Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

October 20, 2003

World Summit Awards Dubai: The Voting Process

Filed under: WSIS — Andy Carvin @ 3:42 pm

Monday was a contentious day at the World Summit Awards jury as we began our process of voting on the projects we’d select. The first several rounds of voting went fairly well, but we hit a snag at the e-entertainment section. First of all, the committee only presented us with five choices, even though we had to select five; this meant our vote was meaningless and we wouldn’t be able to have an impact on the decision. There was also a lot of concern about the quality of some of the projects presented to us. After more than an hour of debate, we decided to have the first e-entertainment panel sit down with the second panel and re-review the sites together to find several more sites that could be put up for consideration.
Unfortunately, because I was departing from Dubai Tuesday morning, this meant I wouldn’t be there for the final vote. I submitted my votes on projects I’d reviewed ahead of time, but I wouldn’t know who won until I got back. This was a shame, since two US projects were up for consideration during the remaining votes, so I’d just have to wait and see.
Dinner that night took place in an outdoor lakeside pavilion at Dubai Internet City. Once again we were smothered in a buffet of Arab, Indian and continental delicacies. It’s a good thing alcohol isn’t served at these events, cause I feel like I’m going to gain a ton of weight from this Vegas-like buffet grazing.
After dinner I had a quick drink at the bar with Martin Casey from Ireland, Garegin Chugaszyan from Armenia and Lawrence Zikusoka from Uganda. We marveled at the state of economic development in Dubai, but wondered how all this construction and IT investment would work in the long run. It’s great to see the Dubai royal family recognizing that oil wealth won’t last forever, and embracing ICT businesses seems like a good move for now.
By 12:30am it was time for me to call it a night; I’d have to get up in five hours for my 20-hour commute back to Washington…. -ac

Evening Dubai Tour

Filed under: United Arab Emirates — Andy Carvin @ 2:25 am

Garegin Chugaszyan of Armenia IT Foundation Last night Megan Knight of South Africa and I took a break from the formal evening events and went to central Dubai for a few hours. We caught a ride from one of our Dubai colleagues to Bur Dubai’s textile souk, then caught an abra water taxi to Deira, where we did a whirlwind tour of the souks — which I must admit are much more vibrant at night than they are in the day. We each bought some frankincense and sandlewood in the spice souk, and Megan picked up a couple of silk shawls. We had a quick bite to eat at the Persian restaurant along the corniche where I ate a week ago last Sunday. We weren’t particularly hungry so we split a lamb kebab, but they piled on huge complimentary plates of mixed salads, Persian bread and soup I felt like I was going to explode.
We caught a water taxi back to Bur Dubai and hailed a taxi for the 40-minute ride through Jumeira Beach back to our hotel. We met up with Garegin Chugaszyan of Armenia’s IT Foundation (see picture), Martin Casey of Ireland and Suzanne Stein of Canada and hung out at the hotel bar until nearly two in the morning, recounting the work of each of our panels and lamenting the fact that our work here in Dubai would soon come to its conclusion… -ac

Getting to the Semifinals

Filed under: WSIS — Andy Carvin @ 1:59 am

Most of the groups were able to wrap up their lists of semifinalists yesterday afternoon, though a lot of people are still working on their summaries of each candidate. In just about 45 minutes we’ll begin a series of plenary sessions in which each group will have 20 minutes to present their semifinalists, followed by a chance for public comments either for or against a particular site, followed by a vote. We’ll each be able to vote on a maximum of five candidates. If a project from our own country is under consideration, we will not be allowed to present it, take part in the debate, or vote, to avoid an unfair advantage to those of us in attendance (versus the judges who submitted sites from their country but did not come to Dubai). If we’re lucky, we’ll have a list of five finalists for each of the eight categories. I’d hesitate to call them winners, since this process is inevitably subjective at many levels. Rather, they’ll be presented as compelling examples of what’s going on in a particular e-field around the world.
Once the votes for the five sites in each category are complete, there will be a second process of selecting sites that are geographically representive. In other words, we’ll have a showcase of creative content from various categories from six regions of the world. There will undoubtedly be overlap between the two groups, but it will help give us a broad sampling of digital content, presented in terms of what’s noteworthy in each category, and what’s noteworthy in different geographic regions. Unfortunately, much of the decisionmaking for the latter will be done after I have to return to DC for our E-Government for All pre-conference event at the National Press Club on Wednesday, but I’ll be able to submit my votes electronically so I’ll be counted in the final tally… -ac

October 19, 2003

The Quarterfinals

Filed under: WSIS — Andy Carvin @ 6:19 am

This morning we began the process of looking at the quarterfinalists for the e-culture category. The original list of 70+ products had been trimmed to 18, and our group was now tasked to bring the list down to the top seven or eight. At first we were worried this would be very difficult, but it turned out that the 18 projects easily fell into three categories: three first-tier projects that were the best, hands down; four projects that were good and worthy of consideration, and 11 projects that were not competitive enough to be a finalist. We’re now going to write up detailed descriptions of our seven recommendations so we can present them in a plenary session to our entire group of 36 people. From this process, we’l choose the top five sites overall, category by category. We will also identify the best projects on a regional basis. We’re rather unclear on how the latter process will work, but hopefully we’ll have clarification soon…. -ac

October 18, 2003

World Summit Awards, Day Two: Dinner with a Prince

Filed under: WSIS — Andy Carvin @ 10:49 pm

Dubai crown princeAfter wrapping up our work around 6pm, we hastily returned to the hotel to change into more formal clothes for the grand opening of the Dubai Knowledge Village, the new information and education technology campus of Dubai’s ICT free trade zone. Sporting our best outfits, we arrived at the village, a, massive pavilion with a broad courtyard cutting down its center. The courtyard was filled with exhibits on the information society, and several hundred guests were already exploring them.
The guest of honor for the evening was Dubai’s crown prince Mohammed (see picture), who was being given a tour of each exhibit. A wave of cameramen and Emiratis dressed in their formal white costumes surrounded the crown prince, as he was briefed on each exhibit by docents. I managed to squeeze my way into the camera crew and get a dozen or so pictures of the crown prince before one of his security people politely but firmly grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back out of the crowd of VIPs.
We were then ushered into a circular courtyard converted into a dining hall for probably over 500 people, including the crown prince and his VIP guests. It truly felt like a royal banquet; hundreds of chefs were dotted along the perimeter cooking a range of food on giant open grills and woks, while a string quartet performed on a balcony high above.
WSA panelists group pictureDinner was preceeded by a multimedia performance or light, music and actors performing as great scholars in Arab history. Each performer talked about the importance of knowledge, information and literacy in the history of both the Arab world and the west, from the invention of the first paper mill in Baghdad over 1000 years ago, to the works of philosphers such as al Kindi and John Dewey. After the performance, we were treated to a feast of Arab mezzes for appetizers, followed by a buffet of over a dozen entrees, from sweet and sour snapper to the most delicious lamb chops I’ve ever tasted. Somehow we managed to save room for the desert buffet, which of course was highlighted by the incredible selection of phyllo and shredded wheat sweets for which the Middle East is so famous. Before heading to the bus, we posed for a group photo, hoping that none of our stomachs would explode as our elderly Arab photographer precariously steadied himself while standing on a chair.
Returning to the hotel at 11pm, many of us went to the bar for what should have been a quick drink. Soon it turned into an aggressive lobbying effort by our Cypriot delegate to organize a midnight swim in the ocean. Despite my intial desire to catch up on sleep, I gave into peer pressure and joined a dozen or so fellow jurors and hit the water at half past midnight. For an hour or so we floated in the gloriously warm, salty water, relaxing and doing our best to talk about everything in the world except business. I finally got to sleep some time after 2am, giving me about four hours of sleep before our planned sunrise swim. When in Dubai for such a brief period of time, of course, every moment of free time counts… -ac

Day two of the review process

Filed under: WSIS — Andy Carvin @ 4:17 am

It’s noon here in Dubai and we’ve just completed our review of over 60 e-science sites. A small number of sites are clearly competitive, while most are not, which is disappointing. Once all groups are done with their set of products, we’ll swap categories and review each other’s quarterfinalists. Still don’t know which category we’ll do next. -ac

October 17, 2003

World Summit Awards Jury, Dubai:
First full day of reviews

Filed under: WSIS — Andy Carvin @ 1:44 pm

Peter BruckToday was our first day getting down to the hard work of reviewing over 600 submissions from more than 120 countries: recommendations of the best digital content in eight different categories. Peter Bruck of Austria (pictured right) spent the morning reviewing for us the nature of the process, and the importance of focusing on projects that are contributing original, innovative content to the information society.
There are 36 of us on the jury, each of us from a different country, ranging from Argentina to Armenia, from Bahrain to Bangladesh. It’s truly an extraordinary group of people, and I feel privledged to be a part of it.
Essentially, what we’re doing is dividing ourselves into teams of four or five people, each group selected for geographic and gender diversity. We then tackle all the products submitted in one of the categories. In my case I’m reviewing e-science projects. The awards organizers have created a handy online database for us to submit our reviews, with criteria in six categories, each ranging with a scale from one to six. We’ll use this method for weeding out the weakest projects from each category, hopefully narrowing it down to the top 15-20 projects, usually out of a group of 60 to 100 projects for each category. Our group is then assigned another subject area, and review the quarterfinalists, reducing the number down to maybe eight or 10. At that point, the group gathers in a plenary session, and we’ll discuss each project one by one, arguing the merits of each, until we can select the top five best projects in each category, along with the best projects representative of each world region. And somehow we’ll have to get this done by tuesday.
WSA panelists at workWe’ve been working for about 13 hours today so far, and probably will go until 10 or 11pm local time, repeating the process each day. Our goal is for each group to finish their work on their first subject area by 4pm Saturday. We’ll then break to attend the grand opening of Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai’s new e-learning center. Rumor has it that the Emir himself will be in attendance, but we’ll have to wait and see. -ac
ps- I had to skip a bit of blogging for my remaining time in Oman, plus my flight back to Dubai, but we’ve been busy. Now that I’ve got blazingly fast broadband Internet access here in Dubai Internet City, hopefully I’ll get a chance to blog it all out during one of our coffee breaks. -ac

October 16, 2003

Goodbye to Muscat, Return to Dubai

Filed under: United Arab Emirates — Andy Carvin @ 4:25 pm

Had an early breakfast with Margaret before checking out of the hotel and catching a taxi to Muscat Airport. I arrived two and a half hours ahead of the flight, but quickly discovered that the check-in desks don’t even open til 2 hours before the flight. So I sat around the stuffy check-in hall listening to Musak renditions of Stevie Wonder songs over the PA system.
Eventually I checked in and waited for my flight, which departed on time and arrived a few minutes early in Dubai. When I arrived there was a man from Dubai internet city there ready to help me through customs. It also turned out that he was there to pick up Osama Manzar from India, whom I met a couple of years ago. Osama didn’t know I was coming, so he was very surprised to see me.
After going through customs we went to get my luggage, but it didn’t come off the plane. They said it was stuck somewhere in another cargo hold, so they took my hotel info and had me catch my ride to the hotel. Needless to say I was a bit worried about my bag’s whereabouts.
The drive to the Jumeira Hilton took us along a 10-lane superhighway through the heart of Dubai’s new commercial district, a magnificent mile of audacious skyscrapers. Eventually we goot to Jumeira Beach, Dubai’s luxury tourist enclave. We passed the famous Burj al-Arab, the tallest hotel in the world, shaped like the sail of a dhow boat. The Emiratis are truly at the cutting edge of modern architecture.
At the hotel, check-in was very slow, and they weren’t particularly helpful about my lost bag. I had a few hours before our first official gathering, and I really wanted to use the time to enjoy the beach. Since I didn’t have my bag, I went to the gift shop to see if they sold bathing suits. It turns out they did – billabong bathing suits priced at nearly $100 each! It was totally outrageous. The woman there then told me they had boy’s bathing suits for only 10 dollars, and she showed me the largest they had, the equivalent of a size 24. Given the fact I’m a size 33, I was skeptical, but she encouraged me to try it on. I managed to get into the bathing suit, but wasn’t convince a) I’d ever get out of it without ripping it, and b) would ever want to appear in public looking so ridiculous. I concluded that this might be my only chance to go for a swim — and besides, I didn’t know a single person here, so who cares how silly I looked? So putting all logic aside, I bought the bathing suit, spent 10 minutes stretching it to its limits, then wriggled my way into it.
I went to the beach, which had a boardwalk down to the shore, a nice outside bar, and countless lounge chairs set up along the water. Noticing how many people who were wearing speedos and thongs — and probably shouldn’t have — I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about wearing a boy’s bathing suit. I quickly took off my shirt and darted into the water — warm, salty water — and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours relaxing in the surf. Given the long days we were about to spend working, I relished every moment.
our thai boxing filmI spent the better part of the evening on the phone with Emirates Airlines, which was thoroughly unhelpful, and my contact at Dubai Internet City, who fortunately made every effort to assist me. Our group was supposed to meet at 8pm, but I had to wait by the phone for an update. I turned on the tv and left the National Geographic Channel running in the backgroud. Suddenly, around 8pm, I heard familiar music and the voice of Jason Statham saying, “Early morning, as the monsoon rains cut through the haze…” It was our Thai Boxing film! Susanne and I had sold the premiere rights to it to National Geographic, and it had aired in over 140 countries, but since it hadn’t aired in the US we’d never seen it on TV. And now out sheer coincidence, it was on here in Dubai! (See screen shot, right) So thanks to the loss of my bag, I managed to watch the film for the first time with commercials added to it, along with Arabic subtitles. It was truly wild to see it this way.
By 9pm, having enjoyed our film for the umpteenth time, I gave up on my luggage and went downstairs to meet with some of our group, who had gathered for an informal chat and a drink. A dozen of us sat around outside at the bar, getting to know each other. By 10ish people began to disperse, so I returned upstairs and was relieved to find my luggage sitting in the room. I unpacked, relished in the fact I wouldn’t have to wear the same shirt for five days, and slept soundly.

A Relaxing Day in Muscat

Filed under: Oman,Video — Andy Carvin @ 4:48 am

Since neither Margaret nor I were going to take a tour outside of Muscat today, we decided to explore the city. After breakfast we took a long walk through the souk, which was busy with shoppers picking up spices, clothes and even gold. We made a detour to the post office to get stamps for post cards, then continued through the souk, navigating around the occasional hawker wanting us to buy knick knacks from them. Since we knew that everything would shut down from 1pm to 4pm in the souk and the surrounding area, we decided to spend our day at two of the few places that would stay open: the museum and the mall. But first, a quick visit to the Muttrah fish market.
Just a block west of our hotel, the fish market is a chaotic place right on the harbor — a dock loaded with boats fresh from the Gulf of Oman, hauling in huge baskets of fish. Along the edge of the dock, rows of fisherman sold stacks of fresh tuna, marlin, squid, cuttlefish, pike and an assortment of local fish I couldn’t identify. Further into the covered part of the market, you could take your newly purchased tuna and have it filleted to your specifications by one of several dozen men carving and hacking away with an intimidating assortment of sharp implements.


omani fisherman

click to play video


Beyond the fish market, a more modest general market was crowded with shoppers purchasing fresh vegetables, fruit, cereals and other foodstuffs. At least half a dozen different varieties of dates were available, each in various stage of ripeness, from bright plump dates freshly picked off palm trees to shriveled, darkened dates that have weathered a lengthy drying period in the sun. For 100 baisa (25 cents) I bought a generous plastic bag’s worth of dried dates — sugary, sweet and sticky, with rather sharp pits in the center.
We caught a microbus to head to the Oman Natural History Museum, located 20km west of Muttrah in the Ministry of Culture building. The microbus picked up several other passengers, including three Indians from Andhra Pradesh who were very eager to talk to us about our visit to Muscat. By the time we reached their destination in Ruwi, several kilometers inland, they’d invited us to dinner later in the week. Unfortunately it was my last day in Muscat and I would be unable to join them but Margaret made plans to have lunch with them on Friday.
Having gone about 15 minutes out of our way into Ruwi, the microbus began to work its way towards the main highway along the coast via the Qurm Commercial District, a dense area of shopping malls, industrial parks and car dealerships, some of which were advertising “Huge Ramadan savings!” We drove along Sultan Qaboos Highway until we spotted the Cultural Ministry, home to the Museum of Natural History. The microbus took us as close as we could get to the entrance, and we paid 400 baisa ($1) for the both of us.
The museum itself is modest in size, not much larger than National Geographic’s museum in Washington before they made it even smaller by converting much of their exhibit space into a television studio. The museum was crowded with school groups — equally mixed boys and girls in traditional Omani dress being led around by their teachers and a museum docent.
The main museum hall showed us an exhibit about the historical biodiversity of Oman, from the earliest fossils to the present day. One hall also explained Oman’s position on the tectonic plates, and how tectonic movements over the eons had made today’s mountains, valleys and coastline, along with the biodiversity of their deserts and oceans. Many of the exhibits had interactive games in which you were challenged to identify a particular type of animal, or answer a question based on the science being presented. All exhibits were available in both English and Arabic, including the interactive games. As we walked through the exhibit we were even able to identify some of the sea shells we had collected the day before along Sawadi Beach.
The second building of the museum was dedicated to Oman’s whales and dolphins. Built around the massive skeleton of a sperm whale, the exhibit contrasted the various cetaceans that are known the frequent the Omani coast, as well as rarer breeds that historically exist in other waters but have occasionally been known to appear locally. A group of students were thoroughly absorbed by an interactive exhibit allowing you to listen to the different songs produced by several whales and dolphins, explaining how the songs are transmitted great distances using the water as a conductor.
We left the museum early in the afternoon and walked back to the highway, trying to decide if we were in walking distance to the City Center Mall. We soon concluded we weren’t, so we flagged down a taxi and offered him one rial ($2.50) for the drive — knowing full well that it might only be a kilometer or two up the road. Given the stifling temperatures, though, there’s no way we’d want to make the walk. As it turned out, we had to drive past the airport, probably a total of 20 kilometers — and yet the taxi driver accepted our one rial. He must have been going that way anyway, because a similar drive starting from Muttrah would have probably cost us four times as much.
The City Center Mall is as modern as any mall in the US — an air conditioned corridor packed with shops of all shapes and sizes, including a typically American food court, McDonalds and all. Even though I’m usually one to avoid Micky-D’s, the fact that they were offering a McArabia (a chicken patty pita), I simply couldn’t turn it down.
After lunch we split up to do our own shopping; I visited the enormous Carrefours “hypermart” — a combination of a WalMart, a Target and an Indian grocer, it was an enormous, modern grocery store with exotic foods from all over Asia. I salivated at the selection of fruits and vegetables, and grabbed a package of Thai rambutans to nosh on back at the hotel.
Concluding I wasn’t in the market for anything else at the mall, I caught a microbus back to the hotel and spent a couple of hours relaxing and taking a long bath, now that I finally had hot water my room after a day and a half without it. Around the corner I found another cybercafe and spent two solid hours checking email and updating my blog.
At 7pm Margaret and I met at the hotel front desk to catch a taxi to the Al Bustan Palace hotel. The hotel receptionist told us we shouldn’t pay more than one rial to get to the hotel; the taxi driver asked for four. Margaret and I successfully haggled our way down to one rial, though the driver kept trying to raise it again once we were in the car. Once at the hotel we caught a bus for the brief ride to the site of our dinner, a campground on the far end of the hotel grounds that’d been decorated with bedouin tents and a handful of camels grazing by the gate.
Inside, a group of Omani singers and dancers began to perform as we entered the grounds.

omani musicians

click to play video


We were led to a tent and asked to take off our shoes and lean against giant red pillows. We were joined by 10 other people. Among the group in our tent were a retired British couple, the husband whom served as an engineer for the architecture firm that built the famous Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai. There was also a mixed Omani/British family: the sons, both in their 20s, were in traditional Omani costume, and the older one’s wife, clearly British, wore a long black abaya that covered her from head to toe. Her British parents, in traditional British tourist costumes, joined them.
Ali, our waiter for the night, began the evening by bringing out a mezze platter with a dozen different appetizers, ranging from more typical snacks like hummus and tabouleh to unusual items like Omani date bread, dried tuna salad and pickled lemons. The 12 of us polished off the mezzes as if they were to be our only course during the dinner, almost forgetting the buffet that awaited us. During the mezzes I chatted with the Omanis, learning that the two brothers were half-Brit, half-Omani and had grown up in London but recently moved to Oman. One of the brothers had lived for a while in the US, including Orlando and DC, two of my own haunts. Amazingly, he worked as a 3D graphical artists at the post-production shop in DC where Susanne and I had done our audio mixing for our Thai Boxing film. What a small world.
The dinner buffet included a range of kebabs and curries, along with a spit-roasted goat, a pilaf the size of a small bed and a bottomless bowl of delicious lamb chops. Somehow I managed to make enough room to try most of it, and yet still not collapse from exhaustion before the desert course — a wide selection of baklavas and Omani halwa. As we ate and talked, the musicians returned, performing a hypnotic drum beat accompanied by clapping, singing and dancing. I tried to get some video of the performance but the lighting was terrible, so you could barely make out anything but music and shadows.
After dinner, Margaret and I had some Omani coffee and shared a shisha topped with strawberry tobacco. Ali, our waiter, said he smokes his shisha three times a day, and his favorite flavor is a concoction of apple and grape, though he was also partial to mint. He prefered “herbal” tobaccos — in other words, a blend of dried fruit and flavorings that didn’t actually contain any tobacco, which apparently was the case of the shisha we were smoking as well. Given the fact that I don’t smoke it explained why the shisha wasn’t totally wreaking havoc on my lungs. Compared to the shisha I tried my first day in Dubai, which I’m convinced contained actual tobacco, this shisha was smooth, flavorful and pleasant. I could have spent hours there chatting with Ali and Margaret if it weren’t for the fact I was flying back to Dubai the next morning and had to get up in barely six hours to catch my flight… -ac

October 15, 2003

The Omani Fort Circuit

Filed under: Oman — Andy Carvin @ 10:12 am

Ali climbs steps inside Rustaq fortMargaret and I met for breakfast around 7:30am before meeting our driver Ali, who would take us on a daytrip to some of Oman’s many forts. Forts are to Oman what castles are to Germany; you simply can’t drive from point a to point b without stumbling upon some 16th century fortification parked precariously on a stony hillside.
Once in the car, we drove due west past the airport towards Barka, home to a famous fish market and a fort. The highway was dotted with roundabouts, each featuring an amazing clocktower or other edifice constructed for the sultan. Omanis are very proud of their architectural creativity, both in terms of historical constructions and Nouveau Arab architecture, so the clocktowers make for exciting viewing as we head further west. We also passed an enormous, beautiful mosque called al Ghubra — certainly one of the most amazing I’ve ever seen. As it turns out this particular mosque is open to tourists for a few hours each day — perhaps the only one in Oman – but we needed to stick to our timetable if we were to return by sunset. We were covering a lot of ground today.
Heading north off the highway we made the short drive to the coastal town of Barka. Its stout fort sat just off the beach, where an active fish market was taking place. We wandered the market, watching our step as fishmongers cleaned and filleted their catch — tuna, marlin, swordfish, certainly the most enormous fish I’ve ever seen at a fishmarket. fortunately we were outside along the beach, otherwise the stench of all the eviscerated fish would probably have been more than I could have tolerated. We were the only westerners present, but no one seemed to mind. People smiled as us, encouraged us to take pictures. A couple of kids wanted 100 baisa each for me to take their photo, but instead I showed them that my digital camera could do a slide show of the pictures I’d just taken, and that was payment enough for them, apparently.
fisherman in BarkaMargaret bought some small bananas and a melon, while I checked out the wide variety of dates for sale. The old men selling the dates each wanted their picture taken, and laughed hysterically when I was able to show it too them immediately on my camera’s viewing screen.
Heading over to the fort, we were surprised to get a firm “La” (‘no’) from the gate attendant. We weren’t sure why it was closed so early in the day. As we tried to get an explanation, a British man, apparently an archeologist, came out of the fort with a handful of documents. Apparently the fort had been closed for several months and won’t reopen until it’s fully renovated. Disappointed, we went outside and appreciated the view from afar. Meanwhile, the archeaologist got on his mobile phone and called the head of the local ministry to see if we could gain access. He came over to us and apologized, and explained that we wouldn’t be allowed in, mainly due to insurance reasons. We thanked him for the effort and returned to Ali and the car.
We drove for about 45 minutes through bone-dry hillsides, with more dramatic mountains from the Jebel Akhdar range looming 3000 meters upward to our left. We arrived in Nakhal, a well-to-do village famous for its fort and its hot springs. Visiting the springs first, we arrived in a lush oasis with a rocky stream running through its center. The area was decorated like a nice little park, with umbrella picnic tables and little waterfalls coming down the hillside. The water was pleasantly warm, so you could see why it was a popular spot to hang out and take a dip. Further up the stream we found a flock of goats perched along the hillside. The goats were so accustomed to people we were able to walk right through the flock, marveling at their ability to stand on even the smallest rock, wall or ledge. My favorite goat was standing on a boulder on which someone had spraypainted the name Bob.
Leaving the hot springs and the goat named Bob behind, we returned to the car for the short drive to nakhal fort; unfortunately Margaret got stung by a wasp along the way. Ali found a lime tree and squeezed the lime juice onto the bite; amazingly the juice actually helped ease the sting.
Nakhal fortWe soon arrived at Nakhal fort. Perhaps the most dramatic fort I’ve ever seen, the imposing structure was balancing atop a boulder-strewn hillside. It was reminiscent of Hosap Castle in Turkish Kurdistan, which Susanne and I had visited in ’99, but this particular fort had also been restored to its original condition, repaired with a fresh paint of adobe. We paid the 500 baisa fee and went inside. Apart from a German family and their three kids, we had the entire for to ourselves — all four stories of it. We spent the hour going from room to room, marveling at the restoration work the Omani government had recently completed. Each room was decorated with traditional furniture, so whether you were in the governor’s bedroom, the meeting parlour, or the prison, you got a taste for what it was like back in the 17th century. Up at the top, we had a commanding view of the countryside and the Jebel Akhdar mountains — it must have been good to be the governor here.
Leaving the castle, we briefly stopped for some bottled water before continuing our drive to a-Rustaq, a larger town famous for its fort as well. Rustaq was a fairly modern city now, with small shopping malls and beautiful, new mosques, but its fort was still the main attraction. While not as dramatic on the outside as Nakhal’s, this fort was more impressive for its inside, with giant vaulted ceilings and dramatic natural lighting. Its highlight was probably the prison; a tall, donut-shaped room, it now had a door on the side so you could enter it. Originally, though, the prison had no door — only a hole in the roof 25 feet up, where prisoners would be lowered in and sealed for months, sometimes years, with food and water lowered in by rope. No wonder the crime rate was so low.
Nakhal fort viewOutside the fort, we made a brief stop at yet another hotspring, this one bubbling up from an underground cave next to a mosque. From the top of the hole you could see boiling water bubbles rising to the surface. About 20 feet away, there was a set of stairs you could walk down to bath in the water. We put our hands in the water – it was nearly scalding hot. Ali was brave enough to put his feet in it, but he could only manage to for about a minute.
We stopped at an indian restaurant for lunch, where we had platters of biryani with chicken and fish. Ali, to our surprise, started to speak Hindi to the waiters — apparently he spoke Hindi and Farsi as well as Arabic and English.
From Rustaq, we made the long drive back to the coast, where we stopped along the the Batinah shore, not far from Sawadi island. The island, a limestone hulk jutting out of the water, featured an old fort on its cliff. When the tide was low you could wade across the 300 meters to reach the island. The tide was indeed low, but we weren’t dressed for the part, so instead we went hunting for sea shells, which were plentiful along the shore.
We returned to Muscat, pausing briefly at the al Ghubra mosque to take pictures at sunset. Back in Muttrah, we were horrified to discover that Ali expected 50 rials for our trip, despite my repeated efforts to clarify the price as 15, not 50. I thought I’d even written it down at the time and shown him, but exhausted from the heat and jetlag, perhaps I made a fundamental error. Either way, we weren’t going to shirk him, but we weren’t going to hire him for a second day either, something we’d just been contemplating. So our day trip ended on a down note, and I felt somewhat dumb about the whole thing. But as we ate dinner along the corniche, we joked about the mistake and concluded that everything we saw today was well worth the expense. -ac

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