Friday, March 19, 2010

Khasab, Oman

Map picture

Welcome to Khasab, Oman

I had been to the country of Oman on two prior occasions, but I had never even heard of Khasab, our port of call for today. It turns out that there is a good reason for that. The city of Khasab is located in a separate Governate from the country of Oman. The Governate is physically separated from the main country of Oman and is located to the North of Oman on what is called the Musandam Peninsula. The Governate is surrounded by three neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Oman itself is governed by a Sultan, and today is the first time that Crystal has made a call on this city, which has a population of only 18,000 people.

Docking was an interesting affair. There is only one very small dock, which our ship completely filled. The ship had to turn around out in the Gulf and back into the small harbor, where we nestled in among the smugglers, who actually overran the harbor. We are located right at the mid-point of the Strait of Hormuz. To our north, across the 35 mile wide Strait, is the country of Iran and the city of Bandar Abbas. The Strait is a strategic chokepoint through which 90% of the entire Gulf’s production of oil passes. We were told that on a really clear day, the mountains of Iran would be clearly visible.

Smuggling is clearly an open and honest trade here in Khasab. The harbor is filled with hundreds of little wooden boats which scurry into one of the many small docks lining the shore. The docks are piled high with merchandise which is all wrapped in plastic. It is loaded onto the little boats until they are so full that I can only imagine that from time to time some of them do not return. The docks are kept full of merchandise by a long and seemingly never ending line of small pickup trucks which are overfilled with plastic wrapped items: refrigerators, televisions, and electronics of all kinds. The little trucks are so full that their rear ends almost scrape the roadway. They arrive at the port and form several very long lines awaiting their chance to “clear” customs. Since this is a legal trade as far as Oman is concerned, the smugglers pay customs $15 for each plastic wrapped package in order to gain entrance to the docks - no questions asked.

The trip to Iran is a little under 2 hours we are told, and on the other end bribes are paid and the merchandise is offloaded. The merchandise is brought into the United Arab Emirates from China mostly, brought overland to Khasab and then taken to Iran. Our ship arrived just after dawn and departed right at sunset, and the smugglers were at a fever pitch this entire time. However, just as our ship was departing a significant change in the nature of the activity took place. Until now there had been an endless line of small motor boats loading and then departing across the Strait. At sunset, activity was winding down, and the last boats were being readied for the journey. However, these were not the little boats that had been so active all day long. Instead these were much larger wooden craft which were fitted with two huge engines at their stern. Each of the engines was carefully wrapped in heavy quilting material. As we were departing, and as if on cue, the docks emptied as over 100 of these boats raced each other out of the harbor ahead of us leaving an eerie silence over the entire scene. It was a strange sight and it took me some time to realize what I think I was seeing. These boats were the real smugglers! What goes on all day long is clearly done out in the open with the tacit approval of the Iranians – as long as they pay the required bribes. However, I believe this flotilla of larger boats with the silenced engines was trying to avoid paying bribes on the Iranian side. This is why they were making the trip in the dark and why their engines were so heavily wrapped in material. I don’t know this for a fact, but it is a good guess, because we heard that the Iranians will pick up a smuggler from time to time, and I am guessing it is not the little guy who is operating openly.

Lisa and I spent four hours touring this region. To our surprise it was a rugged mountainous area of beautiful sandstone cliffs. As recently as 1990, the region was inaccessible by car and even then only a rough track was cut between Khasab and the capital of Muscat. By 1997, the community had only 3 cars. The current Sultan assumed power in a palace coup against his father in 1970. Prior to that time, contact with the outside world was prohibited. Sometime after the new Sultan, outside contact was allowed. Oil was discovered and the Sultan wisely started to use Oman’s oil wealth for its people. Part of that growth was to build a magnificent road system, which today connects Khasab not only to Muscat, but to its neighbors. We drove along the coast road, which was an engineering marvel and which had been constructed by an American company. Curving along the mountainous coast, the drive offered magnificent scenery and a series of small fishing villages. Today all of the local families have at least two cars, and most now live in beautiful villas. The government is buying the old adobe homes and providing the owners land to construct new homes. Then they assist with obtaining long term financing for any balance. The old adobe homes are being bulldozed into history. When the Sultan took power, there were only 3 schools in the country, and today everyone is entitled to free education and I think I heard over 60,000 schools.

The Omanis are a very conservative and private people. While the area has magnificent beaches, we never saw anyone using them. We were told that men will swim, but that woman may not show their figures. Sometimes they will go swimming with all their clothes on. Interestingly we saw almost no women during our visit, only men. Since this area receives only 5 days per year of rain on average, the principle occupation is fishing, not farming. It was common to see men walking along the roadside carrying a big fish from the morning’s catch. They were taking it home for lunch. I am glad that we visited in winter, but even so the temperature was 93 degrees, and they say that summer is almost unbearable.

Our first stop was to visit Khasab Castle, a restored fortress built by the Portuguese in the 1600’s. From there, we drove the coast road for over an hour and were halfway to Dubai had we continued. We turned around at the small fishing village of Burka and returned for a quick tour of Khasab.

While there was not much to see in the region, the tour company made sure we saw what there was. It is interesting to see how a region with almost no resources and which is carved out of the surrounding mountains is being quickly brought into the 21st century. You might wonder how a city with only 18,000 people has the resources to handle a large cruise ship. The answer is simple, the personnel and coaches all drove in from Dubai.

Tomorrow we will travel to Al Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, another new experience.

PS The Pirates are BACK! Or so we are told! When we got to our room there was a letter from the Captain informing us that our travels over the next several days would take us directly into the main area of pirate activity. He informed us that there would be a muster of ALL ships personnel and passengers tomorrow to discuss the situation. Don’t know what is up yet, but hang on for more.

1 comment:

Sapna Anu B.George said...

I was searching for Muzanthum and landed in your page.I am an Indian, resident of Oman and a freelancer. It was totally informative.Good to meet you in Blog World.