| Dr Haroon M Pillay |
My thoughts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi were of a shopping paradise in a desert where I would rub shoulders with Arab men and women in their national dress, dishdasha and abaya. But what I saw was contrary to my expectations. Hardly any Arabs were to be seen.
Instead, offices and shopping malls were frequented by people of various nationalities predominantly Indians. I could see more Indians from a very small state in India called Kerala- where I come from too.
The Kerala influence in the emirates is astonishing! So much so that some of the very few Arabs I met at the immigration at the airport started showing off their knowledge about the present political scenario in Kerala. One of them even spoke few sentences in Malayalam, the native language of Kerala.
It is bewildering to see how Dubai and Abu Dhabi, whose only revenue had been oil till recently is investing so much in infra-structure. These two desert cities have gone through an amazing transformation.
Construction boom is happening everywhere, multilane roads are being built across deserts continuously, palm trees and flowering plants are blooming all over the place.
It was hard to believe that I was in a desert.
In fact we had to look far and away to get some glimpse of deserts.
And wouldn’t this be? Dubai has the tallest building in the world- The Burj Al Khalifa, the architectural wonder of Burj Al Arab hotel, the palm tree island – home to the super rich from around the world, and some of the largest and cheapest shopping malls in the world.
The sprawling and sparkling white Sheikh Khalifa mosque in Abu Dhabi gives you a feel of peace and tranquility. Dubai also offers the best shopping experience one can dream of.
Whatever it be, electronics, fashion items, eateries, fresh fruits, vegetables or anything else- there is hardly any product which is not available for purchase in these two nearby cities.
My time there evoked mixed feelings in me because I travelled so far just to experience the desert. Instead I was trapped in a concrete jungle. Not to be outdone, I arranged for the desert safari the very next day.
This is a once in a life time experience that one must do. A GMC SUV comes to pick you up from your hotel. My driver’s name was kuttappan – who not surprisingly was from Kerala again. He has been taking tourists for this safari for nearly 20 years. The drive to the desert is about 30 minutes from the city. The first stop is at the edge of the desert. Small stalls were erected to sell head scarves and souvenirs. Here I hired a speed motorbike for a ride in the small enclosed area of the desert.
The four wheel motorbike can be driven over the sand hillocks and steep slopes down.
There are occasions when we just manage to avoid head on collision with other riders who are riding up at top speed from the other side.
If you are not well experienced – as most of us were- the motorbike can get stuck in the soft sand and leave us with no choice but to wait for help to arrive.
The rising dust and the red sun in the horizon gave an eerie feeling during the half an hour self-driven experience.
After this, Kuttapan bundled us back into his SUV and drove deep into the desert- to our final destination – the desert camp. In the middle of anendless desert
The desert soon opened up to its endless vastness, a mesmerising beauty for the eyes to behold. Soft yellow sand dunes everywhere.
Nothing but horizon in all directions. I was struck with wonder how our driver could be heading in the right direction to our destination. No compass, no identifiable landmarks, just sand dunes everywhere, All along the safari , our driver Kuttappan was telling us about his life and experiences in Dubai.
In between he went silent as he maneuvered his vehicle in unbelievable angles through huge steep sand dunes. Kuttappan was calm and composed despite all the screaming by us inside – with our hearts in our mouth with every sharp turn and drop. It was a roller-coaster ride but without the safety record of well-established theme parks.
I have heard real incidents of cars toppling over on a few occasions. Kuttappan explained to us that the inside of the vehicle was modified with anti-crumple metal bars to avoid any serious injuries if it turns turtle.
After about an hour of ups and downs and gut wrenching run over dry barren soft uneven desert, we reached the “camp” by sunset. The ambience was festive here. Decorated camels were waiting to take us for a short ride – Free soft drinks and sumptuous Arabic dinner was on offer.
While we settled on the mattresses on the floor enjoying the dinner, the lights in the camp dimmed and the atmosphere reverberated with the crisp sound of a fast paced Arabic music.
A belle’ appeared on the platform in the centre and treated us to belly dance.
This was followed by another grand performance by a young man decorated with fluorescent lamps who demonstrated his skills using drums , and juggling while rotating continuously on his nimble toes. As the music settled, and the dinner plates became empty, our minds and stomach were filled with the out of the world experience of having transported back in time of the fabled Arabian nights.
The aroma and feel of the desert hot air were gently caressing our face on our ride back home .