Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Doin' That Muscat Ramble

At 4 pm we started seeing the first signs of vegetation and habitation. By 4:40 we were on a modern freeway slicing its way through the same reddish brown Hajar mountains that I had last seen in the UAE.

Greater Muscat stretches over 60 km along the coast, and as soon as we hit the suburbs I could see that Salalah had been Omanic Hicksville. All the buildings were new and white and lowslung, and with the rugged mountains coming right to the coast it made a calm and pretty and prosperous picture. Now HERE was by far the best compromise between modernity and tradition. Hey, there were even Subways and Dominos (though not too many) and all the other wonderful things that make up life as we know it.

Most wonderfully, for the first time in the past months, there were actual swathes of grass and actual green trees that weren't date palms.

At 6:30 the bus dropped us off at Ruwi, which was the first place since the first day in Dubai where there was a sense of bustle and congestion. Virtually all the people bustling were Indian. It was more than clear that Oman (and the Gulf in general) had imported far more Indians than there was work for. I immediately got a fair price for the 8 km taxi ride to Mutrah, the lowkey seaside area, complete with its 1 km curving corniche.

There are about 5 one star hotels at the north end of same, and by 7:30 I had a $40 room in one of them. Elevator and a/c worked, and I even had a balcony which overlooked the bay, albeit with a construction site in between. I went out and walked along the corniche, but the closest thing I could find to Indian food was a vegetable burger and chips. In true Indian fashion they served my banana shake in an attractive 24 inch glass and then provided a 6 inch straw to drink it with.

After that I cruised the souq area, where there were souvenir shops but minimal hassling, even by Indian shopkeepers. I've figured out that that's probably because most of the Indians in the Gulf are from southern India, and they lack the weird desperation that so many northern Indians have. I bought a little frankincense, and then strolled back to my hotel, the Islamic crescent moon shining down on Muscat Bay.

All I had to do on Saturday was check out Muscat's 'old town' and then negotiate a deal on a rental car. Easy enough, but at 106 degrees nothing's too easy.

Muscat is one of those National Geographic places that I had always wanted to go to. Especially the incredibly romantic old fort of the Sultan. Turns out that when I got there, about 4 km from Mutrah, there wasn't a town and it wasn't old. The 'gates' are about 6 years old, and inside them are a few white government buildings and the Sultan's not too shabby palace. Considering, however, how spectacularly successfully Sultan Qaboos has brought Oman into the 21st Century, I don't begrudge him it.

At 1 pm Muscat shuts up tighter than an Omani drum, so I went back to the hotel and lay there in the a/c. Around 4:30 I took a cab back to Ruwi, hoping to find some of the gazillion car rental places that were supposed to be there. As usual, the ones listed in the book were no longer there, and it turned out that the nameless ones were all a mile and a half away, which I ended up trudgingly walking to.

The problem with renting cars in Oman is that everyone only wants to give you 200 km a day, and then it's 20 cents a mile. I finally got a guy to give me 300 km a day at a slightly higher price. I then went back to a really nice Indian restaurant in Ruwi and had an all you can eat Southern Indian thali for $3.00, cheaper than in India; I can't wait to go to their location in Sunnyvale, CA

And the next day I came back at 10:30 and picked up the car.


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