Border crossings often mean trouble, in my experience. Glowering signs warn you not to take any photographs, and one can imagine nasty punishments for scofflaws. Immigrations and customs officials confiscate stuff; some demand bribes outright. Even if that doesn’t happen, excruciating waits are commonplace. For anyone who doesn’t like borders, this part of the Arabian peninsula isn’t the best of destinations.
Within the boundaries of the UAE, the borders between the seven emirates pose no hassles, since they’ve been united into the one country. But a strange situation exists on the Musandam Peninsula, where we headed after leaving Dubai. For reasons that I haven’t had time to read about, the very tip of the peninsula belongs to Oman (a separate country). And not far from there, another small chunk of Oman is completely surrounded by the UAE. While geographically exotic and probably historically interesting, from a border-crossing perspective this arrangement is a pain in the ass.
When we traveled to Khasab from Dubai, we had to stop at one complex to get stamped out of the UAE, then drive a little way down the road to go through the formalities (and fee-paying) to enter Oman. If we had taken the ferry as planned, we wouldn’t have had to engage in such shenanigans again until our flight out of Oman, as we would have departed on a ferry from one Omani city (Khasab) and disembarked at another (Muscat) several hours down the coast.
Because we had to change plans and make the trip by car, however, we had to stop at one complex to get our passports stamped to certify that we had left Oman. At a second facility nearby, we got stamped back into the Emirates. No money was demanded for this “service,” and it only took about ten minutes. Even though we’d quickly learned that the friendly South Indian guy whom Eldho had found to drive us to Muscat wasn’t legally permitted to provide this service, the border officials either didn’t bother to find it out or didn’t care.
About three and a half hours into the trip, we arrived at the border between UAE and the big (main) part of Oman. Here things got messier. At the Leaving UAE facility, we eventually found our way to a bunch of lanes for cars; the scene reminded us a bit of the San Ysidro border crossing. Unlike it, only one lane was open, and no one else was in it when we pulled up to the guard manning its inspection booth. He ordered us to park in front of one of the closed traffic lanes and go to an office in the distance. There, although we were departing, only the door marked “ARRIVING” was open. We walked in to find a half-dozen truck drivers lined up at a window. One of the officials told us to take a seat. We waited and waited. Nothing happened, except that more truck drivers dribbled in. Eventually about a dozen were in line. It was all quite mysterious and somewhat irritating.
It took a while, but someone finally came out and motioned for our driver to approach the window. They said he had to pay some kind of fee that amounted to about $26. (Again, mysteriously, Steve and I were stamped out for free.) Our turn to be extorted came when we got to the Arriving in Oman complex (massive, under construction, and confusing). There we learned that even though we had paid for a 10-day tourist visit on Thursday, we would have to pay for another one (another $26 or so for the two of us.)
If we pulled an unlucky number in the bureaucratic lottery for Omani border-crossing, I have to admit that arcane regulations worked in our favor the night before, when we were seeking some dinner. Our first thought had been to dine at an upscale resort just outside of town that Lonely Planet describes as “Khasab’s best night out,” and just as importantly, “the only venue in town with a bar.” (We hadn’t seen alcohol for sale anywhere in any form since we left Dubai Airport upon our arrival.) But when we mentioned this to Eldho, the extraordinarily helpful manager of our guesthouse in Khasab, he seemed to recoil. This may have been because it would have required a longish ride from the badly situated guesthouse, and one of Eldho’s responsibilities apparently included providing guests with free taxi service. Alternatively, he may have been horrified by the prospect of our spending whatever dinner at the Atana Khasab would have cost. Eldho was more than a little thrifty; he had worked like a fiend to find us reasonably priced last-minute transportation from Khasab to Muscat.
His suggestion was that he should drive us to the local fish market where he would help us buy a sheri (aka spangled emperor fish, aka Lethrinus lebulosus). This delicious local fish had just come in season, he explained, and because of conservationist measures designed to allow the species to breed, it could only be sold here in Khasab at the moment and thus only cost about one rial per kilo (about $1.20 a pound). Once the restricted period ended, and the fish could legally be sold in Dubai, the price would skyrocket, at least tripling in price. We need not worry about what to do with a whole raw fish, he assured us. He would transport us and the fish to a local restaurant that would grill it up for us.
Both of us were yearning for that nice dinner at the resort. But Eldho’s belief that we would love his plan was so palpable, so fervent, we felt compelled to go along with it. At the tiny market, he showed us how to check the fish’s gills; a nice red color confirmed that it had been alive just a few hours before.
We paid 1.6 rials (about $4.20) for a plump two and a half-pound beauty that Eldho said would be plenty for the two of us (he declined our invitation to join us, pleading other responsibilities — probably driving other guests around!). No other customers were in the tiny restaurant when we arrived, but someone sure did know how to grill fish there. Our purchase (and the rice and salad and sauce that came back with it), were delicious. Along with a frosty liter of water, the tab came to 3 rials (about $7.80). We’ll probably remember the fish longer than we do the border headaches.