How do you find your way in the world? More specifically, what’s the best way to navigate through an unfamiliar city? For most of my life, I used paper maps. Maps from cities spanning from Las Vegas to Leningrad fill a big plastic bin in one of my closets at home. In the last few years, I’ve started using digital guidance from Google or Apple, but they depend on decent Internet to work well, and in many places, we only receive free but slow (2G) service from T-mobile. I can’t count the number of places we’ve gotten lost, due to the obtuseness of these direction-givers (often in combination with our own mistakes).
Last fall in Malaysia, we chatted with a friendly young Canadian backpacker who raved about an app called maps.me. He described how you could download maps for pretty much any place on earth. Combined with the GPS in one’s smart phone, they provide excellent guidance even offline, he told us. So before this trip, I downloaded their maps for the UAE, Oman, and Uganda.
Results so far have been mixed. At times in Dubai they showed our position down to the street corner, with many of the nearby businesses identified. But the app also led us astray at least once. We thought maybe we just weren’t using it right.
When we arrived in Muscat Saturday afternoon, we quickly realized this was a place where maps.me could shine. Oman’s capital is an ancient city, and although it has become a sprawling metropolis, we were staying in the old heart of it, on the waterfront. That area is small; the jagged brown mountains plunge close to the waters of the city’s little natural harbor. Streets in the Mutrah area, where the souq is located, twist around the rocky spurs, forming a confounding maze. Making matters worse, our guesthouse was about a mile from the waterfront.
Only slightly daunted, Steve and I whipped out maps.me and set out for dinner the first night, asking the app to show us the way to a waterfront rooftop restaurant that got great reviews (and served beer!) The route seemed clear for most of the way. But toward the end, we saw no sign of the Marina Hotel. The map indicated we were standing right next to it. But our eyes found no evidence of that. We asked some locals, but no one seemed to recognize what we were talking about. Finally, we got a taxi driver to drive us to the correct location (about a mile away). “Pay me whatever you think is fair,” he said (having no meter). Steve gave him one rial (about $2.60), and he seemed okay with that.
After dinner, feeling slightly more familiar with the city’s layout, we set out on foot from the Marina to the guesthouse. Again, the path on my phone seemed clear. It led away from the brightly lighted waterfront and into gloomier residential streets, but even though it was nighttime, and the streets were filled with Arab men in turbans and long white robes, I felt comfortable. Black-robed women also were out strolling with their little ones. Clearly, this was a neighborhood, and its residents were enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures of the evening.
Steve and I plodded on and on, and the number of people around us decreased. Finally, a man approached, looking distressed. “You cannot go on!” he declared. Had he recognized us as foreign infidels? Even worse, Americans? But no! He seemed to be saying (in heavily accented English) that the street was a dead end. If we went on, we would hit a dark hillside, and it would not be safe to try to climb it in the dark. His concern over our safety was unmistakable. He said he would drive us back to the corniche, but his son had taken the family car. Instead he and several neighbors offered instructions on how to make it back to the main thoroughfare (which we did). From there on, maps.me behaved itself.
The next day, Sunday, we had better luck exploring Muscat, and we’ll return there for our final evening, Wednesday. On Monday, however, we switched to another way of getting around: putting ourselves in the hands of an expert driver/guide. Even more than the solicitous stranger in the street, Abdullah is a paradigm of gracious Arab hospitality. He’s 30, the father of two little girls and an 8-year-old son. “Most babies are born crying. This one was smiling!” one of the ladies at the grand mosque told us our first morning — referring to Abdullah. He has a great sense of humor, along with lots of curiosity and candor. After 20 minutes, I knew he was my kind of guide.
Monday he showed us the mosque, which I think ranks among the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen anywhere.
Then he drove us to a magical sinkhole, where Steve and I swam in the cool, azure water.
We swam again at a beach lined with white sand and small white stones.
In the city of Sur, we raced up to a watchtower on the hillside, to see the sun set over the lovely cityscape.
Finally, in the dark, we drove to the Ras al Jinz turtle reserve. After dinner, Steve and I collapsed into bed, where I slept badly, my brain too stimulated by all that Abdullah had led us to that day.