12.30.2013

The Things We Take For Granted

"I've been in Oman for two years, Ma'am.  After three years I'll get to go home"

"And where's home?"  I ask

"Nepal.  I'm going to get married"

"That's wonderful.  Is it someone you know?"

"Yes Ma'am, I met him in school.  It is good.  How long have you been married?"

"Eight years" I tell her.  I steel my self for the next question which is always and inevitably why don't you have kids? 

But instead, this woman asks me with wide eyes "Is it a love marriage?"

"Well, yes"

"Oh, of course.  That's nice. It's nice when you know them"  she smiles back at me.

12.28.2013

Like a Rocket to the Moon


Dubai on a rare cloudy day
Max followed me to Dubai for some library training in November. That's right, we take turns wearing the pants in this house. I didn't know what to expect and it turned out to be one of the most conflicting travel experiences I've had to date.  I was both amazed and distraught, over and underwhelmed.  

I will say this - when we got in the crowded elevator at the base of the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world, and the elevator ascended 124 floors to the observation deck and the lights inside the elevator blinked faster and faster and the music grew more frantic and my ears popped as we climbed higher, a bit of panic crept into my chest.  I imagined us shooting up through the top of the needle tipped structure and bursting out into the clouds - Wonkavator style.  Or a real life rocket to the moon.     

Burj Khalifa: Tallest Building in the World - 163 floors
The outer observation deck.  Clouds people - that's how high up we were

View from the inner observation area
Diver Fountain - one of many attractions inside the Dubai Mall, largest mall in the world. 
I know, yet another superlative. 
 These ships are loaded with all kinds of goods - baby play pens, tires, washing machines - bound for Iran. 
Water Taxi across the Dubai Creek. 
Water Taxi Station
 

12.09.2013

From the Journal

11/9/2013

Today Max and I swam in the Bandar Jissah lagoon and in the afternoon, when the tide sucked back into the sea and left a shallow shelf of water I dropped my book on the chair and wandered into the warm ocean.  I lay down, face to the sky, feet to the open water and let the waves roll up and down my body.  Why I did this I am not sure.  It just felt like the right thing to do.  When I finally arose and walked back to my chair, Max told me he was seconds away from coming to see if I was still alive.

It was only when I got home that I thought of the section in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert  by environmentalist and nature writer Terry Tempest Williams in which she climbs into a tree and spends the morning within its branches.  Trying to somehow bridge the voyeristic relationship we have with nature - we look at it, photograph it, draw it but we don't participate in something with it, two willing partners.  I often feel out of my depth in nature.  I am drawn to it and want to be in it, but I feel unequal to its realities in natural skills and general biological knowledge.  I'm growing that knowledge, but it's slow.

I certainly didn't grow up around the sea - Utah being hundreds miles from the nearest ocean and the Great Salt Lake a body of water I have only visited twice, to my great shame.  But each morning when Max gets up for work I think I'll ask him to drive himself so I can keep sleeping, but then I think of running along the beach behind the embassy with Buckley and I sit up with a grumble.  I can't stay away and without exception when I get to the beach I regret not having brought something more suitable for swimming.  I console myself by watching the dog chase seagulls into the water as far as he dares or sniff through banks of shells.


11/29/13

Last night we met the Afghany Ambassador to Oman at a publishing event.  When the discussion turned to Arabic and Max said  "You have to really feel it in your mouth" The Ambassador interrupted, flicking ash from his cigarette.  "No, you have to feel it in your belly" he said with a slight smile.

12/1/2013

Today I found myself in front of a grocery store in what I've come to call "Little Pakistan" after returning a friend to her home.  I waded through throngs of men dressed in white or light blue shalwar kameez' with my strawberry hair.  As I rounded the vegetable isle I saw a booth with a sign that read "coconut carving" trailing a line of people holding coconuts.  What  else could I do but pick up a coconut and stand in line?  As I got closer to the square opening in the box I saw husky coconuts go in and bags of milky white shavings come out.  I caught the eye of a woman holding a baby standing next to her husband in front of me.

"What do you do with it?" I said, pointing to the sack in someone's hand.

They both burst into good hearted laughter.

"We were just talking about that and wondering what you were going to do with it!"

Or, in other words  What is this American in those white jeans doing with this coconut in this line in this neighborhood?  

"You use it with vegetables or salads" they tell me and answer follow up questions about curry leaves as well.  "You can use the internet too" the husband tells me, noticing I will need much more help than their brief explanation.  But he is not unkind when faced with the gulf of things I don't know. 

11.26.2013

Jebel Akdar: Wild Camping on the Saiq Plateau


To hear Max tell it my people crawled out of caves only a few years ago and we've just recently learned to use an indoor toilet.  That is to say, my family camped while I was growing up.  Max told me a few of his colleagues were shocked to hear that we went camping on Oman's highest mountain, Jebel Akdar, a few weeks ago and that it was by my instigation.  That's nothing,  he tells his be-suited colleagues, Brooke has been on an honest to gosh cattle drive - on the saddle, multiple days and nights, camping along the way.  While that is true, let's not explore the ways in which this event in my life was closer to a scene in City Slickers than one from the life of Calamity Jane, showing up for the cattle drive in my coolest vintage jogging jacket plucked from our local thrift store, everyone else more appropriately adorned in plaid and spurs.

But anyways, a few weeks ago Max and I scaled the nearly 10,000 feet of Jebel Akdar to explore the Saiq Plateau and hunker down for the night.  As we ascended miles and miles of switchbacks the temperature dropped 20 degrees.  We rolled down sleeves and opened windows to feel the fresh air.  The roads were lined with dozens of pomegranate sellers boasting crates of pinky fruit just picked from the orchards.  Jebel Akdar's moderate temperatures have allowed fruit to grow that could never survive in the lower, harsher desert climate: peaches, pomegranates, grapes, pears, apples.
Al Ayn
Mostly by accident we arrived at the lovely village of Al Ayn, formed on the edge of a rock-spur exploding into the empty space of a giant gorge below.  The village is built on a very steep incline and as I walked deeper into the village I descended below fruit trees and stone water troughs carrying water along the mountainside throughout the village called Falaj.         

We built a fire (for the record MAX built the fire) cooked a meal of kefta in our little grill and settled into complete silence.  Everything was lovely and picturesque, like we'd been re-inacting a scene from an American Eagle campaign (minus the trendy clothes, plus a normal body weight) until we extinguished the fire and zipped ourselves in the tent for the night.

The terror.  The donkey induced terror.  After dozing for a few minutes Buckley started to grumble - that strange, hesitant dog grumble when they think something is near but aren't quite sure.  Then we heard wild donkeys braying and racing past our tent.  Donkeys on their own aren't very scary, but then I started to wonder what else was out there.  No one knows where we are.  A friendly park ranger hasn't checked us into our campsite and noted our license plate number I began to think.  The rules for camping in Oman are simple:  If it isn't someone's private property or restricted by a sign, you can throw a tent down and camp.  It makes for some pretty great wild camping, but also a wee bit of a fright when you find yourself alone in the wild, in a foreign country with only limited camping knowledge.  I don't even have a pocket knife!  My mind raced with how I would defend my family should worse come to worse, how I would navigate by the stars and find my way down the mountain and back home - a feat I in NO way could actually have performed.  We slept on and off, being awoken by donkeys, quiet dog noises and wind scuffles that sounded suspiciously like footsteps.  Despite a crap night, Max assured me that he had fun and we will, indeed, go camping again.  The mountain was beautiful and it certainly felt like a getaway.

My family has been urbanized for generations Max tells his friends at work the next day, to contrast the vast difference in our upbringing and approach to the outdoors.  It is true my people were farmers but I grew up in a very suburban suburb of Salt Lake City.  Where, wouldn't you know it, gosh darn, I met the urbanized young man I now share a life with.  Who lived in my same county, had the same number of children in his family, attended the same church and worked an after school job just like me.  It's amazing how different two people from almost exactly identical childhood circumstances can turn out - He, sophisticated and worldy,  Me, gap toothed and wide eyed.  Shucks.

If you can't tell, this has become a running joke at our house.  I have exaggerated the extent to which Max thinks of my people as ruffians because it gets his goat.  Every time :)     

Al Ayn
Al Ayn


11.09.2013

When in...

A few days ago I went with a girlfriend to a Persian rug showroom*.  We inspected nap and asked cotton or wool.  Afterwards we walked across the street to the Muscat Bakery and were overwhelmed with sugary treats formed into shapes and painted bright colors, pastries and breads I'd never seen and what I can now identify as a Panipuri station.  We made our way around the pastry displays and ended up in front of a cart loaded with hollow ball shaped crisps, a hole punched in the top and at least a dozen sauces and toppings arranged like a salad bar.  One of the two men behind the counter plucked a crisp from the pile and filled it with spicy potatoes before layering green flavored broth, plain yogurt, pomegranate seeds and tamarind chutney.  He handed over a small plate with two panipuri and my eyes met my friend's for just a moment before lifting my eyebrows and popping one into my mouth.

When in Rome  I thought.  Or Oman....Or India...or Pakistan...or...Sri Lanka...or...Iran...

I've had several moments like this over the past few weeks.  Moments when my nose expected the tangy lemon and thyme of Za'atar, a common spice in the Middle East, and smelled, instead, Curry, Masala and Ginger.  Times when we ate Chapati instead of Flatbread and passed by grocery store isles stacked temporarily with decorations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.  When the local English radio station made the drive to work seem like a jaunt through the commonwealth instead of a dash along freeways cut into Arabian dunes.  We went out to dinner with some friends the other night and among the four couples, five nationalities were represented.  

I did not expect to find such a diversity of people and cultures here in Oman.  Perhaps I should have anticipated it considering Oman's 30-40% expat population, but anyway it's been a delightful surprise.  Indians, Philippinos, Pakistanis, Americans, Kiwis, Iranians, Turks, Malaysians, Thai, Australians, South Africans, Arabs from the Gulf and beyond, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis - they are all here eating their traditional foods and reconstructing their local culture.

Lately I have been finding it difficult to get a hold of what this place IS.  What it sounds like or looks like or feels like.  Of course the response to that is - it is what it is, duh - but it's sometimes hard for my librarian brain to resist the urge to catalog, to put things in boxes that make knowing easier.  But that's what I love about new places - it shakes up my catalog and makes me figure out new labels or toss them out entirely.  It reminds me that people, places and cultures can't be put in boxes - they are too complex and multifaceted to be penned in by my limited perspective.  Even though accessibility and consumption and are  my constant professional pursuit; they are horrible ways to greet the world and its people.    

The other day I caught a whiff of curry and inhaled deeply with a smile instead of making a puzzled face.  I've eaten Panipuri and learned to say Thank You in Hindi and Bangla but that doesn't quite seem like enough.  I guess we've got quite a bit more time to dig in.  


*And didn't buy a THING I'll have you know

10.10.2013

Car Go Fast

(I actually wrote this last week...and then promptly forgot about it...)

Today I think I found more evidence that DMVs everywhere feel and even partially look the same.  Same chairs, same listless stares, same paint peeling walls.  BUT, getting my Omani license today went much smoother than I could have hoped.  They corralled a herd of new Embassy peopled into a waiting room then called us out one by one to take an eye test in a mostly empty yellow room with an eye chart at the end.  Perhaps it's a residual of my High School please the teacher days, but eye tests give me a bit of anxiety.  The possibility of immediate negative feedback?  Your very freedom of movement depending on the outcome of a jumble of letters? ..........  It's hard to say.

But in the end I read a few letters, only guessed at one and got it right, and picked up my shiney Omani drivers' license later that day.  

And you know what else feels the same as back home?  Getting pulled over by the police without said license because it's being processed by said police.    

Boo.  

But I wasn't taken to prison or anything and I am now a full fledged driver.  I keep looking down at the thermometer hovering somewhere between 96 and 100 and thinking I really have to get that fixed but then I remember that it is actually almost October and somewhere between 96 and 100 degrees.  Good think my AC is boss.  And yes, I know that words like "boss" age me but working in a school makes one well aware of how old they are and I feel just fine about it.  

10.09.2013

Relax Your Stroke

A Little shipwreck on one of the beaches I frequent with the Dog

My car clock said 8:20 and the temperature read 105.  After dousing my hair with clean water, gulping down handfuls of pomegranate seeds, climbing into the car and driving for a few minutes the digital display had worked its way down to 96. 

Since moving to Oman I have wanted to start open water swimming in the warm Arabian Sea and last week was the first time I felt like it wasn’t too hot.  That’s right, it’s finally cooled off enough to ocean swim in the wee hours of the morning. 

I’ve been lap swimming for years, but plunging into the salty sea, critters abounding and searing water creeping into your nose, is a different feeling.  I spent most of my first swim trying to push out thoughts of zebra sharks and sea snakes that might slowly creep into my field of vision, thus causing panic verging on freak out.  Not that I don’t want to see them in the right context, but mid stroke I was afraid I would splash about and become tangled up with something slimy.  Oman has fantastic sea life and snorkeling, but honestly, in this particular spot my fears were pretty unrealistic.  I saw a few sardines and crabs crawling about on the rocks that dotted the cove, but it’s a pretty coral-less beach. 

Yesterday we headed for a wilder beach without protection from man made jetties.  The rocking waves are both fantastic and frustrating.  We started against the current and when you’ve been paddling for what feels like hours and look to the shoreline to discover you’ve only gone a few meters its kind of a bummer.  But after my first open water swim I came home and googled “open water swimming” because I’m nerdy like that.  One of the tips I came to again and again was relax your stroke.  The first instinct when a particularly strong current sweeps across you is to swim faster, kick harder, work your way through it and stay on course.  But I found that if I let it move me a bit farther out to sea or towards the shore instead of fighting, I can maintain momentum and save energy – putting me back on course faster and with less effort.     

I swim with a few older women and when we pause to catch our breath or stretch our arms on the sand we talk about Islam, Architecture, Politics, The new Opera house in Muscat and gardening.   I usually have little to contribute to the conversation, but I listen and ask questions of women who have lived here far longer and seen much more than I have.  I’ve swapped out my sleek black swimmers cap for a bright pink one in order to identify myself to fishing boats that zip along the coast and I wear tight pants to my calves so as not to offend the locals who troll the beach each morning.  Yesterday I saw a spikey sea urchin and a few fusiliers who had momentarily abandoned their schools.   

It takes all morning to drive out to the beach, stretch, swim, wash off, dry, kick sand away and navigate my car back across the beach and onto the paved road again.  But I’ve got things to do and meals to cook and a house to clean and library lessons to prepare for and plants that need repotting - do I really have time for this?     

Relax your stroke I think to myself.  



9.22.2013

Doing It Yourself


I have the hands of my pioneer ancestors who pulled wagons and mended clothes and planted seeds along the path from Illinois to the Salt Lake Valley.  I looked down at my ripped cuticles and jagged nails at work today and paused to dig a paperclip under a few that gave refuge to fat crescents of dirt. I work in the yard most mornings before my job and spend weekends doing errands and exploring this place.  The more I get out in the city, the more I want to get my hands into something messy when I get home, build something, cook something, sweat until it falls into my eyes  - which doesn’t take very long here. 

A few weeks ago I began my search for various yard related hardware items; pieces of wood, wire, steel rods, nails – stuff to build my fantasy garden where I pulled out a small fig tree and a flowering aloe vera a few weeks ago.  (Don’t worry, both were replanted somewhere else in the yard.)  But when I ask people where one finds such items a puzzled look comes over their faces. 

And then it dawned on me one day as I watched the migration of foreign workers from their cites to the freeways to catch shared, crammed, busses or to simply walk until they reach their apartment:  fixing up your house, building things in the yard, repairing broken pipes and trimming trees are all things done by other people here.  I could be wrong, but I think there aren’t many “Do It Yourself” kind of stores here because, well, people don’t do it themselves. 

And for some reason, this makes me want to build my own bamboo tomato trellis and mop my own floors and weed my own garden.  To make pasta from scratch and rake the leaves myself.  We got a bit carried away in Casablanca with a housekeeper who also cooked and a doorman and drivers from time to time and it’s feeling really good to sink my hands in again.  


**Pictures coming soon!  We took the camera to the beach the other day, but it was so humid that my lens immediately fogged up and I couldn't acclimate it before our dog walk was finished.  Perhaps this week now that we have our own car!

9.05.2013

Sweet Valley High...Again


The High School girls’ locker rooms haven’t changed a lot over the past decade or so.  Goopy lip glosses peak out from grafittied shoulder bags, a pair of jewel studded converse high tops have been tossed on a pile of jeans and the bathroom stalls are in various states of toilet papered disarray.

“Shut up.  You are totally going to make varsity”
“Yeah, but there are only 10 slots and –“
“Yeah and you are totally going to make it, you are so freaking tall”
“ohmygoshdoyouthinkso?”

I observe this conversation from in front of the bathroom sink, trying to remove my waterproof eyeliner before heading to the school weight room.  In fact, this conversation is happening in every corner of the locker room – some girls are speaking loudly and looking around to see who’s listening and others are timid, changing their clothes with their faces to the wall and whispering back and forth about who will or will not be on the varsity Volleyball team. 

And I don’t feel like I’m a grown up, I feel like I’m a new High School student with no friends and an awkward body.  And to have the near 30-year-old body reflected back at me in the 10th grade certainly would be awkward, but then I remember that I’m not vying for prom dates or looking for someone to be my BFF.  I’m an adult professional headed to the gym to keep my weight down and my premature hip arthritis at bay.   Very adult indeed.   

I’ve had several of these back to the future…er past moments over the last few days at my new job in the International School.  I read an article a few months ago (which I can’t find for the love, but I’ll keep looking) about the adolescent brain and even though it’s a relatively short time in our life, our High School age memories feel disproportionately vivid well into adulthood. 

The brain is buzzing with more dopamine activity than at any other time in the human life cycle, so everything an adolescent does—everything an adolescent feels—is just a little bit more intense ‘And you never get back to that intensity’” (saved the quote with no citation – bad librarian!)

You forget just HOW intense everything feels at 13 and 15 and 17 and then you see the first day faces on these kids and it comes back like your first mixed tape was given to you just yesterday.  For the record, my first mixed tape was a bizarre 3 part compilation of unheard of folk artists, terrible Christmas rap, Van Halen and heartbreaking Yo-Yo Ma performances.   I was a strange 16 year old and dated even stranger boys.  But I have a special spot in my heart for High School intensity - and perhaps strangeness as well - since during my first days of 10th grade I met the corduroy wearing 16 year old who would later be my husband.   

So “back to school” makes me excited and full of butterflies for obvious back to school reasons, reasons that don’t really go away when you become an adult – Will the other teachers like me?  Will I do a good job?  Will I wear the right thing?  - but I also remember what it feels like to be 16 and in love and confused and exhilarated and nervous and happy and independent and perhaps just slightly out of control.  And maybe this flood of emotion wouldn’t be so readily available to me if I weren’t sitting next to Mr. NOFX t-shirt wearing, guitar playing, head shaving heartthrob right now, even if he is wearing a suit and sporting a well-quaffed beard these days.


It pays to have such well read friends!!!  Thanks Marci
http://nymag.com/news/features/high-school-2013-1/  

8.22.2013

Where We Are Now


There is more cheddar cheese in Muscat than in Jerusalem.  In fact, there are like five different kinds of cheddar to choose from.  We’ve had nachos for dinner twice now. 

The traffic is much better than it was in Casablanca and the city less hectic, but there isn’t a French bakery around the corner. 

The street food in Amman was better, but there are gobs of Indian restaurants in Muscat and I have to spend limited amounts of supervised time in the spice isle here so I don’t pass out with cooking potential excitement.  

This is both the best kind of thinking and the worst.  The most illuminating and the most stifling.  New places make you think about the way things work and what that says about the people and geographies that have engineered these things.  You compare food, clothing, shopping, communication, street names, driving habits, recreation, public worship, family interactions, social structures, government and rumored private behavior to better understand politics, religion, geography, history, power – humanity.  What is shared, what is different and what does it mean about them, about me, about us?  I’m not saying that you always or even ever get a place right, but the exercise has value.   Making observations about grocery store selection and street signs helps me understand values and make sense of histories. 

But there is also the danger of setting yourself up for negative experiences by applying definitive, evaluative, and often misinformed assessments to anything new.   Becoming someone who travels or moves to a new place and spends the whole time complaining “It was easier/better/more fun in _______________ than it is here.”  You bluster forth in a whirlwind of romantic energy about the place you left and how perfect it was – pre-empting first impressions and spoiling your time by not trying to figure out what a new place is.  What it ACTUALLY is.  This, along with touching, is one of my growing pet peeves.   Someone said to me recently that Jordan wasn’t even really in the Middle East because it didn’t have souks and fun medinas and nice people* and other Middle Eastern stuff.   I objected then, but in the weeks since I’ve actually grown livid about it.   We, outsiders, don’t get to tell a place what it is and what it isn’t.  Coming to a new country with Orientalist expectations (or whatever people have in other parts of the world) of what a place should be and determining it “bad” or even “good” – as if our narrow personal experience unequivocally defines a place, its people and its values - is paternalistic nincompoopery and a waste of time and energy at the very least.    

It is for this reason Paul Theroux, remarkable travel writer and noted misanthrope, hates the internet and many industries that have bloomed around travel.  They rob people of primary, primal experiences and the opportunity to make their own assessments.  People arrive with photoshopped pictures of Vietnam and are inevitably let down by what they find “That doesn’t look like Ha long Bay from the calendar…  I don’t like it here”. 

As a photographer and travel blogger the irony of this gripe is not lost on me.  I experience pretty regular paralysis about how to share the things I love without making travel about shallow consumption or participating in the Conde Naste-ing of it all.  I can’t think of a way to do that entirely, and so for now I just continue.

All of this is to say that during this first month in Oman I have been watching and learning and asking questions and making comparisons and trying to figure things out.  It’s normal and it’s not bad, unless it holds you back from getting to the why and what of a new place.  So far we are loving, loving Muscat.  I’ve tried to keep my comparisons fair and revealing instead of evaluative and definite, but honestly, it’s pretty great here.  We love our house and our neighborhood and have made many new friends.  Max likes his job and has a lot to do and I’m about to start my dream job next week at the International School library.  Our dog is happy, my kitchen is huge, the people seem nice and the city is lovely.  Our car should arrive next month and I'm already itchin' to get out and explore the beaches and mountains and wadis.  In the mean time, I'm working on my donotgetsunburnedtoacrispafterfivesecondsinthesun which is very different than working on a tan.     

As a small postscript: our stuff arrived today!  By accident (or gross misfeasancee it’s hard to say) our stuff was never even sent to the location where a fire might have burned it, but shipped immediately to Muscat. We spent the last few weeks just sure that not only had our candles and other liquids melted, bubbled and exploded in the heat, but that our printer, mixer, and ceramic dishware had oozed back into their component elements as well.  None of that happened.  Sometimes I overreact.  Thank you to all who wished us and our stuff well.    


*We met MANY wonderful and nice and hospitable people in Jordan.  So much so that we were convinced we wanted to make a career in the Middle East. 

8.04.2013

Waiting

A whole chicken in Muscat comes clean and perfectly trimmed.  The insides have been removed and the feet firmly trussed.  Lovely, accessible, recognizable, orderly, immediately usable.  Muscat has seemed much the same way since our arrival,  but today we are home after the announced Embassy closure through August 10th and that has shifted my thoughts to other homebound pursuits.

My jet lag those first few days woke me up between 4 and 5 am.  The light streaming through our bedroom window was warm and beautiful and the temperature quite pleasant compared to the noon day burn.  A few days in a row I pulled on a flimsy yellow African style dress I bought In Essaouira, my wide brimmed straw hat, and set about pulling weeds in the planters that line the yard.  With my bare hands I scraped through the dirt, pulling out gnarly growths by the roots, removing large rocks and other debris from the beds.  My fingers weaved through the spiny weeds, getting them just around the base to avoid blood.  

Last weekend I bought small tomato and eggplant seedlings to plant around the yard.  Inside I sowed seeds for rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, savory and basil in empty egg cartons that are resting high on a shelf in the laundry, sweating and germinating in the filtered sunlight.  

What can you do but wait?  Wait for the little seeds to crack open, their insides snaking to the surface and peeking through.  Wait for the tomato plants to grow just a few more inches before planting them in the raised bed I fashioned from discarded bricks stacked up among the weeds.  Wait for the Embassy to reopen and life to continue as normal.  Wait for the narrative to change?  

But then I remember that Max's job is not just about waiting.  I'll cheekily almost avoid a tremendeous cliche by only alluding to a planting metaphor, but we are here because we really believe there is more to be done than just waiting.  

6.29.2013

On Stuff


Everything we own might have just burned in a fire. 

It probably didn’t, but hearing that over the phone at the Nordstrom’s cashwrap yesterday was a real humdinger. 

And you know what?  The first thing I thought about was those stupid rugs. A few moments later my mind moved through our old apartment and I thought of Max’s recording studio, our electric piano, my book binding equipment, a beautiful bench made of Moroccan walnut we bought in Casablanca.  But then I felt this sense of….freedom.  It was pretty bizarre.   I felt bad about our Morocco stuff, which would be the hardest to replace and are the fruits of so many wonderful experiences, but we have insurance and all that stuff is just stuff.  And so much of it was collected in the nascent years of our marriage when we thought we needed a 10 piece kitchen pan set (you don’t, you just need two really great ones) and cheap paperback copies of John Grisham  (you don’t, you just need…well, I don’t really know that anyone needs John Grisham in any form) and 6 pairs of exercise pants just for variety (you don’t, you MAYBE need two for when you are feeling lazy bones about laundry).  The idea of starting fresh with more grown up and paired down tastes was kind of intoxicating.   To eliminate waste and overindulgence and clutter by employing excruciating minimalism and discipline as we constructed our new lives.  Boldly facing the future free of stuff that doesn’t work for us and occupies valuable mental, physical, and emotional space that could be used for intangible, real joy bringing endeavors, experiences and relationships. 

And then I went straight into Anne Taylor and bought a blue and white pencil skirt that I don’t really need.

I know, what’s wrong with me?

The past few weeks have been a bit challenging for me.  When you prepare to move overseas you think of all the stuff you need, the stuff you want, the stuff you can’t live without, the stuff that will make your life easier/livable.  When we were students in the Middle East we went without a lot but since becoming diplomats with access to things like an American commissary and Amazon shipping our stuff obtaining options have increased dramatically and we have shifted our “needs/wants/must haves” accordingly. 

And I hate it. 

I don’t hate that these things are available, I hate that I become this comfort lusting monster who can no longer make decisions about what one must have in order to live a happy life.  The irony being that any and all of these things are seldom the key to having a happy life anyway.

Costco is the bad influence best friend to the kind of need creep that I’m trying to explain.  Being in America for a little while has given us the chance to stock up (a phrase I’m coming to loathe) on a few things that will, in theory, make our life overseas a little easier.  But you go to Costco with a list that says “Yeast, Paper Towels, Hot Sauce, Almond Milk” and leave with two flats full of things you just can’t live without.  The line between need and comfort gets so blurry in the enormous emotional wasteland that is bulk purchasing that you’ve blown your entire “stock up” budget on 50 gallon jars of pickles and two years worth of dishwasher liquid that is most certainly available where you are going.  

Let me say here that for many people serving overseas in the Foreign Service where regular things like dish soap are not available flats of stuff from Costco are a no brainer.  It’s hard to know what will and won’t be available in your new home and depending on circumstances related to health, your children or spouse, local realities and financial situation buying like this makes a lot of sense.  This is not my issue.  My issue is how merely trying to plan our future comfort has twisted my brain about in knots and accentuated consumptive vices I’d like to see diminish instead of charging to the top of the hill where they throw my best intentions off a cliff and claim their role as king.

All this is to say that my stuff is probably fine but if and when it arrives in Oman, perhaps I’ll muster the courage to burn a lot of it myself.  Figuratively, of course, I’m pretty sure back yard bonfires are against the rules. 

6.20.2013

Rug Envy

Well, after you see these pictures you'll know that I no longer have rug envy.  Because I bought all the rugs in Morocco.  But actually, that's not how envy works and feeding it is kind of a bad thing.

Whatever.

My actual life right now is kind of a mess of costo running, dog walking, list making, dinner cooking, plant tending, friend catching up-ing and semi-freakouts about moving in exactly one month.  SOOOO, we'll take a moment and remember the carpet souk in Khemmiset, Morocco.  Bare in mind that I had already amassed a fairly large rug collection BEFORE stomping through the muddy market streets to the once weekly rug fair.  I'm already feeling embarrassed about opening up my house hold effects in Oman (currently being stored somewhere in Northern Europe) and unpacking more rugs than we will have floor space.  But again, whatever.


 Once you buy a rug, those little ladies chase you around with more and more rugs.  I've never seen such tenacious selling in all my life.  It made the souk of Khan al-khalili in Egypt look like a kick back kind of time.  After I bought a few, the Berber women and I had an understanding.  They would laugh, shove the rug at me, we'd make eye contact, she'd laugh again, shove it closer, and then I'd put my hand over my heart and we'd all walk away friends.  
No, these are not all mine.  Whenever someone in the group bought a rug we piled it into the cart and pushed it around to the next vendor.  Shopping carts are for suckers.  We need rickety two wheelers at the Walmart with some real space.    

6.02.2013

Great Plains and Murderers



I don’t know that the Midwest has more murderers than other places, but it certainly felt like perhaps it did.  Statistically that doesn’t bare out, but judging strictly by roadside bathrooms and ooky abandoned farm houses I think there must be a lot of murdering going on in those parts. 

A few months ago, Max and I decided to drive from Salt Lake City to Washington D.C.  instead of flying.   America!  We kept saying to each other when we thought about it.  America!   We spread it over 5 days to visit friends and take in the sites (i.e.  “Foamhenge” in southern Virginia where a true-to-scale-and-shape model of Stonehenge has been built out of Styrofoam) and only almost resorted to reciprocal eye-gouging twice. 


We sailed through Eastern Utah and on to Denver, the mountain air rifling through the back seats of our car, windows down to breath it all in.  But once past Denver things flatten out in Eastern Colorado and continue much the same through Nebraska.  We stopped in Roggen, Colorado for gas and I think Max was thoroughly startled when I emerged from the motel turned gas station with a 2 gallon jug of water under my arm signaling frantically for him to start the engine and get a move on.  Now that I think about it, he probably thought I’d robbed the depressing gas station of not only the oversized water bottle, but the circa 1979 fake oil paintings wrapped in gaudy wooden frames or extra small snowflake sweaters displayed inside.   Though tempting, I did not.  I am not easily spooked, but this place gave me the hibbity jibbities.  The east side of the station might once have served food, but the equipment, outdated by about 20 years, was covered in dust or outright rusted over.  The walls were lined with nic nacks better suited for a salvation army; dusty GI Joes, old jack in the boxes, a collection of holiday sweaters, ancient travel games in bulky boxes, but all had neon yellow price stickers and most came in their original packaging.  Two tuffs from the actual motel next door (the second of two buildings for miles) guarded the door in a peculiar way, as if keeping the Asian couple who owned the place inside against their will. 

“Your Toyota?” 
The man asked me in broken English when I bristled past the tattooed gatekeepers.
“Yeah…” I said wearily, eyeing the place.
“It’s very nice.  How much it cost?” 
“Oh,…I don’t know.”  The one eyed dolly perched on the counter, glowering out from an old but resealed package, convinced me to play things a little close to the vest.  He probably just wanted to get one of his own and drive away from this place of horror and I should have stayed to talk interest rates with him.    

The real purpose of my visit was not the barrel of water I came out with, but to use the bathroom.  I waited outside the locked bathroom door for 10 minutes before convincing the store owner that no one was actually inside, all the while conjuring up scenes in my mind of a drug deal gone wrong and that a dead body would roll out from behind the door and onto my feet when we opened it.  Or maybe someone had gone in there to give birth to a baby they would then abandon like that movie.  We want to adopt, but I don’t know if haunted gas station baby is the way to go.  When we got it opened there was no body or abandoned baby or drug paraphernalia, just sagging pink wall paper, daisy chain printed from floor to ceiling and stripped mostly away, rust rimmed toilet bowls inside stalls with no doors and at least 7 “Water not potable” signs plastering the walls and mirror.   This is where you come to die, I thought.   I locked the door not for fear that someone would intrude and cause a bit of embarrassment, but for fear that someone would intrude and mistake me for the woman they had come to murder and cause a bit of death.

But the “Middle Places” weren’t all one-eyed dolls and haunted old coke machines. In Nebraska we ate divine fried chicken – you fry it in a pressure cooker! – and learned many, but not all of the names of our server’s dogs.  Jasmine, Sassy, Lady, Toby – he’s almost as big as Jasmine if you can believe it – Hammy, MiMi.   We also let the sass of Nashville seep into our pores and bemoaned our lack of cowboy boots and cut off daisy dukes (I’ll let you decide who bemoaned which).   We stood beneath the Arch of St. Louis and ate BBQ from Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City.  BBQ will never be the same.  In fact, I might just never eat it again so as not to torture myself.   And although not on this road trip but on a weekend layover when we first arrived, we had killer hot dogs in Chicago and walked the city with the wee dog ‘til we dropped.

So yes, America!     

5.16.2013

The Dates of Muhammed


“These are the dates of Muhammed” my house keeper says to me, eyes beaming, and points at a paper bowl filled with silky brown dates.  The skins are smooth and wrinkled.

“And this is water from the Zam Zam fountain.  In Mecca, I prayed to Allah that you would have a baby” she continues, cradling her stomach.  “Each morning, for seven days you should eat two dates and drink the Zam Zam water and ask Allah for a baby.”  She finishes, shyly motioning for me to eat my first date.

I offer a short Bismillah before popping a date into my mouth and smile as I chew the delicious caramel center and then spit out the seed.

We’ve been gone from Morocco now for almost a month.  Leaving the people we have come to love was much harder than I realized it would be.  We’ll see our American colleagues again somewhere in the world, but will I ever see Hassan, our toothless door man who once avenged us in a knife fight outside our apartment?  Will I ever learn if our housekeeper Rashida’s daughter graduates from her Architecture program and gets to design large buildings?  Will I know if my colleague and friend Abdellah ever lets his little Rayan get a dog?  What about Bader, Mohamed, Smiley Jihad, The Professor, and Samedi from my book club?  Will I ever hear if they continue to study English and visit America someday?    

Maybe.

Probably not.   

I know that loosing  after working so hard to find is part of our life, but it has been good to grieve.  To love our time in Morocco for what it was, to mourn its end, and to look forward to our next post with enthusiasm.  I’m sure keeping that level of excitement for what’s next in balance with sadness for what’s gone is a constant struggle in the Foreign Service.   

Back in my Casablanca kitchen I washed Muhammed’s date down with a few swigs of water from the Zam Zam well.  It is said the well miraculously formed after Abraham’s infant son Ishmael cried in the wilderness for water.  After being expelled, his mother Hagar wandered the deserts of Arabia until she discovered the spring, a gift from Allah that has never run dry.    

Despite my strict adherence to the date diet, we are not pregnant.  But maybe Rashida’s blessing is more about the consistency of Hagar’s hope than Sarah’s biblical miracle.  Since being home we have selected and met with an adoption agency to start the adoption process in Ethiopia.  We’ve faced the time and financial realities of International adoption, felt duly and tremendously discouraged, but then, somehow, felt that cloud retreat as we move forward.     

We have one more week at home in Utah before heading to DC for a few months of training where the cycle of pack, move, unpack, start job, make friends, make home, make life starts over again.  Right now, our hopes are high.

On our last day in Morocco my housekeeper
Rashida helped get my hands hennaed.  
      

4.10.2013

3.19.2013

On the Road Again

The thing about Fez is that it's built kind of like a bowl.  Staying on the lip of the bowl provides fantastic views of the city and the surrounding mountains....and pretty sore calves the next day from all that uppy a down.  But it's a small price to pay for one of the world's most remarkably preserved medieval cities.

After loading our trunk with woven fabrics and ceramic plates we headed south, back to Casablanca and then further south the next day to Marrakesh.  Marrakesh was its dirty, loud, crazy self and we spent waaaayy to much time in the carpet shop haggling with our friend Mbarek.  There really is nothing in the world like a good haggle.  There is a feeling not unlike "seeing what you can get away with".

He said 400?  Well, I'll see if I can offer 275 and keep everyone smiling....  do I dare offer 200?

There is  a delicate balance between playing the game (which is fun and necessary) and insulting someone.  I never want to leave a shop (again) with bad feelings.  Do I pay a bit more than locals because I'm a westerner?  I sure do.  And you know what?  That is fine with me.  I want to pay a fair price, but that's not the most important thing in the world.  We have returned to the same carpet guy in Marrakesh 4 or 5 times now and are always greeted with warmth and offered fair prices.  Over the long run, it made much more sense not to burn our bridges with shop keepers for an extra 10 bucks.  I might have learned that lesson the hard way...

Our next stop was Essaouira, perhaps our favorite city in Morocco.  We stayed in apartments by the sea and spent a great weekend just wandering before heading back to Casablanca. 

And NOW I'm headed off to the Sahara for the first time - just days before we pack everything we own, not to be seen again for 10 months.  Hopefully I make it back safe and sound and can keep my pack out brain in tact... 

3.03.2013

Veer to the Right, There’s a Big Donkey


That seemed like a perfectly normal thing for me to whisper in my mother-in-law’s ear our first night in Fez.  Calm as a cucumber so as not to startle her or said donkey. We’d driven the three and a half hours from Casablanca to Fez in alternating rain and post/pre rain splendor.  The north is already greener than the south, but after gushes of rainfall the fields became a patchwork of sweating, growing, green of every shade expanding all along the highway. 

The four of us, Max, his parents, and myself pulled into a glorified alley slash parking lot outside the medieval city of Fez and plunked our luggage down on the wet stones separating us from the sludge below.  Max and I sometimes forget how things in Morocco look the first time you encounter them.  We wheeled our suitcases under a decrepit arch leading into the labyrinthine city, dark, smelling of leather and donkey droppings, a steady drizzle coming down on us and only a few lamps lit to expose scores of gnarly street cats and thought  “Ah.  Fez.  We are here!”  without really considering the trust his parents displayed by following us into the darkness.   Donkeys probably seemed like the least of our worries at that point. 

In true Max fashion, he weaved us in and out of alleys and tunnels until we arrived at the door of our Dar.

“I memorized the Google maps aerial image of this section of the city”  He shrugged.

Of course he did.  One of the many reasons I keep him around :)

Off season is a beautiful thing and we were ushered in from the cold and into a palace of tile and carpets as the only guests.  A fire welcomed us to the salon where we nibbled coconut biscuits and sipped mint tea.  After chatting a bit and releasing some donkey related tension, we were shown to our room.  Room is a terrible understatement for the beautifully wrought enormity they had rolled two extra single beds into for me and Max.  Moroccans, Fassi’s in particular, are very proud of their traditional hand crafted skills – tile making and zellij, carpet weaving, ornate stucco and wood carving, stained glass, luxurious fabrics – the stuff of Orientalist’s dreams – and this room was the perfect exhibition of all of them.

We somehow drifted to sleep in our fortress after a lovely meal and arose the next morning to blue skies instead of the dripping grey ones we’d expected.  A local friend of ours walked us through the medina explaining and exploring the oldest degree giving University in the world, the local Madrasa brimming with 5 year olds, the leather tanneries with 1,000 year old practices, the crickety looms that churn out beautiful woven fabrics, a pottery co-op producing the iconic blue and white dishes of Fez and best of all, the 9,000 plus streets of the ancient medina bustling with people, animals and the smell of roasting meats.





2.28.2013

Farewell Tour

We visited three of our favorite cities for the last time this week*.

Boo for that.

I don't know if this is cowardly, or kind or something else, but we didn't tell most of our Moroccan friends that we wouldn't be seeing them again.  Mubarak, our carpet guy in Marrakesh, made us swear to call him for couscous at the family home on a future visit that probably won't happen and Habiba doesn't know we won't be making the pilgrimage to Essaouira to talk henna and fudgy cubes of Amber anymore.  Our friend Farida, in Fez, sent me home with a beautiful rust colored Djelaba when we told her this would be our last time stomping through the Medina in search of Chicken Pastilla and Fassi embroidery.  

Goodbyes are the worst.  And so, in what I think will be our fashion, we might not say very many.  We've been very blessed to meet so many wonderful people and learn so many new things, and, and...well, I just can't bring myself to write a goodbye post when there are so many in our future.  So, what I'll say is this:  We have LOVED Morocco.  We've lived here longer than anywhere in our married life.  We...Oh, there I go again, goodbye posting.  When I can work up the steam, I'll post all about our "lasts" in favorite cities instead, but in the mean time I leave you in the hands (or face) of our amazing traveling dog who experienced them with us.




       
*We leave Morocco in April

1.26.2013

A Moroccan Wedding


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The first thing you need to know is that the night officially began at 8 PM and lasted until 6 AM.  Our group made it from 10 PM to 4 AM which I still think is pretty impressive. 

Weddings are a big deal in the Middle East and North Africa.  I should say, the reception party is a big deal.  A “spend all your money and invite all your friends and give lots of gifts and serve lots of food and dance and sing and dance some more” kind of deal.  From what I understand the actual ceremony takes place with your immediate family before a Muslim judge.  It’s very modest and quiet.  The reception is anything but. 

One of Max’s co-workers got married and so a gaggle of us from the consulate spent the early evening together primping like we were all going to the prom.  At Moroccan weddings women wear something called a “Caftan” – they are extremely ornate.  I wore something a little East-Meets-West since I’m a cheapskate but still want to have a good time.  A good Caftan starts around $160 and goes up from there.  And up.  The bride’s first Caftan (Seven is the tradition) was this beautiful pink satin encrusted with diamonds.  Probably real. 

 Ok, so after we wobble through the hotel lobby on our much too tall special event heels, dates on arm, we are seated in a beautiful reception hall, all white, with purple and pink lights projected across the chandeliered ceiling.  Then we wait, we talk, we nibble on spicy puffed rice, we dance, we nibble, and then we dance more.  The dancing!  I, as you may well know, am no dancer.  It’s been a phobia since I was in Junior High.  I’ve tried to figure it out over the years and I think it has something to do with my inherent lack of dancing related skills (rhythm, agility, funk) and my puritan heritage.  Hips are bad, right?  Anyway, one of the lovely things about being overseas is that you are freed from cultural bondage AND any ideas you had about yourself as being something or not being something.  I’m not saying I got out there and cut a rug, but I did, in fact, stand in a circle, bouncing with everyone else and clapping to the beet.  My hips and my shoulders may have actually been moving at the same time.  This is a big step, people.   

There is something really beautiful about Moroccan dancing.  Not the moves or anything, but the spirit of it.  So we are sitting at this wedding, everyone has been waiting for hours already and their faces are growing grimmer by the minute. But when the band strikes up a certain chord one woman starts clapping and then another and then another and their faces are beaming.  As if drawn by a giant magnet they all leave their seats and shake it to the dance floor in front of the band.  The women dance with women and the men dance with men and at some point they mosh together in the middle and they all throw their heads back with joy.  With joy!  No one is trying to seduce anyone or prove to their friends they are better than each other, they just want to move to the beat to celebrate this occasion.  One particularly grim looking Berber woman with face tattoos from her bottom lip down past her chin sat in the corner for the first few hours of the night, scowling at something.  But when the drums came out and started into their frenzy of faster and faster drumming she was out of her seat and throwing her hips about like I’d never seen.  Her toothless grin was contagious and she circled the floor grabbing the hands of fellow dancers and lifting them in triumph. 

Moving on.  The bride and groom show up just before midnight and the bride is carried about in a large, wheel-less carriage.  Four dudes hoist her on their shoulders and dance around the room for a bit.  They repeat this hoisting process one more time in the night after she has changed into another dress, but women do the carrying and dancing.  At some point in the night she gets henna-ed and there is more dancing.  (Henna is the semi-permanent tattooing they do on the feet and hands in Morocco.  It’s a typical before or at weddings and other celebrations.)  At one point scads of presents are brought out in a procession and placed before the bride;  gold, jewelry, milk, water, honey, henna. 

THEN at 2:00 am we are served a four course meal.  That’s right, four courses ending in half of a whole roasted lamb.   Fish Pastilla, vegetables, cheeses, crab with avocado, roasted lamb mechui with pineapple and quail eggs followed by  ice cream cake and then fruit and cheese.  I don’t drink, but I certainly had what I’m sure a hangover feels the next day…when I awoke at 3 in the afternoon.  I don’t know if it was all the food, the tremendous noise, or the late hour, but it was certainly all worth it says my day later self who can sit up straight and bare the light of day once more.