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.

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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.

Snapshots: Snorkeling at the Daymaniyat Islands

A turtle coming up for air

First, another administrative note: I created a Facebook page for the blog! “Like” it or not, either is fine by me. There I’ll be sharing photos, videos, and opinions (of which I have many) that might not make it onto the blog otherwise. There’s a link to it on the right side-bar, above the “tags,” probably not too far from this text. Moving on to the good stuff….

One of my favorite things to do in Oman is to go snorkeling at the Daymaniyat Islands. It’s the one thing we always try to do with our guests, and I usually schedule it for during the week because there are less people. Plus I get to take a day off work! We almost always go with Daymaniyat Shells, which is a wonderful, environmentally-conscious company run by Leah and Fahad. The boat leaves from Al Mouj marina at 8 am and we’re usually back by 1:30 or 2 pm, sometimes a little later. They provide all equipment, towels, snacks, beverages, etc, so all you need to bring is sunscreen and your camera!

The Daymaniyat Islands are a government-protected turtle breeding area, and humans are only allowed on the islands from November 1 through April 30 because the turtle breeding and hatching season is finished by then. You are basically guaranteed to see turtles whenever you go snorkeling, in addition to lots of fish, beautiful coral, and maybe some sharks and rays. My favorite snorkeling area is Three Sisters Bay. The coral there is stunning, especially at low tide!

Turtles having a snack

Turtle close-up!

This guy was in super shallow water and the tide kept pushing me really close to him. He didn’t seem to mind!

There are lots of beautiful fish in addition to turtles! This was the first time I’d ever seen this kind of fish and they were probably foot long at least. According to Google these are black spotted sweetlips.

A large, territorial flute fish

A school of black-finned melon butterfly fish

A Sohal surgeonfish, which you will see EVERYWHERE in the reefs here

Are those tuna? Or sharks? The jury is still out.

A very large honeycomb moray. If you go to Fahal Island you’ll see these everywhere.

Clownfish! Did you know that clownfish are hermaphrodites? They start as males and later turn into females. Gives a whole new level of crazy to “Finding Nemo.”

Boats docked by one of the many islands in January, when people are allowed on the islands.

Clear blue water

Along the beach on one of the islands

How to get tickets for the National Ferries Company

The NFC ferry to Masirah Island

We recently returned from a trip to Masirah Island, and the most difficult part of the trip was getting the ferry tickets with the National Ferries Company (NFC). Today I am here to explain exactly how to make a reservation, pay, and, importantly, actually get the ferry tickets with step-by-step instructions so you don’t make the same mistakes we did!

NFC ferries are labeled with the destination on the side

It’s a catamaran ferry!

I will make one caveat: maybe there’s an easier way (and I’m missing something huge). If there is, we are completely unaware of it. However, if you follow these instructions, it should be a relatively painless process.

  1. Email reservation@nfc.om with the ferry dates and times you want, round-trip. Ferry schedules can be found here. Attach copies of the front and back of your vehicle registration license and copies of the passport biodata page for each traveler. Also give them your phone number. They responded to my email quickly, giving us the reservation the following day.
  2. Print a copy of the reservation and go to the office in Muttrah (by the flour factory) to pay. You must pay in advance of the trip.
  3. Now you are ready to drive to the ferry dock, with your payment and reservation confirmation in-hand. When driving to Shannah port, you have to turn right to drive down the long narrow jetty to the pier. Rather than turning right, turn left first to go to the National Ferries Company office to get your actual tickets. This should not take long. [Side note: ferries usually start boarding about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time and I’ll tell you now that there is not a lot to do at the dock other than take photos and roast in the sun.]
  4. Board the ferry and give your tickets to the NFC employee. Make sure you keep your reservation and payment confirmation papers.
  5. When you are ready to board the ferry to come back from your trip, once again you need to get the actual tickets. On Masirah Island, the NFC office has clear signage and is almost directly across from the ferry dock.

You have to get camels to the island somehow…

Overall, we were really impressed with the NFC ferries. They were good-sized catamaran ferries with separate air-conditioned cabins (with clean bathrooms!) for families and men. M had a blast running around in the cabin with all the little Omani kids. The sun deck is bare-bones, and has no shaded areas and only benches to sit on. And the thin cables under the railing weren’t enough to keep me from worrying about M falling overboard.

The roof deck

I’d definitely rather take the NFC ferry than any of the other options! “Safety first,” indeed.

Some of the other Masirah ferry options available

SAFETY FIRST

You couldn’t pay me enough to get on this boat

 

Tips and Tricks for Wadi Shab

View along the Wadi Shab hiking path

Wadi Shab is, by far, the most popular wadi for tourists to hike when they come to Oman. It’s less than 2 hours from Muscat, there’s a well-marked path, and the first third is basically flat. All of the basic wadi-hike guidelines apply to Wadi Shab: bring water, sunscreen, snacks, and a lifejacket if you plan on getting in the water but can’t swim.

One of the pools you have to swim through to get to the cave

Wadi Shab isn’t complicated, and we’ve hiked it  numerous times, sometimes with M, sometimes without. Some of the trips there have been more successful and/or enjoyable than others, and here are some tips and tricks that will help you make the most out of your Wadi Shab trip excursion!

  • Go to Bimmah Sinkhole first. It’s so close-by you might as well visit, and I always enjoy it, plus it’s free. Some people think it’s a let-down but I think they’re just no fun. If you save it for afterwards you might be too tired or in too much of a hurry to get back to Muscat and you  might not stop.
  • Do not go on a weekend or an Omani holiday. It will be packed.
  • Don’t go right after a lot of rain. The wadi will contain more water than normal and you won’t be able to easily (or safely) get into the cave at the end. Also the water won’t be as clear and blue because of all the extra sediment.

    We hiked Wadi Shab in October 2018 and this area, which is generally mostly dry, was completely flooded.

    Do you see the white bird?

  • Wear shoes that you can wear in the water and on land. I always wear Chacos, but Tevas, Keens, etc all work well too. You do not want to make the trip to the cave in the back barefoot.
  • When the hike turns to the left and you see a long pool full of people relaxing and picnicking, stop hiking. This is basically where the hike ends, and from here you swim and scramble over rocks to get to the cave.
  • Slide over the rocks on your butt when they get slippery. I have seen numerous people fall on the slippery rocks between the pools by the cave. It might look silly, but if you’re already on your butt and you hit a slippery spot, you don’t have too far to go. This is especially  helpful when coming out of the cave and heading back to the main pool.

    The cave with the waterfall at the end of Wadi Shab

    Squeezing out of the tiny narrow opening from the cave

  • Bring at least one large waterproof bag. When you reach the part where you have to start swimming, transfer all valuables and anything else you can’t stand to lose into the waterproof bag and then just stash your backpacks and camel backs.
  • Bring a carrier for children three years old and under. This hike is definitely possible with little kids, and I’ve seen a strong two-year old complete 90% of it on her own. When we take M we always carry him in a pack, and if he wants to hike it, fine, but it’s always good to have the option to easily carry him. If your kids are experienced careful hikers, they’ll have no problems with Wadi Shab.
  • If you’re not a relatively strong swimmer don’t go to the cave without a life jacket. There’s nowhere to rest and you have to tread water the entire time.

Even though I’ve been a number of times, I enjoy Wadi Shab and each time I notice something new. The beauty of Oman never ceases to amaze me!

Time to swim!

More beautiful views along the trail

Snapshots: Muqil Pools at Wadi Bani Khalid

The first large pool at Muqil Pools

First, a housekeeping note. I’m introducing a new series of posts on the blog called “snapshots” (super inventive, I know). There are lots of neat things do to in Oman that don’t require a lot of explanation, or, even though I enjoy them, I simply don’t have much to say. But what I do have is lots of neat photos! First up is the Muqil Pools at the northern end of Wadi Bani Khalid.

Swimming in the crystal blue pools further up the wadi

The best way to finish off a desert glamping trip is with a stop at the Muqil Pools. It’s about an hour away from the major desert camps in the Wahiba Sands, and you can enjoy the beauty of a wadi without any of the work. You can find it easily in Waze, and then it’s just a quick walk. There’s a restaurant where you can get lunch and there are also a number of nice picnic spots.  Keep walking up the wadi to find some nice swimming spots. If you want to do a real wadi hike, Wadi Bani Khalid goes in the other direction too and is called Wadi Hayer or Hawer. OmanTripper has a good post about that. We haven’t checked it out yet, but we hope to before July!

The view of the pools, looking in the direction of the parking lot

Looking towards the parking area, from even further back in the wadi

The wadi gets a lot prettier the further in you go. There are also a lot less people.

The big pay-off: swimming in the beautiful pools all by yourself!

Let’s go to the fair! I mean, the Muscat Festival.

Omani women preparing traditional foods and coffee at the Muscat Festival

The Muscat Festival is back in town! It runs until February 9 in Al Amerat and Naseem Park (near Seeb).  We’ve only been to the Al Amerat location and it’s a lot of fun. It’s basically Oman’s county fair, and there are rides, animals, performances, vendors, fireworks, and everything else you could hope for.

There are essentially four parts to it: the heritage village (which is where we spend most of our time), the rides, the performance stages, and the exhibitor booths. The heritage village has camels, goats, Omani street food, traditional music and dancing, donkey rides, etc and is the most fun to explore. The rides are over-priced and not really suitable for toddlers.

One thing that threw me for a loop: each seated performance venue has one entrance for men and one for families. So if you’re a woman, don’t use the men-only entrance, and if you’re a dude with a family, use the family entrance. And if you’re a woman without a family, still use the family entrance (because why would you go out in public without your family?). There are also separate booths for men and women to buy entrance tickets. The lines on the women-only were nonexistent, so Nate waited with M while I bought our tickets. The tickets were super-cheap, by the way: only 200 baisa (about 50 cents) for adults and 100 baisa for kids.

There’s fried dough balls dipped in honey or chocolate, Omani crepe things, samosas and other yummy food, plus a food stand (with seating) selling biryani, corn on the cob, Omani food and shawarma in the heritage village. I think the food options there are definitely the best.

If you haven’t been yet, make sure you find time to visit the Muscat Festival by the end of the weekend!

A traditional music performance in the heritage village. The guy with the white beard is balancing a sword on his finger!

Chilling out in a traditional Omani tent

Bedouin women selling their wares. And goats.

Camels! M got to pet the one wearing the muzzle.

Every country seems to have its own version of the ubiquitous group circle dance

The men aren’t the only ones who get to dress up and perform!

There are several performance stages; this is the main one.

Mosquitoes, a half marathon, a trip to the vet and other Muscat happenings

This photo has nothing to do with anything in this blog post. I just think it’s pretty.

I’m not sure how much my readers get out of my random posts about our life here in Oman, but they are my favorites to go back and read later, full of little details and anecdotes that I’ll otherwise forget.

My public health and Oman worlds are finally colliding! Given the lack of vector-borne diseases here, I thought the “Beware of schistosomiasis” signs at the wadis in Salalah were all I’d get.  But last month a few cases of locally transmitted non-imported dengue were reported around Muscat. Now the Ministry of Health is going house-to-house distributing information on how to eliminate breeding sites and decrease the number of mosquitoes. They are also fogging and spraying around town, including in our neighborhood. One morning I stepped outside at 5:15 am to go for a run to find a cloud of chemicals sitting in our carport. My half-asleep first thought was, “Huh. I’ve never gotten to run through fog like this before! Good thing E [my running buddy] has a head-lamp.” Then I took a breath a realized it was not the nice kind of fog. Another time I was running by a construction site and I had to go through another thick chemical cloud. Luckily the other side of the street wasn’t as bad. Who knows how many years I’ve shaved off my lifespan by inhaling all those chemicals. But hey, at least all my mosquito knowledge is coming in handy!

Speaking of running, I ran my second Muscat Half Marathon a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, it sucked more than any race has ever sucked before in my life. I had a super-strong training cycle, full of intervals, tempo runs and long runs at my fastest paces yet. But the temperature on race day was unseasonably high and there were only hydration stations on the half marathon course, plus I went in with tired legs. I drank all the water I was carrying in probably the first 7 miles, and I was hot and exhausted. I didn’t do myself any favors by snorkeling for 2 hours and then hikingthe Muttrah Geotrek on Wednesday, with which I followed up by hiking Wadi Shab on Thursday, the day before the race. All that activity right before the race might have been a poor choice, but I don’t regret it. My sister was visiting and I’d much rather do all those fun things (which were perfect, by the way. The snorkeling at Daymaniyat Islands has never been better and we had the crystal blue waters of Wadi Shab to ourselves. I was literally the first person into Bimmah Sinkhole that morning!) and have a sub-par race than to skip those things and potentially PR. A race is a just a run, of which there will be many more, but experiencing Oman with my sister and her fiancé only happens once.

Sunrise over the start of the Muscat Marathon races this year

Was a day spent in these waters worth a disappointing race? Definitely!

When my sister was visiting, we went to Desert Nights in the Wahiba Sands. Everyone said that Desert Nights is the best way to experience the desert in Oman, aside from actual camping, and this is 10000% correct. It’s also the most expensive glamping option available, but it is definitely worth it. I didn’t like 1000 Nights. I drafted a blog post about why it sucked, but I have yet to publish it. 1000 Nights wasn’t particularly bad, but a lot of factors came together and it was a less-than-pleasant experience. Did we have fun there with our friends? Yes. Would I stay there again? Nope. Desert Nights, on the other hand, gets an enthusiastic two thumbs up!

Sunset over the Wahiba Sands

Sunrise over the Wahiba Sands, 11 hours later

We’ve recently had our first real experience with veterinary care in Oman, and overall it was very positive and inexpensive. We’ve been lucky with Athena over the past few years because she hasn’t had any serious health problems. Somehow she made it through Dhaka without a single issue, which was great because there was like one qualified veterinarian in the whole country. Anyways, lately she’s been coughing, hacking and vomiting a lot. Like, puking at least once a day, sometimes more. We had dewormed her and we started giving her chicken and rice, in hopes that a bland diet would help. It didn’t. We took her to vet and they did a physical, ran a blood panel, and prescribed a week of gastric-acid decreasing medicine and some prescription dog food. His diagnosis was that she’s an old dog with a sensitive stomach who might be allergic to chicken. Sure enough, ever since then she’s stopped coughing and hacking and she hasn’t vomited once. Oh, and the whole bill, prescriptions and everything, was less than $200. Whew!

Things are also falling into line for our Windhoek PCS. Trainings are scheduled, home leave is getting sorted, M has preschool lined up, and Athena has her 2-month long boarding reservation in the books. I know that no matter how much we square away now, there’s always going to be a final rush to get everything done. But the idea is that the more we deal with now, piece by piece, the less we’ll be slammed at the end and we can still take our last weekends here to enjoy Oman. Time will tell on how that pans out. Until then, more adventures await!

The Muttrah Geotrek

Hike the old trading trail through the mountains behind Muttrah

If you want to go on a moderately easy hike with amazing views without even having to leave Muscat, this is the hike for you! The hike starts at Riyam Park and finishes near the Muttrah Souk, and the whole thing takes less than 3 hours.

See the faint path running diagonally up the side of the mountain? That is the start of the trail.

When you pull into the parking lot at Riyam park, look at the mountains surrounding you, and you’ll see a rock path leading up the mountain. To start the hike, walk back towards the houses directly behind the car park area. It feels like you’re walking into someone’s back yard, but soon you’ll see stone steps leading up and the trail is pretty easy to find from there.

The beginning of the path

The initial climb up the stone stairs and stone path is probably the most strenuous part of the hike. The rocks can be slippery from wear and if you’re scared of heights it can be a little hairy. But it really isn’t too bad. My seven-year old nephew easily completed it.

A particularly easy section along the mountain ridge

Don’t lose sight of the flags marking the path

There are a few spots where the path continues straight, but you are supposed to turn, so keep a look-out for that. In the winter months there can also be pools of water in the path, and making your way around those can be interesting. The last time we did the hike there was far more water and greenery than expected due to a few rainy weeks in the months prior.

When there’s water, it’s fun to figure out the best way to get around it!

Look at the vegetation cascading down the rocks!

For this part of Oman, that is a *lot* of greenery

There are yellow, white and red painted trail markers, and in some cases red arrows, pointing you in the right direction. You’ll get stunning views of Riyam Park and the coast, plus a great bird’s-eye view of the Sultan’s yachts (yes, that’s plural).

Riyam Park

See those boats that look like cruise ships? Those are the Sultan’s yachts. He’s a lucky dude.

The trail ends in a cemetery and from here you follow the road straight to the Muttrah corniche. You can easily visit the Mutrah fort on your walk back to the car, which is definitely a worthwhile detour.

Muttrah Fort on a rare cloudy day