Our white Toyota sat off to the shoulder of the main thoroughfare, halted onto a softened dirt enclave. From my view in the passenger seat I could see the road stretch onward before vanishing around the bend. It lay deserted along a bleak countryside sculpted from an amalgamation of sand and rock which served as the lone landmark of our nondescript location.
The seat belt chafed my collarbone as I tilted forward, my gaze searching for Khalid in the rear-view mirror while curiosity and guilt waged an internal game of tug-o-war on my senses. My eyes fixated on his reflection as the curiosity overcame my shame of witnessing such an intimate act. He was hunched over the makeshift basin, scooping the tepid water up and over his tanned forearms before cupping it within his palms and releasing it to run over his face. The wet rivulets dribbled down to his neck as he straightened to grab a nearby rug woven in an intrinsic pattern of tonal blues and golds. I continued watching until he slipped out of view behind a semi-enclosed hovel comprised of distressed wooden slats.
The structural integrity of the shack seemed questionable. As if the slightest wisp of wind was all it would take to have it come crumbling down.
The sudden outburst on the radio shook me from my reverie as the neon glow of the dashboard clock flashed 3:23. Arabic chants followed, permeating the car as it led the Omani people in afternoon prayer. My gaze returned to what I saw as just a rotting lean-to. But to Khalid, it was a sacred sanctuary. A serviceable, if somewhat primitive, mosque from which to partake in this daily religious rite – no matter that we were in the middle of nowhere.
He returned to the vehicle a few moments later, apologizing for the unplanned stop. I glanced at my friend Betsy in the backseat as we simultaneously assured him there was no need to apologize for practicing his faith. After all, this is why we chose to travel over 7,000 miles from home. To immerse ourselves in a culture so drastically different from anything we’d ever known.
This was the first of three days we would spend with Khalid; learning about the culture of the Omani people on our journey through the Sharqiya region of Oman. As is true with any prolonged stretch of time spent in close quarters – it was filled with highs and lows, disputes and compromises, annoyances and joys.
We drove on as the paved road careened onto the sand-stricken path that would take us deep into the desert. I jostled back and forth as Khalid shifted the gears to 4-wheel drive, my elbow slipping from its perch on the car’s window ledge. I could still smell a hint of the perfume he had sprayed on my right hand hours earlier. Though my senses initially protested the unpleasant aroma emanating from the purple bottle, I found myself growing more accustomed to it with each press of the nozzle.
The most recent dousing transpired after an impromptu meet-up with Khalid’s employer. We had been on the road for hours, killing time with the typical social niceties one exchanges with new acquaintances, when the conversation steered towards his job as a local tour guide.
“Four years! Four years total I been doing it. Just 1 year with Hamad. That’s when I learn English!” he exclaimed while drawing his eyes off the road to key in a number on his iPhone. A brief conversation in Arabic (a language neither Betsy nor I spoke) later and we were pulling up to a roadside building constructed of white concrete, the sign outside simply reading COFFEE SHOP. Since first leaving the capital of Muscat earlier that same morning, we’d become familiar with the country’s propensity for forthright labeling above its storefronts:
SALE OF CATTLE FEED.
SALE OF UPHOLSTERY.
SALE OF FOOD STUFFS.
Betsy’s look of confusion mirrored mine as Khalid turned off the ignition. There had been no mention of stopping. No question of do you need a toilet. Rolling with it, we disembarked and approached a man sitting at a small, circular table beneath the outdoor awning. “Kristen, this Hamad.” The pieces tumbled into place as Khalid’s countenance ignited with pride. He’d rewarded our curiosity over his place of employment with an introduction to his boss.
Such is the openness of the Omani people.
A tuft of smoke wafted from the coffee beans roasting in a nearby skillet. I reached out to shake Hamad’s hand, purposefully initiating the gesture. It’s disrespectful for Omani men to extend their hand towards a female first and situational rules apply when it comes to touching a woman who is not their wife, even if the act is done with the intention of utmost propriety.
Accepting their invitation for coffee, we sidled up to the table and continued to engage in general pleasantries. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the shop-keep transferring the freshly darkened beans into a vat of boiling water. The succinct voices around me faded to a humming buzz as I watched him rub a spice, identical in color to the surrounding desert sands, between the pads of his thumb and forefinger. The ground-up morsels soon suffered the same fate of the beans as he released them to disappear beneath the bubbling water.
My attention refocused on Khalid as he clarified, “Cardamom make coffee good.”
Rejoining the discussion at hand, Betsy and I fielded questions on western life. In our rarity, we were commodities in Oman – two relatively young females traveling alone in a Muslim country. And Americans to boot. There were no questions too big or too small.
They wanted to know everything.
But then again, so did we.
What transpired next was nothing more than an open forum between two disparate cultures. One devoid of heated arguments and calculated agendas.
We didn’t shy away when asked how Americans perceive Muslims. They didn’t shy away when asked how Omanis perceive the Islamic terrorist threat lying just across the gulf. We marveled at how they would only see their future wife twice before marrying. They marveled at how we would date for years before marrying. They found it incomprehensible that American employees received a one hour lunch break. We found it incomprehensible that Omani employees received a two hour lunch break.
Further topics touched on the history of religious tolerance in Oman, the saddening progression of America’s gun control issues, and who we thought the next American president was going to be.
We were interrupted with the arrival of the coffee. The heated liquid streamed out of the titled carafe into a cup no larger than the size of a shot glass. I winced as the strong flavor assaulted my taste buds, barely having time to swallow before the dialogue picked back up – this time focusing on petty crime and drugs.
I can’t recall how that subject came up yet I vividly remember Hamad passing ‘round a pipe stuffed with an Arabic herb that I may not be able to spell or pronounce, but one I know for sure translates to weed. I inhaled the heady substance, coughing as the prickle in my throat proved to be too much. Hamad smirked as I tried controlling the spasms.
So much for keeping a cool demeanor.
The afternoon dragged on, a stillness hanging in the air as we sat in quiet contemplation, contentment drifting over us as we slowly got stoned on the fringes of the Middle Eastern desert.
With the sun edging closer to the horizon, I extended my coffee cup toward the silver tray resting on the table, flicking my wrist so it’d shake ever so slightly in the way Khalid taught me, ensuring I wouldn’t receive a refill. The time had come to be on our way. I held my right hand for Khalid’s ritual perfume cleansing and bid adieu to Hamad.
The rough jolt of the vehicle scaling a patch of desert scree brought me back to the present.
We were deep within the sandy expanse, racing against the setting sun as we searched for a space to set up camp before night ascended. Khalid stopped the car every fifth dune or so, jumping out to circle the hillock before climbing back in with the declaration, “This is not the one.” What exactly his criterion was for selecting “the one” from the thousands of sanded mounds canvasing over an endless stretch of land eluded us.
When we came to our final resting ground, Betsy and I did the only sensical thing we could after driving the better part of 8 hours, we ran like crazy; giggling like the childhood versions of ourselves as we sprinted up and down the giant dunes. Despite the heat from the Middle Eastern sun bearing down on the varying orange hues that painted the desert floor, the sand was surprisingly cool beneath our bare feet.
Plopping down atop the crest of the highest peak, I drew my knees to my chest, encircling them with my arms as I watched the sun dip below the horizon line. The magnitude of aloneness transcended anything I’d ever experienced before. There were no lights. No other camps. No souls out there apart from the three of us.
I wish I could vocalize what I felt in that suspended moment of time. Be able to give lucid insights into what was going through me. But I’m not a talented enough writer to capture the intricacy and complexity that comes with the kinds of emotions evoked when facing the incomprehensible vastness of a desert that covers the better part of Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s the whole point. That certain moments shouldn’t be described or shared.
Only felt in a way that can never be replicated.
Back at camp, the fire was already roaring; the desert brush Khalid had gathered in our absence crackling as it fed the flames. We found him bumbling around in the back of the car. The sun had given way to a black sky leaving him no choice but to prep our dinner under the artificial lights of the car’s interior. Portable hot plates boiled rice in the trunk while skewers of chicken and beef cooked over the open fire.
We gathered round its warmth, watching the meat blacken to a crisp. It was barely edible; far past the point of well done. We ate it anyway, chipping our teeth on the edges and lying to Khalid about how it tasted. Every once in a while I’d catch Betsy covertly tossing a piece into the fire. It wasn’t our first charred meal in Oman. And it wouldn’t be our last.
We finished our supper in the way of the Omani people – scooping up rice with the fingers of our right hand and shuffling it into our mouth with our thumb. We wouldn’t use utensils the rest of the trip.
“Kristen. Let’s dance.”
I stared at Khalid as he procured a long stick that curved upward at the end.
“I show you Omani dance and you show me American dance.”
I was always the one Khalid directed his requests to. Rarely did he address Betsy. We would later come to find it was because he had trouble remembering and pronouncing her name. Upon figuring this out, she asked him to call her Elizabeth – her middle name. Afterward, the shift in attention towards her would go up dramatically.
Only that wouldn’t come until tomorrow.
Tonight it was all – “Kristen. You ready to dance?”
I stood and followed Khalid’s lead, my two left feet fumbling over the intricate steps as he executed the motions perfectly with both his feet and dancing stick. A playlist of Yemeni, Omani, and Saudi Arabian music flowed out of the car’s speakers. When asked which style was his favorite, he replied “Omani” – an answer that would change several times over the coming days leaving us forever in the dark about his true preference.
“Now you show me American style.”
I looked to Betsy for help. The only thing I knew of dancing was taken from the Manhattan clubs I frequent. No matter how tolerant and understanding the Omani people were, I’m pretty sure booty dancing was strictly taboo. So I did the only thing I could think of.
I taught him how to Whip and Nae Nae.
We danced on for a while more; the full moon beaming down, enjoying the private show taking place on the desert floor below.
We would sleep without tents that night, periodically waking throughout the hours of darkness to see the moon shift from east to west before slipping out of sight. That’s when the Arabian Sky came alive. Hundreds of thousands of stars unabashedly shimmering in the absence of a competing light source. Almost as if the heavens had been dusted with glitter.
We arose with the sun.
Khalid went to pray while we devoured our Omani breakfast of red tea and dates; a desert goat soon joining us as he roved down one of the sand dunes.
He was followed by about 20 more in search of food scraps.
Their appearance was unexpected. Wonderful.
I found myself not wanting to pack up and go.
But there were other places to explore. Other cultural tidbits to learn.
Like the act of taking coals from the morning’s fire and sprinkling them with frankincense. Which is what Khalid was busy doing so he could wave his traditional tunic over the perfumed smoke to ward off the day’s old smell. We followed suit with our own clothes before placing the coals inside the car to diffuse the favorable scent throughout the stale air.
We climbed in, our journey really only just beginning.
We would go on to have coffee with Bedouin tribes who lived in temporary desert encampments.
Khalid would let us try our hand at driving through the desert, getting lost along the way because the overnight sands had shifted over the previous night’s tire tracks.
We would ride camels and then stop for them once we were out of the desert and they needed to cross the road.
We would swim in the Arabian Sea.
As well as at the local Wadi’s and swimming holes.
We would run into Khalid’s friends.
One would be a security guard at a water station who’d offer us a place to shower. It would be a kind gesture – though the cleanliness of the facilities wouldn’t be so kind.
We would lounge at a local beach, covered from head to toe in respect for traditional Muslim conventions.
We would also sleep beneath the stars along that same beach.
I would realize boys will boys is true of every country as Khalid would fend off prepubescent boys daring each other to poke me with their finger. He would then lecture them on how disrespectful they were being and threaten to call their parents.
We would eat more Omani food that was thoroughly blackened.
We would get tired of said Omani food.
We would even get tired and annoyed of one another.
Our car would breakdown in Khalid’s hometown.
His brother would save the day and let us borrow his.
We would never drink alcohol yet we would have discussions about proper (and improper) sexual practices.
We would get asked kullu tamam – all ok? – a thousand times.
The answer would always be yes, for this would be the trip of a lifetime.
I had had certain expectations about camping in Oman before we ever arrived.
I thought it was just something you did as a tourist. Ride a camel, sleep in a tent, battle the hundred and one other tourists for the perfect “alone” photo in the desert, and return home to tell your friends and family about how emotionally connected you felt to Mother Nature.
I was wonderfully mistaken.
It wasn’t a tourist thing. It was an Omani thing. There were no other people. No tourists to avoid. Camping is as much a part of the Omani culture as offering dates and coffee to anyone who stops by is.
When saying our final goodbyes 72 hours and hundreds of miles later, we inquired into Khalid’s weekend plans.
“The desert. I camp with friends every weekend.”
In a landscape such as this one, how could he not?
Have you ever truly gotten away from it all while immersing yourself in a culture that was radically different from your own? Let me know in the comments below.
For things to do in Oman checkout this article – Oman: The Paradise You Never Knew Existed
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Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!