Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

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A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.

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Thursday List: Lessons Learned

In no particular order, allow us to present lessons we learned while we traveled this summer.  Humorous?  Maybe (or maybe not, you be the judge).  True?  We think so.

1) The Toyota Yaris is one of the worst cars ever built.  We rented one for a day in Georgia (that would be the state, not the country).  The steering had less feel and was more vague than a careless comment that could be either a compliment or an insult.  The blind spots were larger than a Ford Expedition.  The centered gauge cluster is less sensible than a drunken, raving Mel Gibson. The acres of plastic swathing the interior epitomize the notion of “cheap,” along with every other aspect of the automobile.  Also it has no power.

2) The author of the CNN article “The New London, Paris and Rome” is totally wrong about Ostend.  Ostend is boring and the beach unappealing–not “oddly restorative.”  Besides, we got locked in a Japanese garden while there.

ostend

Ostend. Bland, forgettable, and certainly not worth visiting.  Sorry Belgium.  We love some of your other cities.

3) Couchsurfing is infinitely more fun than staying in a hotel.  And couchsurfers are, as it turns out, not all hippies–they’re a varied group of interesting folks.  We stayed with a guy who works in the Belgian steel industry, two air traffic controllers, and more.  We met fellow surfers who had careers as mind-blowing as molecular modeling researcher and astrophysicist.  Not kidding.  The astrophysicist, a guy named Lorraine from France, is also a beekeeper.  He shared a story about how he was asked to deliver a beehive to the Prime Minister (all true, mind you). He said yes, of course.  “But I told them that because it is summer, if I put the beehive in the car to deliver it, it could be a problem.  Because of the heat, the bees could die.”  The person he was speaking to said, “No problem.”  “Yes,” he said, “It would be a problem.  The bees could die.”  The other person reassured him–“No, no problem.  You will not have to stop.”  He ended up having a police escort through the center of Paris so that he didn’t have to stop and wait in traffic, and he delivered the beehive and set it up at the Prime Minister’s place.

4) Traveling with a baby is not only possible, but for the most part, quite easy (and there’s a post about that in the making).  As a side note, carrying a baby in a carrier starts to hurt one’s back after a couple days (but it is notably easier than pushing a stroller all over creation).

5) We now understand our friends who told us a year ago that they were looking forward to being back in the UAE. Then, we thought they were, well, nuts. Now, we are those people, too.

6) It can be rather hard to explain to those back in the US – or the people we met during our travels – what life here is really like. It seems that there is a backstory to every story. Also, for some reason, it’s easier to tell about the negative experiences.

7) Speaking of backstories, here’s one now: just kidding.  Lesson learned when telling stories to family back home–trim the backstories to the bare minimum, or your loved ones will tune out before you get to the good stuff.

8) Strangely, following the most obvious road signs from one place to another doesn’t always yield the fastest route.  Take our trip to Reims from Luxembourg, for example: this should have been a short two hours, judging by Google Maps, but it took us no less than six hours of meandering secondary roads.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany.  This was just over the German border.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany. This was just over the German border.

Somewhere in France...

Somewhere in France…

9) That brings us to this point: enjoy being on the verge of lost or completely off track.  Make it a point to simply have a great time exploring.  Make the best of sore feet (an excuse to stop at that little cafe!) or winding back roads (pull over and get a photo of the picturesque mountain pass).  The single best day of our trip was when we were driving, completely by accident and thanks to the road signs, the French countryside.  And enjoy the crummy places you end up, too (within reason, of course), like Ostend.  Where else would we have ever gotten locked in a Japanese garden?  It was a memorable experience at least.

10) It’s good to come home.  We already knew this.  But what we didn’t expect was to grow tired of traveling, since we both love it.  Still, we did.  After what started to seem too long on the road, we found ourselves especially grateful to have our own space and the chance to return to our routines.

Mini vacation

Fujairah is 2 1/2 hours from here. We went there. There isn’t a lot there, but there are pretty forts around. The beach in Fujairah itself isnt so great, but a short drive south into Kalba yields a nice park along the water and long expanses of sand. Drive a bit further south and you will find lovely mangrove growth, although its closed to visitors right now. Kalba is a fishing village, and we witnessed the fisherman hard at work, trolling, we think, for fish with an interesting if peculiar truck-truck-truck-boat setup. Anyway, here are some photos. I’ll try to add some more soon.

The first two pictures are of Fujairah Fort, which was, according to http://www.guide2dubai.com, established in 1670.  As it stands now, it has been reconstructed and is surrounded by ruins of old brick buildings from years ago.

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A pigeon makes his final descent to Fujairah Fort.

The tower which stands by itself is one of Al Hayl Castle’s buildings.  Getting to this fort is a bit more difficult than it seems like it should be.  At one point, we were driving through a residential neighborhood and it seemed like there was no way we’d gone the right direction. If it weren’t for a reviewer on TripAdvisor saying to keep on going straight when it seems like you’ve lost the road to the castle, we’d have probably given up and turned back, missing out on a picturesque, if small, place nestled in the rugged hills.  In fact, the journey to Al Hayl led one of our intrepid and faithful traveling companions, Melissa, to declare, “I love this!” from the backseat as we pounded along a rough stretch of gravel road in our Kia.

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Fujairah Fort stands in downtown Fujairah, near the water. There are plenty of signs pointing toward it, making it easy to find.

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The lookout tower at Al Hayl Castle.

Photobombing

Photobombing

The mosque by our hotel

The mosque by our hotel

Us looking all cute

Us looking all cute

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These trucks were operating together in a puzzling dance, towing ropes through the water. Evidently, a crew in a small boat dropped a trap or net and these trucks were towing them toward shore.

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One way to create a winch is to use little Toyota trucks, set an old wheel up so it spins freely on the front of one, and tow the rope using another truck. The people in charge told me they were catching fish. “Little ones, some big,” they said.

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These guys were working the ropes which, as near as I can tell, were towing traps or nets slowly toward shore.

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Fujairah’s beaches are strewn with shells.

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20130206-185556.jpg A fairly common sight in these parts–workers, most likely Pakistani, riding in the back of a 2-ton truck.

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The mangroves preservation was closed. Looking at this one can forget he is in the UAE.

The Blob is growing. So is Jenia.

The Blob is growing. So is Jenia.

The rugged hills themselves are interesting, and watching the sun set behind them was nice.  That aside, we received a free tour of the castle and its little compound, which our guide told us was 150 years old.  We even were allowed to climb up on the roof of the main building and the tower atop it, which was pretty cool.

On the way to and from Al Hayl fort we saw a bunch of donkeys wandering freely.  We suppose they’re all the property of a local farmer.  Naturally, we took some pictures, since free-roaming animals of this type are pretty rare around the southeastern USA.

Melissa and Jenia had to get out of the car and take pictures of them

Melissa and Jenia had to get out of the car and take pictures of them

Scenes from a Russian Winter

A Memoir

Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same.  It’s a truthful retelling of past events.  However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that.  Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right.  Memoirs are about impressions and memories.  That’s what I’m doing with this post.  I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes.  It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative.  I do hope you like it.

Scene One: Prelude.

It is cold.  Extremely cold.  I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat.  Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago.  When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face.  The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright.  We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway.  Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop.  We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey.  The bus has already gone.  It will be some time before the next one.  Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away.  The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time.  We pose for some pictures in front of the church.  At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold.  Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped.  The cold is invasive.  It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing.  My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos.  Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip.  By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.

Chapel

If you look carefully, you’ll see Jenia’s furry collar has iced over where her breath strikes it.

Scene Two: Country House.

The village is tiny.  How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks?  Maybe 50.  It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate.  And I can’t wait to get indoors.  I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet.  We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences.  A German shepherd barks.  A man scolds it in Russian.  The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.

Indoors, the little house seems warm.  My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace.  It’s been on, but running very low.  Still, it feels wonderfully warm.  Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.

Walking

Entering the village, packed snow just a-crunchin’.

Yard

The backyard of the country house is where the gardening goes on during warmer times.

Smoking

Ryazan’s factories belch smoke on the horizon.

Field

The road back to Ryazan–traveled by foot (obviously with some exceptions) to the railway.

Frost Flower

Furry

Jenia keeps her hands warm with some sort of furry mittens.

Scene Three: Catching the Train.

There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees.  “Oh, no, what time is it?”  Says my tyosha.  She finds the time, and says to hurry.  We hurry.  “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me.  I’m in the lead.  So I begin to jog.  I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores.  Jenia jogs behind me.  “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.”  So I run.  I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife.  “Go ahead,” she says.  “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!”  I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me.  A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me.  It’s clear he’s going to wait for us.  The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board.  We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath.  An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay?  What’s the matter with her?  Asthma?  The car is mostly empty.   Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows.  All are old enough to appear grave and dignified.  After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows.  Birches rush past.  There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there.  A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.

Train Lada

Engine

Having arrived back in Ryazan, I pause to snap a photograph of the train. The conductor is, again, watching for any passengers rushing to make it in time.

Boarding

This guy, rushing aboard, is blessed, like us, by the willingness of the conductor to keep an eye out.

Crossing

The small railway station where we disembark. To get to the other side, you cross the tracks.

Street

A Ryazan street. This place would be beautiful if the buildings had a coat of paint every now and again.

Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.

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.

Thursday List: Neat Things in New England

1. Family, of course.  This is my (Shon’s) family, but Jenia is equally excited to see them.

2. Cool weather–it’s a mere mid-80s during the day, and a delightfully cool mid-60s at night.

3. Such lovely scenery and sublime hikes within easy distance of, well, most anywhere.

Here are some pictures from today’s activity–a long hike in the White Mountains.

Today we spent most of our day on a mountain. 9 miles round trip, and it’s a strenuous hike.

Jenia just loves those crazy Vibram shoes of hers. The water was cold and refreshing.

Dear Mr. Chipmunk enthusiastically received an almond that Jenia decided to share with him.

View from the summit of Mt. Chocorua, in Albany, NH.