(written September 1st, 2009)
It just so happened that the cheapest ticket I could find from Beijing to Mumbai had a 22 hour long layover in Abu Dhabi (UAE) and so I got a one day bonus trip to the Middle East before starting work in India.
I arrived at Carmen’s house at about 1:00 am, so it was not surprising that she had fallen asleep while waiting for me. She opened the door, introduced herself, and showed me around the house. We chatted for a few minutes, and I gave her a bag of Chinese tea. She was a very friendly, curious and trusting German woman in her 30s.
“Here are the keys to the house”, she said, “and feel free to take whatever from the fridge tomorrow morning. I’m sorry I cannot chat more, I need to sleep. But we should have dinner tomorrow before you leave.”
I told her what my plans were for the day, and she seemed to think I had a good selection of activities. I would have to go to the Great Mosque first, I told her, because it closes at noon. “Oh, I have another couchsurfer staying, her name is Miriam”, she said, “If I were you I would wait for her to come back from Al Ain and then go see the Mosque together. And she wants to see Heritage Village too. Then all of us can go out for dinner”.
The next day I read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress while waiting for Miriam to arrive. I was about to give up and go the Mosque by myself when I saw a car pull up to the house. Miriam was also German and in her 30s. She was slim and tanned, with hazel brown eyes and an honest smile. On the way to the Mosque she told me that she was staying in UAE for two weeks as the first part of a “world tour”, and that she was leaving Abu Dhabi the very next day. She wanted to teach English, and so was traveling the world both to improve her English skills and to get to know different cultures. She also informed me that it was a pretty awful time to visit Abu Dhabi, not only because it was the hottest time of the year, but also because it was Ramadan. This meant that we were not allowed to eat or drink anything in public before the sun set: if we did we would be charged with a fine.
It turned out that she was not interested in the Mosque as she had already seen it, and so she dropped me off and continued on to return the rented vehicle. The mosque was quite a spectacle, and I had fun photographing it. Unfortunately, when I got to the entrance the guard informed me that I could not enter. “Sorry, the Mosque closes in 5 minutes”. Apparently the Mosque closed half an hour before the official time to get ready for prayer. As I left the Mosque I could see many Muslims entering the mosque to pray. Meanwhile, some laborers were working on the pavement of one of the patios of the Mosque. I thought about how horrible it would be to do manual labor under the desert sun with nothing to eat or drink all day. I wonder how they managed it.
I spent the next 40 minutes trying to figure out how to get out of the sun. My plan was to go see the Emirates Palace hotel (not as luxurious as Burj Al Arab in Dubai, but close), but it was not easy to find a taxi or a bus; the Grand Mosque was very far from the city center.
Emirates Palace was pretty much what I expected- the most luxurious hotel I have seen so far, spacious and polished with gold on the walls and the ceiling. They had an exhibit about the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, which looked very futuristic. However I had to leave rather quickly to see Heritage Village. Heritage Village is a small outdoor museum that shows how the traditional bedouin lifestyle was like. Unfortunately, due to Ramadan, there were no people around (only a camel, a horse and an ox), which was too bad, because usually there are people there baking bread and sitting in the little thatched houses. I was probably the only one foolish enough to be wandering around in the heat without any food or water.
I drank two bottles of water and ate some biscuits when I arrived at Marina Mall – but I had to do it secretly in a restroom. I met Miriam at the Carrefour supermarket downstairs. She was sitting on the floor in a corner, wrapping up some plants she had just bought for Carmen.
“So what do you want to do now?” she asked. I told her that I had heard there was an ice rink somewhere in Abu Dhabi and that I wanted to go ice skating. It turned out the rink was in that very building, so in 10 minutes we were skating. I like the idea of ice skating in the middle of a desert. After walking in the sun for so long, being on ice was very refreshing. I had not ice skated in years, but my body quickly remembered what to do.
In the evening Miriam and I walked to a small Arabic restaurant to meet up with Carmen, Carmen’s housemate, a German teacher, and a thick-bearded French-Lebanese fellow named Daniel. We waited patiently for the sun to set so that we could start eating. The restaurant was full, and most of the customers were staring eagerly at their plates or at the buffet in the corner. There was a large television both displaying and reciting passages from the Koran. Finally, at 6:50, everyone started to eat.
Miriam was strangely quiet, probably due to her exhaustion. Daniel dominated the conversation, and Carmen and her housemate both seemed very entertained by him; he was a natural story teller. He told us that he had quit his job recently to travel the world, and was flying out to Germany the very next day.
“I don’t require much”, he said. “In the worst scenario, I can just set up my tent and sleep by the side of the road.”
These were freedom-loving people, people who refused to say no to life and to adventure. They were not afraid to hit the road and leave their past behind them.