Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Oh, Man, Oman, Oh Man, Oman..."

Our friend L gets ready to sing.
Owen takes a leap off the deep end at the Shangri-La Resort!

Shangri-La Beach

Laura Lee and L sea kayaking...

Grayce and L with their belly dancing scarves.

Our Omani Boys...

A Best Friend sing along!

The Shangri-La Resort "boat view"

Captain Owen

The whole gang, hot and happy after trekking and swimming at Wadi Shab
Owen and our guide in Wadi Shab

A "sink hole" where fresh and sea water meet...

Misty view of the mountains near White Sands Beach

Wadi Shab...trekking in the dry river bed

Mom and Grayce hikin' along

First pool at the Wadi Shab oasis

Real Men Eat Meat for Breakfast!

Our White Sands camp site

Mother Sea Turtle

Sunrise at White Sands Beach

Dinner! Middle Eastern Barbecue Feast at White Sands Beach

Omani boy

Beautiful ruins...the stones in this building are large pieces of coral

The Wahibah Sands

"Oh Man! Oman, Oh Man, Oman!!"
The constant refrain heard from the little people before, during and after our latest trip! Most effective when coupled with the Indian head bobble, and a hip thrust...

(the photo at the very top of L was meant to go here!)
L's brother and Owen's best pal, the incredible H

Hey! Multicultural dancing is WAY hip, ya know.

Living on the opposite side of the world makes the unreachable exotic an actual vacation destination. Take Oman, for example. Oman is a middle eastern country on the coast of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman/Persian Gulf. Ocean aside, the country is bordered by Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The predominantly Muslim country is a monarchy ruled by Sultan Quaboos bin Said Al Said who took hereditary power in 1970. Prior to his rule, Oman was a financially poor country (at least in modern times) with little modern infrastructure. Sultan Qaboos has done much to change that...dramatically and progressively improving infrastructure and educational and business opportunity, including opportunities for girls and women. One of the best things about development in Oman is that it is not overdeveloped and there are limitations on building size and type with a lean toward traditional Omani architecture...keeping Muscat (the capital) a really beautiful city. Because the Omani government welcomes foreign tourists, we also found it to be an excellent and safe place to learn more about both Omani and Muslim tradition and culture...a real blessing in a world that is all to often shaped by religious radicalism and fear.

This is certainly a hot topic but I'm not going further today...and for the record, there is much about the Islam, the Middle East and the varying countries in and around it, that I don't know. Suffice it to say that we found ourselves surrounded by warm hospitality, by people who welcomed our interest and questions, and, who were happy to see us enjoying the beauty and history of their culture.

Here's how it went:
Our wonderful friends, Dave and Laura Lee and their two children (who happen to be Grayce and Owen's homeschooling buddies and all around best friends) invited us to join them on a vacation to Oman. We hemmed, we hawed, we said, "Yes! We can!" We got up in the middle of the night and drove to the Bangalore Airport where we sadly (at least to a couple of moms but not at all to Bob) did not get to drink our Illy cafe cappucinos... Apparently there is some unwritten rule that says it is okay for a flight to be called and to leave earlier than scheduled! A revelation to travelers who are used to delays... And the kids are pretty mean! They actually laughed at us, taunting us, "no coffee for mommies! ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha," ...but please, it is the only Illy cafe I've ever seen in Bangalore, so grown mothers pouting is NOT out of the question.

Yes, I am a grown-up. Really. Unless deprived of cappucino.

ANY way...
After a 3 and a half hour flight...which was mostly empty...we arrived in Muscat, Oman around 8 am. Our two GREAT "Desert Discovery" guides, Rasheed and Massoud, met us at the airport, at the ready, with Landcruisers, lots of water, and a driving plan that included a stop at Nisswa Fort, Lunch, and Dune Bashing in the Wahibah Sands, before a final landing at our desert camp.
Rasheed begs are way into Nisswa Fort...we arrived and it was just closing for Friday prayers, but they were nice enough to let us take a quick tour!

Along the way we also had the chance to stop at a local Omani heritage home where we were treated to exhibitions of local flat bread making, coffee roasting and a sampling of Omani hospitality a la coffee (coffee with cardamom and saffron) and Dates...which are grown all over Oman and are absolutely delicious!

Dune Bashing was an eye opening experience in which one develops a true appreciation for both desert driving skills and the versatility of the Land Cruiser. Blasting up mountains of sand, perching directly sideways mid mountain, inching breathlessly down vertical dune walls...excitement, fear, the occasional prayer, laughter... Owen, unsurprisingly, loved every second of it! Grayce started out singing and raring to go and then half way through decided that maybe the whole deal was much more than she bargained for...a few tears, a couple of visits to her yoga "happy place", some hand holding, and a lot of bravery later and she declared, "I am NEVER doing this again!" What to do? Can't leave the kid in the desert! (She later told me that she thought dune bashing was just driving up and down the hills...and it was, sort of.)

I carefully asked Massoud, "Um, so, I was just wondering, not because I don't trust you or anything...just for the sake of interest...how often do you roll the vehicle?"

He answered with a laugh.

I decided not to ask any more questions! Distraction being the better plan..."Hey, kids, isn't this FUN!" And it really WAS fun...after the first 20 minutes, when you realize you are still alive and you'd better make the most of it ;-)

Since we were two families in two vehicles, it was intensely interesting to see just what the other vehicle was up to...

Bob kept asking if he could drive but we threatend to leave HIM in the desert... "No Daddy, we'll all DIE if you drive!" so sayeth Grayce.

A break at the top of the dunes produced awe and wonder...the Wahibah sands are a place of beauty and solitude...sand running on like waves of water for 200 km to the sea. All the children ran up and down the hills pretending that they were lost desert explorers while the adults cracked some beers and dug their feet in, waiting for sunset.

After some time, and a little more spent pulling one stuck vehicle out of the sand, we headed for our desert camp...dinner, sandboarding, star-gazing...and time with friends.

Our Desert Discovery Camp in the Wahibah Sands
Morining romp in the dunes..."water, water...please, water!"

Laura Lee and H relax after a satisfying climb

Day 2 brought more Dune Bashing (we were all really getting the feel for it now...even Grayce, who still wasn't sure it was the thing to do,) We visited a Bedouin camp, counted (and rode)camels and eventually left the desert to head toward our second camp site, White Sands Beach, located on the Arabian Sea.

It's a LOT harder than it looks!

Beach camping in traditional Omani tents, a carpet and pillows to relax in the sand, collecting stones, a swim in the sea, the smell of lamb kabobs and roasting fish, more stars, a little wine, exhausted sleep to the sound of surf...and then a morning surprise! We awoke in darkness. Bob stepped out of the tent and noted...."Hmmm, I don't remember that big rock." To our delight, Mother Sea Turtle had risen silently from the water while we slept, to lay her eggs. A morning blessing in front of the stone "Alter to the Goddesses" the kids had built for Laura Lee and I, (you didn't know we were goddesses? All mothers are!) as we watched them play on the beach the eve before. We gathered around her silently as she slowly covered her nest with sand and returned to the salty sea.
An auspicious start to Day 3, we packed up camp and headed towards the peace and natural wonder of the Wabi Shab...hiking the dry river bed toward an oasis of turquoise water and rock canyons unlike any other place we've ever been. All four kids did amazingly well, even on some of the steeper climbs. Upon reaching the oasis, we unloaded our packs, and dipped into the water. After some discussion with our guides, it was decided that we would attempt to swim through all three pools (with a short, bare footed rocky hike between pool 2 and 3). Owen became the guide's best friend, Bob and I took turns helping Grayce (she was unsure in the water, not happy with it's depth, afraid of the slippery rock surfaces.) Laura Lee took her her daughter, L (also a bit scared) and Dave swam with their son, H. After reaching the third pool, we swam through a tunnel into a secret cave where the sun shone down into the water from far above. It was magic! We took our time swimming, making sure of the kids (though they are all good swimmers, this was a totally new and different place to swim). Our kids are brave and strong and full of courage!
Seriously cool kiddos!

Normally, the hidden cave would be off limits to them as the entrance is usually under water...but the water was low enough for us to swim safely through with our heads above water and it was an incredible experience. Once inside the cave, our guide helped all the kids to sit upon a rock ledge, Laura Lee and I supervised and swam a bit and Bob and Dave decided to climb up the rocks and jump in from above...a little heart stopping!
Day 4, 5, and 6 consisted of swimming in the pool and sea, eating gelato, floating down the "lazy river", eating more gelato, drinking cappucino with a segue into happy hour near the beach where the kids could play and the adults could have cocktails, followed by a kid's room service dinner on our outdoor terrace, bath and bedtime (kids) and then a relaxing grown-up meal. Rinse. Repeat.
Nah...we're not THAT lazy...we also took a boat trip to look for whales and dolphins (saw hundreds of dolphins!) and went snorkeling with the sea turtles (except Owen, who got scared but now deeply regrets not getting back in the water..."Mama, I'm so mad, I didn't see nothin'!")
Laura Lee and I also had a chance to leave the kids with the Dads, (both of whom would rather eat rocks than spend the day shopping), thanks to our desert guide, Massoud, who offered to drive us about...taking a trip into Muscat, visiting the Souq and some smaller, local markets, shopping for frankincense, Omani coffee, and a fruitless search for toy traditional Omani daggers (the real ones, which are incredibly sharp, are on offer to small boys as miniature incredibly sharp daggers...which would surely delight Owen and H, but frightens us!)
All good travel ends... After all, life returns to the day-to-day, even for an expat. This vacation was especially meaningful as it was our last big trip as expats in Bangalore and a chance to spend some time with great friends who we will all miss deeply as we exit India and move along our new path. Our children have been inseparable, more like siblings, sharing time, space, toys, life in India, and lots of learning adventures...

The Fischers
in India...already missing Bangalore!

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