Muscat, Oman: a new country for our list. We’re not too crazy about their neighbors: Yeman, Saudi Arabia and Iran a short sail away across the Arabian Sea. But their country has three different Muslim sects living in harmony together, no small feat in this neck of the woods. They have been governed by the same absolute monarch since they became a country. Since we have left India, the humidity has dropped about 60% and the temperature has climbed a bit more. It’s tolerable in the shade, but there is very little shade, because this country is desolate. The Muscat area is crowded along the sea by a respectable mountain range and once you leave town, there is mile upon mile of desert. The Omani’s only have one natural resource, but it’s a good one - oil. They import everything and have to desalinate their water, but they can afford it, at least for now. Unlike Dubai, it isn’t obvious what their Plan B is for the times when oil can no longer carry them. But right now they are living the good life: no taxes, free education, free health care. Oman has bout 4.5 million people. Most of the locals have cushy jobs with the government working short hours and short work weeks. About 45% of the population comes from India and Pakistan and those folks are the ones doing all the real work. As we drove through town men were out and about, but there no women to be seen. Most of the men wear white robes and scull caps or turbans. When we did come across a woman, she was wearing all black, huge burden in this desert heat. At least I did see some woman driving cars, something their Saudi sisters are still batting to do. Almost everything looked newly built and it was neat and clean unlike India. A few spots were obviously irrigated, the green so bright it hurt our eyes. Nearly all the signs were in English and Arabic and our guide said they do most of their schooling in English. People weren’t very friendly and the men gave Ken grief whenever he tried to take their photo. Our guide was poor. His English was fine, but he was reserved, bored or afraid to talk; we couldn’t tell why he wasn’t more forthcoming. When he did have something to say, he said it to the first four people nearby, never waiting for the rest of the group to gather.
Our tour took us two hours into the interior. Sometimes when we are in a country for the first time, we enjoy seeing the countryside and ordinary daily life, but the scenery was unvarying and bleak. It made us think of the Nevada desert. The guide had little to say as the miles went by, but he did demonstrate how to wrap a turban without looking in a mirror.
We went to a fortress in Nizwa that had last been used in the 1700’s when the local tribes were duking it out. The fort had been completely restored and felt more like a Disney version of a fort than than the real thing. Exhibits inside showed what life had been like for these nomadic people in those days. The fort had become the locus of modern town life and was surrounded by a souk (market) complex with a food market and shops selling goods for daily life. Men were doing nearly all the shopping, but there wasn’t much going on. Our guide said that the big shopping day was yesterday Friday, the first day of their weekend. There were a few shops that sold things tourists might be interested in, but we had no rials (local currency) and there were no Visa or MasterCard signs in view. And they didn’t like us taking photos.
Then we went to a castle, which looked a lot like the fort. It had 35 rooms and housed a few hundred people: the imam and his family and his extensive support team. I guess the rooms were furnished, but there was nowhere to sit but the carpeted floor. It was a three story building and we had nice views from the top. As we climbed all three floors of stairs, we came to one that had a removable tread. This was the spot where the imam’s guards could pour down boiling oil if someone tried to invade. Surpise!
We’ll be coming here again in a few days when we begin the second leg of this cruise. This will give us another chance to learn more what this country is about. Here’s hoping for a better guide.