Category Archives: oman

Marching Forth on March 4th – a letter as a gift

On top of the world - Mulde Peak just above Dobato in the Sahdow of the Annapurnas. ©Donatella Lorch

On top of the world – Mulde Peak just above Dobato in the shadow of the Annapurnas. ©Donatella Lorch

I have a dismal memory. That is the main reason that I write yearly birthday letters to my family. It is also the one birthday gift that I expect from my three sons and daughter. My husband is not as easily coercible. But I write because I am scared that the longer I wait, the more the past will blur. The selfish endgame that I pound into my kids is that the gift will always be there.

Lucas, you hit the double digits on March 4th in Nepal and you already have nine of my yearly letters in hard copy, on your Aunt Vinny’s hard drive in New York and not on one but on two external hard drives (our entire lives on “earthquake back-ups” since we live in Kathmandu, the land of potential cataclysmic earthquakes.) Yes – I overcompensate and over prepare but someone in our family has to right?

The inseparables: Lucas and Biko searching for the the first Spring heat.©Donatella Lorch

The inseparables: Lucas and Biko searching for the first Spring heat.©Donatella Lorch

The other night, your beloved and huge dog Biko woke me up at 2AM, whining and moaning and in need of dashing out to our lawn regardless of the torrential rain storm buffeting the Kathmandu Valley. No doubt a race induced by my feeding him a large portion of raw water buffalo for lunch. In hindsight, I admit I was overzealous with a potentially misguided desire to appeal to his carnivorous ancestry. I then tossed awake for hours, incapable of mindful mindlessness, while you lay asleep near me. For over a year, Dad has had to live in Dhaka, trying to come home for short weekends to visit us in Kathmandu. You never complain though on occasion you’ll whisper that you miss him. Part rational philosopher and part charming manipulator who knows my earthquake anxieties well, you reasoned with me that it was best for us to share a bed as Kathmandu winters are bitter cold and its better to be together if the earthquake hits us in the middle of the night. I acquiesced as you slip back into your bed with a snake’s ease when Dad’s in town.

Our family size has been slowly shrinking year by year as your siblings headed off to college and boarding school in North America and this year I noticed how much we had also become companions. We share this quirky intense world that is Kathmandu. You get it. You love it. Somewhere in between your obsession with war planes, the Marine Corps and LHAs (Landing Helicopter Assault ships – admittedly I did introduce to you The Belleau Wood, the LHA that I was on as a reporter in 1995), you have an innate ability to live in the instant which I know keeps me grounded. We think its normal to have open sewers on our street and we share a mutual exasperation about the ubiquitously dumped garbage. You walk shot gun with a bamboo lathi keeping stray street dogs at bay when we take Biko for long weekend hikes and you don’t mind that we live in the Kathmandu Valley urban boondocks which makes visiting friends a bit complicated. “It’s good that we live here on a ridge,” you explained to me the other day. “This way we are above most of the pollution and the black carbon here will only shorten my life by a few days.”

Lucas with two of Kali's nine puppies, stray dogs we rescued on our street. Now at the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre. ©Donatella Lorch

Lucas with two of Kali’s nine puppies, stray dogs we rescued on our street. Now at the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre. ©Donatella Lorch

Some might say that I am an over protective mother. I am not keen on heading out of town and leaving you with friends. Yep – that damn earthquake phobia again. But I don’t think age should decide whether or not you witness the realities of life around us. I took you to Pashupatinath where you saw not one but three on-going cremations up close and personal. We have a cremation site down the road from us and when in use, you’ll point out that it “smells of BBQ” when we drive by. Like the open air butcher shacks, the ubiquitous Hindu shrines and even the occasional elephant strolling  among whizzing motorcycles with half a tree on his back, it is all now a normal routine. I find it ironic that you were baptized a Catholic and both Dad and I used to be practicing believers but you seem to know more about Shiva and Laxmi, Ganesh and Vishnu (the Nag and the roiling sea of milk) than about the bible. You’ll point to a motorcyclist dressed all in white and say with your British-Nepali lilt: “Mum, that man is in his 13-day mourning period for his father.” You cheer up on days when the Maoists declare city-wide, non vehicular traffic strikes because it means biking to school. Every week you watch all the New York Times on line videos (using up all my iPad battery power) and on Dad visits, World War II has taken  up entire afternoons  drawing out the siege of Stalingrad and then the fall of Europe on restaurant paper under-plates.

You are my reason and my excuse to explore. I owe you a debt of gratitude. This year, two trips have deeply influenced how you feel about living so far away from the rest of the family. You and I and our friends, Milan and Kunda, trekked the Annapurna Circuit past the horrific tourist traffic jams to the isolated refuge of Dobato, surrounded by the Annapurna and Machhapuchre peaks. Maybe it was the Zen-provoking feeling of hiking upto eight-hours-a day (with your heavy day back) though all I felt was sore feet, or the hours with nothing to do but watch the 8000meter peaks through sunshine, snow and hail, the ubiquitous runny dal bhat or the frigid nights, wearing all our ski clothes. You had only one sentence for the aches and pains I suffered: “Trekking is really the best Mum.”

Romping in the sands and dunes of the Rub'al Khali Desert in Oman. ©Donatella Lorch

Romping in the sands and dunes of the Rub’al Khali Desert in Oman. ©Donatella Lorch

On our agenda for this new year of yours: we still have to work on convincing Dad to trek. I also learned that as a nine-year-old, you – unlike your mother – are a gifted diplomat. Thank you for voting with me to visit the Rub’al Khali desert in Oman and overriding Dad’s veto. And thank you for deftly manipulating the tension between the two of us as the sun went down on the desert dunes and Dad informed us he really did not want to be there. Then at dawn the next morning, with our legs shin deep in frigid fine red sand, you turned to me and just said: “I could stay here forever.”

On March 4th, you turn 10 years old. There are constants you bring with you: daily Facetime with Dad, your dog Biko, guaranteed wild summers with siblings and cousins and living with me. Everything else is an unknown adventure. With that in mind: March Forth.

The Call of Desert Sand

Bhakit in his comfort zone deep in the Rub' al Khali. © Donatella Lorch

Bhakit in his comfort zone deep in the Rub’ al Khali. © Donatella Lorch

Bakhit wasn’t the Bedouin I expected. At 54, his beard grizzled-white, he needed to recline his car seat to accommodate his prominent stomach. He wore a brownish Dishdasha and a matching turban that had seen better days. But Bakhit was the first Bedouin I had ever met. Until I shook his large, roughened hand, I had always relied on the image of a dashing, flowing-turbaned Bedouin, part of yarns I had dreamed up as a 10-year-old in love with the “Black Stallion” book series.

We were driving in his white Toyota Landcruiser, stuffed with bedding, food and water into the Oman side of the Rub’ al Khali desert, known also as the “Empty Quarter,” a land explored by Wilfred Thesiger and Lawrence of Arabia and the one place that I had desperately wanted to discover as a young girl. It had only taken me 40 years to get here, in a rather circuitous and tumultuous route via South Asia and Africa.

Our campground and car in the Rub' al Khali. ©Donatella Lorch

Our campground and car in the Rub’ al Khali. ©Donatella Lorch

My husband, John, was a reluctant traveler to “The Rub” as he called it. Being Dutch, he is not keen on heat, sand and outdoor camping without the pleasure of a nearby ocean and a glass of wine (Oman is a dry country). But the trip had been a majority vote and fortunately my nine-year-old son, Lucas, had voted with me.

Climbing up out of Salalah into the arid mountains. ©Donatella lorch

Climbing up out of Salalah into the arid mountains. ©Donatella lorch

As Bakhit gingerly drove the winding road out of Salalah, Oman’s southern seaside city, into the arid brown and stone-carpeted mountains towards the Empty Quarter, he blamed his Bedouin roots for his halting city driving. Having learned to drive in a trackless desert, he didn’t like traffic or, for that matter, keeping his hands on the steering wheel. On his first trip to Dubai, intimidated by the number of vehicles, he parked his car on the city outskirts and hailed a cab. Not used to the complexities of city planning, he then forgot where he had parked. But as the mountains gave way to a rock desert, then a caked mud flat, as the electricity poles and the paved road petered out, Bakhit navigated easily by keeping track of some shivering hazy form on the horizon to his right and left. A father of seven, he had grown up a nomad, herding camels through the Rub al Khali.

Running the dunes just before sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

Running the dunes just before sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

Hiking along the dunes at sunset after the desert begins to cool down. © Donatella Lorch

Hiking along the dunes at sunset after the desert begins to cool down. © Donatella Lorch

Life is harsh here in a way I am not sure I know how to fathom. The midday heat crushes: brilliant, sharp and blue. The wind whips up sand as fine and soft as silk. In no time, the dunes swallow you, even your footsteps disappear in a permanent trickle of moving, windblown particles. There are no houses, no resorts, no other humans. Just emptiness. Just dunes. They can rise straight up so that you climb barefoot and on hands and knees. Some ridges are so solid they hardly take your footprint, others swallow your leg almost to your knee. They roll into the horizon, shifting from red and blond to grey and black. In the midst of it all, there is a dry bush or tree, incongruous in its loneliness if not for me to wonder how it arrived to that particular spot.

The mysterious tree. ©Donatella Lorch

The mysterious tree. ©Donatella Lorch

Bakhit cooking the evening meal. © Donatella Lorch

Bakhit cooking the evening meal. © Donatella Lorch

As Bakhit cooked chicken, rice and vegetables in a battered pot on a wood fire (“Bedouin men are bad cooks,” he assured me—and my husband agreed), we climbed up and ran down, jumped into wallows, lay down on cooling ridges and watched the sun burn into the west.There is nowhere else to go. The night is frigid, lying on the ground, even in a double sleeping bag. There are only the stars and the thick snowy sweep of the Milk Way. Lucas and John searched out constellations and counted the streaks from falling stars.

On top of a sand world. ©Donatella lorch

On top of a sand world. ©Donatella lorch

I am still not sure what I wanted to find or even found there amid the dunes. A world perhaps standing still? A chance to pause and listen? Bakhit drove us out singing Bedouin love songs. His Bedouin world is also forever changed. As a child he remembers one meal a day of camel milk. Early on, he learned that the desert is unforgiving and can drive a person to desperate  measures to survive: when the water runs out, the Bedouin would force a camel to regurgitate its meal so that you could eat it instead. Some years ago, the Oman government brought the Bedouin clans into government housing; his children now go to school and his oldest daughter has just graduated university. He still has a small herd of camels in a land where a good racing camel is as expensive as a Toyota Land Cruiser, but in Oman the camels are no longer what woos a bride.

Oman's pristine beaches West of Salalah near the Yemen border. © Donatella Lorch

Oman’s pristine beaches West of Salalah near the Yemen border. © Donatella Lorch

In 1970, while Bakhit was herding camels, the present ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup. He inherited a country stretching from Dubai to Yemen, its western flank bordering Saudi Arabia. It had 10 kms of paved roads and two primary schools. Sultan Qaboos has increased Oman’s gross domestic product from $256 million in 1970 to around $80 billion in 2013. Oman remains the most stable and religiously tolerant country in the Arabian Peninsula and is friends of both the U.S. and Iran.

Oman's high end version of Costco: the Lulu Hyper Market. ©Donatella Lorch

Oman’s high end version of Costco: the Lulu Hyper Market. ©Donatella Lorch

The new wide highways are lined with high tension wires. ©Donatella Lorch

The new wide highways are lined with high tension wires. ©Donatella Lorch

In the process, tourists, mostly from Europe, have discovered Oman, a destination once ‘off the beaten track’. Six lane highways now enter the capital Muscat and link outside towns. Both Muscat and Salalah airports are expanding to become international hubs competing with Doha and Dubai. A deep water port is under construction, to rival Singapore as the largest port in the world. Tourist resorts are being built along the 1000 kms of pristine, turquoise shoreline. Yet Oman is also at a critical crossroad. Sultan Qaboos is very ill, by some reports terminally sick with cancer, and undergoing treatment in Germany. Childless, he has not officially named his successor. At the same time, a brutally militant Islam in growing in next door Yemen.

A Bedouin herding camels by car. ©Donatella Lorch

A Bedouin herding camels by car. ©Donatella Lorch

Salalah, the capital of Dhofar Province, a green oasis that serves as the door to the Empty Quarter, seemed unsure of where it belongs. The construction boom is in full swing but it is still possible to drop by a street-side food stall for a bite of camel meat or traditional “boiled cow.” In its nearby hills, the local tribes speak four different non-Arabic languages, raising cattle with similar attachment and rituals as the Dinka of Southern Sudan. Bedouin herd their camels with a four-wheel drive, but allow them to wander unattended through hills and on highways to search for food. The Ministry of Camels warns tourists that killing a camel can carry charges equivalent to manslaughter. There may be a huge Lulu Hyperstore, a two-storied version of a high-end Costco, but most streets hang identical simple shop signs. I counted ten of the two most popular on one four-block street: “Hair Dressing” and “Food Stuff and Luxuries.”hie dressing

Oman’s geology, its canyons, its layered, rumpled, jagged rock mountains creeping up into the sky, its deserts, its surprising green wadis, all paint a picture of inscrutable indestructibility. Breathe in. Breathe out. I felt I could never get enough. In the pre-dawn light, the sand in the Rub’ al Khali is so cold, my bare feet not only became numb but heavy with a pain that worked its way upwards as sharp stabbing daggers. They didn’t even thaw by the breakfast fire.

Oman's northern mountains. © Donatella Lorch

Oman’s northern mountains. © Donatella Lorch

I wonder if I, like the sands and like Bakhit, am forever changing, shifting, adapting. But whatever the desert gives, I find myself longing for more. There is nothing empty here but perhaps the daydream of a 10-year-old.