Saturday, May 10, 2008

Salalah

It was clear as soon as I got off the bus that Oman was much, much wealthier than Yemen and much, much poorer than Dubai. The few people on the street at 6:30 am were all Indian, as were the few annoying cab drivers. I walked 400 M to the Salalah Hotel, but they were full. The Bangladeshi desk guy told me of another hotel, 'only 200 meters'.

Not to quibble, but it was 1.4 KM, me dragging my case over gravel parking lots. But when I got there the nice Filipino man gave me a room, and I ha toast and tea and then gratefully crashed for the next four hours.

I got myself together after noon, walked across the street to the Turkish restaurant, and had some babaganoush. It being a cool, breezy 92, I then started to walk around Salalah and take in my new surroundings.

Virtually everyone around me was Indian, and what with the dayglo-ish painted signs on all the businesses, it made the place look like a depopulated and somewhat more polite India. The nature of the businesses was also rather strange and utterly different from everywhere else I had been: Over the next day I would see literally hundreds of 'Hair Dressing' (for men), 'Tailoring', and 'Laundry' establishments. Not to mention 'Food Stuff & Luxuries'.

Right now I was surrounded by at least 20 'car rental' places, usually allied with 'copying' or 'real estate'. But none of them was open. Maybe it was because of the 1-4 closure thing. I walked around some more and then found an internet place.

At 5:30 almost all the car rental places were still closed. But I finally found one who would rent to a non-Omani. $27 a day, but the catch was only 200 free KM. I took it and then drove around Salalah the rest of the evening to finish my various errands.

The next morning I set out to explore as much of Dhofar as possible in 200 km. The Dhofar region is basically there because a small strip of oceanfront land is surrounded on all sides by high mountains. These catch some of the Indian monsson, so that from June to September the whole area is actually alive and green, the only place on the Arabian peninsula to ever get that way. This means that folks from Saudi, Dubai, et al, all flock here then.

But it was only May, and most everything was still pretty brown. First of all I had driven a couple of km through palm groves down to the ocean. Now I was heading halfway up the encircling mountains to an Islamic pilgramage site, Job's Tomb. I paid my respects and tried to commisserate. But, after all, Job ended up getting a sort of apology from God, whereas I'm still waiting for mine.

I turned around and headed back down the mountain, skirting Salalah to the west. Here there were hundreds of giant new houses being built: I guess the Dubai crowd was really getting into it. I then kept going west, aiming for the beach area of Mughsail 48 km away.

When I got there, there wasn't all that much there there. A km or so of average beach, at the end of which were some blowholes that turned out to be a couple of manhole type grates under which you could hear a whoosh and through which came occasional light spray. There was also one perfuntory restaurant 'resort' on the beach, where I ate.

This was the western end of the Dhofar flat, and now the road climbed up, up, up on the coastal route towards the Yemen border. I climbed up, up, up about 3,000 feet all the way to the top, where I had to turn around because of the km.

Dhofar has been famous throughout history as the only place where the frankincense tree, a weird little runted affair, grows. I stopped on the way back down and walked over and patted a tree and peeled off a little bark, although it is the sap that they use. They had been burning it ever since the tourist hotel in Sa'na, so I was starting to get sick of it.

Then I got back to the beach area and, for the first time in the trip, actually got wet. Although it's not like I had had that many opportunities so far to pass up. In deference to the Saudi schoolgirls who were right down the sand I wore a t-shirt: Not to save them from the sight of a man's chest, but to save them from the sight of a pathetically pale one.

The water wasn't as warm as you might imagine. I didn't really swim much, since there are supposed to be rip currents, and I didn't want my body to be washed up six weeks later on the Malabar coast.

I made it back to the little car rental office with no dings and with 2 km to spare. Then internet, food, and back to the hotel and bed.

Up at 5:30 Friday for the 7 am bus to Muscat. Good I bought the ticket Wednesday because the bus was completely full. But comfortable. And strong a/c.

By now I had seen the occasional Omani man, who could be distinguished by the round embroidered cap that he invariably wore. Oman used to own Zanzibar and its slave trade, so that some Omanis have strong African features. One such extended family now occupied much of the bus, the women all in tripped out Africanized Moslem robes.

In general, Omani women at their most conservative are like those on the Gulf, with at least their faces showing. Most of the women you see, however, are either Hindu women in saris, or Filipinos or Egyptians, etc., in western clothes.

The bus climbed up to the top of the mountains, and soon we were surrounded by an endless plain of flat, flat featureless sandy dirt. When we stopped at 10 am my thermometer read 112 in the sun. In the shade it was only 110.

As we drove on there was a small patch where a few weeds grew, and then back to nothing. The flat brown sand changed to flat grey gravel. In the afternoon we stopped for a break and I saw my first American Halliburton employees. At 3:46 it was 46 Celsius, which is 115 in real degrees. I finished my third can of iced tea and got back on the bus.

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