I take a 7:20 a.m. bus from the back turn circle at PI to Al Wahda Bus Station in Abu Dhabi. From here, my plan is to take the 700 route to Al Ain for 10 AED. I have a few minutes to kill, so I go inside the bus station, buy a felafel sandwich for 4 AED (~$1.08), and find which gate my bus would depart from. While waiting, a fellow, about 35, comes up to me and says, “Al Ain?”
“Yes,” I reply. “I take bus.” (Experience has shown that using pidgin English is by far the best way to communicate with any non-English speaker. I would have tried my limited Arabic, but this man didn’t speak Arabic.)
“Twenty dirhams. One hour thirty,” the man says in an effort to promote his transport option. “You wait. Find more people.” (Note that much of the dialogue I am inserting here is sign-language and vigorous gesturing translated into words.)
“If no find people, I take bus.” I’m in line now to get on the bus to Al Ain. The same guy taps me on the shoulder, points to me and then one of his fingers, gestures to three other people he found, and touches the remaining three extended fingers. I leave the line and head his way.
We walk over to his car, a 2002 dark red Toyota Camry. Shotgun was taken by a shorter-than-me, somewhat chubby Indian fellow. Seeing the predicament, I scramble into the back seat behind the driver, whose seat is fairly far forward. Inside, poly-something seat covers adorn the leather seats, and all of the windows are smoked. The rear parcel shelf has gold cushions with a velour pattern and a short fringe. On the sporty-looking seat covers the seat belts lie, ready for use. Somewhere in the abyss beneath the cover and probably shoved deep in the seat cushion lies the buckle. I feel around for it, and then say, “Seat belt no work?”
One of the other backseat passengers touches the actual belt, “Here, seatbelt.”
“No, buckle,” I say.
“No buckle,” comes the confirmation from the driver. I could see this being a moot point, so I say no more.
To get to the bus station, I had to take the bus fairly close to downtown Abu Dhabi. Now, as I leave Abu Dhabi and head for Al Ain, I go over Maqta Bridge and past the Petroleum Institute. Net displacement: ~100 yds. Net time consumed: ~1.5 hrs. I pull out my Kindle (thank you, Dad), and continue reading “The Count of Monte Cristo” as we leave A.D. behind us. Cooking along quite nicely, I glance over the driver’s left shoulder at the speedometer. Odd, I think. It seems like we’re really hauling, but the speedo says we’re only doing around 90-95. A couple of minutes later, when we’re really moving, I look at the gauge again. This time, I saw the smaller, inner band of numbers in km/h. We are hauling, and just passed a car at 100 mph. After passing, we go back to the middle lane, slowing to a sedate 90-95 again, only to have a Cadillac-white (my term) Range Rover with smoked windows pass us.
About two-thirds of the way to Al Ain, the short Bangladeshi man in the middle who has been napping and gradually listing on me wakes up and mutters something to the driver that results in his being deposited at the underpass.
The drive continues at its blazing pace, except in places where the roadside human population is high. There are areas where a handful of men are on the side of the highway, walking in the direction we’re going. These men are usually a notch above the laborers, whose only option is company transport from their residence to work, but not Emiratis, who have private transport and well-pressed clothes. Judging from their appearance and style, I guess them to be mainly Pakistani or Bangladeshi.
There only needs to be one potential fare to heat the brakes up in the Camry! My reading has turned to a catnap, and I’m woken by unrestrained (no seat belt) forward movement as we slam on the brakes: There are three people on the side of the road, possible profit! The passenger window goes down, and the driver talks to all of them briefly. After some more conversing, one of them gets in, haggles a price with the driver, and I have a new neighbor in the back seat. This happens once more (but the hard braking to gauge possible passengers happens at least five or six times), and we finally arrive in Al Ain. I ask to be let off near the bus station.
I had never been to Al Ain, and didn’t really have any idea what it would be like. My classmate at Mines, Nouf Alyaaqoubi, is from there and told me it’s definitely worth the visit. At PI, students go on about how nice Al Ain is, how green it is, and how peaceful it is. Al Ain, roughly 150 km east of A.D., is nicknamed “The Garden City,” has the highest percentage of Emirati citizens, is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan, and is a very “genuine” city.
There’s no tallest buildings, indoor skiing, widest roads, billion dollar palaces, beaches, or laundry list of five-star restaurants and seven-star hotels. There are no tall buildings, apparently due to a four-floor-maximum zoning regulation. Main thoroughfares, which are eight or more lanes wide in A.D., consist of four lanes here, are easy to cross, and have a median with flowers and palms. And that is why I like Al Ain.
From guidebooks and friends, I know I’m looking for the main souq, Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain Palace, and Al Ain National Museum. However, I planned poorly (not at all), so I really don’t know where anything is or how to get around. On leaving the “cab,” I find myself in the perfume district. At least 20 perfume stores are within 300 yards of one another. I continue wandering until I come across some fruit stands, and around the corner stands the souq, bustling with people. It is mainly food: fresh fish, dried fish, vegetables, lamb and some beef. A couple of “cafeterias” where one can get coffee, little pastries, or a quick snack for 1 AED are interspersed.
I try some dried fish that look like dried sardines, as well as some dried shark. At one fish booth, I meet an Omani fellow who seems to be about my age and speaks decent English. We talk for a bit about the fish, where it came from, and who comes to the market. In lieu of “a lot” (ex: There are a lot of locals here. There are lots of fish.), “too much” is the phrase of choice. “There are too much locals here. There are too much fish.” He was eager to tell me that for 1 AED, a bus goes to near Jebel Hafeet. I say thanks, check out some of the other stands, and head to the bus station.
I miraculously find the right bus going the right direction. English is less common amongst the bus-taking crowd than it is in Abu Dhabi. Most Abu Dhabi bus takers all have a general idea of which buses go where, and can accurately say where to wait. I get off at Muzzabah Oasis, a park at the bottom of Jebel Hafeet.
Now, Jebel Hafeet is an enormous hunk of west-dipping limestone, and not what most readers of this blog think of as a mountain. It is the first major piece of topography since Abu Dhabi. The only grass or greenery is that of the park at the bottom. Possessing a decently industrious spirit and only 1 dirham for my bus fare back, I pick my way up the most inviting draw.
Finally, after a few hundred vertical meters, I come to the road. It’s a perfect mountain road: two lanes up, one down, cement barriers on both sides, banked curves, and not too many people. I continue upwards on the side of the road, skipping some of the hairpin curves by picking a route up some rather steep faces. Finally, the Mercure Hotel stands at the top. I hop the fence into the swimming pool, ducking under the water slide, and walk into the lobby.
After cooling down for a moment, I decide it’s time to descend. I walk out to the hotel driveway and up onto the road. A Mitsubishi box truck with three workers in the three-person cab is driving toward me. I wave them down, and after signalling that I walked up to the hotel from Muzzabah park, manage to ask for a ride down. They oblige, and I cram in the cab. I ask where they are from: Pakistani driver, two Bangladeshis. They point to me. When I say “Amreeka,” everyone cheers, and gives thumbs up. Our communication from then on is smiling and sign language. Some may ridicule Americans for smiling so much. I smile more.
Halfway down, a Mitsubishi mini bus passes us on the corner. It should have flipped, but it didn’t. It pulls over and stops. So do we. The drivers exchange words, and I ride in the mini bus. Insha’allah I’ll make it back to the main bus stop. Insha’allah (say “inshalla”) is a catch phrase that literally means “if God wills it.” It is usually used to say “maybe” or to express doubt in a positive manner. Example: “I’ll be there at 8, insha’allah.” (I know I won’t.) Or in class, “Insha’allah we’ll get to that on Tuesday.”
I catch the bus back to Al Ain and get off near the Al Ain Palace, where Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan grew up. Sheikh Zayed is a name everyone knows, and his portrait is everywhere. It was under his leadership that the UAE went from being a sand-filled country with some small settlements to a name on the world map, with excellent infrastructure and rapid development. So, think of Al Ain Palace as the Trucial Coast equivalent of Monticello or Versailles. Only difference is that the palace was built in 1937 when Abu Dhabi (still controlled by the Al Nahyan family) was undeveloped save for some small settlements and British interests along the coast.
Before coming to the UAE, I did a short trip in France, including a stop at Versailles. Compare some of the pictures. Even more, compare Al Ain Palace with Emirates Palace, located in Abu Dhabi near Marina Mall.
Behind the Al Ain Palace is the Al Ain Oasis. Not quite a comparison with the gardens at Versailles, but it is a veritable forest of palm trees. There is a falaj system of ditches, dams and levees that are used to irrigate small sections and promote growth. Now, I worked on a ranch in Montana where flood irrigation was used to grow alfalfa.
Check out the pictures: very different looking dams. In the oasis, each bit of land with trees surrounded by levees with an entrance from the main ditch (roughly 20 by 50 feet) gets flooded, a process that takes all of 5 minutes. Then a dam is set and the next upstream land is flooded. I saw only a blip of the oasis, but there had to be at least several hundred parcels of land.
After more wandering about Al Ain and an unsuccessful attempt to find the National Museum, I head back to the bus station to go back to Abu Dhabi. As I walk up, a bus pulls out. No big deal, I think, another bus will come in 30 minutes. But there’s an enormous line and I know I won’t make it on the next bus, either. So, I head back to the tea stand where lots of people are trying to get rides to A.D. Offers come to me: 180 dirhams, 50 dirhams, and finally I hear the number I’m looking for: 15 dirhams.
The man instructs me to wait as he finds more customers destined for A.D. After about 20 minutes, there are six others. We head to his “cab,” a sort of compact minivan that has seats for nine. The bunch of us pile in, leaving the middle seat in the middle row empty. It’s a shade toasty, so I try to slide my window open, but notice that copious amounts of caulking and some tinfoil have sealed it shut. The driver gets in and turns the key to “on.” A fan mounted in the ceiling with a power cord that drapes down to the cigarette lighter begins to turn, propelling an overwhelming stench of body odor toward the back seats. After talking with someone outside for a minute or two, the driver gets in, fires up the car and peels out.
On the way back, the stops are more frequent, and the dubiously roadworthy van doesn’t drive as smoothly as the Camry. But, for 15 dirhams, a new experience, and a nice sunset on the dunes on the side of the highway, I don’t complain. I make it through a couple more chapters on my Kindle by the time we arrive at Umm Al Nar, the neighborhood where the PI is. He drops me off on the side of the highway, I walk to the nearest exit ramp, and head to Satah, the student center, for dinner.
This day (now several days past) was a day that most people from developed countries don’t envision when they travel to the United Arab Emirates. My sub-40 dirham transport across the entire country was made possible by the spectacular palm-lined, smoothly-paved, well-lit, six-lane highway that goes from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. No one I interacted with worked for ADNOC, got monthly stipends, or typified the stereotype of excessive wealth found in the UAE (the stereotype is largely true for UAE nationals, though), yet everyone I interacted with enjoys a lifestyle probably quite better than where they came from. The benefit from producing and selling oil did not end with a select few at oil companies, nor at the contractors who built the roads and dredged the canals. The oil was produced and sold, and everyone got a generous slice of the pie.