Friday, December 10, 2010

Visits, trips and other decisions

Oman Sagas

Since our last blog, a more visual record than a commentary on our activities here in Oman, Joy and I have been busy hosting colleagues from Qatari Cognition days, doing a bit of touring and making decisions about our time in Oman.

The Nizwa contract has been professionally rewarding the isolation of the place has not made it an pleasant for us. Our contacts with local Omani have been rewarding and pleasant but the professional and collegial isolation has begun to tell on us both so, after much discussion and soul-searching, I decided that it was best if I resigned from the end of the semester and looked for work else-where. So, immediately after the Eid break, I tendered my resignation and prepared to complete as much to the teacher training contract as we’d planned by the end of January. The company offered me a position in Muscat but we decided that we’d be happier taking the gamble and looking for work outside of Oman.

We are now in the process of deciding what to do and where to go come the end of January. There are possibilities but they are, at present, merely possibilities than probabilities. If nothing comes up immediately we will make use of our Irish citizenship and head to the UK for a stint of relief teaching until the summer break.

In the meantime, in Oman over the UAE National day break our friends, Neville and Colin, from our time in Qatar, drove down from Abu Dhabi to explore the Dhakaliya region of Oman and, briefly, Peter and Lorraine Rocha, with their son, Johannes, from Otahuhu days dropped in on their way back from visiting Muscat and coastal Oman to Al Ain.

With Neville and Colin we explored Jabreen Castle, the Al Hoota cave complex, revisited the living museum at Al Hamra, attempted a drive up Jabel Shams and enjoyed, as you can see on the video, watching the local men perform traditional songs and dances in the Nizwa Fort courtyard.

Joy and I had attempted a visit to Jabreen Castle several weeks before only to find it closed so this time we were all greatly pleased to discover the doors wide open and the custodian ready to take our money and let us in to tour the complex.

The Castle is a fortified mansion house set in the middle of a wadi and date palms while giving the inhabitants a panoramic view of the gravel plains that make up the desert in the Bahla area. It was built by Ya’ruba Imam Bil’ arub bin Sultan in 1688 as a fortress residence for the Imam as well as a college of Islamic studies.
The castle has a second floor stable for the Imam’s favourite horse, dungeons, secret passages, false floors and escape routes as well as the Imam’s tomb.
The castle was besieged by the Imam’s brother, Saif bin Sultan, in 1692 and was largely ignored until 1822-24 when it was used as a headquarters during the civil war. It is now a popular tourist site.

Al Hoota caves were open after being closed for several months following heavy rain in February this year which meant that we were able to explore the huge limestone cavern under the Hajar mountains. The caves contain some spectacular formations along with cave adapted fish and insects - an interesting record of Oman’s geological history.

The village of Al Hamra has a semi occupied mud-brick traditional village that appears to be undergoing a planned restoration to give visitors an indication of how the village would have looked and felt like when it housed a population of over 17,000. The working museum, Bait Assfah, there is one of the high points of a visit to Oman. It is a 400 year old three storey mud brick house in which the owners have recreated the activities of traditional Omani family life with demonstrations of extracting oil from horse radish bulbs, weaving, bread making and coffee roasting, grinding and preparation well explained by an enthusiastic young guide and her school aged nephews.

From there we headed up the gorge to the Wadi Nakhr Gorge and Jebel Shams. Jebel Shams is the highest point in Oman at 3000 metres. To reach the peak entails a drive up a switchback road that winds its way up and around the mountain side and along ridges that, for an experienced driver of the route, would be a doddle but, for me, was a tense exercise in willing the van up the mountainside as my vertigo kept kicking in each time my peripheral vision picked up the drop off down the mountainside. I decided 2/3rds of the way up that I was pushing my luck driving any further so turned back to await the chance to get to the top with some one more knowledgeable of the road driving us up.
We had read of a rock covered with neolithic carvings on the outskirts of Al Hamra so, on the way home, we went looking for it.

If it hadn’t been for Neville’s sighting of a sign pointing into the scrub and across a wadi to Hasat bin Sult we would have missed finding it. We headed off in the direction the sin indicated and found the rock, identified by a sign saying it was an historic site, sitting below the cliff face. We prowled around the rock for several minutes looking for the carvings of men, women and children done by our neolithic ancestors the guide book had described. Uncertain of what we were looking for, or where-abouts on the rock they were we failed to recognise the carvings but did discover a scratched drawing of a man on a horse near the base of the rock.

Back in Nizwa we were able to watch, with Joy taking part as a drummer, the local men performing several dances complete with much sword waving and challenging in te court yard of the fort.

Neville and Colin survived the return to Abu Dhabi on the Sunday, apparently avoiding being hit by cars practising such safe driving techniques as overtaking on corners and competing for the passing the greatest number of cars and trucks on a straight competition that seems to be regarded as a necessary qualification on the road.

Joy and I heard, from a friend, that there would be a National celebration event at the Nizwa Stadium on the Tuesday night so we headed out to the stadium and discovered that the Ministry of Education was presenting a programme of tableaux by the local school children to honour the Sultan and the Sultanate. We survived the chaos of parking the van and headed into the stadium where the local school children were assembled clad in all sorts of multi-coloured costumes, traditional outfits with swords and khanjar, canes and elaborately created models of technological advances that have taken place over the past 40 years in Oman.

For us, in Oman, the Sultan declared that there would be a holiday to celebrate the Islamic New Year from Tuesday through till Sunday this week so Joy and I headed down to Muscat to explore more of the city and to take in the sights we had presumed to be either permanently closed, under restoration or that we couldn’t get to because we were under time constraints and had always missed on earlier visits.

We finally managed to visit the museums of old Muscat and get to see the Sultan Qaboos State mosque of Oman. The mosque boasts the largest chandelier in the world and magnificent examples of mosaic work from across the Islamic world set in a magnificent building of polished marble.
While we were in Muscat the Sultan also announced that Oman would celebrate the 40th year of the modern state with a holiday starting 23rd December and finishing on the 1st January so I have to restructure the planned course delivery for December in order to cope with the new holiday breaks and we are now planning, at short notice, where we could go for the nine days before getting back to work till the end of the semester and the end of the contract for me.

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