The Five P’s of Preparing for Your Life Abroad

 

Nouakchott, Mauritania


Purpose

When my brother moved abroad more than thirteen years ago, his life seemed like an Indiana Jones adventure.  Unreliable internet access and expensive international calls made communication scarce.  Whenever we did make contact, he would engage us in long and winding tales of the people, places, and circumstances he encountered in the deserts of West Africa.  At that time, moving abroad seemed unimaginable, unpredictable, and risky.  But now, it seems easier to leave your homeland than ever before.  Folks are not only crisscrossing borders with greater ease but also blogging, tweeting, and Facebook-ing the entire journey along the way.  Everyone from Wanderlust Wendy to Computer Geek Gary has found a place for themselves abroad and you can too, with a few steps of preparation before joining the growing community of expatriates.

With seven continents to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin your life abroad.  There are various languages, cultures, and climates to consider but knowing your personal goal and objective can be a powerful navigator through the sea of choices.  A great starting point would be assessing your finances.  If financial freedom is your goal, you may want to look at destinations where you can earn big and spend little.  Once the “man” is off your back and debt collectors no longer address you on a first name basis, it’s time to look at destinations that have personal or spiritual significance to you.  Many a traveler find their expeditions unexpectedly cut short, so try to prioritize the fulfilling and meaningful experiences that memoirs are made of.  See those sights, make those pilgrimages, and bask in those precious, unforgettable moments.
 
The Door of No Return, Goiree Island, Senegal

Papers

Half-finished degrees do little to secure a respectable income abroad (if earning is your goal).  Once you’ve decided on a course of study, training, or certification, see it through to completion and don’t belittle your accomplishment.  Carry the banners of your hard-earned efforts and keep scanned and hard copies readily available. Even first-aid or scuba diving certificates have helped people secure their dream job abroad. Other important documents might include your birth certificate, background checks, recommendation letters, marriage certificates, name change documents, etc.  Even with e-tickets and mobile check-in, sometimes a printed itinerary can come in handy.
Plans
Flying by the seat of your pants has its place and function but a little planning can save you time and money.  A flexible plan that allows for contingencies can help you keep the ball rolling when you run into roadblocks and brick walls.  If planning is not your spiritual gift, then consider conditional plans like “I will start here unless…” or “I will do this until…”  Sitting back and charting your path will help you move more efficiently and cost-effectively through the land.  Even if the wanderers among us could care less about such formalities, it will certainly assure your more grounded family and friends that you haven’t completely lost it.
 
Sana’a, Yemen
Patience
What you think you possess of patience will not only be tested in your life abroad but also stretched, beaten, and contorted until it sits like a hard-won trophy on your mantle.  I really used to think I was patient, but perpetual frustration in my first destination showed me that there was more left to be acquired.  Challenges in everything from communication and correspondence to health, wealth, and sanity can leave you perplexed and aggravated.  Keep in mind that new experiences are often powerful teachers in the subjects of life, yourself, and your place in this vast world.  When the bewilderment really starts to get to you, take the time to pause, quit beating yourself about the past, and let your purpose guide your next step forward.
Piety
If landing yourself in prison abroad is on your bucket list, then feel free to ignore this piece of advice but for others, please take heed.  Even if sainthood isn’t your aim, a basic sense of good character and upright conduct can be life-saving in the most and stress-saving in the least, as you find your way in a new country.  Expats are not above the law and the rights and freedoms you enjoy in your home country may not travel with you.  If your lifestyle or personal views are illegal or in conflict with the laws and customs of your location and you feel the need to broadcast, publicize, and express them openly, maybe living in such a country would do more harm than good for you.  Drugs, drinking, or delinquency can make ugly turns and blemish not only your record but also your reputation, both socially and professionally.  Save risqué behavior for your own turf, and be on your best behavior when you’re in someone else’s home.  Also, don’t forget to align yourself with the social and spiritual resources needed to be your best you wherever you go.
 
Mecca, Saudi Arabia

This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

Leaving Oman: From Here to Where?

 

Jabal Akhdar (Green Mountain)

Jabal Akhdar (Green Mountain)

Looking around at the bare closets, empty shelves, and boxes of books that dwarf our dusty suitcase of clothing, it’s evident that our caravan is pulling out.   Four years–the longest stretch of time our family has ever lived in a single residence or city–has come to an end.  For two years, we lived out of our suitcases in Yemen and Algeria, but here in Oman we had a reason to unpack.  We hung our clothes on hangers, bought bed sheets and spoons, and put our backpacks out of sight.  We nested ourselves into a cozy home, just in time for Lil’ Z’s arrival.

The quietude and serenity of Nizwa was the perfect first home for our daughter.  Urbndervish’s work schedule that year was light which gave us long hours to revel in the miracle of a little human form growing and changing in front of us every day.  We watched her eyebrows and eyelashes grow and stroked her silky black head of hair.  We kissed her at least 100 times daily and cuddled her even more.  The pace of any other place would have vied for our attention.

Lil' Z at 4 days old

Lil’ Z at 4 days old

Our apartment had more space than we were accustomed to and gave us ample room to tuck and put away stuff–the kind of stuff you keep only because you can.  Three weeks ago, we started to confront our stuff and sifted through the clothes and items to keep or give away.  Most of what we accumulated belonged to Lil’ Z, who had no attachment to anything other than her curious cloth diapers and books.  Unlike her, a flood of memories engulfed me when I recalled the people and events connected to her little outfits and dresses.  Part of me wants to hold on to them but practicality trumps my nostalgia when Urbndervish points out the signs of wear and milk stains on the collars.  There is little room for sentiment in the life of a nomad.

My favorite outfit

My favorite outfit

I’ve grown a special attachment to this particular apartment because of the memories each room holds.  The first time Lil’ Z raised her head was in the bedroom, the first time she reached up to touch my face was in the hallway, and her first steps were in the guest room.  I can’t separate her from this space.  When she thinks of home, this is the only place she will conjure for some time.  Last night before going to bed, she asked how much longer until we return to the US.  I counted ten days on my hands and she squealed.  “Then, we come back home?”  “No, not this home.  We’re not coming back to Nizwa”, I tried to explain.  Naturally, she responds:  “So, where?”  And to that, we have no answer yet.

Every adventure is tempered with some amount of anxiety.  Much like riding a roller coaster, some grit through fear, some reel in exhilaration, and some can’t stomach it.  Fortunately, we can make peace with this uncertainty because we’ve prepared for it.  We made special efforts to soak up all of the Oman we could- through personal connections, road trips, and hosting guests here.  This has been a welcomed resting place for us but it is not likely our journey’s end.  We may return but regardless, the process of mentally preparing to leave for good has been cathartic.  With every bag of clothing we set aside for donation and every book we decide to leave with friends, I feel lighter.  Our possessions are manageable without being overwhelming.  Perhaps we will find our home one day—a little piece of God’s green earth that we’re content to return to and find respite in.  Even then, the same principle applies for us, whether resident or migrant:

Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler” –translated saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

Dinner Hosting Made Simple

Platter of fruits, dates, and coffee

When it comes to homemaking, I’m no Martha Stewart.  I love taking care of my home and family but there is no inherent joy derived for me by the means, only the end.  I cook and clean happily but there is no euphoria involved.  With my limited domestic skills, I used to be deterred from having guests for dinner.  I would be too concerned that my home isn’t spotless and my cooking isn’t spectacular. But after being reminded of the tremendous blessing in hospitality, we decided to make hosting our habit in spite of our shortcomings.  At times, we underestimate the bounty of a simple meal shared with sincerity, but we always find that these gatherings and moments are the tastiest.  So, here’s our strategy.

Select your guests wisely

I personally find it easier to have more frequent meals with a few guests at a time, as opposed to hosting a large group seasonally or annually.  For us, we have the natural limitation of space and utensils.  It took a bit of coordination to host a family of five for our first Ramadan iftar (fast-breaking) meal this week. When we host even more this weekend, we’ll have to ask them to bring their own spoons.  But once you know how many people and who to expect, you can assess your supplies and plan accordingly.

Also, consider the chemistry between the guests you invite.  Don’t pair strangers unless you have some reason to believe they will get along and don’t assume that buddies are always on friendly terms.  I was grateful when a guest I invited informed that she was no longer on good terms with another who I was about to invite.  Instead, I invited someone else which made for a smooth evening without creating an awkward conflict.  Thankfully, the two later resolved their tiff.

Almond Burger Salad with Homemade Dressing

Match your meal to your guests

As I mentioned before, it’s a good practice to inquire about food allergies and preferences before you plan your meal.  Consider which meals you can prepare confidently and capably without too much risk involved.  If you want to try new and complicated recipes, practice on your family first.  Evaluate which dishes in your repertoire best suit your dinner company.  Take special effort to accommodate diabetic or hypertensive guests who might be tempted by the sight of sugary or salty foods.  If you’re hosting guests who are free of health challenges but have poor eating habits, your meal is a great opportunity to showcase how tasty and nourishing a healthy meal can be.  Some of our most carnivorous guests have been pleasantly surprised and inspired by our vegan pizza, fruit smoothies, and raw desserts.

Stewed fava beans, roasted eggplant, curried mung beans, sauteed green beans and brown rice

As for cuisine-matching, I personally feel self-conscious when attempting Arab food for Arab guests, Indian food for Indian guests, and the like.  Instead, I prefer to use the opportunity to introduce my non-American friends to some of our Afro-Caribbean cuisine.  Why?  It’s like throwing seven different types of smoke.  They generally have no idea what to expect and it makes for good cultural exchange.

Black-eyed peas, sauteed cauliflower and green beans, and roasted eggplant

Start your prep early

Don’t wait until the big day to clean the whole house and start your meal.  Start your cleaning 2-3 days prior.  Cleaning the floors, dusting the surfaces, and tidying your home can be done well in advance.  Unless you have a bathroom designated for guest use only, you might want to freshen up your sink and commode on the day of your engagement.  Desserts—whether baked or raw—should be prepared first either the day before or the morning of your dinner.  Dips can be prepared the day before and salads earlier on the same day.

Tag team the effort

Enlist your family to help out where possible.  Sometimes, Urbndervish and Lil’ Z will welcome our guests and serve refreshments while I finish last minute dinner prep or clean up the kitchen before dinner starts.  Whoever finishes eating first will usually clear the dinner dishes from the table while the other chats with guests.  Then, the other might serve tea and dessert.  When Lil’ Z and her dad are ready to walk our guests to their cars, I’ll jump in the kitchen and start the first round of dishes.  After the little hostess is readied for bed, we’ll switch places again—I’ll put Lil’ Z to sleep and Urbndervish will finish up the dishes.  Sharing the load means that we can all enjoy the company of our guests, savor the food, and not feel burdened by the clean-up that follows.  If we’re particularly close with our guests, whoever is washing dishes will invite a friend to join them in the kitchen so the conversation can continue while washing up.

Kidney beans, pineapple salsa, and cashew sour cream on a bed of lettuce

Set the aesthetic

I have difficulty making my food look really enticing and presentable, so I compensate by combining dishes of varied hues.  For example, our iftar last week centered around black-eyed peas, which are a bit bland in color, so I added yellow rice and steamed okra and tomatoes to brighten up the plate palate.  You can also serve your food in decorated plates and dishes, set a nice tablecloth, and burn incense in the home to satisfy sensory appetite.

Minimize your waste

We can’t stand the sight of wasted food, so we generally start our guests with a modest plate and offer refills.  When we’re guests in the homes of others, it’s uncomfortable to be pressured to eat more than we normally would or be served increasingly more food when we’ve already expressed we’ve had enough.  My Omani friends, for example, explain that they want to make sure their guests are not being shy and taking less food than they desire but this can get frustrating when you feel like you’re being force-fed.  We don’t encourage our guests to overeat but we offer them as much as food as they would like to eat.

It’s also common to buy disposable dinnerware when having guests but please don’t give in.  In college, I would carry a box of dishes and utensils to potluck dinners and volunteer to wash the dishes every time.  I felt tremendous guilt drinking from red plastic cups and eating from Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils while calling ourselves activists and revolutionaries.  Yes, some water is saved but I believe the energy and waste consumed is not worth the convenience.  Feed the people but don’t neglect the planet in your hospitality.  Consider the use of a large, shared platter of food or use paper plates, if you insist.

Remember your intention

Sharing the gift of food is an honor.  It implies that you have the means to share and the friendship of others worth sharing it with.  Intend to serve for the sake of God and you may find facility in your efforts as I often do.  My food almost always taste better when we have company but we often attribute this to the blessing they bring with them when accepting our invitation.  When you keep the close companionship of upright people and serve them pure and wholesome food with love, there’s very little room to fail.  Even if your guests are not the most inspiring or positive people to be around, try to set the tone for an enjoyable evening, free of backbiting, ill speech and negativity.  Whether during or outside of Ramadan, try to keep your home illuminated by service to others.

Ramadan Festivity for the Not-So-Crafty

Candle Jars and Paper Lanterns

If you own a hot glue gun, X-Acto knife, or a MacBook, perhaps this post is not for you.  This post is for the artistically-challenged.  Those of us who struggle to draw straight lines, lack innate artistic ability and have never owned a set of cookie cutters.  There are great companies and creative individuals who save us from our artlessness by selling beautiful decorations, streamers, and banners.  But my inner minimalist prevents me from substituting someone else’s efforts for my own.  Besides, I’ve concluded that it’s more fun to craft with my child instead of for her.  She deserves the same quality of beauty that those fortunate children of crafty moms enjoy but our goal is to make her experience tangibly memorable, not our own.  With a few simple activities that revolve mostly around a child’s artistry, not an adult’s, this is what our Ramadan 2014 looks like.

Ready for Ramadan Party

We joined efforts with another family to kick-off our Ramadan this year.  We planned a simple Islamic trivia game, read a story, painted used jars to make candle holders and folded paper lanterns, followed by a tasty lunch and dessert.

Vegan Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Ramadan Love Packages

We found a simple cake recipe and made greeting cards for Lil’ Z’s friends.  She was quite proud of her cake and card.

Lil' Z's cake

The four-year-old boy she shared this card with was so happy to receive it that he kept asking if he could keep it.

Ramadan Card

Ramadan Calendar and Decorations

We made our calendar together and it’s great to see how much more Lil’ Z can contribute now than she could last year.  It really is starting to feel like her holiday, not one we’ve prepared for her.  We strung lights and stuck stars around the calendar and ended the night with the recitation of the Qur’an and sound sleep.  A blessed Ramadan to you and yours!

Ramadan Calendar

 

 

 

Raising Global Citizens: Our Hopes and Hardships

After drifting asleep in the car, my daughter woke up sleepy-eyed in Muscat.  Not sure where we were, she asked “Suwayq?” “No, sweetie, we’re going to Suwayq on Monday.”  “Ma-wocco?”  “No, we’re not going to Morocco today but maybe later”.  At two, she can’t quite understand what ‘next month’ or ‘next year’ means.  She does not yet realize the reality of how far or near places are but as I flip through the pages of her worn little passport, I wonder at want point will she begin to realize how blessed she is to see many places that most have only dreamed of.
While parenting is an adventure in itself, parenting abroad is like an adventure on wheels.  What or where ‘home’ is is a blurry concept and it takes a strong family bond to ride out the constant waves of transition.  As parents raising young children abroad, we’re sometimes branded as ‘selfish’ for torturing our own parents, forcing them to travel long distances to see their grandchildren in between annual summer visits.  Some brand us as ‘opulent’ for actually traveling to learn about new countries as opposed to picking up books and Hollywood movies in their place.  Some consider us down-right crazy and irresponsible for taking our children to developing countries where ‘all those poor and diseased people live.’  In the fraternity of families abroad you find a variety of folks who may be all or nothing of what others assume but in my circle of fellow parents, we seem to have common aspirations and frustrations with our life abroad.
The advantages of a childhood abroad can be tangible and appealing.  Young children can learn about cultures, languages, and world history in the context of where they live, as opposed to textbooks and tutors.  Authentic connections can be made with others before learned biases set in and make color, race, and religion points of difference.  Traveling matures children and gives ample opportunity to learn flexibility, adaptability, and agility in the face of life’s unexpected surprises.  Many of us find a better quality of life abroad and actually spend more time with each other, cultivating a home life and a vivid montage of memories for our families to savor for years to come.
One sacrifice that seems to hit us all pretty hard is the distance from our extended family.  Virtual grandparenting is challenging.  Children grow in leaps and bounds from summer to summer and no time is enough time every single vacation.  The luxury of sending children to Grandma and Grandpa for the weekend or even a night is forfeited in place of finding trustworthy babysitters and friends or simply opting for a night in as opposed to a night out for a date.  Depending on where you reside, you may not always find common principles and practices in parenting.  Varied notions of discipline, different styles and standards of education, and the role of children in society may not agree with your understanding and experience.  Even at the playground or in the neighborhood, if your child looks unlike their peers or don’t share the same language, making friends and finding playmates may be a hurdle too.

In coping with all of the challenges it entails, many families abroad have to seek out strategies to keep the wheels of our life abroad churning.  Some set up social groups or clubs for expat families to find a familiar haven when you need a break from being the foreigner.  Some rely on media tools like Skype, Whatsapp, and Viber to stay in touch with loved ones back home.  Some fly relatives over for visits to make the time abroad shrink just a bit.  Between care packages, video chatting, and fellowship around familiar foods, we make it through.  Sometimes other expats become stand-in family members while we’re abroad.  Just last month, our family along with two other American families met up in Abu Dhabi.  The long drive and border drama were not beyond the lengths we would go to be a family for each other.  We go out of our way to help each other and bolster one another on this journey.

As true as the etymology itself, there is no ‘utopia.’  Every place and circumstance has its benefits and challenges.  Life ain’t all rosy abroad but neither is it back home.  An economic downturn, rising costs of living, and mass shootings are enough to make our countries feel less homely and inviting.  Out of all our relatives, we own the least but financially have the most because we are debt-free.  Some of our dreamy goals and idealistic values are better actualized on the other side of the planet, making the sacrifices worthwhile not only for ourselves but also for our children.  Whether at home or abroad, our hope is that the compassionate, peace-loving, globally-minded citizens we raise today will become the pioneers of a better world tomorrow.
Being able to choose a life abroad is a gift which helps us, humbles us, and sometimes hurt us, but it is not in vain.  While my daughter may not have roots in any particular land just yet, it’s more important that she has wings. Allegiance to any one place shouldn’t prevent her from trying life elsewhere because who knows- she just mind find happiness, peace of mind, and security on the other end of a plane ride.
 
Photo credit:  Labinsky

This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

Planning a Plant-Based Ramadan

Eggplant

Unless you’ve already adopted the habit of consuming one meal a day, fasting can pose a challenge to your usual eating pattern.  Casual grazing and careless snacking are no longer options, so the meals that you do eat have to be nutritionally-dense and calorie-packed.  This becomes especially true if you eat a plant-based diet.  After more than ten years of fasting as vegans, here are some of the lessons we learned and habits we picked up in the process.

A light breakfast

Don’t overeat for Suhoor (pre-fasting meal).

Once upon a time, our suhoor meal was a glorified brunch:  pancakes, tofu scramble, veggie sausage, etc.  We used to wake up early and joyfully prepare our feast in the twilight, only to find ourselves famished hours later.  For a few years, we enjoyed a simpler meal like granola and soymilk with peanut butter, which was quicker to prepare and more effective in staving off hunger.   But now that our Ramadan days aren’t physically taxing or strenuous, we prefer to focus on hydration.  Tall glasses of water–with a handful of dates or herbal tea if I’m particularly hungry–seem to be adequate.  Others find that a bowl of fresh fruit or a filling smoothie suits them best.  Try fasting in the coming weeks before Ramadan to find out which morning meal works for you.

Dates and Cucumbers

Break your fast with dates, water, and a smoothie or fresh juice.

It’s a well-known Islamic tradition to end your fast for the day with fresh or dried dates and water or milk.  Right after our dates and water, we usually have a smoothie with fresh fruits, ground flax seeds, coconut milk or juice, and occasionally spinach.  If you have a juicer, a fresh-pressed vegetable juice would be a vitamin-rich way to replenish your fluids at the end of the day.  Coconut water is also a very hydrating addition, as well as fruits like watermelon, pineapple and cucumber.  With your fruit intake covered, you can prepare to dig into a hearty meal after completing your evening prayer.  Please don’t substitute fruit-flavored sodas or sugary fruit drinks for real fruits.

Plan your meals wisely.

If you’re a foodie, you might spend your day fantasizing about what sumptuous meal to prepare or scouring recipes, but fasting is intended to free your mind of worldly preoccupations, not indulge them.  Instead, focus on a nutritionally sound meal that can be prepared easily with wholesome whole food ingredients, as opposed to instant or processed foods.  Also, be wary of buffet meals in restaurants.  The overwhelming variety of choices can cause you to overeat or fill yourself with the tastiest dishes but not necessarily the most nourishing ones.  Ramadan is a great opportunity to focus on simple meals because just about everything will taste good after a long day of fasting.  Also, prepare your meals with the intention of feeding them to a fasting person, so you can obtain the full blessing of your service to others.

Black-eyed peas, sauteed garlic spinach, and pumpkin stewed in coconut milk

Black-eyed peas, sauteed garlic spinach, and pumpkin stewed in coconut milk

Plan your meal around a protein-base.

Your dinner should revolve around a solid protein base like beans, soy, seitan (“wheat meat”), nuts, seeds, etc.  Next in proportion should be a generous helping of vegetables, preferably green ones .  We don’t usually have time for chomping salads in Ramadan, so we prefer to drink our greens in a smoothie or sauté them.  If you need an occasional salad meal, here are some tips for making sure you include all of the necessary elements for a truly satiating meal.

Sauteed lentils with onions, stewed pumpkin and broccoli in coconut milk, and roasted eggplant

Sauteed lentils with onions, stewed pumpkin and broccoli in coconut milk, and roasted eggplant

If beans are on our menu, we tend to avoid brown rice, potatoes, or whole-wheat pasta.  We save those complex carbohydrates for meals paired with exclusively protein-based sources like tofu or tempeh.   Instead, we eat beans with starchy veggies like pumpkins, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, or eggplant.  And as a general rule, we try to avoid white flour, white sugar, white rice, and fried foods.  Keep superfoods like seaweed, flax/hemp/chia seeds, nutritional yeast, and other goodies on hand for revving up your meal’s nutritional content.

Upgrade your dessert.

If you find there’s still some room for something sweet after your night prayers, pause before you gorge.  Capping your night with a sugary treat laden with empty calories is not your only option.  Raw desserts are our personal favorite but other options like black bean brownies, dairy-free ice cream,  and fruit sorbets are a healthy way to satisfy a sweet tooth.  Unless you totally invert your sleep schedule, the hours and opportunities to eat are finite, so make them potent.

Raw dessert truffles

Be a smart guest.

Ramadan is also a time for sharing meals with others.  When you’re hosting, it’s easy to monitor your menu but being a guest can be a bit of a gamble.  Instead of wishing and hoping that a non-vegetarian host will serve a veg-friendly menu, inform them in advance.  It would be impolite to request certain dishes, but it is totally appropriate to convey your food preference much like you would a food allergy.  Even with advanced notice, you might still end up eating salad and rice or vegetables and pasta for dinner, so have a protein-packed dish waiting for you when you get home or pack some nuts for the ride home.

Ramadan is about more than food.

While the food we eat can significantly affect our experience, don’t neglect your social and spiritual diet.  Toxic habits and poisonous company can be worse than poor food choices.  Use this opportunity to make your life in and outside of Ramadan revolve around worship, wellness, and goodwill to others.

When planning your timetable and social activities, think sustainability.  If you work–either away from or inside the home–you need time to rest.  Find ways to schedule naps and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.  Save late evenings at the mosque or distant dinner invitations for the weekend when you’re more likely to make up for lost rest on the following day. Consider Ramadan like a marathon.  Find a steady pace that keeps you on task to reach your goal and draw strength and motivation from others when your tank is running low.

Any other tips to add?

Disclaimer:  The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional nutritional advice.

Review: Sifawy Boutique Hotel in Jebel Sifah

Al Sabla Restaurant at Sifawy Boutique Hotel

In our household, non-religious holidays are not a big deal.  We can easily bypass birthdays and national holidays but one occasion that we do make an effort to celebrate is our wedding anniversary.  June 5th is the day we professed and committed to be a family, in full view of our loved ones and friends.  As each year rolls by, we look back and express gratitude for our past and present life as a union.  Last year, our anniversary weekend incidentally overlapped with a religious holiday and this year it overlapped with a delayed observance of that same holiday.  For our three-day weekend, we found a perfect retreat in Jebel Sifah.

Private Beach

Jebel Sifah is home to a huge development resort about an hour south of Muscat.  A stretch of winding road ascends and descends in both directions, through small villages and mountain valleys.  With the road to Sifah being  mostly unlit, driving is only recommended during daylight hours.  A four-wheel drive vehicle isn’t required but an experienced, careful driver is.  After entering the village of Sifah, an unpaved road leads you to Sifawy Boutique Hotel, adjacent to the Jebel Sifah Marina.  What attracted us to this destination was largely the discounted summer price.  A weekday double room on a half-board basis with a free suite upgrade was a total of 60 OMR or $155 USD.  The same accommodation at this four-star hotel would’ve cost more than double during the high tourist season, without dinner included.

Sifawy Suite

Entering our suite, Lil’ Z was immediately drawn to the inviting bed and couldn’t wait to sleep in it.  After reviewing their “green hotel” policy and examining all of the features, we were thoroughly satisfied with our selection.  The hotel fixtures were sturdy and obviously selected for beauty and longevity.  Quality wood furnishing and soothing hues of purple and green comforted us on arrival.  After enjoying our welcome platter of fresh fruit and herbal teas, we dressed up for dinner that evening.

Sifawy Reception Lounge

The large dining room was empty when we arrived but each table was prepared with candle-lit lanterns and purple drinking glasses.  Our waitress greeted us with a tall bottle of water and our prix fixe dinner menu.  We scanned the options quickly and looked up at each other.  The only included vegan option was Mango Noodle Salad.  Obviously, our meal request upon booking hadn’t been communicated to the kitchen but our able waitress quickly came up with a plan to swap the salad for lentil soup, the chicken or fish entrees for veggie pasta, and the cheesecake dessert for fruit sorbets.  To round out the protein content, we ordered some additional hummus dishes on the side.

Veggie Pasta

After our evening prayers, we turned in for the evening, anxious to get a good night’s rest after the long drive and wake up early for some time on the beach.  Our breakfast buffet was a more veg-friendly affair, with fresh fruit, stewed fava beans, hummus, vegetables, hash browns, breads, teas, and dried fruits and nuts on the spread. We ate well and then hitched a ride on a zero-emission golf cart heading to the sea.

Breakfast at Sifawy Hotel

Beyond the hammocks and thatched roof umbrellas, we stood on a shore of glittering smooth rocks and crystal clear water.  The pull of the tide was felt but not overwhelming.  Without a single fish or crab in sight, we could see the finest particles of sand sparkling like fine glitter in the sea.  We had a contention with the swimming dress code which forbade long swimsuits but with no other guests or enforcement in view, I was determined to enjoy the sea in my modest swim attire.  After more than an hour of swimming and wading, we returned to the shore to dry off and hailed our golf cart back to the main hotel grounds.

Arabian Sea

We returned to our room to clean up and prepare for departure.  Our less than 24-hour stay came to a close but we really couldn’t imagine spending much more than a day or two longer.  Aside from the pool, private beach, and fitness center, there wasn’t much else to see without a cost.  The hotel offers a variety of tour packages for sailing, snorkeling, and day trips.  The cheapest sea activity would’ve been an 8 OMR or $21 USD round trip on their water taxi service from Muscat’s Marina Bandar al-Rowdha.  But that’s only available on weekends when the discounted summer room rate goes up to 70.2 OMR or $182 USD without the option of a free suite upgrade.  Other than these activities, there are plans to make Jebel Sifah a shopping and entertainment destination, neither of which sounds appealing to us.  Regardless, we had an enjoyable weekend getaway and would happily return, as long as the price is right.

Hotel Pool

 

Five Reasons to Love Summer in the Gulf

These days in Oman, it’s hard to have a conversation without some mention of the heat.  Sometimes it’s the answer to a question:  “How are you?” “Hot.”  Sometimes it’s used as a reprimand:  “Don’t touch me!  I’m hot and sweaty!” And sometimes, it’s a random exclamation:  “Oh my goodness, it’s so hot!”  You think you’re getting used to the heat until it still sneaks up on you and smacks you on the back of the neck.  My general mantra is “mind over matter”.  I try to stay calm and think cool thoughts when the temperature rises, but facing the reality of peak summer heat requires the kind of mental acrobatics that leave you baffled.  So, we’re going to turn our sun-scorched frowns upside down and look at the ultra-sunny side of life.  Here are a few benefits to the summer heat that will hopefully shift your perspective and help you bear life above 100oF (38oC) a little easier.
1.        You don’t need to use a drying machine.
Line drying your laundry is the best way to maintain the quality of your clothes and naturally bleach hard-to-clean stains.  Rain is so scarce in the Gulf that you hardly have to worry about your laundry catching a downpour.  Even if you save all of your laundry for the weekend, you can do back-to-back loads.  Most of my laundry is dry in about two hours, so you can wash and dry laundry as long as the sun is up.  Such an eco-friendly alternative will help compensate for the tremendous amount of energy consumed by running your air conditioners.
2.       Your health could improve.
The simple act of standing outside is enough to break a sweat, which burns calories.  Walking is optional but running in this heat could be risky.  With all the buckets of sweat you generate, there must be some detoxification and cleansing going on internally.  Also, the almost consistently clear skies will give you great doses of Vitamin D which is essential for calcium absorption and boosting your immune system.
An additional benefit is your obstinate desire to avoid cooking at all costs.  While some may try to subsist on frozen desserts, many will admit strong cravings for salads—green salads, fruit salads, leftover salads.  Anything that doesn’t require heating suddenly becomes the most appetizing dish for your palate.
3.       Your tap water is never cold.
No fears of a cold shower in these parts.  The water is tepid after sunrise, lukewarm at night, and scorching in the mid-day.  You won’t need to use a water-heater (or a kettle) to warm your water for the entire summer–yet another way to conserve energy and save your money.
4.       You can experiment with outdoor cooking.
I don’t eat eggs but if I did, I wouldn’t waste gas frying them considering how hot the ground is.   When I lived in Algeria, I heard about a type of bread that’s baked under the heat of the desert sand.  I couldn’t believe it then but my Omani friends tell me about how meat is roasted underground for special occasions. It’s all quite plausible to me now.   Roasting, dehydrating, and baking outdoors are all options for conserving energy and testing out your solar-powered cooking skills.
5.       You gain a profound appreciation for all things cold.
An icy drink, a cool breeze, and a cold room all attain a new level of significance in your life.  Your gratitude for such relief reaches new depths and it’s good to pause and think about those who have no escape from the heat, no refuge from the cold, or live their lives under the elements all year round.  While this post was intended to be light-hearted, I hope we can all take a moment to pause and reflect upon how fortunate we are in our given circumstances, even if they’re inconvenient.  A temporary power outage or water shortage always brings me back to a reality that people face on a daily basis.  Thankfully, the heat is bearable for most of us and by the end of the year, we’ll be enjoying sunny days on the beach while others are shivering from the cold.
 
Serious Tips for Coping with the Heat
·         Hydrate yourself liberally, generously, and often.
·         Plan your outings early or late.  Preferred times would be before 10 AM and after 4 PM.
·         Stay indoors during peak heat.
·         Use hats, sunscreen, and long loose clothing to protect your skin from sunburn.
·         Use windshield visors in your vehicle and driving gloves for handling your steering wheel and shifting gears.
Thankfully, many jobs in the Gulf offer generous summer vacations, so use your month or two (or three!) of paid leave wisely and plan accordingly.
Any other tips for staying cool in the Gulf?
This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

Review: Thai Corner in Muscat

Thai Corner in Qurm

My first taste of Southeast Asian cooking was back in 2000.  In my college town, some of my more cultured friends wanted to visit Spice Island Tea House.  I was open to the new experiences life in Pennsylvania offered.  I went hiking and rafting.  I ate perogies and deli sandwiches stacked with greasy fries and cole slaw.  I was determined to experience life outside of my Afro-Caribbean native New Yorker experience.  Prior to then, my encounters with Asian food were limited to the cheap Chinese food spots abundant in urban, black neighborhoods.  I knew their standard menu thoroughly, as it was the same served in every borough at almost any hour.  But reading an authentic Southeast Asian restaurant menu was literally like reading a different language.  On my first taste, I played it safe and ordered a curry dish but slowly I discovered the rich flavors of the region and fell in love with the food years before our travels began.  Some of my regular dishes were Java Fried Rice, Rangoon Night Market Noodle, and Green Curry Tofu.  But my absolutely favorite dish had always been Pad Thai and I was missing it sorely.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai: Stir-fried veggies and noodles in tamarind based sauce

Scattered across Muscat, you’ll find a modest offering of Thai restaurants, most of which are attached to fine hotels and city hot spots.  But given the Thai community here, we were determined to found out where they eat and we did.  In Qurm, at a plaza across the road from the Natural Park, we found Thai Corner.  The reviews I read were just what I needed to here:   “authentic food”, “no frills eatery”, and “affordable”.  We planned to meet a dear friend in Muscat last weekend and found our perfect opportunity to give Thai Corner a try.

Red Basil and Green Coconut Curry Tofu

Seated next to a Turkish Restaurant named Touma, we found Thai Corner to be a simple and clean eatery with a few photos and Thai tourism posters along the walls.  Simple tables covered with plastic and a pair of golden statues greeting us at the door.  Our waitress wore plain clothes, no uniform or ethnic dress, but had an adequate command of English to take our order accurately.  Our first glance of the menu wasn’t too appetizing.  The dishes were given simpler English titles alongside Thai script and mostly included chicken and seafood.  It was hard to know what to expect but once we heard the operative phrase “Pad Thai”, all worries were abated.

“Kale” and Mushrooms with Soy Sauce substituted for Oyster Sauce

Our meal was deliciously enjoyable.  Our final selection of Pad Thai, Red Curry Tofu, Green Coconut Tofu, Steamed Kale and Mushroom, and steamed rice complimented each other well.  Every sauce was savory and rich.  The spicier Red Curry seemed to balance out the Coconut Green Curry.  All of the vegetables were fresh and crunchy and the fresh herbs of basil, lemongrass, and cilantro were abundant.  Each dish ranged from about 3-4 OMR or 8-10 USD but was so thoughtfully prepared and served by Thai hands that the meal was well worth the cost.  Thai Corner still can’t beat the cost-friendly goodness of Coconut House, but when our taste buds need a break from Swahili cooking, we know where to go.

Front Entrance

Note:  Pad Thai usually include fish or shrimp paste and eggs, so specify your dietary request when ordering.

A Ramadan Retrospective

Green Dates

As I prepare to enter my twelfth year of observing Ramadan, I can’t help but revisit my first.  I had recently accepted Islam freely and privately in my attic bedroom.  My fast was just as covert as my conversion.  In a house full of Christian roommates, none were aware of my new faith and the fasting that followed.  One of their boyfriends, a perceptive medical student, realized that I was losing weight but I never shared why.  I sat in the living room, eating my late dinner in their company way beyond sunset.  I was never really sure that the sun slipped beneath the horizon until the sky was dark blue and black.  I hurriedly ate a bowl of cereal upon waking, way after dawn, again confused about the boundaries of time.  It never occurred to me that I could ask someone or search the internet.   I later made up for those deficiencies but in spite of those flaws, I soared on an incredible high for the entire month.  After the puzzling previous years of searching and praying, I was elated to finally be on a path that resonated with me intellectually, socially, and spiritually.  Ramadan was a new beginning for me.

My second Ramadan was more communal.  I befriended a sister, an Afro-Caribbean convert like myself, and we regularly attended the mosque and night prayer vigils together.  We were college students then and ended our day’s fast with iftar dinners at the local mosque.  After starting with the traditional dates and water, we made room for all of the various cultural cuisines at our collective feast.  I vividly remember my first tastes of Nigerian black-eyed pea fritters, and Egyptian stewed fava beans that year.

Starting to Ripen

The speed of life picked up after my college days, blurring the details of the subsequent Ramadans but some trends stand out.  By the third year, I was married and had a fasting partner to wake up for the pre-fasting meal with me.  Beyond meal planning and food, we shared our goals for the blessed month and supported each other in attaining them.  From the sixth Ramadan onward, we had lived in Yemen and Algeria where we experienced an entire society yielding to the blessed month, not just household by household.  By the ninth Ramadan, Lil’ Z was born in Oman and we had to add parenting to the already challenging experience of fasting, introspection, and spiritual striving.  We also tasked ourselves with translating Ramadan into a tangible and memorable experience, adding the festivity and fun that any family tradition should embody.

Each year has its unique demands but Ramadan is a constant in the cycles of our lives.  A rite that seemed so foreign 11 years ago has become a welcomed annual guest in our home.  Even Lil’ Z is counting down the months.  Before its arrival we prepare and plan by slowly starting to clear the clutter in our lives, homes, and schedules.  Then we set goals to worship more, serve more, and be generous.  We aim to be acutely aware and intentional about the use of our time and energy to avoid squandering these precious resources vainly.  In a successful Ramadan we are able to tune out, so we can tune in.  This year, as with every year, we pray that our hearts are awake enough to listen.

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