Thursday, November 13, 2008

The MAGRUDY's Warehouse Sale. Don't miss it!

I'd written about their incredible sale last year. It's happening again this weekend.

Books from Dhs. 5. Oh joy!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Intrepid in Iran – On the road to Persepolis

Continued from Intrepid in Iran: Day 1 - Getting there

* Tall, stocky, blue eyes and impressive whiskers. That was Shaiky Bhai, our taxi driver, who spoke less than a dozen words in English, but who could expertly maneuver a vehicle with one male passenger in front, and 4 tightly wedged female passengers in the back. He convinced us to abandon our original plan of checking into our hotel and then going to the bazaars. “It’s Eid,” he told us in Farsi, “not a single shop will be open. It’s better if I take you to Persepolis instead.” Seeing the empty roads and shuttered shops en route to the city, we agreed to his plan.

* Ask me anything you want to know about Shiraz, Shaiky Bhai offered. I was keen to know if the famous Shiraz wine had any connection with the city. But when Heeba mentioned the word ‘sharaab’ (alcohol), even the unshakeable Shaiky Bhai sounded scandalized. Note to self (I jotted in my diary): 1. Avoid mention of alcohol while in Iran. 2. Consult online sources.

* We stopped at a restaurant before hitting Persepolis, and decided to sample some of the fine Iranian fare we’d heard so much about. Every single eye in the packed restaurant was on us as we entered. Did my headscarf slip? Is my costume ok? I did a rapid scan. All seemed fine. Then it struck us, that perhaps it was that invisible sign above our heads – TOURISTS AHOY! With our headscarves and tunics, I thought we’d done a good job of blending in, but the swivelling heads in the restaurant told us otherwise.

* We took off our shoes, positioned ourselves around the sofa bed, and waited to place our orders. Heeba had recommended the authentic Iranian stew. The waiter ruefully informed us – no stew, but do try the rice and kebabs. No problem, we thought, we still have 3 more days to try the stews. We piled our plates with juicy red tomatoes and pickled vegetables and waited. The rice and kebab dish turned out to be just that! Plain rice and grilled kebabs. The rice was flavoured with tiny stands of saffron and oodles of butter. It certainly was delicious (as all butter-laden fare usually is) but made one incredibly sluggish as well. The thought of catching a quick snooze on the sofa-bed was tempting, but we had a date with history.

* 512 B.C. 512 B.C! I couldn’t help marveling that I was standing amid ruins that were really that old. Even in its crumbling state, it seemed magnificent. Now known as Takht-e-Jamshid, Persepolis was originally built by Darius the Great and his heirs over a period of 150 years.

The walls still held exquisitely perfect etchings of humans, of beasts, of enchanting tableaus involving kings and visitors from exotic lands. Even the graffiti scribbled by vainglorious visitors had a certain aura, the oldest one dating back to the early 1800s.

Gaurav, Sonya and me climbed to the top of the mound where one of the emperors had been interred in a tomb. The view of the palace complex from the top was spectacular. If only we could watch the sun set over the ruins, we thought. But visiting hours were ‘8 – 17’ only, as the board at the entrance informed us.

* By the time we headed back to our vehicle, I was hot, tired and sorely uncomfortable. I had re-adjusted my headscarf at least 500 times, and I was one step away from itching my head like a primate. Compounding the discomfort was the dual layer of clothing I had donned. I couldn’t wait to reach the hotel and excavate myself from all of it.

Coming next: Mind your language

Friday, October 10, 2008

Intrepid in Iran: Day 1 - Getting there

* “I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you, but you’ll need to cover your head and your butt,” wrote Sonya in an email, a week before our proposed trip to Shiraz in Iran. I was about to mail a droll reply about how my low-rise jeans weren’t all that low, when she sent me a link to the dress code for tourists in Iran.

The idea of a dress code for tourists in itself seemed remarkable. And then the thought of wearing headscarves and full-sleeved, butt-covering tunics felt a bit archaic and chauvinistic, even. Gaurav, the sole male presence in our 5-member troop, attempted to console us by declaring, “I totally understand. Even I can’t wear my cutoff trousers.”

* Apparently, no one in Dubai covers their butts. I combed every store in Lamcy Plaza and could barely find a top long enough to disguise the (rather unmistakable) fact that I have a butt. I somehow managed to cobble together a wardrobe for the 4-day trip. But when I reached the airport, 4 pairs of eyes zeroed in on the two exposed inches of denim-clad gluteus maximus. When clenching or shirt-tugging didn’t work, Sonia pulled out the ‘emergency robe’. My first thought was that it looked like a bathrobe. But it did an admirable job of not only obscuring my posterior, but also every other non-linear shape neck below.

* “What happens if you don’t wear the proper attire in Iran,” I timidly asked Heeba, the American-born, Dubai-based Iranian in our group. “You go to jail,” she said, with utmost seriousness. “You must understand, it’s not a custom, it’s a law.” I pulled the bathrobe around me tighter.

Anachronistic, chauvinistic or whatever else Iran may be, I had made the choice to visit. And I didn’t have to agree with the rules, I decided. I just had to go along. So when the plane touched down at Shiraz International Airport, like every other female tourist on the flight, I patted my headscarf into place and disembarked.

* ‘Iranian Cultural Heritage Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation would be highly grateful if you could kindly fill the following form and hand it over to the officials’ – read the flimsy yellow flyer we were handed at the airport. One of the few perks of being an Indian travelling to Iran was the Visa On Arrival status. But this form seemed a bit too informal for an officious document.

Apparently, it was. On filling of yellow flyer, one was handed a handwritten slip with visa fees, which had to be paid at another counter, following which another more officious-looking form had to be filled and handed over along with passports for the visa to be processed.

“How much time?” we asked the polite but harried staff on duty. “One hour at least,” he said, with an excessive emphasis on the last two words. “Maybe they’ve never had so many tourists visiting,” whispered Heeba.

* I expected to see beady-eyed, long-bearded officials skulking around the airport, looking out for inappropriate attire or manners, but most of the staff – all male, incidentally – seemed unconcerned, a bit bored, even. They didn’t even raise an eyebrow when a gaggle of kids from the French tourists’ troupe proceeded to knock down the stands while playing a boisterous game of tag. A little reassured, I sank into the airport chairs and nodded off a bit.

Two hours later, and just seconds before the next international flight arrived into Shiraz, we were handed our passports and visas.

* WELCOME TO SHIRAZ, said the banner just above the exit.

Coming next: Day 1 - The ruins of Persepolis

Monday, October 06, 2008

Absolute Lee turns FIVE

5 years ago, on a slow day at work, I hopped onto the blogwagon. I picked the first name that came to my mind, 'Absolute Lee'. And since rediffblogs insisted on a tag line, picked the second thing that came to mind, 'About the girl-next-door with the mind as wicked as the boy-next-door'.

Unlike most blogs at that time, mine wasn't an online diary. Nor was it a place to vent feelings or other personal stuff. I was doing a writing course at that time, and Chapter 1 started with the injunction to write everyday. The blog seemed like the perfect place not just to explore writing but also to track my progress. The focus of the blog was on experiences, stories from everyday life. A quotidian chronicle, as one of the early blog friends described it.

I had started the blog when I was on a sabbatical from advertising, and was exploring a career in freelance writing. But when that didn't work out, and I hopped back into advertising, and moved to Dubai as well, the blog tagged along like a bit of excess baggage. I willed myself to keep it going through trying times. Even with long absences and lack of motivation, I couldn't bring myself to pull the plug, as it were. It was a comfortable place to come back to every now and then. And once in a while, I could even surprise myself by posting every day, like I did last August-September.

Recently, having joined a Writer's Group in Dubai and trying my hand at fiction, I find I enjoy it immensely. It's still raw and 'work-in-progress', but it's also stimulating and the feedback from the group is gratifying. Writing the blog all these years, has helped make the transition to fiction a lot easier, I feel. People in the Group comment about the 'voice' in my writing and one has even described it as 'creepy but endearing'. (Another way of saying girl-next-door mind as wicked etc.??)

Thanks all of you for being around, for your comments, and for making this a fun hangout.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

To Persia, and back

Over three years in the UAE, and until four days ago, I hadn't visited a single country in the Middle East. So when a couple of friends mentioned heading out to Iran during the long Eid break, I leaped at the opportunity.

We travelled to southwest Iran, to the city of Shiraz in the Fars province. And what a marvellous trip it was! Unlike anything I've ever done before (but then I say that about all my journeys.) Will post vignettes in the days to follow. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Atlantis, The Palm

It's hard not to be impressed by Atlantis at Palm Jumeirah. Driving down the trunk of the Palm with swank buildings on either side, you can see Atlantis looming ahead. By the time you've passed under the lofty arches and have reached the entrance, your imagination (mixed with a bit of buzz and hype) is in overdrive. And while projecting a nonchalant air on the outside, you're in fact a giddy schoolgirl inside, dying to get to class the next day and announce, "You'll never believe where I was yesterday!"

Three weeks ago, a fire broke out at Atlantis which started in the main lobby area, just above this glass sculpture. Although the resort opened as planned on September 24, you can still see signs of restoration (behind the black screens) and get a whiff of charred remains. Somehow this only adds to the aura of Atlantis. Unlike the fabled city which sunk overnight, the Palm Atlantis virtually rose from the ashes, in time to meet the public.

The souvenir store at Atlantis. Where you can come away with cuddly sharks and jolly jellyfish.

A glimpse of the ceiling. A nautical theme runs through the Atlantis, but it feels a bit uneven in parts. Something like The Little Mermaid meets the local fishmarket.

The entrance to the Lost Chamber. This was the best part of the entire Atlantis experience for me. (I haven't checked out the Aquaventure theme park and its 'Leap of Faith' ride yet.)

The last time I'd been mesmerised by aquatic life was when I was snorkelling in the Great Barrief Reef in Cairns, Australia. Nothing can ever compare to that sublime experience, but watching these beautiful creatures glide so blissfully, I couldn't help feeling that I could watch them for hours and still come away marvelling.

These fish reminded me of (what I know as) ladyfish, until they opened their mouth, and some membranes popped out, with the end result being rather comical.

Buttoned-down tuxedos. What the well-dressed fish are wearing.

The exquisitely graceful jellyfish. Beauty with bite.

And a few more...

You cannot appreciate the phrase, 'slippery as an eel', until you see this exhibit. My efforts to get an entire eel in a picture was repeatedly thwarted by their ceaseless darting through the enclosures.

You don't want to be alone at home with this critter. Nuff said.

The almost-genial looking piranas.

The little 'Nemos' or clownfish. I also spotted the rescued whale shark gliding majestically in one of the aquariums.

There's a better way, I discovered later, to experience this marine life, than running around the aquariums, gawking at the fish and pressing close to the 2-feet thick wall of glass.

The Lost Chambers Suites, on the other side of the glass wall, have the better view. But for sheer indulgence, there's nothing to beat the $25,000-a-night Bridge Suite replete with personal butlers and chefs, and a gold-leaf dining table.

Humans and nature or humans v/s nature - the debate raged in my mind as I drove back home. Environmentalists have been concerned, people have protested, and even the old nutjobs are ranting.

What really caught my eye when I was reading about the fabled city of Atlantis was this bit...
... there existed an island nation located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean populated by a noble and powerful race. The people of this land possessed great wealth thanks to the natural resources found throughout their island. The island was a center for trade and commerce.
...For generations the Atlanteans lived simple, virtuous lives. But slowly they began to change. Greed and power began to corrupt them....

...Soon, in one violent surge it was gone. The island of Atlantis, its people, and its memory were swallowed by the sea.

    Friday, September 26, 2008

    A moving experience

    One of the disadvantages of an open plan office seating is that eye contact can easily be made, and conversations can be carried out with someone seated 10 feet away without moving from one’s seat. Think 16 somewhat excitable people in such a setting. And for good measure, add the non-stop blare from a couple of computer speakers. For someone like me, who gets disturbed by the uproar caused by a falling pin, such a work environment can be quite non-conducive to work.

    So when, during the day, the decibel levels reach those of a shooting range, I head to the only quiet corner in the entire office – the women’s loo. In the tiny 3’ x 5’ space, sound recedes and focus returns. Scattered thoughts meld and sparks ignite. Now, if there was only a way to fit a computer and a net connection somehow…

    So it was a couple of days ago, that I headed to the ‘Thinking Room’ and sat on the only seat available. There was a brief to worked on, and the glimmer of an idea had been forming in the back of my head. I closed my eyes to allow it to take shape, unhindered by thought or movement. The stillness was almost perfect – within and without.

    And I began to feel a gentle vibration. Like something from deep within. I could feel it travel from my toes to my temples. Warm spirals of energy. This was an extremely rare experience. Something I’d only read or heard about. I had felt something milder during meditation, but for the first time, I could feel the vibrations so perceptibly. I felt I was on the brink of something momentous. Some great Universal Truths were being revealed to me. I felt connected to the Source and to living things everywhere.

    I emerged from Thinking Room, feeling energized and tranquil.

    A colleague passing by looked at me and with awe in his voice, asked, “Did you feel it?”

    “How did you know?” I asked, suddenly disoriented.

    “Apparently, it was a big one in Iran,” he said. “Almost 7.5 on the Richter scale.”

    Saturday, September 06, 2008

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Thinking aloud

    The trickiest part of taking a break from writing is finding the right words to break the silence. What if you've lost the ability? What if you trip over your own self-consciousness? Perhaps, these words would never have been written if I wasn't battling 'copywriter's block', and needed to empty out. In a way, cut a vein, and let it all bleed out.

    Intense, huh? But that's a pretty accurate word to describe life lately. Intense. Kilimanjaro was ticked off the list three months ago, but there are some bits of that experience that don't fit comfortably. And then there was the onerous exercise of moving house followed by the even more formidable task of setting up house. Again, intense. Some other changes too - people moving away, new priorities, new challenges. Too much 'new'.

    One of these days, we'll find that elusive balance. One of these days, we'll stop living inside our head. One of these days...

    Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Just did it!

    For all of you waiting with bated breath... WE MADE IT!

    All four of us reached the 'roof of Africa' on Saturday, 17 Feb at 8.45 a.m.

    We're all in different stages of recovery right now... Updates when we reach home.

    P.S. thanks for all your wishes, prayers, helpful tips and crossed fingers...

    Friday, January 18, 2008

    Breaking in the new hiking shoes...

    ...on the slopes of Jebel Jenas in Ras Al Khaimah. It's a moderately difficult 5-hour trek, say the good folks at Mountain Extreme.

    Moderate or difficult, we'll find out tomorrow.

    Update: The trek was both moderate and difficult. I could swear the incline was 75 degrees in places. And in places, following a goat track at the edge of the precipice was thrilling. But best was the silence, where you could hear even the flapping of a bird's wings... Pics and update will follow.

    Monday, January 14, 2008


    Thank you, Mr. George Bush!

    An unexpected holiday is always good news, except if you're heavily pregnant or if you work at a petrol pump, or if you happen to be wearing those 5-inch Manolos.

    M' assalamah Mr. Bush. Do come again... next week.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008

    Gear and now

    Also posted at The Kilimanjaro Blog

    Mountain of caravans, mountain of greatness, shining mountain - no one quite agrees on the real interpretation of 'Kilimanjaro'. But among the multiple meanings ascribed to it, my personal favourite is 'little white hill'.

    Little, indeed.

    But Kilimanjaro may well turn out to be a molehill as compared to the bigger problem I'm facing now - gear shopping. There are hardly any outdoor outfitters in Dubai, and the only two I've found - Columbia and Timberland - seem woefully inadequate.

    Sample conversation:

    Me: Do you have fleece jackets?

    Salesman: Yes, ma'am. Right here... (points to a row of sleeveless jackets)

    Me: Don't you have jackets with sleeves??

    Salesman: Ok, look in the children's section. You might get your size.

    If he didn't get advanced hypothermia from the look I gave him, I would be very surprised.

    It doesn't get easier when it comes to shopping for the right pair of boots. "Walk down a ramp to check that your toes don't get crushed," suggested Alpha.

    Not only were there no ramps in the store I went to, but even options were hard to come by. One pair of tenacious leather boots which would've shredded any toe that fell under it, and one pair of boots with Gore-tex fabric, which didn't inspire much confidence.

    All's not lost though. It turns out there's a store right down my street which stocks ski gear at almost throwaway prices. I've never understood their business model, but I'm not complaining right now. I've managed to get a few pairs of gloves and socks, and a fleece jacket or two.

    My final resort is to order gear from Alpha's friendly neighbourhood REI and get/request /implore/beseech Alpha to lug it to Nairobi.

    Wednesday, January 09, 2008

    Tying a shoelace is like Kilimanjaro, sometimes

    Until a few months ago, Kilimanjaro was a personal goal. Having been out of the trekking circuit for close to 3 years, it was a challenge to get back in shape to be able to do a high-altitude trek. But once the training got underway, an opportunity was presented to do more than achieve a personal milestone. And that was to raise awareness and funding for a cause that's close to my heart - Rheumatoid Arthritis.

    As some of you might know, my sister, Preeti, had Rheumatoid Arthritis for 7 long and painful years, until she succumbed to complications arising out of the illness almost three years ago. She was 32 years old. The last few years of her life saw her struggle to maintain her familar smiling face even as her joints got swollen and stiff, and her normal stride turned into an awkward limp. Activities that most of us do without even a second thought like jumping aboard a train or sitting cross legged or even raising an arm, fell under the list of movements deemed 'next to impossible' for her. Once, I watched with mounting dismay as it took her a full five minutes to take off a T-shirt and by then, she was panting and staggering with the effort.

    Rheumatoid Arthritis is like that. It's also chronic and indiscriminate, striking without any precedent. There's 7-year-old Mazhar*, I've come to know through the Emirates Arthritis Foundation, who's had Rheumatoid Arthritis for the past 2 years. Initially, when it took him almost an hour to get out of bed in the morning, his parents attributed it to laziness. It was only when he cried incessantly and complained of pain even when his mother hugged him, did they suspect something was amiss. Now, the 7-year old, with large, curious eyes, has to sit in the sidelines and watch as his friends play football. Some days it takes him an hour just to wear his shoes. He misses school frequently, and his parents fret that he's unusually moody and silent.

    Dr. Humeira Badshah, a rheumatologist with the Emirates Arthritis Foundation asserts that there are treatments that can control the disease, enabling patients like Mazhar to lead a life that's as normal as possible. Most patients respond well to the new treatments, and in time are able to return to school or to their jobs. The main deterrent however, is the cost.

    My goal is to raise Dhs. 40,000 (USD 11,000 approx.) for Mazhar's treatment. It's a steep figure, but then, at 19,340 feet, so is Kilimanjaro. In aspiring to one, I'm hoping this other goal will be accomplished as well.

    So here's a earnest plea to all of you reading this - if you can contribute a small amount, any amount, for Mazhar's treatment, it would be a huge help. If you can pass on this appeal to family or friends, it would help even more.

    You can contribute in cash, cheque or wire transfer. The team at Emirates Arthritis Foundation is also trying to set up an online payment option. Until then, if you would like to contribute, simply write to me - absoluteleela {at} gmail {dot} com. Or to Cathy Leibman, Director-Operations, Emirates Arthritis Foundation - cathy {at} arthritis {dot} ae

    I look forward to your generous support for Mazhar. Because a 7-year deserves to be in the playground, not on the sidelines.

    * name changed on request

    Thursday, January 03, 2008

    You know it's a new year when...

    ... you can't find a single empty treadmill at the gym.

    Long live resolutions.