I’ve been to Kabul, Afghanistan, four times in my life. The first three times a suicide bomber blew up something and took innocent lives somewhere in the city. The first time, in 2010, it happened on a road I had been on just two days earlier. But in none of those cases was the bombing anywhere near where I was. The last time I was there, last spring, there was no bombing. It had taken place the week before, killing 60 people.
Those bombings were not really close to where I was. I mean, they were in the same city, but not near where I was staying or working. I didn’t brush them off, but I realized them for what they were — targeted at a specific sector of the population,not random. I have developed an attitude toward bombings. I know I have never been involved directly in a bombing or lost anyone to one. And I realize people who have may have an entirely different attitude.
I have a group of eight college students here in London with me. We fly home Saturday. The bombing in Manchester caught our attention, the attention of the university administration, and of course the parents of my students. Manchester is at least two hours from London by train, not really in our neighborhood. But somehow it seems close. So far 22 people have died. This was also targeted — at young people attending a concert in a large auditorium. It was staged for maximum injury and maximum attention. It accomplished both.
So this morning I sat down with my students. Troupers that they are, none of them appeared to be nervous about the bombing. I gave them a chance to talk it out. I urged them to call their parents if they felt a need to — I’m sure just about everyone did. One of them said her parents were putting some pressure on her to come home, but she didn’t want to, and I offered to drop an e-mail to any of their parents they wanted me to. No one took me up on the offer.
I told them that 22 people had died. But that same day seven billion people did not die. The world sometimes seems like a dangerous place, but the truth is most of us are quite safe. And I said the same thing I say to everyone who asks about all these things: If we flee home in fear without finishing what we came here for, the terrorists win. We can’t let them win. Take precautions? Be vigilant? Absolutely. But as the British are quoted as saying, Keep Calm can Carry On.
With that said, we all stood up, walked out of the hotel to our appointment, and carried on.
Brasenose College, one of the 35 colleges that make up Oxford University, has produced a few distinguished alumni, and probably more dubious ones. Among the more impressive are an Archbishop of Canterbury, a prime minister of the UK and one of Australia, the alleged inventor of rugby, a couple of minor playwrights, some poets, a World War II codebreaker, and one of the physicians to King George III, who lost the United States to the revolution.
Brasenose is a Harry Potter-like setting, all ancient stone buildings, heavily timbered ceilings in the dining hall, a soaring chapel with a massive pipe organ, a closely-clipped fine grass central green, and stolid academic reputation that dates to its beginning in 1509. The history oozes from its walls. Students on our trip to London get to make a brief tour of the college (which it charges for in an effort to raise cash any way it can), and it’s impressive. At least the first ten or 12 times you walk along the preordained path. By the 15th time a certain sense of sameness sets in and one finds one’s self standing at the door-within-a-gate entry into the college not really wanting to go through it again, even with one’s favorite guide leading the way.
So I didn’t. I watched my students walk into the stately grounds, and I hightailed it around the corner to a covered market that I knew of. Perhaps I’d find a bit of jewelry to bring home, or a cute, tiny baby outfit for my granddaughter for her birthday. Maybe I’d sit down for a cup of coffee and a great pastry. Or maybe I’d just do some browsing and look at all on offer.
As I neared the market just the next block on, I noticed traffic cones set outside of the opening. As in Omaha, traffic cones are a common sight in Britain during the summer. But there were a couple of police cars, a very classy silver Jaguar, and people milling about as well. There was also a flatbed tow truck whose driver was hooking a cable to the front of a an offending Kia or something like that sitting outside the market.
I walked around all this unchallenged, and sauntered into the market. I was at the grocery end of things, so I took my time passing by the fruit and vegetable stands, the fish mongers and the butchers. One of the butchers boasts of owning the oldest ham in exhistence, a blackened hunk of meat shriveled to a hard slab that looks like an instrument used in some sort of fraternity initiation ritual. Yep, on display, with the whole story, in one of the chill cases. I wandered back toward the clothing stalls and I rounded a corner to find a mass of photographers and two videographers. Being a journalism teacher, I realized someone impressive was visiting the Oxford Covered Market. I strained to see who, but I couldn’t see through the somewhat shabbily dressed journalists and the impeccably-dressed aides, all of them men, everyone men, surrounding the dignitary. I figured it was a foreign ambassador, perhaps from Japan, the Congo, maybe Belarus, come to see the right way to do a covered market. Or perhaps a movie star like Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow or Meryl Streep looking for the proper gifts to take home after filming a few scenes nearby.
I visited a few other spots, then came upon them all again as I returned to the front. Again I strained to see. Nope. I last saw the press amoeba moving past the cheese seller, and I almost stopped to ask who the dignitary was, but the look on their faces warned me against that. Besides the mass was moving toward me and I didn’t want to be absorbed into it and swept away. One last time I tried to see who I was missing. Nada. Oh, there was one young woman in the group, though, and she was the one doing all the explaining to the mystery guests.
So I left the mob and glanced at the Jaguar as I did to see a tall, thin gentlemen dressed in the most splendid blue and red livery, gold tassels hanging from braided ropes looped about his shoulders, pointed hat perched perfectly atop his head. He should have been sitting on a golden carriage holding the reins of a team of horses. Instead he was climbing into the right side (this is Britain) of the Jag only to grip the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
My students arrived at the the university bookstore about 10 minutes after I did, several blocks away from the market. They bought some souvenirs and we all got back on the coaches to drive on to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, to have a tour of that very spot (I went an had lunch — I’m familiar with that place buy now, too), thence on to Warwick Castle to conclude a full day’s adventure in sightseeing.
About five miles down the road, our guide, Norma, whom I’ve known now for 17 years, said, “Did you see all the traffic around the market?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I was there.”
“Really,” she said. “Did you see who was there?”
“No, I never got a good look.”
“Well one of the shopkeepers told me it was Prince Charles and Camilla.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Nope, I never got a good look. I saw all the press around them. Never saw them.” I was that close, and I didn’t actually see them. I wish I’d tried harder, but I didn’t. I just wasn’t that interested in seeing the ambassador from Belarus. Damn.
But here’s the thing: I was dressed in casual slacks, a slightly rumpled UNO polo shirt, a red and black field jacket that’s been around the world but still holds its own, and New Balance shoes. The heir to the throne was in the covered market. There were a couple of officers outside. Nothing was blocked off. People were coming and going, as I was. There was no security checkpoint, people were carrying bags and purses, women and men were transacting business, all while the next King of England was looking at stinky cheese. No one panicked, no one over-reacted, no one brandished any sort of firearm in defense of the prince. No one had to.
The English are so dignified.
I’m back in London after a two year absence. This is my 15th time here, each time with a group of students. I have eight with me this time, the fewest since my first year in 2000. It’s expensive, and although the cost of coming here for two weeks for the class is quite reasonable, it’s still expensive for students.
I have unfairly compared London to New York. It does neither of them justice. Of course, there are many similarities: both are centers of industry with global corporate headquarters; both are media and entertainment capitols, both are international banking hubs, both have about eight million people.
London, of course, is much older. Just outside the Tower tube stop is a part of the London wall. It was built by the Romans when this island was an outpost of the Roman Empire, and was called Londinium. It was built 2000 years a ago — just about the time Jesus walked the earth. You can walk right up and touch it, and there are other spots around town where the wall is still visible.
Along Fleet Street is a pub called the Cheshire Cheese. The sign above the door says “Rebuilt in 1667.” Let that sink in for a moment. Rebuilt in 1667. The original publ was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666, that one that killed all the rats and ended the last great period of the plague. It was actually one of the first buildings rebuilt after the fire. Why? Simply because the workers of the day who were rapidly putting the crippled city back together again had to have a place for lunch and a pint of ale. First came the pub, then came the city, a somewhat vulgar version of “form follows function.” Now, 390 years later — 390 years — the Cheshire Cheese still serves up fine ales and excellent food, like steak and ale pie.
The city is dotted with squares — Russell Square, Bloomsbury Square, Tavistock Square, Brunswick Square, Lincoln Inns Field — finely tended square block parks of grass, flowers, benches, fountains and statues to this historic person and that. On warm days people flock to the squares. Families have a picnic or at least some ice cream. Kids run, shout, kick a ball, and laugh with mom and dad. Young adults spread blankets or mats, kick their shoes off and sit back with friends, sharing a bottle of wine and some cheese with bread. The elders sit on the benches, often with a jacket even on warm days, and watch younger versions of themselves decades ago. Some smile, some doze, some sit with the wives of many years in contented silence and enjoy the activity around them.
The noise of the city seems to disappear in a square. And believe me, London is a noisy city. It is choked with traffic. Older double-decker buses roar when the traffic light turns green or when they pull away from a bus stop. But it is a very walkable city, and I find myself walking five or ten miles a day. If at all possible I avoid the city buses, the tube (subway) system, and taxis. The best thing to do when one walks down a London street is to look up. The storefronts at ground level are everyday storefronts, nothing special. But upwards you see the great architecture of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.
The streets are lined with restaurants of all sorts, Indian restaurants abound — Indian food, after all, has become British food. But London is a global city and immigrants have come from around the world to live and work here. I met a Portuguese man and an Argentine man both serving from from their kiosks in an open-air mall. Here in the Royal National Hotel, if you stand in the lobby for an hour you will hear at least a dozen languages. The Royal National calls itself the largest hotel in Europe, and it may well be. There are 5,000 rooms here. And I’m not kidding about that. Pensioners on holiday to London and grade schoolers on class trips swarm the lobby and the courtyard.
The global nature means global menus. There are jokes made about British food, and indeed you can still find things like boiled beef and jellied eel. But every ethnic food has also found a home here, Many of the restaurants are fairly small, long bowling-alleys of tables and chairs. Young immigrants are often your server. And if you can’t find an ethnic food to your taste, pub grub is a fine alternative. Pubs are quite proud of the food they serve and especially take pride in their fish and chips. Believe me, there is no fish and chips like the fish and chips made from freshly caught, never frozen cod.
“When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson once wrote some 400 years ago. It’s even more true today. Even after 15 years of bringing students, often on their first visit to a foreign country, I still love life, and I still love London.
New Delhi is in trouble. It is desperately trying to reduce pollution, and some of the steps its taking are admirable. But they don’t seem to be making a difference.
One can see the pollution hanging in the air. Worse, though, one can taste it. It’s grit on the tongue. It’s a scratch in the throat. It’s a tickle-cough. It’s a smell.
The Hindustan Times reported that the air quality in Delhi reached the “very poor” level on December 29, and was forecast to worsen on the 30th. For those interested in numbers, the PM10 was recorded at 304, and the PM2.5 at 197 micrograms per cubic meter. The normal levels are 60 and 100 respectively. PM stands for particulate matter. The EPA describes it as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets [including acid] found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.”
PM10 is especially dangerous because it can get sucked deep into the lungs and even work into the blood stream. People with heart or lung diseases like congestive heart failure or asthma are advised to avoid any exertion in this weather.
In 2015, more than 6,500 people died of respiratory illnesses, one of the leading causes of death in India. Many people who work outside wear masks over their mouths and noses, but most don’t. A colleague stepped out of the hotel the other morning and asked one of the doormen if he smelled the smoke that was quite obvious to us in the air. He considered the question and replied no, everything smelled normal to him.
I use a CPAP machine at night for apnea. At home I sometimes forget to change the filter. On my old machine it was a nylon cube about ¾” square, and after a month or so it looked pretty much white and new. Three years ago when I was here in Delhi I took the filter out after two weeks. It looked like a piece of coal. Jet black and sooty. At the time we were staying in a guesthouse with no air conditioning. This time I’m in a good hotel with a ventilation system. This year after five days the filter on my CPAP is the color of a fine charcoal suit. The hotel’s system isn’t doing much to stop the pollution for us here.
The reason? There is, of course, not just a single one. Delhi is a city of 20 million people. The Hindustan Times says the government reports there are 10 million cars registered. That’s one car for every two people, including children. A government report estimates car exhaust fumes contribute 25% of the city’s pollution.
Farmers in the rural areas surrounding New Delhi also contribute to the deadly haze. The only way they have of clearing stalks from the rice paddies is to burn them. Smoke from thousands of fires shroud the city and combine with vehicle fumes and dust from constructions sites. Open wood and paper fires line the streets at night as homeless people struggle to stay warm.
The result is literally a choking, acrid pall that settles over the city, and in a temperature inversion as Delhi has had for the last few days, it does not dissipate.
The city is trying to make changes. It has banned trucks that belch black smoke into the atmosphere. It has tried road rationing, in which cars with odd-numbered license plates alternate with even-numbered plates on the road each day. It’s trying to get rid of cars more than 15 years old, in poor condition and with less pollution control. But it doesn’t seem to work.
Public transportation is woefully inadequate here. In a city of 20 million people there are fewer than 5,000 buses. They are unreliable because they can’t get through the traffic jams created by the cars people drive because the bus is unreliable. The train system is already at capacity. There is no other way than autos, motorcycles and tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, to get around. Interestingly, though, many of the autorickshaws are powered with compressed natural gas, which emits less pollution than gasoline, or would if the engines were tuned. Really, the motors on those things aren’t much more than a garden tractor.
I’m relatively healthy, if a little chunky around the middle, and I’m only staying here two weeks. The pollution is going to annoy me, but not kill me. I’m going home to the clean air of a Midwestern city. I’ll cough out the soot in my lungs over a few weeks, try to remember the pollution I left behind in New Delhi, and I hope I remember to say a prayer of thanks every morning.
What is Dubai?
Dubai is planted firmly in the Middle East. It is the most famous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a founding member of the once-powerful cartel OPEC which controlled oil prices for nearly 40 years. It is now weakened by in-fighting and by a defiant Saudi Arabia, which is determined to set its own course in deciding oil production quotas based not on its own economy or those of its coalition partners, but it’s enmity of Iran.
Dubai is Arab. It is Muslim. But step out of its spectacular airport, climb into a taxi, and drive toward the city, and you don’t see Arabia. You see a city that could be planted in America, Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia or parts of Africa. You see steel, glass, marble and granite. You see construction cranes and rebar and cement. Shopping malls that house ice skating rinks, an indoor ski slope, and miles of stores with European couture names.
You see six- and eight-lanes highways that carry a lot of foreign automobiles. You see an elevated tram that scoots along the highway, crammed with people. Automobile dealerships selling BMWs, Audis, Mazeratis, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis down to the lowly Toyota, Ford, VW and Chevy. Hyundai and Kia bring up the rear.
You see people from all over Southeast Asia. They come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan to find work. They come from Africa – Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan – and send money back home. Business people from around the globe work here in every sort of business. The executive and technology jobs are filled with suited or casually dressed expatriates from America, Canada, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, China, Japan, and Thailand.
Yes, Dubai is Arab, but it is minority Arab. By some estimates, only 10 percent of Dubai’s population is actually from Dubai, an no estimate puts it above 20 percent.
Dubai runs on an expat population. Emiraties – citizens of the United Arab Emirates, own many businesses and ventures. But it’s the expatriate population that runs them. Unlike in neighboring Oman, which is two-thirds to three-quarters Omani, very little Arab is heard spoken here.
There is almost no oil left in Dubai. The largest of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, has the remainder of the oil here. It is the richest of the emirates, a fact that Dubai would just as soon you don’t know.
A friend of mine was dining with an old classmate, and the classmate leaned over the table and said what he had to say had to be whispered because he wasn’t sure who might be listening. Dubai, he confided, is in a recession. Hardly surprising news to anyone who’s been following the price of oil as it crawls along at drastic lows from five years ago. But why the big secret?
The only things that keeps Dubai going are global business and tourism. Oil, which once seemed unlimited and lucrative, is depleted and cheap. Dubai has to keep up the façade of a forward-looking, economically progressive city that is still growing, still vibrant, still vital and still relevant. The fear is that if global businesses scent an economic slowdown, they’ll start to flee. And if they flee, there is no replacement for the lost revenue any more. If businesses flee, the money leaves, the tourist attractions will begin to deteriorate, and Dubai will return to the sand.
That is the fear, of course, and like many fears it is probably over-blown. Dubai is not going away any time soon. It is still an economically progressive city. It is still relevant. But the floor is much thinner, more precarious that it has been for the last 50 years. The Middle East has been important to the global economy precisely because of the oil. But as the world moves away from oil as its energy source, the Middle East in general will become less important, less a place that business feel they have to be involved in to protect their interests. Politically the region will change as well. Staying on the good side of Gulf countries in the name of world economies will become less important. The region will still be part of the global economy, but a smaller part, and with less influence in the economy than it has had by controlling the price of crude.
It will affect the Arabs and the expats alike and Dubai needs those expats.
Executive and technology workers have offices in the steel and glass towers, sitting in air conditioned offices, suites and cube farms. The construction workers build those towers, laboring in 95 degree heat with visible heat waves shimmering off the concrete and steel. Taxi drivers drive a couple hundred miles a day.
Some of them get to work in air conditioning. Service workers in hotels, restaurants and office buildings make sure everything looks great for the hordes of tourists and business people who make trips to this glitzy, money soaked spot in the sand.
But in Dubai, the money is showing the first signs of drying up. The question now is not What is Dubai, but What is Dubai’s future?
(This was written the evening of August 6th in the Muscat International Airport. I wasn’t able to post it until today, August 7th).
Leaving Oman is hard. It was hard four years ago. It was hard last year. It’s hard tonight.
My seven students feel the same way. They’ve said it. I can see it on their faces, too. Yes, I’m sure they’re eager to get home. But I also know they have come to love Oman as I have.
It’s gratifying as a teacher to be able to introduce students to an experience like this. For some of them this is their first trip outside the United States, the first stamp in their brand new passports. With the huge help of Zainab Jones, our in-country coordinator who runs Inspire Oman, we’ve given the students as broad an exposure to Oman as possible.
They’ve learned about the great things this country has. They’ve seen the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian see. They’ve skirted the desert. They’ve hiked the Balcony Trail and peered into Oman’s Grand Canyon that splits Jebal Shams, the country’s highest mountain. They’ve watched green sea turtles laying eggs in the sands of Ras al Jins, and even carried a hatchling too exhausted to complete the journey into the foamy sea.
They learned about Oman’s long history with the United States. They got a lecture on Oman’s culture of religious tolerance, not only among the various Muslim sects but also among Christian religions, Buddhism and others. They visited the World Health Organization office, the only one in the Middle East region.
They met with the secretary general of Oman’s Human Rights Commission. They visited a business incubator and met with young and old entrepreneurs, all hoping to build their businesses and add to the employment sector.
One of the young entrepreneurs was a student of mine four years ago when I taught at Sultan Qaboos University. Despite that, Mohamed Al Harthy, Mustafa Al Awati and one other have built their film business into a 15-person operation. They’ve had at least two productions aired on Oman TV, along with other
commissions. Their three years at the incubator were up this week, and they had to move out. A business development counselor there said they’re ready; they’ll succeed. We saw a sample of their work – incredible.
They met with a DJ from an independent English-language radio station and heard their names mentioned on air. They sat with an American journalist working at an English-language newspaper and heard about the difficulties covering news and issues in Oman.
Our students met with young members of a think tank, and visited the factory of Amouage Perfume, the most expensive perfume in the world. They saw how dhows, the ancient sailing boats of Oman, are still built by hand. They cruised on the Arabian Sea and swam in the gulf.
The tour of the Royal Opera House stunned them. The intricacies of the inlaid wood, inlaid marble, plush carpets and expansive auditorium rocked them. At the far end of the stage in the opera house is one of the world’s largest pipe organs, with 4,600 pipes.
Just as impressive was the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, a spectacular example of Persia and Arabian architecture and design. Its carpet was hand woven in Iran. It took four years to make, was shipped to Oman in 56 pieces on two Boeing 747s, and woven into one complete carpet. For a while it was the largest single carpet in the world, until the Sheik Zayed Mosque was built in Abu Dhabi. Its carpet is approximately one square meter larger. After gaping at the soaring dome with its blue-themed mosaic the welcome center provided coffee, water, dates and conversation. And lots of laughter.
My students have experienced the worst of roadside toilets, truly dreadful, and spent the day at a seven-star resort. They’ve shopped in souqs, bargained with shop owners, bought pashminas, abayas, khanjars (the Omani-style dagger featured on the flag and national seal), coffees, saffron, t-shirts, key chains, and just about any other souvenir one can imagine.
They’ve visited a village that probably has never seen an American. They were treated in Omani style to coffee, water, juice, bananas, apples, oranges, dates, and plums. They ate tuna that had been spiced, wrapped in foil and grilled
on hot coals. They ate lamb kababs and Omani rice. They also went American once or twice. Shawarma, a wonderfully spiced wrap that is standard fast-food fare here, became a favorite. An early morning visit to the fish souq let them see how the local Omanis bargain with the fishermen, their day’s catch impressively displayed on counters.
They come away from Oman with knowledge of a country most had never heard of nine months ago. They also come away with some new impressions of a region that is continually wracked by bad news. Oman is peaceful, gentle, friendly, open and hospitable.
What did I get out of it? I got to go along, offering whatever guidance I could, answering their questions. I got to see the wonder in their eyes as they saw, smelled, tasted and experienced new things. I got to be the recipient of their enthusiasm. I got to watch them grow into new areas of thought and appreciation. I got to go where they went. I got to re-experience all the things Elaine and I did four years ago. I got to return to Oman.
This whole thing was made possible only with a grant from Nebraska University that subsidized the cost of the trip. Otherwise it would have been prohibitive. I don’t think any of them could have afforded it. But after two years of subsidy, there is no guarantee that the money will be available next year. The NU administration may decide to spend it on trips to other parts of the world, and to be honest, that’s not necessarily bad.
And as KLM flight 450 gets ready to board, I’m sitting here with one enormous fear. I don’t know if I’ll get back here without a class to bring along.
This may be my last trip to Oman.
Last week was pleasant here in Muscat, the capital city of Oman. The temperature was in the high 80s to low 90s, and the heat index was barely above 100. Maybe 105, but not much more than that. Here is Muscat in July, that’s heaven. When I talk about the heat in Muscat, people say it’s a dry heat, though, right? Well, no. Muscat is a port city. It has ocean all along one side, and mountains that trap the humidity from all that water on the other. It’s an urban pressure cooker. A giant oriental steam basket.
Therein lies the problem. The humidity of the air makes the heat especially dangerous. With dew points easily in the 70s, and even into the 80s at night, Muscat is a dangerous place to be hot. At 7:00 am today in Muscat the temperature was 99F. The heat index was already 107F. Within moments of stepping outside one starts to sweat.
As we all learned back in elementary school, the reason we sweat is to cool off. It didn’t make much sense back then, and it didn’t really seem to our unformed minds like it worked. But of course it does. Evaporation is an endothermic process in which heat is absorbed as the water turns into gas. The air absorbs the heat and our skin is cooled.
This is great in the interior regions of Oman like Nizwa, the one-time capitol, or Buraimi, a once disputed area on the Northwest border with the United Arab Republic. In coastal cities like Sohar, Muscat and Sur, however, the humidity is often so high the sweat does not evaporate. No cooling takes place. The moisture just drips off, or soaks your clothes. There is no exothermic reaction. Your body just gets hotter and hotter, and the sweat rapidly dehydrates you.
Thus the admonition to visitors who are not used to such heat and humidity to drink water constantly. It’s not an issue of rehydration – its an issue of constant hydration. If you begin to feel dehydrated here, it’s too late. You have to find a cool place, rest and drink. A good test is actually urine. If one’s urine is dark, drink. Drink a lot of water. If it’s light, everything’s ok. One must constantly have a bottle of water, everywhere. It doesn’t have to be ice cold water. It can be chilled or room temperature (remembering that an un-air conditioned room is 100F or more).
Coffee and soda don’t figure into the equation, especially colas. While they are not taboo, they actually aid dehydration, so even more water is required until the caffeine is out of the system. But in fact, even water may not be enough in this extreme heat. It only replaces fluids, not electrolytes.
“Electrolytes regulate our nerve and muscle function, our body’s hydration, blood pH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissue,” according to medicalnewstoday.com. “Our muscles and neurons are sometimes referred to as the ‘electric tissues’ of the body. They are reliant on electrolyte movement between extracellular, interstitial and intracellular fluid (fluid inside, outside or between cells).” These electrolytes include potassium, bicarbonate, sodium (or salt) and calcium. The loss of electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, tics or twitches, and in extremity seizures.
That’s what Gatorade and PowerAde were designed for. Those drinks, however, are virtually unknown here.
Here in Oman they drink a product called, somewhat unappealingly, Pocari Sweat. It is not, in fact, refined from anyone’s sweat. Admittedly it does take some getting-over to actually pop the top and drink up. It contains sugar, but not in the quantity or cloying sweetness of the American drinks. Pocari Sweat, and yes, it’s just as fun to say out loud as it looks, was developed by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company of Japan. It’s manufactured in India and imported in huge quantities to Oman.
A can or two a day is good for moderate outdoor activity. Just walking from the air conditioned car to an air conditioned building and back probably doesn’t require anything more than water. But if the shirt is damp, the sweat is running down one’s legs, and the socks are like wet sponges, Pocari Sweat should be part of the day’s routine to supplement the water.
By the way, Omanis are very good at air conditioning. Most modern houses have an individual unit in each room rather than central air conditioning. Older homes and window units, but the modern ones are mounted toward the ceiling in each room. They are usually turned off until the room is used, which saves a lot of energy. Every single village in Oman has electricity, something the Sultan has accomplished in the 46 years he’s been in power. So even in the smallest towns in the most remote areas air conditioners are often in use.
One more note on the effects of evaporation. In olden days, and even today in the villages, Omanis used evaporation to chill water. Large unglazed clay vessels, holding about a quart, are filled with water and suspended from a window with rope or twine. These vessels are porous, and water soaks through. The surface water evaporates, cooling down the vessel and the water inside. Although it isn’t cold, it’s cooler than the surrounding air, and thus quenching.
Evaporation! It’s cool!
We left for the mountain about 20 minutes late. Last minute dashes for extra bottles of water put us behind schedule. We were headed for Jebel Shams, Mountain of the Sun, in Oman’s interior, next to the desert. We piled into two SUVs at 6:20 a.m. and started the heart-stopping climb up a winding dirt road, to the trailhead in a tiny village of about 6 homes.
The idea was to walk along the Balcony Trail, which skirts the rim of Oman’s version of the Grand Canyon. The American Grand Canyon, of course, is a mile-deep, mile-wide chasm created by eons of erosion by the Colorado River. Oman’s grand canyon, on the other hand, is a massive collapsed cavern system. It looks a mile deep, and it looks a mile across, but I can’t be sure. It is impressive and beautiful.
Elaine and I walked this trail with our friends Bernard and Ramona from Sultan Qaboos University more than four years ago when we lived here. Since it’s a collapsed cave system, there is an end to the canyon and we hiked all the way in. By the time we got back to the trailhead all four of us had some sort of minor injury – twisted ankle, tender wrist, scrapes and bruises. It’s a difficult trek over rocks and boulders on an unimproved trail that is exhausting and arduous.
I started on the trail with my students fully intending to go as far as they went. But about 1500 yards in my knees reminded me that they are nearly five years older than last time, and that my frame is about 20 pounds heavier. A sat myself on a rock overlooking the vista and wished my students and their guide a happy hike.
They moved on down the trail, and I could watch them for quite a distance. The sun was hazy, just over the edge of the mountains across from me. “Look at Dr. Allen,” I heard one say quite clearly, “he’s just a dot up there on that rock.” I waved at them, and they waved back. A few hundred yards later they were around the corner of a ledge and out of my sight.
I sat there on that rock, and suddenly experienced something most of us don’t.
The sounds of nature, completely unbroken by any manmade noise. Not a jet plane passing overhead, not a car engine or tires on a road in the distance, not an electric motor, not the squeak of a wheeled cart, not the tick of a clock, no music, no water pump, no phone, no alarm no clang of a gate. Nothing.
The songbirds on the mountain took center stage. Above me I heard a few rocks falling and I looked to see a mountain goat making his unconcerned way along a ridge the width of a yardstick. Below me another goat popped up over the edge of a cliff from some tiny foothold it had, and stared at me. I said good morning to it, and my voice was tiny in that vast silence of nature. It bleated back, and its voice somehow sounded more appropriate than mine just then. The goat looked away across the canyon, then back at me, took a few steps and laid down to enjoy the morning sun.
I sat and absorbed the silence.
Eventually the sun became too hot to just sit. My students were hiking their way deeper along the trail into the canyon, and I wasn’t going to join them. I turned the other way, back toward the trailhead, and within a few hundred feet began to hear the sounds of humans. In the parking lot I found the car we had come in. The engine idled with the air conditioner running and the driver napping, his front seat reclined. I got in the passenger side, laid my seat back, and closed my eyes.
But I didn’t sleep. I thought about that silence, and I thought about fortunate I am to have heard it. Not many people do.
When Elaine and I left Oman just over four years ago after nine and a half months teaching at Sultan Qaboos University we cried.
We left with 10 bags of cloths and souvenirs, accumulated from friends, students and our own purchases, and struggled to get the new checked, paid for and off our hands. We walked through the process of turning in our residence cards, getting our visas cancelled and saying goodbye to Chefi and Jamila, who had brought us to the airport. We checked through security, walked to the departure area, sat down and looked at each other. Then the tears came.
We were leaving a place we had come to love. This is such a beautiful country. There is 1000 miles of ocean. Sharp-angled mountains split the country dividing the desert from the sea. Deep ravines make for spectacular hikes that transport one back in time.
The people we met had become our friends. My students were sweet, filled with humor. The experience was complete. And now it was over.
I wanted to return to UNO and pay back the year that I owed for the university’s support during my Fulbright experience. Then I wanted to retire from UNO, apply to teach at SQU, and spend the rest of my career in Oman, retiring at the mandatory age of 70. But my family situation just didn’t make that possible, and I was gloomy at the prospect.
In fact, God (or something) was protecting me. I found out the other day that the new mandatory retirement age for expatriates is 60, unless one has unusual skills or talents to do a necessary job. I teach journalism. I have no unusual skills, or highly prized abilities. I would be out of a job this year, having reached the mandatory retirement age last February. Moreover, at this age, and having achieved the rank of professor, my changes of getting another teaching position back in the states would be highly unlikely.
The reason for the change here in Oman? Oil.
Since we left four years ago, the price of oil has plunged. It was well over $100 a barrel four years ago. Now it’s hovering around $40. Oman had based its national budget on oil selling for $75 a barrel, so it was flush with money then. Way more than enough. Now, though, it’s struggling. Recently Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the state-owned oil monopoly, had to suspend a number of projects because of the price drop. It laid off 200 workers. But the government said no, it could not lay off Omanis. It was forced to rehire them, and it will have to lay off expats to make up for the budget deficit.
This is not entirely unreasonable. Omanis should have the first chance at jobs in their own country. Oman has had an aggressive program of “Omanization” for many years, working to replace expats with Omanis as they become trained and experience to take on the work. That’s one reason why 3/4 of Oman’s population is still Omanis, and only 1/4 are expats. Compare that to Dubai where nearly 80 percent of the population is expatriates. Dubai citizens are a minority in their own country because they would rather let the expats do the work while they collect a paycheck for being an Emirati.
So Oman’s policy makes sense, but I suddenly realize I would have probably been caught up in it. Maybe not. Maybe there aren’t that many Omani journalism teachers clamorring for a job. But at least I have the security of UNO that I don’t have to worry about it.
I love being back here. I love the sights and smells, and even the heat and humidity. Today our students visited with Dr. Mohamed Muqadin, a history professor at SQU. We sat in the Staff Club and chatted away about Oman’s history with the U.S., and about several current affairs issues. In the middle of it the turned to Zainab, the person who has put together our tour here, and mentioned that last year he treated the students to lunch at the Staff Club. But this year we were visiting after lunch. “I want to treat the students to lunch,” he said, and he wouldn’t let it drop until he was sure it was arranged for this Sunday (the Monday of the Muslim week). We will each lunch with Dr. Muqadin, and he will treat us all.
Is it any wonder I love this country?
I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there. This is the last of the blogs I wrote in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a difficult country to write about. It’s tempting to focus on the difficulties here – the violence, and the threat of violence, which is almost as oppressive as the violence itself. The poverty. The corruption. The bleak prospects. All of those are evident from afar, by anyone who only listens to media reports. All of those are evident, too, from close up, by driving through the streets, by talking to people one meets.
It’s tempting to focus on the optimism of many Afghans and make the story some sort of sentimental paean that sounds hollow and formless, ignoring the harshness of life so many Afghans experience every day.
Somewhere in between is the right tone, and I don’t know if I can find it. It’s not exactly in the middle of those two artificial poles. It’s probably somewhere toward the bleak end, but I’m not sure just how far.
I was talking to a staff member for the University Support and Works Development Project, the agency that’s administering our grant to work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Mazar-i-sharif, and I asked him what he thought Afghanistan’s future looks like. He tried hard to move it toward the positive end.
“The thing is, Muslims believe everything is in the hands of God,” he said as we stood in the small garden atop a nine-story building. We had just hosted a dinner for our Balkh University colleagues, and dessert was served in the garden. It overlooked the huge, historic Blue Mosque. We were not allowed to visit the mosque out of security concerns.
“So Muslims have to be optimistic,” he continued. “They have to believe that God is looking out for them. Otherwise we would all climb over this rail and fall to our deaths. There would be many suicides.”
In fact, the suicide rate in Afghanistan is tragically high. In 2014 the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) reported that suicide was the second highest cause of death in Afghanistan in the 15-29 years age group. That’s the very group our grant is aimed to benefit – young people, people just getting their education and starting their careers. It’s higher than murders and war deaths combined, to put it into context. You want raw numbers? More than 800,000 Afghans commit suicide each year, in a country of 30 million people. There is a suicide every 40 seconds.
“Reliable data on suicide in Afghanistan is scarce,” the MoPH reports said. “A large proportion of Afghans suffer from mental health problems such as depression, a major risk factor for suicide. Gender-based violence, substance abuse, trauma and stress relating to conflict as well as displacement, poverty and continued insecurity around the country also increase the risk of suicide.”
The majority of suicide victims are women.
The MoPH says the lack of help for the mentally ill is one of the reasons for the high rate. But the fact remains that Afghans are killing themselves at an alarming rate.
My colleague was trying to be positive, and yet he also had to bring up the fact that thousands of people still flee Afghanistan in hopes of making things better for themselves and their families. They pay five thousand or ten thousand dollars to smugglers. They risk crossing the Iranian border (Afghanistan, if you haven’t looked at a map, is land-locked, and the only way to the sea is through Pakistan or Iran) only to push off from the shore in leaky boats hoping to get to Turkey, where there is no real guarantee of refuge or relief. Some of them will die along the way, perhaps shot trying to cross a border. Others will drown when their boats capsize and sink. Some will reach land only to be turned back. Many will languish in refugee camps with little food, inadequate water, poor health care and no privacy. Few, almost none, will realize their dream
So I still can’t find that point.
One of my dinner partners that night talked about the number of young people who go abroad to study, and then return home to try to make the country better. It’s the young people, he said, who are the best hope for his country. They are the ones who can overcome the terrorism, the tribalism, and the corruption.
And yet they are the ones killing themselves. If you are constantly swimming against the current, how long is it before you finally surrender, turn around and do what’s necessary to keep your family safe and fed? Is there a large enough swell of young, educated people to turn the fortunes of Afghanistan? Will they stay and make that effort? Where is the in-between point?
Of course, so much of this also depends on what all the countries who meddle in Afghanistan do. Pakistan and the U.S. are the biggest meddlers, and there’s not much real hope either of them will leave Afghanistan to itself any time soon. Iran is also a player in this, a long time partner-antagonist. Afghanistan buys most of its electricity from Uzbekistan, so there’s another player, although more like a supplier than a wanna-be conqueror, but electricity is a powerful lever if Uzbekistan ever decides to use it.
Afghanistan is full of honest people who work hard. Teachers strive to teach, from primary school through college. Their resources are limited, but their dedication is deep. Shop owners open their stores every day. Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls. Builders and welders, butchers and truck drivers all work to make a living for their
families, and many earn 100 dollars or less a month. Business men and women, many dressed quite sharply, although sans tie for most men, open their offices for various enterprises.
There are hardware stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, restaurants, barbers, hair dressers, carpet shops, electronics stores, grocers, pharmacies and more.
It should be a stable and growing economy. Everything points to an upward turn. But the multiple layers make it a much more complex matter.
In the early morning, as stores open, shopkeepers are outside sweeping or washing the dust from the sidewalk in front. But the battle against dust is futile because the roads are bad. Kids run along the street on their way to school. The children will sit in a classroom with straight-back desks, pocked cement floors and walls, and few resources. But they are there, learning to read, to do math, to acquire the skills to improve themselves. And their teachers are there, too, doing what that can to make it possible.
The less fortunate children wander among the bumper-to-bumper traffic holding out small packets of tissue or bubble gum, wafting smoking pots made of tin cans, or offering to clean the windshield with greasy, filthy rags, all begging for change. Many of them haven’t been educated, won’t be educated. They are among the uncounted casualties of decades of conflict and instability.
Afghanistan has survived the British, the Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen, and the Taliban. It is battered, weary, bruised and suffering. But it does survive, and proudly so.
I’m just not sure where between the two extremes it lies.