Saturday, 16 February 2013

Oman – the first harees


February 12-15

Hello everyone!

I’ve written two blogs about Oman so far and have yet to touch on one of my favourite writing topics – food and drink. Food is one aspect of many cultures that is deeply entrenched in their history. Oman is no different. Being in a desert, it is not exactly awash with fresh fruit and vegetables – many are imported from nearby India. Indeed, the history of Oman as a strategic stop on major trading route through the age of exploration clearly has had an impact on its cuisine.







 

As we don’t have access to it in Kazakhstan, Western food was eaten on a regular basis. Much of what we were eating, however, could have been easily been found in a food outlet in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai. The Indian influence on Omani food was very surprising to me. To give an example, biryani was available from almost every restaurant.

 
 

 
One local food which seemingly was not influenced by Indian cooking is a dish made of ground up wheat and pieces of meat, called harees. It is my belief that there is no Indian input in this dish because harees is possibly the blandest and dullest ‘national food’ I have had whilst travelling around the world. I was actually transported back to school for the briefest moment, thinking that I had a bowl of lumpy, tepid porridge in front of me.

 
 

 
Other Omani food is similarly lacking in fire, but at least brings something to alert your taste buds. We experienced much of the purely Omani cuisine at the Muscat Festival, a large annual event promoting Omani heritage and trying to incorporate it into the more globalised capital city. We tried some bread-based foods and hallwa, a sticky, warm goo that was sweeter than the purest honey. The latter was cooked in the rather large vat below.

 
 

 
The festival itself was a bit of an eye-opener. It surprised and warmed us to see how many women and children were present. Women here seem permanently dressed in a black abaya, a robe that covers the entire body. However, many women working at the festival were keen to emphasise their region’s colourful dresses and robes.

 
 

 
Once again, people at the festival were exceedingly kind and genuine, and were a delight to interact with. I have been dumbstruck by the friendliness of the Omani people. Everything is accomplished with a smile, and they have all been generous and friendly without getting too personally involved or making us feel wary.

 
 

 
Oman is a dry country, so what many of these welcoming people do as a social activity is smoke shisha. We had the, ahem, pleasure of this when watching the football. As it was two heavyweight teams playing, Manchester United and Real Madrid, our local café was packed to the rafters with men. Consequently, the room was filled with plumes of flavoured smoke. My apple flavoured one was nice, but made me feel a bit nauseous. Having been told later that smoking one shisha is equivalent to puffing seven cigarettes, I can understand why.

 
 

 
We were given this nugget of information by one of Hannah’s relatives, who lives in Oman. Some of her extended family were also visiting, resulting in some unexpected five-star treatment which was enormously appreciated.

 
 

 
Almost everything about Oman has been a surprise to me – a pleasant surprise. It is very different to its flash, northern neighbour. The country has preserved its heritage and its identity, as shown by the Festival, yet has adapted more than capably to the rigours and challenges of the modern world. A wonderfully peaceful place, and a lovely country to relax in for a week.

 
 

 
Love you all

Matt

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Oman – The first Omani fort




February 11

Hello everyone!

Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a city that possesses a stunning setting. I have already shown some of the beaches that line its vast shoreline. What I haven’t shown you is the view inland. A mere ten-minute drive can take you into another world, into the mountains soaring high above the city sprawl.

  



It is very easy to remove yourself from the city to an entirely different environment. We decided to spend a day gallivanting around villages relatively close to Muscat. It was an experience I would highly recommend.





We were collected early in the morning and whisked west to the fishing village of Barka. The men were showcasing their catches of the day, some of which were scarier than others. It is a place you have to visit if you come to Oman, simply because the photos do not capture the smells and the noises of the market. Seafarers patiently pick the schools from their nets. Old wise men shout out prices and shout other things to their colleagues, who are their rivals but also their friends.







The best view of Barka and its fishy market are from the adjacent fort. There are scores of forts in Oman, with the majority stationed on the long sections of coast. Historically, Oman has been a strategically important region for a long time. Aside from a brief Portuguese conquest, however, it has retained its identity and withstood barrages from sea and land. These simple yet intimidating forts are a significant factor in the successful defence of Omani territory.





From here, we moved inland to the old capital city of Nakhal. The temperature was rising, as was our altitude. To cool off we decided to take a dip in a natural spring, called Al-Thowara, with some locals. They seemed particularly excited that a girl was brave enough to strip down to swimwear and join them. This was a hot spring, originating directly from the mountain situated above. The temperature was perfect, and it was a place that I could happily have lazed in all day.





The temperature in Al-Thowara was reminiscent of a warm bath. We were later taken to another spring in another old town of importance, Rustaq. The temperature in this one, however, resembled a kettle that has just been boiled. Al-Khasfa’s natural spring is not for the faint-hearted! It was interesting to note that this particular spring was segregated, and that the men’s was significantly more populated than the women’s.





Inbetween getting wet and wild we visited the fort at Nakhal, one of Oman’s finest examples of its historical heritage. The fort is perched on the edge of the mountains, and offers wonderful views of the surrounding area – perfect for defence. We were told that Nakhal is the local word for ‘palm’, which is understandable given the array of palm trees dotted around the majestic fort. Our driver informed us that, rather than being a defensive citadel, this was a home for the important families in the region.





One tradition we particularly liked involved what appeared to be a treasure chest that was sitting in one of the domestic rooms. The tale here is that this is presented to a woman whom the man wants to marry. Inside the wooden box are gifts to the potential bride, with the male showing off his wealth and status. The woman will carefully examine the contents and, if satisfied with the presents, will agree to marry the man in question. Seems a bit over-the-top to me, but I guess there isn’t much difference between this and a gawky teenager standing on a young girl’s lawn holding a stereo over his head playing a cheesy song. No, I’ve never done that. Stereos were so 20th Century.







I am digressing the topic. Another aspect of Omani history I had been looking forward to seeing were the Wadis. These are large valleys which can transport water from the mountains towards the coast. They cannot be called rivers, however, because they are often dry unless there is a period of heavy rain. This, as you can imagine, does not happen often in the Middle East. What you are left with is a bone dry valley amongst the picturesque mountains.


Whilst driving along a wadi on the way to Rustaq our vehicle was stopped by the police, and requested to get off the road. It wasn’t that we had done anything illegal; rather, we were heading for a collision with a mass of zooming two-wheeled machines. This was the first day of the Tour of Oman, and incredibly we were driving along the course route. We disembarked and listened for any sign of life. Aside from a raucous school bus, there was little. Ten minutes later, however, with sweat beginning to drip from our burning forrids, a pack of cyclists sped by. They sounded like a swarm of wasps on the attack. It was even on the BBC!



It was lovely to get out of the city and see how the rest of the country works in harmony. Once again, the people we met were wonderful. From Nabil, our driver, guide and funny man, to the curious people we shared a spring with, via the men at the market who kept giving us free samples of their fruit, the smiles of locals made our day. There is much more to any country than its main gateway, and it seems Oman has much to offer.






Love you all

Matt

Monday, 11 February 2013

Oman – The first souk



 February 9-10

Hello everyone!

It’s half-term at school, meaning an opportunity to travel once more. Though this Kazakh winter has been milder than the one we endured in 2011, it still has confined us to our flat for much of the last couple of months. The chance to relax and unwind in a warmer climate was thus one that simply could not be passed up. Having a thirst for new experiences, cultures and countries, I wasn’t overly keen on spending a week in the U.A.E., so plumped for its southern neighbour – Oman.





The knowledge I had of Oman before arriving was minimal. I knew that the capital is Muscat, it has a lovely climate at this time of year, and that there were plenty of beaches to lie on. After an uncomfortable six-hour layover in Abu Dhabi airport, we popped on a short flight to the big city.





What awaited us was otherworldly in comparison to the northern big-hitters of Abu Dhabi and Dubai (and, from what I’ve heard, Doha in Qatar). That is no bad thing. Though it is obvious that there is plenty of money in Oman from oil – we were told that to fill up the tank of a very large Ford Escape costs a measly £6 – the Rials are not being blown on an extravagant and bizarre skyline. The city is a bit of a sprawl, but the lovely buildings hark back to an era closely associated to medieval times.


 Muscat has a large coastline, and is peppered with many beaches of different materials – sandy, rocky, and most certainly windy. We spent our first evening at the popular Qurum Beach, and soon had to don light jackets due to the strong breeze emanating in the Gulf of Oman. It seems that the locals keep themselves warm once the sun has dazzlingly disappeared by playing football on these very beaches. Literally hundreds of Omanis took to the sands to pass, dribble and shoot their way along the shore.





The first full day was spent lazily walking through Old Muscat. One of the main attractions of the city is its souk, an Arabic free-for-all market. Even in the morning, it possessed a vibrant and cheerful atmosphere. The sellers were not at all intimidating, and indeed very friendly towards us. The lack of pressure from them was a pleasant surprise, as were some of the items on sale, such as this delightfully tacky hat shown at the bottom of the blog. Bought for 1.5 Omani Rials at the end of the week, if you’re wondering.





We then strolled in the sun along Muscat’s corniche in order to reach the historical district of the city. A peaceful promenade is dotted with luxury liners and, to our delight, the occasional turtle. No dolphins or whales, however, both of which can be spotted along the large coast of Oman.





Oman has a rich history, which will be touched upon in later blogs, but can be seen in Muscat from the old Portuguese forts on the coast of the old town. The bastions tower over this small and eerily quiet part of the city, which is in the process of being converted into the municipal district. This change is most obviously reflected by the residence of Sultan Qaboos, leader of Oman for the last 43 years.





First impressions of Muscat, and Oman, have been overwhelmingly positive. The beaches are lovely, the people very welcoming, and the sun is shining brightly. A lovely start to our time here.







Love you all

Matt