At the advice of some fellow travelers in my hotel I decided to book a Safari tour. These tours are quite popular in Dubai and are offered by many tour agencies – ours came to pick us up at our hotel. Frederick agreed to come and I was not sure what to expect considering that the price was only $35 – not too bad for a tour unless it was really cheesy.
We were picked up in a nice Toyota Land Cruiser that already had 4 Chinese guests in addition to the driver. The Chinese were married couples who had come to Dubai on business. The husbands went to work on an engineering project while the wives hung out or went shopping. Considering that this was a weekend I expected a sizeable number of tourists – at least our truck was full.
Our driver told us that our day would consist of some 4×4 action in tall sand dunes, a chance to “play” in the sand (not sure what that entailed), a camel ride and then dinner followed by “entertainment.” We started by driving east into the desert until we reached some tall sand dunes and immediately our driver went into “off-road” mode. We began climbing and jumping these tall dunes – and we weren’t the only ones. We were surrounded by dozens of other 4×4 trucks, some from our same company (you could tell by the logos on the doors) and some from competitors.
Some of the dunes were quite tall and when we crested them to come down the other side, it looked as if we were falling off of a cliff. In the photo below, if you look at the size of the tire tracks on the flat ground at the bottom of the hill (the truck is almost 50 degrees low from the horizon) you can get some scale as to how high we were.
We raced around for close to an hour and we were all laughing and cheering when our driver made a good jump. The Chinese couples went absolutely nuts; they were screaming and laughing and howling like they had never been out-of-doors before. I began to wonder how subdued their lives must be in China and I doubted if they had ever had the opportunity to jump sand dunes in a 4×4 truck before.
We finally parked atop one of the dunes to take some photos and I posed for a photo with Omar our driver. He was a friendly guy who spoke great English and told us all about the desert, the different animals and some of the sporting events (falcon hunting) and other desert activities. He says that every year, Emirates Airlines throws a huge party in the desert and all of their employees (who aren’t working) come out and have a big party.
Looking towards the southwest we could see that the desert went on for hundreds of miles into Saudi Arabia. The dunes seemed to roll on forever.
One of the Chinese husbands approached me and asked if I would mind posing for a photo with his wife and his colleague’s wife. I guess these folks had never had any close up interaction with an Anglo before and they seemed quite pleased to get my photo. I’m not sure if it is my height because they didn’t seem too concerned about Frederick but when I posed for the photo below, the Chinese (the husbands and the wives) just went nuts when they looked at their camera screen to see what the photo looked like. They were talking very quickly in Chinese and smiling and I felt a bit like a prop in their personal side-show. Oh well, I had them take a photo with my camera also because if it was anything, it was an experience…
When we were done snapping photos we all climbed back into the Land Cruiser and Omar drove us to a central location where all of the trucks from his company met. Everyone piled out of their vehicles and we had about 40 people in all, at least 3/4ths of them were Chinese.
One man took of his shoes and socks and stuck his feet into the sand and began making “fists” with his toes scooping up sand and digging his feet around in it. He began to yell – in a very animated way – something in Chinese. He looked very happy and excited at the same time. In an instant, another dozen of the Chinese had their shoes off and were digging their bare feet into the sand and howling with pleasure. I would have thought that they had discovered gold or that someone was giving them a magnificent back rub. They talked and yelled and laughed and seemed so fascinated with the sand. I wondered if they had ever seen sand before?
One of the other drivers took a snowboard out of his truck and showed it to the crowd. The Chinese didn’t seem concerned and I wasn’t sure if they even knew what it was. He asked, in English, if anyone wanted to surf the dune. I don’t think any of the Chinese knew how. But I did.
I raised my hand and said that I would give it a go. I handed my camera to Frederick and began strapping the snowboard onto my ankles. The Chinese went nuts again when they finally pieced together what was about to happen and then they began talking frantically and snapping my photo. I thought I was competing in the Olympics because there were so many flash photos going off. When I finished strapping the board on, I stood and began pivoting towards the edge of the dune. I looked over to Frederick to see if he was ready to take a photo and he gave me a “thumbs up.” I scanned across the 40 or so Chinese (and a few European) tourists: every eye that wasn’t behind a camera was on me – every camera present was ready to capture this moment.
I pushed off and began snowboarding down the hill. It was a little more sluggish than on snow which (in my opinion) made it easier. I went for a ways and then carved left and then right. As I neared the bottom I made a big oval and turned around just as I ran out of momentum. The Chinese went nuts! They all cheered and yelled and I thought they had just won a war or something. Many of them ran down the hill and patted me on the back and raised their fists in victory. Perhaps they had bets on me and those that were cheering had just won some money?
I climbed back up to the top in time to see some of the Chinese (still at the bottom of the hill) surveying where I had just sandboarded. This was my first experience with Chinese tourists outside of China and they were quite entertaining to watch. I’d been to China a few years previous but in my travels around the world, I usually ran into Japanese tourists, not Chinese. I later learned that it is difficult for the Chinese to get Visas to travel to other countries. The Chinese Government doesn’t want to let them go for fear they won’t come back and other governments don’t want to let them in for fear that they won’t leave. I learned that one of the few exceptions in the world is Dubai. Dubai will not allow (anyone) to stay past their Visa date (they are quite militant about this) and the Chinese government knows that it will get its people back if it allows them to travel to Dubai. As a result, there are a great number of Chinese tourists here. Adding to that are the many engineering projects that Chinese workers come in for, and while visiting, many of their extended family come for visits.
Seeing how “easy” sandboarding was, one courageous Chinese fellow took the board from me when I reached the top. I boldly put it on and looked around the crows in a triumphant manner. He said something in Chinese that made me think of the TV show “Wipeout” and then he pushed off.
I suppose he made it about 4 or 5 feet before he dug in and then toppled head over feet and rolled over and over half way down the mountain. He spread his arms out and then stopped in the sand looking a bit disheveled. The Chinese howled with laughter and one man who was video taping the whole incident was laughing so hard that I thought that he would have a heart attack. I suppose it was pretty funny and Frederick and I gave a chuckle.
As the sun got lower on the horizon we returned to our trucks and drove to another part of the desert. We came to what looked like a Bedouin camp with tents and carpets and a small pack of camels. Omar took us over to the camel driver and one by one the tourists boarded the camels and went for a walk around the desert. To board the camel, the camel driver would hit the camel’s legs with a thin stick and the camel would (reluctantly) kneel down allowing the passenger to climb onto its back.
Frederick and I watched with comical interest as the Chinese loaded onto the camels one by one and made their walks through the desert. We were the last two to board and we snapped photos of each other after we climbed off. The camel is an interesting looking creature. It has HUGE feet - no doubt to keep it from sinking into the sand and it has huge and long eyelashes. These allow it to block out sand during sandstorms by “squinting.” I”ve heard all sorts of stories about camels spitting and biting but these camels seem to be on good behavior.
Probably the most exciting part of the ride was when the camel stood up. Half of his body came up, in our case his front and if you didn’t hold on you would fall off the back. And then when he lifted his rear you were immediately thrown forward. I wouldn’t be surprised if a tourist or two have been dislodged at the initial stand. Once the camel was up we went for a walk through the dunes and it seemed much like riding a horse. I would imagine that after an 8 hour trek on a camel your bum would be a bit sore for the ride.
After our camel ride we had a chance to relax and have a soft drink. Rather than go to the camp enclosure, I went walking around in the desert. I found the wind-blown dunes to be quite beautiful. They had wind-driven ripples in them that looked like ocean waves and lakeside ripples that had frozen in time. I saw the remains of a small snake that had died and the desert beautifully preserved his body leaving his dried skin and skeleton to be bleached in the sun. I watched as the sun dipped down to the horizon and – as if by command – all of the camel drivers stopped working, faced towards Mecca and began their sunset prayers alternately bowing, pressing their heads against their prayer rugs and then standing again. There was quite a ritual to it and the prayers seemed to take 10 or 15 minutes.
Our “campground” looked a bit like a tent wall that was about 70′ (20 meters) wide. You could close the outer door which probably (in olden days) served to keep the jackals out. The entire thing covered an area the size of a tennis court. In the center was a large carpet on the sand which resembled a bit of a dance floor in a night club. Along the circular wall that separated the outside area, tented roofs shielded guests from the sky (even though it was dark) – in this way, there were about a dozen “patio” enclosures around the central carpet.
Omar and the other drivers broke out some charcoal and wood and began a large fire. The stoked the coals until they were glowing and then started cooking kebabs of lamb and beef. There were all sorts of traditional Arabic courses including Hummus and bread, vegetables, olives and all sorts of soft drinks. It had been a long day and once the meat was sizzling on the fire our appetites began to impress upon us how hungry we really were.
It was the first time that all of the travelers had a chance to sit down and chat. We all sat on the ground on large rugs that were laid out on the sand. One man in the Chinese group began asking me questions that were posed by other Chinese people who did not speak English. They wanted to know where I was from (Los Angeles always gets nods of approval – no matter where I go and always followed by questions of whether or not I know any movie stars), how long I was traveling and what I was doing in Dubai. That I was just “traveling to travel” struck them as quite opulent and they all asked if I was rich or did my family have money. I explained that, if you traveled frugally, it was (sometimes) cheaper to travel than to actually “live” in America (certainly true of LA). They found this difficult to believe. In turn I asked them about their visit. It seemed that most of the Chinese were working and brought their wives along for the experience of traveling to a new country – for many, this was a first.
In time, the food was ready and we all ate heartily. The food was absolutely wonderful. The lamb kebabs were out of this world and when put into some of the soft pita bread with some hummus and a little lettuce and tomato and I was in food heaven. We ate and ate until we were so stuffed that we couldn’t eat any more and as soon as we were done the Chinese began quizzing me with more questions. They asked about my short haircut and I told them that I was a reservist in the Army and this in turn brought up dozens of questions about the American Army. Was service mandatory or volunteer. When I answered that it was the latter, many nodded their heads in approval. I guess they thought that a volunteer Army was better than being “volun-told” to serve in the Army. They asked about my job and I told them that I drove tanks and this particularly piqued the interest of some of the men who had been conscripts in the Chinese Army.
Eventually the questions turned to asking why either Frederick or I didn’t have a wife and kids. Frederick’s answer was easy, he was a monk. Mine was a little more complicated. I told them that I was traveling the world and “wife shopping,” and that if they had any good leads for me, they should let me know. There was about a 10 second delay as the one Chinese man translated and then a howl of laughter from my ad hoc audience.
After some time, some Arabic music came on and a woman, dressed in a long black robe that looked like a huge cape came walking up to the center carpet. She looked quite beautiful and at a change in the music, she dropped her robe and danced out onto the stage. She was a belly dancer! I had never seen a belly dancer before and I was glad (I’m sure the Chinese as well) that we had a very good-looking belly dancer. I’d seen some of the “chubby” type belly dancers on TV that seem to be very popular with some of the Arabic men, but that wasn’t really my preference. I thought that this girl was just absolutely beautiful.
She danced the traditional belly dance type moves to one song wherein she did the whole hip sway movements and stomach rolling movements – much akin to a Shakira video. On the next song she did some moves that highlighted her flexibility including leaning backwards and almost touching her palms to the ground behind her feet while keeping her feet planted on the ground – she was literally bent over double. She had sapphire blue eyes (even though they show red in my photos) and looked more “European” than Arabic.
In time the question was posed, “Where do you think she’s from?” There were a lot of guesses and most agreed that she wasn’t from the Emirates. A few guessed that she was from Romania or one of the other Easter Bloc countries. I guessed Syrian and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. But, in my experience, a lot of Syrians have blue, green and hazel eyes. And so, everyone speculated and we watched the show. She danced for about 5 or 6 songs, perhaps for 40 minutes and everyone gave her a standing ovation when she finished. We asked Omar to ask her where she was from and he returned and said that she was Syrian. I gave everyone an “I told you so look.”
Each of the drivers, who also acted as the cooks and hosts, came around to make sure everyone had enough to eat, to drink, that they were enjoying the show and having a good time. I was very impressed with the hospitality and when I thought again about the price I had paid for a full day’s activities (only thirty five bucks), I realized what a great adventure this had been. Our hosts talked to us about life in Dubai, where they lived, how many siblings they have, if they were married and had children. They were all very pleasant and they gave me a very warm feeling for the people of Dubai and the UAE.
One of the drivers ran for a shovel and then called us over to see scorpion just before he cut it in half. It was a quick reminder that even though we were having a bar-b-que, we were still in the wild. I asked Omar if the scorpion was poisonous and he said that it was but it would not likely kill a full-sized adult. He said it was possible but more likely that it would make you sick. “A child or an old person,” he added, “would die for sure.”
If you ever have a chance to visit Dubai, I can’t say enough good things about the Safari tour. If you have a chance, but all means you should give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.
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