Wonders of Vietnam: Sapa

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.

_________________________________________________________________________

We had been in Vietnam for four days, and had already spent a rousing evening in Hanoi, and three days on an activity-charged cruise on captivating Halong Bay.  Our next venture was an overnight train ride from Hanoi to Sapa, a mountain town in northwestern Vietnam, home to a variety of (exotic and colorfully dressed) ethnic groups originating largely from southern China, Thailand, and Laos.

My hope had been to schedule a daytime train to Sapa, however, the train timetables revealed nighttime train travel only.  We were a bit wary, as we had not heard any firsthand feedback about this train ride.  Would the train be safe, noisy, busting at the seams with people; sleep-worthy?  Online research informed us it might be best to book an entire cabin, as otherwise we could be bunking with an entire family in a rather confined space.  Communication with staff from the Ruby Elegance Hotel, our “home base” while in Hanoi, indicated that the Sapalay Express train, the train line we ultimately chose, was several tiers above the “Oriental Express” in terms of comfort and service, and only one tier below the highest rated train.  This helped to assuage our concerns, and we booked our train travel to follow a day’s rest in Hanoi after our Halong Bay cruise.

DSCF6571

Sapalay Express Train

After an evening meal of Bún chả; broth with bean sprouts, green salad leaves, noodles, and pork bits at what was becoming a favorite “hole in the wall” restaurant near our hotel, Bishara and I left for the Hanoi train station at 8:45 PM.  A hotel porter was good enough to accompany us to the station.  Virtually no one spoke English except for a smattering of western tourists; consequently, it was a relief to have our porter confirm our tickets amidst the throngs of people positioning for a spot in line or scurrying to find their train line and coach number.  Our porter, baggage in hand, earnestly and expeditiously maneuvered through the hordes, located our coach, motioned for us to climb up, and then coolly hoisted our bags onto the train.  Sensing Bishara’s concern, our porter promised, in purposeful yet limited English, that someone would be at the train station to assist upon our return to Hanoi from Sapa.

Securely on the train in our private cabin, I felt able to focus on the excitement of our imminent train trip.  Our cabin was small with two sets of bunk-style beds, and although the furniture was somewhat dated and worn, the mattress, pillows and fluffy comforter were all surprisingly comfortable and cozy.  Although Bishara and I had prepared to be up for a while planning our time in Sapa, and possibly reading while ingesting this novel train experience, our active day culminated in us both drifting into desultory sleep following a 9:50 PM departure time.

Despite jolting at every grind, stop and start throughout the night, I enjoyed a whimsical awareness during our uncommon ten-hour train excursion.  Morning light peeking through the curtained window of our cabin lifted us out of our semi-conscious reverie at around 5:00 in the morning.  Pulling the curtain aside, I was beguiled by the lush greenery of the expansive rice paddies framed by undulating hills and farm homes.  We were nearing Lao Cai, our destination.  A young man knocked on our cabin door with offers of Vietnamese milk coffee.

DSCF6567

View from train.

DSCF6568

DSCF6569

Train view.

We arrived at Lao Cai train station at 8:30 AM, and shuffled through the narrow train corridor with Bishara lugging the heavier suitcases and me trailing behind.  Swarms of people, once again, met us as we stepped off the train; train passengers fusing with those waiting to meet them.  Amongst the masses, we spotted a man holding a sign that read “Bishara.”  Feeling relieved, we scurried over; the young man gave us a cursory nod, snatched our bags, and led us to his awaiting van.  We all piled in, and were soon on our hour-long ride from Lao Cai to Sapa.

DSCF6572

Lao Cai

As we departed the train station, the cityscape of traditional long, narrow and deep buildings slowly transformed to luxuriant vegetation hugging the surrounding bluffs.  With each hairpin curve the mountain views expanded and village life became discernible.  Lone ethnic Hmong women dressed in black with colorful trimmings and cloth shin guards emerged on the side of the road hauling plastic bags to undetermined destinations.  Further on, glimpses of battered wooden structures with tin corrugated roofs, homes of the Hmong, appeared on mountainsides and along towering ridges.

Within the hour we arrived in Sapa, a popular destination in northern Vietnam for young Bohemians and retired tourist groups alike.  Our van weaved through the narrow streets of the town until we reached our accommodation, the Bamboo Sapa Hotel, on the outskirts of the city.  Our room, the Fanispan Suite, was an ample space with polished wooden floors and a breathtaking panoramic view of the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, or “Tonkinese Alps.”

DSCF6573

Fanispan Suite (Bamboo Sapa Hotel)

DSCF6575

View from balcony.

DSCF6576

DSCF6577

DSCF6578

Although weary and punchy after a sleepless night, we decided to push on and probe this intriguing town.  We began with a breakfast of special order omelets with tomatoes and onion and milk coffee at a charming restaurant across the street from our hotel.  Although our preference is to indulge in local fare, we felt compelled to order our “go to” heavy duty omelets to help sustain us through the day.

DSCF6580

Hmong women spotted during breakfast.

Breakfast was followed by a stroll through town; breezing by boutique hotels with multi-tiered balconies adorned with flower pots, cozy cafes, massage parlors, food marts, and the ever-present towering, slender residences.  We finally bumped into the Sapa Market with vendors selling raw meat, fruits and vegetables, a variety of savory nuts and herbs, kaleidoscopic textiles/clothing, while aromatic grilled Vietnamese street food filled the air; a virtual assault on the senses.

DSCF6588

Breezing through town.

DSCF6589

DSCF6593

DSCF6605

DSCF6606

DSCF6608

DSCF6594

Sapa Market (raw meat)

DSCF6595

DSCF6596

DSCF6597

DSCF6598

DSCF6599

DSCF6600

DSCF6601

DSCF6602

DSCF6603

Staff at the Bamboo Sapa Hotel had provided us with a map of the town and neighboring area when we first arrived, and recommended we visit the Ham Rong (Dragon’s Jaw) Mountain Park, a 15 minute walk from the hotel.  After leaving the Sapa Market and stopping for a brief tour of the stone (or Holy Rosary) church near the mountain park, we began a considerable climb up Dragon’s Jaw; hundreds of stone steps and a cobblestone pathway.  The expedition included the Fanispan View, a broad display of Sapa huddled within the mountain peaks, dazzling flower gardens, and the summit with more glorious views.

DSCF6609

Holy Rosary Church

DSCF6613

Start of climb up Dragon’s Jaw.

DSCF6620

Fanispan View

DSCF6622

DSCF6623

DSCF6624

DSCF6625

One of many flower gardens on trek up Dragon’s Jaw.

DSCF6626

DSCF6627

DSCF6628

DSCF6629

DSCF6631

DSCF6632

DSCF6633

DSCF6634

DSCF6635

DSCF6638

Near the summit of Dragon’s Jaw.

DSCF6640

DSCF6641

The walk down the mountain was only slightly less painful than the trek up.  To soothe our aching muscles, we opted for classic Vietnamese foot, arm, upper back massages at one of the many massage parlors in town.  The massages left us placid and languid, and at only $8 per hour, were an incredible value.

Glancing at our watches, we realized it was suppertime and not wishing to diminish our serene states of mind, we chose to dine at Viet Bamboo, a restaurant close by on the side of a hill, even though it meant climbing more steps.  Our sore knees and tired bodies were rewarded with cordial service and some delectable starters, including pumpkin soup in coconut milk and potato soup with Vietnamese herbs, followed by chicken curry and fried rice with shrimp and pineapple.  We topped off our meals with Hanoi beer, ginger tea, and exquisite fried banana cake with honey.

DSCF6642

Viet Bamboo Restaurant

Making our way back to our room, we stopped in a café across the street from our hotel where “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” one of my disco favorites was blaring.  Although tempted to dance the night away, we thought it best to get a good night’s sleep, as we wanted to fully enjoy our visit to a tiny nearby Vietnamese village the next day. . . . We couldn’t wait!

Wonders of Vietnam: Halong Bay

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam. _______________________________________________________________________

We had spent a delightful late afternoon and evening in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and were eagerly anticipating our three day/two night cruise on Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Our Canadian expatriate friends related that their cruise on the bay had been the highlight of their time in Vietnam, and remarks and photos on tourist internet sites seemed to reinforce this notion.  I decided, ultimately, to have the very capable staff of the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, our “home base” while in Vietnam, assist us in making arrangements for our Halong Bay cruise, as well as our overnight train travel to the mountain town of Sapa.  This arrangement helped to provide a higher level of transparency to our planning, as the hotel tied in the ancillaries like hiring a private car to take us to, and from, our boarding locations, and such. We had been in Hanoi a mere 14 hours; time enough, though, for an evening out in the bustling yet charming city, an exquisite meal featuring bánh xèo (Vietnamese fried pancakes), and a delectable breakfast of western omelets, carrot juice and traditional noodle soup following an early morning wake-up call (5:15 AM).  A porter and two receptionists scrambled to ensure our luggage was transported expeditiously from the alleyway of our hotel to the waiting car on an adjoining side street, all the while attempting to halt traffic for us as we dodged scooters, pole vendors, and pedestrians.  The receptionists attentively opened the passenger doors for us, wished us a wonderful cruise, and off we went on a three and a half hour car ride to the very popular Halong Bay, 146 km (91 miles) due east of Hanoi. The quaint alleyways of the Old Quarter gradually morphed into the urbanized landscape of Hanoi’s city proper, a short span of highway driving and finally local two-lane roads that linked small towns and villages.  Like the Old Quarter of Hanoi, scooters were ever-present, alongside small trucks and Kia cars, as were the unusually tall slim buildings with multiple balconies and wrought iron railings, often covered with an abundance of colorful flowers.

DSCF6347

View from car.

Before reaching Tuan Chau Island on Halong Bay, we stopped for a scheduled bathroom break that integrated a requisite visit to a handicraft shop and a hurried lunch of spring rolls, and pork coupled with noodles.  In time, our driver signaled that we needed to leave, so we clambered into the car and within an hour we were at the bay.  We were booked on the Paradise cruise lines, and were led to the Paradise café and waiting area, which brandished a mini-buffet, coffee and tea.  A short time later, an announcement was made about boarding our cruise ship, and a cruise lines’ representative escorted us all to the boat, where a “welcome briefing” and safety exercise (with life jackets, et al) were underway in the dining room.  We were provided a key to our cabin, which sported dark hardwood floors, a most comfortable bed with red flower petals scattered about (seemed to be a theme in Vietnam), a modern bathroom, balcony, and a document containing an itinerary of activities.

DSCF6348

Cabin on Paradise Cruise Lines.

DSCF6349 DSCF6350 We soon set sail, and savored sea breezes from the balcony, as well as intriguing views of diverse limestone structures covered with lush vegetation and an amalgam of ships of all sizes and styles, each flying the Vietnamese flag.  Traditional junk ships with corrugated brown sails, pontoons, smaller day and fishing boats, and more contemporary boats, such as ours, all shared the waters.  At one point, a rowboat carrying a vendor with an assortment of wares disturbed our serenity by soliciting us unrelentingly about buying a string of pearls, which she dangled over our balcony in a small net at the end of a wooden rod.  While initially intrigued, we eventually retreated to the safety of our cabin and shut the blinds.  The bay’s history, itself, is quite rich and storied, as research indicates ancient cultures occupied the Halong Bay area as early as 18,000 BC, with the name Ha Long (“descending dragon”) deriving from the gods dispatching dragons spewing jewels that formed islands and stone mountains throughout the bay, thwarting the attacks of potential invaders.

DSCF6352

Setting Sail!

DSCF6387 DSCF6356 DSCF6363 DSCF6360

Said vendor who disturbed our serenity.

Said vendor who disturbed our serenity.

At 12:55 PM, a pronouncement was made over the loudspeaker alerting us that lunch would be served at 1:00 PM.  Lunch tables were set for individual families, and substantial aluminum buffet containers overflowed with pork, rice, noodles, and chicken, all flavored with Vietnamese spices such as lemongrass, mint, cilantro, ginger and cinnamon.  Ronald, our cruise director, made the rounds to ensure everyone was happily sated, and fully aware of upcoming activities. Soon after our meal, ensconced in our cabin and nodding off, another announcement jolted us out of our reverie conveying that we would depart for Surprise Cave (Hang Sung Sot), a massive and celebrated grotto on Bo Hon Island, at 2:30 PM.  Lifejackets were placed over our heads and buckled in place by the cabin crew as we loaded onto a smaller boat with several rows of benches.  Within a short interval, we were on the wharf of Bo Hon Island being greeted by the necessitous merchants at the ready to sell visitors souvenirs and trinkets.  After a steep climb of uneven stone stairs we arrived at the grotto’s imposing entrance.

Dock at Bo Hon Island.

Dock at Bo Hon Island.

Surprise Cave (Grotto)

Surprise Cave (Grotto)

DSCF6372 DSCF6373 DSCF6378 Several chambers within the cave housed haunting stalagmites and stalactites and kaleidoscopic lighting that displayed ostensible shapes of creatures, like dragons, turtles, and elephants.  Exiting the grotto, we were rewarded with a splendorous view of Halong Bay as we cautiously descended the stairs to the dock.

View from grotto.

View from grotto.

DSCF6382 DSCF6384 DSCF6385 By late afternoon, we were assisted, hand by hand, from the transport boat to our cruise ship, offered lightly scented moist cloth towels and a refreshing citrus drink, before resuming our cruise through the beguiling limestone archipelago.  Shortly after, we docked near Ti Top Island where guests enjoyed swimming, kayaking, climbing several hundred steps to the summit of a limestone structure figured prominently on the island, or simply lazing on the beach.  We chose the latter alternative, as the step climbing to and from the grotto had left our muscles crying out for a break.

Lazing on Ti Top Island.

Lazing on Ti Top Island.

DSCF6390 At 5:30 PM, we were on the cruise liners’ top deck learning how to make Vietnamese spring rolls with other cruise guests while the ship’s chef, cruise director, and cabin crew looked on, offering words of encouragement, while the sun set over the bay.  We were the last up showcasing or skills at pasting fish sauce on rice patties, folding up the ingredients (shrimp, mint leaves, cilantro, basil, garlic, lettuce, and lime juice) into the patty and tucking the edges back into the wrapper.  Within the first several seconds of our demonstration, the chef’s hats placed on our heads by the cruise director only moments ago were whisked away by the sea breezes; we were truly big-headed.  The cooking exercise was complemented with “Happy Hour” festivities, including a “two for one” offer and complimentary rice wine, a potent drink of choice for Vietnamese.

Cooking instructions aboard boat.

Cooking instructions aboard boat.

DSCF6396

Displaying our cooking skills.

DSCF6409

Proud cooks!

Our dinner began with the dispensing of “Cooking Class” certificates, followed by a five-course Vietnamese meal (similar in composition to our lunch buffet), and ended with the showing of the film, “The Quiet American” starring Michael Cain; a movie that focuses on Vietnam’s conflict with the French in 1952 along with events leading up to America’s war in Vietnam, all amidst a nefarious love triangle.

Receiving cooking certificates.

Receiving cooking certificates.

Dinner aboard boat.

Dinner aboard boat.

We slept peacefully overnight, and although we had the opportunity to participate in a Tai Chi session at the break of dawn on the sundeck, we determined the extra hours of sleep were an extravagance we did not want to miss.  Of course, we did not opt out of breakfast served, buffet-style, at 8:50 AM, boasting exotic fruits, Vietnamese pastries, “made to order” omelets, and alluring views of distinct limestone formations through oversized windows of the dining area.  Keeping to the activities schedule, at 8:30 AM, we were boarded a day cruiser to visit Viet Hai Village on Cat Ba Island.  A two hour trek by motor boat afforded us added views of the elaborate and picturesque chain of limestone isles, sparkling azure waters, and a captivating network of floating fishing villages.  Roughly 1,000 people live in dwellings on these floating villages where the occupants support themselves through fishing and aquaculture.  Currently, concerns are growing around residents’ safety due to recent powerful storms, as well as the continued sustainability of vulnerable ecosystems.  Our Cat Ba Island guide divulged that he spent his formative years in one of these villages, and his family may be required to leave due to the ever-increasing destruction from storms.

Headed for Cat Ba Island.

Headed for Cat Ba Island.

Floating fishing village.

Floating fishing village.

DSCF6434 DSCF6435 DSCF6438 DSCF6439 Arriving on Cat Ba Island, Bishara, with a heavy backpack containing our essentials and an inherent lack of balance, made an attempt to jump from our cruiser to a smaller boat, with two young Vietnamese men assuring they would assist in a safe dismount, that resulted in a slippery landing, a twitching boat, and Bishara and the two assistants flat on their backs.  Despite my angst, Bishara jumped up, laughing, while grabbing each of the young men by an arm and pulling them upright.  After determining that all was fine, we were given the option of hopping on the back of a scooter or riding a bike into the village of Viet Hai.  We elected for the latter alternative, and were pointed in the direction of some rather rickety-looking bikes.  Undaunted, I jumped on the first bike I sampled, and was off.  Close behind were Bishara, two young couples, and our guide.  We traveled along a concrete path with flourishing greenery bordering our route and blanketing the surrounding stone forms.

Starting our bike ride.

Starting our bike ride.

DSCF6443 DSCF6444

Silhouettes of the village appearing in the background.

Silhouettes of the village appearing in the background.

Within forty minutes, the silhouettes of single story structures appeared at the base of a rocky ridge.  Biking to the edge of town, our guide pointed out a small medical office, as well as a grade school and nursery school.

Medical office.

Medical office.

School.

School.

Nursery school.

Nursery school.

We were all preoccupied, however, with a prepossessing 95 year-old woman, matriarch of the village, who inhabited an austere dwelling with a sliding glass door, and slept on a straw mat atop a wooden box propped up with bricks beside a plastic tarp sheltering a nearby wall.  The village people, we were told, took care of this matron’s every want; including making provisions for cooking and medical needs.  Oh, the stories locked behind the faded and seasoned eyes of this aged beauty. DSCF6446

Matriarch of the village.

Matriarch of the village.

DSCF6448 DSCF6449 DSCF6455 After a glorious ride back to the dock and re-boarding the Paradise Cruiser, we were served a sumptuous multi-course lunch on an open air deck, and ultimately anchored at the Dark and Light Caves.  While some kayaked, we embarked on a small power boat with new friends and indulged in the allure of the surrounding setting. DSCF6468 We were aboard our main cruise ship by late afternoon, and the next morning docked at Tuan Chau Island, the origin point of our cruise.  After an enchanting trip, we looked forward to returning to lively Hanoi for a couple of days before traveling by overnight train to the mountain town of Sapa.

Wonders of Vietnam: Hanoi

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________ 

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded, incredulously.  “Why would you want to go to Vietnam for vacation?”  My husband, Bishara, and I were having breakfast, a time often reserved for airing a variety of issues, planning for upcoming activities, and such.  Not to say that the idea of vacationing in Vietnam had not been broached before by my husband.  For the last several years, Bishara has, on occasion, garnered the courage to advance the notion, which I have always, not so indelicately, struck down.  Living in the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia in the early 2000’s, and Qatar for the last nine and a half years, has afforded us some remarkable travel opportunities, which we have taken full advantage of.  We have particularly appreciated the relative convenience of visiting Southeast Asia, and have had the good fortune of travelling to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  Our time in each of these countries has been nothing short of wondrous and life enriching.

Vietnam, in my mind, however, was a different story.  America had fought a contentious war there, and had lost.  Etched in memories of my 1960’s childhood were the nightly airings of the frontline battles on our family TV, against a backdrop of lush tropical settings, ubiquitous rice paddies, and the fallen being transported by comrades to waiting medical helicopters.  This was definitely not a favored vacation destination.  Bishara, who had been watching the same images on TV as a child halfway around the world in Jordan, had a more visceral reaction to the scenes.  Having experienced warfare, first-hand, in Jordan and later in Lebanon’s civil war, Bishara felt more empathy for, and a personal connectedness to, the war weary on both sides of the conflict.

My resolve began to dissolve several months ago when I began hearing reports from expatriate friends who had visited Vietnam and revealed that this country on the Indochina Peninsula was a captivating place with magnificent scenery, a rich history, and sumptuous food.  So maybe there was something to Bishara’s penchant for vacationing in Vietnam.  I began doing the research and determined that while there were many travel plan options when in the country, the north had the mountains, diverse ethnic groups, and an intriguing history.  A plan was developing, and we eventually settled on a 10-day trip in early April with Hanoi as home base, and side trips to include a cruise on Halong Bay (to the east of Hanoi) and Sapa, a picturesque mountain town in the northeast of the country.

Bishara divulged when we were back in Qatar about having prayed on the plane ride to Hanoi that expectations would be met on this trip, as he had not wanted to haul me to Vietnam under false pretenses.  Although the tread on the luggage carousel broke, and we had to wait over an hour for our bags to arrive at the Hanoi Airport, our luck definitely improved after leaving baggage claim.  The driver who would take us to the hotel was just outside, placard in hand with our names prominently displayed.  The young man swiftly brought our luggage, which practically swallowed up his slight frame, to a waiting van, and though he spoke virtually no English, afforded us wonderful views of the bustling city of Hanoi and its outskirts as he drove us to our hotel in the heart of the “Old Quarter.”

DSCF6523

Motor scooters of Hanoi.

IMG_0188

Many tall, narrow buildings in Hanoi.

DSCF6529

Blurs of small trucks, scooters, and women wearing conical straw hats working the rice paddies off the highway began crystalizing into alluring tall, narrow buildings hinting of French colonialism with flowered balconies and wrought iron railings, more scooters, and quaint tree-lined streets, as we entered Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  We were already enamored.

DSCF6542

Alleyway of our hotel.

DSCF6820

Within an hour we arrived at our accommodations, the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, located in a lovely and active alleyway in the middle of the Old Quarter.  A porter and several representatives of the hotel came outside, warmly welcomed us, and all helped to expedite the movement of our luggage from the car into the boutique hotel.  Once inside, we were offered wet cloth towels to freshen ourselves, fruit juice, and suggestions on sites of interest and dining options in Hanoi.  Before we knew it, the porter nabbed our luggage and began running up five flights of stairs, while we rode the diminutive elevator with a hotel receptionist.  When Bishara expressed concern over the porter carrying our unwieldy luggage up all those stairs, the receptionist casually predicted that the porter would beat us to the fifth floor; and he was right.

Our room was designated “VIP,” however, in style and design, only.  Cost was merely average by American standards.  Spacious, with hardwood floors, beautiful finishings and furnishings in the Vietnamese style, red flower petals scattered on the bed, a balcony, and complimentary bottle of wine, the room was exceedingly comfortable.

DSCF6333

VIP Room at Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel

DSCF6332

DSCF6335

Complimentary wine.

 

View from balcony.

View from balcony.

After settling in, Bishara and I headed downstairs, anxious to sample Vietnamese cuisine and Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  The Old Quarter’s patchwork of roads and alleyways (originally 36 streets) are nearly 1,000 years old, and emerged from a series of working villages, each plying a specific trade.  Some streets harbor the same trades as centuries ago, like sheet-metal and tin materials; others have changed to focus on items like bamboo or electrical merchandise; and still others are a hodgepodge of different offerings, from t-shirts and dessert sweets, to hair salons and spas.  These days, motor scooters are everywhere, in the streets and rows upon rows parked on the sidewalks, oftentimes limiting the space for walking, but somehow lending to the chaotic charm of the place.

DSCF6540

Scooters everywhere!

The reception desk had recommended Quan An Ngon restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese meal, and since it was not an easy walk, a taxi service was called.  Two hotel business cards were handed to us with the receptionist stressing that the card would come in handy when returning to the hotel.  Slipping into the waiting taxi, I told the driver we were going to the Quan An Ngon restaurant.  Dead silence.  Again, Bishara this time; “We are going to Quan An Ngon restaurant.”  Not a sound.  Fifteen minutes later, the driver stopped and pointed, unceremoniously, to the right.  “Ah, this must be the restaurant,” I remarked.  It would become apparent that Hanoi taxi drivers rarely spoke English; evidently, the hotel had spoken with the driver, or taxi service, about where we would be dining.  Looking out for our welfare and that of other hotel guests was an enduring priority; always carried out, though, in a most understated and unpretentious manner.

DSCF6336

Quan An Ngon restaurant.

 

DSCF6338

Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Entering through the open wrought iron gates of Quan An Ngon restaurant was like being transported to a festive fusion of one part open air garden, one part bustling marketplace.  I hesitated over sitting at a communal table preferring, instead, a private table, however, there were no private tables available, so we sat alongside Europeans at a long public table.  In time, a single lady from the Netherlands joined us, and the camaraderie that ensued certainly enhanced our evening.

A happy spirit and wonderful ambience permeated Quan An Ngon.  Several smiling and amiable servers approached our table and patiently deciphered meal items from the menu.  The suggested choices included Vietnamese fried pancakes (bánh xèo), pork soup with noodles (Bánh canh Trảng Bàng), and barbecue pork (thịt nướng).  We must have looked a bit hapless, since a couple of servers, pulling plastic gloves over their hands, came bounding over when we received our food, and proceeded to show us how those “in the know” eat traditional Vietnamese meals.  And there is definitely an apropos technique for most entrees, which involves combining repast elements using chopsticks, of course.  The bánh xèo was the most complicated to assemble; the process beginning with the server placing mixed greens (fresh mint, parsley, spinach, lettuce, and cilantro) on a thin rice patty.  Next, a crispy rice patty is folded up and positioned over the greens, and bits of pork and shrimp are arranged on top.  The server then showed us how to roll up the original rice patty with the mixings and dip it into special Vietnamese fish sauce.

Bishara and I practiced several times, and eventually became semi-proficient at assembling the various elements of bánh xèo, however, we were much more accomplished at consuming the final product, a flavorful and crunchy mix that was absolutely delectable.  The Bánh canh Trảng Bàng (pork noodle soup) was equally as savory, although the necessary prerequisites for “chowing down” were much simpler; a side bowl of mixed greens are occasionally pilfered and nudged into the soup for a refreshing and tangy taste.  We also enjoyed an order of fresh spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves and thịt nướng (grilled barbecue pork), however, the latter was a bit too spicy for me.  We topped our meal off with a highly palatable plate of fried bananas in coconut milk.  We had been told by Canadian expatriate friends who had visited the country the previous year that the American dollar ruled in Vietnam, however, we were still taken aback when our bill was 190,000 Vietnamese dong, or just under 9 U.S. dollars.  Our meals in Vietnam rarely exceeded five U.S. dollars.

The hotel business card did, indeed, come in handy on our ride home.  Once again, the taxi driver spoke not a word of English, but nodded enthusiastically when he read the name of our hotel on the card.  We weaved through streets filled with scooters, cyclos, pedestrians, and Hundai cars all miraculously avoiding collisions, a low din of honking filling the air.  As soon as he spotted us, the hotel porter rushed out to open our car door, and graciously walked with us to a nearby market stall when he heard we needed to purchase bottles of water; we are water fiends, especially when on vacation.

DSCF6344

Shoulder pole vendor in Hanoi.

On the way back to the hotel, a woman with a shoulder pole selling a variety of household wares and trinkets, motioned to me and inquired with hand signals if I was interested in a hair clip.  I, naively, sampled a sparkly hair clip, and the lady immediately said “one million dong.”  My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t quite get used to carrying millions in our pockets and we had not paid nearly so much for anything, so far.  Although one million dong equates to a mere $ 49, this was only a plastic hair clip.  Sensing my hesitation, the lady retorted, “five-hundred thousand.”  In normal circumstances, a 50 percent drop in price would seem reasonable, however, even the porter was perturbed by the vendor’s nerve.  Some clipped words were exchanged between porter and vendor, and the porter motioned for us to follow him to the hotel.

Hanoi, dripping with buoyant rhythm and a joyful soul, easily exceeded expectations.  We looked forward to boarding the Paradise cruise ship for a three day/two night journey on Halong Bay the next day, and returning to Hanoi in the next few days.

The “Lebanese Look”

“Look at those tight pants, the eye makeup, and long curly hair!”  My husband, Bishara, could hardly contain himself as we walked along the wide and well-traveled corridor of the main wing of King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh.  “She must be Lebanese,” he continued.  Although decidedly less observant than my husband, I angled my eyes in the young woman’s direction and nodded my head, “Yes, she really does look Lebanese.”  Because I knew he just had to know, I mumbled under my breath, “Let’s go find out!”  We picked up our pace and were soon alongside the young woman, and her two companions.  “Hello,” I started, “we saw you walking with your friends and had the feeling you might be Lebanese.”  The woman idled towards me, looked me directly in the eyes, and with a hint of exasperation disclosed, “Yes, I’m Saudi on my father’s side, and Lebanese on my mother’s side.  How did you know?”

Haifa Wehbe (Singer & Model) – The “Lebanese Look” [Wikipedia]

Bishara’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly.  A native Lebanese, himself, Bishara definitely knew the “Lebanese look.”  However, this was a curious fusion of lineages; one side representing the traditional Arab world where women are required to wear abayes and headscarves, and the other characterized by a more contemporary lifestyle shaped by western influences.  Although the flying time between Riyadh and Beirut is only two and a half hours, the proximity of these two capital cities belies unusually disparate ways of life and customs.

My husband and I had lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as expatriates for several years (from 2000 to 2004), and while I was the one who felt compelled to explore this enigmatic land and was rewarded with a phenomenal and life-changing experience, it became apparent the Kingdom was the most conservative of the more traditional Gulf nations.  Although the unwritten dress code on the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) grounds (where I worked as an Economist and Bishara as a Civil Engineer), and in the Diplomatic Quarter, where many of the embassies were located, and where we lived, was somewhat more relaxed for females due to the large numbers of western expatriates, Saudi women were expected to be arrayed in a black abaye, including a face covering, niqab, when in public.  Women, in general, were prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, and limited to employment in three sectors – academia, hospitals, and banks.

Conversely, in the nearby cosmopolitan city of Beirut, women sport perfectly coiffed hair, fully made-up faces, and pricey nose jobs.  I was definitely taken aback on a visit to Lebanon in 1996, my first trip to the Middle East, when I saw an amalgam of women on the streets of Beirut with colorful headscarves or no headscarves, tight jeans, designer handbags and shoes, erect postures, and determined gaits.  Cafes overlooking the azure Mediterranean Sea were brimming with women, some with male companions and others in collections, many in oversized sunglasses sipping Turkish coffee, chattering, and people watching.  Sheesha, prevalent in Beirut seaside cafes, is often the diversion of choice on weekends and in the evenings, with women going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts on mustering the largest smoke rings.

File:Sabah - Al Mawed.jpg

Sahbah (Lebanese Singer & Actress)

And Lebanese women may be found in all sectors of employment, from the service sector and retail arena, to the armed forces.  There seem to be no limits for Lebanese women, who are nothing if not bold and direct.  In the early 2000s, Bishara and I were having breakfast in a sweet little café on the outskirts of Beirut, and I had special ordered my favorite – a western omelet, a little known breakfast selection in Bishara’s native country.  As I savored my omelet, I noticed a group of women at a nearby table shooting sideways glances at Bishara and me from time to time, not an uncommon occurrence, as Lebanese women tend to be a very curious lot with a tendency towards flirtation.  When the women, each immaculately dressed and dripping with confidence, paid their check and got up to leave, they sashayed right up to me and just inches away, peered unabashedly at my eggs soaked in bacon, onion, and green pepper as I moved my forkfuls from plate to mouth.  Although I had become conditioned to the audacious ways of Lebanese women having traveled with Bishara to his homeland on many occasions, I was startled by how very upfront and personal these women were being.  “Here would you like a taste,” just sort of slipped out, as I lifted my fork filled with omelet in their direction.  “Oh, no, thank you!” came the swift response, as the women scurried out of the restaurant on their Louboutin heels.

600full-mona-abou-hamze

Mona Abou Hamze – TV Presenter (Sammy Said, “Beauty”)

Rola+Saad

Rola Saad, Model & Singer (Sammy Said, “Beauty”)

The confidence and fashion forward nature of Lebanese women is strongly influenced by the inundation of western Europeans into Lebanon in the 1960s and early 1970s for fun-filled holidays; mountain skiing in the winters, and summer days spent lazing by the Mediterranean Sea and shopping, with evenings spent partying at trendy nightclubs.  Before the civil war in the mid-70s, Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East,” and Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East.”

scan0002

Mediterranean Sea (Lebanon)

scan0003

Mountain View Outside of Beirut

scan0004

The Mediterranean

scan0007

Beirut

Lebanese women not only want to look their best, but often feel compelled to help others do the same.  On the trip Bishara and I took to Lebanon in 1996, after the prerequisite feasts on grape leaves, molkhia, bamieh, kibbe, moutabel, and falafel, Bishara’s sisters and a couple of neighbor ladies were kind enough to offer to style my hair.  Having coarse and generally unmanageable hair, I jumped at the opportunity.  After washing my hair, I was seated in front of a mirror in one of the bedrooms in Bishara’s old family residence, and out came the hairdryers, hair straighteners, hairsprays, and mousse.  Like professional salon hairstylists, the women effortlessly dried, straightened, fluffed, moussed, and finished off their creation with a heavy mist of hair spray.

Since our plan for later that night was to have an evening out at an exclusive mountain-side restaurant outside of Beirut that featured belly dancing, my styling team decided my new look would not be complete without a heavy dose of eyeliner to create “Cleopatra eyes” with multi-colored eye shadows applied to achieve the ultimate effect.  I had never worn so much makeup in my life, but I had to draw the line when I heard whispers of plucking and shaping my eyebrows – I had always prided myself in maintaining a more “natural look.”  And, of course, my choice of attire was not immune from evaluation and enhancement.  The ladies chose the shortest skirt I had packed, a white flouncy blouse under a black jacket, and a sparkly black and gold scarf.  Like my eyebrows, I would not negotiate on the shoes – no spiked heels.

So, there I was in the middle of the mountainside restaurant, feeling out of place, completely outside my “comfort zone,” yet somehow satisfied (based on Bishara’s reaction) having affected “the Lebanese look.”

scan0005

The Feigned “Lebanese Look”

scan0006

The Real “Lebanese Look”

Tribute to My Friend, Sherifa

I write this tribute in honor of my friend, Sherifa, a young woman who taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar.  My hope is that Sherifa’s voice and sentiments live on in the dreams of other young Qatari women.  This article recounts several interviews I had with Sherifa. 

Sherifa died in a tragic car accident on November 22, 2013 on the precarious, and sometimes perilous, streets of Doha.  She had turned 23 just a week prior to her car accident.  Sherifa, who received her law degree from Swansea University in Wales only months ago, had a dream to become one of the first female judges in Qatar.  This young rising star was the eldest of five children, and was cherished by family and friends.  Short in stature, Sherifa’s candid charm, infectious spirit, and commanding manner always filled a room.  Sherifa loved her Smart Phone, texting, and shopping at Doha’s malls for designer jeans, handbags, and shoes, yet regularly stood up for those less fortunate than herself.  I was frequently disconcerted when Sherifa routinely ordered for the entire table when my husband and I joined her and her family for dinner – a highly unusual action for a young woman in the Gulf region.  Sherifa’s forthright actions say not only a lot about her own nature, but the unique environment in which her parents raised her.  Sherifa, who defied all stereotypes, was bold and resolute, yet compassionate and a realist.

Sherifa

Sherifa

I first met Sherifa in February of 2009 when I was looking for female Qatari university students to interview for a series of articles focusing on the role of women in the Arabian Peninsula, the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of young Gulf Arab women, and concerns around balancing career/marriage/family in a changing region.  Five young women, three of whom attended Northwestern University-Qatar and one at Virginia Commonwealth-Qatar, graciously agreed to be interviewed, Sherifa (who attended Swansea) among them.  Immediately following our initial interview, Sherifa insisted I go to her home to meet her family and experience some “real Qatari hospitality.”  That very evening I found myself seated on a bright red overstuffed loveseat being served cardamom coffee and Arabic sweets on a silver platter by Sherifa herself in the luxurious sitting room of her home.  I had the pleasure of meeting Sherifa’s mother, father, as well as a younger sister and brother.  Later in the evening, my husband, Bishara, and I met Sherifa and her parents at Villagio (an upscale mall) for coffee, the beginning of a deepening friendship between Sherifa and her family, and Bishara and me.  We had an instant “cellular” connection.

After several interviews with Sherifa, it became apparent that her views and outlook reflected a deeply ingrained need to adhere to her traditional Gulf lifestyle, tinged with an attentiveness to the “creep of westernization” that had infiltrated her world holding open the possibility of new opportunities.  Around a year ago, Sherifa and her family most graciously invited me and Bishara to a day-long fete at their desert family farm, around an hour outside of Doha, which included a sumptuous traditional meal and a healthy dose of Gulf hospitality.  I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherifa during this occasion.  We started our session seated atop colorful cushions outside the women’s tent where chatter and Gulf music permeated the night air; in the distance laughter from Sherifa’s male relatives and my husband arose over the din of the crackling grill where lamb kabobs roasted.  Poised and leaning forward, casting the light from her phone over my interview notes, Sherifa divulged that she was “not comfortable” when asked if she was being encouraged to get married and settle down.  Sherifa went on to declare, “My family wants me to get married as soon as possible. I don’t know, I just feel that I like my freedom. I’m not even trying to meet any one.  And, I don’t know, I’m not going to say I agree 100% with arranged marriage. I know it is my culture and all, but I want to actually meet the person I’m going to marry before getting married.”  Sherifa’s family’s concerns were understandable in the more conservative Gulf region where an unmarried woman in her late 20s is considered an “old maid.”  How did Sherifa think she would meet that special person?  “I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe a workshop, or travelling. I thought maybe while studying, but I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not one of my biggest missions. My focus is about my education. And my education comes first.”

Sherifa revealed that attending Swansea University in Wales had been a life-changing time for her.  Taking a deep breath and crossing her legs across the cushion, Sherifa maintained, “When I first went to Swansea I was 18 years old. I learned how to be independent. I learned a lot of things. When I’m there at Swansea, I’m not going to say I’m alone, but you know, I need to take care of myself. I need to figure everything out myself. I can’t just go and cry and tell my Mom to help me. Because my life here (in Qatar), we are so spoiled. Everything is done for us by our household staff–maids, cooks, and drivers. We don’t have to think about anything; everything is just casual and everything is organized for us. When I went to the United Kingdom, it became a very different journey for me. I knew since I was a kid I wanted to study abroad. I had dreams about it.”

I inquired how Sherifa was treated as a young Arab woman in the UK.  She took a sip of her Turkish coffee and replied, “I know that not all people accept me back in the United Kingdom. Even in the U.S. when I visited Oklahoma as part of my university program, I know some people who were saying, ‘Who’s she?’  ‘Where is she from?’  And they think that because we’re wearing a scarf, or because we’re Arabs, we come from a really restrictive place. I know a girl in the UK who cannot even smoke in front of me, because she thinks it’s disrespectful of me. I told her ‘You can smoke, I don’t mind.’  And even some people I know in the UK cannot curse in front of me. It’s their right to speak as they wish. You know, when I’m with my friends and we’re chilling, who cares. Like seriously, why are you putting boundaries?”

DSCF5142

Sherifa’s family farm in the desert. (Men’s Tent)

When asked about her plans for the future, Sherifa, surveying the desert horizon, responded, “A few months from now I’ll be graduating, hopefully by June.  So I’m thinking of working in the Ministry of Justice in Qatar, a part-time job. In the morning I’ll actually practice law, and go back in the afternoon and work at the company that sponsors me, since I need to work for them for the same number of years I’ve been away at university. They sponsored me for four years, so I need to work for them for four years.”

Given her impressive academic credentials and career aspirations, I wondered if eligible young men might be intimated by Sherifa.  Always the realist, Sherifa announced, “This has already happened, and I think this will happen in the future. I do want to marry a man who has an even stronger background than me, so he can lead the family, as I know that otherwise it would always be a problem.”

I knew Sherifa would also face expectations that she have children once married.  Large families are a staple in the Arabian Peninsula where it is not uncommon to have six or more children under one roof.  According to Sherifa, “People [in the Gulf] believe that children will bring more joy and happiness than getting married.”  What were Sherifa’s own personal thoughts on having a family, especially given her lofty ambitions?  Had she thought about how many children she would like to have?  Sherifa fixed her eyes on mine, and related, “It’s hard to say. I want to give them the best education they can have. I want them to live the best life they can have, so if I have money it’s okay. I’ll have to think about it financially. I’m a planner. I want to look at the future. In the old times it was like just keep, keep, keep having children. I say, no, I have to think about how I am going to feed them; am I going to be able to be there for them. They need not only financial support, they need emotional support, my support.  Time management is a big issue, and in my type of career it’s going to be a helluva lot of work. I’m going to be a lawyer, and if I want to have a lot of kids I want to know I’m going to have time to be there for them. Both at school, after school, even on the weekends and all, I need to plan everything. If it’s up to me, two to three children, max.”

DSCF5186

Feast at desert family farm.

Several years earlier when discussing children and marriage I asked Sherifa if she would need the permission of her father before she married.  Sherifa affirmed, “If I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Steadfast, Sherifa emphasized, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

When speaking of family, Sherifa often became animated.  “It’s written in our religion we have to be bonded together by family, because this is how we’re going to survive in life,” pronounced Sherifa.  “We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”  Families, immediate and extended, gather often in the Gulf States, and cousins are particularly close, meeting often on weekends at a family home where they might dance to Khaleeji music, watch movies, divulge secrets, or decide to go out to a mall.  Sherifa highlighted the value placed on family connections and Fridays, in particular, that are “like a holy day for us, when we get together to see our parents and other relatives.  Like we go to my grandfather’s house.  Sometimes we eat lunch there, and all the males in the family go to the Mosque together, and the females go to my grandfather’s house where my aunts prepare lunch together, and then we sit together and eat.”  Sherifa added that her family sits “on the floor, on the carpet, the traditional way,” eating from large communal trays.

I was curious if Sherifa had to wear an abaye (long black robe) during family gatherings.  Brushing a wisp of hair from her forehead, Sherifa explained, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins I have to cover around.  In my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, brother, [uncle], or your husband.”  In other words, the Shayla is only worn around men you could potentially marry.  Sherifa continued, “If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover.  You become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”

How did Sherifa feel about the cause of women in Qatar?  Her hands folded on her lap, Sherifa responded,  “I feel that we used to be a bit restricted, but now I feel we have more freedom and rights, and individuals are realizing that if you want to do something for women, it’s easier now. We have the basic right for women to drive, which is not the case, for instance, in Saudi Arabia. I think we’ve changed a lot in Qatar. Even the way we think, about co-eduation. There are many more co-educational schools than in the past. Even my Dad, I believe, has changed in his outlook over time. The views of the older generation, like my grandfather, though, are much the same as in the past.  If I see my grandfather, and I sit with him, his mentality and the way he thinks about Qatar’s development is very different from my Dad’s view. I can’t really use my Dad as an example, though, because he went to the U.S. and, actually, has been around Western society and has, therefore, been influenced, I could say, a bit, which does make a difference.”

When asked about her grandfather, Sherifa disclosed, “He’s old fashioned. I can’t, for instance, go out without my abaya when my grandfather is around, because he thinks it’s ‘shame.’  I can’t just be like this (in a t-shirt, jeans, and jacket) like I am now in the desert. If I’m downtown in Doha and dressed like this it is like ‘shame’ on me.  So, yes, I think my grandfather wouldn’t approve of how I’m dressed right now. Even driving. I can’t just go to my grandfather and say, “Well, Granddad, I drive.”  He wouldn’t understand; he would be like ‘Why? I’ll go and get you a driver, your own personal chauffeur, you don’t have to drive,’ because he’s that old fashioned. He thinks women should be treated differently. Women shouldn’t do anything, women should be spoiled. A woman’s job is to be at home, that’s it. Like nowadays, women want to work. I, myself, want to be something. I might be a judge, I don’t know. Like 10 years from now, no one knows.”

So, what is viewed as a more conservative outlook is actually about spoiling women, not about keeping them down?  According to Sherifa, her black opals flaring, “No, it’s not about keeping women down. Even in our religion, we should respect women. Our Prophet respected women, and everything about women. Women have rights, it doesn’t mean we don’t have rights, but the idea is men should take care of us. We are not supposed to do anything on our part; we just need to be handling the house and children. That’s the woman’s job, that’s the mentality of the older generation.”

Sherifa persisted, “Yes, but nowadays our society knows that women need to work. Because society is different, now we need to help our husbands, like for the future. I don’t only want to support my husband emotionally; I also want to be there for him financially. So, it’s different. If I’m going to follow the same ‘old’ mentality, then I’m going to sit at home and leave my husband with all the debt and everything. No, I’m not that kind of person, I want to help him. Back in the ‘old days’ you didn’t even have the right to think about helping, because it was like the husband would think he’s less of a man if he accepted money from a woman, which is not the case now. Because the idea of equality has entered our society, people are trying to understand that we are equal, as men and women. It’s not like we’re 100% equal, because it’s not going to happen.  Logically, it will never be equal. Men always have the privilege.  So, the idea now is we’re just trying to actually make it all work. You see it’s different now; women have more rights, and men are more understanding.”

DSCF5189

Women’s tent.

What were Sherifa’s thoughts on how Arab countries outside Qatar and the Arabian Gulf differ in their thinking on women’s roles, as well as in culture and outlook?  My husband was from Lebanon, which is like being on a completely different planet than being in Qatar.  Readjusting her headscarf, Sherifa asserted, “Exactly. Lebanese have more freedom. Their culture is more open. Okay, we, in Qatar have freedom. Like you see, I have freedom and everything, but at the end of the day, our culture comes first. Like what we have, our traditions and everything, comes first. But you see, like downtown, I can’t be dressed like this, in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not the same here in Qatar; we still need to appreciate our traditions. In Lebanon, you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.”

I mentioned to Sherifa how much I appreciated the traditional Gulf hospitality her mother showed my husband and me when we visited Sherifa’s home.  I particularly enjoyed the custom of bringing female guests bakhour (incense) after a meal, which the guests waft under their clothes and around their faces.  Sherifa expounded, “Usually this is the way of saying you are welcome to our house, and that we have the pleasure to have you here. And sometimes if it’s getting too late and you want to say it’s getting too late, in a polite manner, so you just give your guests bakhour and it’s like a signal that was used in the old days.  We have a saying in Arabic that means when people give you perfume, it’s not that you have to leave, but that things are winding down, in a nice and polite way.”  When I imparted that Bishara and I were astounded by, and grateful for, the generosity we were shown when at her family’s desert farm, Sherifa smiled, her eyes flashing, “It’s one of the biggest Arab traditions, this type of hospitality, you know. It’s known among the Arabs.”

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women's tent.

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women’s tent.

Sherifa’s own compassion, and interest in improving the well-being of others, was remarkable for one so young.  When only 18 years-old, and a student at the Academic Bridge Program at Education City (Qatar Foundation), for instance, Sherifa worked closely with a human rights conference in which domestic abuse and poor conditions for migrant workers in Qatar were discussed and potential solutions developed.  While serious-minded, though, Sherifa balanced her focus on improving community concerns, and an interest in regional and global issues, with a wonderful sense of humor.  During an interview, when I asked the girls if, given the choice, they would choose a different gender for themselves, Sherifa, with her trademark toothy grin, blurted, “Of course, a man; I could marry four women.”

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Sherifa’s legacy lives on in the four other young women I interviewed alongside Sherifa, (including Fatma I., Mouza, Sarah, and Fatma A.), and others like them, as well as in Sherifa’s two younger sisters, all of whom are smart, courageous, forward-looking and undaunted.

#longreads

Snapshots of Qatar ~ 2013

A year filled with happiness, tragedy, and inspiration.

DSCF5998

Souk Al-Waqif

DSCF6000

DSCF5996

Lunch-time at the souk!

DSCF6004

DSCF5334

Horse races at the Equestrian Center.

DSCF5906

Fly Board World Championships at The Pearl-Qatar.

DSCF5384

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

DSCF5456

Graduation at American School of Doha

DSCF6011

Common sight in Qatar!

DSCF4749

Bounty from the Vegetable Souk!

DSCF5125

American Women’s Association Bazaar

DSCF3914

Ready for some belly dancing!

DSCF5930

We launched Desert Horizons Tutoring Services, a community-based outreach tutoring program.

DSCF5923

Doha’s nighttime skyline.

Me & Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa.  Sherifa passed away in a tragic car accident. Sherifa taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar. Rest in peace, dear friend.  I will miss you greatly.

DSCF3556

We also lost sweet “Callie girl,” our precious furry daughter.  You are forever in our hearts.

DSCF3997

 

Wonders of Turkey: Kas

My husband, Bishara, and I were excited about our drive from Old Antalya (Kaleici) to the Mediterranean town of Kas.  We had spent a remarkable spring day exploring the sights of Kaleici, a historic and popular tourist destination with restaurants and curio shops harbored in restored Ottoman homes, enchanting boutique hotels surrounded by orange and olive trees, and incredible views of the Mediterranean.

Our drive began auspiciously enough.  After becoming hopelessly lost on the cobblestone streets of Old Antalya, despite having a GPS, we stopped to ask for directions on how to exit the old town.  Persevering and turning a tight corner, our rental car careened into shelves of neatly displayed shoes, sending footgear flying along the street.  The shopkeeper, barely concealing a grimace, stayed surprisingly calm, and simply flagged us on.  Moments later, as we were departing the old town a man, frantically waving his arms, cried out at us in Turkish as we turned right on a road we thought was the way out of town.  Apparently not, as we soon discovered we were on a tram line with a train visible in the distance and headed our way.  Adrenalin flowing, Bishara’s eyes like saucers, we turned off the tram line as quickly as we could.  The GPS lady, remaining calm as ever, continued with “recalculating” our route.  Her directions, however, took us north towards the mountains rather than east along the Mediterranean compelling us, once again, to stop for directions.  The detour did allow us a more extensive viewing of the snowcapped Taurus mountain range, which was glorious.

DSCF4488

Taurus Mountains outside Kas.

Our five hour drive from Antalya to Kas, located on the southwest Mediterranean coast of Turkey, found us taking another diversion along a picturesque mountain road towards the ancient city of Olympos in what used to be the region of Lycia.  Lycia was part of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, and ultimately the Turkish Republic in 1923, although antiquities suggest that the region dates back to the Bronze Age.  In Homer’s tale, The Odyssey, the Greek deity Poseidon, perched in the Olympos Mountains, blew up a storm, in what is now the Mediterranean, to thwart Odysseus’ escape from Calypso’s Island.

While on the road to Olympos, we spotted a Turkish woman on the side of the road baking bread dough on an oversized inverted dome called a saj.  We were both feeling grumbles of hunger, and decided to stop.  The woman’s son, tall, 40ish, and wearing a western style casual suit, stood nearby, and served as our translator, as the woman spoke no English.  After selecting cheese and spinach on saj bread for lunch, the Turkish woman took to kneading a ball of dough on a raised circular wooden platform.  When massaged to the shape and thickness of thin pizza dough, she placed the flattened mixture on the saj grill.  The woman half sat and half squatted, as is so common in this general region of the world, as she stoked the wood timbers inside the grill while tending to our saj bread on the heated dome.  When the dough was sufficiently cooked, the woman sprinkled a mix of white cheese and spinach leaves on top.  We ambled across the two lane road to a covered outdoor majless, our saj sandwiches, salads, and Turkish black tea in hand.  Settling in, cross-legged, on colorful cushions, Bishara and I savored the food and lush surroundings.

Saj grill is on left.

Saj grill is on left.

Outdoor majless.

Outdoor majless.

DSCF4361

By mid-afternoon, we were back on the road to Kas reveling in mountain and vast sea views along the way.  We arrived in Kas at dusk and found our hotel, the Kekova, located a short distance away from the town’s marina.  Due to limited vacation time, our original plan had been to stay one night in Kas and continue the next day towards Selcuk and the historic Ephesus.  The next morning, the dazzling view from the breakfast room terrace of the Mediterranean Sea nuzzled within the Taurus mountain ridges, coupled with the not so gentle nudging from the hotel manager to allow for another day of rest, convinced us to stay a second night.

View from breakfast terrace of Kerkova Hotel.

View from breakfast terrace of Kekova Hotel.

After our breakfast of cheese and breads, sliced cold cuts, hard boiled eggs, local green and black olives, and apple tea, Bishara and I strolled through the town filled with quaint, touristy shops and cafes to the harbor.  Our first stop was at the boat docks, as we wanted to ensure we reserved a boat for a private excursion.  One of the boat captains, attired in bright orange overalls, agreed to take us for an hour long boat ride for 75 TL ($ 38) in the early afternoon.  In the meantime, Bishara and I decided to stop in at one of the many seaside outdoor cafes to share sheesha (huka) and Turkish coffee.

Marina in Kas, Turkey.

Marina in Kas, Turkey.

Sheesha-time!

Sheesha-time!

Our boat ride was superb, a blend of sparkling aqua blue waters sporting mild swells, ancient Lycian structures forged into sheer cliffs, charming coves with sandy beaches and rustic restaurants, and tiers of red tiled roofs atop whitewashed buildings embedded in green laden bluffs.  An unscripted recitation of points of interest by our captain whose great spirit matched his limited English, kept our outing entertaining and informative.

Boat ride in Kas - (Mediterranean Sea)

Boat ride in Kas – (Mediterranean Sea)

DSCF4416

Lycian structure.

DSCF4420

DSCF4423

DSCF4429

DSCF4430

DSCF4438

DSCF4441

DSCF4443

DSCF4446

DSCF4448

The afternoon continued at a languid pace, with visits to souvenir shops brimming with colorful ceramic Turkish coffee sets, a sumptuous lunch of creamy mushroom soup, chicken salad, apple crepes, baklava, complimentary black tea, a backgammon game, and a prolonged walk through a patchwork of cobblestone streets framed by olive trees, grape vines, and apple trees.

DSCF4457

Kas, Turkey

DSCF4458

DSCF4459

DSCF4461

DSCF4463

DSCF4464

DSCF4465

DSCF4470

DSCF4474

Walking back towards our hotel in the early evening, Bishara spied a hilltop restaurant with a blackboard menu highlighting sea bass as its special.  We went inside, climbed some stairs, and found a delightful terrace arranged with informal seating, along with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean and an impending sunset.  A man, seated at one of the tables with a woman and young children, popped up when we stepped onto the terrace, informed us this was his new restaurant, we were his first guests, and we must sit for some complimentary tea.  Bishara and I sat for a while, sipped our tea, and soaked in the beauty.

DSCF4475

A Heart Divided

The Middle East is a tinderbox – Syrians being massacred by chemical weapons, Egypt in continuous turmoil, Lebanon being torn open by old and new wounds, not to mention Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya enduring a chronic state of flux.  This is the Arab world my husband, Bishara, and I were returning to after an extended peaceful and restful summer vacation in the U.S.  Just five weeks earlier I had felt wistful about leaving Qatar for America; I would miss meandering along the alleyways of Souk Al-Waqif, walks along the Arabian Gulf, gatherings with Qatari and expatriate friends, and our two miniature poodle pups who would be staying behind with friends.  I was a happy and content expatriate living a full and comfortable life in the tiny nation-state of Qatar.

Doha's Skyline

Doha’s Skyline

The Pearl-Qatar (Man-Made Island)

The Pearl-Qatar (man-made island)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

Fast forward five weeks to the end of August, and we are about to board a plane in Washington, DC for our flight back to Qatar.  CNN is reporting on defiance of the curfew in Cairo and Syria’s warning against outside involvement in its conflict on a big screen TV as we sit in an airport restaurant sipping iced tea.  We reminisce about family and friends in America who had inquired about our future safety in Qatar.  “Are you guys going to be okay over there?”, “Isn’t it time you came back to the States?”, “You’ve been in the Middle East how long?”

The Middle East has experienced years, decades, centuries of conflict, but the new rounds of strife across the region were hitting close to home.  As we waited in the Washington Dulles airport gate area, I thought back to bike riding through the streets of the small island town off the Virginia coast, our home of eight years, the sea breezes and salt air fresh in our faces and playing havoc with my curly hair.  The many walks on the protected beaches, Bishara bodysurfing and frolicking in the ocean swells.  And the heartwarming time spent with family and friends was irreplaceable.  In Qatar, and the larger Gulf region, the incautious driving precludes relaxed weekend bike rides, and while “beaching it” or sitting poolside in the winter months is superb, sunbathing in the summer months is synonymous with being trapped in a sauna.  Our ties to the East, though, had Bishara bringing his tablah (Arabic drum) to the Blue Dog restaurant in Snow Hill, MD over the summer where he was hopeful that his drum beats just might synchronize with the World War II music and singing pulsating throughout the intimate surroundings.  To Bishara’s dismay, the opportunity never materialized.

From biking and bodysurfing along the eastern coast, our summer travels brought us to crisp, refreshing mountain air and a most special family reunion in Glacier National Park in Montana.  Bishara and I made it a point to go horseback riding with a bronco-riding cousin, our trek taking us alongside babbling streams and through mountain pastures filled with wildflowers.  As my cousin hopped off his horse to show us a wild anise-type root and explain its medicinal purpose, Bishara, again, brought us thousands of miles eastward, remarking that our horse ride reminded him of riding camels in southern Lebanon as a child with his grandfather in summers past.

As many good memories that we have of the Arab world, from Bishara’s sentimentality surrounding his childhood in Lebanon and Jordan to my blossoming from an introvert to a committed belly dancer and chatter at “women only” fetes in Arab friends’ homes, we have had our share of scares while in the Middle East region.  In 2004, we had to make a quick exit from Saudi Arabia due to bombings of western expatriate compounds in Riyadh, which ultimately prompted our move to Qatar.  And then there are the horrific stories of abuse, and other atrocities, that appear in newspapers and other media, like the recent 8 year-old Yemeni child-bride who tragically died on her wedding night.

When friends and family ask how we can live in an area where this sort of thing happens, I am often left feeling some level of unease, even embarrassment, and at a loss for words.  At these times, I find myself going back to conversations I have had with Bishara and my own conscience.  While my initial interest in living in the Middle East was centered on a singular cultural experience, my years in the Arab world have given way to an enriched life with a healthy balance between work and private time, as well as the opportunity to experience time, and time again, the hospitality and generosity of the average Arab – my friends, my workmates, my community.

I remember quite clearly my consternation over Bishara admonishing me for admiring a Saudi friend’s handbag when we lived in Riyadh, and the friend insisting that I accept the several hundred dollar handbag as a gift.  (It would have been an insult had I not accepted the handbag.)  Or the bedraggled desert Bedouin who needed our help to start his truck, later pressing us to join his family for a camel feast.  And visits to Arab friends’ homes that begin with “Come in, my brother and sister” tend to continue with extended conversation over cardamom coffee and sumptuous meals of lamb and rice.  This magnanimity, based in tradition and religion, first became apparent to me in 1996 when we had a stopover in Lebanon, Bishara’s homeland, during which Bishara’s mother and sister could not feed us enough molkiha, stuffed grape leaves, and kibbe; it was a point of honor and privilege that we be well fed and properly tended to.

It is this focus on the “human factor” and family, known as tribalism in the broader sense, which drew me to the Arab culture and renewed my spirit.  But it is this very concept of strong familial ties, which makes the region rife for disputes and conflict between tribes, sects, and factions when the steadfast sense of loyalty, love and passion that exists within a household leads to a fierce need to protect the reputation and dignity of the family or tribe.

Regardless of the multitude of events occurring in this region, our hearts remain divided between the west and the Arab world.

Related article:

Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East (Planet Bell: A Travel and Photo Blog by Jeff Bell)

 

Beauty in Imperfection

Michele LMS:

I always find inspiration in Steve McCurry’s posts!

Originally posted on Steve McCurry's Blog:

Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture.
 It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious.
- Mark Reibstein, Wabi Sabi

TIBET-11043NFTibet

Tranquil simplicity,
rustic elegance,
imperfect beauty…these are qualities that wabi sabi embraces.
Wabi Sabi:  the Art of Everyday Life,  Diane Durston

CAMBODIA-10540_blogCambodia

Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 2010India

Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else.
Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment
given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view.
Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.

-  Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

CAMBODIA-10309Cambodia

It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth,
the wisdom of wabi-sabi: nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.
– Paul…

View original 226 more words

Arabic Lesson # 4: Turkish Coffee

My first trip to the Middle East was Christmastime 1996.  We had spent a couple of days in Amman, Jordan and were headed for Beirut, Lebanon where my husband’s mother, sister, and a multitude of cousins lived.  When we arrived at my mother-in-law’s home, my husband, Bishara, and I were greeted warmly with hugs and kisses, along with pots of stuffed lamb intestines and grape leaves, kibbie (burgle with raw meat), malfoof (stuffed cabbage), and homemade hommous.  We were told there was more where that came from, including kusa (stuffed squash), falafel, shakreiha (lamb with rice, pine nuts, and laban), tabouli, fattoush, and other specially prepared dishes for our visit, in the neighboring friends’ refrigerators.  The very first thing we consumed, though, in the tidy and colorful sitting room squeezed full of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends was flavorful Turkish coffee.  And the Turkish coffee didn’t stop flowing for the entire ten days we were in Beirut and the surrounding towns.  While a guest may be offered Nescafe (milk with Nescafe and sugar) or tea in small clear glasses, Turkish coffee is the drink of choice in non-Gulf Arab countries like Lebanon and Jordan.  (In Qatar and other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, “Arabic coffee” is quite different in taste and texture, combining cardamom and saffron with ground coffee.)  I will be writing about “Arabic coffee,” (cardamom coffee), in a future post.    

Grinder belonging to Bishara's mother.

Grinder belonging to Bishara’s mother.

While in Lebanon, Bishara related to me that when he was a child in Jordan and Lebanon (in the summers) his mother bought raw coffee beans originating from Brazil at the local grocer’s for her Turkish coffee.  The beans, still green, were placed in a roaster on a portable stand on the stove and manually rotated by Bishara’s mother until they were a deep, dark brown.  A manual grinder with a drawer was used to pulverize the roasted beans into a finely ground powder.  These days, however, you find beans already roasted and ground in coffee shops across Lebanon and Jordan.

I had become familiar with Turkish coffee during the 17 years Bishara and I lived in the Washington, DC area and in the two years before we had shared together as students at the University of Florida.  I had fond memories of my husband in our Charleston-style home in the suburbs of DC huddled over our kitchen stove on a Saturday morning, teaspoon in hand, nursing the foam from the fine grounds of Turkish coffee bubbling up in the small aluminum container (bakraj or ibrik) seated on the edge of the heating element.

Bishara and I would regularly visit the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Virginia, a short distance from where we lived, to buy the grounds for our Turkish coffee.  We would roam the aisles of the small, family-owned, store behind a mini-grocery cart we would fill with canned chick peas, zahter (powdered thyme), pine nuts, labneh (similar to sour cream), hommous, and babaganoush, while the aroma of cardamom, freshly baked pita bread, and fruit flavored tobacco wafted through the air.  Soon after arriving at the Mediterranean Bakery we would order fresh fatayer with spinach, cheese, and labneh at the back counter, and our last task before leaving the store would always be to have coffee beans ground for the makings of Turkish coffee.  Endorphins surged as the scent of the pestled beans drifted along my nasal canals while we watched the store owner skillfully grind the roasted beans into a pan and pour them in a small brown plastic bag for us to take home.

Parties at our home in the northern Virginia suburbs would be replete with tablah drumming by Bishara, belly dancing, Lebanese mezzah, and Turkish coffee.  Oftentimes, Bishara would read the thick coffee grounds lurking in the bottom of demitasse cups to our guests’ delight, a skill my husband gleaned from his grandmother when he lived in southern Lebanon as a young child.  I’m not a big believer in reading tea leaves, tarot cards and fortune telling, but Bishara does have a gift for keying into people’s auras.  (Bishara always reminds me, though, that he is not nearly as good at reading Turkish coffee grounds as his sister.)  Each swirl, image, or clumping of grounds denotes a significant event in the past, present, or future; Bishara always apologizes for not being tuned into the exact timeframe.  The final step in the cup reading is the “yes” or “no” question when the guest asks about something silently that must be phrased to be answered with a “yes” or “no.”  Bishara advises the guest to concentrate on the question, lick the tip of their right thumb and press their thumb into the bottom of the cup.  “Ah,” says Bishara, “the answer is yes, and, by the way, you have a very white heart,” or “it will happen, but there are some roadblocks in the way.”  Bishara always teases me that he can’t read my cup, because he knows me too well; it would seem unfair.

Our relocation to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in late 2000, and Doha, Qatar in early Fall 2004, allowed me the opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the Turkish coffee experience from a whole new perspective, while Bishara reconnected with the experience in a more familiar setting and at a more organic level.  I was, increasingly, becoming less the novice and more ensconced with the notion that the serving of Turkish coffee was the harbinger of protracted conservation with friends and family, often coupled with pistachios, Arabic sweet pastries, fatayer, and olives.  In other words, a time to sit back, relax and enjoy the moments.

How to Make Turkish Coffee

  • Heat up water in bakraj/ibrik until it starts to boil.  Bakraj’s vary in size from a two-person pot, around three inches tall, to a ten-person pot, around five inches tall.

Bakraj

Bakraj with water.

  • For every demitasse cup, use one heaping teaspoon of coffee and one level teaspoon of sugar.  The amount of sugar, however, depends on individual taste.  My husband and I tend to like our Turkish coffee sweeter.  (If you like cardamom, include 1/8 of a teaspoon for every potful when coffee placed in bakraj.)

Adding coffee grounds to bakraj.

Adding sugar to bakraj.

  • As coffee mixture heats up, foam and floating coffee are important components of the texture, and resulting flavor, of the coffee.

Foaming Turkish Coffee.

  • When mixture starts to boil, again, remove the bakraj off the stove, and stir, and as coffee mixture recedes, put bakraj back on hot stove.
  • Wait until mixture starts to boil, again.  Remove the bakraj, again, and stir.
  • Put bakraj, again, on stove, let it boil, and then remove, and it’s ready to serve.

DSCF5360

Drinking Turkish Coffee.

________________________________________

. . . And now for our Arabic lesson for my western friends.  (This is vernacular Arabic using  the Lebanese dialect.)

When do you want to meet for coffee?

متى تريد أن تجتمع لقهوة؟           MATA TUREED AN TEJTAMAH LE QAHWAH ?

_____________________________

Is the coffee ready?

هل القهوة جاهزة ؟                   HAL AL QAHWAH JAHZAH?

_____________________________

Do you want milk and sugar with your (the) coffee?

هل تريد الحليب والسكر مع القهوة ؟              HAL TUREED AL HALEEB WA AL SUKAR MAH AL QAHWAH?

_____________________________

How many spoons of sugar would you like (want)?

كم ملعقة من السكر تريد؟                           KUM MILAHQAH MEN AL SUKAR TUREED?

_________________________________________________________________

MATA = WHEN

TUREED = YOU WANT

AN = TO (or “THAT” or “AT”)

TEJTAMAH = MEET

LE = FOR (or “TO”)

QAHWAH = COFFEE

HAL = IS (or “ARE” or “DO” or “WAS” or “WERE” ; but only in a question)

AL = THE

JAHZAH = READY

HALEEB = MILK

WA = AND

SUKAR = SUGAR

MAH = WITH

KUM = HOW MANY (or “HOW MUCH”)

MILAHQAH = SPOON(S)

MEN = OF (or “FROM”)

Related articles