Monday, June 25, 2012

Oman Road Trip – Jibreen, Bahla, &Nizwa

Bahla Fort is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The fort in Bahla is believed to be Oman's oldest.
Ever since our anniversary trip to Muscat in December, Mark and I have wanted to return there. So we took advantage of a three-day weekend in June observing a religious holiday, the Ascension of the Prophet. Mark booked us at the Shangri-La Bar Al Jissah resort
We don’t normally go to big resorts, but the diving and snorkeling spots are right there and the rates were actually very reasonable, with breakfast buffet included. We found out later that the hotel was offering a promotion including air fare from Abu Dhabi so the hotel was full, even though it’s not high season.

Shangri La BTB 011
Pool day at Terry's.

We invited Lucy and Tom to join us. A week or so before the trip, Lucy and I were having a “pool day” with Terry at the Shangri-La Residences in Abu Dhabi, where she and Pete live. Since we haven’t found the good Mexican food we’ve been craving anywhere, we made our own homemade quesadillas and margaritas.

Shangri La BTB 010
Terry's view includes the Ritz Carlton
under construction with the
Grand Mosque minarets behind.
During lunch on the patio overlooking the residents’ pools and beach, Terry mentioned that they were going to Muscat. When? The same weekend we’re going! Where are you staying? The Shangri-La! So are we!! By this time, we were all screaming like teenagers. Their daughter Kelly and her husband John were coming from Doha, Qatar where he is a pilot, and meeting Terry, Pete, and son Christopher. As luck would have it, their family ended up in the rooms directly above our two, a couple of floors up.

It’s a one-hour flight between Abu Dhabi and Muscat, but we wanted to drive. The drive is part of the adventure! I wanted to visit Nizwa, which is in Al Jabal Al Akhdar, or the Akhdar Mountains.

Abu Dhabi to Muscat
The golden line represents the route from Abu Dhabi through Nizwa to Muscat.

I will see and photograph this for myself.
Photo: catbirdinoman
Nizwa is one of Oman’s oldest cities and was once the capital as well as an important trade and cultural crossroads and center of religion, education, and art. Remnants of the wall that once surrounded the city still exist, as well as the Nizwa Fort, which has been restored and contains many exhibits. I’ve been reading a blog by a U.S. expat English conversation teacher. Her site has beautiful photos, descriptions, and stories about her adventures exploring and trekking the wadis. She calls herself “nomad in the land of Nizwa.”

Maybe someday I’ll meet up with

With all there is to see and do in Nizwa, we started the trip right after the guys got off work, planning a stop for the night at the Jibreen Hotel, which is very inexpensive and had good reviews. We would spend the next morning and early afternoon exploring Nizwa before heading to Muscat, an hour and a half away.
Snapshot 2 (6-25-2012 4-18 PM)
It's bleak but it reminds me of Nevada.

It was a good thing we were stopping. The landscape between the UAE-Oman border and the Al Jabal al Akhdar region is bleak, and not long after we hit the road and got gas the car started to act up. The first gas station only put in a few gallons, then told us it was full. As soon as we pulled away, we could see that we only had a partial tank. Why did the pump read it as full?

Nizwa Oman 016
It's stressful to drive in hot weather,
but worse when the car isn't running right.
So we stopped again for more gas. Then, the car got worse. It would balk instead of accelerating, and then suddenly roar ahead. What gives? Bad gas? I had been noticing for a while that it was a little hard to start and ran rough after filling up with gas, and I wondered if it had something to do with air getting in the tank. Big mechanic, that’s me. Fortunately, Mark knows a lot about vehicles. He guessed that it wasn’t anything fatal, but the engine wasn’t getting the right amount of oxygen. A bad valve needing replacement?

We were heading uphill into the middle of nowhere. The temperature was up to117 degrees Fahrenheit. We kept going. There was some breath-holding, which made the people in the car unusually quiet.
We began to anticipate needing to find a Porsche dealer in Muscat. I fantasized that a part would be ordered, and offered that Lucy and I could stay in Muscat for a day or two more sightseeing, going to museums and getting the car fixed while the boys flew home to go back to work. “That’s not going to happen,” Mark said.

Nizwa Oman 107
Not much help to us expats.

Eventually we made it to where we thought the hotel would be. Was it on this road, or another? Would there be a sign? The problem is that there is no standard way of spelling place names here, or anything else, for that matter. And it doesn’t help that every place has several different names. Plus when you get out of the cities, almost everything is in Arabic, anyway.


Nizwa Oman 046
Like a mirage in the desert, our hotel appeared.

Then Lucy said, “There’s our hotel.” And there it was, JIBREEN HOTEL, looming up alongside the road so prominently that you could easily overlook it. We were there. But it didn’t even look open. There were no cars parked outside. It was a little like a Nevada ghost town.



Nizwa Oman 031
This hotel had everything including free Internet.

The door was open, and the minute we entered the lobby, even before we saw our rooms, we could see and feel why they got such good reviews. Cool air, comfortable furniture. And the rooms! They were large, freshly redecorated, clean, clean, and clean. Mark and I had a corner room with several windows. There was TV. In the morning there was a newspaper in English! Mark was in heaven.


Nizwa Oman 040
It's not easy to find ice in this landscape.

We had beverages, but they weren’t cold. Where could we obtain some ice? Not at the hotel! So we ventured up the road and, on the third try, found ice for a few dirhams a bag. In the 110-degree heat, we hurried back to the hotel with our precious commodity.


There was a large restaurant in the hotel. What time would you like to eat dinner, they asked? At first, Lucy and Tom expressed some doubt about eating there – without much business this time of year would the food be fresh, and safe? But Mark had a good point: where would we prefer to eat? There didn’t appear to be any other prospects, so we made our booking for 7:30.

Nizwa Oman 032
Good food, good friends, quiet dining room.
The menu, like most here, features several types of cuisine: Arabic, Indian, Chinese, and Continental. Without going into lots of detail about the food (I’m still planning to write about the food here in the Middle East,) let me just say that it was some of the best food we have had! And we had the whole restaurant and staff to ourselves.
Breakfast the next morning was part of the package and just as good, with eggs cooked to order.

The next morning the car was better behaved. We passed up the Jibreen Castle but stopped in Bahla, a town 40 km from Nizwa. The fort there is the oldest in Oman, and believed to date back to pre-Islamic times. I loved this town, which is famous for its pottery. People live a simple and rustic life amidst the ruins, blending the old with the relatively modern. Because we were there just before a religious holiday, the goat market was busy. Since Lucy and I were wearing shorts, we didn’t venture into the market but Tom and Mark took a peek.

When we made it to Nizwa, we proceeded to lose our way and drive the narrowest passageways I have ever been through in an automobile. Lucy, who could do nothing but gasp in the back seat, later said she didn’t know how we did it, and of course by the time I got my camera out to take video we were through. But it was the kind of drive where you suck in your breath and try to make yourself smaller, as if that would help, and hope you don’t scrape the wall or run someone over as you round a corner.

We explored Nizwa Fort and the famous souk, where I saw scenes that appear on the catbirdinoman blog come to life.
We didn’t get to drive the steep, winding road to see any of the terraced hillsides, wadis (ravines) and villages in Al Jabal Al Akhdar, but that’s ok. It’s really the wrong time of year to be there; the best time is March or April when the roses, from which they make their famous rose water, are blooming. Mark and I will be going back, for sure; it’s only about a three hour drive from home. I would like to see it after it’s been raining and the wadis are filled with runoff from the mountains. Right now through September is harvest time for the many fruits that are grown there. It’s no wonder this place was a crossroads between the many harsher landscapes that surround it.

Next: paddling, snorkeling, turtles and a flat tire at the Shangri-La in Muscat.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

How the Other Half Lives

 “Bachelor.” What do you think of when you see or hear this word? Here, it’s a euphemism for the male semi-skilled labor worker. Of course, many of them are not unmarried men; they are here without their families, who are living back in their home countries. I have also met and read about women who have come here to work as household servants, leaving children and husbands behind.

This (I think) Pakistani gentleman was driving his delivery truck on a Friday morning when Mark and I were bicycling, and asked me to take his photo so he could see it.
 I think about them and wonder what their lives are like, besides the parts that I see. What kinds of friendships and bonds do they form with other workers? Are they in groups with relatives or others from their own country or village? How well are they able to communicate with each other? What card games do they play? What do they consider to be the best jobs? What are their interests? Other than cricket.

Friday laundry hangs out at new workers' housing in Sharjah.

This editorial from The National references their housing issues. It’s one of many stories on this issue that have been appearing lately.


Typical worker bus. This one is pretty spartan, no curtains.
I look up at the buses driving alongside me on the road. Many of them have special curtains and other homey decorations. How many hours they must spend on those buses! Many of them sleep. But they must do other things. What do they talk about? Do they read? How literate are they? What makes them laugh?

One evening I was driving on the freeway at sunset, and saw a large bus stopped on the shoulder. The entire busload was kneeling and bowing in prayer, right on the road. They were lined up in three or four rows, with ten or twelve in each row. I drove by so fast that I didn’t get a long look, yet that image will stay with me forever. With the magnificent Zayed Grand Mosque in the background, the men were facing across the freeway toward Mecca with the setting sun reflecting off of their bowed heads.
During the day the people inhabiting the parks are mostly maintenance workers.
Every time I ride my bicycle, I pass dozens upon dozens of workers. They are digging trenches, adjusting sprinklers, trimming bushes, installing paving, sweeping streets . . . the list goes on and on. They often look up. Then I wave. I love to see their faces break out in a smile as they give me a friendly wave back.

Once, Waldo and I were at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change and I pulled out my cell phone. A stopped car honked, which is not uncommon. The honking continued, and finally I looked over to see the man in the passenger seat gesturing to me. Looking down I saw that he was trying to tell me that my Emirates ID card had fallen out of my cell phone case onto the ground. Thumbs up, thank you!
My two friendly light bulb changers on the Al Salaam corniche, watch me float by on my paddleboard.

I think the men changing the light bulbs along the Al Salaam corniche recognize me now. I’m the woman in the funny looking yellow shirt on the red and white bicycle. One man gives me a broad smile, a nod and a wave. But do they know that I’m also the person on the paddle board? Same-same. Maybe next time I’ll wear my yellow shirt.

A couple of days ago Waldo and I rode the Zayed Grand Loop, stopping for a drink of water in the shade of a palm tree. A worker was sweeping the sand in the street a few steps from where I sat. A small, older car pulled up, and the driver honked and waited. I wondered: is he going to give the worker an instruction? But no, when the worker approached, the man handed him a few dirham coins and drove off. I wonder how often that happens?

I’ve thought about doing a project to discover more about the workers, but I know that I don’t have the resources or connections. Interviewing “bachelors” is not something I can just go around doing! Fortunately, this morning I discovered that someone is doing this project, and there is a book out. This news story about the project touches upon all of the questions that have been on my mind concerning the different populations that live here. If you are interested in this subject, it’s a must-read.

“Seeing how the other half lives.” Growing up, my mother would sometimes use this expression. I understood it to mean getting a glimpse into how the much more or the much less privileged lived. We had a comfortable but modest “middle class” lifestyle. Here, I feel much the same. We’re not Emirati. We’re not laborers. We’re educated expats, and in many ways we have the most freedom, the most choice. This is, to me, the greatest form of wealth that a human being can possess.

I see this workers' housing when I ride the Zayed Grand Loop. I wasn't sure if it was still used until we went past on Friday morning.

I have a lot of respect for these fellow human beings who come here and work in the searing heat, building a country that they will most likely leave behind when their work is done. They have the least education and economic power, and thus the least freedom and choice. I hope that their lives, when they return home, are improved by the time they have spent here.

I have added captions to all the photos in the album below.

Thanks for reading, and remember to appreciate all you have, and be kind to those who have less than you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

More Paddling Adventures

Al Salaam paddle 009
The new Eastern Mangroves Resort and Spa
has kayaks ready to go.
I’ve been spending a couple of mornings a week paddling and exploring in the mangroves.

One morning, I decided to paddle along Al Salaam Street, the busy eastern corniche which leads to downtown Abu Dhabi in one direction, and the Zayed Bridge and the highway to Dubai in the other.

I have ridden my bike there a couple of times as well, but it’s not as nice a ride as the Zayed Grand Loop (as I now call it.) This route took me paddling past the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anatara, which was just getting ready to open. The residential portion of the development is still under construction.

I was paddling against an ebb tide, which I considered a good thing. Paddle upwind or upstream first and you will have an easy trip back home, inshallah.

Al Salaam paddle 013
The urban/mangrove interface.

What’s interesting about this route is that you are paddling the urban/mangrove interface. On one side, I observed water birds and fish, and on the other side I observed delivery trucks and workers on ladders changing bulbs in the lights. I couldn’t help but notice the road noise. Yet, I actually saw a greater variety of bird species there than in the more remote parts of the mangrove forest!
Al Salaam paddle 005
There are plenty of birds to observe.

Al Salaam paddle 039
Floating with the current.

I paddled for a little more than one hour, and turned around. On the way back, I was able to sit down and stretch out on my board, resting my feet, which tend to fall asleep while standing and balancing for a long time. I floated along with the current, paddling now and then.

This is the life!

Each of these routes is about easy five miles, round trip.


Paddle for Planet 010
That's me, standing on the left holding the paddle.
The next weekend was the ADCA party on Lulu Island. I left my inflated ULI SUP on the deck of Unwind that night, and was up early the next morning ready to “Paddle for the Planet.” I hadn’t heard of the event until Jen posted it on the UAE Stand Up Paddle Club Facebook page.

I still don’t know much about the P4P organization, although I am looking into it. According to their web site “Paddle for the Planet aims to raise awareness and financial support for marine conservation, specifically in ‘Marine Protected Areas’ and ‘no take zones’.”

Of course I support that, and any opportunity to get out and paddle with the group is all good to me, so I launched my board in Unwind’s slip in the marina and paddled around the corner to the beach next to Abu Dhabi’s Heritage Village.

Paddling the marina was a new adventure in itself, and as I approached the end of the rock wall, I saw that even though it was a calm morning, there was a bit of tidal surge but it was no big deal. I rounded the corner and there they were, just getting organized. People were on boards, kayaks, and even a dragon boat. Jen got everyone assembled for a photo, and then we all headed upwind, toward the Emirates Palace hotel in the distance. After a bit of a loop around toward the Corniche we headed back to the beach, where I got a chance to try paddling the dragon boat and I lent my board to a woman who wanted to try a SUP.

Here’s a quick 20-second video of the dragon boat. A still photo just wouldn’t give you the real picture
Paddle for Planet 005

We were on the beach in front of the Emirates Theatre.

It looked like everyone was going to be hanging out on the beach for a while longer, but I needed to head back to the marina and get going home. We had plans to meet Tom and Lucy at Ferrari World to help them celebrate their anniversary!

Lucy pics 004
No matter how much stuff you bring,
you're always missing something.

A couple of days later, I took Lucy on a paddle in the mangroves, both of us on one board. Lucy was thinking we were going to spend the morning hanging out on a beach, but my goal was to explore beyond where I had already been.

We made a big loop, and discovered the dredged channel out beyond the shoreline. We made a left turn at the concrete plant, entering the main channel that I am now familiar with, and stopped for a swim. As I paddled around, Lucy swan ahead so I collected her flip flops and bag and went to pick her up so we could head home.

And that’s when it happened. “Ouch!” Before I even saw it, I knew. When Lucy lifted her foot out of the water I thought: Now that’s a cut. Probably needs stitches. There are small, sharp rocks and shells scattered in the sand.

Lucy Al Noor stitches
Waiting for the stitches.
We were about an hour from the launch, and our vehicle. Fortunately, we both knew exactly where we were and we didn’t panic. Lucy held the cut closed while I paddled as quickly as I could back to our vehicle. Lucy even kept telling me she was fine, and I could take a rest! It wasn’t until we arrived at the beach that she shed a few tears, and only because a helpful man who was fishing expressed alarm, and suggested that we call emergency, which is 999 here, for an ambulance. No! We said. We are driving to Al Noor Hospital! And in an hour, Lucy’s foot had seven stitches and a bandage.
From now on, everyone wears shoes.

A few days later, I took another early morning solo paddle. This time, the tide was extra high which gave me the opportunity to explore some cuts that are not navigable when the tide is low. I paddled up the now very familiar main channel, exploring every cut I came across – except the ones with the signs. What a day! A two hour plan stretched into three and a half hours. The biggest thrill was when I paddled over to what I thought was a blue plastic bag floating in the water only to realize that it was a jellyfish! .

This video, with music by Loreena McKennitt, captures what is for me the essence of the Eastern Mangroves, as I know them today.

Thanks for reading and I hope your adventures, no matter how big or small, are challenging and rewarding.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

ADCA Party on Lulu Island

Shangri and ADCA 118
Our yacht club in the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Cruiser Association (ADCA) held its season-end prize-giving barbecue on Lulu Island on Friday, June 1st 2012. I was excited to go, because this would be our first trip to Lulu Island.
Also, Emiliano would be collecting our trophy for 2nd place in our division. We managed to do well enough in the last two Commodore’s Cup races to beat Yalla Yalla, whom we refer to as “the French.” Idefix, the Mumm 30, was 1st for the season.

Shangri and ADCA 018
There are no facilities for boaters on Lulu Island.

Lulu Island is privately owned by a developer but the latest project in a series of plans is again on hold. Meanwhile, access by boat is unofficially allowed. As far as I know, there is no water or restroom facility available. There is one dock, but it’s not for public use so visiting boats anchor out.Thankfully, there are shade structures, and trash that’s left on the island or drifts ashore is picked up periodically.

Shangri and ADCA 016
Our approach to Lulu Island.

At 2:00 p.m. Emiliano, Mark and I loaded food, beverages and my ULI SUP onto Unwind in the 100-degree heat and motored over. It took about fifteen minutes; just enough time for Mark to inflate my SUP for me.

Emiliano didn’t need to inflate the dinghy; we ferried all our belongings to shore on the ULI, and I brought coolers and gear to shore from other boats as well. This generated some interest in the board, which was great because I wanted everyone who was interested to try it out.

Shangri and ADCA 025
Budweiser, salami, and sailors!
Mark was one happy guy that day.

The party was amazing, especially considering the location and lack of facilities. Lots of Brits and Aussies belong to ADCA, and they shop at Spinney’s market which has a Pork Room. We were treated to genuine salami, prosciutto, and sausages – pork, not beef! And grilled lamb chops, chicken, vegetable kabobs, salads . . . so much food. The coolers were packed with beer and ice. As Mark says, “There is no such thing as a Teetotaler’s Yacht Club.”

There aren’t a lot of boats out on the waters around Abu Dhabi, even on the weekends. Most boats sit in their slips. Later in the day the jet skis come out, and they sometimes like to pass very close to sailboats. During one light air race, a group of jet skis roared around among the fleet right after the start creating big waves which stopped the boats, much to the frustration of the racers.

Shangri and ADCA 024
Would you drive your powerboat
between these anchored boats?

During the barbecue, there was one incident when two powerboats passed by our little our anchorage, one of whom chose a path right through the anchored boats without slowing down. What the – ???? – we all said. Fortunately nobody was in the water, and the powerboat didn’t catch an anchor line.
But what were they trying to prove?

Shangri and ADCA 106
The distinguished ADCA Board.

As dusk neared, the prize giving ceremony began. The ADCA pride and genuine affection and camaraderie among this group are heartwarming. I love sailors! There is a lot of enthusiasm for growing the club and doing more racing; everyone is already looking forward to next year. We’ve probably been to hundreds of awards presentations, but there is nothing like giving trophies out on a deserted island in the Arabian Gulf with a bunch of expats.


Funny moments included:
  • Malcolm, who is ENGLISH not Australian, and enjoys kissing, accepts the 3rd Place prize for Yalla Yalla and pretends to be French. Malcolm actually sails on Idefix but nobody from Yalla was present. He also collects a 3rd place prize for the other Yalla. The one that “sank-a.”
  • There is confusion over the pronunciation of the name Unwind. The boat already had the name when Emiliano bought it and, because he knows more Italian than English, he thought the name was pronounced with a short “I” as in un-wind, there is no wind. This puzzled him. The first time we went sailing with him, Mark and I pronounced the name with a long “i” and told Emiliano that it means “to relax.” The rest of ADCA is still learning this new pronunciation and gets it wrong. This may be on purpose, just to get a reaction out of Emiliano.
  • Emiliano, Mark, and I toast our 2nd Place with champagne, and Emiliano declares that next year we intend to win 1st Place.
  • The owner and crew of Idefix collect their 1st Place season championship perpetual trophy, and crystal vase, which they fill with beer.
  • We say goodbye to a couple who are moving on, which happens often in expat communities; it’s hard to lose ADCA member, especially ones who race consistently.
  • We are happy to induct a new treasurer, especially one that is Scottish and won’t spend the money.

Here’s a video of the highlights of the day.

What a difference a year makes. This same weekend last year we were on our Santa Cruz 37 Wildcard sailing the Delta Ditch Run, which is usually a downwind race, but last year we had record-breaking upwind conditions.

This year, our sailing friends sailed the Ditch Run in epic downwind conditions gusting to 40 knots while Wildcard was tucked away safely in Nevada. I always feel a pang of regret at missing an exciting race, but I have to admit that I’m sort of glad we didn’t subject the boat to this year’s punishment, especially because even if we were to finish first, the small boats always correct out ahead of Wildcard on handicap.

But it sure is fun to see the photos.
Wildcard in last year's Delta Ditch Run

There are always boats that run aground in this race, because they lose control and cross out of the channel boundaries. This year several boats were dismasted, as well. But it wouldn’t be a Ditch Run without the carnage.

Photos by:

A Wylie Wabbit broaches, which often leads to running aground.
 In this case, it looks like they are headed into, not out of, the channel.

Tiburon Dirtcvh Run aground 2012
 Wildcard’s sistership, Tiburon, ran aground.

Take a look at the slide show at