Abu Dhabi: it’s real, and it’s spectacular (Pt. 2)

while there were so many memorable moments on this trip, our venture out to the desert was by far my favorite part of our time in the UAE.

dad decided to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV for the excursion, and at first I thought this was a little overkill, but soon after we pulled off the main highway, I realized how wrong I was. we were embarking on an hour and a half drive straight into the desert on roads made completely of sand, carved out of the dunes surrounding us. it was sunny and warm as we drove along, windows down, taking it all in. and then, there they were – THE CAMELS. the enormous creatures dotted the dunes in packs and looked on, curious, as we drove by. I had been waiting the whole trip to see these animals, and it was love at first sight. they were just so damn CUTE! I should mention that this was actually my second time being in the physical presence of camels. years before, when I first moved to Nashville, I had gone to the annual Tennessee Renaissance Fair, and the only thing I cared to do there was ride a camel (still not sure what camels have to do with a renaissance fair, but I wasn’t complaining). the ride was not exactly ideal, though, because I had been forced to share the hump-seat with a stranger, a sourpuss who I very distinctly remember, because she did not enjoy the ride nearly as much as I did. I made the best of that brief ride around the pen, and ever since, have craved a better camel experience. I even have photographic evidence of both this momentous ride and miss sourpuss herself, but my wide smile says it all:

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another thing that struck me as we started getting further and further outside of the city was how poverty-stricken these desolate desert areas were. it illustrated how huge the disparity is between the wealthiest and poorest of the country. there were run-down shacks and decrepit trailers, stray trash blown into piles by the whipping wind, and small camel farms scattered sparingly across the dunes – reminiscent of a time long before the modern country as we know it. the opulence of cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai was a stark contrast to the derelict countryside. despite this, I much preferred being in the desert. it was vast and never-ending – just sand as far as the eye could see, all the way to the horizon. it felt like we had left one world for another; the shiny features of the city’s many buildings and skyscrapers, complexly-designed to defy architectural principles and plain physics, were in total opposition to the almost water-like fluidity and simplicity of the rolling sand dunes. the landscape looked like white-colored waves with shadowy hollows molded by the wind.

we continued our dusty drive into the desert, and it wasn’t long before we were making pit stops every few feet to say hello to the camels who had wandered to the roadside. we spotted one particular camel, lounging on the ground by herself, and stopped to get out and investigate. she was calm and unfazed by our presence, just sitting on her haunches, taking a load off. we tried to feed her an apple, but she didn’t even feign interest in it. I didn’t dare get too close, but was in the middle of asking her why she didn’t want the apple when dad took this picture of us (can you even stand that little tuft of fur on her hump?!!?):

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when we finally arrived at the Arabian Nights Village, we checked in at the front desk, which was inside a castle-like building at the entrance to the property, where we were greeted with dates, fresh fruit, and a friendly staff. there was no WiFi, which I thought was a welcome change, and heightened the sense of remoteness. this was unlike any traditional resort I’ve ever been to, and was quaint and lovely. it was our little desert oasis for the next 24 hours, and I couldn’t have been happier. plus, we pretty much had the place to ourselves, which made it even better. I couldn’t wait to see the rest of the resort, so while dad got our room key (which, by the way, was an actual key – not an electronic card), I walked out to the main part of the compound. there were little huts, shaded by palm trees, and stone pathways in the sand that looped around the estate. I found myself pondering the difficulty of building a resort quite literally in the middle of the desert. the whole place perfectly encapsulated all of my desert village dreams:

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the first thing on my agenda was to take the long-awaited camel redemption ride. I was so excited I could barely stand it, but we went first to drop our bags off at the double-room hut, where all five of us were staying together. the rooms were decorated with deep oranges and reds, dark wood, and bright whites – rustic desert chic, if you will. although I hadn’t really thought about what to expect, it was everything I could have wanted. there were more dates on a little silver platter covered with a matching lid, as well as a soda-stocked mini fridge, and big comfy cushions set up on the floor to sit and relax on. here was the main room:

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I was anxious to visit with the camels, so we didn’t dilly dally too long in the room. I had to wait a little longer, though, because another couple had gotten to the camels first. so instead, mom headed to the pool to enjoy the last few hours of sun, while dad, Seth, and Eli decided to try sand-boarding down the dunes. I wandered around for awhile and then returned to watch the boys mostly eating shit instead of successfully sand-boarding (although to be fair, we later learned that wax is a critical component for successfully sliding down the sand, so they were at a slight disadvantage).

I was giddy by the time we walked up to the seated beasts, ready to take our ride. mom and dad had stayed behind while Seth, Eli, and I walked up to where the two camels sat in the sand, adorned with cloth saddles and little snout-covers. Eli got his own camel, while Seth and I climbed up on the second as it was still seated – him on the back and me on the front, with the hump gently jutting up between us. our camel attendant warned us to hold on tight as the camel rose up to its feet, and I was wholly unprepared for the way we sharply lurched back and forth as the camel came to its full standing position. it was exhilarating, and I was in heaven as we slowly meandered into the dunes. even just a short distance away, I was shocked at how you could so easily get lost in this vast land of sand. the resort walls quickly disappeared behind the dunes as we continued our journey. out there in the desert, everything looked the same – no landmarks except for a few ghaf trees – and I was glad that our guide knew where we were going. the ghaf trees themselves are a miracle of nature, with root systems reaching as far into the sand as 90 feet to find water. our trek was not long, but was nothing short of epic. being on the backside of a camel was hands-down the best part of my trip, and here I am enjoying the ride:

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we got back and let mom and dad take a turn, laughing as we watched them pitch forward just like we had as the camels rose to their feet. after our camel rides, we went back to our little hut to drink some wine and wait for dinner. our whole trip up until that point had been go, go, go, and it was a nice change of pace to sit down together, with no phones to distract us, and just chill. dinner was a fucking buffet-style feast and we devoured plate upon plate of various fresh salads and grilled-to-order meats like chicken and lamb, and of course, creamy hummus with pita. we drank more wine, seated on the ground at these long tables with cushions under us, and enjoyed the live entertainment of an oud player and, later, a lone belly dancer. here’s the dinner area, with the buffet along the backside and the oud musician playing:

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after dinner, it was dark and quiet, but there were large spotlights along the perimeter of the property, near the giant dunes where the boys had been sand-boarding earlier, so we decided to take a hike up to star gaze. I swear it was like being in an episode of Planet Earth. in the absence of the sun, the dunes appeared to be this burnt-orange color, and the shadows against them were pitch black. walking up to the top of the tallest dune was no small feat in the sand, but looking out over the expanse of earth around us was worth the walk. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life, and we all sat around humbly in awe, staring up and around. Eli had carried one of the sand-boards up with us, and he and dad took cautious turns testing it out again. they decided to start using the board as a sand sled instead and that ended up working much better. mom insisted on taking a turn, and we watched her fly down the dune and disappear into the darkness below. the worrier in me was a little uneasy when the spotlights shut off for the night and we were left on top of this gigantic mound of sand, and I found myself slightly concerned about the fact that if any of us were injured or had an emergency, we were hours away from civilization. I didn’t let that fear ruin the once-in-a-lifetime experience I knew we were having, though.

the next morning we got up early to take a camel ride before breakfast, but this time we went all together. I felt like a pro at this point, and reveled in every moment of our trek, knowing we would soon be saying goodbye. the camel attendant was kind enough to capture this group photo:

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we were sad to leave the Arabian Nights Village, and took our time getting home. the drive back was much like the drive there, stopping to spend as much time as possible with our new camel friends before we were back to the bustling city. I truly felt like I was living my best life with those massive, docile, and curious animals. each one we’d encountered seemed to have their own little personality, some more bold than others. we even saw a brand-new baby camel, with its umbilical cord still on and flapping in the breeze as it followed closely behind its mama. they were honestly the cutest creatures, and now I want to live in the desert with them forever. pretty sure I found my new spirit animal:

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