I was heading to the Middle East. If I’m being honest, I was pretty intimidated. I wasn’t even looking forward to it, but I didn’t know a soul that would ever want to visit the Middle East – the real Middle East – with me, so I was going to tackle this on my own. Like all places, I have done my research. I’ve read, and read, and read. And reading, well, it’s an excellent thing to do, but reading the wrong information will put the fear of god into you.
I’m sure most of you have a preconceived idea of the Middle East, as did I. If I can do anything with my next few posts, it’s to let you know that your perception is probably wrong. I have a lot to process around culture and human rights when it comes to the Middle East, but I’ve not found it to be unsafe, as the media might make it out to be. I’ll write more about this at a later date, but again, there’s a lot to process and I haven’t actually formed my own opinion yet. I’m deep into the experience and taking it all in, trying to understand how the world – this culture – operates and what makes it beautiful.
I was incredibly sad to be leaving the Maldives. Something about those islands moved me a few steps further in my own self-growth and self-discovery, and it happened so fast and with so much fullness. I had breakfast that morning with Mizha before packing up my bags. She called me a taxi and I gave her a hug before I left. There are few places I want to re-visit, knowing there are so many things to experience in this world. But of all places and people, the Maldives and my time with Mizha are something I would put on repeat.
The airport experience in the Maldives was great. I had a ‘helper’ who pushed me through the airport and I even ran into my ‘helper’ from a few days earlier when I arrived. I was laying over in Mumbai, India. India is notoriously known as one of the places solo female travelers get goosebumps over. I didn’t think much of it as I was just going to be in the airport, but I was wrong. There were very few women and the men were pushy and unfriendly. I had trouble finding a place that I could get some water and ended up just going to Starbucks. That’s pathetic for a trip around the world. I sat by the gate waiting for my flight to board and as I looked around, I realized I was the only woman in the waiting area. It was an 8 pm flight, and it was pitched black out. And I was the only woman waiting, not to mention the only white, disabled woman. Talk about intimidating. I reminded myself that appearing confident goes a long way, so I did just that.
I arrived into Muscat, Oman around 11 pm. I’ve been trying to schedule flights that aren’t getting in so late, but there wasn’t a way around this one. My research indicated that getting a taxi to the hotel was the best option. I had another ‘helper’ in the Muscat airport who helped me. I was truly in the Middle East now, and there was no telling this Arab man that I wanted to do it on my own. I figured it might actually be best for him to help me in the middle of the night anyway. He politely helped me find an ATM – as all of my ‘helpers’ do – and get into a taxi. I made it to my hotel safely and comfortably and was able to get a few hours of sleep before my scheduled tour of Muscat, Oman the next day.
I’m not typically one that likes arranged tours. I feel they’re stuffy and take away from the culture, but Muscat is pretty spread out and taxis are expensive. This tour was only $30 and would get me to all of the major sites, and a cheaper price than a taxi. It was well worth the money, if for nothing else, just for the air-conditioned transportation.
I met some lovely people on this trip – a couple from England and a young woman from Australia. When you’re traveling to places like Oman, the other tourists you run into are also well-traveled. People don’t go to Oman on their first vacation, so it was nice to share travel stories and experiences. People with worldly views like theirs are few and far between.
Oman is in the middle of the desert, and while it was a lovely country, there’s nothing spectacular that stands out to me. The women wear hijabs – the head covering that covers their hair and sometimes their faces – and the men wear dishdasha – the white robe that covers them from head to toe. I’ve been on this trip for nearly a month now, and have seen all sorts of attire, religious and otherwise, and my brain is no longer tricking me into ‘fight or flight’ mode when I see something or someone that is so different than me. Instead, I’m seeing the person, appreciating who they are and their story. Of course, don’t be mistaken that this comes with cautious optimism. I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t people out there with the wrong intentions; that happens everywhere in this world, regardless of their appearance.
We visited a mosque, a museum, a palace, and a souk on this tour. Again, mostly checklist items. But that evening, the woman from Australia and I went to dinner in Oman. We found a local restaurant and had traditional Omani food. In the restaurant, we were placed into a small room, about the size of a bathroom, with carpeting and a large piece of plastic on the floor. There was nothing else in this room. No table, no chairs, literally nothing. We took our shoes off, as you do in Oman restaurants, and ate on the floor. This was probably the coolest experience I had in Oman. Eating at a local restaurant off of the floor. The food was very Middle Eastern – naan with hummus as an appetizer and lamb with rice as an entrée. The portions were large but oh so good. I think I ate only a fourth of my dish, which was incredibly difficult for me to leave behind since I’m on a budget and every food item is like gold to me! I’ve tried packaging leftovers on this trip, but have found that they don’t smell well the next day and haven’t wanted to risk food poisoning, so it’s not been worth the effort.
The next morning, we had coffee at a nearby hotel which overlooked the Persian Gulf. There was an infinity pool and the view was something else. Of course, we were not staying at this hotel (rooms were upward of $400 a night), but the coffee and the view were well worth the overpriced menu items.
My time in Oman was short, but it seems that’s not uncommon for trips to Muscat. Oman has other areas of the country that are supposed to be stunning and is a robust country, so I encourage anyone that is wanting to visit to do their research, but for me, as I’m getting my feet wet in the Middle East, a few days was all I needed in Oman.
I was heading to Qatar next. I had a layover in Dubai before landing in Doha, Qatar. It wasn’t ideal, but the cost of a direct flight was double, so I just chalked it up to part of the trip. After all, this is the first time in my life where I have ‘time’ to just sit. I checked into my flight in Muscat and asked if I could get my wheelchair at the gate in Dubai during my layover. I like to have my own chair for the freedom, plus I just like to know where it’s at. Things did not go as planned, and for the first time on this trip, I totally lost my cool with several airport personnel in Dubai. I’ve become quite relaxed and amenable to cultures and rules on this trip, but the one thing I cannot let slide is my missing wheelchair.
I was promised by several people that my wheelchair would arrive in Dubai and that it was tagged to be at the gate and would go no further in the journey. Well, when I arrived in Dubai, it was missing. I had no idea where it was and no one seemed to care. I was panicked, naturally, and needed to be sure it was in Dubai. I, of course, wanted it in my possession, but quickly realized that I just needed to know where it was. If I couldn’t have it now, I needed reassurance that I would get it in Doha, Qatar. The last thing I needed was to arrive in Qatar and have no idea if my wheelchair was in Muscat, Dubai, or Doha. Seriously, what are the odds I would get it back if it was in another city? I was also on the move, so by the time it reached Qatar, who knows where I would be.
It took several people at various checkpoints – COVID, security, immigration, and so on – before I finally found a man who was able to look up the tracking ticket. He confirmed it was in Dubai and that I could get it at baggage claim. This was all fine and dandy, but I didn’t have an entry visa for Dubai since I was only transiting through, so there was no way for me to get to baggage claim and retrieve my wheelchair. I explained this to him and he calmly showed me the computer screen that indicated if I didn’t claim it, it would be loaded onto the plane for Doha. He reassured me over and over and I tried to put my rage aside and just trust him, a difficult feat at the moment.
I think it’s important to remind you that I am in the Middle East. Women have different rights. I was definitely experiencing this as the employees – mostly men – were completely dismissive of my comments, concerns, and requests. This man, thankfully, was understanding and actually listened to me.
I was pushed into a room with a sign that said ‘Special Handling’ where there were three other passengers waiting and about a dozen empty wheelchairs. A man took my boarding pass and told me I would wait there for two hours. I asked if I could just wait by the gate, like all other passengers, and he told me that was fine but refused to give me my boarding pass back. My boarding pass had the tracking number on it for my wheelchair, so there was no way in hell I was going to leave the only connection to my wheelchair out of my sight.
I sat down and pouted. This was bullshit. I was stuffed in a crappy room, held captive. The man who had helped me track down my wheelchair a bit earlier came into the room, ironically, and told me he would be working the gate and promised to make sure my wheelchair was on the flight. I asked him why I couldn’t sit by the gate and he told me I could. When I responded that the men wouldn’t give me my boarding pass, he went up to them and said, “Guys, if she had her own wheelchair, she would have the freedom to move around. Give her back her boarding pass.” They wrote some things down from the boarding pass and I had it back. I was pushed in an airport wheelchair to the boarding area, where I moved to a regular seat and was left alone – wheelchair-less and alone – but I had my boarding pass.
A few hours later, someone returned to push me to the flight and board, which was an ordeal of men telling me what I could and couldn’t do as I made my way to my seat. Seriously, not a question about my abilities, just pure demands. I bit my tongue. They are just doing their job. They are just doing their job. This is their culture, not yours. Respect it.
I arrived in Doha, Qatar and had another ‘helper’ who shuffled me through the various checkpoints and got me to baggage claim. I waited and prayed, Please be here. Just please appear. It did and I moved into it. FREEDOM! I had my own wheels back. My ‘helper’ insisted on getting me to a taxi, like they all do, and just like that, I was in Qatar. The stress of my missing wheelchair vanished instantly as we drove away and the nighttime sky, lit up magically in Qatar, beamed through the windows. Seriously, who gets to do this? I was in Qatar!
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