Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Musandam Boating–Dibba

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Mark and I never get tired of being on the water, and fortunately there is plenty of it here. The UAE and Oman have long stretches of beautiful, and accessible, coastline. So I was happy when Mark decided to book a Musandam Dibba boating trip for us to take with Tom and Dana.

Before it got too hot, we wanted to see the Indian Ocean side of the Musandam peninsula and compare with boating in the the Strait of Hormuz at Khasab. We also thought it would be fun to spend some time in the little town of Dibba. We planned to drive up on Thursday, go boating Friday, and hopefully stay Friday night and drive home Saturday, making a weekend of it. However, when Mark tried to get us into the Golden Tulip Resort in Dibba they were fully booked. This has happened before; we don’t seem to be able to make our plans far enough in advance to get into that popular hotel.
We considered going to the Fujairah Rotana at Al Aqah Beach resort up the coastline right on the beach, but Mark found a deal he couldn’t pass up at Rotana’s Nour Arjaan in town. It’s a business hotel, and it made sense since we were going out on a boat anyway. We decided to stay only Thursday night, and drive back to Abu Dhabi after the boat cruise.
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For Mark, the hardest part of planning the trip was making arrangements to get through border control. Dibba is divided into three parts, each the a different government, one Oman and two UAE emirates.  Within the past year, the Omani side of Dibba has tightened security, and they require a confirmed hotel or dhow cruise reservation, along with copies of passports and visas, to be submitted to them by the hotel or tour company at least 48 hours in advance. This wouldn’t have been a problem if we were staying at the Golden Tulip. It wasn’t really a problem for the dhow company either, except that they wanted payment in advance, and they don’t take a credit card payment over the phone or online. Most people come from Dubai, and transportation is part of the package, so everything is arranged in Dubai. Musandam Dibba wanted Mark to make a direct deposit to an Omani bank, which would be an international transfer. This is not easy, and after several tries, phone calls, and some exasperation, Mark said, “Can we just pay cash when we get there?” OK, they finally said.
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The Three Dirhams, enjoying their weekend.
By the end of the work week we were all looking forward to it, especially the guys, who needed to blow off some steam. At Jebel Ali near Dubai we took a wrong turn, leading us to a series of dead ends before finally off-roading to return to the highway. With all the construction and confusing signage in this country, you learn to expect it. With each passing month, our vehicle navigation system becomes more and more irrelevant.

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The bar has live music on Saturday afternoons

Nevertheless we arrived in Fujairah within three hours, and decided to put off checking into our hotel in favor of going to the Breezes Beach Bar at the Hilton Fujairah for the sunset and full moon rise. It’s one of our favorite places, and we go there every time we are in Fujairah.

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Hellooo, moooon!

I posed on the beach with a 7-year-old British boy who was playing alone on the beach while his parents enjoyed their shisha at the beach bar. After leaving Breezes we stopped at the hotel’s Central Pub, where Mark revealed a hidden talent – darts.

The next morning, before we left for Dibba, I went up to the Rotana pool deck on the 20th floor to to view the Grand Mosque under construction behind the hotel, which I’ve been photo documenting each time we’ve been in town. Mohammed’s wife Cindy Davis once told me that every emirate in the UAE has, or is building, its own version of a Zayed Grand Mosque, named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the late President who is considered Father of the UAE.

There are two Oman border crossings in Dibba, and the one we needed to go to, which we did eventually find, was the second one on the Corniche near the fishing port. When we got there, we saw a lineup of large tour buses waiting to be checked in. Happily there was no line for autos, so Mark handed over our four passports, a very friendly official with a big smile checked his list, and we were through. Tom was disappointed that we didn’t get another UAE exit stamp, but this time it wasn’t needed. We were in a small fishing village, and there was really no place to go from here by road.

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The dhow cruise includes snorkeling, lunch, and fishing. It was a very breezy day; weather predictions had been calling for rain for several days and it looked like a system was moving in. Still, it was sunny enough but not hot, actually perfect weather.

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Our dhow was one of several, all with different looking populations. One boat had all white people wearing skimpy bathing suits (especially the men) who turned out to be mostly from Eastern Europe. Another was the Arab dhow. Everyone on our boat, except for the four of us, was from the Philippines or South Korea. There were several families.
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The treacherous road to Zinghy Bay
We cruised out along the coast, past Six Sense Zighy Bay, a high-end spa resort. I’ve heard about this wonderful place from several people, but because neither Mark nor I are into the spa lifestyle, we will probably never go there. The most interesting thing, to us, is the road. Most people, unless they are die-hard 4-wheelers, park on the other side and have a hotel car pick them up and take them over. I wonder how it compares with Jebel Akdar?
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We continued past several small islands and anchored in a cove, sheltered from the wind. There were several skiffs there as well, helping with anchoring and taking people for banana boat rides.

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Mark snorkeled, and he saw some fish and coral but because it had been windy out at sea, the visibility wasn’t good. I brought my Zoggs swim fins and goggles, so I swam to shore and explored. Tom tried in vain to get a ride on the banana boat, and Dana took a swim and then retired to the dhow and worked on his Sudoku puzzles.

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Lunch was a buffet – vegetables in yogurt, rice, weird rubbery fries that we don’t think were potato, meat in sauce, salad,  and a piece each of grilled chicken and fish. After lunch, as the boat motored out to sea, Dana and Mark enjoyed a Cuban cigar and we drank beers that Tom had somehow gotten the dhow crew to sell to us.

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The fishing was uneventful, except for two fish caught by a crew member. We motored back to Dibba, where we could see the weather front approaching; the wind was picking up again. When the sea and sky become the same color, and sea birds come to sit, you know that rain is coming.

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As we entered the harbor, there was a large crowd gathered, and we could hear shouting and talking. What was going on? A fish market! After disembarking, we went over to take a look. There were piles of fish, fish in crates, and fish being unloaded from skiffs. Every kind of fish that swims the Indian Ocean must have been caught. It was fascinating.

But it was also sad. WARNING: this will disturb some people.
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There were several sharks caught, and as one was hoisted up I noticed something slipping out of it. It was a shark pup! Unfortunately, dead. I said something, and the man who was holding the shark started talking, people started looking, and soon there was a family gathered around. They pulled the dead pup shark out and showed it to their children, trying to get the youngest son to hold it. But he wasn't having any of it.

Then, I noticed that other sharks had pups too. I wonder, why don’t the fishermen pull out live pups and throw them back into the sea? It can be done, because I looked it up and found a video on Youtube where some American fisherman did just that. Once shark pups are born, they swim away from their mothers and fend for themselves, so they would survive. Maybe they didn’t know they were in there until it was too late.

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There are many species commonly found on dinner tables in the UAE that are being overfished, including Hammour, Spangled Emperor, Painted Sweetlips, and Kingfish. I couldn’t find any information on overfishing or fishing regulations in Oman. I assume it is different there, on the open Indian Ocean, than in the Arabian Gulf. Still, we should remember that overfishing is a worldwide problem.

Having said all that, it was a great experience to see a Friday fish market in Dibba, and it would have been a real treat to eat some freshly caught fish in one of the local restaurants. Fishing is their livelihood and culture, and I hope that it continues for many more centuries.

The six-hour Musandam Dibba boat trip was a good value, relaxing, and well worth doing. It wasn’t like boating with Abdul Hameed, but then it isn’t fair to compare.

Thanks for reading, and please try to eat sustainable fish, at least most of the time.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

India’s Golden Triangle–Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal, “Crown of Palaces,” is a masterpiece. I don’t think anyone who sees it is not touched by its beauty, tranquility, and perfect symmetry.
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Taj Mahal at dawn

They say that the most magical time to visit the Taj Mahal is at sunrise or sunset. At dawn, I viewed the Taj across the city from our hotel room, and Pradeep timed it perfectly so that we went to the Taj at the end of the day, when the sun was setting and the light was at its softest and most golden.

Artist's portrait of Mumtaz Mahal

The Taj Mahal is about eternal love, beauty, devotion and perfection. Pradeep told us that Shah Jahan met the love of his life,  Anjumand Banu Begum, a daughter of Persian nobility, when she was just 14 and he was 15. The young prince fell in love with her great beauty and wanted to marry her immediately, but they had to wait five years until an auspicious date that the court astrologers had selected as most conducive to a happy marriage. In the meantime, Shah Jahan married twice, and although each marriage produced a child, it was clear that the third wife was his first and only love.

Shah Jahan gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal, which means “Chosen One of the Palace.” They were inseparable companions. He showered her with jewels; she was his confidante in all things. While away from Agra on a military campaign with him, she died after giving birth to their 14th child. He was inconsolable. Her dying wish was that he build her a beautiful tomb, so that the all world would know of their love. You can read the story of Mumtaz Mahal at this link.

After the death of Mumtaz, Shah Jahan went into seclusion for a year, and emerged as an old and broken man. His eldest daughter stepped in to take the place of Mumtaz in the royal court, and after finishing the military campaign, Shah Jahan returned to Agra to plan and build her tomb. It was a 22-year project.

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West gate entrance

We entered through the west gate. There are strict rules about what you are, and are not, allowed to bring in. No gum, food, lighters, tobacco, computers, or loose batteries. You may bring in cameras, mobile phones, small bags, water bottles, books, and small flashlights. As with every place we went, there was a security screening upon entry.
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We entered, and there it was – possibly the most exquisite building on the planet. People were taking photos of it, posing in front of it, sitting on benches and gazing at it …

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A dog in the reflecting pool?

… and there was even a dog admiring it as he took a dip in the pool. I thought momentarily of our dog Snickers, may she rest in peace. And I wondered, they let dogs run around here?

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The Taj Mahal is intricately decorated with marble relief work and pietra dura stone inlay, with images of flowers and plants that are thought to represent paradise. It’s believed that 35 different precious and semi precious stones were used in the inlays.

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Inside the tomb, no cameras were allowed. Pradeep pointed out the cenotaphs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, which are really fake tombs decorated with jewels and inlay; the real tombs are hidden underneath in a vault that is closed to the public.
Surrounding both cenotaphs is a carved lattice screen made out of a single piece of marble, allowing sunlight to filter through, making delicate patterns of light.

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The recesses, called pishtaqs, give depth to the outside of the building. Carved marble lattice screens provide light to the inside of the mausoleum.

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The base of the mausoleum is square, representing the material world. The central dome represents heaven. Everything is lined up in perfect symmetry.

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Our hotel, the Gateway, is the only hotel visible from the Taj Mahal. We could see it from the plinth, or platform. It’s the white building in the distance, just to the right of the south entrance gate.

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Pradeep was from Agra, and he told us that when he was growing up, when crowds were smaller and before there was so much security, he came to the Taj Mahal and played on the lawns. It was like a park to him.

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The light was fading; it was time to tear ourselves away. As always, our driver Dularam was waiting for us outside the gate, with all of the belongings we had left behind safe in the car. We had skipped lunch, opting to just take a short break between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. We were ready to head back to the hotel, but Pradeep had just one more place to show us on the way.

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“It’s the marble factory,” he said. “There is no expectation to buy.” Ok, we agreed. What the heck. Pradeep had no doubt heard Mark and me talking about buying a piece of the marble inlay we had seen in the hotel.
Just a couple of minutes later, we were shown into a large warehouse. Would we like a cold drink? Beer, perhaps? Oh, sure, why not?

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We watched a short video about the marble, made by the tourism department. The power went out three times during the 10-minute film. Welcome to India! Then we went out into a hallway where we could see artisans at work.

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These are descendants of the original artisans who worked on the Taj. Using grinding wheels, they grind the pieces down to size. Some of them are so tiny you can barely see them. What happens when their eyesight goes, we asked? Then they cannot work any more. Also, their fingers are worn down by the grinding wheel. They can only work for short periods, then they must rest and drink tea.

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The cutting and grinding process reminded me a little bit of the stained glass pieces I used to make, using a glass cutter and grinder. However, I made patterns to cut from, whereas these artisans simply gauge the shape and fit by experience.

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The marble is carved using very sharp tools, and a special glue is used. The recipe is centuries old, and it’s a secret.

Would we like to see some pieces in the showroom? Oh, sure, why not. It was cool inside, and the beer was refreshing – and plentiful.

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The place was filled with all sizes of plates, and tables with marble pedestals. It was overwhelming. We knew that this kind of furniture just wouldn’t go with our house or our patio, even though our host kept talking about how weather resistant and unbreakable they are. Were we live in Nevada, we get 70+ mile an hour winds every year.

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“Let me show you something,” our host said, and he took us into a room with plates and boxes displayed like jewelry. Mark’s jaw dropped. Uh-oh, I thought. Here we go.

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We were inches away from buying a plate, but we finally backed off, realizing that we weren’t quite ready. I asked if I could take a photo – they generally aren’t allowed – so that we cold think about it overnight. We had some time in the morning before we had to leave for the train station; we could come back.

When we finally emerged from the building, Pradeep and Dularam were waiting patiently for us, just hanging out. Mark and I had a great Indian dinner at the hotel, trying not to think too much about the plate. It was a lot of money, I wasn’t sure that it was exactly the right one, and I wanted to look again at the hotel store, which we had learned was an outlet for the factory.

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The next morning, we could see that the quality and selection at the factory were better than what was at the hotel. After some discussion, and a sad look from the hotel shopkeeper, we asked the concierge to call our driver for us. Soon Dularam was pulling up in front of the hotel and Pradeep had appeared in the lobby to accompany us. We had pretty much decided that we wanted to buy something, and it would be a quality piece that we would put into our lighted china display cabinet at home. Rather than shopping and buying a lot of trinkets, I would be far more happy with something really beautiful. And Mark just plain hates the trinkets.

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We took a long time deciding. So long, in fact, that new things kept catching our eyes. It was excruciating, trying to decide. While the prices in the factories are generally fixed, they have some leeway to give you a good deal if there is motivation. While Mark wanted a plate, I fell in love with a malachite and mother of pearl box. And, you know, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, it’s all about the love.

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Finally our host was able to offer us a price for both items that we accepted. While they were wrapping them up securely, there was just one more thing he wanted to show us. It was the carpets. Would that be ok? No need to buy anything. We still had some time, so what the heck.

We had been talking about buying a rug since we got to the Middle East, and had looked at some places. Again, it was overwhelming, but I had learned a few things and I felt I could tell a hand woven rug from a machine made one, and a really fine, expensive one from a less expensive one. Mark was not so sure of himself.

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After an introduction to rug weaving in the demonstration area, we were ushered into the showroom and, with a flourish, the proprietor began to unroll rugs before us, silk and wool, telling us about the designs, colors and dyes. What size do you want to see? Show us a 4 x 6, Mark said. And show us what the highest quality is. I was feeling apprehensive, but at the same time I had been wanting to see some really fine rugs.

India 271Finally we realized that maybe, just maybe, we wanted to buy one of these rugs. Mark was stressing out, because he still didn’t trust himself to choose. I felt that we were in a trustworthy place, and I knew what I liked. With most rugs, there is no one type of design that is more intrinsically more valuable than another, it’s mostly a matter of personal taste. The value of a hand knotted rug depends, among other things, on the number of knots per square inch, the number of colors and type of dye – it should be vegetable dye – and condition.

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There was one rug that stood out from the rest. It was made in Kashmir, a golden color – the proprietor said it was a saffron dye – and it had a beautiful rich floral design. Mark seemed consumed with anxiety, but he wasn’t getting up to leave. We stayed and stayed while we talked about the rugs, they brought us beer and wine, and we whispered to each other. Finally, I said to Mark, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s that one or nothing.” I was only interested in the saffron rug.

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Mark was on the internet on his mobile phone, reading up about rugs on a site called rugrag.com. Then he began to negotiate a price. Time was running out; we needed to leave, check out of the hotel and head to the train station. Mark made a final offer, our salesman left to make a phone call, and came back and said, “We have a deal.” I could hardly believe it. What were we doing? I kept thinking to myself, “It’s an investment! An investment.”

“This is it!” Mark said. “We’re done! We aren’t buying anything in Jaipur!” Fine with me! I can’t disclose the actual amount we spent. Let’s just say that we could have bought a small herd of water buffalo.

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I have to admit that we had some serious pangs of angst and agony. Did we get ripped off? Did we overpay? I felt pretty confident about the rug, although it was definitely an investment. Mark felt good about the marble inlay, not so much about the rug. Finally, a few days after we got home, he got up the courage to do the online assessment on the Rug Rag site. To our relief, it looks like we did fine. The rug appears to appraise for more than we paid. And, most important, every time I look at the rug, the plate, and the box, I love them more.

Just like the Taj Mahal. The longer you look at it, the more you appreciate it.

Next: Train ride to Jaipur, and "Welcome to the Raj Palace!"