INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Travel

Keepin’ it Rial in Doha

Last Sunday, I decided I’d go to Azerbaijan. Monday, I dropped my passport off at the Embassy (which, to our bad luck stopped issuing visas in the Baku Airport only two weeks ago) hoping to have it back before the weekend. Thursday, I picked it up just in time, and with passport in hand, I was more than ready for a trip Friday to Doha, the capital of every country in the world that begins with the letter Q.

At 4:45 in the morning we left Abu Dhabi by cab for the Dubai budget airlines terminal (flights to Kabul, Baghdad, Peshawar) and our 7:30 am flight. We launched out over the world’s tallest building, the world’s highest concentration of investment bankers, and the dredged archipelago that resembles the world itself, this one parched and abandoned.

And there we were, headed for Doha — or just “Dah,” as our Brit captain said — where the weather is “virtually exactly the same as it is here”. In fact, at first glance, it was like we hadn’t even left the Emirates. Just like in Abu Dhabi, the corniche winds quietly along the waterfront and its well-kept grass. The tall glass buildings, too, are set apart from everything more than four years old. There was a film festival, playing almost identical screenings to the last week’s in Abu Dhabi. And with a flight of exactly sixty minutes and the Qatar time zone one hour slow, we even arrived at exactly the same time we left.
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Malik 2 / The Lohan Ranger — مالك ٢ \ الحارس لوهان

Videos after the jump.


The road from Nizwa to the Indian Ocean is paved with surprises, but mostly, the hundreds of kilometers that roll by are lined with a whole lot of very little. The mountains of the Omani Interior are like blurry photographs — up close, towering piles of dirt and rubble, but from afar, sharp and rugged like camels’ toenails.


Off the straight, flat highway stems variety, where a 10 minute drive can take you up into the mountains and back down to a valley river, or into the desert, red sand dunes appearing out of the blue. We did both, teaching Omani children how to skip rocks (they were naturals), and seeing if our Altima could manage a road made of sand (it couldn’t). The pavement snakes into the 5,000 square miles of the Wahiba Sands, until, all at once, it just stops. And there at the end of the road, we were called in for coffee.



I had turned down a young Omani’s offer to go dune bashing and he had responded by offering me into his home — the very last stop in town — cooled by a thick straw roof and a floor of sand.

We left and raced for the Gulf, hoping to catch the sunset before we made the final stretch for the coast. We kept pushing, motivated to stay above the speed limit of almost 90 mph, flying through the tiny towns with everything in our control except… except that the Gulf of Oman faces north. And the Arabian Sea coast faces east. And the sun sets in the west, doesn’t it.

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Malik 1 — مالك ١

This border is not one-dimensional like the fine, fountain pen line between the US and Canada; the vague area between the Emirati back door and the entrance to Oman could be drawn faithfully with a Crayola marker on a globe. But after ten minutes of driving through no man’s land, we were in every man’s land.

Fiftyish men puffed fiftyish shishas, drank tea, and watched us be Western at a roadside cafe half-hour into the country. A huge projector blasted Spanish soccer to the going-out crowd of northwestern Oman. The coffee tasted dark and sweet, not like the light brew served too often in the Emirates, and the mint tea smelled like Morocco and older traditions. I went to ask for more coals for the shisha.

“You speak Arabic?” The owner asked me. Again, same words — completely different question. A minute later, he was introducing me to his favorite customers — a group of five Omani men — and we three American travelers were welcomed into their circle.

We talked about soccer, about Oman, and about finding a wife for the owner in Washington before telling them our travel plans (drawn on a napkin) and the difficulties of making reservations anywhere without phones or internet.

“Ahmed, go get a SIM from the car.”

My useless Emirati phone was taken from me, popped open, and charged with Omani hospitality (and a ton of credit). And after sitting for hours, Malik paid for everything we’d touched the entire night. No, no, a friend explained as we squirmed at the niceness, he’s the boss.

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إيجاد الطرق — Finding Ways

To the sound of the afternoon call to prayer, we set off in our Nissan toward Oman… east. Yeah, let’s go east.

Our car of three sped away from the eyes of city-center radars, toward Al Ain where we aimed to cross the border. Once there, I found myself having trouble finding the biggest thing I’d ever looked for — a whole country. We knew it was there — three million people were right there hanging out — but according to the map, it seemed to have been out for the afternoon.

My friend asked a shopowner in Arabic where we could find Oman, and I listened as he gave us directions that were clear, but seemed to contradict the existence a dead-end I’d seen. So I tried to clarify. And in that moment, he said something that had been said to me so many times before gently and in surprise, this time curt and with disdain: “Do you speak Arabic?”

I had never had a relationship that was purely based on Arabic — even Arabs I’ve met and known only through Arabic have understood that it was a foreign language for me, taking my words at more (or less) than face value, and giving me more credit than I pronounced. But here I was assumed to be an Arabophone. The jab echoed the sarcastic taunts of “You speak English?” heard a million times on the streets of New York, always with the assumption that the insulted does speak English, fluently in fact, but misheard. In his assumptions, this salesman was — in a way so rare and re-encouraging — a total douchebag.

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Moving Day (Part One) — — —(يوم التنقيل (جزء الاول

I just got to play the fun game you can only play a few times in your life completely sober — the one where you pop the window open and go, “where in the world am I?”  Turns out I was in London, or over London, after having reclined into my fully flat bed/massage parlor the “night” before above the islands of northeastern Canada (read: the real New England).  It’s like I didn’t even go anywhere at all!

But no, I promised when I left America eight hours ago that I’d give up making fun of Canada.  We members of the Global Community choose respect.

I’m over Brussels now.  I remember it having smelly parts.

The day began at six AM Something Standard Time in a cove near San Diego where I surfed my last American waves for what’ll be a while to come.  Hopefully the tankers chugging through the Straight of Hormuz make swells big enough to ride, but somehow I don’t know if that’s what they’re there for.

And then a car came.  “No crying until two miles from the airport,” the driver told my mom.  I like this guy.

But just as I haven’t yet had that “Holy ****!” moment where I see a map and actually understand what moving means, I don’t think my parents quite have either.  There are a lot of parts to this that make it hard to focus, hard to figure out exactly how we feel in any given moment.

Now I’m flying over Liege.  The world’s greatest waffle people.

My mom couldn’t let me leave the country without a little nourishment, so my last moments on hard american soil were spent eating peach yogurt with a spoon she pulled from her purse.  And not finding a trashcan, I left the half eaten thing on the curb, waiting for me.

If I understand my neuroses at all, I know I’ll have a flashback the day I return to the country.  I’ll nervously look around in line at immigration.  They’re coming for me.  They know about the yogurt.

In fact, they almost didn’t let me leave.  The tickets that had been booked for me were under a slightly muddled version of my first and last names, and the guy on my passport was close to getting left stateside while my single last-named doppleganger flew to Abu Dhabi in style.

But I’d had this kind of trouble before, and I knew what to do.  I knocked over the attendant with my one 65-pound suitcase and flattened her with the other before diving down the luggage chute and rolling out onto the Tarmac.  I knew the tail number of my flight and I made a dash, scampering up the massive wheel and into the cargo bay before they knew I didn’t even pay for the overweight.

Or wait… that didn’t happen.

I’m past Frankfurt — either I write very slowly, this plane is going very fast, or Europe is tiny.  I think maybe all of the above.

Before I boarded, I listened to the San Diego loudspeakers babbling the announcements of lost items and people.  It sounded like half the passengers on my flight were saying: “Yeah, so I lost my watch and my duffel and my six year-old.  And I’d like an upgrade to business.”

Then, after a run of bottomless gin and tonics on sleeping-with-gaping-open-mouth flight number one, I shuffled into the Etihad lounge in the Chicago airport to drink Chivas Regal and make a few last domestic calls from a cushy massage chair.  You can’t be an alcoholic if you’re going to a (nearly) dry country, right?  Well, okay, maybe not after the four bottles from duty free I’ll be wetting the sand with.  That’s not supposed to sound dirty.

The flight (so far) has been everything it was cracked up to be (by many Google searches), but I keep reminding myself not to get used to the “Pearl Class” treatment.  A flock of pretty women from East and Southeast Asia (is this offensive to say/notice?) guide us all to our seats and offer beverages from a tray.

Here’s how I knew I didn’t quite belong:
Attendant: Would you like a beverage?
Me: Yes, thank you.  What’s the orange one?
Attendant: Um.  Orange juice.
Me: Oh, I mean, the other orange one.
Attendant: Ohh, I’m sorry.  That’s carrot.

Whether it’s “I’m sorry, I misheard you” or “I’m sorry that you’re a totally helpless idiot,” you know it’s good service when someone apologizes to you for nothing in particular.

And then came the food.  And drinks.  And much exploring of Seat Reclination Possibilities (or SRPs, as I called them).  I snuck into the Diamond Class compartment to find the personal suites, with their arabesque sliding doors wide open, completely empty. I guess when no one can afford something, we all know we have something left to work for.  And maybe that was the UAE’s plan for expats all along, like your parent’s rule for when your friends were over when they were out of town: let ‘em get comfy, but no one gets the master bed.

And here, between Vienna and Zagreb, I think I’ll order breakfast.

[Just moved in to apartment, escaping sweltering heat even at night.  More to follow.]

Hi — اهلا وسهلا ومرحبا بكم

So do it already. That’s what I’m telling myself, in the voice of someone’s old Jewish grandfather (not mine, because he didn’t have the accent). It’s always hard in the beginning.

And as I refrain from typing “that’s what she said” in huge bold letters, I acknowledge a set of different norms — norms that find allusions to the crude or sexual disrespectful, and false rudeness as improper as deliberate effrontery. Of course, I generalize. I assume. And though we all know what you do when you assume, I feel I should still write down my expectations of a culture that I can probably say — safely and without offending anyone — is somehow at least a little bit different. Tell me if this offends you.

In a region where borders are still drawn in dashes, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

So if I don’t remember my mindset now, on the day before my departure for Abu Dhabi, How will I ever say “wow, that is totally not what I expected,”? I wonder now, if the style is to cover your head, how important is a haircut? This website will fail to answer this and other, greater questions during my next year or more in the Gulf. (The Gulf that is meant to have oil flowing through it.)

To leave America behind and Americans in their natural habitat is to leave behind many things: we leave behind our home and our rules, we abandon words like “effrontery,” and we let go of the certainty that comes with going to the same CVS for 21 years. But heading for the United Arab Emirates, we make a journey much different from that of an explorer heading for the Arctic, or a student let loose in rural China, or a doctor responding to a crisis abroad.

We leave instead for a place where 80% of everyone comes from somewhere other than where they are — a journey that, I find, is like going to grandma’s house. At grandma’s house, things are much like they are in your own home, but with little differences. Most of you still have the same sense of humor, but you make different jokes. Respect for the new place and the person that has been there longest supplants the feeling that everything is the same and that nothing has changed. Most of the food is similar but there are a few jars of things you’re not sure you want to try in the refrigerator door. The United Arab Emirates banned Skype, and Grandma just says she doesn’t like it when we use it. And when my parents, brother and I arrive at the door of my grandmother’s apartment in Southern California, 80% of us, too, are foreign.

This is what I expect to feel when engulfed in the Arabian Peninsula. This website chooses the archaic spelling “ingulfed,” to invoke the connection between past and present, the evolution of culture through language, and the never-ending struggle for continuity in a ever-changing environment. And “engulfed.com” was way, way too expensive.

Next post from the Middle East,

!مرحبا
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