Thursday, February 16, 2012

Camping with Abdul Hameed Alawadhi & Friends

The tents are a wonderful combination of colors and patterns. It's relaxing and invigorating at the same time.
Relaxing in the majlis
Here in the Middle East, camping in the desert isn’t just the occasional recreational weekend activity. It’s a way of life that dates back thousands of years. When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi, Mark told me that our group would be invited to camp with the Emiratis. I immediately started looking forward to it, still keeping in mind that most things here are “inshallah,” meaning “if it is God’s will” or in other words, “if it happens.” Finally Mark came home one day and said, “The camping trip is next weekend.” I was excited but a little bummed that since Deb was still in St. Louis, we would only be five.

Questions: Where? How many days? What do we bring? Will any Emirati women be there? The camp would be out in the desert, past Dubai in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. We would leave Friday and come home Saturday. All we needed to bring were bedding, our personal items, and any special beverages that we might want to drink. It’s Abdul’s camp; Abdul works with Dana. Yes, other women were supposedly coming. Based on our experiences so far, I was skeptical. Men and women here seem to share family time and shopping, but they have a lot of separate interests. As it turned out, I was right. While Lucy and I were welcome and included in everything, and really did have the time of our lives, it’s clear that it’s basically a guys’ world out there.
Abdul and Mark
Abdul and Mark

At 10:00 on Friday morning we piled our comforters, pillows, cameras, and a few miscellaneous bottles and cans into two vehicles and took off. About two hours later we pulled off of Emirates Highway at exit 122, parked, and called Abdul. Mark had told me that Abdul had dark reddish hair and freckles, which is a little unusual for an Arab. Soon an SUV arrived, driven by a guy who matched the description. Yet Tom, Mark, and Dana didn’t recognize him at first. At work, Abdul is always in national dress, and they had never seen him in his t-shirt, ball cap, and khakis.

Sadly, this sign doesn't seem to have any impact. Plastic bags and bottles are a scourge on the landscape here.
If only signs like this were more effective
View of the camp from our carpet on top of the dune.
Abdul designed and built the camp
using his experience in the military

There wasn’t room for all of us and all our stuff, so Tom, Lucy and I got into the SUV and Mark and Dana stayed behind. As we took off and headed out into the desert, Abdul told us that he camps every weekend during the winter months; in summer it’s too hot. We passed other camps along the way. At the beginning of the season, they go out and choose a site, which is then provisionally approved by an oversight agency. After the camp is set up, it’s checked to be sure that no prohibited or permanent structures are constructed. This is Abdul’s second year in this spot, and he said that he is planning to leave some of the infrastructure in place over the summer, so that he can use the same location next year as well.

A few minutes later, after a bumpy ride on a winding, up-and-down path, Abdul made a U-turn. Are we lost? No, this is the runway. Runway! Abdul gunned the engine and we went straight up, slipping and sliding right and left in the sand, until we crested the dune and came roaring into the center of camp.

We didn't expect a TV, but then again, why not?
We could watch TV

We attempted to unload our belongings, but Abdul insisted that we relax instead, and ushered us into a large tent. Not just any tent, this was a plush majlis tent with a beautiful carpet on the floor and colorful cushion seats complete with pillows and bolsters lining two sides. On the third side was a large flat screen TV; the screened front entry provided us with a view of the campfire area, where a dozen chairs were set up.


Abdul and friends were the epitome of Arab hospitality.
Dana and Mark arrived in style
Suddenly we heard a roar, and an ATV spun into camp with Dana, followed by Mark in another. Meanwhile, our bags had been unloaded and set inside our sleeping tent by Salim, Abdul’s Bangladeshi servant and camp custodian. He is one of so many people from less fortunate and much more dangerous countries, who come here to work.

Abdul's cousin was an expert driver, but he still got stuck. You gotta take risks to be good!
I think I speak for both Lucy and me when I say it’s hard for us to get used to having so much done for us. There is always someone to serve us: doormen and gate guards to open doors and gates and provide directions, pool guards and exercise room attendants to open doors and hand us towels, grocery store baggers who bring our purchases to our vehicle, maintenance workers and maids available to do everything. They call the men “sir” and us “madam” or “mom.”

Salim breaking coals
Salim was there whenever we needed him
Abdul told us that he shares Salim with his uncle, who owns a farm. Salim works for Abdul during the winter, providing service on the weekend and staying in camp during the week. In summer he moves back to Abdul’s uncle’s farm and works there. Salim’s was busy the entire time we were there, fetching and carrying, picking up after us, preparing food, washing dishes, and doing anything else Abdul needed or we wanted. Including lighting the shisha pipes. But now I’m getting ahead of the story.

Hassam was a great conversationalist

Several guys came into the tent and we were introduced to Abdul’s brother Mohammed, and his cousins Saeed and Khalid, and Hassam, a friend, who all shook our hands. Hassam immediately impressed us with his outgoing personality. In no time, we were drinking cold beverages and Hassam was showing Lucy and me photos of his little son and three beautiful daughters on his iPhone. He was so proud of them all, but it was clear that his son, the youngest of four, was his pride and joy. “First, I have one daughter, then two daughters. I am half a man. Then, three daughters, I am still half a man. Then I have a son, I am a man!” They were gorgeous children, but my favorite pictures were the ones in which the daughters were dressed in their traditional Emirati Eid finery.

Preparing rocket, aka arugula, for salad. The greens we eat here are wonderfully fresh and plentiful.
Salim sorts rocket, aka arugula, for salad
“Want me to show you the camp?” Abdul offered. There were five large tents. In addition to the majlis, there were two sleeping tents equipped with cots, a kitchen tent which had a sink with running water, and a storage tent filled with, among other things, shisha pipes.

All the comforts of home!
I can live with this

The toilet, shower, and sink setup was really impressive. Water tanks with pumps, hot water heater, showers – we could take a hot shower! – and yes, a real porcelain flush toilet – dual flush, no less – in nice zippered nylon enclosures. And there were two outdoor sinks with hot and cold running water. One was for washing hands, and the other for washing dishes. We could barely hear the generator running behind the next dune, and the electrical wires were all buried in the sand.

Everything was built by Abdul, using his experience in the army. The camp was situated so that we could see downhill to the south from the front of camp. “We’ll climb up there later,” Abdul said, indicating the steep slope behind camp, “for the sunset.”

ATVs at top
This was a challenging hill to climb but once at the top, we had a great view of Ras Al Khaimah and the Gulf

I had mentioned wanting to dune bash, and before long Lucy and I were each buckling into an ATV. Lucy’s was driven by Khalid, who we found out later was the expert driver of the group, and I was riding with Abdul’s brother Mohammed. Hang on, and keep your arms inside! Off we went.


They obviously had a plan, as we headed for the steepest, highest slope in the distance. Lucy and I were both whooping and laughing as we went screaming up, over and around on the red sand, which was riddled with tracks. When we reached the bottom of the slope, we stopped. Then, taking turns, we tried to make it to the top. It wasn’t easy! Mohammed couldn’t make it, and we always had to back down. We took an alternate route to the top, and watched Khalid try again and again until, finally, they made it! Then it was more up, over, and around the dunes. I don’t know how those things keep from tipping over. I even started to feel a little woozy.

So, where were you guys?
Eventually, we got separated. Where were they? As we drove around, I realized how far we had gone. There were two kites flying over our camp, and they were just little specks. Without them, I would have had no idea where we were. Finally we headed back, and after what seemed like a long time, Khalid and Lucy arrived. Later, we found out what happened: they got stuck! They could see us driving around looking for them, but we couldn’t spot them. They were too far away.

The kingfish went into the pit and was covered with coals. Hassan and Abdul supervised while Dana rehydrated.
Kingfish going into the coals

It was now mid-afternoon, and more friends and relatives arrived. Abdul and others had been in the kitchen tent preparing food for some time, while Salim lit coals in a barbecue and a pit. Out of the kitchen came two giant fish-shaped foil packages. They were kingfish, placed in the coals in the fire pit. They wouldn’t take long; only about ten minutes. Smaller fish, also wrapped in foil, were placed in the coals in the barbecue.

Abdul sets out lunch for us. The pot is filled with delicious rice.
Can we help you?
No, no, it's ok. You are the guests.
Meanwhile, back in the majlis tent, a large piece of plastic had been unrolled onto the floor and set with plates, bowls of salad, Arab bread, and boxes of tissues, which everyone uses as napkins here. Although Arabs generally eat with their right hand, we usually have the option of using utensils, and today there were spoons. In studying up about etiquette before we came to the Middle East, I read that you never use your left hand to eat – it’s considered an unclean hand – and also that you should never cross your legs to show the bottom of your feet, which is considered an insult. So far, both of these have been complete non-issues. Everyone we have met and socialized with has made us feel relaxed, and they sit with their feet crossed just like we do. As far as the left handedness goes, I talked with an Emirati woman at the post office who I noticed writing with her left hand. How is that for you, I asked? She said she uses her left hand if she has a utensil like a fork, but her right hand if not. So I do the same.
By the time we sat down to eat it was late afternoon – I hadn’t worn a watch on purpose – and what a feast! Huge platters of fish and a large pot of rice were brought in. Our hosts kept piling the food onto our plates, until we couldn’t eat another bite. It was a good thing that I went dune bashing before this meal. As we ate, we talked about cities in the US. Almost every educated Emirati that we have met has gone to school in the US; a few others went to English schools. Relatives often go to the same school, and we heard lots of stories about long road trips to visit relatives and friends. Hassam went to school in Denver, and he and his wife honeymooned in California, driving down the coast to Los Angeles. But what is Hassam’s favorite US city? Las Vegas!

The leftover food was given to the neighboring camel herders.There was a lot of food left over, and as we watched Abdul’s cousin scoop up rice and fish and wrap it in foil he said, “This does not go to waste. We give it to the camel herders.” He gestured toward the other side behind the dune, where I had seen camels near a small camp. We have often wondered how much food goes to waste when we are served one of these plentiful meals.

The Arab people are incredibly hospitable to guests, and they are generous to those less fortunate, as well. What they have, they happily give or share. In a book I just finished, I read that Muslims are taught to share what you have, even if it is only water; it will not make you poorer.
After lunch, we spent a quiet hour or two lounging in the majlis and digesting our food before heading uphill. Tom and Dana took a turn dune bashing, and then we all settled onto a carpet that had been spread on the crest of the dune, overlooking the camp on one side, and the tree-filled wadis on the other, with a view of the city of Ras al Khaimah and the Arabian Gulf beyond. Salim brought a bowl of clean tea glasses and sweetened tea, which Abdul served. We watched the sun approach the horizon.

Who needs to fly? We got our magic right here.

What would you be feeling at this point? After lunch, while we were lounging in the majlis, Lucy and I were sharing the same thought. We’ll look back one day and say, “Wasn’t that unbelievable? Did we really get to do that?” And now here we were, sitting on a magic carpet on top of a dune watching the Arabian sunset, and we looked at each other, nodded, and said “Yup.”

Just then, Salim chugged uphill again and handed us a plastic bag. More food? I looked inside and realized that it was . . . ice cream bars! In the desert! We each ate one.
Arab sunset 2
Meanwhile down below, the campfire was lit, and one by one the chairs were occupied. I have to tell you, if you don’t know by now, that I was totally in my element. I love the desert as much as I love the water, and I’ve been on many, many desert camping trips. I camped out for weeks by myself in 1976 when I moved from Michigan to California, and some of that was in the deserts and plains of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Idaho. When I went to College of Marin in 1987-88, I went on the legendary Don Foss geology field trips to eastern Nevada, and that’s when I fell in love with that state, long before I met Mark sailing and one day he asked me, out of the blue, if I liked Nevada. At Sonoma State University in 1990-91 I earned money cooking for geology department field trips in California’s Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. And of course, I went on field trips with the University of Nevada, Reno Geography department. I felt right at home out there in the desert.

Just a bunch of guys, sitting around the fire. From left are Gaith, Ali #1, Godfather, Abdul's brother, and I'm not sure of the last guy's name, either.
As it grew dark, more people arrived. We were introduced, but of course it was hard to get all the names. Among them were Ali #1 and Ali #2, another Mohammed, Saeed and his son Gaith, whom you met in previous blogs, a guy whose name sounded like “Boomer One,” and someone who was called Godfather. “Why is he called Godfather?” I asked. “He is Godfather because when he comes, he always brings food. You will never be hungry when Godfather is here.” And that is when we all realized with an internal groan that, yes, there was another meal coming.

Not before the shisha, though. Shisha is tobacco, usually fruit I have a feeling that Dana will own one of these pipes before long, although he won't be a regular shisha smoker.flavored, smoked in a water pipe. Shisha pipes Lucy gives it a try.are works of art, made with blown glass and elaborately decorated. Soon Dana was smoking, and Lucy and I tried some as well. The last time I smoked a cigarette was in 1981, but I had wanted to try out this cultural phenomenon which is enjoying resurgence not just here in the Middle East, but elsewhere. There are cafes everywhere here, and there is one that I know of in Carson City, Nevada.
shisha coals on pipe
I can see why this is popular. It's just kinda fun.
The flavor of the evening was grape, which I had read is the best although Tom says he likes apple too. Not one to do things halfway, I asked for my own pipe, which was brought out to me. Salim carefully selected a coal from the fire, broke it into smaller pieces, laid it on the tray at the top of the pipe, and then positioned the dish of shisha above it. You have to inhale deeply, drawing air all the way down the pipe, through the water in the reservoir at the bottom, and up through the long tube. The smoke goes through the water cooling it and, some say, filtering it. I don’t know, and I don’t assume that smoking through a water pipe is any less harmful than smoking any other way. I’ve heard that smoking shisha, which takes an hour to complete, is full of nicotine and carcinogens. I certainly won’t make it a habit but I have to admit it was a kick, and a great photo op.
Mark tried to blow Mobius smoke rings.
One of my favorite characters of the evening, aside from Hassam, was Ali #1. Dressed in a jogging suit and head scarf, he was everywhere, helping with the food preparation, maintaining the fire, greeting late arrivals. When Godfather arrived, they did what our guys call the “nose kiss.” Here, they don’t hug or back slap as we do. Greetings range from no touching or a handshake to an air kiss on the right cheek, then the left cheek, and sometimes, if the relationship has progressed enough, the right cheek again. I have been practicing the cheek air kissing. The nose kiss, however, is between men who are on very familiar terms. They touch nose to nose, and apparently it’s best to approach slowly, while making a smooching sound with their lips. When I saw (and heard) it on the camping trip I understood how it could be a surprise for Western men like Mark, Tom, and Dana, but it’s just another custom here in the Middle East.

Abdul was our host, but Hassam and Ali #1 were just as friendly, relaxed and attentive to our needs, and we learned that the three of them are childhood friends. Now it all made sense, and it made me reflect on how much the same people are when they are together like this. The friendship and camaraderie felt so familiar; everyone was just hanging out and talking with us.
Boomer One 2
Every so often, the conversation would turn into an animated all-Arabic discussion, none of which we could understand. I have a little Arabic language book, and I’ve learned a few words, most of which we don’t need to use in the westernized cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where people speak enough English for us to get by. But I heard Boomer saying “La-la-la!” and I said “I know what that means! No! No! No!” And so they told us what they were talking about, and we got into an interesting discussion. It turned out that Boomer speaks seven languages! We discussed a wide range of topics, including how to determine how much one should pay for a pashmina shawl. Bargaining is expected here, but I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. I either feel like I paid too much or like I should have paid more but I twisted the sellers arm and he is losing money.
Saeed and Ghaith
Abdul told us that usually Friday nights are quiet, but this night was a big event because we were there, and everyone wanted to come and meet us. Everyone sure seemed to be having a great time, but Lucy and I both noticed that we were the only women there. We felt completely comfortable, but we could see that this was not a place where these men bring their wives. I asked Abdul if his kids come to camp and he said yes – but only the boys, not the girls. The camp was really one giant outdoor “man cave.”

The card game got intense.
Intense card game
Around 11:30 PM, dinner was served. We sat in the majlis and feasted on kabob, which is seasoned minced lamb cooked on skewers, salad, and roti provided by Godfather. Roti is a thin, flat tortilla like bread. Believe it or not, by that time we were hungry. But we had learned to not let your plate get empty or someone would fill it up again. After dinner, we sat by the fire awhile longer while a boisterous game of cards got going in the majlis. One of the players’ card playing strategy came under scrutiny, and guys were jumping to their feet, talking loudly and gesticulating. What’s going on? “Oh, it’s just the card game,” Abdul said. From then on the player in question was nicknamed “Mr. Selfish.”

Lucy was nodding in her chair, and at about 1:00 AM we all decided to hit the rack. There were only single cots, and so Dana, since Deb is still in St. Louis, was the only one who got to sleep in a bed. Mark and I and Tom and Lucy crashed on the carpet.

The next morning there were people crashed in the majlis, and Mark peeked in and said it looked like a frat house. I went out for a walk to take some photos, and found myself walking with Boomer. We are both into photography, and as we snapped photos he told me about how the weather pattern has changed. It used to rain over the desert in winter, sprouting seeds and turning the dunes green. This year, the seeds are dormant, waiting for the rain. When will it come? Maybe not this year; it’s already late.

Camels eat the lowest tree branches. They are also fed nutritious plant material grown in Pakistan.I commented on the amount of trash, which is scattered everywhere, mostly plastic bags and bottles. It’s incredible. Yes, he said. We have people from 180 different countries here. They don’t care. I saw a camel the day before with a plastic bag in its mouth. If swallowed, it can be fatal; half of camel deaths are caused by plastic bags. What the entire UAE needs is a successful anti-litter campaign like “Keep America Beautiful” in the US, initiated by Lady Bird Johnson in the 1960’s. I still remember being a child and wanting never to be called a “litterbug.” Abu Dhabi began its own campaign a year ago.

We stayed on the path, so we wouldn't get lost or stuck.
We were served scrambled eggs with peppers for breakfast, with roti. I wrapped up my eggs to make a breakfast burrito, which Abdul seemed to think was innovative. Lucy and I took a spin in one of the ATVs, with me driving, and then we sat in the majlis talking with Abdul before he drove us to our cars. What about your wife, Lucy and I asked? We thought she might be here. He told us how she spends her time with her children, family and friends while he is gone.

Maybe next time we’ll let you guys camp, we said, and Lucy and I will join Abdul’s wife, who is from Morocco. “She will show you a good time,” Abdul assured us. “Have you ever had a Moroccan bath? It takes one hour.” We talked a lot about the UAE and its past, present, and future, and as always, we learned.

But this story has gotten long enough, so I will end it here, with us heading back to our cars. It was another epic adventure coming to an end, and once again we were overwhelmed by the Emirati hospitality and graciousness of Abdul and his family and friends.

“Now THAT’S a field trip,” commented Paul Starrs, Geography professor at University of Nevada, Reno and field trip expert, when I posted camping pictures on Facebook. I agree, Dr. Starrs!

Thanks again to Abdul, and thanks for reading! Fire

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