(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton was able to travel 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 seventh installment.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton was able to travel 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 seventh installment.)
By Susan Hamilton
For the News Tribune
OMAN - I have honestly never given any consideration to the fact that other countries in the world have places like the Grand Canyon. I don’t know why it never occurred to me; I suppose because I never had a reason to consider it until now.
We will be spending our last days in Oman’s interior region visiting ancient cities that are still inhabited and very much like they were hundreds of years ago, and visiting Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in Oman, nicknamed “The Mountain of the Sun.” It is located in the Jebel Ahkdar mountains. The canyon that winds through this region is Wadi Ghul and contains a balcony walk similar to what you might see in our own Grand Canyon. This area is referred to as the Arab Grand Canyon and Achmed says it is the third most spectacular canyon in the world. I haven’t had time to fact check this.
The drive to our stopping point on Jebel Shams was beautiful, and very windy. Hairpin turns with low barriers on the cliff side mean this is not a drive for the faint of heart or those with motion sickness. Thankfully no one in my car suffered from either of these things. We just enjoyed the ride and the scenery.
After about two hours, we arrived at a scenic overlook. The area was a fantastic place for a picnic, which we had planned in advance. There were no rails or barriers to prevent a fall. Some people were taking selfies on the edge of the cliff. This was making Achmed very nervous as there had already been two injuries among us, one involving hospital treatment.
The temperature was cool on the mountain, and there was a nice breeze. Deceived by the cool temperatures, some of us failed to apply sunscreen: something which we had all been vigilant about on this trip. Of course the sun was as strong as it had been in the desert, but the mountains were so temperate, it was easy to forget that fact. Needless to say, there were sunburns that evening, and mine was probably the worst. The sun is not a friend to my pale and ruddy skin. I looked liked a tomato face.
We spent a couple of hours eating and exploring this area before packing up and heading on to two ancient and important villages. One was the Alhambra Mud House village, approximately 400 years old, and the other was Misfat Al Abriyeen, approximately 300 years old. We were asked not to take pictures in these villages because the people here are very conservative and don’t want to be photographed.
Alhambra’s name comes from an Arabic word meaning red, and in this case, refers to the color of the dried mud used for building. It is for all intense purposes a ghost town. There are a few people who still live here, but they are indeed few and far between. One of the homes in the town is a living museum. As we entered it, we took our shoes off, as is the custom in Oman. We were greeted and taken to a room upstairs where two women were making traditional Omani bread, Argan oil, and sandalwood cream. They allowed us to sample these product. As per Omani custom, we were then treated to dates and Arabian coffee or tea. I think I mentioned in a previous article that hospitality in Oman is very important.
Misfat Al Abriyeen is built into the side of a mountain. This village is still inhabited. The homes are constructed of mud, much like Alhambra. There is a lush green center area at the lower end of the village which is full of palm, date, pomegranate, fig, banana, and mango trees. There is a walking path that ambles down and then back up again, following the slope of the mountain. The water in this village comes from natural mountain springs. There were basins throughout our walk which catch the water coming out of the mountainside. This was a village constructed to work with the landscape, using the resources available in practical ways. At the time, it was constructed this way out of necessity; today we might all this eco-friendly, or eco-conscious construction.
Last day in Oman
As if the weather knew our group was struggling to say goodbye to Oman, it was raining this morning. The storm was strong enough to cancel schools across the country. It was pretty funny hearing schools being cancelled for rain. I suppose with respect to our journey, we were fortunate to experience the rain. Oman receives less than four inches of annual rainfall. Like the children who awoke counting on school, the rain forced us to change our plans for the day too. We were originally going on a scenic four-wheel drive excursion trough Wadi Ghul. This Wadi is a dry riverbed that winds through the mountains we were standing on top of yesterday; however, because of the rain, it was no longer a dry riverbed and dangerous to drive through. Instead we opted for a hike into Al Hoota Cave, do some museum hopping and take one last walk through the center of Muscat’s culture and government district.
Al Hoota cave is very similar to many of the caves one can visit locally. It reminded me a lot of Luray Caverns on a smaller scale. It was open, with stalactites and stalagmites, and some interesting limestone formations. There were bats. I like seeing bats when they are just hanging out. It’s always surprising because it doesn’t happen often, but I don’t like it at all when they fly at my head like they did in Bahla Fort. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
As we walked further into the cave we reached a shallow pool. This is where the blind fish of Al Hoota cave live. We saw the fish, which are transparent and much smaller than I had hoped. Their blindness stems from adaptation of course. Their environment is so dark, vision is a wasted sense for them, similar to creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean.
I learned a lot about Oman through talking with Achmed and our drivers. I would like share this knowledge that doesn’t seem to fit nicely into any other paragraph I have written in this or any of the articles I have written thus far.
Oman is an old county with a lot of history, but according to Achmed, Omanis see Oman as a new country over the last 45 years after Sultan Qaboos seized control from his father, but a new country that is proud of it’s heritage. Since Sultan Qaboos took control, the country has focused on educating their young. Prior to his reign beginning in 1970, there were only two schools in the whole country, now there’re are close to 3,000. They also have 25 universities. Education is mandatory, even for Bedouin children.
Homes in the region are very large because multi-generational living is common. When a man builds a home, he builds his forever home, which means there is enough room for three four generations to live under the same roof. This is not something which is frowned upon as it is in the US. Their culture is collective, and Omani’s feel that everyone, especially the elderly and children in particular, benefit from this living arrangement.
Oman is a wealthy country with no debt due to their petroleum based economy. The oil and gas industry has provided the money used to help the poor. The Social Welfare system in Oman provides a monthly stipend to the poor. The elderly and disabled are not required to work for their stipend, but younger members of society who are capable of working, must, in order to receive a stipend from the government. Subsidized housing is provided to the poor. Let me tell you, it is gorgeous.
Oil and gas money has also ensured that there are no taxes in Oman. Everything is free: education, land- one free plot for every male and female - college education, whether a student wants to attend in Oman or in another country. If a student takes the SAT and scores well, the country of Oman will pay his or her tuition for the university of their choice outside the country.
Women have the same freedoms as men in Oman. There are more working women in Oman than there are men because women make up a greater portion of the population. We saw evidence of this as we traveled throughout the country. Wednesdays are women’s days in the markets and souks. No men are allowed. This provides women with private time to shop for personal things, without the prying eye of men. Also, marriages are not arranged, and men and women who are engaged to be married are allowed to live together before marriage. I didn’t expect that to be an acceptable practice in a conservative country, but much like here, as long as the family doesn’t object, no one else does either.
This morning, I woke up with very mixed feelings about the next leg of our journey in Qatar. I don’t think I am the only one. It’s not that there is anything to feel anxious about in Qatar. I have just thoroughly enjoyed my time in Oman, and I’m feeling a little sad about ending this part of the journey. We have formed a relationship with Achmed, and our drivers. We have established a rhythm for the days. It’s like being a member of a sports team, and it’s the end of the season. On one hand, it’s exciting that the season is over and there is a new season to look forward to, but on the other hand, some of the players are graduating, meaning the team is going to have new dynamics to which we must rapidly adjust. We all have to find a new rhythm, learn how to work together all over again. Insha’ alla’ (God willing).