I was sitting in JFK in a bar way down at the end of one terminal where I was about to catch an international flight. Actually, I guess it was more like a single counter with a display case but they also sold beer. Anyway…there were tables in the immediate vicinity. I was seated at one alone and enjoying an overpriced pint, and some guy at the table directly behind me was driving me nuts with all his whining.
“Oh my God,” he kept going on, “The service was just terrible. And the driver was slow. And it was so hot in there. Oh! I just didn’t know what to do. It was unbelievable.”
Instantly, I identified him as being a Jewish gay guy. Now, I’m not a homophobe. And I’m certainly not an anti-Semite. But I am trying to be as honest as I can when I recount these stories and so…Let’s just say that it must have had something to do with the fact that I was in New York and let’s just say that New York is known for being full of both Jews and gay guys and the odds of some overlap existing within its greater metropolitan area were probably pretty substantial. Hence; I made this prejudiced association in my mind based on nothing but a bad stereotype. But again. In all fairness; that one stereotype was rather nationally and (perhaps even) internationally recognized.
It was ‘prissiness’ for lack of a better word. Prissiness was this guy’s most distinguishing trait. And I don’t mean ‘most distinguishing’ as I sat there and interpreted him. I mean that, without ever getting to know this guy any further (and believe me; that was the plan…if he turned out to be on my flight or in my group, I’d avoid him like the plague), I could safely say that, first and foremost, he was prissy. Any other characteristic (no matter how noble or great) came second. And although I’m not a gambling man (as they say), I would have bet the farm on that claim. And I would have won.
“I’m telling you, I had to send it back. But then the waiter didn’t even come around again for another 20 minutes and so it just sat there getting cold. I mean…not that that really mattered because I wasn’t going to eat it anyway. But you see what I’m saying. It’s like he could tell that I was in a hurry and that’s why he didn’t come around any sooner. It’s like he was doing it to spite me. And then when I finally did send it back…it took another 20 minutes for my new order to arrive. And by that time…well, you know the rest. I just told them to forget it. I told them to cancel the whole order. I swear, they’re lucky I even paid for my drink.”
His voice was unusually raspy but tight as you might imagine.
Then he mentioned something about Dubai and any hopes I had of him not being on my flight went right out the window. Sweet Jesus, I promise that this is the last group tour I’ll ever take. I mean…what’s the point of leaving the country at all if you’re just going to be surrounded by a bunch of other Americans the entire time? The price was right, sure. But it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth having to listen to this prissy asshole behind me now. And I hadn’t even boarded the fucking plane yet! There’s more to life than money.
Emirati Air. They said it was one of the best but unless they served up smelly green eggs and ham in the morning (as once happened to me on Swiss Air), I probably wouldn’t have known much difference. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to compare it to either. I grew up in an airline family. Rather, I’m just not a very high-maintenance traveler. As long as they get me there in one piece, I tend not to complain.
One strange, little quirk that I’d never seen done on any other airline is; they wouldn’t serve coffee so long as the fasten seatbelt sign was on. Like they thought that no one would be able to hold it until the turbulence had passed. So that was a little patronizing. But they were quick with the beers. And once I’d had enough of those and was finally feeling tired, I found myself with the whole row. Just about everyone aboard had a whole row to themselves, in fact. And that surprised me since this was supposed to be Dubai’s on-season. February. The one time of year when the outdoor air was livable, or so I’d heard. Maybe I’d just caught a randomly dead flight though. It could happen.
Lying down is really what did it for me. That’s when I noticed something about this plane that truly made it unique. They’d shut all the overhead lights off so soon as we left JFK and the sun went down. But rather than plain, black darkness running the length of the aisles up above; there were bright, white stars shining down from the ceiling. And they weren’t cheesy like those big, plastic, green ones that everybody had glowing in their rooms when they were teenagers. These were, instead, more like fiber optic and even varied in size from tiny to tinier. It also wasn’t difficult to make out a faint sort of Milky Way running soft and velvety up there in that river of midnight blue. And I found myself dozing with no seatbelt on and was glad that no one came by to wake me up or I would have been pissed.
New York to Dubai nonstop. It had been my longest flight to date but, thanks to movies on demand and the empty row which allowed me some sleep, it had gone by pretty quickly and I awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the day. Already, the cabin was lit with a golden sunlight and I was happy to hear them coming by with a breakfast cart.
When we touched down, I got off with the other, few dozen people who’d been on the plane, grabbed my black, hard-shell spinner from off the carousel, and made my way through immigration. It was the usual bit for the most part. Meaning; even on the other side of the world, if one looked like just another dopey American then they’d nod you right through. The whole process, in fact, was so much the norm that it would have gone all but completely unrecorded in my memory bank if it hadn’t been for this one guy…a dopey looking American, granted, but there was something else that set him apart from all the rest. Let’s just call it; the giant professional size movie camera that he was riding an escalator with and taping even right there in the airport! Seriously. No exaggeration; the thing was so big that half of it actually had to rest on his shoulder while the other half required the support of both his arms.
I was on that escalator too and we were both headed down. And since he was just below me, and I usually tend to look straight ahead, I had the perfect view of this asshole just being an asshole. And since this escalator was very long, I also had plenty of time to think to myself over and over again; what a fucking douche bag!
The guy was roundabout 40 but had been salt-and-peppered with a lot of premature grey. He was tall, slim. His skin was very pasty. And he wore a black, leather jacket that, on him in particular, came off as dorky and contrived. Also, somewhere within the shadowy area where that colossal camera met his face, I believe I could see a Van Dyke grown around his mouth that was so short and perfectly groomed; it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d gone in the bathroom this morning and shaved while we were still on the airplane. Because yes. This fucking asshole also happened to be on my flight and all I could do now was pray to Allah that he wasn’t in my tour group.
Just to make matters worse at present; this really long escalator that we both happened to be on was the sort that, for security purposes, a glass wall partitioned on either side. That is; those of us disembarking were separated from those others who were headed towards the international gates…by just that thin fucking sheet of glass. Which, in itself, there’s nothing really wrong with. Until you throw Mr. Cameraman into the mix.
So this guy; he’s actually taping the other people on the escalator going up the other way and (I’m projecting now) making them uneasy. Because Arabs are always a little uneasy, I’m projecting again. And Muslims especially. Especially while flying! Many of them heading straight to the US! And here, before they even left their homeland, was some American douche fucking recording their asses with his little, red LED light emitting their way as if to punch a ‘confirm’ stamp on any doubts they may have been having about his doing so!
And there they were staring back at him in disbelief. And it’s one thing to be in JFK in the international terminal because, believe me, if you’ve never been, it already feels as if you’ve entered a foreign country. What with the different turbans and garb and even those ladies wearing the full on, black Hijab covering all but their eyes. But we were actually in Arabia! And the turbans and garb and sandal-length man-dresses and Hijabs well fucking outnumbered any asshole climbing up that escalator in a wannabe white suit and Panama Jack hat. This was the real deal. And I guess that Mr. Cameraman felt so too. He must have. At least, I hope he must have and that that’s the reason he felt the need to put this all down on digital. Because strangely, for some fucking asshole like this, pictures just weren’t enough! And obviously, they weren’t even enough in the airport. And stranger still! As my own mind got sucked up into this asshole’s own world of audacious indecency; perhaps, a still-camera shot would have even been worse! Because he wouldn’t have turned the flash off for anything. That much, I knew without question. This fucking schmuck would have been snap-snap-snapping those still’s right through that glass partition with the flashbulb going off with every single shot. Just because he was one of those assholes who’d never realize until so far after that fact that the flash itself would have obscured, through that glass, over 95% of the shots do to the reflective flashback!
God! Why was this happening? Was it something I did? Because it must have been. Like; I’d saved all year, every penny, to go on this trip. And it must have been because I was super excited to catch a glimpse of the actual Arabs’ renowned hospitality and great nature. And I knew then that that’s what it was. That’s what it was indeed. I was simply asking too much. I joined a group tour with the expectations that the Americans on it could fucking behave themselves one and a half weeks. Ten days, really. But it was gonna seem like twenty.
The bus boarded after everyone had retrieved their luggage and I only remember some old guy saying something about how he had watched ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ onboard and how he considered it to be a non-movie. And then I remember stopping off at an inauthentic (make that; completely made-up), Arab encampment where one normally had to pay a ticket fee but was completely included in our price for the trip type of thing… And anyway, all of my buddy tourists and I got to catch a glimpse of how the real Arabs lived out in the desert; a lifestyle in which the real Emirati, in this day and age, didn’t live at all. Or I guess, even if some of them did still live in these primitive dwellings we were now being shown, it was only by their own choosing. And I knew this. Because, unlike any of these other assholes on the bus who were only in this trip for the glit and glam of Dubai’s present day; I had done my homework. And because I’d done my homework, I knew that the Emirati hadn’t always had it so easy. They were desert nomads up until their oil was discovered, unearthed, and cashed out as it continued to be even now. But the craziest part to their story (in my very judgmental opinion) is that they considered themselves to be blessed by God for having these riches then descend upon them. Or rather, as I suppose it is in oil’s case, ascend to them from deep in the underworld. And it was this belief of theirs that I found myself constantly contemplating up to and throughout this whole trip. It was that, as I understood it, they believed themselves to be somehow more blessed, let’s just say, than the rest of us. And I thought that was pretty fucked up.
And the sheiks…well, they must have had some pretty sound financial advisors and, I have to hand it to them, were at least wise enough to try to invest some of this money. It couldn’t all be spent on palaces and world-class entertainment. Or could it? Because Las Vegas spent all of its money on palaces and world-class entertainment and somehow made that money back tenfold. And that ‘somehow’ was obviously the gambling industry; that dirty, little bit of true freedom that Americans enjoy but also feel the need to keep contained in the middle of our own equally dry and inhospitable climate. And with gambling, as everyone knows, there comes liquor and crime and prostitution and capitalism at its very grandest. And all that’s very fine…until it runs into Islam. Because the Mojave desert is pretty far from the Arabian…and not just geographically. And so these Arabs were about to learn that they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too…for all the money in the world.
And so, as sort of a pit stop on the way to our hotel that morning, all of us tourists were dropped off at a tourist trap that (I can’t even believe I’m about to admit this) was actually a tiny bit more interesting than the usual rug factories or jewelry sweatshops that seemed to be the norm on these group tours. Instead, we were led through the gates of an interactive museum of sorts where the guests (us) could actually step into Arab tent replicas like those they would have used in their historically nomadic days. A few of which sported long tubes attached to them stretching up in to the sky. They were about the circumference of a standard air conditioning vent and, it turned out, that’s almost exactly what they were. The tubes would catch the cooler air, whenever a breeze blew by up above, and bring it down into the dwelling making it surprisingly comfortable. They let us put our faces right up to the vent and the cold air and everything and promised there was nothing electrical connected.
Also, before pearls were ever able to be collected through the farming method; good old fashioned pearl diving was quite the big industry in the Persian Gulf and especially along the Emirate coast. And so this museum also exhibited a huge, viewing room underwater where all the fanny pack tourists just like myself could watch robots in the deep-sea diving suits battling giant clams for their prized treasure. At least that was how it appeared through the evermore cynical haze in which I began to see things as the flash photography, blinding and incessant, bounced epileptically off the glass.
After that, there was a quick trip through a nearby street market (much too clean to ever be believable as real) displaying gaudy, gold adornments and, according to today’s tour guide, the best price on saffron in the whole, entire world.
Once arrived at our hotel, some sort of situation arose causing the entire group to have to wait in the lobby. Namely; not a goddam one of our rooms was ready. Exactly how this could happen; I’ll never know. I do know, however, that without a bar; they may have had a small riot on their hands. And I would have instigated that riot, surely. But all of these other tourist folk; they were now on vacation just as much as I was, had had just as long a flight as myself obviously, and were now also very ready for that drink. Exactly what kind of drink solely depended upon the individual.
It was unusual that there weren’t any families in the group…but there weren’t. And so the only people who’d come with someone other than themselves were easily distinguishable as our entire assemblage formed a large circle and stood there facing each other without really knowing why. We were waiting for our drinks while waiting for our rooms. What else was there to do? The prissy guy who’d been annoying me in the airport (now half a world away) was here with the old guy he’d been talking to back in New York. And now, directly across the huge, tile foyer, I had a pretty good look at them both. The prissy guy was short and really stalky with tight, curly hair. He reminded me of one of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings or even one of the dwarves meaning; he had features that didn’t seem to fit together very well…especially a pair of pointy, oversized ears. But I was only looking at him so judgmentally because he’d priorly pissed me off and because I was now silently seeking some sort of unjust revenge upon him. From across the hall, I couldn’t hear what he was saying despite the room’s being so marble and full of echoes. I could hear little bits and pieces of everyone else’s grunting and complaining though. But the prissy guy; he was leaning way over and purposely whispering his own complaints to his friend with a hand over his mouth so as to keep anyone from reading his lips! And now, for the first time full-frontal, I was also able to see the man whom I considered to be even worse than the prissy guy himself! Because it’s like…
Have you ever been on a train or a bus, or maybe just in a store, or maybe even just walking behind someone in public who’s being really obnoxious while talking on the phone. Really fucking loud and obnoxious and cussing even and just going on and on about their stupid, shitty problems and hardly ever pausing to take a breath? Well, I have. All the time, it seems. And although this person’s pointless, obnoxious conversation may raise more than one question to the surface of my consciousness…unfortunately (because I’d rather not be thinking about them at all; but I’m weak); there is one question that occurs most quickly and often. It becomes the predominant question. And that question has to be; WHO THE FUCK ARE THEY TALKING TO! And just how fucked up does this other, mystery person have to be (not only to be talking to the obnoxious person in the first place) to sit there listening to the obnoxious person without interrupting or even caring whether or not they get a word in edgewise!? Just how fucked up and insecure do they have to be?! This shit really makes me wonder. But looking at that prissy guy and his buddy in the tiled foyer in Dubai; I believe I finally had my answer. The answer just wasn’t what I was expecting.
Because this guy; he didn’t appear to be all that insecure. Or trashy. I always picture them, on the other end of the phone, as really trashy like they’re in a really dirty house… But this dude, albeit really old (somewhere in his 70’s) just looked like some guy. And a nice guy at that. Just some old, nice guy in a Members Only jacket and a baseball cap. He looked like my fucking grandpa. Only nicer! And I think it must have had something to do with that associative family presumption that led me to believe he must have been the prissy guy’s dad. He had to have been. Just a really passive, submissive dad who continued to listen to the prissy guy’s complaints (already and ongoing) about this trip…through his cupped hand! Wow.
The old guy and exactly what his deal was (and why he wasn’t more trashy) would have definitely occupied more of my time if it hadn’t been for the only other pair that had come together. And that was, of course it just had to be, the leather jacket movie camera guy and his girlfriend. And she was sorta hot! Way too hot for him anyway. He still had the camera out and was still holding it in the both hands that it required but now, thank God and unlike at the airport, its lens was pointed towards the ground. It was obvious that it was bugging him not to be filming just now as it probably was at any minute he wasn’t. But it was equally obvious that his girlfriend was slightly irritated with him, had requested that he stop, and was internally questioning her reasons for having come on this trip with him and all the other extreme, hypothetical scenarios that girlfriends jump to when they don’t have enough sleep…which went for all of us, though, I suppose. I know it at least went for everyone in our group just then. We were all tired and cranky, could all use a shower, and it’s not like we could even check our bags and go anywhere because, as we quickly came to discover, our hotel, nice although it was, was also located, so far as Dubai is concerned, in the middle of fucking nowhere (which in Persian Gulf terms meant; nowhere close to the beach.
Once everyone had drunk the first of their drinks and it slowly began to sink in that our rooms still wouldn’t be ready until we at least had had one more round (and that perhaps this was part of their ploy), most of us found our own way out to the back patio area which overlooked the pool. And it was here, under some balconies and so in the shade, a middle age woman and I sat at a table together. We’d both been muttering complaints under our breath, was everyone still, as if we’d all suddenly become various versions of the prissy guy in no time. But it was the way we each uttered them that drove some of us towards each other and others apart. The witty appreciating another’s witty criticism or grievance. The sarcastic sticking together as well. But this lady and I; we were neither witty nor sarcastic. And unfortunately, I’m ashamed to say, we came together because I just don’t think there was anyone left.
“Another fuzzy navel,” she ordered sitting directly across from me.
Not even a screwdriver. Jesus, how I hated her already.
“Beer, please.” And I was sure she hated me too.
This lady was not attractive. I just want to get that out of the way right away. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that I wasn’t trying to lay her. If I had been, it would have made much more sense; me sitting directly across the table from a lady I couldn’t stand. That’s different. But the way things were; I’d almost rather have been by myself. In fact, I’m sure I’d rather have been. And yet, how does one tactfully excuse themselves with etiquette, stand up, and simply move over to the very next table only to be alone? I’m sorry ma’am? I think there’s been some sort of mistake? I think that we were probably the last two left standing in the lobby there for a reason…a reason that we both mistook for having something in common.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“So what is it you do for a living?” I asked. I was honestly trying here.
“I work for the IRS.”
“No shit?” I must have made a face she’d seen hundreds of times by now in her life.
“Don’t worry,” she must have rehearsed this too, “I’m not an auditor.”
“Oh, I wasn’t worried. Because if you really wanna know, I haven’t paid my taxes in years.”
Finally, we both had a good laugh but it was only because she had no idea I wasn’t joking.
“And what brought you to Dubai?” it was her turn now to ask a question and this was, of course, the most sensible and unaffronted subject while still trying to remain semi-interested and sort of personal.
“I wanted to see how much money can buy,” I said with a straight face because it was true, “You?”
“The culture,” she sounded put out and I knew exactly how she was feeling.
The culture? What culture, you stupid bitch?
Don’t get me wrong. There’s culture absolutely everywhere. Especially places where cultured people claim there to be none. Take ‘punk rock’ for instance. It may be vulgar and, to some, violent and uncivilized. But there’s just as much culture there as there is in any opera house or symphony stage. But when it came to the Emirati; they’re culture was just so inaccessible (especially to Westerners) that this fucking IRS lady didn’t have a chance in hell. Unless I was just misunderstanding her…which wouldn’t have surprised me at all. But then what could she mean; their culture?
Was she mistaking it for the shitty, wannabe Reno-like atmosphere that this place was supposedly on its way to becoming? Was that the culture she wanted to enrich herself with? Because, if so, she really could have stayed a lot closer to home and experienced relatively the same thing in Nevada…or even Monte Carlo for that matter. Or, closer still; somewhere that had really nice hotels and restaurants but not a lot of drinking or gambling going on. And this caused me to have to ask; what the fuck I was doing here then?
Which caused me to have to answer (just as I told her); I wanted to see how much money could buy. I was interested in the Emirati…just not in their culture per se. They’re Muslim. They’re Arab. They were nomads. And now they rode around in limousines with the tinted windows rolled up. Most of them, nowadays, lived in mansions with every conceivable, modern amenity; most of them with shit that most Americans didn’t even own. But, much as they wanted to believe that they had investments; the truth is that almost all of these people were pissing their money away faster than their oil wells were drying up.
And this was fine with me. I personally couldn’t care if the Emirates went completely broke within the year. Because they were arguably the richest country in the world at present and these people, like no other on the face of the globe, just had this way of blowing their dough in the grandest, most exuberant, and most ridiculous ways possible. That’s what I wanted to see. I wanted to see Lamborghinis…everywhere! I wanted to check out the 7 star hotel that was the Burj al Arab. And I wanted to see, supposedly located very close to our hotel actually, the over 160 floor building that, upon its completion (that is, less than a couple months), was destined to be the tallest building in the world by far. And more than anything; I wanted to see that indoor ski slope they’d erected in the middle of a mall. Because if a manmade ski slope in the middle of the Arabian desert didn’t spell ‘opulence’, I just don’t know what did.
And then there were those famous, artificial islands the Emirati had had constructed just offshore in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. First, they’d built an entire neighborhood out there in the shape of a palm and, at the time of my trip, were still presently working on the other in the shape of the whole world with every continent represented. But what nobody really ever stopped to ask them (and perhaps they never even stopped to ask themselves) was; what the fuck for? And the only tangible reason for doing so turns out to be not so tangible at all. The answer was simply to flaunt their money. To show that they could do what no other country in the world had done just because they felt like it. But the symbolism, to me, is just too perfect to ignore. It’s sand! Here they paid all these construction workers from other countries (India mostly) to dump a bunch of sand in the middle of the gulf to produce an island. Then many islands. And then they built many streets and houses atop these islands. But I don’t care how well they’re built. I don’t care if the fucking Army Corps of Engineers was brought in on the job…which they most certainly were not. It’s still just a bunch of sand out there in the water. And just like any barrier islands; they’re going to shift and drift and without constant replenishment, they’re going to disappear. Just like their money. And just like their oil.
Wanting to take it easy that first night and save a bit of money, I decided not to take a cab and hit the clubs I’d heard so much about downtown. All that could wait. There was plenty of time. And besides, just before our rooms were finally ready; another commissioned guide-girl of sorts recommended that we be right back down in the lobby in less than one hour in order to attend a presentation on all the touristy bullshit that we could (and that they hoped we would) sign up for. So, figuring they might have something in my price range, and actually because I was still a bit curious about just what sort of stuff there was to do in the Emirates (other than the clubs) I took a quick shower and sat down again in a cozier room downstairs with the rest of the suckers…who amounted to everyone in my group.
This room was so cozy and already full, in fact, that I had to stand up during the presentation amongst several others. And this was alright by me because, from this vantage, I was able to identify and then vet a girl sitting in a nice, leather armchair about 4 bodies down in the corner.
So as the presenter in the front of the room, with a bunch of visual aids in the forms of poster boards and enlarged, color photographs, went on about the various tours we could take tomorrow and/or the next day; I was watching this other girl in the armchair (her eyes mostly) in order to discover which of these tours most piqued her interest. And I would try to sound more sly and stalkery here but there were really only two activities that sounded halfway interesting to most of us anyway. And those were; the four-wheeling ride all over the sand dunes with a dinner out in the middle of the desert at the end of it and a tour of an actual desert oasis followed, on the same shuttle ride, with a tour of the largest, outdoor camel market in the Middle East…that started early! Earlier than I was prepared for anyway. I mean, was this supposed to be a vacation or not? (Were any of these vacations? That’s a question that I still keep asking myself.) But like the rest of the suckers, I signed up for a couple. Fuck it, why not. It would fill my day that would undoubtedly be spent in a bar anyway where I’d undoubtedly spend just as much money. So I felt good about it because this at least would be some sort of educational experience with some good photo ops (almost assuredly). And what’s more; she would be there. The pretty mystery girl in the leather armchair. And what the fuck was she doing here in Dubai by herself? And what the fuck were any of us doing here really? And that’s what became the query. The mystery for me to unravel.
At some point though, and I honestly have no idea how, I must have agreed to meet up again with the IRS chick and find something within the vicinity of the hotel that could fulfill our dinner needs. Most of the others ate at the hotel restaurant or ordered room service. At least that’s what I gathered after hearing people talk after the tour trap meeting had broken up. So I guess, with this lady, I was thinking that there was an opportunity to buddy up and take in some air. And so we inquired with the concierge before heading anywhere. As it turned out, per our original assumptions, there just wasn’t fucking much in the vicinity. But the guy did recommend one place. A couple blocks down, in the ground floor of some building, there apparently was what he referred to as a ‘sports bar’ that served beers and burgers and such. And that actually sounded perfect. Sounded.
“So we can walk there then?” I asked him just to confirm.
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t recommend it,” he was a dark, black man and his smile was luminescent.
“But didn’t you say…” I tried to rephrase it in my head, “Well, how many kilometers would you say it is?”
“Sir, it is only about one kilometer. The problem is; there are no sidewalks and very much construction.”
“But can’t we just walk on the side of the road?”
“Well, I would certainly not recommend it. And please, if you would give me a time that you will be ready, I will be more than happy to have a taxi here waiting for you.”
So I looked over at the IRS lady and, for the first time all day, I could tell she was in agreement with me.
“We’ll take our chances,” I told him, “But, thank you anyway.”
I just didn’t want to get arrested. Because in the Middle East; the word ‘shouldn’t’ (as in; shouldn’t walk along the side of the road) could come with a much stronger consequence than anywhere in the West. It’s just a tight-ass sort of region of the world. But, then again, if this was indeed supposed to be an up and coming tourist town; the Emirati were going to have to get used to dumbass tourists…everywhere. And so if a cop decided to fuck with us, which I didn’t actually think was going to happen anyway, I’d just act all awed and disoriented.
“Man, that guy wasn’t fucking joking,” I spoke over my shoulder as we made our way through what was now the darkness of night. A couple dump trucks had almost hit us already but, nevertheless, it still seemed asinine to take a cab two buildings down.
“Yeah, I’d say they still really need to work on their infrastructure!” she yelled ahead to me over the sound of construction vehicles that must have been leaving the area for the night.
And, while her statement could have gone without saying, I did believe that she was also onto something…I just couldn’t put my finger on what.
“There it is!” I said, “I think. Or at least that’s the building anyway.
And indeed, in the short time that it had taken us to speak a couple of sentences to each other, we’d made it to the hotel in which this ‘sports bar’ was supposedly located. And around the other side, after cutting through the lobby, we found it. Joe’s Pub. Or something like that. Some really generic name with a really big, expensive looking sign lit up in red and yellow letters. And the place was nice…I guess. It was of some considerable size, had nice wood and green carpet absolutely everywhere, and the 360-degree bar in the center of the room was located a few steps down from everything else in its own little, sunken pit.
And despite the fact that there were booths in just about every direction, it was at this central bar that the two of us wound up sitting…I’m pretty sure just by default. Because for us to have scored a booth, according to the hostess, would have taken over an hour so packed was this place with…white people. Brits. Australians. And South Africans mostly. There were probably a few Americans mixed in there too but everyone I talked to (mostly next to me at the bar) had an accent. And of course, to them, I did as well. But one thing was for sure. There were no Emirati here. And I was kind of disappointed that there weren’t even any Indian construction guys. But as soon as we received a menu, I learned why.
This place was fucking expensive! I didn’t even know if I could swing a burger here! At least not a burger and as many beers as I felt like drinking tonight. The place was so pricey that (if I may just put it into my own terms) I figured, since there was no way I could afford to get shitface drunk tonight, I may as well just eat a meal and have like 2 pints with it and still hopefully have enough left over for the tip. Which was too bad too. Because the place was really hopping and just so full of red faced, red nosed, intoxicatingly loud talking white people. And who cares if they were white? They were still foreigners to me so… It might have been nice to party the night away with some of these guys and gals. They were businessmen obviously. Salespeople and tour company representatives just like the one who’d sold me two overpriced excursions not more than a couple of hours ago. But maybe it was the weekend or something. They could still be fun.
It didn’t happen that way, though, and it was probably for the best. I needed to be up early the next day in order to catch a shuttle that was supposed to take a group of us to check out a real desert oasis. And for that, I didn’t want to be too hungover. Especially since, what with the nice, buffet breakfast that came included with the room; it would be swell not to have to suffer my way downstairs and risk being too queasy to eat. Plus…whatever wooden dinner conversation the IRS lady and I had forced ourselves into; we both clearly didn’t enjoy each other’s company and probably each had to hold our tongue more times than many just to keep from being outright offensive…and offended, for that matter. So I was glad, after slamming my couple of pints, when the tab did finally come and we each tallied up the cost of our individual shit. And wouldn’t ya know it…
“Ah, hell,” I looked in my wallet forgetting, “You don’t think they take American, do ya?”
“No. And definitely no partial-American,” she said fanning out a hand of freshly minted dirham, “Do you need to borrow some?”
“Um…lemmie see here. I bought out all they had at the currency exchange in Portland…but it didn’t amount to very much. Uh…yeah,” I counted it again feeling rather embarrassed, “I almost have enough to cover my tab in dirham but…maybe I just give you my half of the tip in American? Would that be alright?”
“Well, it’s not gonna do me much good here. Why don’t you just keep it and give it to me in dirham tomorrow or something.”
“Yeah, I can do that. I’m pretty sure they can change it at the hotel… I can give it to you tonight. It’s no big deal.”
“No. I’m tired and I think I’ll be going straight to bed when we get back.”
“Just give it to me tomorrow.”
“Don’t mention it,” but her voice teetered on patronizing and demeaning.
Fuck, I just needed to get out of here and go to bed. Or least to get back to my room to watch some TV. A nature show might be nice.
When morning came, I was ready for it. I’d had a couple more beers, it’s true. But of course, I’d obtained them under the pretense of having to change currencies. And it just so happened that our hotel had a tiny, little market area which just so happened to also be where they exchanged American dollars for dirham. So…I grabbed a couple 22’s while I was at it. No harm, no foul. And there indeed had been no harm since I was easily able to make it down to breakfast with a healthy, touristy appetite.
“Good morning, Mr. Swanson.”
“Mr. Swanson, good morning,” a couple attendants greeted me upon exiting the elevator.
Jesus. This place was good. I mean, granted; there weren’t that many guests staying here. And if I had to guess; I’d say that the present occupancy was less than half. But still! What did they send them dossiers to study of everyone’s name and face?
The food was pretty good too but all in Western style. But the unexpected highlight of my breakfast came when I opened the morning paper (local) up to a full page ad taken out by the Bank of Arabia (or something along those lines) congratulating the sheik of Dubai and his first born son. Apparently, the former had bestowed upon the latter a few provinces and a new title or something. And of course in the ad, dead-center, there was a little portrait photo of the sheik and only the sheik looking perfectly sound and just and magnanimous and I guess everything a sheik should be with his red checkered keffiyeh draped neatly over his head. As I’ve suggested, his son was nowhere (in the ad) to be seen. But still…talk about nepotism.
After that, a small group of us gathered near the main entrance where we could already tell that the sun was so bright outside that the word ‘radiation’ instantly came to mind along with one of those high-pitched sounds made by a flashbulb. And it was here that a jet-black man in one of the hotel’s uniforms (which just happened to be an African looking toga and cap) smiled at me and again surprised the shit out of me when he called me by name.
“Mr. Swanson,” he stated in a thick accent, “How are you today? Where are you from?”
“I’m great. Thank you. I’m from the US.”
“Oh-h-h,” he chuckled kindly, “I very much like this country.”
“Oh. Well, thank you. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Oh, I am from Kenya.”
“You don’t say.”
“Ah, yes. I do.”
“No, I mean… I was supposed to go there. To Nairobi.”
“Oh!” he became very animated now, “Yes, dis is where I am from. Nairobi. That is my home. When is it you are going to go there?”
“Well…I was supposed to go in just a few days here but… My travel agent sort of pulled the plug because of all the riots going on. You’ve heard all about it, I’m sure.”
“Yes. But let me assure you. You still could have gone and nudding whatsoever would happen to you. It is the news, you see.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. They tend to blow everything out of proportion.”
“I’m really bummed out about it too. I mean…I was getting excited about all the safaris and seeing all the animals and such.”
“Yes. Yes, dat is my favorite. So will you be staying in Dubai longer then instead?”
“No. They’re sending me up to Jordan. It’ll still be fun but…” I thought about telling him something but changed my mind. I also changed the subject back, “So can I ask you a question if you don’t mind? About the riots, I mean.”
“Yes. Please. Feel free.”
“Well…I was just wondering if you were partial to either of those two politicians in the election. Because I know that the one guy is Kikuyu. And the other guy is…Luo or something? And I know that there are like 40 something more tribes in the country. But the news, at least back home, really made it sound like the place was split nearly fifty-fifty. I personally don’t care if you side with one or the other either way. Like I said; I’m just curious, is all.”
That was my best attempt at sounding well-informed and I knew that it had probably fallen short. I just hoped it wouldn’t backfire completely. Which it didn’t. Not completely anyway. At least I don’t think. But that’s a major problem when traveling abroad. The give and take. The lasting impressions and emotions. And so few second chances to paste over any accidents.
“Hahaha,” the doorman put a hand on my shoulder and laughed happily, “Sometimes, you see, the news… Again, they try to simplify everything.
And I liked the guy. So I left it at that.
“Does it say, ‘Leslie’?”
“Yes. That’s my name,” and the lady in the back of our tiny tour van appeared to be very pleased that she hadn’t been ripped off.
“It is a very nice necklace,” said the Pakistani guide passing it back to her. He was up in the shotgun seat.
She must have bought the necklace yesterday or something. It was gold and so was the charm that had been written in Arabic. And although Arabic wasn’t this guide’s first language; he could both speak and read it along with English (of course), some French, and his native Urdu tongue. The driver was Pakistani too but his English abilities were limited.
Beneath a piercingly bright sun, we were burning down an empty stretch of desert highway with sand dunes on both sides. Quintessential Arabia if I do say so myself. Supposedly, we were on our way to a real, actual oasis where water just springs up from a pit in the middle of nowhere and I really wasn’t that excited about it. I was, however, sitting next to the girl I’d seen in the leather armchair yesterday. The cute one.
“Oh my God,” she said under her breath and then looked at me critically as if trying to read my face.
“I’ll say something if it gets out of hand,” I whispered.
Each of us had been referring to the sensitive and rather personal questions that the three older couples in the van had begun to ask the guide. It was a lot of shit about Islam and his beliefs with some weirder stuff mixed in there as well. Like, at present, he was starting to explain to them exactly how his mother’s funeral had gone down. Apparently, in the Muslim world, only a woman’s sons are allowed to touch the body. And so he went on explaining to them that they quietly washed her corpse and buried it before sundown. It was a nice, heartfelt story and I don’t care how much this little minitour cost; not a one of us sitting in that van deserved to see that piece of him, so emotionally sincere. I swear, the guy was getting choked up, up there. And how could you not?
“Well, that’s not how we do it,” one of the old men started in.
“And what do you do?” the guide had been uncomfortably turned around in his seat this entire time. He was honestly asking too. He really didn’t know!
“Well,” the man went on, “It usually gets put in a freezer first…and it may be in there a couple of days. And then it goes to a funeral parlor where a professional… Well, how do I put this? They fill the body with a preservative because, of course, by this time it’s already two or three days old. Sometimes more. And I believe they stuff the chest cavity with sawdust. And then, of course, they add makeup in order to make the cadaver appear more lifelike.”
This old man was oblivious too. Oblivious to the horrified look that, as he was speaking, had passed over our guide’s face and stayed there. He said something then to the driver in Urdu and even the driver’s eyes became all wide! And why shouldn’t they? The freakish, little proceedings surrounding our own, Westernized burial rites must just seem so unnatural to them. Mostly because they are!
“Can I ask about the oasis?” I knew I needed to do something.
“Please,” the Pakistani guy finally forced a smile again, “I would love to discuss it. What would you like to know?”
“Oh, anything,” I quickly rattled my brain for a second, “Like…are they permanent? Or do they just spring up from time to time and disappear again.”
“Ah. An excellent question,” and then he went on, happy to have a new topic to spout off about without having to field too many follow-ups.
He was 30-something. Just a bit older than I was at the time. But he was good looking and I wondered what his love life was like. Was he married already? Did he have any children? And if not, or maybe even if so, was he getting it on with any special lady here in the Emirates while he was away from home? He could. He might even be able to go out to the bars and get away with it by claiming he wasn’t Muslim.
His answer to my question, thankfully, brought us to our first stop. It was an unexpected one for all of us. As in; it hadn’t exactly been on the agenda. But, since I’d done my research like a good boy, it didn’t surprise me all that much.
“Okay,” our guide picked up again, “It is now officially just after noon and so we will stop for… Well, we will see. We are coming up on a very nice park. It is not technically an oasis but there are small creeks running through it and, most importantly, there is a mosque where your humble driver and I will stop for a pray.”
A pray. That’s not a euphemism exactly but just the wording, I found funny. Like praying was something so casual and redundant. You just don’t hear that in the US. And I appreciated the expression so much that I almost tried to contemplate it further before one of the other ladies in our van, as she was stepping out, asked no one in particular, “Did he just say he was going to pray?”
She was from The South, had the accent to prove it, and I wished she was dead.
The park we stopped at was nice though. There just isn’t much to tell. Our guides went off in the direction of a small mosque while the rest of us roamed the pretty, immense grounds. From out of nowhere, from out of the desolate dunes, there had suddenly appeared some trees and creeks. There wasn’t too much greenery to speak of. No grasses or anything. Just trees sticking close to the water where there had been set up picnic tables and grills. And if there weren’t so many other locals, the women especially, wearing their full-on black veils and Muslim gear, it might not have been so hard to imagine that I was back in the middle of Arizona.
Little Muslim kids squealed as they played in the water. The prepubescent girls didn’t even have to wear all that black shit…so that was cute. And I walked around for a while pretending not to take pictures or offend anyone. The girl I’d been sitting next to had gone her own way…but it didn’t matter because no more than a half-hour later we were both back and sitting right next to each other in the van like the only two sane people trying to stick together in a madhouse. For solidarity?
“So where else have you traveled?” I asked.
There were many conversations going on in the van now but not between the group and the our guide, thank God. We were giving him a good rest. And while the old people spoke of all they’d just experienced in that park, this girl and I talked about things they couldn’t possibly understand. Namely; being young, single travelers.
“All over, I guess,” she answered, “You?”
“Oh,” I spoke casually and void of any detail since there weren’t any drinks in me, “All over too. But do you always go alone?”
It didn’t take me long to learn she had a boyfriend though. But no biggie. She was interesting regardless and it was still better than listening to the old people or having to put my headphones in. I learned that she worked as a nurse, was just a few years older than myself, and that this wasn’t even her first time to the Middle East. The fucking girl had been to Iran for crying out loud; a place where, by law, any woman, Western or otherwise, has to walk around with a scarf over her head. And while she’s not the first female I’d met who’d made it a habit of traveling alone, I never did stop respecting these chicks. And to think people often say that it’s dangerous for me to travel solo. Bullshit. Because I can beat up just about anyone and don’t have a vagina that guys are constantly trying to rape. But these chicks… I wondered if she was carrying Mace or a knife or at least a whistle or something.
The oasis turned out to be just okay. I guess I was expecting something more magical to happen there…like something to do with flying carpets or genies? I was at least expecting a pond with maybe some people swimming. But I guess that’s just in the cartoons. And scarily, I guess that a lot of my impressions of life around the world did actually come from cartoons. Tom and Jerry mostly. But some Looney Tunes, of course. They just painted such a wonderfully romanticized (and racist; as they’re considered to be nowadays) picture of countries and cultures that, yeah…so what if watching Speedy Gonzalez when I was a kid always made me want to travel deep down into Mexico. Or watching Bugs Bunny in a bullfight; to Spain.
But a real-life oasis, turns out, is just a bunch of palm trees growing really closely together. They went on for several acres and, while the view, I imagined, would probably have been more impressive from a helicopter so one could see the desert all around; just being in the middle of one, I regret to say, was actually a little dull…and it reminded me of Florida…and that’s never good thing. In fact, not even the old people seemed very taken away with it…and that was saying something.
The next stop was kind of cool though. Except that yours truly, the guy who just a bit earlier was trying to tone the old people down with all their personal questions, somehow managed to piss off the tour guide himself. And I’m still not quite sure what the fuck he was mad about. The guy just seemed a little irritable in general and I just became a reason. But he was not pleased with me for the rest of the trip. And there remained a tense, awkward silence between us right up to the point where we said ‘goodbye’. It went a little something like this;
It was supposed to have been the world’s largest outdoor camel market. And it very well may have been. I honestly had nothing to compare it too and only assumed that the word ‘outdoor’ meant it was bigger…and, in the this scorching part of the world, probably falsely so. But everyone was excited nonetheless. We just wanted to see some animals and take some pictures for a few minutes. Since, let’s face it, it’s not like anyone of us was planning on buying a creature to take home. And so our tour van pulls off the highway and onto a hard, dusty road which we follow for perhaps half a mile. And then there, out the middle of nothing but a reddish colored sand that expanded as far as the eye could see, were about 20 or so pens containing almost a couple hundred camels. There were only a few other cars parked about and there was no designated lot. So all in all, I instantly got the sense that this wasn’t a very busy day in the camel trade. But no big deal. There were even a couple kids running up to the van already who, if their English was any good, would probably lead us around and try to tell us information they considered interesting…for a few bucks, of course. I always felt that that was expected. Never anything major. And I never minded forking over just a few. It’s not like they were panhandling only. Rather, these kids had made a little trade for themselves. And besides, the ones running up just now were practically in rags. And while sometimes that can be part of the hustle too; this time, just call it a hunch, I believed those rags were real.
“Al-oh!” one grabbed me by the arm as I stepped out, “Please! This way! This way! I want show you!”
“Okay,” I smiled, “Calm down. You can show me.”
“Yes! This way, this way! Come!”
I smiled back at the girl but I’m not sure why. It was sort of an invite, I guess, as if to say, “Feel free to catch up but also take your time.” And then the kid and I practically ran over to all those stinky camels in their pens.
“Okay,” no matter what the country or the age of the person I happen to be talking to, I always at least pretend that we’re speaking the same language. Which usually sounded something like… “So what’s this one?”
“This one, Oman. Oman,” the kid answered.
“This one’s from Oman? No shit. It’s a…very nice looking camel there.”
“And what about this one?”
We were walking along more leisurely now.
“This one’s from Oman too? You’re fucking kidding me.”
“Ah. Alright. Now we’re finally gettin’ somewhere. You must see a lot of camels, huh?”
Then, at one of the next little corrals, the kid tugged me by the arm again and I looked down at him. He’d stopped and was pulling something out of a knapsack that had been slung over his boney shoulder. It was a turban of sorts and appeared to be made from the very same rags he was wearing although not nearly as dirty. He handed it to me.
“What? You want me to wear this?”
And he mimicked with his hands that, yes, I should indeed try it on.
“Oh, Jesus,” I mumbled, “Alright. But I want you to know, I’m only doing this because I like you…and I don’t want to seem rude. But goddam am I taking a shower when we get back.”
The kid smiled and even laughed once I had the thing situated. Then he held out his hand ready to accept my disposable camera which I surrendered.
“Just hurry up about it. I don’t look good in hats.”
And the kid did, without any hesitation or questions, click off a couple of shots.
“Alright. Thank you. Here ya go,” and we traded items back for our originals.
The girl caught up with us then and she seemed amused by the way this kid and I were getting along. “And what’s this one?” she asked him.
“Uh…this Dubai. Dubai, this one.”
“Ah. A local,” she confirmed.
And that’s pretty much how it went. The three of us just strolled around for a while. He’d tell us where the camels were from in any certain pen. And the three of us would stand in front of it for a minute and have a look at them. Every so often, I’d also keep an eye out for our guide and/or our group. And I could see them. The group was scattered all about the whole area. And as for our guide; he just stood outside the van talking to some of the men who worked on these grounds. There was no sense of having to rush and, since the temperature was just about perfect outside, everyone seemed happy to walk around and stretch their legs.
Some of the other kids, I’d noticed, tried to approach the various old people who’d been aboard our van. Most of them, however, weren’t having it. I heard them telling the kids to ‘shoo’ as if they were rodents. I thought that they should lighten up and just go with the flow a little more but, then again, they’re not the ones who pissed off the guide.
After a good half-hour I’d say, most of us started slowly making our way back toward the van. No beckoning call had ever come from that direction. It was simply time to move on. People were starting to get hungry, no doubt, and, according to this tour’s agenda, they were supposed to have us back at the hotel around lunchtime. That is; no meal was actually scheduled into the course of this little daytrip and there wasn’t so much as a single falafel stand around here. So…
“Did you have a nice look around?” our guide addressed both the girl and I at the same time.
“Yes, totally,” we both smiled…and that’s pretty much when our little kid snuck up from behind and tapped me on the elbow. When I turned around, he put out his hand.
“Oh, alright. I actually forgot,” and knowing there was a small bill in my hip pocket, I pulled it out and handed it to him.
“Thank you!” he said and ran off…which was actually really nice because, oftentimes, those fucking little brats that, even if (theoretically) presented with a hundred dollar bill, will try to ask for more. And that’s usually when I tell them to ‘beat it’. But everything went smoothly this time. That’s why I really didn’t understand when…
“Why did you do that?” our guide sounded vexed and surprised and even a bit angry.
“Why did I… What, you mean tip the kid?”
“Why did you give him any money?” his voice had gone low suddenly; low with indignation.
“Oh, it’s alright. It was only 5 dirham. I wasn’t spoiling him or anything. And he earned it.”
“No. This is not alright. You were not supposed to pay for anything on this trip.”
“It’s okay, man. Honestly. I don’t mind. He took a great picture of me and everything. And he didn’t even ask for any money until just now. It’s fine with me, I promise.”
“It’s not fine,” and he actually scowled and grunted and I could tell he was repressing something even more than that. “Everybody, let’s go!” he called the rest of the straggling old folks.
I didn’t even know if he was pissed off at me for giving the kid money or at the kid for just having asked for it. Because I couldn’t have been the first person he’d ever brought to this place that had ever tipped one of these kids. I just found that too hard to believe. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe he didn’t like my really American looking face. Either way; the guy was still huffy and puffy when he hopped back up into shotgun seat and closed his door. He didn’t slam it. He didn’t want to freak out all the rest of the nice people. But he would have had it been just me. And he would have harangued my ass…which might have been for the best. At least that way there could have been some further communication. Because as it was, left with this really uncomfortable silence and energy in the van… Not to mention that I knew that somehow everyone else knew that this uncomfortable tension was the irrefutable result of something that I’d done.
As a group, we stopped off at one more place. It was just a vista and was sort of on our way back anyway but supposedly one could see Oman from the top of a not very high hill that we drove to the crest of. And of course, everyone went ‘ape shit’ for another photo opportunity. Everyone but me, that is. I just sort of stuck close to the van and smoked a couple cigarettes. The air was warm and dry and the empty cul-de-sac at the top of this hill along with the empty, desert terrain were very comforting. Still…that tour guide who didn’t even step out of the shuttle this time was brooding and all I wanted to do then was set things right. But how?
Money wasn’t the answer, I knew. I could tell just by looking at the guy that the few extra American dollars I could scrub up weren’t about to heal his moody wound. However, when the question of how much to tip him did occur to everyone on our way back to the hotel, I felt that it was my duty to…well, maybe just to tip a bit better than everyone else…which wouldn’t be hard to do. I knew for a fact that for old people like these; terrible gratuity extended well beyond their favorite restaurants. One time in China, as a tour group, we all got together just to sort of pick each other’s brains about how much to tip our guide, and I was absolutely appalled to learn that some of the couples were about to drop no more than twenty bucks…to a guide who took us everywhere, every day, for two weeks! And I’m not talking ‘per person’ either. That was twenty bucks…for both of them!
But in this instance, for the Pakistani guy and for just a daytrip, twenty bucks sounded pretty good. It was over 20 percent of the total cost of the tour but not so much over as to make anyone uncomfortable. Plus, he was bound to split some with the driver and… Long story short; when the shuttle did again pull up to the hotel’s main entrance and everybody stepped out, our guide did the same to shake hands with all of us individually and to wish us all a nice day. And since I’d been sitting towards the back of the van, and since I’d purposely even hung back a little, I found myself at the end of the line and indeed was one of the last to bid him farewell.
“Thanks for the great tour this morning,” I didn’t smile but rather maintained a solemn and sincere look, “I really had a lot of fun. Well, anyway. Here ya go. Thank the driver for me too. And have a great rest of your day.”
Now, for everyone else who’d come before me; this guy had graciously accepted his tip, smiled, even bowed his head a little bit, and then it was onto the next person. And this was all I was expecting him to do with me. It’s all I really wanted. But he did not do this with me. Instead, he kept his hands at his sides even while I was trying to hand him the money. And he says to me, “It’s okay, man.”
He said it in a pissed off, ‘agro’ way too that perfectly matched his attitude ever since we left the camel market. And it’s not like I was trying to hand him an awkward wad of cash or anything that even so much as could have been construed as embarrassing. Not that anyone was watching anyway! But I just so happened to have what amounted to twenty dollars American in the form of one, single bill in dirham. Fucker.
“Please?” I honestly didn’t know what else to say but I did know that there was no way in hell (and this, I realize, may seem a little perverse) that I wasn’t going to let this asshole take a nice tip from me.
And he took it then. He grabbed the bill and looked past me instantly without speaking another word. I should have given that tip to the kid back at the market though. At least he would have appreciated it.
So after that little international incident; I decided to return to my room, watch some TV, perhaps take a nap, but all in all just rest up for this evening. Because as soon as the sun would start to get low…you guessed it; yet another guided tour already! And no one could ever be sure just who I’d manage to piss off this time!
Just before stripping my dusty clothes off, I had a cigarette out on my balcony and, while staring off at the dozen or so hotels in view both far and near, some of them under construction still but many of them completed; something occurred to me. The completed hotels remained empty. And the ones that were under construction still would probably remain empty upon their completion. I’d noticed it a little bit while walking around with the IRS lady last night. And I’d seen a bit more of this phenomenon for myself today. I’d also caught a bit of gossip between some of the staffers here at this hotel. And believe I may have even read something about it in this morning’s paper. But this place, this whole area of town anyway (save two or three hotels perhaps) was completely fucking empty. There was no shopping. There were no people walking around. Obviously, there weren’t even any sidewalks. But I mean; there was nowhere to shop. And nothing to do. And yet all these hotels that eerily reminded me of an irradiated wasteland.
Now, while I’m sure that the other area of town closer to the beach was a little more lively, one deduction did become perfectly clear. The Emirati (be it; the developers, the investors, or even the sheiks themselves, but somebody!) so recognizably overshot their hopes here. ‘If you build it, they will come’; wasn’t about to apply in this case and it never would. I just wondered if they knew that yet. I also wondered, if and when they finally did figure it out and all the investors started revolting over their returns; I wondered whether or not the sheiks would finally sell out and just legalize drinking and gambling and whores and just get it over with. Because that was the only way. This place could already be a regular adult funland by now. And these completed hotels could easily already be full.
The Arabs, however, seemed to need to take the ‘adult’ out of anything and everything in order to comply with their religion. And this precaution went well beyond any personal credos. Or maybe… Surely, the individual inhabitant of any town would have a lot to say about so much change coming their way. But the Emirati had already invited that change. And they’d made it quite clear to the world that this was their plan. So even if the individual Emirati national didn’t have any qualms about the legalization of gambling and such and the loosening of certain morals; there was still all of Islam and its conservativeness and it would, so long as it and its devotees remained fundamentally the same, stand contradictory to the whimsical vision that a few sheiks may have had around the time they first struck oil.
If this place was ever to become an adult funland…which was their vision…which was their investment; then, so be it. But there would need to be (soon!) some adult shit to do around here. And if the Emirati decided that they couldn’t go through with it (which they probably would) and that they did indeed have a reputation to maintain within the Muslim world and all their neighboring countries who sort of looked down their noses at this vision (which they obviously considered to be very liberal) and basically anything resembling Western culture in general; then they’d better get cracking on building some amusement parks because, if not an adult funland then why not a family fun zone. These investors were going to have to try to make some of their money back somehow. Not that that would work either. It would be funny to see them try though. To watch them scramble like ants. However, any way they sliced it, this place was doomed to fail.
Because what fucking head of household in his or her right fucking mind is ever going to say, “You know what, honey? Why don’t we take the kids to Dubai this year for our vacation?” Even if there were amusement parks! Why? Why pack up and take the kids to the heart of Arabia when there are just so many other places already out there? There was EuroDisney. Japo-Disney. And hell, since we’re on the subject, what about good old America Disney. Disneys, I should say. And I know for a fact that there are plenty of other parks in Orlando (up to and including Disneyworld) that specialize in letting the kids run around while the adults do their thing…should they want to…which I assume they would. Because who doesn’t just want to dump their kids off once in a while.
But all theme parks aside even…! There are just so many more interesting places to take the family. So many more interesting countries with much more activities. And I don’t believe most parents would opt to fly their kids to a region of the world where, in order for a female to divorce her husband, she has to prove in front of a panel of judges that he can’t get it up. No joke. Because no matter how intriguing some of these Emirati customs may be; they live behind the scenes and are, themselves, not really much of an attraction. And even if the family fun zone idea appealed only to other Muslims in surrounding countries; by selling apples to your mom or dad or brother or sister, you’re really not making any money. It’s circulating, sure. But it’s not generating. It’s sort of a closed circuit, if you will. A localized economy.
But seriously. What did I give a fuck anyway.
The sun began to set ever so slightly and it felt to me like LA. The sky became a pinkish hue and I knew that the real fire show would start in no time. Because that’s just how it is in the desert. The dry air kicks up the dust and all those little particles…well, I’m not sure exactly. But they have something to do with it. Probably the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen was in Laredo, Texas. And it was also one of the dustiest sand holes I’ve ever driven through. And this second tour of the day; it was based on timing. It was based on the sunset exactly because those were the exact words the title used to describe it: Sunset Dinner and Sand Dunes or something. The idea was; a bunch of SUV’s were supposed to pick us up out in front of the hotel again (which they did) and then we were supposed to romp around the dunes for a while ‘off-road style’. After that, there would be, according to the pamphlet, a desert sunset photo opportunity. And God knows nobody in our entire tour group would ever miss that. And then we would once again be whisked away to yet another location (still out in the dunes somewhere) where a dinner buffet would await us, under tents, in the warm, dry air and beneath the stars. And even that sounded good to me.
And when I just said ‘our entire tour group’; I meant it. This deal tonight was much larger than the morning excursion. And pretty much everyone who’d been on the plane on our way out here had signed up for this one. Down in the foyer, though, the young nurse traveler stuck pretty close to me. And I was pleasantly surprised. But, then again, we were probably the only two people along who were still in our twenties so… What can I say? The thought of elbowing each other every time one of the seniors in our group made a socially unacceptable mistake was irresistible. And maybe she’d even elbow this time when I made such a blunder. But I was being too hard on myself. That Pakistani guy was crazy. Or had at least had a bad morning or something. And she knew that, I could tell. Which made me like her. Even more.
There must have been six Land Cruisers in all. And she sat next to me in the back of one of them. The seats were plush and beige and leather.
“I’ll see the US when I’m older,” she offered, “The truth is, I’ve barely been outside my little town. I just want to get the harder ones out of the way first. Does that make any sense?”
“Yeah. It does. Although that’s kind of the opposite route I took. But not everyone has parents who work for the airlines. I was always able to fly for free. Well, not now. But up until I was twenty or so. And also, not everyone had parents who were as lenient as mine. I swear, sometimes I look back and wonder what the hell they were thinking. I used to just take off as a teenager. ‘Mom, I’m flying to Pennsylvania for the weekend.’ And she’d be like, ‘Okay.’ That, and I’ve driven across the country a lot too. Well, that and we moved around a lot. I guess I was just destined to see America first. And it’s a pretty nice country. You’ll really have to check it out sometime.”
“What spots do you recommend?”
“Well, San Francisco’s pretty hard to beat. It can be pretty romantic too if your boyfriend is ever nagging you to take him along with you.”
“Well, San Francisco’s pretty hard to beat. It can be pretty romantic too if your boyfriend is ever nagging you to take him along with you.”
And she looked at me sidelong then, a bit perplexed at first, but then she smiled.
So I asked, “Do you find it difficult to have those kinds of relationships, romantic ones that is, when you travel so much? Twice a year you said?”
“Yes. And yes. But it’s my dream and he can take it or leave it. And right now, he’s taking it. He’s a very understanding guy. I guess that’s why I’m with him.”
I wanted to ask her then about ultimatums. I wanted to ask what she would do if the day ever came when she’d have to choose between her dream and this guy. Did she love him? Was there anyone she’d choose over the dream? And it’s not that brief acquaintances can’t ask and answer questions such as this. Rather, oftentimes I find I’m almost more comfortable dumping my heart out to a stranger; someone who may remember our conversation but not remember me. It this case, however, it was probably more the old people present that caused me to refrain.
It seemed our convoy was heading out in the very same direction we’d gone this morning. It was so hard to tell, though, once we’d left any remnants of city far behind and there were nothing but dunes to mark the way.
“I like just going for rides,” I said and meant it as we rolled along listening to Middle Eastern music playing through the hi-fi system…the reflection of our driver’s keffiyeh and mirrored sunglasses reflecting back at us in the rear-view.
About 10 miles out if I had to guess, the first Cruisers up ahead made a left onto a sandy path and the rest of us followed. Then, not more than 50 yards up a very slight dune, each of our vehicles stopped at a couple of open tents; each one about the size of a small convenient store. There was nothing much going on underneath them, however, besides the selling of bottled waters which nobody in our group bought.
The idea was; each and every one of us had to step out of the truck for a minute so that they could deflate the tires (a necessary requisite to dune-only four-wheeling). But it seemed to take each driver absolutely forever to accomplish the task. Together, they ran around all the Land Cruisers spouting out stuff in Arabic or Urdu and generally behaved as if they’d never done this before. The old people began to lose confidence in them and tried to find places to sit. And the girl and I; well, we remained standing with our eyes glued to a family some 50 feet away who appeared to be wrapping up some last minute business and were about to leave the premises. No one else appeared to notice them or care but to us they raised an interesting question.
“You think they’re fake?” she nudged me.
Well, that wasn’t the question they raised. Not exactly.
Each of the four, adult women were covered head to toe in dark veils.
The men were wearing dark sunglasses and the cleanest, whitest robes and headscarves of a material that we could tell was expensive even from this distance.
“What do you mean ‘really’? Like…do you think they were put here on these grounds for our personal enjoyment? Like we should go take pictures with them and stuff?” I giggled through my nose so that she’d know I was joking.
“Well,” she shrugged and thought it over, “I don’t know. I’m sure I’ve seen stranger things.”
“That,” I acknowledged, “Is true.”
But then when the family, some five minutes later, all piled into a couple of bigger and even more luxurious Land Cruisers of their own and tore away kicking up a bunch of dust; it was even better because then we knew! We knew for sure that they weren’t fake. Those people had been real deal Emirati! And although we’d probably seen some earlier in the park today; any Emirati sighting was a good one. And just as I was about to suggest that we make a game of it (something like Slug Bug) the guys who’d been deflating our tires were calling us back and everything seemed good-to-go.
And the old people loaded themselves back in. And we behind them.
Everyone was with us tonight. The really intense movie camera guy. His sympathetic saint of a girlfriend or whoever she was. The whiny guy and his geriatric companion. Even the IRS lady! And everybody seemed to have a pretty good time romping up and down the dunes at top speed…even me. It was a lot like being on a roller coaster but with no track. And the ride did invoke that nauseas feeling after a while and word had it that some guy in one of the Cruisers ahead of us actually puked as they were descending and it splattered all over the ceiling! Which would have been awesome to see! But then having to ride with the smell of it and everything…
At one point, way the fuck out in the middle of the sand and tiny, distant mountains along the horizon, our company was forced to stop due to an axle snapping on yet another truck that wasn’t ours; clean, right down the middle. The craziest part was that they actually kept extra axels stocked just in case. And yeah, it took a while to repair. So as the sky grew dimmer and dimmer, our entire party was stuck waiting around yet again but, this time, with absolutely nowhere but the sand to sit. And a rear axle is no easy job. But these guys teamed up and acted like real pros who knew what they were doing in this instance. It seemed so much easier to them than deflating the stupid tires and I couldn’t figure out why.
Then it was back in the trucks once more as we twisted and tore through a silt so refined it was almost trying to turn back into a solid again. But the tires spun and shot that dirt up in every direction. And all of the passengers ‘hurrahed’ many times. And I’ve got say…it wasn’t a letdown. All the romping was exactly what we’d signed up for and I was happy that they didn’t water it down or drive slower than they could have or pull any punches so to speak. They’d busted a fucking axle for Christ’s sake. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the girl sitting next to me thought that that had been fake too.
But like any good thing, it had to come to an end. Which it did. Right at sunset. With all 6 SUV’s lined up along the crest of one particularly large dune. And of course everyone jumped out for more photos. Always with the photos. I can’t really talk, though, because I took some too. But with the sunset projecting a warm, orange light over everything (especially the shiny, white SUV’s); it really was quite nice.
Our next stop was well across the desert somewhere. And although the sun had indeed set, the clear sky remained pale but full of a mauvey light for some time. When we stepped out of the trucks, there were more camels awaiting us and these were there for the riding…for a small extra fee, of course. So how is that any different from that little kid charging me a small fee only hours earlier? I wish that damned Pakistani guy was here so I could ask him.
So I smoked a cigarette while the old people, the ones who were physically capable (which weren’t many) rode the camels and their better halves took pictures of this. The girl ran off somewhere and her absence, since she’d played such a nice decoy after all, caused me to feel awkward and exposed again. And that’s about when the old guy, the whiny guy’s friend, approached me to show off a new picture he’d just taken; a close-up of a camel and its keffiyeh clad caretaker. Their faces pressed together and strangely too similar not to seem racist.
“Nice shot,” I said and meant it.
“You like that?” he lifted the heavy looking camera from around his neck with two hands for me to see, “I bought this for myself last year as sort of an early Christmas present.”
The truth is; I was a bit jealous. It’s not like I’d been dreaming of saving up to buy a nice, digital camera or anything though. Rather, I liked just buying a bunch of disposables and bringing packs of them with me. I always thought they took better pictures…even better than regular 35 millimeters. But after seeing that picture that he just took, I’ve got to say; maybe a little more research was in order. Plus, quite some time had gone by since digitals had first come out and, well…technology improves. But could it have at such a rapid rate or was I just really losing track of time?
The other reason I liked using disposables, though, was that they were small and virtually silent (aside from that slight, plastic click) when taking a picture. And this meant (at least I loved to believe this) that I could conceivably snap off a shot unbeknownst to anyone in the immediate vicinity and ultimately render a more candid quality. Like…once when I was walking with a girlfriend through the streets of Tel Aviv, we were accosted by this Hassidic guy with the earlocks and everything. And boy, was he wild-eyed and really animated. And boy, was I glad he happened to find us out on a main drag and not down some alley after we’d taken a wrong turn or something because it was already nighttime and the sky seemed to be extra dark and thick with madness on this particular evening. ‘If you are not Jewish, then what are you doing here?’ he kept asking us agitatedly. ‘Just seein’ the sights,’ I answered. We stopped and talked to him for at least 5 minutes and answered all his questions although I have no idea why. Maybe it was because I was stalling. Maybe it was because I was trying to make eye contact with him…which was next to impossible since his stare seemed to shoot into so many different dimensions at once. But I wanted him to ‘watch the birdie’ (so to speak) while, from out the right sleeve of my coat pocket (James Bond style) I slid my camera and clicked one off immortalizing this guy in all his craziness. Had he noticed the camera or heard the shot, I liked to imagine that this psycho would have tried to swat it right out of my hand. That’s probably not even true, though, despite how agro he was acting. And to top it all off; the picture didn’t even come out. But maybe that was it. Maybe that was part of his magic.
“How much? Ballpark. If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, I’d say just about half of what I paid for this entire trip…if that puts it in any sort of perspective.”
“Yeah, that definitely does actually. And I guess that’s why I probably haven’t bought one yet.”
And I talked to the old guy for a while then and realized he wasn’t so bad at the end of the day. His name was John but that’s about as personal as I got. Still…the dude was agreeable, not too senile, and not over friendly which is a trait that’s sure to send me running for the dunes. And when he began to walk towards the high, wooden arch (attached to absolutely nothing, I might add) that everyone else was now headed towards, I walked with him and didn’t even try to ditch him or anything. Ah, who the fuck was I kidding. I had nothing else going on socially. A beer might have been nice though. And what the hell ever happened to that girl?
“Hey,” she ran up from behind and tagged me on the shoulder. And I was about to smile but, upon turning around, noticed that she was upset, “Can you help me?”
“Yeah. What’s the matter?”
“I left my purse with my,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “With my passport in the truck and now… Now they all drove off and I have no idea where they are.”
She was seriously about to cry.
The old guy…well, I’m not even sure if he’d heard just due to general deafness. And if he did, then he was much more interested in the food about to be served. And so he walked on without ever looking back. But not I. And it’s not even that I thought she’d sleep with me or anything for getting her passport back but more that I just didn’t want to go over there (wherever the hell ‘there’ was) and start eating with the big group and have to listen to them complain about the food. Picky eaters get to me, as in; I want to kill them all. Plus…it would have been sort of dickish to just be like, ‘Well, good luck with that. Peace.’
“Let’s just follow everyone and find someone from the tour. One of the drivers or a guide or something.”
“But there wasn’t any guide. Not this afternoon.”
“Well, there’s no one out here so… Wherever those drivers did go, they all seemed to have gone off together. And they might even stay wherever the hell that is until after dinner. They probably went to get gas or something.”
“But I…! Oh, what am I gonna do?!”
She put both hands to her head then and was clearly freaking out. And I just wanted to tell her, ‘Look. It’s not like they’re gonna rummage through your purse and swipe your passport just for the fun of it. There’s nothing in it for them.’
But then she told me that all her money was in there too.
“Well, look,” I really did say, “It’s not like they’re gonna rummage through your purse and steal your cash. These guys make a good living as is and their company has a reputation to maintain. So… But we can still try to find someone. Come on.”
And so we crossed under that weird, wooden arch to find an area about the size of the infield at any given baseball park and surrounded on three sides by three really high dunes…or maybe it was all just one continuous dune that curved around in a crescent. Either way; I’m talking really high. Forty feet at least. High enough to make us feel cozy and secluded. High enough to limit any form of visibility too less we’re talking ‘straight up’.
Try as we might, though, there really was no one from the tour company, officially, on-site to state our case to; only a couple of cook/bartenders and all they knew was that they were there to serve us food. And when we questioned them, all they did was shrug and make nondescript noises.
“Fuck!” she was really losing it now, “I’ve gotta go back out there and just wait to see if someone shows up. You can stay here and eat. Please. I’m sorry for dragging you into this.”
“It’s no trouble. I’m not that hungry anyway,” aside from little orange crusts around the edges, the sky was almost completely dark and the stars beginning to shine, “Hope you don’t mind if I smoke though.”
“No. That’s fine.”
And after a good, long stint of just sitting there in the sand, one of the SUV’s did pull back up. And, boy if that girl wasn’t running up to it and slapping its windows before the guy could even turn the engine off. He must have felt accused when she told him what it was that she was freaking out about. I would have. And although he didn’t have her purse or passport in that particular truck, he did assure her that everything would be fine. But even then she pressed him. And I really can’t stand this. There’s nothing that turns me off worse than when a girl just loses her cool. And thankfully, this guy wasn’t about to budge any further for her. He explained that they were off refueling indeed and that it wouldn’t do either of them any good if he went romping off through the desert trying to find them. It was just all so unnecessary. They may have even gone so far as to try to call that respective driver…I don’t know. I don’t believe they reached him. But I also didn’t care anymore and turned to head back towards the music and the party and a huge, beautiful bonfire that seemed to light up the night.
She didn’t follow. Her time was ruined. But not mine. So long as there was a bar. And yep, right up on my right there stood a bit of a makeshift one with only two different kinds of beer to offer that a guy would pull from a cooler full of ice back there. And, since it’s not like the Emirati brew their own beer or anything, I just went with a Heineken and really wanted to slam it and then another and then another but they were really expensive. So seriously, was the only way for me to get drunk on this trip to buy a bunch of six-packs at a liquor store (assuming I could even find one) and then take those back to my hotel room and pound them? Because I could do that at home!
No. Just stop. Just try to remember that you’re halfway around that world and that in itself is something special. So why not attempt to make some memories without being drunk? And so I moseyed on over to a large, open tent where I could see people still eating and a warm, cozy glow emanating from within.
“Hey-hey! He made it!” the elderly friend of the prissy guy with the really nice camera greeted me.
“Oh, good,” and the prissy guy started addressing me too! “I’m so glad you made it. We were getting worried. Did she find her documents?”
“Uh…” they’d caught me off guard with all their…friendliness? To say the least. “She uh…yeah. I mean, a guy drove up and said it was safe so… I just don’t think she’s gonna relax until that stuff’s back in her hands, ya know?”
And here they all (the old guy, the prissy guy, the cameraman guy and his pseudo-girlfriend, and a bunch of other people) nodded and seemed to agree.
“Here,” the prissy guy slid a huge plate across the table to me, “We made this and saved it for you. There’s one for her too. Although, there’s so much food left, it didn’t seem as necessary as it did earlier but… Well, do you know if she’s hungry? Is she coming back here? Do you think I should take this to her?”
“Um…I’ll bet ya she’ll be back in a minute,” I had no idea what to say. Who the fuck were these people?
“Now we all had a little bet going,” the camera guy’s girlfriend spoke cheerily as I handpicked food from my plate the way the Arabs do. There must have been silverware though…somewhere. Then again, maybe not. “So what we wanna know is, is that your sister? Because we noticed you don’t have the same room and none of us has seen you kiss…”
“Ah, no,” I smiled all embarrassed.
“Oh, well then she is your girlfriend. Or just your friend? Kinda like my friend I’m here with,” she glanced at the movie camera guy.
“No, honestly. I just met her today.”
Some of them thought that was really romantic like we were going to get married or something back in The States. Shit, maybe they thought we’d get married here. It was weird. But no weirder than the way they all talked to me as if we were intimate friends. And when the hell had they all become such good friends? What the hell did I miss here?
“Tell you guys what,” I stood up slowly from my cushion and the low table so as not to knock anything over, “I’m just gonna grab me one more of these,” I pointed to my beer, “And I’ll be right back. Anyone else want anything?”
And they all declined.
“Alright,” and I playfully added, “Save my spot,” to a background of abundant giggling and merriment.
Back at the bar though, right as I was waiting for the guy to turn around and pull me another bottle from the cooler on the ground, a couple of stern fingers jabbed me in the back of the shoulder. And oh my God, it was the IRS lady and her lips and cheeks were convulsing as if she were about to say something but the words just wouldn’t come out. Jesus. This must be like a big confrontation for her. Something that she’d been building herself up to all night!
“It would seem that you forgot to repay me for the tip last night,” and her whole tone was shaky and accusatory.
“Oh yeah,” I admitted, “I totally forgot about that. But…” and I pulled a single bill from my wallet that I knew would add up to more than enough, “Here. This oughta cover it. But hey, I gotta get back to my friends over there so…”
“Well, this is more than you owed. I can bring you some change…”
“You know what?” I interrupted her, “Don’t even worry about it. I want you to have that. Not as a gift but as interest. And you have a nice rest of your trip.”
And with that, I turned right around and headed back towards the warmly glowing tent where the ‘cool’ group (as I now liked to think of them ((especially when compared to the few, bitter old crones that the IRS lady was hanging with in a nearby tent that actually appeared dim and cold))) had risen and were all making their way to a central, makeshift dance floor that had been situated directly between us. And this is when the music started. I couldn’t decide whether or not to be disappointed that the sounds weren’t being generated from a live band…but they weren’t. Instead, the bartender guy picked a boom box from up out of the sand where it had been sitting next to the beer cooler, set it on the table-slash-bar, and hit play on the CD segment. And the music was what anyone might have guessed. Tribal sounding shit that was heavy on the flute along with a lot of other hokey acoustic instruments. But the group didn’t seem to mind a bit. They got out there instantly. The ladies hurrying to get out there even! And although, there were actually two black girls in this group; they each and every one of them danced like the whitest people I’d ever seen in my life. Not that I, in retrospect, should be one to talk since I didn’t dance at all. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. It’s just one of those activities that I really have to be in the mood for…unlike some people. Obviously, unlike every single person in this group. But the guy who impressed me most (and it’s not because he had very good moves or anything…or any moves at all for that matter) was that movie camera guy who’d actually left his camera back in the tent which I thought would have been impossible because of his surgically being attached to it. But this guy; there was just something about his enthusiasm! His hips! It was like watching someone do the limbo but with no pole. And he was dancing with everyone. And it was like everyone wanted to dance with him! And although I still looked at him as if he were some ignorant fucking jerk, I also began to look at myself then as some sort of negative creep. And we both lived up to our labels respectively. And although the crowd tried their best at times to bring me out there with them, I chose to remain on the sideline for this one smoking cigarettes and nursing my beer. I was not at all unhappy.
“Well then, sir. Might I recommend an establishment that I believe is just what you’re in the mood for. And it’s just a nice, short buggy ride down the way.”
Some British concierge actually said that to me. And I mean, how is that not funny?
Before leaving my room while I was getting dressed up in a suit ready to hit the clubs, the IRS lady actually knocked on my door and said, “Oh. Well, I can see you’re going out.”
And that was it. She walked away and I closed the door again but… It was like she’d made this whole pretense of giving me my change. But once she saw Pierre Cardin in all its pinstripes; it’s like she was completely intimidated by the thing! Which only sent my own ego rushing. Because I was going out. Because this was Dubai after all and I’d seen and heard so much of these clubs on YouTube that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’d be rubbing snobby shoulders with sheiks and celebrities and businessmen and even computer software engineers who’d invented things that every person on this Earth used in their everyday lives but whose faces remained nameless. And then there I’d be with all these girls in stripper dresses and stuff…but who were actually businesswomen too just trying to blow some steam off their day. There I’d be and there’d they be. But no matter what happened tonight; I was always going to be able to say one thing. And that’s that I partied at least one night of my life away in Dubai. It’s what I’d been waiting for.
And so I’d taken a cab to a stretch of town along the beach. The Persian Gulf where, just on the other side, people were killing each other for God knows what. Or, to be more precise, Americans were killing more brown people as if they hadn’t had enough of that yet. While I enjoyed the thought of making sort of a mockery of the war. But it wasn’t just me. The whole thing was obscene. As if anyone, other than the poor saps in Iraq, could ever take a war seriously where there was a world renowned party spot for all ages and races just down the sea from where they were killing. Absurdity. That’s what I thought while tightening my tie and heading downstairs to catch the cab that I’d called for.
But when I was dropped off there, at that section of beach strip, I found no crowds along the sidewalks red-faced and just trying to get to the next place; the next bar or point of alcohol along the way…wherever that happened to be. Rather, the streets were quiet…other than the headlights breezing by in both directions. And even that was relatively quiet considering the empty desert on one side for no sound to ever bounce off of. And on the other side, I found hotels. And not exactly bustling either. But there they were and there I was at the foot of them. Like well-lit foothills or the face of some one-dimensional cliff. And so, having no aim exactly but full of ambition, I walked into the lobby of one of the poshier looking places and admired all the shiny marble and indoor palms while searching for the bar or bars which I had no doubt existed.
Red wallpaper with gold trim though. This was what I found. And technically, it was a bar although I don’t even think they had any liquor. Just a couple of beers on tap and I don’t even believe any of them were quality. But the worst part was; the place was small and dead. Completely. At first, there’d been a man and woman (both in suits) who appeared to be venting about an all-day business meeting…but it was as if even they quickly realized that this place sucked and so there I was; sitting alone in my salmon-colored faux-leather booth with huge oil paintings of fox hunts lining the walls behind me, so literal that I could practically hear the sounds of bugles blowing in the distance and the hooves of heavy horses (as pictured with gigantic asses!) clopping on the powdery, English earth. The men; in top hats, white pants, and red, formal looking coats with tails. Whips. Hounds. And me suddenly realizing that I’d been craning my neck for some time and barely working on my pitcher. But that’s how bad this place was. That’s how boring. And so, after squaring up with the old, white-haired bartender dressed up just like one of the guys in the painting, I took an elevator upstairs where there was supposed to be another point of alcohol. But once I arrived and made my way through the doors, I found it to be more of a restaurant where the people at the bar seemed to be there just waiting for a table. And they consisted of mostly more business types anyway…and not the fun kind.
That’s when the concierge found me and recommended some other place a quick, cab’s ride down the way. Well, perfect. At least someone besides myself had heard of Dubai’s supposed nightlife and party scene. And just to know that was refreshing.
Riding with windows down through those busy lanes beneath the never-ending line of street lights rising like metal, prehistoric trees from somewhere between the sections of cement barricade separating the flow of traffic, I decided that this could have really been any highway near the beach aside from one, minor detail. It was the billboards. And like anywhere else, they’d pop up about every quarter mile or so. But instead of actually advertising anything, each of these giant signs, between ornate frames of white resemblant of Corinthian columns, there was, smiling down on each and every car that passed, an enormous photograph of the sheik or sometimes one of his sons. Talk about egotistical although unmistakably Arabian.
After paying the cabbie and stepping out into the hot, dry air; I found myself facing a humongous, sandstone compound; too large to even be a palace. Every inch of it had been chiseled in decorative textures and I could tell by all the people with their shopping bags inside that this was some sort of mall. There were shops and kiosks but no corporate franchises though…which was kind of nice. And there was something about the high ceilings and terra cotta tiled floors that lent the place an outdoor feel. Tourists inside were definitely plentiful and well catered to but there were some more local families in attendance as well; their dress distinctly dividing them from Westerners.
This ‘market’ sold a lot of carpets, rugs, and mats of the finest quality, vivid colors (a lot of purples and blues), and patterns of the most intricate detail. But there were also posters depicting bird’s eye views of the city (especially this beach strip), postcards, scarves, even sandals, and some other handmade crafts much more unique. Every so often, I’d walk by a restaurant too. But I didn’t want any of that shit. It was sure nice to see people out and about but…where were the fucking clubs! The British guy said! And since I could think of absolutely no reason for he to have lied to me, I consulted one of those boards, illuminated from within, with a red dot indicating, ‘you are here’.
It appeared that on the other side of the mall there was sort of an annex building represented as a black silhouette on the board (as most of the more permanent businesses were). But inside this particular one, there was also the little icon of a martini glass. And that spelled club to me in any language. Or at least another bar or something. Either way; it was worth checking out.
What I ultimately found, however, wasn’t even worth the effort it took to walk over there…let alone leave my fucking hotel room for. Upon exiting the double doors leading out of the mall, I found myself beneath a covered, semicircular area dedicated to valet parking. And there were no Lamborghinis. Neither were there any Ferraris or Roll-Royce’s. Not a single damn car, in fact, and even the valet post itself appeared to have been abandoned. But there it was anyway just to my left. An open doorway with some stairs marking the entryway. And I could see some trippy lights emanating from within but with no bassy, trance music like I’d been expecting. Additionally, a pair of not-really-threatening bouncers stood on either side. Defiantly almost. As if guarding against those few who were in there already from trying to get back out.
Fuck it. Why not.
“Membership card, sir?”
“I’m not a member. What do I have to like pay a cover or something?”
“If you’re not a member then you can’t come in. Would you like an application?”
I had no idea what nationality they were supposed to be either. I couldn’t even pick out a distinguishing accent or race!
“Yeah, sure. So I just like fill it out or something and then pay a cover?”
What the fuck’s a guy gotta do in this town?!
“No, sir. You can fill it out and then return it in person or by mail. And then there’s the matter of the application fee which isn’t the same as the membership fee…but that you can pay later. Once you’ve been approved. You’ll need to make a copy of your passport. And then, of course, there’s a waiting period of approximately 10 working days to 2 weeks. Would you like one?”
Not that I had time to answer.
The dude’s counterpart had gone inside and already returned with the necessary paperwork...and it was like a booklet stapled together! Jesus. “Thanks guys,” and I took the packet with me but deposited it in the first wastepaper basket I passed just inside the mall again.
It took me about an hour after that but I did manage to locate a bar that didn’t require membership. And it was okay. There was a band playing for a while but not one patron seemed to be there solely to have a good time. Call it intuition; but I did get the distinct feeling that there was a lot of business networking going on all around me. And at least one person in the crowd (most of them sitting at tables or standing facing each other) would eyeball the musicians every few seconds as if they were making too much noise. So I grabbed a couple pints but then decided it just wasn’t my scene. Really, I should have just headed back to the ‘sports bar’ close to the hotel but to do so just seemed so defeating. Because…wasn’t travel about discovering all these new places? And it’s not like I wasn’t leaving Dubai first thing in the morning the day after tomorrow …to fly to Jordan…where I’d been before. So maybe this just wasn’t going to be my best trip. Still. Might as well ride it out and make the best of it. And although that was the right attitude, I still couldn’t help feeling like it’s one I’d been reduced to.
The next morning, I decided to just give up on finding a party anywhere in this pulseless façade of a city but realized there were still at least a few things I wanted to do during the day. And I did have most of the day to kill. Meaning; I hadn’t slept through it. Meaning; I wasn’t hungover. Meaning; I hadn’t even gotten drunk last night but just returned to my room, ordered some room service, and then called it a night. So, while everyone else was having lunch at the Burj al Arab, I opted to save money by going to a larger, more standard type mall to see (at least what was then) the only man-made ski slope…all the more awesome considering it was located about as far from real snow as one could think of.
And yeah, I saw it. And it was pretty impressive looking even from outside. The slope appeared as a giant, silver capsule tilted to a 45 degree angle and supported by a solid, single stilt. But seeing it from inside was even cooler. Up on the mall’s second level, somewhere around the food court, there were huge windows that plenty of people stood there and looked through. And I mean…there’s the Hoover Dam, yeah. But it’s just so…I don’t know. Utilitarian. Whereas this! This was a true feat of modern engineering. Arabs could fucking ski for Christ’s sake! Arabs among other people here. Because from that window, what I was actually viewing were people of all ages and races. I don’t even think it was that pricey to rent an inner tube and just belly down the snow. But it was more than I had…at least to survive another week overseas. Still, I stood and watched for a while. And there was actually snow coming down!
Late that night, I found myself in the hotel lobby having some drinks with part of the friendly group from last night and they were telling me all about how lavish their lunch was. Well, whatever. Some of them were staying on here (although I can’t imagine how much left there was for them to do). Even the local tour companies were probably scrambling to come up with new shit just then. But there were four of us who were going to Jordan in the morning. Just four. And I don’t even think I actually found out who until the next day around 4 a.m. when we each showed up back down there again with all our shit packed. And wouldn’t ya know it.
There I was, rolling my big, black hard-case behind me and out to a shuttle with none other than the movie camera guy, the old guy, and his really prissy, uber-whiny companion.
“Looks like it’s gonna be a boys’ trip from here on out,” I smiled.
No real responses either. Just looks of dismay.
On the plane, on the way there I was about to flip out on this old lady sitting next to me. She was German or Eastern European or something. I don’t know. I only heard her speak across the aisle to her companion a few times and I’m not that good at identifying any of those accents or languages. But she kept smacking her teeth with her lips. Over and over. Each time ending in a sharp, wet sound. And this was just typical, coach class flying. So her mouth was somewhere right around 6 inches from my ear. And a couple of times, I just sat forward, turned, and glared at her. But I don’t think she got it. And if she did, then I hate her even worse because she certainly didn’t stop. The whole fucking way. Hours of this shit.
That’s what I remember. That and tracking our flight right over Saudi on a big screen up front. Our plane; a little, white icon with the red line of our course stretching out its ass. Then we landed in Amman and received whole-page visas in each of our passports for twelve bucks. Thankfully, the line wasn’t very long. Didn’t seem like there were a lot of foreigners going out of their way to get there.
“And how much did you give him?!”
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait very long at arrivals for our guide to meet us either.
“What amounted to twelve bucks?”
We weren’t talking about the visa on arrival either. Instead, the movie camera guy had accidentally over-tipped an independent ‘skycap’ for basically lifting his suitcase into the back of the van. And our guide just cracked up over this…which caused the rest of us to laugh too. Everyone except the movie camera guy in his contrived, black jacket and trimmed, grey beard.
“I didn’t know!” he kept trying to defend himself, “The currency was different in Dubai. It was…actually worth less.”
“Yes, my friend.” The guide turned around then from his place up front in the shotgun seat. He was an enormous man. Bald on top and his face; clean-shaven. But he had these crazy-huge jowls and triple chins that hung down so low you couldn’t even see his neck. And he was fat not muscular. Just let me get that out of the way right away. But his smile was also huge and his personality; jovial just like a big Arab Santa Claus. “I think, maybe you should pay closer attention next time, yes?”
“Yeah. I will,” the movie camera guy whined, “I can’t believe he just took it though.”
“And why not?” the guide came right back, “I’ll bet he was happy to get it. So this was a very nice thing you did. Who knows? He may have had a family.”
Our destination today awaited far from this capital so, once again, I quickly found there to be nothing but empty desert outside our windows…which were tinted, thank God.
“Oh my God,” the prissy guy chimed in, “Could we get some more air conditioning back here? It’s so hot, I think I’m about to lose my freaking mind.”
“Sure, sure,” our guide said without turning around again and making no move to do anything about it.
It wasn’t that hot though. I honestly think that we were all just a bit tired and irritable. Which is why, when the movie camera guy began telling us a story of the guy he sat next to on the plane… “And he was like half Jordanian and half American or something. Or he was born here but raised there. I don’t know. But he had dual citizenship or something like that,” and just imagine that way-too-laid back, annoying stoner voice, “And he was like soooooo…I don’t know what you’d call it. Knowledgeable. You know. About like what’s going on in the world and stuff ? And I don’t know exactly what his job was but it had something to do with like…in America, going around to all these different places and like telling people how Jordanians aren’t bad or anything. And then here; doing the same thing but with like…Americans.”
Which is why I added; “That sounds great. Way better than my seat-buddy. I could have used a nighttime sleeping aide.”
And it took him a minute to get it.
“Oh, ’cause you’re like saying that it was really boring or something like that?”
He wasn’t even offended either. Which kind of threw me off. But yeah, there wasn’t so much as a shred of indignation in his voice. So he picked up, “Well, that’s okay. I mean, I guess it’s not for everyone.”
And I felt bad about it then because this guy didn’t mean any harm. He was just being nice. Just trying to share or whatever. And it became apparent, only to myself though, that it was indeed I, as usual, who was being the dick. The rest of the van, however, surprisingly, didn’t even seem to notice. No thickness to the air or bad energy. Which is probably why he picked up with another one right away.
“You know, this one time…about a year and half ago. I took this trip to Cairo and it was led by the woman, Marianne Williamson who wrote ‘A Return to Love’. I don’t know if any of you guys are familiar with it. But it was like…so…amazing. Like everything she said as we went around and visited all the pyramids and other places. It was like…you know that feeling where you’re just completely tingling everywhere? Well, it was like that. And I swear…I swear to you. That when it came time for me to catch my flight home again and we all had to break up. I was just sitting there in the airport but not really hearing anything because I was just so deeply contemplating my life and just life in general. That I actually missed my flight. It was like I was in a trance or something.”
Yep. Confirmation received. I hate you and Marianne Williamson. Whoever that fuck that is.
The old guy remained quiet though…which is why I really liked him best right then. And I, having the way-way back bench all to myself, used the opportunity to lie supine; knees up with feet flat on the fabric. None of us had gotten much sleep last night, I don’t think. And it clearly wasn’t because of any partying either. Even on my part. Nah. It was just a case of the good old fashioned had-to-get-up-too-earlies mixed with a hint of international travel anxiety. I just wondered what our guide thought about our sorry asses. If anything.
Once we were well outside of town and there was nothing but us and the highway and the reddish rocks and the gravel (instantly noticeable as being a bit grittier than the dunes of Dubai), our minivan stopped at…well, to call it a roadside diner might be touching on a bit of the old hyperbole. And even at truckstops; there are usually one or two other businesses in the immediate vicinity albeit still catering to the same clientele. But not this joint. It was just a restaurant out in the middle of nowhere. And from the very best that I could tell; it didn’t even have a name.
It didn’t have a sign. It didn’t even have any other cars parked in front or in back! And I wondered whether the people who worked here also lived on-site. And I wondered if they were going to be really weird.
“Okay, my friends,” our guide clapped his hands as if needing to do so to regain our group’s focus, “This is where we will stop for lunch. They usually have something good on so… We’ll see.” He spoke both excitedly and resolutely and I was able to read that mealtimes were something this guy really looked forward to from one to the next.
Inside, the place was pretty spacious with lots of wide windows overlooking the landscape. The floors were plank board and pretty sandy themselves. And the walls were raw wood too; splintery looking but decorated here and there with large, handcrafted fabrics of embroidered design. It was homey enough but there weren’t any menus or specific dishes to choose from. Rather, we were each brought a plate full of Middle Eastern goodies like pita and tabbouleh and some creamy sauces for dipping. And I found out real fast that they didn’t serve beer…which was a bummer. So I just asked for a bottled water.
“What about soda? They have Coke. Sprite?” our guide appeared concerned.
“Oh. Thank you. I’m just not much of a soda guy. No big deal though. Seriously. Water is great. I should probably be drinking more of this anyway.”
“Okay.” He still looked concerned though.
Afterwards, the general consensus between all of us tourists was that the place was overpriced…especially with there being not a lot of choice or anything available à la carte, say. And while the guide was away taking a piss or something, the prissy guy tried to conspire against any further meals such as this (that is; place of the guide’s own choosing). “Because he probably just eats for free, ya know,” and we all nodded our heads caring a little but not nearly as much as he did, “I mean…I sure didn’t see him pull his wallet out, did any of you guys?” And we all shook our heads ‘no’.
The only thing I dislike about the feeling of a full belly is that, as some sort of side-effect, it also causes me to feel carsick. And so nauseous was how I spent the next couple of hours and feeling the heat now that the prissy guy was referring to earlier. But there I still lay on the way back bench seat. I offered to trade if anyone else wanted to lie down but, thankfully, each of them said they were fine. At what must have been a hundred miles later, we stopped again to gas up; this place being quite the remote outpost as well. And there was a shop attached to the station with more drinks and candy and shit like that. But I stayed in the van this time while the other guys shopped around for 10 or 15 minutes or so. That’s how bad I was feeling. And when the nausea wore off, another sensation instantly took its place. I felt feverish.
Before arriving at our hotel (a place that everyone was really excited about after the travel company told us that it was actually an ancient, Roman village converted into single level rooms), the tour guide told us about one stop that I couldn’t remember was scheduled or not. Madaba was the name of the town and it was the first real sign of civilization we’d seen since leaving the airport in Amman. According to a highway sign as we entered the city limits; it was around 70,000; give or take. But it didn’t look like it. There was basically one main drag with minimal traffic, lots of dust, and more potholes than asphalt. There were also lots of pedestrians, men and women…all of their faces covered with cloth. But the one thing this town of such a self-proclaimed size was lacking was architecture. I mean, sure. There were, of course, the crudely constructed buildings on this main street which we now found ourselves cruising down. But between them, right down every alleyway, I could clearly see more sunlight and emptiness leading me to believe that much of Madaba’s citizens must have lived in modest accommodations out in the desert. Just a guess. And I preferred to believe this rather than there being some ratty apartment buildings just on the other side of the hills somewhere. Seemed more authentic that way.
At the end of this street, just as if the whole town had been built around it (which it almost certainly was), there was a church the same sedimentary stone color as the hills and pretty much every other building around. And it grew taller as we approached it dead-on; a well-centered bell tower sprouting up to reach the perfectly cloudless yet somehow faded feeling sky. Our van parking just off to the side of its front courtyard on the street.
“Okay,” our guide explained, “In here you will see one of my favorite things. It is one of the first known maps of the Middle East. Perhaps the first even. And it is a mosaic. And I hope you will all be very impressed.”
Now, I’d read about this particular archaeological discovery before coming to this area of the world the first time. And it sounded pretty cool. Supposedly, the finding of said mosaic was one of those situations where the ancients had decided that the mosaic itself was finally just too passé (so long had it been around before the ancients even). And so they paved right over the floors and walls (and all the mosaics) of this church with stucco and (thankfully) in doing so, perfectly preserving this piece of historical artwork underneath. But an ancient mosaic is just that and I don’t really feel the need to describe it aside that I was impressed by the way those most ancient of ancients did somehow manage to incorporate colored tiles that obviously weren’t from around these general parts. They must have traveled far and wide.
Other than that though; it really amounted to one of those ‘how long are we supposed to stand here and look at this?’ type of things. And our group’s unconscious consensus concluded on somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes…which was pushing it since I’m sure each of us was probably more interested in showering by that time and just finding some dark hole in which to relax. Almost everyone in our group, I should say. Because the movie camera guy; he still seemed really into it. And eventually, even our guide threw in to help us drag him out of there.
But it wasn’t over. Movie camera guy was determined to capture every last, video detail of this stop just as he had back in Dubai. And I didn’t get it really. I don’t think any of us did. I don’t even think he did just based on something he’d said in the van on the way here today. Someone had asked him what was up with all the video taking and it wasn’t even me. But it went something like, “What’s up with all the video taking?”
And he was like (in the dreamy voice that always made me just wasn’t to reach over and strangle him), “Ya know, it’s just that I want to be able to remember all my travels. But the funny thing is…I have so much editing to do from prior trips that I probably won’t even get to these for like four more years. Honestly.”
So there ya go. The guy had more hours on tape than even he knew what to do with. But hey; to each his own. At least, that’s how the rest of the group felt. I, on the other hand, would have freaked right out on his ass about here but was able to recognize the fragility of the dynamic that made up the very fabric of our fellowship. And when in a foreign land, I guess it’s better not to go around making enemies…even if they were of my countrymen.
The problem arose when movie camera guy didn’t stop with the mosaic. We were all heading back to the van when, upon simultaneously turning our heads in reverse, we noticed him to be still back there near the church’s dark, open entrance setting up a tripod and then proceeding to stand in front of his own camera (field reporter style) and basically interviewing himself. And even this behavior would have been relatively okay if the cops hadn’t taken notice and started walking up to him.
Our guide tiredly grunted then but stepped up to save the day. And just in the nick of time, it appeared, since the officers had already begun interrogating our own obsessed comrade. The rest of us just sort of watched the scene from afar. No need to make anyone jumpy. Apparently, they wanted to know if he had a permit for whatever documentary he was making and wished to see it. Which led our guide to have to explain, probably quite abashedly, that this stupid asshole had actually dragged this gigantic camera halfway across the world with him so that he could better commemorate his experiences even though he wouldn’t be able to ‘get to them’ for years to come. And they bought it. They took one look at him. Took one look at us (and despite the van, I don’t think the rest of us gave off anything close to ‘camera crew’ material). And they took one more look at our guide who, by this time, appeared really perturbed. And then they just shrugged and got the hell out of there. No harm, no foul. But then why did that asshole have to go and push his luck. Why couldn’t he just pack it up? Because he didn’t. He stayed right there in front of his damn camera and, for the next 10 minutes or so, went about finishing whatever the hell it was that he’d started. Fucking guy even tried to get our guide in there for an official recap of our day thus far but was denied.
“We’ll be waiting for you back in the van,” he told him walking away, “Please, try to hurry.”
“Are we in a rush?” the idiot actually had to ask.
“Recently,” our guide explained once we were back on the road again, “We had something very magical happen in this country. I don’t think it has ever happened in my lifetime but it did happen just this last week.”
“Snow!” all of us overachieving kiss-asses shouted out.
“Yes, very good. You are correct. It was almost unprecedented. And you could see, right along the road here, the parents and their children who had stopped their cars…stopped to play in the snow. It was a fantastic phenomenon.”
“Where’d you learn to speak English so well?” I asked from the back still.
“Was it very hard for you to obtain a passport?”
“A little. How do you know this?”
“I was actually here just couple years ago and the one guide I had then…I think her name was Salehm. And anyway, she said she wanted to obtain one but was still waiting approval. And she was college educated and everything.”
“Ah,” our guide turned his big, brown body around with a smile on his face now, “And you liked our country so much that you decided to come back!”
And he wasn’t being sarcastic.
“Yes,” I led him on, “You could say there were still a few more things I wanted to see.”
“And Salehm…she was a, how should I say, stalky girl. Very flowery personality.”
“Yes. I know her. I taught her much English and much of this business myself!”
“She was very sweet.”
“And you two…hit it off?”
“Yeah,” I shrugged…probably invisibly in the evening light, “I mean, she was friendly. I liked her.”
“And you two…became boyfriend and girlfriend then?”
And here he laughed from his belly at his own words; a joke perhaps. But still words that I’d never heard a Muslim man speak before.
“Not exactly,” I smiled, “But I was here with my girlfriend also so…”
“Ah. I see, I see. But now you are not.”
“Just me this time out.”
“Oh. Well, maybe I will tell her then and you two will hit it off this time!”
And again, he laughed. And I, for some crazy reason, started to wonder if this guy was her father or something and was even being close to serious.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see on that,” I ended with, “But she was rather sweet.”
And to think this whole time, I believed that the only reason no one in our group had interrupted was because they were so intrigued by this revelational conversation. And maybe for the prissy guy and the old guy; it was. But apparently not for our friend, Mr. Movie Camera Man. Because just as soon as we’d stopped talking and the guide had turned back around in his seat; he said, “I wish I could have seen those families playing in the snow. I would have used so much tape on them. So much. I would have had to actually buy more tape in a town somewhere.”
“Yes,” the guide’s voice was more stern and frustrated now but not even close to being raised in anger or anything, “But you see, I could not have let you do that.”
“Oh yeah?” I could just picture the ignorant smile on the guy’s face just then even though all I could see was the back of his head, “Why not?”
“Because this is not a zoo, sir. And these people, my people, are not animals collected in some cage.”
And at least, this time, the guy knew when not to press his luck. There wasn’t much tension though. I think the prissy and old guy were already sleeping in their seats. And basically, every one of us including the driver just couldn’t wait for a nice dinner and a bed.
“I highly recommend the Turkish bath,” our guide addressed us at the front desk in the tiny lobby, “I’m about to get one myself.”
From what I gathered, it was like a massage in a sauna.
“Okay,” we all nodded but really just wanted to get to our rooms.
“What time do you all want to start tomorrow? It does not matter to me but let’s say 7, 8, or 9.”
“Eight,” we all agreed which meant I was definitely going to need some sleep.
“Alright. Well, if I don’t see you; goodnight. There is a little restaurant on the grounds and I am sure you will like the food.”
“Okay. Goodnight,” we all smiled. I really liked the guy.
Then each of us stood there just long enough to get our keys. The guy behind the desk put four sets down in front of him and, spreading out a crude, line drawn map; decided it would be funny to let us fight it out amongst ourselves. And this is where it comes in handy not to think too much or fuck around. Because while the other guys were really planning this shit out, I noticed immediately that there was but one room apart from the others. And so I grabbed the corresponding key and was out the door. Almost.
“Hey, Mick,” the old guy called from behind.
“I smuggled a bottle of gin if you want to, and this goes for everybody, have a quick drink before dinner.”
“That actually sounds really good,” I halfway turned around just so that he could see the genuine look in my eye, “Like an hour or something?”
“An hour it is,” the guy’s voice; always jovial.
Outside, the sky was already black as could be and the grounds weren’t lit very well…especially the room numbers. I had a copy of the map, though, and the whole place couldn’t have amounted to more than an acre. Basically, this hotel or motel or whatever this inn was classified as in this part of the world was comprised of a sprawling number of stucco dwellings that reminded me of the adobe style homes of a romanticized version of Arizona or New Mexico. And from some of them; already, a warm, yellow light glowed from within their windows. The pathways were wide and completely paved with a slick (albeit, worn down over the centuries) stone while waist-high walls of ancient masonry constructed from the same material kept perfect pace with me. Sometimes the path sloped up and then down again. And sometimes there were a few steps installed. But basically, when I found my own little villa, the porch light was out as was the one next to it and it felt quiet and remote over here. Perfect.
The lock on the door was old fashioned, though, and it took me a while to jimmy the key. But this gave me just enough time to realize that my quarters were on the outermost layer of the village with nothing but desert behind the little wall. And way up on top of a hill, I could see a minaret lit with green neon and hear the nighttime call to prayer being broadcast through some cheap megaphone or phones.
Inside, I quickly found the light and also the switch for the porch light outside which I flipped on to give the place a more homey feel. And it was spacious enough. The floors were of a burn orange tile; ceramic. And the bed was bigger than the one I slept in at home. So all in all, I was pleased. Plus, just to think, some Roman family used to fucking live in here! But most of the magic and wonderment wore off once I looked in the huge, bathroom mirror to see how greasy and grimy I actually was. My shower was long and scalding.
I found the old man’s room an hour later. It was back closer to the lobby in a cluster of other villas, their front doors almost touching, and everybody’s porch light brightly lit. It took him a while to answer even though I wasn’t early. And I was really surprised to find that the others hadn’t made it over yet.
“Well, come on in,” he said, “You look like a new man.”
“Thanks. I feel a lot better. Cool hotel, huh?”
“Incredible,” he agreed and began pouring the shots of gin without hesitation.
The bottle was a fifth of Beefeater that he picked up either in Dubai or maybe even way back in New York. He hadn’t opened it till now though. Which left me wondering either what the occasion was or if he’d packed plenty of other bottles like this and had been drinking them all along.
“You talk to the others?” I asked as he handed me a glass with a double shot and no mixer.
“Yeah, they’re my next door neighbors. I’m sure they’ll be along shortly.”
And so the old man and I talked and sipped and talked for the next 20 minutes or so. I remember we got on the topic of music and said something about smoking a joint and finally realizing what was behind the phenomena known as the Grateful Dead. I couldn’t tell if he meant ‘recently’ or not and was just about to ask him when there came a knock from the movie camera guy. And crazy enough, so soon as he finished his first double and was feeling the effects, I actually started to like the guy…or at least tolerate him and feel that little bit of kindredness that I believe must exist inside everyone once their buzzed enough. And just because this understanding occurs so easily in an impaired state doesn’t mean it’s shallow. Rather, I sometimes wish nations could just share a few drinks and hang out on a cushy chair, a sofa, and the foot of a bed.
When the last knock came, the movie camera guy had been talking about his college days. The drinking, especially straight shots, had reminded him of them obviously. And he’d been going on about some fictitious word he and his roommates had made up; the last one of them to say said word so soon as a notion was presented where somebody was required to do something, had to do it. Example: so soon as the knock at the door came, he laughed to himself and said the word, the old man followed in suit, and since I was probably the most faded, a little slow on the uptake, thought the game was stupid, and ultimately didn’t care; had to get off my ass and answer it in order to be a good sport. And if it’s one thing I ever try to be, it’s that.
“Oh my God, look at you guys,” the prissy guy appeared showered and refreshed too and I wondered if he’d had a Turkish bath, “I walk in and all I see are these shiny, red noses!”
“The gin’ll do that to ya,” I threw in rhetorically, “Isn’t that why they call it a gin blossom? Is that a thing or am I just making that up?”
“No, I think I’ve heard that before.”
“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
“What does that mean?”
“More desert?!” we laughed.
And after the prissy guy finished his glass, the four of us carried on outside this way in our cheery, buoyant state and made it the short walk over to the little restaurant where we pleasantly discovered that the price of dinner had already been paid for with the room. The setup was buffet style and there were booths lined along an uncrowded dining area; the overhead lights perfectly dimmed for dinner.
To the host and the rest of the Muslim staff and the few other guests that were in the place, we must have absolutely reeked of booze like a mechanic, at the end of the day, reeks of gasoline. But they didn’t say anything. It’s not like it was illegal to drink anyway. Well, I mean, it was for them. Punishable by law, for them. And probably a not very lenient sentence. But for us, fuck it. We were Americans. We could do whatever the fuck we wanted so long as it… No. Just pretty much whatever the fuck we wanted.
Our silent driver drove us through more wasteland in the morning. It felt like we were headed southeast and away from everything but I could have been mistaken. Eventually we turned off onto a dirt road though. And that was cause for a little commotion and excitement although I’m not sure why. It wasn’t even very bumpy.
“Okay,” our guide turned around in his front seat again, “In just a few more miles, we will come to what I like to think of as the gateway to Wadi Musa. ‘Wadi’ is what we call a dry river bed. We can tell that water has been there although it has not been for some time. And ‘Musa’. Who can tell me what that means?”
“Moses,” the prissy guy answered before I could even.
“Very good. So basically, this is the Valley of Moses. And we Muslims believe in Moses. Some of us even believe in Jesus. As a minor prophet, of course.”
And deep into the desert we drove kicking up an undulating, snakelike trail of dust that never seemed to settle. Until eventually coming to what looked like some really shitty, rundown auto garage out in the middle of nowhere. It was also where any sort of visible road ended.
“Okay. Everybody out,” our guide opened his door and we followed in suit, “This will only take a minute. I’m going to go inside to talk to my friend and I will be right back.”
Again, thank God this was February otherwise I couldn’t imagine having stood out there for more than a millisecond without heatstroke setting in, not to mention melanoma. And we never did see him go out through a backdoor although he must have. Because, next time we laid eyes on our guide, he was pulling up alongside us again from behind the wheel of a tiny, well-rusted Toyota pick-up. There was a pile of shit that had been covered up in the passenger’s seat too.
“Alright,” he smiled like some sort of Gypsy with something behind it, “Everybody in.”
And obviously, he meant ‘in the back’.
“Oh my God,” I heard the prissy guy mutter to himself then, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“Well?!” he leaned over on the bench to speak to us through the passenger’s window which was rolled down and looked as if it might permanently be stuck that way, “What you waiting for?! Plenty of desert to see. Get in.”
And so we did. The movie camera guy and I sitting atop each wheel-well while the prissy and old guy opted for the lower ground as if trying to avoid the wind. And the truck took off. He wasn’t exactly speeding either which was nice since it’s not like there were any cushions back there or anything. Nope. Just sharp, rusty metal. So oxidized was it, in fact, that I quickly began to ask just what sort of psycho would have painted the pick-up white to begin with…or at least who would have bought such a color.
Nobody wanted to say it out loud either but I’m sure it was on everyone’s mind. Or not. Maybe I’m just paranoid and projecting but… To me, at least, it certainly did seem like this guy was driving us even further out to where the earth was nice and sandy for one reason and one reason only; so that he could murder and then bury us out here. Well, fuck that; I already had my mind made up. He could kill me, fine. But I would never dig my own grave. It’s just so humiliating. His fat fucking ass could do it himself…or maybe he’d make the prissy guy do it or something. Yeah. He would certainly try to stall and hang onto that one, last little minute of life. But not me. No, sir. Don’t care. My last few moments in this world would not be dedicated to manual labor. I kinda wished I could jerk off though. And I thought about it. But hmm. Better be sure first.
“Did anyone read the itinerary?” the movie camera guy asked and not just to make conversation, “Is this Petra?”
“No,” I answered from the opposite side of the metal bed, “I’ve actually been to Petra. And this isn’t it. And anyway, I think that’s tomorrow.”
“I know. I just thought that maybe we were going a back way or something. What’d he say today was?”
“Oh, yeah. But what’s there to see there?”
“I don’t know. This, I guess.”
The scenery did get better though…after a while…a really long while. Long enough for each of our asses to become completely numb and me to worry about having contracted lead poisoning from all the flaky paint chips peeling up everywhere. But it was as if, from out of the barren orange sand; huge, red rocks were emerging…so solid and different from the dirt all around us that it forced one to wonder how these two formations had ever come to coexist. And still the red rocks grew until they joined and expanded and we were driving down various channels now that did seem much more like dry riverbeds or wadis or tributaries. And so soon as we were beginning to enjoy ourselves again and be able to marvel at the nature all around, the truck stopped.
“Okay, everybody out,” our guide’s door creaked open and then squealed shut again after he’d exited the vehicle.
But for a moment, none of the rest of us moved.
“What?” his tone was almost hurt, “You do not think it’s beautiful?”
It was beautiful, though, actually. And it didn’t take us long to discover exactly why he stopped there. Mostly because it was as good a spot as any in this area. It was all beautiful and the sky was so blue and clear, it was almost neon…juxtaposed against the red tones. The whole scene was super trippy. And the air temperature couldn’t have been any more perfect. Slightly cool and barely a breeze.
There was still a momentary lapse before we moved…as if the imaginary wall between ourselves and this non-American hadn’t yet faded. And this was partially due to something our guide had said yesterday at the restaurant while the prissy guy had gotten up to use the restroom. Apparently, those two hadn’t really hit it off. And by that, I mean that our guide absolutely hated him. And I knew where he was coming from because way back there at the gate in JFK, I’d really hated him too. But then he started to come around and I was now able to see this sort of well-meaning but just really needy and temperamental person just the same. Which is actually a huge step up from the little worm I thought he was before. But with our guide…well, not enough time had passed for the prissy guy to have rubbed him the right way yet. And if I had to bet, probably not enough time ever would. No big deal so long as our guide didn’t hate the rest of us just because we happened to have booked the same package. And so long as he didn’t leave us stranded anywhere…which is exactly, once the prissy guy was out of eyesight and, presumably, earshot; he said. “I am telling you all this in seriousness. I don’t have to do this. I’m retired. And I swear to you…if it was just him who was there at the airport, I would have just left him there.”
The weird part was, I could not for the life of me remember the prissy guy having said anything directly to the guide (or driver for that matter) that would have pissed them off. Mostly, he just complained about how terrible the flight had been and, okay…he was kind of annoying. But I guess I’d just become used to it these past 3 or 4 days.
“Can we like…run around and stuff?” the movie camera guy asked timidly.
“Yes. Please,” he practically implored us, “Go! Run around! Make complete fools of yourselves if you want to. Nobody will see.”
So slowly, we crept out of the truck and took a few steps away from it. And then a few more. And then the movie camera guy pointed his giant telescope at something and turned it on which prompted the rest of us to do the same. Me; with my disposable kind. And the old man with that sweet, digital Nikon that he’d bought himself for Xmas last year. And the prissy guy…well, I don’t know what he was packing. A little, digital handheld, I’m sure. And although our guide had sat back down on the driver’s side, we began to trust that this was only because he was fat and tired and had, no doubt, seen Wadi Musa and probably this exact spot about a million times before anyway.
We scattered out over those red dunes pretty far, in fact. Each of us in his own little, picture-taking world. Thinking about stuff. Not thinking about anything. That’s what’s great about being so far away.
“Okay, okay,” he was calling us back and calmly waving his red baseball cap now, “More to see. Much more to see. Always more to see,” he smiled.
And so there was. Deeper into the desert we drove. The scenery staying pretty much the same but opening up and widening out a lot more until those rocky, granite formations that seemed so much like mountain ranges before, actually became such. Eventually, at what had to have been right about midday, our truck pulled up and parked right in front of a cliff; the chestnut colored face of which stretching straight up for hundreds of feet. There was also an open tent just off to our right defying the very brightness by being a deep shade of olive green and further defying it by providing a deep, black shade underneath. It was the only shade we’d seen, come to think of it, since turning off the main highway; this land being perfectly void of vegetation.
There were some tables set up underneath the shelter and, wouldn’t ya know it. Even way the fuck out here with seriously nothing else around for miles and miles; this tent was a tourist trap. If we bought some of their shit, our guide probably received a small commission from the owners…assuming they even owned the tent or the land. And there was just the most obvious shit displayed on these tables. Sunglasses, for instance. I suppose, if we forgot our own. And tubes of eyeliner (that I actually wanted to try but didn’t) so that Westerners (and maybe even some Far Easterners) could get done up like the Sheiks of old. The part of this weird little business that none of us could understand, though, was that no one seemed to be around running it. Just us and the guide. He said if we wanted anything, just to take it and we could pay for it later. But since nothing was priced, none of us did.
We did use the tent, however, to kind of chill out in the shade for a minute. Nobody was charging for that at least…I think.
“Come over here,” our guide said after a while, “I want everybody to see this.”
And so we followed him over one dune about 50 yards away.
“Do you see that?” he was pointing towards what appeared to be a whole little village of tents just far enough away to make them seem like playthings.
“Yes,” we answered.
“Do you know what that is?”
“No,” we sounded like a classroom full of school children.
“That…” he announced, “Is a Saudi Prince. And he has come here with his friends and…I cannot remember this word. His…all his people.”
“Entourage?” I tried to help out.
“Yes! Thank you. His entourage. And he will be here for the next 3 or 4 months. Maybe longer.”
“What’s he doing here?” asked the prissy guy.
“Mostly, he is hunting with his falcon. That and drinking a lot and maybe some gambling even. And, of course, selecting women from his harem…which is what one of those tents is.”
“Wait a minute,” the movie camera guy really thought he was onto something, “Isn’t he Muslim?”
“Well, aren’t you guys,” and gratefully, he took a moment to reselect his words, “Isn’t he, then, forbidden by the religion to drink?”
And I was glad when our guide belly laughed so hard then, he actually had to bend over to catch his breath. “You think that because he is Muslim?! Well, let me try to put this is such a way. Are the three of you Christian?”
“I’m not,” I answered.
“Me either,” the movie camera guy threw in, “I’m Buddhist.”
And, “Don’t look at me,” the old man shrugged.
But, “I am,” the prissy guy spoke up, “And I’m very devout in my beliefs.”
“Okay,” he seemed surprised at there being only one Christian in the bunch but, “And so, as a Christian, do you always follow the rules of that religion?”
“I try my very best to.”
“And do you believe that all Christians do their very best to?”
“I really can’t speak for all Christians…”
“Well, I can tell you one thing. They do not. And neither does Mr. Prince down there with his harem.
“Yeah but,” the movie camera guy was at least pretty well-informed, “But don’t they, in Saudi I mean, don’t they prohibit alcohol…in the entire country?!”
“Yeah. Sure,” our guide answered right back, “But he is a prince so…”
And he left it at that.
And so did we.
Later that afternoon, we drove to a site where the Romans had built sort of a sports park including a full-size amphitheater and dirt track straight out of Ben-Hur where they really did, no joke, used to do chariot racing. It was also here that our guide suggested sitting down at another restaurant nearby and ‘enjoying’ yet another huge meal…which our group had talked about talking to him about. So…moment of truth. Here goes nothing. And…? Well, I wasn’t going to say anything because I can always eat. Plus, there might be the slim chance they carried beer there. But the prissy guy. He spoke up. Which, let me tell ya, really didn’t do too much for their already rocky relationship. And of course, when each of them separately got up and went to the bathroom, the one who remained sat there and talked shit to us about the other.
“I’m a diabetic. I have to eat every so many hours,” was our guide’s excuse for these enormous lunches.
And, “He’s a diabetic?” was what the prissy guy said in his absence after we’d all just watched him wolf down a heaping platter of assorted fried goods and cup sized dollops of creamy sauces.
At dinner, back at the same hotel for just one more night, I learned that the old guy’s nephew was a screenplay writer who’d just recently been picked up by HB-fucking-O to write a series for them.
“And he’s in his 40’s. So don’t you ever give up on your dreams,” he was across the table, specifically addressing me…and everyone agreed.
And this was weird because it’s not like I ever told him I even had any.
Later that night, though, back in my room and in bed, tucked in and warm (too warm) with the little TV on its stand across the floor at low volume; I began to feel a bit feverish in the head and with a burn coming from somewhere in the back of my mouth. My gum, specifically. And when I stuck my finger in there to check things out. Sure ’nough, my goddam molar was loose as I swiveled it back and forth with the tip of my index. So what the fuck?
I got up, not because I wanted to further examine it in the mirror, but because the fever was making me weary. And I changed the channel on the television to the only other one that came in…and not all that clearly. But the sound was okay so I left it there. And I paced for a spell; no telling how long, really. My fingers groping for anything to fuck with other than my tooth which I was quickly becoming obsessed with. And then found, on the wall next to the door, a dial which took me a bit but, I eventually found controlled the temperature of the floor. This room came complete with an adjustable, heatable floor. I only knew for sure because the tile was practically burning my bare feet and I knew then that I must have mistaken that for the actual radiator…but then I wasn’t sure where that was. As an experiment, I decided to lie down again and test the tile-temp in about a half-hour’s time or so. And I did. And it was cooler. But then the chill, desert air felt to cool in the room so what the fuck. And not that I really wanted to go outside again if, indeed, it was that cold; but suddenly, I felt the need for some fresh air. Nighttime air. Star-time air. And so I crept out through my own door where I knew no one else would be along the walk anyway and smoked a cigarette where the ‘burrr’ didn’t get to me at all. My tooth still did though. And I knew that the cigarette smoke against that bloody, tender gum couldn’t be doing very much good. So what the fuck? I’d never traveled with medicine and didn’t have any now. But I could have gone for some. Some anti-inflammatories or something. Just some aspirin even. Just to take down the fever and this…what I was presuming to be some sort of infection.
Next day and we were all checking out. Which meant that we had our bags now and they were piled into the back of the van. And I clearly remember some guy, in the open-air little gift shop on that cool morning, asking me why I wouldn’t pay more for a packet of painkillers.
“Aren’t you American?” he smiled revealing a mixture of gold teeth, rotten teeth, and no teeth at all.
“Well,” he retorted just way too complacently, “Then all American’s are rich, yes?”
“No,” and I put on my honest face as if it were a lie, “You named your price already. Take it or leave it. I’m sure I can buy some just up the road from here.”
Our guide, at this fine, early hour, came out dressed in one of those beige vests that journalists wear with all the pockets all over it. I’m not sure what he had in all those pockets either because it’s not like they were full of film. It’s not like he was taking any pictures. So between that and his red ball cap, he definitely resembled somebody who’d get shot on the news.
“Good morning, everybody,” he greeted us as the van took off, “I hope you are excited because today we are going somewhere that I never get tired of going to and I have been there hundreds, possibly thousands of times. And you, Michael,” he addressed me (still on my perch in the way-way back), “You say you have been there before, yes?”
“Yeah. It’s really cool,” I fecklessly attempted to convince my fellow Americans.
“And Salehm, she is the one who took you there?”
“Yes,” I groaned and played along.
“Then I don’t understand how it is that you two did not get married.”
“Like I said, she was having trouble getting a passport so…”
“And you did not want to stay in Jordan?” he was really cracking up at this.
“I mean, I really like it here and all but…”
“Well, maybe if we see her today, you’ll have a chance to help her get a passport yet.”
“Well, maybe if we see her today, you’ll have a chance to help her get a passport yet.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“Simple. Just marry her!”
Petra is an interesting site (I’d go so far as to say ‘unique’ for tourists) because they really make you work for it. There’s no road that gets anywhere close to the thing…which I guess was sort of the whole point of it. I mean, they still wanted to be able to get shit in and out of there without being easily invaded so… So every tourist car, truck, and bus still (thanks to the Nabataean design dating back possibly before even the time of Christ) had to park in an area of higher ground and let their people out where they, in turn, would have to walk the couple of miles down this weird, narrow canyon (sometimes almost completely meeting overhead) till they got to the good stuff. It’s pretty interesting stuff though, really. The Nabataean, even way the hell back when, had a little groove cut out in one side of the stone wall so that drinking water could reach the very bottom of their well-hidden and well-protected capital. But I’d seen it before. The prissy guy was too busy complaining about the heat and having to walk to pay attention to what our guide was saying. And the movie camera guy, since he was taping absolutely every second of this without fail, I’m pretty sure was missing goddam absolutely everything. But the old guy…he seemed interested.
“Okay,” our guide in front spread in arms out, “Everybody stop. I want to make sure you enjoy this moment.” It had grown cooler down here between the red canyon walls and the irrigation canal I mentioned that still actually worked! So there was the sound and smell of a little water running too. “Now, very slowly proceed forward and I think you will enjoy.”
The movie camera guy, proceeding as instructed with that damn camera stuck to his face, stumbled over a rock and I would have given almost anything to have seen him trip all the way and bust that fucking lens wide open. But he didn’t. He regained his balance at the last moment and the movie continued.
Most people are familiar with what is probably the most impressive site in the whole of this national monument. Basically, carved right into the face of a huge, red cliff; there’s a really intricate façade of what would appear to be a palace. There’s columns and towers and stairs leading up to an entrance. But it’s just a relief. The door leads back about six feet into the solid rock but stops there. Not that it’s not impressive because it is. It’s gigantic. And just to sit there and try to imagine how the hell human beings could chisel away at that stone so precisely…and so high! They must have used a lot of scaffolding or just had them hanging from ropes. Either way, it made for a very cool place to hang out for a while. And, way down here at the bottom of the canyon, this entire area (almost) remained out of any direct sunlight.
“Take your time,” our guide told us, “Look around. And if you want to walk up and put a couple of dinar in the box inside the temple there, the money all goes to the preservation of this sacred place. Also, if you look there,” he pointed towards the top of the façade where there appeared to be a small jar carved out of the same stone sitting atop the centermost tower, “Can you see from here all the pockmarks in it?”
“Yes,” we answered.
“Michael, did Salehm tell you what those are from?”
“Um. Yeah. She said they were from raiders or bandits who must have discovered this place…sometime after the invention of the rifle anyway. And that they’d shoot at it because they thought it was full of treasure.”
“Very good, sir. My girl has taught you well,” he just wasn’t about to let this go.
After taking a bunch of pictures from every possible angle, our group proceeded just a bit further down the canyon where it leveled back out and widened up so that, suddenly, we found ourselves again in the bright light and heat of the day…which was fine. The warmth felt good on the skin of my arms and I might have even been smiling. And the park (if that’s what they even called these grounds) wasn’t too crowded either. Plenty of room to move around and not have to listen to other people’s stupid conversations.
Burros and the occasional camel would pass us now and again sometimes carrying someone who’d grown too tired to walk. And just up ahead, I could see our next destination; an outdoor restaurant where a slight series of stairs led up, away from the road and towards many levels of decking where they’d simply smoothed out the rock and set up picnic tables of various length. A couple of these had been placed underneath ramadas but we weren’t lucky enough to get there in time. But no big deal. So I’d have a sunburned nose. Big whoop.
The food was pretty much the same as it had been since we’d come to this country. But there was plenty of it at least and that particular, more authentic (I like to think) type of hummus that actually doesn’t smell like BO. So that was nice. That and a lot of pepperoncini which I really enjoy biting into to sort of clear my palate. It’s just that this time…and this has never happened to me before and, odds are, I’m relatively sure it will never happen again. But I bit into the one, particularly fat, particularly juicy pepperoncini and a full-on stream of chartreuse juice shoots out of it in the direction opposite that of my mouth. And who do you think would be sitting right across from me? That’s right. The prissy guy. And this stream, with force enough to dislodge a contact lens; it squirts him right in the eye causing him to make a sour face instantly. And then his hand goes up to his eye. And then he’s all faltering around in his seat and such. And then begins the, “Oh my God. Oh my God, I can’t see. Oh my God, it stings. John,” that was the old man’s name again, “John, help me to the bathroom.”
“Holy shit, I’m so sorry man,” and I really meant it.
But he didn’t say anything. The two of them just stood up and went.
“It’s okay,” the movie camera guy tried to reassure me, “He’ll be fine. God! If I only could have gotten that on tape!”
“He would have to be the one,” mumbled our guide whom I’m sure, only moments from now with their return, was expecting the worst.
But then, we all just had to crack up at the situation and its unique brand of ridiculousness. Thankfully, though, this fit of insane, red-faced laughter abated by the time they got back.
“I’m okay,” was the first thing the prissy guy nasally announced, “I just rinsed it out. It’s fine.”
But it was bloodshot. I noticed that as soon as he sat back down across from me.
“Dude, I’m really sorry man.”
“Oh, it’s okay. It’s okay. These things happen.”
“Actually,” I just had to throw in, “I’m not so sure that they do.”
And for a few seconds, everyone was silent. But then we all just started laughing again. And Jesus Christ! I may have actually felt like I was starting to like these guys.
After lunch, our guide recommend some different trails around the area and some other pretty cool stuff to hike to. And I was down. Surprisingly though, John, the old guy, was the only one in our group who wanted to come with me. And it’s not like my feet stank or anything. Rather, the hike was supposed to be a couple miles uphill and the rest of them were like, “Nah, we’re gonna stay down here, maybe ride some camels around…” That sort of thing. And I’m sure they did…and took lots of video.
But the old guy and I had a nice time. I had to slow it down a pace so that he could keep up. But I didn’t mind. I liked talking to him. He wasn’t like some of the other, preachier old men I’d run into in my day. Christians mostly who just loved to ask me why I wasn’t married and have a hundred kids yet. He did ask about me a lot, however. But he was just sort of making conversation as we made our way through the desert and rocky outcroppings on this all but deserted trail.
“I’m impressed,” I told him, “When I’m your age, I don’t think I’d ever be able to make it up this path.”
“That a compliment you’re giving?”
“Well, thank you.”
And what we found there after basically climbing all the way back out of the canyon (only at a different point) was another façade not unlike the majestic one we’d seen down below. It was more special to me, though, because it was one that way less humans had ever laid eyes on. I mean, shit, I’d even been here before and had no idea that another one of these even existed. It was a different kind of rock than had been down below. Yellower. And harder somehow. And the details of the palace were a tiny bit more eroded because this place was much more out in the open. In fact, when we both did an about-face, a warm breeze ran over us and only about 40 yards away was the edge of one dramatic precipice. And in that direction we could see what was probably Wadi Musa again. We could see for miles. Maybe even a hundred. So far that when the blue sky met with the red desert, it turned kind of pale amber around the horizon. So far that I knew no picture could ever capture it and knew for certain that it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in a while.
“Not exactly Disneyland, is it?” he said.
“That’s for sure. But you know how kids are. I don’t think they’d get it anyway.”
I’m pretty sure our guide drove all the way back up to Amman with us again. And I distinctly remember visiting a museum sometime during the day where the prissy guy kept attracting dirty looks from the locals although I was never perfectly sure why. I remember leaving the general area and grabbing a quick espresso with only him in some tiny, dirty shop at the bottom of a hill. And I remember that on our way back, he kept looking over his shoulder and was sure that we were being followed by either a guy or guys with malicious intent. But nothing bad ever happened. And after that, our guide bid us farewell when we reached the hotel. The Radisson. Which is funny. I’ll bet a lot of Americans don’t realize that such chains of hotels even exist on the other side of the globe because they’re just so…well, American. But they do. And Jordan is home to a few. There’s even a Days Inn there. And I knew this even a couple of years before because…
The subject came up back in Petra as we were walking down the canyon path. I’m not even sure how it got started.
“It’s one of the ones that was bombed, isn’t it?” I said solemnly.
“Yes,” our guide replied, “Do you know the others?”
“I think so. I’m pretty familiar with it since it happened literally 2 days before my girlfriend and I got on a plane to come out here.”
“And were you scared?”
“You’d be a fool not to be.”
And even the rest of our group stayed silent for this one.
“You didn’t say I’d be a fool not to still come though.”
“And I never said, my friend, that I took you for one. You overcame your fear then?”
“And you came here and made many Muslim friends.”
“A few,” I answered.
“And Salehm was one of them,” he smiled.
“Oh jeez. I would love to see her again though.”
“Well, maybe today we bump into her. Ah?”
“I’d like that.”
But unfortunately, we never did.
The bombings must have been the reason that security still seemed so tight in the capital though. We passed the US embassy along a busy highway and it looked locked down like a fucking fortress. It didn’t help that the day was gloomy and threatening rain; another rarity for Jordan, so I hear. Precautions were also evident when we rolled up along the street in front of this Radisson. There were crazy looking, metal roadblocks spray-painted yellow with uncountable spikes each a foot long (I suppose to prevent any car bomb attacks from happening and also allowing a number of armed guards to search each vehicle before it passed). But they eventually gave us the go-ahead, of course. Not before, however, thoroughly searching through the movie camera guy’s movie camera bags.
At one point, I saw ‘it’ too. It was after we’d checked in and everything. After we’d bid our guide farewell and tipped him and thanked him and shook his hand. It was even after I’d had a shower and maybe a drink (thank God) down in the bar. But I did a little exploring. The kind of ‘on purpose’ exploring that one can do while still being able to plea innocence if caught in some sort of restricted area. And I found it. And I peeked in because the doors were open anyway. The ballroom. Not nearly as big as I’d pictured it in my head. Small actually. Just enough for a private wedding ceremony when only immediate family are on the guest list. There were a couple of construction guys inside who were busy hanging wallpaper and didn’t even notice I was there. That was it though. It was the room in which, just two years earlier, 38 people had perished in a suicide bombing. This hotel and two others. The attacks had been coordinated to go off at the same time. The weird thing about this one, though, was that; for one, there did actually happen to be a wedding going on at the time. And two; there were actually two people strapped with dynamite or what-the-fuck-ever they used who entered the premises. And they were husband and wife. True story. I wish I were creative enough to make something like this up because it would make for a really intense and compelling tale but I’m not. I pretty much just write’em like I see’em and…a husband and wife team of suicide bombers really did enter that ballroom and !@#$%^&*() another husband and wife’s fucking wedding. If that’s not perverse and, to put it lightly, disrespectful. And actually, the dynamite-strapped wife got out though. For some reason, her shit wouldn’t detonate so, lovingly, her husband told her to run. And she did. And then he threw himself on a table in the middle of the room and. Boom. I’m sure it didn’t sound like that though. I’m sure there was glass shattering and people screaming. And even over that, probably none of it could be heard. But just ears ringing. Ringing for a long time.
So this was the nice hotel in which we stayed. And I have to admit, for something so tragic to have gone down in here, they had recuperated themselves. The place seemed to be booked to capacity and the rooms were nice…enough. I opened one of my dresser drawers underneath the TV and it was crammed full of stuffed animals but decided not to read into that any further. And the guys called me. They actually called me! When here I thought that, after we received our keys and separately made our way to the elevators, that was the last I’d ever see of them. But I wasn’t disappointed to hear their voices.
“Mick,” the prissy guy spoke through the receiver, “What are you doing? We’re all up in John’s room trying to decide what to do tonight…if anything. Personally, I want to do something considering it’s our last night. But it doesn’t have to be anything major. Even just walking around or something. What do think? Does something like that sound good to you?”
“Oh, just come up. We can all discuss it face-to-face.”
Upstairs, I found the three of them lounging around on the bed and some chairs. The TV was on and turned to a special on the life of Dennis Hopper who, as I discovered just this very moment, had died yesterday. The prissy guy was sitting in a chair at a table and making some marks in a notebook. The curtains behind him were open wide and outside the afternoon day was grey, drizzly, and (even I’ve got to say) not very inviting. Still.
“Whatcha working on?” I asked him.
“Well, ya know how the 4 of us were supposed to go to Kenya?”
“Well, I’ve been doing some investigating and, turns out, I’m pretty sure they overcharged all of us for the hotel and airfare. Jordan’s not nearly as far and…well, I’m working out the details right now,” he opened up a laptop and turned it on, “And I’ll let you know what I find out. We all may get a partial refund.”
“Sweet. I’m always down with that.” But really, at the time, I couldn’t figure out why he was bothering. It just seemed like so much effort. And would the good people at the travel agency really try to rip us off for any significant value? I doubted it. But I also wound up being wrong.
After the prissy guy made a few phone calls though, since he just wasn’t about to let this matter go till we got home, he again turned his attention to going out and seeing something and maybe grabbing a bite to eat. The others weren’t very into this idea however. And the mood in the room was one of those were inertia had already set in, the Dennis Hopper special seemed to be hypnotizing them, and it seemed an effort even to speak. I knew that if we didn’t get out of here and do something very fast, the four of us would just keep watching TV for hours until one of us suggested going down to the first floor restaurant for dinner. And that did sound boring. But…I guess to John and the movie camera guy, the party was already over. They were spent and they said so.
“Well, we won’t be very long anyway,” he spoke to them both as we were leaving, “We’ll probably be back in time for dinner. But feel free to eat without us if you get hungry.”
“Will do,” they mumbled never removing their eyes from the TV screen. They were really fried.
In the elevator, he asked me, “Have you heard of any good places to go around here?”
“Uh…I actually went out a little earlier to try and find an ATM. Which I did after quite a hike. But nah. I didn’t see anything. Maybe we should just catch a cab or something. I don’t think it’ll cost too much. This city doesn’t seem that big.”
“That’s exactly what I thought.”
And so we found ourselves, not 15 minutes later, in what must have been dubbed ‘downtown Amman’, walking around, enjoying the sights, and drawing queer looks from just about everyone; shopkeepers, drivers, and random pedestrians alike. The evening remained kind of foggy and wet. The air was thick and exhaust fumes from every car in this busy area seemed to get trapped under the thick, cottony blanket that was the sky overhead. But in a way, this just added to the mystique of the place. Wrinkly, copper-colored faces with covered heads popping out from down alleyways. We saw a guy roasting nuts in several garbage can lids and selling them in brown paper bags to school age children with smiles on their faces. And a bit further on, we found a storefront with a glass case containing sheep heads with their eyeballs cleanly bored out somehow. And we asked the two young guys behind the counter about them but they didn’t understand a word we were saying so finally, through more of a physical gesture than anything else, I asked them if I could please just take a picture and they were pretty well amused. At another point, we even found what must have been ‘town square’ where there was situated a commercial structure of some sort with windows up above looking down over the street. And that’s when Tom (that’s his name) pointed excitedly and said, “Oh! It looks like an ice cream parlor. You wanna go up there?”
“Sure,” I replied, “I’ve got nowhere to be.”
And I didn’t. So we went and found a table that he could people watch from on high where he ordered an elaborate sundae and I sipped another espresso.
And it was during this little interlude that I discovered just what it was he did for a living. The guy was a fucking Broadway play critic back in New York. And although he wasn’t even trying to talk it up any; it sounded like he was pretty well-known. I still never learned whether or not he was gay…not that it really mattered, I guess. Was just curious. Seemed he was just sort of a loner though. Kind of like me. And God, how I remembered hating him in the airport on that first day. But I learned then… Or rather. Some fundamental concept I’d already known was reiterated to me yet again and hopefully became more solidified this time. And that’s that; people tend to either really love or hate other people they don’t know. It’s like first impressions but more like a pre-first impressions if there can be such a thing. It’s about attitude. And when I left for this trip, I think I may have had it on my brain to just fucking really dislike any other American I came across rather than trying to bond and have a good time with them and enjoy our experiences together. ’Cause I’m a dick like that. But at the same time, I can also be partial to people I’ve only just met who’ve never given me any reason to give them my attention or affection. People are crazy though. We don’t make sense. And although I consider myself to be a good communicator (in the posthumous sense); I am still, irrefutably, one of the craziest ones among them, Mother Ida. Even you can’t deny it. But I am human just the same.
We found out that that ice cream parlor was actually the entrance to a mall. And there we saw a Muslim man out shopping with 4 wives (the legal limit according to Islam). And from what I hear, he must have been very rich to support them all. It was also here that Tom began browsing around for a dress of some style to bring home to his niece. He didn’t find the ‘right one’, though, until we were back out on the streets where it was night now. It was among one of the smaller shops down a very narrow avenue where there was an outdoor vegetable market, poorly lit by bulbs that seemed to shine more laterally than downwards, and the crowds were running shoulder to shoulder. He didn’t bargain like an American either…which was nice. Rather, he discussed the prices of certain garments and examined the material from which they were made. Always doing so without an ounce of contempt or disdain in his voice or in his heart because he was shopping ‘for real’ and not just trying to buy some souvenir he didn’t care about for the sake of getting the best of somebody. And I adored him for this when, eventually, he did purchase a red one with petticoat ruffles connected to a type of bodice with shoulder straps, and lots of chiffon. The designer was genuinely pleased with the deal and so was Tom…and so would his niece be.
I guess it’s a blessing that, after that though, we both admitted to being fatigued. Because everything seemed to be getting darker and the looks from locals that had once seemed inquisitive more than anything else, began feeling angry. And why shouldn’t they. Jordan bordered Iraq after all and over there, probably just as we were shopping around and eating ice cream so happily, some of these people’s relatives were dying at the hands of US soldiers. And while it’s sad that anyone has to die that way (in war); let me please just put down that I don’t value an American life over an Iraqi’s. They’re not in Houston. They’re not in LA. They’re not even in Oklahoma. We are there. And their department of homeland security must exist too though in a form much more rudimentary and desperate. So back out on one of the main drags again, we caught the first cab that would pick us up and told him the name of our hotel.
The taxi wasn’t allowed to drive us up to the front door but… Well, it’s not like we couldn’t walk up a little, paved hill a ways. Still…it seemed like something the prissy guy would have complained about at any point before. But maybe Tom was just in a good mood and having a good night. I knew I certainly was and I hadn’t even had a drink. And when the cabbie was about to give us our change, I told him to keep such and such an amount in Arabic.
And Tom gasped but more of like the inhaling kind, “You know these words?!”
“Just the very basics,” and I was serious, “You know. The numbers. The ‘how do ya do’s’. That sort of thing.”
“Well, you’ve got to use them! That’s the only way.”
Apparently, Tom was also a Spanish teacher in his spare time.
“Shukran jazilan,” I nodded farewell to our driver and threw in, mostly for Tom’s sake, “Alhamdulillah.”
And the driver repeated the phrase back to me. And damned if everyone didn’t leave on a high note. We’d missed dinner with the guys, though, undoubtedly as we’d been out much later than expected or ever gave them the impression of. And since Tom had already said that he was tired, he confirmed it by telling me he was just going to go to bed.
“Let’s all have breakfast together before our flight though,” he smiled, “How does eight ‘o’ clock sound to you?”
“I never pass up a free breakfast, man. I’ll be there for sure.”
Then we parted and I made my way into the bar where some guy was playing live on a classic piano. And I had a couple whiskeys but decided, and just soon enough, that they were too rich for my blood…not that much was going on there anyway. No ladies. Just a bunch of men sitting alone and keeping to themselves who I imagined were either pilots or foreign dignitaries. Basically, the reason this very hotel was plotted for a bombing in the first place. Those whiskeys though. They put me right under.
My toothache never did quite go away and I realized this, instantly, when my alarm clock went off. Well, fuck it. I was about to catch a plane to Tampa to visit with my parents for a few days and, if they didn’t have any good prescription drugs, I could be sure some of my old friends did.
“Heh-hey! There he is!”
I met them downstairs at a sunny table for breakfast and, typical of my morning slow-goingness, was the last to have arrived.
“Look at you!” they went on, “You got a hot date or something?”
I was wearing a suit…different than the one I’d put on in Dubai actually. Was going through a big suit-phase. Can’t explain it.
“Actually yeah,” I lied, “She’s picking me up from the airport. Just wanted to look good. You know.”
Then, after loading up on scrambled buffet eggs and sausage, we all sat back down again and talked about movies. Tom, predictably, was into really artsy flicks…pretty much anything that’s ever been nominated for an Oscar. And I think, more than anything, I just wanted to see the look on his face when I told him that I was a big Will Farrell fan.
“Oh my God!” he laughed, “Are you serious?! It’s like…the movie starts, and then he shows his butt, and then everyone laughs, and then it’s over.”
Not that I ever expected us to have the same tastes in much. But Tom was a cool guy just the same. We still keep in touch via email mostly and, no exaggeration, he’s traveled more widely than anyone I’ve ever met. Twice a year, he goes to some of the most remote locations of the globe that I can even imagine. Uzbekistan and shit. Think about that. That guy in what I at least believe to be a country kind of hostile towards Americans. He always makes it back though. He’s even gone hiking through the jungle and seen silverback gorillas. And I look forward to receiving updates from his new trips all the time. Because I like him. I like Tom. And although he sure could whine and complain with the best of ’em, he’s still my very unlikely friend.
John and the movie camera guy, though, I never heard from again. I never even heard about John again…not even in Tom’s emails. And I never asked about him either. He was just a nice, old guy who kind of came and went, is all. And I’ve obviously remembered him in so much detail for, let’s see, what is it now…about 4 or 5 years. That’s also about how long the movie camera guy said it would take him to begin the work of editing everything he’d shot on this trip too. And I wonder if he’s doing that right now. And if he knows that I don’t actually hate him.