We didn’t get official leave, but we went anyway. There is nothing to do at the school – grades are in, students are gone, and our next semester schedule was yet to be determined, so we couldn’t prepare for spring. Instead, we played hooky from work and made the 11 hour drive (700 mile/1126 km) to Salalah on the southern coast of Oman – off to see the Arabian Sea. A local magazine refers to Highway 31, the main road taken, as the Highway to Hell due to all the accidents that happen along the vast stretches of emptiness.
Here are some random thoughts and experiences from this epic road trip. They accurately reflect my scattered mind that accompanied me.
As soon as we left Nizwa (248 km into the journey), we were far away from everything. Saw two Bedouin women in a pickup truck (male driver); they were wearing their traditional face coverings that remind me of Catwoman. One went into the local “food stuff” store. I wanted to take a picture so badly, but knew it wasn’t right. This pair, seen early in the journey, are two of four women I see before we reach Salalah. There are no women in these towns. They may be in their cars, but they don’t get out.
A long drive of nothing. Not that long ago, this was done on camel. I can’t find any information about this road and when it was built, but the earliest this could have been built was in the mid 1970s. This is the land of tribes and family. There is nothing else but desert. On the ten hour drive, I constantly wonder what it would be like to travel by camel, seeing literally nothing for days. Trusting that one morning you will wake up, and that will be the day your journey ends. Delivering goods, picking up supplies, and making the long trek back to your home.
The nothing of the drive goes from stones and sparse plants to sand.
The Empty Quarter lives up to its name. The people in the few towns that span this stretch are mostly expats: poor and working hard jobs – truckers, construction workers (buildings and roads), and those in the oil fields. The food for the most part is pretty damn good, served in simple restaurants. Bread served along with meat/vegetables in a spicy sauce; lots of ginger. I have no idea what kind of cuisine I am eating – Yemeni? Pakistani? Nepalese? Bangladeshi? It’s not Indian; that’s all I know. Or Omani – too flavorful. I realize that my knowledge of food is pretty small, despite my extensive travelling and exposure to so many cultures here. Those who work come from elsewhere and bring their cuisine with them, and send the money they make back home to their families.
The frankincense trees – what made this country before oil, its sap worth more than gold at one point – are no longer harvested by Omanis or even Dharforis. Laborers from across the seas now hold this historical knowledge and continue to tap the trees for its sap, far less valuable now, but still the legacy of this area. The “forest” we visit has no informational signs; all we know we have read about in travel books, written by Westerners. An Omani sits in his car along with a friend — I think he was hired to work there, to serve as a guide. He shouts from the open window to say hello and see if we have any questions.
I try to wrap my head around the idea that spelling doesn’t matter in this country – I’ve seen this in my students, and I see it on this journey. Here are examples of the spelling of the town we spent the night in:
- Quit Bit
- Qit Bit
- Qat Bit
- Qat Beet
How the hell are you supposed to figure out where you are? I guess in many ways it doesn’t matter if you are an outsider. You just pass through.