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Oman February 10, 2006 Español

Posted by Belle in : Oman

I have to admit, I was a bit anxious about arriving in Oman. Sandwiched between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Oman lies across the water from Iran, smack dab in the middle of the Muslim world. I could not imagine why they would welcome us into their country. We decided to really look for the positive and play down the negative. We’ve learned when you arrive at a place with a lot of negative prejudices, you will look for them all around you and because that is all you are looking for, not only will you find what you are looking for, but they will be the dominant features, and eventually what you remember. We wanted to have our own memories of Oman. We have come across many travelers who seem as interested in confirming all the bad stereotypes as having their own personal experiences. I see it as a kind of global gossip that takes away from the romance of exploring a new land.

Oman was the first place we had been where almost everyone wore the full Muslim dress. Men wore long sleeved tunics that fell just above the ground with small caps (fez), Bedouin head scarves or turbans. The women wore black, loose fitting, long dresses that covered their entire bodies except their hands and face. Apparently in Muscat, the capital of Oman, they wear very colorful dresses, but not in Salalah. Some women covered their faces, revealing only their eyes, others did not. I think I only saw two women wearing burqas, the infamous black bag with mere slits in the fabric for eyes. Wandering through the streets of Salalah in our baseball caps, floral prints, and Tevas, it was hard not to feel a little out of place and shy.

The first two times we went into town we did not see other tourists. At first it seemed like the people were unfriendly. They didn’t melt at our adorable children. Some would not look our way. Some seemed to even go out of their way to walk as far away as possible. But the moment we asked for any kind of help, everyone dropped everything. Whenever we asked where something was, people would offer to drive us there. So, they may not be outgoing and welcoming, but it is not that they are not nice. They seem to be more private. For example, every internet café has very private cubicles around each computer. The one restaurant in town with Omani food has private rooms for every table. We loved it. The only place I can take the boys, breast feed without any worries, and let Dio roam the room without worrying about whether or not he is disturbing the other guests. The waiter and kitchen staff were gentle and kind with us, respectfully keeping a distance, but warm. And when we kept coming back for more lentils and rice, they seemed pleased.

We were in Oman in their dry season. Not when it is 120 degrees, nor when it rains every day. They say during and after the rainy season Salalah is gorgeous, so green and full of life. What we saw was dessert. Miles and miles of rolling sand and rocks. A frankincense tree here and there surrounded by miles of lifeless sandy dirt. Camels walk alongside the highway. All of the cars are white here. Every single one. And it cannot be that they are all rentals. It must have something to do with the heat. I could not imagine being there at the peak of dryness and heat.

There is not a lot to see close to Salalah. No quaint tourist section of town. No malls or museums. And we did not dare to invade a mosque. Unfortunately we did not have time to go to Muscat. Ten hours in a car with two babies is too far. Muscat is supposed to be a bit richer culturally and easier for tourists. But we decided we would go see everything that one could possibly see near Salalah

Mirbat Castle.

The word “castle” usually implies a grandiose, formidable structure composed of stones, your basic towers, possibly a mote, a monumental wall to keep out intruders…blahblahblah. Well, The Mirabat castle is a bit different. There is no gigantic wall for protection. Instead, the castle is one of many buildings in town. There are towers, one has a collapsed cannon peeking out of the torrent, but it’s all on a mini scale. It also looks more stucco than anything else, with some of the old rocks occasionally protruding out from beneath. Wooden planks with carved patterns of Kremlinesque mushroom caps keep out some of the light while allowing some air to pass through. Since the Omanis are not very accustomed, nor desiring of mass tourism, there is not a lot of information on site to interest the visitor. At first I found this annoying. But in a way it did marvels for the place. Instead of concentrating on what most probably would be somewhat boring facts about the building, which kind of weapons were stored in this room, where the food was kept, etc. it required that you make up your own story of all of the possible events that took place in this castle. The most interesting part of the Mirbat Castle, however, was the man who worked there.

He sat on a simple rug spread across the dirt floor in a room on the first floor. He invited us inside to sit with him and rest in the shade. After we had arranged ourselves randomly against the walls on the floor on top of colorful woolen pillows, he offered us some tea. The truth is, I’m not much of a tea drinker, but it seemed like an offer I could not refuse. Without moving from his seat, he took some small glasses out of a bag, rinsed them quickly in a bowl of water, and set them down in front of him. Then he reached behind his back, picked up a surprisingly modern thermos and poured tea into the glasses. He offered each glass slowly and deliberately until we were all holding our own glass. Silence. The light shone through the mushroom top windows, into the amber colored tea, adding that element of beauty and magic that only the right light can. Suddenly I was transported in time. Arabian Nights. A beautiful black stallion flying across miles of flaming red sand dunes, a princess hiding in the dark as two men duel to the death, with those impressive, curved bladed swords. Maybe that Arabian princess sat on this very same floor, in front of the master of the house who was this man’s great great great grandfather. And they drank this very same kind of tea. As I smelled the tea from my small glass, I closed my eyes, waiting to sip the taste of ancient Arabia. I swallowed my first sip. It tasted so exotic, so pure, so delicious to me: liquid gold in a glass. I had to ask what kind of tea it was. The thought that I might be able to bring this very taste to my friends and family back home, perhaps if I learned how to make it here in Oman, it was the best way I could give them a piece of my adventures around the world. A unique cup of tea. Of course I would have to sneak it through customs, a tough challenge these post 9/11 days. And my parents would definitely not approve of any illicit smuggled gifts. But, they would not have to know.

“This tea is delicious.” I said, bowing my head to this man who had welcomed me into his world through a cup of tea. The perfect cup of tea. He looked at me and smiled ever so softly. And then, as if he could read my mind, he told me what kind of manna I was drinking.
“Lipton. Yellow Label.”

After I got over the initial blow that I was not drinking tea as the Sumerians prepared, I listened to Wence try to bridge the gap between this man’s world and ours with a bit of light conversation. Only Wence can do things like this. After telling him where we were from and that we lived on a boat, Wences began to ask him questions. Some how we got on the topic of polygamy. Wence has a way of going for the juglar in more ways than one. Liz and I kept our mouths shut, trying to see if there might be anything positive about being one in a flock of wives. One of the first things our host asked Wence was, “How much did you pay for your wife?” We all laughed. “Nothing.” Wence continued. They actually paid me to take her.” Our host looked very confused. Then he looked at me with genuine pity in his eyes. “But she is a good wife, she is nice to look at and strong. She has brought you two sons. That is not right. If you wanted to marry her, and you wanted her to have your sons, you should have paid for her.”

Suddenly I felt totally unappreciated. Worse than a cheap date, I was a FREE WIFE! Maybe there was something to this Muslim way. I mean, I was definitely worth some money. I wondered how much. How do you judge something like that? There must be a precedent. Suddenly I imagined myself in a traditional Muslim dress, being led into a shed where two Muslim men and two Muslim women sat at a long, wooden table, pen and paper in hand.

“Teeth?” Said one of the women. Suddenly my mouth was jarred open to reveal what really is an impressive, cavity free collection of pearly whites. I have not had a cavity since I was five years old. Now that should be worth serious bucks.
The oldest man dressed in a brown tunic shakes his head. “Too small. 10% discount.” Worse than any ballet audition or oral report I had ever experienced. I felt naked under my burqa. They would definitely see that I was a bit bowl legged. How much discount would that cost me? I gladly ran back to my western woman identity.
“Do you have more than one wife?” Wence asked. A western man’s dream. Multiple wives. How cliché.

Our host explained to us that he had one wife with whom he had two children. And they had been happy together for quite some time. But recently he had decided he wanted another wife. Apparently you need to pay much more for the second wife than for the first wife, to ensure that you have enough money to support her and the children she hopefully will bring. But his first wife did not like the idea much so he was not sure what to do. We definitely had no advice to offer. We asked him what this second wife looked like.
“Oh. I have never seen her. I have seen her eyes, and they are beautiful, but it is forbidden to see anything else.

Of course, that was a bit difficult for us to imagine.

We then asked if they had been friends for a while. “Oh no. Friendhip between a man and a woman is forbidden.” HMMMMM. That does not leave a lot of options on the getting to know you scenario. So they do not marry out of infatuation, as probably many do. Well, that’s good. But they do not marry from a deep understanding, love and respect for one another due to hours of conversation. Hmm. How do you decide then? We were all pretty speechless at this point, trying to imagine how you could possibly fall in love with someone if you can not see them or talk to them. I think we were all convinced that he had cheated somehow. How else could you make such a commitment?

He also told us that women had freedom and the right to vote in Oman before they did in the United States. I was embarrassed that I did not know those important dates in the history of American women. Something to look up and commit to memory. Freedom also seems to be word that can also be interpreted in many ways. I opted not to argue with him. Instead I was impressed that these things also seemed important to him. Regardless of whether we shared the same interpretation of these words. The men and women in Oman live by a rather strict set of rules and principles. They do not have the threat of prison or capital punishment for not abiding, but I think the community would take care of any major problem on its own.

He was a very interesting man. Curious without being annoying, opinionated without being overbearing or rude. He was one of the few Omanis with whom we were really able to share a conversation and to share ourselves.

Job’s Tomb

In the middle of the desert, on top of some stony cliff, lies Jobs tomb. There is a tiny house around it, some pink, flowering bushes, and a small parking lot. Job’s tomb lies in the middle of the floor in a very small building. As does one of his “footprints”. Apparently Job was 11 feet tall. My God! No wonder God chose him to fight with. Basically Job was a giant. The man guarding Job’s tomb recited prayers the entire time we were there, without stopping for a second. I thought he must have realized that an agnostic had entered the room. I left quickly so that he could have a moment to breathe.

Beach towards the Yemen border

One of the most beautiful beaches I have seen is in Oman. The different shades of blue varying from a gorgeous light sapphire blue followed by cool turquoise with white fringes of the surf. Fine sand is framed by steep, curving cliffs. It’s what might be called, a dramatic landscape. A beach like this in the United States or Europe would have high rise hotels all over it with thousands of tourists baking in the sun. Yes, there is a Hilton in Salalah. But the tourists do not leave the hotel and there are miles between its borders and any other hotel. And there is always a breeze so it never feels too hot. On the beach, that is. Every acre or so, on this beach, there was a simple concrete house offering shade from the sun. Every house was filled with a family. Burqas at the beach. The women seemed to keep their traditional dress at the beach where as the rest of the family puts shorts on. One thing I can say about tradition dress for women, no sunburn.

As we arrived at our little concrete beach shack, we noticed dolphins just beyond the surf. I’ve never seen dolphins so close to the shore. Of course we all wanted to go swim with them, but by the time we changed they were gone. We sat in our little beach house and ate our Kentucky Fried Chicken take out, which we all admittedly LOVED and looked at this amazing, almost empty beach.

Later David and Dio flew a kite, Liz and Dio played in the surf, I nursed Theodore to sleep. It was a very peaceful afternoon.

We made one friend in Oman. His name was Salih. We met him at a coffee shop. He was sitting with half a dozen of his friends. Dio interrupted their gathering for a little attention. Some of the men did not react and others could not help themselves but smile a little. Soon Dio was sitting on their laps drinking coffee. Salih spoke English very well. He asked your basic, what the hell are you doing here, question, in an extremely polite way. He seemed interested in this going around the world idea. He had been in the Secret Service years back. Secret Service, I knew that would be a huge hook for Wence. Wence immediately invited him to the boat for a beer. But of course Muslims don’t drink so Salih was a bit vague on his response. But they did manage to exchange cards. The next day Wences arrived at the same coffee shop at the same time with half a dozen Simpatica t-shirts. As he handed them to these men wearing dressing gowns, they looked at him as if he were a crazy man. Of course they would never wear them. I mean, these men do not wear t-shirts. Maybe never. But I was still proud of Wences because he was trying to give them something and that was all we could give that maybe they would accept. Salih accepted the t-shirt almost grudgingly, but a few days later he called out of the blue and accepted an invitation to our boat.

Salih arrived with a Catalan bird watcher he had found, lost and weary, roaming the streets of Salalah. It probably seemed so fitting to him that he had met two seemingly lost, Spanish speaking men in the same week. Of course he had to bring them together, make them feel more at home. And he did just that. They stayed for hours on the boat, talking about all kinds of things. From the abundance of birds in Oman, apparently it has quite a collection of species, to relationships, to how to tell a good quality traditional Omani cap and gown from another. Salih told us he had actually seen his wife before marrying. Suddenly we felt sorry for our friend and the Mirbat castle. And he also revealed that he was not in love with his wife and never wanted to be in love. That love was a scary thing that made you weak. Of course, we all know that is true. And we also know it is so much more than that. But how can you explain what love is to someone who has never felt it. I wished this gentle man could experience its torment, and giddiness in all of its wonderful, beauty. But of course you cannot give that to someone. Wence asked why when he had given him the t-shirt he had seemed uncomfortable. Sali explained that since we were in his country, he was the host and it was his place to give, not ours. He felt embarrassed. We wished we had more time to spend with Salih. He was a true gentleman. If we ever go back to Oman, we would love to see him again.