Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

Russian Winter Has Come…

…and gone, or so it seems. It’s been snowing here since October, so what is going on? I expected a frigid winter, and while it has been significantly below freezing since about the end of November, it hasn’t been the sort of “Holy crap, it’s horrendous!” cold that I’d anticipated. Except for about a 2-3 week stretch, that is. Last week it was down all the way to -20 Fahrenheit.

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The day it started warming up. Look at how quickly it bounced back t0 + temps.

That was pretty much Russia as I’d expected it: nose hair freezing weather. It was actually cold enough that public schools closed for a couple days. My school, holding the weather in contempt, did not follow suit. After a couple of days in a chilly classroom, suddenly I found myself with two electrical space heaters to augment my room’s 4 hot water radiators, and a room that’s always plenty warm. During that cold snap the school doctor also started planting little home-made paper trays full of sliced onion in all the classrooms and even common areas.

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Nice little carton, huh?

Did I mention there’s supposedly a flu epidemic going around? Not that I’d have much way of knowing it, since my Russian language skills are rudimentary at best, and since I haven’t seen anyone outrageously sick, either.

Anyway, two days ago, the temperature bounced back up. Now, it’s above freezing and the all the white stuff is melting; roads are slushy (a slight improvement in the case of the really secondary ones which they seem to have given up plowing after the snowfall got really serious and the cold snap occurred).

Today I went outside–it’s a rare sunny day (see some photos above from another sunny day a couple weeks ago, when it was 7 Fahrenheit and Turtle and I ventured outside for some fun in the snow)–and found that the fleet of tractors and skid steer loaders which at first did a somewhat acceptable job of keeping our residentail area’s driveways somewhat cleared of snow was active again for the first time in approximately 3 weeks. In the interim, the snow had gotten so deep on these roads that cars’ undercarriages were scraping the snow flat between the deep ruts cut by their tires. For a country where winter comes at the same time every year, it seems to always be a surprise here, and even though Kazan is far better at handling it and keeping the main roads clear than Ryazan, the other smaller city I’ve spent time in here, it is quite astonishing from a first-world perspective. To cope, people buy studded winter tires as a matter of course, and get stuck remarkably little, given the conditions.

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The forecast for the next week is fairly warm, hovering not far below freezing, so that should be nice. February’s first week is already virtually past, so maybe we have only a few weeks of real winter left.

What’s it Really Like?

I got an email from someone the other day, and it started with the question, “How are you really liking it in Russia?” I have to grin a little because living and writing about life in the UAE required some care with words, given their strict laws (which might be as straightforward as you’d think, or might not be–see these articles for a couple of examples of what can happen if you vent frustration online), and this person emailing me assumed that the same would be true here. Maybe that assumption is correct if you are venturing into the political realm, but I’m certainly not. You can be sure that what I’m writing about life here is simply how I experience it.

Overall, things for us here are really not bad at all. Better than not bad, in fact, being here is quite nice. We’ve got a nice apartment and live in a good part of town. In general, we have been impressed with the friendliness of the locals, who are happy to practice their English with us, and we’ve found aggravations quite few and far between.

Maybe it’s partly because we’ve done this living abroad thing before, but we’ve had an easier time settling into life here than when we moved to Abu Dhabi. Also, though, I must say my employer here has been very accommodating and the process has been much less drawn out, so kudos to the parties involved in making it happen for us.

Now to the point: what’s Kazan, Russia, really like? It’s got a pretty, European-flavored town center, similar to someplace like Bratislava (but bigger). The outskirts look like Anywhere, Russia, or Anywhere, Eastern Europe.

#Church #belltower on #BaumanStreet, #downtown #Kazan #Russia

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It’s got lots of buses and trams and trolleybuses (electric buses) and taxis.

The sunsets are often beautiful, and the skies themselves frequently dramatic, as today, when the low-hanging clouds were flying through the windy air, creating a vast, moving panorama. Other days the crisp bright blue skies surprise me. Three years of living in the UAE made me appreciate this sort of thing much more.

The landscape is like everyplace else in Russia I’ve been–vast steppe, not in itself particularly interesting, but far from unpleasant.

#tbt to #Булгар and the banks of the #волга river. #Russia

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Kazan is generally clean and neat, much tidier and modern than I’d expected. I’m told within the last five years the place has undergone quite a transformation. There are a number of old wooden homes, warped and out of square, that still stand, but they’re quickly being replaced by sturdy, concrete and brick structures.

There are things to see around–the Volga (Europe’s largest river), the Kremlin and the leaning and highly storied Suyumbuk Tower, to name a couple.

It’s not without oddities–the driving is peculiarly scary, for people crowd into intersections 3-5 cars across where there’s only supposed to be 1 (or, perhaps, maybe, doubtfully 2). Drivers dart around breaks in the pavement or the manhole cover which protrudes too high into the driveway or roadway; cars crowd every available space (and drivers invent new ones) in the parking lot in front of our apartment complex; buses keep the heat cranked up whether or not the weather requires that, and people stay bundled up in the tram even though it’s too hot for coats; parents over dress their kids for the weather (we’ve seen parents in T-shirts and their kids in snow pants, for example), and you have to wear little shoe covers when you go in some public buildings, such as the school where I work, which is its own brand of annoying (enter the door, stop and stoop over, put some blue plastic things over your shoes, proceed, but now slipily and noisily).

Should you come visit? Yes, absolutely! This place is really worth seeing.

Now, I’ve got to get off to the shiny gym nearby and try to keep myself in shape.

First Impressions of Kazan

It’s Saturday, and we’ve now been in Kazan almost an entire week. We’ve had time to stroll around the neighborhood, venture downtown a bit, and generally get our bearings. While it’s no surprise that things are different here than, say, Abu Dhabi or the southeastern USA, it’s also different from what we expected in more ways than one. This is, of course, because one of us used to live in Russia, and because the other has been to the country three times before. Here’s a quick list of first impressions.

View from the apartment in #Kazan, #Russia

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  1. Kazan isn’t like Ryazan, Moscow, or St. Petersburg. While those cities have their charm, this one is notably cleaner and the mood different.
  2. People are friendly. Yeah, okay, this is really an extension of #1. But, considering earlier experiences in Russia, it bears mention.
  3. The city center is pretty; the outskirts are like most other Russian cities, if possibly a bit less drab.
  4. Sunny days are beautiful. That said, it seems like there are lots of cloudy ones, and they’re cold and dreary.
  5. What’s up with letting grass get overgrown? That’s par for the course in Russia, but still. I must say it was remarkable to see someone with a weedeater the other day cutting back the tall stuff nearby.
  6. All the usual mod-cons are here–wifi, etc. I might add it seems A/C is a bit less common than we’re accustomed to. One super-duper handy smartphone app we’ve been turned on to is called Tap Taxi. It allows us to call a taxi using the app, and it’s even possible to request child seats. Since the interface is in English, it makes the task much easier than calling on the phone.
  7. Cabs are cheap and public transportation cheaper still. The public transportation is clean and modern, and most of the announcements are made in both Russian and English.
  8. Russian food is still tasty! Kvas, anyone?
  9. This seems like it will be a completely decent place to live.
  10. And last, but not least, considering the international climate of the last year or so, there seems to be no anti-American/Western sentiment from the average Joe (Josef?).

The beautiful #KulSharifMosque inside the #Kremlin's walls in #Kazan, #Russia

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Although we have been impressed by most of the same things, Jenia has a somewhat different perspective. Stay tuned for a post from her. Until then, dosvedanya.

Looking Through Expatriate Lenses

Take a look at a Salvador Dali painting. Step up close, and scrutinize the details. Words like “weird” come to mind. In some cases, though, if you take a step back, or maybe two, or ten, thereby altering your perspective, “weird” is no longer the best adjective. Distance offers clarity. You find yourself looking at the same thing in a much different way.

It’s no secret that as you get older your perspectives on things change. Now that word, “things,” is the kind of word that us English teachers despise. It’s nebulous, and could refer to just about anything. But it’s precisely the kind of word I need here. Because what is it that has changed? Which thing is it that I look at differently? Well, lots of things, you see. But I’ll focus on two for the sake of time and at least a modicum of precision.

Politics and religion. You know, the heavy and polarizing stuff. Stuff that makes enemies of friends and friends of enemies. Stuff which we often look at through extremely biased and partial lenses.

Points of view on these matters change naturally. This is the ebb and flow of life, of course, but it’s also more. It’s also the shifting of perspective that comes from not just age and experience, but the impact of life abroad in different cultures and different types of governance.

So what has changed about my political views, anyway? As an American, dear friend, I was a Republican with pronounced leanings toward Libertarian ideology. Now, I’m not. I don’t identify with any party these days. Paint me an independent. Why the shift? Because neither party has it right. The Republicans stand in the way of sensible legislation such as Net Neutrality, and they seem to be preventing the best aspects of Obama’s Affordable Care Act from helping the state of American taxpayers as it ought to. By the same means, it seems like Democrats object to everything that Republicans do. As a result of these political shenanigans, there are preposterous events like government shutdowns.

I’m not saying that another system in the world is better, and I’m not saying that the American one is doomed. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any system in particular. But I can see more clearly now that the American one needs improvement. Let me dwell on Obamacare for a minute. In the UAE, I’ve got great health insurance, thanks to my employer and the country’s laws. The best and most notable effect of it: living stress-free when it comes to health care. And let me tell you, it’s vastly superior to putting off trips to the doctor because you can’t figure out how the hell you’re going to pay for them. I’ve been there, and it’s not good. I’m on the opposite side now, able to go easily for medical care when the need arises and not think twice about it. There’s no reason why the excellent American healthcare system can’t be this accessible, too.

In essence, having some distance from ingrained ideas about political parties and about what the government should or shouldn’t do (such as stipulate insurance for individuals) has made a big difference in my viewpoint on the matter. Another area that my point of view has changed, thanks to travel, thanks to the expatriate experience, is religion. Now don’t misinterpret my remarks as anti-religious, or anti-anything. That’s the wrong way to take them. As a rule of thumb, I’ve always approached my religion from a fairly critical standpoint. If it defies reason, I have to question it. I could ramble on with a story or two, or perhaps offer a way that I’ve personally done this or that, but suffice it to say I think logic should be applied to everything in equal measure, and since religion shapes our perception of each other and the world, it’s especially important to consider in this way.

Salvador Dali’s “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean” becomes a picture of Abraham Lincoln when viewed from a distance. Try it–step back a few feet from your screen and have a look.

Besides mere logic, I can now see travel informing my beliefs. As I stood in front of the Buddhist shrine next to our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where the morning’s drink offerings stood, unconsumed by any sort of god except perhaps a touch of evaporation, I thought to myself, “This is absolutely ridiculous.” And then I wondered how ridiculous my church’s proceedings might look to uninformed Thai visitors. I’d say it’s pretty likely they’d shake their heads in bewilderment, just like I was doing, as I was pondering their religious customs. As I drove past throngs of Muslims descending upon the local mosque, all summoned by the loudspeaker-broadcast call, I thought that the crowds were like mindless worker bees swarming the hive. And, in all fairness, I wondered if my Christian brethren looked any different from this to the average non-Christian passerby as they gathered for services on a Sunday back home. On another occasion, I watched Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer and I contemplated the act. Muslim prayers are more about submission than anything else, as the word Islam suggests, whereas Christian ones can take on any number of forms–petitions, supplications, arguments, requests for forgiveness. In my life, some prayers seem to have been answered, but others vanished unheeded into the great abyss. What is the role of God in our day-to-day lives, I wondered, and what really draws us closer to Him?

This leads me to the conclusion, rather obvious, I know, that the larger things matter more than the small ones. What I do matters more than what I say, and what I say only matters if what I do supports it. Why do we quibble over so many little things, when the broader strokes make the most difference? I can apply this question to politics, and I can apply it to religion. Little things matter, it’s true, because they’re part of big things. But the big things should be the focus. Instead of dwelling on differences, we should seek similarities. We have much more in common than we have to fight over most of the time.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

One of my buddies here in the UAE, Randy, talks about traveling to the greener pastures of life when one leaves the complacency of home behind, taking on the expat life. He hits on something important there, I think, because it takes distance to help us see some things clearly. Not unlike staring at one of Dali’s bizarre paintings up close, then stepping back to a distance and taking in the larger picture, experiencing other places and systems alters our perspective on things. It helps us see that there’s more to a thing than we first thought, and recognizing the greatness–the size and complexity–of things, as well as considering alternative ways of dealing with them, well, that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

What’s New? It’s All Routine, I Tell You.

What is there to write about? We’re long overdue for an update on here, but there just hasn’t been much of particular note going on. At least I don’t think there is, anyway.

On one front, relief is in sight–the winter holidays are almost upon us. This means the weather is getting comfortable, and it also means my time trying to corral students into their seats and get something accomplished is limited. Whew.

On another hand, we haven’t had to deal with all the junk that we did last fall, since we don’t need to deal with immigration hassles and such. That means we’re able to enjoy simply living a great deal more, rather than dealing with distractions all the time.

We don’t notice the crazy stuff so much anymore. But every now and again something especially interesting pops up, like the convoy of cars last month that were driving with their flashers on. We joined in, just for grins, and after getting bored, passed the group and snapped this picture of the guy acting as videographer for the whole goofy parade.

Every day #ridiculousness in #uae #alain #crazy #fromthecarwindow

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The baby is crawling–and hoisting himself up to standing positions (and then tumbling down again).

We’ve been trying to stay busy, but have been tired out because of aforementioned offspring. Still, we’ve managed to fit in time to hit the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the F1 races in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Good day for a race #F1 #yas

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#etihad pavilion at #formula1 #abudhabi

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We’re continually thankful for having good friends here, and for meeting new people and making new friends, too.

Jenia’s been getting more photography work, including for my coworker Adam’s musical duo known as Sarah and Adam. I snapped this picture with my phone when Jenia was shooting.

In the desert for a photo shoot with @sarahandadammusic and @jeniarand #uae #alain #desert #dunes

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Oh, and there could be a raise in my future at work–that would be nice. There’s been much talk in the press lately about how pay rises were approved, and the rumor is that would be an across-the-board 2000 AED raise per month. That would be just lovely. It would sure make putting up with the difficult environment more rewarding.

While still on the topic of work, I should probably mention that this year has been easier thus far. With the administration taking a firmer stance on a few things (most notably and sensibly discipline), as well as assigning classrooms to teachers and having students switch rooms (instead of confining them in one space the whole day), the incidences of vandalism and hooliganism are much reduced.

But what else is there to write about? I mean, this is pretty ordinary stuff, right? You don’t want to waste your time reading about how we’re struggling to beat back the roach invasion (the little suckers moved in while we were gone this summer, and whatever we do seems to have very little affect on getting rid of them), or how I opened the fridge, grabbed the milk jug, and poured yogurt onto my cereal this morning, right? (that would be a result of the fridge failing to cool for some reason, and the milk curdling during the night) There’s not much point in writing about upcoming events, but I’ll mention them anyway. We’re looking forward to having Jenia’s parents come to visit in a couple weeks. After that, when they return to Russia, we’ll hop on a plane for a far-away country, too (but not Russia). Am I leaving you in suspense? Hopefully. 🙂

Thursday List: Things I Never Thought I’d Say Before I Moved Here

1. It’s 95F. Do you think it’s warm enough to go to the beach?

2. I am freezing, if I knew it was going to be 55 degrees outside, I would have brought my jacket along.

3. Yes. (To a person asking if they can take your baby to the back room of the office to show to their colleagues.)

4. I’ve been to 3 malls today.

5. Let’s go to the park tonight. I miss grass.

6. What time are we meeting your students at the mall?

7. We have not been to Dubai in, like, two weeks!

And the worst one:

8. I miss Walmart and Target.

Camels and Water

There’s this nifty group called Al Ain Weekends which organizes trips in the area.  The wife and I and our friends Frank and Melissa joined one of these trips yesterday.  The trip found us joining a convoy of fairly fast-moving 4x4s driving over a miserable, washboarded dirt road into the desert just outside of Al Ain.  I’ve not been a particular fan of Kia quality, at least not Kia ca. 2005, but the Sorento managed to make it without losing any parts, despite the creaking and rattling that filled the interior of the vehicle with a constant din as we pounded along.  Young Bennet, our friends’ 6-month old baby, seemed quite oblivious to the whole thing, strapped in what must be a very cushy car seat.  The Kia, to its credit, did manage a bit of pretty soft sand without any issues when I put it into 4-wheel drive, and I’m more inclined to forgive its fairly significant quality shortcomings as a result.

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After what seemed like a long ways of vehicular punishment, we arrived at the farm, nestled around a number of dunes.  This was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance to see two baby camels, a week and two weeks old, in the company of their mothers.  Besides the babies, with their thick, sheep-like fur, there were also dark-brown camels and nearly white ones of varying ages and sizes.  Some were bred for racing.

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There was a large male being kept in a separate pen from the others, in preparation to meet and mate with a female in the near future.  I guess isolation guarantees he’s plenty ready for the opportunity when it arises.  He seemed quite irritable, at any rate.  Go figure.

Many of the beasts wore rope shackles around their front feet.  I don’t know the reason for this, although I can guess.

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These dromedaries appeared well-fed and well-watered.  There were at least three men around who worked on the farm, which also had a sizable enclosure for goats.

20121214-IMG_006020121214-IMG_0040The calves were, much like their bovine counterparts, pretty dang big, considering they’ve only been shuffling this mortal coil for a week, and very mobile.

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20121214-IMG_0050A camel farm such as this contains all the treats for the senses that a farm elsewhere does.  Put yourself there for a second.  Your feet sometimes sink a smidgeon, but usually the sand is firm enough.  Occasionally the wind whips some grit into your eyes.  The air is redolent with the scent of fur and dung.  There are grunts, whiffles, and growls as the large herbivores respond to an onslaught of touristy types.  The mothers weren’t too pleased to have such a number people crowd around them, and eventually headed for safer territory, a good distance from us.  For such large animals, they’re easily spooked and quite skittish.  Our travel guide, the guy who organized the trip, had to ask repeatedly for folks to quiet down for the sake of the animals, who were often uneasy.  Of course, I’d probably be uneasy if, out of the blue, two-dozen SUVs unloaded a ton of westerners and their screaming children and they mobbed me, too.

We took the chance to climb some of the orange-red dunes that surrounded us as our time at the farm drew to a close.  The drive home was much more relaxing, albeit considerably more boring, as we left before the convoy did, and accordingly moved at a much more relaxed pace.  It did have its moments of interest, however, as the sky, which had been threatening rain, finally delivered, and my meagre windshield wipers, victims of the summertime and, well, most all the time, UV light, soon were mostly tattered.

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Rookie Dune Bashing

Man, I”ll tell you what–I want to buy a 4×4 (I mean, a real 4×4, something brawny, not the puny Kia Sorento we happen to own) and head to the desert as often as possible.

Friday afternoon I had a great time in the dunes with a bunch of off-roading newbies and a crew of very patient and helpful experienced pros.

I’ve never once done this kind of thing before.  It was great.  There is nothing quite like the experience of cresting a dune (and getting stuck while driving your buddy’s Jeep) in the middle of the Arabian desert.  Ditto that descending a steep slope.  The ascent is a curious mixture of gentle approach (depending on the angle of the wall) and then nail-it-to-the-floorboards-and-watch-the-sand-fly power.  Learning the balance is a bit of a challenge.  The descent is generally pretty easy: approach slowly, keep it in low gear, and let the engine to the braking as you float down the slope.  However, go too fast off a steep hill, and you can find yourself in trouble, as you might damage your vehicle, or at the very least, bottom out the suspension.  Yeah, the suspension bottoming thing happened to us a couple times.  Vroom–swish–crash!  But not when I was behind the wheel.  I promise.

In all, I had a ball.  I probably should have taken the Canon Rebel along for some better quality photos, but I was a bit afraid it might end up covered in sand and totally ruined.  So rather than risk it, I just had ye olde iPhone in its trusty Otterbox case.  I just may purloin some pictures from fellow photographers for this post, however, and in that case, I’ll give those picture-takers credit.

My buddy Jon and his son as we are preparing to head out.  Here, the 4WD has just been engaged on his old Jeep for the first time since he’s owned it.

On the rough road, getting ready to head into the serious sand.

Jon’s son ended up in the nice, cool, air conditioned cabin of this Jeep Liberty (sold here as a Cherokee) which is shown here about to come down a dune.

 

The day’s only casualty that I’m aware of was this Cherokee and its exploded radiator.

Check this view out. I’d been longing to be out in the dunes ever since I arrived. It was as cool as I hoped.  Don’t turn down the opportunity to get out there with some experienced folks.

And this would be a photo I'm borrowing from Heidi Cothron.  Maybe she'll let me borrow a high-res version later.

And this would be a photo I’m borrowing from Heidi Cothron. Maybe she’ll let me borrow a high-res version later.

So, I’m discovering the joys of living in the Arabian desert.  This off-roading stuff is seriously fun.  It ranks up there, in an altogether different way, of course, with riding a motorcycle.  LIke hopping on a bike and heading into the hills, being in the desert amidst a sea of dunes and away from the city is relaxing, and again, like riding a bike, there is definitely an element of risk involved in heading into the sand.  Your machinery must be in good shape, and it must be tough.  You’ve got to exercise good technique, or you’ll have serious problems on your hands.  Again, this is much like motorcycling.  In other words, it’s great fun and I highly recommend it.

A Trip into Authenticity, Part I.

It’s Sunday.  This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son.  If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.  Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon.  We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table.  Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.

These sheep are headed for…well, probably nothing good, at least from their perspectives.

This bull probably also is not much longer for this world.

As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation.  For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east.  East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.

The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large.  It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.

First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast.  Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing.  We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us).  After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way.  There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.

The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way.  There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.

This stretch of desert was unusual for its dunes.

The Kia contemplates the stretch of 120kph highway ahead, wishing it could go faster.

We traveled along the flank of a range of mountains which look more or less like this.

The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps.  Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way.  Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy!  Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us.  We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents.  The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.

Enjoying the souk with friends.  Textiles, silver, gold, kitsch, and more, it’s all available there.

On to preconceptions.  Here’s how at least one of those got smashed.  A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point.  Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at.  “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.”  She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest.  The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away.  “4 is a good price.”  Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.

Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.

I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns.  “Is it for Eid?”  She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.”  She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna.  “There’s black henna and red.  This is red,” she said, indicating hers.  “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said.  “Better the red.”  I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.

So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states.  Evidently not.  Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way.  But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.

The daylight revealed the rugged, rocky landscape that Muscat is built upon.  This shot is in the Mutrah area.  You’ll notice the fortress tower atop one rocky peak.

This post features the word authenticity.  Here’s why.  The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai.  You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India).  But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial.  Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that.  It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself.  It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.

Jenia took this photo of the Mutrah area by night.

It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public.  Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open.  Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.