I was awakened after a few hours of sleep by the early morning call to prayer. Our hotel is across the street from a mosque, a generic building with small dome and ornate minaret. Next door stands a large office building with a competing (and winning) tower bearing its own inscription: PEPSI.
The long, restless hours on the plane were quickly forgotten when we finally set foot in the Middle East--more precisely, the island nation of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. It was 9:00 at night, a cool rain had just fallen, and the first breath of warm salt air said one thing to me: Corpus Christi. They say aromas are the most lingering and evocative memories, and this reaction certainly fit that theory. I could have been back in my childhood home, thousands of miles and years away on a different Gulf Coast.
The excitement began as soon as we cleared Bahrain customs. Local drivers in robes and headgear waved signs saying ABC, SKY, ITN, and lucky for us, CNN. The babble of voices began, but the 3 of us from CNN (Rob, Chester Bielecki from the Detroit bureau, and myself) kept quiet and waited for it to sort itself out. We were all going by convoy of cars into Dhahran, but ABC was squabbling with a British crew from SKY over who rode where with what luggage. Clearly, an extra vehicle was needed. But when anchorman Ted Koppel and his ABC crew appropriated the biggest and best American car and drove off, the Brits got ugly. Worst offender a bloke we dubbed G.I. Joe, who was all decked out in army fatigues, crisp and new right from the surplus store, shiny black combat boots, and jaunty black beret. What made it all the more ludicrous was the fact he was wearing jungle camouflage pattern, a pompous green eyesore in the sandy desert.
Of course my opinion is colored by the fact that he began screaming orders at me to get in the car with him so we could hurry up and leave. I ignored him as long as I could, then as I was just squeezing into the back seat, the spare car arrived. Chester and Rob made a beeline for it, and I was right behind.
We were finally on our way to Saudi Arabia, or so we thought. After wending our way through back alleys of Manama, our caravan halted in front of a garage. Seems we had to unload one cab and switch to a car that could clear Saudi customs. G.I. Joe's partner sprang into action, tossing suitcases and duffel bags out of the cab, and the ones with CNN tags he gave an extra heave in the direction of the nearby mud puddle.
I had enough of this rude behavior, and I told him so. He didn't answer, but he kept his hands off our bags. We reloaded the cars and proceeded to the causeway connecting Bahrain with the Saudi mainland. After the first checkpoint, a further surprise--our car could proceed no further. We were forced to squeeze in with our British cousins. I offered a handshake and truce to Nick, the luggage tosser, and we rode shoulder to shoulder in one car. Rob and Chester joined G.I. Joe in the other.