When I landed in Oman, I visited the ATM for Omani cash, hailed a taxi, and began my ride from the airport to the Al Bahjah Hotel in Seeb, ready for my first adventure on my own in a foreign country. English has become the language of people who live internationally. People who do not travel beyond their borders have no need of it.
In Oman, my taxi driver addressed me in halting English. “Welcome to Oman,” he said. He spoke more English than I spoke Arabic, and he knew the hotel where I was going. He also was able to ask where I was from, and it was enough to break up the silence as we moved through the early evening dusk toward Seeb.
When we arrived at the Al Bahjah, the driver took my suitcase from the trunk and escorted me into the lobby. I paid him the five rial fare, plus two rial as a tip. He thanked me graciously and went on his way while I checked in to the hotel.
The room was nice, comfortable but different because the furniture style reminded me of the 1920s. (I would learn during my visit to Oman that vintage and new mix together, and I would learn why.) The bellboy who brought my luggage up showed me how to work the TV and the lights, how to sign on to wi-fi, and deposited two bottles of water. After he left, I peered out my third-floor window at the street below. I was in Oman. After years of dreaming about wandering the world, I was doing it. This was my adventure, from now until…sometime. I am not sure when I’ll decide to settle down again.
The incredibly loud ringing of the phone drew my attention from the view. It was the front desk. My taxi driver had returned with some kind of problem he needed to discuss with me. “What kind of problem?” I asked. “He’s on his way up,” came the reply. And then there was a knock on the door.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I opened the door. There he was, my taxi driver, dressed in his “dishdasha,” the traditional ankle-length robe worn by Omani men, and his turbaned headdress.
There was a problem with what I paid him for the fare, he pantomimed. I could feel my brows furrowing with confusion. He wasn’t angry, he didn’t seem to indicate that he’d been short-changed, so what could be wrong? He laid out the bills I had given him on the desk and began pointing. He was explaining, but I couldn’t understand the words. I did, however, see what he was pointing at.
Omani rial are printed with Hindi-Arabic numerals on one side and Europeanized Arabic numerals on the other side. The Europeans adopted Hindi-Arabic numerals in the Middle Ages from the western section of the Islamic empire, where the numerals had already evolved somewhat, but were unaware that the Arabs had adopted the numerals from the Indians (called “Hindi” in Arabic,) so we knew them only as “Arabic” numbers. The European version of the numerals continued to evolve, and they look very different from the numerals that Arab nations continue to use.
An Omani “1” is shaped like a tusk of a sea lion, thicker at the top and slightly curved, narrowing at the bottom. A “zero” is a dot, a placeholder, really, and not an “O” shape like we use. To someone unfamiliar with the numbers (for example, me,) a Hindi-Arabic “10” looks very much like a Hindi-Arabic “1,” and that’s exactly what I had done. I had paid him five rial for the fare, plus what I thought were two one rial bills for the tip, but he discovered that one of them was a ten rial bill. I had looked at the money when I paid him, but I was tired and distracted and in the faded light, I missed the dot on the second bill and the different (but not that much different) color. I hadn’t bothered to look at the other side, because it was a “1,” right?
The rate of exchange is 2.65 USD for every 1 OR (Omani rial.) Two OR was a pretty generous tip to begin with. What I gave him was an 11 OR tip ($29.15) for a 5 OR ($13.25) taxi fare. I tried to communicate my embarrassment for my mistake, and my thanks for his return. From the amused smile he gave me, I like to think he understood. He gave back the 10 OR bill, and I replaced it with a 1 OR bill, plus an additional 1 OR as a way of thanking him for his honesty and kindness. (Yes, I checked under the lamplight.) From his reaction, I concluded I had done the right thing. He nodded, smiling, and went off down the hall toward the elevator. I closed the door, and spent the next few minutes reflecting on whether or not an American taxi driver would have come back.