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Published: November 12th 2019
I wasn’t supposed to get ill on day 1. (It’s now day 12 so you can rest assured I made a speedy recovery.)
Thursday’s bus/ferry combo to Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula wasn’t supposed to be full.
Plan B, Thursday’s flight to Khasab wasn’t supposed to be full (and the next day’s flight, come to that). I could see the men standing around the travel agent’s desk scratching their heads – what on earth was going on in that distant part of the Sultanate this weekend?
And knights in shining armour aren’t supposed to appear in white dishdasha and embroidered kuma in a Mutrah travel agency and wave their magic wands while driving to pick up their kids from school.
But that was Muneer. It wasn’t exactly clear why he was in the travel agency that morning, well ensconced on the sofa and busy on his phone when Sandeep, the Naseem Hotel’s manager, brought me into the office in search of the aforementioned bus/ferry ticket. He might have been the proprietor; he might have been a friend. But his role was certainly not to press the keys, simply to stand over the lackey while he did so
room with two views
Naseem Hotel, Mutrah, Muscat
and translate for him my wishes, and translate for me the ensuing questions. Not that the lackey’s English was deficient, but Muneer, who had already furnished me with chai and date rolls while I waited, had appointed himself my guardian, long before any kind of problem emerged.
When it became clear that the travel agency couldn’t solve the tiny logistical hiccup of me in Muscat, and tomorrow night’s confirmed hotel reservation 550km away to the north, Muneer suggested he drive me to the bus station to see if they could suggest any alternative routing (preferably the kind that came with a ticket). But first he had to pick his kids up from school, so we’d go there first. And I got to meet the mischievous Qudamah (“Err… I’m not sure you should be sitting in the driving seat and trying to move the gear shift while your Dad is looking for your siblings, wee fella…”), the studious pretty Afra, and the solemn-faced Mohammed: being the oldest of three comes with responsibilities, even at the age of 11. But somewhere along the way – I have to admit, this part of the morning’s events managed to elude me – Muneer
spoke to one of the other men who’d been lurking around the travel agency with no obvious purpose. I don’t know if this other Mohammed (there are a few around, which simplifies things at the time but complicates the ensuing tale) had offered his services, or whether Muneer had suggested he offer his services, but the net result was I found myself with a driver for the next day. The whole way to Khasab. In fact, judging by his demeanour when we returned to the travel agency, Mohammed was all set to take off right away. Muneer had also negotiated his rate down from OMR 100 to OMR 60 (it’s approximately OMR 0.50 to £1/OMR 0.38 to US$1). This, I was to find, unintentionally becoming somewhat of an expert on private drive/car hire rates in Oman the next day for reasons that will become clear, was an extraordinarily good rate. We agreed a departure time of 10 am, picking up from my hotel around the corner, and I was all set. Bemused, but all set. In the meantime, Muneer urged me back into the car so that he could whisk me round the sights of Old Muscat, already on my
day’s agenda, on his way home with the kids. When he dropped me at the National Museum a little later, I bade my farewells, only to find Mohammed Junior not far behind; a bookish but lively wee soul, he was delightful company around the Museum.
The next morning, I was down in reception in good time. And for some time. On my own. Towards 10.30 am there was still no sign of Mohammed, and I became conscious that the one small thing we’d forgotten in yesterday’s excitements was the exchange of phone numbers. Through the travel agent – the only number I had – I made contact with Muneer who, unlike the travel agent, managed to track down Mohammed. “He is coming at twelve o’clock,” Muneer told me. I’m not sure what happened to ten o’clock, but that was a tad academic by this stage. Now, whether to trust the twelve o’clock assurance… The hotel receptionist, a quiet moustached Indian who’d been helping me place the calls, suggested I look at other options. If I’d been let down for ten o’clock, there could be no guarantee for twelve o’clock. I went outside to talk to local cab drivers. Normally
falling over themselves to offer their services, of course there was only one in sight when I needed them, a wonderfully wizened-faced old man who demurred at the idea of Khasab himself (“car too small”), but offered to take me into town where he thought I might find a “big car” to take me the remaining 445 km.
Muscat, being squeezed along the coast between mountains and ocean, I was finding quite straightforward to navigate. We turned into Ruwi. I knew that name: the bus station should be around here. But he dropped me at an office for the shipment of goods to the far south of the country. Not quite what I was after, so, following casually-dispensed directions from one of the staff there, I shouldered my pack again and crossed the car park. “Taxi, mam, you want taxi?” A slight young lad jogged towards me as I passed his parked cab. I tried “Khasab?” for size, not expecting a positive response, but he agreed, starting negotiations at OMR 100. I wasn’t hugely convinced he actually knew where it was, but played along. At OMR 80, I got in, and we set off, Mohammed #3 fiddling with his
phone as he drove. (There are billboards featuring Pharrell Williams urging people not to text and drive, but I haven’t seen much sign of the message getting through.) “Emirates?” he asked. “Yes, through the Emirates to the other side, and back into Oman. Musandam Peninsula.” This wasn’t looking promising. More fiddling. “Ninety,” he said. “No, hang on a minute, you can’t do that. We agreed eighty.” “Eighty-five.” “No, stop the car.” If the price was going to go up after 150 yards, what would it do by the time we reached the first border? I grabbed my bag out of the boot, and, a little childishly, I admit, left open both my own door and the boot, M#3’s protestations following me as I stomped off.
Next stop, the smart travel agency that I’d spotted across the street from the shipping company. Air-conditioned, smartly-dressed and courteous. But also no go, not even for a flight the next day, though providing the unsolicited added advice that no-one would take me so far on a one-way basis. If this was Thursday, it was beginning to look like Saturday would be the next time I stood a chance of getting north. That, or
the next bus/ferry combo on Sunday (a biweekly service). I gulped at the prospect of the Khasab hotel’s somewhat generous cancellation charges. But there were still options, and it was, after all, only 11.15 am. Air-conditioned, smartly-dressed and courteous pointed me in the direction of the bus station.
Rousing a bored official behind his desk, I soon learnt that the only way of leaving town today and heading in roughly the right direction would be the afternoon bus to Dubai. From there I’d have to get a bus to Ras Al Khaimah, and then wing it with cabs to the Omani border and on up the coast to Khasab. (If nothing else, this exercise was certainly improving my Gulf geography.)
Hmmm… back to the hotel, I resolved, to use their wifi and work out plans C, D, E and as much of the rest of the alphabet as might be required. And to message Muneer on the offchance… It was 11.45 am. “He will be there in fifteen minutes,” Muneer’s voicemail to my WhatsApp account told me at 12.16 pm. I wasn’t convinced.
Plans C and D vied for position: a flight on Saturday – “only 2
seats left at this price,” the Opodo app flashed at me – or the bus/ferry on Sunday. (A bus to Dubai and the prospect of spending the rest of the night in the bus station before finding a connection through the UAE had quickly lost the appeal put forward by its possible earlier arrival at my final destination.)
In the meantime, Sandeep, the hotel manager, had arrived for duty, horrified I was still here. (I have a sneaking suspicion that he might have been feeling guilty at not having procured the Thursday bus/train ticket immediately after I had discussed it with him the Sunday evening I arrived.) He began making his own inquiries. “I have one man who will take you for one-fifty,” he said at one point, “but it is too much.”
“Still no sign…” I messaged Muneer at 12.56 pm, more out of habit than optimism. Another voicemail: “Five minutes, he is five minutes away.” In the background, I’d been messaging Bloke who had been sceptical from the outset about this somewhat hokey arrangement. The hotel’s front door opened for the nth time that morning; looking up had become Pavlovian. But this time Mohammed’s slightly ramshackle
figure was limping through the door. It was 1.06 pm: “He’s HERE!!!” I tapped incredulously to Bloke, and promptly disappeared offline.
Any grumpiness I might have felt towards my much-delayed driver evaporated within half an hour. He had clearly had things to do “at the Ministry” (which sounded intriguing, though I didn’t like to press further), and his endless generosity during the long drive was second to none. Despite facing a long drive there and back again, he offered me the coastal road as a more interesting alternative to the freeway (though these things are relative across the flat Batinah plain and its almost uninterrupted urban development, and the “scenic” route still involved an impersonal and impressive dual carriageway). At our couple of coffee stops, he refused to let me pay and, thinking there might be a cultural issue here, I concurred. After all, out of sheer relief to be on the road, I was already mentally putting Mohammed’s charges back up to his starting point.
Google Maps puts the travel time between Muscat and Khasab at 5-6 hours, but that doesn’t allow for the four border posts involved as you cross the United Arab Emirates to reach
the curious exclave of Oman that is the Musandam Peninsula. It was Thursday, as you might remember, the start of the Omani and Emirati weekend, and Oman had announced a three-day weekend for the Prophet’s birthday (a movable feast as it is governed by the Islamic calendar). And with Khasab being only three hours from Dubai, it’s a frequent bolt-hole for the city’s inhabitants.
The first Omani border post has evaporated in my memory, overlaid by the quirkiness of its Emirati successor. Nationals of Gulf Cooperation Council countries can drive straight through the borders here on their driving licences, but the rest of us have to get out and queue up in a nearby office. I joined the line of half a dozen or so men – in some respects, I really am ridiculously British: find me a queue and I’ll join it – only to be waved across to the next (unmanned) desk. I bided my time, until the official dealing with the queue spotted me and summoned me over. His computer was on a bit of a go-slow, so he disappeared off out back… and reappeared with a cup of coffee which he passed to me. “Err,
thank you. Umm, shukran.” I gabbled.
Back in the car and eventually reaching the barrier, we encountered a splendidly traditionally-garbed Arab official – immaculate white dishdasha, white keffiyeh and black double-roped agal sitting perfectly horizontal – who decided his colleague hadn’t stamped my passport correctly. Mohammed was instructed to pull over just after the barrier, and I scampered back into the office, where I might not have been the most popular person by ignoring the ever-lengthening line, and addressing my coffee-providing friend directly. Equally, however, he got up immediately and followed me out to the barrier. Who knows what the issue was, though I noticed the next day that my passport now has three stamps for the UAE. Better too many than too few of such things, I guess, and, having left the UK this time with an embarrassingly shiny new passport, I was delighted to have it filling up a little more quickly than scheduled.
We weren’t done yet. At the UAE customs post, yet another official appeared and searched the car somewhat cursorily, deciding that my backpack merited closer inspection. It and I were sent over to a far booth inside which I found a small
abaya-clad young woman sitting behind a desk and a little reluctant to go anywhere near my pack. Small impasse. I bit the bullet, hoping that this wasn’t going to involve emptying the whole thing. I’d left some of my kit in Muscat and it was only lightly packed, but still. Deep breath. Pocket by pocket, I started at the top. “This is my underwear. This is my dirty laundry. These are my socks. These are…” and, amongst the miscellany of “survival-y” stuff, she had found my first aid kit. Drugs were what she was after, it transpired, and, taking my word for it that there were no other pills anywhere in the main section of the pack, she extracted each strip from the zippered pack, looking up at me for explanations of each one. “This?” “Headache”, miming a sore head. “And this?” “Um… atishoo,” miming a sneeze. “And this?” “Sore tummy,” rubbing my lower abdomen”. “And this?” “Very sore tummy,” adding an agonised expression. Sensibly, she wasn’t taking my word for it, and dug out her phone. Yes, Dr Google is now enlisted in the battle against international drug smuggling. I took a seat. As she verified each one, she passed it back to me, and I repacked my bag. Finally I was dismissed. An eventful arrival into a country where I was to spend somewhat under three hours and see none of it in daylight.
No other border post that day could hope to live up to that first Emirati one, though when its counterpart just beyond Ras Al Khaimah asked for my credit card, I felt like saying, “Sure, if that’s all you want, go for it.” I discovered later that I’d been charged the princely sum of £7.14.
All the way up the road, Mohammed had punctuated our conversation with, “Isabelle, Isabelle go to Khasab,” in a singsong voice. (It had started life as “Eesabet” in Muscat, but had soon morphed.) When, about half an hour north of the Musandam border we reached the huge cliffside sign “WELCOME TO KHASAB” (which, I discovered later, is the result of spray-painting the metal crates of stones holding up the cliff at that particular bend in the road), we both cheered and snapped the moment on our phones.
It had been quite a day.
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