Wanderlust: Johnny Omani

Opinion by Johnny Bartz
April 27, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

Wanderlust: Johnny OmaniIt didn’t take more than a quick refresher on Persian Gulf geography to agree to visit my friend who is in Oman on the Fulbright Program. Embarrassingly, I had never been to the Middle East, so I relished the excuse and turned my three-day weekend into seven.

Omani visas are expensive, but I found a loophole. A U.S. citizen is granted a free 30-day visa to the United Arab Emirates, so in Dubai I cleared immigration and then turned right back around to catch my flight to Muscat. In Muscat, I showed my boarding pass arriving from Dubai and the visa, and on I went. This rule only works if you fly directly from Dubai (no land border crossings).

February was a great time to visit Oman — there was the Tour de Oman, the Muscat Extreme Sailing Race, Muscat Festival, not to mention beautiful sunny weather akin to spring quarter at Stanford. The city of Muscat has much to offer: markets, palaces, gardens, watchtowers and many miles of beach. Beach culture in Oman is starkly different from Rio — needless to say, I was told to leave the speedo at home. Not that it mattered — I just rolled up my jeans as I searched for shells and caught crabs in the surf.

Oman is an Islamic society with a public dress code, and you can forget about having booze or a ham sandwich. Women generally wear a head covering (hijab) and beautiful full-length black dresses. Men wear long white robes, sandals and the coolest little cloth hats, which are finely embroidered with bright colors. I awed at how crisply clean the white robes were amidst the dust, knowing fully well that my robe would be caked in dirt and food stains from my messy eating habits. Foreigners are not required to comply with the dress code; however, conservative clothing is appreciated.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to the small town of Nakhal, famous for its hot springs and fort. There we met Sami and Yasser, who took us to explore the valleys, or wadi. Driving through the breathtaking scenery with Arabic music blaring, life couldn’t have been better.

I almost had heart failure when Yasser pulled out four green bottles, muttering something about Heineken. Surely I would be going to jail. I was relieved when I realized they were just non-alcoholic, strawberry Fanta-esque “beers.” Drinks and samosas in hand, we walked past a healing spring that was no more than a puddle. People with skin ailments remove their clothes and bathe in the spring. Needless to say, I didn’t touch the water, or the clothes strewn about the ground, which pleasantly reminded me of home. Instead, I admired an entire ecosystem of birds, insects and plants that emanated from this source of water. Later that night we bathed in much larger hot springs, complete with little fish that rasp dead skin off the body. In a relaxed stupor, I gazed into the ethereal night sky, warm water washing away all my cares.

The gastronomic tourism in Oman is sensational. Omani cuisine is distinct, but has elements of Lebanese, Indian and Pakistani food, featuring many fresh fruits, chicken, lamb and fish. At Sami’s house, we ate a traditional lunch, sitting in a circle with the men of his family in the men’s lounge area, which was lavishly decorated with rugs and tapestries.

Eating with the hands was hard enough, but an additional complication that I faced was that I am left-handed. The left hand is only used for bathroom functions; eating, handling money, or basically touching anything with the left hand is incredibly rude. I embraced the experience and ate the feast like a messy child, using only my right hand.

The feast consisted of dates, fruits and tea, followed by the main course of salad, rice, chicken casserole with roasted vegetables, grilled fish and baked pasta. Of course it became a physical challenge, so I had to finish everything. Dessert consisted of caramel-covered pieces of sweet cake, made with date honey. I asked Sami if it would be ok if I moved in next weekend. I still don’t think he quite comprehended how lavish this feast was to me, the starving grad student.

What struck me most about my trip to Oman was the hospitality and respect given to me, an outsider genuinely curious and open to learn about Omani culture. I found that the problem with traveling is not missing class, affording plane tickets or even jetlag; it is the sadness of leaving behind new friends in a far away land, not knowing when you will next return.

Knowing me however, and the fact that there are coral reefs, sea turtle breeding areas, camel excursions and many areas left unexplored, it won’t be too long.


Do you know a place around here to get some good Omani food?  Johnny Omani would love to know — email him at [email protected].

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