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The Middle East: Adventure in Oman

Written on: Tuesday March 3rd, 2009

Continuing a recent theme of my trip, I arrived into Muscat, Oman anxious to meet Irena, my CS host for the next three nights.  I was pleasantly surprised that she offered to greet me at the terminal, as she was a dentist and the flight arrived mid day.  How was I to know, then, that this act of kindness was just the tip of the iceburg when it came to the thoughfulness perpetually displayed by Irena.

We drove back to her gorgeous apartment, where I was shown to my room facing the sea.  Oh my...this place is spectacular! Being that she had a few more hours of work to complete, she gave me a key and we made plans to meet up later in the day. 

Muscat was a quiet city.  It was modern and growing like the rest of the Gulf region, but there was a tranquil feeling about it, as if time progressed at half speed.  Being that there was no public transportation in the city, I strolled out of her building and headed toward the sea on foot.  Consulates and embassies gave way to restaurants and coffee shops as the flower-filled roadway led to the beach.  A few people were gathered, sipping coffee, despite the 33 degree midday heat.  Abadoning my flips, I walked along the water's edge for a few kilometers, snapping photos and feeling myself transform into a state where time was irrelevant.  The occassional eatery or hotel popped up along the coast, but for the most part the landscape was natural.  Hunger arrived, but the grumblings of my stomach were quickly quieted after a visit to a beachfront shisha bar, where hummos, pitas and veggies were washed down with an ice cold coke.  Man, that was good!  I took an inland road back 'home' which allowed me to further familiarize myself with the city.

After Irena returned from work we headed to a coffee shop in her building to access internet - I wanted to research activities in the country.  However, as she had been living in Muscat for 22 years since departing her native city of Moscow, she already had wonderful ideas for how to best spend my time there.  All I needed to do was try to keep up!  We hopped in her BMW and departed for a tour of the area.  We went through beautiful mountain passes en route to quiet ocean front fishing villages.  As she was also a keen scuba diver, she brought me to her dive shop, where I set up a two tanker for the following day, weather permitting, of course.   That evening we decided to catch a film.  A friend of hers wanted to see 'Slumdog Millionaire', so we met him at the theater.  Afterward, opinions varried as we discussed the movie over a pasta dinner.  The night was rounded off with another favorite activity of Irena's: salsa dancing.  The three of us went to Trader Vic's to listen to the funky cool house band belt out Latin rythems.  I passed on the salsa, contented to watch Irena tearing up the floor.   We returned home and promptly adjourned to our resepective bedrooms, where I didn't even finish one page of my book before I fell asleep, utterly exhausted from my first day in Oman.

Irena had told me that she planned to take off of work the next two days to hang out with me and show me around...an amazing gesture, I thought.  So when the scuba shop called at 7:15am with the unfortunate news that they could not go out today due to high winds, we quickly adjusted the day's activities to plan B: hiking and exploring Oman's mountainous interior.  I felt pampered, even guilty, as she made a hearty breakfast that we shared before we left the flat.  We stopped for a few additional provisions and began our two hour car ride inland along highway 21 toward Tanuf.  The scenery was truly spectacular, as Oman was so different geographically from the other countries I recently visited in the region.  The amazing jagged peaks that surrounded us were only outdone by the wonderful conversation we shared along the way.  One of the topics discussed was geocaching.  Irena had not yet heard of it, but was extremely eager to experience the activity, as it easily mirrored her adventrous personality.

Our first stop of the day was in Nizwa, at an old, abandonded mud village!  Dozens and dozens of multi-level houses were constructed of mud walls and roofs, reinforced with straw.  We explored the structures, climbed the mud stairways and even found old pottery in some of the 'kitchens'.  The houses were built adjoining one another, seemingly to provide more overall stability, while at the same time offering a common gathering place atop the extended open air roofs.  Great excitement resulted as we continually peeked around corners to discover whatever may lay before us, among which were the only current inhabitants of the structures: fruit bats!  It was good fun and I truly do not know who enjoyed it more: Irena or me.

Continuing to explore in Nizwa, we wandered through a local souk, checking out items for sale that ranged from ancient coins of long forgotten societies to weaponry of the 21st century Omani.  From the market we went off to search for the first cache of the day.  The cache was located in Tanuf, and was actually hidden in another abandoned mud village, this one in a further state of disrepair than the first.  We easily made the find, traded coins and continued on our journey toward the Al Hoota, an enormous cave that was only opened to the public in 2006!  We obtained a guided tour of the cave system, all the while seeking out the hidden shapes and faces in the stallagmites and stallagtites.  A small museum existed at the welcome center which offered wonderful samples of the different geological features of the region. 

Continuing on, we had our sights set on another nearby cache.  Irena was a natural at this, for as we approached the general location (ie: about 2km away), she pointed out a watch tower in the distance and said that if SHE were to hide this one, it would be at the tower.  Well, as it turned out, great caching minds did think alike.  We climbed the small hill to the base of the tower to discover our prize, only slightly sad to be the second people ever to find it, missing FTF honors by mere hours!!  Oh, those damn Swiss. :)  We attempted to locate yet another cache, but were turned away as this one was significantly higher, in the more treacherous mountain tops: a 4x4 would be mandatory.  Instead, we headed for home and grabbed a bite to re-energize from a long, hot day. 

With daylight still at our disposal, we toured the palace grounds of the Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said.  His home looked amazing, and from what I gathered, his treatment of his subjects was equally first rate. From here we did some recon on a couple more caches that we hoped to check out the following day.  In doing so, we came very near to the 'white challace' observatory.  We attempted to enter the grounds but were stopped by the shouts of a few guards nearby.  They stated that it was closed indefinitely, and that we were not allowed to the top.  Irena shined again as she negotiated with them for five minutes before emerging victorious (not an easy thing for a woman to do in ANY context in this country).  So our hike up the hill was rewarded with fabulous 360 degree views of the city.  It was almost magical to have this location entirely to ourselves, and I really appreciated Irena's determination for making it happen.

A final hike to another cache led us through a wonderful little park.  Unfortunately, the cache was located at the top of a moderately sized rock hill, and Irena did not have proper footwear to make the climb.  But, as patient as ever, she suggested that I go up solo if I wanted; she'd be happy to wait at the bottom until I returned.  As I strapped on my head torch and scrambled up the rocks, I couldn't help but think how unbelievably considerate Irena was, and how lucky I was to have met her.  Focusing back to the task at hand, I made the summit and eventually bagged the cache, approximately 10m from where the coords stated it would be.

Whew!  What a day!  We made it home, cleaned up a bit and vegged in front of the tube, focusing more on our converstaion than the movie being shown across the room.  But the conversation didn't last long, as fatigue finally hit and we said goodnight, content to melt into the bed and recharge for another action-packed day tomorrow.

I was once more awakened to the smell of a delicious breaky being cooked in the other room, as Irena insisted that I eat a good meal before diving.  The shop called: the boat was going out in an hour!  So we packed our gear, scarfed the food and headed for the sea.  Sadly, Irena could not join me underwater due to an injury, but was anxious to ride out to sea anyway, just to be on the water. Gotta love it! 

The first dive was a wreck in 28m.  Although we did not penetrate the wreck, we did manage one swim through, in addition to circumnavigating it at three different depths.  Near the top I spotted three eels, one of which was the largest I'd ever seen!  A lionfish, two frolicking nudibranchs and an array of tropical fish made my time underwater all the more enjoyable. 

Upon surfacing, however, things changed quickly.  The winds had picked up to the point where the second dive was cancelled.  Now we were in for an unexpected adventure: getting back to the shop in one piece.  The white caps were large and easily drenched us as the boat pounded through them.  Equipment and bodies bounced about the vessel as the wave-slapping continued, including a fuel tank that splashed its irritating contents into the eyes of most of us...not a pleasant feeling.  But we hung on and gradually made our way toward shore.  Fortunately for the divers, we still had on our 5mm wetsuits, but poor Irena was absolutely freezing in her soaked t-shirt and shorts.  I thought about how uncomfortable I would have been, enduring 30 minutes of the wet, windy, freezing conditions, and how I may have reacted.  And then I watched intently how Irena was accepting it, with a smile on her face and without a single complaint.  Quite impressive.  We made it back to the shop, paid for our adventure and headed back to town.  I suggested that we go home so she could change, but true to form, she preferred to go caching, content with the knowledge that the hot, Omani sun would have her dry and warm within the hour. 

And so it was.  We bagged a small mountain top cache first, then continued on to a mutli-cache puzzle.  This one was cool!  We had to trek for about 7km over and through the rocky terrain, collecting six pieces to the puzzle along the way.  Eventually we had everything in order, and the final coords were revealed.  We made the find, both of us giddy as school children, before continuing along the path to the opposite end of the mountain range.  The whole time we looked for wildlife, spotting tadpoles, frogs and even a snake!  It was a fantastic hike and well worth the three hours invested.  A final seaside mountain cache was found before strolling across the beach together, skipping stones in the water as the sunset painted the sky brilliant shades of orange.

That evening we decided to have a quiet night at home.  Irena cooked mussels with a side veg salad and fruit salad.  It was delicious.  We talked the night away and reflected on how wonderful the last three days had been for us both.  Ironically, I had prebooked my flight from Oman back to Dubai, a reality that has rarely happened on this trip.  Not only that, but I prebooked my flight from Dubai to Kenya as well.  So despite the fun I was having, and the desire with which I wanted to stay in Oman, I could not justify sacrificing the two pre-purchased, nonrefundable tickets to do so. 

Instead, we had one final breakfast together before she once again offered to take me to the airport.  It was difficult to say goodbye, as this was one of my favorite destinations on the trip, and Irena was one of my favorite people.  I very much look foward to seeing both again.


From Irena on Mar 14th, 2009

What an accurate & detailed description, Shawn! I'm truly impressed!! I was living through those wonderful moments again while reading your journal :) And I really enjoyed the photos many of which I have seen for the first time here!!! Well done :))) Take good care of yourself and try to keep us up to date with all your amazing travel adventures..!!!