Sunday, September 20, 2009

Discover Oman '09 - TURTLE POWER!!!

TAISM is an incredible school. Sure, it has its problems, but overall I am supported, encouraged and I feel like I am developing more in my profession here than I could anywhere else. The students must feel similarly. They have opportunities to be in plays, sports and excel in academics. A common complaint though, is the setting.

We all love TAISM, but we find that outside of school there isn't much to do. For teachers, many of us feel there isn't much of a social scene, but the opportunities for camping and outdoors activities are nearly endless. For students, many of them have their friends, but don't get out much. Their families are too busy, or just not into the adventures of hiking and camping. Despite how much I have loved teaching and my students, everything was amplified during Discover Oman.Discover Oman is a week-long program where students leave everything behind, cell phones, ipods, TVs, radios, comfort, and sometimes friends, to explore certain aspects of Omani life, landscape and nature. This program is so well respected by the staff, students and families of TAISM that people who move around that time will be sure to make their schedules fit to D.O., so their kids can have that before they leave the school.

Each grade has different trips, and I was chaperoning the "Turtles" with the art teacher, Bretta. The first day, Saturday, we did a hike near Muscat with all the 7th graders. We also checked to make sure they packed what would be/might be necessary for the following days of camping. Sunday we boarded the bus and had a 4 hour drive to Turtle beach (our group started here, hence the name of the group). We stopped at a traditional shipyard in Sur to have a snack and learn how they make Dhows. Shortly after, we arrived at our camp and unpacked before heading to a beach not far from Turtle Beach to just relax, wade in the ocean, watch some Omani man struggle to get his boat onto the beach with his bright pink truck, and drove on an airstip that was made by Americans during WWII. We had a nice dinner that the camp provided and waited for dark to go over to the Turtle Beach where a guide would take us to watch a mother turtle dropping eggs into her nest. The kids, of all different nationalities and cliques, all had smiles on their faces and were quiet, respectful and seemed to appreciate the wonder and rareness of what they were witnessing. After heading back to the museum/hotel and from there our camp, the kids were enamored with the adventure so far and all doubts of how great the trip would be drifted into the darkness of the desert. Bretta and I knew who the friends in our group were, so we purposely assigned their tents so they would be with people they normally didn't talk to. After the week, the kids were all friends with each other and accepted any differences with arms open. This being one of the goals of DO was somewhat expected, but I was constantly impressed with how easily and quickly it happened.

On Monday we woke up at 4:45 to go watch the baby turtles hatch and found a mother turtle still making her way back to the ocean. Unfortunetly we only found one baby turtle that was still alive, but we were able to watch the mother for a while, which is always a nice treat. We had breakfast, played a few games and climbed on the bus to go to Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadi Bani Khalid is a large Wadi with deep, open pools. After jumping off a 3 meter bridge with some of the kids, I lead a brave group up the wadi into its narrows and waterfalls. Much of their bravery was following me when I didn't know the way! But, after a few slips and falls on rocks, we made it to a beautiful little waterfall. A few omani boys helped us climb up the waterfall and we continued to the next waterfall. Which was also picturesque and deserved to be on an Omani postcard. We headed back to meet up with Bretta and the rest of our group, had a short lunch and got back on the bus to head for Wahiba sands... The 'classic' desert in oman!

We arrived at Wahibi Sands with a few hours of light left. Our bus couldn't make it through the dunes, obviously, so we climbed into the 4 x 4 trucks which were powerful enough to make it up the dunes with enough momentum and skill. The kids unloaded their things into their tents/huts and came to the main tent to write in their journals. Bretta lead them through a mini poetry unit based on what they've seen so far. We were purposely trying to keep them out of the sun and doing something relaxed so they wouldn't exhaust themselves. After the journal writing and a few games we let the loose in the desert. We had some foot-races and did some flips down the dunes, went sandboarding and played some soccer. After getting very sandy and tired, we headed for the main tent for our dinner. That night we tried to start a Yahtzee tournament, but the kids were surprisingly tired (thankfully!) and went to bed around 9:30 or 10.

They went to bed early, so they also woke up early. With the rise of the sun. I got out of bed around 6ish to whispering voices trying not to wake up the camp. Bretta woke up from her tent at that time also. I feel like I got a little taste of what it feels like to be parents on Christmas morning when the kids are already staring at the presents waiting for permission to open them. When I stepped out of my tent, the whispering stopped and 4 boys looked at me, one of them ran up to me, and trying to be polite, whispered, "Hey Mr. Manker, do you think we could go sandboarding yet?" We had about an hour and a half until breakfast so we climbed the tallest dune and headed down. Most of the kids ended up falling off the board, which must have been slightly disheartening considering how difficult it was to hike up the dune with a snowboard, but if they were, they didn't show it, they just laughed and wanted to do it again.

After breakfast we went to a Bedouin family's house. Or, better yet, residence. Or, fenced in area with a few huts and a satellite dish (yes, satellite TV has even reached the nomads! I wonder if they've needed to buy an extra camel to carry it to their new spot when they move). It was an amazing experience and the students were both extremely respectful and in awe. They told us what the different jobs for the men and women are for each family/tribe. How to approach a residence, how to sit so you don't show the bottoms of the feat (it wasn't very comfortable for me), how to eat dates and oranges without letting the fruit touch your hands, and we had lots of tea. We also were able to watch the woman there making some crafts.

While leaving, Bretta and I snooped around a little bit. The kitchen was not only the largest hut, but they had huge pots and pans. They must have some amazing feasts! We also checked out the "master bedroom". In which, Bretta and I were startled to see a very familiar face on the wall. There was a medium-sized portrait of Jesus Christ, just a little darker. We looked at each other to make sure the other person took note, and after asking a few decoy questions (Bretta is very clever), she casually asked who the person in the portrait was. Well, not surprisingly, the man was not Jesus, it was Muhammed. No, not the prophet. This nomadic woman's brother. With that, we said goodbye to the goats, to Jesus' sister, the male host, and jumped in the truck.

After lunch it was time to get the caravan a-movin'! We split the group of 16 students in half. 8 would ride out to the desert today, and the other 8 would ride back on the camels the next day. The others would walk (camels can be fast, but not when they are in caravan mode). We took off walking while the camels and students past us slowly. After about an hour of walking we found 8 tents set up in the middle of nowhere. Well, in the middle of the desert next to a massive dune. We fixed up the tents and found wood for a fire. After dinner, we had marshmallows and told ghost stories. Then hit the sacks. The night was fairly windy, but we were snug in our tents and the camels were snug tied to a couple of trees.

The next morning I woke before anyone and decided to climb the massive dune. Halfway up I noticed one of the less-fit boys following me. I decided he may just need to use the bathroom since he seemed too heavy-set to want to climb the entire dune, so I kept climbing and tried not to look back. At the top of the dune I looked back, and found him struggling up the dune. I decided I would wait at the top of the next dune which wasn't far. I got to the top, and just when I started getting worried that he gave up and just fell on his face and suffocated, or rolled back down the dune and broke every bone in his body, I saw a sweaty, round face poke over the dune. I yelled hello, and waved. He gasped something, and put his hands on his knees. Then continued to drag his feet up the hill. We sat together at the top of the dune, looking over the ribs of dunes that is Wahiba Sands. The sun had risen, but it was still red and low. When the student stopped panting, we had some small talk, then I asked him if he wanted to see what was at the end of this seciton of dunes. He said he was fine, he would wait for me there. So I walked to investigate. Found very little and returned. Then, he and I ran down the dunes back to the camp, which was now lively, for breakfast. Well deserved.

On the way back to the main camp, one of the 8 who was supposed to ride the camels that day was a bit scared. So, we decided I would go. What fun! Right? Well, I am sure it can be fun, but I got a saddle that made me... raw. WARNING: This gets a little graphic. After about ten minutes of fun, novelty and figuring out how to balance on a camel, my upper... um... well... just below my... How can I put this delicately? On either side of my area below my tailbone started to chafe. I knew the ride was an hour long, but I thought it would just be uncomfortable, which it was, but I didn't know just how uncomfortable it would be. When we got back to our base camp, I was more excited to get off the camel than I was to get on it. I jumped off after the the camel knealed and walked bowlegged back to the tents with the students. I felt some wetness in my pants, and since I knew it wasn't anything from inside my body, I just figured it was very sweaty. Well, we rushed the kids to have a quick lunch and then to jump on the bus to head back to Muscat, ending our week of Discover Oman. During lunch however, the "sweat" never left my buttocks, in fact, I seemed to only be wetter. And more painful. On the bus, it finally started to dry, but it was also very sticky. It was then, that I thought it may be somehting different than sweat. I wasn't eager to find out how badly I was chafed, so I was happy to say goodbye to the kids and run to our principal's house with all the other chaperones, drink some beers and exchange stories. Later that night, and after plenty of beverages, I had almost forgotten about my butt problem. The smell of camel on my shorts wasn't enough of a reminder, apparently. We continued the party at Courtney's where I discreetly went to the bathroom and tried to look in the mirror to look at the damage. I peeled off my underwear and looked in the mirror to find two strips of skin missing from my buttocks. My first thought was that this was going to feel VERY weird in the shower. I wonder how long I could smell like a camel and a week of camping without people complaining? I decided that that was a question to be left until after a few more beers.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. Despite it being exhausting, it seemed like all the staff and students were reenergized the next week of school. We all had lots of stories to tell and some new relationships. Our personal communities had grown, and our TAISM community had grown and strengthened. And, after about two weeks, I had healed enough to sleep once again on my back.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Old post! Kara Visit!

Kara came to visit a while ago, around Feb. 26, 2009. Kara and I worked together at the Pinnacle and she is now in Dubai. James blunt was in town, so we had a good excuse for her to come down. She arrived on Wednesday night pretty late and we sat out on my patio drinking and catching up until 1 or so. Thursday was a big day for us. We picked up Courtney and went down to Wadi Shab, or the 'Keyhole' wadi. This one was so built up, I decided I would save exploring it for when someone special came, and that was Kara. We drove down in about 1.5 hours and parked in what little shade we could find. We started up the Wadi passing a lot of Omani families having picnics or teenage Omanis filling the canyon with their rythmic drums. As it happens in every wadi, though, we were soon passed all the people and litter bugs and onto a high, narrow path walked on so much that the hand holds were smoothed out. Living in Dubai, Kara was impressed by how much water our wadis have in them. They are pretty impressive when you think about how much desert surrounds us; I guess that's why we return to them nearly every week. Wadi Shab is one worth visiting as it has beautiful, bright blue pools surrounded by cliffs and round boulders. Walking up the path took about 30 minutes, and when we finally arrived at the water trail head, we had lunch.
The water trail head is just that, the rest of the trail is water and requires wading and swimming, so we had to leave our bags and belongings (that means no pictures, sorry). We followed Courtney since she had been there before down a very steep cliff and then into the water. Courtney isn't exaclty the most graceful person as she falls a lot even on flat ground or in the hallways, but she is suprisingly attentive when it comes to stepping and crawling over mossed covered rocks. Where I was falling all over the place, slipping on every rock or boulder I touched and flailing my arms all about my head as if I were swatting a swarm of bees to try to keep my balance, both Kara and Courtney just watched, laughed, and took the opportunity to get their payback for all the times I had mocked them for falling or stubbing their toes.
After the treacherous moldy rocks, we arrived at a deep pool in a box canyon. At first glance you would think that there is nowhere to go but the way we came from. So, you can imagine my confusion as I saw Courtney swimming to the far wall as if she could swim through it. I was even more surprised when she did swim through it yelling behind her that we were almost there. I swam to the far wall and discovered the small crack to fit my shoulders and head and treaded water through the 'keyhole'. When you pop out of the crevice, you do a double take and wonder if you just stumbled (or treaded) into paradise (yet another one!). You find yourself in a huge cave with a waterfall flowing on your left and a cave under the waterfall and light shining down from above the waterfall and from above your left shoulder. Kara and I were speechless; so, Courtney did the talking for us, "Pretty incredible, huh?" Yes it was. We climbed up the waterfall on a frayed rope and jumped from there as well as another huge boulder. Whoever comes to visit, you will see this Wadi, it is quite impressive.
After about 45 minutes of playing an soaking up the sun above the waterfall, we headed back. Grabbed our backpacks, had more lunch, and hiked back. As we passed the picnics and drummers, we noticed a huge mobile jackhammer coming to block our path. Omanis can be pretty inconsiderate and irrational (to us) sometimes, but blocking the only way out with this construction equipment just even too odd for Omanis, but when we looked to where it was actually going, we couldn't help but laugh. A big 4 wheel drive Toyota SUV that can do anything and go anyway found its limit; its limit being water (we thought is was just common sense that you don't drive a car into water, but I guess you don't truly know until you try! Maybe his GPS told him to drive into the water, damn technology!) We walked passed the Toyota and tried not to snicker too much as the crane approached. We left as the mud soaked car was being successfully pulled out.
We arrived home and I took a quick nap, then we had dinner and headed to the James Blunt concert which was great fun! I agree that his music is pretty slow paced, but he seemed to speed everything up, and had a lot of energy! He was jumping all over the amps, having the crowd sing along, and his hair looked like Beetlejuice's; a rocker through and through.
On what was supposed to be the last full day of Kara's visit, Friday, we ended up just hiking in small Wadi near Muscat. It was a nice hike and Courtney and I bouldered a bit, and swam in a small pool. The next day, my phone died and for some reason, I was the only one of the three of us to set an alarm, so we rushed Kara to the highway to catch a cab so she could catch the bus and I could make it to school on time. She missed the bus and showed up to one of my classes, I couldn't help but laugh when she came in and my students were extremely confused of who this tall, blond woman was. The rest of the day, she was at Courtney's and finally made it to a bus to take her back to Dubai around 4:30.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Arabian Gulf Cup! - Jan. 2009

I am going to stop apologizing for not writing on this. It just seems that if I were truly sorry, I would fix the problem. And while I am actually sorry, I just need to do, instead of give myself excuses. No worries, though! We are all busy.

January 2009 was a great month. We were supposed to arrive in Oman and have 5 straight weeks without a break from school. Despite the break, I was not mentally prepared for such a long time with the kids and a super busy schedule. But, the rain and soccer gods looked down from the skies and smiled on the TAISM community. Our first day off was due to what we would call in Michigan, "a drizzle". The rain was nothing, but closing school on that Wednesday was very much needed. I laugh at the song lyrics "I miss you like the desert misses the rain", or however it goes, because the desert did not soak up the much needed rain, in fact, it just flat out rejected it! I know, poor rain. So when the desert is too good for rain, it has to go somewhere else, so the roads and our apartments filled up with it. I spent only about an hour cleaning up my living room after the "storm" (again, drizzle in Michigan), compared to others here who spent a few hours. The roads were unmanageable by Omanis and Indians. Those of us from Seattle or Michigan, who are used the the rain grew impatient and began going to the opposite extreme of the natives and just drove the 1 - 2 foot pools in our SUVs splashing the cars on our way. I've never seen so many relaxed and easy-going Omanis scrunch their faces at me!

The next day off was after the weekend. Saturday night Oman was in the Championship game against Saudi Arabia. After Oman won the game (woot woot!) the Sultan declared it a national holiday! (Thanks Qaboos!) So, of course we didn't have school on that Sunday. Courtney and I went to two of the games; our first was Saudi Arabia against the Emarits. We cheered for the Saudis only because UAE losing would advance Oman. Plus, they had cooler cheers that we couldn't participate in, but were enjoyable to watch. We sat in the family section. Yes, I know we aren't family, but wouldn't you know it? Women are only allowed in the family section of the stadium. It was a pretty strange to look out at the crowd and think that all the thousands of people there were men. We also went to the Qatar vs. Oman game in the Semi-finals which was the friendliest match I had ever been to. I don't think there was any booing, just cheering for both teams. Oman ended up winning.

For those of you who might be wondering; no, Arabian soccer isn't good. It is like watching Italy play Mexico, but without any real team talent. Everyone just pushes each other and falls over. U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi, you AGC, you AGC! The crowds had amazing songs and chants though, the most exciting I've ever heard!

We watched the final game at the high school principal's house and after making fun of the "fluffy" Oman coach and watching the win, Jeff, Courtney and I ran out to join in the celbration at the stadium. Everyone loved us and thanked us for joining in their celebration. One kid gave me a poster of the Sultan when I asked him where he got it. He now has a spot at my dinner table. If they were excited about seeing me and Jeff, two American whites, out there celebrating with them, they were ecstatic to see an American woman there! We had a lot of pictures taken of us and a lot jumped in our photos. For the most part they were very polite, and great (Courtney did have one bad encounter, but the guy ran away). It was a fantastic night, a night I felt closer to the Omanis than I have yet.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Grand Canyon and Paradise on Earth! (I don't want to build it up too much though))

I am still trying to finish up 2008, before I begin my 2009 blog of Oman. Thankfully, I haven't had a ton of adventures in the '09 life yet.
Jabal Shams and Wadi Damm
A few days before I went home for Christmas, Sara, her sister Karen and I went to Jabal Shams (The sun mountain) to hike and camp. It was a beautiful place and is described as "the Grand Canyon of Oman". Well, having been to the real Grand Canyon, I can tell you that that is simply overstating its grandeur, so don't get your hopes up. What it is, is on 'arm' of the Grand Canyon. However, the smallness of Jabal Shams doesn't take away from its breath-taking-awayness (that sentenced is laced with Kate's influence, don't you think?) The cliffs are steep and deep. The mountain tops are high and range is thickness across the sky line. Some cliffs are as narrow as foot bridges (careful! it's windy!), or as gradual and round as in Appalachia. Whatever the make up, the mountains surrounding the deep canyon do rival the Grand Canyon if not in size, in beauty.
We hiked along the ridge of a cliff for sometime, then decided to look at handicrafts and practice our two known words in Arabic: La - no, and Shukran - Thank you. After getting the handicraft ladies' hopes up we drove down to our hiking spot to find that it would take us about 6 hours to complete. We were not prepared for an overnight backpacking trip, so we drove as far as we could, then made our campsite near a small plain above where the canyon started. It was a very pleasant spot with a lot of shrubs, small trees, and of course rocks. We decided to explore our site a bit and ended up splitting up, but still within view of each other. I saw some animals to my right and made my way to them. They were donkeys! How exciting (kinda)! I walked toward them thinking about how amazing it would be if I could get close enough to one and maybe even ride it! After that point, I thought how similar that thought process was to when I was a kid and I would entertain the idea of trying to ride Tanzy like a horse. Lost in my childhood thoughts, I didn't realize just how quickly I was approaching the ferrel animals. They began moving nervously even though I was still about 50 meters away. I took a few more steps and a loud hissing sound and grunt from one of them jolted me back to the present. The sound didn't sound very welcoming, in fact, it sounded downright mean. So, I was a bit put-off with the whole idea and irritated with their poor manners when having guests on their land. After all, we were in an Islamic country, shouldn't they invite me to ride on them?

I met back up with Sara and Karen and we headed back to camp. After a fire, dinner, and some talk about what would happen if it got too cold, or if our tent blew away, we went to bed. But before headed for slumber, I went to relieve myself so as to assure my body wouldn't wake me up in the middle of the night. Even though it was dark, I decided it would be a good idea to go behind some rocks to keep up the illusion of privacy. As I walked around the rocks in the dark, I heard it again, only louder! A hiss and a grunt. This time more aggressive and closer! In my mind the donkeys were following me and were plotting their revenge for even thinking that I could ride on them! So, I quickly walked away to find another bathroom. The whole night I was a little paranoid they would run through the camp and rip our tents and those who dwelled inside to shreds. But, thankfully, we were lucky.

The next morning, we awoke to a cold morning air. I was happy to see the the donkeys were up before us and had moved from our campsite up the mountain a couple hundred meters. We had breakfast and watch a flock of goats join the donkeys for breakfast, then they moved along, as did we.

Wadi Damm may only be about 10-20 kilometers from Jabal Shams, but as anyone who has been in the mountains knows, there is no flying like a crow, and it took about 1.5 hours to go around the mountains, through the desert, to the visit the Beehive tombs and finally Wadi Damm. As we came out of Jabal Shams, we drove Taj with the windows up to keep the dust out. However, we soon discovered that there was so much dust, the vents started to blow dust on our sweaty faces, so, we drove down in the hot sun with the windows up and the air off. I had never been so happy to reach pavement!

We drove along without any interruption except to stop so Karen could see her first camel of Oman. It made me laugh to watch her excitement and reminded me how I was upon seeing my first camel in Oman. I had no idea that eventually I would see hundreds of camels and have to stop for dozens of camel crossings just in my first year here.

We soon arrived at the beehive tombs. They were built about 3 to 5 thousand years ago for burial purposes. According to one of my guides, the tribes would fit up to 250 remains of people in the tombs. We had a hard time envisioning that since they were fairly small. But, I guess the dead don't need to be comfortable!

After a short time at the tombs, we headed to our final destination, Wadi Damm! "Paradise on Earth" our books called it. The pictures were amazing and the descriptions were often "my favorite Wadi" or "the most beautiful Wadi in Oman". Wow! It certainly sounded amazing! We parked the car and unpacked for lunch next to a goat's hoof (we are pretty accostomed to that kind of thing now) and started our hike up the canyon/wadi. It was a nice little hike despite all the trash. We followed a small stream which would go underground sometimes. There were some small waterfalls and some difficult climbs at some points, one included a frayed rope! As we progressed we could see the trash became less and the litter-bugs were thankfully the same people who wouldn't want to climb much or walk too far. We finally came to our final destination, unfortunetly, even after all you have to do to get to paradise, it still doesn't show itself to you, so we kept on hiking. Like Forest Gump, we just kept going, not knowing where to stop. I became super deteremined and left the girls behind in my quest for Paradise. The boulders became larger, and the wadi, harder to traverse. But, nothing was going to stop me from getting to paradise. And how great it would be if you had to do all this work to get to it! Eventually mine were the only footprints in the Wadi. Then I began to question and analyze the situation. What had the book said? I think they hike was supposed to last and hour at the most? How long have I been hiking, and where were my hiking buddies? I sat for a second to enjoy the solitude and the quietness, then decided that I had somehow missed paradise.
I started to walk back, not realizing how far I had really come in my excitment. I turned a corner to hear my name being shouted, it was Sara. They had stopped a while ago. They had figured out we had missed paradise long before I had. So, we hiked back and stopped at a place where the water seemed to start. And, yes, on a small hike down, we stumbled upon the place that was so beautifully described. "It's... a lot smaller than I thought it would be" said Sara as we all stood looking down at a pool with a nice little waterfall, but much different than anything we had imagined. "Yeah... it's beautiful, though. But... you're right, this is the smallest wadi I've been to." After we got over our shock, we jumped in and swam the 10 yards to the other side, under the waterfalls and back out. It was actually beautiful once we were over our disillusionment. So, Paradise on Earth, is small, I guess that makes sense, only a few people can visit at one time, and you have to work hard to get to it. But, when anyone visits, just realize that it is pretty small.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Our first Thanksgiving

In my last post, I forgot to tell what I did over Thanksgiving break. So here it is...
Inshallah - Plymouth Rock to Masirah Island

I'm sure the pilgrims had never heard the word "inshallah", but they understood it perfectly. When they sailed to the 'new' world and met and dined with the natives, they were probably saying their own "inshallah" - Allah willing.

The foundation of the Omani culture, and it seems like most of Arabic culture (if I may make a huge generalization), is "inshallah". Which sometimes actually makes sense, like, when I say "Ok kids, see you tomorrow!" In Omani schools, I am sure they would all respond, "Inshallah", because, who knows what could happen between now and then. This recently happened, when, last week Wednesday we had school cancelled because it rained through the night and there were a few floods. So, I was wrong to make that promise when Allah has ultimate control. Then, again, it happened after Oman won the Arabian Gulf Cup championship and the Sultan gave us yesterday off. But, we were prepared for that one, and at our inservice, we all said, "See you tomorrow, Inshallah!"

I digress. I am sure the pilgrims understood this perfectly well. "We'll make a new life in the new land, inshallah" or "we'll make friends with the natives, then manipulate them to take over the continent, inshallah". Well, our entire Thanksgiving weekend was up to Allah as well. As I mentioned, we had National Day, which is supposed to take place on the same days as His Majesty's birthday, but, as the Sultan thought if National day were actually planned, well, then people might leave and not celebrate Oman or his birthday. So, the ironic rule of inshallah was in place. The Sultan kept it a secret until about a week before. I would like to stop for a moment, and just say, I am in no way criticizing the culture of inshallah, on the contrary, I think it is good fun for the most part, although it would be nice to plan ahead if we were leaving the country. So, we ended up having a full 4 days off during Thanksgiving because of National day.

A pilgrim? No, a typical Omani woman waiting on the ferry across from us. Which one will leave first? Inshallah, ours, if it fills up with cars first!

In the spirit of crossing a body of water to... well, that's kinda where the parallels stop between us and the pilgrims, although we were invited to dinner with the natives, but that plan was dropped when the women inviting us never showed up to the gas station where we were waiting (Inshallah!). Anyway, for Thanksgiving, Sara, Jenelle, Jeff and I took Taj and Jenelle's care on a 5 hour drive down through the middle of the desert to a small dock where we jockied and positioned to get on an overcrowded ferry to take us on a 1.5 hour boat ride to Masirah Island.

The ferry ride was easy enough. When we arrived we were starved, so we found a nice spot near a green patch, set up our cars for some shade and set up a picnic on our Wadi-mats for a nice picnic of Hummos and arabic bread with capsicum and a beautiful view of flamingos, the ocean, and Dhows.

After lunch we drove down the Masirah coast to try to find a camping spot on the southern tip. Masirah is about 40 miles long and 5 miles wide, with a small mountain range in the middle of it. When you are trying to find a campsite on a desert island, or anywhere for that matter, in an Islamic country, you need to take a few factors into consideration. On our way, we followed a guy on a horse for a while, very cool.

1) Are there women with you? If so, and you need to find a secluded beach (usually not a problem, especially on Masirah) that has very limited visual access to drivers from the highway and as small as a window as possible for the fisherman who don't often get to see much skin on a woman. All this, while there are no trees and you are trying to optimize your camp's vista of the ocean and mountains.

2) There are no bathrooms... anywhere... ever. So, find a campsite with some nice boulders or dunes nearby. Hopefully it won't be too far of a walk from where factor 1 is ideal.
3) Is there a mosque nearby? If so, just remember that camping isn't always comfortable, so when you are woken up by the hazzan at 4:30 in the morning, you might have trouble falling asleep again.
4) If it is in the cooler temperatures, make sure you seal zip your tent up all the way as there are spiders, snakes and other insects and animals looking for warmth. Although, we've never encountered this (although and crab, or some small animal did leave us a little poopy surprise in the center of our tent one night, or day, we weren't sure) we've heard and read about it. Other than that, just make sure you have enough water and you can pretty much just drive off the road at any point to set up camp.
When we found a nice spot, we accidently got Jeff's car stuck on a dune, pulled it out, then set up camp. The first night was relaxed. We explored our little beach territory where we found some of the classics: trash, dead sea creatures, and crabs dashing with fear between us and the waves. Later on we made dinner, did some star gazing, drank some wine and headed for bed.

The next morning, Jenelle and I went for an 8 k run, then Sara and I went for a hike to one of the hilltops near the sea.
Masirah wasn't too different from Oman's mainland. We were invited for dinner after Sara and Jenelle help 8 Omani women get their one car out of the sand on the beach, and we went swimming and Jenelle and I tried kite-boarding with little success because of low winds and low tide. We did get to see dolphins off the coast about 150 meters!
On Thanksgiving day, we took another great journey - home, to have dinner at Courtney's as she loves Thanksgiving and prepared everything for us. As we were on the ferry to get back to the mainland, our fairy passed by the dock where we had gotten on the couple days before. We thought that that was fine since the drivers seemed to know what they were doing. The ferry wasn't full so we felt free to wander around the small deck and up to the front gate. As we were out enjoying the view we noticed that the view began to remain the same; that is to say, we were 200 meters from the shore and the dock we were passing was no longer being passed. We looked down at the water and saw that the beautiful blue had turned into a muddy gray-brown. We were stuck! Inshallah. The engines struggled in reverse, then back to forward while black smoke spewed from the pipes above us. Then, the struggling stopped and a man came out of the cabin to tell us to move all the cars as far forward as possible to distribute the weight. We all did so eagerly, and soon the engines were at it again. And suddenly we were passing by the dock again! And soon, onto shore where Jeff and I in one car were determined to make it to Thanksigving dinner. We drove long and hard, leaving Jenelle and Sara in a town to dine on their own. But, we made it back to Muscat and ate with Keith (principal), Trish, Tommy, Courtney and a few others. It was a great meal after a long 6 hour drive home.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Before Christmas: October and November

I know what you're thinking, "Zach, do you still... (insert verb here)". And the answer, barring the insertion "communicate with people outside of Oman" is: yes, of course! I still live in Oman, I still travel nearly every weekend, and I am still creating excuses for not doing this despite my desire to keep it up.

Yes, Desi, I am still alive, and you are right Kate, I need to update my blog. So, here we go.

Since my trip to Salalah, I've taken it easy, still going on adventures, but you know, no more driving 9 hours without stopping.

Party like its 6:30 pm (try to stay awake til 7)!

Taking a look at my calendar, I am going to start with my birthday and progress from there to now. First of all, thank all of you for the birthday wishes and phone calls. For my birthday, I received very nice Scotch and Vodka from Carla, and went to play kickball with a lot of the faculty at a local baseball complex. Later on I went to my first bar in Oman and stayed for only 15 minutes. Carla invited all of us to her place for more drinks and we all went and had a great time. I forced myself to stay up until about 10:30. I know its lame, but after teaching for a full week, well, most of you are teachers, you know what its like. so, 10:30 was pretty good!

As a gift to myself, I bought a traditional coffee-table for my apartment. Like most things in Oman, it is a Omani idea but is made of a Yemenese door design and Indian wood.

Towards the end of the month, I took my first kite-boarding lesson and had some fun doing that. But, other than that, not much was happening (unless I am forgetting about something, which is another great reason to update more frequently!)

The big things in November were finishing the swim season (finally), psicobloc, Mosque visit, and going back to see the turtle's again along with continuing my struggle with kiteboarding.

Oh, Allah, please heal these hands! (Mosque and DWS)

One weekend we decided to take it easy again. So, Thursday morning Jeff, Sara and I went to the Grand Mosque for a tour. Despite the heat we all had to cover everything except our heads and hands. Sara did have to cover her hair as well, but she made it stylish. The Mosque is open to non-muslims on Thursdays and you must take your shoes off before entering any of the buildings. But we just decided to park our shoes in one of the holders and just walk around in just our socks since the entire floor, outside and in, was perfectly clean. They must wash it a couple dozen times a day, and with the cheap Pakistani and Indian labor, why not!

After the mosque, Sara and I went with Courtney and Greg to one of the public beaches to find a fisherman and go psicobloc, or deep water soloing, or DWS, or rock climbing over the ocean! It was a pretty incredibly experience! Greg speaks Arabic, so he was able to get a fisherman and his boat to take us out the the cliffs on an island, hang out and laugh at us for just 8 rials! The most challenging and tiring part of the DWS was getting from the water to the base area. We had to pull ourselves out of the water while the waves are helping for only a split second then leave you to be pulled once again by gravity. I didn't get to see Greg go up the route he had so many times before, and with my awesome abilities that Hinkson and Bernie IV helped build up last year, I was confident that I would be able to figure out how to get up without any help. Well, the first thing I grabbed was a rock with seashells sticking out of it like pieces of glass. I immediatly let go and yelped.

But, I was determined to get up, so I placed my hands once again on the rocks and pulled as hard as I could, almost making it before I had to throw myself away from the rocks and back into the forgiving water. I felt my hands stinging from the salt and when I looked at them as I treaded water, they were literally being torn up. But, I knew I could do it, so I ignored the pain like a manly-man and swam over again and place my hands up on the rocks once more wincing as I felt the sharp shells once again under my hands. By this time, there were some curious Omani women in another fishing boat who came over to watch the spectacle. So, now I really had to step up my game to impress the ladies! For a third time I felt the shells insert into my skin and I pulled and grabbed desperatly at any rocks above. But once again, I failed. So, I looked up at Greg and how it was possible that he could stand all the pain. He looked at me confused and pointed out the shell free route that he took, I tried once more on his route, but had no strength left to rise out of the water. So I jumped back on the boat and the fisherman temporarily docked so Sara, Courtney and I could join Greg on the small rock platform. The Omani ladies were entertained by my pathetic showing and I began traversing our first route embarrassed. The first route was fairly easy with lots of options to give up if we wanted. Greg led, but tried something a bit too hard and ended up jumping back in the water. Courtney was now in the lead, with me second and Sara following closely. At one point, Sara asked me if it was my blood on the rocks. I looked back at her and saw spots of blood marking my holds. When I looked at my hands, all the rips in my skin were leaking blood. I decided to not let it ruin my experience unless sharks started smelling the blood in the water, and kept climbing. Our second route was the main attraction, though after all we had already been through and being out of climbing shape, we only tried the route a few times. But, it was great adventure!

Oh, the places baby turtles and Taj will go!

Our second turtle adventure was much like the first, however, there were fewer turtles. August and September are the best times to go for those of you who might be planning a trip. Another huge difference for this trip was that around 9:45 at night, as we were putting our innocent little heads to rest, an Omani ranger found us! We had heard stories that the previous weekends they tried to kick our friends off the beach because they didn't want people to terrorize the turtles. The Omani rangers were responding to a German couple picking up some of the turtles. So, it was valid, and I am all for fighting terrorism on any front! However, despite my excitement for the rangers doing a great job, it was scary to have silouettes roaming around the campsite and seeing if we would respond to their greetings. But, we all pretended to be sleeping, although I wasn't pretending, and they left. Jeff woke me up after they left and said there were people at the campsite. Of course, I was still half asleep and this just scared me, as I saw their tail lights pulling away, I became very concerned and it took me a full couple minutes to fall asleep again! I did end up having a lot of nightmares about people raiding the campsite though.

The great thing about about turtle beach, aside from the turtles, is the fact that you have to get up before sunrise to watch the turtles and the sunrise is absolutely incredible here! And that

mornings rosy sky did not disappoint. In fact it did not disappoint so much that I ended up taking about 50 pictures of it.

After taking the classic pictures of the last turtle going into the sea at sunrise, we went swimming in the waves and Sara and I went on a little hike to a lovely spot where we were on a cliff 15 meters above the water and with nothing below us. We watched the fish and snakes playing below, or fighting, we weren't sure, but let's just say they were playing. We headed back to camp and packed up, and were off to Wadi Tiwi.

Wadi Tiwi.

We drove up to Wadi Tiwi, which is a beautiful wadi just off the highway. We stopped at the first set of pools to take a quick dip and wash the salt of the ocean away. We knew of a small village way up in the canyon which required 4WD. We soon discovered why we would need 4WD and a to be somewhat fearless. This was a one lane, steep dirt road with sharp turns and few places to pull off in case of oncoming traffic. With the steep road, Taj was struggling, and at one point simply couldn't go on. Jeff was in my car, so we developed a new method for tackling the rough road. We decided to wait at the bottom of the hill and wait until Janelle was at the top, then we got a running start and flew up the hill as fast as 2nd gear would take us ignoring the potholes, rocks and taking the turns way to fast. The method worked and we made it up to the village with Taj smelling a bit burnt out.

We parked outside of the mountain village and walked in; this wasn't really a choice, there is only the road leading to it, and then walking paths, but the village is built on the side of a mountain, so there was no room for roads. The village seemed to have such a simple life which was reflected in the architecture. No one seemed to put any thought into where or how they wanted to build their houses. There were houses that were built partly on top of abandoned houses and every structure looked like it was going to crumble and tumble down the adjacent valley.
As we walked through the village, we unknowingly became leaders of some sort of parade. All the kids began to follow us in a single file line and were very excited to have us around. We continued to walk past the goats and donkeys and waved good-bye to the kids and some of the adults. It was a bit surreal how welcoming and excited they were.

So, that is basically October and November.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Eid Trip to Salalah! part deux

Oct. 3 - "That's no mirage...", "Maybe we should ask... the waiter?"

Sleeping in the desert is incredible, the stars are clear and bright and there are more than I can remember seeing except in a planetarium. Waking up is easy and nice also. The temperature is pleasant and the sky is a light blue and the sun still isn't blinding until about 7:30. We woke up to the sound of footprints which belonged to Ahmed carrying some sweet bread and a pan of jelly-like brown stuff called haloye, or something like that. It was 6 in the am and we were getting ready for our hike. After a quick breakfast and hearing stories from Ahmed about the leopard that lives in the canyon and how there used to be more but people shot most of them in the 60s to the 80s, we set off on our hike which was very short but very steep. We went down a few cliffs then climbed a small hill, then down another few cliffs to the wadi which looked refreshing and deep. The guide book describes the pool as 'difficult to reach and one must have a comfort with height and cliffs to swim" They were right on. We had to scale down a cliff to get to a flat spot. On the way down, Lydia didn't want her backpack on because it was somewhat heavy, so she threw it down to me, but we didn't communicate very well and it hit a part of the cliff which jetted out and flew right over my hands and into the water! I yelled, "Oh no!", we started laughing and I ran to a cave to get changed so I could jump in after it, however as I turned my back Lydia basically jumped down two steep cliffs and jumped into the pond to rescue her soaking bag, towel, book, and a few other items! Luckily, there was nothing incredibly important in there.

I decided to only wear my drag suit to try to make the girls feel more comfortable being in their bathing suits around an omani man, but as it turned out, they all had their suits on under some special fabric clothing to swim in, so I just looked like a jack-ass! I can't help but think that Ahmed thought I was swimming in my white Wabash Wally underwear and that I was an idiot! But, we swam around, jumped off the cliffs and helped each other out of the water. Aside from being a fun experience, it was a great bath for all of us!

We hiked back up to our campsite and Ahmed and I exchanged numbers and promised to call each other if we were in the same region again. I was again elated that the talks from the night before were more than just mere words and we were actually interested in establishing a connection and friendship across religions, cultures, languages, and perceptions.

We left Wadi Uyun, Ahmed, and his lost baby camel around 9:00 am and headed to a garden on the east side of Salalah.

Although this was a short route, it took a while because every few kilometers there was a camel crossing. It was still so funny to see how they just keep walking out into the road even if a car is coming. They are so non-chalant in their gate and their head movements that they seem to have an air of arrogance about them. And the way they are treated and protected by the Omanis, they deserve to have that attitude. Coming around a corner I almost hit one, it didn't even seem to flinch, a car coming at it at 80 kms/hour was just an annoyance if even that. The rest of the herd crossed the road seperating our two cars. After a few camel crossings there was a cattle crossing. And of course, because everything happens in threes, there was eventually a donkey crossing also! Later in the day when we arrived at our next campsite we would get a goat crossing as well, we were excited about every single stupid crossing too.

The gardens were nice, but not much to write home about. The best thing was that it was green, we had some time to just relax and not be in the car and there were a lot of people on holiday. Next, we drove through the actually city of Salalah, but it was Friday so everything was closed and we just got some ice cream at a gas station, then moved on to the west side of Salalah to see the blow holes. This was a beautiful spot, but we didn't actually get to see any action until the next morning.

So, we went on to the drive the "steps" carved into a mountain. This road was constructed to make it "easier" for motorists to get from Yemen to Salalah and the rest of Oman. It was very exciting, we climbed 1,000 meters in just 8 turns. The road was steep and the turns were nearly 180 degrees. Once we were to the top, we looked down the carved out mountain and the road we just drove up and thank goodness we didn't have vertigo! I wasn't exactly sure why the mountain just just collapse because of how steep it was.

We drove on, now feeling pressure to get to our next destination before night fell. Once again, we weren't exactly sure where we were going to stay, but the guide book gave us a few suggestions on a nice beach or mountain top. We got to an army checkpoint, then continued on towards Yemen, then took a sharp turn southeast and headed to the ocean once again. We snaked with the road along the ridges of green mountains and through little towns with vacant hair-stylists shops, coffee-shops, and other buildings. With each town we couldn't tell if it was abondoned or still in use. We figured they were all still occasionally in use.

We passed a lot of cattle and camels on the roads, but eventually arrived to a small town on the beach surrounded by steep cliffs. It was a beautiful spot to camp and once we decided on the most private part of the small beach we went for a swim and body surfed then headed into town to get dinner. We had read in the guide book that we needed to get permission from the town leader to camp on the beach. It was already dark and we were starving, so we just decided that maybe we could ask our waiter if we would be allowed to sleep on the beach. He and the locals at the restaurant all agreed that that would be fine. We weren't sure if that counted as permission, but we thought it was at least in our favor if there was any trouble. The restuarant was cheap and the meat shawarma had a mystery meat. All we decided was that it was not beef, chicken, lamb, and obviously not pork. We figured it was goat, but didn't ask, and eventually didn't care. After dinner, we crashed on the beach. I should note here that we never used a tent on this trip, we just set down our Wadi mat and sleeping bags and that was our mini home for the night! I absolutely loved the simplicity of the camping. However, the last night we probably should have set up the tent... I'll explain later.

Oct. 4 - Holding on to that green grass and a desert storm

We woke up Saturday and the tide was pretty high, so we packed up and had a small breakfast and headed out of town back to Salalah. We we determined to see the blowholes at high tide. We drove back throught the green mountains, passed the army checkpoint and back down the steps to the blowholes. We arrived thinking they still weren't happening, but as we got closer, we heard the air being forced through the holes and then one of the holes spouted up a steady stream of water and mist, as well as a crab! The pressure of the air through the holes was powerful, and the sound shook our core. We watched a few spouts, then once mroe people started arriving, we left to visit the Salalah souk.

At the souk we bought some frankincense and some burners, then went to a juice shop and decided what we wanted to do the rest of the day and the final leg of our trip. This was where we had too many people with too many different ideas. But, we finally decided on a nice plan. Get pita bread, and find a nice tree on top of a mountain overlooking the green hills and have a picnic and rest for a few hours before starting our 1,000 km drive through the interior. We looked all over for pita bread and hommos, and finally got some after visiting about 5 different stores, then we headed out of town and found a beautiful tree which provided us with shade and friendly ants. We had our picnic and afterward, without saying a word, we all just put our heads on the wadi mat and rested, takin in all the browning green for the last hour.

At last, we decided to pack up and start our adventure in the desert. Again, we weren't sure where we were going to sleep at night, but our plan was to drive about 250-300 kms then pull off and camp in the desert. After about 3 hours of driving we pulled off and drove about 1km into the desert until we found a random spot. The sun was setting and was amazing in the desert. As soon as we stopped, we all went to use the bathroom (an odd thing in the desert because everything is absolutly open to prying eyes, but there isn't anyone around to pry). I decided to take a mini hike behind a hill close by and when I could no longer see the cars or my companions I took in the surrounding landscape. I was absolutely alone and there was absoulety nothing around me. It was a strange feeling to think that if I kept walking I could possibly never see anyone for days and never cross any roads or living plant life. I wondered what my mind would do if I was in this place, this natural, inescapable maze for days without seeing anyone. Would I go crazy, would I find inner peace? I thought of the aborigenes in Australia and I wondered what a walk-about in Oman would be like. The thought of that extremem exploration of this land, my mind, and of my soul was tempting. I felt that I could leave everything behind and walk into the desert with nothing and be completely content.

But, alas, I took another step toward that adventure and then thought that I was just high on the novelty of being in an immense desert for the first time and it might get boring after a while... Alright, I just chickened out because of my responsibilities and my curiosity of where my life is going, so I headed back to camp. But, it would have been fun, right?

As it turned out, camping in the desert requires a tent; which we had but didn't use because it was great weather when we put our heads to rest. As it turned out we had a great adventure that night just laying there. It was hot, so we all slept on top of our sleeping bags and due to our exhaustion, we went to bed around 7:30 or 8. Around 8:45, our young sleep was rudely interrupted by a constant pecking all over our bodies by something I couldn't figure out. We all woke up and realized we were in a sand storm. The wind was blowing dust and sand and forced us into our sleeping bags. As soon as I put my body in my sleeping bag and covered my head to protect myself from the penetrating sands, I began sweating all over! So, now and for the second time on this trip, I was sandy and soaked with sweat in my sleeping bag! I'm not sure when, but eventually the storm stopped, and I was able to breath a bit, then another came in the night and I woke up to slink back into my sleeping bag like a turtle into its shell.

Oct. 5 Dune running? Why not! We already are covered in a layer of sand!

The next time we woke up it was a peaceful, calm, foggy morning. We were surprised by the fog, but accepted it as weather from ocean. As we drove the rest of the day (another 7-8 hours) we shedded dust and sand from all parts of our bodies. Our heads were especially, well, let's face it, disgusting! Salt and sand in our hair, and every centimeter of skin!

We didn't let that get us down and as we made our way back at 130 to 140 km/hour we stopped at a massive sand dune to hike around and then for lunch shortly after that, and finally we got back to Muscat sandy, tired, but accomplished. The total driving time to cross the interior desert was only about 11 hours.

So, it was a great trip, one that I would do again in August when there is more green. Anyone want to come!?