We once again booked our tour through Oman Day Tours. We did not have as many people today but still enough that we needed two buses. The ship docked early and we cleared immigration ahead of schedule as well so we were off the ship around 8 am (as opposed to 8:30 which was the anticipated arrival time). We were given a gate travel pass today (unlike in Salalah) which would be collected when we returned to the ship. We also had to take a shuttle bus to the port gate; Clayton and I were first off the ship and first in line for the shuttle bus. By 8:20 we were at the port gate looking for our tour company. According to one of the other bus drivers, our buses weren’t there yet; the drivers were still having breakfast. After a short wait in the shade, the first bus showed up and we hopped on. There were 44 on the bus; a few empty seats remained. The guide, Khalid, wanted to know if we should wait for the late people. Since there was an entire second bus and only 8 had not shown up yet, we chose to start the tour. As it turned out, only two of the eight ever showed up; I assume they had the whole bus to themselves!
Khalid gave us an overview of our tour. Today is a National Holiday in Oman; it is the Sultan’s 76th Birthday. For forty-six years, the country has celebrated (since he took over the country from his father in 1970). There were decorations all over the city streets as well as numerous posters of the Sultan. They decorate the city for a month in preparation for the “big day”. The Sultan was not in town today; he lives outside the city. Because it was a holiday the streets were relatively empty. Many that work in the city live in villages so were celebrating closer to home. The Sultan Qaboos Mosque is always closed to tourists on Friday and the souk would only be open for a few hours in the morning. Other shops and businesses were closed for the day.
Khalid gave us some more information about the country. I found it interesting that of the 4.3 million people that live in Oman, 2.3 million are Omani. The remaining two million are predominantly from Bengladesh, India and Pakistan. Most of the shopkeepers in the souk were from these other countries. Like Salalah, tourist season is from October to March. Summer temperatures here can reach 50⁰ C (122⁰ F); no great surprise that people don’t visit then! Winter temperatures are from 15⁰ to 24⁰ C (59⁰ to 75⁰ F). We passed the Sultan Qaboos Opera House; I wasn’t able to get a picture quickly enough but the Sultan really likes music, so it is quite a lovely, large building. Houses here are 2 stories tall (maximum) and must be white (or beige). They are required to have a flat roof (non-European in style); there is quite a bit of uniformity in style. Since it is so arid here, waste water is recycled and used for irrigation; sea water is also treated and used.
We made a 20-minute photo stop at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. It is an enormous building and many people were disappointed that we would be unable to enter. Fortunately, the ship stops here on the next leg of our cruise so I hope to take a taxi to the mosque and get some pictures from the inside. For today, exterior shots are all we could get. The mosque has separate prayer areas for men and women. Since it is ok for women to pray at home, their area is considerably smaller (750 at a time can pray here). The men’s area can accommodate 6,000. The guide said altogether 20,000 could fit in the mosque (I know, the numbers don’t exactly add up). The mosque was built between 1995 and 2001. It was paid for by the Sultan so no one knows how much it cost to build. The carpet was woven by 600 Irani women; it took 3-4 years and the completed carpet weighs 21 tons. It is the largest carpet in the world. In addition to daily prayer, Khalid explained that on Fridays, the imam would lecture on a social subject or something related to Islam. This topic has to be approved in advance; all imams speak on the same topic on that day.
Back on the bus, Khalid talked a bit about traditional Omani dress. The white robes that men wear are called dishdashah. As we learned in Salalah, the maser (turban) can be worn 3 different ways, depending on where the wearer is from. If you are working in an official capacity, you would wear the maser. During your free time, you might choose to wear the Cuma (cap). The women in Muscat wear colorful outfits inside their own homes but will often wear the black abbeyah otherwise. Women here do not typically cover their full face unless they are Bedouin or very religious. No alcohol is sold here (since this is a 100% Muslim country) except in a few hotels and clubs.
The size of the city has grown considerably in the last 35 years, from 2 km to 200 km. Niswah used to be the capital city and is very famous. If you wanted to visit the important cities in Oman, Khalid recommended that you would need 5 days.
We noticed more American fast food restaurants here: McDonalds (of course), Dominos, Subway, KFC and Burger King. We were heading toward the Old Town area. If you came to this area at night, Khalid said you would think you were in Mumbai; not many Omani natives would be there. We passed a Christian Church, so apparently the country is not 100% Muslim.
We were dropped off at the souk for an hour. This was a much more interesting souk than the one in Salalah; the variety of goods was much more diverse. As we entered, there was a large group huddled around a sign. You can see why below!
I wanted to buy some earrings and possibly a necklace. We were told to bargain; I do enjoy dickering with the shopkeepers. I found a shop that had a variety of jewelry items and found a beautiful pair of lapis lazuli drop earrings. The shopkeeper wanted around $30 for them; I offered $10. He said he could sell them to me for $15. I said I only wanted to spend $10 and turned around to leave. There were a few people from the ship shopping there; someone recognized me and called my name to let me know that the shopkeeper wanted to talk to me again. I went back in and purchased my earrings for $10. Now to find a necklace that would complement them!
I looked at quite a few necklaces in other shops and finally found one that would work. The shopkeeper weighed it and gave me a price of around $100. We countered with a much lower price; he was not willing to bargain any further. That was fine with me; I am self-admittedly cheap; if something isn’t the right price I am more than willing to pass on the item. We did pick up an Aladdin’s lamp for our granddaughter and I broke down and bought myself a Pashmina scarf for $5. The souk is on the corniche that lines the harbor. We could see our ship but also two enormous (cruise ship-sized) yachts. These are owned by the Sultan and the family name (El Said) is emblazoned on the sides.
We found our bus; we loaded up and left the souk. Khalid gave us each a Sultan Qaboos pin in honor of the national holiday. After we left, Khalid realized that we had left 4 people behind. So, we circled back. By the time we returned, the 2 couples were waiting for us (and probably a bit concerned at that point!). As they entered, the husband told us, “It’s not my fault!”. As the next couple entered, the woman asked Khalid if it was true that if you said, “I divorce you” three times that you were divorced. He said that it was true. She told her husband, “I guess you have one time left!”. Too funny!
Our next stop would be the Bait Al Zubair Museum. We passed by a white sculpture that I had noticed as the ship was entering the port earlier this morning, so asked what it was. To us, it looked like a martian spaceship. It turned out to be a frankincense burner (seemed pretty obvious when Khalid pointed it out!).
A bit more historical information was shared as we approached the museum. When the old Sultan, Said, ruled Oman, Muscat was closed off by 6 pm nightly; there were only two gates and these were locked up. In 1507 the Portuguese controlled the coastline. There was tribal infighting. After 1650 the Said family succeeded in ousting the Portuguese.
Khalid told us that no photography was allowed inside the museum, so I left my camera on the bus. Note to self: always take your camera. There were many fascinating displays outside the museum that I could have taken pictures of if I had my camera with. Oh, well.
We walked through the displays of traditional Omani women’s clothing. Khalid walked along with Clayton and I and gave us additional information. The clothing was so exquisite; very colorful and, depending on what region it represented, was embroidered on the wrist and ankle area. Some women wore masks as well. There was a small leather mask (masquerade-sized) that a woman in northern Oman might wear and a full-face leather mask that an eastern-Omani woman might wear. The abbeyah is not traditional Omani garb (it is “new” comparatively). We skipped the men’s clothing area because it was too crowded. Khalid told us that men are not allowed to wear gold (even today). I wonder why? The decorations on a woman’s clothing tell what area she is from.
We looked at a display of wedding dress. The man wears white (though if you are royal, you might wear black) and may carry a weapon during the ceremony. Men and women remain separated, even at a wedding. This is a common theme; men and women do no mingle socially, even within one’s own home. I asked if there were arranged marriages here; Khalid told me that no, there are not (though our guide in Salalah said that arranged marriages were common there). The women’s garments were incredibly ornate and beautiful – deep, rich colors and intricate embroidery.
The next set of displays was of household goods. If you were entertaining others you would offer them coffee and dates. If you are rich, you would also offer fruit. You must offer fresh goods; it is expected that you offer your best. The host will continually offer more coffee until the guest shakes their head to indicate he/she has had enough. And yes, men and women will be entertained in separate areas. Khalid showed us an enormous plate that might be shared by 10-15 people (all eat from same plate). Camel meat is not as popular here; people eat beef, sheep and goat. Baskets can be used to cover food to protect it from flies.
Finally, we walked through the weapons section. There were numerous types of guns displayed as well as a few swords. Though it is the official Omani symbol, I did not see any of the curved Omani knives. I asked Khalid about the knives. He said that the value can range from hundreds to thousands of Omani Rials depending on what material the knife is made of. The knife shows your level of wealth and importance.
Our last photo stop was at the Sultan Qaboos Palace. There is a wall that surrounds the palace and outbuildings. The Sultan does not actually live here; it is where he receives guests. I guess we weren’t important enough for the ceremonial greeting; the Sultan was not there. . .for important guests, the entryway to the Palace is lined with horses and music is played. We noticed that the tiles on the grounds were very shiny; they looked like they were wet but were not. I tried to take a picture of them because it was noticeably different from what we have seen before. The call to prayer started as we were leaving the palace.
We finished our tour by driving along the coast. Date palms line the street (very picturesque). We passed by some fancy hotels and then past the government buildings. I had taken pictures of these from the ship this morning; now I knew what I had taken pictures of! I wasn’t able to take any pictures from the bus.
When we returned to the port, I asked Khalid how he wanted to collect the funds for the tour. He said he had never had to collect funds before; I can only assume that he is used to smaller groups. He seemed uncomfortable with the process, so I went ahead and collected for him. It only took a couple of minutes; we were quickly off the bus and onto the shuttle bus to the ship. Tonight we have a farewell dinner at Versailles (one of the main dining rooms) and tomorrow we arrive in Dubai at noon.
At the dinner we learned who the “lucky two” were that were the only ones on the second bus. It turned out to be Frank and Alison who had become friends of ours on the many tours that we had shared. They had arrived just as our bus doors closed and were told that there was not space for them (there were two seats available). They had to wait for an hour in case anyone else from the group showed up. They took it with good grace; they had been to Muscat before and so were pretty flexible about what they saw and did. When it became apparent that no one else was going to show up, the guide recommended that he drive them around in his personal vehicle rather than the bus. He drove a big jeep, painted red and with a picture of the Sultan painted on it! I have asked Alison to email me a picture of it and will post it here later when she does. The people here seem to love the Sultan. It makes sense, given all he has done for their country. What fun to drive around in a Sultan-mobile all day!