Monday, February 18, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass: Inland Sea

On "day two," which was actually our third day here, I and some friends that I had made while on pass signed up for the "Inland Sea Picnic." Not knowing much more than the title of the event, we showed up at the appointed hour, which was early again. Roll call was called by last four of the SSN, and we were split into SUV-sized loads and awaited our chariots.

The SUV's arrived a little late, and as we began to load my one and only pair of jeans that I had brought with me went into failure mode.

No, they were not too tight, and they were Lee jeans, so you wouldn't think that they would be so cheap.

The result was a little extra air conditioning in the groin area. Not a pornographic event, since I had not chosen to go commando, but still a bit disconcerting. We were not quite ready to leave, so I excused myself, walked into the building, and went to the "men's closet," where they have loaner clothes. I selected the first pair of trousers that would most likely fit and walked back out the vehicles, whole trousers in hand.

An auspicious start to the day.

Our drivers convoyed across the open countryside towards our destination at nearly the 120KPH speed limit (which is strictly enforced) and as we neared the inland sea, ATV rental joints popped up next to the road at intervals, becoming nearly a constant line of them as we entered the dunes area.

CPT Koppenkopf asked, "Will we be able to ride an ATV?"

"Huh?" responded the driver.

"The four-wheelers. Will we be able to ride one today?"

"Yes." The air of the reply left the impression that he did not really understand the question and was replying in the affirmative because the answer did not matter to him. It was either that or he was just trying to shut the captain up.

"I'm not sure if he really understood what I asked him," the Captain said to me.

"I think that if I asked him if I could marry a camel in Qatar, he would say 'yes,'" I said.

We laughed about this. I still think that it was true.

It was amazing; there were literally hundreds of ATV's for rent in this small area. Being a Thursday, it was the first day of the Qatari three day weekend. All of the ATV rental shops were banking on one thing; Qatari's love to four-wheel, and not all of them own ATV's.

We pulled off of the road and stopped near a couple of Bedouins with camels. One of the guys on the tour paid 5 Qatari Riyals to mount the camel and have his picture taken in the camel racing saddle. The beast rose, posed, and descended. It was done.

Any thoughts of performing this feat were banished by the knowledge that my apparel had demonstrated an inability to maintain integrity. I had a small but fragile tear that was threatening to turn my Lee's into a cheap imitation of riding chaps.

I've ridden camels before, anyway. It is an ungainly thing.

The real reason for the stop was so that the drivers could let the air out of the tires in preparation for the next leg of the journey, which was cross-country in the dunes area. We had no idea what we were in for.

Our driver turned out to be a frustrated fighter pilot consigned to driving a four wheel drive Toyota in his best imitation of a multi-million dollar high performance aircraft. Once loosed on the sand he caromed about like his hair was on fire, on several occasions banking his Japanese imitation F-16 high up on the sides of dunes at speeds of 70 mph as we looked down on another of the SUV's thirty or forty feet below. We canted at angles which would mean a guaranteed rollover in the up-armored humvees to which we are accustomed.

It was a hoot. As we came to one place where the sandy track proceeded around the end of a dune, he rolled up to the other vehicles, looked at one of the other drivers, made a loop, and ran straight up the side of the dune, cutting a couple of hundred meters off the distance to be covered. We loved his antics.

We stopped short of our objective and dismounted, walking around for a few minutes and enjoying the desert view. As we began to wonder what exactly we were doing, we were told to mount up again and rolled for only another five minutes or so to the tiny seaside compound which was our destination.

We unloaded and found that there were indeed sanitary facilities, which most of us had need of by then. I used this opportunity to exchange my newly ventilated jeans for the khaki's I had found in the men's closet.

My friends and I settled ourselves into a series of beach chairs under a grass thatched-roof shelter on the edge of the beach and began to talk amongst ourselves. We were soon joined by an independent reporter who was researching for a syndicated weekend radio news program. She was a delightful change of pace who had plenty of stories of her own, though she was very self-effacing about it.

Her Army-issued escort, on the other hand was an insufferable blowhard who told brazen lies of his exploits. What a contrast. She was a genuine, interesting human being who wouldn't blow her own horn, and he was a strident, attention-seeking wannabe who was attempting to smother her. He was performing his official function exceedingly poorly, while performing acts that were not his job with ferocious persistence.

Some of his "war stories" were so patently unbelievable as to be laughable. The reporter, on the other hand, had actually been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents... a fact that we did not learn from her, but by looking to see what types of things she had written and finding that she had in fact been written about.

Our group laughed and told stories, each in their turn telling of their personal experience with various types of interactions with people. We all laughed a lot. The appearance of a hookah at our table brought further comedy, and soon there were three of the enormous water pipes with various flavored tobaccos sitting on the coffee table under the thatched roof by the beach.

We discussed tobacco in its many forms, and the discussion turned to cigars. SPC Creechster, a 45 year old from South Carolina with a warm temperament who works as a carpenter back home and is not known for being especially erudite suddenly offered, "I judge a cigar by the way that it reflects off of a good cup of coffee."

I stared at him, mouth agape. I laughed and said, "That is the last thing in the world I would expect to come from you! The way that a cigar 'reflects' off of a beverage would be something that you would hear at a wine tasting, not over a hookah on a beach from a carpenter. What happens to you when you smoke a hookah? It's like someone flipped a switch and 'poof!' you're a freakin connoisseur."

We all laughed for a few minutes. It has become a running joke with us to enjoy how a cigarette 'reflects' off of the beverage of the moment, whatever it is.

Our reporter friend, temporarily freed of the overbearing pest hovering over her, moved off to seek other research subjects and we continued with our hookahs and levity. We had a lot of fun photographing each other smoking the bong-like contraptions and waiting for the much-needed sustenance of the picnic.

I rolled my pants legs up and walked out into the chilly waters of the Persian Gulf. I spied a small crab in the sand under the water and moved towards it. The crab spun about, aware of my feet under the water. We eyed each other warily for a moment. I had thoughts of catching it and displaying it to my companions. The crab had the opposite in mind.

Another wave came in, and I moved slightly forward. As the crest of a small wave passed over the it, the crab buried itself so quickly in the sand that it seemed to simply vanish. I was enthralled.

I stared at the spot in the sand where I knew that the crab lay in hiding and decided to call off the chase. The rolled bottoms of my trousers were being wet by the cold waves, and discretion was the better part of valor. I retreated back to our thatched shelter and told of my crab-spying exploits, joking that I had thought we could all have a little crab treat before lunch.

It was incredibly relaxing sitting next to the beach, pulling on a hookah and regaling each other with tales of our experiences. Lunch was soon ready, and we were all famished. Lunch was a mixture of hummus, grilled lamb, grilled chicken, and vegetables. They also served hot dogs, which they referred to as, "chicken."

Tubular chicken on a beach in Qatar. We got a kick out of that.

As soon as we were done eating, it was time to leave. We moved back to the SUV's and the drivers did a reverse of the drive out. Our frustrated fighter pilot took a long slashing path up the side of a high dune and we wound up looking down on the other three vehicles as they trailed along next to the dune. We turned right and had to wait for them as they made their way around the end of the dune.

We stopped at the resort to reinflate the tires and I was amazed at the sheer number of Qatari's with trailers and four-wheelers. This is obviously a big sport in Qatar. There was every kind of ATV imaginable, from the all terrain golf cart to high performance Raptors. Gazing out over the dunes, you couldn't scan more than a few degrees without seeing an ATV and rider rocketing along the sand.

The drive home was uneventful and noisy with the windows open. The opposing traffic was all headed to the dunes, loaded with ATV's and intent.

The evening was enjoyable. We went to the Chili's restaurant and it felt just like being in a suburban restaurant back in the States. Our reporter friend was there, and her Frank Burns-like escort showed up a bit later. We had looked for him where he was supposed to meet her, but had not found him.

He could sense our lack of interest in anything that he had to say. None of us appreciate being told fairy tales, and the things he said throughout the day were either blatantly fabricated or just strange things to say in the presence of people who know what it's like to be outside the wire.

It's not that there was a plan to uninclude the young man; but we just couldn't find it within ourselves to like him. We were not unkind, but we really didn't want to hear him any more, and so each of us kind of tuned him out.

The next morning he had the reporter arrested and then told us a bunch of stuff that none of us believe about her having photographs of things that she had agreed not to photograph and sound bites of forbidden subjects; war stories.

"Oh," CPT Koppenkopf interjected, "like your (outrageous) story about killing that Iraqi man in front of his family with your AK?" (a weapon that he would not have access to.)

"That's different! That was off the record! She can't quote me; I'm a PAO." (Public Affairs Officer. He's not an officer, he's a Specialist.)

"And you have special protection under the First Amendment?"

"Yes. I do," he claimed.

"Uh-huh. Keep on believing that, sonny."

The young man's story didn't make sense compared to the eyewitness account of one of our little band of acquaintances, who actually saw her arrested in a different place and time than what the young PA guy described.

We are truly, truly ugly Americans. This young man performed very poorly during his escort duty, and when things didn't go his way, he had the reporter arrested to demonstrate his power. I'm trying to gather the information about the facts of the matter, and if I find out that this young man did in fact do this, I am considering publishing his name.

I think it's shameful. She was leaving that day anyway, so his impotent little gesture was pretty much right along the lines of what we had observed of his behavior to that point; but it was still an abuse.


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post - From the Front: 02/18/2008 - News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  2. That PAO sounds like a menace. And what does he mean, he can't be quoted? What does he think his job entails, other than tossing journalists in the pokey?


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