The polarities of Foreign Service life

I wrote this post back in November of 2018 but I could never bring myself to publish it because it seemed like I would be jinxing myself. I almost published it when we were leaving Oman, but I just couldn’t. I’m glad I didn’t because then I’d think I had jinxed us. Turns out shit happens whether you tempt fate or not.

Without editing or further ado…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While this quote was used by Charles Dickens to describe 1700’s London and Paris, it also applies to life in the Foreign Service. We only have about 8 months left here in Oman, and the past year has been absolutely amazing. That’s in stark contrast to our Dhaka tour, which ended up being a complete shit-show.

This got me thinking about life in the Foreign Service and all of the ups and downs. Sometimes it’s fun and fancy, full of incredible adventures, while other times it’s literally the stuff of nightmares. (Keep in mind, we’ve only been doing this since 2015, and there are a lot of more experienced voices out there than mine.) The same could be said for life anywhere, but sometimes you have to accept more risk to get more reward. Some of the best and worst times of my life have happened since joining the FS, most of them directly caused by our choice to live this lifestyle, which gives us so much, but also takes away a lot.

You never really know what you’re going to get. That’s a risk that we, as a family, are willing to take. For now, anyways.

Over the past year, we’ve done so many amazing, incredible things, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. Watching M grow into a little boy who loves the water and hiking, strolls around the Muttrah souk like he owns the place, loves his nanny and his teachers, begs to FaceTime with his grandparents, and runs to the door shrieking “Let’s go on an adventure!” is absolutely priceless. We are so very lucky to have the opportunity to live in Oman, and we appreciate the good times like they might never happen again. (Fingers crossed, knock on wood, etc. that nothing catastrophic happens here over the eight months)

Then look at our experience in Dhaka: it was fine, great in fact, until it turned into a descent into literal  hell. It started with an Italian NGO worker getting shot to death outside of the grocery store that we shopped at every week and then a few months later one of the local staff at the embassy was hacked to death with a machete in his apartment. A few months after that was the terrorist attack at Holey Bakery, which resulted in the quick departure of over half of the embassy community.

Maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse writing about how great Oman has been, because things could turn on a dime. But even then, we still would have had the past 14 months of pure awesomeness. Things were never awesome in Dhaka. Our best times were spent hanging out with our friends in each other’s houses, and on vacation in other countries. We never got to experience the real Dhaka or Bangladesh.

I suppose that all of this is to say that I’m grateful for life’s upswing that we’ve had here. We’ve been lucky, and we know it. Maybe Oman was our cosmic payback for enduring Dhaka, but we are very cognizant of how good we’ve had it over the past year. Bracing for our next tour, we go into it hoping for the best. But in the back of my mind, there are thoughts about how it could go wrong and what contingency plans we’ll need. Nate will continue to always sit facing the exit in any restaurant we go to, and I’ll always be jumpy about people walking behind me.

Our family motto has been and will continue to be “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.” There’s no time like the present.

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Dear Athena

My dear, sweet Athena,
I am so sorry. So, so, so, so goddamn sorry. We failed you and I’ll never forgive myself.
We love you so much. I hope you know that. We didn’t forget about you, and we never will. We were working so hard to try to get you to Windhoek as soon as possible, but we didn’t work hard enough. I will never stop regretting that. You were supposed to arrive here yesterday, and our lives will never be the same.
I said good-bye to you when I dropped you off at the kennel, knowing that two and a half months is a long time and who knows what could happen, but I never expected this. I’m glad I had the chance to hug you and kiss you, and that we took family photos the night before. Those photos are so precious.
I hope you spent your last days playing with your friends, getting fed lots of treats, and lying in the sun, relaxing. I hope they were care-free, easy times and that you were living your best life. We wanted to take you with us, but we worried that flying across the Atlantic ocean twice in six weeks in the middle of the summer would be too much for you. We thought that leaving you in Oman at a kennel you loved was the best choice. And the fact that the whole thing was my idea will haunt me for the rest of my days. I will never forgive myself.
They say you died of smoke inhalation. I hope that you were fast asleep, on your favorite mat, ducking in your sleep like you always do, with you nose tucked under your back leg. I hope you didn’t feel a thing. Just thinking about it makes me wail with grief. It breaks my heart.
We explained to M what happened, and he knows “Afeena died.” It makes me so sad that he might not remember you. You were such a big part of his life, and he thought of you as his doggie. We will make sure he never forgets you, and the memory of you will live on.
We were lucky to have so many amazing, fun years with you. We’ll never forget all those hikes at Manassas, how much you loved basking in the sun, all the time spent snuggling, how much you loved playing lazy tug, all the foot licks, the happy puppy rolls in the grass, playing fetch on the beach, the family camping trips, deer leaps in the tall grass, the list goes on. We have so many wonderful memories, and the photos to go along with them. For that, I’m grateful.
You weren’t perfect (who is?) but you tried so hard and you loved us so much. You are, and forever will be, part of our family. You’re with us in spirit now, and although you can’t snuggle with us or beg for food, we still feel your presence.
We love you, Beanie bear. I hope you’re playing non-stop with all the amazing dogs that went before you, and I hope Sparky, Kipper, Bianca, Lilly, Toby, Taz, and Beauty are all keeping you company.
All my love, now and forever,
Mom
Rest in Peace Athena: December 20, 2009 – October 3, 2019

New trip-planning page is live!

Top left corner (clockwise): Wadi Shab, Daymaniyat Islands, Masirah Islands, Wahiba Sands

A quick administrative note: If you’re looking to plan a trip to Muscat, Oman check out the new “Things to do around Muscat” page! It’s in the tool bar at the top next to “Home” and “About.” I’m working on adding photos, but I don’t want to bog it down. Several of the items are linked to blog posts with more information.

There are several categories: forts/castles/other neat outdoors things, hiking, primarily indoor things (museums, the souk, etc), wadis, and beaches/watersports.

Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

Top left corner (clockwise): Jebel Al Akhdar, scuba diving at the Daymaniyat Islands, Sa’al Stairs, snorkeling at the Daymaniyats

Our trip to Rajasthan: Pushkar

The narrow, winding streets of Pushkar

Our primary reason for stopping in Pushkar was to break up the drive from Jaipur to Jodphur. Pushkar turned out to be a delightful, interesting, pedestrian-friendly town with lots of neat things to see and some great food. Definitely worth a quick stop!

Watching our lunch get made

Warily watching the world go by

We stayed at Inn Seventh Heaven, a quirky, fun haveli that M loved running around. There were cats to chase, elephant statues to investigate, stairs to climb, and swing benches all over the place, plus a water feature in the middle of the ground floor. Honestly, I think the most fun he had in Pushkar was probably exploring the hotel.

Looking up from the inner courtyard at the haveli….

…. And looking down into the same courtyard

Pushkar is a popular for pilgrimages because of its sacred Hindu lake and many ghats. A ghat is a set of stairs leading down to the water, and there are usually several ghats all for the same body of water. There are more than 50 ghats at the Pushkar Lake. One of the few temples to the Hindu creator-god Brahma is located in Pushkar, and this is also a popular draw.

A temple by a ghat

One thing to note about Pushkar is that because it is a devoutly religious town, almost all of the food there is vegetarian with no eggs. They still eat cheese and yogurt, and the main protein source is legumes. So be prepared for weak breakfasts if you like protein in the morning.

We were particularly glad to have a Pushkar city guide because he took us around the town in the evening. Experiencing the temples at prayer time was one of the more spiritual experiences I’ve had, and something we never would have done without our guide. We walked all the way around the lake and he got us into the Brahma temple 5 minutes before closing time (and showed us the best inexpensive place to store our shoes without having to worry about them getting stolen).

Pushkar lake, ghats and temples at sunset

We were pleasantly surprised by Pushkar, and unless you plan on doing some of desert adventuring based out of Pushkar, I think you probably only need to spend one night. After waking up early to wander around Pushkar Lake during sunrise, we ate breakfast (which left us all hungry an hour later), and we were on our way to Jodphur!

Our trip to Rajasthan: Jaipur

The Hawa Majal or “The Palace of Winds” is basically a facade; it is not a real building.

There’s so much on the internet about Jaipur already, I don’t have much to add.

My first-ever thali. Sadly nothing else on the trip was quite as good!

We stayed at the Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel (which is separate from the Pearl Palace Hotel) and it was wonderful. Our room was interesting and fun, and the breakfast area was super quirky. There is no restaurant on the premises, so they offer free tuktuks to their sister hotel, the Pearl Palace Hotel, which has a restaurant. The restaurant there is amazing: very good inexpensive food and excellent thalis.

We wanted to spend some time with elephants while we were in Jaipur. We found an elephant sanctuary called Elefantastic, and we had a really great experience. It was a bit canned and the guy seemed preoccupied with our potential TripAdvisor review (which I never gave), but we enjoyed ourselves and M loved it, so we were happy.

Our elephant for the day. The orange chalk line across her forehead kept the oil that was massaged into her scalp from running into her eyes.

We got to paint our elephant with natural mineral-based paints (where these colors exist in nature, I have no clue). It seemed gimmicky initially, but it was much more fun than I thought it’d be.

My handiwork

At the City Palace

We did all the normal stuff in Jaipur: the Hawa Mahal (much smaller than I thought it’d be), the Amber Fort (much larger than I thought it would be), the City Palace, etc.

Inside the Amber Fort

More of the Amber Fort. Picture don’t do it justice.

Between our city guide and driver, we were well taken-care-of, and the guide did a good job of being understanding of the limits of sight-seeing with a 3-year-old. Jaipur is worth the trip!

A Trip to Rajasthan: India for Beginners

Getting stared down in the Blue City: Jodphur

We are currently on home leave, and I thought now would be a good chance to finally blog about a trip we took last year in October to Rajasthan, India. I wasn’t planning to blog about it because what can I possibly say about India that hasn’t already been said somewhere on the internet. But, after some encouragement, I thought about it and I do have some helpful info and tips to pass along.

We’d been wanting to go to India ever since we were in Dhaka. We had good friends serving in Chennai, and we purchased tickets to visit them and got our visas, and then the terrorist attack happened. If we’d gone to Chennai we would have been “caught out,” which would have meant that M and me would not have been allowed back in Dhaka, and maybe they wouldn’t have let Nate back either. We decided we wanted to leave Dhaka on our own terms, and we knew there would eventually be an opportunity to go back to India.

Cows everywhere.

Ironically, the flight options from Oman to India are far better those from Bangladesh to India. When we lived there, you could only fly direct from Dhaka to Calcutta and New Deli. From Muscat there are flights to probably 15 different cities in India. And they’re super cheap! I was amazed by how easy it was to get there from Muscat.

We decided to go to Rajasthan because I always thought Jaipur looked like the most interesting part of the Golden Triangle (Dheli, Agra and Jaipur) and some friends said Udaipur was their favorite city in India. From there, we looked at a map, read the guidebook, and decided to also go to Jodhpur, with a one-night stop in Pushkar along the way to break up the drive.

A Jain temple between Jodphur and Udaipur, after which we got a flat tire.

This was our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Jaipur
Day 2: Tour Jaipur
Day 3: Drive to Pushkar
Day 4: Drive to Jodphur
Day 5: Tour Jodhpur
Day 6: Drive to Udaipur
Day 7: Tour Udaipur
Day 8: Tour Udaipur
Day 9: Depart Udaipur

So, logistics. The first thing to know about traveling to India is that, if you’re an American, you need a visa. You can easily apply for it online and I used the app PassportBooth to take photos and edit them to the correct size, and then I just emailed them to myself. One thing to note is if you do the e-visa route, you’ll get only a double-entry three-month visa. I have no idea how to get the magical 10-year multiple-entry visa. Apparently you can’t get it even if you apply at an embassy.

We hired a car and driver for the duration of our trip through Tamarind Global. It was excellent. We had a large Toyota station-wagon that our driver kept clean and stocked with cold bottles of water. We also had a different tour guide in each city that we went to. This was the first time that Nate and I traveled with a tour guide and, I have to tell you, it was awesome. We learned and saw far more than we would have on our own, and I think people were less likely to pester us because we almost always had a tour guide with us when we were walking around town. The cost of the car, driver, and tour guides came out to around $80 a day, which was definitely worth it for us, especially with a toddler.

More of The Blue City. It was obviously a favorite of mine.

I found hotels using The Lonely Planet guidebook and online reviews. We stayed in havelis, also called heritage hotels, which are basically old houses that have been transformed into hotels. Each haveli is different, and we really enjoyed the experience.

I bought a lot of textiles. Did I get ripped off? Probably. Was it worth it? YES.

I will say this: when packing your bags, ensure you have a lot of space for souvenirs. In our case, this was textiles. We went a little overboard. Shirts, pillow covers, fabric (namely cotton, silk, silk brocade, and linen), pashmina blankets, table clothes, table runners, paper products, etc. There are so many interesting and pretty things to buy there. God help us if we ever get posted to India. I’m going to buy so much furniture and everything else.

Antiques (both fake and real) as far as the eye could see.

I’ll do a more detailed post about each of the cities that we went to, but I will say this about the trip over-all: it was awesome and went extremely well.

We were prepared for all sorts of misery. Food poisoning, pick-pockets, terrible traffic, getting ripped off, an overwhelming and constant barrage of stinky smells, air pollution, and so forth and so on. Basically every bad stereotype that you think of when you think of India. Other than a few days of bad air and maybe an hour of unpleasant traffic, our fears were completely unfounded. Well, maybe I did get ripped off on a few things, but I never paid more than I thought was reasonable.

First stop: Jaipur!

A stranger in a strange land

SAUSAGE!!! BACON!!!!!

We arrived in the DC area a few weeks ago. This is our first time back to the US in nearly two years, and it’s the longest I’ve been outside the US. I’m sitting here at Whole Foods eating sushi for lunch, and since coming back I’ve been struck by a number of things that are weird, crazy, or otherwise note-worthy.

Here you go, in no real order:

  • Decision paralysis is real. Too many choices. I’ve spent a lot of time  wandering around grocery stores staring blankly because I can’t make a choice
  • Amazon Prime at Whole Foods. WTH? How does this work? Must figure this out
  • Motorized scooters everywhere. Jury is still out on where or not this is good. Definitely better than Segways, but is walking really so terrible?
  • Luggage carts at Dulles cost $5. FIVE FUCKING DOLLARS. They are free in most of the rest of the world
  • Your Maserati/Porsche/fancy car doesn’t impress me. Stop driving like an asshole because you think you deserve to. Unless you’ve got a McLaren you are just a normal person with an oversized ego going through a midlife crisis
  • DC went through a heat wave. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA times infinity
  • Things got surprisingly existential at the Smithsonian. Cashier: “where are you visiting from?” Me thinking: “Huh. Ummmm…… Oman? We used to live here? Wisconsin? We’re not visiting? Fuck I have no clue what I’m supposed to say” My response: “we are in transit.” Cashier: “oh so you’re on a long road trip?” My response: “yeah something like that.”
  • The US is truly a glorious place. You can eat, drink, wear, be, believe, become and do what you want. That is a big deal. You don’t realize how incredible that is until you no longer have the freedom to make those choices. I walked down the street the other day in shorts and a tank top at 9 am, carrying a case of beer. You know who cared? NO ONE. On another note, sadly, not everyone uses these freedoms for good. And that’s fucked up. We’ve been back for less than three weeks and there have already been at least three mass shootings that I know about. I’m glad we’re going back overseas ASAP.
  • Apparently you can wear a bra and no shirt in public and this is acceptable. Um whaaaaat. I don’t consider myself to be stodgy or old fashioned, but this is absolutely ludicrous.
  • Alcoholic seltzer water is a new and glorious invention. I was at Whole Foods (see several bullet points prior) and the sparkling water was enticing, but ridiculously expensive. Upon further examination, it was 5% ABV. Oooooohhhhhh.

Yeah, it is good to be back. It was hard to leave Oman, but now that we’ve left I’m able to move on more easily. We are looking forward to our adventures ahead, and to our remaining time in the US before going on to Windhoek!

I almost bought one of everything.

Once again, one of everything, please.

The source of my decision paralysis. I went with sushi.

I’ll admit: I’m curious.

So. Many. Choices.

The best places to spend your money in Muscat

It’s hard to not spend money in Oman. Things here aren’t cheap, but there are definitely some places where your money is better-spent than others. So, without further ado, here are the top places where we will happily part with our hard-earned riyals.

Things to Ingest

Best pizza: Tomato
Expensive, but worth it. Located at the Intercontinental Hotel

Yes, that is real pork on the pizza from Tomato

Best burgers: Park Burger
15% discount for US embassy employees

Best Omani Food: Bait Al Luban

The alleyway to Bait Al Luban

Omani dates and coffee

Best Indian food delivery: Begum’s
phone number for the branch that delivers is +968-9307-4000

Best vegetarian Indian restaurant: Saravana Bhavan
Inexpensive and amazing. the Ruwi branch is the best

Best Japanese food: Tokyo Taro
Located at the Al Falaj Hotel

Best seafood: Turkish House
The grilled shrimp, fried calamari, mixed appetizer and freshly baked bread are fantastic

Enormous grilled shrimp at The Turkish House

Best breakfast sandwich: The Zed at Al Hawas
The spicy version is the best. Good greasy shawarma too

The halal breakfast sandwich that dreams are made of

Best craft cocktails: The Chedi
Bring bug spray if you plan to sit outside

Best cocktails with a view: The Edge
Pool bar at the Crowne Plaza Qurum

Things to Take Home

Bespoke tailor: Western Tailor
Mukesh +968-9637-4537: Inexpensive, high-quality tailoring. You must provide your own fabric. One of the few tailors that is not shy about taking female measurements.

Pork: Duty free in the international arrivals baggage claim
It sounds strange, but it’s true! The pork you can buy elsewhere is extraordinarily overpriced, not to mention freezer burnt.

Frame shop: Ibn Al Farsi Trading Co.
Very inexpensive. Make sure to specify exactly what kind of glass you want and mat width.

Rug shop: Kashmir International
Shah +968-9589-3899: Beautiful rugs and weavings from Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Iran. Shah is extremely knowledgeable and friendly and will happily show you carpets for hours. Lots of beautiful scarves, blankets and other textiles and trinkets as well.

It’s hard to not buy one of everything

Carpets too beautiful to step on

Omani trinkets: Bait Al Zubair gift shop
Lots of good books on Oman, Omani handicrafts, prints, etc.

Things to Do

Best Daymaniyat Island snorkeling company: Daymaniat Shells

Yes, the water really was that color

Best scuba diving operator: EuroDivers

My kind of view!

Best adventure tourism operator: Twenty3Extreme

There you have it! I’m sure there are some I’m forgetting, so I’ll update this list if anything comes to mind.

The waterfalls of Salalah

There’s more to Salalah than Wadi Darbat

Around Salalah, you’ll see many sights called “ain“/”ayn”-something, which means “spring” and sometimes “waterfall.” We decided to spend our time around Salalah checking out all as many of the natural water features as possible. I mean, if we made a return trip and it wasn’t during the khareef, they won’t be there anymore! As with Wadi Darbat, you should not go in the water at any of these sites due to the prevalence of schistosomiasis.

The beautiful water looks inviting and you want to jump in, but don’t do it!

After going to Wadi Darbat, our next stops were Ain Tabruk and Ain Athum. Ain Tabrukwas unimpressive, but Ain Athum was really something. It’s basically just a granite wall with water cascading down the sides in a waterfall curtain. M enjoyed throwing rocks into the stream and I could have spent hours there taking photos. There were plenty of snack vendors around, but no public toilets.

Nice, but not awesome, Ain Tabruk

Ain Athum

We also drove to Ain Humran, which was more of a stream than a waterfall. It was pretty none-the-less and if we hadn’t been so tired by then we probably would have explored it a little more. M clambered on the rocks and wanted to go swimming. We called it a day and went back to the pool for some swimming in not-parasite-infested waters.

Muddy, green mountain roads

The next day we went to Ain Khor. Around half a mile from the actual waterfall, the gravel road was flooded and we didn’t know if our car could make it. Turns out, it definitely could have, but we erred on the side of caution. The last half mile wasn’t a terrible walk, and it was nice to stretch our legs. Once you reach the waterfall, be sure to climb the rocks over on the right side to get some nice photos! This was another spot where M wanted to swim, but that was, once again, a no-go.

Ain Khor

If I’m being picky, like, very picky, I’d say the water at this waterfall wasn’t as pretty as the others. But it still made for a great day trip!

If you only have time for one, go to Ain Athum. You won’t be disappointed!

Salalah: Wadi Darbat

Wadi Darbat waterfall

It’s time for the khareef, southern Oman’s monsoon season. Last year we went took an epic road trip to Salalah at the end of the khareef and I never got around to writing about some of the cool stuff we did. But I’m doing it now, just in time for you to go to Salalah to see it for yourself!

During the khareef, the two most interesting sites at Wadi Darbat are the big waterfall and the little waterfalls and ponds. There is also a lake, which is there year-round and, compared to everything else, is not spectacular. It is also full of the parasite schistosomiasis, so you can’t swim in it.

Approaching Wadi Darbat, you can’t help but notice the travertine curtain and the big waterfall. There are three ways to see this waterfall: you can hike towards it from below, you can drive/walk up the hillside for a beautiful unobstructed view of the whole thing, or you can explore it (carefully) from the top of the travertine curtain. First we drove to the parking lot and then walked up towards the waterfall. After that we drove up the hillside (you need 4WD for this, or you can walk) to get some more lovely views.

The river flowing down from the Wadi Darbat waterfall

View of the Wadi Darbat waterfall from the hill

Driving up towards Wadi Darbat, you’ll notice some nice little waterfalls and ponds off to the right. There’s a parking area, or you can also just park on the side of the road. This is a fun spot where you can spend hours walking around, exploring. There are clean public toilets near-by and also lots of food stands, selling snacks, toys and bug repellant.

So many beautiful little waterfalls and pools

These colors are so pretty!

Just before you reach this area, it’s possible to pull over and hike to the top of the big waterfall. This is a pretty, easy walk and the view from the top of the waterfall is impressive. There are also more of those beautiful turquoise pools.

Looking down from the top of the waterfall

If you drive all the way to the end of the wadi, the road ends in a parking lot by a lake. We didn’t even get out of the car here, but you can go for boat rides and rent paddle boats. Just don’t swimming! Schistosomiasis, a snail-borne parasitic disease, is endemic in the mountain water around Salalah.

Don’t get schistosomiasis!

I would recommend going to Wadi Darbat first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. When we went there in the beginning of September, there was hardly anyone else, compared with the several-hour wait just to drive up the mountain a few weeks before.

Wadi Darbat is completely unlike anything else you’ll see in Oman, and it’s definitely worth going all the way to Salalah to see during the khareef.