Monday, December 7, 2009

Walking Like Egyptians

Having customs officers escort you to an empty half of the airport to pick up your checked baggage is not an ideal way to start a trip in a foreign country.

Walking outside as an opportunistic cabbie offers to set you up on another tour because "your company went out of business last week" doesn't offer much in the way of improvement.

But when your transport finally shows up and all of you -- customs officials, random cabbie, and tour guide -- form a conga line, bend your arms and sing the Bangles, you know Egypt is gonna be just fine.

The 2009 Tour of Cultural Degradation came to a close in Egypt . We had planned to come here for spring break, but then someone planted a bomb in the Khan-al-Khalil bazaar in Cairo. Apparently, we felt like Bali would be safer since they hadn't had a terrorist bombing since, like, 2007; after surviving that, we gave Egypt another change. Crossing our fingers and hoping that the jihadis had packed up for Afghanistan, we booked a week in Egypt through a tour company and practiced our 80s dance moves.

It's kind of crazy to step back and think how old Egypt really is. We're closer in time to Julius Caesar and the rise of the Roman Empire than Caesar was to the building of the pyramids. The pharaohnic temples are ancient, in a way that is difficult to comprehend. By the Middle Ages Egypt had already chewed through 30-odd dynasties of Pharaohs, a couple hundred years of Greek rulers, a few centuries of Roman Emperors, and a healthy sprinkling of Islamic caliphates -- each leaving an indelible mark in history, culture, and architecture.

We started the trip on a Nile cruise aboard a big riverboat starting in Aswan, an old Nubian city near the Sudanese border. We had steeled ourselves for a floating Motel 6, but it was a 4-star Movenpick hotel and actually quite nice. The Nile didn't look nearly as impressive as I expected; it never seemed to be much more than a few hundred meters across until we got close to the Esna Lock. The scenery around the river, however, made clear how important the Nile is in sustaining any kind of life; while the greenery at the river banks was as lush and thick as a tropical forest, the desert often started less than twenty meters from the river bank. The majority of the Egyptian population (other than the cities on the Red Sea) are located within kilometers of the river. The Nile was a major component in all the religious imagery we saw in the temples, and every temple had a Nilometer to measure the flood levels and determine taxation.

The temples were absolutely incredible. Every possible surface was covered in hieroglyphics and carvings of the ancient Egyptian gods. Massive statues brooded between columns of stone papyrus and lotus flowers. The temples used to be ablaze with colors "of the vegetables", as our eccentric and oddly shaped guide liked to say, but had now faded to bare sandstone carvings. The temples were also stuffed to the gills with hustlers and beggars who were happy to pose for pictures with unsuspecting tourists before demanding a little baksheesh for their efforts. The only thing worse than having to flip a random dude some money to access the bathroom was the twenty pound ($4) cans of Coke at the temple cafes. The tourist cafes are the only places in Egypt that will give you change for big bills provided by the ATM, but the prices are all multiple of 5 pounds in a seemingly concerted effort to prevent you from having any small bills for the hustlers and shills.

As this point in my travels you'd think I'd be used to being treated like a walking cash machine, but Egypt took it to a whole 'nother dimension. Although the tour company price included all tour guides, ground transportation, and entry fees, it did not include "tips" - and everybody wanted a tip. The motorboat driver who got paid to take us out to Philae Temple wanted 10 pounds. The van driver paid by the company got 20. The bus driver? 20 per person, really? Of course, everything is "optional - but some people like to give more!" I've never been the kind of person who believes that my lucky birth as an American required me to pass out cash to solve the world's problems; frankly, I find that to be a pretty inefficient solution. But a rather sobering experience made me feel a little less abused.

As we waited for our turn in the Esna lock at a small dam between Aswan and Luxor, the captain nudged the bow of the ship up on the shore near a waiting group of galabiya-clad local men lugging around cheap carpets and scarves. As the tourists clustered around the railing of the top deck, the sellers would launch folded up carpets and rolled up mumu-looking dresses 40 feet up in the air onto the boat as they shouted out ridiculous prices - "One pound for this carpet!" As soon as they caught a tourist's attention, the real price would come out, and the two would bicker and bargain back and forth. If they agreed on a price, the sellers would toss up a weighted bag for the cash, which was then tossed back down; if not, the tourist launched the carpet back in the general direction of shore. The results were pretty predictable; about 20% of the merchandise ended up in the drink, and one of the younger kids would strip down and fish it out of the river. The whole scene was pretty comical - at first.

I've been hassled and grabbed at a few bazaars and souqs, but this was different. There was a hunger and a desperation in the eyes that you don't see in a normal market. We happened to have a contingent of Indian tourists on board, who are apparently pretty used to this kind of thing. They would string these guys out as long as they could, looking for bulk bargains; even as the boat pulled away and headed to the lock, they were still hanging on to the carpets and haggling for lower prices. The carpet sellers paced the boat along the shore, getting increasingly desperate as they knocked down the prices. The tourists on the boat would toss the carpets they didn't want into the river, and kids would swim out and get them. Then the sellers would toss up different models once the boat got close enough. The Egyptian government allows the whole charade because it openly admits that it can't provide employment opportunities, so trying to roll the tourists seems to be the only option a lot of people have. It got pretty sickening to watch.

Based on this experience and the travelers' stories about the capital city, I wasn't particularly looking forward to dealing with 18 million people pulling the same act in Cairo. Cairo, however, was an amazing city. The travelers' stories were absolutely right -- Cairo is filthy, crowded, polluted, loud, and ridiculously trafficked, but it is alive and vibrant and such a stark contrast to Doha. The traffic is impossibly crowded, with drivers honking constantly and weaving into impossible spaces around the clock. It took us over an hour to go maybe 5 miles whether we started at 5PM or 3AM. There are parts of the city that are filled with unfinished red brick buildings as far as the eye can see, with concrete staircases to nowhere jutting into the smog-filled sky; they are fully occupied, but the builders leave them unfinished to avoid paying taxes and reduce costs for tenants. Then there is the Zamalek island in the Nile with trendy sheesha bars and restaurants where the Egyptian yuppies go to play. There are the ancient Great Pyramids on the outskirts of the city, and then there are incredibly beautiful mosques lit up on the streets of Islamic Cairo behind the Khan-al-Khalil bazaar at night. It's an amazing city with tons to see and experience.

Egypt was an amazing place; the words above barely scratch the surface of the trip. I can think of a lot more to say, but I ought to wrap this up eventually. It was definitely an experience - often sobering, but also amazing and eye-opening. The feeling of climbing through a solid granite shaft almost a hundred meters long into the depths of a 5000-year old pyramid is difficult to describe in words; it's definitely something you should try to experience. Just make sure to get some small bills at the foreign exchange first...

My Egypt pics

Saturday, November 21, 2009


, how time flies. Ten weeks ago I thought I was almost wrapped up on my thesis and ready to contribute regularly to a blog.

Today I am still crawling towards the finish line with two-month old unposted Jordan photos to boot. BUT since I promised myself that I would post the pics from the last vacation before we started the next, AND since we're headed to Egypt next Friday, it's time to get another blog off my chest. At least I post more than Jessie...

Before I moved here, I had never considered Jordan as a top vacation destination. Mostly I associated it with the Palestinian Territories, which is somewhere between South Waziristan and Darfur on my list of summer holiday retreats. Last year the other grad students went to Jordan and Israel for the first Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan, but I hadn't received permission to leave the country yet. (By the way, the 83% of the Qatar population that is not Qatari is dependent on the permission of our employers to leave the country. At any time, for any reason - even at the end of your contract. Luckily, Qatar Foundation gives us multiple exit visas with no questions asked; not every expat is so lucky.) But once that group returned, I heard nothing but glowing reports from them and from any other person who had ever visited.

Jess and I booked our tickets and hotels in typical last-minute fashion, and we flew into Jordan for 8 days. The trip started off inauspiciously when we got ripped off by a "private car" at the airport who charged us double the per-person rate we had agreed to; that was mostly my fault for not sticking to my guns. I still have this ridiculous desire to be an "ambassador for America" even though it seems that most people just see us as ATM machines. After this guy, though, Jordan was blissfully empty of the kind of begging and baksheesh demands that seem to characterize most of the non-Western tourist destinations. We were told that Jordanians were incredibly friendly, and they truly were. According to Fawwaz, the taxi driver we used for most of the trip, most of the people in Jordan consider themselves Palestinian (as he was himself), yet we didn't encounter any of the anti-American hostility that I was sure we'd face as soon as anyone found out where we were from. Even the Petra Bedouins, who make a pretty good living bilking tourists out of money for "genuine" knickknacks and souvenirs, seemed to be pretty genuinely friendly.

It only takes about six hours to drive from Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south, so I thought we would have plenty of time to see everything. Jordan, however, has as much history and culture as someplace like Greece packed into a fraction of the area. The Roman ruins in Jerash were more expansive than what we saw in Greece with the exception of the Acropolis, plus they let you climb all over them! Wait, maybe that's not good. It seems like every rock in that country is saturated with history, from Old Testament sites and tribal enemies like the Nabateans of Petra to Christian holy sites like Mt. Nebo and the Jordan River, and from Roman ruins to hunting palaces of the Caliphs. Then you have Amman, the capital city that is one of the most expensive, modern, and Westernized cities in the region. Although the population is over 90% Sunni Muslim, Jordan seems to be a model of religious tolerance; it's one of the only two countries that has signed an official peace agreement with Israel, and it's one of the only countries in the region where you can have an Israel stamp on your passport and not be hassled by customs.

We packed so much stuff in that I won't even try to do a synopsis of everything, but we did just about everything touristy there is to do other than Aqaba. We met Fawwaz through our hotel on our first full day, and we ended up hiring him for the entire trip. He was a fantastic tour guide, and he seemed to know everybody in the country; he had a buddy at every site we went to. He took us to an awesome canyon adventure in Wadi Mujib near the Dead Sea; those guys weren't kidding when you sign the release form. In US legalese, "deep water" and "swimming ability" usually correspond to an ankle deep pool; we trekked up a river canyon fighting rushing water and climbing rocky waterfalls. There was little to no official supervision, and we wouldn't have made it up some of those waterfalls and rocks without help from fellow trekkers. It was an awesome experience, and it led to plenty of painful moments later in the salty Dead Sea from our scrapes and abrasions. He made for a great guide down the Desert Highway to Petra, and then he set us up on a trip to the desert in Wadi Rum. Instead of the sandy dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, Wadi Rum is made up of rocky mountains and red sand that explodes in color and shadow when the sun sets. Forgetting my spare battery really came back to bite me here as my battery ran out the first day in Petra; Jess has some pictures on her camera, but your guess is as good as mine as to if we'll ever see those!

Jordan was definitely an amazing experience, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a Middle Eastern tourist spot. You are literally walking in the places discussed in the holy texts of the three major world religions. There was the wow factor of looking across 30 feet of the Jordan river at Palestine combined with the spiritual experience of seeing the baptism site of Jesus. There was the relatively short drive from the fertile northlands filled with bright green figs and deep purple grapes to the vast , rugged desert of the Wadi Rum. There was the wonder of stumbling across the brilliant facade of the Treasury building in the lost city of Petra after walking through the seemingly endless Siq canyon. Even the resort-minded can hole up at a resort on the Dead Sea and pay to get mud slathered from head to toe. It's definitely not cheap, though, especially if you eschew public transportation and a friendly yet expensive taxi driver. It was definitely money well spent, and we highly recommend it. Just head to the Dead Sea before you get all scraped up.

Rest of my pics

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time of the (Muslim) Year

That's right, lunar calendar fans... it's the month of Ramadan! Because nothing says "I love God...and rainbows!" like starvation, dehydration, and running people off the road in your hurry to break the fast.

I kid, I kid. On the first two, at least.

(I'm not a Ramadan scholar, so please forgive any errors in the quick summary below.)

Ramadan is the Muslim equivalent to Lent -- but instead of giving up soda every day and beef on Fridays, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown every day for a full lunar month (28 days). No lunch, no snacks, and no beverage of any kind INCLUDING water (Jessie just died a little inside as I wrote that...) The purpose is to focus Muslims both on service to God and on charity to the poor and hungry. I think it's an interesting example of the influence of the personal experience of the religious leaders; the Prophet Mohammed grew up poor, hungry, and illiterate, and one of the central directions he received from Allah happened to be the prevention of hunger for the unfortunate. It makes me wonder how much of Christianity stemmed from Jesus's experiences growing up as a carpenter.

Anyway, moving on from heresy and apostasy.

I find the difference in the Ramadan experience between the rank-and-file followers and the truly devout to be pretty interesting. For the nationals, Ramadan apparently provides an excuse to get even less work done while providing ample time for naps. Once the Iftar meal is eaten after sundown, the remainder of the night is spent party hopping. Traffic is almost non-existent throughout the day, but 11PM traffic jams clog up all the major roads. Motorcycles race between stalled lanes of Land Cruisers, all of which are packed with nationals visiting Ramadan gatherings until the early morning. The students snatch a couple of hours of sleep, often not even waking before sundown to grab the pre-dawn meal. Then they sleepwalk through their morning classes until early afternoon, when they nap until the sunset call to prayer. Businesses aren't much better; although shopkeepers will stay open late at night, it is bloody impossible to get any kind of government form processed. Once sunset rolls around, hotels and restaurants host gluttonous Iftar banquets where people stuff themselves with massive plates of food. A lot of people actually end up gaining weight during Ramadan from overcompensating. The driving actually gets worse than normal as sunset approaches; people rush home in a dehydrated and dizzy fury with no regard for anyone in their way.

Ramadan seems to be a very different experience for the devout. Most of the guys in my lab are Egyptian and very religious. They wake up for the morning meal before the dawn call to prayer, and then they work all day without a word of complaint. One of the other MS students went to Mecca on omra, or "little hajj", after the first week of Ramadan. I have yet to see anyone in the lab nap or leave early; in fact, they've been staying later than me most days. It's definitely a contrast in styles, and it's good to see the spiritual side as well.

The pictures are of the City Center Mall downtown. Massive versions of traditional Ramadan lanterns hang all over the ceiling, and a creepy animatronic display of traditional Bedouins dominates the center walkway. I really wanted to catch a modern Qatari talking on his cell phone while walking past the guys on a camel, but I couldn't quite get it. Enjoy the pics. I especially like the one where the Qatari guy looks like he's arguing with the animatronic imam...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I went to Bali and all I got was this lousy amebic dysentery...

Well, I'm not exactly knocking these things out with any regularity. Looming deadlines and computer fatigue will do that to you. Luckily the mind-numbing heat bans any kind of outdoor movement, and it also makes me muse wistfully on our last international vacation to Bali (nice segue!) Jessie swears that she wants to write about it herself, so I'll just touch on some of the outliers and post some pictures. If the heat and the cash reserves are any indicator, we won't be going on any other international jaunts for a couple of months; I guess then I will eventually get to writing about this place.

But first - Bali. Awesome. Flying from the Arabian Desert to an impossibly lush island in Indonesia was quite a shock for the senses. We went in March, so it was actually significantly hotter and more humid than Doha, but we didn't mind at all. After all, shorts and bikinis are not only allowed but practically mandatory on an island. Indonesia was one of the few places that actually looked like I expected it to from the moment I stepped off the plane. We connected in Jakarta, and at the airport modern travel smacked headlong into Southeast Asian architecture. Airports normally tend to be ugly, modern, and functional structures in ugly, low-rent areas; to my tourist eyes, this airport wouldn't have looked out of place in a historical district. I mean, it wasn't gorgeous or breathtaking or anything, but the sloped red tile roofs looked like I would have imagined them to look. Eh, I'm not doing a good job of explaining this - it was an airport. It wasn't special. The roofs just looked cool. Moving on.

Bali is a large island in the long chain that is Indonesia. Indonesia is surprisingly home to the largest Muslim population in the world (I checked it on Wikipedia, boo yah!), yet Bali is solidly Hindu. Massive temples dot the island, and every shop and home has a little shrine outside with fresh fronds and rice. Apparently the surfers discovered it back in the 70s, and it was a big hangout for hippies and stoners. (I've always wondered how hippies can afford to visit such awesome places when they refuse to work and eschew wealth. Guess it's easier to curse the scramble for money when you have rich parents.) Bali hasn't exactly remained such an idyllic little island though; Kuta, the old surfer gathering point, is a dirty and crowded warren of tourist traps and kitschy souvenier shops. There's still a pretty relaxed groove here; although the Jakarta airport greets you with death threats for taking drugs, apparently Bali hasn't gotten the memo yet. We also passed a lovely brothel half a block from our hotel, although for some reason I didn't manage to get any pictures.

The Balian landscape and lifestyle are already pretty sweet, but the people are great as well. People were very friendly, to the point where I didn't even get that annoyed by the constant harassment of shopkeepers and taxi drivers. In the words of the hotel bartender, "All of us are poor, but all of us are happy. We have enough to live." While I'm not foolish or idealistic enough to buy that, the people really seemed genuinely friendly. Bargaining was done with a smile, even as they overcharged you 1000% and as you skillfully worked it down to 200%. Massages were plentiful and cheap. Hotel prices were low. Food was great. You could rent a van and driver all day, petrol included, for under $40.

Still, I definitely felt like a tourist. After about 15 minutes of walking down the street I felt like a massive dollar sign. The funniest example happened at the airport on my way out through immigration to board the plane. Apparently I had misplaced my immigration card, which I didn't know was needed to leave the country. The girl working the desk took one look at the color of my skin and chattered with her fellow officer a desk away in Indonesian (??). I knew I was in trouble when he started grinning. She tells me "It's ok - I can help you. 100."

"A hundred thousand rupiah? Well I'm out of cash, but I can go get some." (100,000 rp ~= $9).

"No - 100 dollars. US." Satisfied smile reaches across her face.

"$100?!?!? Miss, I don't even live in America. I live in the Middle East. I'm a student. And I definitely don't have $100 cash."

"OK, $50. You give 50 dollars, I help you."

"OK here's my credit card."

"CASH ONLY!!!! NO CARD!" Immigration Lady is not happy.

"Seriously, I have no cash. Here's my wallet." . "Look, I have Qatari riyals. This is worth about $30 US."

More chattering with her buddy. Lots of chattering. Visions of Indonesian prison dance through my head.

"FINE! Give me that. I help you now."

Then she forges me an immigration card and lets me through. Look at me -- I bribed a customs official to leave the country! Maybe MI6 has an opening; a double-0 number sounds lovely...

Bali photos

Monday, March 23, 2009

Holidays in Europe (not Nights in Rodanthe)

Yes, I know – the holidays were a long time ago. However, since we’re about to spend our Spring Break in Indonesia, I figured I should post some pictures and thoughts on our December trips first. I’m also assuming that Jess will eventually write a more exhaustive review, so I’ll just touch on highlights and impressions. Then eventually (I swear!) I will post some pics of and thoughts on Doha; I even spent yesterday walking around downtown taking pictures. Anyway, Turkey and Greece…

To start with we realized that the Eid al Adha holiday (and the associated week off) was only four days away, and we still had no travel plans. Like any good former airline employee Jess was not going to let an opportunity to travel pass her by, regardless of the last minute fare price. Somehow Expedia had a fantastic fare available to Istanbul, and we jumped at it. Istanbul is an incredible city, and as it straddles Asia and Europe I believe that it’s the only city in the world to be located across two continents. The heart of the city (and of course the most tourist-filled district) is Sultanahmet, where old world met new world in breathtaking fashion. The central park is ringed by some of the oldest churches and mosques in the Western world; the Hagia Sophia, a monstrous red rock cathedral-then-mosque-then-museum built by Justinian in ~320AD, faces down the Blue Mosque and its airy minarets and domes across the center fountain. But just a hundred meters downhill from the center you have a city that is (at least in my mind) the quintessential picture of a European city: cobblestoned streets filled with shops and street vendors with cafes and coffeehouses everywhere you turn. The people were incredibly friendly and warm; from the guy on the street who stopped and helped us find our hotel to the shopkeeper who invited us in for dinner and entertained us for hours, the experience was fantastic. This short little paragraph in no way does the city justice; hopefully the photos (follow the links at the bottom) will do a better job.

Then just a short week later we were off to Greece. I have fantasized about Greece since I devoured all the mythology books in the Glenmore Elementary School library. I mean, I was 23 at the time, but some of us develop reading skills at a different pace. Anyway, I made an offhand comment before I left for Qatar about how close I would be to Greece, and my suddenly world-traveling parents decided that Athens would make a lovely holiday destination. As the day drew closer we tried to ignore the fact that Athens had apparently degenerated into riots and clashes because, as one newspaper story put it best, the Greeks like to riot just to keep the police on their toes. To be honest, the only signs of riots we saw were ATMs that we had used a few days before smashed into pieces. I mean, it makes sense; instant cash machines are truly a symbol of our enslavement to totalitarian governments, or something.
I really can’t describe the sights of Greece very well; it truly is something you have to see. When you climb the steps to the Acropolis and stand at the gates of the Propylae, you feel like you have ascended to heaven and are about to stand before God. But just like Istanbul, there is this incredible juxtaposition between historical treasure of the ancient world and a vibrant, pulsatingly modern city (according to spellchecker, I just made that word up). The cafĂ© lifestyle is in full effect; you can sit (and smoke) for hours off of one glass of wine. The Greeks go to supper about the time I go to bed, and they have the “What, me worry?” attitude that seems to be pretty consistent with socialist countries. This was even more apparent after my parents left when Jess and I took a ferry out to Santorini for three days. Santorini is a volcanic island where only the caldera (rim of the volcano) remains after the mother of all volcanic eruptions somewhere around 1700 BC wiped out the Mycaenaen civilation. It’s a major party spot during the summer, but only the locals are there during the winter. There were times we felt like we were the only people on the island as we wandered through deserted villages dug into the sides of the volcano and built from ash. There was only one other person staying at the hotel with us, so the hotel owner treated us to an incredible spread for New Years’ Eve. After 4 bottles of champagne, two bottles of his homemade wine, and all the spanakopita and roe we could eat, we left for the club. At 1:30AM. Look, I know I’m not THAT old, but really? Homey don’t play that. Yet club we did, until five in the morning. It was an incredible time and a beautiful example of Greek hospitality and lifestyle.

All in all, my first two stays in European cities were pretty memorable. The lifestyle is so different from the American one; the city layout is made for walking and in some places has probably changed very little in a few hundred years. Cafes and shops line the streets, and mass transportation combined with tiny roads makes driving pretty undesirable. Both Jess and I loved wandering the streets with no plan or set direction. The people are very friendly to tourists and very proud to show off their country, and their attitude towards life is definitely different; there isn’t that overwhelming drive to work your life away. Again I attribute a lot of that to socialism and the fact that it’s pretty difficult to own or save anything; people spend their money on high-fashion boots and designer clothes instead of saving for houses or cars. I’m not really criticizing it; sometimes I wish I could live a little less focused on the future and a lot more focused on enjoying the moment. It’s definitely a different culture. In my memories I keep coming back to that incredible setting of a modern, bustling city set against a backdrop of beautiful and amazing ancient civilizations. It can give you a real sense of the enormity of time, especially when considering that from the start of those civilizations to the flaming and spectacular end of our own will be but a drop in the bucket.

Anyway, enough of that. Here are the links. I didn’t post any pics of the Parthenon because I thought both Jess and my mom took better pics; hopefully I can post some of those as well.

Istanbul pictures

Greece pictures

Monday, February 2, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (Belated)!!
Well, 2008 has certainly been memorable and eventful. I quit my job in February, moved to Texas in March, went on a few vacations and several weekend trips, got a temporary job, drove back to Virginia in September, moved to Qatar and started a new job in October! In fact, it has been so action-packed that I have made very little time for blogging about all of our activities and travels since my move to the Middle East. Even worse, I haven’t been very good about keeping up with friends (New Year’s Resolution #1)…So, let me begin by summarizing our activities.
Let’s start with my favorite four-letter word…FOOD! One of my very favorite things about my current life in the Mideast is all of the good, cheap cuisine. The first several weeks were a little tough as my stomach was not ready to succumb to the different flavors, preparations, and ingredients. But, not being a picky eater (there is no food that isn’t worth trying), I kept on pursuing my “dream”: a perfect harmony of happy taste buds and intestinal bliss. Now I am enjoying the fabulous life of a Middle Eastern food critic (without getting paid, unfortunately). Although I have had food from this region on several occasions, I have never been exposed to it in this quantity (and quality!). We have eaten at some delicious Lebanese, Persian, Turkish, and Yemeni places. Nick has developed a bit of an obsession for shawarma—lamb or chicken (usually) from a huge round of meat on a rotisserie, similar to a Greek gyro. It can be served plain, on a pita, or with flatbread. Speaking of bread, or Naan, it is served with just about everything and is unbelievably delicious. Rather than eat with a knife or a spoon, you can choose the option of scooping everything up with flatbread and multiplying your calorie intake. We all know that I am a bit of a “Carbovore”, so this is my version of heaven. I am also discovering a true love for Indian food—there are a couple of great restaurants that we frequent, one catering to vegetarian cuisine, the other with more meat options. We also have a friend here that has made some wonderful, homemade Indian dishes for us at his home.
For more Indian culture, we were honored with an invitation to the associate dean’s home for a Diwali celebration at the end of October. The holiday is known as the “Festival of Lights” and their beautiful home was illuminated with candles. They had a monstrous spread of delicious food and desserts catered by a local Indian restaurant. The best part, however, was when the dean’s wife opened her closet to all of the female guests and we were able to choose from her collection of over one-hundred saris. She wrapped us each in the extremely long pieces of fabric—the wrapping alone was practically an art form—and even gave us each a red dot to stick on our foreheads!
Thanksgiving in Doha was actually much better than expected, although never the same as spending it at home with family. We celebrated with faculty, staff, and some students—over 200 people!—by having a pot-luck at the university. It was really quite nice; the Ritz Carleton catered the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes and all the guests contributed side dishes and desserts.
Another excursion, albeit completely unrelated, was an afternoon spent at the Doha Zoo. Nick and I had heard that it was a bit “sad”, but didn’t quite know what was meant by this statement, so we went to investigate for ourselves. We quickly discovered that the diminutive size of the animals’ accommodations was the implication, not the variety of animals available for viewing. I must say, despite the depressing amount of space allotted to each animal, they were the most active and entertaining I’ve seen in a zoo. This place would be PETA’s nightmare—people feeding the animals, ill-behaved children and parents tapping loudly on cages and glass, and animals within an arms’ length of human contact. I literally found people feeding ostriches, which I find to be pretty frightening and are known for their aggression, and monkeys were reaching their arms through the bars begging for food. The big cats were pacing just a couple feet away in their cages which, unfortunately, did not appear as sturdy as we would have liked. I truly believe the tigers, panthers, and lions were preying on the extremely annoying children that taunted them incessantly, an attack would probably have been well-deserved (sorry to say). I’m afraid I did join the debacle when I fed the giraffes and attempted to feed the elephant…When in Rome…right?
One of our fairly regular activities is venturing to the souks (i.e. markets). This will possibly be one of the most memorable parts of Doha that I take with me. It is really what I imagined a Middle Eastern marketplace to be—wandering alleys, persistent shop-keepers, beautiful and random wares, and buildings straight out of Aladdin. We love to aimlessly peruse the shops, people watch, listen to the local music, and visit with friends over sheesha, tea, or gelato. Even Nick doesn’t mind shopping here! It is truly a cultural experience and one that we certainly will expand upon later.
Lastly, our entire month of December has been spent traveling. Nick and I spontaneously decided to spend some vacation time we received for the Muslim Eid holiday in Istanbul, Turkey. What a beautiful and unique European city! We loved every minute of our five day stay there and will definitely be sharing our stories soon. In addition, our Christmas holiday was just recently spent in Greece with Nick’s family. We had a fantastic time spending seven days exploring Athens and some surrounding areas. It was festive and cold for Christmas and we truly enjoyed each others’ company as we toured the impressive ancient ruins (or “ru-eens” as Stewie would say) and spent time in tavernas eating delicious Greek food and drinking wine. But this is all for another blog…
Hope everyone had a happy, healthy holiday. Take care and best wishes for 2009!

National Ride-on-the-Roof-of-a-Moving-Car Day

What is Qatar National Day? Most of the expats here aren’t exactly sure. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Qatar’s actual independence day (from the Ottomans? from another tribe? from the st
rictures of polite driving?) is in April, and part stems from the fact that this is only the second year that QND has been celebrated on December 18. Back in 2007, lucky Qatar fanatics got to celebrate on the original day in April as well.

True Qatar fanatics aren’t going to let silly questions like this stop them from celebrating like it’s 1399, so they throw a big party. Have I mentioned that Qatar is the largest supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in the world? Yeah, it’s a BIG party. The government installed monster light shows up and down the 5km of the Corniche, which is the boardwalk that runs along the water downtown. Big projection screens and water displays were set up every 500 meters or so and displayed plenty of Sheikh Emir Khomeini Yassin Rich Guy types praising the glory of Qatar (well, it was in Arabic, so they may have been saying “Death to the infidels” for all I know). Massive speakers played some kind of “Arabian Nights” theme, which actually made a pretty cool soundtrack to run to. It was honestly very impressive.

Several of us gathered later that night for a fireworks display that would supposedly rival the grandest spectacles ever heretofore seen. After sitting there for an hour after the start time without so much of a fizzle, the “Doha time” jokes started to roll. (“Mohammed, you were supposed to bring the matches!” “No, that was the other Mohammed’s job!”) Man, that sentence will probably get me thrown in jail. Anyway, just as we were starting to pack up, the fireworks finally went off.

And man, what a show it was. Four shut up into the air at the same time, and then they kept going steadily for about 40 minutes. There were four barges out in the bay, which I’m pretty sure is more than even DC uses for its celebrations. They did not skimp; it was pretty damn impressive. I’ve posted a couple of photos which frankly don’t do it any justice. But the fireworks definitely weren’t the most enduring images I’ll take away from QND.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Wahabbi Muslims that run this place aren’t particularly fond of liquor. Well, officially at least. Single men and single women aren’t allowed to communicate with each other. There’s just not a whole lot of opportunity for wild partying, so the young ‘uns here have to look for alternative ways to spend their time. So they do the same things that we did back in the days before alcohol when we weren’t cool enough to score a date but we DID have a car...they cruise the strip. All of them. For hours upon endless hours. They honk. They burn the rubber of their tires. They force their $75,000 Land Cruisers to backfire unmercifully while waving plastic AK-47s from their sunroofs (which is better than the real AK-47s they waved five or so years ago…) Frankly, I’m glad this wasn’t the first thing I saw when I got here; it literally looked like an 80s terrorist movie. And they do stuff like this…

These guys were insane. Three Land Cruisers would drive side-by-side at 10kph blocking traffic while guys would hang out the doors, sprawl across the hoods, and even stand on the car roofs. Guys would jump out and wave a massive Qatar flag in the middle of traffic. It was the most incredible chaos I think I’ve ever seen – and it was pretty cool too. They love their country here, and on this day they loved everyone else too. Every single car would mug for anybody they saw with a camera. I actually stopped taking pictures because I was pretty sure I was going to be responsible for someone’s death; it was the Qatari equivalent of “Here, hold my beer and watch me do this!” People covered their cars with Qatar flag stickers, which I’m sure seemed like a good idea at the time. And while it certainly wasn’t the most intelligent way to celebrate (a Land Cruiser dealer need never worry about job security here…), it was definitely a friendly atmosphere and a lot of fun. Even if no one is sure exactly what they’re celebrating…