interesting brown

In which I discover a part of the Middle East that I actually rather like, I guess.

I went to Oman last weekend with coworkers. It was interesting.



We stayed in a villa rented on AirBnB.com. It had three bedrooms and two and a half baths, though one of the full bathrooms had one of those Arab and Asian style toilets that are just holes in the floor, and a shower head hanging over all. Nevertheless, it was all comfortable. The owner of the villa had a cat, so I was placed in charge of him. He was very friendly and talkative. Because there were six of us and three bedrooms I slept in the living room on foam mattresses provided, which was perfectly fine. The villa was on a quiet street, surrounded by groves of date palms.

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We all flew out of Abu Dhabi on Thursday night, at about 9 pm. We had to run our bags through scanners twice during check-in, but even so the security screening was not as bad as it would be in the US. I never once had to take off my shoes or wonder if someone would confiscate my toothpaste.

The flight was only about an hour long, but we spent another two hours first going through customs, then getting phone sim cards, so we could have phone service, and then renting two SUVs for the drive into the Al Hajar mountains. By the time we got to the villa, near Birkat Al Mouz, which means 'Pool of Bananas', it was about 1:30 am. Some of us were starving so we spent another hour looking for food. First we tried the Hungry Bunny, a local fast food joint, but we just missed closing time. We eventually found food at a tiny coffee shop behind a gas station. By the time we got back it was close to 3:30 in the morning. I ended up reading and playing with the cat until about 5 am.

Hungry Bunny

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In the morning we got a bit of a late start, but it was still mid-morning with plenty of time to get where we were going. A couple of my companions wanted to be alone together so it was the rest of us in one SUV. We did miss the goat market in the Nizwa souq, though, which happens every Friday morning at 6 am. By all accounts it's a raucous old time. For the goats, too, I suppose.

We drove up the very steep mountain roads, going through switchback after switchback. We came to a police checkpoint. Nothing but 4-wheel drives was allowed beyond. Completely unnecessary, as it turned out, because all of the roads were paved. Our ultimate destination was the rose gardens on Al Jabal Al Akhdar, the Green Mountain, where, from March to May, they distill rose water from the pink Dusky Rose grown there.

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There are very few signs directing the traveler to the various sites in that area, and the couple who were driving and navigating refused to stop and ask anyone for directions, preferring to look at their maps, and iPads with Google Earth, and bicker with each other. Wayfinding, one of them called it. Fodder for marriage counseling, I call it. Nevertheless, we were mostly successful.

The winding roads on the plateau at the top of the mountains were populated most obviously with goats and donkeys. There were little towns sprinkled throughout. We stopped first in the village of Al Ayn. We didn't know it, because it was not marked, but some of the rose gardens were scattered on terraces down the mountain below the village. Also growing on the terraces, I later learned, were pomegranates, apricots, onions, walnuts, and rice. The apricots I experienced first hand when, while resting on the steep climb back up the mountain, a man handed me one, wet and cool.

I didn't eat it right away. Rather, I took it back to my companions so that I could torment them with its delicious tartness.

It was so good that we later bought a bag full from a young boy on the side of the road for an outrageous price. Worth every bainas.

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We drove around some more, stopping in Al Saiq and the Wadi Bani Habib, where we climbed down rough stone stairs, through the dry rocky wadi itself, and up again to an abandoned village.

Wadi Bani Habib Abandoned village in the Wadi Bani Habib
Al Saiq,  Oman


Realizing that the roses were somewhere near our first stop in Al Ayn, we drove back there. We found the torturous path down, and descended the rocky slope, following the alfaj irrigation canals. Eventually, we had to walk along the tops of the alfaj themselves, as they were the actual path along the terraces. In some places a fall would have seriously injured us and there were no rails. I watched a farmer march along a falaj with a huge bale of rice on his head.

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If we had arrived at the height of the rose season we would have had no trouble finding them because the hills would have been a riotous pink. But we had come after the season was over. There were only a few bushes still putting out buds.

Fortunately, the weather was in the 70s and breezy so, though it was hot work trudging up and down, it wasn't too bad. And the sights were worth the climb.

We drove back to our villa and refreshed ourselves. I took a shower and read. Everyone else took a nap.

Afterward, we looked up restaurants for supper on TripAdvisor. We tried to find one of them in downtown Nizwa, the biggest town in the area, and the former capital of Oman. I got us caught in very narrow alleys on the back streets of town. After we extricated ourselves from that, we ended up at a Turkish place that was showing a soccer game on an outdoor screen via projector.

I went to bed at midnight and woke up at about 7:30. I made the mistake of waiting for everybody else to wake up. I should have just jumped in one of the cars and driven into Nizwa. By the time everyone else got up and ate some breakfast and we got to the souq, it was already closing for the typical mid-day break between 1pm and 4:30pm.

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Two of my companions had gone off by themselves again. We met them in Nizwa and then we headed our separate ways home to pack and get ready to head back toward Muscat.

In Muscat we drove around for a bit. We strolled along the Corniche and then everyone arranged to meet for supper. The restaurant we had picked didn't open until 7pm so we went to find another, because two of us had an earlier flight than the rest. Instead of lovely Indian vegetarian, we slummed it with the Whoppers of the Middle East -- shawarmas.

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After the first two of us left for the airport, the rest of us decided to spend our last hours relaxing, so we went to a very posh hotel called The Chedi. There, I sat in the lounge and read until it was time to go to the airport. The only inexpensive flight that had been available when I booked was at midnight, and all of the rest of us were on it.

The flight back was almost as uneventful as the one coming in. I had picked up a rock with some quartz lines in it while we were in the mountains. The x-ray spotted that and I had to open my bag for security. The officer was nonplussed about finding a large stone in my luggage. I explained to him that I had picked it up while exploring and thought it beautiful. He smiled and let me keep it and off I went. If I had been flying in the US I probably would have been strip searched and sent to Guantanamo.

Oman has a somewhat different feel than the UAE. A little friendlier. But that's another topic.



I've posted pictures on my Flickr account - https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaslug/
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