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Expat Experiences

Oman > Expat Experiences

Oman

Chris Brauer, Salalah

Tuesday October 31, 2017 (09:24:30)
Chris Brauer
Chris Brauer

Who are you?

My name is Chris Brauer and I currently live in southeastern British Columbia, Canada. I have been a teacher for seventeen years, and am currently teaching a grade 5/6 split class at Yaqan Nukiy School on Lower Kootenay Reserve (outside Creston).

I am also a writer and have recently completed a travel memoir about living and teaching in the Sultanate of Oman. I am currently working on a book about my travels in Ireland, as well as working on my first collection of poetry. My writing has appeared in Celtic Life International, Ireland of the Welcomes, Running Room, Canadian Teacher Magazine, and Go World Travel.

I am married to an equally adventurous wife, and have two sons. I enjoy writing with a Visconti Homo Sapiens fountain pen, running in the woods (while avoiding large wildlife), driving my 1960 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia (when there’s no snow on the road), and standing at the open door while my two cats decide if they want to go outside or just think about going outside.


Where, when and why did you move abroad?

We met many expats who were living in southern Oman because they were running away from something – alcoholism or a bad marriage – and I suppose we were also doing the same. With continual cuts to public education in British Columbia, teaching jobs were more and more difficult to obtain and many of the teachers I graduated with were already living in far-flung places. As class sizes increased, programs were cut and entire schools were closed, I desperately wanted to break away from the vicious cycle of getting hired and then laid off when someone with more seniority bumped me out of my position. Rather than continue to look for teaching positions elsewhere in Canada, we took this as a sign from the universe to travel the world and have an adventure.

I took a course in teaching English as a Second Language, and began looking for positions around the globe. After receiving job offers from a couple places in Southeast Asia, I decided to accept a job in Salalah, Oman. We had heard that culture shock was more extreme the further east one traveled. Whether that is true or not, and without knowing much about the country, I headed out on my own as my wife took care of our sons, put our house up for sale, and began to box up our belongings.

We knew that living in a foreign culture, away from familiar things, was going to be difficult but we also realized that the experience of pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone would change us for the better and the education we would be giving our children would be priceless. So few children get the chance to experience another culture for any length of time. While moving to a country few in the West have heard of seems a bit extreme, both my wife and I had faith that we would experience the best of humanity, and that the vast majority of people everywhere are kind, compassionate and welcoming.


What challenges did you face during the move?

Traveling to Oman is not difficult, but it does take many long hours to get from southeastern British Columbia to southern Oman. I don’t usually sleep on planes, so the almost forty hours it took us to get from door-to-door seemed like forever. I was hired in October and, since the school year was already in progress, I needed to leave as soon as possible. My wife wasn’t excited at having to deal with everything in Canada and then traveling with our two young sons, but she enlisted the help of her family and flew to Oman with her mother.

The Canadian company that hired me (and connects teachers with the Omani Ministry of Education) met me at the airport in Muscat, drove me to a hotel, and arranged all the paperwork that I would need to fill in to get the resident card process started. Later, when my wife and sons joined me, the company assisted in getting my family their tourist visas (and then their short-term resident status). They also assisted in finding appropriate housing. Within a couple days, teachers are usually driven (or flown) to the town they will be stationed at and shown to their own apartment or villa.

While this seems ideal on paper, the reality was a little different. The first couple days in the country were very confusing. The company representative that picked me up from the airport only knew a little English and wasn’t able to tell me where I was going or what was required of me. I was randomly plunked somewhere and told to wait while someone did something on my behalf in a language I couldn’t understand. Perhaps, if it had been earlier in the year and I was with other expat teachers, it wouldn’t have seemed so jarring.

The contract I signed mentioned that the apartments or villas would be fully furnished, and that the company would supply kitchenware. Everything would be in ‘good condition’, but ‘good condition’ was obviously up to interpretation. The company also heavily relied on other expats to show new teachers around. As soon as I was safely delivered to my new residence, I didn’t see a company representative for the rest of the year. This bothered some teachers, but most quickly integrated themselves into the expat community and only contacted the company if paperwork was required.


Were there many other expats in your area?

The population of Oman is just under four and a half million, of which over two million are expats. Most of these expats are from either the Indian subcontinent or from Southeast Asia, but there is also a large Western expat community. Muscat, the capital of Oman, is very modern and cosmopolitan and there are several shopping malls featuring Western food, music and fashion. But Salalah (population 163,000) is different. While most of the visible workforce is from outside the country, I estimate that there are no more than 150 Western expats living there at one time.

Most of the Western expats in Salalah either teach at one of the three post-secondary institutions or are working with the Omani military. As is always the case, those working for the military make far more than teachers but daily life was comfortable for us because the general cost of living was low.

Many Western expats gathered at the nearby Crowne Plaza after work where, for a yearly fee, we could use the tennis courts, swimming pools and the gym. We also gathered at the family-friendly Oasis Club, located at the Port of Salalah. The Oasis hosted a Valentine’s Day dinner, an Easter egg hunt for the children, quiz nights, and other Western traditions that reminded us of home.


What did you like about life in Oman?

While there are several archeological ruins to explore and geographical wonders – including springs, blowholes and white sandy beaches where birds from all over India, Africa and the Middle East gather – the best thing about Oman is the people. Omanis are truly wonderful people, and teaching at the colleges was a real blessing. I had a lot of fun chatting with my students about their lives and dreams, and I enjoyed sharing cups of sweet tea or chicken biryani while the cafeteria televisions blared Bollywood videos. I fed off their positive energy and we laughed lots.
Living in Oman afforded us the opportunity to make friends not just with other Western expats and Omanis, but also with Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Sudanese, Syrians and Lebanese. It reconfirmed our belief that people all over the world are basically good and kind and have a natural tendency to help others.

Towards the end of our last year, my mother visited us for a few weeks and one her favourite memories is when my wife got the car stuck in the sand when we were picnicking near Taqah (a half hour drive north of Salalah). As I was rocking the car back and forth, my mother went to wave down traffic for some help. A car quickly pulled over and three men got out. With a little pushing and pulling, and a lot of laughter, we finally got the car out. We shared our lunch with the three men, and they introduced themselves as the Sultan’s personal interior decorators. As we were finishing up, the topic turned to religion. One man was Muslim, one man was Christian, and the other man was Hindu. Very briefly, each took a turn discussing his faith. They weren’t hoping to convert us (or each other); they were just letting us know what our options were if ever we felt the need. We could pick and choose as we saw fit. This one moment reflected our experiences in Salalah. We were never forced to choose one or the other. It wasn’t us against them. We were free to take what we needed and leave what we didn’t.

We Canadians pride ourselves on the cultural mosaic of our country, but small towns are still largely a homogeneous ‘white’ culture and I miss all the sights and sounds from so much ethnic diversity. We will always feel a connection to the Arabian seaside town, and to the country of Oman itself. We feel the pang of nostalgia when we sift through photos, remembering our boys at that age. We often think of our caretaker Mustafa, and whether he is still smiling, feeding stray cats, and knocking down coconuts. I think about my students who by now must be married and have children of their own. Many of the shopkeepers have moved back to their home country, and most of the expats we knew no longer live in Oman, spreading themselves across the planet for new adventures. Some we have kept in touch with, but most have fallen by the wayside. Despite modernization, I know the people of Salalah are balancing the old with the new, and still making time for simpler things: picnics on the beach, watching camels at the falaj (irrigation system), and sharing jokes over shwarmas and date cookies.


What did you dislike about life in Oman?

While Salalah is a major city in the south of the country, and there are lots to explore (including several shops, souks, and restaurants) it is the only major city in the south of the country. When I had a few days off, there were only the nearby seaside and mountain villages to explore. These were fascinating – as were the archeological sites and quiet beaches if we went camping – but we soon wanted to explore beyond the province of Dhofar. If we wanted to explore the north, we would either have to fly and then rent a car or drive across the Arabian Desert. At the time, there wasn’t much either online or in books about what to expect during the ten-hour drive from Salalah to Nizwa but, during term break and with the car loaded with snacks, water, blankets and a jerry can, we headed across the great expanse. As it turned out, there were gas stations along the way and little rest houses with clean beds and delicious food. We also discovered that the desert is a remarkably beautiful place.

The other aspect of our life in Salalah that became a little bothersome was the heat. While the weather in September to April was pleasant, and July and August sees the cooler Indian monsoon (called Khareef), May and June were really hot. The playground equipment was hot to the touch and the outdoor swimming pools were too hot to swim in. For the most of the year, we could open doors on either side and the sea breeze would naturally cool our villa, but May and June were different. Industrial-sized air conditioning units blasted freezing air everywhere we went during those two months, and the harsh contrast between indoor and outdoor was unpleasant.


What was the biggest cultural difference you experienced between Oman and life back home?

There is a commonly told joke in Oman about a meeting between the sultan and the president of Mexico. They are traveling together and a member of the Mexican entourage informs the president that there is an urgent matter that must be dealt with. He replies, “Maňana, maňana”. The sultan, curious about the reply, asks the president behind the meaning of maňana. He tells him it means tomorrow and the problem can be solved in due time. He then asks the sultan if there is such a concept in Oman. The sultan responds without hesitation. He answers, “Yes, we have a saying: In’shallah. It means God willing. But it is nowhere near as urgent as tomorrow.” Nothing is ever urgent in Oman. A typical day moves along at a pace that allows for tea and conversation.

The most jarring thing for me was not the different food, dress or language; it was the Arabic sense of time. In Western countries, we assume that our friends, family or colleagues will arrive on time if we make a lunch date. While we are willing to forgive five or ten minutes, we find it rude if the other half of the party fails to show up after that. Not so in Oman. It is not uncommon for someone to show up half an hour after the appointed time, even in business situations. For the Omanis, time is not controlled by mere mortals; it is controlled by Allah. The popular phrase In’shallah means 'God willing'. The traffic is the will of God, as are the forgetful children that can’t find their sandals or their lunch money when it’s time to go. I had to learn that, as a stickler for time, I needed to relax and bring a book or magazine if I was expecting someone at a certain hour.


What did you think of the food and drink in Oman? What were your particular likes and dislikes?

I have no complaints about the food in Salalah. We are adventurous eaters, and were more than happy to sample food from across the Middle East, India, and Africa. We ate out a lot – not only because it was delicious but also because it was generally cheap. Since there are only a few traditional Omani dishes and most of the workforce is from the Indian subcontinent, most residents and expats eat Indian (or Indian-inspired) dishes on a regular basis. Chicken biryani seems to be the unofficial national dish. One of my favourite memories is sitting with the young men as they hunkered over their food at the small restaurant – simply called ‘Restaurant’ – at the frankincense souk as they tucked into their chicken tikka or mutton vindaloo and scooped it all up with piles of warm roti. The food was hot, greasy, a little spicy and always delicious.

We sampled Yemeni food, Lebanese food, Syrian food, Turkish food, and all of it was amazing. If we had spent the evening at the beach, and wanted something quick to fill us up, we would buy a roasted chicken and some shwarmas at the neighbourhood kiosk and tear into the hot meat with our fingers at home as the rice was cooking.

Both my wife and I cook, so we didn’t crave Western food from restaurants very often. But, for those that did, there were a couple options. When we lived in Salalah, there was a Pizza Hut and a KFC but it wasn’t quite the same as at home; I’ve heard there are few more places that serve ‘Western’ food now. Sometimes we would drive out to the port where the Oasis Club offered an extensive menu with meat pies, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken fingers. When my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary or we managed to find a babysitter, we went for dinner at the Hilton.

Nowhere did we notice the rapid modernization of the south of Oman more than at the grocery stores. When we first moved to Salalah, there were some food items that were not available – or really difficult to find – but as the years went by and more shops opened, we noticed more Western-style cheeses and imported vegetables (like broccoli).

Another of my favourite memories is eating the vegetarian thali plates, which are sampler plates. Three dollars bought a large metal tray with a dozen small bowls, each filled with different rice dishes, vegetable dishes, sauces of various consistencies, and a dessert. There was also the prerequisite pile of flat bread in the centre for scooping and soaking. Though all the dishes were vegetarian, they were so flavourful that we didn’t miss the meat. The idea behind the thali plate was to offer all of the six flavours. As in Ayurveda, where the tastes of sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent all have a distinct effect on the body, a proper Indian meal should also be a perfect balance of flavours. But we weren’t interested in the effects on the body – just unapologetic gluttony. My wife would often talk to the cooks about the recipes they brought from home, and we now have a journal filled with spice blends and curries and chutneys.

The only food that didn’t appeal to us was halwa. Made from ghee, saffron, cardamom and rosewater, halwa is available in a variety of added flavours and, while the brown goo smells fragrant and sweet, the dessert has the consistency of hard Jell-O and is definitely an acquired taste.


What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

My advice to anyone considering a move to Oman is to keep an open mind. Too often we group all of the Middle East (or Africa, or Southeast Asia) together as one culture. The Middle East includes North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey and Syria, Iraq and Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and several other small countries west of China, and within this huge geographical area there are many wonderful cultures that differ as much from each other as the myriad of cultures within the West. There are not only differences in language, dress and cuisine, but also in how they see the rest of the world (and each other).

Despite instant access to information, several misconceptions continue today. One perception is that the terms ‘Arabs’ and ‘Muslims’ refer to the same people, but the two are not the same. ‘Arab’ refers to either those who speak Arabic as their native language, or to those that belong to a culture in (or originally from) the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest known use of the word dates back to an Assyrian inscription from 853 BC. ‘Muslims’ are those practicing the religion of Islam. Many Arabs are not Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. More than a billion people in the world are Muslims, but fewer than fifteen percent of Muslims are Arabs. A distorted media image of both the Arab and Muslim people has become ingrained in Western culture and continues to inhibit a resolution of any Middle Eastern conflict. Movies, television shows, novels, comics and video games continue to portray the Arab or Muslim in the role of antagonist onto the unsuspecting audience.

Despite popular Western opinion, Islam does not encourage the suppression of women. The arrival of Islam granted women new rights, including the right to agree to their marriage partner, the right to education, and a guaranteed share of family inheritance. It uplifted the status of the poor and underprivileged in society. For women, this meant an end to female infanticide, and equality of the sexes in stature and worship. Today, Islamic law allows women to vote, work outside the home and, as we saw in Oman, even run for office. Just as in Western countries, the ‘proper’ role of women is a subject for debate. Some Muslim groups consider a woman’s role to be in the home and seek to prevent inappropriate behaviour by restricting fashion choices or independent access to public life; other groups believe women should have equal and independent roles in society, without restriction by law, family or custom.

While my wife and I attempted to correct the misconceptions, the media had engrained these stereotypes for so long that it was difficult for most people to hear differently. We didn’t experience violence, hatred or gender issues. The Omanis we met were nothing like the terrorists in the movies or the news reports, and we became resentful and angry at Western culture for pigeonholing such a diverse part of the world. But we also realized that people only acted the way they were trained to. Fear is the ultimate motivator and the media constantly plays into our fears. It was easier, as a culture, to point the finger at someone else than to look at our own problems.

One of the greatest things about traveling around the world is discovering that, essentially, we are all the same. There is a universal good to all of humanity no matter where people live or what experiences they have had. We would all rather help someone than hurt someone, even if helping were the more difficult option. Oman is a country of problems like any other country but, on the whole, the people were wonderfully kind and welcoming, and whether we were in Salalah or along the Dhofar coast or in the middle of the desert or in the mountain villages of the north, there was always the offer of a cup of sweet tea. There was always laughter and a kind word. There was never any fear.


What are your plans for the future?

I kept a journal during my time in Oman and, after returning to Canada, I began the process of turning those entries into a full-length travel memoir. After picking away at it for a couple years, I enlisted the help of a professional editor and now I am currently looking for a publisher for Frankincense Land.

The book follows the first year my family and I spent in Oman as we learned to live in a foreign culture, explored the geographical and archeological sites, drove across the Arabian Desert, taught local students, and ultimately found a place that challenged the preconceived notions that the Western world has about life in the Middle East. It is a humorous account of daily life in southern Arabia, but it is also about finding a place and a purpose, raising children away from the comforts of home, and learning about Omani culture. The book reveals a country with open, friendly and welcoming characters that confirm the universal good in people. Combining history and travel with humour and humanity, the book is purposely light and family-friendly so as to find a broad audience. While Oman has been featured in magazine and newspaper articles, no full-length travel memoir about the country has yet been published. I’m hoping mine will be the first.

While my writing has appeared in various magazines and websites, I am finding it difficult to find a publisher interested in my entire manuscript. Books about living in Italy and France continue to find a large readership; I think it is more difficult to find readers interested in a country few Westerners can locate on a map.

As I wait to hear back from Canadian publishers, I am finding a growing readership for my shorter nonfiction pieces and poetry, and I am currently writing my second book about my travels around Ireland. I have been interested in Irish history, culture and mythology for several years, and I should be finished the book by the end of the year. I will hand it over to my editor and then pitch it to publishers. Because I am crazy, I am already planning my next writing destination. I’m hoping to journey to northern India, but I’m not sure if it will be this summer or next summer.


Those interested in reading Chris' travel writing, personal essays and poetry, can find samples of his work on his website or on his Facebook page.


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