Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week’s postcard is from the lovely Amy Feldtmann, an Australian who once lived in London for a couple of years, and New York for a summer, but who is currently living in Melbourne. Amy loves to travel, for most of the same reasons everyone else does: to discover new cultures, see new sights, experience new adventures, taste new dishes, and meet new people for a fresh perspective. She says that for her, “travel always doubles as a photography project – my travel companions have gotten used to being very patient while I wait in the right spot to get the shot I want.” You can see Amy’s photos on Flickr, or on her blog Amy Feldtmann – and don’t miss her previous Postcard From… Tokyo for a some gorgeous photos!
Welcome back Amy! You always seem to go to such interesting places – where else have you been lately?
I went to Oman for five days and I loved it. In my experience, this Gulf country is one of those places that people have heard of, but no one is quite sure where it is so I’ve often had to pull out a map to explain to friends. However, I think that will soon change because recently the New York Times listed it on its ’52 places to go in 2015’.
How was the weather?
The weather was hot – a very dry heat – and usually 45 degrees in the middle of the day. May was the time of year that suited me to visit, but locals told me that December and January is the best time to go as the weather is more mild (with the bonus of being the time the Muscat Festival is held).
What was the accommodation like on your trip?
My travel companions and I stayed in hotels the whole time. Everywhere we stayed was of a good standard (whether a budget or business hotel), clean, and with breakfast, but my tip is to make sure your hotel has good air-conditioning. In one location we only had ceiling fans, that were possibly original from decades ago, and to quote my friend, it was so noisy at night that “it felt like sleeping in a factory”.
Aircon is a must, noted! So, how did you fill your five days?
As time in Oman was short, and as much as we would have loved to have visit Salalah (look it up – this Gulf country also has lush countryside and waterfalls!), we kept our adventures to the north. We visited Muscat (capital city), Nizwa (old capital city), and Al Hamra (home of an incredibly preserved mud brick village with some of the oldest homes in Oman). Travellers really need to plan to get a hire car to get about as public transport is not an option – luckily petrol is incredibly cheap.
That all sounds incredible – especially that mud brick village! What was your highlight?
I loved the Sultan Qaboos mosque – the architecture is incredible – and wandering the Corniche of an evening, smelling waft of frankincense in the air. The absolute highlight was having a serendipitous run-in with a local in Al Hamra, and having a personalised tour of the town, finishing sitting cross-legged, with coffee and dates in his lounge room. While that luck won’t fall on everyone, it does highlight how friendly Omanis are.
I have to say I know very little about Oman – what was the cuisine like?
Given Oman’s location, it is no surprise that the traditional middle-eastern food has strong influence from India, in terms of spices and ingredients, and thanks to a long coastline, there is great, fresh seafood. Vegetarians and carnivores are both well catered for.
Rice, hummus, olives, tomato salads, pita bread are regular at Omani mealtimes, which often includes lots of share plates and communal eating, sometimes seated on the floor. Many restaurants, especially those not regularly hosting tourists, will have ‘family’ seating areas – this is where women or mixed groups should be seated – so be sure to respect that.
There are many labourers from overseas in Oman – from countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh. If you ask around, you can get directed to restaurants serving these cuisines too.
Two meals stand out for me: one in Nizwa, seated on the floor of a local restaurant, eating from share plates with friends. Another was in Muscat, at Japengo Cafe, where we had fresh seafood we were able to select fresh from the ice cabinet, that the chef filleted and cooked especially for us.
Do you have any funny stories?
Not so much a funny story but one that sums up the friendliness of the locals: we took a taxi in Muscat to visit the mosque, and the driver asked if we needed a return ride to the hotel. We said we did, and it would be great if he could come back and collect us. We reached into our purses to pay him for the first leg of the journey, and he told us it was fine not to pay yet, that we could just pay for the round trip when he returned to collect us. Such was the trust that we would of course keep to our word and have him drive us back to the hotel in two hours time (and we did!).
Wow, that’s so trusting! I wish more people were like that when I travelled. So, do you have any advice for people headed to Oman?
Oman is not where you go for a cheap holiday – for me on the Australian dollar, it was comparable to travelling in Europe.
Although Oman has a modern and sophisticated feel in the larger cities, it is still in a culturally conservative country. Ladies – you can’t swim at public beaches or waterholes – but the hotel pools will welcome you. My experience was that, except for visiting the mosque, there was no need to cover my head/hair, but covering legs is recommended. I wore long skirts, and t-shirts and had no negative reactions from locals (in fact, I often got ‘approving smiles’ from some of the older women after they looked me up and down). Gentlemen – I would probably recommend long pants in public restaurants (an Australian guy we travelled with for a bit said he felt more comfortable and respectful wearing long pants in public spaces/where families would be).
Check the opening times – the Grand Sultan Qaboos Mosque has restricted times for visitors, and many places shut down in the middle of the day.
Read up on the history to make sense of the many forts and Oman’s love of frankincense.
Great tips! Can you share any useful phrases you learnt?
Shukran – always. (‘Thank you’).
Most people we met had at least a basic understanding of English, and many we met were fluent in English. But learning some of the local language, like everywhere, goes a very long way.
Now for my personal favourite question: did you read any new books on your trip?
On this trip I read ‘Travels with a Tangerine’ and I highly recommend it. The book is all about the travels of Ibn Battutah – who actually travelled more than Marco Polo – from Tangier, and across the Middle East.
And finally… what do you love most about travelling?
Discovery of new places and cultures and feeling like you are part of a bigger community than just the one you are used to at home. And the excitement of new sights and places to photograph.
NB – all images are owned by Amy Feldtmann