Category

Conscious Consumerism

My minimalism journey started a few year ago. I had written about it some time in 2016 and that is what I would like to share with you today.

Note: If you are not interested in reading my old ramblings, scroll down till the last paragraph to read all about the challenge I am starting tomorrow.

Alright, here it goes:

“It all started with travel.

In June 2015, I traveled to Italy and Germany with a big suitcase. Five weeks later, I returned home and as soon as I opened the door to my room, I felt overwhelmed by everything I saw in front of me. More than 100 items of clothes hanging, more than 50 pairs of shoes underneath. 4 wicker boxes of sentimental items, 8 pillows, 50 books on the floor, 2 cameras on my desk, 15 makeup brushes that need cleaning and 20 pencils that need sharpening.

I have often walked into people’s homes and questioned the emptiness of the space but I never reflected those thoughts on their personalities. Were their homes empty because they lacked experience and authenticity? Or were they empty because their minds are neat and clutter-free?

People have often walked into my living space and asked about where I got certain items; most of which were items are collected during my travels. I had been filling my space with things I thought were a reflection of who I am.

In September 2015, I went on a last minute trip to Nepal with a carry on. I stuffed it with leggings, jeans, tribal-style loose pants, a few pairs of t-shirts and so much more. I wore 3 to 5 of the 20+ items I had.

Once again, I returned home and looked at what I own. I was horrified and it was one of the first times in my life that I started thinking about how I could live with much less. I thought that those things I own bring me happiness. I realised that this unplanned trip, this little hike in the forrest and being with good friends brought me so much more happiness than any of those items I own.

Within a few months, I packed bags and bags of items to giveaway. And then I had a brilliant idea; I decided to sell whatever I can and donate the money to charities I’ve been meaning to support. I made 4,000 EGP from thin air (or shall I say, rather heavy bags of clothes and accessories).

I immediately picked up a copy of the best-selling book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and yes, it did change a bit for me.

In late December of the same year, I traveled to the UAE and India with a backpack. In fact, I got on the plane in Cairo with nothing. I picked up the backpack in Dubai and stuffed it with a few items of clothing that had traveled a few days before I did, with a friend.

I remember watching the New Year’s fireworks over the skyline of Dubai and thinking that my only resolution is: to have more. Yes, I was no longer chasing a world of less, I readjusted to want more, but more definitely didn’t mean more things. it was becoming clearer and clearer that I want more time with loved ones, more time to read, create and relax. More time to help others and more time to pursue the things I love. I wanted more space to breathe and more chances to learn. More also included material items, like more money for travel.

India ended up being a big lesson in spirituality. It shifted my perspective entirely and I came back a changed woman. It wasn’t a positive change but that’s a story for another time. The few incidents that took place in India forced me to let go. I did not really get a chance to think about what I want, especially in terms of material items.

When I came back to Cairo, I was mostly sleeping and de-cluttering. I noticed that my appetite for food was decreasing but I embraced it.”

And then my story ended here. It had been a roller coaster of old consumerist habits and fresh minimalist habits since then. I have more of a minimalist inside me that I reflect on my space. This is why, tomorrow, 1 May 2018, I start the 30-Day Minimalism Game. I had known about The Minimalists for years but it was not until January of this year that I started paying close attention to their writing and their podcast. The Minimalism game keeps popping up so I figured it is time I give it a try. The rules are simple. On day 1, you get rid of one thing. Day 2, two things. Day 3, three things and so on. I will donate, sell or trash (my environmental-self is judging me right now) the items as soon as possible. I can only this up for 28 days, because I travel on the 29th but well, there goes nothing!

Will you be joining the challenge?

 

 

One of the questions I’m constantly asked about my diet is how expensive it is. Today, I’ll address this question by breaking down what I eat, how and where I buy it and more.

Let me begin by saying that there are 3 main things that raise the $$ of food:

  • Eating out frequently and eating processed foods
  • Splurging on superfoods
  • Eating all organic

I don’t think anything is wrong with either of those habits but we all have different reasons on why we would prefer to spend less. For some people, it is not an option, they just really cannot afford it. But most people claim that it’s not affordable to them while it really is.

Here’s how I eat wholesome vegan food without breaking the bank.

Pick your produce one vegetable at a time

I personally prefer to go to the farmers market and pick my vegetables. I pick food that is rich in color, for example, if I’m buying tomatoes, I’ll pick the reddest, most plump ones. Shopping that way means that most of the food I get is package-free and that I don’t end up with any bad produce. Less bad produce means less waste. Less waste means spending less money on food. If you can spend less money on food by adopting this technique then you can spend the same amount of money on organic produce (no waste) and non-organic (with lots of waste).

Since I eat 60% fresh vegetables, this accounts for the bigger chunk of my food budget.

Top tip: at my favorite market, the one at Nun Center, I start at Sara’s Organic Food and My Kitchen Garden, because most items are not packaged. I then make my way to Makar, Thai Farms and Tabi3y to buy whatever I couldn’t find at the first two vendors.

Grow your own

I don’t think I know of an easier crop to grow than arugula and its one of the healthiest. Most vegetables and herbs are extremely easy to grow and many can grow in pots. I would recommend you start with mint and arugula. Then add zucchini, eggplant and romaine lettuce. Tomatoes need a bit more work. Root vegetables need a bit more experience. Basil, oregano, rosemary and most herbs can grow in small pots. If you have a garden, I highly recommend investing in a mulberry tree. They grow very fast and produce insane amounts of fruit. Lemon trees, and citrus in general, are invaluable, especially since we use lemons every day.

There are endless resources online on how to grow your own food. I think this is a skill we should be taught in school but even if we’re not, it’s very easy to learn online and from experience. On the short run, it saves a lot of money. On the long run, it saves your life.

Buy local grains, buy nuts, seeds and legumes in bulk

We buy ridiculous amounts of brown rice and quinoa, which we can’t find unpackaged or in bulk, unfortunately. But we do buy the ones produced locally. I honestly cannot find a difference in quality that justifies the price difference or the extra CO2 emissions.

As for nuts, seeds and legumes, we buy those in bulk. It is definitely much cheaper to buy from the attar 2 kilos of whole flax seeds then to buy them packaged at a supermarket. Same goes for dried legumes and pulses. Why buy a can of chickpeas with added salt and sugar and packaged in a can while you can buy them dried, in bulk, for much cheaper?

Grains, nuts, seeds and legumes account for about 25% of my diet.

DIY everything

We make our own nut milks, we cook our own legumes and pulses, as previously mentioned and I even tried making tofu. Here’s the thing about making your own food from scratch, it’s a relationship. It’s a give and take. It’s an exchange. You give your food love and in return, it gives you a lot more than energy, it becomes supercharged with good stuff and nourishes you from within. Now, that’s not exactly science so you don’t have to believe me but you can try it for yourself.

I understand that it is time-consuming, I can’t pretend like it’s not. But being organized is key here. For example, I soak my chickpeas overnight and then boil them in the morning while I’m practicing yoga or even if I’m working from home. If you can’t do that, try switching this out by soaking the chickpeas before you leave to work and then boiling them as soon as you’re home, as you shower or make dinner or watch a movie. The point here is that it works, it’s cheaper, it’s healthier and it’s over all kinder to you, your wallet and the environment.

Avoid processed foods

The number one reason I try to avoid packaged food is because they’re mostly processed with palm oil, an ingredient I avoid at all costs. This isn’t one of the items I allow myself every once in a while, or anything of that sort. It is not a joke. Palm oil is an environmental disaster to produce and I will never, knowingly, pay for that.

Back in the day, I used to walk into a supermarket and buy snacks for hundreds of pounds. This wasn’t a daily habit but it really adds up. This habit is now replaced with splurging on artisanal vegan foods or sweeteners; items like maple syrup or matcha tea.

Splurge smart

Now, believe me when I say I splurge big time. But I’m also extremely smart about it so here are some examples.

I love berries, but why buy fresh if the frozen is riper and is much cheaper? Both are packaged anyway so the best deal is to buy frozen.

I prefer hass avocadoes but they’re only in season for about one month of the entire year. During that month, I eat a ridiculous number of avocadoes. For the rest of the year, I think I eat an avocado once every two weeks. I know that when I buy other varieties, I waste a lot so why bother?

I know that the cleanest brand of coconut milk is available for much cheaper at a small shop in an area I almost never go to. So instead of buying it whenever I need it, I go once and buy a few.

When traveling somewhere I can get a good deal, I allow myself to go all out. For example, I discovered that I can buy a kilo of coconut sugar in Germany for 9 euros. How’s that for a deal?

I also buy maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar and other expensive items but if I also know that consuming lots of those means that I’m not getting enough fresh produce. I now eat pancakes or waffles with maple syrup once or twice a month, which means I go through 150 EGP worth of maple syrup in about 4 months. Now, is that really expensive?

In a way, we’re lucky the vegan industry isn’t thriving yet in Cairo

When I’m in Germany, I buy all sorts of vegan chocolate bars, donuts and pizzas. Because plant-based milk in available everywhere, I have too many cappuccinos. In Cairo, the options are much limited, which means I mostly eat my fresh produce at home. Needless to say, I eat more at home when I’m in Egypt than Germany. And even though vegan food in restaurants in picking up in Cairo, I still make sure I eat out less to benefit from all the points I mentioned before.

I hope this essay answer the question of whether or not a vegan diet is expensive. I would love to hear from you if you have any other opinion on the topic. I’m also very interested in discussing the topic of the real value of food, so stay tuned for that!

 

Much love,

Amira

Part (II): Zero-Waste Essentials

Be sure to read till the end. I have a BIG surprise for you!

Imagine no trash? Imagine no animals ingesting plastics? Imagine a world free from pollution? Microfibres? Non-biodegradable bottles?

What a world that would be!

Zero-wasting basically means producing no waste. You carry your bag to buy groceries, you purchase sustainable fashion items and so on. It is pretty much one of the most controversial movements in the environmental fields of study. Can we truly be zero-waste? But what if we can not, do we stop trying to reduce our waste?

Here is where conscious consumerism steps in. The movement is not asking you to stop buying nuts because they come packaged in plastic. I am asking you to take your own bag or jar to buy nuts. I’m also not asking you to stop wearing socks because they come wrapped in plastic. I am just asking you to either find ones that aren’t wrapped at all or not to hoard on socks. You get the drill! Reducing our waste is vital for our own wellbeing as much as it is for the planet and everything around us.

Now, let’s go through the list of “zero-waste” essentials I personally think should be on everyone’s shopping list.

Soapberries or Soap Nuts

Did you know that the detergents we use on a daily basis are loaded with harmful chemicals? Your body does not know all those synthetic fibres and so it mistakes them for hormones and acts accordingly! No wonder we live in the age of manmade disease! Soap nuts are basically nature’s soap, free from any chemicals or processing. They grow on a tree and they are naturally foamy and have a plain clean scent. They’re also cheaper than most soap or detergents. Now, I won’t lie, soap nuts are a bit tricky to use. The best way I found when using it as laundry soap is to soak the nuts for about 30 minutes in hot water before using the soaking water along with the soap nuts in the washing machine. It is also recommended to use them with hot water, never cold, or else they’re soap won’t be activated. As a shampoo, I boil about 5 nuts and let them simmer for about 20 minutes. I then squeeze out as much foam as I can from the nuts and I used the liquid to massage my scalp for a few minutes. I then leave it on for about 20 minutes, if possible, and then I rinse it out. My hair is usually very soft, clean and shiny after I do this.

The best bit? You can reuse the nuts a few times and then compost them!

Where to find: Online and in health food stores in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. My friend Manon said you can buy them fresh in Indonesia, which makes using them so much easier.

 

Bamboo Toothbrushes

I’ve been using bamboo toothbrushes for years! I haven’t bought a plastic toothbrush in a long time and I can’t imagine ever buying one again. Not after I learnt that there are entire beaches covered in used toothbrushes in South America! Did you know that your own toothbrushes could have traveled from anywhere in the world to be washed up there.

There’s nothing different about them in terms of use. They just feel slightly different but you adjust quickly. Some come with compostable bristles and others not but in all cases, the rest of the brush is compostable. You just add it to your compost pile or stick it in the ground. It’ll disappear before you know it!

Where to find: Most health store or green beauty stores around the world and online.

 

Bamboo Ear-picks (Mimikaki)

Cotton buds? What’s that? I believe the last time I picked up a box of cotton buds was almost three years ago! The ear-picks are a Japanese tool that can be purchased in plastic, bamboo or stainless steel. And while they look like medieval torture devices, they’re actually pretty easy to use.

But aren’t we supposed to avoid sticking anything inside our ears? Well, yes and maybe, but if you’re going to stick something inside your ears, you better make sure it doesn’t harm you or the environment.

Where to find: Asia obviously but also any Asia town in Europe and North America will stock them. I got mine in Japan town in Düsseldorf. You can also find them online.

 

Menstrual Cup

The first reaction I usually get to those two words is “eww.” But let’s break it down. It is your own blood. No, it isn’t disgusting. And it remains your own whether you discard of it in the toilet or the trash. Having your trash travel distances doesn’t mean it’s any less your own trash. Not to add how toxic those chemical-laden pads and tampons are to your health!

Getting the hang of it takes a couple of cycles but once you get used to it, it becomes so easy and comfortable. You don’t feel it’s existence, it’s pretty hygienic and it actually helps you understand your own cycle and detect any abnormalities. It’s basically a win-win for your health and the environment.

Where to find: Online and in health food stores in Europe and North America.

Update: OrganicCup is now available in Egypt.

 

Straws, Chopsticks, Utensils, Coffee Cups and Water Bottles

I know a lot of people say it’s a hassle to carry around extra items in their bags but I also know that those people never tried. While moving my items from one bag to another, I’ll move my wallet, my pot of shea butter, my keys, my straw and my chopsticks. Sounds easy enough? yeah, I thought so. Little switches with big impact.

I use 24 bottles and BKR but I also highly recommend Klean Kanteen and Two Thirds‘ bottles. I also use a medium-sized Keep Cup. I’ve had it for about 4 years and I gotta say, it’s chic and indestructible!

 

I’m glad you made it till the end! Here’s the big news: UrbanEarthlings will soon be an online shop for all things sustainability. All the items on this list will be available through the shop. Not only that, but most items will be manufactured locally and the shop will be a non-profit, which basically means that all profits will benefit charities around Egypt and the world!

I can not announce the launch date yet but I’m already receiving samples and working on the packaging. It will probably be right after the summer holiday. Please, let me know if you have any questions, comments or requests here. Anyone as excited as I am?

 

Much love,

Amira

 

Part (I): Pantry Items

While I’m a big advocate for eating local, I can’t lie about my obsession with European health shops. On a daily basis, I’m consuming common food items including rice, legumes, fruits and vegetables, but I still love quinoa, chia seeds and many other items that were not only recently introduced to the Egyptian market but are now grown and processed in Egypt.

Some items, though, are never regulars on the shelves. Vanilla pods come and go, I never spotted any matcha tea and nutritional yeast has completely disappeared!

Here are some items that I consider essentials and always stock up on when I’m abroad.

Matcha tea

What is Matcha? Matcha is basically high quality green tea that comes from Japan. It is finely ground and therefore it dissolves in water or milk. It is definitely more beneficial because consuming the whole leaf means you’re consuming more antioxidants.

Now, don’t get too excited and go buy yourself 100 gm of matcha (yes, that’s considered a lot!). Matcha is an acquired taste. Most people don’t like it when they first try it. It took me close to 2 years to really like it. I now can’t live without matcha.

Buy the ceremonial grade to use as tea or for making lattes and buy the culinary grade if you’d like to use in cooking. Available in all health shops in Europe, in any Asia town around the world, widely available in Asia, the U.S. and Canada. My favorite brand in Europe is Matcha 108 but definitely pick it up in Japan if you have the chance.

Hemp seeds

Hemp is often associated with cannabis, for a good reason. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant. If you believe in the medicinal qualities of cannabis then there you have it, another healthy way to consume it. If not, then let me tell you this. The hemp plant is all around awesome. It grows extremely fast, you can make endless products from it’s leaves or fiber and its use is sustainable. Hemp seeds are basically the seeds of the hemp plant and are packed with protein, minerals and vitamin E.

They can be used in smoothies, to sprinkle on salads, in porridge or even for baking.

Available in most health shops in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

Gluten-free Pasta

I do not eat gluten-free but trust me, gluten-free pastas are life changing. Unrefined, unprocessed and packed with nutrients. My favorites are buckwheat, brown or black rice, quinoa and chickpea pasta.

No bloat post pasta is definitely the way to go!

Widely available in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

Nutritional Yeast

Often referred to as the thing that adds the “cheezy” flavor to any vegan dish, nutritional yeast is a gem for a whole other reason. Most nutritional yeast is fortified with vitamin B12. If you’re like me and would rather not bother with supplements, then fortified nutritional yeast is for you.

Rumor has it, nutritional yeast originated in Egypt. You can’t find it in modern day Egypt though!

Available in health shops in Europe, Asia, US and Canada.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is the perfect replacement for refined white or brown sugar. To be honest, I rarely reach for it but I use a whooping full cup to make caramel sauce. I would say buy it online in a larger quantities (1 kg is ideal) to get the best price.

Available in Asia, especially coconut producing countries such as Indonesia as well as Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

Liquid Sweeteners

Going to Canada? Stock on maple syrup. Going to Mexico? Buy your agave.

Neither? Natural Liquid sweeteners are widely available all over the world. You can choose from rice malt, barely malt, brown rice, maple, carob, date syrups or coconut nectar. They’re all slightly different in taste and consistency so their uses are different. You need to experiment to discover what you like and how you like to use it.

A lot of these are currently available in Cairo but they fly off the shelves and usually don’t make a come back for months and months.

 

Every once in a while I’ll pick up things like vegan marshmallows, spirulina or an ombar. Those aren’t staples for me by any means though. What pantry items do you pick up when you travel?