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I’ll dispense with the blah-blah-blah about why I stopped blogging and why I feel like starting again now. Let’s just catch up on the last 2.5 years, shall we?
I realized a few months after I stopped posting here that I wanted some record of our travels, so I resurrected my flickr account and have been uploading photos there a few times a year. If I could go back and do it again I would include a lot more tags and captions, but it was already a bit tedious to sort and choose the photos after such long intervals so I didn’t bother. Anyway, here are albums of the places we’ve visited in Oman, some of them more than once:
- Muscat – the capital of Oman, where we live
- Jebels Akhdar and Shams – mountains
- Ras al Jinz – turtle beaches
- Sharqiya Sands – camping, star-gazing, sand-driving in the dunes
- Ibra Tombs – archaeological site on Salmah Plateau
- Bimmah – on the coast not too far from Muscat
- Nizwah – the old capital of Oman, when Muscat was a city-state
- Star Dunes – sand-driving near the UAE border
- Salalah – famous for its monsoon season
- Bar al Hickman – sandbar near some huge salt flats
- Various wadis and such
And because Muscat is on the other side of the planet from Philadelphia, we’ve taken a few opportunities to explore a few places that would otherwise be prohibitively far away:
- Istanbul – K had a conference and I tagged along
- Bucharest and Sinaia – to visit our friend, Matei
- Sri Lanka – traveling with Philly friends Pedro and Len
- Srinagar and Leh – the majestic Himalayas, with K’s Mumbai cousins, Shyam and Ami
- Kerala – the first democratically elected communist state, again with our comrade Matei
- Goa – traveling with some Muscat friends, Cristina and Iñaki and their 10-month-old daughter, Erica
And in an effort to soften the blow of jet lag when traveling to and from Philadelphia, we’ve taken to stopping in Europe to poke around and adjust our circadian rhythms (some of these albums have photos from long-ago visits):
- Venice – we definitely slept through a lot of this trip
- Ireland – Dublin, Cork, and Sheep’s Head Island
- Spain – Madrid, Panticosa (in the Pyrenees), and Barcelona
In other news, I did a CELTA course, which was grueling but worthwhile for many reasons. I taught a few classes at AMIDEAST before they closed down their Muscat office last summer, and I did quite a bit of freelance copy editing – always my favorite. I started studying Arabic with a tutor and Spanish more casually using online learning tools. We also moved house within Muscat, which was kind of a pain but we like our new place much better.
Last but not least, at the end of November 2016 K and I welcomed our son, Veeru. I have it on good authority that he is the best baby ever made.
I’m not sure how or if I’ll proceed with updating this space. So if you have a minute – dear handful of friends I’ve reached out to – let me know which of the places or topics I’ve mentioned above you’d like to hear more about. TIA!
In the middle of our trip, we took an intercity bus (sort of a cross between a Megabus and a Greyhound, I guess) from Mumbai to Pune, where K lived for a few years as a student. It took forever to get out of Mumbai, but once we did, the scenery was breathtaking. There were all these little waterfalls pouring down lush, green mountainsides. Unfortunately, I have not mastered the skill of taking decent photos through the rain-streaked window of a moving bus, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
Taking cellphone video from a moving rickshaw, however, I can do. Pune is much more chill than Mumbai, and there are a lot more young people around. Just imagine the smell of diesel to complete the sensory experience of this next video.
It’s strange that I’ve written two posts about India without mentioning the absolutely insane traffic. This next video gets that across much better, though because it’s in Pune and not Mumbai, it’s not nearly as extreme as it can get. Rather than let the incessant honking stress me out, I thought of it as more casual than hostile, like “Hi! You there! I know you won’t use your indicator or look over your shoulder before changing your trajectory, so meep-meep, FYI, I’m here!” (Also, I realize it’s unsettling, but people cover their faces because of the pollution, not for modesty or banditry, for the most part.)
Anyway, we visited some family friends, walked around Ferguson College, did a little shopping, saw some tourist sites. I’m so behind on this chronicle that it seems absurd to keep going, but for old time’s sake, here’s me standing beside a giant banyan tree.
This was in a park outside a shrine that we visited, which I described in my notebook as follows:
…a basalt cave with straight pillars and swept stone floors. There were a few older women sitting around looking out at the courtyard. There was the smell of incense coming from the shrines, which were smaller, deeper caves that we didn’t enter or photograph.
To be super meta about it, here’s a picture K took of me at the German Bakery, where I probably wrote that last bit.
Whoever designed those mugs was not thinking of the south-paws in our midst, though I guess drinking coffee with your nondominant hand isn’t that big a deal. Our hostess in Mumbai had a set as well, so they are not super uncommon. Anyway, this is what I wrote (later) about the German Bakery:
There was a metal-detector, bag search, and (for K) a pat-down at the door because there was a bomb blast there a few years ago… What makes the security measures especially strange is that it’s a coffeehouse, a small one. We had americanos, served with heart-shaped cookies we didn’t touch because we’ve been overeating so constantly.
It appears that years of technical writing have killed whatever poetry used to inject itself into my notebooks, but the crisp little reminders of moments and moods are fun to collect, and they’re not always quite as dry as these. Also, during those moments and moods, a little scribble break is pretty refreshing regardless of what comes of it, and it’s a break for K as well because it forces me to stop talking for a few minutes.
And this has officially gone off the narrative rails.
I realize this continues to be a superficial account of our trip to India, but I’m very conscious of how my worldview as a Westerner colors things, which makes a deeper account of it time-consuming and fraught. So I’ll continue with the pictures as I sort things out.
A few days into our visit, K’s cousin took us out to his mango farm a couple of hours north of Mumbai.* It’s near a little village called Dhundalwadi, which means “foggy hamlet.” The farm is extremely beautiful, especially in the rainy season, which K and I were very much enjoying after our last couple months in the desert.
We sat on the veranda by the little courtyard chatting for an hour or two.
That is K’s cousin’s wife, Ami. If I learned nothing else from this trip (though I hope I learned another thing or two), I learned that it’s much easier to place everyone on a family tree when you actually meet them in person instead of just hearing their names. This next photo is K’s aunt whom I know as badi-mami-ji (“mami” means that she is the wife of K’s maternal uncle, “badi” specifies that it was the elder of the maternal uncles, and “ji” is respectful—these things get very specific).
She is an excellent person and all of her outfits were as beautiful as this one.
For lunch we drove to a roadside restaurant for kebabs. It was called Parsi Dabba, but K said the food was Punjabi. (I’m not equipped to argue the differences between Parsi and Punjabi cuisine. Someday.) The customers sat under tents in a garden and the server carried a monsoon umbrella to deliver the food from the kitchen to the tables. If I had to choose a favorite meal in India, this one would win for atmosphere. The food was good, too. Paneer tikka is my new favorite thing.
After lunch we came back to the farmhouse and the ladies took a nap while K and I had a couple beers with his cousin, Shyam. (Shyam-bhaiya, to us.)
We were sitting on this… raised gazebo-like thing?
I wouldn’t have noticed that the wood is just a covering on the concrete construction, but it seems obvious now that actual wood would not survive a single rainy season. Wood disintegrates quickly in this climate. Except the live stuff, of course.
You can’t tell from the pictures, but the water came up beyond our ankles, so walking through this was more like wading.
Most people in the area farm the rice-paddies, and this was the big season for that. We could see them at working in the distance. This photo is terrible, but it’s just as well because it doesn’t seem right to post sharp photos of unsuspecting strangers, and this has a sort of impressionist feel that suits the mood of the day.
The conical rain-jackets make sense for this kind of work, and in this picture, you can see them from the back, front, and side. Like in a catalog. This was not intentional.
I’m trying to quit while I’m ahead with this stuff so… More tomorrow! (Famous last-post words.)
*I’ve heard that it’s a very American thing to measure driving distance in time instead of miles or kilometers, and I nearly edited that last sentence to be more precise, but I’m leaving it for a little American flavor.
Our trip to India was more about seeing family and friends than sightseeing, so it’s hard to know what tone to take in this travelogue. I didn’t even bring my fancier camera, ostensibly because it would be raining the whole time, but the truth is, I don’t love taking pictures when I’m traveling in cities, even though I love city photos. So some of these pictures are K’s, because he doesn’t have this hang-up. Moving on.
Our first day was spent meeting and greeting and having tea and such. (Please forgive my glossing over all that in the interest of actually posting something and not just writing in circles, as is my wont.) On the second day, K and I took an auto-rickshaw (more on this later) to the station and took the local train downtown. His family was adamant that this was a terrible, terrible idea, but he convinced them that public trans is of great interest to us, which sounds weird but is true, and after some time they stopped protesting.
I guess what’s most different is that the doors don’t close. This is from the platform at Goregaon East.
People do fall out sometimes. The general sense of what’s an acceptable risk is different in Mumbai, and it is evident in many aspects of the city. It did not bother me as much as I thought it would, which I realize isn’t exactly a good thing.
It was nearly midday when we went, so the crowds weren’t too bad, especially in the first-class carriage. (There’s also a ladies-only carriage, but it’s optional. If it was rush hour I might have separated from Karan to ride there.) You can sort of see through the bars at the back that the other carriage is a lot more crowded.
One thing that amused me was that the stops were announced in Marathi, Hindi, and English, but because all the station names are pretty much the same in each language, it was only the “next stop” being translated over and over again. I’m trying to think of other cities that do this; I’m sure there are a few.
We got downtown and walked around. It was beautifully green, especially after the sun-bleached landscape of Muscat.
We made our way to the Gateway of India.
There were some security measures in place for getting into the plaza. Because of the 2008 attacks, protecting “soft targets” is a priority, which changes the atmosphere of these places. I feel like every single detail I mention deserves its own post. This is hard!
We also went to Nariman Point, where we saw the epic coastline of Mumbai from an interesting vantage.
We were gently scolded for this next one. I wanted to show how big those things are, but I understand why it’s not allowed.
K probably has enough of these sorts of shots for a series we could call “Rachel, For Scale.”
Okay, enough of a photo-dump for now. I think the only way I’ll be able to post more about this trip is to let it be sort of disorganized and choppy. Ta ta for now!
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.