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36 Hours in Oman

February 17, 2012

I’m not sure if the New York Times has ever covered the Western Hajar Mountains of Oman in their “36 Hours” series, but I’m taking inspiration from them to title this post. So  I’m not plagiarizing their concept, just uh, trying to contribute. Contributors to this, if you want to take a weekend trip with me and then hire me to ghostwrite your travel column, no problem. I’m not that committed to being a consultant.

But as usual, I left the post too long. I’ve lost some of the narrative of the weekend we spent in Oman. To describe the perfect weekend feels corny, and somewhat fake. In short, it was…transformative. We went to Oman to have an adventure, to go camping and see some mountains in the desert. We did all of that, and also pushed ourselves mentally and physically when we found ourselves canyoning in a wadi that was far more dangerous than expected.

So rather than try to describe everything we did there, I offer some highlights and insights.

1.) Oman is beautiful. Duh. The scenery in Oman was unreal. I’ll let it speak for itself. Here are pictures.  And a few to hold you over in case you’re not the clicking on links type.

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2.) Everyone we met was incredibly hospitable. After hiking to the top of a small mountain in Balad Sayt, we frolicked around and took some ridiculous pictures. As we were about to depart for a walk down the mountain, a party of four Omani men greeted us and invited us to join their picnic. We thanked them, but demurred. Ten steps down the mountain and we all looked at each other and thought, why not? So we joined them. They had urns of coffee and tea, a kilo of dates, and traditional sweet Omani bread. They had even packed extra teacups. They had clearly set out for their picnic knowing they would invite whoever they encountered to join them. It was a short picnic, and conversation limited (though they all spoke great English) but they were just happy to have met visitors to Oman and share a meal with them.

Example 2: We forgot to get firewood for our campout (necessary if we were going to cook our dinner) until 6 pm. Every mile we drove looking for firewood, the sun waned a little more. We stopped at a gas station to ask where we might find some, and the proprietor led us to the back of the store where he had piles of wooden fruit crates, and invited us to take as many as we could carry. OK, this was glorified dumpster diving. But the REAL display of hospitality was when we stopped by a restaurant that appeared to have a house attached, thinking maybe a family might have some firewood to spare. Here, they led us behind the restaurant to a mountain of wood and branches, and told us to take whatever we could fit in the car. In the area where we were, you have to travel pretty far for firewood, so their offer was all the more generous. Then, they tried to sell us meat out of a van. That part was…different. We wanted to buy some as a thank you, but we also didn’t want back-of-the-van meat. In the end, I think we just offered to pay something for the wood, and they of course refused.

Synopsis of Omani hospitality: dumpster dive on my property, no problem! Take all my wood, do you want some minivan Mutton? and then share my AMAZING picnic.

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3.) The government of Oman does Tourism right: I’ve been a lot of places. Some equipped for tourism, some not. Others over-equipped for tourism and thus lacking any cultural authenticity.

Oman has embraced its position in the Middle East as a popular destination for outdoor adventure tourists and Arab tourists from neighboring Middle Eastern countries. They cater to these tourists really well, but without bowing down to the outsider. In the end, this meant that the border was a breeze (they charged for a visa, but it was easy), the border officers were friendly and informative, there was great information about Oman at customs, and there was amazing signage on all the roads. But beyond that, Oman felt pretty genuinely Omani.

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4.) Snake Canyon is insane. Don’t believe guidebooks that say it is a “challenging but enjoyable trek.” Both those things are true. But “Challenging” should be replaced with…ridiculously frightening and probably wise to wear a helmet. You’ll scale rock walls, jump off ledges into water of unknown depth, and at some points you’ll be unsure if you’ll ever get out of the canyon. Also, after you jump the first ledge, there’s no way to turn back. You’re in for it. But totally try canyoning in Oman! It’s beautiful and frightening and you’ll push yourself in ways you never knew you would! But consider taking some safety precautions!

5.) The Wallflowers may have made the most perfect album of the 90s. I don’t know how popular they were in their heyday, but “Bringing Down the Horse” should be on everyone’s ipod (or you know, Zune?). I had this CD when I was a kid, and I still love it as an adult. It’s good camping music. Get on it.

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