How low can you go?

Our thrifty travel challenge set two writers the task of going on a last-minute weekend getaway for just Dh1,000. Could they do it?

It was a simple challenge: a weekend holiday, outside the UAE, for around Dh1,000. The budget had to include the flight, travel to the airport, accommodation, eating, drinking, sightseeing, gift shopping - the whole lot. In the age of cheap flights this should be easy, or so I thought. The internet was obviously the place to start and several airlines offer budget flights out of the UAE. Flights on Bahrain Air and Jazeera Airways are usually good value but, this time, Air Arabia's website had the best offers. After several hours of scouring each carrier's website, however, the hope of finding an exotic location began to fade. East Africa was out of the question; so was the Mediterranean. Even Lebanon and Syria would have meant blowing the entire budget on just the flight. At around Dh500 to Dh700 for a return flight, Kuwait City, Manama, Doha were in the running, as well as a couple of cities in Saudi Arabia. Yet even if staying in the Gulf was desirable, surely the hotel prices, aimed at high-rolling business travellers, would swiftly wipe out the rest of the budget? Khartoum, Sudan's capital, sounded like a bargain at Dh850 return. Muscat and Sana'a were also possibilities (Dh560 and Dh732 return, respectively), but one option stood out - Cochin. Only a three-hour flight over the Arabian Sea, the commercial centre of Kerala would be at its most temperate at this time of year. At Dh806 for a return ticket, it was not the cheapest fare, but India's rock-bottom prices for everything else would help. Travelling with a companion would also bring the price down, as it meant that I could split the cost of hotel rooms and taxi rides. This is going to be easy after all, I thought.

However, the mild euphoria I felt after reading the words "your booking has been completed" quickly evaporated on reading the following: "please contact the Indian embassy to enquire about obtaining a visa for entry." At Dh160 for a tourist visa, the budget would be almost exceeded. The fear of failure was growing. Margins had to be slashed. Although Air Arabia offers a very reasonable Dh80 return bus trip to Sharjah Airport from Abu Dhabi, it had to be rejected in favour of a free lift from a friend. I saved a further Dh40 by opting not to reserve seats on the plane and about Dh20 by packing a sandwich - in-flight meals are not included on Air Arabia. Arriving just before sunset, Cochin Airport thronged with UAE-based Indian expats making the trip home. Our ultimate destination was Fort Cochin, the colonial old-town area of the city. India's ubiquitous Ambassador taxis are the preferred means of transport into the city-centre for most travellers, but at Dh50 for an hour-long journey, the budget would not allow it. A cheaper and more exciting way to see the gaggle of islands, peninsulas and bridges linking the city together is by rickshaw. As day turned to night, the chaos of India's roads, where cows and bicycles face down giant water tankers, became apparent. An open-sided rickshaw may not be the safest way of getting around, but they offer the most honest introduction to India. After a little bargaining, I agreed a price of Dh28 with the driver. After arriving in Fort Cochin's Princess Street - ground zero for backpackers - finding a place to stay was easy. Although the most popular guesthouses need to be booked in advance book from October to March, there are still a multitude of places that will accommodate last-minute travellers, at any hour. At the top end are the more luxurious Walton's Homestay and Raintree Lodge that cost from Dh125 to Dh145 per night for a double room. But my budget takes us two minutes' walk away, to the Sea Shore Residency on Petercelli Street. The mattresses are thin and the hot water comes out of all the right places except for the shower head - but it is certainly not a fleapit. Its staff are friendly and happy to negotiate on price - Dh21 per night, for a double room. People in Kerala enjoy higher living standards, levels of literacy and better public services than many of their Indian brothers and sisters. Most Keralites put this down to having the world's first democratically elected communist government, that has ruled the state for much of the last 50 years. Although it has the feel of a developing nation, the hordes of beggars that are common in much of India are absent from Fort Cochin. In fact, you would probably be asked for change more often wondering the streets of New York, than here. The city is not without its excitement and thankfully the historic old town is full of things to do for free. We walked from Princess Street to Mattancherry (also know as Jew Town), before turning down Bazaar Road and spending several hours enjoying a short coastal walk. The beautifully tiled roofs and wooden shutters on many of the street's crumbling cottages are colourful pointers to the region's history. The street is perhaps the best example of the city's colonial influences, and features Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture. Bazaar Road is home to several art galleries and most are free to enter. They range from minimal white-walled galleries, showcasing pieces by famous Indian artists, to dusty loft-spaces, selling antiques alongside paintings. Anyone searching for an original wind-up gramophone, a 1940s typewriter or a politically incorrect piggybank (a leftover from the British Raj) need look no further.

Mattancherry once had one of India's largest Jewish populations who, it is believed, arrived during the time of King Solomon. Although most have now emigrated to Israel, it is still home to Kerala's last functioning synagogue. Unfortunately for weekend visitors, Paradesi Synagogue is closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Fort Cochin's best-known tourist attraction is its Chinese fishing nets, a vestige of its past trading with the Far East. Using large rocks as counterweights, the giant wooden claws require four men to operate each one, as they gracefully rise up and dip back into the water from the shoreline. The spectacle is free to watch, but enjoying a fruit juice on the shore at sunset for Dh2, while the fishermen bring in their catch, is highly recommended. Due to its popularity with tourists, finding authentic South Indian food in Fort Cochin can be tricky but locals are more than happy to direct tourists to one of the many local cafes which serve fresh vegetable curries, along with samosas, poppadoms and rice cakes. The local delicacy is fish curry, and Talk Of The Town, a restaurant on KB Jacob Road, cooks up an impressive one, although it's rather expensive at Dh13. Simple vegetables curries are about a third of the price from most eateries. Visitors should also experience the dosa - the batter pancake is made from fermented rice and black lentils and eaten by Keralites for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Although it stretched the budget a little, we discovered that Cochin is also world famous for its Kathakali dancing shows. The Keralan art form, which is set to traditional drumming, requires heavily made-up actors to train for decades before being considered professionals in their field. Although it may seem faintly ridiculous at first, the melodramatic story lines and often extremely gory finales are hugely entertaining, and a bargain at Dh14 per person for a two-hour show. By now we had slightly exceeded the modest Dh1,000 budget but the list of cheap activities left to do was still long - and proved too tempting. Would sitting in the guesthouse on the final morning, instead of spending Dh28 on a four-hour river tour, really be a saving? In the end, a slow meander along Kerala's backwaters, surrounded by lush vegetation and fishermen at work, completed our trip. The houseboat's canopy proved to be effective protection from the sun and the journey was not short of fascinating distractions. As well as eagles and other bird life, the waters are enjoyed by local children splashing about, and others collecting mud to build houses on the banks. Complete with a personal oarsman and a traditional lunch served on a banana leaf, the boat trip - even though it was comparatively expensive - was the best bargain of the weekend.

"Tax-free flights Dh129!" read the Jazeera Airways advertisement. At these prices, the budget of Dh1,000 for a weekend away was going to be a breeze. Excitedly, I read through the airline's list of destinations: Sudan, Turkey, India, Egypt... Then, of course, came the inevitable reality-check. Not only were the flights one-way, but the offer was for one day only: I had missed the boat. Undeterred, I pressed on - convinced that there are real bargains out there if you're quick off the mark. Having rejected a very cheap weekend in Khartoum, Sudan, because of question marks about obtaining a tourist visa, I settled on Muscat, a destination that had always enticed me. With flights with Air Arabia going for only Dh570 return, the challenge appeared to be there for the taking. But could I really survive a weekend in this notoriously expensive city for Dh1,000, with flights, accommodation, food and entertainment all thrown in? Could I ignore the city's luxury hotels and get back to basics? Of course, I could. After booking the flight I logged onto, a networking site for freeloading travellers that lists hundreds of thousands of friendly people all over the world offering free accommodation to like-minded pilgrims. When I typed in Muscat, 16 profiles popped up. Top of the list was Vincent van der Zee, a 48-year old South African. The reviews about his hospitality from previous couchsurfers were all very positive, and better still, he had not only a sofa but an inflatable mattress. I emailed him begging to stay for two nights the following weekend. A cheerful reply came back, saying that I would be welcome, and giving directions to his flat in the Al Khuwair district of the city. All I needed to bring was a sleeping bag, he said.

After landing in Muscat on a Thursday evening, I paid OR3 (Dh30) for a tourist visa and stepped straight into a taxi for the set price of OR7 (Dh70). Then I confronted my first problem: finding Vincent's flat. It's all very well arriving in a foreign city if you're staying in a hotel; it's not so easy to find a stranger's apartment. We twirled around Al Khuwair for half an hour before I gave in and called my host. Vincent kindly came to pick me up from a nearby mosque in his rickety 29-year old Land Rover Defender before driving me for a late supper to one of his favourite Indian restaurants, Venus, that proved to be as cheap as he had promised. We ate excellent curry, rice and piles of naan bread for just under OR4 (Dh40), while he talked about his teaching work at a college in the city and previous couchsurfing experiences in Ireland and Scotland. "I would always choose to couchsurf over staying in a hotel now," he said encouragingly, before driving me to his apartment above a juice shop in a remote building on the edge of Al Khuwair. A three-legged dog called Dog leapt at me upon arrival. Vincent laid out the inflatable mattress in his office before bidding me goodnight. I set out early the next morning, having deduced that the trick of travelling on a budget was to stick to a set plan: dallying from one place to the next without a timetable could result in wasted taxi money, especially in Muscat where cabs are the only way to move around and can be expensive because they come without a meter. One trip from Vincent's apartment to the port or the souq could set me back OR5 (Dh50). Instead, I decided to negotiate a day rate with a taxi driver. An Omani called Kamish eventually agreed to OR15 (Dh150) for several hours around the city, which proved well worth the cost. My first stop was the fish market in the port of Matrah. There I wandered stall after stall of Omani men selling vast king fish, tuna, sardines and baby sharks. I watched one fisherman dole out a bag of prawns to a couple; after taking their money, he removed his embroidered Omani hat and tucked the notes neatly into the lining. Outside, I stood with a coffee costing only 300 baisas (Dh3) watching boatmen on the shore fingering their nets and removing the odd fish that was trapped. This last was marvellous - and free - entertainment.

From there I went to Sultan Qaboos's palace in the nearby area of Old Muscat, which you can photograph from outside but not visit. It's tucked behind two forts, Al Mirani and Al Jalali, neither of which are open either, though they are decent examples of the fortresses that dot the rocky headland - the legacy of Portuguese occupation of Muscat in the 16th and early 17th centuries. After a frugal lunch of chicken schwarma for 300 baisas (Dh3) I sat watching local life go by on Matrah's Corniche. Often cited as one of the Gulf's best souks, scores of small shops offer traditional items like pashminas, frankincense and trinket boxes. Fierce selling goes on but I emerged proudly hours later just OR1 (Dh10) lighter with a small bottle of Omani rose perfume. Back in Al Khuwair, I headed out for dinner at a traditional Omani restaurant called Bin Atique. I was ushered into a small, private carpeted room with a television in the corner where I perched on a cushion and ate off a tray placed on the floor. I ordered the traditional Omani dish of harees, a glutinous porridge-like mixture of wheat and chicken with ghee. It wasn't quite to my taste, but happily a strong coffee and dates helped to wash everything down, and for OR3 (Dh30), one can hardly expect Michelin-starred fare. Exhausted, I retraced my steps to Vincent's apartment where we sat for a while discussing my day. "I have to photograph you before you leave," he then announced, rather alarmingly. He showed me arty pictures of all his previous guests, and said that we would need to leave his apartment before 7am the next morning "to catch the right light." It was with a rather sinking heart, that I was woken by a soft knocking on the door at about 6.30 the next morning. "Are you ready for your photograph?" came the South African voice. So I dressed and we drove to a nearby building site. "Wander round and find something interesting," Vincent instructed. I peered through a steel tunnel, crouched by a concrete pillar and stood with some bemused labourers holding a hard hat that Vincent found as a prop while Dog hopped around us. Then, my duty as a guest discharged, I said my goodbyes to Vincent and Dog before setting out for another day's exploration. I employed Kamish again, this time for OR7 (Dh70) because, after my early morning photoshoot, I was planning a less frenetic day. First stop was the Sultan Qaboos mosque, which is one of the biggest and utterly breathtaking. It houses the second largest handmade carpet in the world (second after Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Mosque), which took 400 women in Iran four years to make. An enormous glass chandelier hangs from the dome above you, and the walls are intricately decorated in blues, golds and turquoise colours. It was a magnificent spectacle, and, more importantly, free. Next, I headed back to Mutrah to visit the Bait Al-Baranda museum for a reasonable OR1 (Dh10) entrance fee. Situated in a wonderfully restored 1930s house, it documents the history of Oman and Muscat; the most interesting part is the ethnographical section that explains the development of the capital and surrounding areas from the 14th century onwards. I stopped briefly at Qurm public beach, a long strip of sand situated below a cliff beneath the Crowne Plaza hotel. Due to construction work, there's only one part of the beach that is suitable for sunbathing. With barbecue points dotted along the beach, a stop at the Matrah fish market before heading here armed with charcoal makes for the perfect lunch for the budget traveller. As it was, I spent a peaceful hour with a coffee and sandwich (OR4 or Dh40) in Jalapeno Cafe, one of the many new cafes springing up along the strip. On the flight back, I totted up my expenses. The grand total came to OR110, or Dh1,049. Despite having broken the budget, it was only by a measly Dh65. What nonsense about Muscat being expensive, I thought smugly. I had visited the main attractions of the city and had my first couchsurfing experience in the space of a two-day weekend, on a relatively tight budget. I wasn't terribly sad to wave goodbye to Vincent's blow-up mattress, but tough times call for tough measures. And if you happen to be looking for a cheap place in Muscat, I know just the man.

Published: March 7, 2009 04:00 AM


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