Visiting the Eastern Edge of Arabia

Last month between classes, I used my break with my Swiss friend Sonja to take a trip across Oman to the eastern island of Masira. A lot of times when I look at a map I see some obscure, remote location and think, “Wow, it would be cool to go there.” For this trip, I finally did that, and for that reason it was one of the coolest trips I’ve been on!

We made our trip with a rented car from the university and started on Saturday, March 12, driving about 5 hours until we reached the eastern edge of the Sharqiya region to take a 1.5 hour ferry to Masira. Throughout the whole trip we split up our driving about 50/50 between the two of us. Our trip wasn’t so easy though because we ran into a heavily flooded wadi blocking the road through the desert. We were quite afraid to cross because we could see both a half-submerged bus and a half-submerged truck on opposing ends of the wadi. There were also a group of people trying to pull the submerged truck out of the water with rope, which they eventually managed to do. We decided to wait until that was finished and until we saw a car of the same size as ours cross safely before we would try, and we did as well. It probably would have been safer to turn around, but at the very beginning of our trip with our hotel reservations already arranged, that wasn’t an option! We made it through with no issue, though, but it did cost us an hour or two of extra time waiting. Luckily we had supplies to have a little picnic while we were sitting around. We missed the ferry we had originally planned to take, but there was another one that left around 5:00.

By the time that we made it to the island, it was getting dark, and we had a hard time finding where we planned to stay, a place simply called “Beach Camp” (with no Arabic name). We drove south until we saw a sign on the road pointing us towards the camp. It turns out that it really was right on the beach, meaning we had to drive our little Acura car through a sand-road late at night (not without almost driving into the water)! We found it eventually, had dinner, and went to bed. We stayed there for the following three nights.

Staying at the Beach Camp, especially for the first two nights, was great! We got the “deluxe” room for the first half of our trip, complete with its own air conditioning unit and bathroom. After that, we stayed in the room with just two simple beds and some shelves with separate bathrooms in other little huts outside, which was much more of a “beach camp” experience. We stayed there at the “off” season, so it was really just run by one guy – an Indian man from Kerala named Sadek who spoke decent English and Arabic. The four days sort of blended together, so I’ll recount the most interesting experiences in that span of time.

We began each day by having breakfast at the camp – Sadek made very good pancakes! We spent a lot of time driving around the island and visiting the various beaches – we were always the only people on all of them! The beaches were pristine, and the water was clear and blue. I’d never been to a beach like that in my life – I’m used to Litchfield, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston, which are nice, but the water is always cloudy and the beaches are always crowded. I think I was spoiled by my experience there – no other sounds than the crashing of the waves, nothing else to see but the sand and the sea.

The Island was very small – it only takes about 30 minutes to drive from one end to the other! It’s geography was interesting – there were mountains in the middle, but most of the rest of it was desert. Surprisingly, it actually wasn’t much different from the rest of northern Oman.

We spent one afternoon visiting the only sizable village on the Island – Ra’as al Hilf. Honestly it wasn’t really much different than the rest of Oman, but I did have some good fish at a little cafe on the street. As I was waiting for my food, I greeted an older gentleman in Arabic. After learning that I speak Arabic, he insisted that I go visit him in his house for coffee and dates right then, but I told him I was still waiting to eat. He said he would return after visiting the supermarket, but unfortunately he didn’t return after an hour so we had to leave. It was a nice exchange, though! That evening we had a nice dinner at the Masira Island Resort – I had a beer with some good Indian food.

Through the beach camp I also made a new Omani friend – a fisherman named Hilal (which means “crescent” in Arabic, an awesome name in my opinion). He came by the camp the first night we were there, and was very interested in talking to me about my opinions of life in Oman, what I know about Islam, what I do in the United States, and so on. I spoke with him the following few nights. It was a little hard for me to understand him because he has a fairly different dialect of Arabic than what I’m used to, and he prefers not to speak Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic). One of the days we were there, he took us out on his boat to go fishing! I only caught one little fish, and Sonja did the same, but he caught several. He even caught a barracuda and a cuttlefish. We ate the fish that we caught for dinner. (Fish is an exception to my vegetarianism when it’s hard for me to find any other option here).

After four nights on Masira Island, we took the ferry back to mainland Oman for what we had planned as the second half of our trip, visiting Musandam, an Omani exclave in the north. However, the ferry there was canceled due to the storm, and the amount of border crossings we would have to make made it impossible to go there by car. Instead we decided to stay an extra night in Muscat at a nice hotel called the Ramee grand. We visited the Matrah souq in Muscat, which I visited last summer, so I didn’t take any pictures. We went to some nice restaurants, and went to more beaches. I went to a Mexican restaurant in Muscat because I always miss Mexican food while I’m here. Honestly, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped, but it was still pretty good.

I realized after that trip that it was my first long vacation on my own as an adult, and it was a lot of fun! It was cool to drive again, too, and cool to add driving in another country to my list of experiences. As usual, I’ll end my post with some other random photos that I’ve accumulated since then.


A Weekend in the City of Dreams

On the weekend of March 4, I went with my friend Stefan to visit Dubai, also known as the “City of Dreams” and the “Paris of the Middle East”. I think it lived up to its first nickname (I’ve never been to Paris), although it was at the same time one of the strangest places I’ve been to.

Believe it or not, Dubai is not a very far drive from Ibri! Since I don’t have a car, though, I had to rely on taxis and buses, which made the trip a little longer. We started  at 2:30 in the afternoon with taking a taxi from Ibri to Al-Ain, an Emirati city on the border of Oman. In fact, Al-Ain and the Omani city on the other side of the border, Al-Buraimi, were really part of the same city that was split apart when Oman and the United Arab Emirates were negotiating their borders. From there we took a bus to Dubai, and after a few confusing metro stops and a long walk we made it to our room at the Rahab hotel, a very basic hotel in a non-touristy area. We got to our room around 9:00, and were pretty tired, so we just at dinner at a Yemeni restaurant and then went to bed. It’s funny that I had never eaten Yemeni food before I came here, and now I’m pretty used to it. It’s generally a plate of yellow rice cooked with saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon among other things with meat on top (I always choose fish), and it’s always served with a very spicy sauce that’s like salsa but with a bit more tomato juice. I always prefer to eat it the correct way – with my hands!

We started early at about 9:00 the next day (early for me) and took a taxi to the Dubai Mall. We had some nice samosas for breakfast at a little cafe near our hotel.

We explored the shops until around 11:30, when we went up to the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world! The elevator was surprisingly fast. All we really did was take the elevator up to the top, spent half an hour up there, and then went back down. But it was worth it!

After that, we got lunch at, believe it or not, The Cheesecake Factory! Yes, I know that of all the amazing international restaurants I could have visited in Dubai, I decided to go for an American one. But, at that particular time, I was feeling very homesick, and I really needed some Mexican food. I had some very good nachos there; they would have been good even at home! I didn’t really have room for it, but I decided to get vanilla bean cheesecake for dessert, too.

We went around to check out the Mall of the Emirates after that, to see most of the same types of stores. I didn’t really buy anything though, because I don’t really need anything! I did buy a few Arabic books, and some nice calligraphy pens. My favorite store was the Virgin Megastore, because there was an electronic drum set there, so I can at least say when I get back that I didn’t go an entire 4 months without playing the drums! I also bought a harmonica there to practice with since I forgot mine at home. As I implied, I’m not much of a shopper, but these malls really were incredible. All of the stores were huge, and there were even more impressive things in them. The Mall of the Emirates, for example, has a indoor ski slope!

We rested in the late afternoon until the evening, and then we went to a cafe in the Emirates Grand hotel later at night to have milkshakes.


The Burj Khalifa at night, as seen from the Emirates Grand hotel!

Here’s a video that shows the view from my hotel window – you can hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. In fact, it woke me up every morning at 4:00 AM because our window didn’t close very well!

The next morning, we slept in and went off to the Dubai Marina very briefly, but that was all that we had time to do before we made our way back to the bus.

We were able to take a bus with the Oman Transport Company from Dubai to Ibri, with a few stops along the way. That journey in theory was going to go relatively smoothly, but for some reason it seems as though whoever drove that bus had never driven that route before. They got us lost, first of all, exiting Dubai, which added about an hour and a half to our journey, then they almost drove through the border without stopping to let us buy visas! Additionally, all of the bags under the bus were searched by the Omani border guard when we returned, which was apparently just random selection. We arrived back home at about 11:30, when we were supposed to be there by 9:00.

Now, my opinion! Dubai is really a beautiful city, and it’s definitely worth a visit, but at the same time, I think only if you are interested in blowing through a bunch of money! My first impression was that there’s not really much to do there other than go see shows, go to restaurants, and shop. Another interesting fact is that only 1 percent of Dubai residents are Emirati. It definitely seemed that way when I was walking around. Most of the people I saw there were either expatriate workers or tourists from all parts of the globe. Visiting Dubai made me realize just how rich the Emirates are, and I did get quite tired after a while of “Gold Class” this and “Luxury” that. Also, there was a very stark difference between the giant malls that I visited and the cheaper area of town where my hotel was, and I think the people living where I stayed don’t live the “Dubai life” that is advertised. Ask me when I get back if you want to hear more of my opinion on that matter. I do know, though, that I’d like to visit Dubai again before I leave. There’s much more there than what I was able to see in my brief time there.

Last but not least, here’s some videos from when it rained in the past few weeks in Ibri!


Desert Trip and Other Miscellaneous Photos

I’m quite behind in my blog posts due to internet issues, but I think that is all sorted out now, so be expecting quite a bit in the next few days! I’ll start by recapping a desert trip and including some photos from our other short excursions. In the next few days I’ll talk about my trip to Dubai, and in the following post my week-long vacation to Masira Island and Muscat.

One of our trips was to the Bahla fort, one of the largest castles in Oman. I really enjoyed visiting this fort because we were able to explore all of the rooms, and there were quite a few interesting staircases and ladders to climb. In one room I found what appeared to be an old well – I dropped a little rock down it to see how deep it was, and it seemed like over a second before I heard it hit the bottom. I shined my flashlight in, and was greeted by a chirping bat, but luckily it didn’t attack me!


The castle was very haphazardly organized, i.e. there was really no clear way to figure out how to get to one place just from looking at it, but after a lot of searching I found a ladder that took me up to the top of one of the tallest tower in the fort.

We also visited a mountain village after Bahla.

The trip to Bahla was just an afternoon trip if I recall correctly. Our desert trip on February 25-26 was longer. We started that trip with a visit to Jabreen castle, considered one of the most beautiful castles in Oman. I wasn’t able to appreciate it completely though, because I was a little sick from eating an ice cream bar that contained hazelnut chocolate, which I didn’t realize before I ate it (I’m allergic to hazelnuts!).

Since we’re talking about castles and forts, I’ll add a funny anecdote here. In my first few weeks in the program, I learned two new words, the word for castle (حصن, HuSun) and the word for plate (صحن, SaHan). You might be able to see from the Arabic writing, that these words are the same letters but in a different order. When I went to a Syrian restaurant near our apartment, I accidentally asked for a Falafel Castle instead of a Falafel Plate, which the restaurant employees thought was very funny. Sometimes I still get the words confused!

After our visit to the fort we arrived at the desert camp and went dune bashing – one of the men from the camp took us driving very fast over the sand dunes in his truck! It was a lot of fun, quite rough, and a little scary. The camp was nice, especially because we were the only ones there. We had a nice buffet dinner, and sat and talked afterwards. I went out for a walk in the desert by myself at night as well. I think I’m attracted to the desert because there’s no place that’s so quiet and isolated – there were no sounds around me, and almost no life. It was a good place to meditate, although I had to shine my light around every few minutes to make sure there were no scorpions around! The best thing about the desert camp was that I was able to put my mattress on a bed frame outside, and sleep under the stars. I even saw a shooting star.

We got up early in the morning to watch the sunrise. It was a very difficult walk up a few dunes, but it was worth it.

We also visited Wadi Shab, a large river/canyon that I visited last summer in my previous trip. This time, however, I was able to swim to the end of the wadi to see a waterfall inside of a cave! It was beautiful, but of course, I couldn’t take any pictures.

Here are some other photos that I’ve taken over the past few weeks:

Visiting a Farm and a Canyon in a Village Near Ibri

Hello everyone, I’m alive! And a few weeks behind. I have had little to no internet access in my apartment and have been relying on a data plan I purchased for my phone for wifi here. Luckily today I have enough data to add another post. I’m quite behind on the blog, so here I’ll talk about my weekend trip on February 12 to a small village near Ibri.

We started the day with a visit to a farm – it was quite refreshing to be surrounded by green trees and grass with shade overhead because I don’t see too much of that usually in Oman. We started with a nice little breakfast (in the first photo), walked along a falaj (an Omani aqueduct), and then went to look at the fields. I know for a fact that wheat and onions were grown there but I don’t remember much else. It’s a bit harder for me to remember information when it’s told to me in Arabic!

After that, we met up with Masoud, the brother of one of the program directors, and he took us on a tour walking through a valley with several dams and a large one with a reservoir at the end. He also brought a small rifle with him to let us try shooting if we wanted to – I did of course! It was a little scary though at first because when he first met up with us I didn’t quite here what he said, and then he handed me the rifle and asked me to hold it for a while. The other students in the program said, “You’re an American, don’t you have guns everywhere?” when I was clearly uncomfortable holding it. I think I’m probably a little different from what they’d be expecting when they think of an American, though…

I also had the experience of tasting the worst taste in my life during that trip. I tried just a small bite of a little melon-like fruit that Masoud picked from a vine on the ground. According to him, this fruit is very good for you, but I have a feeling that one of the prevailing thoughts around here is “bad taste = good for you.” The taste was quite odd – it was a gross bitter taste, but it lingered for a long time in the same way that something that is very spicy stays. It was like the sensation of spiciness but with a bitter taste, which I didn’t think was possible! One of the students in the group did like it though, so maybe the fruit isn’t universally hated. The other two students who tried it agreed with me, however.

We finished with an excellent Omani lunch at Masoud’s house. As is the Omani style, we ate with our hands.

In my next post I’ll talk about the two trips in the following weeks – visiting a castle and a mountain village, and a trip to the same desert I visited last summer.

Arrival in Ibri

Well, it’s been almost a week since I arrived here and I already have a lot more to talk about than will fit into one post, so in this post I’m just going to talk about what I did before the weekend.

I’m staying in the city of Ibri in the Ad Dhahira government. I am studying at the Noor Majan Training Institute, taking classes focusing only on Arabic five days a week. The classes are split into five week sessions, and I will be here for three of them (session beginning in April is a little longer). I have a very nice apartment this time located in the city, right next to the biggest mosque in Ibri, the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. Ibri is actually a pretty big city, I’d say bigger than Greenville. It’s hard to say because the way the buildings are arranged here really isn’t that comparable to at home – there’s not really a distinction between city and suburb. There is a Syrian restaurant that has very good falafel and hummus about a walk away, and there’s a Turkish restaurant nearby along with a bakery, too. Unlike the other program I was in, I’m able to leave my apartment and go wherever I’d like to. In fact, I can even rent a car through the program if I want to. I think it will be a little while before I feel comfortable enough to drive here though as the roads can really be crazy. Also I’m not really used to roundabouts, which are standard here.

The Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Ibri - right next to our apartment.

The Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Ibri – right next to our apartment.

Tuesday, after I arrived, we just rode in a van together from the airport in Muscat to Ibri, where we stayed in our apartments and rested for the remainder of the day. All of the students went out for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, and we got to know each other. Surprisingly, I’m the only American here! There are only six students other than me – one British guy, one German guy, one Colombian guy, two Swiss girls, and a German girl. Everyone speaks English well, and we all have different skill levels in Arabic. Everyone is very nice, and I think I’ll have no problem being around them for the next few months. Some of them are only staying for this class session, and others are staying longer than I.

Wednesday we had a little tour of Ibri. We started the day off with a visit to the goat auction in Ibri’s Old Souq – unlike other animal auctions in Oman, this auction occurs every day! We also visited a date store and had some candy made from dates and coconuts with Omani coffee. I had always wondered why Omani coffee was so different and so light, and it turns out that’s because its actually made with date seeds. We went saw the Ibri castle as well, where the governor of the city would have lived over a hundred years ago. That was cool because we were able to climb to the top of the tower in the fort using some ladders built in to the corners of the rooms in that tower. Getting up there was much easier than getting down! We also learned about Ibri’s history, for example that it was once a stopping point for caravans crossing the desert. Sultan, the director of our program, said that as little as forty years ago caravans were still stopping in the parking lot we arrived at to stock up for their trips across the desert. In fact, Ibri’s name comes from the Arabic word “to cross”.

After the little tour of the Souq we went to the Noor Majan building – which happens to be right in the middle of the Souq! We took a short placement test, and had lunch at the institute, which for me was just some Omani rice with lentils, which was of course very good because it was homemade. Then we went back to our apartment to prepare for the first day of class.

Thursday was our first day of class. We were divided into three groups, and I am in a class with only one other student – Tom, the Briton. He’s definitely much stronger in Arabic, but that’s because he’s been here for a month longer and was living with a host family before I arrived. Otherwise we’ve studied Arabic for about the same time. We have about four and a half classes total in Arabic, divided into sessions with two different teachers. The first focuses on grammar and reading, and the second on discussion. It was really very draining by the end, as I felt I had reached my capacity for new vocabulary. I think I’ll get used to it and get more comfortable with the schedule, but for now the amount of time I’m going to spend in class seems pretty daunting, especially with how little I’m able to understand of what I read and what I hear. But I’ve only been in class for two days, and I’m sure it will get better as my vocabulary improves.


Ending One Chapter and Starting Another

Well, it’s been a while. And I regret not adding a closing post to the other blog sooner. I figured this blog would be for my Oman trip last summer, but I liked Oman so much that I decided to return this year for even longer! So now this blog is going to be about my two different trips to Oman.

Closing the SALAM Scholarship – I think I still have one more video to add, but I don’t have a good enough internet connection to do that so it will be a little out of order. I had a lot of fun on that program, but because we were only there for a little over a month, because we were in a highly structured program with trips every weekend and events every night, and because I was in a group of Americans never allowed to leave our Guest House and explore Oman on our own, I feel that I didn’t fully experience Oman like I had hoped to. I never got to go have dinner with an Omani family, for example. Plus, because Arabic is such a hard language to grasp, I felt like I was only nearing a breakthrough as I was leaving. It was a great program, those were just the few flaws. But the benefit of that was that it left me wanting more, and gave me a good introduction to Oman.

If I hadn’t done that SALAM program last summer, I would definitely be too afraid to do what I’m doing now – flying alone to the other side of the world.

First and foremost, what must be documented: I cut my hair off! I think this is the shortest it’s been since before I was in first grade. I was tired of it being a big frizzy mess, so I decided I wanted to try something different. The timing lined up well with the trip, and it’s easier to deal with while traveling. I did not cut my hair to improve my job opportunities or to make me more approachable, to be more professional, etc. I just wanted to do what I thought would look best.

So, this time around I’m going back to Oman and taking classes at a similar school, called the Noor Majan Institute. It’s in Ibri, a city that’s a few hours west of where I was before. It’s pretty rural, so I think that I’ll have to rely on Arabic, which is good. I want to be close to fluent by the time I go home.

Right now I’m sitting in Muscat, waiting to meet with whomever else is in my group to take a bus to Ibri, which is a few hours away from this city. I started with a short flight in Greenville to D.C., had a 7-hour flight to Frankfurt an hour after that, another 7-hour flight to Dubai an hour after that, and a 45 minute flight to Muscat from there after a four hour wait. I’ve been travelling for over 24 hours, and I actually feel much better than I thought I would. I think I’ll be able to avoid jet lag.


A Few Random Things and a Recap of the Final Weekend Trip

So I’m a little behind now. You might have seen that I got back home last Saturday, the 4th, appropriately. But I still have another few posts to make, so I’ll be playing catch-up for the next few days!

I wrote this last week but wasn’t able to upload the photos because of the internet connection.

One thing that I’ll miss about Oman is the design of the signs for most stores here: they’re incredibly tacky, and most of them look very similar. They’re a little hard to describe, but I have some poorly photographed examples.

They usually have the name of the store in Arabic and English, and a lot of times they say “Sale of…”, e.g. “Sale of Water Purification Equipment” or “Sale of Ice Cream”. They use the same simple font with a loud, solid background color, and then they are loaded up with cut-out pictures of whatever the store sells. And a ton of the signs are like this! It was this way in Muscat, Sur, Manah, and Nizwa.

We had a lecture last week about religious tolerance in Oman. According to the presentation, all religious proselytizing is illegal in Oman, but groups from all religions are allowed to practice freely (and privately). We even watched a video in which an American expatriate was talking about how he was able to go and sing Christmas carols with a group for patients in a hospital, claiming, “You can’t even do that in America!”

Last weekend, we went on our final weekend trip to Sur on the East Coast of Oman. It wasn’t actually planned at the start of the program. The students in our group were going to put in a proposal and plan the trip ourselves if the college would grant us permission to go anywhere, but the college decided to pay for the trip and provide us with transportation! This was the original destination of our previous trip that we were unable to visit because of the storm.

On the way to Sur on Friday, we stopped at another wadi, Wadi Shab. This wadi was incredible because it not only had beautiful, clean water that we could swim in, but the river was in the middle of a massive canyon. The trip was a little bit complicated though because of Ramadan. Hiking through the canyon took about two hours when going quickly, and none of us drank any water all morning before the hike because it’s considered rude to drink in front of people who are fasting. I only had one bottle of water that I brought with me from the Guest House. We wound up being fine, but a lot of us had to slow down and swim to keep from getting heat stroke. I’d guess it was over 100 degrees outside, and there were no clouds. There was supposedly a waterfall in a cave at the end of the canyon, but I wasn’t able to make it there in time before I had to turn around. I did jump off of another cliff again, which was even higher than the ones I jumped from at Wadi Bani Khalid and the top of the boat in the sea near Muscat. The hike was exhausting, but it was still enjoyable. It was also cool because I probably heard more different languages on the hike than I have in the last year from all of the different other tourist groups there. I definitely heard German, French, Spanish, and Italian, and there were a few British and American groups there, too. It wasn’t crowded though; people were spread out well.

Unfortunately, the supervisors who drove us here and the students fasting for Ramadan who chose not to hike were all pretty upset at the group for taking so long at the hike. We were supposed to spend 3 hours there when we would have gone the previous weekend, but they asked that we only take 1.5 hours this time. I was sorry, but being late couldn’t have really been prevented – I moved quickly and didn’t even make it to the end of the hike before I had to turn around, at which point it had already been longer than 45 minutes. It was mostly because I kept moving forward and other tourists kept saying, “Oh yeah, the waterfall is right around the corner!” Of course, it definitely was not!

Everything was fine, though. We were late to our hotel, Turtle Beach Resort, near Sur, but the staff very kindly kept the restaurant open until 5:30 so that we could quickly get a lunch type thing. The hotel was quite nice – we had a private beach, and there was a lot of good Indian food. I also found a tiny hermit crab on the beach at the hotel. In the evening, we went to do probably one of my favorite things I’ve done here.

In the evening Friday at 9:00, we went to Ra’as al Jinz animal reserve to one of Oman’s famous sea turtle beaches. We were split into small groups with an Omani guide who led us around with a light, and we were able to see green sea turtles on the beach. First, I was able to see a sea turtle laying her eggs! As in I actually saw them falling into the pit that she dug. Yes, I know that sounds kind of gross, but it was beautiful. Second, I saw a few turtles going into and coming out of the sea. And last, I got to sea a turtle covering up her eggs and digging a fake hole to confuse predators. That was fun because the turtle flung a bunch of sand into the hair and knocked a bunch of sand all over my body. I never thought in my life I’d get to say that a sea turtle flung a bunch of sand on me when she was covering up her eggs! I also didn’t think I’d get to see a sea turtle in the process of laying her eggs.

I like the German names

I like the German names

Apparently only 2 out of 1000 turtles will make it from hatching to adulthood, according to our guide.

I slept in late the next day, ate another huge lunch, and left with our group to return to the Guest House. We stopped at Hiwayat Najm on the way back – a huge sinkhole that was originally believed to be meteor crater according to Omani legends. We only stopped briefly, but I was able to swim because I thought ahead and wore my bathing suit to the park! I also wore a towel the entire time I was out of the water in order to remain “modest”.

And I’ll finish with a bunch of random photos.

Ramadan, The Cultural Evening, and Other Cultural Experiences

Hello again, I’m sorry it’s been so long since the last blog post. It’s been a pretty hectic time because of the start of Ramadan!

So I suppose my factoid for this blog post will be about Ramadan. Ramadan is a holy month (determined with a lunar calendar) in Islam practiced since the time of Muhammad. Each day during Ramadan, adult Muslims are required to fast from dawn to sunset – meaning no food and no water! There are of course exceptions for those who are sick or traveling. In addition, Ramadan in general is a time of heightened piety for Muslims in Oman and throughout the Muslim world. For example, lying, cursing, and talking behind someone’s back, while frowned upon at all times, are particularly discouraged during Ramadan. Even non-Muslim women in our class were asked to wear the full hijab, the head-covering that some Muslim women (and nearly all that I’ve seen in Oman) wear in public. Men were also asked to wear long-sleeves at all times. I definitely wasn’t expecting that, but I have no issues making small adjustments to respect the culture here, especially since I’m a guest.

Because of the fasting, many Muslims shift to a more nocturnal schedule during Ramadan. Muslims listen for a call to prayer to break the fast around 7:00 in Oman, and they eat a very small meal called Iftar to prepare for dinner. It’s customary to break one’s fast with a date as Muhammad did according to the writings about his life (known as the Hadith). Some Muslims eat the equivalent of a lunch at around 10:00, and then most eat a breakfast-like meal called Suhoor at 3:30 AM before another call to prayer at 4:00. Most I think sleep until 3:30 and get up briefly then, but some of the students in our group who are fasting just stay up until then.

My conversation partner Ibrahim suggested that I fast just for one day to see what it was like, so I fasted on the first day of Ramadan, last Thursday. I fasted the correct way – no water, no food, and not even any gum. It actually wasn’t unbearable, especially since we didn’t really do much that day. I decided to continue the next day – it wound up being pretty easy because I slept in until 3:30 PM, so I only had to fast for a few hours. I decided to stop though because I didn’t want to disrupt my ability to focus during class.

So anyways, a lot of interesting small things happened last week.

Last Tuesday, we had a Cultural Evening (Umsiyya Thaqafiya) at the Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic. We spent a few days after we got back from Muscat preparing for the evening, which consisted of two parts. One hour was made up of poster presentations like a science fair where we talked about any aspect of our respective cultures (in Arabic, of course!). My friend Eman, a Japanese-Egyptian student here presented on Japan with another American student who studied abroad there before. I talked about Blues and Rock music. There was also a presentation about the South with sweet tea, and another about Texas with guacamole. There were others displays as well as some made by Omanis about Ramadan and Omani food.

The second half of the evening consisted of performances. As you might guess, I sung and played that classical guitar that I found earlier in the trip. My friends know I’ve really played this song to death, but since I have a new audience I could play it yet another time: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. Before I sang in English, I had to demonstrate my Arabic ability in some way, so I decided to translate the lyrics to Arabic and read them to the audience (which I think consisted of at least 100 people). I wasn’t planning to before, but I decided halfway through the song to try to sing in Arabic. The phrasing was a little weird, though, so I switched back to English in some parts.

There were some other performances from the students in our program. The students from Texas sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, and another read some poetry in Arabic. We were able to see some Omanis perform the ‘Azi (a traditional military exercise thing that’s really hard to describe), and the men in our group were even able to participate. At the end of the presentation I joined the group of performing Omanis with another student from our program, and I talked with all of them for almost an hour in Arabic about a few things like universities in the US, what there is to do in Manah, and studying Arabic. I caught a video as we were all parading out together.

The night was a lot of fun and a huge success. The next day we celebrated the 3rd anniversary of the college with a traditional Omani meal at lunchtime – beef that had been roasted in a fire pit called a Tanoor for 24 hours. According to everyone who ate some, it was delicious. I tried a couple pieces and wasn’t a huge fan, but I think that’s just because I have only really had one other bite of steak in my life (in Yellowknife).

Thursday, we had a presentation on Omani proverbs and learned about the traditional clothing for Omani men. The long garment is called a dishdasha and the turban a musar. There is also a cylindrical hat called a kumma that is worn by itself or under the musar.

We spent the weekend sleeping and shopping at the Souqs in Nizwa and Muscat. I was able to buy a dishdasha for only about 15 dollars!

Also, it’s rained here more times than I’ve expected (thrice).

Weekend in Sharqiya, Part 2

Following up on part 1 of the trip on Sharqiya, I’ll be talking about our Friday and Saturday now.

In the morning, we woke up to ride both ATVs and camels in the desert! I started with the ATV, which was really wild. I’d never ridden one of those before, and I’m fairly certain I almost flew off at one point. We were supposed to stay together in a line, but I purposely waited back a couple times so that I could rev up the engine and go forward full speed.

After the brief ATV ride, I was able to ride a camel. It was pretty simple; I just got on as the camel was sitting down, and then an Omani kid led the camel around for a few minutes. I never realized how tall camels are! Once I was up there, I realized that it would not be pleasant if I fell down. It also wasn’t as uncomfortable as some people made it out to be. One thing that was a little scary was that when the ride was over, my camel refused to sit down for a moment and started to back away from the person leading it, but it did after a few attempts.

After that, we planned to head to Sur, a region on the coast of Sharqiya, to go to a beach to see where hundreds of sea turtles lay their eggs. But we ran into quite a setback: the road we had planned to take ran right through a wadi that was now flooded in several places due to the storm. We definitely couldn’t have driven through it, so we could either have waited to see if the flood subsided or driven through Muscat and around to Sur. Despite it being a four to five hour drive, we took the second option because we had no idea how long we’d have to wait.

As we were driving to Muscat, however, we got a call from the hotel in Sur that the weather was far too violent due to the tropical storm and that we should go at another time. Through a stroke of luck, our director Talal managed to get us a night at the Millennium Hotel, a five star hotel in Muscat!

On the way there, we stopped for lunch at a traditional Omani restaurant. Surprisingly, this was the first time I ate real Omani food! Unless I wanted to eat yogurt and rice, I had to eat some kind of meat, so I got fish. I think it was kingfish but I’m not really sure. The dish that I got was Mandi rice with fish. The rice was actually a Yemeni variety, but the fish was Omani. It was excellent – definitely some of the best fish I’ve ever had. It was a lot of fun too because we sat on the floor and ate with our hands. I have to say, there’s a special technique to eating rice with one’s hands that I was not able to figure out.

The hotel was pretty incredible, and we even had a room with a separate toilet and shower! We spent the rest of Friday and Saturday relaxing, swimming at the pool and in the ocean, and eating ridiculous amounts of food. There was also a bar, but I elected not to drink anything other than a (non-alcoholic) smoothie.

Everyone at the hotel spoke English, but I impressed them a few times with my Arabic. I asked for a towel at the pool in Arabic. There was a little confusion at first though because I asked for a bedsheet at first (sharshaf) when I meant to say towel (manshafa). I checked out from my room in Arabic as well.

Weekend in Sharqiya, Part 1

Well, it’s been quite a busy week, so I’m a few blog posts behind. We had a three day trip to the Eastern region of Oman, Ash-Sharqiya, which I’ll talk about in two separate posts.

Have you ever heard the stereotype of Americans being ridiculously loud? I always figured that was just something people said, but after I’ve been here and spoken with so many Omanis, I can say that it is definitely true that we are really loud people sometimes (myself included, of course!). Being with a large group of Omanis, for example, it was not necessary to have a shouting match to try to have a normal conversation. Whereas a room full of Americans seems to get louder and louder because of people trying to talk over each other. I can’t say why this is; it’s just something I’ve noticed, and something I assumed was the norm everywhere until I came here.

This past weekend we had planned to visit Wahiba Sands, a sand desert in the Sharqiya region, and then go to the coast of Sharqiya to see a beach where hundreds of sea turtles lay their eggs. As you shall read, however, our plans had to change because of a tropical storm.

We began our trip on Thursday, starting the weekend a day early. We left in the morning and stopped by a famous wadi, Wadi Bani Khalid. I think I wrote this before, but a wadi is a riverbed that floods very quickly during rainstorms, or in the case of Wadi Bani Khalid, is always a flowing to some degree. And the potential for flooding became a complicating factor: we drove through the (dry) wadi to a natural pool at the end, but we were only able to stay for 30 minutes because it was going to flood at any time due to the impending storm!

The water was incredibly clear and just the right temperature. It was pretty clean as well, apparently, because I accidentally swallowed a sizable gulp due to poor swimming technique.

After our short swim at the pool at the end of the wadi, we headed off to our next stop: the Arabian Oryx Camp in the Wahiba Sands desert. We had to stop and switch from our two buses to a fleet of cars with special tires for the sand.

The Camp was a genuinely unique place. We were told that we’d be staying in tents, but they were a bit more like trailers or something like that. They had a cloth roof, but full walls, windows, and wooden doors. They also had their own bathrooms with showers and running water, so we were much more comfortable than we thought we’d be. We had lunch at a buffet there, napped in the afternoon, and then set out in our fleet of cars to check out the desert in the evening before dinner. As you can see, it was actually very cloudy and pretty comfortable heat-wise, so it was a good day to explore the desert.

That desert was unlike any place I’ve ever visited. It’s hard to describe how I felt being encircled by all the sand, surrounding me and flying around me in the wind. It was almost like a religious experience; I’m not really sure. But I feel drawn to the desert in a way that I don’t fully understand. My dream house wouldn’t be at the beach or in the mountains – it would be a bunker way out in the middle of the sand dunes.

Right after we got back, we tried to climb to the top of one of the huge dunes near the camp and sled down in the sand, but it didn’t really work to well. Climbing up the loose sand was exhausting, but it was also pretty fun. We had to get down from the dune pretty quickly, though, because we saw some intense lightning flashes from the storm!

That evening, we had another buffet at the camp, and then we were able to see a traditional Omani band play. This was probably my favorite thing I’ve done here so far. The music was incredible – usually led by an Oud accompanied with several drums. One of the musicians also played bagpipes for one song. My favorite thing about the music was that it was very informal and jam-based. Even though the Oud sounds and looks very different from the guitar, a lot of the Oud player’s mannerisms were like those of a guitar player, such as how he took solos and ended songs. I was even able to try out the Oud, which was surprisingly not as different from the guitar as I thought it would be. I’d like to buy one someday, but bringing one back would wind up being quite a hassle. They also let us play the drums with them for a lot of their songs. Unfortunately, they asked that we don’t put pictures on social media (or at least that’s what I think they said – this was requested in Arabic), so I won’t put any here. I have pictures and videos that I can share in person when I get back.

We had an even fuller day following Friday, which I’ll talk about in my next post tomorrow.

Ramadan Kareem!