November 13th, 2019

Photo by Linda Olson


I am in Muscat, Oman, on my last day in the Middle East. Barren, rocky mountains loom behind the town, pressed into a tiny strip between land and sea— a reminder that people don’t easily make a place for themselves here. Beyond the mountains lie hundreds of square miles of sand dunes, the “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian desert.

Hardship brings communities together, but scarcity of resources can also work the other way.The Middle East illustrates both. Competition over water has pitted families against each other for centuries, while within these communities, I am told, one will not find greater friendliness and hospitality anywhere on earth.

I observe the lovely, languid way women in their black robes and headscarves move through their world, chatting among themselves. I observe the way men are more solitary, how even when in groups they tend to look outward, monitoring everything that passes by. Even today, when water and electricity and other niceties of urban life can be relied upon, their watchfulness may be a culturally embedded remnant of a time when threat had to be continually assessed. Or maybe I am, in my ignorance, reading too much into things again.

Despite the curiosity and desire to learn I bring with me everywhere I go, I am eager to be gone from here. I try to be open and and non-judgmental about other cultures, but this is simply not my kind of place. There’s a public aloofness in this part of the world.  People keep to themselves and public acknowledgment of the presence of strangers is minimal.  That’s fine.  It’s their right. They don’t owe me anything.  But for someone who grew up in a culture that goes overboard to say hello and smile at every social opportunity, it’s a bit of a disconnect.  Also a bit of a relief to be off the hook, not to “owe” them sociability back.

For another thing (hence the title of this piece) I can’t tolerate the desert. By the middle of the day in Doha, our first port, I was beset by a dry hacking cough, which turned into laryngitis the next day, followed by that nasty, noisy, infected cough you get at the end of colds. I seem to be nearing the end of it—much better today, thank you—but when I look back over the years, there seems to be a perfect correlation between these symptoms and being in a desert, whether it is the Atacama, Mojave, or here on the Arabian Peninsula. So yes, I have been literally choking the last few days.

Which brings me to why else I am calling this post “choke.” My two lectures so far have both been done in difficult circumstances. First, we had an unexpected sea day when swells made us unable to use the tenders to visit our port. I had about ninety minutes notice to get showered and dressed, review a lecture I hadn’t planned on giving, add in a few minutes about an additional port, and get early to the lecture venue because it was my first talk and we need a little extra time in case the equipment doesn’t sync. I was a bit frazzled by all of this, but it went off without a hitch. In other words, I didn’t choke. Experience is a blessing.

I woke up the morning of my second lecture barely able to squeak. I tried my usual remedy (hot water with lemon, ginger and honey), and was able to get to a pretty strong croak. My worry was that it would get progressively worse as I talked, but the cruise director and I decided the best course was to try, and then if I was going downhill after ten minutes to stop and reschedule. Much to my surprise, I got through just fine. I might have been literally choking, but I didn’t choke.

I am back on the ship after a morning in the souk. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I bought earrings—three pairs! I am done with the Middle East and now have two sea days before our first stop in India. Challenging in its own way, but at least it’s not a desert!

Fear of Flying

November 4th, 2019

Fortunately, I don’t freak out about hurtling in a tin can above  land and sea.  When the engines roar and the plane speeds up for takeoff, I say to myself, “if this is it, I have had the best run in this life and have no complaints,” a mantra I took from my late husband as he was dying of prostate cancer. I also say a thank you to whatever power might be out there that has protected me, sustained me and enabled me to rise up to meet the day.

I call  this post “fear of flying” not because I have sudden doubts about my safety but because on Wednesday I will embark on an itinerary that, even if it goes smoothly, will be the trip from hell.  Months back,  I got a huge bargain on business class  for what would be under any circumstances a grueling journey from San Diego to Dubai—roughly 50,000 points from a card I had dumped and was trying to zero out my points. Sounded great at the time.

It was what they call a “mixed ticket,” meaning that some legs will be in economy, but the biggie, Toronto to Cairo, and the last leg, Cairo to Dubai, will be in business. That’s okay, because the first two legs, San Diego to Chicago and Chicago to Toronto are in premium economy   Good enough.

the trip from hell part, however is twofold.  First, I have four flights to get there ( the first a red-eye)—four opportunities for game-changing delays and lost luggage ( universe, I did not say that).  Each stop involves a two hour layover, which adds to the hell, but does reduce the risk.

Second, the business class is on Egypt Air, which on the one hand has never crashed that I know of, but upon closer look has crappy seating in business and apparently the most lackluster service in the skies.  And, they serve no alcohol at all.  I don’t care about the last, except that some wine does help with napping. Still, the  happy gene sings in my ear,   at least I won’t be squeezed into Economy.

So what could possibly go wrong, I ask myself, my voice creeping into upper register.  Well, plenty, including my two biggest fears, that I  and/or my luggage won’t arrive on time to catch the ship.  I do that double nightmare “what if” every time I set out, which is why I (and hopefully my bags) always arrive a day early.  Though this one is a bit scarier, I tell myself it will work out somehow. It always does.

Still, when I see my bags slide down on the carousel in Dubai with  enough time to catch the ship, I will heave the biggest sigh of relief ever in my Years of Living Travelly.  Rude attendants, mediocre food, bad departure lounges—all things to shrug off, or maybe write about in my next post. And if there is one, it’s a sign I survived.

UPDATE:  Bags and I all arrived successfully. Thirty hours to get here, even with no delays. This morning we go to the ship!


October 25th, 2019

This post is, for a change, not about Living Travelly. It’s about hair.

I consider myself pretty open to new things, and I admire people who show daring beyond what I am comfortable with. So why is it that going to the hair salon is such a source of existential dread for me?

My hair style hasn’t changed much since high school, except for the thick Sixties bangs I had then, or one foray into a perm when I was swimming before work and had no time to dry my hair. Not my best look, I must reveal—fortunately, I think all photographic evidence has been destroyed.

I don’t want anything even slightly different, just straight chin length blunt cut, thank you very much. I worry inordinately that it will be cut too short ( meaning maybe an inch more than I wanted). That was all I had to worry about before I started to cover the gray, and I got into the world of hair coloring.

In the last year or so, my body chemistry has changed in some way that affects my hair’s ability to take color.  The first time this happened, my hair turned orange. The second time, it looked great when I left the salon but had turned a  deep olive brown by evening.  Finally, i got a formula that worked, and I was good until about six months ago when a stylist on the ship decided that surely I must want a lemon meringue pie on my head. Seriously! I told her I was not leaving the salon until I didn’t look like Carol Channing.

All of these mishaps are pretty drastic, and it’s easy to see why I wasn’t willing to just go with the flow. But yesterday’s trip to the stylist was different. Yesterday made me dig a little  deeper.

By the time my hair has been out in the sun for a few months it is an almost white blonde I think is unflattering. I suggested to my stylist that maybe we go a little darker to cut down the natural bleaching process.  She overdid it a bit with the lowlights and I came home with hair that is more of a reddish brown.

My first reaction was to go back and have her fix it.  My second reaction was, well, you wanted darker blonde, and you were wondering  a while back what you would look like with a hint of red from those Scottish genes, so voila. My third reaction was once again,  geez,  go back and fix it! My fourth reaction was, this doesn’t look bad at all, just different.  So that’s where I am, and the hair is staying.

Actually , I am getting kind of pleased with it.  It’s interesting and different, two things I love, and I am getting in lock step behind it.  Maybe it’s the start of something….

But it got me thinking about why I care so much about an inch of hair, or a shade different than I wanted. Really, how shallow is that?  I have friends with involuntary boldness because of cancer or alopecia, for heaven’s sake. I consider myself strong, confident and well self-actualized, but I guess I should reconsider whether that is as true as I want it to be.

I suspect we all have an internalized view of our physical appearance we carry around with us. I am rarely taken by surprise when I see my reflection in a store window, because I look pretty much the way I thought I did.  Now I look in the bathroom mirror and see something I wasn’t expecting, and that makes me uneasy about myself in the world.  There is some truth in the idea that we dress for other people and maybe I care more about what others think of my physical appearance than I wish to admit.

At any rate, I am not happy with myself for reacting as I did.  I see young people with colored stripes in their hair and think , “if I were young I would do that!”  I think it’s true, but then again, if I haven’t changed my hair much since I was a teenager, maybe I wouldn’t.  Why is it that someone who thrives on change can be so weird in this one area? Why is it that I am so cautious about something so minor, when I will step on a plane and go halfway around the world alone?  I don’t get it. Do you?