‘O’ is for Oman: Northampton man completes mission of traveling the alphabet of countries

Gerard Simonette of Northampton talks about his trip to Turkey, where he climbed Mount Ararat, in September 2019. In his late teens, Simonette hitchhiked around Europe. He said he began to think about his alphabet challenge after visiting Zimbabwe in 2001.

Gerard Simonette of Northampton talks about his trip to Turkey, where he climbed Mount Ararat, in September 2019. In his late teens, Simonette hitchhiked around Europe. He said he began to think about his alphabet challenge after visiting Zimbabwe in 2001. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

The 2,700-foot-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world’s tallest building.

The 2,700-foot-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world’s tallest building. PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

Gerard Simonette is shown with bus driver Hammad, the driver on his journey to and from the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Gerard Simonette is shown with bus driver Hammad, the driver on his journey to and from the United Arab Emirates and Oman. PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosquein Abu Dhabi is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosquein Abu Dhabi is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates. PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

The Dimaniyat Islands in the Gulf of Oman are a prized destination for snorkeling.

The Dimaniyat Islands in the Gulf of Oman are a prized destination for snorkeling. PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

The road to Wadi al-Shab in Oman.

The road to Wadi al-Shab in Oman. PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

PHOTO BY GERARD SIMONETTE

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 02-09-2024 12:38 PM

More than 60 years after he crossed his first foreign border, Gerard Simonette this month completed a mission of sorts: He checked off the last remaining letter of the alphabet of countries he has visited with a trip to Oman.

Simonette, 80, who hitchhiked around Europe as a 19-year-old, said he began to think about his alphabet challenge after visiting Zimbabwe in 2001. He figured out all the places he had been and began planning his travels around filling in the gaps.

“K” was hard, he said; he settled on Kosovo, which didn’t gain independence until 2008. Qatar took care of “Q.” There’s no “X” and no “W,” he said — though the Welsh would surely dispute that — but he figured that his time in West Germany before the Berlin Wall fell would count.

Simonette has frequently combined his travels with mountain climbing — the Gazette previously reported on his summiting of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey in 2019 and summit attempt on Bolivia’s 20,827-foot Nevada Parinacotta three years earlier. But, largely because there’s a military establishment on top of Oman’s highest peak and it’s not open to the public, he decided to forgo the climbing on this trip.

Having stopped in the gleaming modern cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi before heading south, Simonette said Oman and its capital, Muscat, were notably more conservative, with most women covering their hair and men dressed in robes.

Among the highlights of the trip were a snorkeling trip — a Christmas gift from his kids — to the Dimaniyat Islands in the Gulf of Oman, where he got to swim with sea turtles, and a day trip to the oasis of Wadi al Shab.

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“The thing that really impressed me was how friendly the people were,” Simonette said.

He was staying at hostels that were hard to find because the addresses didn’t correspond to his map. At one point he went into a building supply store in Muscat run by two Indian brothers, and they piled into their car and drove him around for 45 minutes until they found the building he was looking for.

“People went out of their way to get me where I needed to go,” he said.

Indian, Pakistani and other Asian people make up the majority of the population in the United Arab Emirates, Simonette said, and even in Oman, which is majority Arab, they constitute a significant minority.

This is reflected in the food offerings beyond the Arab staple shawarma — not simply Indian but regional Indian cuisine, as well as Malaysian, Filipino and Chinese. Colorful spices and vegetables you didn’t even know existed are all part of the culinary experience, he said.

Staying in hostels brought him into contact with a with variety of people, he said. He shared a four-bed dorm with a Belgian woman and an Arab man who would be up first thing in the morning doing his prayers on his rug.

Happily, there wasn’t much of a language barrier.

“English gets you by,” Simonette said. “All the foreigners use it.”

Despite the unrest in the region that is the focus of news accounts, Simonette said he saw no evidence of those troubles in Oman. U.S. and British forces are trying to counter Houthi attacks on ships passing through the straits between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but that’s more than 1,000 miles away.

“Someone mentioned, because of Gaza, that there was movement to boycott U.S. businesses, but there was no outward sign of that,” he said.

Completing his list doesn’t mean Simonette is unpacking his suitcase for good: He and his wife have a trip booked to Egypt later this year.

Retired since 2009, Simonette spent his working life as a mental health professional at state hospitals in New York state. He moved to Northampton in December 2015.

“Now I’m living on the grounds of the old state hospital here, which is kind of ironic,” he said.

Besides scaling high peaks, Simonette has also tested his mettle on the TV quiz show “Jeopardy!” He competed in an episode that aired in January 2018, with then-host Alex Trebek, and came in third, earning $1,000.

“It was very positive, though it would have been nice to make a few more bucks,” he said at the time.