Thursday, December 23, 2010

Five Ladies of a Certain Age - Traveling in Oman December 2010

Several years ago, I came to Oman, stayed in Muscat, toured to Nizwa and the Sands. Then and there, I decided to return and see more of the country, A to Z, Khasab to Salalah. A good share of what I’d knew about Oman came from military writings concerning the 1950s Jebels conflict between the Sultan and the Imam who was aided by Saudis, and the 1970s Dhofar War involving the Yemen communists and Omani rebels with the government aided by the British.

The current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, came into power during the Dhofar War; His positive policies made it possible for the government forces to win over the rebels and chase the Yemenis home, As a result, Oman appears the most stable and peaceful country in the Middle East. So. with the help of a former military man who had been stationed in Oman and a local travel agent I put together a three week tour. I then contacted a number of people I’d traveled with and found five volunteers, several of whom were virgins to the Middle East. By the time we left, one had dropped out due to illness, leaving a total of five women, ages ranging from sixty to eighty: swimmers, shoppers, sightseers, hikers - experienced travelers all! The Gang of Five!

We gathered in Dubai, then into Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula where we got a feel of the area with a drive into the mountains and a dhow cruise with swimming and dolphin watching - a beginning of the variety of landscapes that make up Oman. the people were also a variety - mix of Indian and Arab, the women covered and uncovered. But even the totally veiled ones moved with a degree of freedom and authority not always present in the Arab world.

We then drove through the Emirates to Muscat, Oman's capital. It was a comfortable ride on asphalted roads with time to get a feel of the local scenery, both man made and natural. We ended at a hotel on on the Corniche in the Muttrah district of Muscat, with a view of the harbour including the Sultan’s dhow. Oman was celebrating the Fortieth Year of his rule with a vengeance. Visitors were from all over the World, including Queen Elizabeth of England. The television was full of impressive ceremonies including bagpipers riding camels!

As for us, we did a sightseeing tour which included the Grand Mosque, which must be one of the most beautifully designed buildings in the world, and the old walled city. I managed to wrangle a return to the Armed Forces Museum, which I think does an excellent job of presenting Oman’s history over the centuries. Behind our hotel, there was another small charming museum, Bait Al Baranda, a restored home with exhibits about Omani culture in photos and handicraft.

Then to Sur noted for its boat building plus walks in a series of scenic wadis, before and after. Onto the fabled Wahiba Sands. Then came the old Forts, the Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar - where the 50s conflict occurred. We hiked along mountain paths into deserted villages which were balanced with stops at souks, produce and meat/fish markets.

Most interesting was the walk about Al-Hamra, one of the oldest mud-brick villages in Oman, very similar to Yemen villages. It is to be an UNESCO Heritage project. A local family keeps their home in the old style and as an interactive museum, making bread and serving coffee/tea in the old style.

For two nights, we were housed in established camps as we checked out the back country. Then as we headed south, it was basic camping on the beach for three nights, using facilities at the local hospitals and eating at nearby cafes. While we missed the flamingos, there was other wildlife around. The landscape’s variety continued from lush greenery to volcanic desert.

We ended in Salalah, the old capital and home of the Sultans and the frankincense trade of yore. Important to me was nearby Mirbat, where the Fort was the scene of one of the significant battles of the Dhofer War. We were taken by Bedu to Ubar, the Queen of Sheba’s reported lost city and the Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter) where we camped - only for one night unfortunately. A magnificent experience: sleeping under the stars, endless sand dunes and perfect silence. For me, Mirbat, Ubar and Rub al Khali were the piéce de résistance of the journey.

The people were warm and friendly. While walking in the Old City, a uniformed guy presented me with a beautifully smelling rose; when cheering a parade in honor of the Sultan’s rule, one of the participants ran out to toss his scarf to me. We never had a untoward moment. In fact, on several occasions people wanted their photos taken with us.

The women, often fully or partially veiled, were responsive. Sometimes quite aggressive; other times more decorous. Women are as educated as the men and are active in government and business. There is nothing like a woman in black, fully veiled - face and gloves - cashiering at the grocery store. Others would have face exposed with colorful clothing. In Muscat, western dress was more evident.

Camels were all around, often free ranging along the highways. Three memorable sights: a camel couched in the back of a pickup - I have a photo of this; two camels loosely tied to a pickup, trotting behind their mechanized leader along the highway; a string of, say thirty camels, walking along in the Rub’ al Khali, with a pickup herding them.

Accommodations were good. When sleeping out, tents and sleeping bags were provided. Three of us slept outside under stars, enjoying the solar activity. The set camps were comfortable, one elaborately furnished Bedouin-style with rugs on floor, walls and ceilings. The hotels were most comfortable.

I think the Indians control the food industry in Oman. We consistently ate Indian, whether it was at some what beat up roadside cafe or a more elegant hotel dining room. It was all good, very good.

Ali, the guide for the trip’s central region was outstanding. He and the driver, went out of their way to insure that we understood Oman and its people and that we had a good experience. I’ve traveled a bit and rarely felt that I was in such capable care. We all voted him #1!

I managed to lose two out of three caps this time around. Lost the Clive Cussler NUMA cap early on and then the newly purchased Armed Forces Museum cap half way through. Ended up with a red Oman flagged cap.

And yes, I would return again!

The trip, all told, cost about what most companies charge for their much less extensive tours: $2829 which included about half the meals. Emirates airfare from San Francisco to Dubai: $1553.

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