First of all I can recommend hitchhiking in Oman without reservation. It's so common the locals don't even bother signaling to cars; they just stand at the edge of the road, which gives me the creeps when I'm driving. Interestingly, most of them are expat workers from southern Asia and the Philippines. I'd be curious to know whether hitching existed in Arabia before the great influx of migrant workers or whether they brought hitching culture with them. It's a natural fixture of all developing countries, after all.
Anyway we're sitting in a cafe in Muscat, my fiancee and I, discussing options. We had to give up our rental car four days ago due to lack of funds, and have been hitchhiking since. Yeah I know I said "without reservations", but the fact is hitching anywhere can be goddamn exhausting if your skin burns easily and you don't speak the language.
"We should get a boat to Musandam," I say. "We can afford it."
"You said that's not why we came to Oman," she said.
Musandam has been a childhood dream of mine ever since I discovered it on google earth. One of the weirdest looking coastlines on earth. Most of it only accessible by boat. You can see Iran on a clear day. I remind her of all this, but it's not really why I want to go.
"It's not why we came," I say, "but Oman is pretty vanilla. This would would be an exercise in my theory that with motivation, good boots and a Western passport you can go literally anywhere on earth."
Three days later we're in Musandam, halfway up a mountainside. There are great views of the Persian Gulf. I'm sweating like a pig and my fiancee is crying. I'm sweating because I'm being a gentleman and carrying all our gear. This girl of mine is tough as nails but she cries when she thinks we're out of our element. She's justified in this case because we're bushwhacking up an almost vertical slope in one of the most isolated places on the Arabian coast.
Also a desert fox chewed up our hiking boots last night which has both of us in a shitty mood.
"It's an exercise in my theory!" I bellow as it begins to rain.
We'd dodged goats, dogs, and curious villagers on the way out of the city, now we're dodging broken ankles and dehydration. After three hours of ascent we reach the top. What a view.
It takes all afternoon to make our descent down a dry ravine and find the village on our map. Surprise one: there are clearly no roads connecting to the village. It seems to be only accessible by boat. Surprise two: The town is deserted. Not a soul in sight. We drank our last water hours ago so we can't hike out, but neither can we hitchhike back to the Khasab. No people, no transport. We walk through the ghost town down to the ocean's edge and stare off the dock. Turquoise water, sweet coral reefs. beautiful sunset. We're fucked.
We hear a shout. A man in a white robe is hailing us from the other side of the harbor. We greet each other, and quickly determine we have no mutual language.
He points at his chest and says "Pakistan!"
We point at ourselves and say "American!"
He gestures: "Where are you going?"
We gesture: "No fucking clue, mate."
He motions us to follow him. We nip through the streets of the ghost town until we come to the only building that doesn't look abandoned. Outside at a spigot another man is washing pots and pans. Inside the courtyard a few dudes are rushing around cleaning things and preparing food. We're taken to the living room where we sit on cushions on the floor. The walls are painted with the flag of Pakistan. Our guide adjusts the rabbit ears on the tv and puts on some football for us to watch. He runs out and returns with a plateful of snacks, fermented milk, and water. We guzzle the water and he watches us eat. You ever been in this situation, where you're a guest but don't speak the language? It's awkward as all hell.
It takes several plates of rice and chapatis for our host to be satisfied that we were no longer hungry. We hear boats pulling into the harbor and a steady stream of more people arrive. They are all male, Pakistani, moustachioed. They all crowd into the living room for the chance to meet us. We get pretty good at gesture-speak and eventually understand the unique situation in this ghost town.
Basically Oman has gotten real rich real fast. In order to improve life for people in remote villages, the Omani government gave them all affordable housing in the cities. This left ghost towns like this one all over the country. And with their shiny new condos, the Omanis no longer want to do menial jobs, so enter a flood of thousands of migrant workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Our host was an electrician, for example. I asked him how much he earned, he told me about $12 per day. When you live in a first-world country like Oman but still earn slave wages, of course you're going to seek out free accommodation, even if it's only accessible by boat. I imagine this little community of Pakistanis isn't the only squat to pop up in these abandoned villages. they commute by outboard motorboat every day, work god knows how long for their twelve bucks, then come back here to be with their fellow Pakis. I found it particularly touching that these guys all chose to live in the same building rather than occupy different ones. And they kept it clean, painted it with flags, made it a real home. The only photo we got of the village was the one below, taken from the approach:
They invite us to have dinner with them but we've gotten fatigued by the hospitality and tell them we're gonna pitch camp on the beach. They tell us they could probably arrange a boat to take us back to civilization the next day.
I'm ignorant and monolingual so I can't give any great insight into these expats' lives. The only thing I'm good at observing is poverty, which was certainly present. The running water wasn't drinkable so they had to serve us dozens of those little foil-topped tubs of water you get with airplane meals. I gotta say they seemed pretty comfortable with their little community there.
Across the cove is an old graveyard by the beach. We pitch camp there, eat a quick can of sardines and fall into our sleeping bags exhausted. At about 9pm we are woken by one of the Pakistanis shouting "Friend! Friend!" One of the Pakistanis is hiking around in the dark looking for us -- we poke our heads out of the tent and he gestures that dinner is ready and are we sure we didn't want to join them. We decline, since we're half asleep. I guess that was rude. Here's the beach where we camped:
We hike back to the village in the morning, where of course a big plate of breakfast is waiting for us at the squat house.
Once we've eaten ourselves sick we clamber into the boat. All the boats here are blue fiberglass outboards, maybe 15 feet. They go really well with the turquoise water and the blue sky. The scenery, by the way, is the most beautiful imaginable. My POS camera wasn't equal to the challenge, so picture the fjords of Norway, but all desert and more jagged. I fell in love with my fiancee all over again watching her lean over the prow of the boat, her hair blowing in the wind, her nose peeling in the sunlight.
This dude named Abdul was our captain; he guided the boat through the fjords and dropped us at a little boat launch in the middle of nowhere. But there was a road, and we were able to hitchhike back to Khasab.
We offered Abdul some money but he absolutely refused. All we had to offer was a 5 rial note, or $13, probably more than he earned in a day but he wouldn't take it. He shook our hands and jetted away in his boat.
Once in the Khasab town center we look at each other and say "No way are we done with this place."
"Why don't we pay some fisherman to take us to a secluded beach," I say.
My fiancee says, verbatim, "You've said that in every goddamn country we've visited so far and it's never worked. Let's just go with one of these tour companies."
Khasab is a hotspot for tourists from the UAE since it's not far to drive there from Dubai. There are dozens of one-horse day tour companies. Prices averaged $50pp for dolphin watching, or $100 to camp on a beach with other tourists. It's quite true that I try and fail to get rides with fishermen in every country I go to, but emboldened by our experience with the Pakistanis, I nip down to the long row of blue fishing boats which are moored below the castle. I speak to the first person I see.
"Do you speak English?"
"Can I pay you to take me to a private beach?"
I hike back to where my girl is waiting and she says, "What's that shit-eating grin about?"
We meet my fisherman early the next day. He's a young dude. His name is Marwan al-Shehhi. I still remember this because "it's the same as one of the 9/11 hijackers", he says with an apologetic tone.
We don't see any dolphins on the way to our beach, but the coral reefs are incredible, the best I've seen in my limited experience in the tropics. Once Marwan leaves we wade around the shallows and I count 11 species of fish. There's a lot trash on the beach. It's our beach, so we decide to clean it up. Takes a couple hours but we're left with a private, pristine stretch of white sand and a view that would make John Muir convert to Islam.
As the sun goes down we light a massive bonfire. We drink fireball. We speak in tongues. There's a meteor shower that night. There is nothing in the world but youth.
The next day we check out the map. we're at the narrowest point of an isthmus. We hike to the top figuring the view will be good. We're not wrong. We also saw a sweet-ass gecko.
Our plan is to hike back along the isthmus, figuring it'll take about a day to reach Khasab by foot. But looking at the terrain we realized it was unwise, if not impossible.
Maybe if you had a gallon of water and a topographical map it could be done. We're in the midst of debating options when we happen to notice a flock of goats down on the beach getting into our stuff. This turns out to be a stroke of luck, because we sprint down to the beach just in time to see an old Omani guy loading firewood into his boat, about ready to depart. We had a quick chat and decided we'd drunk our fill of Musandam. I'd lived out a childhood fantasy and we'd met some cool dudes along the way. The old guy wasn't going to Khasab but he could get us close. He didn't speak any English. I wondered if he was the natives of Musandam who speak not Arabic but an ancient dialect of Persian. The sociolinguist in me is still dying to know.
We throw our tent and big bag of beach trash into his boat, roll up our trousers and tiptoe between the sea urchins to shove off. That was our last full day in Oman.
I admit a teensy bit of regret for not exploring a little more of the area. But I think that was the last time either of us had inhibitions when it comes to the practicalities of getting somehwere. Feck, anything is possible. Although to my list of ambition/hiking boots/American passport, I think I'll add a gallon jug of water.
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