26 October 2013

Captain Clipboard and the Aveonauts

Taking a road trip with six relative strangers is risky business.

Taking a road trip with six relative strangers through the Middle East is well...


Once upon a time there was a man named Will...sorry called Will. (It's a British thing). Will was an erudite individual who loved politics and a bit of banter. He also loved Leah his American wife. Leah was a maker of granola and a baker of breads--a lovely girl. Will and Leah were living in the Middle East (where oil comes from) and looking for new jobs. Applications, a dash of fate and a man called Preston brought them to Shabaka, a magical place with a pool and ping-pong and a convenience store called Holy Water.  

At Shabaka they met vagabond teachers from a variety of places England used to own. They invited the vagabonds over for tea (another British thing). Travel was the topic of conversation; where have you been lately, my passport is thicker than yours, yadda yadda. At some point a map was Googled and a road trip was hatched. The vagabonds were overjoyed; the Kingdom, the U.A.E, Oman!

A sly smile crossed Will's face. He pulled a clipboard off the shelf beside him and drew a thick line through the first bullet point. He crossed one leg over the other and jangled his purple Crocs with satisfaction. The Captain had his crew.

Our desert ships were a white Chevy Aveo and a silver Toyota Yaris. For reasons of accuracy we nicknamed them, Shitbox and Gutless. Procuring Shitbox and Gutless was no easy task. Much of the burden fell on the Captain himself. While skilled with a clipboard the Captain didn't have the licence needed to pilot the vessels which left him in a precarious position as you can imagine.

I was given command of Shitbox. Zach from Seattle and Dan from New Zealand joined me for the maiden voyage. We didn't have the adapter needed to play our own music so we listened to the only English language channel in Saudi Arabia. Though the DJ never identified herself, she was clearly a sixteen year old girl.

Gutless was handed over to a young Puerto Rican man from Orlando. His name is Orlando. (No, really!!). The Captain, his wife and a tall Canadian man called Aaron joined him. Orlando is an electronic music aficionado and entertained the crew with such venerable classics as, "Smoke and a Fuck."

In retrospect our decision to drive through Saudi Arabia at night was retarded--full blown. Driving in Saudi is ball shrinking madness. Picture this if you will; a bunch of Wild West cowboys are given cars with no instructions how to drive other than a note on the accelerator that reads, "Press Here." They comply with a hard stomp and lurch forward, sideways, every direction really--firing their six-shooters in the air, hats flying off, mustaches flapping in the breeze.

Imagine driving through that. Now imagine driving through that at night.

At one point I watched in horror as a Dodge Charger veered off the highway and passed within six inches of Orlando's car before fishtailing back into the fast lane. The driver was going at least 100 mph. Amazingly Orlando didn't need to pull over for a smoke and a wipe.

After crossing the border into the United Arab Emirates there was an abrupt shift in the road conditions; the potholes disappeared and street lamps appeared, medians filled with abandoned wrecks and discarded garbage were replaced by date palms and flowers. This started what would become a persistent dialog of "Why Saudi? Why?" Saudi Arabia is the richest country in the region and not a single Riyal of that is funneled into basic infrastructure. The countries around it are flourishing in that regard. (With the exception of Bahrain which from what I can tell is Saudi with booze and whores.) And yet Saudi continues to let its deserts pile up with trash and its citizens die in alarming numbers because of reckless drivers and reckless roads. In the oil rich East, the part I've seen, Saudi is a lottery winner still living in a broke-down double-wide with a shotgun on its knee.

Anyway, those sweet ass new roads made for a smooth ride into Abu Dhabi, one of the gleaming new metropolises of the Middle East. It was past midnight and everyone was exhausted. We parked Shitbox and Gutless, checked into the hotel and fell fast asleep.

No one was expecting much from Abu Dhabi. It was a pit stop and a new place. So imagine our surprise when it turned out to be pretty great. Abu Dhabi is shiny and new. It has an obvious city plan that takes advantage of its natural beauty. Are you listening Saudi? Hello? Is this thing on?

In the morning we walked toward the Corniche which we knew nothing about other than the fact that it was "on the water."  The only plan for the day was to go to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for a sunset tour. Shiekh Zayed is the sixth largest Mosque in the world.You may recognize it as the place Rihanna recently got booted out of.

The Captain, Leah, Zach and Orlando made it to the Mosque. Aaron, Dan and your narrator did not. Here's why. The Corniche isn't just "on the water" its on a gorgeous white sand beach framed by the rising city. I love the beach. Aaron loves the beach. Dan loves the beach. We had just spent two months on desert lock-down. No rare and impactful cultural experience was going to pull us from those azure waters. Beer could though.

By late afternoon we were sunburned and thirsty. We made our way to the Sheraton bar and downed six Kilkenny Red's while chatting with a retired Canadian cop who had been brought in to teach emergency management techniques to local forces. The job opportunities, especially in the U.A.E., are bizarre in their variety.

By the time we left the Sheraton we were in full party mode. We bought several bottles of vodka and gin and headed back to the hotel where the others had Pakistani takeout ready to gorge on. Most of the booze was intended for the following night in Dubai. It barely lasted through the meal.

Aaron, Dan and I spun out of that room like a liquored-up tornado. We hadn't been anywhere near booze or women for two months. With one well satiated it was time to find the other. Expat girls. On vacation. Oh, baby. We burst through the doors and I swear napkins fluttered off tables and bottles rattled on the shelves. When our dizzy eyes adjusted we deflated like a whoopee cushion. We smelled an imaginary smell. The bar was empty. The cover band was whatever. We ordered beers and went outside. We sat in three comfy poolside lounge chairs. "Let's chill here until things get better," we said. Three hours later a security guard shook us awake and demanded that we leave. Luckily we still had our wallets.

The old cities, the great cities, grew up the way we do. They started as little things in need of protection and nurturing. They gained strength and with it a false sense of bravado. They shouted their greatness while secretly comparing themselves to others. They conquered and were conquered. They learned. They became nurturers themselves. Through the centuries they developed an earned and immovable identity. And they continue to age with grace. Paris became Paris. Istanbul became Istanbul. New York became New York.

Dubai was squirted onto a petri dish and popped in the microwave. Ding! Megalopolis!

Dubai is the pinnacle of a new breed of city rising up instantaneously all over the developing world--clones, engineered future cities free of the pesky organic flaws of their predecessors. And yet, no matter how tall their buildings, no matter how vast their boundaries these new cities will never emanate humanity and soul the way the old cities do. I enjoyed Dubai. It's an interesting spectacle--a good place to spend a few days. It ain't Prague. It ain't Rome.

Funny story about Dubai and the Captain. About 50km outside of Dubai we started seeing signs for a toll road system. I watched the Captain check, double-check, triple-check, quadruple-check his clipboard. With each glance, each confirmation that the toll roads weren't on his ironclad checklist his aggitation grew. We pulled over at a gas station to purchase the toll road pass, which an extremely rude Filipina woman informed us we couldn't do because we didn't have proper registration for Shitbox and Gutless. The Captain's stress level was now apocalyptic. A guy who maybe worked there, maybe not, informed us that rental cars didn't need the pass. That was good enough for me. Not so much for the Captain. We drew closer to the city and the toll road warnings grew more frequent. Each sign made the Captain clench and shift in his seat. The grinding of his teeth was audible. The toll roads were a Kraken looming over the freeway ready to devour any car without a pass. The Captain spotted a sign that read, "Last free exit."

"Take it!" he commanded. "Just take it."

"Umm...no," I replied. "We're no where near our hotel."

His look nearly melted me. He didn't say the words but I knew what the Captain was thinking. He wanted to call me the name he reserves for the worst of the worst. He wanted to shout, "You WEAPONS GRADE CUNT! Do you not see the KRAKEN!!?"

Our entry into Oman was a bit rocky. We arrived in Muscat at dusk and stopped at a beautiful hidden beach to stretch our legs. Omani kids played soccer on a dirt lot beside the sea, while a blood orange sun set over the mountains. We let the warm waters of the Sea of Oman lap at our feet secure in the knowledge that our hotel was only 15 minutes away. Unfortunately it took us three hours to get there.
Shitbox lit up and waiting for bad directions

Our initial directions sucked. We circled and circled back and criss-crossed until our path looked like something a toddler had scribbled with a crayon. We stopped at a hotel we thought was in the general area to ask for directions. The cute lady working behind the desk was either stupid or conniving because she sent us to the opposite side of the city. We didn't find our hotel over there either and eventually we had to pay a taxi to guide us. Our hotel ended up being two blocks from where we stopped for directions. Zach and I were tasked with following the cabbie in Shitbox and Gutless. The prick drove through Muscat like he was auditioning for NASCAR.

From that moment on Oman was nearly flawless.

We checked into the hotel and immediately went to the Irani restaurant next door. We ordered hummus that was served with fresh from the oven flat bread, cheese and mint. We piled on saffron rice, lamb stew and roast chicken. Needless to say we were famished. Many of us ate there once a day for the remainder of the trip. We sat in the same seat and were served by the same waiter. He was hilariously stoic. Slim, with a butt-chin that could cut glass and a face of chiseled Botox he spoke few words, all of them monotone. We had a great time imagining his responses.

"You are so handsome!"


"This is the best food ever!"


"Tomorrow you will have sex with the most beautiful woman in the world!"

"Thank you. I will not masturbate tonight." 

When the sun rose the next day and plans were made the group broke into smaller groups. Oman was the place everyone wanted to see and everyone wanted to see it in a different way. The Captain and Leah went with a friend to a place called Nizwa high in the mountains. Dan and Orlando went North to a beach town called Sur. Zach ventured off on his own. And Aaron and I aimed for Old Muscat.

The more of the world you see the less often you are surprised by it. It is always wonderful but the farther you travel the shorter the list of things you've never seen becomes. Oman was something I had never seen. Aaron either. It is 1001 Nights made real. It is place where wishes are granted and carpets are flown. Not literally of course, but even today it is obvious why ancient sailors docked at the ports of Old Muscat and believed those things could be true.

The site of the old city was clearly chosen with defensive purposes in mind. The natural defenses of the mountains bolstered by canon turrets that seem to grow organically from craggy rock outcroppings. What was once functional is now picturesque. It is a reminder that the strange and exotic world of Sinbad the Sailor did and in some ways does exist. Sit in a cafe in Old Muscat. Sip Turkish coffee and watch the cultures of Arabia come together. You won't be disappointed.

While you're there take a gander at the Sultan's look-at-me yacht docked in the harbor. It's the fourth largest yacht in the world and when he takes it out he is led by a convoy that includes a battleship and scout planes from the Omani air force.

The Sultan wrestled control of the country away from his father in 1970. He is revered in Oman, but he is without an heir. When he passes the royal family will have three days to chose a successor. If they are unable to do so, a secret envelope will be opened revealing the name of the Sultan's chosen successor. Old school.

 Oman is a wonder of natural beauty--natural beauty I naively didn't know existed in the Middle East. It has haunting desert mountains, clear starry skies, miles of pristine beach, Fjords and red sand deserts that roll on forever. We spent six days in Oman and I easily could have stretched that into a month or more.

Towards the end of the trip we met up with Richard, a friend of the Captain who is currently living in Oman. He took us to meet some friends of his who were camping on a secluded beach an hour or so outside of the city. The group consisted of Brit expats and a French guy all of whom were working in Dubai. The beach was glorious; warm seas colliding with desert mountains.

None of us wanted to leave the beach, but we didn't bring dinner and needed to eat. We intended to go to a seafood restaurant just up the road but it was closed. The only food we could find was an overpriced buffet at a swanky hotel. We followed up the over priced food with over priced drinks and just like that our night on the beach was all but gone. I unpacked my newly purchased sleeping-bag and rolled it out primed and ready to sleep under the stars. It was then that I realized I had purchased a child-size bag. I slipped in, pulled it up to my nipples and went to sleep anyway.

I woke up just before dawn with an aching need to pee. As I urinated on beach scrub, I watched the sun creep above the mountains. It gave the lower sky a faint glow of orange and pink without tarnishing the darkness and the pinprick pattern of stars above. I wanted to stay there taking mental pictures, but I was still tired, so I gave it a couple shakes and went back to my baby bag.

The next morning we drove to Wadi Al-Shaab. The drive was hellish but in the end worth it. Wadi's are permanent oasis' dotting the Omani landscape. Al-Shaab is the most famous and deservedly so. It is a long desert canyon filled with emerald freshwater pools. At the end you swim through a narrow crevice and inside is a protected pool with a waterfall. I have an awesome waterproof GoPro camera, so I decided to narrate my swim through the crevice. It was probably spectacular, unfortunately I  neglected to turn the camera on. I could have edited the remaining mishmash but why rob you of my lameness.

The drive home was easy. We spent an additional night in Abu Dhabi. We breezed through the borders. I came home to an empty fridge and desperately wanted hummus from the Irani restaurant. But it wasn't out there, Saudi was out there with its garbage and its Thunderdome roads. I had barely set my bag down and already I was missing Oman. But, whatever sadness I felt was fleeting because I don't believe in once in a lifetime trips. Every place can be revisited and Oman certainly will.

This trip would not have happened without the Captain and Leah. They organized and coordinated and dealt with a lot of the pre-trip headaches. They both have my sincere thanks for that. And so do the Aveonauts. It isn't easy traveling with a big group, especially through the Middle East, but we did it with very few flare-ups and a lot of great memories. Thanks for that boys.

The Captain and Leah

Nice background. Unfortunately you can't see his purple crocs.

The Aveonauts




Zach is the man in blue. I need a better picture.



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