The last post concluded with our first morning in Oman. Friday in the Middle East is the sabbath and so off we went to find the little branch of the church that meets in Muscat. It was about a 2 hour drive from our campsite on the beach outside of Tiwi. The branch meets in a villa just like it does in Sharjah and practically everywhere else in this part of the world. The first meeting house in the Middle East is actually nearly complete. It is in Abu Dahbi. I haven’t been by there yet though I’ve seen pictures of the building under construction.
The branch in Muscat is very small. It turned out we were not the only visitors to the branch that Friday though. There were folks from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well as the 15 of us from the UAE. We more than doubled the numbers. After services we had the pleasure of visiting with everyone at a great potluck. With the branch president’s permission we planned to stay in the branch’s villa overnight. A couple other families stay on Friday nights too. One family drives over two hours to meet there each week and can thankfully stay at the villa overnight before making the trip back.
Just before dusk we all drove into Muscat to explore the corniche (a corniche is a road cut into a cliff side along a coast) and wander through the famous souk (a souk is an arab market place or bazaar) there. Since it was the sabbath many of the shops were closed but we weren’t there for the shopping anyway. I am not a fan of souks; burning incense everywhere and sweaty people bustling through tight spaces while vendors shout and stuff merchandise into your face is not my idea of fun.
There were thousands of people along the corniche and in the souk. Strangely there were very few women around. I assume it was so crowded because of Eid weekend but I have yet to puzzle out the lack of women on the street. I was a little taken back though by all the men holding hands (interlocking fingers) and then cuddling up to one another with arms around shoulders as they sat along the sea wall. Strange I thought that a country with laws against “public displays of affection” would certainly not tolerate such displays between two people of the same sex. The Palmers had a great laugh at my expense later when I brought it up. It turns out this is normal heterosexual behaviour here in the Middle East. I was wondering when I might experience a little culture shock. Well there it is; I’m shocked.
Overlooking the corniche was an ancient looking brick fort complete with guns and flags. There was a long abandoned staircase carved into the cliff wall that appeared to take you up the cliff to the fort. So we ducked under the fences and scrambled up a short rock face to make the staircase. There were several other people doing the same so it seemed safe enough. The stairs were littered with broken rock and climbed steeply up in a serpentine route to the base of the fort. We had quite the view from up there and Lisa managed a couple excellent photos.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that my heart was not in my throat a few times with the kids up there. Jaron simply has no sense of fear whatsoever. Needless to say we didn’t stay long on those stairs.
That night we took over the home of some local members of the church for dinner. They were very kind to let us use their kitchen to whip up a big pot of stew. It was great to meet them. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to visit again and perhaps we could entertain them if they ever come up to the UAE. We headed back to the church for our overnight stay despite our new friends insistence that we could stay with them. I just didn’t feel right cramming our 9 kids into their home. Jaron was pretty eager to get back to the church too as he’d made a couple little friends who were staying the night there as well. They had built a fort in the primary room and he had high hopes of finishing his laser gun battle with them.
The next morning we left the church villa bright and early (okay it was about 9am) and headed up to the mountains – Jebel Akhdar in the Al Hajar Mountain Range. As we drove through a couple small villages to get there I was grateful to pass a garbage truck as they picked up the last of the remains of slaughtered goats from Eid celebrations the night before. There were only rust coloured blood stains along the roadways to mark their recent removal. While I did explain to the kids the sacrifice portion of Eid celebrations I was glad they, nor I, did not have to see it.
There is a guarded checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain road. The climb is steep enough that only “4x4s” are allowed up the mountain. In the little all-wheel-drive Honda CRV we had there were many places where I had to put the vehicle in first in order to make the climb. Up we went and there were spectacular views in all directions, that is of course when you could see over the massive concrete barriers lining the roadway.
The further we went up the further the mercury plummeted. By the time we made the top the temperature was in the low twenties. I could hardly believe it when I stepped out of the vehicle to a cool mountain breeze. We drove for a while with the windows down until the wind got annoying.
Unfortunately the camping spot the Palmers used the last time they were there had been taken over by the national defence. A sealed gate now stood where once there was an open road. Jeremy spoke with some locals and they directed us to a suitable camping spot. We camped in a small mountain valley. Tall Junipers (excellent climbing trees) dotted the dusty landscape. Wild donkeys roamed the area too. The first place we chose to setup camp was occupied by one of those donkeys, its carcass anyway. So we couldn’t spare the children from dead animals completely. We found another spot much better than the first just down the road a ways.
Once camp was setup it was time for a bit of a hike. This hike takes you through a little mountain village where people still live what appears like an idyllic life. The village is beautiful with its terraced gardens of fruit trees and vegetables. The short 40 minute hike took us up and down the terraced gardens, passed a beautiful mountain pool and through the narrow passages between the adobe and wood beamed buildings. Walking the trail you feel as though you have stepped back in time. I imagined aloud with the kids what it might be like to live there. As passages darted off to the left and right and we crossed through roofed tunnels we mused at what it might be like to play hide and seek in the dark here with little light pouring through the occasional windows along the paths.
There was a staircase etched out of the rock that would take a brave explorer around the edge of a pinnacle to some unseen destination. I imagine that grown men have soiled themselves climbing that staircase. As I have only small shreds of dignity I didn’t take the risk of losing it by venturing up those stairs. I couldn’t help but wonder though at the immense intestinal fortitude it must have taken for the villagers to build that staircase let alone traverse it. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Lisa caught that particular staircase with her camera.
At the end of the hike the locals invited us over to see their giant underground oven where they were preparing to roast a variety of meats overnight. The pit was sweltering hot and the men were all preparing to toss the meat wrapped in green (some herb I suppose) woven baskets into the furnace. They would then cover it over and let it cook for 24 hours. Sadly we wouldn’t be around for the feast. Though as we walked away clearly someone had not wrapped a basket tight enough as goat parts lay all over the road. Hey dad is this the severed ear of a goat? By then the kids were okay with the gore… we’d passed the severed head of a cow a little further back on the trail.
That night as we sat around the campfire we were all in search of sweaters and blankets. I would guess that the temperature was somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees celsius overnight. The little firewood we did gather burned long though. I managed to snap a thick dead branch from a Juniper and it burned for hours. Lisa prepared the best hotdog feast for our evening meal. Giant beef hotdogs with cheddar cheese slid into a slice down the centre which was then wrapped in bacon and then in tinfoil. We froze them before we left and kept them in the cooler. They turned out marvellously.
Kirsten was a little disappointed by the lack of a swimming hole on this third day of camping. She followed that up with a cold uncomfortable night on the mountain. The other kids seemed just fine. Kirsten seems to have taken to the hot weather quite quickly to the point where she complains it is too cool at 25 degrees. She may have difficulty adjusting back to Canadian temperatures in the future. It was a beautiful starry night though and we made up for the desert camping the next day with our trip to Wadi Damm. I’ll leave that to the next post though.