After spending the past week working in (and hiking around) Abu Dhabi, it was time for some fun. I checked out of my hotel on Sunday morning and left
for a three day, 1,000-mile road trip through the U.A.E. and across the neighboring country of Oman. To do this, I rented what was quite possibly
the smallest car in Abu Dhabi, a three-cylinder Toyota Yaris with a tiny back seat and a super-tiny trunk (or "boot" as they call it in the
U.A.E., a British term). But that was fine because it was just for myself and I didn't need much room. Along with the tiny spare tire in
the boot, I think it also had a large rubber band to wind up in case the engine ever quit.
In the late morning on my way out of town, I stopped at a Wal-Mart-ish place, a large store called Carrefour, which was located under the Marina
Mall. Just like Wal-Mart, Carrefour (a French retail chain, as I learned later) sold just about everything under the sun, including cheap camping gear,
which I stocked up on.
I left Abu Dhabi an hour later and drove on an ultra-modern freeway across endless deserts and sand-filled landscapes for
several hours east, to the city of Al Ain near Oman, then reached the border late in the day. I figured that the U.A.E./Oman border
would be simple, like it is in the U.S. when I go into Canada. But I was wrong because I waited inside the customs building for a half-hour
to get something approved – due to the language barrier, I'm not sure what, exactly. There were about 30 other folks in the customs building,
almost all male, also waiting to enter Oman, but I was the only Westerner.
Then I waited in another line for a half-hour for something else, and then waited in another line. The customs agents spoke very little English
and I spoke even less Arabic, which complicated matters, but apparently they couldn't figure out why a lone American driving a rental car would want to
visit Oman. But finally, after an hour and a half, I was waved through.
Above: Gasoline in the U.A.E. costs about $1.50 U.S. per gallon, about half of the price
in America. And in Oman, it was much less.
The sun was starting to set and I had no idea where I was going to spend the night. But after driving for another half-hour I found a dirt road leading
off the highway, which I followed for a couple miles until I discovered a flat, dirt area where I could set up my tent. I've camped in the American
deserts numerous times and don't think twice about it, so I didn't think twice about camping in the Oman desert either – though maybe in retrospect
I should've because, unlike in the U.S. deserts, this probably wasn't public land. A few cars drove by on the dirt road that night, but they
didn't stop to check out who I was or why I was camping there. If they had, I'm sure they would've been surprised to discover it was an
American. In fact, during the three days I was in Oman, I didn't see one other American.
I had made the mistake of buying a paper-thin sleeping bag at Carrefour in Abu Dhabi and it was fairly chilly that night, so I didn't get much sleep.
Sure, it dropped down only to about 50 degrees, but that's still pretty chilly if you don't have anything to cover you except jeans, a t-shirt and a couple layers
of a nylon sleeping bag. Instead of buying the $5 sleeping bag at Carrefour like I had, I wished I had sprung for the $10 bag. As the light began
to break on the eastern horizon, I got up, had a quick breakfast, then packed and hit the road well before sunrise. Still a bit chilled from my desert
camping experience, I vowed to spend the next night in a motel room.
Above: My thousand-mile drive across the desert.
Back on the highway, I drove all day through Oman which, as I discovered, is much more mountainous than the flat and sandy U.A.E. The mountains
in Oman are mostly barren but quite lofty, some over 10,000 feet high. I also discovered that the drivers in Oman are borderline crazy and I felt like I
was the only person in the entire country driving less than 100 miles per hour, as I tooled along at a paltry 60. I think the drivers must interpret
the "100" speed signs here as meaning miles-per-hour instead of kilometer-per-hour.
Around 4 p.m. I drove into the historic coastal city of Sur (population 120,000), where I checked into a modest hotel on the beach. The desk clerk
was in a good mood because, as he cheerfully told me after seeing my American passport, "Tomorrow is inauguration day for Obama!" It struck
me how much people in the Middle East, and also in Belize, know about America. In fact, many folks in the Middle East (and Australia, and New Zealand)
know more about what's happening in America than many Americans do. The election of President Obama was no different and it was celebrated by many of
the folks I met in the Middle East, as they hoped for improved relations with the United States instead of eight more years of belligerence. I hoped
for that, too.
I found my room, unpacked my stuff, and then explored Sur that evening, walking alone through many back streets of this fascinating coastal town. For hundreds of
years, Sur (pronounced "sewer," not "sir") has been a boat-building center of the Middle East. At dusk I hiked up to a magnificent
lighthouse that overlooked the harbor, from which I saw some of the dhows (primitive sailing boats) that had been built here and were anchored in the
gentle waters of the cove. I ate dinner afterwards at a mostly-empty restaurant and, since everything was in Arabic, I'm still not sure exactly what I
ate. But it was fine – more filling than tasty, to be honest, but better than the dinner of chips and sweet salsa that I'd eaten in the desert the night
Above left: Passing by sand dunes in the U.A.E. on my way to Al Ain, in the eastern part of the country.
Above center: Oman is on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It's about the size of Arizona and has a similar climate.
Above right: A friendly greeting as I entered Oman. The term "peace be with you" is common in the Middle East and
is the greeting that's typically used when you meet someone. In Arabic it's pronounced "a salam aluykum." The world "salem" or
"salam" in many languages means "peace," as in Salem, Massachusetts.
Above left: An hour later I pulled off the highway and camped in the desert. That's my
$5 sleeping bag, which I bought in Abu Dhabi. It was pretty chilly that night and I wished I'd sprung for the $10 bag.
Above right: Early the next morning I was back on the highway heading east. That "120"
speed sign, by the way, refers to kilometers per hour, not miles per hour that most Omani drivers must assume.
Above left: Stopping for breakfast. This is a Pepsi, my favorite drink. There is no letter "P" in the Arabic
language so this word actually says "Beebsi." Arabic words are read from right-to-left, by the way, and not left-to-right like in the English language.
Above center: And here's my favorite food, but shouldn't it be "Doritos"? I mean, who wants just one.
Above right: After a delicious breakfast I was back on the road. This is typical scenery in northern Oman. It's a very
mountainous country with some peaks topping 10,000' in elevation. But it's very dry, too.
Above left: Late in the afternoon I reached Sur on the northeast coast of Oman. The Omani desk clerk here was excited
because President Obama was being inaugurated the next day.
Above right: My comfortable hotel room overlooking the Gulf of Oman.
Left: And here's the view from my room.
Above left: Heading into downtown Sur late in the day to check it out.
Above right: Omanis are crazy about soccer and they'll play it anywhere at any time. That lighthouse and watchtower, by the way,
replaced a much older one. Being at the extreme northeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Sur is a historic port and important boat-building center.
Left: Beach scene in Sur. So many guys but just one soccer ball.
Above left: The lighthouse / watchtower is the most iconic building in Sur.
Above right: The Old Town part of Sur in the evening.
Above left: A Sur sunset. There's a watchtower on the far hilltop. Ancient watchtowers are
common throughout the country of Oman. In fact, when I now think of Oman, I think of watchtowers.
Above right: View of the historic section of Sur from the lighthouse.
Above left: This friendly little fellow followed me around town as I shot photos in the evening and wanted his picture taken.
After I shot this photo, I showed him the image and he laughed.
Above center: All this shooting builds up an appetite. I ate dinner at this place but didn't really know what I was ordering.
Above right: And here's dinner. That dish on the far side was chicken, I think, with French fries (huh?) mixed in. Not especially
tasty but it was filling – and much better than the Doritos and Pepsi (or "Dorito" and Beepsie) that I had for breakfast.
Finally Finding Frankincense
Early the next morning, around 7 a.m., I drove out of Sur for what I knew would be a long drive. Amazingly, a few raindrops hit my windshield as I left town,
a rare occurrence in this part of the world that receives less than five inches of rain per year, so I figured that I must've brought my Portland winter weather with
me. I even had to turn on my windshield wipers for a couple of minutes before the clouds parted.
Above: A few raindrops splattered my windshield in the morning as I was leaving Sur. These
might be the only raindrops this area received all year.
I had to be at the Abu Dhabi airport, 450 miles away, that evening for my midnight flight back to the U.S. but first I wanted to visit
Muscat, the beautiful capital of Oman. If you're going to visit only one place in Oman, friends in Abu Dhabi had told me, make sure it's
Muscat. I drove all morning through the desert mountains and by early afternoon I had reached the coast at Mutrah, a city on the waterfront a
few miles from Muscat. Mutrah was absolutely stunning, so I parked the Yaris and spent a couple hours exploring the town, including the very
impressive and extensive Mutrah souq (pronounced "sewk," an open-air market).
While meandering through the scores of market stalls at the labyrinthine souq, I spotted exactly what I had come looking for: a bag of
frankincense. This was something I had learned about a few months earlier while watching the PBS television series, "Globe Trekker"
back in Portland. We've all heard the Biblical tale about the Three Wise Men who brought frankincense, gold and myrrh to the baby Jesus, but
does anyone really know what frankincense is? Megan McCormick, the main host of Globe Trekker and an appealing woman who I would love to meet
someday (hint, hint – drop me a line sometime, Megan) described it on her travel show about Oman.
Above: Nodules of frankincense.
Frankincense, in case you're wondering, is the dried resin from a certain type of tree that grows only in Oman and neighboring Saudi Arabia
and people burn it as incense or chew it like gum. Referring back to the Biblical tale, frankincense has long represented life in the Middle
East, myrrh (another type of tree resin) represents death and gold represents what happens in between – hopefully for most people, anyway.
In fact, Megan's show on Oman is what prompted my visit to this mountainous country, not just to see the sights but also to get some frankincense,
and I was determined to buy that one kilo bag. First, though, and in the Omani way, I haggled with the merchant for several minutes.
Never buy anything in an Oman market at face value, Megan said in her show, and instead cut the marked price by at least two-thirds and bargain up
from there. We went back and forth for about five minutes – he kept trying to push sandalwood on me for some reason, but I told him that I
wanted only the frankincense – and I finally walked away with the bag after paying about eight dollars. Mission accomplished! I hope
Megan's proud of me.
Above left: My little Toyota Yaris got 45 MPG, so the total gas bill for my 1,000-mile drive around Oman was about...
oh, maybe six dollars.
Above right: In the U.S. they have roadside billboards. Here they have roadside camels.
Above left: Passing one of the many ancient watchtowers in Oman.
Above right: Early in the afternoon I stopped in Mutrah to check it out.
Above left: I spent a couple hours getting lost here in the eclectic and lively Mutrah
souq. This place is huge and there's seemingly no end to it.
Above right: I haggled with this fellow over that bag of frankincense (front row). Frankincense is resin from a certain
tree that grows only in Oman, and you can either burn it or chew it like gum.
Above left: Mutrah, near the Omani capital of Muscat, is one of the most beautiful cities in Oman. Those are dhows in
the foreground, the historic type of ship that's been sailing these waters for over a thousand years.
Above right: A watchtower on the hill overlooking Mutrah.
I nervously glanced at the clock. It was 2:30 p.m. and I thought about my flight that was leaving Abu Dhabi at midnight. The Abu Dhabi airport
was still 300 miles and one uncertain border crossing away, but I decided to drive on to Muscat – 20 minutes in the opposite direction – for a quick visit.
Above: Muscat, with watchtowers and an ancient wall in the distance. I loved this city.
Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a beautiful city that I'd first learned about while watching the CBS television series, "The Amazing
Race," another show about travel, this one about contestants who race around the world. If you've been reading my website,
you know that "The Amazing Race" was the inspiration for my visit last year to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of
Malaysia, just as "Globe Trekker" had been the inspiration for my visit now to Oman.
Muscat, which lies at the end of a coastal road, shouldn't be confused with muskrat, as in the awful 1970s song, "Muskrat Love."
It's a beautiful city from what what I could see, but being the capital of Oman, large sections of Muscat were closed off to the public so I
couldn't explore much of it. Still, I was captivated by this lush and elegant coastal city that lies at the base of a precipitous mountain
range and I heartily recommend seeing it. You may even become enamored with it like I was, a common affliction known locally as Muscat Love.
This is the Captain and Tennille singing what is quite possibly the worst song ever written, Muskrat Love.
I took a few pictures of Muscat then hopped in the Yaris at 3:30 p.m. and hit the road, bound for the Abu Dhabi airport. After a couple
hours on the coastal road and driving through what seemed like a thousand roundabouts, I turned left and took a highway leading up
into the mountains, where I crossed into the U.A.E. at sunset after a half-hour wait in the customs building. A few hours later I skirted Dubai,
then I made it to the Abu Dhabi airport by 10 p.m., a full two hours before my flight. I was determined not to make the same mistake I'd
made last summer when I had to run through the airport and almost missed my flight, so I checked in early and had plenty of time in the terminal
As my plane took off into the darkness, bound for Amsterdam, I put in my earbuds and fumbled around with my little Zen music player, looking for a
good song to play. The artists were sorted alphabetically, so the group America popped up first and I spotted their song, "Sister Golden
Hair" in the playlist (while wisely bypassing America's version of "Muskrat Love." Yes, sadly, they sang it, too).
Here's Sister Golden Hair from the group America.
"Sister Golden Hair" had been a popular song back in the 1970's when I was in high school, during a time when I was seeing a special
girl who had – you guessed it – golden hair. Of all the women I've ever known, in fact, she was the one I came the closest to marrying (I
still occasionally think about how my life would've turned out if we had). The song had been important to me back in those days but I hadn't heard
it in many years, so I pressed "Play" and eased back into my seat as I watched the twinkling lights of Abu Dhabi fade off into the distance,
while thinking about my long-ago Sister Golden Hair. I didn't realize it at the time, but this would become a silly tradition of mine – playing
"Sister Golden Hair" every time I flew out of the Middle East – which, as it turned out, I would do many more times.
Above: The reflection of a really handsome guy. This is in Muscat, the capital of Oman.
The 10-hour flight to Europe was pretty routine because me and my backside were getting used to long flights by now. The plane landed in
Amsterdam around 5 a.m. and my flight for Seattle was leaving in five hours, so I thought about going into Amsterdam for a few hours to see it. But
it was cold and rainy, so instead I contented myself by eating two huge slices of pepperoni pizza and drinking a Pepsi at the airport food court (and for
breakfast, no less!) After another 10-hour flight, I reached Seattle and after a short flight, I returned home to Portland. I can't sleep on
planes, as I've mentioned before, so I'd been awake for 52 straight hours since I'd awaken two sunrises earlier in my hotel room in Sur, Oman, almost
exactly half-way around the world.
It had been a fascinating and eye-opening trip. I was glad that I got my mapping work done in Abu Dhabi, certainly, but the best parts, by far, were my
31-mile hike around Abu Dhabi and the 1,000-mile road trip I'd taken around the spectacular country of Oman, albeit without Megan McCormick. Like I
say, call me anytime, Megan. Really.
And regarding that kilo bag of frankincense? It made it through U.S. Customs without being confiscated (it's plant material, technically speaking, so I was
a little worried). So now, and as with all my guests, if you ever visit me in Portland, you'll leave with a few pieces of frankincense.
And in that way, you can bring a little part of the wonderful country of Oman into your own home.
Above left: Another view of lovely Muscat.
Above right: In Oman, heading back to the U.A.E. that evening. My flight was leaving in six hours and I still had
a long way to go, so I had to hustle.
Left: But I got to the airport with time to spare.
Get ready for a very long flight back to America.
Above left: Between my 10-hour flight from Abu Dhabi and my 10-hour flight to Seattle, I spent five hours laying
over in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. Boy, was that pizza good.
Above right: Back home in Portland. From the time I'd waken up in Sur, Oman to the time I went to bed in Portland, I'd been
awake for 52 straight hours. I sure wish I could sleep on planes!