Indeed, Oman has often acted as an intermediary between Iran and its Arab and Western antagonists. It played a crucial role in the release of three American hikers detained in Iran in 2011 -- and in the papers that December morning, I read how the country had helped secure the release of an Iranian who had been detained a few years earlier in Britain as part of an American sting operation.
The roads were very good. Abdullah had downloaded an app on his smartphone that tracked our route. "She's a good girl," he said, decreasing speed when the female voice warned him of speed cameras. "She has saved me a lot of money." We had the radio on in the car. Abdullah sang along to the songs; I kept the rhythm by clapping my hands and drumming on the dashboard.
A day or so later, I flew down to Salalah, close to the border with Yemen. The climate was tropical -- not like anything I had ever experienced in the Middle East. I walked through a banana and coconut plantation and waved at the workers who invited me over to share a meal with them. I emerged from the plantation at a market, which was closed for Friday prayers. I wandered down to the sea, drawn by the sound of the ocean. Stretched out in front of me were miles of fine, pale yellow sand. I sat on the beach, alone with the birds. I was in paradise.
The next day, at the Samhuram museum, I watched a video that showed the great strides Oman has made since Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970, sending his father into exile in London. At the time, Oman was poor and faced an insurgency in this southern part of the country, known as the Dhofar. Sultan Qaboos had made a historic speech when he began his reign, saying that Oman had once been at the forefront of the Arab world and that it could become great again. He had toured the country, spending weeks sleeping in a large tent so that people could come to him to express their concerns and needs. He had offered an amnesty to the Dhofar rebels, cutting their supplies, eroding their support, and allowing those who surrendered to form irregular units. While Oman did not have the extravagant wealth of other Gulf countries, its oil revenues have enabled the country to emerge from poverty. Oman today has infrastructure that would make any Western country proud.
At the museum, I struck up a conversation with an American couple from Seattle in their late 60s or early 70s. As travelers are wont to do, we exchanged tales of previous journeys. I told them of how Salalah brought back memories of a trip I had made a quarter-century ago, when I had hitchhiked alone from Morocco across the Algerian Sahara in an effort to reach Timbuktu. I hadn't been able to get there due to fighting, so instead had continued south through Benin, until I reached the coast. I had spent the night on the beach. I squirmed when the American man asked me where I was staying in Salalah. "The Hilton, but I got a good rate," I admitted, trying to somehow negate my sense of guilt at my metamorphosis from backpacker to tourist.
"You know," the American man told me, "I made it to Timbuktu in the 70s. Do you want to shake my hand?" I grabbed it. They had seen so much of the world and had once followed the hippie trail. "George W. Bush," the woman announced, "destroyed the hope of the new century. Now Americans are so frightened of the world and don't travel so much."
My guide in Salalah was Asi, an Indian from Kerala. I had been expecting an Omani guide. "Omanis," Asi informed me, "are never on time. And that is why I am your guide."
Asi told me that Kerala was just like Salalah, with the same climate -- coconut plantations everywhere. As we drove, I listened to tales of life in India, of black magic, of mischievous spirits, and of an elephant who had once chased Asi up a tree. Suddenly, as we were going downhill, Asi stopped the car, put it in neutral without the hand brake, and turned off the engine. The car began reversing up the hill on its own accord.