You Don’t Say Yes Here, You Say Aye

This is what our local Londonderry tour guide, Ronan, kept reminding us. We had arrived in Londonderry the night before, after leaving the Giant’s Causeway. Our first order of business on Monday was to meet Ronan for a walking tour of Londonderry, also known as Derry depending on which side of the city wall you live. Ronan himself was pretty interesting. He is the product of a Buddhist, Asian mother and a Protestant, Caucasian father and speaks fluent Gaelic and English with the most wonderful Irish accent. He grew up in Londonderry and, as such, told us that he has a bias regarding the divide between the Unionists and Loyalists. However, he is also a history teacher and was able to present Londonderry’s storied past rather neutrally.

He took us up on the city walls for a walk during which he told us the history of points of interest along the way. It was fascinating to get the perspective of someone who has lived there from the time of the Troubles up to today. We then walked around the Catholic Bogside neighborhood to look at the famous political murals and “Free Derry” sign. The sign is currently undergoing maintenance. It was a sobering experience to know we were walking in the very area where Bloody Sunday occurred, but also uplifting at the same time since, although gritty, it is perfectly safe to walk down the street.

Just like in Belfast, you can tell who lives on which side of the wall just by looking at the flags and artwork. However, as both tour guides pointed out, the two sides have more in common than differences as they are both economically depressed. Ronan told us that his kids mention seeing tourists walking around town, but when he was their age, he would see soldiers and IRA members violently clashing with each other. In this way, he said that us tourists are part of the city’s healing process.

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Walking in the Giant’s Footsteps

After finishing up in Belfast, we immediately drove up to the Antrim Coast to visit the Giant’s Causeway. The Giant’s Causeway is a stretch of coastline in Northern Ireland that is full of hexagonal pillars sticking out of the earth at various lengths. According to geologists, the Giant’s Causeway was formed more than 60 million years ago from volcanic eruptions. The more interesting theory on how it was formed is the local legend that a giant Ulster warrior named Finn MacCool built a stone bridge to go spy on a rival giant in Scotland. Finn was alarmed at the size of his rival, who was much bigger. Finn’s wife dressed him as a baby right before the Scottish giant came over to spy on Finn. The Scottish giant fled back to Scotland, as he was shocked by the baby’s size and became fearful as to the size of the baby’s parent’s. Finn then destroyed the bridge so that the other giant could not return. The benches along the main pathway from the visitor’s center have images depicting parts of this legend. Apparently this is the windiest place in all of Ireland, and after having been there, I can believe it! There were wind gusts hard enough to knock people over! Despite the wind, it was quite enjoyable taking in the quintessentially beautiful Irish landscape.

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My Heart Will Go On

We spent a couple of hours at Titanic Belfast, “The World’s Largest Titanic Visitor Experience.” I am a bit of a Titanerac, so I had really been looking forward to this! Titanic Belfast is located right on the old Harland and Wolff dry dock where Titanic was built. Two enormous Harland and Wolff cranes, nicknamed Samson and Goliath, are located across the street. The Titanic Belfast is a very modern building, only a couple of years old. The outside corners are meant to look like bows of ships from the golden age of shipbuilding in Belfast. It is also said that the building resembles a star from a bird’s eye view, which represents Titanic’s owner, the White Star Line. Apparently, there is a wedding venue on the top floor with views of the Irish Sea and a replica of Titanic’s grand staircase. This venue is so popular that single girls who do not even currently have boyfriends are already booking it 4 years out!

There are nine galleries that take you from the building of Titanic to its sinking and the aftermath. One of the highlights was seeing the original gates to the Harland and Wolff shipyard. Another cool feature is a gallery that surrounds you on three sides with animated screens that take you through each of Titanic’s decks. I also enjoyed a section on the discovery of the Titanic shipwreck where you stand on a glass-bottom floor and images of the shipwreck glide below you. I only wish we had had more time there. Don’t worry though: I’ll never let go, Jack!

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Blazing Through Belfast

We got an early start on Sunday morning for our drive up to Northern Ireland. We were dropped off for a coffee break near Hotel Europa in Belfast, which has the distinction of being the most bombed hotel in the world. This is where much of the media would stay when they were covering news about the Troubles, so it was a big target for the IRA to attack in order to gain more attention for their cause. We then got back on the bus for a tour of the city with a local guide.

The city tour started in West Belfast which is a sectarian, working-class area that is famous for its political murals. Our guide pointed out Divis Tower and told us about how that was a flashpoint of conflict during the Troubles. IRA members would hijack buses that they would use to block off the street near Divis Tower. They would set the buses on fire, which would draw in the British Army. The IRA would then attack the British Army troops from Divis Tower. This became such a frequent occurrence that the British Army eventually took over the top two floors of Divis Tower. Apparently the apartments in the top two floors were recently given back to the original tenants, and it is now considered a desirable place to live due to its views overlooking the city and Irish Sea.

We continued down the street and saw some of the political murals. This section contained political murals regarding issues around the world. It was interesting to see the Northern Irish adopting causes of other countries around the world. We drove down Catholic Falls Road and then onto the Protest Shankill Road. There is a prominent physical division between the two neighborhoods – the Peace Wall. I was expecting to see the Peace Wall, as I had read about it in a guidebook, but what I wasn’t expecting was to see a no-man’s land with prominent signs of urban decay separating the two neighborhoods in the area near the Peace Wall. Add this to the fact that it was a Sunday when all of the shops and restaurants were closed and everyone was in church, and there was somewhat of an eerie vibe. It was quite noticeable that, despite the peace, differences remain on both sides of the wall. One side flies the Union Jack, while the other side flies the flag of the Republic of Ireland. The murals on one side feature Unionist themes, while the murals on the other side put the spotlight on IRA heroes like hunger striker Bobby Sands. We had the opportunity to sign the Peace Wall. Our guide told us that a section of the Peace Wall has been there longer than the Berlin Wall was in place. Hopefully this wall will come down as well one day.

Our tour continued on through Central Belfast and then over to the Titanic Quarter. We saw the outside of the building for Titanic Studios which is apparently where the indoor scenes from Game of Thrones are filmed. Finally, we were dropped off at one of the sights I had been looking forward to most – Titanic Belfast!

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From the Emerald City to the Emerald Isle

I arrived in Dublin on Saturday afternoon and took a taxi to the hotel. After a brief rest in my room, I headed for a walk along O’Connell Street, one of the main streets in Dublin and only one block from the hotel. I looked at the monuments and did a bit of shopping, but I had less than two hours before the kickoff meeting for my travel group so I didn’t go to any of the major attractions. I picked up some information in the tourist information office so that I can figure out what I want to do in Dublin when we return at the end of the tour.

After checking in with the tour manager, there was a short mingling session in the hotel bar before dinner. We went for a walk to the Temple Bar area after dinner. Our tour guide pointed out the noteworthy buildings and monuments along the way and gave us brief history lessons about each of these. Most people stayed out at one of the pubs in Temple Bar, a trendy area full of pubs, restaurants, and caf├ęs, but I headed back to the hotel with a couple of Australians as I was extremely jet lagged and wanted to get some sleep.

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Outdoors in Oman

For our last day in Oman, we booked an outdoor excursion so that we could see what was outside the city of Muscat. We were driven a couple of hours to a place called Wadi Shab, which was sort of like an oasis at the bottom of a canyon. We walked around for a while and took some photos of the rugged terrain. Next we made a brief stop at Wadi Tiwi. Normally people go swimming here on the tour, but neither Laura or I were interested in doing that. On the way to Wadi Tiwi, we drove through what is probably the smallest and least developed village I have ever seen. There were lots of wild goats running around, and some of the streets were so narrow that a single car could barely pass through! Our tour guide told us, half jokingly, that there are more goats than people in this village. You couldn’t help but to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, good or bad.

Next we went to a beach on the Gulf of Oman, which was beautiful and completely deserted. Our tour guide told us that sometimes sea turtles come ashore here to lay eggs. We didn’t see any turtles there, but he told us that he would take us to another spot on the coast where you can sometimes see sea turtles. Despite our best viewing efforts, no turtles were to be seen. However, we did have an up-close encounter with a couple of the wild goats!

After that, our tour guide drove us to a park along the coast that contains the Bimmah sinkhole. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was told we were going to see a sinkhole, but it is enormous! It’s about 30 meters deep and has a pool of emerald green water at the bottom of its limestone walls. There is a staircase that leads down to the bottom, but we didn’t really have time to explore because we were just there for a 30 minute lunch break. Our tour guide had brought box lunches for us, but we were terrified to eat them due to our fears of getting food poisoning. We had a couple of the items but threw the rest away. Thankfully our tour guide was waiting for us in the parking area so we didn’t offend him by throwing away so much food. It was funny because our lunch boxes contained apples from Washington State! It really is a small world.

Our tour guide dropped us off at the hotel and we took a nap before having dinner and heading out to the Muscat City festival. It was a type of heritage festival with vendors and food stands. We saw a music/lights/fireworks production that was of surprisingly high quality. We took a taxi back to the hotel to prepare for our long journey home very early the next morning. Our flight was at 4:55 AM, so we ended up just staying awake all night packing.

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Mad Dash through Muscat

We had a pre-dawn departure from our hotel to the airport on Wednesday, January 22nd for our flight to Oman. Oman was an optional add-on, and there were only two other travelers continuing on with us. To be honest, the only thing I knew about Oman before we booked this trip was its location on the map. Surprisingly, this seemed to be one more thing than most of the other travelers knew, as most of them seemed to think it was “another Emirate” and not an independent country! I figured I may as well see it while I was in the area.

The boarding process was rather lengthy and included a bus ride to the airplane. Once on the plane, we watched in amusement/mild frustration as people on the next bus tried to find their seats. It seemed as if every passenger needed help finding his or her seat. I still don’t understand how people couldn’t decipher the simple number and letter system to find their seats! All in all, the preflight process was longer than the actual flight itself, which was less than one hour. The crazy thing was that they served a full breakfast even though the flight was so short!

Once we arrived at the airport in Muscat (the capital of Oman as well as its largest city), we got in line at the money exchange counter to buy our tourist visas. I had read to do this online before leaving the US, but it still seemed strange and unofficial. When we got to the front of the line, we were about to pay for our visas when an airport official showed us our names on a sheet of paper and asked if we were those people. He told us we didn’t need to buy a visa and ushered us to the immigration line. I’m still not sure why we didn’t need to buy a visa, but I think it had to do with us coming from the UAE and/or the fact that our stay was going to be less than 48 hours. The airport worker led us over to our tour guide, and after getting our luggage, we all hopped into the mini-bus to begin our tour of the city.

Our first stop was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Unfortunately, we were not able to go inside as it was nearing the end of the time when visitors are allowed in the morning (8-11 AM, except for Fridays). Even so, I was quite impressed by the impeccably maintained grounds which featured well-manicured flower beds and palm trees. I did not expect a small city like Muscat to have such an impressive mosque. Apparently it contains one of the world’s largest hand-woven carpets. We had a nice stroll around the grounds and took some photos. It was a very tranquil setting, as there were not many other people around.

Next we went to the Muttrah Souk which is located near one of the harbors on the Gulf of Oman. We could see the Sultan’s giant yacht, the Al-Said, one of the largest yachts in the world, floating in the harbor. This was our first stop in a busy area, so I was now able to get a better feel for what the area was like. It was a much more laid-back vibe than in Dubai. The shop owners in the souk were all friendly, but still very pushy. This made it uncomfortable to do any browsing as that would just prompt a slew of unrelenting sales pitches. Our tour guide told us that there are very strict rules for the shop owners in the souks in Oman. Apparently, in some other countries like Morocco, the shop owners are even more aggressive and will physically pull people into their shop. This is illegal in Oman and can result in the shop owner getting his license revoked. In any case, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t do any shopping there since I was barely able to close my suitcase by this point!

Our next stop was the Bait Al Zubair Museum, a cultural heritage museum which has displays on things like the Omani traditional dress and daggers. After the museum, we went to Al Alam Palace and took some photos outside. Even though the Sultan does not live there (apparently it is primarily used for state functions), visitors are not allowed inside.

Finally we were taken to our hotel, which was surprisingly nicer than our hotel in Dubai. We had free time, and since we had already seen most of the attractions in Muscat already, we booked an outdoor excursion for the next day through our tour guide. Being that it was last minute and they were already booked up, we ended up having to do a private tour with just the two of us. It was kind of expensive, and we had to pay in cash. I had only brought enough Omani rial for a couple of day’s worth of incidental expenses. I didn’t want to use all of my rial and incur some insane ATM fee, so I paid in a mishmash of leftover UAE dirhams and good ol’ US dollars. I learned that the banks in Oman only accept dollars printed in 2004 or later as I watched our tour guide carefully inspect each dollar bill with great suspicion.

After resting for a bit in our hotel room, we decided to check out one of the shopping malls and have dinner there. Being that there is no public transportation system in Oman aside from a limited bus route, we needed to take a taxi. I had read online before our trip that Muscat had implemented metered taxis a couple of years ago, but we found out that was not the case. Instead, you have to negotiate a price with driver. I was not a fan of the system, but everything worked out okay in the end. The mall, which is their largest, was the size of an average mall in the US and a far cry from the malls we had just experienced in Dubai. We ate dinner at a burger place in the mall, mostly because it seemed like the option least likely to give us food poisoning. My travel doctor gave me a packet of information before I departed saying that food poisoning was possible in the UAE but was probable in Oman. There were specific foods we were supposed to avoid like fresh fruit, but at this point I probably would have eaten anything since the last thing I had was yogurt on the plane in the morning! I was completely exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel and fell asleep almost immediately.

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The Dubai Fountain

After we finished our tour of the Burj Khalifa, we did a little more shopping in Dubai Mall and then had dinner at Mario Batali’s Eataly. After dinner, we went to see the Dubai Fountain which is located in a man-made lake adjacent to Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Fountain is the world’s largest choreographed fountain. It is similar to the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, as it was designed by the same company. The fountains light up and “dance” to music. I was shocked by the number of people waiting outside for the show to start, especially since it happens every 30 minutes in the evening. It was definitely an impressive show, one worthy of its larger-than-life neighbors.

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The Burj Khalifa

We had purchased tickets for the Burj Khalifa for 3PM on Tuesday in advance. This was one of the attractions that I was the most excited to visit. The Burj Khalifa currently holds many records, such as the tallest building in the world, the tallest free-standing structure in the world, and the world’s longest travel distance elevators.

Ironically, the observation deck, which is not at the top of the building, is called “At the Top.” It’s located on the 124th floor (452 meters up), out of 163 floors (829 meters). Even though this is the tallest structure ever built as well as the tallest current structure, the observation deck is actually the second tallest in the world, behind the Canton Tower in China. So, we managed to be At the Top without actually being at the top of anything at all!

The line for the elevators was a bit long, but not terrible and seemed to move along at a decent pace. I was really impressed with the elevators. They are incredibly fast at 10 meters per second. Not only that, but the ride was so smooth that, by the time I even noticed we were moving, we were several floors up already.

The view from the observation deck was unreal. We were so high up in the air that the entire city almost looked like a scale model! My only complaint is that the only amenity on the observation deck was a small souvenir shop. It would have been nice to have a cafe or restaurant there.

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Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo

There is an aquarium inside Dubai Mall that features what is supposed to be the largest viewing panel in the world. It’s full of lots of different creatures, including more sharks and stingrays than I have ever seen in one place. There is a tunnel of sorts that allows you to walk through and underneath the aquarium which was pretty cool. We bought the admission tickets that include a glass-bottom boat ride over the aquarium. This turned out to be kind of a silly activity in which the guide used a series of ropes to pull our boat around the surface of the aquarium. We also got to see more penguins. Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet them like the ones at Ski Dubai.

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