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. 

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.

All Night Long

This night I’m living a Lebanese version of an 1980’s Lionel Richie pop hit.

Travel has gotten me out of my comfort zone- even if it took a long flight and loud drummers to do so.

I had been awake 28 hours and had been on a plane or in airports for 24 of them.

Sadika says, “You must sleep in tomorrow, as we will be awake all night long from iftar (the sunset meal Muslims break their fast for Ramadan) to sohur, the pre sunrise meal Muslims enjoy before fasting all day.

Major problem, I’m not a night person. I go to bed early and wake up early. Jet lagged how will I get to sleep and how will I stay awake? I’m the houseguest from hell.

Then I start hallucinating. I’m hearing drums banging outside her resort.

“Oh that’s normal” Sadika says. They are just reminding people to wake up for the sohur meal.

I take a sleeping pill and sleep until 11am. I’m never in bed that late. 

Sadika directs me to the beach at her house and I start my Lebanese vacation with a warm swim in the Mediterranean Sea.  I stop for my first shanklish sandwich- an herbaceous yogurt, tomatoe, cucumber, olive combination. Yum, yum and yum.

We then sea some old and modern buildings in Tripoli.

I manage a short nap at Sadika’s son’s house while an Lebanese version of Family Feud plays on the television. I don’t understand a word, but apparently like in the US the host is funny.

We head to Sadika’s daughter’s Rana’s in laws house. Lebanese hospitality is insanely gracious. This is when I would curl up and say goodnight- but the night has just begun.

I tag along with Sadika and her husband, to a gala on an island. Traffic is snarky apparently the Lebanese Minister of Interior was attending. 

There is music and food, lots more food and drums.  Across the bay the skyline of Tripoli lights up.

“One of those guys was in our neighborhood this morning.”

We finish the day, or is it night or morning. I smoke a lemon nargilleh and sip tea with a new friend at a cute tea shop run by Sadika’s son.

The prior Saturday night I was asleep in bed getting ready to wake up early to watch Rafa demolish his opponent at the French Open.

This night I’m living a Lebanese version of an 1980’s Lionel Richie pop hit.

Travel has gotten me out of my comfort zone- even if it took a long flight and loud drummers to do so.

Love Love Lebanon All Night Long!

Finding Love in the Air

I originally started writing this 40,000 feet over the Hudson Bay with about six hours left on the flight to Paris from San Francisco airport, and eleven hours before I landed in Beirut.

The only delay was out Sacramento, but thanks to my fabulous travel agent Robin, who is also my Tech Guy’s wife- I had plenty of time for my connection.

I often fall-asleep during movies, which is why I’ve avoided going to any in a couple of years. I’ve also fallen asleep on dates- and coincidentally I’ve managed to also avoid those too. United has fabulous selection of movies and the three I watched were quite good. 

Since the third was an Indian film, where I was reading subtitles during the early pangs of jetlag, I will focus on the first two.

Spoiler alerts:

Bridget Jones Baby and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel both had common themes of finding love while getting old. 

Bridget Jone’s Baby was basic chick flick chocolate. I will turn 42 during this trip. Do I want baby? Heck to the NO. Babies scare me. I was contemplating buying expensive headphones at the San Francisco airport to avoid listening to the screaming baby on the plane to Paris. Three babies were even crankier and didn’t let me sleep on the four hour trip to Beirut.

I saw my five month old nephew for a family funeral. I held him for twenty seconds, enough for a photo and a near panic attack. I’ll see my him, my younger sister and her husband next month in Portland and my goal is thirty seconds- and also not to drop him.

Marigold Hotel was more dimensional, or I was more analytical. Like Bridget a couple of the main characters were looking for love in an older age, but it also dealt with medical tourism, homosexuality, and cultural biases.

More importantly after travel ing for fifteen hours, Marigold didn’t put me to sleep and I should have been sleepy. According to my phone when it finished it was a few minutes after 9pm in California- not too far from my usual bedtime- and another reason I’m a horrible date.

More spoilers alerts:I would love to find love in my forties, or fifties or sixties if I live that long. Unfortunately aside from my dog, or  rest in peace Hooka, or cat (who dislikes most people and  is probably mad but getting fed and checked on by my neighbor while in on vacation) familial love, or friendship- romantic love seems like fiction- like  Bridget or Marigold. 

I have experienced lust- as I call them to my close girlfriends- dumb crushes. They have ranged in height, age, race.

After a few weeks or months I realize the only thing these guys have in common is their lack of romantic interest in me. Some of these guys I’m still friends with- at least until they read this blog.

Two nights ago I had dinner with my married friend Uzma, who was telling me about her Lebanese friend who after returning to Lebanon, was singing the praises of Lebanese men. 

“Kristi she said, they are so chivalrous, they watch out for her.”

I don’t have the body of the pre-pregnant Renee Zelwigger in the Bridget Jones sequel, and who knows if I will ever survive into my later years to find love at a run-down hotel outside the United States like in Marigold.

But as it approaches my normal 5:30am wake up hour (at least Paris time), and the baby is still screaming, and  I ponder the vegetarian mystery breakfast the flight attendant gave me, this flight was a nice reminder that I can still find romantic love if only at the Movies. Heck this year, Roger Federer won the Australian Open and Rafa Nadal the French Open in their thirties, and tennis nerds kept iterating how old they were, maybe finding romantic love in my forties is not unrealistic.

I can be consoled with at least I found love in the air watching the movies.

Bam Bam Crunch!

A month later the sights and the sounds are still fresh.

Traffic home was heavier than usual on the surface streets. The local radio news reported a fatality on the freeway about seven miles away.

Suddenly the brake lights flashed in front of me- I hit my brakes.  Catching my breath I thought “Thank God I didn’t that grey car in front of me.”
“Bam!” The black car behind me slammed into me, as my foot sat on the brake.

“Bam! Crunch!” The black car pushed me into the car into the grey car.

The three of us pulled over onto a side street.  I felt fazed a bit disoriented. All of us were OK or so I thought.  We exchanged insurance information and I flagged down a police officer, who said she was actually heading to a different car accident.   She took our statements to write her report. Ultimately the person who hit me was determined at fault.

That night I woke up with a raging headache,  and neck pains. I felt dizzy getting up too quickly. Walking down stairs,without holding the arm rail made me nervous, which is problematic because I live in a two level townhome.

The following morning I called my insurance company and told them that I would be filing a claim not only to the damages not only on my 2006 Honda Accord, but also to the damages to me.

My seatbelt is locked my car looked uglier but was still driveable for short distances,  but almost a month later and quite a few visits to my chiropractor it is still painful to look over my shoulder or tilt my head to my shoulder, but I’m getting better.

I still feel anxious if I hear unexpected loud noises, and particularly while driving.

When friends or the used car guy asked,  “Aren’t you scared about traveling to Lebanon?”

“Bam bam crunch” reminded me danger lurks anywhere. This car accident happened three miles from home. I was driving at a slow speed in a “safe” car and I still was hurt.

Heading to Lebanon about 7200 miles away from home to learn about the people, the culture and history seems like a safer alternative.

And as a bonus for 19 days, I won’t be driving.

News Junkie

That night, my fear fueled my ignorance when I panicked in response to the news reports. I need to use that fear to fuel me to find my passions and fuel my strength.

Since I was a kid I have always followed the news.  I remember watching the local morning news news while making my sister and I lunch as we were getting ready for the school bus.  One summer I sat captivated by the Iran Contra scandal- although I didn’t understand it.

In 1988, my freshman year of high school, a computer teacher, Mr. Schultz recommended Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem when I told him politics of the Middle East interested me,  but like Iran Contra, I didn’t understand it either.

The three years I spent at UC Santa Cruz, I volunteered and worked in the news department at the college radio station KZSC.  During my junior year-abroad in Cairo, most days I happily paying about $3 for a two day old International Herald Tribune to read between classes, or before basketball practice. I was scared when classmates quietly told me Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. If his murderer was Egyptian would all the American students be evacuated? It was a self-centered relief when I learned his mudererer was a Jewish nationalist.

Over twenty years later I still feel anxious if I don’t know what is happening elsewhere in the world. As peaceful as my parents houses are for mini-vacations in Lake Tahoe or Newport Beach, I need to check in with CNN, or a radio news show to feel calm.

As counter intuitive as this sounds-disconnecting stresses me out.

Monday through Friday,  I listen to two hours of NPR before going to work and then alternate between the news and sports talk during the short commute to to the Light Rail Station, I then flip between those news and sports stations driving home.

Three days ago,  I spent the day at work depressed thinking about the Syrian sarin gas attack I read about the night before.

After work that day, I knew I was one of (now granted formerly anonymous) panel of judges at a Toastmasters area speech contest, so I made a conscious effort to listen to familiar eighties music instead of the news- I tried to disconnect.  As selfish as this sounds, I was trying clear my mental pallete. I didn’t want to think about this gas attack or the victims while listening to speeches.

I was almost successful.
As I pulled into the parking lot, a heavy drizzle turned into a pelting rain.  I tuned back to the local news talk hoping for a weather report on the spring storm for the drive home-  instead I heard:

“President Trump just announced he approved the launch of sixty missiles at a Syrian airbase responsible for the sarin gas attack.”

No! No! No! Assad is a maniac and I did not vote for Trump. Was America was going to war in the Middle East ten weeks before I fly to Beirut? After parking, I sat in the parking lot, listening to the rain, as checked my phone where the Washington Post ran a breaking news story with more details.

I walked into the contest in a daze. I tried to think of some song, any song. I complimented a random young woman on her cute green heels. I nibbled on pizza and cheesecake and spilled punch on myself, but my mind kept refocusing on the Middle East. A few well meaning Toastmasters friends I had not seen recently offered condolences about my dog.

Now I’m thinking about the gas attack victims, the American response on Syria and missing my dog. I started to cry.

I sent a quick Facebook message to Sadika, a Toastmasters friend. In ten weeks,  I would be staying with her and her family.

Was she, her family,  her country OK? I waited two beats, no response. I’m now panicking and I’m supposed to judge two speech contests.

The Chief Judge, gave me and the other judges the pre-requisite judges briefing and the contests started. A few contestants made me laugh- some guy yodeled for a minute.  Most told personal stories. However one speaker stood out that night.

Keerthi, the stranger with the cute green shoes, but more importantly,  the would-be-winner of the International contest shared her inner psychological battles about using her fear to fuel her strength. Keerthi helped me for seven minutes forget Hooka in doggy heaven, war with Syria or possibly cancelling this vacation. At the end of her speech, Keerthi challenged us to use our strengths and passions to face our fears.

Immediately after the results were announced, I had brief chat Sadika, 7,212 miles away via Facebook Messenger.

Sadika reminded me of two things.

I had forgotten the time change. While it was 6:30pm Thursday night in California when I heard the news, it was 3:30am Friday morning in Damascus (the beginning of the weekend in the Middle East which is Friday and Saturday) and we chatted three hours later.

While I wrote this blog at 3:30am on a Saturday morning, listening to what else- the news- (thank you NPR Weekend Edition), in retrospect, maybe it was a little unreasonable to expect an immediate response in the early morning hours at the beginning of a weekend.

Sadika in her kind way also reminded me of another important detail. In ten weeks, I will spend eighteen days learning about her, her culture and her country- not Syria.

That night,  I let my fear fuel my ignorance when I panicked in response to the news reports.  I need to use that fear to remind me of what I’m passionate about.

If there was ever a time to hear Keerthi’s speech, that time was Thursday night. If there was ever a time to apply Keerthi’s message, that time is now.