A cross-country trip in the United Arab Emirates is never very difficult. From Abu Dhabi to the Saudi Arabian border, no longer than four hours; it is no longer distance from the city’s warm insulated nook in the Gulf to the other side of the Emirati promontory where waters are cleared and cooled by the Arabian sea. Roads are wide, fast, straight — I could make no more than four turns and be through the low mountains to Fujairah, supine by the sea with a snorkel and a bottle of rum. It would be so easy.
It was sometimes a struggle navigating the HMS Matsuflex through the stream of white Land Cruisers racing past. A favorite local driving technique is to charge drivers ahead flashing high beams (day or night) to make them move: Give me passage or give me death. I shant change lanes. It must seem so convenient to drivers in their hulking SUVs to have a stick to the left of the steering wheel that simply makes traffic move. If you don’t take notice quick enough, if it isn’t nighttime and you haven’t been blinded by lasers in your rearview mirror, you’re finished.
Although a ’92 Benz won’t be the fastest in any Emirati fleet, it was easy to go the 120 kph speed limit (75 mph) without trouble (conspicuous radar detectors issue instant $200 fines at 140), but that wasn’t good enough. In the right lane, trucks inched along out of everyone’s way, in the center traffic still moved too slowly, and in the left lane, we were prey to assholes. On the high seas of the Sheikh Zayed Highway, we were in constant struggle.
After only an hour, the car seemed to be wheezing. She would reach a top speed and then jerk suddenly slower, as if struggling to change gears. The radio would turn off. The ship had become a horse — in short bursts with my coaxing she stayed speedy, but only for moments. We pulled into a highway gas station and turned off the engine. The battery died.
One jumpstart later, we were soon on the Dubai-Hatta road, following signs for “Eastern Regions,” and heading deadly straight toward the Fujairah coast. The wheezing seemed to have abated, and golden sand dunes sprung up along the roadside, red-orange from beneath my sunglasses. My god, the desert is actually pretty.
And that’s when I smashed into the back of another car.
I’ll back up: The Eastern Regions have a bizarre and thoughtless proclivity for speed bumps. Often unmarked, yellow paint chipped until the lump in the road is indistinguishable from less dangerous faded asphalt, speed bumps can attack anywhere: just before a roundabout, in a parking lot, between two other speed bumps only tens of meters away, before a traffic light, after a traffic light, in your nightmares. This one was in the middle of the highway, half a minute from a sign proclaiming the speed limit: 100 kilometers per hour.
No warning, no signs: just the impending figures of two SUVs literally parked in the road. The drivers were chatting, resting their tires on the hump. It takes the eyes far too long to realize you are moving towards something you were once moving with. When mine did, they sent my brain a brief telegram: Oh shit. STOP.
Reflexes crunch numbers and distances and perception of life and time and space so fast that I felt optimism before I fear. Compared with my impression of how long it would take a car to stop, we had enough space and time, and if I hit the breaks now… wait… why wasn’t the car slowing down? No optimism. Confusion. The car — it was still going too fast.
I had time to think almost everything I had ever thought before. I would have cursed the breaks for failing but I accepted that it might have been my fault for not checking them sufficiently when we bought the car. It could have been the battery as well. It seemed like something our friendly seller Sami had known about. It was at least partly his fault too. If I die, oh hell, my parents are going to be really upset. What day is today? At least we’re in a Mercedes. Shouldn’t’ve gotten an old Mercedes. I am going to feel so guilty if someone gets hurt. Oy my god the guilt. I can’t swerve left — there’s a concrete divider fringed with sands blown across from the desert. I can’t go right either — there are people. This might actually hurt. The car is new! For us at least… what are the guys going to say when I tell them I wrecked our car? What the fuck town are we in? Why on earth are these cars stopped in the center of the highway. Why. What luck. This really might ruin the weekend.
On long stretches of empty highway manned only with trigger-happy radar cameras, human assistance is sometimes hard to find. But with some luck, we were totaled near the police station, and an ambulance just so happened to be passing through town. The officers always looked a little bemused, and never stopped pulling me in and out of the ambulance to look for important pieces of paper in the car. Still, they were kind. The locals we had hit (unscathed both people and car) peeked in; I wasn’t sure whether to yell at them or apologize. I just shook their hands with my unbruised arm. Whoa. How did I get bruises?
This was the southern tip of the most conservative emirate, Sharjah, dead center on the UAE map in a town called Madam. The ambulance took us on an hour-long drive in the same direction we had headed ourselves, for moments off-road on rough gravel, bringing us nearer to the beaches that seemed to get farther and farther away with every kilometer we drove towards them. “Weyn al-mustashfa?” I heard the driver call out to our friendly Filipino EMT. Where is the hospital?
As the sun set, we went to find the police, and to take camping gear and granola bars from the shipwreck in the eerie auto graveyard in Madam. “How much did it cost?” an officer asked. He shook his head disapprovingly when I told him. I hadn’t understood what he meant: “How much does it cost now?”
This is the UAE. If you have something, someone wants it. If you want to sell something, someone somewhere wants to buy it. If someone somewhere is buying something, hell, you should be buying it, too. These officers, guardians of the town and its ungodly speed bump, saw deals dropped in their lot every day. With a scrap heap just across the street, there was money to be made somehow.
Old officers advised rookies, a towering Sudanese sergeant scolded an underling; I took three policemen for walks around the car. A lot of hmmm and uh-huh. I came back days later and witnessed similar hustle and bustle until representatives with whom I shared almost no knowledge of any language came from the scrap shop across the street, made a final offer for the remains of the HMS Matsuflex, and set in motion a bureaucratic nightmare that would last three months. So much for back room dealings.
It was Thursday and we were late for the beach. They rent cars in Dubai all night long (working brakes at no extra charge), so we backtracked and got one — Fujairah, they said, was only two hours away. I didn’t tell them what I’d just done.