“Before June 2020, Piggy will again have Dutch soil under its shoes”
Well. I wrote that as the last sentence in my last blog from three months ago. A lot has happened and changed in the meantime. Woody Allen once said: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Well, I think he burst out laughing.
Traveling often consists of making plans, but you should always be prepared for changes.
Situations can change. Political unrest, natural disasters, private circumstances and illnesses can seriously thwart the matter. And then nothing remains of your carefully made plans. Normally I try to go with the flow as much as possible and not plan too much in advance. My trip has no end date. But sometimes you can not ignore it: The return trip to the Netherlands means knowing in advance which border posts between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel are suitable, you have to make contact with agents of shipping companies, make insurance contracts, go along with and adjust to the local bureaucracy and much collect information from other overlanders via Facebook groups such as “Dutch Overlanders” and “Overland Middle East”.
Nobody takes a pandemic into account, of course, which would make the world look completely different within fourteen days.
When the first infections and deaths in China became known, I assumed that it would remain local, that it would be mastered. It was the same with SARS and EBOLA.
But the virus quickly spread to the rest of the world. Iran was the next epicenter, and Italy was the first European country to experience a massive outbreak in Lombardy. At that time I was already arranging a crossing from Haifa to Monfalcone, near Triest. The boat would depart on April 14. I still had over a month to reach Haifa. I had paid the ticket quickly to prevent the boat from being fully booked. Soon after I received the message that the crossing was canceled. The virus had quickly spread to other parts of northern Italy. Fortunately, my money was quickly refunded to my account. As an alternative, I decided to sail with another shipping company from Haifa to Lavrio, near Athens. Storing Piggy in Jordan or Israel and then taking the plane to the Netherlands could also be an option.
These were busy times. I was in northern Saudi Arabia at the time. There too, slowly but surely, measures were started to contain the spread of the virus in the country. The area where I was located was so beautiful that I actually did not want to leave quickly. My visa was still valid for 2 more months. After that I could stay in Jordan for another month and three months in Israel. Surely the virus will have disappeared during that time?
But the developments followed in rapid succession. During the administrave procedures concerning the shipment to Greece, Italy closed its borders, Israel closed its borders, Jordan closed its borders. The UAE, Oman and also Saudi Arabia closed their borders. In one fell swoop, the world was locked down.
For the time being, I was still able to travel freely in Saudi Arabia. It was advised to maintain social distancing and not to shake hands. A very difficult task for the Arabs.
… Hello Sir, How are you…. I was just changing my motor oil at a street garage when a man came up to me. Piggy always attracts an audience. The men are always curious what kind of truck this is. Army truck or mobile corona test car or something else? These types of campers are not known here. The Arabs are always jovial, friendly and hospitable. A firm handshake is part of that. Before this man can give me such a firm handshake, I take a step back. No no … Corona! and raise both hands. I think he’s a cop because he’s wearing a black uniform. An emblem adorns his upper arm. I take a good look and read: Ministry of Health. As a health officer you should know better, I say. No problem sir, He opens his hands and looks up. Allah will protect me….
But I also experience the opposite.
… While I get ready to end my photo shoot of the shot down Catalina seaplane on the Red Sea, I hear a car horn behind my back. The two men of a military Toyota Landcruiser are gesturing to come to them. I take a few more pictures in peace and then walk over to them. I shouldn’t be here, I understand from their Arabic with gestures. Convinced that I am not doing anything wrong I would like to know why I have to leave. After all, Piggy has been parked neatly in front of the “no-vehicles” sign and there is also no sign to indicate that this area is forbidden to enter. The two young soldiers do their best to look sternly and give an answer I can’t make sense of. They want to see my passport. As always, I hand over the copy of my passport. After a thorough study it turns out that they cannot read the Latin script. Of my own accord, I indicate that I am from Holland and tap my chest. Amsterdam, I finally clarify. I don’t know if that really helped, but he gestures to follow me by truck. OK, I say, but give me back my passport copy first. He refuses. Now I pull up my stern face and demand that I get my “passport” back. Nobody is allowed to run away from me with my personal data. Even if it is a copy. An attempt to get it out of his hands fails. As a diversion, I pretend to point to something on the copy. He holds it tight but I try to make something clear by turning the copy slightly in his hands. When his attention to holding is somewhat slack, I manage to snatch the copy out of his hands in one quick movement. There you go. And now I will follow you. I wonder where you take me.They take me to an army post across the bay where I am graciously received by the English speaking commander. He apologizes for the actions of the two boys. They are still young and have a lot to learn, he says. It is still not clear to me why I should not come here, but I am beginning to suspect that because of the corona measures I cannot get on the beach, let alone stay overnight. Still special. There is nobody on the beach.It is completely empty. In the meantime I have received a hand from all those present and social distance is also not applied. I am given the choice to go to one of three surrounding villages and spend the night there. My defense that it is safer on the deserted beaches than in these villages has no effect. Above this commander is of course another superior and if he gives the order to evacuate the beaches, these orders must be followed. Whether it makes sense or not. I reluctantly drive to the northern village. But I don’t feel like spending the night in a street between the houses.
On the way I see a number of sand hills on the left, behind which I can spend the night unnoticed. Wrong. Probably my tracks in the sand have betrayed me, because within half an hour a military Toyota stopped next to me. The situation of a few hours earlier repeats itself. I don’t want to hand over my passport and we agree that I take a seat in the back of the Toyota to take me to the next encampment. Meanwhile it has become pitch dark and the boys are racing through the desert as if they are training for the Dakar race.
Also in this army post I am kindly received by the commander. Calls are made back and forth. Finally the phone is pressed into my hands. This is the general, says the commander. Oops. That is a great honor. The general calmly explains to me that the soldiers will take me back to Piggy and then accompany me to a larger village, 80 km away, to spend the night there. I wonder if they can find Piggy again in pitch dark. But everything is well organized. Along the way, an army jeep with a large light stands as a beacon. The last beacon ends at Piggy.
In the darkness I follow the two red lights in front of me through the desert until we reach an asphalted road. The commander gestures that I must follow this road to the village and DO NOT deviate from the route. He waves me off with a heartfelt gesture and I say goodbye with my two-horned air horn. That night I sleep in a clearing next to a house in the village of Al Bad…
Tabuk province, in the north of Saudi Arabia, is one of the most beautiful regions. Fortunately, I am here during the Corona crisis. I can hide between the beautifully formed rock formations that surround the many wadis (dry river beds). An ideal place to self-quarantine. Unfortunately, the internet is not available everywhere, which is a pity, because I want to keep up to date with the Corona developments in the world and especially here in Saudi Arabia.
The restrictions now follow each other quickly. First, the borders between the different regions are closed. So the net closes around me. I decide to sign up for a possible return flight to the Netherlands. Both the Dutch embassy and the ANWB (Dutch Automobile Association), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the travel industry are busy arranging a flight. Much is still uncertain, such as the departure point of the flight. The flights can depart from, Damman, Riyadh or Djeddah. All those places take a few days’ journey.
All international flights are canceled. Domestic air traffic is also halted after a few days. So parking Piggy in Tabuk and then flying to one of the three airports is no longer possible. Some announcements of potential repatriation flights follow. One is canceled within a day, the other leaves in 2 days from Damman, so too far for me, and the third one is a flight from Riyadh to Paris. But how do I reach the Netherlands from there. Are there flights between Paris and Amsterdam? The price turns out to be sky high. So I don’t sign up for this.
I decide to take the gamble to drive to the center of the 3 major airports to wait and see where a possible flight will depart from. I do have to cross a number of regional boundaries, which, as said, would be closed. The embassy can provide a safe-guard letter to cross the regional borders, but that is only possible if the flight data are known, so that is not the case for the time being.
A curfew is imposed in the three largest cities between 7:00 PM and 6:00 AM. I let the embassy know that I am leaving and will keep them informed of any obstacles at the regional boundaries. There is nobody at the first border post so that I can continue driving without any problems. The second prompts me to stop to undergo a temperature test and can continue driving. At the third I see a slow driving line of trucks at the border post and a shorter one for passenger cars. I join the trucks because I have heard that goods traffic can continue. With a salam aleikum and a jovial gesture I can continue unhindered. After two long days I reach the center of the country without obstacles. The embassy is very happy, otherwise it would take a lot of time and work to get me through it. They indicate that they are working on a flight from Riyadh. In the meantime I have made contact with someone who can arrange a storage for Piggy in Riyadh. In a day and a half I drive to Riyadh where in the meantime the curfew has been extended to 15:00 to 06:00.
Unfortunately, the garage, a large importer and garage for Volvo and Renault trucks and tractors, has no covered storage. Piggy is just a bit too high for the promised spot. So he will have to be in the open sun during the corona crisis. But yeah. I shouldn’t have too many notes on my vocals.
The curfew is now being upgraded to a full 24-hour ban.
I have been standing in front of the garage for a few days now because I cannot place the truck in the garage for the time being and spend the night there. Meanwhile, the temperature in the camper reaches 50 degrees.
I keep quiet because if the police discover me I will probably have to stay in a hotel, which is not cheap here.
There is a promising message from the embassy. In a day there will be a flight from Riyadh to Athens. I have to arrange the flight to Brussels myself, which luckily I manage quickly. Within a short time I now have to collect my luggage, empty the water tanks, disconnect batteries and other important things.
On April 9 I am picked up by “Embassy Elske”, my contact of the Dutch embassy. She guides me through the currently available checkpoints to the airport with a letter from the embassy. The ambassador has also arrived here. Embassy staff from Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and Greece are also present. It gives a nice feeling that we are so well taken care of.
In Athens we are not allowed to leave the transit hall because of the corona measures. That means sleeping on the floor or chairs. I sleep on a 1 meter long table
Fortunately, the train ride from Belgium to the Netherlands does not cause any problems. I do not need to show the embassy’s Free Passage letter.
P.s. This blog is mainly devoted to coronation events. Hopefully I will soon have the energy to write the travel story between Oman and Saudi Arabia
TAKE A LOOK AT PHOTO’S AND VIDEO’S OF UAE AND OMAN
MY PORTFOLIO OF MY TRAVELS FROM 1987 CAN BE SEEN AND/OR BOUGHT HERE AT STOCK PHOTO AGENCY