Friday, February 12, 2010

The Beauty of Abu Dhabi Part Ith-Nain

Okay, "Ith-nain" is Arabic for "two."
The beaches of Abu Dhabi are really nice. And the water, in every direction looks like Scope mouthwash. Yet in fifteen months as an expat, I have never stepped into the water here. I don't know why.

I have spent a great deal of time in the desert. Much of it alone. Watch for another posting on my desert photos and you may understand why. To me the desert is peace. Quiet. Surreal even, as you watch the sun set over the majestic dunes.

But my fondest memories of the UAE will include special friends like Pieter, Issa, and Bahaee who took me out to the desert in their nice SUVs for some "dune-bashing." Simply stated, dune-bashing is an attempt to destroy your Land Cruiser in one afternoon while having fun doing it. Find some nice dunes just outside of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Liwa, or Dubai and leave the pavement behind.

Dune bashing is great fun even when you are spending much of your time getting your vehicle, buried to the axles in sand, unstuck. Or helping someone else.

I was out once again with friends recently in an area just outside of Abu Dhabi. The dunes were perfect and we were having a great time. On this particular trip we had Mitsubishi, Honda, and Nissan SUVs in play.

We thought we had the desert to ourselves. After a couple of hours of fun, we noticed a vehicle off in the distance that didn't seem to be moving. We continued with the fun for a few more minutes, then decided to head in that direction. We thought we were on some sort of rescue mission--maybe the vehicle, an SUV, was stuck or having engine trouble. Over the dunes we went.
As we drew near, other vehicles had already arrived. But this was no rescue mission. This was a step into the Twilight Zone.

We had stumbled into what would become a rare treat for many in the UAE, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for expats like us.

Young Emiratis had gathered to train their young falcons in the desert, and they immediately treated us like family. They had no idea who we were, and we didn't know them. It didn't matter. Hospitality like this is common here, and we were experiencing it. They allowed, no, they invited us to sit with them and observe as they worked individually with each of the half-dozen falcons perched in front of us. Most of these preditory birds were wearing blinders.

Our friend Issa, fluent in Arabic, helped us chat with these guys as they worked with the falcons. Most of the birds came from Britain. Once trained, they would be used to hunt in the Gulf region, including Iran.

Each handler, working with his own falcon would rotate through the training ritual. The falcon would be carried about a half-kilometer away in another vehicle. The handler, working near where we were, would use a decoy attached to a rope to attract (and train) his bird of prey.

Watching this part was nothing short of magical. Half hunter, and half matador, the hanldler worked with the decoy to have the falcon come close enough, without getting it. Each falcon was allowed to dine on what might have been fresh quail, which they consumed right in front of us.

If the hospitality had stopped there, we would have already been indebted to our new friends. But it didn't.

One of these wonderful young men asked if we had ever held a falcon on our wrists. When most responded no, the real fun began. A blind-folded falcon was brought out, and we each took turns holding it. You don't get to do this very often. It was kind of the bird to allow it, but even kinder of these great hosts to offer it. This was truly a Twilight Zone adventure. What we thought was going to be a rescue mission, turned out to be the real beauty of Abu Dhabi, once again, on display.

Although we may never see these young men again, we are truly grateful for their warm hospitality. During our stay with them, two or three other vehicles pulled up. When another Emirati stepped out, another "marhaba," (welcome!) was extended to us.

I will never forget the dunes of the UAE, but most of all, I will never forget the kindness of these young falconers. To them I say, "Shukran," thank you!

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