31 January 2016

New Years' Greetings 2016

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

"Happy familes are all alike, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way."

As you may know, those two quotes are the opening lines of two of the greatest novels of all time, Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (or at least, how I remember them). I’m starting this year’s annual update with these two acts of plagiarism because it’s been difficult to find my own words to describe my 2015, or to explain why I’m so late in getting my update out this year, and both seemed to capture that reasonably well.

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that 2015 was the most significant year of my life to date. Most of you know me as someone who lives life pretty full on, but I think I think I managed to ramp it up a notch or 12 in 2015:

  1. Got engaged for the first time
  2. Finally reached the travel milestone of visiting more than 100 countries or territories
  3. Partook in an Ayahuasca ceremony with a shaman in Ecuador, resulting (amongst other things) in me having a conversation with my grandmother as a 14-year-old girl
  4. Smoked my first cigarette in 10 years
  5. Lost my job
  6. Lost 17 kilos
  7. Lost my Dad to cancer
  8. Drove my Land Rover from Qatar to the Czech Republic, in the process becoming the first American to be permitted to enter Iran with their own vehicle since 1979
  9. Visited South America for the first time since 1979
  10. Got a tattoo for the first time
  11. Obtained a visa with forged documents for the first time
  12. Bought an ‘Aloha’ shirt for myself for the first time
  13. Did yoga for the first time
  14. Drank Absinthe for the first time
  15. Watched Keeping Up With the Kardashians for the first time
  16. Voted for a Presidential candidate I am genuinely excited about for the first time (mailed in my absentee ballot for the New Hampshire primary in December)

So I’ve had few dull moments, and much to be grateful for, but my year ended badly, with my fiancé and I breaking up in a particularly nasty way on Christmas. We didn’t do anything in that relationship half-way. I’ve been trying to emerge from the subsequent depression ever since — feeling better now, particularly as my ex and I recently managed to find a way to apologise to and forgive each other for the things we said and did in our worst moments, but still have a long ways to go. So, hence my tardiness in getting my annual update out — they say there’s a woman behind every successful man, but there’s a woman involved in a lot of our failures as well.

It’s still painful for me to think about the relationship, but of course a little bit difficult to talk about 2015 without talking about it. But before I get into that, a little context. After finishing yet another routine day at my corporate job in the strategy department at Ooredoo Group in Doha on 11th March last year, I was about to go to bed when I got a somewhat breathless call from an ex-girlfriend. “Did you read my email?” she asked. I hadn’t.

“Read it now” she insisted. I dutifully opened her mail, which had a link to a horoscope. I can’t remember exactly what it said, something about Mars being up Uranus or something.

“Do you know what this means?” she asked

“No, I don’t. I was kind of thinking you might tell me.”

“Big changes are coming your way. BIG changes.”

“Anything I should do?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Fasten your seatbelt.”

Next morning I got up and got ready for work as usual. It happened to be my last day in the office before I was leaving on a long-planned two-week holiday, driving around Oman in my Land Rover, which I had christened “Mrs. Smith". I put on my shoes, grabbed my laptop bag, and had my hand on the front door knob, preparing to head out the door and drive to the office. Just at that moment, an unexplained but irresistible urge came over me. I set my laptop down, fired up the stereo and danced around my living room in my suit while blasting Bon Jovi’s “Going Down in a Blaze of Glory.” When the song was over I left the house and drove into work.

I arrived at the office precisely on time, and my boss was waiting for me. He pulled me into a conference room. Along with some colleagues from Finance and Operations, I had been advocating to senior management for some weeks that our organisation was over-staffed. Apparently, our message finally found receptive ears, as 24 of us were being let go, including myself. No better time to start a holiday.

My ex-fiancé and I met in late 2014, and in January, I invited her to join me on the Oman trip, and she agreed to meet me in Dubai. Seeing her for the first time at DXB passenger arrivals, my head started swimming. She walked up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Hi” she said. The swimming turned to spinning, the spinning into falling…falling into the most incredible pair of green eyes I’ve ever looked into. I was hooked. I was cooked. I was toast. Stick a fork in me, I was a well-done roast. “Hi” I croaked in return.

Our trip to Oman was incredible — it’s long been one of my favourite destinations and I had been repeatedly planning and postponing this trip every spring for several years, as I also repeatedly failed to finish all the modifications to the Land Rover I had been working on in time. Finally, though, the vehicle was ready, or almost. I spent the Christmas Day prior to our trip installing the new roof rack I had ordered from South Africa almost 2 years previously. Installed and wired up new driving lights. Installed a remote tyre pressure monitoring system, a GPS, inclinometer, two retractable awnings, a gas bottle holder and a rack for the sand tracks. Put in a new external storage compartment for the recovery gear, and a secure lock-box for valuables. I spent my three previous Doha winters doing numerous other modifications — putting in a fridge, a shelf for the cooker, a drawer system to hold all the gear, a water tank, water heater, water pump and shower, on-board 230 volt AC power, a solar panel, a secure charging station for all the electronics, a GPS tracker and remote immobiliser, a long-range fuel tank, and a battery charger. A few days before I was due to leave, a crack in a fuel line left diesel leaking from my tank. I also had air leaking from one of the valve stems, the result of a cracked rubber washer. I urgently ordered a replacement fuel line from the UK. I rang up the valve manufacturer in Taiwan and asked for new valves and washers. The guys in the UK promptly got the fuel line on its way via DHL. The guys in Taiwan said they could only send it regular post. That was on Monday. On Wednesday, incredibly, Qatar Post delivered a packet to me from Taiwan containing the new washers. On Thursday, I picked up the fuel line from DHL. I was departing for Oman on Friday. Installed the replacements on Friday morning, spent the rest of the day loading the vehicle with clothing, camping gear, food and supplies, and set off for the Saudi border and Dubai.

We put both the vehicle and my modifications to the test soon after driving from Dubai to Musandam, in northern Oman, powering up rough tracks in the interior of this mountainous peninsula before setting up camp in a remote spot. Everything worked beautifully and our budding romance survived a night of heavy drinking (and subsequent powerful hangovers) and a heavy desert downpour. It wasn’t all ‘roughing it’ though — as we spent the next few nights at the Six Senses Zighy Bay resort, a five-star retreat built on an isolated beach on the other side of Musandam on the Indian Ocean. Before the year was over, we'd walked together on beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well, and shared adventures in a total of 10 countries on four continents. By the time we got to Muscat, less than a week after we met, we’d decided to commit ourselves to an exclusive relationship, on the condition I change the name of my vehicle. (S)he got a sex change (my Land Rover, that is, not my then-girlfriend) in the process, when I re-christened him “El Guapo”.

I had set off to meet her on Friday, the 13th of March, and after two incredible weeks in Oman, I dropped her back at the airport in Dubai on April Fool’s day. In retrospect, I suppose I should have taken that as a sign. Three weeks later, I flew to Boston to spend her 30th birthday with her. The day before, I bought the biggest diamond I could afford and proposed to her in the limo I rented for the evening. She said “yes.”

We rented a furnished flat in South Boston, where I spent a couple of weeks before heading back to Doha to pack up my stuff, settle my affairs and leave Qatar. Due to Department of Transportation requirements in the USA, it wouldn’t be possible for me to permanently export El Guapo to the USA, so I decided to bring him to Europe, at least for the time being. Shipping him of course would have been the sensible option, but that of course was reason enough for me to consider other alternatives, and in the end I decided that driving from Doha to the Czech Republic seemed an adequately insane alternative.

Over the following weeks, I did exactly that — driving from Doha through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and Slovakia before arriving at my destination in Bohemia in late August. Along the way, I became the first American to be permitted to travel through Iran in a private vehicle since the 1979 revolution, and probably the very first one ever to do so sporting an “Obama ’08” bumper sticker on the back. On my last day in the country, I joined crowds of Iranians in celebrating the announcement of the nuclear deal and an end to economic sanctions.

"El Guapo" and I in northern Iran

“El Guapo,” on the Iraq border, just about to become the first private American-owned vehicle permitted to enter Iran since 1979

Simultaneous with these travels, my Dad’s health was deteriorating rapidly. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before and had already well-outlived his original prognosis. Both my travels in the Middle East and my experiences around his death on 4th August are too much to try to summarise here, so I’ll instead refer you to the detailed accounts concerning both that I posted to my blog, which I know many of you have already read. The blog entries, in chronological order, are below:

28 June, Doha, getting ready to depart
29 June, Doha to Iraq
1 July, Iran-Iraq border crossing
2 July, Abadan
2 July, Abadan
3 July, Abadan-Shiraz
4 July, Shiraz
4 July, Shiraz
6 July, Shiraz-Isfahan
7 July, Tehran
11 July, Tehran
11 July, Tehran
12 July, Tehran
13 July, Tehran
14 July, Tabriz
16 July, Tabriz-Armenia
31 July, Tbilisi
1 August, Yerevan, Ann Arbor, Tbilisi
16 August, Ann Arbor, Batumi, Istanbul
31 August, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Prague

From Prague, my then-fiancé and I travelled to Ecuador, as part of our search for a permanent place to settle and start a family. Somewhere along the way, our relationship started to come unravelled, and after an earlier break-up and subsequent reconciliation in October, we ended things permanently and rather dramatically the day after Christmas, at her Mom’s house on Cape Cod. I have no regrets. I learned a lot. I am, with no exaggeration or disingenuousness, a very different person than I was a year ago. She brought magic into my life, and whilst I no longer have her, the magic has stayed with me. And I’m in Ecuador, bitches! In fact, I rented a very large house here, in anticipation of us returning here together, so as a consequence, I have two spare bedrooms with two beds each, so if any of you fancies a cheap holiday, the flights are cheap, living is cheaper, and you have a free place to stay. Bring your surfboard and wax (for your board, I mean).

But enough of all this! — I know by now what you guys want and I’m going to give it to you! Yes, it’s time to MAKE FUN OF REPUBLICANS! Sorry, I got nothing this year. Nothing. Really. Not because of my state of mind, but because I just don’t know where to start. Just how exactly does one satirise Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin? There’s nothing I can say about them that isn’t funnier than watching a news clip of any of them, except maybe watching a clip of them together. Ted Cruz? Well, he does wear mascara, apparently, and not sure why the lame-stream media refuses to talk about this (too distracted by Trump’s hair?), but other than that, I got nothing. Bush, Rubio and Carson on the other hand are impossible to caricature for other reasons, mostly that they don’t have any character. Rubio last gave us something we could laugh at when he took his awkward sip of water during his response to the SOTU address two years ago, but that one’s kind of been beaten to death. Christie’s declaration that he’d “get along” with King Hussein of Jordan, who died in 1998, appeared to be the only suggestion that any Republican saw room for diplomacy in dealing with the Middle East; otherwise the Republican debates seemed to consist mostly of the candidates trying to one-up each other over which of them would be in the biggest rush to start another war, and which of them planned to drop the most bombs on civilians and create the most terrorists.

So, that leaves us with the Democrats, or more specifically, the Democratic Establishment, which has changed its reasons for why we shouldn’t vote for Sanders more than Bush did in attempting to justify his invasion of Iraq. Initially, of course, the Establishment was contemptuously but unconcernedly dismissive, labelling his campaign as ‘Quixotic’ and expecting him to just go away. That approach doesn’t seem to have worked out so well, so the next line of defence was to declare he has “no experience.” Sanders of course noted that Hilary’s foreign policy “experience” consisted of voting for the disastrous, illegal war in Iraq that he voted against, but he should have also noted that with eight years as mayor of Burlington, 16 years as a congressman, and eight years as a Senator, he has about 3 years less experience governing than did both Clintons and Obama COMBINED at the time they ran for President. Next they tried floating the claim that his proposals are “unrealistic,” because the Republican Congress will never allow him to pass any of his proposals, but they will work with Hilary, because the Republican congress just LOVES her and can’t wait to get started co-operating with her! And remember – this isn’t Denmark! (no, that would be the country that has routinely taken one of the top 5 spots in nearly every index of human, social and economic development over the past 60 years, in rankings that typically put the USA somewhere around number 30, so why would we want to look to Denmark as an example?).

So today, as Iowa prepares to caucus, they’re trying to deploy their last, desperate firewall against the Sanders conflagration – he isn’t electable! (except that voters overwhelmingly view him as stronger against any potential Republican opponent than Hilary). Americans will never vote for a socialist! (except that they elected FDR six times). Voting for Bernie is the same as voting for Trump! (just as not donating to the ASPCA is the same as drowning a kitten).

Just as I was finishing writing the above paragraph, I received a news alert informing me that the New York Times editorial board has just endorsed Hilary Clinton as the Democratic Nominee. Just as they did in 2008. The Democratic Establishment seems no less capable of putting itself beyond satire than the Republicans.

We live in a weird world. I’ve had a weird year. No sign of things getting less weird any time soon, thankfully. I’ve started 2016 by learning to surf for the first time. I’ve met a new girl, with almost the same birthday as my ex (it seems the universe is just going to keep giving me Taurus girls until I learn how to deal with them). I got invited to join a new Singapore-based telecommunications consultancy being established by some of my former colleagues from Netcom Consultants, the Swedish consultancy I left in 2002, and am expecting to start some new assignments soon. “President Sanders” is not the impossibility it seemed a year ago. We’re seeing the words “police” and “accountability” in the same headlines. We have gay marriage in Kentucky. Marijuana legalisation is spreading. Full diplomatic relations with Cuba have been restored. Keystone XL is as dead as a child that drank municipal water in Flint. The Vanilla ISIS fruitcakes behind the faked Planned Parenthood ‘baby parts’ videos have been indicted, and Y’allQaeda, the guys who occupied a Federal wildlife refuge in Oregon have been arrested. The ‘Birthers’ who spent the last decade carrying on about how Obama’s pregnant mother managed to sneak on board an airplane to Kenya despite aviation regulations against flying in such a condition just so she could give birth to him in Kenya (whilst also having the foresight to create a false paper trail in Hawai’i, just in case he wanted to run for President in 45 years time) have been silent about that Canadian, Ted Cruz. Jeremy Corbyn has been elected Labour Party chair in the UK. Harper is out, Trudeau is in in Canada. Tony Abbot was forced to resign as PM in Australia. All weird. All good. Hope all of you are good as well.

With kind thoughts and good wishes for all of you,


30 January 2016

Montañita, Ecuador