Why I took my 82-year-old mother to the Middle East

“Oh my god, we have to go back—I lost my passport!” My mom yelled in the cab on the way to JFK.

Again?” I sighed.

“Don’t get mad,” she shot back.

To be fair, it was the fourth time she had lost her passport that morning and we hadn’t even made it to the airport.

Two minutes later, after rummaging through her holdall again – a well-known travel brand “designed for women” (presumably by a man residing in the seventh circle of Dante’s Hell) with many, many “Multifunctional bags” – my mother found her passport. Once again.

And I considered taking my emergency Valium. Once again.

We were en route to my 82 year old mother’s belated 80th birthday present – a trip to Qatar and Oman – two years late due to COVID.

Paul and Anne explored the ruins surrounding Salalah, the Al Valery archaeological site.
Paula and Anne explored the ruins around Salalah, the Al Valery archaeological site.

For years my mother had said, “I would love to travel with you” – a request I still postponed, shattered by the last family trip my mother, sister and I took to Greece in 2000, which was somewhat disastrous … and after that, my mother and I didn’t really speak for several years.

But as my mom and I got older and more mature, I started reconsidering. If my right-wing, born-again, gun-toting father and I could travel together after all these years, couldn’t I give my left-wing, liberal, if not slightly argumentative, mother a try?

So I offered her a trip to the Middle East and my adventurous mother went with me… but not without a little trepidation.

I had already advised her against buying an abaya for the trip.

“No need, Mom,” I’d said when she called me two weeks before the trip to announce her upcoming purchase.

Hiking and exploring historical sites with an 82-year-old took courage (on both sides).
Hiking and exploring historical sites with an 82-year-old took courage (on both sides).

“But Rosie said I need one!”

“Rosie from Cincinnati, Ohio who has never been to Qatar or Oman?” I asked.

“Yes – but she reads the newspaper!”

“Fine, do whatever you want,” I said, “but you’ll literally be the only woman in an abaya for miles – you don’t even have to wear one in Saudi Arabia anymore!”

She didn’t buy one, but noted that if anything went wrong, “They told me not to buy it!”

I had secured us business class seats with one of the top airlines, Qatar Airways. There should be many firsts for my mother. Her first time in Qatar and Oman and her first time in business class.

“Wait? Can I keep this?” she asked when the stewardess handed her a pair of Qatar Airways pajamas after boarding. “And that?” She pointed to the toiletry bag.

“Yes,” the stewardess assured her as she happily stuffed everything into her hand luggage.

Dinner in Qatar was one of many connecting experiences.
Dinner in Qatar was one of many connecting experiences.

A little over 12 hours later we landed in Doha and were transferred to Anantara Banana Island Doha. Built on an old fishing island where locals used to sail and picnic, the resort now consists of water bungalows, several restaurants, sandy beaches, a wellness spa and a diving center.

We were put in a two bedroom bungalow and promptly fell asleep for 14 hours despite a reservation for dinner on the beach.

The next day was…just plain fun. Mom and I explored the island, had a leisurely lunch overlooking Doha before indulging in hammam massages at the spa. We made it just in time for Mohammed, the hotel manager, to direct us to a boat for a sunset sail where we watched the sun sink below the horizon while sipping tea and eating fruit kebabs.

“That’s wonderful, Paula,” Mama said. “Thanks.”

But I should have thanked her. I’d spent so much of my life getting angry at her or fighting with her that I never got a chance to really get to know her…or see how alike we were. If the tables had been turned, I would have bought an abaya and I definitely took the cosmetic bag and pajamas on the plane with me. Your constant chatter – didn’t I do that professionally – getting to know people around me, asking questions and having conversations?

The next day we visited the absolutely stunning National Museum of Qatar designed by Jean Nouvel and built to resemble a desert rose – the sand formations that hardened into flower-like patterns in the desert.

That evening – our flight wasn’t until 1am so we had time to kill – we ate outside on the helipad at the JW Marriott Marquis, the tallest building in Doha, before reaching Souq Waqif, Doha’s main traditional market Heart of the city from the early 20th century. There we meandered to falcon markets, stalls where men forged traditional sabers and outfits, stalls selling spices, handicrafts and souvenirs before catching our flight to Muscat, Oman, which felt like another world . Oman was only open to foreigners in the 1980s when Sultan Qaboos relaxed the laws and invited the outside world in. But while Oman has oil and other mineral deposits, it’s not as rich as its Gulf neighbors – which meant Sultan Qaboos couldn’t build Dubai or Abu Dhabi by the sea. Instead, Muscat and the rest of the country grew slowly – from a pearl farming country to an international haven, under strict building codes that prohibited building more than 10 stories. The result is great. There is a cohesion to the country, a tribute to its past and a respect for its architectural heritage not easily found elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.

After landing in Muscat, we drove three hours to Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in the Green Mountains, near NIzwah and the old Nizwah Fort.

We arrived just in time for Omani National Day, with plenty of dancing and literal saber rattling before having dinner at the Bella Vista Italian restaurant, overlooking the same spot where poor Princess Diana was once made to sit and spend hours watching Prince Charles’s watercolor hordes of Press sat nearby and took photos.

The mountains of Oman were unforgettable.
The mountains of Oman were unforgettable.

Our only fight came after we visited the cattle market at NIzwah Fort that day, where Omanis trade, buy and barter cattle as they have done for over six centuries. After that, Mom’s ankle swelled up and I said, “I think we should cancel the planned hike.”

The next day we were scheduled for the three Village Culture Walk between the unspoilt hamlets of Al Aqr, Al Ayn and Ash Shirayjah, connected by the ancient Falaj water irrigation system.

Mom was outraged.

“Absolutely not! I would, I would!” She said.

“You can’t walk and your ankle is swollen…there’s no hospital nearby,” I pleaded. “If you hurt yourself, we have no option.”

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

I left. Thankfully, the point was moot, as after lifting her leg up and applying ice to it, her ankle miraculously healed the next day.

They visited the stunning Qatar National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel and modeled on a desert rose.
They visited the stunning Qatar National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel and modeled on a desert rose.

“My laces on my boots were too tight,” she said, before climbing a 90-degree incline for a better view of the cliff-hanging terraced farms.

Our final stop on our trip was the Anantara Al Baleed Salalah Resort, a short flight to the south coast of Oman which is rumored to have been the home of the mythical Queen of Sheba – and the site of Al Baleed’s archaeological site, the Samahram Archaeological site and the famous Wadi Dokka – which cuts through the dry land with waterfalls and rivers and where camels, goats and other animals congregate.

Over the next few days, Mom and I played Indiana Jones and wandered the ancient ruins of what were once the wealthiest cities in the world due to the incense trade before heading back to the hotel to eat fresh seafood and listen to local music.

Before we knew it, we were on our way home.

I made it – ten days with my mother and we both got out alive and still talking. A week later, I actually found myself thinking, “Hey, maybe we should do Dubrovnik next year?” Because I think I’ve learned that the key to traveling with parents is: a willingness to be wrong, to be wrong to remember, to grasp the moments ahead, to leave old hurts behind… and to get separate spaces.

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