A Woman Alone in Oman: Three Weeks Along the Arabian Coast

I may barely inform the place the salt ended and the sky started.

I used to be on my strategy to Masirah, Oman’s largest island, when the encompassing terrain become a large salt flat. At its edge, close to the street, two Bangladeshi employees had been as much as their ankles within the combination of liquid and minerals, pushing the salt flakes into pyramid-shaped piles. I, too, waded in, the horizon blurred by an orange-pink haze.

Lastly I reached the ferry and, after greater than an hour at sea, arrived at Masirah. I started driving down the west coast of the bowtie-shaped island, hoping to make it to its southern level by sunset, a distance of some 40 miles. The farther I acquired from the port, the less individuals I noticed — till, pulling onto the sand of Bu Rasas Beach, there was nobody. With the trunk of my S.U.V. open to the ocean, emitting the one mild for miles, I may hear the small shore creatures scuttling close to the water’s edge.

Alone, skirting the boundaries between sand and sea, I’d reached the midpoint of my trek.

This previous December, three months after the Sultanate of Oman lifted its Covid-19 journey restrictions, I flew from my residence in Paris to the southern metropolis of Salalah, desiring to discover the whole thing of Oman’s shoreline from south to north.

For the subsequent three weeks, I’d be touring solo throughout the sting of the Arabian Peninsula, clocking greater than 2,600 miles, improvising campsites, off-roading with middling success, loading my rental automobile onto ferries to succeed in distant islands, passing army checkpoints and, lastly, reaching the northern tip of Oman and the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, one of the crucial geopolitically contentious and punctiliously monitored waterways on the planet.

If you conjure pictures of the Arabian Peninsula, whose inhabitants go by the pan-Arab time period “khaleeji,” the Sultanate of Oman is probably not the primary nation that involves thoughts. Saudi Arabia’s presence on the world stage has been dominant lately; each the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have made political and cultural impressions internationally; and the whole world has watched in horror on the ongoing civil battle in Yemen.

And but Oman has nurtured its repute as a impartial and infrequently tranquil place, even serving through the Obama administration as a conduit for nuclear talks between the US and Iran. The nation has made few ripples on the worldwide entrance because the British-backed coup within the Seventies, when a reformist son deposed his father to turn into the brand new sultan. The chief — Sultan Qaboos bin Stated of Oman, who died in 2020 — subsequently reworked Oman, catalyzing mass modernization whereas sustaining absolutely the monarchy.

For me, that relative calm was considered one of its most tasty options. That and its distinctive local weather. Due to its location, Oman is among the uncommon nations within the Arab world that experiences a khareef (monsoon) season, which turns the panorama a lush inexperienced, floods mountains with waterfalls, fills the wadis (valleys or riverbeds) with contemporary water and brings a thick fog to relaxation on the southern governorates of the nation. Oman doesn’t actually have an low season. The khareef is common with khaleejis, and through winter months the sultanate receives extra European and Indian vacationers. As I’d missed the khareef, it was the perfect time for a beach-bound journey.

In my dedication to touring the whole thing of the Omani shoreline, I’d be foregoing inland Oman, famed for the Rub al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, thought-about the world’s largest steady sand desert and made up of roughly 250,000 sq. miles of uninterrupted sand dunes, spanning throughout Oman, Yemen, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. And, in a cussed dedication to driving the total shoreline, I drove some three hours west of Salalah to the border of Yemen to formally start the journey.

The path to the border was treacherous, stuffed with repeating switchbacks because the street ascended into the Dhofar Mountains. And the standard of the roadway considerably deteriorated the nearer I acquired to Yemen.

The border crossing close to the city of Sarfayt wasn’t very imposing: a makeshift hut of corrugated iron paneling — lined in camouflage netting and yellowed by the solar — with a sand-colored SUV in its shade. Disappointingly, there was no signage. This was the closest I’d been to Yemen since December 2013, not lengthy earlier than the civil battle started. After conferring along with his colleagues within the hut, the guard allowed me to finish a U-turn within the no man’s land between Oman and Yemen. And with that, my journey had formally begun.

The very first thing I did on my expedition north was pull up for a heat cup of candy milk tea known as karakan Omani favourite, made with spices — on the nearest place I may discover. It was considerably colder and windier right here within the mountains.

By dusk I’d reached Fazayah Seaside, some 65 miles from the border. Wild tenting is authorized in Oman; one has the best to pitch a tent on any public land. Earlier than selecting up my automobile rental, I requested that the rear rows be eliminated, which might give me the choice of sleeping in again. That night time, I saved the trunk open, tucked into my sleeping bag, listening to the waves. Within the morning, cows walked the seashore whereas I swam; later I waited as they blocked the mountain street till I may pull again out onto Freeway 47.

My journey progressed in undulating chapters: Durations of isolation and contemplation had been adopted by moments of utmost focus in precarious conditions, which then swung into beneficiant cultural exchanges.

At Mughsail Seaside, with Mount Qamar looming within the distance, the shallow swimming pools of sunshine inexperienced and blue water gathered in pockets within the sand, as dromedaries, or one-humped Arabian camels, walked alongside the shore, silhouetted by an orange solar. Ropes of a vine known as goat’s foot crisscrossed the seashore, with their pink flowers dotting the sand.

Simply because the solar was fading right into a fuzzy haze, a historically dressed couple walked barefoot alongside the shoreline, the person in a dishdasha (an ankle-length collarless tunic) and kuma (a rounded embroidered cap), and the lady in an abaya (a protracted black cloak) and hijab.

On the Khor Rori archaeological site, I met a person who seemed to be in his mid-40s. We struck up a dialog, and when he discovered I’ve Yemeni ancestry, he warmed to me. I sat with him by just a few of his cigarettes.

He was fascinated by my Jewish heritage, saying I used to be the primary Jew he had ever met and asking to take {a photograph} collectively. Then, as if he wanted proof of my Jewishness, he requested that I write out a number of names in Hebrew, which I did. We exchanged numbers and deliberate to fulfill that night for dinner.

After visiting Wadi Darbat, well-known for its plateau of waterfalls, I drove to Mirbat, the place my new good friend had dropped a pin on my telephone to share the precise location. He had ordered takeout, and we took the baggage to the seashore, the place he laid out a mat and we sat consuming cross-legged utilizing our proper arms rather than utensils, within the conventional method. Having completed our meal of hen biryani, we stepped out onto the rocks the place the ocean lapped onto the stones. We went so far as we may with out getting moist, discovering a spot to lean again comfortably. After which, as if outdated pals, we had a protracted discuss a variety of matters, together with faith, whereas staring up on the sky.

The following day, I finished to have espresso within the bustling village of Sadah. As quickly as I sat down, the neighborhood youngsters taking part in at a close-by desk had been intrigued — seemingly with my unruly (and uncovered) hair, western (although modest) garments and vaguely acquainted options. The ladies waved at me, whereas the boys made faces and loud jokes, clearly having a cheeky snort at my expense. These exchanges are amongst my favourite moments on the street: no widespread language, no inherent acquire for both occasion, only a little bit of surprise on all sides, stuffed with hand alerts and carefree laughter.

A person in western garments and his younger daughter joined our interplay. He launched himself as a local of Sadah and advised a restaurant with one of the best view on the town. Requesting that I check with him as Ali, he later mentioned he was a member of an elite army unit in Oman.

Ali proposed a drive to Natef Falls, the place, as one native described, the “water comes from the mountains like tears.” I bathed within the freshwater, which felt noticeably distinct from mornings spent within the brine.

Drying off, I recalled the dialog we had shared earlier within the day. “I’m loopy, you’re loopy,” he’d mentioned, as each of us laughed. What Ali had meant, restricted by the boundaries of our widespread language abilities, was that I used to be a lady touring by herself, an concept that to him was completely mad — and but additionally courageous. He was likening it to his métier: high-altitude army parachuting, which he knew was each brave and a bit unhinged. (I’d seen movies of his jumps.)

In different phrases: This was Ali, paying me a praise.

A pair days later I used to be off-roading within the Sugar Dunes of Al Khaluf in an try to succeed in Bar al Hikman before sunrise. Abruptly, my S.U.V. ceased shifting ahead; the wheels rotated in place, sending sand in all instructions. The automobile sank into the white lumps. I attempted in useless to dig myself out, however it was futile. I hesitated earlier than calling Ali. Inside half-hour of dropping him a pin, two pals from Ali’s unit pulled up — barefoot, sporting dishdashas and massars (embroidered headscarves) — in a beat-up ’90s truck the colour of sand.

Ten minutes later, using the practiced talent of people that had clearly executed this many occasions earlier than, they yanked my a lot bigger automobile out of its pit, and drove it again to the blacktop. They supplied me a spot to remain at their camp for the night time, however I had taken up sufficient of their time. We mentioned our goodbyes and, my arms pressed collectively in supplication uttering profuse shukrans (thank yous), they despatched me on my manner. Feeling inordinately fortunate, I discovered an simply accessible close by seashore, splayed out within the trunk, and handed out.

The next morning, I walked throughout the beautiful white sand seashore, sat within the water feeling grateful for all of it, and regarded again on the dunes that had almost devoured me the night time earlier than.

The farther north I traveled, the craggier the terrain grew to become — stonier, much less easy. An hour north from the port metropolis of Sur, I used to be enchanted by the various smaller coves that broke up the lengthy stretch of seashore close to Bimmah Sinkhole. Weaving amongst them, I admired the large chunks of mind coral and the way in which the morning solar mirrored pastel highlights onto the stones.

Precisely two weeks into my journey, with solely temporary interludes from the intermittently unforgiving coastal terrain, I pulled right into a parking spot on a superbly manicured road — lined with elegant palms timber — in a swanky nook of Muscat, Oman’s capital, and walked my weary self into a global espresso chain.

Hoping to go to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, I missed the window for non-Muslim guests. As an alternative, I walked by the encompassing gardens. Night had fallen by the point I departed Muscat for Shinas, a coastal city close to the border with U.A.E. I counted the fuel flares that dotted the shoreline as I continued my drive.

The next morning, I discovered a small unassuming cafe for breakfast. The nook store, open on two sides, let in a much-appreciated breeze. I joined a morning crowd of South Asian employees, silently ingesting their chais and munching their chapatis, transfixed by the overhead TV, just a few flies resting on the plastic tables all of us shared. I noticed one of many males dip his chapati in his tea, and I did the identical. Not half dangerous. After their meal, males would method the sink in the midst of the store and wash their arms and mouth, then use the skinny waxy paper, offered by the store, to dry themselves off. I adopted swimsuit.

A majority of these retailers might be discovered all around the sultanate, a staple of communities in a rustic the place international employees — largely from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — make up a good portion of the inhabitants. (In Oman and plenty of of its neighbors, the pandemic led to a reckoning in regards to the many inequalities that exist within the Gulf states, which rely closely on migrant labor.)

I used to be lastly prepared to go to Musandam, the northernmost of Oman’s 11 governorates, which borders the Strait of Hormuz and is separated from the remainder of the nation by a spit of Emirati land. Musandam has fantastically barren fjords hugging green-blue bays, jagged mountain ranges, and inlets that reveal small villages accessible solely by boat. The port metropolis of Khasab is a four-hour ferry experience from Shinas, north alongside the sting of the Arabian Peninsula and across the cape into the Strait of Hormuz.

I drove off the ferry into city and let curiosity lead me alongside the Khasab Coastal Street, regularly nearing my final vacation spot. The Musandam mountain scapes had been intimidating, dwarfing the few properties that had been constructed proper up in opposition to them. One street appeared to show into the mountains, and I made a decision to see the place it led.

After about 5 minutes, the paved street gave strategy to dust. I acquired out of the automobile to take some photographs after I heard a person’s voice name and echo to me from throughout the valley. Wanting within the course of the sound, I discerned a determine waving me over. It turned out to be a bunch of younger Omani males, who went on to ask me to hitch their breakfast, revealing a ramification of espresso, karak, tanoor bread (baked in an underground clay oven), honey and cheese. The house, land, and surrounding flock of goats belonged to a member of the family, and so they had been all visiting from their respective properties within the close by Emirates.

That afternoon, I made my strategy to the northernmost level of Oman — or so far as I may go with out risking additional off-roading excessive jinks — and gazed out over the coast. The waters had been deceptively serene. I discovered a spot to relaxation among the many rocks and contemplated the historic nature of the ocean passage. Solely 21 miles large at its narrowest level, the Strait of Hormuz has been important for commerce between civilizations for 1000’s of years.

Lately, some 20 % of the worldwide oil provide has flowed by the strait, which is the one manner for oil tankers and cargo ships to succeed in the Indian Ocean for maritime commerce. Tensions at this chokepoint have led (and proceed to steer) to quite a few conflicts.

Taking within the sea view from a small park simply southwest of the horn, I waved to a bunch of ladies strolling within the sand; they waved again. I longed for interactions with Omani girls however had skilled only a few all through the journey — partly a results of my restricted language abilities and the solitary nature of my journey, and partly due to the difficult gender dynamics in a rustic with a spectrum of conservativeness.

I’d spoken briefly with a younger physician on the ferry to Masirah, on the deck reserved for households (the opposite facet was reserved for single males), the place we had been each making an attempt to get a great image of the sundown and joked at our unsuccessful makes an attempt. The dialog trailed off, and she or he returned to sit down along with her two pals.

At a generic meals stand in Khasab, a bunch of younger ladies approached me, admiring my digicam. I allow them to maintain it and play, which drew the eye of some teenage ladies who needed to observe their English. “You’re cute!” they mentioned to me, laughing.

Reflecting again on these fleeting moments, I used to be grateful to have had them.

I left Musandam the next morning and headed again to mainland Oman, the place I booked a lodge in Muscat and, for the primary night time in weeks, slept in a mattress. After I awoke, town had flooded, limiting the choices for my ultimate day. I lay again down on the mattress. I may nonetheless odor the smoke emanating from burned frankincense resin, may really feel the air from Jabal Samhan on my pores and skin, may hear the batting of green sea turtle flippers within the sand.

Noa Avishag Schnall, is a visible journalist primarily based in Paris. You possibly can comply with her work on Instagram.

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