My friend, Josefine, and some of her work colleagues invited me to go on a day trip north of Dubai to the Musandam Peninsula in Oman. It is a land mass separate from the country we are used to seeing on the maps as Oman. In fact, there is another part of Oman that is completely surrounded by the United Arab Emirates and inside that part of Oman there is a chunk of UAE that is completely surrounded by Oman, so there are two concentric circles of countries. I can’t think of any other place on earth like it.
The news is that I had never been there before. First time to Oman! I can’t even remember my previous new country. Kenya? But wait, have I really been to Oman?
Obviously, I have physically been in Oman, but in the world of extreme travelers who want to achieve 100 countries or try and visit every country in the world, it’s a sticky question: What constitutes a visit to a country? (Another question is, “What is a country?” More on that in a second.) Walking across the border? Getting a passport stamp? Does in transit at an airport count? Staying a night? Staying long enough to have a cup of coffee? Staying short enough to avoid paternity payments? (Oops! Was that my out-loud voice?
Staying a night sounds logical and appropriate, but it seems just as crazy to say that my seven hours sightseeing in the country somehow doesn’t count. How can I say I have never been to Oman?
I also get in debates about what a country is. Let me test you:
—If you visited Czechoslovakia back in the day and then later visited the Czech Republic and Slovakia, how many countries is that?
—If you visited East Germany, is that a country you can count today?
—What if you visited Juba, the capital of South Sudan, before independence, when it was just Sudan? Can you say you visited South Sudan? What if you visited Juba both before and after independence, is that one country or two?
—Is Bophuthatswana, a South African homeland that I hitchhiked through during apartheid where they stamped my passport in and out, a country even though no other country recognized it?
—Is Somaliland a country, another place no one recognizes, which is also a stamp in my passport?
—Is Taiwan a country? Wales? The Sweet Republic of California?
All this is sensitive stuff to us diehards. I came out of the gate blazing, I had been to about 70 countries before I turned 30 years old, but now, depending on how you count, I have been to maybe 100-105 countries. I have been next door to out-of-the-way places like Djibouti and East Timor, but the one and only reason to go was to say I had been there, and it wasn’t enough. Instead, I have been to Hungary and Malaysia 20+ times, Japan over a dozen times, etc.
My friend, Graydon of Jeopardy fame, is doing it right, more methodical, doing the world in regions when he gets free time, and he will probably see and bike it all. He’s at around 115-120 countries by now. We are both thinking we have one big, ugly Africa trip in us while we are still at the peak of our powers. Maybe we will travel some of it together, or I might just go to Hungary another 20 times.
I had it in my mind that we were all going on a hike in Oman, but the others wanted to go on a boat cruise. I hemmed and hawed, but I am glad I went. The landscape just driving along the coast was dramatic, but on the boat was even more impressive. As promised by the boat company, we saw dolphins, but every time there was a sighting, the inbred boat operators would crank the engines and rush on top of where they were, scaring them off.
Josefine offered to take me to the Abu Dhabi mosque. I didn’t know why she thought it would be worth the drive until I saw it. Another thing I am glad I laid eyes on. It’s fun to put on the clothes. You’d think a floor-length robe would be stuffy, but it felt breezy. Big fan. For Josefine, however, the hot, black abaya was tough to control and she got berated for showing too much neck at one point.
To go to Oman, it cost 15 UAE dirhams (US$4) to get out of UAE by the northern border at Dara, then 150 dirhams (US$40) for insurance for our rental car, then 50 dirhams (US$14) to enter Oman, which surprised me because I thought a visa was US$50. Maybe other borders are different. It took over an hour to come back to UAE; there were a ton of us foreigners returning from our day trips.
The boat trip leaving from Khasab cost 100 dirhams (US$28) per person, but shop around in town to get that price. I never saw an Omani rial in Oman. We paid for everything in UAE dirhams at a rate of 10 dirhams to 1 rial, which I have never checked to see if it was rapacious or not.
In Dubai you can’t get on a bus without first buying a prepaid stored value card, which they don’t sell on the bus. Los Angeles is the same way now, I believe. It is anti-traveler, and therefore I instinctively hate such practices. If you buy a metro ticket, however, it serves the same purpose and you can transfer from the metro to a bus for free.
Bus 43 to Dubai Airport’s Terminal 2 took an hour to come where normally it should come every 25 minutes. It really isn’t far to walk, I realized, when the bus finally did come. Next time I am hoofing it.
Again, as I mentioned last time, if you fly out of Dubai airport but didn’t enter through Dubai airport, don’t stand in line to get your passport exit stamp; you have to go to a side office for that.
I have no recommendations for accommodation in Dubai, I am happy to report. I was lucky to have a couple of friends that I could stay with that I will publicly praise: Claire, who let me stay with her last time through Hospitality Club, which is now the MySpace version of CouchSurfing, and Josefine, a friend I met in Netherlands. I should also mention or else she will put a hex on me that I had a very nice time over coffee with Anjaly and her husband, Nitin. Dubai is a great place to have friends, in case you were unsure.
Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)
I found Dubai to be incredibly boring & generic. Perhaps half the problem was that I spent 8 days exploring Oman (rented a 4×4). Oman has so much character & charm, and feels authentic. Dubai is the anti-Oman from my perspective.
If you want to check out some really impressively twisted exclaves within enclaves, check out Baarle Nassau and Baarle Hertog. It is as if the Belgian and Netherland governments went door to door and asked each resident which country they wanted to be in. I wonder how they manage their fire and police services.
On counting countries you bring up some interesting questions. But my question is why count countries at all? It seems so arbitrary. It doesn’t seem right that huge countries like Russia, USA, Canada, Indonesia, and China are each treated as one country when there’s so much variety within their borders. But then small places that are similar to their nearest neighbors like Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Monaco count as separate countries. I’d say that someone who’s been to Xian and Harbin has seen a greater variety than someone who’s been to Monte Carlo and Cannes. Or Strasbourg and Koln.
Thanks for the great blog, it is nice for those of us who don’t get around as much as you do. Keep going and stay safe and healthy!
I need to spend more time in Oman. If I planned it in advance, maybe I could figure out cheaper accommodation options.
That’s an interesting question – personally, I think it only counts if you set foot past a border crossing. So your trip to Oman counts, for example, but my layover in Guangzhou doesn’t mean I’ve been to China (yet).
Do you know about http://mosttraveledpeople.com/?
They have the same argument you do, which is very valid, but then they take it to the other extreme, that you can subdivide everything for different reasons, and they say there are about 900 places you have to say you have been!
Yes, MTP folks make a good effort at a better metric describing how many places someone has visited. But it still not right. Guernsey and Jersey count as different locations but California is a single place? Hmmmm… But what really throws me off is that there’s no minimum stay requirement. You could hop across the border for a few seconds and that counts. Even swimming up to an island and tagging it with your hand counts. An overnight stay seems like a better minimum.
Best to just follow your nose to someplace interesting. If you visited Leipzig in 1985 and 2005 you probably had an experience more different than going to Belgium and Luxembourg on the same day. So go ahead and visit Hungary another twenty times, there’s always a new experience awaiting.
There was a guy who wanted to visit Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific, one of the last places he had never been to. It is hard to visit because the US puts nuclear waste there and it’s largely off-limits, but he got on a small plane that was making a fueling stopover. No one was supposed to get off the plane but he somehow got past people and jumped on to the tarmac, therefore claiming that he had been there.
That’s pretty funny about the Belgian/Dutch enclaves. I had never heard about it.