From Borneo and Around

This blog is all about Borneo (and sometimes elswere) as I experience it. It's about places, people, fauna, food ... and anything I find pleasantly worth sharing in words and pictures.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

A TASTE OF BORNEO

The Strange riddle of the Yew Char Kueh and the Chichi fregi

Yew Char Kueh

What can a Mediterranean Frenchie like me and the Chinese people of Sarawak possibly have to share from their respective cultural heritage? Give up? I’ll tell you what it is: A long golden fritter.
I would not dream of entering a debate on whom actually “invented” the rather addictive fritter and whether the Chichi fregi as it is called in Provence came before the Yew Char Kueh which is commonly served in Kuching or even in China.                                                                                                                                                Back where I come from and back in time, and well before my time, the port-city of Marseille was born out of a cluster of small and often quaint fishing villages. L’Estaque, on the west side, happens to be one of those villages with one very special pride: the Chichi fregi.                                    
Mediterranean folks from beyond the Italian border will probably point out, and rightfully so, that the Chichi fregi is actually a Chichi while at the other end of the coast, a Spaniard will insist that it is but a churro and by now I too could probably argue with them that it is in fact Yew Char Kueh; and if I did, any Estaquois (People from l’Estaque) listening to me would probably be only half surprised that their recipe should be found as far as Asia. Indeed the story goes in Provence that once upon a time, a man from l’Estaque left to visit China. When he finally wanted to come home and he presented himself at the Peking train station to purchase his return ticket, the officer asked him: “l’Estaque Beachside or l’Estaque Town”?  This would bring any common-sensed Estaquois to reason that it must be that the reputation of their treasured Chichi fregi has reached as far to the East as the Kingdom of Heaven; so much so that the Chinese are now aware that l’Estaque counts not one but two train stations!                                                                                                                                        And what of the amazing coincidence of l’Estaque being legendarily linked to China when they seem to share the same popular recipe? If Marco Polo brought the Noodle back to Italy, could someone have brought the Yew Char Kueh to l’Estaque all the way from Peking? Or could the Chinese have taken the recipe of the Chichi fregi back on board their ships in 1421 or 1434, perhaps after a short call at l’Estaque harbour?
Whether any amateur historian will ever get to the bottom of this (please do let me know) or not, I am simply grateful to be able to enjoy one of my childhood favourites on any given day while staying in my adopted home town of Kuching in Borneo; and the joy is even greater when I realise that I have learned many other ways to eat my Chichi fregi other than with olive oil and Orange blossom flavouring and sprinkled with sugar as it is the tradition in l’Estaque and which has long since spread to the street hawkers of Marseille and of all the fun fairs and markets of the region. Here in Malaysia, it also served as a mouth melting treat with sweetened milk or even with kaya (a curd made from coconut), my personal favourite. It is also delicious eaten with porridge and bak ku teh (herbal pork stew) or simply dipped in chilli sauce. So truly I just don’t know whom I have to thank for the joy of eating Chichi fregi except perhaps that young Chinese bloke at Penrissen Food Court? Never mind, if you happen to catch me there on my Sunday brunch, do join me for Yew Char Kueh!

Yew Char Kueh at Pensissen Food Court

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

THE BASKETS OF MANY COLOURS


Back in June this year, I visited the plentiful market of Serian town, about one hour drive from Kuching . Serian is a regular stop-over for tourists on their way to visiting the longhouses of Skran, Lemanak or Batang Ai.                                                                                                                                      While I was there to shoot the Durian monument with my camera (check out my previous post: Green Monuments), I spotted a little old lady, seated on a woven mat, timidly laid out on the ground, yet standing out quite obviously with her baskets of many color,  in a corner of the otherwise mostly green vegetable section of the market. As I looked closer, I noticed that the baskets were entirely made of interwoven plastic strips and although I am usually no fan of plastic ware, except for cold storage purposes, I couldn’t help feeling excited and I felt rather frustrated that I just did not have enough time to spend to select a couple, at least, of those beautiful baskets.                                 
Back in Kuching, I mentioned the basket lady to a few of my friends, making a promise to myself to go back there and purchase one of two as soon as I would return from a trip to Perth WA. While I was enjoying browsing in a quaint little shop in Cottlesloe, near Perth, I found myself looking at the same type of colorful baskets! Yet of course with an Australian price, which helped convince me even further that I should indeed go back to the little old lady, back in Serian, Borneo; and so I did, last Sunday morning. I did not find any trace of my little old lady. Instead and to my great surprise, I found the whole center of the vegetable market occupied with rows of baskets, from small to very large, square and round, all with beautifully sharp colors.                              

  
While scouting for two different sizes and colors, I started chatting with the women who were busy weaving; they told me that they were self taught and worked at the market every day of the week and Sundays; they got their supply of plastic straps from the hardware shop. 

  
A pinkish basket for my lap-top



Shopping was good; I went back home with a shocking pink and white basket to carry my lap-top and another large one and more purple to store magazines, unaware that my friend Alicia had transformed one of her own into a still life, right inside her living-room, bringing me to think that there seems to be no limit to uses of those beautiful baskets of many colors.

Alicia's basket: what a splendid idea!

                                                             
            

UNPREDICTABILITY: A BLESSING!

No matter how well organised or prepared I pretend to be, life in the country is simply unpredictable.                                                                                                                                                                   
I make a lunch appointment in town, thinking that getting up earlier and doing most of my morning chores the night before will be an assurance that I will show up on time, and clouds of tiny insects choose to descend on us during the night, to drop dead by the thousands all over the terrace floor, the garage and the whole perimeter of the house. The best thing to do in such a case is to grab the water hose, open full pressure and spray, spray everywhere there are insects, on the floor, on the walls, along the roof cornice.... Iko, the Labrador, is having a field day, catching the spray, sliding the whole width of the garage, falling off the terrace deck, and honestly, so am I having a wonderful time being wet, wet, wet. Meanwhile, the old Dutch clock in the living-room remains indifferent to my having fun; it keeps a stern track of time while I totally lose it. I’ll call to say that I’ll be late for lunch.                                                                                                                                                                                  
I promise myself an afternoon treat at the book store; an indefinite power cut strikes the area and I am left to choose between manually opening the front gate which weighs more than a ton (literally) or spend the day staring at my own sweat oozing out of my pores. I choose to open the gate, and while I can’t help a quick mental calculation of my surely will-be sinsei (traditional Chinese chiropractor) bill, once the job done I find myself standing both arms stretched up towards heaven, proud to claim “Yes! I did it!”  “I am woman!”

And just this morning I wanted to stay at home and concentrate on writing something I’ve had in mind for a while.  I had barely opened my computer when suddenly the whole study-room sounded like the busiest dog pound on its worse day. I looked out the window to find four of my dogs furiously barking towards the corner of the wall. One glimpse and I jumped to my desk, grabbed my camera, ran out and took my best shots at a tiny baby monitor lizard fencing with three Maltese and big Uncle Sherlock, the Belgian shepherd. And so it is with unpredictability, which by nature always catches me unaware and more than often, turns my day into experiences I would not have missed, not even for a lunch appointment with a friend.                                                            





     
I pull my tongue at predictability!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NORTH QATAR DISCOVERY

24th of April                   IN PROGRESS....

Desert Falcon Helmet



The first thing I notice as I take my seat in the car is the falcon helmet that hangs from the reflector. Falcon breeding and hunting with them is a national sport in Qatar. These wonderful birds can cost thousands; there are even clinics caring specifically for them, fully staffed with falcon doctors.   

                                                  
Our driver, like most of the working population here is not from Qatar; Suria is Nepalese and he’s been in Doha quite a number of years.
Alkhor is the 2nd city in Qatar, yet what we find is a small fishing village where all the fish consumed in the country comes from. Previously, that is before petroleum became black gold, fishing and pearl diving were the sole industries. Records of fishing trade go back to the 5th and 4th millenniums BC ; on our way to Alkhor we stopped to see stone carvings made by ancient fishermen probably while waiting for their ship to sail. Nets have made divers redundant while pearl fishing is no longer allowed. Qatari pearls used to be the most precious in the world; now petroleum fetches the big bucks. Divers and fishermen have deserted most of the villages between Doha and Alkhor; they moved to the capital city where they can enjoy big houses with big air conditioners.   


                     
Opposite the port, I’m surprised to find a mangrove forest; Suria is sad to tell us how most of it has already been removed and how people like to drive here to see and smell the mangrove.
Alkor


The fort of Zabara is a pleasant stop. It was built in 1958 as a watch point and now serves as a tourists’ stop.

Fort Zabara

Fort Zabara: The Door

Inside the Fort

View From Inside: No one's coming!

   


Monday, October 25, 2010

QATAR 4X4 DESERT SAFARI

My First Steps in the Desert


23rd April

FOOTLOOSE IN THE DESERT



My first step on desert sand, ever; I can’t help it, I snap a photo of my feet in my gladiator styled sandals; I should have had my toenails varnished in preparation of the photo-shoot. What color? Never mind.                                                                                                                  Although I make a big thing out of it (I have never been here and most probably I will never come back), where I’m standing right now is merely sandy road side. We have stopped here to deflate the Toyota Land Cruiser’s tires before we can start the real safari which happens to be the true reason why I have come all the way to Qatar, after I let a few pictures (they were amazing) posted on a travel agent’s website awaken in me the Lawrence of Arabia syndrome.  Right now and beyond knowing that there are going to be the obvious dunes and an inner sea, I am still not quite sure what to expect and what I have let myself into; the thrill of anticipation is overwhelming.

                              

Our driver’s name is Jassim, a young and tall Qatari man, a bit on the dark side. In contrast to the color of his skin, he wears the traditional full length white athobe and the Ghatta over what I guess to be a very short hair cut. His feet are comfortable in leather sandals. Oddly enough, looking at him brings me back to the days when I was in Scotland, attending the Highlands Games in Braemar where most Scotsmen still wear the kilt. The question on every non Scottish woman’s lips then was: “So, what’s under the kilt?” and I briefly wonder if female visitors to the Gulf country show such cheeky curiosity. What do these men wear under their immaculate white robe?                                                                                                                                  Although he seems friendly, Jassim lacks confidence to speak to us in English and Saeeda, our guide, is acting as our interpreter.                                                                                                                                                I can’t help feeling surprise at seeing a twenty five years old woman working with an otherwise all men crew. Although she is wearing a full length black dress (LBD?) with a black veil to hide her hair, Saeeda is not one bit shy; in fact she is a real clown whose ebony colored face keeps on breaking into a sparkling white smile. When I take her picture, she forgets to smile and her face simply blacks out, making her appears as a full height black statue.                                                                                                                           
With T.P and Saeeda

Saeeda explains that she guides during weekends and that she is still a trainee. She tells us that while all her friends are already married with children, she’d rather take her time, not like her mum who is only forty two years old. She takes out her mobile phone to show us a portrait of herself with her mum; she won’t allow Jassim to look. Striking! Both look like sexy performers with extreme make up on and eyes as outstanding as on ancient Egyptian paintings! I’m having a hard time re-conciliating this picture with plain dark Jane on the front seat; I mean Saeeda. For a second I realize that with my more liberal upbringing, I have never had a chance to share that kind of silly fun with my own mother as these two women seem to be enjoying on the photograph.
                                                                                 


4X4 Convoy
Our car has now become part of a convoy of all white Land Cruisers, except for ours; we’re the black sheep. Mustapha is the leader who communicates with all the other drivers through a radio. Lots of jokes are coming through the loud speakers, a lot of helpful comments too. Mustapha may not be sitting in our vehicle, but he is very alert to all our questions. Jassim, and we’ll understand later, all the other drivers are absolutely in awe with his capabilities. Mustapha is actually Lebanese and the desert is the love of his life.  After having worked in Saudi Arabia, he’s only been in Qatar for less than three weeks during which he has learned everything there is to know about the history, the economy and of course the geography of the small kingdom. Jassim and Saeeda are obviously impressed that their new and foreign colleague knows more about their country than they do themselves and in such a short time too! I, on the other hand, can’t quite understand what the fuss is all about; I have been here less than a week and I have been googling big time to find out as much as I could on this, after all tiny country. What I do find amazing though is that Mustapha already seems to know every dune there is  in the desert and every inch of sand, so much so that he is now our  leader!                                                Where we see one dune after the other and honestly could be conned into climbing up and down the same two or three over and over again, our companions have a name for every one of them!                                                                                                                                               Up we go, speeding up a wall of sand to reach the top of a dune and speed along the edge, lifting a cloud of golden dust in the process. Everyone is screaming. Saeeda’s veil has dropped from her head onto her shoulders; right now she only cares for her dear life. Somehow, I dare look out of my window to find the two wheels on my side of the vehicle reeling up in thin air just above an absolutely vertical drop to the bottom of the dune. Jassim, however, is a picture of calm.                                                                                   


                                      

Ahead of us we watch the other vehicles perform what looks like some extreme ballet dance; it gives us a preview of what we are going to go through ourselves in a few seconds. Adrenaline is pumping like never before; voices and laughter are filling up the car and through all this and above it all, I can hear Shakirah singing through the blaring stereo.

For more than an hour now, we’ve been going like a bunch of mad people thrown together inside a shaker bottle, yelling at the top of our voices; yet and through it all I am still trying to take pictures of this “once in a life time” experience while my camera stubbornly refuses to take most shots: we are in the desert and there is nothing to focus on!
Next to me Doctor Saad is making serious comments on the safety equipment or, should I say, the lack of it. Sure we have fastened our safety belts; with no helmets to wear, aside from prayer, that’s all we can rely upon.  The good doctor has to stop worrying out loud though as Saeeda reminds him that here in the desert, it is very bad luck to talk about accidents. She reassures us that Jassim has been an apprentice dune safari driver for six years now; this should imply that he is not a professional yet, but I don’t let it worry me; this is not a time for worrying; I came to be thrilled and I am getting every bit what I wished for. Soon however, all cars have to stop at the foot of a very high and long dune to fix a punctured tire.  Passengers, including my friend TP and me, seize the opportunity to take their distances from the vehicles and attempt a climb. So far the sky has been overcast with drizzling intervals (a rare thing!) so the sand is just pleasantly warm and oh so fine! Dragging our feet up and forward though is tough sport with sand running from underneath our soles. While our feet we keep sinking, we move forward one step and slide two or even three backwards. This is so much fun! And to think that this sea of sand used to be under water!


T.P Desert-Crossing? No Way!

We Found Sea-shells in the Desert!
During our stop we found a few sea-shells that left us dreaming of what it would have been like tens of thousands of years ago; soon we realize that the sea actually still nearby, now an inland sea that separates Qatar from Saudi Arabia. As we jest about taking a swim across, Jassim points out that the waters are very deep (some 200 meters) and that the Saudi side is guarded with armed posts. 


The Inland Sea

Jassim having fun
As we are making our way towards a resort-camp, night is about to reach the Qatari desert. In the car, our level of enthusiasm is still high; Jassim and Saeeda tell us how they could drive like this every day and the whole day, up and down the dunes, straight down and really fast like we are going right now, until we finally reach all the flat zone where evidently Jassim has lost control of his vehicle which is swirling right and left, this once in total silence, until the car finally stops moving and we all start breathing again.                                              From there, going to the camp feels like a Sunday drive with hundreds of four wheelers and buggies traveling like meteorites do in the sky, with no apparent order yet never colliding (at least not while we were there).
The camp is made up of a few large Bedouin tents, one of them fitted and decorated like a traditional living quarter, complete with carved wooden coffee (or tea?) tables, tea pots and musical instruments and really comfortable “sofas” to sit or sleep on, entirely covered with bright red ethnic woven covers.






Saeeda calls us inside, she wants us to wear the traditional long black dress and cover our heads so that we can have our photo taken together as three friends. We happily oblige although when I see myself on the photo, I know that this style simply does not suit me. I look dreadful! TP looks quite elegant though.                    As TP and I remove our Qatari dresses, so does Saeeda in front of one of the men, incidentally the one who’s just taken the few photo shots, who is still standing there watching us and laughing, obviously enjoying the rare intimacy. We think Saeeda has forgotten his presence, but as we gently bring this to her attention, she laughs with her contagious laughter: “It’s ok, he’s my boy friend!”  And of course it’s o.k with us if Mohammad stands there with loving eyes, discovering Saeeda’s jeans and tunic.                                                                  


T.P, Elegant, as always.

Outside the tent, aromas of kofta and curries attract everyone to the buffet table. It doesn’t take long till French, Canadian and Japanese tourists, some with young children, all agree that tonight’s dinner is out of this world under the perfectly clear sky that offers us a glimpse into infinity.

Dr.Saad and T.P Footloose in the Desert



PLANNING A DESERT SAFARI IN QATAR


22 April

A Recovery Day in Doha

Was it sleeping in the wrong position during the flight? Was it the unnerving sound of the stiff plastic mattress cover? On my second day in Doha I feel no better than I did yesterday; I can see white bubbles flying all around the room and I have strong suspicion that they are not really there. It is not even a challenge not to stress at the thought of having traveled so far to just want to sleep, just sleep while the world is busy and T.P is working. Hunger finally drags me out of slumber; time for a large croissant and a maxi sized bowl of … café au lait.      

Almost two o’clock in the afternoon and at long last I feel slightly energized by a long shower yet a little anxious at the perspective of having to let my rebellious hair dry without blow. Over my many years in Asia, I had noticed that there were usually no shaving kits in the bathrooms, which was ok by me since I am no relation to The Bearded Woman. From now on I will have to remember that Asian women who are blessed with straight manageable hair sometimes do not bother keeping a hair dryer, and why should they? I probably wouldn’t.
While I need time for my hair to dry, I pick The Peninsula, the news paper T.P kindly brought back yesterday. I find the suddenly familiar face of Aleida Guevarra.  On another page, Khalid Al Jaber reports on child marriage: Robbing children out of their innocence. The message is to say “no” to marriages of minors. He explains that, although Prophet Muhammad married Aisha when she was only nine years old, scientific research shows that girls should not mother babies before the age of seventeen.                                                                                              
 Further down I learn that foreign workers need an exit permit to leave the country even at the end of their contract!  There are even a few announcements for this or that foreign person who is going to leave the country.  Under the photograph there is a standard message calling for anyone who has any claims to make.                                                                                   
 There is also an article with a rather unusual story about a British woman who has suddenly started speaking with a Chinese accent! She reckons her chronic migraine is responsible for the change. Reportedly, the woman has become extremely annoyed and can’t wait to get her West Country drawl back. I quickly fold back the news paper before I too get a migraine and start blabbering with a Trans Carpathian accent.                                                   
It is high time for me to get creative with finding ways to fix my back and neck and finally get a life in Doha. I spot a chair that has the right height and shape; I push the seat facing against the wall, I evaluate the back of the chair one more time and for a split of a second I actually wonder if this is not a risky move that I am going to make, alone in the apartment. Then again, the thought of finally starting on my holiday is worth the risk. I bend backwards with confidence, arms left hanging, I breathe out and as I do so,  I hear the cracking sound I was hoping for. I recover my standing position; a heat wave runs up my neck, down my right arm and I am not sure whether I have stricken luck or disaster. I aim for the nearest armchair. The room is still around me and this time the air is clear from white bubbles. I give it five minutes; time to check out whether my un-orthodox back stretching method (do not try this at home!) actually works. I feel great! Just as I hear a knock on the door, I look I quickly check myself in the mirror; my hair has dried and settled in quite a nice style; for a second I’m thinking of checking out the Trans-Carpathian accent as well as my canines for that matter. Nah! I run to open for T.P. “How are you today? She asks. “Absolutely great! Let’s go and book our desert safari.

The office of Regency Holidays never closes. It seems that in Doha, people come to make reservations for their trips or their holidays at any time of the day or night. I can imagine myself after watching Ian Wright Out of Bound in Cuba on the Travel & Living channel, jumping into my car to visit my travel agent: “Hi Suzan! So let’s work out a package to Havana, shall we?” Or, again, me having a dream of cruising to Alaska and wanting to realize it ASAP: “Hello Suzan, glad you’re still there at 3am…”       I can’t help but love Regency Holidays; as much as I would hate having to work there. Business has been done smoothly and pleasantly too; we have booked tomorrow’s safari and a tour of North Qatar for the next day. I have also requested a quotation for me to visit Dubai, solo, while in transit on my way back to Malaysia. Now we can go and have dinner!



THE ANCIENT MARINER OF DOHA

The Ancient Mariner at Al Corniche

T.P is back, I am not feeling much better but I want to keep that to myself. I know she’s doesn’t often have company to go out with and also like the idea to somehow impose a break on her mind blowing and unhealthy work schedule.  Besides, I would need to be half dead, literally, to miss out on a northern Indian dinner. So off we go and down to the fourth floor, into the overly decorated restaurant that would take the air out of the lungs of any claustrophobic; I am not one of them, yet this is not helping my feeling dizzy. The food is delicious though and I make an important discovery. I ordered a lime juice and I am surprised to be served a green drink. TP explains that here, in Qatar, fresh lime is served with fresh mint. I venture a sip. I can’t say I appreciate but I don’t want to create a fuss and because I feel quite thirsty, I take one more sip and it actually tastes better, then one more and I am beginning to love it. I have definitely acquired the taste; in fact I even suspect this thing may be addictive!
To help us digest the garlic nans and the hot Vindaloo, nothing could be better than for us to walk a few kilometers to Al Corniche, the water front that follows the entire bay of Doha. I just hope the evening walk will make me feel better as right now I feel quite unsettled.                                                   
To reach our destination we need to cross the business district which is totally deserted at night. A few cars are still parked in front of an office building. The four wheel drives are enormous. I ask TP to take a picture of me standing next to a pick-up; the wheel is as high as my hips! Something to show the boys back home.     
We walk through the streets like two lonely ants between sky scrapers. A few drivers make us raise our eye brows as they practice rubber-burning around the corners; other than that no one disturbs us and we feel free to mock about hugging a cartoon styled sign-board that represents a smiling traffic police officer pointing at the traffic light sign above his head.Underneath the cut out figure, there is a notice which of course we cannot understand since it is written in Arabic.


T.P does not drive in Doha, she says she is too scared after watching local drivers. When we find another road sign which is meant to warn of something related to approaching a round- about, I agree that I would probably feel nervous to drive among wanna be formula one drivers in a place where I can’t make head or tail of the signage.



The towers are making me even dizzier, I dare not look up, yet they are all a spectacle to admire as most of them are lit up in one specific color or even change hues like the Storm Tower.       
The Storm Tower in Doha, it changes colour
                                                               
 When we finally reach Al Corniche, the breeze lifts my spirits and seems to clear my dizzy head a little. The large promenade runs parallel to the road, between manicured lawns dotted with palm trees and the waterfront parapet. The place is very busy, a favorite destination for joggers or mere strollers and families. Like I did the night before at the beach, I spend time looking at so many children out and enjoying the evening with their parents.                                                                                                          There’s a boat waiting for passengers. T.P explains that it is called a Dhow. She wants us to buy tickets for a cruise back and forth across the bay. Unlike me she is a tough negotiator; the deal is done for QR 20 each. For a while I forget my unstable feet while I negotiate the plank walk that serves as a gang-way. Off we sail into the night gathering in our sight all of the 240 (well, perhaps not all of them) glittering towers and the sultan’s palace too. Yes, right now T.P and I are queens of the night aboard what feels like our very own vessel while the old mariner who’s at the helm is definitely in a party mood, rocking the otherwise silent bay with Arab hits as well as Lily Allen and Whitney Houston who’s singing  I Need Somebody. For a minute we both consider standing up to dance on the empty deck (we are the only passengers) but then we are too scared to either give our captain a culture shock or send him the wrong message. In the end we both agree to dampen out enthusiasm for the wild rhythm of the night and keep to our bench, behaving like ladies until we find ourselves back alongside.                                         Strange how the boat trip succeeded in making me feel much better; it must have been the breeze, or perhaps the seafaring genes in my DNAS, the fact is that I had almost forgotten about my discomfort while on board. Stepping down on the steady ground of Al Corniche however, feels like payback time. I feel like a drunken sailor on leave. I have often heard that seamen in a state of ebriety never fall over board; I just hope that I won’t fall over my own feet! Meanwhile I feel all at once crossed eyed and nauseous, and yet flooded with an immense pleasure of being here right now, with a friend, in a city where towers turned bejeweled every night and mirror their beauty in the calm waters of the bay.                                                                                 As I can barely hide my awkward steps, TP becomes concerned. “Shall we hail a cab?” she offers. “No, let’s just walk, the night is just too beautiful, beside, look at the moon, it’s full, surely it’s a good thing for me to get better.”



THE DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES OF DOHA?

21th April

Today is one of those times when I have to scrape off any plans I made. Like I do quite often, I feel extremely giddy, to be more specific, I feel like a drunken sailor. 
Here I am, so far away from home, on a continent I have never visited before and I have no choice but to stay indoors. I am not complaining though, I’d rather see the bright side of today. First of all I am alone in the apartment while TP will be away the whole day. This means that my feeling unwell only affects me and not my host; I also have another six days to visit Qatar, meanwhile all I need (and want) to do is relax and sleep, sleep and sleep longer. 

It is already mid-afternoon and I make an attempt at shaking off the sleepiness. I still feel dizzy but I refuse to stay in bed any longer. A long shower does little to revive my senses. I settle in the small TV room with a mug of café au lait which, by my standards means milk with just a dash of coffee powder. I have always loved milk, it’s like an addiction, if I don’t have milk in the morning, things will go wrong, the whole day: my sleeve will get caught in a door handle (several times!), I’ll bang my knee on a table leg or elsewhere, I’ll slam the car door and rip open my calf with the corner, I’ll spill or drop drinks and food on the floor or on my blouse, the list goes on, I need my daily milk! Even though anyone else may find it harmless and even rather country-cute to be hooked on cow milk, my addiction was never welcome by my parents who happened to consider themselves as coffee connoisseurs who took very seriously at selecting coffee from a wide selection available at the local hypermarket. They would pick a savvy choice consisting of some the most expensive jars in order to mix them almost scientifically, by spoonfuls and half spoonfuls, before serving. I, on the other hand, would stubbornly insist on buying my regular tin of Ricoré (a coffee flavored chicory based powder) which they probably felt like a desecration of their costly ritual.  At home, every day after lunch, serving the sophisticated brew had become a ceremonial which can almost be compared to the Chinese tea ceremony. My mother was the nose (way before Michael Jackson); she never failed to mention how her nose was an exceptional God-given attribute to her face. For a while I had been absolutely convinced that she possessed a special power that she kept hidden inside her nostrils; she always reminded us that “no-one can ever cheat the nose!” Sad to say, at least for my hopeful parents,, no matter how long they both tried to convert me to become a respectable heir to the family coffee tradition, I failed, totally. There will be no rehab for me and I say “no, no, no” to black coffee or espresso while I carry on being an embarrassment happily dunking my croissant in my delicious café au lait which is really lait au café.

I turn on the TV and search through the channels. There are a few Arab ones of course, and I can’t help noticing that the anchor men and women are dressed western. The movies reflect the same choice of clothes. I catch a news channel in French; the Icelandic volcano is perturbing the whole of Europe and beyond. There’s a little bit on how it affects Icelanders, with the interview of a farmer’s wife who sounds devoid of panic as if volcanic eruptions was part of the way of life of her people. News however needs something more disastrous to show viewers, like frustrated airline passengers stranded in a foreign country, as far as Asia. A few of the interviewees are even angry at the delay; they had “things” to do back home. I am sure they expect the Icelandic government to put a lid on the volcano and on the wrath of Thor, not to save the lives of their own people from unspeakable death or their land from being drowned with rivers of hell burning lava, but rather to stop the inconvenience caused to airline passengers all over the world.

I change to an English language Qatari channel. An English woman is being interviewed. I understand that she suffers from migraines that make her speak with a Chinese accent which has replaced her native English West Country drawl. Now I’m getting a migraine. A video trailer follows which addresses me directly “Which desperate housewife are you the most like?” I am so surprised that I am ready to believe that this is a paranormal message coming out of the TV set and I am the only one to be able to watch and hear it. Indeed which desperate housewife am I? Am I desperate at all? Since I have watched all in all perhaps three episodes of the series, I can’t honestly answer the question. For crying out loud, I am in Qatar! Then again the Desperate Housewives may be touching, in ways I dare not imagine, all those Qatari wives who happen to be sitting, like me, in front of their TV screen, together with their husband’s other three wives, while their black dresses and veils await hanging by the door. All this is making me very aware that I really know absolutely nothing of the way of life of the people I mingled with last night at the Marine Festival.




Wednesday, October 20, 2010

HOW I MET CHE GUEVARRA' S DAUGHTER

Qatar Marine Festival


When T.P comes home I haven’t really slept. I had locked the door from inside and feared I would be too deep into sleep to hear her knock.  I am so happy to see her. It’s been more than two years since she came to my house.  “How do you like the view from the thirteenth floor?” she asks, sitting on the convenient inner edge along the bay window.               
 “You remember how you hypnotized me to rid me of my fear of heights?” I’m impressed, with T.P, with my hypnotherapeutic skills and mostly with the view.                   

T.P has made plans for us to spend the evening but we are too excited to meet again and too busy questioning each other on places and acquaintances. She’s still a workaholic, she laments. Every morning, she starts work like everybody else employed in Qatar at seven o’clock, but when everyone close their files and switch of their computer at two pm, she stays on for at least another two or three hours and she goes to her office on Fridays when the whole Gulf is at rest or worshiping. By the time we stop talking and get dressed to go out, the evening is well advanced.                                 “We are going to have to walk in the sand.” She says.  “So let’s wear rubber sandals. We’re going to the Marine Festival. But first we’ll have dinner at City Center.”
On our way down, we stop on the fourth floor to investigate: the Olympic size swimming pool, a gym, a couple of restaurants, one hair salon for the gentlemen and one for the ladies (the windows leave no chance for anyone to peep). Right now, it’s Kmart we’re interested in and when we briefly return to the apartment, my face must be beaming now that I have found milk and croissants.  We must hurry; our transport is waiting in front of the main entrance. It’s a limo and T.P introduces me to the driver who gives me his card which I’ll probably need to call on his services when Karwa taxis are too busy.

City Center is a shopping mall, not any different from the ones in Kuala Lumpur except that in this one they sell clothes in decent sizes. Malaysian fashion retailers seem to believe that the whole female population of the country was born and bred to fit into size S or even XS. I recently found out that there is even a size 0! There is one size though that gets me most frustrated for the false hope it gives me when I pick it up: the FREE size (!!??), which seems to be even smaller than the rest; so where’s the freedom in that?            More often than not when I enter a boutique in Malaysia, I am served with a flat “We don’t have big size.” Are Malaysian ladies fashion retailers burying their head in the lumpur (mud)? I believe they are; and hopefully some of the contestants of the new hit TV show “Biggest Looser Asia” will include ass kicking any retailer not selling clothes above size 10 in their list of physical exercises; or do I live on hope?

T.P just asked me to decide what to have for dinner: Italian, Mexican… I am quick to choose Arab, a mixed grill with finger lick good hummus which by the way comes with Turkish or is it Iraqi bread. At the next table I can’t help noticing a group of four women who are making their food disappear under the black veil that covers their face from underneath their eyes. I am sure they too lick their fingers. 

We catch a Karwa taxi but the driver doesn’t quite seem to know where in Doha the Marine Festival is. I personally make a silent and educated guess that it must be somewhere along the shore. Thankfully T.P knows her way around and her landmarks too.   
The "landmark"
                         
We’re on the beach and quite satisfied with our choice of footwear. The night simply feels good as we stare at the cloudless sky dotted with stars and planets and satellites and sadly no UFO to write about. Is it the refreshing breeze, the splendid lights on the facade and gardens of a distinguished hotel ahead of us or is it the lull of the dancing fountain behind us? Here I am with a good friend, far, far away from home and in wonderful spirits. Doha feels beautiful.
The Dancing Fountain With a Crowd


Traditional Fishing Boat

We’ve just passed a traditional fishing boat resting on the beach; there’s a group of men sitting on the sand on one side of the embarkation; they are wearing the thobe, the traditional robe, and look like a regular crew. We are not sure if the whole scene is only here as an exhibit as we can see, a short distance ahead, a number of powerboats displayed on their trailers. As we visit some of the tourism booths, a chatty sales man recommends us to spend the rest of the evening at the beach cinema under the stars.  “Tonight they are playing “Titanic” he enthuses.  With this in mind, we can’t help a furtive second look at the Navy’s display.                                                               
What we’d really like to see is the Sand Art and Sculptures show, so we return to the beach where we find ourselves unwelcome in the middle of a bossaball match. If, like me, you have never heard of “bossaball” before, it’s because it is a newly invented sport. If you thought that all that could be done with a ball, big or small, had already been done, you are in for a surprise: you were wrong! Yes indeed, as it is, the ball happens to be a very versatile object for the creative sporting mind: combine football, volleyball and gymnastic with spectacular acrobatic moves and you will be playing bossaball. Voila!                                                        
We are told that tonight, players, of both genders, are from Brasil and Europe and that the game is played on an especially invented inflatable court with trampoline in the middle, which helps players make spectacular jumps and movements. As I comment on the attractive blond, tanned and amazingly flexible young girls in tiny shorts, TP explains with a few words: “When it’s sports, it’s allowed”. 

We have reached the Sea Food Cooking Contest compound. Eighteen local chefs are competing with around the world and local dishes. As competitors remain fully focused on the job, spectators are entertained by a live singer while the event is being filmed and reported by a western-styled and very attractive Arab woman. The first prize, we learn, will be a return ticket to his country and one week paid leave for the winner. So much for the eighteen local chefs!       

The Seafood Cooking Competition




The cultural village, which was built on the same beach, is of course in full activity. It recreates a traditional Qatari village, with white walls and a tower shaped like a sugar bread;the type of dwelling that existed when the livelihood of the people came from fish and pearls, until that is, Petrol and Gas started earning the little peninsula the big money. 


Here, children can try their hands at pottery making and basketry and find out what spices look like inside jute bags rather than in tiny jars. A cultural shock to generation PS (Play Station)!  


Inside the building there is a marine exhibition going on with large aquariums; and did I mention that everything tonight is entirely free? The place is packed with families with young children. The purpose of the event is to promote the love and care of the natural environment of the Arabian Gulf.    
I play with my camera, catching T.P on the other side of one  of the aquariums and getting a very strange result. We notice a gathering around a man who scoops water beings out of their element to let people touch them. I guess it must be based on the idea of a touch-pool where one can experience tactile contact with aquatic creatures such as star fishes, sea urchins etc., except that here, whoops! Someone just dropped a starfish to the floor.                                                            






                                                                


Once outside again, we’re on a public square. A group of twelve male musicians have formed a circle, seated on a set of matching red carpets. Their robes are dark grey and the cloth on their heads, the Ghattra, is white and held by a black cord called Agal. They are playing of kinds of rather large drums and one is even using a hollow earthen jar


The rhythm is fast and enthralling and seems to have called one of the men to dance and perform high jumps in the center of the circle. I’m having a splendid time and a fully sensual experience with the sea breeze on my face and in my hair, the scent of iodine, the music, and the whole visual scene in front of me. Moments like this one are epiphanies that give the ultimate sense to traveling to far away countries.   
I can’t help wanting to catch and immortalize something as impalpable as the spirit of a spectacle in time; I keep on clicking while through my lens I can see family groups who have come for the show. Qatari men can have four wives and they often have that many. I can see that quite a few of such families are here tonight and the women seem to be enjoying a great time together. They are all dressed the same though, covered in black cloth from head to toes, literally. I wonder out loud how husbands can recognize their wives in a crowd.                                                                               T.P who has been working in Qatar for two years now tells me that until today she has never seen the face of some of her colleagues. Only a few of them have removed their face veil in front of her, in the privacy of her office room. The others, she has learned to recognize by the perfume they wear or by their eyes when they can be seen. “A good challenge to develop lazy senses.” She concludes and I can’t help to comment “Rather confusing with those who enjoy changing eau de toilette every day.”                                    As for foreign women who, like TP, are employed by government agencies the drill is to cover the shoulders (which really means all the way down to the wrists) and cover the knees (which really means all the way down to the ankles).

A man sits on the sand, leaning against the flank of his resting camel. The scene is a show of loving partnership between the man and his mount and it is made of sand! I suddenly remember that only last night while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, I was half dreaming over an in-flight magazine announcement for the Cap d’Agdes sand show. Now I feel I am getting two holidays for the distance and price of one. France will have to wait.    
   
                                                                                                                         The show is also a contest which attracts international artists. Walter McDonald is here from Texas, Craig Mutch from Canada, Paul Hoggard from Yorkshire, Remi Geerts from the Netherlands, Ruslan Korokov from Russia, Calixto Molina Navarete from Mexico, Benjamin Probanza from Spain.        In their work, the artists have been asked showcase Qatar’s traditions and marine heritage. TP and I are in awe. As we move from one display to another, we find ourselves standing right in between a breath-taking sand reproduction of a medieval tower and a messy sand pit where a supervisor is doing his best to encourage the artistic talents of a dozen over-excited children. I can’t stop a sudden memory flash back to my childhood days building sand castles with French Riviera or Corsican beach sand, except that my towers were mere block shaped in small plastic buckets and that all my efforts always crumbled down within minutes. Despite my age, I know I’d still belong in the messy sand pit. The whole festival is a real family friendly event and the vision of Her Highness Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser who’s goal is to encourage children to develop a sense of self-confidence in their abilities, pride in their accomplishments and a chance to cultivate a positive view of the world around them; a laudable effort in this region.   
Most artists are not around tonight; only Walter McDonald is here, probably because he is only half way through building a Qatari citadel.                                                           There’s quite a crowd observing the master and T.P recognizes someone: “The woman in red” she says.              “I have seen her somewhere.”                                                I have been in the Gulf for just a day, yet and since Dubai airport terminal 2, I have only seen women dressed in long black robes, often with their whole face hidden behind a black veil. So a woman in red here, at a no nonsense family event, I am surprised. I look in the direction T.P is now staring while rewinding her inner memory tape. She is thinking.                                                                                “I remember! It was In today’s news paper. She is Che Guevarra’s daughter, now in Doha to attend a documentary festival organized by Al Jaezeera.”  I quickly recall that Doha is the head-quarters of Al Jaezeera.                                      It must me my Nikhon D60 that makes me grow an attitude, that of a foreign reporter. I don’t wear the shoes, but I carry the camera.                                                                     “Let’s take a picture of her shall we? Let’s have an adventure!”                                                                      T.P’s first reaction is to giggle and follow me; her second one is to back off into the crowd as soon as she sees a Man in Black with a wired ear make a bee line in my direction.                                                                                                “Do you know who this is?” He asks me, pointing towards the woman in red.                                                                        I remain straight-faced and without lowering my camera I answer him politely and lie:  “No, I don’t know. Who is she?”                                                                               “She is Aleida Guevarra, Che Guevarra’s daughter.” His pride is obvious. “Would you like to take a picture?”                        I feel lucky with my reporter’s attitude. “Sure, that would be great.”                                                                                  “I’ll take your picture with her.” He says. “Give me your camera.”                                                                                I venture a quick look behind me to get a glimpse at T.P who sure looks concerned. I’d bet she thinks that the man in black is actually confiscating my camera and that I am going to have something to write about Qatari jails, perhaps en route to a Cuban jail. I did tell her that I had come to live an adventure, didn’t I?                                                                                               

 Aleida Guevarra and I are now standing close to each other, smiling at the camera. She is obviously used to doing this sort of thing with total strangers like me, she is very sweet and yet I can read the obvious question all over her face: “Who are the heck are you???”                                              I am beginning to feel guilty of intruding her evening with my silly prank,  and I suddenly feel obliged to say something out of courtesy, possibly not too cliché, to give her face:  “Hi! Welcome to Qatar!”                                                       Where are the appropriate intelligent words when I need them?                                                                                               I can only hope that outside Cuba, she’s met a lot of goofies like me.                                                                                  I am quick to sneak away, reclaim my camera from my Man in Black and catch up with T.P. As we walk away from the confusion caused my Aleida Guevarra’s suite, we make sure to take enough distance to allow ourselves to burst into laughter.                                                                             T.P who knows everything that happens in Doha tells me that Tony Blair is arriving tomorrow. Is she throwing me a bait?  “Shall we try this again?” I say this as a joke, but TP does not seem quite sure whether I am serious or just kidding.        "I don’t think his security guards would let you go near him.”  She says.                                                                               “Look, Tsung Ping, if we want adventure, we must dare our fifty percent chances of receiving a Yes for answer.”           She must think I have completely lost it and I love it.  

If Aleida ever happens to read this, I want her to know that I meant no disrespect and that she now belongs with my good memories of nice people. Our encounter came in a long, very long line of what I like to call  “trends of awareness”, like, for instance, reading about the Capt d’Agdes sand competition and finding myself, without any planning, at a similar event in Doha. It’s the same thing with Aleida Guevarra; just before I left Kuching, I finished reading a travel book written by Ann Mustoe and titled “Che Guevarra and the Silver Mountainwhich help me, this evening, to meet the Che’s daughter as a total stranger yet not as an ignorant or as one of the millions folks in the world who think that Che Guevarra is just a good T-shirt face.                                                                        Aleida and her three siblings has lived all her life in her mum’s country, Cuba; however, her famous dad, Ernesto “Che” Guevarra who helped Fidel Castro come to power during the Cuban revolution, was Argentinean. Ernesto was the son of a wealthy family and was a doctor in medicine. In the book I read recently, Ann Mustoe (the author) was following the road he and a friend had travelled on a big bike during a holiday break from medical school. Ernesto’s encounter with Cuban revolutionary Aleida March, among the guerilla in the bush, somehow reminded me of Causette and Marius‘s love story on the barricades in “Les Miserables”. Revolutions, somehow, have always inspired romantic stories and it may have something to do with a theory in psychology that in time of war, nature has made sure that once the conflict and therefore the fear, have passed, the appropriate action to ensure self-preservation and pro-creation, will be taken: an upsurge in sexual activity to replenish the losses. That’s right; revolutions are made of these too…                 For Ernesto though, it wasn’t just about libido; the Che who lives eternally in history as an idealistic hero also left private memories with his family of a loving husband and dotting father; when together, they were happy. The Che died in 1967, gunned down by Bolivian troops; daughter Aleida was only seven years old. Now a pediatrician, she still lives her father’s ideological legacy as a militant communist. The island of Cuba is quite high on my list of places to visit before I die; who knows, I may dare to call on Aleida when I get there? I’d love to catch up, sincerely.  
Meeting with Aleida Guevarra