Saturday, July 31, 2010

Omani Border Run....or the story of how we almost lost our country

We are "back home" in Abu Dhabi after a very scary and frightening venture into the Sultinate of Oman. Our goal was to leave UAE, return into the UAE with a new entrance Visa that starts the calendar clock ticking for another 30 days. We have to do this because it takes longer than 30 days to get work Visas all straightened out. My work Visa is in process thanks to our expediter who takes care of such things. But I have been here three weeks and so with just one more week if I don't get it taken care of my UAE visitor pass will expire and I would be in danger of getting my azz kicked back (I must admit I have had a few moments where that didn't sound so bad). Melissa was over here for a two month assignment. Out of the goodness of her heart she had agreed to extend that just a little longer to cover for another team member who is on leave. But that meant that her first extention would expire before she leaves so she also needed to re-enter the country. We decided we would head to Al Ain on the UAE/Oman border. We had been advised that "it's very simple. Just cross in, get an exit pass form UAE, go to the Oman crossing "just down the road" and get an Omani stamp, and then come back into the UAE." Oh, if it had been so simple.

But first, the good part...oh before I get to the good part of our stay in Al Ain, the really best, best news of looks like Melissa will be offered a long term assignment. So while she is headed back to the states in about a week she will just be staying for a few weeks (if she can get the offer negotiated out) and then will be coming back. As you can tell from many of my blog posts, Melissa has been a wonderful partner in crime. She had arrived here a few weeks before me and had many of the basics down. She also has learned to drive in this hostile road territory that is Abu Dhabi. She is aggressive and gutsy and very aware of all the potential moves of those crazy drivers around us. She is game for any invite and adventure. She strikes up conversation easily with people of all social strata here and gets us invites and escorts to many things. I cannot tell you how much better I feel about toughing it out here knowing that Melissa will be part of this longer term adventure. We will probably stay here at the company apartment with Rose for a few more months, to save some $$ toward down payment on another place, then we will strike it out on our own for some flat or villa or ...?? who knows?

So, after working a late night Thursday (our Friday) we got up Friday morning (our Saturday) and took off on our road trip to Al Ain. There we had booked a room at the lovely Rotana Hotel in Al Ain. The hotel was fabulous. So nice to be treated like special guests "Welcome, welcome, Madams. Do not lift a finger. That is why we are here. What do you need? How can we help?" After living through several weeks where everything seems a bit of a struggle (even the fun stuff: it's been a bit of a struggle just trying to figure out how to do things, what to do, how to act, what to wear...)it was so refreshing to check into a place where the goal is to make our life easier. Al Ain is about 1.5 hours drive away, southwest from Abu Dhabi, right up next to the Oman border. We used Rawad's Rotana Club card, and were upgraded to an even nicer room with a big deck. This is summer here and so the off season. This luxery room at this fabulous hotel was only about $150/night US. You should have seen us opening up drawers and closets, oohing and awing about all the little extras. The thick white robes and cushy slippers were enough to move us to tears. Then the cold beers and chocolattes in the honor bar were like Christmas in July.

After we got over our giddyness we stuffed ourselves into our swimsuits and headed for the pool. We had serious tanning and swimming to do. At the pool we chose our lounges and before we could set anything down the lifeguard ran over with towels and special chair covers. He adjusted our umbrellas and wished us good tidings. No sooner had we sat down when another gentleman arrived with a tray of cooled damp hand towels. Right behind him was another man with complimentery skewers of fresh fruit. This fellow took our drink order (G&T's all around please) and we settled in to pool people watching and serious tanning.

At our side of the pool there were several kids. Most of the young girls had on long sleeved/long legged drysuit looking things with skirts. They really do swim in these things here. The boys were mostly wearing very long (below the knee) swim trunks, pulled funnily up to their upper tummy. Very strange. Most kids had a nanny/maid, in uniform and scarf, hanging out under an umbrella but doing nothing to discipline the kids. The lifeguards had to straighten them out and the kids were mostly mouthy back. I felt sorry for the lifeguards: there is no dealing with these kids with attitude. At one point the lifeguard told a little girl the the fine for doing whatever she was doing was $50 dirhams. She shouted back "phhhht. I have $1,000 dirhams with me." We realized too late that we were kind of over on the childrens side of the pool and most adults were on the far side. But we had gotten there kind of late and we were on the only side that seemed to have available lounges at that time.

Looking around at the other adults around the pool, many women had on Abayas even in the poolside sun. Others were expats from a variety of countries. Though I brought my more conservative tankini I could have not too uncomfortably worn a two piece: there were pleanty of heavier women around who didn't seem bothered by their own rolls. There were also some who could wear a two piece admirably: that is inspiration for the future. There were also a mix of men around. A few westerners, but mostly those that seem more Middle Eastern of some sort.

When it got too hot we dipped in the pool and were quite excited to discover around the corner a swim up bar. We swam up. We opted for a Pina Colada. This drink was the only dissapointment. Just don't think they know how to make them. But it was fun just feeling decadent for actually swimming up to the bar and sit there in the heat of the sun and the cool of the pool and drink alcohol in this dry country.

After a few hours we threw in the towel and went up to the room to shower and change and head out for our evening adventures. After a very confusing conversation with four different people behind the desk we got what we thought were good directions to the two places we wanted to go: a good shopping mall that had an H&M and a Marks and Spencer (I am still trying to add to my professional wardrobe) and the Al Ain zoo. After all the confusion on directions from the desk we decided taking a cab was probably a better choice. So we hit the mall: I have to say that the Abu Dhabi malls are all starting to feel the same. We got a few things and then left quickly: no mall wandering this night. Not when we had a great hotel to get back to. We hired a cab to take us from the mall to the zoo. The Al Ain zoo is supposedly a sister zoo with the San Diego zoo and is supposed to be quite good. However, because of the summer heat the opening hours are just 4 PM to 11 PM. It was dark by the time we got there. We were sent directly to "a show" that was starting just after we arrived. We walked for what seemed forever, following crowds of folks in flowing abayas and dishdashes, pushing strollers and carrying sleepy kids. Now in the night air it is supposedly cooler. Um, maybe, but relative to what? It still felt like being in a furnace. The show we finally arrived at was some sort of bird show. We sat for about three minutes and decided it would be better to get the rest of the zoo covered so we could get back to the hotel. We got terrigly turned around in the dark and the confusion from arabic signs. I don't know how much we covered. It was dark and exhibits were poorly lit. We did wander through a good reptile house, saw some little monkeys, some hyenas, a lion, some leapords, a cheetah, some giraffes, ostriches and emus, flamingos, a nocturnal exhibit (mostly rodents)and I think that was about it. A bit of a let down but it was something on our list so we got it crossed off.

Back at the hotel we went to the buffet restaurant "Zest". There was the most amazing spread of Arabic, Indian, Sushi, western, European, seafood foods. Even with little samples of just a portion of what was available our stomachs were stretched beyond comfort. We were so full and sleepy we just went back to the room rather than taking in the nightclubbing at Trader Vic's we had originally intended to do.

A good nights sleep in the comfortable beds and we were ready to take on the task of relaxing by the pool again. We staked out our chairs and then went out to find breakfast. We were so early the only place open was the buffet restaurant again so we managed to find a few (wink, wink) edible things: omlettes made to order, smoothies, yogurts, fresh fruit and fruit juices, grilled vegetables, veal ham and beef bacon (we are still in Muslim territory), and, and, and...I can't even remember. Again, our stomachs were full way before we had sampled all we would have wanted to.

Then back to the pool. Again we were well taken care of by the lifeguards. We were early enough to get the adult area. We read and tanned and slipped in and out of the pool whenever the heat got to be too much. After a while a young woman sat down in the chair next to me and we struck up a lively conversation. She is a young Emerati woman (22 years old) who has her own business in Abu Dhabi helping foreign companies set up business in Abu Dhabi. She is very sharp, energetic, well connected and just plain impressive. She was very open about being a liberal Muslim woman. She doesn't drink but helps companies get liquor licenses and is comfortable hanging around businesses affairs where liquor is served. She is a virgin (this was said quite matter of factly as if she could be noghing but one) but can hang out by the pool in a tiny swimsuit and has to constantly deal with men hitting on her. She knows that in the future she will marry another Muslim and at that time her freedom will be taken away. As she put it, most Muslim women marry very early and then go crazy. Her strategy is to go crazy now and then marry after she's gotten that out of her system. We exchanged contact info and I will follow up with her as an in to the Am Cham (American Chamber of Commerce in Abu Dhabi) organization. And it will just be fun to get to know her better and learn more about what it is like to be a smart, driven local woman in this environment.

Alas, we had to check out of the comfort of the Rotana and get our Visa issue taken care of. As noted earlier, we had been advised that 'it's no big thing" We thought we were off to a good start as we navigated directly from the hotel to the Hili border point. That was as easy as a sneeze compared to what we had ahead of us. Warning: this is long and complicated but you need to truly understand what we've been through. It paints a good picture of what it is like to try to figure things out in a place like this. Picture yourself in a very dusty, old town with run down businesses, no modern buildings or hotels in sight, signs mostly all in Arabic, and those few that had words in English saying nothing about what to do if you are a visitor needing to get in and out. Here we go:

1. Show passport at armed checkpoint leaving City. Greeted nicely by two men who almost flirtingly advise us to enjoy our trip. They give dirctions for us to move forward, take a left and enter building two to get UAE exit visa.

2. Miss turn immediately left, enter town, find no Building two for Visa, return to border entry, circle traffic circle and see side road to left of entry. Go down side road, realize this is not border related either, turn around go back and find another little road that looks like it just goes right back into UAE, but seeing no other option enter this.

3. Park car, wander into what looked like the second building. Nobody at reception. Some man at other end of hall shouts at us to come over "What do you need? I cannot tell what you need??" We say "exit Visa??" He grumbles, gets up from his desk, takes us back to the door we came in and points us to the adjacent "building" (actually a prefab trailer like building attached to the first building) and just about shoves us out the door.

4. Wander to that building. Hard to tell which of two doors is what we want. We choose door B and enter a waiting room with several rows of chairs, mostly full of other people in the seats and one rather authoratative man sitting behind a desk. We look around for the "take a number post." There is none. So we sit in chairs and watch. The man behind the desk deals with one person and another all the while more people coming in. When the last person that was there when we entered is done he signals for us to approach. Apparently he is good at tracking who came in when even though we didn't see him look up to know we had arrived. He looks at our passports, asks us what we want, charges us some money stamps our passports and sends us on. We did get the directions from him to go to the second roundabout and turn left to get our Omani stamps(s) and then we were off.

5. Enter the two roundabouts, see absolutely no signs telling us where to go to get Omani stamp. Take left at the roundabout anyway and start down a road that goes through several blocks of seedier and seedier establishements until we are on a road that obviously goes nowhere but the dessert and away from the borders. Soon we convince ourselves this is no route to anything official so turn around and go back toward the gate. Melissa parks the car near the border and I walk back to the gate area.

6. I get the attention of some guard person. He asks us where we are trying to go. It's hard to explain because we don't know exactly what it is we are trying to get or where to get it. I don't even know if we've really actually entered Oman because the area near the gate where we got our exit stamps was still UAE and we haven't seen anything or checked in anywhere that was Oman. I ask the guard "where am I, what country is THIS?" He looks at my feet. He says "madam, you are in UAE." He points to the car with Melissa a few feet away. "Is that your car?" "Yes" I say (finally a quesiton with an answer I am sure of). "Madam, you are in UAE. Your car is in Oman." Then he directs me to the second roundabout and take a left to get to the Oman station to get our entry stamp. Same directions as before. So we do it again, looking more closely for those signs to tell us where to go. Nope, no signs.

7. Pull into a gas station to ask if we are on the right track. Fortunately, though the shopkeeper doesn't understand me, a local man, does. After describing what I think we are trying to do, he says yes, we are on the right road heading in the right direction. He says go through two roundabouts. At the second roundabout that is in the middle of the mountains, take a left and go until you get to the Oman border checkpoint. OK, well I guess we are headed in the right direction.

8. Drive through the first roundabout and get into road that is heading out of town into what appears to be deserted, dry, ceivilation starved land. I am thinking, this is like a scary movie. we are headed into war territory. We will get pulled over by "police" who will take us and torture us and we will never be seen again. Seriously, if we had had any car problems or been low on gas we would have been in helluvtrouble. But I do see mountains ahead, and the guy said something about a roundabout in the mountains so we keep heading forward. After many, many kilometers we get to a roundabout in the middle of some sharp jagged hills (mountains) and we take a left. Mind you nothing on the signs say anything about a border authority. Our only hint is that as soon as we get on this new road there is an insurance store "open 24 hours" We had heard that we need to have proof of car insurance to get entrance into Oman (we had taken care of this before leaving Abu Dhabi) so we go with these instructions. Truly folks, we are in the middle of nowhere. No buildings, no signs, very few other cars. This is getting scaryer by the kilometer, but there is nowhere to ask so we just go with it. Occasionally there is a little road off with signs in Arabic. A restaurant or building speckled here or there. Nothing that looks like it would have anyone who could help. And finally we see a building in the distance with lots of flags so we think we have found something of signifigance. I say a prayer that this be a place that we need. We pass a few checkpoints and get to a window where they take our passports and walk away. Melissa and I exchange paniced looks.

9. The guy returns and says pull forward and park and go into the building. So we do. What else could we do? We enter a large building, of course no other women in sight. We see a window with some people standing in line and so we join. The window says something about visas. We watch some of the guys infront of us reach into bags and pull out stacks of passports. Those get stamped and handed back quickly. We realize that we should have just sent someone else to do this dirty work for us. The guy behind the window is very nice. Takes our passports. Takes some money (he'll take my Visa Card which is good because we have no Omani currency). Stamps the passports and gives us a receipt. We have our Oman entry visa. I ask if we need an exit vist to return to UAE. He smiles and shrugs and says "not always." Winks and sends us on our way.

10. So we loop back around the building without going through the next guarded checkpoint and head back to where we were. At the exit window we start to hand the guy our passports, I thought we needed an exit stamp, but he waves us on as if he's been called ahead and was expecting us. We are grateful for the ease of that. We then must go through the police checkpoint. The guy takes our receipt, not looking at our passports and we head back to the border. We congratulate ourselves for getting to this outpost and getting our business done.

11. We drive back to the roundabout in the middle of the mountains and then back through the rundown town with no good signs or directions and head back to where we entered the country. We try to go through the entry into the UAE but are told we need to get an entry stamp from the same building where we got our exit stamp.

12. We circle back, park again infront of that building. This time nobody is waiting and there is a new guy behind the desk. He is busy counting a big stack of money so we have to wait. He finishes up and motions to us to hand inour passport. We say we need an entry stamp for the UAE. He flips all through out passports and asks where our exit stamp from Oman is. (here my eyes well up and I gasp. Really? really? Oh God, no please. Really?) We have to drive back through the dessert, into war country again to get an exit stamp from Oman. This is too much. Only we have no choice. The guy at the desk almost looks sorry. I grill him: really? Really? I ask. Is there somewhere closer. Nope.

13. So we go back through the dessert, into the mountains, to the roundabout. I am writing down all the names on the signs we have to follow. We are counting roundabouts and taking down kilometerage (that's "mileage" in kilometers. I made it up). We are going to write failureproof directions. Nobody should have to go through this crap. It's scary crap. Eventually we get back to the Oman outpost.

14. Park the car. Enter the building. Stand behind the group of passport runners at the window. The official who gave us our enter stamp quizzes us about our "short visit." Finally he gives us a stamp and sends us back. We got back through the police checkpoint and head back again to the UAE border.

15. This time there is a lot more traffic heading back. And then we see it: a dust hurricane in the distance. Everything slows down. We see debris circling around and the road visibility looks impossible. We are laughing and crying at the same time: exhausted with this whole effort and now a tornado? We know the locusts and floods are waiting in the wings. We are behind a very large truck that acts as guide and we get through this storm.

16. Back to the border. Park the car. See our large official at the Visa office. Again no others waiting and for this at least we are grateful. He actually smiles at us. Thumbs carefully through our passports again. Stamps our passports (a very, very positive sound). I am so excited I give Melissa a high five without thinking. I think this made Melissa nervous. This is such a serious business we don't want any delays for exhuberant behavior.

17. We get to the car. Point it towards the entry to UAE and hold our breath. We make it past one policeman in the road. Get to the checkpoint. Don't breath, don't breath. Guy looks at everything and waves us on. As soon as we enter the road on the other side we whoop it up. Loud. Scream in the closed car. I think "We made it home" and then realize that I consider UAE friendly territory, home even.

Now we are hungry and in need of a bathroom. We still have the ride back to Abu Dhabi in front of us. No roadside Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken for us (these two restaurants are all over the place. We have yet to try one). We deserve real food and a good restroom. We go to a good seafood restaurant that we had seen advertised at teh Rotana. It is good. We are finally able to breath a bit. And then we are on our way back to Abu Dhabi. Back to the flat. Back to face the new work week with its new challenges. Time to dream. Hopefully no espionage, thriller passport nightmare kind of dreams. Hopefully more like dreaming of home and friends and being confident in knowing what we are doing kind of dreams. Enough nightmares for this day already.

Sweet dreams....

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