Sunday, March 28, 2010

Huh, please don't you rock my boat (part 1 of 2)

Having house guests gives us the perfect excuse to go out and do special things, and Mike's sister Cathy had the idea for all of us to take a dhow cruise through Khor Sham in Oman.

Perfect. We had been quoted a price online, but with a friendly phone call and my trotting out a few phrases in Urdu to the nice Pakistani tour operator, we got a substantial discount and I was a happy camper. On the appointed day, at 6 am sharp the driver arrived to pick us up. Unfortunately, trying to find the other passengers in Dubai meant that we didn't actually leave the city until 8. Our niece was ill into the fortunately large enough plastic bag I'd brought, which made for a more exciting ride. At least she had good aim and felt much better afterwards.

One long drive through 6 of the 7 emirates and a border crossing later, we were winding along the long road to Khasab, Oman. The geography had changed dramatically from desert to mountains and cliffs overlooking the Arabian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the blue waters ranging from turquoise to cerulean, cobalt to ultramarine depending on the depth and the light. The graceful curves of our Dhow waited for us in the harbor, full of comfortable red cushions and German tourists.

Arabic tea

We'd chosen our snorkel gear and boarded, welcomed with tea, sugary and piping hot, and, as the Dhow set out, the sight of smugglers sitting atop contraband, bumping along the waves in many fast little boats, headed for Iran.

Narrating, our guide spoke in German for most of the guests and then came over to us and repeat what he'd said in English for our sakes. The Germans were entranced by the "Die Schmuggler! Schmuggler!" pointing and grinning. There was something bold and rakish and even romantic about all those young men risking their lives. Soon we were sailing through the fjord between high mountains and their staggering geology, watching the scenery and waters flow past, the air salty and warm and the winds cool and pleasant, the laughter easy between our family members. Except for Thomas who threw up on the dock before heading out. This was becoming a theme. Which was worrisome, as we were going to be at sea for many hours. The mountains (jebel in Arabic) vividly demonstrate their layers of rock, and how over time it has been pushed up to create folds, ripples and waves in the mountainside,

even turning sideways so that the flat planes of the uppermost layer of rock were exposed creating enormous smooth bare rock faces. There were goats and acacia trees, and stone house villages with a population of 50 and no roads, just boats, perched on the edge of the water.

In the water were lots of pale things about 5" long that we thought were jellyfish, bobbing quietly, with a red nucleus offset to one side of a basically cylindrical body. Then we saw them in long chains as well, and wondered if they were some sort of sea creature egg. Whatever they were, there were a lot of them!

The Dhow, our magnificent craft built as they have been for hundreds of years, but now with the welcome addition of a engine, neared our first destination, Telegraph Island.

Dhow and Telegraph Island

Telegraph Island, a tiny and lonely spot, was a British outpost set up to guard the underwater cable from 1865-1868 that was laid at the bend of the Strait of Hormuz (see map, below) to connect Great Britain with Persia and India. Most of the guards, we were told, ended up losing their minds from the monotony of the place, and thus, according to legend, the phrase "going around the bend" was coined.

Our guide, Anid, told us gleefully, that we would truly know we had gone 'round the bend when the first of us went ahead and jumped in with the jellyfish to go swimming. We all looked down at the water, full of lovely yellow and black striped fish and at all those bobbing jellyfish-like things. There was a definite lack of disembarkment. I asked Anid, were those jellyfish? I figured they couldn't possibly be; there was another Dhow anchored nearby and I had seen a few people from there in the water.

He bobbed his head sideways in the way of Indians, Pakistani, and Sri Lankens. "I have never seen them before," he said, "but he," indicating the dhow captain with his chin, "says they are safe."

Well, I wasn't going to sit onboard and look at those beautiful turquoise waters, so now asking if it was deep enough to dive, I did just that off the side.

Here there was a bit of confusion. Onboard they heard me say that I was getting stung. The guide had said something, and I thought he said that I should see if they would sting me. What I said was, you want me to see if they sting?! He then asked if I felt stinging or pain or something, so, reluctantly, I put the back of my hand against one of the things floating nearby.

No worries. Whatever it was, it wasn't moving, and it didn't sting. Good thing, because I was surrounded.

Soon enough, the braver souls jumped in, and then the more reticent gave it a go. I held up one of the smaller chains of the eggs, or whatever they were:

As I explained to a larger but friendly German lady, using my extremely limited Deutsch, they felt gummi, firm yet pliable.

Telegraph Island beckoned once I had my fill of fish watching, and though no one else was on it, we decided better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, so by means of extremely shallow floating over the coral surrounding the island, I got onshore and went up the old stone steps to the top of the island to look around. It was utterly silent, save for the winds, and little remained of the buildings from 150 years ago, some half walls, grasses blowing. I can see how one might lose their mind, with the heat and the sameness, day after day.

Chris, our brother in law, his daughter Allison and Bethy decided they wanted to give it a go too, so Chris and I led the girls carefully into land, but just at the end of the swim, after he had stood up, my poor brother in law lost his balance and stepped backwards, directly onto a prickly Sea Urchin, impaling his heel with several of the purple spikes. Ouch.

Chris, Bethy and Allison

The girls explored the island a little, discovering a mother goat and her two kids, but the revving of the Dhow's engine and no one else left in the water gave us the idea that perhaps it was time to move on. Chris was being incredibly stoic, having pulled three of the spikes out of his foot and not making yelping or whining noises. Impressive.

He cleaned the punctures with alcohol-based hand sanitiser, and kept on truckin'. (Should this happen to anyone else, internet research revealed that it's pretty much impossible to remove urchin spikes completely, and that you should soak the wound in vinegar to relieve the pain of the toxin and to help your body absorb the spikes.)

Onboard the ship was smelling marvelous, of barbecue, and as we bade farewell to Telegraph Island we loaded up our plates with barracuda and hummus, salad with tomatoes and rice a chicken dish and Indian curried cauliflower, while Bob Marley did his thing from the speakers.

It was about then that I noticed, next to the captain steering his dhow, a small pile of black on the floor.

Oh for Pete's sake...

my undies.

to be continued...


And on that note, let me (please) completely change the subject and wish a super happy birthday to a certain SUPER 4 year old!

Happy birthday little dude. We love you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

and she dances on the sand...

We have guests. Joyfully.

Arabian (Persian) Gulf, 2010

Is there anything more wonderful than watching cousins build sandcastles together? The last time they did this was last June back in Washington State:

Puget Sound, 2009

Both times they had to build right next to the water.

Watching them, Mike's sister Cathy observed, they always do that. Why do kids do that?

I don't know...but I thought about it, and you know what?

I'm a build-your-sandcastle-next-to-the-water kind of girl too.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Oh, whack fol th' dah now dance to yer partner...

Gentleman from Waterford Ireland, smoking shisha in Dubai. Also drinking a Budweiser (?!) I asked him if I could take his photo and he was quite accommodating, as well as garrulous, which is why I know where he's from, not to mention such information who his mother (God bless her dear soul) lived next to back in the old country.

You think I'm joking. I'm not.

St Patricks Day in Dubai. Which means we got to celebrate our anniversary with a bunch of Irish.

What could be better?

(foamy dark Guinness on tap didn't hurt the happy factor one bit, even if the lines were long)

The day began respectably, with Bethy eating oat porridge that I colored green, and a mug of steamed green milk with vanilla . I also got food coloring all over my fingers in the process and let me tell you right now, that stuff does NOT wash off.

Bethy demonstrating the wearin O' the green in her crown, upon which she wrote her name, prefixed with "Ms." Yes, I did send her to school in sleepware, but it was planned. I mean, how cute are those shamrock-ladybug patterned PJs?

The day also began with my belatedly realising that Bethy was supposed to have dressed up a potato in paint or costume to bring to school for the Potato Parade. The two of us made the fastest potato butterfly you have ever seen, and bless her, she cooperated with all my suggestions, throwing that sucker together in record time.

We started with a nice spud from Saudi, cut wings from a rainbow drawing she'd already made, added glittery gold pipe cleaners that we curled into antennae and carefully drew legs and lashed stickpin eyes and lipstick. (Obviously butterflies wear lipstick.)

We perched her creation (named "Rainbow"-part of the assignment was to give it a name) on a silk daisy and off to school the two of them went. I am happy to report that Bethy said her poem lines well during the assembly (out of the rainbow she was responsible for the blue and indigo portion), and her butter-potato-fly was proudly carried around the school.

I won't get mother of the year, but hey, we pulled it off, this time at least.

Bethy, "Rainbow", and flowers

Back home I opened the door to a knock and the largest bouquet of flowers I've ever received. It was so huge the delivery man refused to hand it to me, instead insisting on carrying it to a place of honor and prominence on the kitchen counter.

I called Mike.

"Mike, there's a bouquet here, the card says Thanks for a wonderful 10 years, I love you, no signature, no idea who it's from."

Pause. Then he laughed, "could be from anyone, can you narrow it down?"

(In fact, later Bethy decided they must be from my Mom, which cracked us up.)

"Well," I pondered, "it helps that we're on another continent, that should assist with the narrowing down bit..."

That night we went out as it was our actual anniversary, (gotta milk these things), a work night, but too bad for that last bit. We had a babysitter and were wearing green so t 'ell with being sensible!

That's not my hat. It appeared on my head just before the photograph, rather like the attack wig that affixed itself to Mike's noggin seconds before this photo was taken:

Which, if you knew where that wig had been, would make you laugh as hard as everybody but Mike did. This is a fabulous photo: we're at Irish Village, the outdoor watering hole to be at on St Patrick's, surrounded by our Irish friends.

We seriously over paid for Guiness and Kilkenny, watched riverdancing (no smiles on those dancers faces...they must have been darned hot up there on the stage!) protected our drinks from the jostling of the loud and friendly but packed crowd (talk of crying over spilt beer!) and had a blast belting out our favorite songs like Rattlin' Bog and Irish Rover with these guys:

It's hard to see, but there's bright red leprechaun beard action going on there with the guitar and accordion.

At the beginning of the post I asked: what could be better than celebrating At Patrick's day than with a bunch of Irish? This was not a rhetorical question.

How about celebrating with Irish AND a couple of Emeratis who obviously never heard of the internet?

These guys were having a LOT of fun. Good for them. Showin' that Irish spirit.

I hope it was worth it if they ended up having to explain themselves to their kin. (I would also like to say they were not drinking when we saw them, though they didn't seem to mind the kisses being planted upon them by maidens fair and inebriated. )

Two things made me happy for the world that night. First, that people from all over the world had gathered to celebrate the idea of being Irish. Second, it did my heart good to see that, even at the silly prices for drinks, people are still able to afford to get slobberingly drunk with their fellow man.

Obviously the economy isn't doing that badly...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed...

Mike and I escaped for the weekend. Oh, it was so nice. No kids. No housework. No computer. Nothing but being utterly lazy together. At a 5 star hotel out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but pale desert stretching away into the distance.

To justify this, we have our 10th wedding anniversary. Ten years, plus three years of being engaged, some dating and a good year before that of just being friends. That means we've known each other since both of us were in our twenties.


(Yes, I know you long-married couples are laughing in your hands at this, but you know, I can barely even remember what it was like Before Mike. Hmm, that abbreviation is kind of distasteful. Perhaps we should move on.)

Thanks to the utter generousity of some friends of ours, (bless you! bless you!) suddenly we were child- and carefree and headed out to the resort Bab al Shams.

Bab al Shams is in the 1001 Escapes to Make Before You Die book, and for good reason. It is gorgeous and perfectly relaxing. Far away from the city, down a long winding drive that snakes and curves for no reason beyond aethetics, (when I say this place is in the middle of nowhere, truly that's it. There's nothing but scrub and sand,) the Arabic styled hotel welcomes you with the heavy scent of incense after you turn your car over to the dutiful valets. Every inch of the hotel is beautifully thought out, with careful attention to detail to create a rich, thickly Arabic, utterly romantic atmosphere.

We were escorted through the grounds to our room where a box of chocolates, another box of dates, red roses, a lovely bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (which I had asked them to substitute for Champagne) and ooh, what a sumptous room of charmingly rough, creamy stone walls waited for us, and a spicy scent I couldn't identify. Elegant yet exotically rustic, with stone niches and nooks, artistic lighting to show off the traditional Arabic craftworks housed within, and our very own corner courtyard with table and chairs where scarlet geraniums bloomed beneath palm trees full of birds singing up a storm. Beyond, soft desert sands.

Not only were there red rose petals leading up to and strewn in the bathtub, along with candles and bath salts (holy cow, they were serious!)

but there were even, as Mike discovered with a guffaw, rose petals floating in the toilet.

He called me in to see them, and then we stood there looking down, considering what the correct and courteous thing to do could possibly be when confronted with such a thing.

After making sure to properly appreciate some of the wine and chocolates, we wandered around outside through the courtyards and tree shaded grounds. I took lots of photographs, loving the architecture, exploring, warm sun on our backs...

Not bad. Not bad at all.

I also paparazzi-stalked some "complimentary ride" camels with my two cameras. This being a special occasion after all, I brought out my old, heavy, and much loved manual SLR that uses, dare I say it, real film. (see previous post, "Songs of long ago..." for the photos. I'm super proud of them.)

Aside: when I dropped the film off for processing at my usually 10 minute digital print place they conferred amongst themselves, gave me horse eye and said it would be a special send out job. The final price reflected this.

Mike and I wandered the dunes a bit, and over to a falcon demonstration where the Emirati handler was training his bird to swoop mightily after a rabbit fur being swung on a line. Good stuff.

The infinity pool was lovely, the staff smiling and numerous, all greeting us as we passed, seven restaurants, yes, I suppose we could get used to this.

Doing our best, we relaxed, found a place to enjoy a quiet drink while watching the sun go down and the night swiftly move in. There is no dusk in the desert.

Middle Eastern woman smoking shisha

We had reservations for 7:30 at the famed open air Al Hadheerah restaurant, which was a pleasant walk along a torch-lined path through the desert from Bab al Shams to a fortlike walled area where a mass of people were queing up to get in. The unmistakable smells of meat grilling, the sounds of drums and Arab violin embraced us as we entered.

Reading online reviews ahead of time, it seemed that Al Hadheerah was either going to be lovely or something to endure.

I would have to say, it was both. The food was overwhelming. There was so much of it.

They began by bringing us salads and hummus and tabboulah and fattoush and flatbreads, and other things I am sure I've forgotten, loading up the table mercilessly.

Then we were to go to the mind-boggling number of cooking stations where meats were rotating, grilling, seafood was spilling out everywhere, sweets and fruits and olives and cheeses, all Arabic cuisine represented with a vengance.

And, this being attached to a hotel, (the deciding factor in the UAE as to whether alcohol may be served,) you could acquire cocktails. Nice.

A chef custom-prepared lamb chops and and some particularly sexy cuts of beef for me, (yes, that is plural, deal with it,) and I put them shamelessly on my plate next to thick onion slices soaked in vinegar oil and herbs, a smallish piece of some sort of dense chocolate cake and a bowl of Umm Ali, which is an Egyptian bread pudding made from puff pastry with pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, and pastry cream, served warm and, yes, I am drooling on the keyboard again.

What I really liked about Al Hadheerah was that I could wander around and look at all the different and, to me, exotic types of foods which were clearly labelled with name and main ingredients. It was, begging your forgiveness for using the expression, total foodie porn.

The Arabic band played on keyboard, drums and violin relentlessly, and then the first act began, a Tanoura dancer. Now, this was a guy whose first apprearance made me go "this must be some sort of clown act" and Mike to exclaim "I thought Arabs didn't go for cross dressing."

Tanoura turns out to be an Egyptian folk dance held in high regard. Eventually we figured it must be something like that. This dancer performed in what we found a strange outfit of peach pantaloons, and brightly colored dress, over which was a giant double hoopskirt sort of thing in four layers of rainbow fabric.

He spun and spun and smiled and smiled, moving the double skirts up and down in a dizzying succession of moves which apparently have deep religious significance, claiming to evoke such things as the seasons and the movement of pilgrims around the Kabba shrine in Mecca. It was very whirling dervish.

I confess: we didn't really get it.

Eventually he moved down into the audience (and I kept waiting for someone to get an eye put out by those skirts) and at each group he would stop and pose for photographs, spinning one of the skirts over his head, whipping it around. Flashes would flash, the nice photographers would slap down claim tickets for the audience members to go purchase souvenir photos later...and the band played frenetically on.

There were several dancing acts, each one following the same pattern; dance, then come down for photos with an audience who who seemed super into the idea.

Mike and I are apparently jaundiced, crabby sorts because this got really old after a few hours of it. Even with drinks.

We also felt terribly guilty about the amount of waste that was happening, just at our little table. The ton of salads and starters had gotten whisked away, though we might have continued to pick at them, (overwhelming your guest is a hallmark of Arab hospitalty, and the clearing away was something we were sure most guests expected,)and the plates of cut fruit brought later disappeared too. Had we not eaten for the previous three days we might have done justice to the offerings, but as it was, we couldn't.

We decided that there must be a happy flock of goats, probably camels too, and possibly several otherwise starving small countries somewhere that dined well off all that stuff, considering the sheer amount of food and number of tables.

At one point the lights were dimmed, the music swelled and in the desert above and beyond us a camel caravan, led by a hunched figure in headdress and white robes made its lumbering way across the sands.

I am a total sucker for this sort of thing, no matter how cheesy it is.

Then horses and their riders raced across, rearing, sand flying from the hooves, then engaging in a sword battle, torches blazing. When peace was restored the horsemen stood guard and the camel caravan came through once more, followed by a herd of goats driven by a young man. The horseriders stood up on the back of of their mounts to the cheers of the crowd and I felt tears pricking my eyes.

I blame the drinks.

After the belly dancer (and many audience members trying to belly dance too, with one misguided fellow trying to tuck some money into her costume. She removed it and carried the offending bill as though it was a dead fish) and then another dancing group, both of whom followed the now well-established pattern of making sure there were lots of photo ops, we we more than done, and meandered back to the hotel.

We'd been looking forward to getting away from the lights and looking up at the stars of the desert in a most romantic fashion but were thwarted by an utterly unromantic security guard who pursued us out into the sands and insisted in was dangerous: scorpions and poisonous snakes and the like.


I did get my romantic candlelit rose petal bath, luxurious, and we slept soundly that night, actually sleeping in and finally waking hungry the next morning to a breakfast that included such things as warm croissants with date butter and a latte with thick, gorgeous foam. Mike pointed out the fresh honey dripping from its comb into a special bowl among the jellies.

I helped myself to bittersweet marmalade, a forbidden food in our house. Mike has deemed it evil, due to its penchant to get positively everywhere, how exactly, no one knows.

I had to go wash my hands later, and my utensils and coffee cup handle were sticky as all get out, so it is still sadly banned from our residence.

We checked out and treated ourselves to a lazy drive out through the desert, past camels and long lines of trucks, expanses of emptiness, exploring a litttle before finally returning to real life.

Here's to the next ten years.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Songs of long ago...

Out in the desert this weekend, I took some pictures with real film and a real camera, my much-loved Cannon AE-1 manual SLR that's nearly as old as I am. These photographs are the result:

I couldn't be happier with the 'old Arabia' look of these (the scratches are just how they came out of the camera, worked well for my purposes) and wanted to share them with you.