Somehow I have already been in Arabia, specifically the United Arab Emirates and Oman, for exactly one month, although it feels more like one week. I’m sitting in my courtyard taking my first lazy day off since I arrived, coincidentally the first day that the weather has been pleasant enough to sit outside anytime after 7am or before 7pm. As I enjoy the breeze while bingeing on snacks left over from last week’s student group, I guess I will attempt to rewind to day one.
This all began with an 11 hour flight from JFK to Baku on Azerbaijan Airlines, more of an adventure than I had bargained for. Within the first ten minutes drinks were served, including complimentary whiskey and vodka. Things escalated quickly when a half hour later our flight attendant Elvira came around with round two, and I watched several people impatiently grab the bottle out of her hands to give themselves a more generous pour. From then on the flight was the rowdiest I had ever been on, with people dancing in the aisles, several screaming babies, couples fighting, and a pack of feral children that somehow united from across the airplane, running together through the aisles and clambering across the tops of seats. I was grateful for the entertainment, as the only films available were in Russian, with a sprinkling of a few Hollywood blockbusters from the early 2000s. Most of our meals consisted of various pieces of Saran-wrapped bread, and we flew over the Caspian Sea hungry and disoriented just as the sun rose, right as I would have been going to sleep back in New York.
In contrast to our flight, the airport in Baku was the nicest I have ever visited. After a complimentary latte and a bathroom visit where I managed to press a button that sprayed toilet water all over myself and my carry on bag, I soggily climbed back onto the plane for our final flight to Dubai. After flying over vast expanses of sand dunes we at last arrived in the UAE, the call to prayer playing over the airport loudspeaker as we waited in the customs line. As soon as we stepped outside the heat was unbearable even in the shade, despite cheerful reassurances from our boss that the 104 degree temperatures were actually unseasonably cool. The air conditioning in the car didn’t work, and as our driver made repeat wrong turns while I made polite getting to know you chit chat, trying to understand a thick Scottish accent with my sleep-deprived brain, I wondered if in fact our plane had actually crashed somewhere along the way and I’d been sent to hell.
At last we arrived in Kalba, our base for training for the next two weeks, smiling camels along the roadside waiting to greet us. Training consisted of getting to know my 20 other coworkers, and trying to wrap my brain around my new job and my new home, although the combination of jet lag and spiking temperatures didn’t do much to help facilitate this process. I thought I knew what being hot felt like, but nothing could have prepared me for the heat here, somehow combining both the penetrating, scorching desert and the wet blanket humidity of the tropics. Even while sitting in the shade with a fan pointed directly at me, the weather was still oppressive, with sweat constantly stinging my eyes and dripping down my back, I felt like I was living in a dryer set on permanent press.
Aside from my whining about the temperature (but really, guys, it’s like reaaaally hot here), I enjoyed exploring this little part of the UAE. One morning a group of us woke up at 4am and hiked along a ridgeline until we reached the highest peak, where we watched the daylight slowly kiss the mountaintops surrounding us, the sun gradually emerging from the vast green Arabian Sea. Later that day after a much needed nap, Gary and I visited our nearest next door neighbors, a camel and goat farm. The camels had just been put in their pens for the evening and we stood outside for only a few minutes watching them before the owner insisted we come in, motioning us over saying “No English, no problem” to which we responded in equally broken Arabic “La Arabisi, shukran” (No Arabic, thank you… I hope?). He was amused at how much we liked the camels, forcing them to stop eating to we could pet them and taking us to see the babies in their separate area, the kindness of strangers once again flooring me.
Another day we went to a mangrove forest to do some stand up paddling boarding and watch dozens of green sea turtles swirl about in the current. A different glorious afternoon was spent at the mall, where I used the wifi at Starbucks, sipping an iced coffee while watching glamorous women walking past in abayas and high heels, laughing with their friends. I went over to the beauty counter and was fascinated by the women wearing the Emirati burqa, a metal plate molded to cover eyebrows and mouth, buying argan oil and garlic shampoo. I left the mall to visit the mosque across the road at sunset, watching men use the jogging track built around the outside of it, the city coming alive as soon as the punishing sun disappeared behind the hills.
Our last day of training we took a day trip to visit Snoopy Rock for a snorkel session, stopping at a gas station along the way for snacks- dates, pita and labni (basically middle eastern cream cheese). Along the way we passed miles of oil refineries, forty cubic ton barrels of oil shimmering under the blistering sun. We continued on, past oleander bushes, date plantations and sun-bleached remnants of stone forts. After setting up a shade tarp, we went for a dip in the salty, bath water warm sea. It was painful to see how much trash and oil there was floating around, but even so we still managed to find a couple turtles to snorkel over, diving down for closer looks as they lunched on coral. In honor of our last night all together we went out as a group to a bar in a country club, private hotels somehow able to skirt the region’s no alcohol law. We returned from said smokey bar full of British expats to find we had no power, meaning no air conditioning, no fans and no running water. I had what was easily the worst night sleep of my life, pouring bottles of drinking water over my head in an effort to cool down the only thing that slightly saved my sanity.
After maybe an hour of sleep, our group of eight set off for Dibba, a tiny town in Oman on the Musandam Peninsula. We got stuck at the border due to visa issues, and blessedly spotted a Baskin-Robbins to wait out the heat of the day. The air conditioning and a mint chip milkshake brought me back to life, and after passing the time watching teens in backwards hats and dish dashes (long white dress worn by men) ordering ice cream, we at last made it to our home for the next six months. I’ll write a bit more about settling into Dibba soon, it’s time to leave my cozy compound for lunch and a dip in the sea. For now, even though I still am constantly sweating through my pants, and even though at the end of any given day I could wring out every single item of clothing I was wearing, I somehow have adjusted and being outside actually seems bearable. In fact, the past two weeks I spent a lot less time complaining, and instead spent a lot of time marveling at just how clear your mind can feel under the vast desert sky, nestled beneath it here in my tiny seaside home.