I transfer to Al Ain--on the south border of the UAE--with a friend who teaches down there. I have the ultimate goal of reaching Muscat, Oman, and I have almost a week to do it. I borrow my other friend’s air mattress to sleep on while in Al Ain, and I see some of that city before I leave the following day. I am most intrigued by the UAE in its more native state. Out here there is no beach, and no metastasizing business-entertainment-oil-shopping-prostitution hub as there is in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. A stroll through the mall reveals more Emiratis than obvious expats, but I would venture to guess that a third of those around are still from elsewhere. The streets are quieter here, and it finally feels as though I am in the desert. This is a border-town, among other things, and in that there is certainly more of an obvious culture, though Al Ain still has many of the pleasures of the moneyed Arabian world. Filipina maids wait for the bus on every corner, and Indian men ask to push your shopping cart through the parking lot or wash your car while you shop in exchange for a few Dirhams. It’s still a strange place to me, but my geography-teacher host has had no problem adjusting to the pleasures of the Brahmin expat class.
Foolishly I assume that there will be an international bus from Al Ain to Muscat. There is not, and I would have been better off taking the bus from Dubai rather than catching a ride here. Now I have to find a way to Al Buraimi, the Omani town across the border, and from there take the 1 pm bus to Muscat. I have hopped mysterious borders alone before. Once, in Laos. But there you can find dozens of people willing to help, or to sell you food and water. Here, there is nothing but desert on either side of the checkpoint, and so I have to hope there will be a cab or a Good Samaritan willing to take me into town.
First, I visit the main border crossing, courtesy of a roadside taxi, and learn that foreigners are not to cross at this specific juncture. Thankfully, when the guard turns me away I find my driver looking for a fare across the street and I wave him down to take me to the much more remote Shatm Al-Shiklah border post a few miles out of town. The stakes grow higher in the checkpoint where there is nothing but sand, rocks, and scrub grass on either side for several miles. We pull up to the gate, and a man outside tells me to roll down my window.
“You get picked-up on other side?” he asks.
“That’s the plan. I mean, I hope to. Is there a taxi over there?”
“Who knows. Could be. Or maybe you wait 30 minutes or an hour.” He shrugs.
I have no choice but to cross so I tell the man that I am fine, and I will figure it out on the other side. He shrugs again and walks away, thobe rippling in the desert wind.
The crossing procedure is simple enough, though I never officially enter Oman. I pay my departure tax, and get stamped out of the UAE, but there are no Omani border guards to stamp me in. I wonder if I did something wrong and missed a checkpoint, but no one stops me from walking away from the post and out into the desert. An Indian man in a big SUV rolls down his window when he sees me walking, and asks if I’d like a ride. We pass through the final passport check and continue onto Al-Buraimi. He accepts no payment, but happily takes down my contact info. He owns a store in Al Ain selling patterned cloth with exquisite Arabesques. He proudly texts me a video of his store, which is now under construction and we talk for ten miles before he drops me in front of the bus station. I thank him profusely, but he doesn’t care. He is a good man who believes in helping people. To tell him not to pick up strangers in the desert would be as difficult as convincing him water was not wet.
At the station, I buy my ticket for the one o’clock bus to Muscat, and walk a few blocks to a grocery store where I am greeted with an asalaamualaykum from the whole staff upon entry. I buy some juice, and some potato chips, and sit on a curb snacking. I am loitering outside of a dress shop, and when the owner sees me, he invites me inside to sit. I thank him for his kindness then stuff the last handful of potato chip powder in my face and stand up to leave. The bus is scheduled to depart in an hour, and I return to the station and am able to board early. The bus is state-of-the-art, with charging stations and WiFi, so I am able to get some writing done before finally coming to the Omani border post.
After getting my visa outside no-man’s-city Al Buraimi, long after exiting the Emirates, we pull off into the desert toward Muscat. It’s only a few-hour trip, but my excitement of a new nation and a new capital makes me anxious to see what awaits. Oman is a wealthy country, but much less so than the UAE or Saudi Arabia. Much of the economy is agrarian, as there is more rain here and less oil. As a result most Omanis actually have to work for a living. That said, Filipina maids and subcontinental farmhands can be found here, too, but the ratio of migrant workers to natives is much lower than in the neighboring Gulf countries.
To my dismay, the bus doesn’t stop at the company bus station near my Airbnb, but rather finishes its route at the airport. That’s right: now, even though I didn’t fly into Muscat, I still have to navigate a fare from the airport with the eternal enemy of the Bernabei clan: airport cab drivers. To make a slightly painful story less so with brevity, I do not realize that taxi drivers in Oman are, by law, Omani, and so perhaps shouldn’t have so fiercely negotiated a wage with a man who is quite possibly being priced out of his own homeland. That said, he used all the scummy taxi tactics and I don’t feel any regret. If Uber or Careem worked at Muscat airport, then I wouldn’t have fought so hard for a 10-dollar fare. When I arrive at my hostel, I leave a tip as I feel bad for my hardballing.
He peels away angrily. Fortunately there is always another opportunity to make a first impression.The people of Oman will love me. I swear it.
The owner of my Airbnb is Iranian, not Omani, but I make a good impression nonetheless. We both talk about crazy Presidents, and since this blog could fall into the wrong hands I will say no more. In typical Persian fashion, owner Ali is kind to the point where it physically hurts me, asking three times if everything is ok, and six times if I need anything before leaving me to my room. I also get a nice chocolate upon check-in.
The Soul of the City
The only other guest appears to be a gay Moroccan man with flexible plans. He is from Rabat and when I try to press him for the must-sees of his city he seems mostly indifferent. So we talk about other things. He is perfectly nice but quiet, and so we largely ignore one another.
It has already grown late, and so I scrounge around for food at a strange commercial district that glows like a beacon of excitement in this otherwise dark weekday suburb. When I arrive I realize this is the Omani Jackson Heights, where the Indians and their neighbors gather to hang out in the streets in the cool nights, and palm the occasional naan and butter chicken. I order that and a lemonade at the only air-conditioned restaurant, swooning at how a whole meal of naan, drink, chicken and side vegetables barely runs me 2 dollars. It follows both by logic and in practice that one should not go to the richest places in the Gulf for food. The poorer wage-slave immigrant colonies are where I get the best eats.
While I call this place the Omani Jackson Heights, there is something more at work here. The neighborhood’s tranquility is authentically Arab. This is clearly not Delhi or Queens. Walking in Delhi, there is always a possibility you will get hit by a car or motorcycle. There are people yelling, people harassing you (if you are white and dumb-looking like me) and jostling by leaving barely enough space to breathe. Here, there is so much space and air that whispers carry long distances as eyes stare at me, the outsider’s outsider, who wants nothing but a full belly. After my meal, I order a Nutella shake at a corner deli and slurp down every drop.
In between uninspiring Skype interviews with English schools across the world, I get to see some of the charming Muscat corniche, though admittedly the best parts of Oman are the people. Surprisingly the cab driver who takes me back from the corniche thinks Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia is crazy and that the war in Yemen is stupid. Finally, I meet a man in Arabia who is willing to openly criticize the Saudis. He also thinks, though less surprisingly, that Donald Trump is an idiot. This is the third person who has told me this, unprompted, in Oman. What did Trump do to piss off Bangladeshis, Iranians, and Omanis? I mean who knows? It could be anything.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.