Sex on the Savanna

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It doesn’t take long out here on the plains and in the woodlands of Tanzania to identify the three perpetual quests that drive wildlife survival: food, water and sex. Food and water for sustenance, sex because survival requires babies, and babies require sex.

Boys of all the species are pretty much ready for action all the time. Except for the primates (in which both genders have sex just for fun), girls need to be ready (in estrous) and willing.

The “willing” is the tricky part.

In some species, the absence of kicking or biting constitutes willingness on the part of the girl. In the case of zebras, which are as common as flies on the savanna, it is pretty much boy meets girl in estrous, girl doesn’t chase boy off, boy scores. That would be the guy at the top of the blog. The guy below didn’t have such luck.
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In other species, boys have to compete with one another for girls, and competition can take many forms.

The bright yellow male weaverbird harvests long blades of grass, puts his sophisticated cutting and knot-tying skills to work and weaves an elaborate hanging nest. Once it’s done, he hangs around the opening to advertise new cool pad complete with able nest-builder. The girls flit around checking out the floor plans and construction. Mating follows only when she finds one she likes.

Weaver at work

No, Louis did not take this one.

Because the ladies like their nests to be fresh (and what good homemaker wouldn’t?), if a male gets no taker after about two days, he destroys the nest and makes another. Poorer builders have been known to make up to 50 nests in a single mating season before scoring. On the other hand, a superior nest-builder may so wow a girl that she makes a pre-completion purchase, moves in and helps him finish the house. Because the weavers build in colonies, the savannah is filled with trees dangling weaver nests like oversized Christmas tree ornaments.
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Wildebeest boys also use real estate to attract girls though with considerably less sophistication. Their tact is to select a plot of grassland (the grassier the better), plop down in the middle of it, fight off any interlopers and wait for the ladies to show up and be wowed by his great grass. Because rutting season is just about to begin, we saw scores of these dudes, each resting regally in a large section of land in a sort of coming-soon advertising blitz.

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Wildebeest shopping for chick-magnet real estate

No surprise : baboons are much wilier. We repeatedly saw boy baboons making a great show of cradling, carrying or picking pests off other guys’ kids to advertise their own attributes as potential fathers. (Boy humans have been known to do the same.) We saw  girls practically begging these guys for attention, backing up and rubbing against them, hoping to get lucky.

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Attentive daddy behavior is a turn-on, even in the baboon world

And then there are the sexy little African jacanas, fondly called “prostitute birds” by the locals. Jacanas are unusual in that girls are the flighty promiscuous ones, and boys are the stay-at-homers.
L1190950Girls choose a guy, any guy (guys are always willing) and hang around only long enough to mate and lay eggs. At that point, Mom wings off to find a pretty new face, leaving last week’s boy toy to incubate the eggs and raise a nestful of chicks. The dads are so maternal they have developed ways to fly around while holding babies under their wings.

All this newfound knowledge comes from two days under the tutelage of our English-fluent guide, Paul, who has a college degree in wildlife and about 15 years of guiding to his credit.

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Doris definitely looks like she woke up at 5 am for this outing. 

More on Paul later. Meanwhile….

In the rear-view mirror:

  •  Land before time: The early-morning view from the rim of Ngorongoro Crater is otherworldly, a glimpse of paradise before man arrived.
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  • Lion prides: It gets hot on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater. Lions have learned that, if they lie beside the road, tourist vehicles will stop and create shade. Woe to the vehicle a lion crawls under. There is no driving away until the catnap is over.
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  • Hippo rafts : Lions live in prides, monkeys in troops, hippopotamus in rafts. We saw rafts of rafts in Ngorongoro.
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  • Elephant at 1 o’clock: Whoever spots a scene like this alerts the others with a reference to the clock face.
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Coming Soon: For the love of wildlife

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Both Tanzania and our Tanzania outfitter are amazing

Dreams for Sale or Rent

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Making our way from northern Europe to southern, western to eastern, the middle east of Asia to the east coast of Africa, one impression has stuck.

Everyone dreams. And the dreams are … maybe not universal but at least remarkably consistent.

Children like the girl at the top of the blog dream, and parents everywhere dream for them. Everyone dreams of good health. Of safety in their homes, security in their homelands.

People all over dream of creating, building and beautifying their lives. Whether they are little kids building toy sailboats out of flip-flop shoes or big kids building houses or crafting jewelry, they dream.
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In a place like Jambiani Village on Zanzibar (described in some guide books as “one of Zanzibar’s more primitive” fishing villages), dreams are almost achingly on display, sometimes even written on the walls.
DreamsWe have been staying in a Danish couple’s dream house. They visited Jambiani innumerable times while living and working for two years in Dar es Salaam, and now they dream of retiring here.

Hans house

We traded 27th Street for a week here.

Down the beach a couple hundred meters, Tot is a South African who moved to Zanzibar 13 years ago and now runs a hotel. She came to the island dreaming of safety from the dangers of her hometown Johannesburg and escape from the rat race of modern urban life. The Green Flamingo restaurant where her husband Nick exercises his passion as chef is part of the dream.
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Kevin works for Tot and Nick. He wants to run a own hotel someday, or maybe a good restaurant and bar. “I dream of owning something,” Kevin told us.
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Francesco is an Italian from Lake Como. He, too, has lived in Jambiani for 13 years. He dreamed of building a successful construction company in paradise and did. Now he builds many of Jambiani’s new hotels and villas.
Francesco

The shopgirl in one of the village markets just finished high school. She is awaiting the results of her exams to see whether she qualifies to go to university in Stone Town. She dreams of being an English teacher.
Shopkeeper
Massai tribesmen from the mainland walk the long Jambiani beach every day, peddling reflective sunglasses and cheap trinkets. Simba told us he dreams of earning enough money to buy more cows back home because cows are wealth.
L1190766.jpgA fisherman dreams of the rising tide.
Dreaming of tide Kim and his/her mother and the women who make pottery dream of customers.
Kim and momThe hotel clerk under the bougainvillea, gazing over the gate toward the village? Who knows?
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Sometimes in Jambiani, it is hard to decide whether a dream is a’borning, a’dying or somewhere in between. Francesco told us villagers build as they earn, sometimes a few feet of wall or a door or a window at a time, littering the landscapes with structures it’s hard to distinguish from half-done and half-decayed.
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Yes, humankind has its extremists and fanatics and people who have lost their souls to unseen devils, but these are the outliers. Everywhere, they are far outnumbered by people like our host Milaud, who has sent his nine-year-old daughter to live with extended family in Stone Town so she can go to private school and get a better education than in the local school and grow up to have good employment.

To cover the cost, he operates a small restaurant near the village that opens whenever travelers contact him to cook dinner and has planted a small orchard to raise fruits and spices he can sell.
Milaud and childSweet dreams, all.


In the rear-view mirror:

  • A memorable sail: For $20, a villager took us skimming over the aqua waters in a dug-out canoe with holes in the sails, cracks in the hull and a rock for an anchor. Skiffs like this go for about $2,000. They are someone’s dream.
    Outrigger
  • A working beach: Fishermen, hawkers, gawkers, football players and cows all share the beach where the sand is never hot to the touch because it is so white because the sunlight bounces right off it.
    Cows
  • Sunrise over the Indian Ocean: Through our front gate
    Sunrise

Coming Soon: Lions and tigers and hippos (we hope)

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(NOTE: A hiatus may follow; we fly off the grid shortly.)

 

A Tale of Two Sultanates

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In 1960, Muscat, the capital of Oman and home to the Sultanate, lay mostly between the remains of two Portuguese watch towers that bracket the city’s small harbor. About four miles of paved roads, total. Average life expectancy, 47 years. Only three schools in the whole country, two of them in Muscat. No newspapers, radio or television. No civil service and just one hospital, with a mere 23 beds. A national literacy rate of 5%.

In 1960, Stone Town, capital of Zanzibar and home to the Zanzibar sultanate, was a graceful city built on an epic spice trade that gave the one-time kingdom its “spice island” nickname. The winding alleys of the city were lined with the consulates of world nations (including the US), its English (now Africa) House a starchy redoubt of British colonialism. The city’s leading citizens were so prosperous they could afford not only the maximum allowance of four wives each but individual houses for each lady.

So delicious had Zanzibar been over the centuries that Said bin Sultan (Said the Great) of Oman had moved Oman’s capital to the island in the first half of the 1800s. When a sibling dispute over who would succeed him led to the creation of separate sultanates for Oman/Muscat and Zanzibar in 1856, the Zanzibar sultanate was required to pay Muscat an annual subsidy to compensate for getting the richer part of the deal.

What a difference a decade can make.


The Sultanate of Oman

In 1970, Qaboos bin Said Al Said deposed his father as sultan of Oman and sent him, humiliated but in one piece, to London to live in exile. That’s Qaboos’s house at the top of the blog.

In short order, the 30-year-old sultan put his blue-chip Western education and vision to work transforming dusty, undeveloped, illiterate Oman into a modern nation. A civil service was created, roads were paved, schools and hospitals built. By the second decade of the 21st century, adult literacy in Oman had skyrocketed to 94%, higher than that of the United States, and life expectancy at birth was 75 years.

Tax-free zones were created to attract business and diversify the economy away from oil and gas, and business came. So did tourists. Jobs were created, more roads and schools and hospitals were built. The modern fish market built in the Muscat port with hygienic stainless steel sinks, running water and drains is typical of how thoroughly Qaboos’s initiatives have reached into the lives of the people and the economy.
Modern fish market
Once the basic infrastructure was in place, the Sultan turned to history, the spirit and the arts. He built what was at the time (since surpassed by Abu Dhabi’s) the largest mosque in the world and arguably one of the most beautiful, an exercise in perfect geometry that can accommodate 20,000 worshippers bowing on the world’s largest carpet.

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Even Louis’s photos cannot do the mosque justice

Qaboos also restored historic ruins like the 17th-century fort and castle at Nizwa, a former garrison that long kept marauders from seizing a key crossroads and valuable oasis but had fallen into ruin.
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A music lover, he erected a state-of-the-art Royal Opera House with retractable stage and seating and screens on every seatback to provide members of the audience with translations of the arias in a choice of languages.
Opera House
Instruments from his private collection are displayed in the hallways.
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During our week in Oman, we questioned multiple taxi drivers, waiters, hotel employees, the docent at the mosque, our tour guide to the interior and the random Omanis who approached us on the street and the beach to welcome us and ask how we liked their country. To a man (it is notable that none of these were women, though the Sultan also expanded numerous rights to women and women today serve in the elected national government), they were proud and happy with the changes.

Father son on beach

When this father and son walking on the beach of Muscat reached us, they said Welcome, welcome, welcome, to our country.

If there is a groundswell to make Oman great again by turning back the clock, it was nowhere in evidence.

Meanwhile, Muscat itself is a reportedly harmonious stew of native Omanis and immigrant Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalese and countless other nationalities. The immigrants come like they once came to America—to improve their lives and those of their families back home. Often, they work and save money to build a family home, start a family business and ultimately reunite in their homelands with a better way of life.

Muscat reminds of us Dubai but with soul, low-rise buildings and and admirable sense of balance between new and old.


The Zanzibar Sultanate

In December 1963, Zanzibar acquired its independence from British protectionism. Already throughout the region, tribal, ethnic, political and other tensions were igniting in the aftermath of decolonalization. In the Sultanate of Zanzibar, gerrymandering and suspected election fraud that resulted in the continued control of the island by minority Arabs was one more stick of kindling.

At 3 am on January 12, 1964, a rebel African coalition armed with sticks, machetes and knives overwhelmed the well-armed Arab police force on Zanzibar. By 7 am, they had seized the department’s weaponry and the local radio station and broadcast the end of the Sultanate. Within days, a few dozen Americans and a few hundred lucky locals were evacuated by the US Navy; the Sultan fled on his yacht.

Almost immediately, a pogrom of stupendous speed and effectiveness ensued. As many as one-quarter of Zanzibar’s Arabs and Asians (estimates vary significantly) were massacred, and their homes and businesses looted and destroyed. By the time order was largely restored in early February, the non-African populations that had been the island’s traders and landowners were largely dead or fled.

Today, the Old World consulates that once lined the streets are mostly abandoned, the roofs of their former headquarters long-ago collapsed, their exterior walls blackened by decay.

Like Havana

Our guide told us buildings are often allowed to collapse so new ones can be built.

The left-leaning rebel government and its successors broke up the big spice plantations, redistributing the groves to the people, an act of largesse that sacrificed economies of scale to ideals and ultimately contributed to Zanzibar’s eclipse as the world’s spice cabinet. The only local bank at the time of the revolt, owned by an Indian, closed, along with essentially all the other industries and trades the Arabs and Indians had owned.

We are nearly a week in a beachfront house in Jambiani village, about an hour out of Stone Town. Our hosts are a Danish couple who fell in love with Jambiani while working in Dar es Salaam. As required by law, they have a local partner, a Zanzibarian who tells us the country never recovered and now is getting worse. His name is Maulid.

Maulid says civil liberties are few. The public education and health services the revolution brought are being reduced or eliminated. The rains that once watered the arid island have dwindled, the sea has warmed, and the traditional fishing grounds have shrunk to subsistence levels. Many women are left to trap and dry seaweed for export to Japan to support themselves and their families, hard labor that is seasonal at best.

Sea weed farm

Sticks corral the seaweed.

Maulid’s father had three wives, he told us. Now a man cannot even afford two, much less a full measure of four.

Locals take some encouragement from the fact that Stone Town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, bringing money and restoration to the legendary community. But, in a supreme irony, our city tour guide of the old city told us that Zanzibar’s mismanagement of UNESCO projects has been so spectacular, the organization brought in Omanis to take them over.

If there is any remnant multiculturalism on Zanzibar, it is along tribal lines, not racial or ethnic ones. Nobody with Arab blood can serve in the military (just as only Arabs once were allowed to be police). Few Indians or other Asians are in evidence, and even the ubiquitous selfie-wielding Chinese tourists are not to be seen.

The city most strongly reminds us of Havana, its prosperity and influence arrested in the 1960s and inexorably, sometimes tragically, eroding ever since.
Stone town street
One royal line. Two sultanates. Polar outcomes.


In the rear-view mirror:

  • A day on a dhow: On a clear day in the fjords of the Musandam Peninsula, you can see Iran across the Strait of Hormuz.
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  • A wander in Stone Town: Zanzibar is virtually 100% Muslim but not Arab. Women’s traditional dress is as different from that of the Arabian peninsula as the sparrow is from the parrot.
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  • A taste of spices: We lost count of the times guides and others told Louis that nutmeg is “Viagra for women” (ginger for men).

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    Clockwise: Nutmeg as fruit on the tree, the nut exposed, the nut for sale (by the kilo!) in the open market, cloves in their undried state and licorice.

  • A beach read: Under the palapa at our house in Jambiani
    Beach Zanzibar

Coming soon: Dreams for Sale or Rent

Nizwa us

 

 

 

 

 

A Zanzibar Hujambo

Louis on bed

We interrupt this travelogue for a news bulletin from Zanzibar International Airport….

Oman, o-man, will follow, but our arrival and introduction to old Zanzibar City (Stone Town) were so remarkable that the frog is going to leap ahead by a day.

We stepped out of our titanium cocoon (Oman Air, which – shockingly – served free wine and beer on the flight) into the instantly recognizable steam-bath of the tropics. With us were at least 250 fellow passengers flying from Muscat to the island. The air was redolent with the, uh, effects of the steam-bath on the human perspiration system. We needed a visa ($100 each, thank you very much) and our bags and then to find our hotel driver.

There was, of course, no queue at immigration. The entire planeload of sweating, melting passengers was pressed against one another and the doors, elbowing as far forward as they could, no patience to spare, us and our elbows in the midst of them.

But wait!

Doris: Louis, why is that man holding a sign that says “Priority Pass”?

Louis: I will go ask.

Man: If you are a Priority Pass holder, please follow me.

We are entitled to Priority Pass travel benefits around the world because of our credit card, but we have never been greeted as pass-holders, and we had no idea what the man and his sign foreshadowed. Doris was having cinematic visions of a scene where the unsuspecting innocents follow a seemingly friendly guide through a door into a trap.

But follow we did, and now we wish we had taken a picture of the man and his sign because we will remember them with enormous fondness until our last travel days. Out of the crowd, out of the heat and into ….

Our own personal immigration lounge.
Louis in loungeAir conditioning. Seating. A smiling young woman in brilliant tropical colors bearing a tray of cold, bottled water, nuts and sweets, urging us to make ourselves comfortable.
Priority treats

Welcome (hujambo) to Zanzibar.


It turned out that Priority Pass members and a few elite airline travel programs provide a private lounge and visa processing for arriving guests to Zanzibar. While the tired and overheated mob pressed against the three undermanned booths on the other side of the wall, our lovely hostess led Louis with our passports and credit card to the head of the line to pay for our entry, then back to the lounge, where a dedicated customs officer took our photos, stamped our visas into our passports and sent us on our way. All in 15 minutes, max. In the baggage area, our bags were already waiting.

Baggage area

Only two of the smaller roll-ons are ours!

Outside the open area where are bags came in, we cruised past the taxi touts to find our driver from the hotel waving our names.
Waiting driversA moderately bone-jolting ride on the British side of the road later, we were in our hotel being greeted with cool, wet towels and fresh mango juice, given a map and local recommendations. Likely before some of our fellow passengers had their visas, we were sipping Long Island ice teas at a beachside bar, savoring the sunset, watching the fishermen load their boats for a night on the water and all the rest that you dream of when it’s freezing back home. We call that travel karma.
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And then it got better.


Suddenly, the young Russian woman at the next table leapt to her feet and all but dragged us to the railing of the bar, pointing wildly at the water. “Dolphins! Humpback dolphins! Humpbacks! They are the rarest sea mammal of the Indian Ocean!”

We were talking travel karma? Somehow, we ended up at the waterfront, sitting next to a Russian conservationist who can recognize a dolphin species from 100 yards. And then the dolphins started breaching. One after another – up and out of the water into perfect little arcs – all while the locals went on with their jogging and football and sand gymnastics in the foreground.

The Russian woman abandoned her shoes, purse and everything else at the table and went charging down the beach trying to photograph them with her cell phone. Louis stood at the rail, pointing and shooting, and here are the results.

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Up and out

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Down and under


When she came back, Katya told us humpback dolphins are considered to be on the brink of extinction, primarily because they live in shallow waters and are often caught in fishing nets. She has lived and worked in Zanzibar five years and rarely seen them. Not once has she seen them breaching. We were there for a few hours and saw a whole pod of them, with breach after breach.

Doris’s old travel companion Nora used to say that travel karma doesn’t make everything perfect, just perfectly memorable. Cloudless skies and a hundred-year storm are simply different extremes on the karmic scale. By that logic, our EU visa storm and our first hours in Zanzibar both qualify. In our book, we decided this must be our cosmic compensation for the visa snafu that continues to endanger the last month of our trip.


As for our Priority Pass, we have previously proselytized so earnestly about the Chase credit card that confers it so relentlessly that many friends and family members already have your own. Before oiling our way through Tanzanian immigration, the card had already paid for our two most expensive flight segments (on points) and saved us thousands of dollars in trip cancellation/interruption insurance on this trip alone.

If you want the dish on the card, email one of us personally. We will fill you in and send you a referral (that will earn us still more points for more points and blogs, thank you very much) if you decide it fits your needs.

Until then, kwa heri. Goodbye, goodbye.

Still Coming Soon: Oman, O-man

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Just another Zanzibar sunset

Off to the Camel Races

L1180426Our visit to Dubai was a little like the tale of the camel’s nose.

“Oh, master,” bleats the camel from outside the tent where the master prepares for the night. “It is so cold. Can I only put my nose under the flap of your tent to keep it warm?”

A kindly soul, the master agrees, and in comes the nose.

“Oh, master,” whines the camel a bit later. “My ears are so cold. Can I not put my head inside your tent?” Again, the master agrees.

You know how it ends: Eventually, the wily camel insinuates his whole body into the tent, and the master is left out in the cold.

This is an exceptionally appropriate analogy for how we ended up staying in Dubai for four nights and watching camels race.

First, we were just going to fly in from Amsterdam, stay overnight at the airport without ever going to the city, and fly to Oman the next day. Then people started saying, Oh, travelers, you really should at least stick your noses into the city, and we decided to stay a second night.

After that, we started looking at what there was to do, and we decided we should stay three nights, max. And then Doris learned about the camel spectacle at 7 am and 2 pm every Friday (requiring still another night), and we were off to the races.
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We did not walk a mile for a camel (you knew that was coming, right?), but we did Uber about 40 km into the desert from Dubai, pass the Dubai Camel Hospital and then walk maybe half a kilometer to get to the grandstand at the Dubai Camel Racing Club.

Camel racing on the Arabian peninsula, as you can imagine, is probably as old as the men and camels who have shared it. If you have a camel (and, apparently, every self-respecting family does), and camels can run up to 40km per hour, what could be more natural than racing them?

CNN very conveniently reported just a month ago that camel racing is currently enjoying a resurgence in the Emirates. It’s hard to say just how much of a resurgence based upon our afternoon at the races, where there might have been 100 people at the track, half looking suspiciously like tourists and expats. But prize purses reportedly go as high as $2 million and, in neighboring Oman, Beduin families that raise winning camels are routinely rewarded with brand new $75,000 Land Cruisers, producing Beduin villages brimming with Land Cruisers as well as camels.

And that camel at the top of the blog? Probably wearing the fashionable nose guard to keep him from eating anything but the best hand-plucked dates and other performance-enhancing delicacies. Maybe honey. The CNN story said some trainers buy honey for their camels at a cost of about $3,250 per kilogram.

In Dubai, there are two races at the track every Friday in season (the cool months), and they were another Ca vaut le detour in Partout talk. Especially since, like so little in Dubai, they were entirely free to attend.


The similarities between camel and horse racing were the inevitable ones: starting gate, finish line, jockeys in racing colors, trainers and stable hands milling about, and an announcer whose Arabic was clearly saying, And now they are in the home stretch. It’s Humpy in the lead with Chewy a length behind. And now it’s Humpy by a half-length. It’s Humpy by a nose. Now it’s Chewy by a nose. And it’s ….” Chewy by a full length.

L1180530The differences from horse raising were pretty different.

The jockeys were not human. Adult riders were replaced by child riders years ago because a heavy adult was a handicap but, in a burst of humanity toward the camels, the UAE banned child riders in 2002 for 4-kilogram robots, who wear the racing colors.

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Prepping the hump for the rider

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Securing the rider

In the blue

The jockey in place

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The satisfied trainer

The robots are controlled by human camel drivers who ride alongside the course in 4x4s shouting commands into walkie-talkies and operating small automatic whips by remote control. (Like Dave Barry, we are not making this up. We were also in no position to photograph it.)

Camels leave the starting gate in packs of five or six like these guys.
At the gate

They burst out with thoroughbred eagerness.
L1180523The course is so long (up to five miles) and goes so far into the desert that you watch most of the race on Jumbotron-like TV screens. The track actually starts the next race before the current one has ended because there is no chance of overtaking.

Cameras like the one below capture the action, mostly from 4x4s that race alongside the camels and their robots.
Big camera


Once across the finish line, the camels keep moving pretty fast until a trainer catches them, a scene that is like a race bonus.
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If there is betting at the track, we didn’t see it. Every time we approached the clubhouse, we were waved away, barely catching a glimpse inside. There was definitely no beer being downed in the sunshine, and the only women among the spectators were non-locals. There were also no food vendors. Woe to us for arriving with expectations of having lunch.

But, like the hockey game in Prague, how could we resist? And after Dubai itself, the glimpse of ancient Arabia was more than welcome.

(Update on the great visa crisis: Not looking good, but we have the very best working on the case.)  


In the rear-view window:

  • Beaching it, Dubai-style. How they go to the beach in Dubai. Definitely not in Sandpoint any more.
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  • The inevitable indoor ski slope. There’s just no way to skip a ski slope in a shopping mall.
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  • Old still meets new. Despite the glitz and high-rises, there is an “old Dubai” around the creek, where old wooden dhows rock in the current and take on cargo with new Dubai towering in the background.
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    Coming soon: O-Man, Oman
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A Narrow Escape

labyrinth
“You arrived on October 15?”

The customs agent at Amsterdam Schiphol airport flicked his eyes from Doris’s passport to her face and raised his eyebrows.

At 4:30 in the morning, it took a moment for Doris to wake up sufficiently to confirm the date, but she finally nodded.

“You barely made it.” Barely made what? “You can only stay three months. You made it by six days.”

And if we had stayed longer?

“You would have been illegal.” A possibility that never once crossed our minds in planning our five-month adventure or during it.

Since it was 4:30 in the morning, and we were legal, I did not ask the obvious “what if?” question. Now we wish we had.

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A telltale passport


We know people who wouldn’t leave home for five months without every day (and night) planned and people who would leave home without a single one planned. We roam somewhere in between, comfortable with some details left TBD but typically not leaving any fundamentals to chance.

Things like visa requirements definitely come under the “fundamentals” heading. But the practical reality is that planning up to three weeks each in 10 countries is the equivalent of planning 10 years of international vacations at a rate of one country per year or five years at two countries. That’s a lot of fundamentals, not to mention all the accessories.

Doris is the partout planner of our duo, but working until two weeks before our departure from the States left little time to plan one international trip in full, much less 10. The upshot is that little beyond our trans-Atlantic flights and a few house exchanges along the way was settled when we left.  We have pretty much been making it up as we go.

Now, with dawn in Amsterdam still hours away, we learn we are barely escaping the EU in good standing. What’s more, performing an accessory check the night before (shuttle bus from airport), Doris had called the guest house in Dubai only to be told our reservation could not be found—just before the call dropped and could not be reconnected. And, once in the air, Doris realized she couldn’t remember checking the visa requirements for Dubai. So much for nailing the fundamentals.

Aloft for seven hours without internet, there was nothing to be done but sink into a good book and hope for the best. In the scheme of a two-week work holiday, speed bumps like visa problems or unexpected hotel cancellations can feel catastrophic because there is no time to spare. On an extended trip, the one thing generally on your side is time.


In tunnel

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Leaving Amsterdam with six days to spare was not our first exposure to escapes in the week after our departure from France. From the Gare du Nord in Paris, we traveled by train to Maastricht in southern Netherlands to join up with Greg, Carole and Abby and road trip for a few days back to Groningen. There we would repack our bags for the Middle East/Africa leg of our adventure and set off anew.

(Note to friends and followers: Internet access and stability are likely to be erratic until mid-February. Time and place lags and other hiccups are likely to be the norm for a while.)

Although best-known of late as the birthplace of the Euro, Maastricht for most of the last millennium was known primarily for its massive limestone quarries. These supplied the building blocks for innumerable European churches, castles and town halls and left the earth around the old Roman town riddled with tunnels navigable safely only by those intimately familiar with the underground and a durable source of light. Their enduring magnetism is immortalized by graffiti on the rock walls dating from the 15th century.

The quarries once contained more than 20,000 such tunnels snaking close to 150 miles and winding all the way into Belgium. During World War II, they became the site of innumerable narrow escapes. Dozens of Dutch masterpieces from the nation’s beloved Rijksmuseum were stripped from their frames, rolled into tight bundles and stashed in an area of the labyrinth called “the vault” to keep them safe from German bombs. Fleeing Jews and downed Allied pilots were smuggled through them to relative safety in Belgium, where borders to freedom that were more porous.

Invading French revolutionaries in the 18th century did not fare so well. (We are still wondering what French revolutionaries were doing in Maastricht, but that’s another story.) Attempting to blow up a fort atop the quarries, the soldiers packed the cavern below it with gunpowder and ignited it. Sadly, they miscalculated that the munitions would follow the path of least resistance—into the tunnels where they stood. They were incinerated on the spot; the site where they died is now treated as a cemetery.

Nearly three-quarters of the quarry walls were crushed for use in making concrete after the quarrying ended in the 20th century. Today, about 50 miles of tunnels remain, preserved as a national heritage site and open only to visits guided by people like our George. That is sort of a map of them at the top of the blog.

George alone
George is a born story-teller who decided that taking tourists underground beat rotting at home all day after he retired. His training included six months of tunnel orientation and education that culminated with a final test that left him alone in the labyrinth to find his way out.

His first question to the group after the heavy iron doors slams shut is, “What do you do if I have a heart attack down here? Your cell phones don’t work.”

The answer: Don’t move. CPR, yes. Go for help, no. Nothing could be more dangerous than going for help. The tunnels’ history is littered with tales of penal escapees, clandestine lovers and others who found their way in and never came out (or narrowly escaped with their lives by sheer luck) because they were foolhardy enough to think they could find their way out.

To illustrate his point, George invites anyone uncomfortable with total darkness to join him as he walks ahead and takes all the lanterns with him. The rest of us are left to follow in the darkness for 50 meters or so until we catch up. We grope and shuffle along, each person gripping the stumbler directly ahead with one invisible hand and feeling the wall with the other.

It is dark, it is creepy, it is unimaginable being trapped below ground without light. The fleeing Jews and pilots must have endured it only because the alternative was far worse.

Vestal

This painting on a tunnel wall depicts a vestal virgin, keeper of the eternal flame in old Rome. George said she was there as a reminder that without light, there is no life. Yikes.


Our narrow escape was only virtual. We still had six days remaining to leave the EU, and it turned out US citizens need no visas in Dubai. We waltzed through UAE customs. Our hotel reservation was in order. And it took Doris a mere two phone calls to fill in the most urgent missing fundamental in our itinerary: getting from Dubai to the starkly beautiful isolation of Oman’s Musandam peninsula without a rental car or any public transportation.

Our time hadn’t run out, but it may be another matter for our luck. We shared dinner tonight in Khasab with a charming couple who are sailors from Leesburg, Virginia. They keep a boat and sail from Spain so they navigate the visa waters regularly. When we cheerfully recounted our narrow escape from Amsterdam, the husband filled us in on what happens to people trying to leave the Netherlands illegally: A stiff fine, deportation and a ban on entering any EU country for some number of years. Some countries are stricter than others. The Netherlands is among the strictest.

That was still narrow escape stuff, but the rest was not: the 90 days applies to any 180-day period. We are scheduled back into the EU on February 12 and out again on March 15. That would be 117 days within a 180-day period. Illegal.

Back to the fundamentals. At least time is on our side.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • A return to gezellig. Partout’s very first blog was about Dutch coziness. If you weren’t on the road with us then, our return to the Netherlands is as good an excuse as any to catch up on chasing gezellig.
    gezellig
  • Talk about gezellig. Our road (actually, rail) trip with the Fuller3 took us to Utrecht for a night. Dutch cities don’t get any more Dutch than this.
    Utrecht
  • Happy family faces. Since we orbit around Groningen, once in a while, we have to show its main attraction. And heeeere they are, outside the tunnels of Maastricht.
    F3

Coming Soon: Off to the Camel Races