Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Salalah: Omanis in the Mist

On our second day in Salalah we went out to Muqsayl on the coast where there are lots of blowholes. Very spectacular and with the rough seas and big surf it was very much like Bethells (my home beach in NZ). The fog was very thick which made driving quite difficult at times and isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of drivers only use their hazard lights, if they use lights at all, and they certainly don’t bother slowing down. As well, there are the camels and goats which wander the roads. Drivers have to stop for camels and to hit one causes really serious problems and the payment to the owner of lots of cash in compensation.

We then drove along the Sarfait Road which continues from Mugsayl to the Yemen border. The road winds and twists up a 1000m cliff to a plateau, spectacular views, well, what we could see through the fog. I was doing some of the driving and Sabine was very calm only yelling out “Cliff, Cliff” as in “You’re too close to it…..” a couple of times. The Lonely Planet guide says the border crossing at this point “is not for the faint- hearted” and I can add to that, nor is the drive to get there!

One thing I’ve learnt is that Omanis are the world champion picnickers, they will picnic anywhere, any time, there is no terrain too rough, no slope too steep, no fog too thick to stop any self respecting Omani from having a picnic. The Omani motto should be “Picnics-R-Us”.

We’ve also had a drive on the anti-gravity road. This is 200m section of an unsealed track off the road between Salalah and Tarqa. You go down the hill, put the car in neutral, release the brakes and the car starts going backwards uphill. It’s true, despite certain people who read these emails, you know who you are, saying that there is no scientific proof, it’s an optical illusion etc etc. It’s weird but it’s for real.

Day 2 photos:

On our final full day we battled the low cloud to go out to Job’s Tomb (Nabi Ayub). Though the tomb is small, it has a powerful atmosphere. I don’t know if it really is Job buried there but whoever it is, they have strong vibes. Apparently there are great views from the tomb but, as you’ll see from the photos, the cloud was so low we couldn’t see anything. We continued on the same road up to a plateau where the air was hot and dry and it was all desert again. We stopped for coffee at a small town called Thumrayt. The restaurant had a ‘family area’ which is where families (obviously) or ladies travelling together can sit in privacy in individual curtained off areas. We sat in our little secluded area and drank coffee made with sweetened condensed milk had then had sugar added to it. I’m looking forward to a cup of coffee that doesn’t carry with it the risk of developing instant diabetes.

On the plane from Salalah to Dubai I sat in an aisle seat and there was a lady wearing full purda in the window seat. She was very concerned that a man was going to be in the vacant middle seat next to her so I moved over and sat next to her to ‘protect’ her from the man who then took the aisle seat.

Day 3 photos:

Saturday, 19 August 2006

Salalah, Oman

Our flight from Dubai to Salalah in Oman (down by the border with Yemen) was uneventful though there were several layers of cloud to pass through on the descent into Salalah which made for a bumpy ride and the pilot hit the runway at quite a speed, you could say the ground broke our fall.

During the khareef (rainy) season in July-Sept, Salalah is affected by the monsoon season and as a result has clear air, a slightly lower temperature and lots of greenery, a very welcome change after the heat and dust of Dubai. The hotel we’re staying at is brand new and right by the beach. As part of the Khareef Festival a large shopping/funfair/outdoor restaurant area is open right next door and on our first night we went over for a look. Sydney people, there are bananas galore here with roadside stalls that sell nothing but bananas…and they don’t cost $10 a kilo…you could buy the whole stall for $10!! It became very obvious, very quickly that Salalah is a conservative area. It’s no exaggeration to say that 90% of the ladies here wear the burqa (face covering) but don’t get the idea these ladies are oppressed or meek. We seem to be the only CWPs (Crazy White People) in town, everywhere we go people turn and look. Salalah has built up its tourism industry but it is aimed at tourists coming from the Gulf and Saudi not Western tourists. There are few maps or road signs in English and by the time Sabine and I use our combined Arabic skills to decipher an Arabic road sign we are 20kms down the road. We’ve hired a Toyota Landcruiser (manual, left hand drive) for the time we’re here. I’ve driven the Landcruiser a couple of times and each time I’ve reached down with my left hand to ‘change gears’, hit my hand on the door and thought “My God, where’s the gear lever?” but I’m getting the idea now.

On our first day we went to Taqa Fort then further along the coast to the small town of Mirbat. Mirbat, which is a rundown town to put it mildly, has a small fort (which was closed) and was the site of an important battle during the Dhofari insurgency in the 1970s. We bought some rolls and cheese and sat on the breakwater to eat them while looking out at the Arabian Sea. We then visited Bin Ali’s tomb on the outskirts of Mirbat. We drove on to Wadi Darbat which was absolute paradise. During the khareef the Wadi looks like a picture book, verdant greenery, lakes, small waterfalls, birds, vines creeping up the trunks of the trees. Lots of people were there picnicking and flying kites (kite flying seems to be a very popular pastime here). Yet just a few miles up the road (and I do mean up….) the plateau is dry, rocky and sandy.

Picture the scene, I’m getting ready to take a photo of a “beware of the camel” road sign which happened to have some real camels in the background. I was waiting for the camels to get themselves organised when a car pulled over from the across the road and blocked my shot. Then, a bloke sticks his head out of the car window and delivers the most incredible pick up line ever delivered – here we are in the back blocks of Oman and the guy cheerfully announces “I know you two, you’ve just come back from Lebanon!” “Um, no, not us.” Brilliant smile from the guy, he gets the vibes that he has struck out with his spiel and with a cheery “masalema” he waves, winds up his window and drives off. The total absurdity of the situation hit us, Sabine and I laughed so hard we were crying and were both hit with fits of the giggles throughout the remainder of the day. “I know you two, you’ve just come back from Lebanon” it’s a classic isn’t it, put it on my headstone.

You can see some photos at:

Interesting aside: You can buy Hassan Nasrala pillowcases here. (He’s the leader of Hezbollah.)

Thursday, 17 August 2006

My life flashes past me...........

Thanks for all the emails, it’s really good to read them and keep up with what’s happening.

On Sunday I went out to the mosque at Jumeirah which is the only mosque in Dubai that allows entry to non-Muslims. The tours are on Tuesday and Sunday mornings and the guide is usually an English speaking convert who encourages questions of all types which makes for a very interesting session. Ladies and gents need to dress modestly, long sleeves and long trousers for both sexes (though ladies can wear long skirts) and ladies must wear a head scarf.

Yesterday I went out to Ibn Battuta Mall which is the biggest mall I’ve been to. It’s named after a famous 14th century Arabic explorer. The mall is a kilometre long from one end to the other and divided into ‘courts’ which have different themes – China, India, Egypt, Tunisia and another couple that I forget. To say it’s huge is an understatement, the China court has a full size junk in the middle and there’s still masses of room to spare both in height and width. Lots of familiar names; Athletes Foot, Billabong, The Body Shop etc and the big UK chains, Debenhams and BHS. Woolworths is here too but it sells clothes only which is different to both Aus and NZ. In each court there are also static displays about Ibn Battuta, his travels, literature, development of Islam, science etc in the 14th century which are really interesting. Shopping hours are 10-10 Sat-Tue and 10-midnight Wed-Fri. Photos of the mall are at

Have I become some sort of international traffic *&#%wit magnet? Why won’t the cars leave me alone? On Monday night I went out to Al Basha and the return taxi trip provided me with yet another close encounter with death. Dubai people to give you the picture, the trip was made even longer by an accident on Sheikh Zayed Rd so we had to go the back way on the road with the signs saying ‘Oman 120kms’. Anyway Markesh Skaif (oh very clever) was at the wheel and obviously full of the thrill of it being Pakistan's independence day. At no time during the entire 40 minute trip did the speed drop below 120kph, he did more weaving than a carpet factory and finally, having almost passed the Bur Dubai turnoff, without dropping a kilometre in speed he crossed 3 lanes, went over the striped lines just before the concrete lane divider and missed the crash barrier by inches. It was at this point I felt the bony fingers of the Reaper gripping my shoulder and that was because the Grim Reaper was as scared as me! No human has ever exited a taxi as fast as I did that night.

Here’s something to think about. In a recent discussion fuelled by cans of unlicensed VB (thanks Colin) this topic was raised: can we tell anything about the psyche of a nation by the lyrics of its pop songs? What sort of nation can have a song with the lyrics “I’m lost at sea and I’m an amputee and there was slaughter in the water when I bought a shaaaark attack” and regard it as a cheerful dance floor ditty? There was huge amusement over whether Britney Spears has a subliminal message (well, umm, like, d’uh) and what is the cultural relevance of the Pussycat Dolls, compare and contrast. The topic fool, not the girls. And how come there’s 6 PCDs in some videos and 8 in others. Are they being cloned? The quality of debate went downhill from there a bit.

Most shops seem to have local radio playing over the speakers. Quite a few of the radio DJs are English (one sounds just like John Peel) and there is a strong UK influence in the music played on the radio and available in the music shops. It’s a bit surreal to be in the ghee section of an Indian supermarket while the Violent Femmes are playing over the speakers, but wait there’s more……isn’t there always…. in a coffee bar in the Mall of the Emirates they were playing Wolfmother, and I walked into the shoe shop at the Al Ain shopping centre and all the boy shop assistants were standing round singing along to “I’m a freak, I’m a weirdo…………” Who is that girl who sings “I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair”? Hasn’t anyone told her that if you wore flowers in your hair, you’d be beaten to a bloody pulp by the punk rockers?

Where are the weird business names, I’ve been asked? OK, here’s a couple for you: Who in their right mind would name a car rental company “Travel and Walk Rent a Car” (it’s in Karama) and how about the mattress shop called “JoySleep”. I thought you could have one or the other…..hehehe….oh control yourselves.

The place I’m staying is nice and I’m so happy to have a gym in the building (collective rolling of eyes). There is a reception desk downstairs usually staffed by a couple in their late 20s. I call them “Mum and Dad” because they glare at me if I dare to go out in the sleeveless top….I can hear them thinking in Tagalog/Hindi “You’re not going out dressed like that are you?” I only dress in such a racy fashion if I’m going out at night and I wear a pashmina over the top while I’m out in public.

I thought I heard a rubbish truck one night which seemed an odd thing to dream about even for me. When I asked “Mum and Dad” about it they told me the trucks come round to empty the skips that are on the sides of every street. There’s no rubbish pick up for individual houses here, instead there are the skips that everyone puts their rubbish into (yes, yes I know, it should be “into which everyone puts their rubbish”.) After a couple of days in the heat, even though the skip has a lid, the smell from some of them can be lethal, like WMD lethal, adults hold their breath when they walk past and little kids run past and make gagging noises.

On Friday Sabine and I head off to Salalah in Oman. We’ve hired a 4x4 for the 3 days we’re there, lots to see, Job’s Tomb, the frankincense trail, the magnetic road, the beach, looking forward to it. Sabine’s talked me into doing some driving while we’re down there: unsealed roads, blind corners, cars on the wrong side, ah, it’ll be just like Waitakere…………..

Ma’a salema

Friday, 11 August 2006

Sunshine, lollipops etc

Yesterday I went to the Diving Museum and the Heritage Museum which are next to each other near the Creek. Both were ‘open but closed’ - the facilities were open but as it is high summer there aren’t many tourists around so not many of the actual exhibits were open. Still I got some good photos which I’ve put up on the web and hopefully you’ve seen now, despite my HTML hiccup. The photos should be there in the correct size and order now.

I’ve bought myself an umbrella to try to keep off the worst of the sun. I know that sounds terribly ponsy but the sun here is so fierce that I need something more effective than standing in the shadow of telephone poles and slapping on buckets of 35+ sun cream. I’ve now got the whole tea-plantation-memsahib look happening, but it does the job.

I’ve promised myself that on at least one as yet unspecified day, I will not spend any money. Today is not the day as I have discovered a true wonder – the 2 Dirham Shop (that’s about 74c Aus). They’ve got the most extensive range of craptastic products one could ever hope to find. Things like: shampoo in bottles that look exactly like Free & Lovely but it’s called “Heal and Smoothing”; anything plastic that you could ever want, need or have wondered if it existed; perfume that’s “supposed” to be Chanel but smells like it’s made from the contents of Bopal’s sewers; leis and plastic flowers of every size imaginable and my favourite, snow globes of Dubai, and that’s just for starters. I was assured that there is “More stock coming in daily Madame”. The mind boggles!

Angelina – The shoes here! OMG! It’s like Shoe Queen Heaven. Even I’m finding them irresistible.
Terry – A 2 year old Chevy Lumina SS sold here for 70,000Dhm, yes dirhams! Want to go halves on one? You could have it on weekends hahahahaha……

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Peel me a grape, no, make that a date.

Life’s almost too good to be true sometimes. I spent yesterday afternoon sitting on the couch with my feet up, Led Zep CDs playing, eating dates, wearing my official UAE ‘ladies indoor dress’ called a galabeya (think executive mumu but without the pictures of coconut trees and surfboards) and reading the latest Sarah Paretsky murder mystery. Yes, gasp, fiction, it’s a shock to me too. There can be few finer ways to waste an afternoon.

I’m at the gym at 9am every morning, there’s nobody around except the pool attendant who does double duty as the gym fitness instructor. The most I’ve seen him do is adjust the air-con and now that I know where he hides the remote he doesn’t even need to do that. He’s amazed to see anyone in the gym before noon and often waits to hand me a towel before I go in. As he hands me the towel he always gives me a huge smile and there’s a brief conversation along the lines of (“words to the effect of….”):
“Good morning Madam” (You crazy white person)
“Good morning Hassan” (Yeah, but a fit, crazy white person)

Today was, as they say, “fully hectic”. After the gym I walked down to the Creek and caught the abra that goes down to the area where the dhows are loaded further down the Creek from the souq. These dhows are freight boats which sail mainly between the UAE and India, the design which is very Sinbadish, probably hasn’t changed in centuries except for the addition of engines. The freight is delivered to the wharf in trucks and then moved onto the dhows on the backs of crews of Indian labourers. It’s strange to walk along and pass towers of toasters or microwaves stacked up on the wharf. I walked through the spice souq and then sort of got lost, Dubai people will be amazed particularly as I was supposed to be walking in a straight line, but I’ve always warned everyone that I have absolutely no sense of direction. Anyway it was worth it as I found the Dubai public library with their wonderful air-conditioned reading room. I was very pleasantly surprised to see they had the latest edition of Foreign Affairs so I plonked myself down at an empty table to read it. The whole ‘ladies only’ thing then happened, quite a few blokes came in but they wouldn’t sit with me so by the time I left there were about 15 of them jammed around a table made for 6 while I had my own table. That’s the way it works here, a lady, even a Crazy White Person lady should not have her privacy disturbed by unknown males. I finished reading a really good article about the development of relations between Iran and Iraq and then headed out into the heat, it must have been about 1000 degrees, to find the Heritage House and Al Ahmadiya School. And find them I did, eventually. The house has been beautifully restored to show how a wealthy family would have lived in it in the early days. The school is next door to the Heritage House. It was established in 1922 making it one of the first semi-formal schools in Dubai. Formal education in Dubai began in 1956. At the school they show a very interesting video about how during the restoration of the building they had to go back to the old ways of doing things to ensure authenticity. What you can do with ground up coral and gypsum is quite surprising. Like the Heritage House, the school is beautifully presented. I had both places completely to myself which seems a shame as they are both well worth seeing. I took an abra back to the Bur Dubai side. The abra ride costs 50fils which is about 18 cents and has got to be the best value travel buy ever. From there a taxi out to the City Centre mall to do some grocery shopping and then home to do more lying on the couch reading.

The owners of the unsecured wireless network that I’ve been using seem to be on to me and I’m having trouble logging in. I write the emails and move them to the out box. I leave Outlook open all the time when I’m home and if the network pops up, I race over to the laptop and press “Send”. The network was off the air all day yesterday so I had to pay actual money at an internet cafĂ©, all of $12 for 3 hours.

Questions have been asked and, yes, I do know what make of car hit me at the pedestrian crossing, I just chose not to mention it, ok? Why? Because adding to the whole negative experience of being hit by a car, is the fact that I was hit by a bloody Nissan Sunny. How humiliating. Let us never speak of it again.

Friends on 3 continents who’ve had to put up with me whinging about not seeing the end of The Dirty Dozen will be glad to hear that I’ve bought a cheap copy on DVD and have now seen it through to the end (most of them die).

Saturday, 5 August 2006

Desert Ramblings

A breeze has arrived in Dubai and the dust clouds have finally moved on so the air is a bit clearer now. The temperature is around 40 degrees every day and you only need to run the cold tap when you have a shower as the water from the cold tap comes out warm.
It seems that the days of Dubai being a great shopping destination are gone. . I haven't done the trip out to Karama to look at the knockoff bags yet but I'm told the prices have rocketed since last year. A cup of coffee costs around $3.50AUD and prices in the supermarkets are pretty close to what I'd pay in Aus. Rents are nearly equivalent to Sydney prices too. I did get a good deal on my new camera though. With Jess on the mobile giving instructions I got a Canon A530 with 512 thingies of memory for $308AUD. They threw in the memory card for free because I was a "nice lady". Thank you, I can hear the laughter from here.
On Saturday Sabine and I went to the "Beauty Saloon" (yes that's the way it's spelt) through the doors which are closely watched by the beauticians to ensure that no man should darken the doors of the inner sanctum, perish the thought. The local ladies come in, take off their burqas (face coverings) and hang them up with their abayas. After that it could be any hairdresser in Aus or NZ.
We went to the party at the Mina Seyahi on Saturday night, very nice, free champagne, free food, free champagne, oh sorry did I say that already?
I went for a mooch around the computer area yesterday (Peter you'd be in heaven there). At one shop which gloried in the name of "Moist Flower Electronics"...hehehe oh control yourselves.I was offered a great deal on a 'Lompaq' computer, yes Lompaq, which I turned down.
I've moved into my temporary apartment which is just around the corner from S&H. It has a mosque across the road so it's "just like home". It's a nice little place with everything I need except a damn phone connection for the laptop, the bloody thing is wired directly into the wall. All technical suggestions gratefully received. I have to confess that I've been using any unsecured wireless network I can get into to send my emails so far.
Thank God there's a gym in the building and now that I've figured out the vagaries of the "Fitness Art 6910 treadmill with Personal Cardio Advisor" with its operating instructions in Hindi I am a happy camper. All the instructions for the washing machine in my apartment are in Spanish so there's a theme here.
Everyone seems to smoke here. They're puffing away on the streets, in the malls, in the bars, even in restaurants, not the local ladies though, well certainly not in public. It's like a return to the bad old days in NZ and Aus. I even found a half empty packet of Marlboro Lites hidden at the back of the top shelf in the wardrobe. On the topic of smoking and in an exercise in double standards I intend to buy a sheesha/nagile so I can sit on my balcony in the cool of the evening (that's when the temperature plummets to 35 degrees) to have a puff on some fine apple tobacco. Hisham is going to show me how to operate the sheesha, I know it involves hot water, lengths of hose and red hot coals, things most right thinking people would not normally allow me anywhere near.

Friday, 4 August 2006

It's a long way to the shops.............

I woke up this morning and realised that I don’t know what day of the week it is! Some cruel people would say that’s #%*ing typical, but what it *really*means is that I’m finally in holiday mode.

I went with Sabine and Jenny down to the Gold Souq the night before last. Life runs to a different clock here, you go out late, stay out late and start later in the morning, shops open at 10am. Everyone who works in an office has regular office hours which can be a pain for them and is the reason we shouldn’t go out and drink lots of champagne on a “school night”!! I must be getting into the groove as it’s 9pm and I’m just starting to cook dinner. Anyway back to the souq, we went out at 8:45pm and took the abra across the Creek. The first thing you notice at the souq is the gorgeous smell from the Spice Souq, every sort of spice you could want is there and more. The gold souq is mind boggling with breathtaking displays in all the shop windows, Indian dowry jewellery is particularly spectacular. The price of gold went up a couple of weeks ago apparently so it was a bit quieter in the souq than usual as the big buyers are holding off. We were also looking for a new abaya for me. By the time we’d visited the jeweller, and wandered around the dress shops it was 11:15pm and the shops were only just starting to close down. This place doesn’t sleep. We sat in the dark and watched the world go by as the abra puttered back to the Bur Dubai side where the car was parked; the warm breeze, the exotic sounds, yep it doesn’t get much better than that! (There’s also the strong smell of gasoline from the abra engine but that spoils the picture.)

Driving in Dubai is absolutely mad and most of the time just plain frightening. The city cannot cope with the sheer number of cars, it seems there are road works going on everywhere plus they are digging big tunnels for the new metro railway. This results in constant traffic jams and means that a trip which should take 10 minutes can often take an hour or more. Driving in the opposite lane into oncoming traffic appears to be an optional extra, there are Indian guys riding pushbikes without helmets, lights or common sense and all this is happening while everyone, to my mind, is driving on the ‘wrong’ side. Life isn’t a picnic for those on foot either. I was warned after I arrived that nobody is safe even on pedestrian crossings and yesterday afternoon I found out how true that is. I was with other people waiting to cross at the slip lane at the lights outside Spinneys (on Al Mankhool Rd opposite the Khaleej Centre for Dubai people). The cars stopped, we all started crossing and suddenly for no obvious reason the front car started to drive off, he missed the guy in front of me by centimetres but hit me. I was about level with the driver’s side headlight and I went up and over the driver’s side bumper. And what did the driver do? He sat and looked down at me as I got up off the road and then gave me a cheery “sorry” wave and drove off. If there really is reincarnation then I wish him all sorts of very special surprises when he gets to his next life. I’m fine though Alhamdul'allah. A half hour run this morning on the trusty Fitness Art 6910 treadmill got rid of any residual aches. We’re tough us Aucklanders. (South Island people can keep their derision to themselves).

The novelty of the non stop Arabic music channel hasn’t worn off yet, lots of clips have dancers in them and many of the singers are pretty good dancers themselves. One clip features a gorgeous female singer with a debke troupe - which is understandable - but then rather oddly there’s also a large flock of ducks in the video and the ducks get plenty of camera time. Maybe if I understood the lyrics the duck situation would be explained but I have my doubts. Thanks to the music channel I’ve ‘discovered’ Mostafa Kamal (the man has weird pointy teeth but does great music). Ahmad Adaweya has come out of retirement to release a couple of very potent songs commenting on the situation in the Middle East. These are shown regularly on the music channel. Mr A has had some serious plastic surgery but the Voice of Baladi is as good as ever. Sabah is in a couple of clips with a popular Lebanese girl singer. Sabah has had so much work done on her face that if the stitches at the back of her head ever break her ears will ricochet round and meet up with her nose.

Today I went out to the Mall of the Emirates. This is the mall you may have heard about as it has an indoor ski slope. You can watch the skiing from one of the levels of the malls. Very strange sight - The local ladies and gents are in dishdashes and abayas with long puffy coats ski coats on top. I went to see “Pirates of the Caribbean”, while I was at the mall, it’s not as good as the first one but brightened by Geoffrey Rush in the last scene, a taxi back into town, then off to the gold souq to pick up the earrings I’d ordered.

I’m going this weekend to be introduced at the local ‘Hole in the Wall’ where they sell illegal liquor. Consumption of alcohol is illegal in the UAE except for that sold in hotels or drunk by expats who are issued with a licence to purchase a certain amount each year. What to do if you don’t have a licence, have drunk your quota or are of a religion that forbids alcohol consumption. Of course there’s a loop hole and it’s in the form of discreet local joints that sell booze to all and sundry - if they know you. Personal introductions are required at these places but after the honours are done I’ll be able to go in and buy Pimms {snort} to my heart’s content. “I’ll have a dozen Cold Ducks please”……now I’m just being silly.

Ma’a salama


Patrick – I appreciate your confidence in my IT abilities but unfortunately it would seem to be misplaced as right now I’m considering digging the phone plug out of the wall with a spoon.