Thursday, October 30, 2008

I've arrived in Heaven!

For the first time (aside from the desert sand and heat surrounding every city) I feel like I have arrived in an area that much more meets my imagined view of the Middle East!
Although we're still surrounded by so many Western touches (Pepsi signs, Volkswagons, Pampers + Tang in the stores), Muscat is relatively much more traditional, and full of history and culture.

The buildings are a light cream, yellow, or light pinky stucco buildings with either castle-like or ruffled trim along the top of their 3-4 stories. Most buildings are and look very new, but there are no highrises and not a lot of steel and glass. Many of the most beautiful buildings are either mosques or (government) Minster's compounds.

Our guide and his driver quickly drove us past the cultural tour sites that we'll visit on Saturday with the group, and then along a brand new highway in an air-conditioned Land Rover over the rolling "mountains" to the Barr Al Jissah Shangri-La Resort + Spa. Lots of greenery with palm trees and flowers (all imported) and planted within the last few years. Until the installation of the desalination plant there was no water for things like bougainvilla bushes!

Once you are past the 10 ft of landscaping though at the edge of the road, there is just rock, rock and more rock. But it's beautiful! Shades of orange + cream and striated with lines and time. Some of the rocky hilltops nearer Muscat are crowned with forts from the late 1500's when they were protecting the then-village from the Portuguese invaders.

We drove over a rocky hill and through the gates of the Shangri-La, and this is how I define heaven! There is nothing but rocky features all around, but nestled against the green/blue ocean are the 3 compounds that make up the hotel. No other developments anywhere for miles.
My room is at the one at the end of the bay, looking over the curved sandy beach dotted with cabana chairs, umbrellas, and palm trees, along with the other 2 compounds, for about a half mile. The place is almost deserted and as far as I can tell there are about 10 staff per guest.

We were driven to the front door and entered the palatial lobby with walkways spanning over the indoor fountains and shallow pools. Its about as close to a modern palace as I can imagine, with marble columns and a large pircture window overlooking the cliff and out to the ocean. We waited on chaise lounges amidst silk pillows while the staff came to us with cold towels and fresh juice, taking our passports and bringing our room folios to us where we sat.

My room is even larger and better appointed than The Raffles was, with a full set of outdoor couches on the ground level patio. The ground only extending about 15 feet before the cliff drops off and the beach begins.

I am sitting now in the blazing afternoon sun, kept cool by the hearty but soft breeze, on the outdoor deck of the Sultanah restaurant which also overlooks the beach. I have lunched on a warm vegetable salad, and lightly grilled ahi tuna with sparkling and crisp pellegrino. Another couple is sipping champagne in the shade - but for them the place is serene and tranquil....


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On the Road - Day 6

Good morning!

I've just figured out that I've hit the airport(s) 6 times in 6 days. Another 9 between now and November 11th - how relaxing!

24 hours since my last note and it's been a fast pace. We landed (late) in Doha and had a scant 4 hours to dash around to all of our meeting sites with our guide. Made easier was the fact that both Al Jazeera and the US Central Command base are off limits until we actually visit them with our group next week.

Doha's the capital of Qatar, a country of only a quarter million people. 6000 of which are members of the Royal Family and who spend some time in the palace compounds built along the water. Some of the buildings in Doha have been around since the 60's and most of the roads have been completed enough that getting around is easy + quick. The skyline again is dotted with brand new modern skyscrapers, most in varying stages of completion, with 500 towers to be build in the next 7 years by 2015. 500!!!!

Doha feels a little more like a resort, at least our hotel does as it's right on the beach with a large pool and cabana area. Not too relaxing though what with the sounds of construction everywhere around us.

Our guide Leel, who will be with us next week, finally captured what we've been feeling. It's been incredibly hard to confirm meetings, get answers back, finalize venues and speakers. Much more so than any other excursion I've organized. Leel (who comes from Sri Lanka) offered that people here have so much money that there's not a sense of urgency to anything. Most work in the mornings and take the afternoons off. Shopping is the biggest form of entertainment, as are afternoon coffees at Starbucks. Ah! That explains it.

The nationals of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are a minority and very well taken care of by their government, including free houses, cushy jobs, and a $25,000 subsidy for your wedding if you marry another national. All the service jobs in the hotels and elsewhere, and certainly construction, are all done by foreign workers.

Spent a half an hour napping on the beach in the late afternoon, but as the sun goes down just after 5 I have yet to experience the real heat. Everything is air conditioned to the nth degree so much so that I'm wearing more and more layers as I look longingly outside at the sun during the day.

Early morning with a 4 am wakeup call and back on the plane to Muscat, Oman this morning. We'll be on the ground for 3 days, with our participants starting to arrive tonight and tomorrow. Today will be a little frantic trying to get our packages organized for the guests, incorporating the 957 large + small changes that we've made to the program now that we've been here in person. The goal is to take half a day off tomorrow in the sun before we launch into the 6 am - 10 pm days of our program.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Arrival in the Middle East...

We're tracing the steps that we will do with our group when they arrive next week in the 4 cities that we're taking them to and so started in Dubai with a drive to Abu Dhabi and on the plane to Doha today.

We went to a Starbucks yesterday and it was exactly the same down to the uniforms and the white ceramic trays that the pastries sat in. Oh to be the supplier of white ceramic trays to Starbucks! You'd be set!

We were also on the road yesterday all day so lunch was from Burger King. (Such a glamourous way to travel). I had a Lite chicken burger on whole wheat (still working off my 3lbs!) But I could have had a Whopper or onion rings just like home. Other choices would have been Subway, Basken + Robbins, and of course McDonalds. I've also seen a Harley Davidson store and a "Safest Way" (like Safeway). All the major hotel chains are here of course, and the Hilton in Abu Dhabi was stunning - tallest tower in the city and right across the street from the beach.

The black floor length sabayas that the women wear are actually surprisingly sexy. I walked out of the elevator and a woman standing there was breaktaking. Of course all you could see were her eyes but she was incredibly beautiful. The women's robes have slight personalizations like crystals or sequins and some have brands like the YSL logo subtley embroidered. Another gal at the airport was walking and you could see that she had jeans and heels underneath.

For the men, wearing the white robes is a choice, but if I was a guy I'd be into that for sure rather than a heavy and binding wool suit in this weather! The more you see them the more you start to notice the subtle differences in the robes which look the same at the beginning. The higher quality ones are white white, starched and pressed just so, with very subtle quality trim. They personalize their outfits by their cufflinks, jewelry, and shoes. So far, no "dark-eyed" males have been learing, no matter what Gramma led me to expect.

I was sad to leave our hotel this morning, out of my large room with balcony overlooking the pool and then the city, with a walk in closet and bath tub that you could swim in. Raffles here is really new and modern and is like an upscale Four Seasons. I will especially miss my daily basket of assorted exotic fruit and floor butler, who knocks on the door every morning 5 minutes after my wake-up call with a silver tray of coffee and mini chocolate cookies. (Didn't try the cookies - 3 lb thing!!)

Yesterday I had a very short break at the pool where I was virtually the only guest there to use the swim up bar and current pool (where you swim in place against the current). I'm not entirely sure but I think that the walls are actually painted in gold in places - the hotel is built in the shape of a pyramid with a 4-5 story lobby full of Egyptian-style pillars, water pools, and comfy seating strewn (precisely casually) with pillows.

Last evening the General Manager hosted us for cocktails in the lounge where we sat in a Persian style gazebo with more pillows, overlooking the statues and waterfalls in the hotel's botanical garden. 2 other tables there had gals (who looked liked arabian fashion models, dressed in very high-end Western clothes) smoking hubbly bubbly pipes. They are tall (2-3 ft) ornate silver and glass and heated with steam with fruity scents. They're supposed to make you mellow and a brilliant conversationalist : )

Dubai is like one large construction site, and everything is brand, spanking new. Only a small town of 25,000 lived here in one-story sand houses 30 years ago. Now they boast the world's best of everything. The tallest skyscrapers, the largest theme parks, the top of the line golf courses - everything. Their unique (and very expensive) taste for creating man-made islands off the beach by taking sand and piling it out in the gulf has resulted in a massive development that from the air is shaped like a giant palm tree with 1000's of high end waterfront homes. Another development looks like a map of the world from the air, again comprised of tiny man made islands all designed to be miniature continents.

We drove by a huge modern building home to the world's largest indoor ski hill (totally man made and air conditioned to freezing). One mall, opening tomorrow, covers 50 football fields and has parking for 14,000 cars. Every road is under construction and buildings, over 100 stories high, are erected in less than 18 months with the most spectacular architecture. Crews are scheduled 24 hours a day and are recruited from Pakistan, India, and other Asian countries. I thought all of the world's cranes were in Shanghai but they're everywhere here as well. The city is now 1.5 million and growing fast. Although of course you get to the edge and there's nothing by scrubby flat desert as far as the eye can see!

I'll check in again soon, assuming that I can remain un-kidnapped for another couple of days.