Sunday, May 26, 2013

A day for the souk

"Isss no problem, no problem. Madame, please, you come see this. No, come. You like!"

This is the typical hawker line in the souks in 'old Dubai' - aka The Creek. Here is where they try to move as much money as possible from your pocket into theirs.

A souk is the Arab term for open-air market or bazaar. At The Creek, which is the oldest part of Dubai and the location for the city's port, you are immediately lost in a maze of winding, jumbled alleyways and streets overflowing with musky smells of frankincense, myrrh and sandalwood, mixed with pungent spices that permeate your senses - the cardamom pods, cinnamon bark, curry mixes, paprika, cloves, peppercorns, ginger, garlic and more.

The souks here are famous for three main categories of goods: gold, textiles and spices. Sure, there are the odd plastic floatie things for poolside fun, and the pots big enough to cook a stew for 500 people, but generally they stick with the ancient trading items. I've never seen so much gold in my life. Oh. My. Goodness. It was pretty amazing to see shop after shop with gorgeous pieces in the windows, many individual pieces far outweighing my entire gold inventory.

The textiles are mostly cloth from India to Italy, with every vendor trying to sell you the same scarves and shawls. The spices were the most special to me, not just because of my love of food, but how interesting they looked! I mean, black limes, really? Wow.

The shops are all run by men, and each one competes for your attention. It's a nonstop vocal assault as you take less than five steps before they grab you, and they promise you the best goods you'll get in Dubai if you just follow them.

"Watches, t-shirts, shoes, handbags - Rolex, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vitton, Fendi, Chanel, you come, come, come with me!"

You enter a small building, climb up a narrow staircase and land in a diminutive yet packed 'showroom' featuring all the designer knock-offs. 

Greg encouraged me to just follow a few of these shopkeepers for fun ... and it was. We never intended to buy any knockoffs, but it was great to see their "no problem" skills hard at work, talking about the first sale of the day, and how they can do a great price. They take out the oversized calculator and punch the keys, making it look like they are performing a mathematical miracle while we try not to giggle at the tactics. 
But then we found something we wanted to buy - a lovely Indian dress. And so we engaged in one of the most ancient and greatest sports of all time: haggling. Greg started his bid at 20% of the asking price. It took nearly 40 minutes to wear the guy down to the point where we knew we paid a fair price while giving the shopkeeper profit - and allowing him to pay a small commission to the "friend" who led us there.

In that time, however, I was offered the amazing opportunity to marry a man who spoke little English, except to say, "You must get me a visa to live in Texas."

Uh, no thanks. I know you can have up to four wives here, but I'm good with my one husband. He might be goofy but he's awesome. All set.

To get between some of the souks, you have to take the water taxi, which is called an abra. The abra is a simple boat used on Dubai Creek - you hop on, give the pilot one dirham, and off you go. You bob in the waves and cough a bit from the noxious exhaust, but it's GREAT. And one dirham is 27 cents, so that was quite the bargain.

Since this is a port, the other type of boat you see a lot is the dhow, a traditional wooden boat built for transport or more recently for sport racing. The dhows we saw in the port were carrying everything from fruit to fridges to Fiats. They're tres cool.

This adventure reminded me that it's important to immerse yourself in the local culture without fear. Just do it!

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Visiting a mosque in Dubai

Another first: I visited a mosque.  

The Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai is open to non-Islamic people, which is a rarity. It includes an attached cultural center offering impressive public programs. Having never been inside a mosque, I figured a tour might be interesting.

As did 75 other people. We removed our shoes, covered our heads, shuffled in, sat on the floor and listened to a British docent who's been living in Dubai for 21 years explain fundamentals of Islam. 

This mosque was completed in 1979 and holds up to 1300 people. It's government supported, so the funding is secure. Worshipers stand side by side without gaps to prevent evil from entering. There is no VIP section as all are considered equal - the dignitary and the homeless man stand together. Men and women are separated to avoid distractions. The head of the mosque, the Imam, calls everyone to prayer.  

We were told about the five pillars of Islam which are the foundation for Muslim life. Unsurprisingly, our docent emphasized the peace of the religion and repeated a few times that they have nothing to do with radicals. 

The Pillars:
Shahadah - the declaration of faith
Salat - 5x daily prayer facing Mecca, beginning before dawn and ending after sundown
Zakāt - alms-giving as an obligation to help lift up those less fortunate; the tithe is 2.5%
Sawm - fasting (ritual, repentance or ascetic); obligatory in the month of Ramadan (thinking about not eating or drinking water for 12 hours makes my head hurt!)
Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia; birthplace of Muhammad), which every able-bodied Muslim is required to do once in his/her life

Missing a prayer or fast requires the believer to make up for it, so there's a lot of mindfulness involved.  

We learned more about abayas (women's garb) and how they're not as hot as they seem, and the dishdashes men wear (that cool black band on the head was originally used to corral camels so it was highly practical). 

There is the washing ritual, a key preparation for the faith. This explains why the restrooms are constantly flooded with water. Wash hands three times, mouth three times, nose three times, face three times. Wash hands up to elbows three times, once over the hair and behind the ears. Feet and ankles, three times each. If the cycle is broken, you must start again. That's a lot of water in the desert...

At the end of the day, the basic tenets of doing good, helping others, being mindful, improving oneself and repenting for misdeeds is universal - and as a Christian I see the similarities. 

I learned a lot more than I included here, and I know my interpretation is pretty sophomoric, but it was helpful to have a glimpse into a much-aligned faith. It also reinforced to me why I'd fail in Muslim society due to my overly independent and often stubborn behavior, along with an occasional lack of discipline and good judgement. Let's just leave it at that. :-)



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Monday, May 6, 2013

P.S. on Panama: the Waldorf Astoria

Before we left Panama last month, I dragged Greg to the just-opened Waldorf Astoria. Situated on Calle Uruguay, the arrival of the Waldorf not only signifies the confidence Hilton has in Panama's ability to attract very well-heeled visitors, but also the gentrification of the Marbella neighborhood (some very trendy restaurants and Class A offices are moving into the area). 

Since the hotel was still in soft opening and occupancy was low, we waltzed right in and were greeted by a gracious staff member named Roberto. He was excited that we're big Hilton fans, so insisted on giving us a personal tour! 

They welcomed us with refreshing watermelon juice (one of my favorite Panamanian traditions - weeks later, I'm still missing the watermelon juice with which I started each day in Panama).
The hotel has a distinctly Asian theme. Kudos to the person who designed the lighting and selected the furniture. Enter the main lobby and admire the lofty ceilings adorned with a pattern that reminds you at the same time of sea coral and lotus root. 

The spa is sublime. The welcoming foyer is just so yummy smelling, and the furniture is super sleek. Five treatment rooms are well-appointed and roomy, including one couples massage room with an adjacent soaking tub tucked in an alcove.

The restaurant and lounge feature some of the most stunning furniture I've seen at least in this part of the world, from the late Mid-Century Modern chairs to the lounge sofas covered with a metallic finish leather. 

The floor between the lounge and restaurant has a dramatic cut-out at one end featuring illuminated rich wood with crossed samurai swords, and a massive wooden vessel reminiscent of a dragon boat.

The pool was of diminutive proportion to the rest of the hotel, which seemed unusual for this tropical city. But the outdoor space around it was stunning, so let's give them a mulligan. 

If you want a rarefied hotel experience in Panama, check yourself in to the Waldorf Astoria Panama for some well-deserved pampering. 

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