Scuba diving in Musandam

Blue sky, fjords and the Omani flag

Our first day in Musandam was, as it turned out, the one and only day we would have good weather. Luckily we had planned to spend the day scuba diving! We went with Ras Musandam Diver, and it was a great experience. The Ras Musandam dive boat left from Khor An Najd, so we got to explore different fjords than we would have on a dhow trip or something leaving from Khasab.

Fjords by Khor An Najd

The diving wasn’t spectacular, but we still enjoyed it. It’s always fun to explore a new place and the I love the thrill I get from descending someplace I’ve never been before. In this case I was reminded why it’s important to look down when you’re descending: I almost went crashing down on the reef and sea urchins, which were much shallower than I expected them to be!

The problem with diving is that sometimes the conditions are perfect and sometimes they’re not.  That day the sea was too rough to go very far out towards the open water and visibility was mediocre. We didn’t see anything particularly different from what we see in and around Muscat, although there were more Arabian angelfish and clown fish.  I also finally got to play around with the diving filters on my GoPro (with varying levels of success).

Arabian angelfish

That lobster’s antennae were as long as my arms

Territorial clownfish

Taking the boat through the fjords was cool, and during our surface interval we went on shore and walked around the ruins of a village on the beach. Our dive leader, Fawzy, also took us to a shallow beach full of black tipped reef sharks! Nate went snorkeling there, hoping he get to see the sharks, but they stealthily stayed away from him. It was a lovely day in and out of the water, and definitely the most fun we had on the entire trip.

Ruins on the beach

Another view of the beach ruins

More about Ras Musandam Diver: they went above and beyond to give us the best experience possible. Fawzy recruited his sister when our child care plans fell through, and on the drive to the boat slip he stopped for photo opportunities. Nate and I were the only customers on the boat, and they had towels, water, juice, snacks, pizza, Egyptian pastries, and coffee for us. Fawzy was in no hurry and really just wanted us to have the best day possible. He even threw extra tanks in the car when I asked if we were doing two dives and he said, “Oh, you want to do a third?!” If you want to scuba dive in Musandam, we highly recommend Ras Musandam Diver!

Fawzy, our awesome dive leader, and Gemel, his assistant

Advertisements

Logistics for a trip to Musandam

Along the road to Khasab

We recently got back from a trip to Khasab in the Musandam peninsula. Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE and is located right across the Straight of Hormuz from Iran. We found that there are lots of things to consider when planning a trip to Musandam, and here I’m going to lay out all the options!

Note that this information is only for Khasab; there are other destinations in Musandam like Lima and Dibba. We didn’t travel to those places so they’re not mentioned below.

Khasab coastline near Bassa Beach

How to get to Musandam:

  • Driving: We chose to drive because we have a 4WD vehicle and we wanted to explore the mountains and other areas.  Plus we wanted to avoid the added expenses of buying plane tickets for three people and a rental car. Assuming there’s no traffic, the actual driving takes about five and a half hours. The expressway basically goes all the way to Hatta, but make sure you leave Muscat with a full tank of gas. Once you pass the Barka/Rustaq exit there are no more gas stations close to the expressway until you’re practically at the border. The borders can add an extra hour or two, possibly more. We crossed at Hatta and at Sha’am (past Ras Al-Khaimah) and the Sha’am border was, by far, the worse of the two. Hatta was a well-oiled machine and Sha’am was a mess. Friends advised us to “bring a can of bacon bits and let M run amok” on the UAE side in Sha’am.  Luckily it didn’t quite come to that, but I did tell him that if he wanted to start screaming that would be okay.

The practically-empty eight-lane expressway will take you all the way from Muscat to the border

Depending on the route you take, you might see the interesting industrial side of the UAE

  • Flying: The main disadvantage to flying is lack of transportation in Khasab. There are no official rental car companies, like Enterprise, Budget or National in Khasab. However, you might find that you don’t actually even need a car. If you book your activities (diving, mountain “safari,” dhow trip, etc) through a tour operator, they will pick you up at your hotel. While we were there we ran into a German tourist who had planned to fly to Khasab, but wound up taking a bus because Oman Air grounded all the planes that fly the Muscat-Khasab route, all of which are the seemingly ill-fated Boeing 737 MAX 8’s.
  • Ferry: There is a ferry that goes from Shinas to Khasab and back. Shinas is about 2.5-3 hours by car from Muscat and the ferry appears to take 3-5 hours (the times on the website vary so wildly it’s hard to know what’s accurate). You don’t really gain any time by taking the ferry, but you do avoid all the border shenanigans. The main problem with the ferry is that it only runs each route twice a week in the afternoon. Currently the ferry to Khasab only leaves from Shinas on Sundays and Thursdays, and the ferry to Shinas from Khasab only leaves on Tuesdays and Saturdays (current schedule with times here).  The National Ferries Company boats are really nice, and it’s not an uncomfortable way to spend the afternoon, assuming your schedule fits with theirs.

The Khasab harbor

Whether or not to camp in Musandam: All the good camping in Musandam is in the mountains. You could camp at Khor An Najd, but there is no privacy, the beach isn’t nice, and there are no discreet toilet facilities (other than the lagoon). Beach camping could be possible, but you’d be right by the main road. We chose to stay at a guest house which suited our needs just fine. In hindsight, we are particularly glad we didn’t camp because it would have been cold, wet, windy and miserable. And we would have gotten stuck up on the mountain after all the rain that washed out the roads.

How to budget your time: Seeing the fjords and the mountains are the two main must-do’s in Musandam. If you arrive in the morning on Day 1 and leave at night on Day 2, you could fully experience these two things. We spent one day scuba diving, another on a dhow trip, and our last day we went to the Khasab castle and tried to explore the mountains. If you’re flying and you want to go scuba diving, note that you’ll have to stay at least 2 nights because you have to wait 24 hours before you can fly after the last dive. There are both half day and full day dhow trips available, and I’d recommend a full day because you’ll get to see more of the fjords and there will be more time for snorkeling, swimming, etc (assuming the weather isn’t terrible).

Along the mountain road outside Khasab

The fjords of Musandam

Eating in Khasab:There’s a Lulu Hypermarket which is the perfect place to stock up for picnics and lunches on the road. We bought deli meat, peanut butter, and Nutella to supplement our guesthouse breakfasts. Most of the tour operators and guesthouses will take you to a fresh fish store where you pick out your fish and then they’ll drive you to a restaurant that will grill your fish. Novelty aside, this was not the best grilled fish we had in Khasab. Our favorite restaurant was a little Iranian place called Restaurant Wadi Qada. It was expensive (for Khasab, but standard for Muscat) but the owner tells you what’s fresh, the pomegranate juice is amazing, the food is top-notch, and the tea is great. I even liked the halwa, and I don’t usually like halwa. Al Shamaliah Grill Restaurant is another popular restaurant, with a good variety of grilled and Indian dishes. The kid’s meal is chicken nuggets, fries, and a hamburger bun. We combined that with a lemon mint drink, and M was in seventh heaven. Notably, Al Shamaliah will deliver, so if you don’t have a car you can just give them a call! There are a number of other restaurants in Khasab; these are just the ones we went to.

Call the phone numbers at the bottom of the menu for delivery!

Iranian tea at Restaurant Wadi Qada

Iranian halwa is less greasy than Omani halwa

Grilled fish at Wadi Qada

Delightfully empty aisles at the Khasab Lulu

A trip to Musandam might be a lot easier than you’d expect, and it’s definitely a part of Oman that is worth visiting. Hopefully you’ll have better weather than we did!

The Musandam coastline along the road

Our trip to Masirah Island (plus some tips)

White sand, fishing boats and turquoise water: welcome to Masirah Island

Over the long weekend for President’s Day we went to Masirah Island and it was amazing. We had a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach mostly to ourselves and the weather was perfect.

We collected shells and M used them to decorate the bushes

You can camp just about anywhere on the island, except on the military bases, and a friend gave us the turn-off spot for the camping area that her friends always use. We drove down a sandy dirt road until we reached a spot that looked good right by the coast, down the beach a ways from some fishing boats, and we set up camp.

The area around our campsite

We spent the days exploring the beach, collecting shells, and building sand castles. M kept himself busy looking for crabs, until he lost his footing on some rocks, stuck his hand into a crevice to keep from falling, and a hiding crab pinched him. My god did he scream, poor kid. The evenings were spent cooking, drinking wine, taking pictures of the sunset, and reading around the campfire. It was a lovely two days and I just wish we’d had more time.

When the red wine’s been sitting in a hot car and you’re out of ice, you have to improvise to cool it off

Campfire spaghetti and meatballs: some of the best I’ve ever had!

Sunset at the “crab rocks” by our campsite 

We spent some time driving around the island and exploring a little, but mostly we just stayed on our stretch of beach. As usual, I have a few trips to help you make the most out of your time there:

  • You can drive around the island in a sedan, but to really explore it you need 4WD. Only count on being able to drive on the paved roads in a sedan. We definitely would have gotten stuck several times if we hadn’t had 4WD.

Good luck exploring this “road” in a sedan!

  • The west side is less windy than the east side.
  • There are several options for sleeping other than camping on the island. There’s a kite surfing camp plus a number of other hotels.

The colorful tents at the kite surfing camp

They even have rules

  • Bring everything you anticipate needing with you. Chances are you’re not on the island for more than two or three nights and you’ll want to spend the time enjoying the beaches or exploring, rather than driving 45 minutes one-way back to town for supplies

The thriving metropolis of Hilf

  • If you take the road from Sinaw to Mahoot, you might see some camels practicing racing or some actual camel racing! You will also see an amazing sign in Mahoot for a “tire puncher” shop. I think they meant “tire puncture.”

Practicing camel racing!

If you’re thinking about making the trip to Masirah, do it! We loved it, and we are really bummed out that we don’t have the time to make another trip there before we leave. Once again, Oman never fails to impress us with its natural beauty.

Snapshots: Bimmah Sinkhole

Bimmah Sinkhole, with the Hajar Mountains in the background

I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to Bimmah. It’s always a fun place to stop on the way to Wadi Shab or Fins beach, and there’s a playground that M really enjoys. There are clean bathrooms and spigots to refill water bottles, plus some nice shaded picnic pavilions.

There used to be a rope tied to a rock at the back of the swimming hole so you could easily climb the wall and jump off, but the last time I was there the rope and rock were gone. Even without the rope, it is still possible to carefully scale the wall and jump off one of the ledges. The water is also full of tiny little fish that will nibble on your toes and give you some free skin exfoliation. Yet another reason we love Bimmah!

The stairs down into the water

Another view of Bimmah

Where Peace Corps meets #MeToo

It’s Peace Corps week!  A few years ago. to commemorate Peace Corps week, I shared snippets of emails that I sent back to my friends and family while serving in Moldova, and today I’m writing about a part of my Peace Corps experience that I’ve never talked about publicly before. At this point it’s a secret I’m tired of keeping.

One night in December 2006 I took the evening rutiera (minibus) from Chisinau back to my village. The thing with this rutiera route was that it didn’t stop at my village: its route ended in the village next to mine, which was about a 10 minute walk away. I got off the rutiera around 10 pm and started walking briskly to my house. Two men came up behind me and I said hello. They said hello back, dragged me kicking and screaming into an field, made me take off all my clothes, and then they raped me. One of them kept raping me while the other went back to the village to grab some friends so that they could rape me too.

To make a long story short, I pressed charges immediately and all the men went to jail for six years. The truly disgusting part? I found out later that one of the rapists (who’s face I couldn’t see at the time) was a student of mine.

I was medically evacuated to Washington, DC a few weeks afterwards and they asked me if I wanted to go back to Moldova. I immediately said, “yes” because, come hell or high water, I was not going to let my rapists decide the course of my life. I had wanted to do Peace Corps so badly, and they were not going to take that away from me. I was placed at a different site with a lovely host family and fantastic counterparts. I was glad I went back, and I got to finish my Peace Corps service on my own terms.

Peace Corps (both the country office and headquarters) handled the rape as best they could, and I don’t fault them for anything. I was a woman walking by myself at night, something I assumed was safe BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You’ll notice that I didn’t title this blog post “My Peace Corps Story,” or something like that, because it isn’t. There is so much more to my Peace Corps experience than being raped, and it in no way defines that experience. In fact, I’d eagerly do Peace Corps again if given the chance. When I think back on Peace Corps, I remember meeting Nate, my awesome group of peer educators, my friends, how hard my counterparts really did try, the cold winters (and poopsicles in the outhouse), and how much I hated potatoes and dill. That right there is my Peace Corps story.

I’ve put a lot of time, energy and tears into processing being raped. I treat being a rape survivor kind of like how I would manage having a tail (yes, like the tail that a dog or cat has. Bear with me here; this is all metaphorical). Humans don’t have tails, but I do, and I used to be ashamed by it and try to keep it hidden. Hardly anyone knew about it, and sometimes its presence would make me really upset because I didn’t know how to deal with it. So I figured out how to keep it stuffed away, hidden from everyone. But, now, I don’t care that I have a tail. Some of the most amazing women I know also have tails. It doesn’t define who I am, but it is part of me. And I am not ashamed of who I am.

I am myself: I am a strong, fun, loving, interesting, bad-ass, experienced woman. I am also a wife, a mother, a friend, a public health professional, an athlete, a photographer, a tour guide, and a rape survivor. I am proud to be me.