Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Flat Stanley Adventure

A few weeks ago, my friend Mesha asked me if I would accept a Flat Stanley and take him on an adventure for one of her nieces. If you haven't heard of Flat Stanley, he is a character from a series of children's books who goes on adventures all over the world with families and individuals who then send their photos of Flat Stanley to school children for a school project or the Flat Stanley website. And of course, Flat Stanley is . . . a . . . flat, so he is easily transported via email or snail mail and hardly incurs any travel expenses whatsoever. It would be nice, right?

So I told Mesha we would help her niece with her school project and try to schedule some Doha expeditions, remembering to take Stanley along. There is a camel souq not far from our house that we often smell but have never been to, so we thought this would be a great opportunity for us and Mr. Stanley too. For one of our Thursday date nights we were scrambling for something to do (because there are so many things to do in Doha - NOT), and we decided to go check out the camel souq to see how difficult it would be to take Abbey and the flat guy to see the camels. How many women can say their husband went all out and took them on a camel souq date?

There wasn't much of a moon that night, so as we were driving around, what turned out to be, the ANIMAL souq in the thick of the darkness, we found the sheep, but that was it. The souq was of course closed, but we thought we could at least catch a glimpse of a camel and make a plan for where we could go on Saturday morning. To say the least, we began to attract a little attention from the off-duty workers, and they were staring at the two white people wandering around the grounds in a white Xterra.

A group of men flagged us down, and we thought, "Oh no, now we are in trouble. We have broken some unwritten law of the Middle East culture and we're going to get kick out of the animal souq." Brett stopped the car and slowly rolled down the window. The men couldn't speak any English, but we figured out that instead of reprimanding us for invading the animals, they were curious about what we were looking for. We tried to explain that we wanted to see some camels and wondered where they were. They looked at us quizzically, and even if they could have understood English, they probably would have thought we were crazy. A comparable situation would be some Middle Easterners wandering around a farming community looking for cows. One of the men smiled and said, "America?" and we confirmed the obvious that yes, we were Americans. They were from Sudan.

The men finally understood, or so we thought, that we wanted to see camels, and they motioned for us to pull over so they could show us. Brett was hesitant to follow them. They weren't the most well-groomed gentlemen after all, but I reassured him we would be all right. They took us to some large buildings, and in Arabic gave us the grand tour of the bunny stalls, the chicken cages, and the peacock house. We thanked them, and didn't want to sound ungrateful, but we again tried to tell them we wanted to see camels. There were some Indian men standing around watching the procession that was gathering men along the way, so they stepped up to offer help. So when we told one of the Indian gentlemen that we wanted to see some camels, he translated our request to our Sudanese guides. A light quickly went on in their eyes, and they all exclaimed, "Ahhhh, jamal!" I guess the word "camel" is sooooo much different than the word "jamal" that they had no idea what we were saying. :)

The Sudanese men quickly volunteered to get into our car with us and take us over to the other side of the animal souq to see the camels. At least that is what we think they said. Brett wasn't so keen on the idea, so we thanked them and told them we would be back on Saturday to see the camels in the light of day. They all looked at us, obviously not understanding, as we got back into our car and drove away. At that moment I got this feeling that we had just missed out on a unique adventure, so I talked Brett into turning around and asking two of the men to jump in with us. He kept saying, "You're sure you want to do this, right?"

Mahmoud and Salim had big smiles on their faces as they climbed into the back seats. With their expert pointing and Arabic directions we wound our way through the sheep stalls and over very bumpy, muddy paths. When Brett made a wrong turn, we didn't need to understand their language to realize his mistake. We finally pulled into the camel area, stopped and followed our guides into a fenced area with about five camels. They insisted we take pictures and Salim cuddled right up to me, surprising even his friend at how forward he was. He didn't do anything inappropriate, but for a Muslim man, it was unusual for him to be so casual and demonstrative with a western woman. He grabbed my arm and made me put my arm around his shoulders and he put his arm around my waist. It looked comical because I was about six inches taller than he was. As we posed for Brett to take our picture, Salim's fingers lingered just a little too long on my bare arm, but I tried not to freak out.

After our photo op they took us over to see a baby camel who wasn't real happy about being photographed in the dark night. The baby's mother was even more unhappy about our intrusion. We thanked our new friends and asked them if we could take them back to where we had picked them up. After they got back into our car we quickly realized they had other plans. They kept pointing to the busy souq area across the traffic-filled road. As we drove, Salim asked to see the camera and then proceeded to scan through all the shots. They both asked about a picture they saw of Abbey. When we got over to the souq I pulled some bills from my wallet and realized I had pulled out dollars instead of riyals. I quickly exchanged them for riyals and gave our persistent camel finders a tip for all their help. Salim said, "Dollar!" so I pulled out two dollar bills and added that to their tip. They were thrilled. Then they tried to persuade us to eat with them at the souq, but we had had enough adventure for one night and thanked them again for their expert help. Salim kept talking about the picture and seemed to be insisting that we get a copy of it to him. When Brett agreed to do just that, they waved a good bye and smiled as we drove away.

The next Saturday we did make it back to the camel souq and had Flat Stanley pose with some of the more friendly ones. At one point a group of camels decided Stanley looked like a nice snack and almost ate him, but we saved him from that nasty demise. There were some really cute baby camels with fluffy fur on the tops of their backs who were friendly with us until their moms intervened.

Flat Stanley also got to go Dune Bashing that day with Brett, our friend Ephraim and his son Eph. I don't know if any other Flat Stanley has had a more unique day on this planet, but he did get up close and personal with the desert, the sand, and the camels of Qatar. Along with that, Brett and I got up close and personal with some very nice men from Sudan. Maybe it was a little too up close and personal at times, but it was definitely unusual Middle Eastern hospitality and something I will never forget. I'm just glad that the only real nuzzle I got was from a camel and not Salim!


Amy said...

I love so many things about this post! Camels look so cute, but I hear they aren't the friendliest. Flat Stanley seems a bit overdressed for Qatar. I was worried for you inviting strangers into your car too - sad how untrusting we must be in the name of safety, isn't it? I'm glad you had some US dollars in your wallet. I'm sure they had fun showing them off! I never considered you unusually tall, but you've got a good six inches on him! I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to hear them giving Brett directions and correcting his "wrong" turns. I miss you guys.

Laura said...

Lucky Flat Stanley!

Thanks, too, for stopping by my blog and offering your insights. I really appreciate it! Your comment about business really resonated with me; it's good blog fodder for a future post!

terahreu said...

...and there's the picture! Wow, friend-lee. I think I need to make a visit to the camel souq. I feel like camels always provide awesome photo shots. You have several in this post. Excellent!

I am jealous Stanley got a dune bashing trip! I need to do that too! I am just afraid I might become 'flat' as well in the end.