A belated Merry Christmas to you! (and you!)

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My Christmas tree was up in the first week of December. I had already bought, wrapped and gifted most presents by the 14th. Can you tell I was excited? Christmas is possibly my second favorite day in the year, the first being my birthday 🙂 As an Orthodox Russian I have absolutely no relation to the Catholic Christmas celebrated on the 24th, but because my dad is Catholic, the whole family kind of goes with the flow- and we end up celebrating both Christmases. Fantasic isn’t it?
Much like every other year, I have enjoyed causing myself tremendous exhaustion and stress by trying to organize a Christmas gatherings (all-except-turkey inclusive) for my closest friends Initially I planned to spend Christmas with my parents, but they have shamelessly pursued a vacation abroad leaving me and Alex in absolute solitude over (my second most favorite day of the year) Christmas. The warm jittery feeling that comes from spending the holidays surrounded by loved ones was under immediate threat, and I set out to amend the catastrophe by any means.
Luckily, I managed to persuade Yulya to come back to Oman and spend the holidays with us. Now, “persuade” might be a rather strong word, when all I did is ask “how much is the ticket from Kuwait?” A few hours later I had an overly-excited Yulya bombarding my Facebook with flight details, visa inquiries and holiday plans. I thought it was too good to be true. I have over the years trained myself to react mildly to “happiness” just in case it doesn’t last. Because her husband’s resident’s card was expiring and Kuwait has a general problem letting people out of the country- I did not believe they are coming until their plane took off and landed in Muscat on the 22nd of December.
On this superb occasion I have organized a pre-Christmas/welcome-back-Yulya get together at our place. The simple gathering quickly grew out of proportion and turned into one of the best Christmas celebrations of our lives. There is nothing greater than being surrounded by genuine friends in your own home. However stressful the task of cooking/cleaning up/picking up Yulya at the airport and playing 1950’s perfectionist hostess (all within the span on an hour) was- we did a fantastic job! The table was groaning under numerous salads, pizzas, canapés, appetizers and sandwiches whilst the fridge was bulging with drinks eagerly cooling.

At 7:30pm I could hear her running up the stairs as I stirred yet another dish, she rang the doorbell anxiously and in seconds she was back home. Glowing with excitement, walking to and fro the kitchen- it was like she hasn’t even left. The cat was super excited to have her suitcases to explore, and her husband Dima clicked with Alex like they were good old friends. Friends were quickly arriving and I soon found my sitting room filled with 19 amazing personas, all content and basking in each other’s company. We grinned at each other all evening unable to believe that Christmas wishes do really come true.  

Here is a little insight into the preparations of the pre-Christmas-Christmas.   



 I go a little overboard with Xmas decorations 🙂

Along the first stages of making deviled eggs for the Xmas table.

High-tech tomatoes.  Mysterious milk.  Supersquash.  Are we supposed to eat this stuff?  Or is it going to eat us?



All I want for Christmas is you 🙂

 



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And the hardest part was letting go…(Pt 2)

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When Yulya is upset, she grows strangely quiet. It’s a heartbreaking uncomfortable silence that I had to behold during our long drive from the Marina back home. Thankfully, my parents invited us for lunch at The Turkish House to give Yulya a proper going away meal. Numerous fried Sultan Ibrahims, shrimps and calamari later Yulya came around, cheered up and her primary instinct kicked in- to smoke sheesha. We rolled (indeed the only way to describe it) out of the restaurant to find an odd looking café next to The Turkish House, which looked promising if one wanted to crawl into a dark corner and smoke away their misery. As this was exactly our agenda we headed to the café, found the loneliest table and established base. The entire dialogue during that half an hour consisted of the phrase “I don’t want to go to Kuwait” being repeated over and over again until it faded into the smoke of the sheesha and became nothing but a background noise.

With the plane leaving in just two hours we had to tear ourselves away from the sheer comfort of each other’s company, put on our big girl pants and go to the airport. Silence on the way home. Silence on the way to the airport. Tears at the check-in counter. Long hugs. Awkward glances from strangers. Promises and ambitions voiced over departure announcements. Airports are always heartbreaking. Especially so when you are saying goodbye to an unlikely friend, one in whom you have found a sister, a teacher, a companion and a soul mate- within the span of 5 short days.   

Day 5 pt 1. The one with all the DE-NI-AL

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On the 18th of November, Yulya’s day 4 in Oman she was eager to go to Zouk, unfortunately the rest of the country did not agree with her wish and protested with a 15 km long traffic jam in the Shatti area.  One thing was clear, disappointed at not getting the chance to try the infamous “Flaming Lamborghini” in Zouk, Yulya is determined to come back and make up for it.  We remained at Park Inn rooftop for rest of the evening, making our way home close to 1 a.m. We had an early night for a change, or maybe we didn’t…I forget. I vaguely remember another house party that lasted till 4 am, but maybe I had imagined that due to my selective amnesia caused by ABSOLUTELY NO SLEEP.
The following morning, on Yulya’s last day in Oman, we had a dolphin watching trip planned. We were feeling strangely energized, or maybe that was the final kick of adrenalin settling in because we knew we only have 10 hours left. We headed to Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, picking my 7 year old brother on the way, as well as a few other people. It so happened that during the National Day holidays, someone was always entertaining a relative or a friend. My Cynthia was escorting her cousin from Lebanon, a friend of mine had her mom come over for a visit, and I had the hot-crazy-mess that also goes by the name of Yulya in these posts. Hence, we all met on the boat. A man by the name of Ameen, endured my calls during the week “we need to add one more person, no sorry 3 more people, wait do you have space for 5?.  He was able to get us all on board at a fantastic rate! All 8 of us (ratio of 5:3, Russian and Lebanese respectively) completely took over the spotlight on the yacht, whist calmer and better mannered tourists scattered in far away corners. From past experiences I expected to be violently sea sick on the boat, but I think a hangover and exhaustion was enough for my body to handle, and it decided not to include sea sickness on to the menu that morning.
I struggle to enjoy my time when I have a hyper, cheeky, fearless 7 year old running around the boat, leaning over the bars to “catch the waves”. I was glad when the boat came to a halt once the dolphins were spotted. We were in luck because according to the captain no dolphins were seen in the last 4 days, a fable used to insure the company against outraged tourists if the dolphins indeed decide to detour and not show face- in my opinion. Cruising around for half an hour along with other boats, we saw a team of dolphins race past our boat, playfully fueling our interest until they disappeared under the murky waters. This was our cue to head to a tranquil bay for an hour of snorkeling.
This was Yulya’s first time putting on a snorkeling mask and setting out to explore. I had both her and the 7 year old Nemo to look after, one minute he is there, the next he is gone. Being a fearless daredevil my brother was in the water within minutes, exploring the coral reef and pointing out fish as big as himself to other participants. Half heartedly jumping into the deep blue, I was surprised to find it warmer than I feared it would be, the water was turquoise and the marine life abundant right under my feet. However this was the first time we snorkeled at that specific location, and being quite careless I assumed the sea is a lot deeper than it actually was. Let’s just say that flippers are always a good idea when snorkeling. A few bumps and scrapes later, defeated I stumbled back on board leaving a blood trail all the way to the First Aid Box, I guess Yulya must have followed that trail because she was right behind me a few minutes later in queue for her share of iodine and a bandage.
Yulya was unusually quite during the trip, and no one from the entire party dared to mention her flight that was only 5 hours away. We were deep in denial about her having to go to Kuwait, because for the 4 days that she was in Oman every minute of it felt like it was exactly where she belonged. The girl was thrilled that she could wear knee-long shorts in public, do recreational activities without being stared at and just enjoy herself amongst close friends. If my Happy Place narrows down to Beach A in Sur, Yulya’s must extend to the entire Oman from the peak of Jabal Shams to the depths of the Gulf.

Day 4 pt. 2 The one with My Happy Place

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It seemed that every car in Sur was decorated in red, green and white- the colors of the national flag. Some cars had stripes going across, some had hundreds of stars plastered all over and others had portraits of His Majesty covering the entire back screen. Life in Sur was busy- people were out on the streets- a sight you don’t come across often in Muscat. We could not go faster than 40 km/h for fear of yet another child zooming across the road fearlessly on his bike. Closer to Ras Al Hadd, the little villas are replaced by scenes of a bay harboring traditional wooden Dows. Ras Al Hadd is the exact spot where the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman meet. The sea there is very rough, cold and somewhat brutal- nevertheless it is the deepest blue you will ever see. It is also home to four species of nesting sea turtles; the endangered greed, loggerhead and the Olive Ridley turtle as well as the Hawksbill variety. Eager to share with Yulya the breathtaking experience of watching sea turtles nest and their youngsters crawl to the sea, I planned this day well in advance. A month before she arrived I called Ras Al Jinx resort (which provides guided tours at night), but they were already full, my second option was Ras Al Hadd, where I have previously stayed in April. Booking the last two double rooms at the resort, I had then called up every week or so to make sure they were still holding them for me. I have a prejudice distrust when it comes to hotels in the interiors, it is better to be safe than sorry. I also booked us for a tour in Ras Al Jinx, which is the exact location where the sea turtles come to nest. 
Just before checking into the hotel, we could not resist stopping for a few shots, these were taken by Yulya:

Ras Al Hadd is a great 3 star property. It is value for money. When you enter the lobby they let you hold fragile little sea turtles in the palm of your hand. They are slimy, green and unbearably cute. The rooms are relatively fresh, always clean and provide the basic comforts. They are also all sea view, can you resist?

 By the time we checked in we were starving, and quickly organized a spontaneous supper of potatoes, grilled chicken, fresh salad and sandwiches. Feeling refreshed and to Yulyas screams of “Hurry we are going to miss sunset!!!” we rushed out to the beach, which is a mere 10 minutes walk from the hotel. The moon was already up, and the sun was about to set- a genuine setting for an aspiring photographer. There were many visitors to the beach that eveing, mostly families with children who got too close to the 1 m high waves and had to be dragged back by their parents. With an attempt to shoot an oversized crab, I climbed too far up a rock and got splashed from head to toe by a wave that hit the cliff violentry. The water was freezing cold. We hastily made our way back to the hotel, after calling Ras Al Jinx about 20 times to find out when our tour is. That would probably be my only peeve during the entire trip-Ras Al Jinx is impossible to reach by the phone. It is in my opinion easier to drive the 400 km there and back- more chance of getting your questions answered. As we later found out, tours take place at 9 pm and then again at 3 am. Anxiously driving along the 9 km winding road to Ras Al Jinx, I could not supress the same panic I faced in April. There are absolutely no lights on that road. It is a 15 minute drive into pitch darkness, with the occasional ‘Beware of Camels’ signs, and foxes running across the road. As per the statistics, over 2,000 tourists flock to the area every month would it hurt them to make the roads a little safer?

Ras Al Jinx is a modern turtle conservation center. I have nothing but praise for their facilities and employees. The groups and tour guides are very organized, they dealt calmly and professionally with the 100 people that gathered in their hall that evening. People from all corners of the world pateienly waited for the tours to start and were divided into 5 separate groups to make their trip a little more enjoyable.
The reason Sur is my Happy Place lies solemnly in Ras Al Jinx Beach A. The 15 minute walk, under the full moon, on the cool sand is equivalent to a jar of Nutella Choccolate or 100 hours of Yoga- if that is how your get your kick. Every whisper echoes off the surrounding rugged mountains, and you cant help but settle down and you can literally feel your thoughts calming. See, I suffer from what Elizabeth Gilbert calls ‘monkey mind’ -the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” Hence when I manage to find a cure, to just for a minute or two get the monkeys to settle down and reflect- I am at my best. Sur is the only place that seems to do it for me, away from the noise, away from the errands- it is just me, the beach and the rolling waves. Never mind that there are 100 other people there- I don’t feel them.
Once the tour guide comes to a sudden halt, he looks into the distance, flashing his infrared flashlight at his colleague further ahead. He waves him over and we quietly follow. A short wait later, he points out a black dot on the white sand. Some 50 meters ahead, a green sea turtle has emerged to nest- she is now slowly but surely making her way across the beach. The guide gestures for us to sit down, we circle him and watch as he draws on the sand a demonstration of how the turtles choose their nests. I faintly remember that it has something to do with the temperature and the humidity of the sand. He also says that over 30,000 turtles nest on this exact beach every year. However, only 1 or 2 out of thousand baby turtles ever make it to adulthood. At any given time, the mother turtle disposes of 200 eggs, and buries them a meter deep into the ground, digging another “fake nest” nearby to throw off the predators. It is enticing, the details and the processes that nature has so carefully arranged. No matter how saddened we are by the enormous fatalities amongst the sea turtles, the guide shakes his head and says “it is a circle. We must not intrude”. He is hopeful to show us baby turtles that night, he takes a few steps into the distance and gestures for us to follow. Suddenly sitting down, he begins to carefully clear the sand away with his hand. Me and Yulya have front row seats. Sitting on our knees on the cold sand, we lean over right into the hole is clearing. I cannot believe my eyes when I see movement under the surface of the sand. A little head emerges, then the front flippers push the body to the surface. A second baby turle follows right after. “Experience” is what our guide refers to when asked how he found the nest to precisely. Somewhere in the crowd, people begin fidgeting. The guide goes over to them to make sense of the excitement. I cautiously stand over the two baby turtles that are still crawling out of their nest, I have an intense urge to pick them up and carry them to the sea but a rude tourist hisses at me when I stretch my arms to them. By the time I pull myself away from the two helpless wonders, everyone is already “ouuing” and ” awwing” over the sight of hundrets of baby turtles and their dark silhouettes crawling towards the flashlight of the guide. He walks ahead, leaning the source of light on a rock, and we witness an incredible spectacle- little flippers working hard to make their way to the flashlight. They are silly like that. We are then forced to tear ourselves away from them and let them be. They will now use only their primary instincts to reach water, and not all of them will even get that far. Two hours later, it is already 11:30 pm and the guide urges us to head back, inspired and bewildered we make our way back to the hotel…my happy place has not failed me.

Day 4 part 1. The one before and after the speed bump

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As you can probably conclude the evening of day 3 has ended with “outrageous consumption of alcohol”. I believe the party has exhausted itself around sunrise. Unlike them crazy people, I went to bed at a decent hour- just after 4 am. Common sense whispered in a defeated weak voice “must wake up for city tour at 8 am tomorrow” hence gathering what was left of my willpower I crawled out of bed at 7:15 am. We needed to make a move on, and be in Sur around 2 pm that very same day, and we still had the Grand Mosque tour to complete! From past experience of getting “horribly lost” in Sur, I knew that we needed to leave early if we wanted to make it. Around 11 we set out to pick up a friend who was joining us to Sur, lunch boxes packed and camera’s charged- we set out on our adventure. I have an ongoing battle (which I am loosing) with the husband’s smoking, so we had to stop every half an hour or so, otherwise he threatened to smoke in the car. It was just as well, because Yulya was able to get amazing shots of the views we drove past, such as Wadi Shaab below:
I was eager to make it to Sur before sundown. The four hours of driving ahead were nothing in comparison to slow Chinese torture. The road to Willayat Quriyat is a piece of cake, however it is once you get into the settlement and roundabouts spring up around you, that everything starts to look the same. Luckily, just one wrong turn later ( Yulya “Olga where are you going???”) and 3 phone calls to Ras Al Jinx, we were on the right track. I am now like a fish in water when it comes to Sur. I can point out the Sur Beach Hotel, their Badr Samaa Hospital chain and even Al Aijah village- which is your hint if you are turning to Ras Al Hadd. The entire way I was exclaiming “we were here once at night, and so lost, so lost!!!” My favurite sign board in Sur is the one that says “Dear Visitors…there is a tiger ahead”  this is particularly terrifying if you are driving there at night, you are as lost as a needle in a stack of hay and your only help is a GPS navigator that shows you driving into the Arabian Gulf. To clear the matter up, there is no tiger. Simply a drawing of a tiger on the side of the mountain. A consoling fact when you are…lost…oh so lost. Once we drove into Sur, I got distracted by a very pretty house on a hill (umm…ya…) and hit a speed bump full on at 100 km/h. I can tell you, the husband was not impressed. I was banned from driving the rest of the way, which was just as well as it gave me a chance to check out more pretty houses with no consequences. I did matter of factly point out a sign and quotes “Sur- 1642 km”. Which, if it were true meant that we still had 11 hours of driving ahead of us. I was then banned from both driving and reading signs out loud. It was just not my day…On the brightside being the grounded passenger gave me a great chance to enjoy this:

Day 3. The one with the hangover from hell.

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It is not wise to drink like there is no tomorrow if tomorrow you have to drive 200km to Nizwa. I, the ever designated driver have knowingly abstained from mixing wine-bacardi-baileys-tequila-beer  drinks, the same cannot be said for Yulya. “Don’t play with someone who can play better” that is what the evening of day 2 has taught me! Raising bright an early, violently knocking on Yulya’s door for about half an hour until her highness emerged growling “but we were supposed to wake up at 9”, whilst clock said 8- Kuwait time. Making sure everyone was up and running, I dashed out to get some coffee, (see below-the best post-tequila breakfast) and made it back home within half an hour to kick butts out of the door. To grunts and whines, I loaded Alex and Yulya into the car, she sat there without as much as a sigh, quite the whole way. Occasionally she would stir, take our her beloved camera and shoot the scenery around. Then she would quickly succumb to the hangover and grow quite again. Driving to Nizwa is challenging enough without someone constantly remind you that they are going to barf. I was determined to make it to Golden Tulip Hotel, where Nina was waiting for us. Seeing the state we were in, she suggested taking her car instead and heading out to Nizwa Souq and Tanuf. To Yulya’s exclamations of “i feel bad, so bad, so bad” we drove on to Nizwa Fort, to find the area deserted except for a few trucks selling goats. The smells of stalls that sold “fresh chicken” did not aid the hangover in the slightest bit. Luckily not all the stores were closed and we managed to sneak a peak at the renowned silverware, pottery and Omani handcrafts. She took some amazing shots for her Project 365- an act worthy of recognition considering how badly she was feeling.

The Nizwa Fort was obviously closed given the Eid Holidays, so we performed our usual routine of posing next to the shut gates and cannons that decorate the entrance. There were very few tourists around, and people in general seemed to be celebrating at home rather than filling the streets of Nizwa. By midday we were mighty hungry and oblivious to the fact that EVERYTHING IS CLOSED DURING EID. Giving up our quest for traditional Omani food, we made our way to the abandoned village of Tanuf, a site of ruins and historical sights. Even the faded mud houses were not a good enough cause for Yulya to get out of the car. We drove on to Tanuf, going off-road with the help of a 4×4 button on Nina’s car. Herein my geographical challenge kicks in, and although I know there was a dam and a wadi- I cannot remember the name of the place. However, it was cool, refreshing and gorgeously adorned with greenery of all shapes and sizes. Trekking through the mountains for a mere 10 minutes was enough to realize that we simply cannot go on without food. By then it was already 1pm, our sick tourist was demanding a meal and pictures of mountains tired themselves out (Yulya: “wow, we don’t have mountains that are this gorgeous in Kuwait”). Hunger forced us to head to Al Hoota Cave, we knew for certain that they have a decent buffet at just 5 OMR per person. Little did we know that the entire population of Muscat has decided to flock to Al Hoota Cave that day. It was after all an Eid Holiday, but we kept on forgetting that significant detail because we were on a holiday of our own. A plateful of kebab and spaghetti bolognaise later, we stretched out in the outdoor patio of the restaurant, overlooking a scenic mountainous landscape above which thunderstorm clouds gathered. Eager to get back home, but dreading the 2 hour drive we lazily made our way to the car and headed to Golden Tulip Hotel to pick up my companion- the Sunny. We hastily organized the smokers (Nina and Alex) to head back to Muscat in one car, while I had Yulya with me. We talked the whole way down to Muscat, which is a big deal for me- because I am not a talker. Her hangover seemed to be dissapearing by the hour, or maybe it just knew that regardless of it’s presence we would still head to Left Bank for cosmopolitans later that evening.

Day 2. The one with all the rules.

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Waking up at 9 am and barging into Yulya’s room screaming “its time, according to the schedule we need to start having fun in 20 minutes” was how my day began. The next morning she locked her door. Should I be offended? 🙂 I dragged her sleepy, nevertheless excited, butt out of the house, and drove her straight to Starbucks which is always a good idea after you mix tequila with beer. Yulya was surprised to see “18th November” Street, and nagged me to stop and take pictures of all the “18th November” signboards. We drove through the Ministry Street (this white building is the ministry of this…and that is…umm..something else”, through Khuwair and the cozy streets of MQ, driven by an animalistic urge for COFFEE and a brownie, we aimed straight for Starbucks, because you cannot sightsee without caffeine and a cookie. According to my “schedule” we headed out to the Hyatt, picking up another awesome girl on the way, where we lounged on the sunbeds, proud of the little vacation we have arranged for ourselves. Troubling clouds drifted past (Yulya: “We never have clouds in Kuwait” ), a cold breeze blew from the sea (Yulya: “Its much colder in Kuwait”) but the water in the pool was pleasantly refreshing for those of us who got 5 hours of sleep. Completely oblivious to the presence of others at the pool, we chatted on, taking pictures to document our “compulsory fun” until an hour later an employee approached us and in a matter-of-fact tone informed us that it is prohibited to take pictures by the pool area. “Since when?” was my first reaction because I have been a member at The Hyatt for 12 years and have never heard anything so ridiculous. Apparently its a newly applied rule, that has been implimented over a month ago, after complaints received the guests in that area. I guess someone couldn’t resist  snapping a few shots of guests in their binikis- for personal entertainment. However, when you are on a vacation, especially one as short as Yulya’s the last thing you want to be told is that you are not allowed to take pictures!
We swiftly made our way out, the Shatti beach was our next destination, we bumped into My Cynthia there and soaked in the sunshine and took pictures until we could take them no more! The rumbling in our stomachs reminded us that lunch is a must, and I took Yulya to my personal favorite- Darcy’s. We were joined by Alex and another friend, and our girly lunch troupe quickly grew into a noisy, crowded get together. A club sandwich and a Greek salad later, Yulya began whining about the absolute absence of Sheesha in Muscat. Apparently in Kuwait Sheesha cafes are as ordinarily present as lampposts in Oman, and it is tragic that there is only a selection of places in Muscat that offer Sheesha. To amend this evil-doing we drove on to Tche Tche, where Yulya happily puffed away, bewildered by the scenic views of the Cornish. The girl was already head over heels with Muscat, it was love at first sight. Indulgence, sunshine and good company only added to the quickly growing infatuation.
For a little pampering I took Yulya to “Dr. Fish”, a haven for a half hour get away from reality. With its murky light settings, Bryan Adams tunes and starvnig fishies that nibble at your heels- this spa is a must-experience. As three girls sat there, knee deep in an aquarium, giggling with delight- a crowd gathered around us. Various “evil looks” later, the receptionist got the hint and politely asked the viewers to leave us, giving us the must needed peace and quite after such a long and tiring day of “fun”.
By 7 pm we were exhausted with doing nothing all day- a feeling that I welcome during a vacation. We carved out half an hour to go home and change, to later make our way into the night…. Unfortunately it was the beginning of Eid and dry spell fell over Muscat, the bars and pubs werent serving any alcohol….just our luck…
Thank god for house parties. Especially ones that have Sheesha.

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