Family Dinner and Egyptian Food

Two nights ago we had a visit from my host father’s sister and her husband from Bahla. They came over for dinner and I experienced my first family dinner. My host brothers showed me into an area of the house I didn’t even know existed. It is entered through a separate door and they told me that guests sometimes stay there. The room has beautiful black and white Egyptian couches against all the walls and matching carpets, tables, and curtains. We put a plastic mat on the ground and we sat down around it and ate the food with our fingers. We ate stuffed grape and cabbage leaves (an Egyptian speciality) as well Omani pastries stuffed with chicken and cheese. Desert was Omani coffee (a type of coffee that is a lot weaker than American coffee), Halwa (sweets), and fruit.

Everyone spoke Arabic so it was really difficult for me to keep up with the conversation. But I listened carefully and recognized a few words! After the men and women sat in separate rooms and talked amongst themselves.

Omani Mall

Today we visited one of the City Center shopping mall. I felt as though I was in Atlanta! I walked past a Forever 21, Zara, H&M, Mango, Claire’s, MAC, Bath and Body Works, The Body Shop, Victoria Secret, Pinkberry, Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Ardy’s, and more! I was so surprised to see such familiar names. We didn’t have too much time to explore, so I was not able to walk around too much but of course there were also many Omani stores that I will hopefully become familiar with this year.

We went to the food court to eat lunch. I got Chinese food while some of the other girls tried McDonalds. We agreed as a group that the mall fast food was a bit disappointing and that in the future, we would stick with Omani fast food. At least we now know the Omani version of fast food!

Next we went to Carrefour (French chain store) and picked up any items we forgot or realized we needed.

One thing I noticed about the mall was that there was no loud music blasting from each store. In most other countries that I have visited, I have found that wherever one goes, especially in stores, loud American music is playing. The stores, though, had no music. To me, the mall was almost eerily quiet. We did though hear the call to prayer in the mall. We were told that malls have prayer rooms: one for men and another for women.

We had to leave the mall pretty quickly but I am looking forward to further exploring it.

Updates!

It has been a while since I have posted. I have been so busy in Oman and Internet has been scant so I’ll try to remember all that has happened in the past few days. But first of all, I love Oman. Or so far, Muscat. Muscat is such a beautiful city and I have never seen any city like it. The city is very spread out, so walking anywhere is not done. We drive everywhere, but this also allows us to see more of the city. My house is in a neighborhood that is reached by crossing some of the mountains. These mountains, however, are not at all like what I am used to. The mountains are made of brown rocks and dust; it looks just like a scene from a movie where there are huge dusty mountains surrounding white buildings. Maybe that isn’t a movie but it is all so surreal and unlike anything I have ever experienced. It is all so beautiful. And very very very hot! The sun is so bright and the air is very humid and heavy. In addition to that, we have to cover up, but I guess that also can prevent sunburns. Luckily, we are inside most of the time and everything is very air-conditioned. Over air-conditioned in fact.

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Excuse the long post that will follow. A lot has happened over the past few days.

 

Sunday Night:

We had a welcome dinner with our host families at the hotel. Here, we got a chance to talk to them and get to know each other better. I was really nervous beforehand, but my host parents were both so sweet when I met them. They both can speak some English, which makes it easy to communicate with them. After dinner, we drove back to their house. I unpacked my bags in my room, which I have all to myself. It is a spacious room with a bed, dresser, and desk. There is plenty of room and is comfortable, with nice purple walls, a matching rug and bedspread. I also have my own bathroom, which is attached to my room. I met my two host brothers, but since it was late, they were very tired. We watched Arab’s Got Talent, a TV show that is popular here. I was told that they watch this show every Saturday. It was fun to watch this show, because even though it was in Arabic, I could still understand the show and enjoyed the singing and dancing. I was pretty tired and jet lagged so I went to sleep shortly after.

 

Monday:

My host family has to leave the house early to get to work/school (they wake up at 5:30!), so by the time I woke up at 7, they were already gone. I went down and tried to communicate with the maid, Kia, but since she only speaks Arabic it was a bit hard and required a lot of gesturing. I ate breakfast, which was kind of like a hamburger bun with cherry jam on top and drank coffee. I then waited for our van to come. The van was really late though and the driver got lost coming to my house, so I ended up waiting for an hour. In the meantime, I watched some Arabic TV series and tried to communicate my address and my surroundings over the phone to the driver.

Once I was picked up, we picked up the other girls and drove to the US Embassy. We were really late though (since we had to still drive to pick up some of the other girls who live a bit far away), and had to rush in. It was definitely worth it though, because we got to meet the Ambassador, Greta Holtz! She was so nice and talked to us about her life, career, interests, and experience in Oman. It was amazing that even though her schedule is so packed, she managed to make time to speak with us. It was inspiring to be able to speak with her, since being an Ambassador is one of my dream jobs. Hearing about how she got to that place was very helpful and she also gave us some helpful tips about being culturally sensitive in Oman. We then had some talks from other Embassy staff about health and security.

By then we were starving and excited to go for lunch. We went to a popular local Omani restaurant and sat in a separated area (there were many small areas separated by halfway to the ceiling walls). We sat on the ground around a mat and ate with our hands! They first served us a slightly spicy soup made out of lentils and meat. But what was so delicious came next. They brought out a giant plate of seasoned rice (kind of like Indian biriani) with cooked chicken on top. In another plate was grilled and seasoned lamb. There were also two bowls of a yogurt sauce with cucumbers (like raita) and a chutney (which tasted like salsa). This wonderful dish, called mindi, is eaten by mixing (with your hands) some of the yogurt, chutney, and chicken/lamb together. You then pack a bit together and put it in your mouth! Each person has their own area of the plate one stays in so that one does not put germs in someone else’s food. We then were served khubz (fresh bread) with honey drizzled on time. This was finished by cardamom tea. It was a wonderful meal and a great experience! Hopefully I will get better with eating with my hands. Also, many Omani restaurants do not have napkins; they instead have a tissue box for people to take if needed.

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We then visited the AMIDEAST center (where I will have my classes) and it is in the middle of nowhere! Literally, it is surrounded by rocks and some construction. But the building itself is very nice and is very comfortable with a great study space and lounge. And best of all, free coffee and wifi! We went over some more orientation lessons (more safety, host family information, culture shock, etc).

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The ride home took a while (I got home at around 8), but I got to spend time with my host brothers for the first time! I gave them their presents and we played with Legos for a while. We also kicked a football around for a bit. They were at first a bit shy, but quickly opened up and showed me a lot of their toys. They are so cute! The older one speaks some English but the younger one speaks mostly Arabic. That is good for me, though, because they can help me practice Arabic. I kept asking them to tell me different words in Arabic! I learned that floose means “money”! That’s a start. We had dinner, I talked with my host mother for a while, we watched a bit of TV (some random shows) and then went to bed!

 

Today (Tuesday):

Today was busy too! We started off the morning with Omani sightseeing! Luckily, the driver now knows the way, so we weren’t late. I am in the car, though, for at least 1.5 hours each way because we have to go to the other side of town to pick up Lydia, Miriam, and Kirby (Liz, Mac, and Anna live near me) before going to the AMIDEAST center. And with the distance and traffic, it takes quite a while!

After we met up with the program leaders, we drove to the Grand Mosque. The Mosque is relatively new and is so beautiful. Even though it was very hot outside, luckily the stone inside and air conditioning made it quite pleasant to walk around inside. The Mosque is known for having the largest carpet in a Mosque in the world and for having huge beautiful chandeliers. Our tour guide gave us some of the history of the Mosque and we had a chance to walk around a take pictures. Visiting the Mosque was also exciting because I got to wear my first hijab (head covering). The attire for visiting a Mosque in Oman is very conservative, so our hair and neck had to be covered. Our pants/skirts also had to go to our ankles and our shirts had to cover up to our wrists. Of course not the best thing to wear when it is burning outside, but it was a great experience to have. I also got to learn how to wear a hijab in the process.

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We then drove to the Sultan’s Palace, but could only stand outside the gates. The palace is also very new and everything here looks very clean and almost whitewashed. His palace overlooks the water and the area around the palace was lined with palm trees and white buildings. If the buildings had clothing stores and people walked on the sidewalks, I would almost think I was in a touristy part of Florida! It was great to see another part of the city and to walk around a bit there.

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Near the Palace was the Mutrah Souk (market) and we got a chance to look around there as well. I bought a scarf and some pretty small decorative camels and lanterns. The Souk reminded me of a smaller version of the Souk Madrasa in Marrakech. It was almost closing time for lunch, however, so not many people were there.

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We then had a delicious Indian meal and went back to the AMIDEAST center for a bit more of orientation as well as an introduction to our Arabic class. Then we went to what is apparently one of the nicest restaurants in Muscat and had a welcome dinner with all the program staff. The meal was great and included baba ghanoush, grilled chicken, lamb, and vegetables, and a stuffed bread. I feel stuffed too. Omanis value hospitality, so there is food wherever you go. We are trying to exercise it off and are learning how to politely say that we are full!

Back at the house, I watched a bit of Scooby Doo that was playing on TV in Arabic, talked to my host mother, and then watched TV with her.

 

That is probably the longest blog post ever; yikes on putting it up all at once. These past days have been so busy but I am enjoying all of it!

First Day in Oman

(Written September 21)

Mac and I were roommates in our hotel in Oman and this morning, we woke up really really really cold. We didn’t figure out how to turn off the air-conditioning and the room was freezing all night long. We opened our hotel window and stood out in the desert heat, for once feeling happy in our jackets and pants in the heat. Nevertheless, even as we thawed, I was so excited to spend my first day in Oman.

We packed out suitcases and then headed down for breakfast. An array of food was served in the buffet: various Omani breads, fresh fruit juices, eggs, meats, cheese, even fresh honey straight from a honeycomb! It was delicious.

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We then left our suitcases in the hotel storage room and headed out to the beach! We went to a private expatriate beach and it is by far one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen. Even though there was a small shaded pool in the front and lounge chairs surrounding the area, the main sight was the breathtaking beach. White rocky sand mixed with completely clear blue-green water, which blended in with the bright blue sky. All of this was surrounded by brown rocky mountains. In the distance, was the shore on the other side with houses looking over the water. A few boats bobbed in the distance. Okay, now I’m done with all the figurative language.

We immediately jumped into the water (it was so hot outside) and swam there for a while until we spotted a few jellyfish and got scared of the many small fish. Some of us went to the pool for a while and then walked on the dock. Shortly after, Liz and I decided to do some exploring and climbed around one of the rocky hills to another beach. The view on the climb was beautiful and looked over the water, and the beach on the other side was calmer and the shade from the rocks made the water cooler. We hung out there for a while and Anna joined us.

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We then had lunch at the restaurant on the beach. Liz was very adventurous. I tried her camel burger (it looks like a regular burger, but instead, the meat is made out of camel). It tasted like a lamb burger but with a slightly different texture. She also ordered a cranberry ginger mint drink which was delicious.

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We hung out at the beach for the rest of the afternoon and then headed back to the hotel to meet our host families!

Dubai

We are in Dubai! We have our layover here and though I have had a layover here before, I am definitely more excited (also, having friends while we wait here makes it fun). Liz and I have been trying to read the Arabic signs in the airport. We can (kind-of) read it out loud, but have no idea what we are reading. After about half an hour in the Dubai airport, we heard the Islamic call for prayer. We of course were really excited because this never happens in an American airport. This airport is different than many other airports that I have visited for many other reasons, especially airports in the United States. This airport feels like a world in the future. A lot of design aspects in the airport are modern and sleek, lined with blue lights. The airport, however, also has a traditional Middle Eastern feel to it. There are fake torchlights and ornately decorated fake windows. The main area is filled with small shops selling expensive glittering items. At one end, a row of palm trees decorates both sides of the walkway. In essence, it looks like a beautiful scene from the Arabian Nights. Many of the men here are wearing white and black dishdashas. One man walked by holding a falcon! Apparently these falcons are very expensive and cost thousands of dollars. We went for our first dinner in the Middle East and ate at a buffet restaurant. The food was an interesting mix of Turkish, Greek, and Indian food. We are going to board the plane soon and I cannot wait to see Oman!

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Plane ride!

Today was my last day in the US! We went back to the AMIDEAST center and had a small Arabic review session. It is really tricky to catch the nuances of Arabic (there are quite a few variations of the sound “t”, “th”, “d”, and “dh” for example). We then went to the Omani embassy and got the chance to talk to two Omanis about Omani lifestyle and politics. This was the first time that we have been able to ask our questions to Omanis so this session was particularly valuable. We then had a quick lunch, got all our suitcases together and headed to the airport.

The stuffed van

The stuffed van

Map of Oman!

Map of Oman!

Right now I am on the plane flying over Washington DC. I cannot believe that I have just left the US. We are going to change planes in Dubai and then from Dubai fly to Oman. The plane ride is going to be so long, though—13 hours! Then the layover in Dubai (5 hours) and the over-an-hour flight to Oman; this is going to be a very lengthy trip. I’m really glad that United has a lot of good movies to watch.

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Today was also pretty emotional for us since we realized it was our last day in the US. I still have not fully processed that I am going away for a year. I think this is probably because I am not really leaving anyone in Atlanta. My parents are not there and most of my friends are in college outside of Atlanta. So in a sense, I have not felt particularly homesick for my home in Atlanta because everyone is gone. I think this will make the trip easier. Of course, I still miss everyone and am not looking forward to the time when the realization sets in. Right now though, I cannot wait to see Oman!