Castles in the sand

Desert life through the eyes of an Icelander

Friday, May 08, 2009

Those who can, do...

...and those who can't, teach. We've all heard this, right?

Well, some of my current clients are the Professional Development people at the Ministry of Education - i.e. the people who teach the teachers.


Except that would make me the guy who teaches the people who teach the teachers.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A conversation that could have happened at any professional services firm

I called up my director yesterday morning, and explained to him that I'd had a pretty bad mishap. That I'd seriously hurt my ankle playing basketball, to the point where I was rushed to the hospital with my ankle at quadruple the normal size, diagnosed with a dislocated ankle and multiple serious ligament tears, given intravenal painkillers, told that the pain and swelling was too severe for them to complete the diagnosis; that instead I'd had my leg placed in an immobilizing cast and was told to remain in bed for a minimum of three days with my leg on ice and cartoonishly elevated while eating painkilling medication probably designed for horses; and that after the three days they'd reevaluate to make the decision whether I needed surgery.

He was quite taken aback, and wished me a rapid recovery.

Twenty minutes later he calls me back: "So, just to be clear, does that mean you can or can't work?"


Update: Apparently I can add a dislocated ankle and cartilage damage to the list... but the surgery decision is put off for another several weeks, as it's still too messy to tell.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fulfiling the Dream

Barack Obama has some serious expectations riding on him tonight. Whatever he says will instantly be compared to that speech given 45 years ago to the day, to fairly significant critical acclaim. As if that wasn't enough, it'll also be compared to one of the great modern political speeches: his own at the same Democratic conference four years ago. No matter what he says, it'd be difficult to get anything like the reviews from the instant analysis at the time, or pull off the element of surprise that had people listening gape-mouthed.

But watch those clips, and tell me he's not the man for the job.

And for my American friends, I add this. Do watch to the end, even if you're not a fan of the music.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The News

Sometimes, I am reminded that I am very far away from home.

These moments can come at any time. A classic example is whenever I enter a hotel room, and see an arrow in the ceiling indicating the direction of Mecca (for praying purposes) - pointing west.

It can also come from something as simple as reading the news.

The following is from the UAE's most respected independent newspaper, a couple of months back.

The whole thing is good, but the second paragraph is just genius.

The Nation

Police and The Courts

Lovers exchange blows after man breaks wind

By Bassam Za'za', Senior Reporter
Published: March 05, 2008, 00:37

Dubai: Two lovers are standing trial for having an illicit
relationship and exchanging blows after the man broke wind while in

The Dubai Public Prosecution charged the Asian man with having
consensual sex with his compatriot female who was also charged with
allowing him to sleep with her.

The duo, in their 20s, were also charged with hitting each other.

The lovers who stood trial before the Dubai Court of Misdemeanour on
Tuesday confessed to having an illicit relation.

When the judge asked them why they assaulted each other, the girl
claimed that her lover broke wind and they had a heated argument which
degenerated into an assault.

The two suspects, who are currently on bail, reported the fight to the police which questioned them before forwarding them to the Public Prosecution.

A ruling will be issued soon.


I feel you need to know these things.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


I’ve been excited about Barack Obama as a candidate for the US presidency since I first saw him speak at the Democratic National Convention back in 2004, when I was volunteering for the Kerry campaign. I saw his original “Audacity of Hope” speech, and I was entranced – there was a man who could not only inspire, but had a chance to be the first black president; the son of an African man, no less.

I’ve been worried about Hillary being named the Democratic nominee in 2008 for just about as long. She is bright, capable and tenacious, and I agree with a lot of her policy stances. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. She inherited her husbands shifty politics but not his charm, his ability to compromise or his genuine ability and longing to connect with people of all classes and nationalities. Nevermind my personal opinion that she's shown a disturbing willingness to play dirty to win-at-all-costs. Rather, let's focus on the fact that she is the most divisive politician in the US not named George Bush – so much so that she has a genuine chance to lose independent voters, even as George Bush’s approval ratings dropped to the lowest levels of any US president ever (an impressive accomplishment – he is now slightly more unpopular than Nixon after Watergate). The Republicans, meanwhile, got smart and voted for McCain, who is as centrist as Republicans can be - and the independents love him.

If Hillary were the nominee, she would lose – and she would not only set Democrats back eight years, but also set women back 20 years.

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that. We haven’t had to worry about that for two months – which is how long the Democratic race has been over. For two months, Hillary’s only chance of getting the nomination has been that the superdelegates, that is, the party’s top 300 officials, decide that it’s a good idea to go against the will off hundreds of thousands of voters, particularly minorities and young voters, and stop the first black man ever from becoming the presidential nominee of a major US political party. In other words:

“We, the white middle-aged political elite of the US political party that stands for more equality, have decide that the voters made the wrong choice of presidential nominee, mostly because there were too many black people and young people voting. Clearly these groups don’t have the necessary wisdom to elect a presidential nominee. We are therefore going to overrule whatever the results of the vote may have been, and pick one of our own instead.”

This would amount to mass political suicide. It’s like declaring civil war on voters. It is not going to happen. Zimbabwe, maybe. I’d put my (admittedly limited) life savings on it in a heartbeat. Any takers?

So here’s my question: if the world media is absolutely up in arms about the possibility of an election being stolen in Zimbabwe, why has it been floating the above as a genuine and legitimate possibility?

Why have they been acting as if this race is still going on for the past two months?

Perhaps more seriously: why is Hillary still fighting the election she’s known is over for the past two months? Why did she pour six million dollars of her own money into the campaign in the past few weeks (after the donors realized it's over and stopped giving)? Is she genuinely interested in dividing the democrats to the point where she’ll seriously weaken Obama in the general election?

Does she want him to lose, so that she can take on McCain in 2012?

Friday, May 16, 2008

More Inspiration

This one is from my roots in Malawi - currently the world's poorest country. It's the story of a 14-year old Malawian, William Kamkwamba, whose family couldn't afford to keep him in school. But then he proceeded to design and build a windmill from a picture in library book, to provide his village with electricity.

As you do.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Traffic jam with zero movement. Late for where I need to be. South Asian music blaring in my ears. Frustrated, with a headache, and not in the mood for conversation. My Pakistani taxi driver is, though.


Poor people hot, rich people cold.

… yes, I suppose that’s true.

But in cold you can cover yourself with anything. In hot no. You need air conditioning. Poor people don’t have air conditioning.


I like one English song. “Don’t be shy”. You know?

Hmm. I think I know one song with that name. What else do you like?

I like Celine Dion. Titanic song. You like?

No… don’t like Celine Dion.

Why? She win many awards.

Its cheesy.

What is mean cheesy?


I like another song: ‘Piss on me’. What is mean “Piss on me”?

… (ten seconds pass) I don’t know.

I think maybe I mispronounce.

I think so.

Because its rude.

Yes it is.

I try to play for you English song – nice song.

(Titanic song starts again, this time instrumental).


I want to go to Europe.


But it’s hard. Especially from Pakistan. Pakistani people involved in crime everywhere in the world. People from Pakistan go to Europe, they invent special bullet to make them unconscious and put them on plane to send back.


Loud, exaggeratedly sensual porn star voice goes: “Excuse me darling… I have a message for you. Excuse me darling… I have a message for you.”

As I’m trying to figure out what on earth is going on, he answers his phone (in Urdu).

Not that I know what a porn star voice would sound like.


At least he got me writing again.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Chit-chat on a plane

I had just begun reading the front page of the paper on the flight from London to Dubai on December 29th when I got to chatting to the guy sitting next to me, an Irish guy in his 50’s. He found out I was from Iceland, and headed back to Dubai. That’s a bit of a hot spot for an Icelander, isn’t it? A bit, I said. How about yourself? Well, I was home with the family enjoying my Christmas holiday, but got called back to work, he said. What do you do? I’m the UN Chief of Security for Pakistan.

My eyes dropped to the front pages of our respective papers, each portraying separate shots of Benazir Bhutto accompanied by stories of mass rioting. I’m going to a hot spot?

Nice guy. Consults on international hostage negotiating (as you do), like the Koreans in Afghanistan. Also goes trout fishing in abandoned valleys 5,000 meters above sea level in the Pakistani mountains. Not a big Bhutto fan, but didn’t want to speak ill of the dead. Plus, he said, it’s a banana republic… what kind of a political process is it to pass on power to your son and spouse? There was a small pause - then I couldn't help but think outloud. Seems to be working for the US, no?

Was invited to go visit him in Islamabad. Tempting. Very, very tempting.

(The Wrong) Season's Greetings

Dear you,

(I´ve decided to come up with the concept of late online collective happy new year cards through a blog post, in celebration of the fact that I´m rubbish at christmas cards, which is sad, because they’re a huge tradition in my family [my grandparents send about 900] and I love getting them. Next year I will definitely send a bunch [OK, I say that every year]. And I’d love to get some myself [hopeful!])

My best wishes for the happiest of years.

(I actually thought about following that up with a preemptive happy next Christmas, but decided that would be too sad – it was half a sentence ago that I was promising myself to remember / find the time to send cards this year. And I love Christmas - spent this one back at home, as always. [I have repeatedly been threatened with losing my inheritance if I don’t, although my mother is beginning to realize how limited that threat is, given that there’s not much to have] I love being home – as usual I spent my time relaxing, visiting family, playing board games, walking the dogs, and eating far, far too much smoked lamb and a years supply of pork [I live in a Muslim country]. This time one of the highlight gifts was my sisters and me getting our mother a vacuum cleaning robot, which was a hit [it’s not easy keeping a tidy house with two dogs that are continually shedding black hair]. And as usual it was over much, much too soon. Fortunately leaving was slightly easier than usual, as my family is coming to visity me in a month. Can’t wait)

Thank you for the times we shared in years past – may there be many more in years to come.

(That one I sincerely do mean).


Magnús Dagur.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Being 30

I started the last decade in a tiny little town called Foz do Iguaçu, on the Brazilian side of the boarder with Argentina and Paraguay. It happens to be the home of one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders, the Foz (waterfall) itself, and the surrounding natural park. The town’s main street is a sleepy place. No one really does any business there, since everyone can simply pass over the boarder into that seedy but bustling boarder town on the Paraguayan side, buy things for half the price and smuggle them back. It is however home to the ‘Magnus’ furniture store, as well as seven or eight ice cream stores. It was high summer (Southern Hemisphere) and ridiculously hot, so I decided to celebrate my birthday like a child’s fantasy by visiting all the ice cream stores in succession. The last couple were not easy, but it was a fun day and a good memory.

Foz do Iguaçu

Birthday 21 was in Heidelberg, Germany, and two of my flatmates got into a fight that ended with blood spilling. 22 was in Madrid, and my friends threw me a surprise party and cooked me Tex Mex. 23, 24 and 25 were in Portugal, I think. 26 was the first year of business school in London – early in the day I committed to drinking anything that anyone bought me that day, before finding out that my flat mate had invited the whole school to my birthday party. The results were disastrous, and parts of that night I didn’t remember until 18 months later when one of the culprits gave me the same tequila-whisky-tabasco concoction again (the bastard!). 27 was New York style, from a chic cocktail bar in the Meat Packing District to a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Village and on to debauchery untold. 28 was Amsterdam’s Supper Club, an ultra-chic and decadent restaurant where meals are taken lying down on beds in an open all-white space while being entertained by top notch DJs, stunning waitresses who climb up on tables and chairs to pass food to the upper level, and various random and strange performances – the night I was there the Gimp from Pulp Fiction made an appearance and offered shots, served from… I’m not going to say where from. Before making it there though, our Turkish cab driver took us to a warehouse in a shady neighborhood outside the city that apparently was home to the Super Club, one of the city’s premier strip clubs. 29 was London again – a few friends for a night out in the craziness that is Camden.

30 – Dubai. I rolled into town directly from work in Abu Dhabi, and went straight to Jambase, a jazz club/restaurant that slowly converts into a night club with an amazingly talented band playing. All my best friends from business school were here – my entire study group had flown in with their significant others, from as far away as London and Texas. They were joined by all my friends here, one thing led to another and we closed the bar down after lots of eating, drinking, dancing and general revelry.

It’s been quite a decade. When it started I did not own a cell phone and had no plans to get one – the other day I went shopping online for a robot. Being 30 is also a little different. In the information age, everyone under a certain age has two typing speeds – the normal speed and the warp speed at which all ten fingers are slammed down near-simultaneously to enter your most common passwords purely from muscle memory. Except when I turned 30, my motor skills somehow abandoned me, and I’m having to re-learn how to type my passwords (I guess that certain age is 30). The other day, I looked in my car mirror and noticed gray hair for the first time. Not that it’s new – I’ve had a lock of gray since I broke my skull at age two, but this was the first but surely not the last time I notice it in that inconveniently placed mirror right next to my head while driving. I tried on someone’s glasses the other night and realized I could actually see better.

For the record, I feel like I should point out that in the two weeks since, I have flipped a quad bike in the desert while dune bashing, gone wakeboarding, snowboarding and sandboarding, been to see a Justin Timberlake concert and had a 14 hour partying session – but that’s just going to look like I’m trying to overcompensate, isn't it.

I can’t win, can I… things do change. This year, the ice-cream overload from a decade earlier was replaced with my first-ever Cuban cigar.

Some pictures anyway... wakeboarding

Er... oops... quadbiking Sandboarding

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Big M

I felt I couldn't go through today without leaving a quick word on here... today is my 30th birthday. Maybe I'm supposed to be depressed, but I'm not... I'm surrounded by wonderful people, close to me here in Dubai and around the world. Could I really ask for more?

I'll write a bit more soon...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Update! The first part of this post has a new soundtrack!

Sick and tired in the non-figurative sense at Jasmine café, a Philipino-staffed half-breed cafeteria/fast food joint in the departures lounge of the international airport in Manama, Bahrain. This is the third time in three days and second time in three hours that I find myself here – I seem to be stuck in a bizarre Groundhog Day-esque loop in the space-time continuum, and have picked a rather unfortunate location to do so. Three hours ago I was rather happy that the airport staff volunteered unasked to move me from a 9pm flight to a 7pm flight – the offer of two extra hours of sleep in my own bed before the start of a new workweek seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Of course, now that I just went for a two hour sightseeing tour of the runway, only to get towed back to the terminal with a technical problem and watch the rather content-looking passengers of the “later” flight board their plane while I’m stuck here with my greasy chicken nuggets for another three hours, the equation seems a little different.

But as with most things in life, out of the bad comes some good. I’ve been lazy writing on here lately (bit of an introspective phase - bad for writing) and thanks to that annoyance I’ve now picked up my laptop and started. Don't have much inspiration, so let me tell you about my last few weekends.

The first one to mention was a three day dhow (traditional sailing boat) trip in neighboring Oman with my friends Tracey and Alex. We slept on the dhow under the stars the first night, and on the beach around a campfire the next. During the day we would go scuba diving, and at one point we ran into a humongous turtle sitting there in it's own little world at the bottom of the sea. I couldn't fathom it - the thing was easily bigger than me. It was fantastic to make it out into nature, and I made a great friend from among the divers on the boat too.

Another weekend was all action, Dubai style. I went to a two day music festival called Desert Rhythm which featured Kanye West, Joss Stone and Madness (as well as ‘Black Violin’, an American hip-hop band that featured two gangster rapper types playing the violin… random but interesting), a Brazilian party during which my crowd somehow managed to kill two bottles of vodka (in addition to the caipirinhas), took a wakeboarding class (which is to waterskiing what snowboarding is to skiing – mercifully, my crashes to date have been somewhat less spectacular than those I’ve had snowboarding) with a former European Champion. Oh and my first ever tennis match, doubles against a French couple (and there was no way we were losing to the French, even if it was the second time I'd ever held a tennis racket).

Another two weekends were spent in Beirut, with its unbelievable night life, character, history and internal conflict (as I described in March). I spent day in Byblos, where people have been living continuously for over 7,000 years (making it the world’s oldest town), and where fish have been resting for a hundred million years (making them fossils). One of the latter now sits in my living room – two halves of a fossilized fish that swam the earth with the dinosaurs.

This Sunday I returned from Beirut - late, due to the Dubai Air Show, apparently (where a Saudi Prince decided to buy himself a private jet - obviously no less than the new Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet would do, for a cool USD 360 million. That's before spending another USD 50-100 million on the interior. The things I could do to make the world a better place with that money...). I finally made it to my house at seven and drove straight to down town Abu Dhabi, where I got just marginally after eight – let’s not get into any tenth grade math questions here, but yes, lets just say it was the first time I really ‘used’ my toy car.

Why? I arrived just in time to catch a production of Carmen, the opera. It’s a masterpiece… one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, and the production was fantastic. I don’t care if you’ve never listened to opera – you’ll know at least five themes from there just from watching Tom & Jerry or Bugs Bunny as a child. Seeing it live gives it another dimension – Carmen is a fiery, sarcastic, melodramatic, sultry and sensual vixen, which doesn’t come across in when you listen to it unless your operatic French is a lot better than mine. To give you an idea, here is a half-decent attempt at showing this on film.

I'll leave you with that for now, and try not to let as long pass until the next time you hear from me.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom

Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t fly away when she could have.

She wasn’t there to accept her Nobel Peace prize in 1990. She wasn’t by her husband’s side when he died of cancer in 1999, and hasn’t been able to see her two sons since the 1980’s.

She stayed behind to be with her people – knowing full well that they would lock her away again.

It’s been 12 long years.

Walk on, walk on
What you got, they can't steal it
No they can't even feel it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight...

They walked.

They prayed.

They knew full well that they would be brutally murdered, as were thousands before them.

They offered blessings.

The first ones have been killed.

There will be more.

They weren’t safe last night, as hundreds of them were rounded up and taken away under the cover of darkness – but tomorrow they’ll walk on.

Two years ago, I traveled through Myanmar along with Eugene. It is a beautiful country of wonderful people cruelly oppressed by a remorseless military junta. “Imagine a city left five years ago by a colonial power. Now throw in 30 years of decay - and add a military dictatorship”, I wrote in my journal.

It is difficult to imagine that 45 years ago, this was one of the wealthiest countries in Asia.

We spoke to the people of freedom, and of the one they call their ‘lady’. We met two comedians who had spent six years in jail for telling jokes at the expense of the regime. And for two days, we spent time with the leader of a group of dissident monks we will call Z (I have no desire to get him in trouble). We ended up teaching a group of monks about democratic concepts, political science vocabulary, internet censorship and how to avoid it, and the history and success of non-violent protests.

Lectures on democracy

Is this Z in the Herald Tribune, leading the group of peacefully protesting monks, armed with a megaphone? (Update Sept 28th - the picture in the article has unfortunately been changed.) Was he or one of his apprentices among those killed in the protests yesterday? Am I to blame for people dying?

Then again, does it really matter?

Boys - not men - trained to kill.

Z will certainly have been among the tens of thousands of peaceful protestors on the streets – and I am sure that as he would not wish me to hope that the dozens killed were his neighbors, and not he. But it would be ridiculously self-important, indeed delusional, to assume that my touristic passage through the country had any effect on a major event in an ancient nation’s proud and complex history.

What I can do is try to prevent the issue from fading away once it becomes unfashionable, the way it has in the past.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Aung San Suu Kyi

Lu Maw and his brother may not seem like much - but I respect anyone who spends six years in the notorious (and aptly named) "Insein Prison", and comes back out only to continue the political jibes that got them there. Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old when her father was assassinated - the same year he won independence for Burma from Britain. Are these children next?How young is too young?
Bagan Beauty

Some of the pictures are Eugene's - the rest of his photos from the trip can be found here.
The lyrics quoted are from U2's ode to Aung San Suu Kyi, "Walk On" - click here below to listen:

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Things I will miss in Egypt

- My six-months-and-still-running search for an unscratched, undented car in Cairo
- The death plunge through four lanes of onrushing Cairo traffic that ironically marks the entrance into the Ministry of Transport
- Train drivers who unhook the train’s electronic circuits to power their coffee makers
- Taxi drivers taking their 1960’s black and white lada cabs on half-mile short cuts against the traffic of a busy one-way street
- The smile on my client’s faces when they realize that I’ve learned a new word in Arabic
- Attempting to run a meeting with 13 people in the room having six separate conversations in Arabic while eating, drinking, smoking and shouting to overwhelm the noise of the passing trains, even as the team leader is looks through papers, has side meetings with three people who randomly walked into the room and talks on two of the six telephones on his desk
- The Nile
- My team – pure quality
- The only five star hotel in the world where it takes two hours to respond after a guest calls to say she is bleeding from a cut and urgently needs a bandage – and no one’s surprised
- Development work
- The City of the Dead, where a community of the poorest people in Cairo has sprung up in and around an ancient Islamic graveyard – and where they welcome strangers with open arms and offer you tea at their houses
- After-work football games at 1:30 am
- Outrageous weddings and engagement parties of the super-rich
- Street food – koshari, tameya and sugar cane juice
- Working the 11th-17th hours of your day with heavy construction going on both the next floors above below… every day for several months (ok, scratch that one)
- Horse carriages unloading freight trains
- The “Dude you can’t just make shit up” look I got from the passport control guys every time I handed them my passport
- Clients who got tears in their eyes when I told them I was leaving

On to another adventure.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Of Shepherds

My paternal grandfather was a sheep farmer. As a result, my father spent much of his youth tending the sheep, as did many of my ancestors before him. The noble profession of shepherding has long been a fascination of mankind, as demonstrated by numerous references in popular media and literature (if we start with one Hollywood actor, a recent movie of Matt Damons was named “the Good Shepherd”, while the genius lead character “Good Will Hunting” [one of my favorite movies] claimed to harbor ambitions of becoming a shepherd – but more on this below).

My maternal grandfather is a dairy farmer. This to me is would seem to be no-less a noble profession. Throughout most of my country’s history, milking cows were a privilege of the better off, nobler families – and my grandfather is a highly respected man in his community. Yet, dairy farming has failed to capture the imagination of the masses the way shepherding has (for example, in ‘Independent People’, a flagship novel of Icelandic Nobel prize winning author Halldór Laxness, proud and resilient sheepfarmer Bjartur´s luck starts turning for the worse once he purchases a cow).

The human fascination with shepherding may be rooted the unusual connection shepherds seem to have to the realm of the spiritual and paranormal. Whether it is the sheep who act as a vessel facilitating this connection to world beyond I do not know – but examples abound. Icelandic shepherds historically had frequent interactions with the otherwise elusive elven folk (who in my country are considerably more treacherous and less fairy-like than those popularized by Tolkien). Another Nobel-prize winning novel, Paolo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’, tells of a shepherd whose mysterious dream leads him on a mystical quest to encounter his heart´s treasures. And as immortalized in countless psalms and the world’s most widely published book, a group of shepherds were there to witness the birth of Jesus.

You might think that those worthy gentlemen I mentioned last were the most famous shepherds of all – but you would be wrong. As it happens, the first half of the same book is even more widely read than the second half – and it tells the tale of another man who tended sheep a bit further to the south and west in the years after he married his wife Zipporah.

Fires and aging notwithstanding, the bush is in remarkable shape.

In the version of his story that I have been told, it was indeed one of the sheep that led him to a brushfire that caused rather less damage yet had significantly more historic significance than those ravaging Greece today – for it was then that God first spoke to Moses.

While I won't judge whether other shepherds such as the Prophet Mohammed and the Lord Krishna were more significant, the nice thing about Moses is that everyone (or at least, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Bahá’ís) seems to agree on his story - and it was in his footsteps that I recently made a pilgrimage, climbing the biblical Mount Sinai.

We started our accent shortly after midnight, climbed through the night, and arrived at the summit to witness the dawn. The stars were magical, and the moon cast an eerie glow over the desolate mountain ranges we soon found ourselves looking down on.
The sunrise was - well - divine.

The heavens looking down on Mount Sinai

T, the girl who climbed mountains - and whose birthday it is today(September 16th)

Thursday, September 06, 2007


A couple of notes I wanted to add to the last post.

The 'do' vs. 'be' thought is completely plagiarized from my friend Mike (though I really didn’t do it justice). When he first mentioned it, my reaction was that I’d like to be able to 'Do' things, but still manage to just 'Be'. In fact, that's what I was going to Do. He looked at me as if I'd told a joke, and I let him think that it was, but the truth is I had said it completely unconsciously. See why I worry? Dobedobedo was actually also put in print by Hazel after reading my last post, but I didn’t actually steal that one – in fact, it is my increasingly appropriate nickname for Dubai.

The Seattle riots image is something that's been a crystal clear image in my head since '98, symbolizing how I changed when my dad died. Not that I (or my sister) would have been likely to be involved in the protests, but I am certainly idealistic, was following what was going on, and the image stuck.

It was later that I decided that doing a PhD in international relations and joining the UN would be less likely to help than doing an MBA and learning how to 'do' stuff in the heart of capitalism (London and New York at first, now Dubai – and then applying it where it’s needed. Making that switch was easy – its making the switch back that can be hard. Business school was fantastic, but it sucks you in. Soon I was running around like all the kids on campus trying to sell myself to name brand companies for not quite all the wrong reasons, but certainly some. Since then I’ve been afraid of getting lost in the capitalist world and forgetting who I really am. Hence why I ask my sisters to keep me honest, and why I'm afraid to leave what's one of the most notoriously bad projects in my company - not just because it's closely connected to development, but because I might end up being happier on my next project, whose ultimate aim might be making some Saudi Sheikh richer.

As it turns out, the corporate world has taken care of the dilemma for me – I was mistakenly released from my current project and immediately snapped up by the other. The two are now engaged in a tug of war over my services, which I have been advised to stay out of. It’s great – it’s like outsourcing a moral dilemma. I should market the concept. Facing a tough decision in your life? Don’t suffer through the heartaches and waking nights – we at (i.e. me and a few enterprising young men in Bangalore) will make the decision for you within 10 minutes for just $29.99 ($49.99 if it’s a really important decision).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

To Do - or to Be

Every morning I get out of the elevator on the fourth floor of a certain office building in Cairo, and I’m faced with the choice you see in the picture above.

I was just offered the possibility of moving to a different project within my company – something closer to my adopted home in Dubai, something in one of the sectors I said I was most interested in when I joined, something where the clients are a little more educated and easier to work with. It’s time to get you out of Egypt, they said. Isn’t it?

Even as the conversation continued, my mind went into internal dialogue mode. Time for a status check. What am I doing – and do I want to move?

I am in Cairo, working on economic development – trying to turn around one of Africa’s largest public companies. The work is difficult, stressful, and sometimes frustrating. Everything takes at least three times as much effort as it would elsewhere – three extra layers of bureaucracy, three times as long to make a decision, ten times as long to implement it. My hours are awful, and I travel five days a week. I didn’t have much time to spend with Tal when she was here. I don’t make my sister’s email list anymore (though to be fair, she promised to add me back on this afternoon).

My work matters, and people take notice – but the feedback isn’t all good. The country’s biggest English speaking newspaper put my work on the front page, highlighting that thousands of people were “deeply unhappy” with the decision I proposed and convinced the minister to approve. The paper, somewhat unkindly (but entertainingly) followed up by saying that the government had “taken this decision without any careful study”. Ouch… that’s three months of my work you’re stepping on! The article hangs on the wall above my desk.

But - I believe in what I’m doing. I’ve wanted to do this sort of work since I was in Malawi, 15 years ago – where my dad was working in development. Insert comment about Freud or tragic characters in Greek mythology if you will - they may be appropriate. When my dad died, I wanted to do something. I stopped wanting to be one of the activists protesting outside the WTO meeting in Seattle, and started wanting to be inside the meeting room, making those decisions. The papers didn’t mention that the reason for the decision I recommended is that only the richest 5% of Egyptians will be affected, or that I believe it was a necessary step to turn around the country's biggest public company. Am I right? Only time will tell. The truth is that I’ve become a little emotionally attached – I want to see it through, I want to see and feel the improvement, I want to finish it.

My friend Mike (from Malawi days) came over to visit me in Cairo from Uganda, where he’s been doing relief work. It was amazing to meet him again after all these years, and interesting to see the similarities and differences between the amazing work he does, and what I do. He sets up water wells and sanitation in regions considered too insecure or insignificant for most relief agencies to enter. He sees the results of his work immediately – but doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s sustainable. I on the other hand – even if my whole team did our work to perfection, it would be years until the millions of Egyptians would really begin to see and feel the difference. Even then, we would know that only a small part of the improvement would be thanks to us – the rest would be the work of thousands of others.

Will I believe in what I’m doing to the same extent if I move to a different project? Probably not. But perhaps it is good for me to remember that the good work will continue with or without me. Perhaps sometimes it’s okay to just ‘be’, rather than always feeling like I have to ‘do’. Perhaps I will have more time to enjoy life, be closer to my adopted home in Dubai, and learn more about what I’d like to do - or be - in the future.

One of these days it will be time to follow that little man on the green sign out the door, and see what lies beyond.

Ethiopian flashback

My friend Eugene's highly entertaining account of dangling from a rope of braided goatskin in the middle of Ethiopia... though why he seems to associate me with "insane & mindless risk taking" is beyond me...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pictures of Dubai life

The Dubai skyline on a foggy day. The building just left of the sun is the Burj Dubai, which had then just become the world's tallest building at 130 floors. Of course they're still adding another 50 or 60 (the exact number is a secret), and leaving the structure so that it can still be added to, in case somebody tries to outdo them later on...

Now that I finally have a bed, this is the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning: beach, sun, and the blue of the Persian Gulf. The beach is a three minute walk away, and life isn't so bad when you're taking advantage of that...

This one is the view from my living room window, which is 90 degrees to the right - my office is about 500 m behind the blue building in the background.

This one is from my balcony, further to the right again. About five buildings to the right of this picture is the home of my friend Alex from LBS (the one who moved to Dubai on the same day as me).

I've gotten a lot of grief from a lot of people, including my dear mother, about not putting up a picture of my toy car. So here it comes...

The big reason why I didn't want to put it in my blog the last time was because I did put in a picture of Tal, which I consider a little more important than my new toy... but here are my T and my Toy together in the Omani mountains.

Finally, a roadside picture of the desert from the same road trip.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated

Ouch. Reviews like these will make any writer think twice about continuing his ‘career’. "Time of death: 8:42 am Mountain Time". "Your last post wasn’t very entertaining” (in Icelandic). “…Magnus a very unpopular boy”. At least some anonymous soul said “… but we still love you” (out of sympathy?), and my mother agreed.

But anyway... Yes, I haven’t blogged in a while. I won’t bore you with the ‘myworkworkbalancesucks’ talk. However, a lot has been going on in my life as well.

Lets start with the small things. I, at age 29, finally bought myself a car for the first time. I had cars for three years when I was in Portugal – but they were long term rentals, and paid for by the company. Not ‘mine’. This one is.

It’s a toy of a car too – I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it, and wouldn’t have mentioned it here if my mother hadn’t kept pestering me about it (of all the people… the same person whose usual question if someone gets a car is “Really? What colour is it?”)… but basically, I’ve had this fantasy about living in a lifestyle city on the beach and driving a convertible since I was a kid. So… it was either now or during my mid-life crisis. I opted for now, and found my toy. It’s four years old, and it’s logged a lot of miles. But it’s an amazing toy…

That was the small news.

The bigger news is that my girl Tal is here in Dubai. She and I first met three and a half years ago – but most of that time we’ve been on opposite sides of the pond (she in New York, I in London). She’s now picked up, left her job, and come to spend the summer with me.

It is a big deal. It’s the worst time to be in Dubai (the summer heat is slowly becoming unbearable), and it’s the worst time to live with me (I spend an average of five days a week traveling for work and even then need to work on the weekends). But we not only knew that it was going to be tough, we’re doing it on purpose – it’ll be like the opposite of the ‘honeymoons’ we’ve had to date when we met and traveled together without having to deal with the nuisances of real life.

What will come of it? There was and remains one way to find out.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy

All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work an no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Magnus a very dull boy.

An old Queen song that’s been on my mind a lot lately goes something like this: “It's finally happened... it's finally happened... it's finally happened... I'm slightly mad...”

Now looking back, how did I get to this point?

Working 18 hour days seven days a week is not quite enough to drive a man insane.
Close, but won't get the job done alone.

Not seeing your own home for three weeks because you were working on weekends in Cairo - while knowing that home isn't really a 'home' yet, because you've yet to buy a bed and finish unpacking your boxes - will help too.

The new fancy elevator systems that are all over Cairo could come close to doing the job by themselves. They are unbelievably frustrating. It's like someone decided "I know, let's reinvent the wheel - only this time, we'll make it square!"

The concept is that instead of just pushing 'up' or 'down', you enter the number of your floor before you get on the elevator - there are no buttons inside. The computer then calculates the most efficient way of getting everyone to whatever floor it is they need to get to. Sounds great. Except they forgot to mention that they're not trying to be efficient as in getting people from one floor to the next as quick as possible, but rather they're trying to save as much energy as they can.
So they'll send the same elevator up through all the different floors, filling it with about 20 people, which inevitably will lead to stopping on every floor. This in turn makes waiting take forever - want to get the elevator on the 17th floor? Not a problem - elevator C is already on its way (after it makes the other 13 stops).
The system also makes some very questionable decisions - you see elevator B heading up, but don't jump in because you have to push the button before getting in. The door closes and heads away, and two seconds later the display proudly tells you that you should use elevator B, when I know for a fact that it's going to have to travel to the 13th floor and back before taking me up, so it can't possibly be the best option. Finally, while people wait and start to get frustrated, they'll start pushing the buttons again. If you do this enough times, the system starts to think that a lot of people must need to go to the fourth floor, and rerouts a second elevator to you - which frequently arrives before the first. The problem is, everybody knows you can override the system this way, so people press the button over and over again, which causes the system to have a nervous breakdown (“Stop pushing the buttons, too much pressure, I can’t take it anymore”) – i.e. crash - and nobody moves anywhere. This happens repeatedly at the beginning and the end of every working day. I just manage to catch both system crashes, because I’m usually only getting done with my meetings (the practical alternative to work) at five or six in the afternoon, at which point I have to go back to the office to do some actual work.

Enter the nighttime construction workers on the floor below. These guys are seemingly aiming to be the first people in about 100 years to build a floor in a skyscraper with hammers. Seriously, not that I have any clue, but don't people use cement and stuff nowadays? What could possibly possess you to take a hammer to the third floor ceiling for six hours, starting at 6pm every day for two months and counting? Is there a scientist watching how much it'll take before I finally lose it? The only way to block it out is by lifting my feet off the floor and putting some select mood music on my iPod… which lately has prominently featured Rage Against the Machine. Unfortunately, this makes it rather difficult to write my presentations with my habitual diplomatic touch .

So. I’ve now been in Cairo in between the client, the office, and the hotel for three weeks – without going back home. To break things up, on the weekends I move to a nicer hotel with a view of the Nile… and continue working. On Saturday I heard that the big deadline I had been working towards on Monday had been pushed back to Thursday – and that I should take my first afternoon off in a long while. What a relief. I headed to the pool, swam a few laps (and nearly drowned from sheer exhaustion), stepped out and ordered something called a Scorpion and was about as deadly as it sounds. I finished it, then went to the Spa and booked myself a massage that evening, headed back to the pool, and ordered myself a meal and a beer. Just then I got the next call, 90 minutes after the first – false alarm, the deadline is back on for Monday. Beer gets replaced with a diet coke, and the meal gets rerouted through room service as I march back to my room. I also hear that my boss will be calling me from Istanbul when his connecting flight lands. In a depressingly minor act of corporate rebellion, I decide to get my massage anyway – and probably become the first person in the history of the Spa at the Nile Plaza Four Seasons to ever carry a laptop, a notebook and a phone into the massage room and brief the masseuse about potentially having to take a call half way through. About the least relaxing massage I’ve ever had… but at least the call didn’t come till later that evening.

This has been a serious rambling session. My deadline is done, and I am officially claiming the right to a life again. I’m flying back to Dubai tomorrow for a three day weekend… and will continue working on establishing a life.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Keeping a blog while working 18-hour days

Dilbert is like a survival guide to corporate life.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ethiopia in pictures

The one for my Mother, who is petrified of heights

Ethiopia was an early cradle of Christianity. It is believed that one of the three wise men (Baltazar, the one with the incense), came from the Aksumite kingdom in modern day Northern Ethiopia. Nine saints are credited with bringing Christianity to Ethiopia over the next four centuries. For each of them, a church was built – not surprising in itself. What is surprising is the locations chosen for the said Churches – each was built on the most inaccessible top of the most isolated mountain ‘they’ could find. And in Northern Ethiopia, you’ve got some options.

But maybe the ubiquitous ‘they’ knew a little something about human nature. Bizarrely, twice-a-year-churchgoing spiritual-but-not-overly-religious European-church-fatigued I and New York Jewish and chronically cynical Eugene developed a fascination with these churches, and readily put ourselves through hours of gravel road / mountain path travel and considerable peril to reach them. The first one I we reached required off road travel, a hike and a 25 meter climb up a sheer rock face on a rope of braided goat skin to reach (click to enlarge the picture on the left and see Eugene attempt to make his way back down).

But the first picture above is taken after finally arriving at the second one after a barefoot climb scary enough so that the authors of the Lonely Planet confessed to not having dared attempt it (barefoot because you can get better grip with toes than shoes). I’m standing on a meter-wide ledge next to a 200 meter drop that marked the last 15 meters before the church entrance. You may notice that my weight is quite deliberately on my right foot, rather than my left.

The one with the Icelandic Tank Commander

This one is taken when we came upon a burned-out Russian built tank in the middle of a village in the countryside, around which a good 50-60 kids were engaged in a soccer game with a single ball made of plastic bags.

I would usually have joined in the game, but we didn’t have too much time as it was getting dark and our driver (whose wreck of an automobile, break problems and all, and rather disturbing habit of driving on the left side of the road was worrisome enough) had zero night vision. In any case, we couldn’t pass up the chance to check out the tank and pose for a quick photo op.

The one that was a pain in the ass

Eugene decided to get a different view of Ethiopia during one of our long road trips. Hardly the most comfortable way to travel on bumpy and dusty gravel roads, but he claimed it was well worth it for the view and the reactions he got from the local. We were eventually stopped by two policemen and an attention-grabbing AK-47 assault rifle, who started scolding the driver for having a passenger on the roof. We tried our best to intervene and explain that it was all our fault (as we were confident that whatever trouble we could get into would be minimal compared to what he might get into), but they insisted on lecturing him, possibly in hope of securing a little bribe from the foreigners. But the whole plan fell apart as car after car carrying literal truckloads of locals on top started arriving, as Eugene and I diligently pointed out. At first the police officers tried to maintain a straight face, directing the first two trucks to pull over to the side and chiding the surprised drivers for carrying people on top. But as car after overloaded car continued to arrive and our exasperated reactions started triggering waves of laughter in the crowds of villagers that surrounded us, the once menacing AK-47 was rendered insignificant. Eventually, the police officers gave up, joined in the laughter and sent us on our merry way - and the one holding the AK even posed for a photo before we left.

The one with the strange conversations

Taken at the market of one of the most remote, dirtiest and coldest (note the locals wearing Icelandic-style snow caps) mountain villages we came to, with my new friend Nonni the Icelander in the background (as briefly mentioned in an earlier post, I bizarrely ran into him and his friend Haukur after climbing the goatskin rope at the end of the world as mentioned above). I am engaged in a deep conversation with a group of 20 villagers, during which I established the going rate for donkeys, cows, horses, and camels (US$ 25, 110, 125 and 250, respectively), exchanged traditional Icelandic and Ethiopian songs, and was called upon to translate a document in medical English/Latin detailing a seriously unpleasant-sounding problem with some unfortunate person’s rectum.

When one of the world's greatest civilizations was in Africa

"I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more ... I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth."
- Francisco Álvares, a Portuguese priest and explorer(1465 - 1540)

Lalibela is a magical place. 12 huge churches and countless tunnels were hewn out of the rock from the top down during the reign of the Christian King Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries, in an attempt to create another Holy City following the fall of Jerusalem to Muslims. Despite countless chauvenistic theories claiming "it couldn't have been done by Africans" and giving credit to anyone from the Knights Templar to Portuguese missionaries, there is overwhelming evidence to prove that these amazing structures were built by Ethiopian stonemasons. I feel fortunate to have had the luck to explore the place, intermingled with the local devout in the solemn silence that seems to envelop the sites (at least until the groups of tourists arrive). I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Children playing next to the preserved corpses in an open crypt

The local devout

St. Georges church - unbelievable


A resident of Lalibela

Finally, for the photography credits. Most of the pictures are courtesy of my good friend and travel partner Eugene. The rest of his pictures of this trip (and other travels, including some spectacular shots from our trip to Myanmar, Laos and Thailand in 2005) can be found here. Here's a hint: he, like I, appreciates comments! Other pictures are by Haukur the rock-dweller and yours truly.

I'm out of time, but here are a few more pictures.

A friend from Aksum

Our mode of transport in Addis Abeba

US Aid 1987 (click to enlarge - what happened to the supplies collected by 'Band Aid')