Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Long Night: Part 4

Sorry for the lateness of this post, but I’ve been spending lots of time dealing with the aftermath of our car troubles.

But to finish our long night journey back through Oman…

After at long last getting through the Oman-UAE border crossing, the clock hit 9 pm. I figured, at our puffy rate, we could be home by 3 am. This part of the trip is supposed to take on 2-2.5 hours, so I thought almost tripling that would be generous.

The roads were deserted and it was dark, which provided a handy cover for our smoking car. At an agonizingly slow 35-45 kilometers an hour, the longest stretches seemed positively indefinite. At about 1 am, it started to rain. It came down in torrents. The wind was heavy and the few other cars that were still on the road pulled off. We kept going, desperately wanting to make it home. The fatigue, the trials of the day, the mountain roads, and now the monsoon lightening storm that ripped violently through the night sky, made us feel like the hero and heroine in an epic film of man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. self battles all wrapped into one.

The rain didn’t stop, not for hours. Unfortunately, our car’s problem involved consuming massive amounts of engine oil, without which it can’t run. This meant that every 20 kilometers or so, we had to do something of a Chinese fire drill routine—George running up front to pop the hood, me running to the back to grab the oil container, George unscrewing, me pouring, George hoping back in to re-start the car…. I think after about the 10th time, we had it down to a well-oiled system, the whole thing done in 15 seconds. I felt like I was in the Marines. Performing extreme fatigue team-building exercises in the wee hours of the morning in tropically monstrous weather.

We plugged on. Desperate to get home, but knowing that no way in hell would we make it to work in a few hours. George, the only one with an Omani license did all the driving. I did my part by babbling on about anything and even occasionally biting his hand to keep him awake. Twice we stopped and snoozed for 20 minutes, too tired to go on safely.

Finally, at 5 am, a mere hour and a half from home, we could not continue. In addition to being exhausted, the sun was up now and there was too much traffic to take our car on the two lane highway the rest of the way home. We parked in the most private spot we could find, in front of a grocery store yet to open, and slept deeply until 6, when our office mate graciously swung by to take us home.

Being home was bliss. Our car was broken, our boss was peeved, we were deeply tired, but we were home, and we were together.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

a border story interlude

So I have one more part to write about our long trip home, which will be up later today.

However, I just want everyone reading this blog story for whatever reason--entertainment, information, cultural significance--to keep in mind that while my experience was miserable and threw me off my game all week, that my struggle to get home is NOTHING compared to the everyday events faced by people around the world.

If you are reading MY story, which has more comic value than long-term trauma, please also keep up with the story of Laila el-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist from Gaza.
She has her own, much more serious, border issues at the moment.

It's also a fantastic blog and will give you insight into what's going on in Palestine more than the news ever will.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Border Post: Part 3

After another hour of slow-mo travel though Al-Ain, we finally arrived at the right border. Surprisingly, the man at the first gate lets our huffing beast of a car through. The second gate does the same. This is such good luck. I’m in awe. Smooth, albeit slow, sailing from here.

We still needed, however, to get the ever illusive “stamp” in our visa. Depending on the country in the Middle East, and depending on the humor of the customs official, this could take anywhere from 2 seconds to hours on end. We parked the car and walked over to the first promising looking office. The man says to go next door without looking up from his phone. We head to the next office. With his feet up on the desk, a young guy in jeans and a tee-shirt looks at us like we’re from Mars. Friendliness is the key, I think to myself. If you’re positive, people will always be more likely to help you out. Well, generally this is indeed true. This dude was having none of it. He told us to go next door. I’m thinking that is becoming far more difficult than it needs to be. All we want is a visa stamp saying that we can leave the country. We weren’t even asking to come in. I guess they like to keep their tourists.

The men other next door were more like the first guy—dressed to the nines in the daily Emirati customary garb…a white thobe and a complicated turban held in place with a weighted rope. Not very practical to say the least, and somehow manages to make Emirati men look irrepressibly arrogant. This time there were 5 of them. No one seemed to see us. I moved closer. No one looks at us. I feel like I am a fly on the wall in the quintessential stereotype of an Arab officer’s office: the room reeks of the hustle bustle of inactivity. Everyone is shouting and doing a miserable job of trying to look busy. I don’t care too much about social norms at the point and push through the men to go up to the desk. I start explaining that I just want my exit visa, but the officer thinks he’s cute and decides it will be fun to tease me, pretending he doesn’t understand.

“You want to leave?” he says in Arabic.
“Yes, where can I get my stamp?”
“No stamp, just go back to Al-Ain there.”
“No I want to go home to Oman. I live in Oman.”
“Ah, you are Omani.”
“No , I live there.”
“Ok, fine, go next door.”

What a miserable man. Or at least what a miserable customs official.
Naturally, next door want the first office we went to. We have now been to all available offices. This same man, still playing on his phone, tells us to go next door again. We said that we’ve been next door (on both sides!). Go again, he says.
“To who?” we try to confirm.
“The Egyptian.”

I’m confused. Who’s the Egyptian? George, having spent a year in Egypt and a year in Saudi Arabia, knew that calling someone “Egyptian” in the Gulf meant “the non-traditional punk.” News to me. We finally get the man to come outside with us and show us where this office is. The young guy happens to be standing outside as well. The first officer says, “There, the Egyptian.”
The young guy looks totally not amused and says “My name is Ahmed.”
“Yeah, ok, Egyptian,” the first officer shrugs. Despite the undeniably interesting inter-Arab culture clash going on, I still just want my visa. It takes a solid 10 minutes of standing around in Ahmed’s office for us to acquire this all important little pink piece of paper. The Gulf loves superfluous paper-work. Get something stamped and you’re golden.

Well, back to my visit into Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Way Out/Dead End). I feel trapped and starting to get a little panicky. George thankfully is a border God and manages to keep his cool indefinitely. We end up back in the first guy’s office. He gives us a little green piece of paper for our pink one. But only after he insists on giving us a mini Arabic lesson. “You know, Dakhool mean enter place. Kharoog, that mean go out place.” He smirks about how stupid we are. Hmm. This would not be the time to start talking to him in Arabic. Do not insult the proud Emirati man who may, or may not, let you go home.

After the strain of the day, this experience felt entirely surreal. At least the men at the last exit gate were remarkably pleasant.

As the night wore on however, we moved from the world of existentialist literature to epic film.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Part 2: The Syrian Mechanics

Given the nonchalant advice from several mechanics that we could drive our car home despite the problems, we hopped back into our hobbling vehicle and headed the 5 remaining kilometers to the border post. We just wanted to get out of the UAE and into Oman because once “home” all our problems got easier. Nevertheless, after a few lights, it was even worse. Silly Iranian man who gave us the taunting promise that all our problems would be over after he changed the oil. Should have seen that one coming.

We pulled off to the side of the road and decided to sit and collect ourselves for a few minutes. It must have been around 6 at this point. Feeling rather dejected and unsure about what to do, already exhausted, a man drove by in a pick-up and asked about the problem. He was one of those rare angel characters in life that show up at just the right time and seem to have nothing better to do than to help you. He looked at the car, decided that the Al-Ain mechanics were donkeys, and called his Syrian boys to come on over. Note: it’s the West’s equivalent of Sunday evening at this point. This is not a time when you would expect seemingly the entire Syrian population of Al-Ain to take a sudden interest in you.

Soon two dudes show up, rocking out in their pimped Mercedes to Fifty-Cent and J Lo. They are punks, but look like mechanics should. Greasy, relaxed, smart. They were the first people to actually diagnose the problem instead of just fiddle around. Apparently, the seal to one of the pistons is messed up and the car is consequently leaking engine oil into the pressure chamber and pushing it out the exhaust pipe, where it is burning. He can’t fix it now, but there is some temporary miracle oil leak stopper fluid that he suggests. One Syrian suspiciously stays by our deserted car while George and I slide onto the other’s black leather seats. George tries hard to have a conversation with the guy, but he consistently gives bizarre responses, like that he doesn’t know how long he’s been in the UAE or where he is from. He also confirms for us that all Indian, Bengalis, and everyone else are donkeys. Good to know. He does give us a tour of his American rap collection though. And at every stop light, he hits the breaks in beat with the music. He was rocking out. Got to say though, his music collection was la crème of American tunes.

An hour later, we are back at the car (the first Syrian dude is still benignly leaning on it). We pay them for the oil, and off we go. There is indeed a lot less smoke…for about 1 kilometer. Ah, well. We hope that because it is dark out now, the customs officers will let us through without much hassle.

We drove for another hour just trying to find the border, somehow getting stuck in the construction zone traffic in the town center over and over again. The beeping from other cars was getting really obnoxious. “You have big problem!!” …Yes, we know, that’s why we are going 25 km per hour with our hazard lights on. Although very concerned about our car, the Emirates evidently don’t like visitors leaving Al-Ain. With no signs, the border we finally got to turned out to be for Gulf nationals only, so we puffed along to find the next one. I toughened up and consoled myself that the worst was over. Get through this next border and home free.

Part 3 coming soon.