Dubai dreams…

26 10 2010

The too salty water licks the toes of the mighty plastic forest of skyscrapers that desperately huddle together on the edge of the Gulf. We have travelled long and hard to make it to this point, swerving our way across the planet to try to wiggle our way to Thailand but much has muddied the path – which looked so clear and easy on our blow up globe; Ethnic fighting in Osh upset our Stans route, the devastating floods washed away our road in Northern Pakistan, the subsequent fighting made the journey through southern Pakistan too dangerous and the visa too hard to get hold of….. and so here we are. In Dubai. Sitting in a friend of Liz’s flat (thank all the baby cheeses for St Laura the jolly without whom we would be in financial meltdown!) holding tight to a scrap of paper with a hastily written number on it – our last hope.  ‘Try and get a Dhow’ yet another voice advises ‘Michal Palin did it!’.. and so with moist patches of hope gathering in our hearts we head off to the Seaman’s Mission. A fine place to find a Captain!

‘Seaman’s ID’ the gruff security guard barks at us, eyeing us suspiciously… Liz shoots me a look, ‘do seamen have ID?’ her raised eyebrows venture … ‘I have a salt encrusted t-shirt’ I whisper ‘do you think that will help’, Liz delivers me a surreptitious thump before returning to Mr Gruff… ‘emm.. we are looking for a Captain .. well for passage to India.. we have bikes and .. em .. it’s for charity .. and em….’ she falters, this is beginning to sound like a bad episode of Pugwash.. ‘emm.. we thought here.. we might find someone, someone who could take us’. Mr Gruff rolls back on his heels for a moment, clearly weighing us up… he huffs out a final and decisive garlicky gruff and disappears into the majesty of his tiny security box to return an unfathomably long 10 mins later and presents us with our little scrap of hope. ‘Try this number… John might be able to help, he runs the mission’.

Liz keys in the number and waits. John is helpful but clear ‘it’s illegal. After 9-11 things have tightened up – you could get passage on a container ship but only from Europe, good luck’. And with that our final little sandcastle of hope melted away.  Conflict and natural disaster have forced us to follow the land option into countries we never thought we’d go to and onto shores we didn’t ever dream of landing on. But now we have to fly – to get to India, to carry on to Thailand we have to fly over the sea. And so we will. But what we will do is fly to the tip – to Trivandrum. We will fly to the very bottom on India, because from the bottom of India to Kathmandu is as far as from the border of Iran to Kathmandu .. so we will still be able to say we have travelled the overland distance from the UK to Thailand.  This compromise affords our sagging little hearts a slight pep. So now we face the challenge of boxing our bikes and praying the bikes can make the journey without sustaining any damage. And the even greater challenge of gearing up emotionally and physically ready to face Mighty Mother India!

In search of the magic ticket – Iran to Sharjah by boat

25 10 2010

The great interweb tells us we can get a boat from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Sharjah (Dubai, UAE)… good news… let’s give it a whirl. One phone call (via yet another Iranian friend) reveals Mondays and Wednesdays at 7pm –  A schedule! – this is promising; we rush to Bandar Abbas.
Monday morning. The Travel agents.

Hot and steamy in Bandar, I step into the cool of the travel agency, spying a promising ‘ship to sharjah’ sign, I head to the counter.  This is too easy… I’m thinking.  ‘Just bring your passport’ the glossy eyed agent clips, ‘and we’ll give you a ticket’. 5 minutes later, I’m back, two slightly warn passports clasped tightly in my sweaty palm – all present and correct. I present.  Glossy eyes blinks – ‘No boat, it’s cancelled’. Her detached typing taps out the seconds as I wait for an explanation – ‘um..’ I cough… Her fingers waver.. she sighs..    ‘Maybe it will come tomorrow or maybe not’.  She resumes her tapping. Pointedly.

To make myself feel better I go through the process with another travel agent – story stacks up (ish) – boat tonight is cancelled.  Next boat leaves on Wednesday.

Resigned to a few days in Bandar we wash some pants. As the evening draws in Catherine suggests – ‘let’s just ask again about that maybe boat, before the travel agents close’.  So we do.  ‘Oh yes it’s going tomorrow at 10am’ chirps a rare breed – it appears we have stumbled upon the lesser spotted helpful travel agent.  ‘Splendid! Can I get a ticket?’ I ask.   ‘No, but maybe try the Travel Agency next door’ they tell me.

I go there, and have a near heart attack when the lady tells me the boat is leaving tonight in about an hour and a half…. after a couple of heart in mouth minutes it turns out she is wrong. I am right; the boat is in fact going tomorrow morning – with relief that we haven’t missed it I ask for a ticket…   ‘No, get it at the port tomorrow.  Boat leaves at 10am, get there for 7 to get your ticket’.

I panic my way back to the hotel, pack up our bags, change more money – unsure now of the price having been told anything from$75 – $140 – plus the cost of bikes… and we never know what that might be. While at the same time nurse Queen Catherine who has been dictating from the hotel bed while nursing a twisted ankle after surviving a particularly aggressive altercation with a pile of sand and medium high kerb (ahem), and generally flapping about with ice and makeshift bandages – I knew that dodgy fruit salad head scarf would come in handy!

Tuesday morning. 6.45am – The Port.

… Things are looking good, there’s a queue of people with lots of bags and stuff.  It looks like other people think there’s a boat too!  We are ushered to the front of the queue and are reassured that we will be able to get our tickets from the Captain of the boat.

Until the Captain of the boat arrives – ‘Tickets? From me? No can do. Try the Travel agent’. Helpfully they package me into a taxi to try yet another travel agency.. my 5th so far.  Two women, one who speaks English are bundled into the taxi with me…. it turns out they are at the port to see off their sister who lives in Dubai and visits once a year – I feel terrible – as I am a raw nerve and there is no fun conversation to be had in my jagged state. After 57 mins of  general huffery the agent finally grunts ‘No ticket, the system is down’. She snaps me a glance of accusation. Clearly it is my fault.

As crestfallen as a wilted three week old sprout I slump in the taxi and return to the port.  It’s been an hour and a half, the boat leaves in 30 minutes, I expect to see movement and action, an empty departure lounge, weeping relatives……Nothing has changed.  More people have gathered with a whole lot more things to get on the boat.  The queue stands.

But, maybe things have changed… the boat itself is actually here in the port (good news) and Catherine has made friends with a group of German bikers and jeep drivers.

By some conspiracy of Iranianism the German bikers come with a German speaking Iranian angel, in the form of a bloke who happened to be staying at their hotel and offered to help them.  The angel then spent 2 days sorting out a heap of beaucracy for them so that they can get their motorbikes on this boat.  He is enlisted … and strides off to speak to some officials somewhere on our behalf.

He returns, through German, English and Farsi … shafts of hope are revealed.  There is space on the boat (it is about one third full), but as the web based system is down it is not possible to enter our names into the computer and therefore we cannot get a ticket, without a ticket we cannot board the boat. But…. There is a list. We are now on it. The Golden List of Hope.

It feels touch and go for the next 3 hours and without the angel I can assure you Catherine and I would have given up and gone to buy a ticket for the next boat.  But instead we wait, with everyone else.  Some checking-in starts to happen – the luggage bypasses the expensive looking bag scanners, to be stared at by the 8 officialish men languidly gathered around one check in desk. Dust the only thing gathering at the other two.

Then lunch is called. Everything stops. Everyone eats –a free meal is laid on.  It is now 12.30pm.  After that lunch for the military police (not before they’ve participated in some good loud praying – for our benefit reckons the angel) then lunch for other staff.  As far as we can tell, during the eating nothing else progresses.

A couple of the Germans then get hauled off for a sequence of 30 minute interrogations about where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing.  Fortunately (probably because we’re female) we miss this.

And finally, having been in the port building for 7 hours, we are issued with some tickets. There is still the issue of our bikes… a price is asked for, then withdrawn.  We wait a further 45 minutes after which the original price is once more asked for.

Throughout all of these schenanigans with the Europeans (in total there are 10 of us, Brits, Austrians and Germans) all the rest of the passengers have boarded.  Hours ago.  Eventually our passports are returned to us, they’ve been with the officials for about 3 hours. We are told to board.  There’s a whole lot of toing and froing to do with loading cargo (all three cars, 5 bikes and two bicycles of it) – why it had to wait until after all the passengers were on we will never know… but eventually around 5pm (22 hours after scheduled departure) the boat FINALLY departs…. we cheer, we whoop, we holler (the Germans clap).

Still bound in our headscarves (the boat is Iranian territory apparently) we endure the not too arduous 12 hour journey – it should take 8-9. It docks in Dubai at 5am.. but customs doesn’t open until 8….  we wait some more. Eventually a dog is let loose to skip over our bikes playing for drugs, we get shuffled from one incomprehensible queue to the next, we watch Hannibal lector rip someone’s face off (the while-you-wait-movie), we undertake one precarious ride across a very oily dock until we are set free – to face the 10 lane super highway from Sharjah into Dubai…. we acquiesce and get into a taxi with our bikes – this is the most dangerous place yet!!