November 25 - December 13
In the last post we were in Iran doing something we started calling The Great Shiraz Limbo. I guess we needed boredom. I'm not sure why. We could have watched the paint peel on the walls of our hotel room but instead we listened to the car alarms and the honking; all the while breathing the exhaust coming in through our window. It would have been great to follow the sunset with the crew we met in Shiraz but some things in life are not meant to be. We ended up patiently waiting for our flight to Oman. Some might find that incomprehensible ... so do we.
The Great Shiraz Limbo comes to an end with a final ride to the airport. The traffic was the usual but someone made a rude gesture to Michèle: A macho guy licking his finger and pushing it into his fist. Instead of throwing a rock at his windshield, I file it under "It's time to go". At the airport, the staff is totally confused about the bikes; how? why? ... where you come from? Once we get our point across that we want to pack them up and put them on the plane, the check-in process goes without a hitch. Once on the plane we say goodbye to frowning Mr Khomeini and say hello to the friendly face of Sultan Qaboos.
Michèle comments: Our flight from Shiraz was on Iran's Aseman Airlines. Mention that airline to anyone in Iran and you'll probably get what we got: a frown, a cringed look, and a comment about how terrible it is. Already that made us kind of nervous. Add to that the impossible task of finding out Aseman's baggage policy. We just wanted to know if there would be a charge for our bicycles, and if so, how much. Two visits to Aseman's office in Shiraz, one visit to their cargo office at the airport, and finally, many calls from the airport's Flight Information desk, and still we had no clear answer. I guess that most Iranians don't travel with sports equipment, let alone bicycles. As we went to check in for the flight, we held our breath, hoping that we'd have enough rials left to cover for the bikes. The check-in agent barely glanced at our bicycles, and handed over our boarding cards. No charge for the bikes! In the end, the flight was super comfortable and everything arrived in Muscat as it should.
At the Muscat airport, the first thing we get is a 45 euro per person visa fee. Then, we meet up with my parents for two weeks of pampered luxury that includes beer and wireless internet.
Oman is modern and everything looks new; like someone just won a mega lottery and decided to build cities. The predominant colours are white and black. Buildings are white, men are dressed in long white gowns and women are in black. Only the tourists are multicoloured. With subsidized gas five times cheaper than in Europe, Oman is extremely car-centric. On the highway, as the buildings whiz by the car window, we can observe the familiar sights; Burger King, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds; all the shit food you could possibly want. The place is spotless. Hedges are trimmed and there's even people sweeping the highway as Mercedes, Hummers and large SUVs barrel down the road.
Everyone has their cheap labour. The US has the mexicans; In Iran it was the Afghanis and here it's the Indians. As we line up to get our passports stamped, standing behind several squeaky clean financial types, there is another lineup: Indians waiting to get their irises scanned. Not sure why. Probably for some security reasons.
One of the tourist attractions in Oman is the grand mosque. It is brand new and was a gift to the nation from the Sultan. It is a marvel of craftsmanship and gives you an idea of what old mosques must have looked like when they were new. The details are uncanny: from stone engravings to door handles, everything is hand sculpted. The house size chandelier in the main prayer hall is hanging over the biggest carpet in the world; 60 by 70 metres and was hand woven by 600 women: it took 6 years to complete. Run your finger on any ledge, you will not find a speck of dust as the cheap labour scrub away at the place 24/7.
Oman looks a lot like the anti atlas of Morocco. The most interesting are the wadis: deep gorges with lush palm trees. There are many of them but one of the most famous is Wadi Shab. We walked up Wadi Shab, avoiding the self-proclaimed tourist guides that do nothing more than walk along with you and ask you for 10 rials (about $25) at the end of the day.
Michèle comments: A cyclone hit Oman in 2007. We heard that it ripped through Wadi Shab, causing huge boulders to fall and wiping out a lot of the palm trees. Apparently before the cyclone, the wadi was ten times as amazing as it is now.
My mother compiles list of sites to see from Lonely Planet's vague and questionable suggestions. Because of this list we end up doing a lot of driving. Something we are not used to. However, we're playing tourist and what better way to do that than a desert excursion. The desert camp is about 20 kilometres into the sand dunes, away from roads. This is where I realize what's been missing in my life: silence.
There were moments where I could hear rushing blood in my ears; anxieties vanish and life becomes contemplative. Unfortunately it doesn't last and the next day, after a quick camel ride, we are back on the road.
Michèle comments: Hmmmm, was there a connection there: I walk away into the sunset and Benoit gets the silence he has been missing?! It was astounding how silent the desert was. The dunes stretched as far as the eye could see. They are shifting eastward about 2 metres a year. Within five years, the desert camp will have to move or be buried in sand. One of the Bedouin family who runs the camp took us on a dune ride to watch the sunset. It was like sand driving was similar to driving in deep snow. Except, you wouldn't drive over a snow cliff, I don't care how good your tires are. But our Bedouin driver pitched us over sand cliffs in the 4WD truck. I thought my eyes would pop out of my head in fright. The more we freaked out, the more daring he became. Or so it seemed.
The Omanis are doing a good job preserving architectural design. Many of the new constructions are done to blend with the old. Even the roof water tanks and air conditioner covers blend with the surroundings. The ancient sites, which are mostly forts, are well renovated. The one we visited, Jabreen Fort, is totally open to the visitor. You walk up any stair and crawl into any cubby hole. There are many rooms with carpets where you can sit and relax. Your imagination is free to travel back in time and imagine what life was like back then.
After several more days of driving we say goodbye to my parents and go back to our nomadic life. Before we do so, we jettison some equipment including our sleeping bags: Our fleece and jacket will be enough to keep us warm at night. No so. The nights are actually quite cool and we end up freezing our asses off. We end up buying a blanket and using the large plastic bag used to package our bikes to keep us warm at night: not too fluffy.
Michèle comments: A strange feeling to be on our own again. Sure, we weren't used to being in a car so much, but we loved having Florence and Greg there to spoil us rotten. The memory of comfy guesthouses was still fresh in our minds. That made it harder to take sleeping under a plastic sheet like hobos.
We cycle about 100 kilometres from Muscat to Wadi Al Abyad: yet another dense palm forest amidst a desert background. Time seems to stop here. The rustling palm leaves and the occasional buzzing fly are the only things breaking the silence.
At some point a man shows up to say hello. His hobby is to walk around the wadi shooting birds with a pellet gun. Trying to make some conversation, he shows us pictures of his new car, occasionally stopping to shoot a bird. Usually this would piss me off but I'm not at home. With some broken English he tell us that it's much nicer farther up the wadi where there are pools of water. The call to prayer comes on and he walks off to go pray for the souls of the poor birds that he killed.
In the evening, we wait for our full moon to appear but it does not. The night is pitch dark and the last call to prayer echoes through the palm trees. A I rush out of the tent for an emergency evacuation of the ten samosas we had for lunch, I look up at the sky to see a lunar eclipse.
The next day we decide to venture up the wadi to find the pools that Pellet Gun Guy was talking about. With enough food and plenty of water, we push our bikes for several hours in search of a nice spot to camp. The scenery is beautiful: water, palm trees and the desert. Unfortunately, the wadi is not as clean as the highways. Every camping spot has mounds of garbage left behind by weekend warriors. Some of these sites are so dirty that you can't even approach them due to the rancid smell. I fail to understand how people think it's normal to go into nature and leave behind mountains of litter. Fortunately, we find a spot that we were able to clean up.
Well that's all she wrote in Oman. It's time for us to move on to "Bizarro Oman": India. Will it break us?
All of our Oman photos are here.