Oman is a country of contrasts. Muscat runs like a sliver along the coast, ancient forts and highways, palm tree dotted roads, decorated roundabouts and shiny sky scrapers; blue tiled mosques, a winding labringth of a souk and five star hotels all face a lapis sea. Behind this sliver lies a majestic and imposing mountain range, brown in some lights, red or grey in others, barren rock that winks at the sun. And if you take a road that cuts like a glaring wound through the mountains you will arrive at a desert the likes of which only live in the Arabia of legends. An infinite and harsh landscape of undulating dunes, as high as mountains that stretch on and on ad-infinitum, like rolling ski hills with no snow. And the sand is red, gold, thick with gold dust; footsteps are erased minutes after we walk, as if we had never existed. And then back through the rock, sharp gashes through stone until, once again we spy the sea, glinting in the sun.
Deep in the mountain ranges of Oman live tiny villages with communities of people who walk for hours with a donkey to get supplies and news of the world. There is a first world that hold hands with the third here, and a modern land that holds history in its palm. It is a place with ancient traditions and a time line that stretches back to the days of slave trade and a port that saw people come and go from Iran and India to the eastern coast of Africa. There are windows that I saw in the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya and faces that I knew had the Indian sub continent in their past.
We spent 5 days in Oman, four nights in Muscat and one in the desert, also known as the Wahiba Sands. Hotels are pricey in Oman, especially as there is a general refusal to put a family of four in one room, demanding that we get two. So the likes of the splendid Chedi and Al Bustan were out but we decided to stay at the Intercontinental who were very accommodating in giving us a room with two Queen Beds. Or so we thought. Turns out there was an entire Italian Opera company staying at the hotel at the same time as us; the brand spanking new Oman Opera House had invited them to perform Carmen ( although not a ticket could be had for love or money.) So the Italians filled the hotel to the brim and had taken every last room. Oh what is a family to do? The hotel kindly popped us into the Royal Suite, complete with a living room, dining room, kitchen, three TVs and three bathrooms.
So between living like Kings and hearing the bellowing voice of a practicing Tenor down the hall, sharing a line for the breakfast cappuccino machine with loud Italians still wearing traces of theatrical makeup from the previous night’s Opera, and walking on the beach with the sharp and powerful mountain range behind, we felt we were in a story book.
Oman is like that. Stories swirl in the air, between the tiny walls of the souk and the camel’s tread in the desert, or the echo of a cave in a Wadi, it is a place that leaves its magic hanging, long after you leave.
Particularly if you purchase Frankincense and one of the lovely burners that are sold in the Souk. Frankincense and its accompanying cloud of fragrant smoke is the scent of Oman, and now we have it at home, for with a strike of a match and a magic bean of the golden stone, we too can remember some of the magic.