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Newsletter 13
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Dear friends,

Months have past, but it feels more like years, since I got my myself to write a newsletter. I remember writing my 2 last letters behind a computer of a friend in Muscat, Peter, during my stay around the capital of Oman. I promised you an update. The last newsletter ended in the south of Iran.

In the meantime, the story went beyond the Arabian peninsula, where I deflated my tires for a while. To feed your curiosity even more, by now I am about to face first bills coming in, even I ordered a desk top computer today. If that aren´t signs of somebody settling..... After 9 years not having to pay for a place to sleep....As you can image, I face quite the trip here in this process.

More details will come in the next newsletter, e.g.where is Cabrera de Mar ? , does he already have a car and a job? and how is he coping without peering into his usual open horizon ahead of him ????

Oman and the Emirates, november and december 1999

I am restricted to write out of one source only, my long term memory. The diary of this epoca is at my parents. So should time travel now. Maybe by switching on the Voice of the Arab World, the murmering sound of Arabic will, no doubt, zapp me back to the glossy skyline of Sjarjah where since man's memory, Dhows patiently wait to be unloaded. Or even back to the Middle East 5 years ago. Behind the imposing skyline lays an enigmatic desert landscape where Wadi´s run though the brown mountains. Deep blue ocean...... Okay, I am back there...

Crossing the street of Hormoes

For our generation famous during the Gulf war, this strip of blue water is divides the Persian Gulf from the Arabian-Indian ocean. For centuries, millenia this corner has been of strategic importance mostly for trade. Dhows, wooden sailing boats with very distinct features, use to sail between East Africa and India, following the trade winds. Ivory and gold from Africa found its way as far as to China in return silk and porcelain where popular among African kings.

Much later the Portugese, Britons and Dutch had their territorial battles here, to secure maritime-trade monopoly. Bandar Abbas leaves bright trails of light over the water as the ferry sets to sea, emphasising that night won over dusk. This colourful name grew into a target during the six months from Beijing onwards. It makes me a bit melancholical. My Dutch ancestors must have felt more than that for they lost this refresment- and trade center a few centuries ago to the Britons if I am correct. May be to them, Bandar Abbas gave them similar light when they looked back from their VOC ship. Not the orange of lights but a glow of destruction.

Bandar Abbas composed my last hours in Iran. I left a lot of sweat there, trying to arrange my visa for my next destination, the United Arab Emirates and having to leave the country in a hurry with this vessel , the Hormoes 25. I still didn´t leave Iran though. The ferry is Iranese as are crew and most of the passengers. Two Nigerian men join me watching the lights dimming in the distance. We enjoy a little chat since they speak English. They are so different than the people I met in Iran. They work on oil tankers and look forward for a visit home as they will fly from Dubai. They tell me that we won´t arrive in Dubai but in Sharjah, one of the Emirates´capitals. It´s maggy above the warm sea. Inside chicken and rice are served, with compliments of the shipping company. It makes me laugh as I remember my friend Timur in Tashkent. He will be a professional cyclist and as he was racing a tour in Iran, he could only eat chicken and rice, indeed a very popular dish in the land of ayatollahs.

What will be the scoop in this part of the Arab world to come?. The two Africans tell about the enormous influence of the migrant workers there. ´You will mostly socialize with them, not so much with the Arabs themselves', they add. And their influence on the food is strong too. Curries, chapatis and roti´s, Mac Donalds and KFC´s.

For the moment Iam enjoying this generous meal intensely sitting in a thick chair. The crew is very helpful to me. The electrician asked if he could fix something on my bike. I gave him my earphones and before the steward showed me the in-door mosque as a quiet place to sleep, he returns with a big smile. I have to wait till the silicone glue has dried, than I can listen FM-stereo from the English speaking radio stations from Dubai. I already picked them up, cruising along the coast in Iran.

From what I learn in the glossy printed-in-germany book picturing the Arab Emirates, I will be in a wealthy world, probably as shiny as the book itself. It conforms with the kind of reception I got in their Consulate today ,sitting in front of a thick wooden desk observing the consul. Aristocratically dressed in a white gawn and treating me with 3 books. I felt like being at a Royal audition, he behaved very majestic, contrasting sharply against my raggy outfit.. Also the Africans tell me about exorbitant wealth.

How will they perceive me, in my ´road-ragged´trade mark?. Sofar it has protected me well.

I am to find out very soon. After a good sleep on the soft carpet of the mosque, the day -shift steward awakes me before prayer (sunrise) and hands me a tray carrying breakfast. I join fellow passengers along the bar facing a television set. It features morning prayers from some holy place. As a cyclist, I have a more than average appetite. This is no problem since I am offered some hardly touched trays. Maybe the M.V.Hormoes had been rolling too much over the waves for some stomachs.

I talk some more with the Nigerians and under an intense sun. Before they leave, they give me the snacks they didn't use during the passage. A few cans of fish and packs of biscuits. I am the last passenger to leave the ship, overwhelmed by new impressions. Everything looks like it works and is new and clean. Like the immigration building, more like a steelplate shed, with a corrugated iron roof sizzling under the sun. It heats up the space to boiling point. The fans are trying hard to cool things down, not only the heat produced by the sun. Two kids of an huge Iranian family are standing in the middle of what looks like an aircraft propeller. The chaddoor, gawn of the girl swings in the air like that of an angel. Their parents are now presenting their working visa for which they saved and nail bited so much. I can feel the exitement and panic on this crucial moment. Kids are counted as if they where sheep. It takes a while before the officers are clear of which kids belong to whom. I am the last in the line. My bike creates some exitement, but apart from that, I arrive peacefully in the rich oil state. Not for long though. After making a slide of Hormoes 25, I ride off and find a typical Indian foodstall. It´s busy, lunchtime and the smell of curry and chai mingles with Hindi chatting. They all work here on the port on a few year contract. Most of them are from the South, the state of Kerala. I am offered a chai, and amused by my recollection of the vibes the Indians give me while inspecting my `cycle`. `Kitna Gear ?' I am still able to say, e how many gears?'.

I am happy to see another cyclist approaching, dressed in an uniform which indicates "Port Security". Looks like he treats his stomach too well. From high up his rank the fat Hindi man looks suspiciously with peering dark eyes. "Just having chai with friends", I reply. He doesn´t want to share one with us. Instead he points along a road leading beyond the immigration building. It is clear, I have to leave. Ferry passengers are not aloud to hang around on the port terminal. On his squeeling made-in-India roadster, he guides me to the exit gate. He now carries a broad smile and ask me from where and where to?. Now even proudly, he presents me to his superior at the gate. My well stamped passport ignites lots of approval. When will I write a book?. My stomach doesn´t allow me pondering too long about whether or when a book. I find a little shade in front of the quai overlooking wooden worn boats. Boatsmen create shady spots above the deck by hanging an old rag in the air. Crew in front of me are just having lunch too. I see and smell their Iranian descendance. I attack my stack of food, fouraged in Bandar Abbas, for the first time. I crack a few ´pomegrates´, granat apples and cut some bread. In the meantime, small ferry´s are pendeling between the port and mainland. They remind me a bit of the boats on Dhal Lake, Kashmir. Probably because of their skewed proportions, narrow and with a high ´superstructure´.And above that, the ways ´ferry´ is painted on wooden panels. ´Ferrie Service´, ´Fery´, `Farry boat´, edeluxe', ecomfort' ect. May be it is no coincidence that the ferryman with whom I share a melon in between his hauls, is Pakistani. Already 20 years he is ferrying here in the Emirates. On a half year basis, to be with his family in Jammu,Kashmir as well. He understands too well the reason for importing so much food from Iran. eLife is very expensive here', he adds. eWhere do I sleep ?',he wants to know and offers me a passage to the mainland, "A little later will be excellent", I tell my new friend. And there he starts his engine again, bringing 3 man over the water. I enjoy a granatapple more while absorbing the maritime life in front of the American-style skyline financed by petrol dollars, built by immigrant workers, I learn later. I feel ready for a closer look so join my friend on his next haul. Such a shaky narrow thing he sails, both wheels of windhorse are above the water. On the mainland, we shake hands only to meet more Pakistani. A crew just sailed in from Karachi with a cargo of red onions and hay, now being unloaded.The captain waves me to climb to the bridge. This light blue painted old wooden Dhow has a lot of character. The interior of the command center breath out the atmosphere of nostalgia and routine. It's a engine powered Dhow,featured with handles of the throttles, a huge glass bowl compass and some clock like instruments, most made with copper. By entering this ship, I have traveled to another world. The captain is content by my amazement. He is clearly relaxing after the succesful sail. He chews epan', some kind of tabacco leave with beetle nut, so common in the Indus delta. Between his chews and sucks, he tells me that it took them 3 days to sail from Pakistan. Now the onions, feeded by the mighty Indus river, will find their way through the food chain here on the Peninsula. Despite the impressive pictures in the book about Emirates, the green revolution in the desert here obviously doesn´t suffice. And even if so, it is much cheaper to produce from a low income country like Pakistan. I am already looking for a possible sleeping spot, like on a few bales of hay on the foredeck ,as the captain on second thoughts turns down my request. Even the fact that I have an unused Pakistani visa in my passport, still valid, cannot keep me on the foredeck tonight. At least I would have benefited from this one year valid business visa.

It is the cold clean and stiff looking skyline ahead of me making me so alert to have a place to sleep before dark. A young tourist couple ask if they can photograph me from their rental car. They only want the picture, not a story. In this late afternoon I start looking for ways to send an email.So I will see where it leads to. Riding the smooth tarmac gently, surrounded by glimmering big cars. Such a contrast with Iran. Already I miss the Persian colours. Smooth surface leads me to offices, big hotels, computer stores and it takes me 6 hours before I find an Indian man, allowing me behind his computer. He runs a computer store till late every evening. We end up having quite an filosophical discussion featuring the consequences of living in the modern world. He tells me he won´t forget me, bumping in his shop during late evening, in my eunusual appearance', as he calls it. Sharjah looks much interesting under the veil of darkness. I feel light in my head, probably due to energy gained talking to my Indian friend and the abundance of lights scattered around me. Along the gardens bordering the bay I find the first trace of Arabian legacy. Like the bedouins in the desert, entire families share a tarp spreaded over the perfect carpet of grass. They carry some food in a basket and get tea from the teahouses. I squat down amidst of them and watch people passing. Exhausted, I feel now and my Iranian bread turned stale. Male teenagers show off with all sorts of (electronic) gadgets, many wear their traditional ´dishdash´, a white gawn and a white scarf, made out of fine fabric. Little kids play with fluoresent strings in green and orange, sold by Indian hawkers. These are the first cooler nights after the summer, inspiring families to leave their airconditioned quaters to enjoy the open sky and bay view.

I leave the scene around midnight to cause a sudden crowd feeding their curiosity. It happens while playing a bit with children. Sofar everybody left me alone. The first contacts. eWhere do sleep?'. There seems to be some kind of secret police, patrolling at night for unusualities. eThey will certainly stop you', they warn me. Mostly they escort the suspect to the bureau for interrogation. One man, a second hand car importer, tells his experiences:"One evening I had to go to get some fastfood for my crying son who wouldn´t sleep otherwise. So I left the house and went to a drive- in. But on the way back they stop me for interrogation. Fortunately I could prove I just bought fast food, as it was still warm, than they let me go"

This information I didn´t find in the book from the Consul. Cruising through the night, the disrespect of the 4-wheelers strikes me again. It turns out that only poor people ride here, e.g. the just arrived immigrants. Huge jeeps and limousines pass me on the edge, I am cut many times. Enough for a first day in the Emirates, may be I am just too tired and missing Iran. Outside an Indian restaurant I have a cup of chai and inquire possible camping spots. On the way out to Dubai there seems to be some wasteland. In the belly of sanddunes, I spread my tarp. I watch the stars, bleached by the city lights and the triangles of airplanes gliding in and out. I feel a bit like a vagabond. People watch me here top down, clearly valueing my appearance. In the morning my eyes first encounter two cans of Amstel beer. I conclude it is not only a good sleeping here but also a discrete boozing spot for those living under Islamic rules.

Among Fisherman

I must have stayed a good week in the Emirates. I had to enter its´neigbour country Oman on a particular day. I managed to find some hospitality on a beach. Fisherman, all from Kerala, South India, occupy the beach for as long as it lasts. More modern buildings are planned to nurture Emirates' quest for progress. Not for long my hosts will fish from here. They sleep all together under a roof of an open shack. I watch the stars from my tarp. An old wooden fishingboat shelters me from being spotted and the lights of the city. My friends are mostly a bit earlier up. Wearing their ´longhies´, a textile tarp wrapped around their waistes, brushing their teeth and throwing buckets of water pulled up from the well. I feel back in India, as the morning sun throws their silhouettes over the yellow sand between the dome-like fishingnets. In the 4 mornings I have been here, they never ask me to drink chai. I had some chats though.

One when he proudly shows some just catched fish. 10 kilo they took out of the dome nets, woven with iron wire. They put stale chapati´s (bread) in them and submerge them with some stones to the bottom of the sea. He will go to the auction to sell them and fetch good prices. If he is lucky he gets $7 a kilo. For Christmas, he is happy to return to Kerala by plane to see his family. Only one month a year he is at home.

Already 20 years he lives this routine, despite that, he still he managed to have 5 children. Soon he will retire and stay in Kerala full time.

Dutch Consulate

Another place I feel welcome is situated in the tall building of the ABN/Amro, one of the world´s biggest banks. It is on the 4th floor where I can drink a Dutch cup of coffee and a ´stroopwafel´a typical Dutch cookie, with soft glucose inside. The staff is extremely friendly. The consul, Lody, is just being interviewed for a Dutch ex-pats magazine by Marijke. As I am trying to do some email between the delight of the coffee, she approaches me for a possible story. We set a date later on. Windhorse patiently waits for me outside, packed with all gear . Not that the guard is that attentive. I hope she doesn't get spoiled by her admirers. Employees of the dispatch department of the bank kidnap me for another hour. I am happy to pass the illuminated Jumairah mosque by twilight on my way to the fishing beach.

Joe in Fuyairah

Joe is an English teacher in the capital of the last Emirate bordering Oman. I meet him in the street just thinking that late afternoon isn`t the best time to arrive and I image a desert camp for the night. He instantly invites me to stay. He confirms that he is a traveler himself. He shares his flat with somebody else. After a shower he suggests to have a drink in the bar of the Hilton, the only place serving alcohol. We have some kebabs in a street stall outside his flat and we take the taxi. The Hilton bar is where one meets other expats here. I remember a Dane who calls his wife every evening and looks forward to return home. How he got to sign a new contract after meeting an important Arab in a bar. The Frenchman, installing PET-bottle producing machines for packing mineral water. The novity now is that the bottles are foldable after use so they occupy less space in the garbage. Than there are 2 British girls, who know they are in the market in this mainly male occupied territory. We finish the evening with a walk to a terras in front of a shisha-bar. The male Arabs like to socialize behind a waterpipe. At least 20 pipes around me We hear bubbling and the smell of apple and strawberry fills the slightly humid evening air.

Joe explains how easy in some ways life in Emirates is but difficult at the same time. It´s easy to save money but difficult not to get bored. The culture is so different. "People like to sit here, there is not much more activity than sucking the shisha", Joe remarks in regret.

The Sultanate of Oman

It is a windy morning when I leave Joe´s apartment. I look forward to arrive in the Sultanate. Expats serving the Emirates feed my curiosity. 'You'll see more traditional culture, beautiful mountains, typical architecture'. The other month I experienced an 'aperatife' while waiting the outcome of my visa application. It is that warm late morning in Teheran, sweating like a horse climbing up to Teheran's better situated residences. It takes me a while to find the Omani representation but all is quickly forgotten once inside the gate keepers' house. The two guards pass their working hours in cool air. The Embassy reflects the Royal heritage of the nation. Sitting here waiting for an approval to enter the Sultanate feels more like I am about to have a cup of tea with the Sultan himself. As I entered the cool room, I catched a glimpse of the courtyard, shaking hands with the guards at the same time. I distinguish almost female features in their faces and I am wondering whether they originate from their race. More likely, I conclude, due to their care in front of a mirror. Now,waiting in their quaters I have more time to observe them. Even more so as they are focused to the TV screen, choosing from the abundant satellite channels. In Iran owning a dish is a priviledge exlusively for Embassies and Government institutions. They wear fine clothes, bright white and clean, perfectly matching their dark brown skin. As I proceed my observations, wandering along the walls, the chanting of Bedouins forming a circle in the shade of a tent coming from a Abu Dhaby TV station, blends smoothly with the visual impressions of Oman's glossy PR posters. Indeed beautiful mountains in a vast desert landscape, fortresses, castles and broad smiling breed of people. The Sultan smiles generously down at me. Before I realize, my application has been granted and I am politely told to come back later. Again those soft manicured hands...

But today it is time to hit some road in the real Oman. I get some good deals in a vegetable store on my way out of Fujairah. I pose with a crying kid in front of the shop for a customer, to show my gratitude. The wind doesn't show mercy, I push myself against the wind. The Emirates is the first country to pay departure tax. The women behind the window feels my disappointment and tries to compensate with 3 bottles of ice cold water. Although she didn't hand them herself, she succeeds, I gulp down one of the Frenchmen's crushable miracles. These PET bottles are designed to slim down our trash pile. Before coming to the Emirates, he must have made the Baltic people already happy with compact trash, since he already installed those moulding machines in a Baltic state. Indeed, it plies without resistence but that could be very well due to the intense heat.

After leaving the little immigration quaters behind, a big roadsign shows almost proudly the size of Oman. Salalah, 1250 km. I feel the challenge to ride it within my 3 week visa. Carrying however an airplane ticket in my pocket that whispers me to leave Dubai the 9th of December, it is unlikely crossing Oman in a pleasant way. I pass small villages covered with patches of palmtrees. Omani's seem to avoid this time of the day, and I fetch water in a seemingly ghost village. Meeting few people is not only because of a siesta. Throughout the day, Imeet few people along the road. So unlike Iran, where people gather along the road quenching their curiosity. Here no herds of mopeds or motorbikes riding alongside. Omani's seem to be reserved. The road to the capital Muscat turns even more boring as it doesn't tickle the coast but remains 10 km inland. A straight well paved road which cuts a plain Only closer to Muscat the brown mountainranges at my right come within enjoyable distance. Getting water seems to be the only social event of the day. I am looking forward to meet a friend of a friend, Peter of John. John is a Dane who joined in South Africa for a while. We use to have long chats around the fire and he mentioned Peter quite often. John has kayaked with Peter on his way to North Cape. They made their canvas kayaks themselves as much in the original Eskimo way as possible. It took Peter 2 summer seasons to complete the journey from Denmark. Near Muscat he now teaches future Omani jet pilots English. We only exchanged an email sofar...

A few days later he finds me just after I finished my lunch under a skinny tree, close to the military site he lives. I follow his car loaded with surfboards to the gate and introduces me to the guards. I left already an impression there an hour ago as I had cold water and melon in their airconditioned quaters. He lives in a comfortable house, a kind of holiday bungalow within the fences of the military site. We enter via the little back garden, through the kitchen into the living room with a guitar on the couch. He doesn't hesitate to show me the guestroom, decorated with surf and diving wear a computer and a humming airconditioner. He excuses himself for living so comfortable, used to live with little means and improvisations in a similar way as I. He could never have imaged to work for the army as well. He is happy to host me as long as I want. John's introduction made him curious, especially because he relates to my lifestyle so much. He also used to live with little means and lots of improvisations. In doing so, he find himself more and more isolated. Finally arriving at Northcape after somany hardships and lonelitude, something snapped and he realized he couldn't do it any further. That I am riding so long intrigues him. Compared to his trip, mine is physically at least not that isolated from fellow human beings. Image kayaking in that remote part of the world.

That evening we drive over the smooth and clean motorways to the natural harbour of Muscat. The mountains which stayed away for so long are now swallowing us between their red glowing teeth as the sun is about to set. After picking up new study material to become a better ranked teacher, we drive over the boulevard along a lagoon encircled by mountains. Each of them carry a castle from times of Portugese occupation. The lagoon has been a harbour well before the Portugese set feet. For as long as the Afro/Asian trade existed, Muscat has played an important role for trade, replenish and refresh ships and crew. Center of the action used to be the souk which extended literally into the water. At the begin of the 20 century if I remember it well, they upgraded the boulevard and now the Souk start a stonethrow away from the ships, just across the esplenada. We first enjoy the full moon rising above the castle, watching the bulk ships with their lights. Not to forget the tasteful Indian takaways that direct our conversation to India travels. It is good food being here and we mingle among the crowds and perfumes of the covered bazaar.

It is hard to leave a friend after somany months being by myself. I leave after a week with a promise to return a week later. With only half the gear, I peddle to the coastline to the South Eastern cape of the Arabian peninsula. It feels funny knowing that I will return. It's nice to cook on a fire again and watch the stars. The Indian ocean is a beauty matching the awsome rides through some wadi's. I have an interesting meeting with a sales rep from Sudanese descendance. He offers me two chicken kebabs while I am filling my water bottles at a petrol station. The injured pigeon I find a little later turns cold as I finally pitch my tent in the dark. Windhorse beating the washboard must have finally necked him.I bury it the next morning under the curious eyes of a herdsman.

My last week on the road and I feel like being treated. The rest at Peter's was good medicine, my senses are revised and I touch beauty everywhere I go. Aborting this natural rhythm to start hitchhiking back to Muscat felt really funny. Melancholically I leave my last camp and fire for this millenium. Only when I share the pick up with an Indian Sikh, also working on a contract here, I feel that it's really over now. I promise myself to return early next year or next winter and glue another patch, from Muscat to Aden for example. Spread the long way home in connecting legs, scattered over the coming winters, rather than finishing in one go. I hope this alternative efalls in good soil' as we say in Holland, with my girlfriend.

It takes the entire day before a land surveyor of the army in a cute Puch 6 wheel drive vehicle drops me near Peters house. That evening, the 5th of december we celebrate Dutch eSinterklaas' in the apartment of a Dutch friend working for Shell. Talking Dutch while eating typical sweets of the generous man from Spain, or Turkey, one still argues about his descendance. Good visits and guitar sessions later I hitchhike back to the Emirates. Now it is a big truck finally taking me to the border, along that same road as I came. We can't talk much but when I take my guitar and play Peters' blues chords, he relaxes and we share a nice sunset.

In Hatta, I finally find the immigration at the gate of the Hatta Fort hotel. At twilight it's closed, so I proceed on the five star driveway. I find the reception amidst a green oasis to the reception. A well dressed guard, helps me through the doors. Before I know, they invite me to stay. Hungry as I am, I first go to some Indian restaurant along the road. Hatta is a small town, a bit higher up the hill, contrasting sharply against the evening violet sky. I watch the little traffic turning on the roundabout enjoying ePokhara', a typical Indian dish. The Indians think I am funny. I practice Hindi with them. The most commom questions on people's mind I still can reproduce. It has been six years ago that I was in India. Some tired trucks puff their way on to Dubai. I hope tomorrow one will take me to be ezapped' to winter early next morning. But until than, I want to enjoy my stay here. The importance to enjoy the moment proves itself this evening sharply. Not for everbody there will be a new day. Death can bejust around the corner. A little later, chatting at the reception, I learn that one of those trucks turning on the roundabout, caused a lethal accident, just while I returned to the hotel. The staff is now realizing that their bar manager, who just left, won't come back. He is an immigrant from Sri Lanka, father, and worked already 18 years in the Emirates. The whole staff is in mourning and so I keep my profile low and go to bed. The next morning I am offered a breakfast on the terrass, veiled by white transparant curtains. Ramadan seem to start. After the photo session and giving my regards in the guestbook, I hit the road again. A full last day in Dubai . Till midnight I am busy seeing my friends at the consulate, Mr Sing at the engine repair, and tasting the relaxed feeling of Ramadan after sunset with my Pakistani friends running a restaurant.

Than I ride to the airport, causing a huge crowd as I push my bike through the glass doors. Here I am, about to desintegrate my horse. Flat noses and curious eyes gather against the glass wall. At 3 o'clock I am packed.

My sister, mother, niece and nephew await me in Amsterdam.

Start of a new chapter,

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading me. I feel content I kept my promise.

In the meantime I am writing behind a desktop computer and we are about to get connection to the electronic highway. So it won't be long before this newsletter will find your box, if the hotmail staff didn't trash my mailbox for not using it so long.

Keep in touch,

Maarten


 

 
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