The Road to Oman (is paved with bacon crisps and blind panic).
Getting into a Hummer 3 with the mother of all hangovers was never the best way to start a 6 hour drive from Dubai to Muscat. I’d been in Dubai just a day, but as Friday is a holy day for Muslims and therefore the start of the Fri/Sat weekend for ex-pats, Thursday afternoon and evening was to be spent on the road to Oman with just a backpack full of snacks for myself and my traveling companion, UAE resident and Dutch national, Otto. Having grown up in Muscat, Otto was always eager to get out of Dubai and back to Oman as often as he could, so I was fortunate his trip coincided with my own plans to visit the Sultanate. After all, a road trip would be a better way of seeing some of Oman on the drive down, than a 1 hour flight would have done – or so I had thought.
“So, Otto, the chassis is pretty strong on these Hummer’s, huh? Err, does this seatbelt work properly?”
I tugged somewhat manically at the strap across my shoulder, trying to recreate the sudden impact of an emergency stop, or worse still, an RTA. Hangover anxiety had kicked in and I was travelling to a country with one of the highest death rates from road accidents in the world. With last night’s rum starting to drain from my body, safety was paramount.
“I used to have a Landrover Defender and those have the strongest chassis in the world I think, so how does the Hummer compare, Otto?”
My attempt at casual chit-chat whilst feigning nonchalance at the potential high-speed tragedy that could statistically befall us in Oman, failed. Otto looked at me perplexed but, I like to think, impressed at my knowledge of vehicle chassis strength. In reality, he was probably already questioning the sanity of his offer of driving me across the Arabian Peninsula.
Just over an hour later, we were at the Al-Ain border post, ready to pay our 35 dirhams for the pleasure of leaving the emirates. It was just after 5pm and the Thursday border stampede was starting. Cars queued in the dusty 35 degree heat, only opening their windows to release the cooling air of the AC when required to hand their passports at the drive-through kiosk. As the UAE official handed back our passports Otto looked a little confused. An exchange between the two in broken Arabic, and his eyebrows furrowed deeper.
“Hmm, this is not normal procedure,” he mused as we were directed to pull over from the queue of cars behind us.
“What do you mean, Otto? What’s going on? Is there a problem?”
“All borders are different. I haven’t been to this one before as usually use Hatta, but, the drive once in Oman should be quicker this way.”
We climbed out the Hummer with our passports gripped in sweaty hands and headed to a dilapidated, sweltering cabin packed with a multitude of nationalities. Inside, 3 UAE officials with expressions ranging from moderate distain to utter, cataclysmic disdain, sat behind a makeshift desk, brusquely calling out numbers, glaring at the unfortunates who presented themselves, and generally growling under their ghutras.
‘I might start crying, Otto.”
“Don’t do that.”
“I might not be able to help it Otto. I’m a very emotional person. And a very hungover person. It’s not a good mix right now.”
“It will be fine. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. Arab men don’t know what to do when a woman cries.”
“That’s a good thing then, isn’t it? They might just hurry us through if I start crying? What about if I faint? I could faint? Shall I faint, Otto?”
Just as Otto was giving me another of his perplexed-bordering-on-panic looks, our number was barked out by one of the officials, causing me to jump up from my seat and bound over to the desk, with a cautious Otto in tow.
The Emirati official took our passports and glowered. I smiled. The Emirati official did not smile. The Emirati official did not even look at me. The Emirati official cared not for an anxious, hungover Brit and her perplexed (and by now, her somewhat regretful at having offered to drive) travelling companion. And why should he? After all, the passport official spent day after day in this sweltering little cabin, stamping passports, and we were just another number at the end of another busy day.
Almost 2 hours later, after being directed to get a customs stamp at another tiny cabin, where Otto then had to show his driving licence and insurance, then back to the first cabin to get our exit stamps, we were finally free to get back in the Hummer and drive through the border post. As we officially exited the UAE a friendly Omani customs officer stopped our car with a smile.
“It’s fine, they always just want to check the car. He’ll just look in the back quickly,” Otto assured me.
“Fuck, there’s bacon crisps in the bag, Otto! Is that illegal? It is, isn’t it?”
“WHAT?! Bacon crisps?! Pork!”
“I was meant to eat them before the border.”
As a Muslim country, it is forbidden to carry pork items across the borders. As a vegetarian, I am partial to a bag of bacon crisps, which, I hasten to add, according to the packet, contain no actual bacon, but you try explaining that to the customs man of a Muslim country.”
Otto jumped out the car and engaged the Omani in Arabic, in what I presumed was a bid to stop him searching the car and finding my illicit snacks. The car doors were opened and I smiled broadly and called, ‘as-salaam alaykum!’ (a standard Arabic greeting) as cheerily as I could muster when my heart was beating out my chest and I was about to faint with fear.
But, I had nothing to fear. The friendly Omani gave the car a brief glance through the open doors, looked at our passports, smiled and waved us through with a genial; “welcome to Oman!”
“Shukraan! Thank you!” I called, as we pulled out the border crossing and into Oman.
Conversely, even though we were now in Oman, we had another half hour drive until we reached the official Oman visa office and border post. The next 30 minutes, until we had our passports stamped with the Oman visa, we were essentially illegal aliens.
I grabbed my phone and started taking photos out the window of the brightly lit roadside shops, interspersed with the mountainous backdrop, as dusk settled.
Otto turned down the Dutch rock CD he had forced me to listen to since leaving Dubai.
“Now, can you just hurry and eat those bacon flavoured crisps before we get to the visa office, please?”
“Oh, yes, Otto, sorry, Otto.” I put my phone down, rummaged about for the illicit snacks, and wondered just how much poor Otto was regretting his offer of driving the bacon crisp smuggling Brit to Muscat…