The Immigrant Worker

The name of our blog is “Vantage Points,” and much of what we choose to write about is accordingly about our view of life. We write about our experiences with the ADEC odyssey, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of expat life, and the new perspectives a person gains from seeing life from a new location, station, and position in life. We write about things we learn from listening carefully to others. Remember that post about Syria a year or so ago, or the one about a conversation with Saudi parents? We find our conceptions challenged sometimes, but more often our preconceptions, the ones we never gave much thought to, are the ones that end up being altered as we encounter life on a fuller scale than we did before.

One such conception, preconception, misconception, has been running through my mind a lot lately (Shon writing, by the way). See, when I resided in Georgia (the southeastern USA, not the country in Europe), I identified a disconcerting trend that was going on particularly before the recession of 2008. There was a massive influx of migrant workers from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations south of the American border. More often than not, it seemed that those folks were illegal aliens, and it was changing the face of the country I was accustomed to. The axe to grind was that these immigrants were stealing jobs a good ol’ red-blooded ‘Merican could be doing.

Yes, I was familiar with the argument that my fellow Georgians weren’t interested in working the sort of jobs farmed out to immigrants—the kind requiring real labor—but that argument never held much water for me, as I personally didn’t shy away from doing whatever kind of work I could find if I was really in need of it. I’ve worked on people’s yards, in chicken houses, hayfields, mopped floors, and done other menial tasks. I’ve also had easy but mindless jobs in retail stores, and discouragingly low-wage work in schools. It’s all part of the struggle to make ends meet and rise from one pay scale to another. But my personal history doesn’t matter much other than that—I’m willing, and always have been, to do what I need to in order to pay bills and provide for myself and others. Most of us humans are willing to do the same, aren’t we?

Now how many of those seemingly illegal immigrants I encountered fleetingly on the streets did I know for sure were not supposed to be in the country? Hm. Not many. One or two.

I heard tell of the chicken plant in Habersham County being visited by the authorities and the many Mexican workers holing up in a trailer, waiting quietly until the coast was clear and then emerging and getting back to work. That’s unverified hearsay. I sold plenty of merchandise to Spanish-speakers. Mostly they paid in cash, which I gradually realized was good for business.

What jobs were the Mexicans doing? Backbreaking work in the summer heat, temporary day-to-day jobs in construction, seasonal jobs that couldn’t be relied on for the long term, dirty jobs in Chicken processing plants, stuff like that. The kind of jobs that a person tries to avoid, to be sure. Nonetheless, jobs a fellow Georgian could do.

I remember standing in my easy but low-paying job in an outlet store in Commerce, telling my coworker, “I have just one thing to say to people who come here to work—learn English.” In my mind it was important that we all be able to communicate. At least that’s one part of what was in my mind.

And then I became an immigrant myself. I am not at the top of the pecking order in employment or citizenship anymore, a privilege I never even considered or realized I possessed when I lived back home.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the UAE, importing our customs to this foreign country.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the UAE, importing our customs to this foreign country.

Yes, I became the very person who moved to another country, took a job that a local could probably do (okay, not very well, all things considered, but still, it’s within the realm of possibility), and didn’t learn the language.

“Learn English,” I once said. Well, I also once thought I’d learn Arabic when I was getting ready to move. Yet I haven’t, because I simply don’t need it very often. Perhaps if I were interacting with locals more often, I’d get to know more. I’d have a reason to, after all.

But it’s hard to relate to locals. Their culture is drastically different than mine. I know that we’re all human beings with the same basic needs and desires, but the way we live on a daily basis is pronouncedly different. Our commonalities are there, but they’re concealed beneath the layers of dissimilar day-to-day routines. My family is in bed and asleep by 9 or 10 every night. The locals are outside with their children until then, and often later. We don’t nap in the middle of the afternoon, but they do. We eat at normal Western hours. They eat at different times that make some kind of sense if you nap part of the day and stay up really late at night. We spend time together, male and female, and want to socialize that way. They don’t.

I send much of my earnings home every month, instead of spending my cash freely like the citizens here. What’s more, I’m not here for the long term and have no intention whatsoever of spending more than a few years total in the UAE. So how much energy does it even make sense for me to expend on learning Arabic, adapting to local customs, or what have you?

What I was really saying back home, when I was bitching about Mexicans speaking Spanish instead of English was, “Be acculturated.” That’s entirely reasonable if you marry into a different culture. You take it upon yourself that you’ll adapt to a new way of doing things that will span a lifetime. My wife did it. Living abroad as a worker isn’t that at all. For most, it’s a temporary station in life.

When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Fit in.” But why bother? The biggest reason I’m still in the UAE is to make some extra dough to improve life in my native country.

I said “Learn English,’ but I meant, “Why do you pile seven people into a small car?” Now I carpool as much as possible, so I can send more money home.

When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Don’t be so different.” But my deeply ingrained culture as an American is a major factor keeping me from fitting in with the locals.

I said “Learn English” while thinking “Why are you hanging out in groups of your own people instead of making friends with us Americans?” And then I discovered that I hang out with people who are like me when I have the chance. These people might be from different countries, but they speak English, and they identify with me—we undergo the same challenges in our working environments, and we have the same goals in life.

Besides celebrating our own traditions, we enjoy the local ones as well, such as National Day. Here, a Mercedes sedan flaunts a window appliqué with questionable grammar.

Besides celebrating our own traditions, we enjoy the local ones as well, such as National Day. Here, a Mercedes sedan flaunts a window appliqué with questionable grammar.

I said “Learn English” and thought smugly that was all it would take to make a Mexican more like me.

I was completely wrong.

What would have helped a Mexican be more like me? Inviting him to come have dinner or a drink. Meeting him to play a game of soccer (he’d kick my ass at it), or toss a baseball around. I could have made an effort to use my rapidly deteriorating Spanish I learned as a student. You know, I could have invited him to church. Anyway, what it amounts to is not really that he would have then been more like me, either. Maybe, though, I could have helped him feel comfortable and welcome in a foreign land.

So when I said “Learn English,” what I was really saying was, “I don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to be an immigrant worker living in a foreign country where lots of things are different.” I was saying, “I’m totally clueless. I’m a naïve and inconsiderate young man.” I stereotyped people freely, and I didn’t know how to relate.

Here’s what I’m getting at. I may not be exactly like a Mexican working in the USA, and a Mexican may not be exactly like me, working in the UAE. But as an immigrant worker, I now understand that what we are doing, Mexican or otherwise, is trying to build a better future for ourselves and our families, doing what we must to get by, and adapting as we see necessary. My vantage point has changed. Thank God.

Food Friday: Favorites from Thailand and Laos

It’s been a while since we wrote up a Food Friday entry, so here we are.  Just like the headline says, here are some favorites from Thailand and Laos.  They’re mostly things that took us by surprise, hooking our tastebuds and leaving us with big smiles on our faces as we realized we’d found new foods we loved.  In no particular order, with the possible exception of number one:

1.  Mango Sticky Rice.  Amazing.  Actually, fresh, ripe Thai mangoes are so good, so delicious, so mouthwateringly scrumptious, that I’d probably rank a mango itself right up there, even without the sticky rice.  But anyway, sticky rice being a pretty unique thing, if you ever visit, you gotta try it.

2. Papaya Salad.  It’s hard to get this without little dried shrimp in it, which is kind of weird, I’ll go ahead and say.  However, it’s dang good–the papaya is shredded almost like cabbage, and dressed in a sweet-spicy sauce and a few other things.  Never had anything else like it.

3. Coconut Juice.  Actually, I didn’t think it was awesome, but the little Turtle sure did.  He LOVED it, to be sure.  We stopped at a roadside stand and I forked over some baht.  They chopped the top off a green coconut, jabbed a straw in it, and handed it over.  I gave the kid a sip, and the rest was soon his.  The next day he got his very own coconut, and made equally short work of it.

Spring Rolls.

Spring Rolls.  Deliciously un-deep fried.

4. Fruit Smoothies.  These suckers are delicious.  Granted, they’re sweetened with a hearty dose of sugar syrup, so they’re basically guaranteed to taste nice.  Available in all kinds of variations, they’re usually good.  A watermelon smoothie was a delightful way to cool down when walking along Ao Nang Beach one hot afternoon.

These dishes were all readily available in Thailand.  In Vientiane, we found similar stuff, of course, but the region does have a somewhat different flavor, and to be sure we sampled it, we visited a renowned restaurant called The Laotian Kitchen.  There “we played it safe,” as our friend and guide said, and didn’t try anything that would scorch our tastebuds.  Being really satisfied with what we ate, I’d say we made the right choice in that regard.  So what did we have, anyway?

5.  Tofu Laab.  Think stir-fry, but different.  Delicious over some of that sticky rice I mentioned earlier.

6. Spring rolls.  Not fried, and ever-so-fresh, leaving the belly feeling happy, not overloaded with grease.  Highly recommended.

Tofu Laab

Tofu Laab, a Laotian specialty.  You can get it with chicken, but that’s not our bag, baby.

There you have it.  Five favorites.  We had many different dishes which we really enjoyed, and one or two may well merit mention here (how about the many curries?  Those usually were good) that I’m forgetting, but if and when you visit Thailand and Laos, give these a try.  I guarantee you won’t be let down.

One last thought as I’m closing–be sure to order your food mild.  Even mildly spicy to Thai people is really spicy to you and me.  Twice I forgot to order that way, and both times I found it hard to come close to finishing my food.  The first time, I tried what looked like a tasty multi-mushroom soup.  It was so hot, however, that I couldn’t actually taste anything other than my mouth burning.  And in a moment, after trying valiantly to prove that I could master the stuff, I was sweating and my head was spinning.  The second time I fared only slightly better, managing to avoid dizziness.

That’s that.  Until the next time.

Airfare Update IV

Okay, I must give it to ADEC.  They’ve come through.  Although it was an entire 3 months late, they’ve credited my wife and child’s airfare allowance into this month’s pay.  Granted, we can make the case that they’re contractually obliged to give us this money and it is supposed to be prior to traveling, not afterward.  But regardless, we’re glad to have it (and also glad that we had enough money to cover our own tickets during the summer holidays, or we’d have been stuck in Al Ain).

This means that despite being late, as regards pay (except that raises have been frozen during the last two years) ADEC has always come through.

ADEC Housing

Lots of folks have dropped by this blog looking for information about ADEC housing.  If you’re one of those folks who wonder what sort of digs a person gets when they come to work here, I can help you out.

In short, the answer is: it varies.  In Abu Dhabi, the apartments are usually pretty nice. They’re fairly small, but from the photos I’ve seen others share, they’re fairly well-appointed to begin with, with built-in wardrobes and such.  Many of them are in a new section of the city that may require you to drive a good ways to work.

Those teachers placed in Madinat Zayed or other places in the Western Region of Al Gharbia, often have totally different housing.  Many of them share a big place.  Others are put up in hotels.

Those of us who are put in Al Ain have been given very different housing from one another.  We were told during orientation back in August that “There are no small places in Al Ain.”  That is hardly accurate.  What ADEC looks for, we’re told, are places that adhere to local codes and regulations.  They evidently don’t give much regard to size, however, for that statement about small places was simply inaccurate.  Jenia and I were first placed in a tiny 2-BR apartment with a miniature kitchen and bathrooms.  The apartment was in the Sultan Bin Tahnoon complex, and was brand new, but was much too small for the two of us (nevermind when number three shows up).  Another teacher found herself placed in a run-down complex with a sign warning about danger on the door.  She had to fight and fight with ADEC to get herself put in a better complex.  They did eventually see reason, but it was a struggle.

The first complex we were placed in, Sultan Bin Tahnoon.

The first complex we were placed in, Sultan Bin Tahnoon.

Tiny little bathroom in Tahnoon.

Tiny little bathroom in Tahnoon.  The shower is nearly on top of the toilet.

This is almost the entire apartment, aside from bathrooms and eensy-weensy kitchen.  The photo makes it look bigger than it actually is.

This is almost the entire apartment, aside from bathrooms and eensy-weensy kitchen. The photo makes it look considerably bigger than it actually is.

Fortunately for us, a colleague of mine was interested in swapping apartments, so we exchanged keys and went to the ADEC headquarters in Al Ain and had it made official.  There was no problem with that at all.  The place we’re in now is much bigger, albeit still not even close to large by American standards.  Like the first tiny place, we’ve got two bedrooms.  But there are three bathrooms (all quite small, but reasonable), a small kitchen (this time with room for a full-size stove and a dishwasher), and a living/dining room.  Other teachers are placed in the Hili complex, which seems more generously sized, although its location isn’t quite as convenient.  Yet others are placed in The Village (typically those with two or more kids), which offers very spacious quarters.

The complex where we now live is

The complex where we now live is much better than the first one.  It’s got a swimming pool (albeit a small one) and a (not-too-well-appointed) gym, and even underground parking, which helps keep the car a lot cooler during the hot months.

Our new apartment actually has a reasonable amount of space.

Our new apartment actually has a reasonable amount of space.

The bathroom, by comparison, is roomy, although there is still no storage or shelves.

The master bathroom, by comparison, is roomy, although there is still no storage or shelves.

So what can you expect if you sign up for a job with ADEC?  To have no idea whatsoever what to expect.

Dubai is Cool.

The line above says it all.  Dubai is infinitely cooler than its stodgy cousin Abu Dhabi and ever so much more exciting than pastoral Al Ain.

What is it that makes the city so cool?  Is it the towering skyline that looms like Manhattan on the Gulf?  Is it the proportion of cool people to uncool ones?  Is it because you can purchase a 24K gold plated iPad there?  Well, based on our experience celebrating our fifth anniversary (and the last one alone, without a curtain-climbing munchkin crawling about), Dubai is cool because it is considerably more relaxed and foreigner-friendly than the other places I mentioned.  Dubai is cool because there is always something going on, which you just might happen to luck into being part of.  Dubai is cool because if you’re looking for it, it’s probably there, somewhere.

The view from our hotel in the Bur Dubai area.

We spent the night at the reasonably-priced (at least via booking.com) 4-star Dhow Palace hotel, which we found just opulent enough to satisfy our need for feeling special, and for dinner we ventured over to the rather more opulent Rotana near the airport, and had a splendid meal at the none-too-reasonably-priced Blue Elephant Thai restaurant housed within.  We were charmed by the decor of the place, as well as the waterfall and koi fish.  The service was excellent, as was our food–a vegetarian delight, I tell you!  Of course, we did splurge on the 5-course meal, but considering the occasion and our burning desire for tasty Thai, it was well worth it.  When we were leaving, the hostess stopped us and we were given a fresh orchid to take home.  Sweet.

Now, say what you like about the Dubai Mall being the embodiment of modern consumerism (and use that tone of superiority if you must, go ahead), criticize it if you like for being just a bit phony (I mean, what about that psuedo-souk?) or over the top (’cause, yeah, it is), we like it.  So we went there.  As we strode about the densely-packed Mall, which is basically shopper heaven, bustling with people of all shapes and sizes, tastefully dressed and not, abayas and short (for here, yeah, yeah, I know) skirts side-by-side, we noticed flyers for an afternoon event: Freestyle Moto X.  Motocross in Burj Park?  Heck, yeah.  So we strolled a bit more, through the throngs and outdoors, below the Burj Khalifa, to find ourselves a place to watch the motorcycle action.  My wife was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching some motorcycle riders, but the first time one of the riders went soaring off the large jump they had set up, she got mighty interested.  In fact, she was aghast at the stunts that the Australian team of riders pulled off.  I myself was in awe of the feats of bravado and daring that I witnessed.  We both snapped photos like crazy.

Trials rider Jack demonstrates some of his capabilities.

I think this is called a “double grab” or something. Jenia calls it scary.

Triple threat! Would you do this?

If you believe Emaar’s (that’d be the company that owns and evidently operates the whole development area) hype, then Downtown Dubai is smack-dab “in the center of now,” and I have to admit, it does feel pretty hip.  Is it a bit artificial?  Yeah, maybe.  But it’s also cool.  And that seems to describe the city as a whole.  There’s always something interesting happening, and it’s pretty fun to blunder into nifty stuff.  The city in general is just oozing coolness.  There’s coolness dripping from the futuristic Metro stations, from the spire of the Burj Khalifa and into the over-hyped fountains below, from the overpasses of the unnecessarily confusing highways, and from the neon lights which are spread about accenting the, uh, coolness of the place.  You get the idea.  Dubai is cool, especially this time of year, when you can go outside and enjoy walking around, instead of dissolving into a big nasty pile of sweat.

Just when you thought I was joking. Look, 24kt gold-plated iPads. Yup.

One last chestnut: here’s a video I shot with my trusty iPhone whilst we were taking in the motocross action.  Enjoy:)

Rookie Dune Bashing

Man, I”ll tell you what–I want to buy a 4×4 (I mean, a real 4×4, something brawny, not the puny Kia Sorento we happen to own) and head to the desert as often as possible.

Friday afternoon I had a great time in the dunes with a bunch of off-roading newbies and a crew of very patient and helpful experienced pros.

I’ve never once done this kind of thing before.  It was great.  There is nothing quite like the experience of cresting a dune (and getting stuck while driving your buddy’s Jeep) in the middle of the Arabian desert.  Ditto that descending a steep slope.  The ascent is a curious mixture of gentle approach (depending on the angle of the wall) and then nail-it-to-the-floorboards-and-watch-the-sand-fly power.  Learning the balance is a bit of a challenge.  The descent is generally pretty easy: approach slowly, keep it in low gear, and let the engine to the braking as you float down the slope.  However, go too fast off a steep hill, and you can find yourself in trouble, as you might damage your vehicle, or at the very least, bottom out the suspension.  Yeah, the suspension bottoming thing happened to us a couple times.  Vroom–swish–crash!  But not when I was behind the wheel.  I promise.

In all, I had a ball.  I probably should have taken the Canon Rebel along for some better quality photos, but I was a bit afraid it might end up covered in sand and totally ruined.  So rather than risk it, I just had ye olde iPhone in its trusty Otterbox case.  I just may purloin some pictures from fellow photographers for this post, however, and in that case, I’ll give those picture-takers credit.

My buddy Jon and his son as we are preparing to head out.  Here, the 4WD has just been engaged on his old Jeep for the first time since he’s owned it.

On the rough road, getting ready to head into the serious sand.

Jon’s son ended up in the nice, cool, air conditioned cabin of this Jeep Liberty (sold here as a Cherokee) which is shown here about to come down a dune.

 

The day’s only casualty that I’m aware of was this Cherokee and its exploded radiator.

Check this view out. I’d been longing to be out in the dunes ever since I arrived. It was as cool as I hoped.  Don’t turn down the opportunity to get out there with some experienced folks.

And this would be a photo I'm borrowing from Heidi Cothron.  Maybe she'll let me borrow a high-res version later.

And this would be a photo I’m borrowing from Heidi Cothron. Maybe she’ll let me borrow a high-res version later.

So, I’m discovering the joys of living in the Arabian desert.  This off-roading stuff is seriously fun.  It ranks up there, in an altogether different way, of course, with riding a motorcycle.  LIke hopping on a bike and heading into the hills, being in the desert amidst a sea of dunes and away from the city is relaxing, and again, like riding a bike, there is definitely an element of risk involved in heading into the sand.  Your machinery must be in good shape, and it must be tough.  You’ve got to exercise good technique, or you’ll have serious problems on your hands.  Again, this is much like motorcycling.  In other words, it’s great fun and I highly recommend it.

A Checklist of Sorts? AKA, Something ADEC Could Do.

There’s quite a number of ADEC teachers who, like me, have noticed that ADEC does a splendid job with some of the arrangements for new arrivals to the UAE, and not so great with others.

Something that would newcomers help would be a simple checklist provided to teachers. The checklist could look like this:

1.  Residence Visa and Emirates ID applications are part of the process that we, ADEC, take care of for you, right along with the medical checkup.  Check!

However, If you don’t hear from the Emirates ID people after a while, go visit them and make sure everything is going well.  You’ll need a copy of your ID application receipt for number 2 anyway.

2.  UAE driver’s license is something you need to take care of.  Here are the steps:

  • Have your driver’s license translated.  We recommend Infinity Services, but if you go to them, don’t tell them you’re an ADEC employee, or they’ll charge you nearly double what they charge anyone else.
  • Have a copy of the Emirates ID application receipt (which we don’t bother to furnish to you, but you can obtain easily, as noted in step 1).
  • Take your American license and some cash and go to the driver’s licensing center. You’ll need an eye exam there and your license will be issued in 20 minutes after all is said and done.
  • Also, you should try to get this done as soon as you get your residence visa stuck into your passport.

3. Road Rules for Roundabouts.

  • If you enter a roundabout from the right hand lane, plan to exit immediately if there are other cars in the roundabout already.
  • If you enter from the middle, plan on going straight.
  • If you need to turn left, enter from the left lane.
  • Cars in the inside lanes of roundabouts have the right of way.  Don’t mess with them. They will run right the crap into you.

4.  How Utilities Work

  • When we give you your apartment, we give you a utilities letter that says, in Arabic, that you’re responsible for electricity and water expenses.
  • Find out your water and electricity meter numbers and take those, along with this letter, to the Al Ain Distribution Company (or other, if you’re working in Abu Dhabi or Al Gharbia).
  • You will have to pay a 1,000 AED deposit and whatever balance you might have already when you transfer the utilities into your name.
  • Regarding your bills, you can pay online, or at most ATMs, or you can go to AADC.
  • This is also true for gas.  You’re responsible for getting it up and running, and there will be a 1,000 AED deposit.

5.  Spouse Visa Process

  • Your wife (or husband, as the case maybe) will need pretty much the same documents as you.  You’ve probably already brought copies of your important documents: the authenticated marriage certificate is the most important one for the visa process.  We don’t make this very clear, but after you arrive, you need to get your authenticated marriage certificate translated into Arabic.
  • After you get your own residence visa in your passport (about a month), you’ll be able to apply for your wife’s visa.  You’ll need to bring all your wife’s important documents, passport photos, and that translated marriage certificate we just mentioned, to your local ADEC office to have us type the application.  We might tell you that this application form can be downloaded from our website, but don’t believe it.  We will type the application up, and then we’ll print it and give it to you.
  • After you have the application, you have to take it to the immigration authority and submit it.

A simple little list like this would be very helpful.  As is, lots of new arrivals have to figure out what to do by asking around, which usually works, but sometimes it causes an extra measure of frustration.

A Trip into Authenticity, Part I.

It’s Sunday.  This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son.  If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.  Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon.  We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table.  Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.

These sheep are headed for…well, probably nothing good, at least from their perspectives.

This bull probably also is not much longer for this world.

As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation.  For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east.  East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.

The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large.  It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.

First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast.  Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing.  We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us).  After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way.  There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.

The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way.  There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.

This stretch of desert was unusual for its dunes.

The Kia contemplates the stretch of 120kph highway ahead, wishing it could go faster.

We traveled along the flank of a range of mountains which look more or less like this.

The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps.  Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way.  Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy!  Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us.  We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents.  The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.

Enjoying the souk with friends.  Textiles, silver, gold, kitsch, and more, it’s all available there.

On to preconceptions.  Here’s how at least one of those got smashed.  A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point.  Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at.  “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.”  She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest.  The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away.  “4 is a good price.”  Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.

Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.

I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns.  “Is it for Eid?”  She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.”  She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna.  “There’s black henna and red.  This is red,” she said, indicating hers.  “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said.  “Better the red.”  I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.

So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states.  Evidently not.  Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way.  But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.

The daylight revealed the rugged, rocky landscape that Muscat is built upon.  This shot is in the Mutrah area.  You’ll notice the fortress tower atop one rocky peak.

This post features the word authenticity.  Here’s why.  The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai.  You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India).  But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial.  Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that.  It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself.  It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.

Jenia took this photo of the Mutrah area by night.

It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public.  Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open.  Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.