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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Welcome!


Welcome to my adventures in the Middle East! In the Fall of 2010 I took a self-designed trip to the Middle East to visit people, see some sights, learn about business in the region, and practice my Arabic! I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and took this trip while earning my Bachelors in Business Administration and after studying Arabic for two years. It was my second time to the region; I have always loved traveling and was very excited to take this trip to see old friends and make new ones!

This blog was written while I traveled and has one entry for each day of my trip, labeled with the locations I was in. My whole trip began with a week in Europe before starting my ten weeks in the Middle East where I traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, and finally Qatar.

Please feel free to click around and I hope you enjoy seeing the region from my perspective!
Me dressed for a holiday while visiting the UAE


Monday, February 14, 2011

Day 78, Saturday - Doha to Seattle

Today is December 4, 2010, and so begins my long journey home. Literally. From Doha I will be flying to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a quick stop-over to pick up more passengers and then fly up to Frankfurt, Germany. After a layover in Frankfurt, I’ll fly direct to Seattle, arriving about mid-day (yes, technically I leave here and arrive home the same day, it’s just an extra-long day).

Once I get home I have been promised lots of help from family and friends to keep me awake until late in the evening in order to counteract jet-lag. We’ll see how well that goes.

Here's  map to show you where I'm going:

So here was my original plan: my first flight takes off just after mid-night Doha time, but back home it is about mid-day, so since I want to start readjusting to Seattle time, I want to stay awake on the first flight, and sleep for part of the second flight.

This plan is also supposed to help me stave off the inevitable boredom of being stuck on a plane for over 15 hours by sleeping during the middle part of my traveling, which is often the roughest in my opinion since you have been traveling for hours already and you still have hours to go. At least I’ll get to stretch my legs in Germany a little.

However, there was a fatal flaw in my plan: I greatly overestimated my abilities to keep myself awake on a plane when my body is telling me that I should be asleep. In my defense, being on a plane meant that I couldn’t deploy some very important “staying-awake measures,” such as drinking large amounts of highly-caffeinated beverages or doing physical exercise. Staring at a little movie screen just doesn’t cut it.

I also have to tell you about my traveling companion.

After getting to my gate in the Doha airport, a group of gentlemen sat near me and were speaking German to each other (turns out they work for Lufthansa which was the airline I was booked on). One of them noticed my henna and said something to me about it. Now, my German is pretty limited and while I can say simple greetings and count to 20, I have no idea what he said to me, other than the word “henna.”

My confused look must have given me away because, while I tried to figure out what language to respond in, I did catch that one gentleman said something along the lines of “she doesn’t speak German” (yes, my German vocabulary stretches far enough for me to understand that much).

I told them I spoke English and the one gentleman started to chat with me in English. Once this guy discovered that I also spoke Arabic, we switched to that as our primary language. We also discovered that we both spoke French and from that point on, we spoke primarily in Arabic with French being our second language and English was our last option.

We had a fun conversation in the terminal and then it was time to get on the plane. Since we were stopping to pick-up more passengers in Saudi Arabia, the aircraft was pretty empty when we got on and my new best friend came to sit next to me.

This turned out to be a great test of my language skills as he is fluent in the three we were using (plus German and I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew others) and I am only conversant in Arabic and French while my English is a little spotty. ;) Keeping up the conversation became progressively harder as my brain fell further and further asleep, but I was proud of myself since I only had to slip into English occasionally.

Eventually it was too much for my brain to take and I had to sleep. I’m not very good at sleeping on planes but at some point I guess you don’t have a choice.

When we arrived in Frankfurt, there was a light dusting of snow. Not surprisingly, it was very cold which was a bit of a shock after being in warm weather for so long.
Arriving in Frankfurt! Can you see the snow?
Being early in the morning, not many people were in the airport. The airport staff were nice, especially considering every time they said something to me in German I usually responded with, “Sorry, what?” 

Here’s a picture of me sitting in the airport:

And a couple hours later on the plane to Seattle, here is my view out the airplane window:

The green-stuff they are spraying is to de-ice the wings. I think it’s probably green so that they can see where they have sprayed and where they haven’t, but I thought it looked weird. Remember, I’m pretty short on sleep by this point.

I got an empty seat next to me on the way home, so I could curl up and doze on and off, no more Arabic-French-English conversations to pass the time. I also discovered on this flight that I have an uncanny ability to wake up any time the flight attendants come by to offer food or drinks, whether I’m hungry or not and no matter how quiet they are being.
Almost home!
At one point I noticed that the flight status, which you can check on your personal monitor, said that we would be arriving quite a bit earlier than scheduled. That made me happy since it meant a shorter flight, and of course seeing my family sooner. ;) However, as we got closer and closer to Seattle, I noticed the expected time of arrival moving back and back. This is incredibly disappointing to observe. Every time I checked, it seemed that the flight time stretched longer until we actually landed, which was pretty much the original scheduled arrival time. I don’t see why they had to get my hopes up, but oh well!

I made it home! In one piece too, with all my luggage! That is a real miracle, not losing any of my luggage.

My family met me at the airport and a couple of my friend threw me a welcome home party.

And so ends the saga of Isabelle’s voyage to the Middle East.

And here sits the last entry of my travels.

Thank you so much to all of you who have read any of my blog and a special thanks to those of you who have read all of it! Thank you also to all of my wonderful hosts: my experience would not have been nearly as amazing if it were not for all of you! Finally, thank you to my family and friends who supported me on my trip with prayers and stories from back home.

A very special thanks to my family who has supported me so much. To my mom, who let me fly half way around the world for three months even though she hates it when any of our family travels; to my dad, who helped set up my trip and who has been an amazing support with this whole process; to my brother-in-law, who provided me with hours of entertainment; and to my sister, who encouraged me to write this blog and who I have promised to bring with me on a trip around the region someday. I love you all very much. :)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Day 77, Friday - Doha

Well, today is actually my last day in Doha (although there is one more day left in my trip), and by this point I’m sure you know what that means: packing day! Once more, I have produced a near-miracle by figuring out how to get all of my belongings and all of the things I have picked up along the way into two suitcases and a duffle-bag.

Unfortunately for you, that means I don’t have much exciting to write about. Fortunately for you, I have some last observations which I have forgotten to include in earlier posts (yay!):

1. Travel mugs: they are a rarity in the Middle East, at least from what I’ve seen. I am starting to think that the fact that I have three of my own at home is more a comment on my own tea addiction and our whole society’s addiction to caffeine than a loss for people in this region. Not that I have any intention of giving mine up. Ever. Just saying.

2. I haven’t been watching much tv lately, but earlier in my trip I noticed an interesting tendency with commercials here. I don’t know if this is true everywhere, but I noticed that with some programs at least, there are fewer but longer commercial breaks and the patterns goes something like this: preview the first half of the commercials, show the first set of commercials, show the second set of commercials, recap the second half of commercials. As a marketing specialist, I wonder how effective that is. 

3. Frozen yogurt is quite trendy here, just like at home. There is this one chain called "Pink Berry" and apparently it has been quite the hit. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the stuff, but Mary Anne and I went to Pink Berry to share a guava one with berries when I first got to Doha and I have to say, it was really good.

Today wasn’t completely uneventful (really no day on this trip has been, there is always something to learn!), as this evening some of Terry’s students came over for their own little “end of the semester” party. We played some mixer games and had dinner catered from Turkey Central (yes, the place with the amazing hummus, sesame bread, and grilled meats).

For desert we did something a little unique. Terry is a chemistry professor and so instead of buying ice-cream from the store, we made some. Oh, and by “made some” I mean we used regular ice-cream ingredients and cooled them by using liquid nitrogen. Terry would pour and we all took turns mixing:
video

That stuff is cold. Even the mist floating off the table was cold!

After ice-cream, it was time for me to go. I said good-bye to the students and Mary Anne and then Terry drove me to the airport to start the last part of my journey. Since I technically did all of my traveling on Saturday (my flight took off after midnight) I still have one more day to write about…

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Day 76, Thursday - Doha

Mary Anne and I should go into the cartography business in Doha after the morning we had. Who knew it would be so difficult to find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Turns out it is actually not that hard to find if you can get someone who actually knows where it is to give you directions, but finding someone who actually knows where it is, is another matter entirely. Don’t worry, I made it.

I took a picture of the sitting room where I waited:

A few other gentlemen joined me in the sitting room while they waited for their own appointments and I chatted a bit with one. When this gentleman came in he spoke to me first in French, I responded a bit but since my brain has been working so hard on Arabic it was easier for me to understand the French than to respond in it. I asked if he spoke English and he did only a little so we settled on Arabic as our primary language.

 A young man brought us coffee and we let it cool a little but the other gentleman drank his quickly and I felt bad making the young man wait for me so I tried to drink it quickly too. I think I only burnt off one layer of taste-buds.

Finally a young man came to take me up to my meeting. The three of us – the young man, the Minister, and I – had a nice conversation. They brought me some coffee, which is typical, but I think it was a cappuccino which is something I hadn’t been expecting as I had been served the typical Arabic coffee in the sitting room. I hadn’t finished my coffee by the time the formal meeting ended and the Minister insisted that I stay and do so; however, he had a meeting to attend so I went with the young man, named Mohammed, to work out a few details and finish my coffee.

It was at this point I realized that the coffee had a lot of sugar in it and the combination of the sugar and my lack of exposure to large amounts of coffee over the last few months (not that I drink all that much coffee at home) definitely contributed to me feeling rather energetic and personable. The caffeine didn’t really hit until after I left the office though, so, sorry about that Mary Anne! I definitely was very chatty for the rest of the day.

After the meeting, we went to pick up our newly framed pieces of art (yes, it did occur to me that they will be harder to pack this way but I have become a near-expert packer now). Then it was off for henna, round two!

I promised people that I would come home with henna, so here is me getting it done:


 

There were a lot of women in the parlor and I wish I could have taken pictures for you, but since the women were not fully covered (as it is really hard to get henna done that way) I couldn’t. It is pretty amazing though, to watch five women work on one client, covering her arms and legs with varying patterns.









This evening, Carnegie Mellon Qatar (where Terry works) held a Mexican themed “end of the semester” party. Yes, Mexican themed. When Mary Anne and I arrived, however, the main hall was mostly empty except for the tables which awaited a couple hundred people and the fiesta decorations. So where was everyone?
The main hall. See the cactus?

Terry & Mary Anne in Terry's office













Well, Mary Anne and I decided to go find Terry, who had stayed on campus to catch-up on some work before the party. Turns out, we had arrived a little before the big announcement of who would be hosting the 2018 and 2020 World Cups for soccer. Who knew?! Well, apparently everyone except me.

Everyone watching the bid announcement


Qatar was up for the 2020 bid, apparently against the US, and we (USA) were thought to be favored. The students and faculty had all gathered in a common area with a giant tv screen hooked up to a live feed of the announcement.



 If you care about all this, then I’m sure you watched it, and if you don’t then I’ll give you the short version: Qatar won the bid. The whole country subsequently went crazy. I’m half kidding; but seriously, people are celebrating as if they won the World Cup.
The announcement...

On our way home, we saw people driving around with Qatari flags flying out of their cars or painted on the windows. (The next morning, it was all over the papers and there were stories about all of the people who stayed out driving around and burning tires and just partying all over the country.)
 
I was excited mostly because now when I tell people at home that I am in Qatar they go, “Oh right, they’re going to be hosting a World Cup,” instead of what I use to get, which was usually a confused look.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Day 75, Wednesday - Doha

Mary Anne’s Arabic teacher, Noura, wanted to invite me over for breakfast one morning, so this morning, Mary Anne and I headed over for a little gathering. Noura is Lebanese but lives with her husband and children in Qatar and gives Arabic lessons to expats. She had also invited her sister and one of her other students to our little gathering.
Noura, me, and Mary Anne

Noura made some wonderful, traditional Lebanese breakfast dishes, like cooked hummus (chickpeas, not the hummus spread we might be more familiar with) and a herb salad, and we also had some more American type things as well, like the croissants from Dunkin Donuts (although I suppose that is more “American meets French”).

When we first got to the house, Noura insisted on talking to me a bit in Arabic as, of course, being an Arabic teacher she wanted to see how my Arabic was. I think I passed. J It was also fun for me to speak with a Lebanese-Arabic speaker again and compare it to the other accents I have been hearing over the course of my trip. Once we all sat down to eat, however, we spoke mostly in English. It was a very fun morning.

During our post-breakfast tea, I got a phone call from Faisal at Maersk saying that he had sent me an email with contact information for the Minister of Follow-up Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, and that this gentleman would like to meet me. Needless to say, I hope this works out.

But, before we could return home for me to check my email, Mary Anne and I had some errands to run. We said good-bye to our friends and started off. First, we had to go to the plant shop again since we were already on that side of town and Mary Anne wanted to get a few more flowers. And a cactus, which is adorable, but poky as cacti tend to be.

I also realized as this point that there was one very important thing I needed to do before I left the country and I was quickly running out of time. What is it that I simply must accomplish, you might be wondering? Why kiss a camel of course! Okay, maybe it’s not “of course” in your mind, so let me give you a little background:

Several years ago (and if I get any more specific my mother might hurt me or at least give me that sad face) my parents lived in Kuwait. When they first got there my mother didn’t like camels very much as she had been told that they were mean and that they spit. (By the way, I have been warned that if you see a camel on the freeway and it is facing you, proceed with extreme caution as they have been known to attack cars in such situations, otherwise they are very sweet.)

One day my parents went out to a camel market to see them up close and when the camel herder found out that my mom didn’t really like them he said “No, no! They are very sweet, here, see?!” And he kissed the camel on the nose. Then he brought my mom over and told her to kiss it too. Well, she did and has loved them ever since because of their beautiful eyes.

Growing up, my sister and I always heard this story and saw the picture of my mom kissing the camel on the nose. When my sister was 20 she went to China and when she visited the Great Wall, there was a guy with a camel that you could take pictures with, so she decided to take a picture of her kissing it on the nose.

So, guess what? My turn! Well, at this point I have about three days left to find one to kiss. I told Mary Anne about it, since we were back near the camel market, and she said, “Well, let’s go!”

Me with the baby camel
We found a guy who invited us in to a camel pen with a mother and her baby. I was a little afraid that because it was a mom she would be wary of having us so close, but she was very mellow. The baby even nibbled on my fingers a bit, though it was very shy.

Mary Anne took pictures while I chatted with the guy in Arabic. I kind of just pretended to kiss it at first, but then he grabbed it, kissed it on the nose and told me to go ahead, so here it is:

Oh, I also came close to getting married off again, as inevitably these conversations always lead to the question of whether or not I’m married. However my Arabic suddenly and mysteriously became very poor and I couldn’t hold up my end of the conversation. Mary Anne said in English that he was asking if I was married and I told her that I knew that but he didn’t know that I understood him, and I slipped away still single. :)

The "river" and Venetian building fronts
Next stop was Villagio which is a mall designed so that the inside looks like being outside in Venice, complete with a mini river and gondolas to ride. 
The gondolas


























 We strolled through the expensive area which houses just about every high-end brand you can think of. There was even a Valentino store and I didn’t know they even had stores.

We also went to another shopping mall which is famous for its giant shopping cart:

And here are a few funny signs we noticed along the way:

Read the heading carefully...

Here is the actually "Carbon Fibber" car. Does that mean it's like a carbon fiber off brand? Or that it is fake carbon fiber?

And finally, a little video for you from the last place we stopped (sorry it’s sideways again, but make sure you turn your speakers on):
video
 
By this time we had to head home to get ready to go to the American School of Doha for their high school production of “Once Upon a Mattress.” Terry and Mary Anne know some of the kids in the production and thought it might be fun to go to. It was. :)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Day 74, Tuesday - Doha

A big day for business today as I got to visit Maersk Oil. Sheikh Faisal, who has known the Murphy’s for years and came to our Thanksgiving dinner, also knows my father and was kind enough to let me visit him at his office.

Sheikh Faisal is a very busy man but he took some time to talk to me about what he does. One important aspect of his job is developing and managing programs which support nationals in the work force, known as “Qatarization.” He also introduced me to a colleague of his, also named Faisal, who works on corporate marketing and media management.
 
I got to talk to Faisal about marketing in the Middle East as well as the regional and local economies. I also mentioned that I was interested in their Qatarization efforts, which led him to suggest there was someone who he thought would like to meet me. But that bit comes later…

Tonight's sunset, viewed from my room