Friday, March 27, 2015

Mar 23 – The Wonders of Old Dubai

To see Dubai and the Burj Kalifah rise out of the water is to believe in magic.  The Burj Kalifah, the world’s tallest building at over 2200 feet, looks like a finger pointing to God as if to say, “Here I am!”  It towers over everything including some of the other tallest buildings on the planet.  It dwarfs and dominates everything.

We were concerned about the weather because it was raining on the ship several hours before we docked, but the Weather Gods smiled on us once again and we had partly cloudy skies but only 6 raindrops all day.  We were lucky in other ways, too.

Our guide in Dubai is Shahnaaz, a South African émigré who has been in Dubai for fifteen years.  Both she and Port Lecturer Barbara emphasized the fact that only 12 – 15 per cent of Dubai’s residents are native to the area.  They are the direct descendants of the Bedouins who have lived here for thousands of years and, as such, have tremendous wealth.  The Emirati [citizens of the United Arab Emirates] are entitled to free housing, medical care, education and citizenship.  The housing ranges from the luxurious to the outrageous.  The non-Emirati population does all of the heavy lifting in the country; they are the laborers, merchants and teachers who make up the middle and lower classes.

For the immigrants, life is a balancing act.  In order to stay in Dubai [or any of the other six Emirates in the UAE], they must have and keep jobs.  If they lose their jobs, for any reason, they must find new ones in 30 days or leave the country.  They will never be allowed to become Emirati citizens.  Even if they marry citizens, they are required to keep their original passports; their children, however, will be full citizens when they reach the age of 18.

Life is also difficult for the “worker bees” because the cost of living is so high.  Rent is payable a full year in advance and landlords [read Emirati owners] may raise rents at any time.  Shahnaaz said her rent has risen 40% in the past year and is so high that she has to move farther out of the city.  She has moved 8 times in 15 years.  Because there is almost no arable land here [it’s a desert!], most produce and other groceries must be imported.  Gasoline is inexpensive because the government subsidizes the oil industry.  In a land of no taxes, gas sells for about $2 per gallon.

Speaking of oil…It is the driving force behind the economy of Abu Dhabi, the neighboring Emirate and capital of the UAE, but plays only a minor role in Dubai.  Think of the Emirates as states in the US except the governors are called sheikhs and they rule for life and their word is absolute.  Each Emirate is independent yet there are national laws, agreed to by the Sheikhs as well as compulsory military service for Emirati.  Dubai’s economy is driven by international commerce, tourism and spices.  This was once a center for pearl fishing but the Japanese scuttled the market for pearls with the introduction of cultured pearls in the 1930s.

Dubai is the financial hub of the UAE and is more liberal than its neighbors.  Although most of the women and a large number of men still wear traditional Bedouin garb [loose robes and head-coverings], the choice of dress is theirs.  Because Dubai has so many ex-pats working for large international firms, there is a mixture of Western styles, too, from the conservative to the extreme.  Women in shorts may be tolerated in Dubai, but it would not be in the neighboring states; in one mall in another Emirate, women are required to wear robes and head-coverings which are provided to them if they arrive dressed inappropriately.

Despite the unofficial dress code, women are revered and respected.  They wear the concealing dress for both modesty and comfort.  The robes, head gear and even the face-coverings are throwbacks to their nomadic roots and offered great protection from sun and sand.  If one remembers what sanitation was like in the desert, it is no wonder that black robes for women are popular because they do not show dirt and stains.

Although the UAE and Dubai are Muslim countries, there is no apparent discord or discrimination against any of the many races, religions or cultures represented here.  Even Jews are welcome with one exception – Anyone with an Israeli passport is refused entry.  But, as the guide said, that’s politics, not religion.  Muslims are expected to pray 5 times a day and allowances are made by employers to facilitate this.

The lecture is over; on to the tour.

We began at the Omar Farouk Mosque.  This mosque is not as well-known as the Jumeirah Mosque which is a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and is the one which most tours include.  Alas, the Jumeirah Mosque was not open when we were available, so Shahnaaz arranged a visit to Omar Farouk.  Set in a residential area near the “Beverly Hills” of Dubai, it is unassuming.  Unlike larger mosques we have seen, it was small and plain where others were large and colorful.

The prayer hall was enough to accommodate 2000 men.  Women could use a screened-off area on the second floor, but their attendance at the mosque is not required.  It is thought that they are too busy at home to leave for prayers and there are no children allowed in the women’s section.  The entire prayer hall is carpeted in a linear pattern so that the men [and women upstairs] stay aligned with Mecca.  Opposite the main entrance was the mirhab which indicates the direction of Mecca; Muslims always face Mecca, their Holy City, in order to direct their prayers to God.

After the women in the group were suitably robed, we met a representative of the mosque who, we decided later, could be thought of as the Director of Education.  He spent an hour explaining the architectural and religious details of the mosque and Islam itself and was both engaging and erudite.  We were encouraged to ask questions and received straight-forward answers.  Like Shahnaaz, was appalled by the political Muslims who, he said, are not observing the tenets of Islam or its Five Pillars.

Another stop at the mosque was the Ablution Room.  There are two, naturally, one for each gender.  Muslims must be clean before they pray, so they wash their faces, hands and feet before praying in the mosque.  It is sort of like the Orthodox Jewish mikvah without the immersion.  The women also had a chance to climb the stairs to see the women’s prayer hall.

From the Omar Farouk Mosque, we drove across the main road and past all of the office and apartment towers of Dubai.  We had seen them on the way from the ship and they were just as jaw-dropping on the way back.  Our stop was at the Bastikiya area, one of the oldest in Dubai.  The old mud-and-sand dwellings have been renovated and now serve as museums and cultural centers including a calligraphy center and a philately center.  The main feature of the architecture here is copied in many Arab buildings even today – the wind tower.  As a precursor to air-conditioning, it was ingenious.  An open four-sided tower was constructed above the house.  Inside the open tower, baffles ran at right-angles from the corners, making a large X pattern.  This arrangement allowed breezes from any direction to be captured and the moving, and hopefully cool, air to be directed into the house.  Today’s wind towers are just ornamentation, of course, but the exterior design is the same.

Around the corner from the Bastikiya is the Dubai Museum.  It is housed in the old Al Fahidi fort and includes relics and reproductions to illustrate life in Dubai before it was Dubai.  The Bedouins and nomads are shown in dioramas as is the rise of towns and trades.  In the courtyard of the fort is the well – long since dried up – which the fort defended [It is interesting to note that Bastikiya was so close to the fort and the water].  The museum is actually underground, reached by a descending spiral which is matched at the far end, just past the gift shop, by an ascending spiral.

We drove from the museum to Dubai Creek in the old town.  The creek is an extension of the Arabian Sea, not a real creek, but it divides the old town nonetheless.  We boarded an abra, the traditional water taxi for the trip to the other side of the creek.  The boat was a bit tricky to board because the space was narrow and the seats were not far above the floor.  Anyone with knee problems – and that was a large part of our group – was uncomfortable sitting and unbalanced trying to stand.  It was not a fun trip, but, fortunately, it was very short.

Once we disembarked from that floating torture chamber, we crossed the street to get to the Spice Market.  We had envisioned a tented area with merchants selling spices from open sacks, weighing them on balance scales with tiny weights.  Instead we found a concentration of shops selling both loose and packaged spices, candies and nuts.  We sampled chocolate-covered dates with almonds inside and ending up buying them in the hope that some make it back to Florida.  We also bought a jar of assorted nuts arranged in layers and submerged in honey.  Vanilla ice cream, anyone?  Others bought things, too, so we did not have to look at the other shops which were probably selling the same products for the same prices.  The Flat Grandchildren had their pictures taken sitting in bags of spices and one [who shall remain nameless so as not to cause fights] had a picture taken with one of the salesmen at his request.

Several blocks away was the Gold Market.  Again, it did not match our image of a souk.  More interesting than the gaudy displays in the windows of the gold and jewelry stores, there were stalls and shabbier stores on the side streets.  Ahh!  Our kind of people!  We wandered a bit and found a T-shirt MA liked.  The merchant wouldn’t bargain, but we bought the shirt anyway.  When Shahnaaz saw it, she was furious and dragged us back to the shop demanding a refund for what appeared to be damaged goods.  The shop people made all kinds of excuses as to why they could neither return the money nor issue a refund for the overcharge they had made on the currency conversion.  MA picked out a different shirt and we all went away indignant.

Our free time completed, we drove to the Sheikh’s palace.  Like all the others we have seen, it was fronted by a long driveway guarded by heavy gates.  The palace was also protected by roaming peacocks which strolled outside the gate but which were expected to raise an alarm if there were some danger.  They paid little heed of the locals or the camera-wielding tourists.  We took pictures of the distant palace, the gates and the peacocks while Shahnaaz explained that the Sheikh has two wives.  The first wife bore 13 children and the second one only one.  The eldest son [Crown Sheikh?] lives in his own palace across the street and is not expected to move when he ascends the throne.  As with almost every other location in Dubai, the Burj Kalifah was clearly visible from the palace driveway.

The day was waning so we drove next, and last, to see the Burj Kalifah up close and personal.  Shahnaaz knew a short cut to get outside right in front of the building and, not coincidentally, got us prime spots from which to watch the fountain performance.  As with everything in Dubai, this display had to be the biggest outdoor water show in the world.  Like the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, these fountains made water dance and keep time to music but on a much larger scale.  Because of their size on the narrow canal, it was not possible for us to see to the end of the fountains.  The shows are presented every 30 minutes starting at 6 p.m. plus shows at 1 and 1:30.  Shahnaaz said that some, like the one we saw at 6:30, last several minutes but that others last less than a minute.  Just as we had been lucky in having a good guide, so we were lucky to get a long water show.

We returned to the van for the drive home through the lights of Dubai, arriving at the ship at 7:30, just in time to clean up for dinner.  After dinner, we attended an alleged folkloric show with tribal dances, a whirling dervish and a belly dancer.  Belly dancing is an Egyptian art form; the whirling dervishes are Turkish; and the tribal dances were perhaps Lebanese.  We were tired and left early.

TOMORROW – Another Day in Dubai

Mar 24 – The Wonders of New Dubai

Yesterday’s tour concentrated on old Dubai geographically and culturally.  Today we were immersed in the new Dubai.  We went literally from one end of town to the other.

The city was still hazy this morning, but the cause was different.  Yesterday, we encountered morning fog following the rain we had experienced at sea.  Today, we saw dust in the air blown in from the surrounding desert.  This is not a good place to live for asthmatics.

We started with skyscrapers and new construction.  Of course, all of Dubai is new construction since most of it did not exist as anything but sand 15 years ago.  Today it is in the forefront of architectural design.  We started in the financial district with a photo stop in front of the Dubai Twin Towers and the Stock Exchange.  The Stock Exchange is built like a modern, squared-off version of the Arc de Triumph in Paris.  It is clean and utilitarian but like its Parisian comparison, it is hollow in the middle so a photo of it also shows all of the buildings behind it.  The Twin Towers were built to resemble Toblerone chocolate bars – triangular with indentations to simulate the sections of the candy.  There other unique towers in the area, but none were identified by name; there were all gorgeous.

From here we drove to the Dubai Mall.  Of course, it is the world’s largest and includes the world’s largest indoor salt-water aquarium.  The aquarium includes a marine zoo as well as a walk-through so visitors are surrounded by water and fish.  We stayed on the outside of the aquarium where the Mall has a viewing plate [probably the world’s largest piece of Plexiglas] so shoppers can see the fish and rays while spending their money.  The viewing area is opposite the world’s largest candy store where we resisted the temptation to buy various American and international confections.  Question – If you buy a chocolate camel, do you eat the hump first or the legs?

Fashion Avenue had all of the world’s high-end clothing stores and the Gold Souk was filled with jewelry several cuts and price ranges above the gold market we visited yesterday.  Shahnaaz took D on a side trip because his camera’s batteries died when he went to take the first photos in the Mall.  We did not observe the ice-skating rink before we left.

Keeping to the theme, we went to the Mall of the Emirates, a much smaller version of the Dubai Mall.  The stores seemed to be geared more to average shoppers rather than the luxury shoppers.  We saw Starbucks and Modell’s Sports and felt right at home.  Still, it was opulent.  Instead of an ice rink, Mall of the Emirates had Ski Dubai.  With real snow made fresh each night.  The viewing area on the second level was crowded but we were able to see, if not photograph, skiers in the distance on the way down and others on the lift going up the slope. 

D suggested to Shahnaaz that we grab lunch at the next stop. But she suggested we use the food court at the mall.  MA and D got falafel sandwiches and the others went to a variety of places, even KFC.  We enjoyed our lunch, which was accompanied by lemon-lime juice infused with crushed mint.  It reminded D of mint tea in Morocco.  Before leaving, we went to Starbucks to get Starbucks Dubai mugs.

Even more skyscrapers and new architecture awaited us at Dubai Marina, another man-made wonder.  The marina is 11 km [about 6.5 miles] long in an area which had been desert before the engineers arrived.  Now it is a mixture of offices and apartments along with the requisite cafes at ground level.  Of course, there were plenty of boats in our particular inlet and lots of foot traffic, too.  We walked and gawked especially at the building with the 90 degree twist.  On the way out, a local couple in full Bedouin attire allowed us to take their picture [or, rather, he allowed us to take their picture].  This was very unusual and we were very appreciative.

So much work touring forced us to take a break, so we battled the traffic to get to Jumeirah Beach.  The JBR, Jumeirah Beach Residence, faces the beach with wonderful vistas, high rents and bad traffic.  The Residence is only three years old, considered ripe for remodeling and renovation here.  Dubai years are like dog years in some ways.  Once we left the bus, we were in an area of food shops and restaurants all right on the beach.

The beach was not wide, but it was not overly crowded.  Of course, we were there in the middle of the week and very late in the tourist season.  It must be mobbed on the weekends.  Shahnaaz said that the young men come here on the weekends to show off their cars and attract girls.  Some things are the same all over.  There were plenty of activities for children and even camel rides were available.

The biggest surprise was the mixture of traditional garb and Western apparel.  We had seen this at Ski Dubai earlier but there were no bikinis at Ski Dubai; there were plenty at The Beach.  Topless sunbathing is not allowed and if the security forces do not see and stop it, the other beach-goers will report it.  It is tasteless on several levels in this observant country. 

We could look across the water to the Atlantis hotel on the end of The Palms development, our next destination.  The Palms is a man-made archipelago made in the shape of a palm tree.  Its topography can’t be seen from ground level, only from the air.  Nearby is another development called The World, a series of 300-plus islets representing countries on a globe.  The Palms’ house sold out in just a few days whereas The World’s developers sold just the empty islets and left construction up to the buyers.  The only way to The World is by water or helicopter, but The Palms is connected to the mainland by a causeway.

At the end of the causeway is the Atlantis.  It is identical to the one in the Bahamas with one exception – there is no casino because gambling, like alcohol, is forbidden.  [Even though the Dubai Stakes is the richest horse race in the world [of course!], no one in the Emirates can place a bet on it even through the internet.]  The Atlantis boasts a suite which is available in the archway connecting its two wings.  Michael Jackson and other big names have stayed in it despite its price of $48000 per night.  We took pictures from the outside because visitors cannot enter unless they have reservations or have been “called in” by other guests.

On to the Madinat Jumeirah and the Souk Jumeirah.  Just as anything with Kalifah in its name is owned by the President of the UAE [who is the Sheik of Abu Dhabi], anything with Jumeirah in its name is owned by the royal family of Dubai.  Madinat Jumeirah is another housing and office complex built on artificial canals.  Residents of many of the units can get to them by riding in abras much classier than the one we rode in yesterday and visitors can take a 15-minute ride for 50 dirham, about $15USD.

The pseudo-souk had high-end stores, restaurants and even fast food.  There were pushcart vendors in the open areas as well.  We all did some tchotchke shopping and MA found something for The Table.  The highlight for most people, us included, was the view of the Burj Al Arab.  “Burj” means tower, so this was the Tower of Arabia or the Arabian Tower.  Likewise, Burj Kalifah in downtown is the Kalifah Tower which was named after the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi who bailed out the developers when they ran short of money to complete the project.

The Burj Al Arab is designed to look like the sail of an ancient catamaran.  It is unique among the other unique buildings here as has become the symbol of Dubai, even more than the Burj Kalifah.  Frankly, it is prettier and more graceful.  Burj Al Arab is touted as a 7-star hotel where each suite has its own butler and admission is by reservation.  Non-residents can book the afternoon tea or even drinks, but the tea costs almost $200 per person.  The people from the ship who did this, some through HAL and others independently, were treated to a 7-course presentation according to Shahnaaz.  We were not that thirsty and settled for a Moolatta from the Cinnabon/Seattle’s Best Coffee store while we waited for the group to reassemble after free time.

On the way back to the ship, we made a quick stop at the Jumeirah Mosque, Dubai’s most photographed mosque.  It is named Jumeirah Mosque not because the royals own it but because the area around it is called Jumeirah filled as it is with Emirati housing.  It was time for evening prayers and we watched as several men came to pray by the front door.  And then it was time to go home.

TOMORROW – A sea day

Mar 24 – Approaching Oman

Today’s agenda included a mandatory boat drill for all passengers.  While we have been alert because of the threat of pirates, the boat drill is required every 30 days or so even for passengers who have participated earlier on the cruise.  We added some new passengers in Dubai, so this sea day was a good time to get the drill out of the way.

We attended Kate Ross’s lecture on Islamic art this morning.  Kate is an old cruise friend whom we met on the 2011 Grand Med.  We have kept in touch with her in the interval and have especially enjoyed trading book recommendations.  Her presentation this morning was the first of 9 she is scheduled to give in the next 18 days.  She will spend some of her days off on tour with us.  We are glad she is finally on board.

After dinner, we found the latest pillow gift in the cabin.  This time, we were surprised with solar-powered battery chargers for electronics.  These are perfect for people who let their phone and camera batteries deplete but are only good if the people remember to charge the charger.  The chargers even carry the Grand World Voyage logo.

TOMORROW -- More of the Middle East

Mar 26 – Muscat Ramble

Although both Muscat and the Dubai are in the Mid-East, they are as unlike as they can be.  Dubai is the bustling center of capitalism in the region, aglitter with buildings that seem to defy gravity and the other laws of physics.  It barely rises above the sea, a flat desert country prone to a haze of sand.  Muscat is none of that.  The mountains come right down to the Arabian Sea and make a dramatic backdrop for the low white houses of much of the population.  We saw no buildings taller than 10 stories high as we visited some of the tourist highlights.  It is a city with a history which goes back centuries, practically the dawn of time when compared to Dubai’s fifteen year rise into the desert sky.

The Weather Gods continued to smile on us today as we explored some of Muscat, Oman.  Unlike the UAE which is a federation of independent states, Oman is an absolute monarchy.  There is a parliament, housed in a beautiful large building, but nothing happens in Oman unless His Majesty Sultan Qaboos approves.  Despite his autocratic rule, the people seem happy with their government and country in general.  Qaboos has spent billions to improve the infrastructure.  According to our guide, Valentina, there were fewer than 20 miles of paved roads in the entire country when Qaboos came to power in the mid-1970s.  Today there is a national road system with paved highways even in the remote parts of the country.  We passed the unfinished airport being built literally right next to the current airport.  The hope is that it will rival Dubai and Abu Dhabi for passengers.

Another sign that Qaboos is serious in investing in the country is the Royal Opera House.  This was our first stop today.  Although it was not on the original itinerary, it was worth the time.  The courtyards are marble, the interior is marble and teak and the whole complex was designed to resemble the Portuguese forts which dominate the landscape.  The Opera House serves as a venue for all kinds of visiting performers from ballet recitals to symphony concerts to jazz musicians.  The Hall holds about 1500 concertgoers and there did not seem to be a bad seat in the house.  Of course, there is a reserved seat for Sultan Qaboos, who has his own private entrance, and a special section of seats for VIPs.  Other than that, any seat is available to anyone who can afford it.  Valentina loves ballet and opera and has even bought a special formal dress to wear to the Opera House.

The Opera House had two innovations we had not seen elsewhere.  Approaching the concert hall from the lobby, concert-goers pass through a “silence box,” a special room which completely deadens any outside noises and prevents them from interfering with the program.  Several of us made impertinent references to the Cone of Silence from the old Get Smart television show.  The second innovation was just as ingenious.   On the back of each seat was a display screen on which opera patrons could select a language to translate the opera’s original language; once they select their language of preference, they can plug headphones into the arms of the their seats to hear the translation thereby eliminating the distracting surtitles projected over the stage in many opera venues.

After taking the official tour of the Opera House, we continued our cultural tour.  Once again, we were in a mosque.  This is to be expected in the Mid-East and we have seen our share of them.  One of the women in our group of 4 couples wore shorts despite being reminded of proper dress and could only be admitted if she borrowed appropriate robes from the mosque.  She declined and had to wait for us outside while we went in.

The Grand Mosque is, indeed, grand.  Set in a park-like setting and surrounded by gardens and fountains, it was relaxing just to walk the paths to the prayer halls.  Where the Omar Farouk Mosque in Dubai had a balcony for female worshippers, the Grand Mosque has a separate building which could hold 650 women.  The Friday “sermons” given in the men’s prayer hall are broadcast via closed-circuit to the women’s area.  The women’s prayer hall was rather plain because, Valentina explained, women would be distracted by the outside beauty and not be able to concentrate on their prayers.

The men’s prayer hall, of course, was ornate because it is thought that men are so single-minded that they would not be distracted.  The carpets are hand-woven silk and the chandeliers have Swarovski crystals.  The walls and pillars are decorated with mosaic tiles and the domes are magnificent when seen from below.  This venue can accommodate 6500 worshippers at one time; if needed, the services can be broadcast outside where there is room for thousands more. Eventually, we had to leave the peace and quiet of the mosque and return to the warmth and sunshine of Muscat.

Another stop not on the itinerary was at the Amouage perfumery.  A working factory and salesroom, Amouage offered us coffee and dates while we [mostly the women] sample the scents available.  After enough time had passed, Valentina took us on a quick tour of the factory as seen through plate glass.  Many of the workers were women which should not have surprised us; there were dressed in traditional garb including the headdress.  Valentina told us that women are equal to men in the work force and do not suffer discrimination on the job.  Equal pay for equal work is the norm.  Our exit from Amouage took us through the sales area but no one tried to sell us anything.  Some of the group sniffed more samples and most of us used the bathrooms before we left for our next destination.

Finally, we were going to what we hoped would be a real souk.  The Gold and Spice Markets in Dubai had been interesting but disappointing, so we were looking forward to the Muttrah Souk.  We were not too disappointed.  The floor was done in mosaic stone, not dirt, and the building was roofed, not a tent, but otherwise it was a souk.  The actual path through it was a small wadi which floods every time there is a downpour which isn’t often.  As a result, the stores themselves [for they cannot be called stalls] were raised several steps above the pedestrian walkway.

Goods were displayed at “street” level, though, and there were invitations to browse and bargain.  We did both and before we left had taken possession of The Box and a burner with a 6-pack of frankincense.  The vendor wanted $9USD for the box but finally let us have it for $5 and the burner set ended up costing $20 but we made him give us a bigger, covered burner.  Others bought the burner sets, postcards and, almost, a pair of shoes.  The only drawback was seeing all of the ship’s passengers crowding, pushing and blocking the aisle.

We emerged from the souk ready for lunch.  Valentina was able to find us a second floor walk-up which served what would pass as local food.  Luckily for us, there was no goat on the menu although she said it is an Omani favorite.  Rather than try to order individually, we/she settled on the fixed menu served for the 9 of us.  Food would be delivered to the table to be eaten family style.  And so it was.

We feasted on a vegetable appetizer which we thought was mostly fried potatoes in a tomato sauce; hummus; and pita bread.  Our shared entrees included chicken curry; vegetable curry; fried fish; and the ever-present rice.  All of this was accompanied by our new favorite, lemon-lime juice with mint.  This was fresh, not bottled, and it was the best part of the meal.  This was even better than the communal meal we ate in Kuala Lumpur because the food was better and the place was clean – no one worried about getting sick today.

We trooped back to the van and drove over the mountains to the old town of Muscat where we could see forts in the distance.  Fort Mirani and Fort Jalali surround the palace of Qaboos.  Both are working forts since they house active military even though their role as protectors of the city may just be an historical footnote now.  They date to the 16th Century when the Portuguese controlled the area.  The Portuguese architectural style shows in many buildings and other fortifications in and around Muscat.

The palace was large and impressive.  Like the Grand Mosque, it is surrounded by beautiful gardens.  Set behind two sets of iron gates, it is elegant without being gaudy.  We could not go past the closed gates, of course, but we have become used to this.  We have seen more palaces on this trip than we ever thought imaginable and not one has had a princess in distress in the tower; actually, none of them has had a tower.  We took pictures of the forts and the palace from in front of the gates and may have captured images of HAL passengers coming from their tour bus.  We laughed because we had parked at the gate.

It was getting late from our perspective.  “All aboard” was posted as 4:30 but we try to be back an hour early especially after our experience in Melbourne when there was some doubt that we would make it home on time.  We still had plenty of time since we had scraped two museum stops from the itinerary.

As a way to unwind from a hard day’s travels, Valentina took us to a local hotel.  Its full name was written on the front in Arabic, but we referred to it simply as the Ritz-Carlton.  The hotel is owned by Qaboos [as so much is] but is managed by the Ritz-Carlton chain.  We were only in the lobby and the washrooms, but it is sumptuous.  High ceilings, crystal chandeliers and a fountain stood out when we entered.  There were small conversation areas around the lobby and several had table linen on them for visitors who wanted tea.  In fact, we saw some other HAL passengers who were there specifically for the afternoon tea.

We were there for the harpist.  A member of the Muscat Symphony, this young man moonlights for 3 hours most afternoons playing in the lobby.  We had to wait while he took a break but stayed through 2 or 3 pieces after he returned.  The music was soothing and we were all a bit mellow when we returned to the van for the last time and headed home.

TOMORROW --  Speeding Toward Salalah







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