Once we saw mountaintops majestically rising up out of the clouds, we knew that we must be flying into Oman. After landing we started out to try and find the minibus stop that would take us into town. We made the mistake of asking directions from an employee of a taxi company and he told us that we should, of course, just take a taxi into town or if we really wanted to take a minibus, take a taxi to the drop off point, which he said was over five kilometers away. After asking a less biased security guard, we walked over to the minibus stop, about 500 meters away (quite different from five kilometers), and packed into the van with ten other people heading in to town.
On the drive in, we noticed that every major building and traffic stop had a huge poster of the Sultan, all celebrating his 40th year ruling the country. Although I was skeptical at first of this mass outpouring of public affection (as many countries in the Middle East have such posters of the ruler but often because they have to be there due to fear or public/political pressure), it seems that the feeling is genuine in Oman. It turns out that Sultan Qaboos has single-handedly modernized the country and his love and dedication to the people is completely reciprocated. One example is that every year the Sultan and many heads of local government pack up their tents and head out from the capital to set up camps in the outer provinces, receiving both gifts and petitions from locals, some of whom literally have ridden for days on camels to be there. Petitions for services, such as electricity, are at times even answered within days, as the Sultan can apparently just “make it happen” with a speed that would leave many democratic processes jealous.
We checked into our hotel in the little India of Muscat and then headed down to the corniche for some shopping and sight seeing. In the souq, we were surrounded by shop owners selling a number of products from frankincense (which has been harvested in Oman for thousands of years), to small daggers in ornate curved cases worn by traditional Omanis and sandals made from camel leather. Over time, Caity and I have developed some pretty good bargaining skills. We take turns playing the overly critical or uninterested partner who, in motioning that we should move on, elicits a lower price for the good in question. We also negotiate in either English or Arabic but speak between ourselves in Spanish and throw in Swahili as well because “si” and “no” are a little to easy to figure out. Having been largely successful in our bargaining, cutting the starting price in half at least, we headed out for some sight seeing.
The new side of Muscat is very scenic, filled with small forts perched on top jagged looking hills that continue right down to the sea, mosques with brightly colored domes and matching minarets, as well as traditional wooden fishing boats anchored next to modern cruise ships twenty times their size. As we walked along the sea, we were surprised by how clean the city was, especially in comparison to Cairo, and how well maintained all the buildings were. This is apparently due partially to the people’s habits and partially to some aesthetic laws, such as the one that mandates fines to drivers of dirty cars!
The real beauty of Oman however is to be found in the landscape outside the cities. After getting significantly lost (I blame the shoddy map) we made our way down the southern coast, heading for a wadi where we could spend some time hiking. In this case, the journey was just as rewarding as the destination. Oman possesses some of the most beautiful rock formations that I have certainly ever seen, with the mountains jutting right out of the earth without any preamble, each with beautiful multi-colored shades of rock, and going off into the distance until they are obscured by low hanging clouds. The only problem with the rugged landscape comes if you want to listen to the radio, which crackles in and out of reception after each song or two, ultimately causing you to switch it off and enjoy the vast beauty in silence.
Driving along on the main highway, we were surprised to see continuous exits labeled as going to “qurayyat” or “little villages”. Having mistakenly taken one of these exits, we discovered that in contrast to the large well-constructed turnoffs with overpasses, the paved road quickly turned to gravel and lead to a small outpost of five to ten buildings where the people and goats alike stared at us wondering what in the world we were doing there. Perhaps the benevolence of the Sultan extends down to the smallest group of people. I can almost imagine the campaign slogan: “an exit for every village!” That is, if he needed to campaign.
The second day found us driving out to the west (and interior) visiting Jabal Akdar, or the green mountain. In the end we decided that the name must be relative, because the mountain’s foliage could only be considered green when compared with the lifeless rocky landscape we drove through to get there. We drove for an hour up a steep road that was carved straight out of the cliff face and wound its way up to a scattering of small villages. A short hike led us to an impressive view of a massive canyon that snaked off between two cliff faces. Looking at the steep twisting road left me thinking of the pains that people must have gone to traveling between villages 100 years ago. No wonder the mountain peoples they developed their own specific language!
We turned in our car the next day and picked up bus tickets out of Muscat. We were going from a country famous for its beautiful mountain scenery to one that blasted apart its mountains to build palm trees in the ocean. Dubai here we come!