A dry holiday to Oman

Back from a Traveleyes holiday to Oman and feeling groggy and disorientated with post-holiday blues I bumped into a friend in the Cafe Nero. ‘Back from your travels then?’ She asked. Reaching for a napkin as I ordered my coffee, she added with a wink, ‘Didn’t get kidnapped then? You don’t half go to some funny places.’ A couple of people in the queue turned to stare at me. From the look on their faces, they could easily be forgiven for thinking I’d been to Caracas or Raqqa rather than to one of the safest countries in the Middle East, where different nationalities live peacefully side by side and religion shapes the daily rhythm of life.

Arriving over an arid, sun-drenched landscape into a very modern and clean airport we were greeted by our friendly Omani tour guide, dressed in a pristine long Persil white tunic, called a dishdasher, sandals and colourful turban, the standard dress of Omani men.

‘What a lovely airport,’ I told him. The floor was polished marble and there were artificial palm trees lining our route to the exit where a couple of workers were watering a living wall, the largest across the Gulf countries growing 13 different plant species and 24,000 different plants. I could see that the guide was proud of the airport. ‘The terminal opened last year. There’s a big push to drive more tourists to Oman, but not on the huge scale of Dubai,’ he chuckled.

Before we left the airport our English guide halted outside the Duty-Free, warning us that this was our last chance to purchase alcohol and that it would be very difficult to find alcoholic drinks in Oman. ‘Does anybody want to buy any before we head off?’ She asked. Weary from our night flight and not quite believing her, there were no takers. One of our travellers had come prepared though, a sneaky bottle of whiskey stowed in his luggage and discovering his secret bottle one day I helped myself to a nip. It felt as if he was carrying contraband goods and I felt like a naughty school girl. ‘If they want to loosen us up,’ he declared, ‘they need to liquor us up.’ And another traveller commented, ‘We won’t be painting the town red, we’ll be painting it beige.’ The lack of alcohol became the butt of jokes over the week but I don’t think anybody really missed it, especially after trying the delicious mint lemon cold drink served at every cafe and restaurant and Arabian coffee (with added cardomon) with dates at every meal, helping us to forget the lack of wine and spirits. It certainly didn’t stop us laughing and having a good time.

I wouldn’t recommend Oman as a destination if you’re somebody that likes to get pissed. And even if you ventured into one of the few 5-star hotels that do serve it, the prices might stop you getting bladdered. And I got the distinct impression that rowdy, drink-fuelled behaviour would be frowned upon. Muscat was a civilised, gentile sort of city, unlike Brighton or Southend on a Saturday night. Maybe I’m getting old and boring but I preferred the quieter, drink free atmosphere of Muscat. You felt much safer.

Thank you for reading and there will be more Oman blogs in the coming days.

 

Why I’m going to Oman and what the country has to offer.

As constitutional lawyers pour over this latest Brexit deal I’ll be joining the Emirates queue at Gatwick. I’m looking forward to jetting off into the sun for a relaxing holiday having just finished my latest novel and before embarking on a sequel to ‘Every Mother’s Fear.’

Except that I don’t do relaxing. For me lying on a beach, staring at the sun, only to breed wrinkles is boring. I can do that in Brighton or Bognor on a sunny summer day. I’m enticed by the lure of adventure and discovery and meeting inspiring people. Last year I went to Cuba with a travel company called Traveleyes and when they posted a holiday to Oman I immediately signed up.  Traveleye tours are a mixture of sighted and blind travellers. The sighted travellers guide and share their holiday experience with their blind companions. It’s a wonderful experience to share your holiday with people with sight problems because we can share our unique experience. They are good at pointing out things I wouldn’t maybe notice like smells and sounds and I describe what I’m looking at.

My destination – Oman wouldn’t be top of the list for most people, particularly because people think it’s a dangerous place to visit, but it’s actually one of the safest Middle Eastern countries, despite its volatile location next to Yemen, embroiled in civil war and there are tensions between Oman and Saudi Arabia. ‘Why are you going there?’ Friends have asked. So I thought I’d write a blog about why I’m going to such an unusual destination.

I love the Middle East and visited Jordan and Dubai several years back and I’m off to Isreal later in the year. I really wanted to visit either Oman or Iran. I love waking up to the haunting call to prayer, its soft melody and the way religion defines the day, as people stop, get out their prayer mats by the roadside, raising their arms to the sky in such a deeply meaningful way. It’s raw, moving and has a profound effect on me spiritually, in a way that church bells don’t. Whatever you think about the politics of Islam they are still praying to the same God. The sound of donkeys braying in the hills is another haunting sound.

Oman is a country of deserts and picturesque villages in the mountains and has a tiny population of just 4 million. Muscat, the capital looks like most peoples’ idea of a modern county, with shopping malls selling consumer goods but outside the towns, the country is steeped in history and the landscape is stunning.  Tradition is woven through every aspect of life in Oman. For instance, it’s not unusual to marry your first cousin and marriage is arranged when a child is born and there’s a strong belief in ‘jinn’ which are evil spirits. Men are known by their first name and the name of their father or their son.

The country had no real infrastructure before 1970 but when the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said came to power in 1970, he embarked on modernising the country with a series of reforms and he pumped money into education, health and welfare. The sultan has absolute power and rules by decree. He rules unchallenged, political parties are banned and Sharia Law means that certain crimes are dealt with very harshly. In the extreme, homosexuals can receive the death penalty for instance. I’d better be careful and not do my usual journalist thing of asking locals too many questions and taking risky photographs!

I’m fascinated by Oman’s history. This is the land of the Queen of Sheba, although there’s no hard evidence to support her existence. Since the 1940s Oman’s wealth has grown from its oil reserves but for centuries Oman was important for its frankincense and myrrh. Almost all frankincense comes from Western Oman. Frank means noble. Frankincense is a gum resin that comes from the Boswellia tree and they grow in abundance in certain areas of Oman. They like harsh climates and can even grow out of solid rock. Frankincense was in demand, the world over for religious ceremonies and as an embalming material as well as treating numerous ailments. Omani frankincense was even found in Tutankhamon’s tomb. Camel caravans travelled thousands of miles transporting this valuable commodity.

I’m not particularly into wildlife myself, but for those who do there’s the chance of seeing leopards, hyenas, vultures, turtles, humpback whales and oryx in Oman.

I’ll be back soon with an update on how I get on! Thank you for reading. Here’s a link to a great book I read about Oman: https://www.amazon.co.uk/OMAN-Under-Arabian-Skies-Unabridged-ebook/dp/B007ZT4BQS/