Posted by: elizthetraveler | April 16, 2010

An Overdue Ma’salaama

I’ve been stateside for three weeks now, and realize I still haven’t wrapped up this blog. My last week in Qatar was a blur of packing, goodbyes…and a party at the US Embassy.

It wasn’t as glamorous as it might sound. In fact, it wasn’t glamorous at all. It was kind of like a backyard barbecue party my parents might have––except without the barbecue, and in vastly larger backyard. My friends and I had to pass through three rounds of security to get in. The guards confiscated our cameras and cell phones.

Once inside the grounds, we quickly realized we were the youngest guests at the party. Still, we decided to make the most of the pizza, potato chips and nearly empty dance floor.

I told the DJ that it was my last night in Doha.

“Play something CRAZY!” I yelled over the music. A few songs later, he dedicated Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to me. Not exactly what I had in mind, but it was true: On my last night, I did just want to have fun.

The next morning, I arrived at the airport around 5:30am. I shook Saif’s hand for the last time, and took my last look at the endless desert.  I left for Istanbul at 7:30, and met my parents and grandmother there that afternoon. Over the next week, we marveled at the tiles of the Blue Mosque, snapped photos of the cavernous Ayasofia, spent obscene amounts of Turkish Liras in the Bazaar and wandered down Itstiklal Street. After a recommendation by the hotel concierge, we even decided to clean up at a Turkish bath––this experience is not for the easily embarrassed. Let’s just say this: there was a lot of soap and unexpected nakedness from several different parties. I did, however, come out feeling quite clean.

Though I was only there a week, Istanbul was a vital part of my time abroad. Since it’s the only city in the world that straddles Asia and Europe, it became the most tangible part of my transition from east to west.

I miss Qatar’s majestic sand dunes, superb hummos and astonishing hospitality. I miss my friends, the idyllic weather and the strange characters who wandered into my life each day.  As I get ready to graduate in June, I’m uncertain about many aspects of my future. I’m sure, however, that I want to go back to the Middle East as a journalist. Inshallah, I’ll be there again someday soon.

Thanks for reading and commenting. Ma’Salaama!

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Posted by: elizthetraveler | March 13, 2010

Off to the (Camel) Races!

You’re probably expecting a predictable post about the camel races. Perhaps you think I’ll write about how fast they ran, how funny the robot jockeys were, and how great it felt to cross the one remaining activity off my Doha to-do list.

But I didn’t see a camel race. A few friends and I got to the race track around 1pm because I was told the festivities began around then. Except for a few camels, the place was essentially deserted.

Luckily, one of the friends I was with speaks Arabic. He asked a man on a camel when the races start. Three o’clock, the man said as he rode away. Then we asked another guy. Four o’clock. Finally, we questioned a Qatari guy in a Land Cruiser. He offered to drive us around the track so we could be neck-in-neck with the camels. Our new friend’s name was Esa, which, according to my Arabic speaking friend, means “Jesus.”

Esa, who spoke about as much English as I speak Arabic (read: essentially none) drove us around the track and called one of his friends to check out the racing schedule. “La Al Yom, Bukra,” he told us. No race today, but tomorrow.

Today was my last chance to see the races, as I have work tomorrow, and have had work all of the other times friends have gone to see the races. I was pretty disappointed, and was ready to go home until another friend asked if we could please go through the desert to find camel bones.

At this point, you may be confused. Perhaps you’re re-reading the last sentence. Let me explain.  My friend is a teacher, and has wanted camel bones for her classroom since she arrived in Doha. She thinks the bones will help her students understand anatomy.  It took about five minutes for us to figure out the Arabic word for ‘bone.’ After that, Esa was on a mission.

He took us through the rocky backyard of the racetrack, scouring the barren landscape for any sign of a carcass or bone. We saw wild camels, a group of men who seemed to be Bedouins ( they let us ride their camels), a lizard and a fox. And finally, we struck gold: huge camel bones. And even a camel skull.

Our friend Esa cleverly making the symbol for poison.

Look at those teeth. Are you grossed out yet?

He was inches away from eating my camera. I got away just in time.

Today was strange even by Doha’s standards. I only have five days left in this country…I’ll certainly miss the unpredictability when I’m gone.

Posted by: elizthetraveler | March 6, 2010

Off the Road Again

I woke up today with a very sore arm. No, I haven’t started a new weight-training regimen, and no, I haven’t joined a Qatari baseball team (that would be pretty entertaining, however). I went dune-bashing again yesterday despite my vow to never, ever do it again. I gripped the armrest of the car with all of my strength, as though it would somehow save me if we skidded off the side of a dune and toppled into the sand.

A few friends and I decided to check out the Inland Sea, a part of the Gulf entirely surrounded by sand dunes, and within sight of the Saudi Arabian border. It’s supposed to be Qatar’s most beautiful natural sight. Since you have to drive off-road to get there, we booked a trip with a guide company. Otherwise, we would’ve been very, very lost.

Before booking, I told our guide, Naseeb, that we did not want to go dune-bashing. For me, one dune-bashing experience was quite enough. “No problem, no problem,” he said.

The morning began ominously; we left in the middle of one of Doha’ infamous dust-storms. The country was covered in what appeared to be an inscrutable fog; really, it’s sand and dust from the dunes. We arrived in the desert at about 11am, squinting and blocking our faces from the sharp, sandy wind. Since my friends wanted to go dune bashing, I thought they’d be able to go for a few minutes, and then pick me up so we could all drive to the Inland Sea together. Turns out you have to drive through the dunes to get to the Inland Sea. Figures.

For the second time, I found myself gripping the side of an SUV while our driver whipped and careened through the dunes. How far did we have to go? I asked him. About forty-five minutes, he responded.

We sped through the sand at highway speeds, spun and slid down steep drops, and even caught some air as we zig-zagged through moguls. It. Was. Terrifying. You will never know true fear until you feel your car become almost completely vertical, or until you are genuinely confused as to why it isn’t flipping over. In many ways, dune-bashing defies physics. When it starts to follow the laws of science—that’s when you should really be scared.

Anyway, we made it to the Inland Sea. Despite the dust and wind, it was breathtaking. We waved hello to Saudi Arabia, and waded out in the cool, clear water. For me, the temperature felt perfect. My friends complained that it was “freezing.” After you swim in Lake Michigan, most other bodies of water feel pretty warm.

Posted by: elizthetraveler | March 2, 2010

A New City

Egypt is a land of contradictions. Once the cradle of civilization, it’s now classified as a “developing” country. Magnificent, ancient mosques are surrounded by moats of garbage, decrepit streets, and buildings so dilapidated they mirror the images that came from Haiti. Egyptians can trace their ancestry back more than 7,000 years; they are the descendants of the brilliant pyramid engineers, the innovators of papyrus, hieroglyphics and the 365-day calendar. Yet many barely scrape by in Cairo; money—and cleanliness—are as scarce as the seat belts in taxis. But though a majority are poor, most Egyptians speak several languages: the economic foundation of the city is tourism. To survive in the industry, they must communicate with the millions of foreigners that flood the country each year.

Yet Egypt’s cultural opulence is as apparent as its extreme poverty. In that sense, I have never seen a richer country, or one with a more authentic character. Cairo is a blunt, confrontational city. It does not apologize for its faults, but implores you, the visitor, to find them charming: the local radio station, for example, calls the traffic “cozy and considerate.” The streets are filthy and wildly congested. Horse-drawn carriages rush by carrying produce as women navigate the bustling crowd with baskets of food on their heads. Toddlers crawl through the dirt as motorcycles narrowly dodge pedestrians. On the first day, I received a marriage proposal. On the second, two Egyptians gave me their phone numbers so I could stay with their families the next time I came to Egypt. A few others offered to teach me Arabic.

It’s hard not to love a place that is so adored by its inhabitants. Egyptians have been enamored with their land, their river and their pyramids for thousands of years.

Coming from Doha, where glossy, generic malls trump offbeat sidewalk cafes and falafel stands, it was refreshing to be in a cultural downpour, to walk down the street and be drenched in sights, smells, sounds and emotions. (Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved my time in Qatar, but it would be nice to walk down the streets of Doha once in a while).

Still, sometimes the “authenticity” of the place felt forced. Because tourism is the lifeblood of the nation, most places have the “genuine Egyptian experience” down to a science. When I rode on a camel through the pyramids, my camel guide told me he would do something special “just for me.” He tied his Bedouin scarf around my head (less than sanitary), and offered to take my photo. I saw several other tourists doing the same thing.

And when I posted my pictures to Facebook, particularly one where I had my hand positioned over the pyramid so it looked like I was touching the top, a friend commented that she had the exact same picture taken when she was 12.

Traveling to places like Egypt, spots that are so tritely historic, so intimately tied into the culture of the world, is a challenge. It’s difficult to experience iconic places in a new way, nearly impossible to form one’s own opinions on such revered global landmarks. For example, is anyone not inspired by the Taj Mahal? Is there a traveler out there who hated Paris, or felt apathetic about the Parthenon?

Yes, like every other tourist, I saw the pyramids. I even climbed through a tiny, cramped corridor to the center of one. I rode a camel, and afterwards, it spit on my shirt and sunglasses. I had gunky green camel saliva on me for the rest of the day.

I went to the famous old mosques, removed my shoes, snapped pictures of the intricate door carvings and colorful light fixtures. A guide named Mohammad climbed with me to the top of the minaret of one; he had to lead me through the highest point where it was pitch black, and I couldn’t see the uneven steps leading to the top. When I finally saw the light of the city, my legs were sore. I looked out over what was once Fatimid (Iranian) Cairo, marveling at the alternating layers of beauty and decay.

I stumbled through Khan El-Khalili, the souq that all others have attempted to recreate. Raw meat hung in one stall, scarves in another. The spicy air was infused with cigarette smoke and frying chickpeas. Myriad languages and currencies zigzagged through the narrow paths.  And every other step meant another jarring business proposal from a merchant. The best one? “You are beautiful. How can I take your money?”

I sipped tea in Fishawy, the oldest restaurant in Cairo (1750, I believe). While I was there, I learned how to say, “I don’t want it,” in Arabic (Mishaiza). This proved to be useful; about 20 peddlers approached me in 10 minutes.

There’s a fine line between traveler and tourist; an imperceptible boundary between seeker of culture, and seeker of comfort. I think the separation lies in the sense of discovery, the wide-eyed, breathless excitement that comes from seeing something new. Or from seeing something old in a new way.

The Nile at sunset on a felucca ride.

View from the top of a minaret.

Posted by: elizthetraveler | March 1, 2010

Habebty, Cairo!

It’s nighttime, and we’re driving through the streets of Cairo. I see the obscure, glittering water of the Nile–and a street so jammed with traffic it makes Doha’s streets at rush hour  look like abandoned country roads. We’re listening to Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus and Glee music. It’s as if I’ve been dropped into a 12-year-old American girl’s sleepover party—only I’m in a small speeding car with three Egyptian college students. All males.

I knew one from Northwestern, a guy who hasn’t been back to Egypt for five years. When his friends picked us up from the airport, I told them the name of my hotel. They stared at me blankly–an excellent sign. It turned out almost no one knew the exact location of the President Hotel. Policemen, taxi drivers, random residents all shrugged their shoulders. We drove from 6pm until  9pm before we finally found it. Looking back, I spent much of my time in Cairo in a car. Most of the time, we didn’t listen to bad American pop; rather, I tuned in to the constant blaring of horns,  or Nile FM.

I only spent two days in Cairo, but learned more Arabic than I’ve picked up after two months in Doha. I rode a camel around the pyramids, took a felucca along the nile, got a marriage proposal, and several phone numbers of places to stay next time I come. Inshallah.

I ate Egyptian Koshari (noodles, lentils, rice, garbanzo beans and red sauce mixed together), pizza (my ironic first meal) and a delicious soda called Fayrouz.  Inhaled the perfume of street falafels, shisha and exhaust fumes.

This morning, on my way to the airport, I thought my cab driver, Abdul, was going to kill me. At 6am, it takes a lot to jar me from a sleepy stupor. This ride just about did it.

Abdul’s car looked hours away from collapsing, and he drove as though he couldn’t see any other cars on the road. He was, however, quite joyous that he had “King Elizabeth” in his car. We talked about “good Obama,” “bad Bush,” and the tenuous state of Israeli-Egyptian affairs. In very broken English, of course. Oh, and he emphatically told me, “Elizabeth, Habebty!”  several times. Loosely translated: Elizabeth, my love.

I’ll write more tomorrow, as I’m pretty tired tonight.

Ma’salaama!

Posted by: elizthetraveler | February 25, 2010

Renewable Sources of Awkwardness

Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, laughs a lot.  I noticed today while covering his talk that he cracks up– quite often–at his own jokes. That’s okay, Steven. I do it, too.

Maybe Chu’s comedic nature stood out to me more because of his very serious list of credentials: co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, former director of the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California.

Surprisingly, I was able to understand much of his talk today. When I heard he was coming, I read up on recent news in local and global energy issues. I even formed some questions for Chu. Too bad he answered most of them in his speech.

His main message? We’re in a new “industrial revolution,” but this time the industry is renewable, clean energy. Not coal. Oh, and we need to start lowering CO2 emissions immediately if we want our grandkids to see New Orleans. That’s right—if we don’t drastically change energy consumption in the next few years, the Greenland ice cap will continue to melt at an accelerated pace. Once it melts, the global sea level will rise by several feet, and many US cities, including New Orleans, will be submerged.

After Chu’s speech, I attended a media roundtable where he attempted to answer a slew of accented questions. There were only about 10 members of the press there—so it felt like a privilege of sorts. Some members of the press asked their questions in Arabic, others in broken English. I asked him about his meeting earlier that day with the director of the Qatar Science and Technology Park.

He spoke a lot about “diversifying wealth” ( not just relying on oil money to survive) and building strong intellectual capital.

I left the roundtable feeling pretty good about myself as a journalist. I sometimes attend these events and feel like an impostor, like someone will discover that I’m still just a student—not a real member of  the media yet.

As soon as I walked out of the room, I realized that I had no idea where I was in the Carnegie Mellon building. I followed Chu’s entourage, assuming they were headed out. They all filed into another hall. One of Chu’s men stopped me.

“Can I…help you?” he asked.

“Uhhh,” I stammered, “How do I get…out of here?”

“That way,” he pointed in the opposite direction.

As I pivoted, my shoe slipped and I tripped. Quite awkwardly. A member of the entourage even asked if I was okay. I couldn’t dignify it with a response.

I wonder if Chu was watching. Maybe he got a laugh out of it.

Posted by: elizthetraveler | February 20, 2010

Let’s Go Wildcats

As promised, some desert pictures:

I would post more but…you probably get the point after these three. Lots of sand, and a sliver of the Gulf in the second picture.

Tonight I went to the Northwestern girls basketball game. It was just like an Evanston game except the girls were wearing shaylas (head coverings) and hijab. Oh, and there was a constant bongo drum beat booming from each side of the crowd. One member of the Wildcat fans, a guy who looked like the dad of one of the players, and a young woman from Virginia Commonwealth University, tried to intimidate the other team with dramatic percussion. It felt almost tribal at times, and provided a comedic soundtrack to the novice basketball playing.

And, before I go, two very intelligent things I did today:

1. Transcribed the entire hour of Hillary Clinton’s speech in Doha last Monday, only to be told by a friend that the text was on the state department’s website (duh).

2. Two days ago, I left an entire carton of milk out for the entire day. Forgot to put it away in the morning, came back from work–disgusting. Today, went to the store for the sole purpose of buying milk and water. Came back from the store, and was very tired. Went to lay down on the couch, forgetting (?) about the milk and water. I left soon after that for the basketball game. When I came back, I realized I had again left the milk out. I am almost afraid to buy more milk. Can I be trusted, or will another carton die in my hands?

That’s all for now. Cairo countdown: 5 days.

Posted by: elizthetraveler | February 16, 2010

Break from the Grindstone

It’s been a while. I technically shouldn’t be posting––to much work to do––but I thought I’d give a quick update.

This past weekend, I finally saw the real desert: the sand dunes of Arabia, the vast mountains of dust where it becomes easy to imagine the biblical world.

A few friends and I took a picnic to the top of a dune and even dune-bashed with some locals. It was not safe in the slightest and I was absolutely terrified the entire time. I will always remember it. Of course, I took lots of pictures: I’ll post them this weekend.

The biggest events since then: Saw a very censored version of Valentine’s Day. Heard the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Had an Iranian guy ask me to take a picture with him because I “looked like his sister.” Um, no.

Oh and…I sat in the front row of Hilary Clinton’s Education City forum in Doha. It was quite exciting, especially because I was able to shake her hand after the event. I’m writing an article on it, so I’ll cover it in greater detail when that’s finished.

That’s all for now. Back to work.

Posted by: elizthetraveler | February 11, 2010

Cleanliness

This will be brief. If you’d like to know a consequence of the state of mind I’ve been in over the past few weeks––one of frantic exhaustion––take note: I have been using dishwasher detergent for laundry, and laundry detergent to wash my dishes.

How does this happen? you might ask. How does one make such an idiotic error?

At home, my dishwashing detergent comes in a paper box. The laundry detergent comes in a plastic bottle. Here, the packaging is reversed. For the past five weeks, I’ve been under the impression that my dishwasher is broken, broken, when it is really my brain that has malfunctioning equipment.

But soap is soap, right? Right??

Anyway, I’m off to the Sheraton to try and spot some celebrity dignitaries (they’re in town this weekend for the Brookings Center’s US-Islamic World Forum). I’ll let you all know if I spot John Kerry…

Posted by: elizthetraveler | February 8, 2010

Routine

When I first landed in Doha, every person, grain of sand, sky scraper and trash can left me in awe. I can’t believe I’m in Qatar, became my daily mantra. This. Is. So. Awesome.

With my camera attached to my hand and a small black tape recorder readied to capture a couple speaking Arabic, or my first call to prayer, my world felt sensationally stimulating.

Don’t get me wrong–it still is. But I’m finding that as I get more comfortable in this desert, my daily ‘amazement’ index is on the decline.

I’ve found myself talking to friends back home, remarking that “not much is happening here.” This is a lie. A lot is happening. Everyday. But I’m not noticing it as much as I used to.

Take my new driver, Saif. One of the women in my office recommended his services––as a result, I’ve bid adieu to Fox and Karwa in the mornings. Every morning (and most evenings) Saif and I have broken English conversations about the world. He tells me about India (he’s from Kerala) and I tell him about America. Today, he showed me a picture of his two-year-old son. He speaks six different languages.

Saif is just part of my routine.

So is the Arabic food. Last night, I went to Turkey Central with some friends. It’s a restaurant on one of the only streets in Doha that resembles a real city (meaning you can walk down it)–Merqab Street. Turkey Central is the ultimate seedy storefront––greasy food, greasy staff.

More delicious pita, more chicken schwaerma, more of the same.

The call to prayer, once a sound that made my pulse quicken, is now a regular part of my day. The myriad mosques, the regal abayas and the thick perfume of fruity shisha in the souq––it’s all expected.

But this, I think, is one of the greatest human faults. We are each living lives rich with uniquely eccentric details. In Maine or Mauritania, Quebec or Qatar, life is rife with characters, sounds, smells and stories. But over time, colors become muted, daily spices taste bland—if you let them.

My challenge, and my goal here, is to constantly observe, to keep a firm grip on the elusive, honeymoon-like awe of my first few weeks. As a journalist, it’s my duty to look more carefully at daily activities and see what’s interesting in the ordinary. Really, though, there isn’t much here that’s “ordinary.” It’s just a matter of keeping up the mantra: I can’t believe I’m in Qatar.

It’s still very true.

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