On the Road in Oman: Insights and Tips

You can pack in many unique experiences in Oman within a week or two, and we tried our best to do just that. It wasn’t a perfect trip–it’s silly to have that expectation, but I hope to visit Oman again someday or at least host some of our new Omani acquaintances if they ever visit the States.

Here’s a gallery of more images if you care to check them out! 

You can navigate without a GPS:  Despite a few detours, a nonworking Google Map–the blue dot flickering and slowly following our Toyota Fortuner’s progress–was enough for us. This wasn’t by design. That’s another story. But we were on a well-traveled loop, from Muscat down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, back up through the Wahiba Sands, up to Jebel Shams, then back to Muscat. The roads are mostly new, but signage doesn’t always match up with expectations. Luckily, the Omanis were always willing to help, either in English or enthusiastic Arabic, even though we only knew a few words. 

Definitely rent a 4WD:

If you have an inkling of adventure in you, you’ve got to rent a 4WD in Oman. For us, it was especially handy over several days. We needed it for our drive out to a fancy desert camp in Wahiba Sands, 11 km on mostly level ground between the dunes. And once you get into the mountainous region, even the paved roads have some serious grades. Driving up to the village of Al Khitaym for the “Grand Canyon” walk is dirt road part of the time and steep. But the highlight of our 4WD adventures had to be the drive from Al Hamra to Bald Sayt–a truly spectacular and adrenaline-pumping journey. After enjoying a walk around Bald Sayt, we ended up giving a lift to a hitchhiking Egyptian family who were leaving the valley enclave, heading to the nearest city of Rustaq for their monthly trip.

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Our passengers from Bald Sayt to Rustaq.

The Jebel Shams area is sweet:

While Oman’s coastal area is picturesque in places, and the wadis a highlight for most visitors, we were most impressed by the mountain region. Misfah Al Abriyeen village is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited–the walk along the Falaj (irrigation canal) is really beautiful. Just be respectful of the local farmers tending their terraced plots with date palms and other crops.

There is also a sweet little museum in Al Hamra called Bait Al Safah, which is enclosed in one of the oldest homes in the village. It provides a glimpse into traditional Omani culture–there are live demonstrations of cooking, medicine-making, and other crafts. Very cool.

Then there’s the “Grand Canyon” of the Middle East. You can park at Al Khitaym, where goats acclimated to getting treats from visitors might even try to get in your car. The trail from this village gradually descends to some ruins tucked along the cliff. And there’s reportedly a nice swimming hole at the end of this walk. We couldn’t find it, which was the only disappointment during this fairly strenuous 3-4 hour round trip. (Someone had told us it wasn’t much of a hike…not true, you need to be in decent shape for this).

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Not shy.

Omanis are off-the-charts hospitable:

I don’t say this lightly. After our honeymoon in Thailand, during which a man zoomed our lost selves around on his motorbike for an hour, trying to deliver us back to a guest house, and another family hosted us in their traditional countryside home, treating us to grandma’s homemade chili paste with fish, boiled duck eggs, noodles, and other delights, I figured the Thai people were the friendliest on the planet. Now I’m not so sure.

Our first airbnb host Mohammad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, full of wisdom and open to cultural exchange–he even went snorkeling with us.

We then met Abdul, an Omani Special Forces paratrooper, while wandering around in Al Hamra. We were looking for the old section of the town, photographing goats in the alleyways. He asked if we needed help; we said we didn’t, thank you. But he then ended up inviting us for dates and coffee on the ground with his mom and sister. This led to two trips to his home, where we enjoyed conversation and received some generous gifts of traditional Omani clothing and aromatics. Like I said in the intro, I hope we can reciprocate someday. Inshallah, as Abdul told us.

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With Abdul.

It’s such a chill place compared to Dubai:

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, ruler for the past 47 years, determined that he wanted to keep Oman’s traditional culture intact, developing slowly and sustainable. As a result of this leadership, you won’t see gleaming skyscrapers in Muscat, or over-the-top theme parks. There is a coherence to the place that you won’t find in Dubai, where anything goes architecture and rampant development can make you feel like you’re in the midst of a kid going crazy playing SimCity.

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Muttrah (old port area), Muscat

Avoid visiting the wadis on holidays and weekends:

We unknowingly booked our rental car during Oman’s long holiday weekend in early December. This caused the wadis to be overflowing with people. If you are looking to experience the wadis during a less hectic time, try to visit them on the weekdays and get out early.  Nonetheless, we loved swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, where there are plenty of pools to explore (keep walking up the valley to avoid crowds and explore more pools).  If you are a woman, plan to swim in your clothing or shorts and a one-piece bathing suit; as it is considered disrespectful to strip down to a bikini. You will likely receive some stares no matter what; Omani Muslim women do not swim in public places.

Visit the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve in the early morning:

A few other travelers that we met during our trip also encountered a chaotic crowd at the turtle reserve for the nighttime viewing. We were advised by an expat who has lived in Oman for 20 years to opt for the reserve’s early morning tour, which begins at 4:45 am. According to him, you have a better chance of seeing the turtles with a much smaller group.

Don’t Miss the Souk in Muttrah

The enclosed souk in Muttrah, the old port in Muscat, should not be missed. It is an endless maze of vendors selling a combination of inexpensive tourist knick-knacks and more authentic items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

 

 

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Oman Road Trip Blunders: An Imperfect Travel Tale

Before Paul and I started our adventure, friends and family implored us to keep them updated in one way or another. The easiest, and perhaps laziest, way to do this is via social media. And admittedly, I’ve wholeheartedly said “yes” to this type of sharing. Each time I post a pic of where we have been, which is quite regularly now, I am cognizant of how difficult it is to avoid extreme ends of the perception pendulum, either trying to present a flawless portrait of our experiences or doing the opposite, cramming people’s feeds with complaints and irritations.

And so, in the spirit of being “real” and presenting a more balanced view of things, I am choosing to share the first day of me and Paul’s self-drive road trip in Oman, which was full of blunders and tested our resolve to embrace the unknown.

To preface the story, I will admit that Paul and I travel well together. It’s a good thing, because if not, this little global jaunt that shirks concepts such as long-term planning and certainty would have stalled out pretty quickly. That being said, spending most of your time with someone in spaces much smaller than your prior residence certainly magnifies specific behaviors and conflicting preferences. For example, Paul has this otherworldly ability to torpedo out of bed in the morning, energy radiating off of him in waves. I really prefer to ease into my enthusiasm for the day, meaning that I don’t really want to vocalize anything but grunts and yawns for at least a half hour after I wake. Paul and I also have very different work styles. He can concentrate in the midst of any distraction. Other people talking loudly. NBD. Playing music with words in it. A cakewalk. A 50-pound jackhammer motoring away next door. Child’s play. To put it simply, I prefer silence. Prolonged, uninterrupted, pure silence. This can make me a barrel of laughs to be around when I am working, as you can imagine. So, you can see how things can get a little dicey.  

Paul and I had high expectations for our self-drive Oman tour. Preliminary internet research talked about the country’s diverse terrain of mountains, desert, and coastline, as well as its warm, welcoming citizens. Bloggers specifically raved about the picturesque wadis (valleys) dotted with deserted turquoise swimming pools. All one had to do was rent a 4 x 4 and venture onto the road. This immediately conjured up images of us being amatuer explorers, stumbling upon previously undiscovered areas of inimitable beauty. We would arrive and bask in the utopia we found, gazing over the pools, untouched and stippled in just the right amount of sunlight.

Airport Delays

We got a late start the day we planned to pick up our 4 x 4. We had been spending the last three days in Muscat with potentially the nicest airbnb host ever, Mohammed, an incredibly wise, 45 year-old Omani man who speaks quietly and listens intently. Mohammed truly delights in deliberate and enthusiastic cultural exchange. He went snorkeling with us, he brought us dolphin watching, he introduced us to his acupuncture tools, and finished off our stay with one of his favorite hobbies, massage. On the day of our departure, we of course wanted to share one last homemade breakfast with him, even though it changed our schedule.

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Early morning breakfast with airbnb host, Mohammed. Feeling good about the day.

By the time we arrived at the airport to pick up our car, we were met by the grim faces of the people waiting in line in front of us at the rental kiosk. One individual exuded the stereotype of a tightly wound, reserved, middle-aged white guy who is used to optimal efficiency and logic at all times. He paced back and forth, sitting down with an audible sigh and then standing up to hover over the rental car counter where a delayed transaction was taking place. The other man was grumbling about how they were renting out cars with over 120,000 miles on them. Figuring we were in for a wait, I asked both of them how long they had been standing in line. Uptight guy was apparently too worked up to respond (Yes, he did speak English). The other guy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation and said, “I don’t know! Too long!.” So that was that. “Well,” I thought, “Paul and I are in no hurry. We aren’t tethered to silly conventions such as time!”

Thirty minutes later we made it to the counter, only to find out that there were no GPS gadgets remaining. Undeterred, we figured it would not be a problem; we could buy a map since our international data plan was mysteriously not working in Oman. Besides, this was a freewheeling ADVENTURE. If we had too many directions we may never happen upon previously undiscovered locations!  The rental car attendant, clearly not privy to our visions, looked a little concerned and suggested that we buy a SIM card.

Heeding his advice, we picked up a map and went over to the appropriate counter to buy one. Seventeen dollars and an introductory lesson on SIM cards later, it was becoming apparent that it may not work for us. Everytime we inserted the delicate piece of plastic in one of our phones, an error message popped up on our screens, taunting us with its power. The employee who sold us the SIM card brushed these error messages aside, all we had to do was go somewhere with free wifi in order to activate the SIM card and it would work.

Problem was, the free wifi in the airport emitted a very weak signal, and was not registering on our phones. We were directed to the airport information booth, only to meet with a befuddled employee who recommended we revisit the SIM card booth. At this point, we were making slow, stumbling laps around the arrivals section of Muscat’s Airport. Attempts to get password and login information from any of the independent businesses in the airport failed. After a friendly Omani/American citizen (a totally different story that deserves another blog post) and his brother took up our cause with marginal success, our hopes for the SIM card solution dwindled and we committed to the paper map.

On the Road

Finally on the road, our next step was to get ourselves out of Muscat. With Paul manning the wheel, I was in charge of the navigation piece of our journey. Maybe not the best arrangement. Can I please point out that paper maps can be quite unwieldy? Unfolding and refolding our primary navigational tool, cursing it as it crinkled itself into different, awkward shapes, I anxiously scanned the area of Muscat as Paul whizzed on down the highway, guided by my instructions, which included precise phrases such as, “Ummmm…there may be a roundabout coming up, er, OK, not for awhile, wait, Oh, here it is!  GO RIGHT!” Needless to say, if we were contestants on the Amazing Race (which I sometimes like to pretend we are in) we’d be packing our bags. After a tense 45 minutes accompanied by a bundle of expletives, we spit out victorious onto the coastal road. Our road warrior journey was beginning! On to the wadis!

Our general plan was to meander down the main northern coastal road, traveling east, until we reached two destinations, the Bimmah Sinkhole and Wadi Shab. Type these names into Google and you will find an endless screen of idyllic images, an explosion of sparkling pools, brilliant sunlight, and palm trees, all ensconced by rugged mountains. Things were going well, we had found “The Nation’s Station,” the English-speaking radio station in Oman where no musical genre is neglected. Bopping along to tunes that ranged from Celine Dion to early Dr. Dre to Christmas carols, we felt redeemed after our morning delays.This was until we noticed two things: 1) That the names on our handy-dandy paper map were not exactly matching up with the road signs that we were passing and, 2) That the coastal road was the opposite of isolated.

Road Trip Reality

Bloggers had mentioned how you can camp anywhere in Oman, finding yourself the only one on a long strip of beach. As we drove, we were realizing that EVERYONE must have received this memo. Tents and families lined the coastline. It’s funny how you can hear things and completely dismiss them until their sudden importance smacks you in the face. Airbnb Mohammed HAD mentioned to us that it was a long national holiday weekend. The reality of this fact became apparent as we passed teeming crowds of holiday revelers.

Our radio station sing-a-long quieted by the scene outside of our car, we managed to find the Bimmah Sinkhole, whose signs spelled it differently and did not refer to it as a sinkhole. Due to this, the crowds of people were a boon, as all we had to do was follow the line of cars streaming into what looked like a park of sand and shrub. Despite the fact that the Bimmah Sinkhole was clearly a favorite holiday destination, we decided to take a look. The area around the site has been built up for tourism, and loads of large families were sharing meals under the shade of small trees.

In retrospect, it was nice to see people spending quality time together with their loved ones, but at that moment, we were inwardly cursing these family gatherings. This was not the type of destination for daring adventurers such as us! The Bimmah Sinkhole is stunning, even though we were seeing it flanked by teenage girls posing for 10 minute selfie sessions. Men jumped into the naturally occuring ocean pool from daring heights, prompting yells of encouragement and clapping from the crowd. Paul took a dip in the delightfully warm water. I snapped a few pics. And then we left. Don’t get me wrong, the Bimmah Sinkhole is an unforgettable sight even when it is swamped with people; however, we were a little deflated that we did not have the more isolated experience that we had constructed in our minds.

Onward to Wadi Shab, a valley where people had told us you can swim through a cave and be gifted with pretty much a modern-day version of Eden. Ever the optimists, we actually believed that Wadi Shab would possibly not be enveloped by holiday throngs. Once again, the enormous amount of cars, not the road signs, guided us to our destination, only to be presented with lines of people waiting eagerly to aboard small boats that would drop them off at the entry of Wadi Shab. Allowing our frustration to get the best of us, we decided not to venture into the chaos. I briefly got out of the car to take a few snaps of roadside goats, only to be met by impatient honks from the traffic jam of cars behind us, and then we hightailed it on out of there.

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Goats. The only thing we snapped a picture of at Wadi Shab. Insert car honking in the background.

Turtle Reserve Redemption?

It was now almost 4:00 pm, and so we decided to drive to our hotel for the night, sulking in a soup of disappointment, and nervously wondering if this was an omen for the next nine days of our trip. Although we had 99% surrendered to the limited success of the day, we knew there was still time to turn it around. For tonight, we had plans to visit the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, and if mama turtles laying eggs on the beach can’t turn a frown upside down, I don’t know what can.

Prior to embarking upon our Oman adventure, I had scoured the internet for details about the turtle reserve and found that it is somewhat controversial, at least for the Trip Advisor set. Although there were positive experiences, many reviewers complained about the beach’s upkeep (where the turtle’s nest) as well as the potential stress felt by the turtles from being gawked at by enormous amounts of visitors. These concerns resurfaced in my mind as we drove to the reserve. Paul and I were planning to eat at its restaurant (it also has a hotel), as in another falter for the day, we had run out of cash and discovered that the limited meal options in the area typically did not take credit cards. An ATM was nowhere to be found.

Arriving around 6:30 pm at the reserve we were told by the front desk employee that we had been assigned to Group Two for turtle viewing and that, “At some point around 8:30 pm,  maybe 9:00 pm, maybe 9:30 pm, all individuals who were assigned to our group would be called to then come back to the counter to purchase tickets.” I found it a little odd that we could not just buy them at that moment, but was distracted by the fact that I was hungry and wanted to eat my increasingly gloomy feelings. We sat down to the buffet provided by the restaurant, which was good, but certainly not worth the 50 dollars it ended up costing.

By the time we re-emerged from the restaurant, we were greeted by pandamonium. The reception was crammed with people all clamoring for a chance to maybe see some turtles. Children ran around, people cut in front of me as I tried to wait in line for the internet passcode,and cars continued to flood the already full parking lot. As Paul and I read the rules for turtle viewing, which stressed how imperative it is for viewers to be quiet as to not stress out the turtles, a crescendo of kiddie cries filled the air around us. There was no way viewing was going to be quiet. We also predicted that when a group was called to purchase tickets at the counter, any attempt at orderliness such as lines would be pushed to the wayside. Giving each other looks of surrender, Paul and I promptly turned around and left. We had been hemorrhaging money all day and figured that we would just need to let go of the fact that we visited the turtle reserve just to eat a mediocre fifty dollar buffet.

On the way out, the road in to the turtle reserve was illuminated by the headlights of a long line of cars. Feeling tired, annoyed, and clearly INCREDIBLY melodramatic, Paul said something like, “Well, at least we still have our health.”  I slouched in my seat, thinking mean, undeserved thoughts about holiday goers who just wanted to create memories with their families. It was not our best travel day and we were not at our best. Luckily, by the time we settled in back at the hotel, we could laugh about it, promising ourselves that we would make the next day, no matter what, better. Because if this was a bad day for us, we are doing pretty all right.

It turns out that our first day on the road in Oman was anything but indicative of the rest of our trip. We more than redeemed ourselves over the next week, and plan to share more about how amazing the country is in a future blog post, accompanied by some road trip tips that we learned along the way.

The reality is that the sticky, uncomfortable parts of travel, the ones that include getting sick, getting lost, or just plain getting tired, are the ones not frequently displayed via social media, where photos undergo a digital form of plastic surgery before being posted, accompanied by a series of comical, inspirational, or philosophical remarks. People embarking upon their own travel adventures, including myself, fall into the trap of romanticizing the entire experience, and turn optimistic hopes about travel into rigid expectations. I’ve fallen victim to curating that one, envy-inducing travel shot, maniacally scrolling through the Insta filters and brainstorming various witty one-liners before sending it off into the digital stratosphere. Just as there exists a cult of satiny suburban mom accounts (How is she perfectly toned, impeccably dressed, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when she has three kids!?), Instagram and Facebook are also filled with flawless photographs documenting the wanderings of seemingly unburdened travelers.

Travel IS awesome, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that Paul and I have. But it’s not just awesome because it has the ability to introduce you to new and wonderful people, experiences, environments, and ideas. It’s also awesome because it can be hard, unexpected, and is always imperfect. I’ve found that it’s these aspects of travel which have left some of the most indelible marks on my perspective and overall mindset, and have benefited me in enormously positive ways.

On being OK with feeling OK.

With little fanfare, we suddenly found ourselves suspended in a murky underworld inhabited by the reproductively challenged. Looking for answers, I frantically thrust my arms out into the shadowy abyss and immediately did the one thing that rarely provides the reassurance that one is seeking and almost never quells any confusion – I started Googling. One of the first emotions that had overwhelmed me when we heard the news was not that I may never give birth to a mini-me, but rather anxiety over how my husband Paul was handling the revelation coupled with a fear of what this new reality would do to our relationship.

Infertility is one of those circumstances that can explode a marriage in one fell swoop or slowly erode away at it with insidious precision. Riddled with worry, I typed away at my computer, creating increasingly fatalistic phrases such as, “can’t have baby divorce” and “no kids infertility unfulfilled life.” These searches delivered an avalanche of blogs dedicated to infertility journeys.

The experience of not being able to reproduce naturally is jolting. Reproduction is an evolutionary behavior that has had unrivaled staying power. As our continuously modernizing world evolves, we have shed many routines and behaviors practiced by our ancestors. However, the biological urge to reproduce, and the expectation of what it offers, is something that has never seemed to wane. One does not have to look further than their Facebook feed to see how brutally challenging yet rewarding and life-affirming carrying and raising a child can be.

It’s been over two years since Paul and I started trying to conceive. Several years ago, we had definitely noticed an uptick in our need to nurture, with me reigniting my lifelong love of the cutest, most underrated pets ever, guinea pigs, and Paul maintaining a strict daily bonding schedule with our elderly cats, Frankie and Bo. Other than that, we both refused to be consumed with overzealous planning and anxiety that can occur when a couple is trying to get pregnant. We were like the hippie stoners of the reproductive realm, unhurried, not really stressed, and pretty sure “Everything would work out when it would work out, you know, man.”

When it became clear that things “were not just working out,” I tried to come to grips with our fertility challenges. I clicked and read story after story online. I found that couples were choosing all kinds of paths to feel their way through the shadows. Some were trying various medical procedures, others were adopting, and then there was the deeply pious set – those couples who found comfort in good old- fashioned prayer and impenetrable hope. Although the coping mechanisms varied, all of these stories were bound by an excruciating thread of sadness, disappointment, and devastation.

As I waded through these digital testimonials, I was forced to address our current situation. It was a quiet, deeply private, and lumbering confrontation that existed mainly in my head and in honest, searching conversations with my husband. As we considered our options, certain truths became exceedingly clear – we both were sad and disappointed, but not devastated. We both were open to the options with which we were now presented. We both admitted to each other that we didn’t feel the ache of unfulfillment that so many people say you are destined to experience if you don’t have children. In addition, we both were not caught up with the idea of legacy and an all-consuming desire to extend the family tree.

It was not until two years had passed in our infertility journey when I felt compelled to start writing about the bulging thicket of emotions that had been steeping slowly and silently away in my mind. Initially, when friends and family asked me how I was feeling, I was cagey with them. I was not ready to vocalize the feelings that rolled around continuously in my head because I was still navigating them slowly and cautiously. After the discovery that Paul and I felt similarly about our situation, I was still struggling with my personal and unexpected reaction to infertility as a woman. I was realizing that the most difficult part of this journey for me was not the fact that I may never give birth. Rather, it was the harsh judgement I was placing upon myself for not adhering to ingrained societal conventions and norms surrounding motherhood. I had internalized outdated, traditional beliefs that I would never impress upon another woman.

Inside my entangled web of thought I repeatedly identified a few particularly stubborn threads. The first one was that I felt guilty with quietly feeling OK with the reality that I may never give birth naturally. The second, more nagging one was a question of my identity as a childless woman in her mid-thirties.

My Unexpected Reaction

At one time, the guilt I felt about feeling OK with our infertility reality consumed me daily. My innate reaction both betrayed and confused me. I did not understand why I wasn’t huddled in a corner crying, my ovaries aching to give birth. Why was I not feeling the emptiness that so many women express when they realize they may not be able to have a child naturally? Was I coping by floating around in a fragile bubble of denial?  Would it soon pop, delivering me into a blubbering mess of despair, or worse yet, a detached state of permanent ennui? Was I just a selfish asshole, even though I would never make this assumption about other childless women?

I have always loved kids (except when we’re at water parks together). As a teenager, I revelled in being the babysitter that everyone liked, one who would never think of plopping her charges in front of a television set. As I grew older, I was “that girl” who annoyingly cooed at babies in public and naturally threw friends’ kids onto my hip without thinking twice. I ADORE my niece and nephew. I had never been one of those people who scowl cynically at the sight of kiddie updates clogging their Facebook feed, who know with extreme certainty that they are not boarding the baby train.

I blamed myself for not being devastated. For naturally believing that whatever Paul and I decide to do, whether it be adoption, IVF, or not having kids, that we will be OK. That there are other fulfilling ways to nurture and give to others if we never end up having children. In short, I was not OK with feeling OK.

Motherhood as Womanhood

Beyond the guilt and mistrust of my reaction, I suffered from serious self-doubt about my personal identity. For obvious reasons, motherhood and womanhood are inextricably linked. Although it is not a woman’s sole identity, it certainly can feel like it when you find yourself at prime reproductive age. The role of the doting, self-sacrificing mother is one that for right now, I don’t have, and I feel–at times–left out of this shared experience that so many women navigate together. My inner conscious had sneakily metamorphosed into an overbearing mother circa 1950. If I was not married and “creating a family” I was clearly not succeeding at life.

My identity angst was also intensified by the narrow paradigm that is peddled when discussing childless women. A common scenario is that if a woman is not pursuing motherhood, it is because she has decided to invest in a career that prevents her from being able to “have it all.” This is true for many women, but it’s not true for me. I like having a career that fulfills me, but I had tried the stress-inducing, demanding job scenario and realized it’s not what I want. I was not a mother nor was I toiling away at a job that required 60 – 80 hours a week, nevermind “having it all” and balancing both of these things simultaneously. This left me feeling wholly inadequate.

Although I had achieved and was content with a work-life balance that had eluded me for a long time, I judged myself for it, simply because it did not fit neatly into either side of the common paradigm prevalent when discussing women my age.  Although I have started to cultivate a self-love for who I am at this moment in my life, it was very difficult for me to initially accept the reality of who that person is – a 35 year-old childless, not overworked, happily married woman who is lucky enough to be able to travel the world. Although this IS a wonderful and incredibly privileged  situation to be in, I can still feel somewhat isolated from the majority of women in my age group.

In the flurry of family-starting fever that defines the lives of so many American middle class couples in their thirties, it can be hard to remember that it’s OK to not be on the same trajectory and to be content with it. It can be so easy to forget that the process of self-acceptance invites new and unexpected possibility.

On Being OK with Feeling OK

The silver lining to this entire experience has been the reminder of the strength and resoluteness of the partnership and friendship that Paul and I have built. This journey has been easier because of it. Despite the fact that I can still struggle with self-acceptance, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel like the luckiest woman in the world. I have an incredible husband whose enthusiasm for life is infectious.

We share a love and kinship buoyed by honesty, compassion, and positivity. In comparison to a lot of people, we lead charmed lives. After briefly considering IVF, Paul and I both decided it was not right for us. We had plans to eventually settle permanently in New England to be closer to family, but had also been yearning to travel more over the past few years. We realized this was our chance. Over margaritas one night in the spring of 2017, we decided to do what we are best at – not dwell, not obsess over things we can’t control, but instead trust our intuition and commit to steps that felt right for us. This meant simplifying our lives and launching a plan to travel the world for 6 months. I write this as we explore our second destination, Dubai. Raising children, whether it be through adoption or IVF is not out of the picture, but for now we are extremely grateful for the abundance of love, privilege and opportunity that we have right now.

Snapshots From Georgia: A Glimpse Into Our Two Months

We’ve said to several of our family members and also our new Georgian acquaintances: We’ll have to be careful to not compare the next places we go to Georgia because it has been such a wonderful country to begin our travels in. Can anything top it?

Vacations and travel are never perfect of course. As travelers, Rebecca and I aren’t immune to the shitty and/or tedious things we all encounter in day-to-day living. We’ve already had plenty of afternoons lounging around with a little bit of cabin fever. We’ve dealt with colds. Taxi drivers occasionally try to rip us off. And so on. But there were so many positives during our time in this small country–we’ll let the image gallery do the talking. Here is a link to the above images plus about 70 more.

Please let us know if you have any questions about any of the images!

Squeaky Clean at the Sulfur Baths

Tbilisi, Georgia immediately seduced us with its sunny skies and warm weather when we arrived in mid-September. After a dizzying week or so of nonstop exploring the city by foot, meeting unbelievably hospitable people, and being invited to a Georgian wedding, Paul and I became entranced with the country and decided to book six more weeks in the capital city.

We had settled into a satisfying daily routine of working, exploring, eating, and drinking, when the early October rains descended. For three days we remained holed up in our (thankfully) cozy apartment as torrential downpours overtook the city. Needless to say, we had cabin fever. As I mulled the mysteries of life (translation – binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race) while Paul threw me irritated side-eyes as I incessantly hummed the show’s opening chorus, we both decided we needed to face the rain and reignite our city explorations.

Museums were out of the picture, as Paul can’t stand going to them with me. I’ll just say that our museum-visiting styles are different. Paul’s more of a skimmer while I really like to immerse myself in each exhibit and then immediately forget everything when I leave the building. After subjecting him to a four-hour museum marathon during our 2015 European travels, Paul put the kibosh on them as a future fun couple activity.

The sulfur baths it is.

Relentless rain and a strict museum ban is how we decided on an outing to the sulfur baths. Tbilisi’s bath district, Abanotubani in Georgian, is located in the heart of Old Town, the most touristic part of the city. Legend has it that these naturally occurring hot springs are the reason that the King of Iberia established the capital in the surrounding area. Visiting the baths is a normal part of life for many locals – they tout the health and skincare benefits of the water.

For foreigners, the opinion of the baths is a little more mixed. Anticipating that Paul would not want to miss this cultural experience, I had been mentally preparing myself for it by surreptitiously conducting extensive online research since our arrival in Georgia. This was partly because I was not really sure what the whole bathing process entailed and partly because I have a strong aversion to anything that involves public water pools invaded by half-clothed or naked strangers. In the United States, water parks are my worst nightmare. Call me a crank, but I don’t want to navigate crowds of wet, screaming kids and their parents, particularly while wearing a bathing suit. I’ve recently become more comfortable with pools, but not without making concerted efforts beforehand to banish the thought of how many people are peeing in the water.

Needless to say, I had some concerns about the experience and a boatload of neuroses to overcome.

Taking the plunge.

Since one goal of open-ended travel is to abandon one’s comfort zone, I willfully ignored the negative reviews that I had found on the baths which involved people complaining about the smell (they’re SULFUR baths, people!) and posting pictures showing pools with dubious-looking hygiene standards. Digging deep to conjure up some enthusiasm, I reserved us a private room for 70 (about $25) lari at Gulo’s Thermal Spa, a local favorite.

The bath district is compact and beautiful, overlooked by Narikala Fortress on one side and bordered by the Mtkvari River on the other. The tops of the bath buildings – protruding, red domes – are very distinctive. A pungent sulfuric odor wafts up from the ground – not exactly an aromatic delight but not terrible, either. Here you will find many tourists embarking upon their bath maiden voyage, but also locals dutifully ignoring the visitors while going about their daily routines.

Our private reservation at Gulo’s consisted of a long corridor of three connected, tiled rooms that ended in two cerulean pools, one containing a blistering hot sulfuric spring and the other filled with frigid water. My neuroses surfacing, I did a slow inspection of the area and determined that there were no unsavory remnants left by prior bathers. With no shortage of dramatics, Paul and I gingerly submerged our bodies into the steaming cauldron that they call a sulfur pool and waited until we could not take it anymore…a valiant 5 minutes. With an hour-long reservation, we were not sure how we were going to make it.

Sulfur bath conversion.

That’s when the other pool, which at first had seemed like an icy hell, caught our attention and was now beckoning us toward it as sweat began to roll down our brows. Succumbing to a combination of overwhelming heat and sudden lightheadedness, we both dunked into the freezing water, which despite our desire to cool down, was still freaking cold. Five minutes of that shock to the system and we were ready to re-enter the sulfur, causing our limbs to burn and tingle, but…. in a strangely…. good way. And that’s how the first thirty minutes of our sulfur bath transpired – switching back between the pools every few minutes in an awkward, disorganized dance. Not talking too much, but rather gasping at the bite of the opposing extreme temperatures.

I am not sure if it was some fugue state we had entered into, but twenty minutes in, we both began to feel FABULOUS. Somehow, the rapid exposure to the water, one that heightened and exhilarated the senses, was creating an antithetical effect on our limbs, making them flimsy and completely relaxed. My initial misgivings about the entire experience were being washed away, along with my dead skin cells. “Huh, I thought, maybe there IS something to this procedure that has survived for THOUSANDS of years!”

Our reverie was suddenly interrupted by a loud slam of a door and a brusque hello in a deep man’s voice. For a moment I thought our bathing experience was taking an unexpected, unwelcome turn, but then I remembered that Paul had ordered a massage, and that indeed, as my research had foretold, it would be performed by a man. Judging by the sound of his voice,  it did not seem like this guy was going to turn on the Enya and light some candles. Giving himself a deep breath of encouragement, Paul lifted his naked buns out of the water with a halfhearted, “Here goes!” I remained in the bath area, not ready to flaunt myself in front of our masseuse-friend. This was my first go-round and I had my limits. Continuing my dips into the adjoining pools, I fell back into relaxation, with one ear cocked.

After a few minutes of hearing loud splashes and stalled communications due to the language barrier, Paul yelled out to me, “Sweetie, you gotta see this!” I was not quite sure I really needed to see anything, but I complied. I peeked shyly around the corner of the bath, overcome with crippling modesty, to see how the massage was progressing. It was a sight to behold. 

massagetable

Marble slab that was the site of Paul’s massage manhandling, literally.

There appeared to be nothing soothing or relaxing about the massage treatment. My buttnaked husband was seated on a cold slab of marble, his arms being furiously scrubbed down by his masseuse, a short, muscular, tattooed Georgian man donning swim trunks and wielding an exfoliation sponge. With quick, military-like movements the masseuse hauled up a big bucket of suds and hot water and threw it on Paul’s head, dousing him with it. Before my very eyes my husband was enveloped in lather, disappearing into a white, frothy puff, not unlike a cumulonimbus cloud. Chilled by the air and feeling slightly awkward, I skittered back over to the protection of the sulfuric pool, practically swan-diving into it. What had only an hour ago been the victim of my skepticism was now pretty much my favorite thing ever. I had been converted.

I heard another aggressive splash of water and the masseuse exclaim in enthusiastic, heavily accented English, “Squeeeeeeaaaaaaaky clean!” This was met by a few grunts from Paul, which I took as meaning he agreed. In a matter of ten minutes,  the treatment was over. Paul returned to the pool fully exfoliated and stripped of all modesty to soak in the last few minutes of our reservation. Our first, and certainly not last, trip to the sulfur baths, had come to an end.

Blissed

Blurry and blissed out after our bath.