Saturday, February 21, 2009

My hump, my hump, my lovely...

There was one last thing that Pat and Colleen wanted to do while they were here in the Middle East. It's the same thing that we have been wanting to do since we got here. Can you guess what that might be?

Riding a camel. We all really wanted to ride a camel.

I knew that there were a pair of camels at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) and I had my friend up in one of the high-rise residences keeping a watchful eye on the beach, ready to call us as soon as the camels showed up. As the days of Pat and Colleen's visit dwindled down to the last day we tried to say oh well, it didn't matter, maybe next time, but I don't think we were fooling anyone.

Mike has a good friend at work, Fred, (short for Fereidoon) who had invited us to his highrise apartment overlooking the beach for an authentic home-cooked Persian meal. Fred is a hilarious man of small stature and great intellect, and as the resident Iranian is known playfully as "The Axis of Evil". He made a delicious meal, including some amazing onion-y garlic-y dark eggplant in a smooth sauce that converted Mike to an eggplant lover at first bite.

After lunch, while we were chatting and hoping the kids wouldn't destroy his house, the rallying cry went out. "Camels on the beach! Camels on the beach!" Fred was a congenial host and escorted us gamely down to where the dromedaries had been spotted. As we walked the sands we couldn't see any sign of the animals, and I wondered if, indeed, we'd missed them again. We'd tried so many times to take Pat and Colleen to places that were closed, missed the camels while we were elsewhere, but this time everything came together and soon negotiations were being performed to get a ride for our guests.

The camel, dressed for the occasion in brightly colored camel rug and tassels, laid down on the sand for Colleen and Pat to climb on. The seats were well-padded with rings to hold on to. A few taps with a stick and encouraging words, and the camel lurched to its feet. Colleen and Pat set off on their slow-seeming swaying transport down the beach toward the Burj al Arab, led by the Arab on the other camel, perched traditionally behind the hump in his bare feet. I chased them with the camera for a bit, but was soon outdistanced by the camels' long strides.

We were all grinning ear to ear when the camels came back. Colleen was so excited after the camel luched and thumped and was finally back down to the sands to let them off. She had wanted to give us something nice as a thank-you present and she'd found a perfect fit.

We convinced the camel driver that the four of us weren't so heavy that we'd cripple his camel, using the cuteness of the children shamelessly, backing it up with dirhams. (I am very glad we couldn't read the driver's private thoughts at this point.) Bethy sat in front with me, Thomas sandwiched in the middle and Mike doing his best to contain him from the back.

Our guide instructed our camel to stand. Now, camels, once up, and camels reclining, are dignified graceful creatures. The process between, however, is a real shenanigans. To stand up the camel first pushes straight her back legs, causing her riders to pitch sharply forward, then heaves their front legs off their knees onto their feet, pitching back to level. The angle, staring down onto the camel's neck during that inital lurch is slightly alarming, but being who we are, well, you never heard such giggling in your life.

Two-thirds of the way up...

Once our camel was up, the guide mounted his camel with ease, and after a couple of fortunately untranslatable grunts from our camel, we set off down the beach. The noise a camel makes is not attractive. They could do a duet with a walrus. We were deeply in love with our camel though, especially her gorgeous dark fuzzy round ears. Their ears are incredibly fuzzy, just as their lashes are very long, to help keep sand out.

Camels are, in fact, about as perfect of a desert animal as they can be. Their humps store all their fat (not water), so that the rest of their bodies aren't insulated by a layer of fat and stay cooler. In fact, during the hot summertime camels huddle together to stay cool, as their body temperatures are lower than the environment. Their toes are spread out and act as a snoeshoe to keep them from sinking into the sand. This also makes them extrememely quiet as they walk, as I can testify to, having been sneaked up upon. Nothing like feeling a presence behind you, tuning, and seeing an extremely large animal towering (albeit politely) above.

As I understand it, all racing camels are female; fortunately our camel was placid and kind to her novice riders and behaved admirably. I had heard rumors of camel handlers in Egypt who would sell you a ride for $10 and then charge you $20 more to help you get off the camel! I had thought at the time, whatever, I'd just jump off. Now atop the camel, I had to reconsider that one. It's a long way down! Thomas kept trying out the "look! no hands!" routine but Mike had a good grip on him and he stayed aloft.

A blissful swaying ride over the white sands, weaving our way around the sunbathers snoozing on their towels (did they wonder what had blocked their sun for a moment?) and other beachgoers, all grinning at us as we plodded by.

Camelcam perspective
(are those not the best ears ever?)

The handler lept from the back of his camel and we went through the reverse rock-and-roll routine of getting the camel down on the sand, dismounted, posed for photographs and thanked our ship of the desert for being so lovely.

Thomas actually kissed our camel good-bye.

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