Oh My, Oman

August 12, 2011

The last Thursday in June was a public holiday in the UAE in celebration of the Ascension of the Prophet.  Jay and I decided to celebrate by taking a road trip to Oman.  The capital of Oman is Muscat and it is about a 45 minute flight from Abu Dhabi, or a 5-hour minimum drive.  Jay loves road trips so we decided to drive.  I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, however, since moving to the UAE in January, I have seen very little of the dessert or area surrounding Abu Dhabi.  So the decision was made to drive.  Jay would get maps and figure out our route and we would be on our way.  As we were pulling away from Abu Dhabi I asked Jay where the directions were.  You can imagine my surprise when he said that he did not have any.  Nor did he have a map.  He figured we would just follow the road signs to Oman.  Like this is a trip that we take all the time…  I couldn’t believe it.  Here we were driving from one country to another, to places and on roads where we had never been in our lives, and we had not one piece of instruction on how to get to our destination.  Miraculously, we made it to the UAE/Oman border, where my first order of business was to pick up a map to guide us through the rest of the trip.  In the end, the drive ended up taking just about 5 hours, including our border stops.  It was not bad at all.

A little bit of background about Oman.  Before going, everyone told us that we would love Oman because it is “real.”  Unlike the UAE, which is filled with entitlement and excess, Omanis do not have the vast oil reserves that characterize its neighbor and thus, the Omani people have had to work hard to make their country what it is today.  Perhaps that is why the arrogance that we so often experience in Abu Dhabi is conspicuously absent here.  It is said that Omanis are some of the most gracious, friendly and hospitable people in the region, something we indeed experienced on this trip.

Unlike our other vacations up until this point, the main reason to go to Muscat is for the resorts.  Muscat is located on the sea and is surrounded by mountains; very dramatic scenery.  There are two amazing resorts here: The Chedi and The Shangri-La.  Normally, these hotels would be out of our price range.  But, during the summer months their rates drop dramatically, something we were happy to take advantage of!  We spent our first two nights at The Chedi and then our last night at the Shangri-La.  The Chedi is located in town.  While still along the coast, it is set away from the mountains.  The Shangri-La, however, is set outside of the city at a place that combines both the coastline and the mountains.  While I would say the natural beauty surrounding the Shang was unbeatable, the pure luxury of The Chedi made it by far our favorite of the two resorts.  It is perhaps our favorite hotel that we have ever stayed in.  I would describe it as stunning simplicity.

We left Abu Dhabi on Wednesday morning and arrived in Muscat 5 hours later.  I must admit, despite my preference to fly, the drive was not bad at all.  The only hitch was that we left Abu Dhabi without directions, a map, or anything that might point us in the right direction.  The one responsibility I gave to Jay, if he wanted to drive, was to get directions and/or a map to our location.  When we got in the car on Wednesday  morning and I asked him, “Where’s the map?” I was met with a blank expression.  It was like we were taking a trip to a place we had been a million times before…but we weren’t.  We were driving to another country to places we had never been before in our lives.  Jay just figured we would “follow the signs.”  Which, astonishingly, did bring us to the UAE/Oman border (where we were able to pick up a map!).

The next three days were filled with eating, drinking, and lounging by the beach and pool.  We did venture into town at one point to visit The Souq (but it was closed) and the Mosque (also closed to us non-Muslims, as the day we chose to visit was Friday, their holy day).  We did stumble across one of the Sultan’s Palaces that was open to the public; the architecture of the Palace buildings was truly beautiful.  The Omanis, unlike the Emiratis, did a very good job of weaving their buildings into the landscape.  But as I said, the purpose of this trip was not to site-see.

As we like to do, Jay and I made a video of several parts of our trip, which you can watch here.

The majority of the people staying at our hotels were Westerners, however, there were some Muslim families on vacation as well.  And because of this, I saw what a beach vacation means for a Muslim woman.  She comes to the beach and pool fully clothed in her (black) abaya and watches while her husband and children splash around in the water.  Obviously, she cannot get in because she cannot wear a bathing suit.  And mind you, it is about 110 degrees.  As Jay remarked, “This must be a great vacation for Mom!”  Back in Abu Dhabi, we really do not have any Emiratis at our beach club; it is populated with Westerners, so I never considered what would happen if a Muslim woman were to come to the pool.  And I had never really thought about it before.  Since our return from Oman, I did some research and found that they recently started to manufacture a full-body bathing suit for Muslim women.  We did not see any women wearing such swimsuits, and it appears that they are rather controversial in the Islamic community.  I found an interesting article on the website of one of the manufacturers.  They bring up some very valid points about the necessity of women learning to swim, as a safety issue more than anything else.  Very interesting.  I do not want to be insensitive about the subject, and I am certainly by no means an expert.  But, as an admittedly uninformed observer, watching a wife wear her burqa while the husband and children walk beside her in their swimming trunks, it certainly made both Jay and me wonder how much fun a beach holiday could be for Muslim women.  A fellow traveler had similar observations which he posted in this slightly irreverent but also rather humorous take on the subject.

The most adventurous part of our journey was most certainly the journey home.  While our trip to Muscat took five hours, our drive home was over eight.  The majority of the reason for this extension was we decided to take a different route in order to visit the second largest town in Oman: Nizwa.  The major attractions of Nizwa are the fort and the Souq.  I imagine Nizwa would be a very nice place to visit in a season other than summer.  However, when we arrived in this town, it was around 1:30pm and about 120 degrees.  We also did not see a soul because, as we later learned, due to the heat, the entire town shuts down from 1-4pm daily.  The Souq was closed and while we did visit the fort (and it was rather interesting), the heat prevented us from really doing too much.  Certainly not worth the 3 hour addition to the drive…  The second major issue was the border crossing back into the UAE.  There was a small back-up at the border.  When we finally made it to the window the agent told us to “go over there” and pointed to absolutely nothing.  Rather than asking him to clarify, Jay just drove forward and got in the line to have your vehicle scanned with all the other cars.  At the checkpoint after the scan, we handed over our passports and the agent informed us that no one had stamped our passports to enter back into the country and we had to turn around.  Mass confusion ensued.  No one seemed to understand what the issue was.  At one point, a policeman told us that we had to drive back to Oman, go through immigration there, and then come back to the UAE (a statement that I was none too happy to hear, to say the least).  About an hour later, after a great deal of stress, we found the place that the first border agent had actually directed us to: a small building where our passports would be stamped.  Why we had to go inside to do this, I have no idea.  The only other people inside this building were other westerners.  We never got an explanation as to the process, of course.  By this point, we were at hour 6 of the journey and had not even entered the UAE.  We were just thankful to be on our way!  Jay said that at least we know the process for next time.  However, this is really irrelevant, because next time, we will be flying.

Here are some photos of our trip.  As always, captions were written by Jay.

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