You say gżira I say جزيرة

December 16th, 2014

Since I had written and presented about symposiums about the divergence and evolution of Maltese from Arabic, I decided to spend some time on the island to get more of a personal perspective on the matter.  I was pretty excited because there was some interesting history, and hopefully, culture as well.  Its been at different times Roman, Arab, Norman, ruled by former crusaders/pirates, and much like the rest of the globe, the British.

In retrospect, I don’t know that it was worth it, but it was an educational experience.  Just getting there was expensive and kind of a trial.  There use to be a ferry from Sicily that was pretty reasonably priced, but apparently now one company has a monopoly, so it turned out to be cheaper to fly.  It was still cheaper to fly to Sicily to catch a plane, so my time in Malta was bookended by stays in Catania.

My first night in Malta was expensive, ended in my room flooding and damaging some of my stuff, but the upside is that the flooding killed the scorpions that were apparently living in my room.  There was only one taxi service available from the airport (which was of course expensive), and buses had stopped running when I arrived, so that also cost me some money and some frustration.


I decided to move to a cheaper hostel in Sliema, which was less eventful except for someone setting the kitchen on the top floor on fire.  Unfortunately, most Maltese seemed uninterested in conversation and few people seemed to speak casually in Maltese, so listening wasn’t really an option.  Signs were often in Maltese, or at least toponyms, were usually of Maltese origins, so that gave me a little of the language to check out.

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I took some daytrips to various parts of the island.  The trips were pretty short as its not a large island, but public transit there is routinely late.  I honestly don’t know if the posted schedules were out of date, but buses never showed up closer to 15 minutes late.  My other option was the crazily expensive taxis, which kind of led me to wonder if there wasn’t some degree of collusion between the two.  Honestly, renting a car might have been worth the extra cost.

As I said before it was hard to get a feel for Maltese culture.  Much of what I saw on the island was geared towards tourists.  Most hotels offered pools, which is crazy because the beaches are beautiful.  I went out to find a bar with some people from the hostel one night and we were really only able to find places with overpriced, oversweetened drinks that cater to kids on vacation from Europe.  I assume hotel bars and casinos is where many adults go, but I’m honestly not sure.  There was a smattering of pubs, but even those were basically just themed bars filled with European partiers.  Presumably the locals go somewhere decent to drink, but I never found anything like that.

Prostitution is technically illegal, but seems to be very, very tolerated, as there were quite a few very aggressive prostitutes in the streets.  A lot of this may just have been a defect of Sliema which seems very Las Vegas-esque, but even other places I stayed in the North seemed to largely be resorts.  Mdina and Rabat on the main island was a change of pace, but still pretty touristy.

Mdina (from the Arabic for city) is a much older walled city and former capital that still has people living in it.  Its also home to some museums, very old churches, and a bunch of gift shops.  Adjacent is Rabat (the etymology of which I’ve seen variously as Arabic for troop encampment, fortified monastery, and suburb), which is a bigger more sprawling village.  I checked out some of the historical stuff and managed to catch a wax museum audio tour about the Knights of Malta.  It was kind of an unpleasant experience because it amounted to pro-Catholic anti-Arab propaganda complete with cartoonishly villainous music when discussing the Arab legacy of the island.

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The island to the Gozo was a refreshing experience in that respect.  The people there were friendly, there were less European partiers, and everything was substantially less expensive.  I visited the Citadella, another walled city in the vein of Mdina, and finally managed to find some reasonably priced authentic Maltese food.  It was pretty good, but outside of the inclusion of rabbit, not terribly different to Italian.  The Maltese do have meat pies, so I guess they have that advantage over the Italians.

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The Maltese seem to have a pretty vibrant tourism industry, but overall it was kind of disappointing given my expectations.  If you have money and are looking to party in the vicinity of some beautiful beaches, its great though.  There were a lot of marinas and yachts, so I assume its a pretty popular place for people with boats to stop off at.

Short Jaunt to Morocco

December 16th, 2014

I didn’t spend too much time in Morocco, because I got stuck in Barcelona for much longer than I had planned.  I arrived late at night on the last ferry from Tarifa to Tangiers and was greeted by a dead and closed port.  Because I wasn’t sure if I would arrive that night, I hadn’t booked a hostel, so finding a place to sleep that night was my first priority.  Unfortunately, that involved dodging what felt like an entire city trying to scam me.


On my way to my hostel, I did happen to wander through a night market.  Because it was Ramadan, a lot of Berbers had traveled up to Tangiers to sell their wares, which provided a chaotic but interesting environment on my way.   I managed to haggle down the price of a goat fur jacket with a Berber while drinking tea, but other than that just tried to navigate my way through the craziness so I could sleep.

Against my better judgement, I finally accepted help from one of the many people milling about in finding the hostel.  Funnily enough, I had been right around the corner, so it was a short trip, but ended with haggling over how much I owed him for the help.  He really wanted my shirt for some reason, but I handed him a 100 dirham note, which was all I had left after paying for the room and left.

The next morning I decided to leave for Marrakech on the first train out because of my experiences in Tangiers.  Luckily I was seated with someone who spoke a decent amount of Fusha, because up until that point in Morocco, Arabic and English were failing me, and Spanish was only doing slightly better.  So between decent, if sparse, conversation and some beautiful countryside I managed to make my way to Marrakech.

Marrakech was an entirely different experience from Tangiers.  People were still interesting in trading and bartering, but weren’t actively trying to rip you off.  I was able to get by much better with Fusha and English and the hostel I was staying at was much nicer and cheaper than the one in Tangiers.


The Suq was every bit as chaotic as in Tangiers, but the shopkeepers were a lot easier to deal with.  At one point I visited an herbalist to see what kind of spices I could bring back and got a full demonstration of their wares.  I ended buying some Argan oil (that was unfortunately later confiscated at Ben Gurion Airport) and a few spices blends.  When I got back to the hostels I realised that the Kohl that had been applied to my eyes looked ridiculous.

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Because of Ramadan, at night, the market turned into one huge party as droves of people came out to break the fast and celebrate.   I journeyed out into that a few times with a group of Germans and ended meeting some pretty cool Moroccans.  There were fireworks, cobras, horse drawn carriages, and some random boxing matches.  I wish I could’ve stayed a bit longer, but had to leave the next morning for Malta.

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Islamic Legacies in Spain

December 16th, 2014

After leaving Oman, I flew into the UK and left shortly after for Barcelona.  I ended up being stuck in the city for five days instead of the one that I was planning on, due to issues with my credit card and purchasing tickets to get out.  In the interest of keeping this blog Middle Eastern themed I’ll skip over my time there and get on to Granada and Seville.

I arrived in Granada early in the morning after an overnight train, and managed to make it to the hostel in time to drop off my bags and catch a walking tour of the city.  Granada has been continuously inhabited since well before Roman times, but began to become an important city after the Islamic conquest of Spain.  The Umayyads fled to al-Andalus after being routed by the Abbasids in the Middle East.  The set up a caliphate based in Cordoba, but during the strife that led to their downfall, a Berber set up the Taifa of Granada as an independent state.  It become an important part of Almoravid and Almohad holdings in Spain and later was the home to the Nasrid Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic dynasty in Spain before the Reconquista.

We started the tour by walking along a river at the base of the hill by the Alhambra, with old irrigation networks that definitely reminded me of the falaj (Qanat) systems I saw in Oman.  We traveled up through the old Moorish section of the city, Albayzin.  Because of its historic nature, its difficult for renovations to be done to the buildings here, so many are inhabited by poorer residents of Granada, which is often students or appropriately enough, Arab residents.  The alleyways here are alternately narrow and wide, and as serpentine as any suq I’ve been here.  Interestingly, the guide said that the narrower walkways were intentionally built that way to help funnel wind and block the sun for a natural cooling effect in the heat.  I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it would explain the way that many Mediterranean towns are set up.

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Albayzin is on a hill, and as you get higher, you begin to get beyond the Moorish architecture and into an area where people build stores and homes into the cave systems at the top.  Again, these are primarily for poorer residents, in this case, Romany and artists for the most part.  From across the hill you get a good look at Alhambra.

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While I was here, I decided to take the opportunity to eat tapas whenever possible.  Similarly to Turkish Mezze, tapas are little plates of food brought out to a table usually consisting of a random assortment of simple, unique dishes.  Granada is where tapas originated, and here they are still done traditionally, where each tapa is free and brought out as an accompaniment to a drink of some kind.  Local wines were less than 2 euro, so it was an all around good deal.  Between the flamenco influenced local music scene, some pretty impressive graffiti, and gastronomically adventurous cooks of Granada, the city is a haven for creatively minded people.


The most famous part of Granada is Alhambra, the palace/fortress complex one a hill in the middle of the city.  Several people I met at the hostel were actually architecture students who had come specifically to see Alhambra.  A relic of the Nasrids, it was built by Mohammed ben al-Ahmar, giving it its Arabic name, الْحَمْرَاء‎ (al-hamra).   The Nasrid palaces are incredibly beautiful and filled with the kind of geometric art found in much of the Islamic world.  These served as the palace to the Nasrid emirs who ruled over the last Islamic emirate in al-Andalus.

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In addition to beautiful architecture, the Alhambra complex was a military stronghold.  The Alcazaba citadel, walls, and its location on a hilltop provided a strong defence were the city ever to be besieged.  During the Reconquista, Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered rather than force the Spanish to take Alhambra by force, but he probably could have held out for years if he had chosen too.

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The third major part of the complex was added after the Reconquista.  Holy Roman Emperor Charles V built his own palace within the complex.  From the instant you see it, you can tell it is from a different time and culture from the rest of the complex.  It doesn’t really fit, but its interesting that the Holy Roman Emperor revered the Alhambra enough to build a palace there, but rejected the Nasrid complexes onsite for a palace.

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In Seville, the Islamic influences aren’t as stark as in Granada.  The city was actually the capital to the Umayyads, the Almohads, and the Almoravids, but it seems to have been built up a lot in the style of European renaissance architecture as well, and continues to be built up in more modern styles.  Much of the Islamic architecture was repurposed and in some cases isn’t really recognizably Islamic.  A perfect example is La Giralda, the Bell Tower of the Cathedral of Seville.  I walked by it not ever having any inkling that it was previously a minaret, because it had been refitted to look like the cathedral it was now a part of.

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Probably the only recognizably Islamic building I saw in Seville was the alcázar (from القصر or al-qasr).  Much like Alhambra, there is some post-Reconquista construction here as well, but the palace still retains much of its Islamic character.  Despite the fact that it was originally a fort, its an incredibly beautiful building.  Interestingly, it is still an official residence for the Spanish King in Andalusia today, though the King has a few of those scattered over Spain. 

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Wandering through the city with a guide did give me a new insight into the Arabic influences on Spanish.  Spanish contains more than a few words of Arabic origin, many of them beginning with ‘al’, but even words like olive and oil are of Arabic origin.  Another common pattern is that many Spanish-named begin with guad or guadal, even in the Americas.  Our guide explained to us that the Guadalquivir that runs through Seville was actually originally the al-wadi al-kabeer.  Further research led me to Guadalajara/wadi al-hajar, Guadalupe/wadi al-luben, and Guadalmedina/wadi al-medina.

Culturally Spain draws some of its heritage from its Moorish rulers, especially in the south.  Its kind of interesting to see more of that in person.  Its a very Catholic nation now, but before the Ottomans took Constantinople and the Balkans, it was the bastion of Islamic culture in medieval Europe, and a place of remarkable religious tolerance.


Last thoughts on Oman

December 16th, 2014

The program was a great way of getting to know Oman better.  I think because it is so comparably peaceful, its not as well known as the rest of the Middle East, but its a terribly interesting country with a lot of history.

Its the only Ibadhi Muslim country in the world, which makes it pretty unique, but even more so when you realize that a lot of people don’t really know anything beyond the Shi’i-Sunni divide.  Its not exactly a well kept secret that the Sultan is probably gay, but he seems to be almost universally loved which is amazing in such an otherwise conservative Gulf State.  While the Ottoman Empire was the face of the Muslim and Arab world for centuries, Oman has a lesser known legacy as an independent Muslim Empire.  More importantly, its one that successfully established it own colonies and successfully competed with another maritime great, Portugal, in the Indian Ocean.  Its holdings in Baluchistan and East Africa bring some ethnic variety to Modern Omani culture, but it is also host to some extremely old South Arabian languages like Jabbali (Mehri) that are extinct nearly all of the rest of the Arabian peninsula.

So, as a cultural outreach program, I think it has a lot of value in educating people about Omani culture.  Given the Sultan’s drive to diversify the economy beyond just petroleum production, getting the word out there that Oman exists is great for both tourism and investment.  Its stability and relative social openness for the Gulf should be able to bring more money from the West, and drive for education should help Omanis benefit from that and build up other sectors of the economy in the future.  I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve heard that the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington DC serves a similar purpose.

I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity to go study there, especially considering everything was paid for and taken care of.  I think my Arabic really benefited from the time spent there, although I still think the best way for me to cement that is a more long term commitment in the Middle East, like the Peace Corps.  Having said that, dialect is something that they focused on, especially with language partners, and I think that’s something that American institutions should do a lot more of.  Fusha is only useful to the extent that the local dialect is similar to it, which can be relatively close or almost mutually unintelligible like with the Darija in North Africa.

I got to experience a wide variety of Omani culture and settings, and though I would hardly call myself an expert, I’m certainly more informed now, so I think the program serves its purpose.




December 16th, 2014

Our activities outside of class hours in a lot of cases were spent doing extra activities that the school had to offer.  Two days a week after class, we would get paired up with Omani language partners to talk in Arabic for a few hours.  It was a good chance to get to learn some dialect, and some people got to be really close friends with their partners.

We had a series of guest lecturers while we were there.  The first one was a Christian minister who had written about Ibadhism in Oman.  He added an interesting perspective, because he was a Christian American expat who was lecturing us on the faith of Oman.  The Omanis in the audience asked a lot about his Christianity, while the Americans in my class got to get a little education on Ibadhis.  This was early on, so I think a lot of the students there didn’t know Omanis weren’t Shi’i or Sunni and had no idea what Ibadhism was.  There were some interesting questions from some of the Omanis about the historical and theological connections to the khawarij that I found were pretty interesting.

Some of the points I learned while he was lecturing were about how the Khawarij were a violent splinter sect who had assassinated Ali.  They had dissolved after a few centuries, but the Ibadhis remained as a group that shared their origins.  By contrast, the Ibadhis are extremely nonviolent and tolerant, which seemed to be a point of pride for the Omanis in the audience.  A bit of research after the fact revealed that outside of Oman, there are a few very small Ibadhi communities in other parts of the Middle East, but only in Oman are they a majority.


The next guest speakers was actually a chemical engineer who worked with petroleum.  Given that Oman is a petroleum producer in the gulf, the choice of speaker made sense, but he really didn’t talk about petroleum at all.  Instead most of his talk was evangelizing Ibadhism and explaining the importance of Islam in his life.  Unfortunately, he came off much less academically than the previous speaker, and it kind of felt like he was using the opportunity to try and convert us.  There wasn’t as much discussion after his speech as the first speaker, I think in large part, due to some of the class feeling uncomfortable.  He seemed like a nice guy and charismatic speaker, but it kind of reminded of the treatment I got in Mississippi by church groups when I was working with Habitat for Humanity.


Our next speaker, Dr. Khalfan al-Barwani, worked in banking in Oman, so his presentation focused on the economy of Oman.  He spoke of the difficulty of getting more Omanis into the private sector.  Most public sector jobs are taken by Omanis, but most private sector jobs are occupied by third party nationals.  The process of Omanization of the economy is supposed to help remedy that by getting Omanis more skills so that they can work and build the economy when Oman’s oil runs out.  Unfortunately, its a slow process and many Omanis look down on the lower paying jobs, so they are largely still filled by immigrant workers.

I also took the chance to ask him about Islamic Banking, because I never really understood how it worked without usury or speculation.  His answer was that it wasn’t really practiced in Oman and kind of scoffed at the idea of it.  He implied that Islamic Banks still act like non-Islamic banks, but change the terminology to allow them to function.


Besides the guest speakers, we also had weekly calligraphy classes.  A calligraphy exhibit years ago is actually what got me interested in studying Arabic in the first place, so I was pretty intensely interested.  Unfortunately, I lack anything in the way of artistic ability or decent penmanship, so I’m not sure that I really got that much out of the classes.  Probably the best part for me was watching the Egyptian calligraphy instructor show off between lessons.

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On one occasion, we visited a summer school for Omani kids.  We split up into groups of four and each took a classroom.  We asked the Omani could questions in Arabic and they would respond in English, or vice-versa.  I don’t think we did too bad, but those kids English definitely put our Arabic to shame.  I assume another big push to give Omanis more opportunities on the world stage is to teach English, because these kids were very good at it.  Some of the misconceptions about American culture were kind of funny, and several of the boys got up the courage to awkwardly ask us about American women.  After the Q&A’s, we went outside to play one of there favorite games.  I’m not really sure I understand the rules, but it definitely involves a bunch of people beating the person in the center, and that person fighting back.


We also played some sports with our professors and some of our language partners.  We organized gender segregated field days and played football (the soccer type).  Not shockingly, all of the Omanis were really good, although I think I acquitted myself well on the field.  We had another day where we played some traditional Omani sports.  There was a tug of war type game that was pretty familiar, but there was also a strange game where a bunch of people hop on one leg and try to knock each other off a carpet.  It sounds simple in theory, but it was actually pretty difficult.

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While we spent some time doing our own extracurricular stuff like getting hookah and watching the world cup, or visiting Omani friends for dinner, we were pretty isolated, so having the extra activities was nice.

The Desert and the Coast

December 16th, 2014

The next big excursion was to the Eastern coastline of Oman.  Our first destination was a Bedouin camp in the desert of Sharqiya Sands where we would spend the night.  This small look at Omani Bedouin culture was interesting, because while they were certainly less conservative than your average Omani (a fellow student claimed to stumble on one smoking hash while wandering up a sand dune), they tended to maintain the Omani attire of dishdasha, mussar, and kumma.  It was a very different experience than meeting the Palestinian Bedouin later in the trip.  These Bedouin were definitely decently well off from being able to monetize their lifestyle for the benefit of tourists, in contrast to the Palestinian Bedouin of Khan al-Ahmar who were reliant on aid.

We split into groups of four and each of us had a Bedouin driver in a 4×4 SUV of one kind or another.  We took a detour to go offroading on the sand dunes on the way and ride surfboard and snowboards down the dunes.  The Bedouins seems to legitimately enjoy themselves careening around the desert as much as we enjoyed being passengers in the experience.

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The night in the camp was pleasant enough with one of the Bedouins bringing out an oud and singing as we sat around the central pavilion.  A couple people found scorpions in their sleeping quarters, and I found a camel spider, so we got an upclose look at some of the desert wildlife that night, but it was easy to sleep after the long car ride.  In the morning we took a camel ride before returning to our vehicles to make our to Sur.



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Because of Oman’s nautical traditions (as I mentioned before, it wasn’t uncommon to see antique navigational equipment in Suqs) and maritime colonial empire, there is still a decent shipbuilding industry in Oman.  Granted, I think its probably more targeted at rich customers who can afford ornate dhow-style yachts they were building.  We visited one of the shipyards and were able to crawl around the innards of a pretty massive wooden ship.  Another completed one was moored near us in the water.

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We also visited a maritime museum with one of the more interesting people we met that trip.  The guide at the museum was older man of African descent who spoke a thick dialect and had a penchant for jokes that most of us had difficulty understanding.  He’d speak at length in Arabic about the history of the Omani nautical tradition and then suddenly home in on whichever student looked most intimidated with a barrage of questions or a riddle or joke in Arabic.  This ended with students shuffling around trying not to be the one called out in front of the others.  What I could understand of it was pretty informative, and the museum itself was interesting.

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Later that night we left for a turtle sanctuary at Ra’s al-Jinz.  A bus carried us out to the beach where we were met by a biologist who guided tours at the sanctuary.  Even though he was walking the sandy beaches at night, he was also dressed in the Omani national attire.  I think one of the most fascinating things about Oman was the homogeneity of dress.  The dishdasha is mandatory uniform for government employees, so you see it in all kinds of places you might not expect.  Even amongst Omanis in the private sector its pretty ubiquitous.

We were there at the right time of year to view turtles giving birth .  Unfortunately, we couldn’t really take any pictures because the flash would disturb the birthing mothers, but it was a pretty interesting experience to watch the mother turtles in various states of digging holes to lay their eggs, in the process of laying their eggs, or working on burying them.  I knew intellectually how massive they were, but it was another thing to see it up close.  And their movement was slow, but measured and deliberate, and maybe a little desperate.  They had dragged themselves far enough from the ocean to lay their eggs away from the reach of the tides while in labor, and were now forcing flippers which really weren’t designed for digging to dig these massive maybe five foot deep holes.



December 16th, 2014

The next trip brought us to less urban locations in the al-Hajar mountains in Oman.   We stayed in a hotel in the al-Jabal al-Akhdar nature preserve and also visited Jabal Shams (the highest point in Oman while we there.

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We started our trip up the mountains into the al-Saiq plateau and to the old abandoned village of Bani Habib.  We hiked down to the wadi that housed the old village through an orchard filled with apple, pear, and pomegranate trees. After spending some time exploring the village.  We traveled to another small village where rosewater was produced, and got to see where it was made.  Surprisingly the 1 litre bottles of rosewater that we saw being sold were all produced in a tiny two room building a few men and three kilns.  On the opposite side of the scale, the terraced fields full of Damascus roses were massive and extensive.  A walk along the canals around the village showed some other agriculture was well with fig, mango, and other fruit trees set up along the way.

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Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain), and especially the Sayq plateau, are quite green because of the additional rainfall neat the coast and an elevation the keeps the temperature much better for agriculture than the rest of Oman.  As a result, there is a lot of terraced agriculture in the villages scattered around the area.  The extensive falaj canal and cistern networks optimize the additional rainfall for irrigation. The falaj network is even more impressive at Misfat al-Abriyyin where water cascade down through channels in the village and into aflaj that wind around the mountain.  The hike here was beautiful, and its incredibly impressive how intricate and amazing these ancient irrigation systems are.  Its sometimes easy to forget some of the things that people thousands of years again were able to accomplish.

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The hotel was nice, but unimpressive, although we did build a fire around back and sit around on carpets listening to stories and riddles in Arabic. The rest of the mountain range is much drier than al-Jebel al-Akhdar, but has its own stark kind of beauty. The height of Jebel Shams was pretty impressive and I was happy to see a cairn on top of the summit.  Its interesting how Picts in ancient Scotland and Arabs in ancient Oman could have such similar customs separated by such distance. Aside from a brief stop at a Bedouin village most of the rest of the trip was spent driving and hiking in the mountains.

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It was a great excursion, and probably the most lush vegetation that we saw the entire time we were there.

Adventures in Muscat

December 16th, 2014

While in Oman, we made two separate trips to Muscat.  One was me and about ten other students travelling on a free weekend on our own via taxis, and the other was through the program.  They were both very interesting and very different trips.

On our independent trip we booked some surprisingly cheap hotel rooms near al-Qrum.  Seven of us went Scuba Diving, something I’ve never done before, and I have to say, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  The water in Oman was clear and it was, again, surprisingly inexpensive.  I don’t have much to add, because its kind of a difficult experience to put to words, but it was incredible.  Much like the rest of that trip though, it was interesting how substantial an expat community lives in Muscat.

Everyone working at the dive place, which also hosted fishing trips and a variety of other aquatic activities, were non-Omani.  They were mostly British, with a smattering of South Africans and an Australian, but not a single Omani.  The one Arab working there was Moroccan, but held British citizenship.  After visiting several bars (the only place this was really possible in Oman), it became clear that Muscat was actually a fairly popular destination for people from commonwealth nations.  People working in the financial sector, IT, engineering, and presumably some people involved in petroleum, basically had their own section of the capitol where the high end hotels were.  Looking around the Maritime center, which also housed a yacht club, there was a pretty strong looking tourism industry very much targeted at English speakers.  There were of course some Omani visitors to this section of town, many of whom were there to drink it seemed.

It was unsurprising in retrospect, but at the time, it was a bit weird how segregated from the rest of Muscat, this section of the city was.  It was almost like stepping into another country, the mirror image of certain neighborhoods in London.  We had interacted with non Omanis before.  There were plenty of non Omanis in Nizwa and some in al-Manah as well, but they were ethnically connected to Oman (East African or from the Indian subcontinent) and typically in lower class jobs.  Here, the foreigners seemed to be much more equal in stature with the Omani citizens.  There were of course still some lower class migrant workers, but short of accidentally wandering into a Bengali restaurant that catered primarily to migrants, I’m not entirely sure where they were.

The official visit to Muscat through the program was, for obvious reasons, a much different experience.  We saw more traditional sites and everything was much more guided.  We started the trip by visiting the Royal Opera House in Muscat, which was incredible.  Its a more recently constructed building, built because the Sultan is apparently a lover of classical music, but it looks inside and out very much like a mixture of the Middle East with some of the more opulent buildings in Europe from the 17th and 18th century.

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We stopped by one of the bigger malls in Muscat that was pretty decked out in Western stores, which was kind of uninteresting, except for the opportunity to grab some Western style coffee.  Omani coffee is great, but sometimes you want your qahwa in a big cup with no cardamom and lots of milk.   I did note that there were what looked like Malaysians, or maybe Filipinos working here, which is not something I really saw in elsewhere in Oman.

We also briefly saw the Sultan’s Palace, but weren’t able to enter at the time.  Its a beautiful building, very different in style from pretty much any other palace I’ve ever seen.

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Probably one of the more educational stops was to Bayt al-Zubair, which was a smaller private museum run by the al-Zubair family.  Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed, but it had separate sections that had a huge amount of information about each of the regions and cultures of Oman, a good deal of history, and a huge coin collection upstairs.  I’m not terribly numismatically inclined, but I love history and the culture section put a lot of the trip before and after into context for me.  Later on, I actually did a history program on the school radio in Arabic about the cultural interchange between the Indian subcontinent, East African coast, and Oman proper, and this was a pretty good starting point for getting a grasp on that.

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One the second day of the trip we visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which much like the opera house, was incredible.  It really brings home how much wealth the Gulf States really have.  Aside from some random trivia about it having the second largest carpet in the world and 14 meter chandelier, I really feel like pictures will say a whole lot more about this places.

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After the Mosque visit, we took a trip out on the water for the afternoon in a huge motor driven dhow and just kind of rode up and down the coast and did some swimming in the ocean.  Not really educational from a cultural perspective, but a beautiful look at the geography of the coastline around Muscat.  Plus its hard to turn down diving off a three story boat into the sea.

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The last part of the trip was to Muttrah Suq.  Its a pretty big market that can be a bit disorienting, especially at night.  According to wikipedia, its one of the oldest and most important suqs because of its location on the way to India and China.  I did some haggling here, which I feel is a great way to increase your proficiency in Arabic, and I managed to get a decent price on a dishdasha, massar, and kumma (the national dress of Oman) for myself and a khanjar for my little brother.  It was a pretty interesting display of people and items.

They had everything from little grocery stores to places specialising in nautical items or incense. They also had people from everywhere though.  One of the girls on the trip was Somali and another was Bengali, so between them they spoke Afsoomali, Swahi, and Bengali in addition to English and Arabic, and all of those languages were in steady use.  There were people of African and Baluchi descent whose ancestors had been in Oman long enough that they were pretty much Omani and wore dishdashas, and other guys who looked pretty much the same, but as more recent immigrants, were dressed in pants and polo shirts.  There were plenty of Arabs from all over Oman selling things as well.  It was pretty interesting just to sit and watch the chaotic interaction of all these different people.

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In the morning, we left back for al-Manah, but even that part of the trip was nice as Muscat is largely surrounded by mountains.  Both trips to Muscat were good in different ways and kind of served to illustrate alot about class and ethnicity to me.

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Day 1 of the Hostage Situation…

December 10th, 2014

Or if I wanted to water down the reality, I’d label it “Day 1 of Final Exam Week.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 4.37.24 PMToday, is my 一对一课考试 (one-one-one class test). 我的一对一考试关于中非关系的意义方面。(My one-on-one test is in regards to the significance of the China-Africa relationship.)

Since midterms, I’ve focused my one-on-one study on learning vocabulary specific to and how to speak formerly about the China-Africa relationship.  I’ve already turned in my 2, 500 character essay on the significance of the relationship.

My hand was ready to fall off by the end of this!

My hand was ready to fall off by the end of this!

(Again, thank YOU Eddie Murphy for getting me through that!) Every single time, I watch Delirious… I spend some minutes just laughing at what the man is wearing! HAHA!!! eddie-murphy-delirious-80s-outfit As I said Monday night when it was 11 PM and I was still writing: “We all know what we need individually to survive in times of struggle. I need Eddie Murphy.” *NEEDED* him badly!

Tonight, I give a verbal report, in Mandarin, before the firing squad – I mean…a panel of teachers – for my final exam.


6 PM is when I give my report!

I *do* feel less nervous than I was during midterms when I had to do it on the China-U.S. relationship.

Even so, the struggle will be real. O_o


Tomorrow, I have my Chinese newspaper and Chinese Conversation class final exams! On Friday, I have my one-on-two final exam!

And on top of the other things that I must get done before Friday?
The word of the week is:

Gave my report, reviewed it flawlessly with my teacher beforehand…Then three minutes into a smooth report, the director of the program walks in like…随便!

The strug.

The strug. 继续奋斗。。。

21 Things That Studying Abroad Has Taught Me

December 8th, 2014

And now the fall semester is winding to a close, and as I look back on my summer semester abroad, I am reminded of all the things that studying abroad has taught me and has helped me grow as a person.  Although there are probably more things than what I have written about, this is what came to mind first.


“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”  – Mark Twain


  1. It’s OK to be on your own sometimes.

    DSCF8307While living in Germany, I lived in an apartment with three other German girls, none of whom ever spoke to me. It was the equivalent of living on your own, but only in a one-room apartment.  Since I am an only child, the quiet didn’t seem to bother me that much, but when it did get to me on occasion, the fact that I was living alone just made me have to get out of my apartment and visit friends, or explore the city.  Travelling on your own gives you a chance to actually take in everything around you, instead of being distracted by your friends’ conversation.

  2. It builds confidence.

    Whether it was figuring out the rail system, or looking for cheap and clean hostels, you learn to be confident in yourself and trust your own instincts.  Especially when everything is in another language, it can be a bit intimidating, but you have to know (or at least look like you know) what you are doing.

  3. Anytime is the right time for a Bratwurst.

    Anytime of day, whether it’s lunchtime, dinnertime, or almost midnight, you somehow find room for a €1 Bratwurst from Domplatz.  Even though some Germans said that they weren’t that great, they were the cheapest Bratwursts in Erfurt, and very rarely would you get a stale Brötchen – that only happened if it was almost closing, or if they were at the end of a bag…

  4. It’s never too late to discover new places.

    Even during my last few days in Erfurt, I discovered a new park, and a new alternate route into the Altstadt!  Even after living in one place from years (or in this case months), you can still find new places to explore.  The world is such a fascinating place!

  5. Take advantage of the proximity to other European countries.

    Everything is relatively close together in Europe!  Use this to your advantage, and travel to other countries.  Since we were only allowed to miss two classes of each course, and each course met only once a week, you could technically skip a full week of classes and go backpacking!  This is exactly what I and three other friends did!  We skipped a week of classes and travelled to Rome!  With the help of cheap travel and accommodations, it was a relatively cheap trip!  We found round-trip train and airfare for less than €100, and 6 days in a bed-and-breakfast was around €250 per person!  If you walk around the city, you are really only paying for food and souvenirs during your trip.
    After classes were completed and before I flew back to the United States, I had a little over a week to carry out any last ditch travel plans, and that’s exactly what Anneka and I ended up doing.  It wasn’t really spontaneous, since we did have to plan in advance for this, but it was definitely worth it!  We bought a ticket that allowed us to use any train (including high-speed trains!) for 5 travel days within two months.  Our ticket package included Benelux and Germany, and we definitely took advantage of the opportunity in front of us.  We travelled through Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany: 11 cities within 6 days.  (I know it seems a little ambitious, but we did it!)  The cities we visited were (in this order): Luxembourg, Brugges, Bruxelles, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Münster, Dortmund, Essen, Düsseldorf, Köln, and Bonn.

  6. Trains are almost never on time…

    I had many late trains while travelling abroad. You just have to be patient and know that you will get through this hassle.  From our Benelux trip, Deutsche Bahn was the only train company that was late. Trains in other countries were very punctual compared to Germany.  The worst train delay we had was on our return journey, from Bonn, back to Erfurt.  We had to travel from Bonn to Mainz, where we would catch a connecting train that would take us back to Erfurt.  However, there were MAJOR delays and our first train was over an hour late.  We had no chance of catching our connection and it was the last valid day for our ticket! AHHH!!  Since we had no idea what to do, we hopped on a train to Frankfurt, in hopes that there would be possibly more connections since it was a bigger city.  While on the train, we asked a ticket collector what our best option was, and thanks to her, we were able to catch a train the next morning back to Erfurt with very little hassle!  The downside to that, we had to spend another night in a train station.

  7. Sleeping in a train station is not ideal, but doable.

    When you are in a bind, and the next train isn’t coming until the morning, if push comes to shove, you can sleep at the train station  Just be sure that you are travelling with at least one other person, so that you can take turns staying awake and keeping watch on your bags and surroundings.  If you plan on doing this as part of your trip, it can get pretty chilly at night, so either be prepared for cold, or pack an extra jacket.  Or both.

  8. HOLA is a great thing when you want to watch your American shows that are blocked by GEMA.

    No other explanation is needed.  This little app that works within your browser, changes the VPN of your computer to think that it’s in another country.  This was a life saver when I needed to catch up on Grimm and The Walking Dead while abroad.

  9. Making friends with other international students is one of the best parts of studying abroad.

    DSCF6020Most likely, they are in the same situation that you are, so they are your support system and understand what you are going through.  You will also have lifelong friends from all over the world once your semester/ year abroad is complete.

  10. Travelling pushes buttons you didn’t know you had.

    From my experiences abroad, I learned that I am such a pain when it comes to finding the hostel from the train station.  Anneka can vouch for this, since we have now travelled through 6 different countries together, and everytime, without fail, I would get fed up with the crappy directions that google gave us, and get really moody until we found the hostel.  Then everything would be fine.

  11. Wanderlust is an actual condition that you can never get rid of.

    Ever since returning from Europe, all I can think about is when I will go back, and where I will go next trip, and which of my new international friends I will visit first.  Also since returning, I have been reading so many lists about travelling, and secretly agreeing with every point they make.  Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
    EX 1
    EX 2
    EX 3
    EX 4
    I have then proceeded to look at maps like THIS and think, “Wow… I need to see more places and travel more within the United States.”

  12. Your travel companions will be your new lifelong friends.

    Maybe this is because you bond over the same travel experiences, or maybe because you are all the other person has, but you definitely become very close friends and will always have a travel buddy, even once you return home.  Luckily for me, my travel buddy goes to the same Uni as me! (Talking about you Anneka!)

  13. Pack lightly when backpacking.

    The only way not to kill your back while travelling is to pack light.  The only way to do this is to wear the same outfit for multiple days.  No one will notice if you change your scarf or jacket for the pictures!  Other travelers will understand, and this is completely acceptable in my book!

  14. Keep a souvenir from each city you visit.

    Choose one method and stick with it.  For me, I have collected postcards from every city that I have visited, and now I can look back through them and remember all of the places I have seen and things I have experienced.

  15. Studying abroad is less about the studying and more about the experience in a foreign country.

    DSCF5441Much to the dismay of my professors, I spent more time travelling and exploring new places than I did actually studying for the classes I took.  All of my classes abroad were fairly easy, and the teachers were not as strict as the ones at my home university.  I think that they understood that we were international students and just wanted to get a side of education with our travels.

  16. A phone is really not that important.

    After living a full 5 months without a phone was a nice break from the electronic device being surgically attached to every other American at home.  It is why I agree with videos like THIS and THIS and believe that there is a world that exists beyond the 4-inch screen, 12 inches from our face.

  17. Culture shock does exist.

    I did experience some culture shock; however, mine was not when I arrived in Germany.  I had reverse culture shock when I got back to the States.  The only problem I encountered upon arrival in Germany was jet lag, and getting used to the time difference.  The biggest culture shock, which I had to overcome, was the workload at my home Uni.  The courses are so much more rigorous here than they were in Germany.  I struggled to manage my time and focus on how much work I actually had to do to pass my classes at home!  It has taken some time to get used to the workload again, but I think by next semester, I will be fully acclimated again.  There was also the shock of having to drive everywhere, when I was so used to taking the tram and train everywhere.  This shock I got over pretty quickly, though.

  18. In theory, a blog is a great way to document your adventures abroad, but in reality, I let mine fall by the wayside.

    When I first left the country, I blogged almost every week to try to keep my website updated.  Slowly my blogs began to be spaced further and further apart, until I started to fully neglect my blog around late June.  It was at this point that I just posted my pictures on Facebook, and neither posted pics, nor updated entries.  I failed to share about my experiences about Berlin, Rome, Benelux, and my ordeal with my return flight home.  Although I shared these stories with family and friends by word of mouth, these memories never made it to page.
    Long stories short: You need at least a week to experience all of Berlin.  Warm and sunny Rome was a nice change from rainy Germany and the Colosseum IS as great as they say it is.  Benelux was such a whirlwind trip that I would like to go back and spend more time in each city.  Luxembourg had an extensive system of Casemates that holds a lot of history for such a small country.  Belgium has great beer, chocolate, and fries.  The Netherlands have great cheese (Gouda!) and lots of tulip fields (although I did not get to experience these tulip fields, it is on my bucket list and I will definitely go back when they are in season!)  The Kölner Dom is huge, and the Rheinturm in Düsseldorf has amazing views at night.  You can see for miles from up there! (Although I was only up in the tower at night, I think you can see the Kölner Dom from there during the day!!)  My return flight was cancelled, and I was booked on another flight, compensated for a night in a hotel, upgraded to economy plus, then upgraded to Business class at the terminal.  (I would now recommend Lufthansa to anyone who asks! Such a pleasant flight, once everything was sorted out with United…)

  19. Trust your gut.

    This was the first time that I travelled internationally by myself, and it is a completely different creature than travelling within the United States.  You have to have faith in yourself that you can accomplish anything!  When my United return flight was cancelled, I was rescheduled on Lufthansa and upgraded to Economy plus.  When I got to the airport the next morning, security was more of a hassle than usual – Once through normal security, I was “randomly” pulled aside to do a full body scan, where they had to swab the screens of all of my electronic devices, and then I had to power all of them on (I was flying about 1 month after THIS new law was added).  Once getting through that hassle, of course my gate was at the VERY end of the terminal, and it was a 10 minute walk there, with the rolling walkways.  Once at the terminal, I proceeded to stand in the line for the people at the desk without thinking about it.  By the time I reached the front of the line thoughts of getting out of line versus staying in line had all run through my brain.  Of course I decided to stay in line, just verify that I was booked on this flight, since my previous flight was cancelled.  It was here, that the woman upgraded me to Business class, at no extra charge!  I was one happy camper once on the plane!  We got to board first, and then they served us drinks while Economy class was still boarding!  The 3-course meal was served on REAL plates and we had a choice for each course.  They also served us complimentary wine, if that was what we chose to drink.  I was smiling from ear to ear the entire flight, and there was nothing that could stop me!  Once we landed at Dulles, we deplaned faster than economy, which meant that the customs line was substantially shorter and I got my luggage and got through customs faster than my parents could get to the airport from work!  I ended up waiting on them! (That never happens with international flights!)  Was all of this just luck? Or was it because of a gut feeling?  Even if your gut tells you to stand in a line for no reason whatsoever, trust that feeling… It may get you a $2,200 upgrade at no cost to you!

  20. Have no regrets.

    This one is a little hard for me, because I had one major regret at the end of my semester abroad.  In the middle of the semester, a group of friends decided to go on a road trip to Croatia.  It was a long weekend, and I had a paper due when classes started back up on Tuesday.  I stayed behind in Erfurt to write my paper.  I regret not going to Croatia with them.  From their stories and photos, they had a phenomenal time and I wish that I had gone too.  Instead of staying behind to translate one stupid paper, I wish that I had asked for an extension and went to Croatia with them.  For most people, even getting the chance to study abroad is a once in a lifetime experience.  Take advantage of every opportunity that you get.  Don’t let any pass you by.

  21. Never stop travelling.

    As I write this, I am saddened by the fact that I am no longer in Europe for all of the festive holiday traditions, including Oktoberfest and Weihnachtsmarkt.  I yearn for the day that I can return to Germany for the holiday season and experience the real thing.  I made so many great memories that will last a lifetime and many good friends, with whom I hope to stay in contact for years to come.  The world is such an incredible place and I just want to see it all!  I have grown and matured so much throughout my travels, and the more I travel, the more I hope to grow and thrive on this breathtaking planet we call Earth.  In the wise words of Saint Augustine, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  Never lose that wanderlust.


“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people.  Let your memory be your travel bag.”  – Aleksander Solzhenitsyn