Country #18: Oman!

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While I have finally come to the depressing conclusion I am not royalty (Harry, if you're reading this, call me!), my stay at Chedi Hotel Muscat made me feel like a queen nonetheless.  If only for a few days.

I celebrated my 25th birthday in a drop dead, gorgeous postcard of place - one I had never heard of, frankly, until moving to Saudi.  Hey, a quarter of a century is a pretty big milestone, so I went all out.  And man, Oman, my present to myself didn’t disappoint.  Just a 3-hour flight from Jeddah, the secluded beach-front property is on the southeastern coast of the Saudi Peninsula.  A blinding white Benz swept me off my feet and delivered me to the Chedi where the “Club Benefits Package” had me livin’ large by my standards for a girl from Nashua. 

Talk about a dichotomy.  With binoculars from my beach cabana, I could see the coasts of Iran and Pakistan.  Not your Top Ten Tourists Destinations.  (Unless you’re into nuclear surveillance.) But in Sultan-ruled Oman, where tourism accounts for much of the economy (it has modest oil reserves), they pretty much treat us globe-trekkers as part of the family.  The Chedi, part GMH’s group of distinguished global real estate, my temporary “palace” was some kind of awesome swank with beautifully decorated suites and villas, several delectable restaurants, oasis-like pools, and a spa menu for ordering your very own ultimate nirvana.

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My idea of nirvana from the moment I laid eyes on the Chedi’s insane outdoor pool in all its splendor on the internet ad, was to get my b-day butt there, tear off my abaya, and decompress with a lovely swim and a poolside drink.  NOT in the cards.  A baby in their actual birthday suit was there screaming her head off whilst her parents gave not a fig.   I stood my ground, however, and got the ultimate revenge:  a 5-hour spa treatment including seaweed wrap and bath, Balinese massage, and foot reflexology.  I felt so great afterwards that I didn’t even WANT to drown that baby. 

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I got dressed for the first of every evening’s “pre-dinner receptions.”  A little old-school perhaps, but fun in a surreal, “let’s see who I strike up a conversation with today” kind of vibe.  The Chedi served exotic libations and yummy canapés including an array of sushi and endless flutes of champagne.

You can have the most wow-worthy cover photo in the travel magazines, but if your food doesn’t live up to the billing, well, أراك لاحقا.  I’d come back to the Chedi just for the food, people!  As mentioned, they have three restaurants:  The Restaurant, The Beach Restaurant, and the Long Pool Restaurant.  At THE Restaurant, for my birthday, I was particularly hot for the Thai menu and indulged in the Tom Yam Koon soup with the Basil red curry duck and pineapple.   The duck was tender and perfectly pared with perfumed jasmine rice. I shared it was my signature drink, a mojito, and it paired wonderfully.  (In lieu of traditional cake – I didn’t need to see 25 candles and nobody around me needed to either – I ordered the salted caramel macaroons.)  OMG!  I could so get used to this . . .

And the icing on the cake?  I mean macaroons?  I went back to my room just in time for my virtual birthday party via Skype with my parents.  You see, back in June I had my employer ship a bunch of stuff over from my parent’s house in New Hampshire for my home here in Saudi; mundane stuff like linens and a bicycle, a carpet for my room and pots and pans.  Well, my thoughtful parents surprised me and included lots of wrapped birthday gifts all bearing the message:  DO NOT OPEN UNTIL YOUR BIRTYDAY!  I brought the booty with me and opened it with mom and dad looking on. Their little girl was back home for a few minutes anyway.   

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#25, here’s to ya!  You’ve made #24 look like a yawner. Can’t to see what you’ve got in store for the next 11 months.   

Bringing up Boston

Boston keeping a vigilant eye on the neighborhood.  

Boston keeping a vigilant eye on the neighborhood.  

Back when I worked in DC, I commuted on the Metro from Rockville.  In my desperation to find a place to live that I could afford, I unwittingly moved into an illegally zoned, 12-person boarding house full of “professional” millennials.  The experience was much like what one would see on the MTV show, The Real World.  There was drama (lots of drama), fights (real ones), a few police visits (including the enforcement of a restraining order) and, I gotta admit, some pretty awesome parties. 

Three floors, four bedrooms, a communal kitchen, and living room on each.  I count myself extremely lucky, sharing the basement floor with three of the best guys ever; me being the only female.  There was always someone to hang out with, eat dinner with, or walk downtown with for a beer and/or other entertainment. 

Then, after a year and a half in Rockville, I discovered a healthy “crop” of mold growing on all my possessions after returning from a business trip.  Considering I just like to eat mushrooms and not grow them in my house; considering that it began dawning on me what a wicked long commute it actually was each day to work, and considering that the house I was living in was illegal, I got out the heck out of there and moved to a studio by the Navy Yard. 

The transition of living with three best friends to living alone was difficult.  I tried making the best of it by inviting friends over, but I still missed always having company.  

Ditto moving to Saudi Arabia.

Living on KAUST compound as a single woman has it drawbacks compared to my married counterparts.  For example, if I need to pick something up in Jeddah, I'd have to don my abaya and hire a taxi for the day.  If I had a husband, I could just have him drive me, and I wouldn't be worried about pre-scheduling the taxi and its availability.  We'd also be able to take trips around the country to see what I’m told are some pretty amazing cultural sites without having to go through the Government Services and Tourism Office. (Really.)

So, as you can well-imagine, it's quite lonely.  I've started to make friends, which has allowed me to get out of the house on weekends, instead of binge watching The West Wing. (I definitely see myself as an Ansley Adams - type of gal).  However, the loneliness that sets in when you're eating dinner by yourself again and watching reruns of old blockbusters on DubaiOne is pretty darn depressing.

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So, in an extraordinary turn of events, one that started off as an “animal lover/activist’s” attempt to adopt two kittens that were literally found between the walls of the KAUST Museum, I instead ended up adopting a seven month old puppy formally known as Ginger Aileen Jellybean after my co-worker spotted her on the KAUST Facebook “Pet Page” with a post saying she would be taken to a shelter in Jeddah if no one could take her within the week as the owner’s new baby was deathly allergic to the cute little critter. 

It was “puppy love” at first sight, and her adorable snout with her one floppy ear, matched her goofy demeanor.  Last Thursday she was dropped off at my house and the first order of business was to change her name to Boston. 

Let’s just say there was a riot in old Beantown that night as Boston proved to be the puppy from Hell.  Perhaps she was anxious in her new surroundings or just unsure of me but neither one of us got any sleep.  In a strategic move to stop her incessant nipping at my arms, my first mistake was to think the screen door as a suitable barrier between us.  Not so.  After a running start, she leapt THROUGH said screen door, and jumped back on my bed where she continued gnawing my arm like an ear of corn. 

After ignoring her attempts to play - it was 3:00 am, after all – Boston took matters into her own paws, lifting the plastic Tupperware I used as her water bowl, and proceeded to dump the entire contents on my peacefully sleeping head.  I did not give in, however, and after cocooning myself in my blankets, hiding under my pillow to protect myself from those now annoying nips, she finally gave up and we slept for an astounding three hours. (I now have a greater respect for new mothers.)

It's been a week and things have improved.  We’re both getting our full eight hours of sleep a night and I’m staying dry since exchanging the Tupperware for bowl as heavy as a bowling ball.  We both lived through her horrific experience of being spade although we both cried a lot and I secretly wished the traveling vet had given me local anesthesia, too.  (She’s healed very nicely.)  

We’re working hard trying to get into a routine now and it seems to be working.   Best of all?  We have each other.  We eat dinner at the same time when I’m not meeting friends.  We take long walks, we watch movies, and we yell/bark at each other just like old friends.  Saudi Arabia just got a little less lonely.

A failed attempt at our first family portrait.  

A failed attempt at our first family portrait.  

I Survived Jeddah Drivers

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I've officially reached my three week mark living in Saudi Arabia.  The KAUST community is great, and I'm happy to report that I will be leaving my temporary housing for a permanent set-up:  me and two other girls will be living in an insanely spacious four-bedroom townhouse. (Sometimes I wonder if it’s a mirage.)  It’ll be nice to finally unpack and start making KAUST feel more like home. There's an IKEA close-by the compound (still not used to saying that) and hopefully I can purchase a few household items that will make the place feel like it’s mine.  Before I left the US, I sold about 150 pound of clothes (only wish I was kidding) that I hoarded over the past few years.  I only brought two suitcases with  me and I don't plan on bringing anything else over.  Otherwise, it's nice just to have a few treasured books and photos of friends.  I remember when I moved to college in Cambridge I got the award for “most boxes brought from home.”  I was only 45 minutes away so I have no clue why I decided to pack up every single thing I owned.  Regardless, it feels great to walk into a clutter lessroom, and picking up after myself takes a mere five minutesinstead of five hours.  It's the little things in life, people.

KAUST is 14 square miles and I have finally found my way around its four areas: the Gardens, the Harbor, the Island, and the Campus.  I found the barber shop to get my "undercut" touched up (that was a fun experience and they tried to shoo meto the women's salon but my pleading finally won them over.) I've spent time wandering around the Beacon on the waterfront, an awesome “lighthouse” and symbol of the university, that’s a staggering 10 stories tall.  But-shame on this East Coast girl - I have yet to hit the beach!  And what a beach it is, poised in the Red Sea with some of the world’s best scuba diving, I'm told.  Luckily, I have two years and 49 weeks to go.  I'm hoping to buy a bicycle since I'll be living farther from work in the new digs.  Though, I'm really tempted to get a scooter.  (From Italy, of course.)

So far, I've left the compound twice.  Once to go to King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) for a Salvador Dali exhibit; the first time the artist's work has been shown in the Kingdom.  All the pieces were flown in from a collection in Switzerland.  The art nut that I am enjoyed the eccentricity of Dali works in this environment.  Surreal, to say the least.  The trip to KAEC was just a 20 minute drive and it's about 10% built.  It's amazing to see all of these incredibly planned cities literally spring up from desert. 

Dress designed by Yahya for Princess Diana

Dress designed by Yahya for Princess Diana

The second time out of KAUST was to visit a haute-couture designer, Yahya, who was born in Saudi and studied fashion in Milan. (Those who know me know I’m a slave to fashion.) The trip to Jeddah was also quite the experience.  I'm not sure who is in charge of urban planning, but the different architectural styles are a complete mishmash of half-built and abandoned storefronts, huge mansions surrounded by equally huge walls, and skyscrapers.  Not to mention, I couldn't turn 90 degrees without seeing a US fast-food franchise.  FYI:  Pizza Hut is Pizza Inn in Saudi.  If there really was a Pizza Inn here?  I'd check in!  Forever.

Now, I know that driving is a touchy subject in Saudi Arabia and it's only allowable for men outside KAUST to be behind the wheel.  But driving in Jeddah, and realizing A) painted line dividers are completely ignored; B)  U-turns on major, bustling highways are routine; and C) Saudi has an incredibly high accident rate - makes me never, ever, ever WANT to drive here. But, part of me does imagine a world in which only women drive and, in that world, traffic jams and accidents don't happen because we're so nice.  (Who am I kidding?)

Well, that is my little rant for now.  A quick PS, I bought tickets home to see my little sister graduate college and I am SO excited to visit family and friends in DC.

PSS, I am planning a trip to Oslo in July so recommendations are very appreciated.

Hijabs, Fingerprints, Outlets, & Tamimi

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After watching hours of hijab styling tutorials...I still struggled to make my hijab look "authentic."  Maybe it was the lack of space in the tiny airplane bathroom, or the constant fear of the long piece of fabric accidentally grazing the disgusting floor, or perhaps it was the lack of sleep.  We had just reached Mecca "airspace" and I had reached my 15th hour of sleeplessness.  Of course, there was no chance of taking a power nap in my immediate future.  We were landing in 40 minutes and I was to de-board the plane and meet my KAUST government representative, go through customs, pick up my bags, and meet my taxi driver for the 1 hour drive to Thuwal.

All was going as planned until I had to get my visa stamped.  My KAUST guide led me to the front of line (pissing off the 50 or so equally tired people now behind me).  To make matters worse, I could not, for the love of God, get my fingertips in the right angle or position to be scanned on the tiny little fingerprint machine.  There was a little light above each finger and if they all turned green, you passed.  If they remained orange, you had to try again.  So now, I'm not only a Westerner in a poorly done up hijab who has managed to cut everyone in line.  I am now the Westerner in a poorly done up hijab who has jacked up finger tips.  After 10 minutes and much teasing by all the custom officials, they decided I could just scan my thumbprints and be gone. 

My luggage managed the 15 hour flight just fine!  Now it's just a matter of meeting my driver and getting to campus.  This was a much easier feat. 

Saudi Arabia is flat.  Like, Nebraska flat.  And the highways are lined with trash and unfinished houses and abandoned amusement parks.  I look at the drivers on the highway next to me and soon realize that I had forgotten that women can't drive here. 

KAUST is a lot like a mirage.  We'd been driving for 40 minutes and we go through several security checkpoints and then out of nowhere, this huge city appears out of the desert.  Rows and rows of cookie-cutter houses with matching, impeccably kept front yards.  My temporary home is a three bedroom townhouse that I share with a Italian woman studying here for her Post Doc.  We each get our own room, bathroom, balcony.  We share a large living room, dining room, and kitchen.  We have a garage but neither of us plan on purchasing a car while on campus.  We'll be living here until a one bedroom town house opens up for each of us.  I try to charge my phone and suddenly realize I brought the wrong power convertors!  Note - for anyone moving to KAUST, purchase the UK 2 prong adaptors regardless of what the travel store manager at Heathrow Terminal 5 says.

I take a shower, unpack, and take a nap before heading to the grocery store.  Anyways, the grocery store is the Middle Eastern version of a Safeway, which was the grocery store I used in DC. Tamimi feels like the younger sibling that received all the grocery hand-me-downs from it's older grocery store siblings.  Perhaps Safeway had an abundant amount of canned peaches so they shipped them here.  All the products from the US have a bright orange tag under it that says "IMPORTED FROM USA."  After walking around a few times I realize no other country represented gets such official looking tags. 

Well, that's all for now!  My first day at work is tomorrow.  Stay tuned!