Helpful tip for travelers: fennel seeds should not be crammed with abandon into one's mouth as though they are after dinner mints. Start out slowly or have a napkin to spit into nearby, because they are strong.
Though that first night all we did was wander the nearby areas and beach a little bit, we would have had to be blind to not notice that something big was happening in Oman. It turned out to be the 19th Gulf Cup...soccer. You can guess, soccer is big here. (FYI: the UAE will be defending their Gulf Cup title against Saudi this Saturday in the semifinals; Oman also qualified and will be playing Qatar). Oman was playing against Kuwait. I don't know if normally the cars in Oman are decorated with the country's flag colors of white, red and green, but they sure were when we were there. People wore bright knitted scarves resembling the flag, and there was a general air of excitement and national pride.
We visited Old Oman, and the Mutrah Souk. First we were guided to a parking spot by a helpful local along one of the narrow passages, then we wandered through the aged and beautiful buildings beneath the banners. Through a large archway and into the souk. (marketplace) The souk was exactly what a souk should be; colorful, vibrant, full of the smells of incense and languages swirling.
Emerging on the bright harbor end of the souk, we were greeted by the splendid white hulk of one of Sultan Quaboos' yachts floating upon the blue waters, (a fascinating and complicated man, here's more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qaboos_of_Oman ), cruise ships disgorging German tourists,and a fort castle overlooking it all.
We tromped up many many stone stairs, though the fort itself was closed, for the view, which was astounding. White and blues, golds and creams. Mosques, towers, a vibrant and alive city, soaked in history. Dubai is about the now, the faster bigger and better. Muscat was something entirely different, and it was good.
We were getting hungry, and decided that this was the place to try out:
We figured we'd get a decent meal, hopefully without a side dish of dysentery.
Sitting at one of the tables in the tiny Taj Mahal, we tried to order, but soon realised with much effort from both sides of the ordering process and lots of hand gestures that there were only two dishes actually available, so we went with it. There were plenty of 2 liter bottles of water on the tables, but they had been refilled with tap water. They brought us at least one that was sealed, for sure, though Thomas managed to have one of the well-meaning waiters pour him a glassful from one of the other bottles. I switched it with mine as soon as I could without causing offense and had Thomas suck on a lemon, Rani's prescription remedy for eating anything potentially pathological.
A salad arrived, which we mostly avoided, and then rice and our meals.
Let me tell you, that was the best food I think I have ever eaten. Wow. The chicken Mike and I got was coated with red peppers and fried to perfection, along with the saffron rice and some sort of spicy chicken in sauce, and hot naan bread...I'm drooling even now remembering it.
The bill for our feast...from Mike and my new favorite restaurant? The Rial equivalent of 12 American dollars. They even gave the kids homemade cookies.
We wandered back and Bethy announced she needed to go potty. A prolonged search for such ensued. Finally I gave up and took her over to the police station. A talk dark north African Muslim gladly walked us part way, and then some Muscat police officers escorted us the rest of the way. Of course there were only the dreaded squat potties, essentially porcelain ringed holes on the floor. I braced myself for yet another duel with Bethy about the need to go vs the aesthetics of sit vs squat.
To my delighted shock she decided that she was cool with it. This is the kid who would NOT go in a port-a-potty back in the States, despite threats of bodily harm. We proclaimed her, then and there, the Princess of Squat Potties.