Monday, May 17, 2010

Muscat, Oman

Muscat, Oman
Monday, April 19, 2010

Oman has only two sights -- the grand mosque and the souk. The ship stopped for only a half day, and I took the ship tour. I noticed immediately the incredible drop in humidity from India; it was like a dream to walk outside. Later the temperature reached 42 C, but in the shade, it was very comfortable. What a difference from India, and previous stops on the cruise, where the humidity was always near 100 percent. Many people ate breakfast outside in the Panorama restaurant as the ship docked. What a pleasure to have low humidity.

The bus tour went first to the mosque, the second largest mosque in the world. As the bus set out, and along the way to the mosque, I noticed the new roads and the new cars on the roads. Additional road work was underway in many places. We were told that Oman has no public transportation; however, minibus taxis operated on schedule, with scheduled stops where people waited for their taxi. These minivan taxis were plentiful, holding about 12 passengers each. Clearly, many people used these taxis to commute to work. The roads were jammed with traffic that was stop-and-go in the morning rush hour.

As the bus made its way to the mosque, I noticed that the geography of Oman is rocky hills, with the population located in the “valleys” between the rocky hills. Thus, the city seems to snake its way among the hills like an endless maze. The hills seem to be granite, so that construction on them would seem to be very difficult.

The mosque can be described only in photos; it is very beautiful, with a giant chandelier made of Swarovski crystals. All mosques are alike in several ways -- women pray in an area that is separate from the men, and all prayer rooms are a large open area where worshipers can kneel on a beautiful carpet to pray. Mosques are beautiful inside, but they are not like churches, with pews. Instead, they are open carpeted areas where those in attendance can kneel to pray. The mosque in Oman has a beautiful carpet and a beautiful chandelier, inviting attendees to kneel and pray and feel inspired.

We had been instructed prior to the tour of the mosque that everyone would be required to remove their shoes, and women would be required to cover their heads and wear long sleeved blouses so that none of their arms showed. However, some of the women had not got the message, and were not admitted because they were wearing short sleeved blouses. One insane woman on another bus raised a fuss and said the policy was “stupid”. This insult was an insult to Islam itself, and the guards took the insult very seriously. They demanded an apology from the woman and held the tour bus until they got an adequate apology from the Cruise Line as well. The woman had returned to the bus, and refused to get off to apologize; she was afraid that they were going to take her to prison. Finally, the woman was forced to get off the bus and apologize, but she held up the tour for some time. I was glad she was not on the bus I was on.

After the mosque, the tour went to the souk -- the warren of shops. I love the souks. The first one I encountered was in Istanbul in 2000, and I have enjoyed going to them since then. This one was wonderful, with shop after shop filled with wondrous items, meant mostly for locals, although also available to tourists. Shopkeepers invited all passers by to enter and look, and people from the ship were clearly buying souvenirs. I took dozens of photos in the souk, fortunately remembering to remove my lens filter first, so the photos are sharp and clear.

In the souk, almost all of the local men were dressed in disdashas, and almost all the women were wearing abayas, many with their faces covered. I took a few photos of men and women, as well as in shops. I asked, and most people did not object to my taking their photo. I wandered deep into the souk, taking several of the alleyways on my journey, and when it was time to return to the bus, I was not entirely sure how to make out way back to the bus. As I talked with several other passengers about directions, a tall, thin woman wearing an abaya with her face completely covered except for her eyes, stopped near us and then to my surprise, asked in English if we were lost and needed help. I was so stunned that I failed to ask her if I could take her photo, and I was sorry later.

The tour guide mentioned that in order to marry, young men in Oman must pay a dowry to his bride’s family. The amount varies, but is in the range of 30-40,000 U.S. dollars. He said that more than 70 percent of young Omani men are not married because they cannot afford a wife. I asked him what the young women do for husbands, and he told me that they marry Kuwaitis or young men from the United Arab Republics. He also volunteered that young men who are not married often visit “massage” parlors for sexual relief, and that these massage parlors are legal in Oman.

After leaving the souk, the bus took us to a museum of Oman history. I was not interested, so I wandered around outside, and then went to a very nice gift shop of the museum. It was a really nice gift shop, but many, or most, of the items were made in China. It was not a gift shop of Omani crafts, except for one item. Frankincense is grown in Oman, and it is a national product. It was sold in the gift shop in a variety of small containers, ready for burning.

After leaving the museum, the bus made a final stop at one of the Sultan’s seven palaces. This one was not a home, but a business office for the Sultan, who is the chief finance officer for Oman; the ministry of finance is located in adjacent buildings. I took a few photos, and then the bus made its way back to the ship. I enjoyed our brief stop in Oman.

No comments: