Bat and Al Ayn Bronze Age Tombs

Al Ayn tombs

We first visited the 5,000 year old Bronze Age tombs at Al Ayn (in Oman, not UAE) several months ago. There’s another archeological site at Bat, maybe 30 minutes from Al Ayn, but when we first went we couldn’t find it. You might think that a UNESCO World Heritage site would have clear directions and labeling, but in Oman that’s not always the case.

We drove in the direction of the Bat Necropolis, thinking we’d see it from the road, and, as we bumped along an unending dirt road, we eventually gave up. We decided we’d go home, research the exact location, and come back knowing exactly where to go.

Remains of a tomb at Bat

Recently we had a chance to give the Bat Necropolis another shot, and this time we were successful! With the help of omantripper.com and precise GPS coordinates (23.274667,56.747666, in case you’re interested) we finally found it. If you use the GPS coordinates, you’ll drive along a paved road with the exact coordinates on the right. Before you reach the exact spot, you’ll notice a break in the fence with a dirt track leading into the site. Take the dirt track, which is most easily navigable with a high clearance vehicle, and you can drive around the Bat necropolis and explore. It’s a big area with rough dirt roads leading all over.

One of several tomb groupings at the Bat Necropolis

From the Bat Necropolis it’s about a 30 minute drive to the Al Ayn tombs, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Bat is more expansive than Al Ayn, but Al Ayn definitely wins for the “wow” factor. You can actually see the tombs from the road as you approach, perched on a ridge with a stunning mountain backdrop. It’s incredibly beautiful, especially in the late afternoon when the lighting is just right.

View of Al Ayn tombs from the road

Reaching the Al Ayn tombs is also a little tricky because, surprise, surprise, there are no signs. Each time we’ve gone, we see vehicles full of tourists stopped, not knowing where to go, and then they follow us in. To get to the tombs, turn to the left off the paved road onto a dirt track before you’ve gone past the tombs. Follow the dirt track up past the houses, and through the opening in the compound walls, where it looks like you’re driving into someone’s back yard. From here go down towards the wadi bed and turn right to drive up the wadi in the direction of the tombs. You’ll see a rough dirt track on an incline off to the left, which leads to a small parking lot. From here it’s a short walk uphill to the tombs.

Apparently the tombs at Bat and Al Ayn are some of the best-preserved Bronze Age tombs in the world. They were constructed 5,000 years ago, which makes them older than the Giza pyramids! It’s remarkable how well they’ve survived the passage of time, but I guess the environment in Oman facilitates that with little rain, climate change, or geological instability.

A note to tourists: please don’t climb on these structures. It may seem obvious, but judging by the number of people we saw climbing on tombs last time we went, apparently it’s not.

 

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Race review: Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Running along the sea during the Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Last month I ran the Muscat Marathon half-marathon, mentioned here, and it was a fun race. I like to write race reviews mostly for my own benefit; they’re fun to go back and read later, but, who knows, I might actually be helping someone that’s considering running the race. If you don’t give a shit about running (and who can blame you) you might not want to waste your time reading this.

The race was run on January 19, 2018 and race registration closed on December 1, 2017. I thought that was a little odd, as it’s almost a two month gap, which is more than enough time to train for a 10 k or, if you’ve got a good running base, a half marathon. The half cost about $65, so is was pricey but nothing too crazy if you’re used to US prices.

The race date was Friday morning (the workweek here is Sunday to Thursday) and packet pick-up was Monday-Wednesday before the race. There was no morning-of packet pick-up. I wish I’d taken a picture of the packet pick-up. It was a huge tent full of tables and volunteers, but hardly any runners were there. I don’t know when people picked up their packets, but it definitely wasn’t 6:30 pm on Wednesday. The guy who gave me my race bib and stuff told me my shirt was in the bag, but I got home and discovered he’d left it on the table. The race was at Al Mouj (formerly The Wave) which is half an hour away, and I wasn’t going to go back and get my shirt. I don’t need another race shirt that badly.

The race was initially going to start at 7 am, but the week before they changed it to 6 am. We left home around 4:30 to make sure we made it in time, and let’s just say we made it with plenty of time to spare. I milled around for over an hour before getting to my starting corral. I couldn’t find the port-a-pots so I used the toilets in the mall, which are really nice (although as we got closer to the race start they ran out of TP and paper towels).

The race started around 6:20 and the first few miles were on brick pavers, then we ran through a sandy construction area for maybe a mile, then it was back onto the brick pavers as we ran through the Al Mouj golf course. Then there was another half mile or so in the construction area, during which I had to stop and dump the sand and pebbles out of my shoes. Next we had another 2 miles on brick pavers before finally hitting asphalt. The brick pavers are no fun because they are particularly hard, whereas asphalt has a little give. There were probably 6 miles on the asphalt, 5 on the brick, and 2 on packed sand.

Sunrise over the mountains while running through the Al Mouj golf course

There were regular hydration and fuel stations, although at the hydration stations they were literally handing out full-sized plastic water bottles. It was so wasteful. I felt like a terrible person for taking a few swigs of water and then throwing a 2/3s full water bottle onto the ground (there were no garbage cans, or recycling, for that matter). There were a few stations with gels and at least one station with bananas.

There wasn’t tons of crowd support, and the course wasn’t particularly scenic, but I still enjoyed it. You run along the sea for a good chunk of it, and the part through the golf course is pretty. Running through the neighborhoods is fun; people are out in the bathrobes with their coffees, kids, and dogs, giving out high-fives.

The end of the race was kind of a mess. I ended as the 5k and 10k races were getting ready to start and the finishing area was jam-packed with people.

The morning of the race was unseasonably warm. I was expecting to be cold standing there in shorts and a tank top at 5:30 am, but I was sadly comfortable. I knew that meant I’d get hot quickly during the race, which unfortunately proved to be true. Thank god for those aid stations with water bottles; I also drank all the water in my hydration belt. When I finished I had crusty salt in my eyebrows.

In summary, the race was disorganized, but it was fun and you could tell the race organizers were trying really hard to make it as good as possible. I think in the years to come it will only get better!

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.

Vacationing, non-biolumnisecent algae, running, and other stuff

Oh, man. Winter is going by way too quickly. I feel like I blinked and January was over. Why is it that time always flies when you’re having fun? Never in my life have I been like, “Well that sucked. Thank god it was over quickly.”

Sunrise over paradise

Nate and I spent five days in the Maldives and it was the most vacationy vacation I’ve ever had. It was fantastic. In case you have questions about our trip, here are my responses to the most common queries:

  • Yes, it’s worth it.
  • We stayed at the Centara Grand Island Resort and Spa and we loved it.
  • Yes, it is a kid-friendly resort (but you’ll have more fun if you leave them behind unless they are amazing swimmers).

Our bungalow was the third one.

While we were away Athena stayed at Jebel K9 and she had a great time. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, about 45 minutes from Muscat, and the hours aren’t exactly work-friendly, but I think it’s the best boarding you’ll find in the area. I drove down the driveway to the main house and felt like I was entering Doggy Manor. The dogs are kenneled in a huge fancy house and then they have a bunch of dog runs outside in a humongous compound where the dogs play with handlers and with each other. She came home happy and tired, so I’ll take it.

M has started going to half-day daycare/preschool and it’s been great for him. He and one Korean girl are the only non-Arab children in the class, and he’s even getting Arabic lessons once a day (the school operates primarily in English).  The school focuses on developing children into responsible, helpful, and mindful citizens, so they’re learning about gardening, recycling, helping around the house, and community service. Recently he had a field trip and the school sent a text message telling all the parents they need to give a carseat for their child to use that day. In a country where you see children riding on the driver’s lap, hanging their heads out the window, this was great to see. Let me know if you need Muscat daycare/pre-school recommendations, because we’ve been very happy so far!

Not a bad view for a road race!

A few weeks ago I ran my first half marathon since October 2014. My training didn’t go perfectly and I didn’t PR, but I ran the whole thing and I finished. And my time was only 9 minutes slower than my last half. The race was through Al Mouj north of Muscat and I thought it was relatively well-run, no pun intended. They didn’t finalize the race course until like a week ahead of time, there was no race expo at packet pick-up, and parts of the course were through a construction site (after which I had to take my shoes off and dump out the pebbles and sand). But they had lots of water stations and they were handing out gels and bananas. Maybe I’ll do a separate post on the race since I think this is quickly getting boring for anyone who doesn’t care about running.

Moving on… We spent Christmas day at our favorite beach with some good friends. One of the upsides of having an artificial Christmas tree is that you can take it apart, so I pulled the top off and brought it to the beach, along with the star tree topper. We drank prosecco and grilled chicken and sausages while the kids played in the sand and chased crabs. It was a perfect way to spend the day and I didn’t miss the cold Wisconsin winter weather for even a minute.

Mother Nature tried to be festive and decorate for Christmas

However, one thing that was odd about the beach that day was the amount of algae. It was ridiculous. The water was bright green. We went back again a few weeks later thinking maybe it would be gone by then, but it wasn’t. One of my friends said she’d heard it was bioluminescent algae (which I can’t mention without thinking of the quote “Oh, I see what she’s done, she’s covered a barnacle in bioluminescent algae, as a diversion.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t have kids.) so I even drove back to the beach late at night to try to get some cool photos. Turned out it wasn’t bioluminescent, or I wasn’t doing whatever needed to be done for it to be bioluminescent.

Not bioluminescent, just green and smelly.

We drove to see the beehive tombs at Bat and Al Ayn/Ain a few weeks ago. We couldn’t find the ones at Bat, but the Al Ayn (not to be confused with Al Ain in the UAE) tombs were visible from the main road. I may have shrieked when I first saw them. They are 5,000 year-old tombs that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they are pretty fricking cool. There are supposed to be more tombs at Bat, but the ones at Al Ain are spectacular because of the setting. They are perched on top of a hill in front of a huge mountain and they’re very well-preserved. Once we figure out how to get to the ones at Bat, I’ll write a separate post about that too.

Beehive tombs at Al Ayn

Alright, I have to go finish my book club book. I didn’t finish last month’s and I’m not failing two months in a row!

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.

I’m not complaining about the weather!

The Omani flag flying high at Jabrin Castle

Things here have been busy. We had our first visitors over Thanksgiving, took our first local vacation, got scuba certified, and I’m training for my first real race since 2014. We’re also putting up Christmas decorations, going to parties, and I’m baking a lot of cookies. There is so much to blog about and just not enough time.

First things first, the weather here is currently perfect. Around mid-November it was like a switch flipped and the weather got awesome. It’s in the 60s in the morning, and by mid day it’s actually comfortable to be outside in the sun. We drive to work with the windows rolled down and I leave the kitchen door open when I’m cooking. During my morning runs, even the ones that last for over an hour, I don’t get hot. It’s a fricking miracle. When we first got here everyone told us that the weather in the winter would make the terrible heat worth it, and they were totally 100% right. This is currently my climate paradise and it’s amazing.

In my last blog post I was whining about how our stuff wasn’t here yet. The following week it arrived, and never in my life have I been so excited to see our stuff. I actually clapped when they unpacked my sari stamp block mirror that we had made in Dhaka. I unpacked and put away almost everything within about three weeks, and we got rid of a lot of stuff. There are clothing donation bins all over our neighborhood, and we probably donated a few hundred pounds of clothes and shoes. We don’t have tons of storage space, so I turned off the water to two of our four showers and they are now perfect for storing large plastic boxes. With our books on the shelves, stuff put away, and pictures and art on the walls, and our house finally feels like home.

Sunrise in Muscat

I’m training for a half marathon and so far it’s going well. My weekly milage is building, slowly but surely, and I have stayed injury-free (knock on wood). While waking up at the crack of dawn kind of sucks, I love running here now that the weather is perfect. Running along the ocean, watching the sun rise over the mountains and hearing only the sound of the waves and my own breathing is amazing every time. I will never take this for granted and if I ever do, someone please punch me.

Bimmah sinkhole

Some friends from Dhaka came to visit over Thanksgiving and it was so much fun. They only stayed for three days, but we packed as many Oman highlights as we could into the long weekend and everyone had a great time. We spent most of the first day at our favorite beach and then we went to Thanksgiving dinner. The next day we woke up bright and early and drove to Bimmah Sinkhole, followed by Wadi Shab, and on their last day here we drove to Nizwa and then checked out Jabrin Castle.  Oman is such an incredible and beautiful country (and there’s still so much we haven’t even seen yet!), and showing visitors and friends our favorite parts is so much fun. Seeing the wonder and amazement reflected on someone’s face and knowing that they are just as fascinated as you are is pretty cool.

The sun setting over the Wadi Shab entrance (and freeway)

There’s still so much more to say, but I have to get back to baking Christmas cookies!

What’s here (beaches, restaurants, our car) and what’s not (our HHE)

We’ve been in Muscat for over two months now, and at this point it seems like the honeymoon phase will never end. Oman is incredible and we still have so much to see!

Our favorite way to spend the day

We set the goal of going to the beach at least once a week, and so far we’ve been hitting our target. We’ve explored several beaches within an hour drive from Muscat and there are some really amazing ones. Our beach tent/shelter thing just arrived in the mail, as did Marlowe’s camping chair which he is very excited about, and we are slowly getting fully outfitted for our beach days. I haven’t had this much beach time since I was a kid and it is a lot of fun.

Before arriving here we’d basically stopped going to restaurants because M isn’t patient enough to sit still for that long. Personally, if I go to a restaurant and I’m sitting there enjoying a nice meal, I get annoyed if a toddler is yelling a few tables away or a shrieking child goes running past. The last thing I want to do is subject other people to something that drives me absolutely nuts. But here, everyone likes kids. If M is running around a restaurant, everyone smiles at him and reaches out to touch his blond/white hair. So we’ve slowly started to explore local restaurants and there are some great ones. Lots of restaurants have water features and, if you go outside, stray cats which are obviously a huge hit with kids.

Our car, her name is Jasmine, arrived from the US last week, and today she got an inspection, new tires, and diplomatic plates! For the first week after she arrived she was essentially just an expensive car port ornament, since we had no plates and couldn’t drive her anywhere. They checked the window tint during the inspection and Jasmine’s rear-most windows are very lightly tinted, which thankfully wasn’t an issue. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Then there was the tires… I remember when a tire blew on our SUV in Dhaka and it was an all-day fiasco. Our driver went to three different shops to get prices on tires, and we ended up spending an arm and a leg. Here I drove to a mechanic, they gave me a reasonable quote, and it was done in an hour.

Our Dhaka HHE is still not here. It’s really annoying. This is one of those things that I struggle with because we are so lucky to be getting a shipment at all on the government’s dime and what kind of spoiled brat complains about that. It is, after all, just stuff and at least it will get here eventually. I left Dhaka in July 2016 so I’ve been living without my Dhaka things for nearly a year and a half. Clearly it’s stuff that I can survive without. On the other hand, I really like most of the things I left in Dhaka and it would be great to put some pictures on the walls. It would also be nice to have more than 4 dinner plates (but why am I complaining about how many dinner plates we currently have? How awesome is it that the State Department provides a welcome kit with dinner plates and stuff to tide you over until your shipments arrive? I should be grateful we have any dinner plates at all.) Plus I want my mattress and blankets. And my Dutch oven, awesome toaster, cake pans, serving dishes and cutting boards.

While snorkeling I saw a turtle!

Rather than ending on a whiney note, I’ll leave you with this: I was on a snorkeling trip and one of the women on the boat asked if there were sharks. Our guide, an Omani, said, “You’re in the sea, of course there are sharks. But you’re in Oman, so they are very friendly.” I doubt that’s accurate, but I appreciate the sentiment!

 

Bringing a dog into Oman

Athena at the beach

Arranging Athena’s travel is, by far, the most difficult, stressful, and expensive part of changing posts.

Before M was born, a friend told me that if I thought traveling with a dog was bad, just wait until I try traveling with a baby. That friend was wrong. No matter how terrible a flight with a baby is, at least you know your baby is with you, getting its needs met in a temperature controlled environment. Whereas if your dog is in the belly of the plane in cargo, who knows what is happening. Our total travel to Dhaka was over 24 hours and during that time, Athena got no food or water. Apparently she has an iron-clad bladder because she also held it the entire time.

Our travel to Muscat was on United and Swiss Air with one layover in Zurich.  We’ve all heard the United pet travel horror stories.  A dead golden retriever, a dead giant bunny, the list goes on. When pets travel on United they travel through United’s PetSafe program, which supposedly keeps them in a temperature controlled environment the whole time, they are offered food and water, and they can be taken out of their crates during layovers. I called PetSafe, booked Athena on our flight to Zurich, and was told United “doesn’t do codeshares” for pet travel. Meaning Athena would be booked through only to Zurich and we would have to recheck her there for the Muscat flight.

Great… So now our dog is also entering Switzerland, which has it’s own set of pet importation rules. Ugh.

I called Swiss Air and they, very politely I should add, assured me that she would never leave the transit area and there was no need for all the Swiss pet import documents.  But it was required that the dog be clean and not smell bad in order to board the plane. Okay, fine, hopefully her iron bladder would hold.

One more thing about United’s PetSafe: it is ridiculously expensive. For Athena and her crate it should have cost $1194 just to Zurich, given the total weight. Instead the guy quoted me $843, which is the cost for the weight class taking into account just Athena’s weight.  I figured United would realize it’s mistake when we were checking in and we’d be taken to the cleaners at that point.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to fly out, we filled out the Omani pet importation form, and the embassy arranged for our pet importation certificate. Athena didn’t need any special shots, rabies titers or anything strange; the process was quite painless. Oman doesn’t have a quarantine or anything, although your pet does have to be inspected by a vet upon arrival and if it looks unwell it could be quarantined. We were told that Omanis like to see stamps on official documents and that it would be a good idea to get Athena’s health certificate USDA certified but that it wasn’t required. We figured we weren’t going to go this far just to get her turned away because there weren’t enough stamps, so we spent a day of home leave driving to Richmond and paid $32 for a stamp and some signatures.

Five days after getting the health certificate certified by the USDA, we were at Dulles getting everything checked in. Athena’s crate met the specifications; her food, collar and leash were taped to the outside; “live animal” stickers covered almost every visible surface of the crate; and all of our flight info was taped to the crate.  Nate took Athena outside for one last hurrah while we got everything sorted out (we got there 3 hours early and ended up needing almost every minute of it). It came time to pay and the lady mentioned that the guy had quoted us the wrong price, but that she would honor that price. I was shocked. She assured me that paying a lower price would not affect the care Athena would receive, and then she slapped the Dulles to Zurich baggage tag on her crate.

We arrived in Zurich with a 4 hour layover and Nate went to go get Athena and recheck her while I dealt with a toddler who was running (literally and figuratively) on minimal sleep. A few hours later Nate found us at the gate, and apparently he and Athena had to exit the airport. He didn’t even have to show her health certificate and Athena had a nice little layover in Zurich. She drank Evian because water fountains aren’t a thing and, after spending another $350 for her ticket, she was on her way to Muscat with us.

Having to pick her up in Zurich and recheck her was a bit of a blessing in disguise, even if it was a pain in the butt. She got food and water and a chance to stretch her legs and take care of doggy business. Plus she got to experience Switzerland. Athena has now been to five countries!

In Muscat her crate came out on the luggage belt with the rest of the bags and she looked good. She handled the flight well, passed the vet check, and we loaded her into the embassy van to go to our new home.

She’s adjusting well so far to life here. She spends most of the day inside, as do we all, and we enjoy our evening walks when it’s cooled down a bit. Athena has joined us at the beach several times and she still doesn’t quite understand that she can’t drink the water. She’ll get there eventually.

VPNs and Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Over the past few days we’ve had a five-day weekend for Eid al-Adha. It’s been awesome. Having that long of a weekend just after arriving has been really convenient because it’s given us time to sort out lots of stuff and we’ve been able to start exploring our corner of the country.

First, and maybe most importantly, we finally got our internet installed the day before the Eid holiday began. I spent several hours the next day trying to get our VPN router set up. We purchased a router through StrongVPN so that we can use the VPN connection with our AppleTV. It worked well for us in Dhaka, and, now that it’s finally set up here, I’m happy to report that we were finally able to watch the end of the last season of Game of Thrones.

On a related note, we both fell asleep during the finale. There was so much talking. It was boring. (GoT spoiler alert, although I’m guessing that if this matters to you you’ve probably already watched it) Can someone please tell me why the hell Dany didn’t just blast the Night King with dragon fire in the 6th episode? He was right there. Ugh.

Moving on, a few days ago we went to Wadi Shab, a canyon filled with pools of water and a cave with a waterfall at the end. I was wary going into it because, as you know by now, it’s super fricking hot here and a hike, even just a 45 minute one, sounded like the worst thing ever.  But we took it slow and I survived. I looked like a boiled lobster, but I didn’t pass out or get hurt, so I’ll take it.

Start of the hike into Wadi Shab

The cave at the end was amazing. The passageway in was really narrow, probably 12 inches wide, and to get through you had to tread water and shimmy sideways. Leaving the cave, the sunlight lit up the water and it was practically neon blue. It was incredible. We left our cameras in dry bags once the swimming part started, so I didn’t get any photos of the best parts of the Wadi. Hopefully we’ll go back again soon when it isn’t so damn hot out.

We left M at home with the nanny. We weren’t sure how much of it we could do with him in the hiking backpack and we wanted to be able to explore as fully as possible our first time out. In the future, we’ll bring him with us and once we get to the beach where you have to start swimming we will take turns going to enjoy the cave while he hangs out in the shallow water.

This is the beach at the start of the swimming part of the trek. Usually there are hardly any people here.

One thing to note: we will never go to Wadi Shab over an Omani holiday weekend again. It was PACKED.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought it’d be the perfect chance to explore the wadi. There were at least a thousand people there. Pools that are usually turquoise were brown because of all the people kicking up sediment. Lesson learned!

The parking lot is usually empty!

To, in, and around Nakhal Fort

Inside the Nakhal Fort main wall

During the Eid holiday we drove to Nakhal to visit the fort and check out a near-by hot spring. We weren’t sure if the fort would be open because of the holiday, but we figured in the worst case scenario, we’d admire the fort from the outside and at least we’d know where it was for next time.

The drive took nearly three times longer than it should have. I looked at the route the night before on Google Maps and it looked really straightforward: take the expressway north and exit on highway 13, which basically takes you straight there, all in about an hour.

However, Google Maps doesn’t work for turn-by-turn navigation here. Everyone uses Waze. As we were backing out of our driveway, I typed Nakhal Fort into Waze and it had us taking this strange route that would take nearly an hour and 45 minutes. I decided we would ignore that route and take the route Google Maps had given me. We were happily driving on the expressway and our exit was coming up; long story short, we missed the exit and the next exit was in eight miles. After the exit you had to drive another 1.5 miles to a roundabout to finally turn around. So after driving 20 miles out of the way, Waze was still insisting we take the wonky route. I said, “F that, we’re taking highway 13,” and we did. Until the road was closed and we took a detour onto a road that appeared to not go all the way to Nakhal. So we pulled a U-turn, got back onto the expressway, and drove another 10 miles to the route that the Waze app wanted us to take. Instead of arriving at 10:30, we arrived around noon.

On the drive back, Waze had us take 13 straight to the expressway. There was a road closure but we took a parallel road the whole way, and imagine our shock as we drove by the exact spot where we pulled the U-turn to take the stupid Waze route. That was annoying.

Anyhow, the fort was in fact open and only cost 500 baisa (about $1.25) each. It was hotter than hell so we didn’t do that much exploring. We found a nice room with pillows and air conditioning where we ate lunch, and then we ventured out to look around a little more. We didn’t last long in the heat and M was turning beet red.

Nakhal Fort is particularly interesting because it is built on pre-Islamic ruins on a rocky mound (which was done to avoid having to construct a sound foundation) and the shape of the fort is irregular because it follows the shape of the rocks. There were lots of hallways and rooms to explore, and I think M will have more fun running around during our next visit.

Hajar Mountains and date palm plantations around Nakhal Fort

Nakhal is full of date palm plantations and we drove through them to see the hot spring, which was rumored to have a picnic area and playground equipment. Turns out the hot spring is basically a nice stream and, with the Eid holiday, the entire river bed was one big picnic area. There was zero parking and we didn’t even get out of the car.  I was a little bummed because M would have loved it, but it was ridiculously crowded. We’ll check it out more thoroughly next time.