The Perfect Shawarma - Tales of Arabia
Many days of eager anticipation finally welcomed our early morning departure on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East
Ops had been busy for several weeks now, arranging permits, handling requests, flight plans, hotels and all the other necessary requirements that us pilots seldom see. Thus, armed with stacks of paperwork, we merrily departed on our first leg towards Ankara, Turkey for a fuel stop before heading to Muscat, Oman.
Once settled in the cruise, our first dilemma was to decide upon which crew meal to have as well as pacing ourselves for the eight and a half hours flying ahead. Ankara was pretty straight forward and after a quick refuel, the use of the facilities and a stretch, we were airborne for Muscat within a turnaround that Ryanair would envy.
Avoiding Syrian airspace
Our route took us over Iran. The green fields of Europe were slowly replaced by rocky mountains and as night fell, we were treated to a fabulous lightening storm display across the horizon.
The heat upon opening the door at Muscat was a shock to the system, even in the evening the temperature was in the high 30’s and I felt every pore in my body open and flow! The service was efficient and soon we were on our way to the hotel with a local restaurant being recommended for our evening meal by our driver. The blend of flavours, textures and colours on the huge sea food platter certainly awakened our senses and with great difficulty did we stagger back to the hotel after such a hearty meal for a very good night’s sleep.
Day two was a hectic affair
With an early morning departure to Doha, a day room followed by our next leg to Bahrain. With a few hours to spare at the terminal in Doha, we wandered through the duty free shops until we came across a perfumery specializing in Arabian Oudh. This is unique to this region and takes its name from the Agarwood tree which forms the natural base for many of the classic oil perfumes- notably it is the most expensive aromatic raw material in the world! We spent some time, discussing origins, fragrances, taking sample cards and making a swift exit once we were made aware of the prices. The cards remain in my flight bag and the sensational fragrances still permeate every time I open my bag.
The handling agents in Bahrain were having difficulty in finding the right tow-bar for the aircraft and we were called back to the airport just as we headed out to eat. It was well past midnight once the aircraft was finally sorted and in return for our assistance, we had struck a deal with the handling agent that he was going to find somewhere for us to get food. Driving through the neighbourhood of Manama, we eventually found a fast-food joint which specialised in Shawarma.
To look at, a Shawarma is similar to a doner kebab but each region in Arabia prepares it slightly differently with the use of different ingredients to go with the meat. Armed with the largest portions possible, we took a short drive to a scenic lake in the middle of the city and as we ate, what was to become one of the tastiest meals we encountered, the handling agent was able to give us a brief history of Bahrain, the effects of the recent uprising, his hopes and aspirations for the future as well as his desire to own a Husky to live in an air conditioned kennel!
With only the afternoon at our disposal the next day, we decided to tackle the local ‘souq’ and browse the array of merchandise being sold. The stench of tourist prey must have been strong and we were descended upon by every merchant we passed, convincing us the need to buy colourful spices, door handles, tiffin jars, and toys. With the chants of ‘Merry Christmas’, a rather exuberant seller nabbed us and pretty soon, Ian was modelling the latest in Arabian traditional outfit as well as a bag full of fake designer perfume and some other gifts that our merry tradesman felt we must have. It was beginning to get out of hand as we were thrust with all this merchandise and a ridiculous price to match. Other stall keepers crowded us, the buzz of excitement increasing as they sensed a kill was imminent. “Stop!” I shouted in my best aggressive Arabic, pointing towards Ian I exclaimed “Do you know who this man is?? Stop embarrassing me and you in front of this distinguished gentleman!” Handing back the merchandise gruffly and letting out a stream of random phrases, we both quickly removed ourselves from the street, laughing hysterically once out of sight, leaving a bewildered group of market sellers looking on!
Shawarma for lunch was out of the question as it isn’t ready till late afternoon so we settled for a delicious and authentic biryani followed by several cups of Arabian tea with our Nepalese host in a tiny side street café. Keeping an eye on our watches, we ambled through a few malls, haggling for the sake of haggling and headed back to the hotel to get ready for the next leg.
Riyadh at night looked absolutely incredible from the air with the city lights resembling an illuminated computer motherboard.
As has been the trend so far, we always arrived at our hotel past the kitchen closing time so it was yet another trek in search of restaurant open once we arrived in Kuwait. A 40 minute walk along the coast towards some city lights led us to a roadside shack serving more of this delicious shawarma we had discovered. Sitting on the dusty road side, a giant fan blowing air into our faces, exhaust fumes and passing traffic noise, we dug into double helpings of our food, getting curious and sympathetic looks from occupants of humungous SUV’s, parked alongside, enjoying their meals in the comfort of aircon, realistically missing out on yet another wonderful experience!
The discovery of a drinking water fountain, dispensing ice cold water on our walk back was a god-send. The temperature was clinging on close to 40 degrees even at 2am and I was drenched with sweat. The inscription on the marble water fountain read, roughly translated, that this was a gift erected to quench the thirst of the passing traveller which is considered a very charitable deed and a great reward in Arabia. We were more than happy to assist in such a reward!
The flight to Abu Dhabi the next evening took us over the Persian Gulf
Passing Bahrain and Doha below. Opting to land at the GA airport, Al-Bateen, we were greeted by the most amazing sight of the Grand Mosque abeam the final approach. Able to house 40,000 worshippers, it is the size of several football pitches and the 8th largest mosque in the world. Using designers and architects from across the globe, its construction to ‘unite the world’ gives it an awe inspiring image. A quick Arabian coffee upon landing and a positioning flight to Dubai saw us fly over the Palm Islands, a spectacular sight no doubt, with the looming Dubai skyline also in the distance. A daunting taxiing experience later, we were finally on stand and having put the aircraft to bed, headed to our hotel.
The security guard outside the hotel gave us directions for an open air Syrian restaurant situated several blocks away and it turned out to be a gem of a find. Despite the fact that it was well past midnight (again!), the place was crowded with people from possibly every nationality that exists in Dubai. Even before we had settled into our seats, a multitude of starters were placed in front of us. We proceeded to order a selection of items and enjoyed the gastronomical delights placed on our overcrowded table.
We departed Dubai the next evening
This was via Ankara calling into Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Salzburg and finally Luton over the next few days. Overhead the Bosphorus in Istanbul, which marks the boundary between Europe and Asia, our Arabian adventure had come to an end. As we sat in a small café in Salzburg drinking a coffee and munching on a dry croissant, we reflected upon our cyclonic trip. It had been a very busy schedule with unsociable hours at times, minimum rest every once in a while and a drastic climate change, but we had thoroughly enjoyed it and got the job done. We had tried to savour at least one experience from each of our destinations and in a nutshell, it would be the discovery of fantastic foods, a brief glimpse of an endearing culture and traditional hospitality. Time to ponder further would have to wait as our tour bus to the Ice Caves had just pulled in and it was time to go. That tale will have to wait for another day!