- Anubis on the Beach… April 2, 2018
- Journey to Al Ain… March 25, 2018
- Argonauts… March 25, 2018
- Anubis in Oman… March 25, 2018
- Heating Up… March 25, 2018
- Kempinski Hotel Muscat March 25, 2018
- Kusharina… March 25, 2018
- Wondrous Wadi… February 10, 2018
- World Cancer Day… February 4, 2018
- Sunset in the Sultanate… January 31, 2018
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In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization.
— Wilfred Thesiger
Just 24 hours before the week-end began, an American expat friend in Oman asked me if I wanted to drive with her to the United Arab Emirates to check out Dubai’s “Global Village” (like Epcot’s World Showcase on steroids) and the city of Al Ain. Since I haven’t spent much time time in the UAE, I said sure and looked online for hotels. After booking a room at the Hili Rayhaan by Rotana, I packed my bags and hopped in the car with her the next morning to drive from the Sultanate of Oman to the border crossing near Al Ain — one of only two currently open to expats.
At the border crossing, we got our retinas scanned and passports stamped in under ten minutes before we journeyed onwards to Global Village in Dubai — where we shopped in each country’s pavilion for local goods (porcelain whirling dervishes from Turkey, Moroccan lamps, and Yemeni honey). I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would — the shopping was impressive but most of all I enjoyed speaking in Arabic with merchants from all over the region (and I even picked up some new Amazigh words). The trick is to get there early to avoid the large crowds.
After driving from Dubai to Al Ain, we were exhausted from a long day on the road driving across the Arabian peninsula. So we were delighted to finally reach the charming dining room of our hotel — Hili Rayhaan by Rotana — to enjoy a big feast for dinner. As luck would have it, we arrived on “Arabian buffet” night, and we were pleased to encounter some creative sushi fusion surprises.
I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was when I found all kinds of “Arabian” sushi displayed as part of the buffet. I have worked in the Middle East for two decades, and lived in the Middle East consecutively for six years, so I was thrilled to encounter this playful new culinary delight. “Arabian sushi” — whoever thought of that deserves an award! When we finally got to our room to unwind and sleep, we were greeted by a pair of stuffed camel toys on our pillows — a sweet local touch.
Seriously, what could be cooler than “tabbouleh sushi?” It even kind of rhymes! In addition to the tabbouleh sushi, there was sushi stuffed with local cheese (delish!), and even dolma sushi — stuffed grape leaves (a staple of Middle Eastern cooking). I love sushi and I love Middle Eastern food, so I was in tastebud heaven. I ate as much of this “local” sushi as I could, since I knew it was likely I would never see this eclectic and unique sushi platter (east meets east!) again.
After some much needed sleep, we rose well-rested the next morning and were happy to find that the breakfast spread was as satisfying as our dinner. A nice cappuccino, of course, was necessary to help push us out the door, as it was hard to leave the comforts of the hotel behind to explore the sites of Al Ain and then head home to Oman.
Nearby the hotel, we visited the impressive Al Jahili Fort — erected in the 19th century. Lucky for me, since I am interested in travel writing from the Middle East (being an intrepid traveler and writer myself), the fort contains a permanent exhibition of black and white photographs by the British traveller Wilfred Thesiger, entitled “Bin London and Freedom of the Desert.” Having lived in the same desert sands on the Arabian Peninsula as he once did, I read his words with a sense of strange kinship: “In those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world.”
Thesiger had come to “Arabia” to “find peace in the hardship of desert travel and company of desert peoples.” He lived with the Bedouin in the extreme environment of the desert and came to appreciate their skills, customs, and indigenous knowledge of the landscape and their beloved animals. As Thesiger wrote: “Here every man knew the individual tracks of his own camels, and some of them could remember the tracks of nearly every camel they had seen. They could tell at a glance from the depth of the footprints whether a camel was ridden or free, and whether it was in calf. By studying strange tracks they could tell the area from which the camel came.”
Studying the old photographs depicting the harsh realities of Bedouin life in the desert, I was struck by how much in the United Arab Emirates had changed in the past several decades. While we were surrounded by the trappings of modernity in Al Ain, we were also pleased to be surrounded in some corners of the province by endless desert dunes. Always more at home in the desert sands than the skyscrapers of Dubai, I found myself daydreaming about moving to Al Ain and escaping on the week-ends to the dunes to live like Thesiger once did — without trappings of Orientalism, of course, just for some fresh air. On our drive back to the Sultanate Oman, I kept thinking of Thesiger’s words, and wondering if I too might have the chance one day to share all that I have seen in my twenty year travels as a solo traveler in the region: “The chill wind whispered among the shdowy dunes and fingered us through our clothes and through the blankets which we wrapped about us. They talked till long after the moon had set, of camels and grazing, of journeys across the Sands, of raids and blood feuds and of the strange places and people they had seen.”
Kempinski Hotel Muscat has officially opened its doors to guests after a three year delay. Nestled in the “Al Mouj” (The Wave) community in Muscat, this luxury hotel is the latest luxurious property to hit the hotel scene in the Sultanate. I usually enjoy the beach on which the hotel is located twice a week, so I am looking forward to watching the hotel start to fill up with guests soon (though the beach will be more crowded!)…
Excavating at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt for seven winters certainly got me addicted to koshary — a splendid Egyptian dish with pasta, rice, lentils, fried onions, chickpeas, and more. So whenever I need my fix in the Sultanate of Oman where I live, I head over to Kusharina for the best koshary in town…
Sidelined on the couch this summer with a fractured foot, I was in need of a hobby to distract myself from the pain. So I gave myself an unusual challenge — to learn as much as I could about wild gorillas in Africa from the comfort of my living room. I watched countless gorilla videos from Rwanda and Uganda, and learned how to make gorilla grunts on youtube with the help of Sigourney Weaver, who played gorilla expert and preservation pioneer Dian Fossey in the film Gorillas in the Mist. The more I learned about gorillas, the more I fell in love with these close cousins of ours – who share 98% of our DNA — and daydreamed of meeting them in person.
When the Eid Al Adha break was announced earlier this fall, I realized my chance to meet gorillas face-to-face had come — but I didn’t know anything about travel to Rwanda and Uganda. So I went to my favorite coffee shop in Muscat – Africa – whose owners have ties to Rwanda and provided me with tips on how to create a grand African adventure. After booking a few hotels I found online, securing a gorilla permit ($1500 in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda), applying for an East African visa online, and downing some malaria pills, I hopped on a plane to Rwanda on Ethiopian Airlines to party with primates — chimpanzees, golden monkeys, and gorillas – in the wild.
After landing in Kigali, I enjoyed a one night stay at the new Kigali Marriott Hotel, perfectly situated in the city centre, and was surprised by its luxurious decor — since our media exposure to modern-day Rwanda is so limited. Rejuvenated the next morning from a deep sleep in my spacious room, and a lovely breakfast on the hotel’s sunny garden terrace, I set off with my driver towards the border with Burundi to trek chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park — the best rainforest in Central Africa and a basin of the Nile.
As we coasted past sprawling, lush rice paddies and rolling hills of red clay, I could appreciate why Rwanda is called “land of a thousand hills.” When we arrived at Gisakura Guest House, its simple brick cottages dwarfed by towering trees filled with monkeys, I realized I was about to live out my Dian Fossey fantasy – immersed in Rwandan nature instead of separated from it in a fancy hotel. Upon opening my window curtains, I yipped with surprise at the monkey staring right back at me! After evading a mischievous monkey family patrolling the property on my way back from the shower, I fell asleep to the gentle rumble of thunder and the hypnotizing din of the crickets, pleased with the thought that there was no place else I would rather be.
Our chimpanzee trek the next morning began at 5:30 followed by a canopy walk in the afternoon on a narrow bridge dangling over the rainforest. A friendly porter – who used to be a poacher – carried my bag, as we followed the boisterous laughter of a rowdy group of chimpanzees (babies included) enjoying their breakfast. As their shadowy figures showed off their acrobatic tricks, they seemed, at a distance, indistinguishable from humans. Watching the little ones practice swinging from the vines and mothers caring for their newborns, I could not help but feel a kinship with them. As Jane Goodall once said, “When you meet chimps you meet individual personalities. When a baby chimp looks at you it’s just like a human baby. We have a responsibility to them.”
On the drive to Volcanoes National Park the next day to trek golden monkeys, we stopped for pumpkin soup and gourmet pizza on the banks of Lake Kivu — one of the African Great Lakes which is on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Rwandan President Kagame was dining next to us at the Serena Hotel). We also took a quick stroll across the border post into the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a photo-op. When we reached Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge at dusk, the warmth of a roaring fireplace and a complimentary cappuccino were the perfect greeting. After enjoying the dinner spread (including a salad chock full of local avocadoes), I retired to my cottage to read about endangered golden monkeys and fall asleep to the comforting crackle of the fire.
To find golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park the next morning, my group and I hiked at a leisurely pace past eucalyptus trees and through a dense bamboo forest until we stopped in our tracks when we noticed rotund ginger-backed monkeys with dark amber eyes and chubby cheeks jumping above our heads from branch to branch. The manic and comical movements they made while wrestling, grooming each other, and playing games made photographing them a challenge – it was easier to just put the camera down and enjoy the show. Some intrepid hikers eager for a steep climb also hiked up to Dian Fossey’s campsite and grave (along with the graves of 25 of her gorillas), but all the buildings from her time are gone.
On our drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda the next day, we stopped to photograph Rwanda’s celestial Twin Lakes (Burera and Ruhondo) before crossing the border into Uganda. Plunged into a sea of emerald green foliage as we wound our way around freshwater Lake Mutanda, my driver and I were overwhelmed by Uganda’s natural beauty. I finally understood why Winston Churchill wrote: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly ‘the Pearl of Africa.’” After an exhilarating and harrowing drive up unpaved, muddy roads to a mountain peak 2,000 metres above sea level, we landed in the lap of luxury at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Uganda’s highest lodge.
Feeling right at home, I sank exhausted into the plush white couch across from the fireplace and admired the lodge’s soaring wooden-beamed ceilings, eclectic African art for sale, and enormous windows with jaw-dropping views of the misty mountains below. After check-in, my personal butler Innocent invited me outside to sip some ginger tea, while Ugandan and Batwa (African pygmy) schoolkids — whose school is supported by the lodge — performed songs and dances about the Batwa coming out of the forest and into the town to receive life-changing education and medicine.
Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is part of a large conservation project — ten percent of the hotel rate goes towards the local community and nature conservation (if Clouds is out of your price range, you can also try other hotels like Gorilla Safari Lodge or Bwindi Backpackers Lodge). From my pumpkin ravioli candlelight dinner to the personal touches in my volcanic stone cottage (flower petals in the shape of a heart with the words “Welcome to Clouds” spelled out on my bedspread), I was gently nurtured into a state of complete relaxation to prepare me for the grand trek to meet my gorilla family the next day.
My pink hiking boots were greeted by large pellets of hail — nature’s own pearls in the “Pearl of Africa” — as I stepped outside my cottage under the cover of darkness to trek gorillas the next morning. As we drove through the bewitching beauty of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to the meeting point, the sun began to rise and the mist to lift. The rangers, who know the dynamics and movements of each gorilla family, assigned me to the Bweza gorilla family – since it has a few babies (a personal request), and they do not tend to travel too far. As our small group set off into the forest, the rangers accompanying us cut through the thick bush with their machetes to clear us a path. The trek was adventure at its best — we had to cross a broken bridge over a creek, trudge through deep mud, and climb over fallen trees while avoiding tripping on tangled vines.
Still recovering from a fractured foot, I had hired a team of porters to transport me part of the way up in a carrying chair (so if you feel too out-of-shape, elderly, or disabled to do a strenuous climb, fear not – the porters are pros and can carry you the whole way for $300 USD extra). We knew we were close to our gorilla family when we heard the adorable gurgling of toddlers laughing nearby. Out from the bushes sprang two fuzzy little heads of a pair of baby gorillas wrestling and comically throwing each another into the foliage. In between kicks, somersaults, and chest pats, they stumbled around like two drunk old men with bad knees, their immature motor control struggling to accommodate their grand gorilla ambitions.
The enormous mountain of muscle and fur resting in the corner, the rangers explained, was the family’s chief silverback Cacono — named “crippled hand” for his mangled right hand, which has been non-functional since birth. Despite being disabled, Cacono is the proud patriarch of the family, but at 40 years old he has grown tired and is eager to pass the crown to one of the two younger silverbacks fighting for his position. Watching him enjoy his post-breakfast nap, we were touched by the affectionate caresses of his partner as she groomed him. As I crept towards them for a photo, my adrenaline surged with the thought that I was standing just a few feet from two nearly 400 pound wild mountain gorillas.
It was slapstick comedy at its finest when the gorilla baby duo raced up a tree to wrestle for the prime sunbathing real estate at the top. When one tossed the other from the tree, the fuzzball somersaulting through the leaves was still giggling right before hitting the ground with a loud thump, drawing raucous laughter from the audience. Raising his head with a befuddled expression – likely from seeing stars — he paused for only a second before racing back up the tree. To our surprise, we spent most of our time with our gorilla family belly laughing at their comedic antics — it was almost as if they were intentionally putting on a show.
The highlight for all of us was when the smallest baby bravely broke the fourth wall, crawling towards us to touch the leather of our boots with his human-like hand. It took enormous self-control not to reach down and pick him up — we all wanted to cuddle him. After he smelled our shoes and proudly beat his tiny chest to show us he was in charge and this was his territory, he retreated to the safety of his mom, who assured us with a glance that she was watching us but trusted us not to hurt him.
I felt a strong emotional connection to our gorilla family — the physical and behavioral similarities between us were eerie and striking. Their familiar personalities, family dynamics, children’s games, and facial expressions were easily decoded by the primate recognition system embedded in my DNA. When the rangers informed us that our hour was up, we all let out a little sigh of protest that our playdate was over, but our sadness was eclipsed by a shared feeling of profound gratitude for our blissful and magical time with the welcoming Bweza family.
Thoughts of my gorilla family stayed with me the entire ride back to Kigali. After checking into Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center, the hip staff helped me arrange a short taxi ride to Heaven, a popular restaurant hidden in the hills, and Hôtel des Mille Collines — the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda. Heaven lived up to its name — the fried avocado salad and moambe pumpkin mchuzi were superb. While I found myself cherishing the comforts and delicacies of modernity in Kigali, I was also longing for the simplicity and mystery of nature back in the wild.
Savoring a delightful poolside brunch at Radisson Blu before flying back to Oman, I felt elated that meeting my gorilla family was everything I had hoped it would be and more. There are only several hundred gorillas left — the population is small and fragile, even though their numbers are steadily increasing. So for a life-changing, unique experience, consider traveling to East Africa to encounter these endangered and majestic creatures who seem so very human in the wild — they are ready to welcome you into their family and home.
Gorilla Trekking in East Africa, in the Times of Oman — which is about my grand primate adventure through Rwanda and Uganda. A total joy to share my gorilla family and love with the world!I’m happy to share with you my new piece,
New York Times adoption essay on my Slavic background and Russian name…Since today is National Adoption Day, here is my
military parade presided over by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos (who in my opinion — and that of many others — is the best leader in the world). His Majesty is a true man of peace — and has done more than anyone else alive to bring peace to the Middle East. It is a privilege, joy, and honor to live in the Sultanate of Oman under the wise leadership of His Majesty — Long May He Live!Wishing everyone here in the Sultanate of Oman a Happy 47th National Day! As you can see in the photo above, I had fun shopping this week at the mall for festive red, green, and white gear for today’s holiday. Last night, my friend and I enjoyed a lovely sea swim at sunset followed by dinner and fireworks on the beach. As you can see below, even the bun of my friend’s burger was decked out in Oman’s national colors. This afternoon, I had the pleasure of watching the National Day
graduating humanities students at Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman a hearty congratulations on a job well-done and a degree well-earned! Mabrook / مبروك! It is a true honor and joy to teach the promising future of Oman!I would like to wish my
I have, of course, treasured every find I’ve encountered while excavating in Sudan and working at the Great Pyramids of Giza on a Brown University-Cairo University dig as Chief Epigrapher. But this little lion statue from Sudan holds a special place in my heart — can’t say why, exactly, but it just does. I adore it.