January 26, 2010 (Muscat, Oman)

JANUARY 26 – MUSCAT, OMAN

Be honest, do you know where Oman is? I didn’t, until I saw the itinerary for this voyage. Take a look at your atlas or google it. It borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Indian Ocean (Arabian Sea). All the military ships streaming towards the Persian Gulf right now need to pass by this peaceful country on the way.

Oman is the oldest of the Gulf States with settlements dating back 5,000 years. The region was important when Frankincense (sap from the native Boswellia tree) was a popular religious tool. The resin was believed to cure illness and was valued like gold in the early Christian era. At the height of trade, Frankincense was exported as far away as Rome. Oman was independent until 16th century Portuguese traders established forts. They retained control for over 100 years before being driven out in 1650. Two of the forts still dominate the Muscat shoreline and are in use today by the local military. Over 95% of the country is desert.

We pulled into the harbor just after sunrise, and I was blown away by the jagged mountains that loomed above the city like parched guardians. Two tug boats greeted us with a Water Canon Salute as we glided towards our berth at the container port. The 1.2 million residents are crammed into a seaside community that cannot expand vertically (due to traditional islamic building codes) or horizontally (you can see why). The Omani people cling to their traditional roots and decided not to become “another Dubai” even though the spectacular location on the Gulf of Oman could easily become a tourist infested Mecca.

We were lectured to respect local customs, or, possibly end up in jail (we saw one, believe me, that’s incentive enough not to “sin”). It is against the law to wear tight clothing that reveals “one’s shape”, and elbows and knees must be covered. The temperature at 9 AM was already 92F, so I was devilishly tempted to test the convictions of tradition by flamboyantly revealing my arm and leg joints… but alas, Steve was my voice of reason. There were many women leaving the ship in skin tight pants and I grumbled about how disrespectful they were, that they deserved to end up in chains… until I realized that before they got on the ship (100+ gourmet meals ago) their clothes probably were loose. You need to ask permission before taking photos of anyone. As in many cultures, there is a belief that the camera steals part of the soul. Smoking is not against the law, but smoking in public is a major no no. Alcohol is illegal so we left our Bloody Mary’s on the gangway and headed into town via shuttle.

We were deposited outside the Mutrah Souk; a bustling central market at the heart of the city with over 1,000 stalls lining both sides of narrow passageways. Most men wore bright white full length cotton dresses (for lack of a better word) with a head covering. The outfits looked light weight, cool, and comfortable. Others had on boring “western style” clothing like us. Conversely, when a woman steps out of her home, she is required to wear a full length black dress (it looked suspiciously synthetic and airtight) with her head and hair completely covered. Black? In that heat? In the summer (June-Sept) the temperature soars to 120F but there is no “summer weight” option. I whine when it reaches 80F. Many women decorate their shrouds with sequined lace trim, providing some sense of individuality in public. They have “clothing freedom” at home, and I was thrilled to see shops laden with fabrics exploding with color and pattern. “One Man” Ladies Tailoring Shops on every block were bustling with hunch backed sewing machinists; laps covered in silky cloth waiting to be transformed into a “sequestered joy”.

We meandered through neighborhoods as curious onlookers stared at our blue eyed faces and pointed at our hiking shoes; shaking their heads in wonder. Everyone wears sandals here. Kids dared each other to touch us, before racing away in fits of giggles. We were beckoned to share in an outdoor feast of fruit with several locals lounging around a makeshift table. We politely declined… rubbing our tummies to indicate we had just eaten. Sampling fresh fruit on the street, rinsed off from a pipe that emits beige water is not a good idea.

Besides… we had a mission back at the souk. I burn Frankincense incense at home and I was psyched to have an opportunity to take home the “real stuff” in it’s raw form (hopefully the custom officers in New York will share my bliss). Steve was pumped up for haggling – so I set him to the task. He bargained with two separate merchants before buying a 2 pound bag of white pebbly soft pieces. You put a chunk on a small square of smokeless coal to release the scent. It’s heavenly. You can also chew it like gum. Steve was very happy with the deal he got, that is, until he saw the satisfied smile on the merchant in the picture I took after the transaction…. perhaps he could have knocked off a little more… we’ll never know, will we?

Steve and Frankincense Merchant in Muscat Souk

As we left Muscat, the oppressive heat had softened and the townspeople lined the shoreline to wave goodbye to the Queen. The now, wealthier merchants, pockets bulging with US dollars and Euros, rested in the shade.

Fort al-Jalali in Muscat, Oman. Built by the Portuguese in 1580.
Muscat Harbor, Oman
Muscat and the Queen Mary 2

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