Sunday, July 1, 2012

Road Trip to Oman: Muscat and Bar Al Jissah

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The hole in the rock drew me through time after time.
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The Brahmin bull barely fit in the little pickup.
It’s always interesting to see large camels, often two at a time, riding placidly to market or camel races in the back of small pickup trucks. Even more remarkable was the Brahmin bull we saw shortly after leaving Nizwa.

Along with camel racing, bull fighting is popular in Oman, and this bull was no doubt on its way to Barka, a town along the coast east of Muscat. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about camel racing or bull fighting, because we haven’t seen either one yet. I wondered if this bull was on his way to a bloody battle to the death, so I did a little research on it. Animal lovers will be relatively happy to read that the Omani bull fighting is not like Spanish bull fights.

Barka bullfight action. Photo by Lars Plougmann“The fort of Barka & its old bull fighting arena where the bloodless bull fight still takes place is not (to) be missed during a trip to Oman where Brahmin bulls of a similar size are pitted against each other in a boisterous battle. The fight is fairly short, but enthusiastically received by the audience, and the bulls suffer little or no injury, unlike in Spanish bull fighting.

Bulls were traditionally brought into the Middle East for heavy labour, such as for pulling ploughs and turning waterwheels. With tractors and machine-driven water pumps, the traditional role of the bull has diminished, while the popularity of the bull-fighting sport has increased amongst expatriates and locals alike.

It is difficult to pin point when bullfights will occur as they can be quite spontaneous affairs. On the whole, they are held on holidays and celebration days, either early in the morning, or late afternoon, when it is cooler.”

I love this view of Old Muscat.
About an hour later, we were turning right and heading west into Muscat. We drove through the business district toward Bar al Jissah, bypassing the Mutrah, with its picturesque bay and bustling souq, because we planned to go there on Saturday.

Yet we took a wrong turn, rounded a curve and there was Old Muscat below us, one of my iconic visual images of the Middle East. We drove down and through the district; Lucy and Tom could see the Al Alam Palace.

We didn’t dawdle though, as we were anxious to get settled into the resort lifestyle. We pulled into the portico, and our car was whisked off by a valet as our luggage was loaded onto a cart, a large portion of which was taken up with my inflatable ULI board and Mark’s two sets of snorkeling gear. After what seemed an inordinate amount of time getting checked in we were happy to find ourselves in adjacent water view rooms on the ground floor with easy access to the beach. Between us and the beach flowed the “Lazy River,” where you could jump onto an inner tube and float between two of the resort’s three hotels.

012There’s not much point in going into detail about the hotel. If you are interested just go to the website

As for the rest of it, the pictures tell the story. I spent countless hours on my board paddling around and through the rock formations. Lucy’s favorite thing to do is paddle around while listening to music or a book on her IPod; she has a special waterproof case and earphones. Tom loves to sleep on the beach in the sun; he must be part lizard. Mark swam and caught up on his “restation” and television watching.

Beautiful coastline. The green line is my paddling range, about 2 miles total.

Turtles look a little bit like this when they
poke their heads up to breathe.
This however is Mark.
One morning as I paddled I came upon a person snorkeling. It was Mark, who told me that he had seen turtles. The Gulf of Oman and Arabian Gulf are hawksbill and green turtle breeding grounds from January to July. The turtles come onto the beaches and lay their eggs, leaving telltale tracks so that the nests can be identified and protected. The beaches at our hotel had sixteen nests that were marked off with ropes and signs so that no one would dig them up. Each sign included the expected date of the hatch, which guests are encouraged to witness. I went snorkeling later with Mark, but we didn’t see any turtles. However, Lucy saw a turtle when she snorkeled early the next morning.

Incense burner landmark.
Friday at about 3:30 p.m. Mark and I decided that we wanted to do a little shopping in the hotel complex. We heard there was a shuttle to the shops in the small Heritage Village onsite. We were directed out through the lobby and onto a small bus. We were the first onboard; eventually the vehicle was loaded to capacity. Just as the last people were getting on board and others were turned away, I said to Mark: “This doesn’t feel right. I think this bus might be going to Mutrah.” Oops! The door shut and we were on the road. Sure enough, as Mark began to grumble under his breath, we found ourselves cresting the hill, driving through Old Muscat and along the Corniche. I sat back and enjoyed the scenery, talking with a young American man in the seat next to me who has been living and working in Abu Dhabi for nine years.

Presently we pulled up and stopped at the entrance to the Mutrah souq. “Be back here at 6:30!” the driver instructed us. “Are you going back to the hotel now,” I asked? No, the driver said. We explained that we had gotten onto the wrong bus by mistake and needed to go back to the hotel immediately. “No problem! I will drive you back. No problem.”

This is an example of the friendly and accommodating way that Omanis treat their visitors. On the way back to the hotel, the driver told us about his family, and that he lives on the other side of Muscat. If we hadn’t needed a ride back, he could have gone home for two hours before picking up his passengers. Yet he could not have been more pleasant telling us that no, he wasn’t planning to do that today anyway.

He dropped us off at the Heritage Village, which was so close we could easily have walked. We found a shop and owner that we really liked, and promised to come back the next day to buy. Which, as it turned out, I had to do because I left my sunglasses behind by mistake.

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We had an opportunity to see the palace at night.
The next day was our planned outing to Muscat. Around mid-afternoon Mark and I piled into the car with Tom and Lucy, and just as we were pulling out of the portico an attendant said, “Your tire is low.” It was, in fact, completely flat. First the car isn’t running right, and now a flat tire!

What made it worse was that the tires were brand new. And second, our used Cayenne came without a spare. All we had was a can of fix-it goo. So while Lucy and I walked over to the Heritage Village to get my sunglasses, the boys assessed the situation. Eventually they got a ride into Muscat in a hotel van, and the tire was fixed. It’s still a mystery as to why it was flat. Mark theorizes that perhaps it wasn’t installed properly, or maybe when the hotel parked it they jammed the tire against a little rocky curb. Lucy says she heard a whistling noise coming from it when we pulled up at the hotel the day before. We’ll never know.

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Trinkets at the souq.
That took hours. Eventually we did make it to Muscat but not until after dark. We had dinner at our favorite seafood restaurant, took a quick tour through the souq, and headed back over the hill to Bar Al Jissah. It was Saturday, the night before the holy day, and the streets were packed.

Muscat is perhaps Mark’s and my favorite place in the Middle East, so far. We love the sense of history and adventure that permeates this country, its beautiful landscapes both lush and stark, and the work ethic of the Omani people who still farm the land, fish the Gulf of Oman, run small businesses and drive taxis. Its seafaring history appeals to us, and I love the complex geology. There is so much left for us to discover about this country.

Postscript: After we got home, Mark did some work on the car. The air filter wasn't properly installed, and there were a couple of other adjustments. Now the car runs fine, but he still doesn't trust it.

Thanks for reading.

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