Another set of summer holidays meant another lengthy solo adventure, and this time I chose to descend on the Middle East. Getting there though required a mad dash from Fuji-Q Highlands to make an overnight bus to Osaka for my flight the next day. The flights and transfer in Guangzhou all went without a hitch and in a dozen or so hours I was stepping foot in Dubai. As I exited the airport, it felt as if I had just walked into a sauna; despite the midnight hour it was 38 degrees! (100 for those of you across the pond) I was quickly met by Johnny Ganta, a fraternity buddy from my Hope College days and we set off to a bar to catch up on life. Over some Stellas we talked about my upcoming itinerary and also how his entrepreneurial skills were treating him in Dubai before taking our leave at his place. In typical Indian fashion, the whole family was all living together under the same roof, but I found room on a wonderful couch.
My first meal of the Middle East, shawarma.
The next morning, after a bit of homemade French toast and BBQ chicken that were compliments of Selvie the maid, and waiting for Johnny to hunt down his passport, we were ready for our road trip to Oman. Johnny was born in Muscat this was his first trip back to his homeland in seven years, I guess I served as the impetus that finally got him on board with a vacation down there. The 4 hours of driving was improved drastically by the endless camel-spotted expanses of desert from which soon emerged the Al Hajer mountain range. One of the first cultural reminders that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore was the need to hide my consumption of water and food from passersby. Being in the midst of Ramadan, it was technically illegal to consume any food or liquid or even for one to smoke in public before sundown. I can imagine few things worse than this month of fasting coinciding with the scorching gulf summer heat, but I also didn’t see many people without access to AC.
Just endless sand, and nothing. Fence was to keep the wild camels at bay.
After a bit we dipped in and out of a strip of Omani soil before finally entering at the Al-Wajaja border checkpoint. We had to drive a bit further before our arrival in Seeb, where we were met Johnny’s childhood friend Stephanie. She escorted us to her family’s new house near the beach, where we would be staying for the duration of our time in the country. A family of Kiwis, I was graced with the opportunity to learn about their bizarre culture and ways. We talked over a delicious fish fry, caught by the lord of the manor, and then had a bit of a birthday dessert for one of the sisters. Finally, we spent a few hours in the Jacuzzi before slipping into a glorious, jet lag induced slumber.
Now just imagine the beach being 1 minute away…
The next morning, we went to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for our camping trip into the mountains. I was quite envious of just how manyWestern goods they had, especially compared when to Japan’s nothing. In total there were six of us and a dog that set off towards Jebel Akhdar. The entire drive offered amazing views of mountains jutting from otherwise flat desert. Along the way we passed through a small village and happened to see some ruins of housing from an ancient time – obviously we needed to pull off and go exploring.
These were basically stone and mud houses built up on each other hundreds of years ago. Though a couple proved to be inhabited, nearly all were crumbling beyond repair. Johnny and I explored a bit more but he turned back as I sought an ideal vantage point. Out of sight, they thought that I had been injured and sent an army of local Omani kids to come find me. It was really hard to believe that places like this weren’t protected by any sort of historical association, but all the better for us I guess.
Back on the road, we were stopped at a checkpoint to make sure that we had a 4×4 capable car before being allowed to pass. Working our way up into the mountains, immense views of the terrain and sheer stone walls painted by the layers of rock were all that could be seen. For whatever reason, our vehicle was quipped with an altimeter, and after rising to 2,200 meters we veered off the road into a desert plateau. Among the harsh and rocky terrain, the flora and fauna included juniper trees and wild asses. After a while, we parked up and established camp in a great location with a view out over a valley. Johnny and I conjured a fire, though the lack of oxygen retarded the effort, and soon necessitated the use of lighter fluid. With firewood hauled and the wadi mats laid, we could settle into our twilight environs.
For dinner, we managed some kebabs and hummus along with some overly sweet punch that Johnny concocted. After feasting, we as the only visible sign of humanity gathered around the fire where merriment gave way to intimacy. The mood was taken down a notch when it was proposed that for several minutes we would all sit in utter silence, and then later resurface to talk – uninterrupted – about what had stewed in our minds. After what felt an age of unbroken gaze into the flame it was time, and I was first. I rambled on about how despite mankind in its vast proliferation, that places of such intense solitude as this exist, and especially in my occupation of them, felt almost an escape from reality. The world beyond the flickering circle of firelight was in that moment intangible. After digressing to comment on the dizzying variety of cultures in this world, I yielded the floor to my peers for questions, comments, and then basked in their thoughts as well. Towards the end of the exercise, the late hour was taking hold and before long I was fast asleep beneath the stars. I slept like a rock, as I do, but the others talked of a loudly braying ass pack that came in the night to investigate our encampment.
Sunrise out in the haze.
Somehow Johnny and I awoke at such a time to enjoy the sunrise, and as the only ones up and about, tackle breakfast too. Fortunately the large stump we heaved on the fire before turning in was still burning hot, giving our yearning for steak and eggs a fighting chance. After some painstaking experimentation, we managed our eggs in a pot and steaks on a mesh grate. The heat of the fire complicated the flipping process though; I lost one steak into the ashes, but after a quick bath it was again fit for [someone else’s] consumption. It remained the two of us and Bear the dog for a while, and while engrossed in the fruits of our labor Johnny summed it up best ”Hey, we’re eating steak and eggs on top of a desert mountain in Oman.” Indeed he was correct, and in fact that experience was most certainly Oman’s most memorable.
Within an hour or so everyone else started to stir and then try their hand at food too. Once they finished, we packed up the site and retraced our way down the mountain. We had plans to hike the little known Qurai Wadi on our return and do a little swimming, best done before the Arabian sun hit high noon. When we arrived, the six of us had to park up, eat some lunch, and then start along a primitive aqueduct for about thirty minutes before arriving at our destination. Along the way though we had to navigate some tricky rock overhangs and narrow pathways all while trying to avoid falling off. In the end, the only one to take the 3 meter fall was Bear, who then needed to be carried the rest of the way. The scenery was incredible though and the towering walls of sheer rock on either side of the narrow canyon was quite a sight.
Finally arriving at the wadi, we got swim worthy and anxiously escaped the heat. Till that point, the flowing water had only been a little stream, but in this one spot was a deep pool surrounded by rocks that were great for jumping from. Beating the heat in such a unique place was wonderful, but before long were we heading back to the vehicles to go home and take a well deserved and much needed nap.
The evening itinerary was quite simple, just drive into the city of Muttrah for a French restaurant with a nice view of the corniche and afterwards hit the souk for an authentic shopping experience. As I mentioned before, this was Johnny’s first trip back to his origins in seven years, and the drive took us through a lot of familiar territory. From my back seat spot, it was a lot of fun to hear him burst with excitement as some old memory about a landmark would bubble up. Perhaps as a testament to just how fast this part of the world is changing, there were now numerous chunks of his old stomping ground that were now unrecognizable to him. Unfortunately the French spot was closed to renovations, so we took another option near the ocean that offered shawarma, one of the greatest foods of the Middle East. This restaurant also offered excellent people watching opportunities, so it was great to observe and ask my hosts any questions that came to mind. This was when I first really noticed and understood that every gulf state had its own type of clothing. While wearing the white robes are nearly uniform across these cultures, whether it was the color, the cut, or just the style of hat, it became distinctly obvious which countries each individual called home.
The next stop was to peruse the souk, but we didn’t get past a silver shop before it all closed down and we headed home. On the way though, we made a stop at Johnny’s old house, now transformed into a nursery, where I heard more nostalgic stories about his growing up there, as well as the massive tropical storm that caused them to leave. Back at the house, Johnny and I watched an Australian mockumentary called ‘Kenny’ that followed the life of a guy working with port-a-potties. Turned into a feel good movie about a genuine guy just doing his best in life. Finally after a jam-packed day, it was bedtime.
The next morning I was chatting over breakfast with the husband about his coffee business. Their family was really interested in coffee beans, where they were sourced, and having the freshest stuff. In pursuit of that passion, the father bought his own coffee roaster that he uses to roast his imported beans and then redistribute to a number of local cafés. Every morning I was always made a nice latte showcasing one of these beans, and while I lack the connoisseur’s palate that could differentiate between them, it was at least very tasty. I also had a chance to talk to the missus about how she fancied living in Oman for the past fifteen years. She provided some pros and cons. On the one end, she loved what a family oriented culture Oman still is, and how the generations of family usually live together. On the other end of the spectrum, she talked about how with the country’s oil has come a sense of entitlement for its nationals. Because of their country’s god given oil, many believe that work is to be done by the expats that come to the country, therefore their work ethic has decreased.
Stephanie went to barista school
That day, we drove back to the corniche to wrap up some of the touristy things I couldn’t do the day before. First we stopped at a museum of Omani and Arabian history that actually offered up a lot of information about traditional dress and life. It was especially interesting because even in the modern day many similarities and remnants could be seen in everyday use. From there we made a pass by Al Alam Palace, just one of many, and then drove around to get the lie of the land. We also stopped by a few more landmarks from my hosts’ past.
One stop we made was at a Christian cemetery where Johnny’s grandpa was buried. Of greater interest to me however was the burial plot of Donald T. Bosche who as the first surgen in the country was also the recipient of an honorary degree from Hope College. It was through a relationship that Johnny’s parents had with this man that brought him to live in little ol’ Holland where he and I ultimately met. Again, he was absolutely correct in mentioning what an interconnected world it must be for the three of us, with our varying backgrounds to be standing/laying at this same spot.
Back at home we regrouped before meeting a number of friends at a chic outdoor restaurant. We were all showing up at different times, so we just got some mezzah to munch on. This is a selection of dips that are eaten with a soft pita bread, very popular in part of the world.
We also got some shisha pipes going as well, which allows for flavored tobacco to be burned and drawn though water to soften the smoke. This is then inhaled from a chamber through a hose where the flavors can be enjoyed. Referred to as ‘hookah’ in America, this has been used for thousands of years and is often enjoyed had with a cup of coffee or dinner.
After everyone had arrived and the follow chatter was winding down, we moved the party back to Stephanie’s to enjoy the Jacuzzi late into the morning. All eight people had it overflowing, but it was a lot a fun and a great chance to interact with real life in Oman. Of the bunch, seven nationalities were represented from all over the world. However, the defining attribute of this group that I would come to appreciate later in my trip was that all types of people were represented, even Omanis. Very rarely do locals in the gulf truly mix with the expatriate populations, but Oman seemed to be the easygoing exception. After our late night farewells, and my wink of sleep, I was dropped at the airport to start the next leg of my journey.
As I said, Oman was a really laid back place, and I was fortunate to have the opportunities that I did. I especially enjoyed being able to go camping in the otherwise inaccessible middle of nowhere with friends, and unraveling the mysteries of my Johnny’s origins. This country was a great introduction to life in the gulf and really started this trip off on the right foot. One of the souvenirs that I bought was a kilogram of frankincense and some traditional burners. I was really excited to experience the fragrance since it has been a product of Oman for thousands and thousands of years. That, and I had heard it glorified as a gift to Jesus but of course no idea what it really was. Myrrh wasn’t so bad either too.
Here is a compilation video of a few of the things I talked about in this part of my adventure.
– Omani drivers use their emergency flashers to let a roadside pedestrian know that they can cross the street.
– The most popular soda in Oman is Mountain Dew.
– Omanis often have an additional, outdoor kitchen to cook their more pungent dishes.
– The Sultan Qaboos bin Said is sole ruler of the country, but is loved as a ‘benevolent dictator’. He has transformed the country from mere tribes to what it is today, and the UN recognized it as the most improved country of the last forty years.