Muscat ramble, Oman.
People were astonished to hear I was taking my children to Oman but having lived and travelled a great deal in the Middle East, I knew we would love it. I use the term ‘children’ loosely; they are 19 and 16 now, independent, well-travelled, smart and funny, and not likely to pass up a Mum funded holiday. Travelling with them when they were small was a delight; their engaging charm, shy smiles and ability to connect with people even if they did not speak the same language, opened doors behind which I would never have had an opportunity to glimpse had I travelled alone. Fast forward a few years and their charm is as potent now as it ever was plus the bonuses of travelling with teenagers meant there was always someone to carry my suitcase and I could stay out later at night!
We flew into Muscat looking forward to a relaxing few days at the Shangri La Barr al Jissah after the long flight from Auckland. What a haven. Cool, calm luxurious rooms, spacious and welcoming public areas, plenty to see and do (and eat), delightful people at every turn and a long beautiful beach, all reflected in the sparkling Arabian Sea. While I took myself off to the spa, aforementioned teenagers managed to find a dozen new friends, take a ride on the sea biscuit, drive a motorboat, leap numerous times off a huge inflatable edifice into the sea and make plans for beach volleyball with some of the hotel crew.
An hilarious day was spent in Muscat itself with a driver recommended by the hotel. Majid was delighted to compare music tastes with my music mad son, took him off to buy a dishdasha and kuma (traditional Omani outfit), patiently waiting as we wandered blissfully through Muttrah Souk and the frantically busy fish market. Covered from head to foot we also stood wide eyed and speechless in the aptly named, ‘Grand Mosque’; my children looking ethereally Arab in head scarves and flowing clothing while I somewhat resembled a dark hobbit in my all black Omaniya and scarf.
All too soon it was time to leave the sanctuary of the Shangri La and explore some of the country. Our driver and guide for the next few days, Faizal, was a little wild eyed with a very cheeky grin. The children took to him immediately, giggling when he said loudly, ‘I know a shortcut’ and took off sideways away from the beautiful 6 laned highway we were whistling quietly along to bounce across a dried wadi with crumbling villages on either side. He asked for our map and laughed out loud when I said ‘don’t you know where you’re going?’. Apparently we were most unusual for not bringing a map to have our route marked out for us while we were on the road. I much prefer to be looking out the window than looking at a map so we told Faizal to just make it fun. He did. He stopped for sweet Karak tea, introduced us to mouth-wateringly delicious, tiny Omani doughnuts, drove through steep mudbrick villages with children splashing in the local wadi, stopped for us to take photographs of camels and painted village doors and sang, badly, a lot.
We saw huge green turtles laying eggs on the beach in the dark, vivid gleams of algae glowing like phosphorus in the waves crashing behind us, forts and castles brought to life by Faizal complete with gruesome stories of bloodshed and black magic, orange splashes of sunset over bright red ever changing sand dunes, sink holes and cool refreshing wadis tumbling over smooth rocks into crystal clear pools. We wandered through souks and sat drinking tea with Bedouin, chatted with school children and slept in a luxury permanent tent in the desert. We got used to Faizal shouting ‘I want to fly’ as he shot off up the side of a steep dune with sand arching in huge swathes over the car before breaking into song and we tried food from fancy restaurants through to tiny food stalls. We loved every second.
The familiar staccato chatter of Arabic was very comforting, the warmth of the people and their generosity of spirit made us feel quite at home but Oman was different too – the amount of water was astounding, the diversity of landscape awe inspiring and there seemed to be none of the ‘in your face’ spiel in the markets – quite restful for a family of Kiwis.
We genuinely thought we left too soon and we would all return in a heartbeat.