Turquoise Taxi Talk

I love meeting people from all over the world, and hearing about their unique life stories. With foreign expats making up over 80% of Qatar’s population, there are infinite opportunities for such exchanges to take place.

Unfortunately, small talk is not my forte. Chit chat, the skimming of the surface that occurs after every Sunday church service, is just not my thing. It’s like testing the water with just one toe; something a clumsy, Accidental Asshole like myself does not do well. I tend to stumble on my words before completely falling in headfirst. Luckily, that flaw has resulted in some of the most interesting conversations I never thought I’d have.

While J flew to Moscow and back, I met up with my favorite Swede. We shopped around yet another mall in hopes of finding winter wear for our December trips home, and stopped for coffee at Krispy Kreme. After going our separate ways, I jumped in one of the turquoise taxis waiting outside the mall.

“How long have you lived here?” I asked the driver. That question, coupled with, “Where are you from?” are my icebreakers of choice.

In no time at all, I had the taxi driver, *Aadarsh, telling me about life in Qatar from his perspective. Although many of the taxi drivers here have incredibly poor English, Aadarsh’s English was pretty good. I reveled in the opportunity for a comprehensible conversation with someone experiencing a whole other side of expat life.

A native Sri Lankan, Aadarsh learned English as a child in his school near Colombo. He’s lived in Qatar for about 4 months, but this isn’t his first gig in the Middle East. Before coming here, he spent 3 years living and working in Saudi Arabia. He said the traffic fines are not as bad in Saudi as they are here, but the people there are much worse. His wife and 4-year old son are back in Sri Lanka. He signed a 2-year contract with the taxi company here, and expects to return to Sri Lanka as soon as his contract is over to be with his wife and son, as their son will begin school at that time.

My own personal beliefs aside, I find religious devotion fascinating. In Sri Lanka, Aadarsh explained, people are “Buddhist (70%), Hindu, Muslim, then Christian.” He said he is Hindu, because his father is Hindu. We talked about eating meat, and agreed Buddhism would be good for me, because I’m vegetarian! He thought it was pretty funny that I don’t cook meat for J. I told him J gets all the meat he ever wanted outside our home!

I asked how it was to work for the taxi company. He described 16-hour work days, beginning at 6:00am and ending at 10:00pm. He has 2 days off each month. I asked if he knew before he started the job that he would only have 2 days off each month. He said no, adding that another company in town gives its drivers 1 day off each week, but, unfortunately, his company does not. Continually referring to his company’s “scheme,” he explained how he pays the equivalent of $82 each day to “rent” the taxi he drives, in addition to paying about $95 each week in gas. At the end of a 16-hour shift, after paying for gas and renting the taxi, he takes home about $27.

Curious about all of the claims I’ve read about worker treatment here, I asked him where his Passport is. He said the company has it. I asked about his living accommodations, which are provided by the company. He reiterated what one of my building staff members had previously told me: 8 men share one room. I asked about their kitchen. He said they don’t have a kitchen, but they are provided food at the “canteen” (cafeteria).

Finally, we reached my building. I thanked him, tipped him nicely, greeted my building’s nighttime concierge as I headed upstairs, and opened my apartment door to an enthusiastically meowing Cheese Louise McFlufferstein.

We have it so damn good.

Georgian Haramadan

I have regretted a lot of things, but I have never regretted traveling.

On Sunday, August 4, the first day of American embassy closures across the Middle East and North Africa due to unspecified “information” and “conditions,” I hopped on a flight with J to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Image

(Partial) Emergency Message for US Citizens: August 1, 2013

I am regularly told I don’t “look” American (whatever that means), and I really do have a fairly strong faith in The Country’s ability and desire to keep the people here safe. Even so, sensationalism by the media of the newly increased “risk” and “threat” of al Qaeda had me on mental red alert since reading the August 1st emergency message I received from the US embassy here.

Image

Aug. 3 – CNN International Edition (On an unrelated note, notice NO MENTION of Edward Snowden)

Image

Aug. 3 – CNN US Edition (HOLY SNOWDEN OBSESSION, AMERICA!)

Image

Aug. 3 – Al Jazeera

As I made my way through The Country’s airport before the flight to Tbilisi, I kept my beautiful blue passport concealed and spoke to no one except when prompted by security.

When the magnetic forces of the duty free shop pulled me in, I immediately gravitated toward the book section.

I love bookstores. And I love books. I’m not very good at finishing books, because while reading one, a tidbit of information will pique my interest and then whoosh! I’m turning the pages of another. It’s a vicious cycle.

Leisurely flipping through the crisp pages of some airport bestsellers was a vacation in itself. There aren’t many bookstores here – definitely not any used bookstores (to my knowledge), which I love so much back home. No one, neither J nor a driver of any sort, was waiting for me to hurry up and get back to the car; rather, I was just waiting for my flight. The only thing missing was a comfy chair and a hot drink. (Barnes & Noble, I MISS YOU.)

I happily boarded the flight to Tbilisi with 3 new gems: Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom (banned in Saudi Arabia), William Woodruff’s A Concise History of the Modern World, and Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (who doesn’t love light reading with inspirational quotes?!).

Unfortunately, the fact that I only put one of my new books down long enough to enjoy a savory spinach and cheese crepe mid-flight didn’t stop Overly Confident Local Man from trying to chat me up. He inquired about my travel plans to Tbilisi. I said I am visiting with my husband there. I opted to keep it vague, because really, the last thing a stranger needs to know in the wake of this alleged terrorism + closed embassy hogwash is that I’m an American and my American husband is FLYING THE AIRPLANE WE’RE ON.

He told me about the very important business he will be conducting over the next year in Tbilisi, then gave me his number on a receipt (because apparently not all very important businessmen have business cards) then made sure to let me know that number was available 24 hours (oh good, so it’s not a payphone). I abruptly buried my face back into my book and he apologized for bothering me.

While I was speed reading the left page of my book to avoid eye contact on his side of the plane, I noticed out of my periph something bright waving around. Fantastic, he was trying to show me a cell phone picture of his daughter.

“She’s so cute!” I told him with a forced smile.

Back to my book. Again, bright light waving around in periph.

“What is your mobile?” he boldly requested. (“Mobile” here means “cell phone number” and the lazy abbreviation has a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect on my nerves.)

“I can’t,” I said, shaking my head N-O. He looked confused. “I can’t, I can’t,” I repeated, finally pointing to the front of the plane.

“Your husband?!” he asked, looking a little worried.

“Yeahhhhh,” I smiled.

I had to bite my lip and think of some really awful things to stifle the laugh that was bubbling up as the failed pick-up attempt of Airplane Creeper replayed itself in my mind.

Note to Men: Don’t hit on girls on airplanes. We may be a captive audience for the duration of the flight, but that won’t make it any less awkward. This is especially true when we are married, when YOU KNOW we’re married, and when EVERYONE WORKING ON THE PLANE knows we’re married. Don’t be That Guy.

Finally, we landed in Tbilisi. I thanked my lucky stars to be out of the desert and away from the restrictions of a month-long religious holiday.

The feeling is mutual, Tbilisi!

The feeling is mutual, Tbilisi!

Upon arriving at the hotel, we quickly changed clothes. I was unnaturally excited to rip off the black leggings and cardigan I had paired with my dress. My personal style has really transformed over the last year due to living in a Muslim country. At this point, I wholeheartedly believe that too much modesty is better than not enough modesty. I think modest attire almost always appears more flattering and demands more respect. Even so, sometimes it’s nice to feel free from multiple layers of clothes. I like my skin, I’m not ashamed of my skin, and I tire of worrying about how much must be covered.

As we walked to our favorite hole in the wall restaurant/bar, I felt like a teenager that had just moved out of my parents’ house. Flaunting bare knees and bare shoulders, it didn’t really matter if I’d hit or missed looking amazing – I felt amazing.

I'm not perfect, but I'm free!

I’m not perfect, but I’m free!

Inside Cellar on Rustaveli

Inside Cellar on Rustaveli

Our Georgian dinner was as delicious as I had remembered it when I visited with J previously.

Just getting started...

Just getting started…

I kept it veg friendly with warm Georgian bread, hearty “bean in a pot,” Chvishtary (cornbread with cheese), and crispy cheese blins. Always eager to make up for missed meat, J ordered a huge rack of pork ribs (“smoked ribs menu”) and pork shashlik, the latter of which he says is his favorite thing on the menu (his exact words were, “It was pretty f***in’ awesome!”). We washed it all down with Georgian beer and wine, and slept like logs when our heads finally hit our pillows.

The next morning, we opted out of the overpriced hotel breakfast and went to a nearby cafe. The service left much to be desired, but the coffee, pastries, and outdoor seating were the perfect way to start the day.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions…

Waking up with coffee & an apricot pastry

Waking up with coffee & an apricot pastry

We definitely take the little things, like eating/drinking as we please, for granted. I couldn’t help thinking of David Turashvili’s movie-novel, Flight from USSR, where Soso Tsereteli’s father smuggled a pair of “genuine American jeans” into Soviet Georgia in the 1980’s. According to the author, “The banned jeans became sweeter than the forbidden fruit … In those days, every pair of jeans were believed to be American and, as the Soviet propaganda was set on destroying American values, many associated happiness with where jeans were thought to be in abundance” (Flight from USSR). I’d like to say I can’t even imagine, but I can.

After deep thoughts at breakfast, I hit an accessory sale jackpot at a nearby shop.

Tbilisi Turquoise

Tbilisi Turquoise

We took a cab to the Old Town area, admiring Narikala Fortress, St. Nicolas Church, and the swaying cable cars we rode only a few months previously, from below.

Tbilisi Old Town

Tbilisi Old Town

In the future, we’ll start a day in Tbilisi in the Old Town area. We had no idea how much was there!

Sulphur Bathhouses

Sulphur Bathhouses

Old Town mosque above sulfur spring water

Old Town mosque above sulfur spring water

We stopped for a light lunch at an Old Town restaurant called Konka Station. Taking advantage of every opportunity to sit outside, we made ourselves comfortable on their misted patio. It didn’t take long for a friendly street cat to make our acquaintance. I enjoyed a vegetable ragout that reminded me of our first meal in Istanbul, J picked through a Greek salad, and the three of us (myself, J, and Street Cat) shared Khachapuri Imeruli.

???????????????????????????????

After coffee and J’s strange chocolate milkshake concoction (chocolate milk plus an ice cube), we left Street Cat to see what else we could squeeze in during our last hour in Tbilisi.

We wound up down the street at the Georgian Orthodox Sioni Cathedral, which was originally built in the 5th Century, but destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since then.

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

We hung a right out of the church, expecting to catch a cab to return to the hotel, when I spotted one of my favorite things E-V-E-R…

A CARPET STORE!

???????????????????????????????

J’s Worst Nightmare

My Achilles' heel

Inside: my Achilles’ heel

I have a serious weakness for handwoven rugs. J, however, could not be any less interested. Especially after the week we spent in Istanbul, it is probably safe to use the word “dread” when describing J’s feelings about carpet stores. If I ever have any doubt about his feelings for me, I can just remember the oodles of kilims we (I) admired in Istanbul, and the fact that he didn’t abandon me in Turkey, and I know the guy loves me.

Rugs in Tbilisi are SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than in Istanbul. In Tbilisi, the carpet sales people do not seem to care whether you enter their shop or keep on truckin’. Istanbul is a much different story, with salesmen quick to make you feel at home with a hot cup of tea if you so much as glance in their direction.

Somehow, we managed to leave the Georgian carpet store with a small kilim without feeling completely robbed.

K is for Kilim!

K is for Kilim!

A few hours later, we were back at the Tbilisi airport. I sat next to an American couple while waiting to board the plane. How did I know they were American? Because THEY WERE TALKING LIKE TYPING IN ALL CAPS MIGHT SOUND. IT’S NOT LIKE TRAVEL ALERTS FOR AMERICANS WERE SWIRLING AROUND ALL OVER THE PLACE OR ANYTHING.

US Embassy Aug. 2

US Embassy Travel Alert (Aug. 2)

“U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves while traveling” might imply to STOP BEING SO DAMN LOUD.

Anyway, the American lady (also an expat), at a very high decibel, told me all about their travel mishaps over the last few weeks, how she just wants to move home (don’t we all), and about the couple of cats she saw doin’ the deed in her friend’s garden, while I sat there wondering what about myself suggests to people I want to hear this crap. She mentioned the all too common theme among expat wives of giving up her career to come here for him. That is one fire that will never run out of fuel.

We landed back in The Country around midnight. While walking through the arrivals terminal, I noticed a white man standing out like a sore thumb in a sea of brown. He was on the other side of the glass dividing new arrivals from the waiting area, eagerly scanning the arriving passengers as they walked through. Suddenly, his face lit up as though he’d won the lottery, and I heard two little voices behind me call out, “Papa! Papa!”. A woman hurriedly pushed a cart of suitcases past me, with two young children seated on top like two cherries on top of a giant suitcase sundae. The sweet sight of their Papa scooping them up, embracing one in each arm, made me a little sick, because I know what it’s like to deeply miss loved ones.

I found a seat in the immigration area while I waited for J. A little girl across from me was repeating abracadabra! and at that moment there were so many things I wished would happen.

For now, where we are, the media is the greatest agent of terror. We’ve started locking our doors, but we won’t be giving up on the world any time soon!