Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dustin for President!!!

My grassroots campaign has finally been recognized - click on the link below to see recent televised footage. Please sign up to join me as we take back America!


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin - Obama's dream come true

John McCain has officially selected a running mate - and based on his choice, we can officially declare that he is desperate or ill advised... or both.

Let me put this as strongly as I possibly can - McCain will go down as this decade's Bob Dole, and Palin as the pro-life Geraldine Ferraro. As soon as it was announced that McCain had selected the Alaska governor as his vice presidential running mate, I knew in my head and heart that Barack Obama will be elected as the 44th president of the United States on November 4, 2008.

Why? Simple. McCain just undercut the best argument he had in his arsenal - that Obama is a political infant, with little to no experience. The argument was effective, and to some extent, true... which is why McCain will be irreparably harmed by being forced to abandon it. The reason - Sarah Palin's experience, or lack thereof (she is only 2 years into her governorship), rivals Obama's own.

Now, to be sure, Sarah Palin is "just" the V.P. candidate, while Obama is running for the whole kit and caboodle. Bear in mind, however, that John McCain is 72, as of yesterday - which would make him the oldest elected president in United States history (trumping even Ronald Reagan). When the most important of the veep's duties is to take over as president upon his (um... / her) death, and the potential president-to-be is, well, mature... let's just say I, for one, would like to see some experience coming down the presidential pipe. America already learned the unfortunate principal of vice presidential (in)experience via Richard Nixon, in the form of Gerald Ford. Nixon's death was merely political, but the point remains the same - vice presidents MUST be prepared to step up to the plate in case of tragedy or disaster. Obama's selection of Joe Biden, in addition to being politically shrewd, echoes this rationale.

The fact that Sarah Palin is female is yet another reason McCain's selection reeks of desperation - if not exploitation of female voting blocs. In the months leading up to the Democratic Party's National Convention, party members were faced with a historic proposition, should their party succeed in November - either the first female president (Hillary), or the first non-Caucasian one (Barack). This lack of traditional (read - white male) candidates surely made the Democrats appear to be the more cutting edge of the two political parties.

In short, I believe that Palin is the Republican Party's belated way of trying to offset the initial Y-chromosome colorlessness of McCain / Romney / Giuliani. It is a transparent strategy that will emphatically not succeed at this point in the game.

We have seen other missteps in McCain's campaign as far as handling the Obamarama love fest in the media - he attacked Obama's international celebrity status, seemingly unaware that by acknowledging Obama's fame and heavy international support, he (McCain) undermined his own credibility. Then there's the issue of the number of houses he owns...

As for this voter, I have tough decisions to make before November. I detest the unmitigated warfare that McCain represents - Iran is an unnecessary disaster waiting to happen, should he become president. Then there's the brazen stance of solidarity with Georgia, in the face of a revitalized and dangerous Russia.

The contrarian streak in me, however, keeps me from jumping wholeheartedly onto the Obama bandwagon. As a firm yet politically-sensible pro-lifer, I find Obama's position on abortion appalling to my sentiments - Obama supported what amounts to infanticide. Palin's own beliefs on abortion more closely resemble my own - but she and her running mate, like every Republican before them, would undoubtedly be unable to change the status quo, though they (she more than he) may wish to do so.

While my vote is not yet certain, what is certain is that there are 66 more days until Election Day... and quite possibly 133 days until the Democrats take over the White House.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Let the Right One In

WHEN OH WHEN will this come out Stateside? I feel woefully undernourished by Swedish vampire movies... despite its enormity as a genre, and all.

Steve Bernier and the Ambiguously Swede Duo

Remember Steve Bernier? It hasn't been that long, has it, Teal Town? Our underappreciated, arguably underperforming 23-year old French Canadian forward was dealt to Buffalo this February (I was at Stevie's last game in teal, @ Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh), in exchange for Brian Campbell (remember him?). Neither locale was able to hang on to their new acquisitions for long, as Campbell signed with Chicago for beaucoup bucks, while Bernier, despite a memorable 2-goals-in-2-shots (plus an assist) debut for the Sabres, has gone to Vancouver for the 2008-09 season...

...Where his linemates will be none other than Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Steve Bernier. I get chills just thinking about it... Bernier should be a household name (well, in Vancouver) by the All-Star break.


Last night I trekked to downtown San Jose's Camera 3 (from the 'burbs) to see Transsiberian, starring Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, and Ben Kingsley. I will say NOTHING about the film except that it is fantastic, and that I found Emily Mortimer's performance to be almost more engrossing than the thrilling storyline.

Oh, and Ben Kingsley plays a Russian. What ethnicity hasn't he played?

There. That's it! Go see it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Post-season, with or without Pinstripes

Today at 4:05pm PST, the Bronx Bombers will begin a 3-game series against (who else?) the Boston Red Sox. Boston's final visit to Yankee Stadium (um, FOREVER) could be the Yankees last chance to gather the momentum (and gain some much needed ground) towards entering the post-season...

As it is, both teams are realistically reduced to chasing the wild card spot (barring a 2007 Mets-like-collapse of the Tampa Bay Rays). Only one can get in, though it's quite possible that both will be eliminated (either the Twins or White Sox could dethrone the #2 in the AL East).

A Yankees sweep this week (laugh all you want) would put them just 2 games behind Boston. A Red Sox sweep (knock on wood) would put the the Yankees 8 games behind their New England arch-enemies... a mortal blow indeed, this late in the season.

Will the Yankees' 13 consecutive post-season appearances come to an end? If so, it couldn't come at a less auspicious time, with the closing of the fabled Yankee Stadium and the opening of some behemoth impostor next door. Not to mention the end of the Mr. Torre era... sniff.

However, as we have seen many a time before from the boys in pinstripes, the Yankees manage to come through in clutch situations. And if the MLB All-Star Game was any indication, there are more than enough ghosts in Yankee Stadium that want their say in the matter.

As for our pinstriped future - I have unsettling visions of the Beantown denizens racing to outdo themselves in naming the latest MLB curse (is "The Curse of Yankee Stadium" more indelible than "The Curse of Joe Torre"?). Which would have nothing to do with Big Papi's jersey buried in Yankees concrete, of course.

Pitching Schedule (man-oh-man-oh-MAN could the Yanks use Wang & Joba right 'bout now)

August 26, 4:05pm PST = Tim Wakefield (Bos.) vs. Andy Pettitte (NYY)

UPDATE = Boston - 7, New York - 3

NOTES = Alex Rodriguez went 0-5... that's not a misprint. Grounded out into 2 double plays, one with the bases loaded. Also had an error at 3rd base. Former BoSox poster boy Johnny Damon hit 2 solo home runs for the Bombers... Wakefield returned from the DL tonight. Pettitte only pitched 4 2/3 innings, giving up 6 runs and 10 hits.

August 27, 4:05pm PST = Paul Byrd (Bos.) vs. Sidney Ponson (NYY)

UPDATE = Boston - 11, New York - 3 (AYECARUMBA)

Like Pettitte the night before, Ponson lasted exactly 4 2/3 innings... he gave up 4 runs, while Jose Veras gave up 5 runs in the 8th inning, including a Dustin Pedroia grand slam that landed by Roger Maris' #9 in Monument Park. A-Rod went 2-4 tonight with one RBI. The score says it all, though... garbage.

August 28, 10:05am PST = Jon Lester (Bos.) vs. Mike Mussina (NYY)

UPDATE = Boston - 2, New York - 3 (Phew...)

Leave it to the 'Stache to get things done as a pinch hitter. Jason Giambi tied the game in the 7th with a 2 run homer off of Jon Lester, and drove in the game winning RBI single in the 9th. Sandman (Mariano Rivera) pitched a hitless 1 1/3 innings... Offensively, A-Rod had another horrific day, striking out no less than 3 times, as well as popping up with runners on 3rd and 1st and 1 out... garbage.

In this series, the Yankees were outscored 20-9, and are now 6 games behind Boston (to say nothing of Tampa Bay). The Yankees have 29 games left in the season, and only 13 more at Yankee Stadium. They will face Boston one last time at Fenway to end the (regular...) season.

Needless to say - now, more than ever - GO YANKS!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cell phones & popcorn - all a hoax!

Earlier this week I posted a link to a video about cell phones being used to pop corn... it sounded both amazing, impossible, and somehow... possible.

Turns out it was only the second adjective.

I feel so duped... so much for me being the hero of the rainy day.

On the bright side - this means my head is not being damaged by microwaves every time I talk on my cell phone.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona Johansson Woody... etc.

I just got back from seeing Woody Allen's new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona... seems ol' Woody has himself a new favorite ingenue in Scarlett Johansson (who was also in Allen's Match Point and Scoop), who sexes it up alongside Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz.

Javier Bardem isn't as scary as his Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, but he is still emotionally unnerving (upon first meeting Johansson and Hall's characters, he bluntly suggests that all three of them sleep together). He's also the best thing happening in the film, aside from Penelope Cruz, who will probably get an Academy Award nomination.

Johansson's primary function in the film is to be looked at - and she does her job well, for what it is (though she was best in Match Point). Rebecca Hall, on the other hand, is much more interesting for her subtlety - I was surprised to discover that she is British (both girls play Americans having a lost weekend of sorts in Barcelona).

I won't spoil the story, except to say that Allen's take on fidelity and the transient nature of sexual encounters is much more effective without him in the movie - thank goodness he spared us (unlike in Scoop).

Still, I can't help to think of this film, with its American ex-patriotism motif (as well as Scarlett Johansson), as Woody's version of Lost in Translation. Actually, the parallels are hard to ignore... still worth a look, unless you haven't seen The Dark Knight (much better use of $10.25).

Dustin escapes jury duty!

Thank goodness - no teacher should have to serve right as school starts! As it is, they didn't select my number... justice is served.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Get well soon, Yaz - Love, Yankees fan

NHL - By the Numbers

It's August, and you know what that means! That's right, the countdown to NHL's opening day begins! Only 52 days remain until the San Jose Sharks take on the Anaheim Ducks @ HP Pavilion, on October 9!

For no better reason than that I'm bored, I'd like to take the time to break down San Jose's attendance compared to the other 29 NHL teams. Bear in mind that the HP Pavilion's seating capacity is 17,496.

Ranked in order of capacity percentage, the San Jose Sharks rank as having the TWELFTH best home attendance in the league. Here are the figures:

1. Calgary Flames (112.4%, average 19,289 fans)

2. Buffalo Sabres (109.4%, average 19,950 fans)

3. Ottawa Senators (107.1%, average 19,821 fans)

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (103.4%, average 19,434 fans)

5. Minnesota Wild (102.8%, average 18,568 fans)

6. Anaheim Ducks (102.6%, average 17,193 fans)

7. Vancouver Canucks (101.1%, average 18,630 fans)

8. Pittsburgh Penguins (100.7%, average 17,076 fans)

9. Philadelphia Flyers (100.3%, average 19,556 fans)

10. Montreal Canadiens (100.0%, average 21,273 fans)

11. New York Rangers (100.0%, average 18,200 fans)

12. SAN JOSE SHARKS (99.5%, average 17,411 fans)

13. Edmonton Oilers (98.4%, average 16,828 fans)

14. Dallas Stars (97.3%, average 18,038 fans)

15. Tampa Bay Lightning (94.6%, average 18,692 fans)

16. Detroit Red Wings (94.2%, average 18,912 fans)

17. Colorado Avalanche (93.5%, average 16,842 fans)

18. Los Angeles Kings (92.0%, average 16,606 fans)

19. Carolina Hurricanes (88.8%, average 16,633 fans)

20. New Jersey Devils (88.3%, average 15,564 fans)

21. Nashville Predators (87.1%, average 14,910 fans)

22. Atlanta Thrashers (85.3%, average 15,824 fans)

23. Phoenix Coyotes (84.7%, average 14,820 fans)

24. St. Louis Blues (83.9%, average 17,610 fans)

25. New York Islanders (83.7%, average 13,640 fans)

26. Washington Capitals (82.9%, average 15,472 fans)

27. Boston Bruins (82.6%, average 15,384 fans)

28. Chicago Blackhawks (82.0%, average 16,814 fans)

29. Columbus Blue Jackets (81.7%, average 14,823 fans)

30. Florida Panthers (80.2%, average 15,436 fans)

If you're like me, you're probably wondering - how can a place get more than 100% full? Aren't there fire marshal statutes against that sort of thing? Is this just *fuzzy math*?

I guess that maybe you really CAN fit 10 gallons into those ridiculous hats that Flames fans wear... not to mention fill the Saddledome 12% OVER capacity (yikes...).

Of all the statistics, the one most despicable and hurtful to my teal heart is that the Anaheim Ducks ALLEGEDLY have a better attendance record than San Jose does. On my lone trip to the Pond to see the Sharks clinch the 2007-08 Pacific Division, the stands were pretty sparsely populated - imagine my surprise that a sellout was announced. Who are they kidding? Someone's buying a heck of a lot of tickets and not showing up.

Oh, and we're also the second highest team in attendance standings of all the cities that don't ever get snow on the ground... one unfortunate guess as to who the other is.

Regardless - somehow San Jose needs to hit or top 100% this season. Unfortunately, that means selling out the games against L.A., Phoenix, and Columbus. I know, I know, those opponents aren't worth the paper the tickets are printed on.

But let's be certain - sacrifices must be made. No pain, no gain.

Oh, and thank you Joe Pavelski for being a good sport in August.


Cell Phones & Popcorn - Their Secret Liasons Revealed!

I am anxiously waiting to test this on a rainy day in front of 16 bored students - I will be their hero.

UPDATE (8/23) = It's all a hoax!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Oregon Shakespeare Report, 2008

"Stay 2 days, see 4 plays..."

Each year for the past 4 years I have bid farewell to summer vacation with a pilgrimage to the town the Bard built - Ashland, Oregon, host to the justifiably world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Just 15 miles north of the California border, and blessed with being roughly equidistant between San Francisco and Portland, Ashland is the perfect getaway for Elizabethan buffs, minus the jet-lag. Quaint without being too cute, and just enough removed from Medford to avoid being a suburb, Ashland has become synonymous with Shakespeare by annually presenting four of his plays on three different stages. And that's not to mention the slew of other dramas and comedies performed each year, from Sophocles to Moliere, from Ibsen to Chekhov, from Wilson to Wilde.

It's an understatement to say that one has not seen the whole of North American theatre until coming to OSF.

Since the July 4th weekend of 2005, when I was dumbstruck by James Newcomb's total embodiment of Richard III on the eve of the festival's 70th anniversary, I have annually braved the 6 1/2 hour drive up I-5 from the SF Bay Area to the land where-thou-mayst-not-pump-thine-own-gas. Though southern Oregon offers numerous things to do (Crater Lake National Park, Rogue River rafting, wineries galore, etc.), I find myself longing to just hang out in Bard-land.

In so doing, I have developed some miniature Ashland traditions.

1. I ALWAYS sleep (but NEVER stay) in Medford (aka "Dreadford"), if only because it's cheaper... would that the Ashland Hostel would reopen its much-needed doors.

2. I ALWAYS order the *Much Ado About Cheese* panini from Pangea's in downtown Ashland... at least once.

3. I ALWAYS get Cascade Mountain Berry ice cream at Zoey's Cafe after an Elizabethan Stage performance (they're open until late for that reason).

4. I ALWAYS hang out in Lithia Park, which must surely rank amongst the 3 best city parks in the country.

5. I ALWAYS look out for OSF-regular Catherine E. Coulson (THE LOG LADY!), even if she's not in a play I'm seeing. (Mission accomplished on Saturday - spotted her crossing the street).

6. I NEVER pay for parking (even if it's only a few bucks for all day).

I have yet to regret a trip or the theatrical experience(s), though some moments have completely outshone others.

Therein lies the point of this blog - to review the 4 Shakespearean plays performed at OSF in 2008.

CORIOLANUS (New Theatre), 1:30pm, Friday August 15, 2008

Shakespeare meets... Rambo? That's not as much of a stretch as you might imagine, considering Laird Williamson's modern interpretation of Shakespeare's underperformed masterpiece (which has been necessarily truncated for length, though much preserved in language). Ancient Rome meets the modern war field as Caius Martius - aka Coriolanus (Danforth Comins, FINALLY in his first of what is sure to be many star roles) - refuses to flatter his countrymen after saving their hides... and seeks revenge through assisting his adversary Tullus Aufidius (who better but Michael Elich?). Watch as one warrior of a mama's boy (mama Volumnia being played by the formidable Robynn Rodriguez) gets what's coming to him... AK-47s and Bowie-knife fights abound, taking full advantage of the intimate New Theatre in a production you're not soon to forget.

MY VERDICT - Watch your Shakespeare-hating friends change their minds after getting a load of this.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Elizabethan Stage), 8pm, Friday August 15, 2008

Error, indeed - ironically, this *adaptation* of Shakespeare's comedy about mistaken identity could easily be mistaken for a non-OSF play. Easily the simplest play in the canon, in terms of language, plot, and substance (though not in laughs, which abound), The Comedy of Errors has been performed ten times previously by OSF, and presumably without abridgement or *adaptation.*

Penny Metropulos has changed the setting from Ephesus to gun-slinging Texas ("West of the Pecos!") - hardly a crime in itself. What IS inexcusable is sifting haphazardly from country-western dialects to Shakespearean verse, when the latter would serve the plays' needs just fine.

If it ain't broke, Penny, don't fix it.

Also inexcusable is Miriam Laube - MUST she slow down and mar every play I've seen her in with her stilted, gasping, husky delivery? She seems to revel in her own over-acting, and furthermore is not in tune with her compatriots. Is it my vindictive imagination, or are they overly eager to pick up the pace when she turns it over to their lines?

Maybe it's just me... but I'm NOT a fan.

Sorry for the diatribe. In fairness to Laube, she does have a number of good reviews to her credit (for Broadway / Off-Broadway performances).

A final note - the *innovation* of narrator Jose Luiz (played by the amusing Rene Millan) is... interesting. This could have been made without the expense of the Shakespearean totality.

MY VERDICT - Good (and funny) as slapstick, terrible as Shakespeare. Do NOT make this your first OSF experience.

OTHELLO (Elizabethan Stage), 8pm, Saturday August 16, 2008

Finally - a return to the Big Four. Along with Hamlet (last performed in 2000), King Lear (2004), and Macbeth (2002), Othello towers above the rest of the tragedies, if not the whole of Shakespeare's canon.

And why shouldn't it? Iago is, as one critic put it, a "moral pyromaniac," setting fire to his African superior's views of his wife and her sexual fidelity, mostly just to delight in the wake of ensuing destruction. Director Lisa Peterson has crafted the most orthodox Shakespearean production of the year, with a faithful period presentation in Elizabethan costume. In of itself, this would not be worthy of praise (see below for an example of a gloriously unorthodox interpretation of the Bard) - what is worthy is how Peterson and her stupendous cast bring the audience straight to Cyprus, and straight into the heart of hellish jealousy and rage. Peter Macon's Othello appears modest enough at first- a worthy general, faithfully in love with Desdemona (the perfectly cast Sarah Rutan), trusting of his ensign Iago... Through Iago (masterfully played by Dan Donohue)'s suggestive lies about his superior's wife, Othello - or rather Peter Macon - is completely transformed into an explosive beast of a man betrayed, though not by the one he suspects. Set designer Rachel Hauck's minimalist scheme of black shadows and white light couldn't be more indicative of the play's racial and moral overtones. Rounding out the cast are Danforth Comins as a worthy Cassio, Christopher DuVal as a delightfully dopey Rodrigo, and Vilma Silva as Iago's misused wife, Emilia.

On a side note - as if to confirm the electricity of the performance, Mother Nature provided her own lightning, to fill up the Ashland sky overhead at 10 second intervals. God must be a fan as well.

MY VERDICT - This year's overall winner (and arguably the best play at OSF since Libby Appel and Rachel Hauck's Richard III in 2005).... even without the lightning.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Angus Bowmer Theatre), 1:30pm, Sunday August 17, 2008

By far the biggest crowd-pleaser at OSF (whose crowds are quite discerning, mind you), festival newcomer Mark Ruckner's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes the play you know and love - and makes you love it even more. Show-stealing as always, freshly-coiffed Michael Elich and his Bronx accent and innuendos set the tone for the rest of the play. "I wooed thee with my sword" he tells his wife - and that's not his rapier we're talking about, folks.

The unorthodox sets and costumes find their mark with the play's two subsets of characters - the amateur actors and the fairies. The extremely funny U. Jonathan Toppo and Ray Porter lead the former (and even drive a psychedelic sort of Mystery Machine onstage!), while John Tufts, as Puck, and Kevin Kenerly, as Oberon, command the troop of fairies. And by *fairies,* well... let's just say Ruckner's imagination brought forth the best out of a certain connotation of the word... if you follow my meaning...

(HINT - Castro District).

Did I mention this was an unorthodox interpretation? There's even a dance party - but don't let that stop you.

Christopher Michael Rivera (Demetrius), Tasso Feldman (Lysander), Emily Sophia Knapp (Hermia) and Kjerstine Anderson (Helena) round out the cast as a motley crew of confused, and magically abused, lovers.... who run around in their underwear half of the time.

MY VERDICT - This is laugh-out loud funny, and drew by far the biggest applause of the 4 plays, if that is indicative of its strength. Small caveat - pretty risque for the wee-ones.



All's Well That Ends Well

Much Ado About Nothing

Henry VIII

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Syria - Seriously

It's been about a year since I completed the trip of a lifetime - a 50 day trek from Greece to Egypt, by land. Of the seven countries that the trip would take me through, I found myself most intimidated and intrigued by the only country I would enter and exit twice - Syria.

My friends and family were also intimidated - but far from intrigued.

"Why on earth do you want to go there?"

"What's there besides sand and terrorists?"

"You're going to get killed, white boy."

Funny enough, my intimidation sprung mostly from their fears and assured proclamations of my demise. Much of the criticism of my plans came from my relatives in the military, who were recently in the Gulf Arab countries. Understandably, it was offensive to them that while they were risking their asses fighting in a war zone, an American would want to go off "sightseeing" near the same war zone.

Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt - these were the "acceptable" Arab countries... and even then, they were to be avoided at the present moment, so the prevailing logic went. Yet I was resolved to visit Syria, an associate of the infamous "Axis of Evil," the key troublemaker in Lebanon via Hezbollah, and supposedly host to many a terrorist intent on destroying yours truly and his ilk.

A contrarian streak runs through me, and I was determined to show to the folks back home that Syria was not truly dangerous, nor devoid of things to see, but rather faced an uphill battle in global P.R. Indeed, I felt that there would be a strong parallel between the Syrian people and the American people - truly decent individuals who were wrongly perceived by the global community on account of their respective governments' actions.

Sentiment aside, I simply HAD to go through Syria to get between Turkey and Jordan (um, unless I chose to go through Iraq... I'm not THAT contrarian). Furthermore, I could not simply walk up to the border and request a visa, unlike at every other country I would be visiting (including Lebanon). Due to the poor relations between the U.S. and Syria, the Syrians charge Americans $100 for the right to visit their country. Fortunately, there was a Syrian embassy in southern California, so I mailed my passport along with a $100 money order to Newport Beach, and promptly received my visa.

And with that, I was ready to begin my adventure.

My journey through Greece and Turkey went quite smoothly - the tourist infrastructure of both countries was quite sound, and thus I was able to move briskly while still absorbing a great deal of history and culture. Following several days in Istanbul, I made my way through the bulk of Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), and wound up in Antakya, better known by its biblical name, Antioch. While currently part of the Turkish Republic, the land I was in had historically been Syria - even a glance at the region's location on a map will demonstrate this, removed as it is from Anatolia. From here I would make my way into Syria, first to its second largest city, Aleppo.

As we made our way to the border, certain preconceived notions became confirmed - mainly, that the land would become more arid, and the temperature much hotter. There was no denying this - Antakya's lushness was trapped on its side of the small mountain range separating Turkey and Syria. Still, I found it not unlike California in the summer heat - dry and a bit dusty. The bus was air conditioned, thankfully.

The border crossing was a bit of an ordeal, to put it mildly. Considering Turkey's push to become part of the European Union, their border with Syria (not to mention Iran and Iraq, I imagine) was quite elaborate, with several checks on either side of the line. Once on the Syrian side, I exited the bus (barely believing that I was really there) and made my way to have my passport stamped.

This was an exercise in patience. The Syrian border post was not a great introduction to the country - no one bothered with forming a line, but instead crowded the windows in the hopes of getting through sooner. My passport was actually handed back to a different white American - we all look the same, I take it.

Actually, allow me to digress on that point. One preconception that I was forced to abandon was what I thought Syrians would look like. I'm not in a position to talk genetics and such, but let's just say that I, Mr. White Boy, could pass for Syrian (this later turned out to be quite true). Of course, looks aren't everything - and yet I was surprised none the less to see red haired, green eyed Syrians amongst the border guards. I almost felt like I had stumbled into an Arab Ireland... almost.

Once in Syria proper, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the number of posters depicting the current president, Bashar al-Assad. If Americans had this many posters of Dubya floating around town, I would retch... they were simply EVERYWHERE. One poster on a wall would not suffice - there simply had to be a full dozen. Was this true devotion, or was there a sinister underlying motive? That remained to be seen for the moment, as we pulled into Aleppo.

Aleppo was a bit different from other cities I had experienced so far - it represented the unknown. Turkey was Muslim, ostensibly, if not Arab, but this was a true Arab city, with so much to understand and experience. The city as a whole is not exactly easy on the eyes, to be sure - but what I discovered in this city made me want to return, even before I had left.

Firstly, but not most importantly, everything in Aleppo is extremely inexpensive by Western standards. A taxi ride across town will come to about 50 cents U.S. A shwarma meal will be between 75 cents and a dollar (as a foreigner - which was evident more from my lack of Arabic than from my appearance - I was occasionally asked to pay a few cents more... one can always barter for the correct price, however!). Nice hotels are roughly ten dollars per person... I actually didn't stay at a hostel in Aleppo, though I know they exist. Entrance fees to the attractions (namely, the Citadel) are a couple of dollars.

So far, Syria was a boon for my wallet.

There are three principal attractions in Aleppo - the Citadel, the Great Mosque, and the Souk (marketplace). The Citadel is a fantastic fortress that juts up above a dried out moat, complete with a drawbridge-structure. I spent a very pleasant two hours wandering within and without. Nearby, the Souk is unparalleled in the region for its ambiance. Damascus' souk would turn out to be larger and more straightforward - but it wasn't nearly as fun or as mysterious as Aleppo's.

A short walk away, the Great Mosque's courtyard is poised to take your breath away - it was here that I first started to interact with average Syrians, and it was here that I became aware of how important religion - principally but not exclusively Islam - is in Arab culture. I was greeted warmly in the mosque, by both men AND women. "Welcome in Syria" was the common phrase, with its charming prepositional usage... never had so simple a greeting revealed such a warmness and hospitality.

Before heading to Damascus in the south of Syria, I managed to explore the vast mid-region of Syria, including the spectacular castle Krak des Chevaliers, the vast, ancient Roman city of Palmyra, and the truly relaxing and delightful riverside town of Hama.

Using Hama as a base, one can easily take day trips to the west (Krak des Chevaliers) or the east (Palmyra). To optimise my time and money, I opted to combine the two main sites in one very long day. My taxi driver - surely one of the nicest individuals I have ever met - was proud to show me his country, and introduced me to abandoned desert fortresses and Bedouin cities along the way. As we headed east, the landscape did indeed become more arid - we eventually came within 150 miles of the Iraqi border. A road sign for Baghdad shocked me into awareness of where I was in the world - before I realized that I actually needed that sign to remind me of how close Iraq was. In other words, I couldn't have been more at peace - with the exception of the border crossing, I had yet to have a stressful time in the country.

Palmyra, simply put, has better ruins than the finest place in Europe. The city - both modern and ancient - is expansive, and requires a vehicle to get around. To be sure, it was quite warm - even hot, but not more than one would expect for being in a desert. Here, I explored a variety of temples, in excellent condition considering their age (2,000 years old). The one thing I found off putting - the touts. They are ubiquitous, and their approach is contrary to the welcoming allure I found in other Syrian people. While harmless, they were persistent to the point of inspiring insanity... our taxi driver recognized this, and eventually took us to the west of the country.

As one heads west of Hama towards the Mediterranean, the arid landscape gives way to verdant hills that bleed into Lebanon. A Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers is remarkably situated on a pass in the hills, just a few miles north of the border. While there were touts here, to be sure, they were less pushy than at Palmyra, and thus I was able to wander the castle for hours - and hours, plural, are truly needed to explore this vast complex.

Despite the otherworldly sites I had seen, the most delightful memory I have of Syria's mid-region is from my nightly constitutionals around Hama's riverbanks, which would inevitably culminate at a riverside cafe, where one could smoke the hookah while playing backgammon and drinking copious cups of tea (no alcohol, of course). This was a fantastic way to meet locals, virtually all of whom have a working knowledge of English.

Finally, it was time to head to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (5,000 years). A sure sign that I wasn't the only one exploring this amazing country - Damascus' 3 hostels were full to bursting. I managed to take the last available room at a very pleasant one, just a short walk from the Old City.

Damascus is vast, crowded, but completely fascinating and friendly. The Old City is without par in the Middle East, if not the world - only Jerusalem can compete, as far as I am concerned. Cairo is a distant third. The layers of history inside the Old City's walls are so dense as to make a linear understanding virtually impossible. Indicative of Damascus' multi-faceted history is its most important site - the Umayyad Mosque. Currently a mosque (for many, many centuries), it was previously a Christian church (the Christian quarter is arguably the most well known part of Damascus' Old City), though it originally was a Roman, pagan temple. The site itself represents over 2,000 years of recorded worship. The mausoleum of Saladdin is within the complex, as well as the purported head of St. John the Baptist, which is the principle raison d'etre. I took full advantage of the fact that I, a non-Muslim, could enter such a sacred place... I was still too inexperienced in my travels to realize what a privilege it was to be able to enter such an important mosque (one of the 5 most important mosques in the world).

While Damascus has too much to offer to summarize herein, the most surprising and delightful of the city's many attributes has to be its bevy of restaurants. The cost-effectiveness of the rest of the country still applies, but not at the expense of taste or range. I spent several nights eating at Beit Jabri, which is housed in an old Jewish mansion (Jews still exist in Damascus, by the way, though most have left, presumably for Israel). The ambiance and the cuisine never failed to astonish - and the price was extremely affordable ($15 U.S. for countless courses, plus hookah).

All good things must come to an end, and my time in Syria was ending as well. I managed to steal away to Lebanon for a few days - though the roughness of the political climate during the time of my visit caused me to shorten my stay (ironically, my relatives corresponded with me, URGING me to get back into Syria!). Upon returning to Syria (the only way in and out of Lebanon by land), I visited a Christian monastery (yes, an active one - one of two I visited in Syria, not counting a ruined third) and a Roman complex at Bosra (not the more infamous Bosra), before journeying on to Jordan and points beyond.

Upon returning to the United States, I urged whoever would listen to visit Syria, as soon as possible. The potential for the country to become a tourist magnet a la Jordan (Petra) is undeniably there. The infrastructure is surprisingly good, the people are easily the friendliest in the region (and can hold their own with the Filipinos as some of the friendliest in the world), and the "tourist destinations" are unique and exhilarating. And did I mention that it is SAFE? I for one plan to return to the country with my future children.

If that sounds outlandish, reckless, or just plain stupid... you haven't been there.

To confirm that my sentiment towards Syria isn't unique, Diane Sawyer's recent visit to Damascus brought much-needed American attention to Syria's attributes. While there were occasional moments of sappy condescension (as when she visited a restaurant and gushed over each and every dish), I found it reassuring that she was able to dispel many of the preconceptions against Syria, using her credibility and interviewing talents.

If you visit Syria...

  • Make sure your passport does NOT have any evidence of travel to Israel (aka "Occupied Palestine"). If you HAVE been, get a new passport, and lie on the visa application (if you say "Yes, I've been to Occupied Palestine," you will be forever barred from visiting Syria - at least until the countries establish peace). NOTE = a land border crossing with Egypt is as bad as an Israeli stamp. It's best to go north to south, as I did, if you plan to visit Israel. Final note - the Israelis will hold you for 3 hours at their border if they see you've been to Syria or Lebanon. Bring a book, and tell them to go to hell if they say you shouldn't go to Syria.

  • If you are going to Lebanon (which I recommend, though with some caveats), make sure your Syrian visa is DOUBLE ENTRY. It should not come as an extra charge. I requested a dual entry visa, was assured I would get a dual entry visa, but when all was said and done, I did NOT have a dual entry visa... and was forced to wait at the border upon reentry to Syria. Still got back in, but it was not worth the hassle. I really cannot stress this enough.

  • Remember that Syrians are accutely aware of how they are perceived in the world. You would be wise NOT to refer to their country as part of the "Axis of Evil."

  • Don't insult Bashar al-Assad. As a foreigner, you'll probably be ok in the eyes of the law, but it's just plain rude - most people are quite pleased that he is president.

  • If you're American, you will be welcome in Syria - you don't need to hide your nationality. Saying you are Canadian when you are not is understandable, but ridiculous at the same time... and since lying is not condoned by religious people (most Syrians are religious), you risk being offensive if you are found out.

  • If you're American, AND you support George W. Bush, expect to have your sentiments firmly offended... though you will be free from actual harm. But then again, you're probably not likely to be in Syria anyhow.

  • Eat at Beit Jabri. Stay at least one night in Hama. Learn some Arabic... bouzal means ice cream!

  • If you're an English speaker (which you are, since you're reading this), you MUST locate Charlie at the bus station in Damascus. Just ask for Charlie - everyone knows him (he also has just one leg, if that helps). He speaks fluent English, but with a Chicagoan accent - testament to the man that taught him. And please get video - my single biggest regret of my travels is that I didn't videotape him speaking.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dustin's Blog Introduction and Manifesto

Hello, and welcome to my blog - and my initial post! Here at Blah Blah Blog - Dustin at Large, I plan to espouse my cherished opinions and insights as a mid-20s-male-Northern-Californian, as well as recount my various (mis)adventures to whomever will listen... as the muse strikes me, or when I'm just plain bored.

A short list of topics that I hope to address:
  • Orthodox Christianity (my 1st religion)
  • San Jose Sharks and hockey (my, um, 2nd religion)
  • New York Yankees (my dad's religion, which I inherited) and the American League
  • San Francisco Giants and the National League (um, starting to become a non-believer...)
  • TRAVEL (international and domestic, popular and outlandish)
  • Music (rock concerts, classical symphonies, and the best of recorded music)
  • Photography
  • Cinema (artsy-fartsy and mainstream)
  • Literature and writing
  • Language and linguistics (I'm nerdish like that)
  • Geography (see above)
  • Politics (hey, it's an election year... but isn't it always?)
  • Northern California (for better or worse - but I like it better than the other half of the state!)
  • Family, friends, and passer-bys (that means you!)

Stay tuned for more posts!