Monday, March 05, 2007

Oman

Oman should be renamed Woah-man because it is so cool. It is definately one of my favourite countries. I think I would work in Oman if I had to choose a gulf country to stay in. Like the rest of the gulf countries, Oman is very wealthy, expensive and and newly developed, only 35 years ago, when the current Sultan took over, it was a total backwater with nothing at all. A few hundred years ago it was a powerful maritime empire stretching along the coasts south into eastern Africa and east into India. In a lot of ways it is the same as the rest of the gulf and has only recently opened up to tourism. Unlike the other countries though, there is a lot to see and do here. It also has a small population (less than 3 million people) so the density is really low. In true gulf fashion, it is busy, modern, has big cars driving around everywhere, etc but it also has something more. I had originally planned to stay only a few days, just long enough to cross it to get to Yemen but yesterday I got another week extention on my visa as I will end up being here close to a month. It has the type of atmosphere and feel that I just can't leave. It is very peaceful, friendly and relaxed. Whoever is in charge has done a great job.
My first stop was in a little town called Muladah. It is funny because arabic doesn't have a standardized transliteration system into english and their script doesn't add all the vowels so I have seen so many different spellings of everything out here. Even signs a few feet apart don't agree on spellings. I've seen Muladah spelt at least 5 different ways. Even Muscat, the capital, is often spelt Masqat. Anyway, first stop Muladah to stay with a Polish guy teaching english. Really cool guy, well travelled and had some crazy stories to tell (survived a plane crash in Russia last summer). He convinced me to stay longer in Oman as it can be affordable if I hitchhike everywhere (very easy here) and sleep outside if I have to (the nights are warm and the days 30C or more). There is certainly enough to see so I figured I'd give it a try.
I have been quite successful in my hitching though I have on occassion had to sleep outside. Nobody complains or even cares. You just lie down wherever you want. My record so far is 13 lifts in one day. There is something extremely awesome about standing on the side of the road, having taxis stop and telling them you will only go with them if they give you a free ride and include lunch with it. Of course they look at you like you are insane and proceed to try to rip you off (actually the taxis here might be the least insistent taxis I've ever met) . Even while they are standing there talking to you saying that it is impossible to hitch in Oman, a car will stop and sure enough you get your free ride and free lunch. Take that evil taxis! I've been in everything from big rigs and dumptrucks to cars driven by high ranking navy and army officers to tourist 4X4s (both on guided tours and as rentals). Some people pick you up to practice english, others, well, who knows. The funny thing is they all figure they are helping you a little and then drop you off at a taxi stand if they can't get you the whole way. They just don't understand the concept of not taking taxis because you don't want to. But I will definately not complain. The roads here are probably the smoothest and newest I have ever been on. The limit is 120km/h but even at up to 170km/h you don't feel like you are really moving. Through the mountains the roads are incredibly steep. I've never seen anything so steep and yet paved and it is obvious they don't have to worry about snow or even rain much.
The landscape is amazing. Very rough rocky brown mountains with very little vegetation. The are clumps of green here and there where people have made palm tree farms (for dates, yum yum). They get very little rain in general and there are lots of completely dried up rivers everywhere with bridges over them. I have asked and been told that yes, they are still rivers and will flash flood and fill up completely for brief periods of time (often only hours). In the meantime they use the river beds as soccer fields.
I even made it up to Jebel Shams (the tallest mountain in the region). Jebel Shams is itself nothing too exciting but from the top you look down into a valley (wadi) that is called the grand canyon of the middle east. Very impressive. I have been through a lot of little towns in the mountains between the UAE and Muscat so far. Places like Nizwa, Rustaq, Nakhal, Bahla, Hamra, etc. Each has a little fort and little market but usually not much else. Nakhal had some hot springs that I saw. Little fish in the water will nibble on your toes while you sit there relaxing.
They also have really nice beaches too. I've been to Sawadi, Yitti and the beaches within Muscat itself. The best part is that they are so empty and the water is pretty warm. Right now is the tourist season and there still aren't many people here. The population density is such that even the locals can't crowd a place too much. It's great.
Lately I have been basing myself out of Muscat. I met some great guys through couchsurfing and they have been taking care of me. They work during the week so I go for a couple days somewhere (like Jebel Shams) and then come back to hang out. The weekend here is thurs/fri. In most of the gulf they have switched to fri/sat to minimize dissynchrony with the west and in Lebanon it was friday and sunday. In any case, I totally don't know what day it is anymore.
Muscat itself is pretty interesting. Muscat is more like a collection of independent neighbourhoods and towns because they are all in little valley pockets and the whole city is spread out over such a large area. There is an old town and coastline as well, but again, everything is totally spread out. I like this country because everything is so carefully controlled and thought out and organized so that it develops and grows in a clean and cute way. Everything seems colour-coded, from the colours of the different types of water trucks (waste, drinking and gardening), to license plates, to uniforms of workers (construction, city gardening, garbage crew, etc). There is a law that says that no building can be more than 4 or 5 stories tall without special permission (which is rare) and that all windows must either be built with an arch or have an arch above them. Actually, pretty much everything is built in a false traditional style. It is really pretty and I like it a lot.
But like the rest of the gulf, it seems to be a story of several different worlds that rarely interact. I have been staying and hanging out with Indians and Pakistanis here in Muscat. They are surprised at my knowledge of the subcontinent and I have been complimented on how well I eat with my hands, hahahha. There are tons of people from the subcontinent working here. Their wages tend to be low (except for the skilled guys like the computer nuts that I am with) and living conditions horrible. Most are single men and because they rarely cook, there are tons of Indian restaurants here, all of which seem to sell monthly food plans. The few with families are easy to spot as they wear traditional Indian and Pakistani clothes including uncovered women. They play cricket everywhere and every chance they get. I have tried it and think I'm better off sticking to baseball. At least I can understand a little of the game now.
The Omani nationals (a decent percentage of which are black from the old african colonies like Zanzibar) wear much different clothes, cover their women, have too much money (but aren't as bad as some of the other countries) and are always playing soccer. There are tons and tons of kids here and even small villages in the middle of nowhere seem to have a few labourers from the subcontinent. I always thought that villagers were supposed to be tough and hard working but I guess that isn't always the case.... I have really only interacted with the Omanis when I get picked up hitching somewhere. I have found them to be really friendly and helpful though.
The 3rd and 4th worlds are those of the western expats (that I really haven't seen at all except for the odd one driving by or sitting at the beach) and the arab foreigners (Egyptians, Syrians, etc.). I haven't met any at all but I know they are here somewhere. It is just interesting that all these groups rarely interact with each other beyond what their jobs require. Maybe everywhere is like that but I was too busy in my own group in other places to notice.
Ammon

2 Comments:

At 9:39 AM , Blogger The Watkins said...

I love your blogs Ammon. You have so much great information in them and I am very very very jealous. I can't wait to be back on the road and I hate you for seeing so much with out me hahaaha.how many countries have you been to anyway now?
love you Mom. See you in a few weeks.

 
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