Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed...

Mike and I escaped for the weekend. Oh, it was so nice. No kids. No housework. No computer. Nothing but being utterly lazy together. At a 5 star hotel out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but pale desert stretching away into the distance.

To justify this, we have our 10th wedding anniversary. Ten years, plus three years of being engaged, some dating and a good year before that of just being friends. That means we've known each other since both of us were in our twenties.


(Yes, I know you long-married couples are laughing in your hands at this, but you know, I can barely even remember what it was like Before Mike. Hmm, that abbreviation is kind of distasteful. Perhaps we should move on.)

Thanks to the utter generousity of some friends of ours, (bless you! bless you!) suddenly we were child- and carefree and headed out to the resort Bab al Shams.

Bab al Shams is in the 1001 Escapes to Make Before You Die book, and for good reason. It is gorgeous and perfectly relaxing. Far away from the city, down a long winding drive that snakes and curves for no reason beyond aethetics, (when I say this place is in the middle of nowhere, truly that's it. There's nothing but scrub and sand,) the Arabic styled hotel welcomes you with the heavy scent of incense after you turn your car over to the dutiful valets. Every inch of the hotel is beautifully thought out, with careful attention to detail to create a rich, thickly Arabic, utterly romantic atmosphere.

We were escorted through the grounds to our room where a box of chocolates, another box of dates, red roses, a lovely bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (which I had asked them to substitute for Champagne) and ooh, what a sumptous room of charmingly rough, creamy stone walls waited for us, and a spicy scent I couldn't identify. Elegant yet exotically rustic, with stone niches and nooks, artistic lighting to show off the traditional Arabic craftworks housed within, and our very own corner courtyard with table and chairs where scarlet geraniums bloomed beneath palm trees full of birds singing up a storm. Beyond, soft desert sands.

Not only were there red rose petals leading up to and strewn in the bathtub, along with candles and bath salts (holy cow, they were serious!)

but there were even, as Mike discovered with a guffaw, rose petals floating in the toilet.

He called me in to see them, and then we stood there looking down, considering what the correct and courteous thing to do could possibly be when confronted with such a thing.

After making sure to properly appreciate some of the wine and chocolates, we wandered around outside through the courtyards and tree shaded grounds. I took lots of photographs, loving the architecture, exploring, warm sun on our backs...

Not bad. Not bad at all.

I also paparazzi-stalked some "complimentary ride" camels with my two cameras. This being a special occasion after all, I brought out my old, heavy, and much loved manual SLR that uses, dare I say it, real film. (see previous post, "Songs of long ago..." for the photos. I'm super proud of them.)

Aside: when I dropped the film off for processing at my usually 10 minute digital print place they conferred amongst themselves, gave me horse eye and said it would be a special send out job. The final price reflected this.

Mike and I wandered the dunes a bit, and over to a falcon demonstration where the Emirati handler was training his bird to swoop mightily after a rabbit fur being swung on a line. Good stuff.

The infinity pool was lovely, the staff smiling and numerous, all greeting us as we passed, seven restaurants, yes, I suppose we could get used to this.

Doing our best, we relaxed, found a place to enjoy a quiet drink while watching the sun go down and the night swiftly move in. There is no dusk in the desert.

Middle Eastern woman smoking shisha

We had reservations for 7:30 at the famed open air Al Hadheerah restaurant, which was a pleasant walk along a torch-lined path through the desert from Bab al Shams to a fortlike walled area where a mass of people were queing up to get in. The unmistakable smells of meat grilling, the sounds of drums and Arab violin embraced us as we entered.

Reading online reviews ahead of time, it seemed that Al Hadheerah was either going to be lovely or something to endure.

I would have to say, it was both. The food was overwhelming. There was so much of it.

They began by bringing us salads and hummus and tabboulah and fattoush and flatbreads, and other things I am sure I've forgotten, loading up the table mercilessly.

Then we were to go to the mind-boggling number of cooking stations where meats were rotating, grilling, seafood was spilling out everywhere, sweets and fruits and olives and cheeses, all Arabic cuisine represented with a vengance.

And, this being attached to a hotel, (the deciding factor in the UAE as to whether alcohol may be served,) you could acquire cocktails. Nice.

A chef custom-prepared lamb chops and and some particularly sexy cuts of beef for me, (yes, that is plural, deal with it,) and I put them shamelessly on my plate next to thick onion slices soaked in vinegar oil and herbs, a smallish piece of some sort of dense chocolate cake and a bowl of Umm Ali, which is an Egyptian bread pudding made from puff pastry with pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, and pastry cream, served warm and, yes, I am drooling on the keyboard again.

What I really liked about Al Hadheerah was that I could wander around and look at all the different and, to me, exotic types of foods which were clearly labelled with name and main ingredients. It was, begging your forgiveness for using the expression, total foodie porn.

The Arabic band played on keyboard, drums and violin relentlessly, and then the first act began, a Tanoura dancer. Now, this was a guy whose first apprearance made me go "this must be some sort of clown act" and Mike to exclaim "I thought Arabs didn't go for cross dressing."

Tanoura turns out to be an Egyptian folk dance held in high regard. Eventually we figured it must be something like that. This dancer performed in what we found a strange outfit of peach pantaloons, and brightly colored dress, over which was a giant double hoopskirt sort of thing in four layers of rainbow fabric.

He spun and spun and smiled and smiled, moving the double skirts up and down in a dizzying succession of moves which apparently have deep religious significance, claiming to evoke such things as the seasons and the movement of pilgrims around the Kabba shrine in Mecca. It was very whirling dervish.

I confess: we didn't really get it.

Eventually he moved down into the audience (and I kept waiting for someone to get an eye put out by those skirts) and at each group he would stop and pose for photographs, spinning one of the skirts over his head, whipping it around. Flashes would flash, the nice photographers would slap down claim tickets for the audience members to go purchase souvenir photos later...and the band played frenetically on.

There were several dancing acts, each one following the same pattern; dance, then come down for photos with an audience who who seemed super into the idea.

Mike and I are apparently jaundiced, crabby sorts because this got really old after a few hours of it. Even with drinks.

We also felt terribly guilty about the amount of waste that was happening, just at our little table. The ton of salads and starters had gotten whisked away, though we might have continued to pick at them, (overwhelming your guest is a hallmark of Arab hospitalty, and the clearing away was something we were sure most guests expected,)and the plates of cut fruit brought later disappeared too. Had we not eaten for the previous three days we might have done justice to the offerings, but as it was, we couldn't.

We decided that there must be a happy flock of goats, probably camels too, and possibly several otherwise starving small countries somewhere that dined well off all that stuff, considering the sheer amount of food and number of tables.

At one point the lights were dimmed, the music swelled and in the desert above and beyond us a camel caravan, led by a hunched figure in headdress and white robes made its lumbering way across the sands.

I am a total sucker for this sort of thing, no matter how cheesy it is.

Then horses and their riders raced across, rearing, sand flying from the hooves, then engaging in a sword battle, torches blazing. When peace was restored the horsemen stood guard and the camel caravan came through once more, followed by a herd of goats driven by a young man. The horseriders stood up on the back of of their mounts to the cheers of the crowd and I felt tears pricking my eyes.

I blame the drinks.

After the belly dancer (and many audience members trying to belly dance too, with one misguided fellow trying to tuck some money into her costume. She removed it and carried the offending bill as though it was a dead fish) and then another dancing group, both of whom followed the now well-established pattern of making sure there were lots of photo ops, we we more than done, and meandered back to the hotel.

We'd been looking forward to getting away from the lights and looking up at the stars of the desert in a most romantic fashion but were thwarted by an utterly unromantic security guard who pursued us out into the sands and insisted in was dangerous: scorpions and poisonous snakes and the like.


I did get my romantic candlelit rose petal bath, luxurious, and we slept soundly that night, actually sleeping in and finally waking hungry the next morning to a breakfast that included such things as warm croissants with date butter and a latte with thick, gorgeous foam. Mike pointed out the fresh honey dripping from its comb into a special bowl among the jellies.

I helped myself to bittersweet marmalade, a forbidden food in our house. Mike has deemed it evil, due to its penchant to get positively everywhere, how exactly, no one knows.

I had to go wash my hands later, and my utensils and coffee cup handle were sticky as all get out, so it is still sadly banned from our residence.

We checked out and treated ourselves to a lazy drive out through the desert, past camels and long lines of trucks, expanses of emptiness, exploring a litttle before finally returning to real life.

Here's to the next ten years.


Joanna said...

Wow, was it really 10 years ago? Congrats to you and Mike on an excellent achievement and a fabulous way to celebrate!!

Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

When you were married 10 years ago, would you have believed your 10th anniversary picture would be on a camel????

You two are such brave adventurers!

Nathalie said...

I think I just put on 3 lbs just reading your post! Happy anniversary to you and our dear hubby! :D

Anonymous said...

That answers my question from your last post. I HAVE to go there. Writing it in my "to do someday" book.

Mumsey said...

Sounds a lot better than our Ruby anniversary-long story short, great evnening, complete with ruby colored dress, ruby cufflinks, ruby necklace and ending up being towed home at 11 p.m. by, of course, Ruby's Towing.

*Paula* said...

Happy anniversary! Matt and I are still working on getting to 10 years ;) I think I'll bookmark this page for reference on what to do on our 10th!!!

Will & Cheyenne said...

Congrats! What a beautiful place! Love your blog!!

jackie said...

I just stumbled on your blog yesterday and between last night and most of this morning I read from the bottom up - I couldn't stop! There is a book in you, there is a GREAT book in you. Delightful reading. I've been in Saudi the last 1.5 years(transplanted from New England) and when we travel we have largely ignored further exploring the Middle East - with the necessary exception of weekend trips to Bahrain for um, pork and wine ;). You have me questioning the wisdom of this. Can't wait until your next missive.

AKBrady said...

Yay! Anniversaries like that are meant to be cherished. Best to you both...

Natalie said...

I'm tickled pink and blushing from the compliments. Thank you so much everyone! (and no, I had NO idea our photo would be on camel, but I think I would have been pretty excited with the notion, even if I hadn't bought it.)

Jolie-Anne said...

Happy 10 year anniversary! Looks wonderful.

Abid said...

Happy anniversary! Congrats on the 10 years