CHRIS ALLEN: Oman Journal — From Near Death To New Life

I almost killed my class Thursday.

Not in the way a teacher may say that after a difficult day. I really almost killed them. Understand that I really like students. I rely on a steady and abundant supply of them for my living, and I do truly like students.

Have I mentioned how hot is here in Oman? I mean, it is heat that none of us in the Midwest have experienced before. I know it gets hot there, but this is something beyond that.

So many people have said, “Yes, but it’s a dry heat, isn’t it?” to me when I tell them it’s 106 to 110 degrees. In fact, it’s not a dry heat in Muscat or anywhere along the coast because it is along the coast. It is a wet, heavy, 65- to 70-degree dew point heat, a heat so hot you hope the wind does not blow, because the wind brings pain, not relief.

This is the kind of heat it is: You stand outside for a minute or two, and you begin to sweat. Just standing is enough. The sweat begins in all the normal places —forehead, armpits, crotch, chest, butt. And then places that have never evolved sweat glands suddenly leap ahead on the evolutionary scale in an attempt to preserve the species, or at least preserve you.

Five minutes into your stand outside, the sweat is rolling down your arms, your legs, your back and ribs, your nose, your forehead into your eyes, your chin and the nape of your neck. The growing pool under you is the primary indication of the danger you are in.

The whole purpose of sweating is to bring moisture to the surface of the skin, where it can evaporate. This evaporation actually cools the skin and thus the body. Omanis have used this technique for centuries with drinking water. They store it in porous clay vessels and hang it in the house. The water permeates the clay, sweating through to the outside, where it evaporates and cools the water inside. And that works in the interior of the country, where the heat is actually a dry heat.

Near the coast, with it’s oppressive humidity, the plot fails.

Here, it’s too humid to evaporate. You sweat as you are supposed to, but without evaporation, there is no cooling. The body just continues to heat up. If evaporation took place, the sweat would not roll down your various bits to drip onto the floor. It is quite a serious situation.

Thursday began a three-day excursion to parts of Oman other than Muscat. Our first stop was at Wadi Shab, a beautiful cut through sheer mountains where occasional pools of water, fed by springs, provide a relaxing if warm respite from the heat. Our young tour guides have led many people on treks over the somewhat treacherous and grueling trail back to one particularly serene, blue-green pool. It’s a 45 minute hike — trek — that they conduct during the months from October to March, when the humidity is lower and temperatures are in the 80s. Perfect weather.

Thursday, it almost turned tragic. The guides — there were four of them — failed to bring enough water, and they did not bring in lunch. Forty-five minutes in we still had not reached the pool, we were out of water, and hunger was setting in.

I called a halt to the march about 10 minutes short of the pool, shepherded the students into a shallow cave out of the sun, and ordered two guides to return to their vehicles, bring in water and food, and take anyone back who felt up to going. About half the class did.

I and two guides stayed with the others, and we rested in the shade until we felt up to beginning the hike out. Along the way, we passed another pool, and with only a moment’s hesitation, I emptied my pockets, took off my shoes and socks and waded in fully clothed. All of us did. And we stayed there for about 30 minutes, cooling off, finally able to joke about the situation.

I joked about it, but I’m serious. I almost killed them.

The guides took most of the students back to the vehicles, fed and watered them and let them relax. One brought food and water to us before we finished the hike out. And we made it. Almost all of us suffered searing headaches from the dehydration, but we made it.

The wadi itself is spectacular, and we were able to take a few moments to appreciate the stream and waterfall, the boulders that teeter on the brink of tumbling into the valley and the crags and nooks in the mountains hundreds of feet above us. And there were other brave souls hiking back to the swimming hole, chatting happily to each other.

It was not to be for us. Only one of our group hiked the last 10 minutes and made it to the pool. I’m glad the others didn’t try it. It was a tough day.

I almost killed my class Thursday. I’m glad I didn’t. They are good students. The world is going to need them in the future.

Later that night

We saw something that night I thought I would never see. This is what makes the work of travel so rewarding.

After our hazardous day in the wadi, after we checked in to the Turtle Beach Resort, and after we had an excellent dinner, we piled back into the tour cars and headed to the actual turtle beach.

Our group number was called about 9:45, and we were loaded into a shuttle and taken to the shore. The Arabian Sea was crashing on the soft Omani sand shore. Our guide on the beach spoke in hushed tones and asked us to be as quiet as possible. He lead us to a crater, in the middle of which was a mound of sand.

The sand moved. A flipper flung sand back onto the mound, then another and then a third. The sand shifted. We realized we were watching a female sea turtle cover the eggs she had just laid.

This is something you see only in documentaries on TV. But we were there.

The full moon cast enough light for us to watch three more turtles emerge from the foam running up the shore. Two females, almost at the end of their two-hour limit out of the water, lurched back toward the waves and were swallowed up. Two were just done laying and were covering the site. One, which we didn’t approach, was laying.

As our guide walked us across the sand he stopped and shined his narrow flashlight. Two tiny turtles, just digging themselves out of the nest, followed his light away from the shore until he turned it off. They immediately turned toward the moon, over the ocean and began a journey that seemed like it would take hours.

These two were lucky because our guide scooped them up and took them to the tide line. A wave made its way toward them, and when it retreated, they were still there. A second wave, stronger, swept past them and covered them, and they were gone.

Our guide said two out of a thousand eggs will live to maturity. Crabs, fish, pollution and other dangers await them. As we returned to the resort, I wondered if the two little things were even still alive. Would they make it through the night? Would they be two of the little ones who made it? Would one of them return to that same beach 30 years from now, lay another 300 eggs and work for an hour or more to cover them up and start the cycle again?

I won’t be around to witness it. But that’s OK. I witnessed this one, and it was awesome.

(No pictures of the turtles; it’s illegal.)

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