Monday, July 17, 2006

Home, safe and sound

On Friday morning, P and I began our journey to get out of Lebanon, and we arrived back to Kuwait last night (i.e. Sunday night). First off, big thank you to Jazz Central for picking us up from the airport!

My god, what an exhausting, surreal, and stressful ordeal. I'll write out the highlights of our story here for those of you who are interested. (This will probably be a long post so no need to read if you're not interested - I just figure this is easier than repeating the story over and over.)

Initially, when the problems began on Wednesday, we had decided to stay in Lebanon and ride it out - we really didn't expect things to escalate much. Our flight was already booked for Sunday (yesterday), and so we assumed the airport would reopen by then. And if not, we were willing to stay on a few extra days until things settled down. By Friday, however, things had gotten much worse and we had heard that the Kuwaiti Embassy was organizing buses from the Safir Hotel in Bhamdoun to go across the Syrian border. We checked on Jazeera's website and they said all their flights had been re-routed through Damascus. So we packed our luggage and headed up to Bhamdoun.

C.H.A.O.S. The hotel was totally insane. There was absolutely no sense of order in the lobby, you had no idea where to go or what to do, there was only like four people from the embassy there, and most of them either didn't know what was going on, or were being really blasé and rude. The scene we saw at that hotel made me thoroughly ashamed to be a Kuwaiti. It's not like people were panicking because they were scared or whatever. No, they were just being pushy and unorganized and hysterical. We figured out that the "procedure" was to register our names down on a "list" with our phone numbers, and once they had buses available for us they would call us to assign us a specific bus number. But first priority went to families with children and elderly. Fair enough. Was there any chance we'd get out today? Not likely. And before you ask, no, they did not offer to put us up for the night. We had to fork out $250 to have a roof over our head. Next thing we had to do was get rid of our car rental. At first the company wasn't willing to come up to Bhamdoun to get it: "The agreement was that since you collected the car from the airport, you should return it at the airport." "WHAT AIRPORT?!" "Oh, yeah. OK, we're on our way." So then we sat and waited for our phone call. A couple of hours later, P went back to the lobby to check on things, and now the official from the embassy who was in charge of putting people on the buses told him that to get on a bus all we had to go was get our luggage and go claim a seat on one. Since when? So we got our luggage and went to find the guy again and he said that there were some more buses on the way for that night, but that there were also better buses coming for the following morning. By that point it was about 6pm. He said we could leave that night, but he advised we wait and leave in the morning. It would be safer and more comfortable that way, plus we’d have a better chance of finding a flight out. I asked why we had been told to wait for a phone call and he basically laughed (i.e. at us), and said their "system" fell apart because all the people were fighting to get on buses (apparently we were the only ones following orders and patiently/naively waiting for a phone call). Weighing all the options, we decided to take a bus the following morning. He told us to be down there at 7am.

We went down at 5am to be safe. The lobby was already packed and chaotic again. People were screaming and fighting and pushing and crowding around the table where we apparently had to "register" our names again to get on a bus (yesterday’s list was gone with the wind). People would cram up to the table (no lines, no order) and would shove like 20 passports in the guy's face. Nobody would help us with only two. Finally, I saw the guy who we had spoken to the night before and he managed to help us and got our names down. It was pure insanity. Once they had a few lists full of 50 names each (one list per bus), they started taking people outside to the buses, which was like a race. They would read out a list of names, get everyone on that list together, and then say "OK, you're on bus 4" and then everyone would RUN, with all their hundreds of pieces of luggage, to the bus. Then it turned into the fight to get your suitcases into the luggage compartment. Each family had like 15 suitcases with them. I have no idea how all the luggage made it across.

Finally, we got on a bus at 7 am, with our two suitcases safely tucked away. Then began our six-hour journey across the border. The drive to the Lebanese border took about 2 1/2 hours or so. But then we spent more than an hour at the border itself. Then about another 45 minutes to an hour at the Syrian border. The route itself was quite nerve wracking. We took the Zahle route, through the Bekaa valley. Some of the roads we took I honestly think can only be described as hiking trails. But we made it, and our bus driver took care of all logistics on the borders. Less than half an hour after we crossed the border, the exact route we had been on was bombed. That happened the day before too - just after arriving in Bhamdoun we heard that one of the bridges near Hazmieh, which we had passed through to drive up to Bhamdoun, had been hit.

Once we got to Damascus airport, the "embassy officials" who we were told would meet us on the other end were nowhere in sight. Supposedly, every person who was put on a bus from Bhamdoun was confirmed on one of the flights out to Kuwait that day. BULLSHIT. It was each man for himself at the airport, which was also in total chaos. We headed straight over to the Jazeera counter, which was, again, pure madness. They told us that only if we were confirmed on a Jazeera flight for that day could we get out (we were confirmed for the following day). So we went up to the Kuwait Airways office where we heard they were taking down people's names to get onto one of the night flights. Again, chaos – no lines, and lots of pushing and shoving. Turned out the waiting list was really long for Kuwait Airways and the guy said that even if we put our names down there would be a very slim chance we'd get out that day. So we decided to forget it, since we were confirmed on Jazeera anyway for the next day.

Next came finding a place for the night. All hotels in Damascus and environs were fully booked. Not one single room. Luckily, some family friends (my sister's in-laws) were arriving into Damascus from Beirut that same afternoon, and they knew an older couple who had agreed to put them and us up for the night – in their family “mazra3a” (farm). It felt strange going over to someone's house who we had never met before to spend the night, but we had no choice. So we got into a cab. After getting pulled over by a cop because the taxi had a curtain on his back windshield, getting lost in the area because the taxi didn’t know where the place was, and then fighting with him because he tried to charge us a double-fare because he got a ticket and got lost, we finally got to the couple’s apartment in Damascus.

By then the other family had arrived as well. We all had some dinner, and then the couple drove us out to their mazra3a. We were expecting a farm of some sort - not necessarily animals and all, but at least some agriculture. Turns out, the word "mazra3a" is just a loosely used term to describe all the houses and estates in that specific area. In fact, the place we were going to was their weekend getaway home - kind of like a chalet. But boy was it not what we were expecting. When we drove onto the grounds, we were shocked. It was like we had arrived at the von Trapp family home, except without the children and merriment. It was enormous! It was like a five-star luxury resort - complete with main villa (huge), guest villa (bigger than my house in Kuwait), gardens, barbeque patios, more gardens, nature paths, swimming pool, jacuzzi, fountains, etc. Only problem was, 98% of it was totally under renovation. The only place that was inhabitable was the top floor of the guesthouse, which had two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. That was where we would be crashing for the night: us, and our friends - a family of five. OK, that was do-able. But, then it turned out that the electricity wasn't working. So we had to wait outside for well over an hour until the electrician arrived from Damascus proper and got to work on restoring it. By the time the lights finally came back on, it was past 10pm. I could hardly keep my eyes open.

Skip ahead to the next day. Our flight was for 9pm that night, but even though the Jazeera guy we spoke to said to come to the airport at 7pm, we decided to be there by around 4pm to be safe, especially since we had fought with the people in their main office earlier that afternoon because we couldn’t figure out if we were confirmed or not. When we got to the Jazeera counter the guy said they were only checking in people confirmed on the 6:45 flight, and if we wanted to try to get on that flight rather than the 9pm one, we could come back to the counter at 6pm to try. We decided to get something to eat and just sat on our luggage near the front of the counter waiting. By 6pm we knew for a fact that we weren't getting on that flight. So we stood near the front ready to be the first when they opened the counter at around 7pm to start checking people in for the 9pm flight. Suddenly, at about 6:40, I just happened to go up to the counter to ask someone something when I heard them saying that they had to move the check-in for the 9pm flight. Where to? Terminal 2. Why? Because Damascus airport wasn't willing to accommodate the Jazeera replacement flight from Beirut in that terminal. So what do we do? Follow me.

And this had to be the most insane, and disturbingly hilarious, part of the night. Everyone around the counter area started to hear that we were moving to Terminal 2, and that we had to follow the guy, who had started walking towards the door. So suddenly there was a massive mob of people and trolleys and luggage rushing behind him. But, lo and behold, there is no actual EXIT from the check-in area. No, to get out, we had to go against the tide of people trying to ENTER through the security area (don't even ask about fire or emergency exits - there were none - if there was a fire, everyone would burn to a crisp). We were still following the Jazeera guy - nearly 100 people with their trolleys, angry and confused and panicked. The guy was arguing with the security people who didn't want to let us all out through any of the three doorways that people were entering from. He had to fight to get them to agree, and then we had to push the people who were trying to get in aside so that we could get out. I'm serious here - literal shoving - because we didn't know where to go and we didn't want to lose the guy, who was walking in a hurry ahead of us. So we just pushed and shoved our way out. Then we ran across the airport after him. Then we exited the airport, and thus began the race (literally) to the other terminal building. People were literally running, pulling suitcases, pushing trolleys. I can't describe to you how strange and yet hilarious it all looked. P and I got to the front of the mob. All you could think to do was run - why we were running, I'm still not sure. But damn it, we wanted to be at the front of the insanity we knew was about to unfold in the terminal. And we were fed up after two days of chaos and bullshit. So we ran. We ran to restore our sanity and peace of mind. In fact, we ran so fast, we outran the Jazeera guy. When we entered the terminal building (and I'm using that term generously - it was more like a shack) along with a handful of other fast runners (all non-Kuwaiti other than myself), the security people got flustered and a bit frightened by this mad mob of people suddenly rushing in. They said that the only flight leaving from there was for Cairo and tried to stop us from entering, and we said that we were going through, and if they had a problem with it they could take it up with the Jazeera guy, who had just entered. We were all tired, frustrated, and fed up - mob mentality had totally taken over, and we descended upon that security check like a swarm of angry bees, taking no shit from no one. By that point P and I had realized that there was no point in trying to act civilized – in two days that had literally gotten us nowhere. Anyway, our Jazeera hero fought with the terminal people until they gave him two counters to check us in. We were second in line behind another couple. By then the rest of the passengers started coming in, and security had managed to get back on their guard, and tried to actually restore order at the entrance. Anyway, within ten minutes we were checked in. Then passport control. Then we had to sit around and wait until the "gate" opened. Once in there, we found our first chairs of the day to actually sit on. We were in a room with two windows and two flimsy looking glass doors leading out onto the tarmac. We sat around there for about an hour, waiting, knowing that we would have to take a bus back to Terminal 1 where our plane still was. Finally, the Jazeera man of the hour arrived, and we heard him speaking on his mobile asking if the plane was ready and if he could send the first busload of people over. When he got his confirmation, he had to open the window and yell out to someone on the tarmac to come unlock the door for us. MASKHARA!! I'm telling you, it was like nothing I've ever seen - the whole airport experience. AY SHAY!

Once on the plane, we relaxed a bit. But P and I didn't feel as happy as everyone else on the flight seemed. Yes, we were glad that we were able to get out safely, and that we were almost home. We were glad that our families and friends weren't worrying anymore. But the truth is, there wasn't much to feel happy about. We had to escape because Lebanon is under attack, and so all we could, and do, feel is angry and sad. It breaks my heart to see Lebanon sucked into this kind of a mess all over again. It's unfair, and unnecessary. In all honesty, neither of us really wanted to leave. If it had been up to us (i.e. if our primary concern was not easing the minds of our families and friends), we would have gone up into the mountains and stayed with some friends, at least until the airport opened. Doing the whole border crossing thing - I don't know, we didn't like it. Not because we were scared or anything like that - symbolically, we didn't like it.

I can't wait to go back for New Year's to go skiing. (Begin big sister panic session...NOW!)

I'll add pictures tomorrow.


  • Ahhh keep the Kryptonite away!

    Welcome home!

    By Blogger The Stallion, at 7/18/2006 8:31 am  

  • Wow! What a read! 7imdillah 3ala salamatkom! I'm glad you got out of there. Was wondering what's happened to you but we heard from EdoRex that you were coming back. I agree with your thoughts at the end..it is sad that Lebanon got sucked into that once again. But like all the times before it will recover. Wonder how this is going to play out and how long it will take. Welcome home! :*

    By Blogger Tooomz, at 7/18/2006 8:44 am  

  • welcome back to u an P. I'm sure it was such an ordeal, but glad u both are safely home. Must have been a surreal experience. I must say, when you said.."there wasn't much to feel happy about"...I can totally understand. Being safe from harm is a good thing...of course...but leaving behind a country you love so much that is suffering being attacked and bombed...has to be the most painful feeling i know. I still pray for my family who are still in Lebanaon.

    By Blogger Jazz Central, at 7/18/2006 9:58 am  

  • I am really happy that you guys made it safely back :) i can relate to what you said about not leaving, i am suffering like hell just sitting here and watching what is happening on TV. As everyone else is probably doing all i can do is watch TV pray for the people's safety and wait.

    Welcome back ...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/18/2006 10:41 am  

  • I am really happy that you guys made it safely back :) i can relate to what you said about not leaving, i am suffering like hell just sitting here and watching what is happening on TV. As everyone else is probably doing all i can do is watch TV pray for the people's safety and wait.

    Welcome back ...

    By Anonymous fractal00, at 7/18/2006 10:47 am  


    Glad you made it out and you're safe.. sorry you had to go thru the whole event. I can only imagine.. my brother left the day b4 you and was also shattered to leave so many behind in such a situation..

    Welcome Home darling...

    P.S. I have to confessssss the whole airport scene cracked me up.. I pictured a clip from the movie Rat Race :P

    By Blogger DiiGMaa, at 7/18/2006 10:51 am  

  • الحمدلله عالسلامة

    It's such a mixed feeling, to be home safe & sound with the family, and at the same time... thinking about Lebanon.
    May God save Lebanon from all the insanes out there!

    BTW, you made me live your story by the way you described it... it was like I was there!

    Welcome Back Home Kleio :)

    By Blogger iDip, at 7/18/2006 7:57 pm  

  • Thanks all, for your kind messages of welcome and for your concern! :)

    Stallion: Since you don't like to read, go to tonight's post and you can look at the pretty pictures.

    Tooomz: So when am I gonna see you? The night before I leave in September? :)

    JC: Yes, it was hard to leave a country behind that P and I both love and feel a part of. I too have family still there, in Saida (my Lebanese family - not Kuwaitis who are visiting or anything). They are completely cut off and stuck in Saida - not that they would go anywhere even if they could. Home is home.

    Fractal: How many times in our lives have we had to go through this - where we stay glued to the TV all day, not wanting to miss a single step? Too many times to remember.

    Diigmaa: The entire ordeal felt like a scene from Rat Race! It was insane!

    iDip: May god save Lebanon from all the people around it who just want to destroy it and don't want to see it succeed!

    By Blogger Kleio, at 7/19/2006 3:27 am  

  • hey welcome back. i was telling nat to go up to bhamdoun and hitch a ride with the kuwait embassy and i am glad she didn't now or else she might still have been in Lebanon.

    Nat was on your same flight, she was the semi blonde chick with the magenta top and the funy blue and pink bags

    By Blogger Mark, at 7/19/2006 9:14 am  

  • funy = funky

    By Blogger Mark, at 7/19/2006 9:18 am  

  • How about this weekend? :D

    By Blogger Tooomz, at 7/19/2006 9:21 am  

  • Hey kleio it's Nat from www.248am.com you were on the same flight as mine. It was a real nightmare. Just thinking about it again now makes my skin crawl.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/19/2006 9:48 am  

  • wowowow, I'm so sorry you had to go through this. Welcome back and you too Nat.

    By Anonymous Pearls, at 7/19/2006 10:47 am  

  • Mark & Nat: It's a good thing you didn't go up to Bhamdoun, Nat. Saved you a major headache. Had we known you were there we could have all shared a taxi together!

    Also, it turns out you were right next to us at baggage claim in Kuwait. I didn't know you at the time but Jazz Central was picking us up and he told us he was waiting outside with nibaq and Mark who were picking you up. I had already noticed and loved your luggage at baggage claim (we were the couple with the gray and orange luggage). :) Small world. Welcome back. It certainly was a nightmare.

    Tooomz: What are your plans? P and I are thinking about hibernating this weekend and watching 24 (although maybe we don't need the excitement!). Btw, do you have the complete season and if so can we burn it from you? Rampurple was supposed to get it for me before we left for Lebanon! ;)

    Pearls: Chalk it up to experience. :) Suffice it to say, though, we need a vacation to get over our vacation! Or at least, the end of our vacation.

    By Blogger Kleio, at 7/19/2006 3:04 pm  

  • so it was like a blogger meetup at the airport lol

    By Blogger Mark, at 7/19/2006 3:08 pm  

  • Oh that was you! I noticed you and the guy that was with you as well. As for the taxi well maybe next time, hehe:p
    kidding! I hope we don't have to go though this ever again.. Nat

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/19/2006 3:18 pm  

  • That was me and my P. Umm...after three days of no showers and barely any sleep! Perhaps we'll meet under better circumstances. Hehehe ;)

    By Blogger Kleio, at 7/19/2006 3:42 pm  

  • What an experience that must have been -- am so glad you're home safe Alhamdulillah. Can't tear my eyes away from the news -- when will this insanity stop?!

    By Blogger PlumPetals, at 7/19/2006 7:50 pm  

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