Every day I get asked about interesting places to visit. People often want to know, ahead of the crowds of course, where the next ‘must see’ destination is.
It’s a tough job, but I’ve taken it on my shoulders to see as many of these places first hand, so I can come back and share the stories with you. I like to get off the beaten track and get to know the people and their stories; so a trip to Oman seemed to fulfil the brief perfectly.
The first question many people asked when I first told them that I was going to Oman was, “Where’s that?” The second question was, “Why would you go there?” So let me clear those things up straight away. Oman is an Islamic country located in the Arabian Peninsula. Many people are more familiar with its neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and United Arab Emirates (home to the bustling metropolis of Dubai and Abu Dhabi).
Oman is known for her rugged natural beauty and fascinating history, and I was determined to debunk the myth that Oman was isolated and uncultured.
After a lengthy flight and a journey of around 20 hours, we arrived in the capital, Muscat. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Muscat was nothing like I thought it would be. It’s a strange mix of modern life intertwined with a community that seems happy to hold to tradition and history. The irony of fast and expensive cars driving through back streets of century old fort-like buildings was not lost on me, as I quickly realised Muscat was going to surprise me.
Modern hotels stood next to traditional open air markets, where locals purchased their food and supplies before heading back out to their Bedouin desert homes. It was here in Muscat that I began to understand the history behind this rugged country, but it was out in the desert that I truly began to comprehend it.
Oman radiates a rich and distinctive jewellery tradition, where Omani silver is considered more valuable than gold. The unbrushed look of the silver, which the Western world may consider tarnished, is viewed by the Omani people as a sign of respect for the silver and the silversmith who made it. It was easy to lose myself in the souks (the Arabic word for an open air marketplace), filled with Omani silver piled so high, that it seemed there was no end. It was more difficult, however, to drag myself away without purchasing a piece or two.
But my quest was not to come home with purchases to tell my story; I wanted to talk to the people. I wanted to hear their stories. For a Western female, in a Muslim country, this was not as easy as I had hoped; but still, there was a chance with our driver, an Omani local named Mahout, who was taking us to the desert to visit and experience what he claimed was the true Oman. The next morning, Mahout met us as planned, and we started the journey into the desert. The landscape is predominately sand, rock and date palms, dotted with what seemed to be mirages in the desert, but turned out to be villages of people still living a very traditional and wholesome life.
After some encouragement, Mahout opened up about his life in Oman, which was not only fascinating, but helped me to understand that a simple and uncomplicated life can be good. On our first day, Mahout could not hold my gaze, nor talk directly to me. On our last day, Mahout took us to his local village, where we joined him for traditional Omani food of goat, smoked in hot coals for days in preparation for our visit. He proudly showed us an environment where it seemed nothing could survive and yet was home to lively villages and welcoming communities.
As we said farewell to Mahout, I asked permission to give him a hug, as I would freely in Australia. He agreed and told me that he had only been out of Oman once in his life – and even then just for one day, before he came back. He didn’t like travelling, he said, because the people weren’t nice to others like the Omani people.
After our sharing of stories, despite their contrasts, he said if the people of Australia were as nice as this, maybe he’d give travelling another chance.
Time seems unimportant in Oman, where it is not unreasonable to wait hours for a simple request.
The locals didn’t seem to mind though; they were happy to sit talking with their family and friends. Many of the local cafés were an eclectic mix of modern facilities complemented by local service – an environment where the wealthy could comfortably sit around for hours smoking flavoured sheesha and waiting for prayer time. It’s a lifestyle that is surprisingly contagious and one which the few Westerners that we came across were strangely envious of.
As our time in Oman was coming to an end, I asked myself what I would tell the people back home. Had Oman lived up to my expectations?
These questions were all so easily answered, when I reflected upon a trip of a lifetime that allowed me a sneak peek into a culture considerably different to my own and a country so resilient and resourceful. I discovered people who were proud to share their country to an outside world and embrace the vast differences between my country and theirs.
I discovered a place where I could swim in the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea, while turtles laid their eggs on the beach nearby, and within an hour be sitting in a desert community swapping recipes with local Bedouin women, who welcomed me like an old friend.
Oman was certainly a surprise, but one I feel privileged to have experienced. With Oman just being listed in the Top Ten Best Destinations for 2012, I think the secret’s already out!
This story was published in issue 21 Coffs Coast Focus