So we’ve been assigned a house and we’ll be moving after Eid, the big holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. It sounds a lot like Christmas: family gatherings, huge meals and lots of sweets, gifts and general goodwill toward men, and so forth. We won’t be around for any of this because…
We’re going to India! (Er, there will probably be some Eid-celebrating there as well, but Islam is not the majority religion.) Karan and I have been planning this trip with varying degrees of seriousness since we got married seven years ago, and it’s finally happening. It’s so much easier to get there from here than from the States, and I’m pretty pumped that an epic flight and brutal jet lag will not be part of this experience.
I’m not sure what to expect, and that’s totally okay with me. I took a break from studying Arabic about a week ago when I realized my time would be better spent brushing up on my Hindi, which is meager, but I’m way closer to understanding it than Arabic. (That is not saying much at all. I wrote a whole post about studying Arabic, but it puts my ignorance in bas-relief so I’m still screwing up the nerve to post it.) A lot of people in Mumbai speak Marathi, but K’s kin speak Hindi and Urdu, so I will probably hear plenty of it. I also reacquainted myself with the Devanagari alphabet, so maybe I can read a sign or two, though Marathi has its own script as well, so who knows. I should mention that I’ve never had even the shortest conversation in any foreign language, so I’m managing my expectations on that front.
It’s monsoon season in Mumbai, and I haven’t seen a drop of rain in over two months, so that is exciting. And although I appreciate how Ramadan has made me reflect on my wanton hedonism (no sarcasm), I think I’m ready to get back to my regularly scheduled program. That is, I plan to buy a beer at the earliest opportunity.
But I’m most looking forward to meeting K’s friends and extended family. He’s met most of mine, and I’ve met very few of his, so this is way past due. I have to admit, though, that I’m nervous about socializing again. Ramadan has been lazy and quiet for us, and I’ve gotten very comfortable doing my various solitary activities and being more or less alone with my thoughts. I’ve always considered myself an extrovert, so it’s been a surprise that I’m actually enjoying this social isolation, which I will acknowledge is somewhat self-imposed. I just don’t have a lot of energy for braving the heat, the unfamiliar environs, and awkward social situations all at once. Frequent calls to the States have helped, as has knowing that things should pick up in August.
All this to say, I’m bracing myself for the crush of humanity in Mumbai. I couldn’t be coming from a more sedate, sanitized environment, so this should be interesting.
On some level I’m embarrassed to admit how much we’ve been keeping to ourselves, especially because this blog was supposed to be a window onto another part of the globe. (This was uncharacteristically ambitious, I now realize.) We have been going out and taking care of business and making friends and so forth, but we have not done much intentional exploring. Earlier this week we figured we should get out of the house, so went to the Muttrah Souq in the evening. Even though the souq is a pretty popular tourist destination and very much on the beaten path, going there made us realize the extent to which we’ve been in our little expat bubble. It’s hard to explain, but the neighborhood actually looked like a neighborhood, and the energy was both very unfamiliar and also more normal for us dyed-in-the-wool city people. Like I said: hard to explain. It was too dark for decent photos and the shops were closing anyway, but I’ll make a point to go back. It was already late and there was a very real possibility of getting lost, so we only wandered far enough to see most of the jewelry and some fabrics. I want to find the produce and the fish. And maybe get a little lost.
So! There’s my update and I am resisting the urge to apologize for this insipid report and lack of fun photos.
It’s hard to find a cohesive theme for posts, so here are some disjointed observations about our life in Muscat:
- All of the outlets in our apartment have an on/off switch.
I’m sure the reason for this is immediately obvious to some people, but I didn’t figure it out until I pulled my laptop plug from the socket without first flipping the switch, and I got the same spark I always get when I unplug my laptop. Aha! It makes perfect sense to stop the current before connecting to or disconnecting from power. Obviously. This should be standard everywhere.
- The mangos from South Asia are superior to the mangos from Mexico. There are more varieties, and they all have a higher flesh-to-pit ratio. And they are really delicious. I often cut one up and put half in a container for later, but this is folly because I always go back and finish it in the same sitting.
- The vast majority of local businesses have little to no web presence, so google maps isn’t particularly useful. Also, most shops keep strange hours, especially during Ramadan, and often the only way to know if they are open is to call or go there. This took some getting used to.
- I know people complain about drivers everywhere, but the drivers here don’t stay in their lanes. This is particularly noticeable (read: terrifying) on the tortuous, two-lane roads that snake up and down the hills in residential areas. Also, outer lanes on the highways don’t always merge gracefully into traffic. Sometimes they vanish into the retaining wall.
- Victoria’s Secret at the Qurum City Centre mall appears to be a purveyor of body wash and handbags. I assumed this was some kind of modesty thing, but there’s a lingerie shop directly opposite, so who knows. I don’t shop at VS anyway so my curiosity about the lack of bras at the bra store is purely academic.
- The vast majority of Western expats in Muscat clear out during the summer to go home or on holiday. When I first arrived and was researching Arabic courses and TESL programs, it soon became clear that nothing is happening before September. I have realigned my expectations for the summer. More on this coming soon to a blog near you (this one).
We decided to celebrate the 4th of July even though we are somewhat constrained by Ramadan, a scarcity of compatriots, and general new-around-here-ness. It’s illegal to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours, and you cannot purchase alcohol anywhere at all. We did stock up before Ramadan started, but we were not in party planning mode then. We also don’t have a house yet, and our balcony is too small for grilling. And our grill is in a shipping container somewhere with the rest of our stuff anyway.
So we waited until sundown and went to the club where there are grills on the beach. They look like this in daylight. Very pretty, but the sun is super hot, so waiting until dark was probably not a bad idea anyway. It doesn’t photograph well at night, but for posterity… Only one of our guests was American, but they were all good sports. And the beach was empty so we could have our music and discreet cocktails without bothering anyone.
It was actually pretty fun, but now that I’ve written all that out, I’m trying to remember why it seemed important that we mark the occasion. I think it was mostly an excuse to make my annual flag cake. This year’s cake was subpar. I used canned whipped cream (I have a lot of excuses, but none of them are legitimate) and then it ran out super quickly. You can see that the cookies have NICE stamped on them, which is kind of funny.
I was surprised the berries were even available. The guy who’s been living here longest took one look at the cake and said “That’s gotta be like 10 rials in berries” and when I mentally tallied it up, he was correct. That’s well over $20, for reference. Such is my devotion to flag cake (or maybe I did the math wrong in the store). If I were to do it again I would use something else because I had to throw out a lot of moldy ones and the rest were kind of sour.
There’s always next year.
I’ve been taking a morning constitutional most days and exploring a bit. The first day or two I went out because I thought I should try acclimating to the heat, and I guess I’m more or less acclimated because now I go just because I like it. By 7:30am, the temperature is already in the high 30s (90s F) and the sun is already beating down (it rises before 5:30), so the conditions are not quite dangerous but still super crazy hot. I won’t lie: The first day was brutal. My heart was racing and sweat was running into my eyes, but I used to jog in Houston summers and I’ve gone through phases of doing Bikram regularly, so I had that frame of reference telling me I was probably not going to pass out. Anyway, I didn’t get very far that first day. I went to the public beach up the road and took some pictures, which isn’t easy when it’s too bright to see anything in the digital display. (That’s my disclaimer for any and all of my washed-out desert photos.) I’m curious what this rock is. It’s black under that moss. Oman is one of the few places in the world where the ocean plate is visible on land, and I thought maybe this was it, but apparently the ocean plate is not that subtle. (“The rugged ophiolite hills around Muscat and those stretching hundreds of kilometres inland is the largest and best exposed fragment of oceanic lithosphere found on land in the world.” – Oman Tourism) Anyway, in this next shot it looks like the strip of black is parallel to the shore and doesn’t go very far out. I’m sure K will be able to tell me what it is soon enough, and maybe he can explain whatever I garbled in that last paragraph, too. Isn’t the sea lovely?
It was a couple of morning walks later that I discovered a set of stairs in the hill opposite the beach. This is the view from the steps. Climbing up this hill is pretty hard in the heat. But on the other side is the company’s residential area. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that the housing in this area is referred to as “on camp,” and it does sort of remind me of summer camp. I swore we would never live in a compound, and this isn’t at all a compound—more like a neighborhood that the company happens to own—but it’s close enough that I find myself getting defensive (it’s totally not gated! totally not guarded! well, not obviously guarded anyway…) when I try to write about it. The issue of where to live is legitimately complicated, so I’ll save that for another day. I’m putting off writing about “the club” for similar reasons.
Anyway, we have no idea what will be available when our number on the housing list comes up, but I think I could overlook the suburbia elements for proximity to the sea and a shady tree-lined street like this. (We should be so lucky…) I have a feeling this blog is going to be a record of the contortionist-level compromising of all my convictions. This morning I explored some of these other paths… They don’t seem to go anywhere, and I’m afraid of whatever exotic critters might be lurking behind these rocks and under these scrubby plants, though I’m sure the view from the top of that hill is really awesome. It occurs to me that if I hadn’t spent time hiking in the desert in the Southwest earlier this year, I would be a lot more squeamish about walking these dusty trails in the full sun. I sincerely meant to blog about that trip because it was epic in the classical sense of the word, but I’m resigning myself to uploading pictures to Flickr, even though no one uses that anymore. Anyway, here’s Joshua Tree.
In other news, our air freight came yesterday. Apparently I didn’t organize things correctly because it’s mostly winter clothes, which I promptly packed away again, obviously. At least my sandals made it.
We were anxiously awaiting our coffee machine, and though it does turn on (half the battle, I thought, because of the voltage differences), for some reason it won’t brew. Maybe something went wonky in transit, or maybe it’s a voltage problem. K was pretty devastated. I guess we’ll continue drinking instant for now.
During the workweek, we kept fairly close to home. We ran some errands nearby and after we got our member cards, we spent a little time at the PDO Club, which deserves its own post.
Anyway, the weekend rolled around pretty quickly because the weekend here is Friday–Saturday instead of Saturday–Sunday. We were thinking of going to the Muttrah Souq, but most shops are closed or keep short hours on Friday, sort of like on Sunday in the Western world. Salat al Jumu’ah, Friday prayers, sounds to me like the equivalent of the weekly Christian church services. My apologies if this is all common knowledge. I’m just relating things I was curious about.
So we decided to take a drive to Al Bustan Palace and then look for some South Indian food in Ruwi on the way back. We took the scenic route along the coast, and I’ll have to go back to photograph some of the parks and ports. The driving was confusing though because it’s all traffic circles and a lot of the streets aren’t clearly labeled.
We didn’t realize that our destination was just a luxury hotel. We thought it was a luxury hotel at the site of something cool, which it is sort of, but… mostly a Ritz-Carlton. We parked in some far-off parking lot and came in through a deserted entrance by the ballroom, making our way through dim marble corridors until we found the most opulent lobby I’ve ever seen. It was challenging to photograph, but I tried. The lobby was encircled by these arches, and the dome above was 38 m (125 ft) high.
K got a coffee and I got an iced tea, and our bill was over 7 rials (almost $20), which is insane but I guess normal for the Ritz-Carlton? I asked the waitress where I could take a picture of the sea-side view, but apparently you need a room-card to get out on the terrace. She kindly informed me that I was welcome to take a photo through the glass door. Isn’t that nice!
This was clearly not our kind of scene, so K went out to get some 35°C air (95°F—relatively cool) while I shed my last shred of dignity and went to take a photo through the glass door.
Some hotel employee took pity on me and let me go out on the terrace to take a real photo. Of course he stood in the door and supervised.
It is a very beautiful place. Satisfied (I guess), we wound back through the bowels of the building to get to our deserted ballroom exit, which I guess they decided to lock when they saw our lonely car in the empty lot back there. I wondered if they were watching us as we came back through the lobby a third time and went out the main entrance. I’m still not sure why this place was recommended. I guess it’s for making a reservation and dressing up and having a fancy dinner or something.
There was a lot of beautiful landscape and landscaping on our little walk around the building back to our car.
It’s really the mountains that make Oman so beautiful. And if someone wants to have their wedding reception in that ballroom, we know just where to park.
On the way back, and for something completely different, we decided to hit up the much-heralded LuLu Hypermarket, where I’d been told I could get our staple Indian food ingredients. It was super confusing to get there because it’s essentially under the intersection of the busiest commercial street in Muscat and the main highway, yet it can only be accessed from very specific angles. I think we overshot it twice, driving many kilometers to turn around, before finally pulling in, but now we know those roads much better than we did before.
Anyway, this part of Muscat actually looks like a city to me. Pardon the grainy iPhone photo, and notice the cute camel decal.
If this all sounds like a huge drag, it totally wasn’t. I’m accustomed to learning new places by making lots of wrong turns, and usually I’m on public trans or on foot and alone, so I was grateful to have company and be the passenger for this roundabout journey.
LuLu was crazy and a post explaining the various hypermarkets in Muscat is probably in order. I’ve visited three in less than a week, partly because we didn’t bring much with us and partly because I really enjoy grocery stores. (I sound like Bert with his paper clip collection…)
After all this excitement, we were ready to try Saravanaa Bhavan, the vegetarian place K had his eye on.
I’m curious to see how long he’ll allow me to use him as a blog subject. I’m probably pushing it, but he makes such a good star for this show!
The vada sambar was really, really good. Usually the vadas come on the side to be dipped in the sambar, but these were submerged. Also, they gave us like twelve spoons for some reason. I removed a few before shooting this. (That’s coconut chutney on the side.)
K got the rava dosa, which had a spicy mashed potato filling, and carrot juice, which had so much ginger that it was also spicy. I got the mysore masala dosa, which had some sort of garlicky filling that I couldn’t quite place—maybe coconut? I can usually identify most of the ingredients in things, so this intrigued me. It came with (from top to bottom) some sort of roasted pepper jam, coconut chutney, and some kind of spicy peanut sauce. And, of course, more sambar.
On the way back to our place, I began to have a clearer idea of where our neighborhood—Qurum, or more specifically, Ras Al Hamra—is, and I’m a lot less terrified about trying to find my way home. From points east, at any rate.
And that was our first Jumu’ah!
We just got wifi set up in the apartment last night, so I’m a few days behind. I guess I’ll start with the first day.
The guy who picked us up at the airport, Mr. Sunil, was from Kerala and spoke Hindi, so he and KC chatted easily the whole way. I knew there would be a ton of South Asians in Muscat, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Hindi would be the lingua franca among them, especially because I’d heard they were mostly Keralites, who speak Malayalam. Anyway, KC’s Hindi fluency will probably be handy.
Mr. Sunil told us that the supplies provided at our temporary accommodations would be meager, and he swung us by the hypermarket—a grocery store with household goods and electronics and such—before dropping us off. In the interest of keeping it real, I’ll admit to an embarrassing produce kerfuffle wherein I didn’t realize that I had to weigh and tag all my stuff. The poor bagger had to run it all back to the produce department and do it for me as the checkout line grew behind us. This system is not unheard-of in the States (particularly for bulk pantry stuff, but my favorite grocery store in the world—Central Market in Houston—requires it for produce too), which only added to my shame feelings. Anyway, at some point I saw the bagger guy raising my kiwis to ask the cashier something about them and I told him to never mind, I didn’t need them. By the time I saw that he also had the garlic in his hand, essential for the dishes I had planned, it was too late.
On the way home I was unreasonably sad about this, unable to think of a single dinner recipe that doesn’t require garlic.
We arrived at our temporary accommodations in the early afternoon, having slept only an hour or two here and there since the previous morning. The apartment is more than adequate, but it has a lot of fluorescent lights and ugly furniture. After a much-needed nap I decided it was sort of charming.
Making dinner seemed like the best way to keep busy for a few hours until it was a reasonable time to go back to bed. Also, I figured it was wise to get acquainted with the kitchen before hunger hit, as I had no idea when that would happen. The stove is electric, which in the past I always hated, but I’m finding it pretty easy—instinctive, even—to set aside whatever petty preferences may or may not suit this part of the world. I have no idea whether most ranges here are gas or electric, but this is my stove for the time being so I got friendly with it.
I couldn’t find a cutting board but the counters are granite, so I just went ahead with that, though the blade against the polished rock was sort of nails-on-chalkboard until I got used to it. I set about making a stir-fry with some apprehension because not only was I lacking garlic, I also didn’t have any soy sauce or nut oil or even salt or pepper. Is it possible to cook without salt? I figured I could try to compensate with fresh herbs and such (I had been in a one-track fresh-produce frame of mind, apparently).
So it was onion, ginger, carrots, and green beans tossed with rice noodles—I could only find super-thin ones—and a sauce made from canned hummus (for the tahini/salt flavors) thinned with lime juice. I garnished with a whole lot of chopped cilantro, mint, and pistachios. It turned out like a bizzare-o pad thai with a vaguely Middle Eastern twist.
It wasn’t very good but I enjoyed it anyway, especially because I was pleasantly surprised to find the weather on the balcony (I love balconies!) totally bearable.
Anyway, the process of cooking was incredibly soothing, and the lack of equipment and missing ingredients only added to my amusement. We blew a fuse twice, so I also learned that we can’t run the stove, television, and iron all the same time. Good to know!
After supper I insisted we take a walk outside to help our bodies understand that it was, in fact, nighttime and not the middle of the day. There’s a little public beach about 0.65 km (practicing my conversions) up the road, so we went there and put our feet in the sea. I’ve never lived so close to the water, but KC has. He said he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it.
They say alcohol and caffeine make jet lag worse but to that I say, bollocks. After the judicious application of a couple whiskey-sodas, we retired around 10pm and slept more or less straight through until 5:30am. Perfect.
P.S. Having acquired some further supplies, I stir-fried those leftovers with a little frizzled minced garlic and topped it off with more hummus/lime sauce and a bit of salt. It was much, much, much better.
It’s tempting to write about how Oman is similar to and different from other countries in the region and try to address the concerns people have expressed about gender issues and religion and monarchies and extremism and and and and…
I’m giving up on it for the moment. As I mentioned previously, we visited Muscat in February. It was interesting and pleasant, so I’ll just start there.
The arrivals hall at the airport was full of men in traditional Omani dishdashas, which look very elegant in person. It was overwhelming to see everyone wearing a garment I’d only seen in photographs of foreign dignitaries, but I kept telling myself that clothes are clothes and that I was the visitor there, and I got over it pretty quickly. There weren’t many women at the airport, and though this is probably characteristic of the men-in-public-sphere/women-in-private-sphere part of the culture, it wasn’t nearly as noticeable elsewhere. For the sake of parity in my description of the clothes, the women around town were wearing a wide range of outfits. The most common style was the full hijab in a heavy black material, though it’s hard to say how heavy it is without having handled it. There were plenty of more colorful and less covering versions of the hijab, and there were plenty of women in Western clothes as well. I was wearing jeans and short-sleeved shirts and my head was uncovered, and no one gave me a second glance.
I’ll skip the administrative snafus that characterized our (lack of) ride from the airport and various (unconfirmed) appointments except to say that shit be disorganized and apparently no one is really accountable for anything. I was too jet lagged and culture-shocked to be upset about any of it, and mostly I’m glad to know how things go so I can be prepared to not stamp my foot like a spoiled American brat, which is sometimes my first impulse. I get the sense that well-timed gifts might be more effective. Kidding! (ahem)
On our first morning, we were taken around town to look at the types of houses, scattered around Muscat, that the company provides employees. KC took this photo from one of the more scenic rooftop terraces. You can see the Gulf of Oman in the distance.
And this is me facing the mountains in the opposite direction. As you can see, all the buildings are painted white.
I’m guessing from my posture that it was windy and chilly up there, but I expect the weather to be unspeakably sweltering when we finally move.
So that’s more or less what Muscat looks like. I had been optimistic about finding a somewhat walkable neighborhood, especially because I’m accustomed to walking a lot in car-culture places, which makes my threshold for walkability pretty low. (See: Houston) But after seeing the city, I’m resigned to driving everywhere. Not to be too dramatic, but I’m glad I got the chance to prepare emotionally. I’m over it already.
After lots of meetings and one very short nap and some ill-advised cocktails, we walked along the seawall to the far end of the main drag and back. KC said it was similar to the corniche in Abu Dhabi that skirts the Persian Gulf. And we found a good shawarma shop, so he was satisfied that two of his fond memories (the corniche and shawarma) from childhood can be relived in Muscat.
More later, perhaps.