Oman

Sean’s Top Ten Countries of the Middle East

*disclaimer #1 – All photos were taken by myself or Kim on our travels.

*disclaimer #2 – This is a (rare) blog post by Sean. Kim’s top ten could indeed be very different, and she does not take responsibility for any potential repercussions from my rankings.

*disclaimer #3 – These 10 countries are countries I have actually been to (or seen) in the Middle East. There are many other countries that are in the middle east that I am sure are fantastic, I just haven’t been to them…

*disclaimer #4 – I wanted to get to “10” countries, so I kind of cheated with 3 countries… I have never been in Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, but I have seen them, in person, with my own eyes, so that counts right?

More accurate title for this blog post:

Top Ten Countries in the Middle East¬†(that I have been to…or seen…or been 20 feet away from…)

Ok, enough with the disclaimers.

I felt like I needed some kind of closure after our 2 years of teaching in Kuwait. We have seen and done a great many things these past couple of years, sometimes amazing, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes just plain mundane. But I wanted to conclude our stay in the middle east with a look back on some of my favorite memories and reminisce with you about the good, the bad, and the ugly (but mostly the good ūüėČ

So, for your reading pleasure, here is “Sean’s Top Ten Countries of the Middle East” ranked by my personal experiences.

#10 – Saudi Arabia (or rather the border of Kuwait/Saudi…)

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I never actually got the chance to go to Saudi Arabia, but the picture you see above is indeed Saudi Arabia in the background – I promise! This is a photo of Kim and a friend at the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It is rather difficult for a westerner to get a visa into Saudi Arabia. For a long time we talked about getting a 24hr visa (which would be much easier to get for us in Kuwait) in order to drive through Saudi to get to Bahrain. I hear the drive there is quite scenic with a 365 view of sand, sand, and more sand…

#9 – Iran (or rather, as seen from a boat in the Strait of Hormuz…)

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The photo above is the Strait of Hormuz and one of the 14 behemoth oil tankers that passes through there each day. Twenty percent of the worlds petroleum passes through this narrow stretch of sea from the oil rich countries of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi, Iraq, and UAE out to the rest of the world. On one side is Musandam, which we were visiting at the time, and on the other side is Iran. You can see the rocky cliffs between the strait leading to the “fjords of the middle east”.

We were told by local Omani fishers that the smuggling between Iran and Oman/UAE is quite frequent. We even saw some Iranian smugglers when local Omanis clued us in on how to spot them. “Look for the mustaches” they said. When we asked what they were smuggling they told us that the Iranians wanted “American Cigarettes” and what did the Omanis get in return? Goats. Lots and lots of Goats. The middle east is full of them…

#8 – Iraq (or rather the border of Kuwait/Iraq)

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I ranked this number 8 because the experience I had was so surreal and strange compared to the other “border” or “view from afar” countries.

We drove out to Mutla Ridge in Kuwait (highest point in Kuwait), and decided to keep on driving to the Iraq border, you know, to see what it was like. Maybe we’d see a tank, or fire, or explosions, or lots and lots of guns!

Nope. It was a pretty ordinary border crossing with a lot of trucks of supplies and local people going through. There was only one point of entry and only a few cars in the 30 minutes we were there.

We pulled up and parked in a flat, desert-like parking lot next to the crossing. And we just started…walking up to the gate. You know. To see how far we could get before they….I don’t know….gunned us down?

When we got to the 1 car entry point the guard you see above in the full camo smiled and waved us over. Surprisingly he knew little English (most people in Kuwait know English quite well). We asked him basic questions like “Is that Iraq?” and “Can we go?” and “Can we take picture?” Note that there were giant signs on the way up saying “NO VIDEO OR PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED”. He smiled when we pulled out the camera, grabbed our friends shoulder and offered to be in the picture. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti man in the car (who wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon) got out and decided he was going to be in the picture too, just, because… (he is on the phone on the left). The guard in the camo then called over the other guard to come join us in the picture too (man in blue with gold shoulders). My friends and I then pose for what was the most surreal photo experience of my life – on the border of Kuwait and Iraq.

#7 – Kuwait

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Kim and I lived in Kuwait for two years. By the first week we had seen pretty much everything Kuwait had to offer. Unfortunately, the outdoor activities that Kim and I truly enjoy are really nonexistent in Kuwait. And Kuwait is not what you’d call a “tourist country”.

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Kuwait does have a long path along the Persian Gulf (or “Arab” Gulf as we were forced to write in our textbooks over the word “Persian”). It is really quite pretty most days. On Eid al-Adha, however, you might want to avoid this area if you are squeamish (or any area really). On Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate the day Abraham was going to sacrifice his son for God, until God said, “just kidding”, and so Abraham sacrificed a lamb instead. In celebration of this day Muslims kill their own sheep, and when your whole country is pretty much Muslim, that’s a lot of sheep…and blood…

So what happens to all these sheep carcasses? Well, some are thrown into the ocean and eventually wash up on shore. Then they get buried in the sand and are pulled up by middle school children during a community and service “beach cleaning” event…

…to the horror of everyone.

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A common theme in the middle east is the sometimes stark contrast of hyper-conservative tradition paralleled with more liberal western influences. The gulf countries especially are going through a clash of middle-east meets west and different countries are dealing with it in sometimes comical, sometimes depressing ways.

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The first week that Kim and I arrived in Kuwait we were taken to a bookstore to get school supplies. The only way to get to this book store, however, was to walk through an amusement park with rides and mini-roller coasters. As we walked through, there were Kuwaiti mothers completely covered in black burqas, dishdasha-ed man, and western dressed children speaking English to the Indian, Sri-Lankan, and Pilipino ride operators. As we walked through this confluence of cultures our ears were blasted by, get this, hardcore rap music. This ultra-conservative society was basting F-bombs by Jay-Z and 50 cent in a children’s amusement park. These blatant contradictions turned out to be a common theme throughout the middle east.

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Mutla Ridge, the highest point in Kuwait at a staggering “nosebleed” level of 475 feet, is one place in Kuwait that I quite enjoyed the view. At the end of our hike along the ridge which has the occasional Kuwaiti “desert camping” (see Kim’s previous blog entries for what that really means), we reached a protruding peninsula that provides one of the coolest views of the Kuwait skyline (as seen above in the picture).

Lastly, Failaka island was a very unnerving and surreal experience. Failaka is an island in the Gulf that is part of Kuwait. In the 1980s Kuwaitis lived on the island, had homes there, had cars there, mosques, banks, etc. But in 1990 Iraq attacked Kuwait, invaded the island, and drove all the Kuwaitis off of it. It was never rebuilt and remains frozen in time to 1990. It was fascinating, humbling, and horrifying to walk through people’s homes and see bullet holes in the walls, bullet shells on the ground, and see people’s clothes, books, and dishes still lying around the home.

#6 – Qatar

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Kim and I went to Qatar our first year in the middle east. We had a long weekend over thanksgiving and decided to go to Qatar because, well, when else would we ever probably be in Qatar? Qatar, although it is building up, is not exactly know as a vacation destination. In fact, when we arrived in the Doha airport, an American family that was on the same flight from Kuwait asked us why we came to Qatar. We told them vacation, they looked at us, as if we were joking, then realizing we were not, laughed and asked why, insisting there was nothing to do in Qatar. In many ways, they were correct.

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One of my favorite places in all of the middle east, however, is in Qatar. It is the beautiful and unique building you see behind us in the picture above. It is the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by famed architect I. M. Pei, it is a spectacular building sitting on a peninsula opposite Doha city proper across the bay. Inside the museum is a collection of the most brilliantly preserved, priceless, and unique items of Islamic history and art from the 6th century to modern day. Much of the art focuses on the Medieval era, or the golden age of Islam. Most of my favorite works were from Iran. The Persian art is more relaxed when it comes to showing living things, where as most Islamic sects forbid it.

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On the top level was a modern Arabic calligraphy artist that took lines from famous Arab, Turkish, and Persian poems and wrote them in the most delicate and beautiful script. I found a quote that really jumped out at me, and had great meaning for myself. It gave me a connection to this museum I won’t long forget. My favorite quote was from a poem in Ottoman Turkish by Hami-i Amidi, translated it said,

“Some among the sensitive and cultured people come to live where they find their heart’s desire. To some, strange places will become home, and sometimes some will stay home but find it strange.”

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Souq Waqif is one of my favorite souqs in the middle east (a “souq” is a marketplace). It has a rather modern main streets but the side streets will bring you back hundreds of years to the time of pearl diving and camel caravans. You’ll find everything from Qatari daggers, to jewelry, to spices and perfume. We eventually accidentally walked into a “hawk shop”. In the picture above Kim is holding a real, and very living, falcon. The man in the shop could tell we obviously weren’t here to buy a falcon (which many Qatari’s do, and walk around with on their arm because, why not?), but he was so eager to show us his birds. So, we put on the glove, pet, and even fed the falcon. When he took the sleep mask off the falcon, and you looked into her large and beautiful eyes, you felt like she was peering deep into your soul and judging everything you had ever done. Like no animal I have ever encountered, nothing past or present gets by a falcon.

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As I said, Qatar is growing, and although it is not currently a major tourist destination, they are the up and coming in the gulf region. Walking through the streets they are ecstatic about, and make it well know to you, that they are hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The photo above is from the area of Doha know as “The Pearl”. When the construction is finished (whenever that might be…), it will be pretty spectacular and will rival the Dubai Palm in most ways.

#5 – UAE (Dubai)

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Dubai, as you may notice in the picture above, has some rather unique architecture. When Kim and I first visited Dubai we were blown away by the modernity of the place. My friend described Dubai by saying, “It’s architecture is so modern, you might not be surprised to see George Jetson fly across the sky in a spaceship.”

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Dubai is a perfect example of the middle-east meets west clash and contradictions. We would walk around the Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world by area), and see Emirati¬†Women, dressed in a fully covered Burqa, walk into Victoria’s Secret, with mannequins and posters of half naked women. Or we would see Emirati¬†Men (and all Gulf coast men), drive around wearing ghutras on their head that completely block their peripheral vision. It seems rather dangerous to us.

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In an attempt by the Emirati to hold on to their traditions, they still have a traditional souq (which is mainly run by expats such as Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, or Filipinos), and they have dhows (boats) to take you across the Dubai Creek. It was pretty cool having someone take a raw coconut, chop it up, stick a straw in it, and then jump on a boat to take you across the creek. All the while being surrounded by buildings of architecture of the future.

Dubai - Burj Khalifa

You may have noticed the rather tall building in these pictures. It is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Kim and I did take the elevator up a staggering 124 floors to the (open air!) observation deck. We watched the sun set across the desert in the distance. You can truly see for miles and miles with nothing to hinder you view (except the occasional dust storm).

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I do have a lot of respect for the people of Dubai economically. They have the foresight to realize that one day their oil money will run out. So instead of saying, “Well, let’s just live large and ride this gravy train until it derails”, (like Kuwait), they said lets use this money to invest in a tourist economy that will last long after the oil has run dry. In that regard, they have preserved the few physical cultural heritage sites that they have.

The photo above shows some of the arrowslits of a fort that was built in Dubai in 1787. They have preserved it and turned it into a museum. It was one of the most informative places I have been to in the middle east in terms of showing daily life of the Arabs long ago. The fact that it was built of rock, and mud, and even ocean coral, makes it even more impressive that it still exists today.

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(If you click on the picture above, it will open in a new page so you can view the panorama in greater detail.)

Dubai is the epitome of a city in constant contradiction. Check the news, everyday the Emiritis are struggling with the balance between, or the blatant contradictions of, the progressive nature of modernity and the western culture that comes with it, and their hyper-conservative Islamic traditions and laws. For all of its faults, Dubai has become a major player in not only the middle east, but now safely holds its own on the world’s stage.

#4 – Musandam (Oman)

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Ok, I cheated again. Musandam isn’t its own country. It is “technically” part of Oman, but it is cut off from Oman culturally, linguistically, geographically, and even physically! Musandam is a peninsula, jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz, and it is not connected to Greater Oman. The only way to get to Musandam from Greater Oman is to either drive through the UAE, fly there, or take a boat around the UAE coast. So that is why I made it my #4 country, deal with it : )

The picture above is one of my favorite photos that I have taken in the middle east. This inlet of water surrounded by the rocky fjords of Musandam is called Khor Al Najd (which possibly means “hidden place”, but I wouldn’t go throwing that around with any certainty). Kim and I flew into Dubai and rented a car. We then drove across the UAE and crossed the border into Musandam. From that point the scenery became spectacular. Giant rocky cliffs falling straight into the crystal blue-green ocean. We climbed the extremely steep dirt road from the inland side in our rented two wheel drive car and when we reached the zenith the view before us was jaw-droppingly beautiful. We stayed there for hours taking in the view and walking around the little paths from the viewpoint.

MusandamTentRockKimWe brought our tent on the plane and just lived out of our car for the weekend. In all of Oman you can camp pretty much wherever you like. In the picture above we set up camp on a rocky cliff that dropped over the ocean and watched the sun set reflect on the mountains in the background changing them from the most brilliant red, to pink, to purple.

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The next day we chartered a dhow cruise through the fjords. The best, and only real way, to truly experience Musandam is by boat. Weaving in and out of the inlets of water you dive deeper into the heart of Musandam. We explored an island with the ruins of a colonial fort, brightly colored fish swimming through coral, and small Omani fishing villages living on the edge of existence. We were able to snorkel and swim in a few places. When we got back on the boat, we had a few marine friends following us.

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At least 5 times we had dolphins skimming along next to our boat. They would go under us, behind us, jump out of the water, and squeak at us. There was a particular family with a baby that kept following us. It was a really cool experience, and the first time I have seen dolphins in the wild.

MusandamKimTentBeachThat night we asked the boat driver to drop us off at a secluded beach only accessible by boat so we could camp for the night (a common request). He dropped us off, gave us some firewood (a rarity in the middle east), we set up camp, and hoped he would remember to pick us up the next day. It was the most picturesque beach cove – I could have sworn I was on a movie set. It was called “Seebel Kareeb” – a¬†perfect half circle of soft sand completely hidden by the surrounding mountains. We swam, cooked dinner on the fire, and slept under the shooting stars. It was unreal.

Musandam_3355The last day in Musandam we followed the one road through the peninsula as far as it goes. To our great surprise it dead ends into a forest. Now, if you know anything about deserts…there’s not a lot of forests. We got out and followed the many herds of goats through the forest, around trees, and sometimes up into the trees. Yes, these goats climbed trees. There were plenty of places to camp but we had to get to Dubai that night and so our Musandam journey had come to an end.

Musandam is quite unknown, even within expat communities in the middle east. This makes it an infrequently traveled, untouched enclave among the major tourist destinations in the Gulf.

#3 – Egypt

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Number three was a difficult choice. I was torn between number two and three. In the end, Egypt has the population factor and the stress that comes with it that pushed it to my number three.

Egypt is fantastic. Don’t let the current political situation dissuade you from any thought other than the fact that Egypt is fantastic. From north to south it has over 6000 layers of history that sometimes you literally see “layered” in the ground. Egypt contains remnants of human existence from the pharaohs, the biblical Jews, the Hittites, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Nabataeans, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the French, the British, and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting. Can any other country in the world claim that kind of diverse history. It is astounding and visible.

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When I was in middle school I went to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. I had seen many pictures of it and expected it to be huge. When I got there, it was rather incredible, but it was smaller than what I was expecting. With the pyramids, I think I’ve seen thousands of images of them in my life and expected them to be huge again. When I got there, they were BIGGER and grander than I could have ever imagined – and they are so numerous that they stretch along the Nile for miles and miles. Seeing these gargantuan stones, over 4500 years old, piled up on top of one another in perfect mathematical alignment, and then being able to actually go inside them… to me, it was like a kid in a candy store, if the store was also made of candy, and the candy could be inserted directly into your veins. I was high on history.


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In our trip we visited no less than 7 temples (I lost track). I was given free range to meander through these structures, witness the great artistic skill in carving the hieroglyphs, listen to the echos in the inner chambers bounce off Isis, Horus, and Seth, and feel the eternity of the stones…oh, if walls could talk…

In the valley of the kings there were no temples, but tombs where the pharaohs were buried. As the quality of the wall carvings and paintings got better (more preserved), I couldn’t help but realize how alike these ancient people of the past were to us today. Especially in the necropolis of the wealthy and workers tombs where they depicted scenes from everyday life on their walls. A son helping his father carry baskets of wheat, a man sleeping on the shore of the Nile while his friends fished, a wedding with man and wife holding hands surrounded by beautiful riverbed flowers. In these 4000 years, our relationships and the emotions of our human interactions haven’t changed much.

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The way that Egypt can transition so flawlessly from 4000 years ago, to 2000 years ago, to modern day, all on the same block is a uniqueness all its own. Cairo is a mega-city. It is the most populated city in Africa with streets and city planning created over 1000 years ago. Cairo hustles, it churns, it¬† spits, it screeches, and it does it well into the night. The streets have shops, in front of shops, in front of shops, in front of other shops and you wonder where people walk, and where they actually drive. Some parts of Cairo are a fluid of people. But then you’ll turn down a side street where cars can’t go, and you’ll find a thousand year old mosque. You wander inside and see the most beautiful stone insets, geometric shapes, and delicately drawn Arabic calligraphy. This is where the Fatimid Caliphs, the Mamluk kings, and the Ottoman Sultans prayed and meditated on their next conquest.

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Turn the next corner and you’re smack in the middle of Tahrir Square, the heart of the Egyptian revolution, where effigies hang from light poles. We talked to a lot of people throughout Egypt about the revolution and they all knew, without hesitation, that turmoil, and uncertainty, and even bloodshed were likely repercussions for the revolution, but they wanted it so badly, they¬† were willing to accept it. That was the sentiment when we were there in January of 2013 – now I don’t know if they would say so much. I think now they are more angry and divisive than they ever were with Mubarak. As one Egyptian dhow sailor told us in Luxor, “The Revolution is like giving birth to a new born, a new nation. It’s exciting, it’s emotional, and it’s messy!”

When I think of the revolution, I always have to put things in perspective and think, it took the United States 13 years, and essentially a civil war to get rid of a Monarch. Egypt does not appear to need all that. Inshallah.

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Visiting Egypt made me glad that Kim and I included a reading of an ancient Egyptian poem in our wedding. The following are my favorite lines from that poem, translated from the hieroglyphics on a wall in a temple built some 3000 years ago:

“With my hand in your hand
we shall wander together in beautiful places,
my soul inspired,
my heart in bliss,
because we go together.”

#2 – Jordan

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My number two, Jordan. Oh, how I love this country. It is amazingly vast and diverse for a country little bigger than Maine. Although a good area of land is desert, the remaining topography has mountains, hills, valleys, wadis, lakes, oceans, and rivers. Not only is it a beautiful country, but the people are so genuinely nice and helpful (and not just because you’re a tourist).

The above photo was taken from one of my favorite places in Jordan known as Wadi Dana. If you ever visit Jordan, please book one night in the little medieval village of Dana. If you look closely, you can see the entire village hanging perilously on the edge of the valley in the center left of the picture. The reason I say “medieval” village is because the rooms you stay in are the ruins of a village built in the middle ages. We hiked up to the ruins of a Roman bath on the left side of the picture where the water is held in an underground well and slowly trickles down a stone built aqueduct to the village and into the wadi (a “wadi” is a dry riverbed). It becomes quite green in the rainy season.

At night, Kim’s family and I huddled in a majlis tent with a few Bedouin where we smoked shisha and drank “Bedouin tea” (which was sage and sugar). One man played the oud, another drummed, while the last man danced, clapped, and sang. For a goat herder he had quite the moves.

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Like Egypt, Jordan’s history is long and convoluted. There are castles upon castles in Jordan from the many crusades and crusader states set up here. My favorite is the one in the picture above, Kerak Castle. This castle is huge, don’t be fooled by the photo. Where the photographer is standing is also on top of the castle with many rooms and tunnel ways underneath. What you see before you is only the very top of the castle. This castle is my favorite because it was attacked and conquered by one of my favorite characters from the crusades, Saladin (Salah al-Din). Saladin was Richard the Lionheart’s bitter rival, but they had a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. In fact, the 3rd crusade actually ended with a rather fair peace treaty for the middle east.

The guide told the story of Saladin when he attacked this castle. The castle was controlled by a Templar Knight named Raynald de Chatillon. He was a rather ruthless man. He used to throw Muslim prisoners off of the castle walls (into a deep valley below) with a wooden box fitted around their head, just to make sure they didn’t pass out before they hit the ground – the goal being that they stayed awake to feel all the pain associated with falling that great height. He frequently attacked Muslim pilgrimage caravans and slaughtered them. When Salah al-Din conquered the castle, he let the Christians go uninjured, except for Raynald, whom he personally beheaded. Ah, I love history!

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Step back another thousand years and you’re in the time of the Nabataeans. Petra is truly one of the great wonders of the world. When you approach Petra from the outside, you cannot see anything other than rocky hills. Then you wind your way through a narrow passageway at times only six feet wide that goes straight up hundreds of feet. You continue walking about 20 minutes like this until you reach the opening of the Siq, and you’re standing directly in front of beautiful sandstone like building carved directly into the wall. But there isn’t just one, there are over 800 carved tombs in the walls as the walls in the valley open up to the size of a football field. But soon you realize it isn’t just tombs, there was a thriving city here, complete with aqueducts, homes, and even a carved in amphitheater. We spent three days in Petra and did not see everything.

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Further north is the Roman town of Jerash. Because it was completely built by Romans, and it was abandoned and never built over, it is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world. It even boasts the best preserved hippodrome in Asia. In fact, they even perform Roman military formations and a chariot race in the hippodrome with ex-Jordanian military men dressed in complete Roman costume. Unfortunately, it rained the one day we went to Jerash and they canceled the chariot races. Jerash was the first place I had ever seen Roman ruins, and if you know me, you know how much I love ancient Rome. It was a seminal event for me.

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Separating the countries of Jordan and Israel are the Jordan river and the Dead Sea. At 1,400 feet below sea level, it is dubbed “the lowest place on earth.” In the picture above, the rocks are not covered in snow, or sand, rather they are covered in crystallized salt. The water has no where to go but up when it evaporates, making the Dead Sea one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. We jumped in and could not sink though we tried. You just bob like an apple. As I listened to the waves lap across the salt baked rocks, from the southern shore of the Dead Sea I looked to my right at the hills of Mt. Nebo, where Moses viewed the promised land but could not enter – and I looked to my left where the light dome of Jerusalem bounded upward behind the hills of the river valley and instantly everything felt so ancient and unending. Much like the country of Jordan.

#1 – Oman

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And my number one is….Oman! People that know Kim and I are probably not surprised. Oman is by far our favorite middle east country. In the 2 years that we were living in Kuwait we went to Oman 3 times (that’s 3 times more than any other middle east country). Oman has everything an outdoors lover would want including mountains, wadis, lagoons, soft sand beaches, rocky beaches, waterfalls, caves, coral reefs, sink holes, and real wildlife (a rarity in the middle east). It is a country just daring you for adventure.

The above panorama (click to enlarge) was taken at As Sifa beach about an hour from Muscat. You have to drive some astoundingly hilly roads but your reward is the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. Flawlessly white powder sand only a tiny village nearby. There is a major hotel that just opened up and the coolest restaurant serving the freshest seafood right on the beach. You can put your toes in the sand and watch and listen to the waves lap up on the beach. We camped right on the beach.

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You can camp virtually anywhere in the entire country. In our main trip to Oman we brought a tent and sleeping bags on the plane and then rented a car when we got there. We had a long 5 day weekend and I wish it was longer. We drove all around the mountain and gulf coastal region and just pulled over to set up camp whenever we were getting tired. We camped in Wadis, on beaches, on mountains, and even once under a tree next to a mosque where we were greeted in the morning by a rather loud call to prayer and a handful of overly friendly goats.

The above photo is not staged in any way – it is me just pointing my camera down at the beach sand in a town south east from Muscat called Sur. I couldn’t believe it, there was no sand! The entire beach was shells and coral. Unfortunately we did not have time on our trip, but right near Sur is a sea turtle sanctuary where you can go with a guide and watch baby turtles hatch out of their sand nest and crawl to the ocean.

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Throughout Oman are either original, remnants, or restored sand colored forts, castles, and towers. Some are Omani made, some are Portuguese made. The oldest ones dating back to the 1200s! There are over 500 in the whole country. The picture above is the giant fort in Nizwa. In the picture below you can see a tower near the center left on the mountain. They are a cool aspect of Omani culture and Sultan Qaboos (who I am fascinated with and you should read about him) has done a great job restoring and maintaining them.

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The first time we visited Oman we went to a conference in Muscat for only a couple days. We immediately were enamored with the country. The people are so friendly. Oman does not have as much oil money as the other gulf coast countries and because of that the people seem to be more down to earth, middle class, and genuine. Oman is rich in culture and history. Even the clothing the men and women wear are colorful (unlike the black and white clothes of the other gulf countries). Trade with India over the centuries has created an infusion of outside influences.

We didn’t stay in Muscat, actually, we stayed in a smaller area that is attached to Muscat called Muttrah. The above photo is of the Muttrah corniche and we actually did a hike over the mountains you see in the background. Problem was I had just dislocated my knee the week before and had a straight leg cast on. But that didn’t stop Kim from pulling me up that hill to the reward of a breathtaking view over the ocean and Muttrah coast.

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Our favorite thing about Oman were the Wadis. A wadi is a dry canyon or riverbed. Except these wadis are almost never dry! The mountains in Oman create clouds and more frequent rain which fills these slot canyons with steams, pools, waterfalls, waterslides, and just plant life and animal life in general.

The above photo is from Wadi Shab. Starting from the Ocean where the water empties into, you step into this gigantic canyon with 90 degree angle sides. In order to get into the Wadi you have to either take a boat across the initial river of water or just wade across. Of course we waded across waist deep in the water. We were in our swimming suits anyway because at the end of the hike (after hours of pools, and canyons, and cliff climbing) you reach a few narrower pools that have an underground waterfall. The waterfall is in a cave and the only way to reach it is to swim underwater through a 5 foot wide tunnel about 20-25 feet and then come up for air once you’re inside the cave. It took a lot of coaxing but eventually I got Kim to do it. It was very cool.

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Our favorite wadi was Wadi Bani Khalid, but not the tourist side (although it is beautiful and also includes a long and deep waterless cave), the down stream side of Wadi Bani Khalid. It seemed virtually untouched and we only encountered one other group of people the whole hike. You follow the wadi which is quite dry initially until the canyon becomes much more rocky and narrow. Then out of no where the water starts flowing with huge pools and 30 foot waterfalls. We watched the other group actually jump from the top of one of the waterfalls into a pool below (Kim wouldn’t let me do it…). We went swimming and had a picnic near one of the waterfalls and about 5 lizards came out from under the rocks to meet us, eager to steal our food. I liked them but they kind of freaked Kim out.

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My last story about Oman is a bit embarrassing. Like I said, we drove around and camped the whole time we were there. We never had a problem finding a place to camp, especially along the ocean. However, one night when we were driving down from Jebel Shams (a beautiful mountain), we arrived to the village inside of Wadi Bani Khaled in the dark. We went to the Wadi pools on the tourist side and it was wall to wall people with noise and trash everywhere. This was because it was Eid al Adha and everyone was off work vacationing. We decided there was no way we were going to camp there tonight.

So we drove back into the village but the canyon walls around the city did not allow any open space for camping. We even drove back towards the highway and found a place near there that we thought might be ok, albeit noisy, but it was pitch dark and there was a human like shape laying under a tree two feet from where we wanted to camp. The paranoia got to Kim and “there is no way I’m sleeping here” she said. So we drove back into the village and looked around again. After a couple hours of this we found the Wadi Bani Khaled visitor center, which had a parking lot and we thought, whatever, lets just camp in the parking lot. A man came out and asked us what we were doing. We replied that we needed a place to camp. He told us, no problem, of course we could camp in the parking lot. So we went around what appeared to be an animal pen (with no animals) and set up camp for what was a somewhat restless night.

When we awoke, we were greeted with the most serene, awe inspiring and exquisite view. Because it was pitch black when we set up camp we did not realize that we were at the top of the valley overlooking a forest of palm trees encircled by imperial canyon walls. The sun was just peeking over the mountains and the moisture from the pools of water evaporating created this mist over the place that was ethereal and magical.

There truly is no bad place to camp in Oman.

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In Which We Meet Dubai’s Fiery Neighboor, and Stumble Into Oman Through The Back Door

Here it is, the final blog post before Egypt! Sean and I leave for Cairo on Saturday, December 22. We’ve got four days in Cairo, then a week in Luxor. We are so excited, we can barely wait. I have been writing down every Egyptian delicacy I can find on the internet, Googling “hidden Cairo” for months now, and compiled a bucket list that would make the¬†Pharaoh¬†tired. My parents and sister are meeting us in Cairo on the 23rd, and we are spending the duration of our travels with them. I am so excited to experience Egypt with them; neither them nor us have been there before, so it will be a first-time experience for everyone!

We’re certain we will be safe the entire time, too. We’ve booked tours during our time in Cairo, and have gotten a really good feel for the areas we will be staying in. I will¬†hopefully¬†post updates while we’re there! Stay tuned, and happy holidays : )

My last blog post of this year is, again, about Oman. Kind of. Before you write us off as obsessive, this trip took another format. We heard that you could fly into Dubai and drive to the Oman peninsula, where the Straight of Hormuz is located. The name of the peninsula is “Musandam”, and is known for it’s mountains, azure waves, and dolphins. Since the flight to Dubai is so short and inexpensive, and the road trip was supposed to last only two hours, we thought we’d take a long weekend and give it a shot.

We were so glad we did.
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(Click on the above photo for an awesome panorama.) This is Khor Al Najd, in Musandam. We drove the windy road down to the coast in our little 2WD rental! Twice! We visited once when it was rather cloudy, but came back on a clearer day for this fantastic shot. “Khor” is Arabic for “hidden place”.
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Here I am at sea level in Khor Al Najd. So much marine life!

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There isn’t much to do at the base of Khor Al Najd, except to wonder at the views. We walked around for a bit, took some pictures, and had lunch.

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We had company on our mountain lookout. We were eating lunch when this guy was walking around on the cliffs below us, snapping photos on his iPhone. Just another tourist like us : )

 

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Our first night, we stayed outside the village of Khasab. Unfortunately, it’s possible to take vehicles onto the beaches in Oman, which makes for crowded, loud weekends on the beach. We opted for a more secluded, “look-out” campsite, where no cars were to be found. What paradise. We just made sure that the zipper of the tent was facing inland, so we didn’t step off the cliff!

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The fort in Khasab. Oman has long-standing history of disagreements with the Portuguese (see my earlier post). These forts were built a couple hundred years ago, and renovated recently as a testament to the Omani history.

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Sean and I hanging out inside the fort.

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The bathroom in the fort. So much more exciting than the boring “girl in a dress” icon we’ve got on the bathrooms in America. Sean was obsessed with their gender identification. The woman on the right is wearing an abaya and is completely covered, and the man on the left is wearing a head scarf, a dishdasha, and an Omani dagger. So much more intricate than stick figures!

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We had to get up early to see the fort so that we could be on time to the dock for the 10am dhow cruise. As we had heard, Musandam is a beautiful landscape of “fjords”, which are best seen from the water. Therefore, we decided to book a full-day cruise on a dhow (a traditional Arabic fishing boat). Not only would we sail near the Straight of Hormuz (being only 40 miles from Iran), but would snorkel in the fjords, have a traditional Arabic lunch on board the boat, and be dropped off at a private beach to camp afterward. While we didn’t see this, we had read that the Khasab port is notorious for smuggling goats back and forth from Iran in exchange for American cigarettes (which are banned in Iran)! The above picture was taken as our dhow left the harbor.
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We took precautions and wore lots of sunscreen and covered ourselves as much as we could. Look at how powerful and arid this region is! It’s all striking cliffs, no vegetation, and beautiful, blue water. The dhow was really comfortable; it was set up with cushions for sitting on, and lots of Arabic tea for sipping. (We love Arabic tea; we think it’s comprised of saffron, black tea, sage, and LOTS of sugar.)

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Sean relaxing as we sailed further into the fjords. There were only four other tourists on the boat with us! There was an old Omani man steering the dhow, and our “guide” was from¬†Morocco and wore a NY Yankees baseball hat. I haven’t seen anyone so knowledgeable and passionate about the ocean. He said he is a certified diver, and it sounded like he had dived all over the Mediterranean as well as the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf.
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The boat had a nice canvas shade so we weren’t hit by the sun all of the time. (Look at those mountains!)

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The comfortable dhow : )

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We’re not kidding, we saw over twenty dolphins! As the boat was sailing, dolphins would swim alongside the boat with us. They loved to ride the currents created by the boat.
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It was truly magical. What happy, beautiful creatures.

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As you can see, dhow cruises are fairly popular. We ran into a few other boats during our venture. But ours was the least crowded.

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When we stopped to dive, our guide tossed a piece of bread into the water, and it sparkled with fish. The snorkeling was a lot of fun.

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There were islands in the fjords, and even small villages where people have lived for, probably, over a thousand years. The villages are just small buildings built right on the edge of the water, and they are brought fresh water from the government every month. Most of the homes are fisherman’s homes, who also have a small home on the mainland. The tour boats are forbidden from sailing too close to the villages, though, and rightfully so. It looked so quiet and peaceful from afar.

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After the dhow cruise was over, it was 4pm, and time for us to be dropped off at the beach. Since there’s only one road that winds through Musandam, it’s tough to find a completely quiet place to yourself that has road access. However, you can go to the port in the morning and pay anybody with a boat to drop you off at a secluded beach for the night. We talked to the people we booked our dhow cruise with, and they knew a great beach we could stay at. Since they were a reputable company, we knew we’d actually be picked up in the morning! The above photo (click on it for a great panorama) is the beach we camped at. What a gorgeous cove. The name of it was called “Seebel Kareeb”.

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Sean snapped a picture of me playing on the rocks at our hidden cove beach.

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Once we pitched our tent, we played in the sand, swam, and ate hummus until the sun set.

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The sun created a rosy glow on the mountain that was just beautiful.

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The guy who dropped us off was nice enough to give us lighter fluid and some old, dried up logs, so we made a campfire. (Those of you in the States may think that’s no big deal, but how many trees have you seen in the pictures so far in this blog?) As we sat by the campfire, we were treated to a beautiful meteor shower!

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When we woke up in the morning, we had to refrain from swimming. The tide must have been really rough the night before, or there was a mass birthing of jellyfish, because we found fifteen or so “piles” of baby jellyfish floating in the water. When you get stung by them, it doesn’t necesariyl “hurt”, but it’s a strange, uncomfortable, tingling, prickling feeling. Kind of like when you touch a cactus. No thanks!

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This was before we saw the jellyfish babies… we played in the water until we felt the stinging….

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We still managed to make a beautiful shell-garden before the boat picked us up in the morning.

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The next day, we decided to drive the “Acacia Forest” at the end of the road. Literally. On the map, there was a road that lead straight into the mountain, and ended where it said, “Acacia Forest”. We decided to check it out seeing as a forest in the desert sounded¬†intriguing¬†to us. What we found there was a herd…. no, a hoard… no, an INVASION of goats.

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The reason the forest exists here is because this area is the main water-drainage route for any rain that falls in the moutains. What I find fascinating is that no one has built homes under the shade of the trees! It was very park-like and quiet.

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We didn’t see another person the whole time, but we saw a lot of goats. Sean calls this picture, “Goat Ad Infinitum”. Can you spot the goat seemingly suspended in mid-air? How many goats can YOU count?

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They were climbing the trees!

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As I have said before, Sean likes to watch me squirm around goats. I don’t really like goats. Sean loves goats. This guy followed us around the forest for fifteen minutes. He was sad to see us go. Sean called him ‘Goaty’. Arabs own a lot of goats, as they are a kind of status symbol. Your wealth used to be based on your heard, and even though it doesn’t apply anymore, they still have herds of goats. They slaughter goats for weddings and religious ceremonies. Goat milk and goat cheese is popular. They’re everywhere!

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On our way out of Musandam, we stopped for a final picture.

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The road out of Musandam. Quite undrivable during big waves!

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One of the villages on the way to Khasab. I have never see such rich greens next to such blue blues ūüôā

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As we left Musandam, we made our way back to Dubai. We loved to drive past the rolling sand dunes. We certainly don’t have these in Kuwait, contrary to what you may think. Kuwait doesn’t have any dunes – it’s much more flat, without any shifting sands or change in elevation. We were fascinated.

DubaiSkylineAs we got closer to Dubai, the Burj Khalifa sprouted out of the skyline. (That’s the tallest building in the world, ladies and gentlemen!) It was really neat to drive a rental car around Dubai; we got to see the skyline from so many interesting perspectives. We could see the Burj Khalifa on the horizon for an entire HOUR before we reached the parking lot for the mall, underneath the tower. (We timed it.) What a huge building!


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Ahhhh, Arabia. The land of contrasts. A picture says a thousand words…

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We took this picture for all of you who think we are suffering over here in the Middle East. We have TOO many options to choose from… Starbucks? Caribou Coffee? Take your pick!¬†

BurjAtNight1We finished off our trip with an ice cream while watching the fountain and light show at the Dubai Mall. The building on the far right is the Burj Khalifa. There is absolutely no feasible way you can fit it in one photograph unless you lay down on the ground and point your camera up to the sky. Our flight left at 11pm, so we had ample time to relax and indulge in all the things we had done without while camping in Musandam. Our trip was a perfect combination of opulent and serene!

We leave for Cairo tomorrow, so I will update you as soon as we can! Merry Christmas, or as they say in Arabic… ¬†well, I don’t know how to say it. All of our Muslim families at school wished us Merry Christmas in English : ) ¬†I will just wish you blessings in your holiday season, Mubarak!

Categories: Dubai, Oman | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

As Sifah Beach: Oman’s Paradise

All right, here it is! My final post on our trip to Oman over Eid. This post will be short, as it spans the course of the final day of our vacation, and all took place on one beach. And oh my, what a beach it was! A girlfriend of mine had recommended we go to As Sifah beach, which is only an hour’s drive outside of Muscat. We planned on driving out to the beach on our second-to-last day, spending the night, and than having a leisurely last day in the sparkling blue water before flying home. Everything worked out perfectly. As promised, As Sifah beach turned out to be absolutely beautiful. It is only accessible by a one-lane road that winds through the mountains that surround Muscat. You climb incredibly steep, narrow, and winding roads for forty-five minutes. There were moments that the turns were tighter than the length of the car! You literally had to slow down, crank the steering wheel, and make a hard turn while you accelerated on the gas pedal to continue up the steep hills. It was really hidden and tucked away in the mountains. Once you had climbed uphill for what seemed like forever, the road dropped steeply downhill, to return to you sea-level, where the beach was.

On our way to the beach, we passed beautiful lagoons. The¬†Arabic¬†word for these places is “khawr”, and a khawr is kind of like a marine-life sanctuary. Another appropriate term for them would be an estuary, as they are shallow bodies of water connected to the ocean. They are popular with the fisherman and are a highly protected area.

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The khawrs on our way to Yiti and As Sifah beach. The above picture is a panorama, so click on it for a real treat. (Click on it again, once it opens, to see it full size. You can zoom in and move around, exploring the whole area on your screen!)

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Once we got reached the ocean we came to Yiti beach. It was beautiful, pristine, but quite crowded. We decided to continue down the road to As Sifah beach.

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Once in As Sifah, we fell in love with the remote stretches of white sand and crystal clear waters. We spent the evening swimming, playing frisbee, and watching the sunset.

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For dinner, we decided to splurge and treat ourselves to the one restaurant in As Sifah. It was a seafood restaurant on the beach, and it was divine!

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They really could charge anything, with a location like that.

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That night, we relaxed with a game of cribbage while waiting for our feast.

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I tried to take the above picture in poor lighting and on the wrong setting. Anyways, on the far right is hamoor, the local fish that I ordered, and on the left side is Sean’s platter of fish and shrimp. Not to mention the plethora of Middle Eastern dips and spreads that blanketed our table. It sure made the canned hummus we choked down every other day while living out of a tent worth it!

AsSifahIn the morning we watched the sunrise. (Click on the panorama above, clicking again on the photo to open it up all the way.) That’s the nice thing about camping; you wake up early enough to see the beauty of the world unfold…


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We spent our last day playing on the beach in As Sifah. The water was the cleanest and purest I have ever seen. The beach was also spotless. It was a day to remember!IMG_2856

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Sean was very proud of his sandcastle!

IMG_2881Before we got on the plane we drove around Muscat for a little while. You can see the Royal Opera House in this photo. Isn’t Oman just amazing? The Sultan loves opera and the arts, respects and protects their natural resources, and the people are the nicest I’ve met in this corner of the world.

I wish I could say, “We plan on going back”, but that’s precisely what we did. Two weeks after this trip. No joke. But this time, instead of flying into Muscat, we flew into Dubai. We drove to a place called Musandam, which is technically part of Oman, and has some of the most stunning scenery and wildlife I’ve seen so far this year. I know, how can I say that after a trip like this? Check in with me next week to find out…

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Oman: What The Rest Of The Tourists See

Today’s blog post focuses on the Oman that everybody pictures when they hear “Oman”…. unless you’re like us, and couldn’t even pin Oman on a map before we moved to Kuwait. Never fear! The Oman that we documented on today’s travels is a part of the “Muscat-Sur Road”. It’s the major road that runs North – South along the coast. When people travel to Oman and want to do a drive-by vacation, this is the road they take to see some of the more easily accessed sights. Down and back, you could do this in a day or two if you really tried. Everything (except where we camped), is paved, so it’s easy traveling. The coast was, no joke, unbelievably beautiful. While the mountainous part of Oman had villages and people in every nook and cranny, the coast seemed wildly abandoned. Due to its rocky nature it was never conducive to farming or setting up shop near the wind and the waves. Therefore, it’s still in its untrammeled state.

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Here I am in Sur. We made a loop with our driving, heading North up the coast to Muscat. Sur was a cute, quiet town on the ocean front. It was surprisingly empty! We barely saw anyone the few hours we were there. I know, it sounds silly, but we were spoiled by the wild natural playgrounds the mountains and beaches of Oman had to offer. After forty-five minutes in a city and we were ready to head to the hills again!

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Oman has a long and interesting history. It was disputed over for a long time between the Arab tribes and the Portuguese. For a period, the Portuguese were successful in their conquests and held control over Oman. They build hundreds of forts all throughout the country. You can’t drive twenty miles without seeing a small fort/stronghold/lookout built into a nearby cliff! During the 90’s, Sultan Qaboos (the “president” of Oman) made it his mission to modernize Oman by building up its infrastructure and promoting its tourism. However, he was adamant about still keeping their cultural heritage in tact and highly present. Therefore, alongside the fancy, paved highways and the plethora of rest stops and road signs, he reconstructed hundreds of forts and cultural sights so that the Omani people would hold on to, and be proud of, their history. Didn’t I say I loved this country?

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This was the “beach” Sean and I walked along in Sur. There was no sand on the beach‚ÄĒit was comprised of millions of shells. They say there’s great snorkeling and diving in Oman, too!

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After Sur we drove up the highway a bit, frantic about finding a place to camp before sun set. When you’re dispersed camping, it gets stressful when you have to just pull off the road and “find a spot” to pitch your tent! While you have more privacy (hopefully), you don’t have the peace of mind that comes with an established campground. After about an hour on the highway, I grew extremely frustrated by the crowded beaches stocked with tents and SUV’s, so I turned on my flashers and pulled a hard right into the dirt. Since the highway was so close to the ocean, I figured there HAD to be private, secluded places to camp. Lo and behold, I was right! Not only did we have beautiful views, but we didn’t hear the roar of a generator or the music of other campers or a passerby all night. My chaotic, “Ok, this is enough! We’re stopping here!” ended up being entirely fruitful and pleasant!IMG_2706

The view from our campsite in the morning.
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Sean was so proud of the table and chairs he had built for our campfire the night before!IMG_2708

We walked along the coast for a while and found the rocks teeming with crabs! IMG_2715

Our first destination on this new and beautiful day was Wadi Shab. This is the most accessible, and therefore the most popular, Wadi in all of Oman. We set out on the trail at 7am and lucky beat the crowds. The first step was to wade through a river half a football field long! (On our way back, when it was crowded, we found there was a guy in a small boat ferrying hikers from side to side. We still waded through the river on our way back. You’ll see why in a minute.)IMG_2715.5

(Click on the above photo for one of Sean’s amazing panoramas!) Wadi Shab started out immensely large. The cliffs were high and the canyon floor was wide. We didn’t know how far back we were supposed to go, but just keep trekking on.IMG_2726

Eventually the Wadi narrowed and became lush with palm trees and trickling water… we knew the oasis wasn’t far away.IMG_2731

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You can see pools forming in the bottom of the Wadi below me in both of the above photos. I always find it hard to believe that a country as seemingly arid as Oman on the outside can be so lush and full of water if only you look hard enough! Where does it all come from?

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Sure enough, we quickly found what makes Wadi Shab so famous. The gigantic hidden swimming pools! After climbing over a series of massive boulders, we were met by deep emerald pools, perfect for swimming. (We weren’t alone!) Turns out, if you swim around the corner in the above photo‚ÄĒwhich we did‚ÄĒyou come across a narrow passageway you must swim underneath. Once you swim through that, you find a beautiful hidden waterfall, completely immersed in a cave! The guys in the above photo were trying to climb up and over the barrier instead of swimming under and through it. You can go both ways. We swam under and through.IMG_2733

This is why we waded through the river on our way back out. We were completely soaked from head to foot! Wadi Shab is a hiking/swimming paradise. IMG_2733.5

Sean took a great panorama of the Wadi on our way out.

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As I said, a day in Oman isn’t complete without a herd of goats!IMG_2744

The final place we stopped was near Wadi Shab. After the hike out of the Wadi, we wanted a place to stop and have lunch before driving up to the Muscat area for our final night. We had heard of¬† a “forested park” and a “sinkhole” near Wadi Shab. Sure enough, we came across a very popular park-like area not too far from the Wadi. You parked your car on a gravel road, and walked into a fenced off area complete with gazebos and picnic areas. It reminded me of¬† State or a County park in New Mexico.¬†¬† The whole reason for its existence, though, was the sinkhole…SinkHoleSean took this great photo (click for panorama) of the Bimmah sinkhole. (Also called the Dibab sinkhole.) It’s about a quarter of a mile away from the ocean, and is VERY salty! You wouldn’t want to swim in it unless you wanted massive amounts of salt crusted onto your skin and baked to perfection under the relentless sun. It’s like a human potato-chip maker! But in all seriousness, the sinkhole is a natural phenomenon that occurs from erosion. The guidebooks say there are fish who live in the waters that nibble your toes for a natural pedicure. I decided to pass on that one. The pool is so deep people dive from the rim into the water. We didn’t see anyone do this on our trip though, and I’m somewhat thankful for that. Overall, it was a wild place to visit!

Okay, okay, there is only *one* more blog about our trip to Oman. After that… the secret place I was hinting about last time… it’s all coming up soon! Then, Sean and I are off to meet my parents and sister in Egypt for Christmas. Never a dull moment. I want to leave you with a thought I heard from a friend of mine today…

“Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.¬† – Tim Ferriss

Categories: Oman | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Oman: Mountain Peaks and Waterfalls

 

 

Happy December! I hope you are looking forward to the Christmas season and take a few moments to reflect on the past year and to spend time with loved ones. Spending time doesn’t have to mean being face-to-face, either. Sometimes the highlight of my week here in Kuwait is coming home from work to say hello to my sister and her miniature Australian Shepherd on Skype. She drinks a coffee to wake up, and I’m finishing up a bowl of ice cream after a long day. One of my other favorite things to do is to pick a new recipe to cook while I Skype my parents in the kitchen. We love to spend hours together, just talking about what their plans are for the day, and what I’m making for dinner.

Even though Thanksgiving has come and gone, I’d like to say how thankful I am for the opportunities to spread my wings and travel the world, while at the same time maintaining some of the deepest roots. I am thankful for my family, my friends here in Kuwait as well as abroad, and my wonderful, loving and supportive husband. I dedicate this blog post to all of you.

Now, if you HAVEN’T booked your plane ticket to Oman yet, I hope this post causes you to reconsider and begin checking prices on Expedia. (Or, Skyscanner, which is my new favorite flight search engine.) I combined two travel days together, which I did not only to save time, but to show what a country of geographical contrast Oman is!

When we woke up at the base of the moutnain, Jebel Shams, we took our trusty rental car and began gaining elevation. We were nervous, having been cautioned against taking a 2WD to the top, not to mention that the pavement turned into gravel about half-way up. Being the true Wisconsinites we are, we soldiered on. In forty-five minutes, we made it to the top of Jebel Shams! Our car held up well. We were greeted by a small village with a few people, beautiful views, and a garden of goats. Seriously. Goats in Oman are like horseflies in the Midwest during the summer. Not only are they everywhere, but to the point of inconvenience. Just when you think you are packing your lunch at the trunk of your car, you feel a nudge on your elbow, and all of a sudden you’ve got a new best friend! I have never liked goats; there is something about them that unnerves me. As you can see in the above picture, Sean particularly enjoyed watching me squirm. (Also, it was difficult to snap wide panoramas of the mountains due to the angle of lighting, but look at the road and the mountains in the distance of the photo!)
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We were eager to leave the goats behind (and by “we”, I mean me), so we set out on our hike for the day. It was called the ‘balcony walk’ and/or the ‘abandoned village walk’, and we walked along the edge of a gigantic canyon to some small ruins set back in the cove of the cliff. The views were absolutely incredible.

We hadn’t anticipated the sheer size of the place! It was huge!

You can spot a person standing on the ledge above my head. One missed step and you had a long way to fall.

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Here we are almost to the end of the hike. You can see the back of the canyon. I loved the “cave-like” rock formation behind us; it looked as if a whole chunk of the mountain was bitten out.

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The haze prohibited us from getting long-distance shots, but Sean loved the sweeping views and plateaus of the place.

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Once back at the bottom of the mountain, which also required some harrowing driving, we stopped for a picture at a small village called Ghul. It was, of course, near a wadi, which explains all the palm trees, and Wadi Ghul is famous for it’s crazy off-road experience. We chose to just take pictures from afar. We loved how the ruins were left on the mountainside‚ÄĒthe more modern village (still very small) is to the right of this photo. Their farmlands are nestled at the base of the homes their grandparent’s grandparents lived in years ago.IMG_2569

After Jebel Shams, we had a ways to drive to our next destination. Jebel Shams is located in the Western Hajar mountains, really only two hours away from Muscat. Therefore, our first day was an easy drive. From there we needed to head around three hours south to Wadi Bani Khalid, and then East to the coast. The drive down to Wadi Bani Khalid was beautiful, but as we left the mountains behind, we drive through flat plains, with dunes on our right, and mountains on our left. All of a sudden, we came across an abrupt left turn in the middle of the plains, and we began to drive straight into the mountains. Up, down, over, under, curving roads wound us deeper and deeper into the hills. All of a sudden, we climbed a massive incline, only to drop deep down the other side to an isolated village that was flowered with hundreds of palm trees, flowing rivers, bananas, and little children saying hello. It was beautiful! Unfortunately, we failed to appreciate it at 7pm when we were unable to find a place to camp for the night. Since Wadi Bani Khalid is located in, obviously, a wadi, the steep sides of the canyon prevent for any place to escape the crowds and camp. We looked for two hours for a place, and finally decided upon sneaking behind this concrete corral and pitching our tent. We were a little disappointed, having heard that the camping here was excellent. Later we found out that the place to camp is actually ON the hike‚ÄĒyou need to port your stuff in on your back and camp way back in the wadi on the hike. Regardless, with a glass of red wine, some fresh hummus, and the morning view in the photo below, we were pretty happy!

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Looking into Wadi Bani Khalid in the morning.

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I strongly encourage you to click on the above photo and open it on a new page. Sean has done a fantastic job stitching together beautiful panoramas, and I’ve put a few onto this blog. The photo above is on the first half of our hike in Wadi Bani Khalid. We climbed a small cliff and looked back into the village.

 

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Here’s Sean walking into the most popular part of the wadi, the pools. You can see the falaj system! (The aqueducts!)

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We had to hike this part really early in the morning due to the crowds. Since we went over a holiday weekend (Eid Al Adha, the festival of sacrifice), all of Oman had a week-long vacation. Therefore, the place became absolutely packed during the afternoon. Can you believe these are all-natural pools in the above photo?

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Walking back further into the pools, the walls grew more narrow, and the scenery became more stunning. We had the place all to ourselves! We think this is where our friends recommended we should camp. We’ll just have to go back again : )

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We took a quick dip in the pools. All that climbing around the rocks heated us up! It really is the true definition of an oasis.

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After the pools, we knew there was another part of Wadi Bani Khalid that needed exploring. See, you need to picture the wadi like a T intersection. Once we drove in, we could turn left, to the pools, where the canyon walls narrowed and the water accumulated, or right, where the walls also narrowed and the water again grew plentiful and tumultuous. In the photo above, we have just set off on the hike to the “right”, back into the steep part of the wadi. This was the quiet part of the day! This part of the wadi was really difficult to access as you had to hike a ways over rocks to get there. Behind me is the village.


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The further back into the wadi we hiked, the more beautiful it got. Eventually there were entire boulders blocking our passage, and deep, rushing rivers. If you’ve ever been to Zion National Park, it’s much like that!

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After climbing some more rocks and picking our own route (you really can’t get lost in a canyon. You’re either walking in or out) we came across our first waterfall. We couldn’t believe it! I don’t know what we expected, but this blew our minds. It was gorgeous. We spent time swimming and relaxing, basking in the sun and the silence of paradise.

 

 

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I love this photo (above) because it helps show how narrow the wadi really gets.

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Click on the above photo for another fantastic, beautiful panorama Sean created!

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This is also another panorama Sean took in the wadi. Click on it to see the real scale. We loved how narrow and twisty it all was. There was a hidden swimming pool and water slide around every corner.

After exploring the wadi for a few hours, we realized we had better turn around and hike out. We had a limited supply of water, and the wadi was getting hot. It’s easy to over-extend yourself when hiking downhill, back into a canyon! We wanted to make sure we could get back out.

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Sure enough, we made it out safe and sound, and began our drive out of Wadi Bani Khalid. We couldn’t resist taking the photo of this guy, going about his daily activities.

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I like the photo above for two reasons. One, you can see that the road and the river are flush with one another. There is no ledge to prevent your car from driving straight into the water, Wisconsin Duck-style. Secondly, these guys are cleaning up all of the sacrifices from Eid Al Adha. Since this Eid is the festival of sacrifice, the people in the village just brought their sacrificial animal down to the road by the river, held their traditional ceremony, and then many of the inedible innards of the animals were left there afterward. These guys were cleaning up shop. (Barf.)

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Our final view as we drove out of Wadi Bani Khalid. It sure helps put it into perspective! This photo is looking back into the “right side of the T intersection” as I was describing it. This is where the waterfall hike was : )

I have hopefully one or two more posts on our Eid trip, then I have a fantastic secret, magical place to share with you! If you ever find yourself in Dubai… I am going to show you the secrets of swimming with dolphins and diving off cliffs… (kind of). But seriously, so much awaits the eager reader, and the even more eager blogger! Stay tuned! And remember to be thankful for how beautiful our lives truly are. Every day that passes will never be had again. Make it count. Call or Skype someone you care about. Take a walk. Sean is standing next to me right now, begging to go to Mc Donald’s for ice cream. Guess it’s time to go be thankful for the love of my life.

See you next time!

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Camping In Oman: Day One

You’ve been waiting for it… an adventure outside of Kuwait! Since we got back for our second year, all of my blog posts have taken place here inside the sandy country we call home. (Or short-term residency…) I have tried to rediscover Kuwait with new eyes, and feel that it’s gone fairly well. Regardless, Sean and I have an insatiable appetite for outdoor recreation which will never be satisfied here. The first chance we got, we returned to our favorite country in the Middle East, Oman.

We went to Oman last year for a professional development conference and absolutely fell in love. Mountains beckoned to us in the distance, crystal blue water lapped on sandy beaches, and friendly faces smiled and welcomed us everywhere we went. This year we waited patiently for our Eid Al Adha holiday to be declared. (Eid Al Adha is the festival of sacrifice‚ÄĒI posted a slaughtered sheep last year, remember?) Once we found out we would have a five weekend, we booked the tickets to Oman. We had been out camping in the desert once this year already in Kuwait, so we had picked up a good tent from a new sporting goods store called Decathalon in Marina Mall. We also got two mid-weather sleeping bags that pack up really small, so we were good to go.

Unfortunately, due to the last-minute notice of the holiday, the only flight we found that was reasonably priced had a five hour layover in Dubai. Five hours isn’t so bad…. unless it’s from 2am – 7am.

Once we landed, we picked up our rental car, threw our backpacks in the back, and headed for the mountains. The skies were blue, the weather was a balmy 75 degrees, and we were ready to have an adventure!

Our first diversion was an impromptu decision to stop at Wadi Qurai. See, we have an amazing book called “Oman Off Road”, which guides you to all the waterfalls, hidden beaches, mountain hikes, you name it. You simply pick a route you want to travel, and it maps out all the places you can stop along the way. Now, a “wadi” simply means a bed, valley, or canyon that is dry during the dry season, and full of water during the wet season. The “wadi”, when wet, creates what you picture when you think of an oasis. Tall cliffs towering over you, the parching sun baking everything on the high cliffs, but you, bathed in the shade of the mountain shadows, dip your toes into an emerald pool beneath palm trees and babbling books.

In the picture above, I am walking into Wadi Qurai. We found it in the guidebook as a ‘small wadi’, worthy of an hour’s stop on your journey. Because of the arid nature of Oman, the wadis are tapped by an intricate aqueduct-like system called a “falaj”. They’re ancient systems of water channels that were created years ago, and still used today. Of course now the people in the villages who channel the water down to them have built concrete pathways for the water now (or the Omani government has probably done this), but the origins are ancient. The only time you see the falaj is at the mouth of the wadi‚ÄĒthey do an amazing job of hiding them within the rocks, never over-developing their natural resources.

What I also love about Oman is that nature is wild and ever-present within the lives of the people. There are no roped off parks or preserves. You can be hours away from any road and find evidence of someone’s old barbecue pit, and then shortly thereafter find a boy carrying a package walking among the rocks. They respect their natural areas, and revere them with pride. They love to share them with visitors, and have many sophisticated programs in place to keep them clean and undeveloped. But more on this later : )

Remember what I said about an oasis? As the walls closed in, the sound of rushing water grew deeper. We were glad we wore our swimsuits, and dived right in. We found lots of little toads and tadpoles!

Nature’s waterpark.

You forgot you were in the Middle East!

We spent a few hours here, relaxing and letting the stress flow downstream with the water.

After hiking back out of Wadi Qurai, we continued on our journey. The game plan for our first day was to get as close to Jebel Shams (the tallest mountain in Oman) as we could. We had a Toyota Yaris for a rental car, which if you know anything about the Yaris, eliminates any possibility for extreme off-roading. Regardless, we wanted to see how high up the mountain we could get. Our goal for day one was to see Wadi Qurai, stop in a little village called Nizwa, and then camp near Jebel Shams for an early morning ascent the next day.

Once in Nizwa we had fun walking around the touristy area. They loved pottery! The whole city of Nizwa was centered around a major fort that was built hundreds of years ago. Now the fort acts somewhat for tourism, but is also the location of their souk (bazaar).

The sun was setting, and we felt the eerie sensation of stepping into another culture, another era, if only for a short moment.

Sean loved the fort : )

It’s so amazing seeing these ancient villages being a part of a collage with the present. Right next to these crumbling relics were people hanging laundry and standing on their modest balconies.

We drove as close to Jebel Shams as we could before it got too dark, and pitched our tent under an Acacia tree. We feasted on fresh hummus, cut vegetables, and even a Corona or two, then passed out from sheer exhaustion and sensory overload. We were ready to begin another day in paradise. (Then we were woken up in the middle of the night by a herd of goats passing by our tent… I guess I said we were looking for an adventure!)

I know I didn’t post too many photos in the blog, but I wanted to break up our Oman trip into manageable chunks that I could write about and reflect on. Besides, it gives me another world to escape to when I am tired of the sand and the sun in Kuwait. I hope to finish the blog posts on Oman this week, and then I have MORE adventures in store for you! Not only did Kuwait have the record-breaking, largest fireworks display in the entire world, but Sean and I were sitting there to document all of it. Then, we may have taken another guilty-pleasure trip out of the country… but stay tuned to find out where!

Categories: Oman | 1 Comment

Oooh, Oman…

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make an announcement.

I have found my Middle East version of paradise, and it is Oman.

Oman is the most beautiful country I have seen yet in the Middle East. It has rough mountains, a pristine, clean and blue ocean, beautiful infrastructure, and a modest but open-minded culture. I almost felt like I was in a tropical paradise in comparison to Kuwait! How did we find ourselves in Oman, may you ask, so shortly after winter break in Jordan? Sean and I attended the 2012 NESA (Near East South Asia) Educator’s Conference. It was the last weekend in January and took place in Oman. We thought a midwinter pick-me-up was in order, especially after the deep emotional crash that I had shortly after my family left me. Oh the ups and downs of international life! (Or is this just adult life?)

Let’s get started with the photographs, shall we? I’ve got quite a stock in store for you‚ÄĒI thought I’d just combine all the photos in one blog. It was quite a busy weekend!

We arrived in Oman at around 1 in the morning because our plane left Kuwait at about 10pm. We then arrived at our hotel at 2am, passed out, woke up at 6:30am, and attend the first full day of the conference. Upon returning to our hotel, we were met with a beautiful sunset that we had to get outside to embrace and explore. We picked a perfect hotel, the “Naseem Hotel” on the corniche in Mutrah. Oman’s capital, Muscat, is not one big town, it’s actually made up of four or five smaller areas separated by hills and mountains. Mutrah is the “old souq” area that is nestled between cliffs in it’s own little bay. It was the perfect location for our type of vacationing; we don’t like seven-star retreats with Starbucks on every corner. We loved being in the thick of the Omani culture and close to the landscape, squished between the mountains, crumbling fortresses, and Indian Ocean!

A minaret in Mutrah around sunset.

We had heard lots of good things about the Mutrah souq, and we weren’t dissappointed. For those of you who do not know, a “souq” is similar to a “bazaar”, in the grand scheme of things. It’s a series of shops that sell everything you can possibly imagine. A souq is comprised of aisles and aisles of winding walkways. You may find one aisle selling only spices, another aisle selling gold jewelery, and another aisle selling knock off soccer jerseys. We normally head to the souq whenever we get hungry‚ÄĒit is a sure bet for delicious, cheap, authentic food, in whatever country you’re visiting!

The view of Mutrah from opposite the bay. We took a little stroll as the sun was setting after our marathon first day in Oman. Don’t you love the mountains in the background?!

After a bit of exploring (and Sean still in his collared shirt‚ÄĒcan you imagine how we stood out!?) we decided on a definitely unique restaurant for dinner. The only thing I am starting to get tired of on our vacation to other Middle Eastern countries are the staples that we eat every day in Kuwait. Hummus, flat bread, kebabs, fattoush, and chai make up 1 out of my 7 weekly meals. This restaurant was no different, except for the fact that I felt like I was in a bad Disney film from the 70’s. Christmas lights were strung up everywhere, it was all open air, there were trees growing between the tables with bird houses in them, our table was a giant tree stump, there was a small dried up fountain in the center of the restaurant, and a cat kept sitting under my chair hoping for a handout. Regardless, our bill came to something like the equivalent of $4.00 …and yes, it was delicious!

In the souq, I got sucked in to yet another beautiful store of tapestries, rugs, scarves, and colorful odds and ends. I am so in love with the Arabesque style of carpets and fabrics, I could spend hundreds…

After the souq, we retired for the night. The next day we went to the conference which ran from 9-3. In terms of the conference, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Sean went to a conference on using methods of inquiry in the social studies classroom, and I went to a seminar on strategies for English Language Learners. It was at The American International School of Muscat (TAISM), and I fell completely in love. It was a beautiful campus, the people who worked there were amazing, and there was such positive feelings in the entire school.

After the second day we spent some time with a couple who worked at TAISM. We saw their apartments, played some bean bag toss, and enjoyed a few tasty beverages that are much more acceptable in Oman than Kuwait : ) Afterwards, we went to the “Muscat Festival”, which is a cultural event that happens once a year in Oman. I found out about it online, and thought it’d be worth visiting‚ÄĒwhat a surprise it was!

To begin, it took place in a rose garden with a large pond in the center, which had hourly fountain displays. This fountain display *almost* rivaled the one in Dubai‚ÄĒit was synchronized to music, had a light display, and was overall very, very awesome.

The cultural aspects of the festival, however, was much more interesting than the fountains. It was a living village! There was a huge traditional village (Think Old World Wisconsin) where real people reenacted aspects of traditional Omani culture. In the above picture you see a healing ceremony where a song was sung/chanted for the sick person (being supported in the center of the photo).

This was a traditional birthday party. I forget what age they do this for, but this event is done only once in a child’s life.

Again, the traditional birthday party. What an interesting experience…

This woman was spinning textiles like purses and other decorative items. What she wears on her face is called a “niqab” (at least in Kuwait that is what it is called), and this is one of the more traditional, old-fashioned styles that some women still wear to this day.

This was particularly interesting; this man was weaving rope! Talk about a laborious process!

These women were all selling assortments of things from homemade yogurt, to tassles, to lotions and blankets. I loved the color that was present in every aspect of their being, something that is VERY absent in Kuwait culture.

This was my favorite part of the cultural village. You could purchase (for pennies) authentic traditional Omani food!

I bought a fried donut-type thing, but they were making everything from sandwiches to desserts, all while sitting in the same place! It was quite amazing to me.

This man was building BY HAND, WITHOUT ANY POWER TOOLS WHATSOEVER, a model boat. It was amazing‚ÄĒhe wasn’t even using nails! He was fitting everything together by the wood alone!

I was in complete awe at this point.

This was, well, something that I would prefer not to taste again. It is an Omani dessert called “halawi”, which means “sweet” in Arabic. It was a gooey, syrupy, pudding-like substance that tasted like a combination between maple syrup, marshmallows, and salt. No thank you!

On the other hand, the cotton candy we Americans guzzle down looks just as unsettling and unhealthy as the halawi… We loved this picture because of all the COLOR there is in Oman! Look at all the flowers! Also note how many men were in traditional dress; I think this is because it was the “cultural festival”, so it is only natural to wear the clothes of your heritage.

The next morning, we had the entire day to explore around Mutrah. Our plane left at 7pm, so we were itching to play in the sun! We saw this gorgeous door on an old building in need of renovation.

Breakfast in Oman…

A Middle Eastern breakfast burrito! Pita bread, egg, tomato, lettuce, and spicy mayo. For something like 45 cents… YUM!

A picture is worth a thousand words…

My ‘other’ favorite part about Oman‚ÄĒTHE HIKING! This country has some of the best hiking, camping, snorkeling, and ocean kayaking in the Middle East. We took on a short hike that we heard had beautiful views overlooking the Mutrah coast and the mountain range of Muscat, and we weren’t disappointed!¬† I was in complete heaven, getting to scramble over rocks and clamber up for better views!

Here we are, a quarter of the way up. Can you see the “incense burner” in the background? This was quite the strange statue in Oman, but it’s apparently the signature image many people think of when they imagine Muscat… below us is a recreational park, Riyam Park, which is where the trail head began. Oh yeah, did I mention that Sean dislocated his knee two weeks prior to our trip? He was playing basketball and dislocated it pretty badly‚ÄĒwe had quite the adventure figuring out which hospital to go to in Kuwait! (Note to self: The Royal Hayat Hospital is a maternity hospital… they WILL laugh at you if wheel a man in with a bum knee…)

The bay you see behind me is Mutrah, where our hotel was, and where our hike took us back to. If you are ever in Oman, google “Mutrah Hike”, and this is it!

I. Am. So. Not. Kidding. Oman. Is. My. Paradise.

Can you see me? Left of the incense burner? This was the highest point at our hike, the summit!

My husband is such a trooper! You can see the Mutrah bay allllllllll the way down below us.

As we descended, we found ourselves in a wadi (a dry riverbed) that ended up having beautifully green valley walls. What paradise!

Oh, and water! Green, murky water! It was an oasis compared to Kuwait ; )

It was a very cool experience to hike out through the wadi. Because their rainy season was ending there was lots of colorful pools to skip and hop around.

This was Sean’s favorite part of the hike‚ÄĒthis lizard shot. Again, what beautiful color there is in Oman.

Can you spy the fort in the background? It was built by the Portuguese in the 1400’s during their occupation of Oman.

No matter where you are in the Middle East, your feline friends will follow. Which reminds me of a Robert Frost parody Sean and I invented in Oman…

Two paths diverged in a souq
I took the one with less cats
And that has made all the difference.


After our hike, we rested our tired bones, sore knees, and sunburnt skin with a meal of smoothies, french fries, and cribbage. Not to mention a beautiful, BEAUTIFUL view. Shortly after this we hopped in a taxi for the airport, to return to Kuwait refreshed, relaxed, and with a new love affair with Oman.

 

What’s next on the AlohaKuwait? We travel to Sri Lanka in March! Until then, who knows what adventures are around the corner in this rippling sand dune we call life…¬† Best wishes and love to you all!

Categories: Oman | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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