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Friday, May 30, 2014

Dune Bashing (is NOT) for Sissies

So, the first time I went dune-bashing, it was just three days after I arrived to the UAE. We had friends blasting through as they were commencing a month on the road on their way back to the States after an expat stint in London.

Me? I was fresh off the plane after breaking down our lives in NYC. I was exhausted. Unfocused. When the idea arose to go dune bashing, I didn't think much of it. I thought it would be little more than an afternoon drive in the desert. A meander over the dunes with a stop to take pictures with camels and sunsets and stuff, then a relaxed dinner at an outdoor camp.

John and me, frolicking in the dunes before my first bashing experience.
Our guide met us at a nearby hotel and we piled into the Toyota Land Cruiser. When he went inside to get the other participants, he came back out with a worried look. Behind him followed a man with a toddler in tow and a woman in full burkha trailing with an infant, maybe eight months old. We rearranged our seating to accommodate them and the babies sort of confirmed what I thought, what we had ahead of us couldn't be more than a mere “Sunday drive.”

The gentleman turned to ask us where we were from.

We hesitated. “America?”

He smiled. “I’m from Saudi. America good!”


And we were off.

As we headed toward the dune region on the way to Al Ain, the rush hour traffic disappeared. It was already an interesting drive, so I figured it was already money well-spent whether or not we actually 'bashed' any dunes in the process. Besides, how many people get to say they went dune bashing with a woman wearing a burka?

When we reached the camels, we all piled out and took the obligatory photos. I half expected that at this point, our burka-mom might be left behind with the kids, but no, aside from being told to strap the seat belts on over the children sitting in their laps, we were all now in a convoy of about a dozen Land Cruisers and the drivers and other tourists were raring to go.

As we pulled off road, things got hairy pretty fast. I’m not sure how fast we were driving on the gravely sandy road that ran along the fence of a private farm, maybe sixty? As we hit the dunes, we drove in line, and while we drove slower… slow and meandering aren't words that comes to mind.

If you haven’t noticed from the photos, these dunes aren’t small. They range in size from about 30-50 or even 60 feet high, and we hit them at easily 40 mph, sometimes straight up and then down, other times driving across them at a 45 degree angle, then sliding down the dune as the weight of the cruiser loses its tug with gravity. When you drive straight up the dune, you are looking at nothing but sky, never to be sure what lies over the lip of the dune. My fear was that there would be another Land Cruiser coming up the dune from the other side. 

As we thrashed through the dunes, a desert roller-coaster of sorts, being jostled all the way, suddenly, I was wondering why there wasn't a waiver to sign.

Then I began to wonder what the hell I was thinking when I signed up for this... Afterall, my worst fear has always been that I'd die in a car accident. Here I was, pushing my fate. What the hell was I doing here? And more importantly, WHAT THE HELL WERE THESE SMALL CHILDREN DOING HERE!???

With every harrowing turn, careen and churn through the sand, I SCREAMED.

Oh, I screamed. BLOOD CURDLING SCREAMS, people.  

I was terrified.

And even worse, I was scaring the children.

So I tried to cover up my screams with laughter… which just sounded… well, psychotic.

And that’s when our burka-mom broke out her i-Phone. Clutching her infant in one arm and with the bouncing toddler still hanging on to his dad’s lap, she started madly fiddling with her phone.

“Holy cow, she’s checking her email,” I thought.

Then burka-mom hit the screen of her phone and suddenly we were dune bashing to music. And not music from the soundtrack of Fast & Furious. Nope. From what I could tell, and from the reaction of the children, we were listening to the Arabic equivalent of Barney the Dinosaur!

Obviously, burka-mom was trying to drown me out. Now I was terrified and mortified all at the same time…

My life passing before my eyes...
I should have learned from that experience that I’m not cut out for dune bashing, but with my friend Jean and her niece Erin visiting and excited by what they had heard about the adventure, once again we headed out to the dunes outside of Abu Dhabi.

Our driver, Zahoor was a real character. He told us he had been living in the UAE for thirty-five years. Erin, who was sitting up front, then asked him how long he had been driving.

“Oh, first day,” Zahoor said.

We all laughed, then once again drove out of town, took photos with the camels and headed for the dunes.

Me and Jean, thinking we can handle it.
This time I figured it would be easier. After all, I knew what to expect. I knew what was coming. Easy peasy….

Until Zahoor single-handedly proved to me that he is perhaps the most skilled and scariest of drivers in the Emirates. Yep, Zahoor made my last trip suddenly seem like that Sunday drive.

Oh, he hit the dunes fast and hard. There were long sprays of sand that blocked the front windshield. Sand also kicked up from the rear wheel.

And every time Jean and I screamed for our lives, Zahoor just laughed and drove harder and faster. Here was a man who finds great joy in his work. His work of terrifying tourists seeking outdoor adventure in Abu Dhabi, that is.

To Zahoor's credit, even though I was certain I would die, I thought it would be because of a heart attack, not from any mis-handling on Zahoor's part. He is truly a dune-bashing extraordinaire. 

Jean was suddenly unsure about this.
Here’s a video of dune-bashing…. it gives a good sense of the whole experience (belly dancers and all).

I’d say that if you’re coming to the UAE or anywhere where dune-bashing is available, and you’re in good health and don’t have any next of kin to worry about, then for sure, you’ve got to dune bash at least once.  

As for me, I’m officially retired.  :)

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Easy to Get to the Falcon Hospital...

If you're a falcon. 

Recently John and I paid a visit to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. No, we haven’t adopted a falcon. There was no ‘falcon emergency’ involving a local falcon and our two cats. It’s just one of several ‘only here’ kind of things you can do here in the Emirates. So we decided to do it.

We bought tickets online and headed out from our apartment for the 10 a.m. tour. The driving directions looked easy. Dead easy. We’d just jump on the road, aptly named Airport Road and head out toward the airport. Then a few exits before the airport, we’d take the exit marked ‘Falcon Hospital’ (in both English AND Arabic ) and bah-da-bing… we should be right there.

Easy peasy, right?

Well, no.

Instead of following the road sign for the airport, we followed the signs for Al Ain, thinking that the road signs would eventually turn into signs for the airport. When I thought we seemed uncomfortably far away from the airport (tipped off by the planes taking off further and further away) I pulled up my map app on my cell phone and discovered that we were pretty much halfway to Al Ain and not anywhere near the airport. Nor the Falcon Hospital.

The thing is, it’s no easy task to just get off on the next exit and turn around around here.  Here, there are fly-overs that lead to nowhere, on roads that haven’t been built yet, and there are long, long stretches between exits. Taking a wrong turn is no simple affair. So after pulling over and regrouping, we figured out a way to backtrack, that would take us along the ‘back roads.’

“We have plenty of time,” John said.

But really, we didn’t. The tour started in fifteen minutes. (And I DESPISE being late.)

We started along the back roads which under less time pressures would have been considered pretty interesting. There wasn’t much to see (which can actually be interesting coming from NYC), and at one traffic roundabout, men gathered with their livestock – goats and sheep in the back of Toyota pick-up trucks, doing brisk trade. It all looked so provincial, until we drove a bit further and I saw the sign for the slaughterhouse. At which point I wondered why I haven’t become a vegetarian yet.

Moving along, we got closer the Falcon Hospital, at least according to my Google map app on my cell phone. We were less than a mile away. In fact, we could see the Falcon Hospital’s distinctive steel roof in the distance. Another roundabout and a left turn, followed by a quick right and we’d be right there, we thought.

But we weren't even close. 

Unfortunately, the quick right turn actually ended up leading us to some sort of middle-of-nowhere car dealership souq thing. Had we been in the market for a BMW, Land Rover, Ford or Infiniti, we’d have been in the right place. But this area was all boarded in. The place we wanted to get to, that we could see through the slats was the Falcon Hospital.

“It’s right there,” I said. “Probably less than a mile away,” I said.

“Sure, as the falcon flies,” John quipped.

But we couldn’t get there from here.

“Can’t you just… maybe drive across the open land over there,” I asked.

I mean, there was nothing there. Just dirt. Sandy dirt. It was RIGHT THERE. We could see it. Maybe we could just park the damn car and walk across the sand field, I thought. But we don’t know the rules yet about stuff like that. And it was hot. And I had visions of keeling over with dehydration and vaporizing into mere skeletal remains.

So instead, we kept driving around the perimeter roads of the Falcon Hospital. And by perimeter, I’m talking roads within, oh, say, a ten mile radius all with a perfect view of the place we couldn't get to… or so it seemed.

Finally we came up on the main highway that leads to the airport AND the Falcon Hospital.

“There’s the sign for the Falcon Hospital,” I said.

“Is that the sign for the Falcon Hospital,” John asked, joking.

“Yes, this exit. There’s the sign.”

“This sign?”

“Yes. Please, this… right. Right here.  Right. Here.”

“Are  you sure it’s this exit?”

Now, I knew John was just taking the piss.

We made the right, turned in, followed the signs and, ahem, easy peasy, we arrived at the Falcon Hospital, a mere 45 minutes late for the tour.

When we signed in at the desk, they couldn’t have been nicer, or more apologetic about our experience. Despite all the great road signs AND great directions on the website and descriptions on other websites, they told us that it happens quite often, as if there’s some sort of ‘Falcon Hospital Directional Vortex.’

In fact, later, when I shared this tale of the wrong turn with a new friend here, she said she got lost driving to the Falcon Hospital too. 

So if you go to the Falcon Hospital, make sure you follow the directions, or take a Toyota Land Cruiser and hire one of those skilled dune-bashing drivers to get you there if you take a wrong turn.

But really, if you make it to the Falcon Hospital, you’re in for a treat. It’s fantastic. We met the ‘falcon patients,’ mostly checked in for minor ailments (we watched a procedure for what I can only describe as a ‘falcon pedicure,’). We also got to hold the falcon, visit their outdoor aery and visit the state-of-the-art falcon operating rooms.

Pretty awesome! Here are some snaps:

Patients in Waiting
Falcon Doctor Readies the Patient
Falcon Under Anesthesia

Falcon Pedicure

The Falcon Hospital is a great place for kids...

Even this one!
When we left, we immediately set the GPS for home.

If you decide to visit the Falcon Hospital, give yourself plenty of time to get there. And just in case, here are directions. You may want to print them out.