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The Authentic Arabian Experience

When we first arrived in Abu Dhabi, my cousins Max and Charlie expressed their concern over the blogworthiness of the place from a cultural perspective, explaining that aside from the dry baron desert, the Emirate wandering the skyscrapers and malls like wealthy white ghosts of a bygone era, and the Arabian food joints scattered amongst the many other Asian, Western and Indian cuisines, it has all but been eradicated by the oil money that has served as a platform for the commercial build-up of the UAE. I told her that this would not be problem for us, especially considering we had not seen the Abu Dhabi Youltens in years and, as we had so generously been given free reign on the menu for The Living Room Cafe’ (seriously, thank you Simone, the BEST venue), we were happy to just sit in there and talk nonsense for hours.

But, from an outsiders perspective, the place has not so much abandoned its own heritage on the back of this wealth as it has instead mutated it into a strange amalgamation of outrageous financial prosperity and deep unwavering religious devotion. I would hear stories of Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s parked in their place smack-bang in the middle of the road when the call-to-prayer has rung out over the speakers of a nearby Mosque, with the wealthy Emirate fearing no financial consequence and treating the street as their own personal parking lot. They would also tell much more harrowing stories of these same sports cars being involved in horrific speed-related accidents that kill people, with the consequence being that the Emirate is to provide a financial offering to the family with the hope that they accept. Money does not talk as much as it shouts in the UAE.

This is never more evident than in the extravagant Emirites Palace, where gold is both the favored material and color (there is even a gold ATM). Bubble-like architecture must be an Arabian trademark as it is everywhere, and to me there is nothing more structurally impressive than curvature, the way a consistent gradient can be so precise even on such large scales. Upon entry, the intricately tiled domed roof initially reminded me of the Blue Mosque in Turkey, but the palace then leads into many levels of pristine rooms decked out with framed paintings and relics that look as though they would cost more than me. Each room is decorated in its own smooth carvings of gold, marble and polished wood and sometimes the light bubble of an indoor water feature, and as Charlie walked us through room after room, each one would leave us equally as dumbstruck. It was not just the sheer material cost that was the awe inspiring feature, it was also its cleanliness. Not one cobweb or speck of dust to interrupt the gleam of the gold, not one item of furniture out of place, not one drop of urine on the floor of the men’s bathroom. For a place of that magnitude, to maintain that sort of uncompromising cleanliness would cost a small fortune, and I only say “small” in a comparative sense. Nothing is done by halves in Abu Dhabi.

After wandering around for a while, we then hopped in a cab and headed over to the nearby Marina Mall to have lunch and watch a movie. From the outside, the mall looks like a futuristic space station, with the disc-like room on top of the column emerging from of its center looking fit for the purpose of guiding in spacecraft or protecting the city from UFO’s. But, of course, it is not for that at all. Instead, it is a restaurant, the column being a clear elevator that gives you the feeling that you have just blasted out the roof of the Mall like at the end of Willy Wonka, detaching yourself of any land-bound constraints and peacefully hovering over the city as it miniaturizes into obscurity. Lunch was overlooking the scenic Persian Gulf, and even if the searing forty degree heat outside was close to unbearable and the water in the Gulf was the perfect temperature for a cup of tea, you can’t deny that it is an amazing spectacle and one of the best selling points of the UAE.

Speaking of the heat, we were actually warned about it several times, both before we came and while we were there. It is not that we didn’t listen, it is just that we didn’t understand. On the back of traveling through SE Asia’s hot climate and feeling invincible, one of the first things Nic and I decided to do is go for a walk down to the Corniche, a man-made beach that looks as appetizing as any other beach I have been to. We packed our Kindles, our towels and our bottled water into our backpacks and ventured out across the scorching Arabian city, squinting under the glare of the unrelenting sun, almost immediately breaking out into a sweat made up of both bodily fluid and condensed humidity. But as we strolled between the reflecting skyscrapers that multiplied the source of the pressing persistent warmth, we realized that any real relief was slowly escaping us, with the surrounding buildings having ominous looking security guards with machine-guns just inside the entrance making them hardly any kind of refuge, and even the shady patches of pavement still hovering above thirty degrees and doing nothing to quash the humidity. We must have really looked as though we were in dire straits judging by the numerous taxis slowing down next to us as we puffed our way down the baking street and towards the Corniche, but as we were within a kilometre of our destination I figured that they were going to reject the fare (which was something that was consistently happened in SE Asia even when we genuinely did not know where we were going). So I waved them away and we both continued our stagger towards the tepid salty ocean, hoping to god that there was going to be a vending machine or a canteen to buy a bottle of water. There wasn’t, and after a few seconds of forced admiration we did a bout-face and quickly strode back to the atmospheric sanity of the Abu Dhabi Youlten’s air-conditioned home. Charlie explained to us that the taxi drivers are bound to a law that specifies they must accept any fare, no matter how small and ridiculous, which is completely understandable. I also understand why summer is the low season in the area, with many people flocking into neighboring countries in order to escape the agoraphobic influence of that kind of heat. But, in saying that, it did not stop us venturing out into the middle of the desert for one afternoon of fun in the sand.

When we were speaking with the sand-Youltens about the “authentic Arabian experience”, it was suggested that the closest we were going to get to what the original culture might have entailed is if we went on a desert safari, as where the UAE is now, only fifty years ago there was nothing but desert. So, heeding this advice, we booked ourselves to be picked up by “Arabian Adventures” at around four in the afternoon (when the sting of the sun begins to fade) and do things like dune-bash in their seemingly indestructible 4WD’s, eat an Arabian feast, ride some reluctant camels, sand-surf, smoke shisha and “watch” a belly-dancer.

The dune-bashing was just like a roller-coaster that is more susceptible to human error. It would be a dream job for a rev-head, and as all the drivers looked to be Emirate, I would imagine it to be an effective way of releasing stores of vehicular angst that one obviously must feel driving sports cars across endless straight flat roads and only traveling 120km/hr. Time after time I was amazed at the durability and sturdiness of the vehicles, and how the driver was able to effortlessly regather control when we found ourselves awkwardly sliding tail-first down a sand avalanche after whipping the lip of a dune at top speed. It was actually quite funny watching the driver operate, he might as well have been running a regular drop-off route in the city such was his nonchalance, and I only ever really saw him flustered when the kid in the front seat asked him a question that he obviously didn’t quite understand. We stopped at several points so we could take photos, and although it was just rolling desert dunes as far as the eye can see, there was beauty in its endless repetition, like the way a Spirograph draws the same line infinitely, but each time in a subtly different way.

We eventually came across a small carpeted desert oasis nestled in between a few steep dunes, home to a few stringy dogs, a family of goats, a menagerie of hawks, and five or six camels, all animals built to survive in the un-survivable. Next to this was a quadrangle-like set up with stalls around the rim for Henna (like tattooing but temporary), for dress-up and a bar for beverages, and a large square stage at the center with cushions and knee-high tables surrounding it. There were two camels saddled up for riding at the entrance to the quadrangle and a couple of sand-boards leaning up against the outer wall. We went to the stall that was the bar for evening and grabbed a couple of waters and a couple of cokes, downed them to re-hydrate and energize, and made our way over to the camels, who seemed to know what they were in for judging by their moans of disapproval as we approached. The personality of the camels is hilarious, the way they passively object by refusing to budge, and then audibly complain about anything they don’t want to do, which seems to be everything aside from sitting and chewing. They are like temperamental teenagers rolling there eyes at everything their teacher says.

The two camels were tied together, which meant that it was us and another couple who were striding along in tandem, rolling our hips in order to keep balance as they jarringly thrust themselves forward. The other couple’s camel put his head close to us and I scratched it behind the ear, and it must have liked it because from then on it was doing everything it could to put its head near where we were, and ended up photo-bombing us several times.

After the camel ride, I went for a bit of a dune surf (which became old quite quickly seeing as it took five-minutes to ascend the the dune and less than twenty seconds to descend it) and Nic had some Henna painted on her hand. We sat on the cushions at the small tables surrounding the center stage and chatted with a few other people of varying nationalities, before plating ourselves a delicious Arabian buffet dinner that had many similarities to Turkish cuisine with its richness and its liberal quantities of bread and yogurt (the facilities they had at this little place in the middle of nowhere were quite impressive considering we were miles from civilization). Then came the belly-dancer, who demanded crowd participation and, unfortunately, selected me to go onstage and attempt to copy what she was doing, which was basically an exercise in embarrassment (the less said about this, the better).

By the time we had finished everything, it was about 9pm and completely dark, and the hosts of the tour turned all the lights off so that we could see the stars and planets that cannot be seen when competing with the lights of the city. But that night, they had to compete with a desert moon that was so big it was intimidating, eliminating all starlight and shining an eerie green glow out over the never ending dunes. In such desolate surroundings and with only one superior astrological figure beaming over you, it makes you feel very very small.

We arrived home from the desert safari at about 10pm to the news that we may potentially have a new cousin in the following few days, which was fairly staggering as she hadn’t been due to arrive until we were in America. And, lo-and-behold, at 8:18pm on the 25th of June little Aaliyah-boo Youlten said hello to the big wide world. It was a moment in history, something we had very little involvement with but something that we were just so happy to be there for, and it was really good to see all the Abu Dhabi Youltens again and to do the things that good cousins do, like drown them in the pool and beat them at Call-Of-Duty (thats right Jordo, you heard me). Love you guys!