The Pull of Community and Routine

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We were warmly welcomed to multiple supras with Natia’s family in Western Georgia–experiences like these help make up for missing our communities and family back in the States.

I miss strolling around Bardstown and Douglass Loop Farmer’s Markets in Louisville, KY, my adopted hometown for over 13 years. Even if I didn’t run into anyone I knew well, the familiarity and routine of being in a place where people share at least some values is something that’s tough to capture with a transient lifestyle. I miss waving to neighbors in Clifton, chatting on front porches of shotgun houses, maybe enjoying a bourbon on the rocks as the freight trains rumbled by on the elevated tracks. Or enjoying collegial relationships at work, when simply socializing for five minutes or productively troubleshooting about how to improve curriculum during a meeting provided a balm for other stressors.

I think about other routines. For Rebecca and myself, we enjoyed Saturday morning hikes on the Red and Orange trails at the Horine Reservation area of Jefferson Memorial Forest. Afterwords, we’d be relatively near the Vietnam Kitchen and other delightful ethnic eateries, justifying our gluttony after a moderate workout on the well-worn trails. Last winter and spring, we spent our Tuesday evenings volunteering for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, helping American newcomers study for the citizenship test. Mitra, an elderly gentleman from Nepal, had an infectious grin and steady work ethic. Despite this elementary English skills, he always showed up to class–walking rain or shine–and interacting with him and others under the sometimes-flickering fluorescent church basement lights inspired us on a regular basis.

There are, however, fleeting moments of immersion into community and satisfying short-lived routines found while on the road.

There’s sharing a meal–and countless toasts–during a supra, a large traditional feast in rural Georgia. There’s joining a gym in Tbilisi, even if just for a month, using the 10 minute walk through bustling streets and past traditional shota bread ovens and other vendors as a warm up. There’s conversing with longtime expats in an Irish pub in Dubai, a place providing comfort for countless folks living thousands of miles from home. It’s especially festive during the second Saturday of every month, when a traditional string band plays standards and originals, drowning out the raucous clinking of pints and boisterous chatter. Now in Tanzania, we’ve found ourselves welcomed into Zoe and Roy’s home along with their two kids, four dogs, and two cats. When we make the 20 minute walk to the village for fresh avocados, mangoes, and pineapples, we wave and say jambo to familiar proprietors.

Sometimes, I think I could embrace fleeting routine and bursts of community for a much longer stretch than our current journey; at other times, I’m not so sure. But I am convinced that very few people are cut out to be permanent vagabonders. This is despite messages inherent in the glamourous accounts of some travel bloggers out there, who are trying to convince all of us–and perhaps themselves–that being on the road is a dream lifestyle worth emulating and easily attainable.

I’ve also been thinking about Sebastian Junger’s outstanding book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In this short but powerful text, he asks why so many American servicemen long for combat upon returning from overseas. They miss the brotherhood. It’s all about the shared sacrifice, being part of something larger than oneselves. Thousands of combat veterans experience living in the modern American world of me me me and the pursuit of comfort convenience comfort convenience and more comfort as vacuous and profoundly depressing, according to Junger.

Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”  While it might seem glamorous, I’d feel empty simply gallivanting around the world, staying in fancy hotels and airbnbs without having to pay our way or work remotely. (Please note: we can’t afford to do this, but you get the idea). In Vagabonding, Rolf Potts writes scornfully about people who travel without having made any personal sacrifice–“trustafarians”–and this resonates mildly with Junger’s musings about hardship and living with purpose.

While testing the currents of long term travel, we have come to cherish the novelty of arriving in new places and attempting to soak up sensory bombardments, gaining insights into people and place as we can.  The opportunity for personal growth and escape from the daily modern grind. We are blessed to be accumulating a lifetime worth of adventures, insights, and tastes. You can’t put a price on the memories and stories we are stockpiling as the stamps graffiti our passport pages.

But again, the pull of community and routine…which is sometimes a tease but at other times is a persistent itch, especially when your family and best friends are only accessible via a pixelated screen. Ruth Whippman writes in the New York Times, “Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a “necessary condition for happiness,” meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.” We’re maintaining social relationships with those closest to us, and we’re forming new bonds with people in each of the four countries we’ve traveled. Fortunately, Rebecca and I are best friends and must put up with inordinate amounts of time together–our social relationship is crucial!

I still follow tweets from my former employer, Fern Creek High School in Louisville, KY. And follow the local news. Thirteen years in a given place means–at least for most people–some sense of community. Relationships. Familiarity. And we all seek a belonging.  So after more than five months on the road–and nearly eight months since we left our home and began inhabiting friend’s basements and family guest rooms–the pull of community and routine keeps tapping us on the shoulder, beckoning us to turn around and consider putting down roots again, despite the inevitable revelations ahead and the precious opportunity to keep on truckin’ if we so desire.

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On the Road in Oman: Insights and Tips

You can pack in many unique experiences in Oman within a week or two, and we tried our best to do just that. It wasn’t a perfect trip–it’s silly to have that expectation, but I hope to visit Oman again someday or at least host some of our new Omani acquaintances if they ever visit the States.

Here’s a gallery of more images if you care to check them out! 

You can navigate without a GPS:  Despite a few detours, a nonworking Google Map–the blue dot flickering and slowly following our Toyota Fortuner’s progress–was enough for us. This wasn’t by design. That’s another story. But we were on a well-traveled loop, from Muscat down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, back up through the Wahiba Sands, up to Jebel Shams, then back to Muscat. The roads are mostly new, but signage doesn’t always match up with expectations. Luckily, the Omanis were always willing to help, either in English or enthusiastic Arabic, even though we only knew a few words. 

Definitely rent a 4WD:

If you have an inkling of adventure in you, you’ve got to rent a 4WD in Oman. For us, it was especially handy over several days. We needed it for our drive out to a fancy desert camp in Wahiba Sands, 11 km on mostly level ground between the dunes. And once you get into the mountainous region, even the paved roads have some serious grades. Driving up to the village of Al Khitaym for the “Grand Canyon” walk is dirt road part of the time and steep. But the highlight of our 4WD adventures had to be the drive from Al Hamra to Bald Sayt–a truly spectacular and adrenaline-pumping journey. After enjoying a walk around Bald Sayt, we ended up giving a lift to a hitchhiking Egyptian family who were leaving the valley enclave, heading to the nearest city of Rustaq for their monthly trip.

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Our passengers from Bald Sayt to Rustaq.

The Jebel Shams area is sweet:

While Oman’s coastal area is picturesque in places, and the wadis a highlight for most visitors, we were most impressed by the mountain region. Misfah Al Abriyeen village is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited–the walk along the Falaj (irrigation canal) is really beautiful. Just be respectful of the local farmers tending their terraced plots with date palms and other crops.

There is also a sweet little museum in Al Hamra called Bait Al Safah, which is enclosed in one of the oldest homes in the village. It provides a glimpse into traditional Omani culture–there are live demonstrations of cooking, medicine-making, and other crafts. Very cool.

Then there’s the “Grand Canyon” of the Middle East. You can park at Al Khitaym, where goats acclimated to getting treats from visitors might even try to get in your car. The trail from this village gradually descends to some ruins tucked along the cliff. And there’s reportedly a nice swimming hole at the end of this walk. We couldn’t find it, which was the only disappointment during this fairly strenuous 3-4 hour round trip. (Someone had told us it wasn’t much of a hike…not true, you need to be in decent shape for this).

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Not shy.

Omanis are off-the-charts hospitable:

I don’t say this lightly. After our honeymoon in Thailand, during which a man zoomed our lost selves around on his motorbike for an hour, trying to deliver us back to a guest house, and another family hosted us in their traditional countryside home, treating us to grandma’s homemade chili paste with fish, boiled duck eggs, noodles, and other delights, I figured the Thai people were the friendliest on the planet. Now I’m not so sure.

Our first airbnb host Mohammad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, full of wisdom and open to cultural exchange–he even went snorkeling with us.

We then met Abdul, an Omani Special Forces paratrooper, while wandering around in Al Hamra. We were looking for the old section of the town, photographing goats in the alleyways. He asked if we needed help; we said we didn’t, thank you. But he then ended up inviting us for dates and coffee on the ground with his mom and sister. This led to two trips to his home, where we enjoyed conversation and received some generous gifts of traditional Omani clothing and aromatics. Like I said in the intro, I hope we can reciprocate someday. Inshallah, as Abdul told us.

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With Abdul.

It’s such a chill place compared to Dubai:

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, ruler for the past 47 years, determined that he wanted to keep Oman’s traditional culture intact, developing slowly and sustainable. As a result of this leadership, you won’t see gleaming skyscrapers in Muscat, or over-the-top theme parks. There is a coherence to the place that you won’t find in Dubai, where anything goes architecture and rampant development can make you feel like you’re in the midst of a kid going crazy playing SimCity.

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Muttrah (old port area), Muscat

Avoid visiting the wadis on holidays and weekends:

We unknowingly booked our rental car during Oman’s long holiday weekend in early December. This caused the wadis to be overflowing with people. If you are looking to experience the wadis during a less hectic time, try to visit them on the weekdays and get out early.  Nonetheless, we loved swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, where there are plenty of pools to explore (keep walking up the valley to avoid crowds and explore more pools).  If you are a woman, plan to swim in your clothing or shorts and a one-piece bathing suit; as it is considered disrespectful to strip down to a bikini. You will likely receive some stares no matter what; Omani Muslim women do not swim in public places.

Visit the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve in the early morning:

A few other travelers that we met during our trip also encountered a chaotic crowd at the turtle reserve for the nighttime viewing. We were advised by an expat who has lived in Oman for 20 years to opt for the reserve’s early morning tour, which begins at 4:45 am. According to him, you have a better chance of seeing the turtles with a much smaller group.

Don’t Miss the Souk in Muttrah

The enclosed souk in Muttrah, the old port in Muscat, should not be missed. It is an endless maze of vendors selling a combination of inexpensive tourist knick-knacks and more authentic items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

 

 

Oman Road Trip Blunders: An Imperfect Travel Tale

Before Paul and I started our adventure, friends and family implored us to keep them updated in one way or another. The easiest, and perhaps laziest, way to do this is via social media. And admittedly, I’ve wholeheartedly said “yes” to this type of sharing. Each time I post a pic of where we have been, which is quite regularly now, I am cognizant of how difficult it is to avoid extreme ends of the perception pendulum, either trying to present a flawless portrait of our experiences or doing the opposite, cramming people’s feeds with complaints and irritations.

And so, in the spirit of being “real” and presenting a more balanced view of things, I am choosing to share the first day of me and Paul’s self-drive road trip in Oman, which was full of blunders and tested our resolve to embrace the unknown.

To preface the story, I will admit that Paul and I travel well together. It’s a good thing, because if not, this little global jaunt that shirks concepts such as long-term planning and certainty would have stalled out pretty quickly. That being said, spending most of your time with someone in spaces much smaller than your prior residence certainly magnifies specific behaviors and conflicting preferences. For example, Paul has this otherworldly ability to torpedo out of bed in the morning, energy radiating off of him in waves. I really prefer to ease into my enthusiasm for the day, meaning that I don’t really want to vocalize anything but grunts and yawns for at least a half hour after I wake. Paul and I also have very different work styles. He can concentrate in the midst of any distraction. Other people talking loudly. NBD. Playing music with words in it. A cakewalk. A 50-pound jackhammer motoring away next door. Child’s play. To put it simply, I prefer silence. Prolonged, uninterrupted, pure silence. This can make me a barrel of laughs to be around when I am working, as you can imagine. So, you can see how things can get a little dicey.  

Paul and I had high expectations for our self-drive Oman tour. Preliminary internet research talked about the country’s diverse terrain of mountains, desert, and coastline, as well as its warm, welcoming citizens. Bloggers specifically raved about the picturesque wadis (valleys) dotted with deserted turquoise swimming pools. All one had to do was rent a 4 x 4 and venture onto the road. This immediately conjured up images of us being amatuer explorers, stumbling upon previously undiscovered areas of inimitable beauty. We would arrive and bask in the utopia we found, gazing over the pools, untouched and stippled in just the right amount of sunlight.

Airport Delays

We got a late start the day we planned to pick up our 4 x 4. We had been spending the last three days in Muscat with potentially the nicest airbnb host ever, Mohammed, an incredibly wise, 45 year-old Omani man who speaks quietly and listens intently. Mohammed truly delights in deliberate and enthusiastic cultural exchange. He went snorkeling with us, he brought us dolphin watching, he introduced us to his acupuncture tools, and finished off our stay with one of his favorite hobbies, massage. On the day of our departure, we of course wanted to share one last homemade breakfast with him, even though it changed our schedule.

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Early morning breakfast with airbnb host, Mohammed. Feeling good about the day.

By the time we arrived at the airport to pick up our car, we were met by the grim faces of the people waiting in line in front of us at the rental kiosk. One individual exuded the stereotype of a tightly wound, reserved, middle-aged white guy who is used to optimal efficiency and logic at all times. He paced back and forth, sitting down with an audible sigh and then standing up to hover over the rental car counter where a delayed transaction was taking place. The other man was grumbling about how they were renting out cars with over 120,000 miles on them. Figuring we were in for a wait, I asked both of them how long they had been standing in line. Uptight guy was apparently too worked up to respond (Yes, he did speak English). The other guy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation and said, “I don’t know! Too long!.” So that was that. “Well,” I thought, “Paul and I are in no hurry. We aren’t tethered to silly conventions such as time!”

Thirty minutes later we made it to the counter, only to find out that there were no GPS gadgets remaining. Undeterred, we figured it would not be a problem; we could buy a map since our international data plan was mysteriously not working in Oman. Besides, this was a freewheeling ADVENTURE. If we had too many directions we may never happen upon previously undiscovered locations!  The rental car attendant, clearly not privy to our visions, looked a little concerned and suggested that we buy a SIM card.

Heeding his advice, we picked up a map and went over to the appropriate counter to buy one. Seventeen dollars and an introductory lesson on SIM cards later, it was becoming apparent that it may not work for us. Everytime we inserted the delicate piece of plastic in one of our phones, an error message popped up on our screens, taunting us with its power. The employee who sold us the SIM card brushed these error messages aside, all we had to do was go somewhere with free wifi in order to activate the SIM card and it would work.

Problem was, the free wifi in the airport emitted a very weak signal, and was not registering on our phones. We were directed to the airport information booth, only to meet with a befuddled employee who recommended we revisit the SIM card booth. At this point, we were making slow, stumbling laps around the arrivals section of Muscat’s Airport. Attempts to get password and login information from any of the independent businesses in the airport failed. After a friendly Omani/American citizen (a totally different story that deserves another blog post) and his brother took up our cause with marginal success, our hopes for the SIM card solution dwindled and we committed to the paper map.

On the Road

Finally on the road, our next step was to get ourselves out of Muscat. With Paul manning the wheel, I was in charge of the navigation piece of our journey. Maybe not the best arrangement. Can I please point out that paper maps can be quite unwieldy? Unfolding and refolding our primary navigational tool, cursing it as it crinkled itself into different, awkward shapes, I anxiously scanned the area of Muscat as Paul whizzed on down the highway, guided by my instructions, which included precise phrases such as, “Ummmm…there may be a roundabout coming up, er, OK, not for awhile, wait, Oh, here it is!  GO RIGHT!” Needless to say, if we were contestants on the Amazing Race (which I sometimes like to pretend we are in) we’d be packing our bags. After a tense 45 minutes accompanied by a bundle of expletives, we spit out victorious onto the coastal road. Our road warrior journey was beginning! On to the wadis!

Our general plan was to meander down the main northern coastal road, traveling east, until we reached two destinations, the Bimmah Sinkhole and Wadi Shab. Type these names into Google and you will find an endless screen of idyllic images, an explosion of sparkling pools, brilliant sunlight, and palm trees, all ensconced by rugged mountains. Things were going well, we had found “The Nation’s Station,” the English-speaking radio station in Oman where no musical genre is neglected. Bopping along to tunes that ranged from Celine Dion to early Dr. Dre to Christmas carols, we felt redeemed after our morning delays.This was until we noticed two things: 1) That the names on our handy-dandy paper map were not exactly matching up with the road signs that we were passing and, 2) That the coastal road was the opposite of isolated.

Road Trip Reality

Bloggers had mentioned how you can camp anywhere in Oman, finding yourself the only one on a long strip of beach. As we drove, we were realizing that EVERYONE must have received this memo. Tents and families lined the coastline. It’s funny how you can hear things and completely dismiss them until their sudden importance smacks you in the face. Airbnb Mohammed HAD mentioned to us that it was a long national holiday weekend. The reality of this fact became apparent as we passed teeming crowds of holiday revelers.

Our radio station sing-a-long quieted by the scene outside of our car, we managed to find the Bimmah Sinkhole, whose signs spelled it differently and did not refer to it as a sinkhole. Due to this, the crowds of people were a boon, as all we had to do was follow the line of cars streaming into what looked like a park of sand and shrub. Despite the fact that the Bimmah Sinkhole was clearly a favorite holiday destination, we decided to take a look. The area around the site has been built up for tourism, and loads of large families were sharing meals under the shade of small trees.

In retrospect, it was nice to see people spending quality time together with their loved ones, but at that moment, we were inwardly cursing these family gatherings. This was not the type of destination for daring adventurers such as us! The Bimmah Sinkhole is stunning, even though we were seeing it flanked by teenage girls posing for 10 minute selfie sessions. Men jumped into the naturally occuring ocean pool from daring heights, prompting yells of encouragement and clapping from the crowd. Paul took a dip in the delightfully warm water. I snapped a few pics. And then we left. Don’t get me wrong, the Bimmah Sinkhole is an unforgettable sight even when it is swamped with people; however, we were a little deflated that we did not have the more isolated experience that we had constructed in our minds.

Onward to Wadi Shab, a valley where people had told us you can swim through a cave and be gifted with pretty much a modern-day version of Eden. Ever the optimists, we actually believed that Wadi Shab would possibly not be enveloped by holiday throngs. Once again, the enormous amount of cars, not the road signs, guided us to our destination, only to be presented with lines of people waiting eagerly to aboard small boats that would drop them off at the entry of Wadi Shab. Allowing our frustration to get the best of us, we decided not to venture into the chaos. I briefly got out of the car to take a few snaps of roadside goats, only to be met by impatient honks from the traffic jam of cars behind us, and then we hightailed it on out of there.

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Goats. The only thing we snapped a picture of at Wadi Shab. Insert car honking in the background.

Turtle Reserve Redemption?

It was now almost 4:00 pm, and so we decided to drive to our hotel for the night, sulking in a soup of disappointment, and nervously wondering if this was an omen for the next nine days of our trip. Although we had 99% surrendered to the limited success of the day, we knew there was still time to turn it around. For tonight, we had plans to visit the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, and if mama turtles laying eggs on the beach can’t turn a frown upside down, I don’t know what can.

Prior to embarking upon our Oman adventure, I had scoured the internet for details about the turtle reserve and found that it is somewhat controversial, at least for the Trip Advisor set. Although there were positive experiences, many reviewers complained about the beach’s upkeep (where the turtle’s nest) as well as the potential stress felt by the turtles from being gawked at by enormous amounts of visitors. These concerns resurfaced in my mind as we drove to the reserve. Paul and I were planning to eat at its restaurant (it also has a hotel), as in another falter for the day, we had run out of cash and discovered that the limited meal options in the area typically did not take credit cards. An ATM was nowhere to be found.

Arriving around 6:30 pm at the reserve we were told by the front desk employee that we had been assigned to Group Two for turtle viewing and that, “At some point around 8:30 pm,  maybe 9:00 pm, maybe 9:30 pm, all individuals who were assigned to our group would be called to then come back to the counter to purchase tickets.” I found it a little odd that we could not just buy them at that moment, but was distracted by the fact that I was hungry and wanted to eat my increasingly gloomy feelings. We sat down to the buffet provided by the restaurant, which was good, but certainly not worth the 50 dollars it ended up costing.

By the time we re-emerged from the restaurant, we were greeted by pandamonium. The reception was crammed with people all clamoring for a chance to maybe see some turtles. Children ran around, people cut in front of me as I tried to wait in line for the internet passcode,and cars continued to flood the already full parking lot. As Paul and I read the rules for turtle viewing, which stressed how imperative it is for viewers to be quiet as to not stress out the turtles, a crescendo of kiddie cries filled the air around us. There was no way viewing was going to be quiet. We also predicted that when a group was called to purchase tickets at the counter, any attempt at orderliness such as lines would be pushed to the wayside. Giving each other looks of surrender, Paul and I promptly turned around and left. We had been hemorrhaging money all day and figured that we would just need to let go of the fact that we visited the turtle reserve just to eat a mediocre fifty dollar buffet.

On the way out, the road in to the turtle reserve was illuminated by the headlights of a long line of cars. Feeling tired, annoyed, and clearly INCREDIBLY melodramatic, Paul said something like, “Well, at least we still have our health.”  I slouched in my seat, thinking mean, undeserved thoughts about holiday goers who just wanted to create memories with their families. It was not our best travel day and we were not at our best. Luckily, by the time we settled in back at the hotel, we could laugh about it, promising ourselves that we would make the next day, no matter what, better. Because if this was a bad day for us, we are doing pretty all right.

It turns out that our first day on the road in Oman was anything but indicative of the rest of our trip. We more than redeemed ourselves over the next week, and plan to share more about how amazing the country is in a future blog post, accompanied by some road trip tips that we learned along the way.

The reality is that the sticky, uncomfortable parts of travel, the ones that include getting sick, getting lost, or just plain getting tired, are the ones not frequently displayed via social media, where photos undergo a digital form of plastic surgery before being posted, accompanied by a series of comical, inspirational, or philosophical remarks. People embarking upon their own travel adventures, including myself, fall into the trap of romanticizing the entire experience, and turn optimistic hopes about travel into rigid expectations. I’ve fallen victim to curating that one, envy-inducing travel shot, maniacally scrolling through the Insta filters and brainstorming various witty one-liners before sending it off into the digital stratosphere. Just as there exists a cult of satiny suburban mom accounts (How is she perfectly toned, impeccably dressed, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when she has three kids!?), Instagram and Facebook are also filled with flawless photographs documenting the wanderings of seemingly unburdened travelers.

Travel IS awesome, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that Paul and I have. But it’s not just awesome because it has the ability to introduce you to new and wonderful people, experiences, environments, and ideas. It’s also awesome because it can be hard, unexpected, and is always imperfect. I’ve found that it’s these aspects of travel which have left some of the most indelible marks on my perspective and overall mindset, and have benefited me in enormously positive ways.