Muscat, Oman: Home of the 2nd Largest Carpet in the World

Oman! A brand new country not counting yesterday and a chance to explore an interesting city. Dave was all “get up get up get up” at some unreasonable hour so I got ready and made it off the boat by 9am, just in time to catch the shuttle to the city center. Our first order of business was to visit the grand mosque. As it was only open for non-Muslims until 10:30, we had to hustle on over there as soon as we entered the city. It was about a 20km drive. After haggling a little over the price, we decided on 10 rials ($26) for a roundtrip taxi to the Sultan Qaboos grand mosque.

Corniche in Muscat, Oman

The ride was very enjoyable and we got to see how modern Oman is. It was slightly more green than the UAE (not hard) and not so over-the-top. Buildings were low, etc. About 20 minutes later we arrived at the mosque and our driver told us to take our time walking around. The first thing I had to do was cover up – no wrists, ankles or hair showing. I did the best I could, and I was wearing long black dress for the occasion, but that is all very different for me. The grounds were immaculate. The grass was green and meticulously mowed and the marble was so shiny that it looked wet because of the reflection that it gave off. We entered the women’s sanctuary first, which was impressive but not overly so. A man apparently caught a glimpse of my skin and a women came over to pin every area of my cardigan and wrap my head scarf very tight. It was a little scary because it was a bit of yelling and disapproval by some random guy in Arabic. Well, once I was covered sufficiently, and hot as balls, we went back outside and visited the actual grand mosque.

Me all covered up, exploring the mosque

Wall inside the Grand Mosque

My my it was grand….it houses the 2nd largest carpet in the world and chandeliers that are 15 meters high made of crystal. Not too shabby. We were only allowed on the covered area of the carpet but we got many photos of the amazing wood carving on the doors and the artwork that covered every wall and piece of ceiling. We even managed to take a few jumping shots when outside. All in all I really enjoyed the mosque. It was so so beautiful, peaceful and a generally awe-inspiring place to visit.

Our journey back to the city center was uneventful and we reached the souk in about 20 minutes, which made it only 11am. We sat and had a juice at the Juice and Fast Food restaurant and then made our way into the madness. Actually, it wasn’t so mad at all. Usually souks are all about the haggling and the bothersome sales people. These people were not so pushy after all and it seemed like getting a good deal would be difficult at best. We managed to get a Omani dagger for Dave and a Genie lamp for Jean (get it?) but didn’t see too much else. This man tried to convince me that a necklace I was trying on was real ruby and emerald..which would certainly not be the case it it were hanging on the wall with a small pin in the middle of a busy flea market. Either way, he priced the necklace at $330 riel (over $800), when I think it couldn’t be more then $5. These robbers think we are idiots.

We exited the souk quickly, as it was very small, and tried to decide what to do next. Muscat is actually separated into 3 areas which are not walkable from one another. Thus, you have to have a pretty good idea as to where you wanted to go before getting a taxi. We had no such idea so we started walking down the promenade. I was feeling pretty uncomfortable at this point as every women and most men were dressed in traditional clothing. I pretty much felt like a stripper in my long black gown, so I had to wear my black sweater and scarf, resulting in me simply burring up from the 85 degree temperature. It was very uncomfortable, both from a climate perspective and from a cultural perspective because I felt like everyone was glaring at me even when I was head to toe covered. We gathered that Old Muscat was too far to walk to, so we took a taxi for 2 riel. There could not have been less going on in Old Muscat. There were government buildings that we were not allowed to photograph, and that was it. Absolutely nothing. We ended up flagging down the taxi driver that had taken us to the area and catching a ride to Bawshar where supposedly the best falafel in the city could be found at a place called the Muscat Bakery. Being dropped of there was like being dropped off in the middle of a highway. There was a McDonalds and another restaurant that our taxi driver strongly recommended, Bin Ateeq.

Traditional Omani food

Being that it promised authentic Omani food, we decided to give it a try. It looked kinda Indian and middle eastern all in one, so we thought everything would be a-ok. We were shown to the “family section” of the restaurant, which was a series of private rooms with carpeting, pillows and no tables or chairs. Don’t get the wrong idea – nothing was glamorous about any of this and it was like sitting in a room that had been solidly worn out since the 1970’s. We sat on the floor in our own private room and sat confused while looking at the menus. This could not have been more unnatural for the 2 of us. We decided on the chicken curry and the beef curry and placed our order. Our waiter asked if we wanted it with the bread, and then motioned a mixing motion with his arms and hands. Sure, yea, mix all together? Well, I guess that’s what they do in Oman. We got our dish with all of the bread already mixed into the food. It was so so soggy and you couldn’t really tell if you were eating bread or chicken skin. The taste wasn’t too bad, just different. I think it was slightly more than 4 riles ($10). We paid the check, used the restroom (the women stared at me because my neck was a little exposed on one side) and decided to try the falafel at our original destination. When we entered the Muscat Bakery, it was clear there had been some miscommunication, although I’m not sure how as we had found the place on FourSquare and Facebook. This was a small supermarket with a gross looking bakery in one corner. No falafel or shwarma anywhere in sight. We still tried to find it, and we walked to every corner of the store, but no delicious food was to be had. We hailed a cab for $10 and headed back to the souk. Of course, the souk was closed for another 2 or so hours while the Omani people did whatever they did, so we sat at the same Juice and Fast Food place and had a juice and some falafel. The mint lemon juice was good, but the falafel was bland and the hommus was thin and drippy. We wanted to tell them to make it more like the Israelis, but that seemed like a poor choice.

Although in the Souk in Muscat, these chests come from India.

The souk opened again at 4pm and by that time we had it in our minds that we wanted to buy some big purchase for our apartment – a conversation piece if you will. We had our eyes set on these big trunks covered in a hammered silver design. It looked pretty Omani, whatever that means. We had 28 riles in our pocket and no one was budging below 30. It was a small difference so we were surprised that so many of the sellers allowed us to walk out of their shops empty-handed. Finally we regrouped and were going to settle on a smaller trunk when I decided to ask the seller what the trunk was made out of. Misunderstanding me, he thought I had asked where it was made, so he replied “india”. Huh?? From them on it was game over. We would be in India in 2 days and hell if we were going to buy an “Omani” trunk that was really made in India. Clearly an Indian trunk made in India would be a better choice. I did end up buying a tunic for 3 riels to use by the pool, but that was also made in India!! Were were a little disappointed and relieved and we decided to cash in our Omani riels for USD and head back to the ship. Oman was cool I guess, but honestly there isn’t much to do. You see the mosque, you see the souk…and that’s about it. Its pretty uncomfortable if you’re a woman, even if you try your best to cover up. The sheer ratio of men to women, coupled with the men’s affinity for staring, makes a Westerner feel pretty uneasy. Even the souk is nothing if you’ve ever been to someplace like SE Asia or Tel Aviv/Jaffa. The city would be more appealing if everything was close together and one could just walk about, but its actually separated into 3 sections that are all quite far from one another and are more like suburban strip mall after strip mall. Like the UAE, the main activity seems to be shopping, due to the extremely well-off Omani population. You don’t even meet any Omanis at the souk; everyone is from Pakistan or India. Oh well.

We returned to the boat and decided to call everyone back home because we had great 3G service. There it was snowing about 2 feet. Perhaps Oman is not so bad.

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