Oman Trip Highlights

Oman is an interesting country. It benefited from the same oil wealth as the UAE, but the effects are much more subdued. Sometimes when I’m out an about in Abu Dhabi, the green and the uber modern towers makes it difficult to remember that I’m living in the desert, the dusty sky the only reminder. The desert was evident everywhere in Muscat, in the dry climate fauna, the mountainous terrain running along the sides of the roads. When I get the chance, I’d love to explore the less developed areas more.

I didn’t want to take too many taxi trips while I was in Muscat, since it was pretty expensive and the taxis don’t have meters. You have to negotiate with the driver every time you want to go somewhere, which means a lot of chances to get ripped off. At the airport you don’t really have a choice, but they have a stand in which all taxi fares are prepaid at a stand before you get on a taxi. Anyways, this is how I ended up using the Big Bus Tour.

I wasn’t super impressed with it, since I tried to order the tickets online to save 15%, but for some reason they weren’t able to issue me a ticket and had to cancel my order. Still, it was $50 for unlimited travel on their route for the day, and it ended up saving me some money getting back to the airport because I got off at a stop closer to the airport. Also, there was NO ONE on the buses! There might have been a time or two when there was two other people on the bus, but that was it. Mostly I had the bus all to myself.

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The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque had closed for tourists by the time I left the airport, but I still managed to get a shot of it. Opening for non-musims are 8am-11am excluding Fridays. Ladies, cover up that hair (and everywhere else for that matter) and men should wear long sleeves and pants.

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The Mutrah Souk is pretty much the same as all the other Middle Eastern souqs I’ve been to, minus all the people. All the shopkeepers were pretty desperate to sell, but I already have enough scarves and trinkets.

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This fort was right above the souk. You can see this kind of fort dotting the mountainous ranges all around Muscat.

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The Muscat Royal Opera House was quite impressive, and hints at the money that oil has brought in. Wonder what the inside looks like?

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There was a stop at the financial district of Muscat, and I thought I might get a bite to eat here. I got off and this was what I saw. Wandered around (it was 110 degrees!) looking for food and didn’t find much of anything at all.

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At least I found this clock tower that was supposed to be one of the sights to see in Muscat. Not really impressed. Would not recommend stopping off here.

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Green in the desert! And not the carefully cultivated kind of the UAE either.

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I joined a tour (provided by Big Bus) of the Sultan’s palace and its surroundings. The tour guide was a local Omani who lived nearby, and basically we walked around while he gave me an overview of Omani history and architecture, although he was much more interested in asking me questions about the United States then he was in the history of the Sultan’s palace and the surrounding forts. It was really really hot by then, and I was seeing spots at the end of the tour.

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I’m really starting to see the headscarf as a necessity. Halfway through our tour, both me and my guide had donned headscarves (he’s a man) to protect our heads against the searing heat.

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Dates are often found in the Middle Eastern diet. These ones are kimri, or unripe, and I’m told that it tastes disgusting.

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Rabbit sponge, signing off!

Day Trip to Bahrain

So I had to make a day trip to Bahrain, a tiny Middle Eastern country one-hour away from the UAE. It’s known as the Vegas of the Middle East (although much much more conservative), and many Saudis and expats living in conservative Muslim countries visit to get away from the restrictions of their own country.

Bahrain offers Visa on Arrival for Americans (and many other nationalites); all you have to do is pay 5 dinar at customs and you get a two week visa. Before I left for Bahrain, I was advised to fill in the entry form completely, or I’d have issues at customs. If it’s your first time visiting Bahrain with your valid passport, you’ll have to wait awhile while they do a check; I was assured that the next time I visited I’d go straight through.

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Mandatory pre-travel airport selfie!

The Bahrain dinar is tied to the American dollar, at 1 dinar to 2.65 dollars.  I’m much more used to money that’s smaller than the American dollar, and as a result, struggled with realizing that almost everything in Bahrain is expensive.

By the way, the Bahrain International Airport is really boring, with few shops and places to eat. If you happen to be heading to a gate downstairs, just know that you’re not getting back up.

Upon exiting customs was to get some cash at the ATM, as I was planning to take taxis and visit the souk. I had an inkling that this was a place where people spend big money when I was greeted with the options of withdrawing 50-500 dinars. Five hundred dinars is $1326! I felt very poor indeed when I picked “other amount” and withdrew 40 dinars.

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Half Bahrain dinar bill, worth $1.33

First thing I noticed after leaving the airport was that the taxi drivers appeared to be local, which never happens in the UAE. All taxi drivers in the UAE are from neighboring countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India; you almost never see the Emiratis working customer service. I assume Bahrain’s taxi drivers are local because it’s good money; it was about $30 to travel from the airport to the city center, and it was a short trip. There’s a 1 BD charge for trips leaving and going to the airport, and they also charge you 1 BD for a “waiting taxi”; when I was leaving the mall to get back to the airport, all the available taxis were waiting in the parking lot rather than at the entrance of the mall in order to levy this extra fee. Sneaky!

Originally I’d planned to spend some time at the souk (Arabic for market), but I’d forgotten that many stores close for a few hours around noon. It’s like an afternoon siesta where the locals go take a nap and rest while the sun is at its hottest. So I wandered around for a bit, looking at the shop windows and wondering whether I should wait an hour for it to open.

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I ended up leaving because I was getting stared at and men were whispering sexual innuendos as I passed. Traveling alone as a non-Muslim woman in the Middle East, it’s just something you have to get used to. A lot of men in the area equate not being covered from head to toe to as a sign that you’re loose, or worse, a prostitute. On the plus side, no one ever tries to touch me.

I decided to go to a nearby mall to grab some coffee and a bite to eat. I admired the architecture along the way; it’s so strange to think that all this is in the middle of a lot of sand.

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Beautiful view of the coast.

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I’ve always wondered how they keep things so green.

The Seef Mall is just like any other mall I’ve seen in the Middle East, with lots of coffee shops and kid-friendly facilities. What’s surprised me were the prices; something were very cheap ($1 vitamins) and some were outrageously expensive. I walked into a gourmet popsicle shop, and got a tiramisu pop dipped in chocolate (it’s as good as it sounds). I didn’t see any prices, but I thought, how expensive can a popsicle be? it was $6. SIX DOLLARS FOR A POPSICLE!

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Starbucks is fancy here.

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Ridiculously expensive popsicle shop. Have to say, it was gooooood. If it weren’t $6 apiece, I’d probably have 4.

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I’m not sure who decided that giant animal cars for children are a great idea in the confined spaces of a mall. I almost got run over…twice!

Before I finish off this post, I have to recommend this awesome organic burger place, Elevation Burger. The beef patty was juicy and the fries were made from olive oil. Almost as good as Shake Shack but probably a lot healthier. On a side note, a Saudi Arabian family of about 10 people came in, and bought about $270 worth of burgers and fries. Just saying, I’ve never seen so much money spent on fast food!

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Just looking at it makes me hungry…

That’s it for Bahrain! Next time I hope to see the Tree of Life and maybe the souk when it’s open. Let me know if you know any good places!

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Five things that baffle me about China

I’m Chinese, and before I went to China I thought that even though I don’t agree with everything they do, I’d at least understand why. Obviously, I was wrong. Below I’ll share with you 5 things that Chinese people do that completely baffle me.

1. Chinese people are extremely anxious about their children. In the winter, you’ll often see Chinese children wrapped up in so many layers that they look like large puffy balls (they’re convinced that the cold will make them sick). Loved pets are often abandoned for fear that they’ll pass on diseases to their children. Thrifty parents will not hesitate to buy the most expensive milk powder for their babies. And yet, you’ll often see mothers jaywalk across a busy intersection with their child in their arms. Does that make sense to you?

2. People in China will spend two month’s salary on a new cell phone, but argue with a vendor for an hour over 10 yuan. They’ll save for a luxury bag, and then ride the bus to work to save on transportation costs (trust me, the bus is not a pleasant way to commute during rush hour). When they go home for Spring Festival, they’ll blow a month’s salary treating their relatives and friends to a meal, then go home and eat instant noodles for a month. The Chinese call this “slapping the face to look fat” (打肿脸充胖子). I always knew that face was important to them, but can it really mean that much?

3. They think that cheating is ok, even a smart thing to do. I was shocked when my students freely admitted that they cheated while in school, claiming it was “something that everyone does”. One explained to me that because everyone did it, you’d be at a disadvantage if you didn’t.

4. When I first started working in China as an English Teacher, I was uncomfortable with the “pretty” compliments. Coworkers would tell me that I will do well because I was “pretty” and the boss “likes” pretty girls. Students told me that I would be a great teacher because I was “pretty”. Sexual harassment was pretty much expected and accepted in the workplace; my boss would comment whenever any member of the female staff wore skirts.The boss often made very sexist comments towards the female staff, and pressured them to go out for lunch or dinner. Chinese friends were surprised that I would consider that kind of behavior sexual harassment, and thought it to be just how things worked. It’s pretty much accepted that a beautiful girl would have more opportunities in the workplace.

5. Women are expected to be “weak”, and they seem more than happy to fulfill that role. Despite the fact that a lot of women work, and some even command a higher salary then their men, women are still expected to be the weaker sex. If they earn more, they’re encouraged to keep it under wraps for the sake of the man’s ego. If they’re taller, they’re forbidden to wear heels to de-emphasize their height difference. Mind you, many of them take full advantage, taking time off because they have menstrual cramps (they realize this happens every month, right?), having male coworkers do work for them, and even going out to lunch with men so they can eat for free (splitting the bill isn’t common in China). I’m surprised both at the women for accepting this notion, and at the men for enabling it.

I’m sure I’ll think of more, so keep an eye out for updates! Also feel free to share anything you’ve noticed ^^

5 things I hated about Bali

My last post was called 5 things I loved about Bali; I think it’s only fair that I talk about the dark side too. Hence, this post.

What could I possibly hate about a place as beautiful as Bali?

1. Traffic

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Yup, I LOVED it.

When planning this trip to Bali, we decided on staying in Nusa Dua for a number of reasons, one being cheaper accomodation and the other being less crowds. However this meant that we were 20 some kilometers away from Kuta, where all the action is. No big deal, right?

WRONG!

Every time we wanted to go to Kuta meant at least an hour and a half, three hours round trip, stuck in traffic. Nobody follows any rules here, and the hordes of motorbikes don’t make navigating the roads any easier. To make matters worst, the roads are narrow and poorly designed, with two lanes going in either direction. Add the holiday crowds to the equation, and it’s complete gridlock. After a few times we decided that nothing in Kuta was worth the time spent in the car.

We scheduled 3 full hours to go to Tanah Lot to see the sunset. The sunset was at around 6:40, and we left our hotel at 3:15. Our driver told us it should take us an hour and a half to get there, tops. We figured we’d get there a little early, look around, and then leisurely walk to a spot where we could take a picture of Tanah Lot while the sun was setting.

It took us almost three and a half hours to get there.

We literally had to race the sun to try and get the shot we wanted, and still missed it by 10 minutes.

My advice, skip Bali during the holidays. The traffic is horrendous, the beaches are overrun with people and their cameras, and it’s their rainy season.

Which brings me to…

2. The rain

We were lucky that we got three full days of sunshine and clear skies before it started raining. And it rained.

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A little rain never hurt anybody…but just think of the poor bellhop that had to drag our luggage through this torrent to the lobby.

Rain means no scuba diving, no surfing, basically no water sports. Rain means that you probably don’t want to go the beach. Rain means the traffic gets worse than it already is. And this kind of rain meant no matter what umbrella you use, you’ll get soaked in a matter of seconds. And because of the humidity, anything that gets wet basically stays wet (unless you stand over it with one of those weak hotel hair dryers for about an hour). It basically sucks.

When I go back, it’s not going to be in December.

3. Bugs

When I was a little girl, about 6 or 7, I wasn’t afraid of any bugs. That summer, I visited my grandmother in Taiwan, and she was always smacking cockroaches with a slipper. And those weren’t those tiny cockroaches you’d see in places like Vancouver, those were big tropical ones. Anyways, I was left alone in the room, and I saw one. There was my chance! I grabbed a slipper and smacked.

It broke in half.

And then the head ran off. The butt followed.

Ever since then, I’ve been terrified of cockroaches, and by association, all the creepy crawlies.

It can’t be helped, all tropical climates have bugs and lots of them. Bali is no exception.

There were long black bugs with a lot of legs in the shower (not centipedes, thank god). There were large ants that crawled over any leftover food. And most of all, there were mosquitoes.

I have a mosquito allergy, which means when I get bitten, the bite swells to the size of an egg, followed by hives and sometimes fever. I was bitten twice in Phuket, and over 20 times in Bali. I used mosquito repellent, but any spots I missed (like my feet) would get bitten multiple times throughout the day.

If you go to Bali, get a big bottle of mosquito repellent (I recommend Boots Natural Insect Repellent), After Bite, and if you’re the sensitive type (meaning allergic to everything), anti-histamines or OTC allergy meds like Claritin or Reactine.

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My lifesavers!

4. Transportation

Getting around is always a problem when you’re traveling. All taxi drivers know that you’re from abroad (unless you speak the local language), and don’t know where you’re going. Unfortunately, most of them take advantage of that fact and either a) drive around in circles running up the meter, or b) refuse to turn on the meter and instead ask for a fixed, inflated price.

In Bali, we were lucky enough to have a driver that worked our friend Zulfan’s aunt, which saved us a lot of negotiation and hassle. We didn’t have him everyday though, and when left to our own devices, taxi drivers often asked outrageous prices (relatively). Once when we were trying to leave the Galleria in the rain, a taxi driver asked us for 250,000 Rp ($21) to get back to our hotel, when normally it would be under 100,000 Rp. It’s not about the money, it’s that bad feeling you get when people try to take you for a ride.

The language barrier can also cause problems. When my friend tried to take a taxi to meet up with us about 2km away, she thought they’d agreed on using the meter. The driver thought differently. When it came time to pay, the driver asked for 50,000 Rp, and she refused. She pointed to the sign that said “minimum 25,000 Rp” and said that since he didn’t use the meter like they agreed, she would only pay the minimum. He got angry, started yelling in Indonesian or Balinese and it took intervention by another local before he huffily took the 25,000 Rp. Not a pleasant experience for anyone.

Now I’m not saying they’re bad people, everyone’s just trying to earn a living. But it’s not a good feeling not knowing who you can trust. The person smiling at you could just be trying to get you someplace to spend money on overpriced good for a commission. A recommendation could have a hidden agenda. My advice is to do your homework, know what you want to do and how much you want to spend. Then politely decline your driver’s suggestion to take you “somewhere nice”.

Whenever you can, take a Bluebird taxi. They’re the most reputable taxi company in Bali, and apparently government-run. Bluebird taxis always use the meter, so you don’t have to worry about negotiating the price. The only thing is, it’s pretty difficult to find one outside of major hotels and malls, and sometimes you have no choice but to take one of the other ones.

Almost all the taxis in Bali are blue, and some even have a bird symbol on their taxi hats meant to confuse tourists. However, they don’t try to copy the Bluebird exactly (presumably because it’s government-run), and it’s fairly easy to spot an imitation if you know what to look for.

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All Bluebird Taxis have a flying bird on its hat, and says “TAKSI”, never “TAXI”. It also always have “Blue Bird Group” on the windshield. None of the imitations would ever have that.

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Same color, similar hat, but not a Bluebird.

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No “Blue Bird Group” on the windshield.

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Also not a Bluebird!

There are a lot of drivers with private cars that you can hire for the day, at an agreed upon price. Generally you can get a driver for about 500,000 Rp – 750,000 Rp for about 8 hours, plus whatever tips you think he deserves. A good driver can make all the difference, although I would quickly Google his recommendations before taking them. The mobile network in Bali is spotty though, so sometimes you just have to decide if you can trust him.

5. The money

Ok, I’m being a little picky, but the Indonesian Rupiah makes it difficult for me to calculate whether or not something is expensive. I agonized whether to leave the maid 20,000 Rp ($1.69) or 30,000 Rp ($2.54) for 5 minutes before I realized it was the difference of $0.85.

The most you can pull out of an ATM at one time is 1.5 million Rp ($127), which can stretch quite far in Bali, but depends on whether or not you’re going to restaurants and spas catering to tourists. Because the largest denomination is 100,000 Rp ($8.47), that means at any given time, you’re carrying a huge wad of bills around. A lot of ATMs also only give out 50,000 Rp bills, which means in order to take out 1.5 million, you’d be carrying around 30 bills. Another problem is that many smaller stores or stalls think of 100,000 Rp bills , or even 50,000 Rp bills as “big bill”, and difficult to break.

Here I’d like to recommend that you exchange USD or Euros or pounds for Rupiahs in Indonesia. You’d get much better rates than you’d get back home, not to mention the fact that the Indonesian Rupiah isn’t widely traded and is probably difficult to find. Be sure to compare several exchange booths, as rates can vary widely in just a few blocks. Also remember to ask if they charge commission, and get smaller bills if you can.

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1.5 million Rp in 50,000 denominations. Tim obviously doesn’t hate being baller…

Make no mistake, I loved Bali. This post is just me hoping that when you visit, you’ll be able to avoid all the bad parts and just enjoy the fabulousness that is Bali. I don’t regret going, and neither will you.

 

 

American Myths – Americans are “open”

I want to start posting beliefs about Americans that I’ve come across in the past few years, in hopes of dispelling them. And I’ve decided to start with the one that infuriates me most, the myth that all Americans are “open”.

During one of my first few days in China, I was invited to have dinner with my new friend and one of her male friends. Although I’m not usually a very social person, I figure it couldn’t hurt to make new friends. After the usual “how are you” and “where are you from”, the conversation turned to relationships. Which was fine; I’m not very sensitive about discussing my relationships at all. But the conversation quickly made a turn towards a topic no one should bring up at a first meeting.

Him: What’s your favorite sexual position? Have you ever had a threesome?

Me: Why would you even ask me that? It’s so inappropriate, I don’t even know you!

Him: Oh, I thought you American girls were “open”…

It didn’t take me too long to learn, that being described as “open” is basically an euphemism for slutty. “Open” means open to invitation from all men, and not open-minded like we take it to be. I still couldn’t understand why usually conservative Chinese men would ask these kinds of questions to a girl they barely knew, so I asked some of my Chinese friends. Some said that Chinese men feel they would “gain” something if I answered their question; if I act shocked, they can feign surprise and claim cultural ignorance. Some say that men generally get excited when talking about sex, and while Chinese girls would call them a pervert for asking those questions, they feel that an American girl wouldn’t.

Another time, while I was teaching, a student commented that he would like to get an American girlfriend when he goes to the US for university. I asked why he didn’t want one in China, and he said that girls are “easy” in American, while you’d have to work hard to get a girl in China.

To which I replied, “They wouldn’t be easy for you.” Don’t think he got it though.

Where are they getting these ideas from? American TV shows and movies, of course.

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They think all American girls are like this…

American TV shows and movies are very popular in China for both entertainment and educational value (learning English). Unfortunately they are also developing American stereotypes based on these sensationalist programs. I’m often asked, why do Americans have so much sex? Why do they sleep with everyone? Then they use the incestuous relationships in Gossip Girl as an example.

And it’s not only women who are affected. One of my friends from South Africa liked a Chinese girl and invited her to his house for dinner. He spent hours preparing a home-cooked meal for their date. According to him, she walked in, praised his food presentation, and then dragged him into the bedroom. He said that he really was just expecting to have a nice meal.

Although I wouldn’t call him a “victim” of this stereotype (he seemed quite pleased about it), Chinese women also seem to think that American men just want to have sex, and the way to “be American” was to have sex as quickly as possible. Men  have complained that Chinese women have difficulty understanding that sex was not the only thing they wanted in a relationship, but also companionship and communication. Chinese women seem to think of American men as one-dimensional creatures after one thing.

In their defense, there are a lot of American men who are behaving just so in China. They brag about their conquests, sleep with a different woman every night, have tons of one-night stands and seem to be collecting Chinese women. But that’s no reason to categorize all American men as manwhores, especially as there are a lot of decent ones out there ( I snagged one myself).]

Recently, an American girl blogged about the sexual harassment she experienced in India (ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053), targeted because she was “American”. This stereotype is being perpetuated all over the world, and it’s simply not true. We aren’t easy, we’re just open to sexual relations.

What American myths have you come across?