Monday, May 25, 2015

Kathmandu

Thamel - morning street scene
Nepal has been on my mind of late with the devastation caused by the earthquakes all over the news. I was lucky enough to have visited Kathmandu for a long weekend last December. It was supposed to have been the first of many trips to enjoy this nearby (normally a quick 3 hour flight from DXB), laid back city with a lot of good culture, cheap beer and fun shopping but now I wonder when and how they'll be able to support a return of tourists. I heard that the airport runways were damaged by the heavy cargo planes full of relief aid and supplies. We spent A LOT of time in that tiny airport. There had been fog earlier in the day of our arrival which led to a back up of planes. Nepal's only international airport has just one runway and, apparently, no "instrument landing system" which I think means the pilots really have to be able to see where they're going. We circled, along with some other planes, for about half an hour before we had to divert to Lucknow, India for a refueling stop. This is one occasion when you're not especially excited to hear the pilot say, "You're in Lucknow!" (luck now... get it?) When we finally did land in Kathmandu, it was with a string of other flights that had been due to arrive in well spaced intervals but instead, all hit at the same time. Baggage claim monitors were not working, and if you've ever seen ex-pats returning to their home country from places with greater opportunities for
guesthouse breakfast courtyard
consumerism, you can, perhaps, envision the chaos. Hundreds of returnees each with luggage trolleys hauling washing-machine-sized boxes of stuff, giant saran-wrapped pieces of luggage, and 52 inch flat screen TVs collected off of straining baggage carousels. One of our bags hadn't made the flight but our delays were so significant that we really only needed to wait an additional 30 minutes or so for the bags off the next Dubai flight which had left several hours after ours. Gave us the chance to watch the chaos and note the tractor printer at the claims desk- where does one get tractor printer paper in this day and age? When we finally made it to our guesthouse in the Thamel neighborhood (Ambassador Garden Home), everything was pretty well closed up for the night. Kathmandu hits the hay around 10pm or so and it was easily midnight. Our host, the hotel manager who had arranged for our airport driver to wait on us for 6 hours, also magically procured some cheese sandwiches and cold beer for us. Perfect.

monekys at the main stupa
After a rough start that first evening, everything else was smooth sailing. As I mentioned it was December, the UAE's National Day holiday weekend and the weather in Kathmandu was perfect for walking around, about 70 by day, a bit cooler at night, light jacket weather. Somehow I had it in my head that  all of Nepal was cold and snowy, like Everest, especially in winter, but nope. After breakfast, we grabbed a driver and guide to set out to see some of the gorgeous temples, stupas and historic buildings, some of which now, no longer exist. It's heartbreaking. First up was the monkey temple (complete with holy monekys, fed both by the tourists, and also by the local monks), Swayambunath, right in the city. The stupa is the big domed structure with the eyes of Buddha (including the third eye and the number 1 in Davanagari script which looks like a nose) painted on each of the 4 sides. From post quake stories, i understand that some parts of the complex were destroyed though it looks like the main stupa held up.
this temple may no longer exist

Next we headed a bit further afield in the Kathmandu Valley to the UNESCO site, the city of Bhaktapur. This video footage really shows the damage the quake did, especially, ironically, to a temple to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. The video also mentions something that I noticed and appreciated about the towns and squares and monuments we visited in Nepal, while they are centuries old, they are still very much a part of a contemporary and living culture. People of all ages and multiple faiths (Hindus and Buddhists mainly) visit the shrines and temples in Bhaktapur and Durbar Square or tucked into the narrow side streets on a daily basis. Bhaktapur also had craftsmen- pottery and hammered metal bowls with alloys rumored to heal and energize, stylized Thangka paintings depicting Buddhist life lessons... We wrapped up guided-tour-day at Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas in the world and one of my favorites for its
i like big Boudhnath and i cannot lie
big round curves, splashed with saffron and the hundreds of colorful strings of prayer
flags dancing optimistically in the wind. Maybe size really does matter. Reports are that this site did not suffer much damage at all. So nice to hear a bit of good news among all the terrible reports.

felted wool slippers
On our second day, we took to the streets on foot. It was a Christmas shopping frenzy given the many options for dramatic jewelry pieces, handmade felted wool items, paper crafts, knit hats, embroidered bags.... all at reasonable prices and  all in different sizes, colors, styles. Tourism is one of the biggest contributors to the Nepalese economy (the biggest is "remittances"- money sent home by Nepalese laborers who work in other countries, like the UAE). We were trying to do our part! I hope that the tourism sector can recover quickly, after the aid slows to a trickle, there are still going to be huge infrastructure needs- they existed before the earthquakes, now after, the situation is even more problematic.

the Kumari's palace
We walked to the historic Durbar Square (also quite damaged now) and lucked out on catching a view of the Kumari, or living goddess, in her palace window.The "job" of Kumari goes to a young girl, selected from among the traditional Newari families of Kathmandu. She is usually around 3-5 years old when she is selected and made the goddess or incarnation of the goddess Durga. She stays in a palace in Durbar square with her attendants and participates in grand ceremonies several times a year and smaller appearances, like leaning out the window so her followers and tourists can gaze upon her (but no pictures allowed) for a few minutes most days. She wears dramatic make up and bright red ceremonial clothing and looks quite serious sitting in her window. She remains the goddess until puberty when a new girl is chosen for the position. At that time, she returns to her family and tries to resume a normal-ish life. I'm happy to learn that the Kumari and her palace were unscathed by the quakes. Our walk back was through tiny streets congested with motorcycles, rickshaws, cars, pedestrians, bicycles... colorful fabrics, pashminas, bright pots and pans, all manner of stuff burst from the store fronts and little temples or ornately carved doors were dotted along the streets. The place was just jam packed and
Durbar Square
bustling and fun.

We wrapped up our Kathmandu weekend with a morning stroll through the serene Garden of Dreams and an early afternoon leg and foot massage before a last taste of momos- tasty dumplings with various fillings- my favorite was the "buff" (water buffalo) done "combo" style. Momos can be steamed or fried or, for those of us who can't make our minds, "combo" style where they're steamed and then pan fried on one side. We went to the Momo Hut, which I am convinced could be a wildly successful international franchise operation. Who doesn't love dumplings? We had veggie, pork, chicken, buff and even some non-traditional dessert momos!
colorful wares for sale on the steps of a shrine

Dubai is home to thousands of Nepalese ex-pats. Our plane home was mostly full of eager seeming young men sporting matching hats with a construction company logo and clutching work visa papers. Their jobs in Dubai are likely to be pretty tough and their working and living conditions not-enviable but they come by the hundreds all the time because despite all of the drawbacks, the earning potential is here and not at home in Nepal. A couple of the guys who work the desk in my apartment building are also from Nepal, thankfully their families were not injured, they are struggling, however with damage to homes and such a major hit to an already weak infrastructure. I'm rooting for Nepal and am so proud of the out pouring of support and aid, both governmental and personal, from the US and the UAE. I'm hoping for the chance to revisit this lovely place soon!

spinning prayer wheels at the monkey temple complex

the handmade hammered alloy bowl energizing water in Bhaktapur


doorways on a street near Durbar Square

keeping up with the news in Durbar Square

school girls doing pooja (like a prayer/ blessing) at a temple in Durbar Square

In the Garden of Dreams

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Umm al Qwain

BBC article map- check out the horse head shaped north
Recently a colleague shared this brief BBC article about the 5 lesser known Emirates. The thing
about it that most caught my eye was the map at the end! I look at maps, mostly online, to figure out how to get from point A to point B, not to see assigned boundaries between Emirates. I knew there were a few enclaves- completely encircled bits of land managed by a different government that that of the surrounding area- but wow! There's giant Abu Dhabi, taking up the whole south and then the horse head shaped north which is a crazy patchwork of the other 6 Emirates. Not to mention Oman. Oman is the grey stuff- the horse's eye, under the neck. behind the ear- all bits of Oman that are surrounded by the UAE. I've explored a bit of 6 of the 7 but have only, really driven through Ajman so I need to do a little more there. Here's a bit about Umm al Qwain.

UaQ Museum

playing dress up at the museum
The article describes Umm al Qwain as a sleepy backwater with a lassez faire attitude. That jives with my experience and contributes to making it probably my favorite Emirate- at least right now.We went to the Umm al Qwain museum one day last fall and quite enjoyed it. It's housed in an old home/fort with some of the rooms set up essentially as they were when the Sheikh's family would have lived there- not all THAT long ago, they lived there until the late 1960s. It was built originally in the late 1760s. Some rooms had displays of quaint things like the first telephone that was in service in UaQ or the passports of residents when UaQ was a British protectorate. a trucial state and eventually, part of the UAE. There were documents listing the damages a family could expect if an employee was injured while working for the British Petroleum Company (not much) and an opportunity to dress up in a colorful local dress! After we toured the fort, we thought we were done but the guy at the door gestured for us to follow a security guard across the street to a modern, official looking building. The guard unlocked the building and we had the local archeology museum to ourselves- special showing. It was really impressive. They had beautiful pieces of pottery and metalwork from the Bronze Age all collected from area digs.
rare cloudy day- looking out the back door of my room at Imar

UaQ is home to Imar Spa- a sweet little ladies only spa that does a brisk business with locals and ex-pats alike.Often when we're there there is a group of local gals getting wedding ready with elaborate blow drys and up-dos with big bun enhancer donut things under piles of curls. There also seem to be plump older Russians having exotic facial treatments.We have to wear bathing caps in the pool which is a bit of a drag but good for a laugh at ourselves in our weird cheap pink lumpy caps at least. They have half a dozen rooms where you can spend the night. A group of us will often pick up groupons (yup, we have groupon in the UAE too) for an overnight stay with a huge, tasty breakfast, a 60 minute massage and a mani-pedi all for just over $100US. We book all 6 rooms and after 9pm they lock the doors into the spa area and the staff retires to their nearby accommodations (each room has a back door out to the patio and tiny beach area, so we're not locked in in some kind of spa horror movie plot) and we have the place to ourselves. Last time a hallway card game went on until late fueled in part by recently arrived girl scout cookies.
 
UaQ also boasts the Barracuda, a hotel that frankly, looks as tho as it has seen better years. But people don't flock to the Barracuda for the "resort"- they come for the Costco sized warehouse of adult beverages. The choice is kind of staggering, especially in spirits. I had no idea there were that many variations on rum. People stock up, the prices are reasonable and the service is great. Purchases are boxed and bagged both so as not to be obvious and disrespectful of laws and customs in the country more generally.
at the UAE's largest pool bar- or so they brag

Near the Bararcuda is Dreamland Aqua Park- the latest reason for me to love UaQ. Went there this weekend. Dubai and Abu Dhabi boast some very swanky water parks with some seriously intense slides and rides. I haven't actually made it to any of those yet- I'm sure I will. I was excited to visit Dreamland as my first UAE water park because it's a little low budget,  little less glitzy- totally my speed. Virtually no lines, lots of shade trees and greenery, views of the sea as you climb up the (only slightly dodgy) stairs to get to the top of the water slides, a pool bar that manages to have both a party feel and simultaneously, a fairly family friendly vibe, opportunities to smoke shisha (hookah) seemingly anywhere (Dubai is cracking down on shisha smoking in open air places like parks and beaches- I get it, it's a public health issue and I see the rationale- but I personally prefer the more relaxed attitude in UaQ, let adults, be adults and manage their own health risks.) You can camp overnight at Dreamland, I think that's just been added to my UAE bucket list! We had a blast, mostly on the tame water slides though we did at least one that was rated thrill level: "aggressive". Got some water up my nose on that one.

Umm al Qwain has more delights in store, I'm sure. Simply driving around the Emirate is enjoyable (well, it's a little speed trappy so you have to chill). The dunes are a lovely warm orange, there are frequently camels quite close to the road and guys sell fruit out of the trunk of their car near the highway on ramp! It's really lovely.

Lazy river- or rather- the Dreamstream!

see family friendly pool bar!