Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Muscat Love and Road-Tripping Lessons Gleaned in Oman
At least where I'm from, the word "touristy" carries negative connotations. If you take a "touristy" trip, you opted for a psychologically comfortable experience, rather than immersing yourself in the local scene and taking on whatever that entails.
Our trip to Oman this past weekend was a great example of the precarious balance between chasing satisfying stimuli in a foreign place and amassing excessive stress in an unfamiliar environment. We saw interesting things, met great people and shared adventures and laughs. But some of the high points took a high level of stress to reach, while my favorite moments were those that felt exotic yet relaxed.
On Thursday night after Leslie got home from work, we took the 45-minute flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, the capital of Oman, population just over a million in the metro area. We had just over two days to absorb whatever we could from the country, with an early-morning flight home Sunday.
We stayed the first night in a Muscat Radison and then set off for less populated areas in our rental car Friday morning. The decision was to follow the path of some of Leslie's co-workers who had already visited, centering their trips around a circular route that begins in Muscat, goes approximately 200 kilometers south along the Gulf Of Oman to Sur, Oman, and then loops back north from a road about 20 miles inland. This slice of the country probably encompasses 1/20th of it total.
The co-workers came back with tales of wading in Wadis (dried up or semi-dried up river beds that tend to make interesting scenery/topography), cliff diving and camping - an outdoorsmen's adventure tale. This is what we were attempting to emulate, but the wild times during our Omani roadtrip related mostly to the roads and road stress, rather than leaping into water.
We had some handicaps:
1) We pre-ordered an SUV to rent, because we knew the terrain on this route necessitates it. However upon arrival in Muscat, we found out that all the SUVs are manual transmission, which neither myself nor Leslie can drive. After momentarily considering trying to learn stick on the fly, we settled on just taking a Camry.
2) As you can see from the images, this region of Oman is mountainous, with the hills beautifully rolling right into the sea. Unfortunately, Leslie is bothered by heights, and some of the wadis are back within the mountain range. So to try to get to them, we had to go up and down some slopy, windy roads that reminded me of going from Denver to Winter Park (minus the snow or greenery). Furthermore our Camry had weak breaks.
3) After this trip, I feel motivated to investigate the psychology behind road signs and directions in Oman and to write an essay about my findings. I'm convinced there's something fascinating behind the horrible assistance we received from signs, maps and locals. It's a very warm country - the people were tremendously kind to us. I highly doubt they're trying to dissuade visitors. But almost every instruction or label was blatantly wrong, misleading or vague. It was almost like everyone was unfamiliar with the concept of finding places while driving.
4) Acceptable dress in the Middle East is very different from the U.S., with women wearing garments covering them nearly from head to toe and men at least wearing long pants if not dishdashas. In many places, dressing in tank tops or shorts would be quite offensive to locals, if not downright illegal. But in Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Muscat, western dress has become commonplace by the many visitors and expats. During travel, figuring out when its culturally sensitive to "cover up" is difficult.
So the result of all this was that we spent far more time stressed out on the road and less time enjoying the sites in between our Muscat lodging stops. The main roads of the loop were no trouble, but once we exited them to find something, it usually involved tons of turning around, never actually getting there, going over rock-and-sand terrain that made us worry about getting stuck or a flat, etc.
On Friday, we left Muscat around 11:30 am, and we finally arrived in Sur around 6, only succeeding in finding one stop on our list during that time. That was the very pleasant Wadi Ash Shab, opening up to the sea on one side and winding up into the mountains on the other. Here we took a short wooden boat ride, and Leslie spoke Arabic to our congenial guides, who were surprised and tickled. It was nice, but the stress of being lost and the car-sick feeling that comes from constantly making u-turns hampered my ability to enjoy it.
We spent Friday night at a seaside motel in Sur cut form a similar mold as cheap-but-serviceable Atlantic coast beach motels from decades ago. The rooms were sufficient and overlooking the water, so it was a tranquil ending to a turbulent day.
On Saturday, we didn't allow ourselves to get into as many stressful situations, but things didn't start off smoothly, either.
The first development came a few miles south of Sur (the very bottom of our loop before we started heading west and north), when we tried to stop in a small-village quasi-strip mall to restock supplies like water (we went through tons of it, despite spending most of our time in a cool car) and gas.
This was the first place we visited where the locals' looks turned disdainful, because our westerner warm-weather clothes were revealing way too much skin. When Leslie bought water in a tank top at a small-town grocery mart, the clerk actually threw the changes back to her, an exaggerated display of his desire not to make contact. Of course with Leslie's familiarity with the Middle East, she has "covered up" many times in the past, and we both would have done so if we knew we were going to offend. Just a few miles before in Sur, there were plenty of people walking along the beach and town in various forms of t-shirts and shorts, and we didn't anticipate this reaction. Assuming that you left a "damn thoughtless Americans" impression on such people is a buzzkill.
The second issue was that we never made our one highlighted destination, Wadi Bani Khalid, because it involved that steep mountain pass. Leslie was driving, as she was the only person on the rental car agreement, but we actually got to a point where the vertigo was too much. We basically did a "Chinese Fire Drill" on an extreme downhill gradient, and then I nine-point-turned us back up the hill and eventually back to the highway to Muscat.
So Friday and Saturday were mostly just a pure-driving road trip. We got to see really interesting topography, from the mountains down to the sea around to the dessert and prairie-like areas and back to the mountains. We took pictures of roaming goats, sheep, donkeys and camels. These would be mental images I should remember vividly telling youngens about Oman 30 years from now (knock on wood).
But I also have a smattering of treasured funny memories from Mr. Kucharek's 11th grade Spanish class. Does that mean it was a good experience, despite all the time I was miserable?
The good news is the trip finished up marvelously, as our final evening in Muscat was delightful. We stayed at a four-story bed and breakfast, one street back from the beach and the sea, with more mountains just a couple of miles behind us. It was picturesque internally and externally. At around 6:30 pm, we sat on the fourth-floor deck and watched the sunset.
Then we went out to a Persian restaurant, Shiraz, and had a delicious outdoor dinner right on the water and overlooking the city. It was located in the Crowne Plaza Hotel...probably not a locals' spot...probably pretty touristy. It was perfect though.
The trip ended on a real high note - the last half day in Muscat was interesting, satisfying and memorable. I definitely would like to get back there while living in the Middle East, and I would still hope to visit more countries and regions that were never on my mind a few months ago.
I'd even like to take some more off-the-beaten-path journeys, but I really want to plan those carefully to minimize stress headaches.