To celebrate the arrival of our new SUV (much needed after both of our elderly Land Rovers died) we set out on a big, American-style road trip. Across the Middle East.
We drove over 4,000 kilometers from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia through the United Arab Emirates (stopping in Dubai), then into Oman, where we toured around for several days. Then we backtracked through the UAE and detoured through Qatar before returning home nine days later. (If you're not familiar with the geography in this part of the world, please look at this. The whole conversation will make so much more sense.)
Judging from the reactions we got from people who saw our Saudi license plates, it seems people really don't do this sort of road tripping thing here. "You're doing what?" hotel clerks would ask. "You drove from where?"
Nobody thinks much of doing a road trip from Maryland to the Outer Banks, say, or to Boston. But here, driving that distance means crossing multiple international borders and getting as many visas. It also means traveling for hundreds of kilometers at a time (apologies to American readers: everything is in kilometers here) on roads with no gas stations, no rest stops, no turnoffs, no buildings--nothing at all. Between cities, we learned to top off the gas tank when we could.
Another big difference between this road trip and any we've taken before: we set out driving during the last few days of Ramadan. During the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. So even if there had been a Waffle House just off the highway (a girl can dream...), it would have been closed during daylight hours. So we packed plenty of road snacks: nuts, cheese, crackers, and sticky, delicious Saudi dates. We didn't make a big deal of hiding our food and water, but we tried not to wave the stuff around when we were in a clump of traffic. Because, more than anything else, that just makes a non-Muslim look clueless and rude here. It's like bringing BBQ ribs to a vegan potluck, or waving chocolate under a Catholic's nose when they've given it up for Lent.
Within a few days, Ramadan was over and the Eid holiday that follows it was in full swing. Traffic was heavy on the city streets of Muscat (Oman's capital city), with both cars and people clogging the lanes. In some areas, driving was scary because pedestrians kept showing up on the roadways, crossing them or, like these guys, walking right alongside the cars.
In the rural areas outside of Muscat, we noticed several things. First, there are goats. Lots of goats. Goats in singles and pairs, goats munching on trees, sorting through dumpster trash, goats socializing, relaxing in the shade. Sometimes a few donkeys are hanging out in the goat crowd. It's a very goaty country, Oman.
We also noticed that there are bus shelters all over the place, and enough of them had people inside seemingly waiting for buses that we were persuaded to believe that there is an actual, working public transit system in Oman. With a quick search, I can see that there are intercity buses serving more than a dozen destinations around the country.
Finally, we observed that, like its charming and plentiful bus shelters, Oman has great water towers. Oh, the things you notice on road trips!
On our long drive back to Saudi Arabia from Oman, we stopped for the weekend in Qatar. Throughout the Middle East, major publicity campaigns are underway to reduce littering. (Remember the American one from the 70s: "Give a hoot, don't pollute! Never be a dirty bird....") Some countries are clearly having more success with this than others.
Qatar's Keith Haring-styled anti-littering message sounds Orwellian. "We All See You. You Are Not Alone. (Don't throw waste in your neighborhood.)" These signs loom over the giant, beautifully maintained highways, so the message is actually quite accurate. If you buzz down the window and toss out your Rock Star can, seriously, everyone will see you. So don't do it!
Next time I'll talk about what happened those times when we got out of the car.