Family, food, travel, other obsessions.
The summer of far-flung travel has begun. It started last week, actually, and appropriately, with a family reunion in Utah, the destination of many of the 19th century’s weariest, most far flung, and most intent travelers. I’m proud to be related to some of them.
I wonder what they would think of Dubai, my location today, for less than 24 hours, enroute to Uganda, again for just a night initially, before going on to Rwanda.
Our flight into Dubai was non-stop from Seattle. It was fine, just very long.
At the suggestion of a colleague who has been here to Dubai, I decided to seek out one of the spice souks (open air markets).
Other merchants mix in, too—scarves and lamps, baskets, toys, clothing, and the gold souk is its own world right behind—but I was immediately partial to the spice vendors, not just for the visual and olfactory overload of their wares, but also because they loved to talk about the spices, and the foodie in me just couldn’t resist. One of the vendors even picked up each spice in turn and quizzed me. I got almost all of them right, to his amazement, in part because I love to cook, but also because his colleague down the street had just told me about a few I hadn’t known before (dried, smoked oranges used in flavorful biryani dishes, for example — second row from top, second from left below).
The smell of cardamom and cinnamon, saffron, anise and a hundred teas clung to me the minute I approached the first vendor, and I sit here infused and delighted hours later, my head swirling with the fragrant memory of it all.
The vendors were aggressive and persistent, but it was, almost without exception, in a smooth, flirtatious and somehow not creepy way. The few elderly gentlemen I encountered were extraordinarily reserved, leaving the eye contact and schmoozing to their younger counterparts. And, as you might have surmised, women vendors were nowhere to be seen. I wonder if that’s different during the daytime.
I did not get to the souk until after 9:00, but everything was still open and active, although several vendors told me that things are generally much busier, and that they’re quieter right now due to Ramadan. Several assured me it was ok for me to shop because it was evening (after the fasting period).
The whole area surrounding the souk was bustling, including the clothing and other brightly light stores behind the souk.
The mosque in the middle of it all provided its own mesmerizing hum as the imam called out prayers over the loudspeaker and, at prayer’s end, men poured out to reclaim their shoes, which were strewn on shelves and on every inch of the mosque’s steps.
Although my taxi ride to the souk had included probably the most dramatic almost rear-ending accident I’ve ever been in (the tires locked so hard they hopped to a stop…), I decided to push my luck and go one more place, to a restaurant recommended in the airline magazine, al Mallah, a Lebanese restaurant in al Satwa, or the old garment district. I’m a sucker for Middle Eastern food, but this one was a disappointment.
Perhaps I will have to go to Gaza or East Jerusalem someday to find falafels that will rival the gems at Dada Falafel in Berlin. Tonight’s were certainly no competition. They were ok—crisp on the outside and mostly tender on the inside—but they came so quickly after I ordered them (and they were lukewarm) that they could not possibly have been made to order. The parsley and tomatoes garnishing them had also obviously been prepared ahead of time.
The bread was fine, but not overwhelmingly good, although it should have been, since it is made fresh almost round the clock in a big wood-fired oven the faces the street, allowing passers-by to watch the process. I just far prefer the fluffier Turkish flatbread to the flatter pocket version.
The only thing that was really memorable about the meal was the mint lemonade. I was taken aback by the army green color when it arrived, an indication that it, too, had not been made fresh. Still, somehow the flavor was bright and incredibly satisfying, especially since it was about 100°, even at almost midnight. Good thing I grew up in Arizona. Somehow the desert girl in me came out and felt right at home.
I saw just a glimpse of the crazy high-rise architecture for which Dubai has gained its international reputation.
But if I had to pick, I’d pick a souk over a high-rise any day. Coriander and curry, rose hips and vanilla smell better than exploitation.
Happy Independence Day, by the way. I will return eagerly in a few weeks to my beautiful homeland and can’t wait to open my mind to the beautiful African homelands of millions of my brothers and sisters.