Sunday, April 20, 2008

The First Abu Dhabi Good-Bye

Last Thursday afternoon, in equal parts disbelief and denial, I sat in a metal chair beside the nurse's desk at Khalifa Urgent Care Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

"What brings you here?" an unsmiling nurse asked me.

"I was riding. I fell off a horse," I said, showing her the swollen middle finger on my left hand.

"Your first time?" she asked.

I began to feel as if I were in the confessional.

"No, I've ridden for a while," I said. "I broke my right arm in February - also falling off a horse."

"Not a very good rider," she said.

"You could say that," I said, nodding my head. I'd earned that one: my left middle finger turned out to be broken.

I had broken my right arm two months ago, in February. When I got the cast off after six long weeks, I told myself I wouldn't ride again. The healing process had been more difficult than I'd anticipated.

But over subsequent days, even as I decided to quit riding forever, the demands on my time/energy were mounting. Our eldest needed advice on which college he should attend. The mail needed sorting, the house needed de-cluttering, and the younger boys needed to organize play-dates. The height of the laundry began to rival the Hajar Mountains.

My inner self yearned for something just for me.

I got the okay from my doctor for riding, and I set up a private lesson. Sitting on the slowest horse in the stables, I was exuberant to be back in the saddle.

"I haven't that much fun in a long time," I told M that evening, smiling for the first time in weeks.

Last Thursday, my horse made an abrupt stop while cantering. I went over his head and onto the ground. I didn't do anything wrong, my teacher said. But accidents happen. My finger was killing me. I didn't yet know it was broken, but I knew I had to quit this sport.

I looked at my riding instructor. I felt very sad as I began my first Abu Dhabi good-bye.

I wished this gentle man much happiness and success in life, with his job, with his wife and his new baby. He wasn't a personal friend, but I liked him very much. His workday began at 6 a.m. every day except Friday. He grew up in Morocco, where his father had been a showjumping trainer. He was endlessly patient and an excellent rider himself. He spoke Arabic, French and English - sometimes all three in one lesson.

Over the time I knew him, I'd enjoyed hearing about his baby: it was the one area where I felt I could return the favor and offer him advice. I was leaving Abu Dhabi this summer. I knew I'd never see him again.

I mumbled good-bye and left, saving my tears for the car ride home.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


On Friday morning, M, the kids, and I set out on a roughly four-hour drive to the northern emirate of Fujairah. Travelling north from Abu Dhabi through Dubai and into Sharjah, we then headed east, crossing the UAE to this mountainous and quieter emirate on the Gulf of Oman.

On the well-built highway (above), the Hajar Mountains in the distance reminded me of mountains of instant coffee because of their color and rocky surface. The mountain peaks stand layered, in rows, like bowling pins, becoming lighter in color the farther away they are.

Sitting in the front passenger seat beside M, with six kids behind us and mountains on every side, I realized I was becoming slightly claustrophobic. But just as nausea was about to set in, the sea was before us. All was right with the world: we arrived at the peaceful, deep blue sea and coastline of Fujairah.

It turned out to be a terrific overnight getaway - a great change from our city life in Abu Dhabi.

We enjoyed swimming in the Gulf of Oman. The beach was clean and uncrowded. In the picture above, the island on the left is known as "Snoopy Island" because of its resemblance to the profile of that famous Peanuts dog when he's lying down.

The hotel we stayed at was very beautiful and quite luxurious. We splurged this night because we haven't taken a family trip in a very long time. I particularly liked the Moroccan-style lounge (above).Posted by Picasa

Fujairah Part II

On the way home, still in Fujairah, we passed Al Bidya Mosque, a very small and beautifully-built mosque that dates back over 400 years. Beyond it, in the background, is one of two old towers that provide breath-taking views of Fujairah.

This north-eastern emirate receives more rainfall than the other emirates of the UAE, and thus has the opportunity for a bit of farming and greenery.

Above are two of my sons resting on a stone wall on the grounds above the Al Bidya Mosque. In the background are the magnificent mountains of Fujairah.

Passing through Sharjah, we couldn't resist the opportunity to check out the Blue Souq. Above is one of the colorful shops there.

In addition to many shops selling pashminas and souvenirs, there are many carpet shops in the Blue Souq. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Arriving at Camel Festival 2008

Yesterday M, the kids, and I went to the UAE Camel Festival in Madinat Zayed near Liwa, about two hours southwest of metropolitan Abu Dhabi. I absolutely loved the entire day, including the drive, because we saw what I've been longing to see more of: the desert. (More on the desert two posts down from this one.)

As we got further into the remote western region of Abu Dhabi, there were fewer and fewer signs in English. Once at the festival, I asked a police officer for information about the contest and he replied in French.

Above is the side road to the festival, wherein thousands of camels from the Arabian Gulf are competing for significant prizes of cash and cars, etc.

Everyone but us seemed to have a Land Cruiser and everyone but us seemed in need of getting somewhere in record time. Above is a fair display of the driving mentality on this road: if someone isn't going fast enough you go around him - a philosophy almost every driver seemed to be employing at the same time!

Good thing M was driving, as I tend to get excited when all the cars around me are about to plow into my car.

The above picture was typical of what we saw out our car windows before we parked: camels coming and going from the competition arena. If you click on the picture above you will see that despite the heat and the strong sun, the man leading these camels is smiling, his white teeth bright against his tanned skin.

Camel owners say each camel has his own look, his own face, like people. Most owners also seem to have great love for their camels, whose incredible hardiness and wide feet have taken many people across the desert before cars were available. I enjoyed watching the animals and their owners together.

Spread over the vast open land on either side of the makeshift road, as far as the eye could see, there were groups of camels and bedouin-style tents set up for their owners for this nine-day Camel Festival.

It was a feast for the eyes. Many camels were decked out in specially-made, sparkly bands around their humps and backs; some groups of camels wore their country's flag on their backs; many had thick hair on their humps but were otherwise shaved. Some were dark, like those above, and others were sand-colored. Posted by Picasa

Lunch Gulf Style

By the time we arrived at the Camel Festival Saturday at 12:30 p.m., the morning contests had ended. Most traditional activities in the Gulf follow this schedule: they begin early and close for the hottest part of the day - between 1 and 4 p.m. - and resume when the weather cools and people come out for the evening.

We toured the souq (above), a series of tents selling coffee pots, incense, etc., set up for the weeklong Camel Festival.

As we passed the tent above, the ladies inside said hello in Arabic and invited us in to their tent, even M and our boys. Though we'd only been outside a few minutes, the shade of the tent was a welcome respite from the hot sun.

The ladies inside - four sisters and their aunt who I believe were from Qatar -served us Arabic coffee, which is lighter than American coffee and has cardomom, saffron and cloves in it. Next we were given water and then a hot, sweet drink that looked like tea. Soon a man pulled up in a truck and gave the ladies two covered platters of cooked poultry on big beds of rice.

"Come," one of the ladies said, gesturing at the platters. She began pulling the meat off the bones of what I believe was goat and leaving it on the rice for us. She and her sisters began to eat. When I reached for some food with my left hand, she stopped me and pointed at my right hand. I regretted that I'd forgotten that many Arabs consider the left hand unclean and only use their right hand for eating.

Though I felt awkward eating with only my weak right hand, even spilling some of the rice on my lap, I noticed our hostesses never dropped a bit of food on their clothes. They were completely covered but for their hands and their striking brown eyes. They lifted their veils just enough to bring the meat and balls of rice they'd formed with their hands to their mouths.

Again I was impressed by the hospitality and graciousness of these Gulf ladies. Posted by Picasa

The Desert, Liwa

After our visit with the ladies from Qatar at the Camel Festival souq, we took a drive into the desert. This was the high point of the day for me. I find the vast, wide open land, and the shades of sand, which go from beige to burnt orange to deep tan in gradually higher waves against a cloudless blue sky, reassuring. Like the ocean and the mountains, the natural beauty of the desert has a calming effect on me. If left to my own devices, I could stare at this scenery for a very long time.

For miles, there was nothing but a very well-built road, the desert, and us.

I'm a bit weather-worn here, (sacrificing my vanity yet again for this blog!), but I included this photo because I wanted to show how huge the sand drifts were in comparison to a person.

I love the idea that by tomorrow, there will be a whole new pattern of sand waves out here, depending on which way the winds blow.

Like so many pictures on my blog, it helps to click on the photo to see it in a larger size in order to get an idea of the vastness of this space. Posted by Picasa

Camel Beauty Contest

Upon our return to Madinat Zayed and the Camel Festival, we entered the viewing area to see that it was already crowded - and men only. We sat in the next viewing area that was less crowded.

Above is the area where the camels were being judged. Yet again, I wish I spoke Arabic as the entire event was in that language. We could only guess what was being said and why the men in the audience clapped at certain points.

From the initial group of about 25 camels, about 15 were eliminated. The remaining 10 or so were brought closer to the viewing stand. At this point everyone came to the fence for a better look at the finalists. According to the newspapers the camels were classified by age and gender and type; they were then judged on the beauty of their face, the length of their necks, their muscle tone, and the silkiness of their hair.

Each camel had an Arabic number written on the side of its neck. In this contest, I liked number 6 the best; he or she had a particularly pretty face and fine proportions, in my unprofessional opinion. Unfortunately she was sent out before the final round.

When the winner was announced the viewers cheered and clapped most enthusiastically.

On our way out of the festival, we spotted this camel being hoisted into a farm truck. Posted by Picasa