Oman; Muscat and Salalah
An Introduction to Islam and Antiquity
From Job’s Tomb to the Sultan’s Palace—and Six-Star Hotel
We had now left the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. We entered the Gulf of Oman and were headed for an obscure land that borders with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia andYemen. Most people have never heard of Oman, and I had never expected to land here. Our next port of call was suppose to be Djibouti, but we had heard that this land was so distressed and without interest that the Renaissance people had substituted Oman for Djibouti. Several people aboard the R2 were disappointed---they check off countries of the world they’ve visited, and they were eager to check off Djibouti. Next time, we told them.
So here we were. It was Monday March 12 and Muscat and Salalah—two ports in Oman--would be ours to explore over the next two days.
In case you didn’t know, the Sultanate of Oman is an independent country in the southeastern quarter of the Arabian peninsula. It borders on the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen—and most important, has been Islamic since the 7th century.
As usual, we were warned to keep our shoulders and knees well covered when we went ashore in Muscat, the capital. We learned that Oman had been closed off to outsiders for many years in recent history. In fact, from 1938 to 1970-- under the rule of the Sultan Said Bin Taimur--Oman’s trading families agreed not to import anything the sultan felt was progressive or Westernized, such as eyeglasses, radios and books!
Walking through the souk later that day, we couldn’t tell if the Omani women even wore eyeglasses today since those we saw were covered completely with the black headdress that had only a slit for the eyes!
Not surprisingly, the population is almost entirely Arabic. We saw men dressed in the bright blue, loose long shirt dress called dishdashas and women covered in shawls and veils.
But back to our entry into Muscat.
Extreme security prevailed at the dock, and we had decided to hire a taxi for the day rather than take a tour. Vi, Lori (another passenger who had asked to join us in sharing the taxi) took a shuttle to the entry gate where an armed soldier guarded the port. We didn’t know what to expect, but I became the designated negotiator with the taxi driver.
As usual, a throng of noisy taxi drivers awaited to fleece the rich international tourists disembarking from the cruise ship. We had studied the exchange rate---$1 for .38 reals—totally confusing to us. The tours were costing $60 apiece for half a day, so I knew I could do better. I picked one likely prospect, a turbaned smiling man and with many nods and gestures, negotiated a price I thought couldn’t be beaten--$30 for three hours for three people. He didn’t speak a word of English but was beginning to reluctantly agree when I threw in “air-conditioning?” as the last prerequisite. That ruined the whole deal! Without a word, he stalked off. So much for my negotiating! I looked around for another likely victim. A young turbaned Omani driver walked up. I restated the terms—again no English, but he agreed, responded to “air conditioning?” With a nod, “yes” and we made the deal.
We jumped into the taxi and off we went. The first thing we noticed was NO air conditioning. Next we learned that the only English he knew was, “No Problem. Oh well, another battle lost, but at least we were now deep into the heart of Muscat and the beginning of another adventure, this time to explore Islamic culture.
Sahid, our driver, took us first to the Sultan’s palace, a beautiful gold and blue domed palace, guarded by an armed soldier. I walked up and engaged him in happy conversation for a photo op--he was very pleasant. Another R2 tourist then tried the same trick and got brushed off at gun point.
From the modern to the ancient— Sahid headed through old Muscat, streets of winding paved roads bordered by pale ivory, tan and brilliant white walls and ancient doorways leading into hidden homes behind the stuckoed walls. The city of Muscat, both modern and ancient, was very clean-- unlike the mountains of trash, wandering cows and foraging animals we had come to expect on the visit to India that had just ended. Despite the sultan’s edict to keep the 21st century at bay, we noticed modern billboards on some of the streets, but no internet cafés. There was little traffic. Those vehicles we saw were mostly taxis, and Muscat for the most part is a new beautiful town, built primarily during the last 35 years, we later learned.
Soon Sahid led us off the paved streets and onto a dusty dirt road that wound its way up the jagged mountainside. Where was he taking us, we wondered, but “no problem” was his stock answer when we asked where we were going.
Finally, we reached the top of the mountain and the road dead-ended. We were on a dusty dead end overlooking a new dam and spillway constructed into the canyon below---with absolutely no water in sight. (We learned later it rains 3-4 inches a year in Oman.) But it was another photo op we decided—and took Sahid’s picture next to the taxi.
Our next stop made the entire day—and visit to Muscat—worthwhile. Back down the mountain we careened, stopping at a little hole in the wall “food stuff” place---a neighborhood grocery store, it turned out. Sahid came out with a gift for each of us, a bottle of RC Cola —and we drank it gratefully! We had chatted with the clerk of the store as we waited and learned he was Indian from Goa, had completed one year of college, and here he was in the back streets of old town Muscat working for two years in this little grocery store.
Sahid brought out his bag of groceries and off we headed, we knew not where—but soon we stopped far down a winding street and he parked the taxi. We realized he had taken us to his house, and three tiny boys, around two years old, greeted him. They were playing in front of a long flight of stone steps leading up a rock strewn hillside to an open door of a small house on the hill.. Sahid beckoned for the children to have their photo taken by us, and called to two older boys, one dressed like a boy scout and the other with a backpack for school. We saw two women standing at the top of the stairs, and he indicated that according to Islamic tradition, he had two wives and these were his five children. He beckoned one of the shy young women to come down the stairs. She had a lovely moon face and hesitant smile that we could see, since she had no veil on, and she held a baby. An older woman at the top of the stairs chattered angrily and beckoned us away from taking her picture. She stomped off down the street, obviously annoyed that Sahid was allowing his wife’s photo to be taken. (Many of the women beckoned us away from taking pictures in the souk later that morning.) This was a special opportunity for us to see Sahid’s home and his family and take their photos, and we thanked him.
From rags to riches—our next stop was perhaps the most incredibly luxurious place in all of Oman—and perhaps in that part of the world.
But that’s another story, and now as I tell this story back on the ship, first I have to go to lunch.
We had our usual magnificent R2 lunch out on the Panorama deck in the bright sunshine, overlooking the brilliant blue waves of the Red Sea. I am ready to continue.
Have you ever taken a mystery tour in a place where you knew nothing about where you were going and couldn’t even guess? Try Oman.
We got into Sahib’s cab and without a word off he went, out of town and following the road along the coast lined with banana and palm trees for many miles. We had no idea where we were going, but he kept saying what we thought was something like “palace.”
Then we saw it, the outline of a magnificent palace-like structure backing up to the sea and facing the jagged brown mountains. It was a king’s palace, we thought, until we got up to it and saw the name, “Al Bustan Palace—but it was a hotel. A SIX star hotel we soon learned! And we also heard it was one of the most luxurious in the world.
Entering this magnificent hotel of mosaic walls, statuary rising up within lovely fountains, and marble floors so sleek and white and shimmering they looked like ice, we were dumbfounded. Lori, our companion, had been to the Taj Mahal with me. “It’s better than the Taj,” she insisted. She was almost right.
We lingered in the air-conditioned splendor of this palace-hotel as long as we could—using the sumptuous bathroom facilities with great joy, I must say. (It’s rare on these excursions to find such an unexpected amenity—running water, hand towels, soap, and honest-to-god toilet —we took advantage of every welcome amenity, believe me.)
Lingering as long as we could, we went on our way--first to a fishing village and then on to the souk. There’s a souk in every middle-eastern city, and this was no exception. Wandering through the winding covered aisles lined with tiny stalls and beckoning vendors, selling everything from baskets and shawls, to black slitted veils, nutmeg, sandalwood, and French perfume, we searched for an Oman specialty, frankincense and mir. Skipping many overpriced offers, for a dollar I bought enough frankincense to split three ways among the three of us back on the ship. But I didn’t bother with mir or sandalwood or the many burners pushed in our faces aggressively along the way.
At two p.m. our Muscat tour was ending. We were ready to get back on the ship,
And there we had an unexpected reunion, one dating back to our old Ocean Explorer days.
Greeting us in the piano bar on our R2 ship was Walter Ahart. Walter had been our favorite pianist and singer for four months of the Ocean Explorer around the world trip. My buddy Jackie had kept up with him by e-mail and found him playing the piano eight million miles from nowhere—of all places in the piano bar of the Hyatt Hotel in Muscat, Oman. She had routed him out, brought him to the ship (with great difficulty due to the tight security at the port and on the ship) and the ten of us expatriots from the Ocean Explorer had gathered for whisky sours and an hour of reminiscing and concert by Walter that afternoon. It was very much nostalgia and fun and sad to say goodbye and leave Walter in this forsaken corner of the world.
Say Hello to Salalah
By the next day, we were old hands at bargaining when we sailed overnight to the next port in Oman, Salalah. A small town in the very southern border that’s a popular seaside resort when the temperature rises as high as 125 degrees inland, Salalah’s temperature was simply hot but not steaming that day, and I was ready to be the tough, hard bargainer for a half day taxi ride to see what we could see.
We had heard that exhorbitant prices were being charged for taxis—up to $150 for four hours-- but I was ready for anything! Marching out to the taxi line, I started right in on the second driver in line and did some tough bargaining--not easy when the driver speaks not a word of English. I finally got him to agree (reluctantly) to three hours for $50 dollars for the three of us and we were ready to hop aboard—when the soldier guarding the gate walked up and said no. He gestured, go with the first taxi driver---and he said gruffly, three hours, $45! He actually stated a price lower than I had bargained and we jumped into the cab happily!
Throughout the afternoon our non-English speaking driver Mohammed was somewhat pleasant but kept repeating insistently---1 hour, $20---and I kept responding firmly, “No, three hours, $45!” And that’s what we ended up paying despite his unhappy demeanor at the end of the day.
But in the meantime, we had a great time seeing Salalah, bargaining at the old souk in town, driving along the beach, heading through coconut palm plantations, stopping at a coconut stand for the vendor to break into a coconut and give Lori a straw for the milk, and wandering through a banana plantations.
Finally and most interesting with a coupled of hours of time left—we demanded to go to Job’s Tomb. I had read that it was up in the mountains. At first the driver seemed not to understand or know of Job’s Tomb. Then he kept indicating it was too far, $20 dollars an hour more, he kept insisting! But I kept repeating “three hours, $45” and finally he gave up the argument and headed up into the mountains. We weren’t sure where he was going, but he began to pass single camels grazing along the bushes and wandering along the road, then entire herds of camels lining the hillside, some shackeled to keep them from wandering, some not.
We rode far up the winding two-lane road to the top of the mountains, perhaps for 35 kilometers or so and about 2,000 feet elevation. There were scenic views around every bend, of far distant mountains, camel herds, and guernsey cows grazing on the dry, barren hills. Finally, when we were almost despairing that this was a wild goose chase, we turned another bend, and there we were at the entrance to obviously what must be Job’s Tomb—since several of our fellow R2 passengers were standing there to greet us.
Jackie, David and Donna, our good OE1 ship buddies, greeted us, busily waving hello and snapping pictures. In the heat, we walked up the mountainside to a small dwelling, took off our shoes and donned appropriate head covering scarves and entered the site of where Job had presumably been buried---a ten-foot tomb covered in a brilliant velvet cloth of green and gold.
We were satisfied. We had done and seen everything of interest in Salalah—except the Queen of Sheba’s Palace at Khawr Rhori---but that will wait for another year and another cruise!
And all for $15 apiece.