Jebel Shams Balcony Walk & Misfat Village

Jebel Shams
Jebel Shams
Last week an Omani told me that he wanted to build a new home with a great big yard. "To host the moon and the stars at night." My gosh Oman. You are great.

Here are two more great things about Oman: the Jebel Shams Balcony Walk and Misfat Village.

The Balcony Walk is just what it sounds like - a thin ledge that leads you around Oman's "Grand Canyon." A small village is tucked into the rocks as the canyon horseshoes. Had the spit scared out of me a time or two.
Clearly, we were owning that ridiculous adventure stance 
Misfat is a lovely mountain village with a functioning falaj system. 

Misfat Falaj


After Dinner

There is a Bedouin adage of sorts about hospitality, it goes like this: If an unexpected visitor arrives at your door, he should be welcomed, fed and given rest in your home for three days. He is your esteemed guest. Only after three days can you ask the person's name, where he comes from, and what he wants. 

This spirit of warmth and welcoming has, almost without exception, been our experience in the Middle East over the past decade. I was reminded of this a few nights ago as Max and I shared sushi, of all things, with an Omani friend. 

"In the region of Batinah, where I'm from, you must first share a meal together before asking about serious things. After the meal is cleared you can ask how is your family? how is your health?"  If you just sit down and ask about someone right away, he continued in broken English, this signals to your host that you are anxious to eat and then leave their company as quickly as possible.

Sure enough, after eating he leaned back and we talked about politics and shared stories for a few hours.

Throughout our years in the Middle East, Max and I have been welcomed into dozens of homes by people who were often not much more than strangers. They shared their traditions, asked about our families, and offered us their best meals. They lived Islam in a way that exemplified generosity, moderation, and sincere devotion.   

In this season of gratitude and reflection, I’m thankful for the many meals over which I’ve come to better understand Arabs and Islam. For the many friends we’ve made in the Middle East who have taught us how to build relationships on shared values despite coming from very different places. I’m thankful for the space it’s made in my brain and my heart.

If you are having a hard time separating the heinous acts of groups or individuals claiming to represent Islam from the regular folks with the same concerns and joys as you, lean on my experiences for a while. And if you have the chance to make real life connections with people who believe differently than you –don’t turn it down. In fact, seek after them. You’ll be surprised how much the people you get to know are different from the narratives we often accept about them. You’ll learn about their daughter’s acceptance into University. You’ll learn about their bad bosses and their favorite picnic spot. You’ll learn about their best chicken recipe and their retirement plans. You’ll find you have a lot more in common than you thought.   

All after dinner of course.  


Light Over Darkness

This week Hindus celebrate Diwali. My Indian colleagues explain it to me as they light  diyas or small candles. On the first day they wear new clothing and shining hair as they fill a banquet table full of Diwali sweets: Maaladu, Ladoo, Burfi made of coconut, almond and cardamom.

“We celebrate the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair."

During the five days of celebration I contemplated the symbolic timing of Diwali  - the first night coincides with the darkest night of the year.

I have been thinking about this all week as a kind of beautiful, hopeful defiance. In the darkness they put on their best clothing and light candles – small acts that some could argue won’t make a difference to the overall status of mid-winter despair. They recognize the realities of light and dark, good and evil, and symbolically participate in the gradual return to light, goodness, hope, wisdom.

Today I awoke to the terrible news of terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. Over 120 dead in Paris, over 40 in Beirut and many more wounded. Borders are tightening up and people are, understandably, afraid.

And I thought about that phrase “light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.”

I have to believe it’s possible.



Why yes, I did study Medieval Manuscripts in Graduate School
“Blend in, adapt.” He says while kneading gnarled, woodworkers hands. "That is what we did when we moved here 30 years ago. We didn’t want to change things, we wanted to understand, to add our lives to whatever they were already doing here.”

The elderly couple before us seem as central to this small town as anybody we’ve met over the last few years of visiting, but he went on to describe the not so subtle warning spoken over the pulpit their first week in town “We don’t need nobody with college degrees coming to our town and tellin' us what to do!"

Our new friend was the former director of the Anasazi State Park in Boulder Utah and even though we had walked the packed gravel road to find a notary for some important mid-vacation legal work, we spent a good portion of that morning talking to the historian and his wife about Ancestral Puebloan funerary rites, uncovering ancient burial plots, the national woodworking conference from which he had just returned and their life in this small town. I couldn’t help but comparing their philosophy to that of those he spent his life studying.  Adapt, study the local flora and fauna, expand on the strengths of your tribe and find a way to make your identity compliment your circumstances. 

Last year, after returning from home leave I felt that familiar expat split: part of two worlds and not really sure of either. But as each year passes I’m getting better at integrating my experiences into something relevant and meaningful in the present.  My past selves into one life, one identity.

Last week back in Muscat we fought the terrible traffic to little India and picked up a 100 year old book press My husband’s family unearthed in Salt Lake City a few years ago. Literally unearthed. It was hidden under the porch of the century old family home and covered in rust. I’ve packed this beast from DC to Morocco to Oman hoping that I could someday use it in my bookbinding studio. This year we found a metalworker who could grind off the dirt and rust, paint the turning wheel, lubricate the spindle and re-attach the press plate. Suresh, from Bangladesh, finally fixed our early 20th century cast iron book press once used by Max’s English Great Grandfather. With my new excitement over the press, I just started teaching a bookbinding class, a skill I first learned in college before studying with a bookbinder in Jerusalem.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that, as textual needs and circumstances change, has been prepared and written over again and again. Much of the previous text is altered or erased, but there is a still a trace of the preceding texts in the final product. Over the centuries a medieval manuscript could have acquired four, five, six different surface writings – all previous writings mostly hidden from view but still part of the integral makeup. In fact, the building up of the text surface can make the book stronger. Unusual, perhaps, but more able to receive the next text and maintain its usefulness and beauty.

I should be so lucky. 


Sri Lanka: Wonder

Kandy Lake

“The Buddha did not deny the existence of suffering, but he also did not deny the existence of joy and happiness.  If you think that Buddhism says, “Everything is suffering and we cannot do anything about it,” that is the opposite of the Buddha’s message.”   
Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

friendly critter
Lest you think Max and I moped about in paradise being sad sacks the whole time, there was also much joy and happiness. We stayed in an insane bungalow, hidden in the mountains of Kandy by verdant, jungle canopy but also by thick morning fog.  I fulfilled what was, until that moment, an un-realized life goal to bath al fresco in a rooftop bathtub enclosed by trees. Sure, I had to watch for critters what might fall from said trees and into my bath, but vigilance was a small price to pay.  Later, over a candlelight dinner of spicy curries we took turns watching for snakes slithering from the foliage to join our meal unbidden.  Frogs perched in the eves above us and croaked their night song.

Our "jungalow" surrounded in fog.

We spotted black hooded orioles and a ceylon blue magpie while riding an Elephant, hands resting on his massive ears, and toured tea factories after winding through hills being harvested by Sri Lankan women. 


We climbed 1200 steps to the top of a 5th century citadel at Sigiriya and inspected remarkably preserved paintings before exiting through enormous lion paws carved into rock.  
So. Many. Steps. 
Beautiful frescos - half way up the citadel face.

But the business of writing about travel is fraught with temptations of vanity and dishonesty. It makes for great facebook updates and crafted high adventure identities based on a few photos, but its author is constantly at risk of boiling complex people and places to one-dimensional objects of consumption existing only for personal pleasure.

I think about this so often I am paralyzed by it. 

It felt a bit disingenuous to share only photographs of lush green forests and majestic Elephant baths from our trip to Sri Lanka without placing them in context of Sri Lanka's recent troubles. …but there were incredible creatures swinging from trees above our private bungalow terrace, glorious rain and lightening storms that stretched over the highlands and tea plantations so green and misty that we lost ourselves inside. To ignore the wonder of a place feels just as dishonest as to focus on its grittier aspects.       

And the world is too amazing not to share.
Lightening Overlooking Kandy
Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Suffering

Offerings at the Dambulla Cave Temples
It was a terrible time.  There were bombs going off everywhere and a lot of innocent people dying.”

Our local guide Rajita said this to us one night as we snaked through dark jungle roads lit dimly by naked bulbs in fruit stands. This was the single comment he offered about Sri Lanka’s horrific 26 year civil war. And really, civil war is too tidy a word for the kind of fractured brutality that took place. Suicide bombings, kidnapping and dismemberment were daily occurrences.   

While Rajita was, for obvious and good reason, brief about the war, he did talk at length with us about Buddhism. Sri Lanka has been an important stronghold for Buddhism since the 3rd century BC and Sri Lankans take credit for initiating the Buddhist monastic movement. 70% of the population is Buddhist. 

To learn about the war and the Buddha at the same made sense to me. The Buddha found the way to enlightenment as he sought to come to terms with suffering. He meditated on inevitable truths that all get old, we get sick,we die. All of the things that we love will be taken at some point in life.  The slow time frame of these natural realties is collapsed, pulverized in war. Suffering 2.0.

Ok, so suffering exits. But what is one to do about it? What responsibilities do we have to each other or, if you are inclined, to God? I have thought about this a lot in different places we’ve lived in the Middle East. What is a morally responsible way to engage with the suffering of others and, by necessity, to manage the suffering of one's self? How ought we to approach and interpret unfair and indiscriminate suffering? Conflict seems to bring these questions to the forefront and the Buddha’s meditations are as important today as they were during his own time.   

In her book “Buddha” the religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote “In his view (the Buddha), the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, realize how fully it permeates our whole experience and feel the pain of all other beings, even those we don’t find congenial.”

As we left Sri Lanka to come back to Oman we read about the terrible earthquake in Nepal.  Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and probably one of the least able to deal with the effects of such a devastating natural disaster. A lot of people will suffer for  a long time. Sri Lanka itself lost more than 35000 people in the horrible 2004 tsunami.     
Train Station in Nurya Elia

It was easy to be na├»ve in Sri Lanka about the island nation’s painful recent history. It’s beyond beautiful, the people are kind and adventure seems to lurk around every corner. On our trip we read about The Buddha on a train bound for the highest point of the island, Nurya Elia, and shared snippets out loud over the roar of the wind through open windows. We visited the temple of the tooth where ear splitting drummers guarded a relic said to be the Buddha’s tooth. We climbed shin splinting stairs to the cave temples at Dambulla where a distant relative of the Bodhi tree grows.  But suffering was never far from our minds. 
Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves
Temple of the Tooth - people waiting to give offerings