Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Six Day Tour

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Six days is obviously not enough to sum up Israel. It’s not enough even to simply visit as a tourist. But as this leg of our top was a bit of an add-on, and Israel was even more of an afterthought, six days has been enough. After all, think what happened in the Six Days War. The shape of this entire country changed.

So, impressions of Israel after Six Days? Well, I like it more than I expected, or even wanted. And yet I don’t. We met some lovely people – unfortunately due to our time constraints and the fact we didn’t in the end hire a car, we didn’t have time to meet my delightful colleague’s father. Yet we also found lots of people very aggressive and unpleasant, even when I think they were trying to provide a service and be hospitable. I could look into this, and imagine it is a result of everything the people of Israel go through on a daily basis, and have been through. Or I could surmise that it is cultural, and just a feature of culture that is misinterpreted as aggression by polite and retiring New Zealanders. Or I could make some conclusions that this explains why the country is so aggressive to its neighbours. But I can’t, because I simply don’t know enough.

Jerusalem was fascinating, with all the sights in the Old City, both human and physical and historical. Of course we visited all the sights – and we took a day tour to the amazing fortress of Masada, and dropped down to the Dead Sea, where we floated uncomfortably, and struggled to find our feet, at 400 metres below sea level, and in 40 degree heat (and at a surprisingly unsophisticated facility). But Jerusalem was more than that. We couldn’t ignore the history, and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum where time seemed to disappear. A beautiful museum at the end of the tram line, set in large grounds, on a hill. To be expected, it reduced me to tears – not so much for the factual accountings we read about, but for the personal testimonies from Holocaust survivors, and the very simple, matter of fact ways they talked about life and death then. None of this was necessarily new to me. In seeing this, in Jerusalem, it was personal, and much more intimate.

But the rest of Jerusalem seemed a long way from the mid-20th century ghettos of Europe. I was surprised that it had such a lovely, open atmosphere, a cafe culture, full of people eating outside, families and friends together, tourists and locals, everyone relaxed and happy. We found Tel Aviv to be similar, but even more relaxed and liberal, The obvious religious conservatism was out, and skimpy beachwear and gay culture (at least near the beach where we stayed) was in.

I did however feel quite foreign there at times, simply because Hebrew is the official language, and Arabic the alternative. Sure, many if not most people spoke English. The receptionist at one of our hotels, with a strong American accent, admitted she had learned Egoish by watching movies and TV! But all the daily signs of life are in Hebrew, and my offline map app was also in Hebrew. I felt quite disoriented, perhaps because it looks so similar to a stylised font used in Thai. I’d start reading it, and realise that it didn’t make sense, or wonder where the strange extra letters came from! Now I understand how people feel when they go to Thailand I guess …

We didn’t have long enough time to go north and explore Roman ruins, ancient fishing towns, and natural reserves in the far north. We didn’t have time (or, to be honest, inclination) to explore the many Christian religious sites. I l don’t regret that. But I do wish we had had more time to meet more locals, and to see more about life there today – for all inhabitants. Maybe another time.

* Photos to come at another time, when I can overcome some of the difficulties of using technology when travelling

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A religious Disneyland*

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When I was a child, I remember learning about Israel – about kibbutzim, about the religious history of course (at Christmas and Easter), and about Israel being, apparently, the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey.” Later, during fifth form history, I studied the Israel/Palestinian question, and then again from a slightly different perspective at university. It is therefore a place I’ve always felt I knew, but it wasn’t till I was in my late 30s and 40s that I really personally got to know anyone who was in fact Jewish or Muslim, and who actively practiced their religion. This isolation, and perhaps our sheer distance from this most troubled of areas, kept me (and most New Zealanders) somewhat ignorant of the situation Israelis and Palestinians find themselves in daily, and I believe/hope I have therefore been able to see both points of view, albeit from afar. Inevitably I have views. I was interested to see how these might change, or be solidified, in a visit here.

We arrived late one night, to the friendliest immigration officer I think at have encountered anywhere except the Philippines (immediately after a change of government). “It’s my Kiwi day!” he declared happily. “More kiwis today than Australians.” We both agreed that could only be a good thing. And, showing once again how beneficial a NZ passport is, he waved us through.

OK, so that was a good start. Having checked in, and had a good night’s sleep, the next morning we decided to immerse ourselves in Jerusalem’s religious history, and set off down the street towards the old city. First impressions, in this old part of Jerusalem (just outside the walls of the Old City itself), were of an open, bustling, charming place, full of locals and tourists, all relaxed and happy. Cafes, and in particular, bakeries abounded. And it was a good ten or more degrees cooler than Dubai, which made us very happy.

What we had noticed already, and what became only more obvious over the next few days, is how obvious, how in-your-face religion is here. It is even more noticeable coming from New Zealand, where religion is one of the three topics to be avoided in conversation, where religion plays little part in the daily lives of the majority, and where religion forms no part of our political landscape. Yet religion pervades everything here, even to the toppings on pizza, or ingredients in your sandwich. Or, on a Friday night or Saturday lunch, whether it is even possible to buy lunch, or get a taxi. Our taxi driver, who was clearly one of the only casually religious, pointed out to us the conservative, Orthodox areas, filled with women who cover their hair and dress very conservatively, and the men in the black suits, black hats with large rims, and the ringlets in front of each ear. He referred to a “crazy” Orthodox area that has, on the Sabbath, regularly stoned cars driving past on the motorway to Tel Aviv, angry that others are driving cars when they believe it should be prohibited. And even in our hotel, on the Sabbath (or Shabat), one of the two elevators was designated a Shabat elevator, which means that it is programmed to stop at every floor, so the religious don’t have to “operate” technology/machinery by pushing a button for a selected floor.

In Jerusalem, it can be very easy to look at someone, and know their religion. Many men wear the skull caps or Kippah (yarmulke), the more orthodox Jewish women and most if not all Muslim women cover their hair, but use different scarves and techniques. And if someone is carrying a gun, then it is pretty sure they are Jewish. Then of course the other category is the tourist, and we are identifiable by our sweat, our hats and cameras, and sensible shoes.

The Old City is walled, and – except for Saturday morning – thronged with tourists from all countries and religions. They come here to the Western Wall, or to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque. There are restrictions though. Perhaps our timing was poor, but we were unable to get near the Dome of the Rock, arriving too close to prayer time, and turned away by the soldiers arming the gates. Beneath the mosque is the Western Wall, where Muslim visitors are able to walk past but behind a barrier, unable to get too close. The tension of this area was illustrated the day after we visited, when a security guard shot dead a Jewish man who apparently shouted “Allahu Akbar” in the Wall compound.

Then there are the Christian tourists, pouring into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an 11th century church commemorating the site of both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (though this is debated even among Christians). The faithful kneel at the Stone of Unction (or Stone of Anointing), touching the stone for blessings. Wikipedia tells me though that the belief that the stone was where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial is a recent one (dating only after the first Crusades), and that the stone itself is only two hundred years old. Throughout this city though, belief (no matter what your religion, no matter how humbling the displays of faith) trumps fact.

What surprised me was how truly small the Old City of Jerusalem actually is. Visiting and walking through the city, with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists alike, it becomes patently obvious that the city needs to be shared. And the intransigence displayed by the different sides of the conflict merely sets them all up for difficulty, if not disaster. And the tragedy unfolds …

As we drove through the West Bank to the Dead Sea, the wall erected by the Israelis is clearly visible. Tall, concrete, and foreboding – it brought to mind the walls and ghettos of World War II. And that’s the irony and tragedy of Israel.

* I have to credit the Jewish Kiwi Australian we met who described Jerusalem this way.

Gulf observations

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After several days with family in Qatar, we had a one day interlude in Dubai, before heading into full tourist mode for a week or two. A few final observations on these oil rich cities:

The heat is really something. It seems to suck all energy and life out of you – and that’s simply on the journey from an air-conditioned building to an air-conditioned car, or vice versa. The prospect of sightseeing here in Dubai, where we might have to walk a few hundred metres in this heat, was almost enough to convince me to stay and go swimming in the chilled pool. (We didn’t – we found a museum instead.). And it’s only June. Temperatures will continue to rise in July and August. Of course, if we lived here locally we would acclimatise to a degree. But expatriates confirm that in the summer months, they spend their time hiding inside in the safety of air-conditioning. The power demands in these countries must be massive.

That said, they save money on water heating. When we arrived, SIL advised us that when we shower during the day, we should turn the tap first to cold. We could increase the temperature if we needed to, but she didn’t think we would need to. It was with some scepticism that I followed her advice. She was right. Through the cold tap, in the middle of the day, we got a piping hot shower!

In New Zealand, we often hear criticisms of our driving habits and manners. Those who criticise should visit Qatar. I have never seen so many close calls as I did in just over four days in Qatar. My brother-in-law’s car, currently minus a bumper and in need of panel-beating at the rear, is a good illustration of what can happen there. The road designs don’t help, with many roundabouts where it is frequently necessary to cross multiple lanes. Of course, this happens suddenly, without notice, and seemingly without any care. It seems that turning indicator lights are an optional extra, and few locals choose to have them installed. They certainly don’t use them in Qatar. (In comparison, one of our Dubai taxi drivers said they all use them, because fines are high for not indicating, and you never know when you will be snapped by a police camera.). It can be terrifying to watch – and I compare this within the safety of Cambodia on the roads back in the early 1990s when no one had driving licences, and there seemed to be no road rules at all. Qatar makes Bangkok look like a demure, careful, defensive driver. Insanity rules, accident and death rates are apparently very high. So it seems odd that they all slow down when approaching a green light. Apparently there is a 6000 rial fine – that’s about NZ$2000, or US$1600 – for running a red light!

Everyone feels very safe in Qatar. Well, once they’re off the roads. Theft is rare – penalties are harsh. And the local Qataris have more money than they need. BIL and SIL talked of their amazement, when they first arrived, seeing locals hand over their credit cards in shops and restaurants, and give the staff their PIN numbers.

Dubai, our second stop, started life as a fishing village, then the pearl trade grew, only to be stopped in its tracks by the competition from cultured pearls. But it was the discovery of oil, in the 1960s, that set Dubai on the path to being the phenomenon it is today. Fast and flashy, Dubai – like its smaller neighbour Qatar – is shouting out to be noticed. So, like Taiwan and Kuala Lumpur before it, Dubai built the tallest building in the world. To be fair, the Burj Khalifa is very beautiful, an elegant silver spire that gleams in the sunlight. Unfortunately when we were there the humid haze and dust from the wind meant that visibility was low, and at times it was simply a tall grey ghost lost in the distance.

At the base of the building is one of the many malls you find in the Gulf, the Dubai Mall, apparently with more stores than any other Mall in the world. We entered to be greeted with the sight of a three-storey aquarium, containing fish, rays, sharks, and human divers of all shapes and sizes. further around is a skating rink, seemingly the must-have of any modern Mall in a tropical or desert city. (I’ve seen these before in Manila, and of course in Doha) . Another major Mall -the slightly smaller Mall of the Emirates – has gone one better, and has a ski-slope. Once again my mind goes to the power and water resources retired to maintain these facilities in the middle of a desert. Like the thirsty lawns laid on sand in both Qatar and Dubai, the thought makes me shudder.

Ice rinks and ski slopes aside, these malls could be anywhere in the world. Known luxury brand names abound, and department stores included Debenhams, Galarie Lafayette, and Bloomingdales, to name a few. The shoppers (and shop staff) too come from all over the world: Asian staff, locals shopping and meeting friends, expatriates tight their kids in their school uniforms, expatriate workers, and tourists – western and Middle Eastern. I’ve seen more women wearing the niqab (the face veil) in Dubai than in either Qatar or much more open Bahrain (albeit that was back in 2006), but I’m not sure if they were tourists from Saudi Arabia, or local women. Like the rest of us, they appreciate the food and wares on sale, and the cool air-conditioning.

Next stop is Israel, where temperatures, if not emotions, will be cooler.

Sun, sand and sea

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I have known my brother-in-law and his wife longer than I have known my husband. We get on very well, and have had lots of fun together over many years, in some really interesting places. My main regret with their expatriate lifestyle is that we only see them (and therefore our niece and nephew) rarely. So I think we have a good relationship. Then something gives me cause to wonder. Like Friday.

“Let’s go sand-duning,” brother-in-law (BIL) suggests. Sounded like a good idea to us, as it is one of the things that you have to do in Qatar. There was much discussion between sister-in-law (SIL) and BIL, and with us, about when to go. Saturday morning would be a good time, but there was a major family event that afternoon, so it was always going to make the morning a bit pressured. So it was decided we would go on Friday. Afternoon. My husband and I were like lambs to the slaughter. Meekly, innocently, trustingly, we went.

We drove through the Qatari countryside. So barren and bleak, that barren and bleak are words that can only begin to describe it. The flat featureless land looks as if it has been scraped clean, preparing it as a building site. The sand is just that – sandy, pale and colourless. The land is broken only by power pylons, and pipes full of crude oil (liquid gold as Jed Clampett would say). And of course the pristine highway cutting its way through the desert.

We followed the GPS. Qatar is not tourist friendly, and so our destination was not signposted. We turned off the main highway, and drove to the end of the road, the GPS advising us to now “drive off road.” And so for a very short distance we did, coming to rest under large sand dunes that seemed to appear out of nowhere. We clambered out of the car, clutching camera, hat and suntan lotion. The heat, at 2.30 pm, was at its peak, around 42 degs C. There was no breeze, and no shade. We suddenly realised why SIL had suggested going out early in the morning.

But we were there, and the point of being there was to hear the sand dunes sing. Apparently there are only a few spots in the world where the combination of heat, humidity, and sand composition (silica) produce musically gifted sand dunes. But first, we had to climb. My BIL went first, up the steep slope of the dune on all fours. Seems that at 42 degs, the sand gets quite hot! Nephew and my husband followed. They all successfully reached the top, albeit only a few seconds away from a heart attack (Nephew excepted). I was the official photographer, but realised I had no choice but to follow. I was already feeling the heat. Here we were, in a furnace, and I was supposed to climb these sand dunes. Half-way up, wrist and ankle-deep in sand, I decided that a) my BIL hated me, b) the ice-cream at lunch had not been such a good idea, c) I desperately needed water, and d) this was far enough.

Besides, the point of the visit was not so much the climb up, but the slide down. So we all turned and started sliding down the slope, causing mini sand avalanches. And the sand sang to us. A deep, sonorous note, much like monks chanting in a medieval cathedral, emerges from the vibrating dune, honouring our visit and our efforts. Alone in the desert with the singing sand dunes was awe-inspiring, but soon the heat drove us back to the car, to water, and best of all to air-conditioning, fast becoming my best friend here in Qatar.

We headed down the coast, to a beach “resort” where we found the other major sand dunes of Qatar. Huge sand dunes stretch for miles along the coast and further inland, providing a graceful and dramatic contrast to the harsh flat landscape around it. Here, a popular pastime is “dune bashing” – driving up the dunes in large four wheel drives, and sliding down steep slopes on the other side. BIL’s CRV was not up to the task, so we hiked up the dunes. Here at the coast it was cooler, by a degree or so, than at the much smaller singing dunes, and the hike wasn’t as steep, but it was still arduous. By now I was glaring at my BIL, convinced he was torturing us on purpose. We were rewarded with the view though, the dunes stretching off in the distance, the play of shadows and light and curves as the sun began to lower.

We descended quickly and easily towards the sea of the Arabian Gulf. It was not a peaceful beach experience. The noise of the four wheel drives on the sand dunes was replaced by the noise of jet skis and generators providing air-conditioning to trailers. All in close proximity to a major oil refinery. But the harsh surroundings and lack of beauty didn’t seem to bother the migrant workers from South Asia, most of them men, all clearly enjoying their day off, refreshed and cooled (just a little) by the sea.

The United Nations of Food

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I always enjoy visiting supermarkets in foreign countries. Yes, I’m weird, but it gives a little insight into what it would be like to live there, and it makes you feel just for a minute or two that you belong. The Carrefour supermarket at Villagio Mall turned out to be one of my first stops with my sister-in-law, who needed to run some errands. First stop, the lamb section. Of course, New Zealand lamb took pride of place. But there was also Australian lamb, and lamb from India, Pakistan, and Somalia. The selection surprised me, and I wondered what the taste differences would be. The price differences My sister-in-law declared that for stews, Indian lamb is the best. The only meat that wasn’t labelled by origin was the camel meat. I’m assuming it was local. Hopefully not the camels from our first day.

Then we moved to the tomato aisle. Tomatoes, you’d think, wouldn’t vary too much. But there were tomatoes from about seven different countries – Spain (of course, it seems obvious), the Netherlands and Belgium (less obvious) and from the Middle East -Jordan and Syria.

The fruit and vegetable section covered the globe – mangoes from Thailand, the Philippines, and all over the place, other produce from China, Chile, India, Africa (Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt) the US, Australia and New Zealand, and dozens of others I’ve forgotten. I drooled over the date section- dates galore, dates with nuts, chocolate covered dates, dates, dates and more dates. Place of origin un-named but likely to be local – though local in this case means the Middle East or North Africa.

“Really,” my sister-in-law said, herself a Chinese-Malaysian married to a New Zealander living in Qatar “we can get anything we want here.”

It truly felt like the United Nations of Food.

Communing with camels

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My first ever overseas travel experience was as a resident of Bangkok. It was some years before I became an actual tourist, and although I love being a tourist, I have always loved experiencing local life too. So the opportunity to visit Doha, to stay with local residents (brother-in-law), was always one we were going to take up. My brother-in-law enjoys being a tour guide. Over the years he has shown us around Singapore, Malaysia, Amsterdam, Vienna – and now Doha. So we’re getting the best of both travel worlds, the local experience and the tourist hot spots.

Not that Doha has many tourist hotspots. It is however a city that oozes wealth – we walked around an up-scale area yesterday through luxury stores, Maserati and Ferrari dealerships, and past many superyachts, including one that was larger and sleeker than any parked up in St Tropez. Doha’s oil and gas wealth means that the city is in a perpetual state of construction. The changes, my BIL informs me, in the last three years have been extraordinary. They are set to continue, at an unprecedented scale, leading up to the Football World Cup in 2022. I suspect the city then will bear little resemblance to the city now. It was however pleasing to see that care is being taken over public spaces – the seven kilometre long corniche that circles much of the harbour is a calm, palm tree lined space for walking, picnics, cycling etc. Further round the bay we saw extensive landscaping work underway. The advantages of money – beauty does not need to be sacrificed for functionality. Bridges are decorated, elaborate landscaped oases in the loops of motorway on-ramps, and more. A classic example amused me last night. Walking from the souq back to the car (parked at the national mosque) we took a thoughtfully- provided underpass. It was tiled, air-conditioned, and had decorated columns and seating that would not be out of place in a museum or major hotel.

Yesterday at least, the harbour was beautiful. the strong winds of the day before had abated, which meant the the air had cleared of sand, and the sky was blue. the sea too was a stunning tropical azure, a colour I had not expected in the Persian gulf, certainly not after my experience of neighbouring hazy Bahrain (to be fair, experienced during a cooler but more humid time of the year). The Museum of Islamic Art at the end of the corniche had large lawns, wonderful views over the dhow harbour and back to the financial district, and of course some beautiful and fascinating artefacts from the region.

We hit the souq last night. Thursday night is the beginning of the weekend here, and so it seemed that everyone was out – locals and expats alike, enjoying the cool (35 degs C) evening, sitting outside with coffee and smoking shisha (spiced tobacco water pipes), the restaurants and cafes all packed. It was a happy, peaceful atmosphere, and the air quite literally was full of spices.

And as we headed back to the car, we passed a camel compound. It was incongruous – a large enclosure filled with around 20 camels, walking or lying on the desert sand, with a backdrop of building construction, bright lights, and large cranes. I took some time to sympathise with the camels, no doubt suffering from speed bumps themselves given the rate of change in this city.