Nothing thrills my soul like a good old fashioned road trip. Especially a good old fashioned road trip to OMAN. In a spirit of great exploration, we were one of about 4 tourists that month which dared to head unsupervised up to the tiny, barren little piece of Oman nestled on the tip of the Arabian peninsula – a mere 55 km from Iran across the Strait of Hormuz (the entrance to the Persian Gulf). The main body of Oman lay much farther to the southeast.
Soenke felt that this little adventure of mine was pushing his travel boundaries to the limit. I think he envisioned Al Qaeda training camps lining the rural roads, with dangling tourists strung up on gallows for effect. I pish-tushed his worries and assured him that Oman was just like California, but without the cities/trees/shops/civilization/women, etc. He was still pretty dubious.
Between us and the border lay the city of Ras el Khaimah (also the name of the emirate we were in), and our road map was woefully inadequate to effectively navigate the surprise traffic jams encountered on our way through. We stopped at a local market for snacks, where the few other women in the store wore head-to-toe black with small holes for their eyes (usually the men do all the grocery shopping in this part of the world – yeah!). Little did we know these were the last women we’d see for a looooong time. Back on the road, we were impressed with the many Emirati flags which lined the roads and topped buildings in various villages. I’m not sure if it was patriotism or propaganda, but the green-red-white-black fabric billowing against the very blue sky lent a nice effect.
A surprisingly first-world road led us to the Oman border, where we paid for the privilege of both leaving the Emirates and entering Oman. The immigration paperwork and processing was tedious (what, were they worried we were going to STAY there?!); we had to wait outside the drive-through immigration booth while cars of men drove by on their way out of Oman, pausing to whistle at the uncovered hussy (me).
Once inside the hallowed borders, we continued driving along what proved to be an absolutely stunning coastline. It was just us, the roiling turquoise waters to the left, and stunning desert mountains towering immediately on our right. The occasional VERY small village (populated visibly by just men, goats, and a few small stores) crossed our path. Other than that, nothing. Just absolutely wild nature as it had existed for thousands of years. It was like driving on a moonscape – a moon with a big, beautiful ocean. I turned up the Arabic music on the rental car radio and savored the experience.
A few hours later, I was done with Arabic music and my bladder was requesting attention. We had passed exactly one gas station (a Shell) quite some time before, and I was not about to risk lifelong imprisonment by relieving myself along the highway. I bit my tongue and waited. We eventually reached the Musandam area where it opens up over the Strait of Hormuz – as we came over the last hill, the deep blue strait and the shapely mountains jutting straight up from the water presented a remarkable view. I knew that tucked in those mountains are still many villages isolated from the passing of time, accessible only by boat.
Here we descended back to sea level and rolled into the very small town of Khasab – apparently the largest populated area in this slice of Oman. We passed a grounded and abandoned dhow (Arabic fishing boat), some locals playing soccer, a host of dilapidated buildings, then stopped in front of an office whose sign promised boat excursions. I sent Soenke in to negotiate a ride on a dhow. He was dubious as to the wisdom in my idea, but I was adamant: “when in Oman”, I always say. After relieving myself in the uniquely Arab restroom (see photo below – enough said), I headed into a nearby “restaurant” to find something to eat. Two men looked up at me surprised; I looked at them equally surprised as I noticed they were deftly eating fish and rice without any utensils. The proprietor seemed delighted to see me, and in a bad mixture of English and Arabic we ordered me up a fish lunch to-go (Soenke had no interest in eating at a place which perhaps lacked first-world health standards).
A short time later, we boarded our own exotic Arabic dhow – lined with dusty oriental carpets and pillows – and headed out to sea. A very grizzled old fisherman in a white djellabah (kandora, I think it’s called in this part of the world) was our captain, and his nephew assisted. I dived into my delicious BBQ’d fish lunch – of course served without utensils – and enjoyed the exquisite view and the feel of Omani wind on my face. We passed into the strait, admiring the amazing rock formations, peering at a remote beach (reachable by boat only) where we saw dozens of women – the only ones we saw the entire time in Oman – covered from head to toe in black, frolicking on the sand.
And soon we came upon an utterly life-changing experience. Here at the corner of the world, alone save for these two Omani fishermen who spoke no English, we were suddenly surrounded by dolphins. Words can’t describe this moment. For the next 30 minutes, we were treated to dolphins playing joyfully in the waters around our boat – dashing under the hull, swimming along the prow, jumping out of the water in pairs – all as if to say “we KNOW you’re here!” It was one of the top-ten experiences of my life. We ran from side to side of the boat, hanging on for dear life, searching out the playful dolphins with a mixture of admiration and awe. It was simply unbelievable.
Soon the sun was about to dip below the mountains, and we knew it was time to head back to the Emirates. We hit the road with big dolphiny smiles and soon rounded a corner to a beautiful sight: a 4-star hotel situated on a rocky overlook here at the edge of the world. It was so incongruous, we simply had to stop in for a look. The Golden Tulip Resort had a handful of customers, a lovely pool, and a million dollar view. This was the ultimate place to rejuvenate and get away from it all. And I mean, from IT ALL. Something told me that I would be back someday”¦
A few hours later we rolled back into Ras el Khaimah and stopped off at the brand new Manar Mall for something to eat. Lo and behold”¦ Starbucks! Chili’s !! The western world had invaded. We savored each bite of “Quesadilla Explosion”, then I headed out to the main hall where a rug seller proudly displayed his wide assortment of wares. Soenke patiently waited as I measured, pondered, wavered, discussed, bargained”¦. and soon I was the proud owner of a giant Persian rug as well as a smaller Indian kilim rug for a mere EUR 275 in total. Smug with my deal, Soenke agonized as how we would get them back home (no problem, babe”¦)
After paying the bellhop at the hotel a sizeable tip to drag the wrapped-up carpet bundles into our room, we fell into our bed feeling exhilarated and on top of the world.
While lost in the streets of Ras el Khaimah, we came across this gorgeous mosque:
This sign was just sooooo helpful:
The flags of the Emirates were everywhere in the small towns:
Finally, we reach the border of Oman and a sign we can read!
Our first vision of the gorgeous Omani coastline:
Oman’s mountains are stark and impressive:
A beautiful entrance door to a local Arab villa:
We were impressed that Omani goats cross the streets in the zebra stripes:
A beached dhow on the mud flats near Khasab:
A delicious to-go lunch was specially prepared for me here:
But not before I encountered an authentic Arab toilet:
Our very own dhow!
I learn to eat Omani-style… no utensils!
Soenke soaks up the adventure (even if he doesn’t want to admit he LOVED it!)
Beautiful views along the islands in the strait:
Another dhow is heading back to shore:
We are delighted to meet some dolphins!
At the end of the day, the fisherman check their catches:
Back in Ras el Khaimah, we are stunned to find Mexican food!
No trip to the Middle East is complete without carpet shopping (I bought that very model):
And here is my kilim purchase:
And finally, a little video from our Oman boating excursion! (sorry, no dolphins on the video.. they were fast critters and impossible to capture on film!)
Photo Sharing – Upload Video – Video Sharing – Share Photos