Tuesday, 25 December 2012

A plug for the sink!

It's Christmas day and what am I writing about? A plug for the sink, yep that's right one of those little rubber thingies that stops the water from running straight down the drain.......

Christmas morning our late lie in was interrupted by a phone call from our son Rufus calling from Canada. So some two or so hours later we crawled out of bed having spoken to the family and breakfasted on eggs and unsmoked bacon.  A little let down from the normal Christmas, but then we were keen to get on our way for two days in a luxury hotel on AlJebel AlAkhdar - that would be the Green Mountain.

A quick dash out to the kitchen with our dishes I racked n stacked then searched the kitchen high and low - yep no plug for the kitchen sink! Our stand in maid (all of four hours a week) had been yesterday afternoon and done the dishes.  What she did with the plug we may never know....

I called Katrina and she looked everywhere I had and maybe a place or two I hadn't. All to no avail there was no rubber plug for the sink.  It's OK says I I will just duck down to Zam Zam's Hypermarket and get one.  Hmmm no such luck, the store attendants just looked at me blankly when I said for the umpteenth time - no I don't want an electrical plug. Ok so I will go to Al Fair (another hypermart) that's just down the road I thought, probably unlucky I had driven, but then we were keen to get away - as if I hadn't driven there would be no story to tell.

So off to Al Fair - well sir we normally have them in stock, just over here - where I had already spent a few minutes scrabbling through the box of odds and ends.

Ah well Carrefour is just down the road at Muscat City Centre, surely they will have them.  Yeah right - after the first attendant said no not here in Kitchen ware, have a look in Bathroom. Sounds reasonable I thought. So I get to Bathroom and look around , nothing. Ahh there's an attendant I'll ask him - follow me sir he says (with a knowing look and air of absolute confidence) finally I think - until we walk around the corner and there's the first attendant.... d'oh.

I am starting to get a little peeved by now, spent close to an hour and no flaming plug for the sink!

At least there's a kitchen store, off I go and get blank looks. I'm sorry sir we don't stock hardware did you try Carrefour? GRAHHHH!!!  So with cries of Merry Christmas sir, I head off to Home Centre (and for good luck try e-Maxx along the way - yes I know they're an electronics store, but they do have a small hardware/housewares section) - and you guessed it more blank looks and Christmas wishes.

So hanging my head in shame and despair I head for home. And then I think well I could try the small building supply shops - So I stop at the first one I see and ask - only to be presented with a grand selection of aluminium pipe end plugs - no, no rubber plugs I say. More blank looks and Christmas wishes.

Sigh in desperation as I turn the penultimate corner to home I pull over and ask at the little "Household Items and Luxuries" shop (that's code for cheap crap - but sometimes useful). Ah no sir they say after showing me their selection of powerboards, but try the building supply shop across the road, and Merry Christmas - Arghhh.

So with  nothing to lose by now - it's been an hour and a half - I go across the road. Do you have rubber plugs for the kitchen sink I ask.  Ah like this the little man says and presents me with an aluminium pipe end - No says I rubber. ahh he says and comes back with a little bag containing the fixings to replace the whole sink outlet. We have this he says presenting the plastic bag to me - and miracle of miracles it also contained a rubber plug!

Yay finally. Home dishes done and we hit the road almost two hours late. And the lesson for me is walk to Zam Zam's next time, coz you never know where you will find that odd thing in Oman.

But seriously nine shops to find a kitchen sink plug?

Happy Christmas everyone.

ps we did make it to AlJebel AlAkhdar and am sitting on the terrace watching the sun set, with beer at my elbow and feeling a little chilly for the first time since March.

Life is good.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rock eyes and rifles

It's December now, which means winter in Oman. The shops are full of furry coats, mufflers and even ear muffs! Why they have any of them is totally beyond me as the day time top is yet to drop below 25 (even on rainy days) and the overnight low is still above 15. I could get used to this.
The Guns at Barka Fort, under observation of the guard. Interestingly some of the Guns bore a crest of Tudor Rose and ER - "wonder what that meant??"
After our little rush of guests  - Ollerenshaw, Hazell, Hunt and Hodgkin we have now settled back into the quiet of sharing our house with the cats.  Mind you they do manage to make an extra-ordinary amount of noise when the mood takes them.

One of the good things about having guests has meant seeing more of this amazing country. I think my mum summed it up best - "when you go around a corner a whole new vista opens up and you could just as well be on the moon!" Even after the better part of a year that still holds true. The mountains here are "rugged" and as you travel you quite quickly pass from one type of geological formation to another. Red and caramel coloured rocks replaced by gray and black, which in their turn are replaced by,,,,,,, Vertical strata replaced by horizontal and then something like this!  If you look closely you can see an eye shape in there.

The rock that watches you
The following series of pictures were all taken within a 20km stretch,  just to give you an idea of the extraordinary variety of geology. Don't ask me what they all mean, Kiriel was the one that took pictures of the explanatory signs!

Look at the wavy line - almost creek like!

Kiriel inspecting a Geological oddity

And with all the tourists we have been to Mattrah Souk quite a lot recently. So much so that I found an antique shop and we were back so soon after, that I found it again. I feel wallet pain coming on!  Katrina beat me to the punch and bought some silver couched fabric, which she is planning to have mounted in a display frame.  I was keenly eyeing off the things that went Bang or Slash! Hanging on the wall was the most amazing array of antique swords and firearms I have ever seen - matchlocks (yes you read that right - plural), flint locks, single shot martini henry rifles - but unfortunately the shop keeper knows his business and his pricing.  

I will come home with some things such as a silver powder horn, traditional leather buckler and sword at the least.  While a matchlock would be interesting at 1800 Rial (that's $4500) to you I'm not quite that keen for an interesting wall hanging. Not so worried about the sword but getting one of the shields could be interesting, as they were traditionally made from heavy leather, and of course the heaviest leather they had access to was Rhinoceros. So I will only be getting one of those if I can get the papers to apply for a pre-CITES certificate. Real ones start at about 150 rial.

Katrina has also managed to start her traditional Omani jewellery collection. Traditional jewellery is typically silver and much of it, from the 18c on was made from the Maria Theresa Thaler. A rather substantial silver coin.  They sell Maria Theresa "dollars" in the Souk, but precious few of them are real, mostly aluminium dumps with a thin silver coating.

And being winter it's cruise ship season.  Seems every time we go to old Muscat there's another one or two cruise ships in and hordes of tourists everywhere soaking up the atmosphere. Sigh. Although I guess the locals probably think that when I turn up in the middle of nowhere to interrupt their peaceful solitude.  Darn Tourists!

I guess that's bye for now.
Things you see on the beach.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A month of guests

How quickly a month passes.  Seems you blink and miss it.  Since my last post an awful lot has happened.

In that month we have had our first three sets of visitors, who have all come and gone back to Australia, leaving us here in Muscat.  Ah peace and quiet you may say, we have our house back and its all ours again.

At the beginning of November our first two sets of Canberra visitors appeared and left on the same days, and they weren't even known to each other until they were introduced in Muscat. These were the Hazells and the Ollerenshaws.

Our first outings as tour guides! Seems that our guests were satisfied with our guidance and enjoyed Muscat and what little surrounds they got to see.  Things like the Grand Mosque, Matrah Souq, Sawadi Beach and so - on  All of which I have posted photo's of before.  A veritable social whirl, complete with restaurant dinners, roof top BBQ's and so on.

And in that time our cat Bluey discovered how to get off the roof of the house, so there were a couple of set too's with his mum.  As well as unrelated cat set too's not involving our cats. All this ended up with us severely limiting roof top access since then.  And after a few days of nasty cat talk it has all gone back to quiet.  Mind you our British neighbour gave me an earful one night over cats - seems he doesn't like them!  Not sure what's going on there now, but then we've invited them over to dinner or drinks  a few times and they've never accepted, so I just guess they're a bit hermit like. Ah well they go home in six months, so maybe our next neighbours will be more social - one can hope.

All boxed up
But anyway the day our guests left Katrina and I shot off to the Royal Opera House for an evening of Omani music, supported by a few tunes from the Royal Symphony Orchestra.  All very nice, as for not much more than $100 I was able to get us box seats - I could get used to that!  The music was fun and the supporting dancers were "enthusiastic" but a fun night was had by all. So much fun that less than two weeks later we were back with Mum and Dad for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Tickets were about the same price, but this time that was for the cheap seats - sigh caviar one day, fish and chips the next. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

And then Mum and Dad arrived for two weeks.  They got here on a Friday morning and I had the Saturday off for a public holiday - Islamic New Year.  And all of this coincided with the 42nd National Day.  To say that Muscat had a buzz would be an understatement. The streets were (and still are) decorated with a flag on every pole and celebratory lights on every bridge/overpass.

One of the most popular businesses around that time had to be the car decorators. People had flags, pictures, stripes, swirly patterns and so on put on their cars to celebrate.  One evening we went out to dinner on the corniche. Nice and quiet when we arrived but HOPPING by the time we left, and somehow we ended up in the middle of the Mustang owners club parade of decorated cars. And then the following night Mum and I went out to try and get some distant shots of fireworks and ended up caught up in the celebrations of National Day. This time we almost ended up with the Jeep owners club.

National Day
That night out was a bit like a New Years Eve, people running up and down the street, riding on car roofs and bonnets, hanging out windows, running between and around cars.  Because we had our windows down we got happy faces thrust in the car with cries of Happy National Day, Welcome to Oman and so on.  And all the time the Police stood by and observed.  I guess if anyone had been dangerous or really TOO silly they would have acted. But everything was in great spirit, with none of the vicious edge that a drunken crowd can generate.  It was all a lot of fun and great to see a people proud of their country and celebrating that with anyone that came along.

In the end Mum and Dad had a great time in Oman and got home earlier today (Saturday) totally exhausted I believe. Not too many days ago they were on their safari of a lifetime with visits to traditional boat yard, wadi's, forts and a desert camp. And posing on the stern of the social club launch in front of the Royal Palace...

Katrina and the Kayak
Your friendly neighbourhood octopi
Over the last month the real revelation for me has been I have discovered after years of disliking the beach ( I grew up in Geelong where it's surf coast and not much to see that's readily accessible under the water) I am developing a fondness for it and seaborne activities. Now we have the Kayak I am happy to go to sea for a little paddle, not too far from shore and also in calm weather! But combined with all that if the water is clear I am happy to jump in with a mask snorkel and flippers to have a bit of a look around.  And my there is a lot to see.  Wherever there's a little island or sheer drop into the sea there are coral reefs and all that entails by way of colourful fish. Big ones, bright ones, small ones, colourful ones and well you get the picture, but not in this case because I don't have an underwater camera.  So you'll just have to make do with your imagination and pictures of some washed up aquatic life....

Not everything is safe

And there we have it a bit of everything.  In a month it will be Christmas, on a work day, may just have to take some Christmas cheer to work that day.  Maybe Christmas will come early with a big decision on the project at work...

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Grand Mosque is, well quite grand really.

Chandelier in the Grand Mosque
In my last post (only two days ago), I mentioned that it's Eid Al-Adha here and as a result I have a week off work, which gives me a bit of time to go and see some things.

Ever since we've been in Muscat we've driven up and down the Sultan Qaboos Highway and admired the Grand Mosque as we drove past it. Always with a we will go there one day. Yesterday was one day, so we did!

The problem being that the mosque is only open to non-Muslims from 8 - 11 work days, it's that work day thing, doesn't really gell with my schedule, what with having to work on work days...

Abluting Birds
So a couple of minutes past eight we rumbled into the public car park (Chevrolet's rumble - even 6 cylinder ones!) and made our way through the public gate into the gardens.  Beautifully manicured they are, with trees n stuff to boot. We were so early that our arrival disturbed the birds revelling in the numerous fountains, but after a few indignant squawks they duly posed for photo's and let us pass.
Grand garden entrance
Hmmm I don't quite know where to start.  I've visited a few Cathedrals in the past and I have to say there was a sense of that in the Mosque. Obviously places of worship with lashings of decorative art to show devotion. But the difference is that in Cathedrals I get a sense of something from the past and that's not the case with the Grand Mosque. It is very much a building of this time and it is a contemporary with its place.

Beautiful structures, clean and elegant with an army of workers applying spit and polish to keep it all in pristine shape.  And I guess that the European cathedrals must have been kept like that in their early days. As an interesting side light I believe there is a law here that no house can be further than one kilometre from a mosque.  In our case there are at least 4 mosques within a kilometre of our house.

Main prayer room
Anyway back to the Grand Mosque. The central prayer room was truly spectacular a large open prayer space opening up to the central dome rising far above.  Giving an airy and open aspect to the space. The floor is covered by a single prayer carpet, all hand woven and I believe the largest handwoven carpet in the world.  Unfortunately we couldn't see it in all its glory as during opening hours paths of blue fabric are put in place so that us tourists don't damage the carpet.  Still what we could see was pretty good! All this was surrounded with stone walls worked in Islamic art with mosaics, inlay and so on.  The wooden doors were fully carved with repeating patterns (hand done I think - but with a remarkable degree of precision). And the roof was wood panelled - except for the dome which was mosaic/inlay and had the biggest hanging chandelier I have ever seen.

And then outside, apart from the gardens there are two semi enclosed colonaded passage ways. Each of these contains a series of arched stoneworks (mosaic, inlay, carving - but mostly mosaic) giving you a guided tour of Islamic Art. The one at the front of the mosque starts (or ends - you pick) with Omani art and the one on the other side starts (or ends - you pick) with Saudi Arabian art, as the home of Islam.  So I started with Omani Art and ended with Saudi Arabian somewhere around an hour later.
Door carving

All of this fits in with the intent that the Grand Mosque would be a centre of Islamic learning and study, for all forms of Islam.  So it is not surprising that there is an Islamic study centre, an Islamic tertiary institution and an Islamic information centre in the grounds and their surrounds.

Unfortunately being a public holiday there were no guides on hand to explain everything. If you ever come to Oman the Grand Mosque is a must see - Women must have ankle to wrist coverage and a head scarf.  The European woman who tried to get in with a t-shirt tied to head was politely told no, try again. And as with any Islamic place of worship you have to enter bare footed, so there are shoe racks conveniently located outside the entrances, running along the walls for some way.

It is interesting just how much a core part of life religion is for Omani's.  Everyday at work the office goes quiet at prayer time as people gather to pray in formal and less formal prayer spaces. You see the same in any workplace, be it an office or a little stall at the local souk. In some cases shops are left open while the staff go and pray, trusting that their non praying customers will wait until they return.  And it works, although that concession doesn't happen at the big shopping centres.
Omani style

All of this leads me to a history lesson.  The current Sultan - Sultan Qaboos Bin Said came to power in 1970 as a result of a coup. At that time Oman was a closed country, very few outsiders came here, ships crew were often not allowed off their boats when in harbour. City gates were closed at dusk and there was no electric light. There was one bitumen road, which ran between Sultan Taimur Bin Said's palace and the airport. Schools, hospitals and amenities of any kind were few and far between.

Ottoman 16-17 C style
In the south of the country, the Dhofar region, there was a long standing (decades old) insurrection, which the Sultan's army was not really managing to contain. Possibly because the rebels were receiving funds and training from China and Russia, but also in large part because the Sultan did not rule over a unified country with a populace that loved him. A "Vietnam" confrontation in the Middle East if you will, but with the added bonus that victory would bring control of the Straights of Hormuz. Check that one, the petrol in your fuel tank likely transited the Hormuz Straights.

So the long and the short of it is that Sultan Taimur, who had absolute power, but not control of the country was ousted and his only son, who had a Sandhurst military education and time in the UK Armed Forces came to power.

He brought in British assistance and set about quelling the rebellion, building a nation and using the (limited) oil wealth to benefit the populace. In order to quell the rebellion the young Sultan let it be known that anyone who deserted the rebels would be welcomed back with open arms. And then as his army made territorial advances wells were dug, medical aid dispensed, electricity and other advances were provided to the newly liberated area. Of course there was an underlying and I believe unstated message of what we give you we can also take away. Schools, hospitals, sealed roads followed soon after.

And then the Communists made a fatal error, they tried to unify all the rebel groups under the banner of Communism and force people to renounce their religion.  Not a good move, as it alienated many and gave the Sultan and his forces the useful rallying cry of  "Islam is our way. Freedom is our aim."  By the end of 1975 the insurrection was over.

13-14c Persian style
So in a sense Islam played a big part in sowing the seeds of current day Oman and it is not surprising that the Grand Mosque was built and that it attempts to bring Islamic schools of thought together.

As a foot note:
If you want a tale of a modern day equivalent to Rourke's Drift (the battle in the movie Zulu) then read about the battle at Mirbat. It was one of the pivotal moments and fought by small numbers against great odds. Some say it is the greatest battle fought by members of the British SAS.

Arabian style

Friday, 26 October 2012

It has been a while

Pretty much a month to be exact.  Although to be fair in my last blog I did say things would be busy for both of us.
So what's been happening in Muscat?

Well as predicted work has been busy and rather politic.  Sadly.

On the Katrina front the THESIS has taken her time and then with the absolute destruction of the ANU school of music (think root and branch) "reform" it would seem that the cultural luddites have racked up another win.  Sad as any culture needs artistic expression to survive. A pretty pattern atop your Latte is not art!

So what have we done and where have we been.  Well my Mum and Dad transited Dubai a couple of weeks ago en-route to Europe for a month followed by two weeks in Oman on the way home.  Because they were in Dubai for a Thursday/Friday we saddled up the Chevy and drove across to Dubai as a surprise for them.

We booked into the same hotel as they did. Then because there had been fog in Dubai squillions of people were delayed in flying out and we were the lucky recipients of a hotel upgrade!  Luxury studio apartment here we come.  Oooh yeah.
Desert alongside the highway.....

Eating out in Dubai
So we spent a day and a bit driving around Dubai with Mum and Dad. Introduced them to the two big malls and Arabian dates.  Yum leave the pre-packaged garbage you get in Australia for dead!  But the big surprise was when Mum bought an iPad! My techno averse Mum? The one whose dishwasher died because she never used it?  And since then pretty much daily emails, often with pictures attached - way to go!

The drive to and from Dubai was interesting it was actually the first time we had driven through the desert.  Our travels thus far in Oman have been in the coastal regions and it's not until we crossed into the UAE that the real desert kicked in. Amazing colours of the sands, tonal changes that you would swear was caused by water colouration but can't possibly be.  I am looking forward to getting out into the Desert and exploring those colours.

As we drove on into the UAE there was quite the build up of sand against the median dividers. And just like snow ploughs they had vacuum/sweeper trucks scooping up the sand and dumping it straight into dump trucks for disposal.  Guess this is a problem that doesn't go away at any time of the year.

Mind you we knew that we were back in Oman when the driving standard changed.  Indicate to exit the round-about then cut across two lanes of traffic to go around. Yep we were home.  The next two hundred k's were a solid re-inforcement!  We both swore "Never again" will we drive the Friday night end of weekend return to Muscat from Dubai.  That there were only two accidents and neither serious were surprises!

Exploring islands at Sawadi
Since then we bought a two person kayak, which we got to christen this weekend. Yay.

BBQ's lit, storms coming.........
 That we didn't last weekend was totally down to the weather!  As we drove home from the corner kayak store (well all 50 k's away) the sky turned grey and then black developed.  So it was off with the kayak and up on the roof to watch our biggest Omani storm yet and give the BBQ its first outing.  Hmmm poor decision that one. High winds, torrential downpour.  Water leaks in a house built for dry weather! Wet marble floors = skating rink of death. Wet marble stairs = guaranteed ouch!  Yep a week on and my bum is till sore and I have yet to replace all the damaged camera gear.

And then to make matters worse while on the roof I went to check on the outflow into the central void space.  Hmmm water building up, dust on roof gets wet = grease, one step, one fall and a broken water pipe later - which wasn't discovered until the following morning.  Lots of little men around to fix things and the hot water in our shower still doesn't do anything more than an insipid dribble.  Sigh.

So now we are up to date.  But the big news is that it is now Eid Al-Adha and the office is closed for a week.  So while Katrina writes and stresses about the School of Music and supervision of her thesis I will day trip and or study Arabic.

As some sort of Katrina de-stress we went out this afternoon and discovered that our local Souk (marketplace) was much more extensive than we had thought.  End result a good start on Christmas shopping and another place to take guests. And in the herbal medicine and perfume making supplies store we discovered that somewhere near the dried leaches were boxes of branded snake oil! Yep that's right snake oil salesmen do exist and we can now say we've met one!

But seriously this is a pretty fine Souk, so now when we want to take people for that Eastern Souk experience the Seeb one is within 5k's rather than 45.  Although it still pales in comparison to the Mattrah Souk!

After that I introduced Katrina to one of my "special" Omani "gifts" for Australians stores ( been the cause of more than one Australian bound parcel).  She loved it and together we managed to to put together a "CARE PACKAGE" that will shortly wing its way to Australia.  Brooke, Michelle and Naomi we know who you are and we have addresses........

And no Brooke the money box will be dealt with separately!

Eid Mubarak to all.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The stately pleasure domes....

In Shangri La!  That's the name of the resort we spent this last weekend at, well the Thursday afternoon til Friday lunchtime!  It was the birthday of British Rob the band instructor so a bunch of us expats headed off to Shangri La.
Ahhh Shangri La, you've done it again!

A great time was had by all, swanning around the sundeck, taking the lazy river ride from one lagoon (and pool) to another and its adjoining bar area.  Sigh the hardship, but someone had to do it!
David does the lazy river

But really I am getting ahead of myself. Since returning from Europe three weeks ago life has been busy. I had to prepare for and go through vendor negotiations. Such fun! and next week I get to front the powers that be and dicsuss the findings of the evaluation team, me and our contracted service provider.  All in all that means there will be more work in the offing.

So the long and the short of it is that the last few weeks have been a little more than busy. And Katrina has been given a 2 January submission date for the BIG T (Phd thesis). So no rest for her til January!

But in between work I bought a car! Somehow along the way I managed to discount a number of Jeeps, Citroens, Volkswagons and other cars from consideration. Settling in the end for the cheapest car I considered, a 2001 Chevrolet Blazer 4wd SUV.  It has the zr2 designation so sporty suspension, to go with the 2 doors.  It wasn't until a few days after buying it that I realised that as well as being a two door it is a four seater. That's right no middle seat in the back! And then today I discovered the cruise control, so swings and roundabouts.

But for its age it is remarkably clean and quiet with (for this region) a very good service record. But then being a Chevrolet and thus an American car, the fuel economy sucks and it doesn't handle. But with petrol 28c a litre..... On the other hand it is rather comfortable and a pukka 4wd.  Wadi bashing here we come - well after Katrina hands her thesis up!
The Chevvy
The weather here is finally starting to turn for the better. Some nights the temperature even drops below 30! and 40 during the day is becoming rarer.  Outdoor activity will become more and more possible in the coming weeks. People tell me the next five months will be fabulous with days in the mid twenties and nights around twenty with low humidity.  I could get used to that. Apparently it's called winter!

We are slowly building a social life here and the last few weekends have all included nights out involving a few different social circles.  Funnily enough the only Aussies we deal with on a regular basis are Dan and Nooshin (and now their baby Anoosha). Dan is a freelance Aussie, working on business development in the region, primarily with Australian companies.  For all of the first baby three months ago Dan is not hugely younger than us, although young enough to not remember/know Aunty Jack and the Naked Vicar Show! He does however have a complete DVD set of Kingswood Country.

Apart from our two rescued Omani cats  - Button and Bluey - mum cat out the back has gone and sprogged again. Four kittens this time two white with grey tabby patches and two white with ginger splotches, a bit like their big brother Bluey.  Thankfully a second vet has opened in Muscat (a good 20+ kilometers closer to home) and as soon as we can catch mum it's off to the vet for some tube tying.  The kittens will follow shortly after and hopefully they will stay and chase the rest of the local cats off, meaning no more breeding in our backyard!  Kittens tug Katrina's soft side - Yeah I know who'd a thunk a Ranga had a soft side!
Mine, all mine!

And then all of a sudden we are almost up to date.  Wednesday night was spent at the Police club, at one of their candlelight evenings.  I thought it was just going to be a special spread in the club restaurant, but no it was a buffet dinner in the sports field. As I'd booked a table for four we took Dan and Nooshin with us and were the only non Omani's there - well apart from some of the wait staff.  The stadium lights were set to "romance level" and tables were spread across the in-field, with 4 or 5 buffets around the perimeter.

When they called "grubs up" we all rushed and queued for the food - only to have the Maitre'D' come and tell Katrina and Nooshin that actually ladies should be queuing on the other side of the field!  So off they went. Field sides seemed to stop mattering after a little while as we all bogged in and people went searching for that dish they missed.

They also laid on live music, rather pleasant Arabic (but slightly Westernised) music and bouncy castles for the kids - of which there seemed to be a never ending supply! One of the bouncy castles was the aft end of a ship set at about 30 degrees to the ground - so everytime I looked downfield I kept imagining Leonardo Di-Caprio heading for a deserved ending! (and when did I not have my camera?)

Which now brings us to Shangri La!  A rather pleasant resort with three hotels, the Omani Heritage centre, numerous restuarants and late night Belly dancing in an area adjoining one of the many bars. Following on from pool lounging, floating around the lazy river and our first ever camel rides, a rather nice way to spend the balance of the weekend - the pictures can talk for themselves.
Camel riders extra-ordinaire
And then all too soon checkout and back to reality. The next little while will be rather busy for us both, but will hopefully have settled a bit before we welcome our first two sets of Australian visitors on the 3rd of November and then my parents for the second half of November.

Let's see what Hunts tours Oman can conjure up...............

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Home again home again.....

Yes we are home again, back in Muscat. We arrived a few days ago, getting in a couple of hours late because the pilot stalled the engine at a red light in Abu Dhabi.  And well by the time they got it restarted and checked out again landing time had slipped from 9 to 11. Making what would have been a reasonable off the plane and home to bed a rather late off to home, chill a bit and then off to bed.

It is kinda nice being home and somehow the mosque calls ringing out over the neighbourhood are a pleasant reminder that we are in fact home.

So what happened on the rest of our trip, welllllllllllllllllllllllll

Dijon, was so picturesque and we had a great time wandering up and down the banner infested street looking at all the fabulous buildings and so on.  unfortunately the museum at one end of the Ducal palace was closed for renovations. Sigh!  It must have had some good stuff in there as my experience is that if a museum is under renovation or closed when I come to town that's cos it's got the best stuff in it!  Grump.

So off we wandered down the street and bumped straight (well almost straight) into a pair of cathedrals. One of them has been disused for a couple of centuries or so and so, following some pretty severe desecration in the French Revolution.  None the less in we wandered to find a functioning art space set up around the slowly being renovated interior.  Huge industrial strength wooden beams have been set up to stop the arches falling in.  Sadly off in one corner lies the rather large remnants of a baptismal font.
Cathedral repairs under-way

From there we wandered across the street to the functioning, gargoyle clad cathedral.  Lots of late 17th century stuff in here........  Wandered around took some pictures and then Katrina got all excited, it seems that under the Cathedral is an 11th century crypt, which we could go see. How often does an Australian get to look in a crypt? let alone one this old with a genuine saints coffin included!  So down the stairs we duly clomped and around the rather atmospheric crypt we peered. All very interesting and given what is left of the original colours it must have been spectacular in its heyday.
Katrina of the Catacombs

And then all to soon the TGV train to Switzerland beckoned and we were away again, leaving the city of mustard behind.

Ahh Switzerland the home of bankers, international diplomacy, fabulous scenery and the second best chocolate in the world!

We trained it into Geneva, via Lausanne and with the help of a taxi found our way to Kiriel's landing where we gladly stopped and dragging out the tablet watched QI until Kiriel made her way home from work. This was to be home for the next week, Kiriel's pull out couch bed!
Mont Blanc takes a peek, just to be sure Geneva survived us.

There is really too much to tell about Switzerland and surrounds, well the French claim part of the shore of Lake Geneva and in these French areas the red and white Swiss flag is flown at least as proudly as the tricolour. Where did we go well Annecy is pretty spectacular, set in the Alps and as is almost every other town in the region, on a lake shore. Montreaux (on a lake shore) boasts the utterly spectacular Chateau Chillon which we spent half a day at after the GPS had us drive Kiriel's little Toyota all the way around lake Geneva.
Just one of the fireplaces, rather modestly decorated..

And then we were off to Basel for the real reason of the trip the wedding of Christoph (and Monika), who had lived in Canberra some time ago when studying at the ANU and had rented house space from..... Kiriel.  Interesting wedding, a civil ceremony in a hall above a sled and coach museum followed by a reception at a 12th century castle which overlooked the whole valley that Basel nestles into.  Mmm Mmmm Mmmmmm.
Berg Reichenstein, 12c Castle and 21st C reception venue par excellence.

As a side note apparently marriages in Switzerland are not legal unless they have had a civil ceremony, whether a church wedding is involved or not is apparently immaterial. And as another interesting side point all churches are referred to as cults! So Cafe Cult is a perfectly nice coffee shop in the grounds of a church.

But I digress, after the wedding we hotfooted it back to Geneva via a rather spectacular stronghold and medieval city, a Roman Ampitheatre and accompanying city bits and one of the most spectacular sunsets we had ever seen.  Quiet days beckoned, kind of.
Avenches amphitheater - which as you can see from the temporary seating is still used.

Monday was a relax and down time day and Tuesday we explored Geneva by bicycle. Katrina swears she is never going cycling with me ever again!  A ride around the city parts of the lake took us down to the confluence of the Rhone river (Lake Geneva outlet) and the L'Arve river which comes out of France. The Rhone is crystal clear and the L'Arve a kind of milky white. Not seen anything like that before, have a look on Google maps and you will see the difference. Unfortunately the cycle path got rather undulating on that leg and by the time we decided this is no place for bicycles, it was damned if you do and damned if you don't so we continued.  Just when Katrina thought there could be no more up, there was! I may not have helped things by reminding her that "well we were in the Alps after all!"  Even a cold beer and coffee waiting at the pub atop the climb was not enough.
The Rhone and the L'Arve meet

And that night we farewelled Kiriel as the airport beckoned at a totally unreasonable hour of the morning.....

Monday, 20 August 2012

Dijon it is

Almost a week ago we jumped on a flight out of Muscat and ended up in Amsterdam, where we had a day and a half to catch up with a colleague and have a look around the city. Well worth the time it was, quite enjoyable, although the hotel I had booked was further out of town than we would have preferred.
Amsterdam by dusk.

It was a nice little place with a tram stop almost outfront! And thankfully that line went straight to the Reiks Museum. Our first order of business was to wander around and get a feel for the place and then in the evening we went on a canal boat tour. Started in daylight and ended the tour in full dark. A great way to see the city, neither of us had realised just how much of a canal city Amsterdam is. Not as ubiquitous as Venice but still covering the whole city centre and just as important to the development and prosperity of the city.

The houses here are narrow (to do with land taxes), have wide windows and are no more than around 4 stories, as that is all the sandy soil base will support - even now with modern building tecniques. If the foundations are exposed to air the wooden beams start to rot and the building develops a lean!

From Amsterdam we trained across to Brussels. Nice to be back, as I have always liked Brussels. In between dropping through the WCO we shopped and ate. Luckily our visit co-incided with their flower festival and the Grand Place was under a carpet of flowers. And then all too soon it was farewell again to the familiar faces and places of Brussels, for tomorrow was Namur.
The Grand Place looking more speccy than usual

Namur is a little town in between Brussels and our next stop - Luxembourg. Why Namur, well it has a wonderful collection of 13th century gold and silverwork by a guy called Hugo d'Oignes and his workshop. When last I visited the collection was in the care of the nuns at a convent. Now it is in the local museum. Fabulous work, well worth the visit and this time I bought the catalog, something I always regretted after my first visit.
Namur at dawn

Since the works were created they had been on display and in use at the local Cathedral and despite numerous wars, battles and invasions the works were kept safe from the predations of Napoleon, Hitler and their ilk. That had a lot to do with the nuns and support of locals that valued what is truly wonderful workmanship and now forms a unique collection.

Katrina was also blown away by the small collection of woven and embroidered purses, dating from the 14th century.

Namur sits at the confluence of two rivers and boasts a wonderful collection of windy cobbled streets with typical Belgian houses and atmospere. For anyone who appreciates fine metal work this place is a must see - unfortunately no pictures as the museum said "non".

And then Luxembourg - by train again. Another picture postcard city. We spent an evening and a morning exploring, sticking to the heights of the old town. Luxembourg was/is a natural fortification, strengthened by centuries of digging in the sheer cliff sides. Until now there are the casement defences developed over centuries, you can see how Luxembourg became a tough nut, best left alone and bypassed! Red Squirrels!

From there Nancy beckoned. Place Stanislas is a must see - and another world heritage site. Man if it stood still it was gilded! A picture tells a thousand words -
It is stands still GILD IT!

And their museum is not alf bad either. Built on one side of Stanislas it boasts a small but nice collection of XIV to XVII paintings , the bones of the original citadel and a glass collection that is more than a bit over the top!

And now we are in Dijon, the home of mustard, Pinot Noir, the Dukes of Bourgonnia and the Owl's Trail. Which we started following today and will do more tomorrow before heading off for Geneva and a stay with Kiriel.  
Welcome to Dijon

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Mid July and things are moving

I guess calling the 26th Mid July is strictly speaking not all that accurate.

But things are moving on at work and home now only needs furniture in the spare bed room!  I have a study desk, we finally found a lounge suite - although that cost more than we really wanted to pay, but after months of looking when we found on we were both comfortable with the decision was made. And we have a day bed in Katrina's study, which folds out into a queen size bed. 

Things at work are starting to heat up - in the sense that the project I came over for should really start to hit top gear in the next couple of months.  Yay!

The walls of Sohar Fort - under re-construction as you can see.
In the mean time I have been looking at organisational arrangements and making recommendations for improvement. Hopefully some of these will be picked up and I will be able to start feeling that I am making a real difference. 

The week before last I spent up country in and around Sohar looking at operational locations, with an eye to process and looking for possible improvements. Sohar is north of Muscat in the direction of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.  

Unfortunately on the week away I didn't really get to look at much of the scenery. The days tended to be rather long with 7am starts and on one occasion a 1am finish - that was a long day. Having said that we did get a break in the afternoon that day and avoided the worst of the heat. How outside workers do it I don't know. 

We did get to have a short walk around Sohar town. This is a seaside town, not really developed at all for tourism and well on the way to becoming the industrial heart of Oman.  

According to some Sohar is one of the places that Sinbad the Sailor is reputed to have originated from. Could be the basis for some pretty good tourist attractions I would have thought. 

Exercising the Bull
Sohar also practices Omani bull fighting and has a bull ring somewhere in the town. Now don't get carried away, it's not like Spanish/Mexican bull fighting at all. Essentially two bulls are led up to each other, they lock horns and then spend about two minutes pushing each other around the ring. On a pre arranged signal the handlers grab a rope tied around the left fore foot and pull the bulls apart, ending the pushing contest.  Could be worth having a look as it would seem that little to no damage is done to the bulls. Apparently the guy "walking" his bull in the sea would have been training it for the ring.  

About a week ago the holy month of Ramadan commenced. For Muslims it is a period of fasting, prayer and giving. Fasting commences each morning at dawn (which is around 0430 here) and ends around 7pm. Fasting is complete - no water, no tobacco and definitely no food. Although there are exceptions made for the sick, elderly, young, pregnant and sports-people. Even so the Islamic Olympians will have to make up their fast when they return home after the games. 

It is illegal to eat or drink in public, including in your car and you can be fined for doing so. Most of the food outlets are closed throughout the day, opening in mid to late afternoon so that people can buy food to take home and break the fast (istfar). Some have been given dispensation to remain open to service non muslims, but these are places where people eating and drinking cannot be seen from outside. 

I have been asked at work a few times if I am fasting and the answer to that is yes during the work hours.  Although I could close my office door and eat or drink, and I am told that would be accepted, I do not think that would be fair on the people around me. And it is no great hardship in any case.  You see as they have no formal meal break in the office I have often worked through with nothing more than a drink of water and a cup of tea, and during Ramadan office hours are shortened. Work starts at 0830 (instead of 0730) and ends at 1 (instead of 2).  Although I always start earlier and end later than most, an extra hour or half hour at each end, partly because that lets me avoid traffic and not having had a desk at home, until this week............

It is pretty quiet, people wise, at work at the moment. Many people take leave through Ramadan and some have gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. This isn't the Hajj, which falls in September this year and is a holy obligation that Muslims must (if they are able) make at least once in their lifetime.

Once the office closes everyone goes home and the place pretty much shuts down as people take their rest through the heat of the afternoon. And then come dark everybody is out and about. Friends and families coming together to break the fast and continuing until well into the late late hours. Followed by bed and a really early start for that breakfast.

In about three weeks Ramadan ends and the Islamic World then moves into a celebration called Eid Al Fitr. A time of feasting and hospitality. The public sector closes down for Eid. But Katrina and I will be off to Europe for two weeks then, to go to a wedding in Switzerland and catch up with some people.

Friday, 13 July 2012

For Zanzibar food

Pretty much everyday since we moved into our house one or both of us have driven past the African food and coffee shop, for Zanzibar food. But why Zanzibar I hear you ask? Well for some centuries Oman was a maritime trading empire that included Zanzibar. For a time there were two Sultans one in Oman and the other in Africa. That all ended with an episode of fratricide and the Sultanate was re-united. There are many Omani's who can trace their ancestry and cultural heritage back to Africa. There are I understand people who live in parts of Africa that are or consider themselves to be Omani. Our suburb Al Hail North has strong ties in that direction.

Having seen how busy Zanzibar food is in the evenings we finally decided to go last night.  And boy are we glad we did, really nice and well cooked food that fed us to a standstill and cost, well not a lot! Even though the waiter talked us into some of the more expensive menu items.

Oh yum shrimp in coconut sauce a whole grilled and spicy herb encrusted fish, salad, muttabel dip, flat bread fresh from the making and a fabulous fruit cocktail. All for less than $20 Au.  We wobbled away from the table and had to go for a long beach walk afterwards.  Ahhh Mr Zanzibar food we will be back!!!!

Our Zanzibar food.

And drink

Of course we didn't help ourselves having dined at the club the night before.  I ordered an English mixed grill. No problem they said only to come back a while later and say, it's been so long since anyone ordered this that we don' have any lamb cutlets and veal kidney, do you mind if we replace the lamb with more beef and the kidney with chicken liver.  Hmm no problem said I (not really a lamb or kidney fan) so a bit of a win. Mind you I wilted when the plate arrived with more meat than a David can eat in a sitting.  But needs must.... Although the chips were left untouched.

My English mixed grill! Backed up by Katrina's Steak.
But that's enough of my most common sin - Gluttony!

All in all this last week has been pretty good.  I got lots of positive reinforcement and feel much better about life the universe and everything! So yay me, and tomorrow I head off for a week long tour of a number of the work places up towards the UAE.  Should be fun and just in time, because Ramadan is scheduled to start just after I get back. Methinks outdoor in the sun without the ability to drink may be a bit hard on this soft Westerner.

There's a certain buzz building about Ramadan.  A number of the guys have told me they look forward to it and feel better after the month of daytime fasting.  The radio has ads about Ramadan and the charities to help the needy that are a part of Ramadan.  Most of the food and drink places close during the day through Ramadan and I understand that includes malls in their entirety.  Although they will open for the evening and late into the night.

Eating and drinking in public is forbidden and transgressors can be fined.  Your motor vehicle is included as a public place.  So that is essentially anywhere where you may be seen breaking the fast between dawn and dusk.  Some food outlets are given permits to open during daylight hours through Ramadan, to service non-Muslims, but those permissions are few and far between and subject to licensing controls.

This will be an interesting experience for me, never having fasted. Not eating and drinking at work or anywhere in public through daylight hours, yet another new experience.

In the past week the weather has improved, its fallen down into the mid to low thirties and one night the high twenties.  A lovely relief which we and most of the locals grabbed with both hands. Off to the beach for walks up and down the sea shore for us. Dodging the joggers and fishing boats coming and going along the shoreline.  We walked at and in the waters edge, which also kept us clear of the numerous soccer games in progress.  The pitches had scraped out boundaries and in some cases looked to share goal mouths, so many and closely packed the games were.

Mid thirties, beach - ahhh that would mean humidity - you betcha! I tried to take some pictures of the thronging beach, but after about five minutes this was still the view through the camera lens..
Honest there is a beach, people and soccer games in there!

One of the things I find quite bizarre here is the dust haze.  It is omnipresent and means that most evenings you can look directly at the sun.  The blue sky is somewhat muted, but it also means that I don't need sunglasses very often and while you tan, sunburn is pretty hard to achieve.  So swings and roundabouts.

The sun at dusk
And this weekend we went to another museum, this time the Museum of Natural History. A very nice little museum that tells the natural history and development stages of Oman. There are a series of display rooms and display cases focusing on the geology and animal life of the country.  In a separate hall there is a sperm whale skeleton along with some dolphin and other aquatic animal bits and pieces.  We enjoyed the museum, but were bemused by the lack of people there.

In one corner there was a couple of sheets of paper showing attendance figures at the museum since its opening. I was very disappointed to see that each year since opening attendance figures have dropped.  While it is nice to have a museum almost to yourself, it is such a shame as Oman has so much to tell of its history.

A false killer whale - actually a dolphin species