Crazy Hamid and a night in the desert

Trip Start Oct 13, 2009
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Trip End Nov 26, 2009


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Monday, November 9, 2009

Written Nov 6th and 7th, and uploaded Nov 9th.

On Tuesday I drove down, down, down, the steep and twisting road from Jebel Shams, and
then north-east through the Haijar mountains towards Sohar on the coast about 250km
north-west of Muscat. Sohar was a bit of a disappointment with not much to do, and the
only hotel available was a new building of “suites” which had just opened earlier in the
month, and was not yet ready for prime time. Still, I did find an Indian restaurant for a
delicious dinner of lamb in spinach sauce and aloo gobi.

Oman has a thing about roundabouts, frequently large elaborate affairs, with some sort of
monument in the centre; thus directions are often such as “turn right at the globe
roundabout, then left at the khanjar roundabout”. A khanjar is a decorative, curved, Omani
dagger, still worn by some elderly men, and also used to decorate the eponymous
roundabout.

Talking of what men wear, having ventured into some small villages not on the tourist
circuit, I have seen a few men walking between houses, or doing some work messy enough
that they wouldn’t want to dirty their dishdasha, in what is probably their version of
underwear. Usually a plain white, long, t-shirt, and, as I suspected, a long white wrap, from
waist to ankles, with a decorative trim at the bottom, rather like a lunghi worn in south India.
Another feature of the dishdasha, is that it is nearly always brilliantly white, spotlessly clean,
and perfectly pressed. Part of the reason they can maintain it in such immaculate condition,
is maybe due to the fact that you rarely see Omanis doing dirty or physical work.
Shopkeepers, clerks, hotel receptionists, drivers and guides they are, but waiters, builders,
cooks and labourers are mostly Indian, and a surprising number of Nepalis. Reminds me of
the BVI and all the “down-island” workers.

After Sohar, I drove south-east towards Muscat, stopping at a few small villages on the
coast. It’s surprising that the seafront on most of these villages is completely neglected,
often just a strip of dirt between a few ramshackle old houses, and the sea. In one village,
the seafront had been used as a dumping ground for demolition material! And no, it wasn’t
part of a landfill project or anything organised like that; it was just that people had dumped
piles of rubble and rubbish on the seafront.
Bypassing Muscat, I headed inland again, up into the mountains and on to Ibra, where I
stayed at Nahar Camp Oasis, a small hotel in a quiet location about 3km from the town and
right on the edge of the mountainous part of the desert. A great place to watch the sunset,
surrounded by an arid, rocky, hilly terrain which is the landsape of much of Oman, rather
reminiscent of the moon. Not that I have been there. The hotel however, was sadly past its
prime and rather neglected. The LP suggested that if you get the “suite” (the better of the
two types of accommodation), you will be tempted to stay on an extra night.
I did, but I wasn’t. There were at least eight items needing attention in my room, and the
dinner and breakfast were meagre and unimaginative. I was glad that I had bargained them
down from 40 OMR to 35 OMR, and even that seemed too much! It occured to me once
again, that some of these independent hotels in Oman, would benefit greatly from an
experienced, trained hotel manager. No I’m not applying!

Back to the dishdasha (again!): they seem to be mostly made to order..............

Sorry, have to go: here comes Crazy Hamid!


CONTINUED ON SAT NOV 7th.
................and there are an amazing number of “Gent’s Tailor” shops. Walking around Sohar
(population about 70,000) the other evening, in one small area I saw at least twenty Gent’s
Tailor shops, some with four or five (Indian) tailors, leaning over their spinning sewing
machines, busily churning out dishdashas for the Omani gentlemen.

On Thursday, I looked briefly at the Ibra souq (market), but was uninspired, and, feeling a
bit underwhelmed overall with Oman, continued south to Al Minitirib, a small town right on
the edge of the sand desert which stretches uninterrupted for about 250km towards the
south coast. At the west edge of the town, the tarmac road just fades to red sand, and there
is a large sign warning travellers not to venture further without a four-wheel drive vehicle,
and a list of precautions such as travelling only with a guide or in convoy, carrying spare
tyres, fuel and water, and lowering your tyre pressure! I was about to turn around when an
old Jeep Cherokee pulls up alongside me, and a turbaned (and yes, dishdashad) Arab,
with a big bushy moustache and buck teeth, sticks his head out of the window and says
You want go desert?” After a brief, stilted negotiation given his limited English and my
non-existent Arabic, I agreed to go with him for 30 minutes for 10 OMR. Left my car on the
side of the end of the road, jumped in the passenger seat, and we zoomed off into the
desert at surprising speed, often up to 80kph on rough sand tracks. The speed, and the
fact that he took me up and down steep dunes like a rollercoaster, tyres spinning in the
sand, and almost burying the nose of the vehicle in the sand, had me hanging on with real
white knuckles this time. His name turned out to be Hamid, though I soon nick-named him
Crazy Hamid, and he laughed when I told him this. Momentarily, it did cross my mind that
Hamid could dump me out here in the desert, take my bag with car keys and money, and
leave me to walk, but I was actually having too much fun to worry about that.
We passed a spiffy new white Toyota Land Cruiser, obviously a hired vehicle, with two
unhappy tourists beside it, buried up to its wheel hubs in the sand, and in the process of
being pulled out by an Arab in an old Toyota pickup, to whom Hamid honked and waved,
obviously a friend. Hamid grinned at me and said “Dig out, pull out - 25 Rials!”
He asked me if I wanted to see a hotel in the desert, and we stopped at a small fenced
compound with about a dozen palm frond thatched huts, with sand floors and old
mattresses on the sand, a few broken plastic chairs, and a lounging area with a rug on the
sand, and a couple of camels tied up outside. Not quite the right sort of hotel for me,
thank-you.
Soon enough we were back at Al Minitirib, and I thanked Hamid for the ride and headed off
to find something for lunch, though he gave me his mobile number before we parted, “for
when you come back.”

Finding lunch is a bit of a challenge in Oman. Everything closes between noon and about
4pm, and the towns and villages become like ghost towns, with almost nobody outside, and
even restaurants and coffee shops closing. Omanis disappear to their homes, presumably
for lunch and maybe to rest during the hottest part of the day. They don’t seem to eat out.
Sometimes you can find a scruffy hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is open, serving “rice and
chicken” with a few ex-pat Indian labourers as patrons, but that’s not very appealing to me
at lunch, so a couple of days I just grabbed a samosa from a petrol station, and even a bag
of crisps and some biscuits once!

In Al-Minitirib however, I discovered the “Travellers’ Oasis”, which was indeed an oasis,
being a fairly smart Indian restaurant with a full menu, so I sat with a veg curry and mulled
what to do next. The thought of spending a night in the desert was quite appealing, but not
at the sand-blown “hotel” that Hamid had shown me. Hearing me ask the waiter if he knew
any places to stay in the desert, an Omani guide with a couple of tourists nearby, came
over and suggested I try “1000 Nights” and gave me a phone number for them. I phoned to
get some info and they sounded quite nice, but found that they are 38km into the desert,
and of course, I don’t have a 4WD. So I called Hamid to see if he knows it: “1000 nights:
yes I know it. Very nice, very nice. I take you: one hour, 30 Rials.” Brief negotiation to get to
25 Rials and I meet up with him at the end of the road again, put my suitcase into his Jeep,
and off we go into the desert once more. It is indeed just under an hour over the sand, up
and down a couple of dunes, passing some camels and a few scatered Bedouin tents, until
we come to a larger and better equipped version of the previous “hotel”. A collection of
Bedouin tents in a small valley between two huge sand dunes (probably about 60-70m
high), plus a small shaded reception hut, a dining area, a pool table, and even a
swimming-pool! Not fancy, but the tents seemed quite comfy even if they did just have rugs
on the sand and iron bed-frames. Rather oddly, most of them are “VIP” tents at 57 OMR
(US$145) for a single, but they have a few “standard” tents which are only 25 OMR. I looked
at both and the only difference is that the VIP tent has a coffee table and two chairs in
addition to the beds, and the small concrete bathroom is attached to the back of the tent.
With the standard room, the bathroom is about six feet away from the tent; it’s still your own
bathroom (not shared). Well you can guess which one I took!
By this time it was almost sunset, so I climbed the sand dune on the west side - not easy,
getting ankle deep in soft sand on a steep slope - and walked about 15 minutes further
across the dune plateau, to watch the sun set in solitude and complete silence, away from
the camp and the handful of other tourists. I sat and contemplated the meaning of life, and
how beautiful the world is, and how fortunate I am to have seen so much of it. (Don’t worry: I
don’t get philosophical very often, but that experience was special.)
And then I realised that it was virtually dark, and there was no moon yet, and I was about 25
minutes away from the camp. But you can’t do too much damage stumbling about in the
sand in the dark, so I eventually got back to the camp, where they served a surprisingly
good dinner, including a traditional Bedouin “shua”. Or at least that’s what it sounded like
when one of the staff explained it to me. They take a lamb that has been cleaned and cut
into chunks, marinate it for several hours, wrap it in banana leaves, then in a cloth sack, and
then in another layer of banana leaves. They burn cashew wood in a sand pit until it
becomes charcoal, put the lamb bundle into the pit, cover it with a piece of metal, and then
a thin layer of sand. They sprinkle water over the sand, and if any of the water hisses and
steams, that means the heat is escaping so they add a bit more sand. Then they leave it for
24 hours! And sure enough, he showed me the pit where they were then burning the
cashew wood, and where they later buried the bundle for tomorrow evenng’s dinner. And it
was delicious, probably some of the best lamb I have had, tasty and very tender.

Later, after the moon was up, I climbed the dune again, wandered a bit further and sat for
an hour in silence in the desert. Beautiful.

This is getting far too verbose..................................!

The next morning, Crazy Hamid collected me from 1000 Nights, took me to his house for
Arabic coffee and dates, and then back to my car, and I drove south to Sur on the coast,
stopping briefly at Wadi Bani Khalid where, being Friday, there were several Omani
families picnicking under the date palms by the emerald green pools fed by springs. A few
men and boys were frolicking in the pools, but no women or girls; they were sitting under
the palms, preparing the food, and completely covered up in their black robes, even at a
picnic!
Today I drove up to Wadi Shab, about 50km north of here, where I hiked for about 1.5
hours up the steep-sided wadi to a series of clear green pools. Coincidentally, I met Nick
(from Jebel Shams a few days ago) and his girl-friend as they came down the wadi. It’s a
small world in Oman!

This is my second night at the Sur Beach Hotel, quite civilised, and as the name suggests
right on the beach. My room has a balcony overlooking the beach, and at night, it is cool
enough to turn off the a/c, and leave the balcony doors open so I can hear the waves gently
lapping the sand. Sound familiar? Yes, it reminds me of Cooper.

Return to Muscat tomorrow, Sunday, for one night, and then to the UK for three nights
before heading for Cape Town on the final leg of this RTW trip.

Oh, back to the dishdasha just one more time: I’m sure I saw one made of leather! A local
chap on the little boat across the wadi today, had on a dishdasha that was light brown and
looked just like leather. I wanted to ask him if I could feel his dishdasha, but felt that I didn’t
know him well enough. I mean, come on, have any of you ever asked your best friend, or
even your husband, if you could feel his dishdasha? No, I thought not.


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Comments

Robert Brown on

Toby, Your trip has been wonderful, so many experiences, and so many challenges, beautiful sights. But it will be good to have you home for the holidays. Stay well, and safe travel. Warm Wishes, Bob

David on

Could you give me the address of the Sur Beach hotel?

tobyh
tobyh on

Do you mean postal address to send a letter, or physical address so you can find it?
If the former, I think it is P.O. Bo 400, Sur, Oman.
If the latter, I don't know the actual street address, but it's on the coast road, about 2km NW of the town centre. Easy to find. The hotel is a bit faded, but rooms are decent and have a balcony overlooking the beach.
T.

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