Our exit from Oman was swift. We had a chaotic day of cleaning out our apartment, loading our compact car with overweight bags, and scooting our little caravan to Muscat before sunset. A delicious meal awaited us in the home of dear friends, but time was not our guest for the evening. We ended our fast, grabbed a few handfuls of food, and found a large vehicle loaded with our luggage in waiting. Like a non-stop train, we had to keep moving and didn’t pause until we reached the airport.
After redistributing the weight of our luggage, we turned around to meet a co-worker tasked with ushering us out of the country. A satellite office of the Ministry of Manpower took our passports and stamped our resident visas rendering them invalid. We entered a narrow white passageway with no sign or direction but understood that this was our “door of no return”. The security and stability of returning to Oman as our home had ended and returning will mean a totally new relationship with new terms of engagement.
Like a generous last gift before a break-up, our departure flight was booked on Qatar Airlines and we were looking forward to their promise of five-star service. Our economy class seats were adequately comfortable and our vegetarian meal requests were honored. Like most carriers in the Middle East, the vegetarian meal options were familiar Indian dishes. The tastiest offering was an Aloo Matar wrap filled with lightly spiced potatoes and green peas. The other meals weren’t too impressive but a Sponge Bob activity bag for Lil’ Z compensated for what was lacking.
Transiting through Philadelphia, we had dates, frankincense, and nuts to clear through customs. There was a painfully long wait for the customs officers to arrive, especially with so many travelers trying to make their flight connections. After a thorough review of each bag, two more officers came for questioning. No matter how cooperative and friendly we remain nor how redundant the questions may be, we find ourselves returning to the US with the same unpleasant welcoming. It’s an old routine that has become increasingly inconvenient, especially when it means we’ve missed our connecting flight and have to wait another nine hours before the next one.
On a rainy day after a 14-hour flight, our options in Philadelphia were quite clear. We could putz around Philadelphia International Airport, befriending the curious albeit unstable gentleman in a waist wrap. We could find the nearest bus or train to explore the city. Or, we could contact two families in Philly that we know from Facebook and were anxious to meet in person. Relying on the generosity of a smart phone user, I was able to send a quick message on Facebook and get the phone number of a friend. Then, my handy coin purse of quarters enabled me to use a pay phone and in about an hour we were on our way.
On the outskirts of Philadelphia, we found sunshine, dense green trees, and quiet suburbs. Our friends welcomed us with the warmth of their good company and vegan treats to enjoy. Watching our daughters giggle and play and finally sitting face-to-face for heart-to-heart conversations carried over from online chats, it became obvious why we were delayed in Philly. Not only did we meet virtual friends in person but we also met the only other vegan Muslim family we know. The jetlag stepped aside long enough for us to relish in those moments.
The time that eluded us in Oman resurfaced in Philadelphia. We were able to sit in conversation and silence, enjoying the certainty of our presence and pondering the uncertainty of our future. Just as our extended layover in Philadelphia panned out perfectly, we know that we are in the care of the Divine. These detours and stopovers seem unplanned but in reality, they sit in the scheme of a larger plan. After parting with our friends and thanking them for their kind hospitality, we returned to the airport for the last leg of our journey. The two-hour flight was just enough time to recollect what was left of our stamina and press on to our final destination where we were welcomed with warm hugs and delicious vegan, Southern cooking. With our first opportunity to recline horizontally in about 36 hours, we slept without stirring until dawn.