OMAN – We were cruising along in our land cruiser over rough terrain, past rugged mountains to the south of Muscat; our destination – a small house perched on top of a hill. My affable host and associate, Chris, made it abundantly clear we needed to follow local customs of the region. “It is a tradition to offer kawa (black tea) to a guest. You have to accept the cup with your right hand and keep the left hand behind. An offering is made thrice; it is impolite to refuse.”
We parked at the end of the dust track, and trudged and climbed our way to the house of Ali Bakr. The customary heart-embracing greetings were followed soon after by an elaborate tea ceremony. Ali’s house was bereft of furnishings, save for worn-out carpets, low stools, and cushions. Dressed in a long white robe commonly known as “dishdasha,” Ali Bakr’s gesture of following a timeless ritual serves as a gentle reminder that there is still some heart and feeling left in a world generally devoid of warmth. I traveled over 1,000 miles to experience it.
I was in Oman, a country that’s rapidly turning into a favored destination for eco-friendly and culture-conscious travelers. Situated in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, this land of 2.8 million inhabitants is a fascinating story of ancient traditions, magnificent landscapes, striking forts, a fastidious ruler bent on preservation, and Bedouin camps. Unparalleled in beauty, Oman is surrounded by the oil-rich Arab Emirates in the north, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Yemen to the west. The eastern coastline skirts the Arabian Sea offering in its wake translucent blue waters, pristine beaches, and endless opportunities for snorkeling, deep sea diving, and observing dazzling corals from glass-bottomed boats. In many ways, Oman is a country “designed” to stir the imagination.
Referred to as “Magan” in ancient times, recent archeological discoveries suggest the civilization existed more than 5,000 years ago. Oman had a developed mining and smelting industry by the year 2000 B.C. The early settlers and traders arrived from Yemen and Northern Arabia, while the land embraced Islam around 630 A.D. Oman remained out of bounds to the outside world until 1970, when His Majesty Sultan Qaboos took over from his father Said Bin Taimur in a bloodless coup. By judiciously using the country’s limited oil resources, the sultan was able to build modern-day Oman, which in many ways meets the exacting standards of developed countries, be it in infrastructure or communication. There are some oddities as well; it is compulsory to paint houses either in traditional white or ochre, advertising hoardings are a no-no, air-conditioners must be covered by wooden slats, and laundry may not be hung out of windows!
“What’s life like?” I asked my driver cum tourist guide as he effortlessly piloted his Toyota taxi over the asphalted highway, glistening in the morning sun in the capital city of Muscat. “Very comfortable,” he replied without any hesitation. “Business is good, the monarchy rules well, we have no complaints.” We started off by visiting the fish market adjoining the sea of Matrah. Catch was abundant, the sea calm, business brisk as quick deals were struck between eager buyers in their pick-ups and satiated local fisherman. We moved to the Jalali and Mirani Forts guarding the entrance to Muscat. Though entry is forbidden, this much-photographed monument with thin walls and small openings for guns and viewing was built during the Portuguese occupation in the 16th century.
A sign greets visitors to the National Museum in Ruwi; it’s here I had an opportunity to observe exquisitely-carved Omani silverware and antiques. No visit to Muscat is complete without a visit to one of Arabia’s most famous souks (markets) in Matrah. The vibrant market displayed an undercurrent of volatility, the likes of which were not found on the streets of Muscat. Traditional frankincense, delicately carved silver, dazzling jewelry, electronic items, and local robes were some of items on display. I had a daypack full of wonderful memories from Muscat; “Shukriya” was all the strength I had to mutter as I bid the driver good bye.
We took the meandering route to Nizwa the following day, crossing dry river beds (wadis), and passing through oases. There’s a fascinating explanation as to how wadis were formed. In the distant past when rain was abundant, the surface water formed wide channels leaving a lasting mark on the terrain, creating wadis. This marvel of nature is one of Oman’s best-kept secrets; whenever there is a heavy downpour, flash floods are generated in the valleys, with an astoundingly destructive force which is sufficient to destroy both property and people.
Smiling children greeted us at Nizwa, and veiled women silently filed past, as we admired the large complex. Built in the 17th century, the restored fort is surrounded by watchtowers, a grand mosque, and single-story houses. Set amidst palm-filled trees against the backdrop of ageless mountains, we seemed to have effortlessly rolled back into the past.
Being a peregrinator has some distinct advantages; traveling by speedboat is as comfortable as riding a camel! It hardly matters as long as movement is involved! I couldn’t resist an invitation to go snorkeling, this time to observe corals from handshaking distance. We left by speedboat from the Marina Bandher Al Rowdha in Muscat and headed towards Bandar Jissah, past a rocky coastline interspersed with virgin beaches. A piece of floating thermo cal in the calm ocean enraged my guide, leaving me astounded. About an hour and few instructions later, I plunged into the waters for a ringside view of Oman’s precious and endangered corals. I spent countless moments trying to soak up all nature had to offer, lost in the company of a school of fish and “dancing” coral. On resurfacing, I looked up and wondered about how nature’s treasures have been so carefully preserved. Nature has a responsible caretaker in our midst – the people of Oman. “Salaam Wale Qum, Oman!”
I’ll be back for more.