Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Word on Omani Time

Fun fact, after searching for and failing to find any pictures pertaining to time, I just went downstairs and took a picture of our dining room clock, which gives you a sense of how long it took me write this post.
One thing that varies drastically among cultures is the concept of time. "Meet me at noon" means something different in New York City than in Berlin, Bangkok, or Barcelona. In Oman it means, why the heck would we meet at noon?? I'll be staying inside where there's A/C thank-you-very-much. 

Back home, I'm not exactly known as the most punctual person, to put it mildly. But I have nothing on the Omanis, where procrastination is basically a norm. Even public holidays (think the equivalent holidays of Labor or President's day) aren't officially announced until days before they happen. Until a few days ago, I had no idea whether or not I would have today off of school, even though everyone knew that a holiday was supposed to happen sometime around now. The Muscat Festival, a big month-long Columbia-Festival-of-the-Arts-esque shindig hypothetically begins the end of this month, but apart from a few sponsor signs, there has yet to be any kind of schedule published. 

And, it works. Sure, it's difficult to plan ahead, but then you realize, the problem isn't that it's difficult, it's that you're trying too hard to plan ahead. In Oman, I've learned that I'll save myself a lot of strain and frustration by just doing as the Omanis do, being spontaneous and going with the flow. And by assuming that any plans that are made will commence a good 1-2 hours after the agreed-upon time. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Adventures in Desert Camping

Adventures where exactly, I'm still a little fuzzy on. It was the desert, and there were mountains. In Oman, I'm pretty sure. 
All pictures of any quality are courtesy of Outward Bound Oman 
Words like "Wahiba Sands" "Wadi Abyad" and "Desert" have been thrown around, and I was told that "Where exactly are we hiking?" was a "Great question, I'll get back to that," but no one ever really got back to it.

From what I've pieced together, we were around Wadi Abyad, or the Abyad Desert. Abyad means white in Arabic, but everything was distinctly tan-colored, so, more mysteries there I guess.  
I looked it up in a guide book when I got home, and  think we were here-ish
We spent two nights backpacking, a group of fourteen including the YES kids, Omani YES alums, and students from the Access program (another State Dept program that sponsors ESL classes all over Oman). We went with Outward Bound Oman, an organization that does hiking trips and wilderness learning-y events for schools, corporations and the like. So there were lots of trust exercises. 

Oman has so much crazy-awesome wilderness, the chance to get out and explore it was wonderful. Hiking up and down dunes was a new and challenging experience, as the ground basically swallows your foot every time you take a step. But our dunes were pretty beginner-sized and quite a bit of fun to slide down if you didn't mind getting sand in your everywhere. 
Stopping at the top of a dune to shake off the sand
The second day we stopped at the Wadi, which was possibly the most beautiful sight ever after kilometers of sweaty hiking. 

We also got pretty up close and personal with some camels that belonged to Bedouins who live in the area. 
Just chillin with the camel, nbd
I enjoyed most was getting to know the alumni and Access kids. Many of them were from outside Muscat and it's always interesting to hear about Oman from different perspectives. I learned some new Arabic words  (Claire, what's the Omani word for goa--HOSH it's hosh, I know this one!) and learned a bit more about life outside Muscat. I think what this trip and others have really driven home for me is how much there is about Oman I still don't know. After 5 months, I may feel like I've gotten my little Muscati bubble figured out, but I'm dying to experience life in the dakhlia (lit. the interior) of which I have no real firsthand knowledge. Inshallah, we'll see if I can convince anyone to send me there :) 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I have become a Tea Person

They say that studying abroad will change you, but I never expected to have my fundamental beliefs so rocked to the core. At the beginning of the exchange, they had us sign a contract promising that we would not make any "life changing decisions" (seriously, I can show you the paper) but I'm afraid I have broken that covenant, both with Amideast and myself.

It's partly due to the sore throat I've been nursing the past couple days, partly to the fact that my host family does wonderful things like growing lemon grass in the side garden and boiling fresh ginger in a real teapot, and partly to the fact that coffee made in a french press is just not the same. 
As you can see, we have drunk all the lemongrass,  and this is all that remains. Or this is some other dying plant in the garden, I'm not very good at identifying these sort of things.
Today I did a visual survey of the various tea paraphernalia around the house, to see if I was being subconsciously brainwashed. 

The evidence speaks for itself, my friends. And the evidence gives a resounding YES. 

I apologize to my family, to my friends, to my community, to anyone who ever thought me a person of principle. I ask you to please accept the person I have become, as difficult as it may be to understand, this is what living in Oman has done to me. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Family "Farm"

One of the things I like most about Oman is how connected extended families are, family is always visiting, or  being visited, and many people count their "cousins" as close friends (Omani cousins are pretty loosely defined, there's not really any distinction made between the child of your parent's sibling and a 4th cousin-twice-removed, regardless of the convoluted line of relation, everyone is either and Aunt, Uncle, or cousin.)

Every Friday (the Omani equivalent of Sunday) my family has dinner with our Aunt and cousin, and occasionally we go over to the family "farm." Most families have a communal "farm" or misraah, where they get together for family reunions, holidays, and parties. For the Bahlanis, the misraah hosts a mini family reunion on Fridays, and different families drop in and out throughout the day. It's technically owned by my host Dad's older brother, but the whole family pitches in to keep it up. It might seem confusing to American sensibilities to have an entire house just for family gatherings, but in Oman, they happen so often it's just practical. 

Okay, so the term "farm" is somewhat misleading, while they do have a vegetable garden and some chickens,  it's more "house with lots of land" than "farm."

The farm also features this epic-ly massive tree, of which I've yet to take a satisfactorily good picture. It's beautiful. 
The green spaces are always filled with kids running around playing football and the house is usually atwitter with laughs from aunts and cousins, poking fun at one another like only family can. It's a good time, even though I only can understand a small portion of what's going on, as it's usually happening in Swahili or Arabic. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Being an American

This picture is as American as it gets 
Living in the Middle East as an American is kind of like being from a notorious mob family. Sure, you're not in with the bootleggers and whatnot, and you know lots of family members who aren't, but eventually, your baggage is going to come up in conversation. Because everyone knows about that cousin of yours with a penchant for for assassinating world leaders, or crazy Uncle George, who killed a bunch of people and who's kind of the reason everyone hates your family in the first place. Sometimes they're embarrassing, a lot of the time they make terrible decisions, but, they're family, so you end up apologizing for them and feeling inexplicably defensive when someone says something negative about them, even when it's true.

It's a weird phenomenon that some of us exchange students have noticed, that we've become strangely more patriotic since coming to Oman. It's not like we were anarchists before (I'm pretty sure...) but I think personally that there's just a level of cynicism that comes with being a left-leaning politically-and-globally-aware young person. It's almost a form of homesickness, or the old adage "absence makes the heart grow fonder," that we remember the good things about the States now that we've been removed from it.  

I've never been (am certainly still am not) someone who buys into the whole "America--best country in the world" idea. That sort of thinking has no place in an increasingly interdependent global society, and the US has a long way to come in order to realize that. BUT, what living abroad has made me realize is that every country has issues. Some more than others, and I'm not saying that living in Oman has made America look good by comparison, not by a long shot. But problems in America are not uniquely American problems. 

Yes, in the US there is rampant ignorance and hypocrisy, yes money has our political system in a stranglehold, but every country has these issues to some extent or another, and if I have a problem with that I should be doing something to change it. So while it might be easier to pretend I'm Canadian, I'd rather make the effort to change perceptions about Americans abroad and to combat ignorance within the US--that's what the YES program is all about. I'm not blindly proud of my country, but I am committed to it; I believe that I can be a part of the change to make America a country of which many more people can be proud. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013


As I mentioned in my last blog, my host family took a vacation over the winter break to that little part of Oman at the very North of our edge of the Arabian peninsula, the part that is actually separated from mainland Oman by the UAE. But the region was far too fascinating to be serviced by two photos and a few sentences, so here's some extra musings. 
The first thing you notice in Musandam are the mountains. By the sea, they look like this tired old men, worn smooth and grey by time, who have all slouched sideways for a short nap as they gaze out on the aquamarine waters. The slanting striations which uniformly cover the towering rock for miles really make you realize how the whole mountain range is all one piece, slowly pushing against other tectonic plates for eons, one which somebody decided one day to tilt 30 degrees instead of letting it standing up straight. 

Then there are the mountains more in the interior, the ones which are partially responsible for making it difficult to travel from Dibba to Khasab. While maybe not the prettiest mountains, they're certainly impressive; up close, they're soaring piles of grey-tan ruble, barren of vegetation other than low-lying shrubs and trees. 
No one was home, but someone definitely still lives here for at least part of the year
What's really amazing are the houses and villages dotting the peaks, even in this stark landscape, people have been living in the mountains for centuries, mainly goat herding but every now and then you'll see some terrace farming. Of course, not everyone decides to keep living in the mountains for generations. As we jostled through the the mountains on a one-lane dirt road, we found the remains of a stone housing compound, one which probably housing a mid-sized extended family.

I have no clue how old these foundations were, my host Dad thought they might have been abandoned in the 70s-a decade of much change in Oman-but no one can say for sure. One has to wonder though, what causes a whole community to abandon their home? What's the tipping point? Greater opportunity at the foot of the mountain? In the Emirates? Where did they go? All they leave us to ponder are a few knee-high walls of stacked stone where buildings once stood and a small burial plot. 

It's actually really strange to find any sort of inscription on a gravestone in  Oman, we're not sure why this one had a picture when the rest were blank.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Some Resolutions

So the mounting internal guilt and the subtle-becoming-less-subtle hints from friends and family have finally become to much and I'm forcing myself to sit down and finish a blog post. As 2012 has ended, I've resolved to make 2013 a year of semi-regular blog posting. To make up for my absence without being too long-winded, I'll just give you the hi-lights:

In October, my family celebrated Eid over three days, spending the holiday visiting extended family, eating delicious food and receiving Eidea (money that children [and somewhat-older children like myself and host sister] get when they go around begging to all their aunties and uncles)
New pakistani-style clothes for Eid and henna
Then we had Halloween, which we did up American-style, with a party and pumpkins and scouring what felt like every store in Muscat for decorations.
Mariam's first pumpkin
We're not quite sure what this mask was going for, pumpkin? Bunny? Ax murder? 
I got to participate in my first US election; although I sent in my absentee ballot months ahead with little fanfare, the swanky embassy breakfast to watch the election results was just as exciting.
 November 18th was Omani National Day so everyone dressed up in traditional Omani clothes; the kids in my grade rented a tent and gargantuan amounts of food. We spent the day dancing to Khaliji music, eating rice with our hands, and fighting over who got to play the next song over the speaker system. 
Can you spot the Americans
 I also went exploring in Ruwi one day when I went to Mass with Victoria. It was cool to see the diversity of Muscat in the mostly Filipino and Indian church congregation, as well as a less glamorous, more bustling side of the city.
Also there was delicious Filippino Siopao for breakfast
We had thanksgiving at the US Ambassador's house, where all our host families came and had the opportunity to try some American staples turkey and pumpkin pie. I also came to the sad realization that, objectively, pumpkin pie looks and sounds disgusting. 
My host sister Mariam celebrated her birthday, and was very resistant to having her photo taken
Smaller events include our field trip to Pavo Real, to have some familiar Mexican-food-by-way-of-Texas. We went on a wild west wednesday, so all the Indian waiters were decked out in ten-gallon hats and bolo ties---quite the international experience. We made Ashley wear the cowboy hat in the picture because she's from Texas and it just felt right. 
Also, it rained! A lot! During School! 
The YES crew went up to Jebel Shams for the weekend, where it was actually cold enough to wear jackets. The beautiful mountains and chilly wind was completely breath-taking.
The second day, we stopped by the Niswa souq, which sells everything from camels to pottery. 
On Christmas morning, my family opened presents around the tree, had a full breakfast, and packed up for a long road trip.
We drove up north to Musandam, on the very tip of Oman, just along the strait of Hormuz.It was definitely a strange Christmas for me, with temperatures in the 70s, the ocean outside the door, and German tourists everywhere. I think the funniest part about staying at the resort was that, for the first time in a while, I actually blended in with my surroundings.
We drove all over Musandam, going through the mountains, along the coast, and crossing the UAE border an ungodly number of times. 
2012 has been a year of adventures; it's been filled with the stuff of my wildest dreams, with amazing travels and opportunities. 2013 is looking to be just as exciting, and, walla, hopefully I'll do a better job of documenting it.