Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Sultanate of Oman is Awesome

Lonely Planet described Oman as like a more authentic UAE without the extreme wealth. I would totally agree with that statement. For example I learned that every building in Muscat, the capital, had to be either white or tan in order to conform to the existing style. Someone asked me which country I enjoyed more and I had no idea how to respond. They are just two completely different places.

My day began with a taxi ride, as it so often does. You can see that the national dress is a bit different here. The headdress has a little peak at the top, and the colors/patterns seem to be limitless.

The city walls of Muscat were mentioned several times. Here is a sort of symbolic entrance through the city walls. I think the story was that they legitimately locked the city every night until like the 70s. They would fire a cannon to alert everyone that the doors were closing.

I started off my day at the Mutrah Souk. In contrast to the souks in UAE, this place had a little bit of everything instead of concentrating on one particular type of item. I did most of my shopping for the whole trip here.

Unfortunately the area is a cruise ship port. Hoards of old British people did not add much to my Oman experience, I must say. One thing that was kind of cool was that the cruise ship was the Queen Mary 2, which was the same ship in port when we were visiting Dominica in the Caribbean. That boat gets around.

Those big bags are full of frankincense. Oman has been a center for frankincense production for a long, long time.

I bought a little purse for Lydia from this guy.


And this guy is my new frankincense and myrrh dealer. They are both resins from trees that can be burned as an incense. I'm sure Lydia will agree that two out of three baby Jesus wisemen presents ain't bad.

The frankincense is the greenish white one on the bottom.

Oman is famous for its forts which are pretty much everywhere. Oman's coast was controlled by the Portuguese for about 150 years and a few of the forts are theirs.

By this point I was in the retirement phase of my trip. Muscat is really mountainous, so many of the noteworthy sites are pretty spread out. I decided to invest in a day long hop on/hop off bus tour of the city. Sites were seen. Good times were had.

Mosques seemed to be the only buildings exempt from the "every building beige" rule. I thought that was a nice touch.

This sign on the mosque was amusing after the "everyone is welcome" talk I was getting during my tours in Dubai.

Even this Hyundai dealership was all Aladdin style.

Muscat knows how to properly decorate a roundabout.

 The pretty funky looking royal palace. Apparently the flag on the pole is only up when the Sultan is in town. Sultan Qaboos is apparently not feeling well and is being cared for in Germany. What's the difference between a sheikh and a sultan, you may ask? I really had no idea so I looked it up, and I'm still not quite sure. Over at The National:

Dear Ali: What is the difference between a sheikh, an emir and a sultan? KG, Abu Dhabi

Dear KG: All three words come from Middle Eastern Arab origins. All indicate titles and status. Some think there are hierarchical differences between them, but that is not true.

"Sheikh" is the traditional title of a Bedouin tribal leader in recent centuries. The most famous sheikh of our time is probably the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, simply called Sheikh Zayed, the principal architect, founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates. "Sheikh" also can refer to an Islamic scholar or a religious man. And the term of honour additionally can be given to any elderly man of wisdom.

"Emir", also written as "amir", comes from the Arabic root "amr", meaning "command", and is considered a military title. An amir has a high degree of nobility in Arabic nations and some Turkish states. Today, "amir" and "amira" mostly mean "prince" and "princess", respectively. They also can be people's first names.

"Sultan" is an Arabic title and translates as "authority", "strength" or "rulership". It comes from the Aramaic "sultana", which means "power". "Sultan" also can be a man's name.

Fun fact: Oman and UAE are two of the seven remaining absolute monarchies in the world. The others are Brunei, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, and Vatican City.

Oman also likes to have giant pictures of its royalty posted everywhere. 

Well it was getting to be dinner time and there was a particular Omani restaurant called Ubhar that I wanted to eat at. I couldn't find the place (it was hidden inside a mall) and I walked a really long way past it. I finally gave up and hailed a cab. I did the obligatory fare haggle and the driver actually settled on a reasonable amount. "A driver from the younger generation might charge you three times that but I don't think it's good for the country to take advantage of tourists." This guy was my new hero.

The service wasn't stellar but overall the place was solid.

I tried to go as authentic as possible with my choices. I picked the "Ubhar Harees: Traditional Omani wheat dish with chicken served with Torshee sauce" which set me back 4.2 Omani rials ($10.91). It was made from boiled wheat, and the result was a bit like oatmeal with chicken mixed in. The little plate in the center was really flavorful though so the two balanced eachother nicely.

I also had a side of "Kubz Al Murdouf: Traditional Omani bread flavored with date water" for $3.12. It was pretty similar to Indian naan bread I thought.

I arranged to have my new buddy cab driver pick me up after dinner. On the way to the hotel I casually mentioned that I would like to try the Omani dessert called halwa sometime. He drove past the hotel to take me to an awesome, awesome place.

The shop was completely devoted to halwa and was filled with middle aged men in the national dress. Some were standing, others sitting on a couch in the middle of the room. On a long coffee table before us were like ten dishes of various colors of mush. The men were taking dainty little bites of the different mushes with tiny ice cream tasting spoons. I stood there watching for a minute but no one really acknowledged me so... 

I grabbed a spoon and tried every last halwa. Once I got involved everyone seemed to warm up and we chatted a little. I bought a box for a couple bucks to take home. The kind I picked had a green tint to it. The box listed the basic ingredients as sugar, starch, ghee, nuts, rose water, safron, and cardamom. As the counter guy was boxing it up I asked what flavor I'd chosen: "frankincense". Cab guy got a solid tip, I can tell you that.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Dune Bashing and a Camel Ride

The day started with a pick up from the hotel. My driver/tour guide was the coolest person I've met on this trip so far. He made me wait for him to finish his cigarette before we started which I thought was amusing. He wore a trucker hat with Arabic writing on it and designer aviators. My unmarried status has drawn some criticism from more than one taxi driver/unwanted advice giver, but my main man Abbas ended that conversation with: "bachelor life, cool". The heart with an arrow shot through it etched on the back of his hand seemed fitting.

The future site of Universal Studios Dubai.

I told him my sob story about how I was unjustly robbed of my camel race by the death of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Well he had a pretty good consolation prize for me: when we passed by the camel race track on the way out of town he would stop so we could check it out. I was the only person in this tour group and so I now had dictatorial powers. I shall rule this tour group benevolently.

I'm pretty sure this is Sheikh Mohammed, pretty much the king of Dubai.

And this is his son apparently.

The race track was way more exciting than anticipated. There were trainers there practicing with their camels!

We stopped and had a sandwich.

I saw this camel just walking along the road by itself and I asked if it was wild. Abbas looked at me like I'd just called him Susan. "Of course not! Camels are very expensive!" Sounds like somebody never got that camel they asked their daddy for.

We passed lots of camel farms along the way.

We continued along the desolate road until we came to a rest stop area with a few shops. He had someone put air in our tires while I entered one of the shops to poke around a bit. I got about 3 steps in before some guy tried the "shove a scarf on your head" routine again and that was the end of that. I waited in the car.

Once on the dunes, this guy was not messing around. He was taking the term "dune bashing" very seriously. Sand was spraying all over the windows like a car wash and I felt like we were going to tip over a couple times. It was awesome.

I felt a little silly for noticing but I couldn't stop talking about the sand. This wasn't just a bunch of yellow blobs like I'd expected. It was a pretty complicated palate. I'm going to use fancy color words like peach and cinnamon.

Abbas was generous with picture taking to an amusing degree. He had turned from badass to artist: "now I want you to turn to your side and jump with your legs bent so it looks like you're running". At one point we saw another group of tourists and I commented that they were doing the same jumping shots. "They aren't bending their legs right", the tortured perfectionist replied.

Don't I look like a desert angel?

I tried some sandboarding.

I was barefoot, and so sandboarding turned out to be a great way to get a lot of sand in my underwear in a really short amount of time.


"Dune bashing is finished sir. Did you enjoy the ride?"

Next we continued on to a place that rented dune buggies and other stuff like that. I was here for the camels. I'm not super familiar with camels apart from their delicious meaty flavor, so it was really cool to see them. The way they move is especially interesting.

I hopped on and we took a little stroll. When a fly was being especially annoying he would whip his long neck around and rub his head on his own back. That was a neat trick.

There were some locals watching tv in this traditional tent-type building so we paused for a spell.

My new buddy then drove me back to the city and that was that. I still had several hours to kill before flying to Oman so I did my best.

This was something on my to see list. The discreet "pork room" of many supermarkets houses all of the stuff that Muslims can't eat.

It was like a bacon/poptart speakeasy in there.

Really the only place I went to after that worth reporting was the Dubai Atlantis Hotel.

It was located on one of the artificial palm shaped islands off the coast.

This was like the king of Chihuly glass sculptures. I have to say that this Atlantis is better than the one we visited in the Bahamas during the infamous Operation Cruise Quitter.

I think that the UAE is a bit on the gaudy side of wealthiness. I've seen a lot of signs and advertisements referencing gold. A good example is this jewelry store in the airport sporting a palm tree made out of fake gold bars.

The Swiss Air flight from Dubai to Muscat, Oman was just how I like them: nearly empty.

By the time I walked out of the airport into Oman it was 1am, and my jet lagged self had been going to bed at 8pm every night, so I was not in the mood for the ridiculousness that followed.

It quickly became apparent that "do you need a taxi?" was the only complete English sentence that my taxi driver had mastered. He also pulled a classic maneuver known as "lying" when he told me he knew where my hotel was.

It was so much worse than that. He wasn't demonstrating the ability to even repeat the words "Best Western Hotel". I thought handing him my reservation printout might help. It did not help. He was running his finger along the paper Helen Keller style and sounding out the words. "Best Western, bro. You are physically killing me right now." His finger ran over the section where the printout invites you to "click here to view hotel."

Sure enough, once that finger hit "view hotel", bro was convinced that I needed to get to the View Hotel. I am not making this up. I finally got him to call the damn phone number on the printout and he asked them for directions to the View Hotel.

It was pretty cold out and was nighttime, but this guy's windows were tinted so dark that he had to periodically roll them down just to see the street signs. "Are you cold my darling?" he asked. I really hoped that was going to be an isolated misunderstanding, but no. This guy was just going to address me as "my darling" the whole way there.

We pulled up to the hotel and I got the hell out of that cab. The icing on the cake: Oman is a "no taxi meter" country. Boooo. Boo.

Mr. Darling did leave me with some parting wisdom though. "Oman is the most beautiful country, the people in Oman are the most beautiful, and everyone is welcome from Oman!" (He got "to" and "from" mixed up a lot.)