Trying to convert a holiday to a place you are visiting for the first time into a writing retreat may not be the best idea in the world. You are always too excited and too distracted to write anything better than brilliant snippets which connect very badly and rarely into a coherent story. I have no idea how people like Ernest Hemingway managed to get around this blockage, but I guess they must have had a lot more time to play and to work.
I had woken up next morning with great energy, determined to work hard at such a task and it was well after mid-day that the realization came to me that I wasn’t going to get far with the book I was working on; not today definitely.
Thus convinced, I relieved myself of this punishing task and headed off down Naif Road to the Royal Paris Star, a restaurant which was just about thirty yards away from the Al Afghan. I had earlier seen it the previous day, on my way to the latter. Royal Paris Star had a bad musty odor, but it didn’t fully hit you until you were inside and ascending the step to the tables on the second floor. I had no idea what the consequence of being disrespectful to an establishment such as this one would be by leaving without buying anything, so I politely sat and ordered fried rice. My order took so long in coming and tasted quite nasty. I made a strong note to self, never to eat here again.
My Desert Safari pick-up appointment was for three this afternoon. The tour driver called while I was still eating at the Royal Paris to ask me for the direction to my hotel. I wondered why I seemed to be the only one who knew anywhere around here. I quickly ate what I could of my lunch and arrived at my hotel just in time to be picked up at a little after three. The driver needed to pick up five other passengers in his Land-cruiser. I journeyed with him to fetch three Indian kids and a Norwegian couple, and afterward, we headed for the desert.
The journey to the Safari venue took more than thirty minutes, once you left the city center and its intimidating building facades of glass and marbles. The skyline for the buildings changed as drastically as we headed out of the city and into the Red Sands of Al Hibab, which I am told changed color throughout the day. From towering skyscrapers glistening like enormous diamond, the architecture shifted to flat-roofed single
story houses which appeared to have been constructed of mud, again spiritedly changing to rows and rows of blocks of condos most of them unoccupied, most of them half-completed, most of them results of the hopeful gamble of optimistic property tycoons.
Driving along the highway was for long stretches like a trip into the sandy wilderness with empty desert right and left of the highway for as far as you could see. The windows of the Toyota Land-cruiser were up, and the air-conditioning also on. We could have ridden in pleasurable comfort if not that the driver, who was also the tour guide, had insisted on entertaining us with local pop music as the trip had promised, played at eardrum splitting volume. The young kids didn’t mind though and actually seemed to be enjoying the dreadful din. Since we could not converse with the driver or with one another, I politely tried as much as I could to enjoy the journey.
We finally reached prime desert and stopped at a place which appeared to be the starting point for all desert tour vehicles. Here the tour driver proceeded to let out some air from the tires of his vehicle to improve traction in the loose sand and then away he went in a mad cavorting over hills and treacherous sand dunes. But the driver appeared to have let out too much air from his near rear tire to the effect it was nearly torn off the rim. Changing the tire took about a quarter hour, and it was made difficult by the soft loose sand which could not bear the weight of the heavy vehicle on the car jack. I wandered off a bit into the desert but not too far away, mindful of the possibility of walking into quicksand. The sand was quite soft and loose, rather like finely sieved dry silt soil. It also appeared highly siliceous, which might account for the anecdotal claim that the color changed all through the day. This should be made possible by the intensity of the sunlight and the angle at which the sun fell upon the sand. I took handfuls of the loose sand and let it slowly trickle back to the ground through my fingers, thinking that without doubt, the ancient hourglass must have been the invention of a desert dweller. At this time, the sun was on its way down and in the soft sunlight, the sand had a soft shiny milk-chocolate brown color.
The tire finally got changed and off we again went, the kids screaming merrily and I with my heart in my mouth wondering what a crazy mess I’d managed to get myself into this time. The persistent fear of a heart attack accompanied every minute of this nasty ride; this alternating with a belief that this silly driver would eventually roll the Land-cruiser over the side of a hill and we would all end up with broken necks. This torture lasted well over half an hour, after which the driver headed for the desert camp where we were going to be further entertained this evening. Alighting at last from the Land-cruiser, I thanked God for preserving my life.
The rendezvous was an enclosed desert compound with a single entrance about twelve feet wide; its high walls of raffia enclosed a quadrangle. Outside the compound a fellow offered a camel ride which I politely declined. I had by my estimation been lucky enough so far with the desert truck ride. However I had my photo taken instead, standing beside the bored beast which lay on the ground quietly chewing the cud. An old Bedouin asked me for ten Dirham to have my photo taken with his hooded falcon. I happily obliged, asking one of my fellow travelers to use my phone camera to take some photographs of me with the falcon perched on my arm, feeling quite like The Alchemist in Paulo Coelho’s eponymous book.
There were a row of cubicles near the entrance inside the fort. From one, you could get a Henna painting on your body, from another buy some iced drinks or coffee. From yet another, you could have your photograph professionally taken, wearing the traditional attire and also get the photo printed and framed for you to take away, all for about a hundred Dirham each. Alternatively, an adjacent booth enabled a do-it-yourself option. Here you could borrow a robe and headgear from a hanger and put these on, all for free; and then ask someone to take your photograph using your phone camera, and that was what I did.
At the center of the quadrangle was a raised stage about thirty feet square, and around which low tables and benches had been arranged; all so low that you may well be sitting on bare desert sand. Bright floodlights lit the stage. This rendezvous had been the converging point of several safari parties, so at this time we were about a hundred guests inside the fort. Still a bit shaken from the trip, I went to the complimentary drinks kiosk to get myself a free can of soda water. The Arab attendant seemed affronted that I had just taken my drink from the pile without first asking him. I apologized, but he still retrieved that which I had taken and gave me another can. His job done, he waved me a cheerful goodbye and I went to get my buffet dinner. It was a long queue to the buffet table; from there I carefully selected only the foods I recognized – rice, chicken, mutton, and vegetables.
The entertainment soon commenced. First on the podium was a man introduced as Mr. Tito. He was a tanoura dancer who proceeded to do an extremely vertiginous dance, spinning round and round for long minutes and somehow managing to keep his balance. He ended his act by suddenly becoming lit up with small lights all over him like a Christmas tree, all the while still spinning around. A bored-looking man came next to play a sort of bagpipe instrument which looked like it had been constructed from the skin of a goat. His music was completely incomprehensible to me, and I am sure to many in the audience. Then came the belly-dancer, her name escaped me; who commenced an elaborate and very enticing dance which I thought I also ought to enjoy but didn’t. I couldn’t think of any reason why I didn’t enjoy this too, other than it was just not my kind of music. The teasing dance, the suggestive hip rolls and thrusts went down well with a lot of the audience however.
Finally we had to leave. A couple of young American girls proudly demonstrated the hip thrusting move to their equally excited parents. They’d certainly learned much from the belly dancer. There was no wild dune bashing this time around, no loud pop music; it was a smooth ride back into Dubai, along the quiet highway through the even quieter desert. The Indian kids had opted to return with friends they had met at the fort and I was left with the driver’s mate and the Norwegian couple.
“We also have a desert back home,” I was telling the Norwegian couple.
As a matter of fact the desert sands in Northern Nigeria looked no different from the desert sands here in the desert of Dubai; not to me anyway. They were quite excited to hear this. The couple was leaving Dubai next morning and was happy to listen to an educative lecture from me about what my country looked like. I quite certainly had given them more knowledge about what some other parts of the world looked like, than they had expected to gain from this trip. They were even more excited to learn that I had lived in London and that I had my family in the USA. They certainly didn’t seem to have ever done much of travelling.