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She’s a Lady

We had at least another day of waiting for Claudia’s luggage, but unfortunately time was getting scarce. We needed to start exploring. So cycle or no cycle, we decided to take our newly rented Toyota Innova on a mission to the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi. But first we had a meeting to attend.

As you, dear reader, no doubt already know, AsiaWheeling is proudly partnered with Red Bull, and has, until this point, been supported in the lucidity department by Red Bull energy shots, which have not a few times, saved us from a situation in which an under-caffeinated zombie state might have taken hold, with possibly drastic consequences. We were, however, now long depleted of all save our last two in-case-of-emergency-only shots.

So we were going to meet with the team at Redbull about replenishing our supply, which would be especially useful here in the Middle East, where we would be driving for long stretches through what we had heard can be hypnotically monotonous desert roads. As we had read, cross-country drivers in the Gulf must be vigilant, quite seriously, against the very real hazard of hitting a wandering camel, or encountering a night-time driver who feels that headlights are not necessary.

Also we learned in our research that in the UAE and Oman it is actually illegal to have too dirty a car, and that when driving a truly filthy automobile, one can expect to be politely stopped by the police and fined. What an interesting land we had entered!

So while Jackson and I loaded the team’s three Speed TRs into the Innova, breathing a quiet prayer for Claudia’s lost D7′s safe return, Scott and Claudia headed out in search of coffee and shapes. They immerged from a nearby Starbucks just as I pulled around in the Innova, air conditioning already blasting in its struggle against the blazing heat. I steered with one hand and drank hot coffee or ate crumbled bits of ice cold cheese croissant with the other. Meanwhile, cars tore by us, the sun blazed, and the desert wind whipped up a froth of dust while we tried to navigate the city. Dubai was not an easy place to get around. Signage was present, but rarely it seemed, when you needed it, and in all but the luckiest of cases, determining the name of road on which you were driving was impossible.

In addition, the drivers were mildly insane. Fabulously expensive vehicles regularly whipped and soared by me at what must have been over 100 miles per hour. Luckily the road was huge, and traffic was light enough that we were able to make it to the airport with only minimal difficulty.

Back at the airport we found our way into a kind of import/export office park. We rolled in, the Innova chock full of cycles and AsiaWheeling personelle, past a number of security gates, all of which happily let us in, no questions asked.

Inside Red Bull’s Dubai headquarters, we were met by a strikingly beautiful receptionist, who directed us toward an energetic young man approaching from the depths of the offices.

His name was Roger, and he stuck out his hand, asking “normal or sugar free?”

“Sugar free,” we all replied.

The team sat with Roger for some time discussing Red Bull’s business in the middle east, AsiaWheeling, and the future of our two great enterprises. He was from Lebabnon it turned out, and we allowed the conversation to deviate for some time, as Roger explained to us his favorite waypoints in that country.  Soon we were joined by Elie, another member of the local team, with whom we had exchanged a few e-mails. The six of us headed across the street to a small pasta joint where our new friends most graciously treated us to a delicious lunch. With full stomachs, and  feeling plenty alert from all the Red Bull, we stood up to leave. I took this opportunity to dash away from the group to go pull the Innova around for energy drink on-boarding.

Of course the back of the thing was chock full of bicycles for our upcoming wheel in Abu Dhabi. This seemed a perfect opportunity for us to show off the Speed TRs.

We unloaded the things and everyone took a short wheel around the Dubai Airport free trade zone lot.

From there we loaded our stash of Red Bull into the Innova and bid farewell to our new friends in the energy drink business.

After a few wrong turns and some heavy use of the constantly visble Burj Khalifa as a tool for dead reckoning, we pulled onto what we had been told by Sid’s friends last night around Hookahs at the Palace Hotel was the most dangerous road in the region, the infamous E11.

E11 UAE Logo

Why you ask? In my opinion, there are a few reasons, and if you’ll allow me to speculate, I’d like to list them.

1. Driver Mentality – Drivers in the UAE are generally rather wealthy and somewhat immune to things like traffic fines. Basically, they can do as they please behind the wheel. This creates a culture of speeding, lane entitlement issues, and rare signaling of intent.

2. Fancy Cars – Emiratis drive fancy cars. And fancy cars also tend to be quite fast. With so much capability at one’s fingertips, who could be blamed for driving like life is a video game?

3. Poor Highway Design – Sleeping Policemen, as the Indonesians refer to speed bumps, are placed quite liberally in the middle of the highway to indicate an upcoming round about. Rather than building overpasses and on-ramps, all intersections on this highway are giant five-lane round-abouts that create all kinds of confusion, not to mention occasional airborne moments due to the occasional unexpectedly early arrival of a sleeping policeman.

Despite the purported danger, I was getting the hang of being behind the wheel, and the more I drove in the Gulf, the more confident I became about my maneuvers. Though no matter how many times it happened, I never got over the fantastically expensive vehicles that would pull up behind me and flash their lights for me to change lanes. Ferraris, Bentleys, Bugattis, Maybachs, those were the only cars that could stand out against a constant backdrop of BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis. The Gulf was a wild place indeed.

While we drove, Jackson received a call from his dear friend and our dear host, Sid. It seems there had been a problem with our car insurance. Despite the previous estimations of the car rental agency, due to the fact that I was under 25, they would not be able to issue insurance for Oman… only for the UAE. This was certainly a problem. We wanted to leave for Oman as soon as we got Claudia’s cycle, but for now it seemed we would need to go back to the drawing board transportation-wise. Plus pay at least a day’s rental for this vehicle.

We decided to table the can of worms, due to our arrival in Abu Dhabi.

We decided instead to focus on finding one of the two bicycle rental joints in the town to get a little bit of inaugural four-person Gulf wheeling under our belts.

This proved easier said than done, and once we entered the city, we spent about three  hours driving around, calling various business, and receiving confused no after confused no to our queries.

It seemed that bikes could only be rented by patrons of certain hotels, or that the bike rental places had gone under. Furthermore, the owners of Abu Dhabi’s few cycling shops were merciless, and had no interest in renting us even their most dilapidated cycle for the afternoon.

Finally, in frustrated desperation, we decided to stroll over to the seaside path, where we had planned to wheel, thinking at least we might take in the view. The sun was setting now, and a golden glow was spreading across the sky. Soon it would be too dark for safe wheeling anyway.

We had been, of course, drinking Red Bull all afternoon, and as you might imagine, dear reader, we were all spectacularly vigilant, and not a few of us needed to take a leak. As we walked toward the beach, we spotted, of all places, a EuropeCar rental agency directly in our path. This immediately struck us as a good place to use the rest room, and it was only after the sober light of a released bladder began to set in that we realized, maybe, just maybe, they might be able to save us from the aforementioned Oman insurance problem.

The gentlemen at the front desk were superbly friendly, and as we chatted with them about rentals, we found that we were indeed in supreme luck. We had been looking for months for the illusive beauty of a Toyota Previa, but all that we had found had been either extraordinarily expensive or unavailable for a lad of only 24 years.

But, low and behold, not only did this Abu Dhabi Europcar offer us a Previa, but they provided us with insurance on the spot, notarized before our very eyes by a woman in the back, and stamped with a resounding smack. Then, in case you thought our fortune could not get any better, Europcar undercut the price we had been quoted at Stellar by almost 15%. It was becoming quite a successful day indeed.

We strolled out of the lot to find that our Previa had already been pulled up and was getting a quick wax-down by a team of Pakistani gentlemen. I ran down the block to get the Innova where we had parked her (parking in Abu Dhabi, by the way, is an incredible exercise in spatial thinking, not unlike a cross between origami and Tetris). And as I jogged, amped up on Red Bull and the electric thrill of a problem vanquished, I found myself singing a certain joyous tune. Not more than three bars into the song, I realized why I was singing….

Allow me for a moment, dear reader, to pause the story and slip into a bit of a flashback to the AsiaWheeling planning process.

The place: Grinnell, Iowa.

The time: 7:48 am, October 24th 2009.

The weather: cool fall morning, misty, crisp.

Scott had recently been operated on by the AsiaWheeling surgical team at Surgical Associates of Grinnell in order to remove a number of nasty shapes from his body. He was still recovering from a particularly deep incision on his foot, and another on his back, and had mostly been on the couch, working diligently on the redesign of AsiaWheeling for you, dear reader. He had taken up the habit of wearing a certain black velvet smoking jacket of mine, cursing grumpily, taking prescription painkillers, and walking with a viciously gyrating hobble.

I was late for an appointment to have some apparatus or another on my car repaired and I had asked Scott to drive behind me in my mother’s partner, John’s, Toyota Previa. Scott had been gingerly struggling to get a sock over his still somewhat openly wounded toe, while I had been struggling to get John’s Previa out of the patch of grass just off the driveway where it had been parked for some time. Having recently bought a new car, you see, the Previa had not been driven in months and had, among other things, become totally coated in wet fallen leaves, and sunk deeply into the mud of our front lawn.

I pried the driver’s door open with a viscous squeak and climbed in. It smelled like a thousand cups of spilled coffee inside. Kind of a comforting scent, actually. I put in the key and turned the engine. The dash blinked to life and she started quickly, but moaned and whined once she was running. I tried to clear the windshield of leaves with the wipers, but it seemed only effective in smearing a kind of brownish tannin goo all over the glass. Who needs to see? The road will be empty anyway, I thought, and tried to reverse onto the gravel drive. I pushed the gas and the wheels just spun in the mud. I tried to rock the car back and forth, forward then reverse, and began to make some headway, spinning huge chunks of mud into the air. Finally the tire caught a grip, but unfortunately, on the forward lunge rather than the backward.

And with that, the Previa plunged part way into a bush, sinking even deeper into a mixture of dead leaves and thick black Iowa mud.

Scott chose this point to hobble out of the house, wearing the black smoking jacket, hunched over slightly against the cold and the pain in his back, and cursing at the amount of time it was taking for his morning painkillers to hit his system.

“Sorry brother,” I explained, “but you’re going to need to help me push.”

And so with plenty of grunting and swearing, and for Scott, bless him, probably a shoe full of blood, we got the Previa out of the muddy bush and onto the gravel of the driveway. With that I climbed in my car and Scott climbed into the Previa.

We arrived a few miles away at the service station, and Scott climbed out of the Previa a few spots down from where I had parked at the opening to the service garage. I looked at him in the gray cold light, and was startled to see him standing up straight, possibly even grinning… then suddenly he started dancing. As I drew closer I could hear him singing as well.

“She’s a lady! Oh oh oh, she’s a lady! I’m taking about my little lady”

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It was a strange powerful vehicle this Toyota Previa.  And now we were about to drive one to Oman!

And in honor of our great fortune, and what will from hereforth be referred to as “Prevlaunch 2010,” we would like to proudly introduce a new item in the AsiaWheeling trading post: the “She’s a Lady” Previa lover’s tee-shirt. Enjoy.

I pulled around the corner in the Innova and Scott pulled behind me in the Previa. We certainly were supporting the rental car industry in the Gulf.

I kept humming “She’s a Lady,” as Jackson got on the phone with his friend Brian, who we would be meeting for dinner. He was only a few blocks away, and we pulled around the corner to meet him.

Brian is a relatively fresh Harvard grad who picked up a job working for the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, one of the biggest pools of invested capital in the world. On this info alone, I was already interested to meet the chap. And then, when he walked up wearing of all things a Panama hat! Well, you could say he had already won the hearts of the AsiaWheeling team before even saying hello.

We ate Lebanese food, quite tasty and affordable, at a nearby joint, then climbed back into our two cars. We decided we should probably investigate the Emerates Palace Hotel before leaving the city of Abu Dhabi.

So we pulled back onto the highway and headed for the giant glowing dome of the hotel. First a few things to introduce this particular hotel: The total cost of building the thing came in at just over 3 billion dollars, and so high are its operating costs that if some estimates are correct, it could run at full capacity for over a hundred years without breaking even.

At some point during the drive, Scott passed me, and then immediately began calling me asking me to slow down and wait for him. The end result of this was that he arrived at the hotel well before me, while I cruised slowly along the shoulder scanning the horizon for our beautiful white Previa.

In the end, we finally figured out what had happened, and I sped up toward the hotel. As I pulled in, the guard looked down at Jackson’s shorts and explained to him that he would let us into the complex to take pictures, but that we were asked not to enter the bar with shorts on. We agreed, and finally met up with the rest of our team, briefly considering just leaving the place. Finally, we decided to pay the valet to park our two Toyota vans, and head inside.

We pulled up the entrance next to Hummers and Lexi, and parted with our rental car keys. We headed from there inside. And I will have to hand it to them; the place was impressive.

Totally and completely impressive.

We spent a while wandering around, sitting on one of the many imperial sofas, perusing an exhibit of Islamic calligraphy.

We also spent a fair bit of time gawking at the gold bar vending machine in the place too. While the exact purpose of such a device still somewhat alludes me, I am certain it is at the very least of much use to money launderers.

Soon exhaustion began to lay in, and we decided that heading back to Dubai would be prudent.

On our way back, we noticed that the gas tanks on both cars were beginning to get strikingly low.  But we were in the UAE, we thought, certainly we would be able to find a gas station… So we drove on. We dropped Brian off without seeing a station, and began to head back to the main road toward Dubai. Still no station. The low fuel warning light in the Innova had been on for quite a while, and while Jackson, who was at that point providing an unending source of positive vibes and moral support, assured me that we would find gas, I was beginning to get worried.

There was a lot of desert out there, and we were quickly leaving a zone of human settlement. As a last-ditch effort, I headed out in search of a town some seven km away from the main road. When we reached it we found all sources of petrol to be either closed or out of business.

Finally, after driving around for a bit, we pulled over for a conference. All concerned climbed out of their Toyotas. We suddenly found ourselves bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Here we were in the Persian Gulf and unable to find gasoline.

We finally gained control over our emotions and climbed back in the vans. We headed along a road that ran parallel to the main road to Dubai, and eventually a gas station appeared. Thank goodness. The line there was immense, but we were happy to wait. And even happier to purchase gas at the price of 35 cents a liter (about a $1.30 a gallon). With tanks freshly filled, we made our way back toward Dubai, Scott and Claudia in the Previa, and Jackson and I in the Innova.

From there, the two teams broke up, as Scott and Claudia headed toward the airport to pick up Claudia’s bags, and Jackson and I proceeded to get hopelessly lost in a do-loop on one-way roads, which somehow after 45 minutes of terrible looping around, spat us out right at the foot of the Burj Khalifa and Sid’s house.


Comments

  1. Jesse | August 27th, 2010 | 6:54 am

    Great post!

    Loving my vicarious travels through the middle east! Wheel on!

  2. Jesse | August 27th, 2010 | 6:54 am

    Great post! I think I’m going to have to get that tshirt as well.

    Loving my vicarious travels through the middle east… Wheel on!

  3. Elena | August 27th, 2010 | 10:52 am

    these posts just keep getting better and better. loves.

  4. Mark/Dad | September 20th, 2010 | 2:09 pm

    The pictures in this of the Burj Khalifa really made it clear how ridiculously big it is! And are you going to add 1 oz gold bars to Project K-9?

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