Let me preface this story by saying that this adventure began with every intention of being a responsible one. I had a friend visiting me in Abu Dhabi from Canada and I pulled out all the stops to show him the best of the UAE. The grand finale of the week would be a camping trip in a desert oasis. We had spent weeks planning it with two friends I lived with in Abu Dhabi. Every blog post about the campsite had been read, every map and bus schedule was downloaded, our gear was packed and repacked, all that was left to do was go.
The four of us arrived at the bus station at dawn, feeling unstoppable. Until we were stopped… at the ticket booth, where we were told that bus schedule on which our entire trip hinged was outdated by about five years. There were no buses going to our campsite that day. I don’t think I’ll ever see three more deflated 20-year-olds for the rest of my life. But we’re stubborn as hell, so it only took 15 minutes of moping over a party-sized bag of potato chips before we decided just to get on the next desert-bound bus. Lucky for us, just about every bus in Abu Dhabi is desert-bound, and soon we were headed out once again, albeit in the opposite direction as planned.
The new plan was to ride the bus until we saw sand and walk to the desert from there. So that’s what we did. And it landed us in a gas station parking lot in the middle of a small town armed with nothing but Google maps and optimism. Between the sand dunes we saw off on the horizon and our map, it was in that moment that we finally did the math. It would be about a two-hour walk in 40oC heat with just a liter of water for each of us, meant to last two days. Just as we were coming to this daunting realization we were approached by a kandoora-clad guardian angel. He peered down at us from between his red-checkered headscarf and aviator sunglasses. “Can I help you?”. We explained our story and our plans to sleep in the sand-dunes that night. And his response was, “You’re crazy, but I’ll take you there. Get in my truck”. Don’t tell my mother, but I was the first to say yes. Before we knew it, we were speeding down dirt roads blasting Arabic love ballads.
We sped out of town and as soon as sand dunes began to loom above us, we stopped. He gave us his number ‘in case of an emergency’ and disappeared with a spray of sand. Again, we were alone. More alone than ever, with the desert as far as the eye could see. It was exactly the kind of awe-inspiring view I had aimed to give my Canadian friend. Despite the dripping sweat, the trip was finally starting to feel like a success. But that tranquility was broken within minutes as a gleaming white SUV came careening over a dune. The car narrowly missed us and screeched to a halt at our feet, bouncing on its shocks. A single tinted window slid down, releasing a welcomed waft of perfumed air-conditioning into our scorched faces. The driver gave us exactly the kind of look we deserved, a ‘how did these tourists get so very lost?’ look. We told our story once again. He nodded and pointed to a large dip in the sand. ‘Sleep in that spot right there and you don’t get bitten by snakes or run over by ATVs in the night’. Solid advice. He then gave us his name (Salman) and number ‘in case of an emergency’ and sped off.
Note that this was the second emergency contact we had been given in an hour. I have since learned that traveling in the Gulf Region tends to feel like bouncing from one chaperone to another. Such is the luxury of Arab hospitality.
Fast forward several hours: the sun had set, we had enjoyed our dinner and were swapping bogus stories about invented constellations when my friend’s phone buzzes. It’s Salman. He wants to know how we’re getting home the next day. We hadn’t really thought that far ahead. ‘Well then, I’ll pick you up at 9 am’. His proposal was more tempting than the alternative, hiking for two hours at dawn before temperatures reached dangerous levels. And so that was the end of that.
Sure enough, at 9 the next day our golden chariot arrived, fully stocked with icy bottles of water and blaring 90s love songs. The kindness required to accept four sweaty kids and their sandy gear into your spotless SUV is saintly. Thank you, Salman, we’re eternally grateful.
But his kindness didn’t stop there. In fact, it had hardly begun. On the way back to the bus stop, he asked us where the bus was taking us. ‘Abu Dhabi’, we said. ‘I’ll take you’, he said. It would be about another two hours of driving one way and accepting the offer felt like an abuse of his generosity. I refused twice before my friend leaned over to me, the only Emirati in our group of four, and told me to shut up. She warned that my refusal was very rude and that this man would be taking us home. I trusted her judgment and apologized. Salman smiled, ‘Fantastic, let me show you my farm before we leave’.
There are a couple of different kinds of reactions that statement might spark. The most responsible being suspicion. I, however, was thrilled. So, we swerved off the highway down an empty dirt road. This is when my common sense finally kicked in and I started getting nervous. Tall walls topped with barbed wire began to rise around us and soon we were in the heart of a complex maze adobe. We rolled to a stop at one of the many tall metal gates. It swung open and a stern guard greeted us. Standing behind him was something I had never seen before. A somber herd of camels, winking at their new guests. We stepped out of the car cautiously, and the sheer size of these creatures was impressed on me. They towered over us all. I mean they huge. Like feet the size of dinner plates huge. Nightmares of being swallowed whole huge. Head the size of a small child huge. Huge.
Against every wall were shaded pens filled with camels of all shapes and sizes. They eyed us with interest. But there was one that shone above all the rest. She was the queen of the herd and everyone knew it. We were drawn to her. But as Salman swelled with pride, our group of four began to give each other side glances. ‘This,’ announced a glowing Salman, ‘is the most beautiful camel in the Khaliji Region. She’s a prizewinner’. And with that introduction, I was faced with the ugliest toothy grin I have ever seen in my life. Her teeth seemed to grow curled around each other, rimmed by swollen lips scorched by the Arabian sun and flapping in the breeze. I will concede that she was expertly groomed and her pen was spotless. And she had a regal air about her, but you can’t fix ugly. There she stood in all her knobbly kneed, droopy-eyed glory. I paid my respects but avoided her gaze. What can I say? She gave me the creeps… I slipped away to play with some baby goats instead because baby goats will never not be cute.
By the time the tour was through, my Canadian friend’s jaw was dragging in the dirt. How’s that for an authentic Khaliji experience? That evening, when we were finally chauffeured to our doorstep, we reflected on the day. I decided that I couldn’t have planned a better UAE welcome for my friend if I tried.