Monday, January 14, 2013

Why Do Ladies Cover?

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Wadha and me, in her home

The following is my own personal take on and understanding of the subject of women “covering” in the Middle East, based on observations, discussions, and reading. I am in no way presenting myself as a expert. I’m just reporting on what I have seen and heard since I began living here some 15 months ago.
The concept of covering is anathema to Westerners. Without meaning any disrespect, I must admit that to us, the Arab women gliding around dressed in black abayas with shaylas covering their hair and sometimes their faces remind us of certain symbols in our own culture – Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past or, perhaps, the Grim Reaper. Add to that the idea we have that it’s a way for men to repress and control women.

During my time in the Middle East, I have met and talked with a number of Muslim women, and the subject always comes up. Why do women cover? The answer always boils down to the same thing: personal choice. Usually. Sometimes, they always admit, the decision is influenced by pressure from one or more males in the family.

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Irrepressible young Emiratis

As I understand it, after the death of his first wife,The Prophet Mohammed took many wives from many tribes, and bade them to cover for their own protection against enemies. That’s how the practice got started, and after The Prophet’s death, it spread. Over the centuries its meaning has shifted, as is the case with cultural and religious practices throughout human history. Recently it’s been taken and used by extremists so that now, for Westerners, it represents repression.

I’d like to share conversations with two women who cover and have helped me understand it a little better. The first is a woman I met as a sub at the American school. She’s Emirati, 35 years old, and a widow with five children, ages 20 to about five. She’s a student at the women’s college at Zayed University, studying to become a social worker in the schools, which is what we might think of as a school counselor. Her name is Wadha. I won’t identify her any more than that, because I want to respect her privacy. Maybe after I get to know her better, I’ll write a story about her, inshallah.

Wadha is the embodiment of what I have come to think of as an Emirati lady – and by the way, the Arab men refer to them as “ladies,” not “women.” She is soft spoken and demure, gracious and graceful, and welcomes my friendship. When I met her in the hallway at school, she was wearing her black abaya and shayla, with her face covered with the niqab, as you see in the photograph above, which she removed once she was inside the classroom when there were just women or children present. However, whenever she ventured out of the classroom she put the niqab back on.

Wadha told me that, when she was observing in a classroom with a male teacher and wearing her niqab, the students who didn’t know her made fun. Many expats in Abu Dhabi, such as the parents and children in the American school, often don’t have much, if any, contact with Emiratis. So there is a cultural divide.

Wadha’s brother was sitting with us as she told me the story about the children laughing at her. He spoke up and said, “I told her not to wear it, just take it off, but she wouldn’t do it.” This surprised me, because I had heard that sometimes it’s the husbands or brothers who insist that their sisters cover. But this obviously isn’t the case with Wadha. So that leaves only one other reason for her to cover. It’s her culture, her custom, how she was raised and what she is comfortable with.That’s it. Nobody is forcing her. She would feel as uncomfortable going out uncovered as I would if I were going out in skimpy or overly tight clothing.

Not all women wear a niqab, which is the black face covering with an opening to see through. Some ladies find it more convenient to just drape their sheer shayla over their face when in public, and other ladies don’t cover their faces at all.

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The birqa is a symbol of beauty

Wadha told me a story about how she began to wear the niqab. One time, she was out shopping with her family and had thrown her sheer shayla over her face to temporarily cover. She spoke to a strange man about the shopping, thinking he was her husband, and was humiliated when she discovered her mistake. From then on, she has worn the niqab, with its eye opening, which is easier to see through. The other option is the burqa, which is the metal or leather mask worn mostly by older women. Wadha told me that the burqa is a symbol of beauty, and older women like to wear it because it covers bad teeth or aged skin. Before you judge, compare this to Western vanity – our anti-aging beauty treatments include Botox injections and surgery, the effects of which sometimes resemble a mask! Wadha doesn’t like to wear the birqa because it’s not comfortable – to hot and sweaty.

(The burqa is not to be confused with the burka that women in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan wear, which drapes from the head to the feet with only a small space directly in front of the eyes to see through.)

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Cindy and me at the Emirates Palace Theater

My friend Cindy is American, and has been married to an Emirati for 30 years. Cindy is a Muslim, having converted about a year after she and Mohammed married. Cindy wears the abaya in public, and she covers her hair with a shayla but she never covers her face. Not all ladies cover their hair completely these days but Cindy does, even though she is sometimes asked why. She’s been told by other Arab ladies that it’s “the old way.”

To Cindy, wearing the shayla or hijab to cover her hair is a symbol of her Islamic faith and her solidarity with her husband. “I don’t do anything halfway,” she told me. “I don’t understand these girls who only cover their hair partway. You either do it the way or not at all. Why don’t they just take it off, then?” And she also said, “I kind of like it that Mohammed is the only (man) who gets to see my hair. And, you know,” she said happily, “I think it’s as soft as it is because it’s been protected for all these years.”

So there you have it. I have seen their world through their eyes, and I understand. Not that I have any inclination to cover myself. I am thoroughly Western. In fact, Wadha’s story of the encounter at the store reminded me that the exact thing happened to me just a couple of weeks ago, just because I was not paying attention. “Oops,” I apologized to the man. “Sorry, I thought you were my husband!” A little internal cringe, and it was over.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Oman’s Coast–Yiti, As Sifa, and Bandar Khiran

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The Samman beach restaurant, sunset

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the Hajar Mountains, but coming to the beach eased the pain. We were returning to the scene where we spent our 12th wedding anniversary last year, the Sifawy Hotel at As Sifa, on a section of Oman’s coast just south of Muscat.

Last year when we stayed there the Sifawy had just opened, there were very few guests, and we were upgraded to a deluxe suite with a balcony. On the downside, when we got there they didn’t have their alcohol license yet – at least not until the next day, which was Christmas Eve and our anniversary. Suddenly they had acquired the license and we could order a bottle of wine with dinner.
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Sunrise, view from our room
I can now report that the place has been discovered, and there were plenty of guests relaxing poolside during the day. We didn’t get the upgrade, but we had a nice room on the pool deck with a little outdoor patio which was the only place where the Internet worked. This time they brought a complimentary bottle of wine to us right after we checked in. The breakfast buffet was great, with a traditional Arab spread of dips, olives, tomatoes, and other veggies, European style sliced meats, smoked salmon, and a selection of cheeses, an egg station where they cook you an omelet or eggs any way, Arab or American pancakes, chicken and veal sausages, beef and turkey bacon, curried potatoes, foul - pronounced “fool” which is beans, a popular Arab breakfast food – the list goes on. The only thing they didn’t have was anything made with pork.

I must do a food blog. Inshallah!

We still like the hotel very much, and recommend it. As a boutique hotel, it’s reasonably priced, compared to some of the luxury hotels. And we are getting spoiled by the service in these Arab countries.

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Sifa Marina

The new marina has a few boats now, including two sailboats, one from Australia. We didn’t spend much time hanging around the hotel, though. We had brought our inflatable kayak, and we had our 4WD, so we went exploring.

We decided to drive south from As Sifa, to see how far we could get, and maybe find an interesting beach to launch from. What we found was that there is lots of construction going on – more luxury hotels – and a small village at the end of the road, with schoolboys wondering what we were doing turning around in their schoolyard. No beach access.

Bandar al Khiran

Next we drove north. On the way from Muscat to As Sifa, the road passes a network of tidal bays called Bandar al Khiran, which reminds us of some places on the West Coast, with the tidal flats against soaring cliffs. With mangroves and who knows what else to see, we thought this would be a fun place to launch our inflatable kayak and explore.

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The government is taking control
of tourism activities

Unfortunately for us, the area is now being managed by the Ministry of Tourism and is off limits to tourism activities without a permit. We weren’t sure if this included our kayak, but we didn’t want to take a chance. A couple of months ago, we took the kayak into some mangroves on the UAE’s eastern region at Khor Kalba. We were apprehended, told “Problem!” and threatened with a fine of 10,000AED, or about $3,000.

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Ash Shaykh beach

We looked into the little bay at the fishing village of Ash Shaykh, which was nice but by that time it was after noon, the sea breeze had kicked up, and we decided it was too windy and rough to be any fun. Mark chatted with a local fisherman, who came down to the beach to see if we wanted to take a boat ride.

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Happy Anniversary
For our 13th anniversary dinner on Christmas Eve, we went to the open-air fish restaurant, which was closed when we were there last year. This year, they were open every day for both lunch and dinner, with coffee available at 10:30 a.m. We had a delicious hammour dinner. Hammour is a very popular locally caught grouper, and unfortunately it’s being overfished. Every hotel, restaurant, fish market and supermarket has it. I order it once in a while, as a special treat.

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Al Bustan auditorium

That night we drove into Muscat to see a concert of traditional Omani oud music at the Ritz Carlton Al Bustan hotel. The audience was mostly Arab, although we did spot a few other expats.

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There were a few very ornately dressed women in the orchestra. At one point, the entire orchestra left the stage and the women returned to perform alone without any men. The audience erupted in ululations – a high-pitched sound that we also heard at the Emirati wedding we went to, when the bride arrived.

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A group of boys also performed, to the delight of the mostly Arab crowd. We found the music to be a bit redundant after awhile, but we enjoyed the concert.

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Our inflatable on As Sifa beach

On Christmas Day we decided to launch the kayak on As Sifa beach, where we explored the coastline. The tide was high, so there weren’t many fish, but we saw lots of rock crabs and sand crabs, which scurried away as we approached. What a beautiful place and, again, it reminded me of the northern California coast.

Another interesting place on this stretch of coastline is Yiti. This would be another great place to camp and again, it reminded me so much of places I have been in California. Yiti is also now a construction site. Another resort. So, who knows how long it will be accessible. But I can’t complain, because I am taking advantage of the beautiful resorts that are now on Oman’s coast. You can’t have it both ways.

Or can you? Oman does seem to be striking a good balance. A huge part of the charm, for me, of the entire coastline is that the small fishing villages are relatively untouched, and the people there continue to fish and raise goats, even a few turkeys, at least for now. Some of their accommodations have changed; many people live in much bigger houses, with high walls for privacy. But they still come out in the evening, squat in small circles – all men or all women, never mixed – and talk or make trinkets around a little fire. It remains to be seen how long it can stay this way.
Thanks for reading!

Jebel Al-Akhdar and the Sayq Plateau, Oman

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Diana's Viewpoint

There are powerful landscapes, and then there are landscapes that leave you breathless  – you can’t even think, and you don’t need to. Your mind goes blank, and you just gaze. Such is the power of Jebel Akhdar and the Sayq Plateau.
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Bait al Ridaydah at Bikat al Mouz

We diverted to Jebel Akhdar for a few hours on our way from Nizwa, the ancient city and former capital of Oman, to Muscat, Oman’s current capital on the coast. Taking the Birkat Al Mouz exit from the new four-lane divided highway or “carriageway,” as they sometimes call it here, we wound through the town, driving past one of Oman’s 16 magnificent castles and forts that are operated by Oman’s Ministry of Tourism.

We didn’t stop to tour the fort, because we wanted to get as high up on Jebel Akhdar as we could in the time we had. We could do a whole tour of the country, just seeing Oman’s castles and forts – but that’s another story.

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Steep turns, steep grade

Near the base of the mountain, we stopped at a checkpoint, beyond which only 4WD vehicles with low gears are allowed. Even though the road is paved, it’s unbelievably steep and sharply curved; far more so than a comparable mountain road in the USA. Starting at about 1500 feet altitude, the road climbs 7,000 feet to 8500 in about 13 miles.

I compare it to Kingsbury Grade, the steep and winding road we take from our home in Carson Valley over Daggett Pass to Lake Tahoe. It’s 8 miles from the intersection at Foothill Road, 4800 feet altitude, to Daggett Pass, 7350 feet. That’s a rise of 2250 feet, or 318 feet/mile or 6% grade, the maximum allowed in the U.S. Compare that with 538 feet/mile up Jebel Akhdar, a 10% grade – almost twice as steep, and 50% longer.
“Stay in low gear on the way down,” we were told. “Don’t use brakes. Use low gear.” Brakes will heat up, then fail.

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Terraced mountainside

Up we went, slowly winding up Jebel Akhdar and onto the Sayq Plateau. I had read about this area with its many villages, but what I was most interested in seeing were the terraced slopes where the rose bushes are grown. Distilled rose water is a special product of the mountain communities; it’s used in coffee and sweets, and as an air freshener. I have an Arabian cookbook, and the exotic watermelon, feta cheese and mint salad recipe, which I have yet to try, calls for a drizzle of rose water.

The name Jebel Akhdar means “Green Mountain.” In addition to the fragrant roses, the mountain terraces support a variety of fruit and nut trees – apricot , pear, plum, peach, fig, olive, almond, walnut, pomegranate, and citrus, among others. The mountain climate is temperate with warm, balmy summers and cooler winters when temperatures sometimes drop to freezing, especially during rains. Tourism peaks in March when the trees flower. I’d like to visit in spring but also in the summer, when the Gulf Coast heat is so oppressive.
Incidentally, the Hajar Mountains are a popular destination for mountain climbing and trekking groups. A few months ago I signed up on UAE Trekkers, an Abu Dhabi hiking group, thinking it might be fun to meet some other hikers. I soon discovered that a primary focus right now is training for an upcoming Kilimanjaro climb, although all are welcome on the many hikes they do. UAE Trekkers organizes camping and trekking trips all over the Arabian Peninsula, and I enjoy seeing where they are going next.

Here is what they say about hiking:
UAE Trekkers logoA hike is NOT just a walk outside in the mountains.  The nature of these mountains here in UAE and Oman is profoundly different to those in other parts of the world.   There are NO marked trails - anywhere. There are no maps. The hiking route can even change over weeks due to flooding and rains. Navigation and exploring are mandatory and - in our opinion - a big part of the fun! 

I haven’t hooked up with the group yet. For one thing, everything they do is on weekends or evenings, and my weekends are for sailing and doing things with Mark. Plus I could be wrong, but I suspect that the group is generally younger, and singles. And many lot of their hikes involve some climbing, which I am not into.

Wait. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: I don’t really operate that way. If I were here on my own and not so busy I would be there in a heartbeat, no matter what my age, as long as I could hike. What a great way to meet interesting people!

Ok, I just made a resolution: when I get back from the USA in February, I will find a way to do one of their basic hikes. I see comments from people all the time saying, "I'm not experienced, but want to try it ..." And I AM experienced. Plus last time I went home I brought back good hiking shoes.

Now back to Jebel Akhdar …
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Wadi Bani Habib

Up at the top, just after the Jebel Akhdar Hotel, we turned left onto a smaller road which took us past a military installation to Wadi Bani Habib, where we took a short walk to one of two abandoned villages. This is one end of another Village Walk like the one at Jebel Shams, that I would like to do when we come back. You can read and see photos of the lovely village in the Wildcardtravels post Dispatch from Oman: Wadi Bani Habib.

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Arabs spare no expense
when it comes to parks

We ate a lunch of cheese, crackers, apples and a sip of white grape beverage at a park with a nice view of the rocky Sayq Plateau spread before us.

Sahab Hotel

Since we had time for one more thing, we decided to go to Diana’s Viewpoint, unofficially named in remembrance of a helicopter visit by Princess Diana in 1990. On the way, we noticed a brand new luxury hotel, perched right on the edge of the mountain. High-end eco-hotels are becoming more common in the Middle East. Maybe when we come back we can splurge on a night at the Sahab Hotel.

Still, I would love to camp; there are plenty of great camping spots near Diana’s Viewpoint. If only more people would embrace the eco-idea of just cleaning up after themselves.

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Diana's Viewpoint

At Diana’s Viewpoint, we pulled into a parking area where we were rewarded with a stupendous view of the vast array of terraces, roads, and villages below and on the adjoining slopes, not to mention the procession of peaks and valleys stretching off into the distance.

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We'll see this in bloom in March

I knew that the roses would be dormant. We need to come in the spring to see them in bloom. I was actually glad for the opportunity to be able to view and photograph the structure of terraces themselves, which I imagine are pretty well hidden when the vegetation is in bloom or leafed out.

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One of many escape ramps

The ride back down the mountain was remarkable. With the car in low gear, we wound our way past signs in relatively flat looking areas that warned, “STAY IN LOW GEAR.” When we stopped at a pullout to rest the Cayenne, we could smell burning brakes. Not ours, though – there were three or four other cars there, and it was them.

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We marveled at the effort and expense it took to construct the road. Not only are there extensive concrete guard walls and rails, but a huge portion of the roadside has been covered with some kind of concrete mixture. Much of the rock is conglomerate -- sedimentary rock that is easily weathered and eroded, and big boulders.The entire road is prone to slides.

“This road must be The World’ Most Something,” Mark said. We speculated: it could be The World’s Steepest Paved Road, or possibly World’s Most Expensive Road for the Amount of Traffic.

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Or maybe World’s Biggest and Most Numerous Escape Lanes. The further down we got, the more frequent the escape ramps were. But I could see why, because not only does the road bring tourist vehicles and locals in their Toyota pickups to the mountain, but we saw water trucks and other heavy vehicles toiling up and down the road. I kept thinking of those smelly brakes.

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Finally, we saw a ramp near the checkpoint that had been used, although obviously by a smaller vehicle, not one of the big heavy trucks. And what a dropoff beyond it! Somebody must’ve had to throw away their knickers afterward.

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Probably one of these guys.

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Back on the road to Muscat, we enjoyed looking at the bent and folded layers of Earth’s crust, exposed for us to see. I am so thankful that we have the mountains to come and visit in Oman, just a few hours from Abu Dhabi. It’s time to get serious about doing some hiking, while the weather is still cool!

 Thanks for reading ...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Jebel Shams and Oman’s Grand Canyon

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This road leading to an imposing  mountain reminded me
of Nevada's Basin and Range landscape.

It would be easy to spend a week or two exploring and hiking Oman’s Western Hajar Mountains and wadis. We had only two days. Definitely on the list, though, was Jebel Shams. At 3,009 meters (9,872 feet) Jebel Shams is Oman’s tallest peak. Down below, Wadi Nakhur Gorge is known as Oman’s Grand Canyon.

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This isn't a small fissure. It's a giant, gaping chasm.

Driving toward the massive peaks looming ahead, we began to see huge fractures in the landscape which, as we grew near, we realized were even bigger than they appeared from a distance. What can cause such a rift? Certainly not water, as with the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We could see that the earth was literally cracked open. For scale, note the trees and ruins in the distance.

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We supported the local weavers.

Part way up the mountain, we stopped at Ghul, to look at the Omani weavings. This mountainous area supports sheep and goats, and Ghul has one of the highest concentrations of weavers. The Omani gentleman pictured here with Mark offered us coffee and dates, and told us that he wove these sheep’s wool rugs. I read in the guidebook that women typically do the spinning, and men do the dyeing and weaving.

We bought the second weaving on the right, with the red center, as well as a camel bag with two pockets that drapes over the animal’s hump (what will I use that for?) and some delicious dates which came in handy later in the day.

Our weaver also told us about the old stone houses across the wadi from the newer village. The people were moved out of the old village, he said, 30 years ago. Back then, there were only 20 people. Now, he said proudly, there are 100! Notice the football (soccer) field in the wadi. Every village, no matter how small, has one of these – at the sea, they are built on the tidal flats.

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Panorama of the old and new Ghul.

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Mark could not bring himself to even approach the fence.

On uphill we drove, until we were literally at the edge of the earth. I wanted to stop and take some photos, and Mark reluctantly pulled over. He seems to be getting more nervous around heights. He only took a few steps away from the car!

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I would need a diaper to go any farther, myself.

Meanwhile, I ventured past the fenced area, to try to get a better look down below. But, no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t get myself close enough to the edge to look straight down. My legs and gut just wouldn’t let me do it.

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Local businessmen

Up here, people in barasti huts were selling woven souvenirs – mostly little trinkets like bracelets and key chains, so Mark and I each bought a handful, but not without spending some time bargaining. I bought from the husband and wife, and Mark bought from the young boys – they were all selling the exact same things, but they said they were three competing businesses, and each wanted us to buy from them!

Finally we came to Al Khitaym, the end of the road. This is one end of a hike called the Abandoned Village Walk, which we’ll do next time, inshallah. There’s an eco-camp named The View up there that I had wanted to check out, but they were booked – and very pricey. So I was interested to see what looked like a group of campers up on the rocks. In Oman and the UAE, you can pretty much camp anywhere. It’s interesting to drive on a weekend night outside of Dubai and see hundreds of cars pulled off of the road, and dozens of campfires just a few meters from the cars whizzing by at top speed. People here love to sit outside around a fire at night, even if it’s just for a few hours, and right next to the street.

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Camping on the hard

This group was obviously European, though. Instead of a Bedouin-style galvanized steel barbecue, they had modern camping gear, which they were packing up while the goats lingered nearby, waiting for something to drop. I sensed that the humans had had enough of the goats.

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Litter is everywhere. I picked up some, but ... sigh.

One hugely disappointing and worrisome thing that we see everywhere we go is the trash problem. It’s twofold: most often, people seem to just discard their trash as they go, throwing water bottles to the ground and plastic bags to the wind. Or, if they do bag trash, they leave the bag where it will crack in the sun and blow apart, or be ravaged by goats.

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Good campers, too few.

I was glad to see these guys hauling their trash away, and I only hope they were going to a secure debris box that wasn’t already overflowing, as is so often the case… still, the whole place was just littered.

Maybe next time we will camp up here for a night. We have chairs, and cots for sleeping, but we don’t have a tent yet. It’s so wonderfully peaceful and quiet up there.

Driving back down the mountain we talked about the need to invent an alternative to plastic – not just biodegradable, but digestible. Then we were struck, as we often are, by a reminder of home in the landscape.Doesn’t that look a little bit like Half Dome? Or, maybe Little Half Dome, on Highway 50 at Strawberry?

It was lunchtime, but Mark wanted to explore the bottom of the canyon, so we took the turnoff back at Ghul, into Wadi Nakhur Gorge or, as the guidebook says, “the heart of the beast.”

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They can hear you before they see you.

The first thing that happened was, as we entered the canyon, a group of village boys ran toward the car. Mark stopped to give them the few candies we had left, but as soon as they looked in the window they started yelling “Dates! DATES!!!”

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So Mark opened the jar to give them some. In a split second, they almost emptied the container, and Mark had to slam the lid back on! I have to agree, though, that those dates are way better than candy.

We threaded our way through the canyon, marveling at the soaring cliffs around us. Once again, we had to turn around and head out before we were ready, swearing we will come back and spend more time, but we didn’t have lunch and our emergency rations, the dates, had been severely depleted.

When we come back, we can do the Abandoned Village Walk into this canyon. The best way to do this, I think, would be to leave one car at the top and one at the bottom. For that you need a friend with a car – which we now have, in Nizwa! But I’m getting ahead of the story.

At this point we were badly in need of food, and it was about 1:00 p.m. We were worried that nothing would be open, as is so often the case between 1:00 and 4:00, so we were relieved to find a little “local” restaurant. They were roasting chickens on a spit outside, so we went in and had a seat. Half chicken and rice? Yes, please. They bring you a little place of freshly sliced cucumber, carrot, and tomato first, and then a half chicken, rice on a separate plate, and a bowl of delicious, spicy sauce. It’s plenty of food, and the locals eat with their fingers, balling up the rice and then grabbing pieces of meat with it. This, as you can imagine, makes quite a mess. As Mark's colleague Abdul Aziz says, “You can always tell where the Arabs have been eating. It’s a (expletive deleted) mess!”

Of course, I was the only woman in the restaurant, and the other tables were filled with locals. But we did see someone we knew! The weaver from Ghul who sold us the rug and dates.

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Al Hoota Cave has formations like these underground.

We still wanted to see the formations in Al Hoota Cave, a local attraction. It used to only be accessible to experienced spelunkers, but the Omani government refurbished it, added facilities including a visitor’s center, and opened it in 2006.
Unfortunately, recent rains had leaked in and damaged the cave, and it was closed for repair. Instead, we went to the geology museum, which I found fascinating, having studied a bit of geology many years ago.

Oman attracts geologists from all over the world. As I walked around the landscape, it had struck me that I was seeing some of the same rocks that I saw in places on the California coast – pillow basalt, formed under the ocean. In the museum, my suspicions were confirmed. Geologists who come to Oman have the opportunity to study rocks that are usually only found in the deepest trenches of the ocean. When the Indian and Asian continental plates came together, the ocean floor heaved up over what is now Oman, instead of being thrust below. Then, over hundreds of millions of years, as the plates continued to move, the crust uplifted and built the mountains we see today. It’s such an interesting and diverse landscape, because there are layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks overlaid by ocean floor, then uplifted and cracked open for us to see. Amazing!

It was a very impressive and professional little museum, with interactive displays. If you like geology, take a look at these photos of some of the exhibits.

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Well if they were getting a photo, so were we.

When we came out of the museum, this family visiting from India wanted us Americans to be in a photo with them.

That evening, we met a new friend. I knew her from her blog, catbirdinoman – a nomad in the land of nizwa, which I’ve been reading for a year. I felt like we had a lot in common. Other than being around the same age and American, we are both teachers, and she loves the outdoors, writing, photography, art, wine … the list goes on. When Mark and I decided to go to Nizwa, I emailed Cathy, and we agreed to meet for dinner.

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"Oh, hats. Let's put them on for the picture."

What a fun night! I felt like I had known her for … well at least a year. I had somehow neglected to mention my blog in my email to her, so she didn’t know anything about me or Mark. But it didn’t matter! We talked and laughed over a bottle of wine, and exchanged similar stories of the frustrations of being an American living in a foreign country, and an Arab one at that. I admire Cathy because she’s living her dream of traveling. She’s also very open in her blog, writing about her challenges.

I do believe we are kindred spirits. We got together one more time, when Mark and I were on our way back through town and went shopping at the Nizwa souk. She wrote about both meetings in her blog. You can click these links to read them:

A Night at Falaj Daris with a Fellow Blogger
A Morning at Nizwa Souq

Thanks for reading, and may your 2013 be happy, healthy, and filled with simple pleasures.
Jebel Shams Oman 214
One of my favorite things about Oman is the tiny forts dotting the landscape.