(Continued from "In search of peace in Oman (I): Muscat to Nizwa")
With the majority of locals owning cars, intercity transport in Oman is not exactly well developed. Buses connect only the largest urban centres, for which Sur most certainly does not qualify. My only hope is to get a lift with local people; thankfully, one of the taxi drivers from the day before is kind enough to offer me a lift to Bidbid (en-route Muscat) as he is heading to the capital anyway. 1 OMR (1.6 GBP) is barely money to pay for a 80-km journey and I accept the offer with thanks.
Out to the highway I walk and, 30 minutes past the agreed hour, my driver Monsur appears. Our journey begins well but is soon cut short – not sure whether it is my camera, put to use all too frequently from the front seat, but Monsur quickly changes his plans about me. Suddenly, he stops in the middle of the highway and, in a voice giving away impatience, apologises and tells me to leave his car. He refuses to take any money, hails me a minivan passing by and once again apologises. I might never know the reason for my driver's abrupt change of heart.
"Salaam alleikum," I greet the minivan party, only to realise that I might as well have been speaking English; all the passengers inside turn out to be nationals of the Philippines. While Oman's Filipino population is predominantly represented by construction workers and housekeepers, my inadvertent companions are notable exceptions and all teach at the Nizwa College of Technology. We chat happily (finally, I think, can I use more complicated English words without the risk of being misunderstood) until a semblance of a settlement appears on our right. Bidbid! I get out of the minivan, thank my new acquaintances and, in the burning midday sun, hurry towards a large concrete booth on the side of the road – the bliss of a shade one can never underestimate in this part of the world.
An outdated timetable, faded out almost completely by the sun, is nailed to the wall. The next bus to Sur is not until the next morning. Luckily, ride hitching seems to be an established practice in a country where public transport is otherwise as good as absent. Soon a local man drops his bag in the shade next to me; he, too, is heading to Sur today. At least if I am stuck in the middle of the desert, I will know for sure that I won't be there alone.
But getting stuck is decidedly not on the cards. Several cars zoom past; some stop to inquire about our destination and politely refuse – they must be heading elsewhere. Finally a car with two Omanis stops, and, Alhamdulillah, they are going to Al Kamil – a decidedly convenient stopover mere 50 km away from Sur. There isn't any room for my backpack in the boot, so I position it carefully on my lap, take out the camera and, for the next hour or so, lose myself in the scenery passing by. Stunning mountains gradually get lower as desert takes over; it is by that paced change in elevation that I register our approach to the coast.
The remaining 50 km from Al Kamil to Sur in another car I wave down are nothing short of entertaining: I am sat next to an Omani who immediately announces his ardent love for Bollywood music. The journey promptly evolves into an unofficial soundtrack to "Slum Dog Millionaire", as the music blasts out in a surreal manner over the calm of the surrounding desert; we both sing along. I only interrupt my driver's performance once to photograph a warning sign bearing an image of a camel; sadly, real camels are nowhere to be seen.
SUR: DOSY HAVEN BETWEEN SEA AND DESERT
Rather small even by the local standards, Sur amazes me with its quietness. It is 18 November, Oman's Independence Day, but there is hardly anyone in the streets and most shops are closed. The city's celebrated Corniche is part blown over by sand, with little sign of human activity besides a stray dog and brightly coloured plastic rubbish. I remember Nizwa – the city almost identical in size to Sur – being similarly empty in the early afternoon hours, and do not fret.
My walk takes me towards the natural lagoon surrounding the city and past the shipbuilding yard in the old harbour of Sur. Back in the day, Sur used to be an important trade hub and was renowned for its shipbuilding. Traditional wooden boats, called dhows, continue to be made in Sur to this day, the only remaining place of this kind in Oman.
I walk under a large bridge (which, I later learn, is Khor al Batar, the first and only suspension bridge in Oman) and a view of an incredibly beautiful seaside village opens: this is Aygah. Its whitewashed houses and fishing boats scattered around the small bay gaze invitingly at me, and three watch towers dot the surrounding hills. Many years ago these watch towers used to lead the dhows returning from the sea to the relative safety of the lagoon.
On top of the first watch tower, I meet three young men who insist I take their picture. We spend some time sitting on the battlements and chatting. Two of the men are Indian and one is Omani; they announce themselves as good the friends as the three musketeers, and I find it incredibly refreshing in a Gulf country.
A large lighthouse looks positively tempting in the corner of the bay in Aygah and, realising that the sunset is fast approaching, I continue to it. Local kids shout greetings to me from every direction and some ask to be photographed. Many fishing boats are returning home at this time and older children can be seen wading through the water towards their fathers' boats.
I soon reach the lighthouse: it is a modern but an incredibly eye-pleasing structure incorporating motives of traditional Arab architecture. The view over Sur in the fading colours of sunset is absolutely superb; several concurrent football matches are taking place on the beach and I spend a while admiring the sunset-lit sand thrown into the air by dozens of speedy feet. Golden minarets dominate Sur's low skyline in the backdrop of the hazy mountains: this is how I have always imagined the Arabian peninsula.
I get up early the next morning and make my way, in nearly complete darkness, through Sur's largely unpaved streets back to Khor al Batar Bridge. A watch tower looming ahead serves as my goal, and I am soon making my way uphill to its sand-coloured walls. There is no way to get inside, but I do not need to: the pink-lit sunrise view across the narrow strait to Sur is beyond any words. Breath-taken, I enjoy the stunning solitude of this Saturday morning.
After the sunset I return to a visibly livelier Sur – it is the equivalent of Monday morning in the West (note: in 2013 Oman changed its weekend from Thurday-Friday to Friday-Saturday) and children are hurrying to school while the city's many South Asian residents are sipping masala chai in small groups. I would love to visit the famous sights near Sur but it is simply too difficult without my own transport, and I make my way to the junction from where shared taxis depart back to Muscat. Albeit small, Sur grew on me thanks to its warm Arabian atmosphere and superb morning light.
BACK IN MUSCAT AND FAREWELL
Thankfully, I do not need to backtrack to Muscat along the same desert route. As my shared taxi speeds away mercilessly along the coastal Route 17, I am once again amazed by the fantastic quality of roads in Oman. We pass a massive LNG facility and several industrial complexes on our right as the scenery grows increasingly more spectacular and mountains once again replace dull desert views. The journey of 200km barely takes a couple of hours as the driver, a stern-looking young Omani, visibly disregards the road signs' pleas to reduce speed.
Before I am able to say "please slow down", I am back in Muscat and strolling along Qurum beach. The area is noticeably wealthy, with luxury hotels rising out of purpose-created parks of greenery. There is not a cloud in the sky and not even a modern international coffee shop (that chose to remain unnamed) mars the beach-side promenade on Al-Shati Street.
I spend a few hours walking along the beach. Bright sunlight changes into sunset and the first joggers appear, swooshing past as I have enormous fun capturing their silhouettes disappearing into the golden Arabian sun. The atmosphere is so wonderfully relaxing that I feel I could live in Muscat one day – if only to watch these beautiful sunsets every evening on my stroll by the sea.
The next day is my last one in Oman, and I have not made many plans. Oman is the first country in the Arab world to welcome sunrise, and I make sure not to miss it; luckily, Qurum beach is only a short walk from my hotel. The coffee in the hapless coffee chain is suddenly offered to me for free, and my morning is complete.
I hail what I think is a taxi and ask the driver for his fare to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. He laughs: he is not a taxi driver, but a Keralan office professional on his way to work. His English is not great and he has absolutely no idea where the said mosque is but does offer to try and find it together. We exchange a few pleasantries before a massive minaret appears in front of us. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the largest place of worship in Oman and is difficult to miss. I thank my driver, place the mandatory scarf on my head and am ready to walk in.
The size of the mosque is astonishing. I learn that it can accommodate 20,000 worshippers and that the elaborate floor carpet, measuring 70m by 60m wide, is the world's second largest hand-loomed carpet in the world. It was designed in the best Persian tradition and took 600 women four years to weave. The mosque itself was Sultan Qaboos' gift to his people to celebrate his 30th anniversary of reign.
It is hot and, exiting the mosque, I am relieved to unwrap my improvised hijab. Outside, dozens of South Asian workers are laying out irrigation pipes for a new delivery of palm trees: the soil in the desert is brutally infertile and each tree is only sustained by its individual supply of water.
A busy highway passes by the mosque and I notice a few people by the roadside waiting for transportation. All of them are South Asian and glance at me in disbelief, but, remembering how long it took me earlier to find a taxi (which did not even turn out to be one), I decide to follow the locals and take the first minibus to its final destination. Sure enough, a minibus soon appears: it is headed to Ruwi, another part of Muscat, and I jump in.
Upon arrival, I can hardly believe my eyes. The place has a distinct subcontinental feel and not a single Omani is in sight. Hundreds of South Asians go about their business and a wonderful spice scent dominates the hot midday air. I later learn that the area is (aptly) called Little India and is an interesting attraction in itself, but, right now, I am a little overwhelmed and make my way towards quieter looking rows of dull commercial buildings nearby.
Ruwi is Muscat's business district but looks surprisingly quiet on a working day. I become bored in minutes and start pondering a repeat visit to Muttrah Souq, but, not knowing my way around, somehow end up in a parking lot between two low-rise office buildings. Cursing the heat and sort of regretting leaving behind the bustling Little India, I suddenly hear an English greeting to my left.
An Omani man about my age is standing next to me and is about to get into his car; smiling, he repeats his hellos and asks, very appropriately, what I am doing here. I explain that I am a little lost and seriously overheated from wandering around in a long skirt and a long-sleeved shirt on a hot day.
Dhuhai (as he introduces himself) laughs, tells me to wait and hurries away to an office building next door. He soon returns, beaming, and motions me to his car. "I excused myself from work for the rest of the day. And I told my boss I had run into an old friend so he gave us 50 OMR to spend." What a great introduction to the Gulf.
My new friend is convinced that I am hungry so our first stop is an Indian food joint, which, apparently, he owns. Having never been to India before (and barely having eaten any Indian food – we are talking 2011 here, folks), I am floored by my first ever taste of spicy briyani. As Indian waiters stare at me, visibly entertained by my inability to eat their food correctly, one of them shyly comes over to Dhuhai and, in a quiet voice, exchanges a few Arabic phrases.
Something in the man's tone makes me curious, and, on our way out, I ask Dhuhai what the conversation was about. It turns out that the man has been in Oman for two years and would like to go home to visit his wife but is afraid of losing his visa. Dhuhai smiles. "I told him to go home. We'll make him another visa."
We continue to Yiti beach 25 km south-east of Muscat. There really isn't much to see but the beach has some beautiful rock formations and an old stranded dhow. The luxurious Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah hotel is not far and, for a laugh, we have a soft drink under a canape on the beach. Seeing European faces around me, I finally realise where so many of the visitors to Oman are hiding; until now, I have not seen a single European-looking person here.
I mention this to Dhuhai, and he immediately feels obliged to show me a "true luxury hotel". And I immediately know what he is talking about: even a bumpkin like me has heard about Al Bustan Palace, one of Oman's best known resorts and the Gulf's most opulent hotels. Unlike most luxury hotels in the Gulf, this one is relatively old and was built some 30 years ago for a Gulf Cooperation Council conference.
It takes us a while to park at Al Bustan and I feel positively out of place when we do enter. It sure is luxurious to death and, I hear, has the longest private beach in the entire sultanate – but perhaps I am here on a wrong kind of occasion. Next time I will make sure to dress to impress and bring my husband along.
My flight time is approaching, and we make our final stop at the Muttrah Souq. Dhuhai disappears into one of the stalls and returns with a traditional clay incense burner (mabkhara), a pack of small charcoal bricks and a jar of incense (bakhoor). Burned in local homes on special occasions, it is Dhuhai's parting gift to me. He thanks me, but I do not really understand why – wasn't it Dhuhai who extended a welcoming gesture and took me around for a few hours of sightseeing around his city?
He smiles. It is his pleasure.
Back in London, I make good use of the mabkhara and the bakhoor I received from Dhuhai to this day – and, when I do, I think back to Oman's historical forts, its impressive mountains, its long golden beaches – and, above all, its people's wonderful hospitality.