Country number 85.
MUSCAT, Oman- The two ladies sitting next to me on the flight from Dubai to Muscat were from Uganda. The plane was conspicuously loaded with them but they didn’t seem to be traveling as part of a coordinated group. This struck me as interesting. I started asking questions.
The girls next to me told me that they were all going to Muscat to work as servants — or maybe “domestic engineer” is now the polite term — in the homes of wealthy Omanis. Both had never been to Oman before and neither had ever been on a plane. They were going into the unknown.
“Are you afraid?” I asked.
“No, I’m not afraid,” one of them replied, paused, and then retracted, “Maybe I’m a little afraid.”
An hour later I was in Oman. Country number 85, I believe.
The airport in Muscat is new. It just opened a couple of weeks ago and everybody seems proud of it. Rightly so. The place is an example of good design. Rather than going for an institutional, bright florescent, and white washed clinical feel they went for a warm feel, with golden incandescents softly lighting the corridors and radiating off of brown and tan walls. The look made you feel relaxed, and the lines of passengers walked slowly to the immigration desks rather than tensely scurrying ahead.
I handed my passport over to the immigration inspector. She thumbed through it, looking at all of the pages, and then just sat there for a long moment as she rapped her thumb against the edge like a flip book. She didn’t say anything; she wasn’t looking at anything on her monitor. She just sat there looking off across the room at the gathering travelers arrayed in rows. What is she doing? Then suddenly she shrugged, stamped me in, and handed my passport back with a smile.
I decided to take the bus into Muscat rather than getting a taxi. Bus = $1. Taxi =$25. It wasn’t much of a decision, but knowing when to get off would be slightly challenging. But I had already purchased a SIM card and could track my progress on a map.
The ride from the airport is usually the quintessential introduction to a country. You start out far out of the city center — oftentimes in a complexly different city — and you get to watch as the countryside turns to industrial suburb which turns to residential suburbs which turns to slums which eventually gives way to the city proper.
I jumped off the bus too early. Muscat is a city on the Arabian Peninsula, and cities on the Arabian Peninsula tend to be very spread out and highway dependent. I stood on the side of the highway and looked around. Cars. Road. Nothing. Normal for here. I began walking.
I walked for around an hour in the morning heat. It wasn’t too bad. After being in semi-cold Europe for a couple of months it felt good. I found my hotel and received a surprise at check in.
“This is Safeer Hotel. Your booking is at Safeer Hotel Suites. But I can give you a discount on a room if you want to stay here.”
I flagged a taxi and went to the right hotel. As I was checking in my friend Moni walked in behind me. It was the first time that I was to meet him in person.
I first got in touch with Moni a year and a half ago while working on a series of articles about Indian demonetization for Forbes. He was one of my main sources, and as the project wore on we became more familiar with each other and eventually became friends. Then when I began working on some stories about the new city of Duqm in Oman, Moni got in touch telling me that he lives in Oman and actually did the environmental and social impact assessments for this massive development.
What? I thought you were Indian. What are you doing living in Oman?
It turned out that, while Indian and having an Indian passport, Moni actually grew up in Muscat — and he wasn’t alone. There are nearly a half million Indians living and working here. In fact, half of the people living in Oman are foreigners. One net migrant arrives in Oman every 4 minutes. There’s a running joke that they do all of the work — which probably isn’t too far from the truth.
This is a country run by middle men.
However, although there’s so many foreigners living and working in Oman there are not any green-card-like programs or ways for them to secure their position in the country. Even though Moni grew up here from the time that he was a child, if he is not officially employed he needs to leave. In fact, when his parents retired after decades of working in relatively high-ranking positions in Muscat they were given around a month to pack up their things and get out.
“I’m a third culture kid,” Moni said. “A TCK.”
We ate lunch at a nearby mall. I believe I ordered tandoori chicken. Moni gave me a good run down of the economic and cultural background of Oman.
We then got in a taxi and went to Muttrah. I had no idea where I was going but Moni told me that we could get beer there so I found no reason to object.
Muttrah Souq is one of the old trading areas of Muscat, and kind of wraps around the port. Indians have been living and trading here for 150 years, and many of the families that came over long ago are still here today, running little shops and stalls. Moni tells me that they still need to get business visas.
I interviewed Moni for my series of articles about Duqm in a cafe that overlooked the port. He was eloquent and detail oriented, as usual.
The guy is a researcher in the purest form. It’s not just his job, it’s what he does. He has a variety of topics that he positions himself as an authority on, and when I cover these topics I’m always sure to pin him as a source.Moni could also be described as completely unique. He isn’t Omani, didn’t grow up in India, and has parents who — I’m assuming — are relatively “modern,” so he never really had many cultural parameters to hem in his character and outlook. Although I don’t think it would have mattered much if he did. Some people are just plopped into life on their own path.
I had a couple more interviews to do that day so I invited Moni to come along. We went to Al Mouj — The Wave — part of the city, which is this new development for … the super wealthy that has malls and marinas and all that stuff that the super wealthy like living around everywhere in the world.
Al Mouj wasn’t a bad place, and oddly had the feel of a village. Moni and I walked by the marina and then hung out in a Starbucks and waited for the people I was interviewing to arrive. They showed up, and I went to work.