Four Essential Road Trip Rules

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Four families speaking four different languages set out on a four-hour journey from Nizwa to Sur.  With eight adults and six children, the overnight trip was a bit ambitious but we survived.  We had our hiccups and laughs but promised not to consider this venture again without the following rules in place.

  1. Assign a leader

Every group needs a leader, much like every car needs a driver.  The leader doesn’t need to be a tyrant, directing the group according to his or her whims.  Nor does the group leader need to be the most knowledgeable or organized.  A good leader delegates tasks, listens to the input of others, and puts a final word to the simplest decisions like when or where to meet for lunch.  It may sound unnecessary but it saves a lot of time in the long run.

  1. Schedule breaks

A two-hour stretch of driving is tough on those under five.  Thankfully, we planned a stop at the half-way mark going and coming.  At those stops, we were able to stop for snacks and let the children work out the wiggles before pressing onward.

  1. Book a three star hotel

With all of our varied personalities and cultures, it was hard to know what people expected from our modest road trip.  Booking a solid middle of the way hotel was a good choice for the bargain hunters and the luxury travelers.  Soft, comfy beds, attentive service, and a decent breakfast are the most essential features for a single night’s stay.  A longer stay might also need a great location and recreational facilities.

  1. Be flexible

Give room for families to do their own thing.  Laze away at the beach, find their own restaurant for dinner, and adapt to the needs of their own little group within the larger group.  Safe travels!

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An Eid Staycation: Part II

beach fun

Day 3

To wrap up our Muscat adventure, we spent a relaxing and quiet morning at Athaiba Beach.  Tucked away behind a quiet neighborhood of palatial villas, we found the public beach vacant at 8:30am.  We secured a shaded plot of sand on the beach and let the children go wild—playing in the sand, jumping in the waves, and collecting colorful seashells.  After about two hours, only a few others joined us at the beach, but we were ready to move on with the day.

Returning to our respective hotels, we cleaned up and checked out en route to our favorite Muscat eatery, Coconut House.  The food, as expected, was a hit with our friends.  They were just as enchanted with Zanzibari cuisine as we were on our first taste, so naturally, talk of traveling to Zanzibar ensued.  If our friends were game, we could easily see ourselves traveling anywhere with them, since our travel styles and interests seem to be so in sync.

Backtracking the road to Nizwa by day was much more scenic than our rainy night departure.  Our guests marveled at the sight of mountains, valleys, and date palm plantations along the winding road.  Hearing their impressions of Oman renewed our own realization of how blessed and fortunate we are to be in a place as beautiful and safe as Oman with the time and means to enjoy it.  Especially after our last visit to the United States, the glaring conflict of quality of life versus cost of living in America becomes more and more apparent.

Day 4

Eid Walk

“Let us rejoice indeed, for this is the day of Eid”

The morning of Eid is always very special to us.  We rise as usual for the morning prayer but then dress in our best attire for the occasion.  We start the day with the remembrance of God, reciting Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) and burning frankincense throughout the home.  At the very last minute, we woke up the littlest and last celebrant of the household and she was instantly jolted into the excitement of Eid, wearing her fancy new dress and seeing her friends.  At about 6am, our guests arrived and we walked together through Firq village to reach the congregational prayer.  With an early start, we enjoyed the meandering promenade between the past and present–adobe forts beside modern homes, plots of farmland adjacent to paved roads, and pedestrians walking by foot alongside large SUVs.

As we drew closer to the open field for prayer, we heard “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar” reverberating through the village.  Sitting on woven palm mats, the sun rising over the mountains, and the fellowship of our neighbors have become signature features of our Eid holidays in Nizwa. This was the experience of Eid we so desperately wanted to share with our guests, which is why we asked them to consider staying at a new hotel apartment in town and cut their cozy stay in Muscat short.  The simplicity and serenity of Eid here is memorable.

Hearts

While all of our Omani neighbors are occupied with their family house-hopping, we usually return home alone to our little family of three.  Adding four more to our equation made our home feel festive, like a family holiday.  We made banana oat cakes, put on our outdoor clothes, and headed to Birkat al Mouz for a walk through the date plantations.  Some use the vast expanse of land for traditional slaughtering, but we probed further inland to enjoy the scenery and explore.  We saw a few dates lingering on the palm trees, heart-shaped leaves and discovered an old stone wall at the end of the walking path.  With noon upon us, we retired for a little nap with plans to reconvene after the late afternoon prayer.

wadi tanuf

Oman is famous for beautiful valley riverbeds known as wadis, so we picked the closest and easiest to reach wadi for our guests to visit.  Wadi Tanuf, about 30 minutes from the Nizwa town center, was our destination of choice.  A few minutes of gentle hiking takes you to a reservoir where water cascades over a dam.  With plenty of water in the wadi, the children were more interested in throwing rocks into the water than beholding the landscape.  After some time spent on the nearby playground, we reached home by sunset in time for our evening prayers and dinner.

Day 5

At around 8am, our guests joined us for a farewell breakfast at our home.  After our final exchange of Eid gifts, one of our guests shared that this was the best Eid they’ve had in a long time.  We contrasted Eid in Muslim-minority countries to that of Muslim-majority countries and concluded that even though we’re not sure where we’ll eventually settle and call home, we are completely convinced that we’re in the right place for right now.

birkat al mouz

An Eid Staycation: Part I

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

One of the many things to love about life in a Muslim country is the recognition and observance of sacred Islamic holidays.  Some get frustrated with the unpredictability of lunar sightings and last-minute holiday announcements but we take it in stride because 1. It’s all paid holiday time 2. This is not our homeland to criticize and 3. We have way more holiday time than we’ve ever had in our working lives.  As usual of Eid observance, Urbndervish had an entire week off from work, Alhamdulillah (praise be to God).  Some of our Omani friends embarked on their religious pilgrimage to Mecca while many of the expats jet-setted to places as far as England or as exotic as Ethiopia.  It was tempting to do some traveling ourselves, even though we just barely shook off our latest bout of jet lag. But this year we had the great honor of introducing Oman to some very dear friends of ours visiting from the UAE.  Even though we met in the US almost nine years ago, this was our first time hosting them and the most time we had ever spent with them.  We rekindled our friendships, renewed our bond as traveling families living abroad, and hopefully recruited another family to Oman.  Even if they don’t decide to move to the south side of the Gulf, we look forward to visiting their neck of the sand dunes very soon.

Day 1

Just as Lil’ Z drifted into her afternoon nap, our friends arrived in Nizwa with their sleepy boys.  With all of the children resting, we embraced and chatted about their journey from Abu Dhabi.  They were anxious about the border crossing but much like we discovered earlier this year, Mazyad is the border of choice from Al Ain to Oman.  A quickly prepared lunch of pumpkin lentil stew, fried plantains and dumplings was ready to be served just as the children were shaking off their sleep and getting reacquainted in the play space.  Lil’ Z had a staunch policy against playing with boys at our earlier meeting in Abu Dhabi, but she’s now learning  to give boys  a chance.  She shared her toys and activities freely and was eager to break bread with them.  After our hearty meal, the sun began to set, and we departed after our evening prayers.

A light rain chased us out of Nizwa en route to Muscat, but precipitation is always welcomed in the desert–especially for our guests who couldn’t recall the last time it rained in Abu Dhabi.  Working our way to Ruwi, our caravan parted to check-in at our respective hotels.  We opted to return to Ruwi Hotel because of their location, service, and buffet breakfast.  Surprisingly, Lil’ Z recognized the hotel room as familiar and instantly felt oriented and comfortable sleeping there.  After making sure that our guests reached their hotel safely, we tucked in for the night and prepared for the next day’s itinerary.

Day 2

After a colorful breakfast buffet of dhal, baked beans, paratha, fresh fruits, and juice, we made our way to Qurm to visit the Children’s Museum.  On the last working day before the start of the Eid holiday, the museum welcomed us with wide open spaces and few visitors.  Our children explored the exhibits freely without having to share or wait their turn.

Hot Air Balloon

In partnership with a sister museum in Ontario, the Children’s Museum offered opportunities for hands-on learning for youth of all ages.  There’s even a small play area for under-five’s who are not as concerned about models of the solar system, making their own cartoons, or testing their grip strength.  At some moments during our visit, it seemed that the adults were more engaged in the exhibitions than the children.  As we approached mid-day, we headed toward Ansab to pray in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque while the little ones ran freely on the mosque grounds and in the garden.

Stained Glass in Mosque

For lunch, we decided on the Great Kabab Factory, which we hadn’t returned to since our first visit two years ago.  Not because the food wasn’t delectable or the price wasn’t right but simply because we couldn’t recall where it was located.  In the early months of our move to Oman, Muscat was still a maze to us.  Lo and behold, the Great Kebab Factory was only a stone’s throw from my homeopath’s office in al-Khuwair.  Serving both a veg and non-veg menu, the restaurant is a seated buffet, meaning that your servers bring you every available dish and you can ask for additional helpings as much as you like.  Much like our first visit, Urbndervish and I were really impressed by the concept and wondered if the metered access to food results in less overeating and less waste.

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Our next stop was Mutrah Corniche and Souq—one of our very favorite spots to take visitors in Muscat.  Hugging the Sultan Qaboos Port, the corniche encompasses a great panoramic view stretching from the docked boats and ferries to the peak of Riyam Park.  In the late afternoon, the salty mist is refreshing on your face while the sun sinks behind the mosques and stores opposite the ocean.  For complete shade, you can enter the covered Mutrah Souq where all kinds of wares are sold to you in almost every language imaginable.

Mutrah Souq

It’s an absolute must to leave the souq either having purchased pure Omani frankincense or leaving with its scent smoked into your clothing.  As you penetrate to the center of the souq, there’s little ventilation and the heat starts to rise.  The children were sweaty and weary after patiently walking the aisles with us and resisting the urge to touch every sparkly and shiny trinket in sight.  We quickly finished our shopping to enjoy some refreshing fresh fruit juices outdoors en route to Riyam Park at the very end of the corniche, heading away from the port.  After some run and tumble time in the grass,  we retired for the evening and rested up for the next day’s journey.

To be continued…

Rediscovering Ramadan as Parents

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It seems that each year’s Ramadan brings a new set of challenges and opportunities to raise the bar, up the ante, and climb a little higher.  On one hand, we consciously made the choice to stay in Nizwa—in spite of the imprisoning heat—so we would have no major interruption in our rhythm.  For the last few years, we’ve spent Ramadan in various places, trying to make the most of our family time in the US but then making it back to our “home” to spend the last days of Ramadan in solitude and solace.  This year, we postponed our summer travel plans until later for personal and professional reasons, so we’ve enjoyed being cozy in our little nest this month.  Urbndervish’s work schedule is shortened from 8am to 2pm daily in observance of Ramadan, which has been great for our family time and energy conservation.  And, thankfully, overcast mornings and cloudy afternoons have given us welcomed breezes of mercy throughout the month.

On the other hand, we’re learning to share Ramadan with our daughter.  She has finally grasped the idea that the much-awaited Ramadan is not a person or thing but a special time with special habits.  Sometimes, she offers us food throughout the day, to which we reply “We’re fasting”.  Then she affirms “I’m fasting too” as she finishes her meal.  As the sun begins to set, Lil’ Z turns on the Ramadan lights, counts out three dates for everyone, and carries them to the dining area.   Sometimes, she turns down afternoon snacks, insisting that she’s waiting for the call to prayer, whereas other times, she can’t resist sinking her little teeth into the freshly dried dates.

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Making our calendar, decorating the house, and sharing our fast-breaking meal give us an opportunity to see Ramadan through our child’s eyes—making the festivity more palpable and palatable.  However, the rest of the day is mostly long and hot.  Lil’ Z sleeps less than in past years, so the opportunity to worship without her is rare, giving us the new challenge to worship with her and remember that our care and nurturing of her is worship itself.

While Lil’ Z is too young to comprehend Ramadan and its significance at a cerebral level, we still have fun singing about Ramadan, making Ramadan cards for our dinner guests, and making Ramadan garlands to hang on our front door.  Then all of our Ramadan creativity ran out, so we had to come up with other ideas—low energy ideas that we can do with her without exhausting our stamina or patience.

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We started an alphabet book which combines all of her current favorite things to do—cutting, using glue sticks, and talking about letters and phonetic sounds.

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Also, with the encouragement of one of my sister friend, we started finger painting.  There’s also a lot of reading, cooking, and playing that goes on too.  We didn’t get around to as much “traditional” cooking, as is characteristic of Ramadan in many other cultures, but we did make two Jamaican delights:  festival dumplings and plantain tarts.

We’ve been fortunate to have some quiet moments early before dawn and during Lil’ Z’s naps but things don’t always go according to schedule.  If she wants to pray night prayers with us, wake up for pre-fasting rounds of water, or take her nap on our laps while we read Qur’an, we’re learning to just roll with it.  As long as everyone’s needs are being met, why fight it?  Our sleep schedules have shifted a bit but we’re all sleeping enough…eventually.  Our Ramadan goals have been pared down, but we’re still stretching ourselves a bit.  Ramadan is not exactly what we thought it would be, but it has still been very blessed and merciful.  It’s difficult seeing the ugly parts of yourself that surface while fasting, especially when reflected in the eyes of your offspring.  But even this is a mercy in its own way as recognition is the precursor to rectification.

"Blessed Ramadan"

“Blessed Ramadan”

As with every Ramadan, we’re reminded to relearn good habits, rethink how we spend our time, and realize and rectify our shortcomings.  So, in these last blessed days, we’re planning to dig in a little deeper, pray a little harder, and be better than before.  Hopefully, the most significant Ramadan lesson Lil’ Z will take from this year’s experience is that she is not a barrier to our worship but an integral and welcomed participant in our life of worship.

Unschooling in the Green Mountains of Oman

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I recently joined a group of Muslim mamas on Facebook who have shared passions—attachment parenting, homeschooling/unschooling, and natural family living.  When I told Urbndervish about it, he lit up saying “you’ve found your niche!”  Sweet soul that he is spoke nothing other than the truth.  I’ve found a robust group of women trying to live naturally, parent gently, and raise their children sustainably.  In this group I’ve even met another vegan Muslim family; the first we’ve ever met!  Other than talking about breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and natural mosquito repellants, it’s great that we can also talk about our faith journeys, favorite Qur’an reciters, and preparing our homes for Ramadan.

The group is a gem in many ways but the discussion topic of most interest to me right now is unschooling.  The concept of allowing a child to freely discover, learn, and pursue what interests them has always appealed to us.  We like the idea of embracing a lifestyle of learning, not relegating education to certain times, days, or months in the year.  But what does it practically look like?  How do you plan a day or week with such uncertainty?  What daily rhythm and home environment best support this free-spirited experience?  If we lived in the United States, this decision would be a no-brainer for us.  Most major cities have an abundance of museums, libraries, and parks with homeschooling co-operatives to explore them with.   However, the reality is that we don’t have a homeschooling community, varied outdoor activities, or even a library in our small town of Nizwa.  Our nearby park was demolished to widen the roads, so on weekends we venture further out to a large park about 20 minutes away.  A local hotel has a kiddie pool, which we take Lil’ Z to regularly, and we look for fish, frogs, and dragonflies in the coursing water channels of a nearby village.  We would love to set up some playdates but have difficulty finding families who share our views on discipline and childrearing.

Occasionally, we head to Muscat for some variety—playdates with Lil’ Z’s buddy, lunch with friends, and visits to the beach (too hot for that now).  There are plans to open a children’s library in Muscat but for now we rely on our own collection of books, in both Arabic and English.  At the moment, this is the best we can do.  Putting together the sum total of our efforts, both outdoors and indoors, we often wonder if it’s enough for her or will it be enough in a year from now.  Can we effectively unschool… on our own…in Oman?

On Saturday, the answer to these questions was a resounding “YES!”  One of my dear friends is returning to London, and we wanted to do a fun excursion as a send-off.  We hired a driver to take us to Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountains.  We ascended 45 minutes up a mountain range so steep that only 4WD vehicles are allowed on the road.  Once we reached more level ground, we dismounted from the Land Cruiser to feel the mountain air, the first naturally cool breeze we’ve felt in months.  We peered down the canyon to behold terraced hills and historic villages.

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Our next stop was Wadi al Ayn where we walked through the narrow alleyways of a small farming village, passing rose bushes, fields of corn and pomegranate, peach, and walnut trees.  As Lil’ Z reached up to touch a low-hanging pomegranate, still green and not yet ripe, she understood that we have to wait until it’s bigger and turns red before its ready to eat.

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We asked about a nearby tree and could hardly believe it contained walnuts until our guide used a rock to crack open a small round green fruit, with the nut nestled in its center.  This is unschooling.

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A later stop at Wadi Bani Habib required a long descent down an endless set of steps.  After crossing the dry valley, passing the pear trees, and ducking beneath the large tree branches, we met a mulberry tree glistening with little red berries.  Our guide Ahmed picked a few berries for us, not yet sweet but edible.  Lil’ Z wanted a taste too and filled her little belly with sour berries, walking along berry-stained rocks requesting even more.  This is unschooling.

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We then climbed up a short staircase to a structure that appeared to be in ruins but discovered a small mosque, still in use, at its core.  We saw bright red patterned carpets, a prayer niche, and a picture of the Kaaba hung on the wall.  This is unschooling.

Whether we use the term “unschooling” or “life learning”, we have to ask ourselves what do we gain or lose but placing our home and family life at the center of Lil’ Z’s education.  A quick scan of the last nearly three years of her life show just how much she’s learned at home:   how to wash herself, dress herself, prepare food, fold clothes, pour water, set a table, and whatever else she attempts.  Then there’s language, letters, and colors, but more important than all of this is her character.  All of the etiquettes and habits of our daily life and interactions are reflected in her speech, behavior, and ideas.  Yes, those little brains are sponges, but so are those little hearts.  They absorb the models of character around them, both big and small.  Entrusting Lil’ Z to a school, even an inviting and beautiful school, still means entrusting her to the people in it.  We’re not paranoid, trying to shelter her from bullies and boo boos, but we do want the foundation of her character to be strong and firm before spending a significant portion of her day without us.  The responsibility is great, the task is daunting, but at the same time, I love the learning adventure we’ve been on, and I’m intrigued to see where it will take us.

Within the framework of our value system and home environment, Lil’ Z is thriving.  She asks questions freely and experiments on a daily basis.  She’s young and curious, and there is no curriculum to confine her, just principles to guide her and love to sustain her.  Even though I often wonder if we’re giving her enough “fodder” for her flame, she seems to be burning bright and if her learning light begins to dim, then we’re prepared to reflect and adjust, so she can continue to shine.

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Loving Arabic, Loving Oman, Loving Arabic in Oman

if we were written in the stars

the script was Arabic

bound by a revelation

heaven-sent

a truth-bearing tongue

evident

its place in our hearts

eminent

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The study of Arabic has been a common theme in our lives.  From the fated conversation more than ten years ago when I casually asked Urbndervish about where I could learn Arabic, to our eventual move abroad to study the language, and now, our current residence in Oman, the home of a new Arabic language school that gives us yet another reason to love this place.  The Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic to Non-Native Speakers is a mouthful to say but a sight to drool over.  Their beautiful, new buildings erected in the quaint town of Manah, only 15 minutes from the nearest town of Nizwa, are inviting.  Each classroom is equipped with shiny desks and tables, SmartBoards, and colorfully, laminated images on the walls.

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Nestled in the center of the U-shaped hall of classrooms is a cafeteria with a ping-pong table for recreation.  The open courtyard provides benches for gazing at the mountains around you, with tables and chairs for the more studious.  A modest library with shelves yet to be filled is situated amongst the classrooms and the larger building in the forefront is for administrative staff.

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While some students would appreciate more dynamic teaching instruction, none seem to be complaining about the facilities and accommodations offered.  In a large mansion fit for the prominent, furnished rooms are provided, both single and double occupancy.  Three hot meals are served daily and students are shuttled to and from their hostel to the school.  Weekly afternoon lectures immerse students in the culture of Oman, tackling topics like economy, geology, and women’s status in society.  Peer tutoring is provided in the evenings and the weekends are filled with excursions to sights showcasing natural heritage and cultural enjoyment.

For those of us who sought to study Arabic years ago, the affordable options were not nearly as plush as what the Sultan Qaboos College offers.  It seems like not too long ago, we were researching Arabic programs throughout the Arab world and had to weigh quality and reputation of instruction against cost, political turmoil, environmental health, and race relations.  Fast forward to the post-Arab Spring state of affairs and your options for study begin to narrow.  The safety and stability of Oman are a welcomed oasis and a prime location for the study of Arabic.

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One of the most appetizing features of the Sultan Qaboos College is the affordability.  This program has been subsidized by the Omani government, appropriately so considering the school was established as per royal decree.  Eight-week courses consisting of 160 instruction hours only cost 200 OMR, about $520 USD.  Four-week courses are offered at half the cost.  Room and board are a mere 34 OMR per month for single-occupancy and 17 OMR for double.  In the future, home stay accommodations will further immerse students in practical language application and the inner dimension of Omani life.  Really and truly, the program is a steal but they’re not out to get your money.  There is a sincere interest in sharing the Arabic language and Omani culture to all who are willing to partake without jaded resistance or misguided prejudices.  Even practically speaking, classical Arabic is well-used here in Oman but dialect courses are offered if you want to chat it up over coffee with the locals.

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Until the school’s website is up and running, you can find more detailed information at their partner university’s (Deakin University) site here.  Take note of the upcoming course dates for 2013:

8 Week Course:  February 2 – March 27

4 Week Course:  April 6 – May 1

4 Week Course:  May 4 – May 29

4 Week Course:  June 1 – June 26

4 Week Course:  June 29 – July 24

For more info contact:  s.q.college@gmail.com

Update:  The site is up!  Visit here.