A Once in a Lifetime Chance

Earlier this week my group and I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to the United Arab Emirates. We were there to witness and participate in the Papal mass in Abu Dhabi! It was the most surreal experience I think I have ever had. Getting there and returning back was really difficult, but I would go through it all again just to experience something so extraordinary one more time.

The mass was on the 5th so we left a day early to make sure we would have ample time to get to Abu Dhabi, and the stadium the mass was held in. We left before the sun rose and arrived in the late afternoon. We took advantage of our time in another predominantly Muslim country to explore the different buildings of worship.

First, we visited the church because we were out around the time the Muslim evening prayers were happening. The church we visited was called St. Andrews Anglican Church. We went on a tour and learned about the church and its history. The actual building hosts over 45 different Christian congregations. I thought the church was especially interesting because it had been in the country for 50 years. The Emirati government allowed the church to be established in the 60s by the Anglican missionaries who helped build up the country’s medical infrastructure. I think the culture of religious tolerance, that began so long ago with this partnership, lead to the events of the pope presiding a mass in the UAE.

After the visit to the church and the evening prayers, we made our way to the Grand Mosque. It was really interesting to see the Emirati Grand Mosque after already having seen the Omani Grand Mosque. It was difficult to be subjective when going through the house of worship, but I enjoyed it. The compound the mosque is on is ginormous and it is as detailed as the actual building. One thing I really enjoyed is the serenity the fountains and lights gave the mosque. The courtyard is decorated with meters of crystal-clear water illuminated by soft blue lights and the light flowing from inside the mosque itself. It was so extremely surreal to be in a Muslim majority country, in a Muslim house of worship, knowing the next day I would be attending a historic event for Muslims and Christians alike.  All in all, the mosque was a wonderful experience and it was interesting to compare the different stylistic choices in both of the grand mosques I had seen.

The morning of mass had finally arrived. The only problem was that we had to queue for the bus at 3:00 am. We woke up around 2:15 to be out of the hotel in time to get to the bus stop. We had about a 15-minute walk to the bus stop. The only way we could get to mass was by regulated buses provided by the Emirati government because no cars were allowed anywhere near the stadium. That being said, they were Abu Dhabi public buses that had routes to complete so they ran from 2:30- 5:00 am. We waited in line for about 90 minutes before we got onto a bus. We arrived at the stadium around 6:15 am; the mass began at 10:30 am. Although we woke up early, we had a chance to get a quick nap in before the service actually started.

Around 8 am, the stadium began to fill up and spirits were rising.  People began chanting and doing the wave! It was incredible to see so many Christians, from all over the world and from different denominations, celebrating and worshiping together! I loved seeing how many Emiratis and Muslims were attending, as well. It was truly an image of tolerance and acceptance. The anticipation was so intense that when the pope arrived in his vehicle, the crowd erupted! The cacophony of the attendees lasted for minutes! When everything finally calmed down, the service began.

The Pope’s homily was completely in Latin so I didn’t understand much. However, there were screens with English translations on them. I gathered that he was preaching of tolerance and acceptance. The homily that was so fitting for the situation we were in: a Muslim majority country working on its religious tolerance. After the Pope’s sermon, he was escorted off the stage and mass proceeded like any other mass. At the end of the full service, the choir sang a sort of outro as everyone filed out of the stadium into chaos.

I will forever remember being a part of something so monumental and inspirational. I am so grateful for all of our coordinators that helped get us to where we were. I will hold an extremely touching and beautiful service in my heart. I will never forget the struggle of getting to and from the auditorium, and staying awake after getting two hours of sleep! Overall, the experience was one for the books and will continue to impact my life.

The arena was very dark and fairly empty when we got there.

The sun had begun to rise and the stage looked heavenly!

Dow Trip

This is the first blog I’ve written that feels like an advertisement in a travel magazine or a television commercial for traveling to the Middle East. I felt like I was living a real life “Samantha Brown’s Passport to Oman” episode. When I was little, my mom would turn to the Travel Channel while we were dusting or sorting through papers together. Samantha Brown would flash her smile, crow’s feet flaring and hair blowing as she ventured through cities and towns pointing out incredible restaurants and historical castles. In my bedroom mirror, I would pretend I was the host of the show and make up adventures of my own: “Alley’s Passport to the World”! Today, I lived one of these real-life adventures. I snorkeled and swam with turtles, ventured out along the coast of Muscat on a dow (see photo above), and watched dolphins leap along the horizon. I felt like I was on the television screen in my living room…if only mom were with me.

We started piling onto the boat at 8:30am, slipped off our sandals and claimed our seats before the Dow set off into the waves. Our Program Director, Justin, and his family invited us as well as another missionary family visiting from Bangladesh. Including our student party of six, there were fifteen energetic explorers, three talented crew members, and one Captain Said on deck. Each one with cheeks fit to be sun-kissed. I claimed a cushion and started snapping pictures, bobbing with the waves and concentrating on staying upright.

About an hour in, the captain slowed the engine down and I heard one of the kiddos shouting “Look! Dolphins! Dolphins! Loooook!”. I knew there was a possibility of a dolphin sighting, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. Nonetheless, there they were, a pod of about thirty dolphins hopping through, chatting on their way like a family on a road trip. As they disappeared from view, we spun our boat the opposite way and continued toward our swimming destination.

The usual Omani terrain of tall, rocky mountains loomed over every border of the harbor we pulled into. The sun reflected off the peaks and bounced back on the caps of the waves. Below the surface, collections of coral supported schools of fish and millions of other living creatures. The humans on board our boat, including myself were glistening with sweat due to the heat of the day. Thus, many of us immediately dove in as soon as the anchor was dropped.

The water was a teal-green pigment with a flawless tepid temperature. I floated for a while, laughing with friends and squinting against the cloudless sky. As I moved my arms through the translucent sea, I didn’t realize that a creature was none too pleased to meet me. He left his mark on my lower left bicep and it tingled like a collection of static tickles on a fresh sheet out of the drier. The static soon turned into an irritating pierce on the surface of my skin. The invisible critter was a jellyfish and I had just been stung.

Back on the deck of the boat, the sting swelled in three spots leaving harsh, red ridges where the jelly’s appendages had swiped. The captain suggested I pour cold water on my arm and let it calm down. It did settle and only hurt for about ten more minutes. I sat on the shaded deck and soaked in more rays watching kids splash in the water and giggling as my friends plastered snorkeling goggles to their faces and dove in with flippers flapping on their feet behind them.

After chomping down a sandwich and some Oreos, I decided to give the water another shot. I grabbed my own set of flippers, a clear turquoise mask and bright yellow breathing tube and launched off the boat into the salty sea. I pumped through the waves, face flat in the water until I could find the reef. Always aware of the globs of jelly waiting, I hauled my body through the water until I found myself in the middle of a school of fish (the species of which I could not tell). Long, lanky eel-like critters mixed with blue and stripped, finned creatures and I witnessed their soiree silently from above.

Without fail, water would seep into my goggles causing me to come up for air. On one occasion, I was thankful for the break to breathe as a couple floating on a boat nearby shouted and pointed where they spotted a sea turtle. I followed their arm and dove to the deep. It took a bit of twisting and turning to find the shell, but there she was! A stunning turtle gliding along the bottom of the ocean floor. It didn’t take long before I was choking on salt water again. But, seeing her was all I needed before heading back to the boat.

Around 2:30pm, we departed back through the water toward the marina where the boat would dock until its next adventure. The Dow rocked back and forth, and mist lathered our cheeks occasionally while we watched the horizon. The scenery was even more picturesque than the Travel Network would show it to be. I may have a scar from the jellyfish, and way too much salt water in my system, but I still felt I was part of a trailer for a new travel film. So, any room for a co-host Samantha Brown?



Back to Business

Friends, I’ve moved! The city lights and seaside views are no more in this small, interior town called Ibri. The desert dust seeps into my apartment and my sense of direction is all turned around – although if you know me, it may not have been there in the first place. I know that Saudi Arabia is one way, and Yemen the other. Needless to say, shifting from Muscat has been a bit of a challenge. But, the prayer call remains the same and I am more certain I will have more and more conversations with Omanis and others who have settled in this rocky, traditional town because of the language skills I will be learning here.

Side of the bus I take to school in the mornings

The next six weeks I will be studying Arabic at an institute about a forty-five-minute walk away. I’m sharing an apartment with three other students from the United States and a wonderful Irish woman who has just spent the last seven weeks in India. We are all so passionate about learning the ancient language, and as we walk from place to place with our hair flowing wild, it is painfully obvious that we don’t necessarily belong here. Yet, having a bit of a crew has been refreshing.

On the first day of school, we were picked up at 8:00am and driven by bus to the institute. We had some Omani style Cardamom coffee and Karak tea (sort of tastes like sweet chai—yum!) and settled into the space before those who have some experience with Arabic took a placement exam. David, another Hope student, Éabha, my Irish roommate, and I skipped out because we had too little or zero (me) Arabic experience and decided to venture about outside.

We marched down the road and came across a group of Omani men standing in a circle under a roofed ring. As we approached, the bleeting of goats and the booming shouts in Arabic revealed we had entered an auction. Goats of all sizes were being dragged, tugged and carried about by men of all ages. One man welcomed us in with a crooked-toothed smile and invited us to take a picture of his prized goat. I was distracted by the baby goats running after their mothers and whining for their morning snack. Older men smiled and joked with their neighbors, while the man in charge of it all recorded prices and names in his book.

Goats watching the madness

Every morning this business goes about in Ibri. These goats aren’t pets, rather the next meal, but it is remarkable to think that this trade has been going on for centuries. Maybe, it has been happening in this same spot near my school. I think one of the highlights of living here will be to walk through the community near the school and remember how old the world truly is. We are surrounded by mountains that were once flooded with sea water. Now, they boast beautiful layers of color from oranges to purples and greens. A geologist’s paradise—and now my new home! I cannot wait to soak up the details of it all, although it’s going to be pretty dry for the next six weeks in Ibri.

Dishdashing at the Omani Opera

Jessica, Laurel, and I in our Opera attire posing before the show.

When I packed for my adventure abroad, I went for the practical hiking clothes, clothes to cover up and the comfiest t-shirts I could find for lounging around our home. What I did not anticipate were the glittering gowns and long stunning skirts I would find venturing around the market. In the middle of this rocky desert landscape, there is so much glamour, and I have found the center of it all: The Royal Opera House in Muscat.

Our lovely resident seminary student and musician Laurel encouraged our group to join her at the Opera last week. The show: “The Fifteen top Classical Arab Songs”. My first thought: what will I wear? While the boys went shopping in the Souq and got fitted for dishdashas—the traditional menswear of Oman– my roommate Jessica and I ruffled through our stuff deciding what to wear. Jessica selected a gold caftan that she had bought the week prior and I pulled out a skirt, a cotton top and the fanciest scarf I had thrown in before I left. It would have to do.

When we arrived at the Opera, we walked into the lobby and immediately were met with an architectural gem. From floor up, white and gold accented details danced until they reached a wood-paneled ceiling with hand-painted designs. Around us, men draped in spotless white dishdashas and topped with brightly wrapped Musalas strutted about as women’s skirts sashayed over their strappy high heels.

The front of the theatre glittered as lights danced off long silver pipes. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said comes often to the Opera for organ concerts and the center of the space is devoted to the beloved instrument. In front of the organ on the stage were seats set for a full orchestra. We sat in our seats and waited watching people chatter and the ushers leading guests throughout the theatre. After a while, the lights dimmed and the concert began.

The orchestra silently marched on stage, men in tuxedos and white bow ties and women in red and green garb with beautiful, gold headdresses. The conductor bowed and took his place. Then, the first singer, Jahida Wehbe arrived on stage in a stunning sheer green draped dress with gold accents. When she opened her mouth to sing, a stream of Arabic flowed out and she held notes I wish I knew how to reach.

Drums deep and low set the undertones, the flutes twinkled their tunes, and the strings sang along. The singer performed with great control using her arms to gesture on the fast-paced Arabian journey. The woman next to me in her sparkling black and silver wrap was wiping her eyes during the lullabies and clapping along to the marching melodies. The audience’s attention and their hearts went especially for the next singer Ali Al Haggar as he went on in deep vibrato.

Drums deep and low set the undertones, the flutes twinkled their tunes, and the strings sang along.

What started as a one hundred thirty-minute show quickly became a three-hour event as Ali offered encore after encore. Women swung their gold bangled arms and cheered to the songs as the orchestra carried on. By the end of the night, I was exhausted, but the atmosphere kept my eyes wide. The traditional tunes are still much loved here, and I am so lucky I got to hear them from the best of the best: the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra.

Check out the Opera site: https://www.rohmuscat.org.om/en and Ali Al Haggar (I couldn’t film during the show) here.


Juice Dates

This past week has been loaded with new places, new people, and new and improved perceptions. What is not new is the number of bad puns I try to make in a week. You’ll see what I mean…

Drinking a super green juice — celery, spinach, lemon, mint, and cucumber

Oman is a country with many kinds of people, pathways, and shops. What it does not have, however, is a social atmosphere that surrounds drinking, as it is illegal for alcohol to be sold within the state. I have, nonetheless become addicted to another substance: juice. Rather than asking a friend out to coffee like I would at Hope, I find myself asking “Juice anyone?” at least three or four times a day. Pomegranate, kiwi, watermelon, banana, you name it, I’m pretty sure Oman has a juice for that!


Friend Danny drinking kiwi juice

One of our favorite places to go for a quick bite of shawarma–a traditional sandwich made of chicken, lettuce, and sauce rolled up in a piece of naan or pita—has endless options of juice along with a meal. On our first night, I tried spicy lemon-mint juice and cannot get enough. As a result of returning for more, we have met the two men that run the restaurant and they have become quite accustomed to seeing our faces. The shop is right on the harbor and next to the Souq – a large shopping market in Mutrah.

While I sit and sip, it’s fun to watch taxi drivers greet incoming tourists coming off their cruise liners. One man continuously imitates Lionel Richie, “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” and shakes hands with visitors hoping to earn a few Rials (Omani currency). Stray cats run in and out of the Souq and seagulls scoop down into the water. The men at the shop are always smiling and as I slurp down the last of my juice, a small plate of dates always promptly arrives on the table.

Pomegranate & Pineapple juice on a walk

Wait a second, dates? Juice and dates? I’ve consumed more than enough dates just from being offered some by waiters, shop owners and on excursions throughout the city. Omani’s have given so many things to me from endless chai tea and samosas to sticky, honey smothered dates. The trickiest part is trying to eat the date with one hand – let me know when you master that one.

By now the shop owners know me well and as a result, last Thursday I went home smiling with a plate of dates carefully wrapped up just for me. Before I left, I promised my new friends to return for juice and shawarma soon – a date I fully intend to keep.

Plate O’ Dates