Sunday, June 8, 2014

Al Ain UAE

As I've mentioned before, the reason we were in the U.A.E. was to visit our friends who are living in Al Ain. If Dubai is the Las Vegas of the middle east, Al Ain is Henderson, Nevada. For those not fortunate enough to have gotten to the Las Vegas suburbs yet, Henderson's where people live when they don't want the hustle and bustle of Vegas at their doorstep. Al Ain has the same desert setting, intense heat, large houses, big shopping centers, suburban feel, and seemingly-limitless Starbucks of its Las Vegas counterpart.

A random intersection in Al Ain:

Toni and Lena picked us up at an outlet mall outside Dubai and drove us to their place in Al Ain. After relaxing for a bit, they decided that we should grab dinner at a local Bangladeshi place Toni heard about and wanted to try.

The restaurant was exactly the kind of place Diana and I love. It was packed with Bangladeshi workers enjoying a slice of home. The staff was so excited to have some foreigners that we got over-the-top service even though our order was to go. We asked the waiter for recommendations and basically went with his suggestions. Strangely, he asked us maybe five times if we wanted rice. By the end, he asked "rice, rice, rice, rice?" and we said "yes, yes, yes, yes". Our food was packed up in four (!!!) shopping bags and we paid the princely sum of $18 U.S. (14 euros) for the meal.

Toni and Lena chose the Mubazzarah Park in the Jebel Hafeet area of town for our picnic-style dinner. It's a green oasis in an otherwise desert landscape and is surrounded by jagged mountains making it feel like we were eating in the middle of a canyon. We chose our spot between a handful of local families enjoying the evening. As it was getting around 9:30 p.m. or so, the temperature was even a much-more comfortable 95 F (35 C) or so!

It wasn't until we opened the bags that we realized why the waiter asked us about the rice. One of the shopping bags was full with four clearly-family-sized-portions of sticky white rice. The other three bags contained our drinks, soups, and main dishes, none of which were in danger of exploding. I think it was the first time I'd eaten Bangladeshi food and it was delicious, especially since one of the dishes was extra spicy. For our $18, we even had enough left overs for lunch for two! Amazing. Who says the U.A.E. is pricey???

We started the next day at the Al Ain Palace Museum, which is an old fortress-like complex in the middle of Al Ain. Oh, and yes, it was already like 105 F (41 C) when we got there.

Built in 1910, the palace was the former home of the U.A.E.'s founder, Shiek Zayed Bin Sultan Ah Nayhan. Located near the Al Ain Oasis, it's now a museum filled with exhibits about him and the ruling family.

Taking a break from the heat in a large, social-gathering tent on the palace grounds:

Al Ain is located equidistant (~90 miles / 145 km) from both Abu Dhabi and Dubai and is right on the western Omani border. It's mostly flat with sand dunes once you head out of town. The major exception is Jebel Hafeet mountain, which rises up about 5000 feet (1250 m) from the surrounding desert.

The view of the Mubazzarah Park (the green patch in the center), where we ate dinner the night before, and Al Ain beyond from about half way up the mountain on the I-wish-I-still-had-my-MINI road:

There's a couple small restaurants, a small lookout, and a not-so-small royal residence up top but not much else. Toni has a tradition of taking a photo with all their guests at the same graffiti-covered spot on the edge of the parking lot. He says it reminds him of somewhere rock stars would use as a backdrop for a record cover shoot.

Diana and I looking decidedly non-rock-star:

Our next stop was at the Al Ain Oasis. Al Ain grew out from this area, which now serves as a series of date farms. I think the most surprising thing was how much cooler it felt with a little bit of water and the shade from the palm trees.

We happened across one guy tending the trees. He was trimming dead branches and positioning the dates. A couple of things to note in the photo below. First, that red-and-black "net" with the rope tied around around the tree is the "seat" he uses to shimmy up the trunk. Second, he has no shoes on. He's doing all of this with bare feet! And I get bummed when my flip flops give me a blister!

While we were cruising around the oasis, we could hear music and singing from not too far away. Toni and Lena knew exactly what it was and suggested that we hurry out and get to the nearby Al Qattara Souq and cultural center.

What we were hearing over in the oasis was a group singing and dancing traditional songs.

The music-video version:

Between sets, we hung out with the guys and learned that they were mostly from Oman and came to the cultural center regularly to perform. They explained the songs were about just what you'd expect from a bunch of guys...women and work.

This was definitely one of the cooler moments of the trip as they seemed to be as interested, if not more, in us as we were with them. They had a bunch of questions about Barcelona, Barca, Sweden, and the United States and we were interested in where they lived and what they did when they weren't performing.

The whole trip was a great opportunity to learn about yet another culture. The U.A.E. was very different than what I had expected and we were having a fun time. And, it was so nice to hang out Toni and Lena again, even if it seemed, at times, that we were in the desert suburbs in the U.S. Starbucks, anyone?

As anyone who's read any of this blog knows, I grew up in the United States, and like most, I didn't have many opportunities to spend time outside the country. (For those who are not from the U.S., and especially those from Europe, the topic of why this is is very complex but can be grasped when you ask yourself where you'd travel if you had only five working days of vacation per year. Would you fly half-way around the world for a one-week trip? Didn't think so.)

My first international trip that didn't involve walking or driving across the Mexican border near San Diego, was when I first moved down to southern Mexico about twenty years ago (I just wrote ten years and was amazed that, no, it's been almost twenty years). I remember very well about how I did not want to go. But, even more than not wanting to go, I remember how I felt just eight hours after arrival. The fear. The exhilaration. The rush that came from everything being new and different. In other words, I was hooked.

Our trip to the U.A.E. to visit Lena and Toni, for me, was like going to one of the great unknowns. The Middle East. Those three words strike fear into the hearts of people from the U.S. What's it like there? How are the people? Would they even let me in the country, or worse, would I be a kidnap target with my American passport? (Yes, believe it or not, someone asked me this.) What would we find? Would you believe Betty Crocker, Reese's cups, and Ben and Jerry's?

Yes, that's an aisle in a local, Al Ain supermarket. There were more products from the U.S. in one place than I've seen in my four-plus years since I moved away from California.

I have a friend from my English-teacher class who lived and worked in Moscow for a couple years after we finished the class. I remember how excited she'd be at finding maple syrup, tortillas, or something. This place would have made her head explode. I had gone half way around the world, entered the "scary" Middle East, and came face to face with every American's deepest fears...Mrs. Butterworth's and Dream Whip! In other words, exactly what I should have expected in our increasingly small world.

Well, just so you don't get the wrong idea, it isn't all plain-vanilla Von's or Acme. There was still some new and exciting mixed in. Just check out these for-kids flavored camel milks...Camelicious!

Oh, and one bit of random from our time in Al Ain. Lena's somewhat addicted to a particular pastry sold at a coffee-and-pastry shop called Papparoti, which is located in malls throughout the U.A.E. Like Toni's top-of-the-mountain photos of visiting friends, Lena couldn't wait to take us to experience a little slice of her heaven.

Guess what! The slightly-runny, sweet filling is, in so many heart-warming ways, similar to Holmesburg Bakery's butter cake! Yes, like the trip's cherry on top, Lena had managed to transport me back to Sunday morning in my childhood home. Feast your eyes on the Middle East's version of butter cake!

Paradise can be found in the most surprising of places!

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