Mom’s Cooking School: Doodhi na debra (Indian squash flatbread.)

When I was a child, my parents had planted and maintained two vegetable gardens in our backyard in Texas City. One of them was devoted solely to Indian squash. And, under the tutelage of my Mom’s very green thumb, the squash (doodhi in Gujarati) grew like wildfire.

I have to admit, I was not a fan. Whenever I saw the long light-green gourd sitting on the kitchen counter — and given how well they grew, it was often — I unhappily realized what we were eating for dinner.

An while I’m still not a fan of eating the vegetable, typically chopped up into a daal dish, Indian squash is a great addition to bread. Simple, hearty, satisfying. This Indian flatbread — which is not baked but made on a stove — has the added tastiness of grated ginger and chilies and squash. Doodhi na debra comes with its own portion of vegetables.

Eat it alone or with some yogurt and/or chutney as a great light meal or snack. I could also see using the debra as a tortilla-substitute and filling it with some eggs or shredded chicken.

Peel squash and then grated. About one cup. Can use regular squash from an American grocery if you don’t have access to Indian squash.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add grated ginger and chopped jalapeños.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whole wheat flour, about 1 1/2 cups. (It’s best to source this flour from an Indian grocery: it’s milled differently than the ones in American stores. I don’t know the reason for the difference.) Add in small amounts of flax seed, soy, oat, and barley flours.

 

 

 

 

 

Add spices: cayenne, turmeric, coriander, cumin seeds, salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add sesame seeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mix and add a little canola oil to bind the flours and spices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add squash mixture to flour. (You’ll want to squeeze out as must moisture from the squash as you can.) Knead the dough. There will still be some water in the squash so mix first and if you need additional moisture, add water sparingly.)

 

 

 

 

 

Add a touch of yogurt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the dough looks like when it’s ready for cooking. Pinch out small pieces, about an inch in diameter. Smooth into a ball in your palm. Flatten ball on flat surface area and roll out into a thin circle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cook on cast iron skillet on medium heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How each side should look when done.

Mom’s Cooking School

How many meals can one cook in around 60-plus years? I don’t need to do the math to know that it’s a lot. That’s about how long my mother has been cooking. It’s a culinary repertoire that began in India but, upon coming to America, expanded to include Italian-American foods, Tex-Mex, and all sorts of typical American meals families ate in the last 40 years.

My childhood was fairly Normal Rockwell, albeit with Indian-American immigrant touches. My mom made us fresh meals every day; we ate dinner as a family pretty much every night of the week. We mostly ate food from Gujarat, the state where my family is from, a cuisine that is heavily composed of vegetables, lentils and rice. My parents tended gardens during my school years and many of the vegetables we ate — squash, okra, tomatoes — came from that garden.

I didn’t know it then, but those meals set up my own views toward eating and nutrition. I don’t drink sodas and eat very little junk food (ahem, apart from Goldfish and the occasional Whataburger on a road trip.) Healthy eating is important to me.

Of course I didn’t truly appreciate all of that until my 20s, when I was establishing my own homes and living on my own. I didn’t really learn to cook all of our Indian foods when I was younger mostly because I just wasn’t that interested in the domestic arts. (And also, partly because my mom’s sense of perfection didn’t allow for the sort of lopsided and warped-looking rotlis and other breads a novice like me would produce.)

But, for a while now — for likely too long — I’ve been wanting to set about to more formally learn about my mom’s recipes and, more importantly, connect with the family history and culture that these foods represent.

She doesn’t do measurements. She just *knows* how much spice or water or oil to add to vegetables or to a flour mixture to make bread, or how high the stove’s flame should be. She works so fast I can’t try to approximate measurements. So now I’m working to get her to slow down and take measurements — or at least allow me enough time to guess the amounts so that I can take down recipes on paper. I’m sure I’ll annoy her with all of my questions.

This is not about being able to cook like her. I won’t be able to; she is truly a master in the kitchen. (One metric that I cite about my mother’s gifts? She can make delicious dishes, even ones that she’s never even tasted. A strict vegetarian, my mom doesn’t eat meat or meat products and eggs are considered meat. But her omelettes, something that she’s never tasted herself, are amazing.) She made chili and hamburgers for my brother and me when we were kids, though she doesn’t like to cook meat anymore.

But one of my goals for this year is to record this part of my family’s heritage. For many of us, our childhood memories are twinned with meals and I’m no different. The spaghetti lunches after playing tennis on Sundays when an uncle and aunt lived with us in Texas City. The delight I would have upon finding out mom was making one of my favorite foods for dinner or realizing she made chocolate chip cookies. 

I didn’t always like everything that was on my plate; I still dislike Indian squash and don’t really like daal. But, even now, no chicken soup is really as satisfying as mom’s kichardee (a rice and lentil dish) when I’m sick. The foods we ate reflect the lives we lived: our mainstay of Gujarati food, the masala-influenced cheese enchiladas my mom added to the repertoire, the homemade pizza that she makes. They show our journey as an immigrant family with two Indian-American kids as the four of us navigated experiences very different from the ones my parents had in India. That’s worth holding on to.

La vie en ros(é)

My first significant memory of “wine” was in 1988, the day after I had landed in Paris on a high school foreign exchange trip. I was there to spend six weeks with a French family who lived in Angers, in central France, but first, a weekend in Paris.

Family friends had hosted a young Frenchman in their Texas home a decade before, and they gave me his phone number, encouraging me to call him while I was in Paris. I remember being reluctant to cold-call someone I didn’t know last-minute on a Friday evening, but he was immediately welcoming and kindly invited me to join him and his friends for dinner.

It was early July, an evening with warm breezes and the lingering daylight of northern European summers. We sat on the patio at a bar before heading to the restaurant, and the group, all around 30 or so, ordered apéritifs. I had no idea what to order, but my host suggested a glass of rosé. I remember sipping my wine, listening to the group chatter in French (and my brain working overtime to try to translate, largely unsuccessfully, the rapid-fire conversation around me). It was probably the first time I was out in such an “adult” fashion, apart from with my family. And what a place for such an outing, a tree-lined terrasse in Paris, the sun setting in the summer sky.

My other memory of rosé is later that summer traveling with my French family from their home in Angers to their summer home in Monetier-les-Bains, a village in the French Alps near the Italian border. On the drive down, we spent the night with friends of theirs, a family that was renovating a small chateau. That evening, both families gathered at a table outside for dinner. It seemed to me to a quintessentially French experience, simple, fresh food eaten en plein air with glasses of rosé.

The memories all have fuzzy edges now, but those were my first lessons in how food and wine interact with culture and community.

In the years since, my wine education has been uneven, largely self-taught, and probably not the preferred path of a true connoisseur. For example, I’ve never been to Napa Valley or visited the famed Burgundy or Bordeaux vineyards in France. But I have been to the Bekaa Valley in the mountains above Beirut (twice), and traveled around Malbec vineyards in Mendoza.

My journeys have introduced me to Willamette Valley in Oregon and its pinot noirs, tempranillo from Rioja, sagrantino di Montefalco from Umbria, and rieslings from the Pfalz. My travel wish list includes checking out the usual suspects, of course, but also detours to less-familiar terroir like those found in Greece, Portugal and Georgia.

Dubai’s ‘Mad Men’

For a recent feature for Gulf Life, the in-flight magazine for Gulf Air, I chatted with some of Dubai’s advertising executives. Some were part of the migration 30 years ago from Beirut – then the region’s ad hub – and were the founding fathers of the industry here today. Back then there was only one TV station, in Kuwait, and they communicated with clients via telex. And I’ll let Mr. Raad tell you about the Saudi commercial and the porn star.

Peterhof & the Hermitage

How I spent my summer vacation, part 2: The first time I went to St. Petersburg in 2003, it was with friends from Dallas on the occasion of the city’s 300th birthday. We timed it so we’d be there during the summer solstice so we could really experience the northern hemisphere’s “white nights.”

We lived like vampires. With no sundown to denote the start of the end of day, we simply carried on, fueled by sunlight and vodka, until 5 a.m. when we emerged from the disco near our rented apartment squinting at the milky, pinkish sky. The one day we allocated for official sight-seeing, it rained. And Russian summer is akin to winter in Texas. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

This time, we were luckier. It was still cold but we had sunshine. And I was traveling with my parents and uncle and aunt, so the conscious hours were during the day. We had a tour guide who could explain to us what we were looking at at the Hermitage. (Multi-lingual signs are still a rarity in Russia.)

Russia’s czars ruled their empire from St. Petersburg and the city reeks in royal opulence, which reminded my family of the maharaja palaces in India. Though the communists loathed the czars and all that the White Russians stood for, it is surprising that they didn’t raze these buildings, opting instead to keep them as museums. Our guide simply explained, “Well, Lenin was a learned man.”

A female pioneer in Afghanistan

My story on Roya Mahboob, a young woman entrepreneur in Afghanistan in Newsweek/Daily Beast. Not only is she trying to build a business in a fragile economic environment but she also has to battle cultural and religious norms that don’t support women who seek a place outside of the home.

HERAT, Afghanistan

A 25-year-old female entrepreneur working to help the next generation is also a model for it. Angela Shah reports.

The 25-year-old is at once exhilarated and shy. A woman is not supposed to attract so much attention. Just minutes earlier, a male colleague offered her a word to the wise as he gently pulled down her head scarf to cover her throat and shoulders, exposed from the scoop-necked top she wore, saying: “There are conservative men inside.

On this day in late May, the girls at Baghnazargah High School were getting computers and Internet access for the first time. Mahboob’s IT company, Afghan Citadel Services, or ACS, installed the technology lab as part of a project to help wire schools in Herat, and Mahboob offered welcome remarks as a panel of bearded men dressed in traditional salwar kameez, elders in this community, along with school officials, sipped tea behind her.

Baghnazargah is located in a poor section of Herat and many of the female students come from conservative families. While boys can move freely, and so attend computer tutorials outside of school, girls are only allowed to leave home to attend school. And those girls are, in a sense, the lucky ones: most girls don’t even attend high school. Like most 16-year-olds, Augiza longs to surf the Web, but she doesn’t have an email address. “This is the only way for me to learn the computer,” she says. “It gives me [a] connection to everywhere in the world.”

For students like Augiza, Mahboob is a revelation. Here is a woman less than a decade older than they are who runs her own company and flies in from Kabul on her own for ribbon-cutting ceremonies like the one on this day. She, they can see, has a position of power. Once the men have left and the formal festivities are concluded, the girls congregate around Mahboob in packs of threes and fours asking to take pictures with her.

“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Mahboob says. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”

(Photo by Gabriela Maj)

In a country where the Taliban had outlawed telephones, Afghanistan has quickly wired itself in the last decade. The number of Internet users in the country has grown from 300,000 in 2006 to 1 million two years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Only 20 percent of Afghanistan is electrified; it’s only 20 percent literate,” says Paul Brinkley, the former deputy undersecretary of defense. “But 60 percent have a cellphone. What does this tell you about the Afghan people? They’re starving for information. You need that more to stabilize this country than all the security things you could do.”

Brinkley, a Silicon Valley veteran before joining the government, founded the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan in 2010, to link the department’s military operations with economic development. That program led to the Herat Information Technology Program, which started in May 2011 with an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs, including Mahboob. The program’s goal is to show the potential of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw troops and treasure by the end of 2014: that, with a little bit of help from the international community, talented and determined Afghans are succeeding despite an enduring insurgency, a frequently inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, and a weak domestic economy.

“Roya represents what the majority of Afghanistan wants,” he says. “To stand on their own two feet, to build their own lives.”

Mahboob founded ACS two years ago along with two Herat University classmates with an investment of $20,000, partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and with funds from Mahboob’s family. She owns 45 percent of ACS, with the remaining shares divided among the two former Herat University classmates and her brother and sister.

In an industrial-park compound behind high walls topped with concertina wire, the entrepreneurs set up offices in free office spaces with Internet provided by the program and attended seminars on “Business 101″: how to create a business plan to attract investors, how to respond to RFPs, and how to price their services.

A year after the incubator’s launch, some entrepreneurs are still struggling to establish a commercial foothold. But others, like Mahboob, have thrived. Crucially, ACS is making the transition away from sourcing business solely through contracts offered by ISAF and international groups and toward Afghan governments, hospitals, and schools. Currently, the company has projects underway or completed worth $500,000. In the last year, Mahboob has hired three additional software programmers and aggressively sought contracts for projects worth millions.

“What matters is that those Afghan businesses are doing better than before,” says Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat who founded the nongovernmental organization Building Markets, which recently changed its name from the Peace Dividend Trust. “That is your sustainability.”

A NATO promotional video last year featuring Mahboob attracted the attention of Francesco Rulli, a New York businessman. The Italian-born Rulli is sort of a Renaissance man entrepreneur—one of his businesses is a men’s clothing line in partnership with actor John Malkovich—and he says he was attracted by Mahboob’s spunk.

So far, he and his brother have invested nearly $120,000 to build eight computer labs in Herat schools like the one at Baghnazargah High School. “I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom,” he says.

“I have an opportunity to do the right thing,” he explains. “I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Rulli runs Film Annex, a Web-based video-content farm that allows individuals to create Web TV channels; Rulli profits by capturing and selling user data. He says the site has 30 million page views a day. He and Mahboob recently expanded their partnership to install computer labs in other Central Asian countries, and to develop e-learning and testing platforms for use in those schools. Mahboob’s university classmate and co-investor Fereshteh Forough plans to move to New York by the end of the year to open an office there.

“Let’s give the kids the Internet and let them choose what they want their future to be,” Rulli says. “I have three kids. I know ‘Angry Birds’ is a stronger weapon against the Taliban than anything else.”

Late one spring evening as Mahboob and I enjoyed the breeze at Takht-e-Safar, the mountain-side park that overlooks Herat, she told me: “You know, in Afghanistan, we women are not supposed to go out, run the business, but I don’t agree with this.” The park is a popular retreat for Heratis, but past sundown, it is mainly the refuge of men clumped together on car hoods or blankets. Hidden by the darkness and foliage, Mahboob and I could allow our head scarves to loosen.

“If we can’t prove to 100 people that women have ability and skills, we can prove it to at least 10 people,” she says. “That’s enough.”

Mahboob tells me that she first discovered the Web in high school in 2003, when she saw her cousin in Iran use Yahoo messenger. Her lack of knowledge shamed her. She immediately saw how isolated she had been among Iran’s Afghan refugees and how the Web could connect her not only to Afghanistan but to the rest of the world. So, when her family moved to Herat just across the Iranian border later that year, she enrolled in Information and communications technology courses offered for women by the United Nations Development Programme.

Recognizing technology’s power to connect her to the rest of the world, she pursued a computer sciences degree at Herat University. After graduation she stayed on as a junior faculty member in the university’s computer lab. There she first got a taste of her biggest obstacle in business: she’s a woman.

Slender, 5-feet tall and partial to fashionable tunics, skinny jeans, and heels, curly bangs escape from her headscarf onto her forehead. “When I started working at university, all people were thinking that I am a typist,” she says. “I created websites, databases for them, but they never even mention our names. They mentioned my deputy when he was a man.”

Even today, when responding to contract bids at ministries in Kabul, Mahboob says bureaucrats often openly disbelieve that she is the CEO of her own company. She has recently pitched the Ministry of Public Health for services on an IT contract. “She is a woman,” Mahboob says of the minister. “I hope she will listen.”

Such paternal condescension is fairly common, and Mahboob has learned to navigate around the soft discrimination. But the opposition is also, frequently, more sinister.

One afternoon in late May, Mahboob picks up her ringing cellphone. Without saying anything—she makes a slight face—she pushes the button to hang up the line.

Physical threats from anonymous male callers come almost daily. While her own father and brother support her efforts at ACS, many in the conservative community of Herat do not. “They call and call and call, saying ‘I will pay you, too,’ as if I am doing bad things to get business,” she says.

For many conservative men, Mahboob’s having business meetings with unrelated men on her own—a basic of doing business–is akin to prostituting herself: the business men can only be paying her for one thing, and that is sex.

Ahkhtar Mohammed Mahboob says he, too, receives phone calls asking why he doesn’t force his daughter to abandon her business. “It has been difficult for us, for our family,” he says after breakfast at the Herat home he shares with his wife; his daughters, Roya and Elha; and his son, Ali.

“Maybe they will hurt Roya but I can’t change myself or my daughter,” he says, quietly. “This is her time. We cannot stop progress.”

Mahboob used to switch among an assortment of SIM cards to deflect her harassers, but is now resigned to the taunting and threats. For the last eight months, she’s kept the same cellphone number.

“What can I do?” Mahboob asks. “I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.”

Angela Shah is a journalist based in Dubai whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME and The Dallas Morning News.

The Paris Bureau

Not even a month ago, L.R.O. messaged me about a friend who was looking for someone to cat-sit for them … in Paris. Since I went out on my own two years ago, I’ve thought about working remotely, getting out of the heat of the sandbox summer. And, now, I had an opportunity to do so. M.L. said he “smelled a scam. But a glorious one.” I have to say, he’s right.

My charge is glorious, a Maine Coon cat named Mimi. A French kitty with American roots! Her home is a tiny place in the 8th arrondisement, near Etoiles. Back in college and shortly thereafter, when I was trying to figure out a way to get a job in Paris so I could live here, this was exactly the sort of place I’d imagined I would live in. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve spent any time longer than a layover here so I’m loving becoming reacquainted with my first urban love.

Each day, I write and edit beside a tall, Haussmannian-style window, open to let in the cool breeze. After years in the sandbox, it is so nice to be able to keep the windows open day and night. As the beautiful morning light fades into evening, J.B. and I ponder our dinner options. (You didn’t think the traveling stagiare would not take advantage of my stay in Paris, did you?)

Yes, many places are closed this month, the traditional time when Parisians go on holiday. Fermé hangs on the door of many big culinary names here. But there are plenty of places open and I’m looking forward to exploring ethnic Paris and her offerings. And away from the most touristic areas – though I will no doubt go there, too – Paris’ streets are fairly empty, giving you the impression that the city is only for you.

The crackdown expands

My latest story in The New York Times about an escalation this week in arrests of Emiratis who are calling for more political freedoms and free speech rights. U.A.E. state security authorities say the men are a threat to the country’s stability.

 

 

Detentions of activists are reported in U.A.E.

DUBAI

By ANGELA SHAH

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Mohamed al-Roken drove toward his local police station here to report that his son and son-in-law were missing. Along the way, he found himself surrounded by plainclothes security officers and detained, according to his family.

Mr. Roken, along with his son, Rashid, and son-in-law, Abdulla al-Hajeri, are 3 of at least 14 Emiratis who have been arrested since Monday morning by the United Arab Emirates state security apparatus, human rights advocates and family members said. Nearly two dozen activists are now being held by the authorities.

The arrests are part of a widening crackdown on U.A.E. citizens, some of them Islamists but also academics and stateless people known as bidoon.

“This may be a way to frighten opposition on all sides,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf issues at Durham University in England.

This week’s crackdown comes days before the expected start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and highlights an increasingly public conflict in the Emirates.

Unlike many Arab countries, the Emirates have emerged largely unscathed from the unrest that has spread across the region from the Arab Spring that began 18 months ago.

But a debate on free speech and political freedom among Emiratis has emerged, as the leaders here try to maintain a balance between the more conservative character of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-style business hub.

While the trend among natives is still to keep quiet and enjoy the comfortable life provided by the rulers, a small group of activists is agitating for greater political participation — and drawing the attention of the authorities.

Bushra al-Roken, Mohamed al-Roken’s daughter, said the family received a phone call from her father at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

“We couldn’t understand that much,” she said, “but we could hear voices and my father saying, ‘They’re taking me.”’

On Sunday, the state media issued a statement saying the authorities were investigating “a group of people who established and ran an organization which aims to commit crimes against the security and constitution of the country.” Members of this group have “connections with foreign organizations and agendas,” the statement added.

Mr. Roken, a lawyer, was defending several Emiratis who had been arrested on charges of threatening state security. Many of those arrested are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization.

Many of these activists say they would like to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates, and they have also called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.

The authorities regard Al Islah as a homegrown proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that they see as gaining influence in the region — especially after the recent election of a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt’s president.

The families of those detained are scrambling to find them. Asma al-Siddiq said her husband, Omran al-Redhwan, was arrested Monday morning at the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Sharjah, where he works as a legal consultant. Ms. Siddiq said she had not heard from the authorities about the reason for her husband’s arrest or where he was being held.

“I am looking at social media sites, Twitter to try to find information,” she said.

The arrests followed the deportation to Thailand on Monday morning of Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a resident of Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, who was one of the original activists arrested and tried last year.

The men, who were convicted in November of threatening state security and insulting the country’s leaders, were sentenced to three years in prison before being pardoned days after the verdict.

Mr. Khaleq was born in the Emirates, but he is a bidoon, or stateless Arab.

Estimates of the number of bidoon range from 10,000 to 100,000, human-rights advocates say. They belong to families with ties to other parts of the Gulf or Iran, or that failed to obtain citizenship when the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971. They say they are cut out of the Emirates’ generous social welfare system and complain of discrimination in jobs.

Last month, Mr. Khaleq was given a choice of where to be deported — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan or Thailand. He chose Thailand, though he had no relations there, said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger who was among the group arrested with Mr. Abdul Khaleq last year.

A visit to Kathmandu

Here is a travel story I wrote for Gulf Business magazine following my trip to the Nepali capital last April.

The Other Face of Nepal

Kathmandu’s growing hotel options offer tourists a luxury experience away from budget paths.

By Angela Shah

THE NEPALESE CAPITAL has long been known as a backpacker’s paradise. Scruffy tourists fresh from Himalayan treks are easy to spot in Kathmandu. But if you set off the patchouli-scented path, a more luxurious respite can be had in the city.

Our first taste of Nepali luxury came at the grande dame of the capital’s hotels, Dwarika’s. Hidden by brick walls from the city’s streets, the hotel is a cluster of brick buildings of various sizes scattered across a tree-filled compound. Originally built in 1952 as the family home of its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha, the hotel has expanded over the decades. Today, Dwarika’s is a living experiment in preserving Nepali heritage, especially its architecture.

In 1952, Shrestha saw carpenters sawing off the intricately carved window and door coverings for firewood. Alarmed, he created a workshop on his property that would not only house these carvings and others he bought throughout the valley, but also the master craftsmen of this dying art so that they could teach others.

The end result is a secluded mini-village in the middle of bustling Kathmandu that provides guests a serene spot to relax and rejuvenate. We especially enjoyed meals outside in the sun-dappled courtyard where the resident dogs and cats would come around and beg playfully. On Friday nights, Dwarika’s holds its weekly barbecue, now a Kathmandu tradition, which features grilled meats from beef to boar and a wide selection of both western style and Nepali vegetable preparations.

But for us, Dwarika’s signature culinary experience is that at Krishnarpan, its Newari cuisine restaurant, which offers diners the chance to sample traditional Nepali hospitality in sumptuous surroundings. (See Datebook below.)

So if Dwarika’s is the yin of Newari hospitality, the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu represents the yang. The American hotel chain built its property here as a “city resort” stretched over 37 acres and looks like it might have been an old Nepali plantation home.

What appeals about the Hyatt is its familiar luxury. After a day immersing all five of our senses along the streets of Kathmandu, the hotel was a tranquil home to which to return. While Hyatt has infused the property with indigenous touches with the herbal bath products and a Nepali-style front lounge, the hotel has kept faithful to the look and feel of premier Hyatt rooms worldwide. “The room looks like a Hyatt room,” my travel companion said. “There’s something nice about knowing exactly how everything will be.”

The Hyatt is conveniently located just a few kilometres from the Kathmandu international airport, making it an ideal stop for the start of a Nepal trip, or an end to one, as it was for us. The day before our evening departure, we took another quick trip to the Boudhanath stupa – the most holy of Tibetan Buddhist shrines outside Tibet and also a UNESCO World heritage site — only a 10-minute walk away.

Families will find the hotel especially appealing as a place to relax and unwind amidst the Himalayas. The “backyard” contains two pools, one reserved for children, three tennis courts and a 1,600-metre jogging track around the hotel grounds.

During our stay there, a monsoon pounded its way through the city, so we stayed in and enjoyed a cozy dinner at Rox Restaurant and Bar. And we got the chance to savour a rare but welcome luxury for Dubai-dwellers: rain.

DATEBOOK

World heritage: Spend an afternoon at one of Nepal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Bhaktapur, an hour’s drive outside of Kathmandu. No cars are allowed in the city, which is full of architectural gems from the 15th century, including the gates of Durbar Square and the Temple of Nyatapola, one of the tallest pagoda-style temples in the Kathmandu Valley.

Holy shrines: The Boudhanath Stupa is one of the holiest shrines in Buddhism and one of the world’s largest. The eyes of the Buddha are painted on each of the four sides of the tower and keep a watchful eye over the penitents spinning prayer wheels or merchants hawking prayer beads, handmade pouches and hats and idols.

Holiday peaks: No trip to Nepal is complete with a sighting of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak. For those of us without the stamina to trek to base camp, several airlines offer hour-long flights around Everest and its sibling peaks. (buddhaair.com)

Eating out: Feeling hungry? Then the 22-course tasting menu at Dwarika’s Nepali restaurant, Krishnarpan, is for you. Following local custom, diners are asked to take off their shoes at reception and proceed to low tables in a traditional style. Our favorites included chicken and yam curries in addition to dishes made with vegetables sourced from Dwarika’s own farm.

Arabic lessons

Two months ago, I started taking Arabic classes. I meant to start when I first moved here but, for a variety of reasons, didn’t pull the trigger. But when I realized that a Berlitz school was right across the street from where I worked, well, I figured I had no more excuses.

I’m in a small class of four people, including me. Funnily enough, what our group has in common is Spanish. On guy, from Ireland, spent 12  years living and working in Spain. The other two girls are from Colombia. When we can’t remember our Arabic vocabulary during class, we prompt each other in Spanish. (Our teacher is from Morocco and speaks French, not Spanish.)

I wish I could say that I was going to be fluent in Arabic. I’m really in awe of people who can seamlessly switch from one fluent language to another. But I am learning a lot, and enjoying learning it with my classmates and teachers, and a little bit of knowledge is better than none, right?

Today, I took my final exam for the first segment. I have to admit that I was nervous! (I had to remind the over-achieving Asian in me that I was taking these classes for fun.) I had prepared flashcards, pictured above, to help me remember, but I was having some trouble.

For whatever reason, the 20 or so verbs (only present tense so far) that we learned all begin with the sound of ‘b,’ which I found makes memorizing more difficult. If they all start with the same sound – and some are so close phonetically that the difference is nearly imperceptible – memory aids are harder to find. Another thing that throws you off is that Arabic doesn’t have a “to be” verb; you just launch right in to the action.

I really hope to move on to the second level, but I’m not sure if my travel schedule will permit me to miss so many classes, so we’ll see. Maybe I’ll try to go the private tutor route which would be more flexible. A new world is being opened up to me and I’d like to go a bit further in.