We'll cross that border when we come to it!

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 We've been driving along a straight, wide, seemingly endless road with hardly another car in sight for hours. The midmorning temperature has already reached 100F, and the view all around is nothing but flat desert, flat desert and more flat desert with the occasional camel wandering in the road. The only interesting thing to watch is an absolutely brilliant mirage caused by the flatness of the terrain and the intense heat. I've never seen anything so realistic, it stretches for miles all around us, and it occurs to me that all those stories of desert explorers going crazy for water are so credible; the clarity of the refreshing liquid is so extreme, it really does seem to be just within arms reach. When the mirage crosses the road ahead, it can be totally disorientating for the driver, the road seeming to disappear into nothingness only yards in front of us. It's rather similar to driving in fog when visibility is so low your eyes start to play tricks. For once I am glad that this is Saudi and I cannot share the driving.


Through the endless desert I recognise that we've finally reached the border only because there are some old huts, a few people milling around, and a couple of uniformed guards slumped asleep against the wall of a shabby whitewashed building. One of them appears to be sleeping whilst standing so I guess he must be the one on duty!! Some battered old signs hang next to a hut with a barrier across the road. We have no idea what they say, they are in Arabic only, so we drive up to barrier slowly where we discover a bundle of rags in a box. Winding down the window and offering passports encourages the bundle of rags to shift and grunt. Asked to repeat, he grunts again, only this time slightly louder. Some minutes pass before he realises we're still there so more grunts and a wave with such a limp hand that we're really not sure whether he's waving us to the left, to the right, or just ridding himself of a pesky fly.


We have absolutely no idea what we're supposed to do at this border crossing from Saudi Arabia into Qatar, but the bundle of rags has not raised the barrier and common sense tells us not to attempt to drive through or we'll surely be halted by one of the machine guns we see propped up against each sleeping guard. Bundle of Rags, realising we are foreigners who obviously don't understand the procedure, tuts and thumps the passports, saying 'Stamp'. It's only when the barrier still doesn't rise that we realise we must have to complete some formality at this side.....but what??? We try to reverse back from the barrier, with difficulty as by now some more cars have come right up behind us, blocking us up against the firmly shut barrier. In typical Arab fashion they sit tooting their horns at us, rather than move back to let us reverse out. But were used to this illogical behaviour by now, and persuade them to move back...inch by inch.....just an inch or two more.....just a teeny bit more.....pleeeeze. Finally, we manage to ease out and park up so that Ian can go and look for something resembling an official building to get the required stamp in passport. An official building amongst this shamble of huts? Some chance!

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He wanders off into the heat and dust to join a queue of men outside a tin shack, taking this as a positive sign to be the start of the procedure, though unsure of what the Arabic signs say. I giggle to myself, imagining they might just be queuing for a sandwich. All the other men have documents in their hands and appear to know what's what. Theyre all Arabs, dressed in robes and wearing a variety of headdresses, depending on which region they are from. Most of them are local and lorry drivers, as the bulk of traffic on these roads is freight. They've likely done this journey hundreds of times, unlike us, the only westerners in the place, and we stick out like sore thumbs. They all stare at me while I sit in the car waiting. I doubt a lot of them have ever seen a woman with her head and face uncovered. I am wearing my Abaya of course, but wonder if I might feel less conspicuous if I cover my head, so I find my scarf and slowly pull it up over my hair. I draw the line at covering my face! Being female, I cannot accompany Ian anywhere here, or stand in any of the queues, so I have to wait in the car. It's strange to be passing through customs and not be looked at, but they would never expect to see my face, let alone examine the photo in my passport. At some point in the proceedings I am sure I am expected to go to a Ladies Only office where a female customs official will check me, as there must surely be some formality for me to leave Saudi and enter Qatar, but I don't see any. Ladies I mean. I am the only one here and I feel a little uncomfortable with all the stares, so I put on my sunglasses and wait in the hot car. This is taking ages. Typical Saudi officialdom.....everything takes so long.


I am boiling, my face must be resembling a lobster by now. I see Ian going from one hut to another, each time with another piece of paper in his hand. Each time he completes one task, they tell him 'OK, Finished'. But it isn't. The bundle of rags still won't raise the barrier because there is yet another formality to complete and he points to pieces of paper and tuts louder. It's hot, very hot and the Muezzin starts to call for midday prayers. Oh no! Once prayers start everything must close for half an hour. No business can be conducted during prayer time. I silently pray to my own God......please let us get through all this before the prayers start, and dont let us be stuck here any longer than necessary. I have to open the door for some air, and the dust and flies come in the car and I'm roasting. I wish I could take off my Abaya, and I wish I could take a long drink of water from one of the bottles we have in the cool box. Such freedoms are not to be enjoyed in public, especially by a female. This is Saudi Arabia.


More traffic rolls up and parks near us, and the men stare as they pass by. Suddenly I see some women get out of a car, they appear to have passports in their gloved hands, and I observe their every move so that I will know what to do and where to go. I'm straining my eyes to see where they go, as they waddle off head to toe in black robes, but they disappear behind some huts where their black shapes are quickly lost in the shadows. I see Ian going off to another hut, and he queues again to get another piece of paper, and I resign myself to thinking well be here for the whole of prayers. But suddenly he comes running back to the car, jumps in and were off!!! Quick! before everything stops for prayers! We practically throw the documents and passports at the bundle of rags, and grab them back just as we shoot through the barrier before it's fully up, zipping through into Qatar. There was no need for me to go to the Ladies Only section - I'm a western Infidel who has her bare faced photograph in her passport.

It's crazy. It's Saudi.

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