March 26: Muscat, Oman.
Early this morning, our ship docked in the town of Muscat, which is in the Sultanate of Oman, which is around the corner from Dubai on the Gulf of Oman, which is at the northern end of the Arabian Sea. From the 8th deck of the ship this morning, I found the view of the harbor in Muscat to be very impressive. The buildings are white, punctuated by minarets in shades of blue or green, and the town is confined along the water by rugged desert mountains immediately behind in shades of dark, medium, and light grey-brown. There were a few boats in the harbor, and on the other side of the ship we could see the breakwater and then the open ocean beyond. Our first impression that this would be a neat, clean, and orderly place was never challenged as we toured the area on our excursion.
Our guide for today was an Omani man of 22 who is studying tourism management at a local university. Ameer was personable, friendly, and well-versed in the customs and culture of Oman. And he spoke English very well. Like our guides for other locations, he gave us some facts about his country: Muscat is the capital city; Oman’s population is 4 million, of whom 98% are Muslim; Arabic is the first language, English is the second (this is reflected in signage throughout the city which is almost completely bilingual); the leader is Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since 1970 and is very popular with his people; the country of Oman has no enemies – they get along with everybody; the government provides education, health care, and often housing for its citizens; there are no taxes; Omanis must marry only citizens of Oman or one of five other Arabic countries or risk losing the advantages of Omani citizenship; the economy is based on the export of oil (70%), fishing, gold, and diamonds; gasoline costs less than water; the favorite cars are Japanese because parts are more readily available for repairs; low-level jobs are done by the foreign population.
We drove inland a few miles over a completely modern highway to our first stop, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Along the way we drove past the same kinds of highway scenery we would encounter in the U.S.: car dealers, retail establishments of all sorts, apartment complexes set back a few blocks from the roadway, gas stations, government buildings, etc., etc. Also, we passed the biggest opera house in the Middle East! When we reached the mosque, we were immediately impressed. Normally, a mosque may not be visited by non-Muslims, but for some reason this one is open at certain times, so being able to walk around inside was a real treat. It was completed in 2001 and is organized in several sections. We entered through a gateway (here, we women had to cover our heads with scarves) into a lovely courtyard, with carefully tended lawns and flower beds, fountains and running water, and polished marble pathways. We proceeded up a few steps, removed our shoes (not socks), put them into numbered cubbyholes, and entered the women’s prayer room. This is a large room, maybe two or three stories high, with no furniture whatsoever but fully carpeted. Intricately carved wainscoting, ornate chandeliers, Rolex clocks high on the walls, stained glass windows, wooden beamed ceilings, and full air conditioning were some of the features of this room. We stayed here a few minutes while our guide explained the significance of what we were seeing, and then we went outside again and walked to the men’s washroom. It’s a room without doors and with a couple of dozen places with faucets where men prepare themselves for prayer by engaging in a washing ritual. Ameer showed us what has to be done as he washed his face, arms, and feet. Women do the same ritual but in a different building. Next, we walked into the main building, the men’s prayer room. This one had everything present in the women’s prayer room but on an even greater scale. It was actually breathtaking. I’ve never seen a more beautiful chandelier. It was made by Swarovski and weighed six tons. The entire floor was covered by one piece of carpeting, which had been woven in place by 400 weavers over the course of two years. Ameer opened for us a copy of the Koran and read one of the prayers. As we left the building, I tried not to be overcome by sadness that the beauties of Islamic culture cannot be more appreciated in the West. We returned to our shoe cubbies, retrieved our shoes, and returned to the bus, not much older but considerably wiser. [At least, some of us were wiser.]
Our next stop was a complete contrast. We drove back to town and got off the bus in front of the Muttrah Souq. A souq is a market, and this was one of the better open-air shopping experiences we’ve had on our cruise. As usual, stalls were set one next to the other along a pathway, and you could not take two steps without having someone imploring you to stop and look at a great bargain. We ran into several people from the ship, saw many local families with children, and even bought a couple of pieces of fabric (my idea of a perfect souvenir).
The last two stops were a few blocks away. First, we went to the Bait Al Zubair Museum, a privately owned and funded museum of Omani historical artifacts. It’s not a big museum, but the collection is thoughtfully and tastefully arranged in several themed rooms. I especially liked a display of wedding costumes, each with luxurious fabrics and incredibly intricate embroidery. The tour program allowed only 15 minutes at this museum, unfortunately. After a short drive, we visited the grounds of one of the palaces of Sultan Qaboos. When foreign heads of state visit Oman and Sultan Qaboos is in the country, they all reside in this palace. We, of course, could not go inside, but we were impressed by the location next to the mountains, the well-manicured grounds, and the colorful façade on one of the buildings (see Denise’s picture). When the bus brought us back to the ship, we briefly considered returning to the souq via shuttle bus but didn’t after all because we realized we’d had enough heat and walking for one day.
March 27: At Sea Day.
During breakfast as I was watching the sun on the water, I noticed that the ship had suddenly changed its orientation to the sun. Soon after, the Captain announced that he had changed course to avoid colliding with a pod of whales and that we should look to starboard to see them. I rushed over and actually saw them, not jumping out of the water and making a spectacle, however. Several of them were just swimming along the surface, blowing out of their spouts from time to time. Aside from flying fish, sea birds, and a sea snake, this is the first sea life I’ve seen since being on the ship.
March 28: Salalah, Oman.
After sailing all night in the Arabian Sea, we docked this morning in the port of Salalah, which is in the southern end of the Sultanate of Oman. This is definitely a commercial port: stacks of containers, four-wheeled cranes, pyramids of white limestone gravel, dump trucks thundering by, storage tanks, and no sign of a cruise terminal. The title of our excursion today was Leisurely Salalah, which perfectly describes our morning. Our bus drove us to the ocean, to the mountains, and around the city itself, as the tour guide, who is from here, explained to us the significance of what we were looking at. Before we had gone very far, the guide told us all about the Sultan of Oman, who was born in Salalah and who has a summer palace here, so he’s the local boy who made good. Having received some of his education in Britain and Germany, Sultan Qaboos returned to Oman in 1970, when he was 30 years old, took control of the government somehow (not explained), and started modernizing the country. He’s done a great job, from what we can see. Salalah is not quite as neat and modern as Muscat in the north, but it seems to have good infrastructure, and lots of construction projects are underway.
As we left the port area, we observed the countryside of south Oman from the comfort of the bus. The highway was modern, although the bus sometimes had a hard time negotiating the hills. The scenery was mountainous desert, sometimes with long views into nearby valleys. Occasionally, wall-enclosed houses appeared set back from the highway, some still under construction, but none with any greenery at all. Often, we saw camels walking in the distance or even next to the roadway; there was always a shepherd nearby because these are not wild animals; they’re too valuable. In many places where the road bed had been cut through the mountains, the cuts showed the pure white limestone which forms the mountains. Evidently, this limestone is a valuable commodity which is exported to India and other countries and is used in making cement, among other things.
Our first stop, strange as it may seem, was to experience a frankincense tree. Frankincense is a resin taken from this tree. It is burned in a little container and produces a fragrance which seems to be important for worship in certain religions (I assume Islam and Hindu, but there may be others). It has been a fixture in the spice trade for centuries, and our guide seemed to think that the tree originated in south Oman. [Not having good internet access, I can’t vouch for that statement.] At any rate, our bus stopped at what was evidently a well-frequented turnaround on the highway, where everyone got out and traipsed a short distance over a dirt path into a gully to see the tree that he wanted to show us. I noticed that passengers in other buses were led to different trees.
Next, we drove back along the way we had come and stopped at Mughsail Beach, which we had passed earlier. Our destination was at the far end of the beach, where high cliffs hung over a promontory on which walking paths and a ramp had been built to provide public access to blowholes generated by the action of the waves. We never saw any blowhole activity, but the views of the ocean and the cliffs from the pathways were stunning. The beach itself was beautiful, with a few amenities such as trash cans and shelters, but no people. Not one soul was on the beach. I don’t know why. A few minutes after the bus took off again, the passengers asked the driver to stop so they could take pictures of some camels which were wandering around near the beach. Being mostly Americans, they were thrilled to see real, live camels up close and not in a zoo. The guide told us that they are free to roam around on the beach during the day but that they come home to their owner at night for food. Nice life.
Our next stop was to be at Job’s tomb. As you might imagine, there is some disagreement about whether this is really Job’s tomb (not to mention whether there was someone named Job in the first place), but we decided to get what we could out of the experience. The location of the tomb was high up in the mountains above Salalah, and the drive up there through the mountain desert was beautiful. Just past the parking lot on the way to the tomb, bougainvillea had been planted and was in full flower – spectacular pinks and reds and oranges. Along the way up and down the mountain, we saw rural homesteads, more camels, power lines (the guide was proud that electricity has been provided everywhere), schools, and a number of infrastructure construction projects.
The rest of the tour we spent in Salalah, a community of 300,000 inhabitants and 200,000 camels. It’s on a flat plain between the mountains and the ocean. Other than coconuts and bananas there are few trees and little shrubbery. Landscaping around the sultan’s summer palace and, interestingly, in the middle of the roundabouts was beautifully done. That’s about it for greenery. In the residential areas, the houses seemed pretty big, and the guide pointed out that one house typically is home to multiple generations and to one’s extended family as well. The most common style seemed to be a two or three story box with a flat roof. All houses are fully enclosed by a high wall (to give women of the house some privacy). Stained glass window panels and arched windows and doorways are the norm. The commercial district of Salalah had a small-town look, but there were the hotels, car dealers, government and commercial buildings, mosques, and malls that one would expect. Many construction projects were also active. One of the nicer areas of town is near the royal palace, which has dozens of beautiful yellow limestone buildings which are used for the sultan’s business when he is in town.
We stopped at a row of fruit stands just on the edge of town which were offering several different kinds of fruit grown in the area, notably, coconuts, bananas, and papayas. I had a couple of the bananas, which are tiny, only about three inches long, and very flavorful. The fruit crop here is not seasonal. The climate is such that the trees can produce all year long. Our last stop was at a souq near the town center. They had many stalls selling frankincense and other spices, as well as souvenirs, perfumes, Islamic head wear for men (caps and turban cloth), and pashminas. We didn’t need anything there.
On our drive back to the ship, our guide told us a little about himself and stated that he’s very proud of his home town. I’m sure that’s true of anyone who has been there through the recent modernization efforts. South Oman and Salalah in particular seem to be prosperous and ready to take a place in the modern world.