23 January 2016

Oman Overnight 2014 - Part One

This expedition of a dozen people was billed as an overnighter in a tourist desert camp a new experiment for the cruise company. "Journey time 3 hours each way." Although most trip details are lacking I am beside myself with anticipation. Soon: camels at my beck and call. Should I mention that my camera skills fail me at critical times? Heard that before? What else is new, you say ... well, Major Cardiac Scare was to come.

We have four jeeps; luckily I can snag a front seat with driver Musa. "Moses, in English" I say; Musa smiles but his English is almost non-existent or he's a man of few words. David in back seat asks if I speak Arabic; I try not to snort. Single woman in backseat likes to chatter mindlessly. From the city of Muscat we climb to the plateau. I thought two hours one-way in a jeep was brutal. Try five hours a little miscalculation on someone's part. We do have pit stops as we go. 

Our leader is Mahmoud who apparently missed leadership training; he is quiet and kindly but not commander material. Like any time we stop for ten minutes the drivers dick around for thirty minutes or more. Not specifying a departure time doesn't work well for drivers or tourists. Whenever Mahmoud delivers instructions or information perchance a change in the itinerary most of us are unaware or can't hear him. After a couple of these stops, a fellow passenger, the one who strains to decipher, says because of timing we are now heading straight to the camp, without any sidelights such as a dip in an oasis pool.

So, onward! We pass a few towns, Ibra among them, endless driving on these flats but thankfully a paved road. Signs for desert camps begin appearing. Our third stop is at Al Ghabbi for tire deflation; we are now three hours in, at 4:30 pm. On the edge of this town, yes, suddenly we are on sand roads. Surely can't be long to our destination now. Typically corduroy-textured rutted "road" with some expected swerving dune-bashing thrown in although Musa is mercifully restrained. Often we are in a valley between mountainous sand ridges, occasionally spotted with nomadic herds and tents. Wahiba Sands, hello.

Fourth stop is at a Bedouin complex of several tents, some of us wondering if this is our overnight camp. A woman in the unique, scary Nizwa niqab watches as we stumble out of the jeeps. Mahmoud mumbles the woman wants to give us tea and dates. Which she does, in a tent laden with cushions, wall hangings, pictures, and a long table of trinkets and handicrafts, all for sale. She never speaks.

Off we go again. The sun is setting behind the wall of sand, therefore we will miss the plan of sunset watching at the camp. Which we think must be just around the corner. Even patient David says, "Are we there yet?" Two dates on my stomach since breakfast. The road gets worse and the dunes multiply in height.

We are late and it turns pitch black. As black as outer space. The jeeps stop at the foot of a dramatically steep dune mountain; in the transient view from our collective headlights we can see the road we are following goes straight up. Straight. Up. It can't be a road! It must be a little Arab humour for the tourists. Asking Musa if there is an alternative way around the mountain is useless. Did he really pass the required Omani desert-driving course with that sticker on his windshield?!

Headlights flaring, one by one the jeeps tackle it, getting bogged on their first try, sliding backwards on the vertical face. Gut-wrenching hopes that none will flip over and tumble like tinker-toys. My heart is in my mouth as each jeep eventually disappears upward. We are the last, with only our own paltry set of headlights to see by. This is insane. The most terrifying incident of my life. I simply have to hide my eyes, we will be the one to topple, this can't be happening ... my life is over, right now ... will our wreck be covered with sand by daylight? ... will my remains get shipped home? ... did I finish writing my obituary? ... death grip on the roll bar.

I can't tell how far we get before we slide backwards but we start a second time from the bottom. We passengers can no longer tell which way is up, anyway. Suddenly, after great thrashing of the wheel on Musa's part, we are with the others at the top. Cameras are useless in the blackness, even if our frozen brains thought of it. Therefore no documentation of this monumental heart-stopper. Our trembling nerves and spastic muscles begin to relax as we are on the straight and narrow again. Golly, the camp must be just over there, time is wasting. Oh ― our fellow jeeps have stopped ahead. The camp at last? But no, not yet.

It seems a family going in the other direction had a jeep malfunction, across the way from us, and a second jeep party stopped to help but both were at a standstill. Our drivers pile out to run over. Another twenty to thirty minutes go by. Then we resume, no explanations again. David pries it out of Musa who is very tentative about his English, one slow word at a time: one jeep was trying to tow the dead one but the rope kept breaking. We are left to imagine how long they are marooned in this vast isolation.

Finally, arrival at 1000 Nights Camp. Hard to see anything in the blinding dark with limited torch lights. Rumour circulates that we are leaving at 6:45 a.m. Mahmound is not to be found, to confirm this. I'm in shock, what's the point of arriving at night and leaving at dawn?! Why did they schedule a morning visit to the Grand Mosque \way back in Muscat on the same trip? Someone else said the camels are coming at 6:30 a.m. This is not good. A word with nice reception man who promises camels will come at 6:00 so I can have a decent ride before leaving. I'm so unnerved, unknowingly fumble my camera onto the wrong settings.

A golf cart alternately whisks us to our individual tents. They are beautiful, and so is what little we can see of the camp itself. The heat in my tent is stifling but it has screens on three sides, full length one side ... quickly sweep the curtains aside! The attached open air bathroom is great, just the stars above. Walk to the lovely lamp-lit dining area for dinner. A few families are around; we hear German being spoken. Ample food to choose from in the buffet and barbecues, lamb and goat a specialty, yum. I am becoming comatose from the accumulated effects of fear and heat and a full stomach. We are well entertained. Oh to have more time here!

I don't linger, need bed, need sleep. Gotta rise at 5:30 to have a meaningful camel experience. On the path to my tent Mahmoud comes by, always solicitous. So little time to spend here, I moan, so early to leave. It's still too warm in my tent, so much for deserts turning cold at night. Not this particular desert. I adore my tent, breeze through the screens all night. I discover I am sharing the bathroom with a humungous green insect. He's stubborn and won't be flapped away.

best I could do from a sad batch of photos

~ to be continued, blogging superseded for the next month or so ~

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 January 2016

Road Trip - Provence

Provence and Beyond (http://www.beyond.fr/villphotos/baux-photo-gallery)
Moons ago, first side trip to France from England. Fly London to Nice. Destination: Les Baux de Provence. Gourmet Magazine had published a mouthwatering feature on Hôtel Oustau de Baumanière. Of course I no longer have the article, nor do I have personal photos. The hotel website provides some, as do Mr. and Mrs. Smith (mrandmrssmith.com) and other travel websites.

Provence and Beyond
Les Baux is a steep and picturesque village, fortified since the Middle Ages, perched in scenic Provence. The old cobblestone streets on the rocky ridge seem unchanged since then. Exposed rock formations in the region have provided defensive positions throughout history dating at least to Roman times; even ancient Celtic artifacts have been found here. Magnificent views from the crowning chateau-fortress ruins look in all directions to Avignon, Arles, St-Rémy, and Aix-en-Provence, all of which made great day trips. Somewhere in that landscape between Les Baux and St Rémy was a particular, quiet, shady village of the kind that makes you think, I could stay here; how closer to perfect can it get? A passing magic moment. Alas, the name slipped into the fading files of my mental filing cabinet. 

The town was almost secondary to the hotel and its Michelin two-star restaurant. Oustau Baumanière backs against the spine of rock and at the time we were there, was not as extensive as it is now.

 This photograph comes closest to how I remember our room.

Our first dinner night was a bit intimidating, having to struggle with French in translating and ordering for two. If only I could recall more of it (actually, more of any meal there) than having ordered kidneys instead of tournedos. For which I shall never be forgiven. However, some comforting things can never be misinterpreted: RHONE WINES!

The point being that even as a first French culinary/wine-tasting venture, it was an introduction to the chateaux et relais network for travel to come. No less consequential, it rekindled a serious travel bug for historical and archaeological sites.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman 

28 December 2015

Who Knew?

A financial advisory company called Bank Investment Consultant (BIC) talks about the system for evaluating bank performance. In case this "riddle" was keeping you awake at night, here is the insider dope:
For banks, the supervisory grade known as a "Camels" score is a critical and confidential yardstick of strength. But for many in the public, it is a riddle too tantalizing to ignore.Camels was first developed in the 1970s as part of the regulators' "Uniform Financial Institutions Rating System." Institutions were judged on five different components under the acronym C-A-M-E-L: capital adequacy, asset quality, management, earnings and liquidity. The system was revised in 1996, when agencies added the 's' at the end of Camels for "sensitivity to market risk." (emphasis added)[1]

Now we all know. Something. More or less. Less, in my case.

[1] Joe Adler, “Bank Exam Ratings May Not Be as Secret as You Think,” 15 August 2011, Bank Investment Consultant
(http://www.bankinvestmentconsultant.com/news/banks-exam-ratings-scores-2674605-1.html : accessed 20 August 2011). Register (free) if you're desperate for further intel.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

14 December 2015

Aga Khan Museum

The elegantly designed museum was opened not long ago as the first North American home for the culture, arts, and artifacts of Muslim civilizations. An exciting contribution to Toronto and Canadian life! It's an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a non-denominational organization working to improve living conditions in the developing world.

His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. In Islam’s ethical tradition, religious leaders not only interpret the faith but also have a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in their community and in the societies amongst which they live. For His Highness, this has meant a deep engagement with development for over fifty years through the agencies of the AKDN. [from the website]

In the museum's main floor gallery are items from its permanent collections a variety of manuscripts, ceramics, metal work, architectural design details, and other objects. Taking a regular gallery tour enriches the experience.

(... camel sighting ...)
Precious ceramics are displayed in the main floor gallery as well as in the Bellerive Room.

You can use your camera on the main floor and on the extensive grounds. Changing supplementary exhibitions are featured on the second floor, for example in September 2015, the fascinating "A Thirst for Riches: Carpets from the East in Paintings of the West" (carpets to drool over but not photograph) and a second exhibit of contemporary art in various forms including photography, from Sharjah (United Arab Emirates).

The illustrated calligraphy is stunning.

Historical and mythological figures.

Bowl crafted from a coconut shell!

The museum is a learning centre as well; lectures, films, music, performances, and workshops are all part of the programming. The small gift shop has some exquisite reproductions and books (an e-shop is now available here). I didn't try the Diwan restaurant, open for lunch only (yummy-looking menu), but a special series of dinner with jazz is currently popular. In the light-filled atrium is a cafe for light snacks.

My photos do not do it justice!

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

30 November 2015

Shaolin, China 2014

Shaolin Temple is located at Song Shan, near the city of Zhengzhou in central China, and is "the home of Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu."[1] Beginning about fifteen hundred years ago the storied monks developed their martial arts skills to a renowned degree in order to keep fit and support their meditation practices, but ultimately their prowess enabled them to survive the vicissitudes and changing fortunes of China's history. At times, the masters of Kung Fu were the favoured elite warriors for different rulers. (available for "special ops" one might say).

On our way to the temple, we made an unscheduled visit to one of the many Kung Fu schools in the area. Hundreds of kids, all ages, were going through outdoor drills on a sunny March day. Others came excitedly to hang on the fence, laughing and chattering away to us. A fun greeting on both sides. Squads of all ages were being trailed by the little guys. Indoors, some of the boys treated us to a brief performance of the skills they learn: it was truly awesome! The acrobatic element was stunning, so much more than I expected. They move like lightning, almost impossible to capture the quicksilver movements with an amateur camera.
 Kids as young as four can start here, including girls these days. It's a residential school where the youngsters see their parents only about once a year. Apparently one of the benefits is a healthy remedial effect on delinquent "problem" children. In the end, their superior training puts them in demand for desirable jobs in the army and police forces.

At the temple complex, we walk through a lovely, peaceful park called the Pagoda Forest because it is the monks' burial ground alongside a small river. The most revered have grandiose stone tombs. As strolling visitors, we are at the forefront of tourist season.

But uh-Oh! On a bridge to the right I spot the most magnificent Bactrian camel, obviously set up and groomed for photo opps.
Can't take my eyes off him, rush over, pay my 20 yuan, ditch my jacket, and mount the camel (all the while knowing most of my oblivious group is disappearing down the path). Quite the stand has been rigged for mounting. A very comfortable saddle, padded with extra wool. Why not ― look how much this lush beast has to spare! But the wary animal turns his head a couple of times, trying to bite my leg; see the gob marks on my knee. Man in charge takes my camera for the photos but also a couple of friends are clicking away. Rush-rush. Then I have to wait while they process and laminate the photo. Meanwhile Lisa the tour leader discovers our absence and reads me the riot act of disapproval. One must not detour without permission.

We catch up to the group at the temple entrance. It's a series of rooms or temples within the temple as a whole, each higher than the one before, associated with the levels of Kung Fu (remember that movie, The Karate Kid?). Wonderful trees here, especially an ancient gingko. Several hours walking and climbing around leave us drooping. Clearly we lack the physical stamina and discipline of the estimable monks.

A lot of excitement and experiences in one day and that was just our afternoon! The morning had seen us hiking along the Huan (Yellow) River to the Longmen caves at Luoyang where many statues of Buddha are carved into a steep mountain side. Vegetarian dinner tonight; this is Buddhist country. We celebrate our exhilarating day.

[1] Sara Naumann, "A Brief History of Shaolin Temple, Home of Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu," AboutTravel (http://gochina.about.com/od/zhengzhou/p/Shaolin_History.htm : viewed 14 September 2014).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

04 November 2015

Dubai, United Arab Emirates 2013, 2014

Approaching Dubai from the Persian Gulf; the mist often precludes a good, distant look at the skyline.
A couple of brief visits to this preeminent Arab city covered a few major attractions, but the lasting impression is of NEWness. Twenty-first century new. Like many cities in the Gulf area, Dubai sprang to life suddenly, it seems, with the advent of oil riches. Its "modern" history dates back only about sixty years.

I don't care for the skyline architecture, what I see as mainly a competition for outlandish design and dubious taste, but of course other progressive cities do the same (Shanghai comes to mind).
There's little in the way of history among the prevalent business power and super-consumerism. The town existed previously as a fishing village, gradually becoming a central trading point for the Gulf region. Dubai "heritage and diving villages" show something of its pearling history and craftsmen at work - oddly not featured on most tourism websites. Outside the city's flourishing progress and standard of life, the arid desert does not change.

The souks are not the mediaeval warrens of ages-old Middle East cities elsewhere. Here, all is fresh and sumptuous, like the gold souk.

Mind you, camels are evident in one form or another (breeding and racing are big business). Runaway camels are known to disrupt highway traffic but all I encountered were these sculptures at a roundabout. Alas, a tour of the racetrack or a farm was not on our schedule.

A visit to the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque was a tranquil moment in a busy city.

Two things stood out for me. I loved the museum, especially the life-size tableaux of Bedouin life. It sits within the city's oldest building, the (1790s) al-Fahidi fort. A small museum by any standards, it carefully showcases some archaeological finds and cultural arts.  

Where are the women, eh? ;-)

My Number Two highlight was something I felt I should do rather than something appealing or interesting. Even with a pathetic, whimpering fear of heights, I went up the tallest building in the world. Burj el-Khalifa. It's barely visible in the first skyline pictured above. It was the tallest in the world then; maybe an ambitious architect somewhere has surpassed it already. My tactic was to latch onto a friend as sturdy as a Brinks truck who wouldn't notice if I stumbled dizzily into him or who would surely break my fall should I pitch a faint.
Into the here and now:
Our guide is a communications failure. She does not have the voice projection for the job and we find ourselves in puzzled clusters after the bus unloads us. Where we are, we don't know. What we know for sure is: we have tickets for 11:30 to ride to the top of the famous building. Are we here? Or is this a temporary stop? Are we at the aquarium, is that something she mentioned? After being hustled along the sidewalk and up numerous escalators we enter a large building. Then discover that thanks to dear guide's misinformation, several people must race back to locate the bus and their backpacks because this is indeed our destination. She taps her watch pointedly; we are in danger of delaying the schedule.

It dawns on me about this time that we are in the famed Dubai Mall. The entrance to the Burj tower is here, deep within its glitzy bowels. Hello, we are passing an aquarium. A couple of gigantic viewing windows. Otherwise of course the mall is enormous with all the ridiculous high-end shops that could be Bloor Street in Toronto. The schedule allows for a bit of shopping so we dive into a souvenir shop, just the thing for gifts.

Then I spy a Tim Horton's and explain its significance to my fellow travellers, all of whom are Brit and rolling their eyes.
Our 11:30 timing comes. Just whisk us up and down and get it over with, I think. The strict procedure involves lining up for a security check, word filtering back that no lighters are allowed. Lighters like the ones several of us just purchased as souvenirs. More confusion, holding up the line. Our dithering guide collects the lighters for safekeeping, then returns them because she remembers she is going up in the elevator with us. Thank goodness a sensible person learns a bag can be stowed at the security point to pick up later. This lineup and fuss occupy almost an hour of painfully slow inching toward the security people. Like airport scans but no hint of body searches.

Once approved to enter, are the elevators just around the corner? No. The same long line is in front of us, shuffling through endless corridors. At least they show scenes and videos of how the edifice was constructed. Somewhere way ahead, the elevators are taking small groups at a time, people relieved to be finally moving. Am not letting myself get separated from Brinks truck.
Move we did. Up 189 floors! In contrast to snail's progress on the ground, we shoot to the top in sixty seconds, so the flashing digital readout tells us. Popping ears. Stepping out, clutching my companion's shirt, when I have the nerve to look up, it's not scary after all. We are on a wide enclosed platform and thankfully not a glass floor! Photo opps galore, although it seems like taking pictures from an airplane window, not quite real. Then we have to line up in a slow march again to descend. The entire process for a sixty-second ascent was almost two hours.

Oh, wait. A third thing! 
The best thing about the Dubai Mall is the outdoor dancing Fountain (yes, capital F). We have a brief taste, catching the end of the first show. Classical and world music accompanied by the incredible water performance. Very very pleasing. Even in the blistering heat. In the evening dusk with added lights and colour projectors, it would be thrilling.
The beam of light shining upward from the fountain can be seen from over 20 miles away, and will be visible from space making it the brightest spot in the Middle East, and quite possibly in the entire world. [1]

                    ~ Dubai does not do anything on a small scale ~

And this. A trash can for recycling. Because I like it.

POSTSCRIPT: I note a recent climate change report warning that this region, already in one of the planet's most extreme heat zones, could become uninhabitable for humans in less than ninety years at the rate we are going now.[2] Ironic: the air conditioning that provides relief is powered by fossil fuels, source of Gulf riches, and the burning of those (not inexhaustible) fuels contributes mightily to global carbon emissions. With all the riches and technology at its disposal, will the U.A.E. apply itself soon to that problem?

1] "The Dubai Fountain," The Dubai Mall (http://www.thedubaimall.com/en/Entertain/TheDubaiFountain.aspx).
[2] "Space + Science," CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/27/world/persian-gulf-heat-climate-change/index.html?eref=edition).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman