Arabia, the home of Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor, has always intrigued me, and I eagerly signed up when friends began planning a motorcycle trip to Oman. As dual-sport bike riders, we especially wanted to get off the pavement and see Oman's backcountry. So there I was, flying to the Middle East on a 747 with a burqa in one hand and a motorcycle helmet in the other, while trying to cram more than a millennium of history into my brain before two-wheeling it in the land of "a thousand and one nights." I would be exploring mysterious souks (bazaars), funny-looking dhows (boats), and cool wadis (deep gorges). The locals would be wearing dishdashas and kufi hats and bowing to Mecca. Cool.
The trip began in Dubai, one of seven United Arab Emirates, and although terrorism fears remain high, we weren't too concerned. Thanks to oil, Dubai is one of the most opulent cities in the world, and Oman is a peaceful and moderate Islamic state.
I packed hot- and cold-weather clothes for desert and mountain riding, plenty of sun block, a hat for shade, and even a hydration pack (which I never used because our chase vehicle carried water). The bikes and our friends awaited us at the Metropolitan Hotel in Dubai. The next day, we sped off through the desert to discover neighboring Oman, 88 miles east. Brown and sandy, dotted with scrub, the desert landscape looked more like Nevada or southern Idaho rather than any of the scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. But no one was complaining? We were on Hayabusa roads and the January weather was so spectacular - sunny, dry and in the 80s - that it became a running joke: "What, blue sky and no clouds - again?"
Like the other major highways we traveled, 05 from Dubai to Oman is a new asphalt four-lane with medians. It stretches ahead as far as the eye can see. The sand and dust kicked up a little haze, but eventually I got a glimpse of Oman's Western Hajar Mountains. We crossed the border at Hatta where a new border-crossing facility has just opened and I sat on a bench inside to wait for our papers to be processed. Meanwhile, my husband Lynn had begun taking photos of the large reception area. The next thing I knew, Claus, our German guide, was surrounded by a bunch of angry Arab officials. I idly wondered what all the fuss was about.
The officials looked scary. Was it the mustaches, the uniforms or the Arabic language? I imagined us being dipped in boiling pots of camel dung and thought of wasting away in a Middle Eastern prison, waiting for the next cup of stale rice and the eye of a blind goat... Lynn told me the guards were mad because someone had taken pictures inside the building. He didn't bother to tell me that he was the culprit, at least not immediately; but there on the floor, I saw his film, stomped to pieces. Thank goodness, it wasn't the camera.
Somehow, we all parted friends. Next stop, the Hajars: barren, brown, and craggy, like Nevada at the end of summer, and "bor - ing!" The few sweepers through them have been perfectly engineered but just when we got to rocking and rolling, we entered our first Omani town and had to slow down.
Here we met the ubiquitous local taxi drivers. Wearing their white dishdashas and embroidered Kufi hats, these young drivers cruise the highways looking for fares (about 99 percent of Omanis don't have cars) and they stop abruptly, screeching to a halt anywhere on the roadway, whenever they find one. They pass on the right, on the left, burn rubber, slow down to yell to other cabbies, and honk and wave constantly.
Lunch that day was the first of what became the daily routine: a stop for chicken biryani at a nondescript Indian restaurant in an isolated strip mall. Our guides Patrick and Claus took us to only the best places for lunch. That means they have tables with chairs. We ate family-style, passing around the platters of chicken and white or saffron rice.
We then headed for Sohar, best known as the home of Sinbad the Sailor. Up until this trip, I had thought he was merely the fearless fictional hero of the ancient tales Sheherazade had told, but Sohar residents claim he was actually a town resident. True or not, the idea of him certainly inspired some great stories, and when looking upon Sohar's seaport, it's easy to believe Sinbad found safe harbor there.