On my way home from Kenya, I stopped by the sparkling, glitzy city of Dubai to visit my mam's friends Dave and Liz, who I stayed with last year on my way home from Nepal.
I made a post a few months ago about visiting Oman on my way home from Kenya. Oman is next door neighbours with the United Arab Emirates. The capital city, Muscat, is only a short flight from Dubai. Oman is a pretty quiet country - one of the safest and most stable countries in the Middle East. They've only had one bust-up, and that was a minor political protest a few years ago in which a few chairs and shisha pipes were knocked over in a tantrum. The country is very traditional and is completely void of the twinkling skyscrapers which are constantly sprouting up in Dubai.
After a short stay in Dubai, I was flying out to Muscat to begin a bonus adventure.
Muscat is a harbour city and has been a significant stop-off for ancient fleets over the centuries. It's not hugely broken into by modern tourists these days; it doesn't even have a tourist information office! This was to be a great challenge. At a glance, Oman can seem pretty naff and uneventful, but if you know exactly where to look, you can see some outstanding gems. I prepared for this in advance by swotting up with guidebooks and TripAdvisor.
I marched out of the airport into a dense 38-degree heat and flagged a taxi. As I checked in at Mutrah Hotel, the sun was already going down. The first place I had to see was the corniche - the Muscat harbour. Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the harbour it was dark and the night had cloaked the gigantic mountains that hug the city.
The harbour was buzzing with families and blokes playing chess despite how late at night it was. The air was candied with burning incense!
The atmosphere was incredibly settling, like wearing a pair of old jeans.
And two little rascals tapped me on my arm and asked for a picture. A pleasure, guys!
As the traditional fishing 'dhows' bobbed on the waves, I headed back to the hotel for a phenomenal Indian banquet and an early night!
The next day I had arranged to travel to Jebel Shams, a gigantic canyon deep in the Hajar mountains. It is also the highest point of the Arabian Gulf, from which the views are out of this world! Sadly, my tour operator cancelled last minute. She only had one 4x4 and had to prioritise a tour with a larger group of tourists. That's business I guess! I contacted other companies to arrange another tour, but all of them couldn't help me in such short notice.
So I was effectively screwed. I had an entire day in Muscat and nothing to do. All I had was a 12-year old guidebook I bought for 1p and a moody Wi-Fi connection. I didn't even know where to begin. There were a few general touristy things to do in Muscat, but nothing really amazing. I'm not a person for museums and statues. However, my guidebook recommended that I go to the top floor terrace of Marina Hotel to check out the best city views. Scraping the barrel, I figured I'd may as well pay a visit!
Being at a height didn't make the slightest difference, it was ROASTING hot and I was sweating like fried onions. Purely by coincidence, I got talking to a German woman called Sabine. She'd been staying in Muscat for 6 weeks and was looking for local work as a tour operator. Perfect! I told her about my situation and she put me in contact with some of her Omani friends to arrange a tour. But it was Friday, which is the muslim day of rest - much like Sunday in the western world. A lot of her Omani contacts moaned and declined while their car radios were blasting in the background (people in Oman LOVE 90's boybands, like NSync and Backstreet Boys, even today! So weird!!!). One bloke accepted though. Momo works in the government tourism office, though he used to be a tour guide. Sabine sang praises of him. Her hands and hair were flying all over the place as she told me about him. For a very reasonable price, he offered to take me to the ancient city of Nizwa in the desert and see a few places of interest on the way back. My day was sorted! Within an hour I was strapped in and we sped out into the desert (you can read all about my Nizwa visit HERE).
I arrived back into Muscat at sunset. I had a breezy strut along the corniche and popped into a Lebanese food joint for some arab-style taste-bud lovin'!
After that, I chilled on the marble walls of the corniche and watched the sun dip away. The mountains looked incredible in the last rays of sunlight. They looked like gigantic bran flakes!
The corniche started to get busier. People were coming out for the evening and the atmosphere was starting to swell and buzz. I found myself being fed into the Muscat Souk. A souk is a market which can sell anything from fish to gold. They're found in many Arab countries and they're a big deal in terms of socialising and getting your weekly food shopping. I was leaving the next day, so on my last night I explored the souk and all of the treasures it had to offer!
Rub my lamp?
Oman is the home of the frankincense fragrance and so, naturally, it's very easy to find here. You can buy it rolled into incense sticks or as a pure, crystalline resin. I was told frankincense was one of the presents apparently given to Baby Jesus by the 3 wise men. They had bags of the stuff in Oman, which looks alarmingly like crack...
I was asked by a vender to wander closer for a sniff. I didn't want to risk being smacked off my tits and ending up in an Omani jail. So no, kind sir, I'll pass on your offer!
What I loved about Muscat souk is the perfumery. The perfumery stalls are stacked to the ceiling with glass vials containing all kinds of floral and natural essences and extracts.
You can buy them pure in their vials or you can have the perfumer mix you your own unique fragrance, which is what I did. After being dabbed endlessly with wet vial tops, I had a sexual elixir mixed up consisting of Sultan (a traditional Arabic man's fragrance) and Saudi Rose, which smelt surprisingly masculine being from a flower!
He bottled my fragrance and opened a little box of coffee beans for me to smell; the coffee beans apparently refresh your whiffing ability (I can't think of a proper term...). He then gave me a great piece of advice: when applying perfume, always dab it behind your ears so your lover can smell it when they're kissing your neck. Saucy little man...
I wandered into a part of the souk which seemed to sell trinkets, antiques and all kinds of different artefacts. Some stalls sold the traditional Omani 'khanjar', a banana-shaped dagger which is often carried by royal figures. Often the blade and the sheath are carved out of silver - though brass is a cheaper alternative - and adorned with camel skin. They felt heavy and hunky in your hands, as if you can slay dragons!
I was drawn to all of the seafarer's equipment: traditional brass astrolabes, sextants and compasses. This stuff really captured Oman's style for me, given the amount of emphasis they place on sailing and seafaring. It seemed so romantic! If I was going to buy a souvenir here, it would be something out of these brassy jumbles:
I ended up buying a handsome-looking brass seafarer's sextant and a 19th-century Victorian compass. All bundled in their rugged wooden boxed, I walked away from a well-haggled deal as their new daddy!
The next day was brief and sweet. I had a walk around the old, white-washed back streets of Muscat and found a few hidden gardens and mosques poking out. I then had another massive Indian feast for lunch before leaving for the airport - eek.
I arrived back in Dubai in time for a late-night Starbucks on Dubai Marina. This was officially my last night - the end of my month of travelling. I had just spent my last £10 in Starbucks too, which I suppose was great timing to run out of money actually!
As I sat under the lit-up palm trees I started to feel the dread of returning home. I had been told when I arrived in Dubai that my mum had lost her job. I also didn't have a job to return home to either. I began to anticipate going home to a scary and challenging situation - just out of university, no money, no job and now no parent to help me on my feet. For the first time in a long time, I felt very uncertain about the future, like I could end up hitting rock-bottom. Somehow I also felt a confusing feeling of release with this situation, like when you'd walk out of the school gates for the summer holidays and your mind is overwhelmed with crazy shit to do. I guess this is the same thing. It was as if all of the junk and routine was stripped away and I was left in a bare, white room, just me and a new challenge to tackle as I please with no holds barred. The only thing that I knew hadn't been stripped away was my experience. That was the only thing that felt completely untouchable. Anything can happen to me: I can sell all of my things tomorrow to pay my mum's bills; I can be taken to court for not managing to pay my rent; I can end up working in a dead end job and made to feel worthless by cunty bosses and co-workers, but I know I will always have that deep-down thing that nobody can touch or see: experience. Maybe that is why I like travel so much. It gives me something which nobody can take from me: the knowing that I can take a challenge out of my comfort zone, all by myself, and come through the other end happily sipping a caramel Frappuccino.
Hope you enjoyed the adventure!