My first night in Oman - I'm sitting on a dhow, second in a row of eight tied to a quay. They're bobbing gently, the only noise their fenders squeaking and the trilling of the seabirds. Suddenly, singing bursts from the mosque not 50m away - the dusk muezzin. "Alaa-a-a-aaaa-a-a-aaaa-a-a-aaaaah Akhbar!" It's a beautiful moment, one which reminds me of numerous such calls to prayer from my travels - the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the dawn call in a remote village in Southern Ethiopia, the chorus rising above the mists breathing an Indonesian volcano.
Luxury accommodation in Oman, with balcony and sea views.
The great thing is, I wouldn't be here unless I was as, erm, budget conscious as I am. You see, the cheapest hotel in town in $90. I was thinking of camping on the beach (Oman may be the safest country in the world) but since I'm going on a dhow cruise tomorrow I tried my luck and persuaded the security guard to let me crash on the deck - sweet!
It's worlds away from where I woke up the previous morning - Dubai with it's ridiculous concentration of skyscrapers and wealth. Glass, steel and concrete: in a way, beautiful; in another way, hideous. I thought Doha, and to a lesser extent Bahrain, had spectacular cityscapes, dazzling by day and winking by night, but Dubai just goes on and on. And then there is the ridiculous, gorgeous, vertiginous Burj Khalifa - highest building in the world at 828m. Standing on the 124th floor as day fades to night is a real trip. I got a bit obsessed with it, to be honest. You don't want to know how many photos I took.
But now for something completely different: Couchsurfing, the social phenomenon of travellers letting other travellers crash on their sofas for free, is something I've been wanting to try for a while, for obvious reasons. But it's not what you think. Well not entirely anyway. Yes, it's free accommodation, but it can be so much more than that.
Three years ago, you may recall, I was travelling around the Caribbean when I suddenly found myself alone with the prospect of lots of expensive hotels ahead of me. I promptly signed up to Couchsurfing in the hope of mitigating my accommodation costs but soon discovered that none of the good burghers of the West Indies would respond to my couch requests. I could only conclude that their generous nature was confined to those visitors with more feminine body parts. Fortunately my erstwhile travelling partner came back online and we were able to share the costs as planned.
With a trip to another notoriously expensive part of the world looming, I reactivated my account. Fortunately the good burghers of the Gulf of Arabia lived up to their reputation for hospitality and responded in droves. I ended up meeting four CS hosts and herein lies the real beauty of the CS community: true interaction with, and friends from, other cultures, getting the sort of insight that package tourists at their pre-organised 'cultural shows' can only dream of. Admittedly, they were actually a Moroccan, a Pakistani, a Central African Republican and an Omani, but that hardly matters. They were all super friendly people who showed me around, gave me lifts, bought me dinner, talked my ears off and generally made what could otherwise have been a lonely ten days a lot more fun.
On the other hand, I discovered that Couchsurfing has the potential to be less convenient than it is worth. Hosts can understandably live in suburbs quite distant from city centres and other places of interest to tourists. Being travellers, if they're anything like me, they can't afford to be living in the middle of the action. The result of this is that although you aren't paying for accommodation, it can be a haul to get anywhere. Indeed, in Qatar my host's mansion was so far from transport that I had to wait for his personal chauffeur to drive me anywhere I wanted to go (he was the ambassador of the CAR). Nevertheless I would certainly Couchsurf again in the future.
Another thing I tried successfully for the first time on this trip was hooking up with travel buddies through Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum. Knowing that Oman would be expensive I decided the to hire a 4WD and camp wild, a totally legal and free alternative to hotels. Naturally it made sense to further cut costs and share the expense of car rental and petrol, so I threw out a general invitation into the vast unknown and after a dubious start with a young lady who didn't even know where Oman was I ended up with a couple of likely prospects. By email we arranged all the details such as possible itineraries, who would bring what camping gear, hiring the vehicle and in one case e-stalking the others to make sure we weren't psychopaths.
Everything went like clockwork and we met up as planned in Muscat. I know what you're thinking - this experiment could have been a nightmare with the wrong people. Luckily everyone was pretty cool and we got on well for the whole ten days of dune riding, cliff jumping, wadi swimming, mountain hiking and dinner cooking. Of course there were ups and downs but on the whole it was way better than spending that time alone, with no-one to share the amazing sunsets, swims and terrifyingly vertiginous driving. My blog is not big on morality tales but you may have stumbled across a lesson here: there are many lovely people in the world; there's no need ever to travel alone. Good times.