Tuna in Mac ‘N Cheese. Ski slopes in the middle of a mall in Dubai. Kayaking in the Arabian desert.
I live in that zone where I think my life has gotten as crazy as it can get, and then God racks up the crazy to a whole new level. And, as little hobbit Bilbo famously said, sometimes those adventures make me uncomfortable and yes, occasionally, a little late for dinner.
But you know, that’s okay. What’s life without a little adventure, right? If I’m trying to live the best story I can, that sort of comes with the territory.
It’s that willingness to step into the new, slightly scary, or uncomfortable that opens the door to new adventures and great stories.
Take my recent trip to the Middle East to visit family and attend my cousin’s wedding. Now, I’ve traveled a lot with my (other) job. Often by myself. But, I’d never traveled to this part of the world before. It was a completely new cultural experience for me.
Early in my visit to Doha, Qatar, I was introduced to the Middle Eastern version of a drive-through. The procedure goes something like this.
A car stops in the middle of the road and honks. Soon a little Indian or Pakistani man runs out of the coffeeshop and takes their drink order. A short wait ensues, during which time frustrated drivers behind the stopped car honk angrily and drive around them on the sidewalk to continue their journey. If the coffee doesn’t come out in an expedient fashion, a few extra honks from the stopped car may be necessary to speed up the process.
That was only the beginning of my adventures in a fascinating and perplexing part of the world. I soon realized that there were more valuable cultural experiences running under the surface than there was oil.
First, the food. You can’t talk about the Middle East without talking about food. Eating is basically the regional pastime, closely related to a very strong tradition of hospitality.
Everyone sits on a circle of cushions on the floor, scooping fragrant, seasoned chicken and fish, natural yogurt, and flavorful biryani rice out of large communal platters in the middle. Flatbread with fresh hummus and olive oil is a staple and I consumed ridiculously large quantities at every meal.
Another cultural element deeply rooted in this land is the practice of Islam. Unlike many Western religions or spiritual beliefs, the practical out-workings of Islam permeate this cultural climate, from the haunting call to prayer rousing the city at 6 a.m. every morning and the mosques on every corner, to conservative black abayas and hijabs and separate taxis and lines at the airports.
While visiting Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, I had the privilege of seeing the Grand Mosque. This magnificent structure is a beautiful marvel of architecture and a testimony to what unlimited funds and time can build. It also reinforces the underlying mindset that to be Arab is to be Muslim.
On the surface, nations like the United Arab Emirates are rapidly becoming modernized, boasting American chain restaurants and a forest of glass and steel high-rises.
Yet there’s a magical cultural fragrance that serves as a reminder that even now, in the hustle and bustle of our 21st Century world, Bedouins still live in tents out on the shifting desert sands, tending their sheep and camels like something right out of a Bible story.
In the souks (traditionally a market or bazaar) I literally followed my nose to merchants selling pyramids of colorful spices and incense, coming home with small packets of frankincense and myrrh.
As I remember the story of those long-ago “wise men from the East,” I wonder if they had any idea of the epic part they were playing in a much greater and longer-lasting story. Or were they simple people like you and me – like the dignified Emirati men in white robes and headscarves driving Lamborghinis – simply searching for personal peace and answers to their questions.
The Middle East may only have a brief, yet impactful, role in my personal story. Yet, I believe one day the sun of Islam will set and a new star will appear to guide the beautiful people of this region to the One who came to bring them hope and purpose too.
Their most influential chapter in the greater story may still be yet to come.
This post originally appeared on the Crosshair Press blog and has been used with permission. Photos and story by Katie Morford, except where the author appears in photos.