Dhofar, so good in Oman - Salalah is shining

Trip Start Oct 12, 2011
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Trip End Nov 02, 2011


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On board the MSC Lirica

Flag of Oman  ,
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The sun is shining. It's going to be at least 32 degrees celcius today. Got up, had breakfast…oh! I forgot, you don’t want to read about that!!

The ship has arrived in Salalah in Oman. Salalah is Oman’s immortal second city and is the capital of the Dhofar region. Salalah means 'shining’. ’The guidebook states that the beautiful unspoilt countryside boasts, amongst other things, baobab trees. Now as most people (including myself) don’t know what the hell one of these is, I can’t see how you can boast about it. It could be one of those stubborn, hard to get rid of, pests of a weed for all we know!! The head of tourism for Oman probably decided to give it an exotic name so they can boast about it!!!

The many historical wonders include the ruins of Samhuram, which is reputed to be the site of the Queen of Sheba’s palace. Not knowing much about the place, we decided to take a tour called Serene Salalah. It doesn’t take us anywhere near Samhuram so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The ship docked some way away from the town. The bus took some 25 minutes driving through the suburbs of Salalah towards our first stop. Salalah is much greener then we imagined. No building seems to be more than a few stories high and well preserved with pristine gardens.

Zadi stated that today will be anything up to 35 degrees. However, in summer, the temperature can soar to an amazing 50 degrees so as today it is only in the 30s, the locals are relived!!

Our tour guide’s name was Zadi. He was originally from the Ivory Coast but had been living in Oman for 2 years. Our coach was a mix of French and English speakers. Explaining the surroundings in both languages was no trouble for Zadi. As the Ivory Coast is a French speaking country he conversed not only fluently in French but also in English with a near perfect accent.

I was impressed with my fellow passengers because when  Zadi was explaining stuff in English, the French speakers were all quiet and the same for when he was explaining stuff in French; the English speakers remained quiet. It was mutual respect.

Zadi was excited to tell us that he had lined up a surprise for us but our first stop was to Frankincense land. Zadi made it sound like an amusement theme park. It was in fact the Museum of the Frankincense land, otherwise known as Al-Balid.

Zadi obviously knew his onions. After me telling Roisin that we have to be very careful with the amount of Frankincense we use as this stuff doesn’t grow on trees. Well, apparently it does. It is extracted from the sap of the tree. The tree is cut then left for several weeks. The sap runs out of the tree then crystallises.

We were told that the Magi who brought Frankincense to the manger in Bethlehem probably came from the Dhofar region, as did the Magi who brought Myrrh. Whilst frankincense is incense; myrrh is an essential oil, again, mainly harvested in Oman and Jordan. I may as well mention the 3rd Magi, king or Wise Man at this stage. The one who brought gold. Whereas the other 2 gifts were very thoughtful and highly valued during their day, bringing gold to the Son of God is probably like giving him the money. No thought went in to that at all!!!

The museum also explained how the present day Sultanate came about. It has been governed by his most Royal Highness, Grand Sultan Qaboos. He has been in charge of Oman since 1970 when he proclaimed that his father was no longer fit to decide on affairs of the state.

All sultans up until now have lived in Salalah but Sultan Qaboos has broken this mould and lives in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

So, now that surprise. No sooner had we all settled down back on the bus that it pulled over at a kerb side staff…in order to experience fresh cocoanut milk!!!!! Haven’t they ever heard of Tescos!! Most of us remained on the bus bu8t one or two played along. It sounded commission based if you ask me, Talk about milking it!!!

Our next stop was to Shanfari mosque. This was only a photo opportunity and we were unable to enter. It seemed to be shut for some reason although once again, Zadi was very informative stating that Muslims have to pray 5 times a day. There are no strict rules regarding times for if, at 12:30 for example, the sun is at it’s highest, you may leave it until 13:00 so you would not be praying to the sun!!

Shanfari mosque is, by comparison, pretty ordinary compared to some mosques on the Arabian Peninsula. However, Shanfari has set the bar as, from what we saw, it was all very intricate and ornate!!

The camel’s footprints were next on the itinery. Zadi kept making it clear that this is only legend. The story goes that the Prophet Salleh received a camel from God. Not to do things by half and being a very generous god, the camel was a bloody big one!!! Every day it would walk down the hill and drink from the main water supply from the village. (the camel – not Salleh!!) The villagers were getting a bit fed up with this as the watering hole seemed to be drying up. Salleh said that if you let my camel drink, the village will become prosperous but if you kill it, the village will cease to exist. The camel was eventually killed by the angry mob and ‘poof!’, the village ceased to exist. All that was left were the mysterious 14 footprints of the camel, leading down to the watering hole that had seemed to replenish itself over night!!! Fact?? Or fiction?? You decide!!!

Our final stop was to a souk called the al Hisn souk. Zadi led the way straight to a frankincense stall. He kept repeating ‘I get you good price’ as he stepped behind the counter! I could have sworn he referred to one of the ladies serving as ‘mother’. But I suppose that is a perk of being a tour guide. You can guide unsuspecting tourists to the places YOU want them to see.

Mother’ was covered head to foot in black jilbab. Her eyes were peaking out from behind that mask as if to say ‘Oh no! Scousers!!’ Getting a brief glimpse of her hands revealed that they were heavily covered in an intricate ‘henna’ design. Either that or she was going for the most tattooed lady in all of Oman. The problem is, you could only see her hand below the wrist. So I guess Norris McWhirter would have to accept that the rest of her would be just as well ‘drawn’ over!!!

Prior to getting off the coach, Zadi had briefly mentioned about haggling and this is part of the fun of the souk. I was aware of this custom and had taken the liberty to do a bit of research.

Rule 1. Before asking a price, you really have to be interested in purchasing. It is rude to ask a price then just walk away. Even ruder to walk away with the goods still in your hand….without paying!!!

Rule 2. Ask yourself this. How much would you be prepared to pay if you were buying this back home?

We had both agreed that we would buy a small bag of frankincense with a burner as a souvenir. However, having been told by Zadi that in olden times an ounce of frankincense with worth an ounce of gold, we weren’t sure that we would be able to afford this.

We spotted a pouch that contained a bag of frankincense in both resin and oil form, a burner, something that looked like small fire-lighters (Zadi referred to them as ‘coals’) and some other small contraption that we haven’t yet worked out what its used for!!!

I said to Roisin, ‘Don’t go higher than 5 rial (10)’

‘How much?’, Roisin asked waving the pouch under the incredible ‘hand’ tattooed woman’s nose.

‘1 rial’, came the reply!! That is about 2!! It was hot, I couldn’t be arsed arguing for the sake of 20p discount.

Done’, I said without further ado. I hope this wasn’t going to set the scene for all future purchases. I don’t think we’ve got the hang of this haggling thing yet!!!

We wandered further in to the souk and came across a stall that was selling the traditional hat called a ‘Kuma’. These are small patterned box shaped hats.

‘I got to get me one of those’, I said to Roisin.

Now, if I compared this to a football hat or scarf back home, I would be expected to pay around a ‘tenner’ so once again, I would not go higher than 5 rial

How much?’, I asked.

‘3 rial!!’, came the reply (6)

‘Oh! Well, in for a penny…’ I thought. ‘No. Too expensive! I’ll give you 2 rial’ I said. Had I set the bar too high? Should I have come in at a lower price.

‘No, no, my friend! 2 rial 500’

What was this ‘500’? No-one told me about this. Are they making the rules up as they go along? He called me ‘his friend’. Wow! He was good!!

OK! Done’ as I handed my money over.  He gladly gave me my change and that was that.

There you are. You can do it’, Roisin said ‘Although, I’d take your baseball cap off first before you put your Kuma on!!’

It turns out that the Omani Rial is divided in to 1000 units called ‘Baiza’. This makes thing clearer. As 1 rial is about 2, the Baiza gives more leeway and bargaining power. I thought back to the frankincense that cost 1 rial. We probably could have got her down to 1 rial 800!! Armed with this new knowledge we marched ever further down the alleyways and paths. We were on a roll!!

There were quite a few barbers in the souk. As we walked past, every one of them shouted something to me in Arabic, pointing to my beard and rubbing their chins. I’m assuming they were asking if I wanted my beard trimming.  I’m not too sure how much haggling would be done with a cut-throat razor hovering above my jugular. I wasn’t about to find out.

I stopped and asked a vendor how much for the framed shebriya. This is an ornate dagger usually encrusted in a bejewelled design. First of all, I broke golden rule number 1. I didn’t really want this. It looked expensive and at 30 rial (60)., it was!!

Rule 5 - have a get out of jail card. Unfortunately I took this all too literal and told the seller that, ‘I’d just got out of jail!!! This rule actually means that if you find yourself in deeper than you can handle, tell the seller that you have a dentist appointment in 10 minutes and that you can’t cancel. This way you can walk away without offending the vendor. I think this only works back in the UK so when I told the man that I had to pick the kids up from school, I don’t think he believed me!!! I’m assuming that the Arabic he was using as I walked away wasn’t complimenting me on my newly acquired Kuma!!

This souk seemed to have plenty of jibabs and sheriyas. If you ask me, it all seemed a bit ‘cloak and dagger’!!! (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)
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