Sunday, October 29, 2006

Rain, Rain......COME BACK!!!

We nearly, NEARLY saw rain on Friday. It's strange how you start to miss these kind of things. I'll be missing cheeky-chappy chavs standing outside the shops asking politely for a cigarette next. OK, maybe not. The point being, we haven't seen any since we arrived here. For me, that is 3 months without a hint of precipitation, which is something totally alien to someone hailing from the United Kingdom's verdant, lush, frequently-irrigated-from-the-sky pastures.

Anyway, to make a short story long, we headed to the border with Oman on Friday with the express purpose of getting our visit visas renewed. They run out after 60 days, which meant we had to leave the UAE and come back again, so we drove out through the desert and past loads of camels towards Hatta, carrying straight on over the fort roundabout and between the mountains towards the border, which is about another 10km along the road.

As we approached the mountains, we noticed that there were big cloud formations just beyond. They looked like rain clouds - big, bright and bulbous with a menacing grey under-belly. Excitement grew in the family unit. We were actually looking forward to seeing some rain, maybe even going outside in it and dancing like madmen. As it was, we missed the rain. We arrived at the Omani passport checkpoint facility about 20 minutes late, I reckon. The ground was wet all around from a recent downpour, and the clouds were busy making their way into Oman. Ho-hum.

The border crossing and visa renewal process was, well...frustrating. We passed through three seperate border control points on the way to Oman, and the same three on the way back. There was a UAE passport point, followed by an Omani customs point and then the Omani passport checkpoint, about 5 kilometres after the customs point. We weren't actually sure if we could drive into Oman, because our car hire company had completely bamboozled us by trying to sell us insurance to drive there then telling us we couldn't drive in Oman with UK licences. The border points themselves had very little in the way of visible information about what to do and where to go, so there was a lot of guesswork, stupid-question-asking, and gesticulation from heavily-armed border guards, whose presence is a blessing to parents with fidgety, whiny kids. "See the man with the gun? If you don't shut up...."

After getting stamped out of the UAE, which involved getting out of the car and queueing at the window of a little white hut, we just sort of muddled our way past customs, buying insurance at the little office over on the wrong side of the road, then driving onwards not knowing what to do next. We finally came across the passport control checkpoint, which is a large, brand-new building in the middle of nowhere. Again, there were no signs telling us what to do, so we parked the car in the puddles created by the recent rain and entered the building to find a large gaggle of confused-looking people queueing at various windows. Most of these people were expats doing the same thing as us. There were more border guards, with even bigger guns, milling around, keeping an eye out for naughty children.

After standing in one queue for a couple of minutes I struck up a conversation with the British chap in front of me, and learned that I had to queue at a different window to get some forms and pay the visa fees, then fill in the forms and queue at another window for the stamps, then get in the car and queue up to get into Oman. This is a common feature of this part of the world; nothing can be done in one place or in one go.You invariably end up queueing at three seperate locations to get anything official done. It was the same when I had to go and open an account with DEWA for the electricity and water, and it's the same for a driving licence, or so I've been told. I'm surprised I haven't had to queue at four different windows and fill in a dozen forms in triplicate just to get some baked beans with pork sausages.

Eventually we got our forms, paying 240 dirhams for the pleasure (the man did say 120 to begin with, then sort of changed his mind), filled them in, queued for the stamps, got back in the car and then drove to the wrong window. They let us through anyway, and we did a quick u-turn through the car park on the Oman side and queued again to get the exit stamps. That was the easy bit, and we were back in no-man's land after our shortest visit ever to any country - all of 2 minutes.

There was more standing and queueing at the UAE border, but the actual process was fairly painless. The man behind the window at the very basic checkpoint stamped us back in without any searching questions, and we finally re-entered the United Arab Emirates nearly 2 hours after leaving. We were ready to drop, so I'm glad that we had had the foresight to book ourselves in for the night at the Hatta Fort Hotel, which I've mentioned before. 5 minutes back into the UAE we pulled into the Hotel grounds. A smiling, short man called Maxwell brought us delicious and refreshing fruit punch drinks while we checked in, before showing us to our chalet-style room with a great view of the mountains. The WIFE and the kids took the opportunity to go for a ride on a huge camel that happened to be at the hotel, and we spent the rest of the day at the swimming pool, splashing each other and enjoying the cooling of the day with sunset approaching before eating a pleasant meal and retiring to bed for an early night. The kids went out like lights, even in strange beds in a strange room. They have their moments.

The next day, we ate a hearty breakfast (missing the real pork bacon that was hidden around the corner at the hot buffet), played a game of mini-golf in remarkably hot morning conditions, then headed back to Dubai city. Of course, we still had to do the weekly food shop, so we headed to Geant at Ibn Battuta and on the way out I spotted a stand for a local hospital offering free health checks. The inner hypocondriac couldn't resist, so I went and asked for a check, which was basically just a blood-pressure test. Surprise of surprises - it was high. Shopping with kids? Well, duh.

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