DOHA: Asia At Last

I procrastinate something terrible. I don’t mean to. I think it’s a mental illness. In my academic career and my everyday life, I’ve determined that I do this because I’m a horrible perfectionist. But when it comes to these blogs, I realize that I just don’t want to part with my memories. I had the time of my life in the Middle East. Egypt was a blessing that I can’t begin to fully tell you about. I don’t understand it. I should not have been at home in such a place, but I was at my best. I managed to write each of those stories finally. I could probably publish a little book of my African travels. I may do that. Actually, that would fill me with extraordinary pleasure to do so. Since my earliest days, I’ve read the narratives of European adventurers and travelers who ventured up and down the Nile. To be a part of that history would be a delight. Maybe in a hundred years, a child like me would venture off with the same wonder and dreamy enthusiasm? I’d love that.

But I’ve hit this wall now that I’m at the end. When I share this with you, I won’t have anything more to say about this part of the world. I won’t have any more stories to tell or fabulous people to introduce you to. I won’t talk at length about the Nile rippling at my feet, about the way the sun reflects off and makes it appear blindingly white. I won’t have any more gastronomic triumphs to share from Debbie at the Lantern. You won’t hear more of the inordinate kindness shown to me by Hassan. I won’t have Abdul’s lectures to transcribe. I won’t have the sand or the donkeys or the long walks or the fabulous heat. It’ll be nothing more than a faded memory. And that affects me fiercely. I know that I’ll go back a million times, but these two weeks were nothing but bliss. They were a triumph. They were, for whatever reason, the highlight of my life. And they are yours to share with me. I’ve been selfish and holding onto the conclusion, but time goes by so fast, so damned fast, and it’s time for me to finish.

***

I slept soundly and well and woke refreshed. I was glad that my flight wasn’t at some ridiculous hour of the morning so I could sleep until a reasonable time. I need that. No matter what I do, no matter how often I try, I am just never going to be a morning person. I need to stay up late for my sanity and I need to sleep until well after the sun rises.

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Though I was refreshed, my heartache was no less than the night before. I mournfully looked at the remains of my flowers. This is only a small sample above. I finished my folding and rolling and stuffing, and my bag was filled. I regretted that I hadn’t bought any robes and I regretted that I was leaving and I wished that I had purchased more trinkets. I don’t know why I don’t ever buy things. I buy food and lots of it. I procure books and the occasional shirt, but I don’t fill my cases with souvenirs. I hate clutter, so that’s probably why. It’s an odd thing, that. For as much as I want to be a minimalist, my rooms are tastefully filled. The walls are covered in paintings and pictures and mirrors and maps. My shelves are overfilled with books on every subject. I have so many now that there are towers on the floor reaching for the ceiling. Plants fill every available space. My coffee table is laden with books and an antique barometer and a collection of maneki-neko. I want my spaces to reflect my personality, and I really think they do. But it’d be nice to have a few moments from Egypt to add to my collection. I should print off a bunch of pictures from the tombs and temples and landscapes and have them framed and hung up. Yes, I’ll work on that this summer.

My bags were packed, and I was in no mood for breakfast. There was a pit in my stomach as I shut the door behind me. I descended the gorgeous stairs that led out of the Winter Palace for the last time to a smiling Hassan who was already waiting for me. With a wistful sigh of melancholy and a fond parting glance at that incomparable hotel on the banks of the Nile, I got into the car.

The drive was almost somber, for I was watching all the beloved sights pass me by. Out the window darted the great Temple of Luxor, then the mosques I never entered because I wasn’t sure on the proper etiquette, the shops that I had frequented and the ones that I had yet to visit, and then the fabulously green sugarcane fields that stretched in for acres in all directions. The palm trees and flowers and villages passed by and then we were at the airport.

I promised Hassan to return again, to tell anybody I knew coming to Egypt about their service, and then I told him goodbye. He waved as he drove off, and I languidly made my way into the airport. Security was no issue. Getting a boarding pass was a breeze. The second security was nothing but a line that moved sluggishly but constantly. And then I was waiting in a comfortable chair for the flight to Doha to board.

With the last bit of data on my sim card, I saw that I had an email from my beloved Hassan, and I was nearly in tears. It was the first email he’d ever sent.

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I’ve gone on endlessly in earlier posts — literally every post about Egypt — about how much I’d miss this nation, this sandy wonderland that treated me better than I had any reason to expect. But now I had to deal with leaving and going home. I thought about Jamba Juice in Chicago, and I must admit that the thought did make me feel a bit better. One smoothie might cost more than my entire meal budget for a day in Egypt, but sipping on a green juice might make me feel okay.

And I was, I must admit, getting excited about jetting off to Asia. Qatar is on the extreme western edge of the continent of Asia, but it is Asia nevertheless, and I was finally crossing another continent off the list. I still must go back to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, the madness of Tokyo, the French pastries in Seoul, the terra cotta soldiers and Great Wall in China, and of course the great river Ganges as it flows through India. There’s always another adventure to have. I hope I have enough time on this planet to see it all. Of course I won’t. There are wonderful things everywhere, there are even sites that I missed at home that are glorious. One lifetime is hardly enough. Isn’t that awful? I would quite like to live forever. I’d never tire of the splendors of the Earth.

And quite soon it was time to get up from my seat and board a bus that would take me to the gangplank that led into the airplane. I was flying with Qatar Air for the first time, and reader, I hope to never fly with another airline for the rest of my days. Everything was the epitome of perfection. The seats were more comfortable than usual, the staff was more than gracious, the interior design was soothing and didn’t feel like the waiting room of a hospital, and I was at my leisure at once. Nobody sat beside me, either, and that remarkable turn of events really boosted my spirits.

As the other passengers loaded, I noticed for the first and only time that I was the only obvious foreigner. The others wore galabayas or smart suits and spoke lovely phrases in Arabic. I still couldn’t pick out more than a few words, but I felt quite sure that one day, one fabulous day, their mysterious tongue would make absolute sense to me.

And then it was time for the stewardesses to make their final preparations and a charming little video began. There was a map that showed where Mecca was, for we would be flying over Saudi Arabia, the nation that houses Islam’s holiest city. I was endlessly intrigued and hoped to someday see Mecca. I would love to undertake the Haj if I am ever able. I don’t think there’s anything greater than travel and seeing the world and trying to understand a new point of view. I’m not a Muslim, but I know a good number of them…some better than others — and then I suppose I didn’t know him at all…don’t mind that, reader — and I would love to get a better grasp of what they hold dear.

And then we were taxiing to the runway, picking up speed, and the plane left Luxor. Beneath me was the vast desert away from the Nile, and far away were all the lovely places I’d been and the charming people I had befriended. I felt a bit lonely taking to the air.

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The wasteland of the desert. I love it.

I didn’t accomplish much of anything on the flight, instead I just watched the Arabian Sea approach and then we left Egypt for now. I’ll be back a hundred times at least. Land returned to view and I was delighted by my first sight of Saudi Arabia. The sands were red and lovely. I smiled to myself, getting over my depression, I was flying over regions of the world that nobody in my generation would have dared to dream about years and years ago. So many of them still believe that the Middle East is a dangerous place — and it can be — but so can small towns in America. There is danger everywhere, but it need not ruin our ability to explore or lessen the chance to broaden our horizons. The world is absolutely wonderful and I’m so in love with it. I’m so glad that I got over any cultural fear I had and let myself discover this beloved region.

Qatar Air, as I said before, is flawless. I so love it. I adore it. And the food was amazing. It was one of the best airline meals I have had in my life. And I was in coach! Every dish was elegantly served in thick clear plastic containers, which sounds tacky when written, but it was truly decadent. And it tasted good. AND there was Valrhona chocolates for dessert!

The flight began to descend, and out of the desert the newly rich city of Doha grew. It is rather a shock after the red desert to see glorious towers of steel and glass rise up. Nothing about this place is organic, which is a bizarre thing to realize. The environment is altered in whatever way they dream. Land is moved, the sea is changed, everything but the air itself is new and different from however it once was. Of course it’d be nice to see something natural, but at the same time, this city is a marvel, and I loved getting to see it.

Just recently, several countries in the Middle East condemned Qatar as a hotbed of terrorists and terrorist supporters. I was really rather shocked, and I wonder if that is true? I remember that I had heard this rumor before in my Politics of Terrorism class. I decimated my peers in that class. Oh, that was a bad visual. My apologies. But this is a topic that I have grown increasingly passionate about over the years, and if being a teacher or an Egyptologist or a reality star or an author fizzles out, I may have a career in politics ahead of me. But this has little to do with this current narrative.

The plane landed, and reader, I was bewitched at the onset by the airport. It was decadent. Everything was pristine and beautiful. There was not a speck of dust, and there was every possible convenience. There was strong wifi everywhere, power outlets were prevalent, there were ATMs that dispersed a dozen types of currency, and there was every possible shop. There was even a Harrod’s which felt surreal to walk through and see the iconic green shopping bags.

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And even stranger was the fact that I was walking in Asia. Of course this is hardly the Asia that pops into our mind’s eye at the mention of that continent, but I was still there. Another one crossed off. Isn’t that grand?

I stopped for a sandwich and a soda and was shook by the Western prices. I had been so accustomed to the delicious cheap living in Luxor that the basic cheese and tomato sandwich that I dismissively ate was a sadness. Seriously, there was no reason for it to cost the equivalent of ten United States dollars. But, what else could I do? I was going to be in Doha for some time waiting for the next leg of my flight.

Because I was there so long, I researched ways to get out. Qatar Airways is genius. Not only do they offer unreasonably luxurious flights, they also arrange guided tours of the city to see the highlights for people on long layovers. What a brilliant ploy. So, I got in line at a kiosk that soon grew and grew and grew. I was one of the first to fill out the visa application, so I was guaranteed a space on the tour. I was rather delighted. It didn’t cost a cent. I wanted to spend the rest of the money I had saved for my travels, so I went to the ATM and got a few hundred riyals. I stared delightedly at the stiff notes, wondering what on Earth this was going to get me, and then went for a rest and a recharge.

I sat in an absurdly comfortable lounge and finished Death on the Nile.

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I felt like this years ago, but no longer.

I fell absolutely in love with Agatha Christie and wondered why I had gone so far in my life and read so few of her masterworks. I thought back and could only think of two others that I’ve read. How foolish! I’ll soon correct that. This line of thinking got me in the mood to write, and I regretted that I constantly put aside my love for it. There’s no excuse for it. Writers write, after all. Anne Rice is always posting on her fabulous Facebook page about the importance of just writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s crap or fabulous, the act of writing is what makes you a writer. And so I determined to start up again once I had finished these narratives. And I’ve wasted half a year of my life putting this off. That’s more than enough time to draft something. But life got in the way. It has a nasty habit of doing that. When I finish, I’m going to really focus on editing the book that I wrote two years ago now, On a Desert Wind, and then I have three other things to write: the story of my grandmother’s French life called Hôtel Ker Maria, the Murial Valentine mystery book I told you about some posts ago, and then my autobiography entitled Wake Me When the Crocus Blooms. I know it’s a conceited thing to do, but I often wonder about the lives of the common people who went through life before me. They’re nothing but names and headstones now. Their accomplishments and sorrows are forgotten. I don’t want that to happen to me. I might never accomplish more than being a traveler and an unpublished writer, but I think the act of living is worth sharing.

Soon it was time to get the visa cards and assemble our tour group.

Every so often, I get a strange psychic vibe. I can’t begin to understand it, but that’s the fun of it all. Sometimes I will see somebody and know that I’m going to like them. Maybe it’s auras or maybe it’s something else. But I saw a lady and I was deeply intrigued by her. Don’t get the wrong impression reader, I couldn’t be gayer. There was just something alluring about her, and I felt a peculiar kinship. Perhaps it was because we were both minorities in an Islam world — or maybe I’m just adding layers of complexity after the fact. Either way, I stood nearer her in the hopes of introducing myself.

The visas were distributed, and then the group headed en masse for customs. It took absolute ages, and I enjoyed watching the variety of interesting characters shuffling through. After a million years, I made it through and then the rest of the group did, and then I took my first breath of raw Asian air.

I gasped at once. The humidity hit me like a wall of solid moisture. I had not expected this at all. I was accustomed to the dry desert of Egypt. Luxor was like a kiln. This was like the jungle. Sweat appeared instantly on my brow and dripped down the small of my back. It was absolutely disgusting. I was glad to get on the bus.

Well fate or my psychic intuition was strong that night for the only open seat was next to that woman who had caught my eye. I asked if I could sit by her, and she consented with a smile. I introduced myself with an outstretched hand. “Don’t be offended,” she said. “I don’t shake hands.” I liked her immediately.

We started talking about simple things at first, as all strangers do: the weather, where were from, where we were going, and then once we talked about what we did, we were fast friends. I said that I worked at a school, and she said that she was a professor at a university in Kenya that specialized in tax law. What a treat! She’s actually a doctorate, and I think Dr. Waris is one of the most keenly intelligent people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Please watch this video of a fascinating lecture she presented about the link between taxation and human rights.

We spent the rest of the nigh cackling through Doha, and though we had every intention of being respectful to the soft-spoken tour guide and respectfully listen to his tedious facts, I think we both decided just to have a bit of fun.

The first stop was the Pearl Monument, which is really what it sounds like, a giant monument that looks like a pearl, I didn’t get it. But we carried on to see a great vista of the city across the gulf.

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I look hideous, but I was having so much fun. Glad I finally cut my hair. I wouldn’t have said that when this was taken.

The Islamic Art Museum rose stunningly to the left, and I was just rather gobsmacked at the beauty of this Disney-esque world. It wasn’t real.

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None of it was real. It didn’t have much of a soul. It felt like the most absurd façade and I was surprised to find that it was an actual place where people live and work and make their lives. Reading this back makes little sense, but Dr. Waris said similar things about Dubai. It’s beautiful, but it’s absurd.

We strolled along the Corniche and ogled overpriced designer clothing you can get in any big city. Then we saw a guy on a golf cart drive by, and Dr. Waris asked if we could hop on. I was emboldened by her daring, and jumped aboard at once. The driver took off with a cackle, and I’m sure the tour guide would have lost his mind to see us gallivanting through the brilliantly illuminated pedestrian walkway, giggling as he made daring turns past expensive restaurants and shuttered shops with the most gorgeous displays. He refused to take any money and dropped us off by the bus where the rest of the crowd stared at us as if we had lost our minds. Perhaps we had.

The next destination on the tour was absolutely my cup of tea, the Souq Waqif.

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Instead of feeling fake, this place was real. It’s been there for over a hundred years, and like the rest of Doha, it’s been remodeled, but tastefully and with a soul. There are still dozens of winding pathways and trinkets to buy. We left the group at once after the guide imploringly told us to not get lost and to get back on time. We just chuckled. He sighed. I wonder what led him to this career?

We dashed through the streets, the limited time being an added thrill. We sauntered through shops, putting hats on our heads, gabbing with vendors, living our very best lives. I found a gorgeous incense burner made out of brass that had a cutout of a camel on the side. It was destined to be mine and it was soon wrapped up for me. I got a discount for some reason, so I still had more riyals to spend.

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A few days later in my kitchen on the other side of the world.

We were in love with the spice vendors, and she was insistent that she buy me massive quantities of saffron. I was appalled that my new friend would want to spend so much on me, but of course I was very flattered. I was rather relieved that they took cash only and so she couldn’t treat me so well. I didn’t have the means to treat her in kind. We still had a little time left so we strolled down the main road looking for tea or coffee. Instead we found this fabulously dressed Syrian man with a silver tank on his back who was pouring out chilled tamarind and rose water tea.

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I didn’t take this. 

Reader, let me tell you that I have never had such a concoction in my life. It was ambrosia. It might be called jallab, but this could easily be wrong. I wish I had some now.

Then it was time to be back at the bus, so we rather sadly returned to the meeting point. Dr. Waris and I were quite friendly now, so we had deeper conversations about life and the world and worries and the splendors we had seen. She had gone to a university in Cairo, and I was just thrilled by the thought of it. Maybe I can do something like that one day?

Back at the airport, we both had time to kill, both our flights were hours and hours away, so we sat in a coffee shop, ordering innumerable shots of odd Turkish coffee — which leaves a peculiarly pleasant taste of chlorine on the palate — and talked and talked and talked. It’s the great wonder of new friends and near farewells. I might never see her again. She might never see me again. But for that wonderful evening, we were the world’s oldest friends. I think this might be my favorite part of travel.

We paid the bill for our little cups of coffee and slowly made our way to the departure gates. I said a fond farewell to my friend, and I received one in turn. If I’m ever in Kenya, I will have to repay her for the kindness I was shown. I will never forget her just as I can’t forget the cast of fabulous people I have met in my travels. Each day that passes, I smile at my memories of Anne and Sue, of Lady M, of Nels and Lou, of Hassan, of Debbie and Mina, of the lady at Miss Manon, of my school chums, of all the people who helped me and I never learned their names. I grew up all my life rather antisocial, I’m glad I’m not that person anymore.

And then I was sitting on the plane to Manchester. The penultimate flight of my journey home. And soon the lights of Doha were twinkling in the distance and soon they were gone. I turned on the map on the screen in front of me, and I was captivated.

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I was flying over places I have only dreamed of visiting. We jetted across the Persian Gulf and passed over Iran. The plane made a deliberate path to avoid airspace in Iraq and Syria. Then we were over Turkey and I swooned at the thought of Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia. Then Bulgaria was below, and my heart quite stopped as we flew over Bucharest. Of course I couldn’t see it. But there I was in the airspace of Romania, the land I’ve been craving for so long. It’s an adventure for another time, but I was transported at once to the streets of Brasov, to the little painted monasteries, to the chapel on Lake Snagov, to Dracula’s castle in the mountains, to the fields of grass that the farmers had chopped down and piled unbelievably high.

And reader, I was so sad to be leaving, my heart was honestly breaking, but the little screen in front of me was a blissful reminder that there were so many more adventures to be had. I’ll be back to Egypt, of course, and I’ll do anything I want to do. I’ll do anything I dream of. There is absolutely no reason not to follow the silly path my heart has plotted around the world. With a chuckle of delighted anticipation, I fell asleep.

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