Sunday, January 11, 2009

Life is a highway, I want to ride it...

After piling two adults in the front, two in the middle, and Bethy and Thomas in the back, bags behind, and plenty of pre-packaged junk foods and fruit, we were off on our first international trip in Bird Car. Our trip to Oman began with driving back and forth over the borders of the UAE and Oman. You see, there are several cross-the-border stations, some apparently unmanned, along the way where different things are supposed to happen. If you miss a step you have to drive back until you find the right station and get the correct slip of paper or stamp in your passport. Though we were highly ignorant of what to do and where to go, finally we were given the "all clear" and relaxed for the drive to Muscat, the capital and largest city in Oman:

I can't speak for anyone else in the car, but for me, driving up into mountains out of the desert plains was a sort of relief, like taking a deep, deep breath.

Plus, several of us in the car couldn't get enough of the very fuzzy and verbal goats. Here is a wild one, called a tahr:

Mike was serenaded along the way by the Aussie accent of Matilda, as we've christened her, our GPS. Matilda was very patient with us. Through Matilda we selected our first dining experience in Oman. She said it was called the Golden Goat Restaurant off the Al-Waquaiba Road in Sohar. We picked it solely on the name. Actually it turned out to be called Golden Goal. Pretty close, not quite right. This became a theme of our relationship with Matilda.

The meal, which consisted of rice, chicken, fish, french fries (always it seems there are rice and/or french fries) anyway, more food than any 6 persons could possibly eat at one setting, cost 9 Rials and 600 baisa (9.60 OMR). 25 bucks American. Good deal, we thought, especially since we'd spent 1,250 Dhs on a meal ($341) for just the adults at the Meat Co on New Year's Day.

We carefully watched to make sure our water came out of the sealed bottle, and wondered if we would get silverware. (We did). Then we tried out eating solely with the right hand. In Arabic countries one does not use the left hand for eating, or shaking hands, and so forth, since that's the hand one uses for what one author I read coyly referred to as "toilet ablutions". In other words, there ain't much toilet paper outside of Dubai, people. Only the coarsest, rudest, most culturally illiterate person would eat with their left hand.

Anxious to avoid that particular label, we all practiced. Also along those lines, we wondered if we should be dining in the "Family" dining room instead of the main area (it seemed OK that we didn't) and Colleen jumped on my bandwagon of trying to learn little phrases in applicable languages, and then trying them out. The meal ended with a small bowl of brownish-green licorice flavored seeds delivered to the table, which we later figured out were fennel. Hmm.

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.

The drive to Muscat from Dubai was about 400 km, and with side trips and GPS, er, issues, (Matilda wasn't up on the roads in Oman, and in fact wanted us to drive in the ocean more than once) we drove about 5 hours until we reached the cream and white city surrounded by the jagged sand colored mountains and ringed by stone watchtowers in strategic places. There, on the Oman Gulf, we checked into an attractively aged hotel whose rates had been described by the guide book as "reasonable". 180 Rials per couple for 2 nights ($938 USD total). They'd given us two rooms, then changed their minds on the second room and tried to give us a smaller room. I threw a modest fit and got the bigger room back. We couldn't believe the price...twice what the guide book had said, so I didn't feel too guilty about it. Other men were haggling and hassling the clerk about the room prices as well, though in Arabic.

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 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.
The family, banners, and in the distance, one of the many watchtowers.

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.
None of us turned out to be very good bargainers that day except for Bethy. She was amazing. She'd decided to take 2 Rials ($6) out of her "bank account" and she strode along with a discerning little girl's eye. Her greatest assets were persistence "No, I only have 2 Rials," and an impressive ability to walk away. This secured her a lavish pink fur and sequined outfit of pants and a coat from this gentleman, who was tickled to be outfoxed by a blond baby:
We walked and walked through the corridors, a thousand delights for our eyes.

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: ), 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.


Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

Tell Bethy I totally love her pink outfit!
You have an amazing way with words too. Maybe you'll consider writing a book?

Will & Cheyenne said...

Some of your trip pictures are so beautiful! Isn't Matilda awesome? We always call her the girlfriend.

Jeni said...

From Josh: Mom calls hers "Prim Rose." We didn't have ours long enough in the states to name ours, and in Guam we can't even use it. We just get to envy your Matilda! Sounds like a wonderful trip!