NEW DELHI — I was flying to Delhi in the days leading up to Diwali, the biggest day in the Hindu calendar, and so direct flights from Dubai were full. The only option was to fly to Bombay and grab a connecting flight to Delhi from there. I’d played it safe and gave myself six hours between flights. What could possibly go wrong?

The Air India flight was four hours late in leaving Dubai, but no sweat, I thought. I’d planned for this, and two hours to make my connection would still be plenty. The lady back at check-in assured me my luggage would be waiting for me in Delhi, and my boarding pass would be waiting for me at the gate, so all I had to do was clear customs and find the 8:05 to Delhi and Bob would, in theory, be my uncle. The flight landed in Bombay at first light, and the passengers — all-Indian and all-male, it seemed, heading home for the holidays, plus me — piled into a bus on the tarmac and waited. While standing there on the bus, I thought about what little I knew about travel in India, most of it gleaned from Seinfeld.

Half an hour later we were in the international arrivals hall, which resembled what I’d expected an Indian train station to be like. The crowd shuffled past hand-painted signs in English and Hindi through a labyrinth of makeshift hallways, which were all particle-board and exposed wiring and, strangely, stank of urine. I made it through immigration, and found myself at the luggage carousels. My luggage was supposed to go straight to Delhi, but I had a funny feeling about this, and so I waited at the carousel until all the luggage had been claimed. Indians, I noted, have this endearing habit of drawing waybills on A4 sheets and taping them to their luggage, indicating their name, phone number, and address of their destination, usually with lovingly ornate, hand-drawn typography. My rubberized Swiss army surplus rucksack didn’t have a homemade waybill, nor did it appear on that luggage carousel. This was worrying. I had to know for sure where my luggage was, so I approached a half-dozen airport employees and got a half-dozen different answers. Most of them could confirm, though, that no international flights to Bombay had their luggage automatically sent on to Delhi. From the looks of it, my luggage didn’t make it, not to Bombay and not to Delhi for that matter.

There was no lost-luggage desk at that arrivals hall, so I abandoned all hope for my possessions and concentrated on getting myself on that plane to Delhi. I followed the signs reading DOMESTIC TRANSFER, and after a 20-minute queue I reached the source of the bottleneck: an impressively moustachioed man flanked by two policemen wielding WW2-era, bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifles. He wanted to see my boarding pass.

Continue reading

First Prize, One Week in Dubai. Second Prize, Two Weeks


DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The boat from Bandar Abbas left a good five hours late, but I was too relieved to have successfully gotten myself and the Hamburglar aboard to care. Laurent and I chatted with our fellow passenger Matthias, a German guy working in the oil & gas business in the UAE, and his French-Canadian girlfriend, who had spent a few weeks tooling around the Iranian desert in their Mitsubishi truck. As far as I could tell, we were the only non-Iranians on the boat — apart from the crew, that is, which seemed to be mostly of Indian extraction. Matthias and his girlfriend gave me the lowdown on where the fun was to be had in Dubai in the coming week while I’d be twidddling my thumbs and waiting to fly to India.

Our Iranian-flagged vessel wasn’t exactly the fastest boat crossing the Strait of Hormuz that night, and it took a good 14 hours to cover 200 kilometres. It was approaching lunchtime by the time we neared the port of Sharjah, a 45-minute drive northeast of Dubai proper. A forest of skyscrapers appeared in the 40-degree haze, and I had it on good authority that somewhere in there, among the tangle of glass and steel and concrete, there was cold beer for sale. I planned on drinking one as soon as the importation procedure was over and I was settled in. After a month in Iran, a person’s priorities change.

The ship docked, and Laurent and I went down to the hold to load up our bikes for disembarkation.

Sooo greasy

Men, women, and children were first off the boat, and the German, two Canadians, and Swiss guy were last.

We drove our vehicles to a quarantine pen and then were corralled into a shockingly well air-conditioned immigration shed. All the authority figures present were either in police gear or kandoura, the traditional Arab white robe. We cleared immigration after an hour or so, and then we started the vehicle importation process. The first office we visited was again staffed exclusively by Emirati guys, and one clerk in particular stood out: the ghutrah atop his head was so blindingly white, his skin so smooth, his beard so neatly trimmed, that when he langourously flicked his head cloth over his shoulder, he looked more radiant than any bride I’d ever seen.
Continue reading

Into the Tunnel of Extreme Discomfort


BANDAR ABBAS, IRAN — It was maybe 600km from Shiraz to Bandar Abbas — nothing, really, in the grand scheme of things. The first day, I rode an uneventful 250 of those to the town of Darab, along the bleak moonscape of the southeastern mountain range separating Highway 92 from the coast. Now and then, well-irrigated agricultural plots would appear, but apart from that it was pretty desolate.

The days were getting noticably shorter, this being mid-October, so on day two I set out very early. I hoped to make it the 350km to Bandar Abbas by sunset, and I didn’t want to be rushing things at the end of the day. The sun was shining, the bike was running great, and there was a fantastic hilly stretch with great views. A friend of mine back in New York was very curious to know about the state of toilets in Iran, and while they’re generally quite good, I spotted a rare exception up in those hills: a wretched metal outhouse that was a classic of the genre.

The road swept down to a meandering valley, and I cruised eastwards with the throttle wide open.

By mid-afternoon I was beat. An hour before the main turnoff south to Highway 78, I pulled over at a small roadside food stand to buy a few energy drinks. The stand was next to a small cemetery, and groups of visitors clustered here and there in the graveyard, laying flowers. I bought some off-brand caffeine drinks from the wizened old man running the stand, and sat down on a nearby bench to throw them back. Despite being so close to the road, it was quiet there, with nothing to be heard but the wind.

The old man came over with two glasses of tea. “چیزی به زبان فارسی”, he said, and handed me a glass.

“Thanks,” I said, not sure what he’d said, what with me not speaking more than a few words of Persian, but it sounded pleasant enough.

He sat down beside me on the bench and lit a hand-rolled cigarette. He had a face hardened by all his years of country living, although there was light and kindness in his eyes, and he stared off at the horizon. I raised my glass, he clinked mine with his in response, and we sat there in silence staring across the road and watching the corn grow.

Continue reading

Not Just a Grape in Australia


SHIRAZ, IRAN — After my narrowly-averted tragedy in the desert, I thought it wise to stick to the main roads for the rest of my time in Iran. Heading southwest out of the Abarkuh desert, I caught up with the highway and pulled over for gas. Now, I’ve become something of an expert in Iranian gas stations lately, and this one was more fetching than most. The manager clearly had some pride of ownership. Just look at the place!

The cutest lil' gas pump in the Iranian plateau

Upon hearing that some foreign weirdo on a Vespa was filling up with his heavily-subsidized petroleum, the owner, Hossein, invited me into his office for tea. As one does in Iran. Declining was out of the question, of course, and I joined him in his lushly-appointed inner sanctum. He got out the silver tray and pots and cups, and while we were waiting for the tea to brew, he showed me his collection of handmade wood carvings.

Hossein was seriously into dolphins, but when you think about it, they’re child’s play when it comes to whittling; dolphins are all oblique angles when they’re not gently arcing curves. The caribou he’d recently finished — complete with insanely intricate antlers, and no sign of after-the-fact glue jobs — now that, that was the sign that he’d graduated to the big time. His output was impressive, all done with a stylized ’70s aesthetic that somehow looked both freshly hip and would also look great up at the cottage next to the highball glasses and UNO decks. It bore all the hallmarks of a guy whose talents were wasted in the gas-slingin’ biz, and so I asked him if any of his stuff was for sale.

His face darkened as he poured my tea. “No,” he said, putting an end to that conversation. “May I take your picture?”

“Sure,” I said, and tried to wipe some of the diesel residue off my face. He held up his cellphone camera and took a few shots.

Hossein smiled at the results on the little screen. “You have pretty eyes,” he observed, gesturing at his own eyes to make his point clear.

“Thanks,” I said, unsure where this was going. I asked him if I could get his picture, and he was all too happy to oblige.

Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Hossein of Abarkuh

I thanked him for his hospitality, and was on my way.

A FEW KILOMETRES LATER, as I turned onto the main 4-lane road to Shiraz, my engine did its predictable coughing and wheezing bit, and then died. There, on the rear tire, was evidence of some liquid — gearbox oil, or fuel maybe — spattered in a perfect star formation, emanating from somewhere near the axle.
Continue reading