Word on the street is that there’s no public transport to downtown from Cairo International. But there is Uber and Middle East equivalent Careem, so I’m bound to make it on this 18-hour layover without getting scammed. The great thing is that there are cab drivers waiting to undercut Uber, so I join one of them and end up sharing it with four Egyptians who ride with windows down, cigarettes akimbo. Not only do I get to pat myself on the back for saving a few cents on this ride, but I also save the environment by carpooling.
Cairo feels like a place that hasn’t done much for the last decade. Not to say that it’s behind the times, but the airport is far from modern and the infrastructure is beginning to crumble a revolution or two after the Arab Spring. The metro is clean, but dated, and the roads are policed largely by crossing guards instead of traffic lights. Somehow the pyramids, which I am told I could see from anywhere, elude me and I spend half the day seeing mosques and Tahrir Square, and eating shawarma before I turn in for a midday snooze-and-shower at the hostel I booked for the day, before catching a Careem back to the airport.
Hitchhikers Guide to the UAE
I approach Khatm al-Shiklah on foot, walking the mile and a half from the bus station, as no one will stop for a midnight hitchhiker and not a single cab passes by. This is the boonies. I’m in the deserted no-man’s land north of Al-Buraimi, after being stamped out of Oman at the city limits. In the time it takes to get from the bus stop to the border, the desert grows pitch black and only the occasional headlights and the beacon to Khatm Al-Shiklah are there to guide me. When I arrive I get stamped out at the border with ease. No one looks at me funny for crossing on foot after sundown. I bet they get a few madmen like me a night.
That said, it may be crazy to walk down the Arabian desert highway at night, but you’d have to be suicidal to do it in the daytime. With my complexion, I’d be reduced to a pink-colored rawhide in minutes. No thanks. I’ll take my chances alone in the desert with the dust and the stars and the cool dry air. If I had a sleeping bag, believe me I’d set up camp right here.
But alas I make the border and cross without difficulty. I flag down a potato-hauling trucker who agrees to drop me five miles down the road at Al Ain Mall, where I assure myself there’s a Big Mac with my name on it. I shoot a text to my friend Natalie who’s been putting me up in Al-Ain and tell her I’ll be at her place in an hour or so.
I receive a response:
“I have no electric or water, mate... I’m not staying in the apartment.”
The truck driver says he’s going all the way to Dubai. I tell him I’ll be joining him the rest of the way if I can; he seems surprised by my instantaneous change in plans. He acts grateful for the company, though, and we are on our way. Truck drivers have to drive half as fast as regular drivers here, so with him the journey proves to be much longer than the short hour-and-change it took Natalie and I to make the same trek. But I don’t mind. Of the limited hitchhiking experience I’ve had, this will likely prove not just to be the longest, but the best. Changing plans in a split second and going to a different city than initially intended is part of the whole deal. I’m a drifter. This is, like, my thing.
After the driver prays quickly at a mosque outside Al Ain we start our transnavigation of the UAE from the border to Dubai. There’s nothing out here, so every exit is marked Al Ain and it feels like we aren’t getting anywhere, only somehow getting closer to where we came from. Not to mention we keep stopping, first for tea and pastries and then for gas. My new friend actually buys me a tea and pastry and we talk on and off for the remainder of the drive. He is from Kerala and has three daughters and a wife there. When I get out at the metro, I give him the rest of my Omani Riyals (because he’s the only person I know going to Oman any time soon) and he refuses until I tell him the money is worthless to me. He finally accepts and agrees to take a photo with me before I jump out and run to the next metro train to Jumeirah, where a couch and a burrito await me like the very salvation of my soul as my dear friend Christina lay asleep.
I transfer to Al Ain--on the south border of the UAE--with a friend who teaches down there. I have the ultimate goal of reaching Muscat, Oman, and I have almost a week to do it. I borrow my other friend’s air mattress to sleep on while in Al Ain, and I see some of that city before I leave the following day. I am most intrigued by the UAE in its more native state. Out here there is no beach, and no metastasizing business-entertainment-oil-shopping-prostitution hub as there is in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. A stroll through the mall reveals more Emiratis than obvious expats, but I would venture to guess that a third of those around are still from elsewhere. The streets are quieter here, and it finally feels as though I am in the desert. This is a border-town, among other things, and in that there is certainly more of an obvious culture, though Al Ain still has many of the pleasures of the moneyed Arabian world. Filipina maids wait for the bus on every corner, and Indian men ask to push your shopping cart through the parking lot or wash your car while you shop in exchange for a few Dirhams. It’s still a strange place to me, but my geography-teacher host has had no problem adjusting to the pleasures of the Brahmin expat class.
Foolishly I assume that there will be an international bus from Al Ain to Muscat. There is not, and I would have been better off taking the bus from Dubai rather than catching a ride here. Now I have to find a way to Al Buraimi, the Omani town across the border, and from there take the 1 pm bus to Muscat. I have hopped mysterious borders alone before. Once, in Laos. But there you can find dozens of people willing to help, or to sell you food and water. Here, there is nothing but desert on either side of the checkpoint, and so I have to hope there will be a cab or a Good Samaritan willing to take me into town.
First, I visit the main border crossing, courtesy of a roadside taxi, and learn that foreigners are not to cross at this specific juncture. Thankfully, when the guard turns me away I find my driver looking for a fare across the street and I wave him down to take me to the much more remote Shatm Al-Shiklah border post a few miles out of town. The stakes grow higher in the checkpoint where there is nothing but sand, rocks, and scrub grass on either side for several miles. We pull up to the gate, and a man outside tells me to roll down my window.
“You get picked-up on other side?” he asks.
“That’s the plan. I mean, I hope to. Is there a taxi over there?”
“Who knows. Could be. Or maybe you wait 30 minutes or an hour.” He shrugs.
I have no choice but to cross so I tell the man that I am fine, and I will figure it out on the other side. He shrugs again and walks away, thobe rippling in the desert wind.
The crossing procedure is simple enough, though I never officially enter Oman. I pay my departure tax, and get stamped out of the UAE, but there are no Omani border guards to stamp me in. I wonder if I did something wrong and missed a checkpoint, but no one stops me from walking away from the post and out into the desert. An Indian man in a big SUV rolls down his window when he sees me walking, and asks if I’d like a ride. We pass through the final passport check and continue onto Al-Buraimi. He accepts no payment, but happily takes down my contact info. He owns a store in Al Ain selling patterned cloth with exquisite Arabesques. He proudly texts me a video of his store, which is now under construction and we talk for ten miles before he drops me in front of the bus station. I thank him profusely, but he doesn’t care. He is a good man who believes in helping people. To tell him not to pick up strangers in the desert would be as difficult as convincing him water was not wet.
At the station, I buy my ticket for the one o’clock bus to Muscat, and walk a few blocks to a grocery store where I am greeted with an asalaamualaykum from the whole staff upon entry. I buy some juice, and some potato chips, and sit on a curb snacking. I am loitering outside of a dress shop, and when the owner sees me, he invites me inside to sit. I thank him for his kindness then stuff the last handful of potato chip powder in my face and stand up to leave. The bus is scheduled to depart in an hour, and I return to the station and am able to board early. The bus is state-of-the-art, with charging stations and WiFi, so I am able to get some writing done before finally coming to the Omani border post.
After getting my visa outside no-man’s-city Al Buraimi, long after exiting the Emirates, we pull off into the desert toward Muscat. It’s only a few-hour trip, but my excitement of a new nation and a new capital makes me anxious to see what awaits. Oman is a wealthy country, but much less so than the UAE or Saudi Arabia. Much of the economy is agrarian, as there is more rain here and less oil. As a result most Omanis actually have to work for a living. That said, Filipina maids and subcontinental farmhands can be found here, too, but the ratio of migrant workers to natives is much lower than in the neighboring Gulf countries.
To my dismay, the bus doesn’t stop at the company bus station near my Airbnb, but rather finishes its route at the airport. That’s right: now, even though I didn’t fly into Muscat, I still have to navigate a fare from the airport with the eternal enemy of the Bernabei clan: airport cab drivers. To make a slightly painful story less so with brevity, I do not realize that taxi drivers in Oman are, by law, Omani, and so perhaps shouldn’t have so fiercely negotiated a wage with a man who is quite possibly being priced out of his own homeland. That said, he used all the scummy taxi tactics and I don’t feel any regret. If Uber or Careem worked at Muscat airport, then I wouldn’t have fought so hard for a 10-dollar fare. When I arrive at my hostel, I leave a tip as I feel bad for my hardballing.
He peels away angrily. Fortunately there is always another opportunity to make a first impression.The people of Oman will love me. I swear it.
The owner of my Airbnb is Iranian, not Omani, but I make a good impression nonetheless. We both talk about crazy Presidents, and since this blog could fall into the wrong hands I will say no more. In typical Persian fashion, owner Ali is kind to the point where it physically hurts me, asking three times if everything is ok, and six times if I need anything before leaving me to my room. I also get a nice chocolate upon check-in.
The Soul of the City
The only other guest appears to be a gay Moroccan man with flexible plans. He is from Rabat and when I try to press him for the must-sees of his city he seems mostly indifferent. So we talk about other things. He is perfectly nice but quiet, and so we largely ignore one another.
It has already grown late, and so I scrounge around for food at a strange commercial district that glows like a beacon of excitement in this otherwise dark weekday suburb. When I arrive I realize this is the Omani Jackson Heights, where the Indians and their neighbors gather to hang out in the streets in the cool nights, and palm the occasional naan and butter chicken. I order that and a lemonade at the only air-conditioned restaurant, swooning at how a whole meal of naan, drink, chicken and side vegetables barely runs me 2 dollars. It follows both by logic and in practice that one should not go to the richest places in the Gulf for food. The poorer wage-slave immigrant colonies are where I get the best eats.
While I call this place the Omani Jackson Heights, there is something more at work here. The neighborhood’s tranquility is authentically Arab. This is clearly not Delhi or Queens. Walking in Delhi, there is always a possibility you will get hit by a car or motorcycle. There are people yelling, people harassing you (if you are white and dumb-looking like me) and jostling by leaving barely enough space to breathe. Here, there is so much space and air that whispers carry long distances as eyes stare at me, the outsider’s outsider, who wants nothing but a full belly. After my meal, I order a Nutella shake at a corner deli and slurp down every drop.
In between uninspiring Skype interviews with English schools across the world, I get to see some of the charming Muscat corniche, though admittedly the best parts of Oman are the people. Surprisingly the cab driver who takes me back from the corniche thinks Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia is crazy and that the war in Yemen is stupid. Finally, I meet a man in Arabia who is willing to openly criticize the Saudis. He also thinks, though less surprisingly, that Donald Trump is an idiot. This is the third person who has told me this, unprompted, in Oman. What did Trump do to piss off Bangladeshis, Iranians, and Omanis? I mean who knows? It could be anything.
I take a direct flight back to Dubai, and it is late afternoon when I arrive at DXB Terminal 2 which, though I don’t know it yet, has no connection to the Metro.
“No matter,” I think. “I will simply take the bus or an Uber to the nearest station and continue my journey to my friend’s house from there.”
I find that Uber will still charge me as an airport-to-downtown fare, though, so I give up and just start walking the mile to the train. I lose about a quart of sweat in the process on this Arabian afternoon, but thankfully there is a supermarket by the metro station where I rehydrate before I leave for my friend’s house.
“Where are you?” she texts.
I’m on my way. Slowly and sweatily, but surely enough. When I arrive we go out for beers and recount what has happened in each of our lives since I last visited her in Dubai.
I am to spend several days crashing on my friend’s air mattress, which is perhaps one of the best abuses of living on the road. Getting a place to sleep whilst visiting friends abroad, that is. Not air mattresses. We visit the beaches, and I fight endlessly with an induction stove which I believe to be a different beast, until I Google the instructions and triumph one hour into battle. In my returned re-domestication, I find myself job-shopping on an ESL board. For the hell of it, I send out my CV to dozens of jobs in exotic locales. I’ve barely spent a third of my travel budget, but I am beginning to grow tired of constant movement and fearful that my upcoming travels to Africa will take a stamina that I do not possess. Within forty-eight hours I take a few interviews via Skype, certain that I’ll have to find some golden work opportunity to consider pausing my global exploration. I get offers in Thailand and Taiwan, but am not sold on either place for the time being.
Rolling hills and charming landscapes greet me as I enter Armenia. It’s sunny and beautiful with a cool breeze offering some relief to our crowded minibus, though I am lucky to be one of only three in the back row. Had there been another passenger, there would certainly be four of us wedged uncomfortably together. When we pull into Yerevan, where I am supposed to get internet on my phone but don’t, I just tell the driver to let me off at a corner and I have to find a new way to my hostel. Nothing on my map is loading except my position and the position of my hostel in a blank grid so I simply navigate my way through empty space until my dot is atop the blue flag of my destination. I look up and see several young people smoking outside what is obviously my hostel. I have arrived.
This country’s accommodation is a standard backpacker joint, wherein all the male visitors have “rugged” yet somehow neat beards. I haven’t shaved in awhile, so I reluctantly count myself among them, though my facial fuzz is closer to man-who-sleeps-in-dumpster than Spaniard-on-his-third-consecutive-Gap-Year. In the night I am excited to visit a restaurant with pizza and not be neglecting the local culture. At Zatar’s Pizza I order a small olive “lahmacun” for hardly a dollar and gobble it up in two bites, then get some snacks at the local market before returning to the hostel. I sleep the night in a makeshift cot as the hostel is overbooked, but still sleep well.
In the morning I decide it is time to see the city memorial of the Armenian Genocide. I did a project on this tragedy in the seventh grade, and ever since have wanted to see this larger-than-life complex dedicated to those lost. On this day, as I have neither internet to hail a ride nor trust that a cabbie won’t rip me off, I decide to walk the few miles to the memorial and take in this fine fall day in this new city. Words cannot describe the power of visiting this site, and I urge everyone to visit when in Yerevan. Come, learn, and shed a tear. When I visit, the eternal flame flickers in the wind and no one visits except for an old woman, pulling old wilted flowers and sweeping up dust. Over a century separates today from the events of the Armenian Genocide, and I can’t help but think if the world is forgetting. When visitors arrive, they are all clearly not Armenians. No one mourns loved ones, for there is no one left alive on earth who remembers the lost. Still I stay, pay my respects, and zip through the museum. But the museum is not why I am here. I visit not to learn, but to feel.
Evening takes me to the nightly Yerevan dancing fountain show at Republic Square, and I am mesmerized. If the fountain performance back in Dubai is “Pomp and Circumstance,” that of Yerevan is “Sounds of Silence.” French singer and genius Jacques Brel mourns the loss of a thousand loves as the crowd sits in rapt silence for nearly an hour. There is no cheering. This is the least tacky light-and-fountain show on earth; it feels like, somehow, there is a man at the control booth pumping his own tears into the pumps as fools try to sell light up toys to kids around the perimeter. For the second time today, I tear up. To hell with Disney, and to hell with fireworks. Yerevan brings the waterworks and does it incredibly well.
In the morning, I’m sad to leave Armenia, as the Russian-speaking part of me (who is conveniently also named “Victor”) will have to go to sleep for awhile, and who knows when I will see him again. I have no plans to return to any of these former Soviet republics, which means my one-on-one Russian practice, and my consumption of potatoes, are soon to decline rapidly. As I chat with the cab driver, who never learned English as a product of Soviet schools, tells me I am always welcome in Armenia, and must come back and see the countryside. I tell him I’ll be back to Yerevan as soon as I can. До свидания друзья!
It is amazing that, by this hundredth country, I have not been formally charged by any foreign government for the likes of breaking and entering, or some such crime integral to my road-life. Georgia finds me on the stoop of an alleged hostel with rain pouring down and nothing in my belly but roadside lime-flavored Coke Zero and cherry juice. I’ve had amazing luck with rain thus far, especially considering I do not bring a rain jacket with me on my adventures. I hump only a sweatshirt, and Murphy’s Law should make rain a daily occurrence. But alas, this is one of the first times I could really use an umbrella or a jacket. My rationale is this: if I have a raincoat, I would either use it or lose it. Either possibility means failure in my eyes. If I bring too many things, I lose resourcefulness along with space in my bag. If my bag gets too full, I may, heaven forbid, be forced to check it on an airline. That, in my opinion, is real failure. I highlight in Bahrain my stubbornness and need to be able to handle my own shit. I won’t explain further here.
From under an awning I hail a taxi and use my Russian (which takes up no space in my bag, by the way) to navigate through the torrential downpour to the hostel in which I am to stay the night and probably the night after that. Georgia is cheap, by the looks of it, and I will happily stay an extra night in this hostel which is both the cheapest I have ever booked (2.70 USD/ night) and possibly the highest-rated I have ever booked (9.4/10). My morning beverage and cab ride run me more than a night’s stay, though, and it’s got me thinking that this is a place where labor and housing are cheap, but tangible goods, like gasoline, are not. Something to explore more later.
Once we arrive, the hostel is not clearly marked as such, but the address is clearly denoted in large spray-painted numbers and white arrows. I set my things down on the couch outside, knock on the door and try to reach the manager via WhatsApp. When no one responds, I enter the door slowly without thinking the necessary questions of “do I remember seeing any police nearby?” or “what are gun laws like in Georgia?” When I enter, though the place looks like the photos, the lights are all turned off, and I can hear snoring coming from a nearby room. I sit alone in the dark until the manager on duty awakes.
Fortunately, I am not shot and killed. I am given a WiFi password and a bed, which is certainly the best possible result of stumbling into someone’s home after a tiresome night on an international bus. I cannot sleep, though, because after an hour the kitchen is abuzz with visitors cooking breakfast, using the shower, and interrogating me as to how I know Russian. I meet an Uzbekistani man and tell him about how much I enjoyed his country while the hostel manager tries to make me laugh by asking me if I think a certain guest is male or female. I tell him if he’s so curious to flip through the registry where he puts photocopies of passports. A satisfying answer surely lies there. I feel like a Boy Scout again, hanging out at the mess in Camp Sequassen as friendly man-children like myself bustle about in a masculine benevolence.
My hostel is in a cheaper neighborhood about fifteen minutes’ walk from Tbilisi’s sulfur baths, which TripAdvisor raves about. It’s my hundredth country; would it be so wrong to relax a little? I don’t know much about these saunas, other than that they smell horrendously of rotten eggs, but I figure it wouldn’t hurt to shell out a few Lari in celebration of my achievement.
I am wrong.
If masculine benevolence is a trademark of my hostel in Tbilisi, emasculating malevolence characterizes my experience in that town’s sulfur baths. One should not be touched in such tender areas, and with such force, as I am touched by one stocky Georgian masseur at the “Queen’s Bath” in Tbilisi. I am scrubbed, scraped, and nearly bruised. In my life I have had the good fortune of only breaking two bones, but this “massage” hurt as much as two of those combined. That said, it was an experience, though not one I will be trying to replicate any time soon. Four stars.
The Play's the Thing
I spend the majority of the day on a walking tour of Tbilisi, taking in the old Orthodox churches and grilling our guide on contemporary Georgian culture. Roughly one-fifth of the country is occupied by Russia, so when I ask about feelings toward the Eastern Slavic overlords I am told to save such questions for after the tour.
In the night I am off to the theater. After the tour I find a small playhouse wedged between museums and ballets that promises an evening performance of a Dostoevsky adaption accompanied with English translation. I tell the cashier that I’ll be back later, but would like to reserve tickets as I’m learning Russian but speak English natively. She smiles and nods. The ticket only comes out to 3 USD and so I am excited to see how much Russian I understand. I grab a burger the next block over at the World’s Largest Wendy’s which, it goes without saying, should not be in Georgia but is for some reason.
As I leave Wendy’s a drizzle that I didn’t know was supposed to happen turns into a downpour; my summery light grey shorts turn into a Rorschach test. "No matter," I think, "the theater is two blocks away and I will easily slip into the darkness where I will not be seen." What I don’t know is is that this theater seems to be operated like a marshrutka, or minibus popular in the region, that only leaves once all the seats are full. In the damp, bright lobby I settle into a cheap stackable chair and make American eye contact with every edgy theater-type this side of Tbilisi. Thankfully, I am not the only one sitting silently in this one of many Russian plays about suicide, but it doesn’t suit the sopping wet boy in light blue summer dress. This crowd is into dark, brooding shades of grays and browns. I look like I just got off the boat from Nantucket.
After fifteen minutes everyone has finally arrived. The usher takes us downstairs, where we stand another five minutes as she goes behind a curtain to check and see if the players are ready. When they are, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the stage itself, through which we must pass to the chairs beyond. The players are in position. One lay prone on a row of chairs, and other two sit, heads hung low. One holds an accordion. When the audience is seated, the play finally begins.
I discover too late why we have to pass through the stage to sit down. This way, there is no way out except through the play itself. I witness the most amazing one-act disaster that I could have never anticipated, and enjoy every moment. First: Everything is in Georgian, not in Russian. As the local language has no prepositions or pronouns, and because the theater company has no one with a working knowledge of English, the clearly Google-Translated subtitles are complete gibberish. As I watch, I grimly wait for the actress, sorry the title character, to die via Chekhov’s gun which is loaded and played around with in the first few minutes. In a twist, however, she jumps out Dostoevsky’s window about thirty minutes in, and without me even noticing. At the end I ovate, standing of course, as I step onstage the moment after bows and then exit the theater. That being said: 3/5 stars. Review over.
The next day, I pack my things as the old hostel owner yells at the TV.
“Steven Seagal! Very Goot! Very Goot! Haha!”
He bids me adieu, and asks what I thought of Tbilisi, and of his hostel. I assure him, as I assured his wife and business partner the day before, that I will be leaving a great review for his home-style hostel. I also assure him I will be back to Georgia, where I have had nothing but friendly experiences from the only country that issues a free 1-year visa on arrival to Americans. After a subway ride in a sulfurous tunnel, I make it to the bus station and am told I only have to wait an hour or so for my marshrutka to Yerevan, Armenia. In that time I spend all of my Georgian Lari on potato chips and chocolate, the most liquid currencies I have come to use in my travels, and snack for the long drive to my last Former Soviet Republic.
Attractions Great and Small
A flight to Dubai, then another flight all the way back north over Iraq takes me to Azerbaijan. The forecast looks consistently cool for the next few days, and as I overland the Caucasus I plan to enjoy this actual autumn as much as I can. My hostel’s broken credit card machine forces me to find cash, so it is evening by the time I actually get to see the city. I walk to the Caspian Sea coast where Baku shows off some of its most charming wonders. There are centuries-old towers, monuments, and even a “tiny Venice” where gondoliers float around labyrinthine swimming pools, looking for tourists to take around. I watch men play life-size chess before it is time for bed. I make a note to return to the free Museum of Miniature books when it opens the next day.
My first mission in Azerbaijan, however, is to find out how to leave. Buses to Tbilisi, Georgia run nightly, and I plan on getting on one that evening to keep ahead of my strict Caucasian schedule. That is, my schedule through the Caucasus. You know what I mean. I find a bus that’ll drop me by the international bus station, and find instead a sketchy mall with poor lighting and mostly-vacant commercial real estate. I see no buses, and only a couple of ticket vendors, but none go to Georgia. There are routes all the way to Istanbul and deep into Iran, and I wonder what those must be like. I ask around and every shop owner sends me somewhere different. Eventually I make it to the top floor, and there are no more shop owners to ask. I see a wave of people with luggage enter through a door down the hall, and follow that trail to where dozens of buses are waiting. I ask around for Tbilisi tickets, and finally one person tells me “Tam,” Russian for “There,” and points to the roof. I climb another flight and indeed several ticket vendors are selling for routes around Azerbaijan and Georgia, and I am able to find a woman selling tickets to Tbilisi for 8 bucks. I happily buy one and tell the saleswoman I’ll be back later. She smiles politely, as if to say "I don't care if you come back at all, but I am paid to be nice so I'll give you a pleasant smile just because you didn't yell at me like every other customer today."
Doctor Doner (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kebabs)
The rest of my day is free to sightsee, and the hostel owner gladly stows my back while I do so. The only two notable sights I visit are the miniature book museum, which has a whole section on the works of Marx and Lenin, and two long-forgotten window-sill monuments stacked atop one another. Looking out into the street sits a pair of cement lovers from a ledge. On a window ledge above sit three cats of similar substance doomed to also watch the street for eternity. The “Monuments to Lovers and Cats” are one of the highest-rated free attractions in Baku, and as they are in the heart of the Old Town it would have been silly to miss these art works that speak so deeply to me, as two people forever battle inside: one is looking for lovers, the other is looking for cats. I have no clue who designed these sculptures but he/she truly speaks to the human condition.
The night is cold and it’s time for dinner. Baku undoubtedly offers some of the world’s cheapest kebabs, and since I have slowly been transitioning to an all-kebab diet since my arrival in the Middle East, I think it is time I sample some of the local offerings. First, I stop at a neighborhood spot that offers a kebab for only 2.5 Azerbaijani Manats (1.4 USD). I eat one and my craving for another takes me to chain “Shawarma No. 1” which certainly does not sell the No. 1 Shawarma in the city, but offers a nice midrange option for those who actually want to sit down and eat. On this chilly night, they even lend blankets to customers to take the shawarma experience to the next level.
It is cold.
I’m in heaven.
The length of my layover in Kuwait is laughable, but when I review the hotel room prices I grow serious. While I am disappointed that I only have one night in the country/ capital city, I am glad I only have to pay for one night as it looks like this oil-rich state would bankrupt me if I gave it a few weeks’ time. I arrive late and see no option but to take an airport taxi, which offers a flat rate and cannot be negotiated. When I arrive at the hotel, I realize that this cheapest property in the downtown area is still quite extravagant, with a kitchenette, toiletries and a king-sized bed. I do my best to enjoy these amenities but it is already 11 and I want to sleep.
In the morning I make sure I awake early to soak up whatever Kuwaiti culture I can find. Even finding a Kuwaiti is difficult because virtually all of those working in the capital are from somewhere else, as was the case for Dubai and Doha, too. For breakfast I eat a small box of samboosas, a version of samosas that are tiny, more triangular, and filled with creative fillings like different types of cheese and meat. They aren’t bad, and eight of them costs me about $3, so I can be proud of that economic decision. As I walk by mall after mall, I finally arrive, dripping with sweat, to Kuwait’s Grand Mosque, which is one of the largest in the world. This first legitimate cultural experience is near-empty on this day, and after misunderstanding a couple of separate guards I walk into the wrong entrances until someone tells me to go into a certain room and sit down. I am certain I’ve gotten myself into trouble, and three hours before my next flight is supposed to leave!
However, that room is nothing but a tea room, and three other white dudes sit at a table chatting. This isn’t a holding cell; this is a tour. I tell the guard repeatedly that I just want to take some pictures and go. He motions me down.
“Only a few minutes.”
What have I done?
I sit with the men. One teaches yoga at Washington University. The other two are oil boys from Kentucky. If there was a group of three other Americans to be trapped in Kuwait with, it is only fair that I say this would be the group. Imagine the laughs that a stuffy-yet-granola Professor, an overly adventurous college student, and two good ol’ boys from the oil fields could get into in Kuwait. Should I write a comedy film? A miniseries?
Anyway we all chat about our travels. It is no surprise that the Kentucky boys are new to the mosque scene, and are only here because they have a few days off after four straight days of working and don’t know what else to do. I can’t gather why the Professor is here, but he’s a country counter so I imagine he’s here more or less on purpose, like me. When our tour guide shows up, we file into the mosque and she does her well-practiced routine for about twenty minutes before I tell her I have to bail. She tells me to grab some pamphlets on the way out, which I struggle to find though admittedly I don’t try very hard.
The tour was interesting in that it was more geared toward teaching about Islam than teaching about the mosque. This makes me wish I could have stayed. Though these first twenty minutes where hardly new information, think the White American tour of the Grand Mosque would have given a lot of fuel for writing. I felt like I was at least being converted a little, given that the tour was free and that I refuse to believe there is such a thing as a free tour. I think that’s reason enough, but that’s just my Cynical Northeastern Attitude. Perhaps a hippie yoga professor could set my mind at ease. He doesn’t have the opportunity.
I catch a rideshare back to the hotel, and interview the driver to get my mind off potentially missing my flight. He says he hates driving for Uber because he feels discriminated against here, especially in circumstances where he is in conflict with Kuwaitis. I note that people drive recklessly here, and my driver says that if he gets in an accident, or gets cut off, the other driver will always ask where he is from and argue that he is wrong because he doesn’t belong here. Kuwait, like the entire region, would fall apart without immigrants because no Kuwaiti would do any of the service economy jobs that are necessary to keep a country running. There would be no cab drivers, no restaurants, and no hotels. Meanwhile, the economy benefits from immense oil reserves, considering the postage stamp size of a country, and Kuwaitis get to live this ruling class life without thinking about the lives of those working for them. I shouldn’t have to say how dangerous I think this is. Once anyone starts thinking they are better than anyone else because of means or citizenship, compassion dissolves. Empathy disappears. Things that no rational person would think is ok, like asking someone’s citizenship in an encounter on the road, becomes a normal way of defending oneself in a completely unrelated squabble.
Immigration goes smoothly, as Americans get a free 30-day visa here. It must be noted that by “here” I mean “Iraqi Kurdistan." Not Iraq. If you fly into Baghdad, you will need a visa. Iraqi Kurdistan maintains a certain autonomy, however, and gets to form their own visa policy which means generally being hospitable to Westerners. Culturally, Iraqi Kurdistan is less of a culture shock for Westerners compared to, say, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. Women often do not wear the hijaab here, and many Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Civil War are female. Gender politics aren’t the only thing that separates Kurdistan from Iraq, though. In late September the air is a breezy 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and actually gets cold in the night hours. It is a little chilly when I deplane, and that makes me smile. I had some dread about coming to Iraq, but the welcoming weather and friendly immigration authorities make me feel more than at home.
Due to anti-terrorism measures, cabs must get searched before coming within a two-kilometer radius of the airport, and so rides from the terminal are expensive. Thankfully, a free shuttle takes arrivals to a meet-and-greet area where a sole cab company takes people to downtown. Hardly any haggling gets them down 30 percent in price, and we are on our way to a kebab place I found online for lunch. The driver knows it, but is surprised that I know it. When we get there I know why. None of the staff speaks English and the only beverage on the menu is a sour-tasting yogurt milk. I have a glass, but say no to any more for fear it will make me lactose intolerant once again.
My hotel for the night is nearby, so I walk there and am greeted by Yousef, a young Syrian man from Damascus who is here on a six-month visa. He checks me in and invites me to have a cup of tea with him later. I agree and, after a shower, meet him downstairs to talk.
Yousef wants me to hear his story, but above all else he wants to just get out of the region to somewhere that will help him realize all of his dreams. He wants to know how to get to the United States, and I tell him that right now it is impossible for him as a Syrian. I tell him that Canada is accepting refugees, and many places in Europe but I admit that I don’t know any of the details. He refuses to believe there isn’t a way into the United States, and I assure him that there is no legal way to emigrate to my country until the travel ban is lifted. He has degrees in chemistry and English, and speaks almost fluently in English and French, in addition to being a native Arabic speaker. He has worked and studied, and gets angry when he talks about his country. Bashar al-Assad took the lives of many of his friends and tried to take his. The only reason he avoided the war was by a college deferment, but now the government is withholding his degrees until he does his military service. This traps him in Iraq for the time being. If he goes back, he goes to the military and fights for a dictator. When I’ve finished my tea, I urge him to go to the Canadian Embassy or call and try to seek asylum. I want to do everything I can for him. I want to have some close relative in the Department of State who can get him residency in the United States despite the travel ban. I want him to find a job and continue his studies somewhere he can contribute to the world. I want to save a life from a vicious tyrant.
But there’s nothing I can do.
Evening in Erbil
Erbil differs from America most in that the streets go dark at sundown with nothing to illuminate them. As I pass the ramshackle homes, cats and near-silent passersby sends me into a panic for the three blocks to the main bazaar. When I get there, though, lively music plays, fountains dance, and couples bustle around cheerily. Restaurateurs light the streets with hanging lamps and shisha smoke obscures trays of baklava while children play in the public fountain. My fear melts away and I snap pictures of the citadel while sipping a perfectly purple pomegranate slushie. I stop by a baklava place before bed and decide to get a few for dessert. There are three types, so I point to each type and hold up my finger to indicate I only want one of each. The cashier nods his head and takes out a tray.
One, two, three.
He looks at me and nods. I smile and give my approval by nodding and saying “shukran.”
Four, five, six.
He adds more and I say 'ok, that’s enough.' I might as well give Yousef some. He’s been working all day.
Seven, eight, nine, ten.
“No that’s too much. Laa. No.”
“Stop!” He makes eye contact with me, smiling.
He closes the box. It is now full. Tonight, I am to find out if one truly can have 'too much of a good thing.' I discover it after my third honey-smothered piece of baklava, which somehow feels like a meal in itself, as it takes a cup of juice just to wash it down. When I accept defeat, and give the rest to Yousef and one of his friends, I feel like a curse has been lifted. Fortunately all that baklava only costs me a couple of dollars, but Yousef acts like I bought him a week of groceries. I sleep well despite the honey coursing slowly through my veins.
Erbil and Out
It’s another morning before a flight, and I go into loiter-mode. There is no doubt in my mind that there is much more to see in Erbil, but the heat coupled with my, shall we say, traveler’s stomach has made it so walking outside too long in the Kurdish sun (so famous that it is stamped on their flag) gets me a little dizzy. I stumble into a mall where the guard searches my bag, apologizing the entire time. I get it, this is his job. And even if it isn’t, and I am being profiled for being non-Iraqi, there would be a truly fantastic irony to that and I would have no option as a writer but to approve. When he finishes searching I tell him “shukran." I’ve noticed my words carry a certain amount of weight here, and I desperately want everyone to like me in this country that my people invaded for no reason. The fact that I am liked here is surprising but fills me with hope. If Iraqis can treat an American with respect, then I can’t see why world peace isn’t more or less achievable.
At the mall, I have two more benevolent interactions with a Kurdish man who runs a cafe in the mall’s center. I am drawn to his shop because, despite drinking a quart of water this morning, my throat feels like coarse wet sand and he has a Erbilian selection of six different flavors of slushie. If there is only one reason to travel to Iraq (and I assure you there is more than one) it is to get a slush/slushie/slush puppy from any of the vendors around town. The flavors are somewhere between exotic and quotidian, like blueberry or cantaloupe, but here they really know how to make these cool semi-solid drinks. My favorite flavor is pomegranate, so I first order a blueberry and then come back later for the piece de resistance. When I ask about the flavors, though, the cashier doesn’t know how to say them in English so I give him my phone to translate. Not being understood turns his face red and sends him chuckling nervously. Eventually it all gets straightened out and I smile as he gives my my slushie. He asks where I am from and gives me a big smile and a welcome when I say “America.”
Fifteen minutes later, after snapping some pictures of a nearby mosque, I am feeling like a stiff sponge and I have to get another drink. Thankfully, there is another mall two blocks away where I can sit in air conditioning and replenish my hypotonic body without fear of fainting. At the the only restaurant with WiFi, the waitresses both come to take my order because I am the only one there and I guess they’re bored. When I demonstrate that I have no clue what they sell, one of them gives me a menu and run off before I realize it is entirely in Arabic and Kurdish. Thankfully, nearly everything on the menu is an English word transliterated into Arabic, so I just order a “Kuka Kula” and a “burgur." I get an admirable mall meal and WiFi access, and the opportunity to watch two Kurdish women work just like any restaurant staff in America, chatting with fellow mall workers and messing around on their phones as a fan-made Justin Bieber playlist plays for over an hour on screen. Iraqis: They're just like us.
Arabian Bad Boy Qatar is the next country where I am to visit on a layover, and I am eager to see if the country is just another tiny Gulf nation, or if this Saudi rival is in a league of its own. At sunset I catch an Uber to my hostel, which is just three buildings in the middle of a desert neighborhood with a bunch of dudes just hanging out wherever there’s a soft surface on which to sit. I finally find the manager among them, who shows me my dark, cool room. Qatar is hot, and this is heaven. I can’t wait to sleep, but since my flight is early in the morning I have to at least do a decent job of exploring capital city Doha before I take off tomorrow for Iraq. So, I call an Uber and have him take me to an exchange in the downtown area.
My driver is a Pakistani man who has been living in Qatar for a decade. We dish over things to see in Pakistan, and he tells me how he prefers living here to in his home country. Qatar is much calmer, and even when there is traffic, he explains that no one honks their horns. I notice that when I get out on one of the busiest streets, where traffic whispers along like the wind. The desert feels like walking outside while it’s snowing when every noise is muffled, and in the souqs merchants barely speak above a yawn. I turn down one alley and come to a dozen shops all selling birds in cages, and every bird and owner glances at me and goes back to minding his own business.
After seeing the Qatar skyline, Al-Fanar Mosque and strolling by the many motorboats used to transport commuters to the business district across the bay, I decide it is time to grab dinner and go to bed. I find a shawarma place because at this point I am addicted to the stuff and need help. It’s full of locals and migrant workers, and I can only buy one thing--chicken shawarma with hot peppers--so ordering is simple. I down iced tea after iced tea as I have been sweating a pint an hour for the whole evening in this city that somehow gets hotter later in the evening. From there, I catch an Uber to my air-conditioned desert cell and fall asleep until my alarm awakes me at an ungodly hour.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.