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Peace Corps Days: A Long Time Gone but not Forgotten

by | May 9, 2024 | Oman | 2 comments

In January 2024, Julie and I embarked on a 21-day DIY adventure in the Sultanate of Oman, located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, just beyond Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE. This journey was my personal pilgrimage, a return to the country where I lived 45 years ago as a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. When I arrived in Oman to begin my teaching career, the school system had existed for only 7 years, so both the school system and I were new!  I lived in Oman from 1977-79 taught English and helped with small medical projects in two small towns.

Public School in Ibri
Public School in Ibri, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer.

During those years, I was a student of the Arabic language, being fully immersed in the language and the culture, plus sharing homes with teachers from Sudan in my first year and a Palestinian from Amman, Jordan in my second year. It was a challenging, exciting, and transformative experience that has forever stayed with me and informed my personal and professional life.

My running ridge in Ibri above my home and school in the Peace Corps 1978
My running ridge in Ibri above my home and school in the Peace Corps 1978

I would like to give a taste of my Peace Corps experience by sharing some stories from my two years in Oman. 

Living with Sudanese in Al Buraimi: 1977-78

During my first year in Oman, I lived in Al Buraimi, a town on the border of the UAE. I lived with four Sudanese teachers in a house in the old village with a walled compound. There was no electricity but we had a propane stove and fridge and a Honda generator for lights at night. It was a three-bedroom house (that sounds much grander than it actually was.). I had my own room and bathroom (a luxury for sure, though it was squat toilet that huge roaches would sometimes rise out of and try to invade my room, which had barred windows to keep larger animals out (I think). The four Sudanese slept in the same room together, while I was tucked away in my own room. Our housing arrangements reflected our respective cultures spot on. 

Remnants of a large traditional Omani house
Remnants of a large traditional Omani house. Everyone lived in houses of mud and stone when I lived in Oman

The other bedroom was for the Sudanese guests who would show up on the weekend for marathons of a card game that was like Spit, but played much more vigorously as the cards were slapped down, and good-natured accusations of cheating would fly. One of my housemates, Sideeq, became my friend and Arabic tutor, whom I repeatedly tortured with my constant “Whys” about Arabic grammar. The Sudanese who I met were wonderful kind people and well-trained teachers. I sometimes wonder how they have survived in Sudan during these difficult times there.

Another Typical Omani Mud House
Another typical Omani mud house

The Thanksgiving Miracle

Very early in my first year in Buraimi, I had a bad case of Dysentery from drinking from an unprotected neighborhood well in Muscat (yes bad idea, I know.) I won’t spend too long going into the gory details, but I lost about 35 pounds in 7 weeks. Needless to say it wasn’t pleasant. I was a little overweight when I arrived, so luckily I had some weight to spare. Based on information from another volunteer, The Peace Corps wanted to medivac me out to Germany but couldn’t get me on the phone because I was still working, so they let it drop….And so we get to the Thanksgiving miracle of 1977.

thanksgiving turkey feast
Turkey dinner for the Peace Corps volunteers

Unexpectedly, I received an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner on an experimental dairy farm run by a bunch of Texans….Who knew? Well, I arrived for Thanksgiving dinner about 35 pounds lighter, still suffering from Dysentery and surprising my co-volunteers with my physical transformation. Several volunteers and Peace Corps staff went to the dairy farm and had a great traditional TD dinner with plenty of cold beer. We all had a ripping time together. It was a “real treat” for the volunteers, and we were grateful to the Texans for a little taste of home. 

Thanksgiving dinner
T-Day dinner with all the fixens

Meanwhile, while I was eating and drinking all day, I was also running to the toilet. Thank god for small favors…  it was a regular sit-down toilet, not a hole for squatting, like at my home. We stayed until night time and then a group of us piled into the Peace Corps Land Cruiser and headed to Sohar, a town on the coast where we were all staying. We drove on the beach, talking and laughing as the full moon was rising over the sea; it was a fantastic sight….Wabi Sabi for sure.

So, the next morning, I wake up and voila, my Dysentery is gone?? I couldn’t believe it and figured it was only a temporary reprieve….. But no, it was fully gone, never to return for the rest of my time in Oman. For me that was a miracle! I think my body must have been shocked by the infusion of all that great Thanksgiving food, drink, and good cheer; it was also the beginning of living a healthier life, which I had not been doing as a college student in New Jersey before going into the Peace Corps.        

Decorative doors on gates commonly led into the garden compounds of traditional houses
Decorative Islamic Crescent and Star Design on gates lead into the garden compounds of traditional houses

When the school year ended in Buraimi, I lost my teacher housing with the Sudanese as they all went home. I was sleeping on a cement slab in my sleeping bag in front of my PC friend’s room in the local hospital complex; she had gone home. I needed to find something to do and a place to live. Luckily I was offered a job helping students who hadn’t passed their final English exam in the town of Ibri in eastern Oman, and I jumped at it. The move there turned out to be a good change, and I got myself transferred there for the next school year. Ibri was, and still is, a market town for the surrounding area, so it had a lively market. I met great people and had a very interesting second year in the Peace Corps. 

A typical house from the Ibri Old Villag
This is a typical house from the mostly abandoned Ibri Old Village. I felt the ghosts of past times while walking through the village.

When I moved to Ibri for the 1978-79 school year, I met a couple, Jeff and Ula, and we became good friends. Jeff was from the UK and Ula was from Finland. They had met in Yemen, where they had lived before coming to Oman. Jeff was the manager of the local British Bank of the Middle East, and he was fluent in Arabic. Ula, who also spoke Arabic well, worked as a midwife and nurse at a local hospital.  

Bahla Souq traditional shop
Bahla Souq tradtional shop

Jeff and I had several great adventures in the surrounding countryside and remote villages. We visited these villages and often spent time in a local fort sharing tea and chatting with local people. We talked in Arabic because the older people in the villages did not know English, but when the kids found out that I was an English teacher, they would bring out their English books and try to speak to us in English. Other times, we explored the desert and mountains over unpaved roads. We visited caves with water and swam among the Stalactites.

On one adventure, we were in a sudden downpour and had to cross a flooded wadi. We were in Jeff’s military-grade Land Rover, so we thought we could cross the wadi but didn’t want to get washed away. We talked in Arabic to locals and one old man took us off the main road and showed us an area were the flooded wadi was not deep; he demonstrated this to us by walking into the water and we followed him to make it safely across…local knowledge is the best when traveling on unknown roads. 

Occasionally, we headed over to the camp for the engineers building the new roads in our area, where we could enjoy some cold beers in their camp and cool off in their air conditioning after a long hot day of exploration. We also visited the homes of locals who collected old jewelry, carpets, and other artifacts from Oman and Yemen that we would buy.

Ula was a dedicated caregiver and one time, she came racing up to my house in her car. She asked me to come to the hospital to see if I could give blood to a woman who had almost bled to death. Unfortunately, my blood type did not match and the woman died. There was no tradition of donating blood; it was an unknown idea at that time. That was such a sad event that Ula and I started educating the younger people about this concept, and I brought my older students to the hospital to be blood-typed. 

Modern medical building in Ibri
A modern medical building in Ibri: A lot of Ayurvedic clinics in Oman as many Indians live there

When I wasn’t with Jeff, I mostly got around by hitchhiking. Every car could function as a “taxi” as hitchhiking wasn’t known. I would stand by the road and wave my hand to get a car to stop. We would negotiate a price and off we would go. During these rides, I would speak Arabic with the driver and tell him why I was living in Oman. Often, at the end of the ride, the driver would refuse the money after our conversation in Arabic. One time, while I was riding with two men,  I was bitten by a large wasp, a diesel with wings.  I had just gotten in the car so they didn’t know that I spoke Arabic. The driver said to the other guy that they needed to get a lime to rub on the bite so that I would not die. I responded in Arabic….”What did you say about my dying?” They were very surprised.  Needless to say, we found a lime to treat the wound, and though my finger was swollen for several days, I survived. 

There were many more experiences during this year, too many for this post. Finally, the school year and my Peace Corps experience ended in June 1979. I took one final ride across the desert from Ibri to Muscat past familiar oasis towns I would not see again for 45 years.  After a short stay in Muscat relaxing and saying goodbye to the other volunteers, I left Oman and headed to Kenya, where I would spend the next two months and where I discovered that knowing Omani Arabic helped me to understand Swahili along the Kenyan coast, which the Omanis had previously controlled for centuries. The two-year Peace Corps experience in Oman left an indelible mark on me that I carry and benefit from until today. 

Until next time, see you on down the road!


Restored castle fortress in Ibri
Like all larger towns, Ibri has a restored castle fortress. In the Peace Corps, I hung out there to drink tea and talk with the guards.

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2 Comments

  1. Jacqueline Garcia

    What a wonderful Peace Corp experience, John. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences.. I’m glad you got to return after all the years.

    Reply
  2. John ONeill

    Thanks for reading Jackie. It was very cool to return after so many years and see how the country has developed so nicely.

    Reply

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