(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the fourth installment.)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the fourth installment.)

By Susan Hamilton
For the News Tribune
This morning we leave the port town of Sur behind for the desert. The excitement in our group is almost palpable. None of us really know what to expect from this part of the journey. We will be making some stops along the way, one at a wadi to eat lunch and swim, the other to visit a Bedouin family before we head out to the red sands where we will be camping.
I have only seen the desert areas of New Mexico and Arizona; I’ve never camped in either one. The only thing I can think of are Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz’s words to her loyal dog upon arriving in the land of Oz:“Toto, I’ve a feeling  we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Dorothy, I exactly know how you feel.
Wadi bin Khalid
On the way to the wadi, I learned a lot about Oman’s main exports. The first export Oman ever had was copper, which is important in metalworking. The Omanis were some of the first metalworkers in this region and they were experts at their craft. Other regions bought, and still buy, copper from Oman. Other resources like limestone, gypsum, and marble were also discovered in Oman. Limestone is necessary to make cement,  gypsum for plaster, and marble for building. Gypsum is now used in the production of drywall.  These were the main exports of Oman until oil was discovered in 1967.
After riding for about an hour and a half, we reached Wadi bin Khalid. Achmed explained to us that this is one of the most beautiful wadis in Oman, and also one that keeps water all year round. There is a place to eat lunch there, and a place to swim as well; although conservative dress is required for women to swim in this wadi.
Achmed told the women in the group, “Ladies, no teeny-kini, or mono-kini here.” That became a joke with us. What he was trying to say was no bikinis or one-piece bathing suits, but the way he explained it endeared him to us even more. If you only had a teeny-kini or mono-kini to wear, you were relegated to swimming in the cave.
Since it was early when we arrived, 10:30 a.m., a group of us decided to hike to the swimming cave and see how it looked. It was about a 20 minute hike over some pretty slippery rocks. When we arrived there were some very steep steps down to a small waterfall area. I’m a pretty fearless person, but I decided to stop there. I was thinking about our friend who broke her wrist and our guide who twisted his ankle. I didn’t want to be the next casualty.
From what I understand, it’s probably a good thing I stopped when I did. I may be fearless, but I’m a bit of a klutz. Apparently once people departed the steps into the cave, they had to crawl over very slick moss-covered rocks because the cave was only large enough to crawl though. The cave crawling was supposed to end with a waterfall and a pool of water. From what I’ve been told, it ended with a big slippery rock and a shallow pool of water one could only reach by jumping off the rock. Those who know me well know I wouldn’t have have been afraid to jump, but I think I made the right choice by not jumping
Lunch was a grilled buffet, which we are all getting pretty used to. That seems to be the standard lunch in this part of the world. We had homemade bread, which is like a thin pita; salad, which is veggies like tomato, cucumber, and onions, chopped up and usually topped with lemon; kebabs which are either beef, chicken or lamb; jasmine rice, white or spiced with cumin, and the juice of your choice. Juice is a big thing in Oman and the drink of choice along with water, Arabic coffee, and Arabic tea.
Arabic coffee and tea have an interesting flavor. I found it a little shocking at first because I didn’t expect there to be spices mixed in my tea or coffee. Arabic coffee is made with coffee beans of course, but also contains cardamon, an Indian spice, and light cream. Arabic tea is usually made from one of the following leaves: Sage or chamomile, and like Arabic coffee, cardamon and light cream are added. The combination makes for a much smoother cup of coffee than I am used to. Achmed explained that Cardamon was very good for the digestion.
The Omanis we’ve met all have herbal remedies for health problems. One of our drivers, Nasir, mentioned that his mother always tried herbal remedies first, before taking them to the doctor. I was thinking about that as we continued to the desert I suppose it’s logical the Omani’s would be more influenced by eastern medicine rather than western. They are geographically located closer to Southeast Asia and were at an important trading position, the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, along  the Silk Road.
Bedouin Family Visit
Let’s talk about Bedouin people before I get into our visit with the Bedouin family. In ancient times we referred to people who traveled the desert chasing natural resources and trading as Bedouin. They were peoples from many different locations: Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. They depend on the camel as their primary source of transport. This is how the camel get their nickname: ships of the desert. The majority of Bedouin practice Islam. Because they are from different regions, they have different dialects, making it more difficult to communicate with one another. At one time, Bedouin people from all regions would cross paths from time to time and even set up camp together. They travel the Wahiba Sands and the empty quarter, which is in both Oman and Saudi Arabia. It’s called the empty quarter because there are no permanent settlements in that part of the desert.
Currently,  there  is a blockade of Qatar by other Middle Eastern countries. Qatari TV and internet were taken over by hackers. Some very inflammatory things about Qatar supporting terrorism were printed / said and attributed to the Emirate of Qatar. This incident is what caused the blockade, which has been going on for ten years now.
The borders of Oman closed because Oman remained neutral and would not take sides against Qatar. Today, only about 30 percent of the Bedouin people in Oman are nomadic and they cannot travel beyond the borders of Oman.
Bedouin families live together as a family unit of multiple generations. When young women get married, which happens between the ages of 18-25, they live with the family of their husband. Most Bedouin people follow Islam, and children go to schools which have been set up especially for them. Because the Bedouin people are traders and herders, they do not earn a lot of verifiable income; therefore the government of Oman pays them a monthly subsidy.
Within the Bedouin family, the men work and he women greet guests. The Bedouin are friendly people whose culture teaches them to always welcome guests and strangers with hospitality. In the Bedouin culture, this means something to eat, to drink and a place to rest from the heat. We were greeted by the Bedouin women of the family we visited, as per tradition. They served us Arabic coffee, and dates.
If you have never had dates before, they are a fruit which is naturally sweet, good for aiding digestion, and very versatile. Since I have been in this country I have had date milkshakes, date juice, date candy and of course, dates. They come in so many varieties here it just boggles the mind.
Once we were finished with our refreshment, the women asked if we would like to see their handicrafts. They had lovely bracelets and scarves which were hand made in all colors and patterns. They also had spice mixtures, and Sandalwood cream for the body and face. I ended up buying a scarf, but was interested in learning about the Sandalwood. Sandalwood is an aromatic wood from this region,  which ground and mixed with water forms a kind of paste. If one covers their skin with it, they look a bit jaundiced as our hostess did. Sandalwood cream has a rather deep yellow tint. It is like a face mask for your skin, but according to our hostess, also a natural sunblock.
What a truly unique experience. The Bedouin are humble and captivating people if they are all  like the women we met today. The desert seems like a very harsh environment in which to live. It’s interesting to me that the Bedouin live here by choice. It’s hard to imagine a people choosing this life, but they seem to be well adapted.
And now, after thanks and goodbyes, it’s time to continue our journey further into the desert.