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Travel and Trust

I trust Sadika- whose name translates to “friend”. When I travel to Lebanon, I will be trusting Sadika with my life as my best friend Hooka trusted me with hers.

Two weeks ago, I made the hardest decision when I put my dog Hooka, my best friend of sixteen years, to sleep.  She was refusing to eat,  she was struggling to walk and even stand. 

I have not gone a day without crying, without thinking about her.  She and my cat Habibi were named because of my travels to Cairo, first as a year abroad at the American University of Cairo from 1995-1996, then about a decade later to run a half-marathon in Luxor, then again as part of trip about two years to Turkey and Egypt for my fortieth birthday.

I’m not a smoker but I love the taste and smell of apple tobacco from the water pipe called a hooka and her fur reminded me of the white smoke that puffs from her namesake. 

Many of my favorite memories with Hooka involved us running together for the first twelve years of her life, or watching her run, sometimes joyfully in circles which she did up until a few months ago.  She always seemed to be a happy dog who trusted me with her complete well being. 

Five years before my first trip to Cairo, I read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem an overview of the politics of the Middle East. A year later I mailed a postcard to the American University of Beirut, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to apply. My dad and stepmom intercepted the college application in the mail curtly vetoed the idea despite my plea of-

“Well their civil war has been over a couple of years.”

Since my parents were paying for college,  I trusted their judgement and attended UC Santa Cruz two hours away from their house in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I studied Middle Eastern politics at UCSC and AUC and continued to follow the (usually bad) news of the Middle East and North Africa. Over the last twenty years,  besides returning to Egypt- I visited Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. Lebanon was always on the back burner until two years ago at a Toastmasters conference in Las Vegas. A half hour after the World Champion of Public Speaking was named, I was chatting with a woman named Sadika as we were looking for Chelsea Avery, a great speaker herself, whose husband Ryan a prior World Champion of Public Speaking had spoken in Sacramento earlier that year. 

I thought she was being polite when she said, “Come to Lebanon and be my guest.”

If I said, “Come to Sacramento and be my guest,” it would mean helping them find a hotel a taking a day off work to show them the sites of Sacramento or maybe a weekend if they wanted to drive to San Francisco or Tahoe. I wouldn’t mean “stay with me.”Other than my cat and dog,  I haven’t shared my 999 square feet with anyone.  My guest room is my cat’s room,  office and a broken fold out sofa. 

Sadika, a teacher and public speaker, and I kept in touch on Facebook and I discovered she wasn’t just being polite,  I would stay with her and she would show me around her country- a country north to south is smaller hundred mile drive to Tahoe or San Francisco from Sacramento.

As officially I’m am analyst for a state agency, I did what any reasonable analyst would do and googled “Travel to Lebanon” and after the pretty pictures of Beirut and Baalbek the first link takes me here:

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon because of the threats of terrorism, armed clashes, kidnapping, and outbreaks of violence, especially near Lebanon’s borders with Syria and Israel...

Or in short- non essential travel to Lebanon should be avoided. 

Lebanon has mountains coastline- so does California.

Lebanon has ancient Roman ruins and wine- so does Rome and Las Vegas- or at least a facade.

“What happens if you are kidnapped? Terrorism isn’t an issue in California.”

Well there was the attack in San Bernardino. San Bernardino scared me. 

The scariest thing I ever had to do was trust myself as I said goodbye to Hooka. I held and petted her, as they inserted the syringe and her heart stopped quickly. Up until her final days Hooka trusted me as I fed and played with her, when I walked  or ran with her and when she fell asleep near me.

I miss her so much.  As my travels to Cairo inspired her name.  Part of her legacy is learning to trust. I trust Sadika- whose name translates to “friend”. When I travel to Lebanon, I will be trusting Sadika with my life as my best friend Hooka trusted me with hers. 

I love you Hooka thank you for teaching me how to trust. 

Sweet Bites of Lebanon

Enjoying these sweet bites with Bahia, her mother-in-law Sadika and their families at their homes or in coffee shops were authentic experiences I will never forget.

Barely a day after 28 hours in airports and planes, the tastes of Lebanon still linger.

The first week I was in Lebanon, I had the most delicious pistachio ice cream cake at an Eid lunch at my new friend’s Bahia’s family home in Tripoli.  

Pistachio ice cream cake at a home in Tripoli

It was the second day of Eid, when my hosts and their families gathered together and feasted after finishing their month long Ramadan fast. The cake temporarily distracted me from watching the family dynamics and maybe from staring too much at Bahia’s cute older brother.

I’ve had pistachio ice cream before but never like this. It was served with ashtar a thick clotted cream, and topped with a thin white cotton candy topping and pistachios.

That piece of pistachio ice cream cake was so delicious that when I had pistachio ice cream again on my last night in Lebanon at an ice cream shop in Hamra, Beirut, I connected the sweet taste with the sweet memories of Bahia’s kind (and cute) family in Tripoli.

Pistachio ice cream in Hamra, Beirut

Another delicious sweet bite of Lebanon was from the watermelons. I’ve eaten plenty of watermelon in California, but in Lebanon it was served as an alternate and as an addition to dessert at homes or in coffee shops.

Fresh watermelon

The first time I tried watermelon in Lebanon was my second night in Tripoli after smoking a delicious mint lemon hooka with Bahia.

Summers in Lebanon are warm and humid about mid 80s Fahrenheit with sixty percent humidity, while summers in Sacramento are just hot over 100 degrees without the humidity. I joked with someone when I when returned home, I walked out of a sauna then into an oven.

The watermelon in Lebanon tasted like a refreshing cold shower for the throat. The flavor although familiar just tasted new. 

In suburban Sacramento, I live by myself with my cat Habibi and I eat most meals by myself.

Both the pistachio ice cream cake watermelon were tastes I enjoyed communally with my hostesses families.  Enjoying these sweet bites with Bahia, her mother-in-law Sadika and their families at their homes or in coffee shops were authentic experiences I will never forget. 

I doubt I would have experienced such hospitality if I visited the country on my own or if I somehow managed to find a tour group.

While I was writing this blog, an email from Farm Fresh to You asked me to confirm my fruits and veggies for a delivery next week. 

I opted in for the mini seedless watermelon if only for another reminder of a sweet bite of Lebanon.

Sahteen.

Quenching my thirst in Douma

He told me to cup my hands and drink. I drank and drank and drank. It was cool and refreshing- the best water on this trip.

fly back home to California in two days and one unexpected luxury I look forward to, is going to my kitchen or bathroom sinks and drinking water from the tap.

I learned my first day in Lebanon that my hostess Sadika and her family and friends only drink water from plastic bottles. She said when I brush my teeth from the sink- don’t swallow. 

While I drink water from plastic bottles in the US and when I’ve travelled, I never really thought about what I was doing.  It always seemed like a convenience, or a healthy option compared to the soda I am usually craving. I thought of my neighbor (and occasional pet-sitter) Suzy, as an environmental zealot for her promotion of always a carrying a reusable bottle to refill tap water.  

I sometimes see Suzy at Starbucks, where she always has her refillable cup. I bring a reusable cup for my frequent Starbucks runs, when I remember.

I also keep a reusable bottle at my desk at work to refill from the giant bottled water that is delivered to our office regularly. The nearest restroom is about fifty yards away and refilling my bottle about ten yards away is a convenience and apparently another luxury I didn’t recognize until this trip.

I bought three of those reusable bottles on a trip to Turkey two years ago and kept misplacing them, until I had to buy a plastic bottle to refill. I also fell violently ill when I drank tap water when I visited Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan in the past. Between Sadika’s advice and those experiences- it seemed like a no-brainer to not drink Lebanese tap water.

The downside is after seventeen days, I feel like I am overly contributing to the global environmental disaster that is plastic bottle use.

Yesterday one of the unexpected highlights of this trip was when my hostesses’ cousin George took us to a natural spring for me to drink straight from the pipe in Douma, a cute scorpion tail shaped mountain- side village a couple hours away from Beirut and Tripoli.

The village of Douma. Photo courtesy Sadika Kebbi

He asked if we had an empty plastic bottle to refill. Of course I didn’t, mentally beating myself up again. He told me to cup my hands and drink. 

I drank and drank and drank. It was cool and refreshing- the best water on this trip.

I told Sadika and George, I wish I could swim in this. I wish I could bathe in this water. 

Douma spring.

My hostess told me most of Lebanese plastic bottled water comes from these types of springs. Also the American University of Beirut is working on an initiative to recycle and reuse those bottled and cans. Both are positives but I still feel discomfitted.

Lebanon has a lot of national problems, crazy arse traffic, the Syrian and Palestinian refugee crises, horrible air quality in the major cities. A regional solution to the plastic water bottle issue, with the civil war in Syria to the north, and tense relations with Israel in the south, is not feasible right now.

Maybe it is my unicorn thinking, but some day I look forward to returning to Lebanon or anywhere in the Middle East and being able to drink from the taps. I would love to not worry about getting sick she having without getting sick and having to rely on plastic bottles.

My apologies to Suzy. You are not an environmental zealot, I am the one with my head that I am slowly pulling out of the sand. 

When I get home, I need to lessen my own use of those plastic bottles and follow Suzy’s example.

Thank you Sadika and your cousin George for giving me a taste of clean fresh Lebanese drinking water. I hope someday all of your countrymen and women are able to have the same luxury as I have at home.

Letter to Kind Uncle

Kind uncle, although I never shared one glance from your eyes, thank you for leaving an impression on my heart.

I’m about halfway through Hanan al-Shaykh’s novel Beirut Blues where she writes about Lebanon’s civil war through letters.  The book inspired the format of the following.

Dear kind uncle, 

It has been two days since I met you and I have not been able to shake the image of you out of my consciousness.

Over the following two hours, I tried to mentally capture every detail about you- but manage to forget your name. I do remember your olive skin, your distinctive Lebanese nose, your short curly hair, your medium build in a loose t-shirt from an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt and  baggy shorts.

My hostess said we would be going to Bahia’s mom’s house for lunch. In my ignorance, I anticipated it would be just the four of us: Bahia, your mom, my hostess and me.

I overlooked the fact that it was the second day of Eid and the lunch also included my hostesses’ husband, their daughter, sons and their grandchildren, your half-sister, and you.

In comparison I live in a two bedroom condo in a quaint suburb of Sacramento with my cat. Family dinners at my parents house in Southern California compose of half as many people none of whom is a sunburned foreigner. I also drink wine which helps me at family gatherings, but understandably not appropriate for a Muslim family holiday.

I am thousands of miles away in your city of Tripoli. Earlier in the day I spent an hour with my hostess wandering and exploring around a 900 year old Crusader castle in your city.  Now I’m in a modern building wandering and exploring into your family’s lives. This past week I have met almost everyone in the room, and am awed that your mother’s hospitality to me a non-Muslim and foreigner.

During lunch you sit at the opposite end of the table and I can’t stop watching you and probably annoying my hostess with questions about you. I learn you are Bahia’s older brother, a few years younger than me, not married. I want to ask more questions but I feel I may have crossed an inappropriate line so I stop.

You show compassion to your half-sister a quiet Ghanaian teenager who as the other foreigner in the room, seems more lost than me and disappears from the gathering frequently. 

Like the majority of Lebanese men I have met, you avoid returning eye contact. I am told this is out of respect to me, but it is still jarring and I struggle not to take it personally.

I follow your mom and my hostess into a sitting room. You are not there but I feel your presence as I stare at the artwork of Old Tripoli directly across from me.

Suddenly your nephew comes running in. There was an accident involving your young niece. There is a commotion. People are screaming in Arabic which I don’t understand, but I know now is not an appropriate time to ask questions.

I sit frozen as your niece is carried to your sister’s lap. The young girl is surrounded by angels including you, as you give your sister a cold compress for your niece’s wrist and start to call a doctor. You and your family kiss the young girl’s forehead. It is very compassionate and sweet.  A few minutes later the four year old bounces across the room as if nothing happened. I see you not only as Bahia’s brother but now the as the kind uncle.

Coffee is served. I am not a coffee drinker as it makes my heart race, and it has been racing enough this afternoon between the events surrounding your niece and my mind and heart wondering about you and your family.

I think about my friends and families concerns about terrorism and kidnappings and the morbid irony of death from a heart attack due to strong coffee. You and your mom offer me tea instead which I accept, but am still thrown off by the lack of eye contact.

I say my goodbyes to your family as my hostess takes me and your niece (who seems recovered from the accident) and nephew to a soap village across town.

You are on your cell in another room and I don’t say goodbye. I’ll probably never see you again in the week I have left  in Lebanon.

Kind uncle, although I never shared one glance from your eyes, thank you for leaving an impression on my heart.

Uncommon Scents

As a rule I never buy perfume for anyone because like the millions of people who pay to hear a Celine Dion download or see her in concert- music like fragrances are very personal choices.

About twenty-five years ago I had a nose-job. I was self conscious about the length and how it slightly hooked to the left. 

As a kid and as an adult I was and still am still very accident prone. I fell on my face multiple times: off of trees, off swings, on rocks, on streets, driveways, sidewalks and a few basketball courts. I even managed to break supposedly difficult to break glass with my face when I walked into a fire extinguisher case in the hallway after basketball practice in high school.  Skills! I have got skills!

After many bumps, bruises and breaks my mother recommended, and I agreed to have my nose “fixed”. 

The doctor warned me after the surgery it would not be completely straight and I could lose my sense of smell- which I did for a couple of years.

When I did regain my sense of smell, I didn’t know I would become hyper-aware of the smells I love and the smells that I loathe.

One of the worst things about my job isn’t my work, or my coworkers or managers but that my unit sits ten feet from the microwaves in the kitchen area. Great for free leftover cookies- but there is a wretched downside.

Periodically during the day the overlapping smells of other people’s food cooking in the microwaves, makes me sick from migraines to nausea.

I dreaded three things about the long flight coming to Lebanon- my neck and back issues sitting in a plane and airports for about 24 hours, the smells of other travellers, and the stinky smell of me to other travellers and to my hostess.

My chiropractor recommended I buy a travel pillow for the long flight for the neck and back pain. I found one online. I was excited to receive it two days before my trip. 

Unfortunately when I used the pillow on the flight, it had a mineral chemical smell that made me ill, so I left the pillow on the plane.

About ten days later, my hostess took me and a couple of her grandkids to a well ventilated soap shop, where I did some souvenir shopping. 

Rosemary, cedar and milkshake scented soaps

Memo to friends and family in California: if I give you soap, it doesn’t mean I think you stink.

There were scents like lavender and cedar I loved.  There was a rosemary scent that made me crave a pizza. 

Then there was one scent that made me scrunch my nose like a four year old being forced to eat their vegetables: 

Milkshake soap. Dude really?

It smelled like a strawberry milkshake. Don’t get me wrong, I love drinking the occasional strawberry milkshake. Based on my weight I probably have had too many chocolate milkshakes.  

But the thought of bathing with a strawberry milkshake smelling soap is about as appealing as listening to the Celine Dion Titanic song on a never ending loop. I believe the song has been declared as a form of torture. Mother of God- make that earbug STOP!

As a rule I never buy perfume for anyone because like the millions of people who pay to hear a Celine Dion download or see her in concert- music like fragrances are very personal choices.

Imagine my surprise and near panic for my 42nd birthday, when my hostess Sadika and her daughter Rana gave me perfume.

My new favorite smell of the Middle East

Why was I stressing?

What if it smelled like a fragrance they love but I despised? What if it is a perfume that smells great on them but not on me? What if if it smells  like the Debbie Gibson inspired overly sweet Electric Youth that I loved when I was twelve but when I smell it thirty years later Light Rail- or in an elevator it triggers a migraine.

“We bought it for you because it is Lebanese,” Rana says.

Will this be a smell I will associate with all that is fabulous about Lebanon: Their incredible hospitality, ancient ruins like Byblos, the Phonecian Wall, Baalbek, the smell of nargileh, or the cute older brother of Sadika’s daughter-in law.

Or will it be a smell that I associate with the negative things about Lebanon: crazy arse driving, the cigarette smells, the construction noise, the summer humidity that makes me sweat horrendously in the least sexiest way possible.

I tried it and it smells- nice. Raghba is made in the United Arab Emirates it has a woodsy, vanilla vibe with a twinge of incense.  It isn’t too strong, but it is unique. Subtlety has never been a strength of mine, but I do admire the unique.

For two new friends who barely know me Sadika and Rana picked a scent that I love.

Cheers to good friends, good memories and great smells.

Mexican burger but hold the burger

I have spent more time on this vacation explaining my choice to be vegetarian, than how America voted for an admitted sexual predator and Islamaphobe to be our current president.

Food is important when traveling. Although I have been jonesing for a Starbucks since day three- OK day two I have managed for the last eleven days to eat local thanks to the incredible hospitality of Sadika and her family. 

I landed in Lebanon with about a week left of Ramadan left.  My hostess and her adult children fasted during daylight until June 25 this year. Food wise it was a breeze for me since I wasn’t fasting and even in predominantly Muslim Tripoli, my hostess found gems like this downtown on a Saturday afternoon when everything else was closing for the Eid al Fitr holiday.

Ramadan iftars- the meal where Muslims break the fast were also easy for vegetarians as I always had a delicious lentil or vegetable soup, hummus, mutabul (babaganoush), and baked cheese and spinach pastries and always huge assortment of desserts.

On my first non-jet lagged night in Tripoli, Sadika invited me to an iftar hosted by her daughter-in-law’s parents. I think I heard a version of someone asking Sadika, why didn’t you tell us she (me) was vegetarian. I was confused because my Arabic stinks and there was so much food I could eat.

Bahia’s father of Sadika’s daughter asked me directly, “Why vegetarian?”

Simply put: I avoid food with a face. It was easy to give up fish almost twenty-five years ago, since I still hate the smell of fish and seafood. A few months later giving up meat was when I went to college at University of California  at Santa Cruz (UCSC), which was vegetarian and vegan friendly. I still eat eggs and cheese, and one of my favorite jobs at UCSC was making omelettes.

While I have yet to try any of the omelettes here, I love the cheeses. From Kashkival, haloum, to cheddar to gouda to feta. I even had a piece of American cheese today.

On the Eid al Fitr in Lebanon when all Sunni Muslims are done fasting, Sadika and her husband visited extended family.

I’m chillaxing at her beach home in Tripoli; reading, crocheting, swimming and floating in the adult pool and blogging.

I’m still recovering from the screaming kid bounce house trauma from last night, and Sadika said chillaxing on my own while she and her husband met up to 40 or 50 family at once might be too much.

Great call Sadika.

In a weird irony, today while Sadika and her family feasted during daylight, I had no appetite until about 3pm after I found my happy place during an hour long relaxing swim-float in the Mediterranean. Then I was hungry.

Walking back to Sadika’s chalet I found this burger place whose menu consisted of this.

 

I’ve been away from California for about eleven days. My last dinner before flying away was nachos from my favorite cheap Mexican chain Aldabertos. So of course I ordered: a “Mexican burger, but hold the burger.”

One of the two young men working in the hut, that was not much bigger than a food truck responded, “I’m sorry we can’t do that. It’s a burger with cheese, with special sauce, jalapeno, lettuce and tomato. We don’t have a burger substitutes. It may not grill right.”

I responded, “I’m hungry. I’m craving Mexican food, I haven’t eaten meat in almost twenty-five years, I’m not starting today.”

“Fine but it will be same price.”

I agreed and about ten minutes and $10 later. I had my not so glamorous grilled cheese sandwich, fries and a Sprite.

While not the best grilled cheese ever, I may be inspired to try a new version of Mexican grilled cheese at home when I get home.

Bon appetit or as they say in Lebanon when finishing a meal sahteen.

Anxieties Amplified

Inside my hostess’ daughter Rana and daughter-in-law Bahia are chatting with friends, as forty screaming orphans and other screaming kids are playing and screaming on a set of indoor bounce houses in a restaurant.

I am outside in a neighboring coffee shop where the Arabic pop music matches the traffic noise. After a half-hour my migraine and panic attacks are settling down.

I was hoping this vacation would help me overcome some barriers. But I’m learning with screaming kids, it is like an oil and water issue. We just don’t mix well.

Also tonight I was introduced to a tall good looking family friend, who apparently is Lebanon’s most famous basketball player- Ismail Ahmed. 

I’ve been in Toastmasters for ten years, I’ve competed at impromptu speaking contests. I’ve followed the NBA’s Sacramento Kings for thirty years- surely I could come up with something intelligent and complimentary.

Instead I say, “Forgive my ignorance, I have no idea who you are.”

It takes skills to master my continual ineptitude around good looking men.  My friend says he is married, so I was shooting a brick where there was no basket.

On this vacation, I was hoping  I could develop more confidence being around screaming kids or good looking guys, however tonight proved my anxieties are as amplified as the call to prayer from a nearby mosque- and I don’t speak Arabic either.

The work in progress that is me, anxieties and all- continues.

Climbing Walls

“Welcome to Lebanon!” I screamed. The Phonecian Wall has survived five thousand years of tidal waves, floods earthquakes and wars and now me. Hopefully I can recall this experience when I face other challenges.

After experiencing an incredible night in Tripoli, sleeping in and swimming for a half-hour (the latter two I rarely do in California) my hostess Sadika says, “Today we will see the Phonecian Wall.”

Awesome! The Phonecian Wall has been on my bucket list before I had a bucket list. In grade school I remember studying the Phonecians along with the Egyptians, but now to see a piece of the Phonecian Wall that has survived five thousand years of tidal waves, floods, earthquakes and wars- I was beyond stoked.

On the way to Batroun, we stopped for manouche in Anfeh for manouche- Lebanon’s take on pizza. My hostesss is fasting for Ramadan. I’m not Muslim, so I’m eating and drinking during the daylight hours. I love, love, love the Lebanese cheeses here although I have yet to see a single cow, sheep or goat.

Batroun is a cute cobblestoned town, that could use better signage to direct tourists to the major sights. After parking we followed the sign to the Phonecian Wall, and ended up at a dead end.

Sadika negotiated us back up a hill, through the neighborhood, then down someone’s driveway to a rocky outcrop where the wall suddenly appeared.

Sadika, who wore walking shoes, and knowing I’m still recovering from a bad car accident six weeks ago looked at my Teva sandals and said, “Do you want climb the wall? You don’t have to.”

It was the first time I felt challenged in Lebanon. Granted my footwear and fitness were not ideal, and I have an unfortunate perfect seven for seven record of spraining ankles on trips to the Middle East, I was going to climb that wall- bad footwear and poor proprioception and clumsiness issues be darned.

I followed her to lowest point and slowly negotiated the ten foot climb- grip by grip, slow step by step. 

“This you can only find here. Welcome to Lebanon!” I screamed.

The view was incredible. I was beyond ecstatic. We took a couple of photos as we noticed a couple of presumably local guys in bare feet and sandals not much sturdier than mine.

The Phonecian Wall has survived five thousand years of tidal waves, floods earthquakes and wars and now me. Hopefully I can recall this experience when I face other challenges.

We slowly made our way back to Batroun.  After visiting a cute Maronite church we headed back to the car for our next destination.

Thank you Sadika for encouraging and challenging me up that wall. It is an experience I will not soon forget.

Live. Love. Lebanon.