We were told this could be a nightmare. Every 30 days, expats (like us) have to leave the country to renew their visitor visa. Until you're cleared as an official resident, this is the rinse-and-repeat every 4 weeks. Cross the border. Get the passport stamped. Flip a U. The good news is, you don't have to stay away for a set amount of time -- meaning no vacations you can't afford while kickin' it in exile.
The purpose of the border run, in my opinion, is 3 things:
- Cash out governments through entrance and exit fees
- Make sure people who haven't made it official with the UAE don't get too comfortable
- And reset the clock to you becoming an illegal immigrant
Now, the tricky part in all of this is the timing. Leave the country within the first 30 days of your visa and the clock doesn't reset -- it just keeps ticking. But, leave more than 10 days after your first 30 and you'll get hit with a late fee every day you're over the limit. Until this balance is paid, you're not allowed to leave the country. The government will require the full amount at any exit point -- airport customs or border crossing. Meaning in theory, you could be too broke to leave the UAE. Even if you've scraped enough money for the plane ticket. (Sry gramma, can't make Thxgiving...snd pics).
With our 10-day window quickly shrinking, we schedule a trip to one of the most popular destinations for millennials shacking up with the UAE...
Destination set, we kick around the idea of using one of the local "companies" which specialize in visa runs. Companies, mind you, which are strictly business. Companies, which threaten you with limited potty breaks and dare you to show up without exact change. Companies that swoop you from a mall entrance in an unmarked van where you pay the driver there in cash or reserve in advance for a 10% discount. S/O buyer incentive.
Luckily, Heidi comes to the rescue and offers to take us on the border run. With her knowledge of local systems and arabic linguistic skills, she's of more use than Emaan and I put together. Example: I know about 10 arabic phrases and Emaan can understand more than she can speak. So if we get in trouble I can order several types of tea and Emaan is a very good listener.
Traversing the open desert, we pass sands the color of maple and beige. A silver mosque being constructed near the highway caught my attention for both its beauty and marked remoteness. As we veer from the main road, in the distance, there's something we haven't seen since Cali. (Mountains). After a month in Dubai's concrete oasis you forget offices, hotels and shopping centers have replaced rolling green hills, dusty trails and silver peaks. A dozen or so people were pulled to the side of the road gawking and taking pictures.
As we drive deeper into the emirate of Sharjah -- a sort of state, like Dubai, where, the seven emirates combine to form the country of the United Arab Emirates (think Voltron, Power Rangers, or Captain Planet) -- a series of images speak loudly about the environment. A stone bus station with a roof of faded palm leaves. A row of houses, with enough space between them to see the desert in the gaps. Four men in Kandoras (traditional garb) walking in the road. And a goat, grazing a patch of grass. The goat watches us pass as Google chimes in and tells us to turn up a road which dead-ends atop a small hill. And, just like that, we're lost. It's Friday, the day of worship in Islam, and congregations are pouring into the local mosque. Heidi pulls over and asks in arabic where we can find the road to Oman. A man in his 20's, makes a warm joke about her Egyptian-Arabic accent before noting we missed a roundabout 7 kilos back -- where we should've taken the second exit.
We pull up to the border, roughly 2 hours after we left the house, and zip around like Looney Tunes as workers in air-conditioned rooms point us where we need to go. We get to the border where two men in a tollbooth, (seemingly) built for one, collect our passports and signal for us to remove hats and glasses. Think Craig & Day-Day, Friday After Next. One of them stoops to check passport - face - passport - face - passport - face. We pay a fee, and he grants us admission into Oman.
Entering a new country, the scenery was... well, the same (see earlier picture). I had to remind myself that we only crossed two guys in a tollbooth -- not the Phantom Tollbooth, not the Bridge to Terabithia not through a wardrobe to Narnia. It was the same, beautiful, desert with a little water to the left.
Half a mile in, a green sign with "NEW VISAS" printed in white stood in front a gold-capped building. We pull into the lightly sprinkled lot, climb the stairs and get hit with a blitz of cold AC as we enter the double doors. Inside, it's dim, and as a few flies float lazily in the sunlit room, a local government station flickers on the monitor overhead. We approach the counter where there are more people are ready to serve than requiring service. The process was quick, we fill out a piece of paper the size of a post-it, make a financial contribution to the gov'ment of Oman and buy ourselves a fresh 30 days in the UAE.
As we reverse past the things we've seen -- past mountains, past houses, past men in Kandoras, past the goat -- we approach what we've known as civilization. The trek to renew our visas took us to humbler beauty, human kindness, and simpler forms of exchange. Through a veil of floating sand, Dubai stands like the City of Oz. And by the blare of car horns and people cutting in front of each another, it's evident, we're not in Kansas anymore.