Loosening the Lockdown in Southern France

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Social distancing — on the shore, in the water..

In the United States folks are celebrating the long Memorial Day weekend. In France, it’s a long holiday weekend, too. Thursday was a religious holiday, the Ascension, celebrated 40 days after Easter when Christians believe the body of Christ ascended into heaven.  Many take Friday off as well and enjoy a four-day break at the beginning of summer.

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Menton beach on Ascension Thursday,

This year they can’t venture far – only 100 kilometers from home. But, that’s better than just one kilometer which is what it was up until May 11 when the Covid lockdown restrictions began to ease. Stores have opened.  It is mandatory to  wear masks on public transportation and in shops, offices and places of worship which opened this weekend. Primary schools have reopened. However, these eased restrictions apply to green zones only – where we are. Parts of northern France are in a red zone where the virus still rages. There strict restrictions still prevail.

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Chinese mask for me.  Gov’t issue mask for Bob,.

Citizens were issued two free masks. I am sure our freebies will stop all germs, but they may suffocate us. They are large and made of two layers of unbleached muslin. One set of strings loops above the ear.  The other ties behind the head. I wore it once, but I could not get it untied. I have never been a whiz at knots, and had obviously overdone it.  I had a mask around my neck until I got home and cut if off.

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Filippo sports the Chinese mask.

We are still waiting for masks sent from the U.S. Friend Bev, a talented seamstress, sent some at least two months ago. My sister-in-law made masks, too, and sent us some. My step -daughter sent some. None have arrived. I assume it is because there are few planes flying between France and the U.S. Not to worry. You can now buy masks here, although that was not the case prior to May 11 when none were available. And, I ordered some which arrived in my mailbox two weeks ago. They appear to be Chinese..a label in Chinese. We can get Chinese masks but none from the U.S. ???

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Boule is back.

Now that we have some freedom, social distancing is supposed to be de rigeur at all times when out. As I observed, that is not always the case. The French, especially here in the south, are obsessed with the game of boule. The boulodrome near us has reopened to record numbers. All seem to be overjoyed to be back at their favorite pastime and not worried about social distancing.

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Beach where I swam last Wednesday — almost deserted.

Beaches – it’s up to local mayors to decide to open or not. I was thrilled to learn the beach closest to us had opened, but only for walks and swimming. No lounging and sunbathing. OK by me. So, on Wednesday I ventured down the big hill to the Mediterranean, placed a folded up towel on the edge of the water, put on my beach shoes (ours is a pebble beach, not sand) and took the plunge. Cold. Water temperature was 17º C, about 63º F. It did not matter. I felt invigorated, revived, elated.

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Our favorite spot.  Sit on the wall and enjoy a snack. Umbrellas offer shade.

I had the beach almost to myself that day.  There were very few swimmers. Some kids splashed at water’s edge watched over by parents sitting on the shore.

I loved the water and the solitude. It is no longer that way. The holiday brought more to the beach, but no sunbathers and all observing social distancing. It was also a welcome surprise to find the kiosks near the water open for business, selling drinks, snacks, sandwiches, even burgers. However, no tables and chairs.  Find a wall or bench to sit on. We did just that at our “happy place,” our favorite kiosk above a rocky shore with a view I cherish – the sea with the Maritime Alps in the background.

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Bob at our happy place.  Later he had a Flipper burger (salmon).  Yes, we were happy.

On Thursday, the holiday, we drove to nearby Menton and its beach. There were lots more people on this beach, as well as many sauntering along the beach promenade. There was only one entrance to the beach, and it was controlled by police. I did see a few sunbathers stretched out on beach towels, but only a few.

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Police at Menton beach,

We have been taking longer walks. I estimate 97 percent of people outdoors are without masks (us included). Masks are only required indoors. However, I was a bit surprised yesterday when I went to our neighborhood mini-supermarket. Several customers were not wearing masks. The cashier did not wear a mask. As this is a small store, social distancing is impossible. I proceeded  to the butcher shop. It is tiny. Only three customers are admitted at a time. Yet, the staff behind the counter did not wear masks. Another customer was also mask-less. However, walking home I spotted a foursome sitting on a bench – all wearing masks.IMG_7804

What is happening in France is probably no different than what is happening in the U.S. and elsewhere as the new normal – masks and social distancing – takes hold. Not all obey. But, at least here there are no armed protesters.

Hopefully more freedom is around the corner. Restaurants are slated to open on June 2. Most restaurants around here have sizable outdoor areas, but it will be interesting to see how they cope with social distancing. We hope we will be able to travel for more than the 100 kilometer limit. We hope the border with neighbor Italy will open on June 15 as predicted. We miss Italy where we love to shop and soak in the joyous ambiance.

Mostly we hope that Covid cases and deaths will continue to decline, that the new freedoms will not reverse this trend, and that all will obey the restrictions and guidelines to keep us all safe.

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Beautiful view.  Beautiful water.

 

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Simba refused to wear a mask. Her sister, Oprah, went into hiding,

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Oman’s Mighty Mountains

IMG_6620The view was breathtaking. Wisps of clouds drifted in a gigantic canyon sliced through walls of jagged rock. We had paid extra for this room with a view at Oman’s Al Jabal Al Akhdar resort. It was worth the expense. During our three-day stay at this mountain retreat, I was seduced by the dramatic, ever-changing view. I took far too many photos

IMG_7019Oman’s mountains are not like mountains I have known. These craggy, rugged walls of rock in all shades of brown are intimidating. No wonder they are popular with extreme adventure seekers.

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Our resort offers “the ultimate Jabal Activity Wall: Use your hands and a series of strategically placed metal steps to trace your way along the vertical rock face before navigating jagged rock formations, ladders and vertical stairs. Below a vast canyon plunges to 1,000 meters at its deepest point, providing you with a front row seat as you soak in the peaceful silence.” At the end of the climb, you zip line, “fly through the air for the ultimate adrenaline rush.”

Maybe, only maybe, back in my much younger, wild and crazy days, I would have attempted this challenge. During our January visit, I was happy to soak in the peaceful silence from our room’s balcony. Just pondering that canyon gave me an adrenaline rush.

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Native plants and herbs surround the resort buildings,

The Al Jabal Al Akhdar perched at above 2,000 meters in the Al Hajar mountain range is supposedly the second highest elevation resort in Arabia. In addition to the above IMG_6670adventure, all types of mountain hikes are available in the area. Most were beyond us. However, we did set out on a hike rated “easy,” only to turn back after about an hour. The trails, like the surroundings, are rocky. There are sections of steps, uneven, sometimes broken. We stopped at a clearing for photos. Two women with a guide were there. One of the women, far younger and no doubt fitter than I, fell. This made me nervous, nonetheless we continued on a bit until we came to a fairly steep descent which led to a dry creek bed – more rocks of all sizes. The trail on the other side climbed to an ancient village. We decided the view of the village from afar was enough.

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The hike did offer more outstanding views of distant mountainside villages and terraced slopes. Jabal Akhdar is known as “Green Mountain.” Native trees and herbs once thrived in lofty orchards there thanks to the falaj irrigation system, rivulets coming from a stone cistern at the top of the mountain. Climate change has meant much less rain during the past ten years. Many of the terraces are barren of crops. Instead of pears walnuts, apricots, peaches, plums, figs, and apples, farmers are now planting olive trees which require much less water. A pipeline carrying desalinated seawater up the mountains is beginning to allow farmers to cultivate the terraces with other crops once again.

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I planned our trip so that we could be in the mountains on a Friday and attend the weekly goat market in Nizwa, Oman’s old capital. It was wonderful, although there seemed to be as many tourists with cameras as farmers selling goats.

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The vendors touted the merits of their beasts. Prospective buyers checked out the animals and did some serious price negotiating. Everyone took photos. The goats, many gorgeous varieties and mothers with babies, were irresistible. IMG_6734

Guide/driver Lotfi led us to Nizwa’s souk where we learned all about dates. Some 250 varieties of date palm are cultivated in Oman, and at least 12 different kinds of dates. We tasted several.

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The ginger and cinnamon dates were my favorites.

Handmade Omani daggers are the de rigueur Oman souvenir, but not for us. At a shop in the souk, I found some interesting old silver jewelry – not from Oman, but Afghanistan. – my souvenir.

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Date palms thrive in Oman,

From the mid 8th to the mid 12th century, Nizwa served intermittently as the country’s capital for a succession of Imams. The Nizwa fort, a citadel of monumental proportions, provided a safe haven in dangerous times. Dark and narrow passageways lead to the citadel. During a visit, we learned about the ingenuous traps to catch invaders off guard. Planks were placed on stairs over deep, gaping pits, many filled with hot oil. When the intruder alarm was sounded, the planks were removed.

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Nizwa Fort

Salim was our trusty driver for our thrilling off-road adventure from the mountains to the coast. He negotiated narrow, rutted, dirt roads on the edges of vast precipices in the midst of jaw-dropping scenery. I kept wanting him to stop so I could take more photos. It was too risky. Occasionally an oncoming vehicle approached. This was another adrenaline rush. It looked impossible, but Salim skillfully maneuvered the Toyota 4WD and kept us from plunging off the edge.

IMG_7078During the long drive, we talked – about his life, family, job and more. He taught me lots about the way of life in Oman and Islam. (see previous post, “Introducing Awesome Oman” ) The religion has been given a bad rap in many parts of the world.  I gained respect and a better understanding of Islam thanks to Salim.

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Salim and Bob

Our Oman trip began and ended at the beach.  I’ll write about that soon, as well as the capital city, Muscat.  Stay tuned.  If not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up, upper right.  Your address is kept private and never shared.

I added a new recipe for Today’s Taste:  Smashed Carrots with Feta and Mint. See Today’s Taste 

Keep scrolling for more photos.

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Infinity pool at Al Jabal.  The viewing platform marks Diana’s Point where the Princess of Wales and Prince Charles spent six hours on a day trip in 1986.

 

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During a refreshment stop with Lotfi, we followed his recommendation and tried a refreshing drink: lemon juice with lots of mint and crushed ice. I will make a batch soon. Delicious

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Oman: Luxury in the Desert

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Bob and I were lucky. In January, just before the onslaught of the wicked virus in Europe, we ventured to Oman (see a previous post “Introducing Awesome Oman”). Our excursions to the desert and mountains were exceptional. It’s time to stop dwelling on disease and relive those adventures.

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Sand. Sand. More sand. Slopes and dunes and wide, flat expanses. After stopping in a tiny town to let air out of the tires, driver Mustafa navigated mile after mile through this landscape. At first he followed tracks. The tracks ended. He charged on. I was incredulous. He had no GPS. How did he know where to go? There was little difference between one dune and another.

He knew. In the midst of this vast emptiness we spotted two other vehicles. We had arrived at our “camp,” a short but strenuous hike to the other side of a dune. Climbing a dune is more challenging than climbing through deep snow in ski boots.

The camp was something out of a glitzy travel magazine – luxury deep in the Wahiba Sands desert.

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Bedroom tent, left, and bathroom tent.

Our tent bedroom featured a double bed, night stands, and generator-powered lamps. IMG_6378Next to the bedroom tent was our private bathroom tent. This was five-star glamping.

We were the only guests in the camp with a cook, the camp manager and his assistant to look after us. Shortly after arrival we were invited to the “sunset lounge.” Another short hike up a dune, and voila, a comfy couch for   watching the spectacular show of colors in the sky as the sun descended into distant sands. It was surreal.

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Sunset lounge

Dinner was served in the dining /living room area, not really a tent, but a canvas roof sheltering more couches, artisanal objects– ceramics, glass vases filled with sand – pillows, carpet. I doubt many Bedouin chieftains had living quarters like these.

We dined on a melange of seven different “meze” (Middle Eastern appetizers), including an outstanding eggplant concoction. I asked Egyptian chef Mahmoud for the recipe.

IMG_6367No camp is complete without a campfire. Without the sun, it was cool.  The desert fire’s warmth felt good. And, somehow it felt strange to be in this isolated ambience with all these remarkable amenities.

When the fire was put to bed, the desert night was eerie, mystical.  Total blackness, except for the sky crowded with vibrant stars. Silence. The generator was off. We were alone. The staff  left to spend the night in a town.   They gave us a flashlight.

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Living room /Dining room

Desert outings are a popular Oman tourist attraction. Many camps accommodate numerous guests. We had the deluxe version. Camp manager, Wael, an Egyptian, told us our camp was assembled just for us, and would be disassembled after our departure.

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Desert breakfast

“It’s a huge logistic work. Dismantle every item, then do it all over.” It would be set up in a different remote location for the next guests, he said.  It is all very impressive, and it had been expensive, nonetheless we felt guilty.

Wael, and many working in Oman’s tourist industry, come from other counties for job opportunities. He was working in the tourist industry in his native Egypt, but left five years ago when  the tourist industry there collapsed. Laarnie, a single mother from the Philippines, left her 7-year-old daughter behind with her mother for a job in Oman.

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En route to the camp, we had passed camels, some in pens, some freely roaming. Wael explained. “They are trained for races here,” he said. “The number of camels one owns is still a sign of wealth in Oman.”

There are camel races in Oman, but Omanis prefer to sell their camels to owners in Qatar and the Emirates where the stakes in camel races are higher, he said. In those countries, Omanis can sell champion camels for as much as $100,000.

Wael went on to explain that real human jockeys no longer ride the camels. “It’s too dangerous.” Remote controlled robots are the jockeys of today.

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Camp staff: Laarnie from the Philippines, Wael and Mahmoud, both Egyptians.

Our over-the-top escapade was desert for tourists. But, at our age we are beyond roughing it in a genuine Bedouin camp.  I am not sure such camps exist. Only five percent of Oman’s Bedouins live a nomadic life. They rarely ride camels, but drive cars.  They live in houses, not tents. However, they preserve their culture and they lead lives closely connected to their history and nature. Many work in the tourist industry.  We met a Bedouin family selling handmade souvenirs from their home on our way out of the desert.

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Bedouin souvenirs

The desert experience, including  being pampered, was  definitely amazing.  From the desert we proceeded to the mountains for more adventure. Don’t miss the next post.

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I had intended to include Mahmoud’s eggplant as the featured recipe in Today’s Taste. I followed his recipe, but my version was a disaster. It tasted nothing like his. Instead, I will include a tasty Indian dish I tried recently, Egg Curry — great way to use those colored Easter eggs.  Indian cuisine is popular in Oman. This is a vegetarian recipe dedicated to my blog guru David, a vegetarian. See Today’s Taste.

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Life Under Lockdown in Southern France

BREAKING NEWS: We found TP (toilet paper for those not familiar with this American acronym)

I had thought it was only Americans who hoarded this now-craved commodity. However, last week on our first authorized shopping outing to a nearby mini supermarket, none to be had. We had just 1 ½ rolls left. The store had no paper towels nor paper napkins, either – just in case one wanted to improvise. Merde! This was serious.IMG_7550

Eureka. Yesterday we disobeyed rules and went to a larger supermarket, not within our authorized roaming territory. The treasure was found. Two shelves and more loaded down with the precious product. I did not want to be greedy, but I did put two packages in my cart (one of 6 rolls and one of 12). I also took advantage of the supplies of paper towels and paper napkins….just in case this lockdown drags on and on.

We were doubly lucky. Fortunately we encountered no police control. Otherwise we would likely have been sent back to our neighborhood to shop. No doubt that mini supermarket has supplies now, but it is small. Last week it was a hotbed of contagion. Too many shoppers. Too little space. People wearing masks and gloves but much too close to one another. I was a nervous wreck.

IMG_7548There was crowd control at the store yesterday, so I could shop without popping a Xanax. We waited in a long line for almost a half hour before being allowed in. Not many shoppers wore masks, including us. There are’t enough for medical personnel, much less ordinary folk. Pharmacies are also out of hand sanitizer.

Today (March 24) is day #11 for us, but, following recommendations for our age group (old), we began with self-quarantine three days before the national lockdown. Those first few days we enjoyed a walk along the Med, coffee on the terrace of an outdoor cafe, people and seagull watching along the beach promenade. Of course, we made sure not to get close to anyone.

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Our favorite coastal walk is now off limits.

Those were the days. Now all shops and restaurants are closed. We are only permitted to leave our abode for one of five reasons: travel to work; travel to purchase necessities (grocery stores and pharmacies are open); travel for health reasons (doctor); travel for serious family reasons, to assist the elderly, care for children, and finally, for brief periods of physical activity near your home. We must fill out a form with name, address and birth date, then check one of the above. The form must be with us when we leave our nest. If you do not have it with you, or are out of bounds according to the restrictions, you can be fined (135 euros/$147).

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No problem with social distancing on this neighborhood path.

The restrictions are getting tighter. This morning I learned that outdoor physical activity is now limited to within a one kilometer radius of your home, and only once per day. Outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, which had been permitted to stay open, are now closed, too

We have been taking short walks almost daily. Our neighborhood is one of huge

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The neighborhood park is closed.

mansions at the ritzy end and apartment buildings like ours at the other end. No problem with social distancing. We always see a few joggers, one or two dog walkers, and two or three folks out for a stroll like us. Those beautiful and soothing beach walks are out –more than one kilometer away. Not a big deal since the beach promenade is closed, as is our lovely neighborhood park.

We have the exercise bike. I can pedal and listen to Italian lessons. Who knows when my Italian and exercise classes will resume? We have learned that the lockdown will not end after two weeks. My friend Karen, a passionate dancer, can no longer attend dances . For exercise she is jumping instead. She ordered a type of trampoline for her large terrace/balcony.

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Karen’s rebounder.

Karen is also cleaning cabinets, closets, drawers – a worthwhile endeavor. It’s on my list. I must get motivated.

Since I like to cook, I had decided this was a time to try many of those recipes I had stashed away. Some are labor intensive. Alas, now I have time. Unfortunately, last week’s undertakings were underwhelming. Perhaps best to switch tracks, which is what friend Betty suggested on Facebook:

“Maybe in this stressful time you should cook favorite or comfort meals and save experimentation to when disappointment won’t be magnified. That said, I never had an underwhelming meal in your home!” Thank you Betty.

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A candlelight dinner on the first evening of lockdown.  We were not thrilled with  The Washington Post recipe,”Fragrant pesto broth gives this flaky white fish rustic elegance,” The only elegance we found was the candles.

So, back to my tried and true recipes (I have many). Check under the Recipe column, upper right, for some favorites. Last night I resurrected this one: Chicken, Red Pepper, and Green Bean Stir Fry.  Good and easy. See Today’s Taste.

I have to get my mind off this virus crisis and get back to Awesome Oman. I have more to write. Coming Soon.

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Most important: RESTEZ CHEZ VOUS. STAY AT HOME

We are in this together. We will overcome.

Below some photos of our neighborhood:

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Our street.  Not our house.
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Our building.  Our apartment is on the fourth floor, right corner behind the tree.  We have a balcony on the other side with a gorgeous view of the Med which is very therapeutic.
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View of Alps Maritimes from a walk.

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Introducing Awesome Oman

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Oman has a population of three million humans and 2.1 million goats.

Our departure for Oman was slated for January 15, just 12 days after the US killed the Iranian general, Soleimani, in Iraq. Tensions in the Middle East were high. A fear of war was all too real. Deadly terrorist attacks were expected.

“Don’t go. It’s too dangerous, too risky,” a friend cautioned. Others were less direct, but clearly thought the trip was a bad idea in this nail-biting political climate. And, yet others had no idea where Oman was. “I never heard of anyone going to Oman.”

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We went. It was fabulous. The Sultanate of Oman stretches across the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, jutting out into the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, but has none of the glitz and flash of the latter.

Its revered leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who died shortly before our arrival,

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Oman’s new sultan:  Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.

ruled for almost 50 years and kept the country stable and peaceful, an oasis of calm in a turbulent region. His cousin has stepped in and is expected to follow this steady path.

“Omanis like the Sultan. He keeps us out of wars,” a driver said. A guide pointed out that “the Sultan changed Oman from a very poor country … now we can have a nice life.”

Beaches, desert, mountains – Oman has all, and we experienced all. We (husband Bob and I) spent most of our two-week trip at a beach resort about 20 minutes from Muscat, the country capital. The sejour was grand, but it was our forays to the desert and mountains that were especially fascinating. We learned so much from our Omani guide/drivers.

Like in neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, staff at Oman hotels come from around the globe, foreign workers seizing job opportunities and salaries non-existent in their home countries. In Oman, however, law states that guides and drivers be Omani.IMG_6047

Mustafa drove us over rocky, rugged mountains to the desert. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are permitted on many of the steep, impressive roads, and there are controls. Signs warn: “Danger. Steep Bends. Steep Gradient. Continue in low gear.” In case brakes fail, there are escape lanes. “This highway just opened two days ago,” Mustafa said during one stretch of our journey which led through sleek, futuristic tunnels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like all Omanis we met, Mustafa speaks English. Children start learning English in school at the age of seven. Education is free. University students receive a government stipend during their studies. Lofti, a guide/driver who took us to the town of Nizwa, recently graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He said he received 90 rials (about $234) per month while studying. While waiting to find a job in his field, hopefully in Qatar where salaries are higher, he works as a freelance guide.

“The country needs educated people,” he said. “Many are sent overseas to study. The government pays for everything.”

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Unloading the morning catch at the Muscat harbor

Thanks to oil, Oman has money for all those bennies. The country’s top three economic drivers are oil and gas, fish and tourism. The latter has been growing. Oman wants and needs more tourists to lessen its dependence on oil.

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Lofti, super guide and driver.

A stunning new airport opened outside of Muscat two years ago. More seaside resorts are under construction. Signs everywhere are in English and Arabic. Oman is clean, orderly, safe “There are no terrorists from Oman,” a guide pointed out. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office states that “most visits to Oman are largely trouble free.”

Omanis practice a unique type of Islam, Ibadi, a moderate sect. “Ibadi, Sunni and Shiites can all pray together in the same mosque. They intermarry,” Lofti said. According to another driver, “No one talks religion. No one talks politics.”

Omanis are very friendly. Tourists and foreign workers are happy. “I have been here two years,” an Egyptian bar tender at our mountain hotel told me. “I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Oman.” Many hotel workers we met had moved to Oman from Dubai. They all prefer Oman.

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Friendly Omani family agreed to pose for a photo.

At our beach hotel, we met many on return visits. Driver Salim says he has clients who have become friends and come back every year. More and more visitors are opting for self-drive holidays, we learned. “This year we sleep a lot,” Salim lamented. “They all want self-drive. It’s cheap.”

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Challenging obstacle on the off-road adventure,

Since my trusty driver (Bob) no longer drives, I was reluctant to take on this challenge. While on a thrilling off-road trek with Salim, I was glad I had not. It was scary just being a passenger. However, we saw several self-drivers on the journey. At a photo stop in a remote, desolate mountain area, a couple from Germany asked directions as their GPS did not work.

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Bob and and Salim at the entrance to Snake Canyon, a popular hike for the intrepid (not us).

Salim and I discussed religion, family life, values. Family is of utmost importance to Omanis. He lives in his father’s house with his wife and son. He has three sisters and five brothers, but most have moved out to their own homes. However, on weekends they usually all return to the family compound where 14 goats, 6 cows and some sheep also reside.

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Goat market in Nizwa,

The home is in the small mountain town of Sehcoteni, 56 kilometers from Nizwa, the country’s original capital. “Until four years ago I had never been to Nizwa. Ours was a simple life. We go to the mountains with our goats and return in the evening.”

Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arab world, embraced Islam in the seventh century.  Much of the region around Muscat was dominated by Portugal between 1507 and 1650 due to its important position on trade routes to the east.  Persians invaded in 1737, but were driven out by the Al Said dynasty which is still in power.  Oman signed a Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain in 1798 which guaranteed the Sultan’s  rule.   In 1891, Oman became a British Protectorate.  This lasted until 1951 when the country was granted independence from Britain.

Our trip was trouble free, peaceful, awesome.  I would be happy to return.

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More on Oman in future posts:  Luxury at the beach, Mountains and desert, Muscat. Plus, lots more photos. Don’t miss out.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up, upper right.  Your email address is kept private, not shared.  Trust me.

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