Sunday, October 12, 2008

Come with me little girl on a magic carpet ride..

I finally got ahold of the car company (after repeated attempts and leaving a detailed message), and explaned the situation, emphasising the "minor" part of the accident and damage.

You have the sheet? They asked.

The police form, yes, I have it.

Bring it when you bring the car back, thank you madam.

Hey, all right then! I carefully wrote down his name and what he said...just in case.

For fun we headed out to Masafi, to the Friday Market, and the mountains. We went on a Friday, though as I understand it the Friday Market is open every day.

Leaving the forests of cranes and the city behind, we headed east into the desert. The deserts around Dubai are not the endless expanse of sand I expected them to be, though there are certainly areas where it's nothing but windblown dunes. The ones by the roads that we see most often tend to be dotted with scrub brush, or the beautiful acacia trees with their romantic silhouettes. Occasionally we get to see camels or goats resting intelligently in the shade beneath the acacias.

The Friday Market in Masafi rests along the freeway in the Hajar Mountains. We were positively frothing with excitement over going up along a road. Dubai is pancake flat, so any change in altitude alone was worth the ride. The mountains are sandy, rocky, monochromatic and ragged, extending one after the other. For us, anyway, the thought of being lost and trying to make your way through the mountains quickly reared it's ugly head and we settled a fraction lower in our seats and thanked once again the god of air conditioning.

"Masafi" means pure water and while the riverbeds, the Wadi were bone dry, one can immediately see that waters have cut their way through the mountains in great flows. According to the UAE embassy a wet year in Masafi can have as much as 350 mm of rainfall, as little as 30 in a dry year. Seattle, where we know it sprinkles and has more gray days than actual rain volume, averages about 9200 mm, according to the City of Seattle. Actually, most cities in the USA get more rain than Seattle! The gray days, however, well, we have that market cornered.

Back to the Masafi Friday Market. Because Masafi is one of the wettest areas in the UAE, all things being relative, there is successful farming there, and nestled in the hollows between the mountains there are green groups of palm trees, very much the picture of an idyllic oasis. Therefore the fruits and vegetables offered alongside the road are gorgeous, though whether they are local is anyone's guess. The market itself is on both sides of the main road, the carpet stalls tall to accomodate their wares, the produce and pottery stands shorter, and a few tiny one-table restaurants all lined up next to one another.

Another grouping of sellers offered luxuriant plants of all sizes, lush green leaves and bright flowers. Hot coals sizzled in metal boxes next to the walkway to cook corn on the cob, and venders chopped the husks off of coconuts with large knives, piercing a hole in the top for a straw whenever they had a thirsty taker.

I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea that it is Autumn back in the USA. Without fields of pumpkins, dahlias and sunflowers, and dewy spiderwebs in the gray misty mornings, I am having a hard time with it. The sun here is blazing, there will be no crunch of colorful leaves on the sidewalks, but with the outdoor market and the mountains, I experienced a tiny taste of the things that say home to me in the Pacific Northwest.

The market's offerings were many, but we had come for carpets. Persian Carpets, to be specific. I had read endless guides and varying opinions via the internet on how to determine the quality and value of a Oriental rug until my eyes were crossed and I was more confused than ever. Knowing that haggling was an essential part of the process didn't help either. The whole idea is so foreign to me, and it made me nervous. I had read one useful thing though. It said that not only is bargaining expected, it is the fun part for the merchant.

We walked toward the carpet sellers. As it was afternoon, some were snoozing on their wares to wait out the heat. We entered a stall, completely at random. Away from the bright sun there were carpets of every size and quality. Immediately two white garbed barefoot men, one young and beardless, one older, approached us and began asking what do you like, what color, what pattern do you want, what size you like?, as they rolled out and flung carpet after carpet at our feet. It was hard, but completely unavoidable, to walk on them, feeling guilty for sand-dusty shoes.

Slowly the colors and dazzling designs began to sort out in my mind into like and dislike. I use the term "dislike" advisedly; the carpets were beautiful. Certainly there were carpets for every taste rolled up along the walls, but the offerings at our feet were what we were thinking, exotic, intricate.

"Where are your carpets from?" I asked the older,more English-confident man.

Espain madam.

Really? Spain? Huh. well, OK then.

We kept looking, and I asked again, "these are from Spain?"

Yes, yes.

What are they made of?

Silk, madam, these are silk carpets.

Touching the incredibly soft surfaces, turning them over to look at the backs, we were migrating slowly but surely toward the larger-sized carpets. Knowing that there's no ceiling for how much one can spend on a carpet, we were even more acutely and uncomfortably aware that we had no idea what we were doing.

Finally I asked, "Do you have any Oriental rugs? We would like to see Oriental rugs."

He looked at me. Madam, please, madam these carpets, they are from Esfahān, Iran, madam.

Aha! Esfahān, the second largest city in Iran. Not Spain. This made considerably more sense. From Iran, therefore not just Oriental but indeed Persian. We managed not to feel too stupid (denial at it's finest) and continued with the task at hand.

The kids were getting pretty pink by this time, gamboling about on the carpet rolls stacked waist high everywhere. Thomas was helping roll out carpets in imitation of the sellers, carrying bolts around proudly. I had turned away several carpets, shaking my head no at the "Too English, no, " designs of gardens and roses, and we'd discovered a preference for longer tassels at the ends, defined borders, and patterns that revealed more and more the more you looked at them.

They brought more carpets, the younger one patiently holding them vertically in front of him like an extra show wall. Mike saved us by expressing a fondness for the rugs with bolder navy color, and we went from there to two that we liked very much.

Incredibly nervous, I asked the big question: "How much? Bekkam? Maybe for both?"

While the younger one continued to ply us with carpets, the older man made a big show of going and getting a calculator. He held it in front of my eyes and pronounced, 750 dirhams for the large carpet and 650 for the smaller one.

Mmm, I said. Honestly, I was expecting a much larger number than that. Having looked in the stores in Dubai, I knew that even a crappy carpet cost that much or more.

How much? How much you want to pay? he asked with a new, higher note in his voice. He tried to make me take the calculator. You say, you say how much.

I muttered in an undertone to Mike, "1000 for both?"

"We like these very much, but I think we will go look at other stores, you keep these two for us and we'll come back," I said.

No, no! he said, working up to a frenzy, trying again to put the calculator into my hands. I repeated myself and he threw up his arms: I no talk with you any more! turning to Mike as I played along and gave a gasp of mock offense. Mike repeated what I'd said, both of us smiling and nodding, but turning away and starting to gather the children.

He gave a dramatic moan and continued to entreat us to name our price. I cut my eyes to Mike, who shrugged, so I grinned at him saying under my breath, my back to the carpet seller, "Think of a price and cut it in half."

"500," I said, turning to look the vender full in the face, chin lifted, smile in place.

Which one, madam?

"For both," I said firmly, smiling still.

He did a fair imitation of ripping his hair out.

We did a fair imitation of moving toward the exit.

OK! OK! he said, shaking his head in agitated desperation, 700.

We agreed.

You like cheap, very cheap, Oh-kaay I do cheap for you, he said, a smile creeping onto his face, though he tried to keep it hidden until the money was in his hand, at which point he was wreathed in smiles for all of us. Now everybody was happy, our carpets were wrapped, and Mike got the kids back into the car for some much needed A/C. I couldn't resist going to a produce stand, thinking I'd just take a second to get something to nibble on for the kids and shoot a photo or two.

However, nothing can be rushed, and the fruit vendor from Bangladesh proved even more skillful than the carpet seller.

After regaling me with proud tales of his beloved cricket team, and getting me to sample both the chickoo (sweet and delicious egg-shaped brown fruit that tastes quite a bit like a date, but with a different consistancy, I think a new favorite for me,) and slicing me a juicy piece of the local green oranges I'd seen growing and assumed weren't ripe yet, I managed to acquire what he deemed to be 50 dirhams of produce. I laughed in his face. True, besides the chickoos and oranges, I had also selected apples, sugarcane, a peculiarly long pineapple, and spectacular purple mangoes with the leaves still glossily attached, but now I was getting confident with the game. As we started to haggle Mike came striding back through the heat, wondering what the heck was taking me so long and could I please wrap it up so we could go get some lunch for the kids? Parting shot: Bethy has to go to the bathroom.

I'd named 15 dirhams (I knew this to be ridiculous, but the produce was already in the bag, why not?) and we settled at 35. I managed not to have that much in smaller bills, so he let me go at 32. ($8.71 in USD). Dashing back to the car, we drove to the nearby gas station in time for Bethy, then back around to the U-turns far down the freeway either way to get us to the side with the restaurants. There was "New Restaurant" which was our initial choice, but I favored the showmanship and appeal to hygiene of the two men in white paper hats further down the line.

The tiny restaurant had no menu, but the chef carefully described his wares. We turned down the now ubiquitous coconut, and Thomas posed for a photo with one for Mike before it fell off its stem, narrowly missing flattening his foot. We were starving, and as the overhead fan busily blew our napkins aound the table we busily devoured a plain but tasty feast of flat hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, garnished with tomatoes and cucumbers and sauce, a gratis plate of french fries, fresh pulpy apple and pineapple juices, and of course a bottle of chilled Masafi brand water.

Less than 50 Dhs. We asked our cook where he was from.


He asked us where we were from.


He lit up like a Christmas tree. Afghanistans love Americans! Americans the best, most good, Americans help us in my country!

We assured him that we hoped so, that we wished him and his country the best, and that we'd really enjoyed the delicious lunch he'd made for us. More smiles all around, hugs for him from the kids.

Back into the car and onto the road, we wandered a couple of side roads, Mike indulging me as I periodicaly jumped out of the car to photograph herds of goats and the landscape. One goat cracked us up as it casually munched a teabag, the yellow label fluttering the at the end of its shorter and shorter string until it too was consumed. (Lipton is big can't walk around outside away from the city without seeing a Lipton teabag or twenty on the ground)

As I was photographing a group of goats making their way up the slopes of a wadi, a carload of black scarved Emerati women stopped, their children, as always, clambering unsecured in the back and front seats and beautifully dressed babies sleeping on their laps. In perfectly accented English the lovely driver asked if we would like to be shown the nature places of the mountains. We regretfully declined, since we weren't sure about times. It was a very kind gesture, and, I think, typical of the area.

Heading back down from the mountains and back into the desert, we headed for the optional stop on our trip, the Sharjah Desert Park. We took the kids through the thoughtful habitats and exhibits of animals of the inside zoo area, including the kids' favorites; flamingoes, sand cats, mongooses (Rikki Tikki Tavi is big with Bethy right now; we're reading her first chapter book together, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book) and all manner of poisonous snakes, vipers, cobras, and puff adders, to go with the mongooses, geckos of course, and many large animals, all beautifully housed, including a pair of very rare Arabian Leopards.

No cameras were allowed in the Wildlife Centre, and it was kind of refreshing to go to the zoo without one, nor to have to navigate around those taking photos. While we could easily have spent all day at the Desert Park (and such a deal at 30 Dirhams for all of us!) we had to table the Natural History Museum with it's 5 main exhibition halls for another time, which will have to be an outing all on it's own for us, and, after retriving the camera from it's banishment to the car, went to the Children's Farm. There were pony rides, (5 Dhs, $1.36) goats, chickens, ducks, and donkeys for petting, but best of all:

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