2010 -- 2.2 (Spring) Non-Fiction

A Paradise in Hell

by Rob Mac

Here we are again. The sand storms that kept us out at sea an extra week had subsided. The scars that are left on the windows of the buses designated to move us around the countryside tell the tale of the horrendous winds. You can’t even see out of them. Not one of them is in running condition. The air is so hot it hurts to breathe and you never really dry off after a shower as you immediately start sweating from the humidity. Over the last few years since the first Gulf War, we pull in here to the city state of Dubai on a regular basis. So far the Saudis like us here in the Persian Gulf and they are still paying the gas bills for the Air Force and Navy jets. The USS Cole incident and 9/11 are several years off into the future so the atmosphere is relaxed and the locals welcome us with open arms when we get here. In 1993 the sight of the USS Abraham Lincoln on the horizon meant dollar signs to the shop owners who lined up in droves to make a “special deal”. That deal was usually 150% more than everybody else but they were there to deal none the less.

After several months at sea, we pulled into the only part of the entire planet that doesn’t openly serve alcohol. There are only so many establishments that actually have it. And they are located inside hotels that cater to the European tourists. So, at that time, the total number of alcohol serving bars for over 6500 thirsty American Sailors to drink at numbered somewhere around 10. To say they crowded to max capacity at any given time is an understatement. To be in public merely smelling of alcohol is a grievous offence and the consequences are severe. After the local fines and jail time there was always the Navy to deal with who gave you more fines and jail time. Great! Does it get any better? From a bar the only place to go was to a hotel room or back to the ship. The latter was the wise choice when you have duty the next day. It is with in this realm that our story begins.

Big Pat Goonen, Goon for short, was a funny dude. His sense of humor was legendary and it was what kept us all laughing even when everything else sucked. At 5ft 10in 200lbs he wasn’t that imposing, but he could get his point across when he wanted to. He checked into the command in 1992 after the Philippines were evacuated because of Mt Pinatubo blowing her top. The bases had been destroyed in 1991 under the tons of ash that fell. Not to mention the leases on them had run out at about the same time. What timing right? Needless to say we didn’t leave anything behind that worked or stood as we left the islands.

During the “work ups” before our 1993 deployment Goon and I found that we had the same pass times. That usually meant drinking obnoxious amounts of beer, riding our Harleys at “ludicrous speed” and watching women get naked while they hung from brass poles on our off time (which really wasn’t all that often with 14 to 16 hr days). We were described as “walking frat parties” and the place to be was wherever we were letting off steam. At the ripe old age of 23 I was invincible.

So here we are in Dubai, shoulder to shoulder packed into a bar called “The Seafarers Center” like sardines. The beer is hot not to mention expensive, its 110 degrees in the shade and the DJ has played the same 8 songs over and over for hours. I can only assume it was in the hopes that somehow we will miraculously start to like 4 non Blonds. The pool has turned a suspicious yellow hue as folks don’t want to get out and lose “their spot” out of the heat. Not a woman in sight….THIS JUST ISN”T CUTTING IT!!!! The place is a total sausage fest. We got to get out of here!

Here comes Goon with intel from one of the cabbies. Those rotten cockroaches all lined up 20 + cars deep everywhere we went because they know we have no choice but to use them to go to the boat or a hotel from the bar. All the busses are down. As it turns out there is a new bar for the foreign workers. (Note: 80% of the population is imported labor in Dubai) When asked how many squids are there he said none. So off we go. For a total of $8 American we find ourselves deep in old town, alone, well away from the mob and in an air conditioned bar surrounded by scantily clad and apparently horny Filipino women. The beer was cold and cheap. There are only the two of us Americans, maybe 5 Filipino dudes from an oil tanker and 15 or so women that worked locally as house keepers and waitresses. Yep, this was the place to be in a country where the native women walk 10 paces behind their men and are covered head to toe in a Burka. All those other guys are saps. With some good intelligence and an adventurer’s spirit we found our own little paradise in hell.

Goon just coming from the Philippines speaks the language fluently. As for me I just smile and laugh when everybody else does. I have no idea what the hell they are saying. They may have been saying I had a small burrito for all I know. Occasionally he would translate and eventually I found a woman there that spoke enough broken English, also known as Taglish, to make small talk with. We all drank, danced; (God forbid) sang karaoke and had a great evening till it was time to head back. We got the girls contact info and they were going to pick us up the next day after our shift to show us around. In the mean time the clock is ticking and we need to get back to the ship.

We stagger outside and even in my drunken stupor I’m the one with the social graces for cabby negotiation. (Note: there are no meters in the cabs. You pay what you negotiate) as I walk up to the first cab I ask how much back to where we were? Remember it cost $8 to get there. The cockroach tells me $50. After a few choice words that he probably didn’t understand (then again he may have gotten the gist) about what he could go do with himself, I moved to the next cabby. He tells me $40, I reply the same way, on to the next cab in line. By this time Goon taps me on the shoulder and gives me a look that just says, “I got this”. He sticks his head in the cab, looks around, rips this guy out of the car through the window and slams him on the roof of the car. Screaming at the top of his lungs he says” $20 back to the Lincoln or I kick your ass!!!” To which this guy responds completely shaken in a thick Indian accent”Get in my friend get in!! You are better than money.” The negotiations were over, time to go.

Off we go, on our way back and feeling no pain and so drunk we could barely walk. We have plans for the next evening and two sexy tour guides to take us to see the rest of Dubai. After work tomorrow we don’t have to be back for 3 days. We are set, except the cabby keeps trying to renegotiate the deal “Give me $30″ he says in his thick accent. The reply from us isn’t fit for these pages. We were having nothing of it. We paid $8 to get there, he was making $12 extra than the previous cabby. Then he demanded $40. My reply was something along the lines of “go #$%^ yourself!”

Well, note to self… when in a foreign country that doesn’t tolerate drunks you are not in the position for aggressive negotiations. This guy zigged when he should have zagged, turned right instead of left and then we are in a walled compound with dudes carrying fully automatic weapons ripping us from the car. Immediately I had visions of us being held like the hostages at the Embassy in Iran. (Daniel Pearl hadn’t been taken yet) Then the badges catch some light and reflected in the dark. Oh thank god!!! It’s only the…..Oh shit….. It’s the cops! Out of the fire and into the frying pan. These guys rough us up but good before they even asked us a question. We had to pay the cockroach cabby $60, followed by a few more courtesy “rubs” from their rifle butts because we didn’t get the money out fast enough. Finally they set us down in front of the “Sergeant”. Some minor negotiations and a $440 fine/bribe (what we had left) later we were on our way in another cab. Serious fine and jail time avoided for being drunk in “public”. I’ve never been mugged by the police before. It was a new experience. $500 for a cab ride….I should have just paid the cockroach cabby the extra to begin with. Jerk!!!

We got back without incident from there. All we have to do is make it through the day without the Chief seeing us and we are home free for the next three days with our sexy new tour guides. As I looked in the mirror the next morning before work I mainly looked hung over. I had a broken nose that I set the night before, a fat lip and a swollen jaw but nothing really stood out. “Ok,” I’m thinking, “par for the course.” My ribs were killing me but the bruises hid well under a uniform. Then I saw Goon, whose eye was dark purple and damn near swollen shut. There was no hiding that. The second the Division Chief saw that he assigned us both to work that tied us to the ship for the next three days. We just couldn’t convince him that Goon fell down the stairs. Even though the Division Chief never found out what happened, he knew us well enough to know that something “significant”( that’s pronounced “f%^ked up”) happened. We skated out of being severely punished by the Navy for coming into negative contact with the local police. We did however laugh/ bitch about it for years later among our friends and coworkers. By 1995 we were the “old salts” and told this tale to the younger troops every time we pulled into that port. Praying to god that they didn’t do what we did and end up trashed, alone and far off the beaten path.

Times have changed drastically. Looking back we made so many deadly mistakes and survived that it isn’t even funny. This is just one tale. Dumb luck and the sense to carry bribe money was all that got us out of this one. Today that cabby would sell us to terrorists in a second and the outcome would be tragically different.

Rob Mac served in the Navy for 20 years and is currently retired. His journeys took him over a good portion of this planet on-board 5 different aircraft carriers and 9 deployments.