Taxi Drivers: Oman’s National Treasure

Just as I was starting to think I should have been studying Hindi in preparation for this trip, I discovered the treasure trove of Muscat’s taxi drivers!  It is almost worth the cost of the ride just for the language practice and tutorials.

We got a gem tonight on the way to the souk.  He has provided taxi services for 20 years and is a natural encourager and teacher.  A woman from our small town had taken a cruise, which stopped a day in Muscat – I spoke with her a couple of months ago.  After touring the Middle East, what did she come back raving about?  Her taxi driver who drove her all over as she travelled as a single woman alone.  He brought her home and his wife and children made her feel like part of their family for the evening.  Muscat’s unsung heroes!

Our destination for the night was the souk and dinner.  There is something about the colors and aromas that mellow me quickly out.  A spice vender sold me frankinscence – for myself, I want to bring home gold, frankinscence and myrrh.  Knowing I couldn’t ship my purchases home with household goods at the end of a military tour put a real cramp in my buying!

A different gem of a taxi driver earlier in the day had recommended a restaurant that serves Omani food.  We dined there this evening and loved it. We were served frankinscence water while mulling over the menu.  We shared two different traditional foods, which were both delicious.  Then the server brought us a dish of dates.  This date stuff is going to have to stop or I will gain a ton, but they are so marvelously good.  I think I read somewhere that a man traveling by camel received all the nutritional value he needed from only 12 dates per day.  I could have kept a man alive with the dates I have eaten since our plane landed in Muscat today!

Then, as we left the restaurant, a man sprinkled our hands with rosé water.  This is truly a magical place.  Earlier, while eating we heard the evening call to prayer from several mosques.  I made a recording, but my mullah had a frog in his throat and kept coughing.  I will try to get a better recording tomorrow.  It was very moving to listen to as the lights below glittered and we looked out on the waters toward the Sultan’s yacht.  Very satisfying evening.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel

Since arriving an hour ago, we have been showered with attendants each offering a different gift or service.  First came cool moist towelettes offered on a pewter platter to wipe away the dust from out trip.  Then appeared a wooden box full of dates stuffed with a variety of things;  I chose one filled with pistachios, I think.  Then, I chose another … and another.  They were other worldly.  The next attendant offered tiny porcelein teacups full of Omani tea.  All this was while Tom completed registration.

Early this morning, we ate breakfast in Khasab before being driven to the airport for our flight to Muscat.  This was a chance to observe more locals and observe their manner and dress.  The flight was a short 45 minutes.  It took longer than that for our luggage to arrive – it was sent to the wrong terminal.  Our driver had met us as we descended from the plane, however, and took care of everything.  He was young, his birthday is tomorrow; he will be only 31 years old and has three small boys who have a surprise for him.  He amiably told us about everything we were passing as we drove through several small neighborhoods on the way to our hotel.

Al Bustan was built for oil-rich royalty.  His Majesty Sultan Qaboos was going to host a meeting of the GCC but had no place for royalty to stay, so he built a palace for their comfort.  The chosen location was home to a village of fisherman, but no problem -he built a new neighborhood for them, replacing their old homes with beautiful new ones, complete with air conditioning.  So now, Muscat had its first luxury hotel, which has been voted the finest in the Middle East.  Words cannot describe the interior beauty – better to Google the hotel and see photos there.Notable, however was a gingerbread house to the right as we entered and an enormous Christmas tree across the lobby – it must be several stories high.

Ah, another attendant ringing a our door . . . This one brought a box of chocolates and personal note of welcome, just for me!

 

Musandam Adventures

Dhow cruise, porpoises, and a four-wheel drive trip to the top of the highest point in the Musandam Peninsula filled our two days in the northernmost tip of Oman.

Our trip among the fjords, which lie just miles from the nation of Iran, was characterized by soul-cleansing breezes, embracing sunshine, a million lights twinkling up from the crystalline waters, and rolling waves, sometimes lively and sometimes not. Texture – the day was rich in texture: the worn and layered fjords, the colorful wooden dhows set against ever-changing backdrops, the multiple nationalities, languages and rich cultures, the sights, the sounds the tastes. The day on the water was very sensual.

Our sky-blue and white fiber glass dhow wasn’t as beautiful as the authentic wooden ones, but it was livelier in the water, bobbing down low and flying high out of the sea with each big wave.  It felt like white-water river rafting.  The wooden dhows plowed through the waves and continued smoothly on their sedate way.  I preferred the wild adventure.  Pillows lined the edges of the boat and oriental rugs covered the floors.  Everyone found a comfortable spot and reclined against the firm pillows as the engine hummed and the boat vibrated gently along.

A team of swarthy Indians manned the boat, one a supervisor, the other a man of all trades who made and served sweet Omani tea and lunch in addition to tending to the safety and needs of the passengers, and also managed the anchor as we came to coves for swimming and snorkeling. Passengers included families from Belgium, France, Uganda, Italy and America.  Children frolicked while adults relaxed and conversed, each meeting the others as the day wore on.

Only two wore bikinis – one was a sweet, tawny French teenager who was there with her parents, siblings and boyfriend.  The other was a chubby, middle-aged Italian man in his speedo – why do men never have to worry about their tummies sagging?

We saw a jelly fish, schools of little yellow fishes, and all sorts of porpoises.  When I am somewhere where the Internet works consistently, I will try to post pictures.

After a full day on the water, we returned home dead tired and dropped into bed without even eating supper.

Today we were driven to the top of the highest peak on the Musandam, on a delightfully twisting and bumpy road with gorgeous views.  The mountains here seem to be cobbled together with rocks and mortar.  I felt as though Gaudi had been there before me resurfacing the hillsides.  I wanted to search the little niches looking for hidden saints – color and texture reminded me of Sagrada Familia.  We met and photographed my first Oman man.  He carefully told us he has six children, four boys and two girls and two grandchildren and one wife.  We have pictures to share when we are able.  Meeting Omanis, or even Arabic speakers has been a real challenge.

Tomorrow, we will fly to Muscat and move into Al Bustan Palace Hotel, our home for the next week.

 

Oman and the Arabian Sea

After four days in the hustle and bustle of city life, we are now in Oman.  Our driver picked us up this morning and took us along a coastal highway to the Musandam Peninsula, the northernmost part of Oman.  The Arabian Sea (Persian Gulf) peeked through homes, building and dunes until we neared Oman, then we followed along its turquoise and aqua coastal waters.  Following a twisting road carved out of the mountains over the sea, we finally arrived at our hotel sitting on a precipice high above the waters.

Khasab is mostly a little stretched-out fishing village, but off its shores is some of the best diving/snorkeling in the Middle East.  Colorful coral is home to a wide variety of fish.  Dolphins swim here.  We will join them tomorrow when we go out on a half-day dhow cruise.  Tom will snorkel; I am ambivalent.  Some of those fish writers wax eloquent about can kill us.  I will dress for swimming and decide later whether I want to do that or just enjoy the view and take pictures.  Now, to bed.

Wet, Cold, and Frozen on a Big Bus

In ten years he had never experienced weather like this, said our taxi driver. Regrettably,  this was our day to tour Dubai on an open-air bus – a Big Red Bus.  It started out as a cool, overcast day, a little disappointing but ok day.  We took our seats at the top and prepared ourselves for an easy intro to this sci-fi looking city.

Traveling along, our English-speaking recorded guide told us about everything we passed.  At Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a magical, luxury reconstruction of an Arabic souk,  I could barely resist putting on one of the diaphanous gowns, grabbing a hookah pipe and stretching out any of the hundreds of lavishly decadent silk Persian carpets.  Drunk on the rich aromas, we floated down the aisles, nearly hyperventilating from deeply inhaling the soft, enveloping scents – not overpowering, rather mood altering.

Eventually, we dragged ourselves out – it was our first stop and the stores were only now opening – it was too early to sit and have coffee at one of the enticing restaurants or cafes.  This is when the weather began to go downhill.  We transferred to another Big Bus line and headed out to the Arabia Sea to Atlantis the Palm, an other-worldly, palm-patterned set of islands created by hauling rock from distant mountains to make a water break, then dredging and relocating sand from the Arabian Sea, with the use of a GPS and over the course of several years, to form a patterned land mass visible from outer space.

As we drove a half mile out into the sea on a land bridge, it began to rain and the winds picked up.  Increasing more miserable, I was grateful for my North Face jacket and crocheted hat.  At the Mall of the Emirates, which was more like any nice mall with two or three floors, we warmed up with coffee and pain au chocolate at a Cold Stone on third floor.  Tom was still hungry afterwards, so we shared a chicken breast at the Texas-themed, El Paso BBQ, which was interesting because you would never, ever go to El Paso for BBQ.

Tom bodily dragged me out into the cold again and back to the Big Bus stop.  Through weather worthy of Belgium, we huddled together as the bus drove a long straight, endless stretch of highway.  In all this, we never considered escaping to the enclosed, heated section of the bus – that would be quitting, but our companions began to dwindle down to a Nordic-looking family and a Korean couple.  By now, I was longing for my warm hotel room bed, heaped with blankets, but more was to come.

We were not going to enjoy several things we had been looking forward to, but the biggest disappointment was a sunset tour in the desert.  We also were passing on a dhow cruise and water bus ride – no way were we going out on the water again, no matter how charming the idea!  I was so thankful we had walked and dined along Dubai Creek our first day here.  I regretted putting off the gold and spice markets until today; I could not face them in the gale.  So our last unmissable stop was another indoor mall, the Dubai Mall, which turned out to be our best stop of the day.

The biggest mall in the world (bigger than Mall of the Americas?!?!), it has over 1200 shops, an ice rink, aquarium and is the gateway to the Burji Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and to a lovely fountain.  What excited me was “The Souk” within.  At last I was seeing the shopping grounds of very-rich emirati ladies in search of yet another elegant frock.  Because of technical mountains I cannot overcome, I still cannot post photos, but they are coming, perhaps not until we return home – so frustrating to be without my computer.  There was also an haberdashery where men could come to be measured for a new kandora/dishdasha.  Twenty or so igals  were displayed in the window, and far within we’re the magical scarves that, when properly wound around a man’s head, transformed him from a mere man into an exotic swarthy prince.

Tom went to look at the fountain alone – the cold had taken too much out of me.  We are a long way from Arizona in more ways than one.  While he was gone,  however, fate intervened.  A man came along to evict those of us who were sitting – customers only, he said.  But where was the shop?   I asked.  Around on the other side of a hump he motioned, and what was there? A build your own frozen yogurt shop!  That you, Lord, I silently exclaimed!  Surely this was manna in the wilderness!  Forgetting the cold, I measured out a small amount of yogurt into my cup, added blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, granola, and almonds, and was soon ready to face anything the skies might throw at me.  I saved some for Tom’s return, explaining it was eat or be evicted, and I couldn’t stand longer.  Sounded like a good story to me, manna in the wilderness and all!

Again we returned to the bus, which hurtled down the freeway toward the mall where we had started the day.  With some difficulty, Tom finally beat back the competition and won a cab ride home.  For supper, we visited the local donar kebab – really fresh and tasty and, finally, returned to our warm room.

Tomorrow, finally, we will be picked up by our driver and driven two hours to the Musandam Peninsula and the famous Straits of Hormuz, our first glimpse of Oman.

Christmas in Dubai

Kaleidoscope of colors everywhere today.  Sang Christmas carols with Christians from 20  – 30 nations, together in church on land provided by a Muslim government.  Met a lot of people, including a swarm of US Sailors and US Marines bussed in from their ship, now docked in Dubai.  They, too, are on their way to Muscat and Salalah.  They are here for an exercise, so our accommodations will be much nicer.  Each one had a story of family and children left behind as they spend their Christmas far away from home serving you and me.

After church, we taxied to Ibn Battuta Mall again.  Words cannot capture our experiences today.  The mall was filled with families dressed in their very best clothes, women in delightful, filmy layered colors, everyone milling around in a kaleidoscope of hues, cultures, and ethnicity, with languages of all kinds floating past.  It was so beautiful to see -and all this was surrounded by the already colorful and textured walls and ceilings of the themed mall.  Tom and I ate on the patio out of doors then returned to Starbucks just to relax, people watch and read.

People of all religions greeted us with, “Merry Christmas.”  It was so very warm and welcoming, not to mention surprising.  The only thing missing today were the rich aromas from the spice shops at the souk yesterday, but there were marvelous smells wafting from the hookah (spell?) machines – do they have a name?

As I sat in Starbucks, I began rereading “Mother without a Mask”. It brought tears to my eyes now that I have seen in person the changes in the country since the idyllic time during which her story begins.  I enthusiastically recommend the book to anyone who loves this part of the world.

Now we are washing our clothes getting all ready for our move to the Musendam Peninsula – we won’t have time tomorrow.

El Fahidi Fort and Old Dubai

Back into Dubai’s past today with a visit to the oldest building in the area and a stroll through an old souk in historic Dubai, followed by dinner along Dubai Creek and a walk through the Heritage Museum, which was mostly closed because of Muhammad’s birthday.

We asked the taxi driver to drop us off in Historic Dubai today.  What a wonderful choice that turned out to be!  We started at Al Fahidi Fort in the old Persian merchant’s neighborhood along Dubai Creek.  The fort has been fully restored and now houses a delightful and well – arranged little museum. Displays are both inside and outside of enclosure and some of the visitors looked so ancient and the displays so authentic that once I excused myself to a statue, and another time I was started by a statue walking away!!!

We picked up some lovely framed leather-work articles of camel and race horses.  And the museum sold new copies of one of my very, very favorite books about Arabia, “Mother without a Mask” by Patricia Holton.  Tom bought me one to replace the volume I had lucked upon for $0.01 at Amazon that was well worn even before I fell in love with it.  It is about a British woman who takes in two sheik’s sons and ends up being invited into their lives in Arabia near Abu Dhabi.  It transitions the years before and after the impact of oil money of the emirates.  Vivid and imaginative read – full of life.

From the fort we walked the streets of the old city and squabbled with merchants over goods – I enjoy the bickering so much!  All in good sport!  Bought a bright red cashmere scarf, some enameled bowls to replace ones from Istabul that had broken over time, and a sting of colored camels (regret that for only $4 more I could have elephants, too, but made a “sensible” decision and said , “No.”).

By then, Tom was getting a little hungry and grumpy, so we walked along the creek until we found a comfortable, folksy restaurant with walls and roof of palm fronds.  Dhows ferried people up and down the creek as we ate our shish kebabs and Arabic salad.  Birds dodged about competing for bits of bread offered by tourists from all over the world.  We lingered over dinner until the restaurant itself was closing.

We meandered along the creek, coming eventually to the Heritage Center, mostly closed because of Muhammad’s birthday.  A few people were in place, however, and we enjoyed them.  One picture in particular, if it turns out will be a treasure.  Regrettably, we both used regular cameras today so we have to find a place where we can transmit from chips to email or FB.  We also visited a home that seemed to be a place where Muslims and others could, meet, talk, and, hopefully from their perspective, accept Muhammad as the last and greatest Prophet.  Had we had more time, it might have been interesting to talk awhile.

All adventures must end, so we wound our way back through the souk, waved down a private car/taxi, and slept most of the way home.  We are listening to Christmas carols in our room now.  Tomorrow, we will celebrate Christmas with a church not too far away.  We chose the hotel for its proximity.  We are kind of hoping for an invitation somewhere, but it is Christmas, so that may not happen.  We’ll see.

Photos coming later!

Ibn Battuta and Star Wars

 

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . ”

After unpacking in our hotel, our first adventure was to a mall based on the travels of Ibn Battuta, a Middle Eastern Marco Polo.  The theme-based mall has six courts based on places he visited – Andalucia,  China, Persia, India, Tunisia, and Egypt.

Every franchise you could imagine is here plus local stores and carts, even Border’s Bookstore, which has closed down in the States.  We found a baklava cart – baklawa here – and bought a small box to enjoy with our Starbuck’s.  After buying a few groceries, we saw there was a theatre there, so we finally were able to see the new Star Wars.  It was so moving -Tom and I both cried over the last 10 to 15 minutes, as I am now remembering.

After the movie, the locals were around up until that point we saw mostly only non-Emeratis.  When they, finally, began arriving, we began seeing women in stunning versions of the basic black shroud – gold and black, silver and black, faces visible or eyes only.  Perhaps half with husbands in either flowing white robes with the characteristic red cheched head dress and black band holding it in place.  Forty years ago, Tom and I were taught these were kuffiya, Iqal, and abaya but that is not true here – don’t remember to local names.

Now, this morning, we are cleaned and washed and ready to decide where to go.  It is the Prophet’s birthday, a day off for some workers and for Muslims but a normal work day for many, many support personnel.

Home Sweet Dubai

Thankfully settled into hotel in Dubai.  We soon are going out scavengering for food but wanted to record initial impressions.  First, to Lisa, my personal trainer:  bless you!  As I effortlessly heaved up my 20 lb backpack in a bicep curl time after time I thought of you.  Same thing when I went into squats to lift bags – you prepared me to be my own Sherpa – thanks!   ;-).  Then, Dubai . . .

Ironically, in London the airport was stuffed full of Middle Easterners.  In Dubai, it was full of Westerners.  I don’t know if that is typical or whether we might be doing a big population shift for the holidays.

Second impression, you put a dishdasha on any man and he looks gorgeous.  All the low-level, tourist managers in the airport wore them, and I swear they looked like royalty.

Third impression while driving through downtown Dubai, if I were an architect, I would want to work here.  Wildly imaginative skyscraper designs, all . . . scraping the skies!  Sydney came to mind at times.  The tallest building in the world (unless someone has built one taller since the writing of my tour book) is here.

Fourth impression . . . It is disappointingly smoggy – don’t know if it is really smog or just dusty.  I felt a little like I did the first time I saw the Washington Monument through a yellow layer.  I wish I could have seen this spot 50 years ago.

Finally, this will be a super place to meet people from elsewhere.  Our cab driver was from India and our bell hop from Nepal.  Another man I met was from Denmark and a couple in the lobby with the spouse well wrapped, perhaps from one of the more conservative countries.  (A side note, an observation – she looked very tired and he treated her so very sweetly.  They clearly were fond of each other.  I am trying to come to terms with my feelings about burkas – they don’t seem to mean the same to the women wearing them as they do to a western woman)

Enough for now.  Tom has fallen asleep, but we are on our way to a mall named after the Middle Eastern version of Marco Polo, an explorer named Ibn Battuta.