Sunday, 29 June 2014

My My it's July - Well almost

Ripening dates
So the 29th of June it is. Hard to believe the two months that have just gone by.  One in Australia and another back in Oman, since my last post with Ramadan having started today. Our third one in Oman, how time flies.

Well the Australian trip was an absolute whirlwind. A week here, a week there with a lot of driving and a lot of people. Splitting our time between Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne is going to be a fixture of our Australian sojourns now, as both Rufus and BJ live in Brisbane, our home is in Canberra and the rest of our families in and around Melbourne. Guess that's going to tie us to a lot of intra Australia commuting. Sigh. This time we hired a campervan, which was a good decision as while it was old and a bit clunky it got us safely from place to place with plenty of luggage space and on the occasion we needed it a bed for the night. AND it was cheaper than a rental car!   
Cheap and cheerful

We arrived home exactly a month ago, to an Oman where the temperature was on the rise. As we drove to the airport in Melbourne it was 14 degrees - when we left the airport in Muscat it was 45 degrees! And the temperatures have largely stayed up there since. Hot, hot, hot.

So what have we done this month? Not a lot to be honest. The first couple of weeks were spent getting back into the groove, letting the cats know we hadn't really deserted them and catching up at work. So no not a lot of out and about. Until these past two weekends that is.

Katrina storming Bid Bid Fort
Two weekends at home without going anywhere was a bit much. So on the third weekend we loaded up the 4wd and headed off for a place called Bid Bid. We were told it had a fort, the papers said it would be open and a blogg post or two said it was interesting - promising. Also only half an hour down the road. So after a quick Google Maps search the fort was located (not found said Google, but really rather obvious in the pictures!).  And then will wonders never cease the GPS said "yeah I know where that is..D'uh you don't?"

Omani Bucolic Idyll
Our drive to Bid Bid was rather uneventful. The fort was duly found and not unexpectedly closed! So we hung around the outside taking pictures of the fort and surrounding date farms and then simply drove off into the Wadi for some 4wd action before going home with a local pottery water barrel for the kitchen. It is date season here and the date palms were overburdened with fruit and really rather peaceful. The date grove was rather green and peaceful. Being towards the middle of the day it was also rather quiet, all in all very pleasant.

This weekend just gone we jumped a plane to Bahrain for the weekend, as an early birthday thing for Katrina. The original plan was to go to Dubai, but by the time I got to making the booking it was much cheaper to go to Bahrain and as we hadn't been there before it was a no brainer really.  Similar flight times.... SO Thursday night we hit the airport (Hint - Muscat airport has next to no long term parking now, luckily work is under 10 minutes walk away.) and but a matter of a few hours later we were in Bahrain, forking over a nominal sum for a visa and then off to our hotel, courtesy of their complimentary pick up. We can highly recommend the Palace Boutique Hotel in Bahrain, 20 rooms, pool, food, bar, restaurant....  But by the time we hit the hotel it was all getting a bit late so we took ourselves off to bed reasonably quickly, after a short study of the tourist maps.

Friday dawned, what else but bright, sunny and hot. Well it is officially summer after all. Breakfast was followed by more map study and the dawning realisation that we should have arranged a hire car. No problems the nice hotel people soon sorted that out and we had a Yaris for the weekend at a reasonable rate. Tally ho! And I swear I could hear the GPS calling from Muscat saying "D'uh Forgotten something?" Yes it has Bahrain maps which would have saved us a fair bit of mucking around.

Traditional Bahraini Garb

Trading Seals
As is pretty much our habit we started with the Bahrain museum. A nice, reasonable sized and very informative museum. Manama, the capital of Bahrain, has history dating back thousands of years. And the proof is there in the museum. It's a good first stop, because it tells the stories in a nice simple fashion, setting you up for the rest of Bahraini tourism, which doesn't have much in the way of informative information. Katrina was especially taken by the early (2000 odd BC) trading seals.  Interestingly the main floor of the museum has a map of Bahrain on it, which has lines running from points to various of the exhibits in the large entrance area. Really rather well done I thought.

From the museum we took off for Sheikh Khalifa's house. It's a rather large house laid out in traditional Bahraini style. A key feature of the house is the wind tower - an early form of aircon, absolutely essential in the climate. The wind tower has four air channels which allow breezes top blow into the room below, no matter the wind direction. Rather large wooden flaps can be opened or closed to allow or shut off the flow. It was stinking hot when we were there, but the gentlest of breezes coming through the wind tower made the room significantly cooler than anywhere else in the House.
Wind Tower outside
Wind Tower inside

But by then, after struggling with the back streets and the museum Katrina's knee said called time and we headed back to the Hotel and a couple of refreshing hours in the pool. Followed by a rather nice but rather expensive restaurant dinner and bed.
A thught for Sui
Some culture is universal......

Saturday dawned bright, sunny and hot. Our first outing for Saturday was the National Craft Industries center. Open 7 days from 0700!
Yippee, yeah, but no. We got there to find closed doors and the only people there were the glass workers, must be a dedicated lot. They told us that yes the website says 7 days, but they're never open Fridays and Saturdays, not even the craft shop. So we looked at the glasswork -
Bahrain Fort
which we greatly enjoyed and then took off for the Qalat al Bahrain - Bahrain Fort.

A massive pile of rock it is and that is mostly what it is. A UNESCO site under restoration and excavation since the sixties. The fort was impressive, but the museum on the beach below was even more so, especially as the temp was well above 40. The fort grew over a few millennia and was in use until the late 16c when it was abandoned and by the sixties very little was visible above the encroaching sand. That's not the case now, as we walked the 300 meters from car to fort the true scale slowly became apparent. Wandering through the ruins and the excavated and intact parts of the fort was fascinating. Unfortunately the only signage throughout the castle were for the art installations, or a simple number for the audio tour -  which you had to get from the museum on the beach below, but as we went straight to the fort..............
It used to b e a well

It was hot and getting hotter so we retreated to the museum below and inhaled water. Then we hit the museum. We had already seem similar things the previous day, but there was enough interesting differences to keep us happy and interested. More seals for Katrina, some tombs and diorama's. I was most impressed with the scale model of the smelting furnace. There was stuff and other stuff mixed in with other stuff..

The smelting furnace

From there we headed for some shopping, after all we hadn't bought any souvenirs yet. On our way to the fort Katrina had noticed a large mall at the side of the highway boasting Bahraini made arts and crafts. We wended our way through some back streets to the mall and went in to the small stalls. In the end we came out with a drink coaster that has an image of one of those seals that Katrina so admired and a painted rock that kinda looks like a camel - so it's in our camel collection now.

As we drove around Bahrain I had wondered about the police cars parked in reasonable permanently looking posts where the police always seemed to be looking away from the road as we went by. Well that's because they were. In the streets around the craft mall there was a lot of graffiti and we saw two makeshift barricades ready and waiting to be put back in place. As we drove out a little man on a motorbike drove up to one of the police points to deliver the pizza lunch!  And that was Bahrain. We will go back.

Oh got in the car this morning to be greeted with "D'uh did you miss me?" from the GPS"
Me "Shut up I know the way to work!"

And as of today it's Ramadan. The Holy month of Ramadan a month of celebration and fasting. So in the spirit of the times "Ramadan Kareem" to you all.

I do have to say to our friend Bob - get well soon, falling off motorbikes is not good for you. Stop doing it!!

Thursday, 1 May 2014

On the Commonwealth

Over the last week or so I have been reading about the Australian Government Commission of Audit and the upcoming budget, which by all accounts is reckoned to be a horror story in the making for the common man.

What I have read about the commission of audit recommendations fills me with dismay, it is a narrowly focused set of findings based on the principle that Government has no place in service provision and market forces are best. In my view this is wrong on so many levels that I don't really know where to start.

Now correct me if I am wrong in any of this. A government is elected to serve the country and the people of the country. Not just one sector but all the countries peoples.

Governments - be they state or Federal exist to govern and provide essential services that pull a community together and give a common direction. Or at least a direction that the majority can agree to.

Australia is a Commonwealth, a federation of the states and territories. They banded together to build a stronger Australia as a Nation. The concept of a federation and a commonwealth is one of common purpose and mutual assistance. States and Territories are not competitive market driven entities, and should not be forced into such a role.

Have a think about the word Commonwealth. Yes sure it means an aggregation of entities into something larger. But the origins of the word are "the common good". That's right the common good, in other words to safeguard and improve the lot of everyone, the common wealth.

I am no economist, but I can see that pushing current federally provided services out to states to run competitively  (on a business footing) does not make sense. Doing this will create winners and losers across the country for no other reason than where you live. Larger or more populous states will have the economies of scale to provide good services. Tasmania, Northern Territory, ACT and probably South Australia will be disadvantaged. And it's not as if you can walk around the corner to another "shop". You would have to move state. Sure people do that all the time, but not everyone can or wants to and for every "economic refugee" this creates the worse the lot of those remaining will be. Less people, less money, less services and thus a downward spiral.

I guess the thing that gets my goat is just how narrowly focused this commission of audit is and how one sided the proposed solutions are. An audit by a self interest group for a self interest group.

What we are seeing in Australia (and other countries) is the effect of an entrenched political class. People who view politics as a profession and an end in its own. The loyalty is to the party, not the people and the country as a whole. What matters are the deals and interest groups that provide the patronage. If you don't belong to the party or support the party then your interests don't really matter.

I don't doubt that many people enter politics out of a sense of public duty, but somewhere along the way the majority give the impression of having lost that focus.

Of course the two party preferential system doesn't really help things either. Successive legislation has entrenched the existing parties, making it difficult for other parties to gain traction. And of course when a threat to the existing order comes along the two parties close ranks to negate the "common enemy".

To jump around a bit. Over the past twenty plus years I have watched as a succession of economically driven policies have divested Australian Governments of a range of Government business enterprises and sold off public assets. I am sure there is sound economic theory behind this. But by doing so the Government's ability to affect the market place without legislation was lost, and the revenue base narrowed to simply taxation.

The same and similar economic theories have also narrowed Australia's range of economic activity. The loss of the car industry being a great example of that. Throwing up another set of disused factories in Australia's industrial wasteland. Victims of a sort of scorched earth approach.

I have to say that a community is not a corporation. Business is a part of it. But a community is and should be about people, their wants and needs and ensuring that we use and distribute our wealth equitably. By any objective measure that is not happening now.

Yes our captains of industry are doing well - for themselves. Just watch the business councils antics whenever general wage rises are proposed. Then watch their antics as they propose executive remuneration increases, that are completely out of kilter with the rest of society.

And what of the people in our society who are suited to manufacturing positions? Oh too bad they got left behind because they couldn't re-skill or weren't suited to another role. Australia used to have a well rounded economy, now? By my reckoning our economy is becoming increasingly hollow as manufacturing shuts down and service jobs are off-shored to wherever is cheapest.

Where to Australia? Is Australia may be a commonwealth, but where is the sense of Common Wealth?

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Yippee it's holidays


In two days time Katrina and I will be flying out for home and just under a month back in Australia. Really really looking forward to time in Australia. We will spend the first week in Brisbane staying with no1 son (Rufus) - mind you I will spend much of that time at a conference, where I will be a tech talk facilitator and a workshop instructor. So my time with Rufus and Brisbane people will be a bit limited.

After that we head off to Canberra where we plan to arrive on the 11th. That will let us catch up with the Beej, our house and various friends. After that we head off to Victoria doing the round trip through Wonthaggi, Melbourne and Daylesford to finally fly out of Melbourne on the 28th. It will be a whirlwind three weeks but fun nonetheless.

So looking forward to Australia.

Just how unreliable can one 4wd be?
Since March we have been rather busy and so quiet in Oman. The 4wd has been off the road as much as on. A succession of sensors and diodes have died, usually at inopportune times. Last weekend we set off for a last quick spin up a wadi before leave. Within 2kms of the exit the crankshaft sensor died - so no spark, no go. Luckily I was able to coax the car to a tree where we sat out around four hours while our rescue was arranged - thanks to Herman and Jane and Robbie and Lucy.  Mind you a two hour outing became a full day and so now we are behind on our packing and so on.......
But as ever those views!!!

Summer is fast approaching and as a precaution I had most of the rooftop plants moved down and under the shade trees. Pretty soon the roof will become too hot to be relaxing. Unfortunate that.  But we have been lucky this winter with the temperatures staying down longer and more rain than usual. Far more rain than usual.......

The guys tell me that the last few years in Oman have been brilliant, with much more rain than they have seen  before. And boy is rain celebrated here, unfortunately sometimes with tragic consequences. You see drains have not been a part of urban planning and when it rains people come out to watch the wadi's in full spate and people get caught crossing in their cars or playing too far out into the water.

So while an upside is more rain, the downside is the deaths.
About to get it on

And the winner is - the Brown bull.
On a cultural front the only thing of not we did was going to the traditional bull fights. Interesting it was. Clearly a community based activity with a concrete bull ring and a hundred plus bulls in attendance. Apparently on the day of the fights owners bring the bulls in and tether them around the ring. Then they go into the middle and arrange the matches between each other.

I'm a comin to get Ya! - but when he got there he declined the bout!
So many bulls in one place - what a racket. The young ones are up and calling their challenges, while here and there an older bull sits and watches, as if knowing that saving their energy for the coming contest is the sensible idea - yawn.

So what is Omani  bull fighting. Well the bulls are pretty much matched for size. When their turn comes they are led into the ring and face up to their opponent. They are brought together and locking horns the contest begins. The two bulls push and shove each other around until either one is driven backwards and beaten, or time is up and an end to the contest is called, at which point their handlers pull a rope attached to their front leg forcing the bulls to separate.

Run and hide, run, run
And on occasion a bull breaks loose, or two bulls agree they've had enough and take off, scattering the spectators, as the handlers/owners desperately rush after them trying to bring them back under control. At one point two bulls took off together and made it all the way out into the car park. As soon as it was safe all spectators were back in the ring sitting down and waiting for the next match. But shush, please don't tell the occ' health and safety guys!

All in all the bulls seemed to enjoy their bouts and we saw no sign of any injuries. So while it was fun, interesting and a cultural thing, not sure that we will go again.

Cheers, bags mostly packed, an early night tonight and tomorrow night then off to the airport and Aus............

See ya

Friday, 7 March 2014

Checking in from Oman

Well it seems like only a few days have passed, but in reality it is now March. Where did the time go?

So what has been happening you may well ask. We took the opportunity, in showing guests around, to visit old favourites and new places as well. I have now lost count of the number of times Wadi Fanja has been conquered by the Chevy and we have now been clued in to some desert dunes around an hour from home, rather than the 2 and a half for the big desert. All good for showing people around and giving them a bit of most things Oman has to offer.

Traditional boat building in Sur

Coffee at the Festival
And of course the Muscat Festival was on through much of February so, just the thing for guests. Think I went four times this year? just to show guests around and give them an opportunity to sample a wider range of crafts and traditions of Oman. Michelle and Kazzia both went home with a wonderful BBQ basting paste and an Omani Marsala spice mix. Mind you the Marsala mix being presented in spice layers, rather than mixed may make it a little tempting to just put away and bring out to tease guests.
"Xander" Meet beach!

Until a couple of weeks ago we had a constant flow of guests. That's now come to an end for this season and we are not expecting any more house guests for some months. In all we had visits from Katrina's sister Liz, our son Robert (BJ), Robin and Jeremy (who I missed, being away with work), Michelle and finally Kazzia and 10month old Alexander, and not to forget a work visit from SP (at the WCO). So our spare room now goes back to its normal unoccupied state.

For me after the Christmas/New Year break to Jordan it has been back to the grindstone, leaving Katrina to play mine host. From all reports everyone had a fun time in Oman. At this time of year it is rather idyllic, mid winter with overnight lows in the high teens and days low twenties has been just fabulous. But we know summer is fast coming and the 40++ days that entails.
Dancing at the Muscat Festival

Highlights of the past few months include the traditional boat yard in Sur (250k's away) that was fun clambering around the boats under construction. If I was more of a woodworker or a seaman at all it would have been "outstanding"! (if anyone wants pictures........... just ask)
The coast from up high

Vultures soar above the Hajar Mountains

Bahla Fort
We crossed the Hajar mountains a couple of times, got reacquainted with Nakhal Fort and got to see Bahla Fort (well more castle in both cases). Nakhal is rather quite nice and the rooms are laid out with some furnishings. Bahla on the other hand could do with some decoration, it is huge, still not finished and it would be interesting to know what parts date to which era's, as it was clearly built and added to over centuries. It justifiably wears a World Heritage plaque, but unfortunately that seems to be almost the only descriptive plaque in the castle at large.

As we get out and about more and more we are regularly seeing abandoned and decaying strongholds, houses and in some cases villages. When we have the time, we stop and have a look around as these can be fascinating places. But it would be nice to see more evidence of these historical/legacy places being shown more care and attention before they degrade completely.That's not to say there aren't significant places under preservation already.
Abandoned Village

One of the constant frustrations in Oman is the lack of decent tourist information. There is a lot to see and do here, but very little accessible information about just what is available and when it is open. There is also a lack of descriptive information once you are somewhere. One of the few exceptions to this is the Bait Al Zubhair Museum, which we take most of our guests to. There would be a good living here for someone that could come in and deal with this........

Sheesh a Smurf!
Our efforts in starting Brooke P's money box collection around 18 months ago have borne fruit, in that she now has more than 60 of them, so if anyone wants to please feel free to add to her (in)voluntary collection. I am sure that Ms Brooke will be most "appreciative" of your efforts on her behalf. We have a few here waiting postage..... The reason for bringing this up is that Michelle's visit coincided with a Smurf infestation of our house. Coincidence - I THINK NOT! But we did detect Brooke's "subtle" hand in this. (Katrina loathes Smurf's with a passion). As Smurfs are found a pogrom is enacted and, well, incidents happen. Anyone who has seen my recent facebook posts will have been witness to how we deal with Smurfs! Although we have since had regular Smurf sightings while out and about, including a recent Sheesha smoking Smurf - what next intravenous drug use Smurf????

Anyway to finish off, last weekend we went to Doha, Qatar simply to see what's there. The answer is a kind of miniature Dubai, but on a human scale, with the "Dubai" quarter confined to a relatively small part of the city. And at least in Doha the landmark/signature sky scrapers all seem to be reasonably original in concept.

We flew in to Doha late Thursday night and back to Muscat on the Saturday evening. Would have been a great weekend away, but for a bug/virus that struck on Saturday. Sigh spent the entirety of Saturday asleep in bed or shuttling to and from the little room. Fun for no-one! It wasn't until quite close to flight time that we were sure I was well enough to travel home - thankfully only an hour and a half flight.

So what's in Doha - well apart from the ubiquitous malls, the Museum of Islamic art and Souq Waqif are the two things we got to see. The souq is fun and quite different to Muttrah Souq here. This one is largely recently built, but in "traditional style". In consequence there is room to move around it is well laid out and includes a restaurant strip, making it quite a vibrant place and experience.
Indian wool carpet 16c
Quite a lot of thought has been put into this and it fits in well with the corniche area that includes the aforesaid museum, the (mostly tourism) Dhow harbour and public park areas. All in all a really nice use of the bay area.

11c Spanish ivory pen box detail
Illuminated Quran 13c Baghdad

The museum of Islamic Art was simply fabulous. We have to go back because we saw less than a quarter of the main collection. Sigh  What we saw was simply wonderful. Well laid out in display cases and in many instances viewable through 360 degrees. Carpets, architectural pieces, homewares and the list goes on...... So of course a picture or two is in order.

And finally our garden is now in full bloom, wonderful stuff, I'm off to smell the flowers.

Flowering succulent