Salalah, Oman


What a great day in the port of Salalah! We made it safely through the HRA (High-Risk Area); we noticed that the ship increased its speed dramatically while sailing through these waters. We had booked a tour with Oman Day Tours and had enough people signed up to mostly fill 2 buses. Others that we spoke to that had visited before said there was not much to see but having an excellent tour guide made it a fascinating day.  We got held up on the ship for an extra half-hour in order to clear immigration; we waited another half-hour on the bus for the last two people to show up.  I will definitely not let this happen again.  It is incredibly inconsiderate to make 80 people wait for you because you can’t be bothered to show up on time; especially when there was an extra half-hour to get ready because we couldn’t get off the ship!

Our guide’s name was Salim; he was an amiable fellow and we enjoyed our time with him very much.  Driving through the port we saw piles of limestone awaiting export to India and gulf countries.  This was definitely a working port; we were the only cruise ship. About 2000 local men from Salalah work at the seaport.  We were supposed to be given landing permits as we exited the ship but did not receive them.  Salim was a bit concerned that it would be an issue since we had to pass through a police checkpoint, but there was no problem.

Salim told us a bit about the Muslim faith (Oman is a Muslim country) as we drove towards the Sultan’s Palace.  Muslim men pray 5 times per day:  5 am, 1 pm, 4 pm, after sunset and again at 8 pm.  You can pray wherever you are but if you pray in a mosque you are given greater rewards.  Muslims believe you have two angels that are with you your entire life.  The one that sits on the right shoulder records all of your good deeds (such as praying in a mosque); the one on the left, your bad deeds. When you die, the books are closed until judgment day.  If the “good” book is heavier, you go to heaven.  If the “bad” book is heavier, to hell you go!  The call to prayer starts 20 minutes before prayer.  Prayer lasts 5 to 10 minutes.  If you are in a mosque, the Imam reads from the Koran by heart as those praying silently repeat prayers while bowing up and down.  If it is a weekend (Friday or Saturday), I think Salim said that the Imam also gives a “sermon”.

Frankincense is the major product of the area.  Ninety percent of it is grown in the Dhofar governorate (where Salalah is located).  It was considered a precious commodity in ancient Roman and Egyptian times.  The Egyptians used it as part of the mummification process.  Camels would carry it across the arid desert to Petra where it was then shipped out to Egypt, the Mediterranean region, Iran, etc.  The Romans burned it in temples.  Back in the day, it was considered as valuable as gold; it is no longer that valuable.  It is still burned in local homes to freshen the air as well as to scare away devils.  It is also burned in mosques to freshen the air.  It is also used in perfumes and medicines.  Some boil it and drink it as tea; others chew it.  Frankincense trees are tapped (like rubber) every three months; the sap comes out and crystallizes.  Within a few months, the scar on the tree is completely healed and it can be tapped again.  Apparently, camels like to eat the leaves of the trees.  The berries have no use.

Oman is a monarchy (more on that later) and has a population of around 4.5 million (250,000 live in Salalah).  They produce a million barrels of oil per day and have 5 billion barrels in reserve.  In comparison, Saudi Arabia produces 11-12 million barrels per day and has 260 billion barrels in reserve.  Until recently gas cost 35¢/Liter (or $1.40/gallon); now it is 55¢/Liter ($2.20/gallon).  It is expected that Oman will run out of oil in about 15 years; at that point, they will need to depend on tourism and fishing to support the economy.

According to Salim, there are only two seasons here:  summer and summer.  There are mountains that parallel the coast (about 3000 feet in height); past the mountains is desert.  The summer (June to September) temperatures run around 28⁰ to 29⁰ C (82⁰ to 84⁰ F).  If you go into the desert temperatures can be over 50⁰ C (122⁰F).  Salalah was not a tourist destination until after 9/11; after that date, many Arabs did not feel comfortable traveling in Europe or the US, so came here (there is 3000 km of beautiful beaches in Oman).  The coldest temperatures here are 20⁰ C (68⁰ F), so quite temperate.  Free healthcare and education are provided for citizens (through university); there is no income tax.

Boys and girls start school at age 6 (and begin learning English then as well) and are taught by female teachers until age 10.  At age 10, the sexes attend separate schools taught by same-sex teachers until they graduate from high school at age 18.  At university, there are mixed sex classes again taught by both men and women.  However, young women have a separate entrance to the classrooms and sit at the back.  The first year that the University opened, Oman’s top students were able to attend.  It turned out that 70% of the students were women; 30% men.  So, they changed the system so that it is 50-50.  I guess that means that it would be more competitive for women to be accepted.  According to Salim, there are equal opportunities for careers for men and women.  The workweek here, as in other Muslim countries, is Sunday through Thursday.  People work from 7:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon.

The nation is ruled by Sultan Qaboos who is 76 years old.  Actually, his birthday is Friday when we will be in Muscat, Oman.  It is a national holiday; the Sultan completely changed the nation of Oman since he took over from his father in 1970.  His father did not want to modernize the country; he preferred the old ways.  There were no schools, no electricity, no streets, no anything when his father ruled.  The Sultan went to Yemen, India, and Great Britain in his youth.  When he returned to Oman he tried to talk his father into modernization, but his father would not do so.  Essentially he ousted his father, who went to Britain to live and took over.  A civil war ensued.  The Sultan was supported by the west; to the east, communists were taking young Omani men into Russia.  The people of Oman switched allegiance to the Sultan in 1975 and peace has ensued since.  The Sultan does not have children so when he dies, his family has three days to determine who will succeed him (probably a brother or cousin).  If they cannot decide in three days, then the government will decide.  Salim says he prefers having a monarchy to an elected president, pointing to the US recently voting for the “biggest liar”.

Our first stop was a quick photo stop at the Sultan’s Palace.  If the Sultan is in residence, two flags are flown.  We took a few pictures then headed to the souk (market).  Finally, a shopping opportunity!  Salim explained that all women in Oman wear headscarves.  The women from the north show their whole face; those from the south are more conservative and only show their eyes.  We saw only a few Omani women at the souk; since Salalah is southern, the women all had just their eyes showing.  He told us about the 3 types of frankincense with green being the rarest and expensive (it is used in medicine).  There is also a black incense that is not really frankincense but is very fragrant.  The souk seemed to have the same products at virtually every stall – lots of scarves, frankincense and incense burners, cuma (the Muslim caps), some sandals, Omani knives, and perfume.  We also noticed several barber shops.  We bought a couple of bottles of water but passed on buying anything else.  People we were with said that the shopkeepers weren’t all that keen to bargain.  We also passed a  1 Rial Shop; the Omani equivalent of a dollar store (though 1 OMR is worth $3, so it was really a $3 store!).  We chatted a bit with Salim while waiting for others to finish their shopping.  He was quite concerned that we did not have our landing permits; he claimed that everyone on the other bus had them and that they would cost 20 OMR ($60).  I told him that the others could not have their landing permits; no one had received them.  He also wanted me to collect the money from everyone for the tour; I suggested that he should do so, not me.  We loaded up the buses and then waited for a few stragglers.

We passed by a cemetery.  Like in Israel, cremation is not an accepted practice.  Bodies are buried 1.5 meters deep and must face Mecca, so are all parallel to each other.  The graves are very simple; men’s graves are marked by two stones, women’s have three.  Salim suggested that the extra stone on the women’s graves was put there by their husbands to make sure they stayed buried.

Just down the road a bit from the souk was the Omani History Museum.  Frankincense trees were planted in front so our guide told us a bit more about them.  All of the trees belong to the state. These particular trees were replanted from the mountains about 5 years ago.  Myrrh trees come from Yemen.  They are smaller than Frankincense trees.

We were given some time to wander around the museum.  Photographs were not allowed so I have no pictures of anything there.  There were two main sections.  One was historical, the other maritime.  We looked through some of the artifacts from ancient Oman.  Fortunately, the information was both in Arabic and English so we could understand what we were seeing!  The last part of the historical section was about the Sultan.  I was quite impressed with his emphasis on a free economy, justice, equality and freedom of the press.  We continued on to the maritime exhibits.  Oman has a long tradition of seamanship.  The reproductions of the various types of ships built by Omanis was fascinating.  We saw a map that showed the trade routes that stopped in Oman; interestingly enough, it was the same route our ship is taking, starting in Rome and ending in Hong Kong!  One of the passengers on the next leg of our cruise had told me that we were retracing the Maritime Silk Road; she was absolutely correct!

We looked through the gift shop but again, decided against buying.  If we purchased something at every port we visited, we would need a couple more suitcases to bring everything home.  I suggested to Salim that he collect money for the tour as people reentered the bus.  He did so and it seemed to work out quite well.

As we drove through the city (which is quite modern and clean, especially compared to Egypt) Salim fielded questions from people on the bus.  People asked him about his headscarf – whey do some men wear the cap (cuma) and some wear the scar?.  He removed it and we could see that he had a cuma on under the scarf.  He showed us how to wrap the scarf and leave one part hanging down.  The purpose of this is for the desert dwellers to be able to use it to block sand (pulling it across their faces).   If both ends are tucked in you probably work for the government or in some occupation where you will not be out in the elements.  If you just wear the cap, you are probably from the city.

Someone else wanted to know if women are allowed to drive.  Salim told us that yes, unfortunately, they are (unlike in Saudi Arabia).  Quite the funny guy, that Salim!  Salim also told us that men are allowed to have up to 4 wives.  If they want have more, they have to divorce one.  He has two wives.  I asked if they live in the same house.  He said that no, they live about ten minutes apart.  Apparently, there is some tension between the two.  He asked an older, wiser man for suggestions.  He was told to either add a third wife or divorce one!  Divorce is instigated 99.99% of the time by men.  I asked if a woman could divorce her husband.  Salim responded that the only way this could happen is if it was agreed to before the couple was ever married, as a condition of the marriage (kind of like  a prenup).  This rarely happens.  Marriages in the southern part of Oman are arranged marriages.   At age 13, girls start wearing headscarves.   The girl’s family invites the boy and his family for a supervised visit.  At this visit, the girl does  not cover her face.  After the boy’s family leaves her father asks her if she wants to marry him.  If she smiles it indicates consent to the marriage.  In the past, girls married at age 15-16; now it is typically  18-20.  Men are slightly older when they marry.

Families tend to be large; the average family has 7 children.  Three generations live in one household; there are no “old folk’s homes” here; families take care of their elderly.  Because of this, houses also tend to be large.  There will be a wall around a house; women are allowed to not cover their faces as long as they are within the walls of their home.  Residences are limited to 2 or 2.5 stories; commercial buildings can be as tall as 12 stories.

Japanese cars are preferred over American; rich people will drive European cars.

Many Omani young men join the army because Oman is not at war with anyone; the army provides a steady paycheck and great benefits with little risk of ever seeing combat.  Army service is not compulsory.

We made a photo stop at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque; it was time for prayer so we were not able to enter.  We couldn’t even go inside the gate; I was very happy to have a decent zoom lens for my camera!

The last stop for the day was an animal market.  Goats and camels were sold there.  There was a covered area with adorable baby goats and many pens with camels.  Most of the camels were 1 to 1.5 years old; their meat is more tender at that age.  A young camel would set you back 350 OMR (around $1000 USD).  Camel meat is popular here; it is roasted over hot stones.  I took many pictures of those adorable camels!

We made it back to the ship by 1:30.  It was nice having a short port day; we were not so exhausted when the tour was over.  It really was an enjoyable day; the sites were not as amazing as some of the places we have visited, but our excellent and personable guide made it special.  I highly recommend Oman Day Tours for their excellent customer service, communication, and tour guides.