living abroad

15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

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2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

The Best and Worst Parts of Living in Qatar

Porto Arabia, Doha, Qatar, as seen from Donovan and Kate’s apartment

Porto Arabia, Doha, Qatar, as seen from Donovan and Kate’s apartment

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

They’re young. They don’t have kids. They figured, why not?

Deciding to pick up and move from the U.S. to Qatar a couple of years ago, Donovan and Kate are inspirations. Don’t we all dream of embarking on such a journey? After all, you only live once (unless the Hindus and New Agers happen to be right about reincarnation).

Fasting is the real deal. No food, no water, not even gum or Advil until sundown. Even if you’re not fasting, you’re not supposed to do any of those things in public, not even in your car.

Of course they did pick a Muslim country in the middle of a desert to move to. That comes with its highs and lows.

“If we get kicked out of the country for any of these answers, we’re moving in with you,” Donovan threatened. “Warn Duke.”

  

Kate and Donovan tied the knot in Mykonos, Greece. Wedding photos by Shaun Menary Photography

What’s the best part about Qatar?

Qatar’s 90% expat, so every day you interact with people from a ton of different cultures and backgrounds. It creates pretty tight bonds between unlikely people, since there’s a sense that we’re all in this together (being away from home in a sometimes strange country).

We once went out on a Friday night with some casual friends and, several drinks later, all ended up booking a trip to Lebanon together. The next weekend. And it was a blast. And you need that kind of support. 

Back to that Lebanon trip: One of the best things about living in Qatar is its proximity to so many interesting places. It takes three hours to fly to Cairo, four hours to Kathmandu, five hours to Kenya, seven hours to Saigon — it turns out it’s easier (and cheaper!) to get to cool places when you don’t have to cross an ocean.  

 

What’s the worst part about Qatar?

The place changes so quickly that it surprises you, whether you’ve been here for five months or five years! Three days ago, Kate was on her way to work and discovered that, unannounced, the road to get there had closed, and no one bothered to put up any signs to redirect traffic.

That’s the other worst thing: traffic. More or less everyone drives like a lunatic, with no regard for laws, other cars, pedestrians, light posts, etc. It’s every Land Cruiser for himself out there.

  

What surprised you about Qatar?

How normal it can feel. We’re half a world away from home and hear the call to prayer five times a day, but every Sunday during the fall we still drink a few beers and watch football. Donovan still buys his standard-issue White Guy Clothes at the Banana Republic at the mall. We’re still up-to-date on Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black. We go to bars less often, but we drink just as much (possibly more!).

It’s a nice mix of a “cultural experience” with a bubble you can retreat into when you just want to unwind with a glass of wine and Scandal. If it weren’t for the call to prayer, you’d swear you were back home — though good luck getting a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza out here.

  

What is Ramadan really like? 

Ah, Ramadan. We’re currently right in the middle of the holy month, which for those of us who don’t fast is actually kind of nice. Work hours are shorter, there’s a lot less traffic, and everybody’s generally more laid-back (possibly from lack of energy). The pace of life is a lot slower, since basically everything is closed until sundown.

There are tents set up around town for iftar (the evening meal to break the fast) with giant buffets and entertainment. There are similarities to Christmas in the U.S.: Everything’s lit up at night, people get together with family for meals, and the stores all have sales.

For Muslims it’s a time of reflection and increased spirituality, which fasting is supposed to emphasize. And fasting is the real deal. No food, no water, not even any gum or Advil until sundown. Even if you’re not fasting, you’re not supposed to do any of those things in public, not even in your car. Which is a drag when you go to a matinee and they’re not selling popcorn, even though the whole theater smells like it.

  

What about Muslim culture overall?

Asking about Muslim culture is sort of like asking about “European culture” or “American culture.” The range of experiences is just so broad. On one extreme, you have Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and can’t go out in public without a male relative. On the other hand, you have Bahrain, which is connected to Saudi by a causeway and yet is full of Muslim men drinking beer and playing pool in bars.

Qatar is somewhere in between, but certainly leans conservative. Islam is the state religion (hence the short work days during Ramadan, hooray!), so alcohol and pork are restricted but available to non-Muslims. The aforementioned calls to prayer are ubiquitous, but it’s not like people drop everything at that moment to go pray.

It’s been interesting to hear certain orange-hued people in the U.S. [that’s a Trump dig, in case you missed it] claim that Islam is incompatible with modern life, given that every day in Doha hundreds of thousands of Muslims put on their abayas and thobes, grab Starbucks on the way to work and eagerly await the next Star Wars movie.

 

What’s the Qatari view of Americans?

Qataris are pro-America, Trump aside. We’ve both worked at U.S.-based universities over here, and we’ve seen that Qatari students embrace the Western college experience — dorms, sports, study abroad — that doesn’t really exist here otherwise.

One of the great moments we’ve experienced was hearing the brass band at the Georgetown graduation play Pharrell’s “Happy” when the Father Emir — basically Qatar’s George Washington — greeted students.

It’s always an enjoyable thing to see Qataris wrestling their Louis Vuitton shopping bags onto the plane when coming back from a jaunt to Los Angeles or New York.

 

What’s an interesting local custom?

Sharing of food is a major part of the culture here. At Qatari weddings, they’ll have a tent with multiple massive platters of rice with a whole lamb on top of each. Family-style eating is very popular, and our Arab colleagues frequently bring lunch for everyone.

Shisha, the local version of the hookah, is also a big part of restaurant meals, similar to an after-dinner drink when you want to hang out just a little while longer.

 

Most useful phrases for a traveler?

You can get by in Qatar on English alone, but if you want to go local:

Shukran (shoo-kran): thank you

Insha’allah: literally “God willing.” Used to mean “hopefully,” or, in a business setting, “don’t count on it.” For example, “I will get it to you Tuesday, insha’allah” means “I will not get it to you Tuesday.” 

A salaam alaikum: Means “peace be unto you.” Polite greeting to any Muslim, who will respond, “Alaikum salaam.” 

Khalas: “Enough” or “that’s it.” Useful when bargaining.

Yalla!: “Let’s go!”

 

How do you pronounce Qatar?

Khalas, Wally. Khalas.

 

That last answer is because Donovan and I would get into friendly arguments at work about how to pronounce the country’s name. He insisted it was “Ka-tahr,” as most Americans do. But I had heard it pronounced “Cutter” on NPR, and I figured that was a reliable source.

Donovan refused to believe me — until he moved to Qatar. Turns out I was right. Though I’m hardly one to brag.

For the record, though: It’s “Cutter.” –Wally

The Truth About Living in China

Censorship, crazy drivers and hidden hotspots are all part of teaching in Beijing.

Angie and Steve were having a going-away party. But I had no idea where they were going away to.

Right as we said our goodbyes, I hugged Angie and asked, "By the way, where are you guys moving?"

Everything here is censored.
This is definitely not the place for you if you can’t live without Facebook!

"Lima, Peru" she replied.

"Oh my god! I want to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu so bad!"

"We're planning a trip. You should come!"

"I will!" I declared.

And I did.

And we've followed Angie and Steve around the world, planning trips with them, including the Ankor Wat complex in Cambodia, when they were living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Now they're teaching in Beijing, China, so I decided to see what it's like to be an American expat there. Here’s what Angie had to say. –Wally

What’s your favorite thing about Beijing?

I love the expat community we live in. Living in Beijing can be tough, but we live and work with some really great people.

The facilities at the school we work at are also really amazing, so it's easy to do all you need to do before you go home at the end of the day.

 

Least favorite thing?

Chinese drivers. We aren't allowed to drive a car, which puts us at the mercy of everyone.

I have a little tuk-tuk I drive the five minutes to work every day, and the subway is about a 10-minute drive away, so it's usually okay.

 

What’s the craziest thing the Chinese do?

In general, I find Chinese people to be oblivious. They walk into the street without looking and will run you over if they are lucky enough to have a car.

 

What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten there?

I'm not a very adventurous eater, so this isn't really the best question for me. We tend to eat mostly at home or at a few of the Western restaurants that are around.

 

Have you experienced any instances of censorship or authoritarian government?

Everything here is censored.

Through my job and the really expensive direct line internet they pay for, I have access to almost anything. But outside of that, you're really limited. I can't even get Google Maps without using a VPN, and that’s hit or miss, depending on the day.

It seems to get worse depending on what is going on. Any special holiday or celebration, and everything will be locked down tight.

This is definitely not the place for you if you can't live without Facebook!

 

Most useful Mandarin phrase?

Duōshǎo qián? How much is that?

If you know that and your numbers, you can at least go shopping!

 

What do the Chinese think about Americans?

I've found my interactions with Chinese people to be mostly positive. The language is a big barrier, but if you can get past that, they're open and friendly.

 

Best secret spot in Beijing?

The hutongs: hidden areas of old Beijing, where you might find a tiny Korean taco fusion joint next door to an old Chinese family doing laundry.