Saturday, November 25, 2017


Our heads smack against the inside roof of the black 4×4 Land Rover like kernels of  popcorn. We scream so loudly that when I glance sideways to see my husband’s face it’s purple. The setting sun and our perilous speed make it impossible to know if it’s just the light or if he’s having a heart attack. I breath deeply to slow my pulse just in case we need to make the hospital our next stop!

This is the start of my Arabian adventure – giant sprays of white sand swooshing underneath the tires. It is terrifying and exhilarating, and not what I expected when I asked the hotel concierge about Bedouins and a desert tour. I pictured a less dramatic tour retracing the history and lifestyle of ancient desert caravans.

But I should know better. In Dubai, people expect the unexpected and this tour is grand like the Palace Hotel we’re staying at in downtown Dubai. The Palace is surrounded by lush gardens and spectacular views of the Dubai fountain, nestled in front of Dubai’s world renown shopping complex. Visitors inhale exotic floral scents as they enter the lobby and feast on jewel-colored interiors.

Our tour of the desert started when guides arrived in luxury all-terrain vehicles to chauffeur five parties of six people to the desert conservation area less than an hour from the city center of Dubai. The promise of a falcon demonstration and tented campground dinner with music and festivities under the setting sun was a dream come true for me.  I had been to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) once before but it had been to Abu Dhabi, one of the seven UAE states that definitely felt culturally more conservative than Dubai.

My desire to see the desert stemmed from memories sitting with my father and watching American spaghetti westerns and the Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia movie. Long flowing robes and headscarves were as foreign as my grasp of British colonial history and the state of the Arab world during the First World War.

So when Werner Herzog’s “The Queen of the Desert” was released early in 2017, I felt that same allure watching Nicole Kidman play the female version of Lawrence of Arabia in her portrayal of Gertrude Bell. I remembered highlights of my touristy Dubai desert adventure as I watched Kidman’s performance; of course, my experience paled in comparison to the 30 years Bell spent roaming vast desert lands in the Middle East.

Born into 1868 Victorian England, Gertrude Bell’s education was unusual. She was the first woman to graduate Oxford with a degree in modern history and her personality was considered “too academic” to attract marriage offers, despite her family’s significant wealth. So when her father encouraged her to visit her uncle, a diplomat stationed in Iran in 1892, Bell fell in love with the Middle East. The wanted to make a life for herself writing and documenting her desert travels so she taught herself how to speak Persian and Arabic. Bell’s archeological and academic interests became a love affair that lasted a lifetime.

During this time Britain was struggling to maintain its Imperial Rule and Bell’s knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and her travels throughout present-day regions, that include Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, became a valuable asset to the government. Bell helped to stop the expansion of the Turkish Empire with her knowledge and the unorthodox relationships she had forged roaming freely and meeting with Sheiks and Bedouin communities. Her geopolitical knowledge of borders surrounding Iraq and Jordan were critical in helping the British negotiate diplomatic settlements at the end of World War I.

There’s a scene in the “Desert Queen” where Kidman poses for a picture with Winston Churchill, just as Bell did at the 1921 Conference in Cairo, Egypt. She was the only woman delegate in the group and were it not for her trusted relationship with the Arabs, Churchill’s diplomatic efforts and relations with these Arab countries would likely have turned out quite differently.

Obviously much has changed since Bell’s time and her legacy helping to build the Museum of Antiquities in Iraq and her preservation of desert history. Her  passing in 1926 marked the end of her adventures long before the United States bombed her beloved Baghdad in 2003. Camels that once transported Bedouin tribes and foreigners like Bell who rode through the desert are now used in other ways, like camel racing for sport. Mechanical robots have replaced traditional child jockeys who used to ride on top (thanks to protective United Nations child labor laws) and robotic whips are used to lead a camel to victory while a lead truck races alongside the camel.

Riding a camel in Dubai was as thrilling as I thought it would be after our stomach churning Land Rover drive dropped us at the Desert Conservation Reserve. It was daunting to mount a camel, as they are huge animals who need to bow the front of their bodies so low in order for you to straddle their bumps. You then have to trust your body to lean way back in order for the camel to uncurl its long front legs allowing it to stand. But my nerves were buoyed by the smells of roasted meats, spicy scents and thick coffee smells permeating our campsite; a stark contrast to Bell’s lifestyle, where her desert survival depended on the hospitality of Arab tribes visited and personal rations of food and water needed to survive the grueling desert conditions.









Seated in tented areas and regaled with stories about the nomadic existence, I learned about the Arab’s falcon traditions. Professional falconers demonstrated the hawking skills of these majestic birds of prey used for scouting and hunting food, until a sudden sand storm had our group running back to the cars for cover. It’s not unusual for this to happen and the sands are like shards of glass that sting your face and fill your eyes and nose.

I can still taste the grit between my teeth as we reach the campsite replete with portable bathrooms, until I think of the whirling belly dancers who entertained us and the magnificent dining feast at this final stop. Tucked in the starry heavens overhead was a sky filled with centuries of history that will forever beckon me back. I can remember standing out in the open air and walking back to the car thinking about my infinitesimal place in the world and the deep connection I felt to the desert.

Bell’s legacy as a gentlewoman of the desert –  a Khatun in the Arab culture – is wrapped in that same dark sky that I see when I look up at the night wherever I am. It’s a place where her legacy as a queen of the desert lives forever.

Bell wrote a series of letters collected into a number of publications that I hope to read one day. They can be found in the New York City Public Library or one of the many libraries around the world that house copies of these letters. Her words in the preface of one book, “Amurath to Amurath”, remind us of our place in the world:  “We wither away but they wane not, the stars that above us rise; the mountains remain after us, and the strong towers when we are gone.”

Note: You can read more about Gertrude Bell in, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia


My husband claims I bought all of the tea in China – or at least, that’s what he said when the Beijing government refused to ship it to America because it exceeded the 2 kilogram weight limit (roughly 4 ½ pounds). Eventually he forgave this transgression; five countries and two checked bags full of tea later.

After climbing the Great Wall, I couldn’t imagine leaving Beijing without some souvenir tea. After all, Beijing is the tea capital of China with some of the best tea in the world. Tea comes from the camellia evergreen bush native to China, Tibet and Asia, but hundreds of different tea bushes have been cultivated as hybrids from the original camellia sinensis and camellia assamica bushes. According to the tea master of the Shin Shin Tea house in Beijing, tea lovershave more than 3,000 types of tea to choose from.

Our tea lesson and fallout buying spree started at a large teak table filled with a myriad of different scents and tea paraphernalia. Stacked shelves lined throughout the two- floor complex, paid homage to the art of tea in China. It is as complex as the cultivars, which are a cross selection of tea bushes stemming from the original evergreen bush. Each cultivar possesses characteristics unique to the provinces or countries where the plant is grown. Factors like the bush type, climate and production process influence both the qualities and flavor of the tea. Tea production is not unlike wine production with growing variables in each industry determining the unique taste characteristics and customer appeal.

The tea ceremony was an experience I’ll never forget; a combination of fact-finding and olfactory overload. The tea samplings helped us to understand how tea is classified and the significance of the processing techniques. While there is still debate about the number of official tea categories, experts generally agree on these categories and these medicinal properties:

  • Green tea – is heated to stop the tea leaf from oxidizing and has a grassy, toasted flavor with a clean finish. It has the highest caffeine levels and polyphenols (optimizing medicinal and mineral health benefits) so you feel energized yet calm;
  • Yellow tea – is most expensive and rare. It is similar to green tea but undergoes an added heating process that softens the flavor, making it more like a sweet white tea. It is crammed with polyphenols to prevent cancer, treat liver and bowel disease, and aids in a host of other health benefits including diabetes, weight loss, and beauty enhancement;
  • White tea – is the least processed with a light and elegant nutty flavor… a great morning cup can boost antioxidants for cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol, bolster anti-cancer properties, and aid in weight loss;
  • Oolong tea – is semi-oxidized tea with a wide variety of flavors to keep the freshness of green tea but additional roasting and processing techniques give it a smooth, fresh, fruity flavor or deeper toasty notes. Health benefits include teeth and bone health, enhanced memory and energy and weight reduction;
  • Black tea – is almost fully oxidized tea (called red tea in China) with rich tannins and diverse, robust flavors. The sweet notes and a comforting aroma help you to feel relaxed and the health benefits improve blood circulation, asthma, and digestion.
  • Post fermented tea/Pu Erh – ferments and ages over time (20-25 years) with a woody, earthy flavor that’s clean and fresh. Health properties include preventing diabetes, and lowering the bad and raising the good cholesterol.
  • Scented teas – often green tea scented with flowers or flavored with fruit. Jasmine is one of the most popular types of scented teas, helping to build your immune system and promote relaxation and stress reduction.

Tea tasting is an enlightening experience in Chinese tradition and philosophy. No attention to detail is spared, and the ritual of preparation, presentation and enjoyment dates back more than 5,000 years to Emperor Shennong. While the tea industry has developed and modernized since then, Chinese people believe tea tied to our longevity and mental health, and tea should be savored to attain “joy of spirit”1.

Motivated to learn more about the health benefits of tea2, we filled our baskets and rang up a hefty bill only to discover we would have to lug this tea with us on our continued travels. But resting comfortably at home and sipping on the teas of my labor, I can see why tea (second only to water) continues to be the world’s most consumed beverage. Here’s to hoping I’ve bought enough to stay healthy for a long, long, time.

  1. See:
  2. See China Life website:

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