Written by on November 27, 2012 in General, Middle East & Gulf States with 0 Comments

Oman was not on my initial itinerary, but I had heard such good things from a couple travelers I’d met earlier in the summer, I decided to check it out since I was “in the neighborhood” (only a 6 hour bus ride or short flight from Dubai).  I had originally planned for 8 days in Oman as it’s a fairly large country with long distances between cities and a lot of cool stuff to see.  But, as I got sidetracked in Dubai, I only had 2 days to cram in as much as humanly possible…which I almost accomplished.

Oman is also a country not yet really on the budget traveller map, so there is little to zero cheap accommodation anywhere.  So, I decided to give Couch Surfing another shot.  I was hoping to meet Western expats working there, or western-ized locals up for showing me around.  Finding a host for my first night in the capital city of Muscat was a bit of a challenge, but I did meet a nice Indian graphic designer named Dave who couldn’t host, but offered to show me around.  In the final hour, a host got in touch with me…an Omani who had excellent references and recommendations, so I figured “why not?”

Dave was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and then we connected with Salim and I transferred my luggage to his car.  Thinking back, the most random turn of events ensued.  First off, it was a really weird feeling to show up in a strange country and hop into someone’s car who you’ve never met.  Dave was sweet and I could immediately tell he was harmless, and we had swapped many emails before meeting, so I felt that I at least knew something about him.  I wasn’t so sure about Salim, we made a plan to all meet for drinks later, and I made sure Dave and Salim swapped phone numbers as I don’t think Dave trusted him either.

Salim was very friendly and chatty and then asked if I minded if we swung by a friends house for a dinner party.  Of course I was ok with this, and the story got more interesting when he told me that his friend was the South African ambassador.  It was very random, especially as I was headed to Johannesburg two days later.  He was old and quirky, but nice and welcoming.  We chatted over a couple beers and the ambassador (forgot his name already) cooked dinner for us and 2 other random Tanzanian women who joined, which was really cool.  Then all of a sudden everyone had to get up and leave as the ambassador had to go bail out a South African woman who’d gotten herself arrested.  Anyway….

Salim and I went to meet Dave at a great little beach bar at the Oman Dive Center, where we could see the shadows of the mountains lit in the moonlight.  IT was really beautiful.  This is what it looked like by day. My night pictures didn’t come out 🙁

There was still some weirdness that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and I really wished I was staying at a hotel that night.  Or with Dave.  But Oman is a very strict country and Dave was staying in company housing that doesn’t allow guests…especially females that weren’t married to the occupants.  When Salim was in the bathroom, Dave agreed to check in via text later and in the morning just to make sure everything was ok…just a (probably unnecessary) precaution.

I’m glad I had his number, and that I had bought an Oman sim card for my phone, as we then drove about 30 minutes out into what felt like the middle of fricking nowhere.  We pulled up at this house at 1am in the middle of a half-unfinished development and I was freaking out a bit internally, but trying to keep calm.  Bear in mind that Salim wasn’t doing or saying anything to freak me out, there was just so much that could have potentially gone wrong with nobody around that I realized any “street sense” that I had wouldn’t do me much good out here.  Salim opened the door to the house and showed me to what I think was his parent’s room and I just told him I was tired, thanks for the evening and we made a plan to get going around 9 or 10a.  Phew.

Thinking back, I’m sure nothing bad would have happened.  That’s one good thing about CS – Salim had so many good reviews, it was hard not to trust that this situation would turn out fine.  But, I was startled to receive a text from Salim just before 7a saying to get ready and that he had to go.  Wtf?  I was only in Oman for 2 days and we had made a plan for him to show me the best of and around Muscat.  Instead, he dropped me off at a hotel way out of town, but luckily close to the airport.  I was still in a daze when he dropped me off.  It was too early to call Dave.  Kicking myself for not just forking out the cash to stay in a hotel and sticking with my initial plan to have Dave be my tour guide, it took me about an hour to wake up and make a new plan…the plan I should have had all along.

I finagled my way onto the airport shuttle and rented a car, bought a map, and hit the road to make the most of my day and see as much as I could.  I headed straight to the Grand Mosque as I knew it was only open to tourists until 11.  I got there a little too late to go in, dammit!  I met Dave for lunch, and then took his recommendations to drive and stop at a couple touristy sites along the coast, including an impressive sinkhole, which was also a swimming hole for the local kids and huge groups of visiting Indians and Pakistanis.

My next stop was Wadi Sham, where I did an hour-long hike/walk along a river bed to a couple gorgeous pools.

A “wadi” is like a river gorge, and Oman has plenty of them.

Oman’s landscape surprised me.  It was kind of a mix between Jordan and Arizona, except it has 3000 kilometers of coastline, backed by rugged mountains, with deserts, fjords and valleys…all in the same country.  And the wadis were lush like a desert oasis.  I definitely should have spent more than 2 days here!   I actually enjoyed driving and having complete control over my day and need to remember to fuck the budget once in awhile and stop relying on other people in situations like these, especially when I’m pressed for time.   I pointed the car in the direction of Sur, a town a few hours away that was the gateway to Raz al Jinz, a nesting site for green turtles was where I was planning on staying that night.  The drive was quite cool, as the almost new highway had been cut through the desert and mountain-scapes.

It kind of felt like the drive from Phoenix to Tucson in certain places, although the mountains were higher and there were fewer cacti.

Still having mixed feelings about CS, especially after what had happened the night before, I was relieved and immediately set at ease the minute I met Nick, a laid-back British guy who I’d reached out on CS who’d agreed to host me that night.  He came to meet me at a hotel near his place and we had a few beers before heading to an Indian spot for dinner.  He’s been teaching English in Sur for about a year, and has been hosting CS’ers for years.  Nick and I got on really well and he invited me to join him and his friends Hannah and Ben for some hiking/rock scrambling in Wadi Bani Khalid, which I was totally up for.

The hike was totally fun and really beautiful.

It was hot out, but the wadi provided plenty of shade and the pools (and small waterfalls) provided plenty of relief from the sun.

We had a little picnic on the rocks before hiking back to the car.

We then were racing against the clock as we were trying to catch the sunset from the top of a dune about 1/2 hour away.  Luckily, we made it just in time for a glorious sunset!

Unfortunately, it was such a tiring day, I never did make it to see the turtles.  Instead we headed back, cooked dinner and did a massive music & movies hard drive swap, so I’m now loaded up with plenty of entertainment to get me through the rest of the long bus rides or rainy days (which there hopefully won’t be many) on my trip.  I had an AMAZING time in Sur and can’t thank Nick, Hannah and Ben enough for showing me a special slice of Oman that isn’t even in the guide books.  Now THIS is what I was hoping Couch Surfing would be.

The next morning I woke up at 6a so I could drive back to Muscat and check out the Mosque again.

It was gorgeous on the outside, and Nick had encouraged me that it was worth it to go inside, if only to check out the chandelier, which was beautiful and worth getting up early for.

Oman is a country I need to go back to as two days was definitely not enough.  I didn’t get to speak too much politics with anyone, but their government is actually quite liberal and progressive, and it will be interesting to follow how things continue to evolve there.  I will definitely return to see the turtles and do some diving…and see more desert sunsets.

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