Wadis, Wadis, Everywhere

Wadi Shab

Swimming is mentioned specifically in the collected teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Along with archery, walking, and horseracing the Hadith instructs Muslims to teach their children to swim. This Sunna is often discussed in the context of taking care of the body, of exercise.    

My first imaginings of the Middle East were of vast deserts in every direction. While this is, in part, true, I didn’t take into account the incredible coastlines along the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. People in the Arab world have as much a history on the sea as they do in the deserts.  

A little wadi art
Something else absent from my fantasy geography were the hundreds of Wadis. Wadis -  sometimes dry trails at the base of valleys but oftentimes deep pools and rivers bisected by torrents of clean water running from high soft rock plateaus into larger bodies of water. Wadis throughout the Levant empty into the Dead Sea and many closer to the coast find their way to the Ocean.

After hiking and swimming through several wadis over the past 18 months I understand a little better the holy directive to walk, to swim. Oman’s landscape is a product of some of the most intense geological activity to be found on the earth. Plates have been bumping and subducting and pushing up ocean floor for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the results is a series of mountains and plateaus that taper, eventually, into the Indian Ocean on the East coast of Oman. Over time water and debris have carved out pools and paths through the mountains that many hike up into on hot weekends.  

Our favorite Wadi to date is Wadi Shab which ends with a tiny keyhole swim into a cave bearing a secret waterfall. I’ve linked to someone else’s youtube video of the swim since I haven’t quite trusted myself to swim a giant Canon into the cave. The other pictures I’ve snapped along the way and at other wadis in the area. 

There are myriad wadis in Oman left to explore…and it looks like we just might get a little more time to explore than we’d planned!

....I know, the teasing.  It’s rude, isn’t it? But after our initially sad-making experience with bidding I wanted to keep some great news to myself for a while. ...and also make sure it’s real!   
Entrance of Wadi where rocks and debris are deposited before water runs into the ocean
On the left you'll see the falaj system funneling water to crops along the wadi
This is not photoshopped people - it is that green/blue and that clear
Little Snake Canyon has drops and waterfalls a plenty
Entrance to another wadi "Little Snake Canyon"


Ridiculous Problems

I’ve just exited the freeway and pulled up behind a miles long row of yellow sewage trucks.  I’m stuck in an industrial zone full of foreign worker trailers and, it bears mentioning again, trucks full of human waste.  Tears are welling up and a few escape as I wait to turn around and get back to the freeway.  I’m late for work after missing the correct exit TWICE.      

“That’s it!” I say out loud in my car.  “This ends today. I have to get it together!”

We’ve spent the last few months bidding for our next job and I’ve been sucked into an alternate universe where I only think about bidding, fuss about where we are going to live, research countries that will let us take the dog, worry about our timetable, check my phone for messages from Max to see if there’s news, make plans for all possible options, change and abandon plans as jobs drop off the list.  You know, turn into a crazy person.       

Bidding is the “process” by which you acquire your next assignment.  You tell jobs you are interested in that you’d like to go there, your references vouch for you, and if they like you back  - voila, onward assignment.  I thought it sounded kind of fun at first, to consider all the possibilities and imagine us in different cities eating different kinds of food  - but that was na├»ve.  It is pretty much a months long trip to the dentist.  Many of Max’s colleagues were offered assignments in November while we’ve been blowing about in the wind like an empty shopping bag for weeks.  The unpredictability of the process and the constant dashing of hopes really wears on you.   It feels like your whole life is on hold.       

The last few weeks, even though I knew I was being melodramatic and ungrateful, I couldn’t shake the afternoon blues.   Or, as my misadventure on the way to work proved, the morning fogs.  I’d get worked up about not getting particular jobs we wanted and then feel twice as bad when I realized how privileged my “problems” were.  I have food, shelter, family, books and regardless of the outcome of this bidding season I will still have those things in some form.

The turning point of this process was a good cry in my car after meeting world famous photographer Steve McCurry.  Steve McCurry is most well known for his photograph “Afghan Girl” featured on a 1985 cover of National Geographic.  His photographs of India, Southeast and Central Asia were incredible and as I looked at them I felt my heart swelling for an adventure out in the great world. It looked like we were headed back to Washington and while a lovely place to live, it wasn’t quite what we had in mind.  I felt all of my imagined adventures slipping away and at the same time felt so embarrassed at how spoiled I had become.  I trucked my patent leather heels to my car for a good cry and after about 20 minutes I had another one of those “get it together” epiphanies.   

You want adventures, Brooke? You mean, like sitting in your car at this historic port in Muscat, Oman in a fascinating Shiite enclave ? You mean like not knowing where you’ll end up in six months, how you’ll plan to start your family around such uncertainty, and whether or not your beloved dog can come? What could be more adventurous than that? 

It’s not for certain yet, but we are getting a better idea of where we’ll end up.  I’ve come ‘round the bend and I’m actually super duper excited about our most promising option.  We won’t know for a few more days, but here’s to a new year of hope and recognizing adventure when it smacks you in the face. 


Lovely Oman

Where have I been?  Oh here.  In onward assignment limbo.  But I thought I'd break the silence (and the emotional torture) with a little post about lovely, lovely Oman.  I haven't posted a lot about our time here and I have developed an idea that it's because it's so lovely and calm and beautiful.  Sounds like a crazy reason not to write, I know, but evidently I'm creatively motivated by discomfort and conflict.  I'm not sure how to unravel that just yet...

But anyway, I'm not much for New Year's resolutions but this year I'm going to work harder to share Oman.
Muttrah Souk Stained Glass Ceiling

Jebel Akhdar at Sunset
Ras Al Had

Oh, just a camel ranch

Jebal Akhdar Plants
The husband, contemplating they mysteries of the Universe
on Jebel Akhdar
Another great view from Jebel Akhdar
Muttrah Souk

Why I Love Maps

A few months ago I met a man from Sudan at the Muscat book fair.  He showed me pictures of a recent trip home to Khartoum.  I saw his family, traditional Sundanese food, a curly headed nephew pretending to smoke hookah, and lots and lots of sand.  One of the pictures was of the inside of a boat.

“That was my room”  He said to me.  

“Sorry, your room?”  

“Yes.  On the way to Sudan.”

From Oman.  On the way to Sudan from Oman...via boat.  He then mapped out his route for me:  Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Jeddah, Port Sudan, Khartoum.   Thousands of miles, multiple borders, many days, land, water, desert.  
I had just bought a beautiful book full of infographics and stylized maps from all over the world.  It is truly an amazing book, but after listening to my new friend describe his journey I thought THESE are the types of geographies, places and maps I really want to learn about. Geographies of shifting people, migrants, expatriates, people staying put but changing over time.  Stories of how people arrive at a certain location, a certain ideology or culture as evidenced by the places from which they come or even by the features of the landscape itself.  Map as story.  Map as identity.  Map as history.  Map as journey.     

I have become mildly obsessed with the 7 year journey of Paul Salopek, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow who is spending 84 months walking around the world.  

"Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden world walk is an exercise in slow journalism. Moving at the slow beat of his footsteps, Paul is engaging with the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by walking alongside the people who inhabit them every day. As he traverses the globe from Africa to South America, he is revealing the texture of the lives of people he encounters: the nomads, villagers, traders, farmers, and fishermen who never make the news."  

Lately I’ve been circling around the things we can learn about people and history by slowness, by participation instead of voyeurism, by observation instead of consumption.  After my first real trip outside of America I proudly ticked off the cities we'd seen to family and friends who were kind enough not to roll their eyes.  But, partly prodded by the slower travel habits of my husband and by serious thought about ethical and authentic travel, those kinds of things don’t matter to me anymore.  What matters to me are stories and histories, values and traditions, contradictions and identities.  All things that are somehow, impossibly captured by the best maps. 

My friend's story might look like miles of sand separated by an ocean strip on a map, but 
lurking among the latitudes and labels are stories of political and economic instability, familial values across distance, the limits of technology and luxuries of speedy travel.  It's all there, we just have to dig.               

*If you are interested in more "Slow Journalism" I just finished "Beyond The Beautiful Forevers" about a garbage slum in outer Mumbai that will blow you away.  Such profound, complete story telling and reporting.  If we think the solutions and causes of poverty are simple then we aren't trying hard enough to understand them.


Ghent: The Art, The Mustard

At Last! 
Sometimes you feel cool and sometimes you feel like a dummy.

That’s just the way it goes, I guess. 

When planning my few days in Brussels I got it in my head that a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without seeing the famous Ghent altarpiece.  The altarpiece, painted around 1430 by Jan van Eyck has 12 panels depicting biblical and other religions scenes.  Noted for its then groundbreaking application of realism, it was once described as encompassing "the whole art of painting".  This impressive piece endured the destruction of the iconoclast era and lost panels due to theft during WWI and WWII – spending some time in a salt mine during the latter.  After a massive restoration effort the altarpiece is now displayed in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium – theoretically a 45 minute train ride from Brussels.

Despite a rocky start of lost luggage and no guide book, I found my way to the train station and hopped on a train that certainly seemed to be headed toward Ghent.  About 45 minutes in and what felt like an equal number of stops I asked the train attendant how soon we’d be arriving in Ghent.  He gave me a sympathetic look from under his navy cap

“Oh no. You should have taken the other train.  This train goes to Ghent, but it is the slow train and stops at every town.  It will take 2.5 hours.”

This is when you feel like a dummy.  And you feel even more like a dummy when you finally arrive in Ghent without plans or a map or wifi and expect to just ask around in French only to realize that in Ghent they speak mostly Dutch, not French. 

In the train station an automated map showed me the general direction of the church and I decided to walk instead of navigating what seemed like a complicated tram system.

Ghent is medieval and beautiful, but felt a bit glum after the perpetual sunshine of Oman.  I was stopped at an intersection, feeling sorry for my lost self and my incredible-see-great-art-adventure come wander-about-without-a-clue when a swarm of bike riders charged down the hill toward me and tore through the intersection. There must have been 30 of them all wearing scarves and blazers. It was like a great whooshing, swooping  flock of crows - if crows chatted on cell phones and carried back packs.  Ghent appeared to be a town ruled by two wheels. Bike riders overran sidewalks and filled entire roads from curb to curb.  They held their heads high and wore skirts fearlessly.      

When I caught a closer look at these tweeded bike riders I discovered they looked a lot like me: freckles, sandy red hair and pale skin.  Which makes sense as my people are, in part, from Northern Europe.  My People!  I thought, lengthening my stride.  This sense of community, albeit completely imagined, breathed life into my legs and lifted my spirits.  I ate pickled beets and dried pork for lunch on a sunny park bench and watched dozens more bike riders sail past. 

When I finally stood in front of the altarpiece it was everything I hoped it would be.  I snuck an audio guide off the table when no one was looking and worked my way through each panel.  Even the teenage group of field trippers added to the ambience somehow. If you want a bit more than that you can read about it here and here and here and here. 

Nose Of Ghent
Later in the day I made friends with the lovely and Flemishly tall Una and asked her about the famous mustard shop I vaguely remembered reading about but didn’t know how to find.  The lovely and flemishly tall Una led me through town, past the cart selling “Noses of Ghent”  - a purple jelly candy shaped like, well, a nose – and to what can only be described as an artisanal mustard shop.  I picked a beautiful stone jar and the …mustarder(?)…mustardier(?)...mustardess(?) dipped a giant wooden ladel into a wooden barrel of mustard.  A barrel large enough for an adult sized game of hide and seek.   

...barrel of mustard
“It has to be wood” she tells me

“Don’t scoop your mustard with metal and never leave the spoon. It will split the 

You’ve been warned people.   

Una showed me how to ride the tram back and identify the “fast” train to Brussels.  I arrived in Brussels later than I had hoped and saw less than I would have liked in Ghent, but a spoonful of that eye watering mustard this morning reminded me that the trip was definitely worth it. 

Best spicy mustard I've ever had


Brussels, Belgium: Moules Et Frites

The Grand Place, Brussels

I understand it now. 

People, some people anyway, talk about moules et frites, mussels and fries, as the pinnacle of simple, perfect, Belgian/French food. To be honest, I do not know many of these people.  But after eating steamy mussels on the streets of Brussels last month, cooked in tomatoes and fennel, I understand why these people, who I imagine to effortlessly sport silk scarves around their necks, would say such things. 

“If I ever opened a restaurant we would serve moules et frites.  Only moules et frites” my new friend and much more experienced eater says to me after we clean our plates on a small table in front of Mer du Nord.  The street corner in front of this walk up restaurant is packed with Belgians, nubby scarves and shrimp scampi on tiny plates.  I nod and say absolutely like I have always believed this to be the perfect meal.    

I feel less fondly about the escargot we slurp out of salty broth.  But I would eat them again with enough butter and garlic.  …but I would eat almost anything with enough butter and garlic.

Last month I went to a library conference in Brussels and I have to say that eating oodles of great food before, after and sometimes during talking about books makes for pretty much the best trip ever.  Before leaving muscat I pulled my trusty hunter green rain coat from the back of the closet (I literally had to brush dust from the lapels) and packed my favorite boots.  Winter clothes also make for pretty much the best trip ever.    

I made new traveling friends in Brussels and met up with a new/old friend who happened to be there for a conference as well.  We tromped through the night from creperie to fry shack, Grand Place to royal palace.  When I left her I hiked my black jeans back through town, churches lit up and bars spilling out into the street.  I got lost a few times, asked bar keeps for directions in passable French and flipped my collar up around my ears to keep out the cold. 

I’ll just say it – I felt cool.  I know, hard to imagine I don’t always feel cool when I’m puttering around the garden at home or soaking beans for the next day’s lunch - but there you have it.

Grand Place
Yes Please.  Oh wait, they cost 9 Euro each?  I'll just look. 
Would that this were on my way to work each day
Cool bistro where I had lunch with friends on our last day
Church by our flat
Tres Romantique!  The streets of Brussels