Thursday, 26 March 2015

Diving: Learning open-water theory

open water dive manual PADI
Anyone that has ever met me, even briefly, would not describe me as an outdoor person. I don't like grass or sand, I certainly don't like picnicking on them, or eating outside at all in fact. My relationship with nature and wildlife has always been "you leave me alone and I'll leave you alone."

Thinking about it, I don't really like water that much either. I never put my head underwater while swimming and my husband tells me that I make a very distressed looking face when I run my head under the shower.

With all this in mind you would be right to wonder why I would decide to try diving: but something about the idea of exploring the underwater world has always appealed to me. As a younger and much less fearful teenager, I almost did a fun dive on holiday in Turkey, but I woke up sick on the day of the dive and we had to cancel.

Oman is a great location for diving, lots of coral apparently, and my husband already has his licence so the idea is that we can be each others "buddies" when the heat kicks in and underwater is the only place to escape it.

So I've spent the past few evenings swatting up on the basic theories of diving. The main thing I have learnt is that you must always breathe. In theory, this shouldn't be difficult -- except that when I get nervous or I'm concentrating I hold my breath and this you must never do or your lungs might explode (well rupture). Seriously.

I have learnt about the relationship between depth, pressure, volume, and density (which are very relevant to the lung repture risk). I've started learning the signals for "I'm out of air" "I'm in distress" and "I'm cold," which are all very obvious, and I have been getting myself familiar with the equipment you need to keep yourself safe and alive.

The concepts of diving are all very logical, the challenge will be being not letting my nerves get the better of me and remembering to breathe.

I'm nervous, but excited at the same time. It has taken a lot of willpower this week not to Google things like "how many people die learning to dive?"

The first dive is in confined water where I will be practicing how to control things like buoyancy, how to set up my kit and, most importantly, how to breathe.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Off-Road: Daymaniyat Island

You can't get more off-road than travelling by sea right? Well that is what we did this weekend, visiting Daymaniyat Island, a site better known for diving.

Diving wasn't on the agenda on this occasion (although I am starting diving certification course next weekend!) Instead we wanted to chill and enjoy the sunshine. 

We met at Seeb port at 8.30am, and set sail on a traditional dhow boat at about 9am. The boat benefits from an air conditioned lower deck, and an upper deck that is part outdoors and part indoors so you can get in and out of the heat as you wish. I parked myself in the majlis and crossed my fingers that my seasickness wouldn't kick in, but luckily the sea was very calm and after about 90 minutes we arrived at the island.

Being a nature reserve/protected site the boat had to anchor itself a little away from the island and we were then taken over in batches in a smaller boat and left to enjoy ourselves. The crowd was made up of friends of friends so the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed; there was music, dancing, and a generally just a happy vibe.

I failed a little on the blogging front: for fear of my camera ending up at the bottom of the sea I left it on the boat. The island is beautiful though, and I would urge you to plan a trip yourself. On some parts of the island you might be lucky enough to see a bit of wildlife. On this occasion, I spied crabs -- a lot of them, huge ones. The sand is a little odd, on the most part it is fine, soft sand, but there are these larger rocks and shells determined to ruin your day when you accidently step on them or kick them, which I did, and I ended up with a purple toe. As inviting as the water looked, it was ice cold, I'm not sure if it is like this all year round, and it took me two attempts before I finally plucked up the courage to get in properly.

After the dhow crew managed to lure us all off the island and back onto the boat we enjoyed a lunch of rice, meat and fish, and headed back to Muscat in time for dusk.

Since we were invited along as friends of friends I have no idea how you would go about organising a private trip yourself. Google is your friend though. I know that there are trips that can be organised as part of a tour and again, ask Google for options. I do know that The Phoenix Group is arranging a trip in early April so if you are a member do get in touch with them, I'm sure you will enjoy it. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Out and about: A trip to the tailors

Driving around the streets of Muscat you will notice the shops are one of three things, restaurants, beauticians, or tailors.

Although you can buy clothes off the rack, it seems local men and women have their clothes custom made, and for women this is especially true for evening dresses.
So with a close family members wedding coming up I needed two dresses, one for the reception, and another for a celebration lunch the following day.
evening dress fabric
dress design
fabric shops muscat
I have only ever purchased clothes off the rack and even my wedding dress wasn't custom made for me, so I went along to the tailors with no idea what to expect. 

I already had some fabric for one dress gifted to me by my mother-in-law, a beautiful gold embroidered fabric. It was a bit on the flash side and had to be special because I couldn't have just any dress made -- in my husband's culture I am considered a bride until I have a baby, and I have to dress the part, generally this means the dress is extremely long and there is a train involved.

Choosing the design for that dress was fairly easy, we already had the fabric and therefore had to come up with the best design for the amount we had. I say "we" but I really had no idea what was going on and left my sister-in-laws and the tailor to decide, and they presented me with a sketch of the design

For the lunch occasion dress, which I had already decided would be purple, I flicked through fashion magazines and pointed out designs I liked. I ended up selecting something that reminded me of Maleficent, a dress with lots of flowing fabric and movement, nipped in at the waist for some definition. Again they drew me a sketch, and told me how much fabric I would need to buy and that any detailing that would be added to the fabric we would decide at the fitting. Fabric shops in Oman are also plenty and for two different fabrics at 3 metres each I paid 10OMR. 

The turnaround time for the dresses was very quick, I was back for my first and final fitting after a week. It gave me the opportunity to point out any problems and add additional beading. The dresses were very fitted, giving me no room to gain weight if I plan on wearing again. More problematic than this they were a little bit difficult to walk and sit down in, but I guess comfort wasn't the aim here.

For both dresses I paid about 160OR, which is reasonable for something so individual, that said I am not convinced I would go through the fuss of getting a custom made dress again, dresses off the rack are fine for me, and they are usually made with comfort in mind too.

I have since been gifted more fabric, but for day dresses. This time I plan on taking a dress that I already own that fits well and asking the tailor to use the measurements and pattern to make the new dress. My sister-in-law knows of a new, cheaper tailor that specialises in this sort of thing (as opposed to party gowns) so we'll see how I feel about tailoring after that.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Out and about: Silver shopping in Mutrah Souk

Really I should have written a post taking an overall look at the Mutrah souk first....but shopping for jewellery is much more exciting so I will start there.

The souk is easily one of my favourite places in Muscat, I like the architecture and generally I like the atmosphere of any market.

You can find anything from scarves to antiques, and even industrial scale cooking pots (if you need that sort of thing!) Of course the most interesting things for me are the jewelry and, even though there is a large gold area, if you are prepared to rummage in a few of the more general stores you can find some real beauties when it comes to silver.
silver jewellery muscat muttrah souk 
silver rings muscat muttrah souk
My favourite shop to peruse is pictured below. To find it you walk straight through the main entrance and down to the cross-section in the middle and head to the first shop on the left. The jewellery selection isn't huge but the shopkeepers are honest about was is pure silver and what is just silver plated. That said I would always look out for the "925" stamp that should be on all silver jewellery which means that it is 92.5% silver. This isn't a rule, by the way, some silver isn't stamped based on my research, but it is a good place to start.
hertitage centre muttrah souq
I don't keep track of the cost of silver, but since these pieces typically contain some sort of stone it is difficult to know just on weight alone what the worth is, and so the haggling begins.

I've been told that you should get down to at least 50% of the price you were originally quoted for a fair price. I've never managed that but I have got up to 40% off, which I was pleased with. Typically such bracelets as the one I got below are quoted at 18-19OMR, I got mine for 11OMR. Rings seem to vary that much more. For similar styles to the one I purchased below, with the same semi-precious stones, I have been quoted between 10 and 45 OMR (I paid 10OMR, of course).
silver bracelet
silver ring semi-precious gem stonesAs a Brit, honestly I'm not that comfortable with haggling, but I do think it is important that you come away with a price that you are happy to pay. Generally there is room for negotiation (this is true for everything in Oman), but if you let it be known that you have set your heart on whatever piece you've spied then sellers will be more reluctant to budge. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Eating Out: Hotel Alila

My attempts to explore Jebel Akhdar so far haven't gone so well, the car deciding to break down just before the assent on the last trip (link) being a great example. More recently we did make it up the mountain, but with a grandad, a pregnant woman, and two children to consider trekking wasn't on our to-do list. We did end up at the Hotel Alila for lunch though, so I'm not complaining.

Once you reach the top of Jebel Akhdar the hotel is quite a drive in, but the view en route is amazing. Despite the name, the mountain isn't as green as I expected (I miss green), but I was told for Oman it is. 

The hotel is quite impressive, from afar it isn't very imposing, barely noticeable. All buildings are built from or at least faced with local stone, blending into the surroundings. The outside space has been left in what looks like a natural state, lots of stones, flowers and trees adding to the beauty. 

The hotel is actually set on the edge of a canyon, I imagine the view from the rooms must be quite breathtaking, but you do get a good view from the restaurant if you are brave enough to walk to the edge. We'll be saving our baisas and hopefully stay for a night or two one day. 

But back to our reason for being there and the Juniper restaurant. We arrived for a late lunch so we had the restaurant to ourselves. The menu is quite modern, with the obvious Arabic touches. They also have a good selection of non-alcoholic cocktails.

We were served bread to begin with, surprisingly with olive oil and crushed nuts, a combination I hadn't tried before. We had a pumpkin soup starter, which was very good and I selected the vegetable tagine as my main, while my husband chose steak. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a steak snob, I much prefer to cook it at home and never choose it at a restaurant, but to my surprise Juniper's offering was impressive. The steak was cooked medium-well and was still juicy and tender. I managed to convince my husband that we should really share our he could get to try more of the menu, of course. Finally for dessert I chose the cheesecake. After this I was stuffed and ready for the food-induced sleep back down the mountain.
Unsurprisingly, the restaurant isn't cheap, for 7 people (5 adults, 2 children) we paid 160OR. That was for 4 soups, 7 drinks, 7 mains (two of which were childrens), 2 deserts, and 2 coffees. We'll probably have to save a few more baisas if we do ever go back to stay the night since the restaurant is the only place for food for miles. 

For more information about the hotel visit the link!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Camping: 1000 Nights Camp, Wahiba Sands

I assume most people work up from regular camping to glamping. I'm not convinced I will enjoy a true camping experience, but when my sister arrived in Muscat and said she wanted to see the sands I decided that this time we should experience something a bit more "authentic".
1000 nights camp oman wahiba sands
1000 nights camp oman wahiba sands tent
1000 nights camp oman wahiba sands tent inside
We booked a stay at 1000 Nights Camp. The camp is an hour drive in from the main road; so it's far, approximately 40km in, and you need to know where you are going because once you get deep into the desert there is no phone signal. Annoyingly, the GPS coordinates on the website are wrong, but I have included them below. As you would expect, driving that far into the desert you do get the sense of total isolation, it is easy to be the only car in sight and when you are trying to beat sunset it adds to the thrill of the drive.
When you eventually get there, you arrive at a very authentic looking camp, plus a swimming pool. The tents are typical of what you would expect and depending on your budget you can go basic or luxury. We opted for the Sheikh tent, which has no AC but does have its own "bathroom". Since at this time of year it actually gets very cold at night not having AC is not a problem. I would suggest you take a jumper, and some socks.

Having never been camping showering outside was certainly a new experience for me. I'm not sure I was really that clean though after my 30 second shower, but the lukewarm water and cold air certainly woke me up.

When we first arrived at the camp we wanted to catch the sunset from the top of the dunes again, but since this camp doesn't offer a drive up there and we had to give ourselves plenty of time to walk up the dune, which is steep and tough! The climb reminded me why I really should start doing more exercise. What's nice is that the camp does have sandboards for you to use so if you can drag more than yourself up the dune, it's a fun way to come back down.
wahiba sands sunset1000 nights camp oman birds eye view
1000 nights camp bbq
When evening came we had a BBQ dinner, which was ok, but I think by this time we were all exhausted, a little cold, and ready for sleep. Breakfast the next morning was good, freshly cooked omelets and crepes were available as well as cereals, fruit, and sausages. We then wandered around the camp before checking out, taking a look at the animals and once it started to heat up I realised why the camp also has a pool.

We heading off to Wadi Bani Khalid again for another explore of the area, which was just as beautiful as the first time.
1000 nights camp horses
1000 nights camp animals You can read about Wadi Bani Khalid, here, and our first experience in Wahiba Sands at the very glamourous Desert Nights Camp, here

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Being an expat woman

expat life better worse
Having re-read my one-year update post (link) I realised I came across a little negative. I don't want to be mistaken, there are lots of things I do like about Oman, but if I am honest I struggled a lot when I moved here and I found it hard to see the good. So there are still days when I feel like what should be simple tasks are much more difficult than they need to be and I just want to go home. That impression that outsiders might get that life as an expat woman is easy and carefree just doesn't add up in my experience.

As a female I think transitioning is that much harder. My husband is what I believe to be a typical man, put him anywhere in the world with a couch, a TV, and food, and he's happy: no adjustment needed. He admits this himself. He moved here for work three years before me, I resisted joining him all that time, reluctant to give up my career and a life that I was happy with. In London I had a good job (with a career path), a wide circle of friends, my family, was out enjoying the city most nights, and had access to what I wanted when I wanted it. Life was generally just convenient. Most importantly, I was never bored.

I knew moving to Oman would mean I would lose all that, and being financially and emotionally dependant on one person didn't exactly fit in with the girl power/independent woman ideal that as a '90s kid I grew up with.

Additionally, when I arrived it was very much about fitting into the life my husband had already set up, home and furnishings were already selected, and friends and favourite spots to hang out/eat/shop established. If I were to give advice to a couple wanting to move abroad then I would say you should make the move together, that way you are both involved in the process and all those new experiences happen at the same time. To give my husband credit he did select a great flat, I just would have prefered if all the furnishings weren't beige!

It's taken a lot of work not to let resentment creep in, ultimately, I did decide to make the move and part of that was having to accept that I would be spending the last part of my young and child-free years somewhere I don't consider to be exciting.

A few things really helped me settle, writing this blog and getting a job being two of them. Yes, I mentioned in my other post that the job does frustrate me at times, but, on the most part, I am entertained for eight hours of the day, and being thrown into an almost managerial role has meant I am learning new skills.

This blog has been a massive help. Being a beauty blogger in London I knew I wanted to write about my experiences here. I set up the blog almost immediately, then I hit a depressive slump and I didn't update it at all. I was bored; I wasn't doing anything or meeting anyone, and had nothing to write about. When the cooler weather came I decided I needed to stop hiding away at the weekends and start getting out. Having family visiting really helped with that too. Since I am a professional writer (I wasn't able to find a writing job unfortunately) being able to write regularly again feels really good too.

Finally, and most importantly, I just had to work on my outlook, reminding myself daily that change is good. I make a point of appreciating the small things each day, and generally am trying to use this as an opportunity to find out more things about myself. I've definitely become much less high-strung than I used to be and have adopted that que sera sera way of thinking.

My point in writing all this is to let other woman out there know that they aren't the only ones struggling to adopt the expat lifestyle. Something that happened to me was that the few people I met seemed to love it here -- I mean really love it, and I started to think there was something wrong with me because I just couldn't see what they did. I didn't meet anyone else that was struggling. So if that is you, you're not alone and things will get better. It's that annoying remedy of time and patience.

There are some fantastic groups in Oman if you are a expat woman, I wrote about the main ones, here. I can't stress how important it is to try and get involved early on. I didn't until about six months in and I missed out what would have been great opportunities to see Muscat and make some friends.

I thought it would be good to end this post with a list of the things I like about Muscat, and feel free to add your own things to the list in the comments.
  • The surprise that is the weekly shop. Stock levels fluctuate massively and while I didn't find my regular cheese or my favourite meat in the supermarket this week, I did discover that there is now dry shampoo and a new product for curly hair available. 
  • Being able to order whatever I like at a restaurant. I don't drink or eat pork products so there was always a lot of checking that had to be done in London, now I can pick anything on the menu and know I am ok. 
  • Being able to park anywhere. In London, there is no parking, and where there is you pay a lot for it. In the centre we are looking at about 300baisa for 15 minutes. Being able to pull up anywhere here with no fear of a ticket or clamp is pretty nice. 
  • Cheap fuel. My conscience is telling me I shouldn't list this, we should be walking more to save the planet and all that, but since we can't not paying 50OMR or more to fill up my small car is awesome. 
  • Eating fish. Because it is local and cheap we have taken to eating fish at least once a week, something I usually only had covered in batter and deep fried as a treat at home. My skin is thanking me for the change. 

Monday, 2 March 2015

Nights out: #EdSheeranMuscat

I remember clearly driving to work listening to Hi FM when they announced that Ed Sheeran would be doing a concert in Muscat. I think I sent an email to my husband along the lines of "we're going to this". So the next day I trotted down to City Centre and picked up my tickets and safely hid them in my drawer. That was 3 months ago.

Considering the timing, now was a perfect time to see Ed, he has just picked up a string of awards and is on a high.

The venue was the Shangri-La resorts amphitheatre, which has the most beautiful location surrounded by the mountains and greenery. We arrived on the "party bus" as we called it, having booked it after the warning from Muscat Mutterings that parking might be an issue (I heard that it wasn't?) Even though it took a little longer than normal to get the Shangri-La it gave us enough time to suitably hype ourselves up.
Just as we got into the venue and started to decide where we would park ourselves for the evening, the wind started howling and the skies opened. I almost cried. I was sure the event would be cancelled. So we did our best to find shelter (we didn't) and hoped it would stop (it did).

Drenched and very cold we decided to get in amongst the crowd and feed off of each others body heat. To help warm us up Ryan Keen a new British artist started off the show, and then Ed came on stage. The show was just him and his guitars (he seemed to get through a lot!)

What struck me most about Ed was how humble he was, he knew his job was to entertain us and even though he had a few mishaps and started losing his voice he did give us a great show. I think the highlight for me was I See Fire, the song he wrote the The Hobbit movie, which is my husbands favourite and I could barely hear Ed over him singing along. He also did a great remix of one of his own songs with Iggy Azalea’s I’m So Fancy and 50 Cent’s In Da Club. Seeing things like this is the reason I love live shows.
I didn't move to Oman thinking I would be attending concerts, so I am so happy to have added this to my list of experiences here. Hopefully the success of the night, and the clear desire for more, will bring more big names to Oman

p.s My apologies for the photo qualities in the post, we used our phone and point-and-shoots on the night, although I'm glad I didn't drag my DSLR along, it would have been ruined! Credit to Ed Sheeran for the last pic!