Nizwa

3 Dec

A friend who used to live in Oman described Nizwa as “the Chiang Mai of Oman”. Chiang Mai is a lovely city in northern Thailand, a place we love and have visited many a time, so this description made us eager to see what Nizwa had to offer. Following our hiking fun in Jebel Akhdar, we continued on to Nizwa and arrived just as dusk was falling. Fresh off the highway, we chose a likely looking restaurant for dinner and settled in. One of the great things about Oman was the abundance of delicious middle eastern food available for a fairly low cost, and the random restaurant we choose that evening was a prime example. We had a tasty meal while watching the sun set behind the arches of the Nizwa souq (market). We liked the food and ambiance so much that we ate dinner there the following night as well. I am fairly sure that we all ate our weight in hummus, fresh bread, and grilled meat during our week in Oman.

The next morning, post-baby naps, we headed out to a breakfast of delicious Turkish food and a day of exploring. Two of the sights to see in Nizwa are actually located in smaller towns slightly to the northwest, Bahla and Jabrin (or Jabreen, or Jibreen ~ Arabic place names tended to have a variety of potential spellings using the Roman alphabet). Jabrin is known for its well-preserved castle which was built in 1675. The castle rises impressively out of the flat, dry plain that surrounds it, and the views from the top of the battlements are delightful. Unlike many tourist destinations, Jabrin Castle was entirely open to visitors. It was nice to wander about without encountering ropes and chains blocking off certain portions. One of the most interesting rooms was the date store, a large cellar-type room made for preserving and pressing dates. According to the helpful (and free!) audioguide, huge piles of fresh dates were packed in there, and then slowly crushed under their own weight, releasing juices that collected in grooves carved into the floor. The grooves then channeled the juice into storage vats beneath the floor. Although it hadn’t been used for this purpose in literally centuries, the entire room still smelled vaguely sweet and date-like.

Bahla Fort (see above) was the other sight to see on our outing. The fort is one of the oldest and largest forts in Oman, and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The oldest portions of the fort date back to 500 B.C. The fort has been restored and renovated several times in its history, most recently in the 1980s. Like Jabrin Castle, visitors to the fort are free to wander where they will. The fort is massive, and we spent quite some time poking into various rooms. Many of the tourist sights in Oman were nearly empty, and the fort was no exception. It was a great to be exploring the rooms and precarious staircases and be feeling completely alone in this ancient building. Several of the rooms clearly see few visitors, and bats have taken up roost in them. We discovered the tiny, nocturnal occupants when Sean, who was leading the way, entered a particularly dark section of the fort. I’ll leave out the details but suffice to say Sean was not a fan and the rest of us were highly entertained.

My favorite part of Nizwa itself was the souq (or souk). Portions of the souk contained the usual tourist paraphernalia, but other parts seemed more traditional. The souk is divided into sections based on what is being sold, so there is one area with tons of pottery, another with tourist knickknacks, a third for weaponry, etc. Apparently on Friday mornings there is a livestock section with goats and camels for sale, but alas we visited on a Wednesday. We did find the date souq, a large building dedicated solely to dates and sesame seeds. I never realized what a large variety of dates one can potentially consume. A helpful gentlemen explained some of the choices to Sean and Orestes (most men didn’t care to interact with Shorna and I). Orestes claimed he didn’t care for dates, and Sean swore he’d never eaten a date before, but after a few minutes of chatting with the seller, there we were buying containers of dates. Orestes liked the ones mixed with cumin; I liked a local Nizwa variety (less sticky). The souq also had several sesame products, including desserts, pastes, and sauces. The smell of the sesame seeds being pressed was delicious, and I purchased some fresh tahini for an amazingly low price. Finally, we visited the Nizwa Fort next to the souq. After having seen Bahla Fort, Nizwa Fort was less than impressive, but it was still a well-preserved and interesting space. At the end of our visit, we packed up and headed to our next destination!

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Jebel Akhdar

25 Nov

While I was pregnant last year, I read a parenting blog that ominously informed me that I would never enjoy a vacation again. Vacationing with kids is really just parenting with a change of geography, it warned, all the hassle of traveling without any of the relaxation. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s safe to say that 1. this is not what a hugely pregnant woman needed to read and 2. considering our current lifestyle, it made me justifiably nervous. Post-Oman adventure, I am happy to report that the article was dead wrong, at least from my personal perspective at this moment in time. Yes, we were still parenting, but the two munchkin men turned out to be fabulous travelers. Masters Oliver (ours) and Julian (theirs), ages six and eight months respectively, saw the sights, took some selfies, and were generally wonderful and cute. So, without further ado, I present Have Babies, Will Travel: That time we took a road trip through Oman with two mini gentlemen, part 2.

From Muscat, we headed northwest into the more mountainous region of Oman. Our destination was Nizwa, but we had a midpoint adventure planned in Jebel Akhdar, one of the taller mountains in the Al Hadar range. Jebel means mountain in Arabic, and akhdar is the color green, so our visit took us to the Green Mountain. The Vermonter in me was tickled pink by this since Vermont translates to Green Mountains in French, and there a mountain range with the same name running through my home town ~ the Vermont state nickname is the Green Mountain State. I digress… Jebel Akhdar is one of the highest points in Oman, and the air temperature dropped noticeably as Sean drove us up the extremely winding road leading to the top of the mountain plateau. The road is so steep and serpentine that there is a police checkpoint at the bottom, and only cars with four-wheel drive are allowed up. The mountain views as we ascended were stunning; the rocky, arid landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

At the top, we made a pit stop to ask for directions, and had an amusing interlude in which a goat attempted to help Orestes change Oliver’s diaper. We enjoyed lunch with a spectacular view, and sorted ourselves out for the hike we were about to take. Jebel Akhdar is so named because the area is less dry than the rest of the country, allowing for certain amounts of trees and agriculture (greenery, if you will). The region is known for its terraced hillsides that grow a variety of products including pomegranates, apricots, grapes, and walnuts. A path connects several small villages into a lovely 8km hike through the gardens and terraces.

Due to the munchkin men we only visited the first two, Al Aqar and Al Ain, but the portion we did travel (3km or so) was gorgeous. The path wound through Al Aqar, down the narrow streets between the houses, then along the top of a steep slope with incredible views. The craggy mountains extended into the distance and the two villages ahead of us were quite picturesque. We followed the trail through what appeared to be someone’s garden, under a trellis, around pomegranate trees, and with a smidgeon of clambering arrived at Al Ain. Al Ain had a small mosque, and more twisty paths between the houses. We meandered through the village, taking photos as we went. Al Ain was perched on a rocky promontory, and the landscapes visible from the end were stunning. On the far side of the village, the trail plunged down some uneven steps into more gardens. We started down the stairs, and then decided to make smart life choices with the babes and turned back. Pre-baby I would have coerced the others into hiking the entire loop, but we’re learning to adjust our adventures. Oliver and Julian were champs about the whole thing; despite their impending nap times, they calmly admired the scenery and enjoyed the free rides, courtesy of their dads. The first hiking outing post-baby goes down in the books as a success!

 

Muscat

19 Nov

Alternate title: Have Babies, Will Travel: That time we took a road trip through Oman with two mini gentlemen, part 1.

Although the Jacksons are still taking Thailand, this blog has evolved in the time I’ve been writing it. We’re now in our sixth year in Bangkok (eep!), and have begun adding travel destinations to our bucket list as they spring to mind. Yes, this blog is still Thailand-centric. No, Oman is not in Southeast Asia. Yes, it is technically in Asia, more specifically in the Middle East on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula. I’m inserting a map for my mother, who loves a good atlas viewing, while readily admitting that I had zero idea where Oman was until last spring.

Back in May, we had to face the sad fact that our dear friends Sean and Shorna, our frequent vacation buddies and fellow Bangkok explorers, were moving out of Thailand to teach in the Middle East. Around the same time, I chanced upon a list of up and coming travel destinations for 2017. Oman was near the top of the list, conveniently located close to our friends’ new home. A vacation plan was born, as were our two small munchkins – one for them, one for us (more on them in another post).

Our adventure began in Muscat, the sprawling capital city of the Sultanate of Oman. I love the word sultan because it immediately brings to mind Aladdin, a Disney classic if ever there was one. I did a bit of historical research which I share with you now. Oman is one of the only middle eastern countries that avoided full colonization. The British and the Portuguese both had a bit of influence, but an Omani has been in power throughout its history. At one point in time (17th century or so) Oman was so powerful that their empire stretched along a large portion of the peninsula, and occupied a chunk of African coast in modern-day Zanzibar. The sultan position is hereditary, and Oman is considered an absolute monarchy. In one of our museum stops, I learned that the Sultan of Oman, Taboos bin Said al Said (at left), is the third longest reigning monarch in the world; he was fourth until the recent passing of Thailand’s king. He has been in power since July 23, 1970, when he deposed his father and modernized the country. 23 July is a major road in Muscat, which we drove along several times, and we wondered about the date until I finally googled.

Muscat has been a major port for seafaring traders since the 1st century but a large portion of the buildings and development are very recent. The travel article I read did not lie when it called Oman up and coming; there is a massive amount of construction of both buildings and infrastructure taking place throughout the country. Perhaps because of this, Muscat lacks a defined city center. None of the sights are walkable from each other, or from the hotel we stayed at, so we drove from place to place. Fortunately, driving in Oman was quite easy once one adjusted to the aggressive driving style, particularly when rounding traffic circles (of which there are many). Sean did the majority of the driving, but I took a turn or two behind the wheel ~ another country for the list!

The highlight of Muscat was visiting the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. I am a huge fan of interesting architecture, and I love visiting buildings that show a unique style and attention to detail. The Grand Mosque was quite amazing in this regard. Many of the walls and archways are covered in extremely intricate carvings or gilding. The inside of the dome of the main building is a masterpiece of tile work in multiple colors and sizes, beneath which hangs the most impressive chandelier I’ve ever seen. Based on my limited observations, Islamic architecture seems to be very geometric, filled with repeating patterns and tessellations. The tile work, the window frames, and even the landscaping are all laid out in flowing lines, spirals, and hexagons. The result of this careful measurement and detailing is visually very pleasing. Additionally, the inside of mosques are devoid of furniture, since worshippers kneel on the floor when praying. The handful of mosques I have visited usually have decorative carpeting, but nothing more. The lack of clutter seems to emphasize the amazing architecture, and draw the eyes upwards to the decor. Many of the mosques are also beautifully lit up at night, making an evening drive around Muscat quite pleasant.

One amusing anecdote from our mosque visit: as it is a religious spot, women are required to be appropriately covered. Shorna now owns her own abaya, but I had the fun of renting one to enter the mosque and being briskly bundled into it by the older female monitor who worked there. Oliver was highly confused by the sight of his mother in full robes, and I can tell you now from experience, it is not fun to be sweating profusely while keeping one’s head covered. However, the resulting photos are entertaining – take note of the way Oliver is looking at me in this family pic.

While in Muscat, we also visited the Bait al Zubair Museum, which I would highly recommend. The museum is a private museum funded by the Zubair family and housed in a former residence. It is filled with cultural photographs and displays on Omani life. I particularly enjoyed the exhibits on traditional dress, and the many black and white pictures from the past century. I did notice however, that in two huge rooms of photographs, of sultans, British ambassadors, scenes of street life, markets, camels, field hockey players, you name it, not a single woman was represented. I file this observation under irksome but not surprising. After two full days in Muscat, we hit the road with the babies and a packed car, ready for further adventures. 🙂 

Phuket

10 Sep

I’m not certain where to begin my post about Phuket. We spent the most recent three-day weekend at a hotel on the island’s busiest beach, Patong, and I’m honestly unsure of my final impression. Most of the places we have gone in Thailand I have loved unequivocally; I do not feel this way about Phuket. Despite (or perhaps because of) its status as one of the most visited locations in Thailand, we had yet to spend time there. My trusty Lonely Planet calls the island, “the reigning granddaddy of Thailand’s beach vacations”, which in my mind equals excessive numbers of tourists. This description did not inspire me to visit. On the flip side, it seemed silly to live in Thailand five-plus years and never explore such a popular locale. Elaine (Orestes’ mama) was visiting and wanted some island time, so off we went.

Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, so large that they have dropped the traditional koh, meaning island, off the front of the name. It lies down south in the Andaman Sea, off the western coast of the country. The majority of its beaches are fully developed, although there are still forested patches in the interior. There are many cultural sights to be seen and numerous beaches, but we spent most of the weekend being lazy, having family time, and introducing munchkin man to the joys of swimming pools (floating, splashing, and people watching, oh my!). One afternoon, Elaine and I visited Phuket’s Big Buddha, which is perched high on a hill overlooking the island’s southern beaches. The Buddha, as the name promises, is quite large; forty-five meters high, entirely encased in Burmese alabaster. It has been under construction for the last twenty years, and the pervasive sound of jackhammers and other tools slightly mars the otherwise zen vibes of the location. The view from the base offers a full 360 of Phuket, and there are some interesting side gardens and statues.

My overall feelings about Phuket are best summed up in a pro-con list, so here goes:

Pros:

  • Accessibility ~ Phuket is only an hour’s flight from Bangkok, which makes it ideal for travel with family. For a smidgeon extra, our lovely hotel picked us up at the airport. It’s hard to beat door-to-door private service.
  • Hospitality ~ More tourists mean more hotels, which means more competition among hotels to provide quality service. Our hotel came recommended by a friend, and it was delightful; lovely pool, lovely rooms, good breakfast, good service.
  • Dining ~ Being more developed does have its culinary advantages. Patong boasted many dining options, and we had some delicious Indian food over the weekend.

Cons:

  • Crowds ~ Patong beach was entirely too busy for my liking. We did not end up actually spending time on the beach. I ran the length of the waterfront one afternoon, and the shady park bordering the beach was great, but the sand itself was so packed with tourists that I had zero inclination to venture out with my own towel. I do realize the irony of disliking the company of many tourists while simultaneously being a tourist, but there you have it.
  • Dodgy-ness ~ Along with tons of tourists come the many tourist touts, stalls of souvenirs, and other shady offerings. Lonely Planet refers to Patong as “sin city” due its large red light district. We didn’t venture there, but it’s safe to say that the seediness is a side of Thailand I am quite over.
  • Overdevelopment ~ Although the view from the Big Buddha was pleasant, I realized that every single strip of visible coastline was built up.

My conclusion? I would not go back to Patong beach. We had a nice weekend, but there are definitely islands in Thailand I prefer over Phuket. On the other hand, Orestes reminded me that we didn’t see very much of the island. I am curious about Phuket Town, which apparently has lovely colonial buildings and a nice ambiance, and I have heard good things about Kata beach. Perhaps another time, Phuket; final judgement reserved until more exploring has been done.

Strollin’

9 Jun

Since the tiny gentleman joined us, I’ve tried to make it a habit to take evening stroller walks around our neighborhood. The munchkin gets some fresh air and sometimes a relaxing snooze, and I get to stretch my legs. I have taken to ambling up one side street (yaek) of our ‘hood and down another, often making a bit of a loop. Occasionally I run errands while out and about, but normally I wander without a set plan. Prior to these walks, the majority of my moving throughout the neighborhood had been via motorbike; it has been highly enjoyable taking in the scenery at a significantly slower speed. Many of the yaeks were uncharted territory, and I’ve discovered all manner of intriguing sights over the past few months.

One of my favorite things has been admiring and photographing the abundant greenery. A large portion of Thailand is lush and green and fabulous, and our neighborhood is no exception. Every nook and cranny has something growing in it. Crack in the sidewalk? There’s a plant sprouting. Empty beer can? Makes a great repurposed planter. Leave your bike laying around a little too long? There’s a vine climbing all over it. The typical Thai home has dozens of pots and containers outside, some artistically arranged, some strewn about, and all have various plant life growing. Even in downtown Bangkok, one can find potted plants in parking lots, and vines contentedly flowering around corners. It is safe to say that the flora of Southeast Asia is doing quite well. Since I began my walks I’ve seen zillions of gorgeous flowers, and all manner of fruits and vegetables, including pomegranates, limes, chillies, and jackfruit (photo on the right). Recently I found and photographed the tiniest pineapple I have ever seen. I am fairly certain the Thais think I’m crazy when I pause and crouch to snap pictures of oranges and flowers, but that hasn’t stopped me.

Along with the amazing plant life comes some grade A people watching. As the sun begins to set and the temperature cools down, the Thais emerge like clockwork. Only the farang are silly enough to run around in the heat of the day; the Thais wait until sunset to enjoy some fresh air. In our neighborhood, people hang out on benches, take walks, and let the kids run about. Our neighbors across the street love to play a net-free version of badminton in the middle of the road with their pint-sized daughter. Kids race their bikes up and down the yaeks while the grownups chit chat in front of their homes. I have certain streets that I’ve taken a liking to for one reason or another, so I frequently see the same people engaged in their evening activities. One of my favorite walking loops has a trio of cute little kids who ride their bikes near the stroller so they can coo and giggle at Oliver. Another street has a gentleman who can often be found squatting near a small grill, cooking up dinner. Although I have taken many a plant-themed photo, I have mostly avoided taking pictures of our neighbors. It seems far more polite to simply smile and nod as we stroll past them. With that in mind, please enjoy this exceedingly floral photo collage (and also a random millipede – it was just huge).

 

Knocked Up Abroad

25 Apr

Get it? Hehe… Yes, I had entirely too much fun thinking of that title. Enjoy. 😉

Many people have asked me what it was like being pregnant and having a little munchkin while living overseas. I have been debating for months now whether or not to write a post about this topic, partly because I didn’t want to overshare, and partly because I’m not sure how to answer the question. Since I’ve never had a child while not living abroad, I have nothing to compare the experience to. That being said, I’ve had quite some time during my maternity leave to reflect on the past year. Without further ado, here is a brief overview of my experience being pregnant in Thailand. This is by no means representative of what having a child here would be like for anyone else, so please forgive any generalizations (blame it on my semi-tired new mama brain).

The Thais love babies. LOVE babies. The moment my belly started showing in a way that was clearly maternal and not overweight farang, I became very popular. Everyone, and I mean everyone, felt the need to touch my stomach. My preggo belly was fair game for all, from the gentleman who works at my favorite massage place, to the students’ grandmothers. For the most part, this did not distress me since my stomach felt like it belonged to someone else entirely and was no longer part of my own body. The only times this became alarming were the surprise attacks; I would be walking down the hall at school and a student’s mom would pop up and reach for my belly, nearly tripping me. I didn’t mind the belly rubs, but I really didn’t want to fall on my stomach and squash the little one.

Along with the belly rubs came a wide variety of comments and questions. The combination of cultural differences and the language barrier resulted in some fascinating conversations about my preggo state of being. “One or two?” was a popular question, especially as I reached 30+ weeks and became decidedly large. Nothing makes a woman in her third trimester feel more awesome than being reminded of her size. The size remarks extended to my swollen feet from the ladies at the massage spa: “Feet so big!!”, and, awkwardly, my growing breasts. Our maid commented, “Oh, big you! Milk a lot, a lot!” Suddenly, conversation topics that were previously off-limits in polite society became fair game, and not just with the Thais. I found myself earnestly discussing nipple cream with a male coworker, being asked by a parent if I was peeing often, and casually chatting about placentas with near-strangers. Does this happen in the US?

My favorite pregnancy-related comments came from my students. Being preggo while teaching small people is awesome. They were endlessly fascinated and curious about my increasing state, and the variety of background knowledge each kid had about pregnancy ran the gamut from fully informed to adorably clueless. Questions included: When will it hatch? Is your belly big because there’s an egg in there? Is your belly getting bigger every time the baby gets bigger? Is he sleeping now? Can he watch TV? One of my little munchkins took to measuring how far her arms could go around my growing belly, and kissing it hello every morning. Another slyly suggested his own name for the baby. Several third grade girls, former students, brainstormed male names for me. Among their suggestions were Andrew, Robby, Michael (off the table for obvious reasons), and Liam. Their top choice was Leonardo, and they had thoroughly thought through their suggestion: “Leonardo after the painter and Leonardo DiCaprio, and you can call him Leo for short.” The picture on the left is the kindergarteners trying to listen to the baby and find out if he’s talking.

Finally, there was the hospital experience abroad. Bangkok has some world-class hospitals, and people come from all over to have surgery here for a fraction of the cost. I don’t know what my experience would have been in the US, but here in Thailand the prices of the birth were reasonable, and the care was excellent. I loved our doctor. She was tiny and Thai, flawlessly dressed, and perfectly coiffed with a random butterfly tattoo on her neck. I suspect she is over fifty, but some subtle tweaks have made her appear rather ageless. I kept calling her the Thai Dr.Ruth; she was both very proper and completely frank about everything. Even in the midst of my super painful, drug-induced contractions, a part of my mind was observing the classy, black lace dress she was sporting under her lab coat, and thinking how wildly unsuited for a baby delivery her ensemble was. Her complete calm and reassuring vibe made the whole process as fuss-free as possible.

And now… we have a munchkin! Mr.Oliver is officially eight weeks as I hit publish on this post. Tales of parenting in Thailand will be sure to follow. 🙂

 

 

Pranburi

18 Feb

* Taking the opportunity of my maternity leave to polish off a blog post that has been pending…

Winter break this year found me thirty-two weeks pregnant and not inclined to travel very far. However, I wasn’t about to let twenty-four days of school break pass by without at least a little adventure, so off we went to Pranburi. Although the area is only a thirty minute drive south along the coast from the city of Hua Hin, it feels like a completely different world. Hua Hin is bustling and filled with tourists; Pranburi is closer to being the middle of nowhere. Orestes had a dubious expression on his face when our car first pulled up to the hotel, the usual “what has my wife gotten me into now?” face that I know and love. 🙂

I admit that on our first afternoon stroll the area did not appear to offer much in the way of entertainment. The beach front is occupied by hotels and restaurants, but other than the one main road along the coast, the area is quite empty. The hotels and tiny shops quickly fade into pineapple plantations as you head inland. That area along the Gulf of Thailand is known for its kitesurfing opportunities, which looked like great fun, but clearly wasn’t an option for me at that moment in time. After the first afternoon of aimless wandering, we rented a scooter so we could venture further afield.

The coastline of Pranburi is lovely. Even in the busy tourist season of img_6848December, there was an underwhelming number of people about, most of whom were domestic tourists. A delightful breeze blows constantly (hence the kitesurfing) which meant that one could lounge in the sun for hours and never overheat. We had a third floor room at our cute little hotel; the two flights of stairs were a little exhausting but the private terrace with a beach view more than made up for the extra climbing effort I had to exert.

On one afternoon, we visited Pranburi Forest Park, a large protected mangrove swamp with a raised walkway. Mangroves fascinate me, both their snazzy root structure and their environmental role in preventing erosion and creating habitat for creepy crawlies. The walkway was lovely and shaded, and provided a nice little stroll through nature; we saw some crabby fellows and heard some splashing monitor lizards. img_6871Our drive to the forest was also a bit of an adventure. Google maps led us to what seemed like a dead end, and I stopped at a hotel to ask directions. The lady at the desk cheerfully directed me through a closed wooden gate, and sent us off down a dirt track into the wilderness. She knew what she was talking about however; a few minutes of off-roading and a monitor lizard sighting later, we emerged next to the parking lot of the park. I was tickled pink by the whole escapade; Orestes was perhaps less than amused to be driving his preggo wife along a bouncy dirt track.

On another afternoon, we drove south along the coast for quite a ways. We discovered a unique looking temple, and a colorful gathering of Thai fishing boats, among other things. There is apparently a cave temple one can hike to; I was game to try but reluctantly allowed myself to be persuaded not to by some fellow hotel guests. Next time! Pranburi also offered up some tasty seafood options, and a whole lot of quality relaxation. The final verdict? Pranburi is perfect for quiet time. We both agreed we would happily return but perhaps with a group of friends so as to have some more entertainment… or it might be perfect for beach time with a tiny munchkin!