Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Our boat sets out from the Dibba port in Oman into the Arabian Sea. On a clear day it is possible to see Iran across the water, says our captain.
When we stop for our first snorkeling session I feel sorry for the local ladies in their all-covering religious robes. I join the French women and the men in marveling at the sea gardens.
The corals are surprisingly unspoilt and there are many varieties of large colourful fish all around us. My local chauffeur has become our snorkeling guide and stays too close for comfort.
Back on the boat I deliberately remove myself to the top deck in order to get away from the unwanted attention and to catch some sun away from the uncomfortable stares of the local women. I could never imagine not being able to wear a swimsuit, feel the sun on my skin and enjoy the snorkeling experience. This small freedom is also the main reason for eventually deciding not to marry my Arabian love.
After a lunch of local Arabic and Indian delicacies washed down with sweet tea, we visit a few more snorkeling sites where we see giant crabs and even find Nemo. While the kids learn to do a bit of fishing at our last stop, I retreat to the upper deck again and watch the sun set over the Hajar mountains. The scenery is desolate and I feel grateful that I had the chance to see how the vibrant underwater world contrasts with the land.
My grandmother always said ‘all’s well that ends well.’
I had many unspeakable experiences in Dubai but what’s the use of dwelling on them? Concentrating on the bad only invites more negativity. There was a time when I felt that I might be able to find an affinity with Dubai but then the moment passed and I finally didn’t like what I discovered.
Now I am happy to say that this last memory of a snorkelling trip to Oman during my life as a Dubai resident is a happy and peaceful one.
During my last weekend in Dubai I decide to take a day trip to Oman, one of the most beautiful places to visit in the area and a popular excursion out of the city.
Most people drive out in their own 4x4s and even spend weekends exploring the plentiful wadis and oases in Oman, but for lack of my own car I book a snorkeling excursion with one of the many tour companies in Dubai.
With my luck I get picked up by one of the locals in his luxury 4x4: “All of the other guests are going in the tour bus but since you’re by yourself I thought I could give you a ride.”
A-hem, there’s almost nothing I can do in this city without some local trying to ‘save’ me from my singledom.
I get spoilt – chocolates, fruit and Omani chips (which is delightfully paprika flavoured). It’s a little nerve wracking as I subtly try to ward off his advances without offending. As a non-Muslim woman I am very aware that I don’t have many rights in this world.
The drive takes about two hours, including stops at the market and various historical sites along the way. Dubai residents don't need a special Omani visa to cross the border at Dibba in the Fujeirah Emirate.
When we get to the docks in Musandam on the other side of the border, I also get a tour of the luxury boats and an introduction to the Omani boat owners over very sweet tea. My chauffeur is meant to entertain a group of government officials for the day but promptly decides to join my tour instead.
When I step onto my snorkelling tour boat I introduce myself to the two families on board, one local Emirati family (all the women dressed in full abaya, all the men dressed in shorts and T-shirts) and one French family (all the women dressed in bikinis, all the men in only shorts). The local Omani boatmen look amused at my company.
This should be an interesting day…
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Once we make it past the photographers nagging to photograph me at the Taj Mahal for a fee, I relax a little. My handsome Taj guide points out the passage from the Qur’an on the pishtaq (a rectangular arch) and how the size of the letters is an optical illusion.
On the other side lies the Taj Mahal, like a fairytale image in the distance.
Handsome Guide is no expert but tells the story of the Taj Mahal enthusiastically. He explains how the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built all this for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, one year after her death in 1632. Although the Taj is his most famous monument, he commissioned many other great works of architecture, including the Red Fort, where he was placed under house arrest by his son in 1657.
The Taj Mahal may be a monumental display of love but I do not find it very romantic. In fact, when we enter the tomb I get an eerie feeling, although the white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones is exquisite.
Four minarets (used in the Islamic call for prayer) surround the tomb. The Taj is in fact a functional mosque yet only local Muslims may pray here.
On our way back to the parking lot we stop by two shops and although I know I’m getting a bad deal I am not feeling up for a fight. So when the rickshaw guy wants to attack me because I’m not willing to pay double what he quoted I feel like bursting into tears. Then my driver is nowhere to be found.
Handsome Guide sorts it all out for me (at least one worthwhile rip-off) and soon I am back in Delhi, where my friend Hindol is horrified at my choice of budget hotel.
“Lajpat Nagar?” he says, “you come to Delhi for the first time and you stay in Lajpat Nagar?”
Hindol decides to take proper care of me, showing me the India Gate which reminds of the Champs Elyseé in lights. He also introduces me to fine Indian wine (which is surprisingly good considering I didn’t even know they make wine in India) and the lovely Travertino restaurant at the Oberoi Delhi.
All heightened due to the fact that I didn’t eat or drink a single thing all day during my trip from Delhi to Agra and back. Been there, done that, but please, never again!
Thursday, December 3, 2009
It's impulsive. Perhaps insane or just simply idiotic. I jump on a plane to Delhi without booking a hotel, in order to pursue a work opportunity with potential and the chance to see the Taj Mahal.
I trust the tourism office at Delhi international airport to sort me out with a place to stay and while my acquaintances in Delhi advise me against visiting the Taj Mahal on my own, they end up booking a ‘safe’ taxi for me when I insist on going.
My life flashes in front of my eyes a few times before I try to sleep in order to get away from the crazy antics on the road. Every now and again the driver’s favourite Bollywood songs stop playing. Bah, bah, bah! - he bashes the radio with the utmost frustration.
Eventually I do fall asleep and wake up alone in the car on a dirt road in an empty field. The driver’s door is open and he is nowhere to be seen. I panic, but then see him walking back towards the car through the field, flicking his cigarette.
Four hours later we are driving through an extremely dirty and smelly town. I wonder if I am being abducted and become very aware that I have trusted this strange man with my life. I am nauseous from all the stress and haven't been able to eat all day. Next thing however, we are driving past the Red Fort and finding parking outside the Taj Mahal.
I get out of the car and literally get attacked by vendors, camels and rickshaws. I am petrified and throw my driver a ‘help’ look. A man with some documentation in hand pushes through the crowd explaining that he is a government official employed to protect tourists. My driver nods and I join him on the rickshaw as it is apparently quite a journey from the parking lot to the Taj entrance. He suggests that I pay an official guide to accompany me, “better for information and also safety”.
An extremely handsome young lad appears as though by magic. Somehow I know I am going to be ripped off but he makes a few jokes and I try to relax as we walk side by side up to the gates of the Taj Mahal.