The Fingerprint of Fez

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Throughout this post you’ll find the words of author Paul Bowles, an American expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco for 50 years. He wrote an essay called “Fez” in 1984. His thoughts on the city still ring true today. I’ve interwoven my story with excerpts from his essay, noted as italic quotations.

***

We ride the train from Tangier to Fez on a rainy afternoon in Morocco. If we’re going to spend a vacation day inside, it might as well be on a train moving across the countryside. We pass hills of green and gold which hint at the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert beyond.

Upon arrival at the station in Fez, we find a taxi and ask the driver to call for directions to our riad. It’s low season and we made a reservation just two days earlier after I searched obsessively online for a bit of affordable luxury, as much as that sounds like a contradiction. If there’s anywhere worth splashing out for a night or two, it’s Morocco. The experience of staying in a beautiful riad has a permanent place on my bucket list.

Our destination is Karawan Riad. A man with a wheelbarrow meets us at the taxi drop-off. We push our bags through the busy paths of the medina until we arrive at a dark little doorway so unremarkable I don’t even think to take a photo. The door opens and we’re welcomed inside.

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

“From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface … With the exception of the door … there is no suggestion of decoration … The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A non-committal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” ~PB

Karawan Riad is a gorgeous discovery – grand and beautiful while authentic and understated. My favorite feature is the five-fold geometric design in the floor tile of the inner courtyard which opens to the sky.

We’ve been upgraded to the extravagant Dzhari suite. We have no idea why until later when we talk with an American couple on the rooftop terrace who tell us they requested to move OUT of the Dzhari suite because the floor plan was too big and unmanageable with an upstairs bathroom. Thanks for the unexpected gift!

We stand at the edge and get our first panoramic view of Fez. The city is sprawling, endless and so tightly packed that not even a single road draws a line through the density. How and where do we begin to explore this anomaly?

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.” ~PB

Idris I, the first dynastic ruler of the area that would become Morocco, designated Fez as the capital city. The year was 798 and Idris I died shortly after this, leaving his son Idris II to carry out his plan. In the centuries since, the walls of Fez’s medina have been torn down, expanded and rebuilt with some still standing since the 13th century. Throughout its history, Fez has been the site of frequent conflict between Arabs, Berbers and Jews living in the city, with additional periods of Ottoman and French control during the past several centuries. The French moved the capital to Rabat in 1912 and Morocco became independent in 1956.

“Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.” ~PB

We dive in the next morning after a lovely breakfast at the riad. There is no good way to begin exploring the medina other than by just walking into it. With wide-eyed, curious expressions on our faces, a few people offer to show us around but we have all day to be lost and found on our own.

“The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through…” ~PB

We pass small doorways and alleys leading to even smaller doorways and alleys. We navigate by curiosity and intuition, and with every turn we feel one more step away from knowing how to get back to where we started.

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality.” ~PB

Deeper into it with every step, we get bolder and braver – peeking our heads into doorways and climbing stairs to see where they lead. The reward is the discovery of incredible interiors – some old and rustic, others elegant and refined. There is certainly an exotic other world behind these tall, quiet walls.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Eventually we come to a long passageway with latticework shading the interior. We’ve arrived at a major artery of the medina which leads us to a maze of vendors who lure us with all kinds of things for sale — textiles, rugs, lamps, leather goods, ceramics, clothing, baskets, spices and more. Fez is far less aggressive than Marrakech and there is no hard sell.

We wander through the henna souq, Brassmaker’s Square and the Jewish quarter. By this point we have no idea where we are in relation to where we started. The medina is vast and the walls are just too high to glean any true sense of direction. But we’re finding more and more pockets of life and beauty that pull us through the maze. The deeper we go, the more textures and colors we see. The medina blooms around us.

“The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong; the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travelers have a negative reaction to its dark and twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.” ~PB

Fez has cast its spell on me. The artistry of the city speaks through the bespoke quality of every single door, window, design, pattern, display and handmade item. Every element of this city has a human fingerprint. Nothing is manufactured and in this way Fez feels truly unique. I cannot walk into a shop and buy eight of the same bowls, four of the same pillows, or two of the same rugs. They simply don’t exist. I can look through a stack of 20 plates and no two will have the same pattern and color. It’s easier to have a pair of leather slippers custom made than to find my size and favorite color among a wall of one hundred choices. Craftspeople here can make one hundred of whatever you like — but the end result will still be one hundred handmade things, each imperfect and unique.

In a manufactured world, Fez is an astonishing city of authentic art and identity.

After a long day on our feet, we finally sit down for dinner at a pretty restaurant smothered in tile overlooking the medina. We’ve been unknowingly sucked into a tourist trap with an expensive fixed menu in a bunch of languages. We hurry through our tagines so we can get back and relax in our palatial room at the riad.

The next day we embark on another adventure through the medina. We find more doorways and details around every corner and spend quite a bit of time exploring the tanneries (an experience of such impact I’m doing a whole post about it, coming soon).

We find ourselves at Bab Bou Jeloud square and walk through the produce market nearby. Much like Tangier, the variety on display is as surprising as the verdant countryside we saw from the train.

We squeeze into two plastic chairs at a stall serving some kind of meat sandwich on Morocco’s traditional bread, which kind of looks like a Frisbee. We share with the cats and kittens lingering in the lane behind us.

We continue our journey, intent on finding a “set” of plates to take home with us – knowing each piece of the set will be unique because … Fez. We step down into a shop filled wall-to-wall with beautiful ceramics.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The shop has been family-owned for several generations – son, father, grandfather and beyond – and the entire three-story structure above us is part of the family home. It’s more than 100 years old with intricate detail in the carvings going up one wall. The father recalls being a little boy, climbing high up the woodwork. While we assemble our set of plates the son asks us if we’d like to see the view from their home.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

“The people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists … they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape.” ~PB

He takes us across the footpath in front of the store, up a tiny, dark staircase to an adjoining part of the house that opens onto a balcony. The day is coming to an end and we see several people who have found their way to the upper reaches of the medina for the sunset. For the second time in Morocco, we’ve been treated to an unexpected view through the gracious gesture of a local.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Fez is a grand world city unlike any other — a work of art and life from centuries of self-expression. We look out over the cityscape, share the experience with our new Moroccan friend and his brother, and are reminded again of some of the simple things in life that bring foreigners and locals together: sunsets, beautiful views, friendship and cultural differences which inspire us to invite each other into our homes to talk, to learn and to know respect for one another.

***

Miscellaneous
Tangier, Morocco

Tangier: A Visual Feast to Start the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m kicking off 2018 with a post about a city I visited last spring. I hope you enjoy this portrait of Tangier, Morocco.

May, 2017

After two weeks in Portugal and Spain, the exotic allure of Morocco has my full attention. It’s been ten years since my last visit to the country but Morocco’s gypsy ambiance has never lost its grip on my heart.

We park the rental car at a long-term garage in Algeciras — nearly getting scammed in the process, but ultimately we outwit the jerk who is trying so desperately to usher us into a particular parking space. Basta! He runs off, pretending he’s calling the cops. The car is stored and we’re on our way to Tangier, the first stop on our week-long jaunt through northern Morocco.

As we ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar I wonder at the ocean water — apatite blue and as calm as Lake Tahoe. We begin to see the shore of Tangier stretching along our view to the east in a thin, bright line. The light seems magnified, one tiny step closer to the equator, with a palette devoid of the bright greens of the Algarve from where we’ve just come. It’s intriguing to imagine the Sahara desert not too far beyond us … an adventure for another time.

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

At the moment, Tangier is our adventure. The city climbs the hill in front of us like the San Francisco of Africa. Tangier is a melting pot and crossroads at the edge of the continent; a city of highs and lows as time and people have passed through it for centuries. At the moment, Tangier is revitalized and ready for the future with a huge new port, a beautiful beach promenade and all the culture a city needs to attract an international community.

Our riad is somewhere in the middle of this hillside collage. Within minutes of docking we’re in a taxi on our way around the medina.

We find our way to the kasbah and arrive at the side street where La Tangerina is high on the hill, tucked behind a grand wooden door. Typical of Moroccan architecture, La Tangerina is several stories tall with a central courtyard. Our room is a small, split-level unit overlooking the walkway out front.

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

We unpack a few things and retire to the rooftop deck where mint tea and cookies are waiting for us in a stylish assemblage which reminds me that even the smallest things in life can be done with great artistry. We feel sincerely welcomed. We toast to an exciting day, with a view of the Atlantic on one side and the medina on the other.

Our taxi driver returns at 5:00 p.m. for an hour-long walking tour of the medina. He’s a university student and earns extra money by giving tours, during which he can practice speaking English. For the next hour we wend our way through the maze of footpaths among the buildings, so tall on both sides it’s impossible to tell where we are. It feels a little like snorkeling — we come up for air and try to get our bearings each time a path emerges into an open space.

The medina is a study in textures and colors, and I find myself navigating by the most memorable of them. A yellow and blue wall with a row of plants on a doorstep is a favorite passageway.

The Hand of Fatima

The Hand of Fatima

The khamsa, or Hand of Fatima, hangs from more than a few doors as a protective symbol to ward off the evil eye. The khamsa is also a contemporary symbol of peace.

What I love most about Morocco is the endless embellishment of even the most mundane surfaces. Walking through the medina offers an endless display of intentional artistry. Doors and windows almost always have elegant, hand-hewn designs within the confines of plain rectangles. As I learned in Islamic geometric design class, the best designs (and most designs here, really) are made-to-measure. The starting point, ending point and placement have been carefully considered to avoid the odd cut, loose end or messy composition. Moroccan design is deliberate design at its very best.

The streets outside the medina are wider and easier to navigate, running down to the port and across to the Ville Nouvelle. But old city or new city, temptation exists at every doorway. The crafts, textiles and antiquities inside the shops speak a vibrant, expressive language and the much-loved neutrals of western palettes have little voice here.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We step into a shop with room after room of rugs, ceramics and home accessories. Overwhelmed with patterns and choices, the salesman leads us upstairs to share something he seems to know we’ll find of more interest.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We emerge on the roof to another perspective of the medina. The midday sun strips the shadows from the mass of shapes on the hill and the call to prayer begins. This moment feels more valuable than any rug or accessory we might have had our eye on so we take it in and thank him for showing us.

We explore the fish market as well as the fruit and vegetable market set up along a street in the medina. The bounty of Morocco creates a variety of traditional dishes, including a sardine stew simmering in open tagines at a street-side cafe.

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

At every destination, the reaction to being photographed is something a photographer must explore and be aware of. In Mumbai, people loved being photographed but here in Morocco the general feeling I’ve gotten so far is total aversion. This is confirmed when I talk with a Berber woman about the cheese she’s selling at the market. She’s happy to show and sell her product but dips her hat to hide her face when I ask if I can shoot a photo. No matter — every culture is different and deserving of respect. I find myself shooting almost entirely with my phone because it’s faster and less conspicuous. Even still, and for this reason, most of my photos do not include people.

The indoor market holds even more piles, bins and boxes of Moroccan staples like lemons, olives, dates and nuts. For being so close to the Sahara desert, Tangier’s markets look surprisingly plentiful.

We stop for an afternoon coffee at the Grand Café de Paris. We choose a table along the back wall and watch the the world go by through the high windows overlooking the street. The brown leather chairs and buttoned-up waiters give an atmosphere of old elegance. No one moves too quickly — this is a place to meet and relax but an air of sophistication holds court over every customer. It feels as if anyone in the world might walk through the door.

To end our day we take a walk through the historic El-Minzah Hotel which opened in 1930. The walls are covered with photos of famous people who have come to the hotel including Rita Hayworth and Yves Cousteau.

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

The inner courtyard gives another nod to old elegance. In a quiet corner almost out of view, a bold antique sofa sits against a blue tiled wall under a framework of iron scrolls over a window. It is yet another effortless composition of pattern on pattern, color on color, that creates the singular sense of place that Morocco so clearly communicates.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

As we end our time in Tangier I capture one more photo of my favorite discovery within the medina. Down a dusty road in an unremarkable spot, this profusion of Islamic geometric design sits in solitude with chips and cracks that show its age — wabi-sabi in Tangier. Perfect, symmetrical, made-to-measure and stunning. It is my favorite discovery of our whole trip.

It’s time to catch the train and move on from Tangier. We taxi to the station and make a run for it, reluctant to leave this charming, rustic city. It’s been so fun to explore … and only just a warm-up for the coming labyrinth that is Fez.

Culture Miscellaneous
A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

We depart for Bella Coola from the south terminal of Vancouver International Airport, where the old-school spirit of travel is alive and well. We’re aboard a twenty-seat prop plane but we never cleared security and our bags were never x-rayed. We’re flying into the wilderness on the honor system — something that feels uniquely Canadian and appropriate for the weekend.

With just four people on our flight, we can see out every window around us to the earth below. On the left side, a series of islands and waterways. On our right side, a magnificent display of mountain tops and glaciers with ribbons of blue ice leading downhill. We leave the summer heat behind and float into oncoming rain, descending deep into the gray. For five minutes we’re suspended in a disorienting cloud layer until the yellow meadows of Anahim appear below us. This was not our intended destination. Fogged in and surrounded by mountains, the approach to Bella Coola airport is too treacherous to take a chance on today so Anahim will have to do.

We taxi over to the airport office and I suspect the yellow school bus parked next to it may be our golden chariot to Bella Coola. When weather shuts down Bella Coola’s airport, you have to go by bus — they just never said it would be a school bus.

We get on the school bus and Doug introduces himself as the driver. For the next two hours we wind along the dirt road to Bella Coola, topping out on Heckman Pass which has just one lane, with a terrifying drop-off along the south side. Doug tells us this “Freedom Road” was built in the 1950s after the government failed to fund its construction so locals took on the project themselves. They worked from both sides — Bella Coola and Anahim — until the roads connected in between at Heckman Pass.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

At 6:00 p.m. we arrive in Bella Coola (population 2,000) where we pick up our rental car from Steve. No need to show a license — the honor system works here, too. We drive a few minutes up the road to the Rip Rap Campsite where we find Amber and Jim in their home office, ready to check us in while also celebrating their anniversary. Happy anniversary! Jim suggests we hurry up and head across the road for hamburgers at the Legion — the only place open for dinner tonight. Friday nights are busy and they only keep the grill going until they run out of burgers.

After our epic school bus ride, burgers sound amazing but we’re momentarily caught up admiring our accommodations for the weekend. The Cedar Cabin at Rip Rap is more than 100 years old, with logs two feet wide and a front door so thick we can rest assured no grizzly bear will ever enter from the front porch. With two beds, one bath, an open plan and a wood-burning fireplace, we have more than we need to make ourselves at home.

We walk across the road to the Legion where we queue up for burgers and help ourselves to corn, which is free with a donation. Bus Driver Doug is leaning into a plate of food and tables of locals smile at us as we find our way through the ritual. This is Friday night in Bella Coola … small town life at its best. We hit the Shop Easy after dinner to pick up some groceries, build a great fire at the cabin and simmer in the warmth until the next morning.

Atnarko River :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

At 6:30 a.m., I can hardly contain my excitement about the day. We’ve come to Bella Coola because the salmon are running and the grizzlies are feeding along the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. We’ve booked a half-day float on the river with the hope of seeing these bears in their native habitat. It’s pouring down rain outside so I’m covered head to toe in rain gear with a dry bag for my camera.

By 7:45 a.m. we’re on our way to the river with Fraser. If you book a bear tour in Bella Coola there’s only one question people will ask you: Are you going with Fraser? He’s a biologist, bear expert and long-term Bella Coola resident with a great reputation for float tours with Kynoch Adventures. But as we arrive at the put-in, there’s been a small mix-up with some late arrivals and we have too many people for the small raft. We’re gonna need a bigger boat. Fraser works it out, stationing us at the nearby wildlife viewing platform while he goes back to Hagensborg and gets a bigger raft. This minor inconvenience is not an inconvenience at all, and our late timing works magically in our favor all day long.

The land we’re standing on is territory of the Nuxalk First Nation and a Nuxalk man welcomes us to the Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform, which is managed in cooperation with B.C.’s provincial park service. As grizzly habitat, the area is closely monitored for everyone’s safety. We’re escorted up a path to an outdoor shelter and plateau surrounded by an electric fence. I feel pretty electrified about potentially, hopefully seeing my first grizzly bear ever.

And after waiting and looking for about 15 minutes, we spot one down river.

A rustle in the bushes gives way to a dark shadow and then I see the big front feet of a grizzly bear making his (her?) way up the river. He moves quickly, easily, until he stops on a log and bends down on his forearms to have a look at the fish in the water, just like a dog might look after a tennis ball floating beyond its reach. He gets up and returns to shore and then, within seconds, gracefully swims to the middle of the river. He stops, stands up, has a look around, grabs a fish and moves to the shore, beyond our view.

In three-minutes, this distant grizzly encounter has already revised my expectations about these incredible creatures. They move with such ease, such grace, from land to water and back again, without hesitation. Nimble, not lumbering, with purpose and power.

The bigger raft has arrived so we return to the shore and find a place to sit among the swivel seats on the raft. Rain pours down. It’s going to be a soggy pursuit today but no one is complaining. We push off from the shore and start drifting down the Atnarko, past the Belarko platform to a wide, deep pool in the river. We stop and wait in silence. Hundreds of salmon swim past us, heading upstream. We scan the shores but see nothing so we move on.

As we round a bend in the river, we see a grizzly standing on a huge tangle of trees and logs. He steps off the log, out of view. Fraser steers the raft toward the opposite shore and hops onto a shoal to see where he’s gone. No luck so we keep floating down river and eventually catch up.

It’s time for breakfast. This grizzly catches and eats a fish before moving upstream toward our raft. He catches another fish and deftly picks it apart on the shore with his claws — skin first, then the flesh. He changes directions, walking back downstream so we follow in the raft. He pays no attention to us as we drift past him in faster water and stop next to a big boulder where we get a great view of him coming straight at us.

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

More fish, more breakfast. It’s easy on the Atnarko, with an estimated two million salmon heading upstream. It’s a much better run than last year. It’s still pretty early in the season so seeing a few bears is pretty lucky. Later in the season, Fraser has seen up to 20 bears on one float.

We’ve followed this bear for an hour so we give him some space and float on in the rain. My supposed waterproof layer has succumbed to the relentless pour and I’m soaked all the way through my thin down jacket underneath. My shoes are waterlogged and it’s a constant battle to keep my camera and lens dry. I put it back in the dry bag only to pull it out again when we round another bend and see a mother bear and cub. She’s leading the way up river and stops to catch and share a fish on the opposite shore.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

The mother pays us no attention but the cub occasionally looks right at us. I see a little curiosity in his eyes but I also see a directness I would not want to confront face-to-face. Yet not one of these bears has shown any aggression, not even while fishing — they make it look so easy. I think that’s what makes grizzlies so intriguing. Their confidence is clear and ever-present. Their power to kill is unquestioned but, at ease on the river, they are nothing but calm.

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Mom and cub swim to the shore near us. I’ve put my camera away (of course) when there’s a sudden commotion in the bushes. I capture one more rainy, grainy moment with my phone as mama bear stands on her hind legs to see if she can get a better look. No threats detected so they keep wandering up river as we float on to the Belarko pull-out where our tour comes to an end. It’s been an amazing morning, with most of it spent in the company of grizzlies.

Back at the cabin, we get out of our wet clothes and set out to explore Bella Coola. This tiny town only has a few stores and a dock where you can catch a ferry to Port Hardy. The Bella Coola Valley Tourism office is located in the Copper Sun Art Gallery with drawings, paintings and carvings by artists of the Nuxalk Nation.

We stop at Mountain Valley Organics where we meet the owner, Abra Silver. Everything in her shop is local, organic or handmade including fruit and veg, spices, snacks, meat and fish, baskets, knit hats, soap and home cleaning supplies. Her shop is next to her house of sixteen years — a charming cottage with flowering plants sprouting from every pot and planter. Although Bella Coola may feel a little trapped in time, Mountain Valley Organics feels hip and cool as a vital resource for sustainable mountain living.

Back at the Rip Rap Campsite, the sun comes out shedding light on everything there is to love about this place including an awesome little cabin full of games, books and flags from around the world. Amber and Jim have meticulously groomed the Rip Rap while retaining all the character that makes it super Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British ColumbiaRip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

We spend the afternoon at the Rip Rap’s viewing platform on the Bella Coola River — the icing on the cake at the Rip Rap. I don’t think I’ll ever stay anywhere else in Bella Coola. With a bottle of wine and some good company, there’s no better place to be for those golden hours before sunset. The river is running fast from today’s rain and we spy a black bear on the far shore.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Sunday morning, with no tour to pull us out of bed, we sleep in and then head back out to the Belarko viewing platform. We talk with a few folks who were on the afternoon tour yesterday. They didn’t see any bears. We were lucky to be out in the morning. But here at Belarko now, we don’t see any bears either although, according to a ranger, a “big guy” wandered through this morning.

We leave after an hour and start driving back to Bella Coola. But a little voice inside my head says maybe we should make a quick stop at the pull-out where the tour ended yesterday. We turn into the parking lot, do a quick scan of our surroundings and walk to the river’s edge. That unmistakable rustle in the bushes is back, just to the left! This is a popular fishing spot and bears have the right of way. Everyone stops what they’re doing and waits.

Mama bear and her cub are coming down the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

She’s swimming while the cub makes its way along the shore. With poised strength she pulls herself out of the water, takes a moment to shake it off and continues across the log back into the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Shake it off

Shake it off

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mama bear fishes with her nose and eyes underwater until she snatches a Pink with her claws, puts it in her mouth and returns to shore where she can share it with her cub. Satisfied for the moment, they continue down the river out of view.

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

We head back to the Rip Rap where we’re looking forward to another afternoon at the viewing platform. The sun is out and we’ve got another bottle of wine, and right on cue a grizzly bear wanders into view along the far shore.

For the next hour, we’re captivated. We watch this bear splashing, pouncing and playing a long game of catch and release with an occasional stop to eat. He spends the afternoon in solitary playfulness like a cat with a ball of string. The moment is elemental, so far removed and blind to everything happening in the world. Just the bear, the river, the fish, the sun, the fog gathering and the cycle of life in the wild of Bella Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Monday morning we take in one last view from the platform before leaving Rip Rap for the airport. The grizzly is out for another frolic on the shore. As I watch the sun light up the river, I can’t believe what an amazing trip we’ve had to this tiny town called Bella Coola.

Remarkable weekends like these are really having an effect on me. Vancouver has been slow to grow on me, mostly because I’m living here right after loving another city so completely (Singapore). It’s a bit like a rebound relationship. But the deeper I venture into British Columbia, the more I like it. Canada is expanding, if not entirely redefining, my definition of wilderness and my relationship to it. This is beautiful, vast, wild country that is winning my heart, one adventure (and grizzly bear) at a time.

My paternal grandfather had roots in Canada. Maybe it’s closer to home than I ever expected.

Miscellaneous Nature Outdoors Travel

Sea to Sky and Peak to Peak

Storms have been rolling through Vancouver during the past week, so I thought I’d share two recent local adventures before fall turns to winter.

The Sea to Sky and Peak to Peak experiences sweep you up, down and all around the mountains between Squamish and Whistler, B.C. Both outings take you right into the wilderness within one to two hours of the city.

The Sea to Sky Gondola lifts off from Basecamp (at sea level) to the Summit Lodge (885 meters) in about ten minutes. I made the trip on a dreary day, but the views from the top were still vast and breathtaking — especially from the suspension bridge. If you’re really up for a challenge, you can bypass the gondola and go by foot from the parking lot to the Summit Lodge. Three viewing platforms are within easy walking distance from the lodge and a trail network leads to the surrounding mountains beyond.

Just up the highway from the Sea to Sky Gondola, the Peak to Peak Experience takes you from Whistler Village to the Top of the World Summit, across the valley to Blackcomb on the Peak to Peak Gondola and back down to the village on two final chairlifts. I made this journey on a much sunnier day and it was an absolute blast to see the resort in a season other than winter, without my ski goggles. Getting to the Top of the World Summit is a precarious ride past cliff faces and up steep slopes still covered in ice from last season. But the view from the top is spectacular.

Then the fun really begins — going back down on the Peak Express chairlift. Not for the faint of heart or fearful of heights!

At the bottom of the Peak Express, transfer to the Peak to Peak Gondola — a massive operation that takes you all the way across the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb.

I looked for bears in the riverbed below. According to a guide who was riding in our gondola, they are often visible — about 60 bears live around Whistler/Blackcomb. I didn’t see any of them but the bird’s eye view of the river through the trees was unexpectedly cool.

After a pit-stop at the Rendezvous for a glass of wine with my hiking buddy, it was time to descend back to the village, above grassy slopes and wildflowers.

On a sunny summer day, the Peak to Peak is a fantastic mountain adventure. With a day pass, you can ride the lifts either direction, as many times as you want. But you’ll have to wait until next year … the Peak to Peak experience is closed for the season and the snow has arrived!

Miscellaneous Photography

Road Trip Oman: Nizwa and Final Thoughts

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We arrived in Nizwa last night after a long day exploring Jebel Shams and the aged village of Misfat Al Abriyeen. Today is our last full day in Oman. We start early, meandering the narrow streets surrounding downtown Nizwa. Crumbling stone walls and newly constructed homes co-exist amidst an unlikely landscape of palm trees. As we’ve seen over the past 10 days, life in Oman is an illustration of extremes — the bounty of the ocean next to the vacancy of the desert; the stark mountains next to the lush palm groves of the wadis. There is hardly any middle ground. Even the middle of the day is a barren stretch of time deserted by everything but the sun.

We look for a place to get coffee — a comfort of home in a foreign town. But as we walk around Nizwa, we’re reminded again that Oman exists for itself and not for its visitors. Not that it’s unfriendly — we’ve been welcomed and treated well everywhere we’ve been. But it’s what we don’t find here in Nizwa — cafés full of tourists, menus in four languages, guides selling tours, vendors competing for attention — that shows Oman’s success at maintaining its authenticity. Even though a cappuccino would be really nice right now, it’s far nicer to find a place holding onto its identity, sharing itself but not giving itself away. No coffee, no problem. I think it’s my own expectation that’s misplaced here. In Oman, coffee is meant to be shared among people rather than bought for oneself.

We come to the entrance of Nizwa Fort, built in the middle of the 17th century and recently restored in the 1980s. Many centuries ago Nizwa was Oman’s capital, located at the crossroads of caravan routes. The fort was built to protect the city and house its leaders. Muscat has since become Oman’s center of government and trade but Nizwa remains significant for its character and history.

The fort is a surprising maze of staircases and rooms, including a tiny prison — a stuffy, windowless den. We eventually find our way to the central tower. Evidence of a brutal war tactic remains. Above each wooden door to the tower there’s a hole where boiling oil or date syrup could be poured over incoming enemies.

The tower itself measures 45 meters in diameter. We climb one of the side staircases to a panoramic view of Nizwa and the surrounding mountains.

The souk and streets around the fort hold the bounty of Nizwa — beautiful clay pots, brass tea pots, khanjars so emblematic of Oman and, of course, everything related to frankincense — from burners to resin. The Boswellia tree, native to Oman and a few countries nearby, emits sap when the bark is “striped”. This tree sap hardens into resin and carries a distinct aroma. The resin can be burned, distilled into oil and even eaten (with some interesting cancer- and depression-fighting capabilities of note). When I arrived in Oman I had never smelled frankincense but it has infused our time here like a trail through a forest. Whether it’s burning in a diffuser or wafting from the dishdasha of someone passing by, the scent is ever present and irresistible.

Frankincense

Frankincense

I’ve already bought some frankincense accessories to take home, but I buy another burner as we make one last walk through the souk. We pass men sitting together on the ground playing a board game, the fruit and vegetable market beats a slow pulse nearby, and life prepares to shut down for the afternoon.

We reluctantly make our way to the car knowing our time in Oman is coming to an end. We pass a road sign warning us of camel crossings as we begin the drive back to Muscat. Looking out the window as Oman’s exotic landscape passes me by, I am more intrigued now than when I arrived 10 days ago.

There is something enchanting about this country — a beauty revealed slowly and quietly over time. Take any part of Oman by itself — like the hot, empty desert — and it most certainly wouldn’t be so memorable. But the sum of its parts — that same desert with its warmth, sunset, rustic camp, dinner by candlelight, sweet dates, blissful bed, evening silence, morning fog, impossibly fine sand and genuine hospitality — creates an unforgettable sensory experience. This trip has been a series of sensory experiences. Travel at its best. The elusive feeling of discovery has returned.

Here’s a look back at my favorite memories of Oman. May my home forever smell of frankincense.

This is the final post in my series about Oman. The series begins here.

Miscellaneous Road Trip

Road Trip Oman: Foray Into the Desert

We wake up on the beach in Ras Al Hadd, having met a large yellow fin tuna and having enjoyed a peaceful night camping next to the ocean. The Omani sun burns bright white after closing out yesterday with a blaze of pink over the dark blue ocean. We make coffee and pack up the tent while noticing the paw prints and thievery of a small army of stray cats that came calling late in the night.

We drive from Sur toward Wadi Bani Khalid and Wahiba Sands. The coastal landscape changes to a bleak but mountainous panorama of blues and grays — practically a moonscape with minimal vegetation and only an occasional goat or camel. The road climbs up and finally transitions into canyonland with a lush border of date palms along each side.

We park the Pajero and venture by foot into Wadi Bani Khalid, one of Oman’s most popular wadis. We could be in Utah or Arizona — the colors and the canyon are reminiscent of Zion and Havasupai — were it not for the young boy hiking with us in his kuma, leading the way to Moqal Cave. We reach the entrance and peek inside, but the prospect of crawling around in the dark is overshadowed by our attraction to the numerous swimming holes dotting the canyon. We hike back to the water and stop for a swim in Bani Khalid’s crystal clear water.

We’re once again racing against the Omani afternoon, knowing we need to get to our next destination before sundown. We pack up and hike out of the canyon, and get on the road to Safari Desert Camp in Wahiba Sands. It’s 2:00 p.m. so we know the camp’s main office in Bidiyah is closed for the afternoon. Luckily, I’ve got a map — printed from the camp’s website and beautiful in its simplicity. Looks like a few left and right turns, and then 20 kilometers farther into the desert and… we’re there! Right?

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We make those left and right turns and come to the literal end of the road. I don’t think I’ve ever seen pavement end so abruptly. As we stop, gobsmacked at the adventure we’re about to embark on with 20 kilometers to go, I vaguely recall the brief but important words of the camp’s booking agent: “Requires a four wheel drive. Hope you have!”

Yes, we do have, but something tells me we might need a little more than just a four wheel drive. So, this is the road? For 20 kilometers? Shake it off. This is OMAN. I guess if we need help we can ask a Bedouin for a camel ride to the nearest outpost.

We push the gas and drive forward into the frontier of Wahiba Sands. The Pajero, as skittish as we are, reacts with squirrely tires and a slight tendency to steer left. But after a kilometer, we settle into the routine and begin to enjoy the wilderness of the desert — a new experience for us.

And then, like a video game, the terrain becomes more difficult. Small hills appear, with deep sand tracks indicating the struggle and success of people who have come before us. We start to understand the importance of speed — going as fast as we can bear, into ruts of shifting earth, tail end sliding left and right, with a hope and a prayer that we’ll make it to the next crest.

And then… the Mount Everest of dunes appears before us novice drivers of the desert. We stop — mouths agape — look at each other and laugh at the audacity of what lies ahead. Not only is this the hill of all hills, but the tracks lead left AND right, leaving us with no idea which way to go. It’s nearly 4:00 p.m. so turning around won’t do us much good. J revs the gas and we decide to give it a go, slightly aghast and slightly exhilarated by what we’re dealing with.

We make it halfway up before the tires on the left side sink in and force us to stop. We hop out and hike up the hill, deciding we’ll try again and follow the tracks to the right. J backs down the hill and guns it a second time while I take photos of our dilemma. No go — stuck again.

Divine intervention -- help from a couple of locals

Divine intervention — help from a couple of locals

J backs down the hill again, this time continuing halfway up the next hill so he can get a good run at it. He’s just about to hit the gas when a truck comes barreling over the crest of the hill and down toward where he’s parked. At this point I realize the potential of the situation we’re in. I’m on the hillside, he’s in the car alone a fair distance away from me, and all I can do is hope the people who have stopped have good intentions because there is nowhere to run and nothing we can do.

The passenger of the vehicle gets out of the car and crouches down next to the front tire of our Pajero. Exhale. Divine intervention has arrived — these people are here to help us. Yay! They deflate our tires and then show us how it’s done, powering straight up the hill in a sandy blaze of glory. As luck would have it, one of these men is Ali Salem, owner of Safari Desert Camp. He asks if we have ventured toward the camp without an escort from the office. When we say yes, his reply is simple: “Brave.”

Full petrol

Full petrol

J bravely tries the hill a third time and gets stuck again, and the men reiterate the need for full gas — pedal to the metal — to get to the top. A fourth time gets the Pajero nearly there, and with one last right-turn push from just below the crest, J finally conquers the mountain as I watch and take pictures. Good job, honey! No pressure!

The owner and his passenger tell us to follow them, and leave us in a trail of dust because we’re in Oman and that’s how they do it here.

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Arrival at Safari Desert Camp

We finally arrive at Safari Desert Camp as the sun gives everything a warm glow, shifting the sand from taupe to rust. We’re greeted with Omani coffee and dates, and decide a sunset camel ride is the perfect way to decompress after our foray into the desert.

The camp is perfectly sparse, with a variety of small huts sprinkled around a large dining hall. We’re staying in a yurt/hut with a huge open-air bathroom. We’re elated to learn that just seven people will be staying here tonight. We chose this camp hoping it wouldn’t be a manufactured desert experience over-run with tourists. It is nothing of the sort. Ali Salem has created an authentic experience — quiet and basic, just as the desert should be, with no electricity except for a generator used for cooking.

Dinner at dusk

Dinner at dusk

The dining hall glows with candlelight and dinner is a beautiful buffet of covered dishes — grilled meats, fresh baked breads and homemade desserts. We are far away from anything familiar, and completely enthralled by the magic of a starry night in the desert. After dinner, we climb into the netted bed — one of the most comfortable of our entire trip — and sink into the eerie sensory deprivation of total silence and darkness.

Morning reveals a chalky landscape with a drape of fog extending along the dunes. It is surprisingly cold until the sun gets high enough to warm the desert floor around the camp. We visit the camels nearby and drag the sleds up a dune for a few slides down the hill. We spend an hour getting to know Mohammed, the reception manager, who comes from India but much prefers the isolation of the desert in Oman.

We say goodbye and drive confidently back toward civilization, knowing there’s no dune we can’t conquer now. We arrive back at the edge of the pavement — a visceral boundary between one lifestyle and another. J stops the car and in his typical, lovable, selfless way, pulls out the ring Frisbee he’s been carrying in his backpack. Kids instantly appear from nowhere — beautiful, curious, shy, competitive — and pretty soon they’re all chasing after the latest greatest toy to appear in Bidiyah, as we get back in the Pajero and drive on to the Saiq Plateau.

***

This is the third post about touring Oman. You can read from the beginning starting here.

Next up… Road Trip Oman: Secluded Luxury at Jabal Akhdar

Road Trip

Road Trip Oman: Wild and Wadi Camping

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

After relaxing into Oman at a resort on the coast, it’s finally time for us to leave the comfort of Muscat and set out on our road trip. Oman’s geography makes road tripping an enticing way to see the country, with many of its notable features reachable only by four wheel drive. In addition, Oman offers up all of its terrain for “wild camping” – we are welcome to pitch our tent anywhere we like, so long as we’re not on anyone’s private property. I presume this liberal and welcoming attitude is a product of the Bedouin lifestyle that has existed in Oman for centuries. Land here isn’t fenced and defined – rather it’s open for wandering and camping, to whomever or whatever passes through or stops to rest.

This principle is illustrated immediately upon driving out of Muscat. Countless goats, and even a few camels and donkeys, roam freely over the landscape – even along the edge of the highway. We realize keeping our eyes on the road is especially important in Oman. Regardless of our caution, cars rocket past us on the highway. Smooth roads and insanely cheap petrol have made driving fast de rigueur.

We cruise along in the slow lane, heading south toward Sur. We’ve heard good things about Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi so we intend to find a place to camp for the night and hike into one of the wadis tomorrow. A wadi is a watercourse — sometimes dry, sometimes holding water, and never a good place to be when rain falls. Luck is with us today and December skies are clear.

We arrive at Tiwi in the afternoon. This sleepy seaside village is practically in a coma since everything in Oman shuts down between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. Within 20 minutes we’ve seen the town and move toward the shore to survey our wild camping options. Unfortunately, the beach runs adjacent to the highway with enough noise and exposure to make us doubt we’ll enjoy camping here for our first night. We decide to drive into Wadi Tiwi and explore other options.

Tiwi greets us with a dirt road and a deep canyon and we’re immediately intrigued. We pass a series of small villages and the road narrows to a skinny lane. Date palms fill the canyon, full and green against the sheer, weathered walls. We shift into four wheel drive and climb the road to a small plateau above the villages – camping paradise found.

We unpack, pour some wine, put on our warm clothes and toast to our first night of wild camping in Oman. Not bad for not having much of a plan! But that’s the fun of this vacation — we can make it up as we go along.

We wake up in the morning to sunlight hitting the canyon walls, thankful for an uneventful night. But I take a walk with my morning coffee and begin to suspect we’ve camped in the village cemetery. Oblong circles of stones, about the length of a person and marked with one prominent stone standing upright, cover the ground next to our tent. Hmmmm.

We pack up our camp and drive further into the canyon until we’re too scared to push the Pajero any farther uphill. We set out on foot and discover another small village built into the hillside. The trail skirts the canyon wall offering spectacular views of the nearly-dry riverbed.

We descend to the river, noticing the well-constructed irrigation channel serving the village, and encounter several workers who are reinforcing the hiking trail. One of them asks where we’re from. I reply that we’re from the U.S. and then ask where he’s from.

“Bangladesh!”
“Dhaka?”
“Yes!”
He is thrilled that I know where he’s from.

The man directing the trail work asks if we’d like some coffee. A group of Omani men lounges nearby, filling their cups and talking in Arabic. We feel so foreign – especially me, as a woman, dressed in western hiking gear without anything covering my head, amidst men who are clearly my elders. We hesitate to answer, realizing in the moment that it’s so much easier to say no than it is to say yes. But we say yes, not wanting to refuse this gesture of goodwill. We kick off our shoes, take a seat and are offered Omani coffee, a dish filled with dates (and swarming with flies) and, from what little we can understand, talk of Pakistan.

After finishing our coffee and thanking our hosts, we hike back to the Pajero, stopping along the way for a quick swim in the clear water of the riverbed. It’s midday and we need to move on to Sur and find our next campsite.

The Gulf of Oman glows sapphire blue next to the chalky landscape of the coast. We arrive in Sur at 2:00 p.m., once again greeted by the silence of an Omani afternoon. We briefly explore the area, but our need to find camping before dusk pushes us on to Ras Al Jinz. We hope to see nesting turtles here, but an employee of the reserve tells us the season is just about over and there is no camping allowed.

We drive farther toward the coast and arrive at Ras Al Hadd. The wild camping options are looking favorable with two beaches to choose from – somewhat busy and deserted. We choose the latter, just the two of us setting up camp as a dhow cruises by and the sun drops toward the western mountains.

The view from our first beach campsite

The view from our first beach campsite

With the tent up and a drink almost in my hand, I look to my right. I see a white SUV driving onto the beach, coming full speed directly at us. In the fifteen seconds it takes to reach us, I think about all the possibilities of this situation. We can only hope, as we would in any country, that whoever is coming at us with such urgency has a good reason, as well as good intentions.

The male driver turns the car to his right, bringing us face to face with him, leaning out the driver’s side window.

“Hello. I am a guide.”
Exhale.
“I just came to tell you this beach is closed. You cannot camp here.”
J and I exchange glances.
“If you pack up your camping gear I will show you where you can camp. You can follow me.”
Inhale. More exchanged glances and thoughts, reading each other’s mind. Follow him? Is that a good idea? Should we trust what he’s telling us? Shit! This is such a perfect campsite!
“Okay. Thank you. We’ll pack up and follow you,” I reply.

We say this knowing there’s only one other potential beach camping option and that we can stop following him if we want to. We cram the Pajero with our gear and try to leave the beach and get stuck in the sand in the process.

“Please. Will you allow me to help you?” he asks.
We exchange glances again.
“Sure, thank you.”

He gets in the Pajero, confidently turns the wheel, pushes the gas with the finesse of a race car driver and takes the Pajero right out of the deep sand. Omanis make it look so easy.

We drive five minutes down the road and he brings us to the busier beach where locals are enjoying a beautiful Thursday afternoon.

“You can camp here. It’s a good place. Just don’t go closer to the water. There may be turtles nesting.”

Exhale. Breathe. Please pardon us for expecting the worst, and thank you very much for helping us find a good place to sleep tonight.

We set up camp for the second time and talk about these chance encounters that happen every time we travel, near and far from home. We’re grateful this man came to help us with good intentions, and we’re happy we enjoyed the genuine hospitality of the men we encountered in Wadi Tiwi.

We start to relax and think about what to make for dinner when a pick-up truck comes driving across the sand, straight at our campsite. Again?!

The driver stops and shouts through the passenger window.

“Hello! Where are you from? I want to show you something. Come over to my vehicle!”
“You want us to get in your vehicle?” We are, again, a little bit freaked out.
“No, just come look!”

He jumps out of the truck and motions us to look inside the bed. We walk over to the truck and cautiously peek into the bed, having no idea what to expect.

Here lies a massive yellow-fin tuna.

“I just caught it! I’m going to sell it at the market!”

Exhale.

***

This is the second post about touring Oman. You can read the first post here.

Next up… Road Trip Oman: Foray Into the Desert

Miscellaneous Road Trip

Road Trip Oman: Arrival in Muscat

Oman

My interest in traveling to Oman started with a bicycling race and some mountains — common features of a lot of my travels. It was 2010, winter in Lake Tahoe, and J and I were watching the first Tour of Oman on television. The peloton snaked along the route with its usual gracefulness, but the backdrop of the race featured unusually stark mountains, a pristine coastline and a series of towns and villages painted in infinite shades of white. I looked up Oman in Geographica’s World Reference (an excellent source which still holds an important place on our antiquated bookshelf), noted Oman’s location on the Arabian Peninsula, and set Oman to simmer in the back of my mind.

Fast-forward five years and here we are in Muscat. Since moving abroad, Oman’s proximity has enabled us to get here sooner than we expected – it’s just eight hours from Singapore, through Colombo or Dubai. But beyond its proximity, everything we’ve read and heard over the years has consistently portrayed the country as a welcoming, peaceful and fascinating place to visit, with a concerted interest in preserving both its cultural heritage and its environment.

First impressions confirm all of the above to be true. Before setting out on our road trip, we spend the first two nights in deep relaxation at a resort along the coast outside of Muscat. The view over afternoon coffees at the Al Bustan Palace (the next bay over) foreshadows what we’ll be seeing throughout our trip — barren but dramatically formed mountains that quash our limited knowledge of geology. I soon find myself researching the Semail Ophiolite (more on that later) and struggling to comprehend 800 million years of tectonic and volcanic events.

Kumas

At dusk, we venture into Old Muscat for a few hours to explore the souk with its narrow alleys selling gold jewelry, frankincense and kumas. I admire the men’s dishdashas – simple white robes worn every day, often smelling of frankincense and always projecting an indelible air of elegance. What marvelous garments for hot weather.

Omani manscaping

J stops for a shave at one of the many barbers around the souk and we’re soon introduced to the meticulous rituals of Omani manscaping. This is Next Level Grooming, as proven by the guy next to J who is having his mustache threaded. Within 10 minutes, J’s beard transforms from a western mess to a sculpted garden reminiscent of the Sultan of Oman himself (go ahead, you know you want to Google image him — he’s beautiful and perfectly groomed at age 74). The Omanis have turned a simple shave into an art form.

The next morning we visit the fish market, a bustle of activity and a potent glimpse at daily life in Oman. We follow this with a walk through the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and I am as awed by its beauty as I am by St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The Grand Mosque is home to the world’s second largest handmade carpet, as well as a 14-meter, 8.5-ton chandelier in the prayer hall made of 600,000 Swarovski crystals. I can say with honesty that the chandelier is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.

Our trip to Oman has started splendidly and in the past two days we’ve settled in and gotten a sense of what to expect in the coming week. People have been friendly, but what’s absent is the profuse, sometimes insincere, pandering to tourists that’s often found (and expected by some) in overly-traveled destinations. And I don’t miss it. People here acknowledge our presence and welcome us, but they are clearly not dependent on us being here. Life goes on in Oman, with or without us tourists, and it’s refreshing to find it this way.

On our third afternoon in Muscat, we take a taxi to pick up our rental car. Thankfully, our taxi driver helps us sort out some considerable confusion about where it’s located and we finally arrive at a house in a quaint residential neighborhood. An Omani man is waiting with the car and a Filipino woman is waiting with our rented camping gear – tent, sleeping bags, stove, chairs, cooler and all. Within an hour we’re on the highway back to the hotel, this time in the driver’s seat, excited to begin our road trip the next morning in our awesome, nearly-new Mitsubishi Pajero. Good thing it’s a four-wheel drive.

***

Next up… Road Trip Oman: Wild and Wadi Camping

P.S. for cycling fans… the winner of the 2010 Tour of Oman was the charismatic Fabian Cancellara.

Miscellaneous Road Trip