Friday, October 27, 2006
So, come with me as we embark on a...Journey to Nowhere.
After five days of driving thorough some of the most punishing desert in the world, we've made it safely back to Riyadh, but not without a few battle scars. The trip into the Empty Quarter was an incredible experience. I've travelled deserts before...the Sahara, the Sinai, the Mojave...and have been in some desolate and/or out of the way places before...Somalia, Bolivia...but I'm pretty sure that nothing I've experienced so far can compare to this place.
This trip had just the right amounts of fun, excitement, danger, drama, and uncertainty to be the perfect adventure... We were never at risk of making it back safely, but we did have some unexpected moments that caused us to have to change our plans significantly.
In all, we drove almost 3000 km, and went from Riyadh all the way down to within sight of the Yemen border in the far southwest part of the country. We saw huge sand dunes, rocky plains extending to the horizon, canyons, and mountains. We found Neolithic arrowheads, spearheads, scrapers, and other tools, fossils, and drove through petrified wood forests. We looked at petroglyphs that were thousands of years old. We got bogged down to our wheel hubs in the sand, had a bumper and hood bashed in by a flying shackle (mine), and ripped off a bumper (not mine) jerking a truck out of a sand dune. We got detained by the authorities, got stopped by the police at checkpoints, spent the night in the villa of a National Guard general, and overall, had an truly great time.
"Are you carrying guns? Because I don't want you going out there if you don't all have guns!" said my sweet little silver haired mother. "And shoot to kill! Don't fool around and just wing them!"
"Don't worry, Mom. We'll be fine, and we know how to take care of ourselves. We are all in the Army, you know..." I said.
"OK, then. Just be careful! I don't want to see you in an orange jumpsuit." Which is strange, because according to her, I'm a "Fall." Orange should be one of my best colors.
Day 1, 13 November 2004 Petrol and Petroglyphs
I got up at about 3:30 AM and finished loading my truck. I'd put most of the equipment in the night before...two 5 gallon cans of water, 3 boxes of bottled water, another 2 cases of 1.5 L bottles (can't have too much water, you know...), sand ladders, a shovel, tow straps and shackles, portable air compressor, first aid kit, tool box, and bunji cords all in a big plastic box. I grabbed the steaks out of the freezer, vegetables and cheese out of the fridge, and threw them into the cooler with the bottled water. Once all my gear, food, and personal stuff (sleeping bag, poncho liner, clothes, camera and lots of extra batteries) was stowed, I locked up the house and headed to pick up my buddy Ron.
We headed first for the ice machine, and loaded up the cooler, then ran quickly by the office to pound out a couple of last minute emails to our families, just in case we disappeared into the desert or were captured by Al Qaeda terrorists. Then, we linked up with the rest of our party.
There were 8 guys, 7 spare tires, 5 trucks, and 2 dogs heading out on this epic journey. We discussed briefly the general route we were to travel, and had a quick once over on the agenda for the trip. We were going to the aptly named "Triangle" area of the western edge of the Empty Quarter (near Najran on the map). We'd spend our first night on the west side, looking at petroglyphs, then move into the central part for the second night to look for stone tools from the Neolithic age and drive the dunes, then off to the eastern side of the triangle to look for fossils and more arrowheads. The fourth night, we'd drive north of the dunes and look for petrified wood and desert diamonds. Finally, on the fifth day, after a half day or so driving around the desert, we'd head back north for Riyadh.
We drove out of the front gate of the compound, and turned south. We had nearly 800 km in front of us, 10 CDs in the changer, windows down, and we were wearing sunglasses. It was going to be a great day.
The first stop was about 2.5 hours into the trip. We gassed up, and rapidly became the focus of attention because of the two Dalmatians with us. Most Arabs and Muslims don�t have much to do with dogs (kalb) because of the requirement to be clean prior to prayer. And, as we found out, a lot of them were afraid of the spotted beasts. Not that there was much to fear from these...they were mostly bark. After they warmed up to you, they were really sweet dogs.
We made 2 more stops for gas moving south. After the third stop,
we moved into the desert a few hundred meters, and deflated the tires. Traveling through sand for the next few days, it would be essential. The added surface area made driving on the sand much easier.
All of us got stuck at one time or another, though. On two occasions, we had 3 of the 5 trucks stuck at one time. We got pretty good by the end of it in extrication techniques. Fortunately, several of the guys had lots of past experience. It came in handy more often than we'd have liked.
We started heading northwest into the rocky desert. We drove first to a rock outcropping that was covered in petroglyphs. Unfortunately, it was also defiled with Arabic graffiti as well...
After scurrying around on the rocks for a while, we mounted up again to go find our campsite. After a few wrong turns, we finally ended up in the small canyon that was to be our home for the night. We checked the area out to make sure that it was going to suit our needs, then continued exploring the area. We first checked out some more petroglyphs in a small box canyon. Prior to getting there, we ran into a small camel herd...I being a sucker for camels of any sort, had to stop for pictures. This one had more of the same...camels, cows, and antelopes, mainly, but also pictures of ostriches, hyenas eating cattle, and a guy fighting a lion. It was also here that we met the mysterious screaming woman...The 8 of us guys figured she was yelling at the guy standing near her (her husband? "How many times do I have to tell you to take the dead camel parts out to the curb!?!"). We would have rendezvous with her for the next day or so...
Afterward, we drove about 25 km across the desert to go see ET, a sort of space alien looking petroglyph. This one unfortunately was in pretty bad shape from being shot at by Bedouins over the years. One particularly accurate shot was lodged in his head. We also saw the mysterious woman again, this time yelling at an ostrich.
"Stupid Ostrich! Look what you did on my nice dirt floor!" The ostrich seems to be trying to get away...
With sunset rapidly approaching, the shadows and sun made for some beautiful contrasts...We sped into the sun, bouncing all over the desert at about 90 kph. Arriving at our campsite just as it was getting dark, we set up our cots, broke out our disposable grill and fired it up. Figuring that the ice would melt long before we were done with the trip, we only packed one meal that needed cooking. The rest could be eaten cold, or in the case of our Army rations (Meals Ready to Eat � MREs), heated using the included, water activated heater.. Ron and I grilled the steaks and wrapped up some sliced onions and bell peppers in foil and threw the packages on the fire too. As supper cooked, we sat around, played with the dogs, and talked among ourselves.
Following our mostly cooked steaks, and crunchy but warm vegetables (we couldn�t wait...we were famished), we all sat around the fire, smoked cigars, and haggled about who would pull what guard shift. Since we were out there, alone and unafraid, and considering how close we were to Yemen, and the current state of the Kingdom, we deemed it prudent to keep someone up at all times to make sure we didn�t get surprised in the middle of the night. What worse way is there to wake up than with a sore throat caused by a knife sticking into it? Fortunately, other than the huge flickering shadows cast by the fire on the walls of our canyon occasionally freaking me out, and the awe of the incredibly starry night, our guard shifts passed uneventfully. The dogs proved their worth as guards as well when they�d bark incessantly any time you made the slightest noise. There was little chance we could have been surprised.
Stay tuned for Day 2!Posted by djf on November 13, 2004 12:43 PM
Category: The Magical Kingdom
The sun rose this morning to guys meandering off into the desert with shovels to take care of personal business...Everyone ate breakfast and packed up their trucks at a leisurely pace, and we finally got on the way at about 8:00 AM. We spent the morning looking for the screaming woman (and finding her in several places...frankly, we started to believe that she's something of a floozy...She really got around!!). Along the way, we found hundreds more pictures. Wherever there was a reasonably flat spot on the rock walls around us, you could be assured of finding rock art. One of the most impressive examples was of a battle between what looked like space aliens and guys on camels.
We also found what we took to be grave sites small cave-like clefts in or near the cliff faces that were blocked up by rocks. We didn�t poke around too much, each of us playing various scenes from the "Revenge of the Mummy" type movies in our heads. At one point, we did find the incongruous sight of a lonely teapot. And, on the same outcropping, petroglyphs that inspired us to call it "Party Rock."
While running around looking for our mysterious woman, we spied a far off Bedouin camp complete with camels returning home for a mid morning snack. Just beyond their small rock outcropping, another small herd was grazing on the sparse grass, and nursing their babies.
Finally, we started making our way to the next gas stop before driving off into the dunes in the center part of the triangle. From where we were, it took almost 45 minutes to get there, driving over alternating sandy and rocky terrain. We were sidetracked by a couple of blind canyons before we found the right way out of the rocky canyonlands and were able to track using our global positioning devices (GPS) over to our next petrol station. The Bangladeshi attendants were sort of surprised to see 8 white guys drive out of the desert. In fact, that seemed to be the usual reaction...But, they were friendly guys, and after we fueled up, bought a few Cokes and bottles of water and an �oblong cake� or two, we drove out of the station, and headed East.
The sand dunes came up rapidly, and before you knew it, we were deep in the heart of a huge dune field rolling for as far as the eye could see. We spent the next few hours driving up one side of the dunes and down the other. We stopped at several flint fields along the way to look for arrowheads and other stone tools. I was fortunate enough to find several during the stops, including one that was simply perfectly crafted. Black flint, about an inch and a half long, it looks like the quintessential arrowhead. I also found several larger, but broken points, and various scrapers and other tools, and a whole lot of chips that were just discarded. It was really an interesting experience to hold these beautifully crafted and very ancient tools, and try to imagine what it must have been like thousands of years before when they were originally made. Saudi Arabia was a fertile area, filled with trees, animals, people, and even inland seas. Quite different than now...
Every time we�d cross a field of rocks, we�d stop and look for arrowheads and stuff. Basically, the best way proved to orient yourself into the sun and walk slowly, scanning the ground ahead of you. Flint reflects light pretty well, and would shine. When you found something, you�d often find more in the immediate area. Most of the time it was just shards from the process, but occasionally you'd get lucky and actually find something worth picking up. We also found petrified ostrich shells out there, and fossilized coral and reeds. It got to the point where every time we stopped driving, we�d get out, and start picking up rocks. I found myself doing it again after I got home, even though all that is around my house is just gravel...not nearly as exciting.
As we drove around, up and down the dunes, a few of us got stuck in the sand, but we were all able to get recovered with minor effort by using one vehicle to tow us out. At times, watching the vehicle in front of us tip over the edge of a dune, and seeing more of its undercarriage than anything else until it disappears down the reverse slope was like seeing the desert swallow them whole. Later on that afternoon, the desert did its best to do it for real.
There�s a feeling you get when you�re standing there looking the huge dent in your formerly pristine, shiny bumper, and the now bashed-in hood that probably saved your windshield and face from being smushed in by the flying metal shackle... it�s sort of a feeling of, �Whoa...that was close...I need a drink.� Of course, this being Saudi Arabia, and being way out in the desert, you just have to settle for a tepid bottle of water instead of something stronger.
We�d been driving steadily for several hours when Don, our leader, got high centered on a sand ridge. This was fortunate, since the angle at which he was moving possibly would have caused him to roll his truck had he managed to actually get over the edge. We moved a vehicle close to his truck, and began the now familiar routine of hooking up two nylon tow straps together to attempt to pull him out of the softer sand to better purchase.
Don began to slowly spin his wheels in reverse as Gary, the driver of the towing truck, gathered up the slack of the tow strap and jerked Don�s truck. There was a bit of movement, and then the second truck also bogged down. Since the strap was at full stretch, the two straps couldn�t be removed. So, now we had to move another truck into position to try to jerk the first two out. George carefully maneuvered his truck in front of the two; we hooked up two more straps, arranged them so they would pay out without getting caught up in the axle, and George made his attempt. He too jerked hard, and abruptly stopped. Fortunately, he was able to back up a bit, to unhook, and was able to extricate himself from the sand before he got too badly bogged.
Next, it was my turn to pull. I drove up and stopped just in front of the second truck. We hooked the loop of the closest strap to one of the tow hooks on the frame of my truck. I then got back in, shifted into 4 Low, and radioed that I was ready. Upon �Ready� from the other guys, I started to move. I stomped on the accelerator, and took off across the sand. There was a hard jerk, and then I abruptly sped up. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that I was no longer connected to the other vehicles, but they were still stuck. As I tried to pull around again to the same place, I got bogged down wheel hub deep as well. I tried to rock it back and forth, but just dug myself in deeper. Unable to go any farther, I got out and checked things...I wasn�t going anywhere anytime soon. Plus, the strap had bent the tow hook to the point where it was unusable. In addition to the damage to the hook, the strap and shackle had flew back and smashed in the grill of the truck I was trying to pull out, just missing ruining the radiator.
With three trucks now immobile, and one that narrowly escaped getting mired, we moved the fifth and final truck into position...This time, the straps held, the hooks didn�t break, and the trucks lurched free from their sand traps.
Once on more solid (relatively speaking) ground, the trucks were unhooked; then, Don moved in front of my truck to begin the extrication process. Hooking up to one of the two front tow hooks, he radioed to make sure I was ready. I began to spin the tires, and braced for the jerk. With a huge jolt, the straps tightened, and then were towed wildly behind Don�s truck. He sped off, maintaining momentum to try not to get stuck again. He turned around, and got back into position while we figured out what happened. The cast metal hook on the front of the truck was snapped cleanly off. The next fifteen minutes or so were spent assessing the best way to get the truck out. Finally, a short tow strap was looped through part of the frame, and connected to the main series of straps (several were being used end to end to allow for stand-off distance from the soft sand). Then, we settled in to try again.
The engine revved, and I once again braced myself for the sudden jerk that hopefully this time would pull me out of my sandy grave. There was a mighty yank and forward movement out of hole I�d dug for myself, but also the loud �BANG - CRUNCH� sound of metal hitting metal...the tow strap had broken, and the steel shackle flew back and smashed the front of my truck.
It�s amazing how fast your body reacts to threats. I vaguely remember flinching, but it was a totally visceral response. There�s no way I could have consciously reacted that fast.
Once on some solid sand, I stopped the truck, and got out. Walking to the front, I noticed a big dent in the steel bumper, and another in the hood, where it was crumpled and gashed by the flying shackle. If it had been just two inches higher in its flight, it would have smashed through the windshield, and likely into my face. That would probably have put a damper on the trip...Nothing like a head wound when you�re hundreds of miles from a good hospital to spoil a good time. We did have a medical kit with us, and it actually got used for some minor burns later on, but there�s not much you can do for brain injuries...
Once we�d sort of collected and stowed all of the gear, and I�d put on a new pair of pants (not really), we mounted up, and headed on our way. We were rapidly running out of daylight to make our campsite, still several kilometers away beyond the dune fields.
We found the gap between two mesa-like hills, and drove into it. Don, expecting our campsite at its last known location was surprised to find it had been totally removed. Thousands of cubic meters of dirt was simply gone, removed for who knows what reason. And this way the heck out in the middle of nowhere.
We drove on for a few more minutes and finally found a campsite at the far end of a small, sandy defile. Surrounded on three sides by steep sand hills ascending to flat tops, we settled in for the night. The fire was lit, we all broke out our food, and cooked, ate and socialized. Guard shifts came and went quietly (other than the dogs barking at us when we changed guards) with no molestation by any Bedouins, MOI police, or gentlemen bearing orange jumpsuits as gifts.
Posted by djf on November 14, 2004 10:25 AM
Category: The Magical Kingdom
First thing this morning, I learned a valuable lesson: When taking care of business on the side of a hill, be very careful where you place your roll of toilet paper. It was a helpless feeling that I had as I squatted uncomfortably with my pants around my ankles, and vainly tried to reach the rapidly moving roll with the shovel. It finally came to rest lodged in some rocks about 30 meters down the hill. Fortunately, I didn�t have to resort to the Bedouin method of a handful of sand...and may God bless whoever invented wet-wipes. What could have been really bad just turned into a funny (at least to me) anecdote.
At the top of the hill was the last resting place of a camel. I noticed it as I was wandering around up there, taking pictures...The rock surface was strange...sort of rippled and eroded.
The morning progressed normally, and breaking fast and breaking camp was accomplished by about 7:30 AM. As people got packed, a few folks wandered looking for more tools and points. Just walking along and looking down, I found two excellent ones. We hopped in the trucks, fired them up and drove for about 15 minutes to another flint field, this one several square kilometers in size. We poked around there for a good hour or so, and other than a few lucky individuals (not me), mostly came up with just a few handfuls of worthless rocks. I found one that was ergonomically shaped to be a skull crusher, but to my knowledge, it was never used as such...it just seemed like it would have worked well as one.
Ron and I drove over to a small hilltop, and climbed up to get a look around. There was a dead, dessicated bird on a piece of wood, so I stopped to make a few artistic, depressing, �dead bird� shots...I think they capture a sense of loss and angst (that I don�t really have in my life, but it felt very artsy...) or something like that. It made me want to go to a beat poetry reading...but I digress. At the top of the hill, there was what appeared to be another burial mound, but we didn�t mess with that one either...
Finally, we started reassembling at the far end of the valley. We drove to the top of a small hill that marked the end of the valley. It had pretty dramatic views of the dunes and the road leading off into nowhere. After a couple of group pictures, we headed down the road for a while, and then turned east across the desert. We went from dunes to sandy tracks, to razor sharp flinty ground. At one point, we passed a Bedouin camp complete with camels and the Saudi Arabian National Dog, the Saluki.
We finally stopped at an elevated position that allowed us to see for miles. After resting a few minutes, we headed off for �the Grove,� a small collection of scrubby acacia trees. It took a little longer to get there than we anticipated, because of a minor recovery mission we needed to do. Don, who was always leading the way from place to place, was also usually the first one to get stuck in a bad patch. After yanking him out of a dune, and negotiating a rather steep but short one, we moved on to the Grove. We hung out there for a little while, and let the dogs run around. Then, we moved on to our next gas stop.
It took about an hour or so to finally reach the station on the East side of the triangle. We made good time across relatively solid ground. A few of the guys made better time than us, and we lost sight of their trucks, but were able to stay on course by following their dust clouds. Finally, we spied in the distance a radio tower that marked the vicinity of our next gas stop. We�d fuel up there, and then head off to the east part of the triangle to look for more stone tools and try to get stuck in more dunes. Little did we know we were about to have a change in plans...
�Salaam aleikum! Shlonakh?� the Sudanese station attendant asked me...
�Wa�aleikum Salaam! Al Hamdullilah! Eid Mubarak, sedik!� I replied.
He was a pretty friendly guy. True to form, the guy working the pumps was not a Saudi. He finished filling my tank, and I paid him. It was 46 riyals, and I gave him a 50 and told him I needed no change. That made his day...Those guys make on average about 2-300 riyals per month, which works out to about $50-75 US. Not a whole lot. Four rips (slang for riyals) is a decent contribution to his bottom line.
When done, we moved our trucks over and parked while we shopped for snacks and drinks. This particular place was like a mini Wal-Mart...it had a little bit of everything. Except shoes. There were hundreds of what looked like vinyl shoes. I�m pretty sure that those would be very uncomfortable when the mercury rises to 50+ degrees Celsius (over 120 Farenheit). Still, it�s nice to know that, for all your vinyl shoe needs, it�s just a short 900 km ride away. For me, that is...
One interesting thing at the gas station was the feeling of being Out There...I mean, there were guys there with guns and knives looking like they just stepped out of Lawrence of Arabia or something...They almost looked like they were there for the express purpose of tourists photographs. Except that no tourists come here. And the guns were loaded. And the knives were sharp. But, in spite of their ferocious appearance, they were really pretty nice guys. Friendly, inquisitive, wondering what the hell a bunch of gringos were doing way out here.
As it turns out, they were members of the fowj or mujehedin, the irregular, reserve-like force that the military and police here have to augment in areas where they don�t have enough regular troops. They are a remnant of the Ikhwan, or Brotherhood, that rode with King Abdul Aziz when he unified the country. Membership is passed from father to son, and we were about to make the acquaintance of the Emir of the region...
�Where are you from�, the MOI Fowj member asked. �And what are you doing here?�
�We�re down from Riyadh, and are camping aound the Triangle for a few days,� said George.
�No you�re not...Come with me,� Fowj guy replied. DUHN DUHN DUUHHHHHNNN!! (musical soundtrack with sinister, suspenseful music...) Since the fellow was carrying an AK-47, George thought it best to comply. He hopped in the man�s Toyota Land Cruiser, pausing briefly to move the rifle out of the way...not something you want to sit on, you know...and they drove the half kilometer to the local Fowj headquarters.
Steve noticed he was missing, and tracked him down to the small, cinderblock building where George was using his decent Arabic skills to try to figure out what was going on. Don also joined them, and eventually, we all were gathered outside the fence of the small compound, waiting to find out what was going to happen.
After about an hour, George emerged with a somewhat concerned look on his face. It seemed that the letter that was supposed to be forwarded down to the region giving us permission to camp never made it. The Fowj commander was concerned that it was too dangerous for us to go out in the desert and wasn�t going to let us go. In the meantime, until he made a decision, we weren�t allowed to leave either. We decided to bring in the big guns, and call a General that we worked with, who lived in Najran, the provincial capital for the region. He said he�d do what he could, but if, in the end, we weren�t going to be allowed to go, to just come to his house and stay there. At least we had some options.
We sat for a while, waiting for the Emir to make his decision. The building we were hanging out in seemed to be a cement block version of a Bedouin tent. It had carpets on the floor, a central fire pit with some pots of ghawa and chai, and some cushions around the walls to recline on. It also was designed to be as comfortable as possible. Considering the extreme summer heat, the building had several windows allowing for cross-breezes, gaps between the tops of the walls and the sloped roof, which was lined with insulation. As we sat, we exchanged small talk with the Emir and his men, and tried to convince the youngest fellow in there to go out and pet Don�s dogs. He wasn�t having anything to do with them (until later, when he went out and kicked sand at them).
Finally, after about three hours of friendly detention, the Emir got the call from his boss. The verdict? We could go anywhere we wanted, as long as we never left the pavement. Well, that pretty much ruled out going into the desert and resuming our trip as originally planned, so we opted to call the General, and take him up on his offer of a night at his farm. Steve called him up, explained again our situation, and reiterated the fact that there were eight of us, and two dogs. The General said, mafi mushkhela, and to come on over.
Since we were now going to be traveling on pavement again, we spent about an hour airing up our tires using the gas station air hoses and our own car-battery powered air compressors. While airing up the tires, the Emir and his driver sat in their Land Cruiser and watched us. Finally, the photographer in me took over, and I asked him if I could take a picture with him.
We snapped a couple, and then he asked for a set of binoculars. George had a cheap set, and gave them to him as a gift. We had already given he and his men several Army rations, MREs, and a few Cokes as a thank you gesture for his hospitality. He truly seemed to be concerned about his ability to ensure our safety out there. Keep in mind, at this point in the trip, we were around 50 km from Yemen. The area has problems with drug and arms smugglers, terrorists, and bandits, so his fears were probably justified.
After airing up the tires, we started out, heading south. The Emir followed us in his truck, and as we picked up speed, we left him behind. Traveling at almost 160 kph, we were trying to make up some distance and get to Najran before it got too dark. It was more than 300km away from where we had been in negotiations with the Emir, and, with random camel sightings, and the typical way that locals drive, it�s just not safe to be out after dark on the desert roads. Getting back to civilization as quickly as possible was imperative.
Looking in my rear view mirror at one point, I saw the Emir�s truck apparently gaining on us. Finally, he was right on Steve�s bumper, passing him and gaining on me. As he passed us, I looked down at my speedometer...160 kph...and looked over at him. His truck was going at least 180 kph, and he was leaning out the window, AK-47 in one hand, waving wildly with the other, and a big smile on his face. He sped to the front of the line, and kept going.
As we drove, we were constantly going up and down steep hills. We did slow to pass a camel truck. Ron and I lingered for a few minutes behind it, though, and took several pictures. There were four mama camels and three babies. Steve called us on the radio and asked if anything was wrong...Ron said, �Wrong? What could be more right with the world than seeing baby camels?!?� Especially when one of them appeared to be sleeping as he rode along. I�ll say it again...I�m not sure there�s anything cuter than baby camels...
About 15 minutes later, we reached a �T� intersection, where we paused for a few minutes. We were going to be handed off to the next set of security people, and the Emir had to do some coordination. While waiting there, we noticed another fowj truck with a covered .50 caliber machine gun (the famous �Ma Deuce�) on the back. This was to be part of our escort for the next 100 km or so. While sitting there, the camels drove by, and the Emir made his rounds shaking our hands. Finally, we were on our way again...this time (initially) at an excruciatingly slow 90 kph. As it was now past 4 PM, the sun was rapidly waning in the sky. Sunset was to be at 5:19, according to the GPS, and we still had a pretty long way to go.
For the next couple of hours, we were subsequently handed off to different MOI and Fowj units. Despite our initial rate of travel, we were able to speed up and make pretty good time. A few times, we lost the Fowj trucks following us, but we were always picked up somewhere down the road. We were stopped a couple of times by checkpoints, mainly to allow our minders to catch up or to hand us off to another set. As we drove, we had a great view of the sun setting over the mountains of Yemen. It was one of the most dramatic sunsets I�ve seen, albeit through a windshield at a high rate of speed.
Just before Najran, at the checkpoint regulating traffic into the city, Don was stopped and hassled for a while about his registration. While he attempted without much headway to sort things out, we hung out on the side of the road waiting for him to get done. Finally, when he mentioned that he had to call the General, they said mafi mushkhela, and let us proceed.
Finally, we drove into Najran. It was dark now, and as we drove into the city, we couldn�t help but notice the sheer numbers of police. They were everywhere...literally, there was a police car or motorcycle on every street corner, and one policeman every 100 feet or so. Having had police escort the whole way in, we were honored that our arrival was considered so important that they had a police cordon all the way in. Ron and I smiled and waved, and were rewarded with confused looks. As it turns out, the police weren�t for us. Some prince was arriving later, and the hubbub was for him.
Finally, we linked up with the General�s son and he led us to the family compound. Upon bringing all the vehicles inside the wall, the General welcomed us, introduced us to his sons, brother, and cousin, and ushered us into the reception villa. Probably 3000 square feet, the villa had several reception rooms, and washing up facilities. He gave a quick tour...the Arab style rooms with cushions on the floor, the women�s reception room, the ghawa and chai room with central fire pit, and a huge room with overstuffed, borderline gaudy chairs. We all entered this room, and sat for a while, making introductions and some small talk. Finally, he brought us over to his main house, and we sat for a while, drank ghawa and chai, ate some hot, sweet vermicelli, dates, and strangely, Japanese rice crackers. While we sat the General�s grandson made the rounds with a photo of a painting of the General�s grandfather, who was the one who negotiated with King Abdul Aziz to bring Najran into the Kingdom. He definitely looked every bit the weathered, tough desert warrior that he was.
The General also gave us a history lesson of the Najran city and region. For a brief overview of the city, see the following URL: http://www.alnokhba.com/saudi-arabia/cities-information-najran.htm. Also, see http://saudiembassy.net/Publications/MagFall99/Najran.htm for an interesting narrative and pictorial by the Saudi Embassy. At one point, there were many Jews who lived in the city, but they either emigrated from the area or were converted to Islam.
The General took us on a bottom to top tour of his beautiful, well appointed home, and once complete, we took our leave until the next day, and his son led us to his family farm. We left the compound, and drove through Najran. At one point, we turned onto a dark, dirt road. Here, we noticed that a small, white sedan with two men in it fell in behind us. The road turned out to be the wrong road, and led past a royal residence. Not realizing it, we continued on until it became apparent that the road was not the right one. We turned around, and continued back up the road. The white car followed.
As we got back up toward the big shot�s house, we were stopped by MOI, and soon, there were four trucks there in response to our presence. The General�s son convinced them that we were simply lost, and they let us go through. We also told the MOI guys about the men following us, and they stopped them briefly to question them. Not for long, though, as the car soon fell right back in behind.
Upon finding the right turn, we stopped, and Don, Steve and the General�s son went back to confront the guys following us. I pointed my truck at the car and turned on the high beams to give them some light to talk by. Turns out they were not terrorists, but security guys that the General had detailed to shadow us. We called the General, and he was more embarrassed that we�d discovered them than anything...frankly, they were much too obvious in their attention. Living here has made us all a bit more aware of who�s paying attention to us. But even without our heightened awareness, these guys would have been detected. Still, it was nice to know that someone was looking out for us.
Finally, we got to the farm villa. The General was concerned that we might not like it, since it didn�t really have any furniture to speak of. Just one room had some couches. The rest of the rooms just had cushions...it was a very Arab house. But, it was comfortable, had a pool, and was surrounded by lemon trees. The General had arranged for our supper, and within minutes of arriving, his son set out huge platters of rice and lamb, called �capsa� were laid out on carpets. We all squatted or reclined around the plates and dug in. When eating capsa, there are no utensils...you just reach into the area in front of you, rip off a hunk of meat, grab a handful of rice, squeeze it into a ball, and shovel it into your mouth with your thumb. For us westerners, it�s usually a messy affair. Guys who have been doing it all their lives can do it without spilling a grain of rice. Usually, in other, family settings, the men eat first. Then the leftovers get passed to the women and children. Whatever is left over goes to the servants. Despite our best efforts, the two guys that live on the farm and take care of it should have eaten very well. For us, it absolutely hit the spot.
We sat for a while by the pool on carpets, and just before we started to retire, the General came by to make sure all was well. We had the hardest time convincing him that the accommodations were more than kweiss (good). We�d been sleeping in the desert the past two nights, and now were at a luxury villa with carpets, and cushions, and hot water, and flush toilets, and absolutely no chance that your toilet paper will roll down the side of a rocky hill well out of reach. He was also concerned that we felt secure enough...again, we were fine with that as well. We had no guard shifts to pull, as there were two guys outside the gate with guns solely to protect us.
As we all settled into different rooms, we laid out cushions to sleep on, and broke out the sleeping bags. I drifted off to sleep chuckling to myself at the way things had turned out. What an amazing and incredibly strange day.Posted by djf on November 15, 2004 01:07 PM
Category: The Magical Kingdom
Day 4, 16 November 2004 - City Tours and Evading the Authorities
Everyone started getting up around six or so, and shuttling to the bathroom for business, or the kitchen for coffee. The General�s sons had left an assortment of bread and jam for us to breakfast on, so we all fixed ourselves something while we packed up and waited for the General to come by. IN the meantime, my camera battery gave out, and I had to scrounge for a few more, and content myself by taking pictures with my actual film camera...haven't done that in a while.
Around eight, The General and his oldest son arrived, and we set out for a personalized tour of the city. As we drove around, Steve used his radio to broadcast information about what we were seeing, as told him by the General.
Our first stop was at the market for some shopping. Najran isn�t much of a tourist town, and while there was a bit of tourist kitsch, mostly the market was full of normal, every day stuff that people use, like pots and pans. At one time, we did witness a goat in the back of a truck getting ready to use an ATM, but I�m not sure how much he took out. While waiting for everyone to make their purchases, I noticed an old man just staring at the 2 dogs...he appeared stunned by their appearance and that anyone would actually let them sit an a vehicle.
After some shopping, we went to visit the old (sort of) fort in the center of town. It was patterned after the typical sort of mud structures that dot the landscape in the southern part of Arabia. It was actually constructed as the first Saudi Arabian government building around an existing pre-Islamic well. It was a study in color contrasts, and one of the most photogenic places we�d seen so far on the trip. And that�s frankly saying a lot...this trip has been a photographer�s dream in a lot of ways.
Just across the street from the fort, there was an old mud brick building that was the old hospital. The General got his first shots there as a child, and it was still around. No longer the hospital though.
The tour around the fort was an interesting glimpse into the life of the regional governor when he still lived there. The gates entering into the building were something out of Biblical times. The niches carved into the wall conjured visions of the tribal elders sitting there to screen who would get in to see the big man. Not sure if it really happened that way, but it seemed right...There were a number of different rooms for receiving guests, decorated in the Arab style with carpets and cushions on the floor. There were rooms for cooking coffee, a shower room, and all around, beautifully carved doors and hand made stained glass windows. In one of the darker rooms, a few bats were snoozing...flying mice.
After an hour or so of touring the fort, we headed on over to the knife souk. The day before, we saw some of the Bedouin guys with these wicked looking knives, and the General took us over to where they were being made and sold. Like most souks in the Middle East, it was like stepping back in time a few hundred years. These were the real deal...sharp, hand made, and not just for show. These were actually knives that you could buy and cut things with. Not just bruise someone.
Just around the corner was the goat skin bag maker. You could buy your very own goatskin with a faucet on it.
We spent about an hour at the souk, and injected several thousand riyals into the local knife making economy (hey, we�re a bunch of guys...we like knives!) before getting some gas, and heading to the hotel that the General�s cousin was building. Actually, it was being renovated, and looked like it was going to be quite nice.
The weird thing was that this hotel was an active construction site, and we just wandered all over it. We walked to the top of the stairs, careful not to fall out of the building once we reached the top. This place was a stark contrast to how buildings are built in the US. Nobody wore eye protection, helmets, back supports...there were tools and piles of rubble all over the place, and a big hole in the wall on the top floor, easily 200 feet above the street. Absolutely amazing...all we could think was, �what would OSHA say?� Still, not our country, so not our issue...it works for them. Plus, it was cool to go up and look at the view of the city. You could see the contrasts of the old, mud brick buildings and the modern, luxurious villa estates of the town, and the mountains of Yemen beyond.
Mosque in downtown
Finally, we had to take our leave...we still had several hundred kilometers to go north before we would be able to stop for the night. We needed to get north of As Sulayyil before it got dark. Along the way, we kept encountering our old friends, the MOI, including a checkpoint that threatened to keep us in Najran another night. The officers at perimeter of the city spent about 30 minutes copying our information, checking registrations, passports, and ID cards before finally letting us go on our way.
We passed many more MOI officers on the road north, but none followed us like they had the day prior. Finally, when we reached As Sulayyil, and negotiated the obstacle belt of the competing construction and idiot drivers there, and emerged safely on the other side, we turned off the road to find a place to camp for the night. After a couple of kilometers, we ducked behind a small group of hills that shielded us from view from drivers on the road. As we moved in, and set up camp, Ron and I went to the top of one of the hills to scan for anyone that might be following us. We figured that MOI was still waiting for us to pass checkpoints at certain times, and we had told them that we were headed for Riyadh, so we half expected someone to come looking for us. Since it was dusk, we figured that we should at least post a guard on the military crest of the hill until it got dark, and we were sure no one was following us. As I sat up there, I had a brief moment of unease when I noticed some headlights turn and start bouncing across the desert toward us. Fortunately, they were on the other side of the main road, and when the truck reached the highway, it turned and sped off toward town.
Once it was good and dark, we brought in the pickets, and started cooking supper. Since it was the last night, everyone chipped in what they had and consolidated the food to get rid of it. We ate well, and then sat around the fire until people started drifting off to go to sleep. The guard roster was decided on, and each shift came and went with no more than minor growls and gruffs from the dogs. No one came and bothered us at all...
Category: The Magical Kingdom
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
When morning came, we once again began the familiar routine, though with the prospects of porcelain in our future, the amblings off into the desert with shovels were non-existent. I popped up on the hill to get a quick look around and a few pictures of the sunrise, while Ron stood around the fire in his big bedouin coat. All the remaining eggs and potatoes and contraband bacon came out and we ate nearly everything that was left to eat. As we loaded up the trucks and got ready to go, we burned our trash and the leftover wood in the fire rather than spread it around the landscape (though that would have been the truly Saudi thing to do...absolutely amazing how much trash is out here. I think the plastic bag is the national bird, you can see so many of them flying around on the wind.) as is so often seen. At this point some Bedouin guy walked up, who looked remarkably like me. Could have been my brother...George caught a picture of him trying to buy a camera from Ron. Steve began to exhibit some disturbing signs of homesickness by shuffling around in a bathrobe (housecoat, as he called it...though there was no sign of a house.)
Finally, we mounted up and began driving back to the main road. This being Saudi Arabia, we had to take extra care dodging the traffic as we merged back onto the highway. We drove about an hour north before heading off into the desert to go to the petrified wood forest. Initially, we drove across a rocky plain, periodically crossed by vehicle tracks. Then, we transitioned into some low dunes, and we soon encountered a familiar situation...Don getting stuck. Like a well oiled machine, Gary and Larry moved in to try to pull him out while the rest of us stood by on semi-solid ground. After one try, Gary was also stuck. I drove around via a shallow wadi to get in position to recover Gary�s truck, and backed up to about 5 truck lengths from the front of it. We connected about 6 towstraps together, and attached them to the vehicles. This towing episode went smoothly, with Gary�s truck easily pulled free in only one try. After that, we hooked up Steve�s truck to Don, and attempted the pull. Though the trucks were offset slightly, the try was successful, but resulted in Steve getting bogged down. John positioned himself in front of Steve�s truck, hooked up, and revved the engine. As he moved forward rapidly, there was a jerk, a bang, and his truck drove rapidly off, with the bumper bent out at a severe angle from the truck. Steve was freed, but now we had the added detail of a bumper that wouldn�t bump anything.
We all congregated on a rocky knoll and surveyed the damage. The bumper was completely ripped off the left part of the frame. On the right, it was bent out at about a 45 degree angle. Since John couldn�t very well go driving around like that, we decided that it needed to come off. So, out came the toolboxes, and the more mechanical of the group started wrenching out the remaining bolts holding the bumper on to the truck. The rest of us aired up our tires, and took turns holding on to the bumper up so it wouldn�t fall off and crunch on the guys lying underneath.
Finally, we got the bumper off the truck, abandoned it in the sand, and finished getting everyone aired up and ready to go on.
We continued on to find the petrified wood field, backtracking a bit to ensure we got past the field of low dunes. These weren�t like the larger ones we�d been in a few days before, and would have been a pain in the butt to try to get through, even though they were only about a mile deep. It was easier to just go around them. Strangely, we passed some agricultural areas, including a couple of guys on a tractor plowing up plumes of dust. We drove for almost 45 minutes across varying soft and hardpacked sand before arriving at the petrified forest. It was hard to tell that it was actually a forest, as it was just a few piles of petrified wood spread over several hundred square meters. A few of the guys went to work on a log that was about 4 feet long, digging it up for one of the few wives remaining in country. It would look great in her garden later on... Having gathered a couple of small pieces, Ron and I wandered on about 2-3 km farther out, to scout around and see what else was there. Most of the small groves of trees (non-petrified) had signs of Bedouin visits, trash, cartridges from AK-47s, and the occasional petrified camel poops.
[FLASHBACK...I remember riding a camel in the Moroccan Sahara, following along behind a long line of camels...As they walk up and down the dunes, occasionally, camels have to well, go, shall we say...and when they do, it comes out, and just rolls down the dunes...fascinating...le merde qui roule became quite amusing to us...Sorry about that. All done flashing back, and we will now return to our program.]
Finally, the excavation of the tree was complete, the vehicles were re-loaded, and we headed on for the next gas stop, becoming more important, since we all were approaching a quarter full tank. Don started following a bearing that would lead us to the next gas stop, and we started driving. At one place, the earth got billiard table flat, and extended for as far as you could see, which was good, since Don and the 2 trucks in front of us soon left us behind. I figured, as long as we could see them, or at least see their dust, we were ok. Plus, I had the same bearing in my GPS, and figured eventually, we�d hit the main road. Also, once we got to the road, we would be back into an area covered by the mobile phone service.
Eventually, in spite of driving about 90 kmph across the desert, we lost sight of them and their dust. At this point, we just followed tracks, and tried to make up time. At one point, though, we lost sight of Steve and George behind us, and had to slow down and let them catch up. You never want to travel alone in the desert...it�s just bad policy. Finally, we ended up right at the next gas stop, where we discovered that they had no gas. Hmmm. OK. Well, onwards then to the next place. When we got there we filled up, and witnessed one of the youngest drivers I've ever seen. You see, here, because they don't let women drive (or vote, or go out by themselves) it's not uncommon to see boys of 12 or so driving their moms around. I've been passed on the roads often by kids. This kid hopped in the truck, and started to back up, nearly running over his brother. Just when we thought he was going to drive away, his dad came out, and got in the driver's side. Sitll, the kid couldn't have been more than 8 or 9 by the looks of it.
Finally, we began the long trek back to Riyadh. Other than a few close calls due to idiot drivers, we all got back safely. We also got to see more camels, and the incredible sight of lush, green agricultural land in a truly desert country.
By the time we got back, it was nearing sundown. We came through the gate, drawing considerable attention due to the condition of the vehicles...my hood held down by bungee cords, a bashed in grill, and a bumperless Yukon as well. Three of the five vehicles sustained fairly significant damage, but we all returned. There was a bit of celebrity status, though, as we were the guys who went to the Empty Quarter and got detained. Between that and the trucks limping home with cool looking battle scars, it had been an awesome experience.
Since I�m an Army guy, it�s customary to evaluate any sort of exercise and have an �after action review.� This is no different. Here are some of the lessons learned from the trip...
1. Take no fewer than 4 trucks for a desert trip, but no more than 6 (it gets pretty crowded).
2. Get a better cooler...My cooler wasn�t bad, but the ice was pretty much melted by the time we got back. It was not acceptable for storage of anything really perishable (i.e., meat), which meant that all through the trip, the other guys were grilling steaks, while our steak night was the first night, and after that, it was MREs and cup-a-soups supplemented by fruit, cheese, and peanut butter sandwiches.
3. Pre-combat inspections of equipment: The strap that broke and smashed back into my truck was about 3 years old, and should have been retired.
4. Bring additional ziplock bags and/or resealable containers to put your rocks and arrow heads in when you find them.
Overall, it was a great trip. Certainly, it was the most fun I�ve had on a short international trip since the infamous, �Dave�s Hardship Holy-Land Tour,� Thanksgiving �94, perhaps a subject for another entry at another time...
The next trip is our anniversary cruise to Tahiti, and then it will be back to KSA. We�ll probably think up a trip to do over the Hajj Eid break in January. I may be a trip leader for a Cairo trip, but if there aren�t enough people, then we may drive to UAE or Oman. We�ll see, and it�ll be blogged about here...
Posted by djf on November 17, 2004 11:52 AM
***Thanks to Ron and George (the bartering) for the use of a few of their pictures, especially those taken by Ron while I was driving (the kid, the hills, the green, the camels)...To them goes the credit.
Category: The Magical Kingdom
Monday, October 23, 2006
I figured that between a 10 day Carribean cruise for our honeymoon, and a 10 day Tahiti cruise for our first anniversary, I've invested enough capital to get Melody to go on something a little more rustic, and a little more like I traveled before getting married when I would strike off to parts unknown, with a loose plan, a light pack, and enough money to last for a few weeks.
The trip is an overland trip...think backpacking and taking local transport, and you'll be right on. While it involves meeting up with a bunch of strangers and then traveling for an extended period of time together, it's a little different than the one I took in 1999 to Morocco, as there's no dedicated vehicle that we'll all ride around in. Instead, it's all buses, trucks and boats. No tuxedos, champagne and Lobster Thermidor this time. Just bugs, backpacks, and boats. Of course, we will be staying at the Raffles The Plaza in Singapore on the way back...as a reward for Melody's willingness to try this out.
For some pictures of the trip by a guy works for the company (Imaginative Traveller) and who did the same trip, click here. It's the "Majestic Angkor" trip by Imaginative Traveller.
The trip starts in Bangkok, Thailand, goes on to spend a few days in Cambodia at Angkor Wat, then on to Phnom Penh, and finally on to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. After that, Melody and I will fly to Singapore for a few days of "R&R" in a bit less rustic setting before coming home to Japan. Another plus is that our good friend Lori will be coming on the trip with us.
I've been delaying talking about the trip, as it originates in Thailand, and, with the coup and all, I didn't really want to worry people. Also, I guess I didn't want to say too much too early, lest something happen to keep the trip from coming off. That almost happened with the coup, as the Army decided that it's not safe for us to go there on leave. Since the trip starts in Bangkok, it was almost derailed.
Allow me a brief rant, if I may...
Here I am, 15 years (over 20 if you count the West Point and National Guard time) in the "management of violence" career field, and it's "too dangerous" to go someplace that the Navy and the Air Force think that it's OK to visit. I mean, come on! If the Air Force is letting their people go (and everyone knows what a bunch of weenies (no disrespect intended...just good natured service rivalry) those guys are...), why not the Green Machine, the US Army? Sheesh...
Anyhow, as I alluded to above, the trip almost didn't go. In order for us to go on leave overseas, we have to put together a rather large packet of paperwork. Leave form, a memorandum requesting overseas leave, official messages to embassies, and a detailed force protection plan with such information as where you're going, how you'll get there, how you'll get around while there, where the embassies are, where the nearest hospital is, how to call the police...my whole packet is about 30 pages long.
So, by the time I finish all that, there's a coup in Thailand. Something that happens with surprising regularity there, but without the bloodshed (usually) that normally accompanies such transitions of power. But, in spite of that fact, and the fact that our tour is going on as normal, they (yes, the proverbial they) decided that it's too dangerous to go, and throwing a wrench into my plans (though, ironically, not Melody's). At the last minute, just before going on TDY to Osaka a couple of weeks ago, I had to go over to the travel agent and change all of our flight plans so that I wouldn't go through Thailand. So, Lori and Melody will go and join our group in Bangkok, and I will fly to Singapore, and then on to Cambodia to meet them there a day or so into the trip.
It was just a bit frustrating, but will ultimately work out for the best (I guess...). I'll spend a day in Singapore and will be able to get a feel for the place before coming back there withe Melody later on.
So, hopefully all will go well, and nothing will fall through and keep us from going...we've got a lot invested in it so far, so I think we're pretty much good to go (knocking on wood...). Only about 2 weeks and we'll be headed out.
Wish us luck, and we'll be posting photos as soon as possible after the trip's complete (and maybe during as well, depending on internet access).
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Last night, I had a chance to spend time with another family, that of a young officer that I sponsored a few months ago. He lives here in the town where we're working, and he invited me out to meet his wife and kids. We headed a short distance away to an izakaya restaurant for a diverse meal of Japanese specialities. We started with bacon wrapped around cheezy mochi cakes (sort of chewy rice cakes), potatoes, and shrimp. Then, there was chicken, pickles, tempura...it seemed like the food just kept coming. But, that's the way Japanese are. Generous to the nth degree.
The night before, I went out to eat with a new friend of mine from up in Tokyo, a mutual friend of one of my JGSDF buddies. We ate some delicious sashimi (including not so delicious uni - sea urchin...why...who first cracked open a sea urchin, looked at the mush inside and said, "I wonder what that would taste like?"), grilled tai, grilled oyster, rice and soup, beer, and a bit of shoju. It was a delicious meal...
Now all that eating out make me feel that I need to take a breather every once in a while, so I'll pick up breakfast at the Lawson convenience store across the street. For breakfast the other morning, I had a muffin cake, which, as you can see was pretty good...no, "This cake is delicious." That's what sold me, frankly. Nobody wants to eat a nasty tasting cake...I personally only go for the ones that are delicious.
Yes, your taxdollars at work...sending me out to eat and travel around Japan.
And here's your reward...a funny sign I saw last night at the restaurant. It was on a cigarette machine, and when you compare what is put on cigarette machines in the US (if you can even find them anymore), just made me chuckle. No warnings of a long, lingering, horrible death here. Just a gentle, easy feeling.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
I'm down in Osaka right now on business, and will be here for about a week. We flew down on Saturday, arriving mid-afternoon. As has become tradition for me, I dropped my bags, and headed downtown to check out the castle. Last year, in Kumamoto, I did the same thing, and really enjoy just wandering around a new town to get a feel for some of the sights and sounds.
The castle was incredible...of the 3-4 I've seen so far, this one was by far the nicest. I arrived just at sunset and closing, so I couldn't get inside, but I wandered the grounds and filled up my camera's memory card.
Towards the end of my evening out, I stopped at one of the little food stalls and got some meat on a stick and a beer. While I sat and ate, I just took in the happenings around me. There was some sort of high school or college aged group of kids there all dressed in the same outfit who looked to be some sort of dance team or something. At one point, they all got together for a photo and started yelling something. And then dispersed...strange, but that's just kind of normal here in Japan.
After I finished eating, I was throwing away my trash when a wierd thing happened. Normally, Japanese people are very polite, if sometimes reserved. Once you get to know them, though, they are really warm and friendly. In this case, it was not so...
As I was sorting my burnables from my cans from my plastics, a young man rode up to me on a bicycle and started talking to me. He seemed sort of mad about something, and possibly drunk. As he spoke, I caught the word "Gaikokujin," the Japanese word for foreigner, which is sometimes used as a derogatory term.
"Wakarimasen", I said. I don't understand...
"I don't like you," he said, emphasizing each word.
"You don't? Why not? I'm really a pretty nice guy." I replied.
"This is Japanese place. You go home now."
"Um...OK. But I live in Japan. It is my home right now."
"NO. You go home now!"
"Well, OK. I was going home now anyway...Bye! Have a nice evening!"
I walked off, and stopped to turn around and see if he was still there. He was, so I gave him another wave. He scowled, and started riding off on his bike.
I pulled out my mp3 player in the hopes he'd come back and start talking to me again. However, he didn't, so I started to leave. Finally, just as I started walking up the steps to the train station, he rode by as if to make sure I was really leaving. I waved at him again, and he waved back and rode off. I hopped onto the train, chuckling to myself about the encounter. By far, one of the strangest things that has happened to me since I've been here.