Video Games With A Refugee

“Are you American?”

The little boy with the big brown eyes was sitting at the couch next to mine in the lobby of my hotel in Najaf, Iraq. He was dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers. He peered at me over the edge of his iPad. I looked up from my email.

“No, I’m Canadian. You Iraqi?”

“I’m Lebanese but I live in Syria. We move back to Lebanon now.”

“Your English is good.”

“I go to the international school.” He held up his iPad. “I’m looking for games.”

“You find any good ones?” I asked, smiling.

“Yeah, you want to play?”

There was something about this kid that reminded me of my own son. Maybe it was the obsession with video games. Maybe it was because he was bilingual. Maybe it was because I was missing my son so much.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to my couch and plopped down beside me. I logged off my email and put away my laptop. He shook my hand – an oddly adult gesture – and told me his name was Mohammad and that he was 9 years old.

“I’ve been to Syria,” I told him. “I liked it a lot. Where are you from in Syria?”

“Sayyida Zainab. Want to see it? It’s on Youtube.”

“Sure.”

Then he showed me this video – bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets being buried in a mass grave.

“They’re dead,” he said in a low voice.

I couldn’t think of what to say. This kid was 9 and this was his reality. I’ve spent the past seven years protecting my son from the ugliness of the world. Mohammad’s dad probably did the same thing until his country fell apart. After a moment I turned the video off.

“Don’t watch that, it’s sad,” I told him.

“OK. Want to play some games?”

The speed with which his mood changed shocked me. I was still numb from what I had seen.

“Sure, Mohammad. Let’s play some games.”

Yes, Mohammad, be a kid.

He’d downloaded a bunch of free apps. We played one where Obama and Romney shoot ping pong balls at each other. I played Obama and won. It was close, though. Mohammad was obviously experienced at video games.

One of the hotel employees passed by.

“See that man?” Mohammad said. “I hate him. He do this to me to tease me.”

He crossed his eyes. Suddenly I felt protective. Some guy was teasing Mohammad? For a moment it felt like someone had teased my own son.”Can you do that?” he asked.

I crossed my eyes and wiggled my nostrils at him. He smiled.

“My brother can move his ears.”

“I can’t do that. Can you do this?” I rolled my tongue. He did the same.

We searched for more apps as the massacre at Sayyida Zainab replayed in my mind. One app took my photo and Mohammad used a razor to shave me bald. Then we played a game where a cat and dog throw bones at each other over a fence. I tried to let him win while he tried to let me win. I eventually won at letting him win. To assuage his sense of Arab hospitality he fetched me tea. Then we played a parking game.

“My father had a car but somebody take,” Mohammad said, his voice going low again.
I flashed back to the video. What else did his family lose as they fled Syria?

He wasn’t so good at parking. He kept hitting other cars. Eventually he gave up and got onto the app store to look for more games. One ad showed a woman in a bikini. He put his hand over it.

“Don’t look, it’s bad,” he told me.

“OK.”

Mohammad’s two teenaged sisters, jeans showing under their abayas, sat at another couch nearby and occasionally added to the conversation from a distance. They told me they’re on pilgrimage here. Najaf and the nearby city of Karbala are sacred to Shia Muslims. I was here seeing the same shrines.

“How long you stay in Najaf?” Mohammad asked me.

“I leave tomorrow.”

His face fell.

“Oh. Let’s play another game,” he said.

“OK, Mohammad.”

My group was already gathering to visit the local shrine of Imam Ali, which Mohammad’s family had already visited. They were soon headed off to Karbala.

“You’ll love Karbala,” I told him. “The shrine is very beautiful.” Like Syria used to be, I wanted to add.

“You not going to Karbala again?” he asked.

“No. Sorry, Mohammad.”

Everyone was boarding the bus now. Reluctantly I got up and said goodbye. Mohammad looked sad.

“Keep practicing those games, kid,” I said, forcing a smile.

Then I got on the bus and never saw him again.

Sometimes you meet people on your travels that stick with you long after you say goodbye. The 9-year-old boy who likes video games and survived a massacre is going to stick with me for a long time – that and the fact that a couple of those bodies were smaller than he is.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam!”

New App Delivers National Geographic News To The iPad

The New National Geographic Today app for iPadFor decades the National Geographic Society has been on the cutting edge of exploration and science, and its iconic yellow-bordered magazine has delivered news from those fronts into American homes for nearly 125 years. With the advent of the Internet age, the organization brought that wealth of knowledge online at NationalGeographic.com and has delivered daily updates on topics that included everything from space travel and the environment to scientific expeditions and beyond. Yesterday, the Society launched a new app for the iPad that delivers that same award winning content in a new and beautiful way.

The new app is called National Geographic Today and it is designed from the ground up to deliver daily news, videos, articles and more directly from the Nat Geo site. It does an excellent job of formatting all of that content for the iPad’s screen and includes support for the Retina Display on the New iPad. That means the text is crisp and easy to read and the high-resolution photos – a trade mark of National Geographic – simply pop off the screen.

Launching the app brings up a dynamic columnar view that lists dates for the past week and provides a brief glimpse of a photo from each of those days. Tapping one of the columns causes the others to smoothly slide out of the way, revealing the full image underneath. A pop-up window provides information on the photo itself including when and where it was taken. That image is just the cover shot for the day, however, and readers can access all the daily news, videos and other interactive content through an unobtrusive and intuitive interface that falls along the right side of the screen.

Of course, this is the age of social media and the app has its bases well covered there as well. All of the articles, photos, videos and various other content can be shared via Facebook, Twitter and email, and readers can also “Like” stories and post comments quickly and easily.

If you’re a fan of National Geographic and own an iPad you’ll definitely want to add this app to your tablet. It is absolutely free and will likely provide you with hours of education and entertainment. Download it now by clicking here.

National Geographic iPad app offers 50 Places of a Lifetime

National Geographic has released an iPad app for the 50 places of a lifetimeThere is no doubt about it, the iPad has changed the way we consume media and altered how we define what a magazine is. Those of us who use Apple’s insanely popular gadget have gotten use to the idea that our “magazine’s” now include audio, video, and interactive elements that just aren’t possible in the print versions. This is demonstrated perfectly in a new app from National Geographic, which highlights their list of the 50 Places of a Lifetime compiled by Nat Geo Traveler.

As the name implies, this new app spotlights some of the greatest destinations on the planet, which are broken down into five categories. Those categories include “Urban Spaces”, “Wild Places”, “Paradise Found”, “Country Unbound”, and “World Wonders”. Selecting any one of those items will present you with a list of 10 places, which stylishly appear on the screen complete with animation and music. From there, you simply navigate through the individual destinations by swiping left and right. Scrolling up and down presents the full article on the location, offering insights to that place, and why it deserves a spot on the list. It is all very intuitive, and easy to use, with gestures that are second nature to any iPad owner.

The individual articles that accompany the various locations are typical Nat Geo fare. That is to say, they are well written, insightful, and will likely inspire you to want to visit the places being described. The stories are penned by the likes of Bill Bryson, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and George Plimpton, amongst others, who share their personal thoughts on what makes these places so magical. Places like the Serengeti, the Seychelles, and Venice, Italy.
The trademark National Geographic photography makes an appearance as well, of course. Stunning images accompany the travel essays, bringing each destination to life and offering tantalizing glimpses of what travelers can expect at these places of a lifetime. As you would expect, the photos are one of the highlights of this app, and many of them will have you drooling all over your screen.

Other features of the app include videos, interactive “fast facts,” expanded photo galleries, and the always popular Nat Geo maps. I was particularly fond of the 360-degree panoramic images which take full advantage of the iPad touch screen, and built-in checklists that allow you to highlight the destinations that you’ve already visited, while adding others to your own personal bucket list.

The app weighs in at a whopping 464 MB in size, which means it takes awhile to download. If you intend to read it while on your next vacation, be sure to download it well ahead of time. Once installed, everything is self contained however, which means you won’t need an Internet connection to take advantage of everything it has to offer.

The best part of this great app? It costs just $1.99! Where else can you get this kind of interactive content for so little money? Even a print magazine cost more than that! You can find it on iTunes by clicking here.

[Image courtesy of Victor R. Boswell, National Geographic]

National Parks app comes to the iPhone

Visitors to America’s national parks now have a new high tech option for learning more about those amazing places. Last week the National Parks Conservation Association released an app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch that offers up a wealth of information on 50 of the most popular parks in the country, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. (For a complete list of the parks covered click here.)

The app is completely free and provides information on the plants and animals that travelers can expect to find in the various parks, including the ones that are poisonous and dangerous, something this always helpful when you’re not sure if your about to step into poison ivy or not. You’ll also find comprehensive lists of threatened and endangered species, as well as a brief history of each of the parks, including great photos from each location as well.

But that’s not all. The app also allows you to find parks that are close to your current location and offers directions on how to get there. It includes information on making reservations at each park, directions on how to find the visitors center, and current news from the park system on featured parks as well.

The field guide app was developed in conjunction with eNature.com, a company with an extensive database of information focused on wildlife. That database has been created by top biologists, zoologists, and conservationists, and contains information on over 6000 different species. That information is now, quite literally, delivered to the fingertips of visitors to the national parks.

There is one caveat to using the app however, as a data network is required to download the information. The iPhone will work where cell service is available, although in more remote areas of the parks that can be spotty at best. iPod Touch and iPad users will need to use wifi, which is available in some visitor centers, to load up their maps and information ahead of time. Keep that in mind when relying on this app to help guide you through the parks.

To download the new app click here.

[Photo credit: NPCA]

Frommer’s travel tools provides nine handy iPhone apps in one

Frommer’s just released their newest iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch application – Frommer’s Travel Tools. Their previous applications were mobile versions of their guidebooks, but this newest application acts as a 9-in-1 travel companion.

The app offers the following tools:

  • Tip calculator
  • Packing list
  • Postcards
  • Currency converter
  • Unit converter
  • Time translator
  • Travel trivia
  • City guides Flashlight
  • “Apps we love”

The best part of the application is the price – $0. Unlike some other travel companion apps, the Frommers app is surprisingly comprehensive. The tip calculator lets you split the check, and select the required tip level. The currency calculator can download the latest rate charts, and the postcard feature lets you pick images from a large collection of Frommer’s photos.

All in all, a great little tool to have on your phone. You’ll find the Frommer’s Travel Tools in the App store, or on the Frommer’s Mobile app site.

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