Sunday, August 2, 2015

TWO OMANIS IN: Victoria, BC, Canada---the whole tourist experience---from a local PT. 1; Parliament, Pags, the Empress and the Inner Harbor


If you are going to start off in Victoria, British Columbia, from a local's perspective of the whole tourist experience, then likely you are going to meet some locals. The locals are going to ask you to meet them at a bench just inside the Bay Center mall near the Guess store (probably--- 9 times out of 10).

While it is a pretty Arab-thing to start a tour of local culture in a mall, it isn't what locals themselves will do. However, looking inside the Bay center mall and you'll see why this city is a little different than other cities.

And people generally expect you to be able to find a giant mall, even if you suck at local directions (which are pretty bad 9 times out of 10).
Take an exit from the Starbucks/fountain side of the Bay center mall. This quaint little street exits out to three wonderful stops to keep in your mind for future downtown Victoria wanderings---the Papery shop across the street (best stationary ever beyond if you happen to make it to New York), a jewelry store if you're rich enough to buy diamonds on vacation, and on a side street to the left of the fountain, local Italian restaurant, Pagliaccis.

Yes, you will have to line up to eat here. Yes, it is not a halal restaurant, and you have to be careful---there's alcohol in a lot of the dishes (and they served me martinis when I was 12 soooo ask for virgin if you want something virgin). But the bread, the staff, and the atmosphere is so good, I always come back.

There's also a charming Barbershop and flower shop on the same street as Pags. I prefer Pags for dinner, opposed to lunch, but it is up to you. Locals refer to it as Pags btw.
I accessorize my black abaya (with poppy print) with a gorgeous not-so-muslim old local friend named Brittany ;) and a cherry red purse with cherry red lips (that's a local-me thing)
So, head straight down past government street now, to wharf street, and head for the inner harbor. Don't worry, I'll take you back to government street where you can waste all your tourist money on tourist crap soon enough. However, might as well see the harbor first.
The inner harbor itself is an architectural feat, since this was all originally boggy swampy stinky land built up on, and the architectural delights of our city's most famous architect lie on either side (the legislature buildings and the Empress Hotel). Despite his rather awesome design skills, he lied to get the job, and stole from most of his projects... cute fact. Another cute fact... all originally was aboriginal land... Yes, so occasionally they seal up the harbor and allow the natives to have their native boat races.

Despite, locals and tourists alike like to enjoy the sunshine here. There are yachts moored, local street performers, art being sold (a small fortune being charged to have your henna done etc)... I never buy anything here myself, but I like to walk. Milestones (a restaurant located on the harbor), if you're Muslim and want something yummy, has the most delicious butternut squash ravioli. Its (the dish) vegetarian, but you won't care at all, I swear.
Tourist-ey of all tourist-ey things you can take a tour of the parliament buildings---which as a normal local I would never do, but having been a representative in the house myself once a upon a time (only the youth committee section however) I wanted to see the photo of myself inside and the mace, so I made people who didn't want to take a tour of the place.

It is free--- you just take a ticket and wait your turn.

And maybe you actually care how the Canadian government is run, I don't know, and want info on which stain glass was made for which Queen, and what this or that latin motto means in Plain English. Then this bit would be useful for you.
Below: the house where our government (our shura or regional government I guess---although they do have more power than regional or shura governments in Oman) sits---two sword lengths apart for traditions sake. When people here really disagree these days they slap their shoes on the table (or throw them---but not stilletos)... I see they changed the carpet at long last;). They really should make it clear to youth parliament and pages peeps shoe allowances mean ugly comfortable black things, not heels;).
If, you've had lunch, but intend to do a traditional "dinner at eight" than head over to the Empress Hotel for high tea because you'll be starving before eight (I've never done this as a grown-up---I do tea in Oak Bay but if you want the full tourist experience you must).

Unfortunately, the two eccentric Dashwood sisters have died, so you won't see them at tea:'(. I know this, since they painted their old mansion a light aqua colour, and I couldn't imagine the Dashwood girls ever being okay with that if they were living.

The place technically has a dress code and its rude for men to wear shorts, but I see people doing it nonetheless. In the word's of one Dashwood: "At least when gentlemen streaked through the Empress tearoom in the 1960s, they still had the decency to wear bow ties".

Hmmm, I don't know about that but... abayas are fine;).
 Private dining (above) which I've also never done, tearoom (below):
Something much more me is the Bengal lounge, although after Islam I admit I didn't go much since it is a bar. However, they do have the best Indian buffet EVER, in the evenings, so... and there's always the awesome tiger pelt, gifted by the King of Siam (Thailand now) to the hotel.
For the hotel being such a tourist thing (tea, dining, hotel itself) etc... I was there a lot as a local. See, the last bus is pretty late, outside is pretty cold, and the Empress always keeps its doors open. If you don't look like a hobo, no one will say anything about you staying there all night, reading books by the fireplace in the library, playing the piano in the tearoom in the evening or in the conservatory... I met some pretty awesome people after a late night spent decorating storefront windows for Christmas... A poet, lots of artists, some very fascinating drunks... one is now a Duke in the U.K.;)...I met him when he'd knocked himself unconscious while singing and dancing on the side of a courtyard fountain. Yep, he was that smoooooooth;). Consequently, saving him was the only night I ever spent in the hotel, it was a thank you present from his Uncle, since he made me miss my bus and I was a little tired to do the whole piano-player gig all night. 

I shouldn't mock him though;) since I've swum in the same fountain, on a dare from Am. And that staircase below? Rode  pillows down it, also a dare, that had security kind of upset at me for a while. And I did my share of crappy stuff. I crashed weddings sometimes with friends, in the Palm court. Well dressed, no one questions you. I think it is funny, but not very polite. I played piano once (not very good) and some party who'd been drinking in Bengal lounge decided to tip me, and then people just kept putting money into my beret, and by the end of a couple hours I'd made more money than I did a whole day at work. And I was playing like, the theme song to the X-files, and the Flintstones. I am not very musical. 

Princess Margaret once nearly fell off the roof here while stargazing, and some bell boy knocked a guest who tried to rape a maid flat out:). That's the kind of place this is. It has lots of stories. Maybe that's why I like it so much. My Uncle Danny was a bell boy here. He'd pretend to be Irish, use an Irish accent, and sing "Danny boy" to get better tips in the 1950s. Despite being French... Well, at least his wife was Irish;). She never ever sings "Danny Boy".

My father however, abhors the place since he still feels the 50s dress-code is in effect, unless it is the Bengal Lounge we are going to, for jazz and curries:). Then its okay, so long as someone else besides him is paying:).
The ballroom opens up into the conservatory on one side and when there's an event, there's music, and one can dance under the stars even if one doesn't crash the party, or get invited into the ballroom. Maybe that's my favorite memory of the place beyond fountain-swimming, be that as it may, that I now no longer dance in public. Dancing in the conservatory to the wee hours, in the starlight. Tres romantic, oui? I insist, I had a story-book childhood growing up (complete with wolves and witches but more on them later), on this island, in my forest town, and young adulthood in this city.
I will continue the tour of high-tourist Victoria shortly, however, I have to finish a book (that you would never want to read I assure you) this month, so inshaAllah when I can I will. I am also hoping the other OPNO girl will upload her Singapore and China pics so I can brag that Victoria's China town is better. To be cont'd.

Friday, July 31, 2015

TWO OMANIS IN: OPNO's village in the land-far-and-away

Despite the usual weather of the land-far-and-away, 2015 was an early, long, and dry summer.

So there was sunshine all but two days I was there. So abayas and a long-sleeve t-shirt were quite sufficient, and for the mornings on the water, which were still quite chilled, a borrowed men's coat did well enough, though I wasn't very fashionable.
One of the first things I did was sneak out early before anyone was awake but the fishermen (or late when no one was awake at all) and go down to the water (although these pictures were taken later in the day when I came back for a walk with my sister). I used to do this a lot in my early teens (okay, not really teens but that point one is on the cusp of girlhood to teenager-hood), when a small group of friends and I would make bonfires on the beach, steal boats, do crazy dares on the nearby islands we could row/motor out to. It is a wonder that any of us lived to reach twenty-five, though admittedly, some didn't.

Not every summer is a golden one, or silver with calm.

Sometimes I go back here, just to remember our little circle, how it was broken, how it once meant the world, and how I am somehow worlds away from the center that fell out. Despite the pain of the place, I always feel calm here, where the light is dappled, the seagrass and purple sea flowers wave, or the black rocks froth with foam as the sea is reaching for the sky.... Either way, it is as I remember, sun or storm.

Funny, current reality has changed little from memory. We were going to leave the little fishing/logging village as soon as we could, and I did. The only difference is, compared to plans, no one took me away, I went on my own, and I didn't sail off, but flew.
That's me, in fisherman fashion:
Now, I never really did love my town, beyond the forests, but I did love my friends and keep in touch with a precious few of them to this day. Most of them I fell out with when I became Muslim (or they drowned before that in a stolen boat in a storm when they should have been house-sitting) or they were guys and it just isn't proper for us to keep closely in touch when a girl has an Omani husband and is a Muslim;). Still none of the old set who used to do the bonfire on the beach thing am I friends with (the ones who drowned I don't blame of course) and it has nothing to do with me being Muslim.

You see, in a dead-end town like this one, there isn't much work unless you leave or become a construction person, a banker, or a real-estate agent.  So people tend to drink more than they should, and some do drugs, (lots of them do cocaine and pot) and I never was one for either, and drinking a Muslim gives up, so we just travel in different circles.

I hope they keep their health despite, and take better care of themselves, and realize one day that just being "from somewhere" and "living somewhere" doesn't mean life has to be that way. Leaving is easy. Or even just reinventing one's self and doing things one's own way. Coming back is always harder, because everything might be exactly the same but it will never be the same for you. ...Because you have changed.
White barnacles crust the wooden posts of the pier, waters lap, looking green under the shadow where the boys set their traps for crabs. ...I see across to my old house, off the spit, and channel where it pulls out to sea, where I nearly lost my life, for a dare. I swam across that point (still a point of pride despite the obvious foolishness of the deed), from town proper, to the east part. And that, dragging another girl with me, who was so thin she almost froze from the water. Afterwards, I had to make a fire on the beach, and hike up sans shoes, to the first house I could find and phone our parents to come get us (okay, her parents, because my dad would have killed me), because even a bike ride, it was over an hour away back to town.
Yeah, beyond barnacles, sea grass, stones spilt into the sea, very cold water, and forests (+friends) the place had nothing offer me. No adventure (just reckless danger), no variety, and love? It wasn't there for me. Every town like this has about one guy (if you're lucky) that you'd consider and sometimes, that's just not in the cards.

Me and an old friend, catching up, laughed about the idea of love in town. Our parents thought a guy with a decent job in town without a drinking habit so profound it negatively impacted him at any time to be a real catch. Our fathers both recommended the same guy to us, which makes me laugh.

You see, whether a small village in Oman or one in the land-far-and-away, the boys are the same.

...So it was never very hard to leave before, and not any harder now. 

Yet the seagrass is beautiful, and the rocks jutting out in the storms are something to see.

No storms for me, however, during my visit. Not this time.