Tag Archives: Road trips

Don Quixote of the Modern College Campus

I took this picture while stopped in traffic on Nassau Street, right in front of Princeton University’s main gate.

The bus caught my eye.  (How could it not?)  It’s the type of NQR that makes me, at least fleetingly, rather happy, warmed-inside, representing a sort of harmless and hopeful craziness which, if it were to increase individually or collectively, would surely benefit our often cruel and callous world.

Some of the lovely, hopeful slogans borne by this Rocinante:  “Spread kindness to everyone every chance you get” . . . “Overcome bullying through love” . . . “One guy (Bob) and his dog (Gocart) traveling to campuses across the country to promote kindness” . . . “Kids need role models” . . . “Let’s all stop hurtin’ each other” . . . “Don’t Hit Don’t Hurt Do Help Do Heal” . . . “You Have Such a Big Heart Share It With Everyone” . . . “The Greatest of These Is Love”

The bus also provides an opportunity to show to people overseas who aren’t familiar with America one of the last vestiges of our vaunted hippie culture, a dream and an anti-capitalist fervor that once thrived on certain (more liberal) college campuses but has now disappeared, aging and mellowing, to suburban pacification or to isolation in certain marginalized movements or locations. (Though the ‘Occupy’ events of last summer still had force!)

I was happy to see this bus, here, in a place like Princeton where I wouldn’t ever have expected it.  I wonder how its owner fared, preaching or simply being among the scions of this elite, Ivy locale.  I imagine he found some folks to listen, others like me to look and think about his slogans and his message.  But, in the end, the thing that made me happiest of all was just to imagine him, a modern Quixote mounting his painted, slogan-covered Rocinante and driving, rescue-dog at his side, off into some romantic and futile sunset, tilting at so many noble windmills.


Soft Drink Wars

Just a quick NQR chime-in on the soft drink debate that’s currently raging in New York City (see article on the recent hearing where Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit soda sizes to 16oz in the city is debated).

Personally we’ve taken to ordering kids’ meals when we’re traveling and don’t otherwise have our normal range of options for healthy eating (or at least obtaining healthy portion sizes).  The fries in a kids’ meal are the same size now days as LARGE fries when we were kids.  The burgers are portion-sized, rather than 1000+ calorie behemoths.  And the sodas are in the 8 – 12oz range.  This says alot about America, and American gluttony, that the cheapest and most available sources of food are too large, too sugary, and too fat.  Unlike much of the rest of the world, where the poorer classes are subjected to starvation-level poverty, in America food is an almost unavoidable excess unless you’re rich enough (ala Angelina Jolie) to hire a private cook and nutritionist.

Here’s proof (from what has been, over time, one of our more favored and frequented fast food joints) on the explosion in size of soft drinks.  A REGULAR soda (regular!) came across the counter to me barely large enough to fit in my hand.  The fine print in the lower right corner of the cup reveals its size:  30oz.  It’s stupid big.  And it lends credence to what doctors are saying about these soft drinks, that they’re addictive.  How else can anyone explain drinking, in one sitting, an amount of soda that is equal to half the normal intake of water someone needs during a day?

I say to Mayor Bloomberg:  “Good work.”  If someone has a problem with a 16oz size soda, let them purchase two (or four, if they want the equivalent of a modern ‘large’).

Giant cup of sugar (or worse: corn syrup!)


The Opposite of a Roadblock

During the year I served in the town of Safwan, Iraq, our unit provided armed escort to military and civilian convoys throughout all of Iraq, meeting convoys at Safwan’s border crossing point and taking them on about a 1.5 mile loop along a two-lane town road between the border and the main highway just north of the city.  (This convoy activity forms a backdrop for my novel One Hundred and One Nights).  After that point the vast majority of the remainder of our routes used such fast-moving roads.  Our convoys slowed down on this one stretch, sometimes waiting for another convoy to clear through the border point, sometimes just congested in general.  As a result, a troublesome trend toward piracy sprang up along this road, with a few bandits seizing the opportunity, jumping into vehicles, ejecting the drivers and hurrying away before our widely-dispersed guardian Humvees could react (30 semis in a convoy = a virtual moving wall of trucks, for which 3 Humvees provided only a thin guard).

The Not Quite Right of this post hopes to capture the absolute mastery of the driving of these semis, the types of roads down which the bandits took these hulking vehicles, and also the elegant little solution we put in place.

An armored engineer vehicle emplaces a simple serpentine barricade on a road that 'seems' as if it would already have been impossible for a semi to use!

Here, in the photo, one can see the types of road and the woeful emptiness of the land into which the semis were driven (click photo to enlarge).  It might seem easy, perhaps, to find something like a semi in so much waste but the land was pitted with little quarries, rills of rock, hard-scrabble dunes.  A few tarps slung over a truck, a few shovelfuls of earth and dust, and no one would ever notice it.  Then, in the night, the truck might be driven north to a larger city, dismantled, scrapped, its cargo sold, and a neat little profit — a huge profit in comparison to the average Iraqi salary at that time! — made by the thiefs.  No one ever got injured during these filchings, the TCN (third-country national — Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghani, Indian, etc) drivers usually walking back to the border crossing, maybe with a lump on their head from getting shoved out of the vehicle.  But the thefts were annoying and escalating in frequency.

Our solution, proposed by one of my soldiers and at first seeming to be crazy and unworkable, was to wall-in this one lane bypass road all the way from the border to the main, fast-moving highway.  While the initial problem with this idea — the restriction of legitimate local traffic moving from one side of the town to the other — nixed the possibility of an outright wall, the final plan, to put barricades in place around which a small car or truck could easily navigate but through which a semi could not be driven, was brilliant in both its feasibility and its cost-effectiveness.  The semis couldn’t be driven across the open countryside, with its knee-high mud and clay farm walls, so we didn’t need to worry about blocking anything except the few adjoining roads.  We created something akin to the opposite of a roadblock, meant to restrict semis to a known and approved path but to let every other sort of vehicle move with only minimal hindrance.

The idea reduced thievery to almost nothing during the course of our remaining missions in the town, at least for the period of a half year or so, until the thieves adapted and started to carve new and hidden roads in the desert!  A game of cat and mouse during which not a single shot was fired.

Flooded with Infrastructure

One thing no expatriate will fail to notice when visiting Oman is the exceptionally fast pace of infrastructure development here, especially the roads.  This is due both to the fact that the country is still enjoying a phase of rapid modernization — bringing it from a 1970 low of having only 12-km of paved roads to today’s Starbucks-infiltrated, modern-highway, sprawling urban landscape — and also because tropical cyclones Gonu and Phet have wreaked major havoc, major destruction on the roads and sewers and drainage systems in two of the three last years.

Having just avoided, through grace or serendipity, another cyclone, it is worth reflecting on the state of this infrastructure development and some of the peculiarities of the roadwork it has created.

A peculiar Omani road sign with International Appeal

First, you cannot drive more than a mile or two without encountering a major highway construction project.

Second, where you do enjoy a constructionless bit of travel, you’ll certainly encounter a hodge-podge of British, American, and Arabic road engineering.  New highways resemble American Eisenhower-era roads, with gradually sloping overpasses and underpasses merging onto three and four lane expressways.  Older highways often have round-abouts, sometimes two- and three-lane roundabouts, thanks to British systems.  And even older roads, where curb and gutter or on- and off-ramps may not exist at all, lead to the inevitable pulling-on and pulling-off from bare desert to road, no system at all for merging other than a nerve-wracking game of ‘chicken’.

These engineering marvels (marvels because of the rapidity at which they have sprouted!) are tough to capture on camera.  However, one particular roadway shenanigan of which I do have a photo, thanks to Mindy and Mike Scheer, our neighbors in Muscat, is the “Irish Crossing.”

Photo of an actual Irish Crossing in Oman

This is called the “Irish Crossing” because, I guess, it is also used in Ireland.  The idea is to save a few bucks, to provide a crossing for an intermittent watercourse without building a full bridge.  However, it is wise to note that these watercourses, when full, will definitely cut all cross-wadi travel, rendering the highways impassable.  I imagine, though now frequently seen, especially on the route from Muscat to Sohar, these money-saving road constructions will be phased out (or washed out!) in the near future.

When the rains do come these crossings will be areas flooded with Not Quite Right.

Arabian Oryx Conservation

The Arabian Oryx, called maha locally, is a truly beautiful and amazing animal.  It, along with a certain type of desert lynx and the Arabian leopard here in Oman, is the focus of some fairly robust conservation efforts for which applause and attention should be given.  Maha is also a favorite first name for girls in Oman, and one can see the reason why, given the animal’s combination of lithe body and toughness.

An Arabian Oryx on the road from Abu Dhabi to Liwa Oasis.

Maha are a type of gazelle, but with an exceptional ability.  Like a camel, they can go days (and some say even a lifetime) without drinking water.  This is an adaptation specifically designed to help it survive against predators.  If chased by, say, an Arabian leopard, it heads out into the vastnesses of the Neged, or the Rub al-Khali, leading its stalker so deep into the wastes that the other animal has no choice but to turn back or die of dehydration.  They are fast little creatures with curving horns and are even rumored to have been the source of the myth of the unicorn, for — when turned in profile — the two horns exactly mirror eachother in shape, giving the impression of but a single central horn.

Our one encounter with maha here in the Middle East occured in the UAE, rather than Oman (although Oman has set aside a huge tract in its Wahiba Sands area of the Rub al-Khali for Oryx conservation).  There, in the UAE, Sheikh Zayed al-Awal had a fascination for greening the desert.  All the way from the Oman border to Abu Dhabi and to Dubai, and then from Abu Dhabi all the way south to Mizaira’a and the other isolated villages of the Liwa Oasis, the edges of the freeway are ‘forested’ with date palm and scrubby thorn bushes, miles and miles of plastic pipe in the ground providing drips of desalinated water daily to each plant.  Some of these forested areas are fenced.  We wondered why.  Watching, as we passed, we eventually discovered the reason:  they’re used as a conservatory for the Oryx, with groups of 5 or 10 of the little creatures lounging in the shade.  At first, driving past them, I thought I was seeing goats or dogs.  Then I realized what they were and, though they usually scampered away when we tried to photograph them, we did snap this one fine photo, fence and all.

A creature like the maha seems wronged when shown with a fence around it.  But, its really us, our human incursions into the desert, and our hunting of it to near-extinction, that have perpetrated the true wrong.  We are what makes it necessary to institute a Not Quite Right like these fenced-in conservatories.

Rednecks (in the Arabian Gulf?)

Typical Bedu transportation -- no longer the camel.

Rednecks can happen anywhere.  Or, maybe a better shorthand:  Rednecks happen.

I’ve seen them in some ritzy places like Carmel Valley in California where they drive big diesel-guzzling souped up Ford trucks probably with the specific intent of pissing off their conservation-minded, Audi-driving neighbors. And I’ve been to the heart of Redneck country, Arkansas and southwest Alabama and southern Georgia and Lousiana, where to be called a Redneck is something of a badge of honor, of status finally achieved after the labor-intensive application of many reems of peel-on Confederate stickers.

Here in the Middle East the locals have a specific name for their Rednecks:  Bedu.

This is the word from which we, in the English language, receive our highly romanticized notion of Bedouin, hard men eeking out a living in the desert, carrying all their worldly possessions with them on camel-back, and mysterious women with scorching-hot kohl-lined eyes glancing surreptitiously from beneath their veils.

But, such is not the case.  Bedu are Rednecks wearing dirty white dishdashas, nothing more.  And a good part of the youth population (who can blame them?) shun the richer life-style of Ferraris and smooth-riding Toyota Prados for desert-worthy little hooptie trucks, upon the tailgates of which it is not uncommon to see four, five, six, maybe even twelve young men riding.  The trucks blast down the highways (notice how remarkably nice this highway is!) at 140 kmph, 90mph, swerving in and out of traffic, and they bump along the gravel wadi beds at similarly frightful speeds.

In a way, this is survival of the fittest.  Hold on tight or you’ll be thrown off.  And the only thing that really differentiates the Bedu and the American styles of Rednecking is the absence, here, of beer, NASCAR and chewing tobacco.  The similarity makes a person want to dig up all of Jeff Foxworthy’s old jokes:

You might be a redneck if . . . you can name more than three ways that this picture is Not Quite Right.

Camel Crossing

Roadsign near Ras al-Had, Sur, Oman.

I come from a part of America where hitting deer is a real problem.  I’ve struck several myself, including two at once.  The Wisconsin roads are littered with dead bambis.

Other places, like Alaska and Minnesota, have a bigger problem on their hands when moose wander out from the forests.

But nothing back home tops a camel for sheer bulk and destructive power.  The camel is doubly dangerous compared to normal roadkill because a car (unless its a Fiat or an MG and slips clean beneath the swaying belly) will make contact with the animal right square on the front windshield, sheering it off.

And, be careful, they spit.