Finding English speakers can be a little hit and miss in Oman. While some locals speak perfectly, others struggle to even understand our very basic attempts at pronouncing place names in ‘gringo’ Arabic – but it’s not for want of trying.
Our taxi driver Hilal was somewhere in the middle. His English was basic, but that didn’t stop him chattering away the entire way as we changed hotels once the Games finished. With Bob Marley on the stereo he’d take his hands off the wheel to gesture wildly while he pointed out places he deemed of interest, such as the local bowling alley (he’s been twice, but isn’t very good) and the Sultan’s new Opera house, still under construction.
The Qaboos came up constantly in conversation, with Hilal pointing out every billboard and even showing us the picture of his majesty that takes pride of place on the inside of the driver’s sun visor. Hilal, like every Omani you speak to, loves and reveres the Qaboos. “He is a good man, my majesty, a very good man.” Not “his majesty,” but “my majesty.” Hilal’s majesty.
Once we’d lightened the taxi’s load of bags Hilal drove us on to the beach, but not before he took us on a tour. Stopping the taxi halfway up a mountain, with rock rising up on one side and falling away at the other, we were shown the most spectacular view of the Gulf of Oman. Words can’t adequately describe the beauty of this place. The road to the beach cleaves its way between massive peaks of sandy brown rubble spotted with small tufts of vegetation in muted greys and greens. Emerging from shadows of the mountains you arrive at the water’s edge where yellow/brown cliffs with black stains mark the tides give way to crystal blue water. After two weeks spent working by a beach we couldn’t swim at, a day spent lazing about in the sand and the odd paddle was exactly what we needed.
The following day we started early and headed inland in search of a wadi, or valley or riverbed – a beacon of green a landscape otherwise dominated by stone and sand. After 100km of mountains and sand with the odd cluster of trees and goats, we crested a hill and suddenly saw a sea of green palm fronds below us. We had found the beginning of the wadi we were looking for. We turned off the bitumen, switched to four-wheel drive mode and made our way up the rocky river bed determined to find our oasis.
Our adventure lasted 3km before a particularly soft section of river rocks took hold of our car. We were stuck. Up wadi creek so to speak – without a towrope and not a soul in sight, water licking at the bottom of the car doors and rocks up to the axles. And so we started going about trying to dig ourselves out, stripping down to our swimmers, stretching out in the water on our bellies trying to free our car from its prison of pebbles. After almost two hours of excavation it was time to see if our hard work would pay off. It didn’t, each spin of the wheels sinking us deeper into trouble.
With the stick my friend Milou had placed in a dry patch of the creek now wet and confirming the water was slowly rising we realised just how serious a predicament we were in. We found a spot where our mobile phones had reception and called for help while two of our group set off back to the village in search of someone with a vehicle that might be able to help us out. An hour later they returned with a local in a land rover. He got out, took one look at the car, shook his head and murmured “mushkila” (Arabic for trouble) over and over, flinging away the large smooth rocks we’d sought out specially with the idea of paving a solid escape path. We were in plenty of mushkila all right, and we all knew what else he was thinking: “stupid gringos.”
With the police struggling to find where we were our local rescuer Nasser went off to find them. Our mood was decidedly lifted when he returned soon after with another landrover in tow. It didn’t last long as the police pulled out a tiny wire cable and a shabby looking red plastic rope. The shackle on the cable broke first, the rope broke two or three times as the engine refused to tick over with water creeping into the exhaust. As the lightest of the group Milou jumped in behind the wheel. The car was in neutral but the handbrake was on. Idiots! We decided to keep that information to ourselves – our rescuers thought we were stupid enough. And so with all brakes off and one big push, finally freedom.
As the police departed we tried to find the words and gestures to show Nasser our appreciation. “Coffee?” he replied.
Nasser’s house is the first building perched on a hill to the right at the mouth of the wadi behind an iron gate with blue cladding. As we sat down on straw mats outside on the porch Nasser’s wife and mother emerged fully covered, their smiling faces all that showed besides their hands and feet. The women spoke in Arabic and we replied in English as they offered tiny cups of spicy black coffee along with apples, oranges and dates from their garden. They admired the henna designs that covered our hands, saying “Omani” as they nodded in approval. We must have stayed there for almost an hour, greeting each of Nasser’s children with “Salaam” as they arrived home from school before his nephew arrived – the English speaker in the family. Turki “also what you have at Christmas” normally lives in Muscat where he works for Oman Air, but always come home on his days off. As we left Turki translated our thanks, to which Nasser responded: “I did nothing, it’s just coffee.”
If it was just coffee, it’s the best we’ve ever had. It certainly isn’t one that is likely to be forgotten. —Olivia McGrath (@pidgeonenglish) is a lady of leisure and sometime sports journalist with a penchant for shoes and food.