Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer is Almost Over . . .

And with everyone returning from their summer vacations, and schools starting again, we can look forward to insane traffic once more.

One of the problems with summer is that the traffic improves so much and after a couple of months you tend to forget that it’s not always like this. Then September comes along and BAM! the increase in traffic hits you like a freight train, and that 15-minute commute becomes 35.

I was chatting with a friend of a friend who moved down here a couple of months ago. He was asking about where to live and my friend and I warned him he should try to be close to work to save on the commute. He didn’t think the traffic was too bad but he had only been here a couple of months – he had no idea what he will be in for.

Bear in mind that since June I’m betting an additional 10,000-12,000 vehicles have been put on the roads, so the congestion will be even worse then before the summer. I’m already starting to see the increase in traffic. It’s still not too bad but it’s definitely noticeable.

I’m not looking forward to next week.

[update: and so it begins, here's a September 4th article from a local newspaper.]

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Eating Dates

The other day I was at Ezdan Mall and wandered through an area where they had varieties of dates on display for people to try.

To most Westerners it looks like displays of unripe dates but in truth the dates are edible. Dates have a number of stages of ripeness and you can eat them in any of the stages. We are most familiar with the last stage, called “tamr” in Arabic, when dates have a dark-brown, wrinkly appearance. In my blog post “Varieties of Dates” all of the dates are tamr.

When I first learned Arabic I learned the Arabic word for dates was “tamr” but a better translation would be “dates at their last stage of ripeness”. An Arabic speaker would not refer to dates in the other stages as tamr.

So what are the stages? I looked at a few sources online and two had four stages where one only had three. I also recall in passing a Qatari friend of mine mentioning there were four stages so I’m going to go with four:

Khalal: dates still have a greenish colour

Bessar: depending on the variety the skin color will be yellow or red. I believe many of the dates in the above pictures are bessar.

Rutab: the dates start turning brown at the tip and become softer

Tamr: fully ripe, the dates are brown, soft and wrinkly.

Arabs will eat dates in any of the four stages and many prefer eating bessar or rutab. The less ripe the dates the crunchier they are and have less sugar. Apparently there are other substances like tannins, which can give dates more of a bitter flavor, that lessen as the date ripens.

I tried a number of bessar and rutab and I think they are an acquired taste. They just seemed a bit weird to me being crisp and crunchy instead of the usual softness one finds with tamr. There was also a significant difference in flavor, especially with bessar, and rather than enjoying the taste my mouth was sending signals of “these aren’t ripe, stop eating them”, to my brain. Just like when you eat any fruit you are just used to it tasting a certain way so when you eat an unripe one it just tastes weird.

I think I'll stick with tamr.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Summer Vacation 2014 – Provence

I left Nice by train to Draguignan to where I met friends in the village of Tourtour up in the mountains.
Tourtour is a small village of 500 people that kept a lot of the old architecture so is popular with tourists, especially French tourists who like the scenery and how Tourtour looks like what you would want an old French village in the mountains to look like.

It’s a beautiful place: old homes nestled together, a town square with a number of cafes and restaurants, fountains fed by a spring (the water being cold and drinkable), and because the town is near a national park and a military base the surrounding countryside is mostly forested and does not have a lot of development. We had a picnic up by the church on the hill.

My friends have a summer home there so we spent a couple of days in the village where I got to meet some of the locals (at least as best I could, my French is maybe slightly above tourist level). We also attended a village dinner in the square.

Took a small hike out to an abandoned monastery a few kilometers from the village. It originally dated to the 12th century but most of it was built later, then finally abandoned after the French Revolution. We could even see evidence that maybe 20 or 30 years ago someone tried to upgrade the place but then abandoned it back to nature.

From there was a day trip to Les Salles de Verdon to swim in the lake but the bigger draw is to rent a paddleboat and wander around the famous Verdon Gorge. Definitely go there if you have the chance. (The photo of the Gorge is from the internet, I didn’t want to risk my phone getting wet on a small paddleboat so I didn’t have it with me).

Finally on the way back to the airport in Nice we stopped for a couple of hours at St Paul de Vence, a medieval walled city just outside of Nice which was popular with artists and writers.

How is it that I’ve never heard of this place before? Very cool place, the layout of the town was kept relatively intact so is full of narrow, winding streets and alleyways. Bigger than Tourtour and, I’m guessing due to its proximity to Nice and Cannes, a lot more crowded with tourists. I would have liked to have stayed longer but had to catch a plane.

And thus ended the Eid vacation. Countries like France, Italy and Spain are so full of cool towns and sites I love going to that part of the world.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer Vacation 2014 – Riviera

So from Turkey I flew across to . . .

The French Riviera! (Nice, to be specific.)

First impressions, pretty city, beautiful weather, but . . .

The beach is entirely made up of rocks! There's no sand. I thought that was a bit strange. Turns out if you go to other parts of the Riviera, such as Cannes, there's more sand at the beaches there but as for Nice it is all rounded rocks. It wasn't that uncomfortable to sit on since they were all rounded but I was expecting a bit more sand. It was neat to hear the waves hit the shore to the sound of hundreds of rocks, it sounded like a rattle.

I also explored the town, had food at markets, and ate a local specialty called “socca” which is a slightly thicker crepe on which a number of toppings are added. It's not quite like a pizza, more like a dinner served on a thin, savory bread that you can eat.

Nice has a number of museums and other attractions but for the most part, given that it was the peak of summer, people were more inclined to just relax in the summer heat.

(dogs too)

One day I took the train over to nearby Monaco, home of the rich and tax-dodging.

It was a beautiful city, and certainly only for the rich. Why, for the low, low price of just 635,000 Euro (~US$850,000), you could have a 30 m² studio apartment. Ummmm, yeah I’ll get right on that.

I went up the hill to where the Prince’s palace was. It was in a really nice neighbourhood that looked like everything had been kept fixed up and freshly painted. Maybe it has something to do with the wealth but I'm also guessing that His Highness doesn't like the neighborhood looking shabby.

The view from the hill was great too, I think this picture shows about two-thirds of the entire country.

I also stopped by the famous casino but I didn't go in as there was a huge throng of tourists. By the way Monaco is very hilly which can make wandering around in the summer a bit of a challenge. One of the easiest and most economical ways to get a tour of the country is to take the #1 bus for a full loop. Easy way to see most of the country and it'll take about 40 minutes.

I was also happy to find a rare treat at an ice cream parlour -- licorice ice cream. It's been years since I've had this, it's one of my favorite flavours. Back when I was young I used to enjoy an ice cream called tiger (licorice and orange) but I haven't been able to find it now.

Anyway I enjoyed my three days at the Riviera. It was expensive for sure but worth visiting.

Where did I go from there? The vacation continues next blog post . . .

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Summer Vacation 2014 – Turkey

Spent about a week in Turkey, where I go once or twice a year. The weather was great, sunny but of course not as hot as Qatar. Spent much of the time relaxing on my friend’s balcony enjoying the view.

And occasionally going to the local beach. This is in a city called Mudanya on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, not a place really known by European tourists and the beaches (as you can see) are not as extensive as those you find on the western coast. Mudanya does get busy in the summer with Turks from Istanbul and Bursa visiting to enjoy a beach closer to home.

We did do a small trip to visit a restaurant in the forests around Mount Uludag. Apparently the village was fairly poor so the ladies of this village decided to form a cooperative and open a traditional Turkish restaurant to generate income. The restaurant has become a huge success and tons of people now travel up to the village every year to enjoy the scenery and visit the restaurant. We went for breakfast and the ladies came out with a huge tray that needed two of them to carry.

It was a great meal but certainly not something one should have every day -- there was a lot of cheese, butter, and fried foods (eggs, cheese and breads).

Then again many traditional Turkish foods tend to be rather fattening (lots of butter) and heavily meat-based, such as kufte and iskender kebab.

Also was in Istanbul for a couple of days visiting with friends of my friend. Spent much of the time at the Bosporus chilling out in the caf├ęs or wandering the Corniche.

It wasn’t a big sight-seeing trip, I've been to Turkey many times, but after a week left for another place to do some sightseeing (that’ll be next blog post).

Monday, August 11, 2014

Summer Vacation 2014 -- The New Hamad International Airport

So I started my vacation by of course going to the new airport. Eid had been announced this evening and I figured the airport would be absolutely swamped and I was also nervous about whether there'd be any space in the long-term carpark. Nothing to worry about, in terms of finding a parking space the new carpark is so big there were still hundreds of empty spots.

Check-in was also pretty smooth, a far cry from busy periods in the old airport. Check out the Qatar Airways economy check in on the night of Eid.

In other years during Eid going to check-in was like attending a rock concert, no line-up just a room filled completely with people.

After check-in I had a quick wander through the airport. It is huge, far bigger than the old one (and there's still more to go as I think there's two more phases to be completed over the next few years). Despite the busy period there seemed to be plenty of space.

There were some interesting playgrounds for children with artistic things to play on.

Some of the lounges were completed when I traveled and I believe Qatar Airways business-class lounge opened last week. I used the Oryx Lounge and it was comfortable enough, plenty of seats and even a quiet room.

For travelers who don't have lounge access the airport will soon have showers (they weren't finished when I was there), as well as a lot more shops and restaurants options.

And there are rooms with lounger chairs that are easier to lie down in.

My first impression was that it is a huge improvement from the old airport. Hopefully the expansion can keep up with the growth of Qatar Airways. It wasn't all that long ago that I thought the old airport had plenty of space, but in the last couple of years it had been bursting to the seams because of how much Qatar Airways expanded.