After realizing I would eventually obtain my car, I started gathering information about different road trips I could take. Gas is cheaper than water here, literally, so the only major constraints to travel are time and perseverance. From the Tri-City area almost every country bordering Saudi is within a day’s drive. Roads are fairly good by western standards, although they tend to be filled with random annoyances, and the weather is perfect for travelling during the winter months. I asked around the compound and was eventually recommended several potential road trips by the Scots who hang around the pool. I was contemplating using the New Year’s Holiday break to drive somewhere, and thankfully my car was ready just in time.
One of the teachers at the Girls’ School suggested that a few of us spend New Year’s in Dubai, and after coaxing some information from the boys at the pool, we made it our official destination for the long weekend. After sorting out my paperwork on the Causeway to Bahrain I packed, and early the next morning myself and the other American Girls’ teacher headed out for the Emirati Border. We were joined by her Pakistani ‘boyfriend’ a few days later, as he had to work over the weekend. He flew into Dubai, but rode with us for the ride home.
Travelling by car in Saudi is convenient but frustrating. The highway system is paved, usually two lanes in each direction, and is relatively well kept. There are speed limits on most highways (120kph, or 72mph), but they are enforced using speed cameras mounted to vehicles randomly parked on the side of the road. The police do not pull over vehicles here for minor violations like speeding or littering. Tickets are given starting at ten percent over the posted speed limit, but only if the camera takes your picture within a relatively close distance. Surprisingly, most Saudi drivers are polite enough to flash their hazards when they see a camera car, allowing for a sufficient decrease in speed before your picture gets taken. Most cars travel between 140-150 kph on highways, but it’s still necessary to stay in the right lane as it’s not uncommon to be passed by cars doing 200kph or better. Potholes are common, but the bigger and considerably more dangerous nuisances are the randomly placed unmarked speed bumps that are usually painted to blend in with the pavement. The purpose of these death bumps are varied. They pop up most frequently near intersections and construction zones, but random long stretches of straight highway will occasionally have one; presumably to stop speeders, though they rarely actually do. Other hazards include camels that occasionally cross the road, which because of their massive girth sitting atop tall skinny legs, means most collisions are fatal for both camel and driver. Saudis are also known for not driving with their lights on after dark. I had a hard enough time navigating some of the roads with a full moon and my high beams because of the lack of painted lines and almost zero distinction between where the road ends and the desert begins, so I haven’t the slightest idea how anyone can manage completely in the dark.
Aside from the occasional sudden decrease in speed for speed bumps along the way our trip to the Emirati Border was fairly uneventful. We got lost in a small town about halfway along, but because cities are built using the American grid system it’s fairly easy to get yourself sorted out. 500km into the trip we came across the border town of Batha. The border crossing itself is fairly straight forward. You drive through checkpoints always handing your passport and any papers that have been handed to you to the usually ambivalent men smoking cigarettes in their booths. Eventually you pass into Emirati territory and get out of your car to pass through customs. The change between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is instantaneous and you can almost feel the freedom in the air. Women work behind the counters, the sides of the roads and entryways to buildings are free of garbage, the people are polite and go out of their way to help you. Best of all, people actually seem to care. After passing through customs and buying temporary car insurance, we pulled onto the main highway to Dubai and were off. The roads are instantly better, free of potholes and speed bumps, the trucks hauling imported goods can only drive in the far right lane, and the speed limit is posted and actually enforced (to a degree). The drive was still monotonous, but most of the highway was lined with palm trees and on occasional hills you could see the Gulf just below the horizon.
Four hours later, after a quick drive through Abu Dhabi, and a long tedious drive through rush hour traffic in both Dubai and Sharjah, we arrived at our hotel in Ajman. The U.A.E. is made up of seven Emirates (states), each ruled by a different Emir (King). They have separate laws and governing systems, but for the most part its basically like the U.S. Certain rules apply to every Emirate, such as laws about crime and drinking, while others fluctuate from border to border, such as driving laws. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is by far the largest and wealthiest, and is situated about 100km from Dubai. The highway between the two cities is mostly suburbanized. The Emirate of Dubai is situated on a stretch of highway closely followed by the Emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, and Uum Al-Quwain. It’s basically one big metropolitan area, and their borders are only marked through changes in speed limits and shop names.
The Highway between Dubai and Sharjah.
The Emirates themselves are a relatively nice place. There’s a mix of Middle Eastern and Modern Western Culture that’s much more understandable than that in Saudi, but it is still smoke and mirrors. The scale of urban development is massive and up until the housing bust of recent years prices for any type of real estate were very high. Now, the lack of interested buyers means most buildings sit at less than full capacity and many construction sites sit unfinished, all the investment capital having run out. Daily life revolves around mostly standard Middle Eastern routines, with calls to prayer (though thankfully shops stay open) and an unbelievable assortment of food, shops, and boutiques. The downside is that although the Emirate Dirham is worth the same as the Saudi Riyal (1 dirham/riyal equals about $0.25), things are three to four times more expensive in the U.A.E than in Saudi, including standard cheap street food like shawarma or falafel. The split level natured of society is also prevalent there, with a small population of Emiratis and Westerners making up the majority of affluent society while the rest of the population lives in relative poverty.
Our trip was fairly successful despite getting lost trying to find nearly every destination we set out for. Most of our time the second day was spent in Ajman along the Corniche (the beachfront area) finding the relatively few hotels and restaurants that served alcohol. We happened to find the illegal liquor store in the area, which was by far the sketchiest, and smelliest liquor store I’ve ever been in, but it served the purpose of providing drinks for an afternoon at the beach. We spent the evening at the Kampinski Hotel, an overly lavish Russian chain, having drinks and sheesha (a hookah, or hubbly-bubbly; basically a water-pipe you smoke flavored tobacco with) in the upstairs lounge overlooking the ocean.
The Ajman Corniche. Pristine.
Enjoying the Private Beach.
Sunset over the Arabian Gulf.
The upstairs lounge at the Kampiski Hotel.
On the third day, After picking up the Pakistani at the airport, we got ready at the hotel and arranged for a cab ride to downtown Dubai to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Just about every cab driver in Dubai is Pakistani, which meant we got a reduced fare, better service, and ended up at our destination much faster than we anticipated.
Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world.
Huge from miles away, unbelievably huge from underneath.
After wandering around the Dubai Mall for an hour looking for a place to eat, we learned alcohol is not allowed inside the mall, nor is it actually served in any type of outside seating area around the Burj Khalifa. Eventually we managed to find an Australian Sports bar in a nearby hotel and settled in for drinks to pass the time. Just before midnight we waited outside in the courtyard area for the fireworks. It was definitely the highlight of the trip.
A few hours later, after befriending an Iranian couple and being asked to leave the bar by a very friendly Samoan bouncer, we caught a cab home. The next day we drove back to Saudi, only getting lost once, albeit for more than an hour in Abu Dhabi. All in all, it was a fairly good trip. I experienced what it actually means to travel well outside my comfort zone, and I did it with new friends who I normally wouldn’t have taken the time to meet had I not decided to move here. Originally, this was one of my main reasons for moving abroad, but upon moving to Saudi and learning what life is actually like I realized that maybe things weren’t quite what they were cracked up to be. Having gone through the ups and downs of many a poor decision (mostly my own, but also some beyond my control), I’ve learned to live by the adage that things are what you make of them. Things are no different now, and I don’t anticipate that will change anytime soon. Time will tell.
Such is life in Saudi.