29 June 2015

Road Trip!!

Wednesday of last week had a farewell lunch with my colleagues from the Strategy Department. Early Thursday morning picked up my passport from immigration and was ready to hit the road. My colleagues came downstairs to snap some photos of me with El Guapo, all loaded, fueled up and ready to go (El Guapo was, not my colleagues). At this moment, sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Abadan, Iran, it seems hard to believe that was just a few days ago; the intensity of the experience in the interim makes it feel like it was some time last year.

I left the Ooredoo Tower in West Bay, Doha around 10:00. Arrived at the Salwa border crossing with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a couple of hours later, and started getting the export paperwork processed. The first of many bureaucratic snags I would stumble over in the following 72 hours was that the vehicle was destined for the Czech Republic, and they couldn't find "Czech Republic" in their computer system, so they announced that I could not export it there because "this country does not exist". They thought "Republic of Chad" was probably close enough, and so that's what they put on my export form. They did not yet know that when I travel, I am protected by very powerful Guardian Angels. I looked up at the agent, and then over his shoulder to the window behind him, where just at that moment a huge lorry just pulled up and came to a stop immediately outside the window. Emblazoned on its side was the "Hortex" logo and the words "Brno, Czech Republic” in meter-high lettering. I directed his attention to the window and the lorry parked directly outside. "No," I said, "there is a Czech Republic, and that's what you are putting on this form." Whomever implemented their system did not put the countries in any particular order, so it wasn't easy, but eventually we found the Czech Republic in the system, I finished the paperwork, had the vehicle inspected by customs and I left Qatar.

A few minutes/meters later I was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and dealing with the first of many extremely friendly, completely incompetent officials I woud encounter over the coming days. With my export certificate, which specified that the vehicle was being exported to the Czech Republic, I was only permitted to travel on a route towards the specified destination (Chad, of course, is in an entirely different direction). Unfortnately, their system actually did not have the "Czech Republic," and so on a Thursday afternoon in Ramadan in the KSA, I had to wait while they emailed the central IT support function for Saudi Customs in Riyadh so they could implement a new route in the system. After waitng three hours, I finally was directed to a customs area where El Guapo was searched yet again, a Customs tag was attached, and lots of paperwork stamped. I used the last of my Qatar Riyals to pay the fees, but then had to go buy insurance, which was 50 Riyal. When I explained to the agent I had no Riyal, he took 50 SAR from his own wallet, and then refused to let me repay him after I went to the cash machine.

I was about half-way to Damman when it was time for the Maghreb prayer and the end of the fast. El Guapo needed refueling so I pulled off the highway, but was flagged down (along with other motorists) by a group of Saudi teens distributing snacks for travellers to break their fast with -- a zip-loc bag with some dates, yogurt, cheese, water, lemonade and some religious literature in Arabic. There was no one pumping fuel when I arrived at the filling station; I wandered around a bit and found the entire staff in a tent at the rear breaking their fast. They invited me to join them and so spent a half-hour eating before anyone could see to El Guapo. 112 litres of diesel, 28 SAR.

Free Iftar Snack!

I got back on the road and continued towards Kuwait. I arrived at the border around midnight. Yet another computer problem. Exiting the KSA, the immigration officer asked me my destination, I told him "Kuwait City", but for some reason the system kept rejecting his input. He tried several times and even showed me the screen. He said he would have to call Qatar. When he finally spoke with them, it turns out what he wanted was my final destination, the Czech Republic, not my destination for that evening (Kuwait City). Once he changed the destination, it accepted the input immediately.

Things were worse on the Kuwait side. First, I had to get a "visa on arrival". As is typical, there were about 12 guys in the immigration office, but only one tired-looking, chain-smoking guy wearing a filthy uniform and a baseball cap was processing applications. After a half-hour wait, finally it was my turn. There was a bit of a scramble as they tried to locate an English-language visa application form.

Apparently, visitors to Kuwait are managed by the "Parts Department" (just ask for "Earl" or "Leroy")

Visitors to Kuwait are required to attest to their "auerudedsement" of the terms of their visa

I completed the form just as it was time for Mr. Efficiency and all of his colleagues to go on their break so that they could eat before dawn. After another half-hour wait, finally he returned and issued my visa. Now all I had to do was get the vehicle cleared in. I was directed a very nice agent, young, enthusiastic and eager to do his job right. He informed me I would need to have Kuwaiti plates put on the car and that couldn't be done until Sunday (it was then very early on Friday). I argued with him, asked to check. He found his manager. His manager confirmed that he was wrong, but that in order to bring the vehicle in, "you must have a 'Trip Ticket'" (Carnet). I produced my Carnet, he looked at it and said, "no, you don't need this." A coven of Kuwaiti customs officials was assembled in the conference room. Experts were telephoned and the spirits of departed officials were summoned. The ancient prayer of customs officials, "लेअसे प्रिन्त् च्लेअर्ल्य् उसिन्ग् ब्लोच्क् चपितल् लेत्तेर्स् इन् ब्लुए ओर् ब्लच्क् इन्क्”* was chanted aloud. Incense was burned. My documents were passed around the room and scrutinized by each officer in turn. One declared, "the vehicle can transit Kuwait, but it must go on a trailer."

”Why?," I asked

"The certificate says it must go by road."

"Driving it is going by road," I countered.

"But it doesn't say you can drive it."

"It doesn't say I can't"

Ten pairs of eyes squinted at the certificate. There was a long moment of silence. Finally one voice announced "he is correct -- it doesn't say he can't drive it". Other voices murmured their agreement. The skeptic was silenced. "He must buy insurance!" announced another.

"I have insurance"

"You have? Let me see"

I produced my Orange Card. It was passed around. One declared it was insurance for Qatar, as it was issued by the Qatar Insurance Company. With a dismissive scowl, his colleague read the Arabic text on the back of the certificate aloud -- "UAE, Oman, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq AND KUWAIT." Another skeptic silenced.

Finally, the cabal announced its collective judgement. A short form would need to be completed, signed and stamped. The insurance office would have to stamp my Orange Card, and the Export Certificate would need to be stamped. I walked over to insurance office with the Orange Card and got it stamped. When I returned, the other documents were ready. Smiles and handshakes all around. I was on my way.

I arrived at the Kuwait City Sheraton around 4:00, checked in, went up to my room, ordered and ate some breakfast, and went to sleep around 5:30, just as dawn was breaking. Slept until 11:00 or so, went downstairs, checked out and was back on the road north by noon. 85 km (about an hour) to the Iraqi border. I arrived at the initial checkpoint, where a Kuwait soldier waved me off, ”not here, this for Iraq”.

”I know.”

”You go Iraq?”







I drove past the checkpoint to the customs office. The usual scratching of heads and assembling of the elders ensued, but they figured the vehicle exit process reasonably quickly, completed my paperwork, and directed me to the immigration hall to get exit stamped. The soldier who had greeted me at the entrance followed. My passport was passed around and the Iraq visa carefully eyeballed. A green sheet of paper was waved at me — ”you cannot leave unless you have this paper.” I had no idea what it was or where to get it.

”You must get this from the airport”

I tried to argue but it was pointless. I returned to the customs building. Phone calls were made on my behalf. There was no other way — I would need this special green paper or I would not be leaving Kuwait for Iraq. With the assistance of the Customs officials, we eventually found a recent notice on the Kuwaiti Ministry of the Interior website, and only in the Arabic section of the site (the corresponding English page said ”Under Construction”), informing passport holders of a couple of dozen countries that with immediate effect, permission from the security section would be required for those wishing to travel to Iraq from Kuwait. The very first country on the list was ”America" ("أمركا"). It was now Friday afternoon, during Ramadan, and the Security Office would not be open until Sunday morning. I would lose two full days.

The helpful Customs team showed where on Google maps the Security Office was. I drove back out of the border post and headed back towards Kuwait City, intending to return to the Sheraton and hang out for a couple of days. On my way there, I decided to first go find the office, so I would know exactly where to go on Sunday. I found the airport without difficulty a bit over an hour later, and then with the help of a friendly cop, found the security office. I decided to park and see exactly where the office was. As expected, when I found the building, it was dark, but decided to try the door anyway. To my surprise, it was unlocked. I stepped into a darkened lobby, and then went up the stairs to a large, deserted, open plan office. I wandered around the dark, silent space but found no one there. I was just about to leave when I heard faint voices coming from one corner, and followed the sound to the immense corner office occupied by the director of the security office, a big guy with 3 stars on his lapels, who was apparently catching up on some work over the weekend with his deputy. I explained my situation, or at least tried to, but I have very limited Arabic and their English was even more so. But once I mentioned ”Iraq” they understood what I was after. ”No problem,” they said, ”we do it now.” My guardian angels saved the day again. The deputy led me to a workstation where he sat down, logged in, and entered details from my passport. A blank sheet of the precious green paper was produced. They hit ”print”. Nothing happened. They stared at the machine, they cursed at the printer. They tried a different printer. Success! Stamp, sign, done. I thanked them profusely, ran back to El Guapo and raced back to the border.

Why, yes, I do have a special green paper

I arrived just before sunset, and just as the customs official who had helped me earlier was putting up a barrier at the entrance to the border station. ”Did you get it?” he asked. I triumphantly waved my green paper. ”Come with me,” he said. I followed him to a building on the other side of the complex, and started to bring my paperwork. ”No, no,” he said. ”we’ll finish that later. First we have to eat.” I followed him into the building where the entire staff of the border facility was seated on the floor, waiting for the end of the fast. Plates of dates, yoghurt, fruit and bowls of lentils were already waiting. After a few minutes, the end of the fast was invisibly signaled and we all tucked in. We had a short break, and then the main course was laid on — roast chicken and lamb, vegetables, rice, and pasta. Finally, some Arabic sweets for dessert.

Iftar with Immigration

At last I was ready to get my exit stamp. The immigration team returned to the departure hall, but still wouldn’t stamp me until the military representative gave the OK, and he was nowhere to be found. I spent another half an hour waiting around before immigration finally agreed to stamp my passport. I set off down the final 500 meters to the frontier gate. A final check of my documents was done, and the hydraulic gate on the Kuwaiti side was opened to allow me through. The Kuwaitis bellowed to their Iraqi counterparts. After some time, two disheveled guys appeared, one carrying a walkie-talkie. He spoke into it. I understood enough Arabic to know that he was informing someone that he had an American passport-holder at the gate who wanted to come through. Eventually, permission was received, the rickety iron gate on the other side was opened and I drove through into Iraq.

I entered into a dark, deserted area, with no pavement and a few decrepit shacks. First they wanted to search the vehicle. We started the process, but then the guy with the walkie-talkie got me alone for a minute and offered to expedite the process for 100 dollars. I countered with 10 Kuwaiti Dinar (about 35 dollars). He accepted. Next, the usual vehicle formalities, completed by a decrepit gentleman in filthy pajamas sitting in an equally decrepit shack. Then immigration — fingerprinting, photos, etc. all performed in an eerily dark, vacant and run-down facility. There was no evidence that anyone else had recently passed through the facility. Finally, I was ready to depart, and I headed off to the barrier at the exit.

In prior experience, this final exit check is quick and routine — they just check to make sure the guys inside have done their jobs properly — is the passport exit stamped, are the vehicle papers in order. Three uniformed soldiers stood at the barrier, the first reasonably professional looking guys I had encountered since entering Iraq. They insisted on searching the vehicle again, and then declared that my GPS would not be permitted to enter Iraq. I was directed to return to the customs facility. Eight guys questioned me over the next hour, and again the vehicle was searched, this time with great thoroughness. In the passenger footwell, alongside my discarded crisp packets and water bottles, they found the Arabic literature that the Saudi teenagers had given me along with the Iftar snack. I was questioned at length about this. When I say ”questioned at length,” I mean they kept asking the same stupid question over and over again. I had actually snapped a photo of the bag (see above) and I showed this to them. I couldn’t get the simple point across that I had no idea what the book said. In the end, they gave me two options — surrender my GPS or return to Kuwait. The GPS was an 800 dollar Garmin Monterra, but I had no other option. It was locked to the dashboard mount, so I had to partially unpack the vehicle again in order to dig out the special tool needed to remove it. Finally, I was permitted to return to the exit barrier and this time, it was lifted so that I could depart. I was finally free!

I started down the road. Less than a minute later, I was flagged down by soldiers demanding my passport. I was on the verge of losing it — I had only 74 km to cover in Iraq, but at this rate it was going to take forever. Eventually, my passport was returned and I asked them the way to Basra. They escorted me to the main road, and I started on my way. 10 minutes later, a military checkpoint. Again I am stopped, and this time escorted to the commander’s office. My papers are checked. I am offered water and juice. The commander doesn’t speak English, so he phones his brother, who does. The brother explains that there is no problem with me, everything is in order, but he is concerned for my security. He makes some calls, and is obviously frustrated. Finally, after a half-hour, he sends me on my way, asking me to be careful.

I drive as fast as I can on the poorly surfaced and maintained road, dodging pot-holes and random obstacles. I am detained by police again — this time only briefly — two more times in less than an hour. About three-quarters of the way to Basra, I’m hurtling along at 100 km/hour at the left side of the roadway when suddenly the road narrows by several meters. I suddenly find myself driving with my left wheels in deep, soft sand, and my right wheels still on the roadway. I struggle a bit, but manage to bring the vehicle back under control, and back onto the roadway. If I had done that in anything but a Land Rover it would have been a disaster for sure.

Without my GPS, I am reliant on Google Maps to get me to the Shalamcheh border crossing with Iran. Fortunately, it gets me across the Shatt al Arab and to the crossing without difficulty. Unfortunately, when I arrive I am told that I would have to wait outside the border complex until the commanding officer, arrives at 8:00 the next morning. So began the 72-hour saga that eventually ended with me sitting here in my hotel in Abadan, with El Guapo safely parked out front.


29 June 2015

Abadan, Iran

*"Please print clearly using block capitals in blue or black ink"

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