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


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