Monday, 29 June 2015

Souvenirs from Oman

When I travel back home, I like to try and find souvenirs to give to family and friends. Summer is here, and the mass exodus of people has probably already begun, but I thought I would share a few things that you could consider gifting. Very few of these things are Omani made, but they have a distinctly Arabic feel and, well, they were purchased here so close enough.

Souveniers from Oman

I'll start with the obvious and the most abundant thing you will find here; anything date related. There are date wines, jams (a particular favourite of my family), biscuits/cookies, and of course dates themselves, covered in chocolate or filled with nuts, whichever way you like them. Of the chocolate variety, I recommend Chocodates, they have the best date:chocolate ratio, in my opinion. My family also like the Date Bars, which are similar to Fig Rolls. Carrefour has all of these available, so a one-stop shop is possible.

While in Carrefour, I always like to pick up sweets/chocolates/crisps from different places around the world. Ok, you can't hand them out as "gifts" but bringing home a selection of these has always gone down well with my family, they particularly like Sohar Chips and Tola bars. Another local food you could purchase is honey, and there are independent stands to buy these in Muscat Grand Mall and City Centre, Muscat.

Abdul Samad Al Qurashi


If you want to be particularly fancy, and very generous, a gift from Amouage I am sure would be appreciated. Amouage is an Omani brand, and the factory is in Muscat. I've heard that they produce the most expensive perfumes out there, so I have never actually stepped into a store.

Slightly cheaper is Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, a Saudi Arabian brand. I like the presentation in the shop; the perfumes are stored in huge phials and then decanted into the size container you want, which makes the whole buying process unique. You only need to purchase the smaller size since it is pure perfume and, therefore, you only need to apply a tiny amount and it lasts a very long time on the skin. Unless you are a particular fan of the strong oud smell, I would recommend Misk (musk) and A-Shamiya (sp) if you are after something that is more subtle.

Omani silver


There is of course gold everywhere, but if you are after something a little more unique, then I would head to Muttrah souk. They sell silver rings and bracelets, and you can also find Omani silver. Now I think they are missing a trick in Oman not having a place showing how the Omani silver pieces are made. When I first saw Omani silver, honestly, I thought it was tin or some metal mix, but when you hear about how it is made you start to appreciate its beauty. For example, in the picture, all that detail you see is the result of one strand of silver being placed down into the design. If the designer was particularly good, you can't even make out the join. Because each piece is unique, it does make it more expensive that the other silver jewellery you can buy. For the smallest pieces, the starting price is around 15OMR.

Oman camel


Muttrah souk is a great place for other gifts and souvenirs. You can find the Omani dagger (Kanjar), which you will notice has the same level of detail and design process as the Omani silver jewellery. I am not sure you would want to try to get this through airport security though. The souk also offers cute wooden animal sculptures; a camel would be the most obvious choice.

I also need to mention Omani Halwa, a sweet made from starch, eggs, sugar, water, ghee, saffron, cardamom, nuts and rose water. It is usually served with coffee (another possible gift). I have never tasted the same halwa twice; each place makes it slightly differently. The general rule is the more you pay, the better the halwa. There are independent shops all over Muscat, a shop in the souk, and Carrefour also sells it.

Finally, another distinctly Middle Eastern gift would be oud. This is the stuff you smell being burnt in malls, the souk, and probably every Omani home. Personally, I find the scent too strong, and I don't understand what you should look out for, quality-wise, to be able to recommend that you buy it from a souk. There is a shop, which can be found in all the shopping centres, called Arabian Oud, and they can direct you with buying the oud and the burner you need to light it in.

I like to think that if you purchased all these you would be sufficiently spoiling your friends and family.

Have I missed anything? Let me know what gifts you like to give.  

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Life lately: The big slowdown

Well, you can tell summer has set in and Ramadan is coming, no adventures so no new posts for over a week! Oman has a big slowdown in the summer, people start leaving for the holidays and all the clubs and societies have had their last events. Things won't pick up again until September. In preparation I have been doing very little; an ease into the boredom if you will.

I did manage to sneak my scuba diving certification completion in this week. Honestly, it is the best thing I have done since I have been here -- extremely scary at times -- but it has made me much more positive about Oman.  With fasting, and then a trip back home for a few weeks, the earliest I will get back in the water again is August, after that the plan is to go out at least once a month. I will probably purchase a camera to start taking pictures underwater, so expect to be bombarded with the best ones on here and on my Facebook and Instagram and probably Twitter too!

Yes, I have booked a trip back home: I am so excited. It was a huge faff at work sorting out the leave and finance misinformed me about the conditions of my flights refund (should I be surprised?) But I'm not letting that bother me, I'll be home for three weeks and I already have a lot of plans. Lots of dinners and lunches with friends and family, a bread baking course, Go Ape with my cousins, the Prudential London Bike Ride, and maybe I'll squeeze in a little bit of shopping too. I also want to catch the Audrey Hepburn exhibition if I can or maybe just head to the British museum. Either way, I don't expect to be sitting indoors at all. I know that this blog is meant to be about life outside the M25, but I'll still share a few of these things. I'm also thinking of doing a post about my top non-touristy things to do in London, or unconventional ways of being a tourist. Let me know if that sounds interesting.

In the mean time, I will continue doing very little. I've picked up two new hobbies. The first being colouring. I am a sucker for anything "on-trend" and adult colouring books seem to be the thing right now. I picked one up while in Dubai and the timing seemed just right, I've been coming home most evenings annoyed by something or another at work and taking time to doing something that requires zero thought completely relaxes me. I also started crocheting, this requires a little more thought, and actually spending half an hour doing the wrong stitch the other night only gave me something different to be annoyed about. At the moment I am on the way the producing a very nice chain, if it becomes anything vaguely interesting, or even useful, I will let you know.

Let me know your plans for Ramadan and the summer in Oman. Are there any adventures to be had?And what do you do to keep yourself entertained? 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Out and about: Bullfighting

Driving back from Dubai we let our curiosity get the better of us when we saw a large crowd of men and cars gathered at the roadside. We literally swung ourselves off the highway (it's still amazing to me that you are able to do that here) and parked up so we could see what was going on.

The first thing we noticed were huge pick-up vans carrying bulls. Absolutely huge animals, which I expect weigh a ton because you could see that their weight had cause a dip in the vans.

The bulls are Brahma bulls and they become so huge on a diet of milk and honey. In pairs, the bulls were led into the centre of the field along with a few men holding them back. Then I don't really know what happened. There seemed to be a bit of commotion, someone was very excitedly giving commentary somewhere, there was a rise of dust, men running out of the way, and then cheering. Then the whole thing was repeated again.

I would have loved to have taken a closer look and got some really good photos but the place was exclusively men, so I didn't feel comfortable getting out of the car. I was also wearing a very brightly coloured dress that day and worried I might look like an attractive target for the bulls.

At the time, I was a bit worried that there would be a lot of pain involved for the animals and I was a bit uncomfortable watching, but having done some reading since the sport is actually bull-butting rather than the Spanish-style bullfighting. This means that the fighting is actually between two bulls and they lock horns for a bit before being separated. The winning bull is the one which either pushes the other to the ground or forces it to give up its ground.

As I mentioned, it all happened very quickly actually, sometimes the bulls just seemed to not be interested and ran off the other direction and three or four Omani men would be trying to hold them back.

If you are interested in trying to see some bull-butting, there is a ring in Barka (according to Trip Advisor) but the opening times are elusive. Friday seems to be the best day to maybe head down there and take a look, once it cools after 4pm, but I expect it's probably a winter activity and I am sure there will be nothing happening now that Ramadan is about to begin. I think what we saw must have been some sort of "unofficial" gathering, so maybe keep your eyes peeled for one of those.

This has to be the most unique things I have seen in Oman to date. I quite like the glimpse into local life, if you know of anything a little less testosterone-heavy then do let me know. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Diving: Confined water

Last weekend I finally made it out into the water to start my diving course. I've barely recovered from how tiring it was; but, weather withstanding, I'll finish tomorrow. Yay!

I'm training with Sea Legends, formerly known as Omanta, who are based at The Wave. Luckily, I have a female instructor and the learning is one-on-one. The course is broken down into stages, I've already mentioned the theory, and the first time you get into the water it is to do what are known as the "confined dives." This is where you get to learn all the basic skills you are going to need in water that isn't too deep and with air not too far up. Usually, this is done in a pool but it can be done in shallow water too. I would recommend if you have the option choosing shallow water, being in the ocean is obviously the real deal and you start to get used to the sensation of salt water in your eyes and up your nose.

The skills, although obviously very necessary, are also very scary. Underwater you have to do things like remove and replace your air source, flood and clear your mask, and also remove your mask completely and replace it. I expected having to voluntarily remove my air source would be the worst part, but, in fact, it was the mask removing that was the most difficult, not only can you not see but to clear the mask you need to blow through your nose. I don't have enough blow and I need to keep repeating the process and it's quite easy to end up snorting sea water and then wanting to cough and just spit everything out, which obviously isn't a good idea.

We had an umbrella for a bit of shade!
Once you have passed all the skills, you then move onto two shallow dives (6-12 metres) where you practice some of your new skills and also explore the surroundings. This part should have been massively exciting, finally seeing all the sea life! But all I could think about was breathing, I barely paid any attention to the fish. Actually, learning to dive reminds me of the first days of driving, before everything becomes automatic. There is a lot to think about, how much air do I have? Am I breathing too deeply? How do I stay on one level? Is that fish laughing at me?

Swimming with flippers is also more difficult than I expected. I managed to kick and kick and not move anywhere for the first dive. I actually moved backwards, which my instructor said she has never seen anyone do before.

Tomorrow I will do my final two dives, putting more skills into practice and, hopefully, ending the day as a certified open-water diver. I'll let you know how it goes.