Sunday, January 8, 2012

Camel Festival

Dune Bashing in a Ford 500
These camels were probably wondering
what we were doing out there.
I was bound and determined to get to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival in the Western region, a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi. The American Women’s Network organized a day trip on a bus, but I inadvertently sent the notice to my spam folder so I was unaware. Plus, maybe somewhere in my not-so-subconscious I wanted a little more flexibility and adventure.
The day after the AWN trip Patti, who I met at a coffee and whose husband is also on Mark’s project, called to tell me about it.  “You might be overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s huge, and everything is spread out.” She told me about how their day was, with pre-planned events and lunch and dinner – she didn’t get home till midnight. I took this all in, but it didn’t discourage me from going; it had the opposite effect. Yet I knew that I couldn’t just go out there by myself but the timing wasn’t working out for Mark to be able to go, and Deb was busy with other things.
Enter Terry Mercer and her family. At the last minute I occupied the empty seat in their Ford 500 with Terry, her husband Peter, and their 20-something sons, Christopher and Ty. I had only met Terry a couple of times and had never met the rest of her family. Terry is American, from Florida, a fellow photographer, and I knew the minute I met her and observed her scooting around and focusing her giant lens at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr chocolate event (which I only posted on Facebook, and didn’t do a whole blog about) that we could be great friends.
We followed the flags, our first mistake.
We headed west into the desert and as we neared the town of Madinat Zayed, we began to see signs about the festival. They were all in Arabic; we were not in expat-friendly Abu Dhabi any more. Not really knowing where the festival was, we drove on. Finally we came to the festival area, a desert landscape dotted with tents, flags, and signage in indecipherable Arabic.
We wanted to see camel races. “Which way to the camel races?” we asked anyone who would look at us. All we got was a shrug and shake of the head, an answer in Arabic that we could not comprehend, or a wave down the road. So down the road we went.
A roundabout! Now we're getting somewhere! Not.
All around us we saw what looked like pavilions surrounded by flags. I think everyone in the car wanted to be the one to spot what we were looking for. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we got off the paved road and found ourselves driving on a gravelly, sandy surface. We made our way to a big, important looking roundabout but when we got there, it didn’t go anywhere. We chose a direction that looked correct. Soon there were tracks everywhere except where we were actually driving. By this time we were committed, and headed toward one tent, and then another. Every place we got near turned out to be smaller than it had looked; not what we were looking for. Finally we spotted a large pavilion: that must be it! But all that was between it and us was sand. And all that was between us and the last paved road: you guessed it. Sand.
Nobody is sure how we got off the main road.
You can imagine what the conversation could become with two young adult males and their parents in a small car trying to find a road in the sand. I am still wondering if it only stayed so civil because I (a complete stranger) was in the vehicle.
How do you say "stuck" in Arabic? You don't need to.
Before long what Terry’s husband predicted occurred: we were stuck.

If you have been reading this blog for awhile you might have noticed that sometimes I tend to be lucky. Based on past experience I refused to panic or let myself think that this would turn our badly, even though Mark and I were supposed to leave for Oman early the next day and I was starting to formulate my explanation. I looked to the right, and I could see cars driving by on a road about 100 meters away, toward the giant pavilion that was our new destination. So we were driving on the sand, parallel to the real road. Good news, we are not in the middle of nowhere. Bad news, we can be seen by everyone driving past on their way to the event and we look like . . . well, never mind.
There was no shortage of opinions.
Why didn't we think of that? Oh yeah, Ty did. Oh well.
Soon a little pickup truck sped up, with one guy in it. After speaking and gesturing he sped off again, presumably to get help. No sooner was he gone than several more vehicles arrived. The young men jumped out, assessed the situation, and told us through words and gestures that we had to let the air out of the tires. Which, by the way, Terry and Peter’s younger son Ty had been saying all along; he has worked as a lifeguard on the beach in Florida. And also, in the midst of this, I had gotten a phone call from Mark and he said to do the same thing. Don’t worry, Honey, everything us under control!
Young men are the same everywhere, I thought, as I watched our new friends confer and jockey for position; everyone wanted an important role in the rescue. They let the air out of the tires, pushed our Ford 500 sedan out of the depression it was in, and offered to drive us out. Christopher got into a pickup while one of the Arab guys drove our Ford 500. Suddenly our driver started speaking and gesturing, and we thought he was asking for water. No, he was asking if we were thirsty. No, we are good, we have water. Then someone said the magic word, “coffee.” We were being invited to partake in the legendary Arab hospitality that I had been reading about: we were invited to their tent!

These guys love their pickups.
But Christopher, in his pickup, had sped off in the other direction, toward the pavilion. This made Terry worry: “My son is going the other way! Are they coming too?” Even though Christopher is in law school, and is a veteran of Iraq, momma bear Terry was protecting him.

To Terry’s relief, we arrived at the tent the same time as Christopher’s pickup. We were ushered into a huge tent, with about a hundred red plush upholstered chairs lining the walls. One of the Arabs walked to the center of the back wall, sat, and indicated to us to also sit. In front of us on a low table was a basket of fruit exactly like the ones I have seen for sale many times at the Mina fruit and vegetable market.
We were treated to delicious beverages,
dates, and fresh fruit . . .
We were treated first to coffee. I think that this was a beverage that I have read about which isn’t really coffee but a hot beverage made with cardamom. It’s very spicy. The young man who poured it came out next with trays of dates; they were very sugary-sweet. We were encouraged to take a piece of fruit, and then the young man announced that he was bringing “chai.” And he brought out a pot of delicious, sweetened chai tea.
The Arabs didn’t speak English so we were comfortable comparing notes among us about what was happening and how to act. Soon everyone agreed that they would keep pouring until you shook your cup to indicate that you were finished; that you needed to eat with your right hand only; and that you should not cross your legs and show the bottom of your feet; we had heard that’s disrespectful.
. . . but when things got silly . . .
We asked if it was OK to take photos; oh, yes! We took lots of photos, and our hosts took some photos of us with our cameras. Our head host acted surprisingly informal and soon began clowning for the camera, borrowing sunglasses and placing his ghutra on my head as we posed for pictures. He insisted that I put my arm around his shoulder, which surprised me but I cooperated. As time went on things seemed to get a little bit too frivolous; I began to think that maybe I was about to get a new husband. It’s a good thing I was part of an entourage!
I was glad Pete, Terry and sons were there.

Seconds later there was a scramble.
At that point they decided to take us outside and show us their camels. First we looked at the sheep in the pen. As we stood there, one of the sheep suddenly, somehow, squeezed through a little gap in the metal and began running away! Ty, who was closest to the sheep, was berated by one of the Arabs; why didn’t he do something? They managed to catch the animal and throw it back into the pen.
These pots are big enough to cook a goat in.
Suddenly a large SUV drove up, and a stately and impressive Arab got out. Our head host melted into the background, and we were ushered toward this new, important person, who spoke good English. We told him what had happened, and how we appreciated the rescue and the hospitality. He told us that the camels, the tent, and everything in the camp belonged to the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
You can tell who's important by how they conduct themselves.
Plus, they usually speak English.
It was time to go. We thanked everyone, and as we left we said “B-bye!” to the little boys that had appeared. “B-bye! b-bye!” they called back.
As we drove away, marveling at our cluelessness and how it had landed us in the tent of the King of Saudi Arabia, we knew that we needed to re-inflate our tires.
Oh, yeah. We can't drive on this one any more.
Then we noticed that one of our tires was making an awful lot of noise. Yes, we were driving on a flat tire and, by the time we got to the paved road, it was shredded. Peter and the boys changed the tire while Terry and I walked down the road to see if we could find out how to get the others re-inflated. As it turned out, the police came by to help and they inflated the tires. Now we had four tires to drive on, but no spare.
Were we ready to call it a day? Heck, no! We hadn’t seen the camel race yet!
We headed for the pavilion and as we got near, we marveled at how we had gotten off course. Today’s lesson: stay on the paved road.

We decided not to sit with the sheikhs.
We parked in the lot and approached the arena entrance, not sure whether there was a fee, or how the seating was organized. Would there be special seating for us expats? Nobody spoke to us; they just stood by and indicated for us to pass through.
But we ended up with great seats anyway.
As we entered, we realized we were in the VIP area. Instead of the bleachers we expected to see, we were surrounded by plush gold armchairs set before gold gilt tea tables, with servers carrying trays of coffee pots and dates. Not an expat or woman was in sight; only men in kanduras and ghutras. There was the stage, and a podium. Even though nobody gave us a second look, we were sure this was not for us, so we went to anther entrance, and sat in the next section. We didn’t have tables, but we were served coffee anyway.
It's a big thrill to win; they put on a satin cloak . . .
Soon we came to realize that we had made it just in time for the announcement of the day’s winners of the Camel Beauty Contest. What luck! A number of officials took their places onstage around the podium, and although we couldn’t understand a word of what was said, we could hear the cheers and see the ghutras being tossed into the air as the winners were announced.

. . . and tie their ghutras around
the camel's neck.
Again, we weren’t sure whether we would be allowed near the camels. And again, the gates were magically opened for us as Terry and I approached with our cameras. The winning teams placed satin banners on the camel beauties, and they all paraded and celebrated.

The winners danced in celebration

We had just enough time to check out the souk tents, which were in two areas. One area, along the road, sold essential goods and sundries for the camel herders: pots and pans, lamps, fuel, tools and equipment, bedding, generators, jerry cans . . . anything they might need.
If we were stranded overnight,
we could have bought bedrolls.
In another area craftsmen and women in abayas and face masks were selling baskets, incense, textiles, and other souvenirs. Terry and Peter got into a long conversation with an unmasked woman who spoke very good English; she told us proudly that her son had married an Australian woman. She sold them an incense burner.
Food was available in both places: huge pots containing a mixture of either noodles or rice, mixed with meat and vegetables, flavored with spices and tomato paste. They also had cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat called malfoof, and a fried doughy ball called awwameh made with flour, potatoes, and yeast, similar to a doughnut hole, topped with sesame seeds and a not-too-sweet syrup.
It was getting dark, and we were ready to head home, driving with no spare tire. I called Mark to let him know, and warned him that if anything else happened he might have to come and get us. He told us not to drive too fast on the tubeless spare, although he knows how difficult that is: here, cars come roaring up behind you on the highway and, if you don’t get out of their way, they are passing you on the shoulder to your left and squeezing you into the next lane, where there is usually a large truck. To avoid this, you have to be constantly mashing on the gas pedal as they come up behind you, and ducking into the right lane.
But that’s another blog . . .
Stay tuned for the story of the Emirati wedding and day after. How lucky we are to have an opportunity to get to know these interesting people and seeing how they live.

There were camels everywhere.
The winner. Isn't she (or he?) gorgeous?

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