Monday, May 23, 2005

My trip to Oman

I am home safely from my trip to Oman. What a great place!

We took an overnight flight from Heathrow. I'd allowed two hours to get to the airport since I had be there by 630 and motorway traffic can be a bitch. It only took me 55 minutes. Killed time at the airport Holiday Inn with a cup of coffee, and then headed to the airport to valet my car. There were 10 of us on the trip, plus the two hosts. Everyone holds a position similar to mine at one of the competitors. All quite likeable, and ended up being good travel companions.

We flew business class, so we were very comfortable. They had 21 channels of entertainment to choose from, but since I'd been sick I thought I'd best try to sleep. Should have watched the film. Didn't get a second of shut-eye, so by the time we arrived in Oman seven hours later I was totally blitzed by tiredness.

Muscat has a small airport...the kind without jetways. By the time we'd walked down the steps to the tarmac we were sweating. It was 7 AM, and already 39C (around 100F). We waited while our DMC processed our visas, and then the welcomed us through customs. Took a coach to our hotel where we checked in and had a few hours to freshen up. I hit the pillow and slept, then took a quick shower (the first of three that day....showering is imperative in Oman in the summer.)

We stayed at the Chedi Hotel. It's a little boutique hotel on the beach with an Arabic theme to the decor. Really nice. I tried to take pictures, but since I am still new with the camera their funky lighting foiled me and my pictures are crap. Check the website. I had a suite, so if you go to the accommodations tab you will see the flash show of pictures...the bedroom with the candles and mirrors was mine, that little living room the show was mine, and best of all, the sunken bath tub was mine. In fact, the building you see the external shot of was ALL MINE...there was even a silver dome over my bed. It was absolutely amazing.

Thursday afternoon we took tours of hotels. (See, my job is not all glamour.) We walked around the Hyatt, which is a perfectly acceptable hotel with your bog-standard decor. It looks kind of like the Hyatt in Minneapolis if it were on a beach and had an Arabic decor influence. We had to tour the space around meetings that were happening. Here is one of them:



What is Hugo Boss Fragrance Training, you may ask? Well, it's for overly made-up women (and men) wearing all black, and they teach them to give free sample sprays and to discuss the "woodsy notes" of the scents. Who knew they had training for that?

We had a quick lunch, then moved on to the construction site for the new Shangri-La hotel. It's a 600 room resort nestled in a private cove just outside of Muscat. There are three hotels on the property, two five-stars and one six-star (means really nice, really-really nice, and oh-my-gosh-this-is-posh nice.) There will be a spa, a cultural centre, six pools, 20 restaurants, and a fabulous beachfront. We had a slide show in the construction offices, and then we put on hard hats to walk around. It was now 49C (about 120F+), and the site is still all cement and no air-conditioning (except for in the sample guest rooms they've constructed in each hotel.) Talk about unpleasant. It's good to walk around and visualize the finished product, but after an hour in that heat you're hallucinating instead. There were hundreds of Omani and Indian laborers working that day, and as we'd approach them they'd all stop and stare. I think it was partly that we were westerners doing something CRAZY in that heat, and partly it was fascination at all the flesh. Many of the women in the group were wearing spaghetti-strap tshirts and shorts, and since Omani women cover that is a rare sight. ("Cover" means that westerner expats wear trousers, relatively modest shorts and skirts, and tees that at least have some sleeve and a modest neckline, and Omani women only show their hands, feet, and faces.)

Here is my favorite sign from the construction zone. Mind you, this was posted all over the six-star hotel but the five stars had nothing similar.



I guess real luxury means you've never been used as a toilet.

We were exhausted by the time this was over, so we all fell asleep on the coach.

Back to hotel. Shower number 2.

Dinner was at the home of the Shangri-La's General Manager. Their chef had just arrived from Dubai (or Mauritius...something like that,) and so he and his sous chef (from the SL Bangkok) made a multi-course meal. Tuna steak on a niscoise salad, then choice of whole seabass, Moroccan roasted chicken, vegetables/couscous, and roasted lamb. Dessert was ice cream and berries. Lots of wine. Lots and lots of wine. The GM's home is lovely...he has a westernized Arabic home, which means open-planned living instead of separate tiny rooms for women and men to entertain separately. His decor was kind of expensive Pottery Barn with lots of Lladro figurines.

Back to hotel. Shower number three. Sleep of the dead.

Shower number one. The next day was about the water. We had an 8AM start for dolphin watching, and then transferred to a dhow for a lunch cruise and swimming in the gulf. The coastline is craggy and deserty and beautiful. The water is crystal clear and kind of green. It felt like bath water. We swam with sea turtles and lots of cool fish, though we didn't actually stop at a reef. The same chef made a load of food for lunch, way too much for us to actually eat. It was still crazy hot, and I wore my factor 40 sunscreen, so while it wasn't comfortable at least I didn't burn crispy. My British colleagues were exactly as they're portrayed in Shirley Valentine...total sun-whores who burn themselves bright pink within minutes, and don't understand why they're the color of beetroot. To each his own. It was a lazy day, and we had great conversations and lots of fun. I got lots of grief for being American. Not mean-spirited mind you, there was just a guy who wanted to wind me up to see if I could take it. I could, and shoveled right back. By afternoon I got the feeling that I'd passed the test and officially belonged to the club.

(sample coastline shot)

Back to the hotel. Shower number two.

Dinner was at an Indian restaurant on top of a hill. Great view, great food, flaming coffee served after dessert. Our waiter kept encouraging us to eat by telling us things were "good for your heart." Last I checked, ghee was not, in fact, heart healthy, but bless him for trying to sell the food. I loved it, actually, though it could have been spicier. (Darlene, you would have been in heaven.) The woman next to me doesn't eat exotic food, so they kept bringing other dishes to give her something she'd like. They lost. Lots of lively conversation, then home to the Chedi for drinks until 2.

Shower number three. Bed. Sleep of the dead. (Really comfortable beds, and they had the candles burning when I came back to the room.)

Shower number one. Day Three was for seeing the city. We'd already had a tour as we'd been driving around, so some of it was familiar by now. Everything has Arabic styling to it, and building code keeps it no more than four-stories high in most of the city. The streets are perfectly manicured and clean. The people are friendly. Women are stylish, though covered (as mentioned above,) and you must ask permission to take their picture. Men wear dishdash and embroidered little caps. (A dishdash is a white or light-colored shirt/robe that is loose fitting, long-sleeved, high-necked, and goes to the ankle.) Everyone wears this except westerners and Indians, so we're talking about 70% of the people you see are dressed traditionally.

First stop was the Grand Mosque. In order to go in, we all had to cover, as well, so we wore trousers and high-necked blouses and pashminas on our heads. (The men could just wear normal clothes, the lucky bastards.) Very hot...like 45C that morning, so walking around with only your hands, feet, and faces showing sucks. I don't know how those women do it. The tour took an hour or so. Saw the gardens, the shower rooms (Muslims wash before prayer, so there are bathing rooms for people who showered before the got there and who just need a touch up, and there are full shower facilities for those who haven't had time. We went in the main chapel, which holds 20,000...we couldn't walk on the carpet and had to stay to runners, but it was amazing. The walls are all ornately tiled, the pillars are white and grey marble from Italy, and the chandeliers are all Swarkorski Crystal. Here are pictures of the dome/main chandelier and a close up of the tilework on EVERY SURFACE.



After the Mosque, we went to a little museum to learn about the culture, toured a traditional home, and then stopped at the souq to shop. (A souq is an open-stalled market.) Pashiminas were crazy inexpensive, so I bartered my way into a few. They sell frankincense and spices and silver...the silver daggers are ornately beautiful, the bracelets are spectacular, and there were many beautiful earrings...and then there are lots of little shops with products for locals. You could even get a Hulk Hogan tshirt here. The souq is in the old city, so I wandered a little bit there.



Then we met up and went to lunch. We ate at an Omani restaurant in an air conditioned tent. Omani food consists of things like lentil soup, green salad, roasted lamb and chicken, hoummous and pita, and kind of a pizza-like thing full of feta and olives and tomato. Yum. They don't serve alcohol, but they make some wicked fruit concoctions. I had minty lemonade.

There was a strip mall by the restaurant. Here is the western influence in the city.



The afternoon was ours to enjoy. We went back to the hotel, and I decided to try to stop coughing. I took a long nap, I read my book, and I took a bath in my gigantic tub. (Took a quick shower, too, because I had to get the bubbles out of my hair.) Even watched a little tv. Did you know that Omanis are given Paris Hilton and David Spade as typical Americans? We're lucky they still like us. (They do, by the way...they were pleased an American without connections to the military was visiting, and asked me to invite you all. I highly recommend it, FYI.)

Dinner was at the Chedi, and then I came back for shower 3.

Took a walk Sunday AM. Read the paper. Took shower number one, checked out, and flew home. Got back around 8pm, drove home, called my folks, and went to bed.

My overall impression of Oman is really positive. The people are so kind and friendly, and they have virtually no crime. They are family-focused. They don't drink or smoke much. You can't buy pork unless you go to a special section of the grocery store. (Women are a bit hirsute, and there's a sculpted uni-brow style that is locally beautiful but odd-looking if you ask me, but that's just a minor detail. )

You can't help but think about our politics when you're there. These people let us put up military hospitals before we invaded Iraq, they let us visit without paying for our visas (Brits pay £6), and they have influences of us all over their city. Yet we keep talking about how everyone needs to be democratic like us, and we are proving mighty aggressive to those who resist in the region. Frankly, they're a little worried we'll turn on them. Oman is a Sultanate, and their Sultan has been ruling unchallenged for 35 years. They love him. He's improved their living conditions, he's built fair and balanced courts (something the US seems hell-bent on finding a way to destroy in our own judiciary these days,) and education and health care are leaps and bounds ahead of many nations in the world. All schools are taught in English so that their children will be competitive in the world. Omanis worry that the US will try to intervene since they don't vote for their ruler, and they worry about us intervening militarily if they try to maintain their current system. Mind you, they are hopeful that their friendship means something, but by Sunday I was having to answer for the new stories about prison abuse. (By the way, they don't believe that it was just low-level military rogues as President Bush keeps telling them.) The editorials in the Sunday paper were scathing...and they want the US, as a moral nation, to denounce this horrible behavior and to make it STOP.

This is a fabulous place, and it makes me think that maybe not everyone has to vote to have a meaningful government. Perhaps we should worry more about spreading moral leadership and open discussion rather than electoral voting in the world. Just because you vote for leaders, it doesn't make them worthy. You can abuse power just as easily in a "democracy" as you can in a dictatorship. (Hmmm...are you referring to someone in particular, Mindy?)

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