Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

O' Man -- OMAN!

Winter came again this year to Budapest, as it always does, and I dug out my heavy coat and hat to wear when just going to the corner store for supplies. I really am getting to dislike winter more and more as my body grows older. And so, as I try to do every year about this time, I spun my world globe and closed my eyes and threw my dart and, after recovering my dart from the bathroom door five times, finally found it stuck in Oman, just south of Dubai and with a headland sticking out into the Arabian Sea (now the Sea of Oman, courtesy of royal proclamation by Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos – pronounced the same as the name of the very last car on a train). Oman it shall be!

This time my best deal was on Emirates Airlines, which I’ve never flown before. Emirates is supposed to be one of the best airlines in the world, so we shall see. My flight and connecting times were not all I could have hoped for, but one must pay the price for winter sun. On the afternoon of January 9, 2018, I took off for my winter holiday. Got to Dubai around 11:30 that night local time and, since I had arranged for a hotel for my nine-hour layover, I was whisked away by a shuttle bus some 20 minutes or so from the airport. Got checked in, had a nightcap, and caught a few hours of sleep before my connecting flight the next morning.

I arrived back at the airport around 5:30, three hours before my flight, but since I had to go through passport control and security again, I thought it best to be a touch early. Since the airport was crowded even at that hour, I was glad I arrived early. Besides, I could have breakfast in the airport, which I did at a boulangerie – a nice Spanish omelet and OJ. I wandered the vast array of shops, open even at that early hour, window-shopped, failed to buy a raffle ticket for a Ferrari, browsed, read one of my Kindle books and finally caught my 8 AM flight for Muscat, Oman,

The plane landed in Oman at 9:30 AM on Wednesday, January 10. My hotel was in Mutrah, which is a 25-minute taxi ride from the airport. I changed some money, got my visa, cleared passport control, got my suitcase, found a taxi and headed out to see what my 71st country looked like. I immediately saw it was different from Dubai.

I drove through the newest part of Muscat, Oman’s capital city, filled with lots of white buildings: mosques, opera house, hotels, offices, commercial, more mosques, etc. The day was hazy sunshine, but at least it was warm, say about 75 F (20 C). One interesting observation: there were no skyscrapers, like in next-door Dubai. The city seemed to be ringed with low mountains and there was lots of sand and barren rocky desert between buildings and streets. Beautiful new highway, lots of nice new cars (no oil-burners here!) and, off to my left, the Sea of Oman. Oh, yeah!

Muscat has apparently been inhabited since around 1000 BCE; today it is the capital of the Sultanate of Oman and is home to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Muscat is actually divided into four separate areas: New Muscat, between the airport and the coastal hills to the southeast; Mutrah, where the port welcomes cruise ships and the Corniche promenade draws visitors from everywhere; Old Muscat, southwest of Mutrah, where the Sultan lives and has his administrative offices and a couple of old forts; and Ruwi, which I guess you’d call the commercial center, tucked into the hills just west of the midpoint between New Muscat and Mutrah.

My online guide book says that, “Compared to flashy Emirati neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of Oman is a breath of fresh, sea air. Muscat is famous for dazzling souks and superb seafood, but its terrain brings the biggest thrills. This port city on the Gulf of Oman is backed by the arid Hajar mountains, meaning you can trek deserts at dawn, spot dolphins at sundown, and enjoy plenty of effusive Omani hospitality in between.”

And was I ever ready to start enjoying that warm Omani winter weather, just 23 degrees of latitude above the equator. I checked into the Naseem Hotel, located right on Mutrah’s famous Corniche, a semi-circular promenade around a small bay, filled with sights and sounds of the Middle East: restaurants, souvenir sellers, travel agents, mosques, a wonderfully busy souk and several banks. I strolled the Corniche often during my visit and never tired of it.

I shed my winter duds with a passion, getting into what would be my outfit for the next eight days: sandals, shorts and polo shirt. I was ready to soak up all that sunshine and vitamin D, which would then let me put up with another month or two of Budapest winter.
The Naseem Hotel would rate about 2-3 stars in most guidebooks (although, suspiciously, there was a plaque next to the Reception Area which contained only one star; hmmm) and was certainly adequate for my needs. My initial room had no view but, since the toilet tank had a slight leak, I was switched to another similar-sized room which did, indeed, have that great view of the port and cruise ships. I was a happy camper. The hotel has four stories and is somewhat older and rather plain, but, at 20 rials a night (about 44 euros or $50 US), who was I to complain? The staff were all exceedingly friendly, foreign workers from India, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc, imported to do the daily work the Omanis couldn’t be bothered with. The staff even managed to book my tours for me.

Breakfast every day was a simple but filling affair: for two rials, I got juice, yoghurt, tea or coffee, toast, two eggs and accessories, a cheap and easy way to start the day.
I busted out the side door and hustled down to the Corniche and faced the sun and, for a few minutes, just stood there with my face upraised, soaking in all that desert and coastal warmth and vitamin D and lovely heat. Aaaahhh, heaven.

I walked up the Corniche and found a small open restaurant, Al Raffee, notable for its being open between 1 PM and 4 PM, which most other restaurants in the Middle East are not. I opted for Szechwan squid, garlic naan and a soft drink; no beer or other alcohol available almost anywhere, except restaurants in the larger tourist hotels. I watched the other diners, mostly local men wearing the traditional floor-length white robes called dishdasha and a strange looking little hand-embroidered cloth cap called a kuma, as they gathered in small groups and ate from a common bowl or plate, scraping up the rice and shoveling it into their mouth, using only their right hand. If you don’t already know why they only eat with their right hand, send me a PM and I’ll tell you.

After lunch I ambled over to the Mutrah souk, just down the Corniche. I love these precursors of the modern-day Shopping Mall, crammed with small shops equally crammed with all sorts of wonderful things I can’t live without: Bedouin scarves, brass animals and bells, colorful exotic clothes and pretty much anything else you might need or want. As usual in these types of places, I got the feeling the souk merchants had been advised that I would be in the neighborhood and to get ready for me. As I walked the cramped corridors between stalls and shops, I could see the little vacuum hoses creeping out of the doorways and into my pockets to SUCK ALL OF MY MONEY OUT!
I’m such a sucker for these places and the merchants must all be able to spot me coming three corridors away, as they all want to press on me their amazing goods: those little embroidered caps (didn’t buy any; where would I wear them in Budapest?), silk scarves (OK, bought one), perfumes, spices, Oman t-shirts, Arabian Nights slippers, you name it, they had it. The merchants here weren’t as aggressive as those in Egypt or Morocco, but they still want to sell you something. I was able to wear out two of my favorite Arabic words: ‘la, shukran!’ (No, thanks).

It was a nice first run-through, and both the sellers and I knew I’d be back.

Lack of sleep the previous night forced me back to my hotel for a brief nap, and then I was once again up and about. Had a light dinner on one of the Corniche terrace restaurants (shawarma and 7-Up), then strolled even farther down the Corniche to see what I had to look forward to during future strolls. It was an early first night in Oman.

Had an early Thursday morning breakfast at the hotel and headed back to the souk, which was where the first stop for The Big Bus hop-on-Hop-off tour was located. Every time I see this tour bus company around the world, I’m always reminded of the disaster-spoof movie The Big Bus, about an atomic-powered bus hauling passengers across the US. Never made it big, but a cult film in its own right; see it if you can.

The two-hour round trip bus tour, with 8 or 10 stops (depending on the day), cost 29 Omani rial, or about 66 euro ($76 US). Not cheap; the same tour in Budapest, with more stops, is only about $40 US. But, what the heck, I like these bus tours as a way to get acclimated and to see the big sights and also to see the sights I will want to visit again later on foot. So, I did one complete loop of all the sights and stops, staying on the bus for the time being. The tour took us through Ruwi, the commercial center of Muscat, then over to New Muscat and the beach area. Next it was a long drive back to Old Muscat and Oman’s Parliament and the Al Bustan Palace, before swinging back up the coast to Mutrah.
During the second loop, I alighted at the Shatti al Qurum beach area, near the Intercontinental Hotel in New Muscat. The beach was virtually empty for miles, which surprised me, as I thought there would be people out enjoying the winter sun – like me. Ah, well, I kicked some sand and decided lunch was in order. I chose the BBQ Nation restaurant, just off the beach, as they had a nice terrace and friendly staff. The Mixed Seafood Sizzling Platter, with squid, fish and prawns, looked like the way to go, so I did. I once again soaked up that great winter sunshine and was pleased to see my sizzling platter actually sizzling when it was delivered to me. I got ready to dig in when every fly and sand flea in Oman attacked my plate; I suppose they liked the sizzling seafood also. It was so bad I had to move inside, thus depriving myself of my reason for being in Oman in the first place. Ah, well, such is life.
But the food was good and I only had to ask for my mint tea five times before my American accent penetrated the waiter’s uncertainty. The joys of worldwide travel in a changing global environment.

I took the Big Bus back to Old Muscat and hopped off to walk around there for a while, which was interesting but quiet. I got back to the hotel and arranged my next day’s tour: a sea cruise. Alright. Receptionist Bashir called my room a few minutes later to tell me the sea cruise tour people had cancelled that tour for reasons unknown – probably because I wanted it. Anyway, I was able to arrange another tour to Nizwa and its famous souk, plus some other excursions into the mountains. No problem,

That night I checked out the Marina Hotel’s rooftop terrace for food and drinks, mainly beer, as they were allowed to serve alcohol. Two Scandia beers and some deep fried shrimp plus fries set me up nicely as I munched and drank and overlooked the Corniche and the Mutrah Marina in the fading twilight. The world was coming into focus again.
Next morning the hotel was kind enough to fix me an early breakfast, as Afdil (sp?) came to get me at 7:15. It would be an all-day trip to see interesting areas of Oman, including the famous Nizwa souk. We set off in his large white Toyota Landcruiser, which looked nothing like the old Landcruiser I had owned back in the 90s in Albuquerque. Nizwa was about 90 minutes away and when we arrived the souk was hopping. Afdil led me through all the various souks: animals (goats, sheep, chickens, cows, bulls, camels, etc), fruits and veggies, sweets (got some great matra halwah!), dates, spices, etc. I must have been a trader (or perhaps a buyer) in a previous life, as I love wandering these trading oases, talking with the merchants, petting a cow, tasting a sweet offering. Ancestors of the present-day merchants may have been in this very souk for the past thousand years; how great is that?

Anyway, we browsed the souks and then Afdil sent me on my private tour of the Nizwa fort (probably because there was an entrance fee), so I was able to wander around there for an hour or so, checking out the exhibits, having my photo taken by strangers (Hey! No selfie sticks for me!) and once again enjoying the old-world ambiance.
We left the souk and fort around noon and drove to the Jabal Akhdar, or Green Mountain, at 3000 meters above sea level. The area was filled with date tree parks and old abandoned mountain villages, like the Wadi Bani Habib. In a couple of places, the mountain roads we were on actually just ended, really, just stopped dead at a precipice, and turning around to come back was an adventure in itself. Now I knew why we had the four-wheel drive.

Once back on the main roads, we stopped for lunch at the El Neil Line roadside café, making it inside just before that busload of British tourists you always want to see in your wanderings pulled up and emptied its load into the diner. The mixed grill plate I wanted was, of course, not available until dinnertime, so I settled for what I thought would be an easy dish: Kung Pao Chicken. It took forever, and when it finally arrived it looked nothing like Kung Pao Chicken; instead, it appeared to be chunks of grilled chicken covered in BBQ sauce accompanied by a plate of rice. No peanuts, no Chinese flavoring, no Kung, no Pao. But it was food of a sort, and I was hungry, so what the heck. And you know what? It was just as bland as it looked.

Got back to the hotel around 5 PM where I showered and relaxed and then walked down the Corniche to the Kukrum Indian restaurant at the other end. Their menu had prices out of my range (and, let’s face it, one curry is pretty much just like another no matter what the cost), so it was another long walk back past my hotel to the Bait al Luban restaurant, next to the Marina Hotel. Turned out to be another high-priced place, but by that time I was really hungry, so bit the bullet (so to speak) and settled in. Beautiful mid-eastern décor, dim lighting, popular with the local men in their dishdashas and their accompanying wives in their head-to-toe black coverings, about as unfeminine a garment as possible (which is apparently the point).
Anyway, the food lived up to the restaurant. Started with a mixed grill (four skewers of different meats - chicken, lamb and beef) with a dipping sauce, followed by Mains of prawns in a coconut sauce with rice on the side. Even got some veggies on the other side, just to fool myself into thinking I was trying to stay healthy. Mint tea, followed by a date cheesecake and a slice of chocolate mousse, just so my veggies wouldn’t think they actually mattered.

The food in Oman was always good and plentiful (except for that darned pseudo-kung-pao chicken), always light and tasty and healthy and the lack of alcohol for most of my meals mattered not one whit. Prices were comparable to Europe – a good meal for around 10-15 euro. And after all, that’s one of the main reasons I travel.

Saturday was another relaxing day, spent walking along the Corniche to Riyam Park on the other side and down the main road, strolling, enjoying the sunshine and warmth. Sat in the park a while, read a book on my Kindle, bought a few souvenirs in the souk – the merchants were getting to know me by this time and greeted me as I browsed, but I kept up my Arabic language skills with lots of “La, shukran.” The vacuum hoses retreated poutingly.

Lunch was at the Chef A next to my hotel: garlic prawns, veggies, fries and - Holy Soft Drink, Batman – a Cherry Cola! Damn, I hadn’t seen one of those in years. Brought back memories of ’57 Chevys and sock hops. After a quick clean-up, it was time for my Twilight Cruise; I’d get out on the water somehow! I was picked up by the cruise people and whisked down the coast to the beautiful, picturesque marina I’d passed on the bus tour, where I and about 30 other tourists boarded a dhow for our evening’s excursion.

We cruised down the coast, past the old Portuguese forts and turned around at the approach to the port entry, just as the sun was setting. It was still warm at sea with a nice light breeze. The captain steered us right into the oncoming rollers, causing the dhow to bounce up and down, up and down with the waves. A few of the cruisers looked a touch green around the gills, but I knew the old sailor’s trick to avoid seasickness: always keep your eyes on the horizon, which never changes. So no matter how much bobbing and weaving the boat might do, your focus remains on a steady, non-moving line. It’s amazing what one picks up when crewing one of the America’s Cup racing yachts.
We returned to the marina around 6:30 or so and were taken back to our hotels. I immediately headed off for Al Boom and a Scandia beer or two on the rooftop terrace. I even got my same table overlooking the port and the same waiter, Mahduf, who had my beer in front of me even before I sat down. It’s nice to be remembered. I had the deep fried shrimp and fries again and was content to watch the lights along the Corniche as they reflected in the port waters.

(NB: I spent eight full days in Mutrah, Oman, and it seemed like a month. For some reason, time seems to slow down in the Middle East; it’s hot and the air is heavy and the people move slower and everything just seems to move at a more lethargic pace. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, an old country with jagged mountain peaks thrust up out of the earth. The present Sultan Qaboos, fourth in that dynastic line, seems to be a benevolent ruler and has raised the general standard of living significantly, while still retaining a centuries-old way of life. I found myself doing everything more slowly during my visit and found it a pleasant experience.)

Sunday in the Middle East is not like Sunday in the west; i.e., Arabic countries have their holy day on Friday instead. So Sunday is just like any other day in Oman. After breakfast at the hotel, I decided a visit to the Omani Avenues Mall was in order. What the heck, maybe they’d have something I couldn’t do without, plus afterwards I could walk over to the beach. So I caught a taxi at the Mutrah souk, and was lucky (!) enough to hook up with ‘Fireball’ Habib, Oman’s answer to a typical New York taxi driver. What a hustler.

Habib took me to the Mall and gave me his card in case I needed him for anything else – like a day trip to Wadi Shaab. I told him I’d let him know and set off to see what this famous Omani Mall held for me. As it turned out, not a whole lot. My biggest excitement was seeing an entire wall ad for Cinnabon, only to discover that Cinnabon was coming, but not yet there. Crushed! I walked over to the Sultan Qaboos mosque, realizing that in shorts and polo shirt I couldn’t get in, which was OK as I’d seen other big mosques elsewhere, most notably in Casablanca, but it was a nice stroll. Also spent an hour or two at the beach, just kicking back.

I taxied back to the Mutrah souk and had lunch on one of the fast food terraces: chicken tikka with fries. My lunch looked surprisingly like the Kung Pao chicken I’d had on my Nizwa trip and, in fact, tasted pretty much the same, too. Afternoon was another lazy day (I told you I came here for the relaxation and sunshine, right?) and at 6 PM I headed back to Al Boom for my nightly aperitif. Thus time I decided upon a pina colada, which seemed to go better with the sunset than just a beer. Dinner was golden fried squid, which also hit the spot.

Before turning in, I called Habib to let him know I was up for a trip to Wadi Habib the following day. He told me he’d pick me up around 9 AM. We’d see what the day held.

Wadi Shab, also spelled Wadi Shaab, is apparently quite a popular wadi (like along canyon) located in the Al Sharqiyah Region in Oman. It’s well-known to locals and expats, and people come here for the wild natural surroundings, to swim in the fresh water pools or just to have a barbecue. The main attraction of the wadi is the waterfall in the cave, which can be reached after a roughly 40 minute hike.

Habib failed to tell me about the 40-minute hike, for which I was unprepared. After the 90-minute drive, much of it along the southern coast, we arrived at the sea end of the wadi. We took a small old rowboat, fitted with an outboard motor, for about two minutes across a pool and alighted onto what would be The Trek area.

Folks, I must admit my trekking days are over and if I’d have known what was in store for me I wouldn’t have even bothered coming. I made it about 15 minutes over not-too-well-worn gravelly paths and rocky defiles and so much frigging natural beauty I was blasted. Besides, I’d left my Indiana Jones hat at home. It was also humid in the wadi, and I finally called a halt to Habib after slowing down more and more. Scraping my hand on a rock as I slipped off a small incline was the final straw. Sorry, Habib, back we go! Screw it. I could do without the natural sinkhole and waterfall in a cave, all of which I’d seen before in other places. These days my trekking consists of climbing the short set of stairs to the hotel terrace and being rewarded with a nice cold beer.

I had Habib drive me back to Mutrah and trekked from the taxi to one of the terrace restaurants along the Corniche for a nice lunch of chicken shawarma – that’s enough trekking for me for the next decade. A well-deserved shower and lazy afternoon nap in Riyam Park finished me off for the daylight hours. But several Scandia beers and some beef vindaloo and rice at Al Boom revived me enough to enjoy the rest of the evening.

By the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is really no night life in Muscat or Mutrah, at least what we in the west are used to. No pubs (because no alcohol!), no music, no hookah bars, no belly dancers (that I could find), no entertainment of any sort, at least in my area. Maybe in the big tourist hotels in Muscat, but certainly not in quiet, provincial Mutrah. So most nights I’d take a relaxing (there’s that word again!) after-dinner stroll along the Corniche and repair to my hotel room where I’d read a book or watch the only English-language TV channel I could find among the 860 other channels: CNN. Fortunately, I was able to reduce CNN’s blabbering nonentities to mere background noise, so wasn’t bothered too much by their inanities. All in all, I’d have rather watched Ishtar.

Anyway, I came to take it easy in the warm weather, and that’s what I did. Tuesday morning saw me roll out of bed at the crack of 7 to wander over to the nearby fish market and see what the locals did at that time of day. Turned out they bid on recent fish catches, which is just as exciting as it sounds. Ah, well, live and learn. After breakfast, it was back to the beach in Muscat for a day in the sun. I chose Al Qurum beach again, as it was pretty nearly always empty, plus it had several restaurants nearby. A nice relaxing day, even though the sea was filled with some sort of greenish algae, so swimming was pretty much out of the question.
After a cleanup, I watched the sun going down from the terrace of the Marina Hotel, accompanied by two new friends this time, Bavaria beers, which set off perfectly the fried shrimp and fries. (HEY! I can’t get fresh seafood in landlocked Hungary, so any time I’m anywhere near the sea, I scarf down all I can get – which is a lot).

Wednesday, January 17, was my last full day in Oman. My plane was to leave at 5 AM the following day, which meant I’d have to be at the airport around 2 AM to ensure an easy check in, passport control, security check, etc. So, what the heck, I decided on another beach day, the details of which I won’t bore you (not that there were many to begin with, sand being sand on every beach you’ve ever been on). A final dinner of king fish grill and three screwdrivers at Al Boom and I was set for an early night nap before heading out.

My taxi picked me up at 1 AM and delivered me safely to the airport in plenty of time to stand in line for Emirates Airlines check-in. No problems, everything went smoothly, which caused me to wonder what nasty surprises I’d have ahead. Amazingly enough, none; it was one of those rare trips when it all went right. I had a nice, but surprising, breakfast at the airport; the food court I stopped at had breakfast items, one of which I ordered, only to be told that they were only served in the morning. Hmmm. I casually showed the young Indian server my watch, indicated it was 3 o’clock in the morning, to which he replied that their morning didn’t start until 6 AM. I knew time moved more slowly here!

So I had a lovely beef burger and fries; not your standard breakfast, but it hit the spot nonetheless. We got away on time and I was able to manage the maze of gates and corridors and long walks through the Dubai airport easily and quickly. It was a 20-minute walk from where the transfer bus dropped us off to my gate, but I’m used to that by now. OK, these long walks are really my only present-day treks after all.

We boarded our Emirates flight and lo and behold, I found myself in the aisle seat (which I always request) of a three-seat row all alone! I had the entire row to myself on a five-plus hour flight. Cool. I spread out and enjoyed my air time, which seemed to go by faster than usual – maybe once we leave the Middle East time starts speeding up again.

Home to 3-degree Celsius Budapest late morning on Thursday, January 18, airport bus to Kalvin Ter, short walk dragging my by-now 17-kilo suitcase (I’d started off my trip with a bag weighing 11 kilos; y’all better appreciate those souvenirs!) and home to my not-too-cold flat. I’d turned the heat down to 15 Celsius while I was away, so it would warm up nicely over the next few hours with just a minor temp adjustment.

And there we have it, another successful mid-winter excursion to the sunshine and warmth. As I write this blog (January 21, 2018), there is a covering of snow on the rooftops of Budapest and the temp is down around -2 Celsius. I’ll be staying inside until spring.

Hope everyone’s holidays were happy and fun and safe. Watch this space for my next adventures, in the planning stages now. Happy New Year to you all.