Yesterday was the second day of a two day orientation for the frosh at the UW Dubai campus. I was feeling a little sad for the frosh because they only got two days when there was a four day orientation on the main campus. By the end of the day I could not imagine that any frosh at any university could have had a better orientation experience. A day earlier, Peter, the logistics manager asked if any of the faculty wanted to join the students on a desert safari that would be the final activity of orientation. I said I would be happy to go on the trip because a desert safari was definitely on my list of things to do while I was in Dubai. Going with the students seemed like a great way to enjoy the adventure. None of the other faculty jumped at the chance, but in the end one of the professors, and the daughters of two other professors joined in the fun.
The safari was fantastic. We were picked up in SUVs at the university campus. Each SUV held seven people plus the driver. I was ushered to the front SUV, and ended up riding with someone who was hired to take video of the orientation activities, the 13-year old daughter of one of my colleagues, and three of the tutors would would be working on campus for the term. Our driver, Amir, was also the person who was clearly in charge of the entire operation. About 15 SUVs headed out to the desert approximately 40 km outside of Dubai. I think we were near the border of Sarjah, one of the other emirates in the U.A.E., but quite honestly I really do not have my bearings yet. Since I am being driven everywhere, I have not had to think about directions. I hope that I will develop a better sense in the next couple of weeks.
As we got closer to the turn off for the beginning of the safari, I noticed some red flags in the desert. I thought this might be used for navigation on the safari, and that turned out to be the case. As we approached the safari launching point, the off ramp we used had sand drifts, the similar to snow drifts you would see in the winter in Canada. All of the SUVs from the company gathered together and left at approximately the same time. When we reached the launching point, we got out to walk around a bit. While we were wandering, the drivers were taking air out of the tires.
Most, but not all, of the passengers were the University of Waterloo frosh and the orientation leaders. While we were waiting for the vehicles to be prepared, they got a group shot on one of the dunes. Peter had suggested that I wear sandals on the safari, and I was very grateful for the suggestion. If I had worn running shoes, they would have been full of sand immediately upon getting out of the SUV; with every step I sunk about three or four inches into the desert. Walking in bare feet was actually the best way to move around, except that the sand was a little hot.
After ten or fifteen minutes we loaded back into the SUV and headed to the dunes. I had seen a video shot from a phone of this from my colleague Barry who taught in Dubai in the winter. I had some idea of what was going to happen, so I pulled out my phone and tried to take a video. The quality of the video is terrible, but it will at least evoke some memories for me anytime I watch it. Honestly it is probably not worth watching more than a few seconds, but if you do get as far as 2 minutes in, don’t worry, just the camera flipped. We were up and down, and banking sand dunes that were more than twenty or thirty feet high. At some points, we were sliding down the banks at an angle so steep that it felt that we would flip over. Someone had told me that the ride is like a roller coaster, and that was a great way to describe it. I said to the other people in vehicle that “it was like a roller coaster” and one of the tutors (Johnathan) added “except it’s real”. I wish I had come up with that line myself.
As we stopped to let the videographer get some shots of the vehicles behind us, one of the other SUVs stopped and started letting the passengers out. I thought someone had been sick in the back of the vehicle, but it turned out that the it had mechanical problems. We drove a bit further, and Amir flagged down the vehicles that had passed us. He asked us to move into spots in other SUVs while he went back to “rescue” the people from the disabled vehicle we had left behind. Our new driver took us to a spot which is great to take pictures of the sunset on the desert. He definitely liked to bank the vehicle and throw up a spray of sand similar to what you would see when a waterskier makes a cut. One spray actually coated the windshield. As we were moving along it was also reminiscent of a line of snow mobiles following a wonderfully bumpy trail.
We ended the ride at a camp that has camel rides, henna, and bar-b-q dinner among other things. My colleague’s daughter and I headed for the camel rides first. This was like a pony ride you would have when you were a kid. There were three camels tethered together. Each camel could hold two passengers. Once six people had mounted the camels, each animal rose one at a time, starting with the camel in the front. Then we were taken in a loop that took about 30 seconds to complete. When we returned to the starting point, the camels knelt down again, one at a time, to let us dismount. Getting up, and kneeling down were the most exciting part of the experience. It was fascinating to watch – as the camels front and rear knees bent in opposite directions, and it was quite jolting while riding.
After the camel ride, we headed in to the sheltered area. When I say sheltered, it had walls, but no roof. We got a drink and then headed to the henna stall. As the henna was applied, it looked like a thin stream of chocolate icing. I didn’t really know what to expect, and it was quite thick in places. The artist added the pattern very quickly. Everyone in line got basically the same pattern on their palms, unless you were willing to pay extra. For the extra fee a pattern could be applied further up your arm or on other parts of your body. some of the students, including some of the male students, had more elaborate patterns on their forearms and biceps. A couple of tips if you get henna applied. First, make sure you keep your palm flexed outwards, or you will smudge the pattern. My pattern is smudged around some of the creases of my hand. A second suggestion is that you eat before you put henna on your hand if possible. You have to let it dry, and then it will flake off without staining. A few people commented about how dark my henna is today. I don’t know if I have skin that takes to the dye very well, or the fact that I sweat so much helped with the darkening process. I do know that I should keep out of the pool for the next couple of days to extend its life.
After getting a snack before the bar-b-q, it was time to see the belly dancer. I missed the watching anyone try sandboarding. There just was not time for everything. The dancing was fine, but it was not the most memorable part of the experience for me – some of the young men in the crowd might disagree. She did have a good rapport with the audience though. We were all seated on pillows around tables that surrounded the stage. She would come to the edge of the stage and play up to individuals – especially those who would shy away from the attention. After the belly-dancing performance, and some pressure from a 13-year old girl, I briefly tried smoking shisha. I choked a bit on it, and was not that interested in sitting there. It was very hot, because they needed to keep a fire going for the coals. The most intriguing part of that experience was that there was a falcon tethered to a perch who appeared to be on guard.
Finally the bar-b-q was available, and we ate dinner at our tables seated on pillows. The evening ended with a tanoura dance performance. I had never seen or heard about this style of dance. A male dancer in a multi-coloured coat, with a mournful look, started spinning. At first he held five tambourines as he spun. After he dropped those, he peeled off one of the scarves on his head and spun while he flourished it. He continued with a couple of more scarves, and then dropped those. So far, I was not that impressed. Next the lights were dimmed and his coat and skirt had L.E.D. lights that gave a nice effect. As he continued the he removed the coat and he wore it more like a cloak. At about this point, I realized that the dancer had not stopped spinning. While I was sitting watching, I was dripping with sweat from the heat. This man had been spinning continuously for about 10 minutes. The dance continued as he removed the coat, and then a the skirts he was wearing. The dance finished with him spinning the skirt above his head while he lay on the stage. In the end he had been spinning for more the 15 minutes, with a costume that weighs more than 25 kg. to start, and I was incredibly impressed. After he finished his dance, he brought up some members of the audience to try to spin with the cloak. While he was encouraging each of the rookie dancers he was smiling and very animated. The mournful expression must have been part of the performance. The whole thing reminded me of the first time I saw “Quick Change” at a Raptor’s halftime show. They have since appeared on “America’s Got Talent. I remember thinking that the act was incredibly cheesy as I sat and watched the first few minutes of the performance. But by the end I was fascinated by the number of dresses this woman changed into, and I was completed entertained. However, physically there is no comparison here – the dancing was incredibly demanding. Next to the ride through the dunes, the tanoura dancer was the best part of the trip for me.
Soon after the dance performance was done we drove back to the highway on a relatively direct route. We reached the highway at a random point, and just crossed over four lanes and a sandy median to get back on the pavement and head back to Dubai. The lights of the city were very pretty as we got close to home. Amir dropped us off right in front of the hotel. Overall, one of my most memorable travel experiences. I recommend it to anyone who visits the U.A.E.