I paint, and then I step back to watch what the colors will do. It’s one of those mysteries of life, a realm science can’t explain, why colors make you feel the way they do, as they blend, harmonize and sometimes irritate. The creative process is unlike any other endeavor. It brings all of your senses into focus. When I paint, I am my eyes, my ears, my touch. I am all of my senses, nothing more.
In my studio, the 81×65 cm canvas looms large before me. I begin to think…maybe I should have chosen a smaller canvas, maybe I should have taken more time to sketch it out, maybe this isn’t the right subject to paint…fear is speaking.
I silence the resistance by enlisting trust. Every creative endeavor requires energy and trust, patience too and ambition. I keep on keeping on. Desire is 99%, it moves me forward. I am listening, not to fear, but to that part of myself that wants to create. I’m opening the door and bidding her to come forward, “Here, you’re invited, won’t you stay a while?”
It’s a mind game, it feels like a gamble, 50-50 it could all go to squat, and then what?
I don’t answer that question. I’m too busy trusting. My brush moves compulsively, dabbing at the colors on my palette, mixing, swiping vivid strokes on the canvas. I want to fill the white space, but more importantly, capture the essence of this tiny broken shell I found on the beach.
The day I collected it, put it in my pocket, brought it home, washed off the sand, I felt it spoke to me. Not in words (thank goodness), but the mere fact that it existed, survived, had been tossed by the waves, but had come to shore, parts broken, with what remained intact so lovely so achingly beautiful. A delicate purple swirl, surrounded by hues of pink, yellow and blue. The colors were luminescent, almost emerging while I gazed on the surface. I was enchanted.
Somewhat rash and unthinking, I began to paint this tiny shell, only to regret my impatience later when I had to rework several angles, change colors, enlarge some parts, reduce others, but still, the process of creation, of coaxing this shape into life, was exhilarating.
I worked for a couple of hours, time flew by. I didn’t stop for lunch. When I started to feel real frustration, I knew it was time to let the oils dry—stop muddying the color. I needed to focus my attention on something else, anything else. But before I did, I took a moment to stand back and assess what had been achieved. To my dismay, I found the simplicity of the shell—what had drawn me to it—had evaded me. I was doing too much. It was simple. Why was I complicating it?
I put away my palette, washed my brushes and lay them to dry. All the while my mind stayed on the painting, reworking it in my head, trying to sort out what needed to change. If only I could consult with another artist, they might give me some insight. But wait…that was possible…in a way. I could consult with artists via google–the wonder of this modern age. I opened my laptop and searched O’Keefe, which is to say, I summoned her genius, creativity, and spirit. She is a master of simplicity and color and many other things, and her work often guides my path. I found exactly what I needed, an image of a shell and hope. You got this, she seemed to say.
With a vision of what was possible, I returned to the now dry canvas several days later. It was time to simplify, lay shadows, bring out highlights and come to some final conclusions as to the background color. There were decisions to be made and it took a few painting sessions before I made them all and completed the work. It was during this phase of the process, that I begin to understand something deeper….why I was so drawn to the shell to begin with, why I HAD to paint it.
A shell, after all, is a home, an abode for some small sea creature to temporarily set up shop; it’s a living quarter, built and used, then passed on when it’s time to grow bigger. Was not my own quest similar…to find a “home,” to understand this place so unlike anywhere else I’ve ever lived in the world?
I’ve been in Muscat for 7 months now, time enough to unpack and settled, but still, there’s a lingering sense I am not quite home. The “shell” or rather “home,” I’ve physically moved into, is still unfamiliar to my way of life and experience. My physical landscape is a bit unwieldy—6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, 4 living rooms and a gigantic rotunda situated in the center of it all—much like the round swirl of the shell, the starting point of the shape. Is it coincidence that this small found object that crossed my path, physically defines my space, even my brokenness?
I look at the shell, then at my painting. I ponder this revelation. The shell is an outer presentation while the organism that lives inside, stays relatively hidden. How much of me is still hidden living here in Oman? How much of others do I really see? The shell protects as it projects an outward appearance. I am living in a culture where women are covered from head to toe in black abayas and head scarfs. I cannot see the inner identity of a woman, but I know that within each similarly robe clad female, there is someone unique. I try to remember that my own appearance is also apt to throw people off. They might see me as a “Westerner,” when really, I am ME. I am my own version of myself and no one can define that by my outward appearance—my jeans, my age, my short hair, my weight, my skin color.
We are, in essence, a collection of beautiful shells, vibrant entities, not understood, unless we take the time to look deeper. Is that why O’Keefe painted shells? Is that somehow connected to the need I feel to collect shells and put them around my house and paint them too, on occasion?
I’m expert at over analyzing, but I really think I’m onto something.
My studio is on the second floor of our villa with southwesterly windows overlooking the Gulf. I watch the waves and the palm fronds tossed by the wind with a bird’s eye view. It is the gift Oman has given me, so much nature in constant view. I watch the people too, walking along the paved walkway. There’s an old man with a cane walking slowly, arm and arm with his wife, they look European. A man in a dish dash—a white robe—and hat is holding onto grocery sacks, more men behind him, they’re looking for a place among the palms to sit and eat. There are people lined up along the grassy knoll, facing the waves, a man taking a photo. Shells and people. I see a connection. My hope is to observe individuals with the same thoughtful attention I offer to this tiny shell. People are complex, but there is simplicity too beneath all of our differences.
I stop work on the painting. I’m not sure it’s done, only that I’m done. I know each painting must come to a close, but it’s never an easy task deciding when exactly to cease and desist (painting does feel rebellious at times). I’ve already got another subject in mind—palm trees. I’m going to sketch them out first, take a little more time to prepare so I spend less time fixing mistakes. Live and learn.
The birds are calling outside my studio window, the waves crashing. I don’t take any of this for granted. I’ve lived in so many different places, cultures, homes, countries. I know what it means to be temporary and that one day this too will be gone. But I’m just as certain of another truth—that this place will never leave me. Neither will this moment of clarity, along with all the other life lessons I’ve experienced along the way. I’ll keep my painting of this shell, hang it in my next home, as a reminder that each time we outgrow our abode, therein lies the opportunity to create and discover.
It’s 4:30am on this Saturday morning and my body refuses to sleep. I’m jet lagged from the 11-hour time difference we grew accustomed to in Utah and waking up all hours of the night. As disturbing as it is to be up before dawn, I relished the time to organize my thoughts—me and the ocean waves crashing outside my window. Life could be worse.
It’s a new year and I’ve yet to make any goals beyond, get through today. It’s difficult to think ahead when our shipment just arrived, household stuff we packed up six months ago in St. George. Boxes are everywhere, clothes strewn across beds, floors, and tables. Decorations, books, bedding, towels, boxes of yarn, undone, sitting, waiting for me like belligerent children, to call them to order. I’ll begin in one room—stacking, folding, arranging—then find myself in another. Nothing is getting accomplished as fast as I want it to. Of course, it’s one thing to organize stuff and another entirely to sift through memories—pieces of a former life that recall people and places you loved. Love takes time.
With my feet propped up on a paper cutter resting atop of a box of acrylic paints, I sit in what will be my office at some point. Right now it looks more like the garage sale of a crafting addict. I’ve got plastic tubs of yarn (dreams in the making), containers of ribbon and colored paper, paints and brushes. They will all have to wait.
Yesterday, I sighed over a box of winter clothing that was supposed to go into storage. Mountains of thick down coats, hats and gloves, winter boots. We needed them in Sweden but Oman is still a balmy 85 in the depths of January; no reason to have those things here. I intended for our winter gear, and the greater portion of our books, to go into storage, as well as most of the decorations we now have, but somewhere in the shuffle of Washington D.C. storage, air shipment and boat shipment, our things did a swap o’ roo. The tools in the garage made it here but the piano didn’t!! Oh the piano! That one hurt. All these months I’d been waiting, reserving space along the living room wall…SIGH…
As a general rule, moves never go as planned. Disappointment, frustration, resignation, Hello…my old friends, nice to see you again. It’s one thing to get the lemons and make lemonade, but what if you don’t even get lemons…then what?
Then you have to conjure magic, I suppose, make something out of nothing. Like those nights you didn’t make it to the grocery store but need to make dinner anyway. You take the lonely can of tomatoes from the pantry, crack some eggs, whip it together with the last remaining onion in the bin, and pretty soon you’ve got yourself a scrambled dish that’s worthy of eating.
Life is a lot of scramble and conjuring. We devise and reinvent and make do. And at the end of it, with a little luck, we’ve really got ourselves something. In my case, I’m hoping to have a “home.” I’m working to make sense out of chaos, hoping to again find identity and purpose.
We all do this, to one degree or another. While I recreate my identity on a large scale every couple of years, in smaller, less noticeable ways, we do this daily. Each choice, each decision, each step in one direction means another not taken, as Robert Frost said, “that makes all the difference.” I read once our body’s cells change completely every seven years, meaning we’re a whole new self. Cell by cell. Day by day. Change, it seems, is built into who we are, it’s part of our DNA. It’s what we do to survive.
The New Year’s begun in America and the Christian world, but here in Oman, the New Year comes in September, with the first day in the Islamic lunar calendar. Days are counted differently too. In Oman a day begins at sunset with the cycle of the moon. I can attest Arabs loooove their nighttime hours. The beach is the most crowded from 6pm till 2am. I sometimes wear ear plugs to bed and turn on a fan to block out the noise from the laughter of adults and children playing outside at midnight.
Right now my days and nights are so mixed up, I’m not sure when one starts and the other begins. I’d be happy to go with either way. But the point is this, I think, anytime you want to begin…begin. There is no better time than today. I’ve heard that said, but now that I’m older, I’m inclined to believe it.
Rather than make goals, I’m going to set an “intention” for 2017. Intention sounds fancier, but really I’m trying to be practical. The truth is I can’t control much from day to day. I can’t even control what stuff I have in my life, I mean Maggie was going to take piano lessons, but now that we don’t have a piano, we’re going with violin. Three of those showed up, (the violins the boys used back in Vienna, when in 2nd grade they had a strings program). So for now, the idea is to have an intention, a mantra for the year at hand. It goes like this: Prioritize Joy.
Joy! I’ve been singing about “Joy to the World,” this past month and that felt good. I don’t think joy has to be as elusive as I make it. I’m the type that likes to focus and get things done, be productive, but here’s the thing…if you don’t stop the momentum of busyness, then joy has trouble fully seeping into consciousness.
Take the last four days my life, for example…I’ve been in my house, digging through my personal avalanche, working to make sense of life—quite literally—and with another week of doing the same it still won’t be as perfect as I want it to be. But with “Prioritize Joy,” as my intention, I’ll take a break from all of this, walk to the ocean’s edge, stick in my toe and maybe even pick up a seashell or two, take a few deep breaths. Life only happens once, but every moment is a chance to reinvent, to choose differently, to keep surprising ourselves.
I’m surprising myself right now, eating pretzels from an open bag I found next to a stapler, a statue of Michelangelo’s The David and an antique globe of the world. I tell you anything is possible this year, whether you started counting down in January or will begin in September, the year is raging and we cannot call it back. We can only join in the beautiful, resounding chaos and prioritize joy!
Our son is returning home from his two-year LDS mission in Indiana to Oman. Two years. 730 days since I’ve hugged this loveable guy, made him enchiladas and told him to pick up his room and don’t put empty cereal boxes back into the pantry. He was 18 when he left, fresh out of high school. He’s 20 now—lightyears older, filled with experience, stories to tell and wisdom beyond his youthful frame.
When I mention to friends about our son’s homecoming, the fact that we haven’t actually seen him in two years, they politely ask, What has he been doing? And that’s an interesting question, considering we’re living in Oman, because unbeknownst to most of the modern world, Oman intersects with Mormonism in a remarkable way, in fact, scholars are here now uncovering evidence that points to Oman as the launching point of one of the greatest books ever written, The Book of Mormon.
This book comes from an ancient record, originally written and abridged by historian and prophet Mormon who lived about 385 A.D. He wrote on gold plates, compiling the story of his people between the years 600 B.C. up until 430 A.D. The story begins in Jerusalem, but quickly winds its way here to Oman, to a town called Salalah, a 10-hour drive south of Muscat. With the permission of the Sultan, scientists and archeologists are digging to excavate the site where Mormon’s believe the prophet Lehi and his family journeyed to, from Jerusalem, prior to their sea voyage to America. Nephi, Lehi’s son, describes in the Book of Mormon how they built a ship and sailed to the “Promised Land.” Of course, in order to accomplish this feat, they would have needed resources…timber, food, and plants, a conundrum that perplexed skeptics and scientists for a long time, when they believed the Arabian Peninsula was all dry desert. But they didn’t know about Salalah.
“Bountiful,” was the name Nephi gave the place where they built their ship. Bountiful in Arabic means plentiful. Salalah meets the criteria for Nephi’s description, “And we did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey (1 Nephi 17). This area is unbelievably lush. It’s a virtual island of greenery along the Arabian Peninsula. Winds from the Indian Ocean carry moisture to the region and the heat of the desert pushes against that moisture to create a thick fog for part of the year, resulting in tropical monsoon forests. Located in the Dofar province, Salalah is the only place in the Middle East where timber and resources are available and where Nephi could have managed to gathered enough food to survive their long sea journey. Here is a photo taken from www.almosafr.com, showing Salalah during khareef season, monsoon season, July-September.
There are also remains of a Jewish temple foundation in Salalah, patterned after King Solomon’s temple. Archeologists have uncovered an altar, where they believe Nephi and his family offered sacrifices, as would have been customary with their practices of worship, prior to their departure.
Another link between the Arabian Peninsula and America is found in none other than Colorado. A huge square rock along the Purgatory River, nicknamed “Block Rock” has hieroglyphics matching those from the Dhofar region. Thirty-three characters from a distinctive alphabet used by the Sahari tribe are also written in Colorado. In the Oman Daily Observer, circulated in January of this year, Ali Ahmed Ali Mahash Ash-Shahri is quoted as saying, with regards to the hieroglyphics, “It is a clear indication that the language is very old and the people from our place must have travelled to those places and finally settled there.” Ali Ahmed, now 68 years old, has spent the greater part of his lifetime studying ancient scripts and has written two books, titled “Ancient Inscriptions and Drawings in Dhofar” and “Language of Aad.”
Micah and Jonah recently flew to Salalah to take part in a dig, helping archeologists remove rock as they continue to explore Karfot, the beach where they believe Nephi constructed his boat.
They had an amazing trip and somewhat exhausting time, hauling rocks and dirt from dig sites.
The Book of Mormon chronicles the journey of Nephi and his family up to the extinction of the Nephite civilization circa 435 A.D. It’s a story for the ages, one of courage, loss, love, bravery, hate, pride, valor and ultimately faith. Thanks to Mormon’s abridgement, (a Reader’s Digest version of 1,000 years), we have the history of these people. When Mormon completed abridging the record, he gave the plates to his son Moroni to bury in the hill Cumorah—modern day New York. From Jerusalem, to Salalah, to New York, comes one of the most fascinating journeys ever recorded in human history.
Left undiscovered until 1830, the plates remained hidden until Joseph Smith translated them into English. Now the Book of Mormon is translated into 110 languages, including Arabic. When Malachi returns home from his mission, we’ve got a trip planned to Salalah. He’s been teaching about Christ and The Book of Mormon for the past two years, even handing out copies when the Broadway Musical came to town… “Want to read the real story,” he’d ask? Two years of his life seems like a long time, but not nearly long enough, if you ask him. And if people stop to listen, he’ll tell them, The Book of Mormon is a story that resonates with our time, a story buried in the past, but meant for our future, for us…and my family happens to live where it all began.
Photos courtesy Jonah and Micah
Kalash the gardener rings the bell at our gate. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon. He’s come round to collect his money. I swing open the wooden door and invite him in. He gives me a quick sideways smile and begins to scan our yard. “The boss home?”
I’ve told him before, “the boss” works during the day, he’s not home till evening, but still Kalash tries. “No, he’s not home,” I remind.
“O-kay, o-kay,” he says, moving his head from side to side, in the way Indians do when they mean to say they understand.
During the week, a younger Indian man, wearing a blue and red striped polo, comes at irregular intervals to tend the yard. He rides his bike, rings at the gate and humbly enters when I open. He doesn’t say much, but repeats my “Good morning” greeting. He works steadily, the sweat dripping off his face watering the garden alongside the hose as he digs. The work is hard, especially in the heat and humidity. And before he’s finished, he’s careful to take a gigantic palm leaf and sweep the walkways, clearing the paths of fallen petals and debris. We have a broom, but he prefers working with a leaf and a dust pan–simple tools.
Kalash has finished scanning the yard and his earnest school boy gaze fixes on me, “You happy?”
I nod vigorously up and down. “Yes, I’m very happy.”
He bobbles his head from side to side with a graceful motion. “You happy,” he repeats. “O-kay, o-kay.”
We’ve discussed planting some vegetables in the previous weeks. I point to the empty dirt bed and ask Kalash what he intends to put in the ground. With an outstretched finger he points to the area in question and says, “Different, different, different, different.”
“Ahhh,” I nod with understanding, a puzzled finger on my chin. Different. I have no idea what he means. But given time, I know I’ll find out sooner or later, once everything starts to grow.
Which is to say that life is like that sometimes. You don’t always know what you’re going to get, till it takes root and pops up and then you deal with it, like it or not. Two months ago the yard was a patch of dirt, now I see possibilities everywhere. The coming season looks promising, and I don’t just mean the garden. I mean life in Oman, it’s beginning to look well… very different.
Omani National day is on November 18th and strangely I’m feeling a swell of pride for a country, who despite its warring neighbors, has managed to maintain peace in the region while benefitting from the diversity within its borders. A few weeks ago I was an apprehensive expat, unsure of how I fit in or if I fit in. Now I’m a bit mystified as to why I felt that way…how did I acquire so many fears and assumptions?
I sat in on a lecture today about Omani Heritage. I was fascinated to learn of the geographical influences that shaped (literally) the cultural diversity of today. The desert and mountains of the north separated Oman from their Arab neighbors, and with their borders open to the sea, a natural interaction developed between Africa and Asia, countries like Pakistan, India, Zanzibar and Tanzania. One of the oldest Hindu temples in the world, is in Oman.
Because this cultural diversity developed, laws were made to foster stability. The law forbids Omanis or Imams to identify a particular tribe or Muslim sect in a derogatory way. Here all Muslims are Omani. And the Omani people, unlike what I’d first imagined, are generous, helpful and kind. Just today, as I was driving in traffic, a man rolled down his window to tell me my engine hood was open. Another day, down at the beach one morning, I’d gone swimming and left my towel and sandals on the sand. When I emerged later, my things had been moved to higher ground, someone had noticed they’d get wet and kindly helped.
There is a sense here that we are all deserving of respect. Of course, there are exceptions, and it could very well be that some feel indifference toward me or even disdain, but I’m focusing on the ways I belong, searching for how I can best embrace this experience.
There are frustrations, to be sure. The other morning when I tried to exit my driveway, a car was parked blocking me. The Bangladesh passengers were waiting on their driver who had gone inside the neighboring Embassy. I waited, inconveniently, and pointed to the signs we have posted on our gate in English, Arabic and Bangladesh, NO PARKING. But still, when people see an advantage, some take it at the expense of another. Also frustrating are the mornings we find the beach littered with trash. This is especially true of Sunday morning, the Omani “Monday,” following their Friday and Saturday weekend break. Crew workers are dispatched to clean up the garbage, donning latex gloves and long sharp sticks to grab up the mess, but not before stray cats and hundreds of crows have their fill, nor before diapers and plastic bags make their way into the sea.
This past weekend I flew to Abu Dhabi to meet up with friends. It’s less than an hour’s flight. The expats living in the UAE gushed about Oman. They went on and on about how wonderful it is to camp on the beaches here, hike in the Wadis and climb in the mountains. Listening to them, I felt the way I often do when considering giving something away and a friend says, “Why would you ever get rid of that, it’s marvelous!” Indeed, Oman is marvelous, and after talking to them, I feel all the luckier for being here!
Consequently, upon my arrival back at the Omani airport, I greeted the people at the passport desk with a smile and cheery hello. They asked me if this was my first time to Oman and I found myself saying, “No it’s not. I love this place. I love coming here.” Enjoy your time, they said.
There are things I love and things I wish I could change, like anywhere, but I intend to enjoy my time, as it were, and see what takes root and what pops up. I’m sure it will be different.
We’re a month into our move and starting to explore, discover Omani culture and the vast desert landscape that, for now, still feels quite foreign. When friends asked if we’d like to visit Jebel Akhdar, we jumped at the chance, happy to have our friends, and tour guide John, to point the way.
To reach Al Jebel Akhdar, “The Green Mountain,” as it’s called in Arabic, you drive south west for a little over an hour. At the town of Birkat Al Mouz you take the exit (we missed it the first time, then drive to the base of the mountain and a police checkpoint. The law requires anyone entering the mountain road to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle and no more than 6 passengers. It’s for good reason, Jebel Akhdar is not to be trifled with. Roads are safely paved and there are guardrails, but the journey is steep and cars have been known to burn out their breaks on the descent to disastrous consequence.
Seeing our GMC and 6 passenger group, the guards waved us through and we began our ascent into the Al Hajar mountain range. Jebel Akhdar comprises the central region of this vast series of rocky peaks separating the coastal region of Northern Oman and the high desert plateau of the south. “Al,” means the, and “Hajar” is rock or stone in Arabic. An appropriate description for endless ridges that have been features of our planet for millions of years. The mountain formed when tectonic plates collided, the Arabian plate and the Iranian plate, and the earth rose up and in effect, took a bow and stayed there, the sedimentary rock hardening to a sand-colored moonscape.
Omani’s love to go to the mountains and spend an evening camping. The weather is 20 degrees cooler and the air feels much drier, a welcomed change from the humidity and 100 degree and higher temperatures of the coast. This region of Al Hajar is also famous for its pomegranates and as we neared mountain villages, sure enough men and boys sat on lawn chairs, cardboard boxes by their feet, proudly displaying their crop. We stopped to buy some, “How much?” we asked.
They weren’t cheap. Each pomegranate cost between 1-2 Rial, that’s 3-4 US dollars apiece. But trust me, they were worth it. I’d never tasted anything so unbelievably juicy and sweet. Absent of the bitter pith you get with typical varieties, the outside was as large as a grapefruit, the skin a pale red blush, and inside the fruit was bright and rosy. It tasted like eating miniature grapes. Seven-year-old Maggie described it best when she said, “It tastes like happiness.”
Afterward, we drove and parked in an area next to a mountainside village. As we began to hike I fell in love with these colorful villager’s doors.
Ancient history doesn’t feel so ancient in Jebel Achkdar. The old and the new mix. The stone steps, built into the mountains hundreds of years ago, are still used today. So are the farming techniques of planting and reaping the season’s bounty from lush terraced landscapes.
It was harvest season, so villagers were out plucking up pomegranates, young Omani men, balancing fruit in blue plastic crates on top of their heads as they navigated the stone stairways upward.
After our first long hike, Maggie needed a break (maybe I did too). So we let the adults and teenagers go ahead and we sat for a while near some village houses. Nearby was a stall, manned by a group of boys no older than twelve. They were selling glass bottles filled with colored liquids…tinctures and “medicines,” potions and concoctions to cure everything from tummy aches to baldness. They were also selling corn.
We asked to buy a cup and a boy with grey blue eyes gave us a capable nod before ladling a spoonful from a steaming hot pot into a silver bowl. He added spices, sprinkling in finely ground black pepper, red chili, and salt, then added a splash of lemon juice and oil. He stirred and stirred until satisfied, then spooned the contents into a plastic cup.We took our golden treasure back to the shade and sat to eat. Ohhhh, the taste was heavenly! Big sweet kernels with a bite of heat, tempered by tart lemon. For the second time that day, we felt we’d made a life changing discovery.
After devouring the corn Maggie’s energy returned, along with her sense of adventure. She wanted to race down the stairway and catch up with the group. On her way she stopped and said, “Mom take my photo.” The backdrop looked treacherous. “Taking your photo here,” she explained, “makes you look brave.”
I laughed. But you are already brave, I thought. No need for backdrops. And in that moment I saw the girl who’d moved Oman without complaint, leaving behind friends, family and a school she loved. Bravery might be in the landscape, but it was also in Maggie. And maybe in all of us for hiking on these stairways.
After a morning of hiking there’s nothing better than eating outdoors. We decided our best option for lunch was a local hotel so we piled into our vehicles in search of a good meal and clean bathrooms. Hotels are for more than just sleeping in Oman, they offer gym memberships, pools and clean bathrooms—a helpful tip to remember.
The hotel we found had a lovely courtyard overlooking the ruins where we’d just hiked.
We dined outdoors, eating sandwiches and drinking Pepsi. Like many places in Oman, they don’t sell Coke. Some Omani’s refuse to drink Coke…something to do with rumors (maybe started by Pepsi), that the Coke label when held in a mirror says something against Mohammad when read backwards. Of course there’s overwhelming evidence to refute this, including the fact the label was created in Atlanta in 1886 and the Spenserian script was simply popular at that time, but some rumors never die.
The Green Mountain offered us another view of Oman, this country of contrasts, and reminded me bravery is more than a backdrop, in truth it’s facing your mountains and making the climb. We did plenty of climbing. Jebel Akhdar, we’ll be back, for cooler temperatures and more pomegranates!
There are four main roads in Muscat, running more or less an east west direction, parallel to each other. Hugging the coastline is November 18th and to the south is Al Sultan Qaboose (pronounced Caboose), named after the revered Sultan. It zig zags from the Royal Police Stadium to the Airport and takes you most places you need to go. 23rd of July is a few degrees inland from there, a less assuming thoroughfare, running into the Muscat Expressway—the road I take to get to my kid’s school. With an American license I can drive, but in 60 days from arrival, I’ll need to register officially, do the paperwork and get a photo ID. I need to figure it all out, but right now I’m busy just driving. Lucky to be alive, I’d say, after going the wrong direction on a three lane freeway.
It’s easier than you’d think to make THAT mistake, especially if you’re used to turning left to go left and forget to turn right to go left. There are “slip” roads and “fly overs” and exits going one way then sharply banking the other. I liken driving in Oman to reading Arabic, it’s right to left when reading, and driving feels much the same way.
I was grateful to the cars honking behind me when I went the wrong direction, of course the arrows helped too, THREE TRAFFIC ARROWS POINTING DIRECTLY AT ME!!! The median was too high to Evel Knievel with my rental, so I swerved into the turn lane, waited for a couple of cars to pass, then peeled around James Bondesque style. I don’t know how I managed it, to be honest, that time of day is usually heavy with traffic, but thankfully I live to drive another day. Inshallah.
Yes I do have a GPS, but I only know how to program it to go home. On the upside, I can get as lost as I want and feel reassured of seeing my husband and kids again. Addresses are all but useless here, even ambulances don’t rely on them. Landmarks are more helpful for locating places. If you know the name of the mosque you live by, you can generally find your way from there. Taxi drivers don’t know addresses either. So you have to know where you want to go or fughetaboutit. Here’s the Grand Mosque. One of the largest and most stunning Mosques in all of Oman. This I can find.
I would be a lot less nervous about driving if there weren’t traffic cameras at each intersection and along all major roadways. Drive too fast and you’ll see a Flash Bam KABoom! (Really it’s just a flash). It means you got a ticket and if you try to leave the country they will detain you at the airport until the bill is paid. (That’s one way to collect revenue.) The other thing that slightly terrifies me is the possibility of running a red light. Not that I make a habit out of this, but if do you happen to zip through unawares you’ll pay a hefty fine and spend a couple of nights in jail. (Not on my, “Things To Do in Muscat” List).
Driving and getting lost is, however, on my “Least Favorite Things To Do,” list. I question my sanity each time I move to a new country and have to find my way around all over again!! Again? Why? WHY?!? Why do I do this? And then I go on a drive and get lost and see a camel. A CAMEL!! And I go, OK, getting lost is fun!! And I remember my favorite quote…A good day is a good day. A bad day is a good story. So it’s all good. It’s ALL good!!
It’s super great and getting better, cause I found a Facebook page called, “Where Can I Find In Muscat?” I asked the “Group” where I could get a good haircut, an essential first step when moving, and they responded to my plea. Gorgeous Hair. I found it driving there my first try! Nicky, the owner, trimmed my fringe (bangs to us Yankees), and gave me a new lease on life. She understood my fine, straight hair and more importantly, understood ME. For a few blissful moments I felt normal, something I haven’t felt much these past few weeks.
Most of the time I feel very aware of being different, the odd one out. I’m a white lady with short hair and jeans, an anomaly, a westerner, one of THEM. I feel looks of indifference. I’ve learned not to go around smiling my big ol’ American grin at people. Instead I’m a shy Mona Lisa, with a mysterious upturned lip. Gauging the crowd. It’s what you do instinctively.
I’ve been told by many long time expats, Oman is very safe. It is true. You can walk around at night. Even if you are alone, and a woman, you won’t have to worry. But feeling safe isn’t the same as feeling comfortable, or normal for that matter. And maybe getting lost on the map, with three arrows pointing in your direction, is a lot like feeling lost in life. Lost on the inside. It’s frightening and confusing when suddenly everything you know has changed. But here’s the thing…when you’re world changes, look for the camel. It’s there, you just have to keep searching, keep discovering, one mini life expedition at a time. I’ve been lost before (many, many, many times), and I’ve always found, getting lost is the first step to finding your way back home.
To every sojourner who journeys, the path is yours to make.
In the middle of my lawn sits an overturned flowerpot covering a 12-inch deep hole. Inside there’s a worn looking green valve that controls the water to my washing machine, a machine that sits in a casita (my laundry room), behind our house. The valve was shut off before we moved in. No a big deal, except for the small problem of the washer filling with rusty water coloring our white load (and my husband’s Brooks Brother’s Easy Care dress shirts), orange. Easy care, not so easy.
Life in Oman is one gigantic learning curve…. No drinking tap water. Weigh and label vegetables BEFORE taking them to check out, (or you can’t buy them). No smiling at men and making eye contact, they’ll think you’re interested, (explained my Aussie friend who’s logged 4 years in the region). Vanilla extract, NOT for sale. It contains alcohol and that’s strictly forbidden. But you can cheaply buy fresh vanilla pods. (Even better!) When traveling by cab, the fare must be negotiated before you take off. There are NO meters so taxi drivers set the price. If they’re smiling at you, you’re getting swindled. Cha-ching!
I’m making mistakes every day, figuring out how to patch together a life in a world that doesn’t feel like Disney’s “Small World” version. It feels big and fairly daunting, but a week and half into this adventure and I can report I’m also feeling a lot more at ease. Making a friend I can text for help or ask where to buy bacon (there are some “hidden pork rooms” in certain shops), has helped more than anything. Knowing other expats have adjusted to Oman and lived in the region 10, or sometimes more, years has made me think this is doable.
Right now I have on going lists, things that need done, like pre-registering at the hospital (otherwise they won’t treat you if you show up injured). I still need to get Internet (they are digging a trench and laying fiber optic cable to our house), registering my driver’s license and among other things, buying a car. This week when Cooper and I walked into a beautiful Toyota showroom (a popular car here), we couldn’t find a single person to help us. “Hello, hello?” I kept calling as we walked around the Prados. I laughed, because this would this NEVER happen in America!
So we walked next door to the Kia showroom and a man from Bombay greeted us and pointed out the safety features of a Sportage. Curtain airbags, back up cameras, a navigational system. During our Embassy briefing, we were told 80% of us would get into a fender bender. Umm, curtain airbags seem like a really good idea.
It’s going to take some time to do all the car stuff and everything else on my list. Eid Al Adha holiday is almost here. Eid Al Adha is one of two holy celebrations Muslims observe around the world. It’s to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to obey God and sacrifice his son Ishmael. (In the Christian world we believe Issac was the one being sacrificed). The holy days are set according to the cycles of the moon. The Imam selects the days and the government announces the public holiday. Until a few days ago, we had no idea that next week the kids would have ALL week off school, (Sunday to Thursday). Typically, Eid is three days, but this year it’s five. No complaints from my boys who are itching for beach time.
Which brings me to the best, most amazing (pinch-me-am-I-dreaming?) part of being in Oman, THE BEACH! It’s right out our front door. We can traipse bare foot to the sand and waltz straight into the Omani Gulf. No matter the blazing heat and temperatures, the water always feels perfect. The tide is gently mesmerizing, depositing glistening white shells, gifts from the sea, up and down the coast. At 6:30 in the evening, like clockwork, the sun descends down over the water. You can watch it as it moves, a big red glowing orb of molten heat. In it’s absence, the sky illuminates to a kind of ombre indigo blue, light to darkest at the top of the sky.
There are so many new sights and scenes and smells (they burn a lot of frankincense), it’s hard to absorb it all just yet. I’m still in a state of awe and wonder. The heat and humidity, they tell me, is getting better. Back in May it was 122 degrees, now it hovers around a more tolerable 88 with 70% humidity (and above).
My Aussie friend took me grocery shopping. Between 10-11 the call to prayer broadcast throughout the store. It was another one of those surreal moments I can’t seem to stop having. The extreme opposite of America where church and state have become so separated people go out of their way not to mention religion. Prayer has been removed from almost every institution in the states. Here you see prayer rooms everywhere, in public offices, airports, shopping malls. Green signs are posted along sidewalks in neighborhoods and near businesses where people can assemble for prayer, (although I haven’t seen anyone gathering).
For all the outward appearances of being a strict Muslim country, Oman actually feels pretty relaxed (compared to other countries in the region). Unlike other Muslim countries, Oman doesn’t seem to push the point. Prayer is on the airwaves but people are still going about their daily life, buying groceries, going to work, talking on their cellphones.
I was told Omani’s are very accepting of others because from the time a child starts school, they teach them to respect other Muslims and religions. It’s forbidden, if you’re Shiite and in a mosque, to point to someone who is Sunni or Ahmadiyya and say they are not welcomed. Muslims in Oman have the right to pray in every mosque. The Sultan wants peace in the region, not trouble.
Plus there are a lot of expats here, almost 50% of the people living in Oman are from somewhere else. People from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and lots of other countries. The UK, Canada, Australia and the US too. Oil and gas corporations draw a lot of expats to this region and so does the need for domestic help and construction workers. Everywhere you turn there are cranes lifting materials, and new building projects under way.
I feel somewhat of a project myself, starting from the foundation and working my way up. Everything I thought I knew has been deconstructed. My assumptions have been demolished to make room for, what I can only imagine. I don’t have all the blueprints. This is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-architecture of the heart. I only know to put one brick here and one brick there and trust this edifice of “life” is going to turn out. I’ll warn you, whatever challenge your facing, the learning curve can be lonely, and at times painful and often hard to wrap your brain around. But it’s never dull. Whatever you’re current project (read: challenge), keep building, enlist the help of others and when you don’t know what to do, just do something. Life requires momentum and going somewhere is better than nowhere, so keep moving with the curve, we’ll all get where we need to go…eventually.
As the news buzzes with controversy over “burkinis” on French beaches, I’m surrounded by burka clad women in shopping malls, grocery stores and the hotel where we’re staying. Living in European and US cities I’ve, of course, seen women wearing burkas and head scarves, but it’s another thing entirely to be in the minority, to be the only one NOT wearing the traditional religious symbols of Islamic dress.
Today as Maggie and I ventured to the mall attached to our hotel, we passed by a Dunkin Donuts, Gymboree and Children’s Place, as well as kiosks selling head scarves and stores displaying black burkas on mannequins. I watched Maggie, gauging her reaction, and to my surprise, she seemed unfazed by the newness of it all. I thought maybe I’d need to tell her not to stare, but I didn’t; somehow she knew this was our new “normal.” I suspect it helped that we found a Baskin Robins and got scoops of Rainbow Sherbet. And we did go into several toy stores, (for “birthday” market research). But admittedly, I was the one who felt strange and out of place to see so many women covered up, maybe as strange as it is for them to see me uncovered.
I’m still formulating first impressions and being careful to refrain from making snap judgements or assumptions, but it’s difficult to remember MY way is not the only way, or the best way. Even as I’m immersed in Omani life, it’s hard to grasp THIS is how things are done.
Men are everywhere and comfortably visible. They run everything at the hotel–the front desk, housekeeping, the café. It is a man who brings me extra toilet paper or fresh towels when I call. And the hotel has a separate WOMEN ONLY workout gym and pool. It’s fabulous, but admittedly, strange to see ONLY women.
Perhaps the most striking contrast for me has been our day at the beach. Our Embassy sponsors (and “insta-friends”), were kind enough to take us. I knew a strong dose of sunshine and a dip in the Omani gulf would be good for our jet lag. We packed our sunscreen, snacks and towels. Maggie and I wore our modest tankinis under cover-ups, the boys had on their usual swim trunks, t-shirts and flip-flops just like any other beach day, but when we arrived I could see it wasn’t going to be just like any other beach day.
Yes, the waters were lovely. The sun was enough to coax you into the sea without being unbearable. It wasn’t crowded but again…men everywhere. Men wearing shorts without shirts, wraparound skirts, wet sarongs tied at their waist (very visible I tell you!), swimming, gathering, talking easily with friends. But where were the women? When I scanned the beach more carefully, I did see a few, but no one was wearing a swimsuit and certainly nothing in the color fuchsia pink like mine! They were dressed in muted colors, wearing headscarves and dresses or skirts that flowed past ankles onto the sand.
I was so grateful to meet our new friend’s wife and their three small children playing in the water. She was wearing a swimsuit, but with a t-shirt over top. (I felt like the gal in the office who “didn’t get the memo.”) But amongst friends, I was fine. Still, if I’m being honest, I was self-conscience in my swimsuit. Not in an, “Oh no, I have cellulite,” kind of way, (I know that feeling), but like one of those dreams where you arrive somewhere and you’re still in your underwear. (You’ve had that one, right?)
Despite the shallow depth of the water, I bent my knees till my body was covered and remained that way for the greater part of an hour. We had fun and the sun felt amaaaaazing. But when it was time to get out, there was my self-consciousness again, me in my bright fuchsia pink swimsuit. Lovely. It only occurred to me just now, maybe this is how women in France feel wearing burkinis. Hmmm…
While quickly wrapping my towel securely around me, I noticed a young girl walking into the water, maybe 10 or 11 years old, wearing a pretty pink tunic, (something I’d buy for Maggie), only hers was paired with matching leggings and a swim cap. Literally a swim “suit.” My American friend told me then, “I’m considering buying yoga pants to wear to the beach.” I told her I thought it was a good idea.
We moved onto the grass and showered sand off of our legs. The call to prayer sounded in the distance. Chanting. The calls happen 5 times a day, the first one starting at 4 am. I’m told it has an added line, “Prayer is better than sleep.”
At that moment, all I could think about was sleep. My body was heavy with jet lag when my son leaned over and asked, “What are we going to eat for dinner?” Luckily our new American friend, who introduced us to another new American friend, (that’s how it works in the expat world), said, “How ‘bout I drive you to Papa John’s for take-out.”
Talk about an answer to prayer! He picked us up two large pizzas and a round of diet Coke’s and drove us back to our hotel. We showered and sat down to a hot meal and Netflix. I know this place isn’t “home” yet, not even close, but I’m sensing the possibilities. I’m also sensing there’s a lot more I need to learn and I’m willing to believe first impressions don’t give the whole story. This is only just the beginning, but at least we got Papa John’s.
We’re an hour from Dubai, the flight information displays on the small seat back monitor with live action digital simulation. I’m seated with my four kids, taking up half of the last row of the airplane; Cooper is still in Washington. In real time I watch as we pass over Tehran. The display is then interrupted with an image of a Breitling watch, “the official onboard time keeper.” (It’s Swiss Air, after all.)I have no sense of time. It’s 7:30 pm in Iran, 8:30 am in Los Angeles. Whatever. I’m eating ice cream. Movenpick. It’s cold and creamy and a nice diversion from my headache.
The closing scenes before we left were unduly stressful. It involved a last minute pedicure for Maggie and myself at the nail salon next to our hotel. Then a bad decision on my part, made while under the influence of a Vietnamese lady rubbing knots out of my calves. “Would I also like a hand massage and manicure?” Sure!
It was oh so good while it lasted. But afterwards we had to rush to get our Subway sandwiches, (which we had no time to eat until we were safely through security). And we had to gather our suitcases from two hotel rooms and drag all 8 of them, along with carry-on’s to the Marriott hotel shuttle. My newly glistening coral nail enamel now looks like melted wax crayons.
I pick at the bits of enamel that remain as we land in Dubai. 99% of the passengers disembark, leaving us, and couple of US college students to watch as cleaning crews gather up trash and wipe down seat handles. The plane is refueling. We wait. And wait. It’s another 40 minutes to Muscat, tacked onto our 7-1/2 hour journey to Zurich, 4 hour layover in Switzerland, and 7 hour flight to Dubai. My knees are achy, my ankles slightly swollen. My air cooling foam Sketchers from TJMaxx–worth every penny.
Maggie has watched all the good kid shows, boredom is setting in. Thankfully, theonboard flight monitor recalibrates. People are boarding, (all three of them). It’s nearing 10 pm and outside temperatures are 38 degrees Celsius (100 F). We have 350 kilometers (217 miles) left to go.
It will be time to sleep when we get there and I’m hoping my body will cooperate. I’m trumped up on adrenaline and Swiss chocolate. It’s been non-stop momentum since the movers arrived last week and we said our goodbyes to St. George. I’m still processing.
We begin to move down the runway and Maggie turns to me and says, “When the seat belt sign goes off you’re taking me to the lavatory.” Okay, seven year old. Since when did we say lavatory? Since when did a seven year old live in three countries and four states? Since when did this become our life?
I gaze at the monitor, our airplane is passing over Al Buraymi and Suhar and it occurs to me I have no idea where I’m going. I mean I know I’m going to Muscat, yes. But the culture, the people, the geography, the extreme temperatures, the geo-political climate. This is somewhere new and completely foreign.
I think back to the woman who sat diagonally in front of us who got off the plane in Dubai. She was in her mid-60’s, wearing a head scarf, her body turned and angled so she could see us, Maggie and I, and stare at us for long portions of the flight. She wasn’t the least bit concerned that I caught or held her gaze. We smiled at each other many times. And it was as if I could see my questions reflected in her expression-who are you and where are you going? Up until this somewhat odd interaction, I’d thought of moving to Oman as MY experience, my journey. But my one sided look at how this was going to affect ME and was misguided. It is never just about YOU or ME. It is our shared interaction with one other that informs our experience. My presence with my daughter, speaking English, somehow had meaning for this woman. And I realized after, with some seriousness and humility, that what I do and say and how I act will inform the opinions of others, not just about ME, but about the United States, about “the west.” We will be a reference point for “westerners,” and glances meaningful and in passing will make impressions.
I’m not sure what I’ll discover in Oman, but I know whenever we step into the unknown, we also enter new parts of ourselves. Be that a personal journey, a change in environment, a move, life will bring us out the better for it. As the Taoist say, “The journey is the reward.”
Everything depends on stickers. Okay, not EVERYTHING. But every THING in my house, my stuff, the contents of my little world. We’re about to move to Muscat, Oman and all of our household goods will get a sticker to designate where it will be sent…like orange means it will ship via air freight, blue for boat freight, green for things going into long-term storage. Then it will all be shoved into a truck like a Tetris game, sent to D.C. and ANOTHER moving crew will resort, repackage, and ship things where they’re supposed to go. Does this sound like a good idea to you?
I didn’t think so either.
The moving coordinator told me all this over a bad cellphone connection. “But what if a sticker falls off,” I asked, “how will they know in D.C. where it goes?”
The phone crackled and there was a long pause. “Uhhh, I guess they’ll have to rely on whatever the movers wrote on the inventory sheets.”
WHATEVER, the movers wrote, ah? Heaven help us! Our gigantic color by box number project is days away. I’m just hoping the crew outta Vegas gets their rest before cruising to St. George for three days of sticker fun. The coordinator assured me she explained the sticker system to the crew manager and they know what they’re going to do. Unless it was a better phone connection, I have my doubts.
But one way or another, this move is happening. I’m showing the house to potential buyers or renters. This week a realtor walking through asked where we were moving. I said Oman (and gave a mini geography lesson). He wanted to know if we were shipping our things or putting them in storage. I didn’t get into the whole sticker business, but let him know our things would be coming with us as he eyed our bookcase. “Isn’t that expensive to ship?” he asked, “Why don’t you sell everything and just buy new stuff?”
“Because,” I said, “we move frequently and that could be difficult to sell off things every couple years and buy new things.” I mentioned the government covered the cost of the move, to which he guffawed and said, “You mean OUR tax payer dollars.”
He was showing my house, about to enter my bedroom, so I resisted going all Jackie Chan on him, but bite my tongue I did. Tax payer dollars that I pay too, in addition to my husband living for a year at a time in places you wouldn’t send your least favorite pet to, I wanted to say. And by the way, he’s protecting YOUR freedoms, so you can walk around without the fear of getting blown up. Okay, I know, I get it, there IS waste in government, but when you start talk tax dollars and lump me in the equation, I’m going to bristle. Unless, of course, you’re showing my house, and then I’m going to be really polite.
I’m over it. (Mostly). I’ve got too many other things to worry about…selling our car, canceling the cable (note to self: next time get DISH), change our address, buy ANOTHER suitcase (how do these things keep losing wheels!?) and find a good book to read on the plane. And I’ll do all that free of tax payers dollars! No really, I AM over it.
I got an email today from the Embassy in Muscat regarding our new address. Included in the welcoming message was a thoughtful sentiment to, “Let us know if you need help with anything.” That touched me to know kindness is waiting on the other side of the world. It was nice to read, to know that people care and there are other expats living there who know where to buy sour cream, shop for shoes and what hair products hold up in 118-degree heat and 90% humidity.
My heart has been pumping just a little harder, knowing this move is coming, knowing that I’ll be seeing Cooper again soon, that we’ll be a family under one roof, even if that roof is thousands of miles from here. Regardless if stickers get put on wrong boxes or the Vegas crew botches the inventory, or if more realtors suggest inane things when they haven’t got a clue…it’s all going to work out in the end, because we’re together, because kindness beats unkindness, because family is what really matters—now how about we use some tax payer dollars and make that into a sticker!