At least I have craft beer in the fridge

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Various juice concoctions at a restaurant in Muscat, Oman.

More often than I’d like to admit, the stress from teaching nudged me to drink. Not get drunk, but at least capture a mild buzz. To get home, take care of a few things, maybe workout, then enjoy a few beers on my front porch. To think–while driving home after a particularly stressful 5th period classes full of squirrely and disinterested students, in which maybe a quarter of my students demonstrated an inkling of learning–damn, that sucked but at least I have some craft beer in my fridge.

On top of job stress that might spur opening a cold one, Rebecca and I are definitely social drinkers. If friends want to meet up at a favorite watering hole, we usually give the idea a green light. If a family member wants to try a new bourbon, of course! If a new brewpub opens up and hosts a quiz night, count me in! And to think that my more recent behaviors are nothing compared to those during college: Freshman fall, we immediately began smuggling cases of Busch Light into our dorm rooms; rounds of flip cup, quarters, beer pong, and other drinking games rapidly diminished our supplies. We quickly restocked.

The past two months, however, I’ve consumed alcoholic drinks as infrequently as I did before I went to college.

We’ve spent almost two months in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, two Muslim countries where alcohol is heavily regulated. You can buy alcohol in bars or restaurants, but they have to be attached to hotels. And it’s really expensive–10-12 bucks for a Heineken draft. There are special liquor stores that sell to residents who have licenses, but as a visitor here, you can’t just pop down to the corner store and buy a six-pack. This inconvenience has been a good thing, making me reflect on about my relationship to booze, stress/mental health, and to habit.

We started our journey in Georgia, where wine and chacha (which can be higher than 150 proof!) flow abundantly and cheaply. There’s an ancient culture of toasting and hospitality in Georgia,  and they also apparently invented wine 8,000 years ago–this is something the neighboring Armenians like to contest. Given this tradition, how could I not imbibe at a precocious pace when in Georgia? We were invited to a few supras (traditional feasts) and I kept pace with the tabatas, or toastmasters. This seemed like the best choice at the time as to not offend my hosts. My body paid the price, but it was joyful and raucous cultural immersion.  Over seven weeks, we tasted dozens of delicious traditional wines, which ferment underground in large clay pots called kveris.

Upon first arriving in the UAE, I was thinking I’d miss the easy access to a cold beer or glass of wine. But I’m finding that I generally don’t. Instead of a beer and wine list, menus here usually have a fresh juice list, and it’s not that pricey compared to hip brunch spots in the US where a modest glass of freshly squeezed OJ will set you back eight dollars. Both Rebecca and I have really enjoyed this shift from alcohol to juice–you keep the tab down when a few glasses of Chardonnay or draft beers are replaced by a single lemon mint or pomegranate juice.

I’m also wondering whether we are feeling pretty good due to drinking less or due to our greatly diminished stress levels. Probably both. We currently have no obligations and only one regular bill–our mortgage, which is covered by renters back in Louisville–and very part time work. We are blessed in this regard. And I’m so relaxed not having to worry about students’ emotional outbursts, lesson plans, data collection, staff meetings, and the countless other duties teaching requires.

Forty-six percent of teachers say they feel high daily stress. That’s on par with nurses and physicians. And roughly half of teachers agree with this statement: “The stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it,”’ NPR reports. I’m not surprised. For thirteen years in a row, it was all I knew, and that idea of feeling like it wasn’t worth it recently began to creep into my mind.

The last three years in the classroom–during which I only taught a half day–had plenty of wins and positive relationships with the vast majority of students and colleagues. But there were also far too many times when I thought this isn’t fucking worth it. One time, a mother berated me over the phone, accused me of racism, and I did all I could not to return the favor by screaming right back at her. I had to hang up on her.

Teaching can drive you bonkers if you take things personally; fortunately, I developed the ability to separate external chaos from my position intentions and actions, at least for the most part. But I’m still human and things got to me, and most teachers will tell you it’s incredibly hard to sleep well after especially trying classroom and hallway episodes.

Writing this also made me think about a poignant narrative essay by Kristi Coulter. It’s a rumination about being a modern woman with wine as an ever-present vehicle for escape, a constant crutch to dull the trappings of domestic duties and career demands. Coulter notices how ubiquitous wine is at women-centric events, like baby showers and vinyasa and vino (wine and yoga sessions combined), in addition to comments about wine (or the absence of) on social media:

“Toward the end of summer I take a trip to Sedona and post a photo to Facebook that captures the red rocks, a stack of books, a giant cocoa smoothie, and my glossy azure toenails in one frame. It is scientifically the most vacation-y photo ever taken.

“Uh, where’s the wine?” someone wants to know.

“Yeah, this vacation seems to be missing wine,” someone else chimes in.

While I obviously have never been a “do it all” mother who may crave the escape wine represents, modern living–managing multiple social media accounts, full-time work, children, chores, consuming and dealing with material things–is a lot. There no doubt millions of Americans seek a reprieve from harried modern living through various levels of substance (ab)use.

When I’ve coped with bouts of depression over the years, when my head was foggy and the smallest of tasks seemed to be far more difficult than they should–think grocery shopping, writing lesson plans (which I can usually do in my sleep) or simply trying to focus on reading a novel–it was far too easy to reach for a bottle. I’m not ashamed of this, it just was. Between folks dealing with short mental health bouts or extended struggles, I suspect a majority succumb to seeking a little jolt or buzz that gives clarity or energy or a boost to feel better, at least temporarily.

It has been reassuring to realize that I don’t need to drink–that it was mostly due to habit, choices, and stress. Although I generally don’t really care about New Year’s Resolutions, but I do believe in the power of continual reflection, and these current adventures has allowed for plenty of that. So I’m moving into 2018 especially cognizant of the conditions we’ll eventually inhabit and create with our lives–having some drinks with friends for companionship, joy, and laughter is great. But when day-to-day demands or other stressors become an accomplice in ramping up consumption, it’s time to evaluate the reasons we seek a drink and perhaps make some changes.

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Working To Live Is Worth A Try

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We try to work enough to pay the travel bills and little more. Here’s one remote “office” we utilized in Oman.

We wake up, and I make some coffee in a French press. We skim the news online, which is sometimes curtailed if the daily barrage of American political madness is too much. We play with Mrs. Norris the cat. I usually drink two cups of coffee and enjoy a light breakfast. I step outside on the balcony to check the forecast, then we settle into our respective workplaces on the large brown sectional couch in my aunt Jane’s Dubai apartment. Depending on what remote work assignments we have, we take care of a few hours of focused work–at least we try. And after a late morning workout, we do whatever we want.

We are working to live rather than living to work. I don’t know how long this can feasibly last, but for now it’s sparking plenty of reflection, possibility, and gratitude.

I know this isn’t commonplace and our current situation comes from a serious place of privilege, as our employment status isn’t a matter of survival and realizing our basic needs. But it also emerged after dealing with fertility challenges in our quest to start a family and also some bold moves–jettisoning half of our belongings, renting our home out, quitting our full time jobs, and embarking on a journey with no itinerary. We had very comfortable lives in Louisville, a small, vibrant, and affordable city. Great friends, good jobs, and benefits.

After all, once you get into the American work grind as an educated professional, everything feels like default. There’s no obvious “opt” out clause: You’re going to work at least forty hours a week, likely having a mortgage or rent payment that requires both you and your partner work full time. Hopefully squirreling money into retirement accounts. The relentless march towards upgrading homes, cars, and toasters.

It has always felt like bullshit to me, at least to an extent.

I don’t like the idea of a constant striving and material accumulation, with the possibility of free time, adventure, or even following a passion being reserved for some distant future, during which old age and other inevitabilities make it less likely to realize these dreams. As Rolf Potts encourages in Vagabonding, you can “take control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.”

Accordingly, I’ve always admired those bold enough to live off the grid, embrace minimalism, or leave desk jobs to become organic farmers, among other lifestyle choices. Even the tiny house movement has some appeal to me, though this escapist fantasy comes with plenty of challenges.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone on a default “American Dream” path–had we gotten pregnant and had a two-year old child right now, I’d probably put health insurance, future college and retirement accounts on a higher pedestal. Due to our love for travel, I suspect we’d be considering what it might look like to live abroad, even with a growing family, but who knows? There are long term world travelers with kids out there, and that’s awesome.

While it’s highly possible that we’ll reinsert ourselves back into a version of the “grind” sooner rather than later, traveling has opened up new thinking about what it could look like when we settle again more permanently. Will we both try to have full time jobs? Since we own barely any furniture, would we really want a large apartment or home and the cost/stress of filling it up? Do we desire the flexibility that being self-employed allows?

And I’m not sure that my reentry to the workforce be as a classroom teacher. It’s tough to avoid feeling overworked, overburdened, and overcommitted as a public school educator, and I was always cognizant of a work-life balance–whatever that means. A few years ago, I blogged about the idea that being busy is a badge of honor for so many Americans, often manifesting itself, perhaps, as a form of humble bragging, a way of showing off of how many plans, family obligations, work e-mails, and dinner parties one manages to cram into a hectic schedule.

Yet ironically, many professional Americans actually have more leisure time than they think. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Tim Krieder writes.

I’ll pass, thank you.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you weren’t so busy? What would it look like if you cut your work hours in half? Where would you have to live in order for this to be feasible? How would you spend your time? What choices would you now be able to make and what would you sacrifice? If you jettisoned more than half of your belongings, what would you dispose of and what would you keep?

Almost four months into our travels, we are nearly even, finance-wise, chipping away on various remote projects in order to sustain our temporarily nomadic lifestyle. For the first time in my adult life, I’m not worried about stacks of bills. Or sifting through mail. We’re never busy in the way modern life often saturates us with “to-do” lists. I’m not trying to save money for my retirement fund or for the down payment on a bigger house that I’ll have to put more stuff in to make it look presentable. We are, however, making some kickass deposits into our experience account.

I find great joy in recollecting and retelling poignant experiences stumbled upon or planned while on the road. Meeting the local vintner and sharing many glasses of wine in a Slovenian village, as he smiled and scrolled on my Google maps app trying to locate his home. Playing Bananagrams with the proprietor at a bed and breakfast in a holler at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. Zooming on a motorbike up a hill on Thailand’s Koh Mook island, with the final treat a delightful family-run restaurant and the best green curry I’ve ever had. And the list goes on…

On the Road in Oman: Insights and Tips

You can pack in many unique experiences in Oman within a week or two, and we tried our best to do just that. It wasn’t a perfect trip–it’s silly to have that expectation, but I hope to visit Oman again someday or at least host some of our new Omani acquaintances if they ever visit the States.

Here’s a gallery of more images if you care to check them out! 

You can navigate without a GPS:  Despite a few detours, a nonworking Google Map–the blue dot flickering and slowly following our Toyota Fortuner’s progress–was enough for us. This wasn’t by design. That’s another story. But we were on a well-traveled loop, from Muscat down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, back up through the Wahiba Sands, up to Jebel Shams, then back to Muscat. The roads are mostly new, but signage doesn’t always match up with expectations. Luckily, the Omanis were always willing to help, either in English or enthusiastic Arabic, even though we only knew a few words. 

Definitely rent a 4WD:

If you have an inkling of adventure in you, you’ve got to rent a 4WD in Oman. For us, it was especially handy over several days. We needed it for our drive out to a fancy desert camp in Wahiba Sands, 11 km on mostly level ground between the dunes. And once you get into the mountainous region, even the paved roads have some serious grades. Driving up to the village of Al Khitaym for the “Grand Canyon” walk is dirt road part of the time and steep. But the highlight of our 4WD adventures had to be the drive from Al Hamra to Bald Sayt–a truly spectacular and adrenaline-pumping journey. After enjoying a walk around Bald Sayt, we ended up giving a lift to a hitchhiking Egyptian family who were leaving the valley enclave, heading to the nearest city of Rustaq for their monthly trip.

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Our passengers from Bald Sayt to Rustaq.

The Jebel Shams area is sweet:

While Oman’s coastal area is picturesque in places, and the wadis a highlight for most visitors, we were most impressed by the mountain region. Misfah Al Abriyeen village is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited–the walk along the Falaj (irrigation canal) is really beautiful. Just be respectful of the local farmers tending their terraced plots with date palms and other crops.

There is also a sweet little museum in Al Hamra called Bait Al Safah, which is enclosed in one of the oldest homes in the village. It provides a glimpse into traditional Omani culture–there are live demonstrations of cooking, medicine-making, and other crafts. Very cool.

Then there’s the “Grand Canyon” of the Middle East. You can park at Al Khitaym, where goats acclimated to getting treats from visitors might even try to get in your car. The trail from this village gradually descends to some ruins tucked along the cliff. And there’s reportedly a nice swimming hole at the end of this walk. We couldn’t find it, which was the only disappointment during this fairly strenuous 3-4 hour round trip. (Someone had told us it wasn’t much of a hike…not true, you need to be in decent shape for this).

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Not shy.

Omanis are off-the-charts hospitable:

I don’t say this lightly. After our honeymoon in Thailand, during which a man zoomed our lost selves around on his motorbike for an hour, trying to deliver us back to a guest house, and another family hosted us in their traditional countryside home, treating us to grandma’s homemade chili paste with fish, boiled duck eggs, noodles, and other delights, I figured the Thai people were the friendliest on the planet. Now I’m not so sure.

Our first airbnb host Mohammad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, full of wisdom and open to cultural exchange–he even went snorkeling with us.

We then met Abdul, an Omani Special Forces paratrooper, while wandering around in Al Hamra. We were looking for the old section of the town, photographing goats in the alleyways. He asked if we needed help; we said we didn’t, thank you. But he then ended up inviting us for dates and coffee on the ground with his mom and sister. This led to two trips to his home, where we enjoyed conversation and received some generous gifts of traditional Omani clothing and aromatics. Like I said in the intro, I hope we can reciprocate someday. Inshallah, as Abdul told us.

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With Abdul.

It’s such a chill place compared to Dubai:

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, ruler for the past 47 years, determined that he wanted to keep Oman’s traditional culture intact, developing slowly and sustainable. As a result of this leadership, you won’t see gleaming skyscrapers in Muscat, or over-the-top theme parks. There is a coherence to the place that you won’t find in Dubai, where anything goes architecture and rampant development can make you feel like you’re in the midst of a kid going crazy playing SimCity.

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Muttrah (old port area), Muscat

Avoid visiting the wadis on holidays and weekends:

We unknowingly booked our rental car during Oman’s long holiday weekend in early December. This caused the wadis to be overflowing with people. If you are looking to experience the wadis during a less hectic time, try to visit them on the weekdays and get out early.  Nonetheless, we loved swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, where there are plenty of pools to explore (keep walking up the valley to avoid crowds and explore more pools).  If you are a woman, plan to swim in your clothing or shorts and a one-piece bathing suit; as it is considered disrespectful to strip down to a bikini. You will likely receive some stares no matter what; Omani Muslim women do not swim in public places.

Visit the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve in the early morning:

A few other travelers that we met during our trip also encountered a chaotic crowd at the turtle reserve for the nighttime viewing. We were advised by an expat who has lived in Oman for 20 years to opt for the reserve’s early morning tour, which begins at 4:45 am. According to him, you have a better chance of seeing the turtles with a much smaller group.

Don’t Miss the Souk in Muttrah

The enclosed souk in Muttrah, the old port in Muscat, should not be missed. It is an endless maze of vendors selling a combination of inexpensive tourist knick-knacks and more authentic items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

 

 

Oman Road Trip Blunders: An Imperfect Travel Tale

Before Paul and I started our adventure, friends and family implored us to keep them updated in one way or another. The easiest, and perhaps laziest, way to do this is via social media. And admittedly, I’ve wholeheartedly said “yes” to this type of sharing. Each time I post a pic of where we have been, which is quite regularly now, I am cognizant of how difficult it is to avoid extreme ends of the perception pendulum, either trying to present a flawless portrait of our experiences or doing the opposite, cramming people’s feeds with complaints and irritations.

And so, in the spirit of being “real” and presenting a more balanced view of things, I am choosing to share the first day of me and Paul’s self-drive road trip in Oman, which was full of blunders and tested our resolve to embrace the unknown.

To preface the story, I will admit that Paul and I travel well together. It’s a good thing, because if not, this little global jaunt that shirks concepts such as long-term planning and certainty would have stalled out pretty quickly. That being said, spending most of your time with someone in spaces much smaller than your prior residence certainly magnifies specific behaviors and conflicting preferences. For example, Paul has this otherworldly ability to torpedo out of bed in the morning, energy radiating off of him in waves. I really prefer to ease into my enthusiasm for the day, meaning that I don’t really want to vocalize anything but grunts and yawns for at least a half hour after I wake. Paul and I also have very different work styles. He can concentrate in the midst of any distraction. Other people talking loudly. NBD. Playing music with words in it. A cakewalk. A 50-pound jackhammer motoring away next door. Child’s play. To put it simply, I prefer silence. Prolonged, uninterrupted, pure silence. This can make me a barrel of laughs to be around when I am working, as you can imagine. So, you can see how things can get a little dicey.  

Paul and I had high expectations for our self-drive Oman tour. Preliminary internet research talked about the country’s diverse terrain of mountains, desert, and coastline, as well as its warm, welcoming citizens. Bloggers specifically raved about the picturesque wadis (valleys) dotted with deserted turquoise swimming pools. All one had to do was rent a 4 x 4 and venture onto the road. This immediately conjured up images of us being amatuer explorers, stumbling upon previously undiscovered areas of inimitable beauty. We would arrive and bask in the utopia we found, gazing over the pools, untouched and stippled in just the right amount of sunlight.

Airport Delays

We got a late start the day we planned to pick up our 4 x 4. We had been spending the last three days in Muscat with potentially the nicest airbnb host ever, Mohammed, an incredibly wise, 45 year-old Omani man who speaks quietly and listens intently. Mohammed truly delights in deliberate and enthusiastic cultural exchange. He went snorkeling with us, he brought us dolphin watching, he introduced us to his acupuncture tools, and finished off our stay with one of his favorite hobbies, massage. On the day of our departure, we of course wanted to share one last homemade breakfast with him, even though it changed our schedule.

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Early morning breakfast with airbnb host, Mohammed. Feeling good about the day.

By the time we arrived at the airport to pick up our car, we were met by the grim faces of the people waiting in line in front of us at the rental kiosk. One individual exuded the stereotype of a tightly wound, reserved, middle-aged white guy who is used to optimal efficiency and logic at all times. He paced back and forth, sitting down with an audible sigh and then standing up to hover over the rental car counter where a delayed transaction was taking place. The other man was grumbling about how they were renting out cars with over 120,000 miles on them. Figuring we were in for a wait, I asked both of them how long they had been standing in line. Uptight guy was apparently too worked up to respond (Yes, he did speak English). The other guy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation and said, “I don’t know! Too long!.” So that was that. “Well,” I thought, “Paul and I are in no hurry. We aren’t tethered to silly conventions such as time!”

Thirty minutes later we made it to the counter, only to find out that there were no GPS gadgets remaining. Undeterred, we figured it would not be a problem; we could buy a map since our international data plan was mysteriously not working in Oman. Besides, this was a freewheeling ADVENTURE. If we had too many directions we may never happen upon previously undiscovered locations!  The rental car attendant, clearly not privy to our visions, looked a little concerned and suggested that we buy a SIM card.

Heeding his advice, we picked up a map and went over to the appropriate counter to buy one. Seventeen dollars and an introductory lesson on SIM cards later, it was becoming apparent that it may not work for us. Everytime we inserted the delicate piece of plastic in one of our phones, an error message popped up on our screens, taunting us with its power. The employee who sold us the SIM card brushed these error messages aside, all we had to do was go somewhere with free wifi in order to activate the SIM card and it would work.

Problem was, the free wifi in the airport emitted a very weak signal, and was not registering on our phones. We were directed to the airport information booth, only to meet with a befuddled employee who recommended we revisit the SIM card booth. At this point, we were making slow, stumbling laps around the arrivals section of Muscat’s Airport. Attempts to get password and login information from any of the independent businesses in the airport failed. After a friendly Omani/American citizen (a totally different story that deserves another blog post) and his brother took up our cause with marginal success, our hopes for the SIM card solution dwindled and we committed to the paper map.

On the Road

Finally on the road, our next step was to get ourselves out of Muscat. With Paul manning the wheel, I was in charge of the navigation piece of our journey. Maybe not the best arrangement. Can I please point out that paper maps can be quite unwieldy? Unfolding and refolding our primary navigational tool, cursing it as it crinkled itself into different, awkward shapes, I anxiously scanned the area of Muscat as Paul whizzed on down the highway, guided by my instructions, which included precise phrases such as, “Ummmm…there may be a roundabout coming up, er, OK, not for awhile, wait, Oh, here it is!  GO RIGHT!” Needless to say, if we were contestants on the Amazing Race (which I sometimes like to pretend we are in) we’d be packing our bags. After a tense 45 minutes accompanied by a bundle of expletives, we spit out victorious onto the coastal road. Our road warrior journey was beginning! On to the wadis!

Our general plan was to meander down the main northern coastal road, traveling east, until we reached two destinations, the Bimmah Sinkhole and Wadi Shab. Type these names into Google and you will find an endless screen of idyllic images, an explosion of sparkling pools, brilliant sunlight, and palm trees, all ensconced by rugged mountains. Things were going well, we had found “The Nation’s Station,” the English-speaking radio station in Oman where no musical genre is neglected. Bopping along to tunes that ranged from Celine Dion to early Dr. Dre to Christmas carols, we felt redeemed after our morning delays.This was until we noticed two things: 1) That the names on our handy-dandy paper map were not exactly matching up with the road signs that we were passing and, 2) That the coastal road was the opposite of isolated.

Road Trip Reality

Bloggers had mentioned how you can camp anywhere in Oman, finding yourself the only one on a long strip of beach. As we drove, we were realizing that EVERYONE must have received this memo. Tents and families lined the coastline. It’s funny how you can hear things and completely dismiss them until their sudden importance smacks you in the face. Airbnb Mohammed HAD mentioned to us that it was a long national holiday weekend. The reality of this fact became apparent as we passed teeming crowds of holiday revelers.

Our radio station sing-a-long quieted by the scene outside of our car, we managed to find the Bimmah Sinkhole, whose signs spelled it differently and did not refer to it as a sinkhole. Due to this, the crowds of people were a boon, as all we had to do was follow the line of cars streaming into what looked like a park of sand and shrub. Despite the fact that the Bimmah Sinkhole was clearly a favorite holiday destination, we decided to take a look. The area around the site has been built up for tourism, and loads of large families were sharing meals under the shade of small trees.

In retrospect, it was nice to see people spending quality time together with their loved ones, but at that moment, we were inwardly cursing these family gatherings. This was not the type of destination for daring adventurers such as us! The Bimmah Sinkhole is stunning, even though we were seeing it flanked by teenage girls posing for 10 minute selfie sessions. Men jumped into the naturally occuring ocean pool from daring heights, prompting yells of encouragement and clapping from the crowd. Paul took a dip in the delightfully warm water. I snapped a few pics. And then we left. Don’t get me wrong, the Bimmah Sinkhole is an unforgettable sight even when it is swamped with people; however, we were a little deflated that we did not have the more isolated experience that we had constructed in our minds.

Onward to Wadi Shab, a valley where people had told us you can swim through a cave and be gifted with pretty much a modern-day version of Eden. Ever the optimists, we actually believed that Wadi Shab would possibly not be enveloped by holiday throngs. Once again, the enormous amount of cars, not the road signs, guided us to our destination, only to be presented with lines of people waiting eagerly to aboard small boats that would drop them off at the entry of Wadi Shab. Allowing our frustration to get the best of us, we decided not to venture into the chaos. I briefly got out of the car to take a few snaps of roadside goats, only to be met by impatient honks from the traffic jam of cars behind us, and then we hightailed it on out of there.

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Goats. The only thing we snapped a picture of at Wadi Shab. Insert car honking in the background.

Turtle Reserve Redemption?

It was now almost 4:00 pm, and so we decided to drive to our hotel for the night, sulking in a soup of disappointment, and nervously wondering if this was an omen for the next nine days of our trip. Although we had 99% surrendered to the limited success of the day, we knew there was still time to turn it around. For tonight, we had plans to visit the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, and if mama turtles laying eggs on the beach can’t turn a frown upside down, I don’t know what can.

Prior to embarking upon our Oman adventure, I had scoured the internet for details about the turtle reserve and found that it is somewhat controversial, at least for the Trip Advisor set. Although there were positive experiences, many reviewers complained about the beach’s upkeep (where the turtle’s nest) as well as the potential stress felt by the turtles from being gawked at by enormous amounts of visitors. These concerns resurfaced in my mind as we drove to the reserve. Paul and I were planning to eat at its restaurant (it also has a hotel), as in another falter for the day, we had run out of cash and discovered that the limited meal options in the area typically did not take credit cards. An ATM was nowhere to be found.

Arriving around 6:30 pm at the reserve we were told by the front desk employee that we had been assigned to Group Two for turtle viewing and that, “At some point around 8:30 pm,  maybe 9:00 pm, maybe 9:30 pm, all individuals who were assigned to our group would be called to then come back to the counter to purchase tickets.” I found it a little odd that we could not just buy them at that moment, but was distracted by the fact that I was hungry and wanted to eat my increasingly gloomy feelings. We sat down to the buffet provided by the restaurant, which was good, but certainly not worth the 50 dollars it ended up costing.

By the time we re-emerged from the restaurant, we were greeted by pandamonium. The reception was crammed with people all clamoring for a chance to maybe see some turtles. Children ran around, people cut in front of me as I tried to wait in line for the internet passcode,and cars continued to flood the already full parking lot. As Paul and I read the rules for turtle viewing, which stressed how imperative it is for viewers to be quiet as to not stress out the turtles, a crescendo of kiddie cries filled the air around us. There was no way viewing was going to be quiet. We also predicted that when a group was called to purchase tickets at the counter, any attempt at orderliness such as lines would be pushed to the wayside. Giving each other looks of surrender, Paul and I promptly turned around and left. We had been hemorrhaging money all day and figured that we would just need to let go of the fact that we visited the turtle reserve just to eat a mediocre fifty dollar buffet.

On the way out, the road in to the turtle reserve was illuminated by the headlights of a long line of cars. Feeling tired, annoyed, and clearly INCREDIBLY melodramatic, Paul said something like, “Well, at least we still have our health.”  I slouched in my seat, thinking mean, undeserved thoughts about holiday goers who just wanted to create memories with their families. It was not our best travel day and we were not at our best. Luckily, by the time we settled in back at the hotel, we could laugh about it, promising ourselves that we would make the next day, no matter what, better. Because if this was a bad day for us, we are doing pretty all right.

It turns out that our first day on the road in Oman was anything but indicative of the rest of our trip. We more than redeemed ourselves over the next week, and plan to share more about how amazing the country is in a future blog post, accompanied by some road trip tips that we learned along the way.

The reality is that the sticky, uncomfortable parts of travel, the ones that include getting sick, getting lost, or just plain getting tired, are the ones not frequently displayed via social media, where photos undergo a digital form of plastic surgery before being posted, accompanied by a series of comical, inspirational, or philosophical remarks. People embarking upon their own travel adventures, including myself, fall into the trap of romanticizing the entire experience, and turn optimistic hopes about travel into rigid expectations. I’ve fallen victim to curating that one, envy-inducing travel shot, maniacally scrolling through the Insta filters and brainstorming various witty one-liners before sending it off into the digital stratosphere. Just as there exists a cult of satiny suburban mom accounts (How is she perfectly toned, impeccably dressed, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when she has three kids!?), Instagram and Facebook are also filled with flawless photographs documenting the wanderings of seemingly unburdened travelers.

Travel IS awesome, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that Paul and I have. But it’s not just awesome because it has the ability to introduce you to new and wonderful people, experiences, environments, and ideas. It’s also awesome because it can be hard, unexpected, and is always imperfect. I’ve found that it’s these aspects of travel which have left some of the most indelible marks on my perspective and overall mindset, and have benefited me in enormously positive ways.

What The Sultans Have Taught Us About the UAE (So Far)

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Rebecca and I with the three Sultans.

As the tan Honda Civic cruises down coastal highway E11 in the Emirate of Umm al Quawain, past mangrove marshes and ubiquitous cranes signaling yet more commercial development, Rebecca and I pepper Sultan III with questions: about the Quran, about family and marriage customs, about national dress. He gladly fills us in. Like us, he is eager to participate in some cultural exchange.

We learn that he has 18 siblings. Large families are encouraged as national policy in the UAE, and the government provides generous incentives for support, such as free public university and marriage costs between Emirati nationals. We tell him about our own family members and the exorbitant cost of many American universities. We learn Sultan III is a marketing student who enjoys listening to an eclectic mix of traditional Arabic and American pop music. We tell him about our own musical tastes, but we learn that during the call to prayer (Adhan), which we can faintly hear through closed car windows, I must not play bluegrass music–or any music, for that matter.

And we talk about travel. He hopes to visit the US someday. He’d follow in one of his brother’s footsteps, who spent a month-long honeymoon in the States. “In America, my brother tells me most people were funny and friendly,” he tells us. “I’m glad,” I reply with a sense of relief, thinking how the Trump-spiced soup of xenophobia and ignorance has reared its ugly head in so many ways.  

In a nation with the vast majority of residents being expatriates–estimates range between 80 or 90%–it’s common to work and live in the UAE without having much understanding of Emirati culture. You’ll certainly visit Dubai and come away with a strong impression. You’ll be amazed at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (at least until a project in Saudi Arabia eclipses it). You might suffer from sore feet after strolling the white marble floors at the world’s largest mall, and you might experience the desert through a “safari” tour. You’ll probably also realize that you’re visiting a place governed through absolute monarchy, and you’d be foolish not to respect local laws and customs.

But if you’re like us, you’ll be intrigued to learn more about the Emiratis, who stand out amongst the crowd, wearing their official national dress–bright white kanduras for men and black abayas for women–in the midst of what is truly a remarkable melting pot. There are reportedly 200 nationalities represented in Dubai. 

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Abayas for sale in a market in Oman (like it the UAE, women in Oman typically wear a black abaya).

We’ve certainly had good fortune in connecting with several Emirati students at a local men’s university in Sharjah, where there are plenty of western staff and faculty members, but visitors from the US are fairly rare. By hanging out in the campus library where my aunt works, we met three different students named Sultan–we affectionately refer to them as Sultan I, II, and III as a way of differentiating during our conversations :). And two of the Sultans generously offered to bring us on local tours, which is how we found ourselves on the coastal road in Umm Al Quawain.

One week before our tour with Sultan III, Sultan I had given us a tour of his home Emirate Sharjah, where we sampled breakfast sweets and wandered through a local souq (market), where he helped me purchase a jalabiya. Like Sultan III, Sultan I has a desire to learn about the greater world while also sharing insights into Emirati life. Recently, Sultan I also generously loaned me one of his kanduras to wear during the university’s national day celebration–the UAE just turned 46 years old on December 2nd.

The students seemed to appreciate my attempt at wearing their national dress–I certainly wasn’t receiving many puzzled looks, but it was a little tight!

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While it was a little tight and a tad short, the Emirati students seemed to enjoy my attempt at donning their national dress.

Back in the car, near the end of the tour with Sultan III, I mentioned that I had yet to try camel milk. His eyes lit up, and he immediately pulled off the highway at the nearest rest area, returning to the car with my cold refreshment. “Very nutritious and natural,” he told me. I liked it–really not too different a taste from cow’s milk. For desert-dwelling Bedouins, camel’s milk, along with dates, are still important sources of nourishment.

As our afternoon outing ended, he told us, “It would be best if all visitors to the UAE were friends with a local Emirati.” We certainly concur.

Five Early Insights From Novice Vagabonders

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In addition to deeper reflections on lifestyle and place, the logistics of traveling–booking accommodations, arranging transport, navigating day-to-day errands–present opportunities to consider how you travel. This is subjective based on your goals, of course. We are certainly “green” travelers compared to other adventurous folks, but after about nine weeks on the road, we’ve got a few insights we’d like to share.

Pack less than you think you need. In late August, we created a staging area on a bed at my mom’s house in Concord, NH, laying out some mono toned quick dry clothing, multiple adapters and cell phones chargers, and everything else we thought we’d need for our journey. My romantic vision of carrying one small duffel bag around the globe soon seemed to vanish by the minute. Even though we seemed to have done alright packing, it could have been a little better.

Among several other items, my nifty orange and gray nylon hammock and our microfiber travel towels can be crushed up into small sacks, but they’ve languished in the bottom of my bag for over two months now. If we end up camping in a remote area on an island, I’m sure they will come in handy.  Probably not going to happen.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to travel light. Dragging an enormous pack full of junk is the surest way to hamstring your flexibility and turn your travels into a ridiculous, grunting charade,” Rolf Potts writes in Vagabonding.

But do pack a tennis ball, eye masks, and earplugs.  These are lightweight and critical items. The tennis ball: Thanks for the tip, mom! After seemingly setting pedometer records during a typical day walking in Tbilisi, rolling my feet on a tennis ball provided serious relief. I tend to have foot, leg, and hip ailments perpetually hound me, so I appreciate this ubiquitous sporting object that doubles as a massage tool.  

Eye mask and earplugs? Nothing revolutionary here, but when traveling, you’ll obviously become exhausted and also find yourself in less-than-ideal situations when you’re seating in the same row as a wailing infant or are your brain is so addled by changing time zones that you need to create darkness and try to summon a nap.

Osprey bags are awesome. I’m not getting paid for this endorsement:). I stumbled across this company  but during a search for new luggage, and it has been well worth the cost for these bags. We carry a 70 and an 80 liter bag; If we venture on a little expedition to a vineyard for a night or two, for instance, then we have more than enough room in either bag to just take one.  The backpack straps can be exposed for use or neatly zipped away, which rocks.

Embrace negotiation. Many Americans, like myself, aren’t often in a position to haggle in our day-to-day lives. But out in the world, it seems like everything can be negotiable. In Tbilisi, there were no taxi meters, so before we hopped in the back of cigarette-saturated cab, I used a combination of gestures and grunts–many drivers spoke little English–to agree on a price. These were low stakes as most rides were $2 to $3 dollars.  When we visited a souk (market) in Sharjah the other week, our new friend Sultan helped wheeled and dealed to help get us a discount on a few items, including a traditional Emirati male robe called a jalabiya.

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Trying on what soon became my jalabiya. Thanks to Sultan for helping negotiate a fair price!

You will be ignorant at times. When you’re traveling, you’re obviously going to make mistakes and not know what the heck is going on. We’ve avoided significant gaffes so far, but we’re ready to laugh at ourselves or just learn and move on. Yesterday, I was attempting to share some bluegrass music with our new acquaintance Sultan–who was giving us a tour of his home Emirate, Ajman. I started playing the music during the call to prayer, which we could faintly hear through the windows as we cruised along a coastal road. Big no-no. I’ve found that people are generally forgiving if you show a willingness to learn and express interest in local culture–this has certainly been true in Georgia and UAE so far.

What have you learned while on the road? In hindsight, what would you do differently relating to travel planning or execution?

If you didn’t see Rebecca’s last post, please check it out–it’s an incredibly powerful reflection on circumstances influencing our current journey.

On being OK with feeling OK.

With little fanfare, we suddenly found ourselves suspended in a murky underworld inhabited by the reproductively challenged. Looking for answers, I frantically thrust my arms out into the shadowy abyss and immediately did the one thing that rarely provides the reassurance that one is seeking and almost never quells any confusion – I started Googling. One of the first emotions that had overwhelmed me when we heard the news was not that I may never give birth to a mini-me, but rather anxiety over how my husband Paul was handling the revelation coupled with a fear of what this new reality would do to our relationship.

Infertility is one of those circumstances that can explode a marriage in one fell swoop or slowly erode away at it with insidious precision. Riddled with worry, I typed away at my computer, creating increasingly fatalistic phrases such as, “can’t have baby divorce” and “no kids infertility unfulfilled life.” These searches delivered an avalanche of blogs dedicated to infertility journeys.

The experience of not being able to reproduce naturally is jolting. Reproduction is an evolutionary behavior that has had unrivaled staying power. As our continuously modernizing world evolves, we have shed many routines and behaviors practiced by our ancestors. However, the biological urge to reproduce, and the expectation of what it offers, is something that has never seemed to wane. One does not have to look further than their Facebook feed to see how brutally challenging yet rewarding and life-affirming carrying and raising a child can be.

It’s been over two years since Paul and I started trying to conceive. Several years ago, we had definitely noticed an uptick in our need to nurture, with me reigniting my lifelong love of the cutest, most underrated pets ever, guinea pigs, and Paul maintaining a strict daily bonding schedule with our elderly cats, Frankie and Bo. Other than that, we both refused to be consumed with overzealous planning and anxiety that can occur when a couple is trying to get pregnant. We were like the hippie stoners of the reproductive realm, unhurried, not really stressed, and pretty sure “Everything would work out when it would work out, you know, man.”

When it became clear that things “were not just working out,” I tried to come to grips with our fertility challenges. I clicked and read story after story online. I found that couples were choosing all kinds of paths to feel their way through the shadows. Some were trying various medical procedures, others were adopting, and then there was the deeply pious set – those couples who found comfort in good old- fashioned prayer and impenetrable hope. Although the coping mechanisms varied, all of these stories were bound by an excruciating thread of sadness, disappointment, and devastation.

As I waded through these digital testimonials, I was forced to address our current situation. It was a quiet, deeply private, and lumbering confrontation that existed mainly in my head and in honest, searching conversations with my husband. As we considered our options, certain truths became exceedingly clear – we both were sad and disappointed, but not devastated. We both were open to the options with which we were now presented. We both admitted to each other that we didn’t feel the ache of unfulfillment that so many people say you are destined to experience if you don’t have children. In addition, we both were not caught up with the idea of legacy and an all-consuming desire to extend the family tree.

It was not until two years had passed in our infertility journey when I felt compelled to start writing about the bulging thicket of emotions that had been steeping slowly and silently away in my mind. Initially, when friends and family asked me how I was feeling, I was cagey with them. I was not ready to vocalize the feelings that rolled around continuously in my head because I was still navigating them slowly and cautiously. After the discovery that Paul and I felt similarly about our situation, I was still struggling with my personal and unexpected reaction to infertility as a woman. I was realizing that the most difficult part of this journey for me was not the fact that I may never give birth. Rather, it was the harsh judgement I was placing upon myself for not adhering to ingrained societal conventions and norms surrounding motherhood. I had internalized outdated, traditional beliefs that I would never impress upon another woman.

Inside my entangled web of thought I repeatedly identified a few particularly stubborn threads. The first one was that I felt guilty with quietly feeling OK with the reality that I may never give birth naturally. The second, more nagging one was a question of my identity as a childless woman in her mid-thirties.

My Unexpected Reaction

At one time, the guilt I felt about feeling OK with our infertility reality consumed me daily. My innate reaction both betrayed and confused me. I did not understand why I wasn’t huddled in a corner crying, my ovaries aching to give birth. Why was I not feeling the emptiness that so many women express when they realize they may not be able to have a child naturally? Was I coping by floating around in a fragile bubble of denial?  Would it soon pop, delivering me into a blubbering mess of despair, or worse yet, a detached state of permanent ennui? Was I just a selfish asshole, even though I would never make this assumption about other childless women?

I have always loved kids (except when we’re at water parks together). As a teenager, I revelled in being the babysitter that everyone liked, one who would never think of plopping her charges in front of a television set. As I grew older, I was “that girl” who annoyingly cooed at babies in public and naturally threw friends’ kids onto my hip without thinking twice. I ADORE my niece and nephew. I had never been one of those people who scowl cynically at the sight of kiddie updates clogging their Facebook feed, who know with extreme certainty that they are not boarding the baby train.

I blamed myself for not being devastated. For naturally believing that whatever Paul and I decide to do, whether it be adoption, IVF, or not having kids, that we will be OK. That there are other fulfilling ways to nurture and give to others if we never end up having children. In short, I was not OK with feeling OK.

Motherhood as Womanhood

Beyond the guilt and mistrust of my reaction, I suffered from serious self-doubt about my personal identity. For obvious reasons, motherhood and womanhood are inextricably linked. Although it is not a woman’s sole identity, it certainly can feel like it when you find yourself at prime reproductive age. The role of the doting, self-sacrificing mother is one that for right now, I don’t have, and I feel–at times–left out of this shared experience that so many women navigate together. My inner conscious had sneakily metamorphosed into an overbearing mother circa 1950. If I was not married and “creating a family” I was clearly not succeeding at life.

My identity angst was also intensified by the narrow paradigm that is peddled when discussing childless women. A common scenario is that if a woman is not pursuing motherhood, it is because she has decided to invest in a career that prevents her from being able to “have it all.” This is true for many women, but it’s not true for me. I like having a career that fulfills me, but I had tried the stress-inducing, demanding job scenario and realized it’s not what I want. I was not a mother nor was I toiling away at a job that required 60 – 80 hours a week, nevermind “having it all” and balancing both of these things simultaneously. This left me feeling wholly inadequate.

Although I had achieved and was content with a work-life balance that had eluded me for a long time, I judged myself for it, simply because it did not fit neatly into either side of the common paradigm prevalent when discussing women my age.  Although I have started to cultivate a self-love for who I am at this moment in my life, it was very difficult for me to initially accept the reality of who that person is – a 35 year-old childless, not overworked, happily married woman who is lucky enough to be able to travel the world. Although this IS a wonderful and incredibly privileged  situation to be in, I can still feel somewhat isolated from the majority of women in my age group.

In the flurry of family-starting fever that defines the lives of so many American middle class couples in their thirties, it can be hard to remember that it’s OK to not be on the same trajectory and to be content with it. It can be so easy to forget that the process of self-acceptance invites new and unexpected possibility.

On Being OK with Feeling OK

The silver lining to this entire experience has been the reminder of the strength and resoluteness of the partnership and friendship that Paul and I have built. This journey has been easier because of it. Despite the fact that I can still struggle with self-acceptance, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel like the luckiest woman in the world. I have an incredible husband whose enthusiasm for life is infectious.

We share a love and kinship buoyed by honesty, compassion, and positivity. In comparison to a lot of people, we lead charmed lives. After briefly considering IVF, Paul and I both decided it was not right for us. We had plans to eventually settle permanently in New England to be closer to family, but had also been yearning to travel more over the past few years. We realized this was our chance. Over margaritas one night in the spring of 2017, we decided to do what we are best at – not dwell, not obsess over things we can’t control, but instead trust our intuition and commit to steps that felt right for us. This meant simplifying our lives and launching a plan to travel the world for 6 months. I write this as we explore our second destination, Dubai. Raising children, whether it be through adoption or IVF is not out of the picture, but for now we are extremely grateful for the abundance of love, privilege and opportunity that we have right now.

Snapshots From Georgia: A Glimpse Into Our Two Months

We’ve said to several of our family members and also our new Georgian acquaintances: We’ll have to be careful to not compare the next places we go to Georgia because it has been such a wonderful country to begin our travels in. Can anything top it?

Vacations and travel are never perfect of course. As travelers, Rebecca and I aren’t immune to the shitty and/or tedious things we all encounter in day-to-day living. We’ve already had plenty of afternoons lounging around with a little bit of cabin fever. We’ve dealt with colds. Taxi drivers occasionally try to rip us off. And so on. But there were so many positives during our time in this small country–we’ll let the image gallery do the talking. Here is a link to the above images plus about 70 more.

Please let us know if you have any questions about any of the images!

What does it mean to truly know a place?

When I was 17, I made my first trip to Kentucky as part of a church youth group service trip. We stayed in the Martin County seat of Inez. Towns named Lovely and Beauty are also in the county, which is in the heart of Appalachia across the Tug Fork River from West Virginia. I remember winding roads, hollers, and burning debris we removed from an old woman’s house that was accessed by a rickety foot bridge over a gurgling creek.

It didn’t take long for Martin County to make a strong impression on me. Holy shit, this is what poverty looks like, I remember thinking, passing dilapidated trailers and vacant store fronts in seemingly abandoned towns. My experience growing up in the prosperous state of New Hampshire with parents holding advanced degrees from Ivy League schools might as well have made me from another planet.

And I had this strong reaction despite not meeting too many locals. Or having the opportunity to dig deeper into the essence of the place. I was a teenager along for the ride, hoping that our volunteer work would be valued. But physically being there for five or so days, seeing just a fraction of the county, made an impact. I didn’t know the place, but I sensed enough that it began changing the way I thought about the American Experience.

At the time, I had no idea that I’d make Kentucky my home for thirteen-plus years.

Kentucky is the 15th smallest state, and while living here, I made a decent effort to cover some ground exploring my new home of Louisville and beyond. Locally, there was the “Quest for Q,” an early attempt to discover the most mouth-watering BBQ in the city:

Standing in the parking lot of a Pic-Pac supermarket on the corner of Market Street and 25th, we glanced around but didn’t see The King.  We were the only white folks around in the highly segregated west end of Louisville, but when you’re on a Quest for Q you have to leave your comfort zone.  Angus, Austin and I continued to scan the parking lot and surrounding neighborhood but still no luck.  “Should we go inside and ask someone in Pic-Pac?” Austin said.  No response was necessary—all of a sudden, a burgundy-colored pickup truck rolled slowly down 26th street and we started jogging over to let The King know our intentions.

There were also Sunday morning bike rides, roads quiet, deliberately getting lost in parts of town I hadn’t been to. Invitations to posh horse farms on bluffs overlooking the Ohio River for receptions and fundraisers. University of Louisville sporting events, hikes in Jefferson Memorial Forest, the Kentucky Derby (twice). Volunteering at citizenship classes for refugees. Neighborhood porch sitting and bourbon sipping.  High school football games–Friday night lights all over town. I definitely think I got to know Louisville well, but Louisville different from Kentucky-at-large in the same way that, say, Austin is different from Texas.

Out in the state, I have fond memories of exploring the Owensboro region with two friends hailing from the area. Bow-hunting for white-tailed deer, perched up in trees, seeing my breath in front of me as night fell in the forest. Visiting Mammoth Caves, staying at B&Bs. Camping at Red River Gorge and attending music festivals where bluegrass music and marijuana-smoke commingled during jam sessions. And more, of course.

So all in all, I’d say my life was rich in various experiences in Kentucky, but I only spent two more nights back in isolated Appalachia, where deep-rooted poverty, local tradition, declining coal mining, and natural beauty collide to form a much-judged but rarely-visited place. I never made it much farther west than Owensboro, and the Bluegrass State stretches several hours further towards the Mississippi River.

So how long does it take to truly know a place? What does that even mean? Is there more value in becoming intimate with a small slice of a locale, neighborhood, or city, or learning and experiencing as much as you can about a more diverse set of places?

I’m not regretful in any way about what I didn’t get to experience in Kentucky–being on the road is a powerful reminder about how vast our world is. Georgia is roughly the size of South Carolina, which is smaller than Kentucky. Over almost two months here, Rebecca and I have captured strong impressions and snippets of what we think life is like in the country.  But is possible to truly know a place if you aren’t from it?

Writer Tara Isabella Burton wonders if she is caught in a charade while living in Tbilisi, the place we have made our short term home. “If there is a game…I haven’t learned its rules. I confuse effusiveness for sincerity; I can’t work out the bus timetables. I do not know when to let strange women buy me tea in the marketplace and when to refuse. To be Georgian seems to me to be engaged in a collective national performance — one in which I cannot participate,” she writes.  

At times, I’ve felt like I’ve figured things out in Georgia; at other times, I have no idea what the hell is going on. I know, for instance, what the expected rates for taxi rides are–there are no meters, so you’ve got to haggle before jumping in the back seat of a cab, which is often an old Mercedes Benz with a cigarette-smoke saturated interior. I also know that, in general, traditions relating to food are essential here.  But I don’t know much about the ubiquitous Eastern Orthodox religion, the language–despite being here almost two months–or the politics. And those seem to be pretty darn important elements for me to truly understand Georgia, that’s for sure.

As we move on to Dubai next week, we’ll be bombarded with all that entails being in a completely new place. While it’s a lot to expect to gain a deep understanding of the expat and superlative-laden Emirate in a short time, I won’t be surprised if something happens like it did back in 1998 in Martin County, when finding yourself in a foreign place triggers a new revelation about yourself, a place, or the world-at-large.

Hello Carbs, Goodbye Control!

“A breakfast bowl with chia, organic pumpkin seeds, AND sheep’s milk delivered here in high-tech containers that enhance its nutrients ALL the way from New Zealand?! I’ll take that one!,” I exclaimed, wide-eyed and completely in awe of the menu choices spread before me. Paul and I were in a San Francisco cafe, enjoying one last visit with family before we hopped on a plane to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Ever since leaving Kentucky, we had been bouncing around for a few weeks visiting friends and family, making it difficult to maintain a consistent, healthy diet. I figured that this one breakfast bowl would surely make up for the late-night hamburger and chili cheese fries run I had made in my hometown of Portsmouth, NH, along with the uptick in alcohol consumption that accompanies reuniting with old friends. With every spoonful of the chilled, creamy concoction, I imagined the cells in my body were exploding with pink unicorns representing health and goodness.

Welcome to Georgia – Land of the Carbohydrate

Fast forward one month. Paul and I tuck into a homemade breakfast at a local Georgian winery. The matriarch of the family has proven herself to be a culinary force – we had been gorging ourselves on her traditional Georgian dishes for a few days now. I wait in anticipation for what I know will be arriving at the table in no time – Imeretian Khachapuri – a delectable Promised Land of cheese and bread. The steaming hot pie comes in different regional varieties, and is a staple dish in Georgia.

After an unofficial taste-test that I had been conducting with disturbing vigor, this woman’s Khachapuri won first prize. I wondered what made hers SO delicious, such a perfect combination of fluffiness and gooeyness. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I am guessing butter has something to do with it. During our stay I caught a glimpse of freshly made Khachapuri emerging from the oven, when I witnessed AN ENTIRE STICK OF BUTTER being slathered lovingly atop the pie, causing it to glisten enticingly in the sunlight. My health radars instantly sounded – I was not sure if I should be eating what felt like a pound of bread, cheese, and butter every day. Fortunately, and probably far too easily, I managed to quiet these concerns. When was the next time I would be in Georgia on a family vineyard indulging in some of the country’s best food? I figured I might as well suck it down and worry about it later.

Both in 2015, when Paul and I traveled in central and eastern Europe for six weeks, and now in Georgia, we have noticed behavioral similarities regarding food and health, mainly that in comparison to the United States, the average citizen seems considerably less obsessive about them.

There are likely many social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Much of America’s health and wellness industry is dominated by choices that can only be easily accessed by the privileged. In comparison to the United States, Georgia is not a wealthy country. Far less people have the disposable income to spend on products such as gluten-free flour and almond milk, if they even have access to these items in the first place. Other factors could include a population’s perspectives on what it means to be healthy, what food is considered to be healthy, as well as differing beauty ideals.

In the United States, one is bombarded with an onslaught of neverending health and wellness remedies. Fats were bad in the nineties, then it was about calorie counting, followed up by eliminating carbs and increasing protein intake, and today whole foods are in and sugar is out. All of this and our obesity rates still soar, along with the high prevalence of eating disorders. In Georgia, Paul and I have noticed less extremes when it comes to people’s bodies. It’s far less common to see a severely obese person or someone who is rocking emaciated-chic. I have no doubt that both ends of the spectrum exist here, but they don’t seem pervasive.

Embracing the Bread

What I love about traveling is that you have to relinquish control of many ingrained beliefs, including those about food, or you are going to drive yourself crazy. This is particularly true in Georgia, where carbohydrates, salt, and meat are culinary heavyweights. You can manage to avoid them, but it takes some effort and you may end up offending a gracious Georgian host who has spent the last two hours toiling over her signature meat Khinkali (pork dumplings with soup broth). Also, it would be a grave mistake, because the food here is immensely satisfying and delicious.

For an American woman who is a self-professed exercise junkie and most certainly not immune to societal pressures, this situation could be anxiety-inducing, but I’ve actually found it to be refreshing. It’s hard to ignore the constant barrage of in-your-face nutrition and exercise trends in America, so-much-so that the process of choosing food and trying to enjoy it can seem like a chore. In Georgia, where NOT eating carbohydrates daily would be abnormal, I feel a little more liberated.

In addition, with the alteration in our dietary habits, Paul and I have also observed a change in our bodies. Shockingly, we both seem to have lost body fat. We are perplexed by this phenomenon, but our fairly uneducated guess is it likely can be attributed to a combination of a less sedentary lifestyle, our gym membership, minimal stress, and less preservatives. Then again, this could all be a grand delusion that we are feeding ourselves. I’m not asking too many questions; I’m going with it.

A Smorgasbord of Satisfaction

To be honest, I think I have reached a peak of carb-consumption while in Georgia that I may never again attain. The other day I picked up two loaves of piping hot bread baked in a tone (a tandoor-style oven) and realized I had absentmindedly eaten half a loaf while walking back to our apartment. My vitamin levels may not be optimal right now, but my happiness sure is!

Paul and I have nine days remaining in Georgia and then we are off to Dubai. In all likelihood, I will probably try to reduce my carb consumption and up my vegetable intake once we leave. I am almost positive that when we finally get back to the States, I will revert back to smoothies, salads, and whole foods, I am a middle class American white woman, after all. For now, I am going to savor our last days eating authentic Georgian food, including these ubiquitous and cheap bread-oriented snacks.

Lobiani

Lobiani

This is my absolute favorite breaded delight – smashed kidney bean filling wrapped in a buttery bread pocket. I refer to it as a Georgian burrito, and it fulfills my occasional craving for Mexican food, which is nonexistent in this country.

Adjarian Khachapuri

Exhibit A: Enough said. 

Khachapuri

Buttery bread with mashed potatoes and a hot dog (aka, the Double Carb Whammy)

Sausage_bread

The title says it all. Genius!