Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
I decided to splurge (with my husband’s encouragement) on a weekend away in Oman (country number 31 for me) and it was an excellent decision (last weekend was rather dull in solitary confinement in Saudi Arabia)! Several geologist friends had raved about Oman and I had a feeling that I would love it there. It is now by far my favourite country in the region and I am already planning my next trip there. I flew with Oman Air (which was very comfortable) and after buying a visa on arrival I waited for about an hour to pass through Immigration. It was interesting watching the super relaxed Immigration officers walking around, greeting each other, chatting and sometimes applying themselves to the task at hand of stamping passports. To greet one another in an affectionate way, the men touched foreheads once, twice, paused then 3 times. For less affectionate greetings there was a single press of the forehead. I was intrigued by this ritual and have never seen it anywhere else. I was also delighted to look at the beautiful embroidery on the turbans of some of the Omani men, made of pashminas from Kashmir.
I was on a tight budget so I booked into the oldest hotel in Oman (1970), called Mutrah Hotel. It’s well rated on Booking.com and very reasonably priced. I really liked the hotel and I can recommend it to anyone that doesn’t need to be spoiled by modern luxury hotels.
The hotel is about a 20 minute walk from the Souk and the Corniche. It’s in a run-down area but I wandered around day and night and felt safe. In fact, after Friday prayers were over, I was greeted enthusiastically by many different people as I headed down to the Corniche.
I was very unimpressed when the taxi driver from the airport, after telling me about his wife and 4 children, said that if I wanted him to drive me tomorrow that’s fine, if I wanted company that’s fine, if I wanted him to come to my room that’s fine. I practically ran away from the cab and felt like disinfecting myself.
On Friday morning I walked from my hotel to the Souk, in the hope of catching it before it closed for the long daytime break (11:30 until 16:30). I was there with enough time to walk through it fairly quickly and buy a few souvenirs for my family and some frankincense and myrrh with a charcoal burner from a bemused vendor outside the souk who obviously never deals with foreigners.
As the stalls snapped shut at 11:30 I strolled out and was captivated by the antiques in the shop at the Corniche end of the Souk. I figured that their prices would be higher due to rent for a proper shopfront but I liked that the staff didn’t bother me at all and offered genuine assistance rather than ‘Madam, try this’ like in the Souk. I bought a few items from there that I hope will make our home more cosy but that weighed a ton (including a brass antique, hand-engraved, Omani coffee pot). My poor carry-on size backpack had to stretch to accommodate the purchases and groaned under the weight. Normally I avoid buying souvenirs but this time I wanted to take home something meaningful.
I admired many different styles of abayas in the souk, including some in Autumn colours, worn by African women. I also admired several different styles of hijab and noticed that few women wore the niqab. My favourite hijab style involves piling the hair on the head then tucking the hijab in around the hair at the top to make a turret. It looks great. Meanwhile I reveled in the opportunity to be in public without my abaya or hijab and to walk freely on my own.
As I took this photo of the gorgeous tiled mosque that is along the waterfront from the Souk, I noticed that a group of South Asian men were taking photos of me! They should have asked and I would have smiled for them 😉
As I walked along the corniche in the warm sunshine (32C), with a mild sea breeze, enjoying watching wooden dhows in the harbour and the Sultan’s private cruise ships, I also saw some wildlife. I saw a school of fish and some gorgeous red crabs on the rocks. I stopped at the halfway point and sat in the shade on the grass. No sooner had I pulled out my book to read than an extroverted, young Nepali woman sat down right next to me. I was a little started and distrustful of whether a scam was at foot but found that she genuinely wanted to connect with me. I greeted her in Nepali and we talked about my trip to her beautiful country and her hometown. She is 21 and working as a house maid for an English family. She moved here when she was 16 with her family and has mastered Arabic and now is learning English. She was like a hummingbird, always turning her head and being distracted by the actions of other tourists. She chatted easily with a group of Phillipinos and invited them to take photos with us. She wanted me to spend the afternoon with her and we walked towards the next headland to catch a cab. As we walked together, her only being tall enough to read my elbow and pert and gorgeous as she bounced along, I felt gangly and awkward. When we reached the headland she saw a friend across the road, shouted a conversation with her across 4 lanes of traffic, told me she had to go, and took off.
I walked on and climbed the hill towards old Muscat. A taxi driver slowed down and offered me a free tour of the city. Knowing that nothing is free I declined and walked on. He must have looped around because we I went to cross the next street he was waiting and renewed his offer. I declined and was walking off when I figured that I would give him a chance to show me the city afterall.
Our first stop was the gateway to the Old city of Muscat.
He took a small, mountain hugging road to show me the view of Old Muscat, you can just see the fort in the distance.
Our next stop was the Palace of Sultan Qaboos. At this point he slapped me on the shoulder-blade a couple of times and told me repeatedly that I’m beautiful. I rebuffed him by saying that I’m just normal.
At the secret harbour of Old Muscat, I had the chance to chat with a Syrian couple who are professionals and escaped Syria when the war started. They are working in Oman but would dearly love to move to Australia. They were warm, sweet, friendly people with a bewildered sadness in their eyes. I commiserated with them over the awful situation in their homeland and gave them my card so that they can contact me when they arrive in Australia.
From Old Muscat the driver, drove me to Qurm, which is a long way to the west and is a popular and touristic beach-side area. I hadn’t had any lunch and the sun was nearly setting so he took me to a typical Omani restaurant. I was excited to go there until I discovered that we were shown into a private room with the door shut behind us. When I returned from using the bathroom I was repelled to find him lounging creepily against the floor cushions. I sat as far from him as I decently could and each time that he tried to touch me I pushed him away. I scoffed the fish with a little bit of byriani and stood and said I wanted to leave. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t want to join him on the cushions. Next he took me to a shisha bar, thankfully outdoors and told me creepy stories about his flings in foreign countries with women, including an Israeli woman (who incredibly had never heard of Oman and was horrified when she realised she’d been sleeping with an Arab), and a close encounter with a Lady Boy in Bangkok. He told me that he could do whatever he wanted to me but he wouldn’t because he believes in both people being interested in an encounter. I nearly screamed and insisted that he take me directly to my hotel. He tried to insist that I freshen up and then he would take me to buy a party dress then take me out dancing. I flatly refused at least 5 times and was dearly glad to reach my hotel safely. That man is revolting and should be avoided by all single women (unless that’s what you are looking for). It was a repulsive experience and unfortunately coloured my memory of that afternoon. Unfortunately my open mind, friendly attitude and interest in interacting with people seems to make me a target for selfish, creepy men like this and I can think of multiple other occasions when I have foolishly put myself in such situations. Fortunately I have never been physically attacked but I will be more prudent in future and flatly say no from the beginning. It was a relief to get back to this country today where I am either ignored or avoided by men!
Don’t worry though because as soon as I walked into my hotel, feeling revolted and wary, my experience of Oman improved drastically and the rest of my weekend was excellent. Stay tuned for the next installment!
My other posts so far on this trip: