Saturday, April 18, 2009


There's something so decadent and well deserved as seeking a beach hangout after a frenetic week and a half of camping, driving, moving from location to location, adventures, adrenaline, laughter, fatigue, and wonderful experiences!

Today, after visiting the Grand Mosque, the biggest mosque in all of Oman (built in 2001), we decided to spoil ourselves with a beach afternoon. We hit the Oman Dive Center, about 20 minutes outside of Muscat. It's a resort and scuba diving center, with a beautiful beach, swimming pool, volleyball court, and complete with an Arabian tent, lounging cushions and shishas (hookahs).

We sunbathed, enjoyed a glass of wine, read, swam, and completely decompressed from the excitement of the last two weeks. It was absolutely divine to have a chance to reflect on the last two weeks of travel, the friendships that were formed and solidified, and the places and things that we've seen and done.

I was reading an excerpt from the Dalai Lama's book before I left for Oman. He was talking about religion, talking about how religions around the world were created, fundamentally, to help people satisfy their biggest needs: find happiness and end suffering. The Dalai believes that we need all these different tapestries of religion to satisfy all the quirks and characteristics of different people, and that as long as we remember the common goal, we can find a way to relate to each other, to have compassion and love for each other.

What struck me the most, I think, about my journey to Oman is that I had a chance to meet people from a religion and a culture that I knew nothing about. I experienced Muslims and Arabs in their home, and I was met with an openness and a gentleness and a warmth that was surprising and wonderful. I truly felt that I have brothers and sisters in this country, across oceans from my home, and it was a reminder to me that I can learn to be more open and more compassionate with the people in my own neighborhood and city and home.

The two weeks have seemed to pass so quickly. We did our best to cram in so many experiences, and we succeeded! But I feel like I've only just started to get my groove here. I'm comfortable with the language (well, at least the 4 phrases that I can speak: Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, You are welcome). I'm comfortable with many of the mannerisms and customs that I've observed from watching people in their home. I feel at ease with the landscape and the terrain of the country and the places/locations of cities. I feel comfortable walking into stores and shops, navigating restaurants, gas stations, and foodstuff centers. I am at ease with smiling at people who are bewildered at the sight of 4 women peeling themselves off the seats of their car and heading into a shop or a gas station, and watching them beam their smiles back in return. I absolutely loved being able to drive a 4WD across a country that was completely unfamiliar and raw.

Tomorrow, this particular journey ends. An ending which is leaving my soul full and happy and without regrets. I feel like I've been shown so much and given many gifts. And I feel so ready to take on another journey when I have the time and space and energy and opportunity!

Until our paths cross again on another journey, I wish you much happiness and lots of love.
~ Lala

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Winding roads

Hello from Nizwa again! We are back from two days in the mountains!

There is something about being up in the mountains, with all that fresh air, altitude (we were up at 3000 meters), just you and the elements, that makes you feel free and full of life. As we lay on our mattresses last night, propped up against cushions, in a Arabian tent at the top of a mountain peak, we reflected on how good life was. How much we had to be grateful for. And how much fun it was to be four mountain divas making the most of our time in Oman! : )

We had some fantastic hikes - a 3 hour hike that started us at Diana's view (named from Princess Diana's visits to Oman) and which brought us through 3 villages winding through the alleys and houses, through rose bushes and terraced gardens, and along falajs. The second hike was another 3 hours that took us along the rim of the Grand Canyon of Oman (Jabal Shams). It was spectacular and freaky! We were right on the edge of a huge cliff the entire time. It was an out and back hike that brought us to an abandoned village of 15 families - tucked away in the crevass of a mountain wall - near a waterfall. It was a feast for the senses.

Both hikes were food for my soul - giving me a chance to pretend I was like the goats that we walked past - running up steep, rocky sections, until my heart pounded, sweating under the scorching hot sun, and soaking up the views.

We arrived back in Nizwa around 3pm, and found the most delicious Turkish restaurant - Al Masharef! Brilliant food, huge quantities, that we gorged on until our eyes were at half mast and our stomachs were aching. After eating, we arrived at our Al Diyar just in time to meet Ali! He had flown in from Bahrain to meet us!

We are off to Nizwa souq tonight for some shopping and exploring. Tomorrow at 7am is the infamous Friday morning animal market and another wadi exploration before we head back to Muscat. The clock is ticking, so we are trying to pack in as MUCH as we can before we have to leave.

Bye for now!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reflections from the mountains

We are just about to head off for a few days of mountainous terrain, trekking, exploring forts and souqs, seeing UNESCO heritage spots (like the ancient city of Bahla where pottery making and indigo dying has occurred for centuries) and more ...

Since I've had a fantastic sleep and a lot more energy to write, I thought I'd leave you with a couple of reflections from what and a quotation that sums up a lot of what we've discovered on this journey so far.

I've had a really amazing few days on a lot of levels. We've experienced some incredibly exhilarating things - things that I think we might be hard pressed to find in more traveled/frequented countries. There is a rawness to this country that I find very appealing. It feels rugged and rough. Oman doesn't get a lot of tourists, and people seem genuinely happy to be helpful and to smile and to enjoy our questions and interest. They want to show off their country. They want us to see it and feel it in its fullness. The country feels as if it is in its infancy, in terms of opening the doors to strangers and visitors, and the experiences we've had of total strangers opening their hearts up for us without question, has been a reminder of how we truly are brothers and sisters, regardless of our race, our religious beliefs, and our languages.

And we've met some wonderful people. We had a very interesting and unusual time in the desert with our Bedouin guide and his family - he and his wife basically left us alone with their 5 kids for about 2 hours. Despite the awkwardness of us not knowing where they were or what was expected of us (should we stay?, should we go?, etc.) we bonded with those children so naturally. I have this beautiful note from the eldest, a girl named Afeya, who was so wonderful. She said that she loved meeting us and that she loved singing with us. We sang songs with them (Oh Canada!, Doe-re-mi-fa-so-la-tee-doe), laughed, played pat-a-cake, and just enjoyed them as children - as easily and naturally as if it had been one of my nieces or nephews.

We have had some really intense (read: scary!) experiences these last three days. We jumped off a cliff in the wadi - that was hugely scary! We all fought our fears and laughed and even cried. It was pretty awesome to push through fears to discover something new about ourselves. And when we drove in the desert - 4WD driving across sand dunes at crazy speeds, doing what felt like drifting down the dunes, skidding, sliding, and gracefully making it (Amor was a GREAT driver) - all of us screaming and freaking out in the car - it was awesome!

And the country is breathtaking. I have to say that I was very powerfully moved by the ocean and the desert. Two more extreme ecosystems I can't imagine. The ocean - the pounding of the water - the reflection of the sunshine on the water - the soothing feeling of bobbing around in the waves - was so wonderful. Refreshing and soothing. Calming. The desert was so rugged - you can see for miles. The sand was incredibly soft and gentle, forming ripples and dunes that looked like waves. And the fact that you could just sit on top of a dune and watch the whole desert around you. I found it intense and powerful. It made me feel very emotional.

Today we are off to the mountains. Who knows what is in store for us there? Who knows what we will discover and what we will find out about ourselves. I'll leave you with this quotation. Be well.

"Life always gives us
exactly the teacher we need
at every moment.
This includes every mosquito,
every misfortune,
every red light,
every traffic jam,
every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),
every illness,
every loss,
every moment of joy or depression,
every addiction,
every piece of garbage,
every breath.
Every moment is the Guru. "
- Charlotte Joko Beck

Monday, April 13, 2009

3 days of wadis, ocean, turtles and desert..oh my!

Hello! It's 10pm on Monday, April 13, and a tired Lala is writing you from the town of Nizwa.

We have had the most jam-packed, exhilarating, intense, spiritual, breathtaking 3 days since I last had a chance to update the blog. We left Muscat, headed East, and we've done the following:
  • gone off-roading with our spiffy 4WD
  • hiked up the Wadi Ash Shab for 3 hours
  • met a guide (Said) who took us on an adventure: swimming up the three upper lagoons and into a cave
  • climbed up a gushing, slippery waterfall
  • jumped off a cliff into the lagoon!
  • slept outside on the beach under the stars just outside of Fins
  • stayed in a Barasti hut (like the Bedouin have) at Ras Al Hadd
  • watched green sea turtles lay eggs, bury them, and flounder off back to the ocean.
  • saw little hatchlings (baby turtles) make their way to the water by the light of the full moon
  • drove ourselves into the desert
  • met our Bedouin guide (Amor Ali) and his family and enjoy dinner with them all
  • had the ride of our lives 4WDing up and down and across the sand dunes!
  • rode a camel
  • slept under the stars on top of a sand dune (no tent)
  • learned about the falaj water systems (from Ali a local that wanted to show us how they worked). These systems are used to irrigate crops and bring water to houses and farms in Oman (also used in Iran and the UAE)
  • saw a 300 year old fort

We arrived in Nizwa around 5pm this afternoon. We are all feeling fantastic, healthy, incredibly awed by the beauty of this country and the friendliness of the people who live here and absolutely exhausted. We are spoiling ourselves with a hotel room, with a swimming pool, a chance to clean a couple of articles of clothing before heading out to the mountains of Jabal Akhdar tomorrow for hiking!

Bye for now.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

ER: Arabian style

Last night, it was looking like it would be a mellow night last night. We were comfortably sprawled on the couches and chairs of our living room munching on snacks; Hana was reading, Colleen and I were playing Crazy Eight Countdown, and Jen was nursing a bit of a sore stomach. We figured we'd relax and have an early evening; get ourselves ready for our adventure.

Around 6, Jen started to be sick, and for the next 6 hours, got progressively weaker and violently sick until she had absolutely nothing left in her. At midnight, we decided we had to take her to hospital!

We called her travel insurance company, made sure they had the correct information, and got a bag packed for Jen with extra clothes, all her personal information, and other paraphernalia. Hana went down to get a cab, and Colleen and I got Jen out of bed and supported her as we walked down the hall of the hotel and into the stairwell. As we just started to head down the three flights of marble stairs, Jen collapsed. She couldn't move, was really pale and clammy, felt feverish and very dizzy, and so Colleen stayed with her and kept her calm and relaxed, while I ran down to tell Hana that we needed an ambulance.

It was a good thing that Jen wasn't in an emergency situation, because it took over 40 minutes for the ambulance to come. By this time, we were able to get her downstairs to the lobby and had situated her on a couch. She had been sick on the stairs, so we changed her clothes, covered her in a number of towels, and tried to keep her calm by cracking jokes. Jen, despite all that she was struggling with, was so amazing - strong and calm and she even laughed at our attempts at keeping things light.

Hana rode in the ambulance with Jen, and Colleen and I grabbed a taxi to follow along, because we didn't know which hospital we were going to. I have to say that the taxi driver was awful, especially given our circumstances, and demanded that we pay double the price to get to the hospital. We were not in a position to argue, since we weren't sure where the ambulance was headed, and I felt really taken advantage of. I was quite angry about it for awhile.

It was 1:14am by the time we arrived at the hospital and were taken into the emergency room. The hospital was totally empty. There were a few beds in the room that they brought Jen into. There were a few men in the waiting room. There were about a half dozen nurses and 1 doctor. And there were about 12 people cleaning the floors. A huge angry discussion broke out between the ambulance drivers, doctors and nurses. It was such an important discussion, that no one paid any attention to Jen as she lay on the gurney, so the three of us scrambled to find her extra blankets, and changed her out of her damp clothes and into some warmer things. We stayed by her side and tried to keep her calm and comfortable. All the while, we listened in confusion and tried to make out what the heck was going on. All we could understand was "protocol this" and "protocol that". For a good half hour, no one made any move to check on Jen, and finally the doctor came over and explained that she had been taken to the wrong hospital!! This was the trauma hospital - for car accidents and head injuries, etc - and so their was a debate about whether they needed to send Jen to the Royal Hospital across town, or whether they would treat her there.

The ambulance drivers came back to retrieve their gurney and Jen had to move on to the bed herself. To make it even worse, they tried to take the blankets away. I told them that she was very cold and that she needed to keep the blankets on. So they left empty handed.

A little while later, the doctor came back and explained that they would start an IV, give her some painkillers and take some blood so they could do some tests and then she would be transported by ambulance to the Royal Hospital. Jen was quite uncomfortable by this point; she was pale, feverish, and her stomach was in a lot of pain. Once she had the IV and the pain medication, she started to relax and got sleepy.

When it was time to leave, we helped her onto a wheelchair and wheeled her outside. (I have never seen a wheelchair like this one before - it had the cushions of a plastic waiting room chair on a wooden chair with wheels attached.) By this time, all of us were feeling really tired and our reaction time to stimulus was definitely a little on the slow. So we were completely flabbergasted when the nurse and ambulance driver asked Jen to get up and climb into the ambulance herself! Why they didn't take the gurney out of the ambulance is beyond me!? So there we were, propping her up as best we could and trying to maneuver her onto the ambulance, and there was Jen, holding her IV bag, trying to manage the blankets that were wrapped around her, and completely dizzy and feeble from being sick and the medication. And all the while, the nurse is in the back of the ambulance instructing Jen to "Move up. Move up." so she could be better higher up on the gurney!!

It was a long drive to the next hospital, and we arrived at 3:45am. Jen was wheeled in ER. Hana went off to handle her registration, I made sure that the new nurse had all of Jen's information about her condition, and Colleen took care of all of our packs and gear. This hospital was a little more active - about 12 beds in two rooms - and probably at half capacity. They wheeled Jen into Evaluation room #13. Once Hana came back, Jen was warming up, sleeping quite deeply, and had already gone through a full IV bag. She had more blood taken and was given more medication, and I went out to join Colleen in the Ladies Waiting Room. (The waiting rooms were separated for men and women.) Hana came and joined us and we decided that we'd take turns staying with Jen, as the two that went back to the hotel could take care of pushing out our car rental by a day and checking in for another night. I volunteered, and after the girls left, I sat on a chair by Jen's bed and tried to stay awake. Jen went through 2 more IV bags, her color had returned, she said that her stomach wasn't sore anymore. Around 5:45, the nurse told me that she had had a bad bout of gastroenteritis but was in good shape and was being discharged. YAY! Jen was ready to go. What a relief!!

Now came the fun part. Finding the taxi! After I checked her out and handed over the correct paperwork, I asked the nurse to call me a taxi. She said there were no taxis. I asked "What do you mean there are no taxis." She said there were none to call, as she didn't know the number. She asked a few other people if they knew a number, and no one knew of any. She said I could go outside and wait by the roundabout for a taxi to come, but that they didn't come very often. I was totally floored. I couldn't believe she wanted me to take Jen outside and stand at a street corner until a taxi came! I told Jen to stay on the bed and that I would go outside and see what I could find. I walked outside and saw a group of men sitting outside smoking. I asked them where to find a taxi. They said that there were none around, but if I walked about 1.5 km, I'd find a roundabout that might give me some luck.

I got them to point me in the direction, as I was going to start walking, and one of the guys (Mohammed) stood up, yawned, and said "I'll take you." I smiled and thanked him, but I told him we were staying far away, and he said "Yes, I know, I drove your sisters there this morning." I couldn't believe his generosity! He had taken Colleen and Hana home a few hours earlier, and he was offering to do the same for me and Jen. He was so sweet. I got Jen, wheeled her outside, piled us into the taxi, and we headed off. It was a good 35 min drive to our hotel, and when we arrived, I tried to thank him and give him some money for gas. He completely refused, saying that we were his "sisters" and that it was his responsibility to look after us. It was a really beautiful feeling to experience such generosity and kindness after such a long and tiring day.

Update: It's Thursday night, as I'm writing this. Jen is doing fine - she's weak and resting - but she's in great spirits. We all managed to get some sleep and feel much more refreshed and ready for our adventure tomorrow! Bye for now!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Water-filled Wednesday

Hello from Muscat! It's 9pm on Wednesday, April 8 as I write this post.

There's snow in Ottawa (or so I hear) but we had a glorious day of seeing dolphins, snorkeling and soaking up some serious sunshine (32C)!! We left around 9:30 this morning and after being on the water for no more than 10 minutes, we came across a pod of what seemed like a couple hundred common dolphins!! 200! It was amazing - they were playful, curious, having fun frolicking in the water. We must have followed along with the pod watching their antics and soaking in the spray of the water for an hour. There were even some babies hanging very closely to their mothers. They were so elegant and graceful - gliding, jumping, diving - just glistening in the water. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Then the guide drove us to a little inlet, surrounded by rocky hills. The water was jade colored - I think the white sands on the bottom of the ocean are what makes the color so vivid and intense. It was very inviting! For about an hour, we swam, looked at fish, sea cucumbers and coral. It was heavenly. The water is quite salty and it made it easy to float around. The fish were good - not outstanding - but there were enough splashes of blues and yellow to keep us entertained. I got stung by a jellyfish, had all these welts in a line around my shoulder, and it must have kept tingling for a couple of hours later. It was a really interesting feeling! The highlight of our snorkel was watching a turtle swimming underwater! We followed it as it meandered along for a little while until it was time to go.

After all that swimming and sunshine, we were starving. We had gotten a recommendation from the tour operator to hit a restaurant called Kargeen. We walked into this garden oasis - wooden chairs and tables set up under a huge shade tree, fitted with rich burgundy cushions. We had the most delicious food - biryani for Hana, buffet of salads and fish and dessert for Colleen and Jen, and hummus and moutabel (eggplant) with freshly made pita bread for me.

We sipped Turkish coffees and Chai masala, while Colleen fought off a major sleep attack from gravol that she had taken on the boat. She headed back to the hotel and we listened to Middle Eastern music (including a Middle Eastern rendition of Happy Birthday for someone in the restaurant)! It was so relaxing and restful.

After lunch, we picked up a copy of Off-road in Oman for our driving adventure. It's a detailed book that illustrates our driving routes, shows maps of how to access wadis, the mountains, and other parts of the country, offers driving tips and tricks for how to handle the drive through the wadis and the desert. Needless to say it made us all very excited!

Tonight is going to be rather low key. We've got laundry, packing, and an early bed on our agenda! Bye for now.
~ Lala

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Planning for adventures

Hello again from Muscat! It's 6:45pm here on this hot and sunny Tuesday, April 7th.

The four of us were spoiled with a fun evening last night! The Turkish brothers insisted that we were in "their home" and that we should be treated with all the hospitality that their guests would have. They took us to The Turkish House restaurant, in the Al Khuwayr region. The food was amazing - there were heaps of hummus, baba ganouj, long slabs of flat bread covered in sesame seeds, salad greens, spanakopita, plus the fresh grilled grouper that the girls ordered and lots of lively conversation about life, families and relationships.

Before dessert, we were introduced to the custom of soaking your hands in cologne (I kid you not) to remove the oil and flavor of the meal. The cologne was so potent (a heavy, sweet musk) that my eyes watered each time I lifted my fork to my mouth. I think the fumes actually intoxicated us because we burst into giggles each time one of us caught a scent.

Dessert was something called a Turkish Delight - cream cheese, honey, butter, served in a cake style, baked with shredded wheat on top, accompanied with a Turkish coffee (yum!). After we finished our meal, and haggled over who would pay (realizing that it was very North American of us to be so pushy), we left for the Intercontinental Hotel, and the Trader Vic's bar. Trader Vic's is designed in the Tahitian style - lots of bamboo, tropical fixtures, women dressed in Hawaiian print dresses. They had a live band playing Spanish music - so we took up residence on the makeshift dance floor and danced for hours! In between sets, we sat outside and chatted about jobs and traveling and other hobbies.

Around midnight, we headed back to our hotel. We were pretty wound up from dancing, coffee, jet lag and sugary drinks, so we stayed up for a few hours talking and catching up. It was well after 3 before the girls went to bed. I think I stayed up a couple of hours longer before crashing.

Needless to say, we woke up at noon. Oops! All of us were feeling ready to depart Muscat and head for some new adventures, so we headed over to the Muscat Diving and Adventure Center to plan the rest of our trip. After a few hours of deliberation, appropriately over a delicious Lebanese meal of falafel & hummus and meat for the girls, we made the following decisions.

- Stay in Muscat another day so that we can go snorkeling/dolphin watching tomorrow (Wed)
- Then the four of us are going to hire a car (a 4wd!) and all our camping equipment and head West of Muscat to Wadi Al Abyad. We'll camp there overnight (for the full moon!). (Thurs)
- Head Southeast to Wadi Ash Shab and Wadi Tiwi and camp again overnight on the beach. The wadis are great to explore as there are villages situated in them, fresh water holes to swim, and lots of lush greenery to see. (Friday)
- Head to Ras Al Jinz to watch the turtles at 9pm. The turtles bury their eggs in the sand to keep cool during the day, and at night, the eggs hatch and the turtles take the little turtles to the water for a swim. That night, we'll sleep in some funky barasti huts. (Sat)
- Head to the desert! We'll meet up with a guide along the road, and he'll take us to a Bedouin family in the desert. We'll pitch our tents near this family. If we prefer, we can just sleep out in the open under the stars on mattresses!! (Sun)
- Head to Nizwa, and the mountain region, where we will spend three days hiking, seeing old forts and sites, traveling through the mountains. We'll stay in that area so that we can time seeing the Bedouin's bring all their livestock to the market at 7am on Friday. (Mon-Thur)
- After the market, we'll head back to Muscat and figure out what we want to do when we get there.

This is pretty adventurous traveling for all of us, and I'm so excited! We are getting some detailed directions and instructions - but from what we've heard, read and seen, it's a safe place to travel around. The roads are in great condition, there are a lot of gas stations around, and we are getting good at asking for directions. Also, it's Easter in Europe, so the roads and Wadis should be full of other travelers.

Hopefully, I'll have a chance to check in over the next few days!
Bye for now.
~ Lala