Monday, March 16, 2015

tent time

my piece of heritage gear- a kind of leaning seat
And now for a topic near and dear to my heart: camping! Camping in the UAE, especially desert camping, is part of the local history. They even have a section of gear in some outdoor shops labeled "heritage camping". Heritage camping goods are things like heavy canvas backed carpets, glass and. china tea or coffee sets for 10 or 20 people in clever carrying cases with space for the dallah (traditional coffee pot). I bought seat I haven't taken out yet (maybe next weekend) because I'm always so conscious of not bringing too much gear since I rely on others for rides. More on that below. I was talking to an Emirati woman at work- she's in her 20s. She says basically: Our parents lived in the desert. They like to go back to go camping, it's how they used to live. She told a story about driving around with her aunt who was pointing to one part of a big indistinguishable dune landscape and saying it was called this and then to another area- looked the same as the first- to say it was called that, but to the younger generation, it's just all one desert.

one of our desert camps- my favorite so far
Camping here for me is both more difficult and also much easier than the sort of camping I do in the US. Here, there's never a shortage of places, no need for reservations or permits or fees. There are no elaborate rules about where you can go, when you can burn fires, how many cars you can have at your site. This is because you can camp pretty much anywhere that isn't obviously someone's yard or an official park. The challenge, however, is to get to a site that pleases you.

 I'm nuts about the desert camping that I've been able to do but I'm also totally reliant on other people to get me there and back. You need a 4wd vehicle, you should air down your tires, you need to confidently keep moving over dunes even when you can't see what's over the next crest because as a driver, if you slow down, scream a little and cover your eyes, like I tend to do as a passenger, you'll probably get stuck. You can't really go alone unless you've got some kind of back-up help on call. But once you find your place in the dunes, it's nothing but fine, soft sand in ripples and crests, taking on golden colors at sunset. It's nights full of stars and silence or maybe the sound of the campfire crackling... Well after all your loud friends go to bed, that is! I just love it all.

this flat spot in the mountains had once been some kind of farm

Then there's the mountain camping,sometimes  near the wadis or valleys and ravines. Once again, 4wd is likely to be important as is some knowledge of a flat spot. Much of the mountain terrain is quite rocky and the nice, wide, flatter spots have been snapped up by local farmers. My only night in the mountains so far was weirdly misty and damp but everything burned off in the morning and we explored the nearby foundations and rock storage structures.

I was just introduced to a beach camp spot this past weekend, over near Khorfakan, in the eastern region of the country. While there was a traditional sandy beach part, tides this time of year made it a little small for our group and we knew it was slated to get even a bit smaller before the tides turned again so we set up on a little rise, just 20 or so yards/ meters away from the beach and above a shore area of cool, surf pounded rocks harboring crabs and the occasional sea urchin. There were a lot of nice things about this spot but it was plagued with one of the big problems in the
the trashy (foreground) and the sublime (that sea!)
country: garbage/ litter/ dumping. There were parts of this lovely cove where people had dumped broken ceramic toilet bowls, old tires, diapers, broken glass, plastic sheeting. You name it. Luckily we could set up camp largely away from the worst of it but even where we were the clearing was ringed with mesquite trees, giving us a good place to wander off and use "the little camper's room" in private. But the trees were also a magnet for no end of plastic and cloth trash. I wanted to start picking up like mad, but I also felt overwhelmed, and like I needed way more trash bags and room to haul out trash than we had. I also wanted to gloves, some of that stuff was nasty- next time I'm going prepared. But one of my favorite bits about this site is that I can drive there myself without 4wd and big off road skills and I guess that's attractive to others too, leading to the trash. The Gulf waters, all blue green beautiful were another huge bonus. So refreshing to float a bit among tiny (seemingly non-stingy) jellyfish in the morning before packing up for the 1.5 hour ride home.

I think there's a market for some entrepreneurial Emirati to offer up a semi developed campground, reachable in a sedan but with the beautiful seclusion  and starry skies of the desert or maybe a rustic, mountainside campground, with a port-a-potty and a hiking trail, a couple of fire rings and picnic tables, I think expats with tents and coolers would flock to a place like that. Or would pay good money for a laid back sandy beach spot where they could throw up a tent with a cement block bathhouse and a little non- salt water to rinse off after a swim. I guess that might take away some of the adventure though, and there'd probably have to be rules... for now, I'll keep bumming rides in 4x4s or finding the non-trashy corner of the beach to enjoy one of my favorite ways to spend a night.
at beach camp- the view from the water looking back was pretty nice too

part of the beach camp shoreline was rocks with these creepy-cool barnacles
one more from sunrise desert camp

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Friday around town

scraping bubbly cheese onto my plate
Did a little exploring this weekend. First up was the Ripe Market at Zabeel Park. While it's advertised as an organic farmers market, after visiting, I'd describe it more as a single veggie stand surrounded by a lot of craft and food booths. That said, it had a nice vibe- a big mix of nationalities all out enjoying lovely weather and a nice park and some really yummy food choices. I sampled homemade honey nougat, a cheese I can't pronounce, a dark chocolate and banana snack food that may be the thing that brings me back, houmous, olive oil, pickles... And then, I settled on raclette for breakfast. It's a Swiss delight, kind of in the fondue family if you're not familiar. They heat a hunk of cheese using a clever device until it gets brown and bubbly and then scrape that cheese off and on top of something like crusty bread and salty meat. I paired it with a Pakistani mango lassi (yogurt shake) from the Moti Roti booth- and learned that Moti means fat and Roti is a flatbread, they make their flatbreads fat by wrapping them around some sort of spicy filling. I could have selected grilled sausages from my favorite Australian butcher, poutine or crepes from the Maple Leaf, the Canadian place, all manner of Lebanese street food, burgers, and I can't actually remember what other choices. All in all, produce-wise, it's not going to hold a candle to say, picking blueberries in Michigan or getting the first, perfectly ripe Brigham City peaches at the SLC Downtown Farmers' Market, but once I let go of my hopes for abundant fruit/veggie options, I enjoyed people watching, sampling and eating on a bench in a pretty park quite a bit.

my weak sketch of the bit of my daily drive between 2 palaces
On my way home, still fairly early on a Friday morning, the perfect time to take a "Sunday drive" as it were, I cut through some back streets surrounding the royal palaces, stables, and a whole neighborhood (Zabeel 2) that I can only guess is full of people with some "wasta" (aka clout/ connections/ prestige). There were signs indicating that photographs are not allowed which is a shame, it's a lovely neighborhood and the palaces are awesome looking- the one has a horse drawn chariot rising from the roof, looking rather like Il Vittoriano in Rome and behind/ beside the other there is a large and elegant mosque. My daily drive to work takes me past an exit marked "Private Access" and then under a roundabout that shoots off to giant palaces- residences for the extended family of His Royal Highness, VP of the nation and ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid, on either side of the road- clearly off limits for me. I can see them down long, landscaped entry roads, however. And in driving around the neighborhood that is semi in the shadow of the palaces, I spotted a peacock and a random pen of well groomed long-haired sheep or goats in amongst the lovely homes, most flying the UAE flags high and proud.
In the afternoon, I took my new foldable bike to the nearby former camel racecourse turned cycle
track. I chose a fold up bike in part for easy transport since I think it's likely that I'll often drive to the places I ride to avoid trying to navigate the street traffic. there are rumored to be several tracks set aside for cycling and I'll be checking them all out in time. This one, Nad al Sheba, has the grandstands left over from camel racing days at 2 different places along the path. The first near where you park, also features changing rooms and a small park and a tiny kids track. I was a little unclear of where to
skyline view from abandoned grandstand
ride and so at first followed some pavement out into an area where there were about a dozen cricket matches in full swing. I realized I was not on the main tracks at that point and veered toward another biker until I spotted the purpose-built paved path with solar lights and painted kilometer markers.There are a couple of loops of various lengths- 4, 6 and 8km, I think. It feels a bit random, cycling a loop in a flat expanse of desert. There's some nice views of the city skyline in one direction and of the fancy new horse racing complex in the other direction, some very ugly power lines, some temporary walls blocking a construction site (and the wind, handily enough), and the second empty grandstand which I stopped to checkout. I think if I start riding the loops with any regularity I'm going to wind up coming up with some sort of "grandstand passing moves", I'll ride like the stands are full and cheering me on!
solar lights, ugly power lines, nice track
new horse racing track view