In the British movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Judi Dench plays Evelyn Greenslade, a newly widowed housewife whose house must be sold to pay off her husband’s debts. She goes to India with a group of elderly British characters, whose motives for coming to India are as varied as their eccentric personalities. They choose to spend their retirement years at Sonny’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a home for the “elderly and beautiful,” based on pictures on the hotel’s website. Upon arrival, they find the hotel to be dilapidated and mismanaged. Some of the characters embrace the experience, while others seem determined to be miserable.
While staying at the hotel, Evelyn keeps a blog of her activities. She narrates throughout, to her Day 51 moral at the end:
The only real failure is the failure to try.
The measure of success is how we cope with disappointment, as we always must.
We came here and we tried, all of us in our different ways.
Can we be blamed for feeling that we’re too old to change?
Too scared of disappointment to start it all again?
We get up in the morning. We do our best. Nothing else matters.
But it’s also true that the person who risks nothing does nothing. Has nothing.
All we know about the future is that it will be different. Perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same, so we must celebrate the changes.
Because as someone once said, “Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, then trust me, it’s not yet the end.”
I understand Evelyn’s sentiments. Sometimes we feel we’re too old to change. I believed that was the case in my early 50s. I thought nothing would ever change in my humdrum existence. However, at age 54, I went to work abroad in South Korea for the first time ever in my life. From the ages of 55 to 57, I lived and worked in the Sultanate of Oman. I would never have imagined doing such a thing when I was in my thirties and forties, married, raising a family, and doing all the things that were expected of me.
I could have been too scared of disappointment to start it all again. But the life I was living at the time was already a disappointment. What did I have to lose, after all?
I couldn’t say about myself that my only real failure was a failure to try. For I did try. I tried, and for better or worse, my life changed.
While in Korea, the only thing I could think about was my desire to work in the Middle East. It’s a long story, but after September 11, 2001, I became intrigued, almost obsessed, by Islam and the Arab world. I wanted to understand this culture and I read every book I could get my hands on. Since Korea was my first time teaching ESL, I looked at it as putting in my time, adding to my resume, so I could go to the Middle East.
I completed my Master’s degree in International Commerce and Policy in May of 2008. Most of my research was centered in analysis of economic and political issues in the broader Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. One paper was titled Social Ramifications of U.S. Foreign Policy in Egypt. This was a collaborative effort with colleagues which also dealt with the political, economic, and the political-military consequences of U.S. policy in that country. My other research projects included Macroeconomic Prospects for Jordan and Free Trade in the Middle East: A Tool to Achieve Peace and Stability. I wrote about Women’s Empowerment as a Key to Economic Development in Afghanistan. I also wrote papers focused in other areas of the world, including Mexican Judicial Reform and its Effect on the Political and Business Climate. I studied Arabic from 2005-2007 (and not again since, despite living in an Arab country for nearly two years). After going to Egypt, which I adored, for the month of July in 2007, I was determined to work in the Middle East.
I went to Oman in September, 2011, ten years after the horrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers & the Pentagon. It seemed my dream to come to the Middle East had come true.
In Oman, I fell in love with the stark and rugged mountains, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, the wadis and date palms, the forts and ruins and mosques. I fell in love with Omani hospitality and hole-in-the-wall Indian and Pakistani restaurants. I grew to love the call to prayer five times a day. I loved the souqs and their exotic lanterns and incense burners. I loved the scarves Omani women and girls wore on their heads, but I wore around my neck.
Like Evelyn from the Marigold Hotel, I thrived on the experience as much as possible, even though at times it was a lonely existence and a physical and emotional struggle. I figured if I was going to be happy in Oman, I would have to create happiness myself, and so I resorted to the thing I loved best in Korea, traveling with a camera in hand, and sharing my adventures on my blog. When I met my dear friend Mario, I found a like-minded friend who would do these things with me; his companionship increased my enjoyment exponentially. Again, as in Korea, my travels and explorations kept me sane, and less lonely. Besides my travels within the country, I spent my free time reading novels, watching movies, and plotting other travels through the region. While living in Oman, I ventured to Jordan, Greece, Ethiopia, and Nepal. Before I returned home, I spent a month in Spain and Portugal.
I tried to get the most out of my experiences while living abroad. I discovered things about myself: I love to travel, to go out into far-flung corners of a place and explore it, on my own, with a camera in hand, and a willingness to share my experience with words.
I found, disappointingly, that I could be quite intolerant of certain aspects of the culture. I couldn’t understand why people set up restrictions in their society that held them hostage, and under which they were bound to fail. I dislike hypocrisy, which I found ran rampant. I found that the energy and chaos and liveliness I discovered, and loved, in Egypt was lacking in Oman. The Sultan had done a great job of bringing Oman into the modern world, but somehow the country was missing vitality. It seemed to lack a sense of humor and, as the French say, a joie de vivre (joy of living), a cheerful enjoyment of life; an exultation of spirit. It wasn’t long before I became bored with the culture and irritated by its lack of respect for women, its acceptance of cheating and its lack of work ethic. I found Omani citizens’ sense of entitlement annoying, along with its dependence on wasta to get ahead, and its attitude that things will get done, insha’allah, whenever they get done. And then of course, there was the weather. I love four distinct seasons in Virginia, particularly the fall, winter and spring. I’ve never been a fan of summer. Of course, Oman has year-round summer, and heat like I’ve never experienced.
That being said, as in Korea, I met some wonderful Omanis, especially my students, who didn’t hesitate to show their love for me. And I cherished my wonderful friendship with Mario.
As far as work, I realized certain requirements were of utmost importance. Sadly, I didn’t find these things in Oman: I wanted to be respected as a professional; I wanted autonomy to do my job using the experience I had accumulated. I didn’t want to be treated as a robot doing someone else’s bidding, especially when I didn’t agree with it theoretically. I wanted to be commended when I did a good job and appreciated for being dependable. I wanted to be free to speak on any subject in the classroom or any other job environment. I wanted to be able to use technology, which should be a given in this modern world. And most of all, I wanted to work with managers who would listen and respect their workers’ complaints and pay attention when a mass exodus of employees occurs.
I’m NOT one of those people who is unrealistically optimistic, seeing the world always as a rosy, fragrant and heady place. I am realistic. I see things as they are, and sometimes I don’t like what I see. But often, I see a world full of beauty and kindness and adventure. I strive to see things that way; it’s just that I don’t always succeed. I can weigh both sides and put them on the scales so that they’re evenly balanced, the bad and the good. And I can take away an experience that changes me, even if it’s in an unexpected way.
Finally, after living abroad, I think I’ve come full circle. Now that fear I had that nothing would ever change has vanished in the haze. I know that I don’t have to feel stuck; I can change my life whenever I want. That old familiar life has some appeal to me now and I find myself yearning for those familiar routines, those familiar faces.
Now, I feel like one of my favorite characters, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Standing in Oman with my eyes closed, clicking my heels together, saying: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”
*June 28, 2013* – a nomad in the land of nizwa
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, August 29 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, September 3, I’ll include your links in that post.
If you link after August 29, I will not be able to include your link in my next post, so please feel free to add your link to that post as soon as it publishes (since I’m leaving for the Camino on August 31).
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!