All these events – military firmness, guns pointed in my direction and fines -passed rather rapidly through my mind as the Omani police Jeep drew closer.
I should not have been where I was. A couple of days earlier, I’d spotted a boarded-off area of land near the sea. It said ‘no entry’ but I’d peeped through a crack in the boards and there were trees and bushes in there. Trees and bushes usually mean birds. And trees and bushes are not abundant commodities in an arid country such as Oman. In there, I thought, I might find attractive little sunbirds with the fine, down-curved beaks they use to probe inside flowers to extract their nectar.
So, one day out for a walk on my own, I managed to move one of the large boards a little and squeezed inside the no-go zone. It turned out to be the site of former buildings and a garden being readied for redevelopment. There were scattered trees and bushes and I’d started to take a careful look at them. But no birds.
When the Jeep first appeared about 100 m away, I thought – rather over-optimistically – that if I just carried on looking up into the trees with binoculars, they might drive past and ignore me. No chance.
Instead, they continued to drive in my direction and stopped 20 m away. The policeman in the passenger seat got out first and walked towards me, arms akimbo, one hand on his (thankfully) holstered revolver. Tall and well built, dressed in camouflage fatigues, beret at a jaunty angle and sporting a large black moustache, he looked just like Saddam Hussein in his forties. Now I don’t know about you, but an armed Saddam lookalike in military fatigues walking purposefully towards you when it’s obvious you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be – and carrying a pair of binoculars into the bargain – isn’t likely to give you a feeling of calmness and serenity. It didn’t.
A few seconds later, the police driver got out. A younger man (no moustache), he came my way too and, I thought, a tad more purposefully. Perhaps he needed to chalk up some arrests I thought. What should I do? Take the initiative and speak first or wait until I was spoken to, presumably, I assumed, rather harshly? I did the former and blurted out one of the few Arabic phrases I know.
‘As-salamu alaikum,’ I stuttered (the traditional Arab greeting meaning ‘peace be with you’); it shows I can still be an optimist even at such times. Just. Immediately, the Saddam lookalike’s grave and ominous appearance vanished. A smile broke out across his face. Wa alaikum as salaam,’ he replied (‘And upon you be peace’). We shook hands. He introduced me to his driver. We shook hands too. He beamed as well. We all beamed big smiles. Smiles. Handshakes. I could have kissed them I was so relieved. Quickly I thought that a kiss probably wouldn’t be the best idea I’d had for a while. The policeman who once looked like Saddam (even his moustache seemed less threatening and more friendly now) offered me a cigarette. I refused politely – which I instantly thought to be a bad move – but they both lit up and it didn’t seem to matter a jot that I didn’t smoke. We laughed, though at what or why I’m not sure. For my part it was pure relief.
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Then they broke into English. ‘How do you like Oman? Are you staying long? Muscat is a fine city, yes? Where do you come from?’ and maybe other touristy questions too. I lauded praises on everything I could think of. Everything and everywhere was wonderful I said (actually it was very good!). And it was most certainly very much better now!
I showed them my binoculars and pointed up in the trees, mumbled about birds (I still hadn’t seen any) and they looked interested. In truth they either didn’t understand what I was talking about or they were simply being polite. No mention was made of what I was doing in this fenced-off site or how I’d got in there in the first place. I was probably marked down as that well known foreign oddity – a Brit.
Oman has a history of good relations with the UK and here it was in spadeloads. I wish I’d remembered that when I first spotted the police Jeep. And then they were off. Friendly goodbyes. Another handshake all round. And yet more smiles. They waved from the Jeep as they turned and drove away. I stood there for a while breathing some very big sighs of relief. And looked again for a few birds.
I didn’t find any.
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