That there have been, as the guidebook warned, "a few tragic incidents over the years" was not in the least a deterrent to the driver, who spent the next two hours testing the limits of both gravity and my grit. His game was to reach the pinnacle of some 300-foot dune and gun the engine for the edge, driving into what appeared to be sheer space.
The physics of dune driving exceed my comprehension. But I can report that after the first drop—when the car nosed to the crest of a dune, tipped sharply downhill, and, its weight settling reassuringly onto the rear axle, proceeded to skid down the smooth sand face at great speed—I spent most of that roller-coaster afternoon in a state of bracing, near-hysterical fear.
It was fun for a while, although perhaps not so much fun for me as for the driver, who took a sadistic glee in my white-knuckled silence and merrily slipped in a tape of thumping American house music on the return to Muscat. “I used to be a DJ in Mombasa,” he smiled, as I reminded myself to be more diligent about checking credentials before getting into strangers’ cars.
It happened that the afternoon’s disorientation became a kind of leitmotif for the trip and possibly also a metaphor for all travel in the lands of insh’allah. The philosophical essence of Islam’s deep-rooted fatalism is derived from the belief that God is in the driver’s seat and one is merely along for the cosmic ride. This, as much as the feeling of chic sequestration I experienced at the Chedi, turned out to be the value of the journey for me. As often as I found myself thwarted in efforts to make sense of disturbing local customs—women, veiled or otherwise, are almost altogether absent from public space—I was also bound to concede that what confused me most was my own expectations.
This is the traveler’s dilemma wherever one goes; increasingly, it is the politician’s as well. For all that Sultan Qaboos has done to move his country into the 21st century—building scores of schools and 2,000 mosques, introducing parliamentary elections in which women stand as candidates—Oman is and remains in many ways an antique land. Even now, road maps are startlingly blank, a few principal highways intersected by faint dotted lines that, in some cases, indicate camel trails used for millennia. True, the country’s numerous mud forts, with their squat walls and Lego crenellations, have been spruced up for tourist consumption, and true, too, the coast is fast becoming another regional variant of Dubai’s Vegas-sur-Mer.
Yet all one has to do to leave modern for biblical Oman is to travel inland to an oasis like Wadi Bani Awf, descend a rocky path through terraced farm plots, and enter a palm-fringed walkway by a stream linking a sequence of spring-fed rock pools. This place I am talking about was once part of a prehistoric ocean bed and it has the smoothed and folded appearance of geologies burnished by wind and ancient seas. One afternoon I hired a car to drive me to the wadi so I could hike down through the gorge. It was a scorching day, but the air beneath the streamside date palms stayed cool. The hike was far from strenuous, more like a brisk walk, and for most of it I was alone. Then I turned a corner and happened upon a group of holiday makers bathing, air pockets trapped beneath their white dishdashas, giving them the jaunty look of blimps or bladders or floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The antic impression they made owed a lot to their lavish woolly beards. That and the fact that they were all still wearing their shoes.
For the first time during my visit, I was able that night to score a table at the Chedi’s terrace restaurant and had a meal that was delicious, although memorable mainly for being indistinguishable from one I might order in New York or Milan. There was a good white Burgundy on the wine list and I ordered it. Slightly tired from the hike and also slightly buzzed, I slept soundly that night and rose early for an outing I’d planned for no other reason than that I’d run out of other things to do.