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. 

Monday, 5 September 2016

Pregnancy in Oman: Part 1


Hesitantly, I label this part one. I have the very best of intentions to make this at least a two part post, but anyone who has read this blog even semi-regularly will know I can be a very lazy blogger.

I'm into the last stretch of my pregnancy, and I thought it would be nice for myself to document how its all been going as well as a little bit about how the process works in Oman.

I'll start with me...

I figured out I was pregnant pretty quickly, at about four weeks, and decided soon after that we would keep the news to ourselves until the traditional 12-week mark. I was excited, happy, and fearful all at the same time, which for baby number one I expect is entirely normal. My main fears were about being so far away from home: I still don't understand the health system or process here. More than anything, I was disappointed that I wouldn't get to share the pregnancy progress with my family. Having shared every major life milestone with them up to now this still seems like a huge one to be missing.

I didn't get any morning sickness, I did, however, hibernate for a good couple of weeks, feeling completely exhausted all the time. That wasn't helped by getting a cold that I had no idea how to treat, and I doubted my usual pop-Panadol-until-you-feel-normal strategy was a good one. This was also my first experience of the health centre, which I'll get to later. Pretty much on cue, at 12 weeks I felt better again, but from what I understand the tiredness will creep back in again soon.

Other random symptoms I had in the first trimester included having a metallic taste in my mouth, all the time. Eating helped, but eating non-stop isn't a solution. I had read about women suffering from this for the whole pregnancy, which I dreaded, but luckily it stopped. Disappointingly, I haven't had any cravings. The only difference is wanting my drinks extra cold because I always feel overheated, but considering the temperatures this summer I'm not sure that counts as a craving. I think I'll have to make up a craving and send my husband out for some random treat at a weird hour...just to say I've done that.

I felt the first "flutters" at around 13 weeks, but considering one of the "side-effects" of pregnancy are digestions issues (I'll say no more), I was never sure what was baby and what was digestion. As for the first official kicks, they were a couple of weeks later (I'm regretting not making more of a mental note of the date), and now the baby is very active at random points in the day and will stop when anyone wants to feel.

Ok, enough of me and now onto the baby and healthcare.

As I mentioned, my first experience of the local health centre was when I caught a cold, which made me feel even more tired and weak than I had been feeling. I took the day off work and spent most of it in bed, then went to the health centre to get a sick note and maybe some drugs. After waiting over half an hour, I was asked if I would mind seeing a male doctor and because I didn't, I could be seen sooner. I explained my symptoms and mentioned as a passing comment that I was six weeks pregnant. The horror that passed over the doctor's face was quite something, and he told me that if I was pregnant I really needed to see a female doctor. I told him I wasn't there about the pregnancy specifically that I just felt awful and needed him to bare that in mind if he thought I should take anything. He told me I needed bed-rest and then granted me a generous one-day leave from work (the day I had already called in sick). I let the sickness ride itself out, and slept a lot at my desk.

I started off at Starcare thinking that our insurance would cover me, I had a scan to get a rough idea of how far along I was and was advised that I would need to have a bookings appointment and get my green card. Since this would all be at a cost at Starcare, I went to my local health centre and decided to continue my care there.

What I didn't realise at the time is that you can register at any health centre, and some will have more facilities and different types of doctors available than others. I just went to the one closest to my home. They took blood to test my glucose levels, HIV status, and some other blood-related things, and a urine sample to test for infection. There are no appointments at the health centres, and you are seen first-come-first-serve. It took me a good half hour to figure that out. Even though you check-in at reception, you aren't called in by the doctor, and you need to walk into the doctor's office and leave your green card/ID on the table otherwise you'll just be hanging out in the waiting room. After a week I returned to get all the results and be officially registered as pregnant, which is when I got my green card, had a dating scan with a radiologist, and a brief visit with the doctor. The strangest part of the doctor's consultation was that as part of the chest exam I was given some advice about how I should breastfeed, which seemed utterly useless at that stage of the pregnancy especially since all the information I was given about my next appointment was "check-up".

At that same appointment, I was booked in for my 5-month scan, which would be at a local polyclinic since the health centre didn't have the facilities. I was also asked to come in for a glucose test since I have a family history of diabetes. Again no set times for either appointment, but showing up as soon as the clinic opens has been a good strategy for getting in and out as quickly as possible. I would say all my appointments and check-ups have averaged at two-hours. The polycentre where I had my 5-month scan is especially efficient, having my fasting blood sugar results processed within two hours. The only disappointing part of the experience was that my husband wasn't allowed to join me for the scan purely based on the radiologist being a bit miserable. Considering that our first view of the baby together was nothing but a small blob, we were both excited to see something a little more human and from speaking to the nurses it was at the radiologist's discretion if your husband could attend so to be told he couldn't come in with me was very upsetting. I was given some excuse about time, but I don't think him sitting in the corner would have affected anything; it's just a totally female environment, and she was being miserable. The scan reassured me that all was as well as they could tell growth-wise.

Having hit the third trimester now, check-ups will be monthly, and I have another scan booked in just over a month before the baby is due.

My overall feeling of the pregnancy is one of ignorance: I haven't really seen anyone or been told that much. There is no assigned midwife to call with any questions (which is the system in the UK), and I haven't seen the same doctor twice. While everyone has access to my notes, that is nowhere near the same as having a doctor or midwife who has seen and had regular conversations with you. Also, there is also no general care, and by this I mean general advice about the pregnancy and what to expect, how to stay comfortable, if certain symptoms are normal and how to deal with them. I've had to turn to the internet and books to get the answers. The doctors also ask questions without giving me the information to answer them properly. For example, "are the babies kicks good?" Based on me feeling kicks, they're great, but should they be more or less? That's something I would expect the doctor to tell me.

While I've tried not to think about the birth, being only 11 weeks away now, I would expect some advice or to be asked if I have any ideas or preferences about how it happens. I don't think there are any birthing or antenatal classes (although I have seen some advertised privately). I know every woman says that birth plans tend to go out of the window, but I have no idea if they encourage natural, drug-free births, if something like an episiotomy is routine, or if my preferences will be respected and taken into consideration. My biggest fear is them doing things without my consent.

There are times I wonder if using the government facilities was a wise move mostly because I know they will continue to tell me nothing without a lot of questioning and effort on my part. Having read blogs about other people's birth experiences in private facilities, I don't know if that would have been a better option and as I write and think more about this the temptation to jump on a plane back home is huge. Ultimately, I think I am just going to have to take the attitude that it will all come down to luck (keeping my fingers crossed that I have helpful and compassionate staff on the day, and the baby comes out without too much difficulty), and this would be the case wherever in the world I am.

I may post a blog about the books and resources I have found helpful but, otherwise, I will try to go back to regular postings and follow-up with my (hopefully) happy birth experience story sometime after November! 

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