Sunday, February 21, 2016

Life in the Compound: The Parable of the Necklaces

The compound was alive with parties this weekend. I spot two gathering in this picture.
I have been reflecting on communities, the villages of people that grow in our hearts. What does it mean to live in a neighborhood (my first blog in Doha), a place or home, where we are in close proximity to people who we probably did not choose to be neighbors? What are the possibilities when we open our hearts to friends who become sisters--people who unexpectedly become like family? One of my favorite authors, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her poignant book A Gift from the Sea describes my exact feelings: "Out of the welter of life, a few people are selected for us by the temporary confinement in the same circle. We never would have chosen these neighbors; life chose them for us. But thrown together on this island of living, we stretch to understand each other and are invigorated in the stretching. . . . And yet it is the unknown with all its . . . surprises that is the most enriching." Village, community, compound, and yes, family life necessitates expanding our perspectives--with people who have widely different faiths, backgrounds, approaches to life. However, if we are willing, we can learn from the society around us the lessons we were supposed to learn when we were uploaded on the same "island."

Pick up cricket and soccer games are always to be seen in the field of sand....
Due to the contractions of oil costs, some people are moving back to their home countries or other places for further opportunities. It has struck me that the time we all have to be on the same "island" together can be deceivingly, unexpectedly brief, like shadows that flee in the glaring sun. If we are to be honest, we really never know how long any of us will be in the same village, community, and neighborhood. With that gleaned wisdom, we should act accordingly--knowing that a friend, neighbor, family member could quickly move to another island. People who are thrust upon our islands are meant to teach us--to chisel off our preconceived perceptions and fill in our gaps. These friends teach us through precious moments and bonds that relationships should not elude us--that we grasp and absorb what we are meant to learn within the framework of time we are together.

The Kate Spade necklace I got at an outlet that reminded me of the gift of giving.

A good friend in my compound is moving back to the States this next week--a friend who taught me the ropes of being an expat, who so very often invisibly serves and gives to those around her--in this compound we live in. When I learned she was moving, I wanted to cork my sadness by giving her a gift--something I knew she would treasure. I had let her borrow my necklace last summer for a family picture. She looked at me one day (just looking at my neck), and exclaimed how much she loved my necklace, telling me that it had the exact colors for her upcoming family picture. She shrugged off my offer to borrow it, but I insisted that she take it. After the summer, she promptly returned it, knowing how much I enjoy colorful bling (I am not a connoisseur of precious gems, but I do relish a vibrant scarf or necklace). In my sorrow that she was leaving, I decided to give the necklace to her. It felt right--that it belonged to her. Thankfully, it erased some of the sting of having her move away.

Doesn't it look like my necklace actually belongs to my friend? 

Fast forward a week later, and another friend from the compound, this one being from Ghana, came to bring me a belated Christmas gift. When I opened it, a tear rolled down my cheek. It was her own necklace that I had admired a few months before. The necklace she gave me is all the rage in Ghana right now--connecting buttons that are covered with colorful fabrics. She told me a few months ago (even though I did not expect it) that she would buy me one next time she was in Africa. She came to me a week ago and said, "I don't know when I will be in Ghana next time so I want to give you my own necklace. I had it dry cleaned for you."

Nafi, from Ghana, gave me this beautiful necklace that is made from buttons covered with vibrant fabrics.

When I told her that I had given away a favorite necklace of mine to a friend who was leaving, my voice got a little shaky. I realized that although I had given something I actually really liked away to a friend, I was reimbursed not only with a necklace: I was given the experience of receiving a gift that was so lovingly, earnestly given. It was a treasured moment for me, knowing that all things are truly compensated for. All that we give, when we give it with love, is unfailingly given back to us tenfold. It happens every time, whether we give of ourselves, our possessions, our energy, our talents, we are undoubtedly enriched in the exchange. It made me want to always have meaningful interchanges and encounters on my own island, the web of people that I am meant to learn from now. That is the parable of the necklaces.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Celebrating Sand!

One of my favorite pictures in the Egypt desert--with two of my sons.

The endless expansiveness of the desert creates lessons every time I go.
As a child who loved sand growing up in San Diego, I have come full circle. I have returned to living near the sand in the Middle East, feeling it on my face and sometimes in my ears. But it is not an irritant. It reminds me to simply shed layers I do not need, and bring only the important, necessary supplies on a journey. To walk through the sand, knowing that your footprints will soon vanish, is an analogy that our old paths can be erased; we can choose new directions and routes. Most of all, being in the desert reminds me to bring my own water, and to replenish daily. An oasis of water is a scarce sight in the desert; you must keep your reserves maintained. Two blog posts about desert adventures and sand sledding

Looking out at the vistas of sand in Qatar, I always see inherent possibilities of beauty. I know that with a periodic desert rainfall, unexpected treasures await. Underneath the sand there are dormant seeds, nourishing the hope of becoming glorious flowers. From the most unlikely desert wildernesses, beautiful vegetation can be cultivated and enjoyed. Conversely, sand reminds me to bury old grumblings and hurts, and not dig them up--forever allowing piles of sand to cover them. Underneath the sand there are seeds of splendor and sorrows. You can choose what you want to see on the sand dunes.

It's February, and I still find it strange to not walk on newly soft snow. But I have come to realize that life always has compensations and other pleasures to enjoy when you are living in unfamiliarities. If you come to live in Qatar, you must celebrate sand--to slide. sled, jump, hike, dance, and run in the dunes. As children love to play in sand piles and sift the sand through their fingers, we too here in Qatar become children again in the sand. To climb the slopes of vertical sand in the Qatar desert and view the expansiveness of the world on a dune is renewing, healing. Only seeing everlasting sand for miles around on a sand dune is to know a new kind of freedom--a place where there is nothing to encumber or hinder you. Nothing blocks your views. Nothing.

       Elias, cruising down the sand dunes at a party in Qatar. The Dunes are called, "The Singing Sand Dunes," a place when you slide or sled down actually rumbles around you. Sometimes, depending on the place you choose to go down on the hill, the sand dune sounds like it is roaring, thundering.

This is a video by Megan Jean Hansen, taken on a beautiful February day in Qatar.

Elise leaping for joy on a sand dune.
The desert, a landscape of sojourns and wandering for centuries, is for me a place of grandeur. It may appear bare and desolate, but it holds a world all it's own--a setting to unearth good things for the soul. Also, it is a spot to shed not only possessions you want to discard, but fears or doubts-- burying them deep in the sand. The desert can reveal other trajectories, helping you to navigate your path. You can see far distances on top of a sand dune. The possibilities are endless.

Zach, gathering the wisdom in the desert.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Qatar National Sports Day!

Huge banners on buildings and on the street filled Doha yesterday to celebrate Qatar National Sport Day!
Since I am an American, I have a brilliant idea for the newly elected United States president or any elected official of another country--if they want to listen. I am sure their constituents will all unanimously agree with the proposal. It is the creation of a National Sports Day, with everyone getting off the day from work and school. Why? To enjoy a day that is devoted to physical fitness, playing a game, learning a new sport, and being outside, is to integrate a more healthy lifestyle. It is to feel more connected with friends, family, and your community. It is to remember to constantly be willing to learn new skills, try different things. We felt revitalized, more alive, but also inspired to implement the adrenalin every day--finding new ways to be active. 

One of the many entrances to the MIA (Museum of Islamic Art) Park, right next to the Persian Gulf on the Cornish
It sounds like a fantastical dream, but that's exactly what happens once a year in Qatar on the second Tuesday of February. Sheikh Tamin bin Hamed al Thani launched the effort in 2011 before he became the emir of Qatar. Now in it's fifth year, National Sports Day is increasing its exposure with more events all over the country of Qatar. Different stations were set up in parks, malls, universities, and other public venues of the city to offer people the opportunity to learn how to fence, lift weights, do cross fit, row, rock climb, dance, box. You name the sport, and it was available for the public to try. 

Thousands of volunteers helped organize classes and games. Exercise and sport businesses opened their doors to teach new skills. For example, down by the Persian Gulf, you could sign up to paddle board or kayak. There were rugby, volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, and basketball games in the parks, with players of every age and level. I could hear many languages and accents on the field as I played a game of ultimate frisbee. No one had to speak the same language. There was a camaraderie that was automatically fostered as we all ran, played, and worked out together. A spark was kindled and fanned to do and be more.

Volunteers teaching people how to throw a frisbee, in preparation for an ultimate frisbee game--if they choose.
With signs on the street this week that read, "Unlock your secret athlete," and "You are stronger than you think," thousands flocked to a national sport party. The whole country, it seemed, were all getting some physical exercise--together. There were 10K, 5K, 3K, and even a short "Doha Dash" for beginner runners. People with disabilities were represented too   Personally, I loved reacquainting myself with the game of ultimate frisbee on the park next to the Museums of Islamic Art. To sign up for a free paddle boarding excursion on the Persian Gulf with family and friends was renewing. It was a blustery, windy day out on the water, but so much fun!! 

When I asked one Philippine worker if she had a great Sport's Day, she said, "I went to the mall and played volleyball and ran with people from my company. My boss gave us a free dinner at the mall that night too." One teenager from the US said to me this morning, "I am already planning a big day to be with friends outside again soon." Other people in my compound competed in the running events. I think the best part of the Sport's Day is that everyone was involved,--every age, ability, socio-economic level,. The entire country just focused on aspiring to a new fitness level.

I am already looking forward to next year! Some of the young tween and teen girls in my compound have already asked to play some tennis games with me, after Sport's Day. It seems everyone is a little more motivated to try a new sport or improve the one they play. Others are more enthused about teaching others to love their sport. I have already decided to be on the Persian Gulf soon--maybe learning to parasail! Thanks Qatar for the best sports party I have ever attended! We will be definitely be back next year!! 

Paddle boarding with the Blue Pearl, a group that teaches kitesurfing, and other watersports. They offered free classes for kayakers and paddle boarding for Sport's Day.

Paddle boarding with Linds

Hundreds of people lined up to learn how to repel

A fitball class for all ages near the MIA Park

Pick up soccer games were everywhere yesterday in Doha for Sport's Day.

Row machines all set up on the water, next to the MIA 

A ballet class demonstrating their flexibility

One young man teaching a cross fit class

There were even free water stations everywhere to enjoy (see the boxes of water on the side of the path).

Learning how to fence

Free kites were given out for Sport's Day--the perfect gift for a windy day on the Persian Gulf. You can see we will all be excited for next year's National Sport Day. Are there any other countries, places ready to take on a National Sport's Day, maybe a City Sport's Day, or even a Family Sport's Day? 

This was the logo for the staff volunteers who helped instruct and organize at Qatar National Sport Day. I think it says it all: we are stronger than we think!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Floating the waters in Vietnam

A sunset in the beautiful city of Hoi An, an ancient Southeast Asian port.
Vietnam, the enchanting "S" shaped Southeast Asian country, has a coastline and land border that is surprisingly almost equal in length. Three seas connect Vietnam: the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea, and the Gulf of Thailand. Water from the sea, rivers, rice terraces, canals, and lakes of Vietnam seem to mix with the blood of the Vietnamese. Streams of tears, sweat, and blood are stirred into the ancient waterways. As farmers who have stood in water-filled rice paddies for centuries, the ebb and flow of water has dominated their lives--almost like their own breathing. Others have made their living from pulling fish or pearls out of the frothy sea. In many ways, the waterways of their lives are reservoirs of stories and poetry--giving them not only their livelihoods, but replenishing and washing their souls. In the Vietnamese language, Dat Nutoc, means The Country or Motherland--or the Land and the Water. The water, whether it is swirling waves on the ocean or turbulent canals with eddies, is foremost in the Vietnamese consciousness. In many ways, the water is their home, and they have many floating villages to prove it.

Some floating villages in Ha Long Bay

Legend has it that when Vietnamese villagers built their homes, they would dig a large pit, and then let the rainwaters overflow, continuing to carve a large watering hole, and eventually a pond. These village ponds or water holes were the places where people swam, washed, and played. Many villages also have ancient wells, which were important gathering places for village gossip and gatherings. The art of water puppets, a traditional way of unraveling Vietnamese fables on the water/stage, is also a cultural link the Vietnamese have with water. Conversely, just as the water puppets unravel ancient legends on the water/stage, ordinary Vietnamese villagers weave their lives on the water too.

A painting of a Vietnamese village, a common scene by a river.
After a ten day trip in Vietnam, I felt more connected with water--if it was a nondescript tributary or rowing in the expansiveness of the South China Sea. We floated on rivers, canals, and in the ocean, meandering around floating villages and islands. As we rocked on the gentle waves in boats, I was reminded of my Vietnamese friends who were "boat people" or refugees in the 1980's when I worked in Southeast Asian refugee camps. For many of them the water was a burying ground for their loved ones. But also it could be a place of rescue--an opportunity to carve out a new life. For the lucky ones, their waterways became paths of freedom and rebirth. (Next blogpost about Vietnamese refugees)

Families live on boats all year long, but their livelihood is taking tourists on scenic river rides. When you climb on the boat, you get a glimpse into Vietnamese family life--watching the mother swing her baby to sleep in a hammock, the children playing on the floor of the swaying boat, the grandmother rowing the boat.

A young woman waiting for people to come on her house boat to take them on a scenic river ride near Hoi An
Peter, my son, on a boat cruising around Ha Long Bay. Nguyen Trai, a Vietnamese explorer who saw Ha Long Bay 500 years ago, wrote that it was a "rock wonder in the sky." The curvy, jagged 2,000 islets, popping out of the sea, brought a new dimension of the relationship between land and water to me. The early morning fog, the seemingly endless "humps in the sea," and the up close connection to the villagers who lived there are days not to be forgotten.

Ha Long Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin in northeastern Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight--one of the new seven wonders of the world. It holds about 1,960-2,000 limestone islets, resembling all different shapes and sizes.

Some were rounded, like camel humps, and some were like long peninsulas. They hold a biodiversity that is unique, some of them even having large cavernous caves within them. Ha Long, for which the bay is named for, is translated as "Descending from the Dragon." The legend of Ha Long Bay is as follows: Several thousand years ago when fierce invaders were coming from the north, heaven sent a dragon and her babies to block the invasions. The dragons came with their fire they could spit from their mouths, but they also brought mouths full of jade and jewels they spit upon the bay, sinking the foreign ships. The jewels that cascaded from the dragon mouths became part of the 2,000 limestone islets that cover the bay today. In one part of the bay called Bai Tu Long, it is translated to "Thanks to the Dragon's children." Thus, the ancient Vietnamese believed they were the descendants of the Dragon.

Fisherman casting their nets in Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, I can honestly say, is one of the most beautiful places I have been in my life. One morning I awoke early to kayak by myself around the islets. The new day, with a foggy dawn on the horizon, was a reminder that the lucidity of light eventually descends. After the hazy morning light, a whole new world of intrigue opened. The endless array of islets with their various shapes and sizes was mystically enchanting. I could have explored for many weeks in that bay being a "child of a dragon."

A cluster of bungalows for tourists behind some of the limestone islets

Some floating villages in Ha Long Bay where fisherman and pearl divers live--far removed from large cities.

A mother and child rowing back to their floating village, a community of people living in various boats that are connected together. The mother and child were on an early morning fishing trek.

The waterways in Vietnam are well worn trails that bring you everywhere--to the market, to home, to school. And sometimes your job is just to be on a boat all day, with it being your home at night. 
Floating down the canals or tributaries of a village near the Mekong Delta. To slowly meander through the narrow canals of the Mekong Delta was unforgettable. The Vietnamese seem to be as comfortable floating on water as they would be with their feet surely placed on land. 

Some of our family swimming in Ha Long Bay when the sun went down.

Here is a paper cut boat, an ancient Vietnamese craft,  that are sold on Vietnamese streets. It conveys the pride of water and boats in the identity of Vietnam. From the northern Chinese style junk rigs to the southern  boats that are made from bamboo and wood, they represent the different cultural crossroads of Vietnam. In the south, there are even boats that are rowed with the feet. The boat, a symbol of Vietnam, and the people who have made their homes, history, livelihoods, and new lives on them--floating, soaring on water.