Outward Bound Oman: Winds of Change
It's 4:30 pm and I'm flying over the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps. What an incredible feeling to take off for another beautiful project. Despite all the information one can get, there is still that element of awe when traveling to a new place - and not just any place, but Oman!
My first experience with Oman started a long time ago during my childhood, when I could barely recall its name. Raised in an ex-soviet country, near the Black Sea region and with a father working in Libya in the '80s and other relatives travelling to Gulf countries, including Oman and Yemen, I developed almost a strange curiosity and passion for untamed corners of the Earth.
During my previous projects in Pakistan and Central Asia, I had often transited in Muscat, and I knew that I would come back one day to this land of contrasts. Being patient paid off, as things came together in late 2019 when Mark Evens (listen to Mark's podcast here), director of Outward Bound Oman (OBO), confirmed that they would like me to join the team in Oman as a photographer to capture the importance of outdoor learning.
My first encounter with the OBO team in their old Muscat office was one of a kind. Meeting Mark was such a remarkable journey in time and space. Alongside building the first Outward Bound school in the Arabic-speaking world from scratch 11 years ago along with two other people, Mark has led epic expeditions across the frozen Arctic and the searing sands of the Middle East. However, what impressed me the most was that Mark understood the power of affirming the good in others and he knew how to appreciate every single aspect of the person he was in a conversation with. What lies behind the curtains of OBO is an outstanding, vibrant young team, where every member has a unique and meaningful contribution in helping people develop their potential through challenging experiences in unfamiliar outdoor settings.
What would follow was five weeks of adventure and outdoor learning programs, giggling between the endless dunes of Sharqiya Sands desert, the coldish "green mountain" at 8000ft on Jebel Akdhar, and the new administrative Muscat Centre.
Only two hours' drive from Muscat I found myself in what was previously known as the Wahiba Sands, one of those unique, increasingly scarce, silent places where mobile phones don't work, with dunes reaching 330 ft. A powerful place of learning with perfect conditions to embark an Omani group of youth in a new and inspiring journey to explore the "living" desert during wintertime. Participants were guided by two OBO mentors from the beginning through group activities and progressively they got immersed into the natural environment, navigating the high dunes and sleeping under the stars. It's here they will consolidate their crucial life skills needed to enter the world of work. Once they were more connected, intrinsically they start to develop a profound awareness of nature, of themselves and the others.
Amongst the stillness of the dunes, I was impressed to discover the breath-taking OBO Desert Centre, representing an ideal base for expeditions and research studies, and one of the first self-reliant, self-sustaining buildings in Oman. It was here that I met Badr from the local Bedouin community and tried delicious Qahwa, the traditional Omani cardamom flavoured coffee.
Mark slipped a copy of Nigel Winser's book into my backpack (listen to Nigel's podcast here), which tells the story of Royal Geographical Society’s Oman Wahiba Sands Project. This book became my companion during my stay in Oman and gave me a new perspective on how unique and diverse the desert environment can be.
As well as their youth expeditions, OBO offers courses to some of the finest leading companies and government entities (see Sokayna El Haddad's Insight). For both HSBC and Oman airport groups, the course provided a remarkable experience outside their comfort zones and away from the busy office lifestyle, and allowed the employees the space to get to know each other in a very different and sometimes challenging environment. The ethnic diversity among these groups reminded me of Oman’s intensive and long-standing ties to India and countries in East Africa. What impressed me the most was that, even if they argue about something, participants’ interactions always ended positively by shaking hands and laughing.
Navigating the natural beauty of Jebel Akhdar can sometimes be tricky when you find yourself in a labyrinth of wadis. For a group of young talented Omani girls who chose to participate in a three-day course, opportunities arose to encounter highs and lows; drama as well as tranquillity. There were lots of challenges, along with chances to look back at the journey taken and pick up the valuable lessons. Once they realised that their contribution can make a big difference in the world, they could better recognise their self-worth.
When it started getting cold up in the mountains and chilly in the desert, there was nothing like sitting around the fire and enjoying the flickering light, crackling sounds, and learning about celestial navigation; watching each other’s sparkling eyes engaged in meaningful conversations. It is what TE Lawrence called the "the university of the desert". Oman is one of these rare countries that makes you feel like you belong to the natural beauty in every corner of its lands; its people’s kindness and generosity makes you feel at home.
Back in Muscat, I had the chance to join the OBO team in their new urban training centre and administrative HQ. It was also over those few days that COVID-19 became a global problem which knew no borders. With a pandemic crisis knocking at the door and a climate crisis bearing down on us, it was unthinkable to still argue that we are separate from each other and the environment. Indeed, we don't always direct our lives as responsibly as we can. But by not doing so, we do not honour the unique life each of us has been given. Maybe now is the time for what Heidegger called an authentic living, where we project ourselves into the future – actively, consciously, thoughtfully. OBO knows that agility is the key, and they continue to adapt their operations, refining and redesigning their courses to ensure they enable young people to address the changing priorities in a post-Covid world.
Keep scrolling for more photos or visit Ana-Maria's website.