Trip Start Nov 30, 2007
34Trip End Jan 17, 2008
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Regardless, dear reader, I ask you to remember one thing over the entries of this blog listed in Oman; this is a wonderful country, and I can't encourage you highly enough to experience it for yourself.
Our journey begins in Muscat, as virtually all Omani journeys do. It starts, I suppose, once the bus takes me from the plane to the terminal and I've successfully rented the 4x4, with the drive into Muscat. The infrastructure is modern (again with the love affair with roundabouts -- and placing things in the middle, ranging from fountains to an entire sailboat)
It started with a protected harbour, as do most cities of a certain age. But the harbour was protected with mountains; the edge of the Hajars as they plunge into the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The city grew, from one tiny valley to another, and the final result is a string of white pearls of towns, each built with a reflection of traditional architecture (a legal requirement, apparently), nestled between these small, but harsh and jagged peaks and the deep blue waters. The mountains are especially beautiful because the arid climate means that every jut and fissure is visible, unobscured by trees or even grass. These mountains aren't that big; many are only maybe 50m high, but they look imposing.
I grew fond of this city as soon as I saw it, really, and I fell in love when I met Mutrah. One of the towns that comprises Greater Muscat, Mutrah is the port, but seems more like a small fishing village, with a beautiful corniche running along the gulf and forts standing guard overlooking the buildings. Just a wonderful place; the heart is in the souk, a dense warren of stalls selling a wide variety of perfumes, textiles, and so on -- and they even seem to be partly for locals, rather than tourists.
Before I got there, I faced a bit of a challenge. When I was on the phone with the nice Mastercard people way back in Dubai, I asked if I would be able to get a cash advance from the card. Sure, they said. I was dubious, but surely they would know, wouldn't they?
So the first thing I did in Muscat was hit a bank; I was almost out of cash. I went to Bank of Dhofar, and was told no. I went to HSBC, and was told no. I explained my story. I was still told no, to use the ATM. The card didn't have a PIN on it, so of course that didn't work. I went to the Standard Chartered Bank; they told me to go to HSBC. It got hotter, and still I had no cash. So I went to the hotel I was planning on; they only take cash. Oh, and everything closed from 1-4 PM. Civilised, perhaps, with the climate, but inconvenient at this particular time.
I did a little wandering of Mutrah; as I described before, it's lovely, and swung into Old Muscat to look at the forts, walls and slightly ridiculous Sultan's Palace. The fortifications are imposing, but not accessible to the public, particularly not since it was Armed Forces Day
Then, I swung back to Mutrah. No problem, I said. I'll wire money to myself using Western Union. They'd apparently given my mother a horrible time (she sounded on the verge of tears when I'd talked to her back in Dubai -- they'd charged her credit card twice), but what the hell. No dice; I needed a phone number.
I then spent a couple of hours at an internet cafe trying MasterCard on the phone; I'd like to say I kept my composure, but I didn't. Oh, I did for a while, explaining the situation, while they insisted they couldn't put a PIN on the card so I could take cash out of ATMs, and they insisted that you could get cash advances from banks. Maybe in Montreal, you can, but not in Muscat. At one point, the lady said -- I can't even remember what it was about, actually, but it was well after it was made clear they couldn't help me -- something, ending with "No problem." Which just pushed me over the edge, really. No problem? No problem? Maybe in Montreal, they had no problem, but I was in Muscat for five days, with eighteen dollars cash (actually, twelve after paying for the phone time) and my bag in a forty dollar hotel room (cash only)
The next day, I took the last of my emergency traveller's cheques, and it took only an hour at the central bank to get them converted to cash -- minus a 13% charge to the bank; thanks, guys. But that wasn't enough cash to do what I had planned, and here's where we first meet the people of Oman.
The night before, at the internet cafe, once the web phones had gone down (they're illegal there, but it was probably just mundane technical problems), I'd sort of explained why I was in such a stressed-out condition, and he sort of asked for more details and the like, and out of the blue offered to lend me money. I'd shown up, two or three hours previously, to his internet cafe, and there he was, offering me money. Which, as it turned out, was the difference between curtailing my travel and seeing everything I wanted to see.
So as I headed out for further adventures the next day, dear reader, I had already concluded that the Omani people are some of the nicest, kindest, most genuine on the earth.