MUSCAT, OMAN

Oman is not a member of the UAE, although it borders that country, but apparently it benefits from a forward-looking and progressive ruler, Sultan Qaboos.  Born in 1940, he was educated in Britain, like many sons of Arab royal families; and when he inherited the throne in 1970, he set about bringing his backward nation into the modern age.  According to our tour guide, in 1970 there were only eight kilometers of paved road in the entire country.  Now there are broad highways everywhere.  Oman is oil-rich and exports petroleum all over the world, but uses its own plentiful natural gas resources to electrify the country.  Women in Oman are allowed to drive cars, work in offices, and choose if, when, and whom to marry.  Although Islam is the official religion, non-Muslims are free to practice their own religion.  Our tour guide was Hindu and vegetarian, and his assessment was that everyone in Oman loved the Sultan.  He might have been right about that.

Muskat Old Town

The Old Town of Muscat is beautiful and picturesque, curving around a deep harbor where dhows(traditional Omani craft) and fishing boats and yachts bob at anchor. We first visited the Sultan’s official residence, the Al Alam Palace, walking up a long open courtyard to the palace gates to take pictures.  On both sides of the wide path, polished marble walks gleamed like mirrors beneath archways and columns.  We saw a blue-clad workman mopping a section of marble as we returned to the bus and suspected that keeping those acres of stone spotless was an around-the-clock project.

Al Alam Palace

The palace sits between two hilltop stone fortresses built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, only two of many such forts along the Omani coast. We wondered, and not for the first time, how the builders managed to haul their quarried stone up the sheer faces of the mountains, much less actually construct fortresses that have stood for 500 years.

When we climbed back on Bus 7 and made our way to our seats in the rear, Gerry turned to me and said, “Buses 1, 2, and 3 went to the souq first, and they’ve bought all the good stuff!”  A couple sitting behind us collapsed in laughter, and the wife was still laughing when we got to the Muttrah Souq ten minutes later.  No worries. Shops filled with colorful merchandise lined the long covered passageways, and the smell of frankincense wafted out of many doorways.  If we’d wanted to buy a khanjar(an Omani curved dagger in a silver scabbard), there were plenty to choose from.

Selling Camel Sticks in the Souq

I was tempted by a display of camel sticks, long wooden wands with a right-angle crook at one end, used to give directions to the camel to turn right or left, stop, go, kneel,or get up.  But getting the requisite camel into our luggage for the trip home proved an insurmountable hurdle.  Gerry could have bought an entire men’s outfit – thobe, ghutra, and egal (see first journal installment for definitions) – at any number of shops, but he wasn’t sure where he would wear it at home.  Sarasota Opera might not be the place to introduce this attire as formal wear.

We’d seen exquisite, colorful women’s gowns, crafted like fitted caftans, in several shops during the trip, including some in Dubai that were encrusted with Swarovski crystals, but we couldn’t figure out where women would wear them in these countries, since the abayais required to be black.  But then it dawned on us: they wear these gorgeous clothes in the privacy of their homes.

Omani Jewelry

We saw a family of three – mother in full Muslim garb, including a niqab covering her face, and two grown daughters without veils, one of whom was movie star gorgeous – in a fabric shop looking at beautifully colored bolts of silk.  I suspect that one of the daughters was shopping for her trousseau.   We were told at the outset that we should never photograph a Muslim woman, so I contented myself with a picture of some of the goods on display in the shop. The stricture against photography certainly didn’t apply to the shopkeepers (all men) in the souqor to the young boys who posed for us on the waterfront, donning designer sunglasses to look cool.

Cool Kids in Muskat

Besides eight palaces, the Sultan of Oman has several yachts, one of which was anchored in the harbor at Muscat.  At 600 feet in length, I think it’s bigger than some cruise ships we’ve sailed on, and I suspect it’s a lot more palatial inside.  Two dhows anchored nearby posed a pictorial contrast between traditional life in Oman and what goes on in the twenty-first century.

Sultan’s Yacht and Dhows

From the hill overlooking the Old Town of Muscat, it would be easy to imagine how it looked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when many of the original structures were built.  But just outside of town, perched on steep hillsides overlooking the bay, lie the beautiful buildings of the new city of Muscat. Everything we saw dated back no further than 1970, much of it very new, sparkling in the sun.  Simple, elegant architecture and white stucco seemed to be the hallmark of the city, although some buildings were painted cream or light tan.  Someone told us that, by law, buildings must be repainted every three years.  And the police hand out traffic tickets for dirty cars.  Car washes must do a booming business in Oman, especially after a rainstorm.

As in the UAE, those they call the “local people” in Oman receive preferential treatment in many ways.  Ninety-five percent of public sector jobs are reserved for native Omanis, as are sixty percent of private sector jobs.  In order to run a business, you have to have a license; but only local people are permitted to obtain a license.  So we saw many shops where one or two people were working, while another man sat behind the counter or in a chair outside the shop door, doing nothing.  He was the guy with the license, and he was keeping an eye on how well his tenants were doing with his business.  Also as in the UAE, there is no path to Omani citizenship for foreign-born emigrants.  It certainly pays to choose your parents carefully in the Middle East.

When we booked this cruise, we’d thought the most interesting part of the trip would begin once we reached India.  We were wrong.  Our thrill-ride desert safari in Dubai, our exhilarating mountaintop adventure, our first Arabian souq, the unique beauty of the scenery, the clean air and clean streets in the cities, and the warmth of the locals with whom we came in contact – we see this part of the world through new eyes now.  And we’re having a wonderful time.

Once across the Arabian Sea, it’s Mumbai and the start of our first visit to India.  So stay tuned.

Laurie & Gerry

 

FUJAIRAH AND SHARJAH

 

Our next port was Fujairah, in the emirate of the same name, nestled between the massive Hagar mountain range and the sea.  Unlike Dubai, Fujairah follows Islamic law more closely, which means no bars and no liquor sales.  This may partly explain why more westerners flock to Dubai, although our tour guide for the day said that Fujairah was quite popular with Russians (who must bring their vodka with them).

On the road

We chose a spectacular – and quite long – tour in an off-road vehicle that took us up an unpaved, rocky road into the mountains, ending at the 3,280-foot summit of Mt. Hajjar.  En route, we passed small clusters of stone houses where modern Bedouins raise goats and grow date palms, and have satellite dishes and four-wheel-drive Lexus SUV’s.  So much for the romance of Arabia.

The mountains are incredibly rugged and beautiful, rising steeply from a plain once covered by the sea to tower over the coastal landscape. The volcanic rock formations on the mountainsides are dotted with caves and the occasional hardy tree or shrub; and our route led us along the Khasab Wadi, a narrow gorge famous for its destructive flash floods during the rainy season.  In fact, along the coast highway there are signs warning that the road is impassable when the water reaches the red mark on the sign, three feet above the surface of the highway.  At the summit of Mt. Hajjar, we were greeted by a sweet-faced donkey who apparently belongs to a Bedouin, since there was feed and water provided there for him.  We couldn’t figure out what he was doing there, unless it was to provide a photo opportunity for the tourists – which we took, of course.

Bedouin donkey

Our driver-guide, Farouk, was a Pakistani who had lived in the UAE for more than 20 years, since he was ten years old.  We learned that there is no path to citizenship for non-natives of the emirates, even second-and third-generation residents married to natives, and that they are able to stay in the country only on renewable short-term visas, subject to their being employed.  When the recession hit Dubai, in particular, and the real estate and construction businesses tanked, hundreds of foreign workers were unceremoniously deported.

Summit of Hajjar

On the way to and from the mountains, we drove through a sliver of another emirate, Sharjah, which appeared to be extremely prosperous, judging from some of the opulent homes we saw from the road.  But Sharjah is even stricter in its Islamic observation than Fujairah – it has a beautiful beach, but according to our guide, laws prohibit anyone from using it for any purpose.  I guess they are afraid that a woman might give in to temptation and wade barefoot in the water, thus exposing an inch of skin to public view.  Needless to say, sales of swimwear in Sharjah are pretty slow.

Home in Sharjah

The United Arab Emirates is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its creation on December 2, so flags are flying everywhere in preparation for the festivities.  The UAE consists of seven emirates: Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, and Ummal-Quwain, most of which you’ve never heard of (and neither have we).  When we ask our guides if unification has been a success, they all say it has; but from what we’ve seen, each emirate retains its own king and royal family, its own police force/ army, its own legal system, its own form of Islam, and its own economy.  They all use the same currency now, and there are no border crossings between emirates (much like going from state to state at home), but there doesn’t seem to be a strong central government.  One of the ruling kings acts as president of the country, but he is chosen by the other six kings and not by popular election.  Currently, the president is Khalipha ben Zayed al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi.  But of special interest to us is the fact that the vice-president is Mohammed ben Rashid al Maktoum, the owner of the world-famous Godolphin Stables, whose thoroughbred race horses compete all over the world.  The UAE is a beautiful and fascinating part of the world to visit, and we were treated with kindness and courtesy wherever we went.

Dolphin watching in the Gulf of Oman

Now about Nautica – she is a lovely vessel, a sister to Regatta, the Oceania ship we sailed on from Venice to Rome a few years ago. She can carry just under 700 passengers, and the public areas are so spacious that we never feel crowded.  The staterooms are very comfortable and well appointed, most with verandas, and the cabin service is superb.  I don’t think I’ll be carrying out my threat to throw Gerry to the pirates if he complains about the food – it has been excellent, especially in the two specialty restaurants.

Speaking of pirates: Nautica is the ship that outran a boatload of Somali pirates on a similar itinerary in 2008, and she is well prepared to fend them off again, if necessary.  Our captain was the staff captain on that voyage, so he certainly has experience.  The ship carries water cannons and (probably, although we won’t see them) armed security personnel, and it has some new technology that emits a concentrated beam of extremely high decibel sound to deter any unwanted approach.  We had a ship-wide pirate drill as we crossed the Arabian Sea, where we were told what to do in the event of an attack (basically, get out of our rooms and off the open decks, go into an interior passageway, and stay low to the floor).   One of our onboard enrichment lecturers, a retired Coast Guard Commander, gave a very informative talk about piracy in the21st century, with lots of detailed history about Somali pirates in particular.  When he said that the pirates always approach from astern and try to catch up with the target ship, Gerry looked at me and said, “Uh-oh.” (Naturally, our stateroom is at the very back end of the ship.)  We’ll be in the general zone of the pirates’operation until we pass the Seychelles, but there is very little risk of attack on a cruise ship.

And speaking of ships in general, when we were in port in Fujairah I counted 45 cargo ships on the near horizon, passing through the Gulf of Oman en route to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.  They were coming from Bahrain and Iran, I think, and a lot of them were probably oil tankers or ships carrying liquefied natural gas. When this region eventually runs out of oil, natural gas will be how it will survive.

Next time, Oman and the legendary city of Muskat.  We loved it!

Laurie &Gerry

DUBAI

We’ve found at our age that there is no greater  pleasure in life than seeing your last suitcase pop up on the baggage carousel at an airport thousands of miles from home.  Especially when the rest of your luggage arrived thirty minutes earlier.

Dubai skyline midnight

The Dubai airport looked much like any international airport anywhere, with one notable exception: all the agents at passport control wore ghutra and egal, the long white robe and white flowing headdress held by a braided band.  Think Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia striding on top of that train in the desert.  After our fourteen-hour flight from Atlanta, everything seemed a bit surreal to us anyway, and this just made it plain that we were now in a different world.

We arrived in Dubai at night, so our first sight of its renowned architecture was truly memorable.  The downtown buildings were lighted in colorful and artistic designs which set off each one’s unique features.  The spectacular Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world at 206 stories, seemed to spiral skyward without visible support like the horn of a unicorn.  The very top floors (134 to 160) other than mechanical floors are reserved for luxury residences, so I assume the people who live in them don’t suffer from vertigo.

Dubai dunes

Instead of touring palaces and shops and mosques, we chose to spend our only full day in Dubai taking a dunes safari in a four-wheel drive vehicle, since this would be our only chance to experience what everyone thinks of when the Arabian Peninsula is mentioned – the desert.  It was an unforgettable day, a roller coaster ride over hills and valleys of fine golden sand sculpted by the wind into elegant patterns.  We saw small deer, ibix, and a group of female camels and their nursing babies, none of whom seemed afraid of us at all.

Moms and babies

 

Getting up

We stopped for soft drinks and dates at a Bedouin campsite, where I was able to fulfill one more ambition: I rode a camel.  He was quite a nice camel, clean and brushed and not inclined to spit or bite (although his owner took the precaution of equipping him with a knitted muzzle just in case).  Getting into the saddle while the camel hunkered down on the sand was fairly easy, and then the adventure began.  Camels get up rear legs first, pitching the rider forward over their ears unless you hang on and lean back.  Their gait is a sort of rolling lurch, making their nickname “ships of the desert” very appropriate.  Then at the end of the ride, they kneel front legs first, again jolting you forward, where if you’re lucky, you are rescued by the camel’s owner from knocking yourself out on the saddle.  I loved every minute!

The ride

 

En route to and from the desert, we drove past a camel-racing track (I am not making this up).  Apparently, it’s  a popular sport in this part of the world – the camels run on a ten-kilometer track, and there are grandstands for the spectators at the finish line.  Horse racing is, of course, very big here, and we were sorry that we couldn’t see the newly-completed Meydan racetrack, where the Dubai World Cup is held in March.

That afternoon, we took the ship’s shuttle into downtown to explore the famous Dubai Mall, one of several incredible indoor shopping venues in the city.  This one has a regulation-size European ice hockey rink, which the public uses for pleasure skating.  (Another mall has an indoor ski slope – with real snow.)  The shops in the malls represent all the best-known international boutiques and brands, from Debenham’s to Bloomingdale’s, Armani to Cartier, French couturiers and Japanese electronics stores, even a full-size (British) Waitrose supermarket.  There is an Arabian quarter, where small shops sell beautiful handmade clothing, silver and gold jewelry, Aladdin’s lamps, hookahs, and all things Arabian.  The Gold Souk is a long street inside the mall lined with extremely high-end  jewelers and goldsmiths.  One two-story fountain was a sheet of falling water fifty feet wide, with metal sculptures of divers frozen in midair above the surface.

But to us the most interesting feature of the mall was the incredible variety of the people shopping there.  There were western tourists like us, Muslim women in full regalia (abaya, a long black robe; hijab, a black headscarf; and sometimes  a niqab, the full veil that covers everything but the eyes), young Arab women in miniskirts or shorts and high-heeled sandals, men in business suits or white Arab robes or jeans and T-shirts, and foreigners of every nationality.  Dubai is clearly a cosmopolitan community with a western-influenced lifestyle.  I found it interesting, but unless I wanted to shop nonstop, I don’t think I’d want to spend much time there.

Next installment: Fujairah and Sharjah, two other members of the United Arab Emirates, and some of our observations about life in a Muslim country.  I realize that I haven’t said a word about our ship or the cruise itself, but I’ll get there.  Just know that we’re having a wonderful time, despite our continuing jetlag, and we love the Nautica.

 

Laurie