Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hippo half a century + 1 bathday

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:00 PM 0 comments
The Hippo Princess cake was enormous. I didnt dare cut into it as it was green and cute, with an enormous nose and blueberry eyes. It had a pink bow and ribbon and tiny ears and white square hippo teeth. It sat on a bank of cotton white marshmallows on a blue playdough, making it look like the hippo was having a bath. It broke my heart to cut it but I had to serve. It was quite delicious. M & D went into great lengths to prepare the Hippo Bathday party. The make-your-own-sushi bathday meal came complete with all sorts of sushi materials and trimmings, tuna, yellowtail, inari, ikura (salmon roe), tobiko (flying fish row), shiso (japanese basil), cucumbers, tempura, imitation crab and avocado for California rolls, and even uni (sea urchin) and natto (stinky fermented soybeans). And a special Neri-ume, made with Ume-boshi (marinated dry plum). M even made the sushi rice soaked in sugar and vinegar, in an authentic bamboo bowl. The meal was accompanied by a bottle of sake that contained gold particles. Very smooth. We started with Japanese nuts and jellyfish for appetizer with Kirin Ichiban beer (I had mine with Aloe juice), then miso soup. After the sumptuous meal, we had green tea ice cream and hot green tea on the deck that overlooked into nothing but green trees, under the warm California sun. M & D's beautiful die-for house was in a cul-de-sac, quiet except for the sound of neighbourhood children playing. Then we went for a geocache hike in the Hayward hills. Never knew the East Bay offered such gorgeous deep canyons and bay views. Inside cowland, in Ukrania, a huge ponderosa pine with enormous pine cones and in the shade of the enormous tree, the tranquil graves of the Ukranian priest and his wife. A few meters away, an enormous cacti, overlooking the deep valley, and beyond, the waters of the bay. M did find no4 cache, glued behind a fake rock that looked very very real. We returned to M & D's for cake and sampled the pineapple sparkling wine they brought from Maui. After the sun had set, we had a slideshow of Hippo's journey to Arabia. It was the best bathday the Hippo's ever had. So enjoyable and well fed. To top it all, lots of bathday gifts. A pink hippo painting from the Goose, a basket of hippo bath essentials, a gift certificate for the SF Opera, a GAP gift certificate, a giant balloon, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and other hippo related goodies. Saffy even drew me a hippo bath card. It's good to have friends!


See Bathday photos


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Sea of Oman

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
I stood on the bow of the vessel catching the oncoming wind and the salty seawater splashes, feeling like I was flying on the sea of Oman. The desert heat was forgotten. The Omani coast was rugged with wondrous caves and rock formations, natural rock arches where our boat cruised through, secluded private beaches, and the 1000 rooms Shangri-la Resort hotel. Back to the Muscat coast, the boat went into the bay and we could see the Al Jalali and Al Mirani forts and the rock graffiti below the watch towers up close. The grand finale of the Omani trip was this cruise on the sea of Oman. It was a fantastic scenic way to say goodbye to the Sultanate of Oman.

This trip was definitely one of the best I've taken and it ranked very high on my travel list. From the cosmopolitan all man-made Dubai to the mountaineous more natural Oman, these 2 weeks couldnt have been more culture shock. But I had planned it this way to get the maximum effect. I've wanted to see the skyscrapers and the modernity of Dubai with my own eyes. And the natural wonders of Oman. Perhaps the only 2 remaining arab countries which are still safe to visit. One I still cant decide if I liked. The other had exceeded my expectations. Not very long ago both were still nothing more than bedouin rival tribes in the desert. Now both have amazing cities, skyscrapers, bottled water, coca-cola, mobile phones, internet, and had caught up in the 21st century. What a bit of oil could do to a country!


See Muscat photos

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jebel Akhdar

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:15 PM 0 comments
The hotel restaurant was filled with incense smoke. All the fans were blowing. It was hard to see anything. But the scent of frankincense was heavenly. The buffet breakfast was laid out and not a soul in sight. So I helped myself with what my palate desired. I poured my coffee and took my breakfast to eat it in the pool area. It was 7AM and normally the hotel wouldnt start breakfast until 7:30.

From a vantage point, we again admired the old Al Hamra village from afar. Rugged mountain on the background, a field of palm trees in front. There's a mountains range in the distance that had 2 pointed peaks, one on each end of the range. We dubbed it the 'hippo' mountain, as it resembled the upright pointed ears of a hippopotamus. A watchtower stood next to us, and L and I, the curious ones, went in and climbed it. However, the walls on the top had very tiny round holes to peek through, so we didnt have much view from there. Then we went down to the valley and walked through the palm trees canopy that we saw up there on the vantage point, to get to Al Hamra.

Another wonder of the trip was the walk through the dilapidated village of Al Hamra. Abandoned and rundown mud houses lined the narrow sandy streets. We meandered through the ghost village, wondering what life was like when the houses were inhabited, with clothe lines filled with hanging wet garments, children running and playing on these narrow alleys, women wrapped in their traditional colorful Omani dresses, gossiping, and men going about their daily tasks. It was another photographer's paradise. Then we drove to Misfah, the oldest of these villages. Mud houses still occupied, papaya trees and sheep wandering. The rest of the day we drove through the Jebel Akhdar, the green mountains, and the rock formations and colors were spectacular. The Wadi Bani Awf, the end point of the canyon is a snake gorge in the middle of the steep mountain cliffs. We've made a stop at Nakhl to photograph the beautifully restored castle before heading back to the capital.

See Jebel Akhdar and Al Hamra photos



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The enormous round watchtower

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:07 PM 0 comments
I like our hotel in Nizwa. The Al Diyar had beautiful paintings on the walls that depicted the country's historical places and way of life. It had 3 wings, 2 of which flanked the pool area where we sat in the evenings and relaxed. The rooms were spacious, each with a private balcony. However, the location was in the industrial area, far from center of town. L and O and I went for a short walk after dinner and all we saw was gas stations, car dealers and appliance stores. We had wanted to go to a grocery store but went the wrong way and never found it. At dinner we saw the hamour fish on the menu, so almost everyone ordered the fish that night.

The Nizwa souk was a shopping heaven! It's in an old building with big beautifully carved wooden doors at the gates, and it sold spices (I bought some saffron from Iran), souvenirs (got a Tshirt with the Omani insignia - a curved dagger in the center of 2 swords in an X position), ceramics and potteries, the Halwa sweets shop, meat market, dates syrup, and all kinds of fresh fish and produce.

When we came out from the back of the Souk, we were hit by this enormous imposing round tower, the Nizwa Fort. I couldnt take my eyes off it. This fort was beyond words could describe. Up on top of the round tower, you could see the entire town, the palm trees and the barren mountains. It had windows with canyons pointing at every direction, which made fantastic photo opportunities. You walked out on the top of the fort and you were greeted by the gorgeous beige dome and the matching minaret. Even its museum was impressive. This was the most gorgeous fort I've even seen.

After this wonder of a fort, the rest of the day was a blur. We went into the Hajar mountains and drove through several remote villages with traditional fruit trees and terrace plantations. I've noticed each house had a round water tank in the shape of a watchtower on the roof . They were very picturesque and I thought it was a grand idea to do this, a piece of their history on every roof. The mountain scenery was spectacular.

See Nizwa Fort photos

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jabreen Castle

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:06 PM 0 comments
My heart was heavy with reluctance as we drove out of the Wahiba Sands. The soft warm red sand and the pitchblack starry sky will remain with me always. After visiting a totally touristy and uninteresting bedouin camp, we drove up to a promontory to admire the view of the town of Bahla from above. In the distance the Bahla castle stood majestically and the town had low houses surrounded by palm trees, nestled among low rolling jagged mountains. Beautiful view indeed. Then we returned to the valley to visit the Jabreen Castle, my first Omani castle. Built in the 17th century, the plastered castle walls were gigantic. The rooms had painted wooden ceilings with arabic inscriptions, and if you like ceramics like the Hippo, there were many big beautifully decorated water vases on display. One thing I'd noticed since being in Oman, was the bedouin huge copper coffee pots. I've made a mental note to purchase a replicate as a souvenir.

Heading into the Hajar mountains, we stopped for a photo opportunity of the deserted village of Al Hamra. The setting was magnificent. Mud houses with the mountain as backdrop and a field of palm trees in front. We will return and walk through the village in a couple of days.

Jebel Shams, 'the grand canyon of Oman', was on the highest point in Oman. Up there was actually cold. Here our local guide wanted to know if their grand canyon was more beautiful than the one in the US. I looked down it and wasnt impressed. Besides it was impossible to get a good photo in the late afternoon. The shadows were everywhere. Perhaps the Omani grand canyon should be better viewed in full sunlight?

See Jabreen Castle and Bahla photos

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013

1000 Nights

Posted by Hippo Bean at 6:05 PM 0 comments
Suddenly this huge orange sand bank appeared before us and we drove onto it. The world changed from mountains and houses and cars and palm trees to red undulating sand and orange dunes, the mighty immense Wahiba Sands. The sand was super fine and the wind created interesting wave patterns on it. The air was hot and dry and the wind was blowing. Above us was the immense blue sky and beneath and all around the never ending orange red sand. We didnt see anybody else there and there were no other trucks except ours. We've stopped at the bottom of a giant dune, ran up it and slouched back down again. What heaven! We did some dune driving and arrived at our luxury desert camp, the 1000 Nights Camp, amidst horses, camels and orange sand. We were immediately greeted with a wet nap and Omani coffee or sweet tea in the open air reception. A 2 story building next to the pool and the reception was the restaurant with bedouin style dinning. The sheep woolen tents were scattered all around in the enclosed camp compound. We had the Sheikh tents with open air en-suite. Nothing beats showering and using the toilet in open air. My tent was spacious, with a sitting area, the bed covered with clean sheets and towels. There was an electric light in the tent as well as in the bathroom but by 9pm, the generators were turned off. There's running water but only cold, which was fine because we're now around 38C. The cheaper arabic tents were simple with 1 shared bathroom.

We climbed up a dune and waited for the sun to set. We sat on the warm late afternoon sand and i took off my sandals to allow my feet to taste the fine sand. It embraced them and they sank into it luxuriously. When your bare feet touch the sand that is not coarse nor rough, or wet and cold, but soft and fine, warm and inviting, it's one of the most sensual moments in life. The sun, round and clear and bright, slowly dipped spectacularly down behind the dunes in front of us, until everything went silhouette. Possibly the best sunset I've ever experienced.

The buffet dinner was just OK as the BBQ lamb and chicken were both over cooked and tough to eat. The camp offered complimentary round the clock bottled water and soft drinks, so I had to go the bathroom quite a bit. The omani coffee, a light but flavorful brew and sweet tea were super delicious. couldnt get enough of them. The camp was supposed to have entertainment in the evening but there was no fire burning in the pit nor music nor dancing, so I was sourly disappointed, and we all retired early to bed. At 3AM I got up and stepped outside my tent with Small GreenEye Leo to experience desert at night. Pitchblack, absolute silence. Amazingly it wasnt cold. I sat in front of my tent and looked up to see the clear stars. Aside from their brilliance, i could see nothing. Moments like this was an unique treasure. Perhaps this was the only time in my life where the silence was absolute and the darkness complete. Absolutely one of the highlights of this trip. Suddenly a shooting star sped across the sky. then it was followed by the sound of jets. an airplane flying overhead from muscat!


See Wahiba Sands photos

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Midnight turtles

Posted by Hippo Bean at 5:45 PM 0 comments
Into the mountains we drove in our 2 four wheel drives. The landscape was barren but the rugged mountains had rock and boulders in a gorgeous orange color. Then we took the coastal road to the south towards Sur, the dhow building town. We picnic'd at a beach near the village of Qurayat. Serene place. Nice Omani sea breeze to chase away the desert heat.

The first wadi we stopped at was Qurayat. It had a lovely green pool and a small waterfall and it's in the middle of nowhere, just barren orange mountains, rock and sand. A true oasis. I walked in the pool only ankle deep.the water was clear and cool. We shot past the beautiful Sur bay in late afternoon twilight and the bay looked simply inviting. The hotel at Ras Al Radd was simple but it's beachfront. My room faced the beach and at night you could see nothing outside the window except darkness. The rooms facing the opposite side could see flickering lights from the village. After dinner, we headed to the sanctuary at Ras Al Jinz to see the turtles. It involved a long walk on the sand, in the dark. Unable to see where I was going, I often stumbled all over the place and walked into people in front of me. I had no idea we were so close to the edge of the sea, as I couldnt see it but could only hear the waves. We saw 3 green turtles, 1 pushing sand to cover the eggs it had just laid, another with a damaged fins pushing itself (poor thing) towards the wrong direction, away from the beach, and a final one slowly making its way towards the sea. 10 pushes and it rested. 11 pushes more and it needed rest again. Poor creature! It finally made it to the sea after about half an hour with all that work but we couldnt applaud because we're not supposed to make any noise so we wont disturb or frighten the poor animals. But it was the grand finale to end the day. I'm not much for turtles but these were enormous, about 3 feet long. And quite amazing to watch. We returned to the hotel very late but I've enjoyed midnight in the darkness and the silence of the place at this time. I coudlnt even hear any waves from the beach behind the hotel. there were no waves on the beach.

The next morning we drove back to Sur to enjoy the bay. White houses lined along it, 1 dhow docked in the middle, a lighthouse and 2 round watchtowers and a steel bridge. Something there tugged my heart. Perhaps it reminded me of the tiny Portuguese fishing villages. I've climbed up the tower and shot photos of the tranquil bay. I really liked this place.I quite left my heart there. Afterwards, we visited a dhow shipyard. The brown mahogany dates wood was simply a gorgeous thing to admire. Here you get to see the curved bottom of a dhow. It cost $2M USD to build one I was told.


Our next wadi was the famous wadi bani khalid. Its green pool was a good size with palm trees were all around it. The pool had lots of tiny fish and after lunch at the restaurant there, I sat on the edge of the pool and dipped my feet into the cool water. The water wasnt as clear and clean as the other wadi we visited earlier and I didnt like the fish nibbling at my feet. Some of us swam in it. I was disappointed that this place was so commercialized. I had imagined it to be more rustic like the oasis they showed on TV. I know, I'm too much of a romantic, but I did not like this place as it didnt give me the feeling of a real oasis.

See Sur and Wadis photos

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Muscat

Posted by Hippo Bean at 12:07 AM 0 comments
Touching down in Muscat was refreshing. The city was surrounded by hills. The Dubai haze was gone. The air was good. After the ultra modern skyscrappers of Dubai, Muscat was a welcome site and feel. On my way from the airport, we passed by the marble white Grand Mosque and it was very impressive. I took the Big Bus tour around the city which took me from the Muttrah Souk to the Shati Al Qurum, the hotel resorts area, to downtown, to the Marina, to old Muscat. At Al Alam I got off to get into the free tour of old Muscat, which had nothing old because all the old houses were rebuilt. The Sultan Palace and the finance buildings were all built in 1979, when Oman struck oil. Behind the Palace, it was the most beautiful part of Muscat. Two Portuguese forts, Al Jalali and Al Mirani, were located at the mouth of the small bay, looking like where Perseus struck the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. Graffiti were on the side of the hill and one even said Perseus with a Norwegian flag. The Gulf of Oman was blue. Our young guide told us that the omanis manually pollanize the date palms, climbing up to the trees and depositing the seeds. The Bait A Zubair Museum on the old city was one of the best museums I've visited. Beautifully restored ceramics, copper dishes, traditional costumes, and miniatures of the major forts/castles. I wanted to visit all of them! Pity they didnt allow pictures to be taken. And double pity their souvenir shop had very few postcards of the museum items. In the evening E and I walked the Muttrah corniche and all the houses along the waterfront were illuminated and the colors switched from pink to purple to blue and green. The giant incense burner on the hill shot a green laser and displayed a magnificent laser show. At the port, the grand Sultan's yacht was docked. The corniche was alive at night with locals strolling. All women wore the hijab or abaya. The souk was also vibrant at night. I bought some frankincense. We dined at one of the waterfront restaurants and had this white fish called hammour that was super delicious. The Omani currency was higher than the US dollar but everything was quite cheap. My meal cost me less than $5USD. Our hotel the Haffa House is about 15 mins from the corniche, offered spacious rooms but it had no view. The meals at the hotel were super grand and delicious. the capital city was very clean and all the workers were local, as contrast to UAE, where Indians, Phillippinos and Nepalese were imported to do service work. Muscat, a beautiful city. I've quite enjoyed it.



The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was very different in style and design and not as beautiful as the one in Abu Dhabi, but every bit as grand. The central dome though was so ornate that reminded me of the ones in Uzbekistan. I immediatly shot myself to the center of the hall to look up at this dome. The halls were lined with mosaic paintings, every one unique in design and color. The women's hall was also decorated grandly and with chantiliers. there was a working library inside that included internet stations and hardwood floors and wooden shells filled with arabic books. Several young men were there while we're visiting, and they had books open and were writing in arabic. Beautiful library.

See Muscat photos


See Sultan Qaboos Mosque photos

Friday, March 08, 2013

Friday, March 08, 2013

Dubai

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:59 PM 0 comments

A permanent haze hovered over the city blanketing the otherwise glistening skyscrapers. E said there was no view of the city below. I was sitting on the wrong side of the plane so I saw nothing. The weather was hot and dry.

The Mall of Emirates was enormous. Even the super (hyper) market inside the mall was huge. It sold everything from TV to underwear to cheese to washing machine. It had two food courts with international food which I frequented almost daily. 5 Starbucks on only 1 floor. None had the big Dubai mug. Every day we had to walk through the mall in order to catch the metro. Luckily once through the Kempinski hotel, Ski Dubai was just right there, so we always had a point of reference if we got lost, which I did many times. "which way is Ski Dubai?" always saved the day.

I have mixed feelings about Dubai. I cant say for sure if I liked it or disliked it. The architecture of the modern skyscrapers was a wonder to admire, especially the ones in the Dubai Marina. I simply couldnt get enough of them. Having the Burj Al Arab in front of you, really made a difference. I've never thought it was so stunningly imposing until I saw it right in front of me. The Jumeirah beach is not just any beach with white sand. It had the view of the Al Arab and the gorgeous metallic reflective Jumeirah Beach hotel that looked like a bird with soaring wings. Besides this was the Persian Gulf!

The elevated metro stations were covered with a copper cone shell. Even the escalator going up to the station had the shell cover albeit in a smaller scale. I really liked this design. The metro zipped you from one end of the city to the next, providing clear views of the all the major towers, from the sharply tilted Ski Dubai building, to the twin Emirate Towers, the Burj Khalifa, and the sea front from afar. The sunset Dhow cruise on the Dubai creek, which came free with the Big Bus tour, was nothing short of spectacular. The sun was round and big and clear near the mouth of the creek. Very relaxing way to admire the Deira (old Dubai) buildings along the creek. People on the abras, taxing across the creek, showed a different side of this modern city .

But aside from plasticky towers and the beaches and resorts, there's nothing else. The Palm Jumeirah only looked good from the top. Once you're in it, you actually couldnt see much of anything as the apartment buildings on the palm leaves obscured the sea view and you couldnt walk there as the beaches were all private. Even found the fountain show at the Dubai Mall wanting. The sound and light at the Wafi was a little better. Dubai stretched out along the coast, with pockets of interesting buildings, like the Jumeirah area, the downtown area with the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, the Business Bay, and Dubai Marina, intermittent with industrial areas in between, making the city looked dumpy and disconnected. The locals werent friendly. The men were arrogant and the women, with their bodies and faces covered, pretended you didnt exist. They resembled the Rapanuis who did not welcome visitors. After a week in UAE and encountering the women in abaya or hijab, I've wanted to rip their coverings off. But I was on their turf and must respect their custom, however degrading it was.

"Papers? No, no chekpoints. All emirabs are u-nee-ted". The 6 lane highway to the capital city was lined with palm trees and electric lights. Beyond them, the sand stretched as far as the eye could see. On the bridge into Abu Dhabi island, first sign of an oil refinery, the Abu Dhabi National Oil company. I like Abu Dhabi much better. The streets and buildings were better laid out, the corniche resembled the Chicago waterfront, and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, stunning architecture, a beautiful structure to visit. Also the Starbucks city mug was much more beautiful than the Dubai one. The top of the revolving tower in the Marina Mall offered great 360 views of the city and all the nearby islands. However, the permanent haze of Dubai was here in Abu Dhabi as well. Pity.

The following day we drove through the rest of the 5 Emirates to get to Fujairah. The landscape was dry, dull and boring. Only once we got into the Hajar mountains that the scenery became interesting. The jagged hills were welcomed after days on the flat coast with nothing but sand and man made structures. The only fort in Fujairah was not open to tourists. The adjacent museum was small but offered a little glimpse of the Bedouin lifestyle. They're building their grand mosque which once completed, should make the city more interesting to the tourists.

The Dubai Mall was the biggest of these beasts. The aquarium boasted of the biggest single piece of glass in the world. Several stingrays swam in it. I had wanted to simply walk through the tunnel to see the fish, but one needed to buy the complete package, which included a tour to the underground aquarium and the aquarium store. No ticket for just the tunnel. We've got to the mall early and waited for the fountain show. In less than a minute the first piece was over and we had to wait 30 min for the next 1 minute piece. E was fed up and left. I've sat for 2 more, both still short and not very well choreographed. they had a lot to learn from the Bellagio. The night bus tour was wonderful if not for the cold evening breeze. Most buildings were illuminated and if you're a sucker for lights like the Hippo, this could very well be the highlight of the city.

Possibly the best part of Dubai was the Dubai Marina Island. The skyscrapers were super tall (some still under construction of course, as in everywhere in UAE). I've spent an entire afternoon photographing them and just couldnt get enough of them, especially the Infinity Tower which was a metallic tower twisted on itself. The seafront was packed with tourists sunbathing on the hotel private beaches. The water, of course, just as clear and blue as in the mainland. Elsewhere the streets were quite empty, even the Marina Mall was not crowded. A good place to get away from the crowds in Dubai proper. Had wanted a dhow cruise in the sea, but was content with a short ferry ride back to the mainland. The sea was choppy but I've enjoyed the ride.

Flying out of Dubai on Emirates proved nothing special. Planes landed and took off towards the sea and as we're going south to Muscat, the plane banked left and I sweared it would hit Burj Khalifa. It looked that close.

 

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