Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Oman...and Paris

Next year I move on to another post, Lahore, Pakistan.  I'm excited about the challenges and changes I will face.  I decided that before I headed back to Texas for my home leave and training (and then onward to Pakistan) I would make a short trip Paris.  I invited my daughter to meet me there, but she was unable to get away, so I flew off for a solo 5 day vacation in the City of Lights.

I had a blast!  I must have walked 25 miles in 5 days!  I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower and drank in the gorgeous views from all sides...Paris is even more beautiful from above!  The very wide boulevards and beautiful buildings were amazing.  It was a cold and cloudy day but as the clouds blew by, openings were created and I was able to get some great pictures.  Since it was not that great of a day weatherwise, it wasn't crowded and moving around was really easy.  Our tour guide was a Canadian girl who knew every bit of information about the Tower and about Gustave Eiffel.  Spending the extra few dollars to get a guided tour was worth every penney. I would have never learned what I did just by wandering around on my own.

Another place I visited a couple of times was L'Arc de Triomphe.  What a gorgeous giant monument! The monument is covered with the names of the soldiers, dates and there is even an eternal flame and burial of a French soldier, sort of like our tomb of the unknown soldier we have in DC.
Up close, you can see the intricate details of the sculptures all over the's just amazing.  I also decided to walk up the 284 steps to the very top observation deck...and made it!  Once again, the view was spectacular!  There are 12 very wide boulevards that lead into the Arc, sort of like spokes of a wheel.  You can see forever from the top and really appreciate the layout of the city. Just another example of extreme beauty in Paris.

No trip to Paris would be considered complete without a trip to the Louvre.  I'm not a real art afficionado, but I was totally blown away by the beauty at the Louvre.  The sculptures were absolutely gorgeous (Venus de Milo, among many others) and the paintings were unbelievable.  I was not impressed by the Mona Lisa, even though her eyes did follow me when I walked around her.  There are so many other more beautiful works of art than her and I just don't get all the hoopla over that one painting. 

Another side trip I invested in was the Hop On-Hop Off bus tour.  I bought a 2 day ticket and the 4 different routes made it possible to see almost the entire city.  You could get off where you wanted and about 30 minutes later, another yellow and blue bus would come along and you got back on.  One of the many stops was Notre Dame.  Once again, I saw that the pictures I  have seen of this place all my life just don't do it justice.  There is so much beauty incorporated on the front of Notre Dame...I just wish I had a guide to tell me what everything was...what story they were telling. I suppose I could google Notre Dame and get all the details.  The inside was gorgeous with tall, tall ceilings and beautiful brickwork on them.  The stained glass "rose" windows are plentiful.  The feeling of history and reverence that you get when inside a place such as Notre Dame is very being in the middle of a historical moment.

During my wanderings in Paris, I found lots of shops to explore.  But my favorites were the bakeries.  The baguettes and beignets (especially the chocolate filled ones) and croissants were delicious.  And I had some of the best french onion soup, french fries and cheeses ever!  All in all, I had a great time!

When I told some people I was going to Paris by myself, I got odd looks.  The most romantic city in the world and you're going by yourself???  You bet!  I decided several years ago to 'just do it' and denying myself something merely because I would do it alone was certainly not reason enough to not 'do it.'   And when I tell my friends about my adventures, I know they wish they were me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Next Assignment Is...

I can finally write about where I'm headed after I leave Muscat, Oman.  I haven't been able to post it here because I hadn't told my 96 year old father.  How to tell him where I was headed was something I thought long and hard about.  I've known for over a month I was going to Lahore, Pakistan but wasn't sure how to tell him.  Many of my friends here said just tell him some you're going to some other country and he won't worry about you.  But lying to my Dad just was not the route I wanted to go.  So I sent an email and was honest about it and he knows and he supports me!

Of all places in Pakistan, Lahore is the safest.  The timing is perfect as I race toward my June 30, 2014 retirement date, and the current OMS there said she likes it so much she is extending for another year.  That spoke volumes to me and helped me make the decision to pursue the position there, which is, once again, in security. 

I am now in the process of completing the mountain of paperwork, making decisions about everything and trying to figure out just what I will take with me. I won't take anything with me that I wouldn't be OK with walking away from should there be an ordered departure (evacuation).  Just what will I miss the most?  Probably all the GORGEOUS silk carpets I've bought here in Oman!  Oh well...2 years flies by so quickly, I'll be reunited with them before I know it.

Life is, indeed, an adventure.  Mine continues and hopefully, I will have some very interesting stories to tell about my time in Pakistan. The tour is for 1 year but I intend to request it to be 2 years. That way I don't have to worry about finding a 1 year assignment in June 2013.  I have had such a wonderful time in Oman, it will be hard to leave.  This is a gorgeous country and the people are wonderful. Right now, it's winter and the temperature is in the 70s, cooling off to the 60s at night. 

Tonight I fly off to enjoy a week in Paris, France!  I invited my daughter to meet me there but unfortunately, she can't. So me and my camera will just have to have fun by ourselves!  I've been watching the weather reports and it's cold and there's a chance of snow tomorrow!  It's been over 4 years since I experienced any cold weather, so I had to go find some cold weather shoes. I am now set!  I can't wait...Christmas in the City of Lights!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Wet Day in Muscat!

Summer is coming to an end here in Muscat, Oman.  We even saw rain last week...and boy, did we ever see it!!  The mountains around Muscat, the Al Hajar range, are solid rock so when it rains, nothing soaks in and it is all watershed.  Anything below better be prepared!  The average annual rainfall in Muscat is 0.8 - 3.9" per year.  Yes, per year!  On Wednesday, it rained pretty hard.  I don't know how much fell, but my guess is that we're now pretty close to that 3.9" maximum for the year.  There was flooding all over the city and a 9' section of the wall behind my house collapsed from the weight of an additional 4' of dirt.  The house behind mine was leveled and the owner is building 2 houses on that property. The soil level has been raised at least 4' and when it rained, the wall on my property couldn't handle the weight and one section collapsed.  You can see in the picture just how high the soil level is.  The picture doesn't show it, but the wall goes down another 2 feet.  We expect more sections to fall before we can get the property owner to do something about it.

My problem is nothing compared to what motorists had to deal with on Wednesday!  The flooding was unbelievable!!  Cars were swept away, buildings crumbled and there is mud everywhere now.  I only have satellite TV with no local coverage so I'll have to wait until I get back to work on Wednesday to read about it in the newspapers.  This is the first day of the biggest religious holiday here, Eid al Adha, and we have Sunday through Tuesday off.  Hopefully, it won't rain for a while so that cars can be removed and the mud cleared away.

It was the first time it rained since I arrived here in July 2010.  When I left work, without an umbrella, I took my time getting to my car.  Rain never felt so good...

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Frankincense tree
A few months ago I went on a short trip to southern Oman, to the city of Salalah, almost to the Yemen border.  This is where the frankincense trees grow and that was one of the things we wanted to see/experience/touch.  All those good things. I mean, when you are in a foreign country, you really should see everything that you can during your stay.  So we flew to Salalah.  Something happened on the flight that I just remembered and I think it's important to share this with you.

We boarded our flight, with our assigned seats, me in an aisle seat in the bulkhead with lots of legroom.  My friends were a bit behind me and we settled in for the flight.  An Omani gentleman came up to me, looking at his boarding pass.  Across the aisle were 3 seats and 2 young Omani women were sitting there, window seat and middle seat.  The man looked at them, turned and sat in the window seat by me, leaving an empty seat between us.  I knew he had the aisle seat across from me where the 2 ladies were.  Sure enough, very soon, the 2 people assigned to the seat he was in and the one next to me came, asking for their seat.  He refused to answer them and turned and looked out the window.  The passengers left and a couple of minutes later the flight attendant came back with their boarding passes in her hand.  She asked the man to move to his assigned seat.  He turned  and looked at her and then turned away, looking out the window again.  The attendant tried to tell him all seats were assigned and he needed to take his seat so the 2 passengers could get seated.  He would not speak to her.  Finally, I spoke up and offered to move across the aisle next to the ladies, leaving 2 seats for the other 2 passengers.  With a great sigh of relief, she thanked me.

You may be thinking...what a jerk that man was!  But actually, it probably had something to do with his religion or his cultural values.  At first I thought he was being unreasonable and thought to myself...Self, don't volunteer to give up your seat!  But the more I thought about it, the more I believed that he was following his beliefs.

So for all of you who travel to foreign countries or are Foreign Service like me, be sure to pack a big supply of tolerance and understanding in your bags when you head overseas.  Arrive at your destination with an understanding that you will not judge others by your standards.  Just because we do something in the United States doesn't make it a worldwide accepted way of doing things.  Don't be quick to judge others because believe me, they will be judging you too.  Most of all, don't look down on people because of their local clothing.  I am asked all the time why men here wear those "dumb" long white "dresses."  They wear their dishdashas proudly because it is their heritage.  If you are a Christian, how would you feel if someone pointed out that Christ wore a long white "dress?"   What do you think people in other countries say about hula skirts or 10 gallon hats and pointed boots?  We probably look pretty stupid to other cultures!

So, don't forget...leave your snickering at home when traveling abroad and just enjoy the cultural differences!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Homeward Bound

My combination training/leave time in the states is winding down. I will fly back to Muscat, Oman on Friday and I am really ready to get home!  I've done my shopping, attended my classes and am now ready to get back to work and my normal routine.

No visit home would be complete without seeing my Dad in Fort Worth. At 96, he is still sharp as a tack and as stubborn as ever.  While I was there, Texas was experiencing a heat wave with many days in a row over 100 degrees.  This tough old bird insisted on spending hours in the garage in the heat of the afternoon, working at his workbench. He loves making walking sticks out of bamboo that grows along the driveway.
My sweet 96 year young Dad
We tried to get him to come in during those hot afternoons but he insisted on going out in the garage.  The day after I left for Washington, he became severely confused and after a visit to the emergency room and a battery of tests, the doctor said he had suffered a heat stroke.  Maybe now he will wait for cooler weather to resume his hobby.

It's been great seeing old friends here at the Foreign Service Institute.  Everywhere I turn, I see someone I went to training with or someone I met in Honduras.  You realize that it is really a very small world. It also makes you see how being a part of the Foreign Service family affords you the opportunity to meet so very many people...people who become friends for life.  Just think...I have friends all over the world.  After I retire, if I could afford to get there, I will have friends to stay with just about anywhere!!  Just one more benefit of this job.

The bid list has come out and I do have some interesting choices.  The process goes like this.  I pick 5-6 places I would love to serve.  I then campaign for the position...or, to put it differently, I do everything I can to convince those people at my chose places to offer me the position.  Unlike the first 2 assignments where I was directed, I must find my next job on my own.  As soon as I get back to Oman, I can begin the process of emailing the section head (for me it will be the Regional Security Officer).  I will also contact the Management Officers of the Embassy, as well as the person who holds the position I am interested in.  I'll also look up all the information on the posts which will include housing, weather, safety and the reports from those who have served there.  Those reports are usually very blunt and honest and can really help you make up your mind.  The places I am interested in so far are Berlin, Vienna, Jerusalem and Tijuana.  Tijuana, you ask????  How did that one make it in there???  Well, since this will be my final tour, Tijuana caught my eye for a number of reasons.  I would save lots of money on regional travel.  If I went to Vienna or Berlin or Jerusalem, I would have to see Italy, Greece, get my point.  Tijuana is a 3-4 hour flight to Hawaii where my son and his wife and my 3 grandsons live, so I would be able to see them fairly often.  It's also about the same flight to see Dad in Texas.  I grew up in Coronado, just across the border from Tijuana.  And I love Mexican food. And I speak Spanish.  It may not be Europe, but I could be happy there.  But...who knows.  It's very early in the process and I haven't begun really to make my move.  As of right now, they are all my #1 choices!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Training Tips, Hot Weather and Bidding

The nighttime view from my apartment
I'm not sure just what strings I pulled or what magic words I used, but I snagged some great training away from post this year.  In June, it was Bangkok.  And now in August, I'm here for training in Washington DC.  It's a great thing that training is offered and even better when you are lucky enough to be approved to fly home to attend some...even during difficult economic times.

While in DC for almost 4 weeks, I'm staying in an apartment in Arlington, VA, about a 5 minute drive to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) where my training takes place.  Since weight is always a consideration when you travel, I came with nothing and shopped for new clothes, which will fill my 2 suitcases when it comes time to pack. What I don't want to shop for are things I need in the kitchen since I won't have room in my suitcases to take them back to Muscat.  With this in mind, you really have to be creative.  Sure, the apartment is fully furnished and there is a limited supply of kitchen tools to work with. But there are no zip lock bags, no saran wrap, no storage containers (ie Tupperware for us old folks) or other little things that when at home, we just take for granted.  So, you learn to be creative.  Tonight I made a yummy pot roast with potatoes and carrots and onions. Obviously, there are leftovers.  So, I dug the plastic produce bag out of the trash and used it like saran wrap, covering the meat and veggies in the bowl with it. I refuse to buy a box of zip lock bags (call me El Cheapo) so I wash and reuse 2 bags that I had in my suitcase that had small bottles of hand lotion in them.  I did have to give in and buy a corkscrew since I just couldn't find any way to get the cork out of the wine bottle without destroying it! It was, however, the lighter of the 2 that I looked at!

I took a few annual leave days prior to going to Washington to stop in Fort Worth, Texas to see my Dad. I was really looking forward to escaping, for just a little while, the heat of the Middle East.  No way was that happening this summer!  Texas is hotter than a firecracker this summer and it barely dipped below 100 degrees the entire time I was there.  The biggest challenge was keeping my 96 year old father inside the house instead of out in the garage, sitting at his workbench.  The day after I left, he ended up in the emergency room with heat stroke.  Did he learn his lesson?  I doubt it...he loves tinkering in his workshop, even at his advanced age.

The other bit of very reportable news is that the bid list is now out.  This list, basically, is the list of openings for us Foreign Service people who will move to another embassy next summer. It's up to each of us to select 6-8 from the list, weigh the pros and cons of each one and then submit our choices. All things need to be taken into consideration...a new job, the stress of moving from one place to another, lots of new faces, new cultures, new opportunities. It may sound like a very stressful time but these are the reasons we all signed on the dotted line.  I, for one, thrive on this kind of challenge.  I have some great places on my list but the ones that I am looking at very seriously are Vienna, Berlin, Dubai, Tunis, Jerusalem, Moscow and Bogota.  They all sound wonderful and once I can do my research, I'm sure one of them will rise above the rest.  Or not. They are, at this time, all tied for 1st choice.

As you can see, there's lots on my plate right now. I hope to pass the test tomorrow and get my certification in Microsoft Outlook.  I hope the stock market recovers and stops dropping like a rock. I hope to be under 50 pounds in each of my 2 suitcases when I fly home on the 19th. I hope I can make really good informed decisions on my bid list. And I really hope my Dad stays out of the hot garage.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My Week in Bangkok

One thing the State Department does is make sure its employees are trained.  They even require certain training for you to be eligible for promotion.  It was obvious that this message never made it to my first post, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, because I got turned down for every training request I made.  "No funds."  The best excuse was "It's not your turn." But no one else was eligible to go so no one went. But that's another story.

Fast forward to Muscat, current assignment.  I finally got the green light to go to Bangkok for a week of training in PowerPoint, culminating with the exam to get my Microsoft Certification in that program.  The training was fun, I passed the test, met some great people and saw quite a bit of the city.  Classes ended at 3:45 or 4:00 every day so that left plenty of time to see temples, to shop, to walk all over the city..and did I mention shop?
These Buddhas were at Wat Pho (Wat means temple).  These temples are beautiful places with statues, bonsai like I've never seen before and tall spires covered in decorative porcelain.  The little man that was our tour guide was so cute. I couldn't understand everything he said but he would walk ahead of us, turn around and then hold his hands as though he was directing a jumbo jet into its parking place and we would turn around and it would be a perfect scene for a photograph. You could tell he had done this before!

As I mentioned before, there was beautiful bonsai plants all over the place. This one was particularly beautiful, but really, they were all amazing.  Our guide told us that they were all at least 150 years old. I didn't dare touch one, even though I pride myself on having a green thumb. I really didn't want to be the cause of one of these plants dying!

We saw many major Buddhas...Happy Buddha, Reclining Buddha and others that, because I was so busy marveling at the sight of them,I missed hearing which one I was looking at!  

Another place we went was Wat Arun.  There were more of the same kind of structures but much bigger. It was just amazing.  That's me in the picture below and yes, I did climb the steps up the structure behind me!

It's hard to see, but covering all these tall structures was what looked like broken plates.  But it was really porcelain.  It had to have taken years to build these and decorate them. The statues were everywhere... Confucius, dogs, everything you could imagine. 

You would have thought it would be crowded but it wasn't. Many of the people there were from Thailand and came to pay their respects. Probably just as many were tourists, like us.  You could hear several languages being spoken at any given moment.

I had heard of the Reclining Buddha, but until you visit a country and actually see some of the things there, it doesn't really register. When I saw this Buddha, I was amazed.  It is huge!  Now that I've seen it, I want to read about why someone wanted a Buddha in a reclining position when all others were sitting cross legged in a lotus position!  What would possess someone to build a concrete Buddha this huge and then cover it in gold?
Have I mentioned shopping yet? No??  Well....let me tell you, Bangkok has some serious shopping choices!  I did manage to buy some silk, my major purchase being a reversible silk jacket in a Chinese style with the little frog closures. One side is black, the other is brown. That jacket will get some major wear time!  I also bought some assorted silk scarves, some beads since I've taken up jewelry making, a couple of pillow covers and some other various items that I just had to have.  We went to the Weekend Market,(the largest outdoor market in the world), the MBK Mall (7 levels of everything ever made to be sold) and lots of little shops along the way when we went walking.  

Remember those stairs I climbed?  Well, this was the view from the top, looking back over a part of the city. It was gorgeous, especially with those menacing dark clouds!  We decided it was time to put the cameras away and head for some kind of cover.  We made it back to the river and inside a little gift shop just as the rain began.  We had some chicken and fried rice and was hot and humid!  I also made it to Jim Thompson's Museum. He was an American who settled in Thailand and developed the silk industry there.  It became hugely successful. One day, he walked into the jungle and never came out.  He is remembered fondly by the Thai people and for good reason.

After 9 days of studying and shopping, it was back to reality and work in Muscat.  I am now looking forward to my trip to the states next month.  I haven't seen my dad in a year and it's high time I got a hug from him.  I'll be in Fort Worth for about 9 days and then, amazingly enough, on to Washington for 3 weeks of training!  When it rains, it pours!  For my FS friends, never get discouraged if you get turned down for regional training...your day will come.  Make the most of it because you don't get opportunities like this every day!  

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cultural Differences...Embrace Them!

Living in a foreign country is, in itself, an adventure. You encounter such a diverse cross section of people. During my 2 years in Honduras, most everyone I saw looked to be Honduran or at the very least, to be from South or Central America. No one really stood out as being from another country, except us gringos. That's not the case here in Oman. Many people come here from nearby countries for employment opportunities and, from what I can guess, a better standard of living. The quality of life is very good here. Consequently, there are many different nationalities living in Oman. There are only subtle differences in their appearances, so it's hard for me to tell who is from where...if you know what I mean. I am told (but have yet to commit it to memory) that you can differentiate one countryman from another by how they dress. Many Omani men wear the dishdasha, or the long white tunic that goes all the way to the ankle, leather sandals and the hat with beautiful embroidery on it. Some men wear the white or beige pants with the long matching tunic just reaching their knees with no head covering and I believe they would be from Pakistan. I say that because I drive by the Pakistani embassy every day on the way to work and see them standing in line to get in their Consular section.  Some, like the Saudis, wear the colorful ring that holds the cloth, which can be red and white or other color, around their heads with the long white tunic. I need some cultural help to know who is who. There are Omani, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian, just to name a few, living here and many other countries in this reagion are represented here. I need to make a concerted effort to learn what region they are from by the clothes they wear.

The women also have several styles of dressing from very conservative, covering completely, to regular street clothes. So far, I haven't seen anyone in a full burka. Of the women who choose to wear the abaya, the long black caftan with the head covering, most do not cover their faces completely. I've also seen ladies who wear a sheer black fabric that completely covers their face but they can see out through the material. Other women, who I can only guess are from surrounding countries cover their heads with scarves or other wraps. Some wear regular street clothes and others will wear colorful loose fitting pants with long tunics and scarves, much like you would see in India. All in all, the variety of dress here paints a lovely picture of a very blended culture.

The Omani people are wonderful. This is a Muslim country and faith is very important here. For those who would judge all Muslims by the actions of the radical Muslims, you are judging the wrong people.  There are good and bad in every religion, culture, nationality, color or any other factor you choose.  Saying all Muslims are bad is like saying all blondes are dumb or all husbands cheat on their wives.  You just can't generalize like that. I can remember how uncomfortable it made me feel, years ago, when my ex-husband would use degrading words to describe someone from the Middle East who wore a head covering.  When you think about it, some types of clothing worn in the United States probably seems pretty stupid to people in other parts of the world. What kind of comments do you think are made about our Native American Indians and the feather headdress they wear? What about pointy toed Cowboy boots in Texas?  Or grass skirts on ladies dancing on the beach? My point is this...until you get out and learn about other cultures, it makes no sense at all to criticize.  It's all the many varied cultures and the desire to adhere to tradition that makes this world a beautiful painting.  And instead of criticizing and making fun of someone who just might be a little different from what you're used to, make an effort to learn about their culture. That's one of the beauties of my job...the opportunity to travel around the world and learn about others and more importantly, from others.

Living here in Oman, it is refreshing to see the modest styles of the dishdashas and abayas and the obvious pride in their heritage. No longer do I see pants hovering around some guy's butt-cheeks or tattoos and the tops of thongs peeking out from low slung pants on women. And I also don't have to sit in a restaurant and watch some couple making out.  Living in a country where things are mostly conservative is really a very nice thing.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Faces of Oman

Recently I attended the Muscat Festival here in Muscat, Oman. This is an annual event that celebrates the cultural differences among the many people of Oman. It brings together the different tribes of Omani people in celebration of their cultural heritage. It was also a wonderful opportunity for anyone who, like me, love photography. All of the diverse cultures are showcased in dance, traditional costumes and food.  I'm grateful for the opportunity that my job affords me to be exposed to different cultures and customs and getting to learn about Oman's rich heritage is a bonus.

For those of you in the Foreign Service, if you get the opportunity to bid on Muscat, Oman, go for it!  It's a wonderful place with terrific people and great regional travel opportunities! So what if it's 120 degrees 7 months of the year...we have great air conditioning and the diving is great.

The children were beautiful....

Handicrafts were being demonstrated throughout the event.  This lady is making baskets.

Photographers were everywhere on this night, and every night.  This festival is a representation of all cultures and tribes that make up Oman.  It is an annual event and I will definitely attend more than just one night of this month long celebration in January 2012.

This man was amazing.  During the entire demonstration by the entire group, he wandered around, with wonderful looks on his face and even balancing the tip of his sword on the tip of his finger...without drawing blood!  The costumes and faces of this group was wonderful.

The man below was all smiles and wanted to talk. When I asked him if I could take his picture, he said "Of course" and proceeded to give me this look. After I took his picture, he laughed and said "I hope that's a good picture!"  

Friday, February 25, 2011

Safari in Kenya - 1 Less Item on the Bucket List

I'm a maker of lists. I love lists. I make lists just so I don't forget things, but if I do something that isn't on my list, I add it just so I can cross it off.  Now that's satisfaction!  I recently made a trip to Kenya with a friend and can now cross being close up and personal with wild animals off my Bucket List!

The trip was a 5 day, 4 night safari...just long enough to get a real feel for being in Kenya and experiencing the thrill of seeing these beautiful animals. We stayed at fantastic places, saw gorgeous sights and the food was wonderful.  I have a nice camera but now I want a nicer camera! I want to be able to tell if an animal's eyes are bloodshot or not or be able to see tiny details from 50 feet.  I'm very happy with my over 700 photographs, but next time I take a trip like this, I will invest in a longer zoom lens.

It was a thrill to see elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, hippos, numerous birds and many other animals up close. We traveled across the Maasai Mara reserve in our safari vehicle with a pop up top, covering a good part of its 1500 square kilometers.  In the beginning, I swore I saw an animal, only to find out it was a bush or tree.  After about half a day, I began to be able to tell the difference.  

Our driver, Simon, knew every bird, every animal, the different varieties of the animals and just where to take us to get the best view. All the vehicles had a 2 way radio and there was constantly chatter going on in a language I couldn't understand. They were communicating with each other and passing on information on where animals were.  Of course, as you drove along, if you noticed 5 cars stopped in the distance, you knew something was going on and you'd better head that way!  The ride was rather bumpy going over the dirt trails but it was all worth it.

We spent 2 nights at the Keekorok Lodge, which was wonderful.  The little monkey above, along with the rest of his family, would perch outside my room. He even tried to come in once.  They have the run of the place and there was even a sign in my room warning visitors not to feed them or leave my door open because they knew how to come in and make themselves at home!
A short walk from the room was a hippo pond.  There were 15-20 hippos in the pond at any given time.  You walked along an elevated wooden trail which led to a really neat viewing room. The times I was there, no one else was there. Several animals would congregate at this pond including elephants, ducks and a variety of gazelles, zebras and who knows what else.  It was a very serene place with a 360 degree view.

After 2 days, we moved on to our next destination with Simon...the Great Rift Valley and Lake Naivasha.  We arrived in late afternoon, just in time to see 3 giraffes walking along the road about 15 feet from our front door!  The animals have access to the entire place and later that night, after dark, there were hippos, gazelles and other animals grazing on the large expansive area right outside our window. When I say 'right outside' I mean like within 10 feet!

The next morning we went on a boat ride...well, more like a motor boat ride, on Lake Naivasha.  I don't want to give you the wrong impression was more like a large canoe with seats and a motor.  The sky looked kind of threatening but we paid our $100 and off we went.  We floated by a family of hippos, lots of beautiful birds and could see other animals on the shores. At one point, we stopped and walked among zebras, gazelles and elephants.  Back in the boat, the skipper threw a fish out into the water and an eagle flew from a nearby tree, scooped it up and flew back to the tree.  Pretty amazing!  Just like at Keekorok, the dinner was a huge buffet and the food was wonderful.

The following morning, we were on the road again, this time headed to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.On the way, we stopped at a little place where there was a sign claiming to be the exact spot where the equator passes through. We even saw a 'test' of how from one side of the sign, water drained clockwise and 10 feet away, it drained counter clockwise. I'm a believer. The Mt. Kenya Safari Club is a multi-star lodge built or backed by William Holden and Stephanie Powers. It is gorgeous.  When we checked in we were treated to the words "We are going to upgrade you to a suite."  SWEET!  Our suite overlooked the pond with several types of cranes and ducks and a view of Mt. Kenya to die for.
While one of us was taking a shower, the handle came off and water shot out like a cannon! We were grabbing anything and everything that would soak up water because the bathroom was quickly filling with water. Fortunately, someone arrived, shut off the water and fixed it.

Everything about this trip was wonderful.  It was something I've always wanted to do and finally can say I've done it. If you ever have the opportunity to go on a safari, jump on it! Fortunately, with my job, I have the opportunity for regional travel and I plan on taking advantage of it.  Once I retire (mandatory retirement at age 65) there won't be funds to do things like this so I have to reach for that brass ring whenever I can.  Over the next 4 years, I'm not letting any opportunity slip by me! 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rainy Day in Muscat

Ahhh...the rainy season in Oman.  It is generally hot here but this is the rainy season, short as it might be, and the other day clouds rolled in and it rained. It was a  wonderful rain. The sky had a very threatening look to it and being from Texas, I did expect some thunder and lightning. But all it did was rain. I have been told that the real rainy season is yet to come so maybe this was just a 24 hour teaser. The wadis, or dry riverbeds, are all over and when it rains even a modest amount, these wadis fill with water that runs down off the rock mountains that surround the city.

 Today it's a gorgeous day and I may take a drive to one of the wadis and see if there's any transformation as a result of this rain. The mountains look the same, but they are solid rock, so there is no real greening of them from rain.  I took this picture from the end of my driveway...the front door is just under those pieces of wood sticking out on the right. It was about 4:00pm when I took outdoor lights even came on because of the low light.

Just another pleasant surprise in this middle eastern country...rain. We take it so much for granted yet in some parts of the world it is a blessing.
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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Christmas in Oman, 2010

Happy New Year! My new laptop finally arrived and after much consternation, I now have reliable internet. It's a new year and things are just wonderful here in Muscat, Oman.  I love my life!!

An amazing sight
I had a terrific Christmas.  My friend, Sally, who I worked with in Honduras, flew in from Sarajevo on December 23 and we had 8 days of fun in the sun, being tourists and discovering amazing things in and around Muscat.

 The first day we had brunch at the Grand was delicious. We also did some shopping and I kind of showed her around Muscat. Saturday we went to the Grand Mosque, the Sultan's gorgeous mosque here. The picture doesn't really show how amazing the chandelier is, which is 46' tall and 16' wide.  I've seen many photographs of it and none really show its beauty. This is definitely something that you have to see to appreciate the beauty and enormity of it all.

One of the islands where we swam
Underwater Activity
The next day, we put on our bathing suits, grabbed our snorkeling gear and headed down the carriageway (aka highway) towards Al Sawadi.  Al Sawadi is a beach resort and they offer day trips for divers to 2 islands, about a 45 minute boat ride from shore.  There were about 16 of us and we were the only 2 snorkelers, or top water bobbers as I like to refer to myself.  I tried snorkeling for the first time while living in Honduras and can honestly say I wish I had learned this earlier in life! The beauty that lies just below the surface of the water is unbelievable!  Al Sawadi beach is beautiful and we saw some amazing stuff... the first island even had a beautiful white beach. We were in shallow water, about 8', and it was so clear.  The fish didn't seem to mind us swimming above them at all.  The only problem was that they wouldn't stay still when I wanted to take their picture!
Hut Sweet Hut
The next day we headed toward Al Naseem camp, with a side trip to Ras al Jaz. This is along the coast of Oman. The plan was to spend the night in the desert in what could be best described as a hut with lighting.  Then, that night, along with several other campers, we would drive to
Me out in the desert...and yes, it was a little chilly!
Ras al Jaz, the beach area, about 10 minutes away and see the giant sea turtles as they laid their eggs and hopefully see some baby turtles.  We arrived at camp, which is set up pretty much like a Bedouin camp, around 5:30pm.  We were assigned to Hut #14.  Yes, it was just as it looks in the picture above.  The outdoor sinks added a touch that only a desert camp could (note the reflection in the mirrors).  Ali, our fearless leader, asked us which group of turtle watchers we wanted to be in. I asked what our options were...he said evening or morning.  And the times would be....9pm and 3am.  Sally and I looked at each other (thankful we were the first to arrive and had options) and immediately said 9pm would work!  Fast forward to about 9:30pm...we are walking on the beach in a group of about 20 others, no flashlight and doing our best to not fall in any of the many many large holes made by mama turtles previously. I was told it would remind you of a battle field and it did, what I could see. Several times, I nearly fell in a hole!  The only one with a flashlight was the guide. We saw 3 wonderful sights.  First, we saw a huge turtle in the hole, using her flippers to throw sand backwards, covering her eggs.  After she does this, for about an hour, she digs a second hole about 4 feet ahead of the hole where she laid the eggs.  This is a decoy hole, which she hopes the many predators will look and not go after her eggs. It was something to stand there and have sand thrown back at my legs by this 50 year old turtle.  We then walked further down the beach, still in the dark, and we were directed to another very large turtle in her hole.  We moved to the back side and watched as eggs dropped out of her into the hole, looking very much like ping pong balls.  I have no pictures of this as no cameras are allowed.  We were warned that if anyone took a picture, their camera would be confiscated. At this reserve, they do everything possible to avoid spooking the turtles, including threats of losing your camera. We went on the move again, this time to a spot in the sand where another guide was gently moving the sand around.  Within minutes, baby turtles popped up through the sand and started trying to move around. This was a location where babies had emerged the previous night and since the eggs are in layers, the babies hatch and come out in stages.  They were so cute!!  This is an experience everyone should have and I'm so glad I saw this.  These baby turtles have such a slim chance of making it to the water without being eaten and even once they get to the water, other fish go after them. It's no wonder this turtle is nearly extinct.

We left the following morning, looking forward to our beds back at the house! The sunset was beautiful and so was the early morning, as we watched the sun rise from behind the clouds.
The city of Nizwa
We headed back to Muscat and onward to Nizwa.  It's not a bad drive, through the desert and over the mountains. There is a very large fort there as well as a souk, or marketplace. The fort was a bit of a disappointment because much of it had signs and things enclosed in glass cases. The other fort that I have been to here was pretty much left alone and you could really enjoy it and get a feel for it.  We did go up into the tower, which opened into a huge area.  That part felt realistic!  And the view from the top of the wall the view was incredible.  You would never think of the desert being beautiful but this area is so covered in palm trees and white buildings, then you add the mountains in the background....gorgeous!

On the lookout for......
I want one of these signs!
I'm not sure when, but as we were driving along the highway, we saw a sign.  Ahhh yes...camel territory!!  Both of us had this huge desire to find a camel, take his (or her) picture, pet them and if by chance we got to ride one...fantastic!  So when we saw the sign, we got all excited and giggly!  Sally had her camera in hand and we started looking for large 4 legged animals.  We would see one in the distance and then we'd see 2 or 3 together.  But when the car in front of me pulled out to pass a pick up truck, we struck gold!!!  We were shocked and started laughing so hard I almost drove off the road!  We both grabbed our cameras and started taking pictures.  The guy pulled to the right a little so we could pass but we weren't ready to pass yet!  We had 2 camels in the back of a Toyota pick up in front of us and we were going to enjoy the sheer sight of it for as long as we could!  Our sides hurt from laughing after this little episode, and we were still seeing camels!  They seemed to be everywhere.  We wondered what happened if they decided to cross the road...and we found out!!!
What a face...not mine--the camel's!
Cars were driving by, some slowed down and a couple honked.  But this guy just sauntered across the road and gave everyone the "come and make me move faster" look.  Way cool.

With all the camel sightings, the best was yet to come.  We were just outside of Muscat when Eagle Eye Sally happened to look to the right at just the right time and saw what appeared to be hundreds of camels!  I exited the highway at the first opportunity and tried to find our way back to these camels. After one set of military-looking guards waved us off, we managed to sneak around on another road and in mere minutes, we were eye-to-eyes with CAMELS! As we got out of the car and walked toward the enclosure, we held up our cameras and got a nod of approval. In just a few minutes a man in uniform came over and introduced himself and asked if we wanted to go inside the enclosure. A big yes!  As we were snapping pictures, a second Omani in uniform came over and we were then asked if we wanted to have a ride on one of the camels. You would have thought Sally and I became 9 year olds! We were so excited. Sally went first and then it was my turn. I climbed on the back, behind his hump and before I could grab hold of fur, he started to get up and I did a back flip, landing on some very nice soft sand on my butt!  No harm done...I got up and climbed back on and  leaned forward, into the hydraulic-like movement a camel makes to get up from a laying down position. What fun...

So, life in the Middle East is not all sun and sand.  Sometimes you get lucky and it includes a ride on a cute faced camel!  Stay tuned...I have 18 more months here and am determined to seek out more thrills and excitement!