Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A TRIP TO OMAN


I have always wanted to be one of those people, on gliding swiftly through the sliding glass doors into some minimalist, chilly airport hall after a long flight, who find their name printed on a square of white cardboard, held up for all the world to see by some elegantly dressed professional driver. Printed, not hand-written. VIP.


No longer one of the anonymous army of world travelers shuttled through so many airports like cattle, trying to figure out strange and foreign signs and incomprehensible rules and guards, pushing our way through the long lines, glancing at our wristwatches in panic or desperately searching over heads for the nearest ladies’ room, I have always wanted to be expected, waited for, treated as if the entire city were there to welcome me.

I stepped out into the steamy heat of a Middle Eastern evening, slung one of my two heavy carry-ons over my shoulder, hoisted the other to my already bruised knee and carefully descended the steps until I reached the tarmac, slightly stunned to be standing in the Sultanate of Oman. The oddly elegant airport terminal stood illuminated and pale against the inky sky, traditional arches and domes gracing the façade creating a warm welcome. Little did I realize, but once inside the terminal, as I stood dazed amid the crowd swirling around me, pushing towards the visa and passport desks with confusion washed across their faces, as I glanced across the line of robed and turbaned men huddled at the top of the steps that yes, my name… was indeed printed on a perfectly cut square of white, the bold black shapes pressing up against each other in a futile attempt to place each and every letter of my full name on that card. Yes, I finally saw my name held up above the crowd. And there I was, a VIP.

I was immediately swept off to a luxurious private lounge where I was gently relieved of my passport and directed to a snug arrangement of armchairs and low tables, encouraged to make myself comfortable while someone else handled my entry into Oman. After watching several minutes of American Wrestlemania with Arabic subtitles – cultural paradox to the extreme - I was hurried through the cordoned off areas of passport and customs, my suitcases scooped up and loaded onto a trolley and, after being greeted by my host Cathy, I found myself settled into the back of a plush Town Car and off we glided silently into the night towards the beautiful Al Bustan Palace Hotel.

Staring wide-eyed from the car window, I watched as two, three, four McDonald’s flashed by, their golden arches brightly lit oases in the night. As we zipped down the highway and left the airport behind, more of those familiar, now-universal signs streaked by: Burger King, Subway, even the red and white barber’s pole screaming Friday’s in massive letters, one after the next. Yet as I shook my head in dismay, rather disturbed to find these oh so American icons blotting the otherwise culturally pristine landscape, suddenly the majestic dome, a gorgeous beacon ablaze under her lattice robe, and the beautiful minaret of the Grand Mosque came into sight, reminding me that this is no ordinary stretch of airport highway. Although American fast food, the graceful swirls of Arabic script ribbon across the buildings which alternate with the cool white arches, shimmering silver doorways and mosaic crowns of blues and golds aglow announce a more traditional world.

I am in Oman.


But let’s back up a couple of weeks.

After a busy, tiring, fabulous weekend in New Orleans, I flew down to Florida for a few weeks of R & R with my mom and my son. Planning on doing nothing more than crashing on the sofa in front of bad American television and seeing some old friends, little did I expect to receive an e-mail inviting me to fly to Oman and speak at an evening event of the Young Presidents’ Organization. A mere two weeks to decide, plan, rearrange my tickets and write a speech, I had little time to look into, consider, accept and acclimate to the idea that I was actually going to be in Oman and speaking to a group of non-food bloggers. Used to the ways of thinking and the ways of the world of those to whom I had previously spoken and with whom I had so often shared my passions, I had no concept of the YPO members’ expectations or mindset. I would be floating upstream without a paddle. I wrote and rewrote, all too aware that I may very well burn and crash… all the while the words just flowed out of my brain and through my fingertips: food and culture, traditions and the why’s of those traditions, how to instill a sense of cultural identity into a generation gone global, children inundated with and confused by too many cultures. Food….stories….mealtime….culture….self.

I arrived in Muscat as in a trance, stunned and awed by the invitation, the voyage and the dreamlike city blooming up from the dessert like strings of oases against a magical backdrop of mountains. After a wondrous night’s sleep and a breakfast overlooking the stunning hotel garden of palms and the infinity pool reaching out into the calm waters of the Gulf, I joined Cathy, the education chair and the day chair of the chapter YPO for lunch. Greeted by two gentlemen in traditional dress – pristine white robe with that smart tassel at the neck and a small, beautifully embroidered cap on their heads, I wondered what would I possibly have to talk about. This is where the cultural differences stood out and made me pause… can one be as casual and chatty anywhere in the world and with anyone? Well, with food and culture as a common interest and bond, the conversation went off as deliciously as the meal: these were two of the most well-traveled men I have ever met, self-proclaimed foodies and passionate about wine and travel, they were as fascinated about cooking, eating and culture as I was. After describing the Iranian menu they had selected for us to taste at lunch, they continued to explain the evolution of Omani cuisine – traditional Middle Eastern foods touched by Lebanon, India, Africa and the Far East. We went on to discuss much of what my speaking topic was all about – the gestures of cuisine and language and how we teach our children growing up in a world of cultural mish-mash and globalization. Their passion and friendliness put me at ease and I realized that maybe, just maybe my talk would indeed touch this crowd. Cathy and I ended the afternoon with a stroll through the souk and a cappuccino and a slice of cake on a hotel terrace overlooking the water, surrounded by mountains.


The following evening was my talk. The entire day was devoted to rewriting, practicing and preparing… not easy for a Nervous Nelly such as I. As much as I love speaking about topics that I am so passionate about and sharing what I have learned with others, I still get excruciatingly jittery! But the evening went off without a hitch. The group – about 45 members and spouses attended the event, their biggest turnout of any event so far – was perfect! A nicer, happier, more fun group of people I have yet to meet. They came up and introduced themselves and chattered away happily, putting me at ease and making me laugh. Such an interesting group of Omani and expats, most of mixed culture or mixed marriages themselves, we had so much in common. I spoke… not sure I conquered but I saw heads nodding in agreement along with smiles of understanding while I talked and questions followed. Many came up to me telling me that I had hit home, had given them so much to think about and explained why they unconsciously always served certain foods or connected with food the way they did. Whew… the talk over and we passed onto dinner.

The restaurant’s French chef prepared the perfect meal for an event on Food & Culture: he created a tasting menu – entrées, soup, mains and desserts – by selecting one specialty, one traditional dish from the culture of each YPO chapter group member. It was amazing, brilliant and his preparations were impeccable and so delicious. What an experience! Dinner was followed by drinks and conversation out on the terrace, the end to a wonderful evening.

The following day, Cathy took me to visit the Grand Mosque, awe-inspiring, gorgeous, regal. Ablaze in the bright sunshine and searing heat, white Indian sandstone shaped into squares and rectangles, arches opening up onto long marbled hallways surrounding peaceful, green squares of gardens. Shoes carefully tucked away into cubbyholes and scarf wrapped around our hair, we silently entered the main prayer hall stunning in what seems to be miles of cut tile in turquoise and cerulean, gold and jade, intricate floral patterns intertwining with Quranic verses. The prayer carpet, mostly covered during public visiting hours, is a masterpiece of hand-woven, hand-knotted classical tapestry and design, the second largest single piece carpet in the world. A chandelier of magnificent proportions dazzles, dripping diamonds of light and colors.


A better description comes from the Ministry of Information:

The whole interior of the Grand Mosque is paneled with off-white and dark grey marble paneling clothed in cut tile work. Ceramic floral patterns adorn arch framed mural panels set in the marble forming blind niches in a variety of classical Persian, predominantly Safavid, designs. The ceilings are inspired by those of Omani forts. The mihrab in the main prayer hall is framed by a border of Quranic verses and a gilded ceramic surround. The dome comprises a series of ornate, engraved stained glass triangles within a framework of marble columns, and a Swarovski crystal chandelier with gold-plated metalwork hangs down for a length of 14 meters.



We wandered in and out and through the peaceful alleys and gardens until the heat of a Middle Eastern afternoon became more than we could bear. So, cold drinks in hand, off we zipped in Cathy’s little sports car to another beachside resort for a wonderful Omani/Lebanese lunch. A few hours later, I found myself back once more in an airport… As magnificent as was Muscat, the little that I saw and experienced, I found the Oman International airport rather typical of a third world country, bare halls and rather rudimentary security measures to say the least. And finally snuggled into my seat aboard my KLM flight, which would take me back to Amsterdam and then finally home and into the long-waiting arms of JP, I closed my eyes, breathless, still barely believing what I had just lived.


An experience like this comes but rarely – though I hope that this is far from the last – and although I wished that I had had much longer to discover this amazing country and her people, I learned so much about people in general, about how food and culture excite passion in so many and that we all have such strong emotions when it comes to our own cuisine even in our enthusiasm to discover new ones. No matter the culture, no matter our background, no matter our traditions, food brings us together, a passion so many of us share and the desire to hold onto and transmit our own culture to our children, share it with family and friends is inherent in each of us.

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some great shots there, thanks for sharing!

WiseMóna said...

Wow - you ain't kidding when you say this experience is rare. What a beautiful story. Your photos are so clean and crisp Jamie. I am sure the sunshine aided in that but the ones of the mosque in particular have a glass reflection that is touchable through my monitor.
It is hard to picture you being a nervous nelly. You are always so at ease with your words and speak so passionately about food and culture. What a lovely experience you have had. Thanks for sharing it so beautifully with the world.

Tanya said...

Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing this trip. It must have been absolutely amazing.

Sukaina said...

Looks like you had a fabulous time. I was there a couple of years ago and had a great time. Oh and if you're stunned by the sight of American fast food chains in Oman, don't come to Dubai. You will be shocked even more!

Barbara said...

Oh Jamie what a feast for the eyes. I would love to visit the Middle East. I can imagine it was a splendid experience for you.

I was once greeted at Reims train station by a woman holding a champagne bucket when I was the guest of a champagne house. Such a fun way to introduce herself....and we had a fun day!

Jamie said...

@Barbara- Oh wow I would love to be met with a champagne bucket (or bottle). Sounds like it was fabulous!

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

What an exciting experience! Something you rarely get to experience in a lifetime.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, experiences and photos with us!

Cheers,

Rosa

Eggs on the Roof said...

What a magical experience it sounds, Jamie. And I love all the pictures. It's proof that life can sometimes take unexpected, but wonderful, turns.

Sally - My Custard Pie said...

Oman is a really special place and I love your account of it. Hopefully revisit soon. You are a VIP all the time.

Jeanne said...

LOL - I have also always wanted to be one of "those" people whose name was on a white board as they disembarked! The trip sounds awesome - I can identify with the surreal feeling after my Dubai weekend. You kind of pinch yourself to ask "is this really happening?!" Oman looks like an interesting place - love the great mosque - especially those CARPETS!!! OMG.

DebbieK said...

Beautiful description and photos of an amazing experience for you Jamie. So glad we all got to "travel with you", even if it was armchair virtual travel. Look forward to seeing you report your experiences from many more of these occasions in the future!

Winnie said...

Wow! It sounds like your talk was fantastic and your all too brief time in Oman was well worth the detour :) Thank you for sharing your experience Jamie!

Heavenly Housewife said...

All I can say is Wow! What an excellent adventure!!!! Fab photos.
*kisses* HH

tasteofbeirut said...

Such an exciting trip and so brave of you to fly there in light of all the upheavals going on in the region; I have a childhood friend who lives in Abu Dhabi now and he is always organizing trip for friends to Oman with boat trips and so on. Sounds so interesting! Glad you made it safe and sound~

Happy Cook / Finla said...

Wowo I want to have the same trip you had in Oman, with all the VIP treatment included.
Loved this post and have been waiting to read you expirence from the time i saw in fb that you were going to Oman.

gastroanthropologist said...

It is amazing the connections you make with people from across such different cultures (and over the internet!) with food. The pictures are lovely and it sounds like you had an amazing trip. And again you write so beautifully I totally had a wonderful picture in my head with every step you took in Oman!

Lael Hazan @educatedpalate said...

WOW! What a wonderful experience you were able to have. I'm thrilled to "share" it vicariously through your beautifully descriptive writing. Thank you

Jamie said...

@Lael Hazan@Educated Palate: Lovely, Lael, I was terrified to go until you shook me with your enthusiasm and confidence and knowledge of the YPO and I am so glad you did! I wish you could have gone with me! xoxo

Sanjeeta kk said...

What a wonderful trip and pictures Jamie! You always remind me of the serial "1000 places to see before you die" on Travel & Living channel :)
Hugs.

Rossella said...

WoW.
What a great travel and opportunity. You got the courage and determination to capture that opportunity. Great!
Speaking in public is always a wonderful moment, in a different country with a different (at least for me) culture should be even better. I'm in love with public speaking, anyway I'm not at your level.
Your post really captured me. It was great as your travel.

Ivy said...

What an amazing trip and beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience!

Nicole said...

Incredible! I can't believe you were allowed inside the mosque, that has never been the case in the Arab countries I've travelled to!
Congratulations, I'd love to see a copy of your speech!

lisaiscooking said...

Congratulations on your wonderful, well-received speech! What a fantastic experience. For a whirlwind visit, it sounds like you took in some amazing sights!

Junglefrog said...

Wow Jamie! You had quite the adventure my dear... And what an honour to be asked to present too. Ofcourse I know that you would do a brilliant presentation no matter what the circumstances.. I think I would have fallen to pieces in the process. I can't believe you're nervous! You have such a way with words.. And you were so close to me flying via Amsterdam! We could have almost met for a coffee in between.. Glad you're home safe!

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen said...

The Grand Mosque is incredible, what a unique adventure you went on. I love that you jumped at the chance even with such short notice, that really shows your passion for life and experience.

Barbara Bakes said...

What a wonderful opportunity. I'm sure they were as enthralled with you as you were with them and their beautiful country.

Cake Duchess said...

You are so pretty in that photo. just love it. I can imagine how you arrived dazed. What an incredible experience to go to Oman. I wish I could have been there to hear you talk about the cultural mish-mash. I giggle thinking of all the American fast food places on the road before seeing the beautiful Grand Mosque. Such an amazing opportunity. you rock bella. xx

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing trip Jamie! And hehe I chuckled because I remembered the first time I saw my name on a placard-it was exciting! And even once I had to take a photo of my driver with his card because it said "Nigella". Luckily he didn't know who she was so he wasn't disappointed!

Carolyn Jung said...

Lucky you with all your far-flung travels. Thank you for taking us all along for the ride, too. ;)

Jamie said...

@Lorraine@Not Quite Nigella: he he he that's funny!

Meeta K. Wolff said...

Yes I too find it such a shame that these countries opt to introduce "big and modern" into their cultures. Very similar to Dubai however, Oman has always tried very hard to maintain their history and culture. Very proud of you Jamie - I knew you would be perfect!

SMITH BITES said...

Jamie, friend, you are such a treasure and i know with every fiber of my being, that you are on your way to achieving the passions of your heart. i loved reading this post, about your adventure, about your observations and how food, once again, puts everyone at ease . . . it is the food that connects us all . . .

bunkycooks said...

I love that photo of you at the end. You look very happy on your world travels! The mosque is definitely quite spectacular. I am sure you will never forget that very special VIP experience.

Emma said...

I'm a bit disappointed - I had expected the Young Presidents' Organization to be a group of five to seven year olds, sitting primly around a table, the girls in crinoline skirts, the boys in well-ironed khakis. And I was going to say, "Why be nervous? The first rule Presidents-in-training are taught is to be polite no matter what!"

This looks like a much bigger deal that I had originally imagined:) Congrats on the amazingness here that I can't quite even grasp - Oman wasn't really even on my radar until now. It is a beautiful place, thank you for sharing these pictures.

Jamie said...

@Emma - ha ha ha that is funny! But yes, the YPO is a pretty big deal! The presidents involved are owners, presidents, ceo's or managers of multi-million dollar companies, the young being under 45 years of age. The extent of what this group own and ran was stunning! And they were each incredibly nice, generous, great fun and passionate foodies!

Nancie McDermott said...

Dream come true! You took us along with you, riding sidesaddle as you made your way along roads that are brand new to me and perhaps to others among your readership. The pictures feed my eyes, but your words feed my spirit. Thank you for introducing me to the Sultanate of Oman, and for narrating your visit in such detail.

Ken│hungry rabbit said...

What a great opportunity and fantastic trip to Oman. Thank you for giving us vignettes of your visit to wet my appetite for a visit to this beautiful destination.

Sarah said...

Fantastic Jamie! How wonderful that food blogging has opened so many doors for you, a world of opputunities and friendships. I hope this new year will bring many more exciting projects. Shana Tova.

Baker Street said...

Beautiful story! Beautiful pictures! Thanks for sharing your experience Jamie!

Cathy at Wives with Knives said...

What a wonderful experience. Thanks for taking us along with you on your adventure, Jamie. Your photos are beautiful.

OysterCulture said...

Very nice!! Congratulations, it looks like it was an incredible experience.

Robin @ Prop Closet said...

What an exotic trip! You are a jetsetter my dear! The account and photos are stunning. It was great to speak with you right before you left and now read all about it. Amazing!

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