Our First Family Camping Trip

EMEG Camp

It took three tries, but we finally made our winter visit to the UAE. Because of transportation issues, the first two attempts flopped but by the third, we had a rental and were ready for the road. Just days prior to the trip, I asked my sisterfriend living in Abu Dhabi about visiting. She said that they had a private camping trip planned but invited us to join their crew. With our secondhand camping tents, chairs and beds on hand for such an occasion, we jumped at the opportunity and were off for our first family night outdoors.

The priority for our first day of winter break was to sleep in and drop off our car to be serviced which meant we didn’t leave Muscat until after noon. Slowly and steadily, we crept out of the city. Lil’ Z’s complaints of the long drive reminded me that we hadn’t had a family road trip in a while. Life in Turkey and Morocco didn’t include a personal vehicle, so we relied on planes, trains, and buses to get around. Now that we’re back in Oman, our zeal and confidence to explore the open road has resurfaced because we know that we’re in a safe place where we have consistently found warm welcomes, helping hands, and sincere hospitality.

EMEG Camp

Fueled by homemade hummus, cucumbers, and buckwheat crispbread, we hauled our way to the Khatma Malaha border north of Sohar and pulled in to a foggy Dubai night. Finding our camp site with such low visibility was a challenge but worth it. The Emirates Marine Environmental Group is a private camp and nature reserve in Jebel Ali, Dubai. At night, I couldn’t really appreciate our location, I was just relieved to find our group, a blazing campfire to keep us warm, and vegan pasta and veggie burgers awaiting us. While our companions had planned a barbeque for themselves, they were considerate enough to set aside a grill for our veggie-que. We ate and chatted, prayed and reflected, and then hurried to bed.

Camping in Dubai

The night was restless for me but, thankfully, the children slept fine. No nighttime bathroom trips or crying fits from our tents. Once the sun evaporated the night’s haze, the beauty of our surroundings was unveiled. Shallow lakes, rolling contours, and a pristine stretch of coastline were ours to enjoy leisurely. For our first camping trip, the site was well-suited considering the bathroom facilities with running water, the privacy of the location, and the preparedness of our companions who had everything from kayaks to ketchup to make our stay comfortable.

EMEG Camp

Watching Lil’ Z have her first lesson in kayaking reminded Urbndervish and I of the conversations we had almost seven years ago.  We were living in Algeria and recently discovered that we were expecting Lil’ Z. We strolled around Algiers walking and talking about our hopes and ambitions for our family. We vividly mentioned wanting our children to have more exposure and comfort in nature than we had growing up as city kids. Even though we have a learning curve ourselves, it was a blessing to witness this aspiration of ours manifest. We’ll be on the lookout for other group camping trips until we’re outfitted and ready to brave such a feat on our own.

UAE to Oman

Turkey Adventures: Day Trip to Eskişehir

Turkey's Happiest City

Now that spring has sprung, we’re getting out and exploring again. For a quick and easy day trip from Ankara, Eskişehir had all the right ingredients: accessible by train, pedestrian-friendly, learning opportunities for children, and vegan food. We all but flew to this colorful university town and were eager to explore.

Cafe de Kedi in Eskişehir

We traveled with another family from Ankara by high-speed train for the short, one and a half hour journey. Our first stop was Café de Kedi, a vegan and vegetarian spot not too far from the train station. True to its name, it seemed more inviting to cats than people, but their vegan Turkish breakfast begged our patronage. Instead of the typical offerings of cheese, eggs, and meat, alongside fresh bread, jams, tahini, olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers; our feast included lentil salad, tofu cheese, sautéed potatoes, oat cereal with soy milk, lentil soup, tahini stuffed pastries, pickled green tomatoes, cut apples, and a variety of sauces and jams. The combination of our smorgasbord seemed dissonant but was beautiful in its confusing variety. To have so many options for breakfast instead of just bread, olives, and jam was a great treat for us and at only about 4 USD a serving, we couldn’t miss it.

Sazova Park in Eskişehir

After walking along the broad walkways and painted bridges, we took a taxi to Sazova Park to visit the Science Arts and Cultural Park. Bilim Deney Merkezi is a modest museum that is engaging and fun for everyone from toddlers to grandparents. Hydraulics, mechanics, acoustics, and physics were all presented as interesting and fascinating activities. Lil’ Z and I attended a science show displayed on the dome-shaped ceiling of their science center. We didn’t understand the dubbed over Turkish narration but enjoyed watching scenes take us from the ocean floor bottom to outer space.

Unique rock in Eskişehir

With much left to be explored, we decided to move on to Odunpazarı, the Old City, where glass and craft artisans showcase and sell their wares. We noticed a lot of white clay products and later learned that it’s called meerschaum and is unique to this particular region of Turkey.

Veg Food in Eskişehir

For our next meal, we stopped at Café Rasta. We were hopeful that the eatery would have vegan and gluten-free options for our entourage already on the menu but instead, they prepared a custom-made meal for us. It was tasty but surprising that the red, green, and gold branded café didn’t serve more Rasta-friendly fare.

Custom-made vegan food at Cafe Rasta in Eskişehir

As the day drew to a close, we tried to slip over to the Çağdaş Cam Sanatları Müzesi to see glass-blowing in progress but it was after 4pm and the demonstrations were done for the day. Instead, we retreated for some tea and fries while waiting for our returning train to Ankara. After more than an hour delay, we finally got on board and all agreed that the day was enjoyably well-spent. Both of our families traveled well together and we hope to plan another short trip soon.

Odunpazarı Manhole

Turkey Adventures: Weekend in Kastamonu

Kastamonu

One of the advantages of living in a country versus visiting it for a holiday is that you can slowly explore and absorb the land that you’re in. You don’t have to plan to see everything all at once and can gradually discover the culture, language, and sights without haste. As visitors, we would’ve overlooked a long bus ride trip to see not-as-popular parts of Turkey, but as residents, we took advantage of a group tour organized by Urbndervish’s employer and discovered a pleasant province in the Black Sea region.

Kastamonu

Day 1

Slipping into the rear of the charter bus just a minute before departure time, we readied ourselves for the journey ahead. What was advertised as a three-hour trip was actually a five-hour trek. Thankfully, the bus was not packed, so we spread ourselves out and took comfort in knowing that we had enough snacks, activities, books, and diapers to reach our destination.

Soup

Venturing north of Ankara, we watched urban landscapes disappear and reappear and saw brown plains turn into densely green forests and mountains. Our first stop was the Münire Sultan Sofrası, a classy restaurant serving local dishes. Instead of the typical lentil soup easily found elsewhere, we ordered their tomato-based, brown lentil soup with vermicelli. Complimented by spinach- and potato-stuffed breads, we left satisfied and hopeful about our food prospects for the weekend.

Rug Weaving

In the streets surrounding the restaurant, we saw historical mosques, traditional guesthouses, and artisans of various handcrafts. Walking through town, we passed through a drumming procession to invite guests to an upcoming wedding, beautiful tree-lined streets, and a rug weaver’s workshop.

View from Clock Tower

We stopped at the Liva Paşa Konağı Etnografya Müzesi, where photographs, artifacts, and mannequins transported us to the region’s past. Thereafter, made our way up two sets of tall staircases to reach Kastamonu’s iconic clock tower.

Mahmut Bey Camii

Our last stop for the day was the Mahmut Bey Camii, a simple mosque made using an overlapping construction technique that requires no nails. Built more than 600 years ago, it was humbling to pray in a space that has witnessed centuries of worship in the humble village of Kasaba.

Iskir Resort Town

By sunset, we arrived at Iskir Resort Town in Daday and checked into our rooms. In spite of a cot for Lil’ Z and a playpen provided for Moulay, the room still felt comfortably spacious and peacefully serene. We swiftly slipped into the dining room for an amazing dinner spread that included an appetizing array of desserts, veggies, homemade bread, and fresh fruit, and then returned quickly to our room to settle the little ones down to rest.

Day 2

Parting Gift

With an unfortunately early departure, we didn’t have a chance to enjoy the resort grounds. We had to quickly grab a breakfast of freshly baked breads, fruit-based marmalades and molasses, sesame seed paste, and a small bowl of cereal paired with the non-dairy milk I carried along. As soon as Lil’ Z and I finished our last bite, we dashed to the bathroom and were the last to board the bus again. One of the resort managers came aboard to distribute complimentary bottles of red wine to all of the passengers. We politely declined, so the manager rushed off and returned with homemade rosehip marmalade and local garlic for our parting gift instead.

Farm

We appreciated their kind gesture, especially since Kastamonu is known for its garlic. Regretfully, we didn’t have more time to enjoy more of the resort’s kind yet professional hospitality, their varied and enticing meal spreads and some of the recreational offerings like horseback riding and mountain biking.

Horma Canyon

We were warned that the day’s itinerary would be intense, so we strapped on our sneakers and braced ourselves for a strenuous day. In the Pınarbaşı municipality, there are three main attractions and they were all on our agenda for the day. We met our local guide at a mosque in town and headed to the Horma Kanyonu where we walked over suspension bridges and anchored paths to penetrate the beautiful canyon.

Simple meal

We stopped for lunch at a small family run restaurant where they generally serve a fixed meal of fruit, salad, meat and rice. For us, they ordered a potato-stuffed bread instead.

Ilica Waterfall

For our last stop, we walked through another forest to reach Ilıca Şelalesi. After sleeping through the last two hikes, Moulay decided to sit this one out with Urbndervish. So, Lil’ Z and I had a lovely long walk and talk through the woods. When we finally reached the waterfall, Lil’ Z wasn’t content to view it from a distance. She saw the rest of our “team” climbing down over rocks to sit by the pond, and I didn’t want to dim her bravery. We persisted over the slippery rocks and leaves to sit on a large boulder and savor the beauty around us.

Moulay's Ride

Our weekend adventure was an opportunity to step beyond our usual urban boundaries. While we want nature appreciation to be a part of our family culture, actually immersing ourselves in the natural world is not always easy. We need a bit of hand-holding and guidance and this trip did both without totally sanitizing the experience for us. Even though our last nature walk resulted in checking for ticks and Lil’ Z bawling “I don’t like nature!”, this time around she had to admit, “Nature is kinda cool sometimes”.

My bravebird

Our First Eid in Turkey

Ali Pasha CamiiAfter a few weeks of settling into our new home, our first Eid holiday weekend was upon us. We weren’t sure what to do or where to go but we wanted to take advantage of the four-day weekend, and that we did.

Empty Prayer Hall

The first day of Eid started quietly until Lil’ Z started writhing in her sleep. She woke enough to tell us she felt sick, and I knew that she needed to vomit. Her dad got her to the commode in time, and afterwards she felt much better. By the time we all got dressed and left the house it was about 6:50am. A taxi up the road saw us and swiftly transported us to the nearest mosque just in time for the 7:00am prayer. Everyone filed in casually without special attire or fanfare. The men’s prayer hall was full but not packed tightly and the women’s prayer hall was wide and spacious. From what I’m told, many Turkish women don’t attend the Eid prayers, so our children had plenty of room to stretch and wiggle without encroaching on anyone else’s space. After a lesson delivered in Turkish, followed by a reminder of how the bi-annual Eid prayer is performed and a sermon delivered in Arabic, we commenced the congregational prayer. We concluded with a collective supplication in Turkish and dispersed as peacefully as we entered.

Brunch

Returning home by bus, we were eager to prepare our special Eid brunch. We went on a special expedition to scout out tofu and thoroughly enjoyed it as a veggie scramble paired with chocolate pancakes. With only an hour to spare, we cleaned up the kitchen and packed our bags for Konya. Lil’ Z didn’t eat much before leaving, but I gave her a homeopathic remedy to calm her tummy. She slept on the bus ride and gave one healthy hurl on the subway floor before she was totally better and ready for the adventure ahead.

High-Speed Train

Traveling by high-speed train, the usually three-hour journey by road was shaved down to an hour and forty minutes. The check-in process was much like boarding a plane, complete with train stewardesses, in-train magazines, and on-screen entertainment. Upon disembarking, we took a taxi to our hotel and began exploring.

Sulemiye Camii

Being the day of Eid, most restaurants in Konya were closed and the few that were open didn’t have more than salad to offer vegetarians.  Near one restaurant, we saw a group of folks wearing thread-worn genie pants, gypsy skirts, and open sandals.  Some were speaking English, so we approached them about finding vegetarian food.  The prognosis looked dim, but they took us to a place around the corner where we could find other vegetarians and inquire.  Stepping into the dimly lit basement hall, we removed our shoes, passed a room full of backpacks, and found ourselves in the middle of a group dance lesson.  Giddy and noticeably hairy, the men and women whirled and spun ecstatically.  Fuzzy beards and matted locs swirled around us while we figured out that these young people were in town for a Mystic Music Festival taking place that week.  They offered to share some of their communal meal with us but it was not yet ready and we felt sorely out of place.  The loud sounds stirred Moulay from his sleep, so we took our cue to leave and try our chances elsewhere.

Roasted Vegetables and Rice, Salad, and Freshly Baked Bread

Our best attempt at a vegan meal was found at Mevlana Sofrasi.  The family-owned establishment welcomed our family, especially our children, with open arms and free treats and desserts. The meal itself was a modified traditional meal and was scarce in protein, though tasty. Overlooking the Mevlana Museum and surrounding garden, we had a spectacular view of the heart of the city.  We returned to our hotel to catch up on some rest before unfolding into the next day.Mevlana Museum

On our second day, we had breakfast at our hotel and headed straight for the Mevlana Museum where we saw artifacts from the early Ottoman period and relics from the famed mystic poet, Jalal ad-din Rumi, and the community that surrounded him. Making our way through the crowds we found ourselves with nothing left to do but drink fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Konya Tropical Butterfly Garden

The Konya Science Center was closed for the holiday, so we took a chance and headed to the Konya Tropical Butterfly Garden at the outskirts of the city. Totally deficient in any real amount of Turkish language skills, we braved two dolmuş minibus rides and a taxi to find Konya’s newest attraction similarly closed. Thankfully, the well-designed play areas were open, so the trip was still worthwhile. Thereafter, we made our way to a shopping plaza for dinner and took a bus and tram back to our hotel.

Play Area

For our third day of Eid, we took an early morning train back to Ankara. We wanted to stay in Konya longer, but the returning trains were scarce due to the holiday weekend. Instead of returning on Sunday, we returned on Saturday to meet with new friends of old friends. We were kindly invited to Gölbaşı where our new acquaintances have a lovely summer home nestled amongst a variety of resident fruit trees. With the perfect appetizer of freshly-picked, tree-ripened fruits, we had a lovely meal of bulgur pilau, roasted eggplant, and salad, alongside an assortment of baked goods and freshly brewed Turkish tea. We picked apples and grapes until the sun set, prayed our evening prayers, and returned home wholly satisfied by our first Eid in Turkey.

Welcome

Arriving in Ankara

Ankara

We had one singular reason for flying Azerbaijan Airlines. It wasn’t an interest in transiting through the capital city, Baku, or experiencing Azeri hospitality. AZAL had the cheapest flights to Ankara and we bought the tickets the very day we saw other airfares jump by almost $200 per ticket. Requesting vegan meals and a baby bassinet for our flight tediously involved several days of attempted phone calls to a U.S. phone number routed to Azerbaijan with repetitive caller menus, multiple extension transfers, and at least half of the calls ending in the silence of a dead line. When faced with unavoidable visa delays, it took several calls to change our flights, but our new tickets would only be issued after paying the relevant fees in cash at the airport prior to our flight. Clouds of regret started to loom when Urbndervish told me the ticket agent offered him a handwritten receipt on notebook paper, then left to board the day’s flight. Much like our last experience with a small national carrier, I pondered if the saved money was worth the hassle.

Traveler

Surprisingly, our check-in process was smooth. All six of our bags, containing four seasons’ worth of clothing for four people, remained under the dreaded 50-pound weight limit. All of our possessions for the next year of life– books, learning supplies, vitamins and supplements, clothing, coats, shoes, a few towels and a cast-iron skillet—were surrendered in about fifteen minutes. With our backpacks and laptops in tow, we proceeded to our gate. The call to board was made, so I quickly made my way to the restroom just before hearing my name over the announcement system. I was summoned for an important matter—another random U.S. customs and border security interview to verify that we weren’t carrying large amounts of cash out of the country and inquire about our interest in Turkey. The questions never change and neither do the answers, so I was cleared to board and so our journey began.

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Though Azerbaijan Airlines scored low for customer service in our book, our flight experience was redemptive. Flight attendants greeted us warmly in an inviting lounge area situated between the business and first class sections of the plane. We received the usual complimentary flight accessories—headsets, night masks, toothpaste, and toothbrushes—as well as pillows and blankets. Just before our refreshments were served, we were handed heated disposable washcloths, a bassinet for Moulay was installed and our vegan meals were delivered as requested. Lil’ Z enjoyed the inflight games and magazines about the competitive European Games held in Baku earlier this year.

Baku Airport

Our transit through Azerbaijan was efficient and brief. The small yet modern international airport was spotlessly clean, serene, and well-equipped with WiFi. We sent emails to our family and before we knew it, were embarking on the last leg of our trip. Lil’ Z finally rested after more than 13 hours of travel and we arrived in Ankara without incident or delay. For our very first experience in Turkey, we were quite impressed. Urbndervish’s employer welcomed us warmly, loaded our luggage, and swiftly delivered us to our new apartment. For now, in sha’ Allah, we will call Ankara home.

Our View

As we often tell people, we didn’t choose Turkey, Turkey chose us and we were glad to oblige. Much like our last post in Morocco, sometimes there’s only one train moving and it’s yours. However, unlike Morocco, we are prepared to stay for the next two years. We needed a nest to settle ourselves for a while, an opportunity for professional development, a new landscape to explore and this is where we found it. Our suitcases are unpacked and out of view, our shelves and closets are filled, and we are relieved and grateful to have our own space again. Slowly, we are meeting our neighbors, discovering the city, and finding our groove. All that’s left for us to do now is find some wholesome, good company for Lil’ Z and ourselves to make our hearts feel at home here too.

 

Rediscovering Queens

Beautiful Farm Day

I’m a Queens girl who loves Brooklyn.  On every visit to New York, I find myself sneaking to the PRB (People’s Republic of Brooklyn) for a taste of the vibrant culture, free activities, and delicious food.  But crossing boroughs with a baby gets taxing, so we’ve redirected our attention to Queens and have been pleasantly surprised.

Queens County Museum Farm

This lovely oasis was a convenient answer to Lil’ Z’s questions about how things grow.  Visiting an active, functional farm with animals, a farmer’s market, and a community compost program was a relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon.

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Queens Botanical Garden

This garden is patch of peace in the bustling Flushing neighborhood.  The rose and fragrance gardens were our favorite.  Take note of the free admission days and hours.

Jamaica Breeze

A new spot for veg-friendly dining has popped up in Queens.  They’re offering a refreshingly new concept for Jamaican dining in New York– a self-serve hot bar where you pay by weight.  The word buffet is a bit misleading, so be forewarned.  They consistently have one tofu dish and an ital bean stew on the hot bar.  Their rice and vegetable dishes aren’t cooked with meat, so fill up and enjoy!

 

Nurturing Friendships

Road Trip BuddiesEvery summer, our visits to the United States fly by so quickly. Whether we’ve stayed three weeks or three months, time never seems adequate enough to visit all of our relatives, let alone our friends. This year, however, we received invitations so warm and sincere that they were hard to decline. With pregnancy behind us and Moulay reaching six weeks of age, we didn’t see any harm in taking a few short trips with him. We felt guilty, as if we were stealing time from our family, but they understood that we have special friendships that mean a lot to us, so away we went.

From New York, we headed to Pennsylvania where we met with one of our very first friends in Oman and two families that are very dear to us. Our children played while we snacked and chatted in the park. After a while, we prepared for an epic event—the ultimate Muslim vegan barbeque—with the only other Muslim vegan family we know. It was an amazing meal that included grilled seitan skewers, veggie burgers, barbecued drumsticks, vegan macaroni and cheese, collard greens, potato salad, and kale chips. And if the spread wasn’t satisfying enough, we had German chocolate cupcakes and raw blueberry cheesecake for dessert.

Epic Muslim Vegan BBQ

Our interrupted conversations were unceasing until we put the children to bed. Thereafter, we reconvened in blissful silence for prayer and hot tea. To be able to chat about faith, parenting, popular culture, veganism, and marriage all in the same day felt thoroughly satisfying. I’m sure I slept with a smile on my face that night. The next morning, our hosts were anxious to share their trademark Sunday breakfast with us and we were glad to receive it: homemade sausage biscuits, stewed apples, veggie potato scramble, and more kale chips. They gave us great ideas for developing some of our own family food traditions.

Sunday Breakfast Spread

Lil’ Z loved their cozy home, often commenting on how beautiful it was. Between the amazing food, rich assortment of books, and brightly colored walls, she was smitten. The spacious yard included a sandbox, garden, and plenty of space to freely play with her new friends. Before leaving, she asked if we could live in their home and has been praying for a home of our own ever since. We have yet to find a home base for ourselves but delight in the idea of having a constant space to extend and return the gift of hospitality, as well as a canvas to demonstrate our aesthetic, values, and way of life.

Sandbox Play

From Tampa, we flew to Georgia where we united with friends that we hadn’t seen in about seven years. Our hosts were always close friends of ours and we were eager to not only see each other, but introduce our children to each other. Their children embraced Lil’ Z, just as their parents embraced us. Our friends welcomed us into their home and we stayed up late talking as if no time had passed. We cooked together and hosted a fast-breaking meal in Ramadan with others, including the family of the imam who married us. Sitting with the blessed guests that evening, I felt stifled not knowing where to begin with the dozens of conversations I wanted to have. And all being parents, our words and thoughts were punctuated by the cries, complaints, and needs of our children. The time, albeit short, was just what we needed to rekindle our connection and recommit ourselves to staying in better touch.

Georgia Friends

After a delicious meal and filling conversation, the imam stood to lead us in prayer. He reminded us to ready ourselves and concluded with four words that moved me deeply: “May Allah love you”. Tears filled my eyes remembering the very sweet fellowship of the beloved teachers and friends we reunited with. With them, I was reminded that the singular pursuit of Islam is attaining the love of God and the best friends are those who aid you in that pursuit. To share that common aim with people you love makes for a deep and meaningful friendship. Aside from our genuine connection to each other, we can plug into the same Source and bow down to the same Lord. We may come from varied backgrounds, cultures, and experiences but we share an ethereal bond that makes us like family.

Though scattered in different places, virtual companionship has kept us in contact with our beloved friends but seeking out their physical presence helped to recharge our friendships. As Lil’ Z gets older, we’ll have to help her navigate how to select and sustain her own friendships. Until then, we’ll continue to convey the value of good companionship and the imperative to pursue it, regardless of the effort and energy it entails.

Nature Walk

 

Five Priceless Possessions for Traveling like a Local

 

Last month, my family and I took a long-awaited and highly-anticipated journey to Ethiopia, visiting Addis Ababa, Harar, and Negash.  While we were riding high on the hype of an enriching historical journey, we had to come to terms with the poverty we would face in a developing country.  The tourism industry is booming in Ethiopia and there is a conscientious effort to move beyond the image of a starving, famine-stricken country, towards a prosperous and worldly society.  As with progress in most developing countries, change comes with a cost and you more than likely will feel it in your own pocket.  In spite of the rising cost of living and travel, these are five invaluable allies that helped us move through the country  “with the people”.

 
1. Useful Information
While knowing the population of a city or historical facts are useful, save some time for researching what’s going to count in your day-to-day travels.  Admission fees, taxi fares, and tipping customs can be extremely variable in some parts of the world.  If you’re not careful, you can be paying double, triple, or quadruple of what’s appropriate.  Be prepared to talk down prices that are negotiable and refer to the great bartering tips shared by others.  If you can talk numbers in the local language, peppered with the lingo and mannerisms of seasoned locals, then you have yet another advantage in securing a reasonable price for whatever you’re pursuing.
2. Loose Change
Keeping small bills in your wallet is useful for making donations to charities or individuals, as well as hand-to-hand business transactions in your travels.  We lost a few bucks here and there after giving a large currency note to pay a tour guide or a guesthouse and not receiving any change.  Save the big bills for large establishments and fixed fare transportation, where you’re more likely to have your change returned. Keep the small bills handy for everything else.
Depending on how much cash you feel comfortable carrying, try to avoid using your debit or credit card internationally.  More than likely you’ll be paying transaction fees on both ends, so travel with large currency bills (dollars, euros, etc.) and exchange them after exiting the airport.  Airports are notorious for pitiful exchange rates, so consider using a bank or other exchange services.
Side Note:  Don’t forget to inform your home bank about your travels so they don’t assume your account is being used fraudulently!
3. Local Connections
Use your common interests to connect with others.  Tap into clubs, groups, and societies, where you can make authentic connections on topics other than tourism and make plans to connect while you’re in town.  When researching vegan travel tips, we came across the Ethiopian Vegan Association and connected with Ethiopians who had a common interest and were keen to answer our inquiries and give us travel advice, without a fee.  One member became more than just our unofficial guide in Addis Ababa but has become a true friend.  He weaved us through the capital on a shoestring budget, with the added benefit of seeing how others live, work, and move through the bustling city.  We also found great places for delicious local food that were way off the beaten path and even further from the pages of a guidebook.
 

4. Good Health

After touring a good bit of Addis Ababa carrying my toddler daughter in a sling, I was grateful for being in good shape.  Long walks and cramped minibuses were bearable and we spent about a tenth of what it would cost to ride taxis all through town.  Similarly, we took an entertaining long distance bus which was also about a tenth of the domestic flight cost.  Being able to carry your own bags, walk comfortably, and withstand a long bus or train ride can save you the expense of private transport, tipping bellboys, and door-to-door service for your entire journey.  A habit of daily walking and exercise is not only great preparation for travel but great for healthy living in general.

5. Good Attitude
Last-minute delays, cancellations, and changes to your itinerary can be frustrating.  If you can breathe through the irritation, you’ll more than likely find a helpful hand, a kind word, or a brilliant back-up plan to keep your itinerary moving smoothly, in spite of the detour.  The angry, belligerent tourist may not be able to move beyond their disappointment, making rash decisions that spoil a good trip for everyone.  However, the patient, flexible tourist can “go with the flow”, embrace their circumstances, and ride the waves of whatever travel brings their way.  Instead of being fixated on what you “missed” and trying to buy it back at all costs, you may find a Plan B that is equally (if not, more) satisfying at a lower cost.  We had our hearts set on visiting a town that sounded great online but, to Ethiopians, was not as spectacular as we thought.  We saved some time and money by changing our plans and it was the best decision we could’ve made.  Be open to the possibilities and travel safely!
 
This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

Our Mystery Flight to Mauritania

Local Laundry Service

For the first time in nearly five years, I live on the same continent as one of my relatives.  Not just any relative but my older brother who has been living abroad since 2001.  Our time together is usually scarce, so to live in a neighboring country and not visit him was not an option.  We booked the cheapest flight we could find online on an airline that we couldn’t even pronounce.  Initially, we were just relieved to score a good flight deal, but then we inquired about the airline.

We researched the mystery airline listed on our itinerary as Tbilaviamsheni and found that it was a Georgian airline consisting of a single plane in its fleet.  When I asked on a popular travel group, members assured me that it is the Brazilian-based TAM Airways but this was not so.  Then I called the online booking company for clarity as our departure drew near.  CheapOAir.com similarly couldn’t find any contact information for our airline –no phone number, no website, no office address– and could only suggest that we show up early to the airport.  After hearing horror stories of passengers stranded at the airport awaiting departures from Casablanca, we started to get nervous.  I found a flight schedule online listed under Mauritanian Airlines and wondered if our flight carrier was changed.  The confusion was dizzying.

On the morning of our afternoon flight, I checked the Mohammed V Airport’s website for a list of their scheduled departures and saw not a single flight to Mauritania.  With a confirmation number and ticket numbers, we proceeded to the airport in hopes that we wouldn’t return home defeated.  I combed the flight listings on the first screen I saw in the airport and scurried to an information desk in a panic, asking about the absent flight to Nouakchott but she pointed out that I was looking at a list of arrivals and directed me to the departures screen.  I anxiously found the screen and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw our flight listed on time via Mauritania Airlines.  Then, the sight of full-figured, melafa-clad women draped in colorful pieces of fabric, followed by slender men wearing the dera’a, a traditional Mauritanian overgarment, gave me tremendous comfort.  I knew we were on our way.

Our flight was delayed by about an hour, but we didn’t mind.  We were en route and that was a relief.  We were pleasantly surprised when we saw uniformed flight attendants proceed us in boarding the Mauritania Airlines aircraft.  Once we boarded, there were in-flight magazines available and meals served.  Unfortunately, they had not a single vegetarian meal on board and tried to offer us chicken sandwiches.  Instead, a platter of bread, breadsticks, and crackers were our only recourse.  With only a short two and a half hour flight ahead of us, we hoped that our family would have food waiting for us and they did.  Along with the bright smiling, welcoming faces of my nieces and nephews, we had found our resting place for the week and savored every moment of our stay.

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Marrakech Adventure

 

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For our first trip to the Marrakech, also known as the Red City, we came up with an itinerary that included visiting ethical organizations, organic farms, and vegan eateries.  There were museums we missed out on and palaces we bypassed, but for our intents and purposes, our trip was complete.  Starting with a three and a half hour train ride down from Casablanca, we stopped for Lebanese food for dinner and checked into Riad Janat Salam.  After a night’s rest, we were ready to get started on our journey.

Day 1

After a very typical Moroccan breakfast of bread, orange juice, tea, and more bread, we caught a taxi to Amal Association for our cooking class.  We spent a lovely morning cooking and a tasty afternoon eating, then took a long stroll to the Majorelle Gardens and the on-site Berber Museum.

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The aesthetic landscaping and architectural hues were warm and welcoming.  Seeing the Amazigh artifacts and textiles was an interesting glimpse into the cultural past of Morocco’s indigenous people.  We walked the grounds several times and finally decided to exit.  Still quite full from our lunch at Amal, we went to the nearby Kaowa café for smoothies and browsed their adjacent gallery boutique for creative souvenirs.

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Day 2

On this exciting morning, we hired a driver and 4×4 for a tour of Ourika Valley just outside of Marrakech.  Our first stop was the Le Paradis du Safran, home and business to a Swiss expatriate.  Impressively, in only a few years, her and her team transformed a largely barren plot of land into a productive saffron farm with a variety of flowering herbs and tropical fruits.  Her little paradise is now an informative tourist attraction that teaches you everything you need to know about growing, identifying, and using high-quality saffron.

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Following our saffron information session, we were taken for a tour of the farm and given small envelopes to store collected herb clippings.  Then, we had a barefoot walking tour along different textured surfaces like smooth pebbles, date palm husks, and fine sand.  The walk concludes with a foot wash in vessels of water filled with different herbs, a salt rub, and then a hot water rinse.

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Leaving the saffron farm, our next stop was a Berber village in Seti Fatma where we toured a traditional home and flour mill.  Housed in the compound was a cooperative marketplace where more than 30 families sell their handicrafts and wares directly to visitors.  While there, we met a family of New Yorkers who were enjoying the first trip to Morocco, and we all laughed at the irony of crossing paths so far from home.

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Our next stop was a women’s argan oil cooperative.  After learning about how the Berber beauty secret is traditionally harvested, we were offered samples of argan oil and its products.  My favorite of them was amlou, a paste made of roasted almonds, argan oil, and honey.  We also tried a wide array of skin care products made from argan oil too.

Our next and final stop on the tour was Marrakesh Organics, an organic olive farm.  In spite of hosting a Permaculture Design Course, the owner graciously accepted our visit and had a delicious vegan lunch prepared for us while telling us about his farm.  This family farm had laid barren for some time and the current owner returned after study and travel abroad to revive his family’s farm and start an organic produce business.  He shared his ambitious vision with us and invited us back in the future.  After praying and thanking our hosts for their hospitality, we made a swift exit for our return to Marrakech.

Naturally grown goodness

Back in Marrakech, we needed to stop for dinner and settled on the infamous Earth Café—the only dedicated vegan and vegetarian eatery we know of.  Some eateries in major cities are very veg-friendly but this is the only meat-free restaurant we’ve found and we had to give our support.  Connected to an organic farm outside of the city, Earth Café’s simple menu has just a few options that heavily feature their veggie harvest.  Urbndervish and I opted for the veggie burger which had more vegetables than plant protein as a base.  Lil’ Z ordered the lentils and rice but again, the lentils were dwarfed by the rice and vegetables on her colorful plate.  My cousin opted for a goat cheese and pumpkin wrap and a beet drink.  The presentation and overall vibe of the place compensated for what the meal lacked.

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We sat for a while and eventually rose to weave our way through the cacophony of snake charmers, hustlers, and street vendors in Djema al Fna square. We decided to turn in for the night and prepare for our last morning in Marrakech.

Day 3

Before returning to Casablanca, we had two last agenda items:  shopping and henna.  Shopping was quick and easy without haggling and bargaining in the quiet morning hours.  For henna, we came across the Henna Art Café and I was thoroughly confused.  I had read about the Henna Café, a non-profit that funnels their revenue into development projects like free language and business classes for Moroccan women and youth.  So, when I saw Henna Art Café, I thought they must be the same.  A glance at their nearly parallel menu confirmed my suspicion but still I was wrong.  We didn’t have time to find the Henna Café, so we stayed to have henna done and concluded that this newer business was not the original we had intended to support.  Nonetheless, my cousin and Lil’ Z were beautifully adorned with henna and it was time to grab our bags and continue to the train station.  For lunch, we visited the Lebanese restaurant once more and caught our train back to Casablanca.

With special thanks to Discover Hidden Morocco Tours

for helping us plan our Ourika Valley trip!