Royal Cavalry

Handsome.

That is the one word I would assign to all we saw today.  Handsome and beautiful.  The soldiers and staff, the magnificent Arabians and thoroughbreds, and the grounds of the Royal Cavalry of the Sultanate of Oman. By request, I will not post pictures here, keeping them only for private enjoyment,  but the stable felt serene and would have fit harmoniously in the southwest.  This was without a doubt the high point of our visit.

We were picked up at 9:30 by one of the general’s drivers in a Cavalry sedan.  During the long trip across town to the seaside village of Seeb, we listened to soothing classical music on BBC.  Turning off the highway at the Seeb exit, we drove along the wall of the compound to a guarded gate.  Guards questioned our driver briefly and let us pass.  We parked by a rose-sand colored, flat-topped building edged by pink flowering bushes.  When I asked to take pictures, we were told he had to ask his Boss.  Who is that? General Abdi.

The General was still in his meeting, so we were entertained awhile by his director of administrative things, served hawala, the Omani sweet made from brown sugar, and offered coffee by an Indian civilian in white shirt and pants.  He stood quietly at attention when not serving – very interesting.  After awhile, we were passed off to another soldier who drove us to the stable area where we met their currently-racing stock, both thoroughbreds and Arabians. Their trainer and a jockey described each mount’s achievements.  Did I mention handsome?  Omanis, without any doubt, won the gene-pool lottery.

After caressing, patting, and scratching an impressive collection of beautiful horses, including an 28-year-old welch pony, who had earned its way into this impressive company through years of loyal service, we visited a small but interesting museum.  It was filled with gifts given to the Sultan by various governments.  There were ornate saddles and other tack, and also a poster of Omani Army ranks.  I have been trying to find this information and hadn’t been able to do so.  I wish I could have taken a picture.

Eventually,  we received a call that General Abdi had finished his meeting and would like us to return to his office. We came, shook hands, and were guided into his office.  I immediately wanted to laugh – every surface was covered with horse statues that were probably gifts from everyone who had visited down through the years.  Just as we did, they had searched for “just the right gift for the General.”  I bet he would be delighted to receive a camel one day.  Ah, no! Not a camel.  We learned last night that he hates camels.  (I am sure there is a good story behind that.)  But at least, a present that was different and unique!

A woman was also in the room with us.  She sat next to the General and was introduced as his sergeant.  I recognized her from one of the DVDs about the Cavalry – she had sweetly helped one of the female riders mount her horse.  I had assumed she was a mother or sister, but she is actually in charge of all the female riders.  I wondered, too, if she might be with us as a sort of chaperone, so I wouldn’t be one woman alone with a group of men. I have so many questions all of the time about what happens around me!  And I can’t ask them all – I wouldn’t be invited back!

After our meeting, we took a few pictures – the General looking impeccably neat. Seeing him today as the military man was so very special – he clearly is adored by his staff.  How blessed we are to have met him.  God is so very good.

 

 

Characters in a Dick Francis Mystery

Tonight we were part of a scene worthy of the best Dick Francis horse-racing mystery.  Characters included a bloodstock agent, a jockey who had just won a big race for the queen, a beautiful, exotic female jockey representing  a sultan, a British lord and lady, a Persian photographer who grew more charming as the evening wore on,  a mixed group of riders ready to embark on a 300-mile, 14-day trek around the tallest mountains of a small Arab country, the American couple (clearly Tom and I) and the gracious, handsome host of it all.  Does it get any better than this?  We had so much fun!  It felt like receptions and dinners in our last few years in the military, especially in Heidelberg -I have missed that!

It was so very good to see General Abdi again, this time in his own world, in his element, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  He wore his dishdasha – very pleasantly  Omani and heart warming.

We feel so blessed to  have been invited to join his group over dinner tonight, the night before they launch their big adventure.  To my left were the two young jockeys, across from them the bloodstock agent and the beautiful woman whom (I think) works for him.  Then, we had an owner of a public relations firm that sent her to the far corners of the earth.  Next to her was the vivacious Lady, The Lord being at the other end of the table.  The charming Persian was to my right and just happened to be the author of a book I had been watching for – it was supposed to have come out in November but I hadn’t seen it available yet.  I had even exchanged an e-mail with him.  Small world.  The others – the table was too long and my memory to short to keep them straight, but clearly, the General, then, was the handsome host.  So much fun to draw out each person’s story as the evening wore on!

Tomorrow we will visit the Royal Cavalry, but sadly the General has a budget meeting in which he is the junior, so if it isn’t over in time, we may not see him again there.  So happy to have touched base again, however.  We are so blessed.

Out with the Old, In with the New

The magic continues.  We ended the old year in celebration and brought in the new watching lanterns filled with hope floating out into the sea.

TomLawnDecember 31 opened with breakfast on the patio followed by a few hours of reclining on lounge chairs on the 80-acre lawn stretched along the beach.  Palm trees provided shade as we read, ate (always eating!!), and people watched.  Attendants had spread towels out on our chairs, then brought us a cooler full of water bottles and served sandwiches when we were ready.

Eventually, we had to return to our room to get ready for our sunset ride off shore to get a different view of the city.  I had been suffering bad-hair karma since arriving; I blame it on the mean things I have said about Rand Paul’s curls.  First, my hair wrapped itself into

my own set of curls, and now, I burned it with a straight iron.  No more curl problem.  With tons of healing hair product, I was able to appear in public.  When Anna, our contact with Ocean Blue Oman, arrived to pick us up, we were delighted to have a face to match with the name at last.  Her parents, who were visiting from Poland, would join us in their  own private boat, where we were later served wine, nuts, fruit, dates and water as we cruised along the coastline past our hotel, communities, fortresses, mosques and the Sultan’s old palace.

Back at the hotel again, we quickly prepared for the evening.  Finally, I would be able to wear the lovely blue frock Tom had bought me way back in July in Old Colorado City just for this occasion.  We took pictures by the grand Christmas tree then went out to the patioT and S by Christmas Tree

where we were seated and elegantly served all evening.  After three and a half hours of dining, we strolled out onto the lawn and found ourselves a comfortable spot to sit on a lounge chair to the side of the band.  Although we could not get reservations for the beach party, we ended up with the best seats in the house – we could see everything.  After a satisfying performance, preparations began for the midnight hour.  People at beachside tables lit fires to warm the air in huge lanterns at their tables.  On cue, these were released at the same time and floated into the air and away toward the sea.   Then, we had our countdown to the new year, kissed and sang.  It was all very moving and exciting – more than I could have guessed.  Tired, we returned to our rooms and dropped into bed.

The next morning – today – we were awaked by room service encouraging us to get up so they could clean.  Merciless thugs.  We put them off an hour then breakfasted on the patio before retiring to the garden by the pool to lounge and read.  We were next to a pool with eight palm-tree islands growing out of its waters.  At noon, we enjoyed our three-hour New Year Brunch.  So much wonderful food.  I must stop!!!  It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, so after eating, we rested a couple of hours until the stores would open.  After, I bought hair serum to get my hair through its crisis until I get home and could have a hot air treatment.  Then, we caught a taxi to the souk.

We were able to finish all our shopping.  Two stores, which Anna had recommended, were especially helpful.  At one, the owner explained the various qualities of pashminas and showed us examples of each.  I bought two men’s headscarves from a pile we were shown.  Tom took a video of a demonstration on how to wrap the scarves on a head.  At another shop recommended by Anna, we were shown khanjars.  Tom picked out two for our son and son in law, and one for himself, a beautiful one, silver, inlaid with gold, made after the pattern used by the house of Said.  Very lovely!  From other, shops we bought pashminas and small gifts, but then  . . . We came to the gold market.

On both sides of a long alleyway were small shops with counter and wall cases filled with with gold jewelry – 21 and 22 carot gold, the color so rich it looks fake to a westerner accustomed to looking at our 14 carot jewelry.  I cannot imagine the millions of dollars in wealth represented by what I was seeing, and not a security guard insight. Ah! And all those women we had been unable to find?  They were all here in the gold souk, little black bundles lined up against the counters waiting their turns to talk with the proprietors.  There must have been over 100 black-shrouded ladies of unknown ages, mostly with eyes visible only.  The jewelry was sold by weight plus a charge for fabricating.

I found the shops full of women overwhelming and had decided to come back during the day when the local ladies would be at home.  But then, Tom and I found an empty store and decided to go in.  It proved to be a wonderful choice.  The young Omani man behind the counter had gone to school in England and was both willing and able to talk about his life and customs.  His father owned the shop, and he had eleven brothers and sisters.  After high school – college  he called it, distinguishing it from university – his father brought him home saying the university would spoil him.  We bought three sets of earrings from him, one each for Jodi, Dawn and myself.

With the purchase of myrrh and amber, my shopping was complete.  I would have liked a little box, but they were too big.   And I had a lot of boxes.  So, Tom and I climbed stairs to get a bite to eat by the market gate.  There on the wall was my new favorite of the ubiquitous pictures of the Sultan.  Most showed him looking benevolent, intelligent and stately.  In this one, he was in a military uniform with the warrior’s strong, hawkish demeanor, ready to attack or defend, capable protector of the nation.  Our taxi ride home was accompanied by something that sounded like a stock report – lots of numbers.  Again we dropped exhausted to our beds.

 

 

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!