Hajj: My journey in 2008AD / 1429AH

12:40pm 10th January 2009

Well hello there people. It's been a while since my last blog update. May of you may know that I recently went on Hajj. This blog entry will be an account of that journey, and there are also a bunch of photos available in the Hajj album.

The trip begins

The trip began with everyone meeting at Melbourne Airport. The group was mixed, some I knew well, others I'd only met in passing and many I had never met at all. It was an emotional farewell, many of us had not spent such a long time away from family, and the significance of the occasion to us seemed to elevate the emotions that everyone was feeling. We hugged our loved ones and wished each other well on the journey we were about to undertake. The flight to Singapore went smoothly, though I didn't manage to get any sleep, Not being tired, I spent the trip walking around getting to know my travel buddies.

When we arrived in Dubai, we had one day there to freshen up. We ate, napped and then our group leader made sure we all put on our ihram properly and prepared for the next leg of the journey. The flight to Jeddah was short, only about an hour, and when the aircraft was about to cross the Miquat we all read the dua and made our intention for entering into the proper state of ihram. This was the first part of the Hajj Tamattu, and we were all excited and looking forward to what was coming. Once we arrived in Saudi Arabia, we fell into the bureaucratic machine that is the Hujaj (visitors on Hajj) system. We passed passport control after about an hour of waiting in the terminal, and were then moved to the stage two waiting area where we endured around 8 hours before being cleared to board the bus. This time passed fairly easily, we all managed to get some sleep despite being in ihram and laden with our luggage. To be honest, I was expecting far worse.

Makkah and the first umrah

The bus ride to Makkah was pleasant. We stopped at a small Mosque for Fajr, where locals came and gave us dates and bottles of Zam Zam water. The locals all seemed very eager to provide services to visitors, and went out of their way to ensure that we were all taken care of. After arriving at our flats, we unpacked and settled in. The flats were modest, and we were sleeping 6 to 8 in a room. There was a small jamaat area on the ground floor where we made our salat, as well as an eating area where our meals were served. Our group was on the second floor. I liked the arrangement, the closeness with the rest of the group really encouraged us to get to know one another.

Soon after arriving at the flats, we had to make our way to the Masjid-al Haram to perform umrah as part of our Hajj Tamattu. The Haram itself is an enormous building, clad almost completely in marble. It is an imposing sight, both from far away and up close. I had visited Makkah before, but for many in the group, this was the first time they had seen the Ka'bah. Physically, it is a squat structure made from blocks of black granite quarried from the nearby hills and covered with a black cloth. To a non-Muslim, this would likely appear unimpressive, but to a Muslim who understands its significance, the spiritual impact of seeing it in reality is breathtaking, and I was no less awed seeing it this time than the first time.

After performing the rites of umrah, I returned with the group, now bare-headed, to the flats where we took off our ihram, showered, and freshened up. For me, the short period in ihram was like a trial run for the Hajj. Over the next few days we got used to the place, oriented ourselves with Makkah and spent time getting to know one another. One of the first things I did was go looking for shwarmas, as they were my favourite meal during my last visit back in 2000. I discovered, to my dismay, that all of the little stalls that I bought them from have been removed and the land around the Haram is being redeveloped into a complex of large hotels and shopping centres. I was also unable to find easy access to the Internet, the closest net café to our flats did not allow laptops. I had to ask around quite a long time before I found a place I could plug in my laptop and check my mail.

Hajj begins

The Hajj proper began a few days after arriving in Makkah. We all had showers, cleaned up thoroughly, and got ready for the journey, both in the physical sense by gathering the necessities, and in the spiritual sense by making our niyaat, extra salat as well as generally engaging in introspection and pondering the many benefits we hoped to derive from performing this holy rite and fulfilling a requirement of our religion. It was a sober preparation, and I personally was excited to be doing something that I had heard so many others talking about. I was also happy to have Mahmoud Kürkçu as our guide and group leader. I have always considered him to be a fantastic teacher, effective amir and close friend. It was also at his invitation that I came on the trip so my thanks go to him for giving me the little push that I needed in order to undertake this journey.

After leaving the flats, we arrived at the tents in Mina. I cannot describe the scale of the place, and no photo I can take would adequately capture it. I have no idea how many tents were there, but I am told that there are facilities for hosting up to 3 million people. The sea of tents stretched well out of sight. We unloaded from the bus, and moved to our designated tent number, only to find that it was already occupied. The officials moved us to another tent, which caused problems later when that tent's group showed up. They were moved elsewhere. I have no idea how the organizers managed to make the system work, but it seemed to be moving along fairly well. We settled in for the night, got out our sleeping bags had some quiet conversation and engaged in thikr and Qura'an reading. Being in Mina gave me a great sense of connectedness with the rest of the Muslim world. I met with some people from Senegal, and ate some dates and water with them. We also shared our tent with some brothers from France. Talking to all the people there from such a wide range of places really highlighted how diverse and yet united the Muslim world is. That same night in Mina there were nearly 2 million people, all there for the same reason, doing the exact same thing, thinking and feeling the same things. If only we, the Muslims of the world, could demonstrate such unity throughout the rest of the year, one can only imagine to what heights we as an ummah could soar.

The next morning we had to move 9km to Arafat. There was a bus, but many of the guys in my group, including myself, decided to walk it in order to get a small taste of what Hajj was like in centuries past. We gathered our belongings and started the hike. It was hot, probably over 30°C, but our ihram kept us cool. There was no shortage of water, as drinking fountains dotted the landscape, as well as food distribution points handing out meal packs which included things like date cookies, fruit juice and biscuits. The majority of people were walking, as buses were an expensive luxury that only those from comparatively wealthy nations were able to afford. For me, walking made the Hajj feel more like what I imagined Hajj would be like. Otherwise, it would have been just a few bus rides and sitting in tents. Yes, we engaged in extra thikr and Qura'an reading, but for me, the walk really pushed home the fact that I was in a different land, and that the journey I was on wasn't just another guided tour. The walk was reasonably easy, but when we got to Arafat we had a very difficult time finding the rest of the group. After all, there were 2 million people in the space of just a few square kilometers. Nonetheless, I am very glad I walked, and if I have the chance to go on Hajj again, I will definitely be doing as much of the distance on foot as possible إن شاء الله.

After the day of prayer at Arafat, we boarded a bus to take us to spend the night at Muzdalifah. This area had very few facilities, with only a few ablution blocks scattered around. Our supplies and water were running low, so we were all hungry and thirsty by the next morning. The girls managed to gather together the last of what we had and made sandwiches for everyone, and a supply truck dropped off some crates of bottled water. We packed up our bags but left the sleeping gear there. After Hajj, the area is scavenged by bedouins and poor people who collect anything of value, picking the place cleaner than any cleaning crew. We collected our rocks for use at the Jamarat, and headed back to our flats.

The Jamarat consists of three spots about 100 meters apart where pilgrims have to throw stones, symbolically stoning Shaytan the devil and expressing rejection of all of the undesirable aspects of ourselves such as greed, hatred and other sources of vice. This is the spot where Prophet Ibrahim was tempted by the Shaytan to disobey Allah. Rather than listening to him, he threw stones to indicate his refusal to be led astray, and pilgrims re-enact this to symbolise their own desire to cleanse themselves of disobedience.

We did it over 4 days. As our flats were in the Mina area, we were obliged to do it every day until we left. The Jamarat was a deeply spiritual experience. The physical act of throwing stones is supposed to translate into an internal desire to reject disobedience and sin. I don't know if I have the necessary willpower to convert the symbolic act of aggression into the complete rejection of wrongdoing, but I hope that Allah helps me improve myself and gives me a greater strength in the perpetual jihad against spiritual impurity إن شاء الله.

The Jamarat is where, in recent years, there have been people killed by crowd trampling. After going there, it is easy to see how. There are three spots where, in the space of 24 hours, 2 million people have to get within a few meters of. Imagining such large numbers of people in such a small space is difficult, and I can easily see how the crowd quickly becomes unmanageable. The problem, however, seems to have been solved. There are now ramps which ensure that the crowd only moves in one direction, rather than in and out from all directions. The ramps are enormous, 50 meters wide, and moving in a large loop, so the crowd comes in, moves past the Jamarat spots on both sides, and then goes on back to Makkah. The Jamarat spots themselves, which used to be small pillars, are now walls, around 20 meters long, running parallel to the crowd movement and in the centre of the ramps, which allow a large number of people on each side to approach at once. It is easy to approach and throw at leisure, whereas in past years getting within throwing range was difficult and many people had to throw from behind others, a practice which inevitably resulted in accidents. In addition to the ramp arrangement, there are multiple levels, stacked on top of each other. The Jamarat walls extend upwards through the levels, and the crowd is directed to move to whichever ramp is currently least crowded. The Jamarat now has capacity to handle crowds far larger than before. So large, I think, that when the Jamarat is finished, it will never be crowded again as bottlenecks elsewhere in the Hajj infrastructure, most notably the Haram itself, still limit the number that can be accommodated for the whole Hajj event.

Rags to riches; Moving to Zam Zam Towers

On the fourth day, we left the flats after performing our final Jamarat stoning and moved to our next stop; Zam Zam Towers. It is a luxurious five star hotel immediately outside the Haram and right next to the well-known Hilton building. The bottom 5 levels of the complex is a high class shopping centre, and the hotel is on floors above. This made getting into and out of the hotel annoyingly difficult, as one has to navigate the shopping centre, get into the special lifts, go up to the hotel lobby, and then take another set of lifts up to your rooms. This is an implementation of the design referred to by many US construction companies as Sky Lobby. However, it was badly executed, and the overall building design left much to be desired. Due to the poor floor plans, getting between the building's front door and your room could take upwards of 10 minutes.

The hotel itself was new and extravagantly designed. Constructed 2 years ago, it is the most expensive and luxurious hotel in Makkah. The management and staff were still getting their routines in order, so room cleaning and service levels were erratic, but overall, the experience was what one would expect from such an expensive establishment. The food was lavish, with daily buffets featuring an enormous range of well prepared, well presented dishes including appetisers and desserts.

Personally, I found it uncomfortable. I don't like such opulence, having always preferred to travel light and cheap to maximise the contact I have with the rest of humanity. Sitting in an expensive hotel, eating expensive food and being served by an army of imported labourers does not facilitate interaction with others. Worse yet, such extravagance detracts from one of the main goals of Hajj; namely, to concentrate on one's spirituality and disregard the physical self, even if only for a short while. While on Hajj, we wear ihram, and part of its purpose is ensuring that everyone ignores their physical state and also to highlight the equality of people before Allah. There is nothing more ironic than seeing a person in ihram standing in the lobby of a hotel where the nightly rate is above what three quarters of the world's population earns in a year. My view on luxury is that, at least for the Hajj season, all visitors should be equal. If we, people from the first world, cannot once in our lifetimes give up our luxury for the purpose of connecting with our fellow Muslims and demonstrating our awareness that we are all equal in the sight of Allah, then I feel that we have lost an important part of what it means to be Muslim. Perhaps we should look to people from poorer countries for guidance on this matter rather than arrogantly trying to "modernize" them.

Makkah is a buzz of development. All around the Haram are brand new buildings gleaming in the desert sun, most of which are only a few years old. This development is being carried out under the supervision of the Saudi royal family. Prices of everything from buses to visa applications are going up, and all the land in the immediate vicinity of the Haram is being redeveloped into expensive high rise hotels and shopping centres. Personally, I feel that the Saudi regime is destroying the Hajj and the sanctity of the holy sites. I met a man from Kenya, who said that already the Hajj prices were such that people from his country were having difficulty affording the trip. Everything from accommodation to food to transport costs were becoming more expensive, and there is no sign that the Saudi government is concerned about the welfare of the Hujaj as opposed to the profitability of the Hajj season.

The stay in Zam Zam Towers was, however, pleasant. We were scattered around the building, meaning that that close physical proximity that we had in the flats was lost, but many of the group preferred the greater creature comforts on offer. I made all but three of the salats of the stay in the Haram, and spent much of my time there reflecting and making thikr. It was a greatly enriching spiritual experience, as the physical proximity of the Ka'bah helped keep my mind focussed on striving for spiritual nearness to Allah. I hope that I have the opportunity to make the journey again, and owe great thanks to the group leader, Mahmoud Kürkçu for inviting me on the trip. Without his encouragement it is doubtful that I would have come.

One of the trips we made while in Makkah was to Jabal Noor, the mountain where the first contact between Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and the angel Jibreel occurred, and the first verse of the Qura'an was transmitted. The mountain has no special significance in Islam, however it was still a great experience being able to walk up the same mountain and go to the same spot where Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) must have sat. We took a minibus to the base of the mountain and then walked up the trail to the summit. It was good going during the night, as the heat of day would have made progress up the slope very difficult. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit, and we spent about a half hour there taking photos and relaxing.

Towards the end of the stay in Makkah, I went with a few of the other guys in the group to perform an extra umrah. The closest miqat border was a place called the Masjid-al Aisha. When Aisha (رضي الله عنه) was traveling to Makkah with Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم), she was unable to enter ihram upon arrival. A few days later, when she was ready, Rasulullah sent her with a mahram to a place where he instructed her to enter into ihram and then perform her umrah. A masjid was built at this place, which is now known as Masjid-al Aisha, and this is considered a miqat area for the purpose of entering into ihram. So, on the last night of our stay, a few of the guys and I put on our ihram, went to this masjid and performed umrah. The masjid features a very modern and elegant design. It was night time and the lighting was poor, which meant that I was unable to take a photo, but I am sure that there are many photos on the Internet that one can find. I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Makkah the performance of an umrah from this masjid. The whole umrah from start to finish when using this spot as a miqat takes less than two hours from the making of intention for ihram to the cutting of the hair.

Onward to Medina

The next morning we packed our luggage and boarded a bus which was to take us to Medina for 8 days of visiting and tours. The journey took about 9 hours with breaks and a checkpoint clearance. It was a comfortable and pleasant ride. We were staying at the Mövenpick hotel just on the north west corner of Masjid-al Nabawi. According to a hadith, it is highly meritorious for a visitor to make 40 salat in this masjid without skipping any. We intended to do this, and to my knowledge, everyone in the group managed to make all 40 in a row. Medina was a great experience. Mahmoud spent a long time showing us many places in the area, taking great care to ensure that we all got at least a brief introduction to the historical significance of each site that we visited. The places included the site of the battle of Uhud, Masjid Quba and of course, the sites within what is now Masjid-al Nabawi. Visiting the tomb of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was a deeply emotional experience, and visiting it and indeed spending time getting to know Medina should be a part of every Hajj trip.

Personally, I enjoyed the Medina stay far more than I enjoyed the Makkah stay. The people in Medina were far more friendly and warm, the available food on the street was of a far higher quality (although the hotel food was just as opulent) and the place generally felt less mercantile. In future Hajj trips, I would probably prefer to shorten the Makkah part and lengthen the Medina part. My favourite foods were shwarmas from a particular shop on the east side of the north row facing Masjid-al Nabawi, and ta'mia. I've always liked local food over hotel food, and while the local food shops are obviously being replaced by the 5 star facilities that the Saudi government is encouraging, there were still ample opportunities for the good food hunter to find authentic local food. There was also a far greater sense of history. In Makkah, virtually all of the old buildings had been torn down and replaced, in Medina however, one did not have to walk far to find buildings that were 100 years old or more. I made the effort to talk to the locals, and the prevailing view seemed to be that they favoured the simple lifestyle that Medina offered, and were glad that, aside from the development of the area around Masjid-al Nabawi, the city remained fairly untouched by the inroads that westernization had made into the rest of the country.

One of the most memorable experiences for me was the night that we went to visit the site of the battle of Uhud. A few days before, we'd been to the spot where visitors often go, but we went again one night, when the officials were not watching, so that we could climb the mountain to see the cave where Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions retreated to after the battle had turned. The mountain itself has had housing built right up to its foot, and there are now small dwellings within a stone's throw of the cave itself, only a short climb up the slope. After navigating the slope, we entered the cave, really just a rocky niche, and sat in the same spot where they sat after the battle was over. This was not allowed by the officials, and we had to be on the lookout for police cars. This small re-tracing of the actual steps of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was an exciting experience for me, and I am very glad that we had the opportunity to do it. Knowing that we were sitting on the very same rocks in the very same place that Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions sat in over 1,400 years ago gave us a heightened sense of nearness to our Prophet, helping to overcome the chasm created by distance and time that separates us from him and his guidance for most of our lives in Australia. Were I to get the chance to go back to Medina, I would spend even more time going to as many original sites like this to try to more firmly establish a strong spiritual and emotional link with the life and times of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions.

The sad farewell

On the ninth day after arriving in Medina, it was time to leave. After the moving experiences of staying among the people of Makkah and Medina as well as being in the place where our religion was born, I was sad to leave, and, Allah willing, hope to return. The trip home involved taking a bus to Medina airport, then a plane to Jeddah and another to Dubai. We spent a night in Dubai, and then we all went our separate ways. Overall, I don't think that there was a single person in our group who did not have an excellent experience. We all owe Mahmoud a big thanks for being such an excellent guide for the journey, and I hope I get a chance to travel with him again at some point إن شاء الله, perhaps to perform another Hajj. For me, the journey was a deeply spiritual one, and I hope that I am able to implement the changes in my life that are needed for me to become a person and a better Muslim. I would also encourage any Muslim who is reading this and who has not yet done their Hajj to make an effort to do it as soon as possible. It really is an experience that cannot be described in words, and I hope that my feeble attempt to communicate the events of my journey do not in any way diminish the true value of Hajj.

So there you have it. My experience with Hajj 2008AD, or 1429AH. I do apologize for not having this entry ready sooner, but better late then never. If you haven't already, head over to my gallery and check out the photos from the Hajj album.

Home, out, and home again.

2:27am 17th May 2008

So, since I came back from the Pai CouchSurfing collective, quite a bit has happened. We installed a fingerprint lock on our front door in response to the total mess that was the Gassiep family key management procedure, and I am pleased to report that it has been a total success. I have enrolled two fingers of each family member into the lock, and nobody has been locked out since. Furthermore, there's no more rummaging for Mum who has a handbag like the Tardis, or trying five different keys for Dad who refuses to cull his keyring which must have at least 50 keys on it. The model we have is the FA6600 and I highly recommend these units. They're easy to use, solidly built compared to standard front door latches and seem to have very good fingerprint reading capabilities.

Since then I've been overseas again, I visited friends and family in South Africa as well as making a stop off in Thailand to do another unit of training in Scuba diving. I've just returned home today. While in South Africa I stayed at my Aunt's place in Johannesburg, which is always a pleasant holiday. I accompanied my mother there, and we took Zayd there to meet my cousin's kids. He had a great time, he doesn't get a whole lot of family contact here in Australia, as there just aren't that many kids here that he can relate to at his own level. It was also great seeing everyone there, I haven't been in about 18 months. I didn't stay there for very long, and didn't get to catch up with as many of the people there that I would have like to, sorry if you're one of them!

On my way back I met Gemmell in Thailand, where we completed the next level of PADI diver training, Emergency First Responder and Rescue Diver. These two units are the last ones we needed to do in order to go into professional diving, and the last one before Master Scuba Diver, which is the highest qualification outside of professional diving. In order to get the Master Diver qualification we need to be supervised for 5 specialties. We've already done the first dive for our chosen ones the last time we were in Thailand, we just need to get them logged, and then ensure that we have 50 logged dives in total. In other words, we just need to get some dives logged, and we're there.

So now I'm back at home. I have a few things that I'm working on, including Twerl. Oh well, back to the grindstone again until I find an excuse to flee the country again. I'm thinking of doing some winter dives here in Melbourne so I have an excuse to try out the dry suit that I bought from my first instructor in Thailand. I've never used it, as I've not done any diving in water cold enough to need it. I'll keep you all updated on how that goes, so watch this space! Naz out.

CSCT2k8: Pai, Thailand

2:55am 3rd March 2008

So it's been a while since I last updated my blog. Apologies to all. I will try to summarise the last month as best I can.

I arrived in Thailand on the 10th Feb to work with the admin/tech team of CouchSurfing.com. Having landed in Bangkok, I took a domestic flight up to Chiang Mai. As luck would have it, I arrived on a Sunday, just in time for the Sunday Night market. I decided to delay a night here to sample the sights and sounds of this town that I have never been to. Chiang Mai is an ancient city that used to be the capital of one of the northern Siamese kingdoms. Founded around 1296 by King Mengrai, it was originally named Nopphaburi Si Nakhonping Chiangmai. After being captured by the Burmese, it was finally incorporated into Thailand in 1774 when King Thaksin recaptured the area that is now Chiang Mai province. Since then Chaing Mai has become an important local economic hub in northern Thailand, where locals come to engage in trade and work. It is also an important destination in the Thai tourism industry. It is a fascinating city, and I highly recommend that any visitor to Thailand make the effort to visit it.

I arrived in Pai on the 10th Feb. Weston and John met me at the bus stop after a long, stomach churning minibus ride down a windy road driven by a maniacal driver. I immediaely hired a motorbike to get around town, as there are no taxis or other forms of public transport. I spent the first day exploring the area in and around Pai, and taking lots of photos. I haven't uploaded them yet, but if you check the gallery soon they'll be there, as soon as I get to a fast internet connection. It is an incredibly serene piece of countryside, lush with vegetation. I have taken many photos of this trip, all of which are available in my Twerl gallery.

There are many rural villages nearby where the tribes people live very traditional lives, more or less untouched by the dramatic social changes modernity brings. Pai, on the other hand, is a whole different story. It was clearly conquered long ago by armies of backpackers searching for authentic foreign experiences. While not westernised in the almost tasteless manner that Phuket or Koh Samui have been, Pai has been transformed by the many people travelling through it. All the foreigners there say how they prefer the authentic experience that Pai represents, which has taught me something fundamental about how societies interact; they cannot see reflections of themselves in others, they only see the differences. This may seem obvious, but in Pai, this property of human behaviour was demonstrated to me from the reverse angle; Instead of looking at another society and searching for something familiar as most people do, the travellers to Pai are looking for something different, they want the "authentic Thai experience". Over the years, Pai changed. Its society re-modelled itself to suit the backpackers flowing through it. The economy changed from selling farming tools and produce to selling handicrafts and souvenirs, the primary wealth generating activity changed from producing goods and trading them in nearby Chiang Mai to service based endeavours catering for their guests. The fact that the ex-pats living there did not recognise this and insisted that Pai represented "Thainess" as opposed to the regular tourist traps illustrates to me that they were unable to see those parts of themselves that were being imbibed by the locals, they only saw the differences that remained, which kept them believing that Pai was still truly authentically Thai. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad thing, Pai has retained a very pleasant, highly social community spirit, with local townspeople, foreigners and nearby Lesu tribe members mixing together in as close to perfect harmony as one will see on 21st century Earth. I merely make the point that this demonstrates the truism that observation without intervention is impossible. Backpackers are famous for their low-impact travel nature, they strive to leave as few footprints as they can and assimilate into the places that they go as invisibly as possible. However, Pai is an example of the ultimate impossibility of this effort. It is a macroscopic societal manifestation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The backpackers' money is the metaphorical photon to the the momentum of the local economy's particle, and I feel that this very interaction, this cross osmosis of human experience, ultimately enriches the lives of everybody it touches. Economically, fair trade always results in net gains to both sides. So too in societies; respectful trade in ideas, experiences and knowledge allows all who engage in it to gain from their expanded pool of wisdom.

The CouchSurfing collective was for me quite productive. While I did not get as much real coding done as I would have liked, interacting with the rest of the ream and meeting the other people who up until then I had only known by reputation or by email was great. The CouchSurfing team are great people, with a wonderful sense of common purpose and a genuine desire to have a positive impact upon the world. If only more groups could look past their implementational disagreements and concentrate on a shared vision, then there would be far more positive results from human interaction. Great work guys, I look forward to working with you in the future.

One story worth telling was the tale of The Nameless Cat. While on one of my exploration trips, I came across a cat starving and near death. Given its distance from any livable area and the fact that it was obviously highly domesticated, I could only conclude that it had been dumped as a nuisance cat by an annoyed ex-owner. Being the animal lover that I am, I bundled it up in my shirt and took it back into town. I must have looked a little odd, being topless with a half-dead cat wrapped up in the bike's basket. We got back to the Mango Tree (the main guest house where we all worked) and gave her some water. It seemed, however, that she was unable to drink. I went back into town to fetch some chloromycetin drops, syringes and latex gloves. John helped me wash her up, put some drops in her eyes which were caked over with dry sticky secretions and syringed some water down her throat. We attempted to feed her, but she wasn't interested. We decided to let her rest, and give her fluids every few hours until she got her strength back. She responded very well to handling, purring very strongly and seemed to welcome the syringed water. Unfortunately however, she just wouldn't eat. More disturbingly, maggots appeared at her nostrils and mouth. We spoke to a local vet, who suggested killing it with a shovel. I decided to get a second opinion. I took some photos and called an emergency centre in Australia who gave me some care advice. After assessing the photos, it was decided that the most likely result would unfortunately be euthanasia. I had neither the time nor the resources to give the cat the several weeks of intensive care that would be required to give it a chance, and even that would be a slim chance. The only other option was to put the cat back where I found it, which would only prolong her misery. We decided to wait and see what happened. 24 hours later, she was still unable or unwilling to eat, which, along with the ever-present maggots, was an indication that her condition was unlikely to improve. We euthanised her that day, using carbon monoxide asphyxiation, as it was the only non-violent means available to us. We buried her under a tree.

CouchSurfing was nice enough to pay for a collective outing to go bamboo rafting and elephant riding. It was great fun, we all got to float down the river on bamboo rafts, and then ride elephants. I really enjoyed the rafting, but the elephant riding was a bit boring. I enjoyed it for about 15 minutes, and then I realised just how slow the things moved, and just how hard their backbones were. I had a sore butt by the time we had to get off. Afterwards I sat in a hot spring that smelled of sulphur, which was great, as I was starting to get bad gas due to stomach problems.

Now I have not vomited since I was in primary school. However, during the course of the collective, I got such a bad bout of food poisoning that I vomited every hour one night. I was much better the morning after though, the whole episode lasted about 12 hours only, thankfully, with only minor belching issues for a few days thereafter.

After about 3 weeks I decided that it was time to leave the collective. I left with a friend of mine named Diamond from London, and headed down south for some sun and sand. We stayed in Koh Lanta for 3 days, which was absolutely stunning. The Thai south is beautiful, and I'm just sad I didn't spend a few more days there, as I didn't manage to get any scuba diving in. After that, I jumped on a plane for home, which brings us to the present. I hope you're not all too upset with me for keeping you in the dark, I'll do my best to update more often. Until the next time folks!

Loi Kratong (ลอยกระทง) 2007

7:14pm 23rd November 2007

So, after 7 visits to Thailand, I've finally seen the famous Loi Kratong (ลอยกระทง) festival. Loi Kratong is an annual Thai traditional festival that has come to mean many things.

Rap and I went to a festival being held at what appeared to be a convention centre, where we ate traditional Thai food (although "European food" as available, apparently for the large number of foreigners present) and took photos of the fireworks and festivities. The fireworks show was particularly impressive, and I have some videos of a few minutes of it. Hundreds of khom lois, small paper hot air balloons, were also released, and the combined effect lit up the sky in a dazzlingly beautiful display of light and colour.

There was a show consisting of traditional Thai dancing as well as some spectacular theatrics including a dramatic rendition of a sword battle, where actors dressed in what I assume was traditional armour and battle gear enacted a battle scene. There was also much singing of the Loi Kratong song, a Thai song, which is translated as:

The full moon of the twelfth month As water fills the banks We, all men and women Have really good fun on Loy Krathong day Float, float the krathongs Float, float the krathongs And after we have floated our krathongs I invite you my dear To come out and dance Ramwong [traditional dance] on Loy Krathong Day Ramwong on Loy Krathong Day Good merit brings us happiness Good merit brings us happiness

The aspect of Loi Kratong that I find particularly beautiful is one of the symbols that the floating kratong itself represents; by setting a kratong afloat, Thais believe that they are releasing anger, bitterness, grudges, envy and other forms of spiritual vice. To symbolise this, they often leave a paring of hair or nails on the kratong, symbolically containing all those traits that they wish to rid themselves of.

One of the things I noted was the construction of the kratong. Being a bit of an environmental nut, the first thing I thought of when I saw the release of hundreds of these kratongs was about the huge amount of litter it must result in. When I finally got my hands on one of the mass produced kratongs I was pleasantly surprised to find it was constructed completely of highly biodegradable material. The raft basically consisted of a very low density waxed particle board which formed the "hull" of the float, on top of which floated a flower arrangement, a wax candle for burning, and some incense sticks. The whole thing would, in my estimation, break down completely in a matter of weeks. In the past, they were made of styrofoam, but I am pleased that more responsible methods of production have been adopted. Kratongs that are personally made are a different matter, and I haven't seen any of the huge ones that are floated by organisations or groups of people wishing to celebrate together. I've heard that such kratongs can be far more elaborate and I would hope that Buddhist traditions would make builders mindful of the impact that people can have on the world in which they live.

The dinner was being held one day before the official day of Loi Kratong, for reasons I was unable to determine. Despite this, many locals were in attendance. I am thrilled to have been able to be there and thank the Thai people for allowing me to attend one of their most intimate and beautiful cultural events.

Long overdue update

8:58am 8th November 2007

Well it's been a long time since my last entry, I don't have much time to write a whole lot so I'll make this a short summary.

After getting back from Brazil I was just grinding away at the usual work stuff. About a month later my family all left for a holiday in Bali and Thailand. I took my parents around Thailand which they loved, and then in Bali I took everyone on a scuba diving trip. All in all, the family holiday worked out as a roaring success, everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly and we've pretty much decided to do it again in January.

Since they left about a week ago, I've been travelling around Thailand with Rap going to places we haven't been to before and generally being travel bums. We've been to a small town called Chaiyaphum, which was quite nice. Nobody there spoke English, and we were given frequent curious looks by locals wondering what a couple of farangs were doing so far from the usual tourist trail. We just smiled back, said a quick "sawasdee kaap" obviously with funny accents as they usually giggled when we said it.

We've also been to Krabi. I've spent a day there and in Ao Nang checking out its suitability for the upcoming CouchSurfing Collective. From what I see, we won't have any issues. Internet access appears to be easy to source, with ADSL being available throughout the town and surrounding area, there's plenty of shopping (although I didn't see any of the large bargain markets like the ones in Bangkok and other major tourist spots) and finding things to do will be no trouble at all with rock climbing, scuba diving, jet skiing and a bunch of other cool things being very close and affordably priced. The local infrastructure is not as developed as in larger towns such as Phuket, Pattaya or Korat, but it's developed enough that I don't see us running into any problems with taking care of the collective's needs.

I'm really looking forward to the CouchSurfing Collective, it'll be great to be staying and working with a group of amazing people and I think that it will be of great benefit both to the individuals involved as well as for CouchSurfing as a community endeavour.

Rio de Janeiro!

12:18pm 3rd September 2007

I've been in Rio now for about a week. I've had a great time. I'm not entirely sure how to sum it up, except to say that I've had an awesome time. When I got here, Lan Chile, the airline that I took to get here, lost my bags. They left them in Sao Paulo, while I went on to Rio. Not only that, it took them 4 days to get my bags to me, which meant that while I was able to borrow shirts and stuff from my cousin, I spent 6 days in the same underpants. I hope I never have to go through that again! I didn't tell my Mum at the time, as I knew that she would panic. In fact, I still haven't told her, so she'll probably find out by reading it here. Hi Mum!

Last time Rap was here he met a local named Fabio, who took us around and showed us the place and generally made sure that we had a great time. He even organized a house party for our benefit at his house, and invited around 50 of his friends and neighbors, all of whom were more than happy to spend time getting to know us despite the fact that they know next to no English, and we know next to no Portuguese. I've since learned quite a bit of the language though, and am able to converse to a fairly extensive degree with the locals. Its my first small taste of bilinguality, and I must say, I'm hooked. I'm definitely going to learn another language when I get home.

I must send out a big hello to a CouchSurfer who I have not actually met yet. I spoke to her on MSN and she helped me a lot by giving me pointers and saving me from the tourist traps and dodgy areas. Thanks Gabriela, you rock!

I have taken around 400 photographs. I will be uploading them soon. I haven't seen many of the tourist attractions like Corcovado or Sugarloaf, but I've gotten to know some locals and really gotten a taste of the real flavor of Rio. All in all, this has been one of my most enjoyable travel experiences to date, and I really think I'll be back here some time soon.

I guess I will probably be leaving in 3 days from now, on the 10th September. While I was here, I met a few people who have traveled through Chile, and they say that Patagonia is one of the best places in the world to go hiking or trekking. I would really love to go there. I would have stopped there for a few days if I had the time, but Ramadan is coming up and I want to be home for that. As I said, however, I am definitely coming back to South America, and I will stop in Chile then for a week or two to go trekking in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

So that about covers my adventures in Brazil for now, I'll post another update in a few days, perhaps on the day I leave, with a final recap. I'll also start uploading my photos over the next few days. Until them meus amigos! Tchau!

Santiago!

5:21pm 25th August 2007
So I'm out of Australia again, on my way to meet Rap in Rio de Janeiro. I've never been to South America and I'm quite excited. I'm have a 7 hour transit here in Santiago, and I'm thinking about leaving the airport to see the city. Not sure if that's a good idea, but hey, when will I next be in Santiago?!

Around the world in 18 days

12:20am 5th July 2007

Well I'm back home, finally. After perhaps clicking up the most number of miles in a single trip ever, I arrived home to a welcoming family and much relieved mother.

It's been a great trip, I've met some interesting people and discovered many wonderful new things. I've gotten involved in the CouchSurfing project, and spent a night out in Zürich getting to know the Swiss locals. I've been the see the famous Bridge on the RIver Kwai in Thailand, and patted an enormous Tiger. I've been to a music festival in The Hague where I met some fellow Aussies. All in all, I've done heaps this trip.

It occurred to me that I parted company with Rap in Bangkok airport on the 16th of June, and arrived in Melbourne on the 4th of July. In that time, I'd left Bangkok, flown to Frankfurt, taken a train to Rotterdam, taken a bus and train to Amsterdam, flown to Basel, taken a train to Zürich and then back to Basel, another train back to Frankfurt, flown back to Bangkok and then finally flown to Melbourne. So, I can say that I really have been around the world in 18 days. Well, except for the Americas, they're still on the list of places to go.

Planes, trains and automobiles. And trams!

7:42pm 30th June 2007

So I decided to leave Rotterdam and instead of going home as planned I thought I'd take a detour and go to Zürich with Casey. We left Rotterdam, taking the 1049 bus to Rotterdam Alexander station. We go to Rotterdam Centraal at about 1116. We took the train to Amsterdam Airport, arriving there at 1216, giving me just enough time to buy a ticket for the 1310 flight to Basel, Switzerland, and was lucky enough to be able to organize a seat next to him for the flight. After arriving in Basel, we found a train to Zürich which took about an hour. When we got to the Zürich station, we were met by Jelena, Casey's girlfriend, who took us on a tram back to her house. After the mad dash across Europe, we were quite worn out, so we sat down for a while talking to Jelena and her mother.

They made dinner for us, a delicious vegetarian spaghetti bolognaise, after which we sat down, chatted and recuperated. I took a shower before we headed out for our guided tour of Zürich by night. We walked around some very quiet surburban streets on our way to the action and on the way we came across a bit of an obstacle in the form of a construction site that blocked the walking route that Jelena usually takes to the city. So, like the socially irresponsible rebels that we are, instead of going around it we jumped the fences. Once we got to the city proper, Jelena showed us the night spots where the locals sat drinking coffee and eating ice cream at trendy cafés while watching people go by. I have many photos of Zürich by night, so be sure to check out the Europe 2007 album in my gallery.

After enjoying a great cup of coffee and a banana split with Swiss ice cream, we moved on to a typical European bar, small and intimate where you can tell the barman knew everyone there by name and what they liked to drink. We spent a few minutes and then moved on to another bar where Jelena's friend, as chance would have it, was meeting her after for the first time in 2 years after spending a long time in Australia. We stayed there for a few hours while they caught up on all the developments in each others' lives. By the time we were ready to go, we were all too tired to walk the distance home, so we took a taxi for 15 Swiss francs. Jelena's brother was nice enough to sleep on the couch, so when we walked in at 2am I found that I had a nice comfy bed to stay in. I must remember to send a big thanks to Jelena and her family for their generous last minute hospitality.

Which brings me to this morning. The mad dash back across Europe. Right now, I am sitting on a train from Basel, Switzerland to Frankfurt, Germany. I left Jelena's house at 1529 hoping to make it to the station in time for the 1602 train from Zürich to Basel. I got to the station at 1551, but got stuck in the ticket queue behind an old German idiot trying to pick up the cute ticket clerk. I got a ticket and ran to the platform just in time to see the train pulling away. It was just like in the movies, the train slowly starting to move and there's this guy (me) weighted down with bags running next to it yelling "Nooo! Stoooop!" only to get to the end of the platform and fall off looking very comical and stupid. Well, that last bit didn't actually happen, but you get the picture. So I went downstairs to the pay per use bathroom, freshened up and got ready for the next train in an hour. Because of that extra hour, however, there is no way that I will make the 2115 flight out of Frankfurt, so I'm going to have to find a place to spend the night in Frankfurt and take the 1500 flight tomorrow. I got on the train to Basel, where I met a bunch of Australian teachers living in Basel, who were nice enough to give me a pointer to the next train, the one to Frankfurt, which saved me a few minutes of running around trying to find my bearing. Thanks guys! Right now I am on the train from Basel to Frankfurt. I have no idea what I'm going to do when I get to Frankfurt, but I'll work something out. Don't worry, I'll keep you all posted!

CSCR2k7: CouchSurfing Collective: Rotterdam

8:55am 21st June 2007

So it's time to leave Rotterdam. The CouchSurfing Collective was a HUGE success for me. I have definitely decided that CouchSurfing is the way to travel, and I doubt that I will travel and stay in hotels any more, at least most of the time. Make sure to check out the album!

We were a very mixed bunch, Me from Australia, Chris, Casey and Jim from the USA, Duke and Weston from Mexico, Tiina from Finland and Walter from... err... I don't know where Walter's from but he speaks Dutch so I guess he's from Holland. He lives there in any case. Big thanks guys, you all made me feel very welcome and comfortable and I wish you all the very best. Big hugs and thanks also go to some people who didn't stay there but still helped me have a great time and were generally awesome. Aldo, Paul, Diederik, Nicco and Femke, you will all be missed. Oh, and everyone make sure you keep a couch spare, because I travel a lot and if I'm ever in your area you can expect me to show up and ask for a couch to surf! Special thanks go to Chris, without whose encouragement and nagging I probably wouldn't have ended up coming to the collective. Thanks mate! I'll miss our daily strolls around Rotterdam.

I was supposed to be heading home, however Casey is heading to Switzerland, and has invited me to come along. It didn't require much arm twisting to convince me, I will be joining him. Thanks for the invite mate, this should be a fun trip!

So that's where I'm up to, dear readers. Be sure to stay tuned for more exciting new from the world of Naz. I'm sure you're all on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next! Until next time, peace!