skyscrapers, highways and 4x4 SUVs
a challenge cycling from the airport to our warmshower hosts Regis and Kiran
we may stay for a few days
cycling through the marina
suddenly there are cheers, a huge screen shows that India have scored in cricket
night swimming, floodlights and 24-hour baywatch
air-conditioned bus shelters
yellow school buses
the country which is kept afloat by Indians, Bengalis and Pakistanis (85%)
security guards, cleaners and maintenance men are everywhere
strolling through the Dubai mall, the largest shopping centre in the world
atop the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world
cycling past the Burj al Arab, the world's only seven-star hotel
it has been raining, the street is flooded for 3 days
Regis and Kiran train in a dragonboat
they take us to wadi Shawka
where we camp in the mountains
and walk with the dogs, two australian shepards
wider, greener, more under construction
less expansive, more traditional
the Sheikh Zayed mosque
the Louvre, a cubist-designed museum with a domed roof
delicious dates with chocolate coating and almond filling bought at the date market
cycle paths under construction
cycling across the corniche
in the middle of the sand dunes
we love it here
the sand pegs work perfectly
every tree and bush gets water from a black hose
and that's quite a few trees and bushes in the UAE
fresh camel milk
the Rub al Khali
Liwa festival 2024
racing up the Moreeb Dune, the highest sand dune in the UAE
the scoreboard is projected on the dune
invited by Emirati
eating with your right hand
cleaning your bottom with water
we get an insight into the everyday life and customs
of Maitha, Ali and Noura
Arabic cardamom coffee with dates
big bowls of spiced rice and goat, lamb, chicken or camel
through the dunes with a V8 4x4
we stay for three weeks
along the coast, the dunes have given way to industry
oil refineries and power plants
Ahmed invites us to his seaside palace
we have the house all to ourselves
stay a few days
and celebrate New Year's Eve
happy new year
A selection from our diary
Sunday, November 26 Al Sout
On our way to the Liwa Oasis. On the edge of the Rub al Khali, one of the largest and driest deserts in the world. After the violence of the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is a long straight road of 150 kilometres. With a petrol station and shop halfway along. To the left and right of the road is just sand. Rolling at first but the dunes get higher and higher towards Liwa. For the first 75 kilometres, there is a two-lane parallel road exclusively for trucks. And our road has a wide hard shoulder so we can just cycle side by side. After thirty kilometres, a strip of palm trees and bushes appears on either side of the road. One hundred and twenty kilometres to the Liwa Oasis, each tree gets water from a black hose. There are birds flying, we see a fox walking and salamanders shooting through the sand. There is no shade along the road. Sometimes there is a big road sign. Time to drink some water in the shadow of the sign. At half past one, we see some concrete retaining walls along the road. Shade! We go there for lunch. We are just sitting down to a sandwich when a big Lexus turns around on the road and comes towards us. An enthusiastic Emirati gets out. He greets us, introduces himself as Ali and walks back to his car from which he pulls out a falcon. He invites us to take a dune safari and go hunting with his falcon. On Thursday, he will be back home. Wen gets the falcon on her arm so Ali can share the address with me. We can stay in his house for as long as we want, the servant will clean the room and shower. We get all excited by his offer. He slides the hood back over the falcon's head and away he whizzes in the Lexus. A little bewildered, we are left behind.
Tuesday, November 28 Al Yarya
We arrive at Ali's house in the late afternoon. Nadar, the Pakistani servant, welcomes us and takes us to our room. A little later, he has Ali on the phone. 'Nadar will have dinner ready at seven and make yourself comfortable'. And this young man of 18 can cook like the best. Chicken starred with delicious spices, rice, and freshly made roti, a large round flatbread. Palm leaves are set alight in a reclining oil drum. The drum is red-hot in no time. The roti dough is laid on the outside of the drum and is ready in three minutes. To our delight, Ali has two dogs used in falconry. The dogs are tied to a tree with a one-and-a-half-metre leash. We think that's kind of sad. Nadar is not too keen on the dogs and says it's no problem if we want to let the dogs out. So we walk around with the dogs. A neighbour down the road greets us cheerfully. Tired and fulfilled, we go to sleep.
Wednesday, 29 November Al Yarya
In the evening, we go for another walk with the dogs. Last night's neighbour is also there again and comes over to us. Whether we live here? She introduces herself, Maitha and invites us for coffee. We tie the dogs to a pole; after all, they are used to that. We ask if we are dressed appropriately, Jo in shorts and Wen her hair uncovered. 'You're not in Saudi Arabia here!' There are cushions on the terrace. Her mother and brother are also sitting there. Her mother has under her headscarf a burqa, a gold-coloured face mask. She gestures for us to sit down. We should eat a date first and then drink the coffee. The combination of the sweet date and the cardamom coffee is delicious, special and refined, a flavour combination we are not familiar with. Maitha invites us to lunch tomorrow and suggests we go to the camel farm tomorrow morning, a twenty-minute drive from here, further into the desert. 'At five-thirty, it won't be so hot then'. Her suggestion makes us all happy but we think 5.30 am is very early. We have just caught up on a whole day's sleep. Six-thirty is also fine. The dogs are starting to get antsy. We head back, excited at the prospect of tomorrow. We each tie the dogs back to their tree and try to use Google Translate to explain our plans to Nadar, who speaks no English. We say we don't need breakfast tomorrow. And we go to sleep soundly.
Thursday, November 30 Al Yarya
The next morning is still dark and the sky is slowly coloured purple by the sun as we walk to Maitha. Maitha and mum are already sitting outside on the cushions chatting. We are given dates with cardamom coffee. It is a classy welcome. After coffee, we get into the Toyota Landcruiser V8. Mum stays at home. Maitha steers the car into a road that seems to be a dead end, but below us looms a dirt track that runs steeply downhill where she lets the car slide down. It slowly gets light, the sky is now orange and the date palm plantation we drive through is shrouded in a low-hanging fog. What a special moment this is and how much we enjoy it! We follow an asphalt road for a while and then turn off, down a dirt track into the desert. At eighty kilometres per hour, with the car following the sandy tracks of the one in front and us being tossed back and forth. After 15 minutes, at a high point, we stand still and watch the sun rise from behind the sand dunes. Maitha points to a transmitter mast ahead. 'Recently we have reception at the farm, which makes it all a lot easier'. We continue down the road and arrive at the farm. Two white houses stand out in the golden sand, mum's house and a neighbour's. The neighbour here also has camels, black and white. Mum's are yellow. She likes those better. The camels are inside a fence. Females, pregnant females and the males separately. When the camels see the car, they get restless. Because in the car is Maitha and Maitha always carries bread which the camels love so much. We get out and walk to the fence. The bread is gone in no time. Some camels have blood on their necks from the barbed wire because they reached for the bread so much. They are imposingly large beasts. Twice the size of us with a huge head. Three men work here. Next to the fence is a bed. One of the men sleeps there to monitor deliveries at night. If labour fails, he can call in a vet. When a camel gives birth, mother and calf are set apart to prevent the calf from being trampled to death. Nadar has not quite understood the Google Translate message as he apps that breakfast is ready. We wander around among the camels some more and after a while we leave. On the way back, we come across a tanker truck on the dirt road. 'Water for the camels' says Maitha. On the tarmac road, we stop at a shop. Maitha honks twice and someone comes out from the shop. 'Three tea' she orders. That way you don't have to get out of your air-conditioned car in the heat to buy something. A dog lying further down seems to be in trouble, it has a piece of rope around its neck. Maitha does not hesitate, grabs the Swiss army knife from the glove compartment, calls the dog to her and cuts the piece of rope loose. An incisive woman. At ten o'clock, we are dropped off at Ali's house. 'At one o'clock, lunch will be ready' she says. Time for a power nap.
Maitha's house is the same as Ali's, only Ali's house is divided into several rooms. Maitha's house looks very spacious. She also has more windows in the facade and it is better maintained and cleaner. There is a male help for the kitchen and a female help for serving. Maitha has houses in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain besides this 'holiday home' in Liwa. We are again welcomed with dates and coffee. We are then led into an adjacent room, where food is served. Goat from their own farm in the main. A roasted goat leg, a goat stew, a salad and rice. The rice contains herbs and a dried black lime, which gives the food a delicious acidity. Little salt but refined flavours again. Unfortunately, we eat first and when we finish we are led through a hall with sinks to wash your hands to an even larger room where tea is served. In each cup is a stick with sugar crystals and saffron threads. The tea also contains another spice that is very subtle when combined with the saffron sugar. Maitha and mum, meanwhile, eat the goat's leftovers. Satisfied and an experience richer, we return to Ali's house. 'If you want, you can join us at the camel farm again at four o'clock'.
As there is no trace of Ali yet, we are back at Maitha's by four o'clock. We are again received in style with dates and coffee. The wardrobe opens and djellabas are taken for Wen. The fourth one is the right length and fits best in terms of colour. A white headscarf is picked to go with it. Maitha and mum are satisfied. In the new outfit, we get back into the Landcruiser. It is full of stuff to make a warm place for the newborn calves because it is too cold for them at night. Mum goes with us this time. We first go honking past the shop for cola and chocolate. When we get to the farm, a rug is laid out in the shade of the car and Mum sits on a folding holiday chair. Coffee, tea and biscuits are on the rug. We walk around the farm. A fence for the camels is being built in a new place. They have to be moved regularly because of pests. Camels are being milked. First, a youngster is allowed to suck on the teats for a while to stimulate the release of milk. Then milking is done by hand. We are given one and a half litres of milk and watch the sun set behind the sand dunes. What a day!
Friday, 1 December Al Yarya
At half past seven the next morning, the black blinded Landcruiser awaits us. The goat farm is on the agenda. They have several breeds of goats and sheep. The farm and animals are well cared for and look clean. Mama is the owner and Maitha commands the men. Then we have to bring another tent to the camel farm. Maitha will soon be off to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain for a few days and then Mama can stay in the tent at the farm. But we drive past the turnoff to the camel farm and head further into the desert. Maitha drives us all the way to the border with Saudi Arabia, deep in the Rub al Khali, one of the largest and driest deserts in the world. A deeply cherished wish fulfilled. We had hoped to come across someone in Arabia who would be willing to take us there or that an excursion from Riyadh might be possible, but did not reckon on this 50-year-old divorced independent Emirati woman taking us there in her Land Cruiser. 'Quick, quick, take a picture'. We sneak some pictures of the border and take a short route off the road through the loose sand of the dunes to the camel farm. The camels get bread again. Mum watches in her holiday chair as her tent is set up. Large twenty-five-litre plastic bags are filled with sand and act as pegs. The guy ropes are tied to them. When the tent is up, Mum gets up, time to go home.
We have lunch with Maitha one more time before she has to go to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. We start with dates and coffee. In a copper holder is a glowing hot stone. On that stone is placed a stick, a kind of incense, which will glow and smoke and spread a lovely scent. 'You keep this under your headscarf and then your hair will smell nice' says Mum. Mum smears a lemon-scented perfume on the outside of our right hand with a kind of deo roller. With every bite we eat and sip we drink, the smell of lemon is present and part of the tasting. Very special. After lunch, Maitha joins us in the large room where we drink tea. Three air conditioners, four sinks and twenty metres of bench, 'and it is not enough at big parties' says Maitha. We say goodbye.
Friday, December 8 Al Yarya
We have been waiting for Ali for more than a week now. We texted Ali and asked about his plans, but got no response. We decide to pack our things and continue our journey tomorrow. But to our surprise, Ali and his wife Noura appear at six in the evening. 'Aaah, you are still here' says Ali, 'Noura said, they are no longer here, I am happy to see you, welcome, welcome'. With Ali's arrival, there is immediate commotion. The V8 Landcruiser is filled to the brim with boxes of new stuff and groceries. Three Pakistanis help unpack. Ali's Lexus also appears. 'Come, let's eat,' Ali says to Jo and gets into the Landcruiser. 'Wendy and Noura are going to eat with the women'. We have to switch gears for a while but let it happen. 200 metres down the road we arrive (in the car) at a tent we walked past earlier with the dogs. Three sides closed, one open side. There are cushions on the ground and a fire burning in a metal rectangular container of sand. A number of men and boys sit on the cushions. We shake hands with the men. Ali gives some of the men a kiss with their temples pressed together. The young boys we give a hand with their noses pressed together. Dates with cardamom coffee are shared. The young boys are somewhat excited and giggle because of Jo's presence. Pakistani servants bring bowls of food. We sit around the bowls to eat. A spoon is placed in front of Jo. We have been eating with our hands for the past week with Nadar, which was a nice exercise, which is why it now feels a bit familiar to eat with hands, yet also like a kind of 'exam under the watchful eye of Emirati'. As we walk home, Ali says he will pray half past five tomorrow morning and be back in the tent at six. At seven there will be breakfast.
Wen; We are just saying to each other that it's been nice. Had so many adventures; tomorrow we will continue. But then Ali and Noura arrive after all. Ali is very pleasantly surprised that we are still there. Noura looked at us and didn't notice who was sitting on the camping chairs in the corner of the garden. Ali immediately says "they are my friends" after which a big smile appears on Noura's face. They unpack the fully loaded car and Ali takes Jo to the men's tent and I go with Noura to the women's. It is about 7pm when we arrive at Watha's across the street. A woman of somewhere in her 60s, I estimate. We take a seat outside on a rug. In the middle is a low table with tea and dates. Not much later, Watha sets out a large bowl of fruit. Later in the evening, an elderly lady wearing a burqa slides into the tent, which is rigged with benches, seat cushions and lights. Next to the tent is a smaller tent where there is a table with eight chairs. This is the tent where food is eaten.
The ladies talk about all kinds of things in Arabic. Occasionally Noura translates something, but I enjoy the tea and listening to a language I don't speak. Another younger woman enters. She is visibly pregnant. Speaks a little English. I understand from the context that Noura is telling the others that Jo and I are cycling. The women look at me surprised and full of courage when they hear which other countries we will cycle in the Middle East. By 10pm, Noura and I are heading back home. It promises a few parted moments from Jo, as men and women do not eat together.
Saturday, December 9 Al Yarya
Jo; At seven o'clock I go to the tent. The fire is burning. I shake hands with the two men who were not there last night. With us, you introduce yourself and say your name. Here, you ask how the other is doing. So I don't know the men's names. After dates and cardamom coffee, breakfast is brought by the Pakistanis. Before eating, hands are washed. Breakfast consists of beans in some kind of tomato sauce, noodles with sugar, and very thin bread, they look like crepes. Honey is poured over soft goat cheese. Holding the crepes between thumb and two fingers, you grab the beans or the cheese. From the noodles, you make a ball in the palm of your hand and push it into your mouth with your thumb. After eating, the hands are also washed again. It is quite special after all. They all have a big stone house, but the gathering and eating are still done the old-fashioned way in a tent with a fire. I must say that this is also much more atmospheric than the stone houses with tiled floors.
Wen; I walk to Watha with Noura at 7.30am for breakfast. But first Arab coffee with a date and a cup of tea. The three of us have breakfast. After tea, we go to the tent with the table and chairs. Indonesian helper Gigi puts breakfast on the table. Rigag, a kind of wafer-thin crepe, sweet vermicelli and a plate of scrambled eggs with tomatoes and fried mushrooms. You tear off a piece of rigag and pick up a piece of the egg dish like a spoon. I get a spoon, but like Noura and Watha, I eat with my hands. I have just finished 3 bites when Noura says, hurry up because your husband will be waiting in the car with Ali in a minute. He is going out with you. I eat a few more bites and want to stop, but Noura gestures me to the bigger tent, as I still have to drink tea. Apparently that is inextricably linked to breakfast, or after dinner. I drink a sip and then the car is already there. Noura says : "take your tea". It all sounds commanding, but because they are so friendly, this is evidently their way of communicating in English. I jump in the car and hear from Jo that we are going to the Qasr al Sarab desert hotel for coffee.
Jo; It is a seven-star resort which has been put down by the government as something of a statement, a special place to go. It has 1,000 rooms and rich folks from Dubai and Abu Dhabi drive up and down every weekend to stay here. The rules have been changed since three weeks; to drink coffee, you have to have a room. But Ali is a clever rascal, an employee of Ali's has a job to do with an excavator at the resort. The employee goes with us and under the guise that Ali is the employee's driver, we enter the resort. The employee has to identify himself with his pass at the gate with barrier and security. We are allowed through and drop the man off at his digger. We can walk around a bit while Ali arranges things. It is tremendously foggy this morning, we can't even see 10 metres. But as the morning progresses, the sky clears and we see what a special place we are in, in the middle of the sand dunes with a resort that seems to rise out of the desert. After coffee, we walk through a room with utensils from the past. We leave the employee at his digger and outside the resort, Ali steers the V8 into the dunes in search of gazelles. We respect the way he controls the car. Up steep dunes and down crooked ones. Sometimes we think this can't be! Ali searches near the edges of the date plantations, but we spot no gazelles. We give up and drive to Ali's work, the site where a water well is being drilled. However, the drill is at a standstill. Water is used in drilling but there appears to be no water. So Ali makes a call and eventually arranges for a tap to be opened somewhere. We go back for lunch in the tent. And after lunch, it's time to sleep for an hour and a half, the hottest part of the day.
Wen; After visiting this particularly beautiful and luxurious hotel, I am dropped off at Watha for lunch. Noura is already there. The other elderly lady with the burqa is also there now. We sit inside, as there is cooling from the air conditioning. Dinner is already ready. Biryani with lamb. Deliciously tender dish. I get a Lebanese milk with it (salty, like Ayran) and water. Scoops are served for me. Way too much, but you don't eat your plate empty here, because that means you haven't had enough and so get even more. The big TV is on and the afternoon prayers in Mecca are shown. After lunch, there is tea. Meanwhile, the other lady presents me with a burqa and gets Watha eye pencil which she puts on me. The women enjoy my appearance. Then Noura and I walk back home for the afternoon break. This is used to sleep for an hour and a half. Jo and I get used to this rhythm. It is at the hottest part of the day, a time when hardly anyone is on the streets.
At half past four, Ali, Jo and I leave for Moreeb Dune.
Jo; At 4.30pm, Ali takes us to the Liwa Festival. 'The regular road is busy' says Ali and takes a short route through the dunes. What a treat, our private dune safari! Before entering the dunes, we let a lot of air out of the tyres. Where we looked at each other when Maitha dashed across the sand at 80 km/h, Ali tears up almost twice as fast. We watch the sun set during the ride. Suddenly, we see a falcon flying over us, chasing a pigeon. Ali pushes the accelerator even further and we just see the falcon catch the pigeon. We get out of the car. Ali hands his pocket knife to the falcon's owner. The pigeon's head is cut off to put the beast out of its misery. You can see it was an effort for the falcon. He sits panting on top of the pigeon with his wings slightly raised. He starts plucking it bare. We move on. The festival is bustling with activity. The car parks full, all the eateries busy, cars roaring up the dune. Ali drops us off at a spot right next to the high dune and leaves to pray. He hands a phone to Jo, in case there is anything. We sit in the sand and enjoy the spectacle, but are also photographed and filmed by curious Emirati. Ali returns. A pickup with two young boys is stuck in the sand. Ali does not change his mind and sends for it. With a thick tow rope, the boys are refloated. Ali has been in touch with his brother and agreed to meet at Liwa City, a temporary place in the desert fenced with wooden boards with music, shops, bars, restaurants, fairground rides, wooden decking as walkways and gravel instead of sand. It is very clean. Beautifully lit. You forget you are in the desert. We meet his brother at the entrance and stroll through Liwa City. He has worked in the tourism industry and is now involved in building hotels. He speaks good English. We drink coffee with sweet cake, speculoos-marshmallow crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. And warm soft chocolate cake with cold vanilla ice cream. A delicious combination. Extraordinary how all four of us eat from the same bowl of cake and ice cream with a plastic spoon instead of each having our own plate. 'Come to Al Ain and meet my parents' Ali's brother says as we say goodbye.
'Back over the tarmac or through the dunes?' asks Ali. Well that's not a question for us. It's another beautiful ride in the V8 through the sand dunes. Back on the tarmac, Ali says 'we're going to say hello to a friend, 10 minutes'. We go off the tarmac road for a bit. Wen stays in the car and goes for a Polarsteps. There are seven men sitting around a campfire in the dark. There is a falcon on a stick next to the men and one in an aviary. The men stand up and we shake hands. After coffee, Mohammed, an older man (53), grabs me by the hand. Hand in hand, we walk from the campfire to the dining hall. In a dark, warm and caring voice, he asks 'what brings you to the desert?' I feel so much warmth. He used to have an office job in agriculture. And went to the office every day, sat at his computer and went home again. Until one moment he wondered, what am I doing, am I happy, how long am I going to do this. He has chosen a career switch, has a job in the field, now visits 10-15 farmers in a day to update records. He is happy in his work and before he knows it, the day is over. He commands me to sit down by the large bowl of rice. The other men also sit down, with their right knee up, me with my left. I change my posture and also sit with my right knee up. 'Make yourself comfortable,' says Mohammed, 'it is tradition to sit with the right knee up, so that as many men as possible can sit around the food, but sit as you like, it's fine'. I notice that this way you are also less likely to spill on your djellaba. There is a goat on the rice, tail still up. The goat has been prepared only with salt and spices. The resulting broth is spooned over the white rice. Deliciously pure food. Ali's 10 minutes turned into an hour and 10 minutes but at least the Polarsteps is set!
Wen; It is already late when we arrive in Al Yarya. Ali drops me off at Watha. The pregnant young lady is also there again. Noura says I can eat and eats alone in the tent with the chairs. The ladies have already finished. I don't need much more. You get enough food here. After eating, I join the ladies in the tent. Watha pours tea for me. Then she grabs her phone and plays Arabic music. She gets up, grabs me by the hand and teaches me how to perform their dance with one hand in the air. Together we stand and dance, while Noura and the pregnant lady look on smiling. Then I plop down wearily on the ground cushion. It is half past 10 and Watha is inside when I tell Noura I am going to sleep. Noura stays for a while and asks if I know which door to go through via the back door. I know. I want to thank and say hello to Watha first and walk in and call her name. A few moments later, she comes running in with a box which she hands to me. For you, she gestures. I open the box and it contains a very dainty long gold necklace with matching earrings. Incredibly, I don't know what to say so give her a hug. Shukran Shukran, thank you. She puts the necklace on me and we walk over to show it to Noura. She loves it.
Sunday, December 10 Al Ain
Wen; Noura and I have breakfast with Watha, who leaves for her home in Al Ain immediately after breakfast. We go back and get ready to leave in the afternoon for Al Ain, where we have been invited for a few days. All the Almansoori family lives here and we are going to meet them