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Arrival“Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position.” You look out the window. It’s dusk. There’s a haze to the air, and through it, mountain ridges stick out into the sky. You begin to wonder if it’s haze or a permanent sandstorm that obscures your view of everything else. “Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins.” You’ve been wondering a lot lately. The Sultanate of Oman is a place which most Americans know very little about. When packing and preparing to go to such a land, most people you talk to say something along the lines of ‘Oman? Where’s the heck is that?’ or ‘Like the country?’ Again, more questions. ‘Why Oman?’ Why not? “Flight attendants, prepare for landing.” You’ve never been to the Middle East. Only heard about it on the news. Most mentions of it aren’t necessarily that encouraging. But then again, you hear a lot on the news these days. Maybe it’s best to go see and experience for yourself. “Cabin crew, please take your seats.” Maybe that’s it. There’s a lot going on around you. Social media updates and video from people doing things that you used to find inspiring. Now you somehow feel like you’re missing out. For some reason, you now feel like those places, journeys, and adventures are attainable. Perhaps that’s because they are? “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Muscat International Airport. Local time is 17:55 and the temperature is 26 degrees Celsius.” You look out the window again. The haze is still there, but you can make out buildings and more mountains. It reminds you of either Star Wars, Mars, or some ridiculous combination of the two. And those homes and buildings do look exactly like the ones seen on the evening news from both Gulf Wars. “For your safety and comfort, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until the Captain turns off the Fasten Seat Belt sign.” Too late now. You’re here. You’re doing it. Anything you forgot at home…guess what? It’s still at home, and it’s going to stay there. Any internal hesitations about not speaking Arabic must be left on the plane. Any preconceived notions or expectations of any sort are about to be shattered. “On behalf of the entire crew, I’d like to thank you for joining us on this trip and we look forward to seeing you on board again in the near future.” It’s game time. You stand up, grab your bags, and start walking.
Peace Be Unto You
“Salaam Alaikum!” we proclaimed. Of our utterly dismal knowledge of Arabic, the common greeting, which literally translates to “peace be unto you”, had become a pillar of our daily social interactions.
“Alaikum Salaam!” became the response we also had grown accustomed to receiving.
The man on the side of the road stood smiling. Weathered teeth shown through a smile stretching wide across a face toned dark from the desert sun. He stood overlooking the valley we had camped in the night before. Now, pushing our bikes up an incredibly steep dirt road, we were in a world of hurt (and heat) and welcomed any sort of distraction which would allow us a break from physical activity.
Throughout our time in Oman, we were shocked at how much the English language is used throughout the country. Road and store signs are typically printed in both Arabic and English, and the vast majority of people could at least speak a few basic phrases. We began to chat with the man in English. He had spent the morning looking for his goats. They had not returned home from the night’s wander. Despite not having found them yet, he seemed unconcerned.
After a brief interaction, the man asked us to follow him back to his village for coffee and dates. Again, any sort of distraction from the heat and weight of our bikes was welcome. We followed.
We were welcomed into the man’s home and introduced to his brothers and father. Dates and coffee we served, and eventually, we realized that the dates we were eating had been grown and harvested in the village garden. We were then led to the grove of palm date trees next to the town’s mosque. More dates and coffee were consumed as we were introduced to friends and neighbors. Before we knew it, we were being taught how to climb a palm tree with only the use of one’s feet and an Al-Habl – a homemade rope belt specifically made to scale date palm trees in upwards of 60 feet.
We shared laughs and jokes as we each tried out the technique. The belt, which does not not tie or connect to anything around your waist, gently rests on one’s upper back and shoulders. Step after step, it is slid up the tree until you either get scared (as was our case), or you reach the dates.
It would turn out to be a simple afternoon activity. The men’s generosity, patience, and humor reflected our experience with just about every single person we met in the country. It turns out that ‘peace be unto you’ is not just a hospitable greeting, but a way of life.
I’m not going to pretend I’m a historian. The American public school system offers little knowledge of the Middle East’s cultural history beyond the belief that Mesopotamia was one of our world’s earliest established civilizations. The American public school system also doesn’t promote mountain biking as a way to learn world history. That being said, I’m also not going to pretend that riding bikes through Oman’s Al Hajar Mountain Range taught me some sort of in-depth history lesson about the region’s culture and traditions. What I can say is that the ancient ruins and forts that populate Oman’s landscape usher a peculiar sense of connection to what I assume are our ancestors.
Thousands of years no longer seems like that long of a time when you are riding a bike through these ancient cities. The history is tangible. It flies by you as you carve turns through its ancient, narrow streets. It seeps into your dreams as you lay down under the stars, surrounded by the walls of an abandoned village that is perched on the side of a canyon wall.
Back when I was a kid in school, I loved to ride my bike. It was simply fun and a part of being a kid. If you’d told me then that what was being force-fed to me in a textbook would come to life and have greater significance if I just kept riding my bike…I would’ve thought you were crazy. I would have written it off as some sort of adult talk. Or maybe I would’ve taken you seriously and stopped riding my bike for fear that it was a subliminal tool for adults trying to get kids to focus on school.
Turns out, riding a bike is still just good clean fun. It just so happens that it can take us back in time.