26 April 2008

Arabian Nights

Sometimes I wonder why, and if, anyone is still reading my blog. My journeys are often uncomfortable and tedious--to describe as well as live through; I frequently resort to crude and offensive language either to add color to my little anecdotes or simply to vent off pent-up frustrations; and I have an alarming tendency to keep you, my dear readers, whose attention I ought to covet and sensibility to respect, informed as to the precise condition of my bowels (speaking of which, I am happy to report that the consistency of my excreta has jumped up a notch from soupy to chunky). Surely you would have a better time watching the Travel Channel (or even the Weather Channel) or possibly darning your docks. And yet, for as long as you remain faithful to me, I shall ever do likewise. And now, on to the show...

Arabian nights, like Arabian days, more often than not really are hotter than hot, but I'm not sure in what good ways. Muscat, which name reminds me of a dessert wine, is not really a city per se but more like a region with lots of little enclaves packed into the canyons, or "waids", that dominate the terrain of this part of Oman. The architectural guidelines ensure that all the enclaves are uniformly bland and cute: all the buildings are low-rise, painted white, and have some kind of Arabesque detailing. The only way around the enclaves, some of them genuinely historical, is by taxi. This is expensive, so I only really did it today. For the same reason, I've only really been eating falafel, which is universally available. Muscat does have a nice "corniche" which every coastal Arab city I've been to has. There are enormous cruise ships and oil tankers parked in this one. Naturally, there's a souvenir souk, too. The older part of town is dominated by a genuine Sultan's palace (the Omanis love him and the oil checks he sends them, but word on the street is that the heirless Sultan is fabulous). But ho-hum, what I actually did today was take a taxi to the old city, wander around, wander into the wrong museum (of French-Oman relations--boy do I not give a rat's f*cking ass about that!), take another cab to the corniche, where the cab driver refused to take any money because I wouldn't give him 200 baisa instead of 100 (he is not aware that backpackers like myself have no honor), find the right museum, fail to gain admittance because of the afternoon siesta, walk defeated through the scorching Arabian sun through the dusty, traffic-filled wadi to the CBD enclave, buy myself bus tickets onward through to Seiyun, Yemen, get another taxi to the Oman Museum in Qurm (closed!) and then to the Embassy of Yemen (closed!) and then back to Susan's place (I have the key!). I offered the cabbie 3 rial for his pains--it took us awhile to find the places I wanted to go because a) he doesn't speak English, b) my Arabic has atrophied into non-existence, and c) he didn't know where anything is--but he wanted an outrageous 5 (remember that a rial is $2.60, not a currency with which to be trifled). I told him I'm a poor student with no money, so he said OK 4 rial. I said how about 3.50? He said No, 4 rial last price. I reached into my pocket, past all the big notes, and slowly picked out, one at a time, 3.80 rial worth of small change. OK? Sheepishly. OK. Haha. Still got it.

Moving back in time, yesterday was Super Susan's day off, and she superly volunteered to drive me into the Omani mountains, up to the traditional capital of Nizwa, where we intended to visit the famous Nizwa fort, which was closed. Friday is the weekend here, but it's also a holy day, but it's also the day people can go see stuff, but they still close stuff early. How annoying! But I saw another highly-remodeled expensive Omani souk. I bought a falooda. There was a cute Taiwanese girl there, too, starring in a TV program of some sort. We drove over to Bahla next to check out the (closed) UNESCO castle. Then further into the awesomely-beautiful mountains to see some also UNESCO-listed beehive-shaped rock tomb things. Open, but not exactly Machu Picchu. In the evening, we went drinkin' at the Hyatt (thanks for the drink, Susan! I can't afford $10 beers!), but Susan didn't like the cover band, and I spent most of the time watching professional wrestling on the TV and secretly glancing at all the Filipina prostitutes, so we left early. This morning, before she went to work, she brought me over to the Grand Mosque (usually closed so I finally got one right) to see the world's largest carpet. It's pretty damn big, people. Like 100 feet x 100 feet (I don't feel like looking it up) and inside one of the more ridiculously opulent mosques I've seen in my short little life. It's the only mosque I'll be seeing in Arabia, since the rest in Oman and all of them in Yemen are closed to non-Muslims. I've developed an appreciation for mosques, not as religious institutions (could care almost less than French-Oman relations) but as parts of urban fabric. Since they're always pointed toward Mecca, they're often out of alignment with their surroundings. Slightly ajar or tilted, they introduce a nice modicum of dissonance into rigid streetscapes. Extra, "useless" land seems to result, grassy, landscaped bits sometimes, and these become de facto plazas or parks or meeting areas. I think it's a sweet effect. Or unintended consequence? To use popular jargon. And now we've come full circle.

Since my toilet time has finally regularized again, I'll be leaving Muscat tomorrow morning. First stop, Salalah (lalalala), after a 10-12 hour slog through nothingness. The following day, I enter Yemen during another 10-12 hour slog but hopefully through more attractive scenery. And hopefully the Yemenis will let me into their country, too. The visa should be no problem, but the security situation is always changing, and I don't have any of the required permits you're supposed to have with many photocopies of to make, as a foreigner, any of these journeys into the heart of Arabia. But I have my smile. And all of you should know how effective that is. Roadblocks beware!

If the smile doesn't work, I also have money.

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