The question is: To sling or not to sling?


Flying to Singapore is an adventure that I have long yearned for. Not only because it was my first time, but also because it’s a hub and destination for many high-end holidaymakers and businessmen. Singapore was able to establish its reputation as a truly modern metropolis in almost 50 years, after separation from Malaysia in 1965, when it became an independent multi-ethnic republic.

Flying on Singapore Airlines (SIA), which positions itself as the gateway to Asia, certainly makes this destination more accessible; traveling business-class makes it a further delight. In-flight entertainment had something for everyone and left no room for boredom. Meanwhile, the comfortable cushioned seats stretch out into restful beds. I know plane food can be a joke, but not on this trip; you look through a menu and choose your preferred meal, cooked by world-renowned chefs. Within one hour aboard the plane, all my worries about the 12-hour flight vanished.

Upon landing, I was bombarded by different impressions. At first sight, it looks like Dubai but at night it’s more like New York; the Singapore Flyer, which is a replica of The London Eye, adds a British flavor to it too. But after spending a few days there, I realized that despite the similarities, Singapore pulses with a creative energy of its own.

My suite at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore on the 26th floor made me gasp. Everything suggested luxury; the beige and golden tones were comforting and the king-size bed was very inviting. A large room with a huge bathroom fitted with an octagonal window took my breath away. My view framed the new glassy towers in the skyline and massive construction sites down below. Except for the scarcity of rubbish bins and tissue boxes, the hotel had thought of every detail.

Art lovers will also find this hotel a gold mine since it houses 4,200 art pieces tucked in every corner. The collection is considered one of the finest and most prominent of modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia.

My schedule was packed and the weather was working against me — incessant rain almost every day. Nonetheless, I was able to catch a glimpse of what this modern hub was all about. Little India, Chinatown and the Muslim quarter (where you can visit the beautiful Sultan Mosque built by Sultan Hussein Shah). These are parts of old Singapore and are a must-see, with their small neighbourhoods or miniatures of India, Malaysia and China.

Strolling through these streets, you can smell, touch and feel the magnificent blend of people who once populated Singapore. These pockets of past eras are a welcome retreat if you are tired of universal architecture and urbanism. Even after the official separation from Malaysia, and the declaration of independence, Singapore markets itself as “a Muslim-friendly destination,” according to one of the Singapore Tourism board’s guides.

Singapore is home to many breathtaking parks. There is the 148-year-old Botanic Gardens, the Singapore Zoo with over 3,600 animals, and the Jurong Bird Park. I was only able to make it to the bird park housing over 600 species, but despite being the world’s largest bird park it failed to impress me. I could blame the weather, the pouring rain, or simply confess that I’m not a bird person.

Another destination which is fun for both adults and young ones is Sentosa Island, an integrated resort with a variety of entertainment. I wandered through their newly inaugurated, one-of-a-kind in Southeast Asia Hollywood’s Universal Studios Singapore. Since I haven’t been to the original, I can’t make a comparison; but walking around the theme park was thoroughly enjoyable.

 

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Jurong Bird Park

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View from my room

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Universal Studios

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Images of Singapore Museum

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Images of Singapore Museum

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Little India

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Sentosa is host to the “Images of Singapore Museum”, which tells of Singapore’s founding fathers (Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasian) and how they carved its history. Itshowcases their different customs, traditions, and celebrations — such a mosaic of culture is definitely worth seeing.

If you have already been on the London Eye which is the world’s highest cantilevered observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer still is a must-see. From this height, the view of the cityscape and fascinating architecture is awe- inspiring. The Flyer offers the option of sky-dining or drinking which takes the experience to new heights.

The most impressive aspect of Singapore is that it is very alive. I didn’t actually grasp the real feel of this word until I went dining on the weekend at Clarke Quay, sipping the Singapore Sling, the national drink. It’s at the heart of Singapore nightlife and is located upstream from the mouth of the Singapore River and Boat Quay. It is home to many restaurants, bars, and clubs, and the fun at Clarke Quay is contagious — everybody is eating, drinking and laughing.

Despite all the excitement and experiences, my favorite remained going back to my hotel suite at the end of the day for a bubble bath while enjoying the city view with a Singapore Sling in hand.

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The Sinai stones

I’ve met many mountains and many deserts, yet the South Sinai Mountains — especially at Saint Catherine — have a unique power of channeling spirituality. The hike was a tailor-made trek to explore the area of Wadi Jebal, which is known among the Bedouins of St Catherine as the High Mountains area and lies northwest of Saint Catherine Monastery. The hike involved walking through different valleys and vineyards, as well as visiting some mountains. The area is mostly inhabited by Al-Jebalia tribe, who came to Sinai almost 1,500 years ago.

The Greek Orthodox monastery enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush was built at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush; the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original. The site is sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Assem suggested that the rocks scattered around the valley are remains of rooms built by Roman monks who sought the spirituality of the mountains to spend their days in prayer and seclusion — a practice followed by many monks until today.

From Wadi Jebal and Rehibet Nada, and then down to Imesakha trail is the path that Al-Jebalia used to take on foot to Al-Tor city. This route was originally used by Byzantine monks between the fourth and seventh centuries to reach the port in Al-Tor, called Raithu at the time. Sheikh Moussa, the managing director of the Sheikh Sina project and a leading member of Al-Jebalia tribe, recalls that until the early 20th century his ancestors used this trail from the port to keep provisions coming to St Catherine Monastery. “My ancestors lived at the monastery, but if one of them got married he moved out,” explained Moussa. After the conquests of Amr Ibn El-Aas, Al-Jebalias converted to Islam.

Walking through the valleys, you can see the changes in color and geology. We began our trek on Abu Jifa path which would lead us to the High Mountains region. On the first day, we passed many valleys and made our first stop at Wadi Al-Shaq (Crack Valley) to revel in its beauty and drink from its natural spring. At the beginning of Wadi Al-Shaq, there are remnants of an old wall made of rocks dating back to the Byzantines who were living in St Catherine between the fourth and seventh centuries.

The rocks in Wadi Al-Shaq are smoother than the ones in the mountains surrounding the valley. Gamil, our guide, traced this to the strength of the water flow during the rain and flood seasons. This also contributed to making these rocks darker than those in the surrounding mountains.

One of the important valleys we came across is Wadi Zwateen (Olive Valley), named so for the abundance of olive trees found there. It connects Bab Al-Donia mountain (The Gate of the World), which lies on the western side of the High Mountains region and the mountains of St Catherine and Abbas. The latter is named after Khedive Abbas Helmi I and lies north of Wadi Zwateen at 2,300 meters above sea level (ASL).

According to Bedouin tradition, an asthmatic Helmi was advised by doctors to build a palace somewhere clean and fresh. Gamil orated that the khedive’s staff tested the air at different mountains in St Catherine by placing a piece of meat outdoors, and seeing which took longer to spoil. Because of good winds in all directions, Jebal Abbas was chosen as the best location. While work was still underway on his palace, the khedive died, and the project was abandoned. All that remains today are a few ruins for curious trekkers to survey.

On the hike through the valleys, I paid close attention to the flora and found the most exceptional at Abu Jifa. There, we found a plant called Kharmiee which causes eye allergies, but right next to it is Qsoom plant which will treat the allergy. “You are at one point on earth where two plant zones have met, interacted and produced a fascinating mixture of plants,” smiled Mohamed Mabrouk, who has studied the environment of the High Sinai Mountains and the vegetation geography around Mount Sinai.

Mabrouk explained that at 2,000 meters ASL in the desert, the High Mountains region of St Catherine is unique in that the climate is very different from what you’d expect in an arid area. Only a handful of palm trees survive there, but visitors from Iran and Algeria have found plants in this desert that are only native to their countries. You will also find plants there, such as Rosa Arabica, known for its aromatic vegetation.

THE PILGRIMAGE: For centuries, St Catherine has been a destination for pilgrims from all monotheistic religions. Sheikh Moussa said that Orthodox Christians from Armenia and Greece are amongst the regular pilgrims. Until the 1960s, Al-Jebalias believed that if a Muslim couldn’t afford to travel to Mecca for pilgrimage, they could visit Mount Sinai (Mount Moses or Jebal Moussa) for seven successive years instead. Even before that, South Sinai was home to the revered route of Darb Al-Hajj (Pilgrimage Trail) which began in Taba to Aqaba, Jordan, and then on to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In fact, in 1950, Sheikh Moussa’s grandfather traveled from Taba to Mecca by camel.

Mount Sinai is also a popular destination for Jewish pilgrims on Yom Kippur (Atonement Day) which is observed on 25 April, when they mostly fast and pray. “However, most Jews coming from Israel have stopped coming after the Palestinian uprising,” indicated Sheikh Moussa.

The ancestors of Al-Jebalia tribe were wise to trade on the land and absorb its energy. Sheikh Moussa recalled that the ancestors would say that the land is measured “by the span of the hand,” meaning that each and every piece of land has a different energy. “They didn’t know geology, but they knew that there is a positive and negative aura and that the earth is connected with human energy,” added the Al-Jebalia elder.

Wadi Al-Shaq, Wadi Al-Arbeen, and St Catherine Mountain are known amongst Bedouins as Al-Makan Al-Hayy (the place most vivid), but Sheikh Moussa couldn’t explain the sensation one feels there. “It’s a feeling of serenity and energy,” he said.

On the second day, on our way to Bab Al-Donia Mountain, I was taken in by my surroundings. The magnificent view of fiery red rocks coupled with the majestic granite mountains dominated Al-Mizah Valley, with its mountains along with Al-Jeen Valley. The remnants of abandoned Bedouins summer houses in circular shapes made from St Catherine rocks were evident in the valleys we passed.

As we approached Masaba Abu Groon Mountain (the place which overlooks everything), I felt the intensity of the energy escalating. The view from the top was indeed unparalleled; it was as if I was walking on clouds. “Sinai is the umbilical cord between Eurasia and Africa,” noted Mabrouk. “Incredible signs of how they grind against each other are the Sinai dikes — cracks of Earth glued by molten basalt — are textbook examples for geologists.”

But you don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this. Scaling Bab Al-Donia was an extra treat, and as I perched myself above the mountain and peered down from the opening that looked like a door, I felt on top of the world.

On our way to Ain Al-Nigila (Grass Stream), which was our repose destination, we crossed the valleys of Al-Shalala and Al-Bahriya as well as Farshait Al-Aranib. The word farshaa means a vast, open area between two mountains. We reached Ain Al-Nigila tired and famished, but our destination was an oasis in all respects — except for the absence of palm trees. It has a water stream and an attractive shaded area.

The site is home to the ruins of a Byzantine monastery and is perched on an escarpment in front of the Al-Nigila water stream once used by Byzantine monks living in the area.

THE TREE: A tree is very precious to Bedouins because they provide shade and sustain them in times of need. And while vineyards no longer generate much income for the natives — rain has been scarce over the past seven years — they are still honored as a source of life. There are almost 120 vineyards and orchards in Wadi Jebal, with harvests of apples, almonds, apricots, and peaches.

Amidst St.Catherine Mountains

 

THE OATH: Before St Catherine Monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the Bedouins would take an oath to protect this area. Umm Mahmoud, a native who was born in St Catherine, explains that the oath implies that Kabeer Al-Arab (the elder of Arabs) had ruled that it is forbidden to cut a tree and no goat, donkey or camel could graze in Wadi Jebal to preserve its flora. Between June and November of each year, they send the animals to graze according to the agreed upon time.  “I believe Bedouins have a lot to teach the world on how to preserve our finite resources, considering how they manage to live under tough conditions sometimes,” Mabrouk pointed out.

For more info log on http://www.sheikhsina.com or call Sheikh Moussa at (+2) 0100 688 0820.

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Let NOT ANYTHING GO WASTE

I always hated throwing food. It’s an ethical issue. I live in a country where more people living on bread crumbs than people eating three meals per/day.That’s why I invented a food recycling concept. This concept doesn’t only work on the idea of creating new recipes from leftovers, but also it can redress the food that you are not normally crazy about to something you might actually crave for. STAY TUNED FOR RECIPES.