We're driving through the desert on our way to Al Ain. Allow me to emphasize "desert." This is not a hot dry place with scrub brush. This is orange dunes, camels and a searing sun that bleaches everything. Trees and even grass along the roadside is imported, cultivated,maintained. Only the hardiest of plants grows wild here.
We stop at a road stop. The men are dark, their eyes are blood shot, pupils mere pinpricks. The toilet is a hole in the ground, the tile is stained and flies are everywhere. It's cool in the restroom, but there is humidity and stench. The comfortable life of Dubai city seems further away than the actual distance, a mere 100km.
Large walled communities and summer homes greet us off the highway, with big palms and bright flowers everywhere. I wonder how much work and water goes into keeping petunias blooming in this heat.
There are mosques everywhere along the road and at each wide spot on the highway. Some are open rooms with scant more than four walls. Others boast tall minarets, elaborate molding and expensive construction materials. I've wondered how many Muslims really keep their vow to pray five times daily. I'm beginning to believe that it's far more than I imagined. Just because religion takes a back seat in my country doesn't mean that true here. More evidence: even in the desert heat, the women and men are covered up. A group of guys walks a roundabout near one of the walled comminitites - dress shirts buttoned up, leather shoes and jeans. (we later pass the mosque at Abu Dhabi at sundown. My crumby image is below - google it to be impressed)
A barb wire fence seperates us from Oman. I know that perhaps 70 miles to the south, the border with Saudi Arabia looms. A short jaunt accross the sea brings one to Iraq or Iran. Civilization, it seems, is a fancy word for "fences."
On top of hafeet mountain, the tallest peak in the emirates, the sun is pouring down white, blinding light. To the north, there's a palace or hotel or something up here but no ones home it seems. I wish I could say it's silent or austere or meditative up here, but it isn't. There's a market selling snacks And soda, the ground is littered with bottle caps and ketchup packets, and the sounds of construction and traffic come up from the sprawl below from the highway on the mountainside. A few flies alighting on my moustache and a pair of sand colored birds are the only indications of nature.
The wing blows a welcome breeze. The heat is oppressive. So much so that I stand in the shade of a lampost to write some notes. A few cars drive up. Everyone on the mountaintop is silent.
To the west, a welcome view: the desert. A few rocky outcroppings frame dunes and the ironically water-rippled sandscape. "Arakis" comes to mind. There is a steady breeze coming from this quarter, a clear view and a sense of wilderness. With the taxis and truckstop to the east behind me, I almost feel like I'm in nature. The expanse is so vast that it merges seemlessly with the sky. Earth and wind, sky and sun are all the same. Only water is missing. And how it's missing ... This is true heat, true dryness. Lips cracked, ears tingling warm, I walk back towards what appears to be a broken gate.
It's the path to the top, a trail of dirt and scree. I shed a layer, tie on the lucky red bandana and start climbing. With every turn in the trail, a new desert vista. Haze blankets the ground below, obscuring the houses and date farms below. The parkong lot shrinks away everytime i glance west over my shoulder. Images of deserts flash through my memory - that scene from Bogus Journey / Star Trek, the exodus of the Jews, the aforementioned Dune, Lawrence of Arabia. The discomfort, the scale and scope is not communicable.
I find Eliot already at the top. Eliot puts "higher love" on the iPod and we rock out. The top of the highest peak in the emirates is littered with quartzite, pourous stone and shells that look and feel like concrete. I collect a few and we begin to head back down, to the fenced in balcony, the car ... and civilization.