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.


On getting scuba certified

The world looks different from 50 feet under water

That’s right, I am now a PADI open water scuba diver! For me, it’s a pretty big deal. I was really nervous and hesitant, primarily since scuba diving goes against one of my main survival instincts: sinking is bad.

Maybe a year before we were scheduled to arrive in Muscat, Nate said the one thing he really wanted to do was get scuba certified.  My response was a half-hearted “Okay….” and I kind of hoped he would forget about it. But every time someone asked us about moving to Oman, Nate would talk about how excited he was to get scuba certified and I would usually smile wanly and say, “Well, it’s something I’m really scared to do, so I guess that means I should give it a try.” (And in the meantime, I still kept hoping Nate would forget or get too busy or something.)

Fast-forward to Nate’s first day at the embassy here. He came home and immediately said, “I already got a recommendation for a dive shop to use for our scuba qualification!”

Well, shit.

Fast-forward maybe another month or so and I had gone on a few snorkeling trips. The one big conclusion I drew from snorkeling was that if I really wanted to see anything, I’d need to learn how to scuba dive. The water is deep in the reefs here and everything interesting is usually pretty far below. I met one of the dive instructors on a snorkel trip and he seemed like a cool dude, and I was slowly starting to come around to the idea of scuba diving. Nate said he wanted to get scuba certified for his birthday, so I decided it was time to bite the bullet and just do it.

A tiny anemone with some tiny clownfish

We decided to use the local branch of EuroDivers, and it was a great experience. EuroDivers came highly recommended because they have no minimum class size and the instructors take their time with the students and don’t rush you through anything.  We did the online theory portion at home, and then we had 3 diving sessions. For the first diving session we were in a swimming pool, the second time we did two dives off a beach, and for the third and final session we did two dives off a boat.

A note about the theory portion: if you plan to do the PADI open water scuba class and you want to do the theory at home, be forewarned that it is a slog. We’re talking five on-line modules, most with over 200 powerpoint slides. It takes a minimum of eight hours and you have to pay attention to the whole thing since they’re basically telling you how to not die.

For the first session, Nate and I were with three other students in the pool, but for the beach dives it was just us and the instructor. When we did the last two dives off the boat it was the two of us with two instructors. The amount of personal attention we received was really helpful given my inclination to freak out.

Reef wall in the Maldives

Initially I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy it, but now I love it. It’s incredible to think that the earth is over 50% water, and humans get to see less than half the world. On our second dive off Fahal Island we were encircled by a massive school of little barracuda. We swam over moray eels with heads literally the size of a person’s head, which was alarming but incredible. In the Maldives we dove along a reef wall that was over 100 feet tall. By scuba diving you get to see some of that other 50+% and as long as you float along and don’t touch anything, you are able to move easily in that other environment. That, my friends, is amazing and it’s a surreal experience.

If you’re thinking about getting scuba qualified, do it! If I can do it, anyone can.

Tips for air travel with a baby

Next week M and I are heading out on our second trans-oceanic flight just the two of us. (No, we are not going back to Dhaka.) And, I’ll be honest, I’m not exactly looking forward to it.  He’s getting more mobile and he’s definitely not as easy to fly with as he was when he didn’t move, basically only needed milk and diaper changes, and would just sleep the entire time.

M and I have flown a lot together, and several people have asked me if I have any tips for flying with a baby.  While my general parenting style is to wing it because I usually have no idea what the hell I’m doing, I do actually have some advice to give on baby air travel.

Always get a window seat!  You have more space and both of you are less likely to get whacked by baggage or a beverage cart.

Always get a window seat. You have more space and both of you are less likely to get whacked by baggage or a beverage cart.

Pack more diapers than you think you’ll need in your carry-on.  Delays, lost luggage, super nasty dumps and all sorts of unfortunate things can happen.  While you’re at it, also pack extra outfits for both of you.  I’ve never needed them, but I’m pretty sure the day I don’t pack extra clothes will be the day M gets bodily fluid all over both of us. As Scar says, “Be prepared!”

You can break the four ounce liquid rule when traveling with a baby.  So bring food pouches, leave water in the sippy cup, and pack what you need to keep your baby happy.

Dress your baby in cute clothes. People are more inclined to like babies that look adorable.

Wear shoes you can take off/put on with no hands or one hand. In case you have to hold your baby and take your shoes off or put them on.

When people offer to help you, always say “yes.” This may mean a stranger holds your baby for a few seconds and that’s okay. They’re offering to help because they think you need it, and, speaking from experience, you probably do.

Don’t be afraid to ask a complete stranger for help. Once I asked an older gentleman if he could hold M for a minute while I untangled the folded stroller and diaper bag. Another time I asked a man (the pilot, it turned out) if he could hold M while I, yet again, untangled the darn stroller.  After he handed M back to me he showed me a picture of his toddler.  Generally, people want to help you. Put your pride aside and be reminded of the kindness of complete strangers.

Also, know how to fold and unfold your stroller with one hand.

You can wear your baby through security without removing him/her from the carrier.  You’ll get a pat-down but they can’t make you take off your Ergo, wrap, etc.

Don’t apologize.  You’re traveling with a baby: you’re not doing anything wrong. If anyone actually has the gall to say something rude to you (this has never happened to me but it’s good to be prepared), you can remind them that at they were once a baby and they probably annoyed people too.

Don’t bring toys on the plane that could roll away.  So, no balls and invest in triangular crayons.

If possible, buy a seat for your baby. We do this for long flights (4+ hours) and everyone sleeps better.  A note about airline bassinets: they are usually located under a screen in the bulkhead area.  So keep this in mind if you think your baby won’t be able to sleep with a light-emitting, potentially interesting screen directly overhead.

No matter how terrible it is, the time will pass.  Hopefully your baby will sleep the whole time and crying will be minimal.  But if this isn’t the case, time will march on, albeit slowly, and the flight will eventually be over.  And, when the going gets rough, hopefully you’re on an international flight where the booze are free.  No judgement. You’ll probably never see your fellow travelers again anyways.

How to bring a dog to Bangladesh

The most stressful part of the move was, by far, figuring out how to get Athena to Dhaka.  There weren’t a lot of resources available online, and it was hard to figure out exactly what we were supposed to do.  Even so, we were lucky to have the support of the embassy and this was also a huge help.

We decided to use Qatar Airways, and we’d heard generally good things about flying with pets on Qatar. Plus, the route was the fastest available with only one layover.  (Although, if you have a small dog or cat that usually fits under the seat, note that you can’t carry on your pet with Qatar.  The only animals allowed in cabin are service animals and falcons.  Up to ten falcons, in fact.  How does one person even carry ten falcons?)  Our other option was Turkish Airways, and the internet abounds with horror stories about Turkish and pets.  So, Qatar it was.

Here’s the basic timeline that we followed:

3 months before departure: We got Athena’s health certificate and vaccination record from the vet, which we sent to the embassy, along with her rabies certificate, so we could get her no-objection import certificate from the Bangladeshi government. She also got all the vaccinations she’d need over the next few months. At this point I called Qatar Airways just to make sure we could bring our dog with us and to find out more specifics.  They asked what breed she was (the list of breeds they won’t fly is extensive), told me it would cost $250, and said to call back a few weeks before the flight.

2 months: We got Athena’s no-objection import certificate.  It said she was yellow, but she’s black, and when we asked if this would be a problem we were told not to worry.  (I printed copies of this email to take with us on the plane because I was still worried.)

6 weeks: We realized Athena’s rabies certificate would expire while we were there, so she got another rabies vaccination.  We also ordered Athena a new travel crate because her current crate wasn’t quite tall enough for her to stand up perfectly straight and still have a few inches of head clearance.  Besides the new crate, we also purchased a doggy travel crate kit, which included metal nuts and bolts, “live animal” stickers for the crate, travel tags, zip ties, and some other things.  Oh, and at this point we realized Athena would need to go on a diet.  The weight limit for a dog plus crate on Qatar is 32 kilograms, which is 70.5 lbs.  She weighed 48 lbs, and the new crate supposed weighed about 25 lbs. We didn’t start starving her, but her amount of food was decreased by about a quarter.

4 weeks: The new crate arrived and it was massive.  Like, I could fit into it if I wanted. Athena doesn’t mind going into crates generally, but she was wary of this one.  We started leaving pieces of cheese and other things in it to encourage her to go in there on her own, that worked well.  I weighed the crate at it came in at a whopping 26 lbs.  At this point Nate also called Qatar to confirm our reservation and to let them know we were bringing a dog.  They told us to call 15 days before departure with crate dimensions and Athena’s weight. The doggy diet continued.

Here is her crate along with the rest of our luggage (2 huge suitcases, 2 hiking backpacks and 2 carry-on roller bags). The crate was almost the same size as the 6 other bags.

Here is her crate along with the rest of our luggage (2 huge suitcases, 2 hiking backpacks and 2 carry-on roller bags). The crate was almost the same size as the 6 other bags.

(Also, we encountered varying levels of competence when calling Qatar to ask about bringing a dog.  Nate’s strategy was to hang up each time until a woman answered, as the women were typically more helpful than the men.  But the one time I called, a man answered and he was helpful.  So experiences vary here for everyone.)

15 days: Nate called Qatar and officially added Athena to our reservation.  He gave them her breed, crate dimensions, our flight confirmation number, and weight, and they told us to bring her to check-in desk with the rest of our luggage when we checked in for the flight, along with a health certificate dated within 10 days of the flight.  He received a confirmation email, which we printed and took with us to the airport.

5 days: We took Athena to the vet for her new health certificate and to get her teeth cleaned.  She weighed in at 42.8 lbs.  Success!!!

The day before: We took Athena to visit her sister-from-a-different-mister, Mika.  They ran around and played and then cuddled together.  We were trying to tire Athena out so she’d hopefully just rest and sleep on the flight.

The day of the flight: Athena got her breakfast, and that was her last meal before the flight, even though we weren’t leaving until 9 pm.  We went for a nice long walk on King St, and then we brought her to our house one last time while we did some last minute yard work.  We were thinking she’d enjoy the time in the yard, but it was so hot she just wanted to go inside.  She was barred from inside since the cleaners had already come, so instead she flopped down in one of her favorite shady places.

Athena by one of the many shady bushes she likes to lie under.

Athena by one of the many shady bushes she likes to lie under.

On the recommendation of my sister, who had previously flown with her dog, we also bought her a can of wet food for after the flight.  We knew she’s probably arrive dehydrated, and since she hadn’t eaten she’d probably be hungry too, so wet food was a good way to solve both those problems.  Plus, after subjecting her to over 20 hours of travel time, we wanted to show her that we do actually still love her.  Poor girl.

Before leaving, we printed several copies of her flight confirmation, new health certificate, rabies certificate, no-objection import certificate and the email stating it was okay that her color was wrong. We left for the airport 4 hours before our flight was scheduled to leave so we’d have plenty of time to check in. We took her into the airport with us, armed with plenty of treats in case she freaked out, and we checked in our luggage and then they put Athena’s crate on the scale and she hopped on in.  The whole package weighed 32.6 kilograms, which was alright with Qatar (hurray!!!).  A woman who appeared to be in charge of pet shipment came out and looked over her documents and checked to make sure the crate was big enough.  I was so glad we’d purchased the bigger crate…. whew! They photocopied all the documentation, but didn’t attach any of it to her crate. Also, we had to pay $350 instead of $250. Oh well.

After that we walked over to a special screening area, where a TSA agent inspected the crate.  Then we loaded her up, zip-tied the door shut, and she went off with a porter to wherever the dogs go to get on planes.

Upon arrival in Dhaka: We were told she’d come out by the baggage carousel, and, sure enough, eventually she did!  Her crate came out with a luggage worker holding on so it didn’t fall off the carousel.  Nate picked up Athena and her crate as soon as he could, and we were both flooded with relief.  Her little dish with water had fallen and her crate door was still zip-tied shut, so we knew they hadn’t taken her out in Doha.  We had taped a baggie with some of her food to the outside of her crate in case they had a chance to feed her, but when we arrived it was still intact.  So basically she’d been without food and water for who knows how long.  She was panting, but alert and calm, and she started wagging her tail as soon as she saw us, so we knew she’d handled the flight alright.  No one checked any of the documents we’d worked so hard to get (better that than scrutinize them though, so I’ll take it), and we basically just picked up her crate and wheeled it away to the car.

When we got to our apartment we let her have a few sips of water at a time, although she clearly could have drunk several bowls full.  She hadn’t made any messes in her crate, and she was very relieved when she finally had a chance to potty.  Athena was also really excited to get that wet food.

The following days in Dhaka: Now we are dealing with the unexpected (although not surprising) issue of doggy jetlag.  Basically, she wakes up around 3 am, jumps out of bed, and starts wandering around the apartment.  And sometimes she’ll jump back up in bed and just stare at us.

Athena exploring her new roof top.

Athena exploring her new roof top.

Overall, she is adjusting really well to life here.  Lately she’s started trying to drink puddle water, so we will have to start carrying water for her with us on longer walks.  But she doesn’t bat an eye at the rickshaws, motorcycles, stray dogs or crowds of people.

I’m sure there are details that I’ve forgotten, and I’ll update this post as I think of them!

First days in Dhaka

We made it! Our little family officially now resides in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

After 24 hours total of travel time, we arrived in Dhaka at 4 am, and all we really cared about was seeing Athena.

There were some electricity problems on the plane while we were still on the ground at Dulles, and Athena was removed from the cargo hold until the electricity was back up and running.  Nate checked with the flight attendants and they said she was taken off the plane, but then the electricity started working and we pushed off, and we had no idea if they’d actually put Athena back on the plane.

In Doha we checked at the transfer desk to see if she had been on our flight, and they said yes.  We asked again at the check-in desk if she was there and they said yes too, so things were looking hopeful.

At the airport in Dhaka, we were told that Athena would come out on the luggage carousel, and seeing her in her huge crate push past the plastic barrier separating the passenger side of the luggage area from the cargo area was one of the happiest moments of my life.  That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true.  I’d never been so worried for so long in my life.

Athena arrived scared and dehydrated, but she’s resilient and recovered quickly.  Although I think she has jet lag.

Anyways, we were settled into our apartment by 6 am, and we promptly took showers and fell asleep.

We’ve started exploring our neighborhood, and there is still a  lot to do and see.  We’re figuring out which streets have stray dogs, which make walking Athena difficult.  That and the heat.  Oh wow.  Nate deals with it better than I do.  I am so grateful for our apartment and its air conditioning and dehumidifiers.  There are 3 dehumidifiers in our apartment, and they all have to be emptied daily because they fill up so quickly.  It’s crazy. It is going to take me a long time to get used to the climate.

There are lots of feelings and emotions swirling around in my brain comparing this life to Peace Corps.  That probably deserves its own blog post.

We’re happy and excited to finally be here, and we have plans to see more of Dhaka over the next couple of days.  Hopefully one of our first stops will be the grocery store!