Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Box Hill

No more 4-car garages, no more unlimited irrigation of Malaysian tropical plants with desalinated water in the heat of the afternoon. Maa salaame Muscat.

Now I'm in Oz, the land of fires, droughts, and floods. Where in Melbourne the water reservoir is at a fantastic 34% level. Where you are only supposed to have 4 minute showers, and signs on the suburban streets around my aunt's house proudly proclaim that they are watered with reclaimed or tank water.

I'm in Box Hill, a western suburb with its own "enlarged map" in the Melways map book - so it must have some significance. Box Hill is also a place in Surrey, England - where all of Emma's plans fell through in Jane Austen's book. I'm not sure if I have any plans just now except to wake up before 1pm and exercise a bit. My aunt's border looked at me in a certain way when I said that I wanted to walk in a park rather than see the city centre today.

Specifically, I'm at an internet "cafe". More like an internet hall. It's completely reminiscent of the one I used in Urumqi, China - just a small version. There's about 40 computers packed efficiently here, and everyone (except me) is an Asian male, most Mandarin-speaking. Everyone is chatting, it is pretty lively in here. My Windows is a Chinese version, and the language input is some version of Chinese. It's an instant pop quiz in terms of remembering the short cuts for "new window" or "new tab".

Box Hill is, in my eyes, a total success in terms of suburban town planning. It's changed quite a bit in the past 5 years. It seemed like it used to be Cantonese - now it's quite Mandarin. The centre is charged with a subway train station and a shopping centre, with a high-quality Asian version of Granville Island Market. It has a lot of people around, a lot of small restaurants and outdoor places to enjoy bubble tea, and a life up to 2am.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Just came back from the interior. G. and I went down to a place called Sinaw. First breakfast at what seemed to be the only place there. I had a most delicious fruit juice cocktail, we each had scrambled eggs, Indian chai, and Indian bread. Then we took off to the souq, which does not look like much as the building is 30 years old, but the souq is in fact old. Being on the edge of the desert, it is close to all the Bedu. In one month all the Bedu families and their camels will set up there for the summer in palm leaf shelters, and avoid the strong summer winds along the coast.

We spent about 2 hours at a knife shop, getting custom knives made for the whole of 1 OMR each. The steel is from old car parts, C4 he calls it. We spend some time later exploring Old Sinaw, which looks like an uninhabited Malian mud-brick village. And just now, having come back to Muscat, we see a friendly giant "Rusland" or Antonov 224 fly overhead, on its way to Afghanistan. Dinner tonight will be take-away from the Royal Flight canteen on the roof.

We've done all sorts of things after he's come back from work, and able to take me out of the compound. All from taking me to the City Centre Mall and Beit Jubayr, to a fish dinner in Al Maida (a Yemani restaurant) surrounded by cats, to fancy drinks at Chedi Muscat, where we saw the Belgium top ranked tennis player walk by (look, that's Kim!). I have to admit I don't know her, but anyways, now I am illuminated.

Tomorrow on the plane to Melbourne, to visit family mostly but also a friend I met in Damascus. Via Qatar Airways which is a treat. On the way here it was only 10% full - I've never seen an airplane so devoid of people and the food and drinks service so quick. Will see how it is to Melbourne. The films are good - they have current foreign films so I am happily catching up with the offerings of contemporary Danish cinematography.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Day 2 here. Just back from an evening drive.

G. has been introducing me to the wonders of Muscat. A place designed for the car, it's where petrol's free (just have to pay a service charge), cars go at top speed, new roads are being built all the time, and all things go towards making Oman to having the largest ecological footprint in the world.

We pass by 8 storey concrete prefabs started 2 months ago - the Indian slavery here is efficient. We pass by a house built for "His Excellency" or for "His Highness" - there are many of these compounds. In front of us - and we are almost always on the road - are cars with special licence plates indicating that the driver is part of the Royal Palace. Untouchable.

We go by the former Royal Palace, now the Guest Palace. 2000 acres.

G. tells me about the facades of this city and culture. Sultan Qaboos didn't like how the shops looked on the street leading up to the Guest Palace, so he had a facade wall built to cover them up.

He tells me about the enormous convoys of 3000 people - 1,200 cars - that go into the desert, accompanying the Sultan when he wants to set up camp.

Huge planes, the largest in the world, fly every two hours above us, carrying some kind of something from Sudan or Afghanistan or Iraq. Oman is neutral, but the British and the Americans have some presence here.

Lots of road stories...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lazy in Lattakia

I meet Sam, a Syrian-Canadian - the first I've met - at the Hotel lobby in Lattakia. Here for a few months doing research, as part of his medical studies in Toronto. I had just come back from an unfruitful search for a hair salon for women. Islam has a thing with women's hair, making it difficult to see women's hair being cut, and thereby hair salons for women as they are never on the first floor but on the second. Sam tells me there is a great hair salon on the way to where he lives in the centre of town, so we go off, and he drops me off at the ground floor.

I go up the stairs. Natural light shows me the way. On the second floor, there is less natural light, or any light for that matter. It's quite dark in fact. I barely make out "Salon" lettering on a wall down the corridor. I try to be hopeful, as Sam tells me this place is always open. I peer in an open doorway. Six people sit in a circle in darkness, in what seems to be the salon entry.

Marhaba? I say with a definite question mark at the end. Can I get a haircut, is this place open? They sort of barely make out that it is a very Asian-looking ajnabeeya in the doorway, and, given the power outage, the one who becomes my stylist couldn't help but laugh given the circumstances. Yes I say, this ajnabeeya would like a haircut if possible. And eventually I get a very good one, and feel that some weight has been lifted, just in time for the heat of Muscat next week.

Lattakia has been a good place to not do an awful lot, and bask in the enormous pleasure of speaking simple Arabic to very friendly people. The city to its advantage lacks the "drama" that can sometimes discolour the tourist-local relationship in Damascus. It's very down-to-earth here. An authentic welcomeness in their disinterest, and thereby lack of outright distinction between the qualities between a local and tourist.

The hotel I am at has a Tintin-theme to it, and I've perused through about 4 Tintin books in French, English, and Danish. I've met more Canadians here than in Damascus. Tomorrow we are off to Tartus, insha'allah, about an hour south by bus. Grey and overcast today, much a la Vancouver - but yesterday we had a glorious sunny day, and felt the salt-sea breezes of the Mediterranean waft by our cheeks.