Oman – my next destination

In 10 days time, I’m finally off to my often postponed trip to Oman. I guess, every traveler has a favorite part of the world which they will visit again and again. For me, it’s the Middle East. I like the heat, I like the desert, I like the many, many ancient sites, I like the culture, I like the food, I even like the sound of the Arabic language, although my mastery of it extends to about 5 words. I can read the alphabet but it doesn’t do me much good if I don’t have a clue what the words mean. No problem, I sail through smoothly with English and/or French.

So far, I have been to the Lebanon, Jordan, Sharjah and Dubai. I had made plans to visit Syria which, sadly,  is no-go as are my other dream destinations: Libya and Mali. Although it’s not the Middle East, I’m an avid visitor to Morocco  too. I have lost count of the times I visited, particularly when I was living in the South of Spain and hopping across to Casablanca all the time. Or to Ceuta for a  whiff of the exotic.

Pidgeon Rock/ Beirut

 

Petra/Jordan

 

Soukhs/ Sharja

 

Sunset in Dubai

Now it’s Oman with a short stop over in Bahrain. Apart from taking me back to my favorite part of the world, this trip is also a rarity for me, because, for once, I’m not traveling on my own. My dear friend Wendy is coming with me. Like me she will do anything,  go anywhere, try any food and poke her nose into every secret corner. We had a smashing time together in Morocco, the only other occasion when I was traveling in company.

Wendy cooling off in Marrakesh

Wendy has a little foible though which makes me laugh: being British she just LOVES animals. In Morocco she couldn’t pass any stray cat, dog or donkey without talking to it, stroking it or throwing it a morsel. She even fed a Polo mint to a donkey in Marrakesh. What did the ungrateful animal do? Spit it out, it didn’t want to have fresh breath!!

The donkey which didn’t like fresh breath

This habit however makes for very slow progress when you go exploring on foot. This time she is only allowed to pay attention to every third donkey and leave the dogs and cats alone. Do they have donkeys in Oman? Maybe I get lucky and they don’t. They do have fabulous horses though.

Nobody in their right mind goes to Oman in August because it’s the hottest months. Temperatures are well into the 100s and it doesn’t cool down much at night. But, like me, Wendy thrives on heat. When it’s cold, we just want to shrivel up and hibernate until the warm weather rolls around again. Inside there is plenty of AC, so we will be fine. And, of course, there is the big advantage of low prices. My  return flight from Istanbul costs all of $400. We have parked ourselves in the fabulous 5 star Crowne Plaza Hotel with private beach and all other luxuries for approx. $130 per night per person.

Crowne Plaza Hotel Muscat

You may think that this is rather stiff, but in full season it would cost twice as much. I have  also often found that people are under the misapprehension that Middle East equals cheap. Not so. You can eat cheaply if you are not afraid to venture into holes in the walls (we both just love to do that), get around by taxi if you bargain fiercely in advance, but otherwise it’s not what you would call a budget destination. We could have saved a few bucks by sharing a room, but some off time and privacy makes for a much more enjoyable trip if you travel in company. So, it’s well worth the additional money.

Oman is a much more traditional country than say Dubai and on top of it, it’s Ramadan. So, we are faced with a fashion challenge because, outside, we have to cover our arms, legs and head. Instead of seeing it as an inconvenience, I love the idea of putting light but cover all outfits together. And so does Wendy.

It is another misapprehension which I have encountered often: people think they will stay cooler if they wear as little clothes as possible. Again, not so: Wide, long sleeves and trousers, flowing long dresses or skirts allow what little air there is to circulate and prevent the sun from burning your skin. On top of it, you always look good and elegant, whereas halter tops and short  shorts don’t do anything for anyone over 25.

I haven’t told you much about Oman itself,  that is reserved for my upcoming stories once we are in situ. Our base is the capital Muscat with many excursions planned from there, among them to fly to Salalah in the south and to visit Sohar and Nizwa a bit closer to Muscat. The sound of the names alone makes me already dream.

Nizwa Castle/Oman

 

 

 

 

An eerie experience in Sharjah/UAE

Dubai’s ‘little sister’, the Emirate of Sharjah is a far cry from the glamour and ostentation next door. It takes only a short bus ride to get from one to the other, there is no border at all, but the contrast is striking. The people of Sharjah have oil wealth too, they drive their share of Ferraris, have their splendid buildings and 5 star hotels, but you only need to lightly scratch the surface to discover that they are deeply rooted in their Islamic world and traditions.  The trappings are only on the outside, underneath they remain in the spirit of the desert Bedouins they once were.

Which, among other things,  means that  Friday prayers and Friday rest are adhered to. And this leads to the subject of this post. It was Friday afternoon, I had just arrived in Sharjah to visit a friend and she took me walk about to get a first impression. We meandered along the waterfront and then turned towards the Old City and the massive, wall enclosed Medina which also contains the souk. The sun was starting to set and a rather magical twilight brought the structures out in stark relief.

I’m sure that, like me, you instantly associate the words ‘soukh’ or ‘bazaar’ with life, noise and the hustle and bustle of commerce. Wares spill out of the stalls and shops into the alleys, traders praise their merchandise and jump out towards prospective customers, crowds mill around and the smells of sizzling food compete with the scents of spices and perfume. Enter the eerie experience of a big soukh on a Friday evening!

The  gates  were open, but the only living soul around was a lonely watchmen, lazily stretched out on a bench, half asleep. He opened one eyes as we approached and paid us no further attention. The alleys were abandoned, the shops closed and shuttered, a dim light here and there cast shadows out of which peeked the odd object which had been left outside. The only sound was the echo of our footsteps thrown back from the cobble stoned alleyways. Not even a stray cat or dog were in sight.

It was so weird, we even spoke to each other in whispers. But it was also very romantic and quite poetic  and certainly a bazaar experience of a very different kind. Not everybody has the chance to visit an empty bazaar. If you have, don’t miss it.

 

A few things left outside

 

Dubai

Lifiting the veil in Sharjah’s Ladies’ Club

Lifting the veil in Sharjah’s  Ladies‘ Club

When I was living in Beirut I took advantage of the proximity of other Arab countries to go for short visits to places I had never been before. One of them was a 4 day trip to the tiny Emirate of Sharjah, right next door to Dubai.

Sharjah's kasbah at night

Entertainment for young and old

Water displays and fountains

Sharjah is much more traditional and conservative than her more glamorous sister Dubai, which means that virtually all Muslim  ladies won’t  leave the house without being covered from head to toe, often even wearing face masks. Living part of the year in Turkey, I’m used to long skirts, sleeves and headscarves but in   the other countries I have visited, like Lebanon, Morocco and Jordan , women wear European outfits as often as traditional ones. Sharjah was my first experience in that respect and, of course, I was curious to find out what was behind the veil.

My stay was too short to get to know any local ladies and maybe be  invited to their homes, so I was delighted when I walked along the waterfront in Sharjah and happened upon a palatial building, surrounded by beautiful gardens, a high wall, a wrought iron gate  and with a small golden plaque saying : Sharjah Ladies Club.

Beach in Sharjah

Building and gate similar to the Ladies' Club

This, I thought, would be my opportunity to look behind the scenes, provided they would let me in. The guard (female and armed) let me pass without a problem and I entered a huge marble lobby with white leather couches, an abundance of flowers and potted palms and a reception desk with two ladies behind it.

On my way I had already noticed several signs which read: no men allowed in several languages.

I explained who I was and asked if foreigners could spend a day in the Club. “Of course,” one of the ladies replied. “We have many foreign members and you can have a day pass, weekly, monthly or yearly membership. Where is your maid?” Gulp!! Now I understood why the guard at the gate had looked at me a tiny bit condescending. Not only had I arrived without a maid in tow, but also on foot.

This was not  a place for the poor. Further proof were the membership fees, all of which included a line saying that maids ‘only’ cost an additional 25%. Children were allowed, but boys only up to the age of 10. I quickly explained that I had no maid, was only a tourist but might stay for longer and would be pleased if I could have a preliminary visit to the club. Which was no problem at all, the two ladies could not have been friendlier and on top of it, spoke fluent English and French.

And my tour began with some surprises in store. First I asked what, if any, sport and exercise activities the club had to offer, because frankly, I was curious to see if the ladies of Sharjah only used the club for socializing and swimming in the sea in bathing suits or for something else. The list with exercises and classes which was handed to me was an arm long!

Swimming (pool, sea and lessons), tennis, yoga, aerobics, ballet, classic dance and… shooting. ‘Oh yes, we have a shooting range on the premises, it’s very popular’. That was surprise #1. I would never have imagined the ladies of Sharjah as gun touting snipers.

Next came the spa and beauty salon. Being a glamour granny I’m interested in fashion, cosmetics and beauty treatments and I’m no slouch when it comes to luxury in that department, but what I saw here left even me open mouthed.

Surprise #2 was to see that many of the ladies who sat in the hair dressers had their hair dyed blonde. Not only that, but I also discovered more than a few streaks of blue and green. None of them had short hair though.

The rooms offering beauty treatments from full waxing to mud packs to facials to eye brow shaping were appointed  with the latest equipment and the most expensive cosmetics. I mean, crème de la mer  isn’t easy to come by, not to mention hideously expensive, but here they had the full range as well as products with caviar extract and tiny gold particles which littered the shelves like toothpaste in Wal-Mart.  All you needed was a platinum credit card and you were all set.

Adjacent to the indoor swimming pool was a café where members sat, chatting or eating whilst the aforementioned maids looked after the kids. Others, obviously business women, were sitting with iphones  glued to their ear, typing away at their state of the art laptops.

Last stop was the beach with more members happily hitting the waves in the latest fashion swim wear.

The entire visit was a revelation to me. The ladies may look demure on the outside as demanded by their faith, but underneath they are no different from you and me and they are well ahead when it comes to taking care of themselves.

The world’s weirdest gym?

If a glamour granny wants to keep fit and healthy in order to continue her world travel, she has no choice but to make an effort and diet and exercise. From the tone of this first sentence you may, correctly, deduct, that it was written accompanied by a deep sigh. Whereas I have no problem with dieting, exercise is quite a different matter.

I don’t like exercise per se, because, frankly, it bores me to tears. I do like exercise that’s disguised as something else, for instance walking briskly for long stretches as that activity allowes me to see things and discover unexpected sights. Without noticing, I have covered miles and miles and my stamina and leg muscles are grateful.

Then of course, there is swimming. I love the water and whilst I do my lengths, my mind drifts. Some of my best stories have been concocted in the pool or the ocean. You might argue that I could do that in a gym too. But, for me, there are a lot of drawbacks. It’s a noisy place and short of plugging music into my ears, I find all the whirring and grunting, the thumbs and cranks distracting. I don’t like the AC either and neither am I particularly fond of the smells.

Worst of all is that I have difficulties working out the machines. Once upon a time a treadmill was a treadmill with just a button to adjust the speed and so was a stationary bike. I could just about master these. But, alas, not any more. Every time I finally get into my gym clothes (oh yes, I do own these, just in case), and enter a gym with the best intentions, I’m confronted with things that look like an aircraft cockpit.

Everybody around me looks so confident, they just push and switch and adjust and there is the poor stupid glamour granny standing helplessly and too embarrassed to ask. Result: I grab a few weights, lift them listlessly and am out of there in search of a pool.

No, definitely, modern day gyms and I are not the closest of friends. Now, you will understand my delight and curiosity when I recently visited Sharjah, a tiny emirate more or less next door to Dubai. I was exploring the beach and came upon a rather up scale hotel  with plenty of pools, lush gardens and a sign which read : Beach Gym. That caught my attention, because my first thought was that it was highly unlikely that sophisticated  machines would be plunked own in the hot desert sand. I really didn’t know what to expect, so I followed the sign and came upon what must be the world’s weirdest gym.

The hotel's garden where the adventure began

Welcome to the beach gym in Sharjah

Now what?

Can you blame me that I opted for the bar instead?

At first sight, I didn’t even know what I was looking at. All I saw was a ramshackle assembly of wood…wooden bars and tables, something that looked like a ladder and quite a bit of rope dangling from rusty hooks. Not a soul in sight either who was doing anything with these strange gadgets which would have enlightened me as to their function.

But, help was at hand and I burst out laughing. In front of each of the ‘machines’ was a drawing of some stick men showing what you were supposed to do. I found that hilarious. However, the tables and bars looked so fragile and covered with dust that I doubt anybody has followed the sign instructions in a long time. I didn’t attempt to exercise either, in case something collapsed on me, but I was comforted to see, that in the days of sophisticated gym machinery, there were still some places in this world where you could exercise by dangling from a tree so to speak.

Have you ever seen or used a ‘beach gym’ of this kind?

The magic world of Sharjah

In case you wonder: Sharjah is a small emirate close to its much better known sister Dubai. Never heard of it? Neither did I, until a writer friend of mine decided to spend some time there and invited me over from Beirut for a weekend. After only one night I have already fallen under Sharjah’s spell.

It all started with a certain spirituality and much food for thought. I flew with Air Arabia, a relatively new low cost airline which had the great advantage of a direct 3 hour flight and a really affordable ticket. We boarded, settled down, started to taxi and before the usual safety instructions came over the speakers, there was a pause and then the pilot announced that we would start out journey with a prayer. And that was exactly what followed.

I was sitting in an aisle seat and next to me, by the window, sat a Lebanese gentleman  whose fingers never ceased to glide through the beads of his rosary and caressing the cross. His  lips never stopped murmuring . On my left, across the aisle, sat another gentleman, clearly a Muslim, holding HIS  beads and doing exactly the same as my neighbor to the right. I’m sure you can see why this situation was thought provoking.

Whether it was the prayers or the pilot’s skill or both..we arrived safe and sound. The Arabian Sea, the desert and ruler straight roads appeared  below the wings as we came in for landing. Sharjah has a small easy to negotiate airport and I whizzed through immigration warmly welcomed by the official.

Once outside I found a taxi, driven by a lady, extremely smartly turned out in a sky blue uniform with a white veil and wearing white gloves. That came as quite a surprise. I didn’t really expect a female taxi driver in the Emirates, but, as she pointed out to me with a sweet smile: “My male colleagues still stare at me all the time, they aren’t used to seeing a woman drive a taxi”. But drive she did, like the devil and with a lot of stories along the way.

I am staying in the same apartment building where my friend has settled for the time being. It was evening and a Friday, therefore very quiet and many shops closed. This area of Sharjah is mostly populated by a vast Indian and Pakistani community, so I saw more saris than Arab garb. Interesting.

First order of the day, or rather the evening was to get some food into our stomach. We found a little restaurant with outdoors tables and ordered what thye called an Arabic platter for two. The dish turned out to be one of the best rice, meat, chicken, salad combos I have ever tasted. There was so much, it could  easily have fed three and all for about $12.

Arabic platter for two

Fortified and with night falling, we made our way along the Corniche which borders the Sharjah creek to the old souk. And that’s where the real magic started. Massive, centuries old stone walls encircle the area and heavy, carved wooden doors mark the entrance to the shops.

Outer walls of the Old Soukh

Soukh alley on a Friday

As I said, this was Friday and what we experienced was a normally thriving and bustling market place…. nearly  empty and abandoned. Our footsteps resounded on the marble  floors echoing off the thick walls as we walked along the tiny alleys, only watched over by a lonely guard perched on his stool with his eyes half closed. A very few shops were open and displayed enticing merchandise, among them  ancient musical instruments.

Ancient musical instruments

The entire atmosphere  was unreal and eerie, to the extend that we, involuntarily, started to whisper. Then we broke out laughing: ‘Can you imagine this? We are whispering in a souk!!!”.

A half moon, lying on its back added to the  dreamlike scenario, making my first night in Sharjah an unforgettable experience.

Now, I’m going to look at it by daylight to find out if the magic continues.