Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Somewhere beyond the sea...

As we drove away from Sur, I heard Saleem's last question to me still ringing in my head. "When someone asks 'how are you?' is it correct to reply 'I am great!'?" he queried.

Sure, I said, that's a perfectly good answer.

"No." he said, almost fiercely, "it is not. People cannot be great. Only God is great."

I of course rolled over and showed my belly and made placating noises that of course he was right, but such a comment was not meant to imply that a person was anything more than feeling very well, thank you. He said that an Australian woman had said that to him and he'd been bothered by it ever since.

Who knew that even the most innocent remark could go astray like that? I vowed to watch my words even more closely.

Now heading down the coast with an evening rather than an afternoon start, I called the Turtle Beach Resort to make sure they knew we were coming. Though Mike had brought his mobile and I'd bought one for Colleen and Pat to use, mine was the only one that would work , and then only sporadically. However, it was only the third or fourth try that actually went through. Not bad. They assured us dinner started late and that we would not head out to the turtles before 8:30.

Driving along the Arabian Sea, the road following the coast, tiny villages and their mosques appearing then disappearing as we made our way. We saw soccer goal nets whose former occupation had been that of fish net, rocks and sand, scrub brush. Fewer and fewer evidences of people. The road to the resort was winding and tricky in the dark. Turning off the pavement, we bounced along one of the now-familiar sorts of pebble and sand roads for several kilometers until lights shown ahead and we were there.

It was enchanting...Thomas went crazy for the palm shelters on the beach decorated with lights. "Is a Christmas TREE! Is Christmas TREES!!!" There was a large Dhow in the sand that made for an open air eating area, complete with pool tables and cushions to lounge upon. Checking in, we went to our Barasti huts to put down our bags.

The huts were wooden structures lined up along the beach in groups, with, as the name promised, palm thatching for roofs. Ours was a duplex, wooden floors (good for sand), basic beds and closet in two rooms. Colleen and Pat got the luxury edition which included a tiny TV and refrigerator. Electricity! Bonus! The washroom sported the most inexpensive toilet seat I have ever seen in my life. It was made, I am pretty sure, of the same plastic they use to manufacture sporks. Of course it was cracked and anyone who was so foolish as to sit upon it would have gotten their bum pinched in the break. Outside the waves murmured upon the shore.

Very Camp. Very cool.

I was the designated driver, so I sat back and watched the other adults make a beeline for bar services, the first since back in Dubai that we'd been around. It had been a good, but long day, and we still had hours to go. Dinner was simple; we served ourselves in the reddish glow of the Dhow lights; fish, chicken, rice, and ooh, french fries. Heaven help me, those tasted so darned good in the sea air. Then a new favorite for us, fruit salad flavor ice cream, and coffee. The coffee bit was important for the late night turtleing plans.

Bethy and Mike availed themselves of the pool table, and Thomas fell asleep in my arms. I cuddled him up in the cushions and carpets on deck and had some more coffee.

Time rolled by, as it does, and we were back out on the road, now hurrying in the dark, trying to follow the map. Our odometer didn't agree with the distances prescribed, but we eventually found our way to the Turtle Reserve at Ra’s Al Hadd. Again, the costs were minimal, yet we waited for our warden to come get our group in a modern and attractive museum-like building.

You have to have a permit (which we'd secured online ahead of time), and a guide, to go see the turtles. These amazing creatures return to the place of their birth, having traveled perhaps thousands and thousands of miles in the ocean, as far away as Australia even, to lay their eggs on the easternmost point of Oman. Unfortunately, in the past, tourists had engaged in such activities as chasing them with their cell phones to get a lousy photo, riding the turtles,(yes, they're huge, but come on!) moving flippers out of the way to get a better view of the egg-laying other words, total chaos. And it was scaring the turtles away.

At the reserve, the Omanis decided enough was enough, and told us that if we took flash photographs they'd pitch our cameras into the sea. Reasonable. It was obvious that if anyone tried to molest the turtles in any fashion they'd also end up in the sea...or at least escorted back to the parking lot in an unfriendly manner. Thank goodness there would be no turtle riding for the evening.

Our group was called, and we were fortunate to get the guide recommended to us by the French fellows back at the sinkhole. He instructed us all to be very quiet, and not use lights, and so instructed our group of perhaps 20 followed him out into the dark.

It was a good walk to the beach, between two cliff heads of rock. From where we started we couldn't even hear the waves, and we shuffled along the hard sands of the pathway, Thomas peeking shyly from beneath his blanket out into the darkness. About 15 minutes of walking, the sands softened, and we could hear the sea in the velvety darkness. There was a good moon, and our eyes adjusted well to the low light. Our cameras, however, were useless on any setting. We were instructed to hunker down on the sand and wait. While we waited our guide told us all about the Sea Turtles there, the rare Green and Leatherbacks. These species are so ancient, they watched the dinosaurs evolve and then become extinct.

I felt pretty good about the kids and I always gathering up all the plastic bags we can find on the beach to throw them away properly. The Sea Turtles mistake the bags for jellyfish, eat them and die, a real shame for an endangered animal with a lifespan comparable to that of a human.

We waited, and waited...

Occasionally a figure would emerge from the darkness, one of the wardens in their long robes. Then the word came in, a turtle was just finishing laying her eggs, and as soon as she was done they would take our group to go see her burying them. We stood up and started sliding, lurching steps in the sand, trying to keep out of the huge depressions in the sand from the turtle nests that made it a sort of cratered moonscape.

Thomas had had enough, and started screaming. And screaming. Not conducive to turtle comfort, or that of the other guests, for that matter. I tried everything, but he'd had it. I ended up leaving the group, with one of the guides trailing anxiously, and going back to our waiting spot on the sands beyond the nesting area.

Our flustered escort guide tried to ask on his mobile what to do, then was trying to pass it to me as I was trying to get away from him so he could hear what the fellow on the other end was saying over Thomas' bawling. Finally we established that I didn't need to leave, but that I didn't want Thomas scaring the turtles either.

Earlier I'd been lying on a blanket we'd brought, on the sands, Thomas lying on top of my chest with the tail of the blanket wrapped around us while we were waiting and listening to our guide. Thomas wailed at the top of his lungs "Lie down cuddle-a MOMMY!!!" until I did so. His wails subsided to hiccoughs and eventual quiet, as long as I didn't make any moves that might indicate anything less than subservience to his will.

It was uncomfortable for the young guide with us, I am sure, to be squatting in the sands with a prone woman next to him. I felt ridiculous. We both made an effort to keep things casual with light conversation. The sand and night air were getting colder, and I was really glad we'd brought our flannel blanket.

The rest of the group got to see a huge mother turtle laboriously covering about a hundred or so of her eggs. When they returned to us, the two comments I heard most were "huge!" and "wow!" Bethy was even more excited that they'd gotten to see baby turtles on the beach, making their way to the ocean, their way guided and lit by the warden's special red lights.

The guides came over and told us that since we had the children (Bethy was exhausted, Thomas was completely out and getting heavier by the minute) they would send a ride for us. Sure enough, down the track came a vehicle, dousing its lights well before the beach. We boarded gratefully, leaving the others to walk back in the darkness.

Mike felt awful that I hadn't gotten to see a turtle. But don't worry. I made it back to that beach...

To be continued...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hemingway, Eichman, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs Invasion, Lawrence of Arabia...

Now, you didn't really think I'd make you wait to find out if Mike and I failed in Universal Directive #1: Don't end up in a Middle Eastern jail, did you? That would have been unkind.

No worries, thus far we have escaped that fate, and can only hope our luck holds.

The Omani who struck up a conversation with us was an extremely friendly fellow, named Saleem. He invited us back to his home to meet his wife and daughter, and to partake in eating the Kingfish he'd just purchased from the fish market. (Ah! So that was the smell! Sur is famous for its fish.)

We looked at each other, decided "why not?" and went for it. For whatever reason it was suggested that I ride with Saleem, though I brought Pat along for the ride too, thinking that it would reflect poorly upon us if I agreed to ride alone with a new acquaintance and no male escort. So he rode in the front and I in the back...and it turned out that Saleem is a police officer for the Royal Oman Police force.

He was tickled to death to have us, and as we drove he pulled from the glove compartment a thank-you note another guest of his had written him, a Brit who had stayed with him and his family for several days. I tried to be sneaky and photograph the card without his knowing, so I could have his and his family's names (ostensibly) spelled correctly, but he turned around and busted me at it.

We corrected the misperception that we are British (this is always the assumption of persons for whom English is not their first language...the Brits and the Aussies, however, tell me the American accent can be heard a mile off, and don't mind telling me how awful they find our way of speaking. Whatever, dudes.) and he was pleased to show us what a good woman his wife Zuleikha is by calling her on his mobile and her not only agreeing to have us as guests but also wishing to cook for us herself. He'd shown us the thick pieces of Kingfish and they did look good.

He also educated Pat and I as to his preference for women who were neither fat nor thin, and enumerated fiercely the benefits of eating moderately. You can imagine; he was quite what Thomas would call a chatterbox. We were enjoying his company immensely.

As we pulled up to his home, he apologized for it. This was his rental while he was having a house built near the fort, and it was the location he could find, but should not reflect on their true social standing. He didn't say it exactly this way, of course, but that was the gist of it.

Their house was on a sandy dusty little road, kids playing outside. The blue and white metal doors opened to reveal a unbelievably beautiful little girl with huge brown eyes and long wavy black hair, perhaps Bethy's age, sitting and working on some drawings in a sort of outdoor foyer. Further on, there was an open courtyard, with the older fashion open-to-the-outside kitchen area to the right, a bathroom with sink, also open to the courtyard, and to the left, the main house, and at the entrance to the main house, the majlis. This is the area where entertaining guests is done, with the understanding that we would go no further into the house, as according to tradition.

We removed our shoes and lowered ourselves to sit upon the rugs, being careful not to point the bottoms of our feet in our host's direction. (A terrible insult). His wife came to be introduced, bringing us coffee and dates. She was, as he had made sure to inform us, a larger woman, and I envied her practiced grace as she sat down or got up from the rugs.

The coffee was served in small cups, with the squishy dates for sweetness. Speaking for myself, it was a challenge to eat sitting down and try not to use the left hand and yet, if you're holding a scalding hot cup, how to you hold the date too? I stuck it between the fingers of my right hand and hoped for the best.

First it was established as to our family relationships, our levels of education, and where we were from. As conversation progressed, and we fumbled with the hot cups and shook away flies from our dates before bites, we talked of many things. They had, I believe, 3 children, (two of which were young adults and away at school) a very small number for an Arab family. Saleem, it transpired, prided himself on his modern thinking and family. "Why should we have so many children?!" He said with emphasis and near-disdain. This was a radical change from the attitude we've encountered again and again. People ask when we will have more children, and we either joke about it, or, my preferred method, say we will have more if God wills it, Inshallah, which may not be my personal philosophy, but is certainly that of most peoples in the area.

Their older daughter was in school for nursing, and he made sure to drive home the point of his Western preferences by talking about the US movies he adored, chiefly among them Titanic and the Rocky and Rambo flicks. He told Pat that he looked like the Captain of the Titanic, and in fact called him Captain in good humor more than once.

They also love Jackie Chan, though made sure we knew that they knew the camera angles were skewed to make the stunts look riskier than they are. I defended Jackie Chan's honor, pointing out that he was the same age as our host but does all his own stunts, and that I would not be jumping off buildings. Colleen then just had to bring out her camera and share the footage of me jumping off the limestone shelf into the sinkhole. Ah well. I was pleased that movies are at least the one uniquely American export we can be sure of.

A bowl of water arrived, with which to cleanse our fingertips and then came fruits. We continued learning about one another and to drink the coffee. Conversation progressed to George Bush, and Saleem blamed all of the world's woes solidly on W. Now, I'm not exactly the man's biggest fan or anything, but one can hardly blame the world's financial crisis on the guy. I suggested perhaps the financial status was a symptom of globalisation...? We talked politics for awhile, and about American real estate laws and legal culpability (imagine this discussion in a language not your own...I was impressed with his linguistic abilities!).

Saleem found out that I was interested in picking up bits of languages and had far too good of a time dictating to me how to pronounce sayings as I tried to write them down correctly in my notebook.

Zuleikha very thoughtfully educated us as to the proper custom of either holding your coffee cup out for more or holding it out and waggling it back and forth (after at least 3 cups, mind!) to signify that you are done. Both she and Saleem had said that her English wasn't good, but I found her quite able to follow the conversation. Hours of conversation went by, and we could smell the fish cooking across the courtyard. We Westerners are not terribly used to sitting on the ground for extended periods of time, particularly without stretching our legs out in front of us, so it was an interesting challenge.

The kids, in the meantime, were playing mostly nicely. The "mostly" designation has to be put in there because Bethy might not have been being the perfect guest. Thomas was being pretty good, playing some with the toys procured for his enjoyment, but the majority of his concentration was based on the soapy runoff water from the washroom. As he is apparently part Laborador Retriever (like his Mom, poor fellow) it is impossible to keep him out of the water, so we gave that one up as a lost cause and merely hoped he wouldn't drink it. It was a relief to have an excuse to get up now and then to check their progress and make sure no one was climbing into the pit of the squat potty.

A sheet of plastic was brought by the house maid to be placed on the carpets in the middle of where we were sitting as a sort of floor tablecloth. The fragrant and delicious fish arrived in due course, and I leaned over to whisper to Colleen to take small portions since I had read we would be expected to take several helpings. However, we hadn't counted upon Zuleikha, who piled our plates with huge domed mounds of fragrant rice that filled the entire dish. To this we were to add the flat bread, fish, salad...we were in trouble. Now we were sitting on the floor, (legs in that realm of prickly numbness) eating with our right hand, (though Zuleikha brought out silverware, price tags from the store still attached, we tried to be civilised and eat as our hosts did) and for me at least, this resulted in spilling a goodly amount of rice on myself and the rug next to me every time I moved. Thomas had given our hosts a good laugh by insisting that the sweet juice box sort of drink they found for him was camel milk, and they were pleased that he likes camel's milk. Unfortunately they also brought out a large container of the yogurt milk Laban and at some point Thomas conspired to knock it over, creating a horrible mess.

One thing the Arab States seems somewhat short of is paper products. Generally a box of Kleenex accompanies meals as opposed to napkins; not so great for mopping up real messes. However, amongst the boxes awaiting the completion of their new house. I'd spied a roll of paper towels. They weren't at the Brawny level of thickness, but a great improvement upon kleenex.

I had to go out to the car to get a change of clothes for Bethy who was playing and forgot to take a potty break, (Zuleikha offered me Pampers for her, so thoughtful) and intending to greet the kids playing outside I said "Marhaba! Marhaba!" expansively to them. They smirked, shook their heads, then outright laughed at me. Too late I realised I'd said "welcome" instead of "hello". (At least I HOPE that's what it sounded like.) Whoops.

Back inside, properly humiliated, I asked about their had Saleem and Zuleikha come to be together? They were cousins, it turned out (researching this further I found that according to at least one guidebook 80% of marriages in Oman are between cousins)and had known each other from childhood.

We had a few uncomfortable moments when Saleem expressed his opinions on mixed marriages, which were, let's just say, not the most open minded I'd ever heard. He also expressed disdain for the Chinese and their products, and various and sundry other racist comments. It gave me no small pleasure, when he was explaining to Mike how our kids are attractive because they come from us instead of if Mike had married a black woman, to point out that President Obama is of mixed heritage. What can I say? I live for moments like that. Giving people something to think about.

Then, I asked the question that had been niggling at me. Why was it so bad for people to have their photographs taken, especially women?

Saleem gave me a nearly exasperated look. He said quite a bit, but the main part of it was that "this woman is my wife, why should you have a picture of her, why should you want a photograph of her?" He'd been doing a goodly amount of humorous posturing and teasing all throughout our visit, so I felt comfortable asking, but not pressing.

Saleem got out his Royal Oman Police uniform and held it up and modelled the hat for us. Very military looking, impressive. I would have been a lot more intimidated had we met him in his work gear. We were talking about work, and Pat, who is retired from Boeing, pulled out a company pen and gifted it to our host. It was a perfect gesture.

After we had eaten and talked ourselves to exhaustion, and the glasses of water that signify the end of a meal had arrived, we made motions to leave. Oh, no, now we needed to have tea. The sun was getting lower and we still needed to drive to Ras al Hadd before it got too late: we had dinner and a 9:30 PM date with the sea turtles.

Zuleikha had a variety of teas for us to try; I had "milk tea", to their approval. It was so delicious I asked how to make it:

Omani Milk Tea

Take Lipton Tea bags (what else?) open them and boil the tea leaves in a saucepan of water. When it looks tea-ish, take it off the heat and let it rest a moment, then add milk. Bring it back to boiling for a minute, then remove it again and dump in some sugar. Boil a third time, strain, and drink hot enough to sear your taste buds shut. If you want to be authentic, that is.

After group photographs, we couldn't say no to going to the site where they were having their house built. After the rental house, I could see why they wanted us to see it. It was expansive and expensive. Saleem was especially proud of the "European" design, especially the kitchen and bathrooms (no Chinese made! he assured me repeatedly, showing me everything from toilets to tiles and bringing a shower head still in the package, waiting to be installed) and Zuleikha showed us "her" this and "her" that. Their pride was deserved; it will be a beautiful house when it is done. Then we REALLY had to go!

They said they were sorry that we could only stay for such a short time. (5 hours and counting) but that also between friends, hours can be counted like years, so they would be content.

Bethy went with the trend and presented their daughter Fatima with one of her scented sparkle pens, then upon seeing how excited her new friend was with the gift, had us reverse, drive back into the driveway and give her the rest of the pen set. We were very proud of her.

An experience unlike any other. We felt very fortunate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Come all ye young fellows that follows the sea...

This next bit of the blog describes the events preceding our spending 5 hours in the company of the Royal Oman Police. It was the sort of invitation we couldn't say no to...but I get ahead of myself...

The day started out innocently enough: walking on the beach, breakfast (chicken hot dogs and beans and eggs are a common offering) and setting out in Bird Car to do the things we'd highlighted in the guide book.

First I'd really wanted to take the ferry boat ride to Ayajh, a tiny ancient village with a lighthouse. I thought the kids would get a kick out of a ferry ride. We drove around the harbor dhow building area, and couldn't see anything that looked like a ferry, so I got out to ask some of the locals. Their English was better than my Arabic, but that wasn't saying much. Actually, it was saying pretty much nothing, and lots of it, though the two fishermen I talked to tried so, so very hard to help. It was really causing them pain not to be able to assist us. Finally one ran and got another acquaintance of theirs, a gentleman in pristine white robes and distinctive Omani hat, whose English was good. I'd tried boat and car-boat in Arabic, and plenty of English, and finally we figured out there was no ferry boat. He gave us alternative driving directions to the lighthouse and everybody smiled a lot.

The village was delightful, as the guide book probably said (though we weren't trusting it too much any more). Nearly untouched by the modern world, with exotic details that remind you this was a sea-going town, influenced by the cultures it encountered. The lighthouse was everything a lighthouse should be, a cream beacon on the shore, waves crashing. There's something utterly romantic about a lighthouse, and the idea of going to sea. Sur was the major port in Oman for trade with East Africa until about 1900. Imagine what that must have been like, to stand on the shores and watch the dhows sail away, to await boatloads of cargo from Africa...

Back in Sur, I had made it a goal to photograph one of the social centers for the men in the area: the Arabic coffee shop. These little neighborhood gathering places of the small strong cup were everywhere, and congregating about you saw men in Omani dress, the same long flowing tunic dishdash as in the UAE, but instead of the Guthra headdress (white, or white with red checks and tied with the black rope called an Egal) the men wear only the round Muslim prayer hat that usually goes underneath the Guthra, which I believe is called a Ghafiyah. The Ghafiyahs are quite elaborately embroidered, really striking:

Mike being a super good sport back in Muscat modeling a Ghafiyah.

Here is my sneaky shot of one of the coffee shops:

We visited the magnificent four-towered Sinesia Fort built on a hill overlooking the town and the sea. We parked and pretty soon a car came dustily up the sand and pebble road, disgorging a docent who unlocked the fort and took us all around.

Inside there was a prison (see Thomas escaping, top of this post), a mosque, and cannons. (you can see the one aimed at us if you click the photo below.)

Our intention was to then go the the Bilad Fort, and we found it, following the guidebook's instructions to "turn at the elaborately kitch villa". (These are the sort of official directions one gets. Even in Dubai. "By the Emarat petrol station," "past the Spinneys grocer" and so forth).

The villa was elaborately kitsch, and we found the fort next to a grove of date palms. There was a horrible, horrible smell in the air where we parked. There was nothing we could see to account for the stench. We could see some barrels in the shadows of one of the buildings, and wondered if we were next to a slaughterhouse or something. The odor was unbearable, and we hurried away from it to the entrance of the fort.

There we found the fort padlocked shut. As we stood there, wondering if another docent was going to show up, a local man strode up and began to make conversation with us. He had no idea why the fort was closed, gave the padlock a good tug or two for us...

It was shortly thereafter that I found myself riding in the back seat of a policeman's car...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You and me, we come from different worlds..

Sur is a fisherman's town absolutely seeped in history and the essence of the sea. Our hotel balcony doors opened to the waves crashing on the beach. Bethy was beside herself. "MOM! This is so cool!"

There were absolutely no western restaurants or chain supermarkets to be found. White and cream buildings with carved wooden doors, sand and sea. We threw down our stuff at the Sur Beach Hotel, Colleen and I draped ourselves with pashmina shawls, and then sicced Matilda's GPS on the restaurant Juma had told us about, Zaki.

At first sight we weren't sure it was the right place. But it was. Outside of Zaki, in the light of the neon sign, there were rotisserie chickens slowly turning, and Arabs and Indians queuing up for take away bags of food. One stray cat.

Bethy and Thomas scared the cat who skittered away to hide beneath an overturned rowboat.

Inside we positioned our chairs away from the dripping A/C unit (Mike just had to mention Legionnaires' Disease!) and did our best to give Colleen a birthday dinner. It was indeed very tasty, particularly those chickens, even if not exactly what I'd envisioned. As we looked around, congratulating ourselves on being the only caucasian folks in the restaurant, (we were getting used to this) when three more showed up.

They turned out to be Italian. I'd wandered over to see if they spoke English and to see if they knew anywhere I could find a birthday cake for Colleen. I was hopeful but not optimistic. Ecstatic over helping us out, the younger gal beamed as she showed me a bag with the legend "Oman Modern Bakery," and the older lady, who I took to be the Mom, took me firmly by the hand and dragged me outside to point out where it was up the street. I tried on bellisima, grazie, and arrivederci for size, and they were kind enough not to laugh at me.

Bethy and I went into the bakery together. There were, indeed, plenty of Western-looking cakes. Bethy was whimpering about needing to go to the bathroom, so I asked about that first. Lots of gesturing, frequent use of the word "toilet" and finally I made myself understood. The nice lady who was trying to help us gestured to go around the corner of the counter. So we did. I looked at her and pointed to the back room. "Yes?" I asked, and she nodded and nodded as she followed us. I pushed open the door to reveal bread machines in a dark work area. It didn't feel right but she was still nodding emphatically so I kept going with Bethy. She got in front of me and stopped us, turning us back around and gently pushing us back out to the customer area.

A dark-skinned woman in a beautiful abaya took pity on us (Bethy was really doing the potty dance by now) and told me that the toilet was at the medical clinic. I must have shown my total lack of town knowledge since I was taken by the hand for the second time in less than a hour and led to our destination. There, she wanted to go into the bathroom to help Bethy out, but Bethy politely told her "No, thanks, I don't need help. I'm really good at the squat potties," and closed the door. I waited outside and answered our rescuer's questions, No, we are Americans, not English. Seriously. We live in Dubai. Yes, we had come to see the sea turtles. No we had not come to see her, but we were happy to have met her.

Bethy finally finished, and we went back to the bakery. There was still some sort of lining up for pastries, so I watched and waited, trying to figure out the system. There was a group of completely shrouded young women at the counter ahead of us, and seeing Bethy they descended upon us. I was amazed when they lifted their veils to reveal their entire faces. Eyes darkly rimmed with kohl, they giggled and pinched Bethy's cheeks repeatedly and fussed over her, especially her hair. They also touched mine, moving my scarf out of the way to see it. Then of course they brought out their mobiles and took photographs of her.

I should give you some background on the whole "other people taking photographs of Bethy and Thomas" thing. Everybody wants to touch the blond, blue-eyed kids, hold the kids, photograph the kids, and generally we try our best to accommodate. There are so many folks in Dubai, especially, who are far from home and their families...and far from their kids. So we've gotten in the habit of letting people enjoy our kids.

For these ladies, though, it was all about the novelty factor, and also a certain level of self-indulgence that I've noticed. Back in Muscat we were amused to watch two young women standing directly in front of the TV set up in in the center of a shopping mall for the Gulf Cup, completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking the view of about 30 men who were also trying to watch the all-important game. The men gave them a wide berth, another social expectation.

Our bakery group clucked and pinched Bethy, taking photo after photo. Finally, I figured, what the heck, and asked if I could take a photo of the ladies with Bethy. With their veils down...I pointed and made photo taking and face covering gestures and they nodded yes, yes, yes.

I took my camera out of my purse.

It was like I threw a bomb.

"PROBLEM! PROBLEM!" they shrieked, turning away from me, reshrouding their visages and fleeing out into the street like a group of ruffled chickens. I had not even gotten the camera all the way out of my purse and had hurriedly put in back in, but too late, they were gone, gone, gone.

Huh. That didn't seem terribly fair.

"Where'd they go, Mom?" Bethy asked.

"Mommy scared them, sorry."

Then we went through the process of trying to buy cakes. The first bakery assistant, an older man, blind in one milky eye, seemed like he was going to help us, but no, after I'd pointed to three kinds of cakes, asking for two of each, (LOTS of hand signals and saying men fadlak -please-) he walked away to help another customer. We waited some more and I tried to look as pleasant as I could (as opposed to a camera packing stalker tourist). Finally another man helped us, and we got our little frosted cakes. An Arab accidentally left a huge wad of cash on the counter, and I picked it up and went after him to give it back. He was quite gracious, and I hoped I'd set my karma spinning back in the right direction.

Back in the car I took a deep breath of relief and told Mike, "OK, first time, way out of my comfort zone. "

In our hotel room we lit the complementary matches in liu of candles and stuck them into the cakes and sang "Happy Birthday" to Colleen.

After all that, I wish I could say the cakes were delicious.

But they weren't.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes...

Our next stop along the road to Sur was the beautiful Wadi Shab, which translates as "gorge between the cliffs". Cliffs indeed, arching skyward on either side of the green waters bordered by large palms. There were a few other cars there, one was a tourist group with a guide, another was obviously an Omani Jeep, with the now-familiar flag depicted across it's hood. The owner was a smiling young man, dressed in a soccer shirt with a white wrap around his waist. We struck up conversation with him; his English is very good, though he kept apologizing for it.

We learned that his name is Juma, and that he is an incredibly open, sweet and generous individual. He offered to let us stay in his Aunt's house in Sur (she is out of town), and to take us out the the beach for a bonfire. ("I collect wood for you!") He also made it clear that these were offers from the heart, and that he wasn't looking for money.

It was Colleen's birthday, and I asked Juma for what I told him would be a big favor: to recommend where he would take someone for a special dinner in Sur. He gave us the name of a restaurant that he said was good and has a variety of food, and then he and his friend encouraged us to go check out the path along the Wadi.

Hiking the sand beneath the cliffs and among the palms along the river felt very Indiana Jones to me...I swear I could hear the theme...most likely the side effect of wandering in damp jeans after climbing ropes and flinging myself into the sinkhole and perhaps swimming with an unseen demon...

The kids waded in the waters of the Wadi with the fish, played and shrieked, a wonderful break for them from sitting in their car seats.

Wandering back to the parking area, we saw Juma again, though he was on his mobile and we left him alone. Bethy finally deigned to play with a young local boy who had to work hard to get her attention for some reason. Poor little mite was so sad until she finally relented; then they had a good time.

Juma came over to us again. "My friends, you must stay here for just 5 more minutes, you must stay." So we did. I promised to email him the photos we'd taken, which he said he would drive into Sur to retrieve. Soon the Jeep came roaring back into the canyon and his friend climbed out with carry-out cups of freshly blended juices for all of us and two Oman flags for the kids. A gift. It was such a thoughtful (and delicious!) gesture, and in the middle of the desert, too. We couldn't fathom where they'd managed to find drinks for us.

We enjoyed our juices, (banana and mango, perhaps?) exchanged emails and mobile numbers, posed for photographs, and then, seeing clouds rolling in, said our good-byes. Flash floods in the wadis are one of the two main dangers to travelers. (The other is the long distances between peopled areas, ie help and fuel.)

Staying off the new freeway for a while (which pleased Matilda no end, since she wasn't aware of its existence and kept intoning "recalculating" and "drive to mapped road" when we were on it) we drove on a rock and sand passageway through Juma's village, the tiny fishing hamlet of Tiwi. Little sandy stone homes, people out on the doorsteps socializing, not so much as a coffee shop to be seen, the occasional chicken or goat. It was very poor, and very wonderful. I only took the very rare, discrete photograph.

Outside of town we stopped by the sea to admire the sandy soccer field by an old well, where Juma had told us he usually plays. His leg had been terribly burned by a drunken Irish friend of his at a campfire gathering, and he probably wouldn't be playing that evening as it was still healing. He forgave his friend, he told us, no problem, it was an accident. It was one heck of a burn---he must be awfully forgiving. Then we got back on the road to Sur, much to Matilda's dismay.

Last night Juma's beloved Oman played Saudi in the final game of the Gulf Cup. We exchanged a couple of "good luck" sort of texts. This morning I was greeted by a text message on my phone from Juma: Congratulations dear. Oman win. thanks. Juma.

Congratulations Oman from us on winning your first Gulf Cup! Final score, 6-5. It must be one amazing party there right now!!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Jump for my love...

OK, folks, thank you for being patient. I'm about 2 1/2 weeks behind in my blogging. The price one (joyfully in my case) pays for having guests. Last night Pat and Colleen said their good-byes and began the long journey back to the States. So now I have lots of ground to make up, and I appreciate your patience.

Back to Muscat...

....A Muscat cat

Our second night in Oman was the football (ie soccer) game between Oman and Kuwait, hosted in Muscat's Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. The game was on every television, on every radio. I went downstairs to watch the game on a huge projection screen the hotel had set up in the courtyard by the pool to watch, but by overtime Thomas was getting pretty squirrely and I went back upstairs to put him to bed. By the time I went out on the balcony to check and see if anyone had scored they were putting the screen away and I figured, from the sound of car horns blaring all over town that Oman must have scored and won after all. The celebrating, cheers, and honking went on all night. It wasn't until morning that we found out that the final score was 0-0. They'd tied.

After breakfast outside beneath the hotel's canopied dining area, we left any possibility of Starbucks or McDonalds behind and headed away from the city and down the coast towards Sur, continuing through the stark beauty of the sand and rock of the Eastern Hajjar Mountains. Matilda continued to be patient with us. Our first stop was the Bimmah Sinkhole in the middle of the desert. There were no signs, or even obvious roads to it, but with the aid of Matilda's GPS and persistence we made it there.

The Oman Gulf was about a km away, and turquoise and green waters were far, far down in the limestone sinkhole.

Our little group followed the steps in down to it, and Bethy and I waded gleefully into its salty waters for a swim with our clothes on.

At the deep end of the waters was a rope so that on could climb up to a high limestone shelf...for jumping off of, of course. And of course, you know who just had to swim over and jump off of it.

Twice, actually.

Bethy counted me in and Thomas giggled as hard as anyone has ever heard him when I hit the water.

No one knows how deep the sinkhole is, and there are supposed to be blind cavefish living in its waters. The locals call it Bayt al-Afreet, the House of the Demon. We didn't actually see the demon...

After splashing and playing enough, we made our soggy way back to Bird Car, where a shaggy group of goats were busy checking out the dining scene in the nearby dumpster. Thomas upped their happiness quotient for the day by sharing his apple with them.

A bus dropped off many well-hidden women shielded beneath their black abayas who had come to see the sinkhole as well. I can't imagine what they thought of us. I'm sure there's a word for nutty white person in Arabic...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I just can't get enough...

In every trip there are photographs that don't really fit into a story. For me, the photos of people, people I'll never meet, are the most intriguing, and I wanted to share these with you:

Here I need to admit a few things. I love photos of kids playing, people in shafts of sunlight, back views, action shots, and interesting, especially older, faces. You're going to see these again and again from me. I also have to try and be discrete. The children on the hill were waving to us...until the lens came out Bird Car's window. Then their faces fell and they fled. I felt bad for making them uncomfortable. The little fishing towns and desert bits of humanity were the sorts of things that need more than a thousand words to illustrate. The amazing everyday.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Life is a highway, I want to ride it...

After piling two adults in the front, two in the middle, and Bethy and Thomas in the back, bags behind, and plenty of pre-packaged junk foods and fruit, we were off on our first international trip in Bird Car. Our trip to Oman began with driving back and forth over the borders of the UAE and Oman. You see, there are several cross-the-border stations, some apparently unmanned, along the way where different things are supposed to happen. If you miss a step you have to drive back until you find the right station and get the correct slip of paper or stamp in your passport. Though we were highly ignorant of what to do and where to go, finally we were given the "all clear" and relaxed for the drive to Muscat, the capital and largest city in Oman:

I can't speak for anyone else in the car, but for me, driving up into mountains out of the desert plains was a sort of relief, like taking a deep, deep breath.

Plus, several of us in the car couldn't get enough of the very fuzzy and verbal goats. Here is a wild one, called a tahr:

Mike was serenaded along the way by the Aussie accent of Matilda, as we've christened her, our GPS. Matilda was very patient with us. Through Matilda we selected our first dining experience in Oman. She said it was called the Golden Goat Restaurant off the Al-Waquaiba Road in Sohar. We picked it solely on the name. Actually it turned out to be called Golden Goal. Pretty close, not quite right. This became a theme of our relationship with Matilda.

The meal, which consisted of rice, chicken, fish, french fries (always it seems there are rice and/or french fries) anyway, more food than any 6 persons could possibly eat at one setting, cost 9 Rials and 600 baisa (9.60 OMR). 25 bucks American. Good deal, we thought, especially since we'd spent 1,250 Dhs on a meal ($341) for just the adults at the Meat Co on New Year's Day.

We carefully watched to make sure our water came out of the sealed bottle, and wondered if we would get silverware. (We did). Then we tried out eating solely with the right hand. In Arabic countries one does not use the left hand for eating, or shaking hands, and so forth, since that's the hand one uses for what one author I read coyly referred to as "toilet ablutions". In other words, there ain't much toilet paper outside of Dubai, people. Only the coarsest, rudest, most culturally illiterate person would eat with their left hand.

Anxious to avoid that particular label, we all practiced. Also along those lines, we wondered if we should be dining in the "Family" dining room instead of the main area (it seemed OK that we didn't) and Colleen jumped on my bandwagon of trying to learn little phrases in applicable languages, and then trying them out. The meal ended with a small bowl of brownish-green licorice flavored seeds delivered to the table, which we later figured out were fennel. Hmm.

Helpful tip for travelers: fennel seeds should not be crammed with abandon into one's mouth as though they are after dinner mints. Start out slowly or have a napkin to spit into nearby, because they are strong.

The drive to Muscat from Dubai was about 400 km, and with side trips and GPS, er, issues, (Matilda wasn't up on the roads in Oman, and in fact wanted us to drive in the ocean more than once) we drove about 5 hours until we reached the cream and white city surrounded by the jagged sand colored mountains and ringed by stone watchtowers in strategic places. There, on the Oman Gulf, we checked into an attractively aged hotel whose rates had been described by the guide book as "reasonable". 180 Rials per couple for 2 nights ($938 USD total). They'd given us two rooms, then changed their minds on the second room and tried to give us a smaller room. I threw a modest fit and got the bigger room back. We couldn't believe the price...twice what the guide book had said, so I didn't feel too guilty about it. Other men were haggling and hassling the clerk about the room prices as well, though in Arabic.

Though that first night all we did was wander the nearby areas and beach a little bit, we would have had to be blind to not notice that something big was happening in Oman. It turned out to be the 19th Gulf You can guess, soccer is big here. (FYI: the UAE will be defending their Gulf Cup title against Saudi this Saturday in the semifinals; Oman also qualified and will be playing Qatar). Oman was playing against Kuwait. I don't know if normally the cars in Oman are decorated with the country's flag colors of white, red and green, but they sure were when we were there. People wore bright knitted scarves resembling the flag, and there was a general air of excitement and national pride.
The family, banners, and in the distance, one of the many watchtowers.

We visited Old Oman, and the Mutrah Souk. First we were guided to a parking spot by a helpful local along one of the narrow passages, then we wandered through the aged and beautiful buildings beneath the banners. Through a large archway and into the souk. (marketplace) The souk was exactly what a souk should be; colorful, vibrant, full of the smells of incense and languages swirling.
None of us turned out to be very good bargainers that day except for Bethy. She was amazing. She'd decided to take 2 Rials ($6) out of her "bank account" and she strode along with a discerning little girl's eye. Her greatest assets were persistence "No, I only have 2 Rials," and an impressive ability to walk away. This secured her a lavish pink fur and sequined outfit of pants and a coat from this gentleman, who was tickled to be outfoxed by a blond baby:
We walked and walked through the corridors, a thousand delights for our eyes.

Emerging on the bright harbor end of the souk, we were greeted by the splendid white hulk of one of Sultan Quaboos' yachts floating upon the blue waters, (a fascinating and complicated man, here's more: ), cruise ships disgorging German tourists,and a fort castle overlooking it all.

We tromped up many many stone stairs, though the fort itself was closed, for the view, which was astounding. White and blues, golds and creams. Mosques, towers, a vibrant and alive city, soaked in history. Dubai is about the now, the faster bigger and better. Muscat was something entirely different, and it was good.

We were getting hungry, and decided that this was the place to try out:

We figured we'd get a decent meal, hopefully without a side dish of dysentery.

Sitting at one of the tables in the tiny Taj Mahal, we tried to order, but soon realised with much effort from both sides of the ordering process and lots of hand gestures that there were only two dishes actually available, so we went with it. There were plenty of 2 liter bottles of water on the tables, but they had been refilled with tap water. They brought us at least one that was sealed, for sure, though Thomas managed to have one of the well-meaning waiters pour him a glassful from one of the other bottles. I switched it with mine as soon as I could without causing offense and had Thomas suck on a lemon, Rani's prescription remedy for eating anything potentially pathological.

A salad arrived, which we mostly avoided, and then rice and our meals.

Let me tell you, that was the best food I think I have ever eaten. Wow. The chicken Mike and I got was coated with red peppers and fried to perfection, along with the saffron rice and some sort of spicy chicken in sauce, and hot naan bread...I'm drooling even now remembering it.

The bill for our feast...from Mike and my new favorite restaurant? The Rial equivalent of 12 American dollars. They even gave the kids homemade cookies.

We wandered back and Bethy announced she needed to go potty. A prolonged search for such ensued. Finally I gave up and took her over to the police station. A talk dark north African Muslim gladly walked us part way, and then some Muscat police officers escorted us the rest of the way. Of course there were only the dreaded squat potties, essentially porcelain ringed holes on the floor. I braced myself for yet another duel with Bethy about the need to go vs the aesthetics of sit vs squat.

To my delighted shock she decided that she was cool with it. This is the kid who would NOT go in a port-a-potty back in the States, despite threats of bodily harm. We proclaimed her, then and there, the Princess of Squat Potties.