Monday, 27 April 2009

Yucca triumphant

In the last few weeks the Yucca on the edge of our property has been flowering magnificently. This must be a fairly old plant as it now has several trunks and fills a large section of the narrow strip between our fence and the lane.
It was even larger before we removed a couple of trunks whose leaves were proving a menace to anyone using our footpath down the side of the house.

Monday, 20 April 2009

March march

Not so much a march as a meander, this month's bushwalk took us along a creek that the 26-year-old Charles Darwin followed when he spent time in the Blue Mountains during the voyage of the Beagle. Our leaders had chosen this particular route in honour of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth
Little has changed since he made the trek, other than the trail being better groomed and signposted.

We took a break where the creek flowed over a large rock...

...and into sandy pools whose limpid surface reflected the sunny sky.

Eventually, we arrived at the cliff edge where the water dropped abruptly out of sight. At the same spot, Darwin recorded in his notebook: "...suddenly & without any preparation, through the trees which border the pathway, an immense gulf is seen...The class of view was to me quite novel & certainly magnificent."

There is a sturdy fence at this point with the following warning attached to it:

Shortly afterwards, we came to a vantage point where we could see for ourselves the dramatic cascade, tumbling over the "most stupendous cliffs I have ever seen", as Darwin described them.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Ras al Kaimah: Farewell

An easy morning, followed by lunch with Sarah Jane's boss, Kaye, at the Hilton buffet. The buffet was excellent and so was the conversation, ranging over Emirati customs, financial situation, education, etc.

The hotel's clientele were less attractive: Brits and Europeans seeking the sun insulated from life outside the resort, mostly middle-aged, overweight and skimpily dressed, showing a good deal of sagging, sunburnt flesh.

After lunch we walked over to the sailing club that Sarah Jane has joined in order to be able to swim and manoeuver small boats around without the restrictions of the Emirati dress code. By contrast with the five-star Hilton's grand terraces and swimming pool, the sailing club's amenities consist of a couple of shabby buildings, one the boathouse, the other a bar. Outside, on a concrete terrace fronting the modest beach, an assortment of cheery, young to middle-aged expats lounge at chairs and tables under palm-thatched umbrellas. We gathered up the bits to rig one of the club's lasers and spent an hour inexpertly sailing it up and down the calm waters inside the breakwater watched by the gang under the umbrellas. The camera was safely back at the apartment; just as well since we all got rather wet.

We had to be up at 5 am. for the drive to the airport at Dubai, so it was an early night, although there was time first for a cuddle with the kittens whose mum shrewdly adopted Sarah Jane just before giving birth.

In the morning, after an hour's drive to reach the airport, we said goodbye to our favourite daughter, who had to drive back to RAK to teach a class.
It was a crowded, uncomfortable flight as far as Bangkok, but then, mercifully, about half the passengers disembarked. With lots of empty seats, we had a chance to stretch out on the Sydney leg. Nevertheless, we were still tired as we boarded the train back home to Katoomba in what would have been the small hours of the morning back in Ras al Kaimah.

Ras al Kaimah: Day trip to Oman

The emirate of Ras al Kaimah divides the sultanate of Oman in two. We set out for the smaller piece of Oman north of RAK, travelling along the west coast of the promontory that juts north into the Straits of Hormuz.
Crossing the border was an expensive and complicated procedure, involving obtaining documents and paying a goodly sum to both sets of officials. At least, thanks perhaps to our circumspect dress, we were processed quite swiftly and smoothly. Other tourists - women in low-cut sundresses, men in shorts - were having a more prolonged wait.

The road ran on a narrow strip of flat land wedged between the craggy grey mountains and the brilliant azure sea.

From time to time we passed clusters of walled and gated houses, an occasional block of shops and services, and many date palm plantations enclosed by high walls.
In small coves, fishing boats were drawn up on the sandy shore.

We stopped at the Golden Tulip resort for a cup of coffee on the terrace. Acres of tinted glass gave us the opportunity for mirror shots of the three of us.

At Kasab, our destination and the largest town on our route, we spent an interesting hour in the old fort, which has been turned into a museum depicting traditional village life.

Its courtyard contained date palms...

...and a display of old boats, including this one with a camel figurehead.

A cheerful party of schoolchildren in the charge of several black-clad women teachers greeted us with cries of "Hello" and much excitement.

In one of the rooms, we came across a manuscript listing twenty principles of Islam, which seemed very reasonable and responsible tenets to live by. In fact, many would be apt for any denizen of the twenty-first century, regardless of faith.

The sign outside the public conveniences answered a question of how to explain it in pictograms to a population where males and females wear much the same cut of clothing.

After leaving the fort, we found a bit of shade under a date palm to eat our sandwiches, watched by a curious but shy local resident, and a goat.

We wandered around the streets of Khasab for a while, admiring the gates enclosing every house. These are metal with often elegant designs of geometric shapes: rectangles, diamonds and circles. Some have been painted bright blue, some white; all are rusting attractively in the salty air.

Sarah Jane has some good images of other aspects of Khasab and Oman (as well as of our visit to RAK) on her Flickr site.

It had been our intention to hire a dhow for a short sea trip, hoping to see some of the dolphins and turtles that abound in these waters, but only speedboats are available for less than half a day, so our only turtle sighting will remain the dead one washed up on the beach near Sarah Jane's home in RAK.

Dinner back in Ras al Kaimah at a Lebanese restaurant. Tomorrow will be our last day.

Friday, 10 April 2009

RAK: Bargaining for a carpet

Sarah Jane wanted to buy a carpet for her apartment so on Saturday we drove for what seemed like ages to the Friday Night Market (which, despite its name, is open every evening). It's a two-lane stretch of road, lined on both sides with open-fronted shops selling fruit and vegetables, assorted trinkets, carpets and plants.

Of course, we had to look at a large selection of rugs, before getting down to the serious business of bargaining.

Rejecting the modern designs hanging on the walls as well as, reluctantly, some beautiful wool kilims, we inspected a number of silk carpets in traditional designs. The negotiations were conducted in a friendly way, but we were rather taken aback when the seller suddenly demanded an extra amount "to pay my helper". Sarah Jane held firm to the agreed-upon price, however, which we later agreed was probably already more than a local would pay.

In the end, everyone was happy.

RAK (continued)

On our first evening, Sarah Jane took us to the local fish market, where heaps of gleaming silver, red, and blue fish, octopi, and assorted other sea creatures lay on slabs surrounded by a throng of purchasers. Not knowing many of the species on offer, we chose a kingfish and took it across the road to a large room where men with sharp knives were ready to decapitate, gut, fillet, chop or anything else you might desire. Our man was surprised that we did not want the backbone and set it aside for himself.

The following morning, Michael got up early and strolled out to the nearby harbour, where the fishing boats were tied up.

At lunch time, we took some sandwiches out to a secluded hilltop overlooking the turquoise sea.

Later, as the sun was sinking, we drove out to Wadi Bih to be awed by the creased mountains rising steeply out of the wadi (valley) floor, which was flat as a tabletop and dotted with thorn trees.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Ras al Kaimah (cont.)

In RAK, women out in public wear the long black robe called "abbaya", with a black headscarf and in many cases a veil over the face as well. Most of these garments are made of black polyester which seemed to us a hot option for a country where summer temperatures hover between 40 - 50ÂșC. By contrast, the men wear thin, white cotton and look much more comfortable. We took no photos of women as this is liable to cause problems, but were amused to note that younger women had more figure-fitting abbayas, and that embroidered sleeves were a popular way for women to distinguish their clothing from everyone else's.

Fortunately, non-Emiratis are not expected to adopt this mode of dress; in fact it's discouraged. However, foreign women with bare arms and legs and low necklines are frowned upon, and unlikely to receive prompt service in offices and shops. Sarah Jane and I carried shawls with us to cover our arms when we were not in the car or in one of the resort hotels where a cruise-ship atmosphere and skimpy clothing was the norm. We stopped for a drink in one of these resorts, pausing to admire the Maserati parked in the forecourt,

before settling on the terrace with a view over the swimming pool to the sea.

RAK is developing so fast that the terrain is littered with new mansions for the newly rich, most of them sitting starkly on the desert floor, surrounded by high walls to protect the female occupants from the view of passers-by.

Near the houses above, we saw many shrubs with soft, grey leaves and small but beautiful purple and white flowers. Thanks to my daughter's colleague, Barbara, I now know these to be Calotropis procera, also known as Giant Milkweed.

Here's a good description of its habits and uses from an internet site:

Originally from warm parts of Africa and Asia, this is now pantropical and in ecological terms is regarded as an indicator of overgrazed land. I have seen it growing extensively in Oman (Arabia), being one of the few plants that goats and camels won't eat, and also in Antigua, in habitats degraded first by sugar cane cultivation and now by cattle and goats.

There are no doubt many other places in the world where giant milkweed abounds. It may be common and widespread but it is a magnificent shrub, reaching 10 feet tall, with large silver-green leaves, clusters of waxy purple-tipped flowers, and inflated pale green seed pods. The pods split open when ripe to release silk-tufted seed to the wind. The latex is poisonous, containing digitalis-like compounds that affect the heart, and is used to make arrow poison. Medicinally, the acrid sap latex is used to treat boils, infected wounds and other skin problems in people, and to treat parasitic skin infestations in animals. It also yields ash for making gunpowder, and extremely strong fiber.

– Deni Bown, Promising Plants Presentation, 2003

Monday, 6 April 2009

Ras al Kaimah: Day 1

On our first day in RAK, Sarah Jane took us out to the sand dunes. These huge red hills of shifting sand are popular with the local aimless youth who tear up and down them in their four-wheel-drives or ATVs - just hours of fun and games!

We parked at the bottom where the road ended and climbed up to get a bird's-eye view.

As we drove back to town, we had to slow for a group of camels crossing the road. The camels in RAK are mainly bred for racing, and are more slender, thoroughbred animals than the big, rangy beasts we saw pulling carts in India.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

India to Ras al Kaimah

At Indira Gandhi Airport, it's chaos. There's no orderly boarding protocol, everyone charges into the plane at once. Consequently there was a long queue towards the door. Behind us on the ramp were five Emirati men in traditional long white tunics and skullcaps, one of them bearing a distinct resemblance to a young Osama bin Laden. I eavesdropped nervously on their conversation, which was being conducted in a fluent mix of Arabic and English. They were discussing a business colleague - a nice guy but incompetent.
"So if we fire him," said one, "How much will it cost us?"

"Oh, maybe ten grand," said another.

"OK, let's do it!"

It was a only three-hour flight from Delhi to Dubai, unremarkable except for the skill of our pilot in taking off and landing our Boeing-777. He accomplished this so smoothly that, even though I was looking out of the window, I could not pinpoint the moment at which the plane made contact with the ground.

As we approached the Emirates, the desert below looked like the top of a well-browned loaf sprinkled with poppy-seeds.

White cubes of buildings reflected the sun as we descended towards the city.

With only carry-on baggage were quickly through customs and immigration and emerged to find the lovely daughter waiting for us, with a shawl for me in case I'd neglected to wear a suitably modest top. (I hadn't)

India: Nawalgarh to Delhi

Our journey to Delhi begins badly. Up before dawn to catch a bus leaving at 5:40 am, we arrive at the stop to see it pulling away. The timetable we consulted is for winter and the brand-new one for spring has moved the departure time to 5:20am! On the positive side, this allows us to return to the pension and have one more delicious breakfast of honeyed yoghurt, and delicious sour orange marmalade on fresh home-made bread.
We are in good time for the next bus at 9:20am, buying our tickets from the minimalist kiosk and retreating from the now-bright sun into the bare concrete waiting area behind.

Now wise in the ways of bus travel, we anticipate the arrival of our bus and are at the roadside ready to jostle with others to board the lumbering old behemoth when it pulls up. With two seats on the near side and another three across the aisle, it feels as wide as an airplane.

Away we go through the wakening town, past children in neat uniforms heading for school and donkey carts heading for market.

For most of the 7-hour journey the roads are relatively good, and we are entertained by the assortment of people boarding and leaving the bus at numerous small towns along the way.

Close to Delhi, at a toll booth, a young man leaps aboard with a bag of plastic tablecloths in cellophane wrappers, and entertains us with his spiel. First he slams a packaged cloth against the roof a few times to gain our attention.Talking all the time in Hindi, he whips it out of the cellophane and, with a couple of sharp snaps of the wrists, flicks it open to reveal a lurid floral pattern. He runs a hand over each side, scrunches it up in a ball, wrings it out, cracks it in the air again and (clearly) asks us to admire how smoothly it unfurls. When he offers an array of patterns, someone at the back goes for the flowered one, and a man up at the front opts for a map of the world in neon pink, blue and yellow. The salesman then packs up his wares and calmly seats himself for the rest of the ride into the city.

We are going to a pension near the airport and, with the help of a university student who is sitting across the aisle, manage to leap off at a median strip on the Delhi ring road while the bus heads on towards the station on the other side of town.

Hailing an auto-rickshaw, we all three pile in the back. After we drop off our friend en route, we manage to miss the turn-off to our destination. Nothing daunted, our driver turns back directly into several lanes of oncoming traffic to retrace his route. Fortunately, it's only about 50 metres back!

Chhoti Haveli is up a flight of steps in one of New Delhi's many gated complexes. Its three suites are simply but nicely furnished, with soft towels and American fixtures in the bathroom. Surinder, the owner, is a beautiful woman who has spent 20 years working in the U.S. with her husband. When they returned to India, she gave up her job as an engineer to run this B and B.

In the early evening, we set out for Dili Haat, the government-run crafts complex, where we plan to have dinner and where I want to buy a couple of pashmina shawls to take home. Though sorely tempted by a true Kasmiri pashmina made only from the throat hair of the goat, I settle for two silk and wool ones in shimmering blue and deep red.

The following morning, as we set out for the airport in a car deftly organised by our hostess, we appreciate a parting message on the rear window of the vehicle in front.

We have had a crowded, dusty, aromatic two weeks of travelling through this vigorous country inhabited by cheerful, curious, endlessly patient and courteous, beautiful people. Would we go back for more? Absolutely!

Friday, 3 April 2009

India: Nawalgarh

At Nawalgarh we could have chosen to stay in the pristine and secluded Apu Dhani, an organic farm with accommodation in traditional thatched huts,

but we prefer to be right in town and have chosen instead the Ramesh Jangid Tourist Pension also owned by the family who run the farm. It doesn't look very prepossessing from the road,

but there are great views from the roof, both into the streets below,

and more distant as Michael's sketches on his website show.

Furthermore, our room is delightful - spacious, airy, and beautifully decorated with murals done by local artisans. The artisans are more often employed in restoration work (see below) but from time to time, when money is available, are invited to embellish these blank walls with work of their own design.

Ramesh Jangid's son, Rajesh, and his family who run the pension are charming, helpful, and, with his father, dedicated to preserving the historic mansions of their region, Shekhawati, which once lay in the path of the old Silk Road. With the coming of the railway and roads that bypassed Nawalgarh for more direct routes, rich merchants who had built their lavish havelis along its winding streets moved away to Calcutta or Mumbai, leaving their homes with caretakers or simply abandoned. In recent years, the walls of many of the havelis have been defaced by posters and graffiti, or broken up to accommodate shopfronts. Weather has also been an enemy of the gilding and natural dyes, which are fading and flaking under the onslaught of sun and rain.

Yet it is still possible to wander the streets and deserted courtyards, and marvel at the skill of artists who decorated every surface with flowers, birds, animals, religious figures and local life, including some Edwardian English figures, cars and locomotives.

It is these murals that the Jangid family are trying to preserve before it is too late. They have a website, which records their projects and progress: Friends of Shekhawati.

Progress has been slow. If more tourists come to stay in this area, rather than drive through with the windows rolled up and the air-conditioning running, as many now do, the money they bring with them may save the town. Alternatively, perhaps they just need one sympathetic and wealthy investor.

By contrast with the melancholy and deserted havelis, the narrow streets in the centre of town are crowded with cows, shoppers,

and rickety stalls with makeshift awnings.

In one corner, where the remains of the old fort are barely visible above a thriving fruit and vegetable market...

...we climb a narrow staircase, pass through a room where three schoolchildren are curled up on a bed doing their homework, and on payment of a few rupees are shown into the Sheesh Mahal, a windowless circular room that is all that left of the former palace. Thanks to the darkness in which it is normally languishing, the remarkable frescoes on its walls and celing have retained much more of their colour than the ones we have seen in the surrounding mansions. Unlike other frescoes we have seen, these ones depict with considerable accuracy street maps of Nawalgarh...

and of old Jaipur,

as well as some lovely scenes of horses, camels and elephants marching into battle,

and a doe-eyed maiden with a doe.

When we emerge into the bright sunlight, we encounter a small procession blocking one of the main arteries into town.

On both sides of it a jam of gaily-decorated autorickshaws, bikes, motorbikes, and donkey carts waits patiently to get on their way. Once through the bottleneck, it's back to noisy horns, exhausts belching black smoke, grinding gears. Only the tiny donkeys with their impossible loads are quiet, clip-clopping daintily over the ruts and potholes.

Halfway back to the peace and seclusion of our room, we seek temporary respite in a park of well-clipped hedges, children's playgrounds, a statue of Gandhi, and a magnificent white bougainvillea.