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Leap of Faith: 1 Dad, 2 Teenagers, and a Last-Minute Trip to Oman

By Anthony Doerr

04.01.19

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The World Economic Forum rated Oman the fourth-safest country in the world, behind Iceland.

Illustration by Grace Helmer

The World Economic Forum rated Oman the fourth-safest country in the world, behind Iceland.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anthony Doerr watches his twin boys jump from cliffs as his preconceptions melt away. 

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The email arrives on a Wednesday afternoon. Subject line: Spin the Globe REVEAL! I hurry home to meet the school bus, and my twin 14-year-old sons and I gather in the kitchen. For four months we’ve been exhilarated by the idea of traveling somewhere—anywhere—in the world on 48 hours’ notice. The boys have insisted they want to go as far from Idaho as possible, and we’ve spent dozens of dinners dreaming up destinations. Tibet? Tasmania? Tonga?

“I just hope it’s not, like, Dallas,” Owen says as we open the laptop.

“Or Twin Falls. Twin Falls would suck.”

“There are nice parts of Twin Falls,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says, a little unsure now. “But it’s not Mongolia.”

My wife, who learned our destination at the outset so she could book the boys’ air travel, smiles. For four months she has given away nothing, even as we scrutinized her every gesture. Did her eyebrow twitch when we guessed Tokyo? Did a vein throb in her throat when we said Quito?

The only information I managed to extract from her came out weeks ago while we were brushing our teeth. She said, “It’ll be amazing.”

In daydreams I milked that adjective for all it was worth: We’d explore amazing Sicilian hill towns and eat amazing pasta alla norma; we’d book an amazing boat to surf the amazing Maldives, and Henry would say, “Dad, isn’t that Mark Wahlberg over there?”

This Friday, the email begins, you are heading out of Boise for
Muscat, Oman! The three of us blink. Muscat? Isn’t that a table wine?

The kids jump on YouTube; I open the world atlas. It takes me 20 heartbeats just to locate the Sultanate of Oman. If the Arabian Peninsula looks like a thick-ankled snow boot, Oman forms the toe and half of the sole. Saudi Arabia hunkers to the north, Yemen to the west. Across the Strait of Hormuz lies the Islamic Republic of Iran.

My mind crashes, a browser with too many pages open. I’m traveling to a sultanate in the Middle East? On Friday? With two 14-year-olds who share a profound aversion to hairbrushes? The same 14-year-olds now watching Red Bull videos of lunatics leaping from 80-foot Omani cliffs?

Do I know anybody who has been to Oman? Friends say, “Amman?” “Uman?” The woman at Verizon I speak to about using my cell phone there calls it Omar three times.

You watch Mission: Impossible and it looks like Tom Cruise can pull on some tight jeans, teleport to the Middle East, and start scaling skyscrapers. I am not Tom Cruise. I google “Oman weather” and learn that on June 26, in the coastal city of Quriyat, the temperature reached 121.6°F, the point at which asphalt melts. The low temp that day? 108.7°.

I google “respectful clothing for kids in Islamic countries” and come up with pants and long sleeves. My sons wear shorts to school in January and think collared shirts are “the worst.”

“Dad,” Owen is saying, “they have these seasonal pools in Oman called wadis; come watch this.” But Dad is too busy freaking out to watch a video. Do I know anybody who has been to Oman? Friends say, “Amman?” “Uman?” The woman at Verizon I speak to about using my cell phone there calls it Omar three times.

My mother says, “Whoa.”

A friend says, “Try not to get kidnapped.”

I’m imagining German shepherds and customs officers with machine guns, but the arrivals hall at the Muscat International Airport is a steel-and-glass palace with hushed queues and a living wall of plants. The marble floor glitters; a portrait of the kindly white-bearded sultan beams down at us. A passport control officer smiles at the kids, urges us to visit the beaches in the south, and waves us through.

A driver from the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort, a hotel I booked 45 minutes before we left our house, walks us to an SUV; at 4 a.m., the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Highway is empty. The silhouettes of dark, treeless mountains pump off heat.

We pass the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. When the sultan came to power 49 years ago, Oman had only two electrical generators, two hospitals, and six miles of paved roads. Slavery was still legal. Now every citizen, male and female, has free health care and free education through college. A thousand ornate streetlamps glow at ready intervals. A Range Rover and a BMW glide beside us through the purple night.

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Prosperity is one thing, though, and democracy is another. The sultan heads every branch of the government, from armed forces to foreign affairs; his face adorns every denomination of the Omani rial, the local currency. After a stop at the baggage claim ATM, I have a stack of him in my wallet. To criticize the sultan in public is a criminal offense; Omani citizens need official permission to marry foreigners; and Omani authorities have been accused of forcibly disappearing dissidents.

The capital city of Oman, Muscat, is home to 1.5 million people and averages about three and a half inches of rain a year.
Hip-hop leaks from Henry’s headphones in the backseat. I glance nervously at the driver, but he only smiles.

Dawn finds us beachfront at the Shangri-La, listening to mynah birds squawk in the palms. The sky and the Gulf of Oman assume the same blue-silver color, so that you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. Fifteen hours ago, at my lowest and most chicken-hearted, I imagined us huddling on a hotel bed while gunfire cracked outside. Instead the boys use resort Wi-Fi to hunt Pokémon beside the lazy river while a server asks me if I’d like some more lemon-mint water.

On Monday we head inland in a hired 4x4 through Muscat, a mostly treeless city of low-rise white- and cream-colored buildings. We pass two McDonald’s and a Starbucks; we also pass a walled and turreted police station complex that looks bigger than downtown Boise. Cars and trucks cruise past at polite speeds; sunlight explodes off a thousand windshields. Home to 1.5 million people, the city averages about three and a half inches of rain a year, slightly more than Death Valley. You feel the aridity in your fingernails, taste it in the back of your throat.

At dusk a smell rises from the terraces cut into the mountainsides below, a scent of olive and apricot and wild blackberry, the smell of Greece or Sardinia, or some other more watered place.

As the road arcs away from the sea, the sprawl of the capital gives way to the geologically stupefying Al Hajar Mountains. Colossal slabs of limestone and igneous rock, thrown up by the collision of the Arabian and Eurasian plates, glow in the sunlight; it’s as though you can see the entire history of the planet laid bare. We pass a police checkpoint outside the ancient city of Nizwa, grind up a series of heart-stopping switchbacks, and arrive at Al Jabal al Akhdar, Green Mountain, elevation 6,900 feet, a high-desert plateau cool enough to grow pears, pomegranates, and damask roses. From the rim of a chasm, where our shockingly luxurious Anantara hotel is perched, we peer out into a canyonland of beiges and purples and browns, a landscape that looks like southern Utah mixed with western Wyoming, with tablespoons of Mars thrown in.

“This is amaaaazing,” Henry says, and I have to agree. At dusk a smell rises from the terraces cut into the mountainsides below, a scent of olive and apricot and wild blackberry, the smell of Greece or Sardinia, or some other more watered place.

The following day we descend an ankle-twisting trail through three nearby villages, and Maher al Riyami, our 25-year-old guide, explains the aflaj, an ancient system of canals that funnels water from underground springs through hand-formed channels to the garden terraces on the mountainsides. The aflaj allowed Maher’s ancestors to transform these arid canyons into bountiful orchards, and at harvest time his family would carry their walnuts and peaches and grapes and pomegranates 40 miles down through the foothills to Nizwa to trade. Then, traveling by moonlight to avoid the heat, they’d carry loads of dates and rice back home.

But all that is changing now, Maher explains, because it has not rained on these villages in five years. They’ve received a sprinkle here and there, but nothing like the sustained 40 consecutive afternoons of rains that used to arrive every January and February and pump life back into the aflaj. The drought, coupled with the ability of some upland farmers to bore into aquifers and pump out water that the aflaj, using only gravity, cannot obtain, has decimated many of these orchards. The skeletons of fruit trees populate the lower terraces, and in just five years nearly all the families Maher knew in his youth have moved up to the “New Town” on the plateau, into modern houses where they drink the same trucked-in water that hotel guests drink. As is true for so many human settlements that subsist at the edges of survival, the changing climate is ending a way of life that had endured for generations.

Owen and Henry duck through tiny doorways into abandoned houses; plastic bottles and empty chip bags are piled up against the walls. It’s a cheerful day, Maher explains, because a recent shower has refilled some of the springs, and as we pick our way along a rocky track between the first village, Al Aqr, and the second, Al Ayn, he points to a wadi where he used to swim after school, and asks the boys if they’d like to jump. The boys look at me and grin. I hold my breath as they leap from cliffs 20 feet above the pool and shout with joy on crashing into the water. A dozen startled frogs swim out around them.

At the last village on the trail, Ash Sharayjah, Maher invites us into the clay-walled home where he grew up with his five brothers and five sisters. The downstairs floor is caked with mud; the upstairs kitchen, its ceiling beams stained black from decades of cook fires, is bare.

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We stand on the little terrace as he pours us qahwa, coffee with cardamom, from a thermos in his pack and shares memories of hunting in the nearby canyons, of grass as high as his waist, of seeing wolves and foxes and owls, and cedar trees so fat he couldn’t wrap his arms around them. Now, he explains, the grass in the canyons turns brown before it gets started, and all the big cedars have been cut down.

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A hair-dryer wind rises from deep in the canyons, and the boys and I try to imagine Maher’s home when it teemed with life: children running in the lanes, rosebushes crackling with bees, goats bawling, men and women carrying fruit up the ancient staircases, jasmine perfuming the air while water gurgled through the arteries of the aflaj, delivering life to the desert.

“It was a really nice lifestyle here,” Maher says. “You know? For your body, your soul?” If he’s lucky enough to become a father, Maher’s children may never know that life. On Friday, he and his old village friends, most of whom live in Muscat now, will get together and make the 40-mile trek to Nizwa that his ancestors made, carrying not the burdens of fruit to trade, but the weight of their memories.

On our way back we pass a 90-year-old man in a milk-white dishdasha and Velcro shoes, picking his way uphill. This man, like many elders, Maher explains, makes the journey every day from the New Town to visit his orchards on the cliffsides—many of which require dozens of staircases and ladders to reach.

“This man,” Maher says, “is always talking about water.”

From green Mountain in the north, we ride an Oman Air 737 to Salalah in the south, where date palms give way to coconut palms and frankincense trees, and camels pad across the freeway taking their sweet time. Typically Salalah receives just a bit more rainfall than Muscat, but most of the water comes from June to September, during southern Oman’s monsoon season, called the khareef, which turns the bluffs above Salalah emerald green.

In front of the chic Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, a flour-white beach runs east to west for more miles than I can run. The boys go crashing into the light blue waves of the Arabian Sea; I order a glass of sauvignon blanc and watch herons hunt in the lagoon next to the resort; and the last of my preconceptions about the Middle East fractures.

Here in Salalah, too, the talk is of water: Within minutes of meeting Hussain Balhaf, a local whom our hotel calls “the Salalah guru,” he is telling us how the khareef came early, which was unusual, and how in May 2018, Cyclone Mekunu killed 31 people, smashed bridges, closed the airport, and left lakes behind in the dunes of the Arabian Desert.

“We ask the old people,” Hussain says, “and they say, ‘We have never seen anything like it.’ The balance is not good.”

But I never expected to travel to the Arabian Peninsula and discover a place where roads, internet connections, and airplanes proved faster than the ones at home . . .

Hussain is a calm, sanguine guide. He walks us onto cliffs east of the town of Taqah, from which we spy green turtles rising to breathe in the swells far below; then he leads us up a slick trail past a dozen camels to an aquamarine freshwater pool beneath three huge, pounding waterfalls. The boys jump off of everything they can climb to, and for an hour, we are the only people there. “In 20 days,” Hussain yells, to be heard over the roar, “maybe a month, these falls will be dry.”

A friend of Owen’s Snapchats him, “How’s getting bombed?” The director of communications at our hotel tells us that her own parents will not travel from Wisconsin to Oman because they think it’s unsafe. And yet the World Economic Forum rated Oman the fourth-safest country in the world, right behind Iceland.

It’s still the Middle East, of course: While Henry and Owen peruse pastries at a breakfast buffet, five million kids might be starving in Yemen, just across the border, and Sultan Qaboos bin Said turns 79 in November. Will Oman remain stable when he is gone?

But I never expected to travel to the Arabian Peninsula and discover a place where roads, internet connections, and airplanes proved faster than the ones at home; or where I could drop my credit cards in front of a hotel and two men with daggers in their belts would spring to my aid.

More than anything, I’ll remember the hours I spent with my sons in the dying villages on Green Mountain. Here and there in the narrow lanes, we’d come across little water taps on the outside of houses, filters and cups attached. “What are these for?” we asked Maher.

“They are for anyone who comes by,” he replied.

An Omani village, dying of thirst, offers its water to passersby. Maybe this, I think, as Owen, Henry, and I return to the airport—where women in burqas eat Subway and an Omani man in an orange polo shirt, seeing me staring confusedly at my phone, helps me log onto Wi-Fi—maybe this is the most important lesson of spinning the globe: that in the balance of my experience, kindness is the common currency of humanity. Sometimes you just have to trust in generosity—fear and ignorance be damned—and take the leap.

>>Next: What One Man Learned Walking 1,000 Miles Across the Middle East

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