Friday, October 30, 2009
It’s true that I can’t sit still for long. And it seems to get more and more like this, in a way. I don’t usually want to leave where I am, yet I manage it. But really, since I moved out of my garden flat in Salalah at the end of June I have lived out of my suitcases, even in New York. Spare bedrooms, couches, the floor, hotels. But now I am really excited. It has taken a year, but I finally have the most delightful, sweet little home, in Salalah.
It’s a little villa, although some would call it a flat, and I share the compound with an Omani family. The place has needed some work, for sure, but this is getting done and it’s looking and feeling and smelling really fine now. I came today and my neighbors are burning agarwood I think, it’s barely discernable in the air, but it is there and delicious.
I’m near the beach, and a great expanse of Dhofari space, with the mountains in the distance and a mosque very close, but with clear speakers, no distortion, and so this will be charming as well. And there is the most adorable park a block away, walled and green, with trees, fragrant bushes, and big flower pots in the shape of Dhofari incense burners. Armies of Pakistani gardeners keep it fresh, clean and colorful. It’s almost too much to take.
There was one problem, and it seems to be in hand now. No one had ever exterminated for bugs and believe me you need to. So I did it, for the entire place, and really this was something to see—as the red-jump-suited fumigation team and I stood in the warm evening, giant cockroaches cascaded down the outsides of the house, like rats deserting a sinking ship, which is fact what they were. The Indian spray team blasted them with liquid poison as they scuttled down and in the morning it was a sight to behold. Maybe 50 or 60 of these dead things lay around the outside of the house. But this was nothing compared to what Wilson, the delightful and so competent handyman told me: that the night before, the landlady had filled an ENTIRE BUCKET with dead giant roaches just from the outside of their half of the house. I mean, that is just gnarly. And her comment was something like this; “why bother? They’ll be back in three months anyway!” The next day Wilson sealed every crack he could find with silicone. Looks like problem solved for the time being.
I’ve noticed that some of the things I blithely prattle on about just don’t hold up here. I don’t like poison. Holistic is the only way to go, I don’t want to spray my home with toxic chemicals. Use eco-friendly insect killer! Right. Sure thing. Then there was the matter of the guns. Justin and I sitting sedately at that remote beach that night, while our friend went off, leaving us his gun. We were contemptuous, we don’t need guns, we are evolved humans. And later that night the hyena/witch came. Two new arms enthusiasts were born that night. Suvs. Hate ‘em. Why would anyone have one? The usual arguments, which are still true I think, in many cases, but here? 180 degree turn. I would love to have a Landcruiser. We are not always who we think we are, ne’st pas?
Back to my new house. It’s so sweet and homey, and I am full of plans, small ones, but things I can do to it. It’s as perfect a place as I’ve seen. I just keep walking around it and laughing. I even bought a new bed. I have an Arabic style majlis, with those heavy cushions and carpets instead of couches and it’s lovely. Cross ventilation, bright and airy, a whole rooftop with a great view, even a back door…Perfect for entertaining, not that I do a lot of that, but the possibility is there. And I have the best potpourri possible, plenty of frankincense in sacks in the entry hall. Really I can’t imagine anything nicer.
I have been here in Salalah for a while now, but still in the process of getting sorted. Have done no distillations yet, nor visited my friendly trees, but this will come. This evening though, I’m off for a week to somewhere I don’t even want to mention and we shall see what happens. Bad luck to talk about it. I don’t want to tempt fate. But according to the weather report, it’s cold at night there.
So far, I’ve spent my time doing the usual, plenty of yoga, going out for dinner and a shisha, having some tea, sitting around, making friends, trying to make some Arabic stick in this over-used and partly fried brain of mine. I can almost regret the things I did as a teenager, since my memory is so poor, and my retention is like an old person. All those rock concerts, all that substance abuse….What was that? I don’t remember! Was that today? I don’t know! It’s pathetic. Not sure the Omanis believe it. They all have great memories and eagle eyes.
I’ll say this though: Salalah is like a motorcycle gang. In my experience I have been beaten in, and beaten out again. The transitions may be getting smoother, but you have to really want to be here, if you want to be here as I am. I have to thank Taekwondo for this. There have been more than a few times where I was ready to just cash in, to leave, to cry uncle. But those 5 tenets of Taekwondo kept me in: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and Indomitable Spirit. Not sure I could have made it this far without my martial arts training. And thank God I didn’t arrive here years ago. It would have been a disaster.
One of the biggest things I appreciate here, and I’ve written about it so many times, I’m sure (can’t remember of course,) but that it’s the exact opposite of New York in terms of how to deal. The way we are forced to interact in New York will get you nothing but a cold shoulder and isolation here, whereas if I acted like this in New York I’d be beat up, robbed, arrested or committed. But I like this way better. The Omanis may hate that they have to follow this strict social protocol and greet everyone, in a specific way, but since I didn’t grow up with it, it’s a treat. Makes our culture seem rude, abrupt, and abrasive. Which of course it is. But it’s somewhat of a case of “the grass is greener.” Omanis have some bad opinions of the US but also some fantastically hopeful, idealistic ones. Our families are not strong is example. And Americans often pride themselves on “family values.” But if you compare American families with Omani ones, you quickly see that compared to Arabic culture, they are right. But we have greater freedom to do what we like. It’s a trade off. I sometimes get the impression that some people think of “America” as one place, (is it hot in your country now?) where you can sit around in coffee shops or restaurants like you do here, but in a busier, Muscat-like setting, colder, lots of shopping, and without the tribe to look over your shoulder. It’s endearing. Such a delight to swim through this.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
I didn’t get to distill that eucalyptus. I am now in the slow flow here and have committed to it, probably forever. I do not yet have my special gas burners hooked up and actually I gave it up, because I got a wonderful, really perfect, new place to live. It’s a villa and it’s right where I wanted one but thought it wasn’t possible and there it is and there I am. I will be moving into it shortly as I have some time left on my old place…and it needs the current inhabitants, who happen to be very large cockroaches, to leave immediately. Plus it needs some work. Right now it is still recovering from whatever happened to it during khareef.
I will continue my tiny distillation then. In the meantime, I have a nice kitchen overlooking the back garden where I used to live and I use it for gentle things, like eggplant and coffee.
I cannot imagine two places more different than New York and Salalah, and it’s a trip, as we used to say, to get back into the soft sinkiness of this place. The types of behaviors that are rewarded in New York will get you nowhere here. And I have gotten into a whole heap of trouble here for speaking too harshly and hastily. People are very very sensitive, and easily hurt, but can’t show any of it, and most things are implied. I’ve written all this before. I enjoy it though, it’s like learning a new language.
Speaking of languages, I came to a conclusion about this one. There are not many Arabic teachers here and no Omani ones. Everyone wants you to learn Fuzha, which is what educated people speak all over the Arabic world. Everyone will understand you, it sounds just like the perfect thing to do. Except that no one speaks it. Unless they are specifically speaking to you to Fuzha because you are learning it. And if you learn it you can understand Al Jazeera. (I watch it in English anyway.)
I sit with people and they speak a mixture of Salalah dialect Arabic and Jebali. So that’s what I am learning. And it’s an uphill battle because they thwart you constantly. What was that you said? How to you say it? And they tell you in Fuzha, which they call “The Arabic Language.” But it’s not what they said. The just said it normally, but are repeating in this special language. Because why would you want to learn this local dialect? No, tell me how to say it in your language, not The Arabic Language. Because even though they are speaking Arabic, it’s not The Arabic language. They are speaking ‘Local language,” even though it’s Arabic. Anyone familiar with this part of the world will understand perfectly what I’m talking about.
So I’m going to forget about trying to learn how to conjugate all the persons of each verb, and forget about trying to learn anything that can be offered. That’s basically it. Very difficult place, as I have probably mentioned a couple of thousand times before. Why would the language be easy? Why would the language even be normal Arabic difficult? No, it’s going to be like this. Ok.
Yesterday, after arriving home at 3 am and sleeping at 4, my friend texted me at 7:30: did I want to go to As Shuwaymiya? Never mind that he was also out until 3 the night before, I grabbed my camera and my new machete, and off we drove, for nearly 900 km! I still can’t see how he did it, I was falling asleep before we got to Thumrait. But he just drove and drove. We stopped and ate lunch in the mess hall at the Marmul oil fields. That was a lot nicer than I expected. All men but it wasn’t as horrible as it could have been. They were polite and the surroundings were clean. There are even flowers about. I was not allowed to take photos but got one off before I found out, and it is pictured somewhere here. It’s all these stickers. I recognize two. For the rest, it’s the first time I’ve seen them.
Then we were off, first to Shalim, then on to Shuwaymiya, which was shocking in its remoteness. There were no trees; the vegetation was tufts of grasses, and rocks. The water was a rich turquoise and almost flat. But it was the first time I’ve seen a place like this in Oman. Road work is going on to link this place with Hasik and when this happens and you will be able to drive right up the coast from Salalah to Muscat then I think some services and money will find their way to Ash shuwaymiya but in the meantime I thought I was in Mauritania. Really it looked the same. I saw no cow milk, nor meat, but they had plenty of fish. Lots of structures in the shape of shipping containers. A purely industrial beach, lined with small fishing boats. A couple of hardscrabble shops and restaurants. Partially erected walls and small piles of concrete blocks. Huts made of cardboard. Laundry hanging along the sides of houses. No police. And, incongruously, the Emir of Kuwait built a palace, small for his position, but still, a walled palace, just past town, in the middle of the road, splat. Now the road goes around it. Really this is something to see. He must come by helicopter. And every single thing must be flown in with him. I doubt they have produce in Shuwaymiya, or milk. It’s really remote. And the road is nowhere near being paved. But it was interesting, like being at the end of the earth, in much the same way as Western Sahara feels like, but with a calmer sea. Even though the population is also Bengalis, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the photos I’ve seen of Somaliland. New government housing stands at the edge of town, waiting completion.
We made it as far as Sharbithat, which is maybe even remoter but the hand of the government appears to have reached faster. New villas have been built for the local Omani families and they live free of charge. Lots of women out, and kids shouting the usual How are you fine? as we passed. Slowly, this moderization goes everywhere, raising the living standards, and providing education and all services. The Omani families evidently rent their fishing boats out to the Bangladeshi or Bengali fishermen for half the days catch and clunky old refrigerator trucks lumber down the road, taking their catch to Marmul, or Thumrait, or even Salalah.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I came home today, after whooping up at the farmers market (think fresh curry leaves, pineapple, eggplant, garlic, bananas, a very strange orange squash-type thing, tomatoes and eggs) to an apartment full of smoke. Maybe it shows my complete sense of placidity, but instead of worrying there was anything wrong I merely ambled into the bedroom, where I found smoke pouring in through the window. Outside they were cutting back and burning part of a eucalyptus tree.
Well! I’ve been waiting for just such an event!
Downstairs I flew and proceeded to drag several large branches back up with me. You see, I have reserved my smallest still for an unexpected herbal opportunity and here it is. Wasu takes it completely in stride, I am a crazy American woman, no problem.
Tomorrow I hope to try my hand at distilling something other than Luban.
We shall see.
By the way, I also scored small harvest bottles of Palestinian and Syrian Olive oils! Oh the glory of it!
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Latin names. This is something that I think a lot of aromatherapy people might feel outrage about, if they read this. All the aromatherapy books tell you that you must have the Latin name of the bottle, or the oils are probably not good, not what you are expecting to buy, unreliable, whatever. In principal it sounds logical for sure. And probably some big companies actually test for the constituents known to be present in this species of that one. Some big companies. Maybe a few. But what about small producers? These are our primary suppliers. And I suppose there are a few who are rigorous about making sure that all seeds that they sow are really in truly from the proper species: lavandula angustifolia, Lavandula spicata, lavandula x intermedia, etc for example. Immediately, though, a problem crops up: what is the difference between lavandula angustifolia, vera and officinalis? No one can agree yet lots of people get really irate about it. How about lemon verbena: Alyosia tryphyllata (probably not spelled right) or Lippia citriodora? Again, people come into enfleurage all the time to argue for one or the other of these. In both cases, of lemon verbena and also lavender, I think it’s a question of time, of one name superseding the other. Why, really, does anyone care?
Since I own an aromatherapy company, I have to pay attention to it, but it’s a losing battle. Sometimes we can get away with just putting the newer name on but in many cases, the distillers have absolutely no idea what’s in there, latin-wise.
It’s true. I have asked some of our farmers what they’ve harvested and they tell me “peppermint” or “chamomile” or “lavender” but they can’t go on from there. These three are admittedly all easy to figure out though. The more wiggly ones are the wild harvest. What exactly is the difference between black spruce, white spruce, hemlock spruce, arborvitae, white pine, red pine, balsam fir, Douglas fir (that’s an easy one though), and the rest? Is it really so simple that the entire forest consists of these conifers and only these? I can tell the differences in the oils, that’s not what I mean when I say what’s the difference. I mean, what exactly gets distilled as white pine? Is it really Pinus glauca? Or are there other white pines? I think our conifer supplier is actually very good about this, but it illustrates the question.
Obviously, the reason I’m all over this right now are my usual two: agarwood and frankincense. Long ago I wrote an article saying something about Cambodian and Lao agarwood and calling it Aquilaria crassna. Really, I did a little research but I am no botanist and I have no idea. Now people are writing about this crassna everywhere. I did ask a friend once, and he is a botanist, and specializes in agarwood, but there are not too many of him around. Most agarwood distillers have no idea at all what the species is. They will all say what is expected of them, because people ask. And the gatherers have no idea about this either, of course. People love the aromatics gathered and made by indigenous people everywhere, but really, what is any non-scientist going to know about these old Latin names?
People take it very seriously, though, and I know many will write to me to tell me I’m wrong, and this or that is documented. Well, all I can say is that I don’t think so.
Sometimes I see photos of lovely distilleries, often in delightful France, open to the public, with pretty reception areas, smiling distillers in lab coats and lots of clean, well labeled samples, perhaps some potted plants, the quiet hum of gcs and computers, and lunch afterward, followed by a stroll though the charming herb garden at the back door.
Those do exist. But most of the distilleries we work with are not at all like that. I am happy that they are clean (usually) and practice quality control. And much of the time, when I ask what the latin name is, the eyebrows furrow and they ask what I mean by this. Or, more commonly, they know a couple latin names, based on what they read grows there, the common name, and any parallels they can run between them. But that’s it.
Frankincense is even more wiggly than agarwood, in my opinion. Now, I recently learned that in Oman we have Boswellia serrata. That’s according to Roxbury. Ok, fine. But saying we have boswellia serrata; therefore all our Luban is this serrata is like saying if it has 4 legs it must be a cat. There is no way I will believe that all our trees are one species. The differences between the Mughsayl trees and the trees after Mirbat on the way to Hasik and the trees in Ayoon are enormous. And the Nedjd trees again, and those trees in the Fizayah road. There are probably lots more than these, but these are the major ones I know, and to say they are the same would be like calling a chamomile a daisy, or perhaps a spaghetti squash a zucchini. So here I am distilling this gum, some of which I know where exactly from where it comes, and some I just know the area, but latin names? Maybe these guys have Somalia all figured out, but not Oman, I promise you. And I highly doubt Somalia either, and what about Soqotra? Luban also comes from there and a one botanical enclyclopedia mentioned that there are at least 8 types of Luban on the island that haven’t been named yet! (Soqotra is an island-3 islands actually, but one main one, off the Somali coast and administered by Yemen. It’s most famous for Dragons Blood. The Dragon’s Blood tree even appears on Yemeni coins.)
People ask us for carterii, or fraereana, or serrata, or whatever their aromatherapy book says is “the best one” meaning the one with all the healing properties! Like the other ones don’t have those healing properties! Someone’s done a test for this? Please! Would like to see it if they have! The Omanis can tell you all about healing properties –it’s their heritage after all—but not by latin name!
I’ll have to get to the endangered species/sustainable harvest one later as I hear the Muezzin calling afternoon prayers, which means I am off to do some yoga.