Keeping on keeping on – UAE and Oman
Day 1,785 since October 10th 2013: 154 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
Looking back it’s clear we have come VERY far
I’ve had a severe case of malaria. Probably from sleeping on the ground at that petrol station in a Liberian forest. I’ve been threatened by drunken armed men near the Congolese border in the middle of the night. I’ve gone across treacherous open waters onboard a boat which today lies at the bottom at the sea. My budget is USD 20 per day…and somehow I’m typing this at yet another five star hotel.
We are coming to the end of another great adventure of the Saga. There are nearly no more countries left to visit in the Middle East. They said it was impossible. They said it would cost me my life. They were wrong. They often are. A week ago I was still in Dubai (UAE). Iain and Nita, my Aussie friends, were on holiday in Malta and had left me the keys to their expat apartment. What an amazing treat. Chris from Venezuela reached out over Instagram and wanted to meet up. He works as a senior flight attendant at Emirates Airways, which is a massive employer among expats in Dubai. Chris has enjoyed eight years in Dubai and is married to his Aussie wife. Together they have two young boys and I’ve actually heard from many people that Dubai is a great place to raise children. Chris came back from a flight to London and headed straight over to pick me up at Nita and Iain’s apartment. Then we headed out for some Lebanese food and shisha. He’s a really great guy who smiles a lot and has stories to tell. Chris has been to a whopping 89 countries!! He always seeks out the opportunity to travel when Emirates Airlines takes him somewhere new. They have 12 hours rest between flights (if I understood that right) which gives him some time to explore a new city or country. At least a bit more than the hotel room. Travel will change you – you will become richer one way or the other.
Hanging with Chris the Venezuelan in Dubai :)
I sometimes hear people give Dubai some flak over being artificial. That has become amusing to me as I wonder what surrounds us which is not artificial? Clothes, mode of transport, home, office, roads etc. We made it all. Then you could argue that Dubai has a great deal of things which appear unnecessary. However Dubai is a temporary home more than a permanent home given that 80% of the population are expats and the majority are only in Dubai temporarily. The expats are away from home and want to be entertained. So Dubai delivers. Dubai delivers big time! Massive water parks, pubs, restaurants, an endless array of mindboggling world records and the list goes on. All of that is in place for tourism and for the expats. The 20% consisting of Emiratis are living Emirati lives I assume. I didn’t get to mingle a lot with them but the few I met were nice. I’m sure they don’t think their country is artificial. The lands around the gulf have rich history but we have evolved many times since then. Piracy has a different meaning today, caravans do not exists like they used to and a Bedouin on a camel with a hawk on his arm is an unlikely scene today. Dubai in any case, is a great place to be…if you have money.
Hanging with Karen and the crew! :)
A long time ago, decades it seems, I was in Tanzania, East Africa. In reality it was only back in September 2016 – but it might as well have been decades ago. I was waiting to get my visa for Burundi which used to be an easy visa to get, but they had recently before I arrived to Dar Es Salam changed their procedures. Back in 2011 I was working in Bangladesh together with Matthew Ball. Back in 2016 he was working near Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and invited me to come up to spend a few days with him and his family. That’s when I first met Karen and John. John was working with Matthew and we all got together for a few days. Then I left Tanzania and filled my head with a million new memories. But as I was in Dubai last week Karen suddenly reached out and invited me for dinner. I showed up at the address she gave me and a smiling Karen opened the door! It was surreal. I definitely remembered Karen and John but it was also like trying to remember bits and pieces from a dream. Karen had invited Katy, Mark and Richard to join us and we all had a great time together! Richard is Irish and everyone else was English so the table certainly wasn’t quiet. Karen is a masterful chef and we were served solid northern English food – good stuff. Karen is a delight. And her memory is frightening good!! I had told her a few stories back in 2016 and she remembered even the tiniest details from them. That was also the night my fiancée completed an Ironman! So the six of us were following her closely online and cheering for her from Dubai. That was a good night. It ended pretty late as Karen was trying to book me an Uber helicopter to take me back home. The app apparently has that option now and somehow her phone had switched to that. I’m glad it didn’t work :)
Hanging with Charlotte - thanks for the toothpaste :)
Then before leaving Dubai I also had a chance to speak some Danish. You know, that Norse language of the Danes from the high north of Europe. Charlotte got in touch with me over Facebook and asked if I wanted to meet up. We met at the Dubai Mall and it immediately turned out that Charlotte had humor. Because a few days earlier I had posted an image of an empty tube of Colgate toothpaste across the Saga’s social media. The post was about how an empty tube is not empty when you’re on a USD 20 per day budget. So what did Charlotte do? She greeted me with a tube of Colgate toothpaste. Perfect! We had a good time together over some sushi which Charlotte insisted to pay for. Charlotte and her sister Helen who lives in the USA had agreed to pay for my dinner. Who can resist the request of two ladies? I gracefully accepted Charlottes invite and we got to talk travel, Denmark and cartoons. Charlotte was in Dubai as a stopover on her way back to Denmark. She was coming from Kerala in India which much have been quite a change of scenery fro her. Kerala has been struggling with heavy rains this year. And Kerala is already a very lush part of India so it has actually been quite disastrous. It’s nice for me to speak with Danes about Denmark. I have not been home for a very long time and I do miss my country. Charlotte worked for Egmont for 23 years and has done a lot of stuff for them. Among the projects she has been able to work on she was on the team which created the Danish cartoon ‘Jungledyret Hugo’. The Danes might remember that one ;)
And then it was time to leave Dubai. I was originally banking on departing this part of the Middle East onboard a ship from Salalah in Oman, which left on August 23rd. I have been planning several of the upcoming months out in relative detail and so far it is mostly going according to plan. However the ship leaving on the 23rd had to take a repair crew onboard which meant there was no cabin space for me. So I’m now scheduled to depart from Salalah on the 31st. My fiancée was flexible and booked a flight to come and visit me in Muscat (Oman) for a week. We were originally planning on meeting up in Port Said (Egypt) prior to my continued journey back to Jordan, into Israel, Palestine etc. There was a bit of drama as I approached the bus company and learned that I couldn’t get a bus from Dubai to Muscat because of the Eid celebration. To make a long story short I SPOKE TO EVERYONE and then somehow managed to get a seat on an otherwise outsold bus the following morning. The Eid al-Adha is the time of miracles so we shouldn’t be surprised. And yet my hands were shaking a bit until I boarded the bus and left Dubai. This is quite a long distance relationship and I do not want to miss and hour with her. Fortunately I reached Muscat several hours ahead of my little Ironwoman and had enough time to shave.
My Ironwoman on the last stretch after 12 hours!
An Ironman!! That is 3.8 km (2.36 mi) of swimming in the ocean before getting on a bicycle and racing 180 km (112 mi) only to finish off with running A FULL MARATHON (42.2 km / 26.22 mi)!!! You would think that would make your body a bit sore? Two days after completing that she flew from Copenhagen in Denmark and met with me in Muscat. And she wasn’t sore at all? Let me put this into perspective for you. She cycled roughly 30 kph (18.6 mph) which means that the cycling alone took six hours. She moved herself more than 225 km (140 mi) by human power in little more than 12 hours! That is flat out impressive no matter who you are!! And her body wasn’t sore?!? There are a few lessons to be learned here. My fiancée, whose name is Le by the way, probably didn’t think she could complete an Ironman a few years ago. She signed up in a Triathlon Club and began training towards the Ironman about a year before completing it. Step by step she pushed her body and made herself capable of the seemingly impossible. The spectators at the finishing line might have seen the success of the contestants triumphantly raising their arms as they completed the last steps. However very few pay any attention to a year’s worth of training and preparation. And as Denzel Washington says in “Man on Fire” (one of my favorite movie quotes: ”There is no such thing as though. There is trained and untrained. Now which are you?”
And the beard came off again...
We’ve seen each other 17 times since October 2013. Le has visited me in these countries: Scotland 2013 (October), Scotland 2013 (December), Greenland 2014, Bolivia/Chile 2014, Jamaica 2015, Germany/France/Spain 2015, Ghana 2015, São Tomé 2015, Zimbabwe/Zambia 2016, Kenya 2016, Sudan 2017, Spain 2017, Germany 2017, Moldova 2017, Lebanon 2017, Jordan 2018 and now Oman 2018. So that’s quote a repertoire for the two of us. Oman proved to be a great location as it is rich in hospitality, activities, geography, culture and history. In fact I’m very pleased with having had this extra opportunity to see some more of Oman. The last two visits were mostly practical and very short. I reached Oman in July when it became country number 150 within the Saga. I celebrated that with a complimentary two nights stay at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar luxury resort all while my mind was occupied on getting safely in and out of Yemen in time to board the ‘Maersk Kampala’ to Qatar. A tight schedule indeed! It all worked out and as I returned to Oman from Yemen it was already my second visit. I had however mostly seen the inside of busses, the road, the port and fortunately the beautiful mountain landscape around Anantara’s resort.
With Le by my side it always becomes a lot more “touristy”. We are supposed be collecting memories as we go through life and we are intent on doing that together. Besides, we both live busy lives and need to take a break from them once in a while. To be honest we slept a lot the first few days. I guess we both needed it. We have a solid relationship which grows even as we are physically apart. I really value that as long distance relationships are often a death sentence to relationships. We are both aware and we make it work. We communicate nearly every day and that is a big part of it. It’s not always a rich conversation but it is at least a life sign. And today’s technology and widespread internet connectivity certainly helps a lot too. Then we just try to do regular couple things when we finally get to see each other. We did a lot of walking about exploring neighborhoods, holding hands, talking, observing, playing cards, eating and then we have a few traditions which we managed as well. I have cut down a lot on shisha (water pipe) lately. However that is one of our traditions and not hard to come by in most of the Arab world. Togetherness is better than lonesomeness in my opinion. Unfortunately a lot of the Saga is carried out through lonesomeness even when I’m not alone. At this point I wonder: “who can relate to what I do and what I have been through?” Only few have a good idea about it, some have solid fractions and most may have a vast idea. Visiting 154 countries in a single unbroken journey completely without flying is no accident and it is a mountain of both accumulated experiences and memories. There are limitations to what I can tell you in the blogs, across social media, through interviews and even in person. I hope I can someday convey the story in a meaningful way.
Pool side view from The Chedi Muscat.
Oman is special. A lot of countries are in their own way but Oman really is. It appears quite wealthy in many ways and it’s definitely a well-functioning country. The location of Oman has seen trade from east and west throughout the dawn of time. Africa is close by to the west and India is nearby to the east. From India there isn’t far to China so that trade has also been prevalent in Oman. I didn’t even mention Iran and the Persian Empire which is just across the gulf. So in other words Oman must always have been an interesting patch of land on our little spinning planet. The Portuguese were the first to find the sea route from Europe south of Africa to India. That wasn’t good news for everyone to say the least. The Portuguese occupied Muscat for a 143-year period from 1507 to 1650. But a lot has happened since then. Not too long ago Sultan Said was in power which meant that Oman was a rather closed and isolated country until 1970. An Omani man I no longer remember the name of told me that Oman was almost entirely closed for any and all visitors back then. He told me that you would even be punished for wearing a wristwatch and that most of what I could see around me was empty wasteland just 30-40 years ago. Then in 1970 Sultan Said’s son overthrew his father and a new reign began. The reign of Sultan Qaboos who is still in power today…although sick and under treatment in Germany.
Sultan Qaboos reformed Oman and opened up the country. He embarked on economic reforms, and followed a policy of modernization marked by increased spending on health, education and welfare. As a result I imagine that today’s Oman is unrecognizable from what it was just fifty years ago. However what are countries without people? Here’s a fact for you: you should generally not negotiate prices with Omanis. They will most often offer you a fair price and negotiating can seem insensitive and rude. To this I must say that I have come across a few taxi drivers that like most taxi drivers tried to take advantage of a stranger. However I have also met many fair taxi drivers and they are all Omani as decreed by law in Oman. That is already quite different from UAE, Qatar and Kuwait where you are highly unlikely to see a national behind the wheel of a taxi. Anyway, I reason that because Omani’s offer a fair price straight-up they are probably genuine people and also trustworthy. In other words I am much more prone to helping and trusting an Omani than people from other nationalities. They seem very soft spoken and kind. Naturally I’m generalizing but there’s room for that when we are going on about an entire nation. Well…that’s my two cents worth of that ;) Now my two cents might not be worth a lot – because I told a few expats in Oman about this Omani honesty and they looked at me as if I had hit my head really hard. In their experience you need to negotiate on everything in Oman. So it’s one or the other? Maybe I’m all wrong about the honesty thing or maybe a group of expats have been unlucky. In either case I’m sure there is something about it.
In good company at Kargeen! :)
I reached out to Jessi from Anantara before returning to Oman. She had been so kind to me the first time we met and I was hoping that there would be a chance to meet up in Muscat while Le was visiting. Fortunately Jessi accepted my invitation and we met up at a well hidden restaurant called Kargeen. I think you need to add Kargeen to your bucket list! It’s a real gem with an incredible atmosphere and really good food. Jessi showed up with Naif and the four of us sat down to have a good time. At one point while I was speaking to Naif, Le apparently asked Jessi about luxury hotels in Muscat. Oman has made a decision to cater to upscale visitors which in term means that there is a lot of luxury to be found in Oman. Jessi has many years in the business and knows more than a few people. Before we knew of it Jessi had begun to arrange a complimentary stay at The Chedi for Le and I!!
If you are a millionaire then I think you should head to The Chedi. If you are in any way wealthy then I think you should head to The Chedi. In fact…if you can’t afford it then I think you should work two jobs, save up for years and then head to The Chedi! That is really unparalleled luxury as far as I’m concerned and I don’t even want to think about how much our stay might have costs.
The long pool is aptly named. It is 103 meters (338 feet).
The Chedi is a luxury five star hotel and restaurant set on a private beach. The hotel has 158 rooms and fuses together traditional Omani architecture with Zen, Arabic, Japanese and European influences. And everything was just so unbelievably well planned out and executed. The smallest of details, the architecture, the food, the staff, the pathways, the gym, the everything!
It’s really hard to put a price on something like a complimentary night at The Chedi. The Saga’s social media is not all that impressive in size although a lot of people might be surprised to learn exactly who some of the people are who are tagging along. At least this blog will quickly be read by people from at least 119 countries within a few days. Deepak Menon is the Director of Sales and he certainly took good care of us. We were treated to live in a “Chedi Club Suite” which was a small villa in a garden complex. We had a large bedroom, a lounge, a large bathroom and a terrace which bordered a tranquil water pond. The bathroom even had a terrazzo sunken bathtub! Our suite was equipped with two flat screen TV’s, a Bose sound dock, an iPod docking station, a Nespresso coffee machine and tea station along with a lot more! The mini fridge was stocked to the brim with everything and it was all complimentary. So how do you set a price on that? Le and I had not seen each other for months and only had a week together. Getting to share such a wonderful and relaxing experience was an amazing treat and added a lot of extra quality to our time together. Deepak however didn’t stop with the luxurious accomodation! He also added a full hour of Balinese massage for both of us at the spa along with a dinner at the restaurant simply named: The Restaurant. You’ve got to love that :)
The Chedi is a member of The Leading Hotels of The World and it opened its doors in 2003. You wouldn’t know that it is 15 years old from looking at it. Everything was perfectly maintained and looked new. What an amazing treat for Le and I. We are grateful and happy to have this memory together from our time in Oman.
All good things must come to an end. We left The Chedi and began to count down on how many days we had left together. We found our way to Muttrah which is a very charming and heavily fortified town near Muscat. It used to be the financial capital prior to the discovery of petrol. Then one night Le and I accidently wondered into a police compound thinking it was a shortcut? Nobody stopped us until we were right in the smack middle of the place! Then we were offered a ride out of there and back out to the main road – strange experience? We also managed to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It’s an absolutely magnificent mosque and they offer an audio tour which is well worth while.
A tiny part of the Grand Mosque. You really need to see it ;)
Muttrah at night.
Nakhal Fort...back when we throught that it was Nizwa Fort. Still worth the visit! :)
On our last day we rented a car and drove 559 km (347 mi) in order to see Nizwa Fort. That trip would have been shorter if we didn’t mistake Nizwa Fort for Nakhal Fort and drove in the wrong direction first. They both start with an “N”. And based on that I hope I end up in Denmark and not in Djibouti. Oh well…we got to see another fort and that was not a bad thing. Anyway, we eventually did make it to Nizwa which is one of Oman’s oldest cities and it used to be the capital in the 6th and 7th century. My favorite traveler is probably Ibn Battuta and he once made it out to Nizwa (from Morocco some 600 years ago). Battuta noted Nizwa as: “a city at the foot of a mountain, enveloped by orchards and streams, and with fine bazaars and splendid clean mosques”. I liked Nizwa which offered something uniquely old fashioned in an otherwise modern world. The pace was much slower there and the fort was super interesting. Especially learning about how they used to defend the fort and which entrapments they created back in the day. We were guided around the fort by a young English and translation student who wasn’t a fan of wearing a scarf to cover her hair. She was really cute and knew a lot about the fort in spite of it only being her fourth day guiding as a volunteer. After visiting the fort we decided to drive out to see Jabreen Castle although we knew it was already closed for the day. We just wanted to see it and with our knowledge from two forts already we felt it was enough to walk around it. A local date farmer offered us a handful freshly plucked dates as the sun set on us.
Nizwa Fort!! Really worth a visit!!
The backside of Jabreen Castle. It's near Nizwa Fort and the two sites can easily be combined.
We drove back to Muscat and had dinner at Kargeen again. It’s just a brilliant place. Thank you Jessi for introducing us to that gem. That was our last dinner and our last night together. Then the next day we ran a few errands and then soon enough it was time for Le to board the plane. William Shakespeare was painfully right: “Parting is such sweet sorrow”.
Airport floors look all the same to me...
I left the airport alone. Such irony that it was my fifth visit to Muscat International Airport and I haven’t flown for nearly five years now. That first night in a bed alone is the worst one. Then it quickly goes back to normal and I am just that man who never gives up…who still has a long road home. My last few days in Oman will however be more than ordinarily pleasant. Jessi has introduced me to Carsten at Kempinski Hotel Muscat. That is Muscat’s latest five star hotel but more about that on Friday.
This is the Kempinski Muscat foyer!! To be continued!
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - a lot closer to home!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga