“Oh, this is this fantastic band, the Little Kings I met when I was ice sailing in Finland. That’s my Sherpa, Lapsang. Oh hey, Ennui? Will you do me a favor? Will you get me some of that tea that me and Lapsang got when we were climbing the Mayan ruins?”
That quote is either from an expat or from Hansel in Zoolander. Either way, please let it stand for the record that what I am about to say is recognizably pretentious and in no way signifies me as a citizen of the world.
So, I was swimming in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Oman with the boat crew of the dhow we were camping on…
That sentence is for real.
There are certain things that I say now that I realize, when I do come back to the United States, I will have to keep in check. Lest I be the girl who spent a semester in London and came back with a British accent, I will have to avoid pretension carefully. You would see right through it anyway, and you wouldn’t let me get away with being ridiculous.
So, let’s rewrite the above sentence to state:
I had a leak in my snorkeling mask and I was snorting out oily salt water and trying to avoid jellyfish (which everyone pointed out were quite small and harmless, but I didn’t believe them one bit because I have seen Sphere), while two of the guys from the boat crew jumped haphazardly overboard and swam off like dolphins, hollering at me in Arabic yalla, yalla! (“Let’s go.” Possibly – “what the hell is the stupid American doing?”) The stupid American was scared of jellyfish and sharks and had salt water in her sinus cavities.
The line between perception and reality in life is often blurred, with our expectations being either dashed or surprisingly elevated depending on the circumstances. Living as an expat, however, the rules are re-written over and over again as it is nearly impossible to rely on gut instinct or feeling. Cultural norms are different, traffic patterns are different, attitudes are different, and learning the nuances of a new place is complex enough as it is without adding in a spectacular cultural difference on top of it.
The last couple of weeks, I have to tell you, have been a bit defeating. I am perpetually late, always dressed wrongly for the weather, and am either starving or having to use the bathroom IMMEDIATELY. It’s as though I moved to a new country and became an angsty teen again, unable to take care of myself and wanting to blame this fact on everything and everyone else around me.
I am late because it takes me forever to find things, whether it’s my keys or the bathroom in the mall or a missed turn. I dress wrong for the weather because as the temperatures outside creep into the upper 90’s, the air conditioning gets cranked up and it hovers around 60 degrees F inside. I am starving because I’m late and it’s 2pm and I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I always have to use the bathroom because I can never find them in public places.
I am not used to feeling so helpless or bad at life. To having to ask for help. I had my life in Baltimore down to a science. I bought the same groceries every week – five Lean Cuisines, a box of oatmeal, seven yogurts, seven apples….I knew that I needed to leave my house at 8:37am to get to work by 9. I knew where the random always-empty parking space was a block away from my house. I had every shortcut mastered, everything on auto-pilot.
Not that this was a particularly good thing.
I had my first big expat breakdown at the grocery store. Grocery shopping, a task which used to feel almost Zen in its precision and for my masterful ability to be in and out of an establishment in under fifteen minutes (ten, if they had self checkout), has suddenly become a taunting, frightening chore. The stores here are well-stocked with all manner of American, British, and Australian goods. We are lacking for nothing, but I’ve discovered that I am a brand whore when it comes to grocery items and it’s not uncommon for a store to suddenly stop carrying, say, Kashi oatmeal, and for it never to be in stock again. To fall in love with a particular food item means you either have to become an incredible hoarder or live with the flexible understanding that it could be absent from your reality at any moment.
The grocery stores are also not intuitively laid out, at least not to my American super-store mindset. I crisscross the aisles here, learning that peanut butter is not with the condiments but in the “foreign foods” section, and that pulses mean beans which are separate from canned goods and that it’s possible to have an entire aisle of rices but no quinoa. Another infuriating fact about all shopping here: the cart wheels aren’t fixed. All four wheels swing at random, meaning that you spend most of your time in grocery stores throwing your weight in the opposite direction and trying not to crash into things. You know that one wonky cart at Target that everyone avoids as it lists dangerously to the right and causes its operator to have to drag it sideways across the store? Every cart here is like that. It’s maddening.
Grocery shopping is exhausting, and I have to go only after I am well-fed and have been to the bathroom because I will be there for hours, and I can’t find public bathrooms, and if I get too hungry I wind up with a cartful of prawn-flavored chips and some dog shampoo because I’ll just blindly grab at things.
And – here’s the worst thing – one cannot find all one needs at one single store. Grocery shopping requires, at minimum, two to three different establishments. One store has Greek yogurt but no turkey bacon. The store with turkey bacon has no low-sodium soy sauce. Perhaps one day I’ll give in and start purchasing things willy nilly without care to brand or type, but I’m not there yet. Not yet. I cling to my grocery list as though it were in stone, unable to deviate from what is written.
I had spent two weeks of stressful grocery shopping, running late, dealing with a car that keeps breaking down, dealing with paperwork for residency, still closing out my American accounts (Sprint. You and I shall never be friends again.) when I had the opportunity to go to Oman for a weekend for work. This is a sentence I never thought I would write, and – let’s be clear – this was no glamorous business trip in a luxury hotel. This was two days of camping on a dhow with no shower.
By the time I jumped into the water, I did so because I was hot and sweaty and tired and because the boat crew yelled at me to do it. That much I could understand. I jumped off the side of the dhow into the Indian Ocean and stuck my face in the water, even though deep, endless water terrifies me to no end. We swam to Octopus Rock and when the current got too strong, we swam back to the boat and climbed up the ladder. At the next stop, we were able to swim up closer to Lima Rock, away from the strong tides and into the small, shallower pools in the crevices of rock. One of the crewman was yelling at me and pointing down below the water, and just when I was certain that an angry orca had somehow found its way to the incredibly warm Indian Ocean and was coming up behind me to kill me in a long, slow death, I caught one of his words – turtle. I stuck my (leaky) masked face into the water and found – for lack of better verbiage – a whole new world.
The sharp juts of rock had shelves upon which lived coral in colors I have only seen in generously-funded public aquariums. Schools of bright yellow and blue fish swam lazily but uniformly around. I caught the shape of a turtle scuttling away. And, suddenly, I remembered why I came to the UAE – besides for love, of course. I came to be surprised, to be new again, to be shocked and educated. I came to be a little uncomfortable and a little terrified and to glimpse new worlds I hadn’t known existed. I let myself follow the boat crew guys as they snorkeled around the island, dipping in between the underwater rocks and calling out whenever great schools of fish were spied.
After that trip, I now know that one of my goals for my time here is to get scuba certified. The window I glimpsed through my leaky face mask was enough to convince me that there are many other terrifying and exhilarating layers of ocean to witness. I also know that if the grocery store is a two-hour chore instead of twenty minutes, this is the small price I pay to live in a place where I can have totally pretentious experiences that I’ll later have to water down so I don’t sound like a total asshole but, for the meantime, I still get to be excited about.
And with every week that goes by, I both lose and find myself a little more. I’m now a little over two months into this global stint, and I feel like my world expands and collapses more everyday. For every ridiculously exotic experience I have or person I meet, there is someone who lived in Baltimore or something things brings home a little closer. But, mostly, I came to be a little uncomfortable. For in the discomfort, there is learning. There is stretching and experience and knowledge to be found. There are moments of extreme comfort too, from the most random of moments and experiences. I found mine swimming alongside a school of fish in a secreted coral reef under the shadow of a giant rock in the Indian Ocean. It was bright and blue and a little scared, but it was thriving.
Without further ado…the Omani coast as spied through my camera. Alas, no pictures for you from my underwater adventures, but perhaps someday soon. In the meantime, wish me patience in grocery stores and I shall wish you a swifter oncoming of spring.
Much love for now and more later, Insh’Allah,
The New Glitterati