Hiking up Sa’al Mountain

View of the sunset on the hike back to the car

On a cooler-than-usual Friday we finally hiked up Sa’al Mountain! We’ve been meaning to tackle this hike for some time, but it’s not long enough to make a full day of it and it’s too long (and tiring, in my opinion) to do during the week after work or after you’ve already gone on some other adventure.

This is a rewarding, but challenging hike. OmanTripper, my favorite blog for exploring Oman, has a good post about it. Basically, you hike about 2 kilometers up, the first half of which is a dirt path and the second half is about 600 cement stairs, and then you hike back down. It’s unrelenting and the dirt path is steep and slippery. But the view from the top is stunning, and it’s one of the best places near Muscat to watch the sunset!

The view from the parking lot as you’re starting the hike

Getting closer to the stairs!

The starting point for the hike is about 45 minutes from Muscat, towards Nizwa. If you type “Sa’al Stairs” into Google Maps or Waze it will put you near the hike starting point. I wish I had dropped a pin at the hike starting point for exact GPS coordinates, but you’ll eventually end up on a dirt road and when you reach what looks like a parking lot, you’ve reached the hike start point! It’s a dirt path leading up initially, and you can actually see the steps curving up along the side of the mountain.

This dude was carrying a walkman blaring Ace of Base.

A village below the mountain

The only flat chunk of the path on the whole hike

The ascent, until we reached the part where the stairs ended, took us about 45 minutes with frequent breaks. Then it’s about another five minutes to reach the satellite dishes at the very peak. You’d think the hike down would be a lot faster, but it’s not because you need to be so careful where you put your feet. Nate slipped and fell once, and I definitely skidded along on the loose rocks several times.

The sun setting over the towns and mountains

We went all the way to the satellite dish at the very top!

This hike is a popular place for exercising. We were passed by several groups of men basically racing to see who could get to the top fastest. I wish we’d discovered the trail sooner because I would have loved to hike it regularly during the winter. Better late than never.

Definitely bring plenty of water on this hike. Also make sure you bring a headlamp or flashlight if you’re starting the hike less than 90 minutes before the sun sets! The hiking trail is in the shade in the morning, and in the sun during the afternoon. I think it’s best if you take it slow and steady, and enjoy the beautiful panoramic views!

Lights started popping up as the sun sank lower. Not a bad way to end a lovely hike!

Where I try to not think PCSing and it doesn’t work

Omani winters: what’s not to love?

We only have about seven months left in Oman. I try to not think about leaving, but it’s hard not to. People ask about our upcoming PCS frequently, and when I’m bored I google Namibia.

One thing that I’ve discovered through my Namibia google searches is the thing that is travel blogging. Like, quitting your job, doing a ton of sponsored posts, filling your blog with ads and affiliate links, and traveling the world with almost zero personal expenditures. And, dude, travel blogging is popular! I’m kind of on-the-fence about it. I thought travel blogging was, uh, traveling and then writing about it, but this is a whole new level of bonkers, the main goal of which appears to be giving everyone FOMO. On the other hand, some of them do actually have some useful information. But it’s funny how many blogs have the “Perfect 2-Week Namibia Itinerary!” and none of them are the same. How can travel be that fun when you have to monetize everything? I guess it is basically your job. But I am a creature of habit and I like having someplace to come home to, rather than being gone for months on end. I also enjoy not having an agenda or being beholden to anyone or anything when we travel.  While it’s fun to share our adventures to random places, this will definitely never be a “travel blog.” I’ll leave that to the bleach-blonde ladies with $300 sunhats and their handsome beaus.

Now that the weather is consistently good, we went camping at Fins Beach a few weeks ago. The spot we wanted was taken, so we picked a rocky area along the coast with no one nearby. In hindsight, we probably should have kept driving to find somewhere better. There was garbage everywhere, and both of us spent at least 30 minutes picking up trash and broken glass while Athena ran around eating everything she could get her mouth on. M chased after her yelling “Don’t eat that!” She did not listen (and then literally vomited sand and ash when we got home. Fun times). It was just kind of one of those camping trips where stuff kept going wrong: we forgot a cork screw, M kept falling on the rocks, Athena kept running off into the night chasing god-knows –what, etc.  Oh, and after putting M to bed I saw one of the biggest and ugliest spiders I’d ever seen, right next to our tent. Nate came over and threw a rock at the spider, killing it. We figured out that it was a camel spider, and then we spent  20 minutes googling camel spiders under the stars and comparing notes. The next morning, once we were in the car on our way back to Muscat, I was just relieved that no one stepped on glass, got sliced by the rocks, or bitten by a spider.

Campsite amongst the rocks and shrubs

But look at that view!

Athena looking sheepish after I found her eating something she shouldn’t

Athena surveying all the missed snacking opportunities

The coast and Athena after sunrise

We’ve taken a break from our weekend adventuring to go to holiday parties, host game nights, go to National Day celebrations, and a number of other events. December has been crazy busy so far, and it will get even busier shortly with a string of guests through the end of January. I’m also training for the 2019 Muscat half marathon, and my mornings are spent hitting the pavement before sunrise. Every time I go for a run and I’m tired and wishing I was still in bed, I look at the ocean and make myself relish the opportunity to run in such a beautiful place. In Windhoek, I don’t know where I’m going to run. It’s rated critical for crime and running outside isn’t advised. So I’m making extra effort to cherish my runs here in Muscat.

Muscat views during an early-morning run

I’m *really* going to miss this

We went to Salalah last week to escape the craziness, and we did absolutely nothing adventurous there. We ate ourselves silly every morning and then I went to the beach, pool, or gym, while M went to the Kid’s Club. At night we’d put M to bed and then go downstairs to sit by the pool and have cocktails. One evening we went to the souk, which was the most underwhelming souk experience I’ve ever had. Over half of the souk area has been torn down and the remaining booths all sell nothing but frankincense and incense burners. I came away empty-handed. We stayed at the Anatara (which offers per diem rates during the off-season) and one thing I was very surprised by was that their pastry chef was amazing. Usually baked goods in countries without a strong baking tradition range from mediocre to bad. But the pastries and baked goods at the Anatara were excellent. It took every ounce of my self-control to not eat the entire tray of cinnamon rolls each morning.

So fancy at the Anantara

Vacation ingredients: sunshine, sand and water

Salalah sunset

Literally every stall was selling “incense and perfumes”

M eyeing the frankincense

Life is good and easy right now. I’m relishing these moments while the weather is nice, things are calm and quiet, and it feels like Oman is our oyster. Soon we’ll be PCSing and life will be hectic, with a whirlwind 7 weeks in the US before arriving in Windhoek. Then who knows how long it’s going to take to feel settled. To find our favorite restaurants and stores, be able to drive around and not get lost, find easy weekend getaway spots, make friends (the real kind, that you can talk to about everything, not just what your kids are doing), get our stuff and put everything away, find the good dog-walking routes, etc. I’m dreading that shit. I was talking with a close friend about our PCS, and when I told her our departure date she stuck out her lower lip and gave me the saddest face. And it hit me: we are going to leave Oman and all our friends. And it’s really going to suck. I will probably be a sobbing mess.

See? There you go. I’m trying so hard to not thing about leaving, but it’s always there, in the background. Even when I try to avoid it, sometimes that’s what I turn to.

On that depressing note, we are about to head out on a family walk with M and Athena. It’s in the 70’s and maybe I’ll even wear a long sleeved shirt and make M put on some pants. Oman, we are not done with you yet!

I’m not complaining about the weather!

The Omani flag flying high at Jabrin Castle

Things here have been busy. We had our first visitors over Thanksgiving, took our first local vacation, got scuba certified, and I’m training for my first real race since 2014. We’re also putting up Christmas decorations, going to parties, and I’m baking a lot of cookies. There is so much to blog about and just not enough time.

First things first, the weather here is currently perfect. Around mid-November it was like a switch flipped and the weather got awesome. It’s in the 60s in the morning, and by mid day it’s actually comfortable to be outside in the sun. We drive to work with the windows rolled down and I leave the kitchen door open when I’m cooking. During my morning runs, even the ones that last for over an hour, I don’t get hot. It’s a fricking miracle. When we first got here everyone told us that the weather in the winter would make the terrible heat worth it, and they were totally 100% right. This is currently my climate paradise and it’s amazing.

In my last blog post I was whining about how our stuff wasn’t here yet. The following week it arrived, and never in my life have I been so excited to see our stuff. I actually clapped when they unpacked my sari stamp block mirror that we had made in Dhaka. I unpacked and put away almost everything within about three weeks, and we got rid of a lot of stuff. There are clothing donation bins all over our neighborhood, and we probably donated a few hundred pounds of clothes and shoes. We don’t have tons of storage space, so I turned off the water to two of our four showers and they are now perfect for storing large plastic boxes. With our books on the shelves, stuff put away, and pictures and art on the walls, and our house finally feels like home.

Sunrise in Muscat

I’m training for a half marathon and so far it’s going well. My weekly milage is building, slowly but surely, and I have stayed injury-free (knock on wood). While waking up at the crack of dawn kind of sucks, I love running here now that the weather is perfect. Running along the ocean, watching the sun rise over the mountains and hearing only the sound of the waves and my own breathing is amazing every time. I will never take this for granted and if I ever do, someone please punch me.

Bimmah sinkhole

Some friends from Dhaka came to visit over Thanksgiving and it was so much fun. They only stayed for three days, but we packed as many Oman highlights as we could into the long weekend and everyone had a great time. We spent most of the first day at our favorite beach and then we went to Thanksgiving dinner. The next day we woke up bright and early and drove to Bimmah Sinkhole, followed by Wadi Shab, and on their last day here we drove to Nizwa and then checked out Jabrin Castle.  Oman is such an incredible and beautiful country (and there’s still so much we haven’t even seen yet!), and showing visitors and friends our favorite parts is so much fun. Seeing the wonder and amazement reflected on someone’s face and knowing that they are just as fascinated as you are is pretty cool.

The sun setting over the Wadi Shab entrance (and freeway)

There’s still so much more to say, but I have to get back to baking Christmas cookies!

Preparing for Muscat and home leave

In about a month we depart for Muscat! I’m so excited. I feel like I shouldn’t be because I’m just setting myself up for disappointment, but I can’t help it. I absolutely can’t wait.

Nate has finished up his training, and we stayed busy exploring parks and playgrounds, going to various Smithsonian museums, catching up with friends, going for walks and hikes, and eating at more restaurants than one might consider healthy.

We are living in Arlington for the first time ever. I’m not going to lie, I was a little wary of living here after spending six years in Alexandria, but I love it. There’s an incredible network of running/biking trails, loads of parks and playgrounds, and lots of good restaurants, and the metro is a 15 minute walk away. We still drive down to Alexandria a lot, but we are happy with our temporary apartment in Arlington and we would definitely stay here again.

We bought a car to ship to Muscat, and that was kind of a mess. We decided to buy from CarMax and they made us jump through lots of hoops to buy a vehicle for export. I don’t really understand why, because why would they care what we do with car after we buy it? We could drive it off a cliff if we wanted to. The other serious car-buying hurdle was that Oman has very strict vehicle import rules on window tint and apparently it is actually impossible to get undarkened windows for some vehicles. It was a stressful pain in the butt, but we are now the proud owners of an ugly Honda named Jasmine (because the car is the same color as Jasmine’s clothes in the Disney version of Aladdin). Maybe the color will grow on me.

The weather in Arlington has been really gross and hot lately but I’ve been making myself go outside and try to learn to deal with it because Muscat will be even hotter. Right now it’s 95 degrees outside with a “feels like” temperature of 106 here. In Muscat it’s 92 degrees with a “feels like” of 112 and it’s NEARLY MIDNIGHT. How can that be?! I can’t just never go outside during the summer months there, so I’m trying to prepare to whatever extent that’s even possible.

Soon we will start our road trip back to the Midwest for Nate’s home leave. The idea behind home leave is “to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis,” according to the Foreign Affairs Manual. Where better to get reoriented and re-exposed to the US than in America’s heartland? One might think that perhaps staying in Virginia for the past two months might be enough re-exposure to life in these United States, but that’s not how it works. Home leave can be a little tricky because unless you happen to have a furnished vacant house someplace, you have to stay with family or find somewhere to stay. We are taking the stay-with-family route and hoping we don’t wear out our welcome along the way. At least with taking home leave now we’ll have a chance to stock up on some amazing cheese to bring to Muscat with us!


The world’s longest to-do list

Last week Nate and I went to a training at the FSI about the logistics of moving overseas for adults.  It was a solid two and a half hours of being told what we need to do before we move and why.

In addition to getting Athena’s transportation sorted out, going through our stuff, and renting out our home, we also have to scan all our important documents; put together wills, health directives, and powers of attorney; get lots of insurance; inventory all our things; and other stuff that my over-loaded brain is probably forgetting.

What I want to know is how did the people that left for post eight weeks after swearing-in manage to do everything?

It’s overwhelming thinking that moving from place to place every two or three years is going to be the norm for the next twenty or so years.  Maybe eventually we’ll just be so used to it, it won’t seem like a big deal?  Right now I’m struggling with finding balance between wanting to just get rid of everything and go minimalist, and keeping the stuff that I’m emotionally attached to.

Then there’s the idea of having to recreate a network of friends every time we move.  I know we’ll bump into people that we already know from time to time, but mostly we’ll be making new friends at each post.  Just thinking about that makes me tired.

Anyhow, the training was really helpful, although going from working 9-5 to a training from 6-8:30 was not exactly fun.  But I’d highly recommend it and I’m glad that they offer it in the evenings.

And because there haven’t been enough pictures of Athena lately, I’ll end with this one.  She had a playdate with some fellow DiploDogs, and they look like triplets!

Athena is in the middle, with her little snaggle tooth

Athena is in the middle, with her little snaggle tooth

The local hire tax

I think the Foreign Service is awesome.  I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities they’re giving us, and I honestly look forward to spending the next 20 to 30 years as part of the FS family.

But it really sucks being a local hire.

We don’t get per diem.  From July 2014 to May 2015, non-local hires are raking in approximately $10,117 of per diem, completely tax-free.

We also have to pay for our own housing, utilities, internet, etc.  From July 2014 to May 2015, this is costing us around$25,200.

So basically we are missing out on about $35,317 of free money.  Those with higher rents/mortgages are losing even more.

Every time I meet another local hire, I feel an instant camaraderie, like, “Oh good, you’re getting screwed too.”  Misery loves company!

Another thing I find irritating: if you’re an EFM with a job, kiss nearly all those wonderful training opportunities at the FSI good-bye.  There are only like six trainings offered on weeknights and weekends.  So most of those extra trainings, like allowances and finances in the FS, or even language training, are completely out-of-reach.  I think they assume that most EFMs in the DC area are unemployed.

Last night we went to a training, and at the end the instructor asked how many of us were EFMs that were hoping to be employed at post.  My hand shot up because, yes, of course I want a job when we’re in Dhaka!  Well, the training for EFMs seeking employment at post is during the week, when I’m work.

Looking on the bright side, at least we don’t live in Baltimore or down near Quantico.  Then we still wouldn’t get per diem or housing, Nate would have a truly hellish commute, and we’d be too far from Arlington to take advantage of any extra trainings.

I know I can’t/shouldn’t complain too much (don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and all that) since my husband loves his job, we see each other a lot more often than we used to, and we are moving halfway across to world, which is exactly what we’ve wanted for years now.  But getting the short end of the stick sucks.  At least we only have three and half more months to go!

Poking, clawing, and kneeing

Our family motto is “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

With that in mind, a few months ago Nate and I took a self defense class at FSI.

The idea of violent assaults is an uncomfortable one.  A lot of people think it won’t happen to them, and it’s not really the kind of thing that you want to plan for.

Aside from some kickboxing classes over five years ago, the ability to scream bloody murder, and the knowledge that, when making a fist, you should keep your thumb on the outside, I don’t know much about how to protect myself.  Even by avoiding situations that could predispose you to danger, sometimes you simply are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was nervous about going to the self defense class. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable. What if they made me do some kind of attack simulation? Nate reminded me that I only had to do what I was comfortable with, and he was exactly right.  It wasn’t like I was being graded or something.

Spoiler alert: The class was great!

It was taught by three DSS guys with experience in martial arts and self defense, and they kept it light-hearted and low-key while still acknowledging the importance of being able to protect yourself.  There was a woman taking the class with her teenage daughter, several younger and older women, and some guys in the class, and no one was singled out unless they wanted to help with a demonstration.

We learned some punches, knee and elbow jabs, and things to do with our hands (poking and clawing at an attacker’s eyes) to debilitate someone long enough to run away as fast as possible. We got to practice on these rubber torso dummies, and it was definitely a useful way to spend an evening.

Since then, I’ve started tagging along with Nate to his Muay Thai classes.  I like punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing things, and it’s a lot of fun.  Although not the ten minutes of plank exercises they make you do at the end.  Those are not fun.

Honestly, one of the things I like the most about Muay Thai is what I was most worried about with the self defense class: you are put in uncomfortable situations.  But that’s actually a good thing, because then you learn how to get out of them and you don’t just freak out because you’ve never been punched, kicked, pinned or held like that before.  It turns out you don’t need a lot of space to be able to knee a dude in the junk.

As Scar said, “Be prepared!

Manners 101: Protocol and U.S. Representation Abroad

This past weekend Nate and I attended a day-long class on protocol and etiquette.  It was basically a crash-course on manners.  I thought I had good manners, but wow did I learn a lot.

The morning started out with a mock-cocktail party, and we each had a slip of paper with a name on it.  We had to find said person (by introducing ourselves to as many people as possible), learn something about them, and then introduce them to the “ambassador.”  After about 15 minutes of not finding my person, I asked Nate if he’d met the woman I was supposed to find.  It turned out he’d just met her.  Whew!

So I walked up to her and instead of saying “Hi, I’m Kathryn,” like a normal human being, I said “Hi, you’re my person.” Who does that?!

And I managed to approach her just as she’d taken a huge bite of food, which was awkward for both of us.  Lesson learned: always introduce yourself politely, and check to see if whoever you’re approaching has food in their mouth.

Here are some other things I learned during the class:

  • “Avoid the American huddle.” Let’s say you go to a cocktail party.  Do you wander around and talk to as many strangers as possible, or make a bee-line for your friends and hang out with them most of the night?  I find my friends.  It’s easy, if they’re my friends they’re probably awesome, I know I like them, we have lots to talk about, and I’m less likely to embarrass myself.  Apparently I need to work on being more of an extrovert.
  • “Surf, don’t scuba dive.” It turns out I’ve been eating soup improperly my whole life.  You are supposed to glide the spoon over the surface of the soup away from you.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t slurp or drink out of the bowl.
  • Seating charts are complicated.  Who is the guest of honor in terms of seating if there is actually no guest of honor? Exactly how long has each person/couple been in the country, and when did they receive their rank? These things all need to be considered. Also, never seat two people that are having an affair next to each other.
  • “Avoid appetizers that will complicate your life.”  Let’s say you eat a chicken wing or a shrimp at a cocktail party.  What are you going to do with the bones or tail?  What if your hands get really dirty?  It’s time to break that RPCV/poor grad student “Must Eat All The Food” mentality.
  • “Lower left, raise right.” Serve food (but not beverages) from the left side, and remove plates, etc from the right.  You are also supposed to enter your place at the table from the right, which only works in theory when everyone knows that they sit in their chair from the right.  Otherwise you’re all bumping butts.
  • You break it, you bought it.  Which is to say, don’t clink those $100 crystal glasses while toasting– you could be on the hook for the bill.  Oopsies!
  • Always hold wine glasses by the stem.  So they why would anyone invent stemless wine glasses?  To make those of us that own them look stupid?  I guess it’s time to invest in more grown-up wine glasses.
  • “Pick a dining style and commit.  Don’t switch when the going gets rough.” When dining with silverware (rather than your hands or chopsticks), it turns out that there are two dining styles: American and continental.  The American dining style involves cutting with your right hand, switching the utensils around and then eating with your right hand.  In the continental style, the knife stays in your right hand and the fork, which is turned with the tines facing down, stays in your left.  So you can’t cut the steak and eat it continental style and then eat the peas American style because you can’t manage to stab each and every god-forsaken pea with your fork.
  • The art of passing bread is extraordinarily complicated.  Like, so complicated we probably spent 15 minutes discussing it.  Basically, if the bread is near you, you can’t just take a piece of bread.  No, no.  You have to offer the bread to the person to your left, and then pray to god that they know that then it’s their turn to offer you the bread, which at this point you desperately want.  What if they don’t know that you only offered them bread because you really want it?  Well, then I have have no idea what you’re supposed to do.

I’ll admit that as the class progressed, I decided would be able to avoid most of the diplomatic protocol rigmarole by simply never hosting a fancy dinner party.  But when you think about it, that’s impossible (and silly).  When other people invite us to dinner parties, are we going to decline because god help us if we have to return the favor?

Upon further thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dhaka will be an good first post to get our diplomatic feet wet because we’ll be able to hire help for our dinner parties, rather than having to do it all ourselves.  Although we might have a few practice rounds while we’re still in DC.  Also, I realize that not every time we have people over will be a fancy-schmancy affair.  We are big fans of low-key entertaining.

Who wants to come over for dinner?!

I blinked and a month happened

It’s September.  September 2nd, to be exact.

Flag Day was over a month ago.  People, time is flying by.  We leave for Dhaka in eight months!  It sounds so far away, but shit is getting real faster than I expected it to.

So, what have we been up to?  I went to visit my family in Wisconsin for a long weekend, and Nate had to stay behind, unfortunately.  But I brought back loads of cheese, sausage and brats, so he didn’t miss out entirely.

Labor Day weekend was nice, and we went to the farmer’s market in Del Ray and, while we were in the neighborhood, bought Athena a pretty new leather collar. We met up with a bunch of Nate’s friends from A-100 at a middle eastern food festival on Saturday night, and that was super fun.  We went for a hike around Pohick Bay, and Athena had an absolute blast; we brought her home soaking wet and covered in sand, seaweed, and mud.  That afternoon Nate smoked ribs and a chicken on the grill for four hours and they turned out really well.  We also managed to bring the wrong key with us on our long run, so Nate had to break into our house.  I took pictures of Nate breaking in, but I’m not going to share them.  That would be stupid.  Instead you get another Athena photo!

Athena: doggy fashion trend-setter!

Athena: doggy fashion trend-setter! Also, toys do make the best pillows.

Oh, and I quit my part-time retail job!  While I will miss being able to buy beautiful clothes at a ridiculously low price, I’m happier having my weekends back (my checking account is also relieved).  No more on-call shifts, no more being polite to people who don’t deserve it, and no more stress about getting weekends off!  That brief foray into the world of retail was fun while it lasted (usually), but I’m glad it’s done.

We’ve been busy, and life is good!  Now if only that nice fall-like weather would come our way…

I’m officially jealous

Let’s start this off by talking about what a sweet gig being in the State Department’s Foreign Service is, training-wise.

A-100 is officially over, and Nate started his South Asian regional studies class last week.  He has several weeks of regional studies, and then Bangla training starts in the beginning of September.  (Depending on the language and how proficient your are/n’t, this can last anywhere from a zero to nine months.)

Nate, and all of the other FSOs going someplace that doesn’t speak English, are going to be paid to learn a language.  How fricking awesome is that?  I am practically green with envy.

I would love so much to have access to the kind of training that Nate and his classmates are getting.  And they’re getting paid for it!

And his classmates from out of town?  They’re getting free housing and per diem!  PER DIEM, people.  For the next six to nine months!

I guess I was paid during language and technical (ha!) training in Peace Corps, to the tune of a whopping $250/month.  So in my mind, that doesn’t count.

Yes, the Foreign Service has its perks.

So, Nate’s South Asian regional studies class: based on the stories I hear, it sounds like they spend most of the time watching movies.

Now, I know this isn’t the case because I incredulously asked if that was, and apparently they only watch movies during lunch. For some reason I mostly just hear about the movies when I ask Nate how his day was.

His regional studies class actually sounds really interesting, to the point that I wish I could go to his classes.  Last week they went on a field trip to a mosque and then had lunch at a Pakistani restaurant.  And on Thursday they are having a movie night.

Holy smokes, my job is boring.