Monday, December 31, 2012

Two Omani Villages – Old Tanuf and Al Far

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman 077 (10)
Ruins at Old Tanuf

Our Christmas trip was the realization of a year-long goal for me. Well, actually, maybe even two goals. Ever since we arrived on the Arabian Peninsula, I’ve wanted to explore the mountains, wadis (ravines) and villages in Oman. Having spent time building trails and hiking in the Sierra Nevada, I really miss having access to mountains.

a nomad in the land of nizwa -- and my muse

The second goal was to meet someone whose Oman blog I’ve been reading. I’ve been a regular reader of catbirdinoman, an American blogger who lives in Nizwa and teaches ESL at the university there, since our first trip to Muscat last Christmas. Cathy had visited Oman’s capital city and written about it, and I stumbled across her blog while I was researching for the trip. I was intrigued because I immediately saw that she and I have a lot in common.

Over the course of a year, I read about hikes that she took and viewed her amazing photos of the villages she visited. She wrote about her sons’ visit to Oman, her work, and many other parts of her life. I kind of got to know her, although she didn’t know about me.

A few days before the trip, I emailed Cathy and introduced myself, asking if she had any recommendations, which she if course did. We agreed that it would be fun to get together for dinner and a glass or two of wine. Mark and I both began to look forward to meeting a new friend in Nizwa.

So on December 21st, Mark and I drove across the desert from Abu Dhabi to Ail Ain, the closest border crossing to the ancient city of Nizwa in the Hajar Mountains. At the first border station, the guard waved us through. The guard at the second stop took our passports and car insurance and, without looking at anything, folded the insurance paper and handed everything back. “That was nice of him,” I said. “He folded it for us.”
The third and fourth stations were empty. Mark kept saying, “I think we need to stop and get a stamp.” Instead we said, “Let’s just keep going and see what happens.” Before we knew it, we were checking into Oman and buying our temporary car insurance. We drove through the last Oman checkpoint, and we were in.

As we drove off into the mountains Mark said, “I think we really screwed up, by not checking out of the UAE. I hope they let us back in. It’s not going to be easy.”

“We can still go back and get the stamp now,” I suggested. No, he didn’t want to bother. “So, are you going to worry about it all week?” I asked. No, he promised. Well, I thought, whatever happens, it could make a good blog story.

Nizwa Oman 026
The road to Nizwa

So we continued on, and after a 3-hour drive across the slopes that drain the Hajar Mountains, we arrived and checked into the Jibreen Hotel, happy to find the excellent restaurant there still open for lunch even though it was almost 3:00 p.m. 

Jebel Shams Oman 003
Knowing we would need a powerful 4WD vehicle for any serious mountain driving, several months ago we bought the turbo Cayenne. Now, we could try it out on Oman’s steep paved roads and gravel paths. Using the Oman Off-Road guide, we picked out several routes. I was especially interested in seeing the villages that I’d read about in Cathy’s blog posts, some of which are in ruins and some still inhabited.

Our first exploration route was Wadi Tanuf, and the first stop was the ruins of Old Tanuf. These ruins are easy to get to, unlike other ruined villages that are more difficult to access, tucked away as they are in canyons. Old Tanuf was bombed by the British in the 1950’s, under the orders of then-Sultan Said bin Taymur who wanted to rout out a dissident tribe under an opposing sheikh. I found an elegantly written version of the sad story at a blog called How to Live Like an Omani Princess, and I encourage you to read it. It contains far more detail than any of the tourist guides I’ve read, and although I can’t vouch for its accuracy, it sounds like it’s written by someone who knows the true story, and it’s a good read.
Walking among the ruins, you can’t help but imagine the 1,000 pound bombs exploding.

After exploring Old Tanuf, we continued up the road. We drove past the recharge dam, which collects water after the rains to recharge wells and aquifers, and the Tanuf water bottling plant, one of the main suppliers of water throughout the country. In these mountains, water is the all-important resource, and for thousands of years the people have been collecting water and distributing it throughout the land using a falaj system, small aqueducts that snake their way along ledges and through plantations.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (40)
We were impressed with the sheer cliffs

We were heading into a steep-walled canyon, where Wadi Tanuf meets up with Wadi Qashah. You would not want to be here if there was any chance of rain. The road was getting rockier and steeper, and finally we came to a rise that took several tries to get over.

Mark was muttering that he wished we had more rugged wheels and tires – he had bought some, but it turned out that they were the wrong size – and that this would be easy if we had a Jeep. I saw that there was one hump that was hanging us up and, if we had a shovel, we could knock down the gravelly dirt. But there was really no way to do it by hand.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (10)
Candy is dandy, but ...

Finally, with me outside the vehicle directing (if you can imagine that) we managed to keep three wheels engaged and made it over the hump and on up the road to a little parking area. Immediately, three young boys appeared on the path from the village.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (11)
... cameras are really cool!

We had read in the guidebook that the local children are fond of sweets, and we came prepared. We handed them some candy, but what they were really interested in was my camera. They didn’t really want their picture taken – Omani people, who value their privacy, often will say no when you ask if you may photograph them. They wanted to take our picture.

Against my better judgment, I handed my camera to one of the bigger boys, who took a photo of Mark and me.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (12)
No, no, ok, here I come ...

But then, the smallest boy became insanely jealous, and snatched the camera away. The older boy tried to grab it back, and a fight ensued. Oh, no! My camera! “No, no, no!” I said, running toward them. What I should have said was “La la la!” I managed to get a hold of it before it landed in the dirt, but not before Little Brother snapped a photo of me hurrying toward him with a worried look on my face!

The name of their little village is Al Far. It’s so tiny, we think only four or five families could live there. As we approached, voices rang though the canyon, bouncing off of the cliffs. Even with just a few children calling, it sounded like a whole schoolyard full.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (20)
He obviously loves his kids

Up the stony path we went, right into the heart of the village. We came upon a woman and small boy, tending to their goats. I asked if I could take a photo, and to my surprise she said yes. The little boy posed with his kid goats, just like an American child would pose with a puppy.

We felt like an intruders, but the villagers smiled and pointed the way up through the village. I was surprised at how young they all were – the men were young and handsome, and the women were all pregnant.

Wadi Tanuf - Al Far (5)
Village view, Al Far

As we worked our way through the village, we came upon two men, probably in their late 20’s, who were returning from performing their ablutions at a little pool, in preparation for the sunset prayer. It was late afternoon, and the sun was disappearing behind the tall cliffs. They made their way past us, smiling and friendly, saying “Salaam alaikum,”  which means “Hello, nice meet you.”

Have I mentioned yet that they’re handsome?

Wadi Tanuf - Al Far (27)
I was happy to be safely back up on the ledge

We found ourselves at a fence surrounding a small plantation, really a grove of palm and banana trees, which the guidebook said to cross through to get to the wadi hike. The wet rocks were very slippery, but we finally climbed down the ledge, realizing afterward that we had gone the wrong way – there was no way to get to the wadi from where we were because of a dangerous dropoff.


his did not surprise me, because I had read in Cathy’s blog of similar experiences. You have to be patient and flexible in finding your way around the maze of wadis and villages. And the guidebook is too big to carry on the hike!

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (21)
Whether he was calling for dinner or prayer I do not know,
but his voice echoed beautifully across the canyon.

It was going to be dark soon anyway, and I had been thinking for quite some time that it would be bad to be somewhere in the wadi in the dark without a flashlight. We climbed out of the plantation and wound our way back through the village. We could hear parents’ calls to their children echoing throughout the canyon. At the last turn, we came to the goat pen, where they were milking.

Wadi Tanuf - Al Far (40)
Mama protects her kids

“No picture,” the husband said this time. But he offered us a drink of goat’s milk. I might have taken him up on it but before I could think, Mark said no, thank you, claiming to be allergic. As we were walking down the path to our car, an older gentleman walked past us, carrying a bottle of milk, got into a pickup truck with several people already in it, and headed down the road to town.

We couldn’t help but wonder about the lives of the Al Far villagers. They tend their goats and palms, and raise their children. They are so friendly, and they were some of the happiest looking people I have seen in a very long time.
Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (29)
Gathering water

Their village life seemed almost idyllic to me. But, in reality, it’s a camping life – poverty, by any kind of modern standard. They go to the pool to get fresh water – as we were leaving, one of the women and her husband were on their way there, carrying large water bottles. So, I wonder. Do they live there all the time? Do they have members of their extended family living in modern houses in Tanuf?

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (37)
God's Own Hills.
Something tells me these people appreciate the place.

As we left, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: the words “GOD’S OWN HILLS” were painted on a rock at the entrance to the village. I reflected on the fact that it was December 21st, the last day of the Mayan calendar, which made some people think the world would come to an end. I’d never believed it but, even so, I thought it was a good place to be when the sun set on that day.

If you’re wondering about the rest of the story about meeting Cathy, and what happened at the border, those stories are coming soon.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dispatch from Oman– Wadi Bani Habib

The abandoned village of Bani Habib is reached via a steep paved road up Jabal Al-Akhdar, the Western Hajar’s most impressive mountain. The road rises 2,000 meters in 25 kilometers, which is six times steeper than any road up the Sierras. Put another way, we climbed 6,000 feet in 15 miles, compared to climbing to the same elevation at Lake Tahoe in 90 miles.

The fun part was the descent.

There are many roads and villages up here on the Sayq Plateau. It's also a spectacular place to study geology.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 002

We walked from the car park to the abandoned village in Wadi Bani Habib. We explored for about an hour. Amazing.

Mark’s remark: “How did these people amuse themselves? No booze, no casinos, no Internet …”
Me: “They prayed. And tended their goats and pomegranates.”

The villagers have moved into more modern houses nearby, or elsewhere for employment.

We will be back in spring, inshallah, when the trees are in bloom.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Global Village, Dubai–and the Nobel Prize for Malala

Need shoes  and headdress
to complete the outfit.

Mark and I recently went to Global Village in Dubai. Global Village is a carnival-type market that is set up for a few months each year. There’s a Fun Fair section with rides including a huge Ferris Wheel – which, come to think of it, is perhaps the only American contribution. I wonder how many people know that the first Ferris Wheel was built in Carson City, just 15 miles from our house in Nevada? But I digress.

For us, what’s interesting about Global Village are the tents. Each tent represents a country, and sells goods made there. Over 25 countries are represented, coming from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe.There is also a large stage with plenty of standing room in front, where troupes put on dance performances. As soon as a performance starts, hundreds of people are drawn to watch.

Maq Crk Sharj Dubai Glob Vill 065
This woman was having a great time.

The first thing that Mark and I did while we were there was to taste a traditional Arab pancake. An Emirati gentleman standing next to me helped us out with interpretation so that we could order, because the women doing the cooking did not understand any English, nor even, really, our gestures. She was very gracious, however, when I asked if I could photograph her. I could see her smiling behind her Bedouin mask.

Maq Crk Sharj Dubai Glob Vill 088
I will not leave the Middle East for good without
a large stack of textiles.

We went into several tents: India, China, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Morocco, and Syria. The tents were packed with vendors selling clothing, textiles, handbags, foodstuffs, carvings, beads, trinkets, you name it. They all want you to come and look. And, because you are their first customer, you get a special deal!


I admit it, I came there to buy. And in the Afghanistan tent, I found what I have been looking for since I arrived in the Middle East: a traditional Arab dress for my granddaughter, Kailyn. The gold sparkles and delicate pleating were beautiful, but what sold me was the trim on the sleeves, bodice and hem – it reminded me of peacock feathers. The price, at 80 AED ($22.78) was less than I thought it would be so I didn't try to bargain him down.

The little girls wear these lovely outfits on religious and other holidays. Because Kailyn’s dress is from Afghanistan, it made me think of Malala. She is, in case you don't know, the young girl, soon to be a young woman, who was shot by the Taliban because she dared to criticize them for shutting down the girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Malala survived, hamdallah (thanks be to God), and she is recovering in a hospital in England. The Taliban has vowed to kill her and her father, who is also an activist. 

My granddaughter is lucky because she gets to go to school, she loves it, and she is thriving. But still, in this amazingly connected world we live in, there are children who do not have the opportunity to go to school.


Malala is their champion. She has raised awareness, shining the light on the fact that, yes, children WANT to go to school. They are born wanting to learn, and we must give them that opportunity. All children, throughout the world. Only when all people are educated, and can read, and write, and reason, can we hope to achieve a more peaceful Global Village.

There’s a worldwide movement to nominate Malala for the Nobel Peace Prize. So far as I know at this writing, she has been nominated by British Member of Parliament Jim Fitzpatrick and Federal Party leaders in Canada. In my opinion, Malala is worthy of the Nobel prize not just for what she has done, but for what I believe she can still accomplish in the future. She is so young and she has already done so much. We need her. We need for her to keep working. People like Malala are much too few and far between. We need to honor and support her.

Please watch this video of a song written about Malala by an American girl in Lafayette, California. SamanthaAnne is inspired by Malala and made the video to encourage people to nominate her for the Nobel prize. It’s a beautiful song, and the video is beautifully produced.

Then, if you believe Malala deserves to win the Nobel Prize, please sign the petition.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas is for the Child

I delayed posting this piece because it didn't fit with the sadness I felt. But Christmas will not wait. There are many children who are eagerly anticipating the day, so I am thinking of them now. After all, Christmas is about the birth of a child.

Germany trip 047
Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas store.
Talk about eye candy!

“The Germans invented Christmas,” my friend Sam pointed out to me when we came back to the UAE from our Germany trip. What she meant was that they invented the Christmas tree. According to German records, in 1419 a Christmas tree was decorated with apples, wafers, nuts, and gingerbread by a bakers’ guild in the southeastern town of Freiburg im Breisgau near the French and Swiss borders. Soon they were adding paper flowers, sugar canes, sausages and cheese, which they allowed the village children to swipe. After all, Christmas is for children.

aes old006_edited
Believe it or not I was once Mary
in the Christmas tableau at midnight mass.

Over the centuries, the tradition caught on and spread. By the end of the 19th century, people had become more affluent, and families began decorate their Christmas trees as an expression of their social standing. In my family, we always waited until Christmas Eve to put up the tree. It wasn’t proper to put it up sooner, while it was still Advent. We decorated the tree to celebrate Jesus’ birth, and took it down the day after the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men, or Maji, delivered their gifts. We always put an angel on top, which is a German tradition.

No photos were allowed.
This is from the website.

When we were in Germany, I paid a few euros to visit the Weihnachtsmuseum, or Christmas Museum, in the basement of the Kathe Wohlfhart store in Rothenberg. As I first stepped in, I fought a twinge of disappointment after the riot of color, twinkling lights, and heaps of decorations in the retail store upstairs. I was there to take a trip back in time to see how my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers once decorated their Christmas trees.

The museum gives you the feeling that you are at your grandma’s house. Or, maybe even more so, in her attic.The trees are the old-fashioned artificial kind, the glass ornaments are tarnished, the paper decorations are yellowed, and everything looks a little … shabby.

But that’s the charm of it. Nearly everything in the museum is from the collection of one woman, who must have lovingly packed away each piece every year. I thought of the ornaments that my sister Mary and I made with our mom when we were girls. Mom ordered kits that we chose from a catalog, and we pushed sequins and beads on pins into styrofoam balls. I packed them away carefully each year, but now the sequins are turning black, some 45 years later. They look very tired, but I still hang them. Each day, their beauty grows in my eyes until I am sad to put them away for another year.

glass santa
I will always have one of these
on my tree.

There is a lot more to the Weihnachtsmuseum than just looking at the decorated trees. Each tree has ornaments of a certain type, from a certain era or even from a geographic region. Click on these links to read the history of each type of ornament – glass, paper, cotton, pewter, and tragacanth, a type of resin. My favorite has always been the delicate glass. This Santa is just like the one I remember from my childhood – my favorite.

And speaking of Santa, I also learned that there’s a darker side to the story. When I was growing up, we were told that if we were bad, Santa would leave us no toys, and only a lump of coal in our stocking. What kind of heartless Santa would do this?

St Nick Krampus
It was not our family's culture to be scary,
so we didn't really know about Krampus.

It wasn’t actually Santa who originally doled out the coal. The story has its roots in Krampus, a furry creature from pre-Christian Germanic folklore. Krampus is a creature with cloven hooves, the horns of a goat, and a tongue like Gene Simmons, who scares and punishes bad children during December. Krampus was eventually incorporated into Christmas tradition as the counterpart to St. Nicholas the gift-giver, but because he was so evil and scary – he carried chains and whipping branches, and would sometimes even cart children away if they were naughty enough – Austrian governments eventually deemed him inappropriate.

Some Krampus traditions still remain, such as Krampus greeting cards featuring the creature menacing children or women.

Interesting Christmas traditions and decorations developed country by country and region by region, but one of the most interesting stories, to me, is Erzgebirge. When the mining industry there declined in the 16th and 17th centuries, people developed creative and resourceful ways to earn income. Men made wood carvings, and women made lace. Traders sold the goods. The Erzgebirge products feature light, probably because it was so important to the miners, who spent most of their lives in darkness. Some of their designs have become symbols of Christmas.

Germany trip 159
Even with fall decorations,
the displays evoked Christmas.

It’s Christmastime year-round in Rothenberg, where there are piles of toys and treats in every window, and every kind of ornament imaginable is on display for sale on dozens of decorated trees in the Kathe Wohlfahrt store. It was so tempting to just grab a basket and start scooping up ornaments. What I really wanted was to find that special one. But it was impossible. There was too much. So I grabbed a few delicate lace snowflakes to put on our two houseplants in Abu Dhabi. I learned, in the museum, that many of the earliest Christmas trees were shrubs like boxwood. It doesn’t have to be a cone-shaped fir.

No photos allowed in the store, either.
But the saleswoman let me sneak one in
for the record.

Yet I had to spend some money there, so rather than buy a suitcase full of ornaments, I bought some small pyramids. These are the charming revolving towers with candles around the base and blades on top, typical  of Erzgebirge. The heat from the candles creates an updraft, turning the blades and rotating the figures in the pyramid. To me, the pyramid lights are a symbol of the light of Christmas and the spirit of love, giving, and renewal that the season should bring to us, no matter what our beliefs.

Mark and I are again spending our Christmas in the land of gold, frankincense and myrrh in Oman. We’ll be exploring the mountains and historic ruins around Nizwa. For our 13th anniversary this year on Christmas Eve, we will return to As Sifa, the beach where we spent our wedding anniversary last year. And we will visit Oman’s capital, Muscat. Maybe this time, I’ll follow Arab tradition and add to my collection of gold.
We’ll be in the USA for a visit in January, to celebrate three birthdays with family – Mark’s mom Angie will be 92, my son Brian turns 30, and I will be … 56. And, we will be at our home in Nevada together for the first time in a year and a half!

Our Arabian Christmas tree.

Merry Christmas
Frohe Weihnachten (German)
Miilaad Majiid (Arabic)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sailing, Scooters, and Street Food in Phuket, Thailand

Phuket 025
Ska and water just seem to go together.

As an antidote to the high-mileage Germany trip, we planned our vacation in Thailand to be low stress, staying in one place, Phuket, with no particular agenda.

That is, no agenda other than to check out the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta sailing scene. At one time, when we first found out we were moving to the UAE, we thought it would be fun to charter a boat, get some of our USA crew to fly in and sail in the regatta. As time went on, and we did a little research, we had second thoughts. So often, what seems like a good idea when you are talking over drinks with friends seems like not such a good idea when it comes to the follow though.

Race headquarters was always quiet when we wandered through.
Race headquarters

In short, we found that the choice of racing boats available to charter was slim, and the week of sailing would be very expensive – Mark estimates about $20,000 USD when you add up hotels, food and drinks, and everything. So instead, we decided to time our Thailand vacation to coincide with the regatta so we could check it out, thinking that we might possibly end up racing if we got an offer.

Five days of racing! Six parties! That’s what some of the promotional materials said. According to the official web page, “The Phuket King's Cup Regatta is Asia's biggest and most popular regatta. Inaugurated in 1987 to celebrate the 60th birthday of His Majesty the King of Thailand, the event has been held every year since during the first week of December.”

The King and his OK Dinghy circa 1967

The royal family are long-time sailors. I read a story about a regatta in 1967, in which the King and his daughter sailed in the single-handed OK dinghy fleet. In the final race the Princess, who was behind in points for the regatta, spotted a shift and tacked, crossing ahead of the fleet. Overcoming challenging 20-knot conditions for a petite 16-year-old, she won the race and thus tied for first place with the then 40-year-old King.

“When a father and daughter finish equal first in an international yachting competition, it is history. But, when the equal winners are a King and his daughter, the Princess, it is immortal. That day, 16 December, thirty-seven years ago, has now been enshrined as Thailand's National Sports Day, in honour of the occasion.”

The people we talked to in Thailand love their King. I read a bit of history, and they have an interesting political story. Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized, thanks to a series of strong and politically astute rulers who were able to maintain the country’s autonomy during four centuries of European conquest. In 1932, a bloodless coup ended the absolute monarchy and the country became a constitutional monarchy, with a Prime Minister as the head of government and the King as head of state.

Despite the fact that Thailand provided “assistance” to Japan during WWII, it emerged as a US ally afterwards. Thailand went through years of political instability during the Cold War, as did many developing nations. They have had 17 constitutions since the first one in 1932. Recent decades have seen political upheaval as the country has struggled to establish its democratic process.

Today, Thailand is a newly industrialized country. We saw two large production facilities with names that we recognized as we passed through Phuket Town: Rolly Tasker Sailmakers, and Amway.
Phuket 008
Celebrating the King's birthday
Thai people wore yellow shirts in honor of the King’s birthday on December 5th. Aura, our concierge at the hotel, told us about the Thai colors of the day. The King’s color is yellow because he was born on Monday. We watched a news program on television showing the King greeting thousands of birthday well-wishers in Bangkok. At age 85, the King looked very frail. We wonder how much longer Thailand’s Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and Defender of all Faiths will be able to serve his people.

Sawasdee Village main pool and bar
Sawasdee Village pool
Our hotel was the Sawasdee Village, which Mark found online. Sawasdee is the word that is often said when making the traditional Thai greeting, or wai, with folded hands and bowed head.

The hotel really is a little village, very quiet and relaxing compared to out in the streets. There are two areas, the Sawadsee and the more upscale Baray Villas.

Initially, we had a room in Sawasdee, small but charming, with a large bed covered with lacy mosquito netting. Outside each room is a tiny outdoor seating area with a table and benches, next to a little stream with koi fish swimming in it. There is also a nice pool with waterfalls and a swim up bar.
Phuket 04 (126)
Baray Villa bedroom with foot spas

Curious, we asked to see the Baray Villas. Aura graciously showed us into one of the units, and we were overwhelmed.

Two spacious stories, a private jacuzzi,  and a deck that opens into the Baray Villas pool. Upstairs, a spacious bedroom twice as big as our Sawasdee room, including a sofa with his and hers foot spas.  “Maybe for your last night here?” Aura suggested.
Phuket 101
Private deck and pool access

“Only one night?” I said. “That’s not enough!”

Mark and I agreed – there was no comparison between our nice but small Sawasdee room and the Baray. We were there to relax. We arranged to move to the Baray for our last two nights.

Phuket 060
"Try to relax!"

The Sawasdee Village does have a lot of amenities, including beautiful fountains and floral decorations. My favorite thing was the two hanging chairs that looked like bird cages, strewn with pillows and just inviting you to flop down and relax with a beverage. The great thing was, we could, since we knew that we would be there all week. There was no hurry to go anywhere.

Where are all the sailors?
Where is everybody?

Finally, in the late afternoon on Saturday we walked the few minutes down to the Kata Beach Resort and Spa, regatta headquarters. We strolled the beach to the end of the little bay where we found a sign that said “Regatta Meeting Point.” This is where the sailors would line up – or “cue” – to catch a ride on a longtail boat to their moorings.

This was the racers' hangout, and the few sailors we talked to, we met here at the Ska Bar.
Ska Bar has a great view

Up a few steps perched on the rocks above was a place called Ska Bar. The real racing didn’t start until Monday, but still we thought we might meet somebody who was there for the regatta, and the Ska Bar looked like exactly the kind of place that sailors would gravitate to, with its Bob Marley reggae. So we ordered a couple of Tiger beers.

Before long, a couple of guys showed up who looked like sailors. Sure enough, they were sailing on a Beneteau from Sunsail Charters. This was their first King’s Cup Regatta – they race back home in Russia. We talked a little bit, and they left.

“Back in the day,” Mark said, “I’d have to report that. Contact with a Russian.”

Longtail boats
Longtail boats have motors on super long shafts

Being from the West Coast of the USA, Mark and I are used to sailing in big regattas. We were already starting to get the feeling that this part of the world is different. I knew from my research that there would be large dinghy fleets, including windsurfers, while the keel boat fleets were smaller.

Yet, from what I am reading, keelboat sailing and racing is building in this part of the world.

We were interested in seeing how the regatta unfolded but, in truth, we basically lost interest in finding a boat to race on. We were there to relax and soak up the local color, and since we are getting in plenty of sailing in Abu Dhabi these days, we were OK with not racing in Phuket. And, it has occurred to me, we probably would have been in a crowd that doesn't speak much English, if any. All that would be fine, if we knew the boat and crew. We are enjoying sailing with the Italians, and listening to them.

Phuket 007
Let's roll!

So, if no sailing, then what? Motor scooter, that’s what! It was as easy as walking across the street to one of the many little shops that have a few scooters for rent, handing over a passport for security, and paying 300 baht, or about $10, per day for a scooter. Which, by the way, is less than an average taxi or tuk-tuk fare. At that price, we could get one for each of us.

Kai motorcycle with Brian
My son Brian and daughter Kailyn, 6

I am adventurous, but I’m not a motorized biker. I leave that to son Brian and daughter Nicole. And soon, as I have recently seen on Facebook, my granddaughter Kailyn! Oh, boy.

One of these days I will drive a motorbike but this trip was not the time to try it. For one thing, the traffic moves on the left, not the right, side of the road. Usually. I was happy to hang onto the back of the bike behind Mark. He’s an experienced motorcycle rider, and I trust him. At least most of the time. I only had to point out a few times that he was driving on the wrong side of the road.

Phuket 010
This baby saw me taking her picture

As we rode around I was amazed to see scooters with small children being carried by their mothers, no helmets, entire families on one scooter, a pregnant expat woman with no helmet zooming up the winding road on the south end of the island, girls in Phuket Town dressed up for work sitting side-saddle daintily holding their purses. They all looked so un-terrified, not needing to hold on.

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The first thing we did was head north through Karon Beach to Patong Beach. On the flight over, we ran into my friend Jenn on the plane. She and her husband were going to Phuket for the 4-day National Day weekend, and they were staying at the Holiday Inn in Patong. Jenn is a 20-something girl from North Carolina, and she said, in her cute accent, that they were staying in Patong because “They say that’s where all the action is!”

Bang-La Road, Patong Beach
Bang-La Road in Patong Beach

Patong is bigger than Kata or Karon, but it’s organized the same way, with a grid of main roads parallel to the beach connected by side roads and walkable alleys lined with little shops. We were lured onto a colorful street, so we parked the bike and walked. Before long we realized that we were in the heart of the “she-boy” nightclub district. It was only lunchtime, so none of them were open.

I don't know what this little guy is, but I hope he's well cared for.
I felt a bit creepy doing this
We stopped in front of the Tiger club, and before I knew it a guy was in my face, shoving a little furry creature into my hands wanting to take my picture! Against my better judgment, I handed him my camera and he began snapping photos until I grabbed my camera back. He wanted 100 baht, about $3 USD. I handed it over, while Mark said “Don’t do that again!” I won’t, I won’t. It happened so fast! I hope the little guy isn't endangered, and is well cared for.

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Karon View Point looking north to Patong

After a Thai Taco lunch, we decided we’d had enough of Patong Beach and sped back through Karon and Kata, up a beautiful winding two-lane road lined with lush tropical forest to the Kata Noi Viewpoint, where we could see the Kings Cup racing. We thought it looked like very light wind, and we were right. Winds remained light all week.

Bob Marley seems to have achieved the status of a deity here.
Bob Marley lives on in our hearts

We stopped at a restaurant/bar perched on the hillside overlooking the Andaman Sea and Kata Bay. We didn’t know it at the time, but the After Beach Bar is a bit of a legend. As is Bob Marley – the people in Phuket seem to love him. I highly recommend the grilled squid.We would have stayed for the sunset, but we didn’t want to drive the motorbike in the dark.

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Umbrellas for hire

One morning we rented a couple of beach chairs under an umbrella on Kata Beach. The beach is lined with hundreds and hundred of these chairs for hire. A beach bar is always nearby, as well as little beach restaurants that serve satay, pizza, fresh fruit, whatever.

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People really let it all hang out on the beach

Very few women wear one-piece bathing suits, no matter what their age or physique. A long time ago I read something that Cindy Crawford said to the effect of, “If you want to wear a bikini, wear one. You are what you are.” Apparently a lot of other people think the same way! I was actually glad that I took the leap this year and started wearing bikinis again, for the first time since I was in my 30’s. I would have felt overdressed in a one-piece.

The beach sunsets were gorgeous.

One of our favorite things to do on the motorbike was cruise along Pak Bang Road, where a festival was set up for the King’s birthday. Vendor booths sold t-shirts and souvenirs, including little cared soaps in hand painted boxes that caught my eye. But what really amazed both Mark and me was amount and variety of street food. Fried seafood and spring rolls, chicken and shrimp satay, barbecued chicken, pork loin and pork ribs, and the most beautiful fruit. Intricately carved pineapples, beautiful pink dragon fruit, mangoes and papayas … I could go on and on. And many things that we weren’t sure quite what they were.

This Auto Bar was right around the corner from our hotel.
Mark said he's never seen a place with this many bars

And the bars! I don’t know what the liquor laws are in Thailand, if any, but it seemed that every food cart, every shop, in fact every concession had at least a few bottles, both beer and hard liquor. You could buy a drink and take it shopping with you. Our two favorites were the Auto Bar, a refitted VW van right around the corner from our hotel, and the Black Canyon Coffee Company, which had an Elvis impersonator that Mark thought was great. He insisted I pose with Elvis.

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Don't drink this! It's not whiskey!

Gasoline for motorbikes is sold by the bottle – in whiskey bottles that make it look alarmingly similar to booze. Little carts are set up in front of clothing and souvenir shops, motorbike service shops, or outside of town on a cart along the roadside – self serve, self pay.

Probably the most memorable things we did was the elephant trek. We decided to do this instead of taking a tour boat to one of the offshore islands for lunch and snorkeling. While I sort of couldn’t believe that we weren’t even getting out on a boat, our beautiful accommodations at the Baray Villas convinced us that we would be happier keeping to Plan A, which was to stay in one place. The trek was Mark’s idea as an alternative.

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According to their website, Kok Chang Safari is
rated best by Lonely Planet

We read some reviews of elephant trekking on TripAdvisor. Of course, they were mixed. Some people said don’t do it, it’s cruel to the animals. Others said the animals were well cared for, and it was a wonderful experience. We picked Kok Chang Safari.

A long time ago, I found a book in the little Richmond Yacht Club book sharing shelf called Travels on My Elephant by Mark Shand. It’s by a British traveler who I much later found out happens to be the brother of Camilla, wife of Prince Charles. Shand decided to buy an elephant, ride it across India, and sell it at the elephant market. I kept the book on board Wildcard for several months, but didn’t get far into it. When I was packing to move to the UAE, I threw it into the shipment, on a whim. When it arrived here, I read it.

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A mahout is a special kind of person.

That book taught me a lot about elephants, and I have to say it made my experience so much richer. After reading it, I understood that elephants are mischievous and playful, and that they need to have a job, be told what to do, and sometimes be disciplined. The person who rides the elephant is a mahout, and it’s a lifetime vocation beginning in childhood. They learn how to communicate with and understand the elephants.

We chose the longest trek, 50 minutes for 1000 bht, which would take us through jungle and to a viewpoint where we could see the Andaman Sea. Our mahout spoke little English, as far as we could tell. He communicated with the elephant with grunts and one syllable words, but also with us. Sometimes he let the elephant stop and graze, other times he urged her on. How old is she, I asked? 55 years. Just like me! Once I knew she was a female my age, I felt a kinship with her.
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It was muddy and slippery going downhill after a big rainstorm.

At one point, our mahout jumped off of the elephant's head, where he rode, and told me to slide forward onto her neck. He took my camera and handed me a hibiscus flower. I had read that this is a special treat for guests, but it’s also good for the elephant because it give their back a rest. I rode the rest of the way on the neck while the mahout walked, taking photos of Mark and me.

“You’re taking a lot of photos,” Mark said.
“Big tip for me!” he replied.

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To my untrained eye, the elephants appeared healthy and content. When our trek was over, our elephant got a bath, which I know they love, and then she went to the kraal, or corral, where she began happily snacking. I think she had a good time with us.

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Nice suit! Now for some shoes.

Some of our final hours were spent at the tailor’s. Honestly, I suspect that from the beginning, this was the Mark’s purpose for going to Thailand. He needed new clothes! Mark has a eye and a touch for nice fabric, and he is picky. He tried out two tailor shops in Phuket, a small one across the street from our hotel where he had one pair of pants made, and a larger one near the Kata Beach Resort, Jaspal Tailors, who have shops in all the cities in Phuket. Jaspal was where he went hog wild.

Two coats, three pairs of pants, two shirts … somebody must have been drinking. We liked the salesman, who was very attentive. We had two fittings and a final try-on, and they delivered the lot to our hotel.

But … do you notice anything in the photo? Oh, those feet.

Not only did Mark order clothing, he also got a recommendation from the tailor for a place to get shoes custom-made. He had ordered two pairs.

They drew an outline of Mark's foot in June's book.
June promised the shoes will fit.

So on the last afternoon, Mark said we needed to go to the leather place in Karon Beach. When we got there, the little lady who minds the shop said there was a problem. Mark turned to me and said, “I think she said the factory burned down last night!” Never mind, she was calling the shop’s owner to come and explain. Meanwhile, would we care for a beer, wine or perhaps liquor from the shop’s bar?

Mark got a cold beer, I got a pretty decent glass of red wine, and before long a lady zipped up on a motorbike. “I’m so glad you come!” she said. The shoes weren’t ready because she decided that her shoemaker didn’t have the skill to make the style Mark wants, so she found someone who could.

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We'll be right back!
“I ship them,” June said. But where? Shipping to UAE is expensive. We finally negotiated to have her ship them to my daughter’s house in California, much to her relief. Then, the issue of payment. Let’s just say we put our trust in June, and she and Mark zipped off on her motorbike to the ATM. When they returned, the other lady was showing me some of their special stingray leather purses, and I saw one I liked and I convinced Mark that I should have it.

It’s a beautiful purse, although I have to admit, the thought of it kept me awake all night. Buyer’s remorse is a bitch!

Our hotel was a 5-star spa, and massage places were everywhere. You might be wondering: did we get a massage or spa treatment? No. Mark is extremely ticklish and hates anything like that, and I am not a big fan of them either. That's just the way we are. But I did get my toes painted by a cute girl named Ping Pong.

Mark and I are still learning how to travel together. He likes the cities and the shopping more than I do; I prefer more physical activities and seeing nature. But we both like exploring new places and cultures, and our eating and drinking styles match. Maybe that’s what’s most important.

Here are some street scenes and other random shots.

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This was a long one … thanks for reading!