Our last two full days in Oman were as over the top as our two full days in Dubai, completely different, of course, but with the same mouth-gaping impact. On the last day, I wondered how best to describe the frenetic animal market, the steep road up the magnificent Jebel Sham, the beauty of the scenery and their version of our Grand Canyon, our special overnight at The View Camp, and the miles and miles of steep, dirt roads winding through the most rugged, rockiest terrain I have ever experienced in my life.
Every Friday morning, people from hundreds of miles away gather in the town of Nizwa to buy and sell goats, sheep, cows, and bulls at the huge animal market situated at the edge of the town's Grand Souk. Picture a large crowd standing in a circle three or four persons deep, all shouting at one another. The buyers are either standing or sitting in the middle of the circle while the frantic animals are led around the ring on ropes or in the arms of their owners. Imagine all the excitement with bleating goats and sheep and mooing cows, not to mention the sellers and buyers yelling back and forth as they bargain for the fairest price. Meanwhile, the women, dressed in traditional black abayas, sit inconspicuously on the side, appearing to be only observers, but, in fact, they are the ones making the decisions. When the perfect specimen appears, they toss a small pebble at the animal they want their husbands to buy. On the outskirts of the circle, local spectators socialize with friends, while curious Westerners, like ourselves, behave like paparazzi at a celebrity event.
Bruce had been vacillating about buying a ceremonial Omani dagger, called a khanjar, ever since he saw them in the souk early in our trip, but because they are very expensive, he was holding out for a lower price. He knew that many of the old khanjars come from this region, so the Friday market in Nizwa was his best and last chance to find a good deal. Suspecting we might get separated at the animal auction, we agreed to meet under the mango tree in the old souk as this was where khanjar sellers, buyers or traders would be hanging out. I had been somewhat reluctant to buy a khanjar because of the ridiculous price, but secretly wondered where a silver dagger might be displayed in our ever increasing collection of ethnic artifacts. The area near the mango tree was packed with Omani men of all ages, but it was generally the older men who were selling to the younger ones and a few foreigners like us. In addition to khanjars, there were also rifles for sale, and I got the shivers when I saw a man look down the barrel of a gun when deliberating a purchase. As soon as we showed interest in buying a dagger, a group of colorful old men with thick mottled gray and white beards surrounded us with khanjars for sale. Negotiating in Arabic, our guide, Kamil, helped us buy the most beautiful silver dagger for the best price. We struck a deal and both parties were happy. I'm still thinking of a prominent place in our house to show off our gorgeous artifact.
THE VIEW CAMP
The Hajjer mountains are very impressive, not only because of their immense height but because of the ever-changing hues of the craggy rock that looks razor sharp. Colorful veins of gold and streaks of bright copper shimmer in the heat of the day, and muted shades of pinks and blues appear on the rock in the setting sun. Prickly scrub brush fight for survival on the rocky desert floor while lush forests of hundred year old date palms thrive in the oases, thanks to the mountain spring water that surrounds and supports the two hundred year old villages we actively explored.
"See the narrow white line about two-thirds up the mountain?" Kamil says, as we squint into the bright sun. "That's the camp where we will spend the night, and if you look just below the line, you will see the dirt road we will take to get there." After forty-five minutes of rough switch-back, we reached The View Camp, which is aptly named. Our large canvas tent had a front porch overlooking the valley, a smooth tile floor, and a big bed with a down comforter to protect us from the cold night air. We also had an ensuite bathroom with a Western toilet, sink, shower, fluffy Turkish towels, and plenty of hot water. We fell in love with The View Camp and want to post a positive review on Trip Advisor. While we were very happy to have had the Bedouin camp experience in the desert, not having to walk outside in the middle of the night to pee in the sand behind the tent was a huge relief.
THE HARROWING MOUNTAIN ROADS
At 6:30 AM the next morning most of us were standing at a precipice, facing East and hoping to capture an award-winning photo of a much acclaimed view. We were not disappointed. An hour later, after a delicious breakfast, I wrapped my foam collar comfortably tight to protect my fragile neck for the bumpy ride down the backside of these rugged Hajjer mountains. Bumpy ride? What an understatement! For more than three hours we rocked and rolled in hard pack, shale rock and soft sand in our four wheel drive vehicles. Although I could see the switch-back road above and the one below, I felt as if we were driving off road and not driving on road. Steadying my camera to document the incredible views was impossible. What a trip! The ribbon-like road was barely wide enough for one vehicle, so I kept my fingers crossed that no cars would appear from the other direction, although we swerved to avoid a goat standing in the middle of the road. At times I couldn't look down at the deep gorge below or else my fear of heights might be out of control, but I wasn't scared or worried either. Our driver was very experienced, but I was shocked when he answered his cell phone in a very precarious place on the road, and I told him so. When we finally reached the flat valley floor, one couple in our group said this adventure reminded them of a treacherous bus ride they took many years ago on a famous highway carved into the side of a high mountain in Bolivia.
I'm leaving the beautiful Sultanate of Oman now, but there will always be a place in my heart for this very special place that opened my mind to a culture I wish more people from my country could experience, understand and embrace. Reading about the Middle East is important, but if more Americans could travel there, perhaps there would be less judgment and more understanding in the world. I will always remember the beautiful sound of the Call to Prayer, the pungent and sweet smells of saffron and frankincense in the air, the thousand-year-old Falage system for transporting spring water from the mountains down to the villages, and the warmth of the people as we drank strong kawah and ate sticky dates together. I will always admire the handsome men and the white traditional dishdasha they love to wear. I will hold dear the grace and respect the Omanis have for each other and for curious travelers like us. All of this and much more leaves a positive impression that I will never forget, I will talk about for years, and I will always be eager to share.