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|Subject: OT: Jeff takes a trip east - India,Oman,Jordan||Date: 3/23/2013 3:28 AM|
|Author: OrmontUS||Number: 418688 of 501095|
With apologies to the literate among you (a group I am apparently not quite ready for yet), I will repost the first day in Mumbai at the beginning of this post, after running it through a spelling checker this time :- ).
59 10 Mar 2013 Mumbai (Bombay), India (DAY 1 of 2)
I think I’m in love with Mumbai – or at least in extreme toleration with the place. Mumbai is a city of great palpable energy. Bombay was renamed Mumbai – an older name for the city, in 1996. Millions of people are on the go all the time. Overall, we felt very safe here even when we were in crowds (though of course normal prudence dictates being careful of pickpockets and the like).
Everything in India can be safely taken to the extreme. Extreme clothing colors, jewelry, food flavors, odors, traffic noise – everything is enhanced to levels which jangle the nerves of the Westerner. Being a reformed caffeine/adrenaline junkie (well, maybe not that reformed), this place gives me a rush like a quadruple espresso to start the morning off right.
The literacy rate is 95% in Mumbai. India is now the most populous English speaking nation in the world, and almost everyone speaks the language tolerably (and in some unexpected cases incredibly well – it’s strange to hear a beggar or vender speak in unaccented North American English for your attention). It is easy to do business here. Central Mumbai is also surprisingly clean – at least certainly much cleaner than Agra and Delhi! The streets have no litter which was in contrast to what we had seen in the other cities. Of course there was garbage in some alleyways, but by and large there is evidence of a more modern, city moving into prosperity.
The caste system in India has been outlawed for many years. That said, it is a part of everyday life with high-castes running the place and generally reaping most of the benefits. Low-caste and untouchables still are generally relegated to various menial jobs. There is still a stigma regarding marrying below one’s caste and while fewer marriages are arranged (and generally at an older age than before), rules are still rules. Similarly, dowries are outlawed, but still almost universal. There have been numerous cases each year of men killing their wives for their dowry and the government is trying to eliminate this temptation.
To successfully drive in Bombay, you need to be a good driver, have good brakes, have a good horn and have a lot of luck. While the traffic rules here are ignored, it is in careful balance against the cost of a traffic ticket (or bribe to the policemen). While traffic lights seem to be for suggestion, the banning of tuk-tuk’s in the central city means that traffic seams saner than in Delhi or Cochin (but, this is a relative comparison as it is still an order of magnitude more chaotic than most in the US would likely imagine).
There are many beggars in India (everyone needs a job in order to eat and this is simply one of them). Many of the women beggars carry babies and look, in their colorful sari’s, indistinguishable from some of Europe’s “Gypsies”. Some beggars have almost unbelievable deformities and there is a temptation to think that at least some of these are contrived. In the fashion of David (of Sri Lanka fame), many of the beggars (especially the children) work as sub-contractors for employers who accumulate all of the takings and give back a salary and a place to live. As a matter of principle I never give to children beggars because they should be in school (and because I know from experience that if I give to a lone beggar in the middle of the desert, within thirty seconds I will have hundreds of clutching hands, pleading eyes and begging voices surrounding me).
Mumbai is divided into two districts, South and North Mumbai. South Mumbai is known as the elite district and is called "Town." The stock market, luxury hotels and high rises make up this area with its many wealthy residents. North Mumbai is more of an area for technology. The area grew because of its population increase. It was never part of Mumbai but today has about the same landscape as South Mumbai.
Years ago there was a moat here that protected the city - and now there is this wide beautiful boulevard that has these very large colonial buildings on what would have been shoreline of the moat. This is the most expensive real estate of the city, and for those of us used to the pristine condition of western buildings it is a shock to see the condition of these - which again is more often than not, marred with mold. There are impressive buildings from the British era - the Gateway to India, built for King George V's and Queen Mary's first visit to India, the Victoria Terminal - the railway, the library, - to name a few. There is also a very large, new modern beautiful Safe Hospital built by the Muslims.
The layout of the city is also quite compact - with the beautiful circular Marine Drive, known as the Queen's Necklace at night, ringing the bay. Chowpatty Beach and the many old Victorian buildings facing it are charmingly illuminated at night. Chowpatty Beach has a Ferris wheel that does not have a motor, but is powered by young men climbing on top of the wheel, then jumping on the next rung down making the wheel rotate. But it is at night when this district comes to life as people come to Chowpatty (technically the “Beach” is redundant and will confuse many locals) to escape the heat and patronize the food venders hawking their wares. There are some tours of the city’s “red light” districts, but we aren’t going to take these :- (.
I am a firm believer that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess and the buffet of sights to see and places to go in Mumbai have to be crammed into the two days we are staying here. While I’m sure we’ll be back for a longer stay in the next year or so, I am like a starved glutton at a banquet.
After a reasonably painless visit to Indian Immigrations, we begin again by stopping at the Gateway to India, the Indo-Saracenic archway, built in 1911. It is an impressive structure. Although it was originally constructed to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, it was conceived as an entry point for passengers arriving on P&O steamers from England. Today it is remembered for the departure of the British in 1948. There were monks, and hawkers aplenty here trying to get us to part with our money, but not in an objectionable manner.
After a few photos we boarded a rickety wooden ferry for the hour ride to Elephanta Island (named this by the Portuguese because of a large stone statue of an elephant which has since been relocated to a Mumbai museum). There are large caves here with columns reminiscent of Karnack in Luxor, Egypt and large bas reliefs of the Indian guard Shiva, the destroyer, carved in the stone. We are in luck (in one sense at least) that today is a festival dedicated to Shiva. The long path to the caves is lined with venders of all sorts of chatkas and souvenirs. There is some sort of small tourist train whose tracks reach partway, but it doesn’t seem to be functioning. There are probably over 100 steps on this path, but the angle is low enough that the steps are about ten feet apart on this mile long route. There are hand carried sedan chairs available (at $14 one way – up only as the down direction is deemed too dangerous) for those who are too frail to walk. This place is mobbed. The entire path is filled with people jostling in both directions. The caves are filled with men women and children and the bright colors of regional sari’s from all over India. Flashes of gold come from ornate earlobe chains attached to earrings. Flames shoot up from ignited offerings, garlands of marigolds drape everything. After spending some time in the temple, we fought our way back through the ever thickening throng. As we walked back to our ferry we saw smaller boats which looked like they had standing room only – with an almost impossible number of people standing in a crowd and literally filling every inch of the boats. This looked like these pilgrims were intent on becoming a statistic.
Our ferry was “rafted” with others and we had to cross a couple of other boats to get to ours. After the hour boat ride back, we headed off to an Indian buffet at the “Indian Summer” restaurant (80, Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate) which was very good (at about 960 rupees).
Nobody likes dirty laundry, but I was fascinated by the Dhobi Ghat. (This is the same name as a major subway station in Singapore where, I guess, sometime in the clouds of the past there was a similar establishment). The Dhobi Ghat is on the banks of the local river. We saw 1,000, of the 2,000, stone cubicles, where 10,000 men labor to pick up dirty clothes from homes all over Mumbai to be soaped, soaked, boiled, beaten and thrashed. The next day, after being aired, pressed, folded and wrapped, the bundles are delivered to their owners. The secret that keeps the operation running smoothly is the coded symbol that each dhobi-whallah places on every item (since many of the workers here are illiterate). Invisible to the untrained eye, this mark ensures that nothing is lost. You just cannot imagine this sight until you see it. Each vat belongs to a family who acts as a small general contractor with a different family member doing each task (pickup, washing, wringing, drying, delivery, etc.) and paying separately, by government meter for the water in their particular vat. We were there at the high heat of the day, and although the workers were laboring in water, it certainly, once again drove home how manual much of the labor remains in this nation. I guess because it is late on a hot day, a number of young boys are swimming BA in unused concrete vats. Since it is Sunday, there are a vast number of cricket games going on – some of which are here (and some of which are played in the streets). This is the largest Laundromat in the world with over 1 million pieces of clothing being washed daily (including the row of red Delta Airlines blankets hanging here in their hundreds.
We headed to the Taj Hotel. The hotel was invaded by (Pakistani) terrorists a few years ago with a great loss of like (and reputation. Nowadays, security is very tight. Cars are inspected for explosives and barriers are let down to let cars pass, and each guest also goes through metal detectors, and there are security guards crawling all over the premises One used to be able to enter the Taj from the back, but now there is only one entrance. The hotel was amazing with large fountains, beautiful paintings, and fabulous stores. This is one of those joints where there is a fellow in the washroom to turn on the water (adjusting the temperature), squirt the soap and hand you a towel.
We traveled along Marine Drive which is Mumbai's graceful seaside boulevard and promenade that sweeps from the skyscrapers at Nariman Point to the foot of Malabar Hill (and whose lights, at night, form the Queen’s Necklace). We proceeded to Malabar Hill which is Mumbai's ritziest neighborhood. Its forested slopes, sea Mantrabreeze and panoramic views have made the area popular since the 18th century when merchants and colonial governors built mansions and bungalows on the hillsides. Since then, luxury high-rises, home to politicians and movie stars have dominated the scenes.
From there we went to a Janis temple. This is dedicated to one of the world’s oldest religions and is a magnificent (relatively new) example of marble carved in the traditional Indian style. The adherents of this religion are vegetarian to the extreme (they will not eat root vegetables, for example, because pulling them up may harm the insects living on their roots.
We went to the Hanging Gardens (which now cover a huge cistern which stores water brought by pipes from the mountains for use as drinking water – and frankly don’t hang) to see the people of India spending time among the flowers, visiting with friends, and walking the track around the gardens. The hedges were carved into animal shapes here. We could also see a billion dollar, 27 story home, that is not lived in by the owner (though 65 servants live here full time – though some descriptions say 650 servants), the richest man in India, because the astrologer told him it is facing the wrong direction. Astrology is still big here, and is used after children are born, for weddings, business, etc.
There were hawkers here selling purses for one dollar and bracelets, which many bought. There were also children begging for money and I wondered why they were not in school, which is compulsory. Maxine told me that if a child can contribute to the household income, they are taken out to beg, and that women routinely "borrow" children and babies to beg. One must always remember this is about eating or not.
One woman selling silver-ish bracelets used what I now call tuk-tuk math. She offered her bracelets at $1 each, three for $4 and four for $5. I am sure there have been tourists who took advantage of here quantity discount program.
We passed a Zoroaster place of final termination (?). This small religion believes that, when a person dies they should be left for the crows and carrion birds to eat. There are three pavilions for this purpose on the top of a hill (one for men, one for women and one for children).
Next we travelled to the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum which is a two-story building where Mahatma Gandhi once lived. It is now a museum, library and research center. It is all about Gandhi’s life and the many struggles that took place for India to receive its freedom peacefully.
We stopped at Victoria Terminus and we viewed the terminal from the street. Victoria Terminus is the main railway station of Mumbai and was built during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year. The first train began its journey from there in 1853.
The world's largest movie industry, Bollywood, is located in Mumbai. The "B" in Bollywood is derived from the city's former name, Bombay. Like Hollywood, Bollywood is the center for entertainment in India. The ship has brought on a large troupe of Bollywood dancers for the evening’s entertainment.
This is the land of cricket. While riding around, we passed a huge field where our guide said that while it is impossible to play a hundred cricket matches on one field, in India everything is possible. We also saw a match played on a rooftop when we visited Dholbi Ghat. As we approached the port, we interrupted numerous cricket matches played by boys in the middle of the street.
Tomorrow will be yet another day in Mumbai :- ).
60 11 Mar 2013 Mumbai (Bombay), India (DAY 2 of 2)
The old joke about how the 97% of lawyers who are scoundrels give the rest a bad name applies to taxis in Mumbai (but still doesn’t come close to tuk-tuks elsewhere in India). All of the cabs have meters but will try to take advantage of a tourist by naming a ridiculous flat fare first. Sometimes they will “misunderstand” and attempt to say that the charge is per passenger rather than per cab. After a bit of experimenting I determined that a fair flat rate to most of downtown Mumbai is about 50 rupees and to far off neighborhoods like Mahalaxmi is about 100 rupees (a rough approximation is 100 rupees equals about $2US).
While the literacy rate here is allegedly 95%, and most of the store signs are generally in English, only a small percentage of the population can speak (or even understand spoken) English fluently. This means that one has to be very careful (and keep things simple) to keep from confusing cab drivers and to make sure that one fully understands what shopkeepers are proposing.
We rarely take cruise ship offered tours (the one we took in Phuket on this trip is only the third time ever). They are invariably at least double (and sometimes much more) the cost of identical tours offered by local outfits. They are also transported in large buses of people who are prone to toilet stops, getting lost causing delays and arguing. They also generally include stops to “approved” shops where the prices are much higher than they should be in order to pay a 50% commission to the tour company running the tour. A less expensive alternative is to group together with one or more other couples and arrange your own private tour (we use free a web site called “Cruise Critics” as a meeting place to arrange these as there are chat sessions set up for nearly every specific cruise by the interested passengers). This method reduces the problems of the big tour group (you can frequently veto unwanted shopping stops – though the guide will have a hang-dog expression and try to convince you how good the bargains are at his selected shop). A third option is to hire a taxi driver who speaks reasonable English and will act as a combination of transport and guide. This frequently works, but has to be done prudently to avoid overpaying or ending up (by taxi sleight of hand) with a driver who doesn’t speak English well.
Yet another alternative is to read up about a destination and explore the place on your own with a mixture of taxis and public transportation. Cruise lines presentations will try to throw “the fear of God” into you and recommend that you don’t use this method (to both push their own excursions and to limit their liability as they can now say “I told you so), but this is the method we frequently prefer. The one mandatory stipulation is to return to the ship on time (while they will wait for their own tour groups to return, they will abandon passengers independently touring on their own and sail away without them). This knowledge simply becomes part of the planning and a margin of safety is built into the time line. The advantages of traveling on your own are numerous. The transportation is invariably much cheaper (in a case like Mumbai, negligible). You have the freedom to spend as much/little time as you wish at a sight. You can go to sights and markets which are too small or too crowded for large tour groups to enter (I can’t conceive of a tour guide trying to herd a busload of cats in the jam-packed crowds of the back alley market areas north of Crawford Market – and then trying to locate them afterwards, but they end up missing this part of the experience. Similarly, we will later see a “staging” of an event rather than having a tour group experience the full impact). You also get to shop where you want and at the speed you want. There is also a greater possibility that you will meet either locals or other parallel travelers and make new friends. There are, of course, some disadvantages to winging it on your own. Generally (at least in India) the taxis are not air conditioned which means you will have little respite from the heat (it’s over 90F/31C degrees and 92% humidity right now – and this is the cool season, I think) and the thought of a climate controlled tour bus equipped with a cooler full of ice water is like a mirage over a hot desert. You will be in areas where you might be the only Westerners. This is generally quite safe, and most countries (even large cities – with a few exceptions, of course) don’t have a major crime problem, but you have to be constantly aware of the situation around you to avoid doing something dumb. Usually only the local currency will be accepted (except in countries with failing currencies). It is, of course, possible to get lost in a place where no one speaks English (getting rarer nowadays), but as soon as the panic wears off, communication is generally pretty easy and people are generally hospitable and anxious to assist you in getting on the right path. Anyway, it is this last method of sightseeing that we will be using today.
We headed out before the heat and humidity and decided to try to experience the real everyday life of Mumbai. We took a cab to the front of the Victoria Terminal, which is a most remarkable rail station inspired by St. Pancras Station in London. It was built during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year and is an extraordinary conglomeration of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets in a style described by journalist James Cameron as Victorian-Gothic-Saracenic-Italianate-Oriental-St.Pancras-Baroque. Today half a million commuters use this station every day. I figured that this would give us a feeling of what rush hour looks like in one of the world’s most populous cities and I wasn’t disappointed. Trains pull in every minute with men hanging out of the doors. Since the trains frequently only stay put for less than a minute, the second a train stops people start jumping off into the growing crowd rushing towards the end of the platform. There are a couple of special “woman only” cars at the front of each train (presumably in respect to Muslim requirements).
After watching the flow of humanity for a while, we headed off by cab to the Dhobi Ghat at Mahalaxmi. From a roadway bridge we can hear the whack-whack-whack of hundreds of men slamming laundry against concrete tubs. The area is covered by clothes lines where twists in the line take the place of clothe pins. The street laundry we walked through yesterday was vast, but this one was even larger. Most of the tour groups look at this outdoor laundry from an elevated roadway, but since we are on our own we walked down into the adjoining slum. We could have entered for a fee of 100 rupees, but figured it wouldn’t add much to yesterday’s experience (but it was interesting that none of the tours even let people know that entering was an option. But then, adding all the charges of doing yesterday’s $25 +/- a head for a tour of Elephanta Island trip on our own would have left change from 100 rupees a person).
I realize that one of the bizarre reasons for the strange way traffic flows down the streets here is that many of the cars – including many of the small, ancient taxi cabs – are lacking at least one (and often both) of their side mirrors. It’s almost as if the ones that exist were after-market add-ons rather than those lacking being removed.
The slums are shocking, but they are hives of industry themselves as they are working communities, with flourishing laundries, recycling businesses creating pools of colorful waste products which seep into the soil and similar enterprises which make use of labor which costs less than $2 a day.
After getting our fill of the slums, we boarded a local train at Mahalaxmi traveled from this station (for 5 rupees) to experience the life of a typical Mumbaikar and travelled about 6 stops to Churchgate Railway Station- another one of Mumbai's busiest hubs on the local commuter train network.
We jumped off the cars shortly after the train arrived at Churchgate Station. We were greeted by a phalanx of shoe shine “boys” (some rather elderly) offering their services for 7 rupees a pair. They advertise their services by clacking their brushes and creating their own overlay of racket. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing leather shoes so their cacophony was wasted in my case.
We had timed our arrival at the Churchgate Railway Station to see the dabba-wallahs, members of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association make their food deliveries. This event starts taking place at 11:30 sharp. At 11:15, a man gets off a train carrying a two meter long wood try on his head filled with lunch containers and lays it down on the platform. Our tour guide from yesterday walks a group of tourists to this, and points, while explaining what they are seeing. Then they boarded a train to head to the dhobi ghat. I realize that this event was planned to give them a feeling of authenticity without exposing them to the full chaos of the real thing. (And the Chinese male tourists involved took photos showing how they would look getting off of the train without realizing that it was the woman’s car they were using – complete with a large image of a woman’s head next to his).
Precisely at 11:30 the lunches arrive by train into this station, are sorted and offloaded to a different group of dabba -wallahs, and delivered on time. How these guys carry their heavy two meter long platforms full of food on their heads in crowded trains in order to deliver them to the distribution point just outside the station is a mystery I still have not figured out. Every day 4000 of them deliver fresh, home cooked food from 100,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each lunch is prepared by a loving wife or mother, and packed in a set of stackable aluminum boxes. The meals are carried to their hungry recipients dangling from shoulder poles and bicycle handlebars and stacked on decorated handcarts. Tins are rarely, if ever, lost, and always find their way home again to be washed for the next day's lunch. This delivery service is ranked Six Sigma and the failure rate is 1 in 6 million. Prince Charles (when he visited Mumbai) once asked to meet a dabba wallah and was told he could - if he was on time - which he was. When he married Camilla he invited 2 dabba-wallah's, all expenses paid, to the wedding in order to deliver the cake on-time and with a flourish.
From the station, we walked (past the restaurant we ate lunch at yesterday) to the Intercontinental Hotel. While this is not one of the world’s most luxurious hotels like the Taj Mahal Hotel, it is a five star establishment where we took the elevator to the roof for photos of Chowpatty and the beach (and a toilet stop). When entering strange hotels for this purpose, it is best to look like you belong (and maybe ask where tea is being served). Incidentally, the Taj Mahal hotel was built in the early 20th century by a wealthy Indian who was upset that the British hotels wouldn’t allow him to stay and decided to build a hotel even more lavish than theirs which would accept him as a guest. Originally, the front entrance faced the city, but the lobby was then redesigned so that the new front of the hotel faces the Gate of India monument.
Outside on the sidewalk, I met a guy who was eating something made by a man with a lot of potions set up on a tray. It turned out that he was mixing up betel leaf concoctions. So I talked to the guy and he had the potion man make me one. He said it was good for digestion and cleansing your palate. I was a little scared because I had no idea what I was about to eat - he added so many things to it that I lost track. It was pretty good, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it.
Mumbai’s commercial area (north of Victoria Terminus) is divided into adjoining markets, each specializing in a different thing (with sub-areas concentrating on an even more granular basis). While Crawford market is the largest, we then took a cab to the Zaveri jewelry market. This consisted of hundreds of stores (many wholesale) selling everything from costume jewelry to pieces which rivaled those shown in the shops of the Taj hotel. I spot checked some of the items we picked up in Dubai and Singapore and they were far more expensive here (sold as “jewelry”, rather than as “gold”) which explains why the Indians we in a feeding frenzy in the Dubai gold shops. That said, some of the pieces here had far more elaborate workmanship when it came to including gems than those found abroad.
Then we were off to Crawford Market, which is the most famous markets in Mumbai. (On the way, we passed an area which seemed to be devoted to men having their ears cleaned by specialists lining the street). Crawford Market is also known as the Jyotiba Phule Market but it was originally named after Arthur Crawford, the first Municipal Commissioner of the city of Bombay. The streets are crowded with porters carrying large wicker baskets on their heads (many of them empty with their bearers looking for a client) and long wheeled carts piled with goods. I saw a truck driver slip some currency to a policeman who opened a traffic barrier and let the truck join the fray. The market is partially housed in a building that looks like something out of Victorian London, but is overrun with a crazy riot of local color, including the chaotic wholesale cloth market with a tremendous variety of fabrics at hundreds of indoor stalls. Almost any imaginable fabric – from worsted wool for men’s suits to the most exotic sari materiel was on sale in unimaginable variety. While there were also tailors waiting to create the garment of your dreams, we didn’t have enough time to indulge. Actually, I think the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market is the produce market and the fabric market is the Mangaldas market. The one market we (regrettably) seem to have missed is the Chor Bazaar (thieves Market) which has a number of streets devoted Indian antiques of all sorts.
After shopping in a place like this there is always a bit of regret over the “one that got away” – the item which, in retrospect, should have been purchased. We visited a shop specializing in full suits (splendid jewel encrusted things worthy of Elton John) specifically for properly dressing maharajas and Arabic sultans. While the suits ran about $1,000, the turbans (with a fan extending parallel from the front and a “modest” jewel around the size of the Kol-I-Noor diamond sold for about forty bucks. It would have been worth it just to wear into the dining room on formal night :- ).
We were tempted to eat lunch at Cafe de Paris. Despite its name, this is a bare bones all you can eat thali joint with possibly the best price-quality ratio in Mumbai, which at least on Indian standards tends to be expensive. Incredibly popular with the locals, it serves fantastic thalis for the whopping price of 40 rupees (that's 60 cents). It's located on the Southern end of the Colaba Causeway, past the main hubbub.
That said, the weather was beastly hot and humid. While I somehow don’t seem to be adversely affected by the odors, my wife seems to find the smells in the market and the air pollution hard to tolerate. While we had also considered meeting some friends at a restaurant named “Khyber”, we were hot, beat and had had enough for now and retreated back to the ship. (Our friends did eat at Khyber and, while expensive at about $40 a person, they said it was the best Indian food they had ever eaten). There were 2 floors and lots of smaller rooms. They apparently had Mango Lassi, Yellow Dal with Garlic naan, chili popper things with dips, chicken kabobs, and a rice pudding thing for dessert, washed down with Kingfisher beer).
61 12 Mar 2013 At Sea
Ahoy matey – there be pirates in these waters. Back to the blackout curtains, lookouts, deployed water hoses and sound cannons.
62 13 Mar 2013 At Sea
63 14 Mar 2013 Muscat, Oman ON VX
Oman has been ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos, an absolute monarch. The current Sultan grew up in Salalah and then was educated in Sandhurst, Great Britain’s military college. Afterwards, he traveled around the world for five years and then spent some time in Oman studying Islam. His father was known as a very religiously conservative and brutal man and when the current Sultan took over, the country was very backwards. There seems to be a bit of reluctance about discussing the current Sultan’s rise to power as he apparently deposed his father. The Sultan was married at one time, but events cause the termination of that union and he has not since remarried. Since he has no children (that are accepted), succession is likely to be decided between his brother and his uncle (this was a topic which was quickly changed each time it came up). Since acquiring power, he has maintained strict neutrality towards the other players in the Gulf and has concentrated on pouring much of the wealth oil brought in towards improving Oman’s infrastructure and the education of its people.
The Sultan, and therefore the country are wealthy. That said, while the people are told of each new oil discovery as if they will continue forever, the country has only about 10-15 years’ worth of proven reserves. This fact is not lost on the Sultan who is making every effort to find alternate income sources (including tourism). The Grand Mosque is, well, grand, but less so than that of Abu Dhabi. The hotels are five stars, but less lavish than those of Dubai. The country is larger, but much of it is part of the “empty quarter” which it shares with Saudi Arabia. The Sultan is progressive, but the customs of the country are still traditional (though less so than in Saudi Arabia). The major threat from the country’s borders seems to be its proximity to Yemen. The people seem to love their Sultan, but one wonders what the situation will be once the oil runs out.
Not only will the government pay for local education up to a level only limited by a student’s lack of aptitude, but will also pay for them to study abroad at the university level if local colleges do not offer appropriate subject matter. The government will even transport students by helicopter to universities in Omani cities far from where they live if courses are not available close to home.
While Saudi Arabia’s royal family is under the pressure of the Wahhabi movement they, themselves, created, Oman is more religiously forgiving. That said, pigs and their products are outlawed here.
Geographically, Oman also owns the tip of the Arabian Peninsula which sticks into the Strait of Hormuz (called Musandam Pen Kasair). This 21 km wide strait only has a 2 ½ km channel suitable for oil tankers and is where Iran has threatened to mine the Gulf if it is attacked.
We have decided to join a tour set up by another one of the passengers and head south from Muscat in 4x4’s. To be honest, this is our most expensive trip of this type so far. The taxi stand at the ship has fixed prices which work out to about $50 an hour (a taxi/4x4 for four people worked out to 120 Omani Riel for the day) and this tour costs about the same. While the Omani Riel is currently at about $2.68 to the dollar, the drivers (and many others) “to make the math easy” generally round things out to $3 per Riel and 2 Euro per Riel. This makes using Euros cheaper or drives anyone sane enough (not like most dumb Americans) to an ATM. Anyhow, if it had been up to us alone, we would have walked into town and hired an “unofficial” taxi at a lower price, but since we are in the midst of mass confusion upon arrival, this is not socially acceptable (and I guess the good news is that what we are doing is still far less expensive than the parallel excursions run by the ship).
Well, we had a bit of a “fire drill” this morning as the three cars booked by one of the passengers didn’t show up as expected and I had to step in and help substitute taxi drivers who also owned 4x4’s (as nearly everyone seems to here) for the same price. As this executive decision was taken without trying to reach consensus among the rest of the group of twelve individuals involved, a couple of tempers flared. Since the lovely lady who set the original tour up was as paralyzed as a doe in the headlights of a car at night, it just made sense to me to make this adjustment in plans and not end up in endless meetings which would ultimately end up at the same decision (or maybe it was just the latent “boss” arising like a phoenix from the ashes). Anyway, everything worked out reasonably OK in the end.
This is an exceedingly safe country to travel in and the people are very hospitable. The population is wealthy and there is no sense that a foreigner is at any time at risk from physical assault or malicious attempts of any kind. That said, because of the upbringing of the average American, being faced with a mob of bathrobe wearing Arabs can apparently be intimidation to some and the majority of the people aboard our ship have missed the opportunity to interface with the Omani’s by taking ship tours.
Our driver spoke pretty good English (it turned out the other two were slightly less fluent) and met his wife at a supermarket (she was using the family Toyota Land Cruiser to shop – women in Oman regularly drive and, while they frequently wear a black abaya robe and veil when outside, I saw a couple of them holding the hem while they walked to expose colorful garments worn underneath). We drove following her to their home, which was far more lavish than I would have expected a taxi driver to live in. We left the taxi in front of the driver’s house and took his SUV. Both cars looked as clean as they would if they had rolled off the lot yesterday – it seems you can receive a 100 Real fine if your car is dirty and police will give you a bucket and sponge to clean the car while they wait. We filled the tank with gasoline (petrol) at a little over a buck a gallon.
We also solved a mystery. Last summer I wrote (here) while in Cyprus about the large group of Omani’s supported by a C-130 transport plane that vacationed at our hotel. Apparently that was the Sultan of Oman and his entourage. He keeps two large yachts in the Mediterranean and one in Oman to rush to his needs. It seems that the Sultan is a very benevolent autocrat. He is an absolute monarch whose ministers serve at his pleasure to advise him (but, without children, his heir is not cast in stone). Since the Sultans of Oman used to rule Zanzibar (now part of Tanganyika), and the Sultan spent some of his childhood there, there are close ethnic ties to that island. Southern Omanis are ethnically linked to the Yemenites. The three main languages spoken in Oman are Arabic (with a classical accent similar to the Saudi’s), English and Hindi (because there are many Indians who work in the country).
There are housing projects all over the Muscat area of large white single family residences which have been given (for free) to the occupants by the government. Our driver decided to avoid the seven year wait for a new home and purchased a 60 square meter plot of land in a new developing area for about $1,000US. The lavish house he built cost about $60,000US and was financed by a 13 year loan that he is paying off at the rate of $265US per month (though he is “double paying” when he can to shorten the duration of the loan). I suspect the taxi driver makes over $250K per year. I was invited into his house and it was quite lavish (at an upper middle-class US level) and he had a servant. While some of his friends had more than one wife, he explained the challenges that that brought to men and he had only one (and two boys, two parrots, some goldfish and a Persian cat).
The standard garb for a man here is a white (sometimes light brown – I guess to add color in one’s life) ankle length “dashisha” (an “abaya” would be a woman’s black – sometimes decorated with sparkles on a sleeve or the hem - ankle length robe) and cylindrical hat with an embroidered pattern. I asked how much the garments cost and he said that machine made dashisha’s cost about $15 (converting here), but his was tailor made and cost about $45 (and proudly showed off the fine stitching and pattern applied). Our driver said that his hat cost about $20, but had seen tourists pay as much as five times as much.
The highways we drove over are modern and, in general, less than a year old. There is a concerted effort to build infrastructure before the oil runs out. All foreigners are required to work or else they are deported (as are those foreigners who retire). The majority of each business’s ownership is being transferred (by Sultan’s law) from foreigners – mostly Indian – to Omanis.
Omani’s love camping (they particularly enjoy riding camels and pretending they are Bedouin). In the winter, camping is generally in the desert and in the summer along the beach. During the summer months the temperature can get into the 50’s (Celsius) in the north and west during the khamsin when a hot breeze blows across the Middle East like a blast from an oven and even Omanis feel the heat. On the other hand, during the winter, the temperature can actually reach the low 20’s (again Celsius) and our driver said that last year it got down as low as 21 degrees and his wife was forced to wear lined shoes in the house (shoes are always removed before entering a home here) because the floors were so cold. A couple of days ago, they had both rain and hail – something our driver had never seen before and was trying to wrap his head around the difference between hail and snow (which he still hasn’t seen).
Since I was sitting in the front seat next to the driver in his Land Cruiser, I go the chance to spend the time between sights chatting with him about his impressions. This covered a wide variety of topics including:
He told me a story about an “American black woman from the Tribe of Jackson” who insulted him by refusing to get into his car and saying that he looked like he wanted to rob her. After her sister discovered that he spoke English better than most of the other drivers, she tried to hire him but he refused even though she offered as much as three times the original price.
We discussed the difference in Arabic dialects between the Gulf States and those of Jordan/Lebanon/Syria, Iraq, that of Egypt and those of the Maghreb in far off North Africa. While there are differences, the Gulf States and Palestinians speak a pure Arabic (as he put it, the way the characters are written, while others write it the same, but pronounce it incorrectly). Arabic shifts in accent as one moves away from Arabia until it is dialect which is not able to be understood by those living in the Gulf area.
He spoke about his opinion that those who came from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (he used a single word for this area based on a Syrian town’s name, but frankly I forget the word he used) could not be trusted and “every word they say to you is a lie”. He said that Indians were intelligent and worked very hard, but after working for you for years, one day they would take all your money and disappear. He said that Pakistanis would work even harder than Indians, but you had to be very careful with them because if you turned your back they could kill you. He was a veritable font of ethnic tolerance :- ).
He said that about 98% of Oman’s population was Sunni Moslem, but the small Shia population was very wealthy and under the protection of the Sultan. He mentioned that while the Sunni’s had no problem with Shia attending their mosque services, the reverse was not the case (and the Sunni prayed five times a day and the Shia three times, but their services were longer). The Shia neighborhood is walled and the gate has a sign that those who are not Shia are not welcomed to enter (it reminded me of a ghetto, but I think this one is self-imposed). When the Shia mosque has services celebrating on of their holidays (today seems to be an example), their “large cars” (as our driver called SUV 4x4’s) are allowed by the police to park on the sidewalks “and everywhere” blocking the sidewalks and side streets.
I just thought I would mention something that is pretty obvious throughout Asia. Praying in mosques and synagogues is dome facing west (towards Mecca and Jerusalem) rather than east, as is taken for granted in America and Europe.
Oman is rare among Gulf States in that liquor is widely available. The Sultan feels that it should be each man’s responsibility to decide between drinking and the mosque and, while he hopes all will choose the mosque, it is not his desire to impose the decision. When our traveling companion (who comes from Utah, but is not overly polite – to put it mildly) told the joke that “the way you keep your beer from being drunk by your companion when fishing with a Mormon is to bring a second Mormon along”, our driver said that it was quite frequent for Omani’s to take beer or liquor into the wadi’s when camping and drink too much. He seemed relieved that I didn’t smoke and I told him that I didn’t drink or gamble (well, at least not in his car).
While there are plenty of feral donkeys around, the free ranging camels apparently belong to local Bedouin. This also applies to the goats wandering around. During the Ramadan new years holiday, each Omani family needs to buy a goat. The local Bedouin ones are about 130 Riel, Australian ones are about 100 Riel and ones from Sudan (which apparently run scrawny) are about 80 Riel. The family has the animal slaughtered, barbeques half and gives the other half away to the poor. I am unclear why there should be any poor in Oman, but we saw a number of beggars on the street near the mosques.
Bedouins apparently love driving fast and are therefore partial to Toyota’s Lexus brand, which have large motors. We saw these cars shooting down the highway at speeds that had to be exceeding 170 km/hr by a reasonable margin. While I saw a number of traffic cameras, there are very few police.
We are finally back in a country which drives on the “proper” (US/Canada) side of the road. It is sobering to realize that while we, in America, feel that only the obstinate English keep to their quaint tradition of driving backwards, a high percentage of the world’s vehicles are similarly configured in Asia. We discussed the efficacy of various brands of 4x4’s. Our diver separated them into classes which were good for desert, good for mountains and good for off-road. In his opinion, the Toyota Land Cruiser was best for all purpose use. He said that German cars (BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, etc.) frequently overheated, but the Japanese cars did well. Hummers were too heavy and sank into the sand. For budget vehicles, the Jeep Wrangler and Hyundai seemed to be his preference.
We drove to the fishing town of Quriyat, an hour’s drive east of Muscat. This town is worth visiting for the journey alone. The route winds through the foothills of the Hajar mountains, passing whitewashed villages, free-ranging camels and donkeys, and lone individuals tending herds of sheep or goats.
“Hajar” means rock and one of the pleasures of the drive is the opportunity to observe the mountainous rock up close. What appears to be a uniform dark brown from a distance reveals on closer inspection a diverse array of colors, ranging through shades of jet black, flint grey, jade green and burnt orange. The road to Quriyat culminates in a dramatic descent offering spectacular views of the coastal plain below. In the morning, Quriyat is a sleepy town where goats wander freely, foraging in front yards, sleeping on door steps and chewing on fishing nets. In the shaded alleys between the houses local women seated on carpets gather to share the latest news.
We drove to a dam (which was brand new) across a wadi creating a large lake as a reservoir (stocked with some pretty large fishes of some sort that our driver was unaware of – Salmon fishing in the Oman?). The word “wadi” is Arabic for a canyon which is generally dry, but can sometimes (frequently seasonal) have water flowing, pooled or in a well sometimes creating an oasis.
From there, we headed to the Bimah sinkhole, a spectacular limestone crater with blue green water at the bottom. This is at least 30 meters deep and even more across. There is a new staircase which allows you to climb down to the water for a swim. Apparently there is a connection to the ocean (nearby) as the water is very salty. The sinkhole is filled with small fish which (in the same fashion that people pay in Singapore spas for the service) crowd around your feet and nibble off the dead skin (or maybe they are trying to eat me, but can’t stretch their mouths wide enough).
We proceeded to Wadi Tiwi , green valley with house and forts, surrounded by high cliffs and flowing water from caves. This is your basic desert oasis with pools of water and date palms. About the only thing missing is the camel caravan.
We next headed to a hotel at Fin’s Beach for a bit of lunch (passing a couple of elusive gazelles along the way. This was in a hotel only opened about a week ago and the menu was very short. We placed our orders (mine was hummus from a can, with cucumber slices and pita bread, along with a lime and mint cold drink). While waiting for my food, I wandered over to peek at the buffet table which had a spread laid out by a large family (of about 15). They insisted that I try their food and continued to heap piles of the broad variety on my plate. I carried this back to the eleven other people sitting at our table (we had three cars of four each) and offered them some. They seemed frightened to try it (and the guy from Utah made wise cracks about me begging for food), so I ate the lot (curried chicken, basmati rice, some type of grilled fabulous local fish – could have been tuna or swordfish, yogurt with chopped garden vegetables, etc.) with gusto. Then all those people frightened of local germs ordered ice cubes for their drinks – each of us chooses our own poison :- ). There was an opportunity to go swimming on the beach.
After the late lunch at the Wadi Shab Hotel, it was only a short drive to Wadi Shab itself - an Oasis full of Palm plantation, banana and mango trees, surrounded by mountains. Ever since the area was hit by a recent cyclone which destroyed a bridge, there have been a couple of guys with small boats who will, for one Riel per five people ferry you to the other side. This entailed about a 45 minute walk (past bunches of Omani teens – Thursday afternoon is the beginning of their weekend - couples walking together and the odd handful of tourists) through rows of date palms to a pool where there is a small waterfall. This fresh water meets the estuary from the sea and you can dive in the icy water of the pool below the waterfall and go through the opening into the main pool.
We then drove the couple of miles back to Muscat. Our driver needed to change back to his cab (as his wife needed the car we were in to visit her mother). When new got to his house, he invited us in, but while the other people in the cab didn’t want to impose (and were tired), I figured he would be insulted if I didn’t accept. It was a beautiful house decorated with hanging oriental rugs and some of his family heirlooms (his grandfather’s silver kinjar knife, his grandmother’s silver bracelets, etc.) below a piece of glass covering his tea table. The ceiling was covered with strips of wood (which he confided later were actually plaster, cleverly stained and painted by a Pakistani), marble floors covered in rugs and so on.
He suggested that he drop us at the souk (about 800 meters from the port) as he said that it would be crowded with Yemini on Thursday night (before their Friday day off), but would be empty on Friday morning, but we were tired from the long day and opted to head to the port. Tomorrow is another day and we will still be in Muscat.
64 15 Mar 2013 Muscat, Oman VX
Since it is Friday, the Moslem equivalent of the Sabbath, the souk will be closing early. We left the port and made an almost immediate turn on the left side into the fresh fish market. When they say fresh, they mean it as many of the fish were still flopping around – though there didn’t seem to be much ice used to keep them fresh. I have never seen such a variety of locally caught fish in one spot. These included a number of types of tunas, swordfish, marlins, flounders and the list goes on almost forever. The large market (about a city block in size) was packed with men - almost exclusively – there didn’t seem to be more than a small handful of women among the crowded aisles. There were rows of professional fish cleaners against the back wall who you could take your purchases to. There were spirited negotiations taking place over the price. Based on the variety found in the market, Muscat would be a wonderful place to set up a sports fishing concession, but the taking of fish is limited to Omani natives.
After we got our fill of the fish market, we walked along the cornice, a very long seaside promenade between the two rocky fort areas in the Old Muscat part of the city and the infamous large incense burner welcome icon, but if it is very hot there is little shade along this promenade. This brought us to the souk – the old city’s covered market. The local shoppers were almost exclusively women. There were a number of stores catering to locals, such as those who sold decorated black woman’s robes and the ubiquitous gold shops found in Arab markets. Interestingly, all of the antique jewelry is silver, but now that all have become rich, silver jewelry is a rarity. Most of the other shops are tourist oriented and run by Indians selling Kashmiri cloths and pashminas that the locals wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. There are shops selling frankincense (the incense created from the sap of a tree which grows exclusively near Salalah and in north Yemen) and silver filigreed curved kinjar knives (of course I had to pick up one of these).
Shopping (and my use of the local internet café) came to a halt at noon and we walked back to the port to the sounds of the prayers over the loudspeakers mounted on the minarets of competing mosques.
65 16 Mar 2013 At Sea
66 17 Mar 2013 Salalah, Oman VX
Salalah (with a population of about 200,000) is the second largest city in the Sultanate of Oman, and the largest city in the Dhofar Provence. The coastal city of Salalah is a traditional stronghold and birthplace of the Sultan, Qaboos bin Said. The Sultan traditionally lives in Salalah rather than in Muscat, the capital and largest city in Oman, but Sultan Qaboos has bucked this trend, and has lived in Muscat since he ascended to the throne in 1970. He does, however, visit Salalah every three or four years to meet with influential tribal and local leaders. In mid-2009 the massive Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was opened in Salalah, 39 years after he had taken the throne.
Tourists are attracted to Salalah’s nearby mountains and abundant stands of frankincense trees lining mountain wadi courses. This famous incense looks like “rock candy”, but is derived from the sap of a tree which only grows in this specific part of the world. I picked up 500 grams of the stuff for a price in line with what I would pay for steak at home (but I’m told that there are places in the world where this is more costly than gold – if no one has noticed this by now, maybe there is a commercial possibility to trade for spices and this stuff and sell them for a profit in Europe? :- ).
Around the city and into the mountains the countryside is supposed to be lush and green during the monsoon period with the vegetation supporting herds of cattle, but the waterfalls aren’t falling right now and everything is arid. The climate supports wildlife often more commonly associated with East Africa, such as leopards and hyenas. Also plants associated with Africa, such as the Baobab tree, are common. Salalah and its surroundings is one of the few ancient areas on the Arabian Peninsula that have extensive coconut cultivation.
One of our fellow passengers had rented a small bus and set up a tour (that we all split the cost of). On the way out of the port, we passed the taxi stand where, we found out later, the cab drivers were aggressively trying to fleece our shipmates by overcharging them. I have suggested that the people who had been taken advantage of write letters to the Sultan explaining that, while they loved his country, they probably would not return to Salalah because of the way they were treated (and send the license plate numbers of the offending drivers – some had photos of these). I reminded them that the Sultan was an absolute monarch who took the hospitality offered to tourists seriously.
Our trip started by passing the immense Sultan's Al Husn Residential Palace before continuing on to Ayn Razat, a beautiful spring running down a wadi which has been turned into a park. This area has been manicured and is inhabited by beautiful birds.
From there we headed to Wadi Darbat - a Natural Park with majestic views of waterfalls, lakes, mountains, caves, and lush green vegetation. There would have been a 100 meter waterfall (if we had been here during Monsoon, but now we faced a blank rock wall), and many cave chambers. The caves were used by the shepherds as shelter and you can see colored paintings of animals on the cave walls. At the end of the Wadi, there is a cave which is considered to be the largest natural cave in Oman.
After a quick photo stop at Bin Ali Mosque, built in the 14th century, we passed by the Royal Farm and Mamura Palace on the way to a Sheik’s fortress/residence/museum designed to show how the local rulers lived. Then we headed to the ruins of Samhurum (Khor Rori), where the legendary palace of Queen Sheba is believed to have been, but historically more importantly was the port used for the huge frankincense trade.
There were free ranging camels everywhere along the way. Most of them were walking or grazing alongside the road and sometimes simply walking in the middle of the road. While they belonged to local tribesmen, only a couple had rope halters. We then drove west to Taqah Village (apparently famed for sardines and fertilizers) which is home to a number of centuries old mud castles (which are in a state of great disrepair) and an example of a shiek’s castle turned into a museum.
On the way back to the ship we stopped at the (mostly closed for noon prayers) souk and I spent my remaining Riels on frankincense.
As transportation here was so challenging, we called it a day early and returned to the ship. We heard afterwards that the undertow was so extreme at the beaches that one of our friends had a near call (and lost her Ray-Ban sun glasses in the process) and a passenger from another ship in port drowned.
67 18 Mar 2013 At Sea
The cruise line hires experts (or at least lets them cruise for free) to enhance the experience of passengers. This includes clergy, guest chefs, bridge instructors, dance hosts (for single ladies who wish to dance) and a variety of lecturers. There is a port lecturer who has been worse than useless on this trip and who has been the butt of jokes by the well-traveled passengers (but who has caused a great deal of grief to those who listen to her). They have recently brought aboard a Middle Eastern expert to explain about the customs, cultures, conflicts and geopolitics of the area. While his jokes are entertaining, and he apparently thinks he is the world’s expert on all subject areas, the information he has been presenting has been inaccurate and misleading and I am no longer bothering to go to his lectures. It is sad that the theater is full of people who will take his nonsense as fact.
68 19 Mar 2013 At Sea
Well, it seems that the stress on the Cypriot banking system that was caused by rich Russians and their corporations has finally come to a head. This was one of the topics covered during our stay there last summer in one of these write-ups. While it is easy to recognize issues as a foreigner, it is sometimes more difficult if you live in a country.
We awoke to see the shore on the starboard side which I assume means that we are hugging the coast as far away from Africa as we can get. I can see a couple of small fishing boats.
We are in dangerous waters now, near Somalia and the Pirates. We have the ships officers walking the deck 24 hours a day with binoculars and night vision goggles making sure no boats get near us. Also, we will pass Yemen and be close enough to see land. We are running at much higher than normal speed and the ship is rattling like an old car. The sound cannons are unwrapped and deployed. The other cruise ships that were in Oman had razor wire surrounding their decks, but I guess they figure our deck is high enough not to risk cutting the passengers.
Most satellite TV is gone (basically CNN and ESPN – I wish they had Al Jazeera as well – or maybe BBC, but you can’t have everything), but inexplicably FOX “News” remains – I can’t bring myself to watch it. Presumably those who persist in trying to use the ship’s internet connection are more frustrated than usual.
Because we are observing blackout conditions, the stars at night are beautiful around the ship!
69 20 Mar 2013 At Sea
70 21 Mar 2013 At Sea
The sky above the ship has military helicopters passing every few minutes. Maybe it’s the president in town, maybe the Israelis, maybe the Egyptians, maybe the Jordanians or Saudi’s - or maybe another player (or a combination). President Obama is moving from Israel to Jordan today.
71 22 Mar 2013 Aqaba (for Petra), Jordan VX
Aqaba is a Jordanian coastal city situated at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea. It has had a slow start but is Jordan’s attempt to emulate the success that Israel has had in turning Eilat into a tourist destination (despite the almost unbearable heat of the area in the summer). Aqaba is the largest city on the Gulf of Aqaba and Jordan's only coastal city, and its southernmost point. Aqaba is one of the major tourist attractions in Jordan, and famous for its warm water and rich marine life.
Looking west from Aqaba, one can easily see the Israeli city of Eilat – looking almost like an extension of Aqaba itself. Egypt is just on the other side of Eilat and Saudi Arabia is only a few kilometers east of the city.
(The following few sentences are from Wikipedia)
Aqaba has been an inhabited settlement since 4000 BC profiting from its strategic location at the junction of trading routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was a center of the Edomites, and then of the Arab Nabataeans, during the first century B.C. who populated the region extensively. The oldest known text in Arabic alphabet is an inscription found in Jabal Ram 50 km east of Aqaba.
During the 12th century, the (Crusader) Kingdom of Jerusalem controlled the area and built their fortress of Helim, which remains relatively well-preserved today. In addition to building a stronghold within Aqaba, the Crusaders fortified the small island of Ile de Graye (now known as Pharaoh's Island, near the shore of Sinai), now lies in Egyptian territorial waters about 7 kilometers west of Aqaba.
By 1187, both Aqaba and the island had been recaptured, for Muslim rule, by Saladin. The Mamluks took over in 1250 and rebuilt the fort in the 14th century under one of the last Mamluk sultans, Qansah al-Ghouri.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the Mamluk dynasty had fallen into decline and the area came under the influence of the Turkish/Ottoman Empire. During the following period, the city declined in status, for 400 years remaining a simple fishing village of little significance. The port of Aqaba quickly regained its importance after the Ottomans built the Hejaz railway, that connects the port to Damascus and Medina.
Aqaba is well known for its beach resorts and luxury hotels, which service those who come for diving, fun in the sand as well as watersports like windsurfing and Scuba diving. It also offers activities which take advantage of its desert location. Its many coffee shops offer mansaf and knafeh, and baqlawa desserts. Another very popular venue is the Turkish Bath (Hamam) built in 306AD, in which locals and visitors alike come to relax after a hot day. Aqaba and Wadi Rum are the sites of the annual Jordan – Middle East Distant Heat Festival, an annual electronic dance festival. It takes place on 31 July and 1 August. DJs from Jordan, the Middle East and around the world participate in this unique dance festival.
Wadi Rum (Arabic: ???? ???) is a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southern Jordan (the largest wadi in Jordan) 60 km (37 mi) to the east of Aqaba (about a one hour drive). Wadi Rum has been inhabited by many human cultures since prehistoric times, with many cultures–including the Nabateans–leaving their mark in the form of rock paintings, graffiti, and temples. In the West, Wadi Rum may be best known for its connection with British officer T. E. Lawrence, who based his operations here during the Arab Revolt of 1917–18
Wadi Rum is home to the Zalabia Bedouin (whose tribe extends into Saudi Arabia) who, working with climbers and trekkers, have made a success of developing eco-adventure tourism, now their main source of income. The area is now one of Jordan's important tourist destinations. The Zalabia have to learn Arabic in school because their dialect is completely different. I was told that the Bedouin of northern Jordan and southern Israel were “Palestinian” Bedouin and apparently a different ethnic group from the ones around here. Both the Jordanians and the Israelis are encouraging the Bedouin to settle down from their nomadic ways. Housing is supplied, fee education is given to the kids (the literacy rate in both countries is very high) and jobs are given or created (as in the case of the tourist industry). I suspect that, since the Bedouin are traditionally involved with cross-border smuggling (as their camels cross the various borders around here in desert areas which are nearly impossible to patrol by government authorities), this involves both tax revenue and national security. There are goat herds and camels seen throughout the area they inhabit as well as a number of “legacy” tents housing those families which are still nomadic or who have elected to continue to live this way. They are known for their extraordinary hospitality and to refuse an offered cup of tea is considered an insult.
I’ve pre-arranged a trip aboard a 4x4 with a Bedouin driver through Wadi Rum. I found the guide, Attallah Alblwi (Bedouin Life Style Camp), on the internet and have set up a reasonable “a la carte” tour. Attallah sent two taxis to pick us up (at 50 JD – about $75UD – round trip each). The three hour tour cost a total of 50 JD for the seven of us. Most of us chose a box lunch (holding too much food) at an additional 5 JD each (a more varied hot lunch was available at 10 JD). The park entrance fee was 5 JD each and a camel ride was available at an additional 8 JD. So, depending on whether the camel ride was taken, the trip ran about $50-60 a person.
We are fortunate to be here during the cool time of year (it’s about 28 C and late March) as I think that the ride we took in the open back truck would be unpleasantly hot for most during the summer. Likewise, we saw Petra during the summer and survived, but this (or even closer to mid-winter) is a far better time of year to go there. While the truck has seatbelts in the cab (and this was used by the handicapped passenger we took), the back of the truck doesn’t. The ride was 95% safe and 5% got a lot of adrenaline flowing rather quickly. While the handicapped guy was able to see this area from the truck’s cab and one of the ship’s passengers who is handicapped, but uses a Segway for mobility (and shows up in amazing and unexpected places considering her challenges), was seen by our tablemates at least most of the way through the Siq in Petra (I’ll have to ask her if she finally got all the way down), these two sites are unfortunately extremely difficult for those with physical challenges.
Even in the “mild” weather we have, it is extremely important to keep drinking. With the extreme dryness of the area, combined with the usual heat, dehydration is a very real danger (and we were each given an additional 2 liter bottle of water (besides what we already had taken from the ship). It is also important to wear a hat and to have a scarf and sun glasses available to protect yourself from sand when the wind picks up (happened a few times during our ride). The traditional Arab kafia (the red/white checked, somewhat over a square meter cloth thing associated with sitting on Yasser Arafat’s head under a pair of black rings) is the perfect clothing accessory for this purpose. It is also useful as a woman’s headscarf when entering mosques (my wife’s is a more sedate black plaid), as well as serving numerous other tasks and we always travel with them.
Petrol in Jordan is about $1 US per liter (.70 JD), but the Bedouin regularly head across the border to Saudi Arabia where it is about $.25 a liter. While I saw a number of taxis with photos of the late King Hussein, I didn’t see any of the current King Abdullah (Though I remember a large portrait of him at the border last time I crossed. When I asked how he was, I was told that he was “OK” – certainly not the enthusiasm that was present in Oman when I asked about their Sultan.
We boarded Attalah’s rather elderly modified Nissan pickup truck (with a pair of benches and a shade canopy in the back) piloted by his brother Khalid. The apparent dents, dings and so on in the body didn’t concern me as much as the mechanical end, but I figured these guys probably took pretty good care of their rides as their lives depended on them working reliably. Of course, nowadays, they all carry cell phones and the area has enough vehicles running through it that help would be only minutes away. In case of a real disaster, world class medical care is available across the border in Israel.
We headed for the House of Lawrence - a Nabatean structure that Lawrence of Arabia (according to hearsay) used during the Arab Revolution (against the Turks) to store weapons. (There is a wonderful view from here). We then headed across the red sand desert to “Lawrence Spring”. While this used to be a spring pouring out from the side of a hill, it has now been piped to a long water trough which supplies a herd of camels (some of which are hobbled with cloth ties binding their two front legs). The view across the Wadi from here is incredible. Hundreds of feet up a vertical rock face we saw five dots that we were told were a couple of Frenchmen and three Israeli women climbing to the top. Around a kilometer from here is a spot from which much of the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed by shooting in a number of directions simulating different parts of the desert. Other than the spring, this area of the desert is bone dry and sand storms were kicked up every now and then during the day. We bounced along until we came to the Red Sand Dunes a beautiful area with many differing colors of rock and sand. I kicked off my sandals and, following the guide who carried the boogie board, climbed up the sand dune for the wonderful view at the top and then rode the board to the bottom. While the sand was hot, it wasn’t quite hot enough to burn my feet and the pile of red sand was steep enough that (while the guide ran up like the pile like a mountain goat) I was huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top. Then I rode the board down. The guide asked if I wanted to try again and I figured once was enough :-0.
In the summer this place gets hot enough to melt people (40’s C) – last time we were in this neck of the woods it was August (a few years ago).
We detoured to a large Bedouin tent to eat our lunch and have another of their wonderful mint (actually also had cardamom, sage, cinnamon and other spices as well as mint) tea. After a bit of a rest, we drove to Khazali Canyon. This canyon was once used by the local Bedouin to rest in the shade, especially in the hot summer. The canyon walls resemble the Siq at Petra and are covered with numerous ancient rock inscriptions. These rock inscriptions on the Anfishieh Jebel date from the Thamudic and Nabatean periods and include animals, people, a pair of feet, Nabatean text and some of the oldest Arabic text in existence. Next we head to the Burdah Arch - a natural rock bridge (we saw a couple of young lunatics crossing this) set high up on a mountainside.
On the way back to the Bedouin village (which incidentally is the site of numerous new buildings and homes being constructed) we stopped a man driving a bunch of camels. After a bit of haggling by our guide, we arrived at a price of 8 JD per camel to take a ride across the desert. For those who have not riden on a “ship of the desert”, rather than ride astride the saddle, The proper form is to wrap one’s right leg around the front of the saddle and hook its foot under the calf of your left foot. This will keep you forward in the saddle, preventing saddle sores and letting you easily keep on top of the camel as it goes through its multi-step rise and lowering (at the beginning and end of the ride).
The ship’s Wadi Rum tour was twice the price, done with a large air conditioned bus and never left the road (more comfortable and safer, but not nearly as educational or as much fun).
The following on Petra does not reflect this particular trip and is simply for the guidance of others:
While we have been to Petra before and have therefore elected to spend the day in Wadui Rum instead, Petra is the big deal in this area. Many will recognize the site as appearing in the movie “Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc”. Those who have mobility issues should research, in advance, whether they can negotiate the Siq. Tourists are no longer allowed into the interior of most of the buildings. The approximate round trip taxi fare from Aqaba to Petra is 70 JD or about $100 US. The entry fee into the park is about 50 JD or about $80 US. Seeing the park is time consuming and it is unlikely that you will have time to combine this with Wadi Rum in a single day.
Some information about Petra extracted from Wikipedia for those who are interested:
Petra (Greek p?t?a (petra), meaning 'stone'; Arabic: ???????, Al-Batra?) is an Arabian historical and archaeological city in the Jordanian governorate of Ma'an, that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system.
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, it is a symbol of