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!