I did my second interview with Chris Christensen on the Amateur Traveler Podcast. This show is about the time I spent in the Gulf States of Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. One note, I said during the interview I was in Dubai in July. I misspoke. I was there in January.
My previous interview with Chris back in March 2008 about the time I spent in the region of Micronesia: Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands, Guam, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marinas Islands.
I always seem to get the tiny countries….
On a related note, Chris and I are hosting a joint meet up in Vegas tomorrow night at 6pm, at the Pepermill Restaurant. It is located at 2985 Las Vegas Blvd S., just south of the Rivera Casino. If you are in town for Blog World Expo or are a Vegas native, come on by to visit and meet other travelers.
Since I last wrote about McDonald’s when I was in Dubai, I’ve been in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. As all of the McDonald’s in the Arabian Peninsula are owned by the same company, there isn’t a whole lot to add to what I had to say about McDonald’s in Dubai. I managed to have at least something at a McDonald’s in every country except Qatar. I saw a McDonald’s sign from the window of my taxi, but never found one when I was walking around. Oddly enough, I did manage to eat at a Hardee’s in Qatar, which I thought was really bizarre. It appears that the only place in the world that has Hardee’s outside of the Midwest United States are the Gulf States.
What I want to focus on is McDonald’s Egypt, which was slightly different in substance than what I saw in the Gulf, and very different in the role it served in society. The Gulf states are all rather rich, and even Jordan is not too bad off considering it isn’t an oil producing nation. Egypt is much larger, much more crowded, and much poorer than the other Arab countries I visited. Also, in all of the above countries I listed, I ate maybe one or two meals at McDonald’s, and even then I only did it for the purpose of writing this article (the things I go through for my readers…) In Kuwait, I only got an ice cream cone and just went in to check out the menu.
In Egypt, I ended up going to McDonald’s more than I have in any other country, and it had nothing to do with food. I would go every day depending what city I was in for one simple reason: McDonald’s had free wifi.
As is usually the case with my McDonald’s articles, I really don’t want to talk about McDonald’s or for that matter Egypt. I want to talk about something bigger. I need to back up as I often do in these articles and address the complaint that I always get. Some people will turn their nose up and say how they would never eat at a McDonald’s when traveling because they want a real cultural experience, and they wouldn’t want to eat garbage food, if you are going to a foreign country they’d want to experience local cuisine. While I understand where they are coming from, their view of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s is a very western view and they are projecting their view of these restaurants on to the places they visit. It might be completely reasonable if you are a westerner visiting, but it isn’t the whole story.
If someone were to make the claim that fast food was the bottom of the barrel of dining in a western country, I don’t think I’d argue with them. Fast food isn’t supposed to be high cuisine. It is supposed to very utilitarian. You get in, you get food, you get out. It is cheap and fast. Much of the fast food experience is totally lost on most westerners, however. The fact that every Big Mac is identical, is by design. Creating a consistent experience means that you know what you are getting, for better or worse, when you go to a chain restaurant.
In a world were every restaurant has clean toilets and sanitary kitchen, that might not be a big deal. In many countries I’ve visited, restaurants like McDonald’s are the high end dining option. The average person might never afford to eat at the nice restaurant at the hotel for foreigners, but they might be able to take the kids to McDonald’s once or twice a year for a birthday party and get some free toys in a Happy Meal. (and the birthday parties seem to be a much bigger deal than they are in the US) It isn’t an option for dining that you exercise every day or even every week. The role of the fast food restaurant is sort of turned on its head in a world where you don’t have many restaurants at all.
When the first McDonald’s opened up in the Soviet Union, they had lines around the block. Families would get dressed up and spend a week’s or more income to have a meal that people in the west would turn their noses up at. Part of it was certainly the taboo of eating food from the west, but another part of it was having something of consistent quality, in a clean environment.
When I was in Phnom Penh Cambodia, I visited the KFC. As far as I knew, it was the only western fast food restaurant in the entire country (another KFC was being built in Sieam Reap, but wasn’t open yet). I was struck by something: all the kids who worked there seemed very bright, had nice clothes and spoke English exceptionally well. These were the smart kids and probably children of the Cambodian elite. Asking “do you want fries with that” is actually a pretty good job when there aren’t many other options. Where as most kids in the west would consider working at McDonald’s a crummy job, in Cambodia it was the job for the best and the brightest.
Which brings me back to Egypt. While Egypt is not as destitute as Cambodia, it isn’t as rich as Kuwait either. There are plenty of restaurants all over the place where you can eat that are perfectly fine. In fact I came to really like many Egyptian dishes like Foul (or fool depending on the spelling). McDonald’s is neither the best nor the worst option in Egypt. McDonald’s niche in Egypt dining ecosystem seemed to be a hangout for high school kids and young adults. Something which I also saw when I was in Taiwan. It was a place to study and a place you could bring a computer (usually cheap netbooks) to surf with your friends.
Every McDonald’s in Egypt ran McDonald’s radio. It was their own station which was a mix of western and Arab music. Most of the McDonald’s I visited were in tourists areas (because I’m a tourist) and it just added to the “western” vibe you’d get if you were an Egyptian youth.
What is the lesson can we take from this? McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are a constant like the speed of light. They have a certain consistency which exists no matter where they are. How they fit into a particular country is a function of the development level of the country in question. The richer the country, the lower they are looked upon as a food option. The poorer the country, the more respectable dining option is it. I realize this isn’t quite as simple as sneering at every McDonald’s, but reality is never cut and dry.
The Week, and English language weekly newspaper in Muscat has just published their interview with me. They took a bunch of photos. The one they used was taken in front of the Muscat clock tower, which is sort of the symbol of the city. They brought the scarf and flag :)
I am back from Oman and in Dubai for a few days before moving on. I am still having issues with finding a good internet connection anywhere in the Middle East. I still have photos from Thailand I have to upload. The hotel I’m at now in Dubai put a 120mb cap on bandwidth, which can easily be achieved without downloading any big files or watching video.
My trip to Musandam was interesting to say the least. The ferry which goes from Muscat to Musandam is perhaps the worst run business I have ever witnessed in my life. The ferry (of which there are two) is very expensive. I’ve read they cost US$60m each. They are high speed, diesel powered catamarans designed to carry 56 cars and 220 passengers from Muscat to Khasab, the largest city in Musandam. Because Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman, the ferry is designed to eliminate the need for two border crossings when you have to pass into the UAE.
Why is this a horrible business?
The car ferry has never transported a car. In the excitement to have the world’s fastest ferry, they never built a ferry terminal to support loading cars onto the boat. It only carries passengers right now. I have seen no activity towards building an actual terminal for cars.
The flight to Khasab is 55 minutes versus 5 hours for the ferry. The cost is the same. An airplane can carry as many vehicles as the ferry right now: zero. You have to show up at the ticket office two hours before the ferry leaves to get on a bus to take you to the ferry.
The operating costs of the ferry are enormous. It burns 18,000 liters of fuel each trip. Even though Oman is an oil producer, with subsidized fuel it is almost impossible to break even with a full boat. There were about 10 crew on board the ship that I could tell and there would probably be more if they had to load cars. The snack bar was open and everything was free. There were about 20 passengers on the boat when I took it.
There is no website where you can buy tickets. There are no agents which you can buy tickets from. I’ve seen no marketing material of any sort except for a very nice full color brochure you get after you buy a ticket. There has been no advertising and no one in Muscat seems to know anything about the ferry other than it exists and it is the best in the world.
Musandam, the destination for the ferries, has a total population of 30,000 people and three hotels. They probably couldn’t support a full boat of people if they had one.
The ferries were not designed for long haul routes. They were designed for trips no greater than an hour. The engines are being used far more than they were designed for with 5 hour trips. As a result, mechanical problems and issues with spare parts will start creeping up over the next few months.
The ferry is sort of a microcosm of what you see in much of Oman: pretty cool looking, but sort of dysfunctional once you look behind the scenes.
Musandam itself is an interesting place. Khasab is totally surrounded by bone dry mountains and cliffs. It is difficult to see any vegetation anywhere. I took a mountain safari with two Austrians and had a guide take us up into the hills.
Life up in the mountains isn’t too different than what it was a few decades ago when people lived in holes in the mountainside. You can still see some of the dugouts if you look closely enough. You can also see many marine fossils in the mountains, which date back about 2-300 million years.
If you look at a map of Musandam, the tip of the peninsula is a giant tangle of fjords. In addition to driving up into the mountains, you can also take short dhow trips into the fjords.
There are no taxis in Khasab and no buses which run to Dubai. This makes getting around difficult, but there aren’t too many places to go, so it sort of evens out. There are usually vans which will shuttle people to Dubai every day, but it isn’t a regularly scheduled run.
It is really a stunning and beautiful place which doesn’t get much in the way of tourism. If you have a vehicle, it might be worth a one to two day trip from Dubai if you have some extra time.
There are certain assumption you make when you travel. They are usually pretty mundane things like “there is an airport in the capital city”, or “a major city will have hotels”. You usually don’t have to worry about the things you assume because they are always true.
Having read numerous articles about the ferry to Musandam I figured it would be as easy as taking a bus or a plane. All I needed to do was find out the schedule, get in a taxi and go to the ferry terminal at the right time.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
It seems that everyone I’ve talked to in Oman has heard of the ferry, but no one actually knows anything about it. I’ve spoken to five travel agents near my hotel. None of them offer ferry tickets nor know where to go to get tickets. No one in my hotel knows anything. None of the cab drivers know anything or where to take me to get a ticket. There is no website for the ferry company. All the searches you do bring up articles about the ferry, but no actual information on how to get tickets nor can I find links to a website from the articles. I have been told by one taxi driver you get tickets in Ruwi, but he didn’t know where that was. One Omani told me that they are only for government officials (which I have no idea if that is true).
This huge investment the government made in high speed, world class ferries is pretty much useless as no one knows how to take it, even if they wanted to. I can’t even verify that the ferry is currently operating. This is sort of another version of what I experienced in Nizwa. They have something great, but don’t bother to make any signs pointing to it.
I think I’ve reached the point where I have to cut my losses and take the bus back to Dubai. It sucks that I wont get to Musandam, but that’s life. So tomorrow, its back on the bus and a few days in Dubai before heading to Qatar.
If all goes well, tomorrow I’ll be taking the world’s fastest ferry to Musandam, Oman. That is the hunk of Oman which is separated from the rest of the country and sticks out into the Strait of Hormuz.
The ferry connects Musandam with Muscat and has been clocked at 55.9 knots. From what I’ve read it is losing money hand over fist as there wasn’t a lot of thought put into the business. The boats are more expensive than flying, take longer than a flight (6 hours vs 45 min), and were only designed for shorter, one-hour trips. The tickets are out of the price of most Omanis and there are only 30,000 people who live on Musandam. Also, no facilities for the ferries were ever built and no one was trained prior to the arrival of the ships.
So, I’m taking the trip while I can.
From Musandam I’ll then be heading back to Dubai briefly, passing through the remaining Emirates I haven’t been to, before flying to Doha, Qatar. I really hope the internet in Qatar is better than Dubai or Oman because I have a ton of photos to upload.
I had an experience yesterday which was interesting to say the least. In the morning I checked out of my room and walked several kilometers to the Nizwa Fort. I could have taken a taxi, but I figured the walk would do me good. When I got back I got my bags and went out to the road to hail a taxi. Some guy pulled up to me offered to give me a ride.
Actually, I only assumed he was offering me a ride as he spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic. I was only going a short distance to the roundabout down the road where taxis would wait to take people to Muscat. Muscat is about 90 minutes from Nizwa and the cost of a taxi seemed pretty cheap from what everyone has told me.
The man who picked me up told me he was going to Muscat and would drive me there. By “told me” we sort of gestured and figured out what we were saying to each other. He had to get his car washed then we could go. His name was Fazid (I think. Again, that wasn’t totally clear).
We were supposed to be ready in 30 min, so we went to a coffee shop nearby and had something to eat. (the coffee shops here seem to be more diners or restaurants than cafes). We got some saffron rice and chicken. I offered to pay but he refused.
I must admit my American travel sense was tingling. As an American, you are raised to be suspicious of anyone offering you anything: candy, free rides, free vacations in exchange for listening to a time share pitch, or five CDs for only a penny, are all things which should be viewed cautiously. I had no idea if this guy was a serial killer or what. Then again, only a American would probably assume that someone trying to help was a serial killer….but I digress.
After two hours, the car was washed and we were ready to go. This entire ride was only going to save me about $6, so I easily could have said “thanks but no thanks” and taken a taxi, but I decided to go with it. (As an aside, all the cars in Oman are really, really clean. They give tickets for unwashed cars. Likewise, all the buildings are clean and look as if they have been recently painted.)
We took off down the very nice highway to Muscat. The Nizwa/Muscat highway is as good or better than any stretch of interstate you will find in the US. Four lanes, divided road, on ramps and off ramps, and most of the road has lighting. He put in a CD of the only music he had which was in English for me, which turned out to be some of the nastiest hard core rap I’ve ever heard. I had no idea who the artists were, but one song was from Eminem. The funny thing is he probably had no idea what they were saying.
As we were going down the road, the sun set and he eventually turned off the road. He said something in Arabic but I didn’t understand. Was he taking a short cut? Was he stopping to see relatives? Was he going to the ditch he was going to dump my dead body into? I had no clue.
We ended up going through a small town where he pulled over to buy some lamb kebobs from a vendor on the street. Again I tried to pay, but he refused any money. We pulled out again and eventually got back onto the highway.
Eventually as we got to Muscat I told him I was going to Ruwi, where I wanted to stay. I don’t know where in Muscat he was going or if Ruwi was far out of his way, but he gladly took me there, dropped me off, shook hands, and left.
Since I’ve been in the Middle East, I’ve met surprisingly few Arabs. Most of the people I met in Dubai were Indian, Pakistani or Filipino. In Oman I’ve met western tourists and here to most of the people you deal with in hotels and restaurants are Indian. Fazid was the first Arab I’ve been able to spend any time with…..and we couldn’t speak a word to each other.
In the end, he bought me lunch, a kebob, drove me to Muscat and paid for gas. He didn’t accept any money nor expected anything in return. He just picked me up off the street and drove me 160km.
When people ask me if as an American I’m scared of being in the Middle East, I’m going to tell them about Fazid. Not only is there nothing to be scared of, these are some of the nicest, most generous people you will meet on Earth.
My time in Nizwa has been frustrating to say the least. There are three World Heritage Sites I wanted to visit in this area. All three are within easy driving distance, but I’ve had some terrible luck.
I rented a car yesterday and drove about 150km from Nizwa to the village of Bat hoping to visit the Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn. I navigated my way to Bat flawlessly, but couldn’t find what I was looking for. There were no signs. Nothing. I stopped to try and get directions, but no one knew what I was talking about or didn’t understand me. I ended up spending several hours driving around for what amounted to nothing. I never ended up finding it. Strike one.
The second site was the Bahla Fort. That was easy to find as I drove past it on my way to Bat. When I stopped there on my way back, there were no signs or anything to instruct you where to park or where to go. No entrance, no nothing. The fort is under construction so I assume it was closed, without any signs saying it was closed. I took a few photos from the outside, but that was it. Strike two.
The third site I wanted to visit was the Aflaj irrigation systems of Oman. There is no one location, but I knew that one of the irrigation channels was in Nizwa, so I figured I could easily take my rental car and go visit the next morning. I ask for directions and am told that I need a 4-wheel drive to there. Also, there is no water flowing right now. I didn’t see the point in getting a special vehicle to visit an empty irrigation channel.Strike Three
All that being said, the mountains in this part of Oman are dramatic and beautiful. The landscape is very similar to what you can find in the mountainous deserts in Nevada or Arizona. Had I not come to Oman on a whim, this would be a great country to road trip in. I’ve met many travelers who are running about the country by car. All the roads are in great condition and the signs are in Arabic and English. Fuel is dirt cheap at 0.114 Omani Rial per liter (about $1.12 per gallon).
There is a surprising amount of tourism here. I was going to stay at this hotel another day, but it is booked solid tonight, mostly it seems with large tour groups.
I’m off to the Nizwa Fort (which looks much better than the Bahla Fort to be honest) and the souk today. I’ll probably take a bus back to Muscat or get another room for the night. I’m not sure yet. I’m more frustrated than disappointed to be honest. While I didn’t get to my destinations, the drive was worth it for its own sake.
I picked the right day to come to Oman. The night I arrived Oman beat Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Nations Cup in Soccer. The last two days everyone has been going nuts, wearing Omani flags and scarves, driving around with cars decked out in red, white and green, honking and cheering.
I’m typing this at an internet cafe in Muscat as I wait for the bus to take me to Nizwa. I’m beginning to think that renting a car might have been a smarter option. Gas is really cheap, and all the road signs are in English as well as Arabic. I might do that in Nizwa still. The early bus to Nizwa left at 8am and I showed up at 9:30am not knowing the bus schedule. The next bus leaves at 2:30pm, so I sit and wait.
I wasn’t really planning on visiting Oman, but I’m glad I did.
On some related news from places I’ve been before, officials in Japan have closed the Tsukiji Fish Market to tourists for a month. Having been to the Tsukiji Fish Market, I’m amazed at some of the things people were doing. I was hyper aware of the fact that I was in the middle of an active market where people were earning a living. It is really no different than being on the floor of a stock exchange….except it is fish. You have to get up really early to visit the fish market, and if you are drunk at 5am, you have issues.
On a personal level, must say I was glad to hear no Americans were involved.