Wonders of Spain: Andalusia

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

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

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Toledo, Spain

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

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Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo

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St. Mary’s Cathedral

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Devotional Procession

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

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Hotel Santa Isabel (Toledo, Spain)

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

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

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

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Alleyways of Toledo

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

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

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Javea, Spain

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Street Market of Javea

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Moraira, Spain

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Alicante Mountains

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

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Granada, Spain (Albayzin District)

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Alhambra Palace

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Granada

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

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

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Malaga, Spain

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Cadiz, Spain

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Cadiz

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Monument to the Constitution of 1812 (Cadiz)

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

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Flamenco Dancing in Cadiz

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

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Seville, Spain

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Seville Cathedral

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Seville

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Plaza de Espana (Seville)

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

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

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Cordoba, Spain

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Courtyard of Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba

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Cathedral-Mosque (Cordoba)

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

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Los Patios (Cordoba)

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Traditional Procession (Cordoba, Spain)

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

 

Wonders of Australia: Sydney

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

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

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

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Opera House and Sydney Harbour

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

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St. Mary’s Cathedral

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

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St. Mary’s Cathedral and Hyde Park

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

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“Two Good Eggs” Cafe

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

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

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Bondi Beach

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Coastal Walk (Bondi Beach)

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

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Yuletide Service at St. Mary’s Cathedral

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Light Show at St. Mary’s Cathedral

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

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The Opera House

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Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

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Harbour Bridge

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The Rocks (near Opera House and Harbour Bridge)

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

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Darling Harbour, Sydney

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Chinatown in Sydney

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

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Paddy’s Haymarket

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

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View from ferry going to Manly.

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Manly (Suburb of Sydney)

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One of the few Christmas trees we saw.

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Manly Beach

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

Wonders of Jordan: Wadi Rum

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

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Wadi Rum

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

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

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

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Aqaba, Jordan

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

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

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

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Our Accommodation at Bait Ali Camp (Wadi Rum)

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Bait Ali Camp

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

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

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

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Grounds of Bait Ali Camp

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Majless (Bait Ali Camp)

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

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

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

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Site of Nabataean Temple (Wadi Rum)

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“Tea time” in Wadi Rum Majless

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

Wonders of Turkey: Sirince

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

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

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On the way to Sirince.

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

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Sirince, Turkey

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

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The blue eye is thought to eradicate the

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

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Our purchases.

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

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Up the hill to Umud’s shop.

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

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

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

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

Sirincem Restaurant

Sirincem Restaurant

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

Wonders of Thailand: Koh Samui

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

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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.

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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 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: Sapa

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

_________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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Sapalay Express Train

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

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

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

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View from train.

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Train view.

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

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Lao Cai

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

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

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Fanispan Suite (Bamboo Sapa Hotel)

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View from balcony.

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

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Hmong women spotted during breakfast.

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

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Breezing through town.

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Sapa Market (raw meat)

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

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Holy Rosary Church

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Start of climb up Dragon’s Jaw.

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Fanispan View

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

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Near the summit of Dragon’s Jaw.

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

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

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Viet Bamboo Restaurant

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

Wonders of Vietnam: Halong Bay

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

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

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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.