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Middle East Travel

    Middle East Travel

    The Allure of Oman

    The Safest Country in the Middle East

    Location: Oman

    Once again we have stumbled on a country full of surprises. The allure of Oman includes it’s majestic scenery; captivating history; kind and thoughtful people; delicious food; fascinating traditions. Oman is all of this and more…as well as an up and coming tourist destination.

    Nizwa fort
    The people of Oman

    I’m so grateful to have spent ten days here and hope to return again someday.

    History

    Oman has a long and fascinating history dating well before the ancient silk and spice roads. Oman is the oldest independent Arab state. At one time the Omani Empire stretched from present day Oman down the East Coast of Africa and included the island of Zanzibar.

    Prehistoric findings of the region date back as much as 100,000 years. Over the millenia, Oman has been invaded often by Arab Tribes, Portugal and Britain.

    In the 1800’s the country had several sultans ruling over different parts of the territory. In the 1900’s two strongholds remained and tensions caused conflict between the Sultan in Muscat and the Ibadei Imam in Nizwa.

    Oman Seal
    The Sultan of Oman’s Seal

    When oil was discovered in 1954 the two factions once again went to war, and the British Army sided with the Sultan and assisted in air raids of the Ibadei region, including the bombing of the Tanuf Castle (see below).

    From then until 1970 the Omani people were ruled by Sultan Said bin Taimur who decreed the people could have no luxuries…that included shoes. His medieval and archaic way of thinking bred discord as it was a hard life with no schools, roads, or doctors. Disease was rampant.

    “In the 1970 Omani coup d’étatQaboos bin Said al Said ousted his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, who later died in exile in London. Al Said ruled Oman until his death just last month. As Sultan he confronted insurgency in a country plagued by endemic disease, illiteracy, and poverty. One of the new sultan’s first measures was to abolish many of his father’s harsh restrictions, which had caused thousands of Omanis to leave the country, and to offer amnesty to opponents of the previous régime, many of whom returned to Oman. 1970 also brought the abolition of slavery.

    Sultan of Oman Palace
    At the Sultan’s Palace built in 1971

    Sultan Qaboos also established a modern government structure and launched a major development program to upgrade educational and health facilities, build a modern infrastructure, and develop the country’s natural resources. “(Wikipedia)

    Today

    The allure of Oman can certainly be credited to the Sultan. The remarkable changes in this country in a mere 50 years is astonishing. We have found excellent infrastructure of highways and roads (but no subway or well connected transit system), sparkling clean public parks and beaches; everyone is educated and speaks English.

    With the passing of the beloved Sultan in January, his hand-picked successor (he had no heirs) Haitham bin Tariq became Sultan. It’s not expected much will change immediately.

    Wherever we travel, each country has problems. In Myanmar the question of the Royhinga genocide hung heavy over our visit. In China the protests in Hong Kong kept us from our original itinerary. And of course in my own country of the United States, the political upheaval is embarrassing. And Oman too has problems. Cost of oil has dropped and Oman is looking at ways to diversify, including tourism. There are some who feel human rights are neglected and protestors of any kind towards the monarchy are jailed. A clear hierarchy is in place with Omani people serving in government and leadership roles and most service and labor jobs are done by workers who have come from Pakistan, India, Asia and Africa.

    Fishing at the beach
    Fisherman bring in the catch at Qurum Beach

    Oman sits on the Straight of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, only 35 miles from Iran. Oman is focused on territorial stability in a volatile region. As a visitor however you feel very safe and welcome. In fact it feels like a paradise.

    The Omani People

    We met some really wonderful people during our visit. Although most people keep pretty much to themsleves, it’s not uncommon to have people stop and ask if they can help you find something or ask where you are going or where you are from.

    The home of an Omani Family
    Our hostess for our dinner in her beautiful home

    The Muslim men all dress in what is known as the dishdashi and the women are in abaya, usually black but sometimes in other colors. Women wear a hijab. Some women cover their face but most do not. Women actually have a lot of rights in Oman, more than some other Arab countries. They vote, drive and hold professional positions such as doctors, airline pilots and more.

    Many people in Oman also dress in “western” clothing, but you will never see shorts or tank tops on locals.

    As a visitor I was careful to be respectful of the culture and I did not wear shorts at all during my visit. Long pants and shirts that always covered my shoulders and often my elbows as well. The only time I had to cover my head was when I visited the mosque. (see title photo).

    I was a little aghast at some young women we saw from Britain dressed very scantily and I felt it was incredibly disrespectful and as if they were flaunting it. Poor taste indeed.

    The Nizwa Souq
    Spice seller at the Nizwa Souq

    Our favorite experience of our visit to Oman was when we went to the home of a distinguished Omani family and had dinner with them in their home. We made this connection through a local business called Zayr whose mission is to connect Omanis with visitors to broaden the understanding of the culture. I am so glad we did this because we really learned a great deal about the daily life of Omanis. The family we visited was a man who is a Omani diplomat, his lovely stay-at-home wife and their five children. We also met a cousin (who works at the US Embassy) and a brother. Another brother is the Omani Ambassador to China. Many of the family members live in a cohabiting way in a large and beautiful house outside of Muscat. We talked about our respective cultures, and how each are so often misrepresented by media accounts of the actions of a few. We ate sitting on the floor in the Omani style and we truly could not have enjoyed this more. We learned about food and traditions such as eating dates in odd numbers, having coffee and dates at every meal and incense burned after the meal to cleanse your palate. It would be my wish that every American could have this experience to understand more about the peaceful and lovely Muslim people.

    Dining in Omani home
    The lovely family we dined with

    Oman, which is about the same size as California, has a population of 4 million, but only 2.5 million of those are Omani. The rest are expats who come to Oman to work, mostly from India, Pakistan, and other surrounding African and Asian nations.

    Beautiful Oman beaches
    Gulf of Oman

    Muscat

    The capitol city of Muscat is the most beautiful in Oman. The allure of Oman is found in this utopian city. Restriction on high rise buildings (no more than nine stories) as well as architectural restrictions that only allow Arab style structures with stucco in white and desert colors makes the city very symmetric and alluring. Hundreds of workers can be seen tending greenery in parks, medians and along roads keeping the capital city pristine.

    Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Oman
    Inside the Sultan Qaboos Mosque

    Muscat’s main attractions include the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (the top sight in Muscat), the stunning Royal Muscat Opera House, and the brand new and amazing National Museum of Oman.

    The opera house in Muscat
    The Royal Muscat Opera House

    You can also enjoy the beautiful Sultan’s Palace from the outside. The area known as Muttrah was one of our favorites, it includes a beautiful harbor (cruise ships dock here almost daily), a promenade with parks and viewpoints as well as the historic Muttrah Souq.

    Historic Muttrah
    Muttrah Souq

    Outside of Muttrah we also spent one day hiking in the beautiful barren mountains that surround this region. We had an outstanding day hiking up the craggy rocks and returning through the wadi (Arabic for valley or river bed) where we worked our way around babbling brooks and standing ponds back to sea level.

    Mountain hiking around Muttrah
    Hiking high above Muttrah

    Nizwa and Balha

    We took one full day to tour the forts in this region, about a two hour drive southwest from Muscat. Many visitors stay one or two nights in Nizwa but we chose to do it as a day trip from Muscat.

    We visited the restored Nizwa Fort, built in the 1600’s and restored in a very high quality way between 1985 and 1995. Today it is one of Oman’s top tourist attractions and we enjoyed it very much. Connecting to the fort is the Nizwa Souq. We hit it on a Saturday and many of the vendors were not open (the weekend is Friday Saturday) but we still enjoyed it and bought some spices and tea and dates.

    Beautiful Nizwa fort
    Nizwa Fort

    We also toured the Balha Fort, which was built in the 1100’s. It is currently being restored but you still can walk around it and enjoy it although there is no interpretive information. Hopefully that will be added when the restoration is done.

    One of my favorite things we did was crawl around the Tanuf Castle ruins. Nothing has been done to this site and it sits as it has since it was bombed by the British during the insurgence battles between Muscat and Nizwa in the 1950s. I really enjoyed this place and wish the government would add some interpretive information here.

    Bahla Fort
    Balha Fort

    Many people also go out into the stunning mountains in this region to hike. However we did not rent a 4WD vehicle, and you can’t get very far without one.

    The ruins of Tanuf Oman
    Tanuf Castle ruins

    Sur and Surrounding

    We spent one day driving south and east from Muscat towards the city of Sur.

    Our first stop was to just admire the amazing view of the ocean on this drive. The gorgeous turquoise blue of the Gulf of Oman will take your breath away.

    Our next stop was at the Bimmah Sinkhole – a super cool hole in the ground that was formed by the collapse of the surface layer of limestone. It is considered a lake but it is slightly salty. Visitors can swim in the crystal clear blue waters and enjoy this area for free.

    It is 50m by 70m and 20m deep. There are a few small fish that live in the hole.

    Clear water at Bimmah Sinkhole
    Bimmah Sinkhole

    Wadi Shab is a very popular hike not far from Sur. Both tourists and locals flock here for the beautiful nature and for a chance to swim in the waterfall cave.

    We went to Wadi Shab just after our visit to the Bimmah Sinkhole. However it had rained really hard the day before and we were quit surprised to find mud and silt all over the parking area several inches deep. We were told hiking to the cave was open but expect it to be slippery, muddy and difficult.

    With that information we reassessed our plans and decided to give the area a couple days to dry-out and return. Which we did. And I am so glad we did. A forty-five minute hike up the Wadi was difficult but fun. Wading through deep water and clambering over boulders made for quite an adventure. If you want to go to the cave at the top it requires swimming for about 100-yards. We did not do this, but even without seeing the cave, it was one of my favorite things in Oman. I highly recommend it. Hiking in any of Oman’s beautiful Wadi’s should be a highlight of any visit to Oman. Check out this great list to learn how many Wadi options are waiting to be explored.

    Wadi Shab

    The town of Sur itself wasn’t all that special. We did visit the lighthouse in the old town of Al Ayhar and walked along the ocean boardwalk. We had a wonderful experience having lunch in a tiny little restaurant here. There wasn’t even a menu! The very nice man just brought us lots of lovely food and it all cost only $10.

    Oman's desert Wahiba Sands
    Wahiba Sands

    The Desert

    I wanted to see “the desert” and most of the area along the coast of Oman is craggy mountains. Though these mountains are really beautiful, being in the Middle East means camels and sand dunes to me! So from Sur we drove two hours southwest to the Wahiba Sands desert. Without a 4WD you can’t drive into the dunes. There are plenty of drivers available and willing to take you out into the sand. Overnight camel treks are also available. But since we had done both of those in Morocco, Egypt and Namibia, here we decided to just enjoy the view from afar.

    Come to Oman

    If you are fearful of the Middle East, Oman is the perfect destination. It is welcoming and beautiful and you can learn a lot about the culture of the Middle East and the Muslim people. Don’t fear it – the allure of Oman is as much about the region as it is about the culture…both full of mystery and history just waiting to be discovered.

    Muslim people and Omanis in particular are kind and welcoming and want to share their culture and country.

    I am so glad we came. Shukran Oman. We feel blessed to know you. Tusahibuk alsalama. Peace be with you.

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    Middle East Travel

    The Magical History Tour

    A Bucket List After All – Jordan and More

    Location: Jordan & More

    The Magical History Tour, what a ride it has been. I never thought of myself as having a bucket list.  Mostly because I just want to see EVERYTHING and go EVERYWHERE. But I have realized over the past two months that I do have a bucket list, and I am slowly ticking things off that list, all while adding more to it.  And for the past ten weeks the Magical History Tour has taken us away.

    We’ve been very lucky to see incredible things in our travels.  Unimagineable things.  Without even really realizing it we have seen five of the present day Seven Wonders of the World, included on that list was Petra in Jordan where we visited this week.

    The Magical History Tour

    At Petra

    I saw a television program about ten years ago about Jordan and they interviewed Queen Noor standing in front of the incredible Treasury building at Petra.  I was smitten and knew I would visit there some day.  It was easy to add Jordan to our Egypt itinerary.  Now, having been in Jordan, I realize I could have added Egypt to my Jordan itinerary.  Jordan is extroardinary.  A cradle of ancient, biblical, Roman and natural history.  We did not allow enough time to see it all.

    During out time in Jordan we visited three main sites, two on my bucket list and one I wasn’t even aware of;

    1. Jerash – I had never heard of and yet we found this amazing ancient provincial Roman city more beautiful, interesting and preserved than Rome itself.  Jerash likely dates back to the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC.  It is an immense archeological site with only about 15% excavated.  Unfortunately it is not a UNESCO site, despite the antiquity masterpiece that it is.  Apparently one of UNESCO’s stipulations was for a music festival that is held here annually to be discontinued because of the damage it causes to the site.  Our guide told us that

      The Magical History Tour

      Jerash

      too many pockets are lined as a result of this music festival and the powers that be are not willing to give the festival up.  Very sad as this site was truly impressive and needs UNESCO’s preservation assistance.

    2. The Dead Sea – my “no bucket list” bucket list has include floating in the Dead Sea for a long time and here in Jordan we had that opportunity.  You can access the Dead Sea from Israel as well as Jordan, and in fact more of the Dead Sea is in Israel.  But Jordan has a portion of it at the south end.  It is truly amazing how salty it is and how buoyant you are when floating.  In fact all you can do is float.  You can barely walk or stand and swimming is out of the question because you just flip over and float.  It tasted horrible and you certainly don’t want to get it in your eyes.  But it was warm, clean, blue and a once in a lifetime event filled with lots of giggles.
    3. Petra – Of course here it is the main reason we came to Jordan to see Petra as part of our Magical History Tour. I can’t possibly do the vast history of Petra justice in this blog, nor were we able to see the entire site (you need two or three days), but in our five-hour visit we did and saw the most amazing highlights. Of course the Treasury (named thus because of

      The Magical History Tour

      The Dead Sea

      the Roman’s using it as such but originally it was a temple), is the most amazing of the antiquities in the site, the best preserved and most beautifully designed.  There are several other amazing temples, tombs, palaces and more throughout the 60 square km site. We spent an hour and a half with a guide and then three hours wandering on our own including hiking up high above the Treasury for that iconic photo shot.  We did not hike to the Monastery or the sacrificial site.  We would have needed much more time than we had.  I would love to come back here again some day – it is just so amazing, truly a wonder deserving its Seven Wonders status.

    So Jordan was a surprise,  and worth the effort to get here. We felt incredibly safe at all times. The people are friendly and helpful and speak excellent English.  I am so glad we came.

    And with our farewell to Jordan we say farewell to The Magical History Tour that began in August when

    The Magical History Tour

    Petra

    we left the USA. We have covered so much amazing history over the past ten and a half weeks traveling through and exploring eight countries.  Highlights of the Magical History Tour have included such bucket list items as;

     

    1. Northern Denmark – where we learned captivating medieval and WWII history. Read about it here.
    2. Brugge – the beautiful historic town and now one of my favorite medieval villages. Read about it here.
    3. Berlin – the beguilling and resilient city of Berlin and the Cold War era history and Berlin Wall. Read about it here.
    4. All of Poland – incredible medieval and more importantly the World War Two history in this country made it one of my long time bucket list goals and experiencing Auschwitz (Read about it here) will remain with me all my life. Read about Poland here. 
    5. Romania Castles – seeing the fortress cities and castles of Romania with their ancient history and stories (Dracula) was a long bucket list destination.  Read about it here.
    6. Greece – although we had visited Greece before we had wanted to return for years.  I suspect we will visit again too.  The ancient Greek history in this country combined with the sheer beauty of the Mediterranean will keep it on our travel destination list for years to come. Read about it here.
    7. Egypt – Of all the places we visited on the Magical History Tour, Egypt was the long-awaited

      The Magical History Tour

      Jerash

      destination for me.  And it did not disappoint.  Seeing the Valley of the Kings, the Nile River, the Sphinx, the Pyramids and so much more was a bucket list triumph.  I loved it all. And perhaps the friendliest people we have met.  Read about Cairo here. And about the Nile Cruise here.

    The Magical History Tour covered about 10,400 miles including 11 flights, 5 train rides, 12 ferry crossings, 6 airbnb’s, 11 hotels, one river cruise ship, and 72 days.  It was educational, insightful, fascinating, delicious and fun. But time to move on.

    Now we turn our attention to something new.  We will spend the next four weeks and four days in Portugal and Spain.  The first half of that time is focused on walking another Camino de Santiago.  We start on Sunday to walk 250km to Muxia Spain.  The Magical History Tour has kept us so occupied, we don’t really feel prepared either mentally or physically to tackle this next Camino. But nonetheless we will.  I’m sure we will fall into the rhythm quickly.

    We then spend another two weeks exploring Spain before flying on November 22nd to begin five and a

    The Magical History Tour

    Cairo

    half months in the Americas (Florida, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Dominican Republic). I suspect there will be a great deal of magical history there as well.

    As always we thank you for your continued support and interest in our travels and My Fab Fifties Life. Watch for posts from Portugal and the Camino coming soon!

    And Go. Be. Fabulous.

    Read about last year’s Camino adventures here.

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    Middle East Travel

    Hello Good Bye Dubai

    Day One Chapter Five

    Location: United Arab Emeriates

    Such an unexpected surprise. Dubai. A big shiny toy. It’s like the Emerald City. It’s like the brand new bicycle under the Christmas tree. It’s like Las Vegas times ten – without the alcohol.

    IMG_7784

    Burj Al Arab Hotel.

    Our twenty-two hour layover in Dubai was not enough. As we sit here in Dubai International Airport waiting for our flight to Bangkok we are plotting  how we can swing back through this city again. And stay a little longer.

    Tomorrow, December 2nd, the United Arab Emirates celebrates it’s 45th birthday. Only 20 years ago Dubai, one of seven emirates that make up the UAE, was a very different place. The bright shiny city that rises out of the brown desert barely existed a few decades ago.

    IMG_7761

    This is a photo of a photo showing Dubai in the 1950’s.

    Our short visit was made educational and spectacular thanks to our guide Ute Koestle, who we hired to show us around through Tours by Locals https://www.toursbylocals.com/(if you come here, hire this woman!).  Ute, a German woman living in Dubai for more than two decades, is proud of her adopted home and a wealth of information. We learned so much from her!

    I was expecting  to enjoy the old town the most, as is normal for me in most cities, but not here. Instead I found the sparkling city, beautiful skyline, ingenious manmade islands, spectacular architecture and interesting cultural makeup unlike anywhere I have ever been.

    Dubai is home to millions of people not from here. Emirati citizens are only a small portion of the population and are provided financial privileges that expats do not receive. A huge variety of world citizens live in Dubai, like our tour guide. She explained the class system to us, from the ruling class and their gorgeous palaces placed through out the city, to the low wage construction workers brought in from India.

    IMG_7746

    Mosque at sunset.

    Ute also answered our question from where do they get their water and food in this dry barren land (seven de-salination plants turn sea water to drinking water and the majority of food items are imported) to crime and unemployment (there is zero unemployment as Emiratis who want to work are given a job and non-citizens who lose their job are deported and crime is nearly non-existent because the punishment is prison followed by deportation).

    We will come back so we can enjoy the beaches, maybe go indoor snow skiing, see the famous fountain show, go to the top of the world’s tallest building (2700 feet), explore the 100’s of shopping malls, take a boat tour on the Persian Gulf, and stay in one of the five-star hotels.

    But until that happens, hello and goodbye Dubai.  Thanks for opening our eyes.