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Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2 - Dubai

We began the day at a hospital and almost ended at a police station. Not satisfied with an extravagant shopping experience that satiates the average tourist in Dubai, Lauren and I decided to go on a ‘desert safari’ – not too outlandish (as was evident by the multitude of other visitors there) but unique in our own, unforgettable way.

The day started as most often do not, with a quick trip to Dubai’s (hopefully not) finest public hospital. Arriving at a vehicle gate – the only entrance I could see without a padlock on it – we found a couple of bored-looking security guards, to whom I promptly made the hand signal commonly used for “I need a vaccine” before awkwardly realizing that they spoke English.

I need a vaccine, where do I go?

“Follow the road then turn right.”

The ‘hospital’ was essentially a series of white, one-story buildings that had obviously seen better days. Overgrown foliage everywhere, especially on what seemed to be a playground in the distant past, didn’t help the picture. Finally we found the ‘Travelers Clinic,” from where I would be inoculated and, lo and behold, yellow fever was injected into my system.

After the hospital, we walked back to the hotel through a neighborhood that probably could’ve just have easily been in Mumbai. Dubai is basically an extension of India with a few Arabs – distinctly dressed in white robes to differentiate themselves from the proletariat – scattered about to periodically remind you that you’re still in the Middle East.

For those that have an urge to experience Arab culture in Dubai, the hotel (and no doubt Lonely Planet ‘experts’) recommended the spice and gold souks just down the road. Unfortunately, even in November, the walk along the Dubai Creek from the hotel to the markets was borderline oppressively hot, leaving yours truly in a not-so-happy mood. Add to that the fact that the souk was child’s play compared to Istanbul’s – even Ankara’s – markets… Lauren and I decided to return to the Radisson to enjoy one of their 14 (no joke) restaurants.

Some very tasty/pricey Chinese food later, it was time to be picked up for the first of two ‘safaris’ we would take on this vacation. This one appropriately has the word ‘desert’ attached to the front and, before long, Lauren and I were weaving through afternoon Dubai traffic courtesy of our, you guessed it, Indian tour guide/driver. The Land Cruiser was thankfully equipped with AC and copious amounts of Michael Jackson throwbacks, not to mention a decorative Toyota hood ornament that probably was not standard issue. Crammed into the very back of the car, Lauren promptly fell asleep while I feared for our lives, all the while waving to drivers that my new young Indian friend had just cut off.

Finally we arrived at the turnoff point to the middle of no where.

“Please seat belt.”

No problemo chief.

After some discussion, Lauren and I decided that our fellow three passengers were friends of the driver. Unfortunately it’s hard to know for sure because we were summarily ignored (not that I’m complaining about that part) and, alas, do not speak Hindi. In any case, it was time for our guide to put on his proverbial cape and take us on a ride we would never forget.

Dune-bashing, as it is called, consists of the driver driving skillfully (or recklessly) over a series of sand dunes, giving the passengers a roller-coaster-like experience, complete with grabbing anything you can and a nagging sense of nausea. Finally, the bashing ceased inexplicably in the middle of a circle of dunes; it was time for pictures and/or catching one’s breath. For me, it was time to actively keep my fried rice in my stomach where it belonged.

Done with our first bout of maniacal driving, we were dropped off at what appeared to be a cross between a desert zoo and luna park, except that bumper cars were replaced with four-wheelers and the main attraction was an understandably irate camel.

Our driver lowered the air in the tires, apparently to give us more traction in the sand, and we were off again. We had been told that the evening would eventually end in dinner at a Bedouin camp in the middle of the desert, but to get there we would have to bash some more dunes. Don’t get me wrong, I was simultaneously impressed and thrilled by the experience that was, I must say, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Those of you that know me know that roller coasters aren’t my favorite pastime, but this was a separate experience altogether – not for the faint of heart and definitely not for children.

After a quick stop to catch the setting sun across the vast expanse of sand (Lauren’s question: are there more grains of sand on the earth that stars in the sky? Think about it…), we met up with another Ibex Travel Land Cruiser and continued our quest.

It was about that time that our experience became a little more interesting. The techniques used by our driver, skillful though they may have been, had seemed to us a bit reckless the entire trip. Whether to impress his friends or give the white people in the back the time of our lives, I sensed that therewas a fine line between thrill and danger. As he approached a steep incline sideways, the car in front deftly angled the hood towards the sky, in essence skidding the vehicle along until it found more level ground. Our driver attempted the same feat, but half way through we felt the left two tires slowly lift off the ground…

Here we go, was all I managed to murmur as our bodies strained against the seat belt, the car first turning over onto its roof then continuing the roll down the hill, ultimately coming to rest right-side up after sliding a few more feet at an awkward angle.

I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Luckily everyone was fine and Lauren immediately reveled in the fact that not many people would’ve had the experience of rolling over in a car in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. I agreed, but also wondered if I’d get my money back.

The car was eventually dislodged from its resting place by the more experienced driver (our young guy was visibly shaken) and we got back in to continue on. Unfortunately for all, this didn’t last long as something was obviously very wrong with one of the tires, not to mention the spider-webbed windshield that threatened to shatter at any moment. Funny how that happens after a wreck…

This leads us to the Al Madam Police Station. The following bit is entirely my guess as to what happened since my Arabic seemed to be the strongest out of all the passengers and our driver was having trouble lifting his chin off his chest long enough to translate. My guess is that we had come to this desert outpost so that we could all file witness statements as part of the police report needed for insurance purposes. One by one we all stumbled through giving our names (translating Lauren into Arabic was fun), birthdates, etc. to the not-so-amused officer obviously annoyed by the interruption to his people watching activities.

In any case, after the near hour-long detour, we re-started our journey to the elusive desert oasis hungry, amused, and wearing our seat belts. We had switched cars but kept our driver who seemed to be slightly more cautious although still prone to weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds. I guess some people never learn.

The night finally ended with a tasty and touristy dinner preceded by some henna for Lauren and followed by a performance by an angular and slightly manly faced, albeit talented, belly dancer. Needless to say, the first day of our two week trip had been interesting and we were very glad to be back at the hotel later that night.