Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Life lately: Baby and me

It's been just over three months since I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I expect that this blog, at least for a little while, will become very baby focused while the exploring and adventures are on pause. The plan is to make this space a sort of diary for him, too. I heard another mum saying that she is actually doing just that, writing a line or two a day to look back on later so the smaller milestones don't get missed. But, I'm being realistic and know that with all the best intentions I won't find time to do that. So the plan is once a month to do an update here.


Baby A now weighs 6.4kg, double his birth weight, and is a long 61 cm. I mention his height because we bought the cutest little bed before he was born, and the idea was that he would sleep in that for 6 months (as advertised) while we found something that's nice and more permanent. But he grew too big for it almost immediately, and he is now in a travel cot while we continue the search. The first night we put him in there he spread his arms wide, making the most of his extra space, I guess.

Overall, he's a good baby - very chilled out, and he doesn't cry for no reason, although it did take me a while to understand what different cries and whinges meant. The first six weeks I had my mum here, which was a huge help. I could sneak away for naps while she watched him and actually fit in things like showering and eating. Once she left things were very different, and I was mentally high-fiving myself if I managed to do as much as wash my face. Naturally, by six weeks he was that much more alert during the day, and he started to demand all of my attention all the time. I do remember one occasion after a quick trip to the bathroom when I returned to a bright red, screaming face full of tears. I felt so guilty. It was and still is, difficult to walk away from him without hearing some sounds. Rather than babbles, he likes to practice the sounds he'll use when he is actually in distress, which was very confusing for me before I realised. I'd come over to find out what was wrong only to be greeted with a huge smile.

As for milestones, his head is pretty stable, he definitely recognises me, smiles a lot, babbles and coos, pulls himself forward when he is sitting on me and is unconsciously grabbing things. He does swipe for his toys in the jungle gym, and I'm sure any day now he'll finally grab them and then it will be time to watch where we place things and start saying "no" at lot. When he is on the changing table, he wants to practice his rolling (although I expect the freedom of no nappy helps). He did once roll from front to back, but he hasn't done it since. I started doing tummy time quite early on, but he tolerates it for different amounts of time depending on the day.

People seem to love to ask if he is sleeping through the night yet. He's not. But his night-time sleep is, generally, better than daytime. Only in the last two weeks have I managed to get him to sleep at all during the day. In the early days, I couldn't read when he was tired, but even when I realised he fought so much with me, and I would give up quite easily. He'd eventually fall asleep feeding, and we developed a bit of a bad cycle. We now have a system of patting and shushing and then placing him down in that key "drowsy but awake" state. In theory, when he reaches the end of a sleep cycle and does a "check" he will recognise that he is sleeping in the same place and go back to sleep - he doesn't, but I'm happy that he is at least getting some sleep now and understands that patting and shushing means sleepy-time. The bedtime routine we have of feed, bath, massage and pat works a treat. I've even started to be daring and skip the patting in favour of just placing him down and waiting for him to sleep. We then get a stretch anywhere between 4 and 7 hours (no idea how to consistently get the longer stretch) and then we feed and sleep again (usually, 3-hour stretches). Occasionally, everything goes pear-shaped, and he's up every hour-and-a-half, which I think is down to digestion issues. Late-night-googling suggests I should cut out dairy from my diet, but I may just reduce it for now and see if it helps.

In the last week or so he's also got much better at travelling in the car. Every trip would result in a lot of tears (mine and his), and I dreaded having to take him anywhere. Because he was feeding at least every two hours, too, all journey's had to be arranged around that. Now I can usually time our trips out when he is due for a nap, and he'll drift off in the car.


Where to start. I think I've finally come to terms with the fact that I'll never sleep deeply or for more than a few hours ever again, and the desire to smother my husband while he snores away at night is subsiding - which is good. Thankfully, I had a really good labour (full post to come), and within about two weeks I was physically over the birth. Naively, I didn't expect it to take that long - no one talks about the after effects of labour, and I had done so much reading about what to expect before the baby came, but nothing about after. As much I knew I would be tired and that it was going to be hard work, it was that much harder than I'd imagined. Breastfeeding was also a much bigger challenge than I expected. I always thought you would just pop the baby on, he would eat for a few minutes and be done. The pain and discomfort that came with it and the days when I had to feed for hours on end was a huge shock. I remember crying because it hurt so much, and really wanting to give up, but at the same time really not wanting to. The hospital was useless, they didn't help at all and were quick to try and discourage me. I'd already been to a birth prep and breastfeeding course at Nine (based in The Walk, Al Mouj) and the midwives there were on hand to help me. Had it not been for their help I know I would have given up.

It is funny reflecting now because I know there were lots of moments when I felt that that was it, life was just going to be like that forever. He'll never sleep, I'll never eat a meal hot again, etc, but slowly things have changed. I'm proud of myself just for getting this far, he's healthy and thriving, and I'm the reason for that.

Although I've lost the baby weight, I'm still coming to terms with the physical change in my body. I'm going to take the slow and steady approach to getting fit again. There's been a lot of reaching for junk food for comfort and because it's easy. I always ate pretty well, and this has been the period of my life when my diet has suffered when it's more important that I eat better.

A big decision I made after the birth was to give up work. Maternity leave in Oman is 50 days. As I was discharged from the hospital, I was given a sick note starting my leave on the day I was admitted. So I was already three days down by the time I got home. I'd always planned to just see how I felt about returning to work, and the sick note didn't start me off in the best frame of mind. I quickly realised that I wouldn't be ready to leave a 50-day-old baby anywhere. I did have to go back to work for two weeks to complete my notice, and I'm glad that I had that experience. I struggled being up at night with him and trying to focus on tasks during the day. I had been feeling irresponsible for giving up a job in a place where it's hard to find work, and for losing extra income, but those two weeks made me realise I had made the right choice for me.


I realise this post is getting long, but I wanted to also add a bit about my experience of Muscat now that I have an infant. Firstly, where are all the breastfeeding spaces? I've heard rumours of rooms to feed in Babyshop stores, but I was in Avenues Mall the other day and didn't find anywhere. So far I've managed to go unnoticed in the corners of coffee shops when it is feeding time. I have a cover, but I am concerned about potentially offending people. Secondly, what do I do now? Now he is a bit easier to go out with, and I want to get out of the house, but I'm stuck for places to go. There are only so many times you can pace up and down the same malls. Maybe this is just the in between phase and when he is more mobile we'll hit all the soft play areas.

Finally, I'm curious to know if any other mums here had comments when they had to take their baby out in the early days? I had staff in Carrefour telling me I should be at home, and a lot of tuts and disapproving looks mainly from older women. I'm not sure if I was ultra sensitive, though?

Well, if you reached the end of this, well done and thank you, I appreciate the patience in my absence. The next post will be the labour experience, and after that, there should be an update from me at least once a month. If you are a mum in Muscat (or anywhere really), I'd love to hear from you about your experiences and what you do to keep yourselves entertained.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Beyond Oman: Diving in the Red Sea

Leaving it so long to write up this post has worked out quite well. It's nice to reminisce about the last holiday and the last time I was able to dive before I found out I was expecting. We visited Egypt in February going primarily because of a friends wedding, but deciding to make a diving and a sight-seeing break out of it, too. This post will focus on the diving holiday.

The Red Sea is probably one of the best-known diving and snorkelling locations, and I can see why. That said, February isn't the best time of year to go, but more on that later.

We decided to stay away from the typical resort location of Sharm El Sheik and stay a little outside of Hurghada in Safaga. Although from Europe it is one flight straight to Hurghada, we had to take three. Oman to Amman, Amman to Cairo, and Cairo to Hurghada. On arrival, we were picked up by a very entertaining driver called Mahmood who spent the journey telling us all the problems with Egypt and the Middle East and what he would do to solve them. He also told us just how bad the tourism situation was. Ours was the first job he had had in a week. I expected the area to be quite (February isn't peak diving season), but not as quite as it was. Our resort had a total of five guests, and that was after we arrived. The other resorts in the area had similar numbers. So great for tourists looking for a cheap deal, but not so good for the locals trying to make a living.

We stayed at Orca Village, a hotel linked to the Orca Dive Resort. The general idea behind a diving holiday is that is all you do. Our routine was to rise early for breakfast, get on the boat at 8 am, and then spend the day at sea. The diving only takes up two hours, and you don't even travel that far out to get to the dive sites, but you spend a lot of time just relaxing and enjoying the ocean. We would arrive back at the dock/hotel at around 4 pm, shower and rest, then dinner at around 7 and bed by 9 pm, ready to repeat the whole thing the next day.

Before this trip, I'd only ever travelled by speed boat to dive sites, which isn't the most comfortable way of travelling. While the Orca Dive Club owns a few different boats, because of the locations we were visiting and the number of guests we spent all our days on the Alia 3, which is a nice big boat with a good area for kitting up and a sundeck to relax on in between dives. Lunch was freshly prepared on the boat every day and never failed to impress. Diving is one of those things that makes you very hungry and a lot of the time any food will do, but the guys on the boat did a great job, and every day was different. The dinner at the hotel was also fantastic, and catering for such a small number of people meant that we had what seemed more like home cooking than your typical hotel buffet.

Wow, all these words, and no mention of the diving yet. No surprises that it was amazing. The Red Sea is full of coral and lots of interesting sea life, and the visibility was always great. We mostly saw small things, and it was nice that a lot of them were things we hadn't seen before, but there is big stuff to be seen (sharks, dolphins, etc.) at the right time of year and site.

Rather than waffle on much more, I'll leave you to enjoy lots of pictures instead. We also fit in our advanced diving course out there, which worked out cheaper than Oman and were lucky to get an excellent instructor. If I had to pick a negative about the whole trip, it's that the water was freezing! As I mentioned before February is not diving season and even with a thermal rash guard, two thick wetsuits and a hood, I found it pretty cold. But, that just gives us an excuse to go back in the summer when the water is warm and you don't even need a wetsuit.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Road trip: The Roses of Jebel Akhdar

After several failed attempts to explore Jebel Akhdar, I finally made it up there to see the roses in bloom back in April.

Jebel Akhdar (translation, the Green Mountain), is part of the Al Hajar Mountain range. It takes about an hour and a half to drive to from Muscat, or less depending if you have a driver who likes to put his foot down. At its peak, the mountain is 3,000 metres high, and you don't appreciate just how high this is until you arrive at the base and get your first glimpse at the steep the road to the top.

The mountains are the perfect place to escape to in the summer since it is significantly cooler up there. The temperature was 30 degrees at the base and 20 degrees at the top.

It is called the Green Mountain because at the higher altitudes there is precipitation, which means the land is moist enough to allow the growth of shrubs and trees and support agriculture, which includes pomegranates, apricots, peaches, and walnuts. This time, we were here for the roses. The roses are used to make the famous Omani rosewater, which we were told was the most sought-after rose water in the region. It is added to drinks and food, typically Omani halwa and coffee, and it is also thought to be good for the heart, arthritis, and headaches if you rub it in the relevant areas.

We visited the rose gardens and distiller with Guide Oman. They have a great relationship with a few Omani heritage workers, Abdullah being one of them. Abdullah is one of five Omani's left making rose water the traditional way. According to him, he had been making water since the day his eyes had opened. He wakes up early in the morning when its cool (and before the petals get a chance to bloom fully and lose their aroma) and picks the flowers. It takes 7.5kg of roses to make a Vimto sized bottle of rose water, which is a lot of roses.

The whole flower is then put into an earthenware pot with water, sealed up, and a wood fire lit underneath and left to boil for a couple of hours. The rose-flavoured steam then condenses into a metal container that is inside the pot, and it is then filtered to get rid of the oily residue. This produces a dark and very smoky-smelling rose water, which is nothing like the rose water that I expect everyone has seen and smelt before. The 'traditional', clear rose water is produced by boiling the flowers rather than the wood burner technique.

After seeing the distillery, we walked along to Seeq Village, part of Saiq Plateau. There we got to see the Damascus rose bushes as well as pomegranates, onions, garlic, walnuts, figs and other plants I didn't recognise, and lots of toads.

We then had a very tasty lunch at the Sahab Hotel, which has spectacular views from the gardens of the terraces.

The roses season is over for this year so if you do want to see them mark April on your calendar as the best time. Guide Oman are mostly known for their desert crossing trips, but they do offer unique experiences like these and the relationships they have mean that you do get access to places and people that you might not otherwise see just making the journey there yourself. We paid 45 OMR for the day (which included lunch and drinks). Details of this and the other tours they offer can be found on their website.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Al-Hoota Cave

I've been feeling this push to tick off as many Oman attractions as physically possible before the baby arrives. Al-Hoota Cave was something I read about before I even moved to Oman, but until about two weeks ago it had been closed.

Now there are two sides to the cave experience, being inside the cave and waiting to get inside. I'll start with the former.

The cave is estimated to be over 2 million years old, and while it has a total length of 4.5 km, about 0.5 km is accessible via a guided tour. Inside are epic rock formations created by water. You enter the cave via an electric train in groups of around 75 and walk along stairs and ramps to explore the various parts. The pace of the tour is a comfortable one, which is great considering it is very hot and humid inside. The guides stop at various points and tell you a bit about the history of the cave, how it was formed, animals living inside etc, and it takes around 45 minutes to do the full circuit.

The cave has been closed for the last four years, but once you step inside you can see the effort that has gone into making it suitable for visitors; there are sturdy paths and steps and good lighting (although there doesn't seem to be disabled access). The cave is mostly rocky, but towards the end of the tour there is a lake, which contains some blind fish and provides a much-needed breeze before you make your way to the exit and take the train back to the main entrance. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to fill this post with pretty pictures of the inside of the cave because you aren't allowed to take any, but it is definitely worth a visit, and in theory you could combine it with a trip up to Jebel Shams, as the cave is found at the base of the mountain. It's also worth mentioning that there is a very interesting museum that you can also visit, which has a bit more information about the cave and the general geology of Oman, and there is a place to get food and drinks.

The reason say "in theory" you could combine a trip to the cave with another activity is that getting inside is quite another thing. The cave does have a fancy new website to go with it, and there you can book tickets for a particular time slot, and find out more information about the cave. It certainly gives off a very professional vibe, and you would expect a very organised, smooth operation when you get there.

The first problem starts in the car park. Considering the cave can take 750 visitors a day, there isn't enough parking to accommodate everyone, and if you are unlucky you'll have to park a fair walk away. It's the same with the waiting area inside, and there is general chaos as everyone pushes and bundles together to either sort out their tickets or get on the train. Unfortunately, the people in charge don't do a good job of letting people know there is a system (you get assigned a group number when you collect your tickets) and it means that people just start pushing and generally being disorderly. We did book ahead and had a 12.45 time slot, but this seems mostly arbitrary, and we didn't get in until around 2.30. Interestingly on that day they had been taking bookings between 1 and 2pm, even though we were told there was a "break" at that time. I'm not sure if that break happens every day, but it's worth noting. Your best bet would be to arrive first thing in the morning, and make sure to book tickets as I've heard you can get turned away otherwise.

I don't know if we got particularly unlucky with the day we went (Eid holidays, a few days after opening) but, I hope, the running issues get sorted out quickly and the cave can be the nice addition to the Oman attraction scene that it should be.

Check out Al-Hoota Cave website, here, for more information and to book tickets.