Welcome to Shakedown Street

Where was I?

Oh yeah. We had the bright idea to rent a car in Johannesburg and drive to Kruger National Park. It didn’t go according to plan. And now for the thrilling conclusion!

On the morning in question, we took an Uber (three cheers for Uber, which we have used in Rome, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, and now Johannesburg) to the nearby train station for a fifteen minute ride to the airport, where we picked up our Toyota Corolla for the 5 ½ hour drive to Kruger National Park and environs. We decided on a real splurge – a luxury safari camp in a private reserve open to the park on the shore of the Olifants River. From there we would move a short ways upriver to a much cheaper camp hidden deep in another private reserve. From there we planned to head to a camp in Kruger Park itself, where we would go for a three day wilderness hike. So we needed our own car to do all this, right? Sure.

We had directions from the lodge, but they were a bit cryptic, so it made sense to reconcile them with Google maps, which worked fine on my iphone. (Although for some strange reason, using GPS turns my phone into a handwarmer. This can’t be good. I half expected it to burst into flames on the seat beside me.)

I drove and Janine served as navigator. She doesn’t like navigating. This would become an issue.

I should mention that when we booked into the second lodge on our trip, I received an attachment from the place warning us not to pay bribes to the police. Huh? The fellow told me that there are cops in the area who would like to make a quick buck, which I assume is where nice tourists like us come in. I put the minor warning out of my mind, but reminded myself to be very careful about obeying the traffic laws.

After a few wrong turns out of the airport, we finally put ourselves in the proper direction, and things seemed well in hand. I made sure to always travel under the speed limit, and I was feeling pretty good. And hey, driving on the left side of the road is fun!

Google Maps had us arriving at our lodge at about 3, which was perfect. Lunch was at 2:30, after which we’d have our first safari into the bush at 4:30. Africa! Bush drives! Things were looking good.

I was enjoying the moment, doing about 100 km/hour on an easy stretch of road when I looked up and saw a man in an orange vest waving his arms IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HIGHWAY. I was being pulled over by a cop on foot standing in the highway. My first impulse, strange as it may seem, was to ignore him, but some combination of fear, sanity, and curiosity got the better of me and I eased the car to the side of the road. Then the depressing reality sunk in that I was about to take a ride down shakedown street.

The fellow in the vest approached the car and informed me that I was going 96 in an 80 zone. It seems that the speed limit goes from 120 to 80 very quickly (this is an international practice, apparently). If there was a sign, I never saw it. The gentleman handed me a piece of paper that described the fines for speeding. (Was he an actual cop? He didn’t wear a badge or a nametag. Should I press him on this point? Perhaps not.) I felt like I was being handed a menu for bribery and corruption. “Sir, can I interest you in a nice 750 Rand bribe for doing 96 in an 80 zone that comes on you so fast that you couldn’t slow down if you wanted to? Or perhaps our top of the line bribe strikes your fancy – 1500 Rand for doing 120. That’s a nice one.”

The warning about not paying bribes was ringing in my ears.

I did a variation on what I do naturally – I played dumb. This worked extremely well on our way out of the Cairo airport. After screening our bags, the customs agent asked me if I had any money. I told him that I didn’t understand the question, partly to buy time, and partly because I didn’t understand the question. It seems that the stack of brochures we’d been collecting resembled stacks of currency on the x-ray.

In any event, the more the traffic cop spoke, the more confusingly I responded until the guy gave up and called over his supervisor. The supervisor said that we’d have to pay a speeding fine and I recommended that he give me my ticket and that I’d pay the fine on my way back through town, which was certainly not a part of his plan. This went on for some time until the supervisor seemed to tire of the whole enterprise. He finally said that we could go together to the police station where I could pay my fine, but that they only had one police car that they couldn’t spare, so I was free to go. He also mentioned something about not wanting visitors to think ill of the police. Oh heavens no! Why would I think ill of these upstanding keepers of the peace? The supervisor urged me to go slow because, as it put it, “speed kills.” Indeed. I would later find out that tourists have a tendency to get pulled over and end up having to pay off the cops to be let go. Next time I’m taking the bus.

Having dodged a bullet, and more than a little jangled from the experience, we pressed on for our lodge. We were still several hours away, and, while we were making progress, the directions to the lodge showed a lot of turns ahead.

Somewhere along the line, we missed a turn. The problem is that rather than being a strong guiding force, Google Maps is at best more like a weak-willed enabler and at worst a passive aggressive son of a bitch. If you miss a turn, it does not call out, “Hey schmuck, you missed the turn! Go back and do it the right way!” No, Mr. Google takes it all in stride. If you miss a turn, Google either finds you the next best way to get there (which, as it turns out, could be a VERY BAD IDEA) or it takes umbrage at your rejection of its previous excellent suggestion and says, with Midwestern passive aggression, “Fine, if you don’t like my directions, let’s see what you think of this dirt road, bub.”

Which is exactly what it did. When we missed the turn that would take us where we needed to go, Google spat in the proverbial soup and directed us to a 12 km long dirt road. This didn’t seem right. I thought that maybe the road would be paved just ahead, or that we’d soon be on the right road, but no, this was a long dirt road. At this point both parties in the car were expressing a combination of worry that we’d miss lunch and frustration that the journey was not going according to plan. After a very cordial conversation, it was agreed that I would now be the navigator, and Janine would pilot the craft.

I recommended a backtrack – Google said that maybe we’d be interested in this other nice road a few miles back, so we decided to give it a shot. Sadly, this road was worse than the one we just quit, but for reasons that remain mysterious to me still, we advanced, hoping again that what we were seeing was not actually what we were seeing. And what we were seeing was baaad. This road was just hideous. Janine plowed through a deep rut that was filled with water. After cresting a short ridge, she gamely pushed her way through a deeper, muddier rut, nearly bogging the car down in a trough of water and mud. The mud went spitting in every direction as she span the wheels at full throttle. There was no way in hell we were getting through. I had visions of being stuck in a mud rut miles from civilization, and hours from our destination. I’m all for adventure, but I have my limits.

I suggested an about face and Janine managed to re-ford the two mud ruts and we were back on the main road, but with no good idea about where we’d gone wrong or how we’d make it right.

It is at moments like these that a couple decides whether it would like to remain married.

We gathered our wits and decided to press on. I returned to the somewhat cryptic directions to the lodge and attempted to reconcile them with the options that the Google now presented and made a series of executive decisions. If I was right, we’d make it to the lodge just in time for our game drive. If I was wrong, we’d drive straight to Joburg Airport and fly home and straight to the office of the nearest divorce lawyer.

The fates were with us. We were finally able to find the road we missed and pushed on to the lodge, avoiding any more interactions with the local constabulary. As we pulled into the lodge just in time for the evening game drive, the world’s kindest woman was standing there with welcome cocktails. I wanted to live again.

The ultimate Thanksgiving destination – Abu Dhabi!

Let’s just say you have a week to kill and you decide to fly to Abu Dhabi to spend it with people you barely know. It’s your wife’s friend and her husband. You’ve had dinner all together exactly once. What could possibly go wrong?

It is impossible to plan a nine month journey with too much precision. Things happen. Plans change. When we drew up our around the world wish list, Abu Dhabi was probably not in the top fifty, and yet, here I sit, poolside, in Abu Dhabi. In the words of David Byrne, “How did I get here?”

Allow me to explain.

Through nobody’s fault at all, we had a hole in our schedule.

Somewhere along the line, Janine’s friend Kathy invited us to visit her, her husband Brian, and their dog Rupert in Abu Dhabi. I think she said something like, “You should come visit us in Abu Dhabi sometime,” which Janine interpreted to mean, “Please invite yourselves to Abu Dhabi for a week when you have a hole in your schedule.”

It’s a relatively short flight from Istanbul and we were hoping they’d say yes.

Kathy graciously accepted Janine’s proposal, but let us know that she and Brian would be leaving mid-week for a vacation to Sri Lanka. Even so, they encouraged us to stay at the apartment after they left, which worked out well for us and allowed us the opportunity to take care of Rupert P. Kleiver, their loveable, five year old Black Mouth Cur.

Think about it. Janine and Kathy met at a conference and stayed in touch, but that was about it. They have really only seen each other a couple of times. We all had dinner together in New York once, but I doubt Brian or I could have picked each other out in a lineup of one guy. And now we were signed up for a week of close contact and we were also on the hook to make sure that their beloved dog didn’t run away or wreck the place or bite some kid.

As I look back, if you will pardon my French, this had the makings of a real shitshow.

And let this be a lesson to you people.

Every so often a truly bad idea has a happy ending.

This could have been the week from hell, but as it turned out we had a terrific time. There were many boy-boy/girl-girl Men are like Mars, Women are Like Venus moments. While the four of us are all fabulously modern with regard to gender roles and such, it is also true that the boys played golf and the girls had their toes done.

Thanksgiving was brilliant. Kathy made a stunning sweet potato and apple soup, and Brian made a turkey roulade, mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, stuffing (on top of which he roasted a turkey leg and thigh – I must try that someday), a pecan pie, and a pumpkin pie. I made an apple pie (although Brian had already made the crust, which was excellent).

When I woke up on New Year’s Day 2014, I would scarcely have imagined that I’d be having Thanksgiving dinner in the United Arab Emirates with people I barely know, but that’s life for you, isn’t it?

(By the way, if you’re interested in reading more cultural fish out of water in Abu Dhabi-type stuff, check out Kathy’s terrific blog, Blonde in ‘bu Dhabi)

Thanksgiving, Abu Dhabi style

Thanksgiving, Abu Dhabi style

I didn’t have much of a mental picture of Abu Dhabi. I know that its next door neighbor Dubai is famous for its tall buildings and Vegas-y vibe, with a Middle East twist, but I had no sense of what Abu Dhabi would be like. Abu Dhabi is much different. It has tall buildings and a Miami vibe with a Middle East twist.

Abu Dhabi under construction

Sometimes it seems that there are more cranes than people.

The weather is lovely this time of year, topping out in the low 80s. (Don’t come in summer, when it gets up to 130. No, that’s not a typo). After flatlining during the downturn, there are once again cranes everywhere. It’s a city of outsiders – only about a third of the population are from the Arabian peninsula.

But it is nevertheless a very Arabian Muslim city. Many women are fully covered and wherever you look you see men in the familiar white robe called a thawb.

The call to prayer emits from speakers around the city five times a day. The workweek is Sunday through Thursday.

In the UAE you have to go to a separate store to buy alcohol (Wait! That’s also true in New York and Maryland.) and it’s only served in hotels. Certain supermarkets sell pork, but to get to the pork products, you have to enter the “pork room,” which brings to mind the curtained-off section of the video store (remember them?) that had the dirty movies.

The Pork Room

Behind this door is a world of pork.

At the same time, the supermarkets are chockablock with familiar foods, from taco shells to Hellman’s mayonnaise. The malls (and there are tons of them) have just about every western product you can think of, including a Shake Shack (or, if you will, Sheik Shack, har har). You can live here indefinitely without having to learn a word of Arabic.

The Sheik Shack

Sheik Shack

There is no shortage of national pride here. Our visit coincided with National Day, which celebrates the unification of seven emirates (including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and five others that I hadn’t heard of) into one administrative body independent of the British, who ran the place until 1971.

The UAE flag was everywhere, and people have taken to draping their cars with those vinyl wrappers that you normally see on buses and trains. Most incorporate the suave if slightly grumpy visage of the UAE’s George Washington, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the federation’s first president.

National pride, UAE style.

National pride, UAE style.

The UAE’s version of the Blue Angels flew overhead, streaming the national colors in their contrails. We watched a fireworks display that would have impressed the Grucci brothers. It was Thanksgiving and Fourth of July rolled into one.

We did not do a ton of sightseeing, but what we saw was impressive.

The Grand Mosque, which was completed in 2007, is the eighth largest mosque in the world. It took eleven years to complete, and it’s full of notable features. The Persian carpet is more than 1.3 acres and has more than 2 billion knots. Its largest chandelier (there are seven) is the third largest in the world. The list goes on. In short, this is a big, brash mosque.

Inside the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Inside the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

We also toured the Grand Mosque’s secular counterpart – the Emirates Palace Hotel. This is the building that oil built, like much the rest of the great structures of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Where the region once produced fish and pearls (and sand), by an accident of prehistoric happenstance, this place is now fabulously wealthy. The decision to make the UAE a tourist and shopping destination represents a realization that the wells will someday run dry. For the world’s rich and famous, the Emirates Palace is as good a place as any to efficiently relieve yourself of excess capital. The three room sultan’s suites (there are a bunch of them) are more than seven thousand square feet, they rent for about $16,000 a night, and they are regularly occupied. In the lobby, you can have a cappuccino topped with gold leaf (I opted for the humble camel’s milk version) and there is a vending machine that dispenses gold necklaces.

Yep, a gold vending machine.

Yep, a gold vending machine.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai may seem gaudy and excessive, but who are we Americans to judge? After all, Business Week says that Americans spend over forty billion dollars a year on weight loss products. I won’t be making a habit of gold leaf cappuccinos, but this place is similar enough to our own part of the world to be familiar but different enough to set your cultural gyroscope spinning just out of control enough to make you pretty dizzy.

I like places that do that.

Speaking of spinning cultural gyroscopes, our next stop is Cairo.