Saturday, November 26: From Al Areesh, I continue my road trip heading down the 23 road to Sur. I’m on the lookout for a place my colleagues told me about, Wadi Bani Khalid, just north of the town of Al-Kamil. It’s about 203 km away from Muscat.
I come across the sign for the wadi, where I turn to the north and start my climb high into the Eastern Hajar Mountains. I zigzag and chug uphill through some colorful rock formations, green with copper oxide and rust-red with iron ore. Wadi Bani Khalid is a series of plantations and villages that lie close to the floor of the wadi. From the upper reaches of the wadi, a natural spring flows year round, nourishing the vegetation that makes this spot so lovely. Most people who visit this spot head for the source of this water, which collects in a series of deep pools in the narrow end of the boulder-strewn wadi.
For people who don’t know what a wadi is, here’s a description from the Sultanate’s Ministry of Information: A wadi is a dried up riverbed found in the mountain valleys. Wadis come into their own after heavy rains, when the rivers start running again and the vegetation is restored. However, some wadis have year-round running water, with deep, cool pools in which it is quite safe to swim if the currents are slow. Wadis are green, lush oases of palm trees, grasses, and flowering shrubs. On the whole, wadis are only accessible with a four-wheel drive vehicle, as the terrain can be extremely bumpy. (Wadis of Oman)
I see a sign for tourist information before I get to the entrance to the wadi, so I turn off the winding road to see what it’s all about. Another car follows me into the turn-off. The tourist information is just a shut-down building, so I do a U-turn. The car that has followed me is full of about 6 young Omani men. One of them speaks English and asks where I’m going. I tell him. He says, “Follow me. This place (the tourist information) is closed.”
So I follow him into the wadi where there is a too small and overcrowded parking lot. We park alongside each other and he introduces himself as Adil. He tells me he’s from a town called Rustaq, about 175 km SW of Muscat, and he’s a high school teacher there, teaching computer technology. He’s married and has three children and is 30 years old. He invites me to come along with him and his friends. I love how Omanis just take you under their wings, just like that, without any hesitation!
We walk along a falaj, which is a water channel that collects water for irrigation purposes. This type is a Ghaily falaj, dug close to the ground surface and a normally open channel. At the end of the falaj is a lovely green pool surrounded by lush tropical plants and palm trees. Hordes of Omanis are here today because not only is it the National Holiday but also the Islamic New Year. It’s strange that there are mostly groups of young men hanging out together, away from their wives and families. There are also families here. Some of the men wear dishdasha, but many are wearing shorts and t-shirts. All the Omani women are covered, as usual, in their black abayas and headscarves. No break for them even on holiday.
I ask Adil about his wife. Why is she not here with him? He says he’s on a holiday with his friends. His wife is at home with their children, their parents, the whole family who shares a house together. Besides, he says, it’s hard for Omani women. I can see that. They have to remain covered even when they’re at a place where all the men and boys are swimming to their heart’s content.
Adil and his friends, all of whom are under 20, tell me to follow them up a path through the narrowing the gorge. He tells me I should go swimming, but I don’t know how I would change into my bathing suit. He tells me it’s okay, I can hide behind a rock to change, or he and his friends will hold up a towel in front of me. I certainly don’t feel comfortable with that. The deep green and blue pools along the path do look inviting though. Sometime, if I come with another Westerner, I will swim here. Possibly when my son comes to visit in January.
As we climb along boulders and rocks, Adil takes good care of me, making sure I’m okay and that I’m enjoying. At one point the whole group of us sit on a kind of small cliff overlooking a pool and they pull out a bunch of egg burritos. They offer me one for breakfast. I sit with them on the rocks in easy companionship and eat my burrito. They give me some water as well. I feel totally comfortable with them, as if I am one of them, but of course I’m not. I will always be an outsider here. But they all do their best to make me feel welcome.
We continue our walk up the narrow gorge, scrambling over boulders, squeezing down narrow crevasses. I take off my shoes twice to ford the stream. Adil asks me about myself, wonders why I am traveling alone. I tell him I like to travel alone, I actually prefer it. I had plans originally with two women from another college, but the plans were cancelled and I wasn’t going to just sit home because I didn’t have anyone to travel with. He feels sorry for me, I can tell. But he doesn’t understand that Western women are very independent and don’t mind doing things alone. We are nothing close to the cloistered and powerless Omani women. We are anomalies Omanis will never understand.
Actually, I love to travel alone just for this reason: I meet many interesting people along the way that I would never meet if I was in a group or even with another companion. I love this aspect of my travels and I don’t want to ever give that up. I wouldn’t have met Adil today if I were with even one single other friend. When I’m alone, people will approach me; when I’m with anyone else, the locals don’t approach. This is pure and simple and true.
Adil suggests that I come with him and his friends for their whole 3-day trip. I thank him for his offer, but I have plans to go to Sur and Ras Al Hadd and then to explore more of Oman. He’s disappointed I won’t consider coming. He says he wants to invite me to his home sometime to meet his family. I tell him I would love that. I’ve never yet been invited to an Omani home and I look forward to seeing the inside of Omani family life.
We continue on to the deepest part of the wadi. On the way back, we stop at several swimming spots along the way and Adil’s friends jump off of rocks into the swimming holes. I do wish I could swim here. Next time, for sure, but I’ll have to be with another Westerner to do it. As a woman, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable swimming with gangs of Omani young men!
We take our time walking back along the same path we came in on. We get back to the area where there’s a wide open green pool surrounded by palm trees and lush vegetation. There I find a public toilet and a coffee shop. I sit at the outdoor cafe and drink some coffee and watch a group of black Omanis playing wild music in a pavilion. When I was at Al Areesh last night, the British guy John I met told me there are three kinds of Omanis. There are the pure Omanis and then there are the Omanis that come from Zanzibar, the darker skinned ones. Finally, there is the old slave stock. I don’t know if he’s totally right about this categorization, but here it is anyway.
Soon, I part ways with Adil and his friends, after exchanging telephone numbers. Adil says anytime I want to go anywhere in Oman, call him and he will take me. I don’t know if he means for me to hire him as a guide or if he’s just offering out of the kindness of his heart. Somehow I think he wants to be paid for this; I’m sure as an Omani high school teacher with a big family to support, he could use the money.
Fast forward to the evening of Tuesday, November 29. I get a text from Adil: ‘Good evening. How r u? If you have free time come to my home to have lunch in thursday.” I’m disappointed that he asks for this Thursday because I already have plans. I write him back: “ah adil u are so kind! i would love to come but i have a visitor from italy coming tomorrow for one week. maybe u might invite me again after my guest leaves?? i hope…”
Time will tell. I really hope he does invite me again.