The thing about long-term traveling is that, while you get to experience a plethora of new sights, cultures, and cuisine, the longer you’re away, the more you long for home. Such was the case with us as we left southern India just a couple weeks ago. We’d been on the road for six months and our hearts and minds were just as eager to get home as they were to move on to the next new country. The beauty of our next stop was that it delivered both – the intrigue of the road and the comforts of home, at the same time. The country: Oman.
Forced to leave India for a new visa, we were planning to go to Sri Lanka. But after four months in southern Asia, we were looking for a change. We’d been forced to rely on public transportation, eat out every meal, and navigate our way through the filth that unfortunately tarnishes so much of the charm of the developing world. Oman was the perfect antidote. From its people and culture to its cities and countryside, most of Oman is quite clean, and much of it modern – some may even call it posh. However, because of the terrain and tourism infrastructure there (or lack thereof, in most cases), we were forced to rent an SUV. Without such a vehicle we wouldn’t have been able to explore the depths of the Wahiba Sands, or the mountain realms of Jebel Shams and Ahkdar. Although we got a great deal on the Toyota Fortuner¹, such a vehicle isn’t cheap, so we bought groceries and some rudimentary camping supplies (sleeping bags and a mat and pillow; a small gas stove, a pot, and 18 ramen noodle packets; and a couple loaves of bread, peanut butter, and nutella) and about half the time, camped in the car and cooked/made our own meals to save money. Our first day in Oman was dedicated to, after sleeping in until nearly noon, the accumulation of these things at the Walmart-esque big box store, Carrefour. We were ready: a good old fashion American style road trip, right through the heart of the Middle East.
We couldn’t have started our sojourn into Arabia at a more appropriate place: The Grand Mosque of Muscat. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a Islamic mosque before, but the feeling of peace that washes over you in a place of such of refined religiosity is at once spiritual and material. Our reward for arriving early were courtyards, gardens, and domes untouched by the chatter of other tourists. Because she was wearing short sleeves, Jenna was required to don the hijab and abaya (the full-body gown worn by devout Muslim women), and I must say, she made it look quite sleek. After walking the grounds and prayer halls for an hour or so, we wandered into the Islamic center, a place meant to inform those from other faiths and cultures about Islam. I sat there next to a Hindu man from India and across from two Muslim men, dressed in their distinctive floor length white robes and perfectly wrapped head scarves. After about 45 minutes of spirited dialogue on religion, we were preparing to leave when one of the men I had been talking with, Abdulwahab, invited us to his home for lunch. Although we were planning to head next to the National Museum across town, we thought, “What better way to experience and understand Omani culture than an impromptu immersion like this?”
Like all homes in Oman, Abdulwahab’s was surrounded by a tall, cement block wall and was a sort of townhouse, where his family occupied the southeast quadrant of a much larger overall structure. We only saw the family room but it was immaculately clean and mostly white, with an intricate Persian rug stretching its 25-foot length. Around the perimeter of the room were benches with cushions and pillows on which the guests sat. We weren’t the only westerners in the lot; in fact, among others, there was a fellow American with us – a Harvard PhD candidate researching the connection between the Muslim faith in Oman and Tanzania; an expat from England who’d been living in Oman for 15 years; and Abdulwahab’s cousin, who now lives in England but came back for a visit; and it was he who was credited with cooking our vast feast. There were foods from all over: Italian, Greek, Yemeni, Indian, that I can remember, and it was spread out along the length of the room on the floor atop a long plastic sheet, the main purpose of which was to protect the carpet from spillage. About 16 of us sat on the floor and tried our darnedest to put a dent in this heavenly dinner but there was simply too much food. I was left stuffed and comatose, retaining just enough energy to carry on a conversation with Abdulwahab as he recounted the time he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. After a hearty meal and conversation, he sent us away with a Garmin GPS. We were happier to have the opportunity to see him one more time before we left (to return the GPS), than we were to even have the GPS in the first place. This was the first of many times when the people of Oman were unconditionally welcoming, and as much as anything, it was the people that made our time there so special.
Day two ended just as day one had, with the full moon rising over the Arabian Sea, this time with Jalali Fort and the Grand Palace of Al Alam lighting up the horizon in between. Driving through the dark later, we found a pulloff on a bluff overlooking the sea at which to camp. We arose the next morning to the sun ascending slowly over the ocean waves while the full moon was just setting behind the Al Hajar Mountains, set ablaze by the low angle light from above and reflecting off the ocean laid out below. A better opportunity for some mellow cliff jumping there had never been. After a handful of jumps and a couple easy but hella sharp deep water solos back up, we sped the one kilometer over Bimmah sink hole, getting there right as it opened at 9:00 am. We were the first ones at this dot of turqoise in the otherwise earthen desert landscape, so I took advantage of the 60 foot drop into the deep blue half of the crescent shaped pool below. My feet slapped the water so hard that I was hobbled walking back to the car, but this jump equalled the other two highest jumps of my life, compensating for whatever pain I may have only temporarily felt.
Next up, our third water event of the day: Wadi Shab. This may have been my favorite activity in all of Oman. After a short hike into a canyon, following a creek the whole way, we came to a handful of pools of clear fresh water as teal as I’d ever seen. Swimming upstream, we came to a cleft in the wall at the back of the final pool. It was about a foot wide at the waterline and broader below, stretching into the rock for about 50 feet. In one of the most surreal moments of my life, we swam through this narrow channel, lit up from below by the luminescence reflecting up through the water, until it opened up into pool, illuminated by a single shaft of light radiating down from the top of the cave, with a waterfall cascading down into it. We felt like we were in the Goonies and had just found One-Eyed Willy’s secret lair. Thoroughly satisfied but still with miles to go before we slept, we headed further east, stopping at the deserted fort (our first of many) at the seaside city of Sur, and soaking in the last light of the day as we dug our feet into the sand at the northeasternmost tip of the Arabian peninsula. We had planned on seeing sea turtles nesting that night but the tour was so crowded and we were so exhausted, we just said forget it and rolled into our second camp spot, again in the darkness.
Waking up, we were greeted by towering golden cliffs perched behind a beach of soft sand. After barefoot bouldering up the arete of a 12-foot tall chunk of sandstone that had come dislodged from the escarpment above and tumbled down, I was heading back to the car to check out the other side of the beach where fishermen were beginning to assemble for the day’s work/leisure. I noticed a pickup barrelling down the road, kicking up dust as it careened toward the parking lot in which we’d camped the night before and where Jenna continued to sleep. Standing up in the back of the truck, holding onto the rollbar, were four men with turbans and robes, two of them with long beards blowing in the wind. After a lifetime of cultural brainwashing, a feeling of unfounded dread swept over me briefly, but long enough for me to consciously take notice and question it. Would I have had the same feeling if it had been four western fellas instead of four Arabic guys in headscarves and robes? I honestly wasn’t sure.
Moments later, as I was making for the southern half of the beach, I heard a shout come from my right a short distance away. Beneath a sunshade, some guys had gathered for breakfast, at least a couple of them probably the same gents I’d seen ramble in a moment ago in the back of the pickup. An older gentleman motioned for me to come over. I’m usually cautious about approaching a group of people I don’t at all know, especially in a place I’m not entirely familiar with, but my sense of universal decorum led me to heed the old man’s request. As I approached, I could see that they were eating oranges and grapes and, in Arabic and hand motions, the old man invited me to sit down and join them. I could tell in no time that the lot was harmless, so I took a seat. After about 20 minutes of bread breaking, I was preparing to take my leave and one of the guys from the truck asked to walk the beach with me. About halfway down, we were joined by a friend of his and a couple of young boys. They showed me some ruins just off the beach and as we were returning to the parking area, a small skiff filled with fish pulled up on the shore in front of us. People converged on the boat from all sides and started picking out a fish or two to take home with them as the fishermen who’d brought in this copious pescatarian bounty tossed fish after fish into crates. Everyone walked away from the boat with at least one free fish in tow, including me; they simply wouldn’t let me say no! Moments later, I opened the back door of our rental car with one hand, while struggling to keep the fish from slipping out of the other. “Babe,” I said, as gently as I could, while simultaneously straining to hold back my laughter, “Wake up…it’s 8:00, and I’ve got a present for you.” I guess those guys with beards and turbans in the back of the truck weren’t all that dangerous after all.
After a breakfast of boiled fish, we drove further down the coast for one last half-day of relaxing on the beach before heading up to the Wahiba Sands, a vast desert of soaring sand dunes, roaming camels, oasis villages, and magical dark night skies. We reached the southern dunes as the sun was dropping in the late afternoon sky, so we decided to drive in and camp there, taking long-exposure shots to pass the time as we waited for a still nearly full waxing gibbous moon to peak over the distant eastern dunes. The next day, we drove further into the heart of the undulating landscape to hike to the top of the highest dunes we could find. By this point, we’d seen a few groups of camels wandering the desert, but the next quartet of droopy faced, docile beasts was our favorite. These ones were so interested in us that when we pulled over to take a look at them, they just came up and surrounded me. Walking and talking with them, petting them for a good twenty minutes, it felt like they were our desert pets. I’d seen a local boy squirm onto the back of one of them earlier, so I knew the drill, and feeling a good connection to the one camel, I figured I’d give it a try. She held still long enough for me to writhe my way up onto her big single hump but then she didn’t go anywhere, just standing there with me straddling her as I petted her neck and Jenna snapped a classic. Later that evening, after another meal of Ramen noodles (as was our dinner ritual), I wandered through the darkness up into the dunes to see if I could spy any shooting stars. Laying on my back, I glimpsed a single meteor before falling asleep, only to wake up in a very disorienting kind of way – in the pitch blackness of an endless sea of sand dunes, and then stumble back downhill to crawl into the back of the Fortuner for yet another fitful night’s sleep. As per usual, we woke up early for sunrise the next day and grabbed a leisurely breakfast in Al Gabbi at a cafe owned by one of many Keralan Indians we met there. Later we spirited over to a sublime, if surprisingly developed Wadi Bani Khalid, another oasis of blue and green, to wash days worth of sea salt and sand from our grimy selves in its warm, crystalline, spring-fed waters.
After this much needed cleansing, we cruised for hours through the desert to Nizwa, one of the ancient cultural capitals of the country. As the sun was ending its descent, we happened upon an abandoned village in the middle of the small city of Izki. The village was comprised of about 100 or so dwellings, some as tall as three stories, made of mud and brick, most of which were in various stages of demise, with ceilings caving in or walls crumbling down, the whole of it encircled by a wall of similar composition. By the looks of the place, it could have been thousands of years old or a hundred, but as we ascended one of the taller structures, the low angle solar glare on the peaks to the north of town reminded us of the Catalina Foothills back home. We were taken back, if only for a moment, to the sand colored angular buildings and canyon-carved ranges of Tucson, when, just as the sun’s light flickered out, a dozen mosques began their evening prayer. The chants projected from loudspeakers atop each mosque’s minaret, reverberating around the walls of the lost city, in a moment of surreality, transported us from the visages of Arizona back to Arabia. As hypnagogic as the lost city of Izki was, its scale and eminence paled in comparison to what we’d see the following couple days at the pristine Jabrin Castle, housing a museum that is a masterpiece of Omani history; Bahla’s massive fort, an incomprehensible maze-like testament to the might of Oman’s medieval past; and the newly constructed Nizwa Grand Mosque, the epitome of religious tranquility – we were the only westerners there.
The sun setting behind the Grand Mosque in Nizwa ushered in a new chapter to our time in Oman: the Al Hajar Mountains. Our first foray into the highlands was up a very steep, 4-wheel drive road to the region of Jebel Ahkdar the following day. After exploring the abandoned ruins of Wadi Bani Habib, nestled on a hillside at about 7000 feet, we decided to get lunch in a neighboring town. While we were waiting for our meals, a slight man, with a bright smile, approached us with the predictably common, “Where you from?” line. Having answered this question more than a few times on our travels, we were hesitant to engage anyone, but this time, for whatever reason, it felt like authentic curiosity on his part, rather than wholly a ploy to extract money. After talking with him for a few minutes, we invited him to sit with us while we ate and by the time we were finished with our meal, he’d agreed to show us where he worked (as a foreman on a high-end residential build) and a cool viewpoint hidden in the depths of the valley. Sufficiently convinced of the legitimacy of his goodwill after these spontaneous jaunts, we accepted his invitation to dine and stay at his house later than evening. Of course, Jenna couldn’t pass up an opportunity to learn to cook a new type of cuisine. This time it would be Pakistani.
Sayeed lived with a dozen other Pakistani fellows who’d emigrated on work visas to Oman with the dream of sending remittances back to their families, who were living in a place nearly ten times less wealthy (in terms of per capita GDP, Pakistan: $5,000 per annum; Oman: $44,000, based on purchasing power parity) than Oman. We followed him to his home and pulled through the gate in the wall that surrounded his compound. There were three small rooms attached to one another, in which slept three to five men, and two detached kitchens and bathrooms. Clearly, Sayeed was a chief operator of the encampment; no one else there spoke a lick of English and most were day laborers, while Sayeed was a project foreman. Over the course of the evening, he and his Afghani compatriots led us through the fashioning of an authentic Pakistani meal, replete with Chapati braised over the side of an overturned steel drum and takary murghi (chicken curry). Throughout the process, Jenna took notes and I pictures, and when the cooking was fully executed, all ten or so of us sat in a circle on the floor in Sayeed’s room to enjoy the night’s bounty, hand to mouth. Despite a palpable language barrier, we were able to communicate through Sayeed and using a healthy dose of body language and tone. While much of the conversation was lost on us, I revelled in trying to ascertain what everyone was saying, despite the fact that I knew absolutely zero Pashtun. Sayeed’s kindness was a breath of fresh air and renewed our confidence in humanity after what had been a difficult November.
Apparently, Sayeed shared my departure aversion syndrome, so we delayed our farewell and had breakfast at his place and then tea at a friend’s compound before bidding each other adieu. With our belief in the core goodness of humanity renewed, we strode off in the direction of Jebel Shams, the rooftop of Oman. After a couple hours of heart-pounding descent on steep and tumultuous mountain roads, we reached the isolated enclave of Balad Sayt, a village so removed from the rest of the world that it needs to be almost fully self sustaining. I liked to think of it as Biosphere 1-A. One could surmise as much from even a cursory look at the terraced fields, all of which appeared to be cultivating a different crop. Situated in an otherwise lonesome valley, apart from everything but the precipices rising around it, Balad Sayt, with its terraced fields painted myriad shades of green and traditional houses clustered around a central hill-top fort, was the most eye-pleasing of rural Omani living. Congratulating ourselves on choosing to go the extra mile to see this charming little haven, we proceeded further down the mountain to Snake Canyon, a locale I knew little about, other than that a random blogger has said that it was cool.
Pulling into the makeshift parking area, we jumped out and asked a guy on his way out what we could expect further up the canyon. An adventure guide, he explained in great detail that it would be at least three hours to the top and that there were multiple deep pools through which we would need to swim and a few places that we’d have to climb up boulders and along walls. Normally, we’d be eager to undertake this kind of adventure, something akin to Zion’s Narrows, but after being spoiled by our previous wadi experiences, the water here was simply not warm or clear enough to tempt us to go further than 45 minutes in. Also, the sun was on its way down and we obviously hadn’t arranged transport back to the trailhead. Stonewalled (literally) at a boulder field that dropped into a deep pool of murky water, we turned back, hoping to catch the sunset in Little Snake Canyon. Throwing dust in the air, we sped down the mountain and along the road to Little Snake in the hopes of catching the alpen glow on one of Jebel Ahkbar’s most iconic faces, Jabal Al Jaru, a set of peaks comparable to Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, but double the stature, nearing 10,000 feet. We reached the trailhead to Little Snake as the sun’s rays were at their most dramatic, needing to hike in less than ten minutes to get a full view of the massif’s glory as the falling orb of life and light inscribed on the mountainside a poetry at once so halcyonic and stunning that we couldn’t help but feel like we were once again transported back to the desert southwest of the US, with its unparallelled sunsets and martian-esque landscapes. Thoroughly exhausted from our time in the mountains – the beauty, the contemplation, the death defying creep of our SUV down the precarious mountain road – we pulled over on an access road, as was our standard practice, to settle in for the night and grill up the last of our ramen noodles.
Our last two days in Oman made for a nice winding down. We saw more impressive forts in the towns of Rustaq and Nakhal, spent some much needed down time in our hotel, prepped our dust riddled rental car for return, and enjoyed our last Arabic meal in Arabia. After returning Abdulwahab’s GPS, and gifting him all the camping gear we’d acquired, we meandered through the acclaimed Mutrah Souk market, walked along beach at sunset, and treated ourselves to an IMAX 3-D showing of the Star Wars story, Rogue One. Walking through the mall on the way into the theater, even after showering off the week of dust and sweat, I felt all too ignoble in a place of such chic luxury and swank, highlighting once again how modern and progressive this very Middle Eastern, inextricably Islamic country really is.
We only spent 12 days in Oman but we did so much. Such are the benefits of autonomy. Renting a car just isn’t feasible in a lot of countries. But when you can, it opens up a world of possibilities. For all the forts, wadis, sand dunes, beaches, camels, and ruins, it was Oman’s people that made it special for us. There aren’t a whole lot of places worth visiting that haven’t been corrupted by an influx of foreign travelers, but Oman, retaining its Arabian persona, while modernizing with the rest of the world, awash in natural, cultural, and historic beauty, is such a place. It’s truly, a hidden gem.
¹That’s no typo. Most of the time, vehicles have slightly different names abroad than they do in the US, much of the time, with silly outcomes like this one (4Runner becomes Fortuner). We got a great deal on it though, at $43 per day, and felt lucky to have it despite it being a colossal inconvenience to pick up and drop off. With that being said, the rental car cost was easily the largest expense in country, and compared to the other places we’ve visited, Oman tended to be slightly more expensive. The average cost of our previous nine countries had been $51 per person per day, while Oman was $63. Bear in mind that to keep costs low, we camped for free 8 of 12 nights there (the cheapest hotels we could find ranged from $35-$65) and ate ramen at night and peanut butter nutella sandwiches during the day as often as possible.