Doha by night

Another layover in Doha, Qatar, another visit to Souq Waqif! What more could you want than delicious food, new buildings made to look old, and a beautiful night sky?

Doha's Souq Waqif by night
Doha’s Souq Waqif by night

There’s probably more to see in Doha (and indeed Qatar) than this, but I just get too many weird vibes from this country to ever go and find anything more.

A thinly veiled facade

Despite the veneer it’s all pretty obviously fake, a facade created to conceal a rich1, conservative2 society with the institutionalized subjugation of women and a poor track record on the rights of immigrant laborers.

It seems Qatar is trying REALLY hard to divest their economy from petroleum and natural gas, or perhaps they’re trying to create a new image for their country ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Nevertheless, the grilled chicken, hummus, and shisha are delicious, and that’s enough for me.

Footnotes

[1] Qatar is the world’s richest country per person when adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity. Source: Wikipedia contributors, “Qatar,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Qatar&oldid=656154211 (accessed April 12, 2015).

[2] After Saudi Arabia, Qatar is the most conservative society in the GCC as most Qataris adhere to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Source: Wikipedia contributors, “Qatar,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Qatar&oldid=656154211 (accessed April 12, 2015).

The “most intelligent” city in Africa

CNN reports on the news that Nairobi has been ranked, apparently for the second year in a row, as the “most intelligent” city in Africa.

According to the Intelligent Community Forum, “intelligent communities” are those that have taken “conscious steps” to create an economy that can prosper in the “broadband economy.”

Well that’s definitely misleading: it’s not about intellectual intelligence. The forum merely considers the fact that Nairobi has relatively fast/cheap broadband, incubators for tech startups, and the ability to pay for stuff everywhere using our phones. Yeah, it does. Shrug.

So what?

The reality is that Nairobi is corrupt, dangerous, dirty, and expensive. I don’t think it’s any consolation to Nairobi’s denizens that their city is “intelligent.” Nairobi also has one of the most “painful” commutes of any city in the world. And the insecurity in Nairobbery obviously contributed to Kenya’s abysmal ranking in the 2014 crime index.

All of that doesn’t just stop being important because we can stream YouTube videos without buffering! We should be focusing on metrics that matter, like the Human Development Index or the Global Peace Index.

A Bulgarian Christmas

In my experience a Bulgarian Christmas is family, food, and snow — all in large portions. To be fair, minus the snow, that pretty much describes any time of year in Bulgaria! Allow me to elaborate (and share a few specifics)…

Food

For the purposes of this list family and food are one in the same; recipes and traditions about food are passed down from generation to generation, and food is enjoyed together.

Apparently, according to traditions in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, people are supposed to forgo animal products like meat, eggs, milk, cheese, etc for forty days before Christmas. In practice (and probably more so in urban areas) it seems like people generally only do this on Christmas eve.

On Christmas-eve we had a rather plain looking loaf of bread, baked with only wheat, water, and yeast. At the time I remember it being delicious, but it obviously pales in comparison to the Christmas-day loaf on the right which was baked with eggs, milk, and butter.

Other favorites of mine were pickled red peppers, pumpkin banitsa, and walnut baklava. All meals were accompanied by home-made wine (of which I was told there were 200 liters in storage!). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my salad-only diet starts today!

A not-so-snowy Christmas?

Much to my surprise, there was no snow when I arrived in Sofia a few days before Christmas. Quite the contrary! The sun was generally out and during the day it was uncharacteristically nice to walk around, have coffee, etc.

After Christmas we went into the mountains to ski and snowboard and there was no snow there either; the trees and grass around our cabin in Borovets were green and the roads were all clean and tidy. Surely this isn’t Bulgaria in winter?!

… and just like that the cabin (and indeed the entire country) was covered in snow. After an afternoon on the slopes and an evening lounging around the cabin, we peeked outside and found several inches of snow covering everything in sight! Quite a transformation…

Snowboarding above the clouds

As terrifying as it was driving on the slender, freshly-snowed-upon-and-then-melted mountain roads, I was glad “winter” had arrived. The next morning it was like the slopes had been reborn. Fresh powder — and more falling from the sky!

The Yastrebets gondola takes you 2300 meters up into the Rila mountains, and when the visibility is good you can see the clouds underneath which Borovets and Sofia are sitting — from above! It’s spectacular (and sidetracking!) to navigate the slopes with such a view.

Snowboarding above the clouds!
Snowboarding above the clouds!

When are you going to Bulgaria?

Bulgaria is beautiful, the food is delicious, and it’s cheap! It was even named one of the top ten countries to visit in 2014 by Rough Guides.

Bulgaria was listed in Rough Guide's Top 10 Countries to visit in 2014
Bulgaria was listed in Rough Guide’s Top 10 Countries to visit in 2014

So, when are you going to Bulgaria?

Five glorious November days in Zanzibar!

I can’t shake the feeling that Zanzibar felt like a combination of Lamu — Kenya’s small island with winding stone alleyways, coconut-infused Swahili dishes, etc — and the Kenyan coastal towns of Mombasa, Watamu, and Malindi.

Here are some of the highlights from my visit…

Fine dining in Paje

A clever entrepreneur built a gourmet restaurant on top of a rock a few meters off the beach in the small Southeast town of Paje. It’s (obviously) called The Rock and the view is absolutely stunning during the day. Blue sky, blue water, sand bars, coast line… perfect.

The Rock restaurant in Paje, Zanzibar
The Rock restaurant in Paje, Zanzibar

And, as if “location, location, location” wasn’t enough, the food is delectable; I believe it was the first time in my life I’ve had home-made cinnamon ice cream. You definitely need to go there.

Changuu Island

There are a number of islands strewn just off the coast of Stone Town, and one in particular is worth visiting: Changuu Island. It’s just about twenty minutes by boat, around 40,000 TZS (~$20), and looks like something straight out of a travel brochure!

Bridge from the dock on Prison Island, Zanzibar
Bridge from the dock on Prison Island, Zanzibar

Halfway to the island, mesmerized by beautiful blue water, I asked the boat driver if he would stop the boat so I could jump in for a swim. #YOLO! Blue water and picturesque wooden bridges aside, this island is also known as “Prison Island” because they used to imprison slaves there before shipping them off.

On a less depressing note, there is a colony of Aldabra giant tortoises there which dates back to 1919, when they were apparently sent as a gift by the British Governor of the Seychelles. The sanctuary has quite a number of them, some of which are over 150 years old! Sadly, the species is now considered vulnerable to extinction, so go pay your $4 entrance fee and marvel at this beautiful creature while you still have the chance. Oh crap, that’s depressing too.

Miscellaneous highlights

Here are some of the other memories I have from my visit:

  • Street food at Forodhani Gardens near Stone Town — try a Zanzibar pizza or a shawarma!
  • Snorkeling, or rather, riding on a dhow to go snorkeling — hot sun, blue sky, blue water, and the wandering star fish in our boat…
  • Fascinating history of Stone Town — human greed, which we’re doomed to repeat. :(
  • Where has grilled octopus been all my life?!

Go to Zanzibar!

After my 5-day glimpse of Zanzibar, I have to say that I’d recommend it over Kenya’s coast for anyone looking for a taste of coastal East Africa. Kenya’s coast is equally beautiful, but Tanzania — and therefore Zanzibar — is cheaper, the people are nicer, and it is definitely less dangerous. Even without the threat of extraordinary “terrorism”, you’re much more likely to get plain ole mugged in Kenya than in Tanzania!

Side note: sometimes I catch myself generalizing about “Kenya” based on experiences I’ve had living in Nairobi for five years. I know it’s not fair (and I usually correct myself), but it is what it is. If you really want to come to Kenya, you should probably just stick to Mombasa and the South coast (like Diani), and avoid Nairobi altogether.