Our Differences Are Our Strengths
On mornings when the shoreline retreats to the horizon, and a breeze blows, so you almost need a sweater, people of all cultures gather to the beach. Most mornings, but especially on these mornings, I walk. My usual attire: black leggings, pink t-shirt, neon yellow fanny pack and orange ball cap—I know, I’m not proud.
I move briskly. My arms and legs swinging, as I take the brick pathway, parallel to the sea. I listen to books on tape or TED talks or Imagine Dragons, but sometimes I take off my headphones and tune into the waves—the actual waves. I listen to birds talk. I “people watch,” (the way my mother-in-law likes to at airports).
You don’t need to be an expert in geography, or to have lived in Oman very long, to figure out each culture has a way of interacting with the landscape all its own. You only need to observe.
Where I begin my walk, there are Bangladesh men gathered, always, waiting for appointments at their nearby Embassy. They come for visas, passports and documents so they can work in Oman. They sit on the grass under the palm trees alone, or with a friend, or stand by the shore taking selfies. They are waiting for something or someone. They gaze at me curiously.
Overhead, I hear a mechanical sound and look up. A Flamingo colored crane swings gracefully— a metal ballerina— gliding through the sky. The men and cranes perform night and day, a non-stop encore we can hear from our bedroom window. Maddening at times, but rather magnificent to behold.
I resume my pace, passing palm trees. My body’s still waking up and wishing I’d rest in the shade. I keep going.
I see more Bangladesh men, these in blue jumpsuits. They are construction workers, eating their breakfast after a night’s shift. They’re the lucky ones. The ones with jobs and money to send home and someone to call on their cellphone while they eat rice and chicken from stainless steel pails.
Further on, there are more Bangladesh mean wearing green jumpsuits. They pick up trash on the beach, water the flowers, sweep the pathways with dried palm fronds and mow the precious tracts of grass, prized by picnickers and soccer players alike. They look at my workout attire, pumping my arms, and offer mystified expressions.
Under the palms there are the Omani women, arranged in tight circles, seated cross-legged on woven mats, their shoulders touching. They come to the shore to eat together, engaging in the age-old practice of “visiting.” They sit. They pour one another coffee from carafes prepared earlier that day. Their expressions are enough to tell you, they are enjoying themselves, talking as only women can. Their circle, leaving no space, seems to signal their bond and that the quiet revelry is only for them.
There are groups of Indian families too. You hear them, before you see them. Their laughter is the kind made at the telling of hilarious jokes, only it doesn’t let up. Parents, siblings, children, aunties, all together. There’s no uniform assembly, they sit or stand casually, passing food and laughter all around.
Along my way, I see Omani men in white robes, Indian men wearing kurtas—long tunics—with loose fitting pants. Some walk with hands clasped behind their backs, others look like they have someplace to be. There are dog walkers and joggers and those who, like me, just want to exercise without inflicting too much pain.
Closer to the Hyatt, the midway point on the path, I notice more Europeans. Tourists (with a capital T). They’re easy to spot. Generally speaking, they show more skin. Wearing swim attire and bikinis, Speedos and shorts, many of them are retired and old. They seem neither to care or know they’re in the Middle East, they just need sun and need it desperately.
There is also a cafe. The tables face the sea and are occupied by people sipping coffee. To the rear of the building, where the path winds, a repulsive odor forces me to hold my breath. It is the stench of freon exhaust powering ancient air conditioners, mixed with carbon monoxide, burning roses and plastic, Shisha pipe smoke, sandalwood and sweat, (that’s my best description). I pull my collar over my nose and take shallow breaths, trying not to gag. After a few more steps I test the air with a sniff and I think I might faint. I bury my nose again, inside my shirt and start to jog, whatever it takes to escape. When I know I’m good and clear, I inhale again, deeply. This is the absolute worst part of my walk, though strangely, no one else seems to notice or think so.
Which gets me thinking, how differently I fit into the landscape, an American, picky about smells, rarely taking time to sit…texting more than talking. I have a schedule, that’s why I’m getting my exercise done early, that’s why I don’t haul mats and food to the beach and invite all my friends for breakfast, because I’m busy and that seems like a lot of work for a meal. I am the product of my Western upbringing. I do things. Staying busy makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. Which isn’t true, of course, and every once in a while, it’s good to see people who really know how to relax.
I reach the British Embassy and turn around. I slow my pace, just a little, take a moment to observe the sea, the white crested waves that come one after another, after another. I try not to think of what needs done that day, but stay in that moment. It’s difficult. It’s like trying to read while the TV is blaring. It’s easier to just to close the book and watch TV. But I resist those thoughts and really focus on the waves, the sound, the feel of the air. As I do, two policemen on white steeds saunter past, chatting easily with each other, nothing to do but patrol the least crime ridden sector of the world. Ahhh…
I continue home, passing all the same groups and places, all the same smells. Only I spot “The Biker,” (that’s what I call him). I move to the side to avoid him veering around me. He’s a regular on the path, a man in his late 60’s with a shock of white curly hair that blows recklessly in the wind. He’s European or Australian or perhaps American, and he’s passed me a hundred times, but never looks my way.
I wonder to myself, am I ever like that biker? Do I look away? Do I roll on past and hope people will adjust to my way of doing things?
The greatest part of living abroad is the opportunity to see others, because in actuality, you learn about yourself. In the words of Rudolf Steiner, “To truly know the world, look deep within your own being. To truly know yourself, take a real interest in the world.” It’s true. And just as true are the words of Maya Angelou, “In diversity there is strength.”
I arrive back home refreshed, endorphins kicking in, the kind of happy to be alive feeling you get after a good workout. But it’s more than that, I’m grateful for Oman, for the landscape that is teaching me, to make room, to share, to see our differences as they really are—our strengths.