Friday, December 26, 2014

The Magic Carpet of Death

Long before I read books like Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist or Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, I dreamed of traveling through the desert. This fantasy inevitably took the form of riding a magic carpet through the blue sky above infinite dunes of sand heaped to the horizon in all directions. When I later learned about caravans and camels and such more historically accurate modes of desert transportation, I was fascinated with them as well. Last week I went to the Arabian desert, and, early one morning, got a chance to travel across those endless dunes for real. The desert was just as I imagined it. The preferred method of transport, however, has changed a bit. Outlined below is that method, as I experienced it under the instruction of a local desert dweller, along with the steps necessary to successfully and efficiently utilize it:

1. Locate endless stretch of ecologically pristine, Arabian desert:

2. Commandeer powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle from unsuspecting royalty:

3. Use ratchet-straps to attach doormat to back of powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle; then climb on:

4. Hang on for dear-life:

5. Try to avoid canyons, at least until you've made it across the border with a neighboring princedom, making it easier to avoid capture and retribution:

In the end then, the experience was enjoyable, but didn't bear much in common with my dreams of camels and caravansaries.

The magic carpet fantasy, though, may have actually not been that far off.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

There and back again in Lebanon

This evening I had a small adventure getting to a neighborhood that is quite a long way from mine. It involved a school bus, a fruit-truck and a McDonalds delivery moped.

Actually it's not that far, it's just there's this massive canyon in between it and my neighborhood, so what is only a couple miles as the crow flies turns into a longer and much more maddening journey. None of my friends had ever gone their by any means but a taxi. Hating taxi's, I decided to try to get there by any means other than a taxi. It ended up being every means other than a taxi.

I started at the bus stop right up the road from my apartment, across from the vegetable store where I've tried to make friends with a bunch of very gregarious Syrians. There are these old brightly colored school-buses that have been re-tasked as public transport vehicles that go up and down the mountain all day and will take you all the way from Broumanna on top of the mountain to Borj Hammoud nearly by the sea. To get around the obnoxious canyon, I had to get to the bottom of the mountain, so I jumped on the first school bus I saw parked at the bus stop. Unfortunately, this one turned out to actually be a school bus.

They were not impressed.

Less than three minutes later, an identical bus––but this time the public transport one––passed by and I jumped on. As per usual, it was standing room only, but that didn't matter too much as I intended to jump off as soon as it got to Mkallus at the bottom of the hill. There's a bridge there that I knew went across the sickening, disgusting canyon, and, after one wrong turn on foot that landed me in the middle of a conglomerate of dining-room chair workshops, I arrived.

Next I had to get to the Damascus highway. Looking at Google Maps, however, I misjudged the distance from said bridge to the Damascus highway. Nevertheless, after half an hour of brisk walking and a couple more wrong turns, I made it. I was about to concede defeat and hail a taxi when, up the highway, I saw the glowing arches of McDonalds, which happened to be the primary landmark for getting to where I was supposed to be. Somehow in my wandering, I had ended up closer to my destination than I intended––which is always nice.

After crossing six lanes of traffic on a footbridge, the far side of which I discovered had been turned into a machine-gun nest––not unusual, but there's something uniquely unnerving about descending a spiral staircase into a machine-gun nest––I walked up the side of the highway right to McDonalds, where I ordered a double-cheese burger.

The dilemma now was, while I'd known where this McDonalds was, and I knew the building I was supposed to meet my friends at was near this McDonalds, I had no idea exactly where. Stepping outside, I showed one employee who seemed to be on break a crude map I had on my phone. He couldn't figure it out, and showed it to another employee, who showed it to another one, until there was a whole crowed of McDonalds employees (Lebanese businesses always have a huge number of employees by American standards) looking at my phone, and none of them knew where the building was.

Then the moped delivery guy came over. He didn't speak any English, but he sure as hell knew where the building was. He gestured for me to follow him, and I thought he was going to point me in the right direction. Then he said something like syyarra oo mashee? Which means something like 'did I drive or walk', and when I replied mashee, he led me into an alleyway, gestured for me to jump on the back of the official McDonalds delivery moped, and two minutes later, delivered me right to the door of my destination.

How cool is that?

On the way back I was able to get a ride with a friend around the awful, damnable canyon and back up the mountain. I hadn't gone grocery shopping all week, though, so I had them drop me at the supermarket about a half mile downhill from my apartment. Usually it takes only a few minutes standing outside to catch a bus or service the rest of the way up to where I live, so after buying what I needed, I went and stood out by the road.

Licensed transport vehicles here have red license plates, and I've never seen anyone have luck hitchhiking, so I was surprised when, after a few minutes of standing, a beat up panel van with a civilian license plate pulled over next to me and the guy in the passenger seat opened his door and squeezed against the driver to make room for me.

I was slightly bemused, but got in anyway and we lurched up the steep hill. It wasn't until after a couple minutes of trying to talk to them in Arabic that I realized who they were: two of the Syrian guys from the fruit stand right next to my home bus stop on their way back with fresh produce. They'd seen me standing by the road, recognized me as the guy who comes in every other day to buy clementines and try to speak broken Arabic with them, and now they were taking me back to my bus stop.

So that, is how I got there and back again.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Getting medication in Lebanon vs. in the United States

I've been somewhat ill for the past several weeks. During that time I moved to a new house, ran a 10k, flew to Turkey for ten days, and had lots of smaller but still exhausting adventures. It seems it has finally caught up with me, though. After another night of not being able to sleep, blowing blood out of my nose and coughing up nasty colored phlegm, I paid a visit to my street's pharmacy to see what they could do for me. I'm feeling slightly better already, but intend to spend the next few days laying low. So, since I have some time now, I figured I might pause and reflect the experience of getting basic medication in Lebanon versus in the United States. I am not going to make any judgments on which system is better––I'm sure they both have pros and cons. I will just attempt to chronicle the steps involved as I have now experienced them in both places.

United States:

Call doctor's office and say to receptionist: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Receptionist gives you appointment.

Drive to doctor's office.

Talk to receptionist. Spend five minutes updating insurance information.

Sit in waiting room for interminable period of time.

Get ushered into exam room by nurse. Tell nurse "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Nurse takes weight and height and blood-pressure measurements. Asks about current medications and allergies. Leaves.

Wait for interminable amount of time.

Doctor comes in, tell doctor: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Doctor takes mucous sample. Sends to lab.

Wait for interminable amount of time.

Doctor comes back, writes prescription for antibiotic.

Go to billing desk. Billing desk talks to insurance. Find out since this is your first visit all year, deductible has not been met.

Pay $127.00.

Ask billing desk if this includes lab work. Billing desk says no, even though lab work is done in same building, the staff are from regional hospital, so billing handled separately and you should check with insurance company to see the claim.

Drive to pharmacy.

Give prescription slip to attendant.

Wander around Walmart for interminable amount of time.

While waiting, decide to buy a decongestant. Ask pharmacist for decongestant.

Give pharmacist ID to photocopy, sign twice and fax to DEA.

Wait for interminable period of time.

Get approval to buy decongestant.

Continue wandering around Walmart.

Prescription filled. Take to check out. Spend five minutes giving insurance information. $14.00 decongestant was not prescription, so insurance will not cover it. $16.00 antibiotic was, but deductible still not met.

Pay $30.00.

Drive home.

Go online to check status of lab-work claim.

Claim is $370.00.

Call insurance company and ask for explanation of benefits.

Call hospital and ask for itemized invoice.

Spend next two months fighting with both of them.


Walk up street to pharmacy.

Tell pharmacist: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Pharmacist hands you antibiotic and decongestant. Explains when and how to take it.

Pay $30.

Walk home.