#6 Arab world (Dubai & Oman)
The ship turned on the engine and started moving away from the mainland. The departure was delayed for two hours. On the ship I met a young man who boarded for free. He heard stories about this possibility so he came to the harbour to check if this was true and not to pay the ticket for his trip. After his arrival, discussions and small misunderstanding, the officials asked him to sit and wait. He was sitting and waiting… and waiting… Two hours later a crew member waved his hand showing Mariusz to board the ship. This time Mariusz didn’t get the free ticket. Theoretically, he boarded the ship for free, but let’s not forget that we are still in Iran and that we came across another magic moment in Iran yet again. I only had words of praise for Iranians in my last blog post. These good people heard that one traveller didn’t have enough money to buy the ticket so they made a decision. They collected money, bought the ticket and donated it to him. Wonderful! If he had known that this was about to happen, he would never have gone along with it. Of course, the Persians did all this without him knowing all that. Quietly. Secretly. And now, it’s done! Mariusz is on the ship and he boarded it for free.
Mariusz comes from Poland and he is on his life journey at the moment. 4 months ago he started his unforgettable trip in Poland and he is planning to conclude it in Singapore. Naturally, he is planning to travel hitchhiking. Furthermore, this young man has a very noble reason for doing all this. A couple of years ago he finished maths studies and one day when he gets to Singapore he is planning to find a job. All the money he will earn there he is planning to use for something I have never heard of anyone doing. He will buy plane tickets for his immediate family members for destinations they have dreamt of their whole life. His mother dreams about elephants in the wilderness and her life wish is to see genuine elephants. Mariusz wants to buy her a plane ticket to Thailand. His plan is to do this for every member of his family. Naturally, nobody from his family is aware of this noble plan of his.
TOWN BETWEEN REALITY AND DREAMS
As the morning dawned, we arrived to Dubai. I spent the next couple of days at couchsurfer’s flat who was actually the only one replying to my request. She comes from Brazil and her name is Lisiane. This is her fourth year in Dubai. Every 3 years, Lisiane moves to another country, town and changes the environment. She spent her childhood in Brazil where she finished her studies and soon after moved to London. A couple of years after, she moved to Barcelona where she stayed for some time. After Spain, she moved here, to Dubai, where she has been living for four years already. Interesting life choice this is! It’s fascinating how she completely changes her environment, language, friends and way of life every couple of years. All that is familiar to her, old and safe – she leaves it all behind and moves towards new, unknown and unpredictable life. Brave girl, what else can I say!
On the next day after my arrival we had a party. It was Lisa’s birthday party and I was invited. We all gathered and went for dinner. First dinner, then going out. Pure glamour. After restaurant and great dinner, we all headed towards exit where Lisa’s friend was about to pick us all up. The real show started at that moment. The friend came to pick us up in a brutally wild Mercedes car which was so awesome. I was sitting in the last seat together with Lisa and two of her friends and there was a bottle of Jack Daniels waiting for us. Stylish, nothing more to say. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in the last seat of a wild Mercedes gazing through the window at all these big buildings and drinking Jack Daniels. The drive at 30 km/h was accompanied by gangsta rap music. Again, elegant.
We arrived to the front of the hotel and got out of the car. Lisa’s friend gave car’s keys to a valet to park the car. You know, that’s the man you can see in the movies, the one standing in front of a hotel and waiting to park someone’s car. Again, stylish. We got into the hotel and moved toward the elevator. We had to go up to 43rd floor. This whole floor is actually a club. At club’s entrance there were two security guys protecting the entrance. They opened the door for us and inside we saw one big party. Let’s not forget that we were on 43rd floor and that club had glass walls which meant only one thing – spectacular view of the town. At one moment I found myself on 43rd floor with a glass in my hand and looking at Dubai from high above. Again, stylish. I pretended like I understood all the things that surrounded me and I was walking around the club untouchable. That spectacular panorama is also responsible for spectacular prices of drinks. In this town everything is expensive, especially alcohol. Reason for that is that UAE is an Islamic country. The price of small bear is from 80 to 140 HRK. Real bargain. Lisa was celebrating her birthday so more or less everything was for free Many times when I mention alcohol in my blog posts it looks like I am a proper alcoholic. Actually, I am not. God forbid. I only describe everything happening around me. I was taught to always tell the truth and never to lie. Therefore, I admit…we drank a bit of alcohol.
Day three. I went towards the town centre hoping to catch a ride to Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. My first minutes of hitchhiking were interrupted by a man opening the doors of the bank and hurrying towards a taxi. “Heeeey”, he shouted…. “You can come with me. I will pay the same price anyway.” The man was a banker. He was half-panicking to get to another bank in another part of this town. “Listen,” he started the conversation…”Dubai will go completely bankrupt in two months (already one month passed when I was writing this post). When this day arrives, everyone will be talking about it. In one day, this news will spread all around the world. Listen, I am working in one of the largest banks here and I know exactly what’s going on. Remember what I’m telling you now when this happens. All this is just a mask.” There you go, dear readers, if soon you hear this type of news – Dubai going bankrupt, remember my blog post.
I have experienced Dubai the way it’s supposed to be done – surrounded by luxury which I have never experienced before. Lisa lives in a 200-250 m2 flat in a hotel. Her flat has six big rooms, a couple of bathrooms, a huge living room connected to the dining room and big kitchen, terrace with a view to the Palm Jumeirah (one of the Palm Islands) and a personal maid at her disposal. I saw a couple of more people living in that flat while I was staying there. Some lived there; the others were there only temporary like me. I was told that after cooking or after I finish eating, I didn’t have to clean the dishes because this was maid’s job. That was quite new to me and it made me really lazy. One doesn’t need much to get used to all this luxury. Because of all that, I stayed at Lisa’s flat for ten whole days. No one would be that crazy to give it all up just like that.
What have I been doing all this time in Dubai? Nothing much. I even caught Dubai laziness. That’s how people call it there. Because of all these material resources, a man goes into a life sequence where one can only sit to see what happens next. When I went sightseeing, due to the fact that I come from Varazdin where the highest building has 12 floors, most of my time I spent staring at all those high buildings. What else could I have been doing since Dubai is most famous for its amazing infrastructure, high buildings and the flying Metro. OK, Metro is not actually flying but it’s driving on the wheels in the air. If by any chance you find yourself in Dubai, Metro will give you an unforgettable view of the town.
Lisa told me that of all the towns she had lived in, she liked Dubai the most. Life in this town is not difficult. Cosmopolitan town in which everything functions superbly. Superbly. It’s a new town where from the very beginning the whole town plan was developed to perfection from the ground up. From the neighbouring room I heard a conversation of one of Lisa’s roommates saying she was in a big dilemma about the upcoming birthday. She would like to spend her birthday on a private boat driving her and her friends around Dubai. If I had heard right, she would have spent 1000 EUR for that special night. My heart jumped to my throat. This is almost the same amount as my whole budget for this journey. It’s still incomprehensible to me – spending this amount of money for a party like this. Well, this is another world. The world in which the road to material things is somewhat easier. The road without turns and obstacles, the road paved with good intentions. Although, there is an old Chinese proverb which reads: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Is this magnificent town really so perfect and untouchable as it looks or is this yet another mask that will soon fall down? The mask bought with the price of natural resources. The mask bought with oil.
I haven’t properly hitchhiked for a month so it’s time to get back on the road. Dubai is 150 km away from Oman and it took me 7 cars to get to the border.
The second car that stopped to give me a ride was a Jeep convertible. Two merry guys in this car full of enthusiasm were on their way to a safari in the desert. Driver’s euphoria over the trip to the desert was definitively visible while he was shamelessly pressing the gas pedal. Speed: 120 km/h. The wind aired my synapses in the brain while I was sitting in the last seat of the Jeep. They asked me to join them on the safari deep in the desert but I didn’t accept their invitation because night was supposed to fall down in two hours and I just got out of Dubai.
Oman border experience was a complete failure. I gave my passport to the driver who gave it to the border police officer. One look at my passport was enough for him to order me to get out of the car. He started saying something in Arabic which I always enthusiastically listen to hoping to understand something. A few moments later, a man speaking English came to us. He explained that that border was only meant for residents of Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar…. and a couple of other countries like this. I, as a Croatian and European, am not allowed to pass this particular border crossing. I needed to try my luck at another border crossing. This meant I needed to go 70 km back and turn right at the crossroad which would lead me to another border crossing. I started feeling somewhat nervous. Luckily, I was able to hitch a ride easily so I came to that other border crossing in two hours. There I had to face an unfamiliar situation, something I have never heard of before – to be able to leave the country, one has to pay 10 dollars. I was a little suspicious about this so I started discussing this with all the employees there. I told them this must have been the only country in the world where one had to pay 10 dollars just to get out of the country and that these 10 dollars are the amount of money which I usually spend in 3 days of my journey. I asked them: What would happen if the person who wanted to leave the country didn’t have any money? Nobody took me seriously at all. After fifty minutes of me trying to convince them to let me out of the country without paying them, I realized that would never happen. In the end, I paid the price of my exit from United Arab Emirates.
I decided to transform my anger towards the whole situation into spite. In spite of them, myself and everyone else, I decided to spend that night in No man’s land, in the space between UAE and Oman border. I was thinking about what would happen if the police came? In fact, even if the police came, I was really interested in which police would come – police from Oman or UAE? And according to which law would they punish me? According to law from UAE or Oman? 🙂
In the capital of Oman, Muscat, Lisi has a friend, Ali, who runs his own guesthouse. After a couple of messages exchanged between them, I got the whole apartment at my disposal. A big room with a bed and a bathroom. I got it without the obligation to pay for my accommodation. It was for free, of course. Friends, connections and acquaintances can sometimes be an asset.
I haven’t got a clue about this country. I have to do two things there. Get a visa for India and since I haven’t found any regular passenger ships on that route, I need to find a cargo freight ship headed for India. I need to find a captain whom I can talk to about life and similar stuff The second part sounds kind of impossible, I know. From the first day this trip sounded somewhat unthinkable, but with every new day a whole bunch of new possibilities open up.
The first thing was done in a couple of days. Getting the visa for India was easier than I thought. I submitted the application and paid 45$ and I got the visa in 4 days. The ambassador running the interview was thrilled about the Croatian passport, imagine that! He told me that Croatian passport is the most beautiful one he had ever held in his hand. Perfect design, dynamic and colour. Now you know we have beautiful passports. Also, I was the first Croatian ever to step into his office. Since our communication was excellent, he gave me a visa valid for 6 months and it was multiple-entry visa which means in the period of 6 months, I can enter and exit India as many times I like. The story doesn’t end here. He invited me for dinner which I, of course, accepted. After dinner, he invited me to his home i.e. his huge 3-storey villa where we had a couple of drinks. Here we go again – me talking about alcohol. What can I do…. I can’t say no to an Indian ambassador. If I refused his invitation, I was scared he would take my visa :). This is the first time I have privileges just because I am a Croatian. At least something good
Locals say one can really have a good life here. Nobody complains about life here and everyone feels OK. Almost everyone. In the last couple of days I met people who gave me a somewhat different answer. “Weeell, it’s OK… but that oil. The price started heavily falling down and soon something serious will happen.” Oman has one of the strongest currencies in the world. 1 Omani rial equals to approximately less than 20 HRK. Let’s compare this currency with the Iranian currency mentioned in my previous blog post. Watch this: 1 Omani rial equals to 80000 Iranian rials. I mentioned that Iran is under sanctions because it opposed to USA. One of the sanctions is one of the weakest currencies.
I have been in Islamic world for three months already and oil has always been one of the key elements of their prosperous economy. I would really like to draw a parallel between oil and Islam. Why is “oil flowing in streams” mostly present in Islamic countries? Islam spread into these countries way before the discovery of oil for which mankind concluded it could be the main purpose of mankind. We know that in these areas of Islamic countries wars are fought over OIL. Either I live in an illusion or Islam has nothing to do with oil. It must be that other thing, of course.
Oman is a perfect country for hitchhiking. The most perfect one so far. It’s so easy to hitch a ride here, too easy. When drivers see a thumb, they go mental. Every second car stops, sometimes even every car. In three weeks of my stay I hitched a ride in around 150 cars, if not more. That’s a little less than ten cars per day. If I need to go to a shop, I simply lift my thumb. When I get lost, I simply lift my thumb. If I need anything at all, I simply lift my thumb. I have already explained what perfect hosts Iranians are and how nicely they treat guests which is beautifully described in Quran. I believe Quran has one whole section dedicated only to hitchhikers 🙂
After four days of Muscat it was time for me to get out of this comfortable guesthouse, lift my butt (and backpack) and move on. All this time I have listened to stories about one town at the south of Oman. The town totally different from every other town when it comes to climate. The town is called Salalah. The stories intrigued me so I decided to move south to see it with my own eyes. When I found out that this town has the biggest harbour in Oman meaning bigger chances of me finding a ship for India, I was immediately on the road. The town is 1300 km away so this should be one exciting adventure. I told Ali I would go around Oman for a while but I would get back in 10 days. I took half of my things on the road, and left the other half at the guesthouse and headed south.
Central Oman. Desert
I chose Muscat – Salalah Coastal Road, the road stretching along the coast and desert, the most beautiful road in Oman. The same day I arrived to Sur, the town which is around 200 km away from Muscat. The town is famous for its remote beaches known for their large turtles. The exact name of these turtles is green sea turtle and very often you can see them on the beach. Some local people I met told me that it wasn’t the nesting season but since I was already there, the best time to see them would be between 9pm-11pm. Locals’ stories and my patient waiting proved to be fruitful. Sometime after 10 pm two turtles appeared. From nowhere. I even managed to take a picture of one of them. Not sure whether that was the right move because my presence actually confused her.
It took me three days to get to Salalah. I wasn’t in a hurry because there was no reason for me to rush anywhere. I hitched a ride in around 20 cars. The longest drive approximately 400 km long was with Saleem who brought me to Salalah.
Yes, those stories were true. Salalah is a town different from all the other towns in Oman. The town is at the south of the country surrounded by mountain range responsible for tropic climate. Throughout the whole year the climate is the same as in the rest of Oman but when summer comes, desert climate turns into the tropical one. It starts raining at the beginning of June and it doesn’t stop until September. The winter is very pleasant as in the rest of the country while summers are filled with constant rain and monsoons. Consequently, all possible tropic fruit and vegetables start growing. Everything becomes alive and green at that point.
During high season prices go up abnormally. If you want to book a room outside season, the price would be 10 rials (200 HRK) per night. If you want to book a room in the season, the price would be 200 rials (4000 HRK). During this Salalah season the whole Oman comes here. The town gets filled with people and naturally people living and working there concluded they could make the prices higher. Driving towards town during season is out of ordinary. Approximately ten kilometres before reaching town you find yourself in the desert where temperature goes up to 40-50 degrees Celsius. Only 40 km after crossing the mountains, temperature drops down to pleasant 25-30 degrees Celsius. From red hot desert you arrive to tropical green place filled with rain. A really out of ordinary situation.
One of the reasons why I came to the south of Oman, faraway Salalah, which I already mentioned earlier, was that Salalah has one of the biggest harbours in Oman. “If I ever find a ship to take me to India, I will find it here,” I thought. One whole wonderful and sunny morning I spent walking around and dealing with maritime administration procedures. In town and harbour I found seven overseas agencies with which I was discussing my intentions. They explained that it was impossible to board the cargo freight ship because I would need three permissions. One permission from the captain, the other one from the company that owns the ship and the third one from an insurance company guaranteeing my life. “The only option is to find a small private boat headed for India,” they said. “But not here, of course, because this route doesn’t exist here. You should go to Dubai because there is a much better possibility to find such a boat.” Yes, but only a bit better.
I was left with two options. The first option was to go back to Dubai and walk around the harbour hoping to find a merry captain bringing groceries to his boat and singing at the same time who would invite me to his little private boat headed for India. Another option was to simply buy a plane ticket from Oman to India and the problem would be solved. If I choose the first option, there would be a big chance for me to lose at least one whole week in an over expensive Dubai. If I choose the second option, this would officially mean that I wouldn’t arrive to New Zealand hitchhiking the whole way because I would buy a plane ticket. I spent a couple of days thinking about my options. I made a decision on my fourth day. I chose the second option and I bought a plane ticket. The ticket cost 600 HRK and it wasn’t terribly expensive. If I had gone back to Dubai and spent my days there looking for the boat, I think that from the financial point of view expenses would get as high as my plane ticket. I bought my plane ticket and I don’t care about anything anymore. When I get to India, you will soon forget how I got there 🙂
On my sixth day since I left Muscat and after I arrived to the very south of Oman, it was time to head back to north. Here I managed to do everything I needed to do. Better to say, I didn’t manage to do everything I wanted to. I started going back north early in the morning and in the evening I was already in the north of the country. This time I decided to hurry a bit so I reached the northern part of the country in one day. In only one day and a couple of cars I managed to pass 1200 km.
A bit of statistics: in these 6 days I managed to hitchhike exactly 2271 km, at least that’s what Google Maps came up with. Those days my life was proper nomadic. I never knew where I would spend the night. No shower except swimming in the sea. Just me and my backpack. When looking back, these 6 days were the most intense experience I’ve had on my whole journey so far.
“Nizwa Friday Souq”
Friday and Saturday in Arab world represent a weekend. On the first day of the weekend there are traditional fairs held around the entire Oman in morning hours. One of the fairs, the most famous one and with the longest tradition is held in the town called Nizwa, 150 km away from Muscat. The fair is called “Nizwa Friday Souq”. Since I was only 150 km away from this town, I decided to put my thumb up and hitchhike.
When the first rays of the sun appear, people hurry to their empty booked places which they start filling up with the variety of things. Only one hour is enough for the empty fair to turn into a live market full of people. Cows, bulls, sheep, goats, canaries, fruit, vegetables, meat… one can see all of this and more. Trucks full of cattle come down from local villages hoping to sell all at the fair. Cattle are brought to the biggest square in which a bunch of people gathers and the auction begins. Loud and nervous sellers drag these poor animals and shout something in Arabic. I’ve been a vegetarian for ten years already for ethical reasons and the scenes I have witnessed there, the relationship between the seller and an animal, didn’t amaze me at all.
In front of one of the many entries old people start gathering and their custom is a bit different. These people have been selling rifles, knives, machetes and a couple of similar things which might hurt someone badly “for many years”. I think that the things they sell are only part of their custom, they sell these things only to be hung on the wall, I don’t think it’s for someone to use. The third square is reserved for canaries. The fourth square is reserved for traditional Oman clay bowls, pitchers, plates, coffee pots, paintings and jewellery.
All in all this whole show ends at 10am. At 11am the whole place looks like nothing ever happened here. This live, loud fair full of people turned again into an empty, deserted and quiet fair waiting for the next Friday.
The fair which one cannot see every day. The fair which is filled with Oman customs. The fair which takes you into the past of sultan-like life.