OMAN: What? Why? Where?

In my meanderings through my early Middle East research I came across photos of luscious, dramatic, rolling desert landscapes:  dramatic dunes, mountains of variegated  color,  desert oases.  

 This was in a country called Oman.  (The photo is per Google – what I thought I would see there)

 It’s way over there, on the other side of that no-man’s land (because they would NOT let me in) called Saudi Arabia. I thought it would be wonderful to Oman, but knew it would be expensive, it’s so far away.

I also read that it had an unusual benevolent ruler, Sultan Qaboos (pronounced like the back of the train), who believed in equality for all (including women) and making sure his subjects could take care of their country, since their oil reserves were limited compared with the big boys.  Instead of hiring foreign labor to do everything the way they do in Saudi & Dubai, locals  do the work of running the country.

That read, time passed. 

Then, when I finally booked my journey from Istanbul to South Africa, I found out I had an enforced overnight layover in Doha, Qatar.

When my travel agent told me that, I squealed with excitement, thinking she meant Oman, and asked if I could stay for a week.  I wondered why she said “Most people groan when I tell them of the layover, you are really the adventurous traveler.”  She made the booking, I was all smiles, and then about a week later I decided to check out a nagging feeling I had that maybe I was confused.

Reality was:  Qatar was consistently reviewed as the most boring place on the planet (albeit the richest) with the worst climate in the world in terms of the heat/humidity combination.  (this representative photo of Qatar is off the web.)REST IN ARABANA - Doha, Ad Dawhah

Reality was:  Qatar is separated from Oman by Saudi Arabia, i.e. you can’t get there from here by bus, I MUST fly over the inaccessible Saudi.  i.e.  so near and yet so far.

I was unwilling to give up on Oman (or spend a week in Qatar), and checked Expedia, and it was only a $100 flight from Qatar– at least that’s what I fixed in my mind.

Then, I forgot the whole thing, knowing that everything always works out, and wasn’t I special to be going to Oman, an Arab country with different historical/cultural roots from Turkey, Syria & Lebanon, the other Middle Eastern countries I would visit.

WRONG

I was somewhere in Turkey when I decided it was time to deal with the details of the Oman jaunt.  First thing I found out:   Qatar to Oman flights cost around $450 rt.  Oops.  I then Googled “bargain airlines to Oman” and checked out the 4 names that came up.  The costs of some were lower, under $200 rt,but the schedules were hellish – giving me  8+ hour layovers in Dubai Airport.  Dubai was not on my radar, and my exotic jaunt was already awfully short for all that expense & effort to get there.

More web searching & I found out there are buses taking 5-6 hours from Dubai to Oman (Muscat is the main city) that cost about $35 rt.  Oh good, an inexpensive way to see even more of the Middle East.  Now I just had to get to past Saudi & into Dubai.

The bargain bus

border crossing on double holiday

 

It wasn’t until Lebanon that I found out about a new Mid East bargain airline called Flydubai.  Apparently it caters to the guest workers in Dubai who need to leave the country to renew their visa’s.  Well, if a guest worker could afford it, I sure could.

I ended up with the hellish schedule described in a former blog, that involved very long airport layover’s.  That’s another story, but let me just say that I did actually make it to Muscat by bus from Dubai and the bus ride went smoothly.  I arrived about 1 pm on 11th November and taxi’d over to my LP recommended “budget” hotel that cost $50, quite a contrast with the $17 to (high end) $30 I’d been spending.  The taxi cost about $12, also way more than I was used to paying, but I attributed that to “arrival tax”  (the exaggerated amounts you usually pay on day 1 before you know the going rates and the local economy).

First thing I noticed, both on the bus and when I got to Muscat:  dirt piles.  Great big giant piles of dark brown dirt that some might call mountains.  We are talking ugly, dull, boring, uninteresting dirt piles.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dirt piles + amazing engineering

 

Second thing I noticed:  the Mutrah area so gloriously recommended by LP as THE place to stay in Muscat was a waterfront, like all the other waterfronts I’d been seeing, and absolutely nothing to shout about. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Mutrah Waterfront - in front of my hotel

 

Nighttime in Mutrah

 

The Mutrah sights noted in LP were similarly unremarkable:  a Souq (whoopee doo – I’d been to Souq’s in Damascus, Aleppo, Istanbul, to name a few).  A fort that you weren’t allowed to go into (not that I’d want to, but forts are high and high = great views).  Etc. 

So, I got on the phone in my comfortable room and started calling the tour companies LP mentioned to find out if I could join the private party tours – someone must want an extra person to lower their costs:    WRONG.  The cheapest  day tour I could negotiate was $80, and that would be just for me.  Way over budget, and I sure needed more than 1 day of touring.

I’d looked through LP and located a number of fascinating and scenic regions I wanted to visit, little realizing that without a 4 WD vehicle & the ability to cover many hundreds of Kilometers, I simply could not get there from here.  I had been spoiled by the excellent bus & micro-bus systems in all the countries thus far visited, and had come to take them for granted:  WRONG. 

Bottom line:  I had to rent a car.  We are now talking major budget busting plus major fear, because I am not a great driver & I have a terrible sense of direction.

more dirt piles

Excellent things about the car: 

            you’re in air conditioned comfort for long stretches of time.

            Gas costs only about $2.25/gallon

Negatives about the car:

            You get only 200 free kilometers daily, after that it’s about $.25/mile.  A quarter isn’t much, but I had already put in an extra 50 K when I was only half way to my first day’s modest destination, Sur.  The places I wanted to go were hundreds of KM away, and – required 4 WD (much more expensive to rent and scarier to contemplate the driving conditions).

            At night the traffic in Muscat became gridlock 

You get the picture.  I don’t need to go on.  It’s a tough place for a solo budget traveler, to get to and to get around in.  And I won’t even mention the typical Meri thing of backing into a pole so the light fixture fell down.  The locals watching this let me clearly know in sign language:  get away pronto.  And the resulting dent fortunately went unnoticed by the car inspector upon car return.

Now for the good parts: 

1 of many fab whimsical "sculptures" in the frequent round-abouts (r/a's)

 

My "spot" on deserted beach on first day's drive

 

 

And most extraordinary:  the people of Oman (including the many Indians & Filipino’s living there) are even nicer than all the other nice people I’d met previously.

Kindness is a national philosophy

  

His & her Abaya's hanging out to dry - seen on day 1 drive

          Often they will stop their cars to let you cross the street

            They don’t verbally harass you or stare – not the adults, not the children. 

           If  I waved first I always got a big smile and a wave back.

            If I started a conversation, “Welcome, welcome” was the standard phrase to accompany the big sincere smile.

            When I was lost angels  rescued me – for example 1 evening, tired of driving around in circles, I parked.  I noticed  a businessman getting into his car.  I told him my plight and he told me to follow him.  It took 45 minutes until I was safely at my hotel. He then got out, said with a big smile “Welcome, welcome” and promptly got into his car and drove away.

On Day 2 of car rental I drove to the Omani Dive Center where the dive master, Chad, revealed he had grown up in Spokane (born in Deaconess; went to Gonzaga Prep).  Said he’d never move back to the States.  I really wanted to talk to him further, but a double holiday was keeping him ultra busy:  Eid (Muslim celebration a month or so post Ramadan) and National Day in Oman – actually the 40th National Day in which the brilliance and kindness and accomplishments of Sultan Qaboos are celebrated for like a week.  Chad was working his tail (fins) off so we couldn’t meet.
I did a snorkeling boat trip via the Dive Center that was fantastic.
As  usual I also explored supermarkets.  Lulu’s is the big hyper-market here & in middle east . 

Grocery store (Lulu's) was a madhouse

Next door to Lulu’s there was a big goat sale going on.  On Eid a goat is slaughtered (for the food) & the Omani goats (not NZ or Saudi) are considered the best and they cost like several hundred dollars each.

 

View from snorkel boat

 

 

Next to Lulu's-goat market esp for Eid

Samirah, my bus companion

 

 My last day full in Muscat I zipped over to the Grand Mosque before saying goodby to my car at 10:30 am.  The Mosque, dedicated to Sultan Qaboos, was grand indeed. 

Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos

Last day after that was tedious.  Without a car, not being able to figure out the share taxi or micro-bus systems, I couldn’t go anywhere – but did have a great vegetarian Indian meal. 

However, my next day’s journey to Dubai was very enjoyable, even though it took 12 hours because of the double holiday (my arrival bus trip took 5 hours).  I sat next to  Samirah on the 100% full bus, and she spoke excellent English and has her own business and she was able to help me understand so much about life for women.  Here’s one fascinating little factoid:  Omani men are not allowed to marry a non-Omani woman until after he’s age 40  unless he’s been divorced. 

Bus driver showing off wasp he caught with his bare hands

Arrived in Dubai at 6 pm – and I’ll save that for my next posting.

Imported fruit at Lulu's

Muscat Gate

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