I Want to Live in Walmart

“I want to live in Walmart,” I confessed to my husband, Bishara.  We had recently returned to the U.S. after a 17-year escapade in the Middle East prompted by my hankering for a cultural getaway.  Our former long term residence in Washington DC, had evolved from a rewarding life in the nation’s capital to a tedious and staid existence in a congested urban center.  In early November 2000, Bishara, our two pups, and I, along with 42 pieces of luggage found ourselves on a 20-hour voyage from Dulles Airport to Saudi Arabia.  Sand, sparkly skyscrapers, white thobes, black abayes, and burgeoning friendships awaited us as we descended onto the landing strip of Riyadh airport.

Our life before, and just after, arriving in Riyadh was fraught with irritating bureaucratic entanglements; filling out countless forms, medical testing, ensuring our pups had proper documentation, and such.  And my new boss, Abdullah, at distinguished King Faisal Specialist Hospital where I had been hired as a Financial Planning Specialist was none too fond of my presence in his finance group.  “I never wanted you here.  When they asked me I told them you were all wrong for the job,” were some of the first words tumbling out of Abdullah’s mouth.

My dream of an exotic undertaking in an enigmatic land was abruptly fading along with my formidable resolve.  I wondered if listening to my heart had led us astray.  My waning enthusiasm was eventually replaced, though, with the rhythm of everyday life in the Kingdom; part cultural education and part mundane routine, welded with unique expatriate “happenings,” and a transformational working relationship with my boss.  A typical workweek was infused with a frenzied schedule to complete a particular financial report and regular pauses centering around offerings of cardamom coffee, mint tea and genial banter with female colleagues.  These obligatory respites, common across the Arab world, disrupted my professional sensibilities, but informed me of the significance and effectiveness of “people time” fostering a spirit of teamwork and camaraderie in the office.

An emphasis on “people time” extended to our private lives, as well.  Many weekends were filled with forays into the desert with our pups, a tablah (Arabic drum), a yen for belly dancing and good food, and new friends of all nationalities.  Other weekends and weeknights found us communing with our western friends over grilled fresh fish and travel stories poolside, or our Saudi chums in a palatial, yet warm, home listening and dancing to popular Arabic music, and deliberating over regional politics.  Our ample “people time” away from home was sustained, in large part, by economical housekeeping services, typically provided by hardworking Southeast Asian workers.

And while our pups created administrative challenges before entering the country, and upset some societal norms once in the country, they provided both perilous and magical elements to our interactions with fellow expatriates and nationals, and our varied Mid-East exploits.  Everything from possible jail-time for Bishara for allowing our Callie pup to “talk to” Saudi girls during a stroll through a park to our sweet Callie tearing off the headscarf of a distressed 16 year-old girl at Kendi Square in Riyadh, only to develop a close familial relationship with the engaging  teenager and her family.

We were relieved and delighted to have our pup, Sara with us, when we arrived back in the U.S., however, we did experience “reentry syndrome” and a bit of “reverse culture shock.”  We missed the souks – the crush of white, black and color, kind and wrinkled men pushing wheelbarrows filled with patron’s purchases, and the sweet and fruity aroma of sheesha floating overhead.  We reminisced about our friendships with Saudis, Qataris and well-travelled expatriates, attendants filling our gas tank, amiable housecleaners attending to our home.  Our discretionary time while in Riyadh and Doha was truly our own; I was thankful to forgo tedious housekeeping chores and for having time to romp on the “doggie beach” with our pup and other dog-lovers outside of Doha, travel to uncommon destinations, and savor remarkable Arab hospitality.

Warm welcomes from family and friends, flowering of old and new friendships, and unsolicited waves from kindhearted strangers on the pastoral Eastern Shore muzzled some of our wistful remembrances, as did the startling abundance of activities and cultural events in the small town where we resettled.  Back alignment yoga, meditation, local theatre productions, pickle ball, and a Persian cultural event left us scrambling to pace ourselves in a new chapter of supposed retirement.

Small town life in America unveiled a new and natural mechanism for developing more intimate relationships and a comfortable and vital sense of community, and stateside life, in general, re-introduced us to the ubiquitous superstores – Lowe’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart.  Roaming the aisles of our nearby Walmart left me awestruck at the breadth and depth of product lines, particularly in contrast to the more commonplace neighborhood stores and souks in the Arab Peninsula where bargaining, bantering, and understocked items replace unadulterated consumerism.  Turning to Bishara on a recent trip to Walmart, momentarily conquered by the boundless shopping possibilities, I blurted, “I want to live in Walmart.  I could pitch a tent, cook food on a portable stove, play board games, and do all kinds of DIY projects.”

Excepting the mega stores in the U.S., life outside the chaos of urban metropolises is much like life in the Arab world with a focus on close-knit human connections and the promise of creating a rich tapestry of friendships, life lessons, and unfolding adventure.


Our neighborhood Walmart.

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Sara pup in Walmart.


Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 2)

Growing up in the 1960s among the brown rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area was cheery and carefree; lots of sunshine, infused with drives up Mount Diablo atop the backseat of my dad’s convertible MGB sports car, trips into San Francisco to stroll the lush gardens of Golden Gate Park, and four square at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac.  Halfway around the world in Jordan, Bishara, the youngest of six siblings, appreciated time spent with his devoted mother and cherished nephew, Haldoun, and an eclectic collection of family pets, despite pining for his father under contract in Saudi Arabia.  Peaceful days in rustic Mafraq, though, were interrupted by a terrifying hail of bombs that fell during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which found Bishara and his family huddled together in the middle of the bathroom convinced the end was near.  The warm embrace of his mother provided little comfort for nine year-old Bishara against the barrage of missiles targeting his country.

My own experience of war was through our black and white TV screen, observing the carnage of Vietnam’s battlefields as my parents watched the nightly news, and discerning only that something momentous and formidable was unfolding in a far-off land.  I knew, instinctively, I was shielded from this horror by distance and my ever watchful parents, and viewed the events more like an illusory scene from a play or movie trailer.

Bishara’s real, “life and death,” scare was followed by three brief years of relative calm during which he visited friends to watch wrestling on TV or scoured the nearby desert for edible mushrooms for the evening meal before the Palestinians (PLO) began clashing with the Jordanian government in 1970 in what came to be known as “Black September.”  Bishara’s school classes, along with those throughout Jordan, were cancelled for the month as demonstrations, shootings and general chaos ensued across the country resulting in thousands being killed over a one year period.  Bishara, not fully comprehending the ramifications of the situation, was both relieved over not having to go to school, but scared to his core over the possibility of his home being hit by rockets.  Although the effects of the Civil War were not as intense in Mafraq as in other Jordanian towns, Bishara’s family was under constant fear that the Jordanian army might invade their city, which was under Palestinian militia control.  As a result, Bishara and his family remained largely isolated in their home, playing cards, glued to the radio, and praying for a good outcome.  By the summer of July 1971, acrimony and bloodshed were superseded by the ouster of Palestinian combatants from Jordan to Lebanon, comparative peace, and the return of Bishara’s dear father.

Bishara’s most exciting days were Fridays when his father allowed him and his two older brothers to watch a cowboy movie at the town’s theatre every other week; the three brothers, merry with anticipation, walked a mile to the “male only” movie showings.  Cowboy flicks led to European and American movies of other genres, and to the notion that the world was larger than the confines of Mafraq, and a developing interest in probing other regions.  The quandary in Bishara’s young mind, however, was how he could leave his beloved mother behind.

My domain was widened when as a young teen my family moved from sunny, mellow California to a university town in the southeast, a sort of culture shock for me and my three siblings who had to transition from a more permissive and progressive environment to one permeated with palpable and staid southern hospitality and racial diversity.  Circumspect and reserved, the life shift required patience, grit, and a bit of hurt.  I remained, however, academic and a straight shooter; a girl with a small circle of friends, who envied the popular girls.  On weekends, I watched “American Bandstand,” and loved music, in general, a passion instilled in me by my dad who was hip and introduced me to The Beatles and Ravi Shankar in my younger days.  I savored the hours spent in my bedroom anticipating that special song coming over the airwaves, my tape recorder in hand, and finger hovering over the red record button.

At age 15, Bishara left a Christian middle school for Mafraq Secondary Boys’ School, a larger establishment comprised of nearly one hundred percent Muslim students.  Bishara, somewhat wary, wondered how he would get along with his new classmates.  A couple of months later, his uneasiness vanished, as Bishara relished participating in school sports, including basketball and soccer, with his new Muslim schoolmates, spawning strong attachments with his fellow athletes.  Several of his long-time friends wondered about Bishara’s behavior and questioned why he became sudden buddies with the Muslim kids.  Unaffected by this concern, Bishara knew he was simply expanding his “friend base.”  This revelation bolstered Bishara’s realization that he needed to study abroad after high school to advance his knowledge of the greater community outside of Mafraq.

While Bishara dreamed of expanding his horizons, I co-piloted a single engine plane at age 16 with my dad as pilot ferrying my sister, two brothers, and mother from our hometown in the southeast to California, Washington, and Montana.  I was humbled and gratified to reach the Guadalupe Pass at my calculated time as we sailed over Texas.  Otherwise, life was fairly predictable, and although the smaller moments produced the utmost satisfaction, a restlessness within implored me to connect to a deeper and wider reality.  This sense was magnified when Oma, my German grandmother, moved across the U.S. to be closer to her son and his family.  Oma’s travel stories brought the broader world into her quaint one-bedroom apartment only a couple of miles from our home.  My more treasured times as a high school senior involved leaving school early, walking the short distance to Oma’s apartment and having a homemade German meal while we watched “The Guiding Light” and talked of Oma’s European travels.

As Bishara neared grade 12, he could not wait to finish high school and move on.  But to what and to where?  Bishara felt it much harder to stay in Jordan, and the general region, than to pivot to the unknown.  His mother was his world and the only soul with whom Bishara’s could share his thoughts.  Bishara was happiest when he watched his mother iron his father’s clothes as he sat two feet away doing his homework, or when he silently slipped into his mother’s room during an afternoon nap, and listened to her snore as he pored over the books.  Who’s going to cook for you, and who are you going to watch cooking for you, Bishara’s mother would lament.  “My advice for you, son, is to remove these thoughts from your head.” She would convince Bishara for a day, but he soon had the feeling that his mother was talking from an emotional perspective only, and Bishara knew, in his gut, he must follow his inner voice.

This voice, and the Civil War in Lebanon, led Bishara to surreptitiously leave Lebanon, where he settled with his family following high school, for Western Europe, via Syria, at age 18.  Bishara eventually journeyed to the United States where he was drawn to a college education and a young woman originally from the Bay Area, who he ultimately married.  And she, wanting to fulfill her own fantasies of experiencing faraway cultures, persuaded him to leave a comfortable suburban life in the U.S. and travel back to the intriguing and beguiling world of the Arab Gulf. . . .



Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 1)

While my husband, Bishara, and I share many of the same tenets in life, such as “be good to yourself and your fellow man,” we grew up half a world apart under widely differing circumstances.  My life began mid-century near coastal California in John Steinbeck territory – Salinas, California, while Bishara, a native of Lebanon, was introduced to the world by a midwife at his family home in Mafraq, Jordan, in one of the most politically unstable regions on the globe.

As a young family, we moved several times within the San Francisco Bay Area in the span of 12 years, from Salinas to San Jose, Berkeley, Lafayette, and, ultimately, Walnut Creek.  My childhood was spent dashing through sprinklers, romping with neighbor friends and cousins, skiing in Lake Tahoe, and dancing to The Beatles and “The ‘In’ Crowd.”  Annual summer trips to my mom’s indigenous Browning, Montana on Blackfeet Indian tribal land punctuated with blurs of color, buckskin and eagle feathers at Pow Wow ceremonies, as well as treks into adjacent Glacier National Park, became a regular and memorable event.  My first memory at two years old is of my family on the outskirts of tiny Browning maneuvering across railroad tracks to enter the home of my aunt (mom’s elder, and treasured, sister), and feeling both mystified and enchanted to be in the company of my three older cousins.

A world away, Bishara’s older sister, Wedad, 18 years his senior, was getting married and Bishara at four years-old noticed his mother and sister crying while Wedad stood at the alter in a beautiful white lace gown.  A somewhat baffling response in the eyes of a young boy.  Bishara, the youngest of six children, and, as such, often the recipient of sibling drubbings, was sensitive, soulful, and, by his own account, a nerd.  Often left behind by his older siblings on weekends, Bishara felt comfort and fulfillment in the company of his mother, the twosome frequently spending time together in the back courtyard of their stone home beneath the olive and berry trees, chattering away about everything while Bishara peeled mandarin oranges for his kindhearted mother.

Although sweet, shy, and reflective, as the eldest of four children, I took a certain satisfaction in playfully trouncing my three siblings, on occasion, in my younger years.  A kind child who, nonetheless, wanted to establish her natural dominance in the family structure as the first born, I had an innate sense of justice and of not wanting to be taken advantage of by the outside world.  Another early memory reveals me as a five year-old walking the short distance between my grandmother’s modest home in Browning to my aunt’s house down the street, my parents shadowing me in their car.  Within minutes, stones hurtled down at me from the windows of a neighboring home.  Initially taken aback by this onslaught by mischievous kids, I impulsively collected rocks from the street and vigorously lobbed them back at my assailants, to my parents’ unspoken gratification.

Just as my first sibling, and only sister, arrived engulfed in my adoration and constant companionship, Bishara’s nephew, Khaldoun, was born to Wedad when Bishara was just five years-old.  Being relatively close in age and location with Khaldoun growing up in a Jordanian town approximately two hours away by car from Mafraq, Bishara played often with Khaldoun and developed a deep-seated brotherly affection for his first nephew.  Joy-filled visits from Khaldoun left Bishara feeling melancholy and disheartened when Wedad and Khaldoun left at the end of a weekend following days spent engaged in hide and seek, tag, and friendly wrestling.

At around 8 years-old, Bishara said goodbye to his father who was travelling from Mafraq to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia to pursue a long-term employment opportunity; one of Bishara’s saddest days.  A world away my father was travelling home from a short stint in Japan as an Air Force reservist with a surprise gift for me – a two-wheel bike.  As Israeli warplanes bombarded Mafraq a year later during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Bishara and his family hid in a 16 square foot bathroom with Bishara convinced that his mother had corralled them into the tiny quarters, so they could die together in close proximity.  Meanwhile, one of my paramount concerns was learning to ride the bicycle from my Dad, and experiencing challenges  braking while navigating down a steep hill; I sustained a mere knot on my forehead as Dad lunged in front of my bike to minimize the impact of crashing into bike racks at the bottom of the incline.

Bikes and pets are prominent features of American life, and for a short time as a child, we had a German Shepard that would regularly jump our backyard fence, follow me to school and steal the kids’ lunches, or hurdle over other fences and end up in someone’s pool.  While this pooch was ultimately rehoused, Bishara had a menagerie of pets while growing up, unusual in the Arab region, including a monkey, dog, chickens, deer, rabbits, and ducks, all kept in the back courtyard.  As a younger child, Bishara indulged in playing with the rabbits, which were raised along with the chickens, and ducks for later consumption, a fact that now produces misgivings in Bishara.  The monkey, Saada, arrived from Saudi Arabia in a truck, a gift from Bishara’s father to the family, and became a close companion to Bishara.  Bishara taught the monkey how to peel bananas, play catch, and even considered marriage to this attentive and shrewd primate.

Besides appreciating the company of his troupe of animals, Bishara played “cowboys” with neighborhood playmates, index fingers or sticks serving as guns; rolled atop, or inside, truck tires down neighborhood streets; and on the weekend attacked kids from rival blocks with stones.  Bishara was skilled at this latter pursuit, being a good aim, and a daring collaborator by zig-zagging between incoming rocks when assailing his opponents.

Summer visits to Ein Eible in Bishara’s native Lebanon to see his relatives were particularly happy days.  Bishara spent time with his grandfather, and once a week borrowed his donkey to go to the family farm and fields to pick figs and grapes, which Bishara brought home in baskets.  Bishara also took walks through the town with his brothers or alone, expressly admiring the beautiful young town girls.  The special times in my life also included occasions spent with extended family, in particular, British and Montana cousins, and my German grandmother, Oma, my father’s mother who eventually became a full-time resident of a nearby California city.  In the summertime, my siblings and I spent many a weekend at Oma’s apartment complex with an interior courtyard containing a pool, palm trees, and amiable neighbors.  Oma had a beautiful accent, wonderful spirit, and was colorful in dress and outlook.  Outfitted in a red flowered bathing suit and gold fringed bathing cap, Oma danced with my siblings and me, in turn, in the shallow end of her apartment pool.  And pool dancing was always followed by sweet iced coffee with milk and ice cream on top, served poolside.  Oma taught me the love of life and travel.

An emphasis on diversity and the broader world were not only apparent in my grandmother’s worldview and everyday life, but in the actions of my father.  I was most excited, when as an elementary school student, my Dad organized having a Kenyan man from Berkeley’s International Student Center come and speak to my class.  Attired in traditional garb, the young Kenyan man gave a fascinating and eye-opening presentation on life in Kenya.

In our prepubescent years, Bishara and I both felt our own budding romances.  At around age 10, Bruce, a classmate, regularly selected me as a square dancing partner in PE, a secret thrill, as this was the first time I was noticed by a boy.  This freckle-faced chap had the gumption to present me with a ring before our relocation from one Bay Area town to another.  In my young mind, I was mightily impressed with the courage and straightforwardness of this boy.  Bishara’s introduction to “puppy love” was quite different.  Living in a more restrictive society where genders were often separated, Bishara and his friends were reduced to jotting down love notes on bits of paper, which were crumpled and hurled at their particular love interest.  Bishara was in serious trouble when someone complained about him and his buddies following a group of girls to school, with the boys ultimately being arrested and taken to the police department for interrogation.  The police officers ultimately took pity on the boys following the arrival of their parents.

Little did I know that 15 years later I would meet, and develop an intimate relationship with, a near-felon, nor did Bishara realize he would rendezvous with a western woman and the “American Dream.”

Pic of Michele

Pic of Bishara

Wonders of Spain: Andalusia

Spain, although a common destination and residence for retired Brits, due primarily to proximity and economical lifestyle, is barely on the radar for vacationing Americans.  Preferring instead the glitz and glamour of Paris, Prague’s medieval origins and design, and the charm of Rome and Venice, American travel to Europe tends to focus on the time-tested, conventional locations.

In the late 1990s, my husband and I were fortunate to travel to Spain, spending time in the north, Madrid and festive Barcelona, as well as the Andalusian region in the south, including the Mediterranean city of Malaga, captivating and historically rich Granada, and the Flamenco municipal of Seville.  More recently the draw to Spain was reconnecting with expatriate British friends from the Gulf region who had retired and relocated to the Costa Blanca (“white coast”) of Spain.  Flying into Madrid airport, and making our way through immigration where we were simply waved through, and baggage claim, I peeked over a glass barrier and contemplated a sunlit cafe below with travellers languishing amongst oversized green potted plants and stylish black and white tiles, sipping café con leches, and knew this would be a satisfying trip.


Toledo, Spain

Renting the prevailing manual and miniscule economy car at the Avis counter and driving along the cobblestone alleyways of the old walled-in city of Toledo our first afternoon in Spain reinforced the perception that this would be a relaxed holiday.  Spain is more “old world” Europe with a heavy dose of Eastern world influence in the form of Arabic architecture, way of life, and language.  Toledo, itself, is characterized as a “City of Three Cultures, due to the historical blending of peoples from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, although the Spanish Inquisition reversed this tolerance for a period of time.  In present day, the Arab impact remains palpable in this medieval town, with the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, formerly a mosque, retaining the Moorish style from an ancient time, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo (World Heritage designation) constructed on the site of the Grand Mosque.  Toledo has also been called “the soul of Spain,” and during multiple visits to the Cathedral of Saint Mary, including a self-guided tour and Holy Thursday Mass, and a procession of religious devotion through the narrow streets, a profound sense of connectedness to a deeper and higher spiritual plane claimed me; a particularly poignant time, as our dearest friend would lose her battle to pancreatic cancer during our Toledo visit.  The loss of our treasured friend colored much of the remainder of our trip.


Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo


St. Mary’s Cathedral


Devotional Procession

Our stay at Toledo’s Hotel Santa Isabel – small, clean, inexpensive, and comfortable – located in the heart of the old district, and bordering a convent and the majestic Cathedral of Saint Mary buttressed the theme of an uncomplicated foray through the Iberian Peninsula.  Most everything is on a smaller scale in Toledo, and much of greater Spain with thin roads, diminutive shops and eateries, however, a significant fundamental, and seemingly unconscious, emphasis on living fully is pervasive.


Hotel Santa Isabel (Toledo, Spain)


Hotel’s Rooftop Terrace View (St. Mary’s Cathedral on left)

Breakfast, our first morning, saw us sampling our first café con leche of the trip along with freshly squeezed orange juice, hearty apples, kiwis, and traditional ham and cheese on bread; a server with gruff edges and intentions to ensure we were satisfied guests, at the ready.

Trips to the neighboring convent where craftsmen worked earnestly at shaping classically embellished  Spanish jewelry, the “feet washing” ceremony at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday evening, and animated family-owned cafes cramped along slender stony streets cast a light and sublime tone over our Toledo visit.


Alleyways of Toledo


Our drive from Toledo to Costa Blanco, Spain’s Mediterranean coast, highly populated with transplanted English and Europeans, ushered us through a small town just outside Toledo where we were approached by a cheery, wobbly patron in a pub who had imbibed one too many, but who was nonetheless only too happy to assist this funny-speaking lost couple with directions to the city of Valencia by way of Tomelloso.  An impromptu Good Friday lunch along the way allowed us to “people watch” the smartly dressed town residents savoring substantial meals and family and friends.

A stopover in Javea, a medium-sized town on the Mediterranean within the province of Alicante, abounding with contemporary cafes and fashionable retail establishments found us meeting up with our long-time British friends.  Rekindling our expatriate friendship and connection to Spain developed so many years before, we wholly appreciated drives along the coastline and through the lush and granite topped Alicante Mountains, including the beautiful homes perched along hillsides near Moraira, reminding us of Sausalito, California; the loud and raucous street festival adjacent to the Javean Catholic church that carries strong ties to the townspeople; and unfettered open air seaside dancing with all ages entertained by a lone singer crooning Spanish tunes.


Javea, Spain


Street Market of Javea


Moraira, Spain


Alicante Mountains

From the pleasing and slow-paced lifestyle of Costa Blanca, we drove nearly four and a half hours in a southerly direction to reach the celebrated Andalusian city of Granada where Bishara spent a transformative several months in his late teens fleeing the civil war in Lebanon.  Although we were told the popular Pájaro Loco (“Crazy Bird”) bar frequented by Bishara and his Spanish compatriots in those early days had closed some years ago, we thoroughly enjoyed this aesthetic Moorish city set alongside the striking Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Our accommodations, Five Senses, modern and moderately priced, was just steps away from  a square holding the historic and imposing Catedral Granada, Placeta de Castillejos and Plaza Isabel La Catolica.  Wandering further along stone alleys, we entered the Albayzin district steeped in a Medieval Arab past, and encountered colorful ceramic dishware and ornamented lanterns in Arabic-themed shops and sedu-style seating filled with sheesha smoking clientele lolling in comfy cafes.


Granada, Spain (Albayzin District)



Alhambra Palace





Our visit to Andalusia granted us the delight of binging on Gazpacho soup originating in the region, and observing the dedication and professionalism of Spanish waiters at established eateries.  We were struck by a particular visit to Carmela restaurant, near our hotel, where the chaos of a filled restaurant rocking with conversation, laughter, and special food requests was met with utter aplomb, efficiency, and cordiality by devoted waiters apparently more on a career track than filling a provisional employment need.  Even off highway dining spots, linked to service stations, are many and varied, with white tablecloths, cloth napkins and formally attired waiters available at higher-end venues, the occasional chess players and spectators huddled at a corner table.

Continuing through Andalusia for the remainder of our holiday, we made our way to Cadiz via diverse and urban Malaga, birthplace of Pablo Picasso, on the Costa del Sol.  Cadiz, set on the Atlantic Ocean and within close proximity of the Strait of Gilbraltor, is an enchanting labyrinth of slim passageways corralling extensive small and inviting shops and cafes.  Thankfully, we happened upon the reasonably priced Francia y Paris hotel in the charming, and out of the way, Plaza San Francisco.  After the best night’s sleep of our trip, we yearned for our staple veggie omelets rather than the customary and caloric hams, cheeses, and bread.  A nearby restaurant in a large square managed by two men whose informality suggested familial ties pointed out their pre-cooked eggs with potatoes, quiche-style.  Close enough for our tastes, we sat on bar stools at a small round table enjoying our eggs, café con leches, freshly squeezed orange juice, and “local color” as the proprietors and diners chattered away, non-stop, with watchful side glances in our direction likely viewing us as an oddity in this homespun domicile.


Malaga, Spain

dscf0525Mediterranean (Malaga)


Cadiz, Spain





Monument to the Constitution of 1812 (Cadiz)


The highlight of our time in Cadiz was attending a Flamenco performance, endemic to Andalusia, at Cava Bar, a spartan and intimate saloon filled to the brim.  A tapas meal of fresh ham, pork, bread and olives nicely complemented the soulful guitar strumming, vocal harmony, and choral outbursts that accompanied the provocative tapping and angular movements of the vibrant and deliberate dancers.


Flamenco Dancing in Cadiz


Following our rejuvenating time in Cadiz, we drove the short hour and a half distance through plush rolling hills to exquisite Seville.  If for just a few hours, we soaked up the treats of Seville by horse-drawn carriage –  Cathedral of Seville, Giralda Bell Tower, Torre del Oro, Maria Luisa Park, Plaza de Espana, and small bars with singing Spaniards on our way to Cordoba, the former medieval Islamic capital of Spain.


Seville, Spain


Seville Cathedral






Plaza de Espana (Seville)

Cordoba was an unanticipated delight.  A stopover our first morning at a hair salon demonstrated, again, the strong sense of community evident throughout Spain when we met a Cordoban middle-aged lady with her adult daughter having her hair done, and restive rescue dog, all engaging in freewheeling warm and familiar banter with the stylists and other customers – more like the setting of a family home than a salon.  Bishara, of course, took the opportunity to declare how much we loved Spain; the lady proudly declared, “Cordoba is the best city in Spain.”

From the hair salon, we continued to the Guadalquivir River, and past the outdoor cafes stuffed with locals and tourists relishing food, drink, and chuckles, and stopped in the old sector at the site of the magnificent Mezquita de Cordoba (Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba) dating back to 711 AD, an impressive structure containing resplendent candy caned arcades atop marble pillars, intricately carved mosaics, and the ornate mihrab with chapels ensconced throughout.


Cordoba, Spain


Courtyard of Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba


Cathedral-Mosque (Cordoba)



Uncalculated meanderings along the winding paths of Cordoba brought us to prevalent and historic garden courtyards tucked away behind street shops that accommodated appealing cafes and a bounty of greenery and vivid flowers.  A visit to Los Patios, a garden courtyard cafe near the Great Mosque permitted us to not only partake in a deliciously cheesy pizza, but to also view a procession of women attired in elaborate traditional garb of the region escorted by a solemn black-clad marching band on horns and drums.  The cortege was punctuated with breaks of unrestrained revelry – dancing, singing, and drinking – in public squares.  Mesmerized by this cultural exhibition, we succumbed to the spirit of the festivities and swayed and hummed in rapport with our Spanish cohorts.


Los Patios (Cordoba)


Traditional Procession (Cordoba, Spain)





The following day, we reluctantly returned to Madrid for our flight home after a delightful brush with Spanish and Andalusian culture, history, and society, vowing to return in the not-too-distant future.


Deserts of the East and West

My first view of the Arabian Desert emerged through the window of our plane as we approached the Riyadh airport.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, and I were travelling from Washington, DC with several small American firms exploring joint venture possibilities with Saudi companies.  My heart and mind were open to a life enriching adventure, the gleaming beige panorama holding the promise of a new, intriguing, chapter in our lives, away from what had become a chaotic, impersonal, and routine existence in Washington, DC.  The stretch of luminous sand transmuted, assimilating a smattering of cream colored concrete homes with flat roofs, and eventually looming glass-draped skyscrapers as we advanced to the landing strip.


Arabian Desert

Having secured employment as the Management & Financial Reporting Supervisor at esteemed King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a 1,500 bed, 8,000 employee medical complex in the Kingdom’s capital, subsequent to months of missteps and travails, my first days in Riyadh were preoccupied with the tedious tasks of completing interminable paperwork and trotting back and forth to Family Medicine for requisite shots and medical tests.  My zeal for living in this unconventional locale waning under the weight of the bureaucratic challenge and palpable disinterest of my new boss, I oscillated between questioning if we had made the right move while finalizing hefty drifts of administrative forms, and reflections of a simpler, more definitive time in the U.S. among family and friends.

Wrestling with guilt surrounding my insistence the previous year over pursuing a life in the Arabian Peninsula, my mind wandered to recollections of Bishara drumming on his tablah and teaching our DC friends my nouveau form of belly dancing on weekends; “map-less” prolonged drives into the scenic countryside of West Virginia, pups cradled in my arms, heads popping out the car window; and tender Thanksgiving visits to family, aroma trails of baking turkey and stuffing floating through the house.  Reaching further back, my thoughts rested on childhood trips on California coastal highways and cross-country drives inaugurated with the stark deserts and canyon lands of the southwest.

Adolescent memories of the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and Four Corners, while daubed with a sense of novelty, were somewhat muted due to the austerity and stillness of the landscape.  Years later, as a young adult, the harshness and desolation of America’s desert buttes and mesas acquired an ethereal quality; an appreciation for these exceptional formations, spawned over millions, and billions, of years, by nature’s slow yet relentless forces of rivers, wind, rain, sedimentation, and ice.  When visiting Bryce Canyon, Zion Park, and the Grand Canyon, joined together by the effects of weather, tectonic activity, and water to form the “Grand Staircase,” I connected to the earliest times of earth’s creation through the Vishnu Basement rocks of the Grand Canyon and the Claron Formation rock layer that shapes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.


Grand Canyon


Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon


Zion Park

Halfway around the globe, the Arab Peninsula is girdled by its own geological design, the Arabian Desert, dominated largely by Rub’al-Khali (“Empty Quarter” located in southeast Saudi Arabia), the largest uninterrupted sand field in the world.  Although fortified by tectonic plates and sedimentation in its evolution, the desert and dunes of the Arab states are often aligned with a cultural sentiment, roaming sheepherders and tents, and, unfortunately, recently a more sinister perspective, rather than as a topographical curiosity.  Before arriving in the Arab Gulf in late 2000, I, along with many of my western family and friends, envisioned an abundance of camels, goats, sand, and Bedouins, not the glittering high-rise towers that litter downtown Riyadh and Doha, and other urban centers of the region.

Following intense workweeks fixated on financial reports at King Faisal Hospital, Wednesday afternoons were filled with anticipatory gratification at the prospect of piling into our green jeep the next morning, the weekend, our boom box loaded with popular Arabic music (Nancy Ajram and Said Murad), mixed mezzah contribution in the backseat, and pups positioned on my lap.  Heeding the instructions of a fellow expatriate, excursion director for the day, we and a convoy of several other cars met at the appointed location, conveyed our cursory greetings, and drove, single file, to an awaiting exploit in the quiescent desert.

One of our first destinations, “Edge of the World,” required a roughly two hour drive outside Riyadh, and was so named due to the precipitous drop following a continuous stony plateau etched with tread markings, Salt Bush,  and Bedouins tending to goats and sheep. Hiking on the escarpments of the crimson cliffs was followed by a picnic; quilted blankets, barbecue grills filled with sizzling shish kabob and complemented with tabouli, hommous, and brownies atop portable tables forming a convivial patchwork under the shade of a sweeping acacia tree.  An exquisite sunset rounded out the evening.  Skewed expectations and the singularity of the experience shared with other nascent residents buttressed the enchantment of the event.


Road to “Edge of the World”




“Edge of the World” (Outside of Riyadh)


Expatriate “Picnic-time”

Expeditions to nearby “Red Sands,” a broad expanse of rose desert rippled with dunes, provided an ample sand-surfing playground for children, pups, and adults alike, and “Hidden Valley,” bearing an uncanny resemblance to Monument Valley, site of several U.S. western movies, allowed for cave exploration, fossil finds, and belly dancing led by Bishara’s tablah playing under wide-fanned trees.  Bedouin hospitality, fortuitously, crept into one of our more auspicious trips to Hidden Valley.  After traversing craggy rock contours, and indulging in Kentucky Fried chicken and an amiable exchange between chummy expatriates, a haggard figure in a worn tunic and ghuttra approached – arms waving and incoherent words spilling.  Bishara, a Lebanese native, recognized the Bedouin dialect.  The man needed help with moving his pickup truck, which had stalled out some distance away in the desert.  Bishara and one of our friends followed the man to the disabled truck, aided in moving the truck to the man’s Bedouin tent village where the two interlopers incited a certain level of interest, and as a gesture of his gratitude, the man invited us all to a camel feast, which would require sacrificing prized and valuable livestock.  Although we had to forgo this magnanimous offering due to an early workday the following morning, the essence of Bedouin generosity had left its trace.


“Red Sands”


“Hidden Valley”


Belly dancing in “Hidden Valley”

Sometimes daytime jaunts transformed into overnight camping trips.  A bagpipe sunset serenade by a fellow expat accompanied by simmering kafta, steak, and baked potatoes; late night debates around a fire pit; sleeping under the stars – pups at our feet; and early morning conversation over tea, coffee, and scrambled eggs à la Bishara.  A powerful fusion of amity, creature comforts, and tranquility.


Breakfast in the desert.

Our most memorable Qatar desert escapade was through invitation by a Qatari family who graciously arranged for a day in the desert at their family farm.  A caravan of four cars, ours and three family cars with two drivers and four housemaids, ferried us the nearly two hours outside of Doha in a southerly direction.  An hour on the highway, and the balance of the journey on a makeshift sandy, stony roadway, and we arrived at a remote span of desert suffused with penned goats and sheep, an open tent designated for the men with a grill prominently displayed out front and a closed four-flapped tent for the women.  Additional family members arrived during a farm tour by my young friend, Sherifa; several brothers of the patriarch, as well as two sisters, and their families.  Following introductions, the matriarch guided me by the arm to the women’s tent where the housemaids had placed swaths of plastic sheets along the floor overlaid with colorful carpets and platters and trays of rice and lamb, hommous, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, macaroni, salad with tomato and onion.  As a guest, I was encouraged to eat first and well; I opted to dip into the communal dish of rice and lamb with my right hand, the traditional way.  Our meal was chased by a wild ride through the desert to the outdoor toilet, tunes streaming on a cell phone while women dangled out car windows singing and balanced precariously on running boards.  Khaleeji music coupled with reassuring dance lessons, and proffers of roasted chestnuts and corn concluded the nighttime revelry.


Men’s Tent (Qatar Farm)


Women’s Tent


Feast in women’s tent.


Roasted chestnuts and corn.

Desert visits have become spiritual undertakings for me: the canyons and mesas of the southwest U.S. filling me with wonder at the immense prospect of time, regeneration, and Earth’s beginnings; and the vast sand masses of the Gulf region providing replenishment through moments of fellowship, community, and self-discovery.

Wonders of New Zealand: Queenstown

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to alluring Queenstown, New Zealand. 


New Zealand has always been a mythical place for me; the stuff of stardust, sprites, and “Lord of the Rings.”  A country far removed physically from western civilization, and reportedly so isolated it was among the last land masses to be settled by humankind.  Comprised of a cultural past assimilating the aboriginal, Maori people, and the influx of Europeans following the creation of a British colony on the island continent in 1840, New Zealand is a wondrous amalgam of commanding natural monuments and landscapes, and citizens with cheery, independent, and forthright outlooks.


Fairy-tale Mountains of New Zealand

The first images of New Zealand’s fairy-tale snowcapped mountains, pristine lakes, and pastoral grazing land littered with colorful flowers were conferred upon me as a child through the pages of the National Geographic magazines delivered to our home in the mail.  Peering, wide-eyed, at the picturesque forms, I fancied plunging into the photographs and building a snowman in the refreshing glacial ice, and stroking the wooly curls of the sheep dotting the edges of verdant slopes.  I could almost imagine myself in such a wonderland meandering alongside the sheep and goats, wings on my back, elves on either side, surveying the splendid backdrops of natural wonders, however, I did not necessarily foresee the dream coming true.

Fast forward two generations, and my husband, Bishara, and I found ourselves on a flight from the Gulf region to Queenstown, New Zealand for a 9-day Christmas holiday by way of Sydney, Australia.  The approach, itself, into Queenstown airport was magical; ridges blanketed with white powdered cotton.  I could practically reach out and touch the ivory glitter.  Arriving at the airport I could not snag enough brochures, tourist guides, route planners, maps, promoting every kind of site, adventure, walking and biking trail in the area.


Approach into Queenstown

Before travelling, we debated whether we should rent a car, or take alternate transportation, such as buses, taxis, and such.  However, after consulting with an expatriate couple who had made the journey to New Zealand, the consensus was the best option was a rental car, particularly since there is much to see, and driving and finding your way, is relatively easy.  Keeping Bishara on track with “Stay to the left” or “You’re driving too far to the left; we’re going to hit the guardrail,” our greatest driving peril was maneuvering the roundabouts.  Despite my navigational support, we regularly stalled out in the middle of roundabouts, uncertain of which way to look and who had the right-of-way, provoking angry stares and blaring horns.  Another deliberation surrounded locations to visit in New Zealand, and whether we should establish a “home base.”  Feedback from seasoned traveler friends affirmed that we should focus on the southern island, Te Waipounamu, apparently the more scenic of the two islands, and use charming Queenstown as a departure point.


Queenstown, New Zealand


The staff at St. Moritz Hotel, our Queenstown accommodation, was exceedingly accommodating and congenial.  Our first afternoon, Christophe, the concierge, was good enough to make us a dinner reservation at pleasing Sasso Italian restaurant.  Ambling the short 15-minute distance from our hotel towards the restaurant we steered through town, a rather effortless feat, as many of the prominent retail shops and eating establishments are wrapped along grand Lake Wakatipu.  What was more trying was propelling through the swarms of tourists and young people, which grew in direction proportion to our distance from the lake.  The bikini-clad girls and brawny young men balanced on tightropes and tanned to the strains of dissonant tunes on the shores of the lake.  A short distance away, Bishara and I dined alfresco on refreshing salads and classic ham and mozzarella pizza while people watching.  Following dinner, we traipsed along festive and convivial pedestrian-only corridors, where the primary concern seemed to be locating a suitable restaurant meeting the varied needs of the family unit.


Quieter stretch of Queenstown beach. (Lake Wakatipu)


Sasso Restaurant (Queenstown)

The next morning, Bishara treated us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomato and cheese sandwich.  Although not our original intent, we booked a suite with a kitchenette, the only room type available at the time of our reservation, making me the beneficiary of some of Bishara’s yummy delectables.  Thankfully, Bishara relies on releasing some of his creative juices through cooking, whereas I have no such inclinations.

After breakfast, we inspected our collection of pamphlets and brochures on sights to see and activities of interest, and developed a plan for the next several days beginning with leisurely activities and progressing to more complex ventures.  Our first day would center on Arrowtown, an old gold rush village transformed into a trendy locale permeated with touristy cafes, wine shops, walking and biking routes, and a mere 30 minutes northeast of Queenstown.


Arrowtown (New Zealand)

Tasty Thai meals complemented by Thai iced tea at Arrow Thai restaurant in the heart of the diminutive former mining town were followed by glimpses of panning for gold simulations, a stream-side stroll, a drive through the nearby plush vineyards of Gibbston, and a cringe-worthy viewing of prototypic bungee jumping off the Kawarau Bridge with water touches.  A reunion with a visiting school chum enhanced a second visit to Arrowtown with a sentimental luncheon filled with memories of a bygone era and news of more current times, as well as newfound friends.


Gold panning in Arrowtown.


Streamside-strolling (Arrowtown)






Former miners’ cottages. (Arrowtown)


Gibbston area winery.

Settling into a more relaxed “New Zealand” cadence on our second day, we welcomed a breathtaking 45-minute drive from Queenstown, west and north along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu, fringed with snowy ridges, landing us in bucolic Glenorchy.  Beyond enchanting surroundings, Glenorchy offers a myriad of walking, hiking and horse trails; water sports; and is quite near to aptly named “Paradise,” filming site of “The Lord of the Rings.”  Subsequent to lunch at the Glenorchy Hotel Café and a walk along Lake Wakatipu, we slid along a two-lane asphalt road, and finally a gravelly passageway, on our way from Glenorchy to “Paradise,” highly expectant.  The more prosaic, however, in the form of a massive tour bus stranded in the middle of a two-way lane circumvented our direct route, setting us on a more circuitous course through delightful flowered pastures and mountain passes.  Feeling transported, and forcibly relaxed, it was challenging to leave this utopia.


On the way from Queenstown to Glenorchy.






Lunch at Glenorchy Hotel Cafe


Lake Wakatipu (Glenorchy)


Walking along the lake. (Glenorchy)





Black swans on Lake Wakatipu (Glenorchy)




On the way from Glenorchy to “Paradise.”


Trying to find “Paradise.”


In an effort to allow for the greatest degree of flexibility and spontaneity, Bishara and I rarely make reservations for hotels or activities when travel planning, unless absolutely necessary.  A cruise on Milford Sound was one such exception.  Prior to travelling to New Zealand, Christophe from St. Moritz was quite helpful in priming us that a Milford Sound cruise required an advanced reservation and the most time efficient manner to reach the famous fiord was by single engine plane.  Our languid days led to one of the highlights of our New Zealand trip; an awe-inspiring five-seater Cessna plane flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound and boat cruise on the famous estuary.

Arriving at the Queenstown airport, and spotting the tiny planes that would ferry us over, and between, rugged and intimidating mountain peaks evoked a skittish yet exhilarating rush.  Thoughts returned to an earlier time when at 16 years-old I navigated a six-seater Cessna piloted by my father and carrying our six family members across the U.S.  Then, like now, feelings of anticipatory jubilation connected to embarking on a new venture were tinged with a sensitivity surrounding what could go wrong.  Back then, however, the pilot was a known quantity, my meticulous father, and I had a certain perceived level of control.  Climbing into the modest aircraft at Queenstown airport I decided that if it was my time, it was my time, and it did not hurt that the flight company reported a perfect safety record and skies were clear.  Rolling down the runway, nose pointed skyward, the plane hovered left to right over the runway, and we lifted off.


Ready to board Cessna plane.


Ready for liftoff!


And we’re skyward!


Gentle olive colored slopes turned a darker, richer green, and ultimately mutated into gray slate crests capped with glistening snow; the ranges enwrapping aquamarine rivers and foliate valleys.  Thankfully, our pilot, Antony, a transplanted UK citizen, informed us that the mountaintops our wingtips scraped past were actually further away than they appeared from inside the plane.  My initial unease unfolded into utter fascination and spellbinding feelings of being united with a higher, more spiritual, world.  Gone were mundane thoughts of where we would eat that night, what we would do tomorrow, instead I was thriving in the moment rapt in the marvel of it all.  A 35-minute plane ride seemed an hours’ long odyssey.













Coming in for a landing.




Skimming above a water-filled basin, our plane alighted on the Milford Sound airport’s slender runway, and soon thereafter we boarded the Southern Discoveries tourist boat.  As tends to be the case when travelling, we befriended a couple while in the van taking us from our hotel to the Queenstown airport at the start of our expedition, and now our newly acquired friends shared a buffet meal with a basic international fare on the second level of the ship.  Once saturated with food, drink, and conversation, we scattered to dote on the superb scenes; seals basking on rocks in the summer sun, sparkling waterfalls, and panoramic scenery of fiords huddled within flour topped rocky ridges.



Milford Sound



Seals basking in the sun.








Our two-hour scenic cruise concluded with a final flurry of pictures to commemorate the spectacular vistas, a van ride to the adjacent airport, and me and Bishara crowding into a 6-seater Cessna with an additional sightseer, this time.  The return flight, following a different route, was as magnificent as the first flight, and found me similarly dazzled; an early Christmas present.


Return flight.





Two days later it was Christmas, requiring a search for restaurants providing Yuletide-themed lunches or dinners.  Of course, imposing unrealistic expectations of considerable joy and fulfillment on this particular meal would fall short.  Days earlier, we noticed the Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon, near Lake Wakatipu and were enthusiastic about sampling the cuisine.  Several years ago, when visiting northern Vietnam we truly appreciated the attention to balancing and ordering sweet and salt with sour, spicy, and bitter flavors to fully satisfy the palate.  So, we looked forward to a savory lunch at Saigon restaurant and remembrances of an extraordinary earlier trip.  After being seated, however, the abrupt exit of a family before receiving their meals, and accounts from waitresses that the restaurant was short-staffed laced with assurances that our food would arrive soon, did not bode well for a carefree and cheery holiday lunch.  While our lunches were served over an hour after we arrived, and customers came and went, often with forlorn faces or following confrontational episodes with restaurant workers, the redeeming factor was succulently prepared pork rolls, salmon fried rice, and crayfish with noodles.

After our fateful lunch, we drove our fully packed rental car three miles north of Queenstown to Trelawn Bed & Breakfast near Arthur’s Point, popular haven for jet boating.  Turning onto the flower and tree-lined Trelawn driveway provided a taste of the natural wonder of this exquisite bed and breakfast property.  As we parked the car, Nery appeared to warmly greet us along with her husband, Michael, who helped with our luggage.  Sugar cookies and tea followed seamlessly outside on the deck where we enjoyed travel stories with our hospitable hosts and splendid views of abundant foliage and mountain ridges.


Trelawn Bed & Breakfast







“Hot tubbing” at Trelawn B&B

Our two days, three nights, at Trelawn B&B were lovely and restorative, opening with breakfasts of scrambled eggs, tomato, mushroom, bacon, jams, toast, coffee and juices prepared lovingly by Nery and presented on a large, sturdy dining room table.  It was a distinct gift meeting other visitors from nearby Australia and expatriates residing in Southeast Asia at these communal meals; the travel anecdotes continued serving to widen our worldview.  Our event-filled days typically wound down with Michael preparing hot chocolate for us with an invitation to sit in the family lounge to watch TV and cuddle with their dogs, Kobey and Sarah.

Planning our last days in the Queenstown area, Nery and Michael recommended we book tickets for the steamship TSS Earnslaw lake cruise, which incorporates a guided tour of Walter Peak Farm, afternoon tea, and a sheep shearing demonstration.  The TSS Earnslaw, a vintage vessel with polished wooden floors and seating and photos celebrating its earliest voyages, departed the Queenstown dock at two in the afternoon.  Darting along the boat, we peeked at the ship’s engine room, slipped out into the frigid air of the bow, and finally perched in the stern where we listened to a pianist and joined in singing from “old time” song books.


TSS Earnslaw

Docking on the beach of the Walter Peak Farm property we were greeted by enormous grassy spaces, beautiful flower gardens and our farm guide, who introduced us to the resident deer, sheep, alpaca, and Scottish Highland Cattle.  Feeding the receptive animals was a delight and looking into the virtuous eyes of the sweet ewes was heart-melting.  A satisfying sampling of teas, pikelets, and scones at the refined, yet inviting, “Colonel’s Homestead” succeeded our farm tour.  Our outing ended with a farm dog flanking a flock of sheep down a dirt path from pastureland to a pen and stage where our farm guide coolly sheared our wooly friend from an oversized shaggy ruminant to its svelte and prim former self, leaving behind a mound of supple fleece to be caressed by onlookers.


Walter Peak Farm








Walter Peak Farm Gardens




Sheep Shearing



Waiting for the boat.


Sailing back from Walter Peak Farm to Queenstown, we resolved to take the Skyline Gondola ride up Bob’s Peak, described as the most precipitous cable car ride in the southern hemisphere.  Hoisted into an eight-seat car, swaying capriciously against the mountainside, we relished the expanding sight of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables mountain range, as well as Coronet and Walter Peaks.  Coming to rest at the summit of Bob’s Peak, we indulged in glorious, virtual 360 degree views, and antics of visitors in luges rushing down winding paved tracks; a wonderful way to close out our captivating days in ethereal New Zealand.


Queenstown from Gondola.


Lift for “luging.” (Bob’s Peak)


View from Bob’s Peak.


Our plane trip back to the Arab Gulf via Sydney was consumed with bittersweet contemplation; a melancholy over leaving an extraordinary land and people, and gratefulness for a dream fulfilled.



Wonders of Australia: Sydney

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


Sydney felt like home.  Although my earliest travel dreams included Australia and storied images of vaulting kangaroos and cuddly koala bears, transcendental Ayers Rock, the Great Barrier Reef, and a self-sufficient people, I did not anticipate the sense of comfort and belonging I would encounter in this multifarious country.

Our trip would be over the Christmas holidays, and incorporate visits to Sydney and the Queenstown area of New Zealand.  As a young adult I fancied a month-long adventure to expansive Australia taking in not only Sydney, but the Great Barrier Reef and Canberra in the east; Perth in the west; Adelaide and Melbourne in the south, and the ample outback in the interior, however, the mundane reality of a limited timeframe bound to work responsibilities restricted our visit to a mere four days in Sydney and nine days in New Zealand.


Opera House and Sydney Harbour

Though arriving in Sydney at 10:30 at night after a protracted flight did not allow us the advantage of ingesting the views between the airport and downtown Sydney, location of our accommodation, plucking the curtains aside the next morning, we discerned an ornate maroon-colored church with towering pinnacles, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and people scurrying about, many in shorts, on foot, bike, or some on skateboard, all framed in the luscious greenery carefully constructed along the streets and nearby historical Hyde Park.


St. Mary’s Cathedral


Hyde Park with St. Mary’s Cathedral in background.


St. Mary’s Cathedral and Hyde Park

Our first foray into the city was a short trip around the corner to the funky all-day breakfast restaurant, “Two Good Eggs.”  Bishara had done reconnaissance into the offerings at our hotel café, however, found that eggs, a “breakfast must” for us, were not on the menu, so the receptionist graciously recommended “Two Good Eggs,” which did not disappoint.  The youngish waitresses wore mostly very short shorts and friendly smiles, the food was unique and varied, and we took much pleasure in watching people and pooches romping in a nearby park through broad picture windows.  The folksy ambiance of “Two Good Eggs” reminded us of our college days in Gainesville, Florida and our runs to Café Expresso, a sweet little hole in the wall with an earthy vibe and varnished tree trunks serving as tables.


“Two Good Eggs” Cafe

While Sydney is a friendly city, there are innumerable regulations and edicts that promote and preserve an aura of orderliness and security.  Upon first arrival at the Sydney airport, Bishara and I were greeted with strident stares and muted threats of steep fines, or potential jail time, by immigration officials for having a banana peel inadvertently stashed away in our carry-on.  In subsequent days, while travelling through the city by taxi, one garrulous and informative driver, became abruptly somber as he directed us to quickly latch our seatbelts in the backseat, as he spotted policemen who are known for meting out fines for seatbelt infractions.  Even trekking on foot through the city, we were reminded of the disciplined nature of the place while waiting for walking signals to change at intersections, when hailed with blaring rhythmic sounds, as well as moving graphics of pedestrians alerting us that we were allowed to enter the crosswalk.  And all pedestrians dutifully obeyed the commands; Bishara and I, unruly as we are, regularly walked into intersections when there was no traffic, but nary a soul followed us.

Despite all of the rules, or maybe, in part, because of them, Sydney has a carefree and cheery feel, wrapped in the perception of inviolability.  Like residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, another coastal location with temperate weather, Sydneysiders are easygoing, engaged, sports-minded, and amiable.  Catching a local bus to Bondi Beach, a favored destination for locals and tourists, and a few short miles to the east of Sydney, we were struck by young women in the skimpiest of bikinis sunbathing and frolicking in the gentle waves seemingly going unnoticed by ostensibly eligible, and muscly, young men content to share their own company and the enchantment of the surf.  A stop at a Bondi ocean-side café found us surrounded by more solitary tanned and “bikinied” ladies enjoying a good read, yoga, or simple reflective moments without unwelcome “cat calls” and stares, similarly exuding a vigorous and healthy populace of young adults free of base distractions.  A refreshing display!


Bondi Beach


Coastal Walk (Bondi Beach)

Our previous winter and spring holiday jaunts as expatriates were typically spent in the warmer climes of Asia – Vietnam, Bali, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and the Middle East region where token references, such as a simple decorated Christmas tree in a hotel lobby, were made to Christmastide.  Although I believe Christmas is overly commercialized in the U.S., I looked forward to experiencing the merriment of the holiday season in a western country with summertime weather.  Entering the lobby of our Best Western hotel in the heart of Sydney on our first night, however, there were no holiday decorations to be found, not even a Christmas tree.  And in the ensuing days, as we toured Sydney, visiting the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, The Rocks, and a variety of other sights and restaurants, the predominant commemorations of the season gravitated towards simple unadorned and inconspicuous Christmas wreaths displayed on doors or walls, although we did attend, what turned out to be, an awe-inspiring yuletide service with carols and a spectacular light show at St. Mary’s Cathedral.


Yuletide Service at St. Mary’s Cathedral


Light Show at St. Mary’s Cathedral


Among the copious attractions in Sydney, Bishara and I made certain we saw the iconic Opera House on our first day, and were elated to secure tickets for the play, Orlando, an eclectic and avant-garde production, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, scheduled for that very night.  While we appreciated the quirky play, we were just as thrilled at the fortuity of being within the confines of the Opera House, itself, attending a performance.  The next day, we spent time in the sweeping and lavish Royal Botanical Gardens, abutting the Opera House grounds, exploring the Herbarium, Fernery, Palm House, and exquisite gardens displaying red gum trees, red cedars, hoop pines, a great diversity of other flora, as well as stretches of thick grass filled with lazing and picnicking families and views of Sydney Harbour.


The Opera House


Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney




Harbour Bridge


The Rocks (near Opera House and Harbour Bridge)

A fifteen minute taxi ride from the Royal Botanical Gardens through the downtown district brought us to another waterway, Darling Harbour with its shiny skyscrapers, tourist boats and luxury yachts, and modern trendy cafes.  After surveying the harbor and smartly dressed tourists and businesswomen departing their offices while sipping Earl Grey tea at a cosmopolitan eatery, we began a circuitous walking tour along city streets, under freeway flyovers, and over open skyways, and ultimately arrived in colorful Chinatown.  Chinatown afforded us communion with lively crowds of visitors and maître d’s encouraging the public to dine at their establishments.  We delighted in sumptuous corn soup, chicken with vegetable soup, and lemon chicken with rice at one of the many eating spots, alongside clamorous middle-aged Australians at a nearby table discussing a recent cricket match.


Darling Harbour, Sydney



Chinatown in Sydney


Departing Chinatown after a hearty meal, we crossed tram tracks and wandered into Paddy’s Haymarket, a tourist haven radiating frenetic merchandising of t-shirts, souvenirs, footwear, clothes, and crafts to eager hordes of shoppers.

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Paddy’s Haymarket

Our rewarding four-day stay in Sydney concluded with a flight to Auckland, a remarkable nine-day tour of New Zealand’s southern island, and a 24-hour return visit to the vibrant city of Sydney before flying back to the Arabian Peninsula.  Feeling highly nostalgic about leaving Sydney, Bishara and I presumed we would sleepwalk through our final day in Australia with some low level sightseeing and preparations for our long flight later in the evening.  A chatty taxi driver, however, hauling us from the Sydney airport to our accommodation on Campbell Street in “Thai town,” amended our sentiments by informing us about ferry excursions to Manly, a suburb to the northeast of Sydney proper, which boasts a lively beach resort community.  Welcoming the suggestion, Bishara and I purchased ferry tickets at Circular Quay, and after savoring sea breezes and lovely glimpses of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge we disembarked from the boat and strolled along palm-lined streets filled with cafes and attractive retail shops, to Manly Beach.  Spying a Mexican restaurant with a decent view of the beach, we enjoyed a milieu of bustling crowds appreciating glorious weather, shopping and dining opportunities, as well as beach-goers cavorting in the surf.


View from ferry going to Manly.




Manly (Suburb of Sydney)


One of the few Christmas trees we saw.


Manly Beach

Several hours later we were on a shuttle bus travelling to the Sydney airport, keen on absorbing all the sights along the route; multicolored row houses and hip bistros of Surry Hills, industrial suburbs of Zetland, and terraced abodes and quaint storefronts of Beaconsfield, striving to store the scenes of our wonderful trip in our consciousness for future reflection.

Wonders of Jordan: Wadi Rum

An abundance of fine red sand amid limestone ridges, the land of Lawrence of Arabia’s escapades during the Arab Revolt in the early 1900s, and filming location of the recently released, “The Martian” with Matt Damon, Wadi Rum is a luminous and celebrated desert plain in southern Jordan.


Wadi Rum

Although a Lebanese native through bloodline, my husband, Bishara, was born and spent his formative years in north Jordan.  We share an enduring love for, and fascination with, Jordan, and have visited family and explored this historically rich country on many occasions.

One of our more inspiring trips to Jordan combined visits to Bishara’s family and childhood friends in conjunction with excursions to Jerash, Madaba (home to mosaic churches), Mount Nebo, Petra, Aqaba, and Wadi Rum.  Our journey to Wadi Rum was our final sightseeing destination within Jordan before our flight home to the Arabian Gulf.  My imaginings of Wadi Rum included a vast sweeping desert landscape, desolate and beguiling, the stuff of epic movies with battles on horseback and political intrigue.

The reality was not so very different.  Following a captivating venture to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and a stopover in the Red Sea town of Aqaba on Jordan’s southern border where we enjoyed sheesha and Turkish coffee on the beach, Bishara and I reached Bait Ali Camp, an accommodation fashioned in the Bedouin style, in the Wadi Rum valley.


Aqaba, Jordan

Drawn to the simplicity of the Bedouin lifestyle and culture, I appreciate the lack of frills, the humble, natural lifestyle, as well as the value placed on unbridled hospitality and generosity.  While in Petra, Bishara and I encountered the ever-present Bedouin, and while some were singularly zealous in selling their wares, the customary undercurrent of altruism, with offerings of tea brewed on aged portable stoves, was indisputable.  Or invitations to visit a nearby family home, as was the case when we met Rose, a 20-something Bedouin who magnanimously invited us to meet her family in nearby Umm Sayhoon village.  The family had virtually nothing, merely concrete walls and floors and not a stitch of furniture to call home, yet they insisted we join them in a feast of lamb and trimmings, which would have required the slaughter of one of their prized sheeps.  We declined, as we were both tired after a long day, and felt we could not appropriately repay this considerable gesture.  We did, however, receive cups of delicious fresh mint tea steeped in a kettle on a portable cooker on the floor.  I was perplexed when Rose’s mother whispered in her daughter’s ear, and Rose disappeared for a few moments into the adjoining room, only to reappear with timeworn Nabatean coins and a hand crafted beaded necklace, which Rose’s mother presented to Bishara and me.  Water welling in my eyes, my visceral reaction was to decline this unsparing expression of generosity.  Her arm outstretched defying my impulsive response, Rose’s mother gently pushed the gifts in our direction.  I could barely blurt out “thank you, shukran, habeeptie.”

Jordanian society operates from an organic essence, the people warm and friendly, the pace slow, and the day-to-day existence transparent and uncluttered with the “heaviness” of life experienced in more affluent and developed countries.  And because it is a relatively small nation, the social connections and affiliations are well-developed and oftentimes quite sturdy.  As we checked into the Bait Ali Camp, our accommodations in the heart of Wadi Rum, Bishara discovered by happenstance that the receptionist, manager of the establishment, was the friend of a Jordanian acquaintance from northern Jordan.  Social ties did not impede the common practice of “drumming up business” experienced at tourist locales throughout the region, especially for  ancillary services, as a youngish male hotel associate and the manager persistently pressed us to take the accommodation’s quad bikes to tour Wadi Rum the following day.  Matching the duos sense of determination, Bishara resolutely countered with our intention to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a guide from the nearby visitor’s center in the morning.  Thwarted, the manager made an offhanded remark to the younger man in Arabic.  Bishara leaned in and whispered that the manager informed his staff member he had tried to garner business for the younger man, but we would not budge.

As we drove to our room, following our check-in, the Bedouin lifestyle was palpable in the form of lodging with tents and grotto-like dwellings scattered about the premises.  Initially startled to be confronted with an exceedingly compact stone compartment with a simple wooden front door, I wondered how I would sleep that night.  The interior of our accommodation (“small chalet with fan”) was indubitably austere with twin beds atop wood platforms, one on each side of the room, and nary a couple feet in between.  A similarly meager, although clean and functional restroom, completed the space.


Our Accommodation at Bait Ali Camp (Wadi Rum)


Bait Ali Camp

After unpacking and freshening up, Bishara and I headed for the large circular tented dining area, which provided both indoor and outdoor seating.  While most patrons were seated outside the tent at wooden picnic tables presumably enjoying the crisp November evening temperatures, Bishara and I, desert dwellers of the sweltering Arabian Peninsula for quite some years, chose the indoor seating, which better suited our adapted core temperature.  Before being called to the buffet tables, I took advantage of the quiet time, and resumed reading Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a non-fiction account relating the shared cave-dwelling life (from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s) of New Zealander Marguerite and her Bedouin husband, Ali amidst the relics and rubble of Petra.  A bold voice announcing the buffet was open disrupted my musings surrounding Marguerite and her remarkable spirit and life, and found me and Bishara queuing up with other guests to partake in a lavish dinner of mezzah-type selections, including olive oil laden hommous, tabouli, fattoush, labneh, and mounds of chicken and rice.

Ambling back to our room after dinner, an attentive receptionist inquired if we would like to accompany him on a short trek to view the stars of the desert sky; we declined maintaining we were tuckered out after trudging through wondrous Petra the day before, although we were fairly certain the stroll would not be complimentary.  Arriving at our room, we asked for additional blankets and pillows to mitigate the raw nighttime air, as heaters were not part of this unpretentious domain, and in short order I was in a deep slumber swaddled in cozy quilted coverings.  We awoke to the morning light squinting through our curtained window, and I remarked to Bishara that I had the soundest most peaceful sleep I could remember.

Following an al fresco breakfast of babaganoush, hommous, olives, labneh, za’atar (thyme soaked in olive oil), magdoose (pickled eggplant), goat cheese, fried eggs, pita bread, and freshly brewed coffee in an Arab styled gazebo, we mounted the stairs alongside the reception building and a nearby sandstone dome, makeshift viewing points, to survey the Bait Ali Camp grounds and limitless maroon sand drifts and august granite forms.  We traversed the various majless layouts on the property, accepted cumin tea from the manager for Bishara’s slightly unsettled stomach, and received a request to join a sheesha and sweet mint tea respite at the Camp later in the afternoon, before departing for the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center.


Grounds of Bait Ali Camp


Majless (Bait Ali Camp)


The area encompassing the Visitor’s Center flaunted a chaotic scene; Bedouins in street clothes or worn thobes and ghuttras haphazardly wrapped around heads, all scuttling about, competing to make the sale – to drive anticipative vacationers through the Wadi Rum basin.  We even encountered a shop owner claiming that her brother could drive us through the UNESCO protected area.

We serendipitously located the Visitor’s Center and ticket office, as we sought to avoid the clusters of solicitors.  Selecting the one hour tour, which could be extended to two, with a driver and four wheel drive vehicle, the slight man decked out in a fitted brown leisure suit stationed behind the ticket counter provided us with a map along with instructions on meeting our driver in the tiny town of Wadi Rum.  We began our Saharan expedition thankful we hired a closed truck, as many of the conveyances rambling along the maroon sands had open air backseats filled with patrons protected by facemasks.

Perched on metal bench seats opposite each other in the back of the truck, we sailed along the flaming coral sea of sand peppered with stately sandstone shapes before stopping at a Nabataean temple where our guide provided a brief synopsis on the origins and likely function of the sanctuary in ancient times.  We advanced along the boundless serene rose lake, tourists on camelback and brown Bedouin tents dabbing the horizon, until we reached spots with particularly exquisite panoramic vistas where we would stop, and ingest the precious scenery, sensing a singular connection with the creation of this incredible valley through the effects of rainwater and sand storms some 500 million years ago.  Further into the plain, we ascended soft sand dunes and solid granite abutments only to be greeted by more extraordinary settings, and were ceremoniously invited to traditional mint tea in a red carpeted Bedouin majless.


Site of Nabataean Temple (Wadi Rum)












“Tea time” in Wadi Rum Majless

We wished we had allotted more time for Wadi Rum, however, found it imperative to travel to northern Jordan to visit Bishara’s childhood friends and family before returning to the Arab Gulf.  Our four hour drive along the length of Jordan was filled with reflections of our awe-inspiring adventure in Wadi Rum and Bishara’s nostalgic recollections of his former life in Jordan, all accompanied to the music of Fares Karam.

Wonders of Turkey: Sirince

Sirince is barely discernible on any tourist maps, or on any internet travel sites.  My husband, Bishara, and I became cognizant of this sweet mountain village a few short miles north of Ephesus when visiting Kas, Turkey on the Mediterranean coast.  As we checked out of the charming Kekova Boutique Hotel in Kas, Bakir, an affable, middle-aged man, and manager of the accommodation inquired where we were going next on our travels.  When we replied “Ephesus,” the historic site on Turkey’s western shoreline, Bakir’s eyes brightened and he remarked, “Oh, while there, you must see Sirince, a nice mountain town very close to Ephesus.  My friends like to go there.”

Retaining Bakir’s suggestion in the corner of our minds, while basking in the remarkable Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus, proved expedient.  Subsequent to our sublime excursion to Ephesus, we promptly forged ahead through the nearby town of Selcuk, location of our hotel, and up a serpentine mountain road into Sirince.  Along the route, we took a detour, as we often do, and rendezvoused with the remnants of a homestead containing penned Columbidae hens, a resplendent peacock atop the coop mocking its feathery compatriots below.


On the way to Sirince.

Advancing along the circuitous roadway, we encountered the appealing village of Sirince, reportedly settled by the Greeks in the 1400s and later by the Turks, and known for its local fruit wines, Ottoman-style homes, and mountain scenery.  Sirince’s muddle of pebbled streets, red-tiled roofs, tangle of boutique hotels, and festive restaurants and souvenir shops, enticed us into further exploration of the disparate charms of this rustic and alluring pastoral town.


Sirince, Turkey



Beginning our sojourn in a converted school building, now housing the Stone School Museum, and Artemis Restaurant and Wine House, the onset of spritzing rain did not deter our enchantment with stores exhibiting multi-colored ceramic bowls, vibrant circular Turkish lanterns, and a diverse blend of multi-patterned women’s scarves.  Although normally tepid shoppers, we buckled, employed the prerequisite haggling, and purchased two handsomely garnished silver Turkish demitasse cups with matching cupolas and saucers, and two ceramic whirling dervishes in mid-stride as mementos of our notable and entertaining time in Turkey.


The blue eye is thought to eradicate the

The blue eye is thought to eradicate the “evil eye.”


Our purchases.


Surveying the humming core of the village, we stumbled upon a hospitable merchant from the town’s diminutive grocery shop, who obliged us by assisting with money exchange, and informing us of a second brother, an artist specializing in unique felt mediums, who owned an artist’s shop on an adjacent hill.  Equipped with the brother, Umud’s, business card, we made our way up the cobblestoned slope, and eventually found the artisan’s secluded family run enterprise.


Up the hill to Umud’s shop.

Umud’s stern eyes turned tender when we uttered his brother’s name and disclosed that his sibling had encouraged us to visit his uncommon artist’s studio.  Formalities vanished in short order.  His hand resting delicately on Bishara’s shoulder, Umud guided us to an exclusive enclave, his workshop in the rear of the store, and offered Turkish coffee in exquisite miniscule cups.  Wool and cloth material streaked with bold blues and reds alongside wooden tables and benches strewn throughout the unfinished room, the craftsman divulged he was working on a new prayer rug with colorful symmetrical configurations made of felt.  The rug, although incomplete, bore the resolute forms of geometric composition alongside more fluid calligraphy strokes.  The young man revealed additional completed felt rugs and caps, all reflecting his singular conceptions, drying on lines above his workshop.

Our discourse on prayer rugs and traditional designs led to an exchange encompassing Turkish culture and historical influences, and our revelation that we had witnessed a moving whirling dervish event several days before in Istanbul.  Pronouncing his study of Sufism some years ago, Umud related that the conventional whirling dervish ceremony, an outshoot of Sufism inspired by Mevlana Rumi, centered around the counter-clockwise spin, which represents the rotation of the earth.  Enduring, our host divulged that the dervish’s right hand opens towards the sky to receive God, and the left hand extends downwards towards the ground sending the spirit of God to the people of earth.  Our newfound friend reinforced the notion that a whirling dervish performance is painstakingly precise, somber, and pious.

Flush with spiritual enlightenment and feeling grateful for the hospitality, we said warm farewells to Umud, and made our way along the mesh of alleyways to Sirincem Restaurant, a delightful looking eatery with lovely views that drew our attention earlier in the day.  Ali, the young and sturdy-looking owner of Sirincem had been outside the restaurant, on the street, promoting the merits of dining at his establishment; Ali had approached us with promises of fresh pomegranate juice – the crimson fruit grown from his own family’s tree.  While the pomegranate juice swayed me to return later, it was the assurance that sheesha would be provided, which persuaded Bishara.  Sheesha, a nostalgic favorite, routinely conjures up tales of tender moments for Bishara of his early years spent stoking his father’s sheesha coals in the garden of his family home in northeast Jordan.

Arriving at the Sirincem later in the afternoon, we were cordially welcomed by Ali who was clearly pleased with our return.  Steering us to outdoor seating, we declined indicating a preference for sitting inside, as the temperatures had dipped with the setting sun.  Ali persevered with offerings of blankets, encouraging us to loll in the impressive outdoor views of the village and surrounding ridges.  Generosity and hospitality a mainstay of eastern culture, Ali scurried off only to return moments later with three substantial wool blankets; one given to Bishara and two placed gently around my shoulders.  Bishara and I dined on leafy salad grazed with pomegranate paste, delectable lamb shish kabob, dimpled green and black Turkish olives, and piquant pomegranate juice.  Nearing the end of our splendid repast, Ali cautiously notified Bishara that he had only located cherry flavored sheesha rather than the requested apple flavored tobacco.  Bishara’s disappointment apparent, Ali proclaimed he would be back soon and reappeared, self-assured and sanguine, the favored apple tobacco he had cajoled a benevolent neighbor into contributing stuffed in one hand, and a shiny sheesha pipe in the other.

Sirincem Restaurant

Sirincem Restaurant

Driving back down the willowing byways to Selcuk following our savory dinner, we pondered over our momentous eight-day trek through Turkey beginning with a provocative visit to Istanbul, a city rich in sundry cultural influences; followed by stops in Antalya Province, bordering the Mediterranean, with its mesmerizing natural beauty, and Ephesus, an ancient site depicting the nation’s complex history; and culminating with an outing to the pleasing and uncomplicated Ottoman-style village of Sirince, along with a wish to return to Turkey someday.

Wonders of Thailand: Koh Samui

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including visits to alluring Thailand.


Koh Samui conjured up a sense of magic upon first mention of this small, sleepy island between Thailand’s eastern coast and the western contours of Cambodia and Vietnam.  The name, itself, Koh Samui (koh suh-moo-ee), both peculiar and exotic, stirred notions of vagary and mystery along the fringes of my mind.  My husband, Bishara, and I were on Phuket Island years ago reveling in the swells of the glimmering Andaman Sea, five dollar massages on the beach, and haggling at the humming, and sometimes off-color, markets and eateries, when our dear Omani friends who were vacationing with us contended that if we liked the laid back and whimsical nature of Phuket we would love Koh Samui.  Thus began a nagging interest in visiting the easygoing, fanciful, and picturesque island of Koh Samui.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui

We would have traveled to Koh Samui sooner, however, feeling grateful for residing in the Arab Gulf, a region providing boundless travel opportunities, we sought to maximize the count of new countries on our list of vacation destinations.  More than ten years elapsed between visiting the entertaining and celebrated Phuket, and the mellow, lush, and engaging Koh Samui.

Our first introduction to Koh Samui, the Samui International Airport, hinted at the carefree and cheery nature of the place.  Open air surroundings with rustic wooden beams and trellises, absent were the strained, tension-laden feelings often pervasive at even smaller international airports where fatigued travelers are ready for circumstances to go awry; missed connections, lost luggage, ground transportation issues, and such.  No, this was more of an oasis, a placid place where even weary travelers had a glint in their eye with expectations of more of the same.  There was no jostling for luggage, no vocal eruptions regarding missing suitcases, only families and sweethearts coolly collecting their luggage and drifting along the tree-lined pathway to waiting hotel vans.


Samui International Airport

Our prompt and attentive hotel driver at the ready, we were mesmerized by the endless stream of twinkling small open cafes and shops threaded along the winding nighttime roads. Nearly thirty minutes later, snaking up a steep and narrow incline, our hotel shuttle van arrived at our accommodations, Sandalwood Resort, after 11:00 PM.

Impressed with, and soothed by, the gracious and personalized service we received upon arriving at the resort, we swiftly fell into “island rhythm,” as we were shown to our lodging, the Lotus Villa, a cavernous space with living room and dining area, fully stocked kitchen, lovely bedroom with Thai accents, a second bedroom and bathroom upstairs, and an immense balcony.  The area proved far too large for us prompting a relocation two days into our stay from the Lotus to the Jasmine Villa, a very comfortable one-bedroom abode, with a loft and balcony.   Sandalwood’s modest-sized property hosting ten, one to four-bedroom, luxury villas, enhances the overall sense of intimacy and privacy for guests, however, can lead to limited villa availability.  The resort’s personal touch was amplified our first night when our pre-ordered meals of Som Tom Gai (papaya salad with chicken) and Gai Pad King (ginger chicken) awaited us in our villa.


Lotus Villa, Sandalwood Resort (Koh Samui)





Morning light revealed the exquisite beauty of the Gulf of Thailand framed by plush undulating hillsides.  We rollicked in the serenity and charm of the captivating landscape before aiming for the breakfast room.  Not one to appreciate the gluttonous and gridlocked nature of “breakfast included” buffets, I was relieved and heartened after clambering along stone steps and through sumptuous verdure to discover an alfresco and intimate dining area.  Surrounded by Buddhist offerings of fruits and flowers, and a smattering of barefoot patrons, we kicked off our flip flops, padded across a beige-tiled floor, and slipped into wicker chairs.  Releasing an expansive exhale, I felt serene and at home.  Easing into the breakfast cuisine of the locale, we complemented our Thai vegetable and pork soup with western omelets filled with tomato, mushroom, bell pepper, ham and cheese.


Climbing steps to breakfast area.


Breakfast area.


Breakfast view.

Ingesting the delectable viands and ambrosial environs of the distant sea wrapped in luxuriant greenery, and assuaged by the tranquil, yet “other worldly,” setting of the breezy breakfast corner, rendered me into ultimate relaxation mode.  Unusually content to undertake very little that first day other than to absorb the breathtaking, almost surreal, panoramic view from our balcony, read, and nap, the latter part of the afternoon girded us for widening our awareness of the island.


View from our balcony.

Furnished with a cell phone from the hotel, and a car plus driver provided to guests to alleviate the difficulty of maneuvering the formidable gradient between the hotel and the road below, we embarked on a sojourn to nearby Silver Beach.  Silver Beach is an appealing, comparatively small horseshoe-shaped beach, with collections of gray polished boulders, and beach-lovers, projecting from the shallow waters.  After delighting in the warm and mollifying azure sea, we opted for satisfying our budding hunger pangs at the outdoor restaurant of a neighboring rather nondescript hotel.  In sharp contrast to the rudimentary ambience, the red curry, basil pork, and chicken satay were thoroughly impressive bolstering a heightened appreciation for a looming sunset.


Silver Beach (Koh Samui)


Sun setting on Silver Beach.

Sun setting on Silver Beach.

Our quarters at Sandalwood and the proximate Silver Beach were positioned between two dominant towns on Koh Samui Island; Chewang and Lamai, the former larger and awash with shopping, nightlife, restaurants, and beaches, and the latter a smaller, and more relaxed, version of Chewang.  Our choice of Sandalwood Resort was based on our interest in managing a parity between absolute rest and occasions for cultural exploration, adventure (culinary and otherwise), and gift shopping.

Making a habit of opening our day with a considerable breakfast at the resort’s Ginger Restaurant, and lounging in our room while savoring luscious views, equipped us for departing the hotel mid-afternoon for island excursions most days.  The afternoon of our second full day on Koh Samui was infused with body surfing in the gentle surges of the sea, lunch on the beach in Lamai with servings of pork salad, fresh king prawns, vegetable fried rice, and delectable mango sticky rice, and just down the stretch of sand, full body massages.  Our tour of Lamai also yielded a stroll through town, loaded with eateries, gift shops, and street markets catering to visitors with ubiquitous t-shirts and souvenirs, and locals alike.  Our evenings concluded with nighttime swims in Sandalwood’s enticing infinity pool, the lone patrons relishing the far-flung sparkling lights co-opting the once sunlit shimmering Gulf.


Lunch on the beach in Lamai.


Massage on Lamai beach.



Lamai street market.

Lamai street market.

Sandalwood's infinity pool.

Sandalwood’s infinity pool.

The resort’s niceties, however, did not end with physical amenities; the owner, Robert, a former San Francisco resident, was exceedingly accommodating, going so far as to offer to drive us to Chewang and escort us to a trendy beach at the edge of town.  A shared lunch on the beach was accompanied by an exchange about Thailand history, a dip in the sea and another curative beachside massage.

Chewang beach. (Massage hut to right.)

Chewang beach. (Massage hut to right.)

Following Robert’s departure, we rambled from the thatched roofed massage hut to the next door restaurant where toes tucked in the sand, we treasured the sea gusts, colorful Thai paper lanterns, murmur of cresting waves lapping onto the beach, and flavorsome green curry and mango sticky rice, a new comestible favorite.  Our evening incorporated a visit to the “Center Festival,” a patchwork of frenetic activity amongst a labyrinth of traditional market stalls, local popular music teamed with live singing and provocative dancing, and culminated with two young vigilant Thai women refusing to leave our side in a colossal uninviting public parking lot until our missing hotel driver arrived.


Dinner on Chewang beach.


Center Festival.

Music and dancing at Center Festival.

Music and dancing at Center Festival.

Our time in Koh Samui continued its effortless flow between idling at the hotel and venturing out to probe Fisherman’s Village, on the northern coast, with its quaint beachfront cafes and tourist shops, Zazen Resort, to the west of Fisherman’s Village, where we sipped exotic and refreshing ginger and coriander fruit drinks in seaside Zen-like surroundings, and Lamai’s chaotic yet pleasing evening Sunday Market.

Fisherman's Village. (Koh Samui)

Fisherman’s Village. (Koh Samui)

Cafe at Fisherman's Village.

Cafe at Fisherman’s Village.


Zazen Resort. (Koh Samui)

Lamai's Sunday Market.

Lamai’s Sunday Market.

While in Lamai, we feasted on choice green curry and prawns with asparagus at Palate restaurant, as well as the engaging customs of Songkran, Thailand’s New Year.  Informed earlier by Robert that Songkran would fall on April 13, fortuitously a couple of days before we left the island, we felt privileged to witness this special holiday.  Evidently, in earlier times the younger generation washed the feet and hands of their parents.  A time of physical and spiritual cleansing, the tradition of washing images of Buddha continues and a newer ritual of soaking people using monster water guns and water-filled buckets has become entrenched in the festivities of the holiday.  On our saunter to and from Palate restaurant on Songkran, where the strains of Neil Diamond emanated from a guitar-playing Aussie, despite Bishara’s best efforts to shield us from the persistent spray of blatant torrents of water, more often than not, we were the recipients of “direct hits.”  Blanketed in the celebratory mood, and without water ammunition of our own, we shared a good chuckle with our benevolent assailants.

Our final full day on Koh Samui found us discarding our flip flops and ascending drizzle-smeared stairs to view the majesty of the “Big Buddha,” and thrilling in the ringing of the Buddhist temple bells.  Receiving the honor of prayers and sprinkles of holy water from a Buddhist monk capped our visit to the “Big Buddha.”  Continuing with the incorporeal motif, we caught a taxi to Wat Plai Laem, site of assorted Buddhist temples and figures, including Guanyin, the 18-arm Goddess of Mercy and Compassion; where we delighted in feeding catfish food pellets along the adjoining lake and touring the multi-hued temples abounding with intriguing architecture and Buddhist alms.  Our day ended with calming massages at D’s in Chewang, fully meeting the spirited recommendation provided by our hotel, and some of the best chicken Pad Thai and pork red curry we had sampled to date.

“Big Buddha”


Ringing of the Buddhist temple bells.

Ringing of the Buddhist temple bells.

Monk in background praying over visitors.

Monk in background praying over visitors.


Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion (Wat Plai Laem)


Wat Plai Laem (Koh Samuui)


Inside Buddhist Temple.

Wat Plai Laem

Wat Plai Laem




The accommodating staff of Sandalwood waved us off the following day as we reluctantly left this enchanting paradise, with hopes of returning in the not-too-distant future.