Camels and Water

There’s this nifty group called Al Ain Weekends which organizes trips in the area.  The wife and I and our friends Frank and Melissa joined one of these trips yesterday.  The trip found us joining a convoy of fairly fast-moving 4x4s driving over a miserable, washboarded dirt road into the desert just outside of Al Ain.  I’ve not been a particular fan of Kia quality, at least not Kia ca. 2005, but the Sorento managed to make it without losing any parts, despite the creaking and rattling that filled the interior of the vehicle with a constant din as we pounded along.  Young Bennet, our friends’ 6-month old baby, seemed quite oblivious to the whole thing, strapped in what must be a very cushy car seat.  The Kia, to its credit, did manage a bit of pretty soft sand without any issues when I put it into 4-wheel drive, and I’m more inclined to forgive its fairly significant quality shortcomings as a result.

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After what seemed like a long ways of vehicular punishment, we arrived at the farm, nestled around a number of dunes.  This was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance to see two baby camels, a week and two weeks old, in the company of their mothers.  Besides the babies, with their thick, sheep-like fur, there were also dark-brown camels and nearly white ones of varying ages and sizes.  Some were bred for racing.

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There was a large male being kept in a separate pen from the others, in preparation to meet and mate with a female in the near future.  I guess isolation guarantees he’s plenty ready for the opportunity when it arises.  He seemed quite irritable, at any rate.  Go figure.

Many of the beasts wore rope shackles around their front feet.  I don’t know the reason for this, although I can guess.

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These dromedaries appeared well-fed and well-watered.  There were at least three men around who worked on the farm, which also had a sizable enclosure for goats.

20121214-IMG_006020121214-IMG_0040The calves were, much like their bovine counterparts, pretty dang big, considering they’ve only been shuffling this mortal coil for a week, and very mobile.

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20121214-IMG_0050A camel farm such as this contains all the treats for the senses that a farm elsewhere does.  Put yourself there for a second.  Your feet sometimes sink a smidgeon, but usually the sand is firm enough.  Occasionally the wind whips some grit into your eyes.  The air is redolent with the scent of fur and dung.  There are grunts, whiffles, and growls as the large herbivores respond to an onslaught of touristy types.  The mothers weren’t too pleased to have such a number people crowd around them, and eventually headed for safer territory, a good distance from us.  For such large animals, they’re easily spooked and quite skittish.  Our travel guide, the guy who organized the trip, had to ask repeatedly for folks to quiet down for the sake of the animals, who were often uneasy.  Of course, I’d probably be uneasy if, out of the blue, two-dozen SUVs unloaded a ton of westerners and their screaming children and they mobbed me, too.

We took the chance to climb some of the orange-red dunes that surrounded us as our time at the farm drew to a close.  The drive home was much more relaxing, albeit considerably more boring, as we left before the convoy did, and accordingly moved at a much more relaxed pace.  It did have its moments of interest, however, as the sky, which had been threatening rain, finally delivered, and my meagre windshield wipers, victims of the summertime and, well, most all the time, UV light, soon were mostly tattered.

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A Trip into Authenticity, Part I.

It’s Sunday.  This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son.  If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.  Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon.  We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table.  Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.

These sheep are headed for…well, probably nothing good, at least from their perspectives.

This bull probably also is not much longer for this world.

As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation.  For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east.  East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.

The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large.  It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.

First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast.  Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing.  We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us).  After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way.  There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.

The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way.  There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.

This stretch of desert was unusual for its dunes.

The Kia contemplates the stretch of 120kph highway ahead, wishing it could go faster.

We traveled along the flank of a range of mountains which look more or less like this.

The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps.  Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way.  Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy!  Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us.  We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents.  The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.

Enjoying the souk with friends.  Textiles, silver, gold, kitsch, and more, it’s all available there.

On to preconceptions.  Here’s how at least one of those got smashed.  A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point.  Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at.  “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.”  She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest.  The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away.  “4 is a good price.”  Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.

Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.

I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns.  “Is it for Eid?”  She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.”  She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna.  “There’s black henna and red.  This is red,” she said, indicating hers.  “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said.  “Better the red.”  I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.

So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states.  Evidently not.  Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way.  But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.

The daylight revealed the rugged, rocky landscape that Muscat is built upon.  This shot is in the Mutrah area.  You’ll notice the fortress tower atop one rocky peak.

This post features the word authenticity.  Here’s why.  The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai.  You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India).  But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial.  Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that.  It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself.  It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.

Jenia took this photo of the Mutrah area by night.

It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public.  Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open.  Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.