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Tuesday, 01 January 2013

A Battle Within: Traveling Oman with Hypoglycemia

Written by Ken Ward
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Aluminum foil cradled this hand-warming bundle of joy. As the man bestowed this gift from the heavens onto me, I noticed something equally beautiful behind him. 

      “That. I need that too,” I said, mouth drooling. He laughed and poured the neon yellow lemonade from a whirring machine into a paper cup. 

      “500 baisa please,” he said. I handed him the exact amount, approximately $1 U.S. The shawarma sated me briefly, but now I craved something more substantial. I knew I needed to eat, a lot. I wanted the most authentic Omani meal possible, one that would keep my blood sugar in check. I had just flown in the night before, so I was still jet-lagged. I came to Oman for a week to visit my dad, who had accepted a job as a business developer in the fall of 2010. Back in Vermont, where I was serving one year with AmeriCorps, snow still smothered everything in sight so I was happy to escape to the rugged, desert country for a spring getaway. One of the first things I noticed after arriving to the nation of nearly three and a half million people was the diversity of its inhabitants. Foreigners from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the United Kingdom all contributed to the hefty expatriate population. I had few expectations of Oman before I went there, and a diverse population was not one of them.  

      “I’m still hungry,” I said to my dad, a business developer from the Midwest. The four of us now stood outside of the market gazing at the harbor, which hosted commercial vessels as well as a traditional wooden ship. As I stood there, the shakes crept into my hands. “I need a big meal. I want something local.”

      “What do you think, Jawas?” my dad asked.

      Jawas, my dad’s driver from Pakistan, wore a cotton, long sleeve white shirt with a blue collar and pants to match every day. His thick, crow-colored mustache framed a mouth that often curled into a giant smile at the littlest things, such as finding a good parking spot.  A couple of people even mistook Jawas for my father because I am half-Japanese and half-white, a combination that has left many strangers pondering my heritage. Now, Jawas contemplated the question for a moment, perhaps trying to collect the words in English, maybe deciding the perfect place to give me my first taste of a full, authentic Arab meal.

      “I don’t know,” he said.

      “We want you to pick, Jawas,” my dad answered back.

      He tilted his head from side to side. “Arab World.”

 


 

 

      The Al Gubrah-based restaurant Arab World featured authentic regional fare at low prices. It was one of Jawas’ favorite places, and not one known for hosting tourists. With the destination in mind, we booked it to the eatery as Jawas weaved in and out of heavy traffic at high speeds. Usha, my dad’s second wife from India and a vegetarian, joined this eclectic group. To recap, that’s one Pakistani driver, one vegetarian Indian, one American businessman from Indiana, and one half-Japanese half-American hypoglycemic tourist. 

      As we pulled into the parking lot, Jawas jockeyed for a space with another car. Backing up and pulling forward, both cars danced until two spaces finally opened. “Very good,” Jawas said with a smile. “Very good.”

      “Jawas, I want you to come in and eat with us,” my dad said.

      Jawas hesitated, tilting his head while thinking about the proposition for a moment. “Come on, Jawas,” Usha and I said at the same time. “Ok,” he finally said, laughing. 

      Once inside, we found ourselves in the midst of men. Many men, only men. Usha surveyed the room and then stepped behind my father. The smell of sweat and spices, a blend I would encounter frequently in the country, hit me immediately. Omanis in their stark white clothes filled the room. A restaurant host escorted our party of four upstairs to the family room, and I passed all the Omani men laughing and chattering as they tried to keep their conversations above the noise of traffic that spilled into the room from the open windows. We sat down into a booth with high walls where a waiter brought us a two-liter bottle of water and four plastic cups.

      The menus he handed us revealed items in both English and Arabic. There were sections devoted to chicken, beef, fish, and “meat.”

      “What does “meat” mean?” I asked.

      “It’s definitely not pork,” my dad said. “It must be lamb.”

      “Baaaa,” Jawas said.

      I laughed. Jawas’s impression sealed the deal for me. I chose “meat,” and my dad and Jawas did too. Usha had a bit more trouble. She flipped the menu over several times to find something palatable. 

      “I don’t think I’m hungry,” Usha said just before the waiter arrived.

      “What would you like?” the waiter, a middle-aged man in traditional Omani dress, asked us.

      My dad pointed to me to go first. “I will have the meat,” I said.

      The waiter looked to Jawas next, and he answered in Arabic, one of several languages he is fluent in.

      “I will have the meat, too,” my dad said.

      Usha continued scanning the menu.

      “Do you have any salad?” my dad asked the waiter.

      “No. Not really,” he said.

      My dad gestured towards Usha, and she remained silent. Her head hung low over the red scarf she was wearing.

      “She is vegetarian,” my dad said. “No meat. Even the stuff you use to cook can’t have touched meat.”

      “It’s ok. I don’t have to eat anything,” Usha said. 

      Jawas and I just sat there, watching the waiter and Usha.

      “No, you have to eat something,” my dad said. He looked at his menu.

      “Here, fruit salad. Is that ok?”

      She nodded, and her hair, black and down to her waist, swayed back and forth. On the ride over, she had been singing and laughing with my dad. Now, her face was tight.

      “None of the utensils can touch the meat,” my dad reminded the waiter. He nodded and walked off. Within five minutes, the waiter showed up with three bowls of curry-flavored lamb soup, which felt warm and grainy, and plates of vegetables featuring lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber. 

      “I thought he said there was no salad,” my dad said, lifting up his plate of vegetables.

      “Here Usha, you can have my plate,” I said. Then I set the vegetables in front of her.

      “No, I am fine,” she said with a smile. 

      “No really, it’s ok,” I said. Though I had only known her a few hours, she was always to quick to make sure I was fine. “Ken, are you having fun? Do you need a tissue? Do you want some water?”

 


 

 

      She was devoted to her diet, and I admired her for it. However, I was purely focused on the meat. It was one of the few things that kept the monster in check. Just as we were finishing, the waiter brought three plates of roasted lamb leg sleeping on beds of rice with tomato chunks stewing in its juices on the side. 

      Before I dug in, Lamb Chop, a sock puppet from a children’s show I used to watch, popped into my mind. I remember the character annoying me, so I had no reservations about gnawing on the lamb. Jawas was already halfway done with his plate; he shoveled his right hand into the rice and lamb and dipped it into the tomatoes.  After watching Jawas, I cast aside my fork and knife and buried my right hand into my food, feeling right at home. As a kid, I always tried to eat with my hands and use my shirt as a napkin but my Japanese mother, who was thousands of miles away in Oregon, always slapped my hands when I behaved that way. 

      “Ken, you’re like a little caveman,” she would say as she laughed. She couldn’t say anything now because I was simply embracing Omani culture. I had found a loophole. As I shoveled the food into my mouth, I noticed the lamb flesh was pink on the inside, gamily scented but mildly flavored. As I engorged myself, I thought about things I wanted to do on the trip. I felt an irresistible urge to explore the desert. I felt the call for adventure, but I was worried about my hypoglycemia interfering. The heat would make me dizzy. The amenities of the city would exceed my reach. If any emergency situation flared up, such as a low blood sugar-induced coma, I would be out of luck. But I didn’t travel thousands of miles to play it safe. It was worth the risk for me.

      “Dad, I want to go to the desert,” I said. I envisioned endless highways of sand that would draw me away from the chaos of the city and unfiltered sunlight that would send me back to snow-covered Vermont with a warm body and soul.

      “I don’t know, Ken,” my dad said. A former Marine, my dad was used to adventure. But he was getting on in years.  

      “Come on, Dad. We might not get the chance to do something like this again.”

      Jawas paid the conversation no mind and continued scarfing down the meal. Usha laughed softly at our father-son exchange, as her eyes darted back and forth between us.

      “You need to eat every ten seconds,” my dad joked. “Are you going to make it?”

      “I’ll be fine,” I said, rolling my eyes.  

      “Ok, then. Whatever you want.” It was settled.

      Later that week, my caravan of four took off for the 1,000 Nights desert camp in the Wahiba Sands desert region away from the coast and into the interior of the country. Three hours outside of Muscat, at a gas station in Al Mudayrib (or El Monday Rib as we called it), we stood at a crossroads. Before we had left the big city, my dad’s boss Naseeb offered a stern warning.

      “Don’t go out into the desert by yourself,” he said. “The camp is an hour off the road where you have to drive on sand. If you get stuck, you won’t be able to get out.” 

      The thought of being stuck in the desert with only sand to eat struck me with anxiety. My heart raced; my palms began to sweat. I remembered one time when I was driving down the interstate in Vermont, my blood sugar dropped, I began to shake, and my mind grew foggy, as if I were in a drunken stupor. I pulled over to the side of the road, put the emergency flashers on, and pulled a Clif bar from my pocket, hands trembling. I always carried a granola bar with me for an emergency. I shuddered to think what would happen with no relief. Fainting, coma..., death...?  

      At the gas station, which was a modern Shell station with sand breezing across the ground, there were a few cars belonging to locals lined up. The one in the front was a black Jeep, with all the windows tinted far beyond any American legal limit. The driver, dressed in white clothes and black sunglasses, was talking to a few people who appeared to be tourists. Naseeb had said there would be people waiting to escort people to the camp, so I assumed these people were the guides. 

      Jawas parked the car, and my dad crossed the lot to speak with one of the drivers. There was no way Jawas could drive us there because there was no map or directions. It would be like giving directions to drive on a giant, blank sheet of paper. However, Naseeb had also said that the drivers make the trek a few times a day, so they know where they are going.

 


 

 

      “Hi, are you taking people to 1,000 Nights?” my dad asked the man in the Jeep.

      “Yes, I can take you,” the man said. He looked to be in his late 20s.

      “How much?” my dad asked. 

      “I can take you for 30 Omani rials,” the man said, his face emotionless. The three people in the car waited without talking. Jawas drummed on the steering wheel with his index fingers while Usha rocked her head back and forth to keep herself awake.

      “No, that’s too much.”

      The man stared at my dad. His face softened into a small grin.

      “20 rials,” he said.

      “Wait here.” 

      He came back and told us that they would lead us there for 20 Omani rials, or about $52 U.S. We had just enough for that, but that would leave us no money for extras once we got there, and there were no ATMs in the area. He crossed the lot again, sweating, to the Jeep.

      “I’m sorry,” my dad said. “We don’t have enough money.”

      “It’s ok, it’s only 20 rials,” the driver said.

      “No, we really don’t have enough,,see,” my dad took out his wallet and opened it for him.

      “Ok, I understand. No problem,” he said. The driver leaned his head back and my dad returned.

      While we were weighing our options, a carful of expats pulled into the station to refuel. My dad stepped out of the car again and walked over to the group.

      “Hi, do you know how to get to the 1000 Nights desert camp?” my dad asked the driver.

      The man was as tall as my dad, about 6’ 2”, and had blonde hair that was turning white.

      “Yes, we could lead you halfway there if you’d like,” the man said with a slight German accent as he inserted the nozzle into his vehicle.

      “That would be great,” my dad said. “The guy over there said he would take us but it was just too much. Where are you guys from?”

      “We are from Germany,” the man said. “We are just out here visiting some friends, but we’ve been out there a few times so we know how to get there.”

      They exchanged business cards and continued to chat. My stomach rumbled. I debated whether or not to have a granola bar. I always carried them around with me, but I only had a few and wanted to save them in case a sand storm devoured me on the drive out. 

      My dad walked over. “Ok Jawas, pull over behind the station. The man said we have to lower the tire pressure to 17 psi.”

      The temperature climbed to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the heat mixed with the smell of gasoline made me dizzy. We left the town and parked right where the road ended and the desert began. The German driver stepped out of the car and approached my dad’s window. He walked slowly, and a smile lit up his face. A carpet of orange sand spread out as far as I could see. Little wooden shacks dotted the desert landscape, as well as some lonely shrubs that poked out of the ground.

 


 

 

      “You have to go fast and keep momentum up,” the man said, repeating Naseeb’s warnings. “Don’t slow down for any reason. We will take you halfway there. It’s mostly straight, but there’s a part where you will sidewind up a hill. That’s where we will get off. Don’t stop when we do. Just keep going straight for about 10 km after that and you will run into the camp.” 

      Jawas clutched the wheel with both hands. A devilish grin crept onto his face; he looked like a NASCAR driver. 

      “Ok, Jawas. Are you ready?” my dad asked.

      “Yes,” he said.

      “How about you, Usha?”

      “I don’t know, Tony. Maybe we should go back,” she said with a nervous laugh.

      “Ok, Jawas. Let’s go back home,” my dad joked.

      Jawas held his gaze steady on the horizon.

      “We go,” he said. Everyone laughed, cutting the tension. This was it. Once we hit the sand, there would be no turning back. No stops until the camp. No roadside restaurants to soothe my pain. The German man climbed back into his SUV and we followed in ours, doing exactly what he said. At any hint where Jawas slowed down, we all yelled at him to keep up the speed. 

      “Jawas! Don’t stop!” we all screamed. Then he would gun the car, sometimes so fast that I would hit my head on the top of the car when we bounced over bumps. He giggled every time he got to go fast. My stomach jumped into my throat and back down. Sometimes I thought the car would flip over; my dad, Usha, and I all clutched the “Oh, shit!” handles as the car rocked back and forth. After about half an hour of tense sand driving, we reached the section that forced us to weave up the hill. One car was stuck near the base. The bottom half of the wheels bled into the sand. A white man and an Asian woman, both drenched in sweat, pushed the car from behind. 

      “Should we stop?” I asked my dad.

      “I don’t know. I don’t know,” my dad said.

      Usha touched my dad’s shoulder. “Maybe we should stop.”

      Jawas looked back at my dad for an answer.

      “Keep going!” my dad shouted. “If we get stuck, we can’t help either. We’ll tell someone once we get to camp. Jawas did, and we curled up the hill, sometimes almost tipping over from the sharp turns. I looked back and the poor people were kept pushing their car in vain.

      The Germans pulled off on a side trail and we waved as we passed them. Now we were without our safety net. Please don’t let us end up like those other people, I thought.  , A plateful of sand would be my dinner if we beached ourselves.

      We bounced up and down the road, and my dad and I continued to urge Jawas to keep up the speed. We followed the path, which sometimes split into two. Jawas looked to my dad for answers. “Which way, boss?” 

      My dad didn’t know the answer. “Uh, left!” Jawas didn’t get the message in time. He swerved right. “No, left, Jawas!”

      “Sorry, boss,” Jawas said with a chuckle. This happened a few times: sometimes he followed my dad’s directions, sometimes not. The road always ended up merging back to one. “This is crazy,” Usha said, shaking her head. “This is crazy.” I was slumped down in my chair, but throughout the ride, Usha kept perfect posture.

 


 

 

      Short of another half hour, we reached the camp. The camp stood in the middle of two ridges of sandbanks running parallel to each other. It was like a skateboarding half pipe. Twenty or so tents pockmarked the camp, along with an ornate dining hall and pool on one side of the valley and an upscale rental house on the other. We were out in the middle of nowhere, this really was an oasis; but, would I have enough to eat? There was no convenience store around the corner.

      “Why didn’t they just put the camp back at the beginning of the road?” I asked.

      “Yeah, that would have made much more sense,” my dad agreed. 

      Jawas backed the car into a “parking space,” and we headed to a tent to register ourselves. I felt relieved. The staff greeted us with smiles as well as dates, Omani coffee, and moist towels. The dates, which were sticky and sweet, and coffee, which was strong and bit spicy, were traditional offerings for guests. I don’t normally drink coffee, because the caffeine sets off my hypoglycemia, but I didn’t want to offend the hosts. I sipped the coffee and wiped my forehead with the towel.

      Jawas sat enjoying his treats. He would have to drive through the desert again, by himself, and then back to Muscat. Then he would have to wake back up at 6:00 am just to come get us. “I wish Jawas didn’t have to drive all the way back,” I said to my dad.

      “Yeah, it would be nice if he could stay with us,” my dad said. “Jawas, do you want to stay here with us tonight?”

      “No, no. It’s ok,” he said.

      “You have other plans tonight?”

      Jawas shook his head. “No, no.”

      “Ok, well we want you to stay here and have a good time with us,” my dad said.

      “Yeah, Jawas, I want you to stay too,” I said.

      Usha joined in. “Come on, Jawas. It will be fun.”

      He thought the idea over. He swayed his head from side to side.

      “Ok, ok,” he said. He only had the clothes on his back, while we had stuffed backpacks, but his smile covered his whole face.

      After the snack, we left the registration tent and headed toward our tent. Later that night, after a dip in the pool and some sand sledding, it was time for dinner. At 7:00 pm, it was dark and cool, and staff provided guests with a meal in an outdoor building that housed elaborate decorations and countless pillows. 

      I walked the path to the food, which was cloaked in darkness. What would await me there? A humble dish of dates and nothing else? Would I shrivel into sand from starving and blow away in the wind? I entered the light. The staff offered a giant spread, buffet-style, and I covered my plate with chapatti bread, hummus, mixed vegetables, two types of rice, tandoori chicken, and roasted lamb. My dad and Jawas did the same thing. It was a thing of beauty.

      “I am so glad there is food without meat here,” Usha said to me. Hummus, chapatti, and curried vegetables made the plate disappear.

      We sat down at a table, but my dad wasn’t happy. He looked around at all the tables full of tourists, a mix of Omanis and foreigners.

      “I wish we could sit on the ground,” my dad said. “These seats feel too formal. I just want to spread out.”

      I was comfortable at the table, but I figured sitting on the ground could be authentic.

      “Well I saw on the other side of the food that there was a place with a bunch of pillows where you can sit on the ground,” I said. “But there was no one else over there. Maybe people didn’t notice they could sit there.” My blood sugar had dipped again, and my hands trembled. I didn’t care where I sat. I needed food.

      Without hesitation, my dad stood up and picked up his plate. “Let’s go,” he said. “We can be the first. Lead the way, Ken.”

 


LunchAtSeasideRestaurant2

 

      We walked past the serving tables and grabbed some water and soda from a cooler packed with ice that looked like a treasure chest. Before entering the open-air room with the ground pillows, we all removed our shoes. This was exactly what I had been looking for. A cool breeze carried a few grains of sand, and I felt them stick to my feet as I sat down on a big blue pillow. To set the mood, a band of five Bedouins drifted in from the darkness and set up shop at the entrance of the adjacent dining area with all of the tables. They plucked stringed instruments, beat drums, and projected hauntingly beautiful words from their throats. I had everything I needed. Good company, adventure, and a plateful of delicious food that would keep my hypoglycemia at bay for a few hours.

      The plate mixed all sorts of colors, and the variety of spices I smelled made me salivate. There was plenty of water and soda for everyone, and, in keeping with Muslim law, no alcohol. After the meal, I was stuffed. Jawas had as much as I did, but he came back with a platter full of melon, grapes, and strawberries for dessert. 

      “Ken, have some,” he said to me, holding the plate in front of my face.

      “No, I’m ok,” I said, rubbing my stomach. “I’m very full.”

      “It’s very good,” he said, continuing to hold the plate out.

      “Ok, I’ll have some.” I washed down the platter, a perfect blend of sweet and tangy freshness. After we ate, my dad and Usha danced in front of the Bedouins. Jawas and I sprawled ourselves out across the carpet, digesting. My dad kept waving for me to join him.

      “Go,” Jawas said, laughing.

      “I’m so full. I can hardly move.” I felt like I had swallowed a watermelon whole.

      “Let’s go,” Jawas said after a few minutes of digesting. He laughed and nudged me on the shoulder several times. After no response from me, he finally just grabbed my hand.

      “Ok, let’s do it.” After a glorious meal, a celebratory dance seemed fitting. I had the energy I needed. We dashed to the other section of the dining hall, where many of the occupants had already left. Still a handful of people lingered to listen to the music and watch us dance.

      “I like this because I can just do what this guy is doing,” my dad said as he pointed to the Bedouin next to him. The man, dressed in traditional garb, lifted his knees up and down as if marching in place, with his arms at his side.

      “I can actually dance like that,” my dad said. Usha stood next to him swaying, and occasionally spinning in a circle, looking much more graceful than my dad. Jawas clapped and jumped up and down. As the music swelled into a faster beat, I pulled out the big guns. I let all the people encircle me and I pulled out the only moves I knew: footwork from boxing. I slid, jumped, skipped, and crossed my feet to the cheers of the crowd. My dad flipped out his phone and filmed my moves. Then he reached out to the crowd and encouraged more people to join us. He waved to an Omani man who was lying on a couch talking on a cell phone. The man waved back but continued his conversation. Eventually, a few people joined us, including a 9-year-old boy from Uruguay who imitated my moves. I danced with a full stomach, keeping the beast in check for one more day.

      

©Ken Ward

 

 

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 January 2013