Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On The Road Again

I have finally managed to get my Yemen visa (once the embassy opened the process was quite straightforward) and am heading west to the border. Welcome news for Michael's mum I am sure as I am probably beginning to eat them out of house and home; and for me too, in a way, as the Pidgeons are far too healthy, regularly going on 6km jogs and roping me in to participate in a couple of "fun runs" (surely a contradiction in terms if ever there was one). As Henry Ford once famously said: "Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don't need it. If you are sick, you shouldn't take it?" (Though perhaps he was trying to sell more cars with that statement.)

But before travelling through the wide, empty expanse of Oman's interior a bit of pottering closer to Muscat was required. Over three quarters of Oman's population lives in a narrow strip of land, perhaps only 100km wide, along its northern coast. And although the coastal areas, especially around Muscat, have modernised dramatically, only an hour's drive inland, through the Hejar mountains, the towns maintain a more traditional falvour. Every settlement is built arounda life-giving falaj - a traditional network of cannals, often dug underground to prevent evaporation, that channels water from perennial springs in the mountains and whose use and maintenance are equitably shared amongst the community - thereby allowing the cultivation of lush banana and palm plantations and even the occasional paddy field in the middle of such seemingly inhospitable conditions. And every larger settlement has its own fort, usually made of baked clay bricks and adobe, dating back to times of petty feudal squabbles and banditry. Sometimes, huddled around the forts, one can also find traditional houses, also made of adobe, with high walls and imposing doorways to keep out prying eyes. Though many of these houses have been abandoned and are falling into disrepair as people forsake the constant work that is needed to maintain adobe for modern, concrete houses with air conditioning. Sad, perhaps, but then I'm sure most people would do the same given the choice.

Oman also has an abundance of of natural beauty, from rocky mountains to deserted beaches, and green wadis (seasonal river beds) to bone-dry desert. Not surprising really, given a population of just over 2.5 million in a country the size of Poland. Unfortunately, again given the small population, public transport is infrequent and the best places are only accessible by 4WD, so I haven't seen as much as I would have liked. I did, however, make up for this last night when I did a spot of camping in a twon called Bahla. I don't know if I've already mentioned how expensive things are here in Oman, but there was no way I was paying for a hotel, so when I arrived in town after dark I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I didn't need to look long as I found a lovely spot under the main bridge across a wadi not 500m from the centre of town. But nobody seemed to notice as it was well hidden. OK, I didn't have a great night's sleep, but I believe that had more to do with the fact that I've been pampered these past couple of months with beds, en suite bathrooms, sit down toilets and TV. Something that will have to change as I tighten my belt for the home straight.

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