On a Road Trip Through Oman, Navigating Grief and Parenthood

I was three weeks out from a 23-day travel itinerary with my toddler, Julian, when my dad died suddenly. The trip was something I had planned months earlier, determined to prove to all the face-palming naysayers (and myself) that you don’t have to give up traveling after having a baby; you just have to find new ways to move through the world. Due to grief, I considered canceling, but ultimately I decided against it. My father was a textbook agoraphobic who shut himself off from the world and at the end was leaving his house only once or twice a year. But travel was how I learned who I was and who I wanted to be. I’d been to more than 80 countries and spent four years traveling full-time with a 35-liter rucksack and a tiny hatchback. If I could bestow any qualities onto my child, I hoped they’d be my strongest ones: insatiable curiosity, relentless optimism, fiery resilience, and a willingness to bend to my environment rather than expecting my environment to bend to me.

Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the country’s largest house of worship
Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the country’s largest house of worship
Murray Hall/Gallerystock
The author’s son, Julian, on the beach at Jumeirah Muscat Bay
The author’s son, Julian, on the beach at Jumeirah Muscat Bay
Ashlea Halpern

Our journey took us from swish Dubai to the safari camps of Tanzania, but the stretch that most unpacked both my grief and my maternal ambitions was the week we spent in Oman navigating the beach, desert, cities, and mountains by eerily empty highways. On a sweltering afternoon in Muscat, the mellow seaside capital accented with looming minarets, I chased Julian across the glossy marble and stone promenades at the grand mosque of Sultan Qaboos, where fawning congregants greeted him with sweet dates. Children under 10 are not permitted in, but a female guard noticed me steaming in my hijab, sticky toddler glued to my hip, and discreetly ushered us through a side door to cool off under a large air-conditioning unit.

At sunset we strolled along the buzzing Mutrah Corniche and past the rainbow cordilleras of fragrant spices at Mutrah Souq, the city’s oldest bazaar. Julian’s eyes lit up when he sampled the slow-cooked lamb shuwa with spiced rice at Bait Al Luban, a restaurant where the only free seats were on the sun-blasted balcony. I laughed as Julian guided my fork to his mouth and announced, “Num!” Food was one of the few pleasures my dad allowed himself. If he were there, he’d have beamed with pride.

Al Alam, the palace of Sultan Qaboos in Old Musca
Al Alam, the palace of Sultan Qaboos in Old Musca
Murray Hall/Gallerystock
A coffee break at a refreshment stand in 
Musca
A coffee break at a refreshment stand in
Musca
Murray Hall/Gallerystock

From Muscat, we drove through the rugged Al Hajar mountains toward the Gulf of Oman, passing the beige blur of cliffs and canyons to a soundtrack of khaliji music on Omani radio. I glimpsed my son in the rearview, babbling to himself as this new old world streamed by. Would he remember any of it? Did it matter? The point was we were out here doing it. We were living.

With its karst-flanked shoreline and tranquil water, the Jumeirah Muscat Bay beach resort looks like a screensaver. If Julian were older, we could have gone kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, but we settled for splashing in the surf and sipping freshly squeezed watermelon coolers by the pool. (Not that I minded.) The staff bent over backward for the “little sultan,” who in turn flirted shame­lessly with a comely Indonesian waitress. Later, we moved to the citadel-like Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, atop a 6,500-foot massif, where the crisp mountain air felt great after so many 100-degree days. Julian toddled intrepidly along a glass-bottomed observation deck over the Jabal Al Akhdar canyon, gawking at the groundskeepers shaking meaty green olives from the trees.

It says a mother and child stroll through Oman’s Jebal Akhdar
It says a mother and child stroll through Oman’s Jebal Akhdar
Murray Hall/Gallerystock
Tea at Wahiba’s Hud Hud camp
Tea at Wahiba’s Hud Hud camp
Murray Hall/Gallerystock

Naturally, Oman’s punishing heat spawned some ferocious tantrums. Nowhere was my patience tested more than at Bimmah Sinkhole, a teal saltwater lake formed by the collapse of an underground cavern, which is accessible only via a steep staircase. Julian insisted on climbing back up himself before collapsing halfway in a fit of hot tears, forcing me to scoop up this sweaty 27-pound sack of potatoes and lug him a quarter mile back to the car. As the waterworks continued, a trio of teenage boys approached us with bottles of water, concern etched across their faces.

The hospitality in Oman, like other Islamic countries I’ve visited, was unparalleled. Young men leaped into traffic to help us cross the street. At souks, old men in ankle-grazing dishdasha high-fived Julian and tousled his blonde hair. Restaurant servers distracted him with balloons and goofy dance moves. More than one stranger insisted on buying our snacks at gas stations. The warmth and graciousness of the Omani people reminded me why I decided to this trip in the first place. More than anything, I want my son to believe what I believe: that 99.9 percent of humans are kind and that we’re far more alike than we are different. Karmically speaking, you get out of life what you put in. Good vibes only.

<cite class="credit">Murray Hall/Gallerystock</cite>
Murray Hall/Gallerystock
The Wahiba Sands desert in eastern Oman
The Wahiba Sands desert in eastern Oman
Murray Hall/Gallerystock

The trip came full circle at a rustic tent camp in Wahiba Sands, an undulating desert three and a half hours from Muscat. For toddlers, deserts are basically giant sandboxes, and one of my happiest moments was watching Julian coast down the dunes on his tuchus. He squealed in delight at the golden sand streaming through his chubby fingers and cackled hysterically when a camel flashed him a toothy grin.

Sipping tea on our tent’s wraparound terrace, stars winking in a vast Cimmerian sky as Julian dozed against me, I recounted our adventures for my dad. I imagined him up there in the Milky Way, everywhere and nowhere at once, shaking his head the way dads do—thrilled he didn’t have to experience any of it himself but grateful to have raised a daughter who embraces it all with gusto.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler