Sunday, April 01, 2007

Driving Overseas is a Contact Sport

The State Department is evidently allowing a little more local color into itsPost Reports which describe the hidden wonders and dangers of specific countries in often amusing detail.

When I was in the Department, I lived and drove in East Asia [Japan and Vietnam], Europe [France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Morocco], and the Middle East [London to Beirut, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel and Syria]. For the record, I also drove from the East Coast to West and back twice, and to Montreal/Quebec in Canada, as well as other partial trips. [I wisely took cabs and other public transportation in about forty countries overall, including Africa and Latin America, that I've visited.]

I've had accidents driving in Vietnam, France, Italy [twice], Saudi Arabia [which totalled my BMW]. The old saying is that the Italians drive like they're trying to kill themselves, the French drive like they're trying to kill you. It's true, but the only accident I had in France was with an Italian car in Paris! The Italians are completely irrational, while the French have a logic, albeit vicious, of their own which allows you to survive unscathed if you join in the near mayhem.

Driving my BMW Bavaria from London to Beirut in 1974 was a total trip. The gas station loos got messier and messier, until in Yugoslavia they were unbearable. The clocks stopped working more or less in Italy, but east of Italy, no public facility was likely to function. At all. Except the police when it was in their interest. Not only was I robbed in Bari, Italy, and had my camera and diplomatic passport stolen [I got it back in three hours by offering the local cops a bribe!!! They'd found it "in a mailbox"!!! At four in the afternoon!!! Every car driver on the boat from Bari to Dubrovnik that night told me they had been broken into and robbed. The license plates clued the cops.], but I was stopped on the Greek/Turkish border on the night that the Turkish invasion of Cyprus took place in August 1974. The Turks may have wondered if I were a Greek spy masquerading as an American diplomat, but I waited for several hours while my documents were inspected.

Made it to Istabul as the sun rose. The trip across Turkey almost ended my life as I narrowly escaped being sandwiched between two massive 18-wheelers on an S-curve in the Taurus Mountains north of Adana. Another close call was in North Yemen with Ambassador Pickering when his tire shot off his wheel as I was driving just behind him late at night. Two hitchhikers in N. Yemen stopped my Embassy truck by lowering their AK-47s at me. They hopped in the back and jumped off a few miles down the road. That was how one hitchhikes in Royalist territory in Yemen! I discovered some men with tangled locks on the side of the road. It turned out they were Sephardic Jews and they told me there were 4000 of their people living in a valley deep in mountain country. I reported it to the State Department, which previously had all the Jews driven out of Yemen around the time of the founding of Israel. My discovery is noted in Wikipedia with the sentence "A small community remained unknown until 1976, but it appears that all infrastructure is lost now." Actually, the community is incommunicado deep in Royalist territory which is still basically cut off from the rest of the world, so whatever they are talking about vis-a-vis "infra-structure" appears to be flim-flam. The link formerly had mentioned "State Department reported a small community in 1976, which was my handiwork." So it goes.

In Saudi Arabia, I would drive into the hills with the USGS folks whose geological surveys revealed the possibility of oil in this Kingdom way back when. I also drove to Mada'in Saleh, where Nabatean rock temples such as those in Petra, Jordan are located. Also, the location of King Solomon's Mines, though we found no gold in the vicinity. We had to jump-start one of the Chevy suburbans which died by pulling it with a winch from the other Suburban. The Marine Gunney was a genius and I had to be in the dead Suburban and get the car started before we hit the tracks of the fabled Medina Railway that Lawrence and his boys kept blowing up. I got it started just before the tracks and we had to keep the engine running for about 200 miles until we got back to civilization, pouring water in the radiator to keep it cool. What a trip! Lost a gold Cross pen, a gift from Ambassador West, at the tracks. Still have the matching engraved pencil. Finally, my wonderful BMW Saloon was totalled when a crazed Ramadhan driver blindsided me---the Embassy had told me the car was insured, but the incompetent Admin Officer had botched up and I was bereft a beautiful driving machine. Of course, the local judge said it was my fault, but I had diplo immunity.

I'd go on recounting weird stories of my driving a truck canvassing in cities like Chicago, New York, and LA during the McCarthy campaign in '68, but aside from running out of gas twice in three days in front of the Chicago Hilton, not much to say. Michigan and Balbo, where a few days later the crowds would chant "The whole world is watching."

Actually, the whole world is so much bigger than a bunch of political activists can imagine, they ought to drive around it just to take a look. The world is huge, and not at all what one might think.

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