Samburu, Kenya – Day 2

Today started out very slow, and I was seriously having doubts about making my plans with Planet Safari. I was told at the airport by Sammy that I would be picked up at 9, and the drive to Masai Mara would start at 9:30. I woke up all early and stuff to make sure I had enough time to have a full breakfast, check my email etc. 8:55 I was in the lobby, all checked out and good to go.

9:15 … 9:30 … 9:40 … no sign of a Planet Safari car. I’m standing outside convinced that I’ve been jipped by some con-artist, and that if I were to head back to the airport, I wouldn’t even see a Planet Safari office. Finally, around 9:50, this young lady walks upto me and introduces herself as Peggy from Planet. *PHEW* The car, if you can call it that, was so small and beatup, I thought it was an old, washed up Matchbox antique. We bumped along and the driver squeezed the car into such a small space, even Calista Flockhart would be hardpressed to fit in!

The building was a typical building you’d expect – rundown, paint cracking on the walls, a million signs pointing in every direction to indicate the offices in the 9 story building. We took the elevator upto the 8th floor, and had to use the stairs for the last flight, and we entered the Safari offices. A very simple, very sparse office with 4 big brown desks, and a few people chatting idly. I walked in, and was promptly seated and presented with a few forms to fill, along with a guest book. About this time, a guy came upto me and said that my itinerary had changed slightly and that my trip was reconfigured. So now I’m thinking … great, I don’t get to goto Masai Mara. But it really wasn’t a big deal – he just told me that because of the way the traffic was going, I would start my trip backwards – Samburu, Nakuru and then Masai Mara. I was actually happy to hear that, since the Mara is the place to be apparently.

I was told that the driver was on his way and we’d depart shortly. I walked around the office, enjoying the pictures on the wall, and reading the wealth of brochures for every kind of hostel, camp ground, hotel in the country. Just then, a lady walked up behind me and politely said “Have you just come back from the Mara?” I said no, I’m just starting out today, yourself? She had just gotten back a few minutes ago and immediately gushed forth with how amazingly gorgeous the reserve is, and what all she saw, etc. We started talking, and I found out that her name was Israela, from … you guessed it … Israel.

She was a delightful lady to talk to, and inevitably, our topic turned to the sad state of events in the region. She was lamenting that politicians really need to get a clue and take some action to reach a permanent peace in the region. She identified herself as Palestinian and said that she counts Muslims as some of her closest friends, all hoping to live in peace. I learned some interesting things about the Hasidic branch of Judaism – Hasidic Jews can be considered akin to the Ultra Orthodox Muslims in Saudi – strict to the point of being brittle. See … Jews and Muslims have so much in common!

We exchanged emails … I was off to a good start. My aim, especially since I was travelling alone, was to befriend as many people as possible – force myself to talk to people I didn’t know, and not come off as a snob. I know … it was quite the challenge.

Around 10:40, Peggy rushes me out the door and we’re in the crowded streets again, dodging cars, crossing streets until we get to our ride … what the hell is this?!? The car is a 1844 station wagon … if a fly sneezed on it, this thing would fall apart. The driver was this old grandpa guy, and I was again having nightmares about Planet screwing me over. Just as we’re leaving Peggy is running towards us with another guy tagging along. The guy turns out to be Peter, the cook for the camping grounds at Samburu. This is when I found out that the 3 others I would be meeting up were doing the camping thing.

Finally around 11:15, after stopping so Peter could pick up some meat and eggs, we get underway. But not for long … a massive traffic jam is waiting for us right outside downtown. The scene was awesome … cars just scurrying around in every direction trying to get ahead. That created even more problems. Imagine this: it’s raining, the sides and centers of the 2-way roads are mudpits, cars are diverting into the muddy ditches, some skid, some hit other cars, some get stuck in the bog. Very comical. After 2 hours sitting in that mess, we got back on track towards the small town of Nanyuki, on the base of Mt. Kenya.

The drive was amazing! When I had imagined Africa, this beauty definitely was not part of that vision. The country side is lush with greenery of every shade, outlines of endless mountains grace your periphery with the sun shining brightly thru the beautiful clouds. It was the kind of scene which I always refer to as the “Angels are smiling down” effect … the sun rays filter thru the clouds, like something holy is concentrating on that spot.

Peter gave me good company, telling me small tidbits about the areas we were passing thru. He was a young man of 24, belonging to the Kikiyu tribe. The Kikuyus are the biggest of the 42 tribes in Kenya, and also have the reputation of being the least honorable. However, everyone I met from the Kikuyu tribe was wonderful. The others must be jealous.

We rode into Nanyuki at around 2:30 and was told to go eat lunch in the small restaurant across the street. This is the kind of place I’ve heard my dad talk about from his days as a young surveyor in India. Small, dirty, cramped. I never imagined that I could ever, ever, ever eat at a place like this, let alone walk into one. The waitress handed me a smeared menu and I wanted so badly to get up and leave. I could stay hungry till the evening. But I thought it would look extremely rude, so I tried to find the least “they-can’t-screw-this-up” dish I could find on the menu … that meant it had to be vegetarian. Aha! Found it … vegetable jalfreezi with rice. I must say the food was very tasty, although a little watered down. I ate whatever was given to me, paid my 180 Shillings and went outside to wait for Peter and the driver to show up. All the little kids would walk by me, sneaking quick glances and giggling among themselves.

About 3, a big Land Cruiser rolled up in front of the restaurant and Peter and the driver jumped out. The driver, also a Kikuyu, introduced himself as Mynah. He looked no more than 26, but I later found out he is 37!!! Mynah quickly disappeared trying to find the other 3 folks so we could reach Samburu in time for our evening game drive. In the meantime, Peter loaded the car with all his goods, my luggage and told em to get in so we wouldn’t have to wait. 5 minutes later, Mynah came back with the 3 travellers. Let me introduce them:

  • Gino – Il Postino from Naples. An aspiring professional photographer (Italian)
  • Jenica – A doctor, enjoying time between graduation and starting her residency (American)
  • Karmen – A network engineer keeping Cisco going in London. (Australian)

    All 3 were very nice, and very open. We made some idle chat, and then we were on our way again. Gino is a camera freak. If given the option, I think he’d sleep with the camera glued to his eyes, so he doesn’t miss that next great shot :) He kept clicking way at everything – he must have some amazing shots from the Mara. The roads got bumpier and bumpier as we went thru smaller and smaller villages before finally entering Samburu National Reserve. A wierd board greeted us here – “Welcome to Samburu … Where Nature Defies Itself” and then there was a picture of a lioness and a gazelle sitting together. We would find the meaning of what this meant a few days later.

    It was very close to sunset, so we did a little pseudo-game drive, and since our lodge/camp was deep within the park anyways – we had no choice. We saw a herd of zebras and a flock of blue ostriches, but it was so dark and they were so far away, we couldn’t really enjoy the view with much clarity. Taking pictures was useless, since none of our flashes was strong enough for that kind of a distance.

    As we rode along the grassy roads, with waist high reeds lining the sides, the scene was breathtaking. The top of our 4×4 was down, and we were all standing up enjoying the cool breeze, watching the moon rise. It seemed so bright and so clear. The sky was filled to overflowing with glittering stars. I couldn’t believe there were so many. I thought things were so sharp and clean when we moved to Ashburn, but wow – this was WOW. It felt like the neon sticky stars you can buy for kids and then you buy a few extra packs … so the entire wall is just stars at night.

    The Samburu Lodge is nestled deep within the reserve itself, and it’s like you’re the animal caged in with the wildlife looking at you. There are no real fences, gates or barriers to keep out the animals … the only defense mechanism are the local tribesman who patrol the lodge 24-7.

    The lodge looked so relaxing and peaceful as I entered, and it was made even better by the extremely welcoming staff. It really feels like they’re happy to see you there, and want to make your stay enjoyable. I was shown to my room … room 27 … and the steward introduced me to every feature in the room like this was the first time I had been inside a fully walled apartment. “This is the bathroom, you can take a shower here … this is the knob for the cold water, and this one will give you hot water” Oooooh … so you’re telling me that I was wrong for showering in the dining room for all these years?!? You learn something every day.

    Anyhow, it was time for dinner and after washing up … in the BATHROOM … I walked over to the open atrium serving as the dining area. The staff was at your every call and beckon, sometimes 2-3. They had a nice table setup for me, and a nice, hot bowl of cream of vegetable soup helped to reenergize me. The soup was followed by a salad, some dinner rolls, a very tasty chicken dish, and an even better selection of desserts. I lounged in the dining area for about an hour, feeling the light breeze, watching the other patrons come and go, and listening to the various birds, and watching the occasional monkey try and steal something from the table.

    It is now 9:30, and I am sitting in my bed writing this up before I goto sleep. Tomorrow will start bright and early at 6:30. It’ll be my first chance to see the animals in their habitat. I am so excited.

  • Nairobi, Kenya – Day 1

    Kenya, a country on the East Coast of Africa, home to the largest slum in the world and the largest open market this side of the Nile, was founded in 1963, gaining full independance from Britain with the official election of Jomo Kenyatta as the first President.

    Kenya is also home to some of the most beautiful natural parks. Wildlife is abundant in all varieties, all over the country – from the coast of Mombasa to the Western reaches of the Masai Mara, bordering with the Serengeti in Tanzania, and Victoria Falls in Uganda.

    My journey started on May 19th in Riyadh, and after an overnight stop in Dubai, I found myself quickly filling out visa forms at noon the following day in Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi. Nairobi is the bustling capitol of this beautiful country = home to over 13 million people, making it the largest city in Kenya, comprised of nearly 35% of the countries 35 million population.

    As I stepped off the plane and entered the airport, everything I had imagined Africa to be seem to jump at me. The airport was just as I had imagined, a little dark, with bright sunlight flushing areas of the airport. dark, aged tiles paved the halls, and ladies adorning the beautiful African head dress strode around with confidence. The duty free shops offer much to the newcomer, overwhelming you with the beauty of the local artifacts.

    But by far, the most noticeable thing is the amazing hospitality and welcoming nature of the locals. Everyone smiles at you, greeting you warmly. Everyone I came across thanked me individually for visiting “our home”, and wishing me an enjoyable stay. The officer who stamped my visa couldn’t have said it better … “Stay a while, we have tons to offer” … they certainly do!

    I made my way thru the customs, piling another round of thank yous, and battling a few suspicious eyes looking at my stuffed backpack. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, as I came out of the Arrivals gate … a mob of no less than 7 people hounded me from the get go trying to gauge what I was looking for … car? hotel? safari? tours? food? how could they help me?! As everyone was trying to court me, many started arguing heatedly over who saw me first and who had exclusive rights to my money. Before I could do or say anything, I was ushered into the Planet Safari office, not by own volition, mind you. I literally had no where to go but the door leading inside the office. Once in, I had no choice but to buy their package … but I didn’t really mind – I was tired, and I had a rough idea of what I wanted to pay, and I ended up paying quite a bit less than that. I could have paid even less if I hadn’t flashed my American identity right from the get go. Oh well … I didn’t really mind feeding their economy.

    After haggling for about 2 hours, my trip took shape, and my plan for the next 8 days was set. I was to set out on a 7 day, 6 night safari thru 3 Kenyan parks, on each side of the Equator. I chose the more expensive lodging option, as opposed to the thrifty camping alternative. Zoom, zoom, zoom … my credit card was charged, reciept in hand, I was handed over to the local tour guide – a typical African gentleman by the name of David Muandu … I LOVE that last name – try saying it like James Earl Jones from Coming to America … yeap – just like that!

    Let me say that I dunno what you guys think Africans should sound like, but to me … this guy sounded just like I thought one would. Deep resonant voice, and a very accented tone. David ended all his sentences with an authoritative ‘hmmmm yeeeehs’ eg. “You undahstaahnd what I am sayeeing … hmmm, yeeehs” “Do you have traffic like Nairobi? Hmmmm, yeeeehs!” It seems like taxi drivers are the same the world over – this guy kept criticizing everything that moved on the road, calling them uneducated, rude and yet he’s sitting in traffic doing the same exact thing – cutting in front of people, turning from the wrong lane, honking incessantly and on and on.

    Overall, however, he was a decent guy, who I later found out had been a minister at the local church in his hometown of Machakos, right off the boundaries of Nairobi. He proceeded to give me a Grand Tour of the city, and kept saying that I must go back to my people and tell them that not all Kenyans are thieves, and overall, they were an honest people. Sure thing – done! So yeah, not all Kenyans are cheats or liars! One thing I did notice was that the streets of Nairobi are virtually litter free. People actually use the designated garbage cans for trash – what a novel idea! This is not to say that the city is clean – it’s a pretty dirty city because of the bad roads, bad sewage, bad water drainage and so much more. The roads had potholes the size of the Ngorongoro Crater, and your butt would feel every last one of them. The roads tend to start and end at will, turning from a solid paved road to one full of rubble and large rocks. But, these are all very minor issues since you are so busy trying to absorb everything. It’s really hard – there are sooooooooooooooo many people on the streets, it would make your head spin in amazement.

    David took me to the outskirts of the city to this small mom-n-pops place to get some souvenirs. In true, stereo-typical Americna fashion, I had to buy everything in site, and almost offered to buy the land as well. I haggled for a bit, and settled on a price that I thought was fair, but man was I had. I promised myself that I wouldn’t buy anything after that, but 3 days into the trip, and that promise is a long forgotten memory.

    By the time we wrapped up everything, it was almost 7, and I knew it was definitely time to eat. David already had a plan on where we were going to go, Carnivore. If you do any research on Kenya, you’ll find out that Carnivore is considered a tourist hotspot. Just from the name, you can gather that the place is a meat-eaters heaven. In addition to serving the regular fare of beef, lamb, chicken, pork and turkey, this place specializes in grilled game meat. Every day is a different spread and that day, we were offered: crocodile, zebra, camel and ostrich. Surprisingly enough, I tried everything but the crocodile. I got some in my plate, but I just couldn’t get my mouth to open – I took that as a sign and enjoyed the delicious ostrich instead.

    David just kinda assumed I was going to pay for his dinner and I have no idea why?!? This guy ate up and then he goes “Thank you for dinner” I’m thinking … come again?!? Who offered you dinner? I don’t remember saying anything – but whatever, I didn’t make a big deal out of it, paid up and went on our way back to the hotel.

    We ended up at the Hilton around 9. I had a beautiful street view of Nairobi … and I really couldn’t believe I was in Africa. I looked out excitedly, waiting anxiously for the next morning. I decided to call it a night pretty early, and after rearranging my bags, and watching some TV, I was already passed out.

    Meaning of Life

    I just got back from a business trip from Jeddah. It was grrrrrrrrreat. I was originally supposed to go for the entire week, but that dream got chopped up into 4 days. No worries … my main goal for this trip was to make a trip to Makkah, and with the short distance, it would’ve been no problem. I ended up going twice in 3 days!

    The entire week leading upto the trip, I was reading books, learning about the proper way to perform the pilgrimage, the dos, the don’ts … the musts, the enhs. I had a lot of help from the folks in Riyadh, since most of them have made this trip more times than they’d care to remember. I got the white, unsewn cotton wrap, known as [i]Ihram[/i], the proper slippers and all the other accessories all ready to go. Memorized the required prayers … I was set!

    Well, not quite! When you make the intention of approaching Makkah from your origin, there are certain fixed places before which you must don your [i]ihram[/i].

    For me, this would be while we were on the flight. The flight crew makes repeated announcements indicating when you’re a certain distance from the designated places. I heard the announcements, but for some reason I was feeling awkward putting on the 2 pieces of cloth … feeling wierdly naked just thinking about it. The thing is, you’re not allowed to wear anything sewn, so no underwear, no undershirt, just two long sheets, about the size of large beach towels. One draped around the waist like a sarong, and the other wrapped around the shoulders, covering the upper body. You’re allowed the special leather straps to hold the bottom cloth from falling and to hold your essential things … wallet, cell phone, car keys, etc.

    So anyways, I didn’t put the Ihram on in the plane thinking I’ll just approach the destination prescribed for Jeddah, put it on there and then head onwards. Problem is, if your intention is from Point A, you cannot put Ihram from the place designated from Point B and beyond. Makkah lies in the middle of Riyadh and Jeddah. I wasn’t aware of this for awhile. In peaceful bliss, I rented my car at the airport, got a map and headed out. The drive takes about 40-45 minutes, so no biggie there. It was around 5:30, and I was sure I’d be done within a few hours, give myself another few to shop around and be back in Jeddah before midnight.

    On the way, I stopped at a mosque and inquired within where the Jeddah place for Ihram is, and I was asked where I was coming from … I said Riyadh. The dude shook his head and is like “uh, no … you gotta go around Makkah to the other side and drive another hour to get to Taif, put the Ihram on there, and then come back” D’OH! So I thought, maybe this guy is clueless … let me just get into Makkah and see what happens. I knew I was getting closer as soon as I saw the sign “Non-Muslims Exit Here.” Within 15 minutes, my car was parked in front of the main mosque, and I was in awe.

    I collected myself and called a few people who confirmed that it had to be Taif … or, wait a minute … I could offer a sacrifice for the poor within the bounds of Makkah, go out of the city, don the Ihram and head back in! No biggie, as this would easily save me an extra 2-3 hours. I parked my car in the underground garage, headed up, looked for a cab and off we went.

    On the way, I told the guy what had transpired, and he said that I had the option of performing the sacrifice myself, giving someone else the knife and watching, or just giving the money to have it done and distributed amongst the poor. Yeah … it wasn’t a hard choice at all. If I had to hold the knife myself, I would’ve wound up in the hospital from the shock. I finally got into the Grand Mosque at around 7:30-8, having put on the Ihram outside the [i]Haram[/i] – the boundary of the Mosque.

    If you’re not a Muslim, you really can’t comprehend, or even appreciate, the importance of this moment, or the inspiration, the awe and all that goes along with it. I guess if you’re a Catholic, it would be like hearing the Easter Mass delivered by the Pope in the Vatican, or if you’re Jewish, making the pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall. It’s a very powerful experience, and it really puts life in perspective on many levels.

    The mosque is an absolute architectural masterpiece … it is gargantuan in proportions, and the fine carvings all over the ceilings and the upper boundaries, the white washed pillars, the carpets, the sparkling white marble floors, the bigger than life chandeliers at every turn, the flowing concourses leading you into the main veranda with the Ka’aba in the middle. When you get to that point, the feeling is overpowering, overwhelming. It is the cornerstone of the Muslim faith, and to be so close to it is definitely an EVENT in your life. I envy the inhabitants of Makkah.

    To give you an estimate of the size, the mosque has 94 gates or entryways leading you inwards. and it’s not like one gate is 10 steps from the other, it takes a good 1-2 minutes from gate to gate.

    I went thru the rituals and by the time I made my way out, it was around 11:15. Right outside is a KFC, and I was famished. Ordered a nice crispy chicken strips meal and I was on my way. My feet were killing me from the walking during the process and I couldn’t wait to get to the car. I got down to the garage, quickly changed, ravaged the food and at around 12:00 I got back into Jeddah, and into my nizice hotel — Jeddah Crowne Plaze; in the off chance that any of you are ever in Jeddah, I’d recommend it for the well laid out buffets – for every meal. We were only able to partake in the breakfast buffet since that is all the company paid for, and being the cheap bastards that we are, we weren’t willing to spend out of pocket when we could eat cheaply on the town.

    The work in Jeddah isn’t really worth a mention – work is always the same, it’s work. But I must say the city is very nice. I took Monday night to drive around, and visit the various shopping malls, and take in the beautiful water views. That evening we dined at a Thai place, and it was by far one of the most delicious Thai food I’ve ever had. The soup was JUST right and the noodles perfectly seasoned, with hearty portions of shrimp, not like our grand establishments in VA where you get 4 shrimp buried in oil and pasta!

    The next night, I headed back to Makkah so I could attend the last two daily prayers and also get some shopping done for the prayer beads, and the prayer mats. I guess you could get the same things anywhere, probably for cheaper too, but it’s the thought that you bought it in Makkah that makes it worth it. I had planned to shop between the 2 prayers, but I ended up spending the entire time within the mosque and finally made my way to the souks around 8:30.

    LET THE SHOPPING COMMENCE!

    I scurried from shop to shop, haggling, pouting, throwing the item in disgust when the vendor would go down only 15%. Eventually, I had everything I needed and again, it was 11:20 by the time I left. Got to the hotel, watched some basketball games, and found out that even God was disgusted by the Terps, since my prayer to have them in the Tourney went unanswered. Who can blame him … they were an absolutely atrocious this year, and really didn’t deserve to make it in. I just wanted for Coach to get his 12th straight Tourney appearance. Oh well … there’s always next year.

    On Wednesday night, we wrapped up work and headed back to Riyadh. The next few days I spent in a daze, tired and barely able to walk.

    Let’s Get the Party Started

    Last night was one of the best nights I’ve spent in the Kingdom so far. Not uncommon to my nature, I was this close to missing it. One of my bosses in the RSNF was promoted a few months back, and our company was throwing a bash in honor of him. We weren’t privy to all the details, just that we had to get back to the manager with a yes or no reply within office hours 2 days prior.

    As usual, when it comes to social events, I was thinkin I’d be much better off on my own at home as compared to an evening mixing with other people, especially people I work with everyday. Besides, there was a pretty big per plate charge of 500 Riyals ($135) I know … it wasn’t like a Bush Fundraiser price tag, but come on … that is a pretty big chunk. The word within our circle was that it would be certain political suicide not to attend, and I finally relented, coughing up the money VERY reluctantly.

    Two days passed, and details started to leak out about the location (well, it kinda had to so we’d know where to show up!) and the plans for the evening. We got emails telling us to bring frisbees and footballs and what not and I’m thinking WTF? This is a dinner and you’re gonna play football before that?!? I guess it helped to know that it wasn’t going to be too formal, otherwise I’d be the only freak decked out in a suit.

    So we finally roll up to this deserted place in the middle of nowhere. It’s this big Arabian party place, with different common rooms replete with floor seating and ornate wall carvings, and lush carpets spread out all over. The buffet tables were set out in the green lawns, and a beautiful dark red carpet was spread on the grass for enjoying the quiet, breezy evening before we retired to the closed in comfier quarters.

    As soon as I made my way in, I knew this was going to be fun … all the RSNF officers were dressed in their traditional garb and all were mucho relaxed, partaking in the various conversations going around in the compound. I was welcomed extravagantly by everyone, this being my first soiree. As we all sat down in the lawn, a waiter appeared from nowhere decked in the proper livery carrying a large tray with beautiful gold trimmed tea glasses and a large crystal decanter full of steaming tea. He made his rounds amongst everyone, and altho I don’t drink tea, it would’ve been very impolite to decline. Good thing, too! The tea was very delicious, with subtle hints of spices and a strong presence of saffron. We all lingered there until the sun had clearly set and then we moved into the biggest hall. This place was extremely gorgeous.

    The carpets were as soft as a babys butt, and so extremely thick and lush, I could have lied down and gone to sleep. The room had a little nook in the far end with traditional artifacts – camel saddles, the incense burners, and a few other odds and ends. Traditional Arabian doors are very pretty, with bright colors and vivid markings adding to the beauty. A few small replicas of these doors were beautifully framed and hung around the room. The rooms are setup quite differently than what we’re used to back in the West. Instead of small clusters of sofas in a big lounge, this room was furnished with floor seats around the 4 walls, with nothing in the center. After every 2-3 seats, there were slight rises for people to rest their hands, or to place the empty tea glasses in the small openings below.

    People started sifting in, and as every new person would enter, the entire group would stand up, shake hands, and if you were close to the person, or the person needed to be shown respect, there would be the 3 traditional kisses, one on the right cheek, followed by two on the left – each delivered with a stated pause. Then you sit down again. It was pretty good exercise, since after a while the room was overflowing with about 60-70 men. Once all the guests had arrived, the waiters made their rounds in full force. First they brought out these beautiful silver trays loaded with the most sumptuous of dates; the size of kiwis. Each one probably adding 10lbs to my shapely figure.

    The waiters entered again with TWO types of teas … an extremely aromatic rose colored brew, and the regular green tea from earlier. I tried the rose colored tea, thinking I wouldn’t get the chance again. Boy, was I wrong. By the time dinner was served, I was in serious need of a Bladder Management System (sorry, a little geek humor … get it BMS hehehe*snort*hehe I crack myself up)

    Oh man, I totally forgot the fruit cocktails served after the 5-6 rounds of tea. They came out with these gorgeous crystalware glasses filled with beautiful colors … reds, whites, greens, oranges. They had freshly squeezed the juices in the back and now we got to enjoy them. It was so refreshing … very nice and cool.

    People had drawn into small groups, and sounds of idle chit-chat, mostly Arabic, filled the room. I spent the hour lamenting the sad state of Maryland basketball with the other Maryland alumni. All of us in disbelief that the Terps had just dropped a must-win game to Virginia Tech. From there the conversation turned to lighter topics and the joys of quarterly travel that this position affords you.

    In the distance, a large gong was rung indication dinner was served. HOW COOL! The meal laid out in front of us was lavish to say the least. Arabs are notorious carnivores and there was every kind of meat here that you could imagine … well, ok maybe not, it was chicken, lamb, beef, camel, quail, and rabbit. Then there were all the dressings, the breads, the tasty veggies and on and on and on. I was glad I had gone to the gym earlier in the day and could really take this joint apart. The waiters were loading everyones plate and I was able to barely finish 3/4ths of my serving. I had to leave the rest … cuz, umm, dessert was also very intriguing. Man, so much sweets … chocolates, mousses, Arab pastries, pies … the works! When I finally saw my belt buckle sticking out, I knew it was time to stop.

    We lingered around for another 40 minutes or so and then we just up and left. Apparently, in Arab society, there is no concept of saying goodbye … there is no goodbye. There are extended hellos and welcomes, but no goodbyes. You just kinda drift away from the group. I need to find out the real reason for this, although I have theories of my own.

    Overall, it was an extremely memorable experience. From what I hear, there will be many more!

    And on and on …

    So I met my old buddy Zubair for the first time my first weekend in Riyadh. I hadn’t seen him in over 15 yrs when we left Kuwait. He left for India, and we made our way to the US. It would’ve been really wierd to see him after so long had we not found a way to keep in touch through email/MSN etc. The second we met, it didn’t feel like we met after 15 years, more like 15 minutes ago.

    We met at the KFC on Olaya Street. Olaya Street is the one described a few posts down … this street really is beyond words. It doesn’t stretch for more than maybe 8-10 miles for it’s entirety, but the middle stretch in downtown every night after 8 to about 2 is worse than 270/495 in peak rush hour. I mean it is packed and when you have no rules governing how you should drive, it is that much more interesting.

    Well, I guess there is a rule to driving here … and that rule is to know that there are NO rules! If you’re a local Saudi, you can almost get away with any antic on the road, if you’re a Ind/Pak, no matter what happens, it’s your fault, no questions. If you’re an American, or rather a whitey, the judgements are in your favor, unless of course you had the bad luck of hitting/being hit by a Saudi, then the first rule applies … you’re screwed.

    That being said, it is fun driving here cuz you can virtually do anything and maa’fi mushkila (No worries! Hakuna Matata!). Feel like doing donuts all the way down the highway … su.. err, ok maybe not THAT much freedom :o ) But you can definitely speed, and with my zippy lil Pathfinder, I’m doin 90-100 all the time. It’s a good thing my parents don’t know where this blog is :o )

    Oh yeah … back to ZUbair … it was my first weekend in Riyadh, and I really wanted to have a good time and splurge. There are 2 major landmarks in this city, both on Olaya. One the Kingdom Tower, and the other Al-Faisaliyah, both magnificent. One is a tall, sleek structure, and the other is this four-sided sail kinda deal with a globe structure at the top which is home to a 6-star restaurant. The restaurant has the most spectacular views of the city and you can even go out on the open air balcony to take in the views.

    Now, since I’m mentioning all this about Al-Faisaliyah, I’m sure you can ascertain that we decided to goto dinner there. Minimum order of 120 per person … psssh, sure no problem. The service was sooo spectacular, I was almost cracking up. I thought maybe the waiters had me confused with someone else. You have more forks around your place setting than you’ve seen in your life combined! I mean damn … I didn’t realize folks came in that many various shapes and sizes. I know I was using them all wrong, cuz the waiters were all looking at me funny. Or maybe it was because a desi person is supposedly never seen in this restaurant, it’s usually the local Arabs and affluent Westereners.

    The food was ma’fi quwais (not bad!), but it wasn’t finger lickin good by any stretch. What we really paid for was the atmosphere, and the spectacular views. The dessert was jai-yad jiddun (very good!). We ordered the sampler platter and it was served so nicely, I didn’t want to mess up the setting by taking a bit, but eventually I devoured the whole thing.

    We ended the evening by roaming the streets of Olaya, window shopping at stores where I’ll never be able to afford anything. Maybe buy the dust that settles there during dust storms, but even that might be a stretch. Speaking of dust storms, I experienced one of those in the first week too. It is a very cool thing to watch one. Your visibility dwindles to almost 0, and you can smell the sand floating INSIDE your house. Even though everything is virtually shuttered down, the dust still makes it in. I thought I was suffocating, but I decided to go outside anyways. I will try and take pictures next time when it is really bad.

    I do goto work here, so let me just go into that briefly. I really couldn’t have asked for a better situation: a lot of work, and no one to tell me how to go about doing it. I am the sole developer here, and considering where the technology is at this point, and the kind of chaos that has taken a hold, it provides me the perfect opportunity to strike while the metal is seething hot. No one has heard of many of the things I have suggested so far … central data servers, CVS, data/content management, etc. It’s just too good. Every day I’m inundated with scenarios of how to do this, how to do that. We even have a secretary, and he’ll bring me papers everyday that I have to sign and return, and people bring this folders with materials that I have to read and respond to, goto meetings, give my input … I really do feel important. It’s great!!! I have the 2 fastest computers in the entire group, which is even better.

    My co-workers are simply amazing. I work with all men, since women don’t have that right here unfortunately. Apparently they’re working on changing that and have introduced an initiative to allow women to hold positions in the Ministries. Anyways, back to the coworkers. Most of them are older than me, married with kids and what not, but everyone is real chill. I laugh more than 80% of my time here from all the jokes and all the light hearted jabbing. It really does feel like a big family. It’s the whole soap opera deal … you have the scheming, the backstabbing, the laughter, the anger … like any workplace, but MUCH MUCH more jovial. We have every nationality represented, let’s see:

    Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghanistanis, Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese.

    It’s amazing.

    Everyone thought I was a Kuwaiti coming in, since the US Mgr knew I was born there. So, this is how the exchange usually goes: “Kuwaiti? You speak Arabic?” “No, unfortunately” [incredulous looks] “Muslim?” “Yes” “At least a Muslim, masha’Allah” Basically, well, at least you’re not the total scum of the earth. Hahahaha … but they’re so genuine and sweet about it in a good way. Most of the locals have taken a liking to me, which I find very comforting. They’re always looking out for me, trying to teach me some Arabic along the way, and just overall, very encouraging. Good people.

    The only that SUCKS about work is that we are not allowed to have Internet connections to individual PCs. Something about the Navy wanting to keep things secure or whatever … yada yada yada.

    I have also realized one thing … I can never go back and live in Pakistan. It’s kinda sad, but also very amazing. Neither here nor there, just kinda stuck in the middle. How did I come to this realization? Well, I went shopping for my desi groceries in the desi part of town called “Hara” and man, I felt so outta place, to the point where when I was walking, folks would turn and look at me like I was the new zoo pet. I’m thinking, I look like you, I can talk your language, whats the problem?

    Shifting gears to daily life … daily life is whizzing by so quickly, before I know it, it’s midnight and I have to jump into bed to get up at 5:45. For those out there who know me, realize that this is no easy feat … 5:45 for a person who used to get to work at 11?!? Yeah, exactly! Now I understand why folks shower everyday … it’s the only way to shock your body out of drowsiness, and even that fails on occasion.

    For example … whenever basketball is on. Because of the time difference (I’m 8hrs ahead of EST) I have to get up at idiotic times to watch my beloved Terps suck another one. Yeah, we swept Duke, and I’m not even that excited about that this year … we freakin lost to Clemson, and that must be record too … first ACC team to get swept by Clemson. And don’t even get me started on that ass Hodge and his retarded Wolfpack. At this point, I just want the streak to remain alive at 12 consecutive NCAAs … if that ends, I’ll be on the next flight over to kick Neal’s ass for even sneaking a peek at the action this year. And then there is the issue of getting my cousin (HAIDER) to unenroll from MD … ever since he joined, this inexplical Dr. Jekyll-Mr.-Hyde Syndrome has hit hard. Must be a correlation.

    I am still waiting for high speed Internet so wait for the pics just a lil bit longer … I promise they’re coming. I don’t even know who’s reading this anymore, but I guess I want to do this for myself so as not to forget anything that is worth remembering down the road.

    In the meantime, I’ve picked up a few hobbies, if you will. A long waiting dream of mine has been to learn a musical instrument, and to meet those ends, I’ve taken up Piano lessons from a Dutch lady in the compound. She’s a concert level pianist who was with the Russian Orchestra … yeah, serious hardcore stuff.

    The other thing is golf. Riyadh has about 5 amazingly beautiful golf courses, and everyone at work seems to love the “sport” and are known for sneaking out early (not that our days are long) but even those are shortened for a little round of golf. I have hooked up with an ex-PGA player to learn the basics and we’ll take it from there.

    Everyday truly is an experience, both sensory, visually and mentally. I absorb so much from these surroundings, I can’t even explain. For example, just a few days ago I saw a restaurant called “Al-Turd Restaurant” I mean … come on!!! From the sheer variety in the shopping, to the every day sights and sounds, it is an excellent time. All thanks to the one above for this chance.

    Life In A Nutshell

    I’ll try and condense the next few days with only the interesting highlights. Daily life is pretty mundane all over the world, especially once you get into a routine … get up, get ready, head to work, do your thing, head home and then take care of the days chores.

    Life here is no different, with one glaring difference, there is no work to speak off once you get home. There is a person who comes in at 6:30 AM twice a week to wash your car for a mere $27 a month. Then there is a lady who’ll clean your house once a week, including doing laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming, dusting … the works … for $42.75 a month. You really don’t have to cook either if you’re not up for it … you can find almost any kind of cuisine your heart desires, and you guessed it … very very cheap. You can have a grand 4-course dinner at an excellent Italian place for $25. The local shawarma places are the best tho … extremely filling, great taste, healthy and for under $3, you can get a sandwich, choice of side and freshly squeezed juice.

    However, I happen to love cooking and decided to go shopping to the local Tamimi (Safeway). Somehow, I found the groceries to be on the pricy side, but only a few items. I am not used to thinking in Riyals yet, and it was hard to justify buying a small pepper shaker for 8 riyal, but that’s only $2. It was a lot of fun grocery shopping here mostly because I came across a lot of things I was used to growing up from Kuwait! KDD CHOCOLATE MILK!!!!!!!! ‘Nuff said!

    The one thing I am not fully used to here is the stores closing for about 30 mins at every prayer. It is an amazing thing to see it because virtually the entire city shuts down for 30 minutes about 4 times a day (the first prayer everything is closed)

    I made some amaaaaazing kick ass chicken from my grocery trip. It was soo good, I made it again in bulk and enjoyed it for like 2 weeks everyday with delicious naan! Since I don’t have my mommy to cook for me anymore, I’ve noticed that I’m not eating all that much … some little thing for breakfast, a quick one-slice sandwich in the afternoon and then like half a pita for dinner. I cannot belief I haven’t had rice but once since coming here. That combined with a vigorous gym schedule is starting to show some very initial results. God knows my fat ass really needed it.

    People here are very nice for the most part, very welcoming, and very eager to make you feel at ease. Of course, there are some jerks too, but they just stare and don’t really hassle you at all. There are a lot of Indian/Pakistani people here as well, and if I were to converse in Urdu, I am told that I would get better prices in the market, but I find it so hard to talk in Urdu for some reason. I don’t understand it. I’m going on and on in English, and apparently the way I speak is different from the other desi (Ind/Pak) folks, so the sharp shop owners pick that up as well. Like just the other day … I was in the market looking for some oud and the guy quoted me a price of a 100 riyals, apparently the same product is had by others for 40% less! Unfreakinreal!

    The thing is, I feel that I am speaking Urdu the wrong way, meaning the really formal, polished, reserved Urdu, which is not commonly spoken here. You’ll find the really crude, street slang type ish and that is hard for me to do. But I wish I could … I really want to make friends with some of the people I come across, but I think the way I speak, they automatically put me in the out-of-range spot, and I become “sir” right away. Pisses me off. All the Paki/Ind guys at work call me “Sir”!!! I keep telling them … my name is Mohammed, not Sir, but they won’t budge. What’s even wierder is that all of them are older than I am … with kids my age! Very embarrassing. Even the Arabs … they joke around with me, but it’s different … it’s very respectful in a sense … no crude humor around me, and just overall proper behavior … not appreciated!!!

    (I think I’ve always had this issue all my life, people just assume that they need to be like this around me, and then they just follow thru with that act. I wonder if they feel as uneasy with that as I do. Anyways, sorry to digress … now I’m depressed!)

    I think I’ll have to break this up into chunks otherwise we’ll have Gone With The Wind, Parts 3-4452 right in this one post. It’ll just continue from this point on, and it’ll be random for the most part because I am not going to sit here and write a day at a time and catch with the entire month.

    Can you believe it?!?! I’ve been gone for a month already, and it feels like I just got here.

    Time on Wings

    Sorry for the long absence. Time is really flying here … I thought the hours wouldn’t go by here, but I have so many things to do. Whoulda thunk … Mohammed … have things to do. Almost an oxymoronic statement. Anyways … I am going to try and condense everything so people don’t feel like they’re reading a novel everyday.

    The flight from Dubai to Riyadh was pretty routine, nothing out of the ordinary. The plane was fairly empty and we landed in Riyadh in about 2 hours. Now once there, ordinary means something totally different.Right off the bat, you can start sensing a hostile attitude from the locals. I don’t even know if I’d call it hostile, but more like superior. Everyone seems to think they have a direct line to Prince Abdullah (King-to-be, and for all means and purposes, the King). All these petty customs officers acting like they’re the shit, what with all the strutting and chatting on the cell phone instead of actually trying to get folks processed. Now of course, if you happen to be brown … you’re automatically fodder, and you could spend your life in line for all they care. Ok so it’s not that bad, but I was sooo tired and I really didn’t want to wait in line for hours.

    However, that wasn’t meant to be. One well meaning officer was trying to shuffle the lines back and forth to manage the crowd and make sure everyone got out quickly. He shuffled 2-3 times, and although I was right near the window, I was the absolute LAST person to be processed in any of the lines. The guy at the counter, a well groomed, well dressed Saudi guy, greeted me nicely and started going through my papers. He stopped at the last page, read the name, looked at the front of the passport to make sure he wasn’t mistaken, and then looked at the name again. Then he looks at me and goes “Your name Mohammad Hasan?” “Yes.” “Amreeki???” “Yes” WOW, this guy was in shock … a brownie with an American passport, how alien! He was cool tho, smiled, did his thing, handed me my passport.

    Right beyond the glass lay a new life … I was both eager and nervous at the same time, more than anything because I don’t know a lick of Arabic outside of counting 1-10 (altho, even there, sometimes I forget how to say 9), and saying “No” (LA!) I got out sooo late, that by this time, my suitcase was sitting there feeling deserted and lonely. Grabbed it, piled everything onto a trolley and off to the customs counter. Now everyone was just whizzing by this checkpoint, put your bag on the belt, get it zapped, grab it on the other side and you’re done … khalas! So I’m getting more and more confident as I head towards it … I put my bags on, smile at the customs guy, give him the Salaam treatment and walk through. On the other side … “Is this yours!” “Yes, sir!” “Oben it”
    Now my heart started to pound … FUDGE! … THANK GOD I DIDN’T KEEP ANY JANET CD … can you imagine my time in jail with some of the album covers that woman puts out?!? But apparently, the guy didn’t have any problems with my original CDs … Mariah, Soul Ballet, Ace of Base, Savage Garden etc … he did take issue with the blank media I had recorded stuff on. I put everything back while he took my passport and the unmarked CDs and disappeared. No explanations, no nothing just up and gone. I wasn’t too concerned at first, cuz I knew they were going to check for illegal things, porn, etc. But as the clock started ticking away and I was close to being the last person left, I became concerned … I don’t have my passport, I have no form of identifying myself, can’t go in, can’t go out … at their complete mercy. Couldn’t do anything, so I sat on my suitcase and started waiting.

    Right around that time, this poor Sri Lankan worker, who was probably entering the country for the first time, and had a very scared, nervous look on his face, with an awkward slouch walk was being harrassed without pause. I guess he really acted like he was in for it too, with the slouching and literally flinching if someone came within a foot of him and the power hungry officers were taking full advantage of it. They were literally pushing and shoving him around, and finally he started going to the secret police area by mistake, instead of the exit and this guard grabbed his arm and just about flung him to Siberia. I felt soooo bad, but I really couldn’t say/do anything to make them stop.

    Once this guy left, I was the only one left and I got tired so I went to one of the other officers and asked him where my stuff was. This guy was like an angel, soooo soft spoken, and he walked with me, talking merrily about the weather, how my trip was, etc etc and within 2 minutes I had my CDs and passport back. Took only over an hour! I got out and the Admin guy from SAIC was waiting for me there. Poor guy had waited for over 2.5 hours. I apologized profusely and we left for my new villa.I think I mentioned this earlier, most every Arab city is the same, the new oddly mixed with the new. But somehow it all works. We pulled into my compound and made our way to my villa. I was already impressed with the place, a nice long entrance flanked by stately palms followed by a beautiful common area and a gargantuan pool right behind it. My villa was right in front of the pool, beautiful view.

    The house is seriously immense, freakin 3250 sqft for one person. 4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, patio, garden … the works! I was thinking this would be nice if I had come with 5 other people, but for one person I wasn’t sure this was going to work, but didn’t have any choice. It was already 9:10 and Razick kindly showed my around the house, got me settled in, gave me some money, let me use his cell phone to call home and finally left. As soon as he had gone, I was like oh damn! DINNER! I started looking around the kitchen where all the food fliers were and found one for the cafe on the compound … last order taken at 9:30 – I’m staring at 9:26! I took off and got there about 9:33. Doors locked, so I talked to the receptionist and told him my situation and he went in and the “butler” came out and told me only a tuna sandwich was available … sure I’ll take it!

    Got back, watched some TV while eating and finally decided that I didn’t have anything else to do but goto bed. Went upstairs … the bed was HUUUUGE … king size and decked out in this brand new, plush comforter … mmmmmmmmmmmmm. Changed clothes and I was out within a second.The next morning, I woke up when my manager called me around 9:30 that he was going to pick me up at 10 so we could get started. WHAT THE HELL?!?!? That wasn’t enough time to look pretty for the new folks at work! Rushed into the shower, shaved, did my hair, pulled on some clothes, and got downstairs just as the bell rang. DAMNIT! No breakfast! Anyhow, Mark and I took off for our looong day, but not before a quick stop at the local Starbucks!

    This is when I really got to see the city, and man, it is plush! Beemers and Benzes and a bevy of SUVs all buzzing by on wide highways lined with one posh shopping center after another. The construction is impressive to say the least … marble facades, glass walls, weird shapes all mixed together. Between all the modernity, you see mosques peeking around at almost every street corner. This is what I was saying of how the modern and old seem to mingle with each other without too much conflict. Let me tell ya … these mosques are no joke, they are masterpieces in their own right … gorgeous spires touching the clouds and magnificent domes reflecting the beauty around them, with gleaming marble stairs and verandas leading you inside.

    There isn’t a lack of anything over here, you name the store … they have it. DKNY, Nike, Cartier, Ballys (THE shoe store), Tiffanys, a Lambo dealership for good measure too! And this is all on the enh road, apparently. My jaw made a hole in the car when we turned onto Olaya Street. It is truly where East meets West in Riyadh. The landmark of Riyadh (The Kingdom Tower) is staring you down while in the distance the Al-Faisaliyah tower is arching upwards. In between is just about any store your mind can fathom, from local shawarma joints buzzing with people grabbing lunch, to malls beyond description lining the streets on both sides. For all us local Virginians, the malls on this street make Tysons Corner (both 1 and 2) look like a country store.

    (A note about the veiled women. Maybe I’m nuts, but these women somehow exude HOTNESS! Maybe it’s the mystery that you can’t see them at all, or maybe it’s the gorgeous eyes that grab you, or maybe it’s the silky fluidity of their garb that really draws you. Regardless, they look very attractive … silky black ninja turtles floating thru the streets)

    We went to what is dubbed the BEST steak house in Riyadh, and it definitely lived up to the hype. The food was excellent and might I add extremely cheap! Got a steak with drink, 2 sides, salad bar, and bread for a mere 55 Riyal … that is $14.70! All the shutters and windows were closed in the place, and I realized why as we were getting ready to leave. The doorman goes “Sir, please wait, there is a car that’s been standing outside on the other side” I’m thinking wow, this is for real. After about 5 minutes the car drove off and we got into our car quickly and took off.From there, we went to the main Saudi SAIC office to meet with the folks who support us while we’re at the real job site. I got some paper work taken care of, got the cell phone Razick was nice enough to pick up for me, and then we headed over to the RSNF office.

    I was kinda nervous about meeting all the local folks, but these folks turned out to be suuuuuber nice! From the head honcho to the copy room guy … everyone was extremely welcoming with everyone having the same issue … grew up in Kuwait, and no Arabic, but at least you’re a Muslim. That really cracked me up.Everyone leaves work at around 2:30 PM so that’s what we did too. Mark dropped me off after showing me the compound Internet cafe and the grocery store. I decided to lie down for a bit and watch some TV. Finally, I got up, freshened up and headed over to check my email. It felt so weird not having ready access to the Internet whenever I wanted it. The cafe closed at 7, and I really didn’t appreciate that.

    I caught up on the Terps, and finally went home. Decided to order in from the cafe, and watch some TV. Thank god there are decent shows on TV and about 4 dedicated movie channels to watch every kind of thing you want. Even get to see The OC, albeit it’s a few weeks old, but it’s something to watch nonetheless!

    Bikinis Galore

    It was great to have a good nights sleep. The bed was pretty comfy, and even if it wasn’t, I don’t think I would have really noticed. I woke up around 4:15AM and the Maryland vs Miami game was on my mind. I kept thinking, man … we really can’t lose this one! We just beat Duke and GT and then got blown out by CLEMSOM?!?! I went back to sleep, and finally woke up around 8.

    Decided to watch some TV. That started giving me a headache, so I ambled outta bed and went to take a shower and get ready for the day. My stomach was telling me that I was definitely hungry and it was time to utilize that free breakfast voucher. I got ready, packed up all my stuff again. Put my laptop, camera, and other valuables in a bag and stepped out.

    As I’m headed towards the elevator, I see these two beautiful girls struggling to open the door. I’m thinking “wow, it wasn’t just me … it IS hard to open these POS doors!” Right then, one of them looks up and goes “Hi, you’re staying here?” and I said “Yes” and then the other goes “We’ve been trying to open this door for the last 10 minutes, can you please help?” So I’m like “Oooo boy … now what … I had such a hard time with this stupid thing, I don’t wanna look like a pansy” but I couldn’t really say no, right?

    So I took the keys and at first, I couldn’t even get the key in the door, and I did the nervous chuckle thing. I noticed there were 2 keys and decided to stick in the 2nd one in and thankfully it went in without a problem. Then I started struggling with the door. And since it was getting too quiet, I was like “wow, my door wasn’t even this hard to open” so the girls laughed and one of em goes “I’m sure you can get it!” YEAH!

    Finally, after fighting with it, the door opened and the girls were all grateful and thanked me and went on their way. That was a good way to start the day! I headed downstairs, found the restaurant and started looking around at what they had to offer. It was a pretty decent menu, and I was definitely starving. I scooped up some scrambled eggs, sausage, grilled mushrooms, croissant, a slice of toast, some strawberry yogurt and headed to my table.

    The eggs were a little runny, so I went to ask for some ketchup. The dining hall manager was this Indian guy reacted like I had insulted his family or something. “You want ketchup?!? Go sit down, I’ll see” So I’m like oook … it’s only ketchup, if you don’t have it … just tell me. Anywas, I went back to my table chuckling, and he finally shows up with the bottle, sets it down, gives me a stare and walks off. So I only took a little bit … what if this was their only bottle and he was worried I’d dry up his supplies???

    The breakfast really was very good, and the combination of everything was great. I asked for a glass of water, and this Filipino boy takes it out in a glass and hands it to me. That was ok, but a little later, I noticed he took the time to wipe another glass, and serve an Arab on a nice tray. I was getting mad and thought I’d ask what was up with that … was I not worth the effort of putting the glass on a stupid tray? But I thought, hell, I already know the answer to that, why do I want to hear it again?

    From there, I made my way to the Internet Cafe, and surfed around. DAMNIT, THE TERPS LOST AGAIN!!! I felt like smashing the 3 monitors in the cafe, but I had too much time to kill so I smartly held back. It felt weird sitting half a world away when I was in the comfort of home only a day ago. I dunno why the feeling came to begin with, maybe it was because I didn’t get to scream and howl watching the Terps self-destruct again. They have really been consistently inconsistent this year and it is sooo frustrating.

    I went upstairs, got my stuff, double checked it, triple checked it and headed out.

    Aah yes, there was Mohammad … beaming from side to side, standing next to his “special person” car … his white Land Cruiser. I crossed the street, he immediately took my bags, and opened the door for me. “Do you like the car sir? I told you about it last night, only for special guests” I said it was very nice, good job. Then he goes off about how expensive it was for him to purchase it, and it wouldn’t be fair if he used it for all his passengers, and the car only sees the light of day a few times a year, and that is if the passenger was a good person … besides, he said, I was a Muslim! Which honestly didn’t make an ounce of sense.

    I told Mohammad that I only had 3hrs before I had to get to the airport, and he said not to worry, he’ll give me a tour I would never forget. THERE it was again … I was like uh-oh, better tell him exactly what I had in mind, just in case! So I re(to the gazillion)-iterated that I would really like to only see the city … “Yes yes, sir … don’t worry, I show everything”

    I don’t know what made him think that I would be interested in seeing the local Little India spot. Maybe he just decided that since I am brown, it was the most logical spot to start. So we head towards Little India … everyone who has visited a big city can envision the scene. Yeap, it’s the same here … absolute chaos. He’s weaving thru traffic like a madmen, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll just go and sit at the airport right now …

    One note about traffic … it really takes nerves of steel the first time you go thru it. It’s like these people just got up and jumped into cars. Although, the road system is superb, people really pay no attention to anything. Ah the signal turned red 20 minutes … who cares! Need to go left? Stuck in the right lane? No problem, just veer your car as you please … people will eventually get what you’re doing.

    I wonder what the driving test is like in these places … point to a car and ask, what is that? A car? EGGCELLENT, here’s ur license, enjoy!

    Back to Dubai … the place really is a mix of old and new, modern and traditional. It seems to be the theme all over the Middle East for ages. There are parts of town that will make your jaws drop and leave you in absolute awe, then there are areas that you really can’t wait to get out of, with the low rise shacks, almost coming undone at the corners.

    Once we got out of the Indian/Pakistani/Asian portion of town, Mohammed decided that it was time to see the old part of town. He parked his car and said that we’re gonna walk around this part. I had been taking pictures with my camera from the car and I could tell this guy was enamored with it … he was literally staring at it while we were stopped at lights. So once we were inside this place, he’s like “Let me take your picture” and I thought, yeah that’s a good idea and handed him the car … dude nearly fell down from joy.

    This place we went to was very nice actually … it was a preserved part of the Old Dubai … mud huts, open areas for live mens dancing. The open kitchens were pretty cool too. Apparently, this is how Dubai looked just a mere 40 years ago, and the ruler of the country used to live like this as well. Back to the camera … Mohammad was clutching at it and just snapping away taking pathetic picture after pathetic picture. “Stand there, I take picture” “Put ur hand like this” “Look down” jeeez! I was thinking if I’d ever get a chance to use my camera again.

    As we’re headed back, he goes “let’s have Karak chai!” OMG NO!!!!!!!!! (This is the part from the last post where my compliment came back to bite me in the ass) First, it was HOT outside, and to have steaming tea on top of that?!? I tried hard to get something else … water, juice, anything but he wouldn’t have any of it. I offered to pay, but he goes “you guest for 3 days, after that you pay” which I honestly thought was very generous of him.

    We took the crappy drink and took off again. Finally we were headed towards the Jumeira Beach area … what I had been waiting for all along. Apparently so had Mohammad … “Jumeira Beach, so beautiful, go weekend time, sooo many women Mr. Mohammed, you look here, there … all place, too many women” Oooooh LORD!

    It is really hard to describe how absolutely gorgeous this part of Dubai is. It is opulence beyond words. The grand villas lining the beach, fronted by broad avenues, just too good. And this is before you hit the famed Burj Al-Arab area. Uff Allah, it’s amazing. White sand beaches, the clearest blue water, and then this impressive structure soaring thru the clouds. As much as I was enjoying THAT scene, Mohammad was having a hard time keeping his eyes from jumping out.

    His focus … Western ladies in bikinis. The one he had been yapping about a few minutes earlier. Since it was mid-afternoon on a work day, there weren’t too many women, and Mohammad was VERY quick to notice that. First he checked his watch, and finally sighed and announced “not good time, not many people” I saw this guy giving a couple a camel ride on the beach and I started to take some pictures. The lady on the camel was also clad in a bikini, and so Mohammad automatically assumed it was the lady I wanted capture. Funny thing is, none of these women were anything above average, but it was the abundance of skin that was making this guy climax almost every second.

    Now the freakiest part … we drove up a little more along the street so I could take some more close ups, and then we turned back. The camel I had just taken the pics of was much closer to us and the guy and girl were getting off. The camel sat down and I told him to stop so I could take a close up shot. This freakin pervert keeps shouting, take pic now, now … so I would get the lady in it. His eyes were GLUEEEED to her and he was snickering insanely … “You see her, look at that, so beautiful, wow, she looks so soft” EWWW! So I ignore him and take my 2-3 pics and tell him that we’re set to go … said it once, twice, three times … his eyes are still glued. I wasn’t sure what I should do … so after about a minute of pure disgust, I half yelled “that was a great shot, we can go now” he jolted back to reality and with a very injured expression started to pull out.

    We continued down the same street and saw the official Prince’s residence. WOWOW! It is … WOW, nothing else can come close to describing it. It’s almost a city in itself, grandeur beyond expectation. We saw more sites like this and before I knew it, 3 hours had passed, and we pulled up to the airport. Mohammad folded his card into my hand, extracting heavy promises of return trips and more time spent with him.

    Time seems to cease when you’re sitting at the airport, and your ears strain to hear for your flight’s boarding call. Then from somewhere the sweet words echoed “Emirates Flight 9022 is now boarding at Gate 22.” The final leg of the trip was about to start, and my new home was 2 hours away.

    Ahlan Wa Sahlan Ya Habibi! Yalla Yalla!

    Pimpin My Ride

    The Dubai airport is a pretty big place … fully furnished with it’s own army of desi people scurrying here and there. It was nice to see the white disdasha wearing Arabs, with their prayer beads in hand, idly strolling along while some poor Sri Lankan porter is heaving along with their 40 suitcases. After going thru the “go up, go down” routine a few times, I finally came to the STCP area where I was to get my free hotel coupon verified. I went thru the customs area, and then came outside. The weather was gorgeous … finally Middle Eastern air!

    I had to wait 30 minutes to get the shuttle service to the Millenium Hotel where I was going to spend the night. Now let me say this … the Millenium Hotel has it’s name for a reason … the first floor was constructed THIS millenium, while the rest of the 6 stories were definitely from the last millenium, or perhaps the one before that one. The receptionist did his work pretty quickly and gave me the room keys along with 4 vouchers for free dinner, bfast, lunch and snack on the hotel cafeteria. SAHWEET!

    On the way to the elevator, I noticed there was a nice guest shop, as well as a much needed Internet cafe. My room was on the 3rd floor, room 2316 (How does that work??) and it took a good 10 minutes to get the key and door talking on the same wavelength. I walked in, and collapsed on the bed … finally a place to relax. I knew I definitely wanted to head to the Shopping Festival, so the time to rest would have to come later. I lounged for about 15-20 minutes, watched some Sony TV and jumped into the shower.

    The bathroom was antiquated to say the least, and pretty badly cleaned. I felt icky stepping in without slippers, so I had to go fishing for them in my luggage. Thank god I had them in my carry on, instead of the checked-in luggage. So I took my shower, cleaned up, changed my clothes and decided I definitely needed something to eat. My mom had given me 2 kabab sandwiches because I get airsick pretty quick, and the food helps to quiet the headaches. But being in Biz class for half the leg was great, I didn’t need to use my sandwiches. I thought I’d go down and enjoy the free dinner, but I didn’t want to waste perfectly good sandwiches, so I ate those instead. Drank some water and off to the Festival.

    I got down, asked the bellboy (grandpa?) how I could get there and he gave me his schpiel about how far it is and it’ll be an hour before I got there, blah blah. I said alright, do you know someone who can take me? So he steps out with me and waves over a taxi driver standing across the street, just waiting for his prey. We negotiated our price (actually, he just told me the price, and I said yes, lets go) and off we went.

    So this taxi driver was a bit of a character to put it politely, and I really was having second thoughts to start the trip. He asks me very smugly if I was looking for a “good time” and if so, he was well equipped to provide it. According to him, he could make my “dreams come true” and make this a “night [I] would never forget” That would have been alright, but his next sentence was “Dubai, you knowah, very preetti gurls here … any typuh you like, Russians, Morrocans, Pakistani, Ethiopians” I totally flipped, laughed politely and told him, no thanks, the shopping festival will be just fine. So he goes “Shopping festival close 12, all night to havuh fun” Now I’m thinking … if I jump out the car now, I can still make it back to the hotel, but I REALLY wanted to goto the shopping festival and it was already 9:30, so again I said “no thank you, just the Shopping Festival” so he chuckles.

    The guy had to stop for gas on the way, and someone called him Mohammad while there. When he got back into the car, I asked him if he was a Muslim and he said he was. So I said, my name is Mohammad too, hoping that he’d realize that I wasn’t into his idea of a “fun time.” He was ecstatic that not only were we both Muslims, but we both had the same name!! WOW! What’re the chances of 2 Muslim guys being named Mohammed, right? It’s not like his name was Aurangzeb and he found another Aurangzeb or something. Anyways, I tried to ask him some religious oriented questions to try and steer him away from the “gurls” but nooope.

    I asked him about his family, and it came back to gurls. “Very hard here keep family, you know, too many preetti gurls. Wife get jealous, so I take my family to Ras-Al-Khaimah” That really pissed me off, cuz I was thinking, damn you’re such a pervert … you put your wife up somewhere else so you have free reign to sleep around, while she raised your 4 kids?!?!? Disgusting. Just as I was thinking this, his cell phone goes off and who else … it’s his wife. Needless to say, he gets very irritated at her and proceeds to tell me how annoying it is when she calls him late at night when he’s trying to work! I was feeling bad for her.

    We finally got to the DSF after some 25 minutes, and I was so relieved that I’d be able to get away from this guy. I dunno who told him I wanted him to tag along, but he took it upon himself to give me a tour of the place. We parked the car and he grabs my hand, and off we go. The DSF is this massive gathering of world cultures, and their various wares. Every country has a booth, ranging from Kenya to Australie, Czech Republic to Afghanistan. Everything. Not surprisingly, the best booths belonged to the Arab nations … Kuwait, KSA, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, etc. [Mohammad was Egyptian, and he took great pains to proclaim Egypt the most beautiful every year]

    In the Qatar booth, I found an artisan making these beautiful sand scenes in a bottle, where you choose an empty bottle, the pattern you want, if you want your name in there, and he creates it from different colored sand right in front of you. All that for an amazing 20 Dirhams ($5.35)!!!!!

    During the trip to DSF, Mohammad took a liking to me for some reason, and on the way out he insisted that I have a specialty tea, Karak Tea, with him. I told him I don’t drink tea, but he said “Ya Allah, no drink tea? You must drink with me!” I was about to protest further, but I remembered my Muslim manners of not declining hospitality repeatedly and consented. It was probably the worst 10 minutes my mouth has ever experienced! This sickeningly sweet and nasty tasting tea made it’s way down and I was forced to say that it was great, and thank you for introducing me to this excellent beverage. Little did I know, this would come back to bite me in the ass.

    Things started closing up around 12, and we decided to head back home. Apparently, Mohammad had some other plans. On the way back, he succintly suggests a trip to downtown, to “enjoy yourself completely, forget everything” And I said, no thanks, I’m sleepy, the hotel please. Then he goes off about how the Moroccan prostitutes are very bad, even though they are the most beautiful, and they expect you to spend some money on them, etc. I endured that, and then he asks me if I have seen belly dancing. I said yes, a few times on TV. He proceeds to tell me that he knows places where you can see the “real” thing … topless belly dancers that can move in amazing ways. This time around, I didn’t know what else to say … so I asked him how the gay scene was in Dubai to turn him from that pattern … but again, nothing. He just said “yes, veeery big” and back to the original topic.

    Finally I told him that I was really really sleepy, and I really wasn’t looking for that kind of fun, and I would really appreciate that he drop me off at the hotel. He got my drift and headed home. For whatever reason, I asked him to come again the next morning to show me around the city, and of course he obliged.

    Hopefully, the daytime will give his excitement a rest.

    Detour

    I got into Heathrow Airport at about 6:40AM and had to catch the 8:30AM flight to Dubai. Luckily, both flights were situated in the same terminal. Heathrow is a pretty weird place … it has these long winding, up and down hallways and you end up at the same exact place, just on the other side. So anyways, I make my way to the Emirates counter, and there is this Pakistani lady sitting there ready to help.

    So as I’m walking towards her, I’m expected some half-assed attempt at spoken English, but boy was I wrong. She spoke beaaaaaaaaautifully in this rich throaty, British accent. I was almost tempted to ask her to marry me right then. It’s just something about the British accent that drives you wild … it just screams sophistication.

    Getting back … I had to pay a $50 change fee, so I had to wait while an Emirates employee took my credit card and returned with it some 20 minutes later.

    All sorts of interesting people approached the counter lady, and I could clearly tell that she was really getting irritated by all the incompetent fools. For example, here is a sample exchange:

    Lady: Good morning, sir. How may I help you?
    Man: Yeah, I need to catch a flight today
    Lady: Yes sir, what flight will you be taking?
    Man: I need to go to Dubai
    Lady: OK, I need to know the flight you’re on. Can I see your passport please?
    Man: Why?
    Lady: So I can pull up your reservation
    Man: Ok
    Lady: Thank you, sir. Sir, your flight leaves at 1:45PM, you will need to come back in 3-4 hours so I can check you in.
    Man: That is too late
    Lady: Would you like me to try and put you on an earlier flight? There is one leaving at 8:30
    Man: Yes, thank you
    Lady: Sir, where is your point of origin?
    Man: Yes, you’re right!
    Lady: No, sir … where are you coming from?
    Man: Just now Dubai
    Lady: I thought you wanted to goto Dubai?
    Man: Yes, I want to goto Dubai
    Lady: Umm … so you’re coming from Dubai just now and you want to go back
    Man: Yes, yes!
    Lady: Can I see your ticket please?
    [Hands her the ticket]
    Lady: Sir, it says you’re coming from Detroit, is that correct?
    Man: No, no … I’m coming from the United States only.
    Lady: Where did your plane leave from sir?
    Man: Washington, DC
    [Lady starts to grow visibly irritated ... click click click, does her magic and he's on the 8:30 flight]
    Lady: Sir, I’ve put you on the 8:30 flight. Do you have any checked baggage?
    Man: [lifts his briefcase] Yes, only this
    Lady: No, sir. Did you hand over any baggage at the airport before you left?
    Man: No, no … this is mine
    Lady: Sir, can I please see your ticket envelope?
    [Hands her the slip with the baggage receipts on]
    Lady: Ok, so you have 2 suitcases checked in. I’m going to transfer them to this flight.
    [Stares at her with a blank face]
    Lady: [Rushing] Alright, you’re all set Mr. XXXX. Thank you for choosing Emirates.

    I heard the pre-boarding call, so I rushed to the gate and made my way to the lounge area. As the folks starting flowing in, it seriously felt like Noah’s Ark had just arrived from India. All sorts of desi folks started pouring in … from the too-cool-for-the-world crowd, to the hiked-up-saris-with-white-socks-and-sneakers, to the black-ninja-turtle ladies. All of a sudden the air started to become rancid, and the smell of hair oil permeated through the entire room.

    I was thinking how in hell the 7hrs on the flight would be!

    Unfortunately, that question had to be answered and we crammed into this ugly tapestried plane. To even get into your seat, you had to scrape your knees against the seat in front of you. We all packed in, nice and snug, with nary an inch to move and the flight started. The South Indian lady who probably used her hair as her annual supply of cooking oil was seated right behind me! She was busy yapping away with her husband, who had the rest of the world reserves in his hair.

    To drown out the noise and to distract myself, I decided to plug into the on-flight entertainment system, but the stupid jack was messed up and after having a few stewards come by to look at it, we decided to give up. To top it all off, I couldn’t even play the games on the lil TV … there was a “System Error” right as we took off. So the damn thing wouldn’t shut off, or function properly … so I’m sitting there with this screen staring at me the entire way. I had to pass my time looking at other peoples screens and trying to learn lip reading at the same time.

    Finally, after being VERY bored … I decided to bring out the re-enforcements and listen to my iPod. I was saving the battery for the evening/day stop in Dubai, but desperate times call for major sacrifices and this was mine. Some good, ambient music relaxed me and I decided to take a small nap. But no, the plane started jerking around violently and I had to concentrate in trying to keep my guts in place.

    After what seemed like eons, the PA system goes off and the pilot announces that we’re now 20 minutes from Dubai. Cabin Crew, please prepare for arrival!!!! WOOOHOOO!!! FREEDOM!!! The plane landed smoothly and after an excruciatingly long taxiing, we finally got the chance to get off.

    Dubai Shopping Festival X, here I come!

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