(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling in Oman and Qatar as part of a professional/cultural exchange program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the third installment.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling in Oman and Qatar as part of a professional/cultural exchange program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the third installment.)
We are leaving the city of Muscat behind this morning for Sur, Oman. Sur is a port on the Gulf of Oman with historical significance. There are a lot of things to see and do in Sur, but for us, the two main sites we will be visiting here are the Dhow shipyard, and the Ras al Jinz Turtle Sanctuary. Along the way we will also be stopping at the Bimma Sinkhole to swim.
Achmed advised us that today we would be stopping for a swim break on the road to Sur. This sounded fabulous to the group because the temperature was hovering around 36 degrees Celsius which is 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
After about two hours of driving we stopped at the Bimma Sinkhole. We couldn’t see it from the parking area. What we could see were feral goats. Thus far, it seems that feral goats are everywhere in this country: in both the cities and the rural areas. As we approached the entrance to the sinkhole, our welcoming crew, goats, arrived to see if we had any snacks we were willing to part with. Once they realized a snack was not in their future, they moved on, and so did we.
After changing into our swimsuits, and a short walk, we came upon the Bimma Sinkhole. What a breathtaking place. It is a natural limestone sinkhole that is filled with underground water. Because it is so close to the coast, the water in it, while technically fresh, has some salt content and is not drinkable. The water is not the turquoise- green color it appears. The color is a mirage created by the limestone and copper minerals in the sinkhole itself. The only water life visible were minnows. They stayed close to the rocks at the water’s edge.
Swimmers must climb down 74 very steep steps. Once at the bottom, the rocks were slick and we all quickly realized water shoes were a must for this activity. Achmed gave the group an hour to swim, which didn’t sound like long, but turned out to be just the right amount of time: long enough to explore the sinkhole and cool off.
The discussion about the semi-salt water in the sinkhole led to another discussion with Achmed about public drinking water in Oman. This is a country with limited fresh water resources and very little rainfall. Omani people do not drink the tap water because it is water derived from desalinization.
Like us, Omanis consume a lot of bottled water. I knew this from observation, but had no idea why it was so. Achmed said desalinated water was drinkable but contained chlorine from the desalinization process, So the Omanis prefer to use it for irrigation, household cores, basically everything except drinking because it has a weird taste.
I thought this was a very interesting fact. Oman is a financially stable country who can afford this kind of purification. Many other counties who also lack sufficient water do not have the financial resources of Oman.
Our next stop was Wadi Shab. In Arabic, a wadi is a ravine or valley with water, or a dry bed that fills with water in the rainy season. We didn’t know we would be stopping there: surprise!
After parking the cars, we paid the local boatmen 1 rial to cross the pond to the hiking path. As part of this service they also come pick you up when you are finished hiking.
The boats we rode in were old outboard motor boats, with 2x4 and plywood constructed benches that had definitely seen better days. There was graffiti on the bridge over the water, which we didn’t understand and were afraid to ask about. It’s just a testament that no place is safe from graffiti.
There were also very aggressive feral goats in the parking lot. Our guide joked with use that the goats don’t know English which is why they won’t leave us alone. Ahmed had no sooner told us to be careful when tragedy intervened. One of the other teachers on the trip fell getting out of the boat and broke her wrist in two places. One of our guides sprang into action, helping her up, breaking a palm branch off a tree, ripping his shirt into a few strips and using all of this to stabilize this woman’s arm. It was impressive.
When we asked him later where he learned to do that he said the Boy Scouts and the Army. We were all quite upset about the accident, but were told to continue our hike and QFI would get our new friend medical attention.
As you can imagine, the accident was the topic of conversation for the remainder of the day. We were all very concerned about our friend. Being unfamiliar with the medical care in Oman, we had some concerns. What we learned was that the medical care here is very good. When someone is sick or injured they begin with what we would call an urgent care center. They are evaluated and either treated there, or referred on to the hospital. Our friend was referred to the hospital where she was further evaluated by x-ray, and refereed on to two different areas in the hospital after that: first to treat the dislocation of her wrist, and then cast her arm.
Of course it is different from what we are used to in the United States, but it sounded like a very thorough and logical examination and course of treatment. Even though we were required to purchase extra medical protection for this trip, payment was required for the medical services via credit card. The injured teacher will then need to file for reimbursement from both her private insurance and the travel insurance company.
The next town we will be visiting is Sur, which was named by the Phoenicians. The history of Sur dates all the way back to the 1600s when it was occupied by the Portuguese. The area was liberated by Oman and became an integral trading center with India and East Africa, which boosted the economy. Two events led to an economic downturn for Sur: the British outlawing of the slave trade in the 19th century, and the end of trade with India after the opening of the Suez Canal.
Because shipbuilding was and is still so important to this port city, we went to the Dhow Shipyard. The Dhow is a traditional wooden boat that has been used since ancient times in Oman. The wood used for the Dhow boat is teak wood, which comes from Southeast Asia, and in this area, primarily India. The United States imports so much teak wood from India now that Oman has to shop around with other countries to secure the teak needed to build the Dhow. Most of the teak in Oman now comes from a combination of Burma, Myanmar, and India.
The Dhow is built by hand and can take a year or more to complete depending on the size. More is involved than just planing wood and bending it to shape. The Dhow boats we saw were different sizes and all had intricate hand carved wood features and were just gorgeous pieces of craftsmanship. They have also have sails. Because they are crafted by hand, no two are exactly the same.
These days they are special ordered and used for fishing, or floating restaurants. The Dhow that sits in Muscat harbor was a gift to His Majesty from the shipbuilder. The Prince of Qatar has just placed an order for ten Dhow, again to his specification. One of the boats we saw was the Qatari Prince’s.
I really enjoyed watching the craftsmen work on the boats. In addition to the Dhow boat, at this shipyard they also make other handcrafted wood items for hotels, resorts, and office buildings to display. Speaking of office buildings: I was surprised to learn that the number of Omani flags a building flies indicates what kind of building it is. Government and school buildings fly one flag, police buildings fly two flags, and military buildings fly three flags. The more secure the facility: the more flags it flies.
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
Our last activity for the day did not take place until later in the evening. Achmed arranged for us to tour the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve. Oman is the nesting site for four different types of sea turtles: the endangered Green turtle, the Olive Ridley Turtle, the Loggerhead turtle, and the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle.
Tonight we were hoping to see Green turtles: Achmed said they are named for the color of their meat. A fact which told us all that these turtles were once being eaten here. We were not able to try and spot the turtles laying eggs or hatching out until after 9:30 p.m. The mother turtles tend to come in to lay their eggs at night when it’s dark. I have to say that although the sky was clear, there wasn’t a full moon, which made a difference in what we were able to see as we walked to the nesting site. The nesting beach is not open to the public to protect the nests. The most active time for nesting in this region is May-September. We got very lucky this evening. We were able to see both a mother turtle covering her eggs and a nest hatching out: Jackpot!
When the mother lays her eggs, she must first dig out the sand to a depth of approximately one foot. After laying the eggs on one side of the hole, she then uses her front flippers to throw sand over her body in order to cover the nest. After a rest, because this is very hard work, he mother will turn around and dig another hole at the opposite end of the nest, which she will also cover up as if there are eggs below. This is meant to be a decoy for any opportunistic scavengers like foxes, birds and crabs.
All I can think is how satisfying this day was in so many ways. Oman is a beautiful country from what I have seen so far. I am in very good hands and feel very safe. I would feel that way if I were traveling here alone as well. I can’t wait to see where this adventure takes me tomorrow.