Ugandan depths

In planning and anticipating this trip, I had envisioned that our first two weeks (in Arabia) would be the fun part. In Uganda, I expected something more challenging and not always pleasant: two 8- to 10-hour driving days (between Kampala, the capital, and the remote western region where the granny project is located) sandwiched around three intense days of traveling over punishing dirt roads to get to hours of meetings in poor villages. But as we were packing Saturday night for our return trip home, I reflected with some surprise that the Ugandan part turned out to be the best.

As much as I love travel, I’m often struck by how superficial it can be. You blow through a city or a country in a day or two, and even if you’re paying close attention and asking tons of questions, you leave with only the slimmest understanding of how things work. Our sojourn in Uganda was an effort to go a bit deeper. We were returning to Nyaka, the village we visited four years ago as emissaries of Women’s Empowerment (WE) in San Diego. At that time, we were seeking to determine if the Nyaka AIDS Foundation’s granny project might be a good partner to receive some of the money WE raises for micro loans.

Steve and I fell in love with the Ugandan grannies the first time we were greeted by a group of them dancing to salute our arrival. These ladies range from 50 to 100 years old and face challenges we found almost unimaginable. Many have lost their husbands, yet all are raising grandchildren who’ve been orphaned or abandoned by their parents. They often look somber and stoic, but when they break into dance, they display astounding energy. Dancing transforms them; turns them exuberant, even joyous.

Four years ago, in talks with the Ugandans who run the project and visits with three granny groups, we also were impressed by their fledgling micro loan program. Upon our return to San Diego in June of 2013, the WE board approved a partnership; Steve and I since then have served as the liaisons between the Ugandans and the Americans. From informal emails and regular reports from the Ugandans, we’ve learned a bit more about them over the years. But we’ve also come to realize the many limits on our knowledge. If you’d asked me a month ago how a 75-year-old widow with no retirement income could not only survive but also raise young children, I would have had no idea.

Thanks to the time we spent in Kigezi, I glimpsed how at least a few of these ladies do it.

One afternoon, we visited the home of 64-year-old Paulina. She’s raising 4 grandchildren ranging in age from 7 to 14.

Paulina with Vian Owamani, the microloan coordinator


Her most recent loan was for 300,000 Ugandan shillings (about $82), and she used part of the money to buy two piglets, paying about $11 each for them. If she can keep them for about a year, until they weigh 45 to 55 pounds, she figures each should fetch somewhere between $55 and $70. Paulina also was using part of her loan to buy ripe coffee beans from neighbors. She dries the beans and sells them to a local coffee mill. Like most older women in rural Uganda, she doesn’t have to worry about paying for housing. She lives in a humble dwelling, with no electricity or water, but it’s been in her family for a long time. She also raises a variety of crops; it’s a way of life here. If the people are poor in this part of Uganda, the land is rich, enabling folks to grow corn, beans, peanuts, sweet and “Irish” potatoes, millet, cassava, rice, yams, vegetables, sorghum, tomatoes, and a head-spinning variety of bananas. Despite the hardships she’d endured, Paulina seemed hard-working and organized.
Fifty-six-year-old Jolly, also raising 4 grandkids, raised her hand to share her story with us but apologized for not standing. She suffers from a lot of back pain, she explained. Jolly was a pioneer — the first of the 7000 or so NAF grannies ever to be deemed by her group to be worthy of a one-million-shilling loan (a whopping $275). She got the money in January and used part of it to buy a foot-powered sewing machine. With the rest, she was renting a little storefront in the center of her town (Buyanja) — $22 a month for a 6-month term. Tailoring wasn’t something new for her. She had learned to do it more than 30 years ago, and at one time had owned 8 sewing machines and employed a crew of girls to make clothes that she sold in the market. But her husband had died in 1994, and she had had to sell all her machines to support her 5 children.

Although Buyanja had other tailors, Jolly had also created a tiny retail counter and a tea shop in the back of her space. A couple of customers were in it when we visited.

Jolly’s tailoring and tea shop. Phionah is the name of one of her daughers, who helps out. And people call all sorts of businesses “hotels.” Don’t ask me why.
Jolly showed us one of her recent creation.

Most of the granny loans are nowhere near the size of Jolly’s. Mauda, 72 and providing a home for three grandchildren, had recently borrowed 50,000 shillings (just under $14). She used the money to buy 2 hens, and she had allowed most of the eggs they laid to hatch. Now she has 12 hens, and besides looking forward to a handsome profit from selling some, she was also using their droppings to fertilize her garden. Although her loan was only a 20th the size of Jolly’s, she looked just as proud of what the money was helping her to achieve.

Over our three days upcountry, we met with 6 of NAF’s 98 granny groups, and sometimes it felt like we were hearing the same story, with minor variations, over and over: granny borrows $7. Or $27. Or $137. She uses it to buy a pair of rabbits. Or a goat. Or hens. Or she buys a bale of used clothing to resell at local markets. Or she rents a stall in the local market and sells vegetables in it. After four months, she repays the loan money (plus 14% to 20% in interest.) She feels extravagantly grateful, because that rate is so much lower than what she would pay to alternative lenders. Assuming she makes a profit (and most do), she usually directs it to paying what it costs to send a child to school. (Even the “public” ones in Uganda cost about $25 a year in fees, plus around $9 for a uniform and another $2-3 for books and supplies.)

Along with these common tales, I learned one thing after another that surprised me. One woman stood up and testified as to how grannies used to be despised in their villages, considered worthless because of their “boozing” and general lack of value. With the formation of her granny group, she and her comrades had acquired self-respect and hope; their status in the community had soared. Steve later asked one of the team members if this woman had been joking; the vision of drunken grannies seemed comic. But the NAF team members assured him she’d been serious; overwhelmed by the difficulty of their situation, the women often had succumbed to alcoholism and despair.

I was surprised every time the ring of a cell phone interrupted our discussions. Most grannies now have cheap ones that they use to communicate with family members.They also rely on battery-powered radios for daily announcements about deaths in the community — or word that a special granny group meeting was being called (to receive the likes of us, for example.)

I was surprised to hear how much the grannies worry about theft, even though in many ways, the rural communities are safe and honest places. When a small backpack belonging to our driver fell out of the van, unnoticed, a villager retrieved it, asked around for the phone number of one of the Nyaka team members, called, and carried the pack to us. But grannies also talked of having to defend against thugs who might steal their chickens, their crops, and their kitchen items. We asked if they used watchdogs. But dogs cost money to keep, and persistent thieves don’t shrink from poisoning them.
Not only the grannies told us things that astounded us. One day during lunch at a simple roadside joint, the topic of malaria came up. The Ugandans who work for the foundation are smart, well-educated, sophisticated. But every one of them was infected with malaria. Everyone is, they said. We pressed them, and they told us how they dealt with flare-ups. They shrugged it off, but it sounded a lot more painful than the common cold.

Ronald, our driver, was similarly matter of fact when we asked about his background. His father had been a doctor, but he had died when Ronald was 6 months old. Then his mother died a year and a half later. Rather than care for 2-year-old Ronald and his 8-year-old sister, the villagers treated them like pariahs (“ghosts” is the term Ronald used). If their parents had been cursed, the children were likely to be cursed also. So Ronald’s sister had somehow raised him. How does an 8-year-old do that? How did Ronald grow up, save money for driving school, and turn himself into the steady, sharp, and competent driver he is today?

On our final drive from Kampala to Entebbe to catch our flight Dubai Monday morning, gazing out the window of our taxi, I saw hundreds of reminders of how hard life is here: guys hawking packs of toilet paper to folks stuck in the hellish traffic, women carrying heavy loads of eggplants and other vegetables on their heads, a kid scrambling to drag in the furniture displayed on the lawn outside a shop before the rain got too heavy. So much more. But with all the evidence of struggle and suffering, there’s so much heroism — stories like Ronald’s of mind-boggling perseverance. You don’t have to dig very deep to find it.

Chimpanzees in the rain

The contrast between the sun-scorched Arabian peninsula — all grays, tans, and black — and lush central Uganda is stark. “It’s like another planet,” Steve murmured, looking out on our descent toward the riotous shades of green, fertile red earth, and red rooftops. One of the rainy seasons here in “the pearl of Africa” is March to June, and during that period, temperatures are mild. Although Entebbe is almost on the equator, its elevation is around 4000 feet. When we arrived Sunday afternoon it was in the mid-70s and the sun was shining through scattered clouds. So many birds were singing they made me think of noisy party-goers.

Steve and I rarely return to countries we’ve already visited. We’re curious about so many places we haven’t yet gotten to (India! Turkey! Mongolia!), it feels like there isn’t time to go back anywhere. Yet we’ve come back to Uganda because our mission here isn’t tourism but microfinance. When we were here four years ago, we visited a village in the southwestern part of the country to learn about a Ugandan project seeking to partner with Women’s Empowerment (WE), the San Diego organization started by friends of ours more than 13 years ago. We returned from that trip impressed with the Ugandan operation, a partnership resulted, and since then Steve and I have served as liaisons between the folks in San Diego and those in Uganda. WE has raised more than $100,000 for the Uganda organization, which lends that money to groups of women between the ages of 50 and 100 who are raising their orphaned grandchildren. Individual grannies in the groups borrow small amounts of money (typically $15 to $80) for four-month periods and use it to buy rabbits or pigs or other animals, craft materials, or items they can resell at a profit. Two representatives from San Diego visited two years ago to assess the microloan program up close, and now we’re here to follow up.

Because May 1 is a holiday in Uganda (as in many countries), we had Monday free. This suited us fine because we also wanted to visit the chimpanzee sanctuary on Ngambe Island, located in Lake Victoria, which adjoins Entebbe. I was vaguely aware of the sanctuary four years ago, but there was no time to squeeze in a visit. Since then, however, both Steve and I have read The Bonobo Handshake, a book about primate research set in part on the island. That amped up my desire to see the Ugandan refuge. Months ago, I contacted the sanctuary and made a reservation for us to hire a speedboat that would take us out for a day trip.

I awoke long before dawn on Monday to the rumbling of thunder. Uganda, like other parts of East Africa, has been suffering from a crippling drought, so it is happy news that in the last week, heavy rains have fallen. I have to confess, however, that when the pattering on our roof began early Monday, selfish thoughts assailed me. Soon the pattering turned into a downpour so violent it woke Steve. The pace of the thunder picked up, and I had to voice my concern: was it safe to venture out on a huge lake in a small boat during a thunderstorm?

[The Internet where I’m trying to post this in Kampala is horrible. I’ll have to write photo captions this way. The central compound of our guesthouse in Entebbe, which had looked like paradise Sunday in the late afternoon, was a swamp by Monday morning.]

At breakfast in the guesthouse dining room, I asked the assistant manager what he thought. Steady rain was still pounding down, but the thunder had abated, and he assured us the speedboat would certainly have some kind of canopy.

The guesthouse workers offered to give us a ride down to the boat dock, so we decided to assess the situation there. At first the facility seemed to be deserted, but then a guy appeared, a member of the boat crew, looking a little surprised to see us. (Although I’d reconfirmed our reservation a few days before our departure from San Diego, we hadn’t yet paid anything for the trip.) He said he’d have to go get some gasoline, but we should hang out under the overhangs, and we would depart soon enough.

[Our trusty vessel]

We strolled around, spotted the speedboat, and came upon another fellow who identified himself as one of the sanctuary cooks. He would be returning to the island after his block of time off. As we chatted with him, both the color of the sky and the intensity of the rain began to lighten, along with my spirits. I started to think the outing might not end in disaster after all.

And it didn’t. We shoved off just after 10 (instead of the scheduled 9 am departure). By then, it was only drizzling and the boat’s canopy protected us. I still might have risked hypothermia as the twin 115 Yamaha outboards revved up and we jounced and hydroplaned over the dark gray water. But the crew handed us heavy waterproof jackets and pants that kept us toasty and made me feel thrilled, rather than miserable, to be blasting in the direction of Tanzania at the start of a stormy day.

Our time on the island was pure fun from start to finish. The rain stopped, and we had to strip off the protective gear. Paul, the Ugandan chimp caretaker assigned to show us around, had been working on the island for 11 years; his knowledge of the sanctuary and its inhabitants was near-encyclopedic. The place is remarkable. Purchased 20 years ago by Jane Goodall and other chimpanzee fans, the island is a home for chimps who’ve been rescued from a variety of grim fates (poacher traps, war zones, pet traders). They get to hang out and play in about 95 of the island’s total 100 acres during the day, but at night they’re lured (by their evening feeding) into a giant cage-like structure where they sleep in hammocks.

[Part of the system of shoots that channel the chimps back to their sleeping quarters.]

[These two bad boys weren’t allowed to join the others in the jungle that day. Paul explained that one of them was angling to become the alpha male; the other was his “bodyguard.” They were causing too much trouble at the moment.]

[This two-year-old, nicknamed Survivor, was confined because he was still recovering from a broken leg — the second such injury he’d suffered from his violent and aggressive elders.]

They can’t just live independently in the forest because it’s only big enough to sustain 2 or 3 animals, whereas the community has grown over the years to include 49. During the day, electrified fences keep them from breaking into the 5 acres occupied by the caretaker quarters, small veterinary clinic, and other facilities for the humans. Since chimpanzees can’t swim, the lake water prevents most of them from making a watery escape, although Paul did tell us how one of the apes somehow managed to highjack a local fisherman’s boat — stocked with fish. That guy floated off for some time before the humans somehow recaptured the craft. Even more astounding was the story about the night a new worker forgot to padlock the animals’ sleeping quarters. The chimps noticed this in short order, broke out and began a wild rampage that had them marauding into the staff dining room. The humans all fled into the water to avoid being injured or killed. It only ended when a chimp named Megan got into the kitchen, found the stash of beer and wine, and alerted her fellows, who somehow got the bottles open and drank all the contents. Once drunk, they grew drowsy enough to enable their recapture.
Twice during the day we got a glimpse into why you’d want to keep a fence between you and the chimps at all times. They’re fed four times daily, and we got to watch the 11 am and 2:30 pm feedings. We positioned ourselves on an elevated platform.

As a worker approached with pails filled with fruit, resounding hoots issued form the forest, and soon the animals began appearing and positioning themselves along the fence.

We might have been 20 or 30 feet from the closest ones. That felt close, certainly close enough to feel their size and power, close enough to read their facial expressions.

Some raised an arm or clapped their hands or stamped their feet, demanding that oranges and carrots and avocado and chunks of jackfruit be lobbed in their direction. (They made me think of New Yorkers hailing cabs.) Savage fights with lots of howling and blood-curdling screams and teeth-baring and breakneck chases broke out several times during each feeding session. Then they ate all the food and disappeared into the jungle again.
They’re not as charming and lovable as the bonobo colony in our zoo in San Diego. But motoring home in the late afternoon over the glassy sun-dappled lake, I’ve never been happier that a little rain failed to stop us from enjoying the adventure.

[Our boat captain]

Scenes of wonder and curiosity in the United Arab Emirates

So now that I’ve seen the ski slope inside Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, what I want to know is: why doesn’t someone build one in Las Vegas? Having just spent our two final Arabian days (and nights) in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I can confirm that those two are in a fierce Weird Sights competition with Nevada’s citadel of sin. I think Vegas needs a mall-based winter wonderland to stay in the game.

We didn’t ski but watched some of the action from our table at TGI Fridays (where we pondered the fact that Friday in this part of the world is the special day of worship. So do Muslims associate this restaurant chain with piety?)

Experienced skiers and snowboarders pay a little more than $80 for a full day pass. But wouldn’t they get a bit bored after a few runs?

Architectural landmarks in the Emirates range from the ostentatious…
he grand staircase in The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, the biggest and showiest hotel I’ve ever seen.

…to the attention-grabbing…

One view of some the buildings neighboring the Emirates Palace…

…to the religious…

Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
It contains the world’s biggest carpet, along with about a million Chinese tourists. Few are as cute as this little one.

We gasped at this bizarre scene when we drove the main freeway from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi city early Friday afternoon:

We had the road to ourselves. Were the locals all at their mosques?

Our automotive pleasure evaporated when we returned to Dubai’s oh-so-smoggy skies (think Beijing. Or LA in the early 1960s). But we needed a car to visit attractions such as the 4-year-old Dubai Miracle Garden.

When one of the guys from Mumbai at the front gate murmurs, “It’s TOO HOT!” you know it’s toasty. But the flowers hadn’t wilted in the world’s biggest flower garden — irrigated with 200,000 gallons of recycled wastewater every day
The theme of the garden is everyday objects covered with a mind-boggling variety of colorful foliage.

Latest attraction here is a life-size Emirates Airbus 380 blanketed in about a half a million flowers. We were impressed, despite our wilting in the heat.

With all the driving, our fuel gauge soon showed us to be near empty. We spent a harrowing hour following bad directions from our GPS and cursing the city’s poorly designed road system before finding our way to a petrol station.

Like most that we saw, it was jammed with drivers in a way that reminded us of the Arab Oil Embargo and subsequent price controls’ impact on the US back in the 70s. But… why do the drivers have to line up like that in the most oil-rich place on earth? We wondered if the guy walking out maybe ran out before he could find a station.

I was happy to get rid of our little rental car. Now I’m writing this aboard our Sunday morning flight from Dubai to Entebbe, Uganda. I’ll try to post it from there, as soon as possible, but Steve recalls that the Internet was pretty bad when we were there 4 years ago. I think it can’t be much worse than the limited online access we’ve been experiencing for the past two weeks.

The camel souk

We haven’t ridden any camels on this trip, but we ate camel burgers for lunch Thursday. And Friday morning we spent an hour or so at the Emirati version of Camels R Us.
As a culinary option, I’m not sure I understand where camel meat fits in this part of the world. Locals have told us it’s popular and considered quite healthy. On the other hand, we haven’t often seen it on the menu. The place where we ate it was in the restored historical district in Dubai, and pretty touristy. It served not only camel meat but also claimed to make burgers from zebra, ostrich, rabbit, Cape buffalo, gnu, and other antelope, including oryx (which to the best of my knowledge is still severely endangered.) We were kind of shocked; had visions of evil poachers dancing in our heads. On the other hand, we knew that camels are not endangered. And we were hungry. The patties, topped with cheese, had a coarser texture than ground beef, but the flavor was meaty and delicious.

We had this meal on the day we flew back from Oman to the UAE. The historical district, where we wanted to spend a little more time, is not far from the airport, so after we picked up our rental car, Steve valiantly got us there through nightmarish traffic. After lunch, we headed away from the gulf to Al Ain, a city I had wanted to visit ever since I read about its huge date palm oasis — inhabited by people for around 7,000 years and recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In planning that outing, I also read about Al Ain’s camel souk; one website claimed it’s the last big one of its kind in the UAE. That sounded intriguing too, so we added it to our To Do list for Saturday morning. 

I was a bit nervous. Both Lonely Planet’s write-up and travelers’ online comments mentioned that men sometimes pressured tourists into paying for guide service through the gritty marketplace. Some reviewers even described being lured into camel stalls by what they thought was a friendly offer to pet a baby camel and then being forced to pay an extortionate fee — even locked in until they coughed up the dough. 
But our experience proved nothing like that. It took us a little while to find the market, which is located in back of a fancy shopping mall off a major road. Once parked, we were surprised by how clean and organized and ENORMOUS the area is! Six long rows of pens arranged around two big yards contained what we estimated to be well over 1000 camels. Each row had a roofed section that provided shade and a fenced area open to the sky. Pick-up trucks for loading the animals could be pulled into the yards.

In the hour or so we spent strolling around, we didn’t see any women anywhere. Almost all the men wore robes and headgear (turbans or robes or some variation). A few guys tried the baby-camel-photo hustle, but it seemed half-hearted. A few asked where we were from or if we wanted to buy a camel. From these we learned that we could purchase a camel for meat for about $830, but a milking animal would cost $5,000 to $10,000. Other camels were being sold for their hair-production (a la sheep), and we assumed that some were studs and racers. God knows what they would set one back.

Equally fascinating was the variety in the animals — not just camel tan, but rich browns…

and creamy white and even freckled ones.

I have some videos of angry camels being wrestled into truck beds (if the Internet weren’t so poky I’d tried to upload it). But for the most part, the animals engaged in the camel-ish behaviors I’ve found so charming in the past: hoovering up their grain and grasses and chewing it with gusto, staring at us with evident curiosity, batting their beautiful long lashes.

After we left the camel souk, we drove to the nearby oasis. It was close to 100 degrees, but in the shade provided by the palm fronds, strolling wasn’t intolerable. It was peaceful, even beautiful. But in my opinion, camels are more entertaining.

Turtle power

For four species of giant sea turtles, Oman’s relatively unpopulated tropical beaches are special; mother turtles use them to lay their eggs. At the very easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula, the Omani government has created a preserve called Ras al Jinz to help the babies survive their perilous journey to the water after they hatch. I read about this place and thought it would be cool to visit — until I learned that high season for the egg-laying and hatching was in the summer — months after we would be passing through. So I didn’t include any reptilian adventures on our itinerary.

Months passed. The more I learned about the challenges involved in getting to the Arabian desert and up Oman’s rough, wild mountain roads, the less I wanted to rent a 4WD vehicle and drive it ourselves. In the end, we decided to hire an outfitter to provide us with a driver/guide (Abdullah) for three days. The itinerary that they proposed included a visit to Ras al Jinz. We shrugged and thought: why not?

On our first afternoon together, I commented to Abdullah that I understood we probably would not see turtles that evening, because it wasn’t the right time of the year for them. But he set me straight. Even though the numbers couldn’t compare with what one would see in the summer, “You are 95% guaranteed to see turtles,” he promised. He explained that we would have two opportunities to see them. Guides would lead guests staying at Ras al Jinz and a limited number of other visitors on a trek to the beach around 8:30 or 9 pm. They would also lead a much smaller group about 5 am. We could do one or both excursions, but in Abdullah’s opinion, the morning outing was the better time — quieter and more peaceful and allowing participants more time to commune with the sea.

Both Steve and I were feeling beat; we crammed an awful lot of sightseeing and driving and swimming into our first day with Abdullah. So we jumped at the chance to opt for the morning turtle foray. We ate dinner at the reserve, climbed in bed by 9:30, and set our alarm for 4:30 am.

Shortly before 5, we joined a small group in the lobby. We set out toward the beach, illuminated only by the wan glow of the coming dawn.

Most of the stars had disappeared, but Venus still gleamed. No one talked. A Goldilocks breeze made me feel just right.
About 30 feet from the surf, our guide instructed us to wait. He would walk up the beach, scanning for egg-laying females, while a fellow guide would search in the other direction. If they found a turtle, they would signal us with their flashlights. We watched our leader grow smaller and smaller as he approached a starkly geometric promontory in the distance.

But he found no egg-laying females, nor did his buddy who scanned in the other direction. I felt let down, like we’d blown it. The night group had been able to observe not one but two turtle mothers obeying the urgent imperative of their instincts. 
Someone in our group spotted something in the surf zone — giant turtles, copulating. It looked like large dark forms thrashing about. Once in a while, a fin or two could be seen. Everyone watched this for a while, but our guide said the female in such encounters never would come onto the beach immediately. “It will be like three or four days later,” he said. So people started trudging back to the lodge.

See the fins?

Some of us lingered however. Steve and I marveled at the huge tracks left by female turtles who had obviously been there earlier — they looked like they’d been made by small bulldozers.

We realized that the depressions dotting the beach had been made by the females.

We assumed these pits were the nests. Egg shells the shape and size of golf balls were strewn around them.

But later we learned that the eggs were actually buried by the huge female turtles about a meter down and away from the depressions, in part to deceive some of the animals that love to eat turtle eggs (including foxes, whose paw tracks we saw in the sand.) 

Comical crabs scurried through the waves and played peekaboo in their holes.

If we’d missed the sight of the mother turtles laboring and delivering their offspring, their presence, after a while, felt very close. As did the babies. Only one sea turtle hatchling in a thousand makes it to maturity, to swim the oceans of the world. The thought of the little ones buried all around me, who soon would each give it their shot, almost tempted to be return to Ras al Jinz in the high season. (Daytime temperatures climb well over 100 then.)

We found this new hatchling dead on the beach. But life is hard even for older turtles. The guy below was at least a foot long. But something killed him too.


Getting places in Oman

How do you find your way in the world? More specifically, what’s the best way to navigate through an unfamiliar city? For most of my life, I used paper maps. Maps from cities spanning from Las Vegas to Leningrad fill a big plastic bin in one of my closets at home. In the last few years, I’ve started using digital guidance from Google or Apple, but they depend on decent Internet to work well, and in many places, we only receive free but slow (2G) service from T-mobile. I can’t count the number of places we’ve gotten lost, due to the obtuseness of these direction-givers (often in combination with our own mistakes).

Last fall in Malaysia, we chatted with a friendly young Canadian backpacker who raved about an app called He described how you could download maps for pretty much any place on earth. Combined with the GPS in one’s smart phone, they provide excellent guidance even offline, he told us. So before this trip, I downloaded their maps for the UAE, Oman, and Uganda.

Results so far have been mixed. At times in Dubai they showed our position down to the street corner, with many of the nearby businesses identified. But the app also led us astray at least once. We thought maybe we just weren’t using it right.

When we arrived in Muscat Saturday afternoon, we quickly realized this was a place where could shine. Oman’s capital is an ancient city, and although it has become a sprawling metropolis, we were staying in the old heart of it, on the waterfront. That area is small; the jagged brown mountains plunge close to the waters of the city’s little natural harbor. Streets in the Mutrah area, where the souq is located, twist around the rocky spurs, forming a confounding maze. Making matters worse, our guesthouse was about a mile from the waterfront.
Only slightly daunted, Steve and I whipped out and set out for dinner the first night, asking the app to show us the way to a waterfront rooftop restaurant that got great reviews (and served beer!) The route seemed clear for most of the way. But toward the end, we saw no sign of the Marina Hotel. The map indicated we were standing right next to it. But our eyes found no evidence of that. We asked some locals, but no one seemed to recognize what we were talking about. Finally, we got a taxi driver to drive us to the correct location (about a mile away). “Pay me whatever you think is fair,” he said (having no meter). Steve gave him one rial (about $2.60), and he seemed okay with that. 
After dinner, feeling slightly more familiar with the city’s layout, we set out on foot from the Marina to the guesthouse. Again, the path on my phone seemed clear. It led away from the brightly lighted waterfront and into gloomier residential streets, but even though it was nighttime, and the streets were filled with Arab men in turbans and long white robes, I felt comfortable. Black-robed women also were out strolling with their little ones. Clearly, this was a neighborhood, and its residents were enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures of the evening. 
Steve and I plodded on and on, and the number of people around us decreased. Finally, a man approached, looking distressed. “You cannot go on!” he declared. Had he recognized us as foreign infidels? Even worse, Americans? But no! He seemed to be saying (in heavily accented English) that the street was a dead end. If we went on, we would hit a dark hillside, and it would not be safe to try to climb it in the dark. His concern over our safety was unmistakable. He said he would drive us back to the corniche, but his son had taken the family car. Instead he and several neighbors offered instructions on how to make it back to the main thoroughfare (which we did). From there on, behaved itself.
The next day, Sunday, we had better luck exploring Muscat, and we’ll return there for our final evening, Wednesday. On Monday, however, we switched to another way of getting around: putting ourselves in the hands of an expert driver/guide. Even more than the solicitous stranger in the street, Abdullah is a paradigm of gracious Arab hospitality. He’s 30, the father of two little girls and an 8-year-old son. “Most babies are born crying. This one was smiling!” one of the ladies at the grand mosque told us our first morning — referring to Abdullah. He has a great sense of humor, along with lots of curiosity and candor. After 20 minutes, I knew he was my kind of guide.
Monday he showed us the mosque, which I think ranks among the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen anywhere.

Then he drove us to a magical sinkhole, where Steve and I swam in the cool, azure water.

We swam again at a beach lined with white sand and small white stones.

Then we drove for hours through a beautiful “wadi,” a deep canyon through which a stream flows year-round, nurturing a forest of date palms. 

In the city of Sur, we raced up to a watchtower on the hillside, to see the sun set over the lovely cityscape.

Finally,  in the dark, we drove to the Ras al Jinz turtle reserve. After dinner, Steve and I collapsed into bed, where I slept badly, my brain too stimulated by all that Abdullah had led us to that day. 

The lottery

Border crossings often mean trouble, in my experience. Glowering signs warn you not to take any photographs, and one can imagine nasty punishments for scofflaws. Immigrations and customs officials confiscate stuff; some demand bribes outright. Even if that doesn’t happen, excruciating waits are commonplace. For anyone who doesn’t like borders, this part of the Arabian peninsula isn’t the best of destinations.

Within the boundaries of the UAE, the borders between the seven emirates pose no hassles, since they’ve been united into the one country. But a strange situation exists on the Musandam Peninsula, where we headed after leaving Dubai. For reasons that I haven’t had time to read about, the very tip of the peninsula belongs to Oman (a separate country). And not far from there, another small chunk of Oman is completely surrounded by the UAE. While geographically exotic and probably historically interesting, from a border-crossing perspective this arrangement is a pain in the ass. 
When we traveled to Khasab from Dubai, we had to stop at one complex to get stamped out of the UAE, then drive a little way down the road to go through the formalities (and fee-paying) to enter Oman. If we had taken the ferry as planned, we wouldn’t have had to engage in such shenanigans again until our flight out of Oman, as we would have departed on a ferry from one Omani city (Khasab) and disembarked at another (Muscat) several hours down the coast.
Because we had to change plans and make the trip by car, however, we had to stop at one complex to get our passports stamped to certify that we had left Oman. At a second facility nearby, we got stamped back into the Emirates. No money was demanded for this “service,” and it only took about ten minutes. Even though we’d quickly learned that the friendly South Indian guy whom Eldho had found to drive us to Muscat wasn’t legally permitted to provide this service, the border officials either didn’t bother to find it out or didn’t care. 
About three and a half hours into the trip, we arrived at the border between UAE and the big (main) part of Oman. Here things got messier. At the Leaving UAE facility, we eventually found our way to a bunch of lanes for cars; the scene reminded us a bit of the San Ysidro border crossing. Unlike it, only one lane was open, and no one else was in it when we pulled up to the guard manning its inspection booth. He ordered us to park in front of one of the closed traffic lanes and go to an office in the distance. There, although we were departing, only the door marked “ARRIVING” was open. We walked in to find a half-dozen truck drivers lined up at a window. One of the officials told us to take a seat. We waited and waited. Nothing happened, except that more truck drivers dribbled in. Eventually about a dozen were in line. It was all quite mysterious and somewhat irritating.

Channeling my inner scofflaw, I took this picture of the line of truck drivers growing, while we sat and waited as ordered. The video of the hajj in Mecca on the TV screen (with accompanying chanting) failed to soothe me.

It took a while, but someone finally came out and motioned for our driver to approach the window. They said he had to pay some kind of fee that amounted to about $26. (Again, mysteriously, Steve and I were stamped out for free.) Our turn to be extorted came when we got to the Arriving in Oman complex (massive, under construction, and confusing). There we learned that even though we had paid for a 10-day tourist visit on Thursday, we would have to pay for another one (another $26 or so for the two of us.) 
If we pulled an unlucky number in the bureaucratic lottery for Omani border-crossing, I have to admit that arcane regulations worked in our favor the night before, when we were seeking some dinner. Our first thought had been to dine at an upscale resort just outside of town that Lonely Planet describes as “Khasab’s best night out,” and just as importantly, “the only venue in town with a bar.” (We hadn’t seen alcohol for sale anywhere in any form since we left Dubai Airport upon our arrival.) But when we mentioned this to Eldho, the extraordinarily helpful manager of our guesthouse in Khasab, he seemed to recoil. This may have been because it would have required a longish ride from the badly situated guesthouse, and one of Eldho’s responsibilities apparently included providing guests with free taxi service. Alternatively, he may have been horrified by the prospect of our spending whatever dinner at the Atana Khasab would have cost. Eldho was more than a little thrifty; he had worked like a fiend to find us reasonably priced last-minute transportation from Khasab to Muscat. 
His suggestion was that he should drive us to the local fish market where he would help us buy a sheri (aka spangled emperor fish, aka Lethrinus lebulosus). This delicious local fish had just come in season, he explained, and because of conservationist measures designed to allow the species to breed, it could only be sold here in Khasab at the moment and thus only cost about one rial per kilo (about $1.20 a pound). Once the restricted period ended, and the fish could legally be sold in Dubai, the price would skyrocket, at least tripling in price. We need not worry about what to do with a whole raw fish, he assured us. He would transport us and the fish to a local restaurant that would grill it up for us. 
Both of us were yearning for that nice dinner at the resort. But Eldho’s belief that we would love his plan was so palpable, so fervent, we felt compelled to go along with it. At the tiny market, he showed us how to check the fish’s gills; a nice red color confirmed that it had been alive just a few hours before. 

Eldho liked the look of the fellow on the right.

We paid 1.6 rials (about $4.20) for a plump two and a half-pound beauty that Eldho said would be plenty for the two of us (he declined our invitation to join us, pleading other responsibilities — probably driving other guests around!). No other customers were in the tiny restaurant when we arrived, but someone sure did know how to grill fish there. Our purchase (and the rice and salad and sauce that came back with it), were delicious. Along with a frosty liter of water, the tab came to 3 rials (about $7.80). We’ll probably remember the fish longer than we do the border headaches.