Friday, October 27, 2006

Journey to Nowhere, Day 3, 15 November 2004 - Out of the Dunes and Into Detention


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. smPB150225.JPG

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 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 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.

EQ bedouin.JPG

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. me and the emir.JPG

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: Also, see 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 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 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

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