Category Archives: Oman

Tangible Memories

This post is in response to IndiBlogger contest titled Beauty has an Address based on Oman.

We lived in Muscat, Oman from October 1995 to November 2000 and the five years was an introduction to a culturally and typographically vibrant and irresistible.

Our entry into Muscat, the capital of Sultanate of Oman, had coincided with sublime weather, by Oman standards, as October onwards the hot air or the mistral disappears from over the crumbly slatey mountaintops. Also unknowingly, we had timed our arrival with the 25th year of ascension of Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the country’s National Day celebrations. The country was eulogizing the metamorphosis into a new era engineered by discovery of oil and the Sultan’s commitment to his people. The buntings and multi hued lights stringed along pillars and atop buildings added to the festive ambiance and after sunset Muscat turned into an Arabian Nights city with lighted minarets, streets and buildings.

It was the beginning of a never-ending love affair with a country that hitherto had been an unknown entity, a Middle Eastern country confined to desert lands of geography books. I am glad I did not listen to well wishers advising us against flying out without any contacts or friends to help out. We did not know anyone, except for my husband’s company contacts, and in a way it was a blessing as I was free from getting opinionated.

In five years time, 1995-2000, I came to know a country of majestic burnished mountains and blue-green waters snuggling up to an endless coastline, of undulating sky-line of buildings and rolling clouds, the souqs or markets reminiscent of ancient trade routes, of frankincense and dates, the swirling golden Wahiba sands, forts and mountain passes, of folklore and distinctive tribals. Evenings spent strolling along the Corniche, in Muscat, washed by waves and engulfed in the glow of the setting sun it was easy to imagine the lure of this entreport for sailors on way to riches of Asia. Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India (1898-1905) had labeled it as the ‘most picturesque place in the east’ and like multitudinous tourists down decades I too seconded the description.

In 1995 Muscat was a city of artistic roundabouts embellished with artifacts, majestic forts and palaces, traditional souks vying with modern hotels, civic installations and sprawling parks proclaiming an ancient history of political and military activities. The Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Grand mosque was being constructed ( since then completed) and has the world’s largest chandelier and a hand-woven Persian carpet covering 4.26 sq.km. It is one mosque where non-Muslims are admitted for a look around.

The children would spend weekends at the ice skating rink or freaking out on the serpentine drive to Qantab beach, an engineering masterpiece linking the mountains for passage to the sea. School vacations meant driving to picturesque mountain cities and villages, Nizwa cloaked in antiquity was my favored haunt, the Jebel Akhdar or the Green mountains, Musandan reminiscent of Norway fjords, the verdant wadis or valleys and crooning streams of Dhofar, the southern tip of the country.

Like any other Gulf country Oman has surfeit of glamour, money, labor, simple living but to me it was a multitudinous wrap around, unique and fantastically natural in all its heatness- beyond conditioned houses, conditioned cars, conditioned offices, shopping complexes and “Even are classrooms are air-conditioned”. This from children on first day at Indian School, Muscat.

Now, fourteen years later when asked what would I like to do and see on return…..I can only say ‘Oman in entity’ as it was and must be paradisiacal.

Oman – An Introduction

NizwaNizwa….a rooftop view from Nizwa Fort.

Oman – a country that was a ‘tonic place’for adventures unknown.This is an excerpt for Frizztext Letter Challenge A-Z. Letter ‘O’.

October 1995…The plane sashays through poof ball clouds, camouflaging jagged intimidating mountains glistening in the early morning sun, as it prepared to touch down at Seeb international Airport, Muscat. We would be seeing more of these mountains, omnipresent, eccentrically layered, at places sandpaper brittle ready to fall apart at mere touch or chameleon-like changing color with every slant of sun.

Our entry into Sultanate of Oman had coincided with paradisiacal weather, by Oman standards as October onwards the hot air or the mistral disappears from over the mountaintops. Unknowingly, we had timed our arrival with the 25th year of ascension of the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the country’s National Day celebrations. The country was eulogizing the metamorphosis into a new era engineered by discovery of oil and the Sultan’s commitment to his people. The buntings and multi hued lights stringed along pillars and atop buildings added to the festive ambiance and after sunset Muscat turned into an Arabian Nights city with lighted minarets, streets and buildings.

The Middle East, except for Dubai for its glamour and shopping, had never been on our travel itinerary and relegated to the never-never land for visits. So, when my husband sprang the news on us of moving to Muscat, Oman, he was greeted with skepticism. Three heads poured over an Atlas, Google search was unheard of, searching for the geographical position of the land we would be setting base in. There it was, cavorting alongside Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the shape, ‘more like a shoe’. It was not very encouraging. “Who lives in a shoe?” questioned our nine-year old son to be reminded about the ‘Old Woman who lived in a shoe’* by his elder sibling. After much deliberation a hands-down vote clinched the issue in favor because it was still ‘foreign’ and gateway to other travels.

Personal misgivings pushed aside and attired in best of finery and attitude we boarded Gulf Air flight for Muscat. In a booking error the three of us, husband had left a month earlier, had been allotted separate seats in a packed flight and it was tough three hours in a never-ending surround sound of cheap deo, sweat and high decibel buzz. A collective sigh on a smooth landing and we disembarked to queue inside a neat, air-conditioned arrival lounge, an ideal setting for tourist-friendly gentrification.

We did something we had not done in a long time. Stand in a queue. In a way there was no getting out of it as it was said more in eye language and gestures than in word and there were no breaking lines and ‘me first shoves’. At that time it did not register but it was to be a phenomenon we would encounter throughout our stay, the fine-tuning of Indians. Visa and customs formalities over, my books flipped through, a casual check, and we exited to find husband beside a deep red Chrysler Inteprid. The day was made for my son on seeing a real version of one of his favorite cars and I could guess he was mentally composing a letter to his school friends back home.

Dazzling aquamarine sky, laundered roads (saw them being washed at night) bordered by layers of multi-hued flowers interspersed with date palms of one height and color…it was picture postcard scenery. I surrendered to the sanitized surroundings far removed from the romantic notions of a desert land of camel riding sheiks and swaying begums. On second thoughts there was certain fakeness to the scenery and my intuition was correct as later we learnt that the palm trees were transplanted along with the soil and flowers. Well it also proved a point….Omanis love green spaces and Muscat is a recipient of municipal awards for the cleanest city.

A few miles down the single tar road, connecting the International airport to the city, I was still looking for sheiks. But what I saw was a generic city of tree-lined roads, flower bedecked fancy roundabouts embellished with jars, teapots, books and forts, ‘white’ brick buildings, construction was fairly recent as this was a new developing city and from the air-conditioned confines of the car all very welcoming even the protective mountains. The country, except for the wadis or valleys and the coastal plain, is mountain dominated and in Muscat the rocky wall blocks any cool breeze entering the city. One can imagine the plight of residents before electric fans and air cons entered households and commercial buildings.

Wendell Phillips in his book ‘ UNKNOWN OMAN’ describes the invisible line as the ‘Eastern Hajar Mountains meet the sea directly in an apparently unbroken line of precipitous cliffs, rising diaphanous and opalescent out of the pale blue waters of the Indian Ocean’. The crusted jagged chain starts from the North, the Jebel Akhdar or the ‘Green Mountains’ and its highest point, the Jebel Shams or the ‘Mountain of the Sun’ protecting the terraced fields and fruit orchards and then curving from the North West (Musandam) to South East (Ras al Haad) with Central Oman as its epicenter. The Arabs refer to this section as a ‘man’s spine’ and the flat lands of the Batina region (coastal plains) as the stomach or ‘bread basket of Oman’. The area to the west of the hills, the Dhahira, is the back bone while further down South the mountains of Dhofar have their own agenda turning into shades of green from June to September and presenting an awe-inspiring facet of Oman. The setting dominates the scenery and I missed an opportunity of capturing the purple hues on lens as I was not into photography then.

Muscat in Arabic means ‘falling place’ and seeing the propping up by the majestic burnished mountains, the blue-green waters, the rocky coast and the undulating sky-line of buildings and rolling clouds, the image is of a place vying for attention. Mountains aside, a few days in Muscat and ‘It is so familiar” refrain was constant till we hit upon the reason. It is so sub continental or Indian minus the cows and insensate traffic of Indian cities. In the 1800s Muscat was said to have one foot in Arabia and the other in India ‘with the suq or market dominated by enterprising Indian merchants’. In 1995, in addition to the Indian population, Oman was a potpourri of assorted smells and sounds of different nationalities making themselves at home and a year later I too joined in the chorus “Muscat just grows into you”.

Getting a driving license turned out to be a full-fledged ‘war game’ what with right hand driving, reversing through drums and slope test. My 10 years of driving were inconsequential as I failed once in the road test for a ‘fast turn’ or was it a ‘slow turn’. There were no dearth of advisors and collaborators-in-distress with ‘We told you so’, “you must always turn at the right time”, “check the inspector’s mood” or “I was lucky and managed in one go” the last making me feel a nincompoop. Still I was few notches better than an acquaintance who got her license after seven tries. To majority Indians, driving in Oman means following traffic rules, no cutting lanes or sneaking in through gaps and maintaining a particular speed, giving way etc.

With driving license safely tucked in wallet and a Toyota Camry as gift from husband, I was on the road dropping children to school, meeting friends over coffee or simply discovering Muscat and its twin, Muttrah. The connecting road between the new and old cities passes along a natural horseshoe-shaped cove with jutting rocks and cliffs guarded by the Portuguese forts, Jalali and Mirani, towards the Corniche flanked by British and Portuguese constructions and the quintessential Muttruh souq flaunting an Arabic ambiance of cobbled alleys and old housing.

Muscat harbor was described as the ‘most picturesque place in the East’ by Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India from 1898-1905 and in 1507 Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese sea farer on way to set base in Asia had described Muscat ‘…a large and very populous city….there are orchards, gardens and palm groves with pools for watering by means of wooden engines…..’ Later on he would ransack the city, burning and pillaging, destroying the Arab fleet and laying the foundation stone for Portuguese take over of the city. As for me the five years, 1995-2000, were years of discovery of a country shaped out of a rustic and vibrant topography where the ‘historical recitative whistles through the whitened bones of somnolent ruins.’*

*”There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” is a popular English language nursery rhyme.

* Henry Miller in REMEMBER TO REMEMBER

indra

Travel- Fantasy

Allahabad Rickshaw

A RICKSHAW JOURNEY. …An Introduction to an ongoing ‘Fantasy’.

‘These hauntings make up the invisible story of our lives, the shadow side of the resume, if you like.’ Pico Iyer in SUN AFTER DARK…..Flights into the Foreign.

A scene replays in memory, the year 1958 and father, holding on to marigold and rose garlands, waving from the door of the railway compartment, on way to Bombay (now Mumbai) to board the P&O liner* for England. Air travel was in nascent stage and any trip to the western world was by sea.

The railway platform had turned into personal fiefdom with friends, family, business associates wanting to be part of the epical send off. Father had been a popular and active member of Rotary Club, the Masonic Lodge, business associations and neighborhood committees, explaining the massive turnout at the open platform of Allahabad railway station. Another reason could be that apart from prominent and political families including the Nehru family, only a handful of Allahabad citizens had ventured to foreign shores. Decades later, in 1975 and in comparison to 1958, it was me and my eldest brother when I boarded Air India flight at New Delhi airport for my first journey to the USA. Going abroad had become a regular travel feature.

Father kept in touch with snail mail and picture postcards from ports of call sailing through the newly commissioned Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea with stopovers in Egypt, Gibraltar, Spain, Italy and France and breaking journey in England. The picture postcards addressed to me carried instructions to show them to the German Principal of my convent school, St. Mary’s Convent. I was a shy 6 year old and the very idea of waiting outside her office to share a personal letter was unthinkable.

He had returned after six months to a tumultuous welcome and for days our house turned into a community hall with an enthralled audience listening to his travel tales of ‘hand shake with Queen Elizabeth 11; witnessing a fox hunt and the musical bowl he had been presented with; about the spectacular Eiffel Tower (Paris)and the Coliseum (Rome); the mysterious Bavarian Forest, Vienna, Amsterdam, Geneva, Venice, Scotland, Edinburgh and other cities and monuments. The coveted items were the tape recorder, Swiss chocolates and watches, my German blonde doll rolling her blue eyes and saying ‘Ma’ whenever her stomach was pressed, a sky blue can-can dress that was one size large for me and I had refused to give it to my cousin, and other western apparel and gifts for me and my brothers. There were envious innuendos on my mother’s French chiffon saris, how they were a compensation for the six month absence and looking after a household of five children and equal number of hanger ons and helpers.

We all basked in the glory of father’s trip oblivious that this bug was being transferred to five siblings who would be mapping out their journeys, India centric trips and business ventures, to Australia, Cyprus, USA and Canada. We lost our father to cardiac failure (1960) before he could take our mother to America. Their bags packed, tickets and passports ready but he was destined for another journey.

The siblings did not let go of his dreams. The eldest and youngest brothers set off for Australia on completion of studies, to expand the family jewelry business, the second brother to the USA, Stanford University and World Bank to pursue higher studies and employment and third to George Washington University, USA and later on human rights missions to East Timor and other nations. I was not one to lag behind and kept afoot of my four brothers with Summer school in Stanford University, stays in Oman and Hong Kong, travels to USA, Canada and Asian countries including my own, India. The third generation continues to unravel the journey thread.

‘The Rickshaw Journey is about small steps to realization, confrontation and re discovery, journeys linked to the soil and mind. ‘. this is an introduction to a travel memoir in the writing…..

Noodle Trail

hong Kong
Some where in Sheung wan, Hong Kong

The surprising part is that I am not a food person but gastronomic interjections have always been lurking in the background. In the 1970s while in the midst of understanding the nuances of the Romantic poets P B Shelly, Keats and William Wordsworth ( for Bachelors at Allahabad University) I would willingly miss lectures to gormandize on Sweet & Sour soup followed by Chicken noodles twirled in Chicken sweet ‘n’ sour.

Indian-Chinese food, especially the three mentioned dishes, was the ultimate in food luxury, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were nowhere near Allahabad’s ambit, with restaurants and roadside food stalls were in business, forget the authenticity. Even our helper dreamt of returning to his native village in Bihar to open a noodle shop,even Maggie noodles would do and worked hard to invest in woks, ladles and packets of Maggi noodles. The ‘Genuine Fake’, as a salesperson on Nathan Road (Kowloon) would say, was gaining popularity.

Marriage and travels did not lessen the craving for Chinese food, in all its avatars, and my first choice in whichever part of India or world I would be in, would be noodles and Chilli Chicken or Sweet & Sour and second choice Indian Mughlai preparations. Our five-year stay (1995-2000) in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman was a diversion with Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Lebanese shawarma*, taking precedence.

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Dried fish boat, Aberdeen

In July 2008 I found my self winding down from Hong Kong International Airport to Kowloon. The lights and traffic could not wrap away the distinct aroma that trailed us on our walks in the malls, lanes and markets of the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. My initiation into the wet markets, discovered by chance, was lamentable and urbane in turns. Initially, the raw meat smell forced me to walk away from the forked hanging pigs, the bloated ducks, the flowing tanks of unknown fish, prawns, scallops, colored crabs, clams, oysters and carts of dried sea food and chicken claws. My curiosity over rode my olfactory senses, guiding me to the markets and lanes of Sai Kung, North Point ferry station, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau islands, Tai Po, to Hung Hom lanes and Yau Ma Tai food streets and food vendors.

On occasions food masqueraded as outings on the stony trails of Ng Tung Chai waterfalls scrunched between bare rocks and tropical vegetation on the northern slopes of the cone-shaped Tai Mo Shan in Kowloon; on tram rides to the Peak and its surrounding attractions; ferried us to Discovery Bay, Lamma, Lantau, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau, Tung Lung Chau (off Clearwater Bay) and Tap Mun the Grass Island on the northern part of Sai Kung ( would be asked whether I had tried “iceless” cold milk tea, sun-dried fish and boiled squid and shrimp); on the Buddhist path to Diamond Hill and the Nunnery, the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze); the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant in Aberdeen; Tai Ho, where I had gone to watch the Dragon Boat Race, famous for its gourmet delicacies the Loh Mai chee glutinous handmade rice balls stuffed with sesame and peanut paste or Cha Gwoh rice dumplings stuffed with mixture of Chinese herbs; Po Lin Monastery for its popular vegetarian fare and the concrete jungles of Central, Causeway Bay, Shueng Wan, Kowloon, Wan Chai for their pubs, cafeterias, fast evolving eateries and Michelin starred restaurants.

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Wedding feast in Taizho, China

The Chin-India cuisine was replaced by Cantonese, Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Szechuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang cuisine originating from different regions of China. The closest to Indian-Chinese is Szechuan, spicy and oily, though by now I was developing a taste for soup noodles and dim sums. In Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai I stuck to McDonald’s and KFC. The one time I tried traditional Chinese cuisine was a post wedding lunch at a village near Taizho situated south of Ningbo on the eastern coast of Zhejiang province, Mainland China. We had accompanied the groom’s friends and family to bring his wife from her parental home and were treated to a lavish wedding feast prepared by village cooks in the backyard. I had never tasted or seen so much exotic fish and would ask my friend the names every time a new dish was served.

My one grouse is that I can never walk into a Chinese food place on my own as the menu is mostly in Cantonese. Somehow learning languages has never been my forte and in six-years stay could manage ‘wai’ or Hello and that too because it is the most frequently used word. The goof up happened in Shanghai where I tried all possible actions, flapping wings, quacking, doodling to get across the ‘chicken’ word to the waitress. The girl, probably in a rush, as it was nearing closing time, came with our order that looked and smelled beefy. Our doubts confirmed by a young man had to be content with side veggies. Another impossible venture is using chopsticks as my fingers seem stuck in the ‘two left feet’ syndrome no matter what the encouragement or admonishment, ‘See…it is so simple..place it between thumb and fingers and voila the grain is in your mouth’. I wish it was so easy.

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Okonomiyaki in process

In  between there were trips to USA, Canada, Japan and I preferred to try local temptations than the five-star presentations. In Hiroshima it was the ‘Japanese Pizza’ the ‘Okonomiyaki’ a thin layer of batter and a generous amount of cabbage on top of yakisoba noodles. One can opt for toppings of oysters, squid and cheese with bonito flakes, green laver and okonomiyaki sauce and optional extras, mayonnaise, pickled ginger, and seaweed. We were seated at a counter facing the chef preparing the okonomiyaki on a large griddle and could see other eaters drooling as he speed-chopped, layered, topped and presented the precursor of a snack called ‘issen yōshoku’ or “one-cent Western meal”.

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Calgary Poutine

‘Poutine’ was another luck-in was in Calgary, Canada, on a cold, snowy day. ‘Poutine’ or simply piping hot crispy fries and cheese curd cut into pieces dunked in gravy of choice, to meld in a unique flavor. Initially, I was hesitant in trying it out but then the first few bites had me scrapping till last bite.

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You cannot have enough of them…fish

Every city has its own aroma, sometimes familiar, and six years down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’, in words of Betty Mullard* has become more than a city to explore, it has become a way of life via the gourmet trail.

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shawarma

* Kowloon Tong. A novel of Hong Kong by Paul Theroux

Weekly Photo Challenge- Green- Renewal and Harmony

Putting together ‘green’ from my photo travels.

Zhujiajiao, the ancient water town near Shanghai.  Known for Ming and Qing dynasty bridges.

High Line, New York

Gion, Kyoto

Shakespeare Garden, Botanical garden, Brooklyn

NEW DELHI and GURGAON: I Thought I Knew My Cities.

Delhi is celebrating 100 years of its existence as the capital city of India and shades of its glorious past squint through heritage sites and dilapidated pockets of livelihood. The long journey of transformation from collective villages into a metropolis has been traumatic, uneventful, deceitful, apathetic, joyful, resentful.

Delhi is my adopted city, married here, and Allahabad my birth city and school holidays meant visits to my mother’s ancestral home in one of the lanes of Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. My great-grandfather had seven sons and one daughter and the wise old man refused to build property because he did not want his sons to fight over bricks and mortar. I remember the rented ‘haveli’ or mansion with its shadowless rooms, the ‘baithak’ or lounge with a massive mattress, where great-grandfather reportedly spent hours puffing on his hookah, and the labyrinth of passages for the children to run around. I heard stories from my mother and her cousins of how they would sneak out to purchase candy from street-hawkers when great-grandfather had his afternoon nap. The visits also meant gorging on jalebis* at the Dariba, fruit chaat* from the vendor in front of State Bank building and parathas* from the Paratha gali or lane.

New Delhi- Connaught Place

I made New Delhi my home, after marriage, and similar to most dwellers became immune to the dirt and squalor blaming it on the government and the people trooping from adjoining cities and villages. I would weave my way through traffic stopping at red lights by choice and accepting noise pollution, power outages and water shortage as addendum of daily living.

The equation changed when we returned after five years in Oman, 2000, and I viewed Delhi from an ‘outsider’ perception. The ‘India Shining’ slogan rang hollow against the squalor, the lounging cows blocking roads and traffic, the daily workers living on roadsides and using the vacant plots as toilets, the women beggars with scrawny infants hanging onto their hips, child beggars and the ‘acceptance’ attitude of the public. The list was endless little realizing that I was voicing ‘tourist’ views when I too was to blame for the apathetic state of affairs.

The Gurgaon entrance

In 2006 we moved to Gurgaon, 15 miles south of New Delhi, hoping for a slice of the ‘millennium’ bonanza. My first impression of the ‘Millennium’ city was that ‘it is haphazardly crowded’ with nearly 26 shopping malls showcasing major world brands, golf courses, private clubs, movie theaters, pubs and bars, luxury apartments, palatial villas, slums and all-glass commercial hubs displaying world’s top corporations. The city touted as the symbol of rising India slipped somewhere along the line and problems that were once the bane of Delhi haunt the new city and its residents: The unreliable power supply (generator power is the main power supply), missing pavements and sidewalks, vacant lots converted into garbage disposal sites, pot holed roads and lanes, the newer overcrowded Metro stations still in incomplete stage, rickshaw queues and traffic snarls.

still developing

On a recent visit to Delhi/Gurgaon from Hong Kong, our residence since 2008, I was driving from Gurgaon to Delhi on the main connector M.G. Road with its demolished landmarks (commercial buildings demolished when the Municipal Corporation decided they were illegal) and the crawling traffic made me chant prayers to keep my cool. For a few minutes it worked but I soon gave up all pretence of civility and for rest of the one hour drive I was mouthing expletives at passing motorists and motor cyclists. There is still no lane or signal concept and before you can say ‘red’ a car zooms past oblivious of your rear view mirror. It is an ordeal or an adventure, whichever way one looks at it, though I still would not trade it for a monotonous drive I experienced commuting from San Jose to San Francisco where one is in danger of dozing off.

The 2011 Anna Hazare movement against corruption captured the collective imagination of the country in different ways. Even when the Anna fast was going on and streets crowded with sympathizers, an employee of the electricity sub station in my block, in Gurgaon, wanted to know whether I was living in a bungalow or an apartment. I had gone to register a meter fault and was without electricity for four hours. He showed up around 6 p.m.,least apologetic about the inconvenience though sorry for missing out on ‘pocket money’ because by then I had called a private electrician to repair the meter.  A Catch-22 situation..be damned if you give and be damned if you don’t.

The Gurgaon and Delhi refurbishings are still on, and hopefully, someday the cities would not remind me of village belles stepping out of their comfort zones with mismatched accessories.

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jalebi

* http://tarladalal.com/Fruit-Chaat

* Stuffed Indian flat bread