Stargazing – Oman
We were on our way back to Muscat, Oman’s capital, after an amazing day of visiting the over 500-year-old forts of Jabrin and Nizwa in the northwestern part of the country. It was getting late, the sun was setting and we still had a couple of hours to go.
We had already been surprised how well built and maintained the road system was in Oman. Oil revenues were well spent, apparently. Even the highway back to the coast was lit all the way. Before long it was completely dark with not a cloud in the sky and we New Yorkers finally had a great chance to see the night sky, unencumbered by the big city light pollution. We turned off the highway onto a (still) lit feeder road, but a couple of miles further into the desert, near the village of Bidbid (you never forget a name like that), we ended up in complete darkness. Absolutely perfect for gazing at stars and constellations we would otherwise never had been able to see.
After I parked the car, Bob, my travel companion, took our binoculars and flashlight and set out into the dry desert with some low growing bushes. I followed him shortly after. I could not see a hand before my eyes and called him and asked to shine his flashlight into my direction. He did, but apparently he missed seeing the rock outcropping in front of him. I heard him yell HELP, HELP, HELP. He had fallen and had landed so badly, that at first he couldn’t even move. I shone the flashlight on him and saw he was bleeding profusely from a gaping wound on his forehead. What to do? Just don’t panic.
I told him I would get the car. Thankfully we had taken a laundry bag full of ice cubes from the hotel as well as some towels. Being Dutch by birth and growing up without ice in drinks my whole life, I thought it was ridiculous to take ice with you in the car on a day trip. Typical American, I had remarked. Now though I was grateful to have access to – by now – cold water and towels. I drove the car off the road into the shrubbery and gravel where he was lying. The headlights located him and I pulled up a little closer, but noticed that the wheels were slipping and I had to rev up to get the car going. Let me tell you, it was an ordeal to try to get a 200 pound man up from the desert floor and pull him into the car. I finally managed to get him in on the passenger side and was able to get a good look at his injuries for the first time. It was worse than I thought. He still couldn’t move his legs and the blood was coming down his face from the wound on his forehead. Thank you water, thank you towels. I cleaned him as good as I could and wrapped one of the towels around his head to stop the bleeding. Now I wanted to go back to the hotel and to a doctor as fast as I could. But no, before I started the engine he said to lower the window because he wanted to see the stars!!! Well, stars were now the last thing on my mind and I was ready to knock him so hard, that he could see some stars for real.
Now ready to go, I started the car, put it in reverse and wanted to pull out back to the road. No such thing. The wheels spinned and spinned, and of course they sank deeper and deeper into the gravely sand. When I got out of the car I realized that we were hopelessly stuck. I looked around and the only thing I could see was the middle of nowhere. I had a brief panic attack, not knowing what to do next, but decided that the only way out of this was to walk back to the road and pray to God, or to Allah for that matter, that a car would somehow show up that I could flag down.
Back on the road I had a good look around and of course there was utter darkness with some faint lights, Bidbid?, in the distance. Well, Lady Luck or God or Allah had heard my prayers, because after a couple of minutes two headlights miraculously came out of nowhere. I waved frantically, afraid the car would not stop, but it did and to my amazement it turned out to be a patrol car of the Omani police. This must have been a sight for them they had never expected when I gestured them back into the desert where they found our car with my friend inside. They looked at each other, then at me and began speaking rapidly in Arabic, of which I didn’t understand a word.
I explained to them we were Americans that just wanted to gaze at the stars. They spoke a couple of words of English and basically said they had never seen something so stupid ever. Thank you very much, I know that. Now help me. Their little car could not possibly pull me out of this mess. So, they radioed for help. Within ten minutes their superior arrived in a four wheel drive SUV. This officer, a sergeant, surprisingly spoke pretty good English and after having explained our predicament he spoke with his underlings, then they all laughed wholeheartedly, of course, but became serious and wanted to really help us the best they could. His SUV had the power to pull me out, but there was no tow hook under the back of our Taurus. Only at the front. He told me he would have to call a tow truck to get me out. But foremost he said that Bob had to go to the hospital as quickly as possible. I was reluctant to do that, not knowing what kind of facilities would be available in that part of the country. I wanted him to go to the American hospital in Muscat. The sergeant tried to reassure me. He said he would be in good hands and he would take him to the clinic personally in his SUV. I agreed and with the help of the other two officers we were able to transfer him from our car to the police SUV. They set off and when I saw the red tail lights disappear in the distance I was really worried if and when I would see him again.
The radio call to the tow truck guy had apparently woken up the whole village of Bidbid, because, and I had no idea where they came from, within ten minutes I was surrounded by at least thirty Omani men, all in their long waving garbs, discussing this most interesting situation. They laughed, pointed at me, laughed some more and I became more embarrassed by the minute. I grinned back and was praying for the tow truck to arrive, which it did, thankfully, after a couple of minutes. After much discussion it was decided to slide a wooden bar under my car, lift it up and pull it out of the sand back to the road. It was also good to see that no damage was done to the car at first sight. I was prepared to pay whatever they had asked for, but the police officers gestured I should follow them and that payment would be finalized at the police station. Things were finally looking up.
I was able to relax a little bit while following the cop car to wherever the police station was. We drove for about fifteen minutes and I still had only seen darkness and the two tail lights in front of me. Suddenly, the police car was slowing down to a snail’s pace. I looked ahead and saw we were behind an oxcart filled to the max with hay bales moving at, well, a snail’s pace. We trotted along for a couple of minutes and before long a minibus joined our little procession behind me. They had not seen the police car in front of me, otherwise they would not not have suddenly pulled out to their left and have overtaken our little traffic jam at neckbreaking speed. This did not sit well with my two buddies in front of me and sure enough, the siren and the flashing lights were turned on and a pursuit ensued. So, what did this stupid stargazing American do? He followed the cop car and he found himself in this surreal situation, where he was saying to himself “this is not happening to me”. But it was and he saw himself chasing a police car through the desert at 70 mph with these amazing stars and constellations gazing down on him.
The cops chased our minibus down, stopped, and now they were the stupid ones. We had to turn around – the police station was now back on the road a couple of miles – and I got the chance to tell my story all over again to the Captain, with my smiling Sergeant as an interpreter. I had never seen a more incredulous look on somebody’s face than that of the Captain’s after listening to my story. A shake of his head, a quick crawl at the bottom of the police report and he waved me out saying what an unfortunate accident this all had been.
After I saw the Sergeant, I knew that Bob couldn’t be far. And sure enough there he was, his head fully bandaged and scrapes all over his arms and legs. Safe and sound. The local clinic could not have done a better job than any other US clinic would have. They cleaned the wounds, gave him a tetanus shot, pain pills and a round of antibiotics for the next ten days. Yet another example how well oil revenues were spent. Free health care for all Omanis and for stupid American tourists as well.
In the waiting room I gladly paid the tow truck driver his fee about $15.00 and witnessed how our minibus occupants were arguing and then shaking hands with my two cops after paying their probably not-so-low fine. We all said our goodbyes and when I wanted to give the Sergeant a (monetary) token of my gratitude he politely declined, but gladly accepted it when I told him it was not for him but for his children.
Bob and I made it back safely to our Muscat hotel and for the rest of our trip to Dubai and the other six Emirates we were now the three of us. Me, Bob and our wheelchair provided by our Dubai hotel.
It was an unforgettable trip.