The boys had a long weekend; Husband and I wanted to explore (despite the boys’ pleas to spend four straight days playing video games), so off we went, to the beautiful rocky fjords of northern Oman. We spent a beautiful day puttering around on a dhow, stopping occasionally to swim and snorkel off the back of the boat. Braver souls (my children!) dared themselves to jump from the boat’s top deck into the turquoise waters below. There were dolphins and soaring cliffs and soft ocean breezes…

Sounds like a great weekend, doesn’t it?

How would it sound if I told you that those turquoise waters are part of the Strait of Hormuz, that part of the world that seems only to appear in U.S. newspapers in the context of threatened blockades, gas prices, anxieties about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and so on. Doesn’t precisely sound like a vacation destination – and yet Musandam, the name of this area, is one of those “must sees” if you’re in the Gulf region.

Driving to Musandam from Abu Dhabi takes about five hours (including an hour-long stop at the border between Oman and the UAE, more about which in a minute) and seems like driving back through time. The oil (and thus oil revenues) is not distributed equally through the UAE, so while Abu Dhabi is awash in glass-plated skyscrapers and Ferraris, the Emirate of Ras Al Kamah is a tad slower:

(Yes, those are cows under the tree.)

Truth be told, while I wouldn’t want to live in RAK, as it’s known, it’s a reminder of how far – and how fast – life has changed in Abu Dhabi in just forty years. Forty years ago, even twenty, the corner where my fifty-story skyscraper stands now could’ve looked like this.

There are no cows at the border crossing – but there are goats wandering in the limbo-land between leaving the UAE (glossy office building that looks like it was built from an insta-office kit) and entering Oman (offices housed in trailers similar to those found on construction sites).  Border crossing goes like this: park outside the UAE office, go inside, telling your crabby car-bound children to shush, wait for Husband to present our papers (as a woman, my role here is to hang back, keep the kids quiet, and not smile).  Then back into the car, drive ten feet, park again, get out, present papers to Omani guards, shuffle everyone back in the car, swerve around the goats, drive through the checkpoint, and volia! A new country.  Then along twisting mountain roads with no safety rails, sort of like driving on Pacific 1 in Big Sur, but with the added joy of UAE drivers: what? blind hairpin curve along the edge of a cliff no passing? HAHAHAHAA watch this!

And then you land, finally, at the Golden Tulip, in Khasab. The Tulip is pretty much the only show in town if you want to explore the fjords of Musandam.  It’s a hotel that would feel right at home in the Catskills. If ever they do an Arabic version of “Dirty Dancing,” this is the place to be.  A little shabby around the edges, but clean, with a nice pool, and reasonable (if over-priced) food.

Our room had a view of the ocean, which was hazy in the morning heat. Past the horizon, about two hours away on one of those boats you see in the picture, is Iran.

(No, those aren’t fishing boats.  Or rather, they’re not fishing for fish.)

The guide on our dhow explained those little boats to us the next day as we toured the cliffs and inlets of this remote section of the world: smugglers. Smugglers come from Iran bringing goats and sheep (the cliffs around Musandam are pretty but desolate: not much grows here).  Livestock gets swapped for electronics, cigarettes, canned goods – and probably other, less innocent, products that our tour guide didn’t want to mention. It’s what passes for an economy in this section of the world, where the only other options include running dhow cruises, working at the Tulip, or laboring at one of the cement factories in RAK.

Smuggling here isn’t all swashy and buckly; it’s not Johnny Depp and the pirates. It’s a lot of open water crossed by little boats filled with sheep, navigated, at least in this instance, by some guy with no pants:

(Yes, those are sheep.)

Lolling around our dhow, it was easy to forget that swirling around these waters are arguments between countries that sound like the arguments of children in the back seat of a car during a long car trip – hypothetically, of course. My children do. not. bicker:

why can’t I use the iPad it’s my turn you can’t have it it’s mine why do you get it you can’t have it I can too or I will wreck the score on your game you can’t do that it’s not fair yes I can too because you started this game because of me so I can what I want with it no you can’t it’s my turn to use the iPad you said that already i know but you weren’t listening ow mom he hit me i did not you fell on my foot when we went around the curve

Substitute gas/oil/nuclear capabilities/nationalism for “iPad.” After a while the arguments start to run together and then someone (or an entire country) gets hurt.

On the dhow, though, there was no quarreling over ipads or nuclear bombs or oil.  Musandam is about 265km, as the crow flies, from Abu Dhabi (165 miles, for the non-metric among you), but it seems like worlds away.

In the “big city” of Abu Dhabi, there are no dolphins:

(Yes, that’s a baby dolphin.)

There are no smugglers’ hideouts:

No leaping from high places: 

So the next time you read “Strait of Hormuz” in the newspaper, instead of thinking about angry bureaucrats stamping their tiny (potentially atomic) feet, put this image in your head instead: