First impressions of Oman

Staying in a luxury hotel like the W in Muscat for a couple of days gives you quite a good insight of the life of the upper class in Oman. Fancy cars parked in front of the hotel, nightclub style lounges, expensive cocktails and numerous servants are ingredients of a luxurious lifestyle you see also in other parts of the world. Hotel staff is often recruited from poor Asian countries, were people have – almost by nature – a high level of service oriented character within them. But there is nothing wrong with that. It’s actually sometimes a bit tiring all the friendly smiles, “good day and good morning sir, anything I can do for you sir”. We are not used to that in other parts of the world.

W hotel in Muscat

We also realize that life – especially in the summer time – in Oman (and probably in most of the Arab world) is lived mostly inside. The heat and the humidity are unbearable. You actually run from airco to airco. When you drive around (for now we depend on taxis), you see nobody walking or bicycling on the streets. You pass mostly white block buildings without gardens or balconies, all is made for life inside. Only occasionally, you see near important buildings or roundabouts, some green grass with plants or trees and some guys from India or Pakistan working (or hiding in the shade). So I start wondering about our planned hiking and biking trips…

A visit to Muscat is not complete if you have not visited the Muttrah Souq, one the oldest markets of the Arab world. For centuries traders from all over did their business here. The Souq is a large cluster of buildings (like little shops), separated by narrow streets and alleys. They used to be covered by palm leaves to keep the heat of the sun out, now it’s a more permanent structure. Entering the Souq already is an experience. Since all women are wearing more or less the same dress (abayas) and mostly black and the men wear the Thobe (a white shirt reaching the ankles and has long sleeves), its not difficult for all those walking around to assume ”we are not from here”. The moment we enter the Souq we are ”attacked” by the merchants from the small shops lining both sides of the alleys. With not much space to maneuver, we try to pass all the arms in front of us, which arms are carrying fabrics, dresses, jewelry and hands with little parfum bottles. Almost all merchants are Indian and from experience in our own place, we know they can be very persistent, but stay polite and don’t touch you. It’s a game and they try to lure you in their store and to pursue you to buy their goods. It’s actually fun and walking through all these small little streets and passing all these eager merchants is like being part of a movie. The only thing missing is some kind of hero running over the roofs in pursuit of some bad guys.

Near the old Souq and the minaret of the mosque

The Souk is part of the old town and as we walked further, the Imams started to call for prayer via the speakers placed on the many minarets (the high towers, being part of the mosques). There is quiet a high density of mosques in Muscat, especially in the old town. So when time for praying is announced, all speakers turn on at the same time, with different Imans singing towards their followers, to come for prayers. If it is the first time you hear this, it is like the air raid alarms go off and you want to look for cover. However, after catching myself together, I found it quite magical. The buzzing streets, the twilight, the dark rocky mountains in the distance, all together told me that I am in Arabia.

Roaming through the residential part of the old town I noticed that you hardly see any dogs and most of the cats I see are skinny up the bone. People feed their pets with leftovers and not cat food from the supermarket. At night people go out of their houses to do some shopping and children (especially boys) come out to play (football). Large groups of young boys run around and greet you politely. Here, respect still means something, you see that in many places and instances.

A cool (I mean in temperature) place to hang around in the evening is the Corniche. Its a boulevard overlooking the old harbor of Muscat, where the huge super yacht of the Sultan of Oman is anchored (once it was the second largest private motor yacht in the world). A little cooler then the surrounding area, makes the Omanis do their evening strolls and meet their friends. Nearby the Corniche we found a nice restaurant, which seems to cater for tourist and the high society of Muscat. We had seen many restaurants in the Souq, but we were doubting the quality and or hygiene of these places (maybe we judged wrong, but getting sick on the first night out, wasn’t really our intention). It was our first confrontation with Omani kitchen and
I must say, we were delighted by the tastes of the dishes. Of course no more alcohol, but the fresh juices really made up for that. We had no more doubt that for the rest of our journey we would be adjusting fine to the Arab cuisine. Tasting different food from other countries is actually part of the traveling experience.

The Sultans mega yacht, the Al Said
The Corniche during sunset

Getting the truck out of port is actually why we are in Muscat. The shipping and customs agents are having their offices in Muscat and its there that we have to report ourselves and show or give paperwork. Having a dedicated taxi-driver to drive you around is a must. Street plans (with the names and numbers) is not like in Europe. Often there is a big building called a ”House” (Like the Adam House or AliHouse etc)., were a number of businesses are located. So we have Nasser, a nice and friendly old Omani, who is driving us from place to place and waits patiently until we have to go to the next place. We got our release from the shipping company (bills paid). Next in line was the customs agent, who is in contact with the customs. After presenting him with documents and copies, he first drives 2,5 hours to the commercial port of Sohar, to figure it all out with customs. If they are ok, the truck can be released.

Today we are spending our 4th day in Oman in Muscat at the hotel. Its unfortunate that we had to bridge a weekend, otherwise we could have started our truck release procedures earlier. However, we make the best of it. Last night we went back to the old town and made a much longer walk along the Corniche. The Corniche extends along the natural harbor of Muscat and is a great place to have a distant look on the old town. Although the evening sets in, the temperature remains high as well as the humidity. A high humidity also means that the temperature feels higher.

After visiting the same restaurant as the one we visited before when going to the old town, we went back to the hotel, but first we made a stop at the Opera. Opposite the hotel there is this huge structure (they build everything big here). The Opera is a real opera building and it has a very exclusive shopping mall attached to it. A fancy walking bridge connects the hotel area with the Opera complex and you enter a world of luxury I haven’t seen before. Jewelry, parfums (and this is a speciality you only find in Oman). Because men and women dress mostly traditional, it are shoes, bags, make up and parfums that are used to personalize yourself. And they go to the extreme. Man usually wear sandals here, so there is this top of the line sandal store (crocodile leather for example). were you get the most expensive sandals you can imagine. Below one of the escalators there was a nice coffee cafe where we had a good view of who was coming down the escalator. All this men with there long white shirts (Thobe) and the women and girls in their Abayas, looking at the shoes, handbags, sandals and quality of their garments, you could see these people were pretty well of. Its so different from being in a shopping mall in Europe!

The square at the Opera were the Omani walk in their Thobe
The luxury Opera mall
The fancy walking bridge, were music starts to play to moment you enter

It’s Wednesday morning and we finally got our final approval and last invoice from the local shipping agent. The agent was willing to come to the hotel to pick up the payment and in return we got the hard copies of the approvals we needed to pick up the truck. We will be on the road soon.

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