Getting out of the city

Well it has been a week since I was last able to write a blog entry. This is midterm time at the university – which is busy for both the students and for me. Last week was relatively uneventful. While my family and friends were celebrating Thanksgiving, I was at work. I guess I will get my revenge in November when I have a holiday and they don’t.

There was one memorable incident last week. While I was going to the grocery store after work one day, I witnessed a car accident. It was just a fender-bender (or rather a fender shatterer) between a taxi and another vehicle. I couldn’t really tell you who was at fault – they were both criss-crossing lanes when the front of the car clipped the taxi’s back bumper. Both vehicles quickly pulled off to the side of the road. The most interesting thing about the incident was a second taxi immediately pulled in behind the other two vehicles. Within 10 seconds, the passenger in the taxi hopped out of the car and jumped into the other taxi. Without hesitation, the second taxi took off with his new passenger in tow. I continued on my way to the store while the two drivers involved in the accident were out of their vehicles yelling at each other.

JBR WalkOn Wednesday, we were back to our dining out tradition. This time we ate at a restaurant in the Jumeirah Beach Residence area close to the marina. The restaurant was called Barbecue Delights and it offered a buffet of Pakistani food. Of course we all ate too much – as buffets tend to encourage. It was finally cool enough in the evening, so we were able to eat outside. The temperature was perfect, and there was a full moon that night. This area has quite a few hotels and restaurants, and it is one of the most pedestrian friendly parts of the city I have seen so far. While we ate we saw lots of people walking by, and several people jogging. There was also a stream of cars driving on the cobblestone street in a scene reminiscent of American Graffiti.  We ended the evening with a walk across the street to the public beach on the gulf, before heading home on the metro.

On Saturday several of the Waterloo faculty took a trip to Al Ain, which is a city in the interior of the Abu Dhabi. It is about 140 km from Dubai, and one of my colleagues (Peter) had arranged to have our driver take a group of us for a day trip. The major features of Al Ain were purported to be the oasis and the mountain. In the end, a group of ten of us, plus our driver Mohammed, headed to Al Ain at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. On my way down to the bus, I encountered my neighbour – whom I had spoken to a few times before. I said that I was heading to Al Ain for the day and and he told me that the best restaurant in the city was called Leisure. This turned out to be a lucky break.

The drive to Al Ain took us through the desert towards Oman. The highway itself is protected by some vegetation which I suspect is maintained in an effort to keep sand off the road. The scenery was nice, despite the fact that it was most just sand with a few shrubs thrown in. On occasion we would catch a glimpse of a herd of domestic camels.  The sand itself had a red tinge to it, and there were a few spectacular dunes to be seen.

When we arrived in Al Ain our driver took us directly to the oasis. Al Ain OasisThere was a gate at the entrance, but there didn’t seem to be anyone attending it. We drove inside along a cobblestone pathway, that I would never have assumed you should drive on. It was pretty narrow and had walls on either side. There were several forks along the way so it was not clear where we were supposed to go to find the oasis. At one point, we passed a truck parked at the side of the road. There were some workers there too, and Mohammed asked them where we should go. They directed us further in the same general direction we had been traveling. I didn’t think we could get past their truck, but somehow Mohammed squeezed by. A few hundred metres down the road, it opened up and Mohammed parked the bus. We all got out and started to wander around to look for the oasis. It still wasn’t clear to us how to find it. A few minutes later, one of my colleagues said that he asked another worker where we should go, and he was told that we had to go back to the gate where we originally entered. We all climbed back into the bus and headed back to the gate.

As it turns out, we were in the oasis the whole time. I was fooled by the fact that there didn’t appear to be any water. I am still not sure if there is actually an above ground source of water or not. It appears that the water comes mostly, if not completely, from underground boreholes. The pathways in the oasis were lined with date trees, and I think that it would have been nice just to walk along in the shade of the trees. Unfortunately, we never really got that chance.

When we returned to the parking lot adjacent to the gate we saw the Al Ain National Museum. You might think that a National Museum houses a very large display, but this museum was quite small. Based on my past experiences, I know that I do not like museums. I have been to several, including the Louvre, the Museum of Antiquities in Athens, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the golf museum in St. Andrew’s. Although I can appreciate the value of them, I find museums tedious. This museum did not really have anything that grabbed my attention. It did include some archeological finds that dated back over 5000 years which is quite impressive, but I was ready to leave at any time. So far, Al Ain was a bit of a disappointment.

After about a half an hour in the museum, everyone was ready to move on. We got some directions to the Leisure restaurant from the woman at the reception desk. I suspect anyone who has spent time in the U.A.E. will tell you, getting directions from someone is always a bit of a gamble. Essentially, the directions were to go back out to the main road and turn left, and then turn right at a mosque and then make two more right turns and we would get to the restaurant. Using a mosque as a landmark is not a good idea. There are mosques everywhere, and they are not easy to identify by name as you are driving around. We saw a mosque to the left as we were driving, and we were not sure if that was the right landmark or not. To make a long story a bit shorter, we did find a second mosque where we turned right, and after a bit of a detour, Liz spotted the restaurant. One u-turn later, we were able to park and head inside for lunch.

The restaurant offered a Lebanese buffet for 55 dirhams. Everyone seemed very happy with this deal. Once again the food was good and we all ate too much. I was surprised that we seemed to be the only people eating there. When I did walk around a bit, I saw an emirate couple who were tucked in behind some wooden screens. I don’t know if they were there for privacy or if they wanted to segregate themselves from tourists like us. There was also an area in the back of the restaurant that offered separate rooms for women who wanted to smoke shisha. Generally speaking Al Ain appears to be more conservative than Dubai. In particular there seems to be quite a bit of separation based on gender – including separate banking facilities.

After a filling lunch, we headed back to the oasis to look for the Al Ain Palace. It was supposed to be at the opposite end of the oasis from the museum. We got back to the museum gate, and headed through the oasis. Again, after a bit of a detour, we were able to find the palace. Al Ain is the birth place of Sheikh Zayed, who was the “father of the U.A.E.”. The main road through the centre of Dubai is called Sheikh Zayed Road. The palace was the home he lived in until 1966. After we entered the grounds I saw a sign for tour guides. There was no charge for the “tour”. The guide told me to gather everyone to the reception area. We were offered Arabic coffee and dates before the tour began. We were taken to the family tree room, where our guide gave us an overview of the royal family from Sheikh Zayed’s grandfather to his children.Al Ain Palace outside There were pictures of all of the male members of the royal family in the room, but none of the female members.

Sheikh Zayed appears to have been a popular leader. He seemed to emphasize education and healthcare for the people of Abu Dhabi. All of his sons have had formal university-level education, although he was never educated in a school himself. One of the hospitals that was built in Al Ain is referred to as the Canadian hospital because Canadians were very much involved in its creation. Sheikh Zayed had six wives and twenty-seven children – including the current ruler of Abu Dhabi, and president of the U.A.E., Sheikh Khalifa.

After we got the overview of the family history, we were encourage to wander around the grounds and look inside the rooms. Some of the doors were locked, but many were open. Although the palace itself is reasonably large, I was struck by how plain everything was. The rooms were nice, but essentially just functional. The bedrooms basically had a bed and a dresser. The sitting rooms just had pillows and a coffee table. There was very little that I would call ornate. In contrast to the excess I have seen in Dubai, this seemed like a practical, utilitarian residence.

By about 4:00 p.m. we were ready to head to the main attraction of Al Ain which is the mountain Jebel Hafeet. The drive to the top of the mountain was very nice. It was quite steep, with lots of switchbacks. A couple of times we would turn a corner that would open up to an awesome view. Unfortunately Mohammed seemed to be on a mission to get us to the top as quickly as possible. I didn’t really notice if there were any lookout areas where you could pull off as we were climbing. It was not really possible to get good pictures as we drove along. We did stop at one point about 3/4 of the way up and took some pictures, but it felt that we missed some good photo opportunities lower down. We eventually made it to the end of the road, that was not quite at the peak. We took some pictures there, and then headed back to the Mercure-Hotel which was a few hundred metres down the mountain. There we sat and had a beverage while watching the sunset. The trip up the mountain was definitely the highlight of the day for me. Although the day started off with a few disappointments, by the end it was a very nice day trip that was definitely worth the drive.Jebel Hafeet top

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