After reading all the collected stories of ‘Arabian Nights’ during many evenings at the fire in Iran, we finally arrived on the Arabic Peninsula – fortunately fully prepared for all oriental magic vanishing in the mirroring windows of Dubai’s sky- and spacescrapers.
And so it should happen. The contrast from the southern to the northern coast of the Persian gulf, separated by not even 200km of water, couldn’t be much stronger. Thinking of Dubai, makes our stomachs cramp and soul weep – surely not the reaction one would expect thinking of Sheikh Maktoums desert Disneyland – but for us the very short stay was a volitional examination of what cruel machinery runs behind those marvelous surfaces. What exactly moved us can not be fully put into words in such a limited blog post – time and mindset given, it shall deserve an article about our image of Dubai.
Oman – white buildings, dishdashas and iPhones
While we knew beforehand that the Emirates would be a worst case scenario for us, the hopes for Oman were all the higher. Describes as the one Arabic country possibly best balancing cultural identity and controlled modernization, we were pretty excited to cross the border.
The first impressions didn’t fail but rather fuel said expectations. Hitchhiking was a breathe and we were greeted by very friendly and amiable men in beautiful white robes (called Dishdasha) and skullcaps. The architecture is rather low key compared to Dubai’s madness and nearly all buildings are following the distinctive elements of traditional Islamic / Arabic architecture.
The first disappointment surely was Muscat. Our hopes were especially high for Oman’s capital, described by many as a beautiful, ancient seaport full of history and beauty. The size of population (1,2 million) felt very manageable to us, compared to Tehran’s 15 million people frenzy. Great, as we had a bunch of things to figure out – finally in a pleasant city. So we thought….unaware of the fact that the city including suburbs is stretching a good 60km along the Persian Gulf, with a single super highway as the main traffic vein, in rush hour hopefully exhausted. Unfortunately our Couchsurfing place was right in those outskirts – the center (there is no real center in fact, most consider the older parts around Mutrah, Ruwi and old Muscat as the center) about 50km away. Next unpleasant surprise: The city does not have a bus or mass transportation network. Why? Nearly everybody has a car. Or two. Or three. The unfortunate who do not own a car (mostly the Pakistani or Indian guest workers) have to rely on expensive taxis to get around. At least the main highway is plied by minibuses dropping you in certain areas for decent prices – if the driver doesn’t try to charge you double as a foreigner. As a result we always had to think twice about going to the central parts of town. The way plus return could consume nearly half our daily budget! The last resort was to get around the city by hitchhiking, not always easy either, as all the taxis stop for you and the regular cars do not, supposing it is a Taxi you want indeed.
Next, the promised crossover of modern and traditional life was just a surface thing in many areas of life. If you subtract the white robes and put western clothes instead, the guy sitting behind the wheel of his Porsche Cayenne, whatsapping all his friends with his iPhone 6 Plus before buying Nutella at Carrefour could easily be a London businessman. Sure, the guy in London would probably be single instead of having three wives and 25 children (no unusual numbers!!).
Finally and what was maybe the toughest part: There is just nearly no street life in Oman! Nearly all Omanis are driving around in their gigantic cars avoiding the smallest walks. In summer with boiling 50 degrees it is understandable, but in the quite pleasant winter months nothing changes. So most parts of the city felt incredibly dead, new white building in old style architecture framing the SUV parade passing down the road. IF we got the chance to interact with Omanis, they have mostly been real great people. But quite honestly, we interacted much more with the Indians and Pakistanis – which was not unpleasant at all. Especially considering the small Indian and Pakistani eateries saved our culinary lives financially.
As we had some crucial things to do in Muscat (mainly getting the Indian Visa, find out about boats to India, Surgery of Maria’s wisdom tooth) we did not spend too much time outside the city. A hitchhiking loop over Sur and Ibra let us experience the beautiful Wadis of Tiwi and Bani Khalid and gave us a short glimpse of the indeed impressive nature of Oman. The village people were absolutely friendly and hitchhiking nearly too easy. The cities or rather towns on the other hand were as lifeless and uninspiring as possible – so our regret of not exploring more of Oman was limited. Especially as we had too much desert landscape after two months in Iran already.
While we managed to get a full 6 month multiple entry Visa for India and Maria’s wisdom tooth was successfully removed in Muscat, we sadly but expectedly failed in finding a boat to India.
Sour apples don’t taste pretty – by plane to India
Our gamble failed. After receiving negative information of friends who tried to find a boat all over the Emirates and Oman and our own inquiries being negative, we had to realize that the overland / -water route failed miserably. For myself the second time. We decided to leave failure behind in Oman together with our not really fulfilled expectations and found a cheap flight from Muscat to Kochi, southern India. Our expectations for India were very mixed – so at least a disappointment should be less probable.