Oman Diary

Dazzle in the Desert

Oman is a land of contrasts and extremes, making you at times resilient, and at others exhausted, and very often exhilarated

By Anu Biswas in Oman

A beautiful chunk of the enormous and diverse Middle East, Muscat the capital of Oman, is almost an ethereal city that one learns to love; through a journey of heartaches, tribulations, and a celebration of finally having given the city a chance to charm you with its magic. With a culture of deep respect and dignity, a tradition of opulence, a need to captivate its people with its exquisiteness and a hospitality that cannot be ignored, Oman is truly unique.

My account is probably echoed by many expatriate women who have found their way into Muscat, having mostly accompanied their husbands on new assignments at work Having left familiar homes and comforting neighbourhoods, many of us have shared our angst, comforted each other, and empathised; and yet at some point promised a time when we would overcome our prejudices and let ourselves be enchanted.

Life started in Wattaya—roughly translated into hot and inhospitable. It was a temporary arrangement that no doubt, had its logistic advantages until we could find our own settlement and establish our home. Wattaya is difficult to describe but hopefully some of the instances will give you an idea of the few joys and abundant frustrations of settling in a new city. The house itself was a heat sink and the aircon could do only that much. During the afternoon blaze the outside temperature in the shade would hover dangerously at the 48-degree mark; and just when you waited for sunset and respite, the conditions would reverse and the inside would trap the heat radiating from the hills. Now these landforms really need getting used to. What looked like a work of art, purple and grey against a setting sun in winter, are bare, hostile, rocky peaks that circle Oman and make it different from every other country in the Middle East.

Anyway, the hills were so close you could touch them from the bedroom window. And to add to this despairing sight was this construction right across where labourers from India and Pakistan, hatless, and helpless, getting up the roof of yet another snow white Omani house. They would arrive in herds, and whether they ever got used to the most torturous manual labour, or had simply resigned to their fate, you could never tell. All it did was to make you immensely grateful for what you had.

For an extremely sensitive sleeper like me, it wasn’t long before I became a fully established night owl. Everything in this country must be designed to battle heat. And to unsuspecting newcomers from a good-weather-haven like Bangalore, I didn’t realise how a simple home furnishing like the curtain could make a difference to my peace of mind. The glare of the sun at 3 p.m. can be blinding. Direct after-effects of several days of exposure causes headaches. But the more serious ones include extreme irritability, and a compulsion to generally disagree with any reasonable suggestion, plan, or idea by the rest of the family. Lesson number one—get blackout curtains, however expensive. It’s as important as transport, which I will come to later.

There was much to be done, and so much heat! Oman is pedestrian unfriendly and Wattaya seemed to take that to extremes, I could have cried in frustration. We didn’t have a car, and even if we managed to borrow one, none of us was eligible to drive at those regulated 100 kmph speeds and find our way around. To get a taxi meant a hazardous walk in the sun, a killing wait, and eventually a return to where you started—home.

When in Oman, paying heed to advice from friends will save you energy, time, and plenty of discomfort. Take driving lessons within the first couple of weeks, when you are anyway so frazzled by the newness of it all, one more adventure will go by almost unnoticed. The most pleasurable feeling in Oman is when you drive. The roads are, like I mentioned previously, simply superb.

When you drive outside of Oman, you encounter regular signs indicating a camel crossing. These huge beasts of the desert are impartial to all road signs and god forbid if you bump into one of them. The beasts. I am told that they buckle and the entire weight crushes the car and its occupants. Terrible to even imagine. So, I can read the sign, but how do you get them to! Better for both parties to be educated, isn’t it?

March 2006

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