Cramming it all in

I already miss my morning runs along the beach.

In my last post I mentioned making a list of all our remaining weekends so we can make sure we cross everything off our bucket list. At this point that strategy has been paying off and we’ve been able to visit several old favorites and also cross some new destinations off the list! I’m not letting myself go down the “this is the last time I’ll ever see x, y, or z” path because that would just be too depressing. Instead I’m enjoying every minute and soaking in as much as I can.

One of my favorite views in Oman: The Al Ain beehive tombs and Jebel Misht

A few weeks ago we went back to Wadi Damm and I was reminded of why it’s easily one of my favorite wadi hikes. It’s not too challenging (in fact, every time we figure out how to make the hike even easier) and the payoff with the beautiful pools at the end is top-notch. This last time we went a week after some big rain storms and I’ve never seen that much water in the wadi before. It was incredible. What’s usually a dry drive was full of splashing through puddles and streams. On the hike out of the wadi we got to talking with some young Omani men and they invited us to share lunch with them. Two hours later, we left the wadi stuffed with watermelon, rice, and chicken. We topped if off by stopping to explore some new ruins that, somehow, we’d never noticed before. The road that leads to Wadi Damm is quickly becoming one of my favorite roads in Oman, there’s so much neat stuff to do off of it. Plus, there’s a really nice clean public toilet that even has toilet paper!

Wadi Damm

How had we never noticed this huge ruined village right beside the road?!

Date palm plantations and a small stream behind the ruins

We were planning to go to Thailand over Eid, but instead we’re going to stick around and squeeze everything we can out of our remaining time in Oman. We’ve done a lot of exploring, but it’s shocking how many new places there are to see! Last weekend we went to Ain Sahban, which deserves its own blog post. That place was incredible. We have plans to finally go camping at Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar, and to stay at one of the fancy mountain resorts. There are dive sites I haven’t been to yet that I want to try, ruins to wander through, and a few forts that look interesting.

Sunset by the Mutrah souk

The most scenic chunk of sidewalk in Muscat

I finally printed some of my favorite photos from our time in Oman, and I have plans to go to a framing shop. We’re so used to electronic copies of photos, sometimes it’s hard to remember to actually print them. I also finally took the gemstones I bought in Sri Lanka to a jeweler in the souk to get set and made into jewelry. I don’t know why I decided to save all these things to the last minute, but better late than never, I guess.

Taking care of business at the jeweler

We’re lucky we have an amazing onward assignment to look forward to. If we were going someplace crappy I don’t know I’d manage leaving here. I’d be an emotional basket case.

It can be hard to be present in the Foreign Service, and that’s something I’m really mindful of.  It’s easy to get caught up in the future and what’s coming, sometimes even if it’s a long ways away. But we haven’t left Oman yet: we are still here. I shouldn’t be sad about leaving when we still have 10 more weeks to make the most of and enjoy with our friends.

We are trying to eat as many masala dosas as we can before we leave

Departing means cleaning out the pork drawer in the freezer! Carnitas tacos, yummmmm.

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Driving from Muscat to Dubai (and back)

Because sometimes camels have to cross the highway

Over the weekend we drove to Dubai to visit some friends from Dhaka that are now posted there. We’d heard that the drive can take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours, depending on how the border goes. There’s not a lot of information available on how exactly to cross the border now that apparently only two border crossings are open to expats entering the UAE. I’ve heard stories about families getting turned away at one checkpoint and needing to go to another, passports not getting stamped, passports disappearing into the immigration building for no apparent reason for nearly an hour or being rejected entirely, and other ridiculousness that can make the trip take forever.

So I’m writing this in case other people want to make the drive and are similarly confused and bewildered about the best way to make the trip. We reached out to everyone we knew that’d done the drive and things went off without a hitch. The drive there took about five hours and 45 minutes, and the drive back was about six hours. (Yes, we could have flown, but it only would have saved us a few hours and we didn’t want to buy plane tickets and pay for a rental car.) There might be a route to take, but this is what worked for us and knowing is half the battle.

Before embarking on the drive, make sure you have the following:

  • Passports (duh): If you are in Oman for diplomatic purposes get a multi-entry UAE visa in your dip passport and travel with that passport! Otherwise use your tourist passport. We brought both just in case and only used the black books.
  • Vehicle registration card
  • Car insurance documents
  • MFA card (if applicable; you might need it coming into Oman so they don’t search your car)
  • Lots of snacks and water
  • Travel packs of tissues for gas station bathrooms with no TP

Leaving Oman, we used the Khatm Al Shakla border crossing (GPS coordinates: 24.226667, 55.956783). To get there, we took the Muscat Expressway north until it ended, and then drove north along the Battinah highway toward Sohar. In Sohar we took Highway 7 (you need to exit the highway before the roundabout or you’ll miss it) straight to the Oman border post. It looks like a big toll gate. After you go through the Omani border checkpoint, you’ll drive another 30+ kilometers to the UAE border. You’ll pass an Al Maha gas station on your right and directly after that, turn right and take the bridge underpass. (This Al Maha is your last chance to get gas in Oman; it’s more expensive in the UAE.) You’ll see signs for the exit. Make sure you take that exit and use the Khatm Al Shakla border crossing. Otherwise you’ll get sent back and it’ll add over an hour to the trip because there is no where to turn around easily.

When you get to the UAE border they will check you passports, car registration and car insurance, each at separate checkpoints (it’s tedious and you feel like they’ll never stop checking your shit, but eventually it does end). At the passport checkpoint we all had to get out and go inside the immigration office, where they examined our passports and UAE visas, stamped the passports, and that was it.

Our first views of the Burj Khalifa entering Dubai were very exciting after hours of desert

Each time after we got our passports stamped we made sure they stamped everyone’s. Otherwise you have to turn around and go back, which can add a lot of time.

It took 2.5 hours to drive to Sohar, just over 3 hours to the border, and we crossed the UAE border at the 4 hour mark. After the border you have to drive through Al Ain, which is kind of annoying because there are a shitload of round-abouts, and from there it’s another 90 minutes to reach Dubai.

A note about navigating: unless you have a UAE SIM card or a Google Fii phone (or you want to pay the ridiculous roaming charges, I guess), once you leave Oman you have no cellular data. I downloaded an app called maps.me which allows you to download maps ahead of time and then does turn-by-turn directions even when your phone is in airplane mode. I didn’t get a chance to test it though, because Nate has Google Fii, which doesn’t work in Oman ironically, but is awesome for travel to other countries because it’s essentially a global data plan. Once we got into the UAE, he swapped out his SIM card and we used his phone to navigate to Dubai. We followed the border fence through Al Ain and then took E-66 straight to Dubai. It was really easy. For a 6 hour drive it went by quickly.

Driving through the mountains of Oman will never get old.

For coming home to Muscat, we plugged the Khatm Al Shakla border crossing into Nate’s phone and followed the directions, making sure we didn’t cross the border until then. His phone kept trying to get us to cross the border earlier, but by then we knew which direction to go.

At the UAE border they asked for our vehicle registration and then printed out and handed us some document specific to our vehicle but it was in Arabic. We had no idea what it was. We handed it to the border guard along with our passports, and we once again had to go into the immigration building to get the passports stamped. At the Oman border they tried to search our vehicle, but once they noticed the diplomatic plates they waved us through.

Eventually the Muscat Expressway will reach all the way up to Sohar and that will cut even more time off the trip. As it was, we took it to Suwayh and I think it was easier than taking the Sultan Qaboos Highway up.

Another perk of driving is that you can stock up on pork products in Dubai, which are pricey, but less expensive than in Oman. For instance, here one pound of American bacon costs nearly $20 (sob) and in Dubai it costs about $9. We came home with a cooler full of brats, sausages, Jimmy Dean sausage, bacon, pork shoulder and pepperoni.

We also found gas canisters for our Coleman camping stove, cheap canned pumpkin (which you can find here, supposedly, but I don’t know where), Sriracha hot sauce, and cheap Pam cooking spray. If I hadn’t been pressed for time due to a sleeping baby and waiting husband in the car, I probably would have found even more good stuff.

Oh, and you may be wondering about how hellish a 6 hour drive is with a 2 year old. It actually wasn’t that bad. He has a Kindle fire that we fill with downloaded Netflix movies and shows, and he is generally happy to watch that, nap occasionally, look at books, and eat snacks.

And then there’s visas. Good grief this post just keeps getting longer and longer. If you’re with the American embassy you can get multi-entry UAE visas in your dip passports. If you’re traveling on a tourist passport you can apparently get visas at the UAE border (and I think they might be no-fee but I’m not 100% certain). If you’re starting your journey in the UAE and coming into Oman you can buy visas at the border.

That said, make the drive! It really wasn’t as bad as we expected it to be.

Returning to DIT-2

Usually the parking lot is packed with cars.  I had no idea there was a fountain.

Usually the parking lot is packed with cars. I had no idea there was a fountain.

Before I left in August on OB medevac, I went to DIT-2 fairly often.  Then the unpleasantness happened, and DIT-2 was outside of the red line and, therefore, out-of-bounds.

Recently, the red line shifted, and now we can go to DIT-2 again.  And that is kind of a big deal because now I can resume buying jewelry with reckless abandon.  Nate is thrilled.

A small sample of the pearls available here

A small sample of the pearls available here

I can’t mention DIT-2 without talking about the last time I went there before flying back to the U.S. It was a Sunday in the beginning of August, around 10 a.m., and it had rained a ton overnight.  Most stores are closed on Sundays, and a large part of the DIT-2 parking lot was roped off, so my driver dropped me off near the curb in an area loaded with enormous puddles.  At this point I was 33 weeks pregnant and my sense of balance was… off.  Anyways, I thought it would be a good idea to leap over one of the puddles, so I aimed carefully and jumped over a puddle probably five feet wide.

Except my foot didn’t hit the spot it was supposed to.  In fact, it landed in an underwater pothole full of six inches of water and I hit the ground in a spectacular fashion.  All I can say is thank god I decided to wear pants that day instead of a skirt.

I fell on my knee and banged it up so badly, it was sore for several months and, now, over six months later, it is still red and scarred.  My handbag and shoes got filled with water and I twisted my other ankle, scrapped my hands, tore my pants and got blood everywhere.

Fun times.

As much as I’m glad we can go back to DIT-2, I think the vendors are even happier.  I have a jewelry vendor that is my favorite, and he was very excited to see me.  Undoubtedly because he knows I’m an easy mark.  Anyhow, here are some photos from my most recent trip to DIT-2.

The DIT-2 Anthropologie of knobs

The DIT-2 Anthropologie of knobs

Compasses and other ship paraphernalia

Compasses and other ship paraphernalia

Sari stamps

Sari stamps

Lots of brass stuff

Lots of brass stuff.  I wonder if that gramophone works.