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The Desert Oasis of Abu Dhabi

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | Monday, 5 April 2010 | Views [625]

Well, I couldn't use the camels having right of way again as the title. That's just flogging a joke too hard. However, it's not really a joke. We did sit behind another car AND a truck while a driver rode his camel, and led another, across the busy roundabout. It was a sight to behold and a characteristic part of our fantastic weekend away in Al Ain. Filled with lush oases, Al Ain is the Garden City of Abu Dhabi, and it's quite incredible to see just how much greenery is there! This is also the place with the highest population of Nationals (Emirati) in the Emirates, which makes for a wonderful experience. Places like Al Ain are the reason we moved to the other side of the world. It takes a good hour and a half (possibly more) to drive to Al Ain from Dubai, which is inland in Abu Dhabi and pretty much on the border of Oman, though expats can't enter Oman from there. To the Nationals, it was famous for being the birthplace of the first President of the UAE with a rich history around the oases and their underground water springs, which still use an ancient irrigation system to nourish the thousands of date palms to this day. It's quite a sight to behold the community treasuring this simple and traditional life, including their history of camel breeding and racing! Camels still have right of way here, no matter what you drive.

It is a quiet and peaceful community, far removed from the cosmopolitan nature of Dubai. If Dubai is Brisbane city, Al Ain is Toowoomba (Melbourne City vs. Rye for the Victorians, and Andrew has mentioned it's like Palmerston North for the Kiwis) and a very welcome escape to tranquility. Sure, there are still cars, shops, roads, buses, a mall, and all the amenities, but it's all at a slower pace and less tightly packed. Though still establishing itself as a tourist destination, Al Ain has a few great little tourist hotspots! The Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum was a fabulous way to have a look at how the Emirati royalty chose to live, and a great indicator of their philosophy on life. Opened to the public in the last ten years, and still used by the Royal Family before that, it was the holiday residence tucked away in the greenest city around. Amenities such as washrooms and sleeping quarters were very simple. A bed, possibly a cushioned seat, and some space to move around. Plenty of vents for the air to flow through, but that was pretty much it. Journey downstairs however, and you find rows of coffee rooms, gathering rooms, mothers' rooms, servant rooms and the like, all built for communal sharing of sweetened teas and coffee, dates and light conversation. Hospitality is the essential focus here, and decadence is only a consequence of giving to others*.

Our next stop at the National Museum in Al Ain found us in a tent outside of the museum compound sitting with Emirati men drinking cardamom coffee and eating dates. We were all walking by, and a quick look into the tent leads to the waving of hands and invitations to join. As it's offensive to decline, we had to join them, but we would have anyway. There's not a lot to be said once you settle yourself onto the camel hair rug, as the language is still a barrier, but the hospitality remains with body language and gestures, and we all still laughed in the same language! I can't wait to take up a course in Arabic just for the sake of being able to communicate and make an effort, which is always appreciated. We finished munching our way through dates before bidding our thanks and farewells before heading to the women's tent** to buy handmade gifts and eat more amazing stuff! I don't know what it was, but it involved filo pastry, a cream cheese of some sort, and crushed pistachios - heaven! We finally made our way to the museum where it was good to have a look at some of the history, jewellery and weaponry of days gone by, but nothing beats that kind of interaction from outside the museum. Awesome.Moving past the museum attractions we drove along the highway to look at the camels, as the camel farms line the highways in the winter. I don't know where they hide in the summer, but rows of happy, happy camels chew their way through the days on the side of the highways to their heart's content. Venture a little further off the road though, and you can make your way down to the camel racing tracks to watch the Nationals training their herd. We were lucky enough to see some running by as we were driving up, so Andrew jumped out camera in hand to take photos of the group as they passed by. Waving hello was a simple gesture to say thanks for the shot, however this guy pulled up his entire pack to stop so Andrew could take photos! The Emirati are so willing to share with people who come here, it's a shame that so many have come here to earn their money and live in their own little secluded expat world. Once you reach out a little, you only get rewarded with kindness and generosity. Though Andrew didn't climb through the fence to pat the camels on that day, I'm sure they wouldn't have minded if he did. We continued on our merry way with a very happy Andrew sitting in the front seat....

These small attractions were fun, but nothing could prepare us for what was coming next - Jebel Hafeet. We had to climb twenty minutes up the Hafeet Mountain in the car. Now in Australia, this would often be tricky with patches of unsealed roads, difficult turns, unsteady availablility of overtaking lanes and dozens of cars unprepared for the climb. In the UAE, there is none of that business. Built purely for access to the Royal Palace positioned at the top, the 12 kilometres of three lane road (two lanes for climbing) for the ascent to 1200-odd metres high was immaculate and an incredibly smooth ride. Many know that I don't travel very well, particularly around mountains. For the first time in my life, I made it to the top of the mountain without gasping for air and clutching for the car door at the top. Once you get there, you get a full panoramic view of Al Ain, the Empty Quarter out to Saudi Arabia, and all the red-sanded desert you could ever travel half-way around the world for. With nothing but a parking lot, palace and hotel at the top, it's not somewhere you could spend the whole day, but heck, I'd give up a whole day just to get there. It's a stark reminder of exactly where you are in the world: the desert.

And I love it.

*In the Bedouin (nomadic) cultures, no person in the desert is ever left to survive for themselves. If a traveller comes to a community in need of food, water and rest, it will be granted, and that community will then take responsibility for that traveller until they pass them along to the care of others. There is safe passage for all, and it's passed on into modern life in the provision of fantastic hospitality and care for strangers. A wonderful way to live!

**Separation of men and women socially is still deeply ingrained in the culture. Leeana explained to us that in an Emirati wedding, traditional couples still may not see each other while engaged, though they may be able to communicate by phone, text messages and the sending of gifts for up to a year.


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