Hello! I’m Elaine and you probably know me as one of the co-founders of HHWT. I first came to know more about Islam from Suzana, who is my best friend and also a fellow co-founder of HHWT! Suzana and I have known each other for around 17 years but interestingly, it was only after we started travelling together did I learn more about Islam.
Our very first trip was a school trip to New York back in 2007 (above). The following year, we also travelled with Suzana’s cousin to Hong Kong. And that was our first ‘independent’ trip together (no adults!). Subsequently, as we travelled more and more together, I had the chance to learn more about not just halal food, but also praying and more about Islam in general. So, here are some of my thoughts!
1. Finding halal or Muslim-friendly food doesn't have to be tough
Travelling more with Suzana made me realise that it isn’t that tough to find Halal/Muslim-friendly food options when travelling. Of course, you'd still have to do your research but with so many resources online now, it's certainly never been easier (;
On our first Hong Kong trip, we were visiting the main tourist attractions like Disneyland, The Peak etc. and most of the places also had halal food options nearby. Suzana had done the planning beforehand, and she was bringing us around. What surprised me the most was that I didn't know that I could find Halal dim sum in Hong Kong! As a non-Muslim Chinese, dim sum was always something that is seldom halal, so that was nice to find, and it tasted good too ?
2. I've deepened my understanding of halal
During our first trip together (in NYC), my understanding of Islam was merely about finding Halal food. I guess I didn’t really understand much about Halal food back then; I only knew that Suzana wasn’t able to eat pork or meat that was non-Halal. As our itineraries were largely arranged for us, the places we could dine at were very limited and we didn’t really know how to find Halal food back then (nope, we didn’t have mobile data back then). That along with the fact that we were on a very limited budget (hello, poor students), we just went for non-meat options and shared the portions. And we went about looking for seafood or vegetarian pizzas, cream cheese bagels, and the likes.
Credit: @infatuation_sf on Instagram
But it was only after our 6-week long summer school programme in Berkeley that I understood more about Halal and what it exactly meant. As it wasn’t easy finding a variety of Halal food where we were at, we were on the lookout for seafood and vegetarian options instead. There was a vegetarian pizza joint in Berkeley (above) that was absolutely amazing (and affordable too), which we kept going back to!
And when we were in San Francisco, we also found the famous clam chowder by Boudin, which is free of alcohol and bacon. I started learning more about the different ingredients to look out for - alcohol, gelatine, animal by-products that aren’t halal, etc.
Ultimately, I've learnt that even though a place isn't fully halal-certified or Muslim-owned, there are definitely ways to go around it. What matters is you've done your proper checks and you must personally be satisfied and feel comfortable with your choice.
[P.S. If you're wondering how to determine the halal status of food when you travel, this guide will help you out!]
3. I understand more about Islam now
I still remember on our first Hong Kong trip together, Suzana was telling me not to get a shock if I went into the room and saw her praying. She wanted to give me a heads-up, as I’ve never seen her pray before. But I didn't really question much during that trip. I only started asking more after our summer school programme in Berkeley a few years later.
When you’re travelling with someone, you spend a reaaally long time with each other, and that brings people closer together. From that 6 weeks of sharing the same room, I was curious about Suzana’s prayers, why she had to do it, how many times she had to pray in a day, and I was asking her all of my questions, which she happily answered.
I didn’t know much about the religion before speaking to her, so it was a blank slate for me to start on. Before that, I didn’t understand what it exactly meant for a Muslim to practice the religion. But with each destination I travelled to with Suzana, I started asking more questions about what is permissible and what isn’t, which helped me understand more about the intention behind every action ❤️
4. It's a little more work sometimes, but it has made me a better traveller
Suzana is a huge foodie, so one of the challenges when we travel is definitely finding the best local food and desserts! Wherever we travelled, we always made sure to find the must-try local food in that country and we would try our best to find a Halal or Muslim-friendly option, so that we could try it for ourselves.
I wouldn't say that it's more challenging but we needed to spend some time researching and asking people about the ingredients when we were there, to ensure that the food is safe for Muslims to consume. Most of the time, we manage to make it work with a simple Google translate or just lots of prior research before our trips ☺️
5. Muslim travellers are just like any other travellers
One of the things that I realised is that Muslim travellers are just like any other travellers! There are more similarities than differences between us. Like any other traveller, Muslims are also looking for the best things to do, unique experiences, must-try local food and everything else a non-Muslim traveller or any other traveller would be looking to do.
6. Being more aware
Travelling with Muslims has definitely made me more aware of the things to look out for so we can help ease the travels of other Muslim travellers who want to step out and explore the world. This ranges from finding all the different food options (ah the joy when we find an authentic local eatery that’s Muslim-friendly!) to asking about prayer facilities/spaces in theme parks and also checking if a hotel room has enough space to pray.
When travelling with a Muslim friend, I would also always check with them to find out what they’re comfortable with - if they’re okay to dine at a place with halal meat but also serves alcohol, or if they’re open to dining at a place with seafood/vegetarian options.
It’s always a constant learning experience when I travel with HHWT as well - speaking to local Muslims to understand how it's like in their country and learning more about their culture ?
7. Compromise is important
Like with any other friends or people you travel with, you just have to give and take. There’s a lot of understanding to come from both sides, but I never thought of it as something that was difficult to do.
From my experiences, my Muslim friends have always been accommodating and if anything, Suzana often felt like she had to go out of her way to ensure that we enjoyed the most out of our trips, try different experiences and get a taste of local food. It wasn’t as if travelling as a Muslim or with a Muslim friend meant that your experience was any less fun.
There may be times where we might not want to eat from the same store or eatery, but that's okay! It was pretty easily solved, by just taking away food from different eateries and then coming together to enjoy our meal ✌️
8. Islam is flexible and never imposes
Through it all, I've learnt that Islam is not a difficult religion and it’s never meant to impose. From food options to combining prayers while you travel, there are always ways to practise your religion and to keep to your faith when travelling, and that should never be an obstacle for you to explore the world. If anything, travelling widens your perspective and understanding of different cultures, which in turn allows us for a better appreciation of everyday lives ❤️
[P.S. Do you love personal stories from the HHWT team? Then check out our worst travel experiences and why it hasn't stopped us from travelling!]