review? Why can I not be happy with the one hundred positive reviews? How do I overcome the 'negative bias'?

Remember: it is simply not realistic to expect to get good reviews only. You can please some people some of the time. You can please most of the people most of the time. But you cannot please all of the people all of the time. If the service you provide was alright for everybody, it would be excellent for nobody. If you provide something special, there must be some people out there that do not particularly like it. If you provide a cozy homestay, you can not please the person that wanted a five star hotel. If you run an excellent five star hotel, you cannot please the person that wanted to meet other travelers.

Take positive action

That brings us to one thing that you can do something about: expectation management. Be sure that your customers know, or at least could have known, what to expect. If you run a cozy café, make sure customers don’t expect white table linen.

And then there is the possibility that there is a grain of truth in that bad review. Once you are over the initial shock of the bad review, consider whether - however excellent the service you provide -  there may be a reason the customer didn't quite experience it that way. Was something not up to standard? Did the customer overlook something? The old saying goes 'a complaint is free advice'.

Don't be tempted to get into long discussions on public forums. Acknowledge they had a bad experience. Correct if they got a fact wrong. Say how you saw it. Say what you'll do about it (if anything).


To conclude: 

Yes, reviews matter. No, reviews are not about you as a person. The occasional bad review is inevitable. Maybe you can learn something from it. If not, shrug your shoulders and carry on.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 3, Amdavad (Ahmedabad), Gujarat

...a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress...

Amdavad old town

Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque, was built 600 years ago, shortly after the founding of Ahmedabad (Amdavad) by Ahmed Shah.  Clearly he had a big vision, as the large courtyard had room for thousands of believers, just like the main building. 260 Pillars created a mystical atmosphere, the sculptures were very refined, the proportions and the dimensions perfect. The consistent stony colour added to the serenity. The outer wall had murals of large Arabic letters. It was very quiet and peaceful, and the building was really impressive. 

Next to it stood the mausoleum of Ahmed Shah, along with his son and grandson. The graves were revered daily and covered with coloured cloths. This building too was a masterpiece of architecture and sculpture. We sat for a while on the steps at the entrance and saw a miniature neighbourhood before our eyes.  Right next to the mausoleum, laundry hung out to dry above a couple of anonymous graves, girls were getting ready for school, women sat on the street baking chapatti's on a wood fire.  Goats were herded (one baby goat carefully kept in a crib), cats strolled at ease on the street. It was a lovely homely and relaxing scene, you would want to move here instantly. 

Once this had been the core of it, now it was a different world than the metropolis Amdavad had become in those six centuries. The day before in the bus we drove kilometre after kilometre along industrial complexes, then large areas full of modern offices, before we entered the city centre where the traffic was crawling along poor neighbourhoods. It was a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress. 

Next was the mausoleum of Rani, the wife of Ahmed Shah, also completely hemmed in by the encroaching city. Again the building was superb, with lots of fine sculpture, but it was much less maintained. The elevated walkway around it even housed a family. Still they were better off than the family we saw on the sidewalk not far from our hotel, covering themselves up for the night. 
We walked through the maze of alleys. Motorcycles and bicycles zigzagged around the cows and the potholes and us. Houses, shops, workshops. Close together were concrete buildings and old stone houses with havelis, overhanging balconies of carved wood. Some well maintained, most neglected. We stood there admiring a  facade when an old lady motioned us inside. Her shabby courtyard  also had a facade full of carvings. Just down the road was a square with a bench where we could sit down. In two hours we had covered 200 meters as the crow flies. But zigzagging so much and seen so much, that we were fully saturated. 
We went to a restaurant for lunch by auto-rikshaw. The four of us crammed in the back, the small tricycle overloaded. A kamikaze ride through crazy traffic, steering left and right to avoid collisions, diving into each gap, braking and acceleration. Scruffy males cheerfully waved at us from other rickshaws and freight cars. For contrast two beautiful girls in modern dress, all made up, sat on the back of a motorcycle. When we stood still in traffic we inhaled pure exhaust fumes. 

Stepwells 

A stepwell is a well with stairs dug until the ground water level. That sounds easier than it is. To gradually descend to the depths required, 20 to 50 meters, you either have some sort of spiral stairway, or build a long straight slope. This one was of the latter type. The slope and the pit themselves were fully ornamented with statues, arches, platforms. Over the full length that gave beautiful vistas, the full depth of about five floors with balconies above the well. Deep underground it was a relatively cool place, and thus a sort of village square, where gossip and news was exchanged. The overall design, the elegance and the details of the stonework were gorgeous. Actually, it was a kind of three-dimensional, inside out, underground, oversized artwork.

We visited seven stepwells in Junagadh, Amdavad and Patan. 950 to 500 years old, simple to richly decorated, in good and in bad condition, with slope and with spiral staircase, deeper and shallower. This variety gave a good idea of the differences and similarities.

What we were really concerned with

All these sights are a good excuse to travel through Gujarat, but actually we were more concerned with: Where can we buy dahi (yogurt for breakfast)? What are the toilets of the bus station like? How clean is the bathroom in the hotel? Is there hot water for the shower? Where do we have lunch? Did we get bananas? Do we have Wi-Fi? How hot / cold is it? What time do we have breakfast? How often have we been addressed / stared at / photographed? Who is sick, weak or nauseous today? How much can we get off the fare of the auto rickshaw? At what time does the bus leave?

North - South

Amdavad was a worthy conclusion of Vibrant Gujarat, as the slogan of the tourism office goes. It’d been a long time since I've experienced India so intensely, and we were ready for a quieter stage to digest it all. No better time or place than our friends down south.

The sheer size and diversity of India was evident once again. Language and ethnicity in the north is close to European, while the south is Dravidian. Even though the Muslims are a minority in Gujarat as well, they are much more visible there, both in architecture and dress – maybe because of several centuries of Moghul rulers.

Gujarat is semi-desert rather than tropical. Wheat and cotton in stead of rice paddies and coconut plantations. Camel carts in stead of oxen carts. The infrastructure was better  and the road discipline was even better (that is: less suicidal than in the south).

On average the ladies in Gujarat were dressed more  modern, their hair done more fancy, and blue jeans were no exception. People spoke less English, but as they were more extrovert, you engaged in a conversation more easily. But once you got to know them, people were equally as friendly all over India.


The weak instant coffee was no match for the real filter coffee in the south. Then again, the Gujarati thalis were much better than the Tamil meals.