December 8, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 1: Muscat City

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After checking into the Grand Hyatt Muscat, I napped for a little since I didn’t sleep well on the plane. For lunch I asked the hotel concierge for a recommendation, and was directed to Bin Ateeq, a chain of restaurants serving local Omani food. Apparently it serves Omani traders and in typical fashion, I am directed to a private room where I sat on the floor to eat. It's an interesting experience since the big room was only for me, whereas the other customers all came with family or people from work, judging by the amount of shoes left at the doors.

To get a quick sampling of the food, I ordered the yogurt salad (similar to other Middle Eastern cuisines), cuttlefish with coconut curry (sounds very Asian), and a mutton stew with rukhal - a local bread variety. Mixed fruit juices seem to be the thing to do in Oman, so I ordered one up. The coconut curry wasn't as Thai as I initial thought, and was more Indian in flavor. The stew was very interesting, as the rukhal has been boiled in the stew is now soft but not yet mushy. I leave feeling satisfied. There is a McDonald's right in front of the restaurant, but I decide to wait for another opportunity to try the local specialties.

The afternoon's itinerary includes Mutrah, the old port of Muscat, as well as the old Muscat city itself. I start with the Sultan's Place in Muscat, which is a fanciful and colorful creation, probably done in the 70's (which seems to fit the time that Sultan Qaboos started his reign). It is situated inside a bay and is flanked by the Al-Mirani and Al-Jalali Forts, making its defense fairly easy. A series of 20mm guns, painted red and black, face the bay as a warning to intruders.

The gardens surrounding the palace have immaculate lawns and are strewn with colorful morning glory in various shades. The Sultan sure loves his flowers. In fact, Muscat's highways are lined with these colorful flowers and watered during the blooming season.

A short cab ride and I'm in Mutrah, where I was dropped off at the Corniche and admired the view of the beautiful harbor. The sun is going down now and the warm light on the rocks looks wonderful. A flock of seagulls hang around the water's edge in search of food. The Sultan's private yacht is docked here, behind a beautiful dhow moored in the middle of the harbor. I take an easy stroll along the Corniche and soak in the atmosphere.

After a while I duck into the Mutrah Souk - the traditional market. I am instantly confronted with shops selling all types of goods - perfumeries selling traditional, intense scents in expensive crystal bottles; spice traders with their frankincense wrapped in small plastic bags and large sacks of green henna; clothing stores which either sell the traditional white robes and hats worn by the men, or the black chadors worn by women. None appeal to me, not even the frankincense that I was determined to buy here. Time to return to the hotel.

Dinner was a non-event, as I took in the buffet dinner at the Grand Hyatt cafe. I'm still beat from the previous night and sleep early, in preparation for the expeditions of the next two days.

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