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Monday, December 27, 2010

An Omani Christmas

To all the Christians out there and everyone else who just loves a reason to celebrate, Merry Christmas!

Christmas in a foreign country was an interesting experience. Oman is not just a foreign country but also a hot and sunny country and a Muslim country. Celebrating in the absence of most of the traditional cues of Christmas – cold, snow, Christmas carols, Christmas lights, crazy shoppers, etc. – forces you to think about what is really most important about this holiday. Here are the answers I came up with:

Family. Over the course of three carefully timed phone calls I spoke to no less than 30 individual family members! Even though these were short conversations, it was more than enough to remind myself what a blessing it is to have people caring about you no matter where you are.

Friends. I spent this Christmas with AIESEC friends. What is interesting about AIESEC is that when you are with a group of AIESEC interns, it is unlikely that two people are from the same country. Coming from very different parts of the world (China, Poland, Uganda, Cameroon…), I am sure we each had a unique image of the typical Christmas. But regardless of what we were comparing it to, there was no doubt that this one different. We were all equally determined to have an enjoyable Christmas and helped each other do just that.

Giving. We went to the souq to do some shopping on Christmas Day. I bought small trinkets for the people I was with. Nothing big, but this was enough to make it feel like Christmas to me!

Being together. With phones and internet at our disposal, physical proximity is not the only way to feel close to people. In fact, when you need to be a little creative to show people you care about them, it only makes you realize more than before what is important to you.

Tradition. I did not take part in most of my own traditions, but I did try new ones. For example, on Christmas Eve, I learned a Polish tradition that involves sharing pieces of a “Christmas wafer” (oplatek) and greeting each person around you one by one. Taking part in any tradition, familiar or unfamiliar, makes a holiday feel like a holiday.

I hope you all enjoyed Christmas and/or your respective holidays and that you are looking forward to the New Year! Cheers!

One of these sharks made a delicious Christmas Eve lunch.

Christmas Day at the yacht club.

Irene and I were excited to find a Christmas tree!

I never thought would hang out on a beach at Christmas!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

One Day at a Time

In the United States, we are accustomed to very regular and predictable schedules. Living in a foreign country involves dropping this expectation. I can attempt to illustrate this point through road closings and holidays.

My arrival happened to coincide with a visit from the Queen of England. The problem was that this involved periodic and unpredicatable road closings for a few hours each day to allow the queen, the sultan, and other comrades to pass through. Since there is one main highway running through Muscat and dividing the city in half, this is a big deal. For my first few days, the time I left work was dictated by the road closings. More importantly, the decision to conduct or cancel English classes at AMIDEAST was based upon the state of the roads. If classes were cancelled, the decision was spur of the moment – no more than a day in advance and as little as a few hours. As far as I can tell, this ambiguity is no big deal for students.

If the road closings did not create confusion enough, add in the holidays. Three major holidays have affected the work schedule since I arrived. They are Eid, National Day, and the Islamic New Year. Eid started and finished before I got here. This year, Eid coincided with National Day, a holiday to honor Sultan Qaboos and the Sultanate of Oman, so celebrations were postponed. National Day is generally celebrated on the sultan’s birthday, November 18. Sultan Qaboos bin Said began his rule on July 23, 1970, after his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, was overthrown. Since then, the country has undergone a remarkable period of development. This year marks a landmark – the 40th National Day – and this holiday is no joke! All the streets are strung with lights (picture the States at Christmas), there are small, large, and giant Omani flags everywhere, and cars are painted green, red and white. For weeks, kids have left school early to practice for National Day demonstrations. In the United States you may expect to go out and see a basketball game on in a bar, but around here lately, you may see, for example, the entire Omani military marching around a stadium, with the sultan solemnly looking on from the stands.

Right now, it is the Islamic New Year. Because the Islamic calendar is a few days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, this holiday does not fall on the same day each year. Instead, it is dictated by the location of moon. It was recently declared that Tuesday (yesterday) through Saturday is a holiday for the public sector. But up until a couple days ago, since there was no telling exactly when the crescent moon would be visible, these day off were not guaranteed. After much speculation and anticipation, people are now enjoying their breaks.

One implication for me is that the start date of our Access Program has been pushed from December 11 to December 13. This is actually a huge relief as it gives me two extra days to find a place to live! (This is a topic for another post which, Insha'Allah, will be a very positive report.)

The unpredictable work schedule can be kind of a hassle, but on the bright side, there is a rumor circulating that December 25-December 29 will be declared a national holiday (a “National Week” to celebrate Oman – why not?). It looks like Christmas break is a real possibility!

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Exquisite Landscape

I arrived in Muscat on a Saturday night and on Sunday morning I started work. Until Thursday, my knowledge of Muscat was largely limited to whatever you can see out the car window between home and work. Thursday and Friday marked the weekend (the weekday is Saturday-Wednesday here) and luckily I got a chance to do some sight seeing. Between yesterday and today, I saw two of the most luxurious resorts in Oman (who knew 6-star hotels even existed), the sultan’s palace, a souq (market) in Muscat, and the Wadi Shab - one of the most beautiful and worthwhile destinations I've ever been to. The wadi is roughly like the Grand Canyon but with water cutting through the middle. I happened to wear my “Ithaca is Gorges” shirt today, so I naturally compared the wadi to the Ithaca gorges. We hiked over rocks and then swam to a small water-filled cave complete with a waterfall inside. I got a taste of Omani hospitality when a generous guy offered to be our “tour guide.” He was fantastic and made sure we enjoyed the cave to its full potential. This involved climbing up over some rocks and then jumping back in the water from a pretty decent height. For any Cornell readers, this was like gorge jumping in closed quarters. I was convinced to jump while holding hands with our impromptu guide. I figured that if I could not jump I did not deserve to continue wearing my Ithaca is Gorges shirt. Overall, the past two days have been great for seeing the absolutely gorgeous scenery of Oman. With mountains, beaches, and even a bit of greenery, Oman has all the elements you could hope to see in a landscape!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where Am I Again?

Even though I have been in Muscat, Oman, for over 24 hours, I have alternated between being conscious of and completely oblivious to this fact. Before leaving it was hard for me to accept the magnitude of what I was doing. Perhaps I was too consumed with packing a bag of exactly 50 pounds (which I “accomplished” thanks to some rounding down and a generous tip at the airport). I figured that it would hit me once I got to the airport. Saying goodbye to my family, it did to some extent, but not fully. Even when I stopped in London and then Abu Dhabi, I felt like this could have been any old day. Luckily, on the third leg of the trip, as we descended toward Muscat, I felt it – the complete mixture of nervousness and excitement that one would expect when moving to an unfamiliar country for 7 ½ months. When I was certain that what I was seeing below was the real live Middle East, I stared out of that window like a little kid looking for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Then I arrived on the ground. After going through customs I easily spotted my “welcoming committee.” I was at an advantage, since I was looking for the familiar face of Irene, my friend from Uganda. We all quickly got into conversation mode and while talking to new and old friends, I yet again felt like I could have been anywhere. We drove to the AIESEC house, which is very spacious and nicer than I imagined.

I fell asleep pretty easily, but in the middle of the night I woke up in my big double bed thinking “where the heck am I?” As soon as I remembered, I had a moment of feeling very surreal. I soon drifted back to familiar dream world, but when I woke up at 6:15am (no jetlag recovery time for me!) and looked out the window at the mountains and unadorned-yet-elegant Omani architecture, I once again was aware that I was in an amazing place.

The reason I woke up so early was to attend an opening event for the English teaching program taking place in Muscat. I am not teaching in Muscat, but another intern is. It was a great intro to the program (the English Access Microscholarship Program, that is). Speakers included representatives from the Omani ministry of education, AMIDEAST (the nonprofit I am working with), and the U.S. Department of State (who is sponsoring the program). The day kept moving with a nice lunch at an outdoor restaurant with a view of the beach. I split a pizza with another intern (where am I again?). Then we visited the AMIDEAST office were I got a thorough tour and sat in on part of an upper-level English class. After learning more about the company and the program, I am feeling very grateful for the opportunity to work here!

Just as I was starting to accept that I was indeed in a new and very different part of the world, a friend drove me to the United States. I mean - to a nearby shopping mall. The first thing I saw was Sephora. The second thing I saw was Aldo (my favorite shoe store); and the third thing I saw was Forever 21. True - if you just looked around at the Arabic translations and the dress of men and women, you would notice distinct differences compared to the U.S., but just looking at the stores, I could have easly convinced myself that I was not just in an American mall, but one of the nicest one I’ve ever seen.

It’s nice to feel comfortable and natural here, but I hope to eventually fully appreciate where I am. I have no doubt that I will, especially once I leave the capital and start teaching – but it might take some time!

Thank you sincerely to all the people reading this and supporting me with this experience. I love you!