My Abu Dhabi Stopover: 24 Hours of Hospitality, Beaches, and Holiness

My dream to come back to the Middle East after a six-year absence came true by accident. Last summer, I was scheming for ways to find cheap flights from Asia to America…and what I found surprised me. An Abu Dhabi stopover was the answer to saving hundreds of dollars on my trip. Here’s how I spent my 24 hours in the United Arab Emirates on a budget.

Abu Dhabi stopover

Sleep off jetlag by Couchsurfing in a villa

FREE

Not only was I on a tight student’s budget, but I also wanted to experience Emirati culture firsthand. What better way to do this than by Couchsurfing?!

Many women are afraid to do this in the Middle East. However, if you follow proper Couchsurfing etiquette, you will have a wonderful experience. My host was very respectful and open.

Even though I went to bed right away and he had to go to work the next day, he was kind enough to go back to his apartment at lunch to take me to a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant. From there, he offered to drop me off at the beach so I could relax for a couple of hours until he was out of work.

At night, he gave me a tour of downtown Abu Dhabi and took me to the spectacular Sheikh Sayed Mosque. I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

Abu Dhabi food

Relaxing afternoon at Saadiyat Island

Opening hours: 8 a.m. until sunset; AED 50 per adult includes lounger.

My 3 p.m. arrival to Saadiyat Island’s public beach was surprising. The blinding-white powdery sand and sky-blue waters could have fooled me into believing I was in Florida. That is until I noticed that less than 10 of over 300 sun loungers were occupied.

The weekly beach yoga class wasn’t in session that day, but I experienced my own kind of zen. I decided to forgo the eco-friendly water sport activities and just relax until sunset. It was, by the way, one of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Sheikh Sayed Mosque at night

Saturday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Free admission.

Sheikh Sayed Mosque, the highlight of my Abu Dhabi stopover, is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. It is even more special if you visit within an hour of its closing time, like I did. While its grandeur flabbergasted me, it was its special aura that touched me deeply. I coined it 82 Domes of Holiness, as that also happens to be one of its key architectural features.

Also known as UAE’s Grand Mosque, it is the third-largest in the world. It is estimated that as many as 40,000 people may kneel underneath its Swarovski-Crystal chandeliers during Eid and other important Muslim holidays.

My transatlantic journey wouldn’t have been the same without my Couchsurfing host. Between hotel rooms, taxis, and guided tours, I would have spent more money on this stopover than I would have saved if I booked a shorter flight itinerary. Thank you, Adel!

Why Hollywood Hearts Morocco

Film buffs wanting to immerse themselves in the sets and landscapes of their favorite films will face a welcome dilemma in Morocco: where to head to first! The North African country has played host to some of Hollywood’s most iconic blockbusters including the Elizabeth Taylor extravaganza Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and modern pictures such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Inception, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

The incredible diversity of the country continues to offer producers everything from the rippling sands of the Sahara Desert to lush green oases, ancient mountain kasbahs, and stunning coastal stretches.

Hollywood Morocco, OuarzazateOuarzazate

Known as “the door to the desert,” the largest town in Saharan Morocco is 120 miles from Marrakech and has one of the country’s biggest draws for movie enthusiasts: Atlas Studios. The largest film studio in the world by landmass, Atlas Studios has enormous full-scale sets. You need only walk several metres to pass from the Tibetan Monastery of Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film, Kundun, to the Roman marketplace where Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, got sold into slavery in Gladiator. Set pieces and props from many other films such as Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, James Bond: The Living Daylights, The Mummy, Alexander, and Babel also remain and are sometimes re-used in other films or for TV. Most staggering of all is the huge set of Jerusalem from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, which looks impressively real in person.

Hollywood Morocco, Ait BenhaddouAït Benhaddou

The fortified city, or Ksar, of Aït Benhaddou is a popular spot for filming. And it’s easy to see why, as you take in the rich red colour of this giant sandstone city, framed by mountain peaks and palm trees. It’s the ultimate exotic desert city and has 700 years of history behind it. Sodom and Gomorrah, The Sheltering Sky, Jesus of Nazareth, Lawrence of Arabia, and Kundun were filmed here. It was also used in Gladiator as the principal location for Russell Crowe’s training and fighting scenes.

Hollywood Morocco, CasablancaCasablanca

Even Humphrey Bogart was susceptible to the allure of Morocco’s eclectic mix of African and European influences present in Casablanca, but surprisingly enough, the 1942 film noir masterpiece was filmed entirely in Hollywood. That doesn’t stop fans wanting to bring a little style into their lives by sitting back in Rick’s Cafe. Although not an original set, the seaside situated cafe started by former American diplomat Kathy Kaiser in 2004, has masterfully captured the refined luxury of the classic film. Don’t miss the jazz nights, and for a full immersion, the film is played in one of the rooms on the 1st floor. Bear in mind there is a dress code — sneakers or flip flops won’t cut it.

Hollywood Morocco, MarrakeshMarrakech

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 The Man Who Knew Too Much was set in Marrakech. The opening scenes of the film were filmed in the souks of the main square, Djemaa el Fna. A UNESCO Heritage Culture Centre in the heart of the Marrakech, walking though Djemaa el Fna can be quite full on; there’s always a lot happening. During the day there are snake charmers with their undulating cobras, right next to water sellers in colourful costumes and brass cups. There are also magicians, acrobats, monkeys and hundreds of food stalls. The square has been a symbol of the city since the eleventh century, and sometimes, walking through it all really can feel like being taken back in time. Martin Scorsese has filmed two major motion pictures here, The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 andKundun in 1997. The luxury hotel La Mamounia was featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the surrounding gardens were also used in Oliver Stone’sAlexander.

Hollywood Morocco, EssaouiraEssaouira

Based on the Shakespearean play, Orson Welles’ Othello was partly shot in Essaouira in 1949. The production didn’t go to plan at first, as Welles’ European financier went bust just months into filming. Yet using his own money, Welles was finally able to complete his vision, submitting his film to the 1952 Cannes Film Festival under the Moroccan flag, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or. His vision encapsulated historic landmarks of Essaouira, that remain unchanged today, like la Skala de la Ville, a former artillery post. Rising up over the town, it’s a vantage point that gives a stunning view of the surrounding waters. Essaouira is a popular seaside town, just over 100 miles west of Marrakech, which many Moroccans go to in summer to escape the heat of Marrakech and Rabat.

This post was posted by thehipmunk on Hipmunk’s Tailwind blog on Oct. 25th.

Pakistani food in Orlando: Naan pizza and nihari at Chaat House! [PHOTOS]

He was the only white boy. I was the only brown girl that did not hail from the Middle East. Still, the aroma enticed us. And so, we tried Pakistani food in Orlando for our Travel through Food adventure last week!

Before I move on to the Pakistani restaurant Chaat House review and photos though, I would love to introduce you to Pakistani cuisine and its history.

Pakistani food, chaat dishes

Pakistani chaat dish by junaidrao, Flickr

Pakistani food: Overview

Pakistani food is very similar to Indian cuisine, but with a stronger Muslim influence. As such, it is halal, meaning it follows strict Islamic law standards on what can be eaten and how dishes must be prepared. Pork is forbidden, so other meats such as chicken, lamb, beef, and fish are prevalent in Pakistani dishes. Also, strong aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, mace, black pepper, green and brown cardamom are widely used in the Pakistani kitchen (Wikipedia).

In addition to Islam, the Indian Moghul Empire influenced Pakistani food when it began its ruling of present-day Pakistan around 1526. Saffron, almonds, raisins, and the famous tandoori dishes were introduced (FoodbyCountry.com). Crazy we can still enjoy them in the 21st century!

Pakistani food history, chicken tandoori

Pakistani chicken tandoori by Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Pakistani food in Orlando: Chaat House review

The ambiance is not that special, although it’s cool that giant photos of Pakistani food are sprinkled throughout the walls, helping غیر ملکیوں (foreigners) like us decide what to order.

Within minutes of our arrival though, at least 5 different orders for the Chaat House specialty, naan pizza, had been picked up. We immediately knew what to order as part of our initiation to Pakistani food in Orlando then!

Pakistani food in Orlando, Chaat House restaurant review

Pakistani food in Orlando: on Chaat House’s grill (photo: ChaatHouseOrlando.com)

Within minutes of our arrival, at least 5 different orders for the Chaat House specialty, naan pizza, had been picked up. We immediately knew what to order as part of our initiation to Pakistani food in Orlando then!

We opted for a spicy, 12-inch chicken tikka naan pizza: just what it sounds! Ethnic “pizza dough” made out of tandoori naan, stuffed to the brim with tomato curry sauce, chicken tikka, jalapeños, onions, and red pepper flakes; topped with several layers of cheese and even more jalapenos:

Chaat House Orlando review, Pakistani chicken tandoori naan pizza

We were quite skeptical about Chaat House’s Pakistani naan pizza at first, but now we can’t wait to eat it again!

Pakistani restaurant Orlando, Chaat House naan pizza

Chaat House Orlando Pakistani restaurant: their SMALL naan pizza!

What’s funny is we came into the Chaat House knowing we wanted to order the nihari with naan, as one of Mr. B’s Pakistani students highly recommended it. So naturally, we couldn’t leave without trying it out…

Pakistani food in Orlando, nihari Chaat House review

Nihari, Pakistani curry, with naan

It was a mystery meat: we don’t know if it was goat, beef or otherwise…but it sure was delicious! Next time we would like to order it with less lemon though, as it was slightly more bitter than we would have liked. But then again, we’re used to Indian curries, not Pakistani varieties!

Chaat House Orlando: Pakistani restaurant verdict?

So, did we like their Pakistani food in Orlando? Sure did! The service was a little choppy, but then again they expect you to order by the cash register, not while you’re sitting down. Once you get that, the experience is quite lovely and, most importantly, authentic!

Chaat House Orlando Pakistani restaurant review, front photo

Chaat House Orlando Pakistani restaurant front!

Have you ever had Pakistani food? What’s your favorite dish?

Chaat House on Urbanspoon

FriFotos: places I’ve called HOME around the world! (photo essay)

To travelers and nomads, home is typically a state of mind. However, for FriFotos this week, I wanted to take you on a photographic journey to some of the places I’ve called HOME around the world. From sailboats to hammocks; concrete blocks to tiki huts: ¡Bienvenidos a mi hogar!

Home around the world: FriFotos photo essay

Home around the world, Puerto Rico

My humble home in Puerto Rico. Solid concrete = hurricane-proof!

The beginning and the end: my parents house and neighborhood in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. Closer to the city of Caguas, though!

Home around the world, Puerto Rico concrete houses

The neighborhood I grew up in! A dead-end street with beautiful palm trees and mountains in the vicinity.

Due to hurricanes, most houses in Puerto Rico are made of solid concrete throughout:  including walls inside the home. Only the wealthy can afford intricate homes, as it is more expensive and difficult to build and mold concrete houses. However, if you just want one big concrete box, that won’t be too expensive!

The million-dollar home in Tampa, Florida

Home around the world, million-dollar home Tampa

The pool area, part of a yacht, the lake, and other million-dollar homes in the area.

In the summer of 2010, I was lucky enough to score a housesitting and pet sitting gig in an affluent neighborhood in Tampa, Florida.  For 2 full months, I lived like a rock star!  A yacht, a boat, fun neighbors, great food! I also got to hang out with the amazing family when they were around every couple of weeks. I bonded with my hosts so much that I now call them my American family. I even call the married couple mom and dad!

Whenever I can’t go back home for Christmas, I spend the holidays with them 🙂

Home around the world, American family

My new American family!

Don’t worry though, my first familia will always be in Puerto Rico. I simply call them mami and papi to differentiate my 2 sets of parents 😉 lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful people—much love indeed.

A hammock, overwater hostel, and a sailboat in Panama

Home around the world, Aqualounge Hostel Bocas del Toro

Aqualounge Hostel in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Only reachable by boat!

Home around the world, Bocas del Toro hammock

My bed for a couple of nights in Bocas del Toro, Panama

While this hammock and overwater hostel in Bocas del Toro were my home for less than a week, I had an amazing time! Great drinking specials, quirky characters, and fun parties.

Home around the world, sailboat Kuna Yala

View of Kuna Yala village from my sailboat cabin

More about this trip: Panama, my last college spring break! (photo essay)

This trip got even better with 4 days sailing down the San Blas Islands—in great company as well. Just imagine this bubbly Puerto Rican, a loopy captain, 2 diplomats from the US foreign service, 2 retired lawyers, and a Kuna Indian fisherman…!

College campus in Morocco

Home around the world, Al Akhawayn University Morocco

The gorgeous campus of Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco (Amina Lahbabi)

In the fall of 2009, I studied abroad in Ifrane, a small town by the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, for 4 months. The American-style college is called Al-Akhawayn University and I had a blast! Gorgeous grounds, architecture, and people. The dorms were even better than in most colleges I’ve seen in the USA, which was crazy!

Home around the world, Moroccan college dorms

One of the dorms! Photo courtesy of Munir Sayegh

I felt most at home in the classroom of my World Religions class with Portuguese professor Jacques, though. Handsome, wise. He taught me so much about unknown cultures, religious traditions, rites, etc. I haven’t been that happy in many other places! Unfortunately, no photo of handsome Jacques available.

 Cluttered roofs and sleeping on an ancient felucca in Egypt

Home around the world, Cairo apartment

Cluttered roofs and dirty apartments — commonplace in otherwise-fascinating Cairo, Egypt

I must have moved about 4 times during my year of Arabic studies in Egypt.  Issues ranged from roommate conflicts to sketchy bowaabs (building doorman)—you name it! And even though my digital camera died within the first week in Cairo, my first flatmate—Natalia—took a good picture of one of the apartments (photo above).

Umm yeah…with my student budget (relying exclusively on a scholarship), I couldn’t afford a maid to keep the apartment dust-free nor a better view than that one. All in all, a very humbling experience. Seriously, cleanliness…one of the many things we take for granted everyday.

Home around the world, sleeping on a felucca

Relaxing morning, sleeping on a felucca!

It goes without saying that where I felt the most at home during my year in Egypt was while drifting down the Nile on a felucca for 3 days and 2 nights.  Absolutely magical.

Home around the world, felucca sunset

Sunset during my 22nd birthday (by Aswan, Egypt)

This photo essay is almost 800 words now, so enough of home for today! 😉

Hope you enjoyed it.

Felucca Sunset Egypt

Yup, that’s me on the felucca once more. Had to save the best shot for last!

Where’s home to you? How many countries have you lived in?

Have Books, Will Travel: 5 Books To Inspire You to Discover the Middle East

Welcome to a special edition of Cultural Tidbits Monday! Today we have the guest post “Have Books, Will Travel” — giving you a synopsis of 5 Middle Eastern books that will surely inspire you to travel to this fascinating region of the world. As you know, I fell in love with it and went on to study, live, and travel extensively throughout Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Palestine/West Bank, and Jordan for over 16 months. I hope we pique your interest as well!

have books, will travel: Egypt

carvings inside The Ramesseum mortuary temple in Luxor, Egypt

Have Books, Will Travel: Picks To Inspire You to Travel the Middle East

Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq, Turkey and Jordan have long inspired historic tales and prize-winning authors, as well as producing insightful non-fiction on subjects from art to exploration and cuisine. In its fine body of literature (both home-grown books and those written by others), the Middle East presents an enthralling image for any traveler wishing to explore for themselves – whether that’s with an off-road camel trek to discover the local cultures of Morocco, or a beach break in Sharm el Sheikh.

In little over a month’s time, the largest and most prestigious literary festival in the Middle East gets under way in Dubai, celebrating another year of the best in reading and writing in the region. In a city-state usually lauded for its superlative extravagance, this is the perfect opportunity for visitors to get to the heart of these culture-rich countries and dig deeper while on their holidays to Dubai.

 

have books, will travel: The Sultan's Seal novelThe Sultan’s Seal: A Novel by Jenny White

Anyone interested in the Ottoman Empire and its last days should pick up this acclaimed mystery from Jenny White, a professor of Anthropology who uses her detailed knowledge of the era to weave a richly descriptive tale that whisks the reader from the banks of the Bosphorus to the dangerous and fragrant gardens of the Sultan’s palace. When a mysterious young Englishwoman is murdered in Istanbul, a local magistrate steps in to investigate and gets caught up in a gripping tale of political intrigue, love and murder that will leave you itching to visit the city for yourself.

 

have books, will travel: Married to a BedouinMarried to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen

This incredible true story of love and adventure follows New Zealand-born nurse Marguerite van Geldermalsen, who met a local souvenir-seller in Jordan in the 1970s and fell in love. The subsequent story is a fascinating one – of how she married Mohammed Abdallah Othman, raised their children in an ancient cave in the famous sandstone cliffs of Petra, and integrated with his Manajah tribe and learned the Bedouin way of life. Her wry observations chronicle how she became grateful for the simpler, slower way of life even as she became a source of fascination for tribe members and outsiders alike. This wonderful tale of personal challenge and the triumph of love is a must for anybody interested in Petra, Bedouin traditions or the Middle East.

 

have books, will travel: The Map of Love by Ahdaf SoueifThe Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif

An epic romance to rival The English Patient, Ahdaf Soueif’s novel is set in the UK and Egypt as two stories of love unravel, 100 years apart. A young American woman enlists the help of an Egyptian translator to research her great-grandmother’s diaries, and starts to fall in love with the translator’s brother as she discovers her great-grandmother’s own parallel love story. Egypt is the thread that ties the book together, and the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel presents an unparalleled vision of  politics, colonial and modern life in Egypt.

 

have books, will travel: New Persian Cooking by Jila Dana-HaeriNew Persian Cooking by Jila Dana-Haeri

Persian cooking is relatively under the radar in the UK and North America, but this excellent cookbook attempts to change that. Dr. Jila Dana-Haeri’s recipes showcase sumptuous spices and fresh ingredients in recipes that are healthy and easy to make. She focuses on ingredients that readers will be able to find in the West, so they too can benefit from Persian cuisine’s health benefits and ancient flavors  From fish to pomegranates, and saffron to khoresht-e fesenjan, this book offers a different perspective on Iran, and the crisp photographs accompanying each recipe are enough to make anyone plan a culinary expedition.

 

have books, will travel: The Arabian Nights Tales from a Thousand and One NightsThe Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights by Various Authors

No literary homage to the Middle East could leave out this riotous and dazzling compendium of folk tales. From the famous stories of Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba to lesser-known (but no less enthralling) tales, The Arabian Nights still holds up after hundreds of years. Legend says that the king’s wife Shahrazad told a story to her husband every night, never revealing the ending, to keep him intrigued and prevent his unseemly tradition of killing his wives after the first night.

Middle East travel bucket list: Thanksgiving photo essay

Happy Thanksgiving! I know it is not until tomorrow, but by then my Playa Del Carmen adventures will be in full swing 😉 And so today, I want to be thankful for my world travels. This Thanksgiving #TravelBL special will be all about Middle East travel bucket list items I have crossed off already. More inspiration for you, fond memories to me.

But… why a Middle East travel bucket list?

You must be asking yourself this question. There are several reasons…

Middle East travel bucket list, Abu Simbel

Nefertari: we finally met! At Abu Simbel Temple, Egypt

When I was awarded a full $20,000 scholarship to study Arabic in Egypt for a year, it was a dream come true in so many levels. I had been obsessed with Nefertiti, Nefertari and all those majestic temples ever since I first saw them on a history book in elementary school.

My love for travel started this way.

After watching countless of documentaries on History and Discovery Channel, I wondered whether there were other civilizations like this in the world. How big (or small) is the world we live in, anyway? What other wonders are there to see? The more I learned, the more obsessed I became with traveling the world. I always say travel taught me English.

Basically, my wanderlust was ignited by Ancient Egypt and the Middle East.

Middle East travel bucket list, Medinet Habu

colorful wall at Medinet Habu temple – Luxor, Egypt

And since I’m being thankful for my world travels today, I want to pay tribute to this region, which has transformed me in so many levels. Also, most of my world travels were done while living in Egypt and Morocco, so they hold a special place in my heart..

Today, a toast for the Arab world with this Middle East travel bucket list!

Sailed down the Nile River — and on an ancient boat

What most people don’t know is that the felucca is not only a traditional sail boat in Egypt, but the Eastern Mediterranean, comprising the island of Malta — all the way to Iraq. What’s more: The felucca even made it to the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, back in the 19th century! (Wikipedia, felucca article). It is said that the glorified version of the felucca, known as a dahabeya, was also used by pharaohs and even Napoleon himself.

Middle East travel bucket list, felucca trip

Our felucca trip crew! I’m the second on the right

I was lucky to spend a few days sleeping on board. I drifted on this simple beauty, so close to the historic Nile river. I still slap myself, thinking it was just a dream. And what a dream it was — I have never been so relaxed in my entire life. The most sublime experience though was getting to swim in the longest river in the world + actually stepping out of the felucca to visit ancient Egyptian temples. Just wow!

Middle East travel bucket list, swimming in the Nile River

Yes, the Nile River can be THAT clear! Your felucca captain will know where to stop for you to swim safely

Middle East travel bucket list, African sunset

Me and an African sunset from a felucca on the Nile

Spent my birthday in Philae temple, Egypt

While I had already visited the Giza pyramids several times (and they were a sandstorm of disappointments), Philae was the first ancient Egyptian temple I ever visited. And I got to see it on my 22nd birthday too — what a treat!

Middle East bucket list, Philae Temple from the Nile

The Philae temple complex was much bigger than expected. A portion of it may be seen from the Nile River — like right out of a movie!

Middle East travel bucket list, Philae Temple,

Me at Philae Temple — on my BIRTHDAY!

Saw The Treasury and Monastery in Petra, Jordan

While the Pyramids of Giza were a sandstorm of disappointments, the ancient city of Petra was a completely different story. I cried when I saw the Treasury. I remember vividly how I sat at its feet for at least 30 min., staring at its majesty. Even though it is an extremely touristy site, I visited early in the morning. While there were still some foreigners around, my experience was not tarnished — at all. To this day, I still wonder why Petra had such an impact on me. Just remembering the 2 days I spent there take my breath away…! Definitely a huge item off my Middle East travel bucket list.

Read more: The Treasury, Petra: A tear-jerking Kodak moment

Middle East travel bucket list, Petra Treasury

The Treasury, Petra by Bernard Gagnon

Middle East travel bucket list, Petra

Me contemplating The Treasury

The most surprising, unexpected part of my trip, though? I freaking climbed the monastery — like, to the VERY top. No harness, no equipment at all. I remember slipping once and thinking I was going to die. Still, making it to the top was priceless and worth every scary step!

Also read: How I Climbed the Petra Monastery with a Bedouin (photo essay)

Middle East travel bucket list, climbed Petra monastery

How to climb the Petra monastery: Looks easy, but it SO isn’t! The path looks deceivingly easy, when it is in fact extremely slippery and precarious

Middle East travel bucket list, climbing Petra monastery

Almost there! See that tiny Bedouin on the top right? I made it THERE!

Middle East travel bucket list, on top of Petra monastery

“I’m queen of the world! Wohoo woohoo WOOOOO!”

Old Jerusalem: Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

This one was huge: I didn’t get to visit Old Jerusalem once, but twice. There are so many things to do in Jerusalem — I am so lucky I got to experience them at a relaxed pace, on 2 different visits. My first trip was with the group of study abroad students during Eid El Adha — an experience in itself. the second time around, I was embarking on my epic Solo Middle East road trip. Highlights included the Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, and the Church of Mary Magdalene on Mount of Olives.

Middle East travel bucket list, Dome of the Rock Jerusalem

Me at Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem! CLICK on photo to ENLARGE

Middle East travel bucket list, Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Me at Temple Mount: Dome of the Rock on left; Al Aqsa Mosque right behind the arches (CLICK on photo to ENLARGE)

There are many other things from my travels that I am so thankful about. Unfortunately, not much space or time. I will leave you with a few other unforgettable experiences that I got to cross off my Middle East travel bucket list, though!

Experienced the desert — and a real oasis

Middle East travel bucket list, ride a camel

Wee!

Middle East travel bucket list, visit an oasis

Baharyia Oasis panorama by fellow student Margaux de Borchgrave

Visited “The Athens of Africa” – Fes, Morocco

Fes Bab Bou Jeloud

Bab Bou Jeloud, Fes, Morocco by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Bathed in mud and floated on the Dead Sea

Middle East travel bucket list, float on the Dead Sea

Floating on the Dead Sea! I’m on the far left

Middle East travel bucket list, Dead Sea mud bath

My (muddy) kiss from the Dead Sea!

Want to learn about more about my epic world travels? Check out my lengthy solo female travel photo essay, where I outlined everywhere I went shortly before, during, and after my 16-month study abroad stint in Egypt and Morocco!

What are you thankful for?
What’s on your Middle East travel bucket list?

Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous: Hostel Cooking travel series

Happy Travel Tuesday! Thankfully, this week is looking up. I even came up with Plan B in order to ease my student loan debt depression. Wish me luck 😉 And so! Back to your new favorite travel series Hostel Cooking with an authentic, simple North African dish. Get into the kitchen and try out this Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous today.

Moroccan spice cones, Moroccan chicken recipe

Towering cones of Moroccan spices. I always wondered how they remained erected! (Spacmonster, Flickr)

Moroccan food: Brief background

Yes, I have previously introduced you to Moroccan food and even couscous history. However, we will dig a little deeper today 😉

Moroccan dishes are typically savory and sweet. Spice mixes typically incorporate a healthy dose of some eastern spices (such as turmeric and cumin), in addition to cinnamon and even ginger. Nuts, raisins, and prunes are typically used as toppings as well. The result? A mix of delicate, subtle flavors and notes.

As the Moroccan Tourist Office states, “spice does not mean chili. Spices are beneficial and even possess qualities which help digestion.” So if you are used to chunky Indian curries and other ultra-spicy Eastern concoctions, Moroccan food will (pleasantly) surprise you.

The most popular Moroccan spice mix is known as ras el-hanout. It is used for making most tajine and couscous dishes. Contents vary from household to household, so some ras el-hanout mixes may include up to 35 different spices!

Ras el-hanout, Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous

Sample of Moroccan ras el-hanout by linecook, Flickr

Please note, our Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous is traditional — and not. How so? A formal meal in Morocco usually starts with hot and cold salads (analogous to Arab mezzes), followed by lamb or chicken (by themselves). Then, on the third course, the big couscous plate makes an appearance, topped with even more meat and vegetables.

However, since this is the Hostel Cooking travel series, we thrive to make even the most complicated dishes simple. For this reason, we have marinated the chicken with Moroccan-like spices and cooked boxed couscous within minutes. The taste though, I assure you, took me back back to Morocco instantly! So yes, by trying Josh’s Moroccan chicken recipe, your taste buds will have a little piece of North Africa — no matter where you are 😉

Hostel cooking: Chicken

Serves: 6

Total cost per plate: US $4.00 (based off Tampa, FL)

Total Cooking Time: 6 – 10 hrs for marinade; 30 mins prep and cooking time.

Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous (by Josh Snore)

Directions

Chicken, marinade ingredients
Step 1
Moroccan chicken recipe, marinade
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup fresh mint
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons paprika
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Couscous ingredients
Step 2
Moroccan couscous box
1 cup of instant couscous
1 green pepper, diced
1 sweet onion, diced
1 plum tomato, diced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 oz honey
1/2 cup mint
1/4 cup parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Cooking directions: Chicken
Step 3
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a medium sized bowl. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl and thoroughly coat with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator from 6 to 10 hours.

Then, either cook in black iron skillet or grill the chicken breasts a few minutes on each side, until cooked through. About 5 mins each side. Take care not to overcook, as chicken breasts can easily dry out.
Cooking directions: Couscous
Step 4
Take minced garlic and olive oil and heat up saucepan until garlic is browned. Then add paprika, salt and pepper, and diced green peppers. Be careful not to let the peppers sit too long, stirring occasionally. When the peppers have browned, add the onions until browned.

Separately follow directions to cook couscous, according to your box. Typically though, it will involve the following:

Boil water with 1 teaspoon of salt, and one tablespoon of butter. Add couscous to boiling water, stir quickly, remove from heat, cover quickly, and allow to sit for five minutes.)

Back in the saucepan, when onions are browned add honey, turn off heat, and allow the honey and peppers to suck it up. Then add diced tomatoes, chopped mint and parsley, and stir into mixture.

Add saucepan contents to fluffed couscous. Mix evenly.
Final touches
Step 5
Plate couscous with chicken on top. Garnish with mint leaves and parsley. Bessaha! 😉

Moroccan chicken recipe couscous, simple hostel cooking

The final product! Never thought you could cook Moroccan chicken with couscous in a hostel, did you?

Got a different Moroccan chicken recipe? Share it with us below!

Ancient ruins and other close-ups: A FriFotos special

TGIF! After a hiatus, I join FriFotos for another week to celebrate the theme “Close-up.” I’ll show you photos of my favorite ancient ruins and other close-up shots from sights I’ve encountered throughout my travels in Egypt. Enjoy!

The Ramesseum: Luxor, Egypt

The mortuary temple of the infamous “Ramses The Great,” The Rammesseum is kind of an off-the-beaten-path ancient ruins site. In fact, when I visited back in June 2008, I had the whole place for myself — midday! It was great. I even had time to kill as my cabbie wouldn’t come back for another hour:

Ramesseum Luxor, ancient ruins head

Beheaded! Oh yeah, Karma…

Ramesseum Luxor, ancient ruins feet

Feet?

Ramesseum Luxor, ancient ruins statue

Love staring up high statues

Town’s ferry: Luxor, Egypt

I traveled throughout Egypt independently. My morning routine included reading up the history of most sites I visited before heading out. For Luxor, one of Egypt’s top tourist towns, I simply took the local ferry (picture below) to the West Bank, bargained down a daily rate with a cab driver (in Arabic!), and saw all sights on my own. Later that day, I took the same ferry back, hired a pink bike (US$1.50/day), and saw the rest of the town’s sights. Best game plan ever!

local Luxor ferry, Egypt

local Luxor ferry, Egypt

My favorite soft drink in the whole wide world: Fayrouz pineapple

Fayrouz, not to be confused with Lebanese legend Fairuz, means “turquoise” in Arabic. She happens to be my favorite Arab singer. And favorite color. And favorite drink. The universe knows me well.

Fayrouz pinapple, Luxor Egypt

I don’t ever drink soda, but when I do, it’s FAYROUZ

Hatshepsut temple: Luxor, Egypt

This shall be the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only woman Pharaoh! She wore a fake beard in order to look like a man in statues and drawings. Rumor has it that people from her kingdom attempted to destroy all evidence of her ever reigning. Clearly, they failed. GIRL POWER!

Temple Hatshepsut, woman pharaoh ancient ruins

Strong woman in history: Hatshepsut, “the Djeser-Djeseru” or “Holy of Holies” (Wikipedia)

Temple Hatshepsut, woman pharaoh ancient ruins

We are powerful

Oh, today I found out this was also the site of the massacre of 62 people, attack conducted by Islamist extremists back in 1997 (according to WIkipedia)…

Have you been to any of these ancient ruins? Comment below!

Ain Sokhna, Egypt: Beach Thursday video and naughty Arab lesson

It is Beach Thursday and I have a video that will teach you something naughty 😉 I didn’t even dare to post it on my Travel the Middle East site! See it until the end, as the lesson is on the last half of the Ain Sokhna video:

Beach time! Naughty Arab lesson found at 1:55

Yes, I just taught you the middle finger or Arab sign language for “f**k you.” You know, travel brings many things with it. I can’t just paint a pink picture on my blog every single time. Keepin’ it real! 😉

About Ain Sokhna, Egypt

Literally meaning “hot spring” in Arabic, Ain Sokhna is located in the Eastern Desert and happens to be the highest peak there (Wikipedia). It is a popular beach spot, but mostly to Egyptians. In fact, I didn’t even see one other foreigner during my visit, except for the fellow Couchsurfers that were with us. As I was told by my host Moussa, the resort we stayed at is of mostly middle-class Egyptians.

Photo time!

For your entertainment, photos of the grounds. Enjoy! (Note: Yes, I know I blatantly ignored all rules in regard to how to dress in Egypt or any conservative country, but I was told by Moussa this was a safe spot to wear my tank top. And, as a Latina, feeling ubber liberated, I so did…!)

Ain Sokhna beach, Egypt

Me at Ain Sokhna beach. The sandy part

Ain Sokhna sandy beach, Egypt

Ain Sokhna sandy beach teni (again)

Sokhna mountains

Barren mountains, too! This is from the rooftop of Moussa’s apartment, with his cousin and fellow traveler Jaimie (Aussie)

Sokhna resort view

Ain Sokhna resort view from our friend’s flat

Sokhna hookah

Hookah time! We went to a café/resort on the road from Ain Sokhna to Cairo

Have you been to any off-the-beaten-path spots in Egypt?