Friday, January 13, 2012


It's been a whirlwind of a time, this first year and a half in the Emirates.  Great adventures, many explorations I would never have had otherwise, so much learning.

I'll be stopping this blog now.  The newness dust of arriving and discovering has settled,  and although I'm positive that there's oh, so much more to learn about this culture, my focus is shifting.  I'm digging in to living my daily life, dealing with health issues, deciphering a new job that requires much of my attention, pruning out some things in my life that don't seem to be the healthiest for me, best of all, a new marriage to my best friend, one of the most wonderful human beings I've ever met.

When he gets here, March/April, inshallah, I have a feeling it'll be time to explore this place all over again, through new eyes.  Hey, maybe the next blog you'll read will be one we write together!  We'll be doing a lot more in nature than I can on my own, so we're excited about that: hiking, kayaking, camping in the desert, and who knows what else.  Maybe something about his music, and the arts in Abu Dhabi.  (There are some stirrings in that direction.)

Hey everyone, thanks so much for taking the time to read and to comment.  This really has been not only a fun forum for my writing and showing off my newfound interest in photography, but also a tool for me to keep my wits about me as I make the transition into expat-hood.

Take care of yourselves and the people you love.  I hope your 2012 is full of love and wonderment.

Friday, October 7, 2011

"a few reminders to self"

Lots going on, lots going on. Visiting family and friends in Arizona, changing jobs (same company, new opportunity), changing cities, and a big change afoot that I’m keeping private (but so tantilizingly so) until some time in the distant future. 

First, my excuse for not writing.  No computer.  Well, that’s a lie.  Actually, two computers.  Neither of which functioned properly. I’ll get to that, too, but first, let’s just talk about my trip home.  By home, I am now talking about Abu Dhabi. 

I managed to have all the information I needed with me for my flight, except some key information, the lack of which had me bawling my eyes out in Newark, spending a couple of hours going from gate to gate trying to find my flight, trying to check in, asking everyone with a badge for help (and I have to say, they are a very sweet bunch in Newark) and fearing that perhaps I had, despite triple-checking, booked myself through another airport after all.  (Reminder #1: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE INFORMATION YOU NEED ON PAPER)  Then, my smartphone, (which is actually pretty stupid without a sim card and no free wifi), had me paying for wifi that never actually functioned.  (Reminder #2: DON’T WASTE MONEY, in this case, on Boingo or T-mobile when in an airport in the states.  It’s costly and never actually works for me.)  Then, thinking I was safe to dispose of the disposable phone that was out of minutes anyway, I...disposed of it...not realizing that it had phone numbers in there that could have saved me a couple of hours of kabir mushkila (major problem).  (Refer self to Reminder #1.)  Then, the brand-spankin’ new computer, hastily purchased fearing that my old computer was on it’s last legs, barely had grown any of it’s own.  Corrupt disk issues.  Nothing I could fix.  Access to phone numbers, emails, anything that could help, was somewhere floating untethered in the great cyber ocean.  Newark has no public computers.  So, very lucky that I had several hours of layover and armed with a new skill I have from my last year in the emirates ( “ask a different person, get a different answer,”) I tried one more person in the hopes that he would actually give me the information that I needed.  And he did.  Gate guy at Continental, you saved us all from having to deal with a crazy lady having a major breakdown. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt that pathetic.  In my own country.  I’ve seriously never felt that lost in another, even when I was.  In the Frankfurt airport, internet was no problem.  I could have made international calls.  (Thank you, Frankfurt Airport, for making these things available.)  Never did get that gate guy’s name, but thank you, too.

The whole time, I was thinking was “this would never happen in the UAE.” And I was right!  No one lets you even carry your bags, unless you insist.  As inconsistent in infrastructure as it can be here, the human factor is so strong.  I missed that, being in the states.  It isn’t that people are unkind.  I’ve already said how sympathetic and helpful people wanted to be at the Newark airport.  But, you could tell it was an unusual situation for them.  People expect technology to work.  I expect technology to work.  Life today is so difficult without it.  People in my own country aren’t used to having to pick up technology’s slack, if there is any.  Technological slack is not acceptable in the western world.  It dominates.  As I type, I sadly realize how true it is for me, sitting in a cafe, hoping someone will pop on skype, writing, by myself.  Around me are people, Arabs, and what are they doing?  Talking to each other.  Yes, they love their multiple mobile phones (as having only one does seem like a sign of destitution for them), yet here they are spending most of their time with each other.  I am on my computer, thankful that it works again, and anxious to stay connected to my world the way I know how.  Sad?  Maybe.  I do miss the human-ness when it’s absent from a place.  

People in the UAE seem to see each other, aren’t so guarded against what someone might do to them, and rarely out to see what they might get out of you.  And sadly, in my reverse culture-shock, that is what I missed most being in the US.  Outside of close circles, people seem suspicious of each other.  Stranger kindness might exist in the states somewhere, but it doesn’t seem so easy to come by anymore.  I’d say it’s because many bad things happen there, but hey, look around this world.  Look at where I am and the countries that surround me.  Worse things happen, bigger, more dangerous, more frequent.  And yet, you know what happens?  If you comment on how nice someone’s something is, that something instantly becomes yours.  If a woman wants to move up in line, politesse dictates that it be so.  Doors are held, conversations are started, you’re called “sister,” by men in businesses as a sign of respect, smiles are typically easy.  Things that are hard in the states are easy here.  

Going to a doctor? No appointment, you just walk in.  Needing to cancel a check? 5 minutes, sign this. Want a credit card?  No credit check, just show how much you make.    Need a driver’s license?  Pretty easy, too.  I know it isn’t the same for expats of all countries and I can only write from my own experience. I’m also selectively leaving out that things that are easy in the states are super hard here. 

There’s a reason.  Leaving family and friends behind is heartbreaking.  I’m working on the positives.  All this “happy to be back” energy is something I’m sticking in this first post in months, partly to remind myself that when...

“I’m ready to find a new place to live...I found a new place to live...oh, you won’t approve my move yet...”

“you’ll just have to commute four hours a day until it all works out...phew, thanks for the hotel room”

“the new school will be open in a couple of weeks...make that after Eid in November...”

“call the police to report that they cashed the check they said they wouldn’t, so they don’t report you first and send you to prison...” (oops, forgot Reminder #1 already...)

“okay, the paperwork is in, now where are the keys to the new flat...where is the money to get the keys to the new flat...”

“you’re no longer in the computer system...okay, you are, but your name is wrong...”

“do all the steps to get out of the old apartment before I can ask for the new one...oh, I need to sleep somewhere in the meantime...oh, I need to store your stuff somewhere in the meantime”

“well, you’re working, no updated paperwork reflecting the change to your job, but you’re doing it, so hopefully, you’ll get paid...”

...happens, I can still remember that when all is said and done, Reminder #3: IT’S REALLY NOT ALL THAT BAD.  In fact, not bad at all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"the Emirates' Big Five"

In this land, where Porsches, Jags, Ferraris, Hummers, and Lamborghinis are the “big five,” and where BMWs and Mercs roam the land as freely as...Toyotas...a girl can lose perspective.  Save money?  On this safari?  Hah.  Not the first year, anyway.
So this is what happens:  I pile into my budget rental car, viewing the exotic motorized creatures in their native habitat, and sometimes follow the herds toward a typical destination, a watering hole of sorts...the mall.
Over the past twenty years, I have spent maybe a whole of, oh, twenty days in a mall.  Yeah, I have that much love for them.  Hey, new land.  New perspective.  What can I say?  When roaming the Emirates...
Safari.  I love the word.  I remember thinking it was so hilariously funny that it was being used for trips into the sand in 4x4s and quads.  I think of jungle safari with leeches and piranha, and Kenyan safaris with long telescoping lenses and multi-pocketed vests.  Don’t you?  (Okay, maybe you knew this, but I didn’t until recently: the word "safari" originates from Arabic, like so many things do. It refers simply to a journey.)  

So, what better place to find that camera and that vest? You guessed it, the mall.  Where all things materialistic are possible.  Air conditioning in 40C/110F + weather is still the major draw for all the local critters, but while you keep cool in the man-made oasis, the smaller inhabitants, the ones covered in bling and too much packaging catch your eye, and on occasion, your Mastercard number.  And although I’m a nature girl, I also have particularly crow-like tendencies towards those shiny things these days.  The nest has gotta look good, now, right?!
But now, as I’ve been here nine months, the novelty of shopping is somewhat wearing off.  I’m being more selective again.  Keeping in mind my future goals.  This has been helped significantly by some tragic events related to these excursions:
Oh, I loved those polarized RayBans...until they were crushed in a dune-bashing excursion.  And those Dolce ones were an even nicer fit...until I lost them...twice.  Humph.  I give up on pricey sunglasses.  Should never have succumbed in the first place.  Learned my lesson?  Yes.  Until the next big sale.  And I DID talk myself out of the Bugatti ones that fit like they were custom made for my face.
And then there are THE SHOES.  Oh, the shoes.  They look like the good quality ones that I typically spend my money on and keep for too many years.  They’re seriously cute, and they’re so much cheaper.  If you don’t value walking in them all that much, due to blisters, twisted ankles, and no arch support, then hey, go for it.  I’ll just walk barefoot while they adorn my hands as I carry them.  I always preferred barefoot hiking anyway.  So cheap, yeah, in more ways than one. 

And tons of inexpensive clothing available, too.  Now that I know that spaghetti straps are okay in certain environments, I must replenish!  Funny thing: almost all the western clothing available in the malls would be deemed inappropriate for a modest, Muslim environment.  I’ll be gosh-darned if I’m going to pile more clothing on top, though, in this insane heat.  And, seeing as how I can’t wear those particular items to work, I need work clothes, too!   And going-out clothes.  And work-out clothes.  And traveling clothes, and lounge-around-the-house clothes.  Anyway, nine months after arriving, I’m already making give-away piles.  

Then there’re the spa treatments.  Hey, health is important.  Feeling good is a huge part of health.  Right?  Right?  I mean...right?
And the new phone.  Get how I justify this one: it’s cheaper than buying a phone, a new ipod, a kindle, a portable computer, a video camera, and a new still camera, and so much easier to keep track of one device.  It’s also factory unlocked, so I can use sim cards from anywhere.  Geez, I can’t decide if I’m right, or I’m just getting way better at tricking myself.
I haven’t even mentioned all the things to do.  Ski Dubai.  Ferrari World.  This yacht trip, that concert, this kayaking adventure, the other club to join.  I’m not even talking about the other countries you can go to.  Sheesh, I'm getting tired just thinking about it all!  (Hey, shisha...haven’t had any in awhile...that sounds good.)
So, now that I’m finally starting to come to my frugal senses a little, it’s time to start planning my visit home.  It’s time to spend on plane tickets, portable chargers for the iphones and computers, utilities, tango festival, maybe buying a car for next year, presents for people at home.  Well, yeah.  So much for saving a dirham this year.  S’okay.  As long as I keep it 50/50 - half for now, and half for past & future expenses.  (Yeah, yeah, I know.  The queasiness I feel probably means I should adjust that percentage a little, keep that inner spending beast at bay.)
Next year, there’s always next year, inshallah. Meanwhile, I’ll stay in my little rental vehicle, observing and attempting to keep a safe distance from the consumption predators and try not to get too consumed myself. 
(Oh, and by the way, animal folks,  I hope you aren't feeling too cheated by the title.  There really are very few large wild animals around here anymore.  The camels live dependent on people.  The oryx are rare, and best found in large, enclosed private sanctuaries.  You'll be lucky to encounter a camel spider, a scorpion, a mouse, or a hedgehog.  Birds, however, you'll find a' plenty.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“it’s another cover band”

I’ve been rolling this one over in my mind for some time.  Well, yeah, since I got here and started to seek out authentic experiences.  

I’ve had quite a few.  I’ve eaten real shawarma and stuffed grape leaves along with my egg rolls.  The curry is always hot hot hot.  Had a great time discovering that biryani rice and chicken is a staple in so many places.  Vegetable korma is easily come by.
Beyond food I’ve had a chance to see bellydancing, gone biking and 4-by-4ing  in the desert, rode a camel (for about five minutes), witnessed hothouse cucumber farming, had my petrol refilled at filling stations built to look like old forts, received a gift of a lovely abaya, had a picture drawn of me in burqa by my students (as close as I believe I will ever get) and smoked (almost said “smoken”...shouldn’t it be smoken?!) plenty of shisha while sipping my chai in my flower-lined oasis town, where stone fountains pour forth the sustenance of life.
Get my theme?  If I'm being too vague, let me be clear.  Nothing is from here.  EVERYTHING is from somewhere else.
Okay, so I realize I live in a country that is the same age as I am.  I certainly don’t claim to be fully realized, and although I have my baggage (as light as I try to travel), I don’t have nearly as much of a split personality as a newly-forming country does.  As old as it is, it is also brand, spankin’ new.  And heck, even the old stuff is bedouin.  It’s a mobile culture fed by an ancient spice route.  Even the old is borrowed and adopted.
So, when you get here, you do all your obligatory touristy things, until you find people who know the country who can show you some real life.  Usually in another country. You travel.  Oman.  Thailand.  Sri Lanka.  Jordan and its neighbor.  India.  Bahrain.  Greece.  Egypt.  Nepal.  Kenya.  Lebanon.  Some of the many places that are easily accessed from here.  For authentic experience.
(It reminds me of a dream I had long ago, inside a mountain at a waiting station, where every time you stepped through the liquid-like nothingness, you created a brand new experience, a brand new learning...and yet, there was always the station...)
Meanwhile, back in the Emirates, you are dealing with all of these different places at once.  Saturation in one culture isn't really available, so for me, I didn’t experience the culture shock people talk about when they talk about culture shock.  In fact, I was a little disappointed that if I really wanted to, I could go to Burger King or Starbucks as easily as a Lebanese restaurant.  There is comfort to be had.  I can even indulge in salt ‘n’ vinegars with cottage cheese (hey now, don’t knock it until you try it).
After you get over the thrill of the newness, you begin to differentiate between cultures.  People’s dress, driving styles (yes, I can identify a Pakistani driver from an Emirati from a western driver within seconds before even seeing the person). You sense the differences, you know?  
And then...and then, it’s about the right time to start missing the familiar, even if you haven’t had too much of a shocking experience from the start.  You seek out the expats, surprising yourself with how familiar they all seem.  You start to find places with western music and places where you might indulge in a Corona (or Patron, when you’re really  missing home).  You start to go to music shows.  Most of which you really wouldn’t want to go to back home at all.  (I’ve been so torn...should I or shouldn’t I go to Snoop Dogg?  Do I even know one of his songs at all?) It’s about the kinship, though, and certainly not about the music.  
That must be what the music industry here is thinking.  All these expats.  Let’s give ‘em a little something so they stick around and work for awhile. 
The other weekend, I went to Abu Dhabi to visit a friend.  A group of us were planning to go to a jazz bar.  Jazz bar?!  Fantastic!  Right?  My dear Billie.  Or Sade.  A little Django.  Morphine, that would be my ideal.  Can’t wait...
What we got, was a dance-pop band.  A  Another cover band, who played more of the shallow stuff the only English radio stations here ever play. The only English music you ever hear.  The band had good singers, we all agreed.  Apparently the bassist and the guitarist weren’t even plugged in.  Oops.  Jazz, (but apparently not pop) is a little challenging without actual instruments...Oh well, it was a ton of fun.  Thanks to the great company and the gin and tonics...and the tequila shot.  
There is a major entertainment promotion company here that has the monopoly on bringing in music from the west.  There is a minor importer of musak for hotel lobbies and malls.  All of it really shallow, top 40 stuff that passes in name only as music.  Okay, that’s a little harsh, but I’m on a roll. (I do like the Christmas tunes during Eid in the hotels.  How can you not, if you are a lover, or even a mild liker, of irony?)  
I’ve learned to like genres I never gave a moment to before.  (Yes, even the club can’t handle me now, here in this concrete jungle where dreams are made of.  In fact, I have a feeling tonight is gonna be a good, good night.)  I’m actually sad I missed the outrageously suggestive Filipina salsa singer girls before they were replaced at a local hotel.  (Damn, I heard that was really a spectacle not to be missed.)  Lately, I am entirely too grateful when my students pick the Spongebob song as their reward for a great day, for chrissake! (That horrific stint at the Mariott, for those who know, was worth something after all.) Thank goodness for a moment of WOMAD (world’s most famous world music festival.)  I was so sick, but I needed real music, I tell ya, as much as I needed medicine.  (Still heartbroken that I missed Jimmy Cliff.)
Being the music junky that I am, I am jonesing in a major way for some authentic singer-songwriter to come to sing to me about all of my innermost philosophical observations, or for some cowboy punk band to scream my big “YES!” anthem, or geez, even for someone to cover really, really good music.  With actual instruments.  This place is crying, bawling loudly for some authenticity.  And in the order of urgency, I hope that it comes in the form of an actual saxophone.  A classical guitar.  An oud would be divine.  Heck, I’ll take anything.  A penny-whistle. A kazoo.  There’s a spoon on the table here...
Well, you know, maybe it’s time to think about how I could be proactive.  Maybe I have found my real-life location for the great supper club that lives in my mind.  You know the one, with the potted palm trees and waiters in white tuxedos and brilliantined hair, a live big band, a dance floor, me in evening gown and feather boa, step stool to the top of the piano...  Or maybe it’s time to break out of my shell and onto the karaoke stage.  (“SU mer TIIIIIIme....and the livin’ is eeeeesaaayyyy...”) Maybe that, too.  (“yyyoooourrrrrr DADdy’s rich!   And yo’ maamaaaahzzzz goodlookinnnnnn, so hushhhhhhhhh little baybehhhhhh, don’t you cryyyyyyyyyy....)  ahem.
Until then, I have my itunes and KXCI, Tucson’s fabulous community radio station tuned in on my iphone.  (Interesting observation: Indian drivers in particular seem to find the habit of singing and dancing in your car a rather odd, yet amusing practice.) In so many ways, traveling sure wasn’t as easy as this even 10 years ago.  I almost feel guilty for importing my own authenticity.  But hey, it IS, after all, the way of the locals!
Happy traiiiiiils to youuuuuu...

Friday, April 8, 2011

"this is not 'so long', Ceylon"

One of the things I appreciate most about the UAE is the opportunity it affords me to travel the world, remind myself that it’s all my home.  Five countries in eight months, three of which I need to visit again, most definitely. Making up for a lot of lost time. 
This time, I had a week in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka! Even back in the mid-80’s when I thought Duran Duran was the most innovative music to be heard by human ears and their lyrics so profound that a ten-year-old couldn’t possibly be expected to understand them all, I dreamt of Sri Lanka.  (Yes, they are responsible for putting the country on my radar!) A more immediate goal, however, was just to see some green things growing without all sorts of supplements and fancy manipulations to put water where it doesn’t naturally go.  I live in a garden city, where the round-abouts are routinely replanted with flowers, and it is very pretty, in a resort-town sort of way, but it’s nice to remember that plants sometimes grow just because they can.
This first trip (of hopefully, many) was a whirlwind of tea plantations, jungle, and beach.  A mosaic of mosques, temples, kovils, and churches. A cornucopia of tropical plants, fruits and nuts, animals, crafts, and the most natural and easy smiles I’ve ever encountered.  A sweet, sweet place.
As I write, I’m drinking the freshest green tea I’ve ever had, and feeling refreshed in a way that I wasn’t expecting.  
My first morning, I visited a Buddhist temple, sat with the monk and a few devout as they chanted, and received a white string.  The monk seemed to be quite pleased that I joined them, instead of joining other tourists in taking pictures of them during the ceremony.  He graciously blessed me with a smile.  
I walked around the temple afterwards and saw statues of Ganesha, Sarasvati and others, a curious thing, because those are Hindu.  But, as I would notice throughout Sri Lanka, there is not only a tolerance for other faiths (as in the UAE), but that many of them truly live side-by-side and intertwined.  I thought it was a new-world thing to pull from different religions and philosophies to formulate your own brand of spirituality.  It isn’t new.  It has a country.  People from different faiths work together, befriend each other, marry (except for Muslims), and sometimes take a little from each one.   My friend, driver, and guide Prashan was born into a Buddhist family, went to Catholic school, and has a respect for both.  More and more, I felt a kinship with this place and its people.  And more and more, I started to live again in a peaceful, flowing way, in that softness that mountains and oceans always steep me in.  And something that’s really hard to do in the harshness of the desert, I started to meditate again.  
Prash is a wealth of knowledge about his country, it’s history and where to get good deals on herbs and spices, batik, water buffalo leather, and jewels.  Much of our time was spend weaving in our VIP vehicle through two-lane roads (there are no highways) to get to factories where we could learn how things are done.  I have penpals from these places now, and many of them are sure that I will move there some day.  I can’t imagine a richer life.  Not much money, but wealthy in resources.  Wealthier still in spirit.  I saw my first mongoose, “crocodile lizards,” wild monkeys, wild peacocks, and wild water buffaloes.  I rode an elephant.  I met many spice trees I had never met.  I bought a beautiful batik wallhanging for the home my future holds: the one with beautiful items from across the globe with true memories attached.   All of those things are wonderful, but it really was the conversations, the inner reflection, that I treasure most.
Years ago, I had a dream that has haunted me.  It is of a tsunami.  Yes, there is death involved in this dream, yes, and heartache, but what has stayed with me is the calm inevitability.  In my dream, a poem with a rhythm like waves played over and over again.   (“...merged with a raging sea...time and back again..”) It talked of lives past and lives to come.  This dream came back to me again in Sri Lanka, and yet no longer am I haunted by the dream.  Instead, I feel closure.  Interpret as you will.
At times, people asked me if I was Berger (Sri Lankan of Portuguese/Dutch descent.) Other times, people spoke to me in Singhali.  Prash calls me sister, says I have the temperment of the Sri Lankan people.  I feel I have yet another home.  Whether it’s from before this life or for a future life (if those exist), I feel part of myself is still there.  Is this what I wanted from travelling?  It is so, so much more.
And though where I live is vastly different, (a lush environment promotes a lush life, as a harsh enivornment promotes a harsh one), I am profoundly grateful for my time in the UAE.  It gives me the chance to satiate my wanderlust in the now while allowing me to put something in for the future, whatever that actually holds. Pretty wonderful stuff.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"oh man, Oman!"

What an amazing weekend I almost didn’t have.  Yes, I was ready to crawl back under a heavy, heavy rock with only a small corridor to the large enough to let in air, members of the salt and sugar food groups,  and crappy romantic comedies.  You see, I know myself fairly well by now, and can recognize the monthly telltale signs that I’m about to be lousy company.  You might know them.  The crying because the bagboy wanted to carry my groceries out (“What, do I LOOK like I’m that incapable?  Are you trying to get a tip?!”), trying to be first to the stoplight ‘cause, ‘cause, because I WANT to, that’s why! (Yes, I admit it, I am that person...does it help that it’s only like one or two days for every 30 or so?) I tell myself it’s the beginnings of wisdom to know when to stay the hell out of everyone’s way before I tell them to get the hell out of mine.  (Only person who can’t escape is Mom, but she’s somewhere around 8500 miles away, being spared for the moment.) I know when it’s time to hide.  Those full moon moments. Those Ms. Hyde moments.  AAAOOOOOOOWWWW!
So, here I was, digging my proverbial hole for the weekend, when my friend and her main squeeze (how long has it been since you’ve heard THAT term?) decided to come down for a visit on their way to Oman.  Eh, one night, no big deal.  A little good company might be good for me, especially if I don’t have to get dressed or anything.  If need be, I can move to the back of my bedchamber.  Zein, fine. They can have the run of the flat.  Little did I know that they were plotting to take me with them, once they decided to go camping.  I resisted up until the last, but I am so glad I, erm...caved.
It’s amazingly close, this paradise.  The coast is only about an hour away.  The coast of Sohar. (Did I already mention that I can see the Omani border from my windows?)
Okay, if you aren’t living under your own rock, you are probably somewhat aware that there is a little bit of restlessness afoot in the Arab world.  Oman has been mentioned, and I have heard some hand-me-down “inside” information that’s pretty interesting.  But first, I will tell you, we went ‘round the roundabout near where the protesting started and now continues to this day.   This is what I saw:  oh, about a couple, three dozen men chillaxing in the grass with their friends.  And some signs with Omani colors on them.  That’s it.  The big excitement was that one of them knew some of our hosts.  This individual, a very excitable gentlemen who wants to be known as “Enjoy” welcomed us by attaching himself to the side of our moving truck, asking us if we were journalists, and told us to blog about it.  And, I am indeed.  However, I doubt anything I say will be a boost, or a detriment, to their cause. I just dig his name.
You want to know more about the second-hand knowledge I have about the current situation in Oman?  Okay, read on:
Someone tried hard to urge them not to protest prior to even the Tunisian uprising.  There were already efforts in the works with people concerned with workers’ rights and unemployment, efforts by the government.  There was already a peaceful movement afoot.  The protesters are the ones that got caught up in the fever that’s spreading across the Arab world.  Now, that same Someone who wants to help the workers, the same one who writes passionate poetry about his Sultan, is caught between friends who are protesting and people wanting to do things without complete upheaval.  Now, the news will tell you that people have been hurt.  It’s true.  Things did get intense.  We did see the military for a moment on our way back.  Yet, it sounded preventable.  I can’t say I’m informed enough for a solid opinion, but from what I have seen up until now, there has been a highly peaceful notion of Oman founded on a lot of truth.
Enough of the playing informant, since I’m not a very good one anyway. Can I just tell you about playing in the mountains now?  
Well, we camped in a wadi (“arroyo,” by Sonoran Desert standards, except that the water table is still reachable), next to a working falaj (a canal that brings water to the village, and I’m willing to bet, the same falaj that has been there for hundreds of years, with some regular maintenance.)  It’s rocky terrain there, with some green.  Besides the palms and other trees (one of which is about 700 years old, the “biggest tree in the world,” according to one of our hosts who has never heard of the Redwoods), that thrive next to the falaj, they are mostly small  desert succulents.  The village is tiny, and they cultivate much of what they need there: hashish (Okay, okay, don’t get excited, I’m not talking about the smoking kind.  It actually refers to the grasses they grow to feed the goats), lemon trees, a small stand of aloe (the universal plant medicine, apparently), and the date palms.  It’s the most picturesque place I have ever, ever been.  Not only that, but the people we met are content, beautiful-souled people. I had heard, and now I know, the Omani people are just lovely, kind, and accepting people.  
We were not the first westerners they had met, but different enough that the children stared in interest.  The children only?  No.  In the UAE, there are many Bengali expats working.  Here, it is no different.  They lead quiet lives, and I realize now that the ones who live rurally rarely, if ever, have seen a western woman.  The unmasked staring!  I wish there was a better word for it, because it sounds impolite, and it really isn’t in this case.  Maybe just, plain, open, looking. They looked, wide-eyed, with a fascination.  But, then, it was mutual.  Everybody looked at each other as if we had just discovered a unicorn.  My favorite looking came from a local, Sheikha.  
Beautiful Sheikha.  The kind and loving wise woman.  She’s only 55, but is definitely the crone of the village.  What love this person has in her heart, in her eyes.  We met her as she returned home carrying freshly cut hashish for the animals. (Her picture is on the blog.)  We asked to take her picture, and she was happy to oblige.  She invited us to tea, and we sat and talked, asking about her life.  Abdullah translated, and we used the little Arabic we know to converse.  Gen gave her a gift of a new sheila (scarf) and a necklace for the little girl.  Sheikha returned from giving the gifts with the news that the baby who will be born soon will be named Jena, in her honor.  How amazing is that?  (Gen’s name is too close to “djin,” not something you want to be called, as it refers to spirits.  “Jena,” on the other hand, is “heaven.”)  What I’m really excited with right now is that Rashed, another of our hosts, knows them through family ties, and he mentioned that it could be arranged that Gen and I go back to teach English for a week of volunteering.  Sheikha promised to teach us how to tend the animals and crops.  I sincerely hope to return to share more experiences in this mountain paradise.  

So many amazing things happened this weekend, that I nearly forgot that I’m turning she-wolf at the moment.  Between eating goat (really gross and I’m am not a fan and it tastes like fatty soap and I saw it’s eyes and teeth and for recent non-meateater, it was just too, too much), being relentlessly hit on by a gay man (“It’s okay, it’s just the alcohol, he’ll be okay in the morning”), watching another goat eat his brother’s remains, freeclimbing to the most lovely mountain views of valley and village, and so, so much else, I almost forgot that I was hormonal.  
I am proud to say that I only pulled the “I can one-up you” once, but it was more out of joy than out of wallowing in the caverns of my hormone imbalance.  Abdullah and I were the only ones out of the six of us who thought it a fantastic idea to boulder and free climb the precarious mountainside that has all the ingredients necessary for a landslide - loose rock, good wind, two climbers racing to the top. I even let go a little of my adrenaline-induced ego-tripping by actually conceding the last few meters to him.  After all, he was our host, and to completely outdo him would just be a little rude.  Nevertheless, fantastic climb, and I came out charged, unscatched, with nary a scratch.   I never feel so absolutely sharp and in the moment as I do when climbing.  (I really should have kept those climbing shoes and spent more time learning how to seriously climb.  Maybe I still will.)   Happy to know I haven’t lost much strength since moving here, either.  I did a little girl-growling, much to the amusement of the men who greeted me at the bottom. GGGGRRRRRR!!!  What a RUSH.  Oh, and on the way, I visited quite a few real, live caves, one with remnants of an old raptor’s nest, all too small for how massive my heart was feeling, so no need to crawl in, no need to create them myself.  
We went back to camp, and were greeted with steaming plates of rice and spicy stew.  So good.  Have I mentioned how wonderful it is that it’s actually appropriate to eat with your hands here?  Love it.  We packed up, tried to teach some Arabs about “leave no trace,” then we drove off, heads and hands sticking out of the truck, feeling the wind, dancing to the blast of my new favorite Arabic music (for which I really must bug them for a copy), and topped it all off with a nice mint-grape shisha and Arabic coffee at a host's brother’s shisha lounge.  Awesome.
So, now, I’ll just find a nice place to put the very small rock I brought back.  Maybe next time I feel like crawling under one, I can just hold it and remember times I’ve soared above them.  AAAAAAYYYYYWWWWAAAHHHH!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

“eye of the storm”

Yesterday, I saw my first sandstorm from safely within my 5th floor flat.  It was an awesome sight, much like the morning fog that blinds us on the way to school on many mornings these days. Except that it rolled in so quickly, no creeping in on little cat feet, more like a tiger pouncing.  A baby tiger playing at the kill, but a tiger nevertheless.  Enough to realize that I don’t want to be walking around outside in the desert if another, mama tiger, should decide to feed.  Seeing other people’s photos, I realized that it was much spookier being in it.  I was supposed to go camping, but my bronchial infection saved me. (Fine dust + germy girl children + rather sucky immune system = sick me, again.) Indoors, I stayed.  Calm, quiet, while all around, the earth lifted up and blew around me.
Living in the UAE does feel like living in the eye of a storm in so many ways.  The Arab world is going through many difficulties.  Tunisia ousted it’s 30 year president.  Egypt is attempting the same feat. Yemen also continues to experience protests.  The Islamic world, which overlaps the Arab world, is in strife.  A recent bombing in Afghanistan, protests in Jordan, constant tension between Israel and Palestine.  Albania.  Saudi Arabia to our west, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan to our north.  Pirates in the waters to the south, and of course civil wars, Nigeria, and Kenya. Thailand. Damaging storms in the Philipines, Sri Lanka.  Peace is scarce.
And yet, I feel safe.  
At home, a beloved politician was shot.  Many innocent people hurt, some killed.  Home isn’t any more safe.  It was shocking.  It was something completely unacceptable.  Part of that comes from the luxury, I believe, of having the sense of well-being that we can enjoy in the western world.  “Peace” used to feel like an ideal, although I was raised in it, lived in it, still live in it.  It’s hard to appreciate fully unless you have a physiological experience of the alternative.  Not that I have.  But I share roads with people who have, I share shopping aisles and urgent care waiting rooms, housing areas. I’ve talked with Egyptians, Tunisians, Filipinos who have family going through so much heavier stuff than my own family has had to experience.  Yes, the U.S. is not as rosy as many people in the rest of the world tend to believe, but I have to admit, I am grateful that my family does not have to live in daily fear for any of us.  Yes, things might happen.  Might happen anywhere.  But, all in all, my people don’t have to live with the constant adrenaline overdrive on.  We are lucky, lucky people.  Usually.  I thought being closer to these places would prove to me that it isn’t as intense as we are led to believe through our media.  The oppositie is true.  It is intense.  It is everywhere.  
I feel safe, but I’m also aware that the storm’s eye can move.  This country has been friendly and kind to me, indeed.  And, although I don’t choose to live with fear, I remember that someone who lives here told someone I know that his brother, who is Taliban, smuggled himself into the UK.  Who knows if it’s true.  All I do know is that our hosts here are friendly.  I don’t always know that our fellow expats always are.  Every once in awhile, a pair of eyes the color of steel will shoot a penetrating look out from under a dark turban, straight at a westerner.  It might be that that person is merely curious.  I don’t know.  I haven’t asked.  I won’t assume anything, but I won’t dismiss caution either.
Our hosts are so accepting, and so quiet about any disapproval, that it can be easy to forget that we need to be aware of staying respectful in dress, behavior, lifestyle.  It can be easy to just act naturally as we are used to at home.  Sometimes, though, there are reminders that I need to pull back.  Quiet stares at my wild hair remind me that if I’m not covering, I should at least pull it back.  It has become more comfortable to wear layers, even if it’s awfully hot, to mask the curves.  When people don’t look, take it as approval.  Women are kinder the more I cover, sometimes talking to me in public.  Mostly, people are just kind all over, and so helpful.  
I feel safe, but I also realize that there is no reason to get comfortable.  Enjoy what I can about being here, but don’t be shocked if I am asked to leave because a student accidently saw my ankle.  That’s extreme, perhaps.  My school is more tolerant, but I do hear stories of things happening, beyond a person’s control, and that person is then asked to leave.  
Speaking of leaving, I’m looking at possibilities for a March get-away for a week.  Beirut has a huge draw for me.  It’s supposed to be the “Paris of the Middle East.”  Paris itself is another thought.  Maybe Cyprus, maybe Seychelles.  Nepal was a thought, but I’m saving that until later.  Istanbul, maybe. Pretty sure Paris will be it, but I’m still exploring possibilities.  Anywhere I go, I’m checking weather and I’m checking political climate.  There are security warnings everywhere.  It can’t be avoided.  Is the world really more volatile right now, or is it just that I’m more aware of it all?  Hasn’t it always been in strife somewhere?
I’m writing this, not because I feel fear, but more as a reminder to myself to stay alert, aware of my own person and others, and to never assume that things will stay the same.  Maybe some of this is from watching the BBC coverage of things going on in the world.  I swore off of daily NPR back home precisely because it makes me so peevish.
Nice having a tv for the first time in a long time, but maybe I’ll balance out with some movies as I get over this respiratory infection.  
Until next time...I wish you safety and peace.