Archive for Oman
Jebel Hafeet, UAE
Overlooking the UAE-Oman Border and the Hajar mountains.
Jabel Hafeet, UAE
The road from Nizwa to the Indian Ocean is paved with surprises, but mostly, the hundreds of kilometers that roll by are lined with a whole lot of very little. The mountains of the Omani Interior are like blurry photographs — up close, towering piles of dirt and rubble, but from afar, sharp and rugged like camels’ toenails.
Off the straight, flat highway stems variety, where a 10 minute drive can take you up into the mountains and back down to a valley river, or into the desert, red sand dunes appearing out of the blue. We did both, teaching Omani children how to skip rocks (they were naturals), and seeing if our Altima could manage a road made of sand (it couldn’t). The pavement snakes into the 5,000 square miles of the Wahiba Sands, until, all at once, it just stops. And there at the end of the road, we were called in for coffee.
I had turned down a young Omani’s offer to go dune bashing and he had responded by offering me into his home — the very last stop in town — cooled by a thick straw roof and a floor of sand.
We left and raced for the Gulf, hoping to catch the sunset before we made the final stretch for the coast. We kept pushing, motivated to stay above the speed limit of almost 90 mph, flying through the tiny towns with everything in our control except… except that the Gulf of Oman faces north. And the Arabian Sea coast faces east. And the sun sets in the west, doesn’t it.
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This border is not one-dimensional like the fine, fountain pen line between the US and Canada; the vague area between the Emirati back door and the entrance to Oman could be drawn faithfully with a Crayola marker on a globe. But after ten minutes of driving through no man’s land, we were in every man’s land.
Fiftyish men puffed fiftyish shishas, drank tea, and watched us be Western at a roadside cafe half-hour into the country. A huge projector blasted Spanish soccer to the going-out crowd of northwestern Oman. The coffee tasted dark and sweet, not like the light brew served too often in the Emirates, and the mint tea smelled like Morocco and older traditions. I went to ask for more coals for the shisha.
“You speak Arabic?” The owner asked me. Again, same words — completely different question. A minute later, he was introducing me to his favorite customers — a group of five Omani men — and we three American travelers were welcomed into their circle.
We talked about soccer, about Oman, and about finding a wife for the owner in Washington before telling them our travel plans (drawn on a napkin) and the difficulties of making reservations anywhere without phones or internet.
“Ahmed, go get a SIM from the car.”
My useless Emirati phone was taken from me, popped open, and charged with Omani hospitality (and a ton of credit). And after sitting for hours, Malik paid for everything we’d touched the entire night. No, no, a friend explained as we squirmed at the niceness, he’s the boss.
To the sound of the afternoon call to prayer, we set off in our Nissan toward Oman… east. Yeah, let’s go east.
Our car of three sped away from the eyes of city-center radars, toward Al Ain where we aimed to cross the border. Once there, I found myself having trouble finding the biggest thing I’d ever looked for — a whole country. We knew it was there — three million people were right there hanging out — but according to the map, it seemed to have been out for the afternoon.
My friend asked a shopowner in Arabic where we could find Oman, and I listened as he gave us directions that were clear, but seemed to contradict the existence a dead-end I’d seen. So I tried to clarify. And in that moment, he said something that had been said to me so many times before gently and in surprise, this time curt and with disdain: “Do you speak Arabic?”
I had never had a relationship that was purely based on Arabic — even Arabs I’ve met and known only through Arabic have understood that it was a foreign language for me, taking my words at more (or less) than face value, and giving me more credit than I pronounced. But here I was assumed to be an Arabophone. The jab echoed the sarcastic taunts of “You speak English?” heard a million times on the streets of New York, always with the assumption that the insulted does speak English, fluently in fact, but misheard. In his assumptions, this salesman was — in a way so rare and re-encouraging — a total douchebag.