Category: Culture

Beirut Might Be The City That Explains Us All

beirut corniche

At the airport in Athens the young guy behind the counter asked me for my final destination, “Beirut,” I replied. His confused looked was followed by, “are you sure?” He wasn’t joking.

What I expected to find was a city struggling after years of war, in one of the worst regional neighborhoods in the world, mixed with 18 officially recognized religions who’ve all fought at some point. It sounds like a recipe for disaster and in fairness, much of its recent history has not been good. But somehow now, Beirut is working, and working well.

Everyone should visit here. Beirut’s a vibrant city that’s as good, bad, nuanced, and hypocritical as any of us. The deceptively polished corniche is a few blocks away from expensive, modern shopping centers that sit mostly empty – built for (often wealthy) Gulf state Arabs who come to enjoy fermented beverages and fashion not acceptable back home. If your style is more burqa, that’s fine too. Popular restaurants are popular with everyone, so long as you don’t preach to the table next to you.

empty beirut

Beirut is glaringly tolerant, I must be missing something.

Spruced up shopping districts are dotted with cranes meant for new high rises in between broken buildings from Israel’s 2006 bombardment of the city. Some facades have numerous bullet holes that looks almost unreal. Across the street you’ll find the best falafel in the world. Side-by-side businesses run by two brothers who hate each other, but not enough to move their shops apart. These guys have survived all Beirut has seen – the horror that was whatever caused all those bullet holes – but haven’t spoken in over a decade. The constant reminder that life is short staring these two 60-year old siblings in the face isn’t enough to budge their pride or falafel shops.

bullet holes beirut

A walk from the corniche to the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Badaro is a 30 minute history reel as you walk through conservative Muslim neighborhoods, then past military fortifications behind barbed wire, after McDonald’s, and a few hipster-enticing pubs.

Beirut has seen some shit. And the city doesn’t hide it.

israel lebanon

Maybe that’s why it seems to work, at least now. Maybe things have to get so bad for so long, that people simply got sick of trying to solve all the problems. Like the falafel brothers, the defacto state seems to be: you’re free to do what you want, but don’t tell me what to do – no matter how close we are, even if you’re literally next door.

Complicated recipes are usually easier to screw up, but Beirut’s blend might be getting something right. The secret sauce seems to defy all conventional wisdom so I hope someone is taking notes, nobody here wants to start from scratch.

These Photos Of Beirut Tell You Nothing And Everything About Lebanon’s Capital

beirut corniche

Beirut is one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever been to. It is a city that works but absolutely shouldn’t – with the shouldn’t part being particularly easy to overlook.

pigeon rocks lebanon

Along Corniche Beirut, the Mediterranean Sea is both doorway and barrier; a reminder of how connected Beirut, Lebanon is to the world while concurrently dangling on the edge of war in Syria and open hostility with Israel .

beirut

Depending on which way you’re looking at the sea, it can seem as either.

beirut sunset

Beirut’s corniche though, a strip of a few kilometers along the Mediterranean, feels jovial, normal, and only odd when you add everything up. The variables in this equation shouldn’t yield this result. The breeze in the wake of the rollerbladders skating past whisks away such math problems, another thought for another day.

beirut lebanon

As you feel the touch of perfection, reality nags, leaving you to wonder how, just how does this city work?

beirut pigeon rocks

And work well, all things considered.

beirut coffee

I’m not sure if I was ignoring the issues Lebanon has or appreciating what Beirut has become in spite of them. Vibrant as ever, especially along the corniche.

beirut shisha nargile

The corniche is brashly comforting and safe, yet as you stroll through the other parts of Beirut, you start doing the math. It’s a complicated equation I’ll be writing more about soon but these views sum up a lot of what Beirut is and what Beirut is not.

What To Expect At Your First Creation Las Vegas Star Trek Convention

creation las vegas star trek convention

You might be a Star Trek fan who’s finally decided to attend a convention (or be the friend roped into it all) that’s got no idea what goes on at the annual 5-day Creation Entertainment event in Las Vegas. To help prepare you, here’s everything you need to know about the Creation Star Trek convention held at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino every summer.

Why Las Vegas?

There are plenty of Star Trek conventions around the world but the Las Vegas event held at the Rio All-Suite hotel is North America’s largest. (Creation’s convention competes with several in Germany every year for the world’s largest attendance.) Over 15,000 people are expected at the 2018 convention.

What Do You Do All Day?

There are events all day and night planned for the August 1-5th convention but most first-timers have no idea what that means. The easiest way to put it into perspective is to think of the Las Vegas Star Trek convention like Comic-Con, but focused on Star Trek. There are 30-60 minute panels throughout the day which consist of talks plus Q&A sessions with Star Trek actors, directors, writers, and artists like Oscar winner Michael Westmore. (I highly recommend his book Makeup Man for the Michael Jackson stories alone.)

makeup man bookMakeup Man: From Rocky to Star Trek

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Additionally, Creation invites scientists and other engineers to hold discussions on space exploration. Several engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be giving talks on current and fictional Star Trek technologies that may become reality in the near future. (Sorry, transporter technology seems the longest shot.)

klingon armor discovery

People tend to float in and out of the talks, making their way through the vendor room where there’s all kinds of nerdom represented. Need a Starfleet uniform or a Darth Vader mug? The vendors will have it. There are also a lot of independent artists and creators selling handmade crafts as well, in my opinion the most interesting items sold at the convention.

In the evenings you can opt for additional events like a 45-piece orchestral performing Star Trek: Live, or swing by the Masquerade Bar where by Thursday night the entire hotel has been taken over by Star Trek fans.

Do You Need To Dress Up?

No – but a lot of people do. Uniform t-shirts are common but then there are real cosplayers, peaking on Saturday when an annual costume contest is held. Here are pictures of the best cosplay from 2017 and 2014 to give you an idea but what you wear is up to you.

star trek cosplay

Why Do People Go To Star Trek Conventions?

For a variety of reasons but basically to have fun with other people who are really passionate about Star Trek and science fiction in general. In 2017 I asked a bunch of people why they go to Star Trek conventions, here’s what they said:

People who make it to their first Las Vegas Star Trek convention often return year after year. You see the same people and it has almost become an annual pilgrimage for many, much like Comic-Con is for other fans. If you’re in the Las Vegas area August 1-5, 2018 and interested in attending, you can purchase individual day tickets here (I would recommend Saturday if you’re choosing just one) or get all 5 days at a discounted rate.

Once you’ve got your tickets, you can check out this insider’s guide on saving money, meeting celebrities, and making the most of the Creation Las Vegas Star Trek convention. Qa’plah!

What It’s Like To Get High On Khat

khat market yemen

2013: Somewhere in the middle of nowhere Yemen, my toothless driver turns around to ask if I want to chew as we make our way across mountain roads. It’s become an important ritual by now; every day around 2 in the afternoon, he and most every other Yemeni, jam wads of khat leaves into their mouth to chew on for hours. Entire cities shut down after midday around khat time, not fully starting up again until the next morning.

It took me a few days but eventually friend and fellow blogger Derek and I gave in, here’s what it’s like to get high on khat.

What Is Khat?

Khat or qat refers to the leaves of a tree sold in countless markets around Yemen and east Africa. Khat is illegal in many countries and considered a performance enhancing drug by some athletic bodies, mostly because it’s a stimulant. Research on khat is limited but given that everyone I saw in Yemen was chewing it on a daily basis, it’s probably highly addictive. Khat’s also terrible for your teeth – toothless smiles reveal which side of the mouth people tend to keep their khat on.

Khat Effects

Khat is a big part of the culture in Yemen and east Africa where The Pirates Of Somalia repeats a common local joke: khat will either make you talk a lot or sex crazy. I’m sorry to disappoint you if you’re looking for a fantastic way to get high or an herbal aphrodisiac but khat’s effects are more like drinking one cup of coffee too many.

khat leaves

The khat process though is a cumbersome one. First, you begin by shopping for the khat leaves. Khat’s only good for about a day so you’ll need to buy fresh. Then, you begin to chew the leaves without swallowing. You want to get a buzz and then constipated, eating the leaves only gives you the constipated side effect. As you eagerly or fearfully wait to become a talkative sex maniac, you keep chewing, making sure to keep a large ball of khat clearly visible from your cheeks.

For hours.

khat

Khat takes about 2-4 hours to kick in, so you’ll need to chew diligently. The leaves taste like you might imagine the grass in a field does, bitter and earthy, one of the random things you’ll be very focused on contemplating after an hour of chomping.

Focus On This

Khat gives you a fuzzy focus as amphetamines tend to. Very mild though, after the second or third hour your mouth will start running. Imagine a kid who’s eaten too many cupcakes or your friend who can’t handle a large Starbucks. That’s khat. I’m not sure where the sex crazy rumor comes from, it’s probably a way to make khat seem much more mind-altering than it is.

Khat seemed to me to be much on par with coffee, though with bad side effects. Aside from the long-term dental effects, khat might also cause cancer and depression. Due to limited scientific studies of the plant, nothing conclusive has been determined but it’s probably pretty bad for you. Especially daily consumption.

khat farm

The other side effect is water. Prior to Yemen’s civil war, one local farmer told me the country was selling itself into drought. Yemeni coffee should be world famous (the drink originated in nearby Ethiopia) but corruption, war, and turmoil hurt exports. Khat however, is locally very popular. Unfortunately, khat trees use many more times the amount of water than coffee plants and because khat can’t be (legally) exported to most places that don’t already grow it, ultimately it’s become a major economic burden.

Khat, in Yemen, is a social network nothing digital comes close to. Hours long conversations, daily khat shopping, and open discussions create friendships on the spot, leading to a lifelong side effect of close bonds with individuals who have all since been displaced, or worse, due to the ongoing conflict there – although good Yemeni coffee might have done the same, without the tooth decay.

The Pirates Of Somalia Is A Great Travel Book, Lackluster Movie

pirates of somalia

Imagine working in an office at age 24 and wanting to become a journalist, but instead of going the traditional route of a formal education, you book yourself a ticket to Somalia to interview pirates… as they’re actively hijacking cargo ships. In 2011, that’s exactly what writer Jay Bahadur did, and his book The Pirates Of Somalia is one of the best travel books I’ve ever read.

Earlier this year a movie by the same name was released and despite good acting, the original story gets muddled with what is clearly Hollywood executive meddling. It’s often the case that the book a movie is based on is better but Bahadur’s story is so compelling, the movie should have stuck much closer to the true story.

Adventure In Journalism

I’m not going to compare The Pirates Of Somalia movie with the book as much as tell you to read the book, despite what you may have thought of the film. In both cases, The Pirates Of Somalia starts with Bahadur’s wild idea to get a story others can’t by going to its troublesome source. The book however, covers in depth the scattershot planning it took to make this trip to Somalia plus interview pirates leaders, possible. No journalist prior had gotten such interviews and I’m sure more than a few intelligence agencies wish they had such access.

the pirates of somaliaThe Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World

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Ultimately, the planning is fascinating because it starts with Bahadur making calls and pulling connections on his own – you can imagine yourself reading this right now – following the same steps; next thing you know you’re on a 1970s Soviet-era Atonov plane headed for Puntland. (Puntland, the center of Somali piracy, is an unrecognized autonomous region in Somalia.) The movie doesn’t go into this section enough but travel enthusiasts would especially enjoy seeing the calculated chaos Bahadur’s route to Somalia took, dramatized on-screen.

Nerves Across The Pages

Bahadur does a really good job of transmitting his cool but logically anxious mind after he arrives in Somalia. There’s a naivety in the writing without straying far from the reality that things could go horribly wrong. Insulting a pirate, running into the wrong group of armed criminals, jihadists, other pirates, or a hundred other ways to get killed at worse, kidnapped at best.

In the movie, the most captivating parts (aside from anytime Al Pacino is on-screen) are the moments of complete unpredictability in what’s to come for Bahadur. Where the movie doesn’t make time to go in-depth enough into each character’s arch, the book’s writing is very personal. The Pirates Of Somalia is written almost like a journal, but structured to give you a deeper look at the people who are pirates, at all levels in the organization. Pirates are humanized, criminal motivations dissected, and a love of Land Rovers plus addiction to khat, exposed.

No To Romance

The story of piracy in Somalia has been romanticized. Although there is a very tragic element to it, the widely circulated narrative of fisherman looking for justice isn’t the reality. I won’t spoil the book but Bahadur’s adventure leads to a deep insights about Somalia any reader will benefit from. (Bahadur is now an investigator for the United Nations in Somalia.)

In the film, there’s a weak subplot about an old girlfriend that could have been discarded in favor of more scenes with the pirates, demonstrating the exploitation and modern mythos within the gangs. But The Pirates Of Somalia movie, like these 8 motorcycle books, should give you an anxious enough glimpse of the full story you’ll really want to read on your next flight.

The Tokyo Experience That Gives You Culture, Food, And A Good Lesson For Life

rangetsu sukiyaki tokyo japan

What most of us look for when visiting a new place is a local, authentic experience that feels like we’re the first outsider to discover. The best place to find this intersection of culinary culture is to ask a few locals, “where do you eat?” In Tokyo, that’s exactly what I did, which lead me to Rangetsu to try sukiyaki – and you should too.

Misleading Exterior

The polished but humble entrance to Rangetsu is almost too fancy; the kind of decor that leads one to believe you’re paying more for ambiance than good food. But a few steps into the tight hallways of Rangetsu hits you immediately with the sense you’re entering somewhere special. The waiter, in suit and tie, asks for your order – sukiyaki of course – and seats you in a tiny room, sharply closing the curtain behind him.

Contemplating Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki, a lesser know Japanese dish, is a meal of vegetables, noodles, and thinly sliced beef mixed with raw egg served in generally that order. Typically sukiyaki is a winter meal, but Rangetsu serves sukiyaki year-round. Once the curtain has been closed, the silence of your contemplation will be broken by the clicks of the curtain rings as they’re pulled open again. This time, a woman wearing traditional Japanese attire with under heavy makeup takes your drink order, then promptly leaves.

rangetsu tokyo

Your drinks arrive, food order given, and there you are again. Piece by piece, moment by moment, sip by sip, the meal at Rangetsu is reflective of the general Japanese dining experience. Colorful, coordinated, proportional and very much in moderation.

Hot Potting

Every time the waitress comes into your little room, something is cooked in front of you in a small hot pot. The noodles are one course, as is the soup, then vegetables, finally beef with raw egg. Everything is tasty. The kind of quality that makes you notice things like the flavor of individual green beans you normally wouldn’t on most plates. Portions are just enough food to be satisfying leaving ample room for respectable amounts of saki.

The dining culture in Japan is certainly quality over quantity over time and Rangetsu is the manifestation of it all.

sukiyaki

Prices at Rangestu aren’t as high as most places in Ginza, Tokyo’s version of Time Square, but not cheap either. (Despite Tokyo dropping out of the top 10 most expensive cities last year.) A sukiyaki dinner, the full experience, is around $75 but only half that at lunch time.

Sukiyaki at Rangetsu is an event – vaguely like ordering a lomito in Santiago or drinking raki like a Turk – where the meal itself is an ingredient of conversation, reflection, and enjoyment.  Not something to be rushed or overlooked, after a warm sukiyaki then final sip of tea, in the future you might occasionally take a slower bite at your next lunch. Try to feel the flavors as they’re absorbed by different parts of your tongue. Appreciate the next cup of coffee on your way to work or otherwise find the peaceful moment that lies in every food, one of several lessons the sukiyaki at Rangetsu hopefully leaves you with.

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About Anil Polat

foxnomad aboutI'm the blogger and computer security engineer who writes foXnoMad while on a journey to visit every country in the world. I'll show you the tips, tricks, and tech you can use to travel smarter. Read More


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