Picking us up at Muscat airport, one of the first things our driver Ali told us was that he had two wives and eight children. I bit my tongue. My husband was chatting with Ali at the front, while our 18-year-old daughter and I sat in the back seat, watching desert and mountain scenery with camels pass by.
Ali had had a camel collision a few months earlier, which resulted in a damaged car and two dead camels. Fortunately, Ali was unharmed. Ahead of us was a ten-day vacation. Positive mention of Oman had made me break with my principle of not visiting countries where women are subject to discriminating dress codes.
Ali turned out to be a kind and talkative man. He meant it when he said we could ask him anything, and we talked about family relations, history, and politics. Ali fired jokes and laughed a lot. No doubt he was proud of his country and happy about himself: Like when he suggested photo shoots, and placed himself in the middle with one arm around my husband and the other around my daughter, letting me take the picture.
Peace and quiet
The silence in Oman surprised us. Silence in the soukh with less agrressive sellers compared to our experience from other countries. And silent, half-empty hotels and tourist attractions. Not a single tourist bus. They told us three reasons: Covid19 (our trip was in February 2020), unrest in neighbour country Iran, and uncertainty due to the death of Sultan Qaboos of Oman two weeks before our arrival.
The atmosphere was peaceful, and we were met with kindness. “You are always welcome in our country” was a phrase we heard over and over again.
Not equality, but steps in the right direction
Compared to other Muslim countries, Oman seems less sexist. Women are in the work force and drive cars. However, most women cover their hair with a hijab, and some wear a niqab to cover everything but their eyes. Men wear Western clothes or long white robes (dishdashas) with a small fragrance brush at the collar. Very usefull e.g. if you drive around with smelly, farting tourists, according to Ali ;-).
For foreigners it was OK to wear t-shirt and shorts that covered shoulders, cavalry, and knees. Both men and women frequented cafés and restaurants, but typically in gender-segregated groups. Some men rubbed noses as a greeting gesture, but we saw no body contact between sexes. Except when Ali posed with us 🙂
Our visit fell in the middle of the 40-days mourning period following the death of the Sultan. The Omanis had loved their sultan. And for good reason, because in his 50 years of rule, he had developed the infrastructure and the oil and gas industry, established free public schools, housing, and hospitals, secured work and decent wages for all, and thus shared the wealth created through oil and gas resources.
Even guest workers seemed to be treated well, though they did not hold the same rights as Omani citizens. We spoke with an Indian guest worker, who felt lucky to live in Oman rather than Kerala, his Indian home state, or in Qatar, where he told us some of his friends experienced worse living conditions. “If my car breaks down here, the police stops to help me”, he explained.
Omani food was tasty, plentiful, and cheap, except in hotel restaurants. We had lunch with Ali, who was fond of food and less fond of exercise. He breathed heavily as we walked around Nizwa fort. Once in a while he left the car to buy karak tea “to-go”. Karak is black tea, sugar, and whole milk cooked together. He also bought us Omani bread; a flatbread topped with eggs, fresh cheese and honey. Not exactly diet food, but quite tasty.
We were surprised by cold nights, especially in the mountains. At Diana’s Viewpoint (named after Lady Diana’s visit in 1986) we put on jackets and blankets at an altitude of 2000 meters and enjoyed drinks and sunset between the mountains.
The next morning, we borrowed bikes at our mountain hotel, in order to reach some nearby villages, accessible reportedly via small biking trails. However, the trails quickly became stairs and cliff walls, and we ended up carrying the bikes most of the way out (2 hours) and biking back on the main road (10 minutes).
Flat tires and sagging brakes
We spent a night in a desert tent camp. On our way there, Ali had the tires deflated to better drive in the sand. And raced in the desert! Up and down sand dunes, our car almost on its side sometimes. When we stopped, Ali put his hand on my husband’s chest to check if his heart was racing. Such a child.
Later, back on the country road, we noticed a car sound and asked Ali if the brakes were sagging? “Yes, but you only hear it when the windows are down” he replied. Okay then.
Our trip with Ali ended at a resort hotel outside Muscat, where we had a few last days on our own. Time for swimsuits and snorkling!
Muscat is a capital without a skyline, spread out into several districts. We visited among other things the soukh, the blue mosque, and a public beach. Pleasant athmosphere everywhere, my only objection was to the headscarf requirement for women in the mosque.
We had noticed women with henna-decorated hands, and in the last hour before heading for the airport, our daughter had a henna decoration made to bring home.
Oman was a positive experience, and I wouldn’t mind a return visit. But I am happy to be home in a country with equal rights.