Sunday, 14 November 2010
The Amazing Race 17, Episode 8
St. Petersburg (Russia) - Muscat (Oman) - Jebel Shams (Oman) - Nizwa (Oman) - Muscat (Oman)
This week's travel travails for the cast of The Amazing Race 17 in Oman centered on the lack of accurate maps and the difficulty of asking directions -- the same issues that we experienced in Doha, in the nearby Emirate of Qatar, a few years ago, and that I discussed during the previous season of the race.
Those who think of the Arabian Peninsula as a flat desert whose highest features are sand dunes may have been surprised to see the racers rappelling down the slopes of a 10,000-foot mountain. But the part of Oman the racers visited isn't the only mountainous portion of Arabia. Yemen's capital, San'a'a, is situated more than 7,500 feet above sea level, in a bowl surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks that -- so a pilot we talked to told us, and so we observed -- require approaching planes to make a relatively steep diving approach to the airport. Just across the Red Sea, the capitals of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa) and Eritrea (Asmara) are at similar altitudes, making these three of the world's highest capital cities after La Paz (Bolivia) and Quito (Ecuador).
I've heard good things from friends who've been to Oman, especially those who had time to get out of Muscat and into the mountains. But it's not primarily a "tourist" destination. Most visitors come there either on business or as a stopover during a through journey between other places on Oman Air. One of the nice things about visiting a place like this is that you are more likely to be treated as a guest than as a tourist.
However, there's a good reason for "The Amazing Race" to go to the Arabian Peninsula this week: This is the week of the Hajj, the world's largest annual travel event. You might not realize it from most of the travel guidebooks or literature by and for non-Muslims, but the scale of the Hajj and Umrah makes Saudi Arabia by some measures the world's foremost travel destination. Catholics may wish to be blessed by the Pope, but it's not an article of faith that they must do so at least once in their life if they are able.
It's easy for non-Muslims to forget the centrality of the Hajj (and Umrah pilgrimages at other times of year) to Arabian travel and tourism. Non-Muslims are not allowed into Mecca or Medina. I've seen these holy cities from the air, on a flight from Sana'a to Cairo, but that's as close as I ever expect to get. It's at least theoretically possible for a non-Muslim to get a visa to visit other parts of Saudi Arabia as a tourist, but only as part of a sponsored and approved group tour.
But none of this, nor lack of belief in Islam, should blind anyone to the significance of the Hajj. By all accounts, its scale and character make it sui generis as a travel as well as a religious event. Significantly, what has stood out in the impression of many Hajjis -- including such Muslim Americans as Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali -- has been its profound, almost unique, combination of cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism almost as much as its religious elements. And to say even that is something of a distortion, since many would argue that this very egalitarianism in diversity is itself central to the value system of the Islamic faith.
Do all Muslims practice this aspect of their professed faith, any more than all Christians practice Christian charity? Of course not. But I suspect that some of the particular character of the welcome and hospitality I've received in Muslim-majority places relates to values that have been reinforced by the travel experiences of local people who've made the Hajj. In that way, I'd like to think that I may have gotten a little closer to Mecca in my own travels elsewhere in the Islamic world than even when I was looking down on it through the haze from 30,000 feet.
I'll be in the (Sonoran) desert this week in Arizona at the PhoCusWright conference of travel executives. But I'll be thinking about that this week as more than two million people converge on Mecca.Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 14 November 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)