A Spring Break To Remember

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I think my son has morphed into a tiny adult overnight. We’re flying back to Dubai after a blur of a week in San Francisco. A week that consisted of long naps, too much sugar and more cereal consumed in the middle of the night than I care to remember (thank you, jet lag). As I watch my son wheel his tiny roller bag through the airport, I’m suddenly hit with a flashback of the two of us cruising Brooklyn together many years ago. Except instead of the walking, talking, self-assured traveler of today, back then he was just a gurgling peanut strapped to my chest. The image had me silently weeping in my seat.

Traveling 8,000 miles with a five year old in the span of a week is an adventure all its own. But the fact that we had seven days of uninterrupted mother/son time —time for me to get to know this funny, thoughtful, quirky little kid better than I ever thought possible—made for one of the most memorable vacations I’ve had.

From the moment we boarded the plane he had me in stitches. As we settled in to our nearly 16 hour flight, Will turned to the flight attendant and asked, with a face as sober as a judge, how many minutes until we reached San Francisco. I could hardly contain my giggling. It took us both a minute to compose ourselves (and a bit longer to do the math) while the whole time Will sat patiently, with the most earnest look on his face, waiting for an answer.

Once we reached San Francisco, he spent the better part of the week ribbing his cousin Sofia. Despite the fact the two are only a few months apart, Will easily assumed the role of the pesky younger brother, never missing an opportunity to torment his poor cousin. One night at the dinner table as Sofia was recounting her day at the zoo, Will kept punctuating her sentences with a squeaky “no you didn’t.” The more she retold her story, the louder he interjected until finally she was up out of her seat, pointing and screaming at Will while he sat there with the satisfied look of a cat next to a bird cage, and you could almost see tiny tufts of feathers escaping his mouth.

As an overall travel companion, Will earns high marks. His exuberance for every aspect of our trip was endearing (the airport! The subway! Breakfast at grandmas!). And his desire to travel with nothing more than a bag the size of a lunchbox was fabulous, unlike his father  who insists on taking the kitchen sink with us. Will, on the other hand, cares nothing for clean laundry and has a style only Mark Zuckerberg could love—same shirt, every day, no questions. (Of course, Will prefers a brightly colored Power Rangers shirt but that’s how you roll when you’re five).

Although Will travels light, his emotional baggage can pack some heft. I won’t lie, there were some epic meltdowns. There were days when I was the world’s worst mommy because I wouldn’t buy him a yoda costume or let him eat Nutella for breakfast, or because I wouldn’t stop the car so he could refill his Pez dispenser (did I mention the sugar??). His outburts usually happened when he was overly tired (which, due to jet lag, was 80% of our trip) and when he could seize on my equally exhausted, time-zone ravaged patience. Those moments did not register as the picturesque ‘mother/son bonding tour’ trip that I imagined.

But what I think has most amazed me about this kid is how he’s reached the age where more often than not he will verbally communicate his thoughts and feelings. And that’s a cool thing to behold. Like in the car when we were driving along, bopping our heads to the radio. It was the first time we didn’t have kids music playing 24/7, and I couldn’t tell whether he liked all the punk and classic rock tunes I had chosen. I turned down the radio and asked him what kind of music he liked. After a minute of careful consideration, he tells me in his most assured voice, “classical.” A bit surprised, I ask him why and without missing a beat he says, “because there aren’t any words and so I get to make them up!”

There are also moments when he is so unequivocally in touch with his emotions that it catches me off guard. It’s the last day of our trip and Will is inconsolable. He wakes up crying and rebukes my offer to cook him his favorite breakfast. He’s angry and sulking all over the apartment, and before I even get the chance to tease it out of him he stares at me with big watery eyes and says, “I don’t want to leave! I want to stay in California forever!!”  He still refuses to move even when I remind him of his home in Dubai, and all of his friends, and a brother and father that are anxiously waiting his return. He chokes back tears and finally tells me how much he misses his “family in America” and how he’s tired of always “leaving and coming back.” His emotional outpour was everything I had been feeling myself that morning, although instead of thrashing in his sleep or swallowing knots the size of golf balls he—unlike me—actually admitted his feelings and communicated them.

Floored. That’s how I felt most of the week. Gobsmacked that this child of mine has now matured into a little boy. A boy who can play independently with a stack of legos for nearly an hour, who throws out ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ unprompted, whose shoes I’m convinced are big enough to fit a teenager. This tiny man-in-the-making is growing up, and if I ever wonder how quickly time is passing and whether or not I’m seizing all the moments I can with him, I’ll remember this trip and feel grateful for everything that happened– even the jet lag.

 

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Explaining The Donald Abroad

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Hardly a day goes by when I can escape talking about Donald Trump. The megalomaniac has become quite a beguiling figure here in the Gulf, setting plenty of tongues wagging for his gross offensiveness and agitprop-like campaign.

I can’t fault the Arab world’s fascination with The Donald. When a man this ignorant and hateful campaigns as the Antichrist, taking pleasure in fanning America’s sexism and racism, people around the world are bound to notice. It seems that almost every day someone will approach me looking slack-jawed wielding a list of questions. I guess when you’re curious about the truculent state of American politics, finding a bone fide American is a good place to start.

Here’s how a typical conversation might go:

Friend: Hey, Andrea. Can I ask you something?

Me: Sure, what’s up?

Friend: Well, I just want to know what the hell is up with your country? Are you guys really going to elect this Donald Trump guy?? He seems a little crazy.

Me: (embarrassed). Yeah, it’s kinda sad, isn’t it?

Friend: Sad? It’s unbelievable! I thought America was all about ______ (insert American value such as freedom, liberty, democracy, etc).

Me: We are, but….

Friend: I mean, I know he’s entertaining but it’s getting serious, no? I just don’t understand. You’re supposed to be the example for the rest of the world. You’re starting to look like us back in ______ (insert unstable foreign country).

Me: Uh, I’m working on it.

[Awkward Silence]

It’s only recently that my once unshakeable American pride has come under fire. How can I begin to explain to people that this man who has nearly declared war on Islam could be President of the United States? How can I defend a system that would allow someone as treacherous as Donald Trump to succeed as he has?? I am stupefied by my country’s inexplicable state of politics. I often watch the news with this sense that I’m a Martian living in outer space, wondering what the hell is happening out there in America. I struggle to grasp (let alone articulate to my neighbors) how a country that elected one of the most gallant and respected leaders of our time has devolved into an unmitigated disaster like Donald Trump. I do some quick math and calculate how old our kids would be if we stayed overseas for the next 4—or 8— years. <Gulp>

The amusing thing is, I’m starting to feel solidarity with my Arab friends. Often they’re the ones left to explain the complicated (and at times embarrassing) political situations in their home countries. I have watched my Lebanese friends haplessly shrug off questions about their current government (or lack of it). I have seen my Egyptian friends describe in tears how their homeland has been upended in violence and turmoil. And my Iranian friends so deeply despise the religious extremists in their country that they refuse to acknowledge they exist (although they sure do, as I’ve painfully witnessed).

I try consoling myself with the thought that Donald Trump is a shining example of American democracy in action. He demonstrates that anyone in America, regardless of one’s race, religion or (in Drumpf’s case) their nano-sized brain, can become President. And his candidacy highlights an electoral system that celebrates the prevailing voices of the American people, even if you may not remotely understand or agree with those voices.

However, for an opportunist like Mr. Trump it’s surprising that he would do more to exploit the American brand than to uphold it. His rhetoric is dangerous and invites violence. He encourages his supporters to face off against law enforcement, disregards the rights for peaceful protest and labels people “ISIS” or “terrorists” without any justification whatsoever. He is the dark underbelly of what a large fraction of America has slipped into, a side of the country that— to the outside world—is unequivocally UN-American and I want nothing more than to distance myself from his long shadow.

The irony, of course, is that his outlandishness has only the reverse effect on me. Instead of driving me further away from those he considers fearful (such as Muslims and the general Arab world) he’s pushed me closer to them. I feel a kinship here, particularly among the foreigners who have seen their homelands slip into something unrecognizable and chaotic. Thank you, Mr. Trump, for proving that America can, in fact, empathize with the struggles of the Middle East. Perhaps his motto shouldn’t be make America great again, but simply make America AMERICA again.

 

 

New Year’s Resolution Solved– Your 2016 Reading List

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If reading more books is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then I have just the list for you. I was flattered when a friend of mine asked me for my top 2015 favorite reads. I thought, why not spread the love? The only thing I love more than reading books is talking about reading books. So here’s a quick rundown of my personal favorites for the year, as well as a few I’m dying to read in 2016.

Happy New Year!

 

STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St John Mandel

I was so pleased that my final read of the year was something utterly fantastic (I hate finishing the year with some flop). Station Eleven is quite simply a marvelous book– a hugely creative and mind-bending journey through the last days of civilization. I’m not sure how to fully describe it without giving too much away, but the story centers around Kirsten, a badass former child actor who is trying to make her way in a post-apocalyptic reality. As Kirsten travels through the back woods of Lake Michigan in search of the only family she knows—a motley band of artists known as The Traveling Symphony- we get glimpses of her former life as well as the characters who’ve indelibly shaped the person she’s now become. Part sci-fi thriller, part noir fiction Station Eleven is deeply provocative and will leave you appreciating the minutia of life in the most unexpected way. A really superb read.

LIFE AFTER LIFE, by Kate Atkinson

A stunning novel about the life of a young woman during WWI England. We follow Ursula as she darts between the possibilities of fate, her life propelled only by a series of choices and events that feel more happenstance than deliberate. The story is hugely creative, gorgeously written and is a parable for the inexplicable and sometimes cruel destiny that is life. I’ve never felt such immense gratitude for my own life’s nuances and fragility—this book will do that. It’s a doorstop but worth all 400+ pages—simply uh-mazing.

SEASON OF THE WITCH, by David Talbott

A rollicking look back at San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s and some of the famous people and events that have helped shape this remarkable city. It’s nonfiction (not my usual jam) but the stories and people jump off the page. I found it fascinating— a fun and nostalgic tribute to my hometown by the Bay.

BIG MAGIC, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reading this now and love it, but for different reasons. It’s not a novel but a self-help guide of sorts about unlocking your creative potential. If you are in need of a little motivation in the creative department (such as I am) then this book does the trick. But even if you aren’t pursuing something ‘creative’ per se, it’s a great reminder about how we’re all innately creative as human beings, and that we should feel inspired rather than afraid to act on our creative instincts. Very kumbaya, but let’s face it, who couldn’t use a drum full of that right now?

THE DINNER, by Herman Koch

A fun, tidy little book about two couples that agree to meet for dinner only to learn they must confront their dark and troubled past. It’s a ride through modern day Amsterdam that keeps you hooked with a compelling enough plot and several unexpected twists. It won’t necessarily make you smarter but a fun read nonetheless.

A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST, by Rebecca Solnit

I owe my blog to this book. I started reading it shortly after I arrived in Dubai and couldn’t believe how much a book could just absorb me so completely and so willingly. This book confronts all of the existential questions about living and wanderlust, and how we as humans can make new discoveries about ourselves and the world around us. She essentially argues that discovery, and therefore transformation, can only truly happen when we put ourselves in situations of discomfort (or in my case full on shock) and only then can we open our eyes to new experiences. A beautiful and thoughtful tome that had me devouring every kernel of wisdom that Solnit offers.

Books I want to read:

  • H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen MacDonald
  • GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, by Amy Stewart
  • THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, by Elizabeth Alexander
  • BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • THE SAUDI KINGDOM (between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil), by Ali Shihabi
  • FATES & FURIES, by Lauren Groff

 

Happy Reading!

A Very Thankful Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving took on new meaning this year. It was supposed to be a holiday like all the others with enough food, wine and politicizing to last for days. My parents had come over from California to celebrate with us and we were restless with excitement. This was their first time in Dubai—first time in the Middle East, in fact—and they had hauled nearly six suitcases between them filled with toys, Christmas gifts and various expatriate essentials.

But as soon as the table was set, my mom said she wasn’t feeling well and went to lie down. At first, I didn’t think much of it. Mom had been feeling out of sorts since she arrived nearly a week ago. We presumed it was the jet lag since we’d had many a houseguest struggle for days to acclimate to the new time zone. It’s quite severe traveling to the Middle East—the 12-hour time difference wreaks havoc on the body and it’s not unusual to experience episodes of extreme fatigue, GI issues, or a weakened immune system. It kicks your ass.

When I went to check on her later she was feverish and warm. We suspected she had a virus or flu, the unfortunate consequence of being housed among small germ bots such as my children. Both my sons had been home from school the week prior with an assortment of maladies. In the last three months since school started our house had become a roving hot zone. I can hardly remember a week when no one is coughing or wiping their nose or itching something. Tylenol goes faster than milk around here. So I grabbed a couple of familiar boxes from the medicine cabinet and sent her to bed with several pills and some water.

But then the next day was worse. Mom had spiked a fever overnight of 102 and the ibuprofin was barely keeping it at bay. Her face was flush and burning, she couldn’t get out of bed and it was a struggle getting her to drink fluids. She went back to sleep and I started to worry. How could she get the flu this badly?

Before she arrived in Dubai she had gone to see her doctor to get all of the recommended vaccinations—influenza, pneumococcal, shingles. She was 72 but a healthy 72—no underlying health disorders or conditions like heart disease, diabetes or the like. I called the doctor—time to take her in.

When we arrived the doctor checked her vitals and took a urine sample. It appeared she had some kind of infection–possibly pneumonia or worse, septicemia–her blood pressure was dropping and she needed to go to the hospital. Right. Now.

I tried not to panic as I helped my mother into the car and set the GPS for the hospital. I was vaguely familiar with the hospitals in Dubai, my experience was limited to horror stories recounted on Facebook and the one time I took my son in when he swallowed a metal bolt (I couldn’t make this stuff up). Frankly, when you live in a foreign country you try not to think too much about a scenario where you become intimately familiar with the health system. I hoped we wouldn’t be here long enough to use it that much. But from that single experience I remember it being surprisingly modern and clean, the staff professional and friendly. So I decided to take her to the only hospital in town I knew, Mediclinic City Hospital.

We pulled up into the ER in the late afternoon and I could see my mother’s health was failing. She was becoming confused and pale and when she raised her hand her whole arm shook. I was terrified.

I checked us in and within minutes we were seen by the nurse. It became immediately clear that my mother was a ‘level 1’ triage case, the nurse kept referring to her as “elderly” which infuriated my mother (at least I could tell she had some of her faculties intact). From there it was a matter of minutes before we were sitting in a room with Mom hooked to an IV and talking with a doctor. He was certain there was an infection and suspected pneumonia so they began prepping her for X-rays. I watched on horrified, my mind a circuit breaker about to smolder.

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Getting sick in the US is frightening enough, but getting sick in a foreign country where everything is new and strange and confusing and you don’t know anything about the doctors or the drugs or the payment system is downright terrifying. Which is when I started to panic. How will we afford this, I wondered, knowing my parents didn’t have any localized health insurance. I had no idea how long she would remain in the hospital, what kind of doctors would attend to her, whether I could stay with her. I felt grateful that everyone spoke English but I cringed to think about the credentials of the staff. Were they as highly skilled as in the US? Were the standards the same? Would it be clean??

And yet, what we experienced was a lesson in global citizenry. Not only did the medical staff hail from all over the world– India, Saudi Arabia, Canada, the Philippines—but they were highly competent and knowledgeable and all trained in the west. They spoke flawless English and the equipment they used was state-of-the-art. By the time they put my mother in her room (a spacious and clean private room with a towering view of downtown Dubai) I felt embarrassed by my misgivings. My mother had a fleet of staff checking on her 24/7 and her room was even equipped with room service and WiFi. Sure, it’s no picnic being in the hospital but at least Mom could experience Dubai at its finest.

Each day my mother did a little better. She responded well to the medications and the IV, and her vitals had returned to their normal levels. Her stubborn fevers had subsided. The headaches still lingered but by the third day they were almost gone completely. All the signs of recovery started to show—she was eating regular food again, moving about the room and—perhaps most importantly—sparring with my dad. Everyone agreed she was finally well enough to come home.

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We’ve had to change my mother’s flight to stay another week in Dubai and recuperate. I view this as the silver lining. Now I get to turn the clock back and start our holiday over again, albeit at a much slower pace. I never want to feel the hollowness and dread I felt when I left the hospital each day. I will never take for granted the time I have with my mother, and I will never let a holiday pass where I don’t feel an abundance of gratitude and thanks. Thanksgiving is now the one holiday I don’t mind celebrating year round. It’s been a blessed year.

 

 

How To Survive A Safari With Kids

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Staring down a pride of lions is one thing. Staring down a pride of lions with two toddlers in the car is something quite different.

I didn’t think it was possible to get so close to a female lion. But as we drove into the bush that morning on our final game drive, the warm African sun casting everything a blondish hue, our driver Stephen spotted the felines immediately and barreled towards them with a gusto that made my stomach lurch. My five year old, meanwhile, looked on delightedly from the front seat while I clutched my younger son tightly in my lap.

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When I noticed one of the lions starting towards us, her paws moving with no particular haste, I turned to Stephen and urgently mouthed the words “LET’S GO.” But he just smiled and put an arm securely around my son. “It’s alright,” he said calmly. “Just watch.” I turned and saw the lion walking towards the front of the vehicle, totally uninterested in the two young bodies sitting temptingly inside. I looked over at my husband who was standing on the opposite side of the jeep. He gave me a look that said “that was close” and then hoisted his camera up to capture my anxiety on film. I took a deep breath. We could’ve had a staycation, I thought to myself.

There’s certainly no shortage of adventure when taking kids on a safari. I was reminded of this every time I mentioned to someone our upcoming trip. Wow, how brave they’d say. And then they’d launch into a flurry of questions about whether the animals might mistake my kids for lunch, or what about all the tropical diseases they might catch? And was I certain that malaria pills were safe—or even necessary— for children that age?? I’d walk away from these exchanges with a knot in my stomach and my head burning with images of my kids fleeing a pack of hungry four-legged creatures. It will be an adventure, my husband kept saying. I braced myself for the ride.

But the prospect of taking our kids to Africa had been a dream. My husband and I went on safari many moons ago, and yet the memories of that trip still speak to us years later. Once you’ve been to Africa and have experienced its raw and powerful beauty, it’s hard to shake it off. Like a drug, we were intoxicated by the landscape, the passion and warmth of the people, the incredible food. We couldn’t wait to go back. But where to go? And with kids??

Our first trip to Africa in 2008.

Our first trip to Africa in 2008.

Kenya: From Bustling Citylife to Wildlife

From Dubai there are myriad possibilities for a safari, from Tanzania and South Africa to Botswana and Mozambique. We chose Kenya for its proximity to the Gulf and it’s unique combination of bustling citylife with exceptional game viewing. Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is a  a five hour flight from Dubai and several airlines offer nonstop daily service with competitive fares. We flew Emirates and were amazed at how easy-breezy the travel was, especially since we secured our visas in advance instead of upon arrival (which I highly recommend doing). We had the slightest amount of trepidation around Kenya’s safety– the US State Department upgraded their warning following the tragic incident at a college outside Nairobi. However, after considerable research and talking with families who had been to Kenya—many with children younger than ours—we found it to be both safe and chock-full of kid-friendly activities.

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Nairobi: The Big Five in A Big City

What was different about our trip is that we chose to spend two nights exploring Nairobi, a vibrant city that is often overlooked by safari goers. We were surprised by how much wildlife you can experience without ever leaving the city limits. The Nairobi National Park is a mere four miles from the city center and offers game drives and walking safaris with the opportunity to see The Big Five. The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage was a great experience for our kids as they got up close and personal with baby elephants, watching them snack, bathe and spray each other like bandits (just like bathtime at our house!). We also visited Giraffe Centre which is adjacent to one of Kenya’s most famous hotels, Giraffe Manor. There, kids can stand atop a large feeding platform and dole out snacks directly into the mouths of the giraffe. My boys loved getting tickled by the giraffe’s long, sticky tongues, but only after they got over the initial fear of standing eye-to-eye with one of these massively tall herbivores.

 

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We then had the good fortune of meeting up with another expat mom, Erin Brennan Allan, who is also a former classmate of my husband’s. Erin and her husband Jan (pronounced YAN) have been living in Nairobi for 13 year– well, actually, Jan is third generation Kenyan so he’s been there much longer. Both run thriving businesses in Nairobi—she manufacturers sustainable kid’s clothing while he designs and builds those gorgeously elaborate tents that have come to define ‘glamping’. It was nice to meet another mom who understands the trials and tribulations of living abroad, but even nicer to make a new friend.

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A Safari on The Mara

On our third day we headed to the Masai Mara National Reserve, a large game reserve about 280 kilometers from Nairobi on the southwest border of Kenya. The Mara, as it’s often referred to, is probably best known for its Great Migration where each year thousands of wildabeest, zebra and other game cross the Serengetti in Tanzania and travel north into Kenya, making for some of the most spectacular game and wildlife viewing in the world. Few countries in Africa experience anything like this but you can only catch it from July through October.

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So while deciding on visiting the Mara was a no-brainer, finding the right safari company for our kids was anything but. Initially, I found several companies that marketed themselves as ‘family friendly’. However, once I called them to drill down on the specifics, such as which kids activities they offered or what added safety measures they had, I found very few companies actually lived up to the title.

Fortunately, we found The Safari Collection, a family-run company with several properties throughout Kenya that actually ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to family-oriented travel. Owners Tanya and Mikey Carr-Hartley are themselves parents of three children so they understand the unique challenges of taking kids into the bush. I was particularly impressed with the variety of kids activities they offered at their camps, such as horseback riding, swimming, mountain biking and hiking. Some of their camps even offer free babysitting, which we took full advantage of. We chose Sala’s Camp because of its prime location in the Mara—it’s situated right on the banks of the Sand and Keekerok Rivers at the crux of the migration so you hardly have to leave your tent to see zebras and buffalo walking by. Plus, unlike some of their other camps where you stay in an actual brick-and-mortar lodge, Sala’s Camp provides spacious, fully tricked out tents complete with bathrooms, showers, and extra beds. My husband loved feeling like he was on an authentic safari and sleeping under the stars, while I appreciated the small luxuries of a hotel robe and fancy bath salts.

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The staff at Sala’s Camp was amazingly warm and went to great lengths to make sure our kids had plenty to do while we parents relaxed. Meals were planned in advance with the kids choosing a custom meal if they didn’t like the adults buffet, which eliminated a lot of headache. Plus, instead of having to haul the kids on group game drives Sala’s ensured we had our own jeep, driver and tracker. This was critical (I repeat, THIS WAS CRITICAL) because it meant that if the kids wanted to sleep in that morning or cut the game viewings short we wouldn’t risk the ire of a group of grumpy tourists all sharing the backseat. And they did it at no extra charge. Not many camps, I learned, will do that.

My kids did better on the game drives than I expected, their attention focused on spotting the animals or just playing in the jeep. A few times we had to stop and get out, our guides leading us to an area that was safe for us to meander. But mainly the kids were amused with the scenery or the toys we brought along or just the novelty of drinking out of a new canteen. There were no great tantrums and turning the jeep around, as there often are at many restaurants.

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Of course, when the family wasn’t out in the jeep there was plenty to keep the kids entertained back at camp. Our amazingly patient tracker Masik took them for ‘warrior training”’where the boys learned to make bows and arrows and were dressed up in traditional warrior outfits. Masik even helped them to make their own spears which, thankfully, were about as blunt as a butter knife.

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And The Lesson For Today Is…

But as with any vacation, there are unexpected moments where one’s parenthood is tested. On the last night of the trip our younger son came down with a fever. It was the middle of the night and while I was good enough to pack some medicine I didn’t have the number of the camp director in case things got worse. Instead, I had only a whistle and a flashlight provided by the camp. As I cradled my son in bed that night, I had visions of witch doctors and medevacs being summoned to our tent. Meanwhile, outside the canvas walls a symphony of wild animals played boisterously into the night. It was then that I asked myself whether I was the world’s most adventurous mother of all time or the most dense. I longed for our beds in Dubai and vowed that the next vacation we’d take with animals would be where we watched them from behind plexiglass.

The next morning my son woke up feeling better, his energy in full force as he scampered up to our jeep and hopped in. I watched as the boys hugged our camp director Mark goodbye and then one-by-one hugged each of the staff, their voices trying hard to mimick the little bits of Swahili they had learned. As they sat in the back seat they began playing with their animal figurines, my older one instructing his younger brother to be the crocodile while he played the lion. As we pulled out of camp, our driver Stephen turned and asked them if they would like to see a real lion. Their faces immediately lit up and, in unison, screeched in delight. My husband and I looked on and smiled and felt proud we survived another family adventure.

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Why I Owe A Huge Debt of Gratitude to Jason Rezaian

Jason Rezaian

At first, it was hard to convince me to visit Iran. While that may not sound so unusual coming from an American, I don’t consider myself to have particularly “American” taste when it comes to travel. When I was younger and my friends were jetting off to Europe in the summer, I’d be water skiing on a volcanic lake in Guatemala or getting shaken down by police in Red Square. My adventures weren’t typically of the apple pie variety.

But I was newlywed and anxious to see the world. It was early 2009 and my husband was just finishing grad school. As a graduation trip he suggested we take a tour of the Middle East, with Iran as the capstone of our trip. Back then Iran had a somewhat softer reputation. The Arab Spring hadn’t erupted yet and the country had largely recovered from the war with its neighbor Iraq. It was one of the few countries in the region to hold regular elections and it possessed one of most educated populations in the world, with nearly half of all Iranians holding university degrees. Plus, unlike many of its neighbors, Iran wasn’t plagued by violent extremists—at least not the suicide bombing, terror attacking kind. On the surface, it seemed like a relatively safe place to visit.

So we set out that summer to see the region, making stops in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria before finally landing in Iran. I’ll never forget our last night in Lebanon and how “relieved” I felt to be leaving for Iran. We had spent the better part of a week observing the elections in Beirut and while the process unfolded peacefully—surprising many people, including myself– I still spent much of the week paranoid and on edge. I couldn’t wait to reach Iran so I could experience a ‘normal’ election cycle in that part of the world.

Well, suffice it to say we got the shock of our lives: the elections of 2009 were anything but normal. Night after night brutal and bloody clashes between protestors and military broke out on the streets of Tehran. And while we managed to stay on the sidelines and keep ourselves out of danger, we witnessed one of the most horrifying displays of politics that we had ever seen.

Yet despite the mayhem, what made our trip extraordinary was meeting Jason Rezaian. At the time Jason was a budding journalist and had moved to Tehran to cover the elections. While born and raised in the States, he held dual citizenship and considered himself as much of an Iranian as an American. We had been introduced through a mutual friend (we all grew up in the Bay Area) and had heard that Jason had helped others make the trek to Iran, including celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and the late writer Christopher Hitchens. So we were thrilled when Jason agreed to help us– a couple of ordinary tourists without a clue.

From the early planning stages, months before we even landed in Iran, Jason guided us through the highly complicated (and often maddening) process of securing a visa. He leaned on friends at the Foreign Ministry to get things done, and he helped us secure a state appointed Minder to accompany us throughout our travels—a “perk” reserved only for Americans. Each step of the way Jason assured us that our trip would be a success. Once we arrived in Tehran, he took great care in showing us the best local culinary fare as well as Tehran’s many historical and cultural landmarks. He introduced us to his Iranian friends who invited us into their homes. He even arranged a dinner with his fellow journalists, including an unforgettable evening with the late Marie Colvin that left us gobsmacked and in awe of those brave enough to report from the Middle East.

But what Jason did that was so remarkable was make sure we experienced a side of Iran that few other Americans could ever experience. He felt it was important that we saw a side of Iran that existed outside of mainstream media, a side where people smile and hug you and are unafraid that you are American or that your government doesn’t agree with theirs. The side where you can taste centuries of history and struggle in the food, and where young people will readily share both their love for and their frustration with the Iran of today. All this so that we’d gain a deeper and more informed understanding of the country he called home.

One of the most haunting memories I have from that trip is of the three of us—my husband, Jason and myself—driving around Tehran and stumbling upon Evin prison, a massive concrete fortress on the northern perimeter of the city. I remember looking up at the stark, intimidating façade and asking if we could take pictures. Jason shook his head and explained that Evin Prison was about as maximum security as you could get in Iran, a no-nonsense penitentiary for intellectual and political dissidents and anyone else they deemed a national threat—Iran’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. Even a photo was too risky.

It saddens me to know that Jason has now spent more than a year at that very prison, held on trumped up charges of espionage and other absurdities. He has been subject to confinement and abuse and all around horrible conditions that have injured his health. I pray he gets released any day.

But perhaps what’s most infuriating—or most ironic—is that Iran is holding the wrong man. This man Jason Rezaian, with his wide and easy smile and gentle demeanor, is the most informed, passionate and caring Iranian guide anyone could ask for. He is a sterling ambassador for a country that is often faceless and whose sole images abroad tend to be of hardened leaders rather than the actual people living there. He is a national treasure and why the government has chosen to imprison him rather than honor him simply confounds me.

I realize now that if it weren’t for Jason, I probably would have continued to live in fear and ignorance of Iran. I would have missed seeing one of the greatest wonders on earth (the remarkable beauty of Esfahan!) and quite possibly never moved to Dubai. Instead, I might be living trapped by fear of what might happen abroad rather than choosing to experience it firsthand. And so for that—for changing my perceptions and opening my eyes to a new part of the world—I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jason. I hope you come home and return to the job that you do so well: getting us to care.

 

 

Welcoming Ramadan

At long last Ramadan is here and everyone in our house is excited by its arrival. After all, so much has been built up about Ramadan in the six months that we’ve been here.

It seems ever since arriving in Dubai people have gone out of their way to tell us about the holy month– warn us is actually the more accurate term. Expats, in particular, seem to take a certain pleasure in detailing all of the ways Ramadan can dampen the Dubai life. There are so many rules, they cautioned. And it’s true, during Ramadan there are many rules in which we must abide by including: no eating, no drinking, no smoking in public during the daytime; no loud music, no chewing gum, no wearing tight or suggestive clothing (I think I’m safe), no ‘speaking ill’ about others (e.g. gossiping or salacious language); and, perhaps not surprisingly, no public displays of affection.

So it’s understandable that as a non-Muslin and new resident I felt intimidated by Ramadan. I was consumed with worry about how we’d get on with our lives. The thought of staying hydrated in 100+ degree heat without the safety of even a water bottle had me in a panic. Plus, I wasn’t sure how I would keep two kids entertained indoors when most everything is closed—that means no stopping off for a quick ice cream or an afternoon pick me up. From here on out it would have to be point-to-point travel only, and so I would plan our days with military precision and grit.

Fact: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month lasts 29–30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon—which, by the way, are identified by humans and not robots in outer space (Wikipedia)

But then one morning as I was driving in the car listening to the Cultural Affairs Minister on the radio, it suddenly hit me. He was explaining the meaning of Ramadan and why the eating/drinking ban exists in the UAE. He said that Ramadan is all about reflection, about self-control and about appreciating life through personal sacrifice. The rules exist not to trap or hamper foreigners, but rather to create a community-like atmosphere where everybody supports everybody in their collective efforts to fast and abstain.

And it was then that I realized, mine wasn’t a problem of logistics or practicality. Not really. Mine was a problem of perspective, of empathy– or lack of it.

One of the reasons we came to the UAE was so that our family could gain a greater cultural understanding for this part of the world. And unfolding before us was the single most important holiday of the year in the Gulf. Sure, day-to-day life would be different and confusing and slightly uncomfortable. But so is living abroad. So instead of hiding under the duvet or high tailing it back to the States, I’m taking this opportunity to learn about and embrace one of the most fascinating aspects about living in the UAE.

The word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic word Ramad meaning heat or drought. So the literal meaning of Ramadan is the month of heat/drought. [Ramadan Explained: A Guide for Expats in the GCC]

Without question fasting during Ramadan– the abstaining from food and water for 30 days from dawn until dusk– is an incredible challenge of the body and mind. In an act of solidarity for our new compatriots, Justin and I are attempting to fast. It’s Day 1 and already horribly painful— I broke down midday and ate bread while Justin has remained steadfast. But despite how disciplined– or undisciplined– I am, I’ve already gained a heightened sensitivity to those around me. I’m constantly thinking about the people that must endure this kind of lifestyle not by choice but, sadly, by necessity. These are important lessons to be gained regardless of your religion, culture or location in the world.

Fact: Fasting allows Muslims to test their self-restraint and to control their desires. It serves as a reminder to distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and to live a balanced life, free from excess and extravagance. [Ramadan Explained: A Guide for Expats in the GCC]

One reader in The National recounted how to her Ramadan “is the month to purify the soul…an opportunity for detachment from the world and for deep reflection and thought.” I hear this sentiment a lot. In fact, one Emirati father whose son is in class with our younger son described how Ramadan is the perfect time for him to take stock of his personal and professional life. Each year he and his family reflect on their accomplishments and lay out their goals for not just the coming year but the following five years.

But Ramadan is not just about fasting and prayer. There are celebrations that are enjoyed when the sun goes down- Ifthar and Suhour dinners– and those fasting get together with family and friends to break bread and celebrate life. It’s a beautiful time of day and I find myself a bit envious about how we Westerners only have the one-shot holidays (e.g. Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc) while here they have 30! Which means people have one whole glorious month to cook, eat, dine out and generally enjoy the company of family and friends. Not such a bad deal, if you ask me.

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One of the things I admire most about Ramadan in the UAE is the way the Emirates have remained steadfast in their traditions. It could be quite easy to adopt a structure like that in Morocco or Turkey where “most facilities remain open to some extent to serve non-Muslim travelers, and in general the change in the normal routine isn’t too striking.” (WikiVoyage)

Like the UAE, these countries see a high number of tourists in the summer months, and I’m guessing some will choose to bypass the UAE out of a perceived fear of being inconvenienced. Which is a shame, as the holy month can be a once in a lifetime experience. I applaud the UAE for sticking by their beliefs and for creating a system where everyone supports one another. What would it say about our community if Suzy Expat is sitting eating a Shake Shack burger out in the open while her neighbor struggles to make it through the day without food? Does that really help foster a communal spirit, a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude? And so I agree with the Minister when he says Ramadan and fasting is deserving of the entire community’s support, and that is why the rules are the way they are. To me, feeling a slight pinch makes me more invested in everyone’s success and also more empathetic, which is really the point of Ramadan after all.

My hairdresser once told me that he loves being in Dubai during Ramadan because of the ‘spiritualness’ that is felt around the city. There’s a palpable energy that only surfaces at this time of year. I can see it forming already– holiday cards with well wishes are circulated, restaurants encourage diners to celebrate Ifthar with grand buffets and heavy discounts, stores display mountains of holiday foods such as dates, jams, cakes and other specialties. And it’s nice to hear on the news a break from the usual horrors and instead stories about the many charitable acts occurring around the UAE, where food and water are delivered to the poor and even prisoners are set free.

It’s truly thrilling to be at the center of such a hugely important event and to have our eyes opened to a whole new way of life. I’m guessing it’s the same excitement one might feel when experiencing Easter at the Vatican or Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. The spirit of Ramadan is everywhere and I feel lucky to be here and experience it.

A happy Ramadan Kareem to you.

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