...and then

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Salalah Saga II: (warning) An uninspired account

Call me a big city girl who can't do without glittering lights and a little late night madness, but Salalah was dull for me. It's gorgeous, make no mistake, and if I wasn't going on work, I probably would have enjoyed it some more. Although, here I must say work didn't take too much of my time there but the fact that I had to keep my senses peeled to pick up stories there kind of ruined it for me.

I was going back there after 15 years, if not more, and all I could think of was how I didn't recognise a single thing there. Not one single thing. Not a street, not a shop, not the place we stayed in -- absolutely nothing. So very quickly, I understood that my memory was pathetic or it was playing tricks on me and that I never actually went to Salalah on a DEAS camp during my school days. It was that different.

The first thing I observed as soon as I got out of the airport was that aestheticians had been busy in the city. Ornate lamp posts with pretty curlicues, wide sashes of green with flowers by the sidewalks and in roundabouts, little touches here and there to render the landscape pleasant to the eye -- very touristy.

Maybe it was because it was overcast – I like the sun – but the city just looked dull, you know what I mean? Sometimes, there’s a buzz about a city as soon as you set foot in it. And I don’t mean a Bombay kind of busy buzz. It could very well be a lazy island destination’s slow wave that seduces you as soon as you look on. Salalah has neither. And that was discouraging for me. Enjoying a place is as much about my first reaction to it as it is about the things I actually get to do there.

Its people. In Muscat there are smiles and they are warm, friendly; even as people keep their distance, believe in a little reserve. In Salalah, I found they only believed in the latter. I didn’t see a stranger smile; even the cab guy was surly, which is a rare, rare thing in my life. All my cab guys are super chatty, obliging and almost always offer me their phone numbers in case I am stranded somewhere. This guy didn’t even acknowledge my thank you when he ripped me off five bucks for what I thought was less than a kilometer.

Moving on, till I found a guide/cab guy I was pretty clueless about the city so I went walking out the first day just to figure out what was happening. Absolutely nothing. I landed the day the Salalah Tourism Festival  (you might need Google Translate on this) opened. The STF, in case you’re wondering, happens at Khareef time when Salalah is like an intense wash of kathakali green. There’s that brilliant verdancy of life everywhere – one has to see it to know what being hit by one single colour means.

There’s not a camera in the world, not a Photoshop expert in the world who can capture the mood that prevails when an unbeatable army of militantly green saplings is bursting forth, thirsting and hungering for life, taking over everything that isn’t concrete or tar. And the mountain tops – how does one best describe them? It's like the mountains are breathing in the cool air, creating a mist of vapour around them, hiding treasures from the small thing that is a human being, unless of course the proverbial Mohammed climbs the said mountain to discover, to his surprise or relief, that there are no secrets. Only a steady heavenly spray of rain. No voluptuous drops that burst into uncountable tiny droplets on your head, no showers, just a hint of a spray making everything delectably wet.

But that’s nice for about 12 hours if you are alone and aren’t old. If it’s interesting longer than that, then my guess is you really like overcast skies or are on a honeymoon. Otherwise, it’s just depressing to not see the sun. Also, an overcast sky like the one I got makes for really dull pictures. You absolutely need a little sunshine to catch the colours of the raging sea. Or the myriad shadows in the mountains.

Speaking of raging sea, I’ve always loved the sea and been in overwhelming awe of its enormous power. But to see it roiling and raging like that – like a hungry, blind animal insolently and selfishly taking away with it everything the world happened to give it by mistake – that was a humbling experience. A bored, restless sea wearing a stole of foamy white crashed against the black rocks like a paper Sisyphus, only to go back again in a mind-numbing ritual that it felt compelled to maintain.

Capturing the foam on camera was not easy and as it was not easy, I didn’t quite manage it nicely. But what I did was take back the sight and music in my heart to relive it when I developed my occasional attack of bi-polar and felt invincible. When I felt like the most powerful woman for miles around, for absolutely no reason. I hear the sound gather in my heart and I feel humble, like the small human being I am.

As always, the sea brings out the pop-philosopher in me. Apologies.

So, okay. First impressions: Check. Landscape: Check. Warmth: Check. What is left is a mention of tourist destinations. Which I won’t talk about because you’ll find it all here. My impression, on the whole, even of the hot spots, was of certain fecundity, a sort of inertia. There was nothing more than miles and miles of gorgeousness. That’s enough for some people. I am not one of them.

I found that I enjoyed myself at the historical sites of Ubar and the general area of the historical Queen of Sheba. I also loved looking at the mountains that had frankincense trees. I felt like a kid when I first spotted one and then as we moved along the road, the side of the hill was full of it. It was so exciting to see so many of them, and I was told that in that area, it wasn’t even harvested and that it just grew wild. I love the beauty of that.

Strangely enough, the thing I enjoyed the most about my sight-seeing was the drive to Wadi Dirbat, on the way to the Yemen border. It’s a twisty-twirly route that cuts through two mountains. The most spectacular place on that drive was the valley itself, the wadi that floods if the rain is big. On either sides, the mountains rise in an awe-inspiring wave of brown and ocher. And from the middle the view all around is beyond description. I was so spellbound that I didn’t take pictures. Explain that.

And finally, I was mildly surprised at one thing and rather shocked at another. The thing that surprised me was how much people – men as well as women – stared at you. Not just the staring, but the quality of it. There’s no hesitation, no sense of impropriety. They go ahead and stare, and you better get used to it. It could be that so many women are in their hijab and purdah. That all local women cover their face was news to me. And while I was informed of it before I left Muscat for Salalah, it came as a shock to see flash of an ankle, a hint of the wrist but to never ever look into a face of these women. The men too, I suppose, because they don’t see too many women without the protective abaya and purdah, stare at you. Not in a hostile or offensive way, but in way they would look at a grasshopper shedding its summer skin – with mild interest at best.

The thing that shocked me, however, was the number of obese children I saw in Salalah, and sadly most of them girls. I looked at it logically – albeit by my logic – and it seemed there were more obese kids in Salalah than there were here in Muscat. See, it’s like this. I see more people here in Muscat because, simply, there are more people here. By that coin, I should see more kids here who are obese. But I don’t. In the few hundreds that I saw on the festival grounds in Salalah, almost every fifth child was obese. Not just chubby or fat, but seriously obese. It worried me, the fact that it was more girls than boys.

That was Salalah for me.  

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Blogger TI3GIB said...

As someone who's been to Salalah for more than 10 years, I can relate to there being an inevitable sense of disappointment upon arrival.

There is no sense of specialness beyond that which is forced by the extravagent change of colors and pace. This, however, I think not a result of a missing ingredient, but the lack of a process and treatment.

I, and others, remain hopeful that since the Dhofar Muncipality has been given a greater budgetary oppoertunity in the last two years, a dramatic change in the tourism preparedness of the place is still expected soon.

Oh well.

4:35 pm  
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Anonymous Letha said...

Nice one, girl. I really liked this.

10:23 am  
Blogger Sythe said...

Nice write up.

I was in SLL last year and my opinion of the place was the same -boring.

However my wife and I were invited to a wedding celebration by total strangers as we were walking along the beach - so not everyone in Salalah is un-welcoming.

Disturbing news about the fat kids.

3:18 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Reading this post, I have just about made up my mind that I should never go back to my childhood home. To go back to a place that by its very name evokes so many memories (and not all of them pleasant), and to find it utterly changed... well, not exactly my idea of a trip down memory lane.
I have been hearing of Salalah's new avatar as a tourist destination from various friends who live in the Gulf region now. Truth to say, I never quite believed them but this post definitely brought home the 'embellished' truth.
I too love the hustle and bustle of big cities and I remember my visits to Muscat as a child would leave me spell-bound. But I also remember my dad's friend's kids, studying at Indian, School, Muscat, who would look down at us, country cousins... Oh, how I loved to hate them!! And then there were those times when our school would host some inter-school do and the Muscati crowd would land, full of 'sophistication'--teased hair, glittery eyeshadow et al--and our hormone-driven guys would drool!! He he, those were the days!
And I always thought the people there were quite friendly. At least, all our Arab neighbours were! Looks like things have really gone topsy-turvy: when I was there, the boys and girls were equally obese and they would tell my mom to feed her scrawny child (me!) better, 'healthier' food. My more concerned Arab neighbours would even send dishes across! :)

3:34 pm  
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