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.

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