Saturday, 27 July 2013

A Week in Shangri La


Every year, at the school ball, my parents put a ‘week’s stay in our Spanish house’ up for auction. This year the winner of the holiday happened to be the school Under Master, quite an important fellow. And as usual this summer we decided to retire to our house in Spain. Therefore when the Under Master came to stay, we needed somewhere to go – and so we thought we’d go on a lovely beach holiday. Then began the task of picking a nice and sunny place, and a pleasant hotel.

Now I have no idea how this came about, but we ended up booking flights to go to a place called Oman. As a teenager, I had no clue where Oman was (so don’t worry if you don’t either). Bordering with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Oman is a Sultanate in the Middle East. Now this is all new to me – call me ignorant, but I’d never even heard of a Sultanate, and I almost believed my dad when he told me:
“Oman is ruled by a Sultan, who is married to a Sultana. They have two children, who are Currants.”

My bewilderment continued when, on the morning of our flight, my father told me that we had to take 3 flights, the first to Madrid, then to Heathrow, then to Muscat (in Oman). He then explained that we were staying in a hotel in Heathrow too, and catching an early morning flight. Including the night at Heathrow, this would amount to about 40 hours of travelling. This left me with one question: why were we going to Oman? We could be going anywhere! It got even worse when I discovered our flight was not direct, and was stopping in Abu Dhabi. Why were we going to all this effort? ‘It better be worth it,’ I thought to myself.

As I took my first step out of the airport a wall of heat hit me. By day, Oman is about 35-40 degrees. By night, it is about 30-40. Imagine how surprised I was when at midnight I began sweating due to the temperature – this is crazy! We were then driven to our hotel, part of the Shangri La Hotel complex.

And while I was loving the luxury of the hotel, my father could not relax one bit. When he booked the hotel, he was told that he was to be given a ‘complimentary upgrade’. So when this upgrade was nowhere to be seen, stress levels went through the roof. In the end we were shown to our upgraded rooms, and we were content – until a hotel worker, Antionette, tried to charge us for our complimentary upgrade! This is how the conversation went:

“Now you give 50 reals.”
“No, this is complimentary.”
“Yes. 50 reals.”
“Look, Antionette, do you know what complimentary means?”
“Hmmm… free?”
“Yes, so I’m not going to pay any money.”
“Okay. So you pay 20 reals?”
“No. Why am I paying 20?”
“Because I know you no want to pay 50.”
“I’m not going to pay 20 reals.”
“So you pay 50?”
“No, Antionette! I’m not going to pay any money!”

All the while, my brother and I were rolling on the floor with laughter. The thing that made us giggle the most was my father’s accent. Because he is incapable of speaking any language bar English, he speaks foreign. And by this I mean, he speaks to anybody foreign with a silly accent and in an extremely patronising tone, and makes himself sound like an absolute idiot. For example, as we have a house in Spain my father is able to say a few jumbled words in Spanish. And so on one night my father ended up speaking Spanish to an Indian woman in an Italian restaurant in Oman.

Then begun a family game: whoever could spot the first guest in the Hotel wins. This was because, to our surprise, there were only twenty people staying throughout the entire hotel. This left the corridors feeling very eerie and reminded us of scenes from The Shining.

We had come to Oman during Ramadan, the Islamic (not ‘Muslamic’, as certain members of the EDL seem to think) festival, celebrated in the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which usually falls in mid-Summer. This explains the lack of guests. This also meant that, to my parents’ slight annoyance, alcohol was not to be served until ‘iftar’ (the time of the breaking of the fast, circa seven o’clock). It also meant that alcohol could not be drunk outside, and smoking was frowned upon in public places. This is because during Ramadan Muslims fast throughout the day, and nothing is allowed ‘to pass their lips’, and many devout Muslims will not even drink water in the day. Many Muslims will also not drink alcohol throughout Ramadan, and so they prefer to not be in the presence of those who are drinking, even at night.

Our family spent almost everyday lounging about by the infinity pool or relaxing in the luxury of our rooms. One of my favourite things about the Hotel (Al Husn) is the brilliant service we received throughout our stay. As soon as we sat at our sunbeds a man would run up and give us a freeze box, which proved to be incredibly useful. It was filled with ice-cold water, which was perfect in the immense heat. And, as we were one of the few guests in the hotel, the service was even better than usual, and everybody was prepared to help, which was lovely.

I don’t know if this is the case for everybody, but one feels slightly awkward coming from an extremely Western country to a Muslim country. Their society, as my father said, is much more ‘structured’ and they follow a number of rules. It is as if I almost feel ashamed to walk around without a shirt on, while if they do so, they are frowned upon. It worries me to imagine what they think of Westerners – indulgent is at the top of my list. Of course many of these rules I do not agree with, but I have gained a lot of respect for their policies during my stay. I also very much admire them – it must be very tough having to fast in such a hot place! As we are in their country, of course their customs must be adhered to. However I have heard some quite ridiculous stories – apparently one couple were arrested in Dubai for kissing in public!

As I said earlier, the attendance of the staff was brilliant. In fact it was so brilliant that on occasion it became annoying. The Hotel cleaners must have gone round every room at least five times a day, and they were constantly knocking on the door asking if we were okay or if we wanted our room cleaning, despite it having just been cleaned. However I am not complaining, and it meant our rooms were always spick-and-span.

My mother and I also visited a ‘souk’. Souk is the Arabic word for market, and it is much like a Chinese Bazaar. We walked along a darkened street bordered with hundreds of stalls, and although the shopping wasn’t brilliant, this was indeed an amazing experience. We enjoyed diverse sounds and smells that are hard to find in England, and despite being surrounded (I want to use the word ‘harassed’ but it seems slightly too sinister!) by merchants as we browsed, it was extremely enjoyable.

The kindness and attendance of the hotel-staff deeply touched me, and it reminds me that I am extremely lucky. As they run up to offer me a towel or drink, I wonder why they aren’t in my position, relaxing on holiday. I am blessed to have been born into a well-off family in a safe environment.

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