The long road from Indiana to Kabul

My original itinerary was to leave the US on the evening of August 2. I was still frantically trying to get things packed and to storage, boxes packed to ship to Kabul, and suitcases packed to take with me as the calendar page turned from July to August. With just over 12 hours left before my flight there was still much to do but it had to happen and it almost did. I got the final load to storage. I did a really bad job of packing.  I made it – or so I thought. I headed toward the airport which was between an hour and ninety minutes away more than six hours ahead of my flight time. I needed to do two things on the way. First, get some passport style photos and, second, drop the boxes at the DHL agent.

The photos took longer than expected but I still had a sizable cushion. Until I accidentally locked the keys in the rental SUV as I started to unload boxes at the shipping center. At this point I am more than a little stressed and am operating on less than 8 hours sleep out of the last 60 plus hours and no food in over 24 hour’s. Needless to say I was not thinking clearly.  I called AAA and was told that they would have someone there in about 45 minutes. I should have still been okay to make my flight.

The forty-five minutes became over two hours. Thankfully the guy who ran the shipping store was very nice (looked the number up for me, called for me as my phone was also locked in the car, let me wait inside, etc.). Once the SUV was unlocked the boxes had to be unloaded and then an additional round of paperwork had to be filled out. At this point there was little or no chance that I could get to the airport, return the rental car, and clear security before they closed the flight.  Given the time of day it was also unlikely that I could make it to O’Hare to catch the second flight even if I knew that I could do that.

Thankfully a dear friend helped text/talk me to a state short of absolute panic. I called multiple airlines to try and work out a Plan B but was told that only the travel agent who booked the flight could make the changes. This was a problem at it was the middle of the night in both Kabul and Dubai so I couldn’t call either the university or the travel agent. At this point I am not sure where to go or what to do next. I wasn’t sure if the eventual Plan B would involve flying out of O’Hare or South Bend. I eventually headed back toward that which was familiar in search of something I could stand the thought of eating and a wireless connection to send emails. After driving around for an hour or so I ended up at Panera where I engaged in mac & cheese therapy.

I received several kind offers for places to stay  but was so stressed that I had to be alone. I debated cheap hotel versus nice hotel. I opted for cheap since I wasn’t sure how many nights I would need. I ended up at the Coolspring Inn. It was cleanenough and had wireless so it would do. At that point all I could do was wait for replies so I showered and slept. I awoke to a Plan B that followed my original itinerary but with a starting point on Wednesday evening. Other than the cost of the hotel,the charge for rebooking the flights, the charge for the extra days of car rental, and the embarrassment things were back on track.

Tuesday morning finds me still in Indiana rather than on a plane approaching Abu Dhabi. I regrouped and considered my options for the two days until the first flight on my new itinerary. I considered spending the time deep cleaning the house out of which I had moved or other similarly useful tasks but opted instead to focus on relaxing. On Tuesday I met a friend for coffee and then had lunch at Taj one last time. I spent the afternoon napping and then making a final trip to Garwoods Orchard and taking a drive along backroads soaking up the green.

On Wednesday morning I met the a friend for breakfast and then headed to the airport hours and hours ahead of time in hopes of avoiding another day of rental on the SUV. I was in a much better state for the start of a long journey with the couple of days to sleep and rest behind me. The delay had also given me a chance to say goodbye to Northwest Indiana in my own way.

After returning the rental car and checking in at the counter, so that I wouldn’t have to mess with my luggage all afternoon, I settled into a table at the South Bend airport café where I could get a wireless signal for a reasonable price. I checked the status of flights from time to time and all seemed well. About 90 minutes before my flight I passed through security and settled into the gate area where I could charge my iPad.

I had no more settled down to wait when a problem developed. An announcement was made that the 7:05 flight to O’Hare would now be leaving at 9:50 (which is 8:50 O’Hare time). This presented a problem as my flight from O’Hare to Abu Dhabi was scheduled to leave at 8:30. I pack up things and go to the gate counter where I am moved to a flight that was originally scheduled to leave at 4:50 but was at that point delayed until 7:15 (this is where the luggage problem starts as it cannot be moved to the earlier flight). Delay after delay is announced for the flight and I get more and more nervous. There is only one flight per day on Etihad to Abu Dhabi so missing the flight is a pretty big issue. The delays were either the result of storms over Lake Michigan or security issues related to President Obama being in Chicago for his birthday.

The flight eventually leaves South Bend and we quickly reach O’Hare but have a wait to taxi to a gate. Finally we are off the plane and in the terminal. I find the Etihad check in counter in the international terminal to get a boarding pass to get through security. When I reach the counter they have already closed the flight. There are other people who have also arrived on delayed connecting flights. The manager on duty has them reopen the flight and check us in. I quickly explain the luggage problem. He gives me his card and tells me to file a report in Abu Dhabi.

I head to the security lines and there are hundreds of people waiting. The lines are long enough that you can’t actually see the security checkpoint. The person in line in front of me is trying to make the same flight as me. Once more making the flight looks like a lost cause. On the upside the line is so stuck that I am able to change some currency to Arab Emirates dirhams while standing in front of a currency exchange. This is good as I need to take a taxi in Dubai. The Ethiad agent once again comes to the rescue and escorts us through security and to the gate where amazingly I have just enough time to buy a bottle of water before boarding the flight.

The flight itself is smooth. I am sharing a center block of four seats with a couple from Kuwait. She is originally from Mexico. I have one of the few empty seats on the plane next to me which is wonderful. Etihad has decent food and they offer one thing or another every couple of hours. I spend the 14 hour flight alternating between old Big Bang Theory episodes, napping, eating, and playing mahjong on my iPad. Incidentally by this point in the trip, I am already seeing my iPad as a wonderful purchase.

We arrive in Abu Dhabi at about 9 p.m. on Thursday. Glad that was not my final destination as it was still more than 110 degrees there. The airport at Abu Dhabi is far more modern and high tech than many airports in the US. Yet you know without a doubt that you are not in the US because the only way you would see such diversity in the US is to be at a large cattle call for extras for a movie involving several Asian and Middle Eastern nations. The kaleidoscope of clothing and human variation was amazing. There were men wearing Arab thobe/thawb (long robe type garments thing a very large oversized white long-sleeved shirt), sirwals(pants worn under the thobe) and the traditional headdresses made up of:

  • tagiyah: This small white cap prevents the ghutra from slipping from the head. (also called the kaffiyeh, taquiyah, or kufeya)
  • ghutra: This is a large, square-shaped cloth, typically made of cotton. It’s folded over the tagiyah; its ends can be used to protect the face in the event of sandstorms. It is normally white or red-and-white checked. Men fold them into a triangle shape before placing on the head.
  • An iqal: This doubled black cord holds the ghutra in place. (also called igal or egal)

It seems that if you understand the subtle differences in the shape of the collar of the thawb and how it is worn, the color of the ghutra, and the presence, color and arrangement of cords (e.g., kerkusha) are worn you can tell much about the nationality and social rank of the person. There were women in brightly coloredsaris. There were women wearing various types of abayas (thing long robes with long-sleeves mostly in black and often adorned with embroidering or beads) andniqab (veils/face coverings). There were women wearing thobes and surwals (loose pants worn under the thobe) and some were wearing shalwar kameez. Add to this the various turbans and beards and military uniforms and it was amazing. Sadly I didn’t have much time to enjoy the scene as I wasn’t sure if there would be a later bus to Dubai if I missed mine (thankfully there were). It was at this point that I began to feel very conspicuous as a woman traveling alone this feeling would grow much stronger over the next few hours.

I found my way to passport control and customs. I received my visa allowing me to stay in the UAE for up to 30 days (this being the 4 item added to my passport; the first three the entry and exit stamps from Australia in 2007 and my Afghanistan visa). Entry the UAE was much easier than entering Australia. The passport control representative never actually spoke to me. From there I headed to the baggage claim area and the baggage office for Etihad (rhymes with Petty and Pad with the emphasis on the had). I filed a baggage claim and watched an extremely frustrated man in traditional Saudi Arabian dress who was waiting on someone to bring him a camera that he had forgotten at customs.

I then wandered around a bit more to find the Etihad bus to Dubai. As I waited on the bus to leave, I gained a new appreciation for the difference between nuclear and extended families. I watched a group in traditional dress load a pickup truck bed with luggage and shopping bags as at least seven women, several men, and a dozen or more children sorted themselves in to three different vans. It was clear that they were a family group rather than people simply traveling together by the way that one of the women who seemed older than the other was in charge of the women and children and by the way that three infants were passed among older children and adults. I can’t imagine the logistical nightmare of a group that size traveling together.

The 90 minute or so ride to Dubai was largely uneventful. It was dark so what I could see was limited. There were lots of palm trees lining the road and many murals painted on the walls of underpasses and noise reduction constructions. The most interesting things to see as we neared Dubai were the mosques which had towers with similar towers with the same vertical green light fixtures. As we entered Dubai it also became clear that this was a city very much alive in the late, late evening. I would soon be grateful for both this fact and the fact that I was missing my luggage.

The Etihad bus from Abu Dhabi stops outside of what looks to be a warehouse. There are cars waiting for the largely local group of people who disembark. I ask the driver where I can find a taxi and he points toward the street. I head in that direction with my carry on bag. There is a bizarre exchange between two men and a taxi driver who motions for me to get in his taxi.

It is at this point that things start to get a bit anxiety provoking. The driver doesn’t know where the Marriott Renaissance is located. I get out of the taxi and try another and another with the same results. I go back to the security guard near the bus who doesn’t know and points down an alley to where the Etihad office is located. Keeping in mind that this is after 11 pm but things are still bustling. It is also well over 100 degrees so my missing luggage is a blessing at this point. I try to get a signal on my Blackberry not really caring how much it costs but have no luck. At that point not having much in the way of choices, I head down the alley. I find the office without problems but despite a couple of phone calls, no one there can find directions for the hotel. At this point I am very nervous and uncomfortable with the stares I am receiving by being a woman alone.

I have no idea what to do so I ask the Etihad agent if the Dubai airport is open 24 hours a day. My thought is that taxi drivers should be able to find the airport and while hanging out at an airport for twelve hours doesn’t sound like fun it should be safe. I am told that the airport is open. I ask where I can find a taxi to the airport and am pointed toward a corner part way down the block. I consider having a meltdown on some street in Dubai but manage to act like a grown up mostly because I am still being logical enough to realize that the meltdown won’t actually make things any better.

On the way to find a taxi, I spot an Applebee’s and stop to ask if someone there is familiar with the Renaissance hotel. (As a side note, how much is Dubai a city that stays up late: there was a 25 minute wait for a table) They are not; I then ask if there is a hotel nearby and find out that there are a couple of hotels within a few blocks. I head off to find one of those.

A few minutes later I find my way to the lobby of the Chelsea Towers and Apartments. I am the only woman alone and the only westerner in the lobby. As I am waiting to see if they have a room, the concierge asks if he can help me and I explain the situation. He disappears for about ten minutes and comes back with directions. He asks me to wait while he arranges a driver for me. He comes back and tells me that he has arranged for the hotel driver to take me to the Renaissance, tells me about how long the drive will be, and gives me his card in case there are more problems. If I could have given out knighthoods at that point, I would have given him one. I would have hugged him had that not been against the norms.

A thirty minute drive through a city that felt like a cross between Disney and Vegas and I arrive at the Renaissance. The gentlemen working at the desk were wonderful. I was obviously tired (this is about 28 hours into this trip) and flustered. They skipped as much of check in as they could and told me we could take care of the rest in the morning. The hotel was wonderful and the service beyond anything that I have experienced with the possible exception of the resort in Australia. Even room service in the middle of the night was exemplary. It may not be the cheapest option (though it was far cheaper than Chicago hotels not nearly as nice), but I will be staying at this same hotel anytime I need to stay in Dubai.

The next morning, I make my way to the shuttle where I find that one of the other passengers is person with whom I had met for the interview for this position. We head off to the airport where he guides me through the passport control and security. Oddly enough he is even seated in the seat directly behind me on the flight.

The flight to Kabul is pretty bumpy but not as bad as I expected. The airport is used for both civilian and military flights. As you land and taxi, there is not doubt that you have landed in a “least developed” nation where there is current military action.

I was very lucky to have WT to guide me through the terminal, baggage claim (on Safi I had to check the one bag I had left), customs, and passport control. I’ll try to describe the airport better in some other post. I was very grateful to have WT to guide me and to help avoid the stares that accompany a woman alone in this country.

Despite the strict sounding prohibitions about what you can and can’t bring into the country, customs involved nothing more than your bag going through an X-ray machine. I am not even sure the person manning the machine was watching the screen.

We make our way through the chaos that includes men with machine guns and very few women to exit the terminal and I see Car Park A which is closed for security reason. WT spots AUAF drivers waiting at the end of the drive. There were two sets of drivers, one for him and one for me and three other new faculty members who were on the same flight. WT rearranges the original plan and so that his driver (who is parked in Car Park B which is nearby)will take the two of us home while the other team takes the other faculty members to their house. Added advantage to this plan, don’t have to make the trek to Car Park C.

It is now Friday afternoon about 4 Kabul time. I left Sophia’s and breakfast in Indiana about 11 (Chicago time) on Wednesday morning. I have only one of the three pieces of luggage with which I started and four new stamps in my passport,three types of currency in my wallet, a foreigner registration card tucked into my passport, and a cell phone with my number taped to the back in my purse.  I am almost to what will be my home until at least June 30, 2013. Of course at that moment, I have yet to experience Kabul traffic so I don’t realize that the adventure isn’t quite over for the day.

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About Shirley

Edge-walker, ethicurean, herbalist wannabe, idealist, introvert, ivory tower escapee, geek, granola gal, nature nut, pronoiac, scanner/renaissance soul, spiritual nomad, teacher, wayfinder, and world citizen who is weaving her passions for knowledge (learning & teaching), technological tools, the natural world, empowering people & communities, and everyday miracles & beauty into a curious life.
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