United Arab Emirates: Al Ain and Camel Markets

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Al Ain is called the Garden City of the UAE and it’s an hour and a half drive from Dubai. 30 years ago it was a 4 day trip across the desert. It’s now also the home of Wendy, a pretty special chicky with whom we have spent this past week. She’s a fellow English teacher, fellow Aquarian and fellow small white car driver (see below). I am in trouble now for not putting a comma after pretty.

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It’s been a fantastic, unforgettable visit.

We’ve also had some adventures: a plague of flies, the heaviest rainfall, thunder and lightening storms in a decade, a sick Wendy, a flooded apartment, and we’ve made a new record for the number of times a family can get lost on a fairly straightforward road system with the “Hilton Bl**dy Roundabout” at its epicentre.

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Aided by Wendy, we did find the camel souk behind Bewadi mall. Merchants from all over the country go there to buy and sell camels (and goats). It smells a bit in an exotic camelly way.

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Camels are very much a part of life here, and the wealth of a family was once determined by the number of camels it owned. The going rate, as at 22/11/13, for a breeding camel is 20000 Dirham or about 400€. This time of year is when camels generally have their babies – they are in heat from November to March and are pregnant for around 13 months. Like goats, female camels flick their tails up and down when ready to mate, to let the males know.

Camels are very well adapted for sparse water supplies. Their red blood cells are oval (the only mammal to have these) which means that blood can slip along the blood vessels even if a bit thick and gloopy because of lack of water. Their wee can be as thick as syrup to avoid water loss, and their dung is so dry it can be burnt as fuel immediately.

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Lots of things changed with the discovery of oil in the 1960s although the adoration of the late Sheikh Zayed by Emiratis is very evident (he’s the guy who helped put the UAE together in 1971). It’s National Day at the beginning of December and cars and roundabouts and houses are decorated with flags and pictures of the current and late Sheikh.

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We were conspicuous in the UAE not so much because of the red hair, but because we were driving a Fiesta in a sea of white 4x4s. That might be excepting the camel market where the going rate for red hair as at 22/11/13 must be about the same as a camel.

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Petrol is 25p a litre.

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The former Palace of Sheikh Zayed is in Al Ain. It looks for all the world like a very, very big sandcastle. The second picture above is actually another fort but it looks like a sandcastle too. I was worried about them in the rain. Sheikh Zayed, his 4 wives, 19 sons and 11 daughters lived there, and a tour round to see what life would have been like living there was fascinating. Another day we also saw the white tigers the current Sheika donated to the zoo, after a clean out at home.

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Rising up from behind Al Ain city, Jebel Hafeet is the second highest mountain in the UAE. Once we’d cleared H-B Roundabout, we drove, very ably in a Fiesta, up the 12km long road to the top for sunset and a view over the city and desert. The road is said to be one of the world’s biggest engineering feats and we read that car manufacturers often test new models on its 21 corners. The summit is actually in Oman.

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At the foot of the mountain is the Green Mubazzarah. It’s an unbelievable green blob in the middle of orange desert. They made it green because they can. There are hot volcanic springs and lots of places to have picnics, and find geocaches.

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For the first time, we were spotted by fellow geocachers en route to a find, and given a wink and a wave as they drove past. Geocaching is alive and kicking in Al Ain.

Katie, Wendy and I had a girly evening at a henna salon. Quite an experience for Katie. Everything here is, actually; the 5 calls to prayer a day, the burkas and abayas, the camels, the endless stream of white 4x4s with blacked out windows….

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The henna salon is bit like a blood donor bank, with rows of armchairs ready for women and girls to choose designs for their hands and/or feet.

Once the henna is painted on, it dries and falls off leaving the dye – a bit orangey until the next morning. Beautiful. But gradually smelling a bit camelly as the days pass.

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It was quite rainy this week in Al Ain (2 of the 9 days annual rainfall) – the heaviest rain in the past decade. Schools were closed, events were cancelled and the whole one and a half hour length of the Abu Dhabi road was flooded. Wendy’s apartment was flooded with sideways rain pouring through closed windows which were only designed for sunshine.

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Our last evening came around all too fast. The plan was to visit a Saudi takeaway for one of their amazing speciality dishes. Women can’t eat inside but you can wait outside for a takeaway. It all seemed very straightforward, if a little unfair. But our last evening in Al Ain was quite an event in itself.

Before the White Fiesta hunt started (see below) there was an explosion outside the restaurant. The radiator of the massive white Land Rover next to us burst in a cloud of steam and water jets. Then a little hand clad in black poked out from the drivers side, ushering a waiter over with flick of the wrists, to go and get help. Forgot to fill the radiator with water.

Through the last puffs of steam our food arrived. A MASSIVE round silver platter of chicken and rice went into the White Fiesta boot and the rest into Wendy’s car (the Henna Trio car). We pulled out onto the oh-so-complicated road system with the Fiesta following. We were heading to the Green Mubazzarah for a last night-time picnic and a dook in the volcanic springs. Maybe 3 seconds after The Henna Trio leader said “we should really have a mobile phone in each car” we lost the White Fiesta on our tail. So we veered off into the Al Ain night to track down a white car and anticipate what the occupants would do in the event of losing the only car which knew the way.

The Henna car was a little more anxious than the White Fiesta to be reunited because it only had the plastic cutlery and the salad in its boot. Half an hour, several false IDs and a retrace of steps, and the Henna car started to get really worried. About the chicken. They assumed that the White Fiesta would head home and not attempt to get to the Green Mubazzarah, past the H-B Roundabout, alone. But, alas, they were wrong and it was a zero pointer on Mr and Mrs.

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The White Fiesta made it to Green Mubazzarah, ate a load of chicken with no forks or salad, and then took a leisurely drive home to the starving Henna Trio. Who by then had had a few gins because it’s not illegal to buy or drink alcohol if you are discrete and you have been waiting for your chicken and rice dinner for hours.

Al Ain was a brilliant place to visit, particularly so with Wendy as our knowledgable guide (although her lack of knowledge about camels needs to be addressed). I have added a couple of links here
http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/news-expressive-faces-camels?image=9
http://www.marisamontes.com/all_about_camels.htm
to my mind, Wendy is also in the fortunate position of being able to speak to Emirati women, behind the black, about what is important to them in a modern Emirati society.

Katie and the boys got a taste of the culture, Islam, and scenery like the moon. The school books hardly came out, but they’ve probably learnt more than in any other week of their lives. That may all change next week; as I am writing this, they are sat on a plane to Bangkok filling out their Immigration arrival cards. Between food and Wolverine. Weeeheee!

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6 Replies to “United Arab Emirates: Al Ain and Camel Markets”

  1. Great account and photos! I could never imagine it raining in the UAE! Hope your transition to steamy Thailand is a good one.

    1. Cheers Bob. We weren’t imagining an inch of water – inside – either!

  2. Felicity WAtts says:

    Great photos, Jen, and loved your descriptions. Did you go to Dubai? I thought it the most over-the-top place I had seen! Thought you were touring Europe. Where do you go from BAngkok? AZustralia??

    1. We’re here for a month Phil and then head back to Spain. Via Dubai so will get to see the place for a bit. Fly Xmas day, like we did coming over to yours all those years ago :). If – when – we make it to Australia one day, we’d like to do it justice with a longer time – originally the dog was coming with us, so our time out of Europe was limited. xx

  3. Wonderful! More than I ever needed to know about camels. How nice you got to spend the week with Wendy; it must’ve been so much fun. Lovely lovely lovely.

    1. Lovely, lovely, lovely it was :). And you never know when you might need to know about camels in Slumdog Millionaire style. Good luck with your new adventure x

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