Archives

Under African Skies: A photo tribute to Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Paul Simon brought me to Africa. Since I was a wee one, pre-wanderlust, I have enjoyed putting on Paul Simon’s Graceland, kicking off my shoes, and dreaming of Africa. This album conjured all the ideas I ever had of Africa: Grassy plains, shirtless drummers, and super-sized beasts laying in the shade of a single Baobab tree. If this is what Paul Simon was going for when he made this album, he was spot on. Every fantasy I had in my pre-East Africa plans came true on my most recent trip. And because there are no words to describe the feeling of staring into the face of a creature that is larger, older, and wiser than yourself, in a land where you are a minority and the lion is still king, I am going to let my photos from Mikumi National Park speak for themselves. So put on “Under African Skies” and enjoy!

Hopefully by next week I will have my head around this trip and be able to share a bit more. Until then, if you have any logistic questions: Visas, getting into the park, what to bring?, etc… send me an email: emily.ruzzamenti@gmail.com and I will do my best to answer.

Beirut: The Un-Broken Mosaic.

The buildings in Beirut still wear bullet holes from an era we would all wish to soon forget. Their façade an ugly reminder of public violence that neither the Lebanese government nor the media could hide. If bombed out buildings and war stories from baby-faced teens are not reminder enough of Lebanon’s torn past, the echoes of hammers and bulldozers in a frenzied re-building effort paint a clear picture of Beirut’s effort to move on. So I visited. I travelled to Beirut on the dawn of growth and change. Luckily for me, some of Lebanon’s best traditions have remained exactly the same, and were waiting there for me to admire and taste.

Beirut’s history is a tangled one, as they have tried for decades to blend a mosaic of religions, cultures, languages, money, policy, food, and people, and been un-successful on most fronts. Today, the Lebanon that I see is one that is once again, reinventing itself and it is the youth that seem to be at the forefront of the project. I had the pleasure of meeting with some old friends from my days living in the UAE’s Al Garbia region. I bought them a beer, and got right down to asking personal, sometimes inappropriate, and nagging questions…my specialty🙂

Diya was a teenager during the height of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, and remembers this time well. Although his expression of the seriousness of the situation in and around Lebanon came across clearly, Diya likened his personal experience to being in a video game. Waking next to your weapons, leaving the house or shelter cautiously, and well aware that at the end of each street there were tanks, bombs, weapons more powerful than yours, and people, out of their mind with the only necessity they had: survival. Moving from place to place was even more dangerous for Diya and other Lebanese due to the presence of f-16 fighters flying above Lebanon. According to Diya “These f-16 fighters of the Israeli Defense Forces dropped a great number of leaflets from the sky on an almost daily basis, threatening to shoot at any moving light after 8 pm. This made it harder to move from one place to another with no electricity, scared to even use a torch.” I asked Diya if he sees this time reflected in the youth of today’s Beirut. From speaking with him, and seeing countless teens, exercising their right to be flamboyant, and throwing convention out the windows of their speeding cars, I understand Beirut as a city inhabited by angsty youth that lived through a war. “Why should we follow traffic laws after living through war?” Diya noted. And really, the chaos, and the youth, and the remembrance of the fragility of life are a great part of what makes Beirut in particular inimitable.

The uniqueness of architecture in Beirut, with bombed and dilapidated buildings, blends in a devastatingly beautiful way with the ruins of Baalbeck. Outside the city, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley stands what is in my opinion a far more impressive collection of Roman ruins than those inside Rome herself. The Baalbeck ruins were built over 7,000 years ago by the Romans to worship the God of the sun. It immediately reminds visitors to Lebanon that there is a lot going on here, and there has been for thousands of years. Lebanon has been occupied by the Romans, the French, Syrians, and today Palestinian refugees. If that weren’t enough of a mosaic, the Lebanese also have one of the most diverse governments of any nation; with a Sunni Prime Minister, a Shite Speaker of Parliament, and a Maronite Catholic President, required at all times. Unfortunately as we have seen, it is this remarkable mosaic that has made itself vulnerable to breaking.

All the turmoil, begs the question “What are we fighting for?” I mean, why is it that everyone is fighting over this country? WELL, despite being able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea in the morning and ski at Faraya Mzaar in the afternoon, young, vibrant locals, and a truly unique mix of glamor and Bedouin traditions, there is the food…no let me be more specific the MEAT! If I didn’t get gout on this trip it was only because I was too afraid to sneak beer into the Hezbollah. Down dodgy alleys you find svieha: dough pockets filled with minced, fatty lamb and spices reminding us of the foreign lands that have at one time or another had influence over Lebanon’s cuisine. Diya and his girlfriend Natalie took me to one of the thousands of shwarma stands that litter Beirut. I like food you don’t even need to bother being polite with, and Lebanon tends to have the “dig in!” mentality down.

It was one of those quick trips, where I try to JUST get a taste of a city, eat some good food, drink some local brew, and have a holiday. But I couldn’t even try to do that in Beirut. There is too much political history in here, too many unique groups of people, too many religions, languages, influences, and freaking amazing food to NOT become completely enamored of this place. And I did get swept away in a city and a country that I had been afraid to visit. Go see for yourself, and don’t forget to write and tell me about it!

In Search of the Allusive Snowy Owl

I take after my parents more than I used to like to admit. Now that I have discovered it is cool to have interesting hobbies, I tag along with them on every adventure I can, even if it means spending 3 hours in the freezing rain trying to find a single owl somewhere in a vast field, dodging hunting bullets. But more on that later.

My mom’s interesting hobby is bird watching. She can identify over thirty species of bird by their call alone, and twice as many from a quick glance as they swoop by. She recognizes flying patterns and says things like “Look at that group of Dunlins flocking together like a giant organism…beautiful!” Truth be told, it was beautiful. I have had quite a few beautiful nature moments with my family, most of them cold, damp, and involving dangerous animals, and this past January’s search for the snowy owl was no different.

The snowy owl hails from the Arctic, making its white, feathered coat appropriate in its native homeland. When visiting BC however, the snowy owl really should consider packing a change of clothes as it loses all camouflage abilities in the green earth tones of this region of Canada. Spending part of the year in BC, the snowy owl also migrates to the Northern United States, Europe, and Asia, making it a jet-setter to inspire all you travelers.

Crossing into Canada from Washington State now requires a passport, a fondness for maple syrup, and an outdoor adventurous streak. Following highway 99 take the Highway 17 South exit, Exit 28. Keep left and turn onto 56th, then 12th. Turn into Boundary Bay Regional park, if you have gone from Gunn Rd. to Jordan you have gone too far. Park next to the golf course and walk out along the water on your right. We took the path less travelled to the left and went along the stormy bay to a cacophony of birds singing their love song overhead. And truly, it was magical. Groups of Dunlins soaring together in a wave like formation rolling over to expose their black wings, and then disappearing as their grey bellies met with a cloudy sky. We saw countless, majestic eagles in various stages of life, scruffy teenagers and mature, white headed eagles seated in massive nests. But no owls. It is possible they were scared off due to the duck hunters blasting bullets into the sky a mere 100 yards from our peaceful stroll. Good thing I hadn’t worn my camouflage and instead waved my lime green wellies in a frantic “I come in peace” motion so as not to be mistaken for a Sunday afternoon meal.

After two hours, with no owl sightings and rain creeping inside my layers, we decided to head back to the car. I wanted so badly to see this special bird, here with my mom, on my last day before heading back to the Middle East. And then, as miracles often do, one appeared. Seated next to our car! And then another, and another, and soon we were surrounded by a field of white tuffs of beady eyed snowy owls. And it really did feel special, in an Audubon nerd sort of way.

My holiday trip home was filled with so many memorable moments like finding the snowy owl on a wet afternoon. And while I will continue to explore this earth throughout my life, I love going home to wildlife, big sky, and my bird watching folks.

Check out Ryan’s blog www.thegreenbeeeater.blogspot.com for some great travel birding banter and photography!

Puddle Jumping in Portland

“ And the rain, rain, rain, came down, down, down, and washed right over piglet.”

The capital of pork and PBR, and home to an alphabetical listing of odd from Arsenic flavored ice cream to Zealots in Zebra galoshes, Portland was the logical escape route from my life in the Middle East. I even welcomed the rain. And boy did it rain. Forest Gump wouldn’t have even been able to classify the rain last month in Portland. Truth be told, this was sort of an agenda driven holiday for me. My mom and I had to get down to the very serious business of wedding dress shopping, and what better place than a city who welcomes weird behavior?

For some old world charm we stayed in the place that makes “dated” look good, the Benson on Southwest Broadway. This is the sort of place you go if you are spending the holidays with your miniature poodle and a hot toddy. The tree was still up when we arrived two days after Christmas and the fireplace was surrounded by guests and their pets, drying their wellies and wet paws. In short: this is the kind of place I love because I am a “make-believe-aholic.” As in, I like to pretend that I am Kay Thompson’s character Eloise who lives in the New York Plaza hotel with her dog Weenie, although if I lived in a hotel, I would have a pig named Solomon.

Speaking of pig…I have been seriously pork deprived the last four months so it’s safe to say that I over-indulged during my holiday. My Mom and I started out at Deschutes brewery and restaurant, and by the time we were finished wining and swine-ing it was still raining. We waddled through Portland puddles back to our cozy hotel.

Now if you have traveled with me you know that I’m not big on tourist traps, but when it comes to most things edible I don’t mind being called a lousy tourist. Portland has found a way to keep touring cool by adopting the old adage “the quickest way to a [tourist’s] heart is through their stomach.” I give you: Voodoo doughnut! Let’s just get this over with. YES, I waited in line for nearly half an hour for a doughnut, and YES it was the infamous bacon maple bar, and YES I enjoyed every last maple drenched, meaty bite. Not the best thing before trying on wedding dresses, but nothing could have spoiled my day after bringing my mom to this doughnut institution.

For wedding dresses we hit up two fantastic boutiques with a Peruvian themed lunch at Andina in between. The English Department screams Portland artisan with local designer and owner Elizabeth Dye, who was on her hands and knees scrubbing the toilet when we walked in (talk about a working woman!) Their dresses are at once classic and bohemian and I think I fell in love at least three times in the changing room. Next up was Divine Design in the Pearl District. With slightly more mainstream dresses, this boutique boasts some of the most beautiful fabrics and lace I have seen anywhere, not to mention they opened up just so my Mom and I could browse. So, did I find THE ONE? Yes. Am I going to tell you about it? No. You will just have to wait until August like everyone else. But I will tell you, it in no way smells of bacon or pbr like the rest of this blog and it is the prettiest thing I have ever imagined walking down an aisle.

When I say that this trip was agenda driven, wedding dress hunting was not the only thing on my list. Two of my very best friends from our Korea year happened to be in town and I knew that if I wanted a little holiday mischief, an evening with them was a safe bet. My mom took us to the joint named among OregonLive’s “Best New Restaurants of 2011” Luc Lac. This Vietnamese house of Pho serves up steaming Asiana, and an impressive bar manned by well-known tender and co-owner Adam Ho. After politely slurping my soup Asian style, mom went to bed, and the Korea reunion tour went out. We had hit up some of Portland’s finest dives before someone…ok it was probably me, got the bright idea to go to Mary’s. I’m going to let you readers go ahead and google that one, not that I am ashamed or anything😉

I awoke the next morning to more rain, and a wad of one dollar bills in my pocket? and decided it was probably time to get on home to the Middle East but not before experiencing one more Portland foodie-icon: Portland Food Carts. There are over 200 food carts in Portland, constantly opening, moving, and serving up some fantastically authentic, ethnic grub from all over this earth. Just the sort of thing teachtravelplay eats up, literally.

I would like to thank all the fine folks and weirdos for making this Portland trip a success. I Look forward to returning this Summer for some dress tailoring and maybe some more maple and bacon goodness.

7s Heaven: The HSBC Dubai Rugby 7s

My relationship with my fiancé closely mirrors my relationship with rugby. I began dating Matt seven years ago when I moved in next door to the infamous “rugby house” located strategically between campus, and the bars. If ever a real life “Animal House” were to be, this would have been it. I spent afternoons wrapped up in the antics of the rugby team, weekends supporting our boys in tournaments, and nearly every day with Matt. I quickly came to know this sport as less of a game and more of a culture. A culture that is sometimes difficult to date. Throughout the past seven years I have had my struggles with rugby. I’ve bailed people out of jail in rugby related incidents, nursed concussions, and been thrown out of establishments through mere proximity to this raucous ruck. And I love every single memory. The WWU Warthogs single-handedly made my University years a messy success. This past weekend I attended the Dubai 7s tournament, and similarly to the Hong Kong 7s in 2010, beer was drunk, fun was had, and I again proclaimed (from the top of a table in Irish Village no less) “I love this sport!”

In its 41st year (yes the Dubai 7s are older than the UAE herself) this tournament has seen the same type of growth the UAE boasts. The games moved from the Dubai Exiles ground in 2008 with New Zealand taking first in front of a crowd of 50,000 boisterous fans. That’s the great thing about 7s, it’s anybody’s game. This year my bet was on Fiji after winning their first title in two years at the Gold Coast 7s in Australia, although, if you had asked me over the weekend I would have said Australia because of their handsome, and highly criticized, chartreuse jerseys.

Attire is a vital part of any international 7s tournament. During the Hong Kong 7s in 2010 a friend wound up in jail for taking the field in a polar bear costume, and when he arrived at the slammer he was greeted by a zoo of other costumed fans for what he recalls as “an even better party!” Matt prioritized his ensemble for months prior to this year’s tournament, hiring a Pakistani tailor down the street to make him a custom Elvis suit which he then begged me for weeks to bedazzle.

Dubai can certainly lay claim to some of the world’s most colorful expats, a parade of flamboyance only trumped by the Friday night half-time show in which sky-divers parachuted out of a circling airplane onto the field while camels trotted around the pitch. With all the pomp and rugby spirit in the air I could have been anywhere, Vegas, mardi gras, or a pirate ship on its way to a frat island, but one thing is for certain, wherever you are for your rugby 7s experience, it will be the time of your life!

In the end it came down to England and France, notoriously my two LEAST favorite teams regardless of the sport. I still hold a grudge against the French National Football team for their dirty play against Italy in the 2006 FIFA world cup (slightly hypocritical I know), and I’ll just be frank in saying English sport fans in general are some of my least favorite type. Needless to say England took all in the final game sending fans into immediate and united versions of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Despite a sad ending I still managed to flirt shamelessly with Eagle’s player Nick Edwards (while Matt took photos), score some free beer in an apple dunking contest, eat nothing but crispy bacon all weekend, and watch my favorite sport with my favorite rugger/Elvis impersonator. Hope to see you at the next HSBC 7s!

Want to experience the Dubai 7s?

Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online here, or the day of from the ticketing booth. Hotel: Al Jawhara, near Irish Village. Transportation: There is a FREE shuttle leaving from the stadium parking lot to downtown Dubai as well as taxis waiting at the gate. Parking is also free but not recommended if traffic makes you batty or have been drinking. After Party: Irish Village for a pint and all night dance party.

Lordy, Looks Who’s 40! : The UAE Turns 40

I haven’t been home in the USA for three 4th of Julys. The last time I waved a red, white, and blue flag in a patriotic parade, I still thought it appropriate to prance around in a bikini and cow-girl boots. The amount of energy exerted on building parade floats, making red, white, and blue cheesecake and collecting an arsenal of fireworks was immense, and I can safely say, my July’s have been a little less chaotic the last three years. I have so much more free time in fact, that I have been able to devote spare hours to celebrating all the other cultures I have come in contact with since 2009. Matt and I have cheered on the Korean Soccer Team in the World Cup, embraced the tradition of cock fighting in the Philippines, sported our red and blue on Bastille Day in Paris, and celebrated Palm Sunday with the overwhelming Catholic population in Costa Rica. So which country trumps all in the nationalism department? No surprise, it’s the baby of the bunch, The United Arab Emirates, turning 40 years-old this week!

My Neighbor's Car.

Led by former president Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, The UAE united its seven Emirates December 2nd, 1971 and have been catapulted into a race toward modernism ever since. The goal of maintaining a strong cultural heritage is a top priority for the Emirates, a priority that rears its red, white, and green head around every corner.

Among all the zealous displays of patriotism, and overcompensation for being such a new-comer to the scene, the UAE’s national day falls at the perfect time of year for a home-sick American. You see, with all of the “National Day Lights” which sort of look EXACTLY like Christmas lights, and the colors of the flag proudly on display:  green, red, black, and white, I could swear that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. J I am always happy to celebrate with locals, regardless of how over-the-top or strange I think their customs may be. I can only imagine trying to explain why we Americans decorate our boats, go out into the bay and light off fireworks on the 4th, but I love it!

Off to watch my man play in the Dubai Rugby 7s!!! Have a patriotic weekend wherever you may be.

A Holiday in Muscat, Oman

The UAE landscape shows us a stark contrast between the way the Arabian Desert was, for over 5,000 years, and the futuristic horizon of a nation that has seen some of the most rapid growth in history. What the UAE is lacking however, is an architectural history. I hadn’t noticed the significance of this gap until I visited Oman over the Eid holiday and was faced with architecture that tells the story of Oman, its sea-trade heritage, and an Empire not so long forgotten.

In our used, yellow “hummer” (we call it a hummer because it makes a “hummm” when it idles) we teamed up with some friends from the West toward the Omani border on a Saturday morning. On a side note, I have seen some dodgy borders, but the Hili Al Ain border takes the cake in the chaos department. We entered Oman, were told to turn left, exited Oman, re-entered the UAE, and stood puzzled in the same line again, only to wait another hour before we made it to customs??? In true Middle Eastern fashion, customs consisted of a queue where anyone could weasel in, shout a few things in Arabic and be on their way. Because Americans have a pre-disposition to saying “please,” “thank you,” and waiting in line for a turn, this perplexed us beyond belief. For the most painless border experience, try crossing from Al Ain at the Khatam Al Shukla  border post, park just through the first entrance to get your exit visa: 20 dirham, and then continue to Omani customs. Because we have UAE residency we pay only OR5 opposed to the 200 Dirham charge for non residents. If you are in need of a further breakdown on how to cross this border and others in the Arabian Peninsula, check out Wahyu In Qatar.

The scenery changed almost immediately as we drove into Oman through the Western Hajar Mountains. Craggy rocks towered over each side of our mini, magic school bus. It is a four hour trip from the Al Ain border to Muscat, with a few Al-Maha stations and snack stops along the way, and plenty of fantastic photo opts of farmers transporting camels from farm to market. With un-seasonable rains this month we had the exciting experience of driving through a desert flood, but given that we don’t ACTUALLY have a hummer, slow and steady we made our way. It is a surprise we didn’t endure the mandatory fine for driving a dirty car after it was painted in mud.

There are quite a few hotel and resort options in Muscat and with prices steeper than those in the UAE try browsing www.booking.com before settling on a room. We checked into the retro/flamboyant digs offered at Qurum Beach House with close proximity to the beach, restaurants, and plenty of night cap options including the Rock Bottom Café, which was host to a co-ed biker gang I never expected to see in the Middle East.

Muscat is filled with diverse scenes. You can see men in their traditional Kumma caps taking their goats for a stroll down a busy sidewalk, and antique khanjar knives sold next to Iranian love poems in the covered Mutrah Souq. Muscat encompasses a Middle East not yet overrun with modern buildings, tourists, and hummers (except ours). We spent our last day swimming in the cool blue waters of the Arabian Sea, admiring rows of mansions built into the cliffs that surround Qurum Beach. I felt a little guilty for neglecting the significant architecture alive in the Persian Gulf. This part of the world may not have cathedrals that monopolize entire city blocks, nor is the history of this region as “in your face” as it is throughout parts of the West, but it’s all still here. Oman’s history is literally built into the rocks, making it a fascinating place to explore, talk to friendly locals, shop for souvenirs with a story, and imagine the bustling port cities of the Dilmun Empire.

We’ll Always Have Paris.


I had been warned prior to my gap year in Europe by the University doctor who, let’s face it, must have seen hundreds of students returning from exchange programs showing symptoms of strange rashes and itchy privates. She explained quite frankly that “travel is very romantic, you might find yourself on a train, winding its way through snowcapped mountains and meet a dashing man. All of a sudden, a twenty-five year age difference doesn’t seem so bad.” She paid special attention to the temptations associated with being a young backpacker in Paris. As I set out to see the romantic city, with its rumored tree lined walkways and accordion playing bums, I swore to myself “I will not fall in love in Paris.”

Six years after my first trip to Paris I have returned, and couldn’t help but remember how badly I failed at my attempt to “NOT fall in love” in the notoriously romantic city. Thinking back, I don’t even think I lasted 24 hours before my little backpacking heart was swept away the moment I laid eyes on my bunk buddy in the “Peace and Love” youth hostel…yes, really the name of a hostel, and yes, the very reason I stayed there. Until very recently I have looked back on my love affair in Paris, and only ever remembered my Australian amore. Not what I ate, drank, smoked, paintings I saw, cathedrals I visited. On this recent trip however, I realized that not only did I fall in love in Paris when I was 19, I fell in love with Paris, and with travel six years ago. I fell in love with the way my backpack straps weighed on my shoulders as I walked to the train station and the impression my feet made in my worn Birkenstocks. A new stamp in my passport did, as it does today, make my heart flutter, and learning to order a glass of wine in French made me feel like an independent woman. I am a bit more seasoned a traveler now, but last month’s trip back to the city where it all began sent sparks flying in this backpacker’s heart.

I had just over 24hrs in Paris this time around, a time frame where you have to make a decision: “Will I make a mad dash to every landmark and tourist hot-spot in an 5-mile radius?” OR “Will I stroll the streets, snap a few artsy photos, take in some local cuisine, and maybe if I am lucky end up in a street parade?” I’ll take the latter any day. So that is what we did. Matt and I spent 24 hours with Le Grand Paris, starting quite by mistake at the Eiffel Tower. Yes, a bit touristy, BUT in my defense when I first came to Paris in 2005 I was too in-love to be bothered to see the iconic structure so I was rather pleased when we sort of bumped into it. Starting a tour from this lovely spot on the Seine allowed us easy access to the Botobus, a water taxi service that drops passengers at several spots along the river.

Back on dry ground…well I had already wet my lips with a little Bordeaux, we hopped off the Botobus at Musee De O’Rsay, strolled down Quai Voltaire, and crossed the Pont Royal Bridge into the Jardin du Carrousel. Through lush greenery, ample walkways, and Secret Garden worthy fountains we spotted the Pyramide du Louvre by renowned architect I. M Pei. I remember falling in love with architecture as well on my first trip to Paris, a love that has propelled me to visit cities since for their buildings alone: Chicago, Dubai, and Barcelona. But Paris’s architecture is uniquely innovative with centuries of design standing seamlessly together.

Although my appetite for architecture, glass, and steel had been fed, Matt still hadn’t tasted a fresh Parisian baguette and I was in the mood for a staple of French cuisine. Hoping to avoid going into a detailed explanation of Foie Gras, I took Matt to Rue Montorgueil, ducked into Comptoir de la Gastronomie as it was the Café with the fattest, healthiest bird painted on its sandwich board, and ordered nothing but bread, cheese, wine, and this savory French delicacy. Filled with duck liver and sourdough we “waddled” across Pont Louis Philippe to Ile St-Louis for a sacred desert. Eating Berthillon Ice cream feels like being in an old world love story, and I ate up both the melting treat and being in Paris with Matt.

We spent the evening perched on a bench in the Latin Quarter with a carafe of Bordeaux looking up at a slivered moon. I remember on my first trip to Paris sitting on a bottle shop floor with my hostel romance, judging a “good” wine by the depth of its indentation in the bottom of the bottle. I was so overwhelmed that for one, I was 19 years old and allowed to purchase a bottle of wine, and that I was in love in the most romantic city in the world, Paris. This past visit brought about much of the same emotion, but with a slightly more maudlin attachment to my early years as a backpacker. I realized that along with being the capital of romance, Paris is also the best place for a young traveler to start. It was for me a starting point, and now a lovely place to return again and again.

Wishing my Paris love a very happy birthday and wonderful year of travel.

Want to Visit Paris? Airline: AirFrance direct from Seattle Hotel: Hôtel Novanox, 155, bd du montparnasse – 75006 Paris Transport from Charles de Gaulle: RER Line B3 5:30am-Midnight, 40 minute trip. Visa for Americans: Nope. Travel Guide: Lonely Planet, Paris Encounter.

Leaving the Wild West.

In January 2011 I left behind my chapped, winter lips, wearing instead a gold wedding band, and rode in the passenger’s seat to Seattle, where Matt and I would board a plane bound for the Al Gharbia Desert. We didn’t speak Arabic, couldn’t have told you where this desert lay on a map and were not entirely sure the origins of the company we were about to join. As we always do when we embark on these new journeys, we armed ourselves with openness to the culture we would enter, faith in the decision we made together, and three boxes of Annie’s macaroni and cheese. I imagined the entire way to Dubai the modern city, with the tallest building in the world, and sparkling scenes as seen on “Sex and the City II.” When our jet-lagged toes stepped onto this new land however, it wasn’t sky-scrapers and jeweled sheiks I saw, but a vast expanse of camel colored sand.

This stretch of endless sand carries creatures with humped backs, and men who can walk for miles through sun soaked robes. Thoughts of cruising the UAE in a Lamborghini and dining in one futuristic, roof-top restaurant after another were immediately gone, and what was left was a feeling of minuteness, that this land was bigger, older and wiser than us. It was however, in this seemingly hostile environment that we were welcomed into the United Arab Emirates and into the Arabic culture, as teachers, travelers and now residents.

Matt and I have been on numerous adventures since we began our friendship over seven years ago, but the desert remains our wildest to date. I recall my first morning on my one-hour commute through the desert to work. I searched for something in the sand, anything, a landmark, or sign of life. I wondered if I would ever see the rain that I had grown up with in the Pacific Northwest. Nothing breathed, including me that first morning. Luckily the lack of natural life growing in the desert was more than compensated for by the life pouring from the Bedouin children I so gladly taught every morning. I was saved quite literally from the unforgiving jaws of the desert by a group of four year olds who taught me everything you need to know about how to live in a sand castle.

Lesson One: Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

My students were far along in learning the English alphabet when I began working with them, and shortly after I arrived we were already on the letter “W.” We played with W-W-Water, pounded on the W-W-Walls and at the end of the week I brought in W-W-Watermelon. I cut the watermelon into small pieces and then, just to be tidy I passed out plates and forks. The students stared blankly at me, and then the Arabic teacher gave me the same unknowing look. “Miss, why do you give them these?” I thought she was referring to watermelon being a finger food and so I explained that I just thought it would be easier to eat this way because there was no rind on the watermelon for the children to hold on to. “No, no” she explained, “The children have never seen this, this, fork, they do not know how to use it.” It was then that I thought back over my first week of meals shared with the Arabic staff in my school. There was a thorough hand washing session before a meal, including cleaning under fingernails and scrubbing knuckles. Food was ONLY given and taken with the right hand, as the left was used in the bathroom in place of tissue. Everyone then dug into a central dish, tearing pieces of meat, balling rice in their palms and licking their fingers clean. No forks, just clean hands. I ate with my hands when I was young, then a fork, in Korea with chopsticks and now I have come full circle.

Lesson 2: Love thy neighbor, because they are probably your cousin…and you will probably marry them.

Obaid and Sara were fighting again in class. Obaid was the same age as the rest of my students but about a foot taller, and Sara was the only child that would stand up to his bullying. Their arguments were always in Arabic, and if things became violent I would ask for a translation from one of the local teachers so I could better assist in resolving the dispute. On this particular day, it seemed like things were tense between them from the moment they walked in the classroom. Had they gotten into it on the bus ride to school or was this residual from the day before? “Why are they arguing?” I asked my Egyptian co-teacher. She responded “This morning Obaid threw a stone at Sara’s favorite goat on their farm.” I thought for a second, “On THEIR farm?” She replied “Yes, they live together. They are cousins. It is a good thing they will be separated into a boy’s school and a girl’s school after kindergarten next year. Maybe one day they will become married to each other. Enshala (God willing)”. I looked around at my five year old students who played together now regardless of gender, and who would be separated next year to not see each other again until their wedding day. I wondered if they would carry a memory of the little boy or girl they used to build play dough houses with and if Obaid and Sara, first cousins, really would one day be man and wife?

Lesson 3: Patience is a virtue.

I hate waiting. In the UAE we wait for the bus in the hot sun, we wait for the internet to work, we wait for someone to deliver water, we wait to see an English speaking doctor, we will wait all day at the post office to be told our letter has not yet arrived. I was complaining all morning that it took a full two minutes for one email to upload on my ipod! “I mean, who has that kind of time?” I got to school and noticed Al Anood was late again. “Why is this child never here on time???” Again, it was my patient Egyptian co-teacher who explained “Al Anood leaves her home at 5am, she drives with her Father to her cousin’s house an hour away. They take a bus together with their Aunt, and then this bus meets the school bus where they can make the rest of the trip. Some days the city bus is already full, so they must wait an hour or two for the next bus to take them. This is why she is often late.”

Lesson 4: Man’s best friend is not always a dog.

Several of my students would turn up to school with a black eye. The Western teacher in me would automatically assume there was a domestic problem and protocol was to bring in a social worker to talk to the child. I crouched down next to Salem, one of my smallest kindergarteners. “Salem, did someone hit you?” I made a hitting motion with my hand. Salem giggled and covered his face. I immediately went to find a local teacher to report this abuse I was sure was taking place in this child and several other’s homes. Oddly I received the same giggle from the program director. She asked them all something in Arabic and all the students began neighing like little billy goats, with perfect accuracy! Apparently desert children spend little time in their homes with their parents but instead are on the farm playing with their goats. I have seen the backlash of a child pulling a cat’s tail, I can only imagine the result of pulling the tail of a goat.

Lesson 5: You are what you eat, if it is made of pork.

My kindergarteners loved to sing, and so do I, a match well made when I signed on to teach them. We sang about a lot of things that had little relevance to my students and their life in the desert: “Rain, rain, go away”, “The itsy bitsy spider” (their spiders are the size of my head!) “Oh Mr. sun, sun, hiding behind a tree”, and of course “Old McDonald had a farm, and on that farm he had a pig.” Pork is haram according to the Quran, not eaten by Muslims, not sold in grocery stores and not mentioned in conversation, television, story books or Old McDonald. In the kindergarten alphabet P is not for pig, it is for parrot, pirate or purse. On my favorite reality TV show aired in the UAE, when someone wants to make a dish using pork, it is broadcast as “Today I will be making bleep and eggs benedict.” Consequently Old McDonald had horses, goats, cows, but no pigs. It became such a big deal to omit this word from my lessons on letters, vocabulary, when teaching the color pink, I mean what besides a flower and a pig are really only pink, that I finally had to ask, WHY?

“Pigs are dirty.”

“Um, yes, but all animals are pretty dirty.”

“Pigs eat their own feces.”

“Yes, and goats eat everything else.”

“Miss Emily, do you know this saying, you are what you eat? Well if a pig eats its feces, then it is feces, if you eat a pig, so are you.”

Point taken.

My time in the desert has been my wildest adventure to date. Walking along the single highway that connects Al Gharbia to the big city, sand in my shoes, a scarf wrapped loosely around my hair, I feel I have been part of a fleeting culture. As the city moves closer towards the desert the UAE is catapulted into a new era of space age buildings, Western influence and sidewalks replacing sand-walks. I’m ready for our move to the Oasis city of Al Ain, and thankful to a group of four year olds who introduced me to the desert.

Sugar, Spice, and Souks: Deira Spice Souk

Photo Credit: Jo Kelly over at http://www.theweeklyjo.com/

If you came to the United Arab Emirates in search of old world vignettes, tucked in narrow alleyways, filled with magic carpets, Arab men in colorful head scarves and puffs of jasmine flavored incense, you may be disappointed when confronted with the modern city. While Dubai rises high into the clouds with its contemporary sky scrapers, tradition can still be found around every corner. One sure spot to scope the cultural heritage of the UAE is the Deira spice souk, along the Dubai creek.

Starting on the creek’s West bank, visitors can meander through the textile souk, picking through cashmere pashminas, and stalls filled with vibrant fabrics. Beware of zealous merchants going to extremes in order to catch your attention with their goods. Within moments of entering, the vultures descended, not even bothering to circle first before throwing scarves and bangles over my unsuspecting body. The technique worked, and I ended up walking away with a hand stitched garment from Pakistan, a pair of Ali Baba shoes for a very special three year old, and a giant hookah… My arms were in serious need of some pack camel assistance to carry my loot, and I hadn’t even crossed the creek yet!

The real treasure hunt begins on the East bank of the creek, known as Deira. This collection of souks hold spices, gold and other precious trinkets, as well as picture perfect photo ops in every turn. To get across to Deira from the textile souk, simply hop on one of Dubai creek’s Abra boat taxis, costing only 1 dirham, leaving approximately every other second, from wherever you are standing. The abras go across to a few different points along the creek so just gesture toward the spice souk and your driver will make sure you get to where you want to go. Matt wasn’t satisfied with just one ride on the traditional boat, with its cool breeze and ample people watching, but after three trips across I distracted him with a coconut vendor and we finally docked.

At the mouth to the Deira markets is a bustling intersection with bus transfers, water taxi stations, and street vendors selling “Natural Viagra.” Yes the souk really does carry something for everyone. Now one might think that shopping for spices involves buying three lbs of vacuum sealed black pepper at your local Costco, but I assure you, there is so much more sniffing and tasting fun to be had!

 

I pride myself on a well developed palate, thanks to a few years of traveling and sampling a diverse range of flavors, so I was thrilled when the first vendor we happened upon wanted to test me on my spice knowledge. By sight I passed five out of six spices including: Frankincense, lemon balm, dried rose hips, cinnamon, and saffron. Where I went wrong was failing to identify the Arabic spice combination that is Ras El Hanout. In my defense, this traditional spice combines many of the ingredients I called out in a guessing frenzy including, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. I can’t wait to take my Summer holiday to the USA next week and deliver a few new salts to the one and only, SaltySeattle!!!

The complexity of layered flavors in Arabic cuisine can be attributed to a long standing history of spice trade throughout India and the Middle East. A trip to the Deira souk provides a look at the rich and spicy history of a nation becoming quickly modernized. Enjoy your backyard grilling and seasoning this July, and save me a salty salmon burger!