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I went back and forth about whether I should publish this post or not because I don’t want to stir up any controversy. In the end I decided that it was more positive than anything else.

A great number of Americans have preconceived notions about what it is like to visit the Middle East, the beliefs and customs of people who live there, and what Middle Easterners’ opinions of Americans are or should be. I will certainly not preach about my thoughts or opinions on any of these topics, but I will relay an account of my trip to Oman, just one country within this vast region.

When Chris and I mentioned to people that we were going to Oman we received some interesting responses and questions. Mostly, “Why are you going there?”, “Where is Oman?”, “Is it safe?” and “There are mountains?”

Let’s start with the why. There were two basic reasons that we went to Oman. First, it is one of the places to which you can fly directly from Chennai. More importantly, after visiting Dubai, we were in the market for a more genuine Middle Eastern cultural experience. Dubai was great, but with the huge number of expats residing in Dubai the culture is somewhat of a melting pot.

So where is Oman anyway? It is on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, east of Saudi Arabia, southeast of the UAE, and northeast of Yemen.

[Source: World Atlas]

Oman is a relatively safe place for Americans to visit. According to the US Department of State, there have not been any attacks on Americans on Omani soil. I’d say that is a pretty good track record.

Lastly, yes, there are mountains on the Arabian Peninsula. Big ones, in fact. One of the peaks in the Jebel Shams area was about 9,000 feet high. I would definitely classify that as a real mountain.

So what was my experience like there?

When we first arrived, we were unsure if we should admit to being American. Pretty quickly we realized that would not be an issue. The most common reaction that we received was surprise; it seemed as if not many Americans venture to Oman for tourism. Almost across the board, people assumed that we were British until we corrected them. Many of the Omanis that we spoke to showed genuine, friendly interest as to why we were there and how we liked it.

Going into the trip, I was especially interested in how I would be received in Oman. I made an effort to dress modestly out of respect for their culture, but there were definitely other, presumably British, female tourists who dressed as they would dress in any other warm place. I was well received and, as far as I could tell, they were just as well received as I was.

In general, we found that women preferred to talk to/deal with me, while men tended to defer to Chris. This wasn’t a huge surprise and I perceived it as men being respectful to me (and possibly Chris as well). I got the feeling that if I were a Western woman traveling alone the men would have interacted with me as normal, at least in the context of typical tourist transactions.

Adding to my positive experience in Oman was that it was an immaculately clean country. I’m not sure what I was expecting in that regard, but there was almost no litter on the sides of the road, the water was safe to drink, and the bathrooms in even the most remote gas stations were clean. A far cry from many places that I have visited.

It was pretty obvious from the infrastructure of Oman that there is some oil money at play. The roads and highways in and between population centers were well constructed and perfectly maintained.

Also due to the oil in the region, the fuel prices were extremely low. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.20 per gallon. Very good for us considering that we drove a fairly large SUV over 1000 kilometers that weekend.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the chance to get a peek into Omani culture and the way of life there. I was delighted to find friendly, welcoming people, a safe, clean country, and a beautiful landscape in a place where many of us would not necessarily have expected all of that.

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Sunday morning we did some quick Internet browsing and learned that there was a 4×4 trail that headed a few hours south of Muscat, hugging the rugged shoreline until the town of Sur. Chris, a lover of 4x4s and the ocean, was immediately sold. I was just looking for an opportunity to go for a swim somewhere.

Once again, we set out in the car with minimal directions and no map. Seriously, who needs a map in Oman anyway? Apparently not many people, as is made evident by the fact that there are none for sale. Using the same technique as we had the day before, we headed south, through a small stretch of mountains, and finally east toward the coast.

After driving a ways down a scenic highway through the mountains to the town of Qurayyat, we finally encountered a fellow 4×4 enthusiast who had heard of the trail that we were looking for. We headed out to the shoreline, carefully following his directions, only to find a washed out road. A dead end.

Back to the highway we went, repeating this process several times until we found a tiny trail through the town of Wadi Tiwi. Even though I protested going on what I thought would be one of Chris’ time consuming and unnecessary diversions, he slowly and carefully navigated the SUV up and down the narrow path into the oasis of a village. Nestled deep in a canyon, far below the jagged brown mountains was a small river flowing through a lush green valley. It was exactly what I picture when I imagine happening upon a desert oasis.

The mountain runoff wound along the road, creating deep, clear, pools, perfect for going for a swim. Without even discussing it, we were on a mission to find one of these pools distant enough from the village that I would feel comfortable donning a bathing suit without fear of offending anyone.

As we crept up and down hills along the narrow dirt track, there were many times when I wondered how we would get turned around if we encountered a dead end. I could picture me directing traffic for miles as Chris carefully backed all the way back down this thing.

Fortunately, we never made it to a dead end and even ended up parking in a reasonable place to turn around, somewhat close to an awesome swimming hole. This was probably my favorite part of the whole trip. The cool water felt amazing in contrast to the hot desert air and it was kind of fun to find our own swimming spot far away from anything else.

After we had enough swimming, Chris carefully navigated back out of the wadi and we continued our journey down the highway towards Sur. In hindsight, I’m so glad that I allowed Chris to take me on one of his wild goose chases because going swimming in the wadi was far more exciting than our final destination of Sur was.

We wrapped up our weekend by heading back to Muscat. First we visited the bazaar, which even in the evening was crowded with people. After tiring of the continued harassment from vendors to buy pashminas, we decided to end our trip to Oman with dinner on the roof of a beach side restaurant.

All in all, this was a really fun trip and I’m glad that we made a last minute decision to go.

After picking up our rental 4×4, we began our journey into the mountains of Oman, hoping to find Jebel Shams, the Omani Grand Canyon, and a particular hotel overlooking the canyon.

Our first stop was a gas station to buy a map, a case of water, and some snacks for just in case. Water, check. Snacks, check. Map? Haha.

We asked the lady at the checkout how to get to Jebel Shams. She told us “Go straight, go right, drive, drive, drive. Maybe three or four hours.”

Right. Ok. Did I mention that we were starting from Muscat, the capital city? These directions seemed a bit simple maybe.

We headed out of the gas station and turned right down the next major road. A few kilometers out, we decided to try again for a map. Even asking about maps in Oman seemed to create confusion. No map, but we at least got confirmation that we were headed in the right direction.

Every thirty minutes or so, we would stop at a gas station to ask if we were on the right track. It seems that in every Omani’s English vocabulary, no matter how limited, were the words ‘left’, ‘right’, and ’roundabout’; unfortunately, many of them seemed to confuse the words right and left which made the directional accuracy questionable at best. At one stop we would be told “Roundabout, roundabout, 30 kilometers, roundabout, go left.” only to hear the exact opposite at our next check.

On a positive note, this increased our desire to verify our route more frequently. You see, the constant stopping suited me just fine as I am into fulfilling all pregnant lady stereotypes, so naturally I wanted to use the restroom about every 30 minutes anyway.

As we ascended into the mountains, the gas stations became more and more sparse. Eventually, the dual lane paved road narrowed to a single lane that twisted around hairpin turns going farther up into the mountains. Finally, as instructed, we turned onto a winding network of rutty dirt paths, climbing higher and higher. I was not entirely convinced that we would find our hotel, or any hotel at all even.

Out of nowhere, signs for camps began to appear, including a sign for our hotel! Success!

We did some exploring, enjoying spectacular views of the enormous canyon! It was quite a sight and really did remind me of the Grand Canyon.

Although the canyon was spectacular, I think that Chris’ favorite part of the day was playing with goats. I still cannot get over the number of goats that we saw. After seeing a goat in a tree, I was determined to photograph a goat in a tree, but unfortunately it never panned out.

Chris did not believe me about the tree goat. My claim was met with an eye roll and some mutterings about that being quite a feat for a goat. Only later, after seeing his own tree goat, did Chris believe me. They seem to like to climb up and eat from the tops of the trees down, it is difficult to photograph them though because when we got close enough to their trees to take pictures, they would jump down to come see if we would feed them.

We spent some time asking about a variety of hikes that were available before determining that they were all hikes to nowhere. No peaks, valleys, waterfalls, nothing. Just hiking for the sake of hiking. Don’t get me wrong, we love to go for a good hike, but usually there is a destination of interest in mind. We decided to head back to Muscat before dark so that we could explore the coast in the morning.

It was a pretty fun day, especially the thrill of not having a map and not being sure of we would ever find our intended destination. I would definitely do it again if given the opportunity.

[As you can see, we basically flew all the way to Oman to hang out with goats.]

My impression of Oman so far? Very expensive.

I may be speaking too soon though. We just ordered a breakfast at similar to US fast food prices, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain just yet.

Last night we arrived super late and did an overnight at a hotel in Quram Beach. The plan was to hire a driver today to take us up into the mountains. Right, if we were rich. It turns out that we are not in India anymore.

Our latest game plan it to track down a rental car and attempt a self-drive. This is easier said than done because many of the car rental companies seem to be sold out today and, to compound that problem, we are told that we will need four wheel drive to make it to Jebel Shams: Oman’s Grand Canyon, our mountain destination.

Chris is on the case while I make sure that our breakfast arrives to our table as ordered!

The adventure never ends…

As a side note, I can’t imagine trying to do this pre-iPhone. It would have taken ten times as long and it would have been an infinitely bigger struggle.