I arrived at the airport at 3am after a long travel. I was the first one to the passport check-in where only one man was working. I handed him my Icelandic passport and he looked at it with surprise and scratched his head. He then asked; "Island..?" I replied; "Yes, Iceland". He then left me there for some time, while the whole plane stood in line waiting, all looking tired and quite angry. He came back with another colleague, which also asked me; "Island"? They then held up a single A4 paper and looked at it carefully until they apparently found Iceland on it. I am not sure if they didn't know Iceland or if it could really be that I was the first ever Icelander entering Oman?
I had the opportunity to travel to Muscat in Oman in February ´16 for an assignment. As always when receiving a new travel assignment I start by researching on-line for information about the country. For this assignment my search was a tad different than I normally do; "how to dress", "how to behave" and so on. Of course everyone who uses search engines knows that different and sometimes extreme and unreliable information can be found there, so you´ll need to learn how to filter. I was not sure what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised by most, both by the country and Omani people who were for the most part extremely polite, friendly and welcoming.
Muscat is a large city surrounded by rocky mountains and it has no real center, at least that I could find. You will need to rent a car or travel with taxis. I had read that driving in Muscat could be quite dangerous so I decided to use taxis. I was referred by my lovely Airbnb host to a nice driver called Ali, who lived in the neighborhood where I was staying, which was convenient. Taxis in Oman have no taximeter so you will need to agree on the price, before. They also have NO seat belts and it turned out it was really true what I read about the traffic.
Ali drove me around the whole city and waited patiently while I met people and took pictures. When I asked to see fig trees he took a detour to the valley SAYH RAMDAH to also show me where hot water runs down from the mountains which the locals use for bathing and relaxing. Men and women have their own separate bathing facilities and the water was not very warm, which is fine in such heat and when looking carefully I saw tiny little fish swimming all around, Ali told me to stick my feet in, "to clean" he said and then laughed.
Ali did not speak much, but gladly posed for a picture. He told me he was married and that he has ten children. It is quite hard to understand Omanis when speaking english, their accent is hard, so it is possible that I could be mistaken...
I had only one restaurant on my list this time to cover for this assignment and that was Bait Al Luban. It is located at the end of the Corniche with a view over the Corniche and the (now being build or newly opened) new fish market. They offer traditional Omani meals and you can choose between three different seating options, the very old tradition which is sitting on the floor, the low seat and low table sitting or the todays classical European seating. They have small balconies which I decides was the best option to get both a little bit of fresh air and look at the view. (tip: Ask to go up on the roof to enjoy a full 360° view over the city) I stayed there for quite some time, the service was excellent, the food was colorful and tasty and their manager, Sameer was very accommodating. My favorite though was the desert, which was a tray full of different Omani delicacies served with Arabic coffee with Cardamom, delicious!
There is a large market called Mutrah Souk or Al Dhalam located in the middle of the Corniche. It opens late in the day and stays open long in the evening. I have to say that one was a slight disappointment, I thought there would be more of old vintage treasures but instead most of it was souvenirs from China, India and Africa and you can not walk there peacefully, every meter you walk someone is calling at you, "madam, you look for scarf?" for instance. But you can find little things like spices, perfume or the famous Omani frankincense.
It was not as hard to get permission to photograph locals as I thought it would be. I stayed away from fully covered up Omani women wearing Niqāb or burqas, as I had read that it is not wise to ask them and I could never see them walk alone outside, they were always companied by a man.
I visited a new waterfront community called The Wave (Al Mouj Muscat) which is located on the coast of Muscat, close the airport. It was somehow very different the atmosphere there than in other places in Muscat. Calm, walking streets and mix of people enjoying their day sitting outside café´s.
I saw two ladies at the Wave, they were walking by me smiling and laughing. I stopped them and asked if I could photograph them as I thought they looked so beautiful. They smiled and posed for me. Later I saw them again joined by more friends, each as glamorous.
I also visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is the main mosque in the Sultanate of Oman. Non-muslims can visit from 8am to 11am from Saturday to Thursday. Inside there is one of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers. It is a beautiful large scale building which can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers. As a woman, to go inside you must cover yourself up, arms, chest and hair.
The weather is warm in Oman, in February it was around 30° celsius (86 fahrenheit) and for me that is my maximum comfort level of heat. One afternoon I was walking along the beach and I saw few clouds appear in the sky and little wind which for me was great. I went into a coffee shop to buy take-away coffee and when I came out the weather had completely changed, it was raining and wind was blowing hard. So hard that the chairs outside were blowing away and the water from the rain had filled the streets with water! How long was I in there? Then scary but beautiful thunderstorm started.
My five days in Muscat were definitely very different from what I expected. Muscat is a family oriented city with friendly people. If I will ever visit again what I will do differently is that I would rent a car (rental cars hopefully have seat belts!) and drive around to see more of Oman.
This assignment was for Virtuoso Life, travel magazine, USA - February 2016.