Man oh Man Oman

If anyone wants to talk about a hidden jewel of the middle east, let’s talk about Oman. I used to associate Oman and Yemen as more similar than anywhere in the gulf, but they couldn’t be further away from one another in everything but geography. And I never expected Oman to be so different from the other GCC countries, but it’s literally a world apart (and a lot more beautiful!).

On the road to Jabel Shams with Couchsurfer Ibrahim

On the road to Jabel Shams with Couchsurfer Ibrahim

To begin with, there aren’t any shiny highrises or world trade centers, megamalls or shiny apartment compounds. It’s a city of small, traditional buildings, nestled between mountain valleys, with lively souks and humble businesses. The Sultan or ruling government put a legal limit on the height of buildings, specifically to avoid becoming another Dubai, and the houses that are built can only be a pale shade of 6 or 7 colours – bluish grey, beige to yellow, pastel green, purply-pink, sandy browns or plain white.

Electricity even reached the highest village in Oman, just a few families around Jabel Shams

Electricity even reached the highest village in Oman, just a few families around Jabel Shams

It’s still a very western, developed place, but nothing can take away from the feeling of finally being somewhere Arabic and exotic. The flat, dust plains have been replaced by rocky hills, red mountains and canyons wider and deeper than I could scale with my naked eye. Oases of date palms and little villages are always paired, and they appear and disappear after traversing a few hillsides in every direction out of Muscat. The government brings water and electricity to even the most remote villages, and if it’s not feasible, they build them an entire new village for them in a better location. I heard that many accept this offer (its totally free!), but continue living in their mountain top villages, and turn their new gated homes into goat stables, weekend retreats or just rent them out.

Muscat

Muscat

A lot of the places and people retain age old traditions, despite having the newest cars or iphones. In the souks they sell their goats and camels, keep them for farming, breeding or racing, and in the city they meet with foreign friends for a Lebanese meal or Starbucks coffee. Omani Coffee and dates are offered everywhere, from the souks and shops to hotels and restaurants. The beaches are vast and clean, scattered between cliffs that go straight into the sea, and fishermen take their boats out every evening to fish. They refuel their boats and trucks at cheap gas stations, where they can always answer a call to prayer since mosques are built at every one.

Al Sifah beach

Al Sifah beach

Even the fashion is different in Oman, the women more colourful and the men in sparkly kuma (hats). The men’s robes have little tassels hanging off-centered from their collar, said to be for oud (roll on perfume). Omanis were very superstitious with numbers, and are known to pay more for their license plates than for their cars. For example, a single digit number (1 or 5) or balanced double digits (12 or 44) are a sign of wealth, compared to the guy with the randomly assigned license plate number 27349.

The sinkhole with free pedicures

The sinkhole with free pedicures

Without giving away too many secrets of this place (I kind of like that its off the beaten track), make sure you visit some sink holes or Wadi’s around Muscat (ie. Wadi Shab and Wadi ibni Khalid), which are filled with pools of water to float down or cliff jump into. There’s a big stretch of nothing (affectionately called the Empty Quarter) nearby where you can drive your car thru sand for days. Barbeque some mishkaki (meat on a stick) with some locals, either at a picture perfect beach or at the top of a mountain overlooking the city nightscape. The latter I did for the eve of my birthday, where I was serenaded Happy Birthday by 12 couchsurfers, with a cake and candles and the whole 9 yards, while watching planes take off from the international airport. A few hours later I boarded my own plane for Africa, blissfully happy from my time in Oman but bitterly miserable for having to leave.

My CS birthday party

My CS birthday party

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Another side of Abu Dhabi

It’s been a disappointing pain not being able to travel overland through Saudi Arabia, but when I finally got to the Emirates, it was possible to go overland to Oman. I visited Dubai a few years ago when an Australian friend of mine worked for Emirates Airline, but had never been to Abu Dhabi, and the flights were cheap enough that I decided to fly to Muscat instead, saving the time of driving thru no-mans-land to enjoying the open nothingness of Oman’s countryside.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, the real capital of the UAE, was similar to Dubai, full of those tall and shiny buildings towering over the old and dusty classic buildings. The new and artificial feeling of a mega-city has stamped out the old and traditional, but tiny mosques still sit humbly between glass and concrete, even between highways and parking lots.

I couchsurfed with an American English teacher named Jackie, on the up-and-coming Al Reem Island, a man-made development project of highrises only 30% completed. Her 30 or 40 storey building had a pool that no one visited, but I thought the water was quite perfect. There are also public buses that no one I met had used, but eventually it only took one bus card and a little googling to figure out the system and avoid using taxi’s for everywhere.

Zayed mosque's chandelier and carpet

Zayed mosque’s chandelier and carpet

My to-do list for 4 days wasn’t huge, but the places were. The World Trade Center was a commercial building, a residential building, a mall, and a souk, and the Grand Mosque can fit 40,000 worshippers under their multi-ton chandeliers and single carpet weighing some forty tons.

At Marina Island there was another mall, and a ferris wheel and some dhow boat cruises. At Yas Island there was an even bigger mall, a water park, and Ferrari world, with the fastest roller coaster in the world. There were desert safari tours and sand dune buggy tours, camel rides and horse back tours, and shisha and tea to lure in any stop-over tourist, but none of the local expats (which are more than 50% of the population) seem to have explored too far.

Some would say I didn’t either, but I felt very far and away from the glitz and glamour of Abu Dhabi when I visited a bachelor Pakistani work village, a sort of high-rise slum, where the 26 storey building 5 blocks from the WTC had 8 apartments on each floor, each with 1 bathroom, 1 kitchen, and 7 rooms of 3 triple bunk beds. This meant that 9 men lived in the space of about 9 square meters, them and all their stuff, and had to share one squat toilet which was also the shower, and cook meals communally and share them on the 2 square meter floor space each evening. I was invited to stay there, sharing the space of one bunk bed (not even a bed but a sheet of wood) with the only white guy in the entire community of 1,680 men, a Canadian couchsurfer, and would have stayed expect for the fact that I was the only woman in the entire building and had lied by saying I was his sister just to enter. The cultural and/or religious insult of sleeping in the same room of a bunch of men, married or not, made me feel just a little more uncomfortable than the dog-sized rats crawling around, so I returned back to Jackie’s and slept alone on her couch.

Tourism in Bahrain

I’ve been flying between the gulf countries, but the flights all last less than an hour, and we’re preparing for landing even before we’ve finished taking off. Its also cheap and easy, but it does take an extra hour or two on each side to get in and out of airport, get the visa, and clear customs. They search you on arrival, mostly for pork and alcohol, but people are very trusting and relaxed so I’ve never actually noticed an officer search or question anyone, and they’re barely watching the x-ray images to find a reason to. I would prefer to travel by bus, cutting in and out of Saudi Arabia, but getting a visa there has been a major issue, and will most likely end in failure (my third attempt was just rejected).

the WTC towers

the Bahrain WTC towers 

Bahrain is like Saudi’s Vegas of the peninsula, or their Amsterdam of the gulf. It’s where they go to play, indulge in all the ‘haram’ or forbidden indulgences of alcohol and seeing uncovered, single women in public places. Pork was even legal in Bahrain, but I imagine that’s a bigger luxury item for all the expats in Bahrain. Local Bahrainis make up less than half the population of the island, and an American Navy base brings a lot of Americans and American culture to the tiny place.

all the kings camels at the Royal Camel farm

all the kings camels at the Royal Camel farm

I was couchsurfing with an American couple, and I got to visit the base. Passing their security check was like traveling all the way to the US, a mini-world of American architecture, restaurants, a US postal service, and even dollars as their official currency. Theoretically you could stay there and feel like you were still in the states, having no contact with Bahrain, which I guess is kind of their goal. But the American influence spills outside their walls, with American cars, pubs and restaurants covering all of Bahrain.

Bahrain's grand mosque

Bahrain’s grand mosque

Bahrain is one of the longest inhabited and historically rich areas of the gulf, formerly known as Tylos and before that, Dilmun. Oil was first discovered in 1932 (Bahrain had the first oil well dug in the gulf then), and until then they had lived off palm cultivation and pearls. Bahraini pearls are still a valuable resource (and brilliant tourist temptation), but oil has clearly taken over, as everywhere else in the gulf. Even though its a small island, a causeway connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, and the south and center of Bahrain have very little habitation. Only oil rigs and Badouin camps spot the dusty interior, and the tallest peak is a mere 134m, but every hilltop is a satellite or military area off-limits to the ordinary person.

sunset at the tree of life

sunset at the tree of life

I also couchsurfed with an Australian couple who owned a sail boat, and spent a day drinking with two Canadian teacher friends who live and work in Saudi, but come over to Bahrain to lift their imposed prohibition every couple weeks. I got my dirty paws on a horse to ride, at sunset near the tree of life. The tree of life is a lone, 400 year old ree sitting in the middle of the island, and perhaps the most eco-touristy thing I’ve done so far. The Camel farm, Grand mosque, Bahrain Fort, and Bahrain National museum were pleasant touristy activities, but my time was mostly spent sharing meals, of various ethnicities (like Mexican and Korean), and socializing over board games or shisha. I’m getting used to these kinds of norms, but it would be really nice to spend more time outside in this season of perfect weather.

 

Qatar under Construction

In the 1960’s, all of the major gulf cities were dusty little villages, with traditional houses made of sand, palm trees, or even wool. When oil money started pouring in, so did the concrete and glass, turning little villages into sky scrapers. Qatar’s capital, Doha, has grown unbelievably fast, and seems to be speeding up, an entire city under construction.

The Pearl, a brand new, man-made neighbourhood

The Pearl, a brand new, man-made neighbourhood

If you search the internet for a picture of Doha in 1979, you’ll see a picture of some tiny, beige, homogenous buildings, with the newly built, pyramid-like highrise Sheraton Hotel looming over them and the sea. If you look for a picture of Doha’s cityscape in 2006, there are just a couple more highrises. Now, there are dozens and dozens of buildings, only 10 years later, with dozens more under construction. They’re not only building but rebuiling, expanding, and creating new spaces to build more. Reclaimed land is the in-thing for all the gulf countries, filling and shaping islands out into the sea and constructing new motorways and sea-side corniches along an ever-expanding coastline. The highways move and grow to fit larger roundabouts or the new skytrain tracks, and left turns barely exist, replaces by u-turns and roundabouts to improve the flow of traffic.

The old and the new, a traditional dhow boat and downtown Doha

The old and the new, a traditional dhow boat and downtown Doha

Doha is still dusty, even more so with all the construction, and they don’t worry about wiping it off. The cars are a little older and well-used than they were in Kuwait, and most trucks and SUV’s have a similar art decal sticker in waves of black or beige along the side which make them look like their all part of the same fleet. I couchsurfed with an Egyptian guy and his English roommate, who had 2 dogs, 2 cats and a horse (!). I managed to talk my way into a ride, and helped her walk the dogs by the beach, only to watch a Qatari guy hit her German Shepherd and drive off. Luckily he was only a little bruised, but the local treatment of animals, specifically dogs, left some distaste in my mouth. Driving in general was pretty bad, like the people who make a left turn from the right-most lane, cutting off 2 or 4 lanes of traffic, and I saw a giant Ford F-150 pummel into a compact Toyota hatchback, crashing them both onto the corniche I was walking on just a few metres away.

Pakistani pirate/CS ambassador and the sink hole

Pakistani pirate/CS ambassador and the sink hole

The Qatar Couchsurf ambassador was kind of like a Pakistani pirate – I’m still not sure what he does but he walks around with one limp leg and crutches, drives off and over massive sand dunes in his 4×4, and gets free tea delivered to his car window from just the honk of his horn. He took me out of town, to see some of the natural sights, including a sink hole and some singing sand dunes. We hung out with his core group of friends, including my host, and I got semi-addicted to watching episodes of Dexter which were always playing in the background. Eating was always an event, a social gathering, and extremely simple – you could order in anything, from shwarma to pizza and Mcdonalds or Subway, and it would get delivered straight to your lap. It was also common not to get out of your car for a corner shop purchase – simply park out front, wait with your window down, and one shop guy would come and take your order, for bottles of water or cigarettes, take your money and bring your change. I heard that even they do home deliveries once in a while, depending on how close you are to your neighbourhood shopkeeper, so in theory you’d never have to leave your house if it wasn’t for work or pets.

Five Star Kuwait

I didn’t know what to expect of Kuwait, but everyone I spoke to before going seemed to expect something tough and dangerous. I didn’t do any research on tourism or traveling there, but I knew I was visiting a friend that would answer all my questions once I got there. I knew Nima from university days back in Canada, and though he’s Iranian, he’s lived half his life in Kuwait and lives there now with his American wife and son. I thought they’d be an exception, but there were dozens of international couples and even more North American raised or educated residents and ex-pats.

patriotic graffiti at the souk

The surprises started as soon as I landed. It was the middle of the night, but we drove to a neighbourhood of mansions where I was shown to their home’s guest bedroom, outfitted with a welcome package of toiletries, snacks, and my own pyjamas. Their house was more like a private apartment complex, with an elevator connecting the 4 floors. His family lived on the top floor, his brother below, his parents on the ground floor, and the driver, maid, nanny and cook in the basement, where they also had a gym, pool, and hottub. There was a library too, but it looked more like a museum of fine china, oriental ornaments and exotic collectables.

“I love Kuwait”

I soon learned that Kuwait is one of the safest and richest countries in the middle east, quickly rebuilding and developing itself since Iraq finally left them alone. They have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, and many jobs and even land are given by the government. They’ve also perfected a sort of modernized slavery, an economy of servants and workers imported to help the upperclass people avoid any undesirable or mundane tasks. Today Kuwait feels more like Southern California, with every American restaurant or coffee chain accessible from multi-lane highways filled with oversized Ford trucks or shiny Dodge sports cars. All the cars are shiny, since having a dusty car means you don’t have someone to clean it every day, which is an impressive feat in a desert country where dust falls constantly. There are also more Landcruisers and Toyota Landcruisers per capita than I’ve seen anywhere else, and just in our parking lot there were 5 cars, including a Bentley and Nima’s buttercup yellow BMW M3.

checking out the horses at the Kuwait Riding Club

But not all things are so modern in Kuwait, a country where some of the most conservative Muslims rule the country. There was even a call to prayer at the Kuwait International airport when I was flying out, a sound that’ s become all too familiar starting at 4 or 5 am and repeating itself throughout the day. Pork is illegal, and a luxury commodity for any ex-pats who manage to smuggle in some jamon Iberico. Alcohol is very illegal, for everyone except ambassadors, and those who manage to buy any off the black market pay an extraordinary premium. Other things, like gasoline, may as well be free, since the price for on liter of gas is more expensive than a liter of bottled water. I guess this helps people afford their gas-guzzling cars and other expensive hobbies, like horse-back riding which they do very well. I visited one riding club and don’t think I’ve ever seen so many beautiful, fit, well-groomed horses at one stable. I wanted to stay forever, but I don’t think the Indian or Pakistani grooms would have liked me trying to compete for a job.