Tag Archives: Travel
The Desert. Oh Arabian Nights!
I wanted the real desert, not the desert of oil pipe lines and gas flares. I wanted golden dunes and mysterious silence, camels and glamorous bedouin tents, not the scrubby rolled stone and boiled sand that makes up our tatty desert. No, I wanted the desert of Lawrence of Arabia.
And I found it. It didn’t come cheap, but we stayed at Desert Nights Camp and it was an experience to remember. The road getting there was a little hairy, especially in a low, basic Yaris but I take my hat off to Toyota, because even with all the sand we collected under that car it still ran on and on and got us there and back without a hitch.
The camp is in the middle of nowhere. Literally. It is only 11 km from the nearest village but it might as well be on the moon for the desolate silence, the soft footed and gormless camels, the dramatic stars and the dune scape. Within minutes of arriving both girls were up a dune and running down as fast as they could. A little later we were driven up a mountainous dune for the sunset and we all ran back to camp giggling and feeling the fun and freedom of running over a mountain of sand. Handsome and Trooper Sand boarded the next morning ( think snow board, then think sand) and all three of them took a hair raising excursion on an ATV for an hour. There was a short camel ride, tea and dates in the shade, a game of cards outside by the fire, shisha under the stars, wrapped up in a warm shawl.
It took my breath away.
Oman is a country of contrasts. Muscat runs like a sliver along the coast, ancient forts and highways, palm tree dotted roads, decorated roundabouts and shiny sky scrapers; blue tiled mosques, a winding labringth of a souk and five star hotels all face a lapis sea. Behind this sliver lies a majestic and imposing mountain range, brown in some lights, red or grey in others, barren rock that winks at the sun. And if you take a road that cuts like a glaring wound through the mountains you will arrive at a desert the likes of which only live in the Arabia of legends. An infinite and harsh landscape of undulating dunes, as high as mountains that stretch on and on ad-infinitum, like rolling ski hills with no snow. And the sand is red, gold, thick with gold dust; footsteps are erased minutes after we walk, as if we had never existed. And then back through the rock, sharp gashes through stone until, once again we spy the sea, glinting in the sun.
Deep in the mountain ranges of Oman live tiny villages with communities of people who walk for hours with a donkey to get supplies and news of the world. There is a first world that hold hands with the third here, and a modern land that holds history in its palm. It is a place with ancient traditions and a time line that stretches back to the days of slave trade and a port that saw people come and go from Iran and India to the eastern coast of Africa. There are windows that I saw in the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya and faces that I knew had the Indian sub continent in their past.
We spent 5 days in Oman, four nights in Muscat and one in the desert, also known as the Wahiba Sands. Hotels are pricey in Oman, especially as there is a general refusal to put a family of four in one room, demanding that we get two. So the likes of the splendid Chedi and Al Bustan were out but we decided to stay at the Intercontinental who were very accommodating in giving us a room with two Queen Beds. Or so we thought. Turns out there was an entire Italian Opera company staying at the hotel at the same time as us; the brand spanking new Oman Opera House had invited them to perform Carmen ( although not a ticket could be had for love or money.) So the Italians filled the hotel to the brim and had taken every last room. Oh what is a family to do? The hotel kindly popped us into the Royal Suite, complete with a living room, dining room, kitchen, three TVs and three bathrooms.
So between living like Kings and hearing the bellowing voice of a practicing Tenor down the hall, sharing a line for the breakfast cappuccino machine with loud Italians still wearing traces of theatrical makeup from the previous night’s Opera, and walking on the beach with the sharp and powerful mountain range behind, we felt we were in a story book.
Oman is like that. Stories swirl in the air, between the tiny walls of the souk and the camel’s tread in the desert, or the echo of a cave in a Wadi, it is a place that leaves its magic hanging, long after you leave.
Particularly if you purchase Frankincense and one of the lovely burners that are sold in the Souk. Frankincense and its accompanying cloud of fragrant smoke is the scent of Oman, and now we have it at home, for with a strike of a match and a magic bean of the golden stone, we too can remember some of the magic.
How odd the journey is. One minute you have sand on your shoes and the next it shuffles through fallen leaves. Long ago we had time to process and feel the passing of time and place; the long boat journey with head leant over sea, salt in the hair and on the tongue, or body swaying in time with a train as most of Europe passes as a mere smudge against a window. I love the train and was thrilled by any trips taken across countries and landscapes. I remember falling asleep somewhere outside Miton Keynes and pushing up the blind of my sleeper to see the moon scape that is the Scottish moor. Listening to some teachers say they had a train to catch home to Holland, I felt the pangs of jealousy. And I have always wanted to take a boat from Southampton to New York, the other direction wouldn’t satisfy my romantic grasp of the situation; I want to see the Statue of Liberty looming like a beacon of hope out of the fog. But who has time to travel? We need to get there as fast as we possibly can, forget about the journey.
The airplane is too fast, my mind arrives behind, dragging along like some lost luggage.
We stumbled across the most extraordinary jumble sale/rummage sale/garage sale while lost some where in the East. We saw two mannequins propped against a most gracious old building. They looked as if they had been tossed off the set of a horror movie and indeed their pasts turned out to have been equally dramatic. Turns out we had walked into the sale of the Opera House. Sets including fabulous chandeliers, fake harps, velvet chaise longues and even a large ship were for sale alongside lace, tuile and chiffon ball dresses. They entire sale was housed in a slightly crumbling but romantic space complete with spiral staircase, velvet rouched curtain and yellow walls. It was like walking into a Lars Von Trier meets Versailles set. In my mind it summed up Berlin. Under the skin of practicality and organized decorum lies an artistic soul that burns and trembles. I wondered if it was because of or despite the fanatical order that such creativity is allowed to ferment.
I had the opportunity to go to Berlin for some professional development last week. While I did, indeed develop professionally, and benefitted from the stimulating environment of sharp, bright and experienced teachers; there were many conversations around red bottled tables; I also developed within from a hop over to Europe and The Great Shiny West.
Within moments of arriving I feel the pulse of Europe. It’s in the orange and grey, the efficiency, the shined shoes, good cappucino and bright alarming adverts. I know I am somewhere with a penchant for good design and a trained work force, with years of efficient practice and expectation behind them. Everything works and I find myself charmed by German efficiency.
I notice the little things: that the toilet in Frankfurt airport is Villroy &Bosch, that the arrivals and departure signage harks back to the flippy train signs of yore. I notice that all the men have smart belts and shoes, haircuts are purposeful and glasses chosen with some care. The font on all the signs sings the subtle but sure message that I am somewhere different. Moments ago the silky but guttural sounds of Arabic rang through my ears, now it is the guttural but lilting German that takes some time to digest. And then I notice what else is odd, at least to me, transplanted person from desert lands. Everyone is white. Pale, caucasian, sun starved And people are wearing clothes, that I can see. There is no Thobe to hide beneath, nor the comfort and anonymity of an Abaya. Here the display is open for show.
I inhale the changes and look with my interminable stranger’s eyes.
I walk the leafy neighbourhood near my hotel and am drawn to shop windows, the creative and unusual display. It is the difference, the shock of the new that hits me and I walk with eyes upturned toward the changes. Berliners and Europeans walk past their ‘ordinary’, not feeling the charm and delight of an autumn leaf crunched underfoot, nor the curled stoned adornment that rests proudly atop a door frame. I breathe in history with every step, feeling a city charged with everything that has come before. There is a collective awareness of history at every corner and it lends a special pulse to this city.
I returned to Bahrain with a loud and sandy thump. I do indeed live on a desert isle and this week I feel a million miles from the centre of the world.
More Berlin photos to follow….
How can it possibly be October?
July 1st I arrived in London, after a difficult and boring week in Bahrain with no car, no furniture and no idea. I was starting my summer, my long awaited trip back to the Great Shiny West and I was filled with positive and sunny thoughts about reunions, sushi, shopping and Canadian Lakes. The thought of moving to Bahrain had been firmly pushed to a dusty corner of my mind and I was set to live my summer as a happy sunshine girl.
August 1st and I was in California, sipping creamy white wines and looking across and over mountains, sniffing the Pacific and staring at sea horses in a world famous aquarium. I was wrapped up in family and there was a glow about the day, despite the fact that the summer was slowly dying.
September 1st and I was in Bahrain. Furniture was here and unpacked, I had a car and had learned some roads and ropes. Eid was in full swing and Handsome was off work. We headed to the beach, excited, but knowing that school and new starts were looming. Within a few days I would be starting a new job, meeting new colleagues and the dust of life would begin to settle. September 1st was the last of the in limbo days.
October 1st. Here we are. Working, schooling, driving… a routine has been fixed and the fears of new starts have assuaged. Trooper has found her feet and has three different social occasions set up for the weekend. There could have been a fourth but I drew the line. ( Love that line, arbitrary and random as it may seem.) Princess has had her second sleep-over, having found the perfect girl friends. They have turned into peas and slipped into their pod. I have been warned that by the end of this weekend I will want to hire a driver. Handsome has returned from one business trip and is soon leaving for a second, followed swiftly by a third. He is happy. I am starting to figure out the mechanisms of a new class room, a new flock of kids; the navigation of a different and sometimes strange culture. It has been a tumultuous month of change and adjustment and learning. But the uniforms are less scratchy, the 5,30 am risings are less painful and the days slightly cooler. I am yet to find a circle of friends, I think you need yummy mummy coffee time to do that in such a short month. But there is little space left after work and I am more than content to fill that space with books, family and wonder.
The Shock of the new….continued.
My weekend is Friday and Saturday. This is going to take some time to adjust. As I type this it is Sunday and rather than preparing for the week ahead I am dressed in my work clothes having spent the first day of the school week at work with my students. I am convinced that a Friday/ Saturday weekend is shorter than a Saturday/Sunday weekend. Not sure why, but it is.
I didn’t expect so many people to be dressed in their national dress. It is not as if you see Lederhosen on a regular basis in Germany, Kilts everyday in Scotland or Kimonos in downtown Tokyo, so I never imagined I would see so many men with checkered head scarfs, ( Guthra) white starched and flowing robes, ( Thobe) and women top to toe in black, albeit a black that might be bedazzled with crystal. I simply had no idea. And with these red and white cloths, black ropes and brilliant white robes everywhere it is impossible for even a second to forget where you are.
It turns out dress is a very important part of culture and identity here. Yet it is dressing all the same that defines them rather than being distinctive, on the outside. It got me thinking about clothes, well more than usual.
Trooper and Princess wear a uniform, have done for the past four years. When I wait at the school gates after school ( which is incidentally the absolutely best part of my day) a sea of uniforms pours out of the school, a mass of red and blue and they all look the same until I see those brown eyes. As you know people try to find their own spirit within a uniform, whether it be a hair style, shoes or earrings. Individuality is not promoted, nor encouraged at schools with uniforms and when we leave school we are quite thrilled by the freedom and luxury to wear what ever we want, all day long. Most of the time college kids wear a uniform anyway, all looking indistinguishable in the jeans and baggy sweaters; but it is a choice.
Here the uniform continues into adult hood and is worn with a great deal of pride, rarely shunned. Men sitting around a table could look exactly the same as each other, save a flashy watch or creatively trimmed beard that might add that touch of the individual. Rebels are not revered, stepping outside of the box has to be done in its own unique way. I am still wondering and discovering how that comes to be.
This past week I have seen many of my firmly held assumptions come tumbling down. There have been some rather shaky stereotypes that have been knocked and my ideas renewed.
When we travel, as tourists, our impressions may add to rather than remove any pre conceived ideas we may have had. On the other hand we may add colour and shade to hunches we have about people, places, culture.
When you live in a place, sometimes we are in a bubble and what we learn is seen through a prism of other expats; conversations and combined observations mesh together to become a thick layer of learning. Our eyes are opened but do we really know? What do we know? How much do we know? Always more than those who never came, but is it enough?
Example: I tell people I lived in Africa for two years and their response varies from “ Was it dangerous?”, “ Were you scared?”, “ Did you get sick” to “ Did your school have walls?”. There is a preconceived idea that Africa is not much more than poverty and filth combined with elephants and lions. Africa as a notion is a collective lump of images made from Oxfam video appeals to National Geographic Specials. Africa as a continent with countries and cities, glass, steel, Japanese restaurants, fashion designers and literature professors is not the package most of us are sold.
Likewise the Middle East is often a collective and rather messy group of ideas centered around checkered tea cloth on the head men, deserts, camels, suppressed women, dogmatic ideas, fanatics, materialistic shrines of steel, ferraris, felafel, heat and black draped groups of women resembling a murder of crows.
And taking a little side trip to Dubai sandwiched between London and Bangkok will do little to dispel those ideas.
There are countries and cultures that I am drawn to. North American, Latin, Japanese, Italian, Moroccan to name some. But I have never been intrigued by the Middle East and in fact had been negative about it whenever Handsome brought up the idea of living here. We met in Egypt over 19 years ago and at that time he told me that he longed to live in the Middle East and was drawn to it for some inexplicable reason. He loved Arabic music and would play it and even fashion some dance to it in our Montreal living room on many occasions. Sometimes I joked that perhaps he was Arab in his past life. Five years ago he applied for a job in Qatar and journeyed there for an interview. I was most relieved when he did not get the job. I had the opposite reaction to him, shuddering when he mentioned wanting to live in the Middle East and hoping that the idea would pass. I wanted to visit beautiful Morocco and Petra in Jordan and see the stunning landscape of Lebanon but I had no desire to go further or explore the culture or, heaven no…live here!
And here we are.
I worried that I would have nothing to write about and that 3limes would dry up and sadly shrivel. But instead I find myself alert, wide awake to the rich and surprising culture before me. I was nervous that I would not like teaching in a Bahraini school, with no expats and their familiar Western culture to buffer me. I fretted over what the kids would be like and would I relate? Could I teach and penetrate such an unknown and “difficult” culture?
Was I ever wrong and am I ever happy to admit it.
And then there was England. Last summer I spent a whole month in London and set myself the task of posting one photo a day. This summer I was there for close to two weeks and I was not as attached to my camera.
London is home, a different home from Montreal, but still home. My memories of London go way back to childhood summers with grandparents to weekend escapes from boarding school to University days. I have more family in London then anywhere else in the world and I know it like the back of my hand. But London has changed, we have both moved on and when I go back it is like visiting an old friend; we look each other up and down and comment on how we have grown up.
London for me is family, walks in the park, fabulous food, restaurants with starched white table cloths and handsome waiters, the Tube, red buses that I can no longer hop off, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Marks and Spensers, Boots and occasional trips to the gorgeous country side.
And Monmouth Coffee, the best coffee shop in the world.
It has not been a good summer for London, between endless rain and those shocking riots; but I had sunshine where I could.
In fact I have not had a drop a rain all summer, I have been nicknamed the sunshine girl as I bring the sun with me in my suitcase. And now that I am in Bahrain I imagine I will be longing for the rain before too long.