24 January 2010

Little Yellow Honda Jazz

Goodbye little yellow Jazz.

First, let me begin by saying that we have lived in the UAE for seventeen months now, and that includes the eight weeks we were in the United States and Canada last summer for our mandatory summer holiday. In those seventeen months, we have driven seven different cars. Eight if you count our car back home. Uffda.

Our first car in the UAE was a red Honda Jazz. The first time I saw it I was not impressed. How could we fit all our stuff? How could this compact car possibly be safe on the crazy streets around here? Since I was the one driving for the first few weeks (I was on a visitor visa and therefore allowed to drive with my US driver’s license; my husband had a work visa and therefore needed a UAE license to drive), I was pretty much hoping for a great big gas-guzzling SUV to keep my children safe. Since we were renting the vehicle, costs allowed us only the smallest class of vehicle. Besides, I’m a tree-hugger through and through and I’m sure I would have a crisis of conscience if I ever set foot in a full-sized SUV. Therefore, the Honda Jazz, aka: Honda Fit.

Anyway, little red Jazz turned out to be a great car. It was zippy and responsive and had a whole lot more trunk space than I ever thought possible. Oh, and we routinely got the equivalent of 37-39 mpg. Nice. But little red Jazz needed its yearly maintenance and so was exchanged for a wretched Toyota Yaris with absolutely no trunk space. Let it be said that I like Toyota; I just don’t like the no trunk space. We learned we would not be getting our red Jazz back since it was old enough to be sold out of their fleet of cars. We only had a few weeks left before our summer holiday, so we lumped the no trunk space and got on with it. Until, the manic driving over here got the best of me. With just two weeks to go and accident-free in the UAE, I was hit from behind while stopped at a red light. Luckily, the boys and I were fine; the car was not. So wretched white Yaris went bye-bye and we were given the only available car in our class-a black Honda Jazz. Ugh. We. Live. In. A. Hot. Desert. Black cars may be a status symbol here, but we are not status symbol kind of people! But again, we only had two weeks to go, so we took the car and went on our merry way, only to vow we would never drive a black car in the desert again.

One summer holiday later, we are at the Dubai airport in the 125F heat (mind you it’s 11:00p.m.) waiting for our rental car that we reserved before we left (with specific instructions for any color but black). Oops. No record of a reservation. In fact, no record of our previous ten month rental history with them. And unlike the US, the rental companies here don’t really care if you are a satisfied customer. We have been routinely up-graded in the US when rental companies do not have our requested vehicle available (and sometimes even when they do just to make us happy campers and hopefully repeat customers). Over an hour later, standing in the 125F parking lot with much too much luggage and two small boys who had been traveling for over twenty-four hours, the Hertz Rental Company decided they could bring in a Jazz from another site. It took them less than twenty minutes. It was black. I didn’t care. We drove it for over four months while we waited for a replacement. . . and then came the Oman trip. Hooray for an expired registration. We ended up with another black Jazz for the holiday, but immediately traded it in for a yellow Jazz. Yes, yellow. Love it. No way would anyone miss seeing us on the road. No way would I lose the car in the crowded parking lot. I was in love, with a car.

But some love stories have sad endings. Even though there was no possible way any living, breathing driver on the crazy UAE roads could ever miss seeing our car, a young girl just happened to prove that theory wrong. I would like to add that my husband and I were on our first date since moving to the UAE in September of 2008. We enjoyed a quiet dinner and a decent movie. We were on our way home when aforementioned young lady hit us from behind. Might I also add that we were stopped in a long queue of cars about 300m from the intersection when we were hit. Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that she hit us not once, but twice. Evidently she wasn’t quite finished with us the first time. So now I am left with a sore neck and back and more than a headache or two, and a silver Toyota Yaris. Ack! No trunk space. I think I might have to call Hertz every day until I get another little yellow Jazz. Or red. Or white. Anything but black.

20 January 2010

Dhows, Dolphins and Oman.

On Monday we took a vacation from our perpetual vacation, a dhow excursion to see fjords and dolphins in the Khor Sham (Arabian Gulf) in the country of Oman.

We had heard about the dhow excursions and dolphin sightings off the coast of Khasab, the capital of Musandam. After a bit of searching, we found the company that had been recommended to us, Khasab Travel and Tours, and booked the trip. We really wanted to see those dolphins, but knew it was only a possibility, not a guarantee (these are wild dolphins, after all).

Oman is a mere hour and a half from where we live in Dubai, and Khasab just an hour and half further. We packed up the boys and a picnic and headed for the border. It was one adventure after another! We have become accustomed to seeing wild camels in the dessert (someone somewhere owns them, and if you hit one you will pay, literally), but we were not prepared to see wild cows. Ok, maybe they weren’t really wild, but they were walking down the middle of the city streets of Ras al Khaimah and there were no shepherds to be seen. Then there were goats. Goats everywhere! I love this country.

Three hours, a very windy mountain road, a dozen wayward cows and quite possibly hundreds of goats later, we found ourselves at the departure spot. We almost drove right past—the travel “agency” was a trailer parked in a sand lot at the base of a mountain. In their defense, it was across the road from a small port and it did have a small sign. They greeted us by name and sent us down the road for a spell until the dhow was due to depart. What a treasure trove of seashells we discovered! I don’t think there is anything Boy and I like better than a day at the beach looking for seashells. Oman was our little piece of heaven on earth. Even the boys found lots of treasures. We might have missed our excursion, except we were the only party booked for the afternoon—a private tour!

Our guide, Mohammed, was quite a character. A native of Kumzar, Oman, he was fluent in forty-five dialects of his native language! I have no way to verify this, but I have no reason to doubt him either. He brought us to see the most amazing fjords/mountains. I couldn’t help but wish my college geology prof were there!

To make the day complete, we saw dolphins. Lots of dolphins. Unlike their captive counterparts, the wild dolphins do not like to swim with people or eat food out of their hands; they are afraid and will leave if you attempt either. But they love to race boats! We saw a particularly playful calf with its mother. What a treat to see such clever and graceful animals in the wild.

Before heading back to shore, we stopped at Telegraph Island. If I remember correctly, it is the location where the British first laid telegraph cable in this area in 1864. It was manned for only ten years, the gentleman deciding it was way too hot to stay longer! We were there in the hot January sun; I can’t imagine holding down the fort, so to speak, in July or August. Ugh. Boy and number one son swam from the dhow to the island to explore (what 5-year-old boy doesn’t love to explore an island?!). Before leaving, they left their mark in the form of an Inukshuk, not the first on the island, and I’m sure not the last.

In the end, a wonderful time was had by all. Oh man, we loved Oman. We will be back next year!

p.s. Does anyone know how to insert pictures in the body of the text? I could only figure out how to place them at the beginning of the post.

14 January 2010

Short Stories

Some days I would love to climb into a comfy cozy bed with fluffy pillows and plush comforters. . . with a mug of hot cocoa and a rich chocolate brownie. And of course, a good book. Today was one of those days. But with two young boys and a house to keep, the chances of spending any time cuddled in bed that is not between the hours of ten p.m. and six a.m. are slim to none. And forget reading. Unless it’s a book for ages three to five.

One of my most vivid memories of my mother is of her sitting on an old tree stump with her wide-brimmed hat, “watching” my brother and sister and I swim in the pond, while reading a book. For as long as I can remember, my mother has been a consummate reader. She read constantly (except when she was washing the clothes with a wringer washer and hanging them out on the line to dry, or milking the goats, or collecting the eggs, or weeding the gardens, or canning/freezing the produce, or baking fifteen loaves of bread at a time, or chasing after three children and goodness knows how many dogs, or preparing three home made from scratch meals a day, or any of the seemingly endless number of tasks she undertook day after day, week after week and year after year.) Yet, when she did have a free moment, she would read. I love her for that. I have such wonderful childhood associations with books—I loved books, I hoarded books, I read them constantly and kept them close by always. I still do (except for the reading them constantly part.) Now that I am a mother, I wonder how it is my mother managed to find the time to read. Heck. I wonder how she managed to keep her sanity!

So tonight I made my mother’s brownies. The boys are in bed, asleep. I think Boy has fallen asleep with them. So, perhaps while I have a few moments left before absolute bed time, I will steal away to my somewhat comfy cozy bed and sip some cocoa and eat that brownie while I read a short story from Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson.

Short stories are an exhausted mom’s best friend. They let me believe there is hope I will one day read in earnest as I did as a child. Some day all too soon.

10 January 2010

Cool Weather for Baking

I haven't managed to make much progress on the learning-to-blog front; however, it is nice and cool and I did manage to do a bit of baking!

Today I made some wonderful banana cake muffins, the same muffins I made for my son's 5th birthday not too long ago. Yum! A little history. . . I love bananas. I love cake and muffins. I've never in my life until now made banana cake muffins. Why?! It is a mystery. But I'm glad the waiting is over and I have seen the light. I'm not sure where I found the original recipe, perhaps cooks.com? No matter. I have a nasty, yet healthy habit of changing recipes fairly drastically to meet my own preferences of less sugar, less fat and more spice that I hope I can now call it my own. The muffins turned out beautifully-moist with a light and not-at-all-overpowering hint of banana that is not at all super-sweet and anything but bland (which sometimes happens when you omit ½ the sugar!). I think I will leave them un-iced, since neither of my boys like frosting. Although, I will give a few away to some friends who are working mothers that don’t have time to bake and will give them a topping of the best-ever cream cheese frosting from zoebakes.com. By the way, Zoe’s website is awe-inspiring. Her Devil’s Food Cupcake is my all-time favorite (along with a vegan version I modified) and her cream cheese icing with Lyle’s Golden Syrup is to die for! I would put a link here, but as I mentioned, I haven’t made much progress in learning about this blogger stuff and don’t know how to do it just yet. For now, you can go to zoebakes.com and search for devil’s food cupcakes (the frosting recipe follows the cupcake recipe), or you can try: http://zoebakes.com/?p=165 Perhaps I can link to it in this post at another time when I get that information sorted out.

Ok. Try clicking here.

Anyway, the Banana Cake recipe is as follows:

Cream together:
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
3 Tbsp. vegetable shortening (I use Crisco; mostly because my other option here is Ghee which I am not at all familiar with!)
1 cup white sugar
½ cup (scant) brown sugar (do not pack!)

3 eggs (add one at a time)
2-3 tsp. vanilla extract

Sift together:
1 ½ cups all-purpose unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat atta* (or white wheat flour)
½ cup wholemeal flour (in the US, traditional whole wheat flour)
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
½-1 tsp. cinnamon (opt.)
Dash of: nutmeg, cardamom (opt.)

Add the flour mixture alternating with:
1 ½ cup Activia Laban** (or: milk, buttermilk or yoghurt mixed with milk)

Lastly, add:
3-4 ripe bananas, mashed
2 tsp. lemon juice

Mix until moist. Pour into prepared muffin tins (I like to use papers so clean-up is easy!) but greased pans will do. Bake at 163C/325F for 22-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. For super-moist muffins, place pan in a freezer immediately to cool for 15 minutes before removing. Otherwise, cool on a wire rack (or bottoms-up if you don’t have a wire rack, like me). Enjoy!

*Atta: As far as I can tell, atta is Indian whole wheat flour. I buy Al Baker Chakki Fresh Atta which says on the ingredients list: Superior wholemeal wheat flour. Now, this stuff is light and wonderful, not coarse like some atta. I don’t recall ever seeing it in the US, but perhaps in a store that also carries a variety of Indian food? If not, I would think you could use the white whole wheat flour as a substitute. Of course, you could always just use all-purpose flour, but I like to make treats as nutritious as possible.

** Laban is a traditional drink here in the Middle East. It is a yoghurt drink made from unsweetened plain yoghurt. I like to use Activia brand as it has live bacterial cultures whereas the other brands sold in my area do not. You could make your own by mixing equal amounts of unsweetened plain yoghurt (preferably organic with live active cultures) and cold water—blend well in a blender. Otherwise, you could substitute with buttermilk (not at all the same! But a nice effect as well) or plain milk. Heck, you could do ½ cup unsweetened plain yoghurt and 1 cup milk! I love experimenting. . .

So there it is. I realize some of the ingredients I use will be unfamiliar. They were to me when I first moved here! But not being able to find ingredients I was accustomed to made me reach out and try new things. And some, like laban drink, are oh so good! So use what you have and don’t worry about it. It’s all good.

I also made my first-ever batch of home made cereal bars! But it is late and I must go to bed, so I will have to save that for another day. . .

p.s. If Boy (Marc, my husband) will teach me how to download pictures from my camera to the computer, I will post pictures of the muffins!

03 January 2010

New Skill #1

Today I learned how to place a picture on my blog. Sweet. As you can see folks, there is a huge learning curve here! My posts might be a bit limited for a while as I learn to use the blogging program/set up my blog. I know, I should have done this all in advance, but had I taken that approach it might be another year before I got started. At least this way I have a reason to push myself to do this. To git 'r done!

On another note, it is finally cooling down here in Dubai. I even wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt today. At some point I asked myself, since when is 75F cool? This on a day when it is -30F back home.

At some point, I will sit down and journal the events that led up to our moving to the United Arab Emirates. I would also like to include some of the highlights of our first year-and-a-half of living in Sharjah and Dubai. What an experience this has been.

p.s. The Header photo is the view of the Corniche in Sharjah from our 16th story flat when we lived there in 2008/2009. My profile picture is the sunset over the gulf. Both photos were taken by my husband, Marc. Thanks baby!

02 January 2010

Welcome to My Intrepid Experiment

This is it. For over a year I have wanted to start a blog. In September of 2008, my husband and I and our two young boys left family and friends to start a new job and a new life in the United Arab Emirates. I had hoped to start a blog to chronicle our everyday experiences and adventures, as well as to keep in touch with family and friends back home. Well, it never happened. It is now well over a year later and I am finally sitting down and biting the proverbial bullet while attempting to learn all about this blogging thing. It is my hope as I begin this adventure in blogging that I learn all I can-from the basics of 'how to' publish/upload photos/create links etc. to developing a style all my own.

I am not quite certain what I would like this blog to become. For now, I will use it as a way to share our experiences while living abroad, to force myself to sit down and think/research/write about topics and ideas that are meaningful to me, to share my love of baking and living a simple home-made life, and to learn a new-to-me skill. I am excited! And I welcome all to share in this intrepid experiment with me. I look forward to hearing feedback and gleaning advice from those who have stories and skills to share.

But it is late and I am tired. So I will leave it at that for now. Good night, and Happy New Year!