Saturday, May 20, 2017

Oman Part IV: Nizwa, Muttrah Souk and Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat

When we planned this trip, Michael joked that our plan for Oman was to do "banging beaches, desert danger, mountain madness, city c(s)ensation," and well, he was completely right!  That was our Oman itinerary to a T.

While some of the things we saw were completely overrated (ahem, Nizwa, see below) and some weren't particularly special to Oman (the Shangri la could probably have been anywhere), it is pretty amazing the variety you can pack in on a 5 day trip in Oman -- and we hadn't even ventured into any of the water sports or activities, like snorkeling, sailing or diving, and we had only charted a course in one small northeast corner of the country.

All of that said, we now come upon the end of the Oman portion of the trip.  We packed in a lot of activities with gusto, however, rest assured.
Leaving the Anantara, we decided to head into the ancient fort town of Nizwa, to get some food and see some sights before we headed to Muscat.  Unfortunately, this meant we got into Nizwa at the absolute hottest time of day, and just in time to miss all of the markets and forts.  Everyone was taking a siesta.  After a totally unremarkable lunch where the restaurant owner tried to get us for some extra rials (this happened pretty consistently on every meal we had in the country, by the way), claiming that we had ordered the "double" portion, we ventured into the blazing afternoon desert heat to explore - much to our prompt regret.

It turned out that the place was pretty much empty, and the ancient market was mostly shuttered.
 However, to look on the bright side of things - it was kind of nice to see the town structures without everyone present.
 With the fort closed, we were out of options, and wandered down a little alleyway in the market.
 And... that was Nizwa.  Well, we decided to stop wasting precious time and to move on!  We got on the road (which turned out to be the prettiest stretch of the trip so far) and started driving to Muscat. The road hugged a chain of mountains nearly the entire way, leading us to ooh and ahh at the blue skies, white puffy clouds, and sunlight peeking through the majestic peaks.
 We finally pulled into Muscat just in time to watch the sun set (except we ended up just missing it because of a few wrong turns...).  After settling into our executive apartment, we decided to muster our energy and head to the Muttrah souk.  We were leaving Muscat on a noon flight, so we really didn't have any time in the city.  If we were going to see the city, it had to be that night.

The souk wasn't as picturesque as I had pictured it (see image on left) though there were some storefronts that appeared how I expected (see image on right).  The souk is known as one of the only markets in the world where you can buy gold, frankincense and myrrh all under one roof. 
I loved poring over the various incense burners, oil lamps, candle votives, daggers and jewelry.  In one of the stores where all kinds of things were stacked from top to bottom, I felt like a real treasure hunter!  Michael and I ended up buying a little brass incense holder - a tchotchke, but a cute pot-bellied one nonetheless.  We don't usually like to buy big souvenirs or furniture when we travel, because we simply don't have the space to store it all, and it takes an incredible amount of energy and discipline to figure out all the pieces without all of them clashing and quickly amounting to clutter.

After our souk experience, we were circling around the marina, looking for a place to eat.  We finally pulled into a little plaza after some indecision and uncertainty, and lo and behold, what happens but we realize we managed to pull into the very parking lot of Bait Al Luban, the highly rated restaurant that Katie had just been reading about on tripadvisor earlier.  What a fun coincidence!  We opted for the traditional dining room - where we had to sit on cushions on the floor.
The rotis were fabulous, but I didn't find the food *that* amazing.  The appetizer that I ordered, an anchovy salad, was made up entirely of chopped and whole dried anchovies and barely tasted like anything.  For the price, I was expecting something sublime - fresh white anchovies bathed in a lemon cream sauce or something, not dried, almost crunchy anchovies out of a can.  Michael ordered a lamb stew, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and I ordered a traditional Oman dish that, as far as I could tell, was a brisket.  For some reason I was expecting grilled chicken (I was clearly too tired that night and not reading any of the menu descriptions correctly)!  My main dish was pretty satisfying, but overall it left me unimpressed with Oman cuisine.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early and headed to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque before heading to the airport.  It was early, but it was already blazingly hot.  My most distinct memory here is being rejected not once, but twice, at the entrance to the mosque.  At first they objected to my showing my wrists and ankles (a sarong is insufficient cover).  When I went to the car and pulled on yoga pants underneath my dress and a hoodie (a hoodie!!) to cover my arms, I was rejected for not having the scarf on my head the second time around.  I finally got myself practically mummified and was allowed to shuffle in.  To heap insult on injury, both times the woman (I nicknamed her the uniform police) addressed Michael instead of me, saying, "She's not wearing the right clothing" as if I were not there.  Of course the guys sauntered in in their shorts and t-shirts and flip flops without a care in the world.  

Ugh, they really hate women in this part of the world.  There is no other way to describe it.

This is how I looked after I was deemed finally to pass muster (though I note that my right ankle stubbornly refused to be completely conquered!).  I would like to remind you that it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit that morning...


Admission issues aside, the mosque was very pretty and manicured to within an inch of every leaf, tile and branch.  The pictures above reflect the main part of the mosque, which is where the men go to pray.  (I was frankly surprised that they even allowed me and Katie to step foot inside of there during visiting, non-prayer hours, for fear that we would taint the air!)  

The men have a communal bathing area (just for their hands, heads, faces and feet, really) on the main level which I believe they use before they enter the house of worship (see left image).  The women have a bathing area as well, but it's hidden down a few stairwells and is not given the same access (see right image).
Unsurprisingly, the women have a separate (of course), smaller (of course), more modest (of course) and totally less impressive (of course) prayer hall.  Compare and contrast, people, and see for yourselves.  Separate is never equal.

On that note, we headed to the airport!  Off to Doha, our last stop on this whirlwind trip!

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