- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
Hidden gems: Jerash Roman ruins in Jordan, Poland’s lake district, and the hills of Molise, Italy
Hottest: Aqaba, Jordan, where the temperature soared to 47 degrees.
Coldest: Warsaw, Poland, where we woke to morning frosts.
Most beautiful: Lake Bled, Slovenia, and on a larger scale, Giau Pass (Cortina d’Ampezzo), Italy and Wadi Rum, Jordan
Most squalid: The dirty, littered Roman streets
Most surprising (good): Monopoli’s old town and harbour, Puglia, Italy
Most surprising (bad): Italian beaches
Most annoying cultural habit: Hogging the footpath (pavement) in Italy
Most pleasing custom: The friendliness of Jordanians, and being welcomed as “locals” at restaurants in Italy.
Most disappointing place: Rome in July. (Rome is fabulous, just not in July).
Worst meal: Poland sausage encased in potato dough with a weak, watery white sauce and a few slices of mushroom.
Never going back: Pesaro – Italian beaches. Ugh.
Favourite place: Vittorio Veneto for all round fabulousness. Great scenery, tree-lined streets, charming town (both new and old), good prosecco, good food, and pleasant accommodation.
Somewhat surprisingly (though I don’t know quite why I am surprised), the food during our three weeks in the Middle East has been a highlight. Well, for me at least. The husband has been less thrilled, though he did like the hummus. It started off well, when Fifi and Paul introduced us to some Arabian specialities in Qatar. Some of them saw us through the next few weeks:
- Mint lemonade, as it is known in Qatar, can be found throughout the Middle East. A home-made lemonade (lemon juice) with lots of crushed/chopped mint added. Mint lemonade in plastic glasses for an exorbitant price at the corner of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) in Jerusalem. In Petra, in dire need of sustenance after descending from the Monastery, a Lemon Mint (same thing as mint lemonade) was provided with a sugar shaker to adjust sweetness, and a mint lemonade at the Four Seasons in Amman came in a carafe with another smaller carafe full of sugar syrup, for personal sweetening. I’ve always loved lime juice in Thailand. But mint lemonade is now a close contender for my favourite cooling juice drink. I will be attempting to make it at home this summer.
- Dips and bread. This is where they started. Hummus, home-made is best (thanks Fifi), with Arab flat breads. Za’atar (a herb and spice mix) on bread, a kind of local pizza. The delicious murtabal, an eggplant dip. And more. When we arrived in Jordan, we’d start our dinner with hummus and murtabal and flat bread. Fifi also
- Salads. Oh, the salads. The heat and dehydration made me crave salads. Fattoush (thanks Paul) was our first introduction, a lovely light salad with lettuce and cucumber and tomato and crunchy toasted or fried pita pieces. But everywhere we went, the salads were amazing. Maybe it’s just the time of year – the tomatoes (and the many divine cherry tomato salads I found in Israel and Jordan) were ripe and luscious and well, just my favourite fruit/vegetable on earth. But there were always zucchini salads, and eggplant, and Greek style salads with cucumber and olives and feta cheese. Which brings me to the olives. Oh yes, the olives here are wonderful. When we ordered a drink in Amman, it was brought with a big bowl of olives and cherry tomatoes. Bliss!
- Shawarma. You can’t visit the Middle East without eating shawarma, also called kebabs in western countries. Shaved barbecued spiced meats, wrapped in flat breads. I love them, but love the ones with the salads mixed in best. The ultimate takeaway food.
- Kosher food. Yes, I love kosher food. One of the rules of kosher food is that dairy and meats should not be mixed. A cheeseburger, therefore, is anathema. Pizzas with meat are not kosher, nor are pasta sauces with parmesan. And restaurants in Israel are often either dairy or meat restaurants, but rarely both. Or they have two completely separate sections – essentially two different restaurants, where even the seating is divided. So when we found places to eat in Israel, we’d often find dairy places. Pizzas with inventive, vegetable toppings, and pasta dishes with vegetable sauces. I was in seventh heaven. I could eat this way all the time. In Israel, I was a very happy diner.
- The serving sizes. We didn’t notice this so much in the Gulf states, but in Israel (and also sometimes Jordan) the serving sizes were huge. A single serving was enough for a family of four in Asia. We wondered why, assuming at one stage that it must be the American influence. Then on our tour to Masada, we met the hairy Oklahoma twins. We sat together at lunch, devouring enormous shawarmas. I asked them about the serving sizes. “Oh yes,” they said, appreciatively nodding at the shawarma. “Northern Europe has such small servings. The UK especially! At least here, they’re normal serving sizes!” They were so blissfully unaware that “normal” was only “normal” in the US and Israel, and maybe, we eventually agreed, Germany.
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.
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.
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.
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.