Some find it harsh on their hair or skin, so dilute as necessary.
Some find it harsh on their hair or skin, so dilute as necessary.
Lil’ Z: Is the sun a doctor?
Me: No, Allah is the doctor. The sun is like medicine.
Sunshine is a part of our daily diet. We bask in its nutritive and healing effect, like plants in bloom. Whether sick or well, hot or cold, we all need a healthy dose of Vitamin D and what better source than nature’s own. Here in the Gulf, we can overdose throughout the entire winter but, ironically, our exposure gets scarce in the summer. There is no shortage of sun but it’s the heat that holds you hostage.
The season shifted a few weeks ago and we all felt it. All the long and savory winter, our coming and going was at will, even in the middle of the day. We didn’t have to yield to the noon sun but now that’s over. There is no spring in these parts. We go from winter to hot, then hot to hotter. Thankfully, the consistent supply of electricity means that just about every enclosed space is air conditioned. The interspaces are difficult but not impossible.
My biggest gripe with summer in Oman is getting Lil’ Z outdoors while the sun is up. Many Omanis, especially children, become nocturnal in the summer. Instead of fighting the day’s heat, they prefer to bear it comatose and stay up late playing in the night air. However, we need sunlight in our lives. Every challenge offers the opportunity for growth and creativity, so here are my top sun-catching strategies.
Children wake up hungry and that hunger is a great motivator to get ready, get dressed and get out the door. Instead of losing precious morning hours indoors, take a light breakfast outside. You have to eat anyway, so might as well soak up a little sunshine in the process and give room for a little outdoor play before your brow breaks a sweat.
Early Park/Beach Outings
Instead of sleeping in late on a weekend, it’s nice to pack up the car after dawn and scoot to your nearest outdoor space bright and early. Last weekend, we had a lovely time at a quiet beach, enjoying the water, waves, and ocean breeze. You can catch up for missed sleep with a delicious afternoon nap.
Lil’ Z and I have recently instated daily sun parties where we sit in the sunniest spots of the house we can find and do an activity of her choice. Sometimes, it’s enjoying a snack, coloring together, or typing words on the computer. We postpone the household chores for 30 minutes to an hour to enjoy our sun time together.
How do you catch the sun when the heat is on high?
In my four years of living abroad, I’ve lived in five different homes. Each was unique and filled with memories of felicity, frustration, and fellowship but one feature noticeably absent, as I mentally tour each residence, is the apparent lack of “stuff”. Not the kind of stuff left behind by an old roommate but the stuff that makes a house feel like a home; the stuff that adds beauty to your abode and makes it, not just functional, but inviting. A nomad’s dwelling need not be bland or bare! There is room for art and comfort in your life abroad without the burden of added luggage weight or overseas shipping. While our family is not yet ready to plant our roots in a particular land, here are some ways we’ve found to “sprout” and make our home homely in the here and now.
Unpack the Suitcases
Nothing says “nomad” like storing your clothes in an open suitcase. No matter how neatly you fold your clean laundry, a suitcase is still a suitcase. Adding a simple set of shelves, stacked crates, or a modest bureau conveys the message that you’re not sneaking out in the middle of the night. You’re sticking around for awhile, so unpack, put the suitcases out of sight, and get cozy.
Buy Dining Sets for Four (or at least Two!)
Unless communal drinking and eating is your custom of choice, you’re going to need more than one set of cutlery to entertain guests. Being able to have a guest, even if it’s just one, forces you to look at your living space through the eye of another. Those little touches and details you pay attention to when having company ought to remind you to cultivate a home that’s inviting to you too! Don’t just sleep and eat in your spot- dream and thrive! Your home should be a sanctuary and place of respite, no matter how small in size or brief your stay may be.
How have you made home abroad feel more like home?
This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.
When your family crosses the seven seas to visit you abroad, you have to make their time memorably spectacular. It presents the perfect opportunity to do something unique and special, and this is exactly what our friend did earlier this year. Her 80-year old mother came to Oman, accompanied by a spunky and active 80-year old couple. In honor of the special guests, we were invited to a chartered cruise around Muscat. It was a holiday celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birth (peace be up0n him) for most, but Urbndervish had to work. Lil’ Z didn’t like the idea of leaving behind Baba, but she was quickly consoled by the presence of one of her little buddies.
At around 10am, we arrived at Marina Bander Rowdha to meet our traditional dhow boat and its most capable captain, Shaykh Said. Furnished like an authentic Omani majlis or sitting room, we sat scattered around the deck to balance our weight. The Star of the Sea can hold up to 40 passengers, but only 10 took to the sea on this day. Bottles of water, dried dates, fresh fruit, and marble cake made a welcoming spread. Once we set out, most of us sat frozen, glued to the view of the bright blue ocean and sandy tan mountains. The little ones anxiously bounced on the cushioned seats and rolled around the carpeted deck. The adults snapped pictures feverishly.
Leaving the land behind us, we continued around the coast until we slowed down at a shallow point in the ocean suitable for snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. Once the anchor dropped, one of our 80-year old guests quickly suited up and dove back-first into the water. A few others followed but the weather was too cool and windy for us to oblige. We were content to enjoy the view, bundled in our sweatshirt hoodies. Lil’ Z’s buddy was brave enough to join his dad in the ocean, but his chattering teeth and frigid frame quelled her desire to swim.
Once everyone returned on board, we turned around and lunch was served. Much like a typical Omani meal, we were served roasted chicken, seasoned rice, salad, pita bread, and hummus, which was unfortunately covered with ground meat. Thankfully, I packed a thermos of black-eyed peas for ourselves–a tasty addition to the rice and salad. The meal quickly became fast food as the boat sped back to the marina. The majority of the food successfully made it to our mouths, while the rest flew to the ground. With the meal concluded, we were able to clean off the misplaced food in the boat’s single lavatory.
The familiar sights of forts, castles, and the Royal Palace were pointed out on our return. It was hard to believe that four hours had passed so quickly and before we knew it, we were back on land at about 2:30pm. We thanked Captain Said and his sons for a safe journey and steadied our sea legs for the long drive home.
An exciting stage in a child’s reading journey is the transition from absorbing to analyzing information. Realizing that the animals don’t really talk in words like our own or wear clothes was Lil’ Z’s first observation. She later realized that some things are “silly” and defy logic or natural order. But her most poignant observation to date, in my opinion, is the recurring theme of absentee fathers in children’s books.
Exhibit A: Mama Bird leaves the nest to secure food for her unborn baby bird. When the baby bird hatches, it is in the nest alone and ventures out looking for Mama Bird. After asking several animals and objects “Are you my mother?”, the baby bird is returned to the nest just as Mama Bird returns with a worm.
Lil’ Z’s Reaction: “Where’s her Baba (i.e. daddy)?”
Exhibit B: A curious little monkey opens a cage of bunnies to play with a little bunny. The little bunny runs off and is lost. The said monkey enlists Mama Bunny to help in finding the missing baby bunny. Baby bunny is found and all of the bunnies sleep safely in the cage with Mama Bunny.
Lil’ Z’s Reaction: “Where’s the Daddy Bunny?”
Noticeably in both cases, the stories center around animals and it can be quite common for male mammals to reproduce without child rearing. But as Lil’ Z tries to understand the world around her, she’s not going to accept the absent father figure and rightly so. Lil’ Z can’t imagine life without her own father. I might be the one she calls in the night, but he’s the one she calls by day. When she wakes up she searches for her father to greet him in the morning and will often choose his company over my own when she has a choice. When he spends the day at home, she can’t leave his presence long enough to nap and I can totally understand. The girl is head over heels in love with her dad.
Interestingly, she is conscious of his approval and validation. When she puts on a dress or I’ve just finished braiding her hair, she has “to show Baba” and awaits his reaction. His vote of approval is meaningful to her and I believe his affirmation of her just as she is, will echo in her subconscious for many years to come. Her butterscotch skin and fluffy, black cotton hair are not always reflected in the stories and images around us. Therefore, Urbndervish and I are vigilant about her appreciating diversity and her special shade in the spectrum.
Maria Montessori recommends books that root a child in reality before spiraling off into fantasy and make-believe. We totally agree but somehow ended up with a lot of books of cats who wear shoes and mice who go to school. Though this wasn’t our preference, Lil’ Z recognizes the difference between the two and enjoys both in context. In future book purchases, we not only need to look for cultural relevance, moral values, and animal treatment, but now the subtle messages that a book conveys about family life and society. Hopefully the next time she’s looking for an absentee father in a story book, we need only turn the page to find him.
|Mutrah Port in Muscat, Oman|
Two years ago this week, marks the anniversary of my arrival to Oman. I vividly remember exiting the airport, being smothered by Muscat’s humidity, and winding through curious and imposing mountains along the highway. With time, what seemed strange and intriguing, then, has become comforting and familiar. I’ve given birth here, explored various landscapes, and made lasting connections with both citizens and expatriates. For me, Oman was the right choice but what about you? Our Sistas in Oman shed some light on life in the Sultanate but here are a few prerequisite questions to ask yourself before accepting an offer and making your move.
How do I feel about living amongst Muslims and Arabs?
Oman is a gentle introduction to the Muslim world. There is no real political strife or unrest. Yes, there were occasional protests in northern Oman at the tail end of the Arab Spring but nothing the likes of instability or revolution. Additionally, Omanis tend to be very non-confrontational in their expression of faith; so more times than not, you won’t find yourself in aggressive or heated debates about religion, unless you disrespect their faith.
|Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman|
Feel free to pack your tube skirts and tank tops, but keep in mind that they’re best worn in the privacy of your own home. Generally, visitors and residents are advised to avoid sleeveless or low cut shirts, as well as skirts, pants, or shorts above the knee. Even men are asked to skip the Speedos when out swimming. More conservative attire would be warranted when visiting mosques or rural regions, but I don’t know of any legal penalty for dressing otherwise.
How do I cope with heat?
Oman has a good deal of heat for you to enjoy. Between May and September, temperatures are regularly above 100oF (38oC), so midday outings are discouraged. Fortunately, just about every indoor environment is air conditioned and electricity supply is consistently delivered throughout most parts of Oman. If that kind of heat is unfathomable to you, look for work in Salalah- a region in the far south of Oman that enjoys moderate weather year-round with a summer monsoon season.
Can I live in the desert?
Be of good cheer, friends! Oman is not just one big desert! There are beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and wadis (ravines) to discover throughout. The greenest of times is from June to September, in the far south of Oman during the khareef or monsoon season. You’ll be amazed to see rolling green hills and misty mornings that remind you of Ireland.
|Misty Morning in Salalah, Oman|
Oman has a great variety of all types of food. Delicious local and foreign produce, a variety of fresh meats and fish, veggie-friendly offerings, and imported comfort foods are all at your fingertips in the major cities and towns. In the capital city, you can satisfy your craving for everything from Thai to Moroccan food. Even major American fast food chains and restaurants have migrated to this part of Arabia!
|Swahili food in Sohar, Oman|
Other than work, there are all kinds of organizations to be involved with. You can pick up a new language, take in a movie, enjoy the opera, ride a horse, scuba dive, and do your fair share of “tree hugging” here. If all of what Oman has to offer still ranks low on your adventure-meter, you are perfectly situated for great travel options to the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia and Europe.
|Hiking in Sur, Oman|
How will I get around?
Unless you want to rely on taxis and the occasional long distance bus, having your own ride is the way to go. Car rentals are very easy with a foreign driver’s license but purchasing a car will require an Omani driver’s license. Possessing a current foreign driver’s license from most countries for at least a year allows you to obtain an Omani driver’s license without a road or written examination. Some jobs provide shuttle transportation, so you may not have to worry about commuting to work.
Can I save?
There are plenty of middle-aged professionals from the West that are living well and saving for retirement here. Many find it easy to save without a penny-pinching budget. If you live outside of Muscat, you may find more attractive salaries and packages that include housing, annual round-trip airfare for you and your family, and health insurance. Add those perks to a lower cost of living, and you can make bank here! As with most Gulf countries, the vision for the future is to reduce dependence on foreign workers and phase out expatriate employees. Until then…come get your slice of the Omani pie while the pickings are good!
How will I communicate?
Oman is functionally bilingual: websites, road signs, official documents, shop names, etc. will almost always be in both English and Arabic. Sometimes the English displayed on road signs may be inconsistent, but the government is working on it. Outside of major cities and towns, you may find that many people are not fluent in English but you can usually get by with little to no Arabic.
Where should I live?
If you want to maximize your social life, try to stay in or near Muscat. If you can stand the summer humidity, Muscat, Sohar, Sur, and Salalah are all coastal cities. If you prefer a drier climate (both literally and figuratively!), consider Nizwa or Ibri.
Can I make an impact?
Oman is a wonderful nation that has progressed rapidly in the last few decades. Previous generations left Oman in pursuit of quality education, health care, and a higher standard of living, but many have since returned. Oman is catching up to the world, so to speak. College enrollment is on the rise and you may have the opportunity to teach first generation university students–the majority of which are women. Unlike other regions of the Gulf, not all citizens of Oman are wealthy and even if they lack the maturity of third or fourth generation academics, many are learning to appreciate the virtue of higher education and gaining greater access to the wider world as a result.
It can’t be all good in Oman, can it?
Every rose has its thorn and Omani roses are no different. There are social problems that may not readily come to light, high incidences of traffic-related deaths, and biases that favor citizens over expats. There is a general lack of environmental concern, outdated approaches to early education, and lacking accommodations for students with special needs, BUT Oman’s growth is in progress- steady but not stagnant. Even if you decide that life in Oman is not right for you, you should at least consider a visit when you’re in the neighborhood.
After three visits, we’ve officially concluded that Jakarta is not one of our favorite places on the planet. It’s hard for us to stomach the overgrown urban jungle with its persistent pollution and traffic, so why do we keep going back for more? Well, some of our favorite people on the planet happen to live there and that’s more than enough reason. They share our sentiments and on our last two visits, whisked us away in the wee morning hours to find respite in Bandung, just beyond the city limits.
Joined by a third family that we all share a special history with, our caravan escaped just after our morning prayers without stirring the beast of Jakarta. We scurried along the highways, as fast as we safely could, and with every mile we distanced ourselves from the capital, the scenery transformed into the ever-growing greenery of palm trees, rice fields, and tea plantations. The air became lighter and easier to inhale. Once we reached our accommodation, we could collectively exhale.
The design of Sindang Reret Hotel and Restaurant is much like a little village with self-contained housing units, mostly double occupancy with a few larger, two-story suites. Each cabin had a rear porch with a view of the landscaped walking paths and gazebos. The dense trees in the distance gave the resort a sense of seclusion without isolation. Wrapped around a tree-lined circular path, you can easily walk to other hotel cabins, the main lobby, and restaurant. The resort offered a host of adventure activities but we opted to explore the rest of the town instead.
The best spot for lunch in Bandung is Kampung Daun Culture Gallery and Café. Not only is the food amazing but the dining experience is seated in a beautiful valley, artistically crafted to maintain the natural landscape, cultural heritage, and aesthetic appeal. After lunch, we visited the Ciater Hot Springs where the children, both big and small, splashed around in the naturally hot, sulfurous waterfalls and streams.
After a day spent trying to dodge potholes large enough to hide small animals, we knew the feat would’ve been even more challenging by night. The path of least resistance was to eat at Sindang Reret’s own restaurant for supper. Starting with a traditional Sundanese tea of the green jasmine variety, we attempted to read the menu completely printed in Indonesian bahasa. Both the prices and menu were not tailored to foreign visitors which explained the resort’s affordability. Without English translation, we relied on recognizing our favorite dishes and ordered Bihun Goreng, Nasi Tembal, Tahu Goreng, and Tempe Goreng. Goreng, meaning fried, is the operative word for Indonesian cuisine. Bihun is a fine rice noodle, while nasi is rice itself. We ordered our white rice steamed in a banana leaf. Tahu is tofu and tempe is tempeh. Even after our light but filling meal was savored, we enjoyed sitting in the large bamboo furnished structure while the children spotted large goldfish swimming in the adjacent pond and ran around the mostly vacant dining hall.
We took a long stroll around the resort grounds in the cool night air, then drifted peacefully to sleep.
Waking up to the sound of rain is an ideal way to start a day indoors but inconvenient when you hoped to venture outdoors. Scrapping our plans to visit a volcano lake, pick strawberries, and walk through tea plantations, we convened over our buffet breakfast. After filling our bowls with rice porridge stewed in coconut milk, topped with roasted soy nuts, dried cilantro, pickled veggies, spicy sambal sauce, and sweet soy sauce, we consulted the smart phone users for some drier options for our day. With an entourage of six adults, one teenager, and six children ranging from two to ten years old, we had to come up with a fail-proof plan for our day’s adventure. The most viable option was the Geology Museum on the way back to Jakarta. While earth science has never been my subject of choice, the children enjoyed themselves.
Our early departure from Bandung proved helpful for navigating our way back into Jakarta before the afternoon rush hour started. We went to Lotte Mart for dinner and returned to the home of our friends, the more recent transplants to Jakarta, to say farewell. Being the night before our return to Oman, we needed just a little more time to part with our friends and their lovely children. It’s hard to believe that our friendships date back to more than ten years ago, when two of the three families were not yet formed, and four of the children were not yet born. From the US, to Yemen, and now Indonesia, our families have been independent sojourners with a very common goal and aim, which has kept our hearts linked in spite of the distances between us. Appropriately, we ended the night around another shared love, the Holy Qur’an. Graced by the beautiful recitation of the older children, we were teary and humbled by our time together. We parted once again, as we always do, but with the hope that our time together will sustain our connection until we meet again.
There was nothing inherently familiar about Singapore–a tropical island stacked with tall skyscrapers, meticulous order and cleanliness, and very few people who share our shade of chocolate hue. We struggled to compare it to any other place we had been but once we reached our destination, we felt settled and no longer strange. Walking into Umm Umar’s home was like walking into one of our favorite stories. We knew the characters and setting quite well but now the tale came to life and there we were in the midst of it, occupying a space that felt uniquely carved for us in their life. Lil’ Z fit right into the the playroom with the little people of the household. Urbndervish and Abu Umar conversed and discovered common interests, mutual acquaintances, and shared favorite Islamic artists. As for Umm Umar and I, there weren’t enough hours in the day for all the topics we could’ve discussed.
To jump-start our short stay in Singapore, we enjoyed an amazing meal of Gadu Gadu, steamed vegetables and rice cubes topped with spicy peanut sauce, fried tempeh, and tofu. Then we headed out to Pasir Beach Park for a breezy walk along the shore. The children scooted along while the grown folks were engrossed in conversation. As sunset approached , we returned home for prayer. Nothing binds the hearts quite like communal prayer and even the children seemed connected, sharing their customized, colorful prayer mats with Lil’ Z. After a light supper, we settled in for a good night’s sleep.
In spite of traveling through the previous night, Lil’ Z still woke up at dawn, just after our morning prayer. To avoid waking the others, we went out for a bit of fresh air and to watch the sun rise. An older Chinese Singaporean stopped his morning stroll to say “Beautiful!”, gesturing that he liked Lil’ Z’s braided hair. This was the first of several compliments she received by curious onlookers. Once the sun had risen, the other children stirred and played with Lil’ Z outside before breakfast.
Our plans for the day took us to Masjid Sultan on Arab Street. In this happening neighborhood, popular for food and shopping, the golden dome stands high above the hustle and bustle.
Following a series of lectures and poems, all attendees were invited to lunch served right outside of the mosque after mid-day prayer. Large platters of chicken, biryani rice and salad were on the menu but we opted to visit the infamous VeganBurg instead.
Right after lunch, we joined several other families for a nature walk at MacRichie Nature Reserve. We strolled along the paths to meet our companions by the shore of the reservoir lake. Expectantly, we saw turtles and fish but once we turned the corner, we were met by a pack of monkeys, long-tailed Macaques to be exact.
We were surprised to see how bold they were in taking plastic bags of food from visitors but then this notice explained why.
Further along we saw monitor lizards and a variety of birds, and then wrapped up our outdoor adventure with a stop at the playground.
On our very last day in Singapore, our hosts had to work which gave us a perfect opportunity to hit the pavement as pedestrians. After they dropped us downtown, we had a delicious Lebanese breakfast of seasoned fava beans and za’atar bread, topped with a paste of thyme and olive oil, from UrbanBites. Then we walked over to the historical mosque on the hill, also known as Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh.
From there, we took the subway to the Botanic Gardens where we met a few other families for a play date. Even in the absence of our hosts, their friends reflected the same warmth and hospitality we had experienced for the two days prior. They were so inviting, we felt like we were stand-ins for Umm Umar’s family.
We sat by Black Swan lake, delighting in the scenery, snacks, and conversation. When we finally pried ourselves up from our shady spot on the lawn to walk to the Children’s Garden, we found it closed for maintenance. Though the Raggamuslim clan lacked a cell phone, all of the smart phone users around us coordinated the rest of our day’s itinerary. Umm Umar’s brother picked us up from a nearby café and took us to meet his family at Masjid Ba’Alawie.
Following our prayers, we returned to Bugis, the historical neighborhood of Masjid Sultan, for a late lunch. At Sarang Café, the only vegan option on the menu was foul moudammas, the same Lebanese dish we had for breakfast, but we didn’t mind one bit. We were honored to patronize the business of one of Urbndervish’s former colleagues—a young entrepreneur who teaches Islamic Studies classes just above the hip hang-out spot.
After lunch, we returned to Umm Umar’s home to enjoy our last evening in their blessed home. As if the enriching discussions with her family weren’t enough, we were sent off with an incredibly delicious final supper. With an early morning flight ahead on a budget Asian airline, we spent the last hours of our day organizing our bags to make sure none were overweight and then finally drifted off into sweet slumber.
Every once in a while, Facebook has some redemptive value to me. I threaten to abandon the social network every few months, frustrated by how it sucks up my limited free time and leaves me mentally fatigued. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, perplexed, and disheartened about what it delivers to my page, while other times I’m informed, inspired, and ignited to do something meaningful, be someone meaningful. It’s always a gamble. I never know what Facebook will serve up, but its saving grace for me is the ability to connect and reconnect with friends from my past and future. This is partly how I ended up in Singapore, meeting my sister, a kindred soul that I never thought I would meet.
About six years ago, I was working as an entry-level engineer in Western Pennsylvania. Still wintry and cold, it was a relief to be relegated to office work, as opposed to field work on military bases in the backwoods of North Carolina. I plowed through the daily tasks of data analysis, design, and report writing. At times when the office was quiet and my work for the day was completed, I’d daydream about our great escape–not a week-long vacation or a three-day weekend away. Urbndervish and I were preparing for a major move, an entire year abroad. We had not yet settled on Yemen as our destination, so we were still exploring the top locations for Arabic study in the pre-Arab Spring era: Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Morocco.
On one particular day, Morocco was heavy on my mind. The rich heritage and fusion of Arab and African culture intrigued me. As I started reading travel advice, I struggled to find a traveler profile that I could relate to. I had no interest in the nightlife or hotel resorts. I didn’t want to visit historical Islamic cities and mosques for their architectural value, but rather their spiritual value. Fatefully, I stumbled upon the blog of a fellow lover of adventure–a young bride from Singapore spending her honeymoon in al Maghrib. Her photos were captivating but not nearly as much as her anecdotes.
Traveling as a young, practicing Muslim couple, they were met with curiosity. They were invited into homes, invited to prayer, and invited to return. Even beyond the honeymoon, I followed my virtual friend back home to Singapore as she navigated her path as a working mom striving to uphold her faith and family amidst the demands of her profession. Her family soon became my own. I rejoiced with her joys and grieved with her losses. Our exchange continued well into my first year in Yemen. Whenever limited internet would allow, I would peak into Umm Umar’s window to see how her family was doing but eventually she discontinued her blog and I didn’t know where to find her.
The years passed and I would occasionally think of Umm Umar and her children. I wondered where their travels were taking them and what lessons parenting was teaching them. I reluctantly joined Facebook in 2009 for work correspondence in Algeria and slowly became entangled in the web of statuses and newsfeeds. One day last year, I saw a Facebook page for My Happy Prayer Place and recognized a handsome little boy with a familiar face. I recognized him as Umar immediately and eagerly connected to my long lost virtual sister. A few months after our rekindled correspondence, Urbndervish was graced with an unexpected week off from work in mid-January, giving us a great excuse to jetset during the low travel season. We decided to visit friends in Southeast Asia for a few days but couldn’t resist a quick stopover in Singapore to finally meet my sister.
To be continued…