Friday, January 3, 2014

Driving in Oman

Oman is so much more compelling, so much lovelier than rocks, sand, and some water. I love lushness, so I didn't expect to be so bewitched by dry shades of red and gold and brown, but I was. Those rocks, they're awesome. And the sea, it's so blue. And there's so much of it, and nothing on it, just little, boxy white stucco homesteads coaxed up along flat surfaces and sparse little bushes clinging, often unsuccessfully, to rock faces. (Oh those bushes. They're so stiff and so hilariously heartbreaking when wrenched free of their rocks--they keep their shape and just topple over, like little ladies in hoop skirts. Poor, hardy little things.) And then there are the wadis, where cool water comes bubbling up from out of a crack in the earth and feeds a burst of green--date palms, grasses, tiny mango trees--that flash by as your taxi driver navigates the roads cut into more rock and sand.

So yes, the landscape is wonderful. Somehow conducive to the sin of pride--it would be a hell of a think to stand on one of those rocks, maybe above a wadi, and stretch out your hand, and say yes, this is my land; yes, I can live here, and see who understands the beauty of it.

But this post was going to be about driving.

Sally and I drove from Sur to Muscat to pick Leah up at the airport. It took ages for her to get through customs, and we ended up on the road back to Sur quite late, around 2 am. Sally has a residence permit in Oman, so she rented the car, but her driver's license had expired, so we used my American license to get the vehicle. We agreed that Sally would drive most of the time because she knew the roads, but if there was a police checkpoint, we'd switch drivers. No problem.

We hit the first one after nearly two hours of driving, almost to Sur, at nearly 3 am. We pulled over on the shoulder of the empty highway and changed seats.
"Shit. I can't find my glasses."
"Can you see OK?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine."

I hadn't driven a stick shift in a while and the clutch was fussy, so I revved then engine as we crept up to the checkpoint. Everything was really blurry, but Leah and Sally helped navigate.
"Where should I go?"
"Keep to the left. Left. Left, no, left."
I swerved vaguely left, trying to follow the smeared lines on the road.

20 feet in front of the checkpoint, I'd accelerated right up to bright orange, triangular road block. Coming to a sudden stop in front of it, in the middle of a sea of open lanes, I pulled the wheel to the left again and crept toward the blurry figures ahead of me. Gears grinding, I managed to pull slowly up between the concrete barriers of the checkpoint lane.

"As salaamu alaikum," I said to the army officer as I rolled down my window.
"Alaikum as salaam," he said. The he reached in to turn ON my headlights.

Oh. That's why I couldn't see anything.

Oh, we thought we were dead. We hadn't been drinking or anything, but to come swerving and stalling up to a police checkpoint on the highway with no lights on--well, we thought that would at least get us a talking to. But they must have just rolled their shoulders and thought "women drivers. Foreigners," because they squinted at my license and the rental agreement and waved us right on. We almost drove off the road laughing.

We did it again, this time on the way to the beach, on a completely deserted road. We could see the checkpoint for half a mile off--it wasn't a permanent one, like the one on a highway, but just a place where they'd erected a couple of camoflage tents by the side of the road, with a couple of police and army officers standing around. Sally swore when she saw it.
"I don't know why they're out here."
"Oh well. We'll just switch."

We stopped about 50 feet ahead of the checkpoint and Sally and I hopped out and crossed over in front of the car. Only then did we see that we had stopped directly in front of another camoflage tent (very well camoflaged!) and had done our sneaky little exchange in front of another several army officers sitting in the shade of the tent flap, watching us silently.

It was broad daylight, but I checked the headlights, just in case.

1 comment:

  1. You were in Oman! So close to me. And this is hilarious. I am well-acquainted with random checkpoints in the middle of the desert.