My Journey through Kashmir, the Misperceived Paradise of India

For Khabar Magazine. November 2018 print issue. 

The “Welcome to Kashmir” sign at the modest Sheikh ul-Alam Airport was draped by posters of a scene from a popular 1981 Bollywood movie, Silsila, where the romantic couple Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha sing a duet at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden of Srinagar (the largest tulip garden in Asia). Having watched countless movies filmed in Kashmir’s snowy mountains, lush valleys, pristine lakes, and flowery gardens, I was excited to discover what’s known as the ‘Switzerland of India.’

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The famous Kashmiri kahwah, a traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds.

My first stop was Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar located near the famous Dal Lake. This 39-room family-owned boutique hotel under the Ahad Hotels brand was one of the first hotel chains in the valley. Inside, it looks like a modern Kashmiri cabin made of wood, with floral carpets, walnut carved chairs, and embroidered tapestry. Right away, I am greeted with a cup of hot Kashmiri kahwah, a traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds.

I could just picture one of the movie scenes where people are wearing warm pashmina shawls, sitting outside in a green lawn with a backdrop of the majestic Zabarwan Mountains, sipping on tea and soaking in the scenery. I was about to replay the scene, in real life.

The capital city of Srinagar has two distinct sections. The more tourist friendly area around Dal Lake is filled with gardens built in the 17th century by Mughal emperors. With rows of neatly planted flowers on terraced lawns, breezy pavilions, and cascading water fountains, the most famous gardens are Chashme Shahi (the royal spring), Nishat Bagh (garden of bliss), Shalimar Bagh (abode of love), and Pari Mahal (angel’s abode). There’s also the hilltop Shankaracharya Mandir dedicated to Lord Shiva, and Hazratbal Mosque, which is said to contain strands of Islamic prophet Muhammad’s hair.

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The early morning floating market, a place where local villagers gather at the lake to sell their produce, and wholesalers from land come to shop.

Most of the gardens overlook the scenic urban Dal Lake. Brightly colored canopied deluxe shikaras (Kashmiri boats) made of deodar (Himalayan cedar) wood can be hired for a relaxing ride. A not-to-be-missed experience is waking up in the early morning to see the floating market, a place where local village dwellers gather at the lake to sell their produce, and wholesalers from land come to shop. My shikara paddler and I drifted through the calm waters of the Dal in complete darkness, feeling the early morning mist turning into a bluish hazy sky. At the crack of dawn, men arrived in their long wooden boats filled with tomatoes, bitter gourd, green beans, eggplants, and long melons. Apparently, the rich nutrient properties of the lake allow for rad (floating gardens), so farmers grow vegetables in the water. Sitting on the very edge of the boat, smoking cigarettes, one shikara guy would come closer to the other and have polite long discussions, possibly negotiating the price of the vegetables or just catching up on daily chatter.

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A woman rows to a grocery store in Dal Lake.

While I did come across hundreds of houseboats on Dal and nearby Nigeen Lake mostly used as floating hotels, it was interesting to see that there was an entire village in the lake where the Kashmiri people lived. Handicrafts, carpet, shawl, jewelry, and grocery shops were all floating in the lake. Women would row their way to get their provisions, just as they would walk to a neighborhood store.

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The famous shikaras, the wooden boats, range from personal vehicles to tourist boats and more.

The Old City of Srinagar is the economic and residential downtown. Here you will find shanty towns, old buildings with intricate wooden balconies, narrow streets lined with shops selling copper utensils, dried fruits, and raw pashmina wool. There is also the largest mosque in Kashmir, Jama Masjid, which was originally built in 1294, and there are cruises along the Jhelum River to witness everyday life without sitting in heavy traffic.

Culinary enthusiasts can discover a variety of restaurants in the Old City serving traditional Kashmiri wazwan, a multicourse meal of meat (mostly lamb, mutton, and chicken) simmered over the wood of fruit trees in nickel-plated copper vessels. Most hotels offer the popular dishes as entrees: seekh kebabs (minced meat skewers), waza chicken (fried chicken in red curry), rogan josh (spicy lamb curry), ghustaba (minced meatballs), dum aloo (sour potatoes curry), and nadru yakhni (lotus stems in yogurt sauce), to name a few.

After breakfast of girda (Kashmiri bread) and noon chai (salty pink tea), I take a road trip to the neighboring hill station of Gulmarg. Winding through the Pir Panjal Range in the western Himalayas, I notice the sudden drop in temperature as we go up to the winter sports capital of India. Hardly anyone lives in Gulmarg, which is mostly an Army base, and there are very few small hotels. What attracts international visitors to come here is the second highest gondola in the world, reaching an attitude of 13,800 feet. There’s also the highest golf course in the world, at 8,690 feet, and one of the first places to open an exclusive golf course for women by the British civil servants.

As I rise above the green pine and fir forests, nomadic mud homes, and shepherd colonies covering Kongdoori Mountain, there is nothing but rocks and clouds at Apharwat Peak. Gulmarg gets an average of 14 meters of snow each year, which makes it an ideal location for a ski school. In the peak of summer, there is still some snow on the ground and tourists from around India are excited to make snow balls for the first time in their lives.

After a break for chai and piping hot vegetable pakoras at the first stage of the ropeway, I descend to Hotel Heevan Retreat in Gulmarg. Though the ski lodge was built only in 2006, its dilapidated condition attests to how infrastructure is limited in this part of the country. As my waiter serves a delicious bowl of chicken biryani topped with boiled eggs, nuts, and coconut flakes, he tells me that the hotels in the area must get special permits to do renovations on the property and are not allowed to bring any raw materials into the valley. Unfortunately, private businesses rely heavily on political agendas.

Meadows full of daisies, forget-me-nots, and buttercups (wildflowers), and a Shiv temple with red roof also remind me of old Hindi movies. “The song ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ with Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz was filmed at this very spot,” my driver, Mohammad Shafi, informs me, taking great pride in the natural beauty of the land he calls home.

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Kids sporting local attire at Pari Mahal Gardens.

We move on to Pahalgam, a small tourist town located along the banks of the crystal blue waters of the Lidder River. From my room at Hotel Heevan (meaning ‘heaven’ in Kashmiri), I can hear the screams and laughter of children at the amusement park across the river. Colorful old buses packed with kids and families arrive in surrounding Aru and Betaab Valleys all through the weekend. Families grill kebabs on portable BBQs, sit in circles, and crack jokes, against the backdrop of beautiful Lidder Valley. It looks like a weekend activity anywhere else in the world. You can hear them sing Bollywood songs at the top of their lungs as they ride through the meandering mountain roads past thick pine forests back to their homes. This may be the closest it comes to heaven on Earth.

Whenever I speak to anyone about Kashmir, the first question they ask me is, “Is it safe to go there?” as if I had put myself into a dangerous position by traveling to what was once India’s most popular tourist destination. Honestly, as a solo female traveler, I feel Kashmir was safer than most places in India. I can comfortably walk alone without strangers staring or passing comments. I never feel that I must look out for my belongings. Yes, there are armed militia on the streets practically at every corner, but they never bother anyone and life goes on as usual.

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The author with local students at the Chashme Shahi Gardens.

After speaking to the locals about the situation, I gathered that much of it is “media hyped” and the Kashmiri people prefer to live in harmony despite their religious differences. Every person I encountered—from restaurant doormen, taxi drivers, and waiters, to shop keepers who sold me cashmere shawls and carpets—each of them went above and beyond to welcome me as if I were a family member. They asked me where I was from and how I liked Kashmir, invited me to their homes for kahwah, and even befriended me on Facebook!

Still, tourism to this enchanted area of northern India is at an all-time low. Hotels are practically empty, Kashmiris are leaving the state for jobs elsewhere, and artisans are willing to let go of their products at bargain prices. Managing Director of Ahad Hotels, Mr. Asif Iqbal Burza, states, “The only thing we aim for is for people to come here, experience Kashmir firsthand, and share the true image with their friends. We have been able to survive hardships by offering sincere Kashmiri hospitality, and hope that our guests will act as brand ambassadors to help change perceptions.”

~ Written for Khabar Magazine

Discover Your Inner Samurai With a Mountain Warrior of Japan

For Fodor’s Travel. August 2018.

Yamabushi are mountain warriors that are said to have supernatural powers trained in martial arts and survivor skills—here’s one traveler’s tale of training with the samurai.

The philosophy of Yamabushi involves reconnecting with yourself by letting go of human character and immersing in nature through meditative hiking. In today’s modern society where being a samurai means combating career, societal, and family pressures, many Japanese business men and women have found the practice to be effective in dealing with stress, and now international citizens can experience the same through a program offered by Megurun Inc. On my journey of self-discovery with  Master Hoshino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, I was graciously allowed to photograph the program.

Continue reading on Fodor’s Travel

Caribbean Smooth Creates Rum Liqueur Ou-Oui! With the Female Consumer in Mind

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018.

The founder of Caribbean Smooth, a new brand of tropical spiced rum liqueur, shakes an unusually shaped black-colored bottle and pours me a taste of his guava-pineapple and passion fruit blends as we chat sitting at the bar of a Mexican restaurant near his home in Atlanta. “This is an instant rum punch,” he says mixing the two flavors and adding a splash of ginger ale. It is Ou-Oui!

Walwyn uses fresh pink guavas and pineapples from Central and South America and blends them with spices from the Caribbean to create a smooth liqueur that is easy to drink straight from the bottle. There’s no burn from the alcohol, just a little heat and a slight buzz. With 20 percent alcohol and all natural ingredients, there’s nothing else like this on the market.

Growing up on the island of St. Kitts, Walwyn picked mangoes, bananas, coconuts, sugarcane and guavas from his backyard, eating them fresh and juicing them for a sweet treat. “Even as a kid, I created my own juices, spiked them up with my dad’s brandy, not for a buzz, but because I enjoyed how it changed the flavor profile,” he recalls of his first experiments.

After his father migrated to neighboring St. Croix in 2010, Walwyn would make a passion fruit cocktail for his friends and family, which was fondly named ‘Nigel’s Punch.’ It was inspired by a rum punch he had tried at a beach bar (formerly Ziggy’s) in St. Kitts, that he considered the best in the world. Word spread and before he knew it, people were asking him to make this special recipe for their events. He made three gallons for the St. Kitts Music Festival’s VIP tent and the crowd demanded more. “The people of St. Kitts are the harshest critics of rum drinks, and that’s when I knew I was on to something,” says Walwyn.

Creating the Consumer Demand for Something New

Soon requests poured in from colleagues at CNN in Atlanta where Walwyn worked at the time. With the encouragement of friends, he said goodbye to his 25-year-long career in TV news to become a beverage entrepreneur.

It took three and a half years of research, product development and getting certifications to bring the taste of the islands to the market. “I hit many roadblocks while I was going through the process by myself. It was frustrating at times, but I knew I was learning and doing something new and exciting,” he adds.

When Walwyn was testing out his recipes, people would taste test and say, “Oh yea!” It was an expression he repeatedly heard,  so he decided to call the product Ou-Oui!

Bottles of Ou-Oui! Rum Liqueur
Photo: Caribbean Smooth

I asked Walwyn about the unusual shape of the curved black bottle with a lipstick mark on the logo, colorful round bottle caps and picture of a couple on a sunset beach. “Ou-Oui! is designed for women. Women like romantic, flavorful, smooth alcoholic drinks. They are put off by strong burning spirits like scotch, whiskey and tequila. It comes in an easy to hold, curved feminine glass bottle. The dark bottle is functional, preserving the freshness of the fruit by blocking UV light,” he explains. The bottle can also be recycled and used as a vase, lamp or candle holder.

Walwyn recommends using Ou-Oui! as a base to enhance any cocktail recipe. You can add it to cognac or whiskey, margarita or mojitos – it doesn’t matter. Create an instant rum punch by mixing two parts passion fruit, one part guava-pineapple and a splash of ginger beer or ginger ale and pour it over ice. Add to Champagne and make a healthier mimosa. Each Ou-Oui! bottle has 14 ingredients already, so there are enough flavors and complexity to boost your cocktail. Shake the bottle well as the real fruit tends to settle at the bottom, refrigerate once opened.

Ou-Oui! is manufactured in Florida and currently available at 200+ stores in Alabama and Georgia. It is available during select food festivals and Caribbean events.

With only a year after the release of the brand, Walwyn is already working on creating new flavors (mango is expected to launch in 2020) and raising additional capital to expand the brand nationally.

To see where Ou-Oui! is available, visit www.caribbeansmooth.com and also follow Walwyn on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

10 UNESCO Sites Every African-American Traveler Should Visit

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018. 

Are you curious about traveling to countries that are particularly known for their UNESCO designated sites? Lazare Eloundou Assomo, deputy director of the World Heritage Centre, provides some insight into how the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works.  UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world that is considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. These include monuments, habitats and natural formations that have aesthetic, archeological, scientific or anthropological value. All countries have sites of local or national interest, but sites selected for World Heritage listing are inscribed based on their merits as the best possible examples of cultural and natural heritage.

How did the UNESCO World Heritage list start?

The idea of creating an international movement for protecting heritage emerged after World War I. The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage developed from the merging of two separate movements – the first focusing on the preservation of cultural sites and the other dealing with the conservation of nature.

How is a UNESCO site selected?

First, a country must pledge to protect its natural and cultural heritage by signing the World Heritage Convention and submitting a nomination for a site on its territory to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A nominated property is independently evaluated by two advisory bodies mandated by the World Heritage Convention, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The committee of 21 representatives meets once a year to decide which sites will be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Some of the newest inscribed properties include the ancient city of Qalhat in OmanThimlick Ohinga settlement in Kenya and the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa.

As history and culture play an important role in why people travel, here are 10 UNESCO Sites that every black person should visit at least once in their lifetime.

  1. Robben Island, South Africa

Used as a prison and hospital for socially unacceptable groups and later as a military base, this maximum-security prison located on an island near Cape Town imprisoned Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandel for 18 years.

  1. Lalibela, Ethiopia

Famous for its rock-cut monolithic churches, the town of Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities with11 churches built in the 12th and 13th centuries, a monastery and vernacular houses.

  1. Island of Gorée, Senegal

Located just off the coast of Dakar, close to Africa’s westernmost point, this island played an important role in slave trade in the Middle Ages.

  1. Medina of Fez, Morocco

The Medina is not only a visually stimulating cultural and spiritual center, it is also home to the oldest university in the world.

  1. Salvador Bahia, Brazil

The city was the original colonial capital and the first slave market in South America. It maintains many Afro-Brazilian traditions, religious rites, martial arts, food and dances.

  1. Old Havana, Cuba

The fortified characteristically Spanish town retains a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical monuments, private houses with wrought-iron gates and balconies.

  1. Pitons Management Area, St Lucia

With two volcanic spires, hot springs, a coral reef and wet forests, Gros Piton and Petit Piton make a spectacular backdrop to the western part of the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean.

  1. Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

This wildlife park stretching over 50,000 square kilometers is home to elephants, black rhinos, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles.

  1. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Sprays from the largest waterfall in the world formed by the Zambezi River can be seen from Zambia and Zimbabwe.

  1. Lamu Old Town, Kenya

The oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa features narrow streets with elaborately carved wooden doors, stone buildings, dhow boats and an annual Mualidi festival.

For more additional exploration of history, Moukala also recommends checking out some of the sites related to slavery to further understand the social and human impact around the world.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

A day of thanks. Gratitude is the attitude wherever you’re from

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. November 2018 print issue. 

Before I moved to Atlanta in 1997, I had a picture-postcard image of Thanksgiving — a Caucasian family wearing plaid shirts gathered around a big table covered with a dozen delectable dishes. There was always a whole pumpkin and orange tones to signify autumn. I knew there was a cooked turkey at the center of the festive spread (though I had never seen or tasted turkey growing up in India), but that was all I knew about Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t until I was a college freshman, when an elderly couple invited me to their home on Howell Mill Road for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, that I got the full picture. They roasted a whole stuffed turkey and served creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with mushrooms, whipped sweet potatoes, tart cranberry dressing, and pumpkin pie. Then they told me the story of Thanksgiving — in the 1600s, the Wampanoag Indians taught the Pilgrims, who had sailed to the eastern coast of United States on the Mayflower, how to cultivate the land, and in appreciation, the Pilgrims cooked a “thank you” dinner. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared “Thanksgiving” a national holiday, and ever since, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November each year, when families and friends gather for dinner. What we ate at my first Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta are some of the dishes typically prepared (most of which I had never tasted before). My hosts asked me to say aloud what I was thankful for, and the three of us dived into my first Thanksgiving meal.

Over the next few years, I discovered a group of international orphans (that’s what we called ourselves, those who were transplants from other countries) who had a potluck dinner party on Thanksgiving Day. Most of us were single students and young professionals. Each one would bring a dish representing their country. We had a globally-inspired feast!

Once I started working a corporate job, I discovered Thanksgiving was also a long weekend and a great time to travel (except you must deal with the crowds). My friends who had moved to Atlanta from elsewhere in the U.S. were always planning a trip home over the Thanksgiving holidays. Since my husband and I had no other home in the states, we started using this opportunity to take vacations. This is when I also realized you could get a Thanksgiving turkey dinner practically anywhere in the U.S., even if you were unable to cook it yourself. I remember having “turkey and fixings” at the Universal Studios cafeteria, at a diner in Gatlinburg, even 30,000 feet in the air onboard a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

I also discovered people would get up very early in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving to stand in line at Walmart, Best Buy, and shopping malls for “Black Friday” deals on electronics and clothing. I didn’t see the point in waking up at 5 a.m. to go shopping, but my friends informed me they got very good deals! I didn’t quite get the concept at first. You have just finished being grateful for everything you have but feel the urgent need to go buy more stuff. The only time I indulged in this custom was when Nordstrom gave out free pumpkin pies with every purchase (and you didn’t need to come early for that, or spend a lot).

Now that I have spent more of my life in the U.S., Thanksgiving has become an important part of my American life. I have hosted dinners at my home, cooking turkeys and dozens of sides myself, and invited international students and friends who find themselves alone. The holiday is more of a reminder to be grateful, than to overindulge in food or retail therapy.

Commemorating a bountiful harvest is not a concept unique to the Pilgrims, as some version of it can be found in other parts of the world. People across Germany, Grenada, Korea, Japan, Liberia, and Norfolk Island have been known to celebrate some version of a day of remembrance — of giving gratitude for a good harvest, of counting one’s blessings or thanking the labor force — by enjoying a feast with family and friends. Many cultures have parades, carnivals, music, and dancing to celebrate abundant food with appreciation.

Other transplanted Atlantans have brought their own perspective to this holiday of giving thanks.

An English Canadian who grew up in Toronto, Fairyal Halim was accustomed to celebrating Thanksgiving as a day to give gratitude, rather than in the context of a historical event. Our northern neighbor has been celebrating the holiday long before us and has similar cooking traditions, though they celebrate it in on the second Monday in October. A U.S. resident for almost three decades, Halim now celebrates two Thanksgivings with her family — a Canadian one in October, and an American version in November.

Says Halim, “To this day, Thanksgiving remains grounded in the recognition of our immense blessings of family, friends, and gratitude for it all. It is really a time to focus on all that we are blessed with and to not take it for granted. I make a point of reaching out to family and/or friends who may find themselves alone on Thanksgiving.” She remembers hosting turkey dinners for her son’s college friends who were unable to make it home for Thanksgiving. The turkey came from a halal (slaughtered according to the principals of Islam) butcher, as Halim’s family is Muslim.

For Halim, Thanksgiving emphasizes the coming together of different people and being aware of the abundance in one’s life. “As a Muslim, I find great resonance of values that are important to me in the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is the perfect synthesis of our North American culture and religion. The concept of gratitude and thankfulness to God is foremost for Muslims. They are to be ever mindful of their blessings, to not take anything for granted, and to give thanks by saying ‘Alhamdulillah,’ meaning ‘all praise is for God.’ Thanksgiving is not limited to just one day for Muslims,” she says. “It’s is an attitude of gratitude.”

Cali, Colombia, native Cesar Restrepo came to Cleveland, Georgia, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. “I knew that my brothers and family living in Miami celebrated Thanksgiving, but I thought it was just a break they had before Christmas. I also knew about the special prices on pretty much everything. For me it was just a mere shopping holiday,” he recalls of his first brush with the holiday.

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

For his first turkey dinner, Restrepo was invited by a Colombian family who served him a typical American Thanksgiving dinner along with tamales, a customary dish at every Colombian holiday. He remembers taking a moment before the meal to express what each of them was thankful for, especially for the blessings this country had given them. Twenty years later, Restrepo continues the tradition with his wife and kids, cooking all day, inviting friends over, and reflecting on the good fortune they have in their lives.

“For me, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to gather with other immigrants and make them feel welcome in a country that is not ours but is kind enough to host us. It’s also an act of kindness and peace,” says Restrepo. Having grown up in a relatively poor country, he doesn’t like the extravagant feasts where a lot of food is wasted.

Content writer and blogger Lakshmi Devi Jagad moved from Mumbai to Atlanta in 2003. She, too, had no knowledge of the historic significance of Thanksgiving before arriving in the U.S., but she had heard about the incredible sales the holiday brought with it. “I believe Thanksgiving has been monetized for many years now!” she observes.

Over the years, it has become a day when she and her husband catch up with friends over a good meal and conversation, a quiet and peaceful time, Jagad says, for “a social gathering, a fun get-together, an opportunity to relax.”

Being vegetarian, Jagad must forgo the indispensable turkey and opt for an elaborate vegetable biryani, a layered Indian rice dish with saffron and nuts that is served with a side of cucumber and yogurt raita. “We prepare a huge pot of it as our version of the turkey,” she says.

Father George Mahklouf, an Orthodox priest from the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, has also integrated Thanksgiving into his annual rituals. “Whether Palestinians, Arabs, or other immigrants from overseas coming to America, many try to follow the traditions of the country they choose to live in. I lived in Yonkers, NY, then Long Island, and finally Atlanta. Wherever I went, Arabs celebrated Thanksgiving. Why? I don’t know, though most probably see it as a gathering of family and friends.”

Mahklouf says the story of the Native Americans and the Pilgrims is familiar to him. “It reminds me of our similar Palestinian story as native indigenous people of the land of Canaan who were displaced by Ashkenazi Jews coming from Poland, Russia, and other places in the world to live in our own homes and take over our businesses and orchards.” Mahklouf, who breaks his own Nativity Fast “in order to please people (at Thanksgiving)” for a feast he never celebrated in Palestine, says his thankfulness, like Halim’s, is not limited to the holiday. “We thank God and all who do us favors, without having a special day to thank God and others.”

Thanksgiving in the U.S. has traditionally been a historic celebration, with religious overtones for many, but today it is celebrated by immigrants from around the world, regardless of their religious or cultural beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, who have chosen to make the United States their home. The holiday may have evolved from a day of giving thanks around the dinner table to include watching afternoon football games and starting the holiday shopping season, but its essence — celebrating an abundance of food after a fall harvest, breaking bread together with others, and appreciating one’s blessings — has endured over time.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

Ultimate Spa Retreats in Phoenix

For One Travel. October 2018.

With its luxurious resorts offering exclusive experiences, Arizona attracts travelers who want to not only hike, bike and explore the sunny outdoors by day, but also unwind with good food and soothing spa treatments in the evening. The state’s dazzling desert scenery is the perfect backdrop to refresh, recharge, and get away from the stresses of everyday life. Phoenix is one of the easiest cities to get to in Arizona and you don’t need to drive far to experience the desert, spa, and city life. Here you can get a Thoachta healing by a Native American shaman, meditate in a tiki hut, watch the sunset in the desert botanical gardens and detox your mind, body, and spirit in just a weekend.

Here are a few unique experiences in and around Phoenix so you can have the ultimate spa getaway. Continue reading on One Travel’s Going Places

Where to Discover Persian Food and Culture in Atlanta

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. September 2018. 

“Get yourself a Persian friend. Just show interest in their culture, and the next thing you know, they will invite you over to their house,” says Samira Shakib Bregeth, an Iranian-American English teacher at Roswell High School and advisor for news and opinion website VOX. She and others I spoke with assured me that Persian people in Atlanta love to interact with people from other countries and welcome them to learn about Persian culture.

Bregeth has seen the Persian Festival in Atlanta grow from a few hundred to over 13,000 attendees, transitioning from Red Top mountain to Piedmont Park as its new venue. There are tents made to look like a bazaar with food, vendors, music, and dance, and it is always held on the first day of spring, which also marks Nowruz or Persian New Year. Festivities are held for 13 days at the Persian Cultural Center – Kanoon. These include a shopping festival that offers things Bregeth says are hard to make at home. “This is where you can buy things to put on your haftseen (ceremonial table) ),” she explains, “such as fruit, puddings, coins, candles, painted eggs — each symbolizing spring or renewal.”

Because their new year symbolizes the rebirth of nature, Persian families and friends spend a lot of time outdoors during this time. “You will see us at the Chattahoochee River enjoying picnics eating kotlets made with meat and potatoes; Persian sandwiches made with French bread, mint, and feta cheese; and lots of watermelon,” Bregeth says. They also make a bonfire and jump over it to get rid of sickness and to “burn away” the past year’s bad energy and welcome the new.

Leila Safay was homesick when she first moved to Atlanta in 2010. She, too, saw Kanoon as an opportunity to meet people from her community, and she enrolled her kids at the center for Farsi language and piano lessons. “We celebrate winter solstice, called Shab-e Yalda, by getting together with family and friends, eating watermelon, seeds and nuts, and predicting our fortunes from the poetry of Divan-e Hafez (a book of divination),” she explains. “Here people postpone the celebration to the weekend and host Yalda parties at their homes.”

Both Safay and Bregeth are happy to go out of their way for the Persian products found at the Super Global International market, a Persian grocery store that started in a strip mall and has expanded to three locations over the years. It carries imported products that are found in most Persian kitchens — saffron, cardamom, turmeric, loose-leaf teas, Persian rice, lavash bread, traditional cheese, pickled cucumbers, sweets, and more. Safay,  who left the country to be an independent woman and is now a successful realtor, says the spices and foods “just taste different, and make you nostalgic for growing up in Iran.”

When not cooking at home, both women like to go to Rumi’s Kitchen for a meal. “Everyone loves it, Persian or not!” says Bregeth. “It’s consistently delicious.” The establishment has grown into a hip restaurant that the Persian community is proud of, known for its quiet, intimate meals featuring favorites such as Zafron’s koobideh kabobs and ghormeh sabzi (an Iranian herb stew)

Leila’s 12-year-old daughter Jasmine, who was born in the U.S., gives me some tips on Persian etiquette: “We allow elders to talk first, eat first, and we show them utmost respect. We don’t address men and women by their first names, but call them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.’ Also, when you meet someone for the first time, you may shake hands and bow, but close friends air-kiss on both cheeks (mostly not to spoil one’s makeup),” she adds with humor. It is also customary to take sweets and flowers when invited to a home, and to call to thank your guests on the following day.

Making friends in the Persian community is easy. It starts with a passing conversation, a slight compliment, and ends in a dinner invite and long-lasting friendships.

Where to Experience Persian Culture in Atlanta

Grocery Stores:

Super Global International Food Market
11235 Alpharetta Hwy., Ste. 109, Roswell. 770-619-2966.
The go-to grocery store for Persian ingredients such as loose-leaf tea, flatbreads, and baklava, at reasonable prices.

Shahrzad 
6435-A Roswell Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-257-9045.
http://shahrzad.com
One of the oldest Persian grocery stores in Atlanta, founded in 1985. They moved from Doraville to Sandy Springs and sell herbs, spices, pastries, cold cuts, etc.

Restaurants:

Rumi’s Kitchen
Sandy Springs: 6112 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-477-2100.
Avalon: 7105 Avalon Blvd., Alpharetta. 678-534-8855.
www.rumiskitchen.com
Modern Persian restaurant popular with locals and out-of-towners. It has an open kitchen and an impressive wine list.

Zafron
236 Johnson Ferry Road N.E., Sandy Springs. 404-255-7402.
www.persianrestaurantsandysprings.com
Most popular restaurant among the Persian community, serving traditional cuisine in an elegant setting.

Sufi’s
1814 Peachtree St. N.W. Atlanta. 404-888-9699.
http://sufisatlanta.com
Good option for in-towners craving kabobs, Cornish hen, and aromatic rice.

Divan Restaurant and Hookah Lounge
3125 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-467-4297.
https://www.divanatlanta.com
In 2017, Iranian chef Peyman Rostami returned the restaurant to its traditional roots, adding a modern twist. He formerly cooked for the King of Oman and has a culinary show on Persian TV Channel 7.

Culture and Festivals:

Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta – Kanoon
3146 Reps Miller Road N.W., Norcross. 404-303-3030.
https://www.atlantapcc.org
To learn Persian language, celebrate Persian holidays such as Mehregan, Yalda and Nowruz, as well as special Province, Poetry, and Music nights.

Atlanta Persian Festival
Piedmont Park, 1320 Monroe Dr. N.E., Atlanta.
http://atlantapersianfestival.com
Annual cultural event held in spring at Piedmont Park showcasing music, ethnic food, crafts, and kids’ activities. Free to public.

Nowruz Party
Various locations.
https://www.eventbrite.com/o/bavard-entertainment-inc-15703065356
Ballroom-style ticketed event that brings together Persians, Afgans, Kurds, Turks, and whoever celebrates Nowruz. Parties organized by the Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta feature folklore dances, live performances, food, drinks, and more.

Services:

Joseph & Friends (hair salon and spa)
Five locations. www.josephandfriends.com
Started by Iranian immigrant Joseph Golshani, this multicultural, full-service salon has been around since 1989.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

Travel Tips from Solo Women World Travelers

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. Oct 2018.

If you don’t want to wait around to sync schedules with your parents, family or friends, you don’t have to. With technology at their fingertips and transparency among travelers, women are more empowered than ever to travel the world on their own. Moreover, the rewards are a more enriching experience where you have time to self-reflect, meet locals and explore on your own time and terms.

Tuanni Price started traveling abroad once her kids were grown up, wanting to find herself. She booked herself a three-week trip to Spain in 2013 and is now moving to South Africa for her wine tour company. “I loved the fact that I could wake up and roam around randomly, eat when I wanted to and explore the small towns,” she recounts her stay in Barcelona. Price says she prefers to stay at Airbnbs so she can save money and stay longer at a destination. She also uses Airbnb experiences to meet people and share meals. Over a dinner party experience in Barcelona, she met a few singles and they ended up celebrating a fun New Year’s Eve together.

Tuanni Price of Zuri Wine Tasting holding a passport
Pictured: Tuanni Price

“You have to be careful about your location though,” she points out that she picks her accommodations in busy areas where there is always a security guard or doorman. The only time she felt unsafe was wandering through the streets of Paris late at night. “That is one place I would recommend staying in a nicer hotel or going with a companion,” she says referring to the mixed neighborhoods in bustling big cities.

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Price also uses Uber frequently and when she finds a good driver that she feels safe with, she hires them out for the day as it allows her the flexibility to visit several areas such as wineries around Cape Town at a negotiated rate.

At 6-feet tall, social impact consultant Tammy Freeman often stands out in a crowd when traveling abroad. When she first visited Singapore in 2000 for a study abroad program, she had culture shock. “No one told me that I will be stared at all the time like I was on TV. For us in the U.S., that is considered rude, but in some cultures it’s acceptable,” she says. She realized that the people didn’t mean any harm, so she simply smiled or waved back.

Freeman has been spending 2-3 months out of the year in Rio De Janeiro since 2016 running a social enterprise co-op.  She also owns Soul and Story, an online store that offers amazing handmade goods created by women around the world. “Rio gets a bad rap for violence, like any major city, but you need to have your wits about you. It is not the place to wear your fancy shoes and gold jewelry. Just try to blend in, wear casual clothing like shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops so you don’t stand out,” she advises on traveling to Brazil.

Social Impact Consultant Tammy Freeman in Kenya
Pictured: Tammy Freeman in Kenya

Kenya is another country that Freeman recommends visiting for its beaches, nightlife, food and markets. Instead of bars and nightclubs, Freeman prefers hotels, wine festivals, artisanal markets and malls, for they offer a more sophisticated and safe atmosphere for solo females. She also recommends visiting places that have good access to public transportation and are easy to navigate, such as Amsterdam, Istanbul, Cape Town and Amalfi Coast.

Mia Herman is a flight attendant and travel blogger (Travel with Mia) who has lived all over the world and traveled to 30+ countries. Though married, Herman still travels independently to focus on her writing and to meet locals.

“As a person of color, you need to research the political sentiment of the country,” she says and take extra care in countries that are politically unstable or where women are not given the highest regard. “Still I have never had a negative experience that has prevented me from traveling.” She notes that she received a lot of male attention in Istanbul, but it was harmless.

Her safety tip is to never share your accommodation location with strangers even in a casual conversation with people you know because you don’t know who is listening in. Also, never announce specifics about where you will be and at what time publicly.

Herman tries to find humor in every situation and not take offense to people of other cultures. When dining at an authentic restaurant in Kowloon, Herman found herself to be the only black female surrounded by all Asians who started taking pictures of her eating her noodle soup with chopsticks. Without hesitation, she just posed for them.

Travel Blogger Mia Herman eating noodles in Japan
Pictured: Mia Herman eating noodles in Japan

Herman’s favorite places as a solo traveler are the Czech Republic and Croatia as the “people are incredibly nice and welcoming” she affirms. For women who are traveling alone internationally for the first time, she advises starting with English speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or going on a Mediterranean cruise so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier and can navigate more easily.

On my first solo trip, friends had warned me of Morocco’s famous con artists. I was on alert during my train ride from Rabat to Fez when someone approached, offering a tour and car service. My inner voice advised me not to book a tour on a moving train but instead, visit their office and verify the company’s legitimacy first. Still, I booked it hiding my money in my socks, wrapped a whistle around my wrist and was always ready with plan B.

Female instincts have come in handy more than once while traveling solo through 80 countries since then. Once, there was a sandstorm and I was stranded on the Israel-Jordan border. There was no other option but to take an overnight bus to Tel Aviv to make my flight back to Atlanta. The bus driver made all announcements in Hebrew as he or no one on the bus spoke any English. To make myself feel safer and not be left behind at restroom stops, I sat in the very front row and made sure the driver was aware of my presence.

Every traveler must follow certain rules about carrying little cash, keeping backup batteries, learning a few words of the local language, etc. But when it comes to women, it is even more important to be aware of your surroundings, do your research and always have a plan of where you are going and make sure somebody back home knows about it at all time.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine.

 

7 Wine Producing Regions of the World That You May Not Know About

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018.

Next time when you sit at a bar or browse the wine racks at your neighborhood wine retailer, expand your horizon beyond the well-known wine growing regions of the world. Most of us gravitate towards the familiar French, Italian, South African or Argentinean bottles for a little flavor of the world. However, there are some lesser known countries that are also producing great quality wines. Often, the production is too small for global distribution, but here are a few that are easily available at your neighborhood wine shop.

Croatia

The Dalmatian Coast overlooking the Adriatic Sea is dotted with small vineyards growing local plavac mali and pošip grapes. Cool winds and temperate climate make it ideal for white grapes and crljenak kaštelanski, which is the parent grape of what’s now known as zinfandel. It was Croatian born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich who brought these to the Napa Valley and Croatian wines are now gaining significant international recognition. Visit his Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford or board the Napa Valley Wine Train for a private tasting and tour.

Lebanon

Although Lebanon has been producing wine for a few hundred years, it was the French influence during the World Wars that promoted a sophisticated culture of wine drinking in Beirut. Most of the wineries are in the southern Beqaa Valley growing, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Rhone varieties. Founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests (though no longer affiliated), Château Ksara developed the first dry wine in Lebanon, which is still available in 42 countries.

Moldova

Moldova is one of the largest wine producers in the world, exporting over 67 million bottles annually. The country’s southern region is best known for red and semi-sweet varieties. One of the major attractions in Moldova is “Mileștii Mici” — the largest wine collection in the world with almost 2 million bottles according to the Guinness Book and Cricova, an underground winery that stretches for 75 miles.

Georgia

Archeological digs prove that wine production in Georgia dates back 8,000 years when grape juice was buried underground in clay jars for fermentation. To date, wine is produced by small farmers, monasteries and wineries in traditional ways. Kakheti is the most popular wine-growing region in Georgia producing sweet and dry varieties. Winery Khareba is one of the most visited wineries in the country, located in a tunnel carved from the Caucasian Mountain range.

Brazilian wine brand Macaw

Brazil

Italian immigrants have been making wine in Brazil since the mid -19thcentury.  More than 1,000 wineries have emerged in Brazil in the last 20 years, most of them located in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. These are mostly good quality sparking varieties such as cava, charmat and muscat, as well as few young, easily drinkable table reds. The Serra Gaúcha region is also emerging as a popular wine destination with quaint resorts located on vineyards. Macaw, recognizable by a logo of the tropical bird, makes the most extensive variety of Brazilian wines that are available globally.

Morocco

Algeria and Morocco in northern Africa benefit from high mountains and cool Atlantic breezes that allow for the right climate for growing wine. Here too, French colonists introduced large-scale production of wine. Morocco has five distinct wine regions producing rosé, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, clairette blanche and muscat. Trinity Oaks Chardonnay and Amazir red blend are available at most Total Wine shops around the U.S.

Tanzania

Tanzania is the second largest producer of wine in Sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa. Thanks to South African investors and Tanzanian government-established Dodoma Wine Company (Dowico), local farmers are incentivized to grow and experiment with different types of grapes. Dodoma-based Central Tanzania Wine Company (Cetawico) is perhaps the most popular one, producing light and fruity chenin blanc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and a local variety named for a Dodoma sub-region, Makutupora.

~Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018.