Now, you didn't really think I'd make you wait to find out if Mike and I failed in Universal Directive #1: Don't end up in a Middle Eastern jail, did you? That would have been unkind.
No worries, thus far we have escaped that fate, and can only hope our luck holds.
The Omani who struck up a conversation with us was an extremely friendly fellow, named Saleem. He invited us back to his home to meet his wife and daughter, and to partake in eating the Kingfish he'd just purchased from the fish market. (Ah! So that was the smell! Sur is famous for its fish.)
We looked at each other, decided "why not?" and went for it. For whatever reason it was suggested that I ride with Saleem, though I brought Pat along for the ride too, thinking that it would reflect poorly upon us if I agreed to ride alone with a new acquaintance and no male escort. So he rode in the front and I in the back...and it turned out that Saleem is a police officer for the Royal Oman Police force.
He was tickled to death to have us, and as we drove he pulled from the glove compartment a thank-you note another guest of his had written him, a Brit who had stayed with him and his family for several days. I tried to be sneaky and photograph the card without his knowing, so I could have his and his family's names (ostensibly) spelled correctly, but he turned around and busted me at it.
We corrected the misperception that we are British (this is always the assumption of persons for whom English is not their first language...the Brits and the Aussies, however, tell me the American accent can be heard a mile off, and don't mind telling me how awful they find our way of speaking. Whatever, dudes.) and he was pleased to show us what a good woman his wife Zuleikha is by calling her on his mobile and her not only agreeing to have us as guests but also wishing to cook for us herself. He'd shown us the thick pieces of Kingfish and they did look good.
He also educated Pat and I as to his preference for women who were neither fat nor thin, and enumerated fiercely the benefits of eating moderately. You can imagine; he was quite what Thomas would call a chatterbox. We were enjoying his company immensely.
As we pulled up to his home, he apologized for it. This was his rental while he was having a house built near the fort, and it was the location he could find, but should not reflect on their true social standing. He didn't say it exactly this way, of course, but that was the gist of it.
Their house was on a sandy dusty little road, kids playing outside. The blue and white metal doors opened to reveal a unbelievably beautiful little girl with huge brown eyes and long wavy black hair, perhaps Bethy's age, sitting and working on some drawings in a sort of outdoor foyer. Further on, there was an open courtyard, with the older fashion open-to-the-outside kitchen area to the right, a bathroom with sink, also open to the courtyard, and to the left, the main house, and at the entrance to the main house, the majlis. This is the area where entertaining guests is done, with the understanding that we would go no further into the house, as according to tradition.
We removed our shoes and lowered ourselves to sit upon the rugs, being careful not to point the bottoms of our feet in our host's direction. (A terrible insult). His wife came to be introduced, bringing us coffee and dates. She was, as he had made sure to inform us, a larger woman, and I envied her practiced grace as she sat down or got up from the rugs.
The coffee was served in small cups, with the squishy dates for sweetness. Speaking for myself, it was a challenge to eat sitting down and try not to use the left hand and yet, if you're holding a scalding hot cup, how to you hold the date too? I stuck it between the fingers of my right hand and hoped for the best.
First it was established as to our family relationships, our levels of education, and where we were from. As conversation progressed, and we fumbled with the hot cups and shook away flies from our dates before bites, we talked of many things. They had, I believe, 3 children, (two of which were young adults and away at school) a very small number for an Arab family. Saleem, it transpired, prided himself on his modern thinking and family. "Why should we have so many children?!" He said with emphasis and near-disdain. This was a radical change from the attitude we've encountered again and again. People ask when we will have more children, and we either joke about it, or, my preferred method, say we will have more if God wills it, Inshallah, which may not be my personal philosophy, but is certainly that of most peoples in the area.
Their older daughter was in school for nursing, and he made sure to drive home the point of his Western preferences by talking about the US movies he adored, chiefly among them Titanic and the Rocky and Rambo flicks. He told Pat that he looked like the Captain of the Titanic, and in fact called him Captain in good humor more than once.
They also love Jackie Chan, though made sure we knew that they knew the camera angles were skewed to make the stunts look riskier than they are. I defended Jackie Chan's honor, pointing out that he was the same age as our host but does all his own stunts, and that I would not be jumping off buildings. Colleen then just had to bring out her camera and share the footage of me jumping off the limestone shelf into the sinkhole. Ah well. I was pleased that movies are at least the one uniquely American export we can be sure of.
A bowl of water arrived, with which to cleanse our fingertips and then came fruits. We continued learning about one another and to drink the coffee. Conversation progressed to George Bush, and Saleem blamed all of the world's woes solidly on W. Now, I'm not exactly the man's biggest fan or anything, but one can hardly blame the world's financial crisis on the guy. I suggested perhaps the financial status was a symptom of globalisation...? We talked politics for awhile, and about American real estate laws and legal culpability (imagine this discussion in a language not your own...I was impressed with his linguistic abilities!).
Saleem found out that I was interested in picking up bits of languages and had far too good of a time dictating to me how to pronounce sayings as I tried to write them down correctly in my notebook.
Zuleikha very thoughtfully educated us as to the proper custom of either holding your coffee cup out for more or holding it out and waggling it back and forth (after at least 3 cups, mind!) to signify that you are done. Both she and Saleem had said that her English wasn't good, but I found her quite able to follow the conversation. Hours of conversation went by, and we could smell the fish cooking across the courtyard. We Westerners are not terribly used to sitting on the ground for extended periods of time, particularly without stretching our legs out in front of us, so it was an interesting challenge.
The kids, in the meantime, were playing mostly nicely. The "mostly" designation has to be put in there because Bethy might not have been being the perfect guest. Thomas was being pretty good, playing some with the toys procured for his enjoyment, but the majority of his concentration was based on the soapy runoff water from the washroom. As he is apparently part Laborador Retriever (like his Mom, poor fellow) it is impossible to keep him out of the water, so we gave that one up as a lost cause and merely hoped he wouldn't drink it. It was a relief to have an excuse to get up now and then to check their progress and make sure no one was climbing into the pit of the squat potty.
A sheet of plastic was brought by the house maid to be placed on the carpets in the middle of where we were sitting as a sort of floor tablecloth. The fragrant and delicious fish arrived in due course, and I leaned over to whisper to Colleen to take small portions since I had read we would be expected to take several helpings. However, we hadn't counted upon Zuleikha, who piled our plates with huge domed mounds of fragrant rice that filled the entire dish. To this we were to add the flat bread, fish, salad...we were in trouble. Now we were sitting on the floor, (legs in that realm of prickly numbness) eating with our right hand, (though Zuleikha brought out silverware, price tags from the store still attached, we tried to be civilised and eat as our hosts did) and for me at least, this resulted in spilling a goodly amount of rice on myself and the rug next to me every time I moved. Thomas had given our hosts a good laugh by insisting that the sweet juice box sort of drink they found for him was camel milk, and they were pleased that he likes camel's milk. Unfortunately they also brought out a large container of the yogurt milk Laban and at some point Thomas conspired to knock it over, creating a horrible mess.
One thing the Arab States seems somewhat short of is paper products. Generally a box of Kleenex accompanies meals as opposed to napkins; not so great for mopping up real messes. However, amongst the boxes awaiting the completion of their new house. I'd spied a roll of paper towels. They weren't at the Brawny level of thickness, but a great improvement upon kleenex.
I had to go out to the car to get a change of clothes for Bethy who was playing and forgot to take a potty break, (Zuleikha offered me Pampers for her, so thoughtful) and intending to greet the kids playing outside I said "Marhaba! Marhaba!" expansively to them. They smirked, shook their heads, then outright laughed at me. Too late I realised I'd said "welcome" instead of "hello". (At least I HOPE that's what it sounded like.) Whoops.
Back inside, properly humiliated, I asked about their marriage...how had Saleem and Zuleikha come to be together? They were cousins, it turned out (researching this further I found that according to at least one guidebook 80% of marriages in Oman are between cousins)and had known each other from childhood.
We had a few uncomfortable moments when Saleem expressed his opinions on mixed marriages, which were, let's just say, not the most open minded I'd ever heard. He also expressed disdain for the Chinese and their products, and various and sundry other racist comments. It gave me no small pleasure, when he was explaining to Mike how our kids are attractive because they come from us instead of if Mike had married a black woman, to point out that President Obama is of mixed heritage. What can I say? I live for moments like that. Giving people something to think about.
Then, I asked the question that had been niggling at me. Why was it so bad for people to have their photographs taken, especially women?
Saleem gave me a nearly exasperated look. He said quite a bit, but the main part of it was that "this woman is my wife, why should you have a picture of her, why should you want a photograph of her?" He'd been doing a goodly amount of humorous posturing and teasing all throughout our visit, so I felt comfortable asking, but not pressing.
Saleem got out his Royal Oman Police uniform and held it up and modelled the hat for us. Very military looking, impressive. I would have been a lot more intimidated had we met him in his work gear. We were talking about work, and Pat, who is retired from Boeing, pulled out a company pen and gifted it to our host. It was a perfect gesture.
After we had eaten and talked ourselves to exhaustion, and the glasses of water that signify the end of a meal had arrived, we made motions to leave. Oh, no, now we needed to have tea. The sun was getting lower and we still needed to drive to Ras al Hadd before it got too late: we had dinner and a 9:30 PM date with the sea turtles.
Zuleikha had a variety of teas for us to try; I had "milk tea", to their approval. It was so delicious I asked how to make it:
Omani Milk Tea
Take Lipton Tea bags (what else?) open them and boil the tea leaves in a saucepan of water. When it looks tea-ish, take it off the heat and let it rest a moment, then add milk. Bring it back to boiling for a minute, then remove it again and dump in some sugar. Boil a third time, strain, and drink hot enough to sear your taste buds shut. If you want to be authentic, that is.
After group photographs, we couldn't say no to going to the site where they were having their house built. After the rental house, I could see why they wanted us to see it. It was expansive and expensive. Saleem was especially proud of the "European" design, especially the kitchen and bathrooms (no Chinese made! he assured me repeatedly, showing me everything from toilets to tiles and bringing a shower head still in the package, waiting to be installed) and Zuleikha showed us "her" this and "her" that. Their pride was deserved; it will be a beautiful house when it is done. Then we REALLY had to go!
They said they were sorry that we could only stay for such a short time. (5 hours and counting) but that also between friends, hours can be counted like years, so they would be content.
Bethy went with the trend and presented their daughter Fatima with one of her scented sparkle pens, then upon seeing how excited her new friend was with the gift, had us reverse, drive back into the driveway and give her the rest of the pen set. We were very proud of her.
An experience unlike any other. We felt very fortunate.