Fretwell's Travel Journal: Chapter 7 -- Oman to Jordan.

April 9th -- We are nearly to Muscat, Oman, our stop for tomorrow and the next day. Muscat is the furthest we will proceed into the Arabian Sea towards the Gulf of Oman. Muscat is about 235 east-southeast of Dubai, and the same distance southeast of the Strait of Hormuz. Iran is directly across the Gulf, a mere 127 miles. We spent much of the day outside on deck 3, listening to the low waves rebound off the ship, watching the ocean's vast nothingness, reading, falling asleep, and reading some more. A wonderful day at sea.

April 10th and 11th -- We arrived at Muscat, capital of the Sultanate of Oman at 6:30 am on the 10th. It is a beautiful city with a metropolitan population of about 1.2 million. The city occupies 580 sq. miles of land, which sounds spacious, but much of the city is interspersed with steep rocks that are uninhabitable. Muscat is situated in the Western Al Hajar Mountains, which are very jagged limestone and sandstone upthrusts along transform faults, leaving the mountains at sharp angles. The setting is striking.

Oman is an absolute monarchy, under the rulership of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are firmly controlled by him, and the legislature has mostly only advisory powers with some very limited legislative capabilities of their own. The law of the land is Sharia law. Oman is not a self-rule country, by any means; nonetheless, it is a very well run country, one of the best in the Middle East. I would characterize it as a benevolent dictatorship, much like the one that started (founded) modern Singapore. The difference is that the benevolent dictator of Singapore eventually made it a democracy, when the education level was sufficient, and adequate governance was well in place. No such succession is planned in Oman.

The Omani people have free education, free health care, a government operated retirement system, a good standard of living, excellent government infrastructure, clean and beautiful cities, and no taxes. Oil is, of course, the reason for no taxes, and for much of the other wealth. In 2010 the UN ranked Oman as the most improved nation over the past 40 years. It is also categorized as a high income country. Its high standard of living cannot be sustained, however, because Oman's oil resources are far smaller than their neighboring countries', ranking 25th overall. It will be a country to watch over then next 50 years.

In the harbor where our cruise ship is docked is the Sultan's personal mini-cruise ship, the Al Said, which looks to be about a 250 passenger ship. It is a gleaming, spotless ship. I imagine it cost about as much as our Air Force One for our President. At the entrance to the harbor is Sultan Qaboos bin Said Palace in Muscat. I say "in Muscat" because it isn't his only palace.

The Portuguese came to Muscat in 1507, and conquered the territory. They built many circular defense towers on the high rocks around the harbor, and they still stand picturesquely today. One can see ancient cannons facing out over the waters from the small windows of the fortresses.

We took a shuttle bus from the ship to the Port's market (souk), called Mutrah Souk. The marketplace was built by the Sultanate, and is quite ornate, built much like the old Arab marketplaces one sees in old movies, with narrow alleyways leading off frequently to where ever they go. It is charming. We bought four cut-crystal perfume bottles, without perfume, and I bought an "old" ship's sextant -- something I've always wanted, but couldn't justify the cost for such a precision instrument. This one is almost certainly a knock-off, but it says 1917, has a British stamp, really is a precision device, and the price was more than fair.

The male dress of Oman is most often a white dishdasha, a simple collarless gown of ankle length. Women's dress is a more billowy gown of black. I remarked to Ardie that the men's all white dress is great for the hot days of Summer here, but the women's all black dress must be oppressively heat gathering. The local women here wear head covering, but not face covering, mostly. We saw a few local women with black veils over their faces, and one or two with mere eye slits in their black burkas.

Being a seaport, Muscat is a melting pot of many nationalities and perspectives, which invariably leads to more tolerant societies, so the social rigidity of some middle eastern countries seems greatly diminished here in Muscat, as is reflected in the women's headdress. But "greatly diminished" is a far cry from our "liberated." No native women with bare heads or sleeveless blouses here; but they do tolerate the bare headed, sleeveless ladies from the cruise ships.

Oman has not always been viewed so favorably as it is today. Prior to 1970, the old Sultan was despised by the people, and literacy rates were very low. His was a feudal and isolationist kingdom. The current sultan, his college educated, liberal son, deposed him in 1970 in a peaceful coup, and immediately began a program of bettering the life situation for the peoples of Oman, instituting free education, free health care, planned retirement, and numerous other social programs and modernizations of Oman.

Our impressions of Muscat are very favorable, and we'd not hesitate to return here for an off-the-ship vacation in one of the many hotels. It is a spotless city, and striking in its contrasts of white stucco buildings and dark towering rock mountains everywhere nearby.

April 12th -- Today is Ardie's birthday (69th). We are at sea, of course, with nothing but marine satellite telephone access, which costs $12.50 per minute plus unknown taxes; so, our kids are sending us voicemail messages, via MagicJack (which mysteriously is working now), for Ardie to listen to. I ordered balloons for her birthday on April 9th, for delivery on the 12th. They were delivered on the 10th, despite the written order for the 12th. Ah, well. It is hard to get reliable help on the high seas (grin). I gave Ardie a birthday card I bought before our trip. Other than that, the trip is her birthday present -- or at least that is what I'm telling her. The biggest gift she has is good health on this trip.

Today is the 33rd day of our trip, making it our half-way point, timewise. It has been very good so far. Later I will compare this cruise to our earlier 42 day cruise to Russia, Japan, Korea, China, and points beyond. They are so different in so many ways they deserve comparison. I honestly think that these hop-skip-and-jump overviews of countries are one of the best ways to begin to understand why the world's countries are so diverse in character. One sees the major differences in a very short time, which accentuates them.

Because it is a sea day, Ardie did laundry this morning -- on her birthday -- while I attended a lecture. Yes, I offered; no, she didn't want me doing the laundry.

We have regular morning lectures on days at sea. Today's lecture was by Dr. Helena S. Aves, an exploratory petroleum geologist from Raleigh, North Carolina, who has presented several excellent lectures this cruise on the geology of the countries we are visiting. Today her lecture was about the current oil-shale plays in the United States, with particular emphasis on the Bakken Formation in North Dakota.

She solidly trounced the advertisements by Exxon Oil that say oil shale will give the US long-term oil independence and clean gas for 100 years. She equally trounced the idea that the fracking of oil shales is a "proven technology" regarding environmental safety. These points are exactly what I have gathered earlier from considerable reading of articles by other real authorities on the issue. This is not, however, the stories most of our mainstream news media are providing.

Bakken frack wells have an average of 5 years life. They start out with a rush, and are down to 69 percent yield, on average, by the end of the first year; down to 39 percent by the end of the second year; and taper off to about 23 percent by the end of year 5, and this is considered excellent performance from wells that have had a significant "rehab" during this 5-year interval.

The best estimates now are that the Bakken Formation will play out no later than 2035, with the peak yields in 2016. The big oil companies like Exxon and Shell are already bailing out, leaving it to the smaller players. Current best estimates are that the Bakken's total oil recovery will be an amount equal to about 1 1/2 years of US oil consumption. This still amounts to billions and billions of dollars worth of oil; but it surely is not anywhere close to giving the US energy independence.

As for Exxon's promise of clean natural gas, because there is no delivery system for natural gas from the Bakken wells, it is almost all being flared off. The lifespan of the field is too short to justify development of gas pipelines, so the best option is to liquefy the gas, and sell the LNG (liquefied natural gas) on the international market, where it will bring three to four times the price here in the States.

But that may not even happen, because an LNG plant is also horrendously expensive, and wouldn't come online until the field is almost played out.

We are so often misled by big corporations, and the media no longer seems to know or even care. When reality finally becomes obvious to the public, the players involved will, predictably, all feign surprise.

I just finished reading another really fascinating book, titled "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," by Jared Diamond. It was a Pulitzer Prize winning book when it came out in 1997, but I missed it then. I acquired it on this trip because of my interest in the developmental differences in the countries we are seeing. The book focuses on the root causes of different development rates of basic human knowledge, technologies, skills, and societal complexity in different countries. It is archeologically sound, and most fascinating. I won't attempt to summarize it, as any summary would take pages and pages. It is sufficient to say that it is a real eye opener to the real factors governing differences in human development. And they are not the ethnic differences that most people deem causative.

April 13th -- We arrived in Salalah, Oman at 8:00 am this morning, and it took port authorities an unusually long time to allow us to debark, so every tour was about 45 minutes late. Fortunately, ours was a short, 4-hour tour today, so it didn't really matter.

We visited the Sultan's regular palace, mostly a waste of time because it is surrounded by a solid concrete fence about 12 ft. high that hides all but the dome and tower. The outside lawn and gardens are very nice, however.

We drove along a beautiful sandy beach devoid of Omanis, drove through much of Salalah (interesting), and drove high into the surrounding mountains to visit the tomb of Job (almost certainly a fake). We passed through two climate zones, but our guide didn't know anything about the geology nor about the vegetation of his own country, other than one of the green trees was a wild olive. I think he got that one wrong too, because it had broad, deep green leaves, instead of the narrow silvery-green leaves so characteristic of olive trees. Our tour guide said he attended the university, but his knowledge level about anything except the Holy Koran left me in doubt. He said his father owned 100 camels. I believed that one.

The good part of the tour was seeing a lot of Oman's topography, from the coastal lowlands to the high mountains. This was very interesting. The rocks look so jagged and dark I was fooled into thinking they were basalt, but I am now quite convinced that all of the country we saw was formed from uplifted seabed, and is old limestone, covered with much desert varnish. My internet time is too expensive for me to thoroughly investigate this yet.

The climate is very arid, averaging less than four inches of rainfall per year near the coastline cities, and very little vegetation is supported there. The "wadis" or dry streambeds coming off the mountains are the rare areas that support most of the lowland vegetation, and not very much even there.

As one travels higher into the hills, the trees become prolific, but they are all scrub trees (Acacias?) that have almost no leaves during the dry season, but apparently sprout quickly and bloom profusely during the monsoons of June and July. Near the top of the mountains we encountered trees that have rich green leaves, due to the increased rainfall at these high elevations. A few of the high mountains of Oman get as much rainfall as our semi-arid home town of Mesa, Arizona, and support more luxuriant desert vegetation.

We stopped, examined, and photographed several frankincense trees. At this time of year they are mostly leafless, runty little trees that have an almost birch-like paper bark. When the bark of a frankincense tree is cut or damaged, the tree oozes a white, pitchy sap that hardens into crystals of frankincense, harvested for their incense value to many Arabs. Both frankincense and myrrh are pitchy incenses that are burned regularly, according to our guide, as part of Arab belief that they bring good luck and ward off bad luck. Tons and tons of these pitchy saps are harvested and sold throughout the Arab world.

The best part of the trip today was the camels. Oman has about 50,000 of these ungainly creatures. We saw perhaps 200 of them today as we traveled from Salalah to the top of the adjacent mountains. Many were standing or lying beside the highway, right on the road, or in the shallow ditch beside the road. Many others were browsing on bushes, or grazing on almost non-existent grasses beside the roadway. Our tour guide claims they are great animals: great milk, great tasting meat, and quite loveable. I don't think I'm going to get attached to them enough to call them loveable, but seeing them in the wild I can start to appreciate just how superbly they are adapted to this exceedingly harsh, dry terrain. They are indeed fun to watch. We saw several very young ones. I got a picture of one going through a gated archway at "Job's" tomb, and in the picture it looks like it is coming out of a house. I know better, but it makes a great picture.

April 14, 15, 16, 17 -- We now have 4 days at sea, headed for Al 'Aqabah, Jordan to visit Petra. In leaving Salalah, we are departing the last port that Captain Phillips was at before his freighter was hi-jacked by Somali pirates. We will be leaving Oman, and passing by Yemen on our starboard side, and Somalia will be on our port side. We are staying in the middle of the Arabian Sea to keep our distances to shore at a maximum. Ships lights are dimmed at night, and curtains are drawn. Such a large ship cannot travel without lights, but Holland America feels that minimizing our lights helps hide us from the primitive pirates. (In case you are interested, I have photographed the Captain's message to us passengers concerning piracy, and have included it as a .pdf copy attached to this email. It says nothing particularly noteworthy, but it is interesting.)

We passed from the Arabian Sea through the narrows into the Red Sea at about 1:30 pm on the 15th. Land is visible on either side of us at about seven kilometers, so the distance is easily crossed by small craft. The captain has the ship at near maximum speed, claiming that we can outrun any pirates. I doubted this; but the positive news is that we have passed by Somalia, and are now between Djibouti and Yemen.

On the 16th we had Saudi Arabia on our starboard side and Sudan on our port side. Unfortunately, because we are sticking to the center of the Red Sea, we can't see either country. We passed by Mecca, but didn't bow in that direction. Didn't even tip our hats. Utter infidels with regard to bowing towards Mecca; but neither did I spit in that direction. They are free to believe what they will -- just so long as they don't require me to believe as they do.

On the 17th we have Egypt on our port side and Saudi Arabia still on our starboard. Once again, we see neither country, just miles of the Red Sea. Sometime during the night we will pass out of the Red Sea and into the Gulf of Aqaba, heading towards Al 'Aqabah and Petra. Once in the Gulf, we will have Egypt on our port and Israel on our starboard, and should be able to see land on both sides -- except it will all be night passage, sigh.

I am sending this chapter, as uninformative as it may be, because I don't want it to become too lengthy, which it might if I wait to tell about Petra. So you'll have that to look forward to in the next chapter.

.PDF file of the Captain's Letter regarding pirates.

-- Marvin O. Fretwell, 4/17/2014

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