Tag Archives: Travel

Fishing from Pontius Pilate’s Palace

The gloom of a foggy, pre-winter day here on the east coast of the US has sent me back to my storehouse of Middle Eastern photos, perhaps seeking warmth, perhaps respite from academics and from brutal post-storm New Jersey traffic and congestion.

The ‘throne room’ or reception chamber of the governor’s palace at Caesarea.

I found a series of photos from a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Caesarea in Israel.  They’re warm.  They’re balmy and quiet (I was almost alone, near closing time for the ruins, making a quick dash to see the site on my way back from a marathon tour day where I visited the entirety of the Golan Heights all the way up to Majd al-Shams, the ruins of Nimrod, the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the northern coast from Haifa down to Tel Aviv.)

Most important, these photos resonate with a sad truth about life and history: slow but steady decay, accompanied by the cheerier but still fatalistic idea that life continues, unabated, even over the most important puzzle pieces of a contentious past.

Two fishermen on a jetty that was probably, at one time, a garden courtyard overlooked by Pontius Pilate’s seaside reception chamber.

That is the mark of NQR I found at Caesarea:  the mundane littlenesses upon which the world really functions, many little examples of which seemed to be creeping — all at once — inward from the sea to reclaim such a fabulous, famous site.

For example, standing in the very spot where the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate held audience with the Apostle Paul and granted him the request to be judged, as a Roman citizen, in front of Caesar himself, I saw the ruins slipping back into the sea and a few local Arab men clambering over the shore, fishing.  Life continues.  I love that.  Despite the rocks, the ruins, the joinery, the faience tilework, the vista, these men operated on a simpler and more innocent level, plying the ruins in search of dinner.

Plaque (multi-language!) telling how the Apostle Paul sought an audience with the Emperor and was shipped to Rome from this location.

More of the world’s petty necessities creeping in toward Caesarea: a power plant just down the beach from the ruins.

A last beautiful photo of a fisherman on the sculpted but eroding shores of the ancient city.

 

 

 

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Sleep Fishing

This image qualifies as the opposite of “Not Quite Right.”  It’s 100% right, what life should be like everyday.

Taken in the Boundary Waters, a canoe-only wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada.  My 12-year old had paddled 13 miles and then fished, almost non-stop, for the rest of the day.  Late afternoon, beautifully calm skies and waters, the fishing ‘action’ had drifted off and so, too, had he.  He’s completely asleep in this photo, though he’s holding his fishing pole cupped in both hands and though the bobber drifts on the mirror-flat surface of the lake.  A fish even bit at one point, pulling and jiggling the bobber beneath the surface.  He continued to sleep and then, at last, after about 20 minutes, startled awake, completely unaware of where he was!  How strange it must have been for him to wake from a dream into the very place of his dreams.

My 12-year old, in paradise.


Self-critique through Sudanese Art

While staying in Khartoum last year the lobby of my hotel was liberally sprinkled with very nice oil paintings, all floor-mounted like some sort of temporary bazaar, though without the artist there personally hawking his wares.

The particular piece below intrigued me more than any other and I stopped in front of it at least four or five separate times, contemplating it as a purchase — how to ship it back to Oman, whether the meagre price of $300 justified it (certainly, in retrospect, the price seems right!) — and contemplating also, at the same time, though more subliminally, the reasons I felt so drawn to it.  In the end I merely took a picture of it, wanting to look at it again in the future, like now.  Perhaps, during this coming summer, I’ll try my hand at painting a version of it myself (though in acrylics rather than the touchier, more drawn-out oils).  For now, I find it interesting to once more look at it and, having gained a bit of time and distance for self-study and for processing the experience of Sudan, I’d like to list the reasons (some of them NQR) that this particular image engrosses me.

Oil painting of a Sudanese market.

Reasons I like this painting:

1.  Color scheme — First, and most obvious from a distance, the color-scheme is a cooling one.  It contrasts markedly against the actual experience of Sudan, which is (or was for me) one of incredible bustle, dust, noise, and heat.  As such, this scene reveals the artist’s fantasy of what Sudan should be, not what it actually is.  Perhaps that is the primary attraction for me, a romanticized, Oriental idea of what Sudan might be.  On the other hand, just maybe on some perfect spring or winter evening with the light diminished, slanting through massed urbanity, a person might actually witness these shades.  Also, beneath the purples and blues and blacks, a latent heat remains, or I am reminded of this heat’s presence by the very fact of its absence, like a heart grown suddenly fond of what it would, when subjected to full and direct confrontation, undoubtedly consider a blinding and hurtful truth.

2.  Perspective — The thoroughfare in the foreground spreads horizontally while the maze of the market, the depths of the market, open with the single focus of a grade-schooler’s first attempts at perspective art, buildings getting smaller, smaller, as they recede toward a central vanishing point, people reduced in the crowd to heads and shoulders and shapes that subjectively might mean ‘human’ or ’emptiness’ or ‘wall’ depending on the way the eye sees each particular blotch of color, each shape and thrust of flattened object.  This again brings me toward the Orientalist fantasy of standing outside yet being permitted to gaze at the interior, to wander the maze, to drown oneself in the thriving exotica of a place ultimately foreign.  It is voyeurism taken to a second remove, the first being the situation of the canvas vis-a-vis the captured scene, outside the market; the second being the even more comfortable distance between viewing art and standing in actual living reality in such a scene, having that scene transformed, robbed of its grosser sounds and visions, simplified, idealized.

3.  Homogeneity / Anonymity — The people are faceless.  The buidlings largely nondescript.  And each of these, building or human, seems constructed on a theme, of one part, one mold, variation but only within defined parameters.  In truth, Sudan (and Khartoum especially) vibrate with advertising, with striving, with differentiation, everything from Bob Marley t-shirts to traditional dishdashas like those the people in this market painting wear.  Does such a market actually exist, still devoid (or ever devoid) of the capitalist slogan, the Coca-Cola sign, the Marlboro horseman, the vendor calling out to each pedestrian so that he might sell his kebabs, his falafel, his magazines, his boxes of cheap tissue?  With the self so foremost in every Western mind, the idea of this anonymity is yet another fantasy:  who am I to think myself different, unique, and better?

4.  Shadow — This might have been the first thing to draw me to the photo.  The short shadows at the feet of the marketgoers.  They speak to a noonday business, to heat, betraying heat despite the change of the color to purple and black.  The shadows quaver on the ground.  They seem to move, illusions, mirages.  And the dusty ground drinks each shadow into itself, not letting it spill further than a few feet, not letting it spread a black and definite edge to the height of the shadow-maker’s head.  A sense of comfort hides in these shadows, so different than the Western mentality, which wants nothing to be left mysterious, everything to be exposed to the glare of science.   The Arabic expression itself, which is — contrary to our version of “Shed some light on the subject” — usually rendered “In the shade of that . . .” speaks to this altered perception of shade=good, sun=bad; secrets=good, too-much-truth=bad, dangerous, and absent of the very stuff that makes life worth living — surprise, serendipity, mystery, awe, love, abode.

5.  Texture — The whole paiting has a smoothness to it, empty planes, empty shapes that slide one into another.  Yet there is another texture at work too, on the edges, the faces of the buildings.  This texture nods toward Klimt, enlivening while also reducing the buildings to abstractions, to canvasses themselves, to dreams.  These textures capture dirt, graffiti, mildew, and decay and turn them into art, which is, I believe, a higher purpose for the artist, to ennoble sight, to turn sight into a better seeing.  It makes me take a step back, when I recoil at an old and worn-out metropolitan’ filth, to see in it the marks of so many people, incessantly worrying, hurrying, to-ing and fro-ing, but in art made still and made to behave as if each mark of passage has become a hieroglyph, a telltale sign, a signature, a sweetness.  These textures occur on the edges of the painting, leaving the inside, the maze, pure and empty, an unwritten page for the mind’s eye.

I could look at this painting all day, which is a criterion for greatness in my book.  All its portions of NQR — the fantasy, the unreality, the untruth — add up to a whole for me far greater than any one individual lie.


A Cup of Khan

This one falls under the ‘accidentally good’ product name category.  And the accidentally provides justification enough for including it as NQR.

Ogedei's mug on the package, but no corresponding triple-sized 'mug' available.

Although this blog certainly refrains from advocating any product named after a Mongol despot, we feel especially concerned about food or beverage products claiming specific heritage or association with the Central Asian horse-lords.  What’s more, this one has been named not for the iconic founder of the dynasty (Ghengis) nor for the more famous later descendent Tamerlane, but for one of the tweener Khans, the more obscure but still satisfyingly frightful Ogedei.

What makes this name particularly apt is that Ogedei was ordered by his court physician to cut his drinking in half or else face certain early death from what we, now, would call cirrhosis.  Ogedei, cheeky bugger that he was, complied with the letter but not the spirit of the injunction, having one of his craftsmen fashion a drinking vessel three times as large!  He continued his drinking.  He died.  And the invasion of Europe stalled on the very doorstep of Germany and Austria in order for all the claimants to the royal Mongolian throne (or yurt) could make their way as speedily as possible back to Karakorum in the Himalayan foothills, there to decide upon the next ruler.

So, as a bit of marketing advice for the Khaantea Corporation, consider incorporating Ogedei’s oversized cup into advertisements.  I’m sure there are plenty of us Starbucks’ addicts who might benefit from a mug three times larger than usual.  And, if I were to see, through my bleary pre-coffee morning vision Ogedei’s visage every day, I might feel at least a little grateful for his extreme appetites.  Were it not for his early death I might be speaking and writing some variation of Mongolese now, rather than English.


Dhow Construction

Fishing boats in the inner harbor, Sur.

The port of Sur, Oman is one of the few places in the world still engaged in manufacturing traditional dhows, the famous merchant ships of Arabia with slanting lateen-rigged sails and stitched, rather than nailed or pegged, fastenings for their wooden plank sides.  Used for many centuries as the main cargo and fishing ships on the Indian Ocean, plying routes from Africa to India and all up and down the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, these vessels recall a pearl-diving, pirate-infested culture now largely subsumed by oil revenues, Ferraris, and a smattering of folks still interested in traditional culture (mostly tourists and Omani/Emirate/Bahrani/Kuwaiti history-buffs).

The hand-carved scrollwork on the back of this dhow displays some beautiful lacquer.

Sur is a great destination for the traveler interested in seeing dhows because the huge inner harbor is lined, near its entrance, with various dockyards and carpentry shops planing the boards, tarring the decks, and building, from the ground-up, ships propped on slanting rails ready to be launched into the water.

The workshops aren’t necessarily ‘open’ and no guided tours are available but people in Sur are friendly and will gladly show a tourist around.

A worker at the dockyards builds a scale model as a plan for a new dhow.

What is, perhaps, NQR, about the entire industry of dhow building — now largely outmoded by fiberglass fishing boats and huge metal-hulled cargo ships — is that most of the production depends on the interest of western tourists, our fascination with a romantic image of the orient that includes swarthy pirates and the travels of Sinbad (who hails, traditionally, from Sohar, just up the coast in Oman).  One wonders if any but a few dhows, moored as cultural relics, would exist if it weren’t for western tourists wanting to go for a dive, a swim, or a party picnic aboard these high-decked beauties of a time gone-by.

My children aboard a dhow, ready to go snorkeling. This one appeared to have been built with pegs rather than sewing. It also had a diesel motor rather than a lateen sail. Sort of a quasi-dhow.

 


Distance Makes Bootcamp Grow Fond

Not that I wasn’t fond of Oman when my family and I enjoyed the awesome experience of living there for a year, but now, looking back through photos, some of the more mundane or even unpleasant aspects seem better.  Take our present experience of New Jersey traffic for instance. The rudeness of drivers here almost makes me wish for the super-sonic speeds and random construction zone lane-changing of Oman, always accompanied by smiles and good manners.  Or the heat.  Miserable to live through an Omani summer, but O, the winter — 80F with balmy sunshine every day!

In addition to the steps and the beach where bootcamp was conducted, I linger over the fine remembered taste of Costa Coffee (seen in background) not to mention the pleasant swaying of so many palm trees.

Even this photo, seeming rather barren, rather boring, inspires a moment of NQR reflection and remembrance.  It was at the base of these steps, along a stretch of Muscat beach sometimes left dry by the tide, sometimes washed over knee-deep by blessedly cool water, that my wife and I and a goodly number of our friends and acquaintances — mostly expats, though my buddy Aflah became a regular attendee — tortured ourselves every morning by attending a bootcamp physical training session led by two crazy South African gentlemen.

Ahh, I look at the steps and wish I could return to those mornings:  waking up with a light mist of sandstorm or mosquito-fogging (an expelled concoction part deisel, part napalm) floating in the air, temperatures hovering around 90, 95F at 5am, picking our way down these very steps, sometimes awash with kelp and little crablike critters, slipping, tiptoeing to keep our shoes dry, waving the beam of a flashlight in front of us to avoid stepping on anything truly unpleasant.  Then gathering in the dark with the other masochistic morning bootcampers, a quick jog down beach, a stretch, and a return to the real heart and misery of the morning.  Usually it went something like this:  1 minute of a randomly chosen but inevitably brutal exercise, the easy ones being push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, the tough ones impossible combinations of twisting, pushing, prying, jumping and generally getting wet sand into every crevice of the body; then a quick shuttle-run sprint down to a line drawn in the sand; another minute of a different but equally painful exercise; a second sprint to a farther line in the sand; a third exercise; a third and final sprint to the farthest of the lines.  Rest.  Repeat.  Sweat.  Repeat.  Charge into the water (maybe bringing gallon jugs to fill and then lift in a final burst of calesthetics or isotonics).  Return home dripping, sandy, but well-worn and well-woken for the day’s chores and pleasures.

Thinking back on it now, such mornings seem almost perfect, although a little bird in the back of my head still chirps a reminder about bleary-eyed cursing that occurred during, and especially en route to, such bootcamp fondnesses.


The National Symbol of Oman

While Oman’s true national symbol is the khanjar, a wickedly curved knife in a gilt silver scabbard still worn on formal occasions (equivalent of a black-tie dinner for us in the West), a close second might be the Incense Burner.  The Frankincense trade originated in southern Oman, Salalah Governate, and therefore, in almost any local market the smell of burning incense quickly overwhelms a visitor whose palate is unaccustomed to such a fug.

Three-storey incense burner at Riyam Park. If lit it might serve as a nice emergency lighthouse for shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

As part of the national effort to enshrine the Incence Burner, several years ago the Muscat Governate erected a giant white statue of a burner on a headland between Old Muscat and Mutrah, in the vicinity of Riyam Park.  When visitors first drive past this monument, heads turn.  Is it a spaceship?  Modern art?  A relic of some misguided brutalist 70’s architectural campaign?  It’s weird, sure, but soon it blends into the background, a part of Muscat, a landmark useful for navigating around town, with people saying stuff like:  “You know where the Incense Burner is?” rather than “Near Riyam Park.”

One might think this is weird, sure, Not Quite Right, certainly.  But we should remember that an Omani is likely to find our kitschy American fascination with something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a huge statue of a spoon and cherry equally odd.


Detail in a Photo – Mutrah Harbor

 

Map of the hike, meandering up-and-down trail in light blue. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The capital area of Muscat, Oman, stretches lengthwise along the sea for several tens of kilometers in either direction but only extends into the interior of the country a kilometer at the deepest.  This is mostly because a range of bare, jagged mountains looms between the narrow coastal plain and the wetter (mountain watered) interior regions that surround Nizwa, Rustaq, etc.  A corollaries to this close-at-hand range of mountains is the presence, very near the urbanized areas, of great hiking and astonishingly isolated wilderness.

One instance of this hiking is Trail C38, which begins in the village of Riyam at the backside of the Incense Burner Park (on the corniche between Mutrah and Old Muscat) and delivers a hiker, after some fairly difficult climbing, into the alleys behind the old souq in Mutrah.

When we think of hiking in the US, images of lush green forests, maybe a few meandering hills, perhaps even the Appalachian Trail come to mind.  But this, on the other hand, especially if attempted anytime between April and November, is a different sort of hike altogether:  hot, dusty, with rocks sharp enough to accidentally cut a palm or forearm placed by the hiker for stability on the ledges or cliffs.  Hikers should be wary to bring water, sunscreen, and a realistic estimate of how far they will make it along the trail during the heat of the day.

This description, though, doesn’t do the hike complete justice.  Admittedly it is not as satisfying as a hike up one of Oman’s wadis where a clear pool or even a waterfall might serve as a reward, but the views from the summit of the trail and the delivery, at the end, into the secret lanes behind the souq is certainly worthwhile.  Where else, for instance, can someone look over Mutrah Harbor with such calm?  Where else can someone see both sides of Oman with such clarity:  the new/urban and the ancient/traditional?  That these two elements coexist so well in Oman is truly a significant feature of the country, one that should be noted as Quite Right and compared to other places, like Dubai, where the new overshadows everything and the heart of the country is no longer its own; or, like Riyadh, where the tension and resistance against modernity is a much more palpable current.

Mutrah Harbor, as seen from Trail C38.

Here, in this photo, one can see quite a lot of Oman: starting in the background, above the mountainous horizon, a glimpse of the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean; cut into that far hillside, a new project expanding the port facilities leaves a scar of ashen land; below it the white-washed stucco buildings, some of them centuries old, gild the corniche boulevard along Mutrah Harbor; there, behind a layer or two of security and with guard boats around it, Sultan Qaboos’ yacht is often moored (the small cruise-ship on the right-hand side of the bay); even closer, two traditional Omani Dhows, transport and fishing vessels, recall the heydey of Oman’s Indian Ocean trading Empire, which included parts of the African and Iranian and Afghan coasts as well as strong links to India;  then, on the hill in the foreground of the harbor, below the level of the camera, a 16th Century relic of Portugeuse occupation nests above the corniche, medieval and lordly, although again testifying to Oman’s former glory as the Omanis were one of very few examples of successful indigenous resistance to colonialism; then, in the very foreground, the jagged cliffs themselves, empty, barren, dusty and forelorn except where a view like this breaks upon the intrepid hiker!


Bad Hotel Name

Of all the NQR items I noticed during the course of my explorations throughout the Middle East and the surrounding areas, none are quite as not right as the four I’ll include in this series — business names gone awry.

The reason these names seem so poignantly incorrect must be firmly attributed to the western perspective brought to them.  Surely they can’t have been intentional.  Surely the business owners must have had good reason for choosing such names.  Surely they must have been (and must still remain) blissfully ignorant of the associations an American, or a European, will likely make with their chosen labels.

Anyway, here is the first:  Hotel ‘Clytemnestra’ near Mycene in Greece.

Clytemnestra was the (perhaps mythical) Queen of the Mycenaens at the time of Homer’s epic Iliad.  Sister to the famous Helen and wife of Agammemnon who was the leader of the Greeks at the seige of Troy — she murdered her husband in his bathtub when he returned (after 10 years) from his adventures.

Hotel advertisement near Mycene, Greece. Photo taken by Bridget Buchholz.

Now, admittedly, Agammemnon provoked Clytemnestra both by being absent for so long and by bringing his new young concubine Cassandra with him in his chariot to the doorstep of his palace.  However, this doesn’t dull the shiver in my spine at the thought of a modern-day hotel that not only calls itself Clytemnestra but also advertises a nice warm bath to the world weary traveler!

It’s also worth noting that having a bath is a mark of distinction for hotels in the area — a legitimate point of comparison and surely an attraction for most hotel-goers.


Middle East Water Issue

I think I’ll tell this Not Quite Right story through pictures, rather than words.  Just a few clarifying details upfront:

1.  This is not your standard Middle East water problem.

2.  No children were harmed in the process of taking these photographs.

3.  Mughsayl Beach is located about 40km southwest of Salalah, Oman, about as near to Yemen as a person can safely venture now days.

 

My son, Wesley, checking out one of many 'attractions' at the Mughsayl Beach

 

I join Wesley. We can see down into the hole to a rather frightening depth and can feel a breath of air on our hands.

 

Ya, Allah! -- a better scare than any ride at Great America!