Two Cats and a Dog

Condensation trickles down the outside of my un-Muslim drink and pools where the glass meets the table.  The drink is a temperature perfect for a desert evening, even if it’s not authentically Omani.  Late to bed gulls fly in military formation across the pale horizon.  Gentle sea songs drift up from the beach as waves rush and retreat.  Fishing boats drift, black shadow puppets, beyond the wave breaks. People, possibly fishermen, standing in knee deep water tend to the ropes the hold the boats firm to the shore.  The boats are wooden and timeless. On how many evenings has such a scene played out?  A long day of lows and highs winds towards its end.  It feels a long way from home and a short way from sleep.  But as ever, the anticipation is supplanted by adrenaline of surprise.

Out of the corner of my eye I notice something, a shape, flicker through the pale glow thrown from the lights that stud the grass and hedges.  I assume that it’s a bat, drawn to the insects that are themselves drawn to the light.  But then the shape lands on the grass and morphs into an indistinct brown lump. This does not seem to be bat-like behaviour.  A few seconds later the lump launches itself into the air, it looks like a handkerchief being picked from the floor by fussy fingers that pinch at the very middle of the cloth.  Briefly the now flying lump takes on a cone shape and disappears into the darkness.  I have no idea what I have just seen. The shape returns to circle the light and land once more lands with a flop on the grass.  This time it lands near enough for me to see it.  It’s not a bat, it’s a bird.  It’s nightjar. To say I’m surprised is an understatement.  Mentally I check the number of un-Muslim drinks I’ve had and I find I’m still in the zone of believable observation.  Photography is almost impossible – I can tell it’s a nightjar, probably a European Nightjar, but that’s about it.  For the second time in a day my work mates look at me as if I am a madman.  The adrenaline rush fades, the shore sounds wash over me and sleep beckons.  In the lift I am smiling like a lunatic, and now complete strangers are looking at me like I’m a madman too.  I don’t try to explain – that would only compound the issue.  Sleep in an empty bed comes easier than normal.

Morning light.  Startling hard brightness at the curtains edge. Air-conditioned eyes, sandy dry, slowly recover their function with a splash of water.  A drought-breaking sip unglues my tongue from the roof of my mouth.  Parrots call me to go outside. It’s a work day – but not yet – so I don’t resist the call. 

House crows, silky grey and black, hop around the hotel tables looking for last night’s scraps.  A small army of people, none of whom look like Omanis, try to sweep away the same scraps with wide headed brooms.  It’s a battle between the sharp eyed and the well armed.  A bird sits on a post with a chunk of bread; it has the look of victory about it. It’s chased loudly away from sight by others of the same species. The hotel sits above a small bay where a dry riverbed flows down to the sea.  More crows walk up and down the sand in rhythm to the waves.  Overhead a pair of ospreys drift in the light sea breezes, looking for fish, holding wing tips just so to grip the wind enough to fly in perfect looking circles.  It’s a world bird that you can see almost everywhere; a token of the connectedness of the air and the ocean.  They find a thermal and soar and soar and soar until they are just a speck, just a mote in the eye of an observer drawn to the movement and colour.  I blink and they disappear, too distant, too high. 

Behind me a glass shatters on the unyielding stone floor.  The crows, more sensitive to this than I expected, flush upwards and call to each other, maybe in warning of a threat that never comes, maybe simply in alarm.  A cormorant flies low and heavy over the sea.  A morning like this feels like a gift in compensation for the parts of yesterday that were all graft.  It’s a morning for deep breaths and long silence.  But like it or not, it’s also a work morning.  I turn and walk back towards the hotel.  Broken glass is being swept into a dustpan with a boom that seems to be too long for the task in hand.  House sparrows and myna birds try to join me for breakfast, but I’m saving the seats for other people.  They squabble and seek board and a lodging at another table where a crumb throwing American provides the accommodation it was refused elsewhere.  The light grows harder by the minute.  The shadows grow sharper.  By the time I leave the table the light has become brisk and businesslike. My focus shifts. 

Out past the airport half finished buildings have been scattered, seemingly haphazard, on dusty blocks.  Each one has a dragon’s teeth of steel reinforcement rods along their upper and outer edges, simultaneously defying invaders and awaiting extension.  Behind the building blocks the dragon’s scales lie ruffled as dry hill ridges step back into the distance.  All we need is fire and a golden unblinking eye and the beast would be complete.  The Sun suffices. What plants there are take on a dusty dun green hue, the same colour as old military gear, like the webbing I acquired as a kid, the ghosts of 1945. 

Movement stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.  A cluster – maybe even a covey – of partridge like birds feed by the roadside.  They scatter, some flying, some running, at the approach of a man in his standard issue blue boiler suit.  Further investigation shows them to be Grey Francolin, a bird I have never heard of before.  Later, in the dust between the sea and a modern road, I see more of these birds.  They have the rapid flight rather than fight response of all birds that would form a tasty meal.  When they see me they flee with a rapid weaving path that probably evolved to avoid and confuse predators, but now works well as a way to avoid bullets or shot.

Outside the gates of the University an Indian Roller sits atop a road sign.  Although unrelated, it reminds me of a Kookaburra, with its solid frame and abundant colours.  I see it for long enough to know what it is, but no more. As we are waved through the front gates I can’t help but wish for just a small delay to allow me a better look at this bird.  But things don’t generally work like that; you get delays when you are in a hurry and pass swiftly when you would rather tarry. The university buildings are classically Omani, traditional and modern.  Eye popping white walls and delicate small details.  We are greeted by warm smiles, traditional dress and, disappointingly, instant coffee.  I feel foreign (which of course I am) in my shirt and trousers.  I wonder why some academics think the sandals and socks, matched with a 1000-year-old leather jacket are a good look.  Such things distract me.  I drain the last of my coffee and focus on the task at hand.

Room changes, missing PowerPoints, broken power points, everyday hassles that raise the blood pressure, but don’t really signify anything worth worrying about. The day passes, productive, strange and welcome.  Sparrows gather in the underroof shade, squabble over crumbs, flutter in the dusty garden beds.  We pass “Ladies Only” walkways that cry out for “Danger Women Crossing” signs.  The classrooms have front and back doors – the back opening to these segregated zones.  I find this out when I leave through the wrong door.  A young woman laughs at my blunder, an incandescent smile.  “We will forgive you, you are not from here”.  She is not wrong.

That evening we head off to the souk – the old market that sells trinkets, spice, scarfs and rimless hats.  It’s all corners and curves and beseeching shop owners offering the finest quality and the lowest prices. The stone floor is slick polished by time and a million feet.  In small dark alleys between the shops heavily carved doors – with double sliding locks – suggest that another place exists behind the fa├žade. As a visitor you can scratch the surface, but you rarely get to see the next layer.  Like the veil so many of women wear, the tourist sheen acts as a barrier to understanding – and no, for the last time, I do not want an Omani hat, regardless of its quality.

Down at the waterfront red legged feeder crabs side walk to shrinking sunny spots.  Legs wave and claws snap, the large displace the medium, the medium displace the small and the small suffer. Crag rocks, oyster pocked and sharp, slice and foam the incoming waves.  A rat, fleet footed, well fed, explores the tunnels within the tumbled rock wall.  Tail drips, whisker flicks.  An eye for a meal, a nose for a found bargain.

The red marble sea wall, the perfect leaning point, is fresh-toast warm to the touch. Fish, some large, some small, dart between the unseen food scraps.  Larger flecks and flakes of bread, thrown by day’s end fishermen, attract much attention.  Small red floats bob in the waves, the hook hiding bread they hold ignored.  Bait ignoring shoals of silver flicker in the last rays of the sun.  On the water the sultan’s yacht sits next to a golden cast wooden boat.  The yacht – at $1 million a foot we are reliably told – stretches on for foot after foot, million after million. Cranes stab upwards in back ground, linking land, sea and air.  Wealth by right and wealth by industry.  The fishermen keep fishing.  The fish keep swimming.

On a cliff behind the coast a fort of rough chopped pink stone sits, waiting, watching; facing the sea, facing its foes.  It seems to have traded thirst for security.  An evening sea breeze moves a large flag with sharp, rifle cracks; the ghost of something that may have never happened.  The sea sips at the edge of the land, the sun sinks below the wrapping hills. There is a sudden falling of night.

I see the Francolin the next day, but the Roller has left its sentinel post.  Our presentation goes well.  Most of the audience must have turned up to listen to somebody else. There can really be no other explanation. There are no curly questions.  The men leave through the front door, the women the back.  I feel the tension of protest and politeness.  I choose politeness.

An evening walk ends the day.  A nature reserve runs along one side of the road, although a fence and warning notices prevent access.  Birds call in the dense undergrowth, fish top in the creeks and backwaters that dash off into the trees, herons stand with infinite patience waiting for the scales to tip in their favour.  On the barbed wire fence Green Bee-eaters hunt for evening insects.  A bird that is sharp at each end, with fine bill and tail they dash outwards and return again and again to the same spot.  Return that is until I move too close and then they move away.  I watch and watch in the dimming light of evening.  As I watch, a cat walks across the dust behind the fence and stops to watch us.  It seems sleek and healthy. The bee-eaters move further away.  I realise this is the first cat I have seen all week.  Ten minutes later I see another, down by some fishing boats pulled up on a muddy bank.  I have never seen a hungry cat by a fishing boat, and this one is no exception. 

The next day I see my first Omani dog – it looks thin and hungry.  It lies motionless on a doorstep.  I know why I prefer cats.  We fly back towards Dubai, along the coast; over two well fed cats and one sickly dog.  This time my bag manages to keep up with me.  I’ve only seen a tiny part of Oman.  I as I leave I know I want to come back; I can hear the bee-eaters calling.

A dream comes true.






The flight attendant sounds as bored as I feel.  My legs don’t feel at all, although, bizarrely, my feet ache.  You know it’s a long flight when breaking the “four hours to go” barrier feels like an achievement.  The engines drone. The pages of a book flick over, their contents read but immediately forgotten, a process that passes time but brings no enjoyment or understanding.  It reminds me of RE at school.  For some reason I stifle a yawn.  Three hours and fifty-eight minutes to go.  Sleep. Film. Angry Birds. Read. Dubai! (Brief relief) Hurried transfer. Muscat, Oman. Ah – a shower beckons.  No Bags. A shower recedes.  Relief recedes.  Stress gives me an energy hit to counteract the lack of sleep.
After twenty minutes of fruitless searching I give up and come to the fogged brain conclusion that my bag is taking an extended break in Dubai, while I, smelly from too long in the air, have moved on to Muscat.  I’m given a pale printed lost baggage receipt and a promise that the bag will arrive soon.  I treat the first like gold dust and the second with scepticism.   The taxi feels surprisingly spacious with so few bags.  My companions resist making the obvious joke, so I make it for them.  We all fall silent as the taxi pushes past 140 kmh and flirts with 150. The engine and gear box squeal in protest.  I try to ignore the constant beeping of a speed alarm.   It’s difficult.

The airport is ring fenced with building sites, new roads and bridges linking apparently empty sand to almost identical pieces of empty sand.  Later I learn this is all part of the Sultan’s response to Oman’s brief Arab Spring.  “We want jobs!” was the demand and “Infrastructure” was the response. Vast piles of sand dot the worksites, compacted berms of pale dust pushed by the bright yellow engines of industry. My memory flashes to childhood sand pits and Matchbox diggers. There are few plants, fewer rivers and next to no shade.  Wide drains seem to speak of days of weather I can’t imagine.  Behind the JCB dust clouds, lines of hills – mountains maybe – flow along next to the coast.  Muscat is a city hemmed by hills and waves – long, but thin. The soil, even the rock, looks open, dry and thirsty.  The hills could drink all the water in the world and still ask for more.  Yet closer to town many of the roads are flanked by strips of luminous green.  Grass coaxed from the ground with hand held water pipes and the detailed care of people in blue boiler suits.  This seems like a denial of nature, but with near limitless money I suppose you can ignore the need to be real. For today at least this may be possible, but I have to wonder about tomorrow or the next day.

It’s clear from the outset that Muscat is not Dubai.  Dubai is all thrust and mismatch, pale needle thin spires that reach ever upwards, great slabs of glass shaped like boats squeezed between pillars of steel.  It’s Blade Runner, with sunlight, no rain and (as far as I am aware) no killer replicants.  Muscat sits at both a lower and a higher level than Dubai.  Physically all its buildings are much, much lower.  Some form of legislation is in place that restricts the height of new buildings; nothing (with one possible exception) towers over you, although that does not mean the buildings are not impressive.  The buildings in Muscat seem to share a common architectural language that is missing in Dubai.  They may be low to the ground, but they have a far higher degree of connection. Dubai’s buildings are all “look at me” sort of things; they hold the eye by sheer force of individual difference and eccentricity.  Muscat’s buildings have a more collective appeal.  The conformity highlights rather than hides the differences, and the building to building continuity grounds the whole townscape in a single space.  It takes far more care to create differences when the starting point is always the same. For all the modern freeways being built, Muscat feels gentle, although I doubt the builders and gardeners in their all encompassing blue boiler suits would necessarily agree. 

We drive along the coast for a while and pale, white gulls float on the sea breezes. Flocks of waders bubble up from the water’s edge.  I wonder what species they are and think about my guide book.  It’s in my bag.  It’s still in Dubai.  Two-tone crows, black and silky grey, pick at beach wash and hang around the hotel car park in loose, talkative, groups.  Long tailed parrots, with rapid, blurring wing beats, land on window ledges and roof racks. Swallows flicker through the shade of the hotel entrance.  In the distance a large bird of prey swings round and round and round, soaring in a column of hot air rising into the cloudless blue sky.  

My bags as still on holiday as I shuffle into the back seat of another taxi.  Even with the limited self awareness of jet lag I know I need some new clothes.  It may have been better if I had sat in the front seat.  Trying to register for the conference turns out to be a waste of time: the information in the programme is as wrong as wrong can be.  Wrong place, wrong time, just plain wrong.  My sense of humour is stretched very, very thin.  And then something happens that bursts through the sense of gloom. 

Outside the hotel are hibiscus bushes, bright red flowers and dense shiny leaves.  But that’s not it.  It’s what’s under the bush that pushes away the grey gloom.  It’s a hoopoe.  The main body of the bird is an orange hued pink, the wings barred with black and white stripes, its bill sharply downturned.  The rarely raised crest points back from the crown of the head like a comic blur of motion.  It’s a lifer for me, but that’s not the point.  The real point is that this is a bird I have wanted to see for the best part of 40 years.  And here it is, in a hotel car park, under the punch bright sun of an Arabian sky.  It’s a long way from Somerset.  As a kid I would look at the few bird books I had then – The Observer’s Book of Birds and the Eye-spy Book of Birds – and wonder if birds like the Hoopoe were real, or whether they were just figments of ornithological imagination.  How could they be real when most of the birds I saw were sparrows, blackbirds and pigeons?  I would go out into the fields around my village with the hope that I would return with a prize catch, but it never happened.  I may as well have looked for the Phoenix or the Roc as a Hoopoe.  They were the kind of never bird that made you keep looking.  Even when birds were on the back-burner and I fished I didn’t forget what a hoopoe looked like – and the flash of a kingfisher or the chess board bob of a dipper kept birds alive in my head.  But I never saw a hoopoe.  Until there was one under the bushes, by a busy road in Oman.  Clearly it’s a distinctive bird, but there was never any possibility that the bird in the bush was anything but a hoopoe. There was an instant rush of recognition and that strange and rare feeling of a wish come true.  Seeing this bird won’t change the course of my life – it’s not that kind of wish – but it reinforces the truth that sometimes, under special and remarkable conditions, wishes can come true.

The hoopoe cooperated enough (just) to allow for some pictures before it floated off into the distance, through the traffic, on short rounded wings.  I tried to explain to my work mates why this was a red letter day, why this would be a day to scribble a big star in my diary, but while they seemed to understand each individual word I was saying,  I was talking another language.  You either know why this is important or you don’t.  If you do understand you are probably already a birder, and if you don’t understand I feel sorry for you.

In the late afternoon my bag arrived and I’d be lying if I said that did not rank almost as highly as the hoopoe.  That evening I watched the sun set over the long bay of Muscat.  The sky and the sea turned gold as the sun sank behind a jagged line of clouds.  It hung like a broken orange segment slowly slipping behind the curve of the Earth.  The short dusk wrapped us quickly in darkness.  It was day’s end, and I had many reasons to smile.