For the Smell of It

Fragrant spices in Muscat
Fragrant spices at Carrefour in Muscat

“Where is that?”

“Why are you going there?”

“Why would you go to the Middle East now?”

This is what Spice and I were asked when we told people we were going to Oman. Our short answer was “For the smell of it.”

We probably first heard about Oman from Homer, an oil-and-gas engineer who was doing business there in the ‘80s. He talked about the jagged mountains, clarity of the stars in the desert skies and how well the kingdom was governed by Sultan Qaboos.

About 10 years ago Spice came home excited about a perfume made in Oman. That heightened her interest in the country, as did an article she read about the frankincense trail in Oman’s Empty Quarter. I was too busy to give it much thought.

The company I was president of had been embroiled in a maritime border dispute between Guyana and Suriname. It was settled in Le Hague in 2007 and to celebrate the ruling, there was a party in Virginia in late November. Braving a storm that delayed flights all day, Galo, a world expert in maritime boundary delimitation arrived late from Nova Scotia. He joined the group Spice and I were in, where the topic of discussion was travel.

“Has anybody ever travelled for fragrance?” he asked. Surprised, everyone turned to Galo. “You’ve all heard of frankincense, one of the three gifts of the Magi,” he began and, spellbound (as the courts likely are when he presents his cases), we listened to Galo outline one of the main reason he travels to Oman.

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. Fishing is Oman’s second industry and camping here at Ras Madrakah, you get a whiff of it.

After further research we discovered we could hike from village to village in mountain air perfumed by roses growing on terraced fields—but we learned the hard way that you have to wait until early April for this experience. We could enjoy the ocean air by camping anywhere on a beach off the Gulf of Oman under the stars—and what a great time that was—as you’ll see in a future post. And experience a few other smells we’re not used to, like that of the goat souk at Nizwa every Friday—and each other after a few days in the desert heat without a shower—funky.


Hack, Susan. “In the Cradle of Scent,” Condé Nast Traveller, May 2008, p. 98-100.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Postcard from East Africa,” Condé Nast Traveller, September 2015, p. 124-131. Spice, who once heard Jonathan interviewed at the New Yorker Writers’ Festival, recommends his latest novel, Purity.

10 Responses

    1. And some of it is the good stuff, the greenish-white lobes that they dissolve in water, bottle and sell as medicinal remedies for everything from arthritis to acne. (We have served it; it’s quite good.) I’m also planning to make frankincense ice cream. Still, I think we have a lifetime supply.

  1. One of your pictures, covers the last bits of the story.
    Indeed we always talk about variety being the spice of life.?

    If you think of any meal without any spice you immediately are taken back to any hospital food you have ever had, bland takes on new meaning, nothing against hospital cooks as not everyone is allowed salt etc. But sans spice is sans flavour and taste, yuk.
    I am not sure how but several years back I lost about 95 % of smelling sense, I can tell you this impacts your enjoyment of many things, food is just not the same nor is the enjoyment of any nature related topic as in flowers, trees, fresh dew in the morning grass and just the seasonal smells we grow so accustomed to having, the only plus is missing out on pulp mills and other unpleasant doors, see a plus after all.
    Never fear, the lack of delectable food doors does not prevent food enjoyment and intake, my body can attest to that. ?
    The market picture gives us all just a hint of what we have for choices in the spice world, no wander our forefathers travelled great distances to gain access to these simple pleasures, perfect.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You might enjoy an excellent book on the historical spice odyssey, Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans.

    1. Bring those smells to your kitchen—there’s a new cookbook called The Food of Oman by Felicia Campbell. Tried one of her recipes (Tamarind Beef Kebabs) last night and gave it a 9/10.

  2. For me smells are a great memory jogger. Sam bought me an ultrasonic nebulizer for my birthday so Pat bought me Saje frankincense drops because we so enjoyed the frankincense you burned many evenings while we were in Palm Springs. Your picture of the spice market reminds me of the Indian market in Durban, S. Africa. Great pics

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