Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tintin in Oman

While traveling abroad in unconventional places and sometimes finding myself in absurd situations, I have gained a reputation for frequently referencing a series of comic books about a traveling reporter that was apparently unique to my childhood.  The Tintin series bore even more resemblance to my life during the spring break excursion to Oman (see Land of Black Gold and Red Sea Sharks), a comparison cemented when some of my friends bought me an oversized "Tin Tin in Oman" t shirt in the Matrah souq.

I perhaps found myself bringing up Tintin's adventures because I simply had no other frame of reference for Oman.  Oman is just so different from Jordan (once you get over the confusing similar spelling of Amman) and comparisons between the two are about as useful as comparing Jordan to America.

In Oman, there is one date you need to know.  In 1970, Sultan Qaboos gained power, quelled a civil war, began pumping oil, and in the last forty years built a country out of the desert.  And in most places, it feels like just that.  The capital city of Musqat is sprawling, wide open, the new white buildings divided by wide, immaculate streets and strips of manicured grass.  Gilded mosques rise between endless banks, hotels, and fast food franchises.  Where our hotel was, the port suburb of Matrah, the scene was little changed.  Huge cruise ships and the Sultan's yacht filled the harbor surrounded by incredible mountains, (but you could make out the castle-prison for political prisoners in the hills) and on our last night the western tourists streamed into the covered souq to buy overpriced antique sextants. Oman was very much a gulf state.

But the northern tip of Oman, controlling entrance to the Arab (or Persian, depending on the map) Gulf, is only a few miles from Iran. And you could tell.  All the food we ate was Indian, Pakistani, Bengali.  You could ask for Omani food, but wouldnt get a straight answer.  Many of the men walking the streets of Matrah or planting flowers in front of the new opera house were south Asian, not Arab.  My Arabic was next to useless.  You could pick out the Omanis because the men all wore the national dress--white dish-dash with a colorful fez or a turban.  It's actually illegal to wear these things if you're not certified Omani (or a western tourist, of course).  This boundary of appearance made it very easy to tell who was Omani and who was just another foreigner and would speak some English, sell you a simosa and that's it.

We did the few touristy things you can do in Oman, besides just being in the Gulf, looking at the water.  We went to the Grand Mosque.  Impressive to be sure, very resplendent, but built in 2001.  Compare that to the Aya Sophia in Istanbul, and it's like comparing Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas to Nero's Palace under Rome.   We went to a turtle reserve on the coast, which was actually really cool. Saw a sea turtle laying eggs in a huge hole in the sand, then saw some baby sea turtles run towards the ocean. Went to a wadi, a valley in the middle of the huge desert cut down thousands of feet of canyon to where there's now a river, estuary, palm trees, and pools to swim in.

But we also went to Nizwa University, a new school in the interior region attempting to bring higher education to students for cheaper, without the cost or danger or distance of university in big-city Musqat. There, our tour guide watched American movies to learn the accent, but spent his time walking around the Souq with friends.  The Cultural Week that the university was setting up for looked more dedicated and upscale than any club fair in Claremont. Here, the sway of the oil money and waters of the Gulf were losing ground to a more liberal, more educated and diverse culture, one entirely Omani.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Oman was leaving, flying north over the lights of Doha and the lack of lights of the Arabian desert, that coming back into the relatively dirty, poor, crowded Amman felt like rolling through the gates of Marlinspike, (yet another Tintin reference) coming home.

No comments:

Post a Comment