16

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“…the redness had seeped from the day and night was arranging herself around us. Cooling things down, staining and dyeing the evening purple and blue black.”

    —Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

These past few days were one of the most relaxing times we have had this year. Our boss surprised us all with a generous two-week holiday, and since it was literally a surprise we had not planned anything at all. “What are we going to do?!” I panicked out of excitement. Fortunately, Masood, being the calm person that he is, immediately devised exciting plans for us. “How about we upgrade your operating system to Yosemite during the holidays?” he sweetly suggested, “and we could also go shopping for that new orthopedic mattress you keep telling me about.”

I stared hard at him, giving him the I-won’t-be-cooking-any-of-your-favorite-dishes-for-the-next-ten-years look. He laughed and told me that there was indeed a surprise in store for me. He whisked us away on a weekend getaway where I had a private pool all to myself, something I’d been dropping hints about for a year or two now.

Getting there consisted of riding three different modes of transportation, but it’s really just 2 hours away from home.

banyan tree boat

The Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras al Khaimah is about 80 kilometers from my home. That is roughly 50 miles. This reminds me of Fox News presenter who, quite seriously, suggested that the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 may have disappeared because the pilots used metric, rather than imperial, measurement systems.

While Masood thought that the directions provided to us were ridiculously easy to follow, I still took out the GPS device, just in case. Halfway through our trip and the device was still trying to search for the resort. We did finally reach our landmark, the Al Hamrah Golf Club, and were supposed to take the first right, which Masood did. I looked at the map again: it says turn right into the parking area. I glanced up and saw that the parking sign was posted on the next right turn. “This is the wrong way,” I said. “Is it? Let me ask that fellow over there for directions,” said Masood. “Oh, but there’s no need. I know for a fact that we need to take that next road,” I mentally pat my back for being good with directions.

Masood drove into the next road and we came face-to-face with a dead-end. “Um, this is weird,” I quickly tried to cover-up my blunder, “I do suppose we can ask that guy there. I’m sure the direction on the website isn’t updated.”

The first right turn immediately after the Golf Club building was the correct one. Masood had been right, but I did not need to remind him that. This parking area was right next to the water and there’s a jetty a few steps away. The nice guy told us we’re at the right place, welcomed us with a smile, and told us to park our car. He then spoke into his handheld transceiver. A couple of minutes later a boat came to pick us up. I silently enjoyed the cool breeze ruffling my hijab and the plush, luxurious seats of the boat as we sailed across the ocean. The entire boat ride was over in 4 minutes.

banyan tree ras al khaimah reception

Those weren’t our bags. We had one small suitcase in which I had carefully packed my hijab-friendly swimwear (which was what I wore most whilst on this resort), four sets of clothes (of which I only used one), a couple of books (which I did not get around to reading), and my laptop (because I was on call during the weekend, in case something came up at work, and it did).

Check-in was a breeze, although the reception was quite … um, quaint … so that the nice lady at the counter was talking to us from behind the giant silver Christmas tree that occupied most of the floor. We were given warm towels and a glass of cool hibiscus juice while we wait.

We then rode a golf cart which made me feel like royalty, albeit briefly since our room arrived in less than 2 minutes.

golf cart

Ever heard of glamping? It’s going camping but with glamour so that there’s no tent to pitch, no sleeping bag to unroll, and no fire to build. This resort is a glamping experience. 

The luxurious tent from the side of the road.

Banyan tree resort in ras al khaimah review

There are roof to floor glass windows instead of walls which allows all the natural light in, giving the interiors a lovely golden glow from the setting sun. I was immediately drawn to the pool. The website says “plunge pool” and, to be frank, I had assumed it to be an extra large bathtub. The pool turned out to be larger. The water is about 5 feet deep so diving is not possible (nor allowed; there’s a sign that says so) but hey, one can swim in it. The staff was taking his sweet time showing us the room and its amenities when all I wanted was for him to leave so I can jump into the heated pool.

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A four poster bed occupies most of the space in the room. Under normal circumstances, I would have immediately jumped into the bed to check how comfortable it is, but this time I was distracted. In fact, by the time I did climb into bed it was almost midnight.

And I staked my claim on the right side of the bed because then I can watch some TV without the drapes obstructing my view, not that I actually watched TV. It was more like switching channels for 15 minutes and then turning it off. Masood has strategically been assigned the left side of the bed because it’s closer to the air-conditioner’s control panel.

It had been a cold night. By the time I got out of the pool and showered, my nose and toes were like ice cubes so we turned the air-conditioner off. Sometime during the night, however, I woke up perspiring so I asked Masood to turn it back on. One of the several things about Masood that makes him awesome is that he never, ever complains when I ask him to do something even when it meant waking him up from a deep sleep. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, thirsty. And speaking of thirsty, we’d been married for quite sometime now and I just realized that the water bottle has always been on his side table. Always. And though I could easily exert a little effort and reach out across his side to grab the bottle, I’ve always asked him for it. Always. He has not complained even once. And then, there were a few nights over the years when we’d stay at some places during our travels where the bathrooms were located in another room. I would wake him up in the middle of the night and ask him to wait just outside the bathroom door. The need to use a bathroom having huge windows with lots of trees outside (specifically when it’s the middle of the night) in a foreign land  scares me. This is why there’s a ban on me watching horror flicks or movies involving brutal murder scenes.

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banyan tree resort bed

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Masood had to go back to the parking lot because I forgot my laptop in the car. While he was away, I took more pictures and surveyed the area. The pool isn’t completely private; it faces the beach. Hence the need for a burkini. And although there were people in the nearby villas/tents, I did not hear or see them during my entire stay. I did see a couple walk down the beach twice, but they kept to the area near their villa.

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Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah is safe and clean. Despite it being peak season, we did not feel like the resort was crowded because the villas are spaced nicely to give privacy. And the staff is polite, courteous, and unobtrusive.

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I had to spend a couple of hours for work that evening, which I did whilst lying in that cabana with a laptop, facing the pool with its blue light on making the water appear like jelly, and a cup of jasmine-infused green tea (without sugar, of course) on the side table. The fresh breeze from the ocean was caressing my hair. It’s been quite sometime since I’ve had the privacy to let my hair down and enjoy the ocean breeze.

I finished work and jumped into the pool. Dinner had to be ordered in the room because Masood failed to pull me out of the water. I came here to relax and enjoy, not spend time dressing for dinner in a fancy restaurant. Food came in a huge picnic basket, which was a cute touch. We had corn-fed chicken (which meant that the meat was certainly delicious but weighed a quarter of what a regular chicken would) with steamed vegetables, potato mint soup, and fresh homemade bread.

The following morning, I insisted on having an early breakfast so that I’ll have more time for swimming before we checkout. Waking Masood up at 7 am for breakfast is not for the faint of heart. He can get agitated, brutal, and vicious. But when I request kindly and sweetly, he gives in. Always. May Allah bless him.

The breakfast place is impressive, facing an infinity pool and the clear blue ocean. The buffet, while not as massive as the other 5-star resorts, has a decent selection. The food’s presentation is excellent and so is the taste. 

breakfast at banyan tree resort

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pancakes with mascarpone cheese and fruit

scrambled egg

waffles

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I highly recommend the Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah for a relaxing and private getaway. For those who can afford to indulge further, there is a great spa in the resort. There are also activities you can book, such as a private BBQ on an island, sunset cruise, yoga, jet-skiing, parasailing, etc.

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Banyan Tree Resort, in Ras Al Khaimah, was quite a lovely treat for me. I returned home with happy, achy muscles. In fact, I have been so chirpy and blissful lately that I’ve spent the next few days on a baking frenzy, spending hours in the kitchen preparing food that Masood loves. Tomorrow, I’m making him pizza. From scratch. As in I’m starting with flour.

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11

dubai global village

From hosting 18 country pavilions in 1997, Global Village has expanded over the years to now include 31 pavilions representing more than 70 countries, with over 12,000 cultural and entertainment shows, culinary attractions from across the world and fun fair rides.

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Global Village is like our baby and we’re so proud of it. Can’t believe it’s 19 years old already! It has become a local tradition here in the UAE to visit the Global Village at least once, and it’s also a favorite place for us to take visiting family members and friends.

turkish ice cream

Let me tell you some interesting facts about Turkish ice cream. You see, while I’m not crazy about this ice cream (is it weird that I don’t like ice creams in general?) there’s a reason why I hesitate to eat Turkish ice cream in particular.

Traditional Turkish ice cream is chewy, thick and has an elastic texture. This result stems from two of the main ingredients that are a thickening agent called salep and a resin called mastic. It’s quite popular because this type of ice cream has a marvelous resistance to melting and on hot summer days, it is consumed slowly without a fear of it dribbling down the cone.

But here’s the thing, salep is a type of flour produced from the tubers of dried, wild orchids growing in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey. Now, these rare orchids are under very serious threat. For example, for one kilogram of dried Salep, around 1,000 orchids are needed. I hope Turkish ice cream manufacturers find a good, environmentally friendly alternative soon.

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Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …

Yep, one can opt to have roasted chestnuts instead of ice cream. Chestnuts (unlike other nuts and seeds) are relatively low in calories, contain less fat but are rich in minerals, and vitamins. Oh, and they are exceptionally rich in vitamin C and folic acid. Plus, they’re gluten free!

Definitely skip the ice cream.

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This is how much color, glitter and sparkle we desi ladies wear to our wedding parties. My sister is getting married early next year, insha’Allah, and I have yet to pick a dress. I’m thinking navy blue or deep violet.

Some people here wear these type of clothes whilst grocery shopping. Strange but true.

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There are more than 3,500 shopping outlets and 150 kiosks showcasing various authentic products and handicrafts in Global Village! I did not count; just read this information off their pamphlet. The Global Village is so large and besides, how can one possibly visit all those shops in one day? We spent 6 hours and still missed out on a lot of shops.

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What I love about the things sold in Global Village is that almost all of them are made in their countries of origin. I mean, aren’t we all tired of stuffs that are made in China?

These oriental mosaic lamps, for example, are handcrafted in Turkey and Morocco. I love these lamps and have one in my living room. They don’t come cheap but are extremely beautiful and give a warm glow to a room.

tunisian furniture

Look at these lovely furniture pieces! If you think these are Moroccan, you’re wrong. We often hear about Moroccan design. We love it for its bright colors and bold patterns. However, there is a similar type of African decor that gets overlooked – Tunisian decor.

The Tunisian style is bold but tends to be slightly subtler than its Moroccan counterpart, making it easier to incorporate the style into a modern home.

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Tunisia’s pavilion is my favorite stop at the Global Village. I always buy chopping boards from here every year. These wooden products are hand-carved from very old olive trees. When new, you can actually detect the faint smell of olives. I love olive wood for its distinctive swirling patterns, which create beautifully intricate designs.

In Tunisia the olive trees are protected by government regulation. This means that only trees that no longer bear fruit can be cut down and harvested trees must be replaced. Besides being eco-friendly and fair trade compliant, these olive wood pieces are non-porous and do not retain germs, odors, or stains. How awesome is that!

rides at the global village dubai

No fair is complete without rides and Global Village have a lot of exciting rides to choose from. There had been a very unfortunate and tragic accident in January last year after which another company was hired. The current rides are operated and managed by the British Organization “Mellors Group”, who have more than 100 years of experience in the field.

In Dubai? Don’t miss the Global Village!

Global Village is open until 11th April 2015.

The parking area at Global Village is designed to host more than 17,000 cars with additional overflow parking areas used during peak times.

With the exception of public holidays, Monday is a family day. Saturday to Wednesday: 4pm to 12am. Thursday, Friday and Public Holidays: 4pm until 1am.

Entry ticket per person is AED 15.

Entry is FREE for: children below the age of 3, guests with special needs and their companion, as well as the elderly aged 65 plus.

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2

Umrah was being discussed over freshly-baked bread, chicken sausages, spicy omelets, and green tea. All the meals at Anjum Hotel were elaborate with good selections from various cuisines. Our group leader had given each of us a set of meal vouchers with specific dates stamped on them. We had to show the vouchers when entering the restaurant.

anjum hotel makkah

It was being decided that we’d perform Umrah right after breakfast, around ten in the morning. Everyone would go, except my mother-in-law. Due to her knee problems, Ammi could neither walk faster nor climb up and down the stairs, so we borrowed a wheelchair for her from the hotel. After we’d finish our Umrah, we would return to the hotel to rest and then help Ammi with her Umrah after Ish’a, the last prayers of the day which was offered around eight in the evening.

Ammi was initially reluctant about the idea of us going without her. By the time we returned to our rooms to freshen up and convince her, it was already 11 am. Dhuh’r or the midday prayers were to be offered at 30 minutes past noon. When we reached Masjid-al-Haram, the guards had already obstructed most of the entrances by putting up heavy plastic barriers because the space inside was already packed with worshippers. We walked from one gate to the next until we found one that still allowed us in. Gates were manned by armed military men and nobody dared mess with them.

Inside Masjid-al-Haram, most of the pilgrims have settled themselves on the cool, impressively clean marble floor. Men formed one large group and women formed another, either next to the men or behind them, wherever there was space. Long, narrow gaps in between allowed for us to pass through. We walked briskly from one floor to the next, trying to find a way to get closer to the tawaf area so that we could begin circumambulating the Ka’aba and begin our Umrah.

“Do you know which way would lead us to the tawaf area?” Masood asked a gentleman walking in front of him. There were people in Ihram wherever we looked, and every floor and corner of the masjid looked similar. “Just follow me,” he replied, “I was just going there myself.” So follow him we did. I occasionally looked up to admire the huge crystal chandeliers that hung gracefully from the high ceilings. A few pigeons made their way in and were flying above the seated pilgrims.

The brother leading the way walked faster as the time for the midday prayer got closer. We turned around a corner to take the escalator but it was switched off. I noticed that as the time for salah drew near, they would turn off the escalators and cordon off sections of the masjid that were already full. This made moving around and getting to another section very difficult and confusing. We were glad to not have a wheelchair with us at the moment. We walked in a single line, holding each other’s hand tightly lest someone gets lost in the massive crowd.

We eventually found ourselves on the rooftop. It was noon and the sun shone proudly with all its might, the brightness of its rays magnified by the white floor and surroundings. We began perspiring almost immediately. We opened our umbrellas and promptly dashed over to a nearby Zam Zam drinking station. We could feel the ice-cold water course through our body as we drank our fill and the words alhumdulillah came straight from our hearts. The ladies did not even have to fill the bottles themselves; the brothers standing nearest the tap would look over their shoulders, ask for our empty bottles, and kindly fill it up themselves for us.

Looking around, I saw a few pilgrims sitting on the rooftop floor under the shade of their umbrellas. When I say “a few pilgrims”, I meant a hundred or so. Several pilgrims were in the midst of performing the tawaf, some of them older men and women, and I wondered how they were managing the heat. It was so bright it was hurting my eyes and I began to feel a headache develop. “Could we please go somewhere else?” I asked Masood. My request meant walking all the way back in from where we came from and losing precious time finding another way to get to the lower floor tawaf area. But I did not think I could focus and concentrate on my tawaf and duas in all this heat. I did not believe that one needed to purposely impose hardship upon one’s self just because one was doing Umrah or Hajj.

We went back in and made our way through the thousands of pilgrims all rushing for the prayers that were about to start in a few minutes. We just held hands and walked, not exactly knowing where we were heading towards. Masood led the way, I held his hand, my mother held my hand, my sister-in-law held my mother’s hand, and my brother-in-law held her hand. We were in the Safa and Marwa area when the Imam stood for the prayers. We immediately stopped walking and I took out the dupatta from my small backpack to spread on the floor. I brought along a big yet lightweight cotton dupatta, a long piece of cloth worn over traditional Pakistani clothes. One never knew where one could end up during the prayer time so it’s best to bring something lightweight to spread on the floor. When we first stopped, there was hardly any space for us to offer the prayers, but the brothers and sisters quickly made some space for us.

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Safa area after the prayers.

Right after the Dhuh’r salah, we made our way again to find the tawaf area. At this point heat, exhaustion and the overwhelming number of pilgrims made me wonder whether we’d be able to perform Umrah at all. Another gentleman showed us the way to the tawaf area on the ground floor. My eyes saw the magnificent Ka’aba and I quickly made dua. The slow movement of thousands of people in white circumambulating the Ka’aba at the same time was so hypnotic. Masood and Mushtaq bared their right shoulder by pulling down one corner of the Ihram they were wearing. We inched our way carefully to the spot where the green tube light was positioned up on the wall. This light is a guide to help the pilgrims determine where to start their tawaf from.

A few steps into our tawaf and I could feel people pushing and shoving me from all directions. I tried so hard to ignore and worked on focusing on my duas, but when a big, strong brother roughly pushed me forward with his hand below my shoulders, I stopped my tawaf. I told Masood I couldn’t do it from here. I felt angry, frustrated, hot, and tired. I started feeling disappointed and ashamed at myself for not having enough patience. Besides, my very petite 60-year-old mother was with us and I was trying my best to keep her safe from the crowd. I admired Ammi’s strength and patience; she never uttered a single complaint all this time.

Looking up and figuring out where to go next, we noticed that the middle floor looked considerably less crowded. There was only one way to get there and none of the cleaning staff seemed to know how. Or perhaps they were just too busy and tired to be bothered. Wherever we went, the entrance seemed blocked.

Finally, after almost thirty minutes of walking and asking around, we found the way to the tawaf area. There was actually a ramp that started near the Fahad gate. Once on this middle platform, we were able to perform Umrah without being pushed and shoved around. There were certain spots where some pilgrims had stopped to take photographs and selfies, thereby blocking the otherwise smooth circumambulation of the Ka’aba, but overall it turned out to be the best place to do tawaf.

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In comparison to tawaf, sa’ee turned out to be an extremely peaceful and pleasant experience. We finished the ritual quickly and effortlessly, all our previous problems forgotten as we focused on our duas. We returned to our hotel afterwards to trim our hair, the men went straight to the barber’s. Every one had a nice, long shower afterward and we all went to have a sumptuous lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. We were no longer in the state of Ihram and felt very relaxed. I was extremely glad to see salmon and prawns in the buffet.

My youngest sister, Sonia, and father came to see us in our hotel later that evening. They stayed at the Swissotel Makkah for a week—their room offered impressive views of the tawaf going on around the Ka’aba—and were later moved to another hotel that came under the Mina area. We hugged each other and had a mini family reunion of sorts. Abbu’s feet were swollen so we insisted he remained in the room and rest. My sister-in-law was having a bad headache so she went back to her room. The rest of us returned to the masjid for the Isha’a prayers.

Midway between our hotel and the masjid’s gates, one of the larger wheels of the wheelchair on which my mother-in-law was sitting in came out. Fortunately, no one was hurt as Masood held on the chair’s handle firmly. While figuring out what to do next, a cleaning staff with white beard was working nearby and saw what happened. He came up to where we were and inspected the damage. “That can’t be fixed,” he said,”but you can return that and get a replacement. You can find the wheelchairs just across gate 1.” When Masood tried to explain that this was the hotel’s property, the man promptly pointed at a little red paint on the side of the wheelchair. “See that? That mark means it belongs to the masjid. Just go and have it replaced.”

Masood left us—both mothers and myself—just outside the ladies’ room situated not too far from the masjid’s gate. We could only see a walled structure from the ground level, one side was open to serve as entrance and exit. Instead of a door, a curtain gently blowed with the cool evening breeze. Beyond the curtain, there’s an escalator that took the pilgrims down to where the toilets and ablutions areas were located. Each such bathroom was clearly numbered so that it served as an ideal place to wait for someone.

It was a struggle bringing the wheelchair from one end of the masjid to the other. We were at the back of the masjid and Masood had to walk all the way to the front gate. The task became a challenge because pilgrims had started to sit and group on the massive courtyard so that there was hardly enough space for Masood to push the chair. He had to fold and carry the wheelchair on his shoulder on several occasions. Masood was able to return the damaged wheelchair and get a replacement. By the time he came back to us, it was time for the prayers so that we prayed outside that evening. Beautiful sisters from Nigeria were praying in front of me, while older yet strong-looking women from Turkey were behind me.

One of the floors near the Ka’aba was dedicated to pilgrims on wheelchair or those with disability. Usually, the guards would only allow one companion to go with the pilgrim in wheelchair but when that companion has other women in his group, they’d allow all the women to go along with him. This was our case. So even though only Masood was technically allowed in as his mother’s companion, my mother and I were also allowed in.

wheelchair access in makkah

We performed another tawaf with my mother-in-law. And since we were no longer in ihram, have already showered and rested, this tawaf was done in a very relaxed state. I was actually enjoying myself, and the inner peace that I was feeling was so powerful. Next, we helped mom do her sa’ee. I was impressed at how my youngest sister memorized every corner of the masjid and she navigated the way so confidently and correctly as if she’d been visiting this place all her life. This was, in fact, her first trip to Makkah!

Coming Up Next …

Getting back into the state of Ihram and traveling to Mina, where we stayed the next three nights.  How would our tents be like? We will be finally meeting with our group members. How will the arrangements be like? How was our first night in the tent?

Disclaimer:
Hajj is as much a personal journey as it is spiritual. No two pilgrims share the exact experiences. The Hajj Journal series on this blog reflects my journey from Abu Dhabi to Makkah in October 2014. These stories depict the pilgrimage trip as how it really transpired: day-to-day accounts of the rituals, the hardships, and lessons learned. By sharing the hardships we faced, I intend not to complain but to show you the real picture of Hajj as it happened. It is my experience that when preparing for this Holy journey, I spent hours looking for and reading personal accounts online and learn from these pilgrims. I craved for real information on what goes through a person’s mind during the rituals of Hajj. I hope, insha’Allah, that those of you planning to go on Hajj will find these posts beneficial. 
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