01.11.2016 - 08.11.2016
Tuesday, 1 November – Monday, 7 November
I’ve decided to change up the blog for my Middle East sojourn; rather than blogging about each day, I’ll blog about each country. My stay in each country was brief, so I think this is the best way to capture everything that happened.
I arrived in Muscat around 04:00 and, after clearing customs, I went out to find the driver the hotel had sent over to collect me from the airport. There were several drivers waiting with their call boards, but none with my name. I walked around for quite a while and exchanged some money, but still my driver did not show. Finally, one of the other drivers asked me where I was heading; he then got out his phone and called the hotel! I hadn’t asked for any assistance; he just did it on his own and I was very grateful to him. After speaking with the hotel, I agreed that it would be best to just take a taxi (which was just slightly more expensive than the hotel shuttle).
Upon arrival at the hotel, I managed to check in early; the room was massive, larger than my first apartment! I had a separate bedroom and living area, with a kitchen as well. After the camping in Africa, it was a welcome bit of luxury (THIS was a luxury tour now!). I relaxed in the room for a little while, showered and eventually got ready to head out into the city.
I had no definite plans for the day, so I set off to wander around the city. My hotel was rather far from most things; instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk. Yes, walk… in Oman. The heat was miserable and I was soon sweating profusely. However, I didn’t let it deter me and, after about an hour, I arrived at a rather nice hookah (shisha) lounge. I’d read up on where some good lounges were located and decided to give it a try.
The lounge was very nice, tucked away in the corner of an alley – not a place one would easily find without knowing about it! The shisha was very nice and smooth; I had an iced mocha to go with it before eventually ordering some food (a wrap with lamb). I spent the time reading; I had finished “Atlas Shrugged” a couple days before leaving Africa and had started in on Richard Nixon’s autobiography; I am amazed at how engrossing the book is!
Finally, after spending a few hours at the hookah lounge, I walked back to the hotel. I stopped at a local grocery store to get some snacks and ice cream, which I needed after the long walk back.
The next day I planned to take the Big Bus Tour of the city; this tour is a hop on/off type of tour with recorded narration as the bus drives around the city. My hotel was rather far from any pickup location, so I got up early and walked the 90 minutes there. On the way I passed several embassies and had the “delight” of having to run across several rather busy roads (a bit like the game Frogger). The pickup location was in a shopping center right on the beach. After snapping some photos, I went to Starbucks to cool off before starting the tour.
The tour itself was quite good; the buses run every hour and there are a total of 10 stops where you can get on and off at. The tour covered the majority of the city and the major highlights.
Given the bus schedule, I couldn’t get off at each location (and some stops weren’t worth exploring. I did get out and walk around at the royal palace though. I spent the hour wandering around the streets and taking numerous photos of the palace. It is a beautiful building!
I next stopped at the souq, but, to my disappointment, most of it was closed (I had forgotten that the shops close for several hours in the afternoon). I walked along the waterfront for a little bit and then sat down at a café to have some lunch. I ordered a milkshake, which was enormous, and a pita with hummus and lamb meat.
I took the bus back over to where I began the tour. When I arrived I opted to take a taxi back to my hotel, rather than walk. Thankfully there were several taxis waiting in the area and I managed to get one for a pretty cheap rate. I spent the rest of the evening at the hotel, getting ready to head out to Kuwait the next day.
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT
My flights to Kuwait were short and uneventful; I arrived to my hotel just after noon. My original plans had been to spend two days in Kuwait, flying to Bahrain late on the night of the second day; unfortunately, that flight had been moved to the morning, which left me just the one day to explore Kuwait.
I set off to walk around the city, thankful that the heat was not as intense as Muscat. I intended on visiting the Kuwait Towers, but the day was quite hazy and I would have seen nothing from the observation deck, so I opted to skip visiting.
I walked through the city, marveling at the various buildings and their unique architecture; one thing you can always feel in the Middle East is the wealth of the area.
I made my way to the waterfront, where I spent some time enjoying the view. There were several stray cats in the area as well; they would gather under the bench of anyone that had food.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring more of the city. I was really impressed by the amazing architecture of the city.
That night I decided to head out and explore some more, intending to find another shisha lounge. Having failed to find one, I walked over to Starbucks to relax and read. The barista at Starbucks was quite clearly gay and started to flirt with me, check me out, etc; when I gave my name for my order, he said that it was such a beautiful name. Several times while I was sitting there reading, I would look around and catch him looking at me and smiling. When I left, I walked by the drive through area and I suddenly heard his voice “Have a good night sir – thanks for coming in!” He’d gotten on the drive through speaker to say goodbye – and I knew he was talking to me because there were no cars or other people around. It was rather flattering; sadly he was not my type.
My flight from Kuwait to Bahrain got me in around 11:00; I was through the border controls and at the hotel by noon. This hotel had a free airport shuttle, which was quite handy. Being such a small city, I had only planned to spend one full day there, but the flight changes gave me an extra afternoon to spend in the city.
I located a well-reviewed shisha lounge nearby and walked over, passing by the Grand Mosque and one of the royal palaces on the way. This shisha lounge was my favorite of the trip; it was full of locals (with a few other foreigners), the staff was friendly; the shisha and food were outstanding! I ordered some Arabian dish with lamb meat in it (I don’t recall the name of the dish); I ate every bite though, it was delicious!
The next day I planned to walk around and explore the city. My first stop was the Grand Mosque, which had been closed to visitors the day before as it was a Friday. The mosque arranges guided tours for foreigners and non-Muslims – for free too. My guide spoke excellent English (he had spent several years in the USA, working in a training exchange program with the Coast Guard). The tours usually last 20 or 30 minutes; we spent 3.5 hours together!
We started out in the main courtyard. The land the mosque was built on was reclaimed land and they had to *import* sand from Saudi Arabia to do the reclamation. Yes, a country in the Middle East had to actually import sand! During his talk, the call to worship rang out and he said that we could go in to watch. I was given a seat at the back and my guide went to worship. It was very interesting to get to observe them worship, having only seen videos on the news or online.
The “call to prayer” that rings out five times a day is based on the position of the sun in the sky; Muslims must find time (around 10minutes) during each time period to do their worship. It isn’t a true call to prayer though; as my guide explained, no one can tell you when to pray or how often to pray; the call that goes out five times a day is to summon the people to worship (or salah/salat), which is different from praying, which can be done at any time and as often as desired.
One person leads the salah, guiding the group gathered through the various protestations. This person is called the “imam” and it can be anyone who happens to be the first to arrive, though the position is usually granted to one of the elders who has gathered, allowing them to set the pace that best fits their abilities. This concept of the imam, which my guide said literally means “the person at the front,” was entirely new to me; I thought there was one designated person who did it all the time.
In addition, during Friday worship, there is a brief sermon that is given out between the time that the noon call goes out and when the salah actually begins (usually a 20-30 minute window). The person giving the sermon changes each week and anyone from the community is allowed to speak. In Bahrain, a person who wishes to speak must submit their topic and material to the state ministry; once approved, they are put on the schedule. People can question and discuss the subject with the speaker as well, so he must be able to defend what he says.
One of the things that really struck me as we talked was the true sense of community that came through with the various beliefs and practices. The community is central and emphasized over and over. The change of imams and speakers on Fridays was a great example of this: everyone can participate, not just a few religious leaders.
My guide spoke a lot about their beliefs that Muslims will respect you as a human being and that they cannot force you to be a believer; to be a true Muslim (or believed of any religion) requires sincerity, which only you yourself can truly know. We talked for hours about the beliefs, tenants, and perceptions of Muslims around the world. I think he realized that he was talking to a sympathetic ear; I didn’t express my atheism, but I did make it clear that I don’t think Muslims are evil by any means. We talked about the extremism that exists in every religion, as well as the similarities between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (in my opinion, they’re all basically the same – they worship the same god!).
While we were walking around the women’s balcony, we walked by an area set aside for various educational courses. Without missing a beat, he said “And that’s where we teach them to hate Americans and build bombs, of course.” We both burst out laughing and our laughter echoed throughout the mosque.
Before we knew it, the call for afternoon salah was going out! We made our way back downstairs to gather our shoes and head out. Before leaving, he gave me some delicious date cookies (or biscuits, for any British reading this…), along with some juice. As a final gift, he wrote out my name in Arabic calligraphy, which I enjoyed. He told me that my name in Arabic (or the name that most closely matches ‘Ryan’ - Rayyaan) is the name for one of the gates of heaven. This particular gate is reserved for those who closely observed fasting during Ramadan.
After leaving the mosque I found my mood quite uplifted and I was very happy. I walked around to take some pictures of the mosque and then meandered through the city a bit more. I had to be back at the hotel by 16:00 to check out; my flight to Qatar was at 22:00 that night. I had spent so much time at the mosque that I didn’t get to full explore the city, but I had an outstanding time chatting with my guide that I didn’t mind.
To help pass the time before my flight, I walked over to a Starbucks across the street to do some more reading. I could have walked to a local café, but I didn’t feel like lugging my bags around (the hotel kept my large bag for me, thankfully).
I had one full day to spend in Doha and I spent the day wandering around the city, exploring it and trying to escape the insane heat. The past couple days I’d been able to avoid the really crazy heat, but it was back with a vengeance in Doha.
Breakfast wasn’t included at my hotel, so I found a local place nearby that had decent reviews. They served a wide range of foods, including American-style pancakes (which I ordered). The place was clearly run by Americans as there were flags from the States everywhere: universities (including Colorado State), some of the 50 states, and, yes, the American flag. The food was good and the portion was massive; I wasn’t able to eat all of it.
I walked around the city and made my way to the waterfront, where there was a nice park running along it. To one side was the Museum of Islamic Art, which had a great view overlooking the water and the other side of the city.
I continued along the waterfront and stopped at the giant pearl fountain. It was a nice fountain and, after taking some pictures, I turned to head back into the city itself. I’d planned to walk further down the waterfront, but it was getting far too hot to stay outside much longer.
I walked by the Islamic Center, which was my favorite building in Doha; it was a modern take on a mosque, with a spiral minaret.
I then made my way over to the Souq Waqif, which is a large outdoor market with lots of restaurants. I decided to stop to grab a drink, enjoy some shisha and read while I cooled off. I sat outside, but the staff turned on the aircon, which was pointed at my table. The shisha was good, but the service at the restaurant was awful. There were several of us having shisha, but I was the only one who never got fresh coals for the shisha; the guy would routinely replace the coals on everyone else’s, but I had to ask for mine and then he never came back. Needless to say, I was rather pissed off about it. I’d planned to have some lunch there, but I left instead.
I spent the afternoon relaxing, but I went back out to the Souq for dinner. I wandered around the souq for several minutes, trying to decide where to eat when I stumbled upon an Iraqi restaurant! I instantly decided to stop and eat there. I ordered lamb, which came with rice and bread. The lamb was, without a doubt, the best meal I’ve had this entire trip; it was incredibly tender, falling off the bone and melting in my mouth. I was getting quite full, but I ate every delicious bite! I was brought a small bowl of something sweet for dessert; it was like a custard and had some dates in it; a small glass of tea was brought as well. This was the perfect way to finish up the meal; it wasn’t too sweet and it was quite tasty. If I had another day in Doha, I would definitely have returned there for another meal.
After dinner I thought I’d find another place to enjoy some shisha; I again wandered around the souq, searching for a good place to relax. The place was packed with people and I wasn’t able to find a free table anywhere, so I eventually gave up and returned to the hotel.
I spent the evening watching some shows on Netflix and packing. My departure flight was at 03:40, so I opted to stay up until it was time to leave for the airport. Rather than calling a taxi, I used Uber, which was much faster and cheaper.
Monday, 7 November – Tuesday, 8 November
Today began the long travel from Doha to Sydney. I had several flights and long layovers:
Doha -> Dubai (3 hour layover) -> Colombo (9.5 hour layover) -> Kuala Lumpur (4 hour layover) -> Sydney
I managed to sleep through the first flight, but it was only an hour long. I spent the time in Dubai getting something to eat and grabbing some drinks for the longer flight. After buying the drinks, I discovered that I had to go through another round of security screening (despite having already gone through one round), so I had to toss the drinks that I had bought.
The flight to Colombo was alright; I watched “The Thomas Crown Affair” and got some sleep in as well. The layover in Colombo was pure hell though. I had to go out through passport control, pickup my bags and then check in for my next flight; I had booked two separate tickets (Doha to Colombo and Colombo to Sydney, which saved me several hundred dollars). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check into my flight until just after 20:00, which meant I had 6.5 hours to waste in the lounge area. There was nothing to do there though: no shops, no food, nothing. I wanted to store my bags and head into town, but the lockers were full. So I sat around, reading and working on my laptop; the wifi was complete garbage, requiring me to sign in repeatedly every 3 or 4 minutes.
My flight to Kuala Lumpur was rather pleasant as the plane was rather empty, allowing me to have the entire row to myself. As there was no in-flight entertainment, I stretched out and got some sleep. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, I grabbed some coffee and then relaxed in their “movie room” which was a large room that aired various movies on large TVs; on air was a movie called “Burying the Ex” which was so-so.
The flight to Sydney was equally pleasant as it was even more empty than my previous flight. My seat was in a designated “quite zone” which forbid children from sitting anywhere nearby; I managed to get several hours of sleep during the flight.
I arrived in Sydney around 20:30, quickly making my way through border control and hopping in a taxi to reach my hotel.