After the family reunion on Koh Samui I flew back to Bangkok for 3 days while I waited for my flight out and for more last minute dental work. And got to meet up with Tim who I knew from Couchsurfing forums and who was also waiting for his flight back to England. A lovely man!
Then I flew out to the Sultinate of Oman, a small Arab state on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by the United Arab Emerates to the northeast, by Saudi Arabia to the west and Yemen to the southwest. Off the north coast is Iran, and on the south coast is the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman. At its narrowest, the strait is 21 nautical miles (39 km) wide.
It is on the Hormuz Strait which is the body of water between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. It is the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean and is one of the world’s most strategically important choke points. About 20% of the world’s petroleum, and about 35% of the petroleum traded by sea, passes through the strait making it a highly important strategic location for international trade. (Which is why the U.S. has ships anchored there.)
Muscat is spread out for 40km along the coast. The whole metropolitan area of Muscat has about 800,000 people spread out over about 580 square miles with the rest of the population, mostly tribal, in small towns and villages in the mountains.
I was picked up at the airport by my Couchsurfing host who I stayed with for 3 days near Muscat…the capital city. She is from Australia but is in Oman teaching English. The day after I arrived, she needed to attend a meeting so she drove me to a gas station out on the highway where I could pick up a taxi to the Mutrah Souk (indoor market with winding aisles and goods galore), sit along the corniche in view of the sea and just people watch. There is a port here (there were 2 cruise ships docked here) so the locals are used to seeing tourists walking around in this part of Oman.
It was my great good luck to be in Oman during the Muscat Festival when Omani customs and practices were demonstrated and we had permission to take photos of people although some women did wave us away. At the airport, upon arrival, I was given a bag with a cup, a thumb drive, a white polo shirt, a couple promotional DVD’s concentrating on eco-tourism and a slick-backed tourist book listing the week’s festivities which included an international biking competition through the mountains.
Click on this link for a video:
Omani Tribal Ritual
I also took a tour of the city on a hop on hop off bus although Muscat is fairly uniform in color (country code (white)) so there wasn’t much to see. My knee was hurting so I didn’t stop off at the palaces and museums. Sigh. I mentioned to my host that the neighborhoods looked similar to the newer white-washed suburbs of Las Vegas! She is still probably shaking her head and telling her friends about this remark from a stupid American! LOL
After the third night with my host I moved to a hotel, the Husin Al Khaleej Hotel Apartments (a huge suite of rooms apparently for big families) for about $30US) in Seeb City Center, a coastal newish middle income section with large homes, located several kilometres northwest of Muscat City. No tourists there!
My own experience as a solo foreign woman was interesting indeed. I saw no foreigners in a week in the country other than Europeans who got off cruise ships at the port in Old Muscat. And a few young people headed into the mountains to off-road in the mountain washes. And I was the only foreigner that I saw in Seeb City. I saw only a handfull of women on the street although I did go to a mall about 20 minutes away by taxi where I saw plenty of women…all covered of course.
So where to eat. There were a few Turkish tea houses nearby with men only that opened about 4pm until about 4am. So I asked the Muslim receptionist in the hotel where I could find typical Omani food. She sent me to a restaurant with a narrow walkup to several small tiny private rooms where I sat on the floor and ate alone. I should have paid attention to this.
The next couple days I walked down from the hotel a couple blocks and found 2-3 small take-out cafes. I ordered and ate at a table on the sidewalk in front…crossing my legs and having a cigarette after. Finally (low-wage people are usually Indians) I got the feeling that the Indian waiters were uncomfortable with me there. On the third day one of them handed me a menu and told me in English to go back to my hotel and call in with an order and they would deliver it.
I noticed that hardly anyone went into these cafes either to eat or to take out. Men would drive up on the service road and honk. A waiter would run out, take the order and return with it whereupon the men would drive off…presumably to their homes or work. I also have to say that no Omani men looked at me in a lewd way. In fact they didn’t look at me directly at all and I didn’t look directly at them. But I felt very conspicuous and I found myself oddly wishing I could cover up like the local women. Even though I had been in Muslim countries before (Egypt and Morocco) in the past, I was in areas that were either inundated with foreign tourists or in big cities like Cairo. And indeed in Egypt I WAS propositioned. “30 minutes I give you banana.” Whatttt? I see no bananas. Duhhh!
What I didn’t know while in traditional Oman was that people, when they are not working, mostly stay home.
So, I was a woman…a foreign woman…dressed in (what in virtually every other country I have been in recently…even Turkey) the ubiquitous black tights and top. And I was on public display. I still want to talk to my couchsurfing host about this.
Most travelers to Oman are there for 4-wheeling in the wadis. This is from my friend Dave on his travel web site Dave’s Travel Corner. Wadi Bashing – The country of Oman is a 4 wheel drivers dream with its open deserts, cheap gas, deep steep rocky remote canyons, and large sand dunes. Muscat is the capital and is a great place to rent a 4-whd vehicle ranging from Humvees, to Pathfinders and Land Rovers. Salalah is the largest city in the south and 4-whd rentals and outdoor opportunities also surround this part of Oman. Wadi’s are everywhere in Oman and are essentially river canyons in the mountains and lower spots in the desert where water may flow during infrequent downpours. The most scenic wadis are in the mountains and many are just and hour or two drive from Muscat. It is never a good idea to camp within a Wadi especially during the rainy season as they can fill up and become raging torrents within a matter of minutes even if the rainstorm is kilometers away.
An absolute monarchy, (there is no free press) from the 17th C Oman had it’s own empire but vied with Portugal and Great Britain for influence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean. As with other middle eastern countries, oil is it’s mainstay of the economy although fishing and agriculture are important too.
Oman is actually more diverse than I expected. The Portugese had control of it for a century, it was invaded by Turks and Persians and there are many Africans there who were imported as slaves during the Oman occupation of Zanzibar. All news to me! The current Sultan, in his 20′s and with the help of the British in 1970 overthrew his father who was trying to avoid modernization and keep the country under strict Islamic law.
Since that time in the 70′s, when there was only one road in Oman, the country has modernized it’s infrastructure and education is a priority. So many expats had been imported for their expertise that now that more Omanis are being educated there is a new policy of Omanizing the work force. I imagine this means fewer Africans and Indians who work in the less desirable jobs and expats with specialized knowledge. In fact I remember reading an article recently that described a demonstration of students (the Omani Spring?) in Oman demanding more jobs and more expansion of educational opportunities.
Many of the workers in the tourist industry are Filipinos because of their knowledge of English. They sign a two-year contract, they say, and they were really really tickled to talk to me in English!
Tags: Couchsurfing, Lodging, Middle East, Oman