Thursday, February 19, 2009
Desert tour - Thursday
Weird - Sometimes my blog page instructions come up in English and sometimes they come up in Arabic (reading from the right to the left side of the page, not that I would know what they say anyway).
We were picked up yesterday afternoon in 3 SUVs. I was with my host's wife, Tatiana (she is from Croatia) and her very sweet (and quite game for anything) Italian mother (Mom, you would fit right in). There were several Canadians also, all from the University.
Each vehicle had a driver and someone who spoke enough English to be our guide. I never got the driver's name, but Saif (from Pakistan) was our guide. We headed out to the desert and for the next 1/2 hour or so, hung on for our lives. At times, we were vertical and the driver's cell phone kept ringing. He would hold it in his right hand, put it to his left ear and continue to steer or he would text.
When you see all the construction that has occurred out here in less than 40 years, it seems a miracle there is any sand left (red sand where we were). But sand there is for mile upon mile. And they way the wind blows it (creating intricate designs, then recreating), you would think that one day the sand will take back over.
An odd contrast to barren beauty of the sand, are the power lines that reach across off into the distance - tall towers and black line.
In the area we were in, Al Ain, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan (Al Ain was his birthplace) spent years transforming parts of the desert into a 'green haven'. An environmental miracle if you consider it.
As we careened off the sides of sand dunes, we'd get glimpses of 'farms' (where you would least expect to see one) with short palm-like trees and greenery, along with camels, ibis and other livestock - in the middle of nowhere. Shaikh Zayed was an environmental thinker and used both the traditional 'aflaj' (underground canal system of irrigation) and modern technology to raise farm productivity.
They may have sand here and they may have oil, but water is in demand.
Again, in the middle of nothing, we arrived at a spot where we were treated to a falcon 'show'. For centuries, falcons have been trained by Bedoin tribes for hunting and it is still a popular, traditional pastime in the country. We sat and watched, drinking Arabian coffee (excellent) trying to keep the sand out of it, getting to know our guides a little and enjoying the show.
Our next destination was a 'desert outpost', used for the barbeque. I have to say, the next half hour or so were some of the most surreal moments I will probably ever live.
A large campfire was burning when we arrived and since the sun was down, we sat around it to warm ourselves. I noticed a very large white screen set up near the bathroom, but thought it might be a privacy screen. One of our hosts started up the coals and was preparing dinner.
So, picture it - The smell of kabobs on a grill, a beautiful starry night with folks whose company you are enjoying, a campfire in the middle of the desert, a cultural experience - got it!
And then, the screen lights up and our host invites us to watch 'The Mummy' with Brendan Fraser (as an American serving in the French foreign legion), while dinner is prepared. It was one of those moments where you must be dreaming. I kept looking around for the 'candid camera' guy.
And while one guide cooked dinner, the other guides settled in with a 'sheesha' pipe and seemed to be enjoying the show. Sheesha is not an illegal drug or anything, though it is tobacco smoked from a large water pipe, with several hoses for sharing (like a hooka). I tried some and it tastes sweet like flowers or maybe a type of fruit. I figured the rest of the night was strange, why not!
By the way, I thought the kabobs were chicken (and wasn't I 'hankering for local food'), but after being pushed a bit, the guide said they were 'meat'. After being pushed a bit more, he said they were 'goat'. Later, Tatiana told me they were probably camel. No wonder they spit!