Subtitled: "Abbi and Ilana take on the desert".
The excursion I most looked forward to during my time in Dubai was a desert safari I booked in advance. It would provide an opportunity to interact with the natural environment of the region as well as give me a break from the frustration of trying to get around the city. This was only my third day in, but Dubai's lack of being pedestrian friendly made me regret booking a two-week stay. It increasingly seemed a great place for a short layover while enroute somewhere else, rather than a destination in its own right.
My friend and I were picked up at our hotel by a portly fellow from south India. In his van were several other tourists from the Netherlands and eastern Europe. I got comfortable in the front passenger seat.
"You will all enjoy your day." the driver proclaimed as he turned onto the freeway. "There will be dune-bashing, camels – lots of camels – shisha, mehndi, bellydancing ... and the most delicious feast you will ever experience. Lots of food. So much food! You will come in looking flat like her and leave looking like me."
He gestured in my direction. I wasn't sure if I should be insulted or not. The adjective he used, after all, was "flat" and not "thin". And his bosom did, upon closer inspection, appear bigger than mine. After turning his attention to my friend, and repeatedly commenting on her "strong" nose (which is near perfect), I decided that there was definitely something lost in translation.
After about an hour's drive, we took a sharp left into the sands of the desert. There was no road marker – heck, there was no road. We just started driving in the sand until we met up with an all-black SUV that appeared to be waiting for us.
"This is a very special day." our driver stated before explaining that the SUV in question belonged to a member of the royal family of Sharjah. As if on cue, they – a "Sheikh" and two women that I presumed were his wives – exited the vehicle and proceeded to take selfies of each other, smiling and laughing as though we were on Hollywood Blvd and not literally the middle of a fuckin' desert.
It was one of the most ridiculous things I have ever seen in my life.
Granted, there is a possibility that they were of wealth and power. Perhaps in the U.A.E., second cousins twice-removed are still in line for the throne. However, I couldn't get past my belief that anyone of any social standing in this country would want to spend an evening with a bunch of tourists more excited to visit a camel farm.
The rest of the day's events went as follows:
DUNEBASHING: This was actually more intense than I anticipated. It's basically 45-minutes of feeling like you are going to die in a rollover incident. Not for the faint of heart.
My friend is faint of heart.
While dunebashing, we came across some free-range camels wandering about and whatnot.
CAMEL FARM: We visited a camel farm where the animal is bred exclusively for racing, a major sport in the U.A.E.. There were hundreds of the animals on-site, with a few more docile in nature used to give rides to tourists (the dismount of which scared me more than the dunebashing, tbh).
Near the camel farm was our camp, where we could relax for a few hours and learn about traditional Bedouin culture. This included a falconry display, mehndi and smoking shisha, a glass-bottomed waterpipe in which flavoured tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal. Some reports compare it to smoking the equivalent of 200 cigarettes at once. I didn't feel anything, although, at this point of the day my friend and I were feeling naturally giddy.
The evening was capped with, as our driver promised, a very delicious feast under the stars.
I'm still "flat" though.
On the drive back to Dubai, I again sat in the passenger seat and conversed with our driver as everyone else nodded off in the back. After small talk about the day's events, we discussed our personal lives. I told him about my (now extended) year of adventure and how I was traveling the world in honour of my late father. He told me about losing his home and several family members in the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2005, later moving to Dubai to earn enough income to send home and rebuild. As the conversation got heavy, he switched the topic to marriage, inquiring why my boyfriend hasn't proposed.
"Because I'm a loser." I replied.
The night was dark. Just absolute pitch-black over an expanse of seeming emptiness. And yet, at the side of the road, at this late hour, were groups of Emiratis who had parked their vehicles and started fires a few yards in from the highway. I asked the driver why they did this.
"This is how they get away from it all." he replied.