24 March 2011

Mixing over the fish masala in coastal Oman

Fishermen haul in their nets at sunset in the harbor at Sur, Oman.

SUR, Oman—The dusty downtown that I passed through early afternoon yesterday had more goats than people, but by evening it was brightly lit and teeming with shoppers, workers, pedestrians and even a handful of western tourists.

Traveling alone makes it easy for me to retreat into solitude, but I have tried to stretch myself and mix. A couple of days ago after a swim in the Gulf of Oman outside the village of Ras Al Hadd some 47 kilometers east of here, I picked up three boys, who appeared to be no older than, say, 13, and were hitching a ride back to Sur. They spoke as much English as I speak Arabic, but we overcame the quiet and amused ourselves listening to some Arabic pop music on the radio of my rental car. (If popular music has any universal qualities, they must include anemic vocalizations of an indeterminate gender and smarmy string sections.)

On my way to Ras Al Hadd, the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula and where I was I told were the cleanest beaches in the area, I stopped by a coffee shop and chatted with its operator, an Indian Muslin from Mumbai who says he has worked and lived in Oman for 20 years. I stopped by the shop again yesterday while cruising in and around Sur and the coffee that I paid 150 baisas for a day earlier cost me 100 baisas. (Ah, the rewards of friendship.) With two of his male relatives, we watched some live televised testimony of the Indian Prime Minister before the Legislature. “India has many problems,” he told me. The search for employment and a living wage explained his presence in Oman and much of the Indian global diaspora, he said. “Your people appear to be everywhere,” I agreed.

The fish masala that evening at the restaurant in downtown Sur—Arabic, Indian and Chinese foods are common menu items in Oman—was quite good and my primary source of entertainment was a pair of middle-aged Omani men who appeared to be complaining about every aspect of their food and service. After their meal, the gruffer of the two, who had kept glancing at me while eating, walked over to my table and took a toothpick from the dispenser on my table. “Welcome to Oman,” he said before turning and leaving.

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