Getting places in Oman

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.


Then we drove for hours through a beautiful “wadi,” a deep canyon through which a stream flows year-round, nurturing a forest of date palms. 


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. 

The lottery

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.

Channeling my inner scofflaw, I took this picture of the line of truck drivers growing, while we sat and waited as ordered. The video of the hajj in Mecca on the TV screen (with accompanying chanting) failed to soothe me.

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. 


Eldho liked the look of the fellow on the right.

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.

The Norway of Arabia

At a recent dinner with friends, the question arose as to what each of us considered to be a relaxing day. I didn’t have much to contribute; I rarely have them. It’s not so much that I’m harried as laden with lists upon lists of things I want to accomplish. Friday, however, my To Do list pretty much solely consisted of one item: cruise an Omani fjord in an Arabian dhow. Accomplishing that turned out to be a world-class way to chill.



A day sail in a dhow (the traditional shallow, wide-beamed vessel in this part of the world) is one of the two main visitor activities in Khasab (the other being the “mountain safari” we did Thursday). When we set out for the dhow harbor around 9:30, yesterday’s fierce winds had disappeared. (Bizarrely, the Saturday ferry remained cancelled. Apparently once the ferry bureaucrats cancel a sailing, even the return of excellent weather does not prompt them to reschedule it.)

These touristic dhows are immensely charming. Although they’re powered by a motor (rather than by old-style sails), patterned rugs cover almost every inch of the deck. Thick, pretty cushions pad the perimeter, a flagrant invitation to lounge, even sprawl. A heavy canvas canopy protects the passengers and crew from the sun (which even at 10 am was blazing.)


I’ve hinted at the heat in my earlier posts, but it’s difficult to communicate its power to flatten. Highs have been in the low to mid-90s every day since our arrival in Arabia. It’s pretty humid, too, and coupled with the blazing sun, the effect can be staggering. But as soon as our vessel started moving, the breeze and motion made the blast furnace merely balmy. 

If we’d been shipwrecked, a la Gilligan, it would have made for an interesting sit-com. The skipper and his assistant were from Bangladesh, and several of the two dozen passengers hailed from India. Others included several Germans, a trio of Czechs, a gal from Japan with a boyfriend from Kyrgyzstan, two Ecuadorians, Steve and me, and an Omani couple who looked like newlyweds (she decked in full black robes and a conservative head scarf, neither of which she ever removed.)

We moved without incident out into the channel, cutting through glittering water shaded royal blue, intense teals and turquoise, emerald green. Every now and then, small speedboats roared past us, likely bearing smugglers bound for the coast of Iran 30 miles away (about a two-hour speedboat ride).


Flocks of cormorants swirled into elaborate formations, rearranging themselves every few seconds into new patterns. 


For the first hour or so, everyone scanned for dolphins, and we spotted pod after pod of them. The captain eventually succeeded in luring a small group into surfing our bow wave, and once again I marveled at how much pleasure humans seem to get from close encounters with cetaceans in their element.


Folks have dubbed this tip of the Musandam Peninsula “the Norway of Arabia.” I’ve never sailed the fjords of Scandinavia, but I suspect they’re a whole lot greener and less tortured looking than the towering mountains that line these narrow Omani inlets. So much violence — wracking, canting, smashing — was done to them over the eons. We sailed past a few improbably tiny villages…


… and the island from which the phrase “to be driven around the bend” supposedly was derived (from the days when British sailors were stationed at the telegraph station there and so many went mad from the solitary confinement). 

A little before noon, we anchored in a quiet cove, and the crew handed out masks and snorkels. Almost everyone got in the water (except that enshrouded Omani girl). After the shock of first plunge, the water felt just cool enough to be soothing, and our masks revealed dense swarms of various tropical fish, sea urchins, sea hares, manta rays, sea urchins, and coral. I lamented not having an underwater camera, but here’s what the water looked like when you tossed a bit of food overboard:


Speaking of food, the crew set out an ambitious pre-cooked buffet; we finished with sweet spiced tea and cardomon-flavored coffee. Then on we cruised, to more swimming, more flirting with dolphins, lots of lounging. At some point, it all blended for me into a soporific, hypnotic state of complete relaxation. If the topic ever comes up at some future dinner party, I must remember what that felt like.

Ill wind

A few days ago, looking at the weather app on my iPhone, I noticed it was showing swirly lines for Thursday and Friday. “Windy,” the little legend read. Thursday and Friday were the days we planned to travel to the part of Oman that occupies the tip of the Musandam Peninsula. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” I thought. “What harm could wind do?”

I learned the answer to that question a little earlier this morning, after we arrived in Khasab (the Omani city that sits on the end of the peninsular tip). I had arranged for us to be driven to Khasab from the emirate of Sharjah, where we spent Wednesday afternoon and evening. Our Pakistani driver was adept, the road was smooth, and we arrived around 10 Thursday morning to find smoggy looking skies. It was dust, whipped up by the wind, not smog that clouded the air.


We were greeted by the manager of the guesthouse where we would be staying. Eldo, a native of the Indian city of Kerala, seemed tightly wound but conscientious and meticulous. I asked him when we needed to buy our tickets on the car ferry that sails between Khasab and Muscat. The boat only makes that trip once a week (every Saturday) and in fact I had pretty much planned our itinerary in order to be able to take it. The Lonely Planet Oman guidebook writers had rhapsodized about the experience of sailing into the Omani capital near sunset, and I’m not the sort to resist that kind of buildup.

Eldo agreed with what I had read about the ferry tickets — that you could buy them on the morning of one’s departure. But he said they would cost 20% more on Saturday, so we might as well secure them first thing. He drove us to the ticket office, and at the counter, the head-scarved lady agent announced that the wind had caused the ferry to be cancelled. 

Eldo’s reaction when he heard this news was that it was a good thing we had learned this now. There was a once-daily flight from Khasab to Muscat. But many passengers (who already had bought their tickets) wouldn’t learn about the ferry cancellation until they showed up at the dock that morning. Then it would be impossible to make alternative plans. 

He seemed quite jaunty until, in two different travel agencies, we discovered that the single flight on Saturday was already sold out. Long discussions of various alternatives ensued (all conducted in some Indian language spoken by Eldo and the travel agents). What we have settled on is to hire a local guy to drive us Saturday to Muscat, a journey that they say should take about 7 hours. This will cost more than first-class tickets on the ferry but less than it would to schlep back to Dubai and fly to Muscat from there at this late hour. Plus we’ll also get to see a lot more of the Omani countryside than we would have from the water.

With that beginning to our travels in Oman, I was a little worried that the wind might somehow sabotage our plans for the afternoon: a drive into the rugged mountains that tumble down to the sea here. But it didn’t. First our driver climbed a winding dirt road up to a viewpoint overlooking one of the breathtaking local fjords.


We descended that hair-raising byway then churned our way deep into rugged, sun-blasted warrens where almost nothing grew. Our destination was Jebel Harim, the mountain where local women once hid from marauding Persians while their men were off on trading missions. We climbed and climbed, marveling at the mangled, blasted landscape. Halfway up, we passed a surprising valley, filled with green fields fed by the mountain streams.


But we quickly returned to a vertiginous moonscape. 


Just short of a mile high, our driver stopped the car, got out and showed us fossils of fish and seashells clearly preserved in the rock, remnants of an ancient seabed. 


How many million years had it taken for the earth to squeeze and elevate them to this spot today? I have to say, the thought helped me put our ferry’s cancelation in perspective.

We’ve also been assured that the wind should not jeopardize our plan for tomorrow — a day-long sail through one of the fjords. I will report on that, but I may not be able to post what I write until we reach Muscat. Our phones have no access to the Internet here, and even wi-fi is scarce. But to put that in perspective, Steve read me this afternoon that as recently as 1970, in all of Oman, you could find only six miles of paved road, only two elementary schools, and not a single high school. So I can hardly complain about the lack of touristic amenities; it feels pretty marvelous to be here at all. 

Oops

Once in a while, the WordPress blogging software and I have a misunderstanding. That happened as I was trying to upload my post about our first two days in Dubai. For some reason, my report on our train ride last fall from Tibet to Beijing was republished. I have since removed it, but in case anyone is confused, we are NOT in China. We’re on the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula.

Desert mirage

In the past two days, Steve and I have explored the world’s biggest shopping mall, gone almost all the way to the top of the tallest building on the planet, shopped in a gold souk, 

visited two mosques, bought a liter of camel milk in a grocery store (and washed down our M&Ms with it), 

ridden in the gender-segregated sections of the spiffy Dubai subway, 

and walked 22.6 miles (47,628 steps, according to my iPhone.) Yet I feel I little disappointed. It’s not that we haven’t had a good time. It’s all been great fun. But I still have very little clue about how things work in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Before this trip, to the extent I ever thought about Dubai (i.e rarely to never), I envisioned it as a sort of mashup between Shanghai (the outlandish architecture) and Las Vegas. It’s more evocative of Vegas, if missing the casinos and alcohol and scantily clad women; the searing heat, wild attractions, and sense of having sprung up just yesterday out of the lonely desert all feel familiar. I’ve seen men in white robes and headscarves crowned with coiled goat-hair rope in Vegas, and women in full black burkas too. You see more of both here — but not so many more. Most folks dress in standard Western garb. 

In an attempt to gain deeper understanding into the history and culture of Dubai, we signed up for a couple of activities sponsored by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. I particularly had high hopes for the “communal lunch” where we would have the opportunity to “ask questions and exchange  ideas with nationals while enjoying delicious Emirati food.” The complex in which the centre is located was built by the Persians around 100 years ago, and it’s been beautifully preserved and turned into an arts and culture district. A couple dozen of us foreigners sat on richly decorated cushions in an air-conditioned courtyard, and the food was tasty and filling, if not haute gourmet. While we ate it, our Emirati host expounded on local customs. But it was all very basic and bland, kind of Islam for Dummies (or a bit like learning about Abe Lincoln from Walt Disney). 

Far more tantalizing is the neighborhood where we’re staying (Deira, the old heart of the city). Our guesthouse once was the residence of a powerful sheikh. Parts of the large complex that contains is are still being restored. We love the open-beam, 15-foot ceilings; the stained glass windows; the beautiful stone courtyards. The maze of streets that surround us are jammed with what look like tiny retail shops selling every kind of good imaginable. But they’re actually wholesalers! So the casual shopper can’t buy anything from any of them. Nearby souks do sell gold and spices and household items. We strolled through them a bit this morning, then even though the stunning heat was already building, at 9 in the morning, we walked along the canal where a flotilla of dhows are docked. They’re laden with rice from India, saffron from nearby Iran, cheap clothing from China. 

One of the dhows being loaded.

We have no idea how all this commerce interlaces. We don’t have a clue what the different emirates in the UAE think of one another. We’ve read that something like 80% of the people who live in Dubai come from elsewhere: India and the Phillipines and Burma and similar places. Hordes of these guest workers crammed into the metro with us yesterday, but we know nothing else about their lives here. 

It’s a little frustrating. And in an hour or so, we’ll take a taxi on the short (30-minute?) ride to the next emirate down the road, Sharjah (dubbed by Unesco the Capital of Islamic Culture). We’ll also return to Dubai in about 10 days for a final afternoon before we head to Uganda. All we can do is continue to keep our eyes and ears open.

Here Steve photographs the five prayer times of the day. As if we could miss one. The Call to Prayer resounds from many many mosques.

 

On the road again

I could report that Steve and I are hanging out in the Korean Airlines lounge at LAX in honor of the 105th birthday Kim Jong Il, but that’s not what brings us here (although today is his birthday.) We also are not about to depart for Korea (which, in light of current events, is probably a good thing.) The truth is that in about two hours, we will fly off to the Arabian peninsula, where we’ll be seeing some of the sights in the United Arab Emirates and Oman for the next two weeks. After that, we’ll continue on to Uganda. In Africa, we’ll be on a mission — NOT the religious sort but rather, as emissaries of the Women’s Empowerment (WE) organization. WE provides funds for microloans that help poor Ugandan grandmothers, and Steve and I serve as liasons between the San Diego and African groups.

IMG_1079
Steve is using the free wifi to research the availability of alcohol in the UAE and Oman. It looks pretty grim.

We’re in the KAL lounge because when I got a Chase Sapphire credit card last winter, one of its benefits was the used of a “Priority Pass” that gets you into a variety of airport lounges. The only one in the Tom Bradley International Terminal here in Los Angeles is this KAL facility. (It’s not dazzling. But it is a whole lot nicer than than regular terminal waiting areas.)

As usual, I will make every attempt to report on our adventures as they unfold.