3 things I never expected (about Oman)

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1. The PIN thing

A few days ago I was standing near the cashpoint in a shopping mall. There was a bit of a queue. A group of people were crowding around the machine.

‘What’s my PIN?’ Some guy calls out.

No! I’m thinking. I’m ready to block my ears and hum a tune but it’s too late.

‘2167.’ His friend replies at a volume vastly above the hum of the mall.

Later, I’m at the supermarket check out. I hand the cashier my card.

‘PIN number,’ she asks. Oh no not again. I think. I hold out my hand to take the mini card machine thing. Except she’s not handing it to me.  There’s nowhere for me to type. I look at her.

‘Can you tell me your PIN?’ In England she’d have practically been arrested. She’s looking at me like I’ve refused to pay.

Trained from early on in the UK to not even whisper my PIN, I stand my ground.  ‘No I cannot.’

British banks would have you believe it’s akin to handing thieves the keys to your car; 8 percent of data breaches in the world occur in the United Kingdom (we rank second after the U.S.A).

But here in Oman, sharing your PIN with a stranger is not abnormal. Maybe it’s the low rate of theft in this country, and the fact that everyone seems to know everyone. (Although, I have to admit that when it comes to PIN sharing, I have no plans to go native!)

2. ‘Wasta’ (Friends helping friends)

My week continues in a similar way. On my way out of a local clinic,  I get into my car, ready to go home. The car won’t start. I return to reception and ask them for a taxi. The woman at the desk calls out a name:

‘Sami!’ across the waiting room, ‘Sami!’

Sami is standing outside by the glass doors. They keep sliding open, then closing.He finally hears.

‘Yes.’

‘Can you call this patient a taxi?’

‘What?’

‘A taxi, please call a taxi.’

‘What?

By now, the woman has it down to a single word, on repeat, ‘taxi’ an international word, or so I thought. She’s saying it again and again. I’m getting dizzy. Sami is leaning over the receptionist’s desk with his head to one side as if the word is very complicated.

The woman is trying mime.

‘Taxi,’ she says again. ‘Ta-xi. Car. Drive. Patient.’ She points at me.

Patient, I am trying to be.

‘Ah,’ Sami finally understands. ‘You mean Texi. Why you didn’t say?’ and he goes off to find one.

Five minutes later, Sami gestures from the sliding doors. I walk into the sun and he points to another man. The Texi man and I head towards his car. But I can’t see the white bodywork of any taxi cabs. He turns to face me, ‘I am new in town. I don’t know the roads so you have to guide me.’

I have to guide the Texi.

I look at the way he is dressed like an office clerk, at the car park with no white cars. ‘Are you a taxi driver?’ I ask.

‘No. Not really,’ he admits, ‘But I have a car and I can drive you. No pay.’ He says it warmly, like it is the most normal thing for a lone woman to get into a stranger’s car outside a clinic by a freeway. Suddenly I am questioning my own understanding of this city. Perhaps this is Muscat’s answer to Uber where anyone can drive you. But for free. In their Texis.

Or perhaps he is a psychopath and I am his first opportunity.

I look at his face. He is smiling warmly, ready to drive me in his car. I  don’t think he is a psychopath, he just wants to do his friend a favour. Oman is like that. Full of people doing each other favours. Because the country feels safe, formality is bypassed.

I go to the highway and flag down a real taxi.

3. Benglish

Muscat is home to Omanis, Filipinos, Indians, Brits, North Americans; the language in common seems to be English – or on documents, websites and shop signs, ‘Bad English’ – or Benglish’- as my friend has renamed it. When I first arrived, the English teacher in me used to shake my head at the shop signs, but now I enjoy them. Here is one of my favourites. This is a butcher’s shop:

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The rhythms of Ramadan

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A city which is normally calm has turned drowsy.

At 2.15 in the afternoon, trails of vehicles drive their inhabitants towards the siesta. But even the rhythms of sleep, during the holy month of Ramadan are different, grabbed between prayers and the breaking of the fast.

In this city, Ramadan is a time for family. Evening Iftars do take place in the swankier hotels and club houses, but as the sun sets, most of the city’s dwellers head home.

Five years ago I spent Ramadan in another Gulf state and was overwhelmed by the sudden silence of the place. Here it is the rejigging of the days which surprises, recalibrates the system. The bank and gym close three hours early, cafes are out of action until nightfall. Suddenly this seaside town is populated by owls, eyeing menus into the early hours.

Sounds of the qu’ran recited float from car radios. The call to prayer has a different quality and smiles, common currency in this part of the world are even quicker returned, as if to keep on lifting that single chain which holds us all together, regardless of any other thing, Muscat’s residents joined by centuries old tradition.

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Three tips to survive the Gulf heat

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Heat has enveloped the city. We are caught in its embrace.  The children I teach insist on cool blasts of air-con, non-stop during class. Donning skinny jeans and retro trainers, they hide in hoodies like adolescents anywhere. Except that here midday hits 40 degrees with ease and not a soul walks down the street.

By the time I step into the light after work, I am shivering from the fridge-like indoors. The steering wheel of my car has all the appeal of gripping a burning torch and I realise it may be possible to brew a cup of tea with the water inside the bottle on the passenger side.

So while Muscat’s barometers have sent even the mosquitoes packing, I have decided not to flee to the UK this summer. My survival strategy for the extreme heat follows:

*As I can no longer exercise outside (read: barely walk out of the front door), I have joined a gym. It’s cool inside and  I get to hear the PTs putting people through their pre-Ramadan paces.

*Driving is improved by a) parking in the shade whenever possible b) Tinted windows (which might look gangsta but help) c) Wearing sandals and cotton (which don’t look gangsta but help) .

*Deciding to enjoy what is. In this part of the world, as well as searing temperatures, May/June means date season: nature’s sticky cakes with a stone are fab with a cup of tea, a few minutes of sunshine, when I can bear it, almost feels refreshing after so much time spent indoors.

Occasionally, in the early morning as I close the front door and leave for work, the faintest scent of the sea reaches the air, birds caw, the heat hasn’t yet found the day. For a moment at least, I’ve forgotten it’s there.

Live somewhere hot? What are your recommendations to survive the summer?

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