Travel post: Muscat-eers for Easter

23 04 2014
That's one big sandcastle!

That’s one big sandcastle!

It’s a trip that would be rude not to do from Dubai. Oman is right on our doorstep – you don’t even have to fly there. Except we did, thinking we’d save time (39-minute flight! It took far longer to board and taxi).

The first thing you notice on arrival is there’s none of the bling found in Dubai. Nor is it as organised. Passengers are herded to the long and winding queue for visas, and maybe because it was Friday, things moved slowly.

This could also be because, in Oman, people don’t rush like they do in Dubai. The pace of life is altogether more sedate – even the driving, which is (slightly) less aggressive, probably because there’s far less traffic on the roads.

We picked up our hire car and discovered that most parts of the city are easy to reach. Not far from the airport, you sail past the magnificent, sandstone Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – big enough to house up to 20,000 worshippers and famous for the enormous 8.5-tonne chandelier hanging inside.


The grand mosque also contains the world’s second-largest hand-woven carpet

Near our hotel, we came across another splendid building – the first opera house in the Gulf. Its opening in 2011 put the capital firmly on the map. Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos is passionate about classical music and his desire to develop this art form in the sultanate culminated in a classic Islamic-style Royal Opera House, made from Omani desert rose stone and stucco wall coverings, and surrounded by landscaped gardens.

Topped with minarets, Muttrah stretches along an attractive corniche

Topped with minarets, Muttrah stretches along an attractive corniche

Muscat itself is actually three smaller towns that have grown together over time: Muscat, the ‘walled city’ and site of the royal palaces; Muttrah, originally a fishing village; and Ruwi, the commercial and diplomatic centre. On our first evening, we drove into Muttrah as the sun set and the evening prayers got underway. At the old port, we saw the Sultan’s rather impressive super-yacht docked at sea, and admired the rows of traditional white homes with intricately carved balconies, stained glass art and elegant eaves.


Tempting scents waft through the souk

Opposite the port is the ancient – and unmissable – Muttrah souk, where there are bargains to be had, especially sumptuous pashminas, gold jewellery, frankincense, spices and perfumes. “This is just like the Madinat – but real,” I found myself saying to DH, as hawkers touted their wares and I gazed at the stalls set up beneath gorgeous Islamic architecture.

The next day, we’d booked a speedboat trip to spot dolphins (and the occasional whale). This spectacle offers the opportunity to not only see some of the leaping pods of dolphins that live in the Gulf of Oman, but also to view the rugged coastline from the sea. For our boys, witnessing lively, grey bottlenose dolphins in flight was the highlight of our visit, while in my books, meandering along the coast taking in the craggy scenery was equally unforgettable.


Oman boasts more than 2,000 kilometres of coastline

No trip to Oman is complete without visiting a wadi – a (dried-up) riverbed and lush, green oasis of palm trees, grasses and flowering shrubs – so to round our day off we drove out to a wadi not far from Muscat, where we found at least a dozen car owners washing their vehicles with the trickle of clear, cool water.

I thoroughly recommend Oman for an authentic getaway. With its mountain ranges, dramatic landscapes, warm hospitality and old-world appeal, it’s a refreshing reminder of a bygone age and one of the best places in the Gulf to experience traditional Arabia.


The fort-dotted, mountainous interior


Paddling in the wadi

The power of the patch

15 04 2014

Browsing through my emails this evening, my eye was drawn to a press release from Unilever Arabia about Dove’s new social experiment involving women not happy with how they look.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to watch the YouTube video (Dove’s latest attempt at a viral video), but I dutifully clicked on the link (here) – no doubt trying to put off the inevitable ruckus that dinnertime brings in our household.

In the commercial, the women are given ‘beauty patches’ to wear for two weeks. They aren’t told what’s inside the RB-X patch, merely that it’s supposed to enhance the way they see their own beauty.

"Kids, it says right here in the recipe, 'This dish contains no yucky stuff'"

“Kids, it says right here in the recipe, ‘This dish contains no yucky stuff’”

Now, I’m all for the power of a sticker. After Son2 had a particularly bad day at school the other week and had to be picked up from the principal’s office, no one was happier than me when, the next day, he emerged from the classroom wearing not one, but two, smiley stickers – awarded for good behaviour.

But as I watched the video, I found myself thinking seriously? I mean, really? The psychologist reveals at the end that the patches are fake. Yet they’ve had quite an impact on the women, who tell the camera that the patches have made them feel great, want to show off their arms and smile at people and go dress-shopping.

After the revelation that there’s nothing inside, you see the women giggle. And then cry. [Cue faint music and a clip of another woman revelling in her new-found self-esteem.]

Never mind empowering them, it just made them look gullible, in my opinion.

But it did get me thinking. A patch that stops my skin bristling and allows me to say no calmly every time my children dislike the dinner I’ve cooked and demand cereal. Yes, please!

A mother’s Thursday night

10 04 2014

Me: “Right come on, upstairs. Now.”

Son1: “But it’s the weekend. And I haven’t finished watching YouTube!”

Me: “Well, how many more minutes are left? Eighteen. No way. Too many. It’s getting late.”

Son1: “Can we have a day off from shower?”

Me: “Yes, if you come upstairs, RIGHT NOW.”

Me: “I said, NOW!”

Me: “Pajamas on. Quickly. Stop messing around. Just put them on.”

Son1: “Can you bring me my toothbrush?”

Me: “Only if you promise to brush them well. No, longer than that. Those teeth have to last you 70 years, you know.”

"So the little boys who missed their bedtime were eaten by a monster .."

“So the little boys who missed their bedtime were eaten by a monster ..”

Me: “Just one book okay. Then lights out. That one’s too long. How about this one? No, I can’t read it twice.”

Me: “Now, I know the tooth fairy didn’t come last night, but I sent her a message and she said it was because she didn’t see the note on the door about swallowing the tooth, and she’s going to come tonight.”

Me: “No, I’m not lying!”

Son1: “Did you send her a message on Facebook?”

Me: “Erm, no. I mean, yes. I did. But she’ll only come if you go to sleep quickly.”

Son2: “What colour is the tooth fairy’s skin?” [Might sound odd, but with so many nationalities in Dubai, it’s a question that children here often ask about someone.]

Me: “It’s fair, like yours. Now settle down, or she won’t come.”

Me: “And are you sure you don’t need the toilet? Really? Are you sure? You must do. When did you last go? Are you really, really sure?”

Son2: “Stay for two minutes.”

Me: “Just two minutes. That’s all.”

Me: “You want to know why mummies have squidgy arms?”

Me: “Don’t wake me up too early in the morning. Alright, if we’re playing Thursday Opposites, then do wake me up.”

Me: “Okay, two minutes is over.”

Son2 [sits up in bed and signals with his hands time rewinding]: “Guess what Mummy? I’m starting two minutes all over again!”

Meh! I love Thursday nights, but they’re not what they used to be.

Travel post: Sharjah Uncovered

7 04 2014

I’m tagging this as a travel post, but if you live in Dubai, you don’t have to go far to discover Sharjah – an emirate of contrasts with some prized assets and great-value family attractions.


Northern neighbour: Sharjah from Al-Mamzar Beach Park

After moving to the UAE in 2008, it was a couple of years before I stepped foot in Sharjah. My only knowledge of the UAE’s third-largest emirate was gleaned from the traffic reports on the radio, and I couldn’t imagine tackling the congestion myself.

Not only that, but I knew it was dry (as in, no booze), conservative and nothing fancy. Why bother? Better to stay put in Dubai, where the decency laws aren’t so strict and there’s more than enough to do.

Now I know better. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that Sharjah is a gold mine when it comes to entertaining a family. The city’s varied attractions are hidden gems that not only provide inexpensive days out, but are much quieter and more low-key than Dubai’s top tourist spots.


Religion: Sharjah is home to more than 600 mosques

Sharjah might not dazzle with glitz like its neighbour Dubai, but it more than makes up for this with its authenticity.

There are cultural footprints all over the emirate, in the picturesque outdoor gardens, architectural spaces and nature reserves, and at the prominent festivals, such as the Sharjah Biennal art fair and the Sharjah International Book Fair, that draw worldwide attention.

The restored central Arts and Heritage Areas are among the most fascinating neighbourhoods in the UAE, and preserved historical sites abound, from the Bait al-Naboodah museum, a fine example of a traditional Emirati house, to the Al-Eslah School museum, the first formal school in the emirate.

Sharjah’s rich history is also evident in the numerous museums covering Islamic art and culture, archaeology, heritage, science, marine life and the civilization of Sharjah and the region. Among these is the Sharjah Art Museum, the largest art museum in the Gulf housing both temporary exhibitions and permanent collections by renowned artists.

Add to all this some lively traditional souks, the numerous child-friendly attractions and popular corniche and it’s easy to see why Sharjah is a destination that’s worth braving the traffic for (and even that’s not bad at all, if you go the quiet way).

Our top spots
This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some of our favourite places to visit in Sharjah. One caveat: Check the opening times of everything mentioned before setting out.

Al-Mahatta Museum: You might also be interested to learn that the UAE’s first airport was opened in Sharjah in 1932, and used as a staging post for commercial flights en route from Britain to India. Built on the site of the airport, the Al Mahatta Museum provides a unique glimpse into what air travel was like in the 1930s – a highlight for my boys being the four fully restored propeller planes displayed in the hangar alongside the original refuelling tanker.


Ferris wheel: After a spin on the Eye of the Emirates, we took a boat ride from Al-Qasba

Eye of the Emirates: For panoramic, birds-eye views of both Sharjah and Dubai, take a whirl on the Eye of the Emirates, a 60m-high Ferris wheel with 42 fully air-conditioned gondolas (open in the late afternoon and at night). This landmark observatory wheel is situated in Al-Qasba, which offers car-free strolling opportunities and is particularly busy on Friday night and Saturday. Set along the banks of a canal linked by a twinkling bridge, there’s an upbeat mix of restaurants, cafes and family-friendly fun. You’ll also find a superb contemporary art gallery, the Maraya Art Centre.

Sharjah Discovery Centre: Packed with hands-on gadgets and educational exhibits, this interactive facility comprises seven colourful, themed areas, designed to teach children that science and technology are part of our daily lives. Youngsters can also learn to drive, become a TV star and climb a wall.

Sharjah Classic Car Museum: We love this museum – the iconic exhibits, from the 1915 Dodge straight out of a period drama to the 1969 Mercedes Pullman Limousine (belonging to the Ruler of Sharjah), are truly impressive. In total, there are more than 100 vintage cars, manufactured between 1917 and the 1960s. A fun game to play with the kids is ‘find the petrol tank cap’ – hint, look behind the licence plate (who knew!).


Wildlife centre: In fact, I’m off here again tomorrow on a school trip

Sharjah Aquarium: Step into an ‘abandoned dhow’ to get up-close and personal with marine-life from the UAE’s west and east coasts. The clown fish, seahorses, moray eels, rays, reef sharks and jellyfish are sure to delight.

Arabia’s Wildlife Centre: Last but not least is this excellent facility at Sharjah Desert Park, showcasing animals found in the Arabian Peninsula. There’s also a children’s petting farm, where the kids can ride ponies and camels at the weekend.

The Tardis: I can't resist leaving you with this photo! We spotted this human drying machine by the Al Qasba fountain. It lights up with eerie red lights and blasts hot air at you – like the climate doesn’t already do that!

The Tardis: I can’t resist leaving you with this photo. We spotted this human drying machine by the Al-Qasba fountain. It lights up with eerie red lights and blasts hot air at you (like the climate doesn’t already do that!)

An Easter bonnet (for a boy)

31 03 2014

Thursday is the last day of term for Son2 and his school is holding an Easter parade for the two Foundation years.

I always find Easter a bit of an enigma here as it’s distinctly unspring-like. While in other parts of the world, friends and family are experiencing the joys of spring and life bursting forth, in the UAE it won’t be long until life is scorched under the blazing hot sun. Easter Sunday is also a regular work day. Nevertheless, we make every effort to celebrate the holiday, and the shops are piled high with chocolate eggs.

The Easter parade requires a bonnet – to be made at home with the help of your child. So at the weekend, I attempted to interest my (non-creative) son in this task.

“NO FLOWERS,” he wailed in protest as I pointed out a hat I’d found online with daffodils sprouting out of the top.


Not a flower in sight

“No flowers,” I promised. “How about this one? Look, it’s a bunny coming out of a bowler hat.”

He’s still not impressed.

‘I’ll have this one Mummy!” he cried, on seeing a hat that looked like it must belong to a scarecrow. He was clearly overjoyed that he’d be able to go to school with a bird’s nest on his head.

The concept of making it didn’t register with him, though, as when I returned from Creative Minds on Umm Sequim (a gold mine for crafters in Dubai), he was genuinely surprised I hadn’t bought the hat.

“Did you get it Mummy?!” he asked hopefully, from the sofa. “No, we’re going to make it together,” I said, through gritted teeth. And there followed at least three hours where I channelled Blue Peter and singlehandedly, apart from a few minutes of gluing by Son2, attempted to recreate the chicken hat using a bag of Spanish moss, raffia, felt, a picture of a hen, plastic eggs and fluffy yellow chicks.

You might not understand this reference if you’re not from the UK, but I think Worzel Gummidge would be proud.

The Dubai ‘yes’ (read: no)

28 03 2014

Last week, on the day of all that rain, DH and I did the school run together and decided to get some breakfast before going home.

We splash through the rain and walk into one of my favourite places, which if I tell you has period-inspired, chintzy décor and looks like a dolls’ house (think pink), you’ll know where I mean if you live locally.

It’s raining hard and we run from the car park, so I don’t really look around until we’ve stepped over the cardboard mopping up the rainwater and entered via the back door.

It’s dark inside. Not pitch black, but gloomy enough that we know immediately we won’t be able to read the paper, or even see what we’re eating. There’s obviously some kind of power cut, and, apart from the wait staff, there isn’t a soul inside.

The culinary trend for dining in the dark reaches Arabian Ranches

The culinary trend for dining in the dark reaches Arabian Ranches

“Come in!” welcomes a waiter with a megawatt smile. “Wet isn’t it? Come, sit down.”

We’re not quite sure what to do. The waiter motions again towards a table and gestures for us to be seated.

“Are you open?” I enquire. “It’s dark!” I add, stating the obvious. My stomach lets out a low rumble of hunger.

“Yes, yes, we’re open. Just a small problem with the lights.”

I’m reminded of the equally optimistic taxi driver my visiting BF came across last week, who told her he knew where to drop her, but didn’t have a clue and needed help reading the signs (“Bad eyes,” he’d tutted.)

“But can you still cook?” I ask the waiter politely. I peer around the eerily quiet restaurant and spot four or five shadowy figures with tools in a corner, huddled around a circuit-breaker box. “Does the kitchen have power?”

“Ah,” our waiter replies, unsure. “Let me just check on that.”

DH and I stifle a laugh. Through the hatch, we can see the kitchen is also undergoing a black-out.

“We’ll come back later,” we tell him and bid him farewell. And I wonder: Do we look like the kind of couple whose idea of a decent meal out is hanging around like bats in the semi darkness with no food? :-) Or maybe the restaurant wasn’t trying to sell food, but instead offer a public service to wet expats who don’t own an umbrella.

Funny ole thing customer service in Dubai.

Outside my work: A day of rain and Dubai drowns

Outside my work: A day of rain and Dubai drowns

The ‘bear’-faced selfie

25 03 2014

It was the moment Son2 had been waiting for since the beginning of the school year: The day he got to take Bernie, the class bear, home.

Bernie arrived at our house in a bag, with his scrapbook – a well-leafed diary documenting his time spent with the families in Son2’s class. The pages were filled with photos, hand-written stories, speech bubbles, decorative stamps, evidence of baking extravaganzas and even a bear-class boarding pass.

You wouldn’t believe how creative it gets.

Son2 and I browsed the book together. ‘Oh look, there’s Bernie parachuting into someone’s garden, ” I exclaimed, my wide-open eyes settling on a photo of the bear floating into the family’s backyard underneath a make-shift canopy. “And here he is ON SKIS, in France!”


Silently seeking attention

It got even better: Blow me down, but Bernie spent Christmas in Lapland. There were snaps of him playing in the snow, snuggled up in the log cabin and listening to music in his airplane seat. “Let’s take Bernie on a husky safari, then tonight, if we’re really lucky, we might get a shot of him gazing at the Aurora Borealis rolling across the sky,” I could almost hear the enthused parents telling their bemused children.

Our time with Bernie had much more of a homey feel. In the knowledge that on top of all the usual weekend chores, I had to find amusing things to do with a bear, I set up numerous photo opportunities – of Bernie reading books, cosy in his pyjamas, sitting on the kitchen table eating noodles and using his paws to scale the bunk bed ladder. In an inspired moment, he posed for a #nomakeupselfie.

I even remembered to take Bernie with us when we went to football, and in the car, took care to buckle him up in the back.

Son2 looked at me suspiciously as I fiddled around trying to secure the seat belt. It was a look that suggested he thought I’d lost my mind. “Mum, he’s just a toy, you know!” my 5YO reminded me, with a roll of his eyes and a casual glance in Bernie’s direction.


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