Galapagos – From Bluefooted Boobies to Swimming with Sharks

img_3948Galapagos Islands: the very name conjures up images of a mysterious paradise, of unique species of animals that have adapted to their environment is special ways.  img_4109

I am so glad and grateful that I had a chance to visit these far away islands, even thought they have now lost some of their magic for me. But the intrigue has been replaced by memories of walking among iguanas and swimming with sharks and sea lions. img_4095

When we made the decision to travel to South America there were two thing high on our wish list: Easter Island and the Galapagos. I had read a wonderful, insightful book called Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman. This book heightened my wish to see these islands for myself.

We flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador west across the Pacific and landed on one of the circa 40 Galapagos Islands (did you know there are so many islands here?!): Baltra. The humid heat hit us like a wall. Tourists can travel to the Galapagos on their own or via a planned trip. But even if you go on your own, you cannot visit the National Park areas without a guide or small tour group. We booked our trip via a travel agent in Florida that specializes in South America. They adapted the itinerary to our budget by selecting types of accommodations but mostly by adapting the length of stay. The Galapagos are not only expensive to reach, they are expensive in every way since all food and drink needs to come from far away.

A guide met us at the airport, expertly whisked our luggage away and loaded us and about 18 others onto a bus. It was only a 10 minute drive to the boat launch where we climbed aboard a bobbing dinghy.  We would repeat this exercise in agility many times in the coming days. img_3985

The dinghy brought us to a medium yacht, or tiny cruise boat. The MV Coral I had about 14 cabins and a total of 20 guests on board plus a crew of 15, including two naturalists.

We were shown our cabin: a small room below deck, with a tiny bathroom. It did have everything we needed but the closet door wouldn’t open far enough to reach the hangers inside, so we never did unpacked our stuff.

An orientation meeting told us onboard routine. Each day we would get a friendly wake-up call, followed half an hour later by breakfast. Shortly after that we had the first of two activities in the morning, then a hot lunch, a siesta and then another activity like a hike or swim. Dinner was at 7 or 8 o’clock.

img_3939That first day we visited the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. This is where the breeding program for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises takes place. Eggs from all over the islands are hatched here and the little Giant Tortoises (how do you call a little giant tortoise?), are raised until the age of 5 when they are released in hopes that they will survive on their own. We saw several huge, ancient tortoises as well as amazing prickly pear cactus trees that grow into huge trees over 400 years old. Unfortunately, the buildings were not open to the public and we did not see eggs or baby tortoises.

We walked through town and discovered that, like Easter Island, the Galapagos we had imagined was very different from reality. For instance, did you realize that the archipelago consists of nearly 40 islands, four of which are permanently inhabited?

img_3943And did you know that over 30,000 people live in Galapagos? I had no idea… The cities of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have schools, stores, government buildings and much more. Two airports serve the islands. Since Galapagos was used as a penal colony by Ecuador, most houses had bars and gates as opposed by the much more friendly atmosphere on Easter Island.

The heat was incredible. There is almost no rain on these lava islands. Some are lush and green but others are a volcanic wasteland. In fact, one early explorer wrote home to describe that he had arrived in what he truly thought was hell…. img_4052

That first night we slept well in our slightly rocking bunks. However, the next two nights were though as we crossed open ocean and coped with high swells which rocked the small boat left to right and front to back. Things flew through the cabin and we ended up sleeping on the outside deck. Most of us didn’t get sea sick but we rocked for 3 days afterwards…

 

Sorry – Bluefooted Boobies coming up in the next episode!

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Rapa Nui’s Tapati Festival

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The gods smiled on us again when we booked our trip to Easter Island. Totally by fluke it turns out that we are here for the grand finale of Rapa Nui’s annual Tapati Festival.This huge festival celebrates local culture and honours the ancestors.

The local people prepare all year for this week long event. Local young men and women sign up as candidates, representing their extended families or tribes. Contests test their skills, strength and knowledge. One contest is sliding down an enormous slope on handmade sled made from palm branches.

img_3710They sing, dance, cook, make crafts and much more. Not only are the candidates tested and judged, but also their entire tribe which supports them. The tribes dance and sing, make costumes and create amazing floats for the final parade.

How amazing to be here to witness this authentic, grass roots Polynesian festival. We walked to the main street around 5 PM.

Floats made of farm tractors pulling long flat beds, were parked along the upper end of the main street. The trailer beds were decorated with greens, mostly palm leaves. img_3695img_3694But it was the carvings on these trailers that blew us away. People had spent weeks carving huge statues of mermaids, warriors, turtles and more. These are reminiscent of North American totem poles, polished and oiled or painted. At first we thought that, surely, these carvings were re-used each year. But we were assured that they are newly created for each festival!

Hundreds of people milled about. To our amazement, all locals, even even some tourists, were decked out in traditional costumes: feathers, paint, and a pair of coconuts – if that. Many women were completely naked except for a sandy body paint. The paint resembles henna mixed with sand. Entire bodies were painted brown or with contrasting designs all over: swirls, lines, dots, symbols – including the face. Even the hair was often covered in this ‘mud’ and made to stand up straight. Women usually had feathers or palm fonds in their hair. The men only wore a loin cloth, or simply some leaf wrapped about their private parts… Infants and children were all painted and decked out in feathers. Little boys brandished their wooden swords and even tiny girls wore little shells as bra’s.

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When we asked what time the parade would start, the answer was invariable “Maybe at 6, maybe by 7…” So we waited, strolling along the street and did not have enough eyes to take everything in. At one point I felt I was in a Disney movie about the South Pacific, except that this was so real, so authentic. Nothing on the floats was made of plastic or anything artificial. Just local wood and greens. Only the preschool had a gigantic fish on their float made of recycled bottle caps.

Once everyone and their entourage was judged, a king and queen were announced and then the parade slowly started to roll down the street. A float would come by, followed by a huge horde of local people in their body paint and feathers. Suddenly everything stopped again and people would sing and dance. There were ukuleles, a harmonica, guitars and drums. They sang these wonderful, catchy Polynesian songs, dancing and swaying arms and hips. Such energy! At some point we sat on a patio for empanadas and drinks while watching the parade flow by. img_3819

The parade would move again and another couple floats came by before it all stopped again and another dance and song erupted. By 9 PM the float wasn’t even at the end of main street. Tirelessly they danced and sang, everyone happy and beaming. There was no drinking, no drunkenness, no pick pocketing. It was amazing to revel in this happy atmosphere and I kept pinching myself that I was able to witness this Festival. It was totally not touristy and a true celebration of local customs and tradition. It was joyfulness personified.

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By ten o’clock a full moon shone down on it all. The king and queen for the coming year were still waving and smiling, music and laughter and song was still wafting out over the white capped waves of the Pacific, as we finally turned our backs on it all and walked to our hotel. The next morning our waitress was sleep eyed and admitted she had gone straight from partying back to work at 6 AM…
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If you ever have a chance to visit Easter Island, I highly recommend you coincide your visit with Tapati Festival – a highlight of our trip to South America.

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For details and video of Tapati Festival, click here: http://www.easterislandspirit.com/tapati-festival/

Tales of the South Pacific 3: Moving Moai and the Birdman Battle

img_3473Our next visit was to the steep cliffs of the south west coast of the island. From up above we gazed down on foaming white waves pounding the shore of a small island: Moto Nui. This is were history was made.

The first inhabitants likely arrived on Rapa Nui in wooden canoes from far away Tahiti. From these first few, grew a population of thousands. But European diseases and fighting reduced their numbers to a low of 110 at one point. After the moai carving culture, competing tribes designed a non-violent way to establish order on Easter Island: the Birdman Cult. Chosen young men competed for the right to have their tribe rule for the next year, until the next competition was held.

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Birdman figure

The competition was held near the most important site on the island: the Rano Kau volcano, and consisted of climbing down a steep rock face of Orongo to the wild ocean below, building rafts from reeds, using these as floatation devices and swimming the rough kilometre wide passage of pounding ocean to Moto Nui island.

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We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

img_3498We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

The best came last when we visited the site famous from so many photos – the long row of moai standing shoulder to shoulder. This is iconoclastic face of Easter Island. img_3642

But my favourite site is the quarry. When I first heard the name, I pictured a rock excavation site where rocks were dug up. However, when you approach the quarry, it is as if the stone people have come to life and are walking out of the mountain from where they are born. A gently sloping green side of a volcano is scattered with upright figures. They seem to be walking down, stumbling and standing all over the slopes. The sight gave me goosebumps and a lump in my throat. img_3618img_3633

The moai were carved here from gigantic blocks of basalt and lava. Weighing many tons and measuring up to ten meters in height, their individual features were carved. I had heard that most figures only show the upper body while the lower half is still buried. Before I saw them, I thought that this meant that the moai had been covered by drifting sand over the ages. But that is not true at all, there is no sand. Only lava and rocks. The artists did not have ladders, so they dug deep pits in which they lowered or erected the moai until they could reach their faces to carve them.

Once a figure was finished, it was erected and “walked” down the mountain to spots all over the island – a mind boggling feat that National Geographic has tried to recreate. Why did they stop carving and moving? It seems like they were in the middle of ongoing projects when work came to a halt. No one knows…img_3604

Why did the Rapa Nui create these statues in the first place? Well, it is believed that well to do families ordered a moai in memory of an important member of the community. When this person died, male or female, a moai was constructed in his or her image and erected over their bones. Once the grey basalt figure, with or without red lava topknot had been given white corral eyes with a black obsidian center, it was believed that the deceased person’s spirit had enter the moai and would now protect Rapa Nui and its future generations.  img_3637

For details on Easter Island and its history, click here:http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/

See a reenactment of ‘walking’ the statues here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvvES47OdmY

Tales of the South Pacific – 2. Easter Island or Rapa Nui 

img_3874We flew from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island on Latam Airlines. Which is, in fact, the only way to reach the distant, isolated island. Before getting there I had imagined an old, small airplane. I don’t know why – but I had thought it would be a local airline with an old prop plane. The opposite turned out to be true: Latam is part of One World and operates a brand new Boeing 787 on the route to Easter Island. As we reclined in luxury we crossed the south Pacific Ocean. Only then does it become clear just how distant this place is. From mainland Chile you fly at a speed of 850 KM an hour for about 5 hours! The island is almost halfway between mainland Chile and New Zealand. img_3508

We arrived in luxury and comfort. But now imagine that you are an early explorer, sailing the Pacific Ocean in search of new lands. After weeks of nothing but water, you spot land. A green island with round, cone shaped hills and the odd ragged cliff dropping off into the roaring ocean. As this Dutch ship under the comment of Captain Roggeveen, cautiously approaches the island, furling the sails that billowed from its three tall masts, you spot people. Giants.

Huge, towering people standing shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the sea. These stone giants are most likely meant to honour chiefs and other important people. For more than a thousand years – no one knows their exact date – have they silently been standing here. Only a few statues face out over the sea, looking in the direction of other Polynesian islands, possibly the Marquesa Islands from where the first inhabitants of Easter Island might have come by canoes.

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Roggeveen did go on land and communicate with the native population. As it happened to be Easter for the European Christian sailors, they named the island Easter Island; Paas Eiland in Dutch, Isla de Pascua in Spanish. Never mind that the island already had inhabitants and a name: Rapa Nui. Like other islands claimed by European nations, it has now gone back to using and being proud of its original name and so I shall refer to Easter Island as Rapa Nui in my story. Since 1965 the island is under Chilean government. It uses Chilean pesos but has its own Rapa Nui postage stamps.

The stone statues for which the island is famous, are so shrouded in mystery that it is hard to realize that they stand on a normal island where regular people live in a regular town. I had only ever seen images of statues and green grass and found it slightly jarring to arrive in this mysterious place to see ordinary trucks, Cola machines, dogs – just like in any other town. Where was the mystery?

We walked across the tarmac to the palm fond covered entrance of a tiny airport. Each and every new arrival is greeted with a lei of fresh flowers.  People here still speak Spanish but also Rapa Nui, which is very Polynesian and looks like Hawaiian to us. We noticed that most of the other tourists in our hotel and on tours around the island, must have saved up and planned for this trip-of-a-lifetime just like us for most had white hair! Our hotel was a lovely, one story building with high ceilings and large rooms. Palm trees and flowering shrubs surrounded a small pool. It was nearly 30º, even late at night. With only two and a half days on the island, there would not be much time for sitting by the pool. We had a place to explore!

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Our hotel

Rapa Nui is roughly the same size as Salt Spring Island with almost the same number of people, around 7000 – increasing with tourists. They also face similar problems, like sustainability, water shortage and recycling. Of course this island is much further away from a main land. Supplies used to come, and still may, once a year by ship. Everything else is flown in. So the cost of a soft drink or anything else is sky high. A small bottle of water which was 1 dollar in Santiago, costs 3 dollars here. Everything needs to be recycled or re-used. A sign in our bathroom asked us not to ‘throw paper at the toilet’ – which we took to mean no flushing of paper…

At 9 AM, we climbed aboard a small bus together with other tourists from Chile, France, Australia for our first day of touring the island and seeing the statues. img_3542

Salt Spring has its deer and lots of rabbits. Rapa Nui has dogs and horses. Dogs roam everywhere, the nicest, sweetest pups, wagging tails and friendly as can be. An estimated 2000 horses have been branded but, like our chickens at home, are free range and roam all over the island.

img_3541Our very first moai, or stone statues, was a row of five who, unlike all other moai, face out over the ocean rather than inland with their backs to the sea. Why? We can only guess and only “the ancestors ” know the real answer. They sit near two platforms on which the moai typically rest. These platforms are built of huge square basalt blocks with straight lines and rounded corners. It is impressive how precisely these were constructed so many hundreds of years ago, without the use of metal tools.

Once the guide pointed it out, we noticed moai that have fallen forward, on their faces, and cracked. Many have been destroyed during a civil war between the Long Ears and the Short Ears tribes around 1680, as well as by missionaries, neglect and the passing of time.

The standing, reconstructed moai were about 5 meters tall. Each face is quite individual. A few wear ‘top knots’ – these round blocks of red lava have a smaller red part on top and are said to resemble not hats but hair, worn traditionally on a long pony tail tied in a knot on top of the head, just like most men here still wear it.

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Top Knot lava stone

 

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Next story: More Moai Tales and The Battle of the Birdman!

Tales of the South Pacific – 1. Santiago, Chile

img_3429Normally we are very individual travellers and book all of our own arrangements, including flights and accommodations. However, just like in Africa, we felt that this short trip to South America merited the knowledge and advise of a specialized travel agency. We found South American Vacations in Florida.

We often travel for an extended period of time, combining personal travel with work in international schools. This time, however, I did not have school bookings and we could only go away for a short time, around 2 weeks. The top destination on our long time bucket list only required two weeks, in fact we couldn’t afford any longer to this expensive destination. We took a deep breath and bit the bullet: we would visit Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands while we are still healthy enough for the amount of hiking involved.

img_3432Easter Island and Galapagos are often visited together with Machu Pichu. But we weren’t interested in hiking at such a high altitude nor in seeing more ruins after visiting many Mayan and Aztec sites in Mexico. Later we met people who visited both destinations and also include in their trip Rio, Patagonia and Antarctica. This seemed way too overwhelming to me..

South American Vacations was able to taylor make us an itinerary. But it did involve a lot of flying. Booking a prearranged trip has advantages as well as disadvantages: I felt that we wasted a lot of time waiting for drivers to pick us up. But it was also nice not to have to figure out taxis, haggling over fares or finding  addresses. We travel with cabin luggage only which allows us to be the first ones through customs and off with our waiting ride.

The travel gods were with us. We seldom have snow on Salt Spring Island but a foot of thick snow fell just before we left. We made it out OK even though flights all around us were canceled due to snow. From Houston, TX we flew 9 hours to Santiago, Chile where it was a balmy 25º. The arrival hall in Santiago beat anything we’d ever seen in airports around the world: hundreds and hundreds of arriving passengers in one gigantic line up, snaked around and around. We shuffled along for over an hour until they finally opened up some extra windows and we cleared immigration.

img_3416Thanks to booking with the travel agency, all little details were arranged including pick up by taxi to get to our hotel – a small but very convenient hotel in downtown Santiago. We walked around the neighbourhood and ate a sandwich on a patio. I was surprised at how un-Latin-American the city felt. It resembled a modern, European city and in fact I think I read somewhere that Santiago is called “the Paris of South America” – stylish business people rushing to offices, expensive cars, underground parking garages, and of course several Starbucks…

We didn’t spot any Chilean food – just French, Thai and American – and ended up having a great meal in an Irish Pub of all places. After having spent a night on the airplane we slept like a log. img_3426The following morning we were picked up for a city tour. The downtown in which our hotel was located, was the cosmopolitan, business part of the city. But there is also a historic downtown. Dating back to the mid 1500’s, the streets are narrower here and lined with historic houses, palaces and churches rather than with glass and glistening steel skyscrapers. Our guide, Cristobál, was extremely knowledgeable, not just in dates and numbers but with his grasp on politics and development of his country. We learned so much from him about revolutions and dictators, about settlement and government.

Starting in an ancient cathedral with gleaming wooden floors and hand painted wooden ceilings, we walked all over the city for several hours, stopping in front of old palaces where generals lived, the palace of justice, the mint and many other Spanish style buildings and monuments. One monument still had the bullet holes from the 1973 revolution in which Salvador Allende gave up his power.

We ate fresh empanadas and walked around the hill of Santa Lucia where we had a view of this city of over five million people. Green belts and parks are the lungs of the city and many people walked and jogged here.

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Santiago, Chile

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For a walking tour of Santiago check out: http://www.swoop-patagonia.com/blog/things-santiago/

Saudi Arabia: Between sand and abayas

img_3252Traveling to Saudi Arabia generally requires an official invitation before a visa is issued. I was fortunate to be invited to speak, for the second time, at KAUST – King Abdullah’s University of Science and Technology. Both the University and the King are/were pretty amazing.

King Abdullah was in his eighties when he decided to create the ultimate university where the brightest brains in the world would study, research and develop science and technology.

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Kaust campus

“The University shall be a beacon for peace, hope, and reconciliation and shall serve the people of the Kingdom and benefit all the peoples of the world,” said the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. And so a towering beacon is the focal point of the campus.

I flew for several hours across Saudi Arabia, seeing nothing but brown sand and the odd road beneath me. I arrived by airplane in Jeddah, a small chaotic airport. Cleared immigration quickly and walked outside through the exit doors where many men in white or beige robes waited for arriving passengers. A driver from KAUST collected me and drove me about two hours north of Jeddah, where KAUST is located near the town of Thuwal, built on desert sand and flanked by the Red Sea.

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The Eye

KAUST feels like a vision. Its buildings are ultra modern, eco friendly and state of the art. The university library is built from alabaster so that, at night, the light shines through the walls. Walking around the campus is like walking around in the future.

The university is the main focus of KAUST. The ‘town’ surrounding it is there to support it and make research viable. Wide avenues flanked by palm trees are lined with homes, ranging from townhouses to near palaces in size. This is where graduate students live, university professors and other staff, but also all staff that make KAUST tick. It is the ultimate Pleasantville to live but quite different from the rest of the country.

There is a supermarket, banks, fast food outlets, a dining room, coffee shops and corner stores. Several recreation complexes offer pools and squash courts, running tracks and more.

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Me on my moped

A preschool, elementary school, middle school and highschool are home to all KAUST children. The ‘compound’ is incredibly safe: children can walk to school, ride their bikes or take a (free) bus.

Within the compound, which doesn’t really feel like it is enclosed, women can drive, work, teach, even wear bikinis on the beach.

As soon as I left the compound, though, I had to wear an abaya to cover up clothes but not my hair.

During my week of author presentations at the elementary school I stayed in a beautiful room in the Kaust Inn. A kind teacher lend me a moped and thus I was able to ride to school and all over the ‘town’.

Each day I rode my moped to school, then explored, visited teachers, stopped at a coffee shop or went to eat dinner by the pool. The air was a balmy 25 – 30 degrees in December. But in the summer the mercury can reaches 50 C here!

I enjoyed a beautiful dinner and great conversation in the home of a Palestinian teacher and her family. img_3304

And some other teachers kindly treated me to a long anticipated trip into old Jeddah. Wearing black abayas and in the companion of two male teachers, we walked around old Jeddah. Not many westerners get to see this historic city, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Traditional homes are at a point of collapse and I hope that restoration will not come too late to save the leaning, traditional buildings with sagging, wooden balconies.

We roamed narrow alleys in the dark, a souq with stalls selling roasted peanuts, pumice, prayer beads, dried sap, Qu’ran stools and much more. The people were friendly, smiling and greeting us.

img_3203When the call to prayer danced through the night sky, men flocked to communal wash basins to wash hands and feet, then streamed down the alleys to the mosque.

Later, we passed a mosque with a minaret that was said to be over 800 years old. “Please,” a man in long robes gestured, “come inside, come look around.” Everyone was kind and gracious.

We sipped avocado smoothies, watched old men sip tea on wooden benches, and young men playing dominoes in a circle on the ground. They all laughed and waved as we, westerners, walked by.

Driving Jeddah’s choked main roads – it is a city of 2 million – I was taken aback to spot a Tim Horton’s and signs to IKEA, jarring me back from a charming, middle eastern setting to a generic western influence.

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Jeddah is only about 60 miles from Mecca. This explained the chaos at the airport. At any given time, muslims from all over the world flock to Mecca. When I arrived at the airport for my return flights home, hundreds of women were sitting outside on the sidewalks, next to bundles and bags. I wouldn’t want to be here during Hajj pilgrimage when millions of Muslims from all over the world ascend on Mecca and the Jeddah airport. I had to push my way through a packed crowd of families, carts, piles and piles of luggage, to get to the doors. Huge endless line-ups flowed from check-in counters right to the exit doors. “Really?” I asked a uniformed security guy. “No ma’m,” he smiled and led me straight to a first class check-in counter where a polite man handed me my boarding pass, even though I wasn’t flying first class.

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Mosque in Jeddah

Then I made it to a packed departure hall where people of all colours, in all possible kinds of traditional clothing and languages, sat on chairs and floors, eating, drinking, praying and sleeping. I revelled in soaking in the exotic colours of so many cultures. Finally, at 4 AM my flight boarded and a few hundred people pushed and shoved their way into busses, up the long outside staircases and into the Boeing 777.

About 40 hours later, 4 flights, many time zones, and a lot of degrees difference (I went from + 32 to -23!) I was home. Grateful to be able to do author visits to international schools, what a privilege.

Dazzling Doha

 

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It’s a startling experience to emerge from an underground, state-of-the-art parking garage full of Lexus and BMW’s, to a lot full of camels! In the Middle East, old and new have a tendency to rub shoulders.

img_2916My favourite place to visit in Doha was perhaps the souq. Historically, the souq is where all trade took place. The gold souq, the falcon souq, the spice souq. Because Qatar’s sandstone buildings did not withstand the ages, the ‘old’ souq here is new. It has been build to resemble a historic one with dark ceiling beams and narrow passages. It feels, sounds and smells wonderful. Indian traders offer anything from plastic sandals to glittering cloth to pots large enough to hold an entire goat.

img_2892At night, after dark, the souq is alive with people milling about, buying things, smoking a water pipe, sipping coffee. I love how safe it is here. Many of my North American friends say “Be careful going there!” but I feel safe knowing that people do not steal, do not carry guns and do not harass women. I can walk down dark alleys with no problem at all.

One of my favourite parts was the falcon souq. Falcons are an important part of Qatar’s heritage. These birds are highly skilled and trained, costing up to a million dollars! img_2983The souq is next to the Falcon Hospital…no kidding. Falcon trainers walk around with a hooded bird perched on their gloved fist. These birds can travel in the cabin of airplanes on Qatar Airways and even have their own ‘passport’ with inoculations etc. listed.img_2981

Next to this new/old souq is Katara: a beautiful part of downtown dedicated to culture. Besides the mosque is a gorgeous marble amphitheatre, a pigeon tower, and buildings housing cultural workshops.

I worked in 5 international schools in Doha, all beautiful buildings with lovely students from many countries, many of them second language learners. One boy in Grade 5 told me he speaks 5 languages…

 

 

Did you know that the weekend in the Middle East is on Friday and Saturday? On Friday many people attend a sermon in the mosque, then have family time to do things together. Stores are often closed on Friday. It takes a bit of getting used to going back to work or school on Sunday!

img_2940One day we visited Sheikh Faizal’s Museum outside the city. What a fascinating place. Apparently the Sheikh was a hoarder. He collected things that made sense, but also a lot of things that made no sense at all. I kept wondering if his wife/wives despaired at his tendency to collect stuff. At some point, he simply had a colossal building build to house all of his stuff: a huge collection of ’50 and ’60 American cars. Matchboxes. Coins. Boats.

img_3029However, some of his stuff is allowing an important part of Qatar’s history to be preserved, perhaps not because he meant to preserve it but simply because he collected it. The museum has a room full of dinosaur bones and fossils (pretty special in the Middle East).

There is a room dedicated to the first medical doctor in Doha, a female! Complete with all of her tools, even a rare wooden bicycle ambulance.

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Pigeon Tower, Katara

I was floored to see rooms on world religions, including Jewish prayer shawls and a Roman Catholic confession stand. There were endless rooms of breathtaking carpets, one woven with real gold. A collection of Qur’ans including the world’s smallest Qur’an, a tiny square inch.

The museum is now serving as a practise ground for students studying museum sciences. Display cases are being build, Middle Eastern clothing and jewelry is being displayed, carpets are being protected. It feels like order is slowly turning the chaos of piles of stuff into a fascinating museum collection. A great place to visit if you want to see Arabian heritage.

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Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A much more traditional, established museum is Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. Its art collection includes Middle Eastern ceramics, jewels, scripts, calligraphy. A visiting display, this time, shared China’s terra cotta warriors with Qatar residents. But what really caught my interest, was the building itself. Amazing architecture has the outside top of the building resemble a woman’s traditional Qatari face mask. batulaThe inside of the building was equally impressive with its gleaming marble and intriguing lines, mirrored in the water.

If you have time to spend in Qatar, be sure to take a desert excursion. These are available for half or full days but also overnight trips. To sleep under the starry sky in the desert, in a Bedouin camp, is a wonderful experience, complete with camel rides and dune buggies. A tour company will pick you up at your hotel. However, Qatar is not cheap. In the old souq there can be a little bit of bartering, but prices of restaurant meals, groceries, clothing, souvenirs and tours are high.

https://www.visitqatar.qa

http://www.fbqmuseum.org

http://www.mia.org.qa/en/ img_2869