He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress and for his children it will be a refuge.
Proverbs 14:26

Friday, October 31, 2014

5 Middle Eastern Driving Tips

We have lived in the Middle East for over 10 years now (so hard to believe!) so there are several things related to culture and life here that I can talk somewhat knowledgeably about.  I have a basic understanding of how things work, or don't work and can kind of anticipate things that are going to take 100x longer than expected or things that are going to smoothly.   I think it's safe to say that I have a basic, working knowledge of the culture.  However.


Driving in this country is something that I don't know if I will ever understand or even be able to cope with on a healthy level.  For that reason, I feel the need to vent, and this is my venue for that.  I'm going to vent in the form of tips that might help prepare newcomers or visitors for the realities that are the Jordanian roadways.  Because I have driven around plenty of American visitors or new-comers to see their white gripped knuckles on the door of the vehicle and know that they might have needed a bit of preparation...

Maybe you noticed that I switched from Middle Eastern roadways, more specifically to Jordanian roadways.  That's because I have lived in other places- Beirut, and I've heard the urban legends about the horrors of driving in places like, say, Cairo.  Beirut, was a completely different monster than Amman as far as driving and one that I much prefer actually.   At least in Beirut, what gives the appearance of mass total chaos, at least has an undercurrent of order to it.  There is an understanding of the systems.  I can't explain it besides to say that once you've driven there for a season, you kind of get the hang of it, and honestly, it just works.  That is not the case in Amman.  

Did you hear me?


What appears like an orderly system of roadways is mass chaos and you never get used to the craziness of it.  (or at least it takes longer than the 3 years we've lived here to figure it out...)  

So here are my tips in no particular order:

  1. Do not be deceived by the lanes!  (or the lights, or the signs or anything else that might lead you to believe that there is some kind of order).  Back to the lanes though... I'm honestly not sure why they painted them on the roads.  Maybe to trick Westerners?  I envision a back room in a government building where they watch our growing frustration on hidden cameras with much delight.  Yeah, really don't know why the lanes are there.  They certainly don't drive in them.  They straddle them, they cross them, they swerve around them, but move orderly from lane to lane?  Certainly not.  Maybe they like the pretty contrast of the bright yellow paint with the dark color of the cement?  
  2. Redefine what you consider rude.  Honking, for instance, is not rude.  It's basic road communication.  Usually it means, "hey, i'm behind or beside you" (or will be in .5 seconds because i'm coming over whether you want me to or not).  It can also mean, "THE LIGHT IS GREEN!"  I yelled that at you because when you are stopped at a red light and it turns green, all the cars around you will immediately yell at you with their horns.  Especially if you are coming from America, the land of no honking, this can be a bit unsettling.  
  3. Re-learn the art of the merge and the purpose of the shoulder.  Actually, "re-learn" may not be the best term because it implies that there is actually something TO learn related to merging.  Everything you learned in drivers ed about effective merging onto the roadway, just disregard it.  There is no gradually speeding up as you seek to blend into oncoming traffic.  There is simply cutting your car out into the center of traffic and closing your eyes and praying you don't get hit.  You can try sitting there on the side with your blinker on, waiting for someone to let you into traffic but it won't happen.  On the flip side if it's not you merging but someone else, you pretty much have to have eyes in the back of your head.  They are going to "merge" on to the road whether there is a spot for them or not.  And believe me when i tell you that it will do absolutely no good whatsoever to have a little fit and yell things like "YOU CAN'T DO THAT!"  Because, yes, yes they can.  And as my 8 year old is so faithful to point out, "you know they can't hear you, Mom."  And also, they have absolutely no framework for understanding how frustrating it is that they just totally cut you off.  It is simply the way the roads work here, so if they happen to catch a glimpse of the crazy American waving her arms around and yelling they will probably wonder what in the world her kids are doing in the back of the car but have no concept that they are the ones creating the frustration.  They CAN do that and they WILL do that.  Get used to it, and re-direct your yelling.  And then there's the shoulder.  Or maybe lack of shoulder.  Any space on the side of the road (paved or not) can and will be used by motorists to by-pass those waiting in traffic and get to their intended destination quicker.  This actually becomes more of an issue for Westerners when we return to our home countries.  One morning on the way to school in the states during our short time there we were stuck in standstill interstate traffic.  Abbey innocently asked, "Mom, why don't you just go around all these cars?" and points to the open shoulder.  Why indeed?
  4. Learn the little hand wave thingy...  No idea what to call this, but everyone does it so you might at least try and learn what it means.  Basically, if they are about to pull out in traffic in front of you and completely cut you off, they will stick their hand out the window and kind of wave backwards- kind of like a motion you would do for your child to stay behind you, but they are sticking their hand out the window to do it.  There are other times they do it as well, but the general sense is, if I stick my hand out the window to shoo you back, it means I'm coming and doing whatever I want in this vehicle whether you like it or not.  Understanding this hand wave thingy may or may not save you some moments of frustration if only in the sense that at least you know you are about to be cut off...
  5. There are actually laws.  I know, shocking right?!  There are some laws in the midst of all the madness, and if you break them you just might got a ticket  (ahhh-hem, not that I would know or anything). Even though it may seem completely non-sensical that passengers can hang out the sunroof, infants can sit in parents laps behind the wheel, and 8 kids can pile in the back of a hatch-back, you WILL get a ticket if you are talking on your phone even stopped at a red light. Also, the cops will also wave you down at random times on the side of the road.  Sometimes there is a purpose that is obvious, most of the time not.   Like speeding traps- that's a purpose for you (again, not that I would know).  When you're not sure of the purpose, it's best to play the "I don't speak Arabic I'm just a clueless foreigner" card even if you do speak Arabic quite well.  They will usually just wave you on and you may never know the purpose.  (likely there's not one).  
So there you have it, my Middle Eastern tips for driving.  There are no rules, but there are clearly laws.  There is no system, but there is a little hand wave thingy.  There are pretty yellow lines on the road with no purpose and honking equals hello.   What else is there?  Without a doubt, there is no end to your personal frustration if you don't quickly learn that yes, yes they can do whatever "that" may be that you're yelling about and you might as well get over it and not get mad at someone who has no clue that they are the source of your anger.  Because as Naomi says, "they can't hear you" anyway!

Cooking Adventures Part 2: What's working for us...

Well, I should have known better than to say "stay tuned" for anything when it comes to blogging.  I'm pretty sure I meant to do the next post about recipes/meals that are working for us the next day, and that was, well, almost 2 months ago....

Things are going really well!  I feel like, as a family, we are making a lot healthier eating choices and even the girls are seeing the benefits of how much better your body feels without (too much) extra junk!  We are however a family who loves to eat, and bake, so we will never be a household where those things completely disappear- that would be way too sad!

It helps that I am in the midst of a 40 Day Paleo Challenge at my Crossfit box (is that the right terminology? still learning all this...).  Wow, it's challenging but I feel good!  I don't think Paleo eating will be a long term thing for our family- just not very maintainable over here, but it is definitely causing me to rethink some choices and learn other ways of preparing food.  Mainly we're focusing on foods in their most natural forms- heavy on fruits and veggies and protein, light on sweets.

I'm working on a healthy eating chart for the fridge for my little girls but I'm kind of having to come up with one myself, because everything I find online says something like "this is my reward..." at the end of the week and that's not what I'm looking for.

As promised, here are some meals that I've found that really work well for us. A lot of these will be links to other blogs that I've found and really enjoyed, some will be good old fashioned recipes from my handwritten recipe box.  I have a long list of others that I'm wanting to try and just haven't yet so, (dare I say it?), stay tuned....

Moroccan mango fish  Leave off the couscous and serve with just lettuce or other veggies and it's paleo.  We also do a similar fish for fish tacos that can be paleo too if in lettuce wraps.  Super yummy also with avocado.  (this is a great website- she has some great ideas especially for kids lunches)

Thai chicken:  I got this recipe from this blog.  She has some great ideas for freezer to crockpot meals.  I bought her e-cookbook, and do recommend it although I've changed several of the recipes to better suite our tastes.  The idea of freezer to crockpot meals has been great for us.   Here's our version of thai chicken:

I kilo bone-in chicken thighs (in Jordan I buy the frozen packages of Sabra thighs)
26 ounces coconut milk
2 TBSP brown sugar
2 TBSP soy sauce
2 medium onions
4-6 garlic cloves
2 red bell peppers chopped
2 green bell peppers chopped
2-4 carrots chopped
2 TBSP curry
2 tsp giner
Combine all ingredients in 2 gallon sized freezer bags.  On day of cooking, put in crockpot on low for 6-8 hours or high for 4-6 hours until chicken thoroughly cooked.  Remove chicken and shred with fork and stir back in to the liquid.  Garnish with scallions and chopped cilantro.  

(since you really can't go wrong with thai chicken anything, this is another coconut curry chicken recipe that we liked)

Since we're talking about freezer to crockpot meals, I liked this website also.  Especially the spicy vegetable beef soup.  It's easy and calls for stuff that I usually have on hand.  

 Marinated chicken or beef  I use this recipe tons and love it!  I usually slice my chicken or beef in strips, put it in the marinade and freeze it.  After thawing, I sauté it in the marinade and it's ready to go.  We use the chicken for "make your own salads"- a new family fave.  We make a big salad bar with chopped veggies, olives, avocados, hard boiled eggs, cheese etc.    Sometimes I'll just sauté the chicken along with some veggies and call it a meal.  Same with the beef.  The beef is also good for a black and blue salad with blue cheese, slivered almonds and either pears or apples.  

Speaking of salads, this is my current favorite salad dressing.  My girls also love it for dipping their zataar mannaeeshe in (I'm getting to what that is....).  

Balsamic Vinegar Dressing
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
3 TBSP honey (sometime I do less)
3 TBSP dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves 
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup olive oil

Combine all but olive oil and mix well.  Slowly whisk in oil until combined.

This lemony spinach recipe was a surprising hit with all of my family.  So much so that I have yet to be able to make enough of it...  This blog was also an instant hit with me considering the author is part Lebanese and you absolutely CANNOT go wrong with Lebanese food.  

This quinoa fried rice is also a new family favorite.  The quinoa means it's not paleo, but it is "clean" (WHO came up with all these terms anyway) and either way it's super good...  I changed it a bit and sautéed some chicken first that I stirred in at the end.  Also, we are not fans of green peas in our house so instead of green peas, I stirred in red cabbage- gave it more color anyway!

I really love using my crock pot.  Here are a some of our favorite crock pot recipes that taste yummy and make your house smell amazing all day.  

Crock pot greek chicken  (don't be intimidated by the cauliflower rice- another thing that my whole family has surprisingly enjoyed!)

Beef and broccoli  (not paleo but super yummy)

Thai beef stew  (also had this with cauliflower rice)

Thai chicken stuffed sweet potatoes  (yet another yummy surprise- sweet potatoes whether baked or oven fried have become a staple around here)

Moroccan chicken stew- this is Jason's moms recipe so I don't have a link, but it's too good not to share.  Can be made paleo by using almond flour or coconut flour and served over cauliflower rice or just by itself as a stew:

4 carrots, peeled & sliced
2 large onions, halved & thinly sliced
3 lb. meaty chicken pieces
½ cup raisins
½ cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 14-oz can chicken broth
¼ cup tomato paste
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ tsp. ground cumin
1½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
   Hot cooked couscous
   Pine nuts or slivered almonds, toasted
   Fresh cilantro (optional)

In a 5-6 quart slow cooker place carrots and onions.  Sprinkle chicken with ½ tsp. salt.  Add to cooker; top chicken with raisins and apricots.  In bowl whisk broth, tomato paste, flour, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and ¾ tsp. ground black pepper.  Add to cooker.  Cover.  Cook on low-heat setting for 6½ to 7 hours or on high-heat setting for 3½ to 4 hours.  Serve in bowls with couscous.  Sprinkle with nuts.  Garnish with cilantro.

So, I'm not doing wheat of any kind on paleo, but my family is, and this is a great all-purpose recipe.   I use it for dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, pizza dough, and our fave- Lebanese manaeeshe..

Hot Roll Mix- No Rise
1 TBSP yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 TBSP sugar
1/2 cup oil
2 cups sour milk, yogurt or buttermilk
1/2 tsp soda
5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
5 cups (or more) whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (or less) sugar- I usually don't put sugar

Dissolve yeast in warm water with 1 TBSP sugar.  Add remaining ingredients.  Mix and knead well.  Place in greased container.  Refrigerate.  The dough will keep a couple of weeks.  When needed, remove desired amount of dough.  NO NEED TO RISE!  Bake at 425.  

zataar (mix of thyme and other seasonings depending on the country)
salt (a little)
lemon juice (some)
olive oil (some)
Mozzarella or other local white cheeses
pizza dough rolled into mini pizzas (great for lunches!) or regular sized

Make dough.  Combine zataar and other seasonings to make a thick greenish paste.  Spread on dough and sprinkle with cheese if desired.  Bake 350 for 10-12 minutes until cheese is golden.  

If you know me, you know what a sweet tooth I have.  As I said before, we love baking!  Here are some recipes I've found to satisfy that while doing paleo:

paleo "brownies" with dates  (am NOT a fan of dates at all, but these were yummy!)

Cake in a cup (like she says, if you're trying to lose weight, this might not should be a frequent flyer on your menu JUST because it's paleo- but it's good!)

pumpkin smoothie (so yummy!  I lessen the ginger a bit...)

Here's a list of some other things I'm trying to keep on hand for snacks and quick side dishes/meals:

sweet potatoes ("bake" very quickly in microwave for an easy meal)
cucumbers and carrots watched, sliced and ready for snacking
blanched green beans (surprisingly another yummy snack!)
roasted almonds (also use to make almond butter)
apples with almond butter
hardboiled eggs

I'm sure there are others but I'm tired of talking about food and I have a 3 year old who's ready to make play dough.  Let me know favorite recipes or sites that you've found to make healthy eating easier for your family!