Friday, February 27, 2009

A smile means friendship to everyone...

On a recent 4x4 trip into the desert we had one of the best experiences one could hope for in the Middle East.

OK, now I know you are thinking, whatever, no way. You've been to the 7 star hotel and on white sand beaches and run through Wadis and ridden camels and been surprised by the Tiffany Diamond within the last what, 5 blog posts? There's no way, right? Can't top those.

Maybe not. But if there was something we could say we'd hoped for when we came out here, well, this would be it.

First of all, we were out in the beautiful desert with friends. That alone qualifies as pretty darned good. We had a picnic out on the sand dunes and ate almost as much sand as food when the winds picked up. Mike drove one of Bird Car's tires right off it's rim (this made a particularly exciting popping sound) which was pushed back on by an Aussie friend with his bare hands and feet. He also taught us the value of carrying a piece of plywood when driving out through the sand...otherwise, there's nothing to brace a car jack upon, and it's rendered essentially useless. Ah, those resourceful Aussies...

But what was truly stand-out about this trip was that on the way out to the dunes we'd been spotted by some Emirati children who raced over the dunes to intercept us. Little boys, full of chatter and sweet smiles, offering us some freshly milked camel's milk (now, trust me, THAT was some good stuff. Camelicious! To heck with pasteurization.) They wanted to know, did we bring the Sheik with us (er, no) could they ride on the top of Bird Car (heck no!) they wouldn't fall off, they promised (still no) and would we come to visit their tent later?

Well, yes, on that last one. Apparently this was a large family get-together, siblings and cousins who had come out camping in Bedouin-style tents on family land where they keep the family herd of about 400 camels. They pointed the huge herd out to us; sure enough, coming slowly over a distant dune, camels. Lots and lots of camels.

Over other dunes we could see another group approaching us, these ones brightly dressed. They hesitated a ways away, and we realised these were the girls of the family. Bethy and I went down to invite them to join us, and the little girls and their Filipina nannies gleefully accepted.

I offered them a package of graham crackers as a thank you for the milk. I knew they hadn't had those before. I had to hunt those suckers down over many weeks of searching. In fact, Graham once said he'd never even heard of them before...imagine, a world without s'mores...eek.

We said good-bye to the kids after a bit, and the other 4x4s in our group headed out. Mike was a darling and drove our family over to the camel herd for a closer look. While I was bummed that neither the batteries in my camera, nor the extras I'd brought were apparently charged enough to take any photos, I can tell you...tall animals, lots of legs, and if you feed one, expect the rest of them to come check you out.

When an entire herd of camels comes looking for a handout they tend to block out the sun. Make sure you have an escape route, manned by a large vehicle to back you up; though this particular crowd was well-behaved, it's always wise to respect things bigger and faster than yourself and prepare accordingly. There were tons of babies, and the overwhelming smell of camel. A bit like a horse, but gamier.

We spent the day as described, driving around, and at the end all in our group agreed that visiting the childrens' camp was something we couldn't miss.

The kids were ecstatic to see us, and led us to an open tent with carpets laid down for sitting. The women of the household were quickly veiling up at our approach, (our guys hung politely back until the flurry was complete), one older woman wearing the burqua mask, the others in various stages of concealment and forward mannerisms. We sat upon the rugs, honored guests.

The oldest two boys, cousins perhaps ten years of age, shared responsibility for being the men of the household and rose to the occasion by, beneath the eye and subtle guidance of one of the ladies, serving us coffee and dates and fruit.

I complimented the most outgoing of the women there on the courtesy and hospitality of the boys, knowing how important that is to Arabs. "We raise our men the right way," she said, with a proud tilt to her chin and flashing eyes. Then she smiled. I had hit the right chord.

One of the other guys in our group leaned over and said to me, "If only my redneck Dad could see me now, what would he think? This is amazing."

The other kids, including Bethy, were running around in their bare feet in the camel yard (good thing camel poo consists of marble-sized dry hard pellets) having a fantastic time. Thomas kept edging further and further away from the guest tent to go join the fun. I excused myself and carried Thomas out to the pens and corrals.

There all the kids were clambering over mostly patient heavily pregnant camels. Climbing on and off, patting. Each camel had a name, and the kids were pleased to perform introductions, telling us which were the "good" and which the "naughty" ones.

Camels, I found out later, are pregnant for some 13 months, yet most of these fine ladies were patient and kind beneath the onslaught of all those little kids, even the rotten little boy who kept whacking the mothers-to-be with a stick and yelling at them in Arabic. This distressed the Filipina nannys who told him repeatedly and exasperatedly not to, with no discernable effect on his behavior.

The camels, the kids told us, are brought in off the desert to give birth. Over in another pen was the "Grandfather" camel, a huge dark male for whom the childen obviously held much reverence. Two of the little girls came over and, taking my hand, "Come see! Come see!" pulled us over to an enclosure separate from the rest of the pens. Inside was a mother camel standing over her newborn baby, just minutes old, all wet and curly.

She exorted her baby to stand with gutteral but somehow gentle mother camel grunts. The poor little creature's spindly legs were all tangled and hardly seemed up to the task that seems awkward for even the practiced adults.

The mama camel laid down carefully on the ground next to her baby and nuzzled and cuddled as any mother might. As I stood there with my children, and the emirati children, I couldn't believe that we were really there, watching this small miracle in the desert.

It was then that Bethy pulled on my shirttails. "Moohm," she whined, "when are we going home?"

"Oh, are you tired, sweetie?" I said sympathetically, still in the glow of the beautiful parenting skills being played out in front of us.

"No," she replied, "I want to go because I haven't gotten to watch TV all day."


I made some sort of comment about throwing the television set in the garbage can when we got home...

When we left, the oldest woman there, the one wearing a burqua mask, said simply, but in a way befitting royalty. "You are welcome here any time."

They gave us a huge container of milk, and another huge package containing dates.

In Bedouin culture, to dine with then in their home means that not only are you accepting their hospitality, but as their guest you are under their protection for three days by that family, no matter how far away you travel. It's an awesome thought.

Shukran we said, and went home to not watch television.

Thomas' hair smelled of camel.

That day was truly a gift.

Special thanks to Shuko for remembering her camera batteries and for the photos used in this post.


Aaron said...

Sounds like a really special experience. Thanks for sharing it!

Natalie said...

Ooh! Ooh! Aaron, above, is a FAMOUS blogger. He is the author of read worldwide by LOTS of people, including myself before we came out here. Not to mention an all-around great guy, which you'll get from reading his blog. Feeling pretty special here...