For the purposes of an assignment on writing about where you know, I’m going to have to pretend that this hotel is my hometown.
That’s because after journeying through some 54 different countries, the place from where I first set out has become about as vague to me as the details of some old, Jim Bean-fuelled transgression. Where was it exactly? when did travelling begin? The first holiday, or the first foreign tax bill?
But there were trees back then, I recall, and a beach. And it rained – often.
At this hotel in Oman’s capital, Muscat, there are none of those things. Instead, there’s a range of Martian-bleak mountains tight up behind, and the beach here stretches for about a thousand miles inland.
And no, there’s no rain. Almost ever.
And instead of clay cliffs gradually sloughing off big chunks into the English Channel – much to the consternation of the cliff-top local golf club – the place where I am now clings close to the feet of the Al Hajar mountains, squeezed between them and the Indian Ocean’s rolling turquoise.
I’m here in Muscat to write about Oman’s now-booming economy, courtesy of an English publisher of business guides, and for that reason, I am on my way now to meet Nidheesh Nair, the hotel’s GM.
The hotel/hometown he presides over sits amidst a tumble of houses and low-rises, rather than lining up in the long rollout of baby-boomer estates, retirees’ Dun Roamins and mock-Tudor pubs where I grew up. The smell here is of dust and rogan josh, cardamom coffee and dishdasha sweat – not chips and Sunday roasts, salt air and damp.
As the boss, Nidheesh is a bit like the mayor of my hometown – except he’s from India, rather than Bournemouth. But in any case, he is friendly, apologetic for his perfect English, and recovering from a bout of chicken pox.
“People look at my face” – it’s spotted with sultana-sized freckles – “and don’t know what to say,” he muses, as I fight back the urge to gawp. “But really, it’s quite common here, with the sun, the dust. Sometimes people even catch it twice.”
The name of our hotel-hometown is the Crystal Suites, something that conjures up an odd mix of images for me, from meth amphetamine to ‘70s disco. The latter thought is aided too by the fluctuating multi-coloured neon that traces the hotel’s name, in both Arabic and English, above its solid frontage.
I cast an eye over the newspaper on the desk. It’s open at an item on the chances of a plague of locusts hitting the nearby farms. And as for that other apocalyptic horseman, war, well, this is the Middle East.
To my surprise, Nidheesh then explains that my hotel/hometown is just six years old, rather than six hundred. The faded lack-of-grandeur of the MDF furniture in my room is more to do with the harsh Arabian air than old age.
“Life is pretty relaxed here,” Nidheesh then adds, after what seems to have been a long time. “Slow and steady.”
And then, there’s another long pause. The silence slowly suffocates the time – enough for us to lose track of what it was I’d asked, and even, what it is exactly that we’re doing here.
But eventually, Nidheesh stirs in the tepid office air and concludes: “We like it that way.”
We both smile.
I think I like it that way too.
And maybe that’s why I’m here, why it’s ok for those real ‘hometown’ memories to fade away.
Right now though, the afternoon sun is sitting heavily on the city’s chest. It’s 42C outside, no rain, no trees. Slowly and steadily, I get up and go.
Time for some more of taking it easy.