Monday, January 26, 2015

Dune Bashing and a Camel Ride

The day started with a pick up from the hotel. My driver/tour guide was the coolest person I've met on this trip so far. He made me wait for him to finish his cigarette before we started which I thought was amusing. He wore a trucker hat with Arabic writing on it and designer aviators. My unmarried status has drawn some criticism from more than one taxi driver/unwanted advice giver, but my main man Abbas ended that conversation with: "bachelor life, cool". The heart with an arrow shot through it etched on the back of his hand seemed fitting.

The future site of Universal Studios Dubai.

I told him my sob story about how I was unjustly robbed of my camel race by the death of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Well he had a pretty good consolation prize for me: when we passed by the camel race track on the way out of town he would stop so we could check it out. I was the only person in this tour group and so I now had dictatorial powers. I shall rule this tour group benevolently.

I'm pretty sure this is Sheikh Mohammed, pretty much the king of Dubai.

And this is his son apparently.

The race track was way more exciting than anticipated. There were trainers there practicing with their camels!

We stopped and had a sandwich.

I saw this camel just walking along the road by itself and I asked if it was wild. Abbas looked at me like I'd just called him Susan. "Of course not! Camels are very expensive!" Sounds like somebody never got that camel they asked their daddy for.

We passed lots of camel farms along the way.

We continued along the desolate road until we came to a rest stop area with a few shops. He had someone put air in our tires while I entered one of the shops to poke around a bit. I got about 3 steps in before some guy tried the "shove a scarf on your head" routine again and that was the end of that. I waited in the car.

Once on the dunes, this guy was not messing around. He was taking the term "dune bashing" very seriously. Sand was spraying all over the windows like a car wash and I felt like we were going to tip over a couple times. It was awesome.

I felt a little silly for noticing but I couldn't stop talking about the sand. This wasn't just a bunch of yellow blobs like I'd expected. It was a pretty complicated palate. I'm going to use fancy color words like peach and cinnamon.

Abbas was generous with picture taking to an amusing degree. He had turned from badass to artist: "now I want you to turn to your side and jump with your legs bent so it looks like you're running". At one point we saw another group of tourists and I commented that they were doing the same jumping shots. "They aren't bending their legs right", the tortured perfectionist replied.

Don't I look like a desert angel?

I tried some sandboarding.

I was barefoot, and so sandboarding turned out to be a great way to get a lot of sand in my underwear in a really short amount of time.


"Dune bashing is finished sir. Did you enjoy the ride?"

Next we continued on to a place that rented dune buggies and other stuff like that. I was here for the camels. I'm not super familiar with camels apart from their delicious meaty flavor, so it was really cool to see them. The way they move is especially interesting.

I hopped on and we took a little stroll. When a fly was being especially annoying he would whip his long neck around and rub his head on his own back. That was a neat trick.

There were some locals watching tv in this traditional tent-type building so we paused for a spell.

My new buddy then drove me back to the city and that was that. I still had several hours to kill before flying to Oman so I did my best.

This was something on my to see list. The discreet "pork room" of many supermarkets houses all of the stuff that Muslims can't eat.

It was like a bacon/poptart speakeasy in there.

Really the only place I went to after that worth reporting was the Dubai Atlantis Hotel.

It was located on one of the artificial palm shaped islands off the coast.

This was like the king of Chihuly glass sculptures. I have to say that this Atlantis is better than the one we visited in the Bahamas during the infamous Operation Cruise Quitter.

I think that the UAE is a bit on the gaudy side of wealthiness. I've seen a lot of signs and advertisements referencing gold. A good example is this jewelry store in the airport sporting a palm tree made out of fake gold bars.

The Swiss Air flight from Dubai to Muscat, Oman was just how I like them: nearly empty.

By the time I walked out of the airport into Oman it was 1am, and my jet lagged self had been going to bed at 8pm every night, so I was not in the mood for the ridiculousness that followed.

It quickly became apparent that "do you need a taxi?" was the only complete English sentence that my taxi driver had mastered. He also pulled a classic maneuver known as "lying" when he told me he knew where my hotel was.

It was so much worse than that. He wasn't demonstrating the ability to even repeat the words "Best Western Hotel". I thought handing him my reservation printout might help. It did not help. He was running his finger along the paper Helen Keller style and sounding out the words. "Best Western, bro. You are physically killing me right now." His finger ran over the section where the printout invites you to "click here to view hotel."

Sure enough, once that finger hit "view hotel", bro was convinced that I needed to get to the View Hotel. I am not making this up. I finally got him to call the damn phone number on the printout and he asked them for directions to the View Hotel.

It was pretty cold out and was nighttime, but this guy's windows were tinted so dark that he had to periodically roll them down just to see the street signs. "Are you cold my darling?" he asked. I really hoped that was going to be an isolated misunderstanding, but no. This guy was just going to address me as "my darling" the whole way there.

We pulled up to the hotel and I got the hell out of that cab. The icing on the cake: Oman is a "no taxi meter" country. Boooo. Boo.

Mr. Darling did leave me with some parting wisdom though. "Oman is the most beautiful country, the people in Oman are the most beautiful, and everyone is welcome from Oman!" (He got "to" and "from" mixed up a lot.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Exploring Old Dubai

In the morning I checked out of the hotel/apartment place that I was staying and walked a few blocks and checked into a different hotel. There was a change of plans so it all makes sense. Trust me. The new hotel is way nicer and in a way more interesting area so I'm happy about it. It's called the Arabian Courtyard Hotel & Spa, and it's right across the street from the Dubai Museum, which was convenient.

There are pictures of sheikhs everywhere in Dubai. 

This hotel is much nicer than the previous place.

Not only was the hotel nice but it was located very close to my next tour. I signed up for another couple of experiences with the same group that ran the Jumeirah Mosque tour from yesterday. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is pretty awesome.

The first tour was in the Al Fahidi District, which is sort of a historical neighborhood that shows what life was like in Dubai before it started raining oil.

The woman standing right behind our guide has a blonde wig. Fine. It's been in so long though that her curly brown hair is growing out from under it. An emergency intervention needs to happen. Bleh.

This was interesting. Our guide asked the audience why we thought there was a little door inside of the big one. I blurted "you use the little door to keep the camels out?" Everyone thought that was funny. But she went all mind judo on me and said "no, the little door is to keep the camels in". Head explosion. These houses have atriums with plain sand floors on the inside with a shade tree growing in the center.

Many of the buildings had duel purposes. This one was also an ancient coin museum.

We got another mosque peek in, and talked about some more Islam topics. Some people's questions were pretty good. Old weird wig's questions were bad.

One fun Islam fact I learned is that in UAE the government chooses the topic for the day and then that's what every imam in the country gives a sermon about.

Another of the topics that came up more than once was polygamy. There was a pretty reasonable sounding explanation for this. One part of it was that it was for war torn areas where there are lots of widows with children. If men just gave these women money out of charity then they would be improperly dependent on those men, and would have no rights. But if they became an additional wife then they had all of the rights that come with marriage including inheritance and so forth. I liked many of their answers to subjects that would normally be alien to westerners. That being said, I was present for three different versions of these talks, and it became clear that some explanations were scripted. So that raises suspicion a bit. It was a good talk regardless.

Back at headquarters we had some coffee and dates. The coffee comes with lots of spices in it. Cardamom, saffron, and other fancy sounding spices were present.

This is probably my favorite way of covering one's face, but apparently in the UAE it's really only older generations that wear it. It looks like metal but it's shiny leather. I always thought all of the burkas and scarves were religious but it sounds more complicated than that, and that it's really more of a culture thing. Multiple guides have said that when they travel in other countries they dress Western so as to not attract attention. One girl has a friend from the royal family, and when they went to the mall together the royal would wear the full veil thing so as not to be recognized.

There was a brief intermission.

Then many of the same people from the tour gathered back at headquarters for lunch. All of these experiences have been really open and full of question and answer exchanges. I'm really glad I did that because now I understand a lot more about their religion and culture, and it also breaks the tourist "take pictures but learn nothing" routine.

This guide was probably my favorite because she was a college student, seemed a lot warmer, and most importantly had an American accent.

The food was solid but there wasn't anything crazy. Lot's of rice mixed with vegetables and meat that she compared to paella.

Dessert was a bit different but still pretty understandable: fried dough balls with sweet sauce translates pretty well anywhere.

Nice smelling incense at the end was the cue to get the heck out.

That was all I really had set in stone for the day, so from then on it was ad lib.

The Dubai Museum is contained by a cool old fort. It wasn't the best musuem ever but it cost less than a dollar to get in so I call that a win.

The hotel area was right next to a river and on the near side was the clothing souk and on the far side was the gold souk, the spice souk, and you know, some souks. Souk means market. Clearly I needed to get across this river in an awesome fashion. Well there are these old little wooden boats they call an abra that will ferry you across the river for 1 dirham. 1 dirham is like 27 cents. Really if any human offers to provide a service for 27 cents you need to accept.

I had the honor of sitting next to the jerry rigged rope and pulley rudder setup which was pretty scary. It's all fun and games until someone loses an arm on a 30 cent boat ride.

We passed nicer boats which must have cost at least... 54 cents to ride.

I was excited to explore these cool markets which were architecturally awesome and colorful while kind of dark and mysterious. Well I took like two steps into one and some guy shoved a headress thing on my head and corralled me into his shop. Oh, so it's going to be that sort of game eh? Creepers.

The gold souk was just brimming with gaudy jewelry shops. I don't really understand the logic of having 100 of the same shop in the same place. I feel like that level of competition is why I had to dodge hats being forcibly put on my head from strangers all day.

There were signs everywhere with the latest gold prices on them.

The spice souk was awesome I just don't want the U.S. customs beagles to get me at the airport.

Well tomorrow I had a couple of excursions planned. It's my last day in Dubai, and I thought it would be cool to see some camel races, and to do some sort of desert tour. Well I had the concierge call the camel racetrack, and I was correct that there were races scheduled for tomorrow. Unfortunately the races have been postponed for a few days out of respect for the recently deceased King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Great. I continued on to inquire about the tour I was hoping to catch. Nope, it's cutting too close to my flight time. Ok. How about this other day trip? Nope, you need at least two people. Curses!

So my actually fairly well planned out last day in Dubai was coming crashing down. You know something that I like to do, when I'm feeling blue, is sit down and count to ten. And then have a camel steak. So that's what I did.

There's nothing like that beefish but way more fibrous and chewy camel meat experience to help me put small setbacks into perspective. At least I'm not a dead goofy looking desert horse, am I right?

I stopped on the way back to the hotel for some strange looking Indian treat called jalebi.

I've seen these before somehwere and have wanted to try them. They are pretty weird. Sticky, sweet, and kind of citrusy.