Beautiful Oman

This is a first hand narration of our memorable trip to the Sultanate of Oman in the year 2008. I had written it to be part of my book about travels, but I thought of putting it as part of my life’s journeys, and then maybe compile it into a book later. Read on, its a bit lengthy, but I have arranged it into pages that will ensure great reading I assure you..

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Oman should be described as a beautiful land, abundant in greenery, mountains and seashore; a land where people acknowledge their kind and visionary ruler’s role in ensuring a perfect blend of tradition and modernization; a country where nationals are not afraid or hesitant to take up any job unlike in many other parts of the Middle East.

It was after many years to ‘thinking’ and ‘really considering’ that we finally ‘implemented’ our plan to visit Oman. We were bit concerned about the chances of obtaining a ‘visa on arrival’ though we had been assured by the Omani Embassy in Qatar that there should be no problems. Earlier my attempt to obtain visas before travel ran into trouble because there was insufficient time before the Eid Holidays to complete the process at the Omani Embassy in Qatar. However the extremely friendly consular section staff called Oman Airport Immigrations (from my phone) and checked with them about visa on arrival. He assured that there should be no issues. Still, being the ‘doubting Thomas’ that I am, I had cautioned my kids on the possibility of travelling to Muscat airport and having to return on the next flight to Doha if visa was denied.

Our dear cousins at Muscat were promptly called and they assured that all local arrangements will be taken care of and my cousin Leena who was my normal contact for all ‘plans to visit Oman’ said “You just come” and “don’t think too much about anything”. We were again a bit concerned that we may become a burden on Leena and her family after reaching there, but that again was brushed aside by her. My other cousin Lennie who is Leena’s elder brother incidentally informed that he was into the tours business and that he will have some pleasant surprises for us. He along with Johnson (Leena’s husband) took care of all arrangements for our onward visit to Salalah also.

Departure to Oman – December 5 2008.

Come the eventful Friday 05 December 2009, we were picked up from our homes by the AAA company guys and dropped off at the airport which resembled something like an overcrowded fish market with long queues extending all the way outside the airport, teeming with desperate expatriates and nationals wanting to get out of Doha for the Eid holidays. After reading of the press coverage on the melee I had taken the advice of Qatar Airways and ‘Checked in Online’ 36 hours before flight from office on Thursday itself and had my boarding passes and seat numbers all carefully tucked away into my breast pocket. This would enable us to approach a supposedly ‘Baggage Drop Off’ counter without having to entail the plight of all those ‘not so lucky’ passengers who had to wait their turns at the many counters at the airport.

Since there were no baggage trolleys available, I loaded the second bag (which was taken because Ciby my wife insisted on it as she may end up doing ‘some shopping’ in Oman) on to the suitcase with wheels, and dragged it through the queue while Ciby dragged along the kids who were already burdened with their heavy winter clothes that they were wearing. Enduring the long line to the baggage screening machines and passing through the body checks, we end up in the large hall where there is literally no space to even move around. I spot the huge sign marked ‘Baggage Drop Off’ and move to it and heave a sigh of relief as I see an almost empty zone with three counters. Showing the online check in passes to the staff at the gate, we drop off our baggage and obtain our luggage counterfoils and rush off to the immigration and then the boarding gate as there is not much time left for flight. The over cautious staff at the boarding gates had to look through all pages of our five passports to ensure that we will have no problems at Oman and that the immigrations department there won’t send us back because we had no visas stamped in the passports. I had to use all my 18 years of marketing skills to put on a brave face concealing my own doubts to ‘assure’ him that I had been advised by the Omani Embassy that there won’t be any visa issues. Reluctantly he allowed us to proceed to the bus and onward to the flight of Qatar Airways that claim to be ‘five star airlines’ (certainly not after checking with the customers I am sure).

On board we were expecting to have dinner and take a nap before reaching Oman. The flight took off at 20:30 and landed in Muscat at 22:50 (Oman is an hour ahead of Qatar in time zone) so the flight lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes. We were unpleasantly surprised when we were given just a sandwich on board (no dinner as expected – may be this is what a five star airline does after charging the highest fares on the sector). They didn’t even have headphones on board by which you could listen to the flight entertainment channels including what were shown on the common TV sets – but a flight attendant who looked like he just rose from death informs us that the screens only show ‘silent’ programs. So much for Qatar Airways claim to providing ‘world class’ in-flight entertainment. But since we can’t complain and as there won’t be any use in complaining, we accept what is offered and thankfully land in Muscat on time.

Arrival at Muscat – 22:50 December 05, 2008.

Now comes the next surprise because the airport in Muscat is no bigger than the restaurants area in the Doha airport and this place is filled to the brim with visitors who all for some reason seem to be heading to the same ‘visa on arrival’ queue. We have to pay for the visa before we reach the immigration counter – now how am I supposed to pay for visas that I may not get? I think. But the other side of it says ‘perhaps if you pay, then they don’t deny you the visa!!) So letting Ciby and Stevin my elder son sit on the few seats that were available, I get into the queue and move forward. Nitin and Ashwin my second and third sons respectively consider the airport a playground and have a ball running around and in and out of the ropes fixed to regulate the flow of people in the queue. All my eye rolling and teeth grinding at them don’t seem to have any effect. Having endured similar queues in Saudi Arabia where the immigration fellows and cops who ‘guard’ the people in the queues, I am not sure how the few uniformed people around there will react to the kids pranks. Surprisingly one of them playfully shuffles Ashwin’s hair as he goes along and some of my concerns are up in smoke. Now comes the next pleasant surprise. At the payment desk, I hand out five passports and enough money to cover the visa cost for all five of us, but the guy returns most of it saying that they charge only 3 Riyal Omani (about 30 Qatari riyals – about 400 Indian Rupees) per visa (as opposed to about 350 Qatari that the UAE charges per visa!!!) and that children below 13 years enter FREE!! Wow, that’s a whiff of good news to start the tour with. Then the queue endures for ever and finally when I am about to reach the immigration desk (2 hours in queue) I call Ciby and the kids to come and join me in the line. My thought meanwhile goes out to Leena and Johnson who are waiting for us outside the airport. The time is already about 12:00 midnight. Sadly enough, both Leena and Johnson have to go to work next morning because their Eid holidays are yet to start (something I didn’t know earlier or I could have planned the itinerary differently).

At the immigrations counter, the non uniformed staff look curiously at the passports, our residence permits of Qatar and then at his list of ‘approved job titles’ that can obtain a visa on arrival. I know that my job title is not on the list (saw the list back at the Omani Embassy in Qatar). Then he looks at my face and my heart skips a beat. I assume he is going to say SORRY Mate.. back on the flight. But he asks me “Is this your first time in Oman?” My mind goes into marketing mode again. I have rehearsed for this question before and the answer that I have ‘well prepared’ in mind flows out. “No, I have been a resident in Oman while I was a child as small as this guy (I gesture at Nitin). I used to stay here when my parents were here and now I am back for a visit” In fact I had prepared for this earlier and even had my passport of my childhood in my shoulder bag to take out if needed. It had a residence visa of Oman in it stamped long time ago when Dad worked in Oman. Now while this is going on, Nitin wants to climb on the immigrations counter desk to see what is going on inside. Something I have asked these fellows not to do every time they go past an immigrations counter. They like to see the computer, the passport scanner and the stamps all sitting on the desk, but considering my experiences in Saudi Arabia, this curiosity can get us in jail!! And not all the Indian Immigrations officers also appreciate this. So I try to get him off the desk, hoping that the officer is not offended. Surprisingly (again) the man smiles at Nitin (here goes my disciplining attempts) and proceeds to stamp the visa in my passport, then Ciby’s. My confidence level grows. Now I am in conversation mode. So I ask him till what age kids can enter without a visa fees (a totally unwanted question as I already know the answer from the cash payment counter), and he says 13 years. I thank him, he wishes us a ‘pleasant stay in Oman’ and we move on to the luggage belts. Of course our baggage has been taken off the belt as it’s been going round for over two hours. We gather it, put it on trolleys which are in abundance and then come out of the airport. At the hall, we see hoards of people waiting with name cards, and anxiety on face, waiting for those who are still in line, or just landing. I hear my name being called and then notice Leena jumping up to make herself seen, and then I see Johnson with her (for the first time actually). If I had seen Johnson alone, I would have thought he was the popular Malayalam director/ film star Lal (of Siddique-Lal fame). He looks like him, and sounds like him so much.

Then we moved on after all the greetings to Johnson’s car and then onwards to their house. On the way we stop over for a ‘quick bite’ which end up to be filling meal at KFC (surprising how hungry you can be even after a snack on board) and reach Leena’s place (don’t mind me calling that Johnson) and retire for the night (or shall I say early morning).

Day 1: Muscat – December 06, 2008.

Next morning when we awake, Leena and Johnson have left for work, but Leena’s two loving daughters Liza and Tresa are home, and their house maid is on stand-by to ‘serve as you please’. All the kids take some time to mingle with one another and then on it’s a ‘can’t separate group’ with Stevin and Liza striking a chord and Ashwin pairing up with Tresa.

After breakfast and shower, we are ready to take in as much as possible of Oman. My good friend Suresh Nair who was based with family in Oman before moving to Canada was in Qatar recently and had cautioned me on taking too much rest while in Oman because there was too much to see and too little time to do it in. So bearing that in mind we had quick breakfast and joined Justin a friend of Johnson’s on Muscat tour Day 1. Johnson had kindly loaned us the use of his SUV with full tank petrol with Justin at wheels.

On that tour we were able to cover some parts of Muscat. Our first stop was the Grand Mosque (could not get in because of the timing, but great photos from outside). This mosque has the great chandiliers, single largest woven carpet etc. Then we went around the church areas and saw some of the many churches spread across Oman. A visit to Muthra Souq (traditional shopping areas) was on the cards and Ciby enjoyed ‘looking’ at the many things to buy and I enjoyed ‘convincing’ her why it was not a good buy. The many research on internet about bargaining and looking in many shops before you buy something in the Muthra Souq came in handy, and we ended up buying just some souvenirs from there. Ciby’s plans for shawls etc were shelved. At the Corniche outside the souq we paused for some juice and sandwich before proceeding for more photo shoots, beautiful view from outside of the Sultan’s (ruler of Oman) latest boat/ ships, drive around some of the main roads, past shopping malls and of course the famous ‘Lulu’ Hypermarkets which are now there all around the Middle East. Then we ended up at ‘Thiruvananthapuram Fried Chicken (TFC)’ (a keralite dig on the KFC brand) for lunch. Lennie (my cousin and Leena’s elder brother) who is in the tourism industry and keeps referring to ‘his boats’ (what he really means is his company boats!!) met us at TFC, joined for lunch and then decided to go to his house before continuing the visits. So we headed off to Wadi Al Kabir (I learned that Wadi means a valley covered by mountains on most sides, where water can collect during rains) where Lennie has his loving family – Aji his wife whom he was madly in love before (and is after) marriage, and their sweet son Darren. In Darren Nitin found his companion – both are about the same age and has similar traits. Lennie took charge of our remaining day’s tours and after relaxing for a while at his house (which is a penthouse overlooking the great mountain on one side WOW!!) we continued our trip.

Nitin had been asking to be allowed to climb mountains and here in Wadi Al Kabir he got his first chance. Along with Darren, Liza and Tresa, the kids headed off to the mountain climbing. The parents were around with cameras and loads of advise!! Suddenly we also had a gush of cold wind and rain storm, bringing in a beautiful darkness all around and then bright sunlight again. I was beginning to love the climate in Oman and the fresh air, which is a great break away from the dusty grey skies of Doha. In fact in Muscat, my children saw what a ‘Blue Sky’ really means. They realized that sky blue really is different from grey blue (what we see in Doha).

From the mountains it was time to drive around to a beach zone a little way off. At this beautiful beach called Qantab we saw amazing rock formations, almost like funny looking structures of rock sticking out in the middle of the water, great views, beautiful photographs, and then towards night fall it was time to head back to town.

Lennie has an amazing memory (which Leena calls photographic) and he drove us around old Muscat and Muthra areas where we used to spend our childhood when we were in Oman with my parents. We went around the buildings that we stayed in, the roads that our school bus used to travel on, and stopped enroute for more photographs, waterfalls, etc. We also visited Bait Muzna Museum/ Art Gallery, Bait Zubai Museum (by the way museums are not really my piece of cake, but we cant ignore history and tradition can we?). Finally we endured a great climb up a hilly amusement park called Riam Park. The kids had good time down the slides, and on some of the rides there. Unfortunately Stevin found the climb tough on him and I sat down and (actually) relaxed a while on the top of the hill while the others were playing around.

To wind up the day we also went to visit the Sultan Qaboos Palace which is a magnificent building which supposedly was built by Indians many years ago, and has watch towers and forts on top of hills around the palace overlooking & protecting the palace. There is some renovation work going on, and still it was a great opportunity to remember how we had taken photographs as small children around the palace when we were in Muscat over 30 years ago.

What strikes you about Oman is that you don’t see too many high rise buildings there. Apparently it was a strategic decision taken by the Sultan that you can expand outwards as they have vast lands, and not grow upwards. I think that is great decision so that you don’t obscure the splendid scenery all around you by building glass structures that not only make your eyes uncomfortable due to the reflected sunlight, but also add to global warming like crazy.

Another noticeable factor in Oman that really appealed to me is the low intensity traffic. The well planned infrastructure including roads and flyovers, which ensure free flow of traffic most time. You can see the rise of the ‘new’ amidst the ‘traditional old’ perfectly blending among each other without compromising on either. Local people apparently respect expatriates because they recognize their value to the society. The Locals are prepared to take up menial jobs unlike in some of their more wealthy neighbouring countries.

After the long day on the roads, we headed back to Leena’s house (pardon me again Johnson) and had quick dinner because they were expecting the church carol singers to visit soon.

So along with the Tourist pleasures, the kids (and us) got to see the Christmas Carols also. However it was a comedy of tragedy because whilst the kids expected some ‘Jingle Bells’ kind of Christmas songs, we witnessed five men (no women) standing around the table clapping and singing a ‘mappila song’ type carol (mappila songs are a type of Muslim folk songs popular in Kerala in India). Nitin enjoyed the chance to take the camera from me and grab some pictures (which I decided not to upload on the trip photographs website).

Day 2: Muscat, and then to Salalah – December 07, 2008.

On the second day we had quick breakfast, got ready, packed all the bags (because we will be travelling to Salalah in the afternoon) and then left with Justin, Liza and Tresa to the Ostrich Farm and Crocodile Farm – which incidentally was not as close as we expected it to be. Johnson was constantly in touch with Justin guiding him almost like a GPS system on how to get to the place. There was some traffic jam on the route and we were delayed further, leading to my thinking of cancelling the trip and returning to Muscat as we had to go to the airport by noon or we would have to kiss our Salalah trip good bye.

Finally we located the farm and went in – there was another group from Dubai who had arrived round about the same time. The kids enjoyed seeing the mini zoo with various animals, then the Ostrich farm which had quite a number of ostriches; then the crocodile farm where the lazy crocodiles lay so still that we even wondered if they were really alive. Only thing that confirmed it was the rapidly moving lower necks that moved as they were breathed. These huge powerful creatures don’t even blink an eye or so it seems. I am not sure if they were very comfortable in this kind of climate. Nitin wanted to take photos closer to the camels, but we assured him that he will see more camels later and moved on. At the gate, we stopped to see the Huge Ostrich Eggs which weigh more than 5 kilos. More photos with the eggs, and then we are back on road, heading to Muscat and hopefully our flight to Salalah if there is no traffic on the way.

Luckily we reach home on time, have a quick lunch. Cool Johnson tries to calm my tension assuring me we have plenty of time, but my panic continues as time ticks by. We reach the airport over an hour before the departure, complete the formalities and then await the flight to Salalah on Oman Air – the national carrier of Oman.

I have with me the local ‘Nawras’ mobile connection loaned again graciously by Johnson after topping up the credit on his daughter’s mobile phone number. This would substantially minimize my communication costs as Qatar’s QTel rips you off when you use their roaming connection facilities on their mobile connection when you are outside Qatar. Makes you desperate for Vodafone to get in around March 2009 to give QTel a run for its money.

We board the Oman Air flight for our 1 hour 40 minutes flight to Salalah – a land renowned for its abundant mountains, Wadis, Rainfall, and Tradition. It also has a palace for the ruler, and is sometimes referred to as the Kerala of Oman (for its resemblance to Kerala’s vegetation). On the Oman Air flight, we witnessed ‘Service Quality’ that Qatar’s own ‘Five Star’ airline can learn from. The kids were attended to by friendly staff, we had a real meal served, it was warm, and there were headphones to listen to the flight entertainment and some really good channels of music available. We actually enjoyed the flight and landed at Salalah on time.

Now as agreed before hand, I had called our local contact at Salalah – arranged by Lennie, prior to departure from Muscat, so that he could have the driver waiting for us at Salalah. He also confirmed this and gave me the name of a driver who would be there. On arrival at Salalah, I switched on the phone to call the driver and then realized that the Nawras card had a password to open (and I didn’t know what it was). I tried to use my Qatar SIM to call Johnson in Muscat to get the password and found my Qatar card was not working for some strange reason. Now what do I do? Finally I convinced Ciby (who suddenly decided she didn’t want me to use her phone!!) to let me call Johnson from her phone, and I got the password and opened my connection.

On calling the driver I find out that he is not there yet because some shopping mall had burned down and all roads were jammed due to traffic and diversion. I wondered why this man didn’t start earlier as he knew about the diversion, and also had been informed about our arrival even before leaving from Muscat for the 1 hour 40 minute drive. Anyway, we waited at the airport (took some photos) and then when the driver arrived after 40 minutes or so, headed off to our ‘accommodation’.

On entering Salalah, we found it more congested, and the skies were not as blue as in Muscat. We also found out that the driver himself was the owner of the flat we were to stay in (sharing basis – as he was working in the night in a hospital and working as guide/ driver in the day to make some extra bucks while his family was in India). He also said he will be using his car (Benz some 1987 kind model) for all the trips as it was costly to hire a car – I was a bit skeptical about this, and kept asking indirect questions about the capability of the car to go long distances, climb mountains and all because the last thing I wanted was to have a break down in the middle of nowhere!! I decided that since we had time, we could explore the vehicle’s capability on the first morning and if I was not happy, then I can call Lennie and insist that we change the vehicle. On reaching the flat, we found it was really dusty and being allergic to dust I had some difficulty adjusting. I insisted on new bed sheets, towels and additional bed, which were provided reluctantly. I was to realize that sometimes it may be better to pay more for a real hotel than make this budget cut adjustments to save some money, by compromising on something else.

After a brief rest, we headed off for a short trip round Salalah town to see what it was like. Ended up at KM Trading (a popular shopping centre) where actually Ciby had some good time shopping as there was a sale for dress items. We also picked up gifts for the children back in Muscat, Some toys for our kids to take to Doha, and some books and educational items that Ciby bought to take back to Doha for kids at HOPE Qatar. We grabbed a packed dinner and went back home and retired, while the house owner guy went off to work.

Having discussed with him earlier about the tour programs and intended itinerary, we realized that there was no point in staying in Salalah for 3 full days. We decided to cut it short to 2 days and get an extra day in Muscat because Lennie using all his gift of the gab had convinced us about wonderful things he can arrange for us to see in Muscat including dolphin watch, dune bash and what not!! Now it was important to be able to change our tickets without any cost addition and we wanted to try that in the morning before finalizing.

Day 3: Salalah – December 08, 2008

Waking up in the morning, we looked forward to Salalah the land that had inspired so many pleasant thoughts about greenery and beauty. We decided to check out the ticket position straight away. On reaching the Oman Air office, I was able to easily change the travel date to 9 December hence reducing our stay at Salalah by one day and increasing our stay in Muscat by a day. It surprised me further when the booking agent said there was no charge for the change of booking dates. I remembered that in Qatar for any change of booking even for tickets purchased online, especially after start of the journey, there was a ‘fee’ and very often a ‘penalty’ which could run well into hundreds of Qatari Riyals, and then the additional charges if the ‘fare basis’ changed from a minimum of so many days stay and what not!! Sometimes these elements give a new twist to the word ‘Haram’ mentioned in their holy books. I was beginning to re-hate Qatar Airways already.

With great sense of achievement that I had got the travel issues settled without cost, we continued our exploration of Salalah. First we went to a Mangalorean restaurant which was supposed to be the best in the place. Found it was crowded, but settled in and researched their impressive menu. Finally when time came for placing our orders, the ‘owner’ says that since it was a crowded day, they had only 3 items to order from, Idlis, Vada, and Oothappam. So much for our plans for checking out some of the items on the menu. I was also surprised that they said since it was a crowded day, they cancelled the menu – good business sense would tell that would be best time to capitalize. Anyway, we had no choice so settled with what was available.

Once we left Salalah city and moved on to the outskirts, we realized that Salalah was more beautiful outside the city and not inside. Unfortunately, we were not there in the monsoon season, which apparently was the time when most tourists visited. The monsoons bring out the greenery in the soil, the mountains and everywhere. The monsoons also bring out the waterfalls, springs, and all the things that are to be seen. During winter, most greenery on the sand and mountains had disappeared, and most springs ran low. I wondered what the hell was I thinking when planning the trip at this time of the year? Anyway, we were there, so might as well take in what is available rather than crib about what is not. I was not going to regret that decision, because Salalah has great views to offer, great history, strong traditions, all which exists irrespective of which climate you are in.

Our tour started off with Haffa Clock Tower – which is actually in the city near the airport itself. Then you go through areas with coconut trees, papaya trees, sugar cane plantations, pass the Sultan’s Salalah farms from where apparently all his vegetables are sent to Muscat for his food. We visited Wadi Darbat which is a natural park with views of waterfalls, lakes, mountains, caves and green vegetations. Though the waterfalls were not there, it was a nice visit. There were plenty of camels around so Nitin had a good time taking photos. We also visited Arzat Spring which flows between mountains, but had almost dried up. Jarzees Spring and caves also offer plenty of rock climbing, and photograph opportunities. On the way we also saw Municipality Activity centre where most stage shows take place.

We also visited Nabi Ayoub’s tomb. Nabi Ayoub is the Arabic name for Job in the Bible. It is said that when he suffered his worst and was covered with leprosy, he was on this hill, and today his foot print on the rock is still visible. Apparently he was a large man over 8 feet tall. Legend says that God answered his prayers and a stream appeared from the mountains and when he bathed in that water his wounds healed and all his problems started clearing. He later died and was buried in this place. His tomb is today a revered Muslim place of pilgrimage. Legend also has it that his tomb overlooks Salalah from above so the city is protected by this man of God and hence blessed.
On the way back, we visited Haffa Beach where the driver/ guide was hesitant to let children enter the water because his car would get dirty when they return. But after a piece of my mind, he settled down. The waters on the beach are shallow and offers plenty of shell picking opportunity.

We also passed through streets which are lined up with shops selling tender coconut which is popularly called ‘karikku’ in Kerala. The sweet water of the karikku can refresh you after long tiring journeys and also has some ability to nourish you. The tender coconut that is inside the shell is also very tasty to eat especially when it is of the right constitution. As it matures it becomes harder like coconut and then loses its original taste. There are many such shops on the roads in Salalah and they sell tender coconut and also some other fruits and vegetables. We stopped by and not only did we have our share of tender coconut, but also bought some to bring back to Muscat to give our host families there.

The last part of the day was a drive through the traditional Salalah Souk which is known for perfumes, clothes, sweets, etc. We did some small shopping for frankincense to bring back to Doha to give ‘bosses’ and then retired for the evening with packed dinner. It was decided to have breakfast at home next day so arrangement was made for Puttu and Banana.

Day 4: Salalah, and then to Muscat – December 09, 2008

In the morning before leaving for the visits, I did the packing as we had to travel back later that evening. Now Ciby’s decision on the second bag was proved correct because the second bag we took has the ability to be folded and zipped up when not needed and in opening the zips, it can be expanded many times depending on how much luggage had to go in. Having done all the shopping at Salalah, the bag got larger reaching its ‘full potential’. It was after I packed it all and tied it up with some borrowed rope that Ciby found she needed something from that same bag, so I had to unpack and then repack, adding more fun to the situation. I also had to borrow a small carton from the guide/ landlord to pack the tender coconuts to bring to Muscat.

Having completed this assignment, we left for the day’s tours. It had to be completed by lunch time because we were to fly back to Muscat that evening.

We started off with Mughsayl – which boasts of over four kilometers of sandy beaches, outlined by sculpted cliffs with blow holes formed in the limestone rocks; where plumes of water can reach a height of 30 meters or more especially with the right tide and climate conditions. We enjoyed the trip, especially the sight of school of dolphins passing by, with their amazing acrobatic displays in natural surroundings. Since the tide was not right we could not see any water gushing up from the blow holes, but had to content ourselves to see just the holes. Once again this offered excellent photo opportunities, and by then my 20GB memory card in my camera was reaching half way mark with all the pictures and videos.

An interesting visit was to what is called as ‘Magnetic Point’ which is a relatively uneven surface of un-asphalted road on a high point between mountains situated 60 km from Salalah. The driver got onto the road and put his car in neutral gear and took his feet off the break on even road. We could immediately feel the magnetic pull that made the car roll backwards at high speed. A little further on, the road slopes downwards. On this road, when the car is in neutral gear and the brakes released, the car instead of rolling forward at high speed (which is the natural thing to happen due to pull of gravity), stays firmly in the same place, showing that the magnetic pull backwards is preventing the car from moving forwards. The reverse happens when the roads moves a little further on sloping upwards. It is claimed that the positioning of the road between mountains and the sea down below causes an effect that negates the law of gravity in this area, and the magnetic pull of the earth causes the rest. However this effect is only felt on cars and we don’t see any people floating around due to lack of gravity.

We also passed by from far Taqa a historical village which is now in ruins, but didn’t stop over due to time constraints. We also saw from far Mirbat a port a little way after Magnetic point.

On the way back, we passed by Chera Man Perumal Tomb – the tomb of a ruler from the Cheran Dynasty in India, who in his later years became muslim, went on pilgrimage and on his way back visited, stayed, and died in Salalah. A tomb of his daughter is also nearby. This tomb is located in a very dense area full of coconut trees, papaya trees and many other plants and vegetable farms.

Next stop was Nabi Salah Makbara – the memorial to a legendary camel which supposedly had great powers. Apparently the camel which was alive around the time of the Prophet Mohammed was able to get his owner who was an associate of the prophet out of all dangers and schemes of his enemies who hatched trouble. It is said that the camel could fly from place to place (which I interpret as go real fast). It would drink a lot of water much more than normal camels and this caused water shortages in the surrounding villages and tribes. However in return, it gave abundant milk that was sufficient to feed all the people including children in these villages and tribes. It is said that the enemies decided that the camel had to be killed if they had to get his owner, and on one fateful day there was an attack, a great struggle in which the camel was brutally hacked to death. This struggle left footprints, a deep sword cut and blood traces in the rocks, which are preserved to date at this location which is now a tourist attraction.
Finally, we went to Nabi Umran Tomb, which is the tomb of the father of Mary (mother of Jesus). It is believed that this tomb continues to grow in size and currently is over 20 feet in length. Photos of the original tomb which looks considerably smaller also hangs in the hall, which is now adjacent to a mosque in the centre of the city and attracts large number of faithful.

On return to the flat, we refreshed, dressed, and then left to the airport eagerly looking forward to our last leg of the Oman tour, after which we will head back to the land of reality.

At the airport the procedures were completed fast and we checked in to the boarding gates from where I called Lennie and Johnson to inform that we were on our way back. Lennie was to take over our accommodation charge at Muscat this time. He agreed to pick us up at Muscat airport and take us to his place.

The return flight on Oman Air was equally enjoyable. It left Salalah at 6:00 p.m. and was 1 and half hour in duration. There were meals served on board (Qatar Airways – please note) though it was not yet time for dinner. Ciby enjoyed her sleep on board, while Nitin still was upset he did not have a personal video screen, but was content listening to the headphone while straining his neck to watch the common screen that was up above a few seats in front of us. Stevin and Ashwin just enjoyed their meals and then settled down looking at the passing scenery below as the flight was preparing to land into Muscat.

At the airport, it took ages for the luggage to arrive for some reason, and by then we saw Liza, Treza and Darren peeping through the gates and all of a sudden they ran in when the gates opened to let someone out. Surprisingly no one stopped them and it was good to see all the kids together again. Nitin was impatient about the delay in luggage and he started laying out his theories including one in which he said they may have sent the luggage to Doha because our Doha address was there on a tag on the bags. There was a Pakistani lady well into her eighties who had to catch a connecting flight to Peshawar, but for some reason had checked in her baggage to Muscat, and she wanted to know if her baggage would have been sent directly to Peshawar. So I used the delay time to take her to an airline official and find out what she wanted to know. She could speak only Hindi and the official could not. Having taken care of that, I heard Nitin shout with glee as he spotted out bags getting on to the conveyor belt. Once collected, we were out of the airport in a jiffy. Leena was also there and so was Lennie. We packed our stuff into his car and Leena and her kids went off to their place to prepare for a big day ahead when we were to go for a day long tour deeper into Muscat’s neighbouring areas.

On arriving at Lennie’s building we were given access to a flat that belonged to their friends who were incidentally on vacation and away. So we had all the comforts that we missed for the last few days in Salalah at our disposal and poor Aji was busy as always preparing dinner and taking care of our needs. In the meantime, we were informed that another cousin of mine Binoy who is handling the Asianet Oman bureau would visit us briefly. In the meantime also another cousin of mine Jiji who lives in Muscat with his wife and daughter (expecting their second child soon) was visiting to take us to his house for a short visit because his wife could not travel due to her pregnancy. So in what time was available, we met Binoy, and left to Jiji’s house which is in Ruwi. After spending some time with them and taking photos, he dropped us back at Lennie’s house. While we were gearing for dinner, Binoy also joined and we had some time to catch up on old stories and current issues.

Day 5: Muscat – December 10, 2008

We had a good night’s sleep and were promptly awakened by Lennie next morning as we had to start a long journey for which poor Aji and Leena had to put in a lot of effort cooking and packing all the food to eat on the way. A Land Cruiser was arranged for our hire by Lennie to take us as he was not available to join. This trip though tiring was to prove extremely enjoyable and memorable.

Our first destination was Wadi Bhani Khalid, but on the way we passed an area called Fanja which is an oasis. But due to lack of time, we did not go in, but only stopped for a photo shoot.

At Wadi Bhani Khalid, which is a spring, the place was crowded to the core, especially being Eid day and all people celebrating holidays. Luckily we found a good parking and then had a long hard walk up narrow uneven surfaces – which Stevin in particular found difficult. We also had the packed food and all clothes and mats to carry, which was a task. There were plenty of young boys around with wheelbarrows which indicate that there are many people who come on picnic and perhaps use their services to take their luggage to the desired locations. There were also donkeys all decked up to be ridden. This brought about ideas in the minds of our kids, who started to pinch me, indicating their thoughts. I said we can do that on the way back and this kept them at bay. Our driver cum guide who could not speak English, but only Hindi and Arabic or Konkani took us to a strategic spot which was in the middle of the large pool on the top of an elevated rock, with some bamboo roof over it. It was a nice place to sit and have our lunch. Leena was already busy unpacking and serving lunch by the time we all settled down. The food was abundant but the kids seemed to be in no mood for food as they were more focused on the water around, the fishes swimming in there and the chance of their splashing around soon. The fried rice and curries and all were hurriedly consumed and we had plenty to carry back with us. Then those of the more prepared ones which actually means all the kids and just me – ventured into the waters. Stevin suddenly became stubborn and decided he did not want to enter the water. So he sat and watched what we were doing in the water and took photographs. Ciby had all intentions to splash around but she found that rolling up the pants to ‘permissible’ levels alone could not get her into the waters which were already infested by men who were already highly motivated to show off their swimming and diving talents to these ladies who were sitting around and watching. In fact we also saw one fellow jump from the top of a bridge into the water and emerge with a fish in his hand!!

The kids really had a good time, and Liza was interested in getting me wet, and in the process got all drenched herself, much to Leena’s dismay, but the news that Ciby had a spare pant in the bag that she could use once she came out of the water brought back smiles on her face. Darren having learned swimming and diving from his father Lennie was a natural in the water. Nitin tried to copy, but had to stop short as he was not as seasoned as Darren. Ashwin and Treesa were clinging on to my hands one on each side, and did their bits in the water like tadpoles splashing around. In fact once in the pool with the kids, one does not realize how time flies. Soon we had the warning call from Leena who indicated it was time to move on as we had more destinations to cover. Getting the kids out of water was a task, and then drying and changing for the remaining trip was fun because in searching the bag I found that in the entire spree, I had forgotten to pack an extra short pants for me. Now what was I to do? I had already got wet to the skin. Suddenly we realized that Stevin was wearing new short pants which were pretty big for him, something we had picked up at Salalah. So I convinced him to change into another shorts of his and then to give me the one he was wearing. This took care of my problem.

On our walk back to the car, the kids reminded me of the donkeys and we decided to put Nitin and Ashwin on a donkey. Initially we wanted to put Stevin on a donkey so that he didn’t have trouble walking back, but he refused to go on it. Aji used all her Arabic skills to negotiate the fare for the ride. But in a minute or two after Nitin and Ashwin got on the donkey’s back, it started to panic and act funny, jumping around and crying loud. The Arab guy tried to control the donkey and calm it down, but I was not convinced so asked the kids to get down. Reluctantly they came down, but apparently they were thrilled by the donkey’s misbehavior which to them was exciting!! We then realized that we could not see Leena anywhere in sight, because she had gone faster and ahead of us. But soon we started getting calls from her on the mobile asking where we were and why we were being delayed. Apparently she had already reached the parked car and could not find us behind her.

Waheba Deserts was our next destination. This was an area popular for dune bashing – something we had not done before and were looking forward to. I had read that small children are not allowed in vehicles during dune bashing, but the driver defrayed my fears and we headed off into the beautiful Omani landscape all around us and soon reached a small roadside tyre repair shop which had a large number of vehicles parked around and being attended to. We found out that for riding on the sand and in the desert, the air pressure had to be considerably reduced in all the tyres. This shop was the last one on that road before the desert starts and was obviously popular with the tour operators who waited patiently till they were attended to. One wonders how the vehicle can pull us along the regular road before we hit the sand. A few hundred meters on, the driver veered away into the desert and then the immense size and splendor of the desert ahead of us dawned to all of us. There were miles and miles of desert ahead of us and lots of dunes on which there were already quite a few land cruisers jumping around.

We had to stop and then ensure all the passengers in the car had seat belts on. The little ones shared belts where needed and soon after ensuring the safety elements, we continued on to the steep dunes. The ride would have been impossible without a really skilled driver at wheels. Though I owned a four wheel drive vehicle I had never ventured into anything more than the beach sands!! I was busy trying to learn how the driver shifted gears and navigated the car over areas which looked almost impossible to travel over. Soon I realized that it was just better to sit back and enjoy the ride rather than try to learn driving at this time. The children and ladies all screamed in delight and glee as the driver ripped across with the desert sand spraying up on both sides like a jet of water spraying around a speeding boat. At some stages I was a bit worried if the vehicle could topple over, but these were fears of no significance as apparently we were in good hands.

After a few rounds, we reached the top of a dune where the driver stopped and everyone got out. The vast desert all around us was breathtaking and the sun was mild due to the cool winter climate. One wondered what it would be like during the summer. The kids and ladies started going down the dune on foot and then trying to climb another one, and we all realized the difficulty of walking in sand where the foot almost keeps sinking in. Combining the walk with the photo shoots and the video shoots was interesting and after a little while I decided to settle down on the sand with Stevin and watched the kids and ladies playing around and rolling around in the sand!!. Soon Ciby and Aji invented a game on their own. They would sit on the sand and let the kids grab them by the leg and drag them down the slope of the dunes. It was almost like sand surfing without the surfing board. Obviously we were all having a great time. Soon a pack of camels came by walking almost straight at us sitting on the top of the sand dunes. One wondered what we would do if they decided that they had to walk straight across us, but obviously they had better things to do so they walked around us and went on.

We climbed back into the vehicle, put on our seat belts and had another round of sand dune bashing before we reached a beduin (nomads) tent. This tent obviously was set up to receive visitors as there was hot Arabic coffee (gahwa) and sweetened black tea (chai) ready in the well carpeted and pillowed Majlis (seating area) on the floor. There were also some artifacts that were displayed and there were also some handicraft items that the women of the tent had made. These were for sale. The ladies in our group were attracted to these and did some shopping. At the tent we also saw two cute little Arab girls wearing bright coloured Arab costumes with their traditional headgear. We asked permission and then took a few photographs with these children. After the gahwa and date fruits, it was time for camel rides. We had plenty of volunteers this time as most of the children wanted to ride on the camel. The camel ride proved to be a rip off. The young boy wanted to charge a princely amount for each ride. Aji and the driver used their negotiation skills to bring it down and then when the kids were loaded on the backs of the camels, looking like loosely packed baggage that was about to fall off a curve, we found that the ride was hardly over 10 meters distance. I think the fun was more about the way the camel got up with the kids and then got down on its knees to let the kids get down. But not all the children enjoyed this getting shaky process of the camel getting up and then sitting down, and Liza was crying and screaming much to the amusement of Treza and the other children.

Once the camel rides were completed, we bundled the kids back into the SUV all safely buckled up and continued more dune bashing. We passed by a dead camel and the kids wanted to get down and see it, much to Leena’s dismay and she took care of it with a affirmative NO, which put to rest any further discussion on the matter. After getting off the desert and moving back to the asphalted roads, we stopped by the tire repair shop to inflate our deflated tires. The ladies took this opportunity to go and get themselves some tea to drink and some snacks to eat.

We started realizing that the sun was already setting and we still had one stop to make before we returned to Muscat city. This was a traditional 15th century town called Mudareb. We reached the location, drove around, and the more energetic ones got down to stretch the legs and grab some photographs of the old buildings, including prison, mosques and some old mud houses. Once back in the car, we speeded back, crossing Fanja and the beautiful Omani landscape all around us, moving on to the hustle bustle of the Muscat city roads. We stopped once again to wait for Johnson who agreed to pick up Leena and the children midway.

Once back home, we took some time to refresh ourselves, and then gathered at Lennie’s place to get set for dinner.
It was then that I also decided (God knows why) to go and do an ‘online check in’ for our return Qatar Airways flight to Doha. So I went with Lennie to an internet café and logged in. A few clicks later I realized that I had checked in but got the seats all scattered across the flight. Obviously I had not done it right, but there was no way to undo what I had done. Now my only option was to go to the internet and find a local helpline number for Qatar Airways. And guess what? Someone actually answered. But my joys were short lived as this person said that on their system, it shows that the passenger is already checked in and at airport (!!) and I had to try to check in desk at the airport to reassign my seats to make sure that we are all together.

Now this meant that I had to go early to the airport rather than later and go in the queue at the check in desk and have this mess sorted out. So there was really no use in the online check in for the return flight. Then arose the second issue. I found that we could not print out the boarding passes as the café did not have a printer. Lennie went and found his USB flash disk and we saved the files to his disk, and he assured that these can be printed out from his office next morning. With this assurance we went back home to dinner that Aji had elaborately arranged. After a late dinner, during which a lot of old memories were relived, and a lot of ideas for the future invoked, we went back to our quarters to sleep like babies after all the tiring adventures of the day. We were looking forward to the next day’s dolphin watch trip – which Ciby was not too particular about. Apparently she was told by Leena that some passengers usually threw up during the trip especially when the seas got rough. Ciby being a not so ‘sea worthy’ person wanted to stay off the trip and avoid any inconvenience. Lennie tried to allay her fears assuring her that if the seas were rough even the marina would not allow them to take their boats out due to safety issues. But this didn’t seem to have made her any more confident than before.

Day 6: Muscat – and then to Doha December 11, 2008

Alas, it was to be the last day of our memorable trip to Oman. The trip had been truly refreshing experience so far and the best was yet to come. Today I was heading off to the sea to see the ever playful and highly intelligent dolphins in their natural habitat on Lennie’s boat with the kids. Darren was to join us for the trip. Lennie had also invited a couple of their other relatives who were in Muscat to join in. Ciby and Aji were to embark on their own trip to explore Ruwi and other shopping areas. Ciby was intending to fill in every inch of packing space available in the baggage before we return.

We set off in different directions and soon the kids and I reached the marina where there were hundreds of beautiful boats of all shapes and sizes lined up. Obviously the rich and famous in Muscat had their own way of having fun and this included time on the seas. We were guided to Lennie’s boat on which there were also other passengers who were clients of Lennie’s company along with us. They were paying for the trip and we were enjoying it for free (thanks to Lennie). After a brief introduction by Lennie about what we were about to see, the boat set off into the Gulf of Oman. The wind was blowing heavily and all of us were well covered in woolen clothes to try and minimize any health issues later on. Lennie headed back to his office, work and home to take the ladies to the shopping areas.

As the boat moved into deeper areas, we saw many other similar boats with curious onlookers scaling the waters looking for the dolphins. We didn’t have to wait long as soon we were surrounded on all sides by schools of dolphins making merry. As seen on TV many times, this was our first real close encounter with these beautiful creatures which made their typical noises and jumped high into the air and gracefully diving back into the waters. Out came the cameras and there was frantic clicking of photos and videos all around as people vied with one another to immortalize these moments in digital media. The kids were all thrilled and each one kept yelling papa, here and papa there. Soon the boat started to wobble up and down on the high waves and the water was splashing all over us wetting clothes. But ignoring this, the viewing continued and the ‘captain’ of the boat skillfully navigated his vessel through the water, chasing and following the dolphins’ natural path, much to the glee of all on board. He later switched the motors off and the boat lay still, wobbling up and down with the waves while all of us enjoyed the complimentary soft drinks and enjoyed the wonderful dolphins engaging in all kinds of tricks all around us. Truly this trip was worth it and I could not help but think “Ciby you missed this”.

The boat then cruised around the coast and we could see the cornice and the Sultan’s palace from the sea and a little later we glided past other anchored boats back to the marina. Lennie came and met us, and we returned home with great memories and wonderful pictures and videos. A little later the ladies also returned and then we put up the Christmas tree at Lennie’s house. A cousin of mine Biji (brother of Binoy whom we met earlier) and his family had called up earlier asking us to join them for lunch at their house. But we said there wouldn’t be enough time, but then they insisted on coming to us, and all of us going out for lunch. Accordingly they turned up at Lennie’s house and we went with them and had lunch at the TFC joint that we had visited on the first day. We were a little concerned about the time because there was still some last minute packing to do and then we had to go to the airport to sort out the seat issues. And Lennie had not yet been able to take the print out of the boarding passes, which meant that we had to stop for that also somewhere.

Back at home, it was hurried packing, and final checks to ensure that all was taken care of before leaving to Doha. I still had the phone SIM card of Liza’s with me and that had to be returned as well. We were told that Johnson and Leena with the children would come to the airport to bid farewell to us, so I put the SIM in my pocket to take out and give it back at the airport.

Soon it was time to leave and we found that Lennie’s car was locked in from behind by other people who had parked their cars around it. So while we loaded the bags which for some reason seemed to have grown fatter over the trip, and ensured that all the kids were accounted for and stacked into the car, the neighbors were called out and all the obstructing cars moved around. With our passage clear for departure, we moved on to the airport, but had to go past Lennie’s office to take the print outs of the boarding cards.

At the airport Johnson and family arrived soon after we did, then it was quick bye byes and hugs and shake hands. I carefully returned the SIM card to Johnson with gratitude as it had been so much of a help for me through the trip. The kids were sad about parting the new bond of relationship that had been established over the last few days. So was I. It was almost like I had relived my early childhood, and all the memories of being there with my parents when we were still very young children. Lennie and Leena had been close to my heart since early childhood and these days provided me the opportunity to rekindle the affection. I resolved that this would not be the last visit to Oman and there was need for more trips and perhaps even opportunities to do things in Oman related to HOPE, the centre Ciby runs at Qatar for children with special needs. It was a chance to look back at life and see how amidst the hectic life that we all get sucked into, we almost lose touch with friends, relatives and forget that they even exist. Oman had also appealed to all of us due to its beautiful landscapes, mountains, greenery, climate, lifestyle, and for a lot more reasons. We waved our final goodbyes as we turned round the passenger gates and went into the airport check in areas.

Once inside the airport, it was time to try and resolve our seating issues. After the baggage screening, we moved on to the check in counter and the clerk there had to get in touch with his central control to unlock our seat locations so that he could make the changes. Luckily we were able to get seats closer to the front of the aircraft, and all in one row.

At the immigrations counter, the surprises of Oman continued. The immigrations officer after looking at our passports asked if we liked our visit. I said we did. After stamping the passports with the exit date stamps, he returned it to us and looking us in the eye, with a genuine smile from the heart says “enjoy your trip, and hope to see you back in Oman again”. To me that was mind blowing. I have never seen a similar handling at the immigrations desk anywhere in the world during my travels. One more great memory to take with me about the Omani tradition.
After that we moved on to the departure longue and meanwhile Ciby decided to go upstairs and have a look at the duty free shopping and Nitin insisted on going with her. So they went upstairs while I stayed with Stevin and Ashwin downstairs close to the boarding gates for Qatar Airways flight to Doha. The boarding started earlier than indicated on the boarding cards and soon it was as if we were the only passengers who were yet to go in. I could not go because Ciby and Nitin were still upstairs. I tried to call her from my cell phone and found her phone was switched off. I had to fight off my own anxiety and waited patiently till they turned up, and by then fortunately, there were many other passengers also who were just coming in for the flight. So we were not the last. We passed through the gates, on to the bus which was to take us to the waiting aircraft.

Once inside the aircraft, we found out without any more surprise that there would be no headphones for the flight entertainment, there would be no movies or anything else being screened other than ‘silent’ stuff. We also found out a little later that there would be no meals, but just sandwich being served. Since the flight was not during dinner time, we didn’t really mind, but I could not help but compare this poor ‘five star’ Qatar Airways service with that of Oman Air, and wished deep inside that someday these people would learn what customer service was all about and why Customers are the most important reason for their existence. I also resolved to write to Qatar Airways about my experience – knowing fully well that they would not respond and there would be no impact, but at least I could get it off my mind. Ciby as always on flight took her nap, the kids played around with their snacks, and I flipped across the pages of an English newspaper while we flew back to Qatar.

The flight landed on time at 19:10 at Doha and on approach we watched the all too familiar desert landscape and the high rises that were conspicuously absent in the whole of Muscat. Disembarking the flight, we took the bus ride back to the airport terminal, and saw this huge queue of passengers that were there at the immigrations desks. But surprisingly, in about five minutes all these passengers had cleared immigrations and moved on to collect their bags. This was a welcome change from the long hours spent at the immigrations in Muscat. At least some things were better in Doha in comparison. The baggage as always took ages to arrive and once in hand, it was about 5 minutes to wiz through the baggage screening machines and out into the cold but dusty Doha climate. My over sensitive nose reacted almost instantly and I started sneezing and blowing my nose straight away, something I had done every single time I reach Doha from trips overseas.

The Karwa taxi ride back home was eventless and at home Bahadur our housekeeper came out to help with luggage. It was time to call Muscat and let Lennie and Johnson know of our safe arrival. Then I sent off SMS messages to India as it was already too late for calling them without awaking them from sleep. The unpacking, and then bath, opening up of toys, and all commenced, dinner was getting served.

It was time to realize that the trip to Oman was over. A trip that was long overdue, a trip that was worth every minute, and the memories of which will live long in our minds, and hopefully through this publication and the photos that were soon to be upload online for everyone to see. For those of you who have not yet visited Oman, my advice is – don’t miss Beautiful Oman.

One thought on “Beautiful Oman

  1. Vandana says:

    Nicely written- can almost see it unfold in front of my eyes. :) Sounds like a fun trip!

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