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.

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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.

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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.

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Lotus Villa, Sandalwood Resort (Koh Samui)

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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.

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Climbing steps to breakfast area.

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Breakfast area.

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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.

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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.

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Silver Beach (Koh Samui)

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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.

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Lunch on the beach in Lamai.

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Massage on Lamai beach.

Lamai

Lamai

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.

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Dinner on Chewang beach.

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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.

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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”

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Ringing of the Buddhist temple bells.

Ringing of the Buddhist temple bells.

Monk in background praying over visitors.

Monk in background praying over visitors.

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

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Wat Plai Laem (Koh Samuui)

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Inside Buddhist Temple.

Wat Plai Laem

Wat Plai Laem

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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.

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Wonders of Turkey: Ephesus

My husband, Bishara, and I had been utterly awestruck by the allure of Kas; a quaint and breathtaking town on Turkey’s southwest coast.  Nestled within the Taurus Mountains and adjoining the Mediterranean Sea, Kas was a scintillating amalgam of prismatic blossoming trees, red-hued roofs, sea craft hovering on glistening waters, and billowing braids of locals and visitors engrossed in the delights of the town.

A four and a half hour road trip from Kas, abounding with striking views of snowcapped peaks, would bring us to our next destination, Ephesus, located in Selcuk just inland from the Aegean Sea within Turkey’s western reaches.  The site of magnificent well-preserved ruins from the Greek and Roman periods, Ephesus, during its heyday, was a bustling metropolis, second only to Rome, in size and influence.

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Taurus Mountains in Springtime

Before journeying back in time to ancient Ephesus, however, we would need to check into our boutique hotel in the historic section of Selcuk.  Despite having GPS, the cobblestoned maze of the old district proved too arduous, and we, ultimately, succumbed to asking locals for directions to the Urkmez Hotel.  Eventually discovering a partially obscured placard for the hotel, we clambered up a flight of stairs to reach the reception area where a diminutive older gentleman in a beige suit sat on a connecting balcony drinking tea.  After alerting the man to our presence, he entreated us to “wait, wait,” and soon returned with a younger man who revealed that the accommodating senior was his father.  A team of two brothers managed the hotel and were obliging in arranging a tour of Ephesus for us the following morning.

Our accommodations, embellished with mosquito netting and swan-shaped towels framing a red carnation atop the bed, a cozy balcony, and handsome view of the Ayasuluk Fortress (dating back to the Byzantine era) on a nearby hillside, were unassuming yet comfortable.

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Ayasuluk Fortress

Abbreviated naps, and a stroll through the old district’s stone streets incorporating a probe of Turkish coffee sets with intricately engraved silver cupolas, were capped by an alfresco dinner at a family owned restaurant where we relished fresh creamy tomato soup, salads, chicken kabobs and rice, amidst intermittent spitting rain, and an abundance of neighborhood vitality.

Although we had looked forward to a conventional tour of Ephesus the next morning, the wait for the 9:00 AM shuttle bus to take us, and other tourists, to the primeval and historically significant site, reinforced our sense that a formal expedition would be far too circumscribed for our personal tastes.  Thus, ten minutes into the wait, we jettisoned our tour group with the vapid excuse that we would take the tour the following day.  Feeling unencumbered, we sought out our rental car, pulled out our brochures and guide maps for Ephesus and kept a conscientious eye on roadside markers.

Serendipitously, a nondescript signboard led us to the caves of “the Seven Sleepers,” a venue, thankfully, not overrun with visitors; in reality, our only human encounter was with a groundskeeper who doubled as an informal tour escort, as we consulted him on a couple of occasions regarding access to specific cave locations.  As is common in Turkey, where eastern and western cultures converge, the tale of “the Seven Sleepers” traverses faiths, and relates the legend of seven Christian youths hiding in a cave near Ephesus in 250 AD to avoid the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius.  Asleep for nearly 200 years, the men awake during the reign of Theodosius II, when Christianity (and monotheism) had come to the fore.

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Cave of “the Seven Sleepers”

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Eager to continue our journey back to the Hellenic era, Bishara and I drove to the proper entrance of the Ephesus grounds.  Feeling culpable over not pursuing a traditional tour, Bishara ensured that I received headphones with a pre-recorded docent dispensing comprehensive historical descriptions of noteworthy sights, designs, backdrops, and such.

Treading from the modern world, (a contemporary roadway), to the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus we found ourselves transfixed by sections of rippled pillars and scattered stones across a swath of dirt and grass, once the backdrop of the State Agora.  This space reportedly housed a temple commemorating an ancient Egyptian god built for the 42 BC visit of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, and in the first century AD served as Ephesus’ administrative center steeped in state business and official meetings.

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State Agora, Ephesus

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Bordering the State Agora just to the north is the Basilica, where once majestic undulating Roman columns now stand in ruin; markers of a formerly flourishing tract where toga-clad merchants engaged in commerce and bankers in financial concerns.  Members of the city council met in the Odeon, a theatre-style structure, which flanked the Basilica, and doubled as a concert location seating up to 1,500.

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Basilica

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Odeon (with Basilica to the right)

Odeion, Basilica, and Agora (in foreground)

Odeon, Basilica, and Agora (in foreground)

Basilica

Basilica

Steps away, along the eastern edges of the Agora and the Odeon, the Varius Baths are perched on a delicate incline.  Conforming to the Roman Bath design, serving both practicality and sociability, the baths have an intricate network of chambers, including a sweating room, hot room, lukewarm room, undressing room, and a cold room, along with an orderly array of unobstructed latrines.

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Varius Baths

On the other side of the Odeon sits the Prytaneion (municipality building) in the form of two pylons with a stone abridgement on top, a locale where, purportedly, priestesses, and perennial virgins, from eminent families were responsible for the protection of the eternal sacred flame, and Ephesian executive council members held meetings and hailed esteemed guests.

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The Prytaneion (Municipality Building)

The Pyrtaneion Grounds

The Pyrtaneion Grounds

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Temples of Dea Roma and Divus Julius Ceasar (between the Odeon and Prytaneion)

Gingerly making our way over heaps of venerable stones and grassy patches from the Prytaneion to the southwestern perimeter of the State Agora, we encountered the Temple of Domitian, constructed in the name of an emperor, and the Pollio Fountain, formerly bedecked with statues of Odysseus, Polyphemus, and Zeus’s head.  These imposing structures overlooked Domitian Square and the Water Palace, which was built in 80 A.D. and provided storage of, and distribution for, the city’s water supply.

The Temple of Domitian

The Temple of Domitian

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Site of the Temple of Domitian, Pollio Fountain, and Water Palace

The Pollio Fountain

The Pollio Fountain

Ephesians returning from a day’s work at the State Agora in the first century A.D. would have ambled northwestward along a stone pathway past the Memmius Monument, relief of the goddess of victory, Nike, and Hercules Gate, which opens to Curetes Street.  The street so named due to its column bases framing the roadway, displaying the names of priests, or curetes, who were responsible for state and religious interests.  Advancing a short distance along Curetes Street, the townsmen would have observed the commanding Trajan Fountain to the right of the avenue before veering left to their residences on a gentle slope.  Although modest on the exterior, the “houses on the slopes” were the multi-story residences of the wealthy class and were adorned with lavish interiors, including frescos on the walls and mosaics on the floors, multiple latrines, and atriums encircling pools.

The Memmius Monument

The Memmius Monument

Goddess of Victory, Nike

Goddess of Victory, Nike

Hercules Gate

Hercules Gate

Curetes Street

Curetes Street

The Trajan Fountain

The Trajan Fountain

“Houses on the Slope”

Opposite the private abodes stand the striking remains of the Temple of Hadrian containing friezes relating the story of Ephesus’ inception, with engraved images of Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Hercules and the Curetes.  Adjacent to the Temple of Hadrian are the Scholastikia Baths, public latrines, and brothel.  The Baths, a three-storied complex, containing a gymnasia, libraries, and a resting room, accommodated up to 1,000, and allowed townspeople the prospect of relaxing and mingling for protracted periods in the tepidarium after bathing.

The Temple of Hadrian (on left)

The Temple of Hadrian (on left) ~ Curetes Street

The Scholastika Baths

The Scholastikia Baths

Scholastikia Baths and Latrines

Scholastikia Baths and Latrines

Site of Brothel (with Celsus Library in background)

Site of Brothel (with Celsus Library in background)

Looming conspicuously at the end of Curetes Street is the fabled and stately Celsus Library built over the tomb of Tiberius Julius Celsus, Roman senator and General Governor of Asiana.  Constructed by Celsus’ son and grandson, the grandiose structure accommodated 12,000 manuscript scrolls, incorporated an auditorium where philosophers imparted wisdom, and held statues conveying virtue/valor (Arete), destiny/intelligence (Ennoia), knowledge (Episteme), and wisdom (Sophia).

The Celsus Library (Mazaeus and Mithridates Gate to the right)

The Celsus Library (Mazaeus and Mithridates Gate to the right)

Wandering through the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, (built in gratitude by freed slaves of Emperor Augustus), we entered the Mercantile (or Marketplace) Agora, a pillared and grassy expanse that teemed with shops, merchants, commerce and trade in a bygone time.  Entrenched as the largest trade center in Ephesus, the thriving Mercantile Agora received goods entering through the nearby Aegean harbor.

The Mercantile Agora

The Mercantile Agora

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Just to the east of the Mercantile Agora, Marble Road, once filled with rustling carriages and Ephesian residents in tunics, flowing stolas, and laced-up sandals, connects the Celsus Library and the Theatre, a colossal structure built in the 3rd century B.C. on Mount Pion.  Home of gladiator games, wild animal brawls, concerts and plays, as well as philosophical, political and religious discourse, the Theatre, (largest theatre building in Turkey seating 24,000), was reportedly the site of a sermon by Apostle Paul denouncing idol worship.

Marble Road and Harbour Street Intersection

Marble Road and Harbour Street Intersection

The Grand Theatre

The Grand Theatre

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The neighboring Theatre Gymnasium served the educational pursuits of the players and housed classrooms, libraries, and baths, and was the site of competitions and award ceremonies.

The Theatre Gymnasium

The Theatre Gymnasium Site

Harbour Street, running along a verdant hillside, and stretching from the Theatre to the Harbour, held shops and welcoming parties for visiting kings and emperors.

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Harbour Street

Harbour Street

We concluded our momentous Ephesus excursion in the northwest corner of the city, awash with lush grass, towering conical trees, and vibrant flowers where, it is believed, the first church in Asia was built for Virgin Mary.

Site of Virgin Mary's Church

Site of Virgin Mary’s Church

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Feeling sated, spiritually, Bishara and I retraced our steps through the transcendental Ephesus on the way back to our car.  Turkey continued to inspire and fill us with wonder.

Wonders of Vietnam: Final Glimpses

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

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Although in Vietnam for merely a week, my husband, Bishara, and I had managed to sample the exotic cuisines and districts of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, cruise picturesque Halong Bay, bike on lush Cat Ba Island, climb Sapa’s impressive Dragon’s Jaw, and visit the intriguing Hmong village of Ta Van in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.  Our itinerary now included a highly anticipated return to the Old Quarter of Hanoi on an overnight train from Lao Cai, an hour’s drive outside of Sapa.

While initially apathetic over the prospect of visiting Vietnam, Bishara’s avidity for experiencing this unconventional vacation destination, in conjunction with a plethora of affirmative anecdotes from friends regarding this Indochinese nation, ultimately persuaded me to assent to the trip.

From the moment we entered the outskirts of Hanoi a week earlier, I became captivated by this delightful dizzying city – the tall narrow French colonial-style buildings, ubiquitous scooters, and an almost tangible buzz and spirit on the streets.

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Hanoi Street

While the original plan was for Hanoi to be our primary domicile and launching point for convenient expeditions to Halong Bay to the east and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, the frenetic metropolis had become much more than a “home base.”  Bishara and I felt strangely invigorated, yet relaxed, in this raucous city despite normally being partial to holiday locations with appealing natural settings – white sandy beaches framed by banyan trees or pristine mountains flush with pines, evergreens, and clean fresh air.

Although feeling somber about leaving the splendor of Sapa and the surrounding mountain-scape, we were keen on wedging in several more indulgent hours before departing for the train station in the late afternoon.  In this spirit, we patronized the dynamic Sapa marketplace where Bishara purchased a florid dress and “earthy” toned Hmong skirt he insisted were “me,” and strolled to the lake, replete with paddle boats, on the far side of town.  Lunch ensued at the Sapa Nature View restaurant where open windows allowed us remarkable views of the “Tolkinese Alps,” positioned along the fringe of the Himalaya Mountains.  Fresh mountain breezes swept throughout the room complementing our meals of shrimp and chicken soup, sweet and sour shrimp, and grilled chicken with noodles.  Leg, shoulder and upper back massages on the second floor of the restaurant building enriched our delectable lunch outing yielding more incredible mountain glimpses.  Yearning to linger in this charming town, we rambled down the road to an open air café and relished sips of fragrant Vietnamese milk coffee and stunning foliate terraces in the distance.

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Sapa Market

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Street food at Sapa Market.

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Sapa Lake

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Sapa Nature View Restaurant

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Open-air cafe view. (Sapa)

Open-air cafe view. (Sapa)

Towards dusk, we reluctantly left Sapa by private van travelling through the undulating mountain ridges and late afternoon light.  Reaching Lai Cao, an hour later, we lugged our suitcases through town and joined hordes of other tourists, and nationals alike, dining at casual outdoor cafes or otherwise passing the time as they waited for their trains to depart.  Following our hurried meal of Vietnamese noodle dishes, Bishara and I felt somewhat debilitated after the representative at the train ticket booth told us in severely fractured English that we needed to “go over there, to that hotel” and speak with ‘so-and-so’ to confirm our tickets.  As we squeezed by, and slammed into, other train travelers trying to make our way to “that hotel,” good fortune shone down, as we unwittingly bumped into the ‘so-and-so’ representative.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I tendered, as I collided with a professionally dressed and coiffed woman holding a clipboard.  I took the offhanded chance that this official looking person amidst the multitudes of faceless strangers might be able to assist us.  Showing the matron our paperwork, a glint of recognition showed in her eyes.  “Ah, yes” she submitted, as she signed and stamped our documents and pointed in the direction of the waiting area.

Bishara and I stood, crammed up next to other commuters, near the sliding glass doors adjacent to the train tracks, as we did not want to miss any communication signaling our train was ready for boarding.  Of course, this resulted in some missteps with Bishara and I jostling, along with everyone else, to get onto the train platform when the glass panes opened.  After one announcement, Bishara and I propelled forward, stumbling through the doors, only to knock over a snack kiosk as we turned back when we realized it was not our train; the kiosk vendors were not pleased.  Our discomfiture continued once beside the train tracks, when Bishara hoisted our suitcases up onto the train carriage convinced a certain train line was ours, before becoming aware of a nearby railroad worker speaking an incongruent blend of terse Vietnamese with bits of English asserting that the train number did not match the information on our documents.  This train employee charitably helped us unload our luggage and assisted in locating the correct train line and carriage.

Safely in our diminutive, though comfortable and familiar, train cabin, I could finally exhale and look forward to all the creaks and grinds of our upcoming train ride, while basking in the singular awareness of this exotic trip.  Exiting Lai Cao station at 8:50 PM, our train ride to Hanoi was nearly as fanciful as our inceptive ride two days prior.  While Bishara slept rather well based on the depth of his snoring, I fell into the same erratic sleep as during our earlier train trip, vacillating between fatigue and wonder.

Close to 6:00 AM, as rain lightly pelted our cabin window, Vietnamese music permeated our compartment, and a brusque emphatic message in monosyllabic Vietnamese carried over the loudspeaker.  We assumed this signaled a couple hour’s wait before we arrived in Hanoi, as this was the sequence of events that transpired as we approached Lao Cai (from Hanoi) a couple of days earlier.  A short time later, however, a train employee rapped on our door and announced we were in Hanoi.  I scurried to the restroom, and Bishara, still not believing we would disembark anytime soon, ordered milk coffee from the genial young train woman who, hours ago, cheerfully revealed she could make us noodles, coffee, and tea at any time during our overnight journey if we wished.  Shortly after returning from the washroom, to our collective surprise and relief, the porter from the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel scrambled into our train cabin with blue plastic ponchos stuffed under his arms.  In short order, the young man politely welcomed us back to Hanoi, affirmed it was raining outside, and nimbly and attentively placed a poncho over my head, and a few fluid moments later, arranged the second poncho over Bishara’s head.  Lurching for our luggage, the benevolent porter let out a wide lucent smile when Bishara asked if he could assist, declaring, “No, it’s fine.  I’m Superman!” – a moniker bound to our congenial porter for the rest of our stay in Hanoi.  Within short order, we were all in a waiting taxi, on our way to the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our “home away from home,” once again.

Hanoi train station.

Hanoi train station.

Hanoi was an eerie urban desert in the early morning, with nary a scooter or car in sight.  As we crossed through the metropolis, the cityscape made way for the narrow, tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter.  Arriving at the side street perpendicular to the mottled alleyway of the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our young porter vaulted from the taxi, seized our luggage from the trunk, and bounded down the alley for the boutique hotel.  Staff lavishly welcomed us with broad grins, inquiries about our time in Sapa, and an offer of an upgrade at their proximate “sister hotel,” the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel, adjacent to Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  While waiting to be transported from the Elegance Ruby Hotel to the Elegance Diamond Hotel we were afforded fresh plump towels and shower facilities to freshen up after our overnight train ride.  We ultimately decided, however, given the choice between a luxury room at the plush Elegance Diamond Hotel and an adequate sized room at the Elegance Ruby Hotel, we preferred the personalized consideration of the smaller boutique hotel.  The Elegance Ruby Hotel staff was clearly appreciative.

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Mottled alleyway of Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel.

After our protracted and fitful train ride we were primed for our traditional Elegance Ruby Hotel breakfast feast of two omelets with ham, mushroom, onion, and cheese; two pancakes with pineapple, banana, honey, and lemon; French toast with syrup; and beef noodle soup.  And our meal was not complete without our Vietnamese milk coffee and fresh carrot juice.

Satiated and energized, we ventured onto the frantic and appealing streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  Sauntering through the historic city we maneuvered past shops and markets brimming with people, souvenirs, crafts, clothing, shoes, herbs, fruit and vegetable stands, raw meat, an improbable fusion of smells, and tiny cafes with plastic chairs arranged haphazardly on the adjoining pavement.  While dodging motor scooters filling the streets and sidewalks, as well as pedestrians, pole vendors, bicyclists, and shopkeepers, crisp memories flooded back of our first two recent sojourns to Hanoi; the first our inaugural visit at the outset of our trip to the capital city, and the second sandwiched in between our excursions to Halong Bay and Sapa.

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Frenetic Hanoi.

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Never know what you're going to run into in Hanoi's Old Quarter.

Never know what you’re going to find in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

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Our favorite

Our favorite “hole in the wall” Hanoi restaurant.

Our initial visit to Hanoi, only days before, had Bishara clenching my hand and plucking me from the path of scooters and mini-trucks careening alongside us on the slender bustling roads.  By our second and third Hanoi trips, however, Bishara seemed to gradually discern Vietnamese drivers’ impeccable sense of timing and clearance with his grip on my hand diminishing.  The newfound confidence gained by our middle trip to Hanoi found us seeking out a hair salon where we both had our hair done and accepting Hanoi beer and flavorful oversized sweet potatoes from our hair stylist who had her assistant run out and purchase the goodies from a street vendor.  We also had the fortuity of encountering other affable globetrotters with whom we shared travel stories, as well as a meal in the fanciful French Quarter.

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Dinner in

Dinner in “French Quarter” with newfound friends.

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Exploration of Hanoi’s Old Quarter widened the following day with visits to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Temple) containing multiple arrays of edible and vibrant floral Buddhist offerings, and trips to the History Museum, Hanoi prison (Maison Centrale), and Women’s Museum all via the colorful and unorthodox, yet popular, three-wheeled cyclo powered by a wrinkled Vietnamese man providing commentary on significant sights.  Travel by cyclo, part bicycle and part extended sideways seat for passengers, an experience in and of itself, afforded us an up close and personal view of traffic pandemonium and the constant near misses of vehicles, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians, as well as an expanded view of life in the Old Quarter.  When leaving the Women’s Musuem in the late afternoon, we spied our cyclo driver with a middle-aged Vietnamese man puffing on a bamboo water pipe, and, moments later, handing the pipe over to our driver who stuffed the apparatus in a side pocket of the cyclo.  Evidently, the smoking of water pipes is a rather significant element of Hanoi social life for some, as our cyclo ride allowed us several sightings of men enjoying the effects of water-based tobacco outside of shops and residences.  One in fact, with pipe uplifted, attempted to wave us over to his sidewalk vantage point, presumably to join him in the pleasurable pursuit of water pipe smoking.  Although having indulged in “hubbly bubbly” countless times while living in the Arab Gulf, we erred on the side of caution and declined.

Cyclo adventure!

Cyclo adventure!

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Ngoc Temple

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Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Hanoi's History Museum

Hanoi’s History Museum

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Hanoi Prison (Maison Centrale)

Hanoi Prison (Maison Centrale)

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John McCain's flight suit in which he was captured.

John McCain’s flight suit.

Women's Museum (Hanoi)

Women’s Museum (Hanoi)

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Wedding ritual.

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Playing dress-up at the Women's Museum.

Playing dress-up at Hanoi’s Women’s Museum. (Wedding attire.)

By our final full day in Hanoi, we felt like seasoned guests of this enigmatic city, and comfortably criss-crossed the Old Quarter on foot, taking in massages at a traditional Vietnamese spa; Bishara enjoyed an aromatherapy massage and I opted for a warm stone massage.  Relaxing beyond expectations, we both went limp with any vestiges of tension and strains drifting away.  We left the spa floating, and incognizant of the bustling crowds around us, as we wandered through the humming markets and roadside shops where vendors approached us and we succumbed several times buying t-shirts for Bishara and embroidered paintings depicting Vietnamese life for me.  Our last night in Hanoi was filled with traditional music and singing; an enchanting evening.

Feel refreshed and relaxed after our massages.

Feeling refreshed and relaxed after our massages.

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Enjoying an evening of folkloric Catru music.

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In the hours before making our way to the Hanoi airport on our last day in Vietnam, the Elegance Ruby Hotel staff encouraged us to make the time to visit the Ethnology Museum, as it was apparent we had treasured the time spent among the Hmong people of the Sapa region.  Although we had to rush our packing and showers, and arrange for a fast-moving cab ride, we were pleased we took the time to see the Museum, as it was fascinating and enlightening to view artifacts, crafts, and scenes focusing on the lifestyle and traditions of the various Vietnamese ethnic groups.

Ethnology Museum (Hanoi)

Ethnology Museum (Hanoi)

See the bicycle under all those baskets?

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Burial scene.

Burial scene.

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Precious children at Ethnology Museum. (Hanoi)

Precious children at Ethnology Museum. (Hanoi)

Before we knew it, we were bidding farewell to the exceptional staff of the Elegance Ruby Hotel and in a taxi for the airport.  Our first night home in Doha, I had a continuous and vivid dream that I was in Vietnam living in a hut on the side of the road! . . . Vietnam certainly seemed to touch our souls; we look forward to returning to this irresistible land.

Saying

Saying “goodbye” to wonderful staff of Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel.

Wonders of Vietnam: Ta Van

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

_________________________________________________________________________

We had lumbered up Dragon’s Jaw, a prominent peak in Sapa boasting magnificent views and glorious gardens, just the day before, and were now looking forward to visiting the small neighboring Hmong mountain village of Ta Van.  Although good weather, sunshine and mid-60 degree temperatures, cradled us throughout our climb of Dragon’s Jaw, the morning of our outing to Ta Van was different.  Heavy rain had fallen for much of the night before, and morning fog and drizzle threatened to thwart our excursion to the tiny village in northwestern Vietnam.  Thankfully, following a breakfast buffet of cheeses, cold cuts, “made to order” omelets, carrot juice and Vietnamese milk coffee, accompanied by splendid views of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, the weather broke perceptibly and became simply cloudy.  By late morning, we forged a calculated risk that showers would abstain during our jaunt through Ta Van, and booked a car to drive us the 10 kilometers from Sapa to this popular village.

View during our breakfast buffet.

Breakfast buffet view.

Our driver, serious in demeanor with scant English, arrived in the early afternoon and brusquely signaled for us to slide into the van.  We pitched along the mountain passes affording us more beautiful glimpses of the “Tonkinese Alps.”  These alluring images were in stark contrast to the children with soiled clothing and unkempt hair traipsing along the roadways, hands outstretched, as we passed, imploring us to stop, presumably for spare change.  We paused just outside Sapa to take photos at a viewing station, and were quickly mobbed by five young children who, rather forcefully, motioned for us to buy trinkets from them.  Taken aback, and feeling conflicted over the challenging lives these youngsters must lead versus perpetuating this type of demeaning soliciting activity, we dolefully decided to move on.

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Our little solicitors.

Before reaching the village, we stopped at a booth on the side of the road where we paid a 15,000 Vietnamese Dong (70 cent) entrance fee.  Arriving at the visitor parking lot designated for Ta Van visitors, we disembarked from the van, expectations high.  When arranging for a driver to take us to Ta Van, the hotel receptionist inquired if we required a guide to accompany us.  We responded with being partial to going it alone, as we did not want to be confined solely to the guide’s itinerary.  Crossing a steel plank bridge tinted with maroon hues, we were met by ethnic Hmong women leaving the village on foot for destinations unknown.  The village’s main thoroughfare was spattered with residences, and what looked to be family shops, including household and food markets, and motor scooter repair garages.

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Entering Ta Van village.

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Hmong women departing village.

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Ta Van residence.

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Main thoroughfare.

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Scooter repair shop.

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Food and household market.

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Once in the village, we spotted other tourists, similarly intrigued, roving the primary road and bordering hills of this compelling community.  Although not wanting to intrude, I felt impelled to take pictures of families in their homes, through large open air entryways; kinfolk engrossed in routine daily activities, with only a passing interest in our fascination with them.  These families likely considered us a necessary nuisance woven into the fabric of their lives and commercial existence.

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Tourists in Ta Van.

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Family life in Ta Van residence.

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Making our way along muddy hillside paths, we were enraptured by the uncomplicated and unpretentious lives of the Hmong.  Simple wooden structures with tin rippled roofs, a couple of dogs lazing outside the front door of a residence, countless terraces of flooded rice paddies, women in traditional garb trudging purposefully along pathways or tending to the fields, all amid luxuriant greenery.  One young Hmong woman who was definitely interested, fell in step with us as we made our slow and deliberate ascent, undoubtedly wanting to launch an exchange.  Concerned over another soliciting onslaught, I was dismissive of the potential intruder, while Bishara, reverting to our personal camouflaged language, conveyed that he thought we should engage this young woman, as she might help us maneuver this remote territory and point out interesting aspects of the Hmong lifestyle.  Swayed by the argument that the potential learning opportunities from a willing local outweighed the hazards of further solicitations, I acquiesced.

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More Ta Van residences.

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Flooded rice paddies.

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Our Hmong companions.

“Hello, my name is Bishara, and this is my wife, Michele.  What is your name?”  A quizzical look and an unintelligible response.  Again, a bit more slowly and assertive this time, “What .. is .. your .. name?”  A blank expression.  “Ta Van is beautiful,” Bishara persevered.  A twinkle of recognition and grin spread across the young woman’s face.  Apparently, hand gestures and elementary English would have to suffice for our time with this amiable villager.  Continuing to amble along a patchwork of dirt paths and paved walkways, our companion in tow, we soon encountered a younger Hmong woman, a baby bundled on her back in a colorful pink scarf.  The two young women traded niceties, and barely skipping a beat, were soon both in lockstep with us.  We continued to relish the lush environs and tranquil community along the hillsides, and, at one point, confronted a rushing creek that both women handily skipped over using custom footwork and conspicuous stones.  Bishara and I held back, innately fearing a broken ankle or leg in the middle of an inaccessible and undeveloped area with only meager medical services, at best, to rely upon.

The older of the two villagers crossed back over the creek, and without hesitation, seized my hand, and pointing out the best rocks to use to ensure a safe crossing, boldly and effortlessly led me across the water.  Bishara, still on the other side of the creek, appeared rather anxious, as he battles an inherent fear of water.  The younger of the two women, with the baby onboard, seeming to sense Bishara’s distress, nimbly re-crossed the stream and graciously extended her hand to Bishara.  A few hesitant, yet well-placed steps later, and Bishara was across the creek.

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Younger members of Hmong community (Ta Van).

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After some time, our bladders began enduring the effects of our savory breakfast milk coffees, and flavorful natural juices.  Bishara did his best to impart to the young women the notion of needing a restroom, and when his hand signals floundered, resorted to a more direct, and comical, intimation, which was effective.  The villagers led us, expeditiously, back to the town center, and guided us to the school grounds where young children bandied a ball about under a prominent banner with Ho Chi Minh’s image.  A toilet was discovered, yet despite our two young friends’ best efforts to cajole a school administrator into unlocking the bathroom door, the bureaucrat was unyielding.

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Ta Van school.

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As we departed the school premises, in possible atonement for the perceived restroom lapse, or perhaps simply out of an abundance of hospitality, the older of the two villagers implied that she would like Bishara and me to accompany her home and stay the night with her family.  Based on hand pantomimes, as well as a blend of indigenous language and trickles of English, we discerned that this young woman’s dwelling was in the loftiest reaches of the surrounding hills.  Considering that our driver was already waiting for us, as we had unintentionally extended our sojourn in Ta Van beyond our scheduled time, and my underlying apprehension over embarking on an overnight stay with people we did not really know out in the middle of nowhere, we declined the considerate invitation.  Of course, the imperative solicitation of souvenirs, including beautifully hand embroidered cloth wallets, coin purses, and mini-shoulder bags with braided shoulder loops eventuated as we approached the bridge to exit the village.  Although normally reluctant to purchase street souvenirs, I was gratified to see expectant eyes turn thankful as I bought a multicolored wallet and coin purse from these kindhearted villagers.  On the other side of the bridge, our driver’s arms flailed back and forth attempting to gain our attention.  Dispensing appreciative hugs to the women, and asserting our wish to return someday, we scampered to our van.  Our driver, obviously irked, uttered something incoherent and pointed to his watch as he drove off.

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Saying our farewells.

The informal tour schedule outlined by the hotel receptionist earlier in the day had assured a viewing of a second village, Lao Chai, which is where we assumed we were headed.  Fifteen minutes into our ride, however, our driver abruptly stopped on the left side of the road without explanation.  When we inquired why we were stopping, the driver erupted in a burst of staccato Vietnamese.  His level of irritation grew with our lack of understanding, until a young Vietnamese couple walked by our van and our driver opened the van’s sliding door.  More incomprehensible Vietnamese between the three until the young man outside the van peeked his head around the door jamb, and in faltering, though well enunciated, English sheepishly disclosed to us that the town in the valley below was Lao Chai, but it would take at least an hour and a half to walk down an arduous pathway and possibly up to two hours, or more, to hike back up the steep incline.  The driver had stopped so we could survey the village from the road, but needed to return to Sapa for another client, continued the young man.  Smiling, when we shook our heads in recognition, the young man spoke to our driver, whose stern countenance softened ever so much.  The driver, clearly relieved, sped off for Sapa.

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View of Lao Chai.

Our day closed with an exotic meal at Sapa’s Hill Station restaurant, including smoked buffalo, banana flower salad, carrot cake for dessert, and an exquisite view of the mountain landscape.

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The Hill Station Restaurant (Sapa)

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Bishara made a friend at the Hill Station restaurant.

We would leave for Hanoi the following day on the overnight train from Lao Cai, and delighted in the prospect of revisiting the bustling and beguiling capital.

Wonders of Vietnam: Halong Bay

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

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

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View from car.

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

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Cabin on Paradise Cruise Lines.

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

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Setting Sail!

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Said vendor who disturbed our serenity.

Said vendor who disturbed our serenity.

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

Dock at Bo Hon Island.

Dock at Bo Hon Island.

Surprise Cave (Grotto)

Surprise Cave (Grotto)

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

View from grotto.

View from grotto.

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

Lazing on Ti Top Island.

Lazing on Ti Top Island.

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

Cooking instructions aboard boat.

Cooking instructions aboard boat.

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Displaying our cooking skills.

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Proud cooks!

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

Receiving cooking certificates.

Receiving cooking certificates.

Dinner aboard boat.

Dinner aboard boat.

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

Headed for Cat Ba Island.

Headed for Cat Ba Island.

Floating fishing village.

Floating fishing village.

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

Starting our bike ride.

Starting our bike ride.

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Silhouettes of the village appearing in the background.

Silhouettes of the village appearing in the background.

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

Medical office.

Medical office.

School.

School.

Nursery school.

Nursery school.

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

Matriarch of the village.

Matriarch of the village.

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

Wonders of Vietnam: Hanoi

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

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

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

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

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

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Motor scooters of Hanoi.

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Many tall, narrow buildings in Hanoi.

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

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Alleyway of our hotel.

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

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

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VIP Room at Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel

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Complimentary wine.

 

View from balcony.

View from balcony.

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

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Scooters everywhere!

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

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Quan An Ngon restaurant.

 

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Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

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

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

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

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

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Shoulder pole vendor in Hanoi.

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

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

Tribute to My Friend, Sherifa

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

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

Sherifa

Sherifa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feast at desert family farm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women’s tent.

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

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

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women's tent.

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women’s tent.

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

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

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

#longreads

Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.) 

I had been a career woman in Saudi Arabia for a matter of months, having left a satisfying life in Washington, DC with my husband and two miniature poodles in tow for a cultural adventure in this intriguing land of black abayes, and white thobes and ghuttras.  My experience at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh began in November 2000 and within a short time helped illuminate the importance of “people time” in the Saudi workplace, as well as the emphasis placed on achieving a healthy balance between work and “home life.”

The KFSH compound itself actually helped to bridge the work-life divide in some interesting and unexpected ways. Its vast property catered to single, expatriate females, primarily nurses, by providing a large array of amenities. From grocery stores and flower shops to a bowling alley, post office, and Dunkin’ Donuts, the grounds included everything that an average, western girl needed to feel at home, minimizing her exposure to the Kingdom’s unfamiliar customs.

King Faisal Specialist (KFSH) ~ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

King Faisal Specialist (KFSH) ~ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Most days, these many facilities, combined with the overall make-up of the staff, made it easy to mistake the hospital premises for a small town or planned community. Browsing the magazine racks in the grocery store always brought me back to reality. Black magic marker blotted out the bare arms, legs and cleavage of the models on the magazine covers.

My spine bridled when I first opened one of the women’s magazines to find each of the pictures of the young models with similar blackened arms and cleavage; each magazine I flipped through was the same. Later, I discovered that one of the informal duties of the mottawah, or religious police, involved shielding the community from even the slightest hints of sexuality.

This sort of seemingly nonsensical mottawah activity provided fodder for uneasy chuckles and long discussions about our mutual unconventional experiences within the Kingdom at weekend expatriate gatherings or evening fetes. Many of my single female expatriate friends who remained in Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time eventually came to the conclusion that the financial rewards and unique professional and personal experiences gleaned from life in the Kingdom outweighed concerns over eccentric and baffling pursuits by the mottawah.

While the mottawah were not permitted on the hospital premises, I remained mindful of my dress, especially for work. In the States, I might have decided on my outfit for the day in the precious minutes between drying my hair and heading downstairs for a bite of breakfast. Although my clothing options were more limited in the Kingdom, my early days at KFSH found me devoting significant time to picking out clothes that were both respectful of the stringent cultural customs and professional.

During my induction at KFSH I half expected to be greeted with a neatly divided fleet of robes and pant suits. Instead, Western women like me were permitted to forgo the black abaye on the hospital grounds; we were strongly counseled, though, to have our arms and knees covered, and low-cut blouses were strictly prohibited.

When off hospital grounds, Western women typically wear the abaye; in some shopping malls they are required to wear a headscarf or otherwise risk an encounter with the “mottawah.” In extreme circumstances a woman or her husband, who in the “mottawah’s eyes allowed her to dress indecently, might face jailing.

Like most other female expatriates I normally wore a mid-calf (or longer) skirt or pants, and a long white lab coat to work. My colleagues’ fashion, however, reflected both the cultural and stylistic diversity in the workplace. The Saudi woman working at the passport desk was completely covered in black, her eyes, two charcoal pools, stared back at me. Her Sudanese workmate at a station in close proximity wore a colorful yellow and blue sarong and head covering that exposed her entire unmade face, leaving wisps of hair peeking under her scarf.

At the hospital, Lebanese women stood out in stark contrast to all others not only in attire but also in their confident demeanor; these women sported tight pants, immaculately coiffured hair and painstakingly applied makeup, demonstrating their knowledge of the latest fashion trends. Lebanese women followed the same kind of cultural mores as other Arab women such as covering their arms and legs while on the hospital grounds and wearing the abaye and headscarf in public (with their faces exposed) when off the hospital premises.  Yet, it appeared as if there was an unspoken understanding in the Arab world that granted Lebanese women more fashion freedom. Conceivably this nonconformity was due to the regular influx of Western European tourists into Lebanon during its golden age in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the civil war, when it was known as “the Paris of the Middle East.”

In any event it became increasingly apparent to me that women from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain were clearly more reserved and demure in dress and behavior in public settings than those women from non-Gulf countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. I soon found that despite the divergence in clothing styles and presentation, women were not typically the objects of unwanted glances or stares that sometimes find their way into Western workplaces dominated with male colleagues.  In fact, great lengths were taken to shield women from this unwanted attention; Arab women’s offices were never positioned along a main corridor, and some women even hung curtain material over the entrances of their partitioned offices.

KFSH Dining Hall (Riyadh)

KFSH Dining Hall (Riyadh)

As I became more acclimated to my new professional surroundings and adjusted my demeanor and appearance to fit in, one particularly surprising aspect to the Saudi workplace continued to fascinate me: the relationship between women and their hair.

It might sound trivial to Western women who fail to think of their hair beyond fretting over its neatness, messiness, or frizzyness, but Saudi women experience their hair in a completely different manner. In the Kingdom, strict mores exist about the public display of women’s hair, and Saudi women exercise careful attention to keep their hair covered with few exceptions.

I distinctly recall dashing to the restroom early one morning before a meeting and running into my workmate, Amal, splashing her face with a bit of water, her shiny raven colored locks free from the confines of the obligatory headscarf. Restrooms were one of the few locations at work where a Saudi woman felt safe and sheltered enough to bare her hair.

Wednesday morning breakfasts of Lebanese mazzah that featured mounds of hummus and babaganoush, freshly baked pita bread, tabouli, fattoush, and spirited chatter behind closed conference room doors were another. Although I usually felt awkward when I noticed a Saudi woman uncover her hair, as if I were intruding on a particularly private and intimate moment, I inevitably found it hard to look away.

Despite the ubiquitous headscarf, Arab women take great pains to style their hair based on the current rage, commonly sporting fashionable cuts and trendy highlights. Some of these women were particularly exquisite looking with their luxurious hairstyles framing ebony pools of their eyes.

On another occasion Aisha, also an officemate, came into my office and glanced around furtively, making sure we were unobserved, before tentatively removing her headscarf. Her dark brown wavy hair spilled around her face, and she asked if I liked her new haircut. “Oh, yes, it looks great,” I affirmed. “You know, Michele, you should really try putting highlights into your hair like Alia,” Aisha quipped. “Highlights would really bring out your face.” My heart swelled with humility; this from a woman who, in public, outside of hospital grounds, was not only required to cover her hair, but her face, as well.

Working “shoulder to shoulder” with my female Saudi counterparts I came to learn that they had an acute appreciation for their career opportunities, were extremely hardworking, and remained intensely disciplined, particularly those without young children.

I often felt like a surrogate mother or big sister to some of the younger, female Saudi women, one of whom would even stop by my office regularly to discuss some of her more private marital challenges, which invariably most women face. “My husband isn’t spending enough time with me,” she fretted on one occasion. “Sometimes he goes out with other men, and doesn’t tell me where he’s going or what he’s doing,” adding “I feel that maybe he doesn’t love me anymore and is not interested in me.”

I admit that at times I felt off-balance during these encounters, happy yet daunted by this level of trust from a workmate; I couldn’t recall ever having these kinds of intimate discussions in the American workplace. “Marriage is complex and challenging,” I began tentatively, trying to give my best Dr. Phil advice. “It has its ‘ups and downs,’ and there are some points during a marriage when the man and woman feel somewhat distant from each other. You just have to nourish the marriage like you have to water a flower to make sure it grows and stays healthy.”

She remained expressionless, yet I glimpsed a flicker of understanding before she bolted away to answer her incessantly ringing phone in her office down the hall. I always felt honored to be a trusted colleague and friend during these moments. The professionalism of my American employers suited my career aims, but after becoming familiar with this more familial work culture, I realized how many U.S. offices, by their very nature, discourage these types of personal interactions.

The heart-wrenching tragedy of September 11, 2001 certainly challenged some of my budding relationships with my Saudi co-workers. The events of that day left Bishara and me emotionally spent and quite discouraged as initial reports implicated Saudi involvement in the attacks.

As I tentatively entered the office the following day, Abdullah cautiously approached and asked, “Are you alright, Michele?” adding “I am so sorry about what happened.” He continued, “I hope that nobody you knew was hurt or affected.” I told Abdullah I appreciated his concern and felt a bit of relief that there weren’t any hostilities toward me.

KFSH, like many places in the Kingdom, certainly had its factions that disagreed with American policies, and I became apprehensive when it was confirmed that Saudis participated in perpetuating the attacks.

However, I was astounded one late afternoon several weeks after 9/11 when Samer, a Saudi finance manager and collaborator on one of my reports, bristled when I expressed concern for Americans living in Saudi Arabia. He exclaimed, “Michele, if anybody tries to get near you, anybody at all, I will put myself between them and you.” He paused for a moment, and continued “And I know your workmates would do the same.” Samer’s gesture rendered me mute for a split second; I barely managed a curt, “Thank you, Samer.” Despite my enduring trepidation, in this moment I had a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

Many of my friends back in the States still wondered at my dubious choice, fearing that I had traded one competitive work culture for another one with additional, improbable challenges. They emailed regularly with endless queries: How was I coping? Did I miss family and friends? How did I manage working under such (they envisioned) strict and sterile conditions?

I greatly appreciated their concern, but I assured them that I was thriving with each new discovery. In the midst of what was becoming a fulfilling and productive life transition, more change ensued: My heart sank in late spring 2003 when we discovered that my husband, Bishara had a life-threatening medical condition.

We considered having Bishara treated in the U.S., but after much deliberation we realized that Bishara would receive “top notch” medical care from KFSH doctors who had studied at some of the finest medical institutions in the world. I was not only gravely concerned about my husband, but acutely aware of how this might impact my work arrangements. I found myself in Abdullah’s office, again, hoping to trade on his good graces.

“Abdullah,” I began, as I closed the office door behind me, a lump forming in my throat, “Bishara is going to be in the hospital for an extended period of time, and I’m going to need to work out a leave schedule with you so I can split my time between work and spending time with Bishara.”

Before I could continue Abdullah jumped in, “Michele, while Bishara is in the hospital, I am not your boss, Bishara is your boss. Anytime Bishara wants you to take off from work, take leave time; and I am not going to charge you for any time off as long as Bishara is in the hospital!”

He must have seen the uncertainty in my face because he added, “It’s okay, go off and see Bishara. He needs you!” My eyes welled and my limbs trembled as I stepped over to shake hands with my gracious benefactor, the same man who had made such a stony impression on me when I first arrived.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how far my working relationship with Abdullah had come in the short years I had been at KFSH due, at least in part, to my own personal and professional growth rooted in this unparalleled cultural experience. My initial meeting with Abdullah in November 2000 had left me numb and certain that my best efforts to contribute to the financial success of the hospital would be thwarted at every turn.

At the time, I thought maybe what I had heard in the states about women lacking respect or receiving unfair treatment by men in the Middle East was true. In that instant, I had questioned my decision to leave my comfortable life in Washington, DC for this unfathomable and strange life in the Kingdom.

Yet Abdullah’s unwavering support of me and my husband during this time of crisis, (and on other projects and ventures throughout my time at KFSH), simply affirmed that I was where I belonged: among a very unique community of individuals who had as much to teach me as I had to teach them.

One early evening, around the anniversary of my first year at KFSH, bone weary after several twelve-plus hour days at the office, I turned my bleary eyes to Abdullah as he swung through my office door.

“You know, Michele,” he exclaimed, “you are the one person in our group who I know when I give her a task, will get the job done right!” My knees nearly buckled with the unexpected compliment. Taking a breath, I merely smiled saying “Abdullah, I think it’s time for a cup of tea.”

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Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.)  

“I never wanted you here,” he said. “When they asked me I told them that you were all wrong for the job.”

My heart skipped a beat. I stared dumbstruck at the bits of frayed, brown mesh office carpet, the afternoon sunlight filtering in through the windows of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Administration building where I worked.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Administration building where I worked.

It was November, 2000. Just days ago, my husband, Bishara, and I had left a nearly idyllic life in Washington, DC, where we had shared a five-bedroom home complete with the requisite American white picket fence, to come to Saudi Arabia.

Our flight from Washington Dulles airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia lasted nearly 20 grueling hours, taking with it our two beloved apricot poodles, our 43 pieces of luggage: our entire life. Five words threatened to make our journey half way across the world meaningless. I peered at Abdullah, the man whom I had looked forward to meeting as my new boss, in his crisp, white thobe and ghuttra, searching his cherubic face, trying to comprehend his words without letting my emotions get the best of me. Was I prepared to let my hard work be squelched by this soft-spoken bureaucrat?

Relocating to Saudi Arabia was not a choice that my husband and I had entered into lightly. After spending seventeen years in the urban grind of the nation’s capital, I began to notice a kind of restlessness in my life.  I had a happy and fulfilling personal life with my husband and friends, and I enjoyed my job and co-workers, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I had reached a plateau; I felt as if I were standing at the edge of an imaginary shore like a sailor’s wife, willing a familiar ship to appear on the horizon.

I wrangled with guilt in feeling compelled to step out of this perfectly fine existence. While dating Bishara, a Christian Lebanese national born in Jordan, I became acquainted with, what seemed to me, the enigmatic and esoteric region of the Middle East.  I remained curious about that part of the world after we married, always intrigued when Bishara talked about his childhood and experiences growing up overseas. My yearning – like a low-grade fever – for a cultural adventure caught up with me in late 1999 when I felt particularly drawn towards the inscrutable Saudi Arabia.

There was no denying the effect that even the mere mention of the Kingdom had on me; my mind turned over images of white washed palaces, cobble-stoned streets jammed with merchants’ carts, and regal women enveloped in black gliding silently through airy plazas. The pictures flickered by like scenes from a film not yet completed. As I shared my feelings with Bishara, his normally merry eyes clouded and his forehead tensed. “Saudi Arabia, why Saudi Arabia?” he asked.

I could not articulate exactly why, I just knew this was the place I needed to explore at this juncture. The more I turned over the possibility of starting a new life in this mysterious country, the more enthusiastic I felt.  Newfound energy replaced my restlessness and eventually swayed my initially reluctant husband.

I thought, perhaps naively, that finding employment might be the toughest hill to climb in making this life transition. For nine months, my husband and I worked feverishly to secure jobs in Saudi Arabia. After an initial trip to the Kingdom with the US-Saudi Business Council in February 2000, Bishara was fortunate to meet a Saudi sheikh who kindly promised to secure a job for me first and then Bishara, as Saudi work restrictions limited my job prospects to academe, hospitals, and women’s banks.

True to his word, a week after Bishara’s phone conversation with the sheikh we received a call from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a highly regarded medical institution in the Middle East with a well-trained staff, requesting my CV.  Two weeks later we were notified of my new position as head of a recently established department in the finance office.

My initial excitement was short lived, replaced with administrative headaches: innumerable phone calls to management at KFSH about the details of my employment contract and salary, figuring out the logistics of bringing our two miniature apricot poodles with us, repeated trips to the doctor for the required medical tests, and supplying the hospital with criminal history reports, visa forms, and family records.

I began to think our new life in Saudi Arabia would never materialize. Whether by the sheer force of my determination or from a series of lucky breaks, I nevertheless found myself thousands of miles from the only home I had ever known, meeting my new employer.

“Abdullah,” I began, finally finding my voice. “I came here to be a team player, to work hard and assist your department to be the best it can be.” A flicker of remorse passed across Abdullah’s face. “Well,” he retorted, “I really don’t think you have the appropriate background to be part of our group.”

With my resolve building, I persevered. “Abdullah, I am interested in learning and I’m a quick study; I’m sure that any weaknesses I have can be overcome.”

Abdullah fixed me with a stern, quizzical look and then abruptly turned his back, striding down the corridor. I remained rooted to the spot, unsure as to what had just transpired. Several minutes passed and neither Abdullah nor another superior appeared to politely “escort” me out of the building; I began to realize my job remained intact and let out a thin sigh of relief.

There was never a time when I wasn’t conscious of being a professional, working woman in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East and its customs have received a tremendous amount of attention in the last eight years. I admit to my own curiosity and apprehension before traveling to the Kingdom, turning over in my mind myths and rumors I had heard about the strict rules and regulations imposed on women.

Though they most certainly meant well, friends and family had no shortage of opinions and (I would soon learn) erroneous or sensationalized facts about the “tragic” plight of women in the Kingdom. I was determined, however, to start my new life with a completely open mind and to learn as much about myself as well as the culture through this new experience.

I took small, calming breaths as I strode along the office corridor on my first day of work. To my surprise and relief, two young Saudi women readily greeted me, offering me cardamom coffee, a popular drink with a pungent, spicy, sweet taste, which served as a welcome pause from my early frenetic days in the Kingdom.

Dining Hall at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh)

Dining Hall at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh)

My Saudi male colleagues were cordial, but less familiar, tendering me gentle handshakes and steely reserves. This reception left me a bit perplexed as I was accustomed to casual greetings followed by the requisite “small talk” typical of American working environments.

In the weeks that followed, I became pleasantly surprised to notice that this seemingly restrained working relationship with my Saudi male co-workers gave way to an almost familial association; I was referred to as “sister,” which afforded me a certain level of respect. In time, even my boss, Abdullah, became a good friend and almost a brother to Bishara and me, helping us through some harrowing personal trials and perilous situations.

In my first few weeks at the hospital I found myself learning more than just my new job; the aspects of work I had taken for granted in the U.S. suddenly became completely novel. Professional etiquette, for instance, took on a whole different meaning in this new workplace, and I had to relearn a diverse set of protocol just to fit in.

At times, I found myself treading lightly around cultural and traditional roles for women and men and the appropriate interactions between the two. If I were one of a couple of women at a meeting with a predominance of men in attendance there was no particular code of behavior; I felt comfortable sitting where I liked and freely expressing myself. Women, particularly Western expatriates, were also allowed more informality when interacting about work-related issues on a one-on-one basis with a Saudi male workmate.

It was important, however, that the discussion center on work and not track into the personal realm. On other occasions, such as the time when we welcomed a new Director of the Finance Group or when a collection of men and women in a conference room celebrated the retirement of a fellow colleague, tradition dictated that women and men remain segregated.

It was during these instances that I found myself making a conscious effort to respect the customs of my host country. There were moments when I instinctively felt like walking over to a Saudi male co-worker clustered with other male cohorts on the far side of the room to discuss a particular professional matter, and I had to pull myself back. During these occasions, I felt particularly nostalgic for the easy circulation between my male and female workmates in the U.S.

My role as supervisor to Arab men, including Saudi and Lebanese nationals, also required some mental adjustments on my part, leaving me more than a little curious and anxious.

Similar to my workplace persona I assumed in the States, I felt it important to convey through my statements and actions that I was a team player and a professional. If there were issues with my Arab male subordinates having a female American boss, these sentiments were left unexpressed verbally or otherwise.

My male Saudi teammate, Saad, was smart and exceedingly polite and respectful. Our working association evolved into the more traditional supervisor/subordinate relationship, making it less familial than the working relationship I shared with my Saudi male peers outside of my group. I also contended with the matter of my Lebanese subordinate, who had worked for a couple of prominent American companies in the U.S., and regularly solicited Abdullah for my job. Fortunately, I’d encountered a similar situation several years earlier with an ambitious subordinate when I was a finance manager with a U.S. government agency.

The responsibilities and complexities of management seem to transcend cultural or gender divides. In both instances, I found myself focusing on promoting a balance between the team effort concept, and maintaining clear lines of authority.

In addition to the inherent “ups and downs” in any workplace there were some obvious differences between America and Riyadh, such as their Saturday to Wednesday workweek, the laws that restricted women driving to work (or elsewhere for that matter), and the scent of bakhour (incense) wafting along the halls.

Other, less transparent, customs left me slightly bewildered. I quickly learned, for instance, of the male Saudi habit to let doors close behind them, regardless of who trailed, as they stepped briskly through the halls of the hospital complex. In time I realized that even women did not hold doors open for each other.

My husband explained that Saudis presumably wished to avoid any gestures possibly construed as flirtatious or inappropriate. Ironically, though I regularly asked men in the States to step through a doorway before me in an effort to reinforce the notion of gender equality, I found myself missing this common western courtesy when moving through the corridors of KFSH.

Another practice I learned to quickly incorporate was using the phrase, “inshallah,” or “if God wills,” into my daily speech in both social and professional settings. Expatriates learn of this neologism within days of arriving in the Kingdom. “Inshallah” follows many expressed thoughts, wishes, queries, and responses. The phrase is so common it becomes entrenched in the vernacular of the ordinary expatriate.

“Can we meet today at 1:00?” “Inshallah,” comes the response. Or, “Do you think we can have that report finished by the end of the day?” Without hesitation, the reply is “inshallah.” One day when my husband and I were rushing back to work after a medical appointment, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded elevator.

The elevator stopped on the second floor and a gentleman outside asked if the elevator was going up; several of us responded automatically, “inshallah.” It wasn’t long before I found myself saying “inshallah” in meetings or in the course of workplace conversation.

Despite my sometimes steep learning curve in becoming acclimated to my new place of employment, the days slipped by rather quickly until I could hardly remember my daily routine working in the States. Though my schedule had a similar rhythm of deadlines and meetings, the work hours were enjoyably punctuated with gratifying moments of downtime– not the same kind of grab-a-cup-of-coffee-and-stand-around-watching-our-watches-chatting kind of moments I knew too well from my own and friends’ professional experiences.

Arab corporate culture allows you, encourages you in fact, to take time out of your day to devote to connecting with one another on a more convivial level. Usually this happens, I discovered to my ample enjoyment, over soothing mint tea or cardamom coffee served with dates or Arabic sweet pastries.

Coming from a corporate environment less concerned with this aspect of professional development, I failed to realize how vital it is to truly slow down in the course of the day until I worked on my first large project for the hospital a couple of months into my contract.

In January, 2001, the team I supervised became responsible for a new automated budgeting process. Despite the frantic pace and frustrations intrinsic in implementing any new process, it was rare for a day to pass without being offered Arabic coffee.

One afternoon, my head buried in a stack of reports and my thoughts distracted by a presentation looming the following day, a female Saudi co-worker popped her head through my office doorway.

“Michele,” she called. “Please come by my desk, I made some mint tea this morning that I would like to share with you.”

My first impulse was to decline: there were final preparations for my big financial presentation the following morning; how would I be able to finish everything with this impingement on my critical work time? However, I understood the importance of human interaction in the Arab workplace, and I knew that refusing this sort of invitation was considered rude.

I summoned a smile and reluctantly followed my colleague to her partitioned office. As I stepped inside, I encountered another woman already seated in the corner, dressed in typical hospital attire for Saudi women: a long skirt that fell below the ankles, her blouse positioned high on the neck, a black scarf adorning her head, and a long white lab coat completing the ensemble.

I barely had a moment to find my own cup when the women broke into animated banter. Conversation about our current financial project was interspersed with more casual talk about their children’s schooling or what the housekeeper might prepare for dinner that evening.

The chitchat and aromatic mint tea lulled me, as it would do in the future, into an appreciation of this particular instant in time; I realized that there were life issues just as, if not more, important as the tasks at hand in the daily work grind.

I was finding I had much to learn in this exotic and fascinating land; my first days and months of employment at King Faisal Hospital had been an “eye opening” experience teaching me not only about the importance of “people time” in the workplace, but about a culture and lifestyle that had been built upon centuries of tradition and customs.

. . . Part Two will follow!

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Wonders of Turkey: Whirling Dervishes and Turkish Baths

It was late March and our second, and final full afternoon, in Istanbul, a city which definitely lived up to the expectations placed on it.  We had been enchanted by the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, and amalgam of Byzantine and Ottoman cultural and architectural influences in the two short days we had scheduled in this alluring city.  On this day we would be treated to mesmerizing whirling dervishes, as well as explore an illustrious and historic Turkish bath (hammam).

Whirling dervish performance in Doha, Qatar.

When my husband, Bishara, and I decided to buy tickets for the Mevlevi Sema Whirling Dervish show in Istanbul’s Old City, I imagined we would see an entertaining performance of men spinning in long flowing garments rather than the formal spiritual and religious ceremony we were fortunate to witness in person.  As we had done throughout our stay in Istanbul we decided to walk, map in hand, to the Hodjapasha Cultural Center where the whirling dervishes of Istanbul would be performing.  We had been told by the accommodating staff at our boutique hotel, the Ottoman Imperial, that the easiest route would be a 25 minute walk following the tram line to the Cultural Center.

Tram Line in Istanbul

We liked the idea of walking, allowing us another opportunity to absorb as much of the tapestry of this beguiling city, as possible.  Along the way we encountered quaint cafes teeming with romance and life – white tablecloths over tables for two, couples whispering in each other’s ears, soft candlelight, and Ottoman-style lanterns; as well as the pervasive stalls with vendors selling roasted chestnuts, a sentimental favorite of Bishara’s that remind him of his childhood in Jordan and Lebanon, and corn on the cob.

Bishara couldn’t resist the roasted chestnuts!

We stumbled upon the Hodjapasha Cultural Center in a narrow backstreet nestled among a cluster of Ottoman-style shops and cafes near the Sirkeci tram stop.  The Cultural Center, a converted 550 year old Turkish bath that serviced both men and women, was built in the 1470’s by Hodja Sinan Pasha a vizier to Sultan Mehmed II.  The structure remained a hamam until 1988.

Earlier in the day when walking from the Grand Covered Bazaar, which contains over 3,000 shops with everything from jewelry to colorful ceramic dishware, towards our hotel we discovered another Turkish bath, the Cagaloglu Hammam, built in 1741.  There are around 100 Turkish baths in Istanbul, scattered along many of the city’s crowded streets and alleyways, from smaller neighborhood establishments to those found in five star hotels.  The concept of the public bath made popular by the Romans, and established for  maintaining cleanliness (and later doubling as a social gathering place), was passed along to the Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople and, ultimately, to the Turkish people.

Entrance to Cagaloglu Hammam.

Sidewalk advertisement.

As is the tradition with most Turkish baths, Cagaloglu Hammam offers separate services and entrances for men and women, and a hearty body scrub, massage, and hair washing by assistants.  Visitors lay on hot slabs of marble in steam-filled rooms, and although given a piece of cloth (pestemal) as a wrap, must be comfortable with baring themselves in front of others.  I settled for simply taking photos, as I am definitely on the reserved side.  Although the service at Cagaloglu has received mixed reviews, the hamam is the oldest Turkish bath in service today, and harkens back to the days when Ottomans lounged luxuriously on its marble platforms while being scrubbed by attendants.  The Cagaloglu Hammam appeared as a backdrop in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and the hamam’s brochure claims its guests have included the likes of Tony Curtis, Chevy Chase, Cameron Diaz, and Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Inside Cagaloglu Hammam.

Hammam in Ottoman Era.

Scrubbing and bathing in Hammam.

Turkish Sultans (displayed in corridor of Hammam).

Later in the evening at the the Hodjapasha Cultural Center with its stone cut archways and intricate geometric designs, architecture reminiscent of its days as an Ottoman bathhouse, we were offered refreshments, sodas, sour cherry juice (a popular Turkish drink that I love), and Turkish delights.  Just before 7:30 PM an announcement was made that the performance would begin and a reminder given that no photography or applause was allowed during the whirling dervish ceremony.  We were ushered into a room with seating in the round under a high domed ceiling, a side platform for the musicians, and a circular marble floor where the dervishes would perform their ceremony.  The Mevleviye were established in 1273 in Konya, Turkey and during the Ottoman era their numbers expanded throughout the region.  The Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order (Mevlana is “our leader”) are named after Jelaleddin Rumi (1207 – 1273), a Persian poet and a follower of Sufism, which promotes cleansing of the soul through freeing oneself of bad habits and personal desires, leading ultimately to a closer relationship with God.  The Mevlana and Mevlevi Order achieve this through the Sema Ceremony, which incorporates elaborate music and chanting, the dervishes, and a sacred journey from the mind and ego to love and unity with the divine.  Just as the universe and our world is based on revolving motion – from our solar system, to blood and oxygen circulating in our bodies, to the most basic element of our world, the atom, the spiritual state is attained through the whirling of the dervishes.

Mevlevi dervishes. 1887.

Mevlevi dervishes in 1887. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bishara and I took our assigned places in a fully packed room, where layered brick formed more imposing archways and a hushed silence seemed to belie a heightened level of expectation.  The ceremony, which continues today as a cultural heritage performance, began with five men, the Mutrip (members of the Sema band), in black robes and long felt cone-like hats soberly entering the room, bowing, and walking, one by one, to a small elevated stage. The Mutrip is comprised of musicians who play the kudum (small kettledrum), ney (reed flute), yayli tambur (long necked stringed instrument with a bow), and kanun (lap harp or zither).  The unique musical repertoire (ayin), which incorporates chanting of poetry and religious passages, accompanies the dervishes in their whirling dance.  Rumi is reported to have said, “In listening to music, the soul leaves its normal orbit and enters higher spheres.”

Whirling Dervishes

Whirling Dervishes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen minutes into the music I caught sight of the first dervish entering the room.  Somber and reserved, the lead dervish was followed by four more dervishes all dressed in black cloaks and the same long felt hats worn by the Mutrip band members.  One of the men carried a red sheepskin, which was placed on the floor near where the dervishes would perform, symbolizing birth and existence.  The men hung their heads and moved piously single file into the room.  Removing their black robes (signifying an awakening to the truth) revealed the dervishes long billowing white frocks.  Reaching the center of the stage, with arms crossed over their chests and hands over opposite shoulders, the dervishes began to turn around one by one, beginning with the lead dervish, and bowing to the dervish behind them.  After the first dervish completed his bow he began twirling counter-clockwise on his own axis and around the circular arena, with the others following, symbolizing the spin of the earth and the solar system.  Each dervish, in turn, released his arms gracefully from his torso with his right hand open in front of him and his left hand, palm down, behind him.  I learned later from an artisan in the small mountain village of Sirince, (near Ephesus, Turkey), who crafted the felt hats worn by the dervishes, that the uplifted right arm symbolized reaching upwards to the divine, while the left arm directed to the earth projected a spiritual gift for those observing the Sema ceremony.  The dervishes continued spinning, each producing seamlessly smooth motions, while in a prayerful, meditative type of trance.  Throughout much of the ceremony, an alternating dervish remained twirling in the center of the circle of spinning dervishes, with eyes of the remaining four trained on the central dervish.

The Mevlevi Order or the Mevleviye are a Sufi ...

Mutrip Band (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Turkish whirling dervishes of Mevlevi Order, b...

Whirling dervishes of Mevlevi Order, bowing during the Sema ceremony at Chicago Turkish Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Workshop at TFF.Rudolstadt

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The dervishes followed a ritualized pattern of twirling for close to fifteen minutes, when they gradually slowed the velocity of their exquisite spins until their arms were, again, criss-crossed against their chests with hands over their shoulders, and when at rest with heads hung low, began solemnly bowing, once more, to each other.  Following the bowing sequence, the lead dervish, launched into a fresh slow twirl, releasing his arms into the air with his counterparts following suit.  And the cycle of twirling and bowing would continue for another three quarters of an hour, all the while accompanied by the Matrip’s musical repertoire.  With each spin, dervishes abandon more of their human egoism, and move closer to ultimate truth, love, and a union with the divine.  The end of the ceremony saw one of the dervishes collect the red sheepskin, kiss it, and each dervish, one after the other, back out of the room, bowing before exiting.  The Matrip members did the same; one by one the cloaked musicians backed out of the room, and bowed before leaving the arena.

Bishara and I left the ceremony chattering away about the captivating performance and our newfound knowledge of the Whirling Dervishes.  Although the charming Ottoman-style restaurants beckoned us during the chilly walk back to the Ottoman Hotel Imperial, our hotel’s Matbah restaurant was a bigger draw; we just could not pass on the warm hospitality and luxurious cuisine fashioned after meals served to sultans of the Ottoman period.  Of course, we were not disappointed.

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