Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I'll show you a place so high on the desert plain

The dunes of the Empty Quarter desert go on, seemingly forever. But not so for the boundaries of the United Arab Emirates. On JeepJeep's GPS, in the middle of nowhere, a thick dark line appeared, ahead of us on the road. Ah. The Saudi border. Not a line to cross.

We got closer and closer, passing a tiny ghost town on the right, bleached and lonely, being reclaimed by the sands. We got up to the sign below (repeated on the other side of the road in Arabic) and stopped.

Still a good margin of UAE land between us and the thick black line. I stuck my arm out to take a photo of the "no photography" sign, (Mike: they can see you! You're being totally obvious!") but that wasn't good enough and over Mike's feeble protests I hopped out. He knew he'd lost that battle before he began, settling for emphatically requesting a quick return to the car.

No-photography-for-no-good-reason signs make me crazy. I mean, look out there. Desert. That's it. No military compound, no vehicles, nada, nothing. At least, nothing that we could see.

You probably have decided by now that I have a problem with authority. Not so. I have a problem with stupid expressions of authority.

OK, so I have a problem with authority.

Anyway, the point is that we drove up kind of close to the border of Saudi Arabia, looked at it, snapped a couple of photos and got the heck outta there. I may have a problem with authority, but that doesn't mean that I want to poke too sharp of a stick at it. Within poking back range.

Even though there was little to be seen from our vantage point beyond the sand...and radio towers...and those foreboding signs, there were probably some high powered scopes pointed our direction as well. That qualifies as a get in and get out sort of situation.

Heading back the way we'd come, we briefly explored the ghost town, driving slowly past the shells of buildings which were just as empty and sad as we'd thought. Not much beyond a mosque and a missed photo opportunity to park the car at the deserted gas station, but the silence, the overwhelming silence, urged us on and away.

The desert demanded our respect, making it utterly and unmistakably clear that this was not a place that welcomed the living. Yet it was fascinating in its harshness, more than simply heat and sand. The fine sands, ranging in color from burnt orange to palest cream, were beautiful to observe. Here and there an expanse of whiteness bloomed, hard, crumbling fields of salt deposits.

close-up of the 'salts'

Mike and the kids wisely decided not to leave the safety and relative coolness of JeepJeep to explore the salt flats. Not worried by such obvious logic, I clambered out to see, making sure to make each and every member of my family understand how much I love them and that if they saw me disappear to either come rescue me or prepare to be haunted forever by my irritated ghost.

As it turned out, the flats were crunchy and hard, and hollow underneath in some spots, but not worryingly so. We know there is deadly quicksand somewhere in the area, but, apparently, not there.

I was not just exploring the flats for fun. There was also the slimmest chance that perhaps I might have found one of these:

Sometimes the minerals crystallize into a formation called a Desert Rose. Something kind of geeky to want to find, (and to voluntarily face those conditions) but hey, I embrace my inner geek. Not that I would have taken one with us had I found one. I believe they're protected by law. (The one above was in our hotel.)

After the border and the ghost town and the heat and the film melting scenario, we were ready for drinks. To say the least. Sadly for us grown-ups, we had to settle for toasting Mike's birthday with juice. The hotel had lost their liquor permit, we were told in hushed, confidential tones. Our guess is that they had served a Muslim alcohol, which is an illegal act in the Emirates.
Bummer for us, though.

So, we made due with their lovely pool, which felt almost magical after all that sand and heat.

Bethy demonstrating her flying carpet skills.

After having to forcibly extract the children from the pool, I made it clear that the thing to do in Liwa was to go out into the dunes and watch the sunset. The children made it clear that I was an idiot and they wanted nothing more to do with me. Luckily Mike was on my side and between the two of us we overpowered the kids and dragged them out into the dunes again.

A united front. (permit me a burst of evil laughter here...bru hah hah! Ha.)

You would think that finding dunes would be easy, and it should have been, but we needed to find dunes that were nearby and from which we could see the sunset. The sun was heading down and in the Middle East it never reaches the horizon, disappearing somewhere above it into the swirls of sand hanging in the air, and sucking all the light away with it, leaving the lands in darkness.

There is nothing that brings a family more joyfully together on vacation than to try to find someplace when you have no idea where you are going and a time limit.

So it was with glad hearts...OK, so not so much...that we parked JeepJeep and climbed out into the dunes. The allure of the desert quickly swept away any residual trace of crankiness.

Eventually shoes were shed -with the setting sun the sands were cooling, and felt wonderful between toes.

We found a good spot to settle down to watch the sunset, and to watch some Arab boys across the way driving their ATV up and down the steep dunes. The sand makes a low pitched thundering sound when a vehicle slides down it, a sort of sand avalanche, and we enjoyed watching these kids, the older of which was probably all of 10 years old, driving like total maniacs.

A Nissan Patrol like ours that had driven by earlier left the nearby road, swooped across the sands and humped over dunes straight to us. We grabbed up the kids to keep them out of the way, thinking this was just another 4x4er, when to our surprise the truck stopped, the door opened and out stepped a white robed, bearded Emirati, with little children piling out after him.

"Welcome! Welcome!" he boomed, his kids smiling with their beautiful white teeth and dark eyes. They carefully brought a heavy tray enrobed with a blue plastic shopping bag, and offered it to us. We accepted with our best expressions of gratitude and American enthusiasm.

They spoke little English, we even less Arabic, but we held a pseudo conversation with as many gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. The little girl accepted a buss on her cheek but the little boy refused a kiss, instead indicating that I should rub noses with him. That was a first. Absolutely charming.

We tried to explain that we were there to watch the sunset, the father tried to explain that the boys on the ATV were his sons, and after a while I think we figured it all out. With a nod and a wave the father wished us well and they all got back into the Patrol and drove away, leaving us to investigate the package.

It contained fresh yellow dates, at perfect picking stage, barely starting to brown at the edges. Tasty. Liwa is well known for their dates, and it was obvious that they had driven by, seen us, gone to get the dates, and made a special trip to come back and give them to us. We were really touched by a complete stranger and his family's spontaneous gesture of utter thoughtfulness and hospitality.

That's how it is in the desert.

Bethy investigating fresh dates on a tree by the pool.


Anonymous said...

Only YOU could be out in total isolation and have a local drive up and offer a gift and drive off! How awesome could it be!

Mumsey said...

If only the rest of the world would embrace kindness, acceptance and hospitality to strangers as that man did.

*Paula* said...

Fabulous! Loving the photos and that story! Oh and I eagerly await your questions about Ireland!

Joanna said...

What a nice way to wrap up your stay in Dubai!

dorothy said...

I love it! It is a little creepy how much that last photo of your sweeties profile reminded me of your little sister. When do you return?

Haddock said...

Some of the natural formations of nature is great.
Like that pic of taking a jump into the pool.

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