Monday, January 4, 2010

I've Never Been to Yemen, But I've Been Close

I've been an engineer in a lot of places, but until 2007, all of the places were in the United States.  I've had full-time engineering jobs in Cleveland, Ohio, Sumter, South Carolina, Washington, DC and now near Albany, NY, with many of those jobs involving travel all over the country and occasionally to other countries.  I'd always wanted to be a citizen of the world more than a tourist in the world, and in 2007, I got my chance.  A job with a company headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands.  I worked for that company for a year (they run container terminals).  And boy was that year interesting!  Over the last few months I've written some about places I spent time - but I've never written about Oman, until now.

The terminal I went to is in Salalah, Oman, which is near the southern border of Oman near Yemen.  Salalah is probably 75 miles away from Yemen.  Salalah has a cosmopolitan population of about 200,000 people from places like India, Pakistan and the Phillipines, which doubles during the monsoon season (known as khareef), when everything turns lush and green. Compared to the two other middle east cities I've been in, Salalah is not as poor, and much more open to western presence (ie, traffic didn't stop and people didn't stare when I walked outside).

The terminal itself has always filled me with awe.  You can barely see the tiny trucks below those cranes, with huge containers on them.

Here's a closer shot.  Awesome.

We all stayed at the Hilton, where you can look across the way to the terminal.  One piece of knowledge for folks unfamiliar with container terminals, is that when the boom on the crane is sticking up into the air, that's when it's not being used.  When the boom is horizontal, that means a vessel is in the port being unloaded and loaded with shipping containers. The idea is that when a vessel arrives, it should be unloaded and loaded again as quickly as possible, because, similar to airplanes, when ships are not moving, they aren't making money.  Salalah is a transshipment terminal, similar to an airline hub, where vessels drop off cargo and other vessels will pick it up to take it further to the destination.  Shipping lines have fixed routes, similar to airlines, so a container enroute will often have to spend time at a transshipment terminal or two on it's way.

One of my first days there, an Australian colleague drive me south to Mughsail Beach, about halfway to Yemen.  The beach is stunning, with the mountains coming right down to the sea, rivaling some of the prettiest of the western US coast for beauty.

Then we drove further south, not all the way to Yemen, but close to a checkpoint.  The mountains are very forbiddding there.

We visited the house of a friend and saw camels, scrounging for lunch in trash cans.  The houses there were huge and opulent.  Big rooms, high ceilings - the flat we visited was probably larger than my house!

I was there for 3 weeks and taught 2 classes.  Here's my co-instructor teaching, while I get to sit in the back of the room. I love those hats!  Each one has an intricate pattern, different from all the others.

I was a little concerned about being a woman teaching a class full of men in the middle east, but those concerns were completely unfounded.  The men were very nice, respectful, and paid attention.  A few of them had parents that escaped Yemen, when that country became less hospitable a generation ago.

This is one of the few times that I will ever be somewhat familiar with a country that is pasted all over the news as being a bad country.  Of course I don't have direct knowledge, since I've never been there, but some of the students in Oman had Yemeni parents.  And they were ... normal, nice people.  There's a danger in generalizing about far away countries because of some sensationalistic news reports. 

The most valuable lesson I learned from my year abroad is that every place in the world is filled with nice people.  I never in a million years thought I would ever spend any time in Oman.  But now that I have, I'm glad, and thankful to have had my horizons extended.


  1. Very interesting post, Jordan! This is an area of work and commerce that I don't know anything about, and the international dimension is fascinating. And thanks for that info about cranes! In my city in NY, I only see the booms sticking up on cranes when they are working on the big buildings.

    How much snow did you get? We only got a couple inches, but VT was clobbered.

  2. I think I got a foot and a half, unevenly distributed. 3-4 feet in drifts, and about 9 inches everywhere else after the wind stopped last night.